Monthly Archives: March 2006

Nasdaq-100: Falling Seeds

Miami highlights the latest stop for both the ATP and the WTA this week, and after two days with the main draw the top seeds are not enjoying life right now. Upsets are raining fast and furious, including #2 Rafael Nadal on the men’s side along with #8 Gaston Gaudio and then #13 Lleyton Hewitt; Justine Henin-Hardenne, the #3 women’s seed, went down in her first match, and countrywoman #2 Kim Clijsters chose to keep her company. Whatever is going on in Miami, they can’t blame the heat. The weather here is about as strange as it was last week in Indian Wells: these normally cosy hot spots are socked in with some unaccustomed cold weather. Maybe this is throwing the players off their games. Isn’t this the time that people are supposed to start rounding into form? We may have to wait a bit.

On Saturday, we were treated to a couple of decent matches, starting with Kim Clijsters taking on Jill Craybas. Craybas is one of the older veterans on tour, she is over thirty now, so, for her, fitness is of absolute importance. Her shots are steady if not spectacular, but her movement is impeccable. She was playing one of the better moving women on the tour, but today was not Clijsters’ day. She looked very sluggish out there, even a bit pudgy. Let’s hope she is not keeping the Williams’ sisters company in those all you can eat buffet lines. Clijsters is usually the one who gets marks for her movement and fitness, but today it was all Craybas, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5. Clijsters made no excuses in her post-match interview; she maintained she was fit and ready to play, but for my money she looks about five pounds heavier, and her feet were just fixed in cement.

For the second week, Rafael Nadal exited early, at the hands of his mentor and friend Carlos Moya. Carlos seems healthy now, maybe he can get further along here in Miami. How does it feel when you mentor someone as great as Nadal will be, and your own game is starting to decline? I for one have wondered how Carlos handles that, but maybe we won’t have to ask him that probing question today. He was victorious, 2-6, 6-1, 6-1. In fairness to Nadal, his ankle was not quite 100%, and it affected his ability to push off and run for shots.

Tim Henman is the other male player making a name here upsetting guys. Marat Safin was the first to go, in the wee small hours of the night after a lengthy rain delay. In the next round, Henman did himself one better in taking out #13 seed, Lleyton Hewitt, 7-6, 6-3. A few weeks ago Henman was being written off, as newcomer Andy Murray of Scotland continued to work his way into the hearts of Brit fans with his win over Hewitt in the San Jose final. But Murray is now struggling, he has gone out early in tournaments since San Jose, and it is Henman who is playing very well.

James Blake continues the fine play he showed us last week at Indian Wells, beating up his first opponent, Carlos Berlocq, 0 and 0. Life was starting to look like one big bagel for Berlocq anyway. He took out American Newcomer Donald Young in a qualifying match, 0 and 0, then succumbed to the same fate himself. Blake is in the top ten now, at #9 in this tournament, and he would most probably love another shot at Roger Federer in the quarterfinals.

Federer’s first match was against Arnaud Clement yesterday. Federer looks sharper than he did last week, he did not seem as tentative. He was striking the ball with confidence, but with a goodly sprinkling of errors along the way. He won the first set 6-2, then proceeded to let the Frenchman back in the second set. They ended up in a tiebreaker, where Roger seemed to do a mental walkabout of sorts, losing 7 straight points. He managed to make the correction in the third. An over-correction, we could say. He must have gotten mad at himself, and now proceeded to offer up the Frenchman – not a croissant – but a bagel instead. Final score, 6-2, 6-7(3), 6-0.

Federer’s really big match is Monday night, against Tommy Haas, who has pushed Roger considerably in their earlier meetings this year. Even though Roger is playing better this week in the early rounds, I think Tommy may pull an upset off tomorrow night. If he doesn’t, then Blake fans will get a chance to salivate over another Blake-Federer match-up looming in the quarterfinals.

Today, Sunday, ESPN2 served up Maria Sharapova, the #4 seed, who took on Maria Camerin, a svelte Italian who is even blonder than the Russian and whose game nearly got her into a third set. But she faded, and Sharapova doesn’t give anything away. She saw Roger Federer squander his two-setter into a three-setter, and said “No thank you, I can handle things fine in two sets.”

