Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top Ten Wishes For Tennis in 2012

It’s that time of year isn’t it? The time when all over the world people join in mass delusion over our ability to control things. At this time many of us engage in studious list making about things we would like to accomplish in the coming year.  Weight loss, I am thrilled to say, is no longer on my list. Whoopee! But of course improving my tennis fitness remains a perennial goal.

This year I would also like to propose a list of the things I would like to see happen in the world of professional tennis in 2012. And I am inviting you to share with me the things that you would like to see happen as well.  There is no rank order to my list. I write them as they occur to me.

1.     I’d like Petkovic to stop dancing in 2012. And if she won’t stop dancing – which she probably won’t – then I’d like her to at least take some damn lessons so that she can do it properly and stop embarrassing herself. I know that in some parts of the world shaking your ass might pass for dancing. But where I come from dancing is so much more than shaking your ass for the camera. I really wish she would stop doing it.
2.     In the New Year, I’d also like Donald Young to continue to stay off Twitter. Social media is not meant for everyone. Twitter in particular is perfect for people with emotional self-control and a great sense of humor. Donald Young and Chris Brown, among others, need not apply.
3.     My third wish for the New Year is for Serena Williams to dial down the drama. I can’t take anymore. It’s becoming exhausting dealing with the detritus of her emotional explosions. I say this completely with love.
4.     Speaking of Serena, my next wish is for the USTA to stop developing rules based on the behavior of a single player. If it’s illegal to scream after hitting a winner, then no one should be allowed to do it. Just saying.
5.     Tennis Wish #5 is for Federer to win another Slam. I don’t care which one but Australia would be nice. I’d like him to start the year strong, keeping up the momentum with which he ended 2011.
6.     My sixth wish is for Milos Raonic to remain strong and healthy and to continue to deliver on the promise he showed in 2011. I love that dude. I think he’s the future.
7.     I’d also like for some of the young Americans to step up and show the world that American tennis is far from dead. And I’d really like it if the guys with promise – like maybe Jack Sock and Ryan Sweeting – would please realize that patterning your game after Andy Roddick’s is a recipe for failure. Please, I’m begging. There are so many other better players whose games they could emulate. Why copy a dude whose backhand never graduated from kindergarten?
8.     In 2012 I would love it if women tennis players found a better balance between their desire to be sexy and the importance of wearing practical clothing in which to play their best tennis. Nuff said.
9.     My ninth wish is for tennis commentators to shut the hell up and let viewers watch tennis matches without so much rambling and ad nauseam commentary.  Trust me dudes and chicas, you are all massively annoying. You’re so annoying that I would rather listen to Mexican commentators shouting “Goooooooooal!!!!” at the top of their lungs while vuvuzelas contribute to the chaos of noise in the background. Yes even that is less annoying than most tennis commentators. If you want to know how to do the job well, find any old match commentated on by the retired John Barrett. That is how commentary is done.
10. My last wish involves that Asian lineswoman whose career has clearly blossomed ever since her showdown with Serena. I’d like for someone in the WTA to please help me understand how it is that this woman has suddenly started showing up at events all over the world. And if her eyes are that keen that tournaments are suddenly begging for her services the world over, then the ITF should consider getting rid of hawk-eye and just hire her to work at every damn tournament. Because clearly hawk-eye technology is apparently still too costly to be featured at all tournaments. So let’s just get to cloning those special pair of Asian eyes. Too much?

Now it’s your turn to tell me your tennis wishes for the New Year. I’d like you to post at least three tennis wishes. Whoever posts the best ones get a free T-shirt featuring the logo.

And thanks as ever for reading my blog. I very much appreciate your visits and comments. And I wish you all good health, enough wealth, and plenty of great tennis in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How I celebrated the Tennis Channel’s victory

It’s been years of my paying the cable company for the privilege of watching tennis on a regular basis. This has long felt to me like a violation of some kind of basic right. I’ve felt caught up in the nightmare of corporate greed.

What made it worse is that I was never interested in any other channel but the Tennis Channel. So other than the initial free trial of a couple of premium movie channels, I’ve really spent the past few years paying through my teeth for the privilege of watching tennis.

For a while I considered transferring to a satellite company but found out that, like my cell phone, I was locked into a contract that did not prevent the cable company from raising its prices but prevented me from going anywhere. And then the contract ended but by then I simply got so used to paying for tennis that I simply continued to do so.

And now come news that the Tennis Channel has won in its battle against the cable giant, Comcast. The Tennis Channel successfully argued that Comcast was being discriminatory in its practices by showcasing Versus and the Golf Channel but placing obstacles against more viewers being able to watch the Tennis Channel by charging for it.

Now Comcast is required to show the Tennis Channel as part of its basic line-up. That decision alone is estimated to attract some 50 million more viewers to the Tennis Channel, which can only advance the growth of this sport that we all love so much.

This is good news. I celebrated by gifting myself a house and a satellite dish. Now I can watch the Tennis Channel to my heart’s content – to be fair I was doing this anyway – but it is costing me so much less! I celebrated further by toasting a glass of wine to corporate fairness.

Comcast has of course disagreed with the new ruling by the FCC. It plans to appeal the decision on the grounds that the fact of a cost to consumers is not evidence of discrimination. And indeed we really shouldn’t celebrate too soon because there is a window of 50 days before the ruling becomes final.

50 days vs. 50 million tennis fans. I know which decision your average sports fan would make. I am confident that tennis fans everywhere would like to be able to do like golf fans and tune into their favorite sports channel whenever they feel like it without having to pay anything for doing so.

But I also know that these cable giants don’t give up easily. I had to call like five times and remain on hold for over two hours in order to cancel my service. As I waited I had to endure a barrage of ads telling me why the cable company was superior to everyone else. But it was all worth it to get out of their greedy grasp.

