Sunday, January 31, 2010

28 plus 28 equals…28?

I have a slight headache. This always happens to me after a Slam is over. It’s part sleep deprivation and part the winding down from days of overexcitement. I will sleep like a baby tonight. And because both of my faves (Serena and Roger) won, I will also have sweet dreams of symmetry and balance.

Serena Williams is 28 years old. To hear some of the commentators tell it, that practically makes her an old woman in the world of tennis. I disagree of course. But with youngsters like Laura Robson panting to make their presence felt on the tour, 28 is probably more than past the half-way mark through a brilliant career. For me it is also the age of confidence and experience.

Serena Williams has won 12 Slams. She has done so on every surface. During her acceptance speech, she made a point of noting that she has now equaled Billie Jean King. I believe that that was no idle comment, even though she made it with a smile on her face. It was a passive-aggressive declaration of her intention to erase as many records as possible. And she can do it too.

I wish Serena had had this focus at 23 or 24. I wish she had not squandered so many years pursuing a vapid Hollywood dream. I read recently in a Vibe magazine interview that she has been writing a screenplay about a larger-than-life heroic character which she wants to play in a movie. Sigh. Is it wrong of me to hope that the script turns out to be as dull as her memoir and that no one gives it the slightest attention? Is it selfish of me to want her to stay in tennis just a bit longer? After all, there are so many more records to erase.

Roger Federer is also 28 years old. He was born a month before Serena, in August to her September. 1981 was clearly a good year for making tennis babies. And while one parent did so consciously, deliberately, whereas the other did not, the result has been the same - superior beings born with a gift, a level of talent that can translate into breathtaking performances.

At 28, Federer seems like an old soul. Whereas Serena comes across as more flaky, a giggling overgrown girl, interested in superficial things like nail polish and fashion, Federer seems to take life more seriously. Where Serena polarizes, Federer unites. It was his idea to hold a fund-raiser for Haiti. He has risen to the role of leader in men’s tennis, interested in the conditions under which the players perform. He has embraced the responsibilities of fatherhood.

Roger has not only surpassed Pete Sampras’ Slam achievements, he has eclipsed them. He has won 16 Slams, the most of any player in the Open Era. He has made history, turning Sampras into a footnote, a one-trick pony who could mainly get it up on grass and who never had a chance in hell of winning the French. Brilliance can be cruel.

Federer is also relentless at psychological warfare. When he finished decimating poor Tsonga - and have no doubt that that was his practice match, a warm-up to help prepare for the far more talented Andy Murray - Federer was accosted by Jim Courier who asked about his preparations for the upcoming finals. Federer wasted no moment to state that he felt no pressure at all, that all of the pressure was on Andy Murray as a result of the umpteen years of British longing for a Slam. During the post-match interview, he continued his psychological attacks, producing more comments about the pressure that Andy was under, a pressure he was no longer feeling because he already had history in the bag.

Some may see this as arrogance. I didn’t. I saw it as a brilliant attempt to go on the psychological offensive. As I’ve said before, professional tennis is not for the faint of heart. If you can’t take the heat, get off the court. Because it’s war out there, and a good chunk of the battle is completely psychological.

Between them, the 28 year old Serena Williams and the 28 year old Roger Federer now have 28 Slams. 28 plus 28 equals…28. I like such moments of equilibrium. But I especially like it when I can finally begin to wind down from the two weeks of over stimulation and allow myself some much needed sleep. I look forward to sweet dreams of balance and symmetry.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Should Rafa have swallowed a bagel?

This article isn’t easy for me to write because more than loving Rafael Nadal, I also tremendously respect him. I respect his hard-assed determination, his bull-like persistence when playing a tennis. I like that he thinks for himself, rarely looks up at his box as his mind whizzes along, coming up with strategies and calculations to help him figure out how to crush his opponent. I like that he shows no mercy, that he will force-feed you a crushing loss even if he has to reach across the net and comfort you afterward. I like my tennis players to have grit and determination and fighting power.