Sharapova really fires herself up for the big points, and with those piercing shrieks of hers she’s almost becoming a force of nature at times on the court. Maybe she could be an actress, an action female character, her level of aggression might translate well on the big screen, who knows. Lara Croft, move over.

Svetlana Kuznetsova had her hands full with Martina Hingis today, before beating her in what sounded like three great sets. We don’t know from this front though, since ESPN2 stayed on for only two hours, then left us stranded in the middle of this hard-fought match. They have also this week neglected to show any of Nalbandian-Berdych, another three-setter, or of Marcos Baghdatis going down in three as well to #5 seed, Nikolay Davydenko. And did anyone living see Moya and Nadal?

When are the sporting networks going to realize that if you want to draw more TV viewers to tennis, you actually have to show the tennis?
And to show it even if, God forbid, there are no Americans to be seen. Alright, so Davydenko is nearly invisible in terms of tennis flash, but Baghdatis has enough personality for a handful of Nikolays, and Nalbandian is #3 here for heaven’s sake, and Berdych is a Fresh Face on the block, and they deserve a viewing too. Sorry to say, most of the best of the tennis these days is not being played by Americans. Maybe the networks should stop praying for rain and get on with it.

One of those finer non-Americans is Amelie Mauresmo, playing great tennis still in this new year, moving quietly and with no trouble through the draw.

And Instant Replay is doing it’s thing for the first time, officially, and so far so good. We think. Like Roger, let’s stay neutral, at least through the finals.

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Pete, Chrissy and Billie Jean: the state of tennis

It’s a sad day for the tennis world. Gene Scott has died at the age of 68. Scott was a world-ranked tennis player and the founder, editor and publisher of Tennis Week magazine. Scott was a Davis Cup player who reached the number eleven ranking in the world. He was also a tournament director, wrote twenty tennis books and was known for his outspoken views, many of which appeared in his column, Vantage Point.

We could do with a few outspoken people in the tennis world. We have some problems. One of our problems was recently solved. If you walked around thePacific Life Open in Indian Wells last week, you might have seen Pete Sampras, Chris Evert or Billie Jean King wandering around. That’s because they’re part owners of the tournament.

The tournament was in dire financial straits with a large debt load and people from places like Dubai, China and Doha were lining up to buy the tournament and move it away. The tournament directors, Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore, made a deal with the city of Indian Wells to buy property adjacent to the tennis facility for $15 million so that they could refinance the stadium. Then they jettisoned their previous financial partner, the huge sports management company IMG, and took on the USTA, Tennis Magazine, Pete, Billie Jean, and Chrissy, among others, as partners.

Sunday morning, Pasarell and Moore sat down with the media for a one-hour conversation. There they discussed the biggest problem in tennis at the moment: scheduling. Only four of the top ten women turned up at Indian Wells. Kim Clijsters is legitimately injured, I don’t know what Mary Pierce is doing, and Amelie Mauresmo, the new number one, took a few weeks off.

It turns out that the WTA is contractually required to send 6 out of the top 10 women players to Indian Wells. Since they didn’t, they had to compensate the tournament. The WTA lags behind the ATP on this issue, 6 out of the top ten men turned up, and the ATP is more stringent about fining players when they skip important tournaments. We know that Lindsay Davenport had an MRI of her bulging disc to show the WTA when she pulled out of this week’s tournament in Miami, The Nasdaq-100, but it’s unlikely that Venus Williams sent them x-rays of the strained ligament in her elbow.

That makes more sense than a last minute Tennis Channel broadcast of a Federer-Nadal match from Dubai that never turned up on my cable schedule and, strangely enough, never turned up on The Tennis Channel’s website schedule either.

Speaking of the The Nasdaq-100, it’s a designated tournament, meaning that both WTA and ATP players are required to attend unless they are injured. Indian Wells doesn’t have that designation yet though Pasarell and Moore say that they’re next in line. That’s one way of dealing with the problem. Designate Indian Wells so that the top players in the world are available four weekends in a row on network television. That makes more sense than a last minute Tennis Channel broadcast of a Federer-Nadal match from Dubai that never turned up on my cable schedule and, strangely enough, never turned up on The Tennis Channel’s website schedule either.

