Friday, 27 February 2009

Houdini does Dubai...

How does he do it? I speak of course of the amazing escape act of Novak Djokovic.

Yet again we are confronted with the prospect of him (seemingly) on the way to a title, having not faced a single player in the top five (and only one in the top ten).

I raised an eyebrow when I heard we weren't to have the pleasure of Roger and Rafa's company (Roger's withdrawal here and at Switzerland's upcoming Davis Cup fixture suggest that he's, for the time being at least, placing a greater weight on his claims to
GOAThood -- which I'm not sure I find all that surprising) ; but that eyebrow became increasingly furrowed as I heard, first of A-Rod's offering to the sport n'politics debate (if I hear those two words mentioned in the same sentence again...) and then just yesterday, of Murray's departure (citing a virus that's troubled him since last month apparently).

(Djokovic image by AP Photo / Kamran Jebreili)

was in a last-ditch effort at spinning this into something resembling an evenly contested event, hoping for some fireworks today from our man Reeshard (maybe - just maybe if he got to the final - he could pull off something special there) , whose recent performances I just two days ago described as 'gritty' and 'resilient'. Well although it was an all but crushing defeat he suffered to David Ferrer today, I'd just like to point out (coz I certainly didn't know this), that Reeshard actually considers Daveed his bugbear - he said as much after his defeat to him at the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup - I believe his words were something along the lines of "I'd rather face Federer or Nadal...". Interesting.

Though nothing of course like an excuse for the excruciatingly inexcusable practice of playing so far behind the baseline that you're practically bumping into the line judges. I've often criticised Rafa and Marat for much the same thing. But
Reeshard's the worst offender I've seen at the higher levels of the game. At one point against Bolelli yesterday, the topspin he imparted on one of his - oh so fine - backhands actually caused the ball to begin it's descent before it'd cleared the net. That's how far back he was. It's made all the worse by the fact that he's annoyingly adept at taking the ball early and we all know about his shotmaking when he does that.

So while I cut him some slack in his loss to
Ferrer today, and while he has shown some very convincing improvements this year, this I have to say Reeshard is beginning to look very much like one step forward and two rather hefty strides back.

Give the
linespersons cattle prods I say.

Remind me again why I went off on a
Reeshard tirade. Oh yes, a credible opponent to Djoko and the possibility of a rather romantic finish to tomorrows final.

Well, let me say right off that
I want to see Djoko do well. I've been propping him up these months gone by - trying to turn a blind eye when he occasionally reverts to his previous "I'm cool in an abrasive kinda way" misdoings - and I certainly don't want him to be painted as someone who only wins when the top seeds aren't around because, well, he is one of the top seeds and we all know he can get it done against the very best.

Which is why I find it both frustrating and amazing that once again, through no fault of his own, a series of withdrawals will serve as a very large asterisk against a title here, should he come through against
Daveed tomorrow.

It's not quite as bad a situation as Rome or the Tennis Master's Cup last year (Rome in particular should appear beside an asterisk of such gargantuan proportions that the title is relegated to a mere footnote) -- that semi against Simone was quite something and suggestive of a return to form -- but will I'm sure give his critics more fodder to dish the dirt on him, which if he truly is beginning to rise from the ashes again, is just plain mean...

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Single Handed Backhander Watch: Mohammed Ghareeb

Allow me to ignore the top two seeds in Dubai for the moment and indulge in a frenzied celebration of the single handed backhand (a stroke I love so much, I've decided to turn spotting it into a series). We've had some very decent matches over the last couple of days providing yet more evidence of the frightening levels of depth in men's tennis. Here's my exhibit A, and B and C (and that's before I get on to Gasquet)....

Richard Gasquet

A commentator used the word 'gritty' in describing his performance today against Simone
Bolelli, and then immediately went on to observe how she never thought she'd be using that word in relation to Reeshard. Indeed.

It fits well with my earlier assertion that we are seeing a more resilient, headstrong
Reeshard this year. He seems at times almost less concerned with his standing in the game than coming through tough encounters (of which there have been quite a few this year).

He only just failed in a closely fought five set encounter against Gonzales in the Australian sun last month - but his attitudinal shift was evident even then. The heartening thing today is he made it through against
Bolelli in a tight three set match (two tie-breaks) which proved how far both men have come (see below re Bolelli).

The only thing I find a tad (
ok more than that) frustrating is his insistence on playing five metres behind the baseline. He also seems to be more than just a little affected by a sort of Counter-Punching Schizophrenia. You know, when players quite capable of taking the ball early and hitting through their opponents, suddenly start believing they are grinders. Andy Murray went through quite a bit of that pre Wimbledon last year.

