Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Old School Tennis?

[2] R Federer (SUI) d [Q] T Dent (USA) 63 62

Sensory stimulation. Forget listening to whales murmuring, if Tennis were prescribed as therapy, these are the matches you'd be made to see. Tennis the way it should be played. A real contrast of styles - and I'm not even sure I'd call it old school.

In short Dent supplied us with the best net play that I've maybe seen since Federer won his first Wimbledon title. Back then Taylor was known more for his 140mph+ service. I knew he was a great serve-volleyer, but I forgot
how good. Or the relative absence of this style of play has made me forget just how good things can get.

Whatever it was it required Federer to raise his game to a level I'm pretty sure we haven't seen from him at the Masters level for around a year and a half.

Loving the comeback from Dent, who is taking off the entire clay court season to spend time getting back into shape - can't wait - I'd love to see what a more trim Dent could accomplish against the top players.

[3] N Djokovic (SRB) d [21] T Berdych (CZE) 63 62

Novak's been very busy this week persuading the media that he's feeling much better about his tennis and life in general. I actually want to believe him and he seemed to play well enough.

Trouble is Berdych was as Berdych always is, and sadly seems destined to remain - though I'd loved to be proved wrong. Just when you think he's put a couple of good points together he almost rears up as if he's just been reminded of how UN-Tomas like that last point was and quickly settles into his comfort zone. Trouble is his comfort zone is not what his therapist might refer to as a 'happy place'.

Hearing the ball come off his racquet really does make you feel you're in the presence of potential greatness (it
does sound rather Safin-like). Federer observed after his 5 set scare against him at this years Aussie Open that 'he wished he was higher up the rankings so you don't have to play him so early'. Hear that Tomas? Even TMF himself wishes you'd play that little bit better.

And as for Novak, I remain unconvinced, at least until I see him pull off a straight set win against a more solid player - preferably by dictating play the way he was last year.

[4] A Murray (GBR) d V Troicki (SRB) 61 60

Ouch. Every so often the top 4 (perhaps subconsciously) flex their muscles a little and remind us (and maybe themselves) of the kind of carnage they're capable of. Perfect way to recover from his more shaky performance a round earlier.

[5] A Roddick (USA) d [9] G Monfils (FRA) 76(2) 64

More loveliness from the A-Rod, who is my unofficial world number 5 right now. The commentators observed that though we often bemoan the lack of variety on Tour, not many would pick A-Rod as the guy to remind us of the
game's many subtleties. This performance had it all. UN-Roddick like smoothness at the net. Murray style rope a dopes. All demonstrating how far he's come. How I wish this maturation had happened say 3 years ago.

[6] J Del Potro (ARG) d [11] D Ferrer (ESP) 63 62

Haven't seen any of Juan's matches, but with the results he's had here is beginning to look a little more world number six like. Still think he'll have a tough time against the Tsonga's and Verdasco's of this world.

[10] J Tsonga (FRA) d [7] G Simon (FRA) 67(4) 63 62

Simon's had one too many losses recently all of which suggest that his run of good form maybe nearing it's end. I still think he's one of the game's best defenders and is endurance is almost Ferrer-like at times, but you just get the feeling lately that he's had the success he's had on the back of a series of sub par performances by the best players.

[8] F Verdasco (ESP) d [18] R Stepanek (CZE) 62 62

Stepanek's been a warlock this year. Scary, scary play to accompany his scary post match 'Living Theatre'. Except today, when Nando reminded him that worms aren't sometimes that scary at all. Sometimes they're just fish food.

[8] S Kuznetsova (RUS) d [13] C Wozniacki (DEN) 64 67(5) 61

A horrible, horrible stewy mix of immaturity and tactical miscalculation on the part of Wozniacki, and more of that frailty I spend a large part of my time hating on the part of Kuznetsova.

To be fair it was HOT out there; and Sveta appeared to play a great first set featuring a lot of the effortless power-precision that draws me to her play.

But I can only hope that the passivity that Caroline showed in the early part of the match was a conscious tactic in hope that Sveta would implode in the way she usually does. It didn't work - and it took Caroline the best part of two sets to realise this. Then she pressed the panic button and so began a kamikaze like bid that saw her lose the last set 6-1.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Miami Vice (and no Vitriol)

I can't promise it'll last for very long, but you'll find a little less anti-WTA vitriol here over the coming months. Ignore for a moment that the tours top players have somehow managed to top last weeks dismal showing at Indian Wells -- a culling that saw Jelena, Svetlana, Alize and Elena out before coverage even began in the UK. Appalling as that was, it was just so way-out-there (in a bad way) that I thought things would soon settle into a more palatable and familiar level of frailty. Heck, my pick Vera even won the event: quite the stuff of silver linings and clouds - or so I thought.

Only this time I did at least manage to catch a single match between Venus Williams and Anna-Lena Groenefeld before being greeted with the news that Dinara, Jelena, Alize, Nadia, Ana and Vera (I Know!) had all suffered insufferable losses before or at round three.

An economic recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth. I think we've just witnessed the tennis equivalent. In fact, I propose the following definition:

"A Players Recession will henceforth be defined as two consecutive events that see a total of at least three top ten players out before or during round three."

With things being as
decrepit as they are, vitriol suddenly seems a little misplaced.