Friday, December 9, 2011

More impressive in 2011: ATP or WTA?

Of course the question is unfair. But what fun would this blog be if I stuck to asking safe and easy questions? I could for example ask who the greatest male player was for 2011. Everyone and the Tennis Chick would answer Novak Djokovic.
And indeed, Djokovic’s 70-6 match win-loss statistic for 2011 will withstand the strongest tests of history. Indeed, his record will likely remain one of the most impressive of all time, coming in as it does after Connors’s 99-4 winning spree in 1974, John McEnroe’s 82-3 record established in 1984, and Federer’s 81-4 season in 2005. And as impressive as Federer, Nadal, Murray, Raonic and Tsonga – to name just a few – have been this year, 2011 remains indisputably the year of Novak.
But if I asked who the most impressive female player was for 2011, well we just might come to blows. Some would say that it has been the year of Petra Kvitova. After all, she won Wimbledon as well the year-end championships among her six titles of the year.
But diehard Wozniacki fans would rightly point out that their player won as many tournaments as Kvitova during 2011, while amassing a record 63-match wins, and holding on to her #1 ranking. Of course such diehard Woz-defenders would do well to ignore the fact that her wins came under such dubious conditions as New Haven and Charleston.
Others would say that Li Na was the most impressive woman in 2011. After all, she made it to the finals of the Aussie Open and is now the defending champ at Roland Garros. Or should the honor go to Samantha Stosur who survived Scream-Gate at the US Open to post her first Slam win?
Or perhaps we should scan past the Slam winners and look at those who impressed us with their overall improvement in 2011. That list includes tennis ninja Marion Bartoli, Ms. Mental Fitness Vera Zvonareva, and of course such power-hitters as Sabine Lisicki and Andrea Petkovic. But if we are going to go second tier, is it fair to exclude the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska, both of whom showed in 2011 why they deserve to be ranked in the Top Ten? So many women, so many choices.
Some believe that the lack of a clear leader among the WTA women – as compared with the dominance of Djokovic on the ATP side of the fence – is proof positive that the ATP has enjoyed the more impressive year. And certainly ATP has a long history of singular dominance. If it wasn’t McEnroe, it was Sampras. And when it stopped being Sampras, it became Federer. And for a while it was el tiempo de Nadal. And now that Nadal’s game has been deconstructed, we seem to be in the era of Djokovic.
But by focusing on the issue of dominance, we miss appreciating the one factor that truly makes the ATP’s season the more impressive of 2011. It wasn’t the dominance – it was the rivalries that it produced as pretenders tried to knock the Great One off his throne. 2011 gave birth to some spectacular tennis rivalries that produced instant classic matches that will be watched for years to come.
Pick any match between any combination of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Tsonga, Murray, Ferrer, Fish, Berdych, Tsonga, Del Potro, Raonic, Dogopolov, and Tipsarevic – to name just a few – and you will nine times out of ten witness simply brilliant tennis. 2011 has more than anything else, in my opinion, been the year of truly awesome men’s rivalries.
Which is not to say that the WTA has been lacking herstorically in either the dominance or the rivalry departments. For a while there, it was all Chrissy vs. Martina. And then it was Steffi vs. Monica. And then it became the Sisters vs. Everybody. And now it…well there’s no clear leader is there? It’s really any woman’s game right now, isn’t it?
By which I don’t mean to give the impression that the absence of dominance or reliable rivalries make the women less impressive than the men. In fact I don’t much believe in comparing these two at all, a point I have made before in other contexts. It’s like comparing chalk and cheese, I say. Men’s and women’s tennis are almost two different sports. I’ve written before about how ironic I find it that the men on the ATP with their sweet flourishes and delicate dropshots, seem far more to be the sons of Hingis, while the women remain hell bent on muscling up and beating down each other. What a thing!
But the comparison between ATP and WTA is also pointless because it risks missing a crucial difference between men’s and women’s tennis that bears highlighting. No I am not referring to the old debate of the Best of Three vs. the Best of Five. No I am done arguing about the whole Equal Pay thing.
What is impressive among the women is the cultural and ethnic diversity represented at the top of the sport. The top 20 women of tennis are from 14 different countries. The top 20 men in tennis hail from 10 different countries. There is more diversity in the women’s game, which means that women’s tennis attracts audiences from almost every country of the world. Now that is truly and deeply impressive.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

When Tsonga plays with urgency…

How would you complete that sentence? What are your observations about Tsonga’s game when the pressure is on and he starts playing with urgency? My personal observation is that quite often, that is when he plays his worst tennis. But interspersed between the bad shot selections are moments of breath-taking brilliance that make the crowd ooo and ahh as Tsonga once again pulls out a simply amazing shot.

It is those moments of brilliance that probably impelled Leif Shiras to observe, “When Tsonga plays with urgency you can see how awesome he is.” The occasion was the year-end championships in London. The match was Tsonga vs. Federer, one that I never doubted for a moment that Federer would win. Indeed I noted from the start that Federer was the favorite to win this entire tournament and I was not at all surprised when he did so.

But this entry is about Tsonga, and about what would propel Leif Shiras, an otherwise decent partner in commentary with Jimmy Arias, to make such a jaw-dropping comment.

In fact, if you want to analyze what is wrong with Tsonga’s game, all you have to do is look at those moments when he is playing with urgency. In those moments, your average tennis player does the sensible thing and goes for high-percentage shots. Not Jo Wilfred Tsonga. Caution be damned. Tsonga prefers to dazzle. He has drunk the Kool-Aid of comparison with Mohammed Ali and now seems to believe that he can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, all while dancing with amazing light-footedness for such a big guy.

