Thursday, 27 November 2008

2008: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Pt III


Nalbandian
wins a game at Queen's


I still find it hard to believe he won only one game.

In what must have been the worst performance given by
any player (both male and female) this year, Nalbandian went out 6-1,6-0 against Djokovic in the semi-finals at Queen's. Djokovic was in fine form coming into this, but he's not that good. I can only hope for Nalbandian's sake, that there was something very wrong health wise - in which case it would have been better to not take to the court at all.

It came across particularly badly, as prior to the tournament there were rumours of huge buckets of cash being thrown at players in appearance fees. It must have done the job, because that really was the best field we've had in many years.
It wouldn't have looked half as bad if he wasn't the talent we know he is, or if he didn't look so damned disinterested. In fa
ct I would have preferred to have seen some of that frustration we saw in Argentina this weekend - he's obviously a very passionate man.

John Lloyd said afterwards that Dj
okovic ought to take to the court again ahead of the final, because that semi didn't even constitute a practice session.

Wimbledon - Safin's run

Not many people would have taken you seriously if you'd predicted Safin getting to the semis earlier on this year - there's plenty of fans who want that sort of a result for him and few doubt he's capable of it, but there's been for some time now a rather gloomy sense of inevitability about his tennis.


Since Melbourne 2005, we've had such a depressingly lengthy and consistent stream of first and second round exits, that its become difficult to back him out of anything other than loyalty and hope; and this year saw his ranking drop so low he was reduced to playing qualies in Hamburg.

It remains to be seen whether this was his last big showing at a Grand Slam (I continue to hope) but he took many by surprise in producing his best streak of tennis since 05, on a surface which accordin
g to him is best left to cows (can we please come up with a new metaphor in 09?).

I'm not going to go into too much detail, but two matches in particul
ar stood out: Djokovic looked a little shell-shocked as he went down in straight sets; he didn't realise it at the time but this was to prove to be the turning point in a season which from this point on (and up until the Masters Cup), went mostly down. The commentators made the point that Safin actually plays the same brand of tennis as Djokovic; its just he does it so much better.

The other match was against Andreas Seppi. I was at Wimbledon in 06 (the one time I've been there) and saw Seppi play Agassi in a very one sided encounter. I remember mentioning to 2Hander at the time just how unimpressed I was and that he struck me as nothing more than 'a very competent
Club Player' - well I guess someone must have told him.

In what was perhaps (along with Murray v Gasquet) the 2nd best match of Wimbledon, and probably the best exhibition of flat ball striking this year, Seppi went down to Safin in 4 sets. The match completed in even poorer light than we saw at the end of the
final - and though Safin said later he'd wanted to stop I've a feeling he would have fought to stay out on court that night.

He didn't unfortunately follow up on this performance in the hard court season and may I feel, have missed the boat in failing to capitalise on what may have been his last big surge of momentum.
(Safin image by Swiv)

Wimbledon - Roddick out in 2

There's precious few certainties in tennis: Rafa on clay, Davydenko not making the second week at Wimbledon and a glimpse at Lars Graf's thumb in any match he's officiating.

Also on that list until this year, was Roddick making the 2nd week of Wimbledon - he'd made at least the quarters here in every year of the past five with only the single hiccup in 2006 when a Scottish upstart named Andy Murray beat him in the third round.

Anyway that 'blip' has now morphed into what I feel will become an increasingly familiar pattern: Roddick occasionally falling early to a rising talent. This time it was to the frighteningly intonated Janko Tipsarevic (who up until he fell here was my 'man of the moment', the most capable 'dasher of hopes' outside of the top ten) in round two, whose grunts seem to be as integral a part as anything else in a carefully orchestrated campaign designed to wear you down.

Leading Ladies out

I have to think this to be a corollary of the poor showing at this year's women's grass court warm up events; only Kuznetsova and Jankovic made it to rou
nd four. Yikes.

The most glaring upsets were Ivanovic (the recently anointed world number one) in round three and Sharapova in round two.
I've never been a fan of an all-Williams final - however you frame it, it just doesn't titillate in the way a Slam final ought to, and unfortunately gives rise to the tired, oft-repeated and unwarranted speculation into just how competitive the Sisters can really be against one another.

We were also treated to the post match verbal fisticuffs between
Sharapova's conqueror Kudryavtseva ('I don't like her outfit') and Sharapova ('she beat me, and it probably made her tournament') in an otherwise forgettable year of Women's tennis at SW19.
(Sharapova image by Steve9091)

Wimbledon - 'Our Tim' commentates

It's not that it was bad, you understand - in fact it was actually fairly competent for someone whose only experience behind the mike come
s in the form of post match pressers and the odd TV appearance. It was just very evident that he wasn't enjoying himself.

