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.