Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Barcelona: “Dasco-Sizzlehands”


This picture’s doing funny things to my eyes. Is that trophy levitating?

Verdasco d. Soderling 6-3, 4-6, 6-3

I’m going to take this one squarely on the chin – I obviously thought he didn’t have it in him. A charge to which I can only plead that he mostly doesn’t have it in him. At least not when it matters most.

I’m not going to argue Soderling wasn’t all there.

There was certainly an uncharacteristically high number of short balls landing in the vicinity of Dasco’s forehand (of all places) and a scandalously high percentage of misdirected overheads that almost suggested a certain squeamishness about finishing off a point.

Though credit where it’s due and all that – a lot of that was simply down to Dasco weathering the storm and converting on the opportunities presented to him – like those five or so forehand zingers he fired off those short balls Soder-Pop kept sending his way, Nadal-like in their curvature.

But then neither am I about to argue in favour of extrapolating all sorts of clay-court jollification for Dasco over the coming weeks.

Dasco’s forehand is truly an awesome feat of engineering. It puts him a cut above the more traditional clay courters (of which I’ve had a lot to say on over the past few days), but perhaps therein also lies the rub.

Most of the time it seems like he can’t make up his mind about what exactly to do with it. Like it shouldn’t even be there. He wants so desperately to be Daveed Ferrer, yet is cursed with a marginally flatter version of Rafa’s forehand – only with more pace.

Like a trigger-happy Gulbis trapped inside a clay courters body, what sets “Dasco-SizzleHands” apart is at once also the source of the angst I suspect must plague him at his most critical moments – hardly surprising things should go to pot, as often as they do.


Such obvious incongruity has it’s benefits of course: it allows you to coax your opponents into a false sense of security before zapping their carefully honed image of the player they think you are with strokes you’re not meant to possess.

It’s the type of thing the arthouse critics tend to love, but remains, unfortunately, the exception to the rule.

Mundane as it might sound, such grotesqueries aren’t the way of the world - a greater degree of coherence is what, I suspect, ultimately fosters the consistency that carries players through many more matches than the relatively few transient higher profile victories they might score on the back of that one party trick.

Not sure where that leaves Dasco-Sizzlehands - doomed just like his namesake?

Certainly hope not.

(Photo: AP)


Saturday, 24 April 2010

Barca Roundup and Something Inspiring

-- I’m not inclined to apologise for the lack of Barcelona coverage.

The truth is, I’ve hardly been following Barca – my default position being that, with Rafa out, this should be Robin’s for the taking.


With nothing more than Dasco and (until this morning) lil’ol Thiemo de Bakker standing between Robin and the title, victory here would not so much serve as a signature-win, as losing would be a telling loss.

It’s not that Dasco can’t hurt Soderling, more that he’d need him to have a bad day. And right now I’d say he’s having rather more of those than Robin.

-- Sod’s learnt to slide on clay.

I kid ye not.

As little as I’ve seen of Barca, I did manage to catch parts of his match against Thiemo de Bakker today. And sure enough, there it was. Clear as day.

It was one of those moments of discovery when time itself appears to stand still - with Strauss’s “Sunrise” score playing in the background.

Trouble is, it currently looks about as natural (and as much of a stunt) as this.

Still, I can’t but help admire that he thinks it important to try.

-- My (very public) reservations about French tennis aside, Tsonga almost had me convinced these past two weeks that he’d “discovered himself” on clay.

His statements to that effect, his last two matches in Monte and second consecutive win over Angsty-Almagro in Barca this week, were almost too good to be true.

Which means, of course, that I suspect they were too good to be true.

I didn’t thankfully, get to see him fold against de Bakker yesterday, but from the reports I’ve read it was a torrid, sorry affair.

I’ve no doubt that he should be able to play on clay – it sits well with my view that clay court tennis has been rebranded over the past few years as a somewhat flatter, more aggressive affair, a not so distant cousin of hard (or indeed grass) court tennis.

