Monthly Archives: April 2005

roller derby – sport or entertainment

Lots of times you see lists trying to determine if a sport qualifies as a sport. Is pool a sport, is golf a sport? A better question may be: is the game a sport or entertainment. Clearly World Wrestling Entertainment is entertainment, it says so in the name.

The NBA, well, it used to be as easy call. Sport. But the question is a little harder to answer now. In the attempt to market itself and make the NBA brand a worldwide attraction, stars, not teams, have become the main attraction. This means that the individual stars on a team dictate the game to a much larger degree.

Kobe Bryant was going to walk across the hall to the Clippers if the Lakers didn’t trade Shaquille O’Neal. This left the Lakers with a bad trade since their hand was forced. If they could have waited another six months to a year, they would have had many more options.

Baron Davis explained his unhappy career under Byron Scott by saying that Scott didn’t listen to him. The implication is that the New Orleans Hornets?? would have won just like Golden State winning now that Baron plays there because the coach, Mike Montgomery, apparently does listen to Davis. Whenever I get into a fight with someone and they complain, “You’re not listening to me!”, what they’re really saying is, “You’re not doing what I want you to do.”

Federer, Nadal – luck and skill

There are some tennis matches that are so good they bear a closer look, even three weeks later. So let’s look at the 2005 Nasdaq 100 final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Federer has won 47 of his last 48 matches, 17 straight finals and is, of course, ranked number 1 in the world. Nadal has won 15 straight matches, beat Federer 6-3, 6-3, in this event last year and is number 31 in the world – a ranking that will be bumped up to the top 20 after this tournament.

Before the match, the only question seems to be, “How long will it take Federer to adjust to the lefty Nadal’s spin?” After that, it appears to be a pretty routine 18th straight finals win.

True to Federer’s statement before the match that he might be down a set and a break by the time he adjusts to the lefty’s spin, Nadal breaks him in the first game. Federer’s strategy seems to focus on attacking Nadal’s backhand, it’s not the high looping shot that his forehand is, and coming to the net at any opportunity.

There are two problems with this approach. It’s hard to attack off high looping shots and Nadal is fast enough to run around his backhand, hit a high looping forehand then cover when you try to hit to what looks like open court. The second problem is that, early on, Nadal is hitting wicked backhand passing shots and manages to break Roger a second time to go up 5-2. At this point, Federer has 13 unforced errors and 5 winners.

Nadal serves out at love to win the first set 6-2 and breaks Federer in the first game in the second set. One set and a break. Time is up, has Federer adjusted yet?

At the moment Federer seems prophetic. He breaks Nadal’s next two service games and hits 4 winners to serve at love in the fifth game and go up 4-1. This is a bit misleading, you can see that Federer is still uncomfortable. He’s making errors on easy shots and hardly looks like his usual gazelle-like self smoothly covering all parts of the court. In the seventh game he completely mishits an overhead, it doesn’t even go over the net, and mishits the next shot as both players hold serve to get to 5-2.

Part of Federer’s problem is the constant pressure from Nadal, another part is physical. He has bandages on both feet to cover blisters and visits with a trainer early in the set. He also had blisters when he played Marat Safin at the Australian Open in January, his only loss since the U.S. Open last year.

Federer seems a bit unnerved by the shanked overhead and even more unnerved by his opponent. Nadal runs down everything and hits 3 winners in the next game to break Federer. Then Nadal gets angry over a questionable but correct line call and starts hitting the ball even harder.

It works. A 4-1 lead is now 6-6 and the second set goes to a tiebreaker. A very unFederer like train of events for a Sunday afternoon. And a good indication of Nadal’s mental strength that he can use adversity to improve his game.

In between adjusting his socks, he does this most points, and performing wedgie removal – those pirate pants look good but they seem a little tight to be playing tennis in – Nadal senses the importance of the moment and goes for more big shots. He gets a service winner, hits some big inside out forehands and passes Federer again to win the tiebreaker, 7-4, and the second set.

Federer’s skill? That he could turn such a disastrous day into his eighteenth straight finals win just adds to his legend.

What can Federer pull out of his well-rounded game bag of tricks now that he is two sets down? How about getting mad. Very mad.

