Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Show Must Go On...

(Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Well we're going to have to confront the post-Rafa world at Roland
Garros at some point (Rafalites, I suggest you come out from behind the sofa, your man seems to be taking it on the chin), the fans, the press and the players too - to them in particular it must seem a little bit like that scene in The Matrix when Neo is finally freed from his bondage and given a glimpse of the 'real world' for the first time.

Let's make no bones about this. A lot of these guys are now going to be entertaining
very realistic notions of going all the way and actually winning this thing - and I'm not just talking about Federer and Murray.

I don't want to harp on about the whole
Nadal-Soderling prickliness, but this take from John Wertheim made interesting reading. I particularly liked the observation that going for broke might be the only viable strategy against Nadal on clay, though I'd still say that you need to be playing as well as Soderling was today or Kohlshreiber was yesterday for it to have any effect. Else you just end up with a ton of UFEs. And a fresh supply of bagels and breadsticks.

But there was something else in there that sort of took me by surprise. We all know Robin gets under
Nadal's skin like no other chemical element on earth it would seem. And I thought I'd heard most of the post match publicity generated by the unsavoury incident at Wimbledon 2007, as well as Nadal's opinions on Soderling. I never came across this one though:

"...You don't really do what Soderling did, considering how good Nadal is. But Nadal, afterwards, basically said this guy will have to justify for this in the afterlife. He basically said this guy was doomed to hell, which is sort of a weird thing to say, but particularly for Nadal, who pretty much goes out of his way to say nice things about everyone..."

That's pretty heavy stuff coming from anyone. It almost sounds like you're dealing with the Antichrist. Which of course makes for a sinister tennis match.

Speaking of which there's definitely something unearthly about what we've seen these past few days. All in an other-
worldly-conspiracy-theories kind of a way.

This from our 'Netherworld Correspondent':

-- Reports are coming in that Bjorn Borg is actually the 2
nd coming of a Necromancer from the 12th century, attempting to lead a holier life and resisting the pull of the Dark Side, now forced into making reluctant use of his dark arts in a desperate bid to protect his record of 5 RG titles by instilling his young Swedish underling Robin, with special powers. It worked. After winning his match Robin stepped through a portal (craftily disguised as the entrance to the players' locker room) that transported him instantly to a dimly lit antechamber somewhere in the outskirts of Stockholm, where he was commended by his Master on his efforts thus far. He also received further instructions on how to conduct his presser which of course he was transported back in time to make.

-- The other theory revolved around Roger
Federer and that spell he had away from tennis after losing the Aussie Open final - not resting his back or training in any special physical way, but engaged as an understudy to 'Bjorn the Necromancer'. He's put what little he was able to learn to good use by bringing about the suspiciously early exit of not one but two of his current nemeses. All before the 2nd week. I'd watch your back if I were you Andy Murray.

Seriously now.

Rafalites feel free to skip this part.
That's good they've left. To all those remaining, I made up that junk about Borg and sorcery to help them get through this very difficult period. I'm not that pleased myself by his hasty departure but we've still got a week left at this Slam.
And how crazily has this opened up the draw?

Well someone had to say it.

For the first time since 2007 it may not be ridiculous to suggest that Fernando Gonzales may make a Slam final.

Or that Andy Murray could win his first Slam on a surface he freely admits to being a shadow of himself on.

Or that
Nikolay Davydenko could put right that blemish on his CV by finally making a Slam final.

Or that Roger
Federer's dream of making a Career Grand Slam may not be as deluded as we once thought.

I'd better stop before I tempt fate. Or Robin

Here's the thing though. The way I see it is Murray's got a tougher way through than

Federer practically owns everyone in his half of the draw, and aside from a heel thumping Jo-Willy smackdown I can't see anyone preventing him from making the final.

'Andrew' Murray on the other hand has to negotiate his way past Gonzo, a guy he has a 1-1 H2H with, and a much better clay courter IMO. After which he'll need to get past one of Davydenko (a superb clay courter) or Soderling ('a man possessed').

"Preparations are already under way for this year's trophy presentation ceremony"

Mind you with the Mad Hatter's Tea Party we've had this week, I wouldn't be surprised to see a
Soderling-Robredo final.

It Had To Happen Sometime...

Well the unthinkable's happened....

I don't even know what to say.

Still processing my thoughts.

I could give you some meaningless drivel about Rafa being off his game, his balls landing too short, being imposed upon, playing too far back, but the simple fact of the matter is he was outplayed, by a man playing out of his very thick skin...

There's little love lost between these two.

You didn't need to get a look in at the contemptuous handshake at the end of the match, to infer that strangely significant iota of trivia.

The scary part is how infrequently Robin came to the net, the supposed recipe to bringing down Rafa on clay.

There's a strange eerie silence that descended across all of the stadium, that still hasn't lifted despite play being well under way in the Sharapova and Li Na 4th round encounter, the next scheduled match on court.

I heard all of the players came out into the players lounge to witness the biggest upset in clay court history.

Will Roger be buying Robin drinks this evening? Doubt it. I should imagine he wanted this particular win for himself. Maybe he also doesn't want the very large asterisk that will inevitably be placed against his name, should he go on to win this thing.

Can you imagine the emotion laden atmosphere in the changing rooms right now?

Here's hoping the two are kept well apart. A calming presence like Nikolay might be needed, except he's playing Nando out on Lenglen.

Rafa looked as upset as I think I've ever seen him as he left court, refusing to sign any of those annoyingly large tennis balls being waved around in his face.

