Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fortune favored the…timid?

I tried, I really did. I hoped that a beer would help. It didn’t. Watching the women’s finals of Indian Wells was like taking a purge. Except that even the most distasteful purge can achieve some good in the long run. In this case, the exercise and experience were both painful and pointless.

I wasn’t actually going to go there. I thought you know, I’m sure that Wozniacki’s fans are thrilled that she made it to another finals. And I am certain that Jankovic’s fans are probably hella relieved that she is finally back. So who was I to throw cold water on their celebration? So I stifled my thoughts, emptied the bottle, and turned off the TV.

And then came Miami. And the rousing match between Federer and Serra in the first round. And the nail-biter between Verdasco and Melzer, when for a moment there it looked as if Verdasco was going to be spanked, and then he got it together. And the thriller between Gonzalez and Monaco, first going one way, and then another, until Gonzo ratcheted up the fire and blazed some heat onto Monaco. The tennis in Miami has been sizzling, even in the earliest rounds. Every single match has been a thrill a minute. The style of tennis is gutsy and fearless. Fortune definitely favors the brave. Indeed, the motto for men’s tennis could easily be ‘go brave or go home’.

Which brings me back to memories of Indian Wells and my observation that in the finals we witnessed one timid woman versus another, playing the same damn defensive game, each one trying to counterpunch the other from the baseline, running back and forth and back and forth, with no plan of attack. It was a wonder they didn’t bore each other to death. What an embarrassing final. Women’s tennis deserves so much better. When did the women become so damn timid?

I’m not saying that there weren’t any brave women in the draw. But to a woman they all seemed to have departed early. I had high hopes for Kleybanova, especially after she took out Clijsters, but she folded like a wet tissue to the ultimate winner. And then Kuznetsova went out in three sets to Navarro-Suarez. Dementieva was there but she might as well not have been. And I think Justine Henin was also there, or was that just her shadow? Maybe I read the draw wrong. Maybe she’s still in Australia.

Of course there were moments of excitement in some of the women’s matches. But for the most part nothing came close to any of the displays put on by the men. Did you also notice the striking difference in the crowd’s reaction? Not a single women’s match came close to the level of fearlessness that the men demonstrate weekly in their tennis matches, from one tournament to another.

How did this come about? What was the moment of transition from the fearless Capriatis and the plucky Hingises, from the screaming Seleses and the focused Grafs, to the tame and timid Wozniackis and defensive Jankovics? How did women’s tennis come to this sorry state?

Of course in this criticism I am not including all of the current women. Players like Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and Kim Clijsters, to name just a few, are sportswomen whose games can rise to a whole other level when facing each other at Slam events. These are not women who seem afraid. They go out on court and face down their opponents with chutzpah. (Check out this Serena video for a reminder of what fearless tennis looks like).

But most of these players either did not go to Indian Wells, or were perhaps motivated just to make a brief appearance before packing up and riding out of town. Left behind were the timid ones. And so we witnessed a pathetic final match between Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic. It almost put me to sleep. It was a shameful demonstration of timidity. Even the crowd seemed barely able to muster up the energy to respond. Honestly, I can’t wait to get past some members of the current generation of women’s tennis players. We need some gutsy youngsters to start stepping up and showing some of these cowards how it’s done.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why can’t Serena have off days?

The internet has been all aflutter with pictures of Serena looking kinda hefty in a trikini on the beach. It’s actually a very pretty swimsuit and she looks toned and happy, but from some angles she does look kind of chunky. Many websites report this in a tone of scandalized horror. You’d swear it ranked up there with Jesse James’ alleged racism and wandering dick.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to live under such relentless scrutiny. Can you imagine not ever being able to have an off-day? Can you imagine what it must feel like to have your every move documented and commented on, not to mention periodically laughed at as if just being yourself is some kind of crime?