In any event, things are really hotting up in Miami.

v Monfils was really special yesterday, with Safin playing for two sets, some of the best tennis I've seen him play since Wimbledon last year. We all know how he is from the baseline, but it was encouraging to see the number of times he successfully executed at the net (I forget the stats but it was something nearing 24/30 net points won)

He's always been adept there of course but tends to favour his more thunderous baseline play. I can't help but believe this to be a conscious decision on his part to shorten some of those rallies as he's no longer as mobile scrambling around at the baseline as he was say three years ago, and can be exposed in some of those longer rallies.
Safin was up 5-2 in the final set before Monfils (with a helping hand from a true to form Marat) staged a comeback not unlike Rafa did against Nalbandian last week. Final score 5-7, 7-5 7-6(3).

It didn't end there.

Today's match between Wozniacki and Dementieva featured -- for a set and a half at least -- some of the best rallies I've seen on the Women's Tour this year. Wozniacki came through, as Elena (almost at a loss for how her opponent managed to weather some of her best flat balling) completely lost her way in the second set. This may turn out to be the event that Caroline finally announces herself. Given the way that the top seeds have (for the second consecutive week) fallen by the wayside, that may be easier than we think. It's still early days, but I think it's worth remembering that she'll only have to face one of the Williams Sisters en route to the title.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Telling Quotes...

Some interesting insights from Andy, Novak and Roger ahead of Miami:

“I would rather continue serving like I have been and winning that 86 per cent of my service games rather than give guys more opportunities by serving double faults,” the British No l said yesterday. “If I win 86 per cent of my service games throughout the year, I think I finish No 1 in the world.”

Source: The Times

On the one hand you can't fault the stats. Murray remains my favourite server in the top four at the moment but I can't help thinking that he would benefit from more kick and general inventiveness on his 2
nd serve. The other thing that strikes me is how unlike him it is to be speaking of getting to the top spot by the end of the year. The ambition's obvious but he's always been a 'not getting ahead of himself' kind of a guy even though the media are clamouring for him to get more vocal.

"The difference in points [between the top four and the rest] would suggest there's a big gap," admitted Murray.
"But on any given day, I would think that any of those guys [Tsonga et al] could beat the top four players.
"I think that's why right now tennis is in a really good spot because it's not that predictable."

Source: BBC

That's a good point and one that doesn't get made often enough in my opinion in the media-driven Fab-Four furore. Of the top four, only Rafa is anything close to near-invincibility right now. Federer is still finding his way back to relative normalcy, Djoko is clearly in a funk and Murray is beatable on any day the conditions don't suit him or isn't feeling quite 100% physically.

"But, you know, life goes on. I'll try to work hard the next couple of days and make things look right, and hopefully now I can get far.
“I wasn’t myself last week,” he said. “So I have to turn the next page. I just have to prove to myself again that I have the quality to be one of the best players in the world. I just need to be confident.”
Everything happens for a reason. That day and that match I wouldn't like to remember, of course, but you always try to learn from your mistakes. I didn't do a great job at all. I talked to my coach, and, of course, the team, and tried to figure out the way that I can make some things better.

- Djoko on his Indian Wells Performance

Source: The Times

There's been suggestions that Djoko might actually benefit from a change of coach. I've always been a big fan of Marian Vajda -- even when I couldn't stand Djoko -- he was very much the calming influence that the overly-boisterous Djoko needed and clearly benefited from at that stage of his career. But Djoko's calmness is now a cause for justifiable alarm. Might things have run their course?

"I hope this year I can change that and get on a good roll again," said the Swiss star, who will face Kevin Kim in his opening match.

"I've done so well over the last few years I'd like to win a few again."

Source: BBC

You could argue that this doesn't sound like someone who believes. On the other hand, Roger always tries to sound confident and has been accused of being 'delusional' or 'in denial'. So let's not deconstruct this one...


Today's Picks...

My pick of today's matches, which I won't get to see as coverage commences tomorrow:

[5] A Roddick (USA) vs D Junqueira (ARG) - ATP
Junqueira took Gasquet to hell and back at Melbourne this year - I'd like to see how the leaner meaner A-Rod stands up to this abuse.

[WC] M Lopez (ESP) / R Nadal (ESP) vs A Montanes (ESP) / T Robredo (ESP) - ATP
A Spanish conspiracy is underway to make the Bryans work for their ranking, no?

[22] A Chakvetadze (RUS) vs D Hantuchova (SVK) - WTA
Both these players are former top tenners; I prefer Daniela's game but neither has been that convincing recently. Still, be interesting to see where they're at.

[31] P Mathieu (FRA) vs M Baghdatis (CYP) - ATP
Juiciness; Baggy just took out Gulbis in the opening round and I thought he looked very strong at Melbourne. If both players play to the best of their abilities, this one has epic written all over it.

[7] G Simon (FRA) vs [WC] L Hewitt (AUS) - ATP
My pick of the day. For one thing it pits grinder against grinder and will no doubt answer a lot of the following questions: Is Simon a grinder? Is he an aggressive counterpuncher? How effective is he against someone who plays much the same way? What can we expect from Hewitt? How effective can he be against perhaps the only grinder in the top ten? Can he get back into the top 20?