I hope he doesn't get put off too easily and gives it another shot in 2009 (I really like having a recent player in the booth), but I won't be very surprised if he finds something else to do.


Wimbledon - The 'Triumph & Disaster' Oration

Every year the BBC come up with a series of diverting and sometimes gimmicky time fillers, for the frequent and lengthy rain delays
and any other unexpected gaps in tennis transmission we are almost certain to have. This year we had a series of mini documentaries charting Federer's rise to the top, and this...

Some bright spark thought it would be a great idea to hear the top two players in the world recite (in full) Rudyard Kiplings poem 'If', one of the central stanzas of which appears inscribed above the player's entrance to Centre Court ('If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors the same...').

It was however less triumph and mostly disaster, as first Nadal and then Federer were forced to awkwardly chart their way through couplet after couplet in what is after all for them a second language. I seem to remember Nadal's oration more clearly than Federer's though not I imagine, for the correct reasons.

Perhaps it would be better if we were to keep most of the poetry
on court next year.

Wimbledon - Oh Yeah, The Final

Ok
I'm going to say it: this wasn't the best match I've ever seen Rafa and Roger play.
It certainly provided the best
drama of their recent matches, and there were without doubt, streaks of sheer brilliance from both men at times, but in terms of skill and sustained quality over five sets, give me the final at Rome in 06 any day of the week.













That's all I want to say about it at this point, as I intend to return to this slightly controversial point (especially here in the UK, where for the average Joe, the tennis season begins with Queen's and ends with Wimbledon) in an upcoming post on the best matches of recent years.

(Nadal image by aldinegirl12)

Wimbledon - Dementieva raises the all-Williams spectre again


This is getting really tiresome.


It's not their fault they're drawn against each other.
Its not their fault they are head and shoulders above most of the rest of the competition; and though their match at this year's US Open quarters suggested the exact opposite, if they
were to be slightly less competitive against each other much less fix the match, you would certainly never know.

It's one thing to say that such a match up holds less interest for you, and quite another to suggest as Dementieva did that the outcome would be 'a family decision'. She later claimed the real meaning of her comments (given in English - her second language) were kind of lost in (her own mental) translation.

Isn't it time most anyone associated with Tennis finally put this one to bed?


Wimbledon - Guy Forget serving at 130mph+


This one totally caught me off guard. I don't normally follow much of the doubles and certainly not
any of the Invitational Doubles (thats seniors to you and me), but late one evening on one of the outside courts, I got a glimpse of Guy Forget serving at what the speed gun registered to be a staggering 134mph.

That would place him quite comfortably in the same bracket as (and maybe slightly above) Marat Safin and Andy Murray, which for a retired 43 year old I find a little scary.

Olympics - All Russian affair

One of the few goods things about Women's Tennis this year.

First it was 'The Russians are coming...'. Then in 2004 we finally knew they'd arrived when three out of the four Slams went to a Russian woman with two of those finals being all Russian affairs.

This year at the Olympics, despite the recent Serbian surge, Dementieva, Safina and Zvonareva took the top three spots and provided us with a very timely reminder that the Russians are here to stay.

Olympics - Gonzales does a Maradona

Ok maybe it wasn't quite in the same league as Diego's infamous 'Hand of God' incident, but Gonzo my-man, you did clip that ball and you knew it.

In fact anyone who's played tennis will be able to tell you that when the ball clips your frame like that, or even more softly, then although the umpire won't always be able to tell, you certainly feel it.

I actually feel that the incident itself didn't play as much a part in Blake's downfall as subsequent reports made it out to have done or for that matter as he himself did, and to be honest if your concentration is so brittle that you allow something like that to dictate the course of a match, then you probably deserved to have lost anyway.

But there's no doubt that Gonzo was just a little bit naughty out there that day and with it being the Olympics (with its Athletes' Code of Conduct and Oaths to that effect), would I feel have won a lot of fans if he'd simply come clean - the match was all but in the bag anyway.

Olympics - Federer loses to Blake

Sorry, another one in which I appear to be dissing Blake - I'm actually a great fan of his tennis, though you wouldn't always know it (mental note to make more positive postings on Blake in the future).

As I said earlier, Federer had some worrying losses this year. But aside from the mauling he received in the Final of Roland Garros, this I felt was one of his more revealing losses this year, and official confirmation (as if it were needed at this late stage in the year) that something was horribly wrong.