Can you believe Elena Dementieva predicted this? Or near abouts. Are you in touch with the netherworld girl!? The funny thing is she mentioned how 'physical conditioning' was responsible for her upset yesterday; fitness and Dementieva are virtually synonymous in some lesser known dialects of Russian - so I wasn't taking anything she was saying that seriously, much less a prediction of the greatest clay court upset of all time.

As I say it's pretty meaningless to make any analysis right now, but I will offer up these few post-Rafa thoughts, though you're free to shove them straight through your virtual paper shredder:

-- Once again it's a flat hitter that causes Rafa trouble, deeply pummelling virtually everything that came his way, keeping Rafa pushed well back behind the baseline - and we all know what happens then...

-- Robin Soderling played like he was in league with forces not entirely of this world, somewhat similarly to Phillip Kohlschreiber yesterday. The commentary team were trying to think of a player left in the draw that hits so flat, so aggressively and and so consistently off both wings: No joy. Zip. Nada. Or should I say Nada(l).

-- And he did it with the UGLIEST forehand I've seen in around 20 years worth of tennis viewing. I hope that colour expresses just how ugly I think it is.

-- I can't help thinking that the mutual dislike between these two subtly played on Rafa's mind. The only parallel I can think of is Roger losing to Djoko - a loss that caused him to break his racquet in Miami. No love lost there either. It's just that as the match progresses, and more and more balls whizz past you, the thought that 'I really don't wanna lose to this particular guy', just has to prey on your mind. And that only makes the pressure worse. I would say Roger's loss at Wimbledon last year was a little less painful, coming as it did against Rafa, a guy he likes and respects. I believe he said as much when he lost the #1 ranking to him.

-- And on that subject, Roger, if you don't win this thing now -- with Rafa AND Djoko out -- I might just reconsider that bandwagon arrangement you and I have...

-- It's either that dislike of Robin or the pink shirt wot did him in. I really shouldn't make light of this. Au Revoir Rafa. My heart goes out to you.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Second Tier Strikes Again,,,

Inconsequential trivia for the day: Paul Henri Mathieu was the last man to defeat Pete Sampras before Pete went off in that ill-fated attempt to find tennis-free solace on the golf course.

Past his prime? Undoubtedly, except he went on to win the US Open less than a month later. Since then Mr
Mathieu has very much been the nearly man of French tennis. An undoubted talent, but justifiably seen as way too flaky.

I can't argue with that, but continue to enjoy the guy's intensity (often is own undoing) which I think French tennis could do with a bit more of. He lacks
Gasquet's stylishness but is no less the natural shotmaker for it.

That damage he's capable of inflicting may have been part of the reason why he seemed a lot more relaxed - happy even - after managing to pinch a set off Roger
Federer today, who seems to be clicking into gear, though you never know these days.

No, you never know.
Do you Novak? Yes you, 2nd best clay courter in the world. Made-the-semis-at-RG-these-past-three-years-only-to-be-dumped-out-in-the-third-round-by-a-tier-two-player Novak.

That's pretty harsh actually, as the guy he went out to happens to be one of my favourite players, a real Custodian of the single handed backhand.


Which brings me to the question of why Phillip
Kohlschreiber has not made a breakthrough these past few years. You see, both Mathieu and him have been filed under 'Coulda Been a Contender' within Tennis Is Served's dusty archives for some years now. The third guy there is Andreas Seppi.

The common feature with these three, that arguably sit at the top of a great mountain of players known as the
2nd tier, is that every so often you can depend on them to come out of (not quite) nowhere, and play a match (sometimes at the expense of a top tenner) that leaves you wondering why they've never been a top ten player.

Andreas (highest ranking #27) did it against
Safin last year at Wimbledon - still my 2nd best match of that event.

Mathieu (highest ranking #12) , besides that big win against Sampras, played one of the best clay court matches we've had in recent years when he lost to Nadal at RG in 2006, in an encounter lasting nearly 5 hours.

And as to
Kohlschreiber (highest ranking #22), well you probably remember him taking out the A-Rod at Melbourne last year. And then you had today.

Yet for all these
wondrous exploits, there they are, languishing away year after year as top 40 players.

And in Phillip's case, I've never been able to figure out what, if anything is holding him back. Apart from that obscene hip swivelling motion he goes through when serving, which should be subject to some sort of censorship.
'The following second serve has been rated 15, and features hip-swivelling from the outset, that some viewers may find offensive'.

I first saw him in person at Wimbledon in 2006, playing on an outside court against a Columbian player whose name I can't remember. Admired the backhand even then, but off I went puffed up with my own importance, a ticketholder of a well placed seat on court number 1 where I'd get to see Agassi, Venus and Hewitt.

He plays Tommy
Robredo next, a match I expect him to win. But there I suspect this run, like many before it will come to an end. Or will it?
See, if he wins that he plays one of
Tsonga or Del-Potro. Great run both these guys have been having but neither of them the most natural clay courter. And then who? Roddick? Monfils? Haas? Federer?

That part of the draw suddenly got very interesting. Though not as interesting as the question of whether we'll see 'The Pink
Pounder' deliver a bagel to Soderling tomorrow. I'll be satisfied with a well-timed stink-eye. Not convinced any Babolat-embossed hatchets have been buried just yet.


Quick hits on the
womens side.

Dementieva went out to Sam Stosur and in one of the more bizarre quotes I've heard this year, cited 'physical conditioning' as the reason for not producing her best tennis. That's about as believable coming from someone as supremely fit as her as it is from David Ferrer.