And part of the problem is that the crowd eats it up. They go crazy when Tsonga pulls out one of his moments of brilliance out of his ass. Their reaction reinforces his risky behavior. You can see him tuning into and responding to their applause. (He must miss the fact that the tennis pros in the audience do not seem to be similarly thrilled).

And if I were his coach I would sit his ass down and tell him that that is not how you play winning tennis. Winners are not always brilliant. What they are is intelligent. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer can all have moments of sheer brilliance that would make your jaw drop. But more often they have a dedication to forcing their opponents into playing just the right shot that they can take advantage of and crush for a winner.

Tsonga’s game is not at all purposeful. He has no game plan that involves factoring in what his opponent is capable of doing. There is no real intelligence behind his ploys. Not that I am calling him an idiot because he is not. But he makes no adjustments, no changes to playing different opponents. Instead he goes on a high from having beaten or challenged that individual in a previous encounter, and then plays his brand of unnerving, daring, risky tennis to try to beat him again.

It is clear that Tsonga does not have a coach. It is also crystal clear that he needs one. His high-risk game has won him seven singles titles. It has propelled him once again to #6 in the singles rankings, a position he previously occupied in 2008, after which injury pushed him out of the game for a while. Now he is back, and he is healthy, and he is playing riskier tennis that ever. His style of tennis can best be described as high risk, high gain. When he pulls off one of his moments of brilliance, there is just nothing that his opponent can do. But that is not a formula for getting to the top tier.

So a part of me understands what Leif Shiras meant when he said, “When Tsonga plays with urgency you can see how awesome he is.” But I would trade all of those moments of awesomeness for a measure of consistency and reliability. I would trade all of those flashes of brilliance for a disciplined game in which he tackles his shots with proper form. I would give up every moment of the crowd gasping in shocked delight for a game in which Tsonga doesn’t simply alternate between crushing the ball and playing one of his high risk gambits. This type of risky tennis will not get him into the Top Four.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Will Djokovic retain the #1 ranking in 2012?

In a word, No. In a few words, I don’t think so. Or I can say this more certainty – hell no, not gonna happen. I’m not saying that Djokovic is going to flame out, or that he is going to be any less challenging the opponent he has been throughout 2011. It’s just that I think that having worked his ass off to become #1, Djokovic is about to discover that becoming #1 and remaining #1 are two entirely different issues, and that it is possible to achieve the one but choke in fear at the prospect of the other.

Tennis is a fascinating sport. It is a physically challenging game of course, but the mental tests are so much more. Becoming #1 is a physically daunting task. Remaining #1 requires far more mental fortitude. And I find myself doubting whether Djokovic can do this. I am beginning to wonder if he is going to turn out to be another of those players who, having achieved the top ranking, runs the risk of losing the drive and hunger that got him there in the first place.

This is one of the hazards you face when you celebrate your achievements almost too much. Having been feted and celebrated by all of Serbia, indeed by Serbians everywhere, having danced and partied like it was 1999 after he won three Slams in 2011 and became the decisive and indisputable #1 in the world, Djokovic seems to be on the verge of deflation. He just doesn’t seem to have the fight in him anymore.

In tennis, true success demands that you find ways to hold on to the hunger. True achievement requires that you not only compete against others, but that you find ways to compete against yourself, to push yourself to remain at the pinnacle. It is a mentally daunting task. And for the first time I find myself questioning if Djokovic is truly up to it.

Listen to any of his recent interviews after his failure experiences at the Barclay year-end championship. All of a sudden Djokovic is starting to sound like a whiny biyatch. He’s complaining that the season is too long. He’s complaining about the amount of tennis he has had to play. He’s whining that it is unfair, it’s too much.

I wonder if he would be prepared to hand over the millions of dollars he has earned this year just so he could remain ranked at # 3 or 4. I wonder if he would be prepared to give up all of his successes and not bother to break through to the top rank in this sport. Of course not. The problem is that Djokovic seems to want to have his gluten-free cake and eat it too. He wants to be #1 but he seems to be terrified of what he will have to do next year to remain there.

To which I say, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the damn kitchen. Nobody put a gun to his head and told him to go on a tear from the start of the year. Nobody forced him to accomplish what simply no one else has thus far this year. Nobody told him to earn over 10 million dollars this year alone. It was, we can safely assume, his own motivation, his own hunger. And indeed, it was deeply impressive.

But earth to Novak: In this sport, if you can’t find a way to manage your career and your health with the intelligence of a Roger Federer, then it’s up to you to deal with the consequences. And the consequences are that you have a bucket-load of points to defend next year. Stop being a whiny biyatch and start planning for how you are going to do this.

Because all that the constant whining is doing is sending a signal to your opponents that you are terrified. That looking ahead, you’re already choking at the prospect of what you will have to do. And the more terrified and whiny you become, the more that pain in your back and shoulder is going to hurt. You decided that you wanted tennis success, well here’s what it takes. Now stop whining, suck it up, and figure out how you're going to get the job done.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Belated reminders of Federer’s greatness

I meant to ask some weeks ago if Djokovic was “afraid” to face Federer on his home turf in Basel. But upon reflection I decided that fear wasn’t quite the emotion I was aiming for. I’m not sure that Djokovic fears anyone at this stage of his career. But I wonder if he felt reluctant to face Federer, knowing that on his home turf, there was not a chance in hell of Federer snatching defeat from the jaws of success as he has done so many times this year.

Federer has had an unusual year by any measure. He got off to a great start in Doha where he won his 67th title. But at the Australian Open we noticed a pattern of giving up matches after victory seemed certain. Two sets up to none, Federer allowed Gilles Simon to come back from behind and win the next two sets. Federer eventually won the fifth set, but the experience turned out to be foreboding. Even when he was ahead, the King remained vulnerable.

