Sunday, May 29, 2011

When Rios said it he got burned

Now granted he probably said it in the kind of grumpy way that only Marcelo Rios could master, and that it probably came across less as healthy criticism of women’s fitness and more as a piece of hate speech. The good news is that God clearly has a sense of humor, because he has since blessed Rios with three daughters (from two of his three marriages). Perhaps now he will consider women’s feelings before opening his trap.

But back several years ago, a number of rumors emerged regarding Rios’ negative view of the lack of fitness among women’s tennis players. Rios has never denied that he made a statement regarding the lack of depth in women’s tennis, observing that the 6-0 6-1 score lines in the early rounds of Slams were an embarrassment to the sport. But he denied that he ever told Monica Seles to move her fat ass in the lunch line.

I recently watched a video of a very slimmed down Seles commenting on this incident. Now she says that she could not understand Spanish so she has no idea if Rios really said that or not. What Monica did not say – because of course it’s really politically incorrect to admit this – was that back then she not only had a fat ass but that her belly would hang loosely in her ill-fitting tennis clothing. She did not look like a top athlete.

Whereas players like Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sanchez, and Navratilova to name a few, always seemed dedicated to their physical fitness, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. Indeed, when it came to fitness, women’s tennis was in such bad shape that the formerly pudgy Seles was able to dominate the sport quite easily.

The problem with the criticism of women’s fitness is that it has always come from men and has typically taken the form of hate speech as opposed to healthy feedback. For example, there was Richard Krajicek who said that 80% of women tennis players were “fat lazy pigs”. He later revised his estimate to 75%.

And there was Justin Gimmelstob who reportedly said that female tennis players dressed in increasingly skimpier outfits in order to compete with the supermodel types who date ATP players, and cautioned that, “If you look like a beached whale, keep your clothes on.” (This is the same Gimmelstob who has managed to keep his job as a tennis commentator despite expressing vitriol over Kournikova. One of these days I will write an article on favoritism in the land of tennis.)

And long before them all there was Pat Cash who rejected women’s tennis as “two sets of rubbish” and noted that most of the top-100 women players were “fat pigs who didn’t deserve equal pay.” And while I too am commenting on the physical state of some of the women tennis players, I would never support the use of such hateful speech.

I much prefer the approach taken yesterday by Martina Navratilova and Mary Carillo, in their commentary on the lack of physical fitness in women’s tennis. Carillo talked about a women’s sport conference she had recently attended and noted that unlike the top players of other sports such as the NBA, women tennis players do not “look the part” of top athletes. Navratilova agreed that many of the top women players do not seem to be dedicated to improving their fitness. Now that is criticism I can get behind.

Sure there are some exceptions. But for every Kirilenko, I can raise you fifteen Kleybanovas. For every Schiavone, I can raise you twenty Aravane Rezais. Or fifteen others like Kuznetsova whose weight keeps fluctuating from one extreme to another. Solid tennis players all for the most part, but is it asking too much that they look the part of top athletes as well? I don’t think so.

Part of the problem may be the new racket and string technologies that allow tennis players an advantage that was not existent during the era of wooden rackets. Perhaps the new technology allows for laziness in preparation and questionable fitness. Not so among the men where tennis remains so competitive that players like Verdasco are hiring top trainers like Gil Reyes to refashion their bodies and improve their fitness. Is it asking too much for the #1 player in women’s tennis to set an example by putting down the ├ęclair and hitting the gym? That second chin is starting to embarrass.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The problem with playing too much tennis

Back in the day it was popular to criticize Venus and Serena for not playing enough tennis. From the start this was their father’s strategy and he stuck by it even as the top coaches he hired to help train his daughters told him that he was wrong in his refusal to allow them to play Juniors. Despite the criticism and despite the fact that all he knew about tennis came from reading books, Richard stuck to his guns. And that became the template for his daughters’ careers. Play few tournaments, prepare mainly for the Slams, and almost always win when you play.

Despite his cautious approach, both of his daughters have suffered tennis injuries. Many saw that as the downside to playing so little. They felt that the Williams sisters came to events without being properly match-toughened. The critics felt that the approach of playing too little tennis did them more harm than good – not when it came to their bank balances because they would always pass on the lesser events and go for the million dollar wins – but perhaps in the risk of injury to a body not used to the grind of competition.

It’s a tough call and I see both sides. But if I had a daughter who played tennis, I would probably err on the side of Papa Williams than Papa Wozniacki. It is a fact that Caroline Wozniacki plays too much damn tennis. Indeed, I was shocked when none other than Lindsay Davenport made that statement categorically yesterday as she watched Wozniacki get dismantled by a resurgent Hantuchova. The 28-year-old experienced player made Caroline look like a mouth-breathing Junior.

I believe that the mouth-breathing golden retriever (hereinafter to be known as MBGR), has two main problems. I’m sure that there are more than two but I am focusing on the main ones that need to be fixed stat. The first is that she is playing too much damn tennis. The second is that she is a cautious, non-risk-taker who aims to please – much like a golden puppy who wants to play fetch. And I mean no offense with this analogy.

I am sure that it must be a very difficult challenge for a coach to try to find that right balance between practice or training, and playing. I believe it was John McEnroe who admitted that he hated tennis practice and often used playing as a form of practice. But playing and competing can never be a substitute for training or practice – not if you believe in the 10,000 hours rule. In training you work on improving your fitness, developing new strategies, building new shots, strengthening your game plan, and repairing areas of weaknesses. When you rely only on playing, there is the likelihood that you will simply keep repeating the same old same old, which then becomes a permanent part of your muscle memory. Next thing you know your game plan is as predictable as the opening of your mouth.