[Q] T Dent (USA) vs [19] N Almagro (ESP) - ATP
Dent is a one time owner of the fastest serve in the world before Greg Rusedski took on that record. I always used to enjoy watching him play before he disappeared off the face of the planet it seemed. Great to see he's making something of a comeback. He's up against one of the best clay courters in the world who's lost much of his fizz since going down to Nadal (for the loss of only three games) at RG last year.

[13] C Wozniacki (DEN) vs [WC] J Dokic (AUS) - WTA
What!? Shouldn't this one be a quarter final?

A Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) vs [11] V Azarenka (BLR) - WTA
The giant killer versus the baseline banshee.

L Safarova (CZE) vs [18] P Schnyder (SUI) - WTA
Safarova was once considered a hot prospect. Then she hooked up with Tomas Berdych and picked up some of his 'winning ways' - you know, the type where you lose all the time.

F Schiavone (ITA) vs [25] A Szavay (HUN) - WTA
You all know how I love Schiavone's personality - makes 125% of her more limited abilities, much like Ferrer. Szavay's been disappointing - in 2007 I picked her, along with Radwanska (Senior) as future top tenners. I was only half right, and now Agnieszka's showing signs of frailty as well.

M Youzhny (RUS) vs [21] T Berdych (CZE) - ATP
Just how does a one time top tenner, a guy who had Nadal on the ropes for a period, drop to number 62 in the world? It all went wrong when he smashed his head in at this very event last year. Maybe he can try and turn it around at the same place.


Thursday, 26 March 2009

Kimmie 'Spicing Things Up'? Sort Of.

Have to admit I'm kind of mixed about the whole Kimmie comeback thing.

On the one hand its great, considering the Chandler-like 'could things
BE any worse' state of the WTA. Kimmie was never my favourite player but I admired her speed and agility around the court and the pace she imparted particularly on the backhand. Not that there was anything especially standout about those groundstrokes -- in fact they weren't that dissimilar to anything we see nowadays. But Kimmie was a member of that all too rare breed in the WTA: an all court player.

Other all court players?
Svetlana, when she brings her brains as well as her racquet bag to court. And last week's winner of course Vera Zvonereva, whose play I think Kimmie's resembles more than anybody else. Replace the tearful tantrums with feel-good cupcake comeliness and more overall robustness and you'll see what I mean. A sort of Vera-Squared.

Svetlana and Vera's completeness and in particular, their adeptness at the net is largely down to the amount of doubles they played (and in Vera's case continues to play). But the common thread in their play for me, is the way in which they all run balls down: exceptionally well. No fluke of course that Svetlana ends her runs with Kimmie-like side splits too.

But here's the thing. Or in fact many things:

Despite her all court adeptness (which
does stand her in good stead against the rest of the field), it's all still rather a bit too samey. I compared her to Vera above, and if anything Clijsters is probably a class above her. But as I also observed, there's nothing remarkably different about anything she brings to court -- and she doesn't possess what I think might actually rescue the WTA from its present predicament: a secret weapon.

See, I have a theory - no not a dream, a theory (though it may well turn into a dream depending on how things pan out). It goes something like this.
No amount of Bollietteri-Baselining, physical conditioning or courtside coaching is going to benefit the tour right now. What it needs is players with a special ability, a mainstay of their game but also something that they can rely on in a crisis. A genetic mutation that's so very different to anything you see (in a 'way-out-there-with-pluto' kinda way) that the rest of the tour has no choice but to adapt. Navarro for example, though pretty unsuccessful for the most part, presents a style of play that is so at-odds with most every one else that I look forward to the day she mounts a credible challenge to entering the top ten.

Consider the Blokes for a moment. You needn't even look as high as the top four (don't like fab-four for some reason, tried it but don't like it). Examine instead, some of the guys who've been in (and out of) the top ten in recent years, and one thing you cannot fail to notice is a lot (though not all) of them have a super-power of some kind. Whether it's a Fernando Forehand, Blake-like athleticism and speed,
Ferrer's Armageddon-like determination and endurance or the Thunderbolt that is the A-Rod serve, there's a reason these guys have been in the top ten. Players that lack this exit it as quickly as they entered.

However you chose to define that X factor, you'd be hard pressed not to concede that the current
womens tour is lacking it in Spades (or Clubs or whatever Bridge analogy squares well with underachievement) ; and before anyone points it out, I'm distinctly aware of the differences between the sexes and am not expecting an androgenous Rafa-like humanoid to suddenly spring up from amongst the WTA ranks. But think back to a Henin backhand or a Steffi Graf forehand or even a Sharapova serve (pre shoulder problems) for a moment, and it all just suddenly seems a litle too safe and middle of the road. No one (Williamses not withstanding) is making any noise out there right now.

How did I manage to turn this too into a
WTA rant? Kimmie's shotmaking. Of course. Yeah, not that special or standout enough to make sufficient ripples on tour IMHO.

Commentators make the point that anything that 'spices things up' should be welcomed in the present climate. Well yes, and it's not that I don't welcome anything she can bring to liven up the show a little -- it's the types of spices she's bringing with her I take exception to. Cinnamon and way too much Coriander: a little too mild to bring about the necessary degree of 'spicing up'. You're going to have to bring something more similar in piquancy to what
Nando fed Rafa at Melbourne this year if you want that phrase to really ring true.