In fact so sure am I of Tsonga’s ability on any surface, that I believe he’ll make the migration wholesale - foibles, warts and all.


So the Rome draws out. First impressions – Rafa and Roger in the same half, with a semi final face off in the works. That’s not exactly news of course, except no one seems to remember the last time this happened.

Scratch a little deeper, however, and you’ll quickly see that that’s only the (uninteresting) half of it. For this appears to me to be the most lopsided, systematically skewed draw since Daveed and Goliath squared off against one another in the “Valley of Elah Open” as the top two seeds.

In the blue corner:

  • Fed to face Gulbis/Baggy in his opening match. Really? Really.
  • Rafa most likely set to face Kohlschreiber in his. Yeah, His Right-Honourable Seed-Slayin’ self.
  • Hell, let’s throw Sod and Big Berd in there too. I mean they can always be relied upon to capitulate, right?
  • And just to prove to you we really are intent on painting every last bit of that town red, we’ll also throw in the Croatian Duo of the slightly improbable winner of IW and this year’s Delpo in for good measure too?

Meanwhile, over in the dead red corner we have:

  • Djoko (who must be thanking his lucky stars),
  • Tsonga/Dasco (not the toughest of tough cookies – at least not with the dough the French Tennis Federation use),
  • Ferrero/Ferrer (clay courters have a place in tennis I believe, though I’m no longer convinced it’s in the clay court season),
  • Muzza (in a self-proclaimed existential crisis)
  • and..er...Janko Tipsarevic. Whom I only mentioned once in the past week because he can’t be a*sed to twitter.

(Photo: AFP)


Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Monte Carlo Fallout.

-- Rafa and Big-Berd have pulled out of Barcelona.

The heavens themselves (much to the chagrin of the Barcelona promoters) could be heard to breath a sigh of relief as Rafa, for the first time in five years, elected to pull out of Barcelona.

“I’m in perfect shape,” Nadal said Tuesday. “I feel very good but I don’t want a repeat of what happened last year. For my tennis to be at the right level, I have to be physically well and that’s my principal objective.”

“I’m being as cautious as possible so that I can play the maximum amount possible,” Nadal said. “It wasn’t planned. Tennis isn’t like football, you never know how many games you’re going to have to play.”

-- tennis.com

Perfect shape? Perhaps not, but still exactly the type of tempering of his clay court schedule many of us have been hollering out for. For too long it seems.

Perhaps, with the relatively sodden ten or so months he’s had, and with the eagerness that might foster to get back on dirt, 2010 ought to be an exception. But I’d go as far as saying that missing Monte from next year wouldn’t be the worst decision in the world either. Much like Federer has.

Why, of all people, should Rafa need any more than Rome and Madrid (both mandatory events) to find his feet on clay?

-- Berdych. This year’s Robin Soderling?

Not in terms of inflicting tsunami-like upsets on our generation’s best or narking Rafaelites off so very much - more in terms of late-blooming, suppressing daemons and establishing a more credible and worthy presence at the top of the game. Discuss.

-- Nalbandian out for two events with a hamstring injury. Possible return in Madrid.

Not what you want to hear after witnessing his anatomy-defying “hip” exploits over the past month.

Take solace if you can, however, in noting that it could be worse. Much worse.

Hip surgery remains a career-ender for the most part, ushering in a post-traumatic age where simply remaining competitive begins to make one resemble those foolhardy salmon that hurl themselves the wrong way up a waterfall.

Very often into the jaws of a hungry bear. Guys like Kohlschreiber for example.

I don’t detect anything nearly so grim in Daveed’s case but maybe, like Nadal, there’s something to be said on the benefits of a more staggered comeback.

-- Stosur demolished Bepa 6-0 6-3 to pick up her second career singles title and her first ever on clay.

“This is bigger than Osaka, and to do it here and on clay and be playing well all week and everything is just a great feeling,” Stosur said. “You can’t really compare the two, but this is definitely a bigger event, and I’m very pleased that I was able to play so well.”