I say this because there's players Federer beats and there's players Federer BEATS, and Blake along with Ferrer and Davydenko is very much in the latter category. This says next to nothing about the players themselves all of whom are great examples of very different brands of tennis. It's just an observation that Federer clearly excels against certain types of players and if he starts losing to them more frequently it really is a different era of tennis we are now entering.

One last posting on 2008 and it's time for something a little different.

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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

2008: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Pt II


Davydenko hits a winner - Youznhy hits his head - continued...

Wow....it's difficult to know where to begin with this one - I certainly haven't seen anything like it in any non contact sport; come to think of it I haven't seen anything like it in any full contact sport either (not self inflicted anyway).

Mikhail Youzhny was involved in a gripping third round encounter in Miami with Nicolas Almagro.
Up until that moment, Youzhny had been characteristically intense both in terms of his shotmaking and his outbursts (mostly directed at himself). Then at 4-5 down in the final set, he failed to convert a much needed break point and in what must be tennis's first display of no
holds barred self flagellation, slammed his racquet into his forehead three times. His frame must have nicked his head in at least one of those 'headshots', as the next camera shot showed Youzhny with blood streaming down his face.

A strange edgy silence descended over the stadium as it became clear he'd need medical attention.
Almagro tried to make light of the situation as he went over to Youzhny's seat and smiling sheepishly, asked if he was ok - I almost expected a 'GoodFellas' moment from Youzhny
("I'm funny how Nicolas? Like a clown!? I'm here to amuse you!?")
And no I'm not going to include a picture or a video - it's very well documented on YouTube and elsewhere.

James Blake later said of the incident "That was pretty funny - not for Mikhail, I'm sure....I did that as a kid and I kind of stopped doing that. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
Quite.


Serena Bagels Henin in Miami

Not that I find Serena bagelling anyone that surprising, but this was after all Henin, the world n
umber one, winner of 7 Slams, and this was already her second bagel of the year (she suffered the first at the hand of Sharapova in Melbourne). Something was obviously very wrong. But what?

Monte Carlo: Djokovic advises Murray to be more agressive
(or 'How I wish I'd never said that...' Part II)

Another Murray critique, although this time poor Nole was at least asked for his opinion.

Upon witnessing Djokovic hand Murray a 6-0,6-4 duffing-up, the British commentary team understandably aggrieved at seeing their man downed in the tennis equivalent of just three rounds, asked Djokovic what Murray could do to improve.
The two did after all train together and their move up the rankings
was largely expected to be concurrent.
Djokovic had also just one year earlier, inflicted a stinging 6-1,6-0 defeat on Murray en route to his first Masters Title in Miami, and had since moved up to number 3 in the rankings, makingn this latest loss especially bitter.

"Be more aggressive..." the man said. I'm pretty sure Djokovic thought he was giving an honest reply to a very straightforward question (and both he and Federer were spot on about Murray). In any case Murray's never looked back, returning the favour in back to back wins over Nole at Toronto and Cincinnati. Maybe he'll be less forthcoming in the future...

(Djokovic image by laboratoria_recreativo under licence)

Sharapova wins her first clay court title

It wasn't terribly exciting, didn't h
ave the best atmosphere and let's face it, she wasn't facing Henin at Roland Garros, but in winning Amelia Island Sharapova showed that cows (her words*) aren't that clumsy on ice after all.
* The word 'cow' when used in reference to women assumes a very particular connotation here in the UK; needless to say this isn't my intent; Sharapova herself used the phrase 'cow on ice' in describing the awkwardness she feels on clay...

Djokovic 'Wins' Rome

After Nadal v Coria in 2005 and Nadal v Federer in 2006, things had to deflate in Rome and deflate they did in 2007. Still it wasn't so bad and it had to happen sometime, I suppose. However nothing prepared me for the absurd, sorry, shambolic train wreck of an affair that was Rome 2008.

Nadal had been beaten in his opening match against Ferrero but anyone who saw the state of his feet will understand why - not really blisters so much as craters.
Djokovic seeded three, received a bye into round 2 and posted convincing wins over his next two opponents. However he didn't need to play much tennis against both Almagro in the quarters and Stepanek in the semis who both defaulted after a set each.

As if things weren't bad enough, on the other side of the draw Roddick, despite his incredible r
un to the semis (did Andy forget he was playing on clay?), decided that he too was unable to continue and pulled out after just three games.