While I’m happy that Pete, Billie Jean and Chrissy came to the rescue, it’s doesn’t look good when you have to be bailed out by former players. The USTA’s participation makes more sense. They run the US Open, which makes a lot of money, and they should be helping other tournaments. They also created the US Open Series, a set of tournaments running up to the US Open which has good television coverage. Pasarell said that the ATP and WTA are also asking other slams, such as the French Open, to help other tournaments leading up to it.

Tennis is a little like Indian Wells, it has problems but things are improving. The women’s side doesn’t look great, we can’t count on Venus and Serena to carry the day any more, but the men’s side looks like it’s on the verge of a legitimate rivalry between Federer and Nadal, especially when the surfaces slow down, and it has telegenic young stars such as Marcos Baghdatis and Nadal.

As far as state of the game on the court, let’s look at Hawkeye’s American debut in Miami yesterday. Hawkeye is the new electronic line calling system. In six matches on the stadum court – the system is expensive so it’s only available on the stadium court – players challenged fourteen line calls and won seven of them. I’m surprised, I thought it would be lower than 50%. True, it’s just over one incorrect call per match and it’s exceptionally difficult to tell if a 130 mph serve grazed the sideline, but that’s a high percentage and a good indication that Hawkeye’s arrival is long overdue.

Federer is boring

After my post about Federer’s destruction of his good friend Ivan Ljubicic, a reader left a comment saying that Federer is boring because his game is so dominant and he is emotionally unexpressive on the court relative to someone like Nadal. She’s right. We much prefer to see someone pumping their fist and doing the lawnmower; someone who is down on their knees with joy at the sight of victory.

…Federer is boring because his game is so dominant and he is emotionally unexpressive on the court

What you see on the court with Federer is a guy with supreme confidence who is happy with his game and day to day life. When you’re down 4-1 in the first set of a Master Series final, as he was against James Blake today in the Indian Wells final, that comes in handy. “I’m always in control of how I need to play,” he said after the match, “what’s been happening, what I’ve got to do.”

Federer was calm but Blake was jumpy. After he went up two breaks of serve by taking the ball early and going for winners, Federer adjusted his game by hitting more backhand slices to blunt Blake’s power and drawing him to the net with short balls then passing him. Blake was still up a break serving for the set at 5-4 when it looked like he got a case of the nerves. He didn’t come in on a short ball as he had earlier and served a double fault to lose the game. You have to look for Federer’s hubris, but it’s there. When someone asked him, “At what point do you think you got on top of James?” Federer smiled and said, “After getting the second break back when I leveled the score, I knew it was going to be a tough one for him now.”

A Federer-Rafael Nadal final would not have ended like this

And it was. Vic Braden told me that he asked Federer how he developed so many more shots than any other player. Federer told him that he sat down and wrote a list of every shot he was likely to face and set about learning all of them. Here’s a sample. A drop shot off a drop shot: Blake hit a pretty good backhand drop shot cross court and Federer came in and hit his own backhand drop shot for a winner. A slice lob followed by a winning drop shot and, on the next point, a chip and charge return of serve.

Blake hung in there until 4-3 in the second set then lost his serve the rest of the way. Federer had a 7-5, 6-3, 6-0 win and his third consecutive Indian Wells title, the first man to do that.

A Federer-Rafael Nadal final would not have ended like this. All respect to Blake, he’s gone from number 14 to 9 in one week and he did, after all, beat Nadal. But Federer cannot dominate Nadal so handily. Nadal hopes to win Wimbledon some day but, for now, he’s the favorite on anything from a slow hard court to clay. This was a medium to slow hard court but the night-time cold and wind-chill factor during the Nadal-Blake match might have made a difference. The cold makes the court faster.

If people do come out to see Nadal play, once they’re here I hope they stick around long enough to appreciate Federer’s on court approach because it brings the attention to his tennis. It’s not one bludgeoning forehand followed by another, it’s a probing, subtle deconstruction of his opponent’s game.