Still, plenty to be hopeful of and look forward to me thinks.

Mohammed Ghareeb

He took Giles Simon to three sets yesterday and in doing so, displayed such natural ball striking ability (the pinnacle of which has to be the single handed backhand) and knack for knowing what the right shot is, that you were left wondering why he's ranked at such a lowly #469. He troubled Federer here three years ago after which Roger conceded: "[Ghareeb was] definitely the better player and I think only my experience helped me get through."
If that's what the standards like on the Futures tour, it really does underline the achievements of those who've broken through to the top of the game.

Flavio Cipolla

It was more his defensive backhand slice that caught my eye.
Djokovic was playing his usual aggressive firebrand baseline game, and Flavio seemed to be sucking it all up so effortlessly, I can't but imagine it got under Djoko's skin.

Simone Bolelli

This man has truly come on in leaps and bounds in a matter of months. That he didn't come through against Gasquet today ought not to be construed as any kind of shortcoming on his part. In fact, if anything he was the better player for large parts of the match, very much in keeping with his #36 ranking.

It's a far cry from his very questionable withdrawal against Andy Murray at Madrid last year, which seemed more like an effort at averting
embarrassment. And yes, he too has a quite exquisite single handed backhand. Read More...

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Dubai Beauty-Free...

The tit-for-tat continues in Dubai as the event organisers claimed that Andy's withdrawal had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the scheduling problems he'd face having made it to the final of Memphis (a tournament he won I'm happy to say, finally putting a stop to Radek and his one-man pageant).

I just want to say one more thing about the whole affair before putting this ugly mess to bed. There can be no doubt that the whole thing was a very badly handled episode on the part of the powers that be in Dubai. Shahar deserved to play here and wasn't allowed to. As we've heard so often this last week, sports and politics really shouldn't mix, not least because you run the risk of trivialising what are generally considered deeply upsetting events. But I also find it worrying that large parts of the media display uncanny insensitivity by continuing to act as if there is no history involved, choosing instead to run with the rather more safe 'sport'n politics don't mix' headline.

Millions around the globe see it differently - just sayin'.

On a more positive note, one of our girls has just cracked the top 50. I'm sure you'll permit me a Stepanek like side-trot -- actually I'll go with the Vicht-Salute on the grounds of good taste -- we've had to wait 16 years for this. I started to take notice when I heard Keothavong was through to the semis at Memphis where she suffered a rather less uplifting 6-1,6-0 defeat to Caroline Wozniacki. Ouch. I also find her references to unprofessionalism within the LTA quite interesting. Anyone know what that is all about?

Tsonga took the title in Marseille last week. I'm loving the way he's begun his campaign in 2009. The injuries seem to be well handled; and I'm detecting signs of some much needed poise in his recent performances - we all know how dangerous he is at his most explosive - his ranking though, might demand more measured and sustained performances throughout the year.

As thrilled as I am for Tsonga, his win here included yet another dismantling of Djoko, whose number 3 ranking is beginning to look less and less convincing. I don't know - it's not as if the Scot behind him was that electric in his Dubai opening match today - but Andy seems to have it cracked against most of the opposition (though by the sounds of it will be in no hurry to leave his more palatial quarters).

Djoko is now 1-4 against Tsonga. In 2008, he lost 2 out his 3 matches against Federer (who was if you remember having a pretty bad time of it), 4 out of 6 against Nadal (2 out of 3 if you exclude clay courts) and 2 out of 3 against Murray. If Tsonga and Roddick continue to beat up on him, that Serbian dream may remain just that. Here's hoping he turns it around in Dubai and IndianWells/Miami. The top of the game will be so much the better for it.

Tennis from 'Another World'...

So it seems A-Rod's Dubai withdrawal this week is a protest pull-out after all. I did wonder about this, as I found the news of his absence a little surprising. I know he's had a decent enough start to the year, but also thought there was something particularly galvanising about returning to Dubai as defending champion (an event where he beat both Nadal and Djoko) - something to draw upon in preparation for Indian Wells. Still, his other mini triumphs will mean the points he'll lose shouldn't hurt him.

His success continued this week as he made the finals in Memphis. Wanna know who else is having a good year? Radek 'The Necromancer' Stepanek, that's who. I suspected he might have been dabbling in the Dark Arts after his success in Brisbane (his dance routines have always been a little too unearthly for me) ; but his continued success in reaching the final here and that recent title in San Jose , leave little doubt in my mind that Radek is in league with forces not entirely of this world. Andy's big serve may not be enough...

