Archive

Archive for August, 2012

The Bad Boy And The Nice Girl

Aug 30, 2012 5 comments

It is true that the game is greater than the any of the players, but it is also true that the combination of players make the game. In the long run, the game is not necessarily affected by the loss of one player or two as new — and many a times better — players are ready to fill the gap. But for a period of time, the game defintiely feels a little incomplete, if not poorer. The feeling is enhanced when we expereince the loss of two players, and even more so when their styles offer a contrast.

Our game relies on contrast. Bjorn Borg wouldn’t have been as great if not for John McEnroe. Andre Agassi brought out the best in Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer cannot be talked without mentioning Rafael Nadal. Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters weren’t contrasting in styles, but in terms of character. Kim Clijsters is the girl next door, the quintessential nice girl who is universally loved, is affectionately called “Aussie Kim” in Australia, and also considered a local in New York. In fact, she is so nice, that even when she embarrases someone, she does it gracefully and elegantly, and without making the other person feel bad.

But the world would be boring with just nice people. And Andy Roddick is that bad boy in the town. Bad not in terms of … actually being bad, but being blunt and straight forward. One who always kept it crisp and short, and always said what he felt without caring about what the world thinks. To his credit, even though he seemed unreasonable or a brat (even a bully) many times, he was always straight forward. And as much as we like to despise the bad guys and love the good ones, the game would not be interesting enough.

Their retirements, at 30 and 28 years respectively, come oddly at a time when the average age in tennis has increased courtesy of Tommy Haas’s resurgance and Serena’s and Federer’s dominance, but they cannot be faulted for not giving enough. In fact, these two players are the exact examples of success against the odds.

Clijsters showed that it is never late to taste success and make amends for an unfulfilled career. She was the perennial bridsemaid, who was overshadowed by her more accomplished and talented compatriot. She took a break and came back stronger than before and is now leaving (again) being much more fulfilled than when she last left the game. She is the proof that nice guys do not always finish last.

Roddick, on the other hand, showed that hard work trumps talent. Never the one to shy away from the practice courts, he achieved early success, and rather unfairly, bore the expectations of American tennis after they were used to success during their golden 80s and 90s decades. He got eclisped by more talented colleagues, and tournament after tournament faced disappointments which peaked in the semifinals at Australian Open ’07. Still he went back to drawing board, improved his consistency and came back to challenge the most accomplished grass court player in the finals of the holy grail of tennis in his most disappointing loss of the career. But like Roddick said, he is not used to running away from things as he came back and triumphed at Miami in 2010 for one of his more celebrated wins of his career. And it is fitting, that he will go out on a winning note against the man who tormented him the most.

The Marathon Journeyman

Aug 28, 2012 2 comments

Has there ever been a journeyman tennis player as popular as Nicolas Mahut? The closest I could get to was Fabrice Santoro, and even he was ranked as high as no. 17 in the world, and was a winner of multiple major titles in doubles. Mahut is a proud owner of a tennis record, even though he ended on the wrong side of the result. It was no shame losing that match, especially when he had to serve to save the match for … I don’t know how many times. I was browsing through the live scores section on the official U.S. Open website and found his opening round match against Phillip Petzschner locked in the fifth set at five games all. I turned on the stream — this is one thing I like about U.S. Open. I just had to click the “live stream” button next to their score and I was enjoying the live action in high definition.

On surface, it just looked like another match between two journeyman — although Petzschner is more than that, having won two doubles’ majors — but it was much more. Here was a match between two aggressive single handed backhand players, who serve well, use the sliced approach shot and like to hit punch volleys even if they dump them into the net. Of course, we rarely come to know how good they are because usually they are battling against the top pros who don’t give them a chance to show us their full repertoire. They are very good players, have very good movement and are good to watch. They also compete fiercely, although for them it is more about the additional $16000 for moving into the second round. On watching these players, I feel that they show more desire to win a winnable match than the top pros. The extra $16000 is a huge deal for them compared to the top ones who win it more for the glory of holding a trophy.

