Sunday, September 27, 2009

Creating the ideal mental conditions

More and more, coaches seem to be buying into the idea that success in any sport involves far more than physical fitness and technical mastery. This is not to say that both of these aspects of preparation are not important. On the contrary, it is only by being superbly fit that you can have a chance of hanging with the top players. And physical fitness is certainly one component of any regimen of injury prevention. It is also important to become technically proficient. What’s the point of brimming with self-confidence if you don’t have a clue how and when to use a dropshot effectively?

So my purpose in writing this three-part series was not to diminish the physical and technical aspects of a tennis player’s preparation. My goal simply was to highlight the importance of including a program mental fitness in the training regimen.

PST involves creating the ideal mental conditions for physical skills and abilities to be accessed and expressed. There are four components to the effective application of PST:  Goal-setting, arousal control, mental rehearsal, and mental control. I cannot do justice to any of these topics within the space of this final entry. Suffice it to say that I will give each of these a quick once over, and will revisit these topics as tournaments continue to throw up opportunities for me to discuss them in more depth. Fair enough?

Briefly then, goal-setting sets the stage for what the player will work on and pay attention to. Goal-setting is best done in increments. One of the biggest mistakes that a performer can make is becoming overly focused on outcome goals (e.g., winning a Slam), and not enough on the quality steps and mini-changes involved in getting there. Others make the mistake of establishing unrealistic goals. And some players seem to underestimate the amount of time and commitment needed to achieve their goals, become frustrated, and give up.

Arousal control refers to the management of energy expenditure. Research has reliably shown that there is a curvilinear or U-shaped relationship between the level of stress or stimulation, and ultimate performance. Too little or too much arousal and performance suffers. Optimal performance happens somewhere in the middle. But my middle may not be your middle. It is important for players to know the conditions under which they are more likely to excel.

It is also critical to develop energy management strategies to help you amp up or scale back when you need to. If Serena had practiced diaphragmatic breathing throughout that intense match against Clijsters, her eruption may never have occurred. Melanie Oudin focuses on her strings between points as an arousal management strategy. This helps her to pace herself beautifully (but sometimes she stays focused too long on her strings and is not ready to receive serve).

In mental rehearsal, the player uses visualization to practice what is being cultivated. There is no risk because it is all done in imagination. Visualization is however not the same as day-dreaming. I once knew a coach who would have his young players visualize themselves holding a trophy aloft on the lawns of Wimbledon. That is not only a misuse of the visualization technique but it is also downright foolish. In my opinion, the purpose of healthy visualization is to develop a vivid mental blueprint of what it is you are trying to do, whether it is brushing up on the back of the ball to create more topspin or tossing the ball in front of you for a slice serve. By visualizing your movements and practicing them imaginally, you can then start to create the psychoneuromuscular links that form the basis of muscle memory.

Finally, it is important to develop mental or attention control. This is when you become aware of and change the nature of your self-talk. Research has shown that we engage in self-talk at a rate of 100 to 300 words per minute. That’s a whole lot of internal chatter. If 90 percent of that internal dialogue can be changed to positive and uplifting content, the individual will feel lighter and more self-confident. When Vera Zvonareva started beating her knees on the court in New York, you could tell that there was nothing positive about that internal dialogue.

(Part 3 of 3)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Beyond the barriers, or how to stay in the zone

Psychological Skills Training (PST) is the process by which the conditions that produce optimal performance are broken down into requisite skills. These can be taught to players like Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina who have the potential to succeed but whose heads keep getting in the way.

But in order for PST to work, players have first to be able to identify their personal barriers to optimal performance. From the point of view of PST, these barriers do not include any deficits in the physical or technical ability to play a sport. These barriers are purely psychological.

For example, one of the biggest barriers to optimal performance is the tendency to self-doubt. A player who goes on to a tennis court doubting her ability to beat an opponent will very likely not beat that opponent. Her self-doubt will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the hardest tasks I have ever faced as a psychologist is getting some individuals to buy into the notion of changing their negative self-talk. Some see this request as somehow emotionally invalidating. Sometimes I get around this by asking the person to try it my way for six months. I say that if after six months of faithful practice nothing changes, then they can go back to telling themselves what crappy persons they are. And then I keep my fingers crossed that we can effect such a beautiful change within the six month window that the person will find that they do not want to go back to self-flagellation.

Self-doubt is a success killer. But so too is acting contrary to your normal routine. When Lleyton Hewitt wore the same sweat-encrusted cap for two weeks during one Australian Open season, I commended him. It was his routine for success and he stuck to it. It is important not to suddenly come up with a new repertoire, especially when you are winning. If you like playing tennis in shorts, don't decide to wear a fancy dress on the day of a big match. That would be like those 11-plus parents who feed their children a massive breakfast on the morning of the exam after the kids had gotten used to eating cold cereal daily. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Stick to the routine that is part of your body memory and comfort zone.