In other not so recent news, Jamie Murray has been dropped from the British Davis Cup Doubles Team in favour of Ross Hutchins; and has evidently taken up Rugby and garish tatoos in an effort to ease the blow.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Highs and Lows of Dubai...

If you could manage to extricate yourself from the politics for a while, there was some pretty good tennis to be had at Dubai this week.

The whole event was of course overcast by the diplomatic row (which appears to have been resolved, for the time being...sort of) but there were some high notes during this not so operatic week of Tennis:
  • First off, big pat on the back to Virginie Razzano, whose accomplished performance saw her take out Safina, Zvonareva and Hantuchova. I didn't catch them all, but understood a little about how she was able to pull that off in watching the first set of the Final against Venus Williams today. What stuck in my mind most was how early she was taking the ball (Virginie that is), and how unintimidated she appeared against the taller (lower ranked) half of the sibling-duo that should by rights be dominating the game. I get a little tired of hearing the argument that the lack of a dominant force in Womens Tennis is somehow indicative of it's present levels of depth, but Virginie (along with Navarro) is just the type of player that, had we more of, might just change my mind. She's no top tenner but is comfortable in all parts of the court and more importantly, seems like a player that doesn't believe in going quietly - exactly what we need if we are to see less of those two set, 45 minute dismissals so often a feature of the early (and sometimes sadly the latter) stages of Womens events. She made, what on paper looked like a one-sided affair, hugely entertaining (for a set and a half anyway). Womens Tennis may not have depth but French tennis certainly does.
  • Way to go Ana you-must-believe Ivanovic! Yeah I know she lost, and I know Serena's knee (and back by the looks of it) was playing up. But let there be no mistake - Serena is hot right now. And anyone capable of staying in rallies with (and at times out hitting) her the way Ana you-can-do-it did deserves ample praise. It's probably to early to suggest that anything Kardon has said or done has brought about this improvement (I saw no difference in technique or style); maybe the new setup has simply refocused her on her own strengths.
  • Those Sisters. What to say? Serena lost to perhaps the only player in the draw capable of beating her convincingly. It wasn't the best match they'd played, but that last set certainly demonstrated why there should be no doubt of their WTA supremacy, even if they aren't always able to dominate in the way their fans might like them to. Serena looked a little downcast after the loss and went off court pretty quickly. I'm sure it had something to do with that troublesome knee; I hope they don't still feel that they have to prove to anyone just how competitive they can be against one another. Venus looks in fine nick -- and though she's ranked below her baby sister, still seems the more stable of the two right now. I liked the way she handled the whole Peer thing in her victory speech. I feel the calls for her to pull out (like those that expect Federer to speak out) over the affair were a little misplaced..
  • I wasn't altogether happy about the introduction of Coaches on court during WTA matches. And if you are going to go through with it, then why not the men? Tennis is very much a one on one, dog-eat-dog type of affair: it's why thousands of fans worldwide love it. No room for mid match cushy-coaching sessions then. Well I haven't been won over but I do enjoy hearing the player coach exchanges (who are now mic-ed up for our enjoyment) even when I don't understand the language they are speaking; it conveys something of the cut and thrust of the match in a completely innovative and pleasantly surprising way. I believe it's still in the experimental stages, and won't be sorry to see it go, but it just goes to show you can be wrong about things.
There were also those intent on turning the week into one big Greek Tragedy:
  • I'm not sure what happened here as there didn't look to be any signs of injury. Though I've sung Virginie's praises above, this loss looked to me to be all about Dinara. Or to be more precise, what's in between her ears. She didn't look completely convincing in Melbourne but steadied the ship in time to secure a place in the Final. But this time she was all at sea. She's going to need to cut out these still-too-wayward performances if she is to remain entrenched at the top of the game.
  • Jelena. The worst match of her career. Her words. You should be ashamed of yourself Jelena. Oh sorry, you said that too.
  • Agnieszka. I'm worried. It seems to me you've been getting biffed-bopped-n'bashed around a little too often by the big girls since last year, and in case you missed it, there's something deeply uncool about getting the beat down from your little sister (who is a good player, but ranked 111 places below you - and a mere qualifier at the event). Commentators are a little too quick IMO, to cast Agnieszka (as they are any player that doesn't strike the ball as hard as the stronger women on tour) as a strategist - someone who doesn't try to hit their way out of a problem. Maybe there's some truth in that. But not very much. She's no Hingis - she's just having a Hingis moment.
As for the whole visa thing, what to say that hasn't already been said. Shahar earnt her right to play and was denied. If you are going to position yourself as a World class, premier level event, you can't in all seriousness pick and choose whom you allow to play, diplomatic rows aside. Besides, Dubai strikes me more as a playground for the rich and famous, than as a podium for political statements. But I've also found some of the media commentary around the whole affair a little naive. We are after all speaking of a highly charged situation that many people around the world find deeply disturbing. Much as we'd like to believe it, it seems that sport can't always transcend politics. Read More...