I do not like my tennis players quitting on an incomplete match. There is something wrong with that. It tastes of an awareness that a loss is on the horizon but an unwillingness to confront it. It’s a cowardly way out. And it’s unfair to the opponent.

There are many reasons why Nadal’s decision to quit being down after two sets and 0-3 in the third to Andy Murray, was wrong. But because I am a psychologist, I will focus on the psychological reasons why it was unfair. And to do this I have to digress and tell you a bit about gestalt theory. See the things you learn from coming to this tennis blog?

The essence of Gestalt theory is captured in the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. What this means is that as human beings we are inclined towards holism, and inspired by totality. Take for instance, if I write the word “S M _ K E”, your mind will intuitively fill in the missing letter “O” and you will actually see the word “SMOKE”. Similarly, perhaps you’ve had the experience of turning off the TV in the middle of a gripping movie and going to bed. You may then dream an ending to the movie. Your mind will complete the story so that it makes sense. As humans, we always need closure. If you know why your boyfriend broke up with you, it becomes easier to move on, than if he sneaks out in the middle of the night with no parting explanation. We humans do not do well with unfinished business.

So when Andy Murray, apparently somewhat irked, commented that he would have liked to have finished the match, I entirely understand and agree with him. Not that Rafa owes Andy anything, but really it’s in poor taste to leave the guy hanging there at 3-0 in the third. Who knows what kind of rest Andy got that night. Who knows how often his mind re-created the match as he slept, giving him the closure denied him by Rafa’s decision to quit.

Having said this, I assume that Rafa was indeed injured. I do not doubt this for a moment. But I would have preferred to see him get the knee professionally wrapped by a trainer, and do his best to give Murray his remaining three games. It was only three games. Murray was playing inspired tennis. In fact, he was so good that I am quaking for Federer come Sunday. This was as brilliant and as superb as tennis can get. The sheer beauty and variety of his shots, the intelligence of his shot selection, the pride of his mama in the stands. All of that deserved completion. And if that meant that Rafa had to stand there hobbled to one spot while Murray threw down winner after winner, he should have done it. Rafa has crushed many men who took their beatings like men, including the same Andy Murray on the same court this same time last year. Rafa should have manned up and accepted his own beat-down. That was the right thing to do.

Which brings me to Novak Dkokovic and his match against my sweetheart Tsonga. This  was the first time for the tournament that I actually got to see Tsonga play which is why I have not mentioned him before. And when I looked at that match a second time, it becomes clearer that Djokovic was distressed from the first set. He was sweating up a storm and fighting to breathe from the very first set. There were moments when he looked long and hard at his box as if trying to send a message. I did not realize any of this until I saw the match a second time. 

And as much as I have ragged on Djokovic for his over responsiveness to his people, I have grown new respect for him because he stuck it out. What an unexpected role reversal! Rafa quits, Nole sticks it out. He went off the courts, vomited, came back and played some more. That’s what I expect of the players who are paid an obscene amount of money for their efforts. It’s the least that Rafa could have done.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Deconstructing your opponent

Before getting to the main point of this article, I first want to take a minute give Nadia Petrova her due. I intensely dislike it when a top player loses a match and commentators make a bigger deal about the loser than the winner. For example, the ESPN talking heads, as well most newsprint and blogs practically ignored Petrova’s stellar performance, in favor of holding a wake over Clijsters’ loss yesterday in Melbourne. 

Don’t get me wrong, I get that a big gun losing a match may be a huge deal. But that was only a part of the story. The other part was that Petrova won. And unless the loser was hobbled by injuries and swathed in bandages, the winner really should get most of the recognition. Indeed, I found the news coverage of this event to be somewhat offensive to Ms. Petrova who seemed to have prepared perfectly for her opponent, and had an effective response for every shot in the Clijsters armory. And Clijsters herself clearly had no Plan B, or was so completely shut out of the match, she couldn't use it. That too is part of the story.