By Indian Wells he had lost his #2 ranking to Djokovic who by then had already spanked Federer three times. Between all three events (Australian Open, Dubai, and Indian Wells), Federer won only a single set. As Djokovic proceeded on a tear, Federer saw himself defeated over and over in the finals of events. He lost to Nadal in Miami and Madrid, to Melzer in Monte Carlo, and inexplicably, to Gasquet in Rome. At Roland Garros Federer ended Djokovic’ amazing run, only to lose again to Nadal in the finals.

On grass at Wimbledon, despite playing a spectacular game (64 winners to only 11 unforced errors), Federer lost in five painful sets to Tsonga. I love me some Tsonga but when Federer lost to him again in Montreal, it damn near broke my heart. At Cincy, Federer failed to defend his trophy and fell to Berdych. At the US Open, he recorded his fourth season loss to Djokovic. That loss was particularly painful as Federer was up 5-3 in the fifth with two match points on his own serve. But Djokovic showed us why the fifth set is not about tennis. It is about mental fortitude and the psychological will to win.

I wonder if it was a sense of discouragement that led Federer to decide not to travel to Asia this year. Demoted to #4 in the ranking thanks to Murray’s Asian surge, Federer took several weeks off to rest and refuel. In hindsight this was for him the right decision. While the top three continued to bang their bodies this way and that, Federer quietly retreated from the spotlight. He had already qualified for the Barclay year-end championships. He had contributed to Switzerland advancing to the 2102 Davis Cup World Group. He had nothing to prove to anyone.

And then Basel happened. It was on his home turf, and it was on an indoor court. I don’t think people appreciate enough how brilliant Federer is on indoor surfaces. I particularly enjoyed his 6-3 6-2 dismissal of Andy Roddick. It was disappointing that he faced Kei Nishikori and not Djokovic in the finals. But by then Djokovic was hurting physically. His year-long quest for success has come at a tremendous physical cost. Look at him now; he looks gaunt and bone-weary. Federer meanwhile seems as fresh as a daisy.

After the win in Basel, Federer experienced another career breakthrough at the indoor BNP Paribas Master’s event in Paris. It was only fitting that he spanked Tsonga in straight sets in the finals. My daughter became thoroughly disgusted by my loud proclamations of revenge being a dish beat served indoors where Federer is king. And when he launched into French, upstaging poor Jo Willy in front of his homies, well I had to concede that Federer is just deliciously competitive in every sphere, isn’t he?

To be honest, I rather like Federer’s chances at the upcoming indoor year-end championship event. Granted, the top three are not currently in the best physical shape. Djokovic is nursing a bum shoulder. Rafa says that he is 100% healthy but I no longer believe a word that comes out of his Armani-posing mouth. Murray says he’s healthy but his ankle is always suspect. And down below, Fish is nursing a hamstring injury.

But even if his opponents were 100% healthy, I would still like Federer’s chances at the upcoming Barclay event. Dude is an indoor tennis champ. The conditions favor his crisp backhand. There is no wind to send his forehand shanking out of the stadium. There is no heat to beat him down into weariness. Or maybe this is all just wishful thinking on my part. Maybe I just want Federer to close out the year in style and give us all a belated reminder of just how great a tennis player he still is.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

So, post-point screaming is the new rage

Somebody needs to remember to tell Serena. They need to tell her that just like that the rules of tennis seem to have changed. When she screamed after hitting a winning point against Stosur at the US Open this year, she was punished for interference. When Kvitova screams after hitting one of her sweetly lethal forehands, the commentators find it charming.

Chris Evert called post-point screaming the “new thing in tennis”. She said this so calmly, as if she was announcing something obvious, like Wozniacki remaining #1 for the second year in a row despite only winning a bunch of small-fry tournaments. Several moments later Chris just as calmly recanted and said “maybe” it was becoming a little annoying.

At the time that I first wrote about the Serena drama, my main point was that the rules of tennis need to be applied consistently across the board. That remains my main point. There should be no subjectivity in the application of the rules. And if it is against the rules to scream after the point is over, then Kvitova long with Azarenka, Sharapova, and the rest of the banshees should be punished consistently.

Now it is fair to counter-argue that the circumstances under which Serena let out her blood-curdling shriek were very different from Kvitova’s delightful yelp. With the Serena situation, Stosur’s racket may have made contact with the ball. She didn’t have a chance in heck of returning it, but she did reach the ball. As a result, Serena shrieking at that point was interpreted as interference.

I’ve only seen Kvitova yelping after her opponent has clearly given up on the point. In other words, one can make the case that her yelping cannot in any way be interpreted as interference.

But these are subjective statements and when it comes to applying the rules of tennis, there should be no room for subjectivity. If it is not OK to scream after a point is over, then each time any player does it, she should be deducted a penalty point. Thus far, only Serena has faced this punishment. In fact, it’s becoming disheartening the way rules seem to be invented for her, particularly when she plays in her own country.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the tennis establishment quite simply resents Serena Williams. I believe that she is despised for having interests outside of tennis. People are deeply frustrated with her because attending a fake-wedding for one of those filthy Kartrashians meant more to her than completing a tennis match. I believe that her lack of whole-hearted commitment to tennis makes her suspect and resented.

There is no questioning the dedication of Petra Kvitova. After winning Wimbledon, it took her some weeks to adjust to the many changes that would necessarily have been introduced to her life. Her 2011 summer was not great, but I knew that it was just a matter of time until that natural talent started shining again. I am most impressed by the fact that she has kept her entourage small and has not changed her coach. Never mess with a winning combination.

Kvitova does with ease what players like Azarenka struggle mightily to do. Her strokes are fluent. She hits through the ball. It’s funny that I say that as if it is something so impressive when in fact it’s something that you would expect all tennis players to be able to do. But in reality, few players have the natural technique of a Kvitova. Her body just flows smoothly into her shots. There is physics behind that eastern grip. Her tennis is just beautiful to watch. Sure she has moments of stumble. But she self-corrects with such ease that watching her always makes me smile.

