Category Archives: Tennis

First Serve at Blacklabel Tennis

Hello, as you may know I’ve been writing sporadically about tennis over the last year for my buddy here at The Rally Cap and felt like it might be time to make more of a commitment.  So, I’ve started a new blog, 100% devoted to tennis, you can find it at www.blacklabeltennis.com

For quick hits, follow me on Twitter @VBlacklabel.  Join our Facebook fan page and keep your eyes peeled.

We’ll do some opinion pieces, some sparring (in a good way), some prognosticating, share some photos and if the powers that be comply, maybe even some interviews. There’s a lot we want to accomplish with the blog, but it all starts here, today, with this post.

So if you’ve followed my tennis writing here, hopefully you’ll follow us to our new site, http://www.blacklabeltennis.com

That’s it for now, but get involved, tell me what you think.  Let’s talk some tennis.

Don’t You Forget About Me

London may be the home of the world’s best known monarchy, but in the tennis world, Paris has seen its share of coronations.  Every May for the past five years, tennis fans, the international press and frankly the players, have trudged through the narrow paved pathways of Roland Garros, past the smaller dusty, red plots of Earth known as the outer courts expecting to see the familiar coronation.  The King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, wielding his Babolat sceptre in his left hand, was the man, until suddenly, he wasn’t.

Hey, winning the Australian Open and sweeping four of the year’s first five Masters events is a helluva way to siege the throne, no?  Walking into Paris holding seven titles this year, Novak Djokovic had suddenly relegated the King of Clay to second favorite, or bare minimum,1A.  Frankly, who couldn’t have forgiven the tennis world, even those who ought know better, for looking a bit past Nadal in their prognostications.

I, among others, have questioned Nadal’s motivation to stay at the top of the game and keep winning titles he’s already won so many times.  Monte Carlo, a seventh time?  Ho hum.  What did Nadal have to prove given his indomitable reputation on clay?  Then suddenly, a strange thing happened, he wasn’t winning them anymore.

What was supposed to be Rafa’s sixth trophy in Rome actually became Djokovic’s second title there.  That third win for Nadal on his home, if not beloved, court in Madrid was also snatched away by the streaking Serb.  Rafa won “only” two of the four clay court tournaments he entered coming in Paris.  The No. 1 ranking he’d earned with one of the greatest seasons of all time in 2010 was suddenly and dangerously on the line.

Then Rafa came to Paris, jumped on Court Phillippe Chatrier, center court of the de facto World Clay Championships, and went down two sets to one to big-serving American John Isner.  Isner, seemingly unaware that Americans are not supposed to win anything in France but wars, nor that no one was supposed to beat Nadal in Paris, put a major scare into the five time champ.  Nadal would win that contest and then even more inexplicably struggle against his unheralded countryman, Pablo Andujar (and by struggle I mean, Nadal didn’t utterly destruct him) in his straight sets victory.  Nadal himself said he wasn’t playing well enough to win the French Open and the masses agreed.  As Djokovic progressed through the draw with an air of inevitable invinciblility; Roger Federer looked as if he’d finally shaken the shanks.  Nadal was workmanlike, getting through, if rarely approaching his best level.

By the time Nadal faced Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals, every commentator and fan had read the tea leaves left over from Bjorn Borg’s reign at Roland Garros.  Borg won six championships here, beaten in Paris only twice and by the same man, Italian Adriano Pannatta.  Nadal was out to write his own history.

 

Forgotten mid-tournament as a true contender, Nadal would sweep past Soderling, work his way past up-and-down Scot Andy Murray (himself a forgotten man coming into Paris) and rewrite history by toppling the arguable king of tennis kings, Federer, to win his sixth French Open crown.  Nadal’s throne may have looked wobbly, but when the dust settled he would, for the sixth time in seven years, be the last man standing.  We had learned new things about just how high Djokovic could go; we learned Federer wouldn’t fade quietly, but we subjects had forgotten our history.  At Roland Garros, Nadal is the King, end of story.  Vivez Le Roi!

Roger Federer used to rule all corners of the tennis world outside of the red clay fortress held by the Spanish strongman.   First, Nadal would pick off Federer on grass, then on hardcourts, suddenly Federer was a king in exile.  With Djokovic beating all comers this year, Nadal, suddenly a tenuous No. 1 and a healthy Del Potro back in the mix, it seemed Federer was about to be erased from the conversation.  Just before the scribes could finish their narrative, Federer changed the game.

Even in his relative “decline,” there weren’t a lot of “bad losses,” but there were questions as to whether or not he could win another major, especially after Djokovic stormed back to beat him at the US Open where Federer is a five time champion.  Federer eased through the draw, not dropping a set, but never inspiring anyone, but his most ardent fans, that he had could again be the absolute best.  Beating Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open was a statement win.  First, it was a measure of well-timed revenge after losing to Djokovic in four of their last five matches (US Open, Australian Open, Dubai, a virtual home game for Federer, and Indian Wells).  The win also abruptly halted the Djokovic assault on the record books, handing him his first loss since November.  Even bigger, it kept Djokovic from that extra measure of legitimacy, the World No. 1 ranking.  He and Nadal have owned the ATP rankings penthouse since February 2004.  To put it in perspective, the last time one of these men wasn’t No. 1 was the week Facebook was founded.

Federer didn’t win the title at Roland Garros, but he earned back a measure of respect.  In turning back Djokovic, the heir apparent, and pushing Nadal to the brink, Federer ensured he wouldn’t be the forgotten man of the trivalry come Wimbledon.  This run of form puts him right back in the mix.

One last point here, with Nadal maintaining his long term lease on the Bois de Boulogne and Federer back charging at the gates, we can’t count out Djokovic. You don’t go undefeated for six months by luck, not at this level.  It is all “coming together” for the Serb and the rest of his opponents are going to have to raise their levels to contend with him going forward.  Djokovic may be licking his wounds ahead of Wimbledon, where he’s yet to show his best tennis, but forget about him at your own peril.  If he can win 43 in a row indoors, outdoors on hard courts and on clay, he can win seven on grass.