He is beside himself when he mishits yet another volley in the third game of the third set. In the fourth game, Nadal breaks Federer to go up 3-1 after he gets to a Federer drop volley and hits a passing shot. In the next game Federer doesn’t even go after a passing shot hit behind him, he just keeps sauntering towards the net. At break point on Nadal’s serve in the fifth game, Federer untypically screams at an easy error after Nadal weakly returns a very difficult low wide shot. This shot would normally be low and outside to a two-hander’s backhand forcing a one-handed stab at the ball but Nadal is left-handed, did I tell you that already?, and very quick so it’s a forehand get for him.

In the sixth game, Nadal approaches the net unexpectedly and gets a few volleys back before Federer misses an easy passing shot. As he gets ready to serve on the next point, somone yells out to Federer, “Wake up!” Federer stops his service motion and has a few words with the guy. But it seems to work as Federer manages to hold serve.

Sequences in the next two games show the brilliance and personality of both players. In the seventh game, Nadal makes like Boris Becker and dives in an unsuccessful attempt to return a Federer forehand volley. In the eighth game, Nadal makes two stellar gets off wide balls before Federer wins the point with a volley. On the next point, Nadal hits a drop dead drop shot for a winner. Federer is slowly beginning to find his game plan and Nadal is never ever going to give up. They are now even at 4-4 in the third set.

After Federer hits behind him then runs him wide, Nadal puts up a defensive lob only to see Federer hit the overhead long. Federer is now so pissed off that he slams his racket to the ground. Whoa, when do we ever see that? Nadal holds to go up 5-4.

After a few more screams by Federer, an olè wave by the crowd, we are in Miami after all, and, finally, a fist pump from Federer, it’s time for another tiebreak. With Nadal ahead 5-4 in the tiebreak, Federer hits a huge forehand to the corner that stays in by inches. If he misses, he gives Nadal match pont. On the next point he goes for and makes a big serve wide on second serve. It’s a fearless display of tennis. He has 5 unforced errors and gets his fourth double fault of the set, but it’s worth it as he hits a ton of huge forehands and wins the tiebreaker 7-5.

Both players are on serve in the fourth set through the first three games but Nadal is starting to look tired. He’s not sprinting to the baseline from his chair or bouncing around anymore, instead, he seems to be swaying. When he is pulled wide in the fourth game he hits a backhand to keep the ball in play. Earlier in the match he was blasting winners down the line from that position.

Federer is starting to impose his game on Nadal. He repeatedly pulls Nadal wide on the serve then goes to the net but Nadal is still scrambling and there are still some incredible tennis points being played. Five of the six points in the fifth game were won by forced errors or winners. Federer’s break in the fourth game holds up and he wins the fourth set 6-3.

What should Nadal do here? He should give Federer a different look on the serve or at least anticipate the serve wide much better. He also should take a bathroom or clothing break to get a much needed rest. Instead, he receives a time violation from the chair umpire in the third game of the fifth set for taking too long to rewrap the grip on his racket. After this brief, unofficial time out, Nadal recovers enough for a few long rallies but he only wins 5 points in the last 4 games as Federer wins the fifth set and match, 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1.

Was Federer unduly bothered by Nadal’s spin? There were likely three things contributing to Federer’s mishitting ways:
1. Nadal’s spin and lefthandedness.
2. Blisters on his feet.
3. Sometimes it’s just not your day.

Oh, and Nadal’s speed. Spin and speed, a lethal combination. Nadal hit a number of shots off retrievals that turned into offensive shots. They dipped low over the net or went down the line or turned into passing shots. It’s a different game than Federer’s but a tough game for him because he depends on surgically putting the ball where you are not. Federer has a 100mph forehand, that’s power, but his strategy is to find a weakness, not pound you into submission.

Nadal is a young, emotional player. He’s like a young bunny hopping around until he tires himself out But he’s mentally strong and he’ll learn how to pace himself better in a big match five-setter. He already learned a lot when he beat Roddick in four sets in last year’s Davis Cup championship in Spain and he no doubt used his experience in today’s match to beat Guillermo Coria and win Monte Carlo in four sets after losing the third set at love.

Federer is still incorporating attacking the net into his game. He acquired his new part time coach, Tony Roche, in January specifically to help with this. He can expect some bad days at the net.

I remember reading his website early last year and reading that he didn’t believe in drop shots. Of course that has changed, especially if he wants to win the French Open. But here he was playing against a clay court player who was backed up behind the baseline and he put only one drop shot on him from the baseline during the entire match. See, there are ways that he can improve.