And yes, I too find her post-point yelping to be charming and inoffensive. But I would unhesitatingly deduct her points if the rules allowed me to do so. Of course given how much Azarenka was also screaming, they might have spent the entire matching just trading breaks and losing points to each other. The eventual winner – six hours later – would have been the one who less hoarse.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Did too much early praise ruin Andy Roddick?

I believe that it has become way too late to undo the damage that has been done to Andy Roddick. Understand that my point is that his current demise was not entirely of his own making. I believe that he may have been victim of a distinctly American tendency to believe that raising an individual’s self-esteem by telling them that they are the greatest thing since sliced bread can only have good results. Of course we now know that this is not only inaccurate but that the result can be narcissism of the highest order.

And to be fair, psychology has to accept a portion of the blame for this self-esteem experiment gone drastically wrong. Back in the late 1960’s – possibly due to acid trips and other experimentally altered states of consciousness – the field of psychology got kind of caught up in advocating the notion of building children’s self-esteem as the lingua franca for success. There’s no describing how wrong we were.

We now know that the result of all this praise is a level of narcissism that probably rivals China’s young emperors. Certainly back in the day when Roddick was signed to Reebok’s junior program, not only did he reportedly advertise himself as a “great tennis player”, but for a while there, it looked as if this might be true. When in 2000, he became the first American in over 40 years (since Butch Buchholz in 1959) to win the Australian Open Junior Championship, the victory possibly influenced his decision to go pro. The SFX Sports Group then promptly offered him his first major endorsement deal.

All of this was predicated on the perception of promise. The problem for Roddick I believe is that this may not have been what was communicated to him. He was hailed not as a promising player but as the next great American talent, the player sure to fill the shoes about to be vacated by Sampras and Agassi. I believe that he experienced a level of pressure to succeed that his peers like Robby Ginepri and Mardy Fish never did. They were the also-rans. Roddick was the star, the focus of everyone’s attention.

But it would be unfair to suggest that this attention has been entirely positive. Along with being told how great he was – remember when Chase built an entire campaign around him looking for his mojo? – Roddick also started regularly hearing how much he actually sucked. And perhaps the result of this combination of endless praise and endless criticism has been a personality that has become so snarling, so petulant, that I wonder if there may be some deep shame there, some uncomfortable awareness of deficit.

Certainly Roddick’s game has always had many flaws. Sure he had a big serve and it was a serious weapon. But in today’s tennis you cannot win matches by relying only on a serve. You need to have a complete game, with several weapons in your arsenal. Roddick never developed a complete game. Sure his fitness has improved some over the years, but his footwork remains horrendous. His decision-making during critical times can be pitiful. He still does not know how to follow the angle of the ball when coming into net, and still ends up getting passed easily, time after time. But most of all, his backhand has simply never improved. In fact looking at him now, I see the same dinky backhand that you often notice among junior tennis players.

On the double-handed backhand, hips and shoulders are supposed to rotate forward in a smooth motion towards the ball. If you look closely at Roddick you will notice that while his shoulders may be moving forward towards the ball, his left hip is often moving backward away from the ball. The result is an awkward reaching for the ball. He holds his arms stiffly as he makes what is supposed to be a backswing but which is really more like a belated mini arc, and then he slaps forward and arms the ball.

Some folks defend the Roddick backhand by pointing out that it is not intended to be a weapon and is only used to set up the forehand. To which my response is: Why can’t setting up the point be done correctly? And when did that silly slapping forehand start being hailed as a weapon anyway? Because weapon it is not.

If I were Roddick’s coach, I would dare to ask him to study videos of the Davide Nalbandian backhand, one of the best in tennis. Notice how Nalby’s hips and shoulders rotate smoothly together in one flowing motion. And notice also how he finishes the swing so that he can practically kiss his left bicep. This backhand is perfection. (Part 2 of 2)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why hasn’t Roddick fixed his game?

My coach tells me that I am improving. I now remember to bring my right shoulder around as I take the backswing on the backhand. I remember to go from low to high to add more topspin so that the balls stay in the court. My volleys are truly popping. All in all, the tennischick’s game has been becoming solid.

Which is to be expected. It is why I pay for his services. It is why I am out there at weekends and midweek, pounding ball after ball after ball. I want to be a better tennis player. I want to improve so that my friends will always enjoy playing with me. And I want to get my money’s worth out of the ball machine that I gifted myself last Xmas.

What I do not for the life of me understand is why Andy Roddick has shown such little improvement in years. Boyfriend seems stuck in the same lurch where where Tarik Benhabiles left him years ago. Not Brad Gilbert, not Jimmy Connors, not even the great Larry Stefanki have managed to remove the glitches from Duckboy’s game.

My question then is why not? Why is Roddick still hitting that barely serviceable backhand? Roddick is not just your average Joe playing tennis on public courts. He is a professional tennis player. A serviceable backhand is not acceptable at his level.

These were my thoughts last night as I watched Roddick dump a lame-assed backhand into the net, conceding the second set tiebreak and the match to Ferrer in Shanghai. David has beaten Roddick before of course, so the loss itself was not a big surprise. The surprise was in observing that final pointless backhand, that pitiful moment when Roddick seemed to have given up, the moment when it became crystal clear to me that his tennis was as good as it was ever going to get.

Now I expect Roddick fans to chime in at this point and say that he has a beautiful (if dumb) wife and all the money he needs, is a former world #1, has a US Open title, and several Masters titles, all of which he accomplished with the same crappy backhand. So why don’t you just piss off tennischick and get a life? Or words to that effect.