I fail to comprehend why some “celebrities” seem to out of their way to attract paparazzi attention. It seems like such a toxic experience. And a huge part of the negativity comes from the fact that these “celebrities” are not allowed to have the normal vagaries of life and living that unknown folks like you and me take entirely for granted. Like being able to just take a day off and enjoy life.

From time to time I give myself the gift of “fat days”. These are the days on which I allow myself to eat some kind of junk food, like a Wendy’s premium fish combo with fries and a diet coke. I am normally an obsessively healthy eater, but from time to time I give myself a break from all the carb-counting. And I indulge and enjoy.

Professional tennis players are obviously held to a higher standard. And if I were a pro, I would of course expect to be held to a high standard of fitness. But Serena has not played tennis since Australia. And indeed, she played the first slam of the year swaddled in bandages. Three months later I think it’s perfectly natural that she would have gained a bit of weight. You’d think her critics would cut her some slack.

Clearly Serena is not troubled by self-criticism. She put on her lovely bathing suit and went to the beach. The weather was decent for a change. She must have felt entitled to enjoy it. In all the photos she is laughing and happy.

And lately she has had a lot to enjoy. She was recently awarded the 2009 WTA Tour Player of the Year. This is a huge deal, especially coming after the debacle in New York that threatened to negate the otherwise brilliance of her performances throughout 2009. This is the third time that the WTA has named Serena player of the year. She received this award in 2002 and 2008. I’m sure that a lot of discussion went into whether she should be given this award in 2009. But whom else could they honor? Who else has accomplished as much as Serena has in 2009? Melanie Oudin? Maria Sharapova? Please, don’t make me laugh.

In addition, Serena and Venus were also awarded Doubles Team of the year 2009. And let’s face it, their partnership has been unbeatable. And having won the Australian Open doubles this year, the partnership seems bent on achieving even more. Serena has worked very hard for all of her accomplishments. Surely she’s entitled to a few days off?

When Serena did not show up in Indian Wells, I did not assume injury, knowing that she has kept her promise to never return to this tournament. But then she announced her withdrawal from Miami because of a bum knee. Serena has won Miami five times. It must gall her not to be able to go for six. But at this time, she needs to focus on rehabbing the knee so that she could return to being a 100%.

This includes allowing herself to enjoy a day at the beach. She was photographed jet-skiing with friends. She seemed happy and carefree, like she decided to just cut loose and just enjoy life. Surely she is perfectly entitled to this?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

There’s a lotta life left in Looby’s legs

Just a couple of days ago I was questioning whether James Blake has any tennis left. The answer was a somewhat qualified No. And last night I watched as Ivan Ljubičić (affectionately nicknamed 'Looby') sent Rafael Nadal packing out of Indian Wells and it did not even occur to me to ask that question. So then I had to ask myself, how come? What is it that I think that Looby has at age 31 that Blake doesn’t at age 30 (other than my utmost respect, of course)?

Clearly age is not the issue. Age is never the issue in my criticism of tennis players. In fact, I tend quite contradictorily to become more supportive of tennis players as they age, especially as the chorus of whispers starts up, demanding that they retire.

For instance, when in 2000 when the ATP launched its offensive and ageist ‘New Balls Please’ campaign, I started a similar campaign in support of Old Farts. Players whom I had routinely ignored until then suddenly became the loves of my life. I launched my own movement in support of a tennis player’s right to retire if and when he or she damn well chose, instead of being hustled out of the game by a bunch of disrespectful young Turks. Then again, when your values have been shaped by Caribbean mores, anything less will seem unethical.

So the fact that Blake is 30 and Ljubicic 31 is completely irrelevant to my dismissal of the former and my total embracing of the latter. Looks also have nothing to do with it. For a start, they both look silly with headbands surrounding a bald pate. But James Blake is a good-looking dude if you can get past his hefty butt. And Ljubicic will probably never be selected to escort Victoria Secret models down a runway. Not with that ragged looking face.