That means that there's now only three ladies standing in my list of
RG picks for this year. The remaining three being Dinara, Svetlana and Jelena. Not too concerned just yet, with the straight sets wins these girls have had.

Serena Williams eventually came through a three set match marred by an incident in the first set that saw Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez hit by a ball Serena drilled her way. That 'return' sailed past Serena and the point was awarded to Maria, despite Serena's protestations that the ball came off her body. Maria kept
schtum. Make of that what you will - I only saw one replay that wasn't too clear.

Wozniacki's stay at RG came to end today in a straight set defeat to the Romanian Sorana Cirstea. The story here of course was the back injury that caused Caroline to call an injury timeout just two points away from defeat. But I want instead to call attention to the firepower of the young Romanian who was matching (and sometimes outhitting) Caroline shot for shot. It's as unimaginative as ever, but is I'm pretty sure, amongst some of the most accurate hitting on tour today. Some of the rallies these two were having were preposterous. Not surprised Caroline's back gave way. Keep an eye on that one.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Happy Thoughts...

Not in my happy place.

Federer fans had their rollercoaster yesterday. The upside being that their man came through in the end - and besides, Roger didn't seem to think anything was that amiss. How could you ever doubt him? Against Acasuso?

Venus on the other hand didn't come through in her second nail-biting three setter over four days. And worse, played such an ineffective first set, she lost it 6-0. Anyone know the last time Venus was
bagelled? At times out there it looked like her racquet weighed over 300lbs.

I can only assume that shoddy scheduling is behind this debacle. Not that Szavay didn't play out of her skin; I've just never seen Venus move so slowly, or her timing being so off. She was on court against Lucy Safarova earlier this week, and not being able to complete that match in time meant she had to play two days in a row. A big ask, it would seem.

That scheduling decision presumably coming from the same team that put Safina, the world number one and last year's runner up out on court one today.

Happy thoughts people. Happy thoughts. *Groan*

And happy thoughts to
Lleyton too, who bowed out today to the pink-hot favourite. I don't know whether this is a good thing or not, but I felt Lleyton rather handed that first set to Rafa and really only seemed to have arrived early on in the second set, where he almost had Rafa on the ropes for a while. I may be talking utter tosh here, and there was always going to be one winner, but I think, had he sustained that effort and not yielded that break in the second set, we may have had a different flavour of match.

Happy thoughts.

Some words and a lot of hot air need to be expended on Michelle Larcher De Brito, the Portuguese Wunderkind, who today exited RG. A few words about screeching (and it is screeching and not grunting) in general first. Yes it is very loud. Sharapova, Venus and on occasion Serena are the worst offenders. But in general I felt, was never as big a deal as some people appeared to make it, and in any event if their opponents never complained, then what's all the fretting and fuming about anyway? I haven't heard Sharapova in person but I did get to sit through a Venus Williams match live at Wimbledon back in 2006. That may not have been her most vociferous day, but the screech (which does rip through the air) is not nearly as loud as the critics would have you believe.

The only reasonable argument against it came from Martina Navratilova who said that the noise prevents their opponents from hearing the impact of the racquet on the ball, all part of the necessary feedback on the pace, imparted spin and direction of the ball coming at them that they would otherwise have access to.

All of which meant I wasn't taking the news that
Aravane Rezai took a rather dim view of the amount of hot air coming her way from De Brito's side of the net, very seriously. For all I knew, that notorious French crowd were protecting one of their own.

And then I heard this.


Yes, Sharapova sounds positively subdued in comparison.

Someone give Miss
Rezai a hearty pat on the back for finally standing up this. Preferably with one of those giant hands you get to cheer with at Baseball games. I'm generally not a fan of the production line tennis that's emerging from the Bollettieri Academy (especially on the womens side), but was a little troubled to learn that De Brito may have actually been taught to employ this as a stratagem.

I saw little Miss De
Brito give an interview to Eurosport after the incident, and she came across as an affable, friendly girl. It's also no exaggeration to think of her as a contender for the next big thing. "Everyone else does it, and I don't think I could play if I stopped..", came the reply to a query on the whole grunting situation.

Well you'd better learn love. I shudder to think how that would sound under the closed Centre Court roof at Wimbledon. Maybe they ought to conduct an experiment the way the did with Steffi, Andre, Tim and Kim. Except this time they'd skewer ten piglets.

Or better still, someone just stop the madness.

Need more happy thoughts.

Sharapova made it through in three tough sets today against the Kazakh girl Yaroslava Shvedova. From what little I saw the serve's still firing well enough to keep her ahead. All still a little rusty, but she's already exceeded most people's expectations by making the fourth round.

And she's smiling a lot. Which of course makes us very happy.

(Photo: AFP via Yahoo! Sports)

Quite unlike Victoria
Azarenka who is currently embroiled in a particularly consumptive match against my IT girl for this year, Carla Suarez Navarro. Victoria's alternating between seething, turning red, tearful spells and finding more innovative ways to expel further toys from her pram. And Navarro is soaking it all up, as serene as ever. The crowd have gone from booing to whistling to actually seeing the funny side of it now. Great way to defuse the stress of a hard day at the office, sitting there at quarter past nine in a cool, Parisian Summer evening. Even if it's at one of the players' expense.

Carla must have one heck of a wrist. The way she's pummelling back some of Victoria's more furious strokes, with single handed backhands is simply astounding.

She let me down after announcing herself at Venus' expense at this year's Aussie Open. But she's looking good for the time being. I'm not even going to dare to speculate how far she'll go this time.

Just take the pressure off myself, sip some maddeningly colourful concoction of
fruit stuffs and think happy thoughts.