Another barrier to optimal performance is allowing yourself not just to get distracted but to become focused on these distractions. Sure it's impolite of the crowd to get up and walk around in the middle of point. But guess what, it's always going to happen. And when players like Andy Roddick start flipping out over the crowd's behavior, or worse yet, losing his cool when the scoreline is not in his favor, he may unwittingly be signaling that he has become beatable. In fact, Roddick's proclivity for focusing on distractions may be a tell that his opponents can exploit.

A further barrier to optimal performance is the tendency to become too concerned about outcome. The Robin Söderling who lost the first ten times he faced Federer is not the Söderling who battled him in Paris and New York this year. This recent Söderling is a player who believes that he can beat Federer. Despite his jokes about the lop-sided scoreline, one no longer gets the impression that he believes that a loss to Federer is a preordained conclusion. On the contrary their match-ups have been becoming so close that a breakthrough seems inevitable.

One's level of arousal can also become a barrier to optimal performance. Serena lost to Kim in New York in part because she became too aroused. Kim on the other hand was so completely in the zone that she remained clueless that there was drama going on on the other side of the net.

At the same time, underarousal can also be a killer. Andy Murray was so completely flat in the match against Marin Cilic at the 2009 US Open that he made Cilic look better than he actually was. Arousal has to do with one's management of mental energy. Too much or too little can be equally debilitating.

Finally, a lack of concentration can serve as a barrier to performance. Dinara Safina has a bad habit of taking mental walkabouts in the middle of matches. It's like she bores herself, and then wakes up just as her goose is about to be cooked. You can get away with such concentration lapses in lesser events. You'll get slaughtered for them in a Grand Slam.

(Part 2 of 3)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How PST could help Vera and Dinara

I sat next to a crying woman in church last Sunday. She was unkempt, her face blotchy and pimpled, her eyes blindly staring. Huge tears rolled down her cheeks. She seemed lost in her own world, her sadness painful and acute. It was all a bit unseemly. There was about her a sense of not caring that she was on display, gripped as she was by the kind of unmuted grieving that makes people uncomfortable, that makes them want to hug and shake you at the same time.

She reminded me of Vera Zvonareva, and of her unseemly display of frustration at the 2009 US Open. It was not the first time that Vera has mentally collapsed in a tennis match. But I think that it is safe to say that this was the worst. There was little separating her from the people who get locked up in mental institutions. She was in her own world of psychological torment.

Dinara’s collapses do not have the same quality of public unseemliness. But she collapses no less. Place her in any lower level tournament, and she performs like a star, battling strongly to the finish. But in a Grand Slam, a frightened, self-critical, self-humiliating Dinara shows up. She beats herself long before she even faces her opponent. Her problem may be psychological.

Mental fragility is not something you’re born with; neither is resilience. Both are learned. I don’t know what life experiences resulted in Zvonareva being such a fragile individual. But for a while there earlier this year, it looked as if she had found a cure. And then New York happened. The good news is that PST, applied as directed, is a prescription that can save her career.

PST stands for Psychological Skills Training. It comes from the world of applied sports psychology, and refers to the constellation of psychological skills that produce optimal sports performance. PST has no reference to the technical or functional aspects of a person’s game. So if Safina keeps missing first serves – which she does in all events, not just Slams – that is a technical flaw that can only be corrected through proper coaching and repetitive practice. But if she wants to start winning Slams, she will have to fix her head along with her serve.

More and more coaches are realizing that what distinguishes say, Tiger Woods, from other excellent golfers is not his level of technical expertise but an ability to enter the zone, to reach a state of flow in which nothing can go wrong, and usually nothing does. I have a friend who believes that he has the potential to be the next Tiger Woods – that’s how good his game is. When he enters a golf tournament, he plays superbly on the first day, and may end up even being the leader by the end of day one. By day two, his level starts to drop. By day three he is a quivering mess and can’t putt to save his life. At first he thought that the problem was his fitness level so he started doing Crossfit. I have finally managed to convince him that the problem lies between his ears and that no amount of repetitive Crossfit pull-ups will change the nature and impact of his negative self-talk in the middle of a tournament.

Players who enter the zone have certain psychological characteristics in common. For a start, they have a high level of self-confidence and a genuine expectation of success. It always used to crack me up whenever Steffi Graf would offer the bullshit line about going out and just having fun on the courts. Back then, Graf wouldn’t recognize fun if it hit her with a two-by-four. She was always about the business of winning, and when she walked on to a tennis court, you never got the sense that she was ever not in emotional control.

