Monthly Archives: September 2006

tennis playe finds weapons of mass destruction

Check out the latest media show from professional tennis player and blogger Dmitry Tursunov, Tursunov Tales. This week he answers a question from a woman in Baghdad, Iraq, by suggesting that his father was building nuclear technology in his basement and selling it to, among other countries, Iraq, thus providing concrete evidence of W.M.D.s. While waiting customers ate his mother’s crepes and strawberries, little Dmitry dressed up and danced for them.

His conclusion: despite our cultural differences we’re all alike because “everyone loves red buttons.” For those who didn’t live through the cold war, that’s the button that initiates a nuclear strike. I’m tellin’ you, this guy is better than Jon Stewart. Political satire at it’s best.

U.S. college tennis and the Mother of Exiles

I love my job. Two weeks ago I went to a futures tournament in Claremont, California, and spoke to a player whose grandfather was a cricket legend in India. Last week I went to a futures tournament further south in Costa Mesa and traveled from the Israeli/Lebanon border to Ghana then on to Basel and the Philippines before ending up in New Mexico. Along the way I learned a lot more about Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Marcos Baghdatis and U.S. college tennis that I ever expected.

Dudi Sela was the top ranked player in the Costa Mesa tournament. Earlier this year he was ranked number 160 but then he broke his elbow during a training accident and dropped into the 300’s. He took the title at Claremont and is ready to climb back up the rankings.

Sela’s hometown, which he stills calls home, is Kiryat Shmona, a small town in Northern Israel two miles from the border with Lebanon. As you can imagine, it’s been the target of Hezbollah rocket attacks on many occasions. Five or six years ago Sela was hiding out with his family in their basement shelter when a rocket blew out the windows and doors of the house. Sela hasn’t lost any family members but he knew people in town who died in rocket attacks.

At one point Sela lived in Paris for a year and practiced with his best friend Marcos Baghdatis. I once asked Baghdatis why he plays so well against top ten players but I didn’t get a very good answer and now I could ask his best friend. Sela’s answer: “Because he’s bored, he wants to play the big guys.” I also asked Sela why Baghdatis is so good. Sela tapped his chest and said, “Big heart, he has a big heart and he’s talented.”

Henry Adjei-Darko is from Ghana. He’s a tall player with an aggressive game and graceful, powerful strokes. When he hits a forehand he jumps into the air and his shirt goes flying as the racket wraps around his body. And this is despite injuring his foot a few days earlier. While he gets treatment for his foot after winning his match, I check into a match with a player from the Philippines, Patrick-John Tierro. I know there aren’t many players from Ghana but what about the Philippines? Their top two players, Cecil Mamiit and Eric Taino, were both born in the U.S. and live in Los Angeles but play for the Filipino Davis Cup team.

That’s just the beginning of the U.S.-Filipino connection which has a long history. Before we get into that, though, let’s take a short twenty year trip to Switzerland. Tierro’s coach is Beeyong Sisson, a former ATP player who is a delightful and talkative fellow. I started out by asking my usual question – what kind of support does your country’s tennis association give young players? – and got the usual answer: not much. But then, to my utter surprise, Sisson mentioned that he coached in Basel, Switzerland for twenty years and I immediately switched the conversation to Roger Federer.

“Wow,” I said, “that means you watched Roger Federer develop.” Yes he did and he even coached him at times because he was a Swiss National Coach assistant. The next obvious question was, “Okay then, why is Federer so good?” The first two reasons Sisson gave were expected. Federer’s game is well-rounded because he’s well-rounded as a person and also because he was a ball-boy for many years at the Basel indoor tournament so he got to see the best players such as Becker, Sampras and Agassi. But Sisson’s next statement was something different:

Agassi, in my opinion, if he had not gone to this academy early on, I think he would have gotten more grand slams than Pete.

Sisson is referring to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Andre Agassi was sent there by his father when he was fourteen years old. Sisson was making the point that players in Switzerland had an emotional connection to their community and they were allowed to develop into full human beings before they started their life on the tour. Life at tennis academies can pressure players to get immediate results and that can end up stunting their game and their emotional development.