To which my response would be that all of those factors are completely irrelevant. My focus here is not on what Roddick has or doesn’t have in his life, or on what he has or hasn’t accomplished. My focus is on the lack of visible improvement. I’m also asking honestly, why he is making the same mistakes he made ten years ago. Why is he playing the same damn tennis? Why are there so few (if any) signs of improvement?

And there are even more questions to be asked. Such as, why hasn’t Roddick yet learned how to protect the line of return when he ventures into net to volley, so that he doesn’t keep getting passed time after time? And why is he still so often caught flat-footed, instead of constantly making those mini adjustments that get you ready to play the next point? Why is he still muscling the ball instead of rotating hips and shoulders smoothly into the point? Face it, these are beginner errors still being made by a pro!

My answer to all of these questions is that Roddick has suffered from being labeled as ‘great’ well before he was even remotely deserving of the title. And while folks can clearly see that this is precisely what damaged Donald Young’s early progress, I have always found it amazing that the folks who criticize Young remain willing to give Roddick a pass. But the truth is that the same thing happened to them both, and may have psychologically damaged them in similar fashion.

When you tell a young man that he is great well before he has matured enough to earn or wear this label, that could shut down any chances of him perceiving himself as a work in progress. Why change anything if you are already the best? Why change anything when your big serve and your slap-happy forehand have won you a Slam and a few Masters?

(Part 1 of 2)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Has the IED finally been defused?

Apologies for my silence. I have been busy house-hunting, and have been deeply disappointed to discover that my choices are essentially reduced to a bright and shiny cookie-cutter Spec house, or an over-priced aging beauty. But as in all things tennis, my heart tends to have a soft spot for the Old Farts, and one of these days, soon, I hope to be moving into one.

What I did not expect was to find myself wondering if Rafa Nadal may be on the verge of becoming an Old Fart. Not in age of course. Rafa is only 25 and 25 is a baby in the world of tennis. Well maybe not a baby. Perhaps more like an adolescent. Still with many more years before he joins the Old Farts on the Old Fart tour. (And yes there is a glimmer of a new Dampass entry forming in my mind – I’ve just been too busy to give it proper attention).

I started thinking about Rafa’s possible Old Fartery over this past weekend when it became crystal clear that his game has lost its freshness. When Rafa first came on the scene, his game seemed impenetrable. (Of course I was one of many who predicted that it was just a matter of time before his opponents figured out a way to get past his weapons.)

I like war analogies and I think of the changes in tennis as no different from the way the nature of combat has changed. The days of face-to-face or hand-to-hand combat are essentially over. Now we live in the era of IEDs, and defense strategies now must include using technology to disarm or survive these explosives.

For a while Rafa’s game was like an unexpected IED. He exploded on the scene and repeatedly beat the crap out of Federer who, in all fairness, seemed to be the only player with guts enough to even try to beat Nadal. And he did, many times, but particularly in shorter forays. Once the battle extended to best of five, Rafa seemed to have a distinct advantage. Like a confident gladiator, Rafa would repeatedly strike deathly blows in the chinks of the Federer armor. Heck, he even made him cry.

And then came Djokovic. Unlike Federer, Djokovic’s double-handed backhand proved to be the right weapon to survive the onslaught of Rafa’s vicious forehand attacks. And now, looking at the match this past weekend against Murray, it seemed clear to me that Rafael Nadal has been detonated.

At every single moment, Murray knew exactly what Nadal was going to do. He knew to expect the lethal topspin forehands. He knew that the backhand was consistent but not particularly potent except when he aimed for deep in the crosscourt pocket. He knew that when Rafa was in a hole, he would either serve flat down the T or deep and hard into the body. It was clear that Murray was not only prepared, but that had he not gotten off to a slow start, he would have won that match in straights.

This is not to say that it is in any way easy to beat Nadal. Or that anyone outside of the top tier have a chance in hell of doing so. But inside the top echelons of the sport, Rafa’s game seems to have been becoming increasingly defused. And the cost of trying to defend against the onslaught has been costly and painful.

Rafa’s game has become surprisingly predictable. His combinations have lost their novelty. Everyone knows what he is going to do. He’s on the verge of becoming a five-trick pony. He may also be playing too much tennis in a desperate attempt first to hold on to, and then to regain the #1 spot. In other words, he’s at risk of becoming an Old Fart well before he’s due.

But perhaps I am being unfair to Rafa by throwing him in with the Old Farts. Perhaps, like my ideal house, he belongs to a category in between – a sweetheart of a new house designed and built along the lines of an aging beauty. (Alas I am not a professional tennis player so I cannot afford this option.) Rafa is now old enough that he can benefit from his eons of experience, and young enough to still be able flip tennis on its head. I hope he relishes the challenge.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What is Donald doing now that he wasn’t before?

Well he’s winning matches for a start. There was a time when Donald Young was known best for being a loser – despite the promise shown by winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon boys’ championships. There was a time when Donald was known for accepting an unfair share of wild cards – even though he couldn’t win to save his life. There was a time when he and his parents were seen as tennis embarrassments. The NY Times once ran an article titled “Prodigy’s End”, a grim reminder of the slew of expectations that surrounded Donald and how little he lived up to them.

I am so happy that it finally seems as if that time is no more. I am especially thrilled that Young has been enjoying a solid 2011. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly hailing him as the next best thing. I’m just proud of him that he has managed to come out from under his previous infamy. But my real interest is in figuring out what exactly it is that he is doing now that he did not used to do before. What is the nature of his improvement?

For a start, I think that Donald has finally figured out how to exploit the advantages inherent in being a lefty tennis player. For this, Nadal has no doubt been a terrific role model. In my opinion, there has never, before Nadal, been a player who figured out how to exploit the advantages inherent in being a lefty player. Has Donald been observing and studying? I personally think so.