But when it comes to tennis intelligence, Ljubicic could write a book and then some. As a tennis strategist, he could be the master and Blake the student. When Ljubicic loses, it’s never because he doesn’t know how to win, but because his body gives out, either due to fatigue or injury. This is perhaps the main reason why, despite having a lethal serve that has helped to # 3 in the world along with nine ATP titles, Ljubicic has never won a Slam or a Masters event. But he has achieved balance in his life through marriage to longtime girlfriend, Aida, and fatherhood to their son, Leonardo. Having earned over seven million dollars in his career, he is now at the stage where he can play tennis just because he enjoys playing.

So when he beat Djokovic in straight sets (7-5 6-3), I knew that he was a serious contender to make it to the finals of Indian Wells. Granted Djokovic was tired from Davis Cup, but he played a good match. Which meant that Looby then had to get past Juan Monaco and Rafael Nadal.

Monaco has been growing into his game. The era of dirt kings is clearly over. These Argentinean players who grew up inhaling clay have quickly eradicated the stereotype of being dirt-baggers who can’t perform anywhere else. Monaco has game. And when he lost to Looby in three sets, I knew that Nadal could be in trouble, never mind their lop-sided head-to-head (5-1 Nadal-Looby).

The match against Nadal was close - until they got to the tiebreak in the third set. I have never seen Nadal so completely shut out of a tiebreak. I mean he just wasn’t there. Ljubicic won the last seven points, and then took away the last point from Nadal in a brilliant forehand down-the-line which Nadal left wide open. It’s rare to see Nadal get nervous. It’s rare to see him toweling his face even when there is nothing to wipe. It’s rare to see him looking over to his box (where Uncle Toni sat with his face looking down, broadcasting his apparent disapproval). Uncle Toni needs to re-read the manual on PST. This is not how it’s done.

Looby’s box on the other hand were vocal in their support. They had to be. Just about the entire crowd at Indian Wells were rooting for Nadal. They had nothing against Ljubicic . They just wanted the Spaniard to win. They wanted a Nadal-Roddick final. Later today they will have to settle for Looby vs. Roddick. This is the first time that Looby has made it to the finals of Indian Wells. Roddick is coming back injury but is in top shape and has arguably the best tennis coach. May the best man win.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Does James Blake have any tennis left?

I don’t understand the timing of Blake’s decision to part with his coach. I’m not saying that it was the wrong decision. On the contrary, I used to wonder why he hadn’t done it years ago.

Changing coaches must be one of the most difficult decisions a pro can make. On the one hand there is the comfort and familiarity factor, especially in situations like Blake’s where the coach has been around for so long that the relationship with him may in many ways be more intimate than just about any other bond in your life. This is the person who has your back, who knows intimate details of your life such as how much money you make and what kind of deals may benefit you both.

And there is always the risk of betrayal. Giving up a long-time coach who is familiar with every aspect of your game means risking that he will hand over this knowledge to your next opponent who may happen to hire him. Andre Agassi admits in his memoir that Darren Cahill told him how to beat Lleyton Hewitt. And I remember Agassi himself getting burned at Queen’s when Brad Gilbert started working with Andy Roddick who miraculously overnight had figured out a way to beat Agassi.

I’ve often wondered if this is a factor in Federer’s longstanding allergy to hiring coaches. Is there a fear that the secrets that have taken him to # 1 may suddenly get spilled? It’s a thought, no?

And then there are players like James Blake who seem to hang on to a coach long after they have achieved their best with each other. James Blake and Brian Barker have been a duo for 17 years. That is longer than most marriages. From their interviews they both claim that the split is amicable and that Blake needed to hear a new voice. The new voice will belong to Kelly Jones, a former doubles specialist ranked # 1 in doubles in 1992. Like Blake, he is also a former NCAA player. As a coach he has worked with Mardy Fish and Xavier Malisse. And now James Blake.