The other phrase I take exception to in this context is one I used myself recently in discussing what if anything would shake up the Women's game. You really can't describe Kimmie's return to the game (even if she starts regularly '
routining' the tours 'top players') as 'putting the cat amongst the pigeons' - 'a fluffy kitten with some cute trinkets hanging off a rather frilly collar amongst some pigeons rather too uncertain about their place in the tennis food chain' would be a more accurate description. There's a reason Kimmie only won a single Slam - she had well-documented problems with her wrist of course, but she's not the epitome of steeliness.

Another thing(I'm heavily into 'things' right now). One that is perhaps more obvious. I share Naf's view on 'Tennis with Attitude' that it's not the best ad in the world for the tour for someone, apparently dissatisfied with the whole tennis lifestyle, who in fact eschews it for a couple of years in favour of making babies with a basketball player (anyone know how his
shoe size compares with Isner's?), to manage to stage a successful return to the top of the game and begin routining players we should be thinking of as the Tour's Shooting Stars. It would tell you a lot about the top tier, most of it negative and not much we don't already know.

However as I said at the very beginning I really am undecided about this one. For one thing what ever else it may say about the rest of the tour, it really would be nice to have a complete player back in the mix of things - and it says a lot about her that she managed to win a Slam in a field that included
Henin, Venus Williams and a Sharapova, who was then at the height of her powers (Kimmie took out Venus and Maria en route to the final). I shudder to think how the current crop would fare under similar conditions (Kimmie's maybe thinking along the same lines, and not shuddering one bit)

So I've decided that though I may have some strong and grave sounding reservations, I do believe that this is, all things considered, generally a good thing for
Womens Tennis.

I'll leave you with two remaining observations on Kimmie.

She was spectacularly ill suited to
Lleyton Hewitt (still not sure how that happened and pretty sure opposites don't always attract), and will give Ivanovic a run for her money off court as well as on -- as she speaks faster and is capable of compressing more syllables into your average 2 second sentence than Ana's currently managing (who is far and away the leading player in this off court performance category).

Monday, 23 March 2009

Desert Heat Pt 3

[1] R Nadal (ESP) d [4] A Murray (GBR) 61 62

I don't know what to say about this match other than the fact that Murray appeared to be more affected by the conditions than Rafa who ran a very, very tight ship. I thought Rafa would get past Murray this time anyway but it would have been nice to see this much-anticipated match take place in less breezy conditions. Great scene at the end during the presentation, where the announcer tries to address Murray who's busy nattering away with Rafa like he's in a high-school dinner queue.

[4] V Zvonareva (RUS) d [5] A Ivanovic (SRB) 76(5) 62

Worse conditions I've ever seen; rendered the match into a battle to see who's better equipped to contend with the wind. Vera's more of an all-court player than Ana (whose swingy, heavier strokes not to mention suspect ball toss, leave her particularly vulnerable to the conditions), and aside from a racquet smashing tantrum early on, adapted quickly enough to the conditions to see things through. But there was nothing tennis-like about this match or the victory.

[1] R Nadal (ESP) d [7] A Roddick (USA) 64 76(4)

I was seriously impressed by what Roddick brought to the court. He served really well and somewhat surprisingly, conducted himself for large parts of the match like a dirt-baller, hitting an unusually high number of loopy forehands the depth of which kept Rafa pinned behind his baseline, but punctuating this with his more conventional flat double handers to keep Rafa honest. There were however, far too many ill-fated 'A-Rod Bull-Rushes' into the net (you actually wince the minute he begins his run); I can remember at least two occasions where he spent a while patiently constructing a rally where he looked to have the upper hand, only to wreck things by coming in on little more than a wing and a prayer. Disappointing, and a bit like hitting the panic button too early.

But he wasn't going to win this match from the back of the court and it was great to see Andy attempting to mix things up and actually thinking well on court - something he's been criticised for in the past.

[4] A Murray (GBR) d [2] R Federer (SUI) 63 46 61

This one's already been analysed to bits so I'll skip the obligatory lament on Federer's last set collapse, which I think only he can explain. The big story of course has to be the sub par backhand, and Murray's rather pig-headed targetting of it. Obviously a leaf out of Rafa's book. But Rafa creates problems with a combination of height, pace, depth and spin. Andy got away with shorter and more medium-pace pummelling. Much like what Canas did here two years ago.

But here's something else - take a look at the first set in particular when Roger is attempting to slice his way out of trouble. I know it was a bad-backhand day, and I know that this is tantamount to heresy, but watching those slices I can't help but feeling that if there is a less complete part to Roger's game, it's in that backhand slice. He spent the best part of three years goading his opponents into the net with short chipped returns which he does very well. But if he's forced to increase his length the ball never seems deep enough or low enough to be that effective - not against Rafa and Andy anyway. Again, it wasn't his best day but contrast this to Murray's slices -- which I'm beginning to believe are the best in the game -- they're more sweeping, they stay lower and they practically hug your baseline. Plus there's some side spin thrown in for good measure.

[1] R Nadal (ESP) d [6] J Del Potro (ARG) 62 64

Del Potro demonstrating once again why there's a sizeable chunk of daylight between himself and the top four. Juan may hit the ball very hard, but he likes to take the time to construct rallies on his terms. Trouble is not very many of the more aggressive players are likely to allow him to do that.