Mahut portrays you that look which immediately develops an affection to him. Call it past history, or the fact that he was again serving to save the match after relinquishing a two sets to love lead, or just his expressions, you want to win. In addition, you have Petzschner on the other side of the set who has not earned himself a good name recently. Either due to his complaints during his Wimbledon match against Rafael Nadal, or more importantly, his act of unsportsmanship in a doubles match, or even his body language, he gives you that image of a villain, trying to destroy the dream of the helpless protagonist in Mahut. His long socks that go up to the knees doesn’t help, either.

After a routine Petzschner hold, the players changed ends. There was the familiar scene of the ball boys running behind the players with sweaty towels in their hands. Normally I watch this scenario only when watching the top pros, and it feels normal. But in a match of two journeyman on an outer court with sparse crowd and no commentary in the background, it felt weird. The umpire called “Time” and Mahut served it out for a routine hold. The match would have continued to eternity, but the is the U.S. Open where you won’t go 70 games to 68. The fifth set tie-break started. Petzscher started with an ace, but Mahut found himself in a rally. He punched a gorgeous looking single handed backhand straight to Petzscher and headed straight to the net. Bad idea. Petzscher hit his own single handed passing out down the line. Mahut’s stick cracked to the ground and he headed to the chair to take a new one. Just like the pros, he had each of his Wilson sticks packed neatly in plastic, and he picked one. Unlike the top pros, he unwrapped the stick completely and threw the plastic into the bin himself, and slowly marched back to the baseline. The top ones leave this job to the ball boys. They have the prestige and the aura. Mahut doesn’t.

His new stick helped him briefly as he got the mini break back, but another botched volley and he was down again. Petzscher threw an ace and a service winner as Mahut’s desperation grew amids chants of “Come on, Nico!” He tried his best, but Petzscher won another point on Nico’s serve. He then served it out with another service winner as Mahut’s head went down again for the last time in the match. Not unfamiliar with such events, he went to the net and hugged his jubiliant opponent, picked up his bags, and quietly went out of the stadium allowing his opponent to bask in the glory, which itself will probably end after two or four days.

Yet another journeyman completed his journey at New York. Unlike others of his type, though, he is a popular and evokes affection. One that many want to see win a match. Especially after yet another marathon.

The Top Five Contenders At The U.S. Open

Aug 26, 2012 11 comments

We are into the final Grand Slam and into one of the five most anticipated tournaments of the year. The tennis season will not stop at New York, but it is the final junction that this train will stop on after which it will go through numerous smaller stations that not many would be interested in. The U.S. Open is the tournament which usually salvages a player’s year (think Andre Agassi in ’94, Pete Sampras in ’96, Roger Federer in ’08) or it makes it (Andy Roddick in ’03, Juan Martin del Potro in ’09). So just like things happen at New York, we look into the top five favorites for the title on the men’s and women’s side without wasting any more time (and space).

Men

[2] Novak Djokovic: Yes, Federer beat him at Wimbledon. Yes, Djokovic lost to both Andy Murray and del Potro in the Olympics, and was bageled by Federer again at Cincinnati. But this is hard courts. This is Djokovic’s favorite surface. His offense is well known on asphalt, but it is his defense which achieves new levels here. If I were to pick a player with the best defense ever, it would be a toss up between Rafael Nadal on clay and Djokovic on hard courts. He is a wall. And even though it looks otherwise, he is coming into the Open in great form — a title in Montreal and a finalist in Cincinnati.

[1] Roger Federer: The current form indicates nothing but a Federer victory. And if he does win here, I will probably consider it as his best year ever given his age and the quality of his opponents. But it is also true that he has not won the Open for three years now, and has lost matches from winnable positions. In addition, he potentially faces Murray in the semis who just registered his first best-of-five victory over Federer and will come into the Open with confidence after winning a Gold metal for GBR. And finally, two consecutive best of five matches might be tough on him, regardless of how fresh, fit and motivated he is.

[3] Andy Murray: The victory at Olympics is important for Murray on two counts. One, he finally won a tournament of significance (read: A tournament that casual fans would remember a year later) and registered only his second best-of-five win over the top3, and his first in a semi or a final. However, caveats still remain. You can never be considered a favorite to win a major unless you have won one before. Given his early losses in the summer hard court season, and his early rounds vulnerability at the Open, it will be a tough ask from him.