We did thankfully have a final o
f sorts, but no one really expected Wawrinka to trouble Djokovic.
So there you have it; Djokovic won a Masters Title having only played three full matches.

Still think a win's a win?

Federer 'Wins' Estoril

I wasn't altogether clear on Federer's reasons for entering Estoril:
he was either looking for some extra practice on the dirt, or for a way to purge his system of the losses incurred at Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami.

Could he also have foreseen further losses in the season and have been looking to strengthen his ranking with a quick win here?
Either way it wasn't the most convincing of wins
(Davydenko defaulted in the final), and left me feeling rather confused about the state of his game.
(Image by Kainashi under licence)

Safina beats Henin, and Serena and Dementieva

We all know Safina's rebirth began at Berlin this year. But what really impressed me about the scalps she collected along the way, was that in each match she came back from a set down seemingly on the brink of defeat.

Comebacks and mental fortitude are not normally associated with Safina or her brother. I can only assume that the Safin Gene has undergone a rather radical mutation in her case. I'm hoping that something will rub off on Safin when they partner in Hopman Cup next year...

Justine Calls Time

Yes it was shocking, unexpected, premature....but in some ways the natural conclusion to
a partial season that already included two bagels.

What was perhaps equally revealing was the precarious position she left Women's Tennis in. Sharapova's shoulder problems were soon to resurface and Ivanovic, who would go on to win RG and become the new number one, would plummet so spectacularly that many began questioning her Slam credentials. Not the best year for Women's Tennis.

Anyway, I'm not completely convinced by the burn out theory - even if she was tired, why not (as many have suggested) take some time off and return, even after a whole year.

In terms of Slams and accolades, yes she's 'been there and done that', but still hasn't won Wimbledon and I simply don't believe someone
as ruthlessly competitive as she is (sometimes to her own detriment - let's just say that RG 2003 v Serena and Melbourne 2006 v Amelie were not her finest moments), will remain content with that.
(Henin image by Tinrey)

Rafa ruffs up Federer ('Thanks for the headline 2Hander')

One word: Ouch. First bagel in ten years. The most uncompetitive display of tennis from Federer you may ever see, although not through any lack of effort on his part. The British Media, in the build up to Wimbledon began wondering whether the scars would affect him at Wimbledon. I'm pretty sure they did although he still managed to give us that final.

This for me was Federer at rock bottom. Yes he had surprising losses to Fish, Simon and others - but to be, well, humiliated frankly, in the final of a Grand Slam - one that he probably thought he had a good chance at winning, has to hurt. In fact I'm surprised he held it together as well as he did.

Davydenko 'Wins' Warsaw

I'm going to keep this short: In the same week that his colleagues began gearing up for the grass and SW19, Nikolay chose to enter (and win) Warsaw.


This is a man who despite having been in the top 10 since 2005, has only once been to the fourth round of Wimbledon, which, with his hand skills is beyond reason.

Even David Ferrer, who probably sprinkles crushed shale on his breakfast cereal each morning, and is likely to remain further than ever from being anything like the grass court player Kolya could become, was able to win Hertogenbosch. Well done David.

Tennis Magazine recently suggested he should be docked ATP points for even electing to enter a clay court tournament at this time. I think they might be right. (Davydenko image by ataelw)

Federer 'Wins' Halle

Perhaps a little cheeky this one, but come on, most everyone was at Queens...

Egbaston washed out

To those that don't follow this, it's one of the more important women's grass court events in the build up to Wimbledon. It's not exactly Queens for women, but along with Eastbourne regularly features big names like Sharapova, Jankovic and others. Except for this year when all the big names either didn't enter or pulled out.
Anyone wanting evidence of the problems of Women's Tennis this year needed to look no further.

Nottingham played indoors

This was just plain funny and a little surreal. After the final between Verdasco and Karlovic had been delayed by rain, the officials eventually gave in and decided to conduct it in a somewhat commonplace indoor court in front of only a handful of members of the press and public. The court bore a stark resemblance to my local club and for a very fleeting moment I felt the very large space that separates us from the tennis elite contract a little.

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Monday, 24 November 2008

2008: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly


As 2Hander said in his last post it really has been a strange year for tennis.


In a year that saw what many have called the best Wimbledon Final of all time (myself not included, but more on that some other time) we also witnessed the so called 'humanisation' of Federer, the addition of Safina and Murray to the very top of the game and the shocking premature retirement of Justine Henin - to some a confirmation that the William's Sisters' Schedule of Choice was not actually 'disinterested' or 'distracted' at all, but decidedly (though maybe not calculatedly) spot on. We also, just yesterday saw Spain win the Davis Cup Final without Nadal - a feat which most people (myself included) thought beyond them.