-- tennis.com

Darn right it’s bigger than Osaka. Before the great WTA Premier switchover of 2009, Charleston was a tier one event, with an illustrious Champions Roll of Honour (Evert won here eight times) and a well-respected sponsor in Family Circle.

Sammy’s efforts have landed her a #10 ranking.

Much has been made of the dilapidated state of the draw, but only that pedantic analyst would elect not to grossly fanfare about her having largely followed up on her well-publicised intent to target singles – and who knows, maybe pick up a title or two? And I currently have him in a headlock.

She’ll find it considerably tougher going repeating her great run of RG 2009, especially given the way in which the presence of the Belgians might affect things, but she’s as well placed to score a high profile upset as she’s ever been.


Sunday, 18 April 2010

Monte Carlo: As Easy as that, and with not an Elephant in Sight.


When MC was stripped of it’s mandatory status a couple of years ago, I thought it was all but destined to collapse into a Rolex sponsored scenic sideshow. The stuff of $20K cocktails and starchy-white Marquees, where the rich and famous congregate to exhibit their shiny yachts, whilst professing an unbecoming “love for the game” that I suspect has rather more to do with wanting to preserve the event’s veneer of prestige.

More to the point, I rather believed it might turn into a cutesy opportunity for someone not named Nadal (and preferably outside of the top five) to pick up some “cheap” points – my thinking being that the big wigs would pencil in the week for some rest’n rehab ahead of Rome.

That the event should be a vehicle for Rafa’s return to form, shows what a jarring couple of years it’s been and speaks of exactly the sort of romanticism that makes this the sport I love.

You have to go back all the way to 1919 to find the last time we had a final here as one-sided as this, and even then Frenchman Max Décugis managed to get twice as many games from Romanian Nicholas Mishu (Massu’s family tree anyone?) as Dasco did from Rafa today.

Borg only lost around 21 games when he won the title in the early eighties (though remember to contextualise that by noting he took out more top ten players en route, including the world #1) – this year it only took Rafa 14.

The pedantic analyst in me remains keen to draw attention to the fact that Nadal’s first two opponents were, well, Michael Berrer and Thiemo de Bagel – and that his subsequent three were the hardest of hard boiled clay courters – physical agitators for the rest of the tour maybe, but largely benign in their effect on Rafa.

The unthinking fanboy, meanwhile, remains keen to whack the pedantic analyst over the head with a skillet.

We all know playing clay courters is little more than a practice session for Rafa - their shorter, loopier balls sit up nicely into his hitting zone making it likely he’d beat up on them armed with nothing more than that skillet of mine. And as for those practice sessions of his, well, they’re notorious for sometimes actually being more demanding than any three set match he plays.

What’s perhaps more interesting is how those subsequent three matches played out.

I must admit I had it chalked up in exactly the opposite way, with Ferrero possessing the weakest and most dated of clay court styles, and thereby the likeliest customer to take up a “buy-one-get-one-free” offer at the Nadal Bagel Factory.

Ferru, I essentially had down as the three litre engine version of the lower-emission Mosquito.

Dasco meanwhile, with his greater pace and forehand (as well as what he achieved in Oz last year), I had assumed to be the more dangerous of the three.

JCF’s greater experience and, I would say, fitness, as it turned out, trumped the mental fragilities of Dasco and Ferru, who looked beaten minutes after stepping on court – another glowing endorsement of his recently assumed “#3 clay courter” status, despite going out in straights.

Would I be more convinced if Rafa had faced Jo-Willy rather than Mosquito in the quarters and Djoko rather than Dasco in the final?

Probably, though I still think he’d have won the title. Equally noteworthy, however, is how this less gelatinous route through to victory will in all likelihood garner the levels of confidence and momentum necessary to oust a Jo-Willy, a Big Rob or indeed any other flatty come Rome.

Baptisms of fire are overrated.

Sometimes you need your way cushioned back to success.

With that in mind (and Rafaelites will be pleased to hear this), I’ve given the elephant it’s marching orders.

It’s been my muse over the past week charting Rafa’s ups and Muzza’s downs.