That is the problem that Wozniacki now faces. I’m not saying that she doesn’t do any off-court training. I am sure that she does. But she spends far more time playing and by doing so, she keeps repeating and falling back on the same passive retrieving game plan.

There was a single backhand shot that Caroline played decisively in the second set against Hantuchova. It was a single shot that stood out because you knew that those were the kinds of shots that the #1 player should be able to produce repeatedly, easily, fluidly. It was a beautiful backhand shot, and it was distinctive for being the only one that she played that powerfully for a decisive winner. Really, let’s be honest, this woman is becoming an embarrassment as the # 1 player in women’s tennis. I’ve given her the benefit of the doubt before. Having seen her up close in Charleston, I can’t any longer. She needs to get off the court and go back to practice.

But she also has to develop the mental strength that will allow her to take risks. Wozniacki is way too cautious, too careful, too concerned that her blue nail polish is perfectly matchy matchy with her dress. She never steps outside of a mental safety zone. She doesn’t dare. Whenever Papa Wozniacki comes out and talks to her, what subsequently changes is that for a moment she loses the passivity and becomes more aggressive. Her game plan remains the predictable same, but she plays with less fear. In a Slam where Papa Woz can only mutter from his seat but not in her ear, she remains hidden inside herself, too scared to cross the line. That is a psychological problem. And as long as she is reliant on Daddy to help her out of it, she will never win a Slam.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It’s amazing what the right man can do

I’m probably about to piss off every feminist reading this blog. But I’ve never understood why it’s OK to talk about the woman behind the man but not about the man behind the woman. That seems unbalanced, unfair. For example, everyone I know credits the stability that Mirka has brought to Federer’s personal life. It’s a fact that his best years have occurred under her unstinting support. Not that his best years are in any way behind him – I still believe that he can win 20 Slams. But even now Mirka remains a fixture in his box. She seems loyal, committed, devoted. And he seems to thrive on it.

But when a woman succeeds, we seem to have a harder time giving some of the credit to the man standing supportively behind her. In a bid to validate the woman’s effort –itself an honorable goal – we seem to need to diminish any role played by a penis-bearer other than her coach and/or father.

Yet it is a fact that Kim Clijsters got her early success during the period when she was involved in a committed relationship with Lleyton Hewitt and enjoyed the unquestioning support of his parents. And it is also fact that her resurgence has coincided with the emotional commitment to her new husband and the father of her beloved daughter. How does it detract in any way from anything she has done by acknowledging this?

I don’t think that conceding the positive impact of the right kind of masculine emotional support in any way detracts from what a woman has done. But for many feminists it does. Suggesting that a supportive man may help inspire a woman to be all that she can be is somehow interpreted as claiming that the woman is somehow less than on her own. That without his support she would be nothing. I disagree of course.

Thankfully I am not prone so such limited either-or-thinking and can see shades of gray. I can also acknowledge that the wrong kind of masculine influence can derail a woman terribly. Jennifer Capriati anyone? And I have often wondered if Jankovic’s decline has not in part been due to her acquisition of a gorgeous polo-playing boyfriend since 2008. And did Nicole Vaidisova’s promise flame out entirely after she married so young to Stepanek? Let’s be honest, sometimes the right man may come at the wrong time.

But sometimes a woman’s commitment to her tennis happily coincides with being in love with the right man. Venus Williams’ longstanding romance with pro golfer Hank Kuehne is often quoted as an example of how love and achievement can go hand in hand. There is certainly no doubt that the period 2007 (when Kuehne first appeared in her Wimbledon player’s box) and 2010 saw Venus return to top form and produce some of her best tennis. Does it detract from her accomplishments to acknowledge this?

Maybe I’m just at heart a romantic who believes that women’s phenomenal accomplishments can co-exist with being emotionally balanced and romantically grounded. Certainly this is my impression of the resurgence of Maria Sharapova. I do not in any way intend to detract from Sharapova’s tremendous mental strength when I say that being loved up by Sasha Vujacic seems to have been very, very good for her.

And this is the same blogger who once opined that Nike poured millions down the drain in their endorsement of this fading star. I stand by my expressed belief that Michael Joyce was no longer the right coach for Sharapova. I am glad that she has replaced him with Thomas Hogstedt (who has been credited with coaching the talented Na Li to the semifinals of the 2010 Australian Open.) About this change Maria would comment, “He sticks to his job. He's out there to try to make me better in different aspects of the game. I think that his experience can definitely help me, a new voice. I worked with Michael and my dad for so many years. I think it's just really positive to bring someone in.” I just love reading between the lines, don't you?

I agree with Sharapova about the positive impact of bringing the right man in. Sometimes changing the man in your life may be critical to your personal success. And no I am not only referring to men of the romantic kind. Sometimes it’s also important to recognize when you and your coach need to part ways, when the relationship has become so overly familiar that he has totally forgotten that he is your employee and not the boss of you. Next thing you know you're winning on clay against a Grand Slam clay finalist!

But sometimes you also need to find the right lover who, while understanding the demands of professional  competition, also seems to understand your needs as a woman. Or maybe I'm just projecting.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

So how did you spend the Rapture?

Me, I cleaned the house and watched the Tennis Channel. I figured that if it was going to be Judgment Day, I didn’t want to be caught with an apartment so messy that it would be hard to tell which was my mess vs. which was the impact of the tornado/ tsunami/ Great Wind or whatever format El Jefe chose to announce himself.

While cleaning I put on the latest soca CD a friend sent me some weeks ago. Soca is the best house-cleaning music. I wined to the left, wined to the left, wined to the…wined to the… wined to the…wined to the… wined to the…wined to the… wined to the left as I dusted and vacuumed. The only thing missing was a man behind.