Of course being a lefty is not advantage enough. The field of tennis is filled with lefties who never amounted to much. (Alex Bogdanovic anyone?) Donald has improved because he has finally figured out how to exploit the advantages of being left-handed. Did you see those spicy lefty serves into the Monfils’ ad side during their semi-final match in Thailand? Did you see the way Young dominated many of the rallies against the talented Igor Andreev, by using his lefty crosscourt forehand? Yes, I think that it is fair to say that Donald Young has grown literally and figuratively into his game.

Second, I think that he has also become a markedly more aggressive player. There was a time when Donald seemed content to plant himself at the net, his cap ass-backwards or sideways, ears diamond-pierced – while he engaged in long-assed rallies that went nowhere. Now he moves into net aggressively. It was clear that he caught Monfils by surprise several times. His backhand volleys were confident and well-placed. Even when he messed up the shot, it was clear what his strategy was intended to be.

Third, Donald Young has become a more self-confident player. He’s lost the false bravado that characterized his early forays into tennis. Now his self-confidence seems more real. I love it when he messes up and starts screaming at himself. It’s a reminder to himself that he knows what to do and had better set about doing it. And I love that once the yelling is over, he moves on, letting go of any negative energy and waiting positively, expectantly for the next shot.

Finally, I am especially glad that Donald seems to have resolved his issues with the USTA. Anyone reading this blog regularly knows that I am not a fan of the USTA, particularly when it comes to its treatment of players whose skin color is a darker shade of pale. I would be the first to accuse the USTA of playing favorites and of being more supportive of blonde women with a single thick braid running down their backs. That is my opinion and I stand by it.

And yet I disagreed thoroughly with Donald’s twitter outburst earlier this year when he elected to publicly criticize USTA for not giving him a wild card to the French Open. I wanted to slap him and remind him that he has received more wild cards than most throughout his career. I was glad when he not only apologized but also elected to delete his twitter account. (I am so happy that I was not in my teens when twitter was invented. I too may frequently have made an ass of myself).

As a result of his repairing the rift with USTA, Donald has been included in the fold. He attended Davis Cup as a practice partner. He has a new coaching arrangement with USTA’s Mike Sell and their partnership has clearly been yielding results. Donald has made it to his first ATP finals. Even if Andy Murray spanks his butt tomorrow (how amazing is it that their head-to-head this year is 1:1?), Young still has every reason to be justifiably proud.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1"

That’s the caption that accompanies just about every article about Maria Sharapova these days. On the one hand the phrase may be testament to the fact that many tennis fans hope that this does not end up being the summary statement of Sharapova’s career. On the other hand, there is something about the frequency with which this phrase is trotted out that smacks a bit of desperation, of a kind of fear that this might as well be the encryption on her future tomb stone.

Truly I don’t mean to be morbid. My point mainly is to speculate on whether there might be some kind of psychological effect of being subjected to the same kind of description over and over. The optimistic part of Sharapova or her team may enjoy the reminder of her former glories. The pessimistic side – assuming of course that this exists – may wonder if this statement will end up summarizing her career. What do you think?

Mind you, I can think of a gazillion tennis players who would kill for such a statement to be the description of their career achievements. Vera Zvonareva, for example, has won 12 WTA titles. She has been a finalist at two Slam events but did not win either. She has made it to the Tokyo finals. I suspect that being described as a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” would probably thrill Vera to no end.

But for Maria Sharapova, the expectation has always been so much more. Being a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” just doesn’t cut it. That is not why Nike selected her as worthy of an extreme investment for which you and I are probably still paying. For Sharapova, the trend of expectation has not let down. Au contraire, when she decided to come back from shoulder surgery, folks seemed to expect so much more. You’d swear her name was Serena. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

For Sharapova, the pattern of expectation seems to flow as follows. On the days leading up to a tennis event, the media start hysterically (as in, with hysteria, not humor) predicting a Sharapova win. As she gets through the early rounds, the chorus becomes more and more frantic, more and more strident. Accompanying this deafening drum beat are constant reminders that she is a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” – as if there is any chance that we might forget. And then it all goes quiet after she loses. 

It was no different this past week in Japan at the Toray Pan Pacific Open. Going into this event, Sharapova was strongly (desperately?) predicted to be the winner. All of the media coverage that I saw focused on her progress through this event. All of the early matches covered featured her playing. I did not see any other match on TV than the ones in which she appeared.

Never mind the fact that she lost to Kimiko Date this time last year. That ignominious defeat got white-washed in the river of expectation. Instead we were conveniently reminded that Sharapova was herself a former Toray champion (she won in 2009). She had earned the honor of expectation.

And then she lost to Kvitova. She twisted her ankle reaching for one of the lefty’s wide shots and crashed to the ground. And then she retired. Next day she announced that the MRI confirmed that the injury was not serious – she would be just fine come Istanbul. As if that wasn’t self-evident.

But for a moment she was given a temporary reprieve from the pressure to succeed. By twisting her ankle, she may have found a face-saving way to silence the drumbeat of reminders that she is... (you know, fill in the blank).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Apply the rules, don’t make judgment calls

I was going to call this entry “Where Serena Goes, Drama Follows”. Really, has there ever before been a tennis player for whom Drama seems to be her middle name? As much as I adore Serena – and folks you know that I do – even I am becoming a bit exhausted by the chaos and turmoil that her mere presence seems always to attract.

I am disappointed too because Serena seemed to have gone to so much trouble to find a core of peace and quiet that she reached to throughout her matches leading up to the US Open finals. Now her latest outburst will take on a life of its own, joining with the 2009 outburst to give an impression of a volatile and labile woman unable to manage her emotions under stress.