Players in the zone feel that sense of control. Their concentration is total and they remain completely focused on the present task. They become one with the tennis racket and their eyes remain glued to the ball. If there are other problems in their lives, these get set aside until the game or tournament is over. In a state of flow, a player views a match against a higher-ranked opponent as an exciting challenge. She remains productively perfectionistic, which  means that she holds high standards for her own performance but also maintains the flexibility to bounce back from mistakes and to learn from them.
(Part 1 of 3)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

USTA is having a terrible, horrible, very bad day

I almost feel badly for the USTA. Yes I know that that sounds unbelievable given my own relatively frequent tirades against their incompetence. But the last thing I would have wanted the organization that represents tennis to face was an allegation of racism. That is an ugly accusation. It’s the kind of accusation that even when you win, as Zina Garrison apparently has, everyone loses, including Garrison herself.

An important component of Garrison’s case that has been ignored by most news reports, is her allegation that a top USTA official made racist comments about the William sisters, complaining to Ms. Garrison that "you people" never return calls. Ouch. Someone should have lost her job the next day.

Most reports on the lawsuit have focused instead on Garrison’s complaint about not receiving the same salary as Patrick McEnroe for doing a similar job. He managed the men’s Davis Cup and she managed the women’s Fed Cup. And apparently he got paid significantly more. When last I checked, a woman receiving less money for doing the same job as a man is called sexism. But Garrison elected to bring race into it.

I can’t exactly fault her for this because I did the same thing when discussing Serena’s mad woman verbal unleash against a lineswoman. I felt at the time -- and I still feel now -- that race may have played a role in the lineswoman’s reaction to Serena. I did not think that Serena represented a genuine threat to this woman. I felt that she was deeply tense and frustrated and was expressing these emotions over being unfairly foot faulted at a critical point of the match. But the way that lineswoman went scampering to the Chair, it was clear that the Serena she was seeing may have been a big black behemoth about to kill her.

So I can’t fault Garrison for her own interpretation of the way she was treated by the USTA. And since we will probably never be privy to the details of the settlement she managed to score, it may be impossible to determine where sexism began and racism ended.

But I think that it is fair to say that Patrick McEnroe did more for Davis Cup than Zina Garrison ever did for Fed Cup. McEnroe inherited a situation in which most of the top American players were refusing to play Davis Cup. Against accusations of nepotism because he inherited the job from his mercurial older brother, McEnroe adopted a completely different strategy and style. Where John had tried to court Sampras and Agassi, Patrick went after the newbies and built a successful team from scratch.

I don’t know what Zina Garrison’s strategy was for building Fed Cup. I do know that Patrick McEnroe had a level of media savvy that she simply did not ever seem to master. She never seemed to get that courting the media is a necessary survival strategy in the world of professional sports.

Finally, Garrison alleged that she was unfairly dismissed by the USTA after being hired in 2004. After several losses, in 2007 the USTA hired Mary Joe Fernandez as a co-coach. Put yourself in Garrison’s situation and imagine how disrespected you would feel if the company you work for went out and hired someone to help you do your job. And imagine that they also offered your alternate a much better contract. Kinda stings huh?

Long before the USTA dismissed her in 2008, Zina Garrison had become a lame duck coach, a completely ineffective manager who had been supplanted and undermined by another. It was a passive-aggressive and humiliating slap in the face. And Garrison apparently felt that the slap across her black face was being made by a white hand.

And she may be right. But complicating the picture is the fact that Mary Joe Fernandez was actually born in the Dominican Republic. She is not a white woman, when last I checked. But in the USA, a dark-skinned Latina from the Caribbean has a much better chance of passing for White than a Black woman from inner city Houston.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The promise of Heather Watson

I wish I could say that I saw Heather Watson play at the 2009 US Open. But the truth is that I did not. Having had my heart repeatedly broken by supposedly promising Juniors who somehow never seemed to deliver, I no longer invest as emotionally in the Juniors as I once did.

And lest you think that I am being just a fair-weather fan, let me assure you that I am not. You want proof? Well, I once flew all the way to Costa Rica to watch Scoville Jenkins (then a rasta) play in the Copa Del Café -- only to see him fold up like a wet blanket in an early round. And I truly (honestly, from my heart) believed that Jamaica’s Dustin Brown would have been a force to be reckoned with right by now. Yet, at the ripe old age of 23, he continues to reside among the bottom feeders. And let’s not talk about Alize Cornet. After she won the Girls Roland Garros in 2007, I jumped on her bandwagon faster than you could say freedom fries. But now I feel the urge to ask, what has she done for me lately?