With Rafa on the up again, I’m afraid this room simply ain’t big enough for you – never mind the both of us.

Be nice.




Other MC musings:

-- If you’re at all unsure of your form on clay, best not to term one good showing your “best <ever> match <of the year>on clay” (delete as appropriate). Both Jo-Willy and Djoko said as much of their respective performances against Almagro and Nalbandian. Both also fell far short of that in their next matches, with Djoko in particular going down in flames.

-- To be fair to Tsonga, I actually thought he played well against Ferrero. That he can play on clay should be resoundingly clear. That he fell short against a guy he should be able to beat 24 hours later is rather telling too.

-- Djoko’s poor semi final showing is in some ways even worse than what happened to Murray, who does at least recognise the need to appear consistently mediocre in his “sticky patch”. That Djoko can go from his “best form of the year” to not far off his worst in the space of 24 hours suggests there’s still work to be done. Parting ways with Todd may only have been half of the story (if that).

-- Learnt to view Dasco in a gentler, more ‘familial’ light. With both his parents in Monte Carlo and his father courtside in almost every match this week, Dasco was able to ‘keep it real’ (I ascribe a new meaning to phrase that each day) if not completely rediscovering something of the form that’s eluded him since early last year. Daddy Dasco's presence seems to me be an assuring, undemanding and wholly worthwhile one - I’ve rather grown to like it.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)


Saturday, 17 April 2010

Monte Carlo: Elephants on clay?

Nadal d. Ferrero 6-4 6-2

He lost only two games in reaching the quarters – and only a further six in putting paid to the Mosquito.

Is there still an elephant in the room?

If there is, I should imagine it’s fearing extinction.

That said, I’m still happy to err on the side of caution.

I don’t think we can dismiss what happened in the second half of that match in Miami as an irrelevance.

I’ve no doubt that Rafa will rebound on his favourite surface – I only expect the journey to be a little bumpier this time round.

The upshot of course, is I won’t be catastrophising in the way I expect much of the media too if, God forbid, he somehow doesn’t win all three of Monte/Barca/Rome – which probably ought to be collapsed into a single title anyway, with Rafa getting a bye to the final each year.

Djokovic d. Nalbandian 6-2, 6-3

Tis a shame.

Not the cheesepuff victory pose (though that too is, in it’s own way, quite damning).

This should have been match of the day, but Daveed never really got going and truth be told wasn’t really allowed to (No matter Daveed – you still win the ‘hippest’ hip surgery award).

Not that I’m complaining - Nole was arguably the second best clay courter out there last year – if he’s begun finding his feet on clay (rather than his feet of clay) it exponentially increases our chances of a Rafa/Nole final.

I hear they hit a good ball on dirt.

(Photos by Julian Finney/Getty Images)


Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Monte Carlo: Muzz’s Sticky Patch.

The Big Guns were finally out today – though not all entirely in full force.

"I wasn't very good today," said Murray, whose first-serve percentage fell as low as 32% during the second set.

"It was the first time in a few years that the court felt so small. I just could not find the court. When it's like that, it's difficult to play.

"I tried different things. I tried serve and volleying a couple of times. I tried hitting some high balls. It did not really make a whole lot of difference."

-- BBC Tennis

It’s official. Muzz is going through what in polite circles is delicately referred to as "a sticky patch”.

Kohlschreiber d. Murray 6-2, 6-1

He’d murmured something about not having “a clear head” and being "subconsciously annoyed" since that loss in the final of Oz – to which I’d, accordingly, only paid the most subconscious of attention.

Quite how out of sorts however, became excruciatingly apparent today.

First things first. Kohlschreiber in your first match of the clay court season!?? Really!?

Particularly telling however, was the lack of any apparent emotion at being bundled out of that first set 6-2 –no gnashing of teeth, none of the familiar agonised thrashing or writhing around he’s been so heavily criticised for and which has arguably dug him out of similar situations in the past.

We all saw what happened to Djokovic after he elected to tone things down – Murray’s not half as brash at the worst of times.