As Navarro whizzes another single
hander past Victoria - who doesn't now know whether to laugh or cry.

(Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports)

Laugh, Victoria laugh. You know it's the only way.

The post-Venus
rehabilitative efforts continue.

//Update: Victoria staged a wonderful comeback to level the match, before proceedings were suspended. Till tomorrow then.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Lleyton on 'Wimby'...

I was going to ignore this one and I don't want to jump ahead to the grass court season too soon, but I'm torn between treating this as a strangely compelling source of inspiration or an especially contemptuous form of mirth.

Either way I continue to admire Rusty, who probably thinks he can do anything now that he's downed Ivo in a five setter that saw the wandering monster fire no less than a staggering 55 aces at him - a new world record.

The BBC headlines the piece as "
I can win Wimbledon again - Hewitt", which is almost certain to get you to read it, though I suspect, for all the wrong reasons.

Having said that, you wouldn't be disappointed by what he actually said:

"...there's probably only a handful of players that are capable of winning Wimbledon each year on that particular surface, and I throw my name in the mix, obviously if you get the right draw..."

(Source: BBC Sport)

I'd be interested in finding out who the other players in that handful are - and while we're on the subject, does that hand belong to John Isner or Christophe Rochus?

Inspirational Determination or Delusional Drollery?

The reference to 'that particular surface' is interesting - he either means grass itself, which many hard courters do find it strangely difficult to adapt to. Or else, he's in that large camp of grumpy bedwetters* that feel Wimbledon's grass has been slowed down too much. Strange, I would have thought that slower hard court feel would have suited him to a tee.

It's also interesting to note that up until three years ago when Nadal first made the Wimbledon final, Federer
himself -- after proclaiming some surprise for how speedily Nadal had adapted to grass -- put both Hewitt and Roddick in that handful too.

Penny for your thoughts Lleyton, on the damage you think you can do to Mr Pink?

* I was in that camp myself, and continue to believe that all four Slams play a little too similarly. The way I see it, is it wouldn't hurt to make the surface a little faster again.. But none of this detracts from how bored I am of hearing this debate year after year after year...

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Epic Overload...

I wasn't originally going to post today. But today is the day RG came alive.

I don't normally pay much attention to the early rounds at Slams but it's not everyday you get to see two former world #1's bringing some of their best tennis to the fore.

The day began with Murray putting on another convincing display, this time against Italian Potito Starace; he's still losing his way for large parts of the match, and there's no doubting he'll need to get on top of that if he is to stand a shred of a chance against Djoko and Federer. But I'm beginning be drawn to his philosophy of playing clay-courters like you're on a hard court and hard courters like an old school clay courter.

But the day belonged to Sharapova, Safin and the guy he lost to - a little known Frenchman by the name of Josselin Ouanna. More on him later.

I'm not going to go through the scoreline or the peaks and troughs of the Sharapova-Petrova.

match. The pertinent facts are this:

-- Any remaining doubts I had about the Sharapova serve being a problem were well and truly obliterated. It may never be what it was in the early parts of 2007, but is operating at around 80% - put that together with those firebrand groundstrokes of hers, which are as sizzling as ever, and you have a means of catapulting yourself back in the top ten. No problem. There, I said it.

-- Twas great to see that intensity again. Those Siberian Tiger like eyes. That unyielding desire. Serena has it, but only seems to bring it to the fore in the second week of a Slam. Nadal has it, but you get distracted by how nice a fella he is, not to mention the niceness of his supposed 'rivalry' with Federer. No, it's only Maria who has that singular focus in every single match she plays, even when she's being thrashed as badly as she was in the Aussie Open 2007.

-- Twas great also to see the the return of the 'stink eye'. The look Serena sometimes gives to opponents she doesn't, let's say, hold in high esteem. As far as I'm concerned there's only one other woman on tour who delivers 'the eye' as well as Serena, and that's Maria. Let's just say I don't think Maria and Nadia play Bridge together.

-- On that note, wouldn't it be nice to see Rafa deliver the odd stink-eye? Not to Federer maybe - that'd be a shock to the system. But come on, not even to Robin Soderling? I'm sure I've seen Roger deliver the odd dagger-eye to Djoko. Come on Rafa, it goes with the territory.

-- Nadia Petrova has the most underrated serve on tour.

-- We got a laugh and a smile from Maria at the end of the match. Not the one she gives at countless photoshoots. This was heartfelt stuff. I get the feeling the hiatus may have been a blessing in disguise as it may have reignited her love of the game. I seem to remember her, prior to the injury, balking at the suggestion she might play through to her late twenties, almost as if the grind may be beneath her. Maybe now she really will.

And so we come to our second near-epic of the day. Again, go read the broadsheets and the tabloids if you want to know what happened. Don't think I could do much justice anyway. Suffice to say, it was a standard five setter where Safin cedes a hard earnt break in the final set and with it the match. Except, not quite.

-- Sure Safin lost again. But this was a different Marat we were seeing. I'm really hoping someone else saw what I saw, because I think maybe the fact that this was going to be his last ever appearance at RG, pushed him into bringing something a little extra.

-- And it showed, not just in his game, but in his victory gestures and his body language.

-- No racquets were broken or even swatted that much in that last set.

-- Safin riling up the pro-Ouanna crowd by insisting that lines be double checked, and then immediately finding his way back into their good books by kissing the net after a net-cord that went in his favour?

-- Safin doing Djoko-like chest pumps? Directly at Ouanna? I've never seen him like this and I loved every second of it.