Whatever your position on that scream that Serena let out when she thought she had hit a winner against Sam Stosur, the fact is that it was disruptive. Should she however have been penalized with a game? I think not. I agree with Serena that this outburst should have been treated the same way that umpires treat with a hat falling off. The Chair should have called a let and the players should have replayed the point.

To punish Serena for interference is to imply that she deliberately and intentionally screamed at that moment in order to hinder Stosur from playing a return point. That is not what happened. Even Serena’s biggest detractors can hopefully acknowledge that.

What this incident highlights however is that decision-making in tennis is far too subjective. This is what pisses off so many of the pros. One Chair fines a player a penalty point for the same infraction for which another Chair would have called a let. And a third Chair would have done nothing at all – unless Stosur had complained, which she never did.

The process of decision-making in tennis seems to be far too dependent on the subjective interpretation of the rules by different umpires. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the handling of player challenges of line calls. Some Chairs respond to delayed appeals by the players. Other Chairs remain neutral and insist on the player using a challenge even when the Chair him or herself believes that the ball was out. Federer has been an outspoken critic of the tendency of umpires to stop doing the job for which they are paid and instead rely on the players’ use of the challenge system.

What we need in tennis is for decisions not to be reliant on personal judgment calls. There are objective rules in tennis and all umpires should be trained to interpret these rules in the same way across the board. So when Sharapova screams her glee at her effort resulting in a winning shot, she should be penalized in the same way that Serena was. There should not be rules for some that are not applied under the same circumstances, to others. It is the perception of unfairness that is particularly galling.

Understand that my point has nothing to do with the outcome of this match. I could not be happier for Sam Stosur. She is an amazing player who has grown into self-confidence. She has beaten Serena before and she came to the finals with a definite plan about how she was going to execute another win. I felt, going into this match, that it was unfair to count Stosur out. I truly believed that she could beat Serena.

But my coach disagreed with me. He also disagreed with my observation that Serena’s win last night over Wozniacki was not as easy as it looked. For the first time I noticed a level of aggressiveness in Caroline’s play that finally makes me comfortable agreeing that it is just a matter of time until she wins her first Slam. Has she ever been fiercer than when she came back in that match against Kuznetsova? There were moments in her match against Serena when I was stunned by how aggressive Serena HAD to be in order to shut Wozniacki out. It was not an easy win for Serena, by any means.

I also agreed with Mary Carillo that there was more pressure on Serena to win this event than on Stosur. Serena was touted as the odds-on favorite from the minute she bailed in Cincinnati and qualified for a seed. Stosur was seen as lucky to have survived the challenges posed by Petrova and Kerber. But in the end she won fair and square. That single game did not change the outcome of this match. But it did highlight the ongoing problem of inconsistent interpretation and application of the rules of tennis.

Is it OK if I blame Anna Wintour?

After all, it’s her damn fault that the covers of fashion magazines have been overtaken by so many Hollywood celebrities that the distinction between model and celeb wannabe has become disgustingly blurred. And what’s with her decision to give Sarah Jessica Horseface Parker so many damn Vogue covers? What part of that sadly unattractive woman is supposed to be inspiration to either dress like her or (God forbid) look like her?

So it is with some delight that I have come to the conclusion that it must be Anna Wintour’s damn fault that Federer lost that match yesterday to Djokovic. I know that my thinking in this matter is entirely irrational. Or is it? Am I the only one who’s noticed that, as she ages, Wintour has started looking increasingly like a witch? Have you seen that hooked nose? And doesn’t her severe bob look as if it could have been carved from a straw broom?

Really Wintour’s constant hovering in the Federer box can only be described as bad ju ju. And it seems to be hampering his tennis success. She seems to always be present for those matches when Federer starts off winning and then inexplicably loses. Indeed Federer has been wearing this Wintour millstone for some years. Apparently he finds it an honor that she has chosen to fly into and land in his private box. What do you think it’s gonna take for him to realize that the quality of his tennis may be affected by the contents of his entourage?

Of course Federer was much kinder than I am being in his post-match interview. He actually held himself accountable for this inexplicable loss to Djokovic. Let me let him speak for himself:

“It's awkward having to explain this loss because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference. But it’s what it is. It’s the obvious, really. He came back; he played well. I didn’t play so well at the very end. Sure, it’s disappointing, but I have only myself to blame. I set it all up perfect, but I couldn’t finish it.

“That’s why we all watch sports, isn’t it? Because we don’t know the outcome and everybody has a chance, and until the very moment it can still turn. That’s what we love about the sport, but it’s also very cruel and tough sometimes. It got me today. It hurts, but it’s fine. Could be worse. It could be a final.”

See, no mention of Anna Wintour. No mention of her blood-sucking presence that has taken up a permanent spot in his box. No mention of the negative karma sewn into the clothes she selects for and dresses him in. No talk at all about her witch-like energy and how it seems to cast a negative spell over Federer, always as he is about to win.

I know that I'm probably sounding ridiculous. But think for a moment about the impact of the Wintour presence. Has she ever been absent when Federer managed to wrench a tennis defeat out of the jaws of success? (I rest my case your honor.) Really it has become increasingly clear that if Federer has any serious intentions of winning another Slam, he has to have the courage to change the membership of his entourage – starting with canceling Anna Wintour’s season tickets.

Of course I am being entirely irrational. In truth, Federer has no excuse for yesterday’s loss to Novak Djokovic. Yes I have been the first to admit that Djokovic has gone from a good tennis player to a great champion. But Federer was the one to stop him at Roland Garros. Roger knows how to beat Novak. Roger was up two sets to none. All he had to do was win one more. And that turned out to be the impossible dream.

All I could do afterwards was tweet thanks that at least he didn’t cry. At least not for us to see. If Mirka had to comfort him on her ample bosom last night, that is between the two of them. Hopefully Anna Wintour had the decency to excuse herself and give them some privacy.