Agassi described his life at the academy in an interview with Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated on the eve of his retirement. Agassi was a terrified and lonely teenager while he was living away from home. He turned pro partially to escape the academy atmosphere but it didn’t help. He got to number one in the world but he still wasn’t sure who he was. It took a painful tumble to a ranking of 141 and therapy to finally come to terms with his father, the same man who answered his son’s phone call telling him he’d won Wimbledon by saying, “You should have won in four.”

We don’t know what would have happened if Agassi had stayed at home, he might have gone through the same emotional turmoil, but he would have been able to work through his difficulties with his family. We also don’t know if Agassi would have won slams without going to a tennis academy, but Federer is a good example of a player who was given time to develop in a more integrated environment. As is Pete Sampras who grew up and learned to play in Southern California.

After those twenty years in Switzerland, Sisson returned to the Philippines and established a tennis center in Subic Bay which was the closing of an interesting circle. The father of Patrick-John Tierro – the young Filipino who Sisson is coaching here – was born in the U.S. and served a career in the U.S. Navy. After he retired he moved to the Philippines and lives in Olongapo City which surrounds Subic Bay. The U.S. had owned and run Subic Bay as a naval base since the end of the Spanish-American war. In 1946 the Philippines finally became an independent country and signed agreements with the U.S. to continue to maintain military bases on their soil. Three months before the last agreement was set to expire in 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted and destroyed Clark Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, and dumped a foot of volcanic ash onto Subic Bay.

Many Filipinos were unhappy about the U.S. presence in the Philippines and the Mt. Pinatubo eruption was a symbolic last blow. After the agreement expired, the U.S. was given three years to leave and Subic Bay is now a commercial and industrial site with resorts, shopping, and a thriving tennis center.

After talking to Sisson, I finally managed to track down Henry Adjei-Darko just as he was leaving the site. He was limping with an ice bag on his foot but was nice enough to stand and talk to me. As I suspected, Adjei-Darko did not receive much help from the Ghanaian tennis association but he did get help from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the world governing body of tennis. The ITF gives financial help to the top ranked juniors in many different countries so they can travel to junior tournaments and improve their game. For help in the pro ranks, though, Adjei-Darko gets help from a private sponsor who lives in Orlando. It’s not uncommon, Tierro also has a sponsor who is a businessman in the Philippines.

I wanted to end this trip around the world by speaking to an American player so I tried to track down Stanford player Matt Bruch, the number 10 player in the NCAA rankings, but I couldn’t find him so I asked the man standing next to me if he knew where Matt was. Pay dirt. It turns out I was speaking to Alan Dils, the tennis coach at the University of New Mexico. I’ve been asking players about foreign students taking scholarships at U.S. universities, now I could ask a coach.

Let’s start with the current NCAA rules: 1. a player must start college by the time he or she is twenty years old. The original rule required that a player must start at a U.S. college by the time they were twenty but that’s been relaxed to include any college. 2. A player cannot play in an organized tennis event between the time they are twenty and the time they start college.

How does Dils how feel about foreign students on U.S. college teams?

Personally I think it’s great that the number seventy-five team can beat the number twenty team in the nation right now.

Not only do foreign players bring depth to the college game but without the foreign players, top teams would get the best players and, as Dils said, “the rich would get richer.” Stanford is one of those rich teams and they’re one of the last teams to give a scholarship to a foreign player. They had no choice because they no longer have their pick of the top players since there are so many good tennis programs now.

But Dils isn’t totally happy. There are a lot of loopholes to the rules. Players can enter professional events before turning twenty and they can also purchase transcripts, particularly in Eastern European countries where the bureaucracy can be hard to infiltrate. With a purchased transcript, a player can play professionally while they are supposedly going to college full time then enter a U.S. college at age twenty-two with three or four years of professional tennis experience. Dils said “I know for a fact” that this has happened.