-- Safin fist pumping, at every opportunity it seemed. Positivity being scraped off the courts while they were being prepared during the changeovers. Why'd you wait so long to show us this side of you Marat?

-- Unreal serving. Both first and second serves. Instrumental in those match points he did manage to save.

-- And yet he lost. I'll miss you Marat. Please don't give up.

-- But there was a reason this match was as great as it was and that's the guy on the other side of the net. All I can say is where have you been Josselin?

-- It's about time we had another French player strutting and styling his way up the rankings alongside Simon, Monfils, Gasquet and Jo-Willy. And this guy seems a combination of some of the best of the rest.

-- His forehand is extremely Reeshard like in execution. Right up to the way in which he finishes by jumping up, like he's delivering a stylish, powerful, but very well-timed upper cut. And it's as powerful as anything James Blake hits your way.

-- Single handed backhand watch: Josselin Ouanna. At first I didn't like it very much - he didn't seem to have the confidence to use it, slicing most everything that came his way.

-- But even those slices had purpose. He was knitting a very large, complex web with which to hopefully net Safin with. And those slices were an integral part of that. Check out the backhand slice he passes Safin up the line with if you get a chance. Deftly executed and feather light in touch.

-- Just when Safin may have thought his backhand was the weaker wing. He started producing winners by hitting over the ball. No more pansying around with those slices anymore. This was brutal (his stroke execution is not dissimilar to James Blake) but so stylish. So French.

-- I don't often jump on to bandwagons too soon. But I think I might at least start following young Josselin. Apparently he's beaten up on Jo-Willy on the practice court. Not that hard to believe.

Early Impressions: Roland Garros

Now that I've got Rafa's colourful attire rationalised in my mind, here's some other news that needs to be made a big deal of.

-- You may not have noticed it in it's early stages, but Dinara didn't take too kindly to the doubt being cast on her standing at the top of the WTA food chain. And poor old Anne Keothavong was made to bear the full brunt of her wrath. 6-0, 6-0. I wouldn't be doing my duty as a UK Blogger if I didn't provide a little context. Last week at Warsaw Anne Keothavong was the first British woman in 21 years to reach the quarters of a clay court event. She was also the first British woman to crack the top 50 since 1993. As if that weren't enough, this week was the first time since 1992 that three British women made the main draw at RG. All of which makes the defeat as painful as ever. Probably best to not try and draw positives from this one.

Meanwhile as Dinara served up notice, her arch-accuser Serena was today embroiled in the first round from hell. She did what she always does and what we've come to expect of 'the real #1', coming through eventually in three arduous sets. Not liking the eight squandered match points though and still not expecting much of her on clay. And as far as Dinara's concerned, I'm not getting ahead of myself. Though I was glad with the #1-like way in which she's begun her campaign, and much as I would like to see her put a cap on a brilliant run of form by winning her first Slam here (she seems to be stifling some of that criticism), it is very Dinara like to carve a more perilous route to the final.

-- Murray's opening round match against Juan Ignacio Chela was strangely impressive. There was a very interesting piece by Jonathan Overend at the BBC this week on Murray's much maligned tendency to hang back and play defensively. I'm not fully convinced by the explanation, which essentially amounts to 'I play them as they come,
stepping up the aggression as required, and what qualifies you to say anything about it anyway, given that I'm #3 in world, not you'. But it was at least consistent with the way he played his opening match. This most definitely was steppin-it-up Murray. Hoping to see more of him and a little less of that tortured, ineffective dude Juan Martin enjoyed getting the better of at Rome.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Theories: Resoundingly UNPretty in Pink...

Am I the only one that thinks this latest offering from Nike might not be the travesty most reasonable people seem to think it is?

(Photo: AFP)

Un-Rafa-like yes - but the contrast provided by the dark-slatey shorts saves this from being the utter monstrosity it might otherwise have been. And even those yellow sweatbands aren't as hideous as you might initially have thought? No?

Yes. For it's only when you take a closer look at the outfit in all it's nightmarishly
resplendent glory does it's hideousness begin to reach out at you.


Roger Federer's worst nightmare of a Dystopian future dominated by doublehanded backhands and garish tennis wear. I feel your pain.

Take a look at those aquamarine swooshes. On Yellow.
On Purpley-Pink? Now you're just toying with me.

As a fashion statement it is of course, quite ridiculous. But as a rule, whenever I witness anything as outlandish as this, I tend to look for some kind of a method behind what is otherwise instantly dismissible madness.

When I first saw Rafa stride on to court dressed like he'd just climbed out of a gigantic
pre-teeners water colour palette, I stopped dead in my tracks. Not even flinching - just stone cold.

I was sitting there comfortably ensconced in what should have been the best part of the bank holiday weekend getting ready to explain to my nephew what exactly makes Rafa so intimidating and why he comes into his own on clay. And then it happened.


"Why's he wearing pink?"


WHY'S he wearing pink?"

"huh? Oh that's Rafa's thing, he's youthful, vibrant, brimming with energy and now that he's on his way to a fifth RG title and confirmed as the greatest clay courter of all time, he can get away with wearing anything he wants..." No I'm not buying it either. It's all been a huge messy pink mistake.

Except I believe there's some truth in the part about Rafa being at the stage where he can get away with it.

Something similar happened at Wimbledon three years ago. Roger had won the event three years in a row and came on to Centre Court in that blazer. Polarising the tennis world, and much of his fan base in an instant. The only thing missing was a bunch of ball kids throwing rose petals at his feet.