I watched as Almagro planted his dirt-balling ass a good soccer field away from the baseline as he beat Hanescu in Nice. I didn’t enjoy watching that match. I don’t enjoy old-style clay tennis. I like tennis that is played with power, creativity, and daring – regardless of the surface. This final could just as easily have been played between Sergi Bruguera and Alberto Berasategui, both great champions of course, but they played a style of clay tennis that you just don’t see much of anymore. The points no longer drag on for days on end. Players don’t plant themselves fifteen yards behind the baseline. Dropshots are the exception rather than the rule. I exaggerate of course but you get my point. The Almagro-Hanescu match was boring.

And my heart broke into three pieces as Peng lost to just-keep-getting-the-ball-back Wozniacki. Truly I am slightly ashamed that this woman is the #1 player in tennis. I wish a player like Peng who plays first strike tennis would step up and supplant her. Yes I know that Wozniacki has worked her butt off to get to #1. But I got turned off when her majesty decided to pass on the Charleston interview, and since then I can’t bear to see her on my TV. I want her crushed. I want a #1 who looks and plays like a true champion. This mouth-breathing retriever does not deserve to be where she is.

So as I am cleaning my apartment yesterday, I found myself wondering if there were any tennis players stupid enough to not prepare for Roland Garros on the assumption that Harold Camping’s mathematical calculations were right and the world was about to end. Might there be tennis players who spent the past week splurging, having unsafe sex with strippers, getting in every ounce of debauchery on the assumption that it was all about to come to a crashing halt? Surely no tennis player could be so foolish?

And yet throughout history there have been people who have gotten caught up in these apocalyptic scenarios. My favorite is the story of the Prophet Hen of Leeds. In 1806, in Leeds, England, a hen started laying eggs with the message “Christ is coming”. Many people got caught up in the religious fervor. Until someone had the wit to investigate, and caught the farmer in the act of scribbling the phrase onto the egg and forcing it back inside the hen. Ouch.

My second favorite is the one about the Chicago housewife and follower of L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics, who used automatic writing to communicate with aliens from the planet Clarion who told her that she and other believers would be rescued by flying saucers from the flood that was going to destroy the world. Believers congregated in Mrs. Martin’s apartment, removing all metal from their bodies (zippers etc.) so as not to get burned by the flying saucers. (Mr. Martin, a non-believer, went off to bed). When midnight came and left, Mrs. Martin became flustered. Around 4:45am, she received another message from the Clarions telling her that God was so impressed by their faith that He had decided to spare the earth. (A psychologist named Leon Festinger who had infiltrated the group, used his observations about their changes in belief to develop his famous theory of cognitive dissonance.)

I haven’t studied the psychology of Doomsday predictions, but it seems to me that the people who buy into them must have some kind of a death wish. Maybe some are old and are just ready to die. Others may be wracked with debt and other responsibilities and may wish for an end that they themselves do not have to create. And yet others are just plain old crazy, your garden-variety hysteric, to use the language of Freud.

Other Doomsday believers may be simply quite selfish, wanting an end to it all because that serves a particular purpose for them. I wonder if people like Lance Armstrong, for example, would hope for a tidal wave that would wipe us all out so that he dies with his trophies intact and would not have to face the negative ‘60 Minutes’ exposure.

For me, my apt. cleaning had nothing to do with end-of-times. It does however have everything to do with the fact that I have the long weekend of Memorial Day off and I plan to spend it watching tennis. I need to get the cleaning in now so that I can put my feet up for four straight days and watch the pros show off the results of their gut-wrenching preparation. So I hope that none of my faves have been using this Rapture hoopla as an excuse to slack off. After all, this is my favorite Slam.

cartoon remains copyrighted to its creator

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mrs. DampAss plans a gluten purchase

Mrs. DampAss had become a chaste woman. There was no other word to describe it. DampAss did not know what to make of this quiet guilty-looking creature his wife had suddenly become -- ever since the disappearance of his trophies. Indeed, she had taken it harder than he had. She no longer screamed or shouted. She no longer shut herself away from him for months on end. She didn’t even try out for movie roles anymore.

Deep inside he wondered what had become of the assertive woman he had married, but he knew better than to ask. It was questions like these that used to get him banned to the west wing of their former mansion for months on end. He had learned well to keep his silence – especially now that they no longer owned a west wing.

He could remember too keenly the fire storm that had exploded over his decision to sell their first mansion two years ago. In vain he explained that he was only acting on financial advice received from a trusted business partner whose job it was to anticipate the ebbs and flows of the market. After DampAss ended up selling her beloved mansion for almost $8. mil less than he initially advertised, Mrs. DampAss was beside herself in rage. DampAss felt deep pain whenever he remembered the many months of his subsequent silent punishment. It was an experience he would avoid at any cost.

At the same time, DampAss did not understand why his wife so stubbornly refused to accept that between her faltering acting career and his declined earnings from tennis, they simply could not afford to keep living in the manner to which they had both become accustomed. Still when he decided to put their second mansion on the market, after owning it for less than a year, he advertised it at an astronomically inflated price. He wanted her to be happy. Instead she had removed herself to the east wing for several painful months.

It was his business partner who eventually helped him realize that his wife’s resistance was less about selling and more about having to downgrade from a mansion to a house. Although there was still enough space for the family, she had had to sacrifice having her own wing to which she could retreat when sulking. They were now an average American family, living in an ordinary house, quite large, yes, but, relatively speaking, still practically on top of each other. Even DampAss felt claustrophobic at times.