I want to reserve my final thoughts though for some people we’ve forgotten about for at least a year now, the women.  This French Open had the air of a resurrection for the other singles draw.  If you’re not WTA CEO Stacey Allistair or maybe Kim Clijsters, I think you would agree that since the Williams Sisters went into injury induced semi-retirement, Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva went the whole hog into the sunset and Maria Sharapova ripped up her shoulder, the women’s game has been rudderless, scattershot and snooze-worthy.

 Maria Sharapova, Roland Garros 2011.

First of all, Maria Sharapova continues to impress me.  This woman is all guts and grit (OK, and beauty) and even though she was outsteadied by Na Li in the semifinals, by getting there she signalled that she is again ready to contend for major titles.  Once a consistent, top five ranked, Grand Slam final weekend presence, this was Sharapova’s first semifinal since 2008. Just when we were ready to finally write her off, her performances here and en route to the Rome title a couple of weeks ago, prove there’s life in the (not-so) old girl yet.

It was also a good tournament for longtime breakthrough threats Viktoria Azarenka and Anastasia Pavyluchenkova, but they’re still a day late and a dollar short in my book.

 

Na Li, on the other hand, is proving to be forged of stronger stuff.  She seems to be made to peak at the big moments, getting to the final of Australia and then basically getting lost in the Outback before resurfacing to win the big trophy in Paris.  Li’s historic title, like those of Serbia’s Djokovic and Ivanovic or Spain’s Sanchez-Vicario and Brugrera, has the potential to radically change the face of our sport.  As women physically mature younger than men, I don’t think the fruits of Li’s win in Paris will take long to be borne either.  Suddenly, one sixth of the world’s population and a tennis federation that once held Li out of Wimbledon to play in the Asian Games just saw what’s possible.  I will avoidthe temptation to overstate what the win could mean to women in China and Chinese sport as a whole, but I will say, it has given us all a reason to pay attention again to what in recent years, had become a forgotten part of the game.  I predict in the coming years, that the women will receive a strong infusion of fresh blood from Asia, which has been largely silent to this point on the global tennis stage.

Paris is a city that lives with its ghosts in plain sight, that remembers rather than renovates.  Is it any wonder that this French Open has given us so many prompts to jog our own memories?  Congratulations to the Champions, rest up, don’t forget, you’ll be at Wimbledon in two weeks.

Blood Red Clay

Somewhere in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic is licking his chops.

The world No. 2  may not have played this year’s iteration of the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters, but he won it anyway.  The ATP computer won’t show it, but the week in the Principality ended with a clear message, there’s blood in the water, or on the dirt, if you will.  The only question left: Is Djokovic ready to feed?

The spring hardcourt season ended with a refrain to which we’ve grown quite accustomed: “We will see what’s going on when we get to the clay, no?”  For the last six years, what’s gone on is an unprecedented streak of brilliance from World No. 1 Rafael Nadal that’s led to five triumphs at Roland Garros, his only loss in that span being a four set revolt in 2009 when he lost to his own tendonitis-plagued knees.

Monte Carlo, though no longer mandatory according to the ATP, has proven a harbinger of the dominance to come on the terre battue.  Six consecutive years, Nadal has come and seen off all challengers, thrice turning back the arguable “Greatest of All-Time” Federer at the final stage and last year all but humiliating his compatriot Fernando Verdasco 6-0, 6-1.

This year the story is a bit different.  Federer is now 3rd in the rankings and losing ground.  Instead of the preordained final tilt with Nadal, Federer fell meekly to Jurgen Melzer, a player whose lunch Federer used to eat with nary a thought.  It was Federer’s first career loss to Melzer, a solid Austrian who shook off the journeyman tag with a career defining run to the top 10 over the past year or so.

How does a player stay at the top of the rankings?  Very simply, they beat the players they’re supposed to beat.  Frankly, it’s Andy Roddick’s specialty.  Melzer falls directly into this category.  These are the matches Federer needs to win to stay in shouting distance of the top two.  In short, he’s not winning them anymore.  Federer’s 285 weeks at No. 1 ended on last year’s clay court swing.  His time of contending for the post may have ended at the beginning of this year’s.

Federer has often spoke of his love of the game keeping him on tour even once Nadal had dethroned him at the top.  Now though, it’s not just the polite young man who had served as the Mighty Fed’s apprentice  encroaching on his territory, it’s the rank and file of the second tier.

Winning as many matches over a protracted period as Federer has builds deep reserves of confidence, but one suspects given his recent form that they are beginning to run dry.  Confidence’s brother-in-arms is pride, and pride is far harder to lose.  When you spend literally half of your career as the consensus favorite in virtually every match you play, how long can you keep your chin up suffering the indignity of having the weekends free for shopping?

That said, Nadal isn’t exactly exalting in Federer’s decline.  The Spaniard at his best plays a brutal game of chess disguised as tennis.  Although the knees aren’t taped that doesn’t mean the way Nadal plays isn’t taking its toll.  For as much as has been written about the Spaniard’s physicality, his greatest strength has always been mental.  Like Sharapova with a better forehand, but the same pre-serve hair tuck ritual, Nadal is icily cool, calculating, precise with his Babolat in hand.

Not so this year.

The inability to capture the Australian Open, the Rafa Slam and a measure of one upsmanship over his career rival and buddy Federer seems to have exacted a toll.  Much like with Federer though it’s primarily mental and driven by the same question.  What are they playing for?

When you’ve won it all, the only thing left is to lose.

Despite being at different points in their careers from an age perspective, Federer and Nadal’s resumes are equally gilded; their trophy cases gleam with all of the most spectacular hardware on offer; their bank accounts provide them a fair measure of financial security.  What’s there left to hunger after?  Both men need to ask themselves that question, especially the Spaniard.