[7] Juan Martin del Potro: He is proudly amongst the “been there, done that” section of the tour in Grand Slams, and at the Open, by beating both Nadal and Federer. He is on a high after winning a bronze for Argentina and finally registered his first win over the top-4 since his comeback from the wrist injury. Tournament after tournament, he is coming close to finding his form he displayed at the Open in ’09, but his recent wrist injury could be troublesome.

[?] The Dark Horse: Unfortunately, there is no sure shot fifth contender for the title. Tsonga, while explosive, is too erratic. Berdych is out of form. Ferrer can’t win a major without an explosive serve, forehand or a backhand regardless of how great his fitness and work ethic is. And Raonic? It would be a great tournament for him if he can even register his first win over Federer or Djokovic. However, the winner of the dark horse award goes to John Isner, who will not have to face any of the above four players till semifinals, and will have a fighting chance against Ferrer.

Semifinals: Roger Federer d. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic d. John Isner
Champion: Novak Djokovic

Women

[4] Serena Williams: Serena won her fifth Wimbledon title on grass, flew across continents and dismantled the field on the hard courts of Stanford, and two weeks later went back to grass across continents and ruthlessly demolished the top two ranked women’s tennis players by losing only three and one games respectively, including a bagel set. In addition, she fired the maximum number of aces at Wimbledon across both men and women! She hit 24 aces in a two set match against Victoria Azarenka, one of the game’s best returners. I can go on, but it is clear that there is a big gap between Serena and the field. If Serena is even close to her best, the title is hers. However, she also have had epic meltdowns at the Open in the past two years, although the Serena this year has been really amiable and charming.

[5] Petra Kvitova: Yes, your heard it right. The woman, who was poised to take over the women’s field, and was 10 points away from the world No. 1 at the end of last year, has deteriorated in results. But she also won her first title of the year at Toronto, reached the semis at Cincinnati and won at New Haven, so she comes in with momentum, confidence and victories on her back. It looks like she has found her footing on this surface (she won just one match in the summer hard courts last year), and with Serena not in her half of the draw, can be more than a handful at New York.

[9] Li Na: I repeat, yes, you heard it right. On her day, she is one of the purest hitters of the tennis ball after Serena and Kvitova. She struggles with her temparent, but seems to have found it after hiring Justin Henin’s coach, Carlos Rodrigues, as evident by his finalist run at Toronto and the title at Cincinnati.

[3] Maria Sharapova: She had a banner year after completing her Career Slam and briefly getting to the top of the rankings, but might be low on confidence after a 6-0 6-1 beatdown at the hands of Serena in the Olympics, and has question marks on her fitness given her recent injury woes.

[1] Victoria Azarenka: She had a great start to the season going twenty six and O. She had left all her mental struggles behind during this run, but those flaws slowly creept back to her game through the European clay season, which carried forward to grass. A return to hard courts would be welcome, but she has also not gone past the third round even once since 2007!

Dark Horses: Angelique Kerber (the sixth seed, finalist at Cincinnati, and the defending semi-finalist at the Open, where it all started), Agnieska Radwanska (finalist at Wimbledon, but fatigue is creeping into her game as a result of overplaying), and because she is the defending champion, Samantha Stosur. And before I forget, Kim Clijsters, who has not lost a single match at the Open since 2006.

Semifinals: Petra Kvitova d. Li Na, Serena Williams d. Angelique Kerber
Champion: Serena Williams

Olympics Roundup: Murray, Delpo on the Rise

Aug 7, 2012 2 comments

Everyone’s a critic. So, following a stellar Summer Olympics for the sport of men’s tennis, what are they saying about …?

 Andy Murray: Roger Federer was tired from his extended semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro and had nothing left for the Wimbledon final. Rafael Nadal’s absence cleared the route to the final even before that. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray’s penultimate Olympic conquest, has been on a mini-dry spell and he lacked the usual self-assuredness he had shown even in the tensest moments of 2011.

And, frankly, it was about time. Lost in the successes of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer over the past few years is the fact that Murray has put up some remarkably consistent results. Four grand slam finals since the last Olympics. A streak of five straight GS semis that didn’t end until the quarters of this year’s Roland Garros. His trip to the Wimbledon finals, giving him final round appearances at every major save the RG.