But to his utter surprise, just like that his wife had abruptly stopped complaining. Instead she quietly set about adjusting to their new home. She even praised the fact that they had economized by getting rid of half of their staff. DampAss was shocked. Who was this woman? What had become of his wife? And how long would this new phase last?

At breakfast one morning, wanting to find a safe topic of conversation, he made a joke that Joker-Bitch seemed like he was about to steal his thunder.

What do you mean Dampy?” she asked affectionately, sipping her macchiato.

Novak Djokovic. That Serbian dude who keeps beating his chest everytime he wins? Well he’s been on a winning streak since the year started. Nobody has beat him yet, not even Nadal on clay! And at the rate he’s going, I don’t think Federer will ever get the chance to surpass me with the most weeks at #1. Joker-Bitch will shut him out! LOL!

I don’t understand sweetie. Explain it to me again. What does this have to do with Federer?

Well my record is 286 weeks at #1, you see. And Federer has been stalled at 285 weeks for ages. One less than me, but still too damn close!” DampAss snickered uncomfortably. “But the one good thing about this Djokovic run is that he is actually helping me to keep my winning record because Federer can’t beat him either! Go Joker-Bitch!!!” And DampAss hoisted a piece of buttered English muffin into the air, allowing it to plop into his wide open mouth...

Speaking of which!” he continued, munching, “Would you believe that Joker-Bitch is actually allergic to gluten? Turns out that is why he was always sniffing all the time and couldn’t win a damn match to save his life! Apparently his doctors have now discovered that he has a gluten allergy. Changed his diet and now he is winning like a fricking maniac! Thank you Joker-Bitch!!!

Across the table, Mrs. DampAss realized that this was her moment to exact revenge against a husband who had forced her to endure months of public humiliation. Downgrading from two mansions to a g-damn house indeed. While her husband continued chewing contentedly, Mrs. DampAss left the table to fetch pen and paper and started making her weekly shopping list. She wrote the word ‘gluten’ at the top of the first page, and smiled darkly. Across the table DampAss swallowed, and wondered for the umpteenth time how he had gotten so damn lucky. 

photo for my friend with a crush...Djoko at Cannes "Fashion For Relief"

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Due campioni fantastici!"

First of all, let me tell you that I adored Lea Pericoli yesterday. She reminded me of my grandmother – the same meticulous fashion sense, the perfect make-up, the refusal to age, the measured speech, the adoration of the spotlight, and the sense of kill-her-dead she will die with her sex appeal intact never mind how old she is and how dare you ask. I enjoyed every aspect of Pericoli’s involvement in the closing ceremony yesterday as these two ‘campioni fantastici’ (her words) showed us what the new tennis looks like.

I know that some of you got turned off when I anointed Novak Djokovic a “great” tennis player some weeks ago. I stand by my assessment. And I say this as someone who has grown to respect Djokovic as a player. Just do a search on my blog and you will see the way I was ripping him apart just a year or so ago. I won’t repeat my criticism because that Djokovic no longer exists. And if he does, he has developed the emotional maturity to contain his foibles. He has grown into a fantastic champion, as acknowledged by Ms. Pericoli herself (the Kournikova of her day, minus the millions just for being pretty).

Yesterday was the 27th time that Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other on a tennis court. Rafa still has the edge in their head-to-head contests, with a 16:11 advantage over Djoko. So Pericoli was correct yesterday when she dubbed them both “two fantastic champions”. I take nothing away from Nadal for his recent losses to Djokovic. He is still a great champion. He will still be top seed at Roland Garros, deservedly so.

But while others are amazed by the length of Djokovic’s winning streak since the start of this year, I am far more impressed by the fact that he has beaten Nadal four times in a row. No one beats Rafa four times in a row. And no one beats Nadal on clay at two consecutive Masters events. Something has shifted in tennis, and it’s setting off a kind of emotional tsunami among fans and detractors alike.

More than anything else, Djokovic has exposed the predictability of Rafa’s game. This is not intended as an insult to Rafa. The simple truth is that up until now, few players (including Djoko himself), have had the strength in their backhand to withstand Rafa’s intense pounding lefty forehand topspin shots. Federer’s backhand would often break down under the pressure of Rafa’s lefty forehands. The player to dominate Rafael Nadal would necessarily have to be a player whose backhand was not only a weapon, but who could use it to defend his forehand and seize every opportunity to attack Rafa’s weaker backhand. And that’s what Djokovic has been doing, with increasing success.

But I don’t want to reduce Rafael Nadal to just having a weaker backhand. That would be an insult to this great champion. Because the truth is that most of all, Rafa got to greatness on the basis of his mental dominance. He comes out of the box running. He jumps up and down at the net during the toss. He runs eagerly to his bag to begin play. He is a pugilist in every sense of the word, and he wins through mental intimidation. In fact I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard observers comment that Rafa’s opponents don’t even try to beat him. They just pray not to get bagled.

But Djokovic has showed himself to be a mentally stronger player than I ever thought possible. Like Rafa, he has a keen sense of strategy. Unlike Murray (as I mentioned before), Djokovic has the ability to plan out his points several moves ahead. He does not only react to what is happening in the moment. Instead he manipulates and maneuvers. And if the moves he has predicted do not occur, well he is able to adjust rapidly, flexibly, beautifully. And that is the mental aspect of tennis that he has conquered.