And I have to admit that the cynical part of me wondered, what’s the point? Does Blake really think he still has tennis left? Does he believe that he has what it takes to win a Slam? It wasn’t that long ago that he had never even won a five-set match. OK granted he has since corrected that, and that he has wins against many of the top players. But Blake has always been a streaky player who is hot today and cold tamale. If anyone had asked me (not that I wait to be asked anything to give my blog-opinion), I would have said that Blake’s best tennis years may well be behind him, so what exactly is the point of hiring a new coach at this stage of the game?

But in the next moment I remember players like Andre Agassi. I may ride him hard in my satirical pieces but Agassi is proof positive that some people are just late bloomers. They take a while to grow up and become capable of the kind of focused discipline that takes you to the top. And with this in mind, I decided that my dismissal of Blake was unfair. If Andre could do it, why not James? I’m not equating their talent by any means but Blake certainly is blessed with a quickness of feet, superb hand-eye coordination, and laser-like forehands that have allowed him to climb to some stunning heights. When he is on, he can beat anyone. His problem has always been that when he flames out, he gutters.

And last night I watched him gutter. It wasn’t pretty. He was playing Nicolás Almagro, an all-court Spanish player who seems to be the direct descendent of the previous generation of such all-surface masters as Àlex Corretja, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Carlos Moyá. Almagro took it to Blake fearlessly. And before too long Blake was behaving like a pissy little bi**h, whining and complaining about the Chair, moaning about the court, sulking about the crowd. I wanted to reach through the TV and slap him. And then I thought, this Kelly Jones dude had better be able to work miracles.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Grudge Match: DampAss vs. Lady GaGassi

DampAss contemplated the offer. On the one hand he knew that he was in good enough shape to play. But he really resented having to play for free. He didn’t see why Nike or some other corporation couldn’t fork over the money to make it worth his while. After all, everyone knows that you have to spend money to make money. And since he was the top bill, he figured that for one cool million his presence alone would attract ten million more. The Haitians would get some food and he could make bank.

But of course GaGassi had to jump ahead and commit himself for free. Always the damn show-off, GaGassi the drunken drug user was determined to clean up image and make like he was always a good guy when everybody and his mother knew that he was nothing but an over-rated Vegas hustler. DampAss knew that he now had no choice - he would play Indian Wells for charity.

On top of his financial stress, he now had to contend with that damn memoir that was selling like hot cakes. At least GaGassi had the courage to admit in it how many times he had lost to DampAss. But did he have to tell the world that DampAss was cheap and didn’t like to tip? And what was up with all that crap about marrying actresses? Not all actresses were like GaGassi’s mannish ex-wife. Mrs. DampAss was a wonderful female woman and a fantastic wife. At least she was when she was speaking to him.  

He would have preferred to get his revenge against GaGassi in singles. The thought of beating him for the umpteenth time brought the first smile to his lips that he had had in weeks. He started reminiscing about the many times he had crushed him in his career. His favorite was the last win, the one for the ages, the instant classic at the US Open. As he replayed the sweet points in his mind, he found himself becoming aroused, excited.

DampAss wondered where his wife was. It had been a while since he got some nookie. Ever since he decided to put their mansion on the market, she had stopped talking to him. He tried explaining that this was how he made his money now that he no longer had tennis endorsements. He reminded her of the mansion he had sold for over 20 million a couple of years ago. This was no different. But she loved this home and didn’t want to part with it. Since his decision to sell, she had moved permanently to the east wing. His nights had become lonely, cold, nookie-less. DampAss sighed deeply in frustration.

In the end they decided to make it a doubles affair. He and his former nemesis against the big butt Spaniard and Mr. Pigeon-Toe. DampAss chuckled to himself. There was no way he would lose. He felt the thrill of competition returning. He would relish the chance to take out his frustration on the bald-headed buffoon.

The tournament had the idea of using headsets so that they have some fun. DampAss liked fun as much as the next person, but with Mr. Bow-Legged on the other side of the court and no nookie in weeks, he wasn’t sure he could maintain his smile.