Gnash away I say. Anything but this nightmarish, nugatory no-show.

Nadal d. de Bakker 6-1, 6-0

Seemingly a rebuff to the concerns I raised in my last post.

I’m not intent on raining on anyone’s parade – but please it’s Thiemo de Bakker people, not Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic d. Serra 6-2 6-3

Not the easy win the score line would suggest.

Unlike Murray, Djoko did elect to berate himself out of the stupor that had threatened to settle in during the early parts of the second set – sometimes quite vociferously.

I always look to clay for an upturn in Djoko’s fortunes – especially after the spell he had last year – the only time during the entire season he actually looked the part of a top five player.

But for now, he’s still serving like this.

We’ve Todd Martin to thank for that.

Nalbandian d. Youzhny 4-6 6-3 7-6

"This is maybe the start of another career for me", he said at the start of Miami.

Nalbie continues to defy medical science with what I've now no qualms in thinking of as the best return I've ever seen from hip surgery.

Youznhy and Daveed salvaged what I was otherwise set to write off as an unimpressive days tennis.


This is Jo-Willy after putting out an embittered Nicolas Almagro in a riveting two set corker yesterday.

MUHAHAHAAHA…my thoughts exactly.

What’s probably more significant is he termed the win his “best match on clay”.

I dunno much about Jo’s own estimation of his prowess on dirt – he strikes me as an all-courter that can do damage on any surface - but it had to have been good for him to say something like that. It was.

It’s unlikely to be any more competitive than in Miami (I should say it’s far likelier to be significantly less so), but he’s in Rafa’s quarter.

Duly noted I hope.


(Photos: Getty)


Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Creative Differences.

"Todd is a fantastic person," said Djokovic. "He has so much experience and was willing to share everything with me. There are no hard feelings but we just decided it was not working. It was probably a question of understanding what kind of person I am."

"At the ATP Finals in London my shoulder was tired and the body automatically started to make adjustments because of that," Djokovic explained. "Then we tried a slightly different action and it all got very complicated. So now I am just going back to my original action."

-- Fox News

I’m sure Todd is a very nice person too. But that’s a very telling comment on understanding the kind of person Djoko is.

So what was it? Tactical disputes? Personality issues? A culture clash? Too many cooks? Creative Differences even?

The culture clash theory is the one that’s been most widely pored over, with suggestions of Todd’s somewhat milder temperament being at odds with Djoko’s “outwardly cocky and self-confident” personality.

That’s hardly news, is it? Even less impressed with the reductive image of the “emotional European” – especially as Marion Vajda (who I’m rather a fan of) strikes me as one of the most composed coaches on tour.

It is, however, of some relief to know that that horrendous javelin-throwing service action wasn’t simply a figment of my imagination – can’t say I’m sorry to see it go.


The most obvious questions on the appointment of the relatively unknown Leon Smith as Davis Cup Captain revolve on the extraordinary lengths the LTA seem to have gone in order to placate Andy Murray.

Andy and Greg, you’ll remember, are not the best of friends.

"When Roger Draper came into the LTA it was all about a world-class leadership team, world-class people and this is it; four years down the track we are putting someone in charge of the men's game and the Davis Cup who has none of these qualities," he [Mark Petchey] told Sky Sports.

"So are we saying the strategy before was wrong and now we're on the right one, or are we actually saying we don't have a clue and are sticking somebody in the job who we think might persuade Andy Murray to play Davis Cup?

"Andy will make his own decision and I know Andy, he was happy to go with the majority view of what the players wanted in terms of a Davis Cup captain - and the majority of those players wanted Greg Rusedski."

-- Sky Sports

Were the presence of Andy Murray not absolutely essential to Team GB’s future success, you could almost argue that this reeks of a mild strain of nepotism.

Why should national strategy be predicated on the say-so of any one player (however celebrated)?

Why should he be able naysay the appointment of someone the rest of the players have approved and seem to respect?

Not that that’s remotely close to what I think is happening here.