Nadal played compatriot David Ferrer in the Monte Carlo final, a physical specimen himself and a dogged competitor.  Ferrer is not a man who gives away matches.  He may be beaten, but he rarely beats himself.  Nadal put on a tentative display, defending from behind the baseline, waiting for errors on rally balls and trying to take the legs of a man built like the shortest California redwood in history.  The explosive precision to which we’re accustomed was largely left inside his racquet bag today and frankly all week.  Nadal played not to lose, which is not often enough against a man, like Djokovic, who will go all out out to win.

Novak Djokovic sat out this week, but he appeared in the principality to practice, ostensibly to ensure he was abiding by the residency rules of the tax haven and as a specter of things yet to come.

Ultimately, Nadal inherited the King of Clay honorific from Borg and Vilas, not his more immediate dirt dog predecessors like Ferrero or Kuerten and as such it will not be surrendered over the course of an event or a season.  The throne however has begun to wobble.

Oh yes, Nadal won the match 6-4, 7-5 over Ferrer, he won his 7th Monte Carlo title, 19th Masters title and 44th ATP crown overall today, but you can’t help feeling it was a turning point.  Watching this match, you have to assume Novak Djokovic is smelling blood.  Whether Nadal and/or Federer can fend off the coming attack is the question.  By the time we leave Paris, we will have our answer.

Australian, Closed (Men’s Wrap-Up)

Rod Laver Arena

For the first time in my life, I was privileged enough to attend the Australian Open this year.  There was talk of a tourney preview between the Rally Cap’s headmaster and I that never materialized since I was finally able to sleep on a plane like a big boy.

Two weeks of blistering tennis, sightseeing across eastern Australia  and laughing at my snowbound friends now past, we take a look back to see what the last two weeks really mean for the big players in the tennis world.

The last six years have been so thoroughly dominated by the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal narrative, that it feels equally appropriate and necessary to start there.  Obviously, neither man made (positive) history in Melbourne.  Federer didn’t bag his 17th major, nor did Nadal wrap up a quasi grand slam by winning his 4th in a row.  After spoiling fans with the consistency of their greatness, this Australian Open marked the 8th consecutive major the two titans have not met in a decider.

Only the staunchest fan could deny that Federer hasn’t grown increasingly inconsistent against top tier opponents.  The shanks dogged him throughout 2010 and this 2011 Australian Open would be no different.  Berdych, Soderling and Djokovic (twice) have taken Don Federer out on the sport’s biggest stages. To the objective observer, this decline in Federer’s game is no news.  In 2008, Rafael Nadal reached a level of consistency and excellence where he could beat Federer even on his favorite court, Wimbledon’s Centre.  Rafa’s run of form would continue until the 2009 French when the Spaniard found himself injured.  With Nadal sidelined and hobbled through the rest of 2009, Federer seemed to some, once again in the ascendancy.  But frankly, nothing changed for the Swiss legend until late 2009.  Until then, it was still just one man who could beat Federer regularly, and that one man was injured.  The loss to Del Potro at the ’09 US open signaled a true, though gradual, changing of the guard.  Federer will continue to win, as he did in Melbourne in 2010; but he’s coming back to the pack.  It isn’t just Nadal anymore.  Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray, Soderling and Berdych had all joined Rafa in being able to topple King Federer in key moments. The locker room aura of invincibility has been shattered. Players aren’t walking onto the court down a break in their own minds anymore. That makes those close matches even tougher to win.

With this Australian in the rear view mirror, the end of 2010 looks more a smokescreen than ever.  Federer went 26-2 after the US Open, winning matches across the Asian and Euro-indoor fall circuits and in Doha just before the Australian.  These far flung, off-the-radar events were once the province of the Nalbandians and Davydenkos of the world. Last year though, Federer used them to stockpile confidence and (to a cynic like myself) ranking points against lesser competition so that an “early” loss in Australia, would not touch the ranking, further denting the aura.  Winning Stockholm, Basel and the World Tour Finals is 2,000 points, the same as winning the Australian (he also made the semis of the Shanghai Masters which he skipped in 2009).  Given the current gap of less than 100 points, it’s only winning the if Stockholm Open that has kept Federer as World No. 2.  

As long as he remains No. 2 behind Rafa, Federer can justify his results.  He can still say, there’s just that one guy, El Rafa!  Were he to have slipped to 3, 4 or 5 after Melbourne, there is question as to how Fed would’ve handled it.  Why?  Simply because we’ve never seen another player with such uninterrupted dominance as to have a case study.

Yes, Sampras won 14 majors, but half were at Wimbledon and he would flip flop rankings with Courier, Agassi, Rafter and others during his six year run as year end No. 1.  Federer won nearly everything in sight for 4 years and had an uninterrupted run at No. 1 for 237 weeks.  Sampras ruled an ATP democracy, if you will; others were heard, seized some power, revolted, but he remained presidential.  Federer was untouchably kinglike in his reign, guarding the ramparts and repelling lightweight attacks on his throne with a flick of the backhand.  Federer floated above the hoi polloi with only Nadal able to truly mount a serious challenge to his dominance.  Federer has 16 majors, but he’ll no longer be able to beat the other top contenders with his B game, and he’ll no longer have his A game every week.  Federer will always be a favorite, but he’s no longer alone.

Nadal

Rafael Nadal at the 2010 Australian Open

With Nadal, we are seeing a familiar narrative re-emerge.  He is simply not able to play at the highest level for a full season, his body will not allow it.  Nadal’s biggest threat on the court is his own body.  The last 4 majors he didn’t win he either didn’t play or was felled with injury during them.

Nadal is at a crossroads.  He will never match Federer’s level of day-in/day-out dominance, his body is too fragile.  This means he needs to focus on winning when and where it matters.  It means that any amount of overplaying, whether for a sentimental home crowd in Barcelona, for some far flung cash grabs in Bangkok or whistlestop charity tours, must be met with a firm “no.” No?