But the main focus of this entry is on the importance of players developing the ability to deconstruct an opponent’s game and attack her weaknesses. This is a critical skill in tennis. Some players hire scouts to look at the matches of their opponents to help them figure out an effective game plan in advance. But the better players also do their own analysis while the match is in progress, and then make adjustments in their own game to help them win.

It can be frustrating to watch a match where you the viewer has figured out a player's vulnerability, but her opponent apparently remains clueless. I remember years ago watching a match between Anna Kournikova and the Canadian, Vanessa Webb. At the time, Webb had no backhand. I mean she had zero ability to hit anything other than a clumsy backhand chop return. A better player would have deduced this within minutes and would have pummeled the opponent’s backhand for the rest of the match. Anna never did. It was pitiful to watch.

One of the factors that makes the greatest players great is their ability to deconstruct their opponent’s game plan, and then make adjustments in their own game to deflate the other’s effectiveness. Pete Sampras is one of the greatest ever because of his ability to analyze his opponent and then make his move. Sampras was so brilliant at this that he made it look simple.

Indeed this is one of the elements I forgot to mention in my recent criticism of Maria Sharapova and the ill-advised Nike investment (which the rest of us plebs will probably end up paying for by way of overpriced sneakers, hats, and whatnot). In my opinion, Sharapova often seems to have no interest in studying her opponent’s game plan. Instead, she seems to go emotionally inwards and remains focused on playing her own screaming power game, regardless of what is happening on the other side of the court. Against lesser players, she gets away with this.

And while the ability to remain emotionally centered is also a critical skill in tennis, so too is the knack of perceiving what your opponent is up to, figuring out what her strategies are, and coming up with new and effective responses to her game plan. I believe that this is why Sharapova relies so often on the courtside assistance of her coach who acts as a kind of scout, doing the analysis for her and telling her how to adjust her game when facing better opponents. I personally find that to be beyond pitiful.

Petrova on the other hand seemed to come to the match against Clijsters with an apparently rehearsed blueprint of her opponent's favorite (and dare I say, predictable) tennis moves. I say this because Petrova took such immediate and decisive control of the match. She responded effectively to Clijsters’ every parry, such that the latter often ended up flat-footed, out-played. And the more flummoxed her opponent became, the better Petrova played. I guess she must have learned something from all of those previous losses!

If Clijsters had the ability to change to a Plan B, she may have emerged victorious. The great ones can always figure out a Plan B. We saw this in the first round match between Federer and Andreev. It took Federer the first set to figure out Andreev‘s game-plan. And then he made adjustments, e.g., going for the forehand down-the-line. This was also evident in the match between Henin and Kleybanova. It was fascinating to watch as Henin changed up her game to respond to Kleybanova’s lethal and unexpected attacks to the Henin backhand. Nadal too changed up his game after losing the third set to Kohlschreiber. And Serena makes studying her opponents a personal mission. 

But because this ability to deconstruct an opponent is apparently so lacking among many players on the WTA, the powers-that-be decided to allow courtside coaching. Which really is nothing more than a form of Special Ed for Dummies.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why I’m glad that Oudin lost

No I’m not really. In fact I’m not happy about this loss at all. In fact it was quite frustrating to watch the way Oudin pissed the match away against her slightly pot-bellied opponent. But it was far more frustrating having to listen to Mary Jo Fernandez et al carry on as if Oudin was the fricking Second Coming. They were so far up Oudin’s ass they seemed at times to forgot that there were other Americans also playing tennis.

Not that there weren’t other non-Americans also playing scintillating tennis in Australia, but I’ve long ago given up any hope of American commentators paying any attention to non-American players. Of course the big guns will always be the exception to this rule and for that I am happy. I know that I will always get to see Federer and Nadal, and now Henin and Clijsters. No complaints here - these are all players whom I love to watch. But when Vania King comes back from 1-5 in the third set to win the match against a seeded player, I would have expected that to be a bigger story than Melanie Oudin.

But no. We were treated to every moment of Oudin’s painfully stupid loss. It wasn’t only shown, it then had to be analyzed, discussed, rehashed, and practically mourned. And then one of the commentators noted in closing that the American women were not faring so well.