[7] A Roddick (USA) d [3] N Djokovic (SRB) 63 62

My pick for the worst performance given by a top ten player this year. Djoko himself termed this "one of the worst matches he's ever played". I'd go a step further -- it's difficult to imagine things getting any worse than this. A guarded, concerned introvert - a description that perhaps applies equally well to his game right now as it does to his demeanour. I think there's only about 500 points between him and Murray now, but it'd probably be best for Djoko to put that to one side for now. It's often necessary to take a step back before getting back on track and he might even need to lose some ranking points to find his hunger again.

[4] V Zvonareva (RUS) d [8] V Azarenka (BLR) 63 63

The scoreline would indicate this was a one-sided affair. In fact it was anything but. Victoria did unravel towards the end quite quickly but put in a spirited performance quite consistent with her new top ten ranking.


This week's Crouching Tigers (tournament winners not included):

Ljubicic (The 'Gentle Giant' returns), Murray (for conducting a particularly low-key 'no pressure' PR campaign - and then getting to the final), Isner (great Davis Cup material) and Roddick (see above).

And on the Women's side, Vera (I know she's a tournament winner, but I backed her and that entitles me to break my own rule) , Victoria (remind me again why she's not in the top ten? Oh she is.) and Ursula Radwanska (Playing better than her sister)

This week's Humbled Dragons:

Men's:Djoko, Tsonga, Simon

Women's: Svetlana, Jelena, Alize and Agnieszka


Saturday, 21 March 2009

2Hander's Take: Has the mighty fallen...?

We have just witnessed Federer go down in a heap!! There's no other way of saying it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am concerned...very concerned, in fact! I am almost at the point of saying that GOAThood is more or less not happening now. Why? Not because he's become rubbish now, well, he has in a way. Having 46 UFEs with 26 of them from the backhand side is not healthy. First it was the forehand, we thought he fixed it...now the backhand?!? I guess what makes all the more frustrating for us is that we know he can do better. OK, imagine what it must be like for him...?

What is it? Does he need a shrink or something? In fact, the last person to take the game so seriously at a mental level was none other than Ivan 'The Truth' Lendl*! I have made comparisons of the Fed-Nadal rivalry to Lendl-Becker and today reinforced something for me, it seems as though he has his mind too firmly set on GOAThood - perhaps it's clouding his focus. To be world no.1, one has to win more than just the Slams.

Back to Lendl...I see a link - Tony Roche!! We know how Rochy turned Fed from that graceful, exquisite serve-and-volleyer into an agressive baseliner. OK, it won him a shed load of Slams...or did it? People have often commented that the rest of the field was not a patch on today's line-up. Could he have done just as well if he was the serve-and-volleyer? Does Rochy plant the choking seed in their minds?!? Only kidding...

BTW, it's nice to see The A-Rod rejuvenated! I wouldn't mind a cup of whatever he's been drinking during the off-season. Also, respect to how Nalbandian gave Nadal a tennis lesson (albeit for a set!). However, Tsonga was the last chap to give the world no.1 a right royal whupping!

Is it that I am seeing The Fed undergo nothing out of the ordinary?! Admittedly, I have never really kept in touch with Masters events outside the Slams for a good few years now. I know towards the end of last year he had a string of losses against the likes of Murray and Simon...talk to me, people!

* - Snoop Dogg (yes, the rapper!) once said on a BBC interview that he was into tennis as a kid! He thought that Lendl was, and I quote, "old skool" and that "...Ivan was the truth!". Read More...

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Desert Heat Pt 2

[1] R Nadal (ESP) d [14] D Nalbandian (ARG) 36 76(5) 60

Match of the tournament? For two sets anyway. Daveed's fecklessness may have given us more reasons to fume and seethe. But I've learnt to treat this as a kind of annual ritual: Daveed comes. Daveed rouses us up with tennis that suggests he should be in possession of around three Slams. Daveed goes.

Just enjoy the tennis, I say. It's truly breathtaking.

From the way he ghosts around the court belying his somewhat pork-bellied image as someone who should presumably have trouble reaching the odd ball or two, to his inch-perfect timing which is surely a contributing factor in his now 2-1 H2H against Rafa.

Daveed was getting over the top of Rafa's high bouncing returns and hitting down flat. He's built with heavy shoulders that no doubt help him drive through the ball effecting a return that was practically skidding past Rafa. For the first one and a half set he made Rafa look pretty ordinary and quite lost out there and despite the defeat, I'm still in favour of thinking of him as Rafa's nemesis.

And as far his carrying around a few more pounds than is necessary, I'm almost in favour of saying that if it doesn't bother him then what have we got to gripe about? OK plenty. But it's all mainly along the lines of 'unfulfilled potential'. Nothing to do movement. The guy doesn't move around, he "materialises next to the ball" (love that quote from Tennis Magazine); and there's other player's whose seeming pork-belliedness doesn't get in the way of their movement or their tennis too. Marcos Baghdatis for instance. Or Svetlana for that matter. She's an exceptional mover, though not an exceptional thinker.

Have you seen what happens when elephants go for a swim? They turn into creatures of spellbinding grace and elegance. And so it is when Daveed steps on court. Makes you think he was born playing this way - that kind of stuff can't be taught.

One more thing, I loved the way Nadal saved some of those match points when he was serving 3-5 down in the second set. He hasn't got the biggest or best serve in the game but no one can now surely think of it as a weakness.