So yes, I admit that I have somewhat given up, not on Junior tennis per se, but on my own ability to detect the cream that has the potential to rise to the top. My heart clearly gets too engaged. I wouldn’t recognize Junior potential if it served a forehand straight into my body.

Despite this personal failing, I did manage to do some circulating among the Juniors playing in New York this summer. I’d be lying if I said I knew most of the players I photographed. In fact, there was a randomness to my photography that had more to do being enamored of my new camera and less to do with the Juniors whose images I was attempting to capture for perpetuity.

And I admit that Heather Watson was not among them, not because I did not think she is talented, but because (again, being brutally honest), I was also more focused on looking for the American, Asia Muhammad. [I didn’t see her either]. And Heather also did not happen not to be playing during the random moments I walked by.

So I must admit that Heather’s triumph caught me by surprise. She won the US Open Girls Singles tournament, beating Russia’s Yana Buchina with a score of 6-4, 6-1. Heather accomplished this almost a year and a half after her compatriot, Laura Robson, won Junior Wimbledon, to screeching acclaim. The recognition of Heather’s accomplishment has been far more muted, don’t you agree? Maybe the Brits have also been burned by supposedly promising Juniors.

I’ve been especially intrigued by reports that Heather’s style of play is reminiscent of Martina Hingis. As far as I am concerned, that is one of the highest compliments anyone can pay any tennis player. This means that Heather won not through baseline bashing, but with the use of excellent placement and angles, tremendous anticipation, amazing footwork, and intuitive instinct, along with almost perfect court sense, and a high level of cunning and intelligence. These are great assets to have as a player.

Let’s admit it, for a while there, women’s tennis got taken over by power. Capriati, Davenport, and the William Sisters gave us the collective impression that if you didn’t have power, you didn’t have a chance. Hingis proved them all wrong. Sure you need power -- used judiciously. Serena’s power game against Clijsters was almost certainly going to lose her that match. And Melanie Oudin won the matches she did not because she was more powerful than her opponents, but because she figured out to use their power against them. And then open up that forehand and blaze it when she needed to.

I am intrigued to read that Nigel Sears, head women's coach at the British Lawn Tennis Association, is delighted with Heather’s progress. He has been quoted as saying that she has a complete game. For those with short memories, let me remind you that this is the same Sears who used to coach Daniela Hantuchova. Their apparently volatile relationship was once the fodder of ugly rumors. I remember him walking out during Daniela's error-strewn second-round match at the 2003 French Open. I remember how Daniela seemed so despondent, so crushed. I would hate to see the promise of Heather Watson compromised in that way.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

So it’s OK for Federer to cuss the umpire?

I have to tell you that I enjoyed every moment of Federer’s angry outburst during the third set of his match against Juan Martin Del Potro. It could not have been better timed. Really, I was so thrilled to see it that it didn’t bother me for a second that Federer got so rattled that he went on to lose the match. Sure I wanted him to win 16 Slams, but it’s OK with me that he made it to yet another finals. That too is a measure of his greatness.

And let me take half a minute to congratulate Del Po and all of his Argie fans. When he almost beat Federer in France, Del Po seemed barely able to contain his rage. Actually, he looked as if he could have stuffed a ball down Federer’s throat. Instead, he plotted and planned his revenge.

But enough about Del Po. I want to talk about the Serena Apology Tour, coming soon to a TV screen near you. And why she has no choice but to engage in it. And why no one will expect Roger Federer to join her despite his own potty-mouthed outburst.

If Serena Williams was truly sorry about what she did at the US Open, an apology would have been the first thing to come out of her mouth. It wasn’t. Read her first statement carefully and show me exactly where she indicated that she was sorry: 

“Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure, I can see that while I don’t agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly. I would like to thank my fans and supporters for understanding that I am human and I look forward to continuing the journey, both professionally and personally, with you all as I move forward and grow from this experience.”

And then it seemed to occur to Serena and/or her handlers that she has a book to sell, one with an unintentionally ironic title. There’s no point in writing a memoir if no one’s going to buy it. And so we have started being treated to the Serena Apology Tour. Here’s the latest version of her apology which now appears on her website

“Hey guys!!! I want to amend my press statement of yesterday, and want to make it clear as possible - I want to sincerely apologize FIRST to the lines woman, Kim Clijsters, the USTA, and tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst.  I'm a woman of great pride, faith and integrity, and I admit when I'm wrong. I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it's not the way to act -- win or lose, good call or bad call in any sport, in any manner. I like to lead by example. We all learn from experiences both good and bad.  I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.”

Part of me died inside. I get that she has no choice but to do this. I get that she will be expected to prostrate herself before middle America and beat her ample bosom many many times before she is forgiven. In fact, I expect that she will announce the formation of a new charity any day now, with proceeds from her book going to feed the hungry and starving.