Monday, 16 February 2009

Allez Amelie...

It was at times painfully evident, during Amelie's three set deconstruction of Elena this weekend, at just how well placed she is not just to defuse Elena's groundstrokes, but those of most any high powered baseliner in the top twenty; which for me makes it all the more frustrating.

Not that it was a particularly high quality match. Both are clearly capable of better things. But that I suppose is the point for me: a fully fit Amelie playing at around 75% or above trumps most powerballers not named Williams (although do you remember that match she had with Venus at the final of the Proximus Games some four years back - it was around the time Williams was finding her way back from injury to eventually win at Wimbledon -- a real showcase of contrasting styles).

If anything, Elena tried a little too hard to contend with the blend of slice, pace and moonballing that was being thrown her way. She would have probably been more successful if she'd doggedly stuck to her natural strengths (flat balling Amelie from the back of the court is what you're about Elena); instead on occasions, she got drawn into playing Amelie like Amelie - and the sight of Elena at the net is not a pretty one, although a true sign perhaps of how desperate things were out there.

Like most Amelie fans, I'd love this to indicate the beginning of bigger and better things for her in what must surely be the twilight of her career. But it's probably more realistic to mark down our expectations by a notch or two. For one thing staying uninjured presents a difficult challenge - particularly against players that are altogether too ready to give her the run around.

I called Radek's win in Brisbane back in January, this year's first venture into how'd-that-happen territory. Needless to say, I wasn't expecting him to follow up in San Jose. But perhaps even more amazing was to hear of five Americans ensconced in the quarters. When was the last time that happened? And why did none of them go on to win the title? It's moments like these that Andy, James and Mardy (and even Sam if he's to remain a Young Gun) will need to learn to take advantage of -- even if Radek chooses to behave like a baddie from a Roald Dahl book. I suppose Mardy got to the final, but the other two have some reflecting to do.


I've seen a bunch of recent articles all of which seem to suggest that the Serbs are on some kind of downward spiral. There can be no doubt that they are struggling right now, (Ana in particular has had her well documented problems since Roland Garros last year) but I think it's time to cut them some slack as some of those problems at least, might have begun to bottom out.
  • Ana's just appointed Kardon as a Coach, whose blend of experience and maturity might prove to be just what she needs. She's made a decent enough start at Dubai in defeating Kleybanova and Coin - hardly the stuff of legend, but opponents whom she might have struggled against last year.
  • Jelena's form is normally quite sketchy early in the year -- her season ending exertions usually catch up with her in January and always seems to be recovering from some kind of virus or infection. I predicted a Slam for her in 2009 and I'm sticking with the view that it's most likely to come at Roland Garros.
  • Novak worries me - if it was just a case of poor form I might be less concerned, but his ambivalence at times suggests he's a little lost and couldn't care less. He did make the Aussie Open quarters so let's not all of a sudden forget what the guy's capable of, but ranking points don't last forever - and in the presence of the threat from that man Murray he's going to have to step it up sooner rather than later. I still think Clay and Grass presents him, as well as those other three, with an opportunity (surprising for a hard courter I know), since (Tsonga not withstanding) these surfaces still seem a little intractable to the less nuanced player. But if he hasn't made his mark by Roland Garros, the doom mongering won't be premature.
Mauresmo image by Richard Fisher

Saturday, 14 February 2009

A Different Type of Backhand...

I was about to ignore this one, but it just won't go away.

Murray's backhands can sometimes be a little too curt and brash for some, but is this time I fear, right on the money.

It's a sorry state of affairs when a retired 35 year old (who can still do some serious damage with his serve it has to be said) represents a plausible choice for your next Davis Cup fixture.

But what is Greg thinking in testing the waters with the lower level ATP events? Proving his mettle for possible reconsideration by John Lloyd?

Do whatever it normally takes to get this mid life crisis out of your system Greg - I believe the usual protocol involves buying a fast car. Then move on.

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Next 'Next Big Thing'...