[2] R Federer (SUI) d [17] F Gonzalez (CHI) 63 57 62

It's not often that these two don't put on a good show, but I really didn't find this one particularly interesting. All right maybe I wasn't paying full attention. But it was all too familiar. Gonzo banging away at things with his forehand in a way which only he can. Roger looking like he was thinking "I really should have won this by now", not serving particularly well and then deciding enough's-enough in the last set. Highlight of the match for me was Gonzo's butchery of his racquet, and the subsequent crowd-baiting. Not the most sportsmanlike episode of behaviour we've seen this week. But it certainly got my attention.

[3] N Djokovic (SRB) d [16] S Wawrinka (SUI) 76(7) 76(6)

I've heard several commentator's make the point that Stan might possibly have the best SHB down the line on tour. I'm not completely sure about that, but I will say that given time and space he imparts the kind of heaviness we normally associate with double-handers.

What stood out for me was Stan's defence, and in particular the way he was able to soak up Novak's 'onslaught', which for me is still too workhorse-like, with not nearly enough deep-balling we saw so much of last season.

Novak got through this one but only just (the fact that it was straight sets is largely irrelevant) - Stan lost his nerve on one too many key moments demonstrating once again that despite the major backhand he's still not a major league kind of a guy.

[6] J Del Potro (ARG) d [WC] J Isner (USA) 76(4) 76(3)

Didn't get to see this one. Juan's either read Roger's book on slaying Wandering Monsters or they find his surliness more scary than anything they can bring on court.

[10] F Verdasco (ESP) d P Kohlschreiber (GER) 64 36 61

Caught bits of this one. Absolutely love everything about Phillip's game (not just the single-hander you'll be pleased to hear), except the service action which has an obscene amount of hip-swiveling going on. Another guy who 'Coulda Been a Contender'.

Nando wasn't nearly as comfortable in this as he was against Reeshard. But he found a way through demonstrating amply well that his new found fortitude is no flash in the pan.

Another thing. I guess you've all seen his 'Talk to the Hand' victory pose. But what does he say? It sounds like "YEET (hunched fist pump)....AAW...HAW (Talk to the Hand Pose)!" Three guys in his Players' Box look and sound like they're doing exactly the same.

Kind of reminds me of a Mortal Kombat character who'd do something similar after pulling out your spinal chord (yes I played some pretty violent computer games in my teens).

I Ljubicic (CRO) d [22] I Andreev (RUS) 46 76(5) 76(4)

I'm confused. I love the fact that Ivan 'The Gentle Giant' is making something of a comeback, but aside from his serve, wouldn't have thought that he'd possess the firepower (or the temperament) to get it done against Igor 'The Forehand'.

Even as I watch him now, a set down against Murray - I'm seeing what might be construed as flashes of brilliance (which do demonstrate why he got as high as #3 in the world), but nothing that would suggest Igor should have had any problems. I guess that's what makes Tennis interesting.

One other thing about Ivan. The guy is a one man clinic on taking on high bouncing single handed backhands. I don't particularly like the motion - too much arm rolling going on - but I don't think I've seen anybody take that shot on so comfortably.

[8] V Azarenka (BLR) d [1] D Safina (RUS) 67(4) 61 63

Great first set. Enthralling rallies with groundstrokes of the highest level early on from both women.

I know I said Dinara's departure would render the event into a sideshow of sorts, but I'm somehow glad she didn't get the #1 ranking with this form (she'd have made the top spot by simply getting to final). You can imagine the torrent of articles branding her a 'Slamless-Wonder' that would be sure to follow.

I was giving her the benefit of the doubt after her first round exit at Dubai, and Dinara may have got to the final of Melbourne but her slippage is now quite evident.

Azarenka on the other hand was unflinching, patient, resolute, and hitting groundstrokes both wings with such penetration and authority that I'm almost willing to overlook their lack of imagination (definitely not the stuff that would've inspired Michaelangelo).

At at 4-3 in the final set, she summoned Zeljko to the court who gave her a real (verbal) kick up the backside. Safina lost the next game to love.

Azarenka was in tears at the end suggesting she's not a total robot. But I have to say I think her coach looks too nice - Victoria strikes me as a bit of a handful and I find it difficult to see him giving her a dressing down the way Zeljko did to Safina.

[4] V Zvonareva (RUS) d [9] C Wozniacki (DEN) 64 62

I was hoping Wozniacki would come through after we lost four of the top seeds earlier this week. But she was beaten by other pick for this tournament. So that's Ok then. Go Vera!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Desert Heat Pt 1

Djokovic d. Haas 6-2, 7-6(1)
I only saw the first set of this one - there's something very operatic about seeing your fave players getting cut down. Can't watch anymore of this I thought, and I'm glad I didn't as even though the second set went the distance, I've a sense that Tommy was treading water. Kinda like his career right now.

Djoko did look more purposeful than he has been recently, but maybe he was allowed to be.

Isner d. Safin 6-4, 6-4
Thought this would happen. But to be fair to John, his game has developed a lot since I last saw him. There's sure as hell a lot more to him than big shoes and a serve. Marat went through large portions of the match playing his meat and potatoes tennis. Playing it well I might add, but must have been surprised at the pace with which the ball was being returned, or in some cases flying past. Isner also made some quite fruitful forays to the net (now ain't that nice to see?) And as for breaking Isner's serve, well that was never gonna happen was it?