Nadal’s bodily boom and bust provides a potential chink in the noted competitor’s armor: motivation.  I know, it sounds laughable to question Nadal of all people in the motivation department, but hear me out.  Nadal has one of the most decorated records in the sport’s history, he’s won each of the majors, attained the No. 1 year end ranking twice, won Olympic Gold and Davis Cup for Spain.  Some will note he hasn’t won the tour championships, fair point, but that’s not even the most important tournament in England.   As much as Nadal relishes playing, competing, as any athlete will tell you rehab is a grind.

A player who gets injured as much as Nadal spends as much time on the trainer’s table as on the court.  That’s not competition, it’s not the physical and mental chess game that Nadal seems to have such a lust for, it’s a means to an end.  The emerging question is, what is the end.  What more does Nadal have or want to accomplish in his career?  Chase down Federer’s 16 majors, maybe.  Get that tour championships win, maybe.  Become the 3rd man to win the calendar slam?  All worthy goals, but are they Rafa’s?  Grabbing the US Open ended the last absolutely necessary test of Rafa’s greatness.  Will Rafa grow tired of the boom/bust, the injury and rehab cycle that has defined his career or does he still thirst for more? I ask because when Rafa grows tired of the putting in the hard yards off the court, his results will fall off. This is a question the supremely healthy Federer has never had to answer. You can’t make 23 consecutive Grand Slam semis if you can’t make the starting line. Again, the yin and yang of the two beloved champions.

The losing finalist Andy Murray did almost everything he wanted to this fortnight.  He played well enough to emerge from Rafa’s half of the draw, defended his points from last year and managed to shrug off the weight of expectation.  Because after his meek, passive display about Djokovic, I don’t think I, for one, will ever pick him to win a major again.

Sports Illustrated‘s esteemed Jon Wertheim pointed out that in the Open era, only three men lost their first three major finals: Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Lendl, all fine company.  Frankly, the Scot would cut a virtually tragic figure if he never won one given his resume to date.

The thing is, Murray doesn’t seize the moment, he waits for his opponents to trip up.  You almost expect him to drop his racquet, stomp and start shouting “It’s not fair, it’s my turn, MY TURN!!!”

If Murray’s facing a top player with experience in pressure matches, the collapse he’s waiting for is just not going to happen.  The most telling statistic to me is that Murray’s played 9 sets in major finals, he is 0-9.  Now, he did play those matches against Federer and Djokovic, but if you’re capable of making the final Sunday, you should be able to win a set–in three tries. 

Sure, If the draw breaks right, he can have his Ivanisevic moment, maybe even at Wimbledon.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.  Ever.

Djokovic vs. Murray

The Final Two In Australia

So what then of the champion, Serbian national hero, Novak Djokovic.  To say he’s on a roll would be an understatement, US Open final, Davis Cup champion, Australian Open champion.  That’s a pretty nice run. Hell, that would be a nice career even for a lot of players in the Top 10. It’s the last four months for the consensus hottest player on tour at the moment.  With the ATP sticking to hardcourts for the next couple of months, I would not be surprised to see his run continue.

That he’s finished World No. 3 four consecutive years tells you a lot about his consistency and high level of play, but also about the nearly static world order of men’s tennis as of late.  In most eras, a player of Djokovic’s calibre would’ve already bagged a few weeks at No. 1 and might be a major or two ahead of his current pace.  He just happens to have born into the era of two of the greatest players in history, and he still already has borderline Hall of Fame credentials.

The biggest change for Djokovic in the last few months seems to be his attitude, self-belief, not searching for the rip cord.  He no longer fears Federer, he knows he can play with Nadal.  He made a fine account of himself in last year’s US Open final and I give him an incomplete for his illness-marred results on the dirt last year based on how well he acquitted himself on clay in prior seasons.  He’s a legitimate threat to win at 3 of the 4 majors and his Wimbledon results haven’t exactly disappointed either.  The question for Djokovic is where’s the needle on his emotional gas tank?  Djokovic is a player whose own psyche can boost or destruct him.  He’s way too good to be considered a headcase, mind you.  But managing his emotions are a major part of him playing his best ball.

Logic dictates that Federer/Nadal era was bound to come to an end, but when? Will either of the two still be at the top of the game when we end 2011?  I’ll say both will finish in the Top 5, but Djokovic is looking dangerously close to crashing the six year strangehold on the Top 2.  Andy Murray, on the other hand, well, I want him to prove me wrong.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

Who’s the greatest of them all?

 

Nadal at the 2010 US Open

There have only been seven men to win the Career Grand Slam in tennis and two of them happen to still figure prominently on Sundays.  Informed tennis fans often talk about the balkanization of the sports’ ruling bodies.  The ATP, WTA, ITF and various national associations all moving in differing directions with different agendas.  A separation has also become the modus operandi in our beloved sport for the majority of fans.

A civil war of sorts has broken out among netheads, and the figureheads, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are doing little to quell the firefight.

Each camp has their claims, Fed fans chant “16” with increasing determination, in reference to the Mighty Fed’s success winning a record 16 major tournaments.  The Rafaelites, however, say “14,” the number of times Nadal has downed Federer in head-to-head competition (vs. 8 wins for Federer).

Before September, Fed fans had another taunt, “Career Grand Slam,” at their disposal, but the fiery Spaniard destroyed that epithet with his four set deconstruction of Novak Djokovic at this year’s US Open, accomplishing the same feat.  Well, Rafaelites will quickly correct you.  Nadal, unlike Federer, has the career Golden Slam, all four majors, plus an Olympic singles gold.  In the last couple of weeks, Fed fans, flushed out of all other quarter, have exalted the importance of World Tour Finals.  The Spaniard stormed that citadel as well, only to be turned back at the last gate, losing a three set final to Federer, who captured the ATP WTF for a fifth time earlier today.

Partisanship aside, all fans should recognize that this is an unprecedented era in men’s tennis.  In the last six years, only five men have won majors.  Three of those men (Safin, Djokovic and Del Potro) have won one apiece.   Translation: there’s been Federer, Nadal and every one else has been relegated to fighting over table scraps.