I'm not going to do an in depth review of the year, or analyse players and their performances to bits - I think that's already been covered very well by freakyfrites and dootsiez (that's just the first of three parts) in their informed and very entertaining summaries.


I wanted instead to highlight some moments, which for whatever reason this year, just stuck in my mind. Not all of these played their part in defining the year, in fact you might even think of some choices as non-events. The list does include defining moments, but also contains some of the more offbeat and downright bizarre occurrences which made 2008 what it was.

So here's the first in a series of what I hope will be an interesting set of postings on 2008. See what you make of it.

Sharapova winning the Aussie Open

After returning from a shoulder injury the previous year, she changed her service action and gave us the best match of 2007 in the SEC against Henin.

We knew she was back, but I for one didn't anticipate the way she would tear through the opposition in Melbourne - her route to the final included wins over Dementieva, Henin, Jankovic and Ivanovic: and she didn't drop a set. We all have our views on her shrieks and style of play (I'm not a fan) but she belongs at the very top of the game, and with Henin gone I was a little disappointed her shoulder prevented her from making this her year.
(Sharapova image by The Eternity)

Baghdatis v Hewitt - Aussie Open

I don't know what it is about Australia, but it really does produce some epic encounters, Roddick v El-Enyoui (2003), Safin v Federer (2005) to name a few. Something about the mix of the extreme weather conditions (which saw an extreme heat rule brought in) and the atmosphere of night matches produces both gruelling and quality encounters and this one was no different. The match started at around 11:45pm and went on for 4 hrs and 43 mins. Baghdatis left the court in tears at around 5am. Hewitt rather unsurprisingly went out in straight sets to Djokovic in the next round. Broken men. Both of them. To think that this used to be the 'neglected' Slam...

"As a Grand Slam Champion..."

It was around this time that Djokovic fresh from
his win in Melbourne began (with the British Media anyway) the annoying practice of prefixing almost every response to a question from the Press with the phrase "As a Grand Slam Champion...". Here was a man who wanted, perhaps too desperately not just to win on court but also to be well liked off of it. I sort of think Jankovic shares the same complex (see Jelena's US Open speech). Is it really necessary to hug every opponent despite their sometimes very evident reluctance? Should it be surprising his player imitations didn't go down well with everyone? The good thing about Djokovic is he's a very quick learner. Over the course of 2008 and as his star waned, he dropped this and other irritating habits, gradually adopting a more thoughtful, mellow outlook and as regular readers may have observed I've become quite a fan.

Roddick wins Dubai

Federer had already gone out in the first round to some Brit named Andy Murray; I would have paid good money to see Federer play A-Rod in this form.

In what must surely be his finest week of the year, he blitzed through Ferrero, Mathieu, Nadal and Djokovic all in straight sets, only dropping a set to Lopez in the final which Roddick eventually won 6-7(8), 6-4, 6-2.

I really hope Stefanki and perhaps a Sports Psychologist can get to grips with the mindset that enabled this performance. It gives me hope he still has it in him to win at least another Masters Title; I would hate to see him go the way Hewitt has.
(Roddick image by
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images under licence)


Federer criticises Murray's style of play

First in my series entitled 'How I wish I'd never said that...' - statements that didn't come back and haunt, so much as bite their promulgators in the rear end...

After his shock first round defeat to Murray in Dubai this year, Federer claimed Murray's game 'had not changed much since Thailand 2005', how he 'tends to wait a lot for the mistake from the opponent' and 'stands way far behind the court..' adding how such play would require much grinding over the next few years.

Sour Grapes? Maybe, but I do think it was an accurate
depiction of Murray at the time. I thought of Murray then as a talented player with a great future, but not someone who would be at the very top of the game vying for Slams some 5 months later. He wasn't serving anywhere near his potential and wasn't at all aggressive. Anyway as we'll see Federer wasn't the only one to rue his words.
(Federer image by
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
under licence)

Roddick Settles the Score with Federer in Miami

Nobody beats the A-Rod 12 times in a row. Ok seeing as their head to head is now 15-2 in Federer's favour, maybe 'settles' is a little strong. But I just had to include this in my list: no one else has (ever?) quite so befittingly, stopped the proverbial rot.Roddick went out to Davydenko in the semis, but I think he felt he'd already won...