Call me naive, but haven’t people always had to knuckle down alongside those they wouldn’t normally share a drink with, not just in tennis but in almost all professional walks of life?

However much he may dislike Rusedksi, Murray’s objections to Davis Cup seem to me to have rather more to do with with wanting to focus on winning Slams.

What if despite these attempts at appeasement (if that’s what they are), he still doesn’t turn up to play?

"Leon's my friend, but I need to still do what's right for me," said Murray.

"If I want to play, I'm playing for the team, it's not that I'm playing because Leon's the captain.

"I hope that was not the reason why he became captain. I don't think that's the way to make a decision on something as big as this.”

-- BBC Tennis



There’s an elephant in the room.

The media have been astonishingly muted about it, but let that not deceive us.

With what we know of Rafa’s form (and knee), the usual tally of clay court titles remains an uncertainty. And that spells trouble.

It’s not that an early loss at any of the upcoming events would be entirely catastrophic – for all we know it might be exactly what he needs – more that it would alter the landscape in a way that might not be reversible.

Still not completely sure what I mean by that, so I’ll say no more.

Never has the clay season been more or less about Rafa.


Sunday, 11 April 2010

Wayne’s World.

Poetic justice has finally (though almost not quite) been served on Wayne Odesnik.

Following all the controversy, the freshly-recycled trowel-fulls of moral outrage and the anointing of fresh-faced Sammy as a Saviour – one who would put right the young blaggard who dared besmirch the face of American Tennis (something acutely poignant, is there not, in the thought of a Samurai dispensing poetic justice?) - 7-6 1-6 7-5 doesn’t seem an especially convincing score line – not when you consider Querrey had previously “refused to lose” to the national pariah.

In any case we thankfully have been spared the bilious outpurings an Odesnik winners acceptance speech would have inspired. I like me some black humour – I like it even more when it’s not humourless.

Except this episode’s been full of that kind of farce, hasn’t it?

When the story first broke I remember thinking which of the two (if either) I found more tragic:

That Odesnik actually thought he’d succeed in getting “seven vials of HGH” past Australian Customs(a country with some of the strictest border controls in the world)?

Or that the recently retired Guillermo Canas (who’d served a controversial doping ban of his own) happened to be associated with Wayne in one of the first ventures of his new found coaching career?

A tragicom in every sense of the word, except of course in that it’s completely unfunny – just plain tragic then. And a little stupid.

“Seven vials” of anything seems to me to invoke the wonderfully colourful (and illicit) world of John Grisham – smoke and mirrors, intrigue, scandal, conspiracy, nationally institutionalised corruption – that sort of thing.

There is of course a precedent for this. There almost always is.

Seven vials? Try forty eight.

However twisted that might seem, I’d obviously (along with everyone else) underestimated how ham-fisted Wayne was intent on appearing, or indeed how hammed-up his burlesque act was about to get.

The subsequent events, from the near-Lewinskian denial of using HGH (issued soon after he’d plead guilty to it’s possession and been fined AU$8000), to his unabashed and somewhat cerebrally-challenged decision to participate in Houston, have already been combed over with all the precision of, well, a Donald Trump comb-over.

Due process (TADP-rules) was, as I understand it, deferred to allow for due process (Aussie-Rules) to take place, which paradoxically allowed for Wayne to play without breaking the restrictions any such due process may or may not have placed on him.

Confused? Welcome to Wayne’s World.

In any case it’s often quite distasteful to witness much of what passes for “moral outrage” these days – I normally steer well clear of it however much I might despise the actions of any perpetrator.

Had Wayne issued some kind of apology (however insincere) and not instead plunged his foot in it quite so deeply by electing to play in Houston, it might still have been possible to argue that most of that outrage would be better directed at the doping authorities, whose vision of “due process” remains confused, misunderstood, bureaucratically-constrained and jurisdictionally-uncertain. A work seemingly forever in-progress.

Viewed less charitably, I might still have said that he’s much too easy a target.

As it stands however, I can’t find the charity to protect him from the consequences of his own folly – especially when he appears so keen to continue digging that hole he’s in.