Against any other player, Rafa would have won yesterday. Against Djokovic, Nadal showed his predictability of point construction. He keeps you running from side to side. He creates opportunities to open up his massive forehand. He hits moon-balls to give himself time to get back on to the court and prepare for the next response. He goes for the unexpected big first serve down the line. Against any other player, these tactical moves would have been brilliantly effective. Against Djokovic, they proved themselves to be not only predictable but also exploitable. Bottom line – I can’t wait for Roland Garros. Can you?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The enigma that is Andy Murray

I am only speculating about Murray’s psychological state. But what is fact is that the partnership with Maclagan ended abruptly in July 2010. At the time Murray explained: “It wasn’t necessarily something that Miles wasn’t bringing. We had a chat when we were in Miami about how we saw things. We all saw things pretty differently.” The “we” in question referred to Murray, Maclagan, and Alex Corretja who in April 2008 had been brought as a part-time consultant. And soon enough it was announced that Corretja had gone from part-time advisor to full-time coach in the Murray entourage.

Things went swimmingly until the 2011 Australian Open where Murray was walloped in straights by Novak Djokovic. It was an embarrassing loss. And as in the previous year, it presaged a series of other humiliating losses, the worst of which was to Donald Young at Indian Wells, and a week later to Alex Bogomolov Jr. in Miami. Next thing you know, Corretja was fired. (The public word was a mutual and amicable parting.)

I read somewhere that Murray was pissed that Corretja hadn’t traveled with him to Australia. With his marriage and two young children, plus tennis commentating commitments, Corretja’s part-time role was possibly more suitable for him than being a full-time traveling coach. But the latter is what Murray apparently felt that he needed. I guess Murray is the kind of player who needs that constant inspirational presence in his box. He is no Federer who can go for extended periods relying on his own wits. He is no Nadal who allows Uncle Toni regular time-outs from following him around the world. Murray instead seems to thrive on having an entourage.

But Murray also seems to have a tendency to pass blame. When he is winning, all is well. But the minute he loses, it’s the coach’s fault. As I said before, he seems to split people into good guys vs. bad guys, and when he loses, the coach becomes the bad guy who must be fired. This crappy unprofessional attitude may serve to protect his ego, but, in the long run, will prevent him from gaining insight into his inability to accept responsibility for the brain-dead choices he sometimes makes during matches.

ATP coaches are not allowed to tell the pro what to do during the match; it is up to the pro to figure it out himself. This single fact separates good tennis players from great ones. Great tennis requires in-the-moment adjustments to your opponent’s thrusts and parries. Some failure is of course inevitable, and it is up to the pro to learn from past mistakes. While a coach can help you to deconstruct an opponent’s game, it is up to the player to go out there and execute. Given his limitations, Murray would have done perfectly on the WTA which does allow courtside coaching. He would then never ever need to yell “You're not giving me anything!” to his coach in the middle of a match.

Murray still has not settled on a permanent replacement for Corretja. For a while a rumor floated that he was considering hiring Ivan Lendl. Instead he is currently working with the Adidas coaching team, an entourage that includes the excellent Darren Cahill. Murray has been ecstatic in his praise of Cahill (the new good guy?). And to be fair, Murray seems to be becoming aware of his tendency to be out with the old and in with the new, because he was quoted as saying: “I also need to remember the guys that I have been working with for a long time now and the sort of input they have given me”. Baby steps.

I agree with Murray’s self-assessment that his game needs to improve. He has all the shots but as a tactician he can be deficient. Whereas Djokovic seems to plan strategy two and three points ahead, Murray often seems reactive to what is going on only at that moment. A good coach can certainly help with this.

But in order to achieve his self-stated goal of getting to the next level, Murray will need more than improvements in his tennis technique. His primary problem seems to lie between his ears. He needs to work on becoming mentally stronger. His slump-fests after losing in majors are nothing short of embarrassing. The great ones are resilient; they bounce back. They don’t go off and lick their wounds for months on end. And most of all, they don't blame others for their losses. They man up and take responsibility.

I’m not the only one with this opinion. Read carefully the words of Andy’s brother and sometime doubles partner, Jamie, in an interview with The Scotsman in March 2011:
Andy could do with some advice from the right person. He is good enough to get to that next level, but he needs that something extra that’s missing. He needs to find it from himself more than someone else. It's a mental thing. He has all the ability in the world. Maybe it's his approach to tennis. If he does go a different route, you have to give your trust to that person. You have to let your guard down a bit, listen to the guy and accept he’s giving his opinion.”
Wise words from an older brother. You think Andy will listen or is his head too thick?
(Part 2 of 2)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What’s the matter with Andy Murray?

I can’t tell you how long I’ve been putting off asking this question. Instinctively I wanted to give him a chance to get it together before drawing even more attention to his current run of form. Murray has been a top four player for several years. And yet he gets ignored the way players ranked in the 90s get ignored. First the tennis conversation was all about Federer. Then it became about Federer and Nadal. And for a while it was about Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But it has really never been about Andy Murray.

I first decided that Andy Murray might suck when I read reports in 2009 that he and on-and-off again girlfriend Kim Sears had broken up because of his video game addiction. I mean to say, what kind of twerp spends seven hours a day playing Call of Duty? I can only assume that a condition of their reconciliation was that he gave up this childish preoccupation. But bottom-line is, what the heck did this say about him?

I have to admit that I too drank the Kool-Aid when it came to Andy Murray. I did see him as the Brit to replace Tim Henman. While his brother Jamie was willing to toil away at doubles, Andy gave singles tennis a good run. And really, his top ten ranking is nothing to sneeze at is it? Clearly dude has got talent. But has he ever been in the Rafa-Fed-Djoko league? That’s the real question isn’t it?

For a minute we took notice when he teamed up with Brad Gilbert. But that was mainly because Brad’s version of tennis commentary was to repeat ad nauseam that his student was the best in the world, and to chatter on and on about how dominant Murray was going to be. If I was Murray I would have fired Brad for causing me so much embarrassment.