In the meantime, Roger Federer cussed out the Chair for allowing Del Po to unfairly delay making a challenge call and I haven’t heard a peep about him facing fines or any punishment. And I am not for a second trying to equate the situations. Serena’s rage evidenced a loss of emotional control under pressure. Federer’s rage -- actually, it evidenced the same thing. But he did not point his racket at anyone. Or threaten to stuff a ball down the umpire’s throat, if he could.

But my main point is that the Federer outburst will not get commented on because we expect men to behave badly. That’s what makes them men. And although Serena was playing probably the most pressure-filled match of her life, we expected her to comport herself as if she was attending a garden party. And she will go on her Apology Tour to try to convince us that the Garden Party Serena is who she really is.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

You can take the woman out of Compton

You know the expression. I don’t have to complete it for you. And it will be one of the ways in which the manner in which Serena Williams lost the 2009 US Open semi-finals will always be understood. Some will say that Serena behaved like a thug when she raised her racket in a threatening manner towards the diminutive Asian lineswoman and was possibly overheard threatening to stuff the tennis ball down her throat.

So I won’t ever argue with people who claim that Serena behaved like a thug. All I will say is that that is only one way of looking at last night’s events. The other way involves appreciating the kind of tension that Serena was clearly under, not only last night, but for years. The tension that comes from repeatedly being treated unfairly.

It is somewhat ironic that in yesterday’s column I mentioned the Martinez-Sanchez incident in which it was Serena herself who made the sotto voce comment about being from Compton after she muttered angrily to herself that Martinez-Sanchez had better think twice about coming in to net. Serena had gotten angry because Martinez-Sanchez did not own up to the fact that she had unfairly won a point when the ball bounced off her arm and not her racket. Video evidence has confirmed Serena to be right.

Serena has long been the victim of this kind of unfairness in tennis. The Justine Henin hand incident at Roland Garros, the unfair line calls in several matches against Jennifer Capriati, the BOOING of the Indian Wells crowd, and now a foot fault call that may not even have been a foot fault - Serena has suffered them all. And I think that what we witnessed last night was her breaking point. It seemed almost as if she had zoned out and temporarily become another person. She was, for a moment, not the serene, self-controlled, laughing tennis player with whom we have all become familiar. She did seem to become, for a moment, a mad woman with a broken tennis racket.

I most enjoy tennis matches in which the officials seem to have such a complete understanding of the type of tension that players are under that they almost stay out of the way and allow the players to work things through. Interestingly, this seems more likely to happen in men’s tennis. Think of all the times that John McEnroe lost his cool and yet the tennis officials looked the other way. There seemed to be a silent understanding that a lot was at stake and that the player was only blowing off steam. When Guillermo Coria threw a racket that almost struck a ball-girl, there was compassion both for the ball girl as well as for the kind of tension that Coria was under.

But women’s tennis has always been more grimly serious. Women’s tennis has long lacked that element of compassion. Gasquet uses drugs and gets banned for a few weeks; in fact, he’s already back on the tour. Hingis uses drugs and is banned for two years and may never return. There is a lack of heart in women’s tennis, a lack of understanding of the pressures of success and achievement. At least that’s how it has always seemed to me. So I won’t at all be surprised if Serena receives further punishment on top of losing a match because of two disciplinary calls. That’s how women’s tennis rolls.

To be fair, had Serena stayed at the baseline and expressed her anger towards the lineswoman, her words may have been perceived as less threatening. What may have made it scary for the lineswoman was that Serena approached her directly, slashing the air with her racket, and apparently making verbal threats to stuff the tennis ball down her throat.

But did Serena’s race and size also play a role in this woman’s interpretation of threat? Of course it did. Of course it must have.

Sociologists have long-documented the general perception of Blacks as threatening. This is part of the thinking behind racial profiling. It’s the reason why the Huntington, PA Valley Club signed a contract allowing children to swim in their pool on Mondays, only to cancel it after the group of Black and Latino children showed up. It’s part of the circus of hysteria that greets every decision taken by Barack Obama, including such mundane ones as his offer to speak to the nation’s children, even when this has been done by most Presidents in recent history. And it may be why a lineswoman was unable to understand that a player was just blowing off steam because she was under pressure of losing a match to a woman who had been off the tour for two years.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The rain might as well have been in Spain

I forgot to mention the possible impact of the weather as one of the reasons I do not like to purchase US Open tickets in advance. When you attend a tournament for just a few days, it sucks to have rain interrupt play on any of those days. I feel for those folks who traveled to Flushing Meadows to watch tennis over the past few days. It’s been a complete wash-out. Already talk has started of the need for a retractable roof.