Andreev d. Tsonga 7-5,6-4
This is one which I was looking forward to. So were a lot of people I'd imagine. And so I got out my standard template with which I usually analyse Andreev: "Forehand goooood (one of the best on tour in fact), backhand baaad (mediocre to say the least)..." Except that last bit didn't quite tally up with what I was seeing. Igor, whose new hairdo makes him look like a peasant (a private joke between 2Hander and myself - no but seriously, a sort of understudy to a blacksmith in a late 19th century Hamlet maybe), has been busy with those backhand drills it would appear. So you now had what to all intents and purposes was a complete game on both wings from Igor versus a Jo-Willy who frankly wasn't at the races. He didn't play a bad game, but was missing his usual zest and vitality, his shots lacking that bite we're so used to chewing up and gulping down. Even his trademark inside-out forehand (my nomination for the best shot on tour right now) was missing for large parts of the match and poorly-executed when it did make an appearance. All in all a Jo-Willy minus the edge - and that just won't do against Igor 'The Forehand'.

Murray d. Mathieu 6-3, 6-2
Murray Masterclass. I love Mathieu's intensity (though it's sometimes his own undoing). He's very much in the 'Coulda been a contender' category (anyone know if he sounds like Brando? I've not heard his voice). But this was just too easy by half. Paul-Henri, spent half of the match playing into Murray's hands and the other half getting frustrated and generally very hot under the collar (not that he was wearing one).

To think Andy said he wouldn't be putting too much pressure on himself at IW. Taking it easy and focusing on Miami. If good things happen then so much the better. Me thinks Andy's fibbing. Me thinks Andy's telling porky-pies. Me also thinks Andy's well aware of the questionable state of Djoko's game right now not to mention the sizeable bucket of ranking points that he'll lose if he doesn't defend his title here.

To speak plainly, Murray is focusing on Miami but would have his feet up in his bachelor pad were it not for the prospect of dimming some of that daylight between himself and the #3 ranking, not slugging it out in a searing arid desert - heat you'll remember is not Murray's best friend.

One more thing - his slices seem to get more delicious every time I see them. Have you ever seen a double hander with such an extraordinary backhand slice?

Federer d. Karlovic 7-6(4), 6-3
"How to Slay (and dismember) a Wandering Monster in Two Sets...". Available in all good bookstores this Monday, priced £12.99. Book signings at selected locations.

I love this quote:

"I think he's good for the lower ranked players to play against just because you'll always have a chance.

"For the top guys, it's worse, because it just depends on a few shots."

- Federer on Karlovic after beating him in straight sets

Source: Sky Sports

Nice you think he has some purpose on tour then...

Gonzales d. Blake 7-5,6-1
Blake a little more downcast than usual and if you're familiar with what he normally looks like, you'll know this is bad news.

Gonzales, who's apparently taken exception to speculation into the whole hand-of-God thing at the Olympics last year (does Gonzo also read 'Tennis Is Served...' I wonder), has come a long way with his single handed back hand. That is the one good thing I will say about this match.

Ivanovic d. Pennetta 6-4, 4-6, 6-4
I'm not sure what it is about Italian ladies, but I love their intensity and character on court. It was the same with Schiavone (No fluke of course that she has a single handed backhand). Loved the distinctive grunt, loved her physicality and loved the Hewitt-like grit and attitude (in both the conventional and the street sense of the word).

And so it is with Flavia, who upon losing a point gives a look which would suggest you've short-changed her on a pound of bananas. This girl looks like she believes it's her God-given right to win - not a bad thing with the state of the WTA these days (must stop flogging that dead horse). Unfortunately she hasn't the game to back it up just yet.

Ana just edged this one, which isn't a bad thing considering the standard of her opponent.

Safina d. Craybas 7-5, 6-4
Saw very little (and only bits of the second set) of this one. Safina looked to me to be hitting well. More worryingly, Craybas's coach (during the on court coaching sessions) kept goading her into targeting Safina's forehand. I didn't see the first set, and I know her backhand is the more dependable shot - but was it really that bad?

I still haven't bought completely into these on court sessions, but there's no doubt they can be valuable; I remember reading an article in Tennis Magazine about how being mic-ed up would allow competitors' agents, families, scouts etc. to share the secrets of the more astute coaches. I'm not completely sure I agree, most of the top players' weaknesses are after all, well known, but there is potential for cats to escape from bags I would think.

Wozniacki d. (Ursula) Radwanska 7-5, 6-4
Ursula wilted in the heat and was unable to make good on what was otherwise a very good start. Girl (Ursula that is) hits with more pace and purpose than Big Sis, who's ranked around a hundred places above her. I don't think her recent wins over Svetlana and Big Sis are an anomaly. Officially on my 'one to watch' list.

// UPDATE: Deliberately missed out Nando v Gasquet - Nando's chilli sauce is now 'smokin' hot. Have some 'observations' (the type that causes steam to emit from my ears) to make on young Reeshard. Another time.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Jelena on 'Democracy and The Pursuit of Awesomeness'...

I'm going to stop talking about the LTA now - though let me just say in parting that Sky Sports seem bent on hosting some kind of 'face-off' between Mark Petchey (who's a regular commentator there anyway) and Roger Draper (CEO of the LTA). The LTA hasn't yet responded. Claws may be being sharpened as we speak.