As it was, Brad did indeed help Murray rise from # 36 to # 11 in the rankings during their time together (16 months ending in November 2007). At the time Gilbert was contracted to the Lawn Tennis Association (British). In their first few months together, both men couldn’t praise each other enough. Murray heaped praises on Gilbert’s tactical know-how and his emphasis on physical fitness. And like I said, Gilbert talked about Murray like he was the second coming.

The honeymoon did not last long. Pretty soon, as he was getting walloped in matches, Murray could be seen screaming at Gilbert: “You're not giving me anything!” And after a while it was clear that he wasn’t. It was as if Gilbert had exhausted his bag of tricks, taking his pony to a spot just outside the cherished inner circle. Murray was clearly chomping for more.

Soon Gilbert had been replaced by a team of specialists all operating on Murray’s dime. And with career wins of over $15. million, Murray could afford the very best. This is the explanation he posted on his website: Despite being injured for almost four months this year, I am pleased with my 2007 results and am very grateful for the help that the LTA have given me by providing Brad Gilbert as a coach but the time has come to move on to the next stage of my career. I am ranked 11 in the world and can now afford to pay my own way and so will now hire a team of experts, each to fulfill a specified role in the development of my tennis and fitness.”

The team of specialists included coach, Miles Maclagan (a former Davis Cup player born in Zambia to Scottish parents), and fitness trainer Jez Green. Other members of the Murray entourage include his long-time friend Dani Vallverdu, physiotherapist Andy Ireland, and on occasions his mother Judy Murray and his girlfriend Kim Sears.

The team approach, and the partnership with Maclagan were clearly successful, as Murray peaked at # 2 in the rankings, made it to the finals of two Grand Slams, and won 11 titles including four Masters Series. You’d think that with success like that Murray and Maclagan would have found a way to resolve their differences. But my sense of Andy Murray is that conflict resolution may not be his strong suit. I also wonder if he sometimes emotionally splits people into good guys and bad guys, and today’s shining knight runs the risk of being tomorrow’s reject. But this is of course pure psycho-speculation on my part.

(Part 1 of 2)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mary Carillo coming to the Tennis Channel

The press release landed in my inbox yesterday. I would have told you right away but blogger was having issues. I can’t describe how thrilled I am over the news that Mary Carillo will be joining the Tennis Channel lineup to offer her unique style of commentary during Roland Garros and the US Open 2011. This is fantastic news. Finally, we will have a lively alternative to the grim Corina Moriaru.

I have no idea why the Tennis Channel has stuck with Moriaru for as long as it has. Girlfriend must come dirt cheap. What’s wrong with Moriaru you ask? Well for a start, her voice is gratingly annoying; she always sounds as if she is bordering on tears which depresses the hell out of me. Then there are her duh tennis observations that are so duh that one gets the sense that she would be duh without the media cheat sheet.

But (in my opinion) Moriaru’s biggest failing is that she lacks a true sense of humor. Sure she grins foolishly at the camera and smiles a lot. But that is not the same as having the kind of quick-thinking wit that allows you to come up with hysterically acerbic comments on the fly. Carillo has this latter ability in spades, plus intelligence to burn. I know that some tennis fans don’t like her for the very reason that I adore her. Suck it up chicas.

The reasons why Mary Carillo left ESPN in the middle of the 2010 US Open have remained shrouded in mystery. Jon Wertheim circumspectly alluded to philosophical differences, whatever the heck that means. Speaking only for myself, I believe that any network that is still holding on to those two assholes whom I have ungraciously dubbed El Gordo and El Flaco (aka Mike & Mike in the morning), is not deserving of the talent that is Mary Carillo. I applaud her for having the guts to say sayonara to the ESPN beast.

Mind you, let me not totally kick said beast in the butt lest it kick me back. I am deeply grateful to ESPN for their periodic tennis coverage. I wish that tennis tourney results appeared more routinely in their bottom-line news ticker. But hey, I know that this is basketball and baseball country, and that ESPN is as much about the superficial glitz as they are about commentary that can be compressed into a 30-second sound bite.

Yet my impression of Mary Carillo is that she has an instinctive understanding of how to come up with the 30-second sound bite if need be. What makes her far more threatening to the insecure is that she insists on combining this with solid tennis commentary. Some would prefer her to stick to her Carillo-isms. For others, it is these very pithy comments that make her annoying.

Carillo-isms are the name affectionately given to those mordant comments generated by Ms. Carillo at her zingiest best. Like when, in 2001, she looked dead-on at the camera and told Andy Roddick that he needed to fire his coach. Within a week poor Tariq (remember him?) was history. Here are a couple of other famous Carillo-isms I was able to find on the internet:

Mary: “Marcelo Rios told his coach before firing him, ‘I want to go in a different direction.’ His coach said, ‘What direction? Down?!'’And that’s exactly what happened!

Or her comments on Justine Henin’s decision to take an abbreviated honeymoon: “They intentionally took a short honeymoon...they went to the Bahamas but only for a couple of days. Basically Justine said to him, ‘Alright, polish off that pina colada and let’s get outta here, I gotta go practice!’”

But Mary is so much more than her zinging comments. She is an articulate and insightful commentator. She does not play favorites, unlike most of the other commentators (Brad Gilbert anyone?). And as they say in the Caribbean, she doesn’t put water in her mouth when it comes to expressing her opinions, regardless of the ranking of the player.