But while the rain hurts some, it may actually help others. I believe that the rain was a significant factor in Andy Roddick’s US Open victory in 2003. Roddick was one of the only top seeds who managed to finish his match before the skies opened and drowned the courts in four straight days of rain. Incomplete matches were crammed into the remaining few days of good weather.

So where other players were forced to play back-to-back with no days of rest in between, Roddick was much more rested as he faced and destroyed Juan Carlos Ferrero in the finals. Roddick would go on to be a finalist at four other Grand Slam events (2004, 2005 and 2009 Wimbledon , and 2006 US Open), all of which he would lose to Roger Federer. Those were all tournaments with good weather, at least before he lost.

Who might benefit from the rain delays at this year’s US Open? For a start, I think that the William sisters in general and Serena Williams in particular may benefit. The doubles match against Kleybanova and Makarova lasted over two and a half hours and was much closer than the 6-2 score in the third set indicates. Both Serena and Venus had to dig deep and come up with some special goods against a pair of opponents they had never faced before and who clearly believed themselves capable of winning.

You can tell that doubles opponents are not afraid of the Williams sisters when they dare to approach the net, particularly on the side closest to Serena Williams. Serena does not hesitate to ping her opponents, making it clear in a interview (after the match in which she called Martinez-Sanchez a cheat) that this is what happens when you’re from Compton. Kleybanova and Makarova were fearless. They lost by forcing the sisters to dig deeper and play better.

Afterwards many fretted about how Serena would fare in her semi-finals match against Kim Clijsters the following day. Throughout the tournament, Serena had insisted that playing doubles was helping her singles by giving her more serving practice. But following this match, it was a possibility that she could lose to Clijsters as she did not have a day of recovery. And then the rains came.

Another player whom I believe may benefit from this rain delay is Rafael Nadal. Rafa has claimed a stomach injury and has been wearing a patch under his shirt. The match against Gonzalez was shaping up to be brutal. Rafa won that first set by going all out. He held nothing back. If he was injured, it had completely slipped his mind. So too in the second set. Each game was hard-fought and gut-wrenching in every sense of that word. And at two games each, the sky opened.

A rested Rafa will be a much more recovered Rafa. A recovered Rafa will beat Gonzalez in straights. A recovered Rafa will beat the Federer who got so lulled into being two sets up against Söderling that the latter’s resurgence caught him completely by surprise. Söderling could easily have won the fourth set and the match. I am still shocked that he did not. He had Federer completely flummoxed and irritated.

That Federer, the flummoxed and irritated one, will go down in straights to a recovered Rafa. In order to win, Federer will need to bring his A++ game, the one that will see him through a back-to-back semi-final match against Djokovic and possibly a final against Rafa. He can’t say that I didn’t warn him.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Audience Factor

I did not see Melanie Oudin play Elena Dementieva. At the time I was shocked that she managed to beat the woman most likely to win the US Open according to the majority of prognosticators. That Elena got bumped was not the surprise. What made everyone’s jaw drop was that she had lost to a 17-year-old newbie with no claim to game.

So when I got to the Open last Saturday, my only agenda was that I wanted to see Oudin up close. Of course I also wanted to support Federer, but like most members of the audience, I took his win against Lleyton so entirely for granted that it took Rogi losing the first set for me to wake up and start hooting and hollering his support.

But from the moment Oudin came on court, my attention was all hers. She was playing against Maria Sharapova, a player who normally attracts the support of American audiences everywhere. In fact, it has become almost convenient to forget that Sharapova, with her unshakable American accent, is not actually American.

My prediction was that Sharapova was in for the shock of her life. I predicted that not only would the crowd support Oudin but that it would root against Maria. And we did.

If I were Michael Joyce, I would have prepared Sharapova for the partiality of the US Open crowd. I would have told her that it is not personal but that the US is longing for a glimpse of the future. I would have reminded her that despite her multimillion dollar endorsement deals, she is still a foreigner, a Russian who plays for Russia in Fed Cup. I would have told her that against an American blonde, she had no chance.

Given the sour looks on Sharapova’s face during this match, I have to wonder if the problem was that she was not adequately prepared or that she had elected not to believe what she may have told. I wondered if she may have assumed that just because a lot of Americans support her when she plays against Venus or Serena, they would support her against an American blonde. I wondered if she was somehow naïve to the subtleties of American racism.

Of course this is pure speculation on my part. All I can say for certain is that there were moments when Maria’s face seemed downright sour. And the more the crowd seemed to affect her performance, the more we screamed in support of Oudin. For a brief moment I wondered out loud if I should feel bad for Maria. And then I got over it.