The same person who called Federer boring also wrote: “I am completely in love with Federer as a person and I find the greatness of his game inimitable, so sharp, intelligent, elegant, clever, fluid, creative, subtle, almost a Jedi fluent with the force and a true master.”

I couldn’t say it any better.

white, blue and red: super Saturday at Indian Wells

Earlier this week I watched the European ice skating championships and saw Irina Slutskaya win her record seventh title. “That’s strange,” I thought to myself, “isn’t Russia in Asia?”

Then today, as Maria Sharapova (RUS) and Elene Dementieva (RUS) stood with their trophies after Sharapova’s 6-1, 6-2, victory in today’s final at the Pacific Life Open, I noticed a ballgirl with a white, blue and red flag standing behind them. The writer next to me pointed out that it was the Russian flag. “Really,” I said, “it looks like they’ve neutered it. No symbols, no nothing.” I’m ignorant, I know, but I was looking for something to replace the hammer and sickle. It turns out that the flag was created by Czar Peter in the 1600’s for his fleet of ships. And although Russia is geographically in Asia, the area that is west of the Ural Mountains, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, is part of the quasi-continent called Eurasia.

Speaking of Federer, they should just let him cruise onto the court on a steamroller.

In the mens’ second semifinal between James Blake (USA) and Rafael Nadal (ESP), there was another geography lesson. It’s called home court advantage. Spectators started applauding on Nadal’s first unforced error. Nadal was gracious about it. “I understand perfect that, no?” he said, “When I play Madrid, …no one on the court wanted Ljubicic to win.” But he probably didn’t appreciate a call late in the second set.

Nadal was serving at 3-4 when Blake hit a high defensive lob to the baseline that looked long. Nadal put his hands up in the air in the middle of the shot as if to say, “What’s up with that, the ball is out!!”, then played the ball. A few strokes later he sent a forehand long to give Blake a break point. On the next point one of Blake’s balls landed deep and someone in the media room joked that it couldn’t have been out because Blake is the American. Blake broke Nadal and held his serve for the 7-5, 6-3, win.

Blake deserved the victory, he went for winners all night long and, unlike his fellow American who appears headed in the opposite direction in the rankings – Andy Roddick – played inside the court not three feet behind the baseline. He also approached the net much more than anyone else dares against Nadal, except, of course, Roger Federer, considering Nadal’s ability to hit passing shots.

Speaking of Federer, they should just let him cruise onto the court on a steamroller. Ljubicic went home from the quarterfinals at 6-3, 6-2, and Paradorn Srichaphan, Federer’s semifinal opponent today, went down by the same score.

the US now has three players in the top ten for the first time since February 2004

When Ljubicic was asked after his match what two things set Federer apart he said: “There are not two, there are many. But, return and movement.” Add the first serve, he has been serving exceptionally well in this tournament, and you have a big problem. Srichaphan has had a wonderful tournament considering that his last title was in 2004 and his ranking had dropped off the charts after reaching number 9 in 2003. But he was treading a thin line against Federer. You don’t want to get into a rally game with him so you end up going for winners earlier in the point than you’re used to. That means you’re not in the best position to hit them and balls ends up in the net. That’s exactly what happened to Srichaphan.

Last geography lesson of the day. James Blake is now number 9 in the rankings and could go to 7 if we wins the final tomorrow. Either way, that means the US now has three players in the top ten for the first time since February 200. Agassi is holding on at number 10 barely and, as I said above, Roddick is having problems but we can expect him to hang around the top ten for a while.

I didn’t mean to slight the women’s final, it’s just that it hasn’t been very interesting for the last few years and it wasn’t very interesting today. As painful as it can be – she’s averaged 14 double faults per match so far in this tournament – I love watching Dementieva play because she’s never out of a match. But three of her four matches this week went three sets – that’s the price you pay for being a slow starter – and Dementieva was tired.

The wind didn’t help. It was gusting at 16-20 mph so both players were concentrating on keeping the ball in the court rather than hitting out and the results showed it. There were not a lot of points to get excited about.