This kind of refreshing honesty, combined with humor and intelligent analysis is exactly what tennis commentary needs. In this spirit, I hope that the Tennis Channel has the courage to allow Mary to fly. Carillo is not meant to be contained. She is a bright woman with laser-keen powers of tennis observation. Kudos to the Tennis Channel for giving her this opportunity to excel.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Why Rafa may not inspire, but Nole does

Of course there must be a slew of Spanish juniors who have been incredibly inspired by the accomplishments of Rafael Nadal. You have only to look at the audience of any clay tournament to see the scores of kids gleefully waiting for Rafa’s scribble on their oversized tennis balls. But my question (and the point of this entry) is this: Will these children – or more importantly their parents or their coaches – really want them to grow up and play tennis just like Rafa?

Outside of Spain and perhaps a couple of the Spanish-speaking countries in South America, I am not convinced that there are a whole lot of tiny tots who will be encouraged to  grow up to play tennis just like Rafa. Certainly not in Argentina where efficiency has long led to a shortening of the service motion. Who wants to play like Rafa when Del Potro will do?

The problem of course is not with the effectiveness of Rafa’s style of playing, but with the tremendous amount of effort it requires. Coaches may encourage their students to copy Rafa’s intensity and his fighting spirit. But not his style of playing tennis.

I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard people say that there is no way Rafa can keep this up, that his style of play is just too taxing on the body, that injury and sheer wear and tear are just inevitable. With this undertone of negativism, few juniors will be encouraged to play his kind of game – despite how impressive his results have been.

For the record, I do not think that Rafa's being a lefty is relevant to this discourse. Johnny Mac was a lefty who inspired scores of right-dominant American juniors to play tennis. The same can be said for the lefty Martina Navratilova who inspired girls worldwide, and even had babies named after her.

Similarly I believe that not only has Roger Federer inspired countless juniors, but many coaches still require that their students look at his videotapes for guidance on how to construct points intelligently and execute game plans with efficiency. I believe that Federer was and will be the role model for tennis form that Rafael Nadal never will be – despite how great they both are as players. But I am fast wondering if even the great Federer is about to be eclipsed by Novak Djokovic – if he hasn’t been already.

Over the past weekend, all of the conversation around the clubhouse was about the pending match between Rafa and Nole. You’d swear Roger never went to Madrid, never won a set off Rafa. Poor Federer seems fast to be becoming a footnote in the current tennis conversation. Boyfriend had better win a major or a Slam soon if he wants this to change. But I digress.

Back to the clubhouse where my friends seemed equally divided. Some felt that Nole was about to get his comeuppance in Madrid; they swore up and down that Rafa was never going to lose to his latest rival on clay, of all surfaces. Others (like me) felt that all this persistent chatter about Rafa not being able to keep this up must mean something. Why else would people keep saying it?

Perhaps I also felt a need to defend the limb I had gone out on recently in declaration of Djokovic’s transition from good to great. Surely a truly great player would find a way to beat Rafa on his best surface, in his own country, in front of his former mentor, Carlos Moya, not to mention his estranged parents and Uncle Toni?

Look I don’t mean to discount Rafa in any way. But you must concede that the string of tournaments that Djokovic has won this year is nothing short of impressive: Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, and now Madrid. And yes, I admit that if there is anyone who could erase all of this, surely his name must be Rafael Nadal?

But if I was coaching students to play tennis, I would rather them copy the streamlined efficiency of Djokovic’s current game than Rafa’s tortured effort. I would encourage my students to be inspired by Nole’s instinctive intelligence, not to mention his whipping backhand, strategic planning, and keen anticipation. Most of all I would ask my students to copy Nole’s ability to remain calm and centered in the midst of screaming and chaos.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: “High Strung” by Stephen Tignor

I believe that books about tennis’ history are best written from the perspective of some significant passage of time. This was one of the problems I had with Jon Wertheim’s “Strokes of Genius” and “Venus Envy”. Both books were written so closely to the events they represented that there was nothing to be gained by reading them. The definitive book on the Williams Sisters has not yet been written. It cannot be written for another 20 or 30 years. You need for time to pass, for the dust to be somewhat settled, before you can take lens and attempt to make meaningful interpretations of history.

From this perspective, Stephen Tignor has gotten it just right. In his book “High Strung” – a title that invokes far more John McEnroe (Superbrat) than the central figure of his main rival, Bjorn Borg (the Ice Borg) – Tignor writes about that period in tennis when the sport went from amateur to pro, when the tradition of the stately All England Lawn Tennis Club clashed with the crassness of the American money-makers. And from a distance of some 30 years, Tignor can look back and attempt to make sense of the summer of 1981 when Bjorn Borg walked away from tennis at the top of his game.

“High Strung” is well-written. It grabs your attention with the image of the hunky blonde blue-eyed Swede being treated like a celebrity as gaggles of British school girls swarm over him rock star style. The book ends however with little insight into what made Bjorn walk away from it all at the height of his form.

Was it the loss to McEnroe that summer of 1981 at the US Open? Was it Borg’s inability to win the US Open after countless tries? Was it his lack of a country and a home? Did he come to feel imprisoned by his own icy coolness and feel the urge for freedom that led to his divorcing his longstanding coach (Lennart Bergelin) and supportive spouse (Mariana Simonescu) who had both been there all along? Tignor suggests each of these in turn but never concludes definitively. Perhaps Borg himself has not arrived at the conclusive explanation.

There is a promising psychological aspect of this book that is often mentioned but not adequately developed. This is not necessarily a criticism, as Tignor, as far as I am aware, is not trained in this field. But the psychological insight into what motivated some of the players in this passion play is exactly what would have made this book a better read. Or perhaps that says more about my interest than the book’s intent.