Two days later, I was also a part of the contingent prepared to do battle against Nadia Petrova for a chance to help out Oudin. It wasn’t personal. I actually have nothing against Petrova. Actually, I happen to like Petrova very much. But I wanted Oudin to win. I knew that the right audience could make or break a player’s performance. And so it was that after the silence of the first set, I found myself screaming heartily as Oudin started making her move in the second. Honestly, I did not think she would win, but to the extent that the audience could be a factor in match outcomes, I wanted to give her every advantage. When she won, my screams of joy could be heard from Brooklyn.

But afterward, I found myself wondering at the hostility of that Indian Wells crowd towards Serena as she faced Clijsters in 2001 after benefiting from a walkover by Venus. By hooting and hollering at Sharapova’s and Petrova’s errors, was I actually acting any better than the folks at Indian Wells who tried to boo Serena into losing?

Notice I said booed and not BOOED. I have always maintained that the problem with the Indian Wells incident was the BOOING against Serena for an error made by her sister. But am I being specious? Was there really a difference between my rooting against Sharapova or Petrova and the Indian Wells crowd attack on Serena? I honestly think, yes. For a start, for most of us, it wasn’t personal. That same audience would show both Sharapova and Petrova a lot of love if they faced any other opponent tomorrow. And race was never a factor in the response.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is there a ticket scam on at the US Open?

I’ve been going to the US Open since 1999. The first time I went, I was alone, a novice feeling her way around a major tournament. I was picked up in turn by an elderly Jewish couple with season tickets, a father and son from Columbia, and a Junior player who had lost in his opening round and needed someone to latch on to until his parents could pick him up. Ever since then, it’s been never a dull moment at the Open.

In all the years that I have been attending the Open, I have never purchased tickets in advance. Sure I obsess about doing so, but the draw often changes so dramatically that it almost does not make sense to buy tickets ahead of time. And until this year, that was never a problem.

I got to New York on Friday but decided to start tennis on Saturday because Federer was scheduled to play. Not to mention the opportunity to support Melanie Oudin in her match against Maria Sharapova, and John Isner against Andy Roddick. So on Saturday morning we left New Jersey early to make the trek to Flushing Meadows. By the time we got there, the line for tickets stretched almost to the train station. I was shocked. I have never seen so many people waiting for tickets in all of the years I have been going to the Open. I mentioned this to the man in front of me. He said “Hold your ground. Don’t give up. They have tickets. Just stay in line and you will eventually get a ticket”.

The line inched forward slowly. By the time we were half-way to the Box Office, an announcement over the intercom advised us that tickets were completely sold out. Scores of people fell out. We moved forward. By this point we were near an awning and could get some shelter from the sun.

“You think it’s an attempt at crowd control?” I asked the man in front of me. He thought it might be but wasn’t sure. We continued to stay put. Three hours later, more people had fallen out. We inched closer to the front of the line. An elegant woman carrying a fog horn walked by. She announced that there were no tickets for today and that tickets were in fact completely sold out for through Labor Day. The man who had advised me to stay put decided to give up. I was shocked. Wasn’t he going to take his own advice?

Finally, around 11:15am, the Box Office grudgingly re-opened. I purchased two tickets in the shaded section under one of the electronic score boards. I tried to get tickets for the next two days. The man behind the window said that tickets were completely sold out. I asked for two Grounds Passes. He said that they were sold out too. I asked since when were Grounds Passes ever sold out in advance? He insisted that they were. He asked if I had considered looking online. Yes I had, I replied, but the cost of tickets at was astronomical. He shrugged his shoulders non-commitally.

Because the Isner match went until 9:30pm (and the crowd was so sparse that we were actually offered free courtside passes), and because my throat was sore from screaming (for Federer, then Oudin and finally Isner), I decided not to go to Flushing Meadows the next day (Sunday). On Labor Day (Monday), we arrived even earlier than we had on Saturday. The line was so short that we ended up in front of the US Open shop. It was so early that the air was chilly and we needed hot coffee to warm up.

Within half-hour of our arrival the announcements started up. No tickets were available. Everything was sold out for that day but we could get prime tickets for later in the week. I sucked my teeth and wondered if this was a scam. Was the intent to push online ticket purchases? It certainly could not be crowd control. The Saturday efforts had been extremely successful. By 9:00am, there were less than 100 of us in line.

A young Latina woman came by. She did not have a fog horn. She told us that we were wasting our time, that really, honestly, truly, there were no tickets available. She explained that the problem was that the players had all held on to their tickets instead of releasing them back to the Box Office. I told her that I was going to remain hopeful that Federer might release two of his tickets since his babies were too young to watch tennis.