Actually, there are a few American women who are fairing just fine. Their names are Venus and Serena. And Vania King, who played a much tougher opponent (Dominika Cibulkova, seeded 23), and came back from 1-5 in the third to win. She closed out the third set 7-5, which means that Cibulkova did not win another game. Now that is a star story. That is the story I would have expected to headline the commentary. That is the post-match interview I would have expected to see. I would have expected Vania to be given pride of place in the commentators’ box (not Terrell Owens, steups).

But I saw nothing of Vania. I don’t know how she won that match. But I heard excuse after excuse being made for Oudin. She is so young. Her coach is busy making notes so she will learn from this experience. Her mother seems so relaxed so maybe everything will be OK. She can still come back from here, she’s done it before. Remember her run at the US Open? Remember the seeds she beat? Remember how good she was, how talented? How she believed?

Yes, I do. Because I was there, also rooting for her. And since Oudin is ranked 48, I would have expected her to have no difficulty dispatching the slightly pot-bellied Alla Kudryavtseva, ranked 88. In fact, Oudin had no less than four match points in the second set, all of which she squandered. And it’s not as if the slightly pot-bellied one was doing anything special. In fact she was playing mostly crap, although she did improve her game in the third set. And yes Oudin did come back from 1-4 in the third. But she lost. Coming back isn’t good enough. You have to do like Vania King and translate the come-back into a win.

Meantime, on Court 6, Shenay Perry, currently ranked 107, was taking on the former #1, Ana Ivanovic. And they were playing on Margaret Court Arena, a show court. Did I hear any love coming from the commentators for Shenay? Not a drop. Throughout the Oudin match they plied us with suggestions of what Oudin could do to win the match. They were practically willing her to win. But Shenay was treated as a lost cause. And the truth is, if you watched the match, Shenay definitely had her chances. Ivanovic played so poorly I would be shocked if she gets past Gisela Dulko in the next round.

And did you know that Jill Craybas also flew to Australia? Yes she did. But I swear she was invisible. She lost to Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic who will next be facing Serena Williams. I hope that the commentators remember that Serena is also American, and deserving of some love. And I hope that they will once and for all stop talking about the damn incident at the US Open. Yes Serena was wrong. Yes, so was the lines-woman. One woman got punished. The other still has her job. Moving right along. There’s life after New York. And Oudin.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Did Nike pour $75 million down the drain?

One of the interesting outcomes of the public dismantling of Tiger Woods is the unprecedented glimpse that we have been afforded into the world of corporate sponsorship. Tiger was worth an immeasurable fortune paid for by the likes of AT&T, Gatorade, Tag Heuer, Nike, and Gillette, to name just a few. He was deep in the pockets of a number of corporate giants that used his image to help sell their products. His public destruction has raised interesting questions about how much his sponsors knew or cared not to know about his secret player lifestyle, as long as he kept bringing the bread.

But his demise has raised questions about how corporations go about selecting the individuals in whom they invest. Certainly Tiger’s accomplishments as the best golfer in the world made him a no-brainer of a choice for sponsorship. But his personal life has forced some corporations into taking what amounts to a moral stance, by canceling his contracts. Indeed, many high-paying contracts often contain moral clauses allowing  corporations to recoup some of their monies if their investee is caught with his pants on the ground.

When I read that Nike had elected to invest 75 million dollars in Maria Sharapova, I did not seriously question the moral aspect. Other than past allegations of illegal coaching and the early lies about surviving Chernobyl, thus far Maria’s life has remained fairly scandal-free. And frankly, there is a lot of research showing that when it comes to moral concerns, women are a far safer investment than men any day. And we have a lot of buying power too. Remember the film “What women want?”. That was its basic premise.