Davydenko hits a winner - Youznhy hits his head

Two things stood out in Miami: Davydenko's hand skills and blood, quite a lot of it. Let me talk about Davydenko first because its easier to deal with. Up until this watershed performance, Davydenko was for me a first rate player: aggressive, physical, consistent and tenacious. He wasn't at the level of the top three but had proven himself to be worthy of his top 5 position. He had but one failing: he avoided the net like the plague. In a series of matches in Miami and particularly in the final against Nadal, Kolya showed such touch and execution at the net that it led Pete Fleming (commentating for Sky at the time) to exclaim: "WHO IS THIS GUY!?"

I'll return to Youzhny in my next post - stay tuned...

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Sunday, 23 November 2008

2Hander's Take: Winding Down


It really has been a strange year for tennis, particularly when you've been used to five or so years of domination by The Fed - like three Slams out of four naturally assumed to be 'in the 'bag'. I guess his fallibility started to creep in my mind when
Nadal took Fed to five sets in the final of Wimby 2007 .

On a tangent, what makes great sportsmen is their humility. I remember Diego
Maradona once being outraged when a fan once said to him that he loves him more than his own parents! Michael Jordan also said on one of the many times he has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show "I go to the bathroom just like any normal person".

Now, our Fed used to be very gracious to his opponent and teary after destroying the opposition with such poetic grace and smooth power and I'm sure that he (as well as us!) got a bit sick of it. Then came the frankness in post-match interviews with comments like "I was serving well", "I'm very happy with that performance" and "I feel strong on this surface". However, more recently or so came remarks like "Well, he hasn't got the strongest serve in the World" when talking about
Davydenko and this started coming particularly when Nadal was at his heels with defeats at Roland Garros (RG) and Dubai. The need for a confidence boost, maybe?

2006 also saw the emergence of
Djokovic, who had very close battles on the hard with Rafa. The most noticeable aspect to his game was that phenomenal forehand! Where does he get that from?!?! 2007 was much like the rest with Federer bagging three slams but there was sense of a wind of change blowing.

You know the phrase 'It never rains, but it pours', well, this year has seen the maturing of Murray (hooray for us Brits!), the calming-down of
Djokovic, the emerging of Tsonga, Simon and Del Potro as potential top 5 regulars in the years to come. Then I think about the likes of Gasquet and Monfils, who have, in comparison been left behind somewhat. Also, let us not forget Ernests Gulbis, who gave Rafa a run for his money at Wimby this year. He has a great serve, solid groundstrokes and a rather understated net game...watch out for him.

I, for one, wanted to see Fed challenged, to prove he's a real great and this has happened, but rather too quickly for those of us who want to see him reach the record 15 Slams. 2009 looks to be a very interesting and exciting year for tennis in that the only slam 'in the bag' for any player is probably Rafa's
RG. Roll on January...GAME ON!! Read More...

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Almost Done...


Shshshshsh, quiet, QUIET....hear that? That's the sound of the Tennis off season, when tennis blogs either shut down completely or bore you senseless with tales of their own on court escapades.

I'm going to try and continue to post and although I don't promise to always steer clear of my own experience on court, will for the most part be trying to keep it staggeringly real. Real enough to see us through to the new year anyway, which is when Hopman Cup gets under way.

I haven't always followed Hopman Cup; in fact to be honest, I only watched it thoroughly for the first time at the beginning of this year, when Serena and Mardy Fish defeated Djokovic and (it has to be said a rather weary) Jankovic.

This year the line up includes wait for it....the sibling partnership of Marat Safin and Dinara Safina. They're seeded #2. As if that weren't electrifying enough, Serena Williams is returning to defend her title, this time with James Blake. If these number one and two seeded partnerships make it to the final, one can only imagine the atmosphere that's sure to ensue on court. The action gets under way on the 3rd January.

Except we're not quite done with this year yet, are we? There's this small matter of a certain Cup to be won in Argentina. Ever since Nadal announced his withdrawal from the Davis Cup Final, most of the smart money has been on Argentina. But Spain's plight is not as hapless as it might seem.


You have to favour Nalbandian in his singles opener against Ferrer. Ferrer predictably, hasn't been able to follow up on his 'over performance' of last year and Nalbandian, who seems to make a habit of blossoming late in the season, thrives at Davis Cup.

I can't ascribe the same level of confidence to Del Potro, however. I find him somewhat stiff in both movement and temperament and not terribly creative on court: in other words, exactly the kind of player whom Lopez (a leftie and a deft volleyer with an annoying penchant for unpredictable and somewhat inconvenient peaks) will enjoy irritating. Having said that, you don't need me to tell you what kind of dizzying heights Del Potro's form has been reaching recently. I just think things could go horribly awry for him, if he doesn't dominate Lopez from the outset.