I didn't actually dislike it as much as many Tennis fans appeared to. Roger, having flexed his muscles on court for three years was now having a bit of fun. The Anna Wintour way of saying 'Look -No Hands'.

Who was I to stand in the way of his very own day in the sun. Or all four years of them. Besides Champions do things differently, and it did sit well with the idyllic country club world of garden parties and tinkling tea cups. Then of course came the cardigan. But I digress (The controversy surrounding the subject of Roger and his Cardigan has spanned as diverse a set of disciplines as Fashion, Art, History, Platonic and Aristotelian Philosophy, Psychology, Anthropology, Lawnmowing and Medieval Glass Blowing - casually alluding to 'The Cardigan' in tennis circles is akin to making a fleeting reference to The Big Bang or Relativity at a Conference on Theoretical Physics).

Ain't no different where Rafa's concerned.
This is the garb of a man that has never lost at RG saying I can do and wear anything I want.
Except I don't think Rafa has ever ridden his success with any particular attention to pomp or pageantry. That natural uneasiness he must now be feeling together with the fact that this is Nike's first incarnation of Rafa doing 'The Cardigan' mean that this is very, very rough around the edges. No question they've got this one wrong.

But don't let the colours in that technicoloured mess of a dreamcoat fool you. This is Rafa's 'Cardigan' and (subject to some changes) it may be here to stay.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Anti-ing the Anti Picks...

I had a real fun time of of it making anti-picks ahead of the Aussie Open. I thought about doing the same for RG, except that clay already has a habit of presenting struggling players in such an uncomplimentary light that the exercise felt a little redundant.

Speculating that James Blake won't make the second week of RG is hardly the most incisive piece of Sports commentary I've read this year; nor is it especially satisfying or informative to predict that Ana Ivanovic probably won't defend her crown.

That hasn't however stopped the press who have already begun peddling their own variants of the old "How many Americans does it take to change a Parisian light bulb?" gag, (None I would guess if the lights go out in the second week - bada-pam-Psshhh! Not very good I know) amidst their seasonal anti-picks.

Well off with the heads of such decriers of hope, there's nothing I dislike more than kicking someone when they're already down (though I do my part as a Rolex-sponsored minion in flooring them). Here's my list of
anti anti-picks:

-- Andy Roddick - Quite simply stunning since the beginning of the year, culminating in a quarter final loss to Roger Federer at Madrid last week.
DoN't lo0k nOw buT tHat'$ a clAy c0uRt evEnt. That was a silly attempt at one of those threatening letters where the sender uses newspaper-cuttings to conceal their handwriting. His new found belief sits well with the current trend of all-courters like Federer and Djokovic usurping clay-courters at the top of the game. I was already feeling an extraordinary rush of well-being when Blake made the finals at Estoril beating Nikolay in the process. But I'm more confident that it'll be Andy that breaks his third round RG curse this year.

-- Ana Ivanovic - Too easy to heap dirt on 'Little Miss Muffet'. Frightened away by the overwhelming pressure, not to mention the many spiders that go along with the #1 ranking. That gut wrenching feeling of being the hunted rather than the hunter. Or so conventional wisdom goes. See, while there's little doubt that may have been the initial catalyst for her downfall, and while she almost certainly wasn't ready for the #1 ranking, the truth is that things have moved on, and for the past 6 or 7 months, she's simply been devoid of all confidence playing almost -- dare I say it -- like a junior. And no amount of allusions to 'being a perfectionist' paint a different, more pretty picture.

That said, and much as I don't buy into Kardon's spin, I'm drawn to his effective maneuvering of the situation. In particular the way in which he's gotten Ana thinking her problems are down to her own drive. There's something strangely energising about repeating something over and over again - such mantras far from unlocking any kind of mystical energy seem to operate as a kind of chisel, that chips away reshaping the psyche until the very words begin to pervade the id.

All a very long winded way of saying that I think some of that positivity (however deluded) may play a part in turning things around for her. She almost certainly won't defend her title, but a quarter final should be within her grasp and that, I hope will be the turning point.

-- Andy Murray - Yes it's become fashionable to bash Andy once again. Now that he's all helplessly exposed, vulnerable, and unsure of quite what he's about out there on clay. I've done it myself. I actually had this post in progress entitled 'Elephant in the room', which went through (at length) what I felt no one was mentioning enough. How a player so adept at carving up the rest of the top four has gone back to being such an ineffective tortured mess on court once again. Not to mention my fears of how difficult he might find it to extricate himself from this clay court spell of unproductive tennis. Or What that might do for his chances at Wimbledon.

But let's reexamine this. He came into Monte Carlo on a high having won Miami. Riding that wave of momentum, he reached the semis there playing the type of tennis I've called him up on so many times, going out unsurprisingly to Rafael Nadal. Though not before showing us, for a set, why he might rightly be considered a force on clay the way he is everywhere else.

He then went out early in Rome, which I'll be the first to admit is an absolute stinker. Though he did go out to Juan Monaco who's been proving troublesome for many players (David Ferrer
another casualty there).

Maybe with a more grounded assessment of his standing on clay, he came into Madrid playing the kind of off key, unspectacular tennis that has made many wonder why he's proven so troublesome to the top three. And yet still made the quarters, going out to Del Potro who's found himself on clay more naturally than Andy.

That ain't half bad for a surface you despise.

So though I doubt he'll be responsible for many high profile casualties, I do think that if a few things go his way, he shouldn't have much trouble getting to the quarters.