(Photos: AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, James Nielsen, AFP)


Thursday, 8 April 2010

Miami: Fashionably Late Roundup

I didn’t have time to chalk up much of what happened in the latter stages of the men’s event in Miami – hence the distinct lack of coverage of some quite jarring results. Belated apologies.

-- Andy Roddick is back in the big time after a lengthy four years out of the (Masters) winners circle. Did he overcome Berdych with what many are so keen to characterise as smart tennis? Almost certainly, though I would say that the intelligence that saw him frustrate Berdych into submission with a one hundred and three minute “you-say-I-say” pushathon, or down Rafa with a flurry of inside-out forehands and serve-volleying that turned the tide of the match, was born of the experience and wisdom one must surely accrue after spending the best part of a decade in the top ten.

Randy’s critics will tell you that this top ten status has been born both of hard graft and a big serve in equal measure. His more fruitful recent endeavours meanwhile result largely from his association with Larry Stefanki.

The former may sound both harsh and reductive but is certainly true of his earlier years – the latter, whilst true in part, fails to take account of the maturity and depth of experience one realises as a result of spending so long on the front line of tennis.

Stefanki’s been instrumental, having had at times, an almost mystically curative and ennobling effect on his game – though it would appear to me to be wantonly obtuse to insist that he had little or no raw ingredients to work with.

It’d be wrong to get drawn into speculating as to the degree this win will empower him at the Slams – though I will say I quite fancy his chances against any top five player not named Federer.

-- Tomas Berdych did what so many of us friends, family and fans of tennis alike were hoping and praying he might, by following up on that fine win over Federer in R4 – for that alone he deserves a pat on the back (thought it might be more appropriate if someone with bigger hands than my own were to give it to him – John Isner anyone?).

But it’s more than that isn’t it. For there were plenty of moments subsequent to that win where he might have faltered into the obsolescence that usually mars his most breathtaking performances at the most critical junctures.

He saved that pivotal match point against Federer that left him with a wry smile and his tongue hanging out, an expression he chose to wear for a further thirty seconds or so, as he took it all in: he was in his element and was enjoying every minute of it.

And that’s the quality that stood out for me most, one he’s been scandalously devoid of in the past. Fans have been unable to warm up to the sometimes spectacular but no less spectacularly po-faced Tomas precisely because of how little of himself he was able to share – when he did choose to, it was with all the schmuck-like timing and (mis)calculation that saw him shush a Spanish crowd after overcoming Rafa in a heated encounter some years back – earning the further ire of an already fuming crowd and a reprimand at the net from the big man himself (“Very bad Tomas”).

An assessment with which I can only concur. Bad, Bad, NAUGHTY Tomas.

But when he saved those two match points opposite Roddick in the final last weekend – it all came together for me and seemingly for Tomas (there were never very many doubts about the relative completeness of his game even if the movement sometimes continues to disappoint). For he was able to to do so with such a calm (almost friendly) matter-of-factness, that I don’t even think it mattered to him very much that he went on to lose the match. For all intents and purposes, the battle raging inside of him over the last four years already appeared to have been won.

I don’t believe that a top ten position is immediately warranted, or his by birthright of the immense talent he’s still not in complete control of, and which has taken so long to flower. But I do depend now (as I once never did) on viewing him as a more secure and worthy top twenty presence.

-- Rafa? Troubling though curiously hopeful times, no?

On the face of it, two consecutive Masters semis ain’t half bad, and he’d entered the one in Miami in particular having played his best tennis of the last 11 months.

Against Jo-Willy he seemed to be putting a conscious line under all the unwholesome discrepancies since Rome of last year – a match that was everything the Big Rob/Gonzo blowout had promised to be.

That he should fall from those highs to the errors and uncharacteristic testiness that marred the second half of his semi final against A-Rod has to be of some concern to his camp.

There’s even speculation from some quarters of the Spanish media that his knee is at it again. He was certainly very upbeat about it in his presser. (Uncle Toni has indeed confirmed problems in his left knee.)