Federer at the 2010 US Open

Roger Federer’s 16 majors is no doubt an unprecedented feat; while it is still quite an exclusive club (only Federer, Sampras, and Borg in the Open era) who have surpassed Nadal’s haul of nine majors.  The difference is that, none of those other men inhabited the same era.

The Sampras/Laver conversations are great pub talk, but there are too many qualifiers (the racquets, the string, the physicality, the competition, the court surface, the beginning of the Open Era, etc.) to truly say who would have been the better player if all things were equal.  All things could never be equal.

Similarly, it could well be reasoned that it’s all Rafa’s fault that Federer hasn’t won 20 majors.  Nadal’s defeated Fed six times at majors.  He’d only have needed to win four of those six to hit the magic number, 20.  I should note, Federer’s only lost one major final to someone other than Nadal.

On the other hand, Nadal has been thwarted twice in major finals, both times by Federer, both times at Wimbledon.  To wit, the last four times Rafa’s played Wimbledon, he’s lost no earlier than the final.   Without Federer, it’s logical that Rafa would have won Wimbledon before 2008 and then,  wouldn’t he have shifted his focus to improving on hardcourts earlier?  Take Federer out of the equation, Nadal’s easily at 10 majors, maybe more.  At age 24, he’d still have years to surpass Sampras’ 14.

The reality, however, is the reality.  Roger Federer has built a virtually unassailable resume.  16 Majors including the Career Grand Slam, 17 Masters, five years as World No. 1.  At age 29, he’s not just a Hall of Famer, but he’s arguably the greatest man to ever pick up a racquet.

At age 24, Rafael Nadal has finished two years as World No. 1, won 9 Majors plus Olympic singles gold.  He’s also claimed 18 Masters titles and helped win the Davis Cup for Spain three times.  Disregarding the future,  as it’s always uncertain, Nadal has already put together one of the strongest resumes in the history of the game.  He’s numerically a beat beyond Agassi on the list of all-time greats (more majors, more masters) and has a more complete resume than Sampras or Borg, two of the other GOAT contenders.

…and they’ve done it while facing each other.

The first time they two played was in 2004, at the Key Biscayne Masters, on hardcourts.  Federer had just won his first Australian Open two months prior.  Nadal, ranked 34th at the time, won that match in straight sets.  The next year, they would meet again, Nadal, due to injury still ranked in the 30s.  They pushed each other to a classic five set final, with Federer the eventual victor.

Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003, and has amassed 4 majors by the time Nadal won his first, the 2005 French.  To take that title, Rafa had to defeat Federer in the semifinals before taking out Puerta and asserting himself for the first time as King of Clay.  Much would be made of Federer’s inability to win Paris in less knowledgeable circles, but this wasn’t Sampras struggling to get to the 2nd week.  Federer lost four consecutive years (and three Roland Garros finals) to Nadal.

Nadal would eventually win Wimbledon and expand his reach to own the Career Grand Slam, but twice Federer stared down his rival in the finals at the All England Club.  Federer would beat Nadal to claim the grasscourt major for the 4th and 5th time.  Their third match would be a reversal of fortune and also, one of the greatest tennis matches in the history of the sport.  Bare minimum, it was the greatest match since their 5-and-a-half hour clay court slugfest at the Rome Masters two years earlier that left both players too exhausted to show up the following week in Hamburg.

They each would complete the Career Grand Slam in the significant absence of their rival.  Federer taking the 2009 French Open when bad knees and Robin Soderling conspired to upend then four time champ Nadal; while Nadal would take the 2010 US Open after Novak Djokovic faced down matchpoints to topple five time champ Federer.

Nadal re-gained the Number 1 ranking this year one week before Federer would have tied Sampras’ record of weeks of 286 weeks at No. 1.  Nadal, on the other hand has his own record, most weeks at No. 2 (160) all of them behind a certain Swissman.

In terms of greatness, at it stands today, they are No. 1 and No. 1A.  This isn’t a series of champions separated by years and the evolution of the sport.  These are two combatants whose careers, as brilliant as they have been and still might be, will be defined by the presence of the other.  Like that other pair of tennis royalty, Evert and Navratilova, you can’t have a serious conversation about Federer without discussing Nadal and vice versa.  Each has done virtually everything the other has, within the same era and often by beating their most significant rival.  Each, individually, is one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Yes, there are still differences to parse, does the World Tour Finals mean as much as Davis Cup?  How do 5 French Open titles stand up versus 5 US Open titles?  Is Olympics doubles gold the equivalent of Olympic singles gold?  Those questions are in the eye of the beholder and I wouldn’t doubt either man may fill the minute holes in their resume that make for even that bit of conversation.

When all is said and done, I hope all tennis fans can step back from whichever side of the great divide, or Fedal wars, if you will, on which they stand; stop shouting and enjoy the view.  The game has never been so beautiful as to have two all time greats playing alongside each other…and it may never be again.

Maria, Too Full of Grace

When former World No. 1 Maria Sharapova lost to Kimiko Date Krumm in Tokyo, I tweeted what was in my gut…the golden girl is done.  She then lost yesterday in Beijing to Elena Vesnina and I knew it was beyond my gut, it was fact.  For the record, I’m not of the camp who cheered this news, who bemoaned her loud grunts or the fact that her celebrity has outstripped her ranking of late, for God’s sake, I’m a guy!

Facts are, If she up and quit today, Maria’s had a Hall of Fame career on the courts (World No. 1, Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open titles, helping open the floodgates for Russian women’s tennis, etc.) The sad fact is that I just don’t see her contending again.  I wish I had a different answer, but 2010 was the year Sharapova needed to step up, and frankly, she’s failed at every opportunity.