Dils would be happier if the age limit was reduced to nineteen and the twenty and under college requirement was limited to U.S. colleges. He would also like the rules enforced as they are. Andre Begemann, a player from Germany, won the deciding match that gave Pepperdine the NCAA title this spring. Begemann broke the rules by playing a professional tournament after his twentieth birthday and before starting college but the NCAA gave him a waiver because the match was within a month of his birthday and he played only one match. Begemann will be a twenty-two year old sophomore at Pepperdine this year.

I’ve written about foreign tennis players at U.S. colleges a number of times and I’ve always championed an open door policy because U.S. tennis will only get better against the best players. But now, in agreement with Dils, I’d reinstate the original rule requiring players to enter a U.S. college by age twenty else we’ll soon have twenty-five year olds winning the NCAA title.

That ends our world tour for today. There’s another futures tournament this week in Irvine. I’m getting a bit tired of traveling so I plan to speak to U.S. players this time around.

See also:
U.S. College Tennis And The Mother Of Exiles
2006 U.S. Open: The End Of A Legend
Benjamin Becker’s Journey To The ATP
Becker And The NCAA

Hang On, It’s Ne..a..rly…o..ver..

Well folks, we finally made it across the finish line at the US Open yesterday. Now that sinking feeling is starting to settle in, somewhere between absolute burn-out and fearful anticipation of tennis withdrawal syndrome. I’m glad it’s all over, in other words, even as I fear I may start to crave the next decent-sized event.

A number of players got to go home with a fair bit of swag. Roger Federer took home all the marbles again, but Andy Roddick is back on the map. After a slow start in the men’s final on Sunday, Roddick picked his game up in the second set and actually won it, 6-4. It was the only set of four he could manage, but the signs look good for Roddick. He is getting the idea of how to play Roger. Now if he could only play that aggressively for a couple more sets, he’d be in business. Roger won it by a score of 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.

One thing that especially bothered me about Roddick’s game on Sunday: he was coming forward a lot, which is good, but some of the volleys looked weak. He seemed a step late getting there, so when he did volley he was coming up on the ball, rather than through it. So the ball sat up and Roger knocked off numerous winners, with Roddick hung out to dry. Best if he could get in a step quicker so he’s getting a good take on the ball before it drops below the net. Andy, think “stick.”

James Blake made a dent in Roger’s game too, at least he got a set off the Number One. For Blake it was a good tournament, after a summer full of walkabouts and strange letdowns. Now he’s on track again too, and we have a battle ongoing now for the number one American player. Blake and Roddick. Good for business. Big Boy Tennis, another rivalry to go with Roger and Rafa, although Rafa has to be careful to show up next time he gets an invite. Which he will, rest assured.

It adds another layer of complexity to the men’s game when the number one player gets on the losing end a lot to the number two, but then number two has a lot of trouble with other guys. Guys out of the top ten. Like Mathieu, Kendrick, Ferrero, and now Youzhny. How crazy is this? I think somewhere right after the French I said something like Federer would probably proceed anyway to wreck havoc throughout the hard court summer on his way to the Open victory. And then we would be back to the usual conversation: namely, when is someone really going to take it to Federer on a semi-regular basis? Other than Nadal. But then if Nadal is not going to feed the rivalry by losing in earlier rounds to …well, basically nobodies, then what’s a girl to do?

Blake hit two forehands in his match with Federer that have to be two of the largest missiles seen around for a while. Gonzalez delivers his usually only one at a time. Blake hit a huge forehand and then another that was even bigger. Roger just seems to swallow them up. The sound of the crack off the racquets was just amazing.

McEnroe in the booth said something that I have been thinking about all evening and into today, savoring the thought, the tribute he meant to pay to Roger…when he said something like “It’s nice when Roger can show us something human like that, then we appreciate him all the more when he played so brilliantly towards the end.”