Things got off to a good start. Everyone held their serve. The crowd was happy, involved. Everyone was joking and making the crowd laugh. DampAss decided to try his hand at a joke. He started to imitate Baldy’s pigeon-toed walk. Frankly he thought he did a great job. He snickered with pleasure as he hustled back and forth, his butt wiggling like he was in a gay pride parade. He hoped his wife was watching. The thought of some make-up nookie inspired him to try harder. The crowd roared it’s delight.

He figured that GaGassi would mock him back by letting his tongue fall out of his mouth and then wiping the sweat off his forehead with a finger. That he could handle. But no, GaGassi had to go there. He emptied his pockets and made a joke about DampAss’ poor tipping. It was a low blow. DampAss strained to keep the smile on his face. Inside he seethed with rage. He wanted to hit him. And the next thing he knew he was serving a bullet down the wrong side of the court, hoping to hit Baldy in the face. He had to admire how light-footed the old goat was as he jumped out of the way.

They both pretended it was no big deal, that it was just a joke. But DampAss remained angry. Back home his wife was just as furious. “You should have hit him in the balls!”, she screamed. He was so thrilled that she was finally speaking to him again that he immediately stopped caring about Baldy. And that night she rewarded him with some of the sweetest nookie he had gotten in years. If he knew that this was the prize for getting publicly humiliated by Lady GaGassi, he would sign up for a ton of more charity tournaments. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Well hello there, Sloane Stephens

One of the pleasures of being a tennis fan is the constant introduction to new talent just as your favorites begin inevitably to decline. One of the difficulties of being a tennis fan is the constant introduction to new talent just as your favorites begin inevitably to decline. It’s a conundrum I have been struggling with ever since the era of Boris Becker who is the first tennis player I truly adored, never mind his sordid personal life.

Sometimes I cope by attaching myself immediately to a new talent and hoping that they will stick around for a long enough time so that I could reap the benefits. Sometimes this works, and Serena and I have managed to have a long and fruitful relationship. Never mind that she doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall.

Other times I wonder if my instant attachment is going to misfire after all. Like when I fell in love with Alize Cornet of France. I still haven’t earned my payback from that investment. Daily she is starting to look like a talented player who will remain an also-ran. Never mind the pride with which she sticks her nose in the air.

But then along will come a player who seems to make everyone sit up and take notice. This is not about love and attachment. It’s not about hoping and wishing. It’s about respect. Here is a talent that can go the distance, no questions asked. And yes, I am talking about Sloane Stephens.

I took a photograph of Sloane Stephens practicing at the US Open two years ago. Every year when I go to the US Open, I walk around and take pictures of the Juniors as they practice for their matches. I remember Sloane. I remember the pride of her coach as he gave my daughter and I permission to snap away. His body language seemed to be proudly saying, “Yes, take notice of her now because she is going to be the real deal”.

I did not see Sloane play any matches at that 2008 US Open Junior event. In fact the first time I saw her play was her match against the defending champ, Vera Zvonareva, at Indian Wells yesterday. It was Sloane’s fourth match at this event, having survived two qualifying rounds, as well as beating the more experienced Lucie Hradecká in two tough tie-breaks in the first round.

I don’t want to read too much into Slone’s run at Indian Wells. It’s dangerous to predict too much based on a single streak. Just ask Melanie Oudin. I believe that too much came to be expected too soon from Oudin and she seems to be crumbling under the pressure to deliver. It may help a little that Virgin Mobile only offered her a one-year investment deal, but still that too comes with crushing expectations, one of which is a one million dollar charity donation if she wins the US Open. The last thing Oudin needs is that kind of pressure. I was not surprised when she got kicked out of Indian Wells in the first round, losing to a 27-year-old Italian grinder named Roberta Vinci. Afterward Oudin exclaimed that Vinci was ten years older. As if that has anything to do with anything. Then again, when you’re forced to swallow a bagel in the third set, you probably need to come up with desperate and ageist excuses.