But is Maria worthy of such a huge investment? There was a time when I would not even had asked that question because of course she was. She still is a fearless competitor who knows how to just go brave. I love the fact that she never backs down from a fight and never gives up a battle. This is one chick who fights to the finish. But with a shoulder that still seems dodgy, a serving motion that remains confused, and no Slam wins since Australian Open 2008 (before that, Wimbledon 2004), she is the last person I would have expected to attract such a massive investment.

This is my way of saying that I don’t understand the corporate mind. In the same way that I do not understand how corporations could have miscalculated so badly on the Tiger Woods brand, I do not get why Nike thinks that today’s Sharapova is worth $75 million. And if you watched her match against Kirilenko yesterday, you saw everything that is currently wrong with Sharapova.

For a start, she double-faulted 11 times. She placed only 61% of her first serves. And she committed 77 unforced errors. 77!!! The match lasted almost 3.5 hours before the spirited and equally fearless Maria Kirilenko, a fellow Russian, ejected Sharapova in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open. The shame. The horror. The head-scratching.

I wonder what Nike is thinking right about now. Is the person who sold them on this deal going to be brought to the carpet? And did you see Maria's box yesterday? Actually it was practically empty - her coach, Michael Joyce (whose courtside coaching I've discussed before), and her agent. There was no sign of Yuri Sharapov. I almost found myself missing the days when he would be the only one in his daughter’s box, come rain or shine. I can’t remember the last time I saw him. Has Sharapova become just a piece of property now owned by folks with deep pockets. And does she understand that all investments are expected to produce returns?

Sharapova elected once again not to play any warm-up tournaments, going instead for high-paying exhibition matches. You already know how I feel about those. These typically playful events are no substitute for proper match play. And serious match play (as opposed to “hit and giggle tennis” to quote Karen the commenter), is requisite preparation for any Slam. As far as I am concerned, Sharapova came to Australia under-prepared and this is why she was booted out. This is not the behavior I would have expected of a $75 million  investment.

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy as heck for tennis that one of our own got this kind of dough. Until now, the William sisters have been among the highest paid for their endorsement deals. But at 6’ 2” (Pam Shriver thinks she’s closer to 6’ 3”), blonde, skinny, and allegedly fashion-forward (I don't see it), Sharapova has the look that sells things. She is also clearly an astute business-woman, and has made herself an international brand. But is she still capable of delivering the goods, or did Nike just pour 75 million dollars down the drain? Time will tell.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

How on earth will the cheaters win now?

I write this blog because I enjoy tennis and because I enjoy writing. I could not choose between these two loves - my passion for both is equal. Honestly, I think I enjoy writing about tennis just as much as I enjoy playing and watching this sport. It consumes me.

I do not write this blog with any idea that my suggestions for change would come to fruition. When last year I gave myself the assignment of suggesting the top ten changes I would like to see in tennis, it wasn’t with any assumption that any of my ideas would see the light of day. They were merely honest opinions that the blog gave me an avenue to express. I’m sure some of my friends appreciated not having to listen to my diatribes.

So you can imagine my pleasant surprise upon reading the announcement that there will be new medical rules implemented in tennis. I can only hope that the new rules will help to restore some of the honor to the legacy of Shuzo Matsuoka, the Japanese player whose painful cramping introduced changes that have turned into a massive debacle.

Back when players like Shuzo Matsuoka (on left in photo, with Date Krumm and Gael Monfils) were on the tour, cramping was regarded as a loss of condition, preventable if players attended properly to their fitness and remained well-hydrated. But after witnessing the Japanese player writhing painfully for minutes on the court, the ITF changed the rules to introduce the option of receiving medical treatment. And this rule might still be in place if players did not start abusing it.

It’s gotten so that you can sometimes have a hard time telling who’s really hurting and who is pretending to hurt. It’s unfair to pick on them because they are not the only ones, but certainly both Del Potro and Almagro are among the players who have been accused by many of playing unfairly. Almagro famously took a medical time out for leg cramping just before serving to win his second-round 2009 US Open match against Robby Ginepri. Even some Djokovic fans fret about the frequency of his time-outs and retirements. I’m not alleging that any of these players are dishonest; I’m just saying that I am looking forward to their expectedly improved physical fitness.