Sharapova finally delivered, after more than two years since her first slam win at Wimbledon. She was shaky initially against Henin-Hardenne in the women’s final, but then she got a groove going on her serve and she served big. Justine got outpowered throughout the match, and at times looked very impatient. She felt the pressure to perform against the onslaught of Sharapova, but never got her game on track. Sharapova added nice touch at the net and showed a good court sense of where to be and what to be doing. She is that rare woman who seems to be trying for a hard angle on nearly every other shot, I admire her going for the lines attitude. Mentally, she kept herself together.

Forget the stats on this match, the only ones that really counted were probably these: Sharapova, 6’3″, Henin-Hardenne, almost 5’6″. Big girls do have more fun.

Other folks made out like bandits here at the Open too.

The Russians landed three guys in the late rounds, Safin having a good run up until the round of 16, when he lost a tight 5-setter to Tommy Haas. But Davydenko proved once again he is one of the longest marathoners in tennis, surviving two sets down in the quarters to Tommy Haas but inching his way back into the match. He lost in three straight to Federer in the semi-finals, but for him the Open was a great tournament.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Nikolay is probably on the other side of the world already, gearing up to play in China this coming week. Someone should tell the Ukrainian he can take some time off now and then. Really guy, it’s OK. We don’t think you’ll miss anything. Is he obsessive-compulsive or what?

Mikhail Youzhny is another Russian with a strong, free-wheeling game. Nice back hand on this guy, a powerful one-hander that he does a lot with. Aren’t nearly all one-handers rather nice to look at? We think so. At this event his shot stood up to Nadal’s two-hander, and basically helped upset the biggest seed in the event.

Another odd guy who arrived big time at the big event was Germany’s (by way of Baylor) Benjamin Becker, who now should go out and try to beat another big name player. Just so he won’t have to reveal he’s the guy who beat Agassi in his very last match. Ugh. A reputation you probably want to escape from as quickly as possible.

The women. Well, the women. Mauresmo took us on another Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, winning a lovely match against Serena Williams in the round of 16. But against Sharapova in the semi-final she played hide and seek: “Hello, here I am in the first set, NOT; oh look, I won a set! But wait, here’s my bagel vendor again, oh dear.” How else do we interpret the weird score of 6-0, 4-6, 6-0.

Mauresmo has a tall order to try and live this one down. She always sounds so distant in her interviews after she loses matches. As if the debacle had happened to someone else in the room. Let’s hope this strange loss resonates a bit inside her, it can’t just wash over her like water off the proverbial duck. Sometimes it seems that way with Amelie.

I am not a Sharapova fan. But she plays with such a level of aggression and power. Now she’s adding touch. Her serve is great. She goes for everything. She deserved to win. You go girl, now here’s your banana! You wolf that down while I gag on your Daddy Worship. Time to step out, darling, and get yourself a real coach. Or at least another male figure other than dad. I can see the thing with Andy, I think, you guys are more like Apollo and Artemis, brother and sister twins, undergoing similar re-birthing processes now in your games. It’s a supportive thing probably, more than a love thing. You “get” each other a bit.

Surviving two weeks of a Grand Slam is always a challenge, but always interesting. You see so much drama, good bad and indifferent sometimes. Rarely indifferent, thank God.

It’s like reading a great novel, where all the threads get pulled together by the end, transforming us the participants too. Does exhaustion count towards transformation? I hope so. I am wigged out. Now I am off to the woods, to derive comfort from marmots and the like. The good thing is they aren’t a neon yellow color. At least I think.

And because this is the last slam of the year, it is interesting to see who comes out ahead, and if they maintain that level of play into the new year.

2006 U.S. Open finals: one banana, two banana

It looked more like Joyce was demonstrating chimpanzee language skills than trying to coach one of the top athletes in the world. The WTA is experimenting with on court coaching this year but I hope they shelve it, I’d much rather watch Bedtime for Bonzo with Joyce and Sharapova.