-- James Blake - Going out on a bit of a limb here. But like Roddick , I do think James has a decent chance of getting the Parisian monkey off his back. And not only because he beat Nikolay
en route to the Estoril final. A C l a y C o u r t E v e n t . I thought he would continue his clay court love affair and do quite well at Madrid, but had the misfortune to run into Federer in the third round.

Not that I think he'll reach the 2nd week. That'd be extending good will to ridiculous lengths. But I do think he can get to the fourth round. Why ever not?

(Little Miss Muffet image from The National Nursery Book via

Thursday, 21 May 2009

2Hander's Take: MADrid

WOW!! What a week we've been having on the Mens' tour, to say the least.

Firstly, Del Potro-Murray was quite a non-event in many ways. I'm sure I've seen more people spectating on a park court!! Murray seemed to be getting the ball back OK, but I have seen Del Potro's inside out forehand really coming on nicely. Ever since he beat Nadal in Miami, that's now officially his weapon. He has the potential to further improve his ranking, as does Nando 'Specimen' Verdasco...

Then came what has to be the Clay Court Match of the Year thusfar. This match surpassed the Queen's final last year, with these very two greats of the game. My respect for Djokovic has multiplied something crazy! I wonder if he's got any semblance of a shoulder left after playing pretty much each and every point SO full on. I think Nole was very unlucky to not convert any of those matchpoints. For once, I really feel for him because he has seemingly matured quite a lot. I wouldn't even mind if he won a Slam this year!! And Nole, I think all is well in paradise with you and your stick! Your love affair with Wilson, although it bore considerable fruit, is starting to become a distant memory for the sake of your marriage with Head. You are focussed on making it work and I wish you a happy (re?)marriage. Stick with the counselling, it seems to be working.

Now I know Nadal actually won the match, so I don't wish to take anything away from him. Still, there's not much to say apart from him owning everyone so far this season. Is it getting a bit boring? Don't get me wrong, I am happy that The Beautiful Game (may I dub it as TBG?) is not dominated by one person to the extent it has been. I know I keep going back to it, but John McEnroe's stark quote in 2005 about The Fed being able to win 2-3 Slams a year without playing his best tennis still sticks out in my mind. I mean I remember talking to Top about this around the start of 2007, that GOAThood was in the bag so long as a breathing Roger Federer turns up! However, our young Spanish friend had other ideas...

As for the final, well it seemed as though the clock was rewound about 3-4 years as Federer finally strangled the choker who went around fraudulently posing as him (see Superman III and you'll know what I mean!)! He opened his shoulders and ACTUALLY PLAYED FOR ONCE! Come on Fed, where have you been this past year?! I think the nothing to lose attitude really came out. Then when he finally realised that he found his forehand again (like it had been right at the bottom of his pocket all this time), it was like "Hey, I might be onto something here!" and started to express himself a lot more, imposing his (technically superior - IMHO) game on Nadal. He didn't take the first set for granted. It was good to see that he shrugged off those 2 breakpoints towards the end of the second set. The thing is that it wasn't just the serve and forehand, it was the variety of shots; drop shots, coming to the net (PSSST...THAT IS THE KEY TO BEATING NADAL!!!!), playing the backhand without feeling the need to always run around it, somewhat flatter shots as well. I think I may have even seen streaks of the Federer that beat Sampras at Wimby 2001. Maybe it's those yoga/breathing exercises at Lamaze classes...?! Hee hee!

The question is, has he exorcised the demon? Not sure on that one. Time will have to tell because those 5-setters (hence Slams) are a completely different animal, especially when our Spanish friend is at the other end. And he can mentally block out previous defeats like anything. Maybe he's been drinking some of his water or something. The way he played reminded me of the times he would beat top players but lose silly matches to players like Canas. Though Simon seems to have gotten the better of him in the past few meetings.

On a side note, I had no idea Dinara was SOOOOOO tall!! More like Marat's not much littler than him sister!

Also, I thought Miami was dubbed as The Fifth Slam!? I hope no more Masters 1000 events get labelled as such...

(Photo: Javier Soriano/Getty Images via BBC Sport)

Captain Marat...

Does anyone else find it mildly amusing that Marat Safin is 'captaining' Roger Federer at the Guinot Mary Cohr Masters Exho event this week?

2 teams of 6 - Guinot v Mary Cohr. Each guy can play at most one match. Best of three sets - champions tie breaks.

Results so far:

Team 'Blake'Team 'Safin'

No I'm not taking it seriously either, but it would make for some pretty interesting dressing room scenarios if the players did don't you think?

Apparently the clay plays the same as RG, so that at least is something... Read More...

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Early Impressions: Maria Sharapova

It's been fascinating seeing Sharapova back in action this week.

To be honest I wasn't expecting too much when I heard of her decision to enter Warsaw, a tournament I only remember from last year because of the way Nikolay used it to get out of playing grass court tennis.

I wasn't too thrilled by the idea of staging a comeback from injury on as injurious a surface as clay, but it was in some sense understandable by the way in which it was fulfilling a need to get some matches in ahead of Roland Garros.

Seems I needn't have worried. I didn't see all of her opening match against the Italian Tathiana Garbin; the portions I did catch looked painfully one-sided, and even though I subsequently heard it took her three sets to close out the victory, I wasn't that concerned - one look at those groundstrokes caused most of my reservations to dissipate. But let me tackle this in some sort of order.

The service actions changed (again). Gone is the old swirly take back, and in it's place a considerably more abbreviated Henin-like motion. Obviously intended to reduce strain on the bandaged shoulder. The significant reduction in pace was a little concerning - in her first match she looked to be serving at little more than around 65%.