Even among the women, it’s sad the extent to which the conduct of some have left even their fans dumb-struck. Suspiciously-timed requests for medical assistance have become a form of gamesmanship, attempts to throw their opponents off their rhythm and win at any cost. It behooved the ITF to come up with a solution. And so it has.

Effective January 1st, 2010, the ITF has introduced some new tennis rules that will hopefully cut down on what has become little more than an avenue for dishonorable cheating. For a start, players can no longer request medical time-outs for cramping. A treating professional must first determine that the player is cramping (the player’s word is no longer good enough), and he or she can then be treated during a limited number of changeovers or set breaks. But the business of getting a three-minute medical time out just for muscle cramping is over. Can I hear Amen?

Players can of course be treated for illness other than cramping, such as ankle or knee sprains, bleeding, or illnesses related to heat (such as dizziness, nausea, and vomiting). But any player who claims to be ill and who turns out to only be cramping will be ordered to resume play immediately or risk forfeiting game or tie-break points. That alone will make some of the cheaters think twice, yes?

Already the new rules have been implemented. During the Hopman Cup, Victor Hanescu started cramping in his match against Hewitt. Apparently Hanescu has not been keeping up with the rules of his sport because he expected to receive a medical time-out. He even committed a Hingis, throwing in an unexpected underhand serve which thankfully missed the service line. Hewitt showed him no mercy in his criticism during a post-match interview, noting that it is unfair to those players who do not take short cuts but put in the hard work of preparation. I completely agree with Hewitt.

The ATP has said that the new rule “strikes a compromise between the rule that has just been replaced and the old rule that didn't allow treatment of any kind.” I say that the honor of Shuzo Matsuoka has finally been restored.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Serena vs. Elena: Best instructional match-up?

Yesterday while watching the Sydney finals between Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva, it occurred to me that these women have a future market in producing instructional tennis tapes if they wish. It’s incredible the degree to which their rivalry produces consistently high quality and creative tennis. They have faced each other 11 times in their career, with Serena having a seven game advantage. And they quite literally bring out the best in each other.

Their matches are not only beautiful to watch but they are also highly instructional. If I were a tennis coach, watching Serena vs. Elena matches would be required homework for my students. This is because between these two women you can see exactly how to go about constructing and winning (or defending) a point.

From watching their matches closely you can learn how to move from aggressive to defensive, when to use drop-shots and lobs, when to move into net and volley, how to use the other’s pace and power, when and how to re-direct the ball, how to create perfect angles, and of course how to serve and return serve properly. Of course Serena maintains the advantage in serving but yesterday Elena produced some surprise down-the-line winners that let me gasping. And even the bad serves can be instructional because they highlight the importance of the toss and proper follow-through.

Between both women you also see the importance and effectiveness of proper footwork. Serena was injured yesterday so her speediness was a bit lacking. But let’s be honest, even when she is playing 100% there are times when Serena can get tangled up in her feet; this rarely if ever occurs for Elena who is quick-footed and moves sharply. Both women are fluid tennis players with excellent and intuitive anticipation. And of course both are very fit. Between them they offer a ton of free tennis instruction.

I’ve also been thinking about my distaste for side-to-side bashing tennis of the kind that women like Jelena Dokic and men like James Blake play. I’ve since grudgingly conceded that this type of tennis can be effective, particularly against baseliners who are allergic to coming to net. And yes, everyone needs to know how and when to play side-to-side tennis. Even between Serena and Elena yesterday, there were moments of excellent side-to-side exchanges. But what makes their matches instructional is that this is not all that they can do. They produce and create (and therefore teach) so much more.