The flow of the U.S. Open matched the trajectory of Justine Henin-Hardenne’s slam runs this year. Henin-Hardenne got to all four slam finals but fizzled out in three of them. The U.S. Open started off big with the naming ceremony for the Billie Jean King Tennis Center followed by Andre Agassi’s rousing victory over Andrei Pavel then Agassi’s still-hard-to-believe win over Marcos Baghdatis and, finally, the tearful, sad end to his career.

After Agassi there were a bunch of exciting five set matches and further abuse of medical timeouts alongside a not entirely unexpected run by Jelena Jankovic and an entirely unexpected run by Mikhail Youzhny.[blockquote]Most of all, Andy Roddick was back just in time to take over from Andre.

But then came those semifinals and finals and just like double H, who’s been battling a virus for the past few years, the tournament petered out. Half the sets in the women’s semifinals were bagels (6-0), poor Amelie Mauresmo was the recipient of two of them from Maria Sharapova, and there was another one in the semifinal between Roddick and Youzhny. At least Roddick and Sharapova, the biggest draws in the tournament after Agassi, made it to the finals.

The most entertaining part of the final between Sharapova and Henin-Hardenne was the hilarious comedy routine between Sharapova and her hitting partner/babysitter Michael Joyce. Michael holds up a banana, Maria eats a banana. Michael holds up four fingers, Maria hits more forehands. It looked more like Joyce was demonstrating chimpanzee language skills than trying to coach one of the top athletes in the world. The WTA is experimenting with on court coaching this year but I hope they shelve it, I’d much rather watch Bedtime for Bonzo with Joyce and Sharapova.

Speaking of which, when did Sharapova start acting like a movie star? When tennis journalists asked about the four fingers at the media session after Sharapova collected her second slam title, she clearly showed where the power lies in the tennis player/journalist relationship.

First she tried evasion,

MARIA SHARAPOVA: I thought this was supposed to be a positive interview.

then sarcasm,

MARIA SHARAPOVA: I just won a Grand Slam. The last thing I’m gonna talk about is some fingers or a banana, all right? I hope you got that one, thanks.

When that didn’t work, she turned into a disapproving mother cowing her recalcitrant child into towing the line.

MARIA SHARAPOVA: Can you tell me, if someone tells me to eat a banana, do you think that’s the reason why I’m gonna win a match?

Q. I think
MARIA SHARAPOVA: Just give me your honest opinion.

Q. I will give you an honest answer. I think there’s the issue of competitive rules and
MARIA SHARAPOVA: Just take the rules away, take the books away, just just think.

Q. I’m more interested in the four fingers. What did that indicate?
MARIA SHARAPOVA: I asked you to answer a question.

Can’t you just see some mother saying, “Now you listen to me young man, I asked a question and I want an answer right now. DO YOU HEAR ME?” complete with bumbling child played perfectly by the poor journalist. The journalist kept trying though.

Q. Yes. I think

Q. I think it was a strategic tactical moment which contributed to your thought process in the match.

Q. And would be my I don’t know, though.
MARIA SHARAPOVA: This is great advice. We should tell all the players to, you know, have a banana and they’re all gonna win. Great.

And now it was time for “You go to your room, young man, and when you have an answer you can come out.”

MARIA SHARAPOVA: All right. Let’s move on. That’s the last thing

Faced with banishment to its room the media finally gave in, humored its angry mother, and changed the subject.

Q. Maria, no fruit involved
MARIA SHARAPOVA: Great (laughing).

Sharapova must have mistakenly thought she’d walked into a coronation instead of a media session. Tennis journalists have pushed for better player access and they’ve been successful, all players are required to be available for interviews after their matches or face a fine, but there’s not much use in having an interview if the player can choose the questions.

Roddick made the final with Roger Federer exciting. He started off down 0-5 then unwound himself and showed us the new Andy Roddick. Chipping and charging, crisp volleying, backhands down the line and, most surprisingly, greatly improved movement. It wasn’t enough, Federer silently and efficiently took over after Roddick took the second set in a match that was eerily close to Federer’s final against Agassi last year. Federer had his third U.S. Open in a row after his fourth Wimbledon in a row and his ninth grand slam. The guy’s game is impregnable and so much for Rafael Nadal’s challenge, Rafa is long gone. Still, Roddick has now jumped over James Blake to become the top U.S. player again and he’s playing like a top five player. Good for him.