Although the title references the rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, in truth the book mentions in some detail all of the top players from that era of tennis’ history. We meet Pancho Gonzalez, Vitas Gerulitis, Ivan Lendl, Roscoe Tanner, Arthur Ashe, and Jimmy Connors, even Chris Evert and Mary Carillo – all of whom played tennis during that chaotic period when the sport first went pro.

Along the way we catch glimpses of Aaron Krickstein (who never got his due), Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, and Pete Sampras – the young upstarts who would powerfully wrench the game away from the likes of John McEnroe, fully embracing the promise of technology and changing the game to its current emphasis on big serves and even bigger forehands.

But this book is about the men from that middle period, between the time when tennis players traveled the country in groups, playing tennis for exhibition far more than sport, and the period when tennis first became profitable and made early millionaires of the likes of Borg and McEnroe. The book beautifully captures the transition from the group camaradie of roving bands of players, to the individualistic narcissism that is so familiar today.

But it is also about the contrasting styles of that era of tennis, from McEnroe’s touch and finesse to Borg’s monotonous powerful baseline back-wall. It is about the end of the era of wooden tennis rackets.  And I loved the opportunity to be a fly on the wall.

If you are at all interested in tennis’ history, this book is a must read. There is just enough of a dash of gossip to keep even non-tennis fans interested in the private lives of these players. And while we do not get blow-by-blow accounts of the Wimbledon and US Open matches of 1980 and 1981, we get enough of a feel for how these men played that we can see first the white then the yellow balls going across the net, moving from one era of tennis history into another.

 About the Author:
Stephen Tignor is the Executive Editor of Tennis magazine. He writes a daily blog on, where he has written about the sport for the past twelve years. He lives in New York City.

About the Book:
Title: HIGH STRUNG: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry
Authors: Stephen Tignor
Publisher: Harper
Format: Hardcover; 256 pages; Retail Price: $20.99; ISBN: 978-0-06-200984-5
Publication Date: May 17, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Barry O: Commander in Tennis Chief?

I don’t know about you but sometimes I get to a point where I become so saturated with national and international news that I can’t bear to put my TV on channels like CNN. I know that I should because it’s important to keep up with world events. But then I find myself getting to a point when I just have to say “no mas”, and I turn it all off. And while I’m in my state of blissful denial, something dramatic invariably happens. Like a tornado that damages scores of houses in the city I live in – except that yours truly was on a self-imposed blackout and only found out about it the following day.

It wasn’t until the next day that I put two and two together and figured out that when I was changing lanes on the highway the day before, and my car went slamming into the next lane – thankfully not crashing into anyone – well that was a tornado just warming up. And lucky for me I went straight home. But others were far less fortunate, weren’t they? When the sky opened and started thundering and lightening, it never once occurred to me to jump into the bathtub. No, yours truly grabbed a novel and hunkered down to a cozy read by candlelight.

Next day I read about the devastation. And just like that thinking or writing about tennis suddenly began to seem so frivolous, so trivial, in light of people’s massive losses. Next thing you know, I am at serious risk of coming down with a major case of writer’s block.

The breakthrough came with Barack Obama. And no, I am not referring to his terrific terrorist termination talents – although those too are deserving of commendation. You have to hand it to the guy that he kept his cool, all through making jokes about Donald Trump, while history was unfolding in a country far away in the dark of night.

Because it is Obama, I did not celebrate. Not because he wasn’t deserving of celebration but because I knew that the nature of racism is such that a Black President will always have to work fifteen times as hard as any preceding Caucasian ones for people to cut him any kind of slack. So I knew that the backlash would soon follow.

And so not even 24 hours after his feat, the drum roll of criticism started. What’s up with the changes in the story about what really went down? Why isn’t he showing the bloody picture? And was it right to kill an unarmed man – never mind the fact that he was supposed to be the terrorist behind the World Trade Center bombings? And I’m sure that over the next few days and weeks, his detractors will find other points of contention. Because truth be told, no matter what this poor skinny-assed Black man does, he will never get it right. And it was in anticipation of this very outcome that I never supported his bid for Presidency in the first place, remember?

But in the middle of all this destruction and drama, into my mailbox plops a photo of our Commander-in-Chief playing tennis. And just like that my fingers started tingling again, eager to type about this singular moment of hilarity. In the middle of all of this world drama, there’s something insanely delicious about seeing Barack Obama holding a tennis racket. No really, it is funny. Just look at that photo below and tell me that you can contain your mirth.

Really, he looks worse than El Flaco. I mean to say, couldn’t he at least change into tennis sneakers and track pants? And aren’t you seriously fearing for that child standing behind him? What if the President elects to try a big take-back on his lefty forehand? Isn’t he going to hit that kid smack in the face? Mind you, I am partial to the open stance. And it is commendable that he keeps his eyes on the ball and does not seem distracted by Chris Evert’s lethal butt. I mean really, it’s only so often that I can repeat the “you in danger girl” joke about this woman. Not that I think Michelle would lose a moment’s sleep over her.

But seriously I am happy that the President made the time to participate in Quickstart Tennis with a group of children at the 2011 White House Easter Egg Roll. There is no doubt that he is a seriously busy man with lots of other important axes to grind. That he would make the time to support the USTA’s ‘10 and Under Tennis’ initiative is wonderful. Of course his real motive may have been to endorse his wife’s commitment to getting children off their butts and moving. I’m happy that both the President and the First Lady have made tennis a central part of this tremendous mission.

Photo Credit: USTA.  Photo Caption: President Barack Obama plays 10 and Under Tennis with tennis stars Katrina Adams (l) and Chris Evert (r) and a few lucky children at the 2011 White House Easter Egg Roll.