So the last thing I want to do is to add pressure on Sloane Stephens. But damn it’s hard not to get excited. She is tall which is always an advantage in tennis. She is strong and fit which are givens for any pro (and I will never ever understand why commentators keep harping on this when commenting on games involving players of color, a subtle dismissal of the players’ actual ability in my opinion). Most importantly, Sloane has serious game. She sets up points intelligently and closes out games with fierceness. At 16, she has time to grow into her potential. Around her neck she wears a necklace given to her by a grandfather with the inscription, “in calmness and confidence”. I could not describe her game better.

And truly there was something psychologically healing about the way the Indian Wells’ crowd embraced and openly rooted for this African-American junior. Perhaps this too was a factor in Sloane’s gutsy performance, which has earned her a big jump in the singles rankings. She has miles to go of course, so I am not going to make any predictions about how well she will do on her journey. All I will say for now is, well hello there Sloane Stephens.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Poaching and coaching in doubles

I have doubles on the mind lately. I think it’s because I have been winning so much with my new partner. We barely know each other and yet have fallen into a natural groove that has been producing winning results. We are both strong singles players and have admitted to each other that we really can’t stand doubles. We both prefer the independence of singles over the dependency implied in good doubles play. And yet we are terrific at doubles. Go figure.

I take comfort from the fact that more than any other pairing, the Williams sisters have shown that two strong singles players can eventually figure how to form a winning doubles partnership. They don’t have to stop being strong singles players in order to find their way to a doubles groove. And so my new partner and I will probably always remain singles players who sometimes dabble in doubles. And that’s perfectly OK with us.

One of the reasons I prefer singles is because the outcome of the game is entirely up to me. If my serve goes off and I start double-faulting, it doesn’t affect anyone but me. If I go for a big return and end up dumping the ball in the net, only my reaction matters. If I’m having an off day and can’t get my muscles to cooperate, it affects only me.

With doubles there can be so much pressure not to disappoint your partner. If you try to poach and end up failing, there is the risk that your partner might get pissed off and start blaming you for the loss. And this weekend, watching Davis Cup, I got a glimpse at how odd or unexpected partnerships can work. Or not.

Take Bob Bryan and John Isner. Bob Bryan always plays doubles with his twin brother. They form a dominant partnership, relying on effective and almost intuitive strategizing to drive their opponents crazy. So when Mike Bryan foolishly decided to eat chicken curry the evening before a big Davis Cup match, he ended up sick to his stomach and unable to play. A new team of Isner and Bob Bryan was immediately formed.

It was fascinating to watch this new partnership unfold during the course of their Davis Cup match over the weekend. The Serbians had apparently decided that Isner was the weak link, a strange conclusion to make when the real problem was the newness of the partnership, not the ability of either of its members. And for a while it looked as if the pick-on-Isner strategy was going to bear fruit. But then Isner and Bryan started to grow in daring and confidence. Bob evolved into a more verbal and overtly communicative version of himself. Isner grew confidence in his tremendous abilities. And when it became clear that the Serbians were trying to target his partner, Bob immediately stepped up his net play. They won the match in four sizzling sets.

On the other side of the court was also a new doubles partnership. Nenad Zimonjic and Janko Tipsarevic had played together only once before. I don’t know if the several bizarre moments involving Tipsarevic were therefore due to the newness of this partnership, or to the pressure of the screaming home crowd. [I think neither because he continued to attract bizarre attention to himself even when he was just a supporter in the stands.] The lowest moment on court occurred when he started showing Zimonjic how to hit a volley, complete with loud verbal instructions and frantic demonstrations.