Through it all Murray has been upstaged by that unique trio of men, all of whom had achieved GS success before him, putting him at a disadvantage before the first ball was even struck. And through it all the Scot, who probably has a better all-around game than anyone who played before 2000, has had to endure criticism of his mental strength and questions about whether or not he had the game to win a big one.

Well now he has. While the London Olympics may not be on par with a slam in terms of prize money or ranking points, their infrequency, the stage they took place on this year and the audience Murray played in front of mean that he’s created a memory exceeding that of, say, one of those Australian Open titles he lost. For the time being, it should mean that he has given himself breathing room from questions regarding his ability to win the majors.

So what of the summer ahead? Murray has points to defend in Cincinnati, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t win there following this expedition. Where this result is going to matter is in events like the US Open, a place where Murray has been surprised early in recent years (by Marin Cilic in 2009 and Stanislas Wawrinka in 2010). This is a win that should give him the confidence to get through results such as that, and possibly through a player of Nadal or Djokovic’s caliber in the semis.

It doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win it all, but his odds have definitely gone up.

Roger Federer: His recent resurgence, just like the one he experienced in 2009, coincides with a lengthy absence of Nadal. His semi with del Potro suggests that, even with the Wimbledon win, players he could once intimidate now can stay with him. And the final shows that age catches up to even the most graceful and most prepared.

Still, what’s it going to take to beat Federer at the US Open? Nadal will be on his least favorite surface and lacking the kind of momentum he had in 2010, even if his knee is healed. Djokovic, for the first time in what seems like decades, will probably not await him in the USO semis and won’t be bursting with the confidence of ’11. And Murray may find it harder to seal the deal after playing best of five for two weeks.

All in all, Federer’s sitting in a good position going into the USO, and we know he’ll schedule enough off time going into it not to jeopardize his chances there.

Then again, there’s …

Juan Martin del Potro: His movement, while good for a big guy, is still problematic when competing against the best in the world. He’s had spurts of greatness since returning from wrist surgery, but hasn’t shown the kind of play he did when winning the 2009 USO.

Nonetheless, this tournament means more to him than any he’s played, or even won, in a long time. Sure, he couldn’t make enough of an impact on Federer’s serve in the third set of the semis, but the fact that he held serve 16 times in that set alone while facing that kind of pressure (not to mention a guy quite adept at returning big serves on grass) says his mental strength is approaching 2009 levels.

Even more impressive than the semi? He came back and won the bronze from Djokovic despite the mental and physical letdown he had to be feeling. That win didn’t just net him the prize he wore around his neck; it was his first non-injury-aided win over a top 4 player since 2009.

Novak Djokovic: He hasn’t won a title since April. Nadal, Federer and now Murray have all lined up since then to show him that his 2011 aura has faded.

While his win over Andy Roddick suggests that his strokes are still plenty sharp, there’s little denying that the Serb’s psychological edge over the tour is long gone. He still has the game, but will that be enough? Can he rebuild his edge?

I’m betting not before the Open.

Andy Roddick: He’s getting old. Age softens the hardest of serves, and without that Roddick has little chance against the best.

Well, maybe. Still, he had won two of three events going into the Olympics, and there was a sudden change of surfaces, and continents, involved. This need not portend an inability to win hardcourt titles, but his chances at the majors don’t look good.

Olympic tennis: It was a venue with an unusually strong connection with the sport. Future Olympics won’t be played in nations with such an extended tennis history, nor will they have such an extraordinarily consistent crop of top players. The debate over whether tennis belongs in the Olympics will return.

Yes, but that’s many years away. I was among those with memories of Massu-Fish epics and of past triumphs by Marc Rosset and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, questioning the relevance of Olympic tennis today. The Federer-Delpo semi, the coronation of Murray, plus the career capping wins of Serena Williams and the Bryan Brothers definitively answered whether the sport belongs in the games.

Barring a plague of devastating injuries that razes the players who competed so well in London and hinders their performances in New York, I was wrong about Olympic tennis.

And happy to say so.

Categories: Tennis