To clarify, the kind of side-to-side bashing that turns me off is when that is all that the players know how to do, and when their only goal is to move the tennis ball from one pocket of the court to the other, from the deuce court to the ad court, back and forth and back and forth, until the opponent gets tired or preferably sprains her or his ankles and can move no more. That kind of tennis shortens careers. And makes me yawn.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of tennis players for whom this is their only game-plan. Nada mas. I personally find it is boring as hell. And no match was more boring so far this year than the finals between Bhadatis and Mardy Fish in Sydney. Side to side, back and forth, pocket to pocket, sprinter vs. sprinter, until Mardy started running out of steam, hit a ball out of the court, and the match was finally and blessedly over. I had dental surgery yesterday so I couldn’t even numb the painfulness of this match by drinking a beer. I had to endure it stone cold sober. I can think of few punishments more awful.

What makes Serena vs. Elena the best instructional match-up for me is the sheer variety of the shots they manage to produce between them. More importantly, you get a sense of the high level of strategizing that goes into the choice and timing of each shot. I’m not saying that theirs is the best rivalry in woman’s tennis (although it is certainly one of the best). I’m arguing that theirs is the most instructional. Feel free to tell me in the comments below who are your best instructional match-ups in tennis.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2010 is shaping up nicely for women’s tennis

I don’t know anyone who enjoyed 2009. Really, I am not exaggerating. Everyone I know has one complaint or another about how awful that year was. Between the job losses and the emotional pain, everyone seems to be relieved to be free of 2009 karma, and appear to be going into 2010 with a poignant sense of hopefulness. It’s almost as if 2009 brought with it a form of emotional tsunami that brought and washed a lot of bad detritus into and out of our lives. We look forward to 2010 with a renewed sense of optimism.

So it is in the world of women’s tennis. There seems to be an abundance of good news on the women’s tour. Already there are signs that the drought of 2009 may be over and that we can look forward to a plethora of great tennis matches throughout 2010.

For a start, Dinara Safina has declared that she is healthy again and that her back is 100% recovered. That is terrific news. Here’s hoping that her head is PST-fixed as well. Her fellow Russian, Maria Sharapova, seems also to have recovered nicely from the shoulder injury that sidelined her for much of last year. She had decisive wins this week against Denmark’s Wozniacki and China’s Zheng Jie during the Hong Kong exhibition match.

Ana Ivanovic is also back on tour, claiming that there have been lessons learned. Again, great news. And 20-year-old Yanina Wickmayer has pushed past the doping questions that threatened to derail her career in 2009. She opened 2010 with a decisive win against the top seed Flavia Pennetta in the final of the ASB Classic in Auckland. Niiiice.

Not to be outdone, 15-year-old Laura Robson (photo below) did her part to try to bring the Hopman Cup home to England, defeating Spain’s Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in straight sets. After her sweet interview, Robson looked on expectantly as Andy Murray took on Tommy Robredo. So confident was I that Murray would win that match that I stopped watching after he closed out the first set 6-1. Serves me right. He lost to Robredo in three. Spain has won the Hopman Cup. The consolation? The discovery that Robson’s Junior Wimbledon win was no fluke. She finally seems ready to hang with the Big Babes in 2010.

In Brisbane, Kim Clijsters earned a difficult win against Justine Henin in a thrilling match watched by her gorgeous husband and daughter. Kim went up 4-1 in the second after winning the first, but Justine bullied her way back. Justine then served at 5-3 in the third but could not close it out. The momentum shifted back and forth before Kim finally emerged the winner, playing some of the illest returns to close out the match. I am so happy that both women are back on the tour. And how sweet was it when Kim announced that she was donating all of her prize monies to the Royal Brisbane Children's Hospital? For a moment there I regretted calling them all greedy whores.

I don’t know if Jelena Dokic has recovered from the fatigue that plagued her in 2009 but I certainly hope she has. Her side-to-side bashing style of play is emerging as a very effective game plan in baseline tennis. So many of the women now play this way that I have been forced to get over my distaste for it. So what if it lacks variety? It works dammit.

And of course I am also looking forward to seeing what else Svetlana Kuznetsova will do in 2010. I think she is capable of so much, along with Serena and Venus Williams of course. I’m not worried about Serena, but towards the end of 2009, Venus had started looking plenty battered. I did not keep track of what she got up to during the break but whatever it was, I hope it was rejuvenating. Women’s tennis still needs her. And I look forward to even more of the sisters’ dominance in doubles.