Is Tipsarevic just trying to humiliate his partner, I found myself wondering? Does he really believe that Zimonjic, currently ranked world # 1 in doubles (with the Canadian, Daniel Nestor), does not know how to hit a volley? Did this pipsqueak really think that he had something to teach his far more experienced partner? Or was Tipsarevic just trying to make sure that if and when they lost, no one would think it was his fault? Was he possibly worried that everyone would say that Serbia beat the US with no help from him?

And that is the crux of the problem with doubles, isn’t it? That’s why it’s paramount for partners to make a healthy psychological fit. It’s important for partners to work out strategy in advance, including how and when each will try to poach. It’s also perfectly OK for partners to make suggestions to each other about how to approach their opponents, but this must never look like outright, disrespectful coaching. Good doubles partners support and respect each other. Someone needs to tell Tipsarevic that.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Big fish, small sea, unique problems

When Ernests Gulbis won his first singles tournament at Delray Beach, FL, last week, I felt a sense of pride for him that was out of proportion with his achievement. You’d swear he was from the Caribbean or something. I could only be prouder if and when Dustin Brown of Jamaica finally makes his own breakthrough. There’s something about people from small countries achieving big things that makes my heart very happy.

Which is not to say that I am unable to appreciate the accomplishment of players who hail from larger countries. After all, it takes hard work to break through no matter where you’re from. But when you hail from tennis-rich countries like the United States, Argentina, or Australia (to name just three), the fact is that you often have access to opportunities that folks from say Latvia or Jamaica simply do not. I remember when Gustavo Kuerten first made his breakthrough at Roland Garros and he did not even have a sponsor. Then there was the following year when he finally got a sponsor only to have his shoe fall apart in the middle of a match. There are certain things that just don’t happen when you’re from a tennis-wealthy country.

But there are unique challenges to being from a tennis-dominant country. For a start, it’s probably hard not to end up feeling like a small fish in a big sea no matter how well you do. There is always the other guy who is just as good, and so much internal competition to contend with that even your largest accomplishments can end up seeming overshadowed.

Take for instance the American, John Isner. Yes Isner is talented, there is no doubt about that. And as one of many talented Americans, he has access to opportunities to develop his game that players from much smaller countries only dream about. For example, Isner got picked to be a hitting partner on the Davis Cup team long before he even qualified for selection to actually play. But I’m sure that there are some days when Isner must feel as if he is just one of many, a potentially big fish, yes, but his accomplishments are overshadowed by those of Andy Roddick. And Roddick in turn forever has to compete with the larger-than-life legacies of Sampras and Agassi. A big fish in a big sea can end up feeling mighty small.

But when you come from tiny republics like Latvia or Jamaica, the smallest successes can take on massive proportions. I remember when Goran Ivanesevic finally won Wimbledon. Has Croatia ever thrown such a huge party? Not even a win by Henman or Murray would ever come close.

Which is why to me Gulbis’ win at Delray Beach is a huge deal. And it’s not because Delray is such a stellar tournament. The winner of the singles event was only paid $75,700.; the runner-up got half that much. Not a bad pay day by any stretch, but certainly not the purse size one associates with a top tier event. At stake were 250 ranking points which Mardy Fish was unable to defend.

At larger stake was an opportunity to break through. Gulbis has finally won an ATP tournament. That is a huge deal. When he first made his run at the 2008 Roland Garros, he made his home country very proud. Right now Latvians must be ecstatic. Latvia is a tiny territory on the Baltic Sea with just over two million inhabitants. A member of the European Union, Latvia’s economy has been badly slammed by the global financial crisis. It is not a place one automatically associates with tennis. Until now.

But when you come from such a tiny place, it is often necessary to have your own resources. And so it is not an accident that Gulbis hails from a very wealthy family. How else could he afford to play tennis? It helps that his father is an investment businessman and his mother a well-known theater actress. 

It also helps to be able to afford to train abroad. At age 12 Gulbis left home to train at the Niki Pilic Tennis Academy in Germany. At present two younger sisters currently attend the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Florida. It’s a tennis dynasty in the making.