The women's event has been underway at Indian Wells since last Thursday though you'd never know that by the way Eurosport has chosen to schedule its coverage this year. We only got our first instalment of play today and that was only one hours worth of highlights from the Jankovic v Pavlyuchenkova match. Jelena lost. The match as well as the plot.

Compromising with scant coverage of the early rounds of the women's event is one thing. But I'm having a really hard time accepting that 4 of the top seeds are out before I've had
a chance to see a single live match. This marks a new low, even for the WTA: a situation I didn't think was possible. Instead of putting on an exhibition of 'what women's tennis would be like without the sisters', Jelena, Svetlana, Alize and Elena have single-handedly (though not with the backhand of the same name) reduced the event into 'what tennis would be like without the top seeds'. Well maybe it's not that bad. Not just yet.

But just think, if either one of Ana or Dinara have a bad day (they're never too far), we'll officially be into sideshow territory: not what you want for the first 'Premier' event of the year and yet another poor ad for the WTA. Also not the circumstances I would think, you'd want to see the Wozniacki's or Azarenka's break through in.

I have to admit when I saw Jelena play yesterday, I thought I was watching a different player: Not only did her movement seem sluggish, but her shots lacked the depth and purpose she usually has in spades. Little did I know:

The Serb also complained of 'feeling too heavy' following weeks of intensive training during the off-season.

"In the beginning, I felt really different with my body because I got a little bit of muscles and I felt heavier on the court," she said.

"I was always a certain weight and always my best weapon was my legs. I always moved and I had the anticipation and I was always on the ball.

"Now. I just cannot do that. I'm one step too slow or one step too much into the shot. And then all the strokes break down and I don't have the timing and my accuracy is not there.

I had heard she had attempted to bulk up a little during the off season, but must confess to not noticing any change since the new year - and I certainly wouldn't have thought the changes drastic enough to interfere with her game - her movement no less. I mean that's the equivalent of robbing the A-Rod of his serve or Gasquet of his backhand.

In any event, I'm more than just a little confused as to why
she thought it necessary to get all Wonder Woman on us - she's not the paciest of players yes, but her problems were more to do with a lack of willingness to finish points off: Lack of aggression? Sure. Lack of muscles? Not so much.

Just goes to show that in some cases the talents that get you to the top of the game are uniquely your own - mess with them at your peril.

"I mean, overall everything is wrong. I need a lot of work. I wish I had a magic wand and could just fix my game and just play awesome tennis again. I would like it to be that way, but sometimes it's not."

Source: Reuters

The pursuit of 'Awesome Tennis'. What a noble sentiment. What a place the WTA would be if it had more of that elusive 'Awesomeness'. The ATP for example, is a very 'awesome' (not to mention 'happening') place to be right now. All of the top four through in their opening matches. Exactly the way it should be. Not that we haven't had any upsets. Monfils (a top tenner now) went out to Isner in three sets. But Isner wears (I'm told) size fifteen shoes. He's what I call a 'wandering monster': a sort of cross between a Journeyman and a Hulk. Karlovic is a WM too although he can volley very well. WMs lumber from tournie to tournie dispensing their own unique brand of justice. There's usually casualties. Sometimes from the top ten. But
the general ordered nature of the ATP right now ensures they never progress too far, much less win a tournament. Take that as a nugget of wisdom. From my very own Tennis Codex. There's more where that came from.

I'd stop watching men's tennis the day I see Ivo lifting a Masters Shield. Tommy Haas is also good at dispensing wisdom. He once said (after losing to Ivo): "There should be a rule ...if you're over 6'6'' ... you can't play". You may not agree, but must admire it for it's precision and simplicity.

Anyway, I'm glad Jelena is so candid about things, as this is now officially a crisis. As I think I've mentioned many times before, I don't normally expect big things from JJ early on in the year - her season ending exertions usually catch up with her and she takes a while to begin to love the new season. But she's usually clicking into gear come March and in any case, things rarely look as bad as they did yesterday.

Still I do expect her to rally, as I've always had her down as a stalwart of sorts (or the closest you can get to one in the current field). Though I'm a little more tentative in my insistence that she'll bag a Roland Garros title in a couple of months time.

Jelena: "Muscles robbed me of my awesomeness"

Oh and if you do find that magic wand Jelena, can you also wave it on Maria's shoulder - she's never been found wanting in 'Awesomeness' (with a capital 'A'). Nor have those Sisters. The rest of the field however, is sadly remiss in it's pursuit of 'awesome tennis'. Wave it on them too while you're at it. I think they could do with the help. Democratise some of that 'awesomeness' I say.


Djokovic came through against Argentine Vassallo Arguello yesterday. There was a lot of talk about his racquet and how his unorthodox forehand take back was much better suited to the thinner beamed Wilson.

I don't know how much truth there is in that, but I echo the commentators view that Djoko is looking a lot more like a workhorse this year than someone who routinely dictates play. It's debatable whether that's entirely down to his Head (the racquet that is) - he has after all been off par since that loss to Safin at Wimbledon, but more than one observer has made the point that "he's not hitting through the ball" like he was last year and I myself am convinced his shots are landing a lot shorter.

(Jankovic image: Tennis.com)


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