When I used to get dressed up and go out to a party my roommate Lenore would always shout down, “I hope you get lucky!” as I walked out the door. I always turned back and answered, “It takes luck and skill, luck and skill.”

Except for a few inches in the third set tiebreaker, this could have been a straight set victory for Nadal. Federer’s skill? That he could turn such a disastrous day into his eighteenth straight finals win just adds to his legend.

bison tennis

Things are slow here in tennisland. There is very little tennis on television through the end of May. Thus, I bring you this story.

The front page of the New York Times shows an image of a bison jumping over the net on a tennis court. Had he just won his match and jumped the net to comfort his fallen opponent? No, he was joining his pal on the other side who was making a mad dash for the baseline.

I’m not very good with animals. Are bison like cows, all female? Evidently there are male and female bison and you can identify the males by their black beards.

These bison had escaped from a suburban farm in Maryland and had to be herded away from the side of a nearby highway by a large group of police officers. The officers tried to cordon them off but the bison preferred playing on a fenced-in tennis court.

Clearly the suburb is in an upscale area if the building has it’s own tennis court. Possibly the furry animals wanted to know what it felt like to be in the country club set for a few hours. We know that’s where we are because one of the observers filled a children’s wading pool with water for the bison, he said, “to improve their feng shui.” I don’t think we’d be talking about feng shui if the bison had wondered onto a public tennis court in Compton, but I could be wrong.

Animals like to make fun of us. My friend Carolyn and I were once in charge of moving a horse from the barn down to the lower field late one beautiful afternoon in western Virginia. The horse managed to get out of the barn and wander around for a bit while we desperately searched for him. When we finally managed to get hold of him and started to lead him in the right direction, he kicked up his heels and had a little run along side the fence with a pal of his who was in the upper field. You could just hear the two of them snorting and chortling and saying to each other, “Jeez, these humans are idiots.”

Another image in the article shows a police officer flat on his back still clinging to a piece of webbed outdoor furniture that was meant to act as a barricade. A fallen opponent I suppose. Possibly the bison thought they had invented a new game: police officer pop-a-shot. Knock them down, run to the net, jump over the net and you’re home free till the next one pops up.

I counted fourteen officers for eight bison. Seems unfair.

lessons in life from Bill “Spaceman” Lee

“The other day they asked me about mandatory drug testing. I said I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the sixties I tested everything.” – Bill Lee

I lived in Boston for seventeen years and I used to play softball once a week with a ragtag bunch of players who were my good friends. One Sunday morning we were playing on a field in Belmont, a suburb of Boston near Cambridge, when Bill “Spaceman” Lee walked by with his two young sons.

I was pitching that day. He stopped and chatted with us for a while then looked my way and said, “Yep, she’s a good pitcher.” Damn, I was thrilled to hear that. I could not stop smiling.

We had a short left field with a high fence attached to the tennis court beyond it. At some point Lee pointed at the fence and said, “That’s my stroke, that’s where I hit the ball.” The instant he said that I had an epiphany, one of those moments when you come to a realization that has a profound effect on your life.

Up until then I thought I had to be good at every aspect of any game I played and, by extension, everything I did else no one would play with me and they probably wouldn’t even like me. If I played softball, I had to be a good outfielder, a good infielder, a good pitcher, hit the ball to all fields and throw the ball a mile. If I was playing basketball, I had to be fast, handle the ball well and shoot the lights out.

Understandably, trying to be good at everything meant that I wasn’t too good at anything. On top of that, I was usually one of the few women on the field so you could see why I might be in mortal fear of dropping the ball. I was sure they’d never let me play again if I did.

But if Bill Lee’s natural stroke was to left field, then I could concentrate on the things I did well: pitching and hitting for average, and not worry about things I didn’t do well.

Bill Lee was a strange guy, a showman. That was a a problem at times because you were never sure when he was just trying to piss you off and when he was just being himself. But he was a good player and a hard worker. He had three straight seasons with seventeen wins. And he had a good sense of what was and wasn’t important and with a simple comment that Sunday morning, I learned something important.

Dementieva and Henin-Hardenne on the couch

The clay court season has started. The men played on red clay last week in Monte Carlo. Rafael Nadal won the event after yet another five set match. Unfortunately, The Tennis Channel does not come to my neighborhood yet. I have no such excuse for the Nasdaq final between Federer and Nadal – my DVR couldn’t handle the time change. I did manage to get a copy though. Coming soon.