I don't normally make a habit of missing out on new sensations - especially when they have much-touted single handed backhands. But I wasn't able to catch Nadal's third round encounter in Rotterdam with the Bulgarian 17 year old, Grigor Dimitrov. He's the reigning Junior Wimbledon and US Open Champion, and a future top tenner - a view held by no less a man than Rafa himself.

I normally take next-big-thing hollerings with a pinch of salt - it seems to me that there's too many players that remain as next-big-things-in-waiting, right through to their mid twenties, yet to have made the slightest dent at the Masters level (Reeshard's about to prove me wrong on that count this year, aren't you Reeshard?). But as it's Rafa that's put some of his weight behind the bigging-up brigade, my young gun radar will this year, be tuned more closely than normal on young Grigor.


The French women had a hard day at the office in their quarter finals in Paris - and boy were they up against it:

Williams v Loit

Dementieva v Dechy

Jankovic v Cornet

Radwanska v Mauresmo


In case you missed it they all went out, except for Mauresmo who always seems to rise up when I've stopped taking notice; and what is the deal with Radwanska these days? Cornet did put up spirited resistance in her match against Jankovic (that had an uncomfortably large number of service breaks), but went down in another close three setter, that must surely remind her of that match she played against Safina at Melbourne, where she held two match points before Dinara came storming back.

Last but not least, Mario 'serve and volleys last stand' Ancic seems to be making something of a comeback in Rotterdam. He's beaten both Simon and Youzhny and now faces Murray in the semis. I don't expect him to get through (Murray's slices are looking a little too delicious), but will I hope derive some confidence from his run here.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Proof That Ana Ivanovic follows 'Tennis is Served...'

I'm only kidding of course; but you have to admit it's just a little eerie that this 'ere report appeared just two days after I made the quite casual and off-handed observation that her journey out of the mire might be aided by the addition of a proper full time coach. That hot-desking arrangement she had with Groeneveld was getting her nowhere fast. That's why he's described somewhat euphemistically as 'her former mentor'.

In case you missed it, I take very strong exception with a set up that permits a Team Adidas 'mentor' to hop from player to player. I favour the modern trend of appointing not one coach but a team of specialists - it's not the right fit for everyone but can prove (as Team Murray has shown) to be an extremely successful arrangement, finances permitting.

But it seems to me that what's made that set up work for Murray is the good relationship he has with Maclagan and the rest of his team - something that would be undermined by Miles bench hopping between a team of Fred Perry players - not that there's that many of them.

But this is a classic case of modernity gone mad. It's not as if 'The Floating Mentor' hasn't been rightly lambasted already; the usual criticism is it has the potential to bring about the ridiculous prospect of seeing two Adidas players going head to head with no coach on either bench (Groeneveld is not allowed to act as coach for one Adidasette against another...apparently).

But I actually feel Ivanovic is particularly ill-suited to this kind of arrangement. She needs IMO someone who can get to know her (and her game) well, and more importantly someone who can then use that to inspire her to believe in her abilities again. Both problematic if you're dividing your time between working on Safina's movement or Wozniacki's abilities at the net.

So I welcome this announcement from Ana (even if she did read it here first!); and the fact that this chap Kardon has worked with some of the more illustrious personages of the game bodes very well for her. The Floating Mentor can go float somewhere else - and good riddance.

Ivanovic image by tripletrouble under licence


Sunday, 8 February 2009

No More Tears...

Not to drag out the whole crying-thing, but after the emotions of the Aussie Open Final, I thought it might be worth revisiting some of the more watery on-court moments of the past; or at least the one's I remember.

We all love players that display vulnerability; it isn't after all that often, and when they do shed a tear (or two), it's truly a measure of how frayed their nerves are - a class above IMO some of the more narcissistic exhibitions of Oscar Acceptance territory.

There'll be no more talk of tears here.

(As an aside, aren't you relieved that Kate Winslet managed to deliver a composed acceptance speech at her BAFTA win yesterday? So far removed from her Golden Globes breakdown - which was suffered very badly here - as was the whole "and who!? (Jolie, that's who)" moment.)

Jana Novotna (v Steffi Graf, 1993 Wimbledon Final)

Dubbed by some as the best double act tennis has ever seen, the image of Novotna with her head slumped on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent remains one of the more enduring images of Wimbledon.

I wasn't, let's say as avid a follower of Women's tennis during this period - I got more involved towards the middle of the nineties; but I was sure never to miss a
Graf match (the relentless nature and power of her forehand seemed to me to be ahead of its time), and this image caught not just my eye, but everyone in the country it seemed. It also gave us a very brief glimpse into a less priggish and certainly more humane Wimbledon.