The week started off with a huge party for Billie Jean King and ended appropriately with Martina Navratilova picking up her 59th slam title in her last U.S. Open appearance. She won the mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan then, before the men’s final, was inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions along with Don Budge. It’s the end of an era that marked the beginning of women’s sports and made its way through the gay and lesbian movement to where we are now. And where we are now allowed Sharapova to make $18 million dollars last year.

After Sharapova won her title she graciously thanked Billie Jean but she might also want to treat the game that Billie Jean built with a bit of reverence. The fans and sponsors pay her salary and journalists give her media exposure. Anyway, queens these days don’t have anywhere near the power they used to have.

See also: U.S. Open 2005: Federer the Inevitable, a column about last year’s U.S. Open final between Federer and Agassi.

ATP Fantasy Tennis: Beijing and Bucharest

I felt like a gambler, like I’d just bet my rent money on the Super Bowl and I had to win the game even though the opposing quarterback was the comeback story of the year. My mind was with the money but my heart went out to the opponent. If Andy Roddick beat Mikhail Youzhny and made it to the final at the U.S. Open, I’d be down $600,000 to more than a few people in my subleague because I didn’t have faith enough to put Roddick on my fantasy team and here he was putting together one of the best stories of the year. The player many had given up on comes back from an embarrassing first round loss last year and a devastating early exit at Wimbledon to climb all the way back into the Federer-Nadal conversation.

Yes, Roddick is in the finals and I am down his $600,000 prize money. I should have chosen him. He’s had only one loss since teaming up with Jimmy Connors and the Open is his home slam. He’s not in much danger of beating Roger Federer in the final but at least he’ll get almost the same take-home pay because he gets a bonus for winning the U.S. Open Series. (If that bonus counts in the fantasy league standings, I’m finding the nearest tall building)

I can’t imagine many fantasy players picked Youzhny and most of us had already used up all our Nikolay Davydenkos for the clay court season which I had earlier assured you was finished. It’s not. This week there are two tournaments and one of them is on clay. Bucharest (clay) is paying its winner $55,742, Beijing (hard court) is paying its winner $69,200.

At least you can put Carlos Moya to use if you haven’t already. Bucharest looks like the Spanish Open, three Spanish players could be in the semifinals. It would have been four if Rafael Nadal hadn’t pulled out – he was replaced by Florent Serra – leaving the bottom half of the draw to Moya.

I don’t know what Tursunov is doing in Bucharest, he’s awful on clay, he should be in Beijing preparing for the fall indoor season.

Davydenko, amazingly enough, is flying halfway around the world to play in Beijing after playing in the semifinals at the Open. Does he ever take a day off? Still, wait till the last moment to submit your team to make sure he doesn’t pull out.

Ljubicic hasn’t had anything to do since he lost to Feliciano Lopez in the first round of the Open and Mario Ancic has been injured. It’s more or less a tossup when those two play each other but, as I’ve said many times, save Ljubicic for indoors.

Baghdatis sleepwalks through these small tournaments but who’s he going to lose to, Karlovic?

Hrbaty can beat Ancic, he’s 2-1 against him on hard court.

The semifinalists are likely to be Ljubicic, Ancic, Baghdatis and Davydenko in Beijing and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Ruben Ramirez-Hidalgo, Moya and Florent Serra in Bucharest, but be careful because there are seven tournaments left that pay over $100,000 to the winner and that doesn’t include the two remaining Masters Series events so don’t waste front line players this week.

Here are some second tier players: Ivo Karlovic, Paradorn Srichaphan and Dominik Hrbaty in Beijing, Juan Monaco, Filippo Volandri, and Florian Mayer in Bucharest.

See also: 2006 U.S. Open: ATP Fantasy League Picks