Justine Henin-Hardenne and Elena Dementieva played the final on green clay at the Family Circle Cup. I’ve never seen this before. In between points each woman rested on a couch that looked like it had been borrowed from the front parlor room of an old Victorian mansion from nearby Charleston.

Henin-Hardenne is nothing if not competitive. It must have pissed her off to see her countrywoman Kim Clijsters win two big tournaments in a row: the Pac Life and Nasdaq 100. Let’s see if she can keep up.

Dementieva and Henin-Hardenne are even through the first six games, each with a break and one double fault. Dementieva breaks in the eighth game to go up 5-3. This is only Hardenne’s second tournament back after missing most of last year with injury and illness. Her magnificent backhand is working well but here forehand is still undependable.

Henin-Hardenne is one of the top servers on the tour. In the fourth game she unloads one at 117mph, only 10mph off the WTA record, and her first serve percentage is 65%. She has a good second serve yet she’s winning only 15% of second serve points. What’s going on here?

Dementieva’s serve is an adventure unlike anything you see except, maybe, at one of my matches. Given this serve and the fact that she doesn’t often come to the net, Dementieva must have game somewhere. She’s the number two seed here, ranks fifth in the world, she’s won four tour events and played in two slam finals and yet she had 17, yes 17, double faults in her quarterfinal win against Katarina Srebotnik. She has consistent, deep ground shots, a good inside out forehand and backhand and superior anticipation. She’s well on her way to the ball when many other plays would just be starting.

And she returns serve exceptionally well. Thus explaning Hardenne’s second serve winning percentage.

In the ninth game, Henin-Hardenne starts taking chances with her groundstrokes, comes to the net more and wins the last four games to win the set 7-5. This elicits squeals number 3, 4, 5 and 6 from Dementieva, she’s a squealer, one after a net chord, another after a backhand error and the last two as she realizes that Henin-Hardenne is taking the game to her and she’s not responding.

In each of Dementieva’s first two service games in the second set, she double faults twice. There are five breaks in the first six games and Henin-Hardenne is up 4-2. Both players are playing uninspired tennis.

This is the time when I remember why I prefer hard court tennis. Long rallies of high looping balls on green clay, or worse, red clay, can be uninteresting. The long rallies may be tiring Henin-Hardenne; she’s already played two three setters to get here. Her illness last year was exhaustion and she is surely telling herself that Dementieva might have the advantage in a third set. She attacks even more and makes errors as Dementieva climbs back to 4-4.

She wore herself out. She came back for the Olympics and, typically, won the gold medal then fell to exhaustion again. It will be interesting to see if her body can keep up with her will.

Henin-Hardenne is a champion for a reason. She’s fearless. She goes for a huge backhand down the line to get a break point in the ninth game, breaks on the next point and regains momentum. Serving for the set and match, she smacks every first serve as hard as she can to try to end the match here and now. She gets few of those serves in but she does get one ace and hits three other winners. After a few “allez!”s from the Belgian, eight squeals and some muttering in Russian from Dementieva, Henin-Hardenne has her first title of the year, 7-5, 6-4.

Now let’s go back to that couch.

Some players are talented but mercurial, Safin for instance. Others physically impose their game on their opponent. Henin-Hardenne is one of those players who wills herself to excellence. But you can push yourself too hard. I am just a lowly recreational player and even I set goals that are too high and exhaust myself trying to reach them. That may be hard to say about someone who has won three grand slams but I think it might explain part of the illness that kept her at home most of last year. She wore herself out. She came back for the Olympics and, typically, won the gold medal then fell to exhaustion again. It will be interesting to see if her body can keep up with her will.

Dementieva seems to enjoy putting herself in a difficult position then finding her way out of it. She’s an interesting mixture because she’s known as a tenacious fighter and yet her double faults increase tellingly when she’s under pressure. She may be number five in the rankings but the only person in the top ten with fewer tour wins is number ten, Vera Zvonareva, and she’s been on the tour two years less. Dementieva has yet to win a tier 1 level tournament.

Clearly a better serve would improve her game. It would relieve her of putting so much pressure on the rest of her game to make up for the double faults and wonky serves. More importantly, the mental strength she’d gain from being able to serve consistently might make her feel more comfortable as a front runner.