If we were to base our assessment on the totality of the last few months, rather than that one fuming shot of him flinging down that towel, we would have to conclude that he is apparently within spitting distance of his best - yet still held back by the faintest of aftershocks that must accompany any extended downturn – not that different to where I’d say Federer was at 12 months ago.

Fortunately for him, the clay season is upon us – for fans and critics alike, I’d say it’s put up or shut up time.

Greg Rusedski has Rafa rebounding convincingly on his favourite surface and going on to win the French Open. You’d like to think, for the sake of world serenity, that it’ll be as easy as that.

It sure as hell won’t make pleasant reading if he goes out of Monte Carlo (or Barcelona, or indeed Rome) early.

-- Big Rob? Disappointing. MUCH.

Not ready to talk about it. Not just yet.

I was willing to forgive him that lapse he suffered against Roddick in IW (very much “the one that got away”), but the bombsite he turned his match against Berdych into here, reeks of impertinence of the highest order.

Go away. And take your laundry with you.

(Photos: Getty, AFP)


Saturday, 3 April 2010

Miami: Cringe.

Perhaps the only valuable observation after the debacle that was this final came from Serena on her twitter feed.

serenajwilliams @venuseswilliams is such a champ if I were playing I would have cracked 5 rackets by now!!Wow she's to be admired and I can learn from her!!

She had been following Venus’s matches courtside all week long – I almost wish she did crack something from the sidelines.

Venus was taped up quite heavily – though how much that had to do with what transpired on court remains up for debate – my own feeling is it was simply one of those days.

It’s not as if this just crept up on us either: I barely managed to suppress the urge to cringe when I kept hearing of how her match against Bartoli was amongst her best performances of the week. Really?

Set two certainly, but it seems to me there were very many apparent holes in Venus’s game during the opener and that Bartoli played it with such a telling lack of conviction, it somehow seemed apt when she served four double faults in a single game.

Clijsters d. Williams 6-2 6-1

Kimmie deserves full credit for seeing things through against a struggling opponent, a win that will see her enter the top ten on Monday. Congratulations – it was only a matter of time.

Though I hope you’ll understand why I can’t claim to have seen her either “crush” or “thrash” Venus – it seems to me V already did that to herself.

Oh there'll be cringing alright.

(Photo: Reuters)


Friday, 2 April 2010

Miami: “Forehand Vulgaris”

The funny thing is I didn’t expect this one to be as “off the charts” or “lights out” as it was being bigged up to be.

Kimmie had come into the match the more stable and confident of the two – there was simply no reason not to expect her to come through in (possibly) three well-fought sets.

In the end it was something less agreeable – overwrought, taxing, way too long and at times headed nowhere. Kimmie displayed the squeaky clean shotmaking that’s been a hallmark of her return for one half, and played the other like like it was 2004 all over again.

She may well have pipped Justine to the post but it was arguably JuJu’s forehand that was the bigger story of her undoing.

Justine has (almost since the very beginning of her second coming) taken it upon herself not just to upgrade that serve of hers, but to thwack several shades of felt off anything that comes her way.

She’s clearly comfortable enough in her skin doing this – even on the very precipice of defeat. How this squares up with that well publicised intent of hers to win Wimbledon remains to be seen.

But If JuJu has seen fit to rip the cover off every return sent her way, then she’ll have to be prepared to live with the consequences of her debauchery.

In the short term it’s led to the conception of forehand-vulgaris.

Forehand-vulgaris is the miserable lovechild Justine might rather sooner forget about, the unfortunate issue of a bold, but dangerous liaison with Big-Babe Tennis.

Forehand-vulgaris usually picks it’s moments to inflict maximum damage – unravelling JuJu's game at the moments she should be most in control - just like the forgotten lovechild it is might noisily turn up uninvited at the charity ball of an exclusive country club, intent on undermining Juju’s carefully cultivated image of respectability.

What are the chances it shows up at the Wimbledon final?

(Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)



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