The key is what’s happened the last three years.  We all know about the shoulder injury that wrecked her once explosive serve.  Maria played most of 2008 injured due to a misdiagnosis of said injury, suffering bad losses to players who she used to own before shutting it down for about ten months.  She came back in 2009, and after half a decade ranked in the top 5, Sharapova was outside the Top 100, either scared of re-injury or physically unable to play the game that won her 3 of the sport’s 4 crown jewels.  In 2010, the old service motion came back and pundits universally thought she’d turn it around.  They…ok, we, were mistaken.  Fact is, you don’t spend two years losing matches you should win on paper and not have it affect you.

It always seemed telling that post-surgery, Papa Yuri handed over the official coaching reins to Michael Joyce.  I’m sure some of that had to do with a young girl growing up and not needing dad to “protect” her anymore, but just like when Uncle Toni doesn’t show up for Rafa, Maria seems listless without Yuri’s guiding hand.

I’ve always revered Maria’s ice princess persona on the court.  Cool, calm, unaffected by the score, but I’ve come to loathe it in press conferences.  This is the mealy mouthed, feel good garbage that people want Serena Williams to spew when she loses.  The old “my opponent was just too good,” cheerful loser BS spewed on playgrounds where 7th place finishers “win” medals.  Serena knows better, she knows that a huge part of being a champion is never accepting losses.  Some champs exemplify that trait by getting back on the practice court 5 minutes after a shock loss and hitting 100 of the shot that just deserted them; others by immediately citing whatever niggling injury most troubled them that day; others, like Serena, by saying how poorly they played and the starring role they played in their own demise.

From this outsider’s perspective, Maria, on the other hand, has begun accepting the losses.  She may have recovered her serve (may have, the stroke is still maddeningly inconsistent), but the force of will that famously carried Sharapova from Siberia to victory at the All England Club is sadly gone, perhaps never to return.

So, here’s this fan’s wish and prescription to cure the golden girl, I want to see her break some sticks, call herself out on her poor play or get fitter than she’s ever been in her life.  I want to see Maria OWN the losses and rail against them.  As long as she’s accepting them, she’ll never contend again.

U.S. Open – Non-Stop Action

The U.S. Open - One of the most action packed sporting events I have ever attended.

This past Saturday,  I was fortunate enough to go see the U.S. Open for the first time.  I had been to a much smaller tennis event (at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI), but never one of this magnitude.  For those of you who have never been to a major tennis tournament, the day was wall-to-wall action.

The matches started at 11am, we got the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens around 12:00pm.  With tickets for Arthur Ashe Stadium for both the day and night sessions, we were able to see matches across the grounds.

Robin Soderling of Sweden takes on Thiemo de Bakker of the Netherlands

Our day started by catching the end of the Robin SöderlingThiemo de Bakker match on Louis Armstrong Stadium.  As one might expect, Soderling won the match with ease.

Following this match, we went to the grandstand court to watch Gaël Monfils take on Janko Tipsarević, the Serbian that took down Andy Roddick.  One of the coolest things about the grandstand court is that you can watch the match from above, along the walkway between the grandstand and Louis Armstrong.


A bird's-eye view of Monfils vs. Tipsarević

We popped out onto the walkway and peered down on what would be one of the most compelling matches of the day.  Monfils, who has prodigious talent but hasn’t been able to stay healthy or put everything together, ran all over the court to make shots.  It seemed as though he there were more than one Monfils out there, sort of like in his commercial for K-Swiss.  Monfils eventually got the better of Tipsarević in 4 sets.

The non-stop tennis continued with a quick stop back in Louis Armstrong to see Caroline Wozniacki, the women’s number 1, absolutely destroy  Yung-Jan Chan of Taiwan (6-1, 6-0).  In the span of a couple of hours, I had taken in three tennis matches featuring three highly ranked tennis players.  I can’t think of anywhere else in sports where you can see this much action in such a small amount of time.

Maria Sharapova giving her post-match interview.

The fun didn’t stop there, as we finally made use of our tickets for Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch the end of Maria Sharapova‘s match against young, American Beatrice Capra.  Sharapova showed her class, double bageling Capra.  I could go on describing the rest of the day, where we saw Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet, Jürgen Melzer, and Juan Carlos Ferrero just to name a few.  We also took in a mixed doubles match that featured Daniel Nestor, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Capra (again).

Novak Djokovic serving during his 3rd round win over James Blake.

Following a short break in the action, the night session consisting of Novak Djokovic vs. James Blake and Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Maria Kirilenko began at Ashe Stadium.  Neither match was particularly competitive, as Djokovic and Kuznetsova won their matches in straight sets.  We had awesome seats for the night session, it was incredible to be that close to the court (only 6 rows away).

Despite swirling winds that made the last match of the evening rather unpleasant for everyone in Ashe Stadium, my experience was certainly one of the most interesting sporting experiences of my life.  I’ve never been to an event where you could see so much action over the course of an entire day.  The 12 or so hours spent in Flushing were action-packed and a sports fan’s dream. The ability to move around the grounds and take in all or parts of matches featuring the best tennis players in the world make the U.S. Open a unique experience.  This trip left me thoroughly enamored with the U.S. Open.  I sincerely hope that this will not be my last trip to the courts in Queens.

Check out my flikr page for pictures from my trip.

U.S. Open

Hello all. I will be tweeting from the U.S. Open today, where I will see matches including Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova. Those two former champions play during the day, at night I will be seeing world #3 Novak Djokavic.

Keep an eye on the twitter feed and the flikr account, as I will be unloading photos from my BlackBerry.

A full post will follow, probably after the weekend.

Random Thoughts on the NFL and MLB

NFL: Wednesday, I was sitting at the bar waiting for a friend to show up for dinner when I saw on Pardon the Interruption that the NFL is thinking of installing German microchip technology in footballs to help with goal line/first down calls.  Michael Wilbon argued that the NFL needed to embrace the technology.  He said that if there is technology to improve the product that sports should use it.  I, wholeheartedly, agree.  The NFL needs to make this change, and they need to make it soon.   I remember in the 1996-1997 playoffs, the Eagles were playing the 49ers in the Wild Card round.  During the game, which the Eagles lost 14-0, there was what looked like a sure first down taken from them when the officials placed the ball at an incorrect spot.  In addition to the poor spot, it seemed that the referee tilted the marker to deny the Eagles a first down.  While this could just be the clouded memory of a bitter fan, this scenario could not happen if the current technology existed at the time of the game.