Finally, the promise of women’s tennis in 2010 also includes the excitement of some of the younger players who seem ready to step up and fill the void created by those who retired in 2009. Will Oudin deliver on the promise of her shoes? Will Azarenka learn to pace herself? Will Sabine Lisicki play more than two events in a row without getting hurt? Will Alisa Kleybanova show more of her spirit? Will Alize Cornet take her nose out of the air? Will we get to know Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova? And will Kimiko Date Krumm continue to remain young at heart? So many questions. Can’t wait to see the answers unfold.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Should exhibition matches be taken seriously?

There was a time when I used to completely ignore the results of exhibition matches. I’m talking about the era of players like Anna Kournikova who had the ability to attract hordes to her matches. Her opponents would invariably throw her some fluff balls so that she would not look like a complete moron. Pretty much the way she is now treated during Arthur Ashe Children’s Day or certain WTT matches. She seems irrelevant to the outcome, but she still looks good being irrelevant so everyone seems to play along.

I also sometimes got the impression that the outcome of certain exhibition matches was pre-determined, a gentleman’s agreement as it were. I can’t prove this of course but can you think of a better example than the series of matches between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras? One got the impression that Federer was trying at times to make Sampras look good. I wondered at the time what kind of financial inducement it would take for Federer to whore himself out so that Sampras could look relevant again.

So I admit that I never used to take exo matches seriously. I’ve never understood why people count exo wins among the accomplishments of their faves. I’ve always maintained that exos are all about the Benjamins and not about the fans. To me they reflect nothing but players’ greed and their desire to be set free from the accountability of the regular playing schedule so that they could earn easy money at the expense of fans. And yes, I’ve harped on all of this before.

But lately I’ve started wondering if some exo results may be more significant than I have been willing to acknowledge. For example, when Federer recently lost to Nadal at the season-opening Capitala exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, I found myself wondering if this was a presage of things to come. And when Robin Söderling made it all the way to the finals, I felt that it showed that his performance in the second half of 2009 was no fluke because here he was getting things started off the right way in 2010.

And then there was Justine Henin, who quit the tour in 2009, but announced her return several months later, signing on for a series of exo matches. And she has won them all. Her first win came in Belgium against Flavia Pennetta, with a score of 6-4, 6-4. Being a cynical chick at heart, of course I found myself wondering if Flavia could be financially induced to throw a match against Henin on the latter’s home turf. But then came the win against Nadia Petrova in Cairo, which Henin won with a decisive 7-6, 6-2. I could no longer doubt that the diminutive one’s lethality seemed to be roaring right back.

Not to be outdone, Henin’s countrywoman (and I believe the main reason for her return), Kim Clijsters, also defeated Venus Williams 6-1, 7-5 in the Diamond Games exhibition in Antwerp. The score line seemed believable. Was it time I lost my doubt?

Principally because of the Nadal win in Abu Dhabi as well as Henin’s stunning results, I have found myself wondering if I need to rethink my position on exhibition matches. Maybe they are not all fraudulent. Maybe not all are a set-up. Maybe some of these results need to stand right alongside other significant tournament wins. Maybe I need to lose some of my cynical doubt as part of a package of New Year resolutions.

And just as I was about to get carried away in a fervor of emotional generosity, here comes news that Serena Williams lost an exhibition match to Melanie Oudin in Georgia. Two factors immediately stood out. First, that Melanie Oudin is from Georgia. And second, that Serena Williams lost to Melanie Oudin.

And just like that, not unlike Henin’s lethal ability, my cynicism came roaring back. Just as I stood on the brink of giving some of these greedy players the benefit of the doubt, came proof that I absolutely cannot. They’re all whores. They’re all willing to whore themselves out for a buck. My only regret is that I did not see the Serena Williams match. It must have been a stellar acting performance. She probably needs to convince IMDB to include it among her acting credits in which she appears as Herself.