Pete Sampras (v Jim Courier, 1995 Melbourne Quarter Final)

"Do it for your Coach Pete!". I hadn't seen this one in full until recently, and didn't realise how protracted the whole thing was (the sobbing that is). Anyone not comfortable with public displays of emotion will not like this one bit. Sampras is seen wiping his eyes, intermittently throughout, but it all comes to a head at 1-1 in the final set (at 6:57 in the video) when someone yells out that infamous line. Courier, at 30 all (out of genuine concern it seems), yells over the net, "We can do this tomorrow, you know!". Sampras serves two aces to close out the game (bet you wish you'd kept quiet Jim!).

Just goes to show what a great bond the coach-player relationship really is - and how laughably ineffective it makes the pic'n mix arrangement favoured by Ivanovic and the rest of Team Adidas seem. Speaking of which, the coachless
thing for Ana didn't work out at Melbourne. Maybe she should appoint a proper coach for a change - not a hot-desker, but one that's with her full time I mean. I'm beginning to think that kind of set up would favour her less stable disposition.

Andre Agassi (v Goran Ivanisevic, 1992 Wimbledon Final)

He couldn't believe he'd won it, it seemed. I understand he entered the event hating the grass. He burst into tears almost immediately on winning the match and fell to his knees, but the image that stayed with me ever since (sorry Andre) was the sight of Ivanisevic consoling him on his side of the court.

Goran was very much THE 'angry young man' of that era (Marat was still around 7-8 years away) and his serve was like nothing I'd ever seen (or
have ever seen for that matter); but watching him exhibit a more tender side only made official what I had felt coming on for a long time: I was a fan.

Martina Hingis (v Steffi Graf, 1999 Roland Garros Final)

Scary stuff. An absolute orgy of neuroticism. Steffi must have wondered what she'd done to deserve opponents who all freak out on her. We all know what happened, but I'm sure these are the kinds of tears we'd prefer not to see. Martina's period of dominance was over, the Williams sisters had arrived and though she continued to perform well over the next few years (four further appearances at the Aussie Open Final and a Hopman Cup win with one Roger Federer), would never see the glint of a Slam trophy again.

I was glad to see her return to the game in 2005 and back to something like her best when she qualified for the SEC in 2006. It was also very evident however just why she was prone to being overpowered not just by the Williams Sisters, but most any strong baseliner that had risen up the rankings over the past few years.

Goran Ivanisevic (v Pat Rafter, 2001 Wimbledon Final)

An absolute fairytale; and tears of joy are not at all out of place in fairytales. The story of the loveable Croat winning his first Wimbledon Title (and only Grand Slam) as a Wildcard at the ripe old age of 29, with the odds seemingly stacked against him made him a celebrity in the UK - though having made the final three times in the past, most of the crowd had already warmed to him and many would have thought this title well overdue - even at the expense of Tiger Tim (and Pat Rafter).

Jose Acasuso (v Marat Safin, 2006 Davis Cup Final)

I don't know what it is about Acasuso - but I want good things to happen for him. He's got all the makings of a big player and yet something in his psyche holds him back. If there's one criticism I have of him, it's that he appears a little too laid back. Like he's just out there to have a good time.

But none of that was in evidence in the post match footage of that Davis Cup final of 2006, that showed Jose inconsolable with his head slumped down. This man cared very much it seemed.
I'd like a little more of that zeal when he's not playing for his country.

Novak Djokovic (v Rafael Nadal, 2008 Olympic Games)

This is the stuff that'll get people to love you Novak: Natural, unaffected displays of heart. The tears were so natural in fact that he walked off court a little too quickly. If he'd spent a moment or two longer in his chair, he might have realised just how much the fans appreciated his efforts - mind you that's exactly the kind of thing he's a little too conscious of.


Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Grass Court Events: A Far Cry Away?

I've deliberately steered clear of discussing or posting any images of Roger and his Waterworks, but have been amazed to see just how greatly the issue appears to have polarised the tennis world.

On the one hand you have those who say that it's great for tennis, great for sport and a measure of the man's love for his craft and reaching it's highest levels. Not at all out of place either here or at the Olympic Games.

The other side (at it's less judgemental) perhaps repelled by the disproportionate levels of Roger-loving in some quarters, says that the episode not only robbed Nadal of a very special moment in his own career, but also of the extensive media coverage it would otherwise have generated. Suffused somewhere in there is also the viewpoint that even if such displays have a place, they have kind of run their course with Roger.