Tennis already uses technology to help the chair umpires and lines people with in/out calls.  The “Hawk-Eye” technology uses high-speed video cameras to capture the flight path of the ball and comes up with a composite picture of where the ball landed on the court.  This has helped to eliminate some of the arguments, though not all, on calls during the match.  FIFA has toyed with the idea of installing this technology on the goal line, which would have helped during this year’s World Cup when Frank Lampard scored against Germany but neither the referee or the assistant saw the goal. FIFA has also explored adding the chip technology to their soccer balls, but again has been slow to accept the new technology.  I suspect that we may see changes soon due to the controversy generated following the World Cup.  While the technology the NFL is looking at is not Hawk-Eye technology, the principle is the same:  determine where the ball was at a given time and determine whether it crossed a line or not.

I am glad to see that the NFL is exploring the technology and I hope that FIFA and MLB will follow suit and embrace technology.  Think of all the controversial calls in the last few months that could have been avoided.  The Lampard “goal”. Armando Galarraga‘s “perfect game”.  There was even a call in last night’s Phillies/Marlins game (Gaby Sanchez‘s “hit” that was called foul) that might have gone the other way if MLB used chip or even replay technology.  Like Wilbon said, if there is technology to improve the product, use it!

MLB: The Red Sox found out yesterday that first baseman, Kevin Youkilis, will miss the rest of the season following thumb surgery.  This is a huge blow for a team that is trying to make up 5.5 games in the standings over the final 2 months of the season.  Going forward, I expect a platoon of Victor Martinez and Mike Lowell to cover the first base duties.  Neither is as good defensively as Youk, and Lowell’s bat is a shadow of its former self.  In addition, if Martinez plays first, somebody else will have to catch. With Varitek still on the DL, will we see newly acquired Jarrod Saltalamacchia called up?

This injury changes everything, as Youk has become the heart and soul of the line up.  With his bat missing, and Dustin Pedroiaweeks” away from being activated, the Sox are missing a good deal of their power potential.  While Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, and Martinez are still in the line up, it has just become exponentially more difficult for the Sox to catch the Yankees and Rays.  This weekend’s series with the Yankees takes on even greater importance with Youk out.  The Sox have to hope that their rag-tag bunch of fill-ins can keep up their collective magic because the team can ill afford a poor series in the Bronx.

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Searching For A Winner

In the late 1990s, the WTA Tour was stronger than ever, and frankly as strong as the men’s tour. Women’s tennis had survived the retirements of standard bearers Evert & Navratilova and was prospering with a roster of current and future legends.  Steffi Graf, the Grande Dame, was the indomitable champion still showing flashes of her golden youth.  Monica Seles, the wounded warrior princess, was back and, sterling credentials aside, the sentimental favorite everywhere she played.  Martina Hingis’ tactical brilliance, Lindsay Davenport’s textbook perfect ground game and the awe-inspiring power of the Williams sisters were all in ascendance ensuring the WTA Tour would continue its upward trajectory.

In that golden decade for the WTA, five women, all current or future Hall of Famers, ascended to the No. 1 ranking: Graf, Seles, 4-time major champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Hingis and Davenport.  Since, ten women have held that post including two who have never won a major.  Apparently, they just don’t make ’em like they used to.

Where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have dominated the ATP tour of late, winning an unprecedented 21 of the last 24 majors; the women have been dominated only by uncertainty.

Serena Williams, the greatest female tennis player of our generation.

Serena Williams is the case-closed best player of our time, a 13-time major champion and frankly an exception to this conversation. One day soon though, Serena isn’t going to walk through that door.  If you’re not a major event, you might even say that day has already come.  What’s the future for the WTA when the 13 time major champion hangs up her racquet for good?

The future was supposed to be in the hands of the Glamazon Maria Sharapova, no really, she’s 6’2.”  Like the fabled Amazons, the Russian has the sex appeal to seduce marketers and casual fans, combined with the fighting spirit to be a dominant force on the court.  A 3-time major champion in her own right, Sharapova’s the kind of player who would still win when she wasn’t at her explosive best, who could intimidate lesser lights into coughing up crucial breaks with little more than a steely glance (read: glare).  Unfortunately, Sharapova’s been betrayed by the body that made her fortune. Her shoulder injury robbed of the physical tools to impose her big serve-oriented game. Over a year into her post-surgery comeback, her championship aura has been all but shattered. Fact is, even playing a level or two removed from her physical peak, Maria is still in the Top 20 and has won two titles this year. Largely, this is because she has something that implausibly, most of the current generation of tour players can’t seem to muster, the will to win.

Graf, Seles, Navratilova, Hingis, Evert, the Williamses, Sharapova, Henin, those women approach(ed) a tennis court like it was the octagon.  Oh, blood may be spilt, alright, but it won’t be theirs.  Graf, at her most devastating, famously thrashed Natasha Zvereva in the ’88 French Open final 6-0, 6-0, I’d like to reiterate, Zvereva won six matches to get to a major final, then Steffi served her a double bagel in 32 minutes.  Hingis reputedly once asked big serving Lindsay Davenport after a coin toss if Davenport wanted to “return or be broken.”  Justine Henin’s distaste for loss was so strong that she pulled out of the Aussie Open final sick to her stomach ostensibly at how she was losing to perennial underachiever Amelie Mauresmo.  Imagine Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, “Sweet” Caroline Wozniacki, Melanie Oudin or Viktoria Azarenka mustering up that sort of spirit.  You can’t, because if the years of tennis we’ve seen from them thus far are any indication, they can’t. Not where it matters anyway.

Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis. Stars for different reasons, but two of the defining players of their generation.