The match was billed as a Russian final and Sharapova is the first Russian woman to win the event. But she’s lived in the US since she was seven years old and she’s played in exactly one tournament on Russian soil. I think it’s like that Eurasian border, if you live in Moscow and want to call yourself European, you can. If you want to call yourself an Asian, you can do that too.

After Maria’s third round win in the 2003 Wimbledon, a reporter asked her, “Do you feel a bit American?” “When I’m in America, yes, definitely,” she said. “When I’m in Russia, I feel Russian.” See what I mean?

Don’t mess with the truck – Sharapova pancakes Hingis

In second set of Maria Sharapova’s 6-3, 6-3, semifinal victory over Martina Hingis here at Indian Wells, a spectator sitting behind Sharapova yelled out, “Martina, she’s getting tired,” referring to Sharapova. In response, Sharapova said, “I looked back at them and I’m like, tired, my butt. So don’t mess with a truck. You’re going to become a pancake.”

That spectator might have been working for Hingis because that was her game plan: to stay in the point and hit topspin loopers until Sharapova got tired. “I’m not going to hit winners out of that, but just make her tired. Then wait for my opportunities,” Hingis said after the match.

Sharapova adjusted her game to Hingis rather than the other way around

Her first opportunity came in the third game in the second set. Sharapova hit three unforced errors to give Hingis two break points. On the first one, Hingis had Sharapova on the run but hit the putaway shot, a swinging backhand volley, into the net. With more match experience, that’s a shot she’ll make most of the time. Luckily, another Sharapova error gave Hingis her break and they were back on serve.

At 2-4, Hingis got two more opportunities and made two more mistakes. With another break point, she hit a routine ball smack dab in the middle of the court. Sharapova said thank you very much and hit an inside out forehand winner. On the second break point, Hingis had Sharapova on the run but she tried to hit a winner from an awkward position and hit it wide. Two break points and two mental errors.

Sharapova obliged her with yet another error and they were back on serve yet again but it was just a hiccup. After taking a medical time out for a blister on her foot, how much you wanna bet she’d doesn’t take that break if she’d won that last game?, Sharapova returned to pancake mode. She won the last two games handily to get to the final and an opportunity to win her first tournament in nine months.

When I first heard that Hingis was returning to the tour, I worried about her lack of power and her ability to focus on tennis day in and day out after three years of sleeping in late. Obviously her focus is fine, from nowhere her ranking is now in the 30’s, but she doesn’t smack the ball like Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva. She’s not concerned about it. “I don’t like always the power thing. That’s not intimidating any more. …You know, it’s more of the placement now that she was really was dictating right/left, right left…”

Which is true. That is what Sharapova did. And there’s evidence in this match that Sharapova adjusted her game to Hingis rather than the other way around. I’ve seldom seen Sharapova hit so many approach shots and swinging volleys. Anything to avoid being picked apart by the “cerebral assassin” as Bruce Schoenfeld of Tennis Magazine calls his favorite tennis player. People have been harping on Sharapova to add some diversity to her game for a long time but it tooks Hingis’ return to make her do it. Hingis should take credit for that. It’s a sign of respect.

But Hingis should also renew her membership to Gold’s Gym. Hingis held her serve exactly three times. Much of that was due to Sharapova’s aggressive play but I periodically tracked Hingis’ second serve speed and only twice did it get above 80 mph and those two were 81 and 83 mph. Watching Elena Dementieva serve this week, or any week for that matter, I might live to regret this but I just don’t think that’s enough in today’s game to win a major. For sure, it’s a good bet she can make the top ten – notice how I’m changing my tune here from January now that I’ve seen her play for a few months – but I’ll be surprised if she gets a slam

I’m warming to Sharapova. She’s a charmer and she has a very good sense of herself. Here she is the sex symbol and main draw for the WTA and she doesn’t find it frustrating that she hasn’t won a title in nine months. “No, it’s not. Not frustrating at all. …I’m very happy to be one of the most consistent players. At my age and at my level at this point, I think that’s great.” That’s a pretty healthy statement.

Just don’t get in her way when the truck is rolling.