I'm not sure either one of those views are
entirely true, but for my money, prefer it hadn't happened as I really think this was a landmark moment for Nadal (this 'grinder' is now well on course for a Career Slam, and is for some a better Grand Slam prospect than Roger), and much as I prefer his game, feel Roger already gets more than his fair share of press coverage.

It also unwittingly, shifted focus from what the issue here really is: the significance of Nadal's win; from the discussion of whether he now really has matured into a player for all surfaces, to questions of how many Slams he'll win.

Now I know most of us Tennis Heads have analysed and dissected these to bits already - but the man on the street will simply be confronted with images of Weeping Roger alongside a less prominent image of Rafa biting on a trophy. Their conclusion? -- "Oh that Nadal kid continues to trouble Federer. Strangely emotional these tennis playing folk, although I suppose Sampras did it too..." That last Pistol-Pete observation only from the more astute sports fan...

On the other hand, there wasn't anything deliberate or calculated in his actions. Roger was just being Roger. We all know he's a very emotional man. I suppose we should blame the press for, well being the press and trying to sell more papers.


Since his win in Melbourne, Nadal's being making noises about the disproportionately large number of hard court tournaments, focusing in particular on the physical demands the surface places on the body and interestingly enough how he felt that would affect him long after he's left the game.

It reminded me once again of a point I've discussed with 2Hander and that I'm sure has been mulled over again and again. Just why we don't have more grass court events and why in particular there is no Grass court event at the Masters level?

I know the shortage of grass courts has a lot to do with the year long maintenance demands placed on the event holders, but hang on a minute - we are, are we not speaking of a properly sponsored world class event, not the budgetary concerns of my local lawn tennis club!?

As to the second question, I've often thought scheduling difficulties were the main sticking point and it is problematic to have a Master's event with Roland Garros and Wimbledon being only 4 weeks apart. Though even that is not wholly impossible: we could for example have a similar situation to Monte Carlo, by turning Queens into a non-mandatory 1000 level event.

Failing that I just can't see why we don't have more grass court events (at or below the 1000 level) before or after Wimbledon - we do after all have a colossal 15 clay court events before RG and 7 after it. Change can be effected it seems if the suits do business - look at the effort that went into rescheduling Madrid and making it a joint event with the WTA - a very welcome addition to the calendar I think.

I'm not with the purists who demand that each of the Slams be played on a different surface: the year in their world view would culminate in an Indoor Carpet Slam played some time around September. Indoor tournies have their place in the Calendar but they aren't Slams and that indoor-sameiness (just how many times have you truly
been wowed by an aerial - or as aerial as you can get inside - shot of Paris-Bercy, Basel or Shanghai?? ) is frankly light years away (backwards in the direction of the big bang) from anything you might expect at a Slam. The big event feel generated by the Colossus that is the Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the fact that it is played outdoors has contributed equally to making the US Open the momentous and historic tournament it is.

Besides, we have indoor Masters events. We only have a pitiful five grass court events outside of Wimbledon, and none of these are at the Masters *shudders* 1000 level.

Maybe if Rafa cried about it, the suits would take note - he'd certainly get more press...

Nadal image by Chris Taylor under licence


Sunday, 1 February 2009

Good Things on the Hard Stuff...

Men's Final

Not much to add to 2
Hander's commentary except maybe to say that I thought Nadal looked strangely vulnerable during key points of the second and third sets.

Federer was able to capitalise in set two but lost his way a little at the end of the third - a set that if he had won, may have resulted in quite a different story. Instead we got atrocious un-slam-like serving (32% 1st serves in the 2nd set) and a rather tragic last set.

But there's no doubt that
Nadal troubles Federer psychologically like no other player out there (including pre-tournie favourite Murray who remains a bugbear-in-waiting at the Slam level) - have you ever seen Federer hit that many drop shots? Much as I love the addition of it to Federer's game, don't you feel we're seeing a (digitally remastered) rerun of the 'kitchen sink and bathtub' episode all over again?

It's not all bad news though - his overall form at this Open suggests he's over whatever was bothering him in 08, and remains IMO the better hard court player, if you forget about their H2H for a moment and go instead by their overall record against the rest of the competition (which is a closer relation to what the ATP rankings represent anyway).

Nadal remains vulnerable to aggressive flat hitters on hard courts, and a small part of me can't help but observe that he didn't have to face Murray, Djokovic, Tsonga or even James Blake for that matter.

Not to take anything away from Nadal's victory though - what he accomplished against Nando (in the match of the tournament) was something quite special; and to follow it up with this confident performance in the final (he actually looked sure he was going to win this thing) was very Rafa-like.