Like kids who grow up watching reality TV, the unfortunate lesson of Kournikova may have been that you only need to be pretty good and pretty (or crazy to keep up the TV metaphor) to be a star. It seems that although I see Kournikova as a serious tennis player who never fulfilled her potential, the kids who grew up watching her have just worked hard enough to become stars. The tennis is just an audition to get them through the gates. The sport, a means to an end rather than the end itself.

To be fair Safina, Jankovic, Wozniacki, and Azarenka have all won singles titles and have been ranked than Kournikova ever was. What I’m questioning is their desire to go a step further.

I’ve never met any of the top players, and I’m sure they would all say they’re working hard and want to be No. 1, but the results seem to speak for themselves. There is a revolving door of top ten players. Yet, the upper echelons of the game are filled with elder stateswomen like the Williamses, Henin, Clijsters, players who actually played against Steffi Graf (who retired back in ’99) and who often beat up on Kournikova. Francesca Schiavone who broke through for the 2010 French Open title is 30, about the age most tennis players start heading for Shady Pines. Hell, Kimiko Date Krumm retired for THIRTEEN YEARS and at age 39 has climbed 61st in the world.

Where is that next generation of women who want to be bigger than stars, say, actual champions? If you’re the WTA tour, you’re still searching. Searching for a winner.

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The Summer of Rafa II, The Reckoning

Rafael Nadal

I grew up a tennis fan in the ’80s and ’90s in a house without cable. In the noband (pre-internet) era, that meant generally the first image of professional tennis I’d see in a given year was from the Martian-esque red clay of Roland Garros (aka The French Open). While the fine print boxscores in the daily newspaper told a different story entirely, for this fan, the real tennis season effectively commenced at Roland Garros and ended with the US Open.

The whole truth is, the real season included, the ATP tour runs from January until Thanksgiving, from Adelaide to Zagreb on hardcourts, fast and slow, red clay, grass and indoors. The 2010 campaign only halfway in the record books, Rafael Nadal has played in Qatar, Australia, Palm Springs, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, Paris and twice in London. He spends his downtime in Mallorca (just try getting a direct flight to Manacor) and he’s expected in Toronto week after next.

The frank reality is that for all the globe-trotting, the tennis season hinges on a relatively short European jaunt stretching from mid-April to mid-July from Monte Carlo to Southwest London.

Rankings for the ATP Tour are based on a 52 week rolling point system with different events offering different points roughly matched to the depth of the fields. Where we stand in late July, the current rankings reflect a player’s performance from this time last year to today, but again, that only tells a part of the story.

Try these figures on for size: 7,045… 6,905…6,885

These are point totals belonging to the top 3 players in the world, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The difference is that Djokovic and Federer earned those figures over the entirety of the last 52 weeks. The Spaniard collected 7,045 (of his total 10,745) between Monte Carlo and Wimbledon alone.

Somewhere between the uncharacteristically “early” exits of Federer in Paris and London (as much as quarterfinal losses can be considered early), the Neverending Story III, a.k.a. the Isner-Mahut spectacle and the match Serena lost against the glass in that as-yet-unnamed restaurant, Rafael Nadal earned a season’s worth of points somewhat under the radar.

Yes, the knees are still wonky.

Yes, Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner, guys only the most intense of tennis fans (and their respective families) had heard of, both stretched him to five sets in the early rounds of Wimbledon.

Yes, he’s still only won half as many majors as Roger Federer. (For the record, Rafa’s eight ties him with Agassi, Connors and Lendl, and puts him ahead of McEnroe, Wilander, Becker, et al)

Put all that aside. The man from Manacor is putting on a virtuoso performance that only a Federer fan could deny.

Nadal enters the homestretch of the summer, the real season, with one real goal, and it’s eight weeks from here, a US Open title. Two years ago, during the original Summer of Rafa, he was in a similar place. World No. 1, French Open and Wimbledon champion, even bagging the US Open Series crown. That year, the US Open Series was blithely interrupted by a weird little competition known as the Olympics, half a world away in Beijing. Oh yeah, Nadal won that too. Nadal would arrive at the US Open in ’08 with a head full of steam, two arms full of accolades and little to no gas in the tank. He’d fall to Andy Murray in a listless semifinal.

A lot of fans seemed to lose the plot, they returned to the old narrative “Oh, Nadal, that rapscallion, it’s too bad about his hardcourt problem.” The blatant ridiculousness of that statement underscored by his wins at the Rogers Cup and Olympics played on the same DecoTurf hardcourt surface as the US Open just weeks prior.

Never mind Rafa’s bad knees, abdominal tear or parents’ divorce last year. His saison interruptus again allowed people to revisit that other anti-Rafaelite story, that Federer was merely a superior player. After all, the Mighty Fed reclaimed his Wimbledon crown and for good measure, swiped the French Open trophy that Nadal had owned in 2009.

2010 started off with some nerves, some dispiriting losses and some more knee issues for Nadal. Then the summer hit and he hit back. Nadal never faced a top dog in Monte Carlo, but his form was devastating in dispatching his countrymen Ferrero, Ferrer and Verdasco to win his unprecedented sixth consecutive title in Monaco. He looked more mortal in Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros, but passed each test, leaving with a mouth full of trophy. 5,000 points and over $3 million in the bag, Nadal struggled a touch on the grass, but ended up in the winner’s circle where it counts at Wimbledon.

Now comes the run to the US Open. The knees are undergoing treatment, the bid for a fourth Davis Cup has been sacrificed and the Olympics are two years away. 5-time US Open champ Roger Federer seems far from his best form; Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are in year-long fogs. Last year’s champ Juan Martin Del Potro is questionable and if he somehow does play, it’ll be a rehab start, his first event since the Australian Open in January. There are obviously other guys who can make a run, Andy Roddick, Robin Soderling, the surging Tomas Berdych, etc., but as Rafa told John McEnroe in an interview moments after he won his fifth French Open, “See you in New York.”

That’s where the real season ends, and that’s the direction in which Rafa and the rest of the tennis world are pointed.

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