One last thing: could someone explain why Federer is playing Abu Dhabi (exhibition), Doha (ATP) and Kooyong (exhibition) in the three weeks leading up to the Aussie Open? I know he'll get a lot of down time before the new year, but surely with his back complaint, that's a little much. Correct me if I'm wrong, but he's played less at this time in previous years and that's when he's been fully fit. It just seems the wrong way to go about launching his Grand Slam bid for 2009 - one which (I would hope) is meant to improve on the slightly lacklustre (by his standards) 2008.

Lopez/Verdasco image by pseudorlaya

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Tuesday, 18 November 2008

A Win's a Win....


I'm kind of mixed about this weekend's Masters Cup final and TMC in general (more on that some other time).

On the one hand it allowed Djokovic to reemerge playing something near to his best tennis. But as many have already correctly observed, he won without playing either of the other 3 of the top 4 - and there's just something hollow about that. This is especially poignant as Murray at least, appears to have his number right now.

Without those other three, we might still have had a scintillating final if Tsonga were involved, who's had convincing wins over the Serb in their last three matches - but he was unable to get past even the round robin stages, suggesting to me that although he's the real deal, still has some maturing to do.

Watching the match against Davydenko, it became increasingly clear to me of just how ideal a match up this must have been for Djokovic. If you think about it, the players who've beaten him this year have either blown him off court (Safin, Tsonga) or given him little or no pace to work with (Murray, heck even Simon troubled him that way in the semis).

One of Davydenko's strengths is his rather fanatical aggression, but if his fiercely struck shots start coming back at him, he strikes it harder still. The trouble with this is he possesses none of the might and muscle that allowed Safin and Tsonga to impose themselves so successfully over Djokovic - add in a big serve and you can understand why Nole was left reeling.

But neither can Kolya fall back on the type of 'softer' hand skills that Murray and others use to flummox and just plain irritate their opponents. The result of this was that the final on Sunday ended up, from Djokovic's point of view at least, being little more than a practice session where he was rhythmically fed balls at just the right level of pace, depth and consistency and almost invited to fire winner after winner pretty much wherever he liked.

I'm not going to criticise Novak too much; I did after all (somewhat to my amazement) choose to back him after he showed several promising and much needed improvements in taste and temperament this year (maybe a less successful spell was exactly what he needed), and its not his fault Murray and Federer chose to reenact their very own 'Thrilla in Manilla' (or as close as you could get in three sets). And there can be no doubting he's the real deal; he did after all beat Federer in Montreal, and Nadal in Miami last year - there were no mitigating circumstances there.

So I'm going to hope that in 2009, along with the great tennis we already appreciate, he continues down this road of new found sensibility - just don't get too nice Novak, we'll only bring you down again!


Djokovic image by GavinZ under licence

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Saturday, 15 November 2008

What Now For Roger?


And so the great man's season finally came to an end yesterday with a defeat at the hands of Andy Murray, in what was one of the best matches of the year.

It was perhaps befitting that
Federer should go out with a bang, and to one of best performers of the year: can you imagine his last match of the year being a defeat to Gilles Simon or worse still Radek Stepanek!?

So what now for Roger? Can he get back to the top again? Or is he now on a rather ominous slippery slope. Well
neither actually.

There is no doubt that the Golden Age of 3 out of 4 Slams a year is well and truly over. We all have our views about whether that was made possible by a lack of competition or not, but its plain too see that there's now a whole swath of young players who (perhaps legitimately) feel they have a chance at toppling the big man at least once in a while. And that's before we even consider the more potent threat posed by
Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Federer too this year, has seemed less confident, nervy and more prone to the forehand errors we thought were just a blip last year when he lost to Canas in back to back events at Indian Wells and Miami.

But does that really indicate the beginning of the end? Have we become so accustomed to seeing him perform so outrageously well that we can't conceive of a middle road?

My point is this: Yes he'll lose occasionally to those other three but there's no reason he can't remain one of a very formidable group of four players ruling the roost. He may even reclaim the number one ranking from time to time - although is likely to hold on to it for considerably less than 237 consecutive weeks! Oh and I fully expect him to bag at least two more Slams before calling it time, thereby surpassing
Sampras and ensuring his place in history.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that the last 4 years were almost an anomaly: depending on the view you take, either a once in a lifetime showcase of elegance and unprecedented skill, or a freakish demonstration of what's possible in the face of lesser competition.
Consider the remainder of his career a return to normality: the career of a more conventional high performer.