Again, I needn't have worried. If today's performance (a straight sets dismissal of Belarusian Darya Kustova, with a bagel to boot) is anything to go by it seems she's taking an incremental match-by-match approach to feeling her way back into her game. What else did I expect?

There was also a noticeable reluctance to taking on any overheads that came her way - uneasy feel on those she did manage to put away.

But those groundstrokes are as potent as they ever where. Or were they? I'd argue more so. It may be that my memory has been affected by the length of time she's spent away from the game, it may be that they look more scary juxtaposed as they are alongside that less intimidating serve, but there seems to be more energy being put into every shot, more noise emitted when racquet meets ball. Whatever it is it's flattening the rest of the competition which is admittedly very tier-3.

And therein lies the only dampener in this whole affair. She had been due to take on Wozniacki in the 2nd round before she pulled out with a back injury, as did Sabine Lisicki and #1 seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

On the basis of the form she showed in her opening match, I didn't think Maria would be out of place in the top twenty - even with that serve. But what would have been a better way to get an insight into where her game really is than a matchup with as compelling a top tenner as Wozniacki?

(Photo: AP via Yahoo! Sports)

Monday, 18 May 2009

Djokovic on Madrid...

“I think that today I played my best tennis on this surface,” he said. “I don't think you need my comments, you could see everything. Next time I'll probably take two rackets on the match point and try to hit past him. I don't know what to do.”

"It's happened too often," said Djokovic, who has been beaten by Nadal in the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters finals in recent weeks. "It's very disappointing to play as well as I have and still lose the match. I played one of my best matches ever.

"I was a couple of points from the victory. I even played a few points above my limits and I still didn't win."

-- Djokovic, after losing to Nadal in the longest three setter in history

Dunno about the two racquets theory, but let me throw this out there. It's barely detectable at times, but I'm sure I'm right about this. As effective as his play has been since returning to form, it's a different brand of tennis.

Different to say Melbourne last year, which was all about pace, yanking his opponent around and going for the lines.He's no longer as concerned about pulling the trigger so quickly, plays with a far greater margin for error and is more willing to come to the net.

I think we might be seeing the next phase in the evolution of his game.

It's not as flamboyant or easy on the eye, but is definitely a step up and should win him more matches long term. Well that's what I think anyway.

(Photo: AP via Eurosport)


Dammit Rafa!

There you go again making people cry...

Is it wrong that I'm completely buying into Nole's 'Lovable Rogue' act for a change?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Droughts Over...

"Playing four hours was not a problem for today. Roger was much better than me and deserved to win."

"It didn't help that I had to play four hours yesterday," said Nadal.

"But even if I hadn't I don't know if I would have been able to stop Roger."

Well I said it yesterday and though Nadal, true to character, would be the last person in the world to concede it -- especially where Roger is concerned -- it
does seem he was affected by the Herculean efforts of Saturday's semi.

Not as exhaustingly as I'd imagined though. Nothing so obvious. He just did the 'little stuff' less efficiently than we normally associate with him, looked a little slower running down balls, less intense in his service returns, and a tad less scary overall. You might say a kind of subconscious indecision of whether to give it his all, which squares well with what he had to say about the surface and the altitude coming in to the event.

I've heard a lot of comparisons to his phenomenal recovery after the equally Herculean semi at this years Aussie Open against Verdasco. But the bottom line I think is he had a day to recover there - no such luxury here. In fact, having to play everyday has even led some to suggest that Masters events may be a greater physical test. I don't agree. It isn't everyday after all that you have to go out and play what turns out to be the greatest (and lengthiest) three setter in living memory. They're mostly all like the Federer-Del-Potro semi. Most pros have more demanding practice sessions than that.

“I served well, mixed it up well, took all the right decisions today. In the end it looked comfortable for me out there so it’s a good win for me and very satisfying.”

Not much to add except to say that this was the best all round performance I've seen from Federer since the US Open last year, and despite the four hours Nadal had to put in, he still had to
win this thing.

Special mention must be made of the serving which was exquisite. I've generally thought of his serve as the best indicator of how likely he is to come through in matches against Nadal. Not that they were the best stats I've ever seen from him, but he did make particularly good use of the wide kicker - which I feel is quite an underated part of his game.

Now. The six billion dollar question: How much does it actually

It doesn't have any particular bearing on his abilty to come through against Nadal at RG which in Federer's own words is 'a different animal' (and I don't think he even factored the Nadal-on-clay effect into his definition).

I don't even think this is any great indication of how close he might or might not be to 'his best' (whatever that may be these days).
What I do know is it would have been a complete disaster to go into RG having spent yet another photoshoot watching Rafa bite on to a trophy at your expense.

I should also mention the obvious: that confidence at
any level is impossible without some small measure of momentum. This win should make him feel more confident about being a member of the top four once again. And I think that places him in good stead against the likes of Djoko and Murray going into RG. I also think that Tennis will be better for his return. As great as Murray's rise, Djoko's return to form and Nadal's continued dominance has been, the actual tennis has been strangely lopsided for what seems like a mini-era now. Roger's return injects some much needed attention to classical form into the new age fever we've had of late.

Speaking of Murray, wouldn't you have loved to see Federer take him on instead of Juan in the semis. For what it's worth, I think he would have got through (Roger that is). Murray's clearly
not in the top four bracket when it comes to clay even though he may have made it to #3 in the world this week. A win may even have gone some way to defusing the 'Murray problem' he has, which much like the 'Nadal problem' (on clay and most anywhere else), may continue to plague him on any surface. Very much 'the match that got away'.

(Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)



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