But there's no change in that forehand I'm afraid; or if he
has changed it he certainly showed none of that here. No, it was more of the same from Rafa - and what he brings ain't half bad...

Women's Final

Boo...the only possible consolation in that
atrocious performance from Dinara was that she was facing Serena Williams, and her losing therefore was not altogether unexpected. But I object to the manner of her defeat (and I expect Zeljko does too) - she may not have expected to win, but was one of the more better placed players to give Serena a run for her money.

Still, there's not much to feel sorry for when you make two Slam finals (and one semi) in the space of twelve months; it's a darned sight better than actually winning one of these things only to (irretrievably?) lose the form that got you into the top ten in the first place (Can you believe
Rusedski's doubtful Ana may ever return to the top of the game?).

Revisiting the anti-picks...

1. "Nadal is ripe for some hard court ecstasy this year...". YES! (clenched fist minus the Ana style twirl-around) Though I predicted good things for Nadal on hard courts this year, it has come a little sooner than I expected; my anti-pick of him was meant more as a motivational tool, setting the scene for a good run here, maybe a couple of hard court titles at the '1000' - *splutter* - Masters level, and then a Slam at this year's US Open. Except now that I think about it, it was perhaps always more likely to occur here rather than at Flushing Meadows, where he quite understandably (after the efforts of of the Clay Court Season and Wimbledon) appears a little worse for wear.

2. "I doubt I'll see you in many second-weeks-of-a-Slam (SWOSs) this year (Nando)...". (Utters audible obscenity, incurring a Code Violation from Mohammad Lahyani). Well look, I wasn't completely wrong. I did after all also say, he's a tad underrated and that he's capable of making a 'Wawrinka-like foray into the top ten' (Nando's currently at number 9). But yes I did underestimate you Nando - but mostly because you gave me precious little to go on. Anyway, I'm not quite ready to reach for that bottle of Tabasco sauce just yet. I did say 'many SWOSs' didn't I, and he's only just reached his first.

3. "He'll (Djoko) be lucky to make the quarters." (Muted Celebrations one might see when winning the match on a double fault). A little lucky with the quarter final call, and there's still confusion in my mind about where his game is at. But I really thought the Slam-withdrawals were behind him. *Groan*

4. "He (A-Rod) can still trouble the very best..." CAAHMAN! (Vicht-salute towards the players box). He did take out Djoko, though not quite in the way I imagined; and coming unstuck against Federer in the semis, though unpleasantly familiar territory is hardly the end of the world. Please, please find some way to build on this Andy - Nole and Nikolay are looking a little vulnerable right now...

4. Ana("Not looking like a top tenner...") and Nicole ("The only way is up..."). Not about to celebrate anyone continuing a run of poor form. Especially Nicole's first round exit. Yuck.

5. Reeshard ("I serve you notice...") and Svetlana ("I fear I do know..."). I'm hoping I detected what looked like positive changes in mentality and temperament in both of these headcases. Reeshard didn't meet the new 'minimum terms of competency' (a Slam quarter or a Masters final by the end of RG) I've set for him, but had some rough early round matches which I thought he handled pretty well despite the loss; and Sveta made the quarters, only folding in that all too familiar way to the wonder that is Serena Williams. Not great, but plenty to be hopeful of I think.

6. Juan ("Fourth round at best...") Del Potro (Embarrassed pursing of lips accompanied by clapping above head in a show of support and encouragement). I don't know what to say except I'm really, really sorry for declaring my dislike for your style of play. That Fedora bloke really is quite merciless. Look on the bright side: you went one round better than my prediction.

Parting Reflections...

Men's match of the tournament - Could it be anything other than that Rafa-Nando Semi?

Women's match of the tournament - Venus v Navarro closely followed by Serena v Dementieva; over in straight sets but featured IMO some of the best ball striking of the tournament (loved that rally that left Serena downed..literally)

Best Analyst - Michael Stich: Quite a revelation. Calm, measured tennis-wise observations on the state of play. Doesn't ride the wave of euphoria and doesn't use the word 'unbelievable'. Unbelievable. 10/10

Player of the Tournament: Nando, without any doubt - Outgunned Murray, Tsonga and almost Rafa, which by anyone's standards is pretty special.

MIA: Maria Sharapova - Her absence here has cost her her place in the top ten. Can't wait to have her back - the WTA needs it; and the Williams Sisters need the competition.

Verdasco image by Sacha Fernandez

Nadal image by Steve Collis



All images on this site have been found in the public domain.
Credit has been given wherever possible.
If you feel your copyright is being infringed upon by any particular image, please contact me and I'll have it taken it down.

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