Here's a prediction for you:
Federer will have a great clay court season next year, maybe even winning a Masters title. It pains me to say this but Nadal's ailing knee has to have an effect on his performance and if he wants to perform well at Roland Garros, may not risk injury at the other events. He may in particular, not attend Monte Carlo which won't from next year be a mandatory Masters event, even though it will have the same number of ranking points on offer.

Federer image by James Marvin Phelps

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Wanting It All...


And so we aren't to have the Federer-Murray final I was hoping for after all. Maybe it's just as well; I wouldn't have thought either of them would have much left in the tank after yesterday's gargantuan effort - Murray certainly looked the worse for wear in his semi final against Davydenko today, and Federer's back was only going to get worse.

The match itself was right up there with the Wimbledon Final as one of the best of the year. I suppose what made it extra special was that both men had reasons not to give it their all. Murray had already booked his spot in the semis and Federer, clearly in trouble with his back, at times looked like he was considering throwing in the towel as he squatted gingerly between points and sat down whilst waiting for Murray to serve.

Murray said after beating Federer yesterday that the win against the former world #1 meant "almost as much as winning the Masters Cup". That's quite a revealing statement - although I'm not quite sure what to make of it: judging by his demeanour today, he was sorely disappointed after the loss to Davydenko; understandable of course - given the year he's had, it would be reasonable of him to expect to go all the way and win the Title here.

But if that's the case, then would it not be prudent to invest a little less of himself against Federer?
I'm not suggesting he should have tanked the match of course, but he must have known that fighting tooth and nail for each point to the extent that he (and indeed Federer) did would cost him going further into the tournament - especially with the way Davyenko has been playing this week. Which is why I can't completely understand equating the win against Federer (at the round robin stage) with winning the Title itself.

On the other hand though, I suppose with his ability it is reasonable for him to expect to have it all. What kind of an aspiring World Number one would he be if he settled for anything less?

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Thursday, 13 November 2008

Is It Too Cosy At The Top?


I've been focusing so much on Murray and
Federer these last few days that I failed to mention anything regarding some of the other players I was backing.

Unfortunately one them is already out - with injury in fact. It hasn't been an absolute nightmare for Andy
Roddick this year with wins over all of the top three, but not a great one either - the low point being that 2nd round exit at Wimbledon. I was hoping he'd pull out the stops and come up with something special to round off the year, but it wasn't to be.


But how about
Davydenko today!? I didn't doubt for a minute that he could beat Del Potro, but didn't expect it to be that one sided either - the sheer brutality of Del Potro's dismissal today must have taken many by surprise, not least Del Potro himself: what a rude awakening to the reality of the top ten! But should we really be that surprised?

Del
Potro's had a great season but has only recently entered the top 10. Davydenko's been there since June 05. This year marks the first time he hasn't got to at least the quarter finals of a Slam since 2004. Oh and he also won Miami, wiping out Roddick and Nadal in the process. This guy's clearly not ready to leave the party quite yet...

The good news is that
Djokovic, if not quite returning to form, is beginning to show signs of belief again. He's not always been my favourite player - just what was with those Aussie Open chest pumps anyway? But I was then, and continue to be a HUGE fan of his game.

And ever since his recent slippage in form which began with that defeat to
Safin at Wimbledon, he's begun to appear more personable, introspective even - dare I say it: more mature?
So in a strange way - and I never thought I'd find myself saying this - I've begun missing his intensity on court! He seems to bring something unique to the top of the game, both in his playing style and in how he conducts himself.

In 1964, Mohammad Ali, in an effort at goading Sonny Liston (whom Ali would call a 'big ugly bear') into agreeing to fight him, parked a large hired green bus on Liston's front lawn, and seated inside taunted him through a bullhorn calling him a 'coward' and a 'bum'. The closest tennis has had to anything vaguely resembling that to my knowledge, is the McEnroe-
Lendl rivalry, whose pre-match 'warm ups' would often consist of heavily struck overhead smashes being directed at one another. I'm not advocating a return to anything like that, but don't you sometimes miss aspects of that era?

I've loved the
Federer-Nadal rivalry, and appreciated the quality resulting from their unyielding determination, but don't you sometimes find things to be a little too respectful between them - a little too nicey-nicey? I'm not casting Djokovic as the Knave in all of this, but I welcome what he brings to the table.

Maybe
Novak should hire a bus too...

Del Potro image by hA.Lai.lai under licence

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