Several people fell out. We moved forward. A security guard allowed us to approach the ticket window. We were told that there were no tickets. I circled back around and went back in queue. The same security guard asked me why I was still standing in line. I replied that I understood that there were no tickets now but that maybe things would change half-hour from now. He beckoned me closer and asked in a whisper if I had tried checking online.

A man in the queue checked on his Blackberry. Available tickets started at $268. Several people started grumbling. One woman said that she had been coming to the Open for 14 years and had never before experienced anything like this. Another man said he had been coming for 20 years and always bought tickets on the same day. We fretted and quarreled. Some swore never to return. I swore to stay put.

A few minutes before 11:00am, a security guard once again allowed us to approach the ticket windows. Tickets had miraculously become available. I purchased two in the same shaded section. But I did not fully enjoy the day. I don’t think it was just the weather that left me feeling so chilly.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What’s with all these women coming back?

First it was Kim Clijsters. Then I heard talk about Mary Pierce who is reportedly in serious training  with Yutaka Nakamura at Bollettieri’s. And now rumor has it that Henin is training for some exhibition matches later this year and may be open to returning to competing for real. What’s going on? What’s with all this leaving and coming back?

Personally I blame Dinara. Yes I know that it’s not fair of me to lay blame anywhere but since you logged on to this blog to get my opinion I will admit that I think that the problem lies in the lack of a credible #1. Right now, it’s clearly just about any woman’s game. And this may be at least a part of the reason why former champions seem to be chomping at the bit for their chance to slide back up the rankings and take over.

Serena is the closest to dethroning Safina at this point, and has made no bones about the fact that this is her intention. There is no doubt in my mind that Serena Williams is the best women’s tennis player at this time. In fact, I believe that she has the potential to be the best women’s tennis of all time. Unfortunately she got distracted for a while by trying to be a clothing designer/actress. But lately she seems to have accepted the fact that her true calling lies in tennis and seems to have rededicated herself to the sport. I believe that it’s just a matter of time until she ascends to her rightful throne.

But not if Elena Dementieva has anything to do with it. Dementieva just won the US Open Series and is looking all kinds of awesome. Not to mention the fact that she most recently had the pleasure of spanking Serena. A friend emailed me today a list of the US Open winner picks by a number of tennis commentators. Seven picked Dementieva. Six picked Serena. Peter Bodo picked Venus. He must know something that we don’t, right?

In the meantime, how poor Safina struggled yesterday to close it out against Aussie newcomer Olivia Rogowska. I was beyond embarrassed for her. Poor chick had to invoke God in an attempt to explain her inexplicable win [“God knows how I pulled it out. Not me.”] No wonder former players seem to be coming out of the woodwork. There has probably never been a better time to try to return to women’s tennis.

When Justine Henin decided to abandon tennis in favor of having a life, I was royally pissed. At the time I felt that tennis needed her. But I also admired her courage to stand down at the #1 position. She didn’t wait until she had a serious career-killing injury like Mary Pierce. She didn’t have delusional aspirations of becoming a world-famous actress like Serena. She just quietly said that she had had enough, and in a poof, she was gone.

So I must admit that part of me will not be thrilled if she does return. If I could I would ask her what was the point of leaving in the first dam place. I would point out that part of the negative stereotyping that women have long faced is that we constantly change our minds. I would insist that she clarify how serious she is about any comeback. And I will not get all attached again because I’m not down with getting my heart re-broken.

As for the possibility of Mary Pierce’s return, I am quite ambivalent. Part of me feels that she has every right to take the time she needed to heal from her horrifc injury and return to tennis. I even admire that at age 34, she is willing to re-define retirement. But mainly I feel that she should be offered another role in the world of women’s tennis. Kind of like a senior mentor, in the vein of Billie Jean King or Zina Garrison.

But I don’t feel as negatively about Mary Pierce’s possible return as a good friend of mine feels about Lance Armstrong’s decision to return to racing. She is beside herself on this matter. I don’t think that Alberto Contador’s annoyance comes even close to capturing my friend's feelings. She thinks that Armstrong had his time in the spotlight and it’s time for him to go home and pay attention to his children. Whenever she sees him racing she sucks her teeth and yells, “Go back home nah Lance and flip the remote or something!” She thinks that he uses his ancient cancer diagnosis as a crutch to remain the center of attention, almost as if “everybody forgot about the disease and he has to remind them”. Like I said, she is beside herself on this matter.

And I would have been more firmly on her side had I not seen Kim Clijsters’ match against Marion Bartoli today. Really, if you can come back from baby-making to play such a lethal level of tennis, then you have every right to return. So welcome back Kim. And maybe Mary and Juju. Just don’t quit on us for no good reason again, OK?