Monthly Archives: February 2007

The Bitch and Sing Dept: Amelie Amelie Amelie!

Over the weekend we were treated to a great women’s final in Dubai between Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo. This has emerged as one of the best rivalries in tennis, men’s or women’s. The match certainly did not disappoint: both players showed a wide array of touch and power and while both of them brought their “A” games, when push came to shove it was Amelie who folded up her tent and went off into the desert, so to speak. What could have happened to make the outcome different next time?

We’ve yelled before about certain aspects in the Frenchwoman’s game that could be tightened up, or changed. Like her inability to really hit a flat forehand shot, and her lackluster serve, particular the second serve. It comes floating over the net almost like a balloon sometimes, sitting up begging to be smacked. And Justine was just the woman to treat it with the impunity it deserved.

Women’s tennis has so few really good servers that you wonder why more of the players don’t show more aggression in returning the second serves of players. Dementieva has been the principal culprit, although lately she has gotten a little more pop on her first serve, and can protect the second better, at least a little. After Sunday I think Mauresmo could fit into that category. She needs to put more pace on the first serve and on the second. She needs to take it as seriously as the Williams sisters do. Not some casual thing we’re doing just to get the ball in play.

As far as her forehand goes, it is too loopy with too much topspin. Not that a shot like that cannot do some damage, but you face occasions when the ball needs to be hit flatter, more directly and with more pace. A lot of it may just be mental mistakes. During the match Amelie came to net behind a forehand approach to Justine’s backhand, but she hit the wrong forehand approach. It sat up and Justine whacked a rather easy backhand up the line for a winner. If Amelie had flattened it out and given it a more inside-out look, she probably would have won the point.

Part of her loopiness is due to that somewhat extreme western grip she uses, wherein your hand is almost under the racquet rather than behind it or on top of it. You can’t help but hit topspin with a grip like that. I wouldn’t know, though, so maybe I’m just jealous. I am probably the last person on the planet who uses the old eastern grip, the “shake hands” goody they used to teach. I could not hit topspin if my life depended on it. I can flatten the ball in a way Connors would approve, and put pace on it, but timing is really key here, and if your timing is off the shots can spray every which way.

Can we expect Amelie to change her grip after all this time? Probably not. Mardy Fish has been tinkering of late with the grip on his forehand; reports are it looks kind of weird but it seems to be more effective. But this is a risky undertaking and not many players would go down this road. Someone should have nipped her tendencies in the bud long before she got to this point. But you need several kinds of forehands, one for pace and flatness when you’re going for a shot before the player gets to the spot, topspin for when you need extra time to get in position and to give yourself a little extra margin. Amelie’s got plenty of the latter and not enough of the former.

Surely her coach has tried to address these problems. Surely she is aware of what she needs to do. I am somewhat astonished that she doesn’t show more progress in these areas. Is it laziness, or fear? Or is she simply unable to? I always assume that even if you reach the top of the rankings you still want to improve your game; you are still eager for the challenge of new things.

During the match one of the commentators chastised Mauresmo for hitting her forehand very late, like off her back foot. This may contribute to her forehand errors, but it is not the root of her problem. Steffi Graf got away with hitting lots of forehands off her back foot too, in fact Steffi looked at times like she was pulling balls out of her pocket. But don’t tell me Steffi did not know how to flatten out a forehand, she did, and it was her most devastating shot. I don’t think we will say that of Mauresmo, because her grip works against her. And maybe her mentality too. Mauresmo really doesn’t have the killer instinct Steffi did. She can still win matches, but whether she will continue to win the big matches consistently is doubtful until she makes these adjustments in her game. Look at what Henin has done: she’s upped her backhand a ton and she’s made changes in her serve. She ventures forth into the territory she needs to get to to improve her game. Mauresmo, it seems, has to be dragged kicking and screaming.

But it’s such a beautiful game already, fans of Mauresmo may be moaning, she can still win lots of points in beautiful rallies without turning into a female version of Jimmy Connors. Beauty is beautiful and I love to see it too, but is that going to put points on the board, or win you matches? Mauresmo’s beautiful backhand, her stellar shot by far, won’t ever see the light of day in a match if she can’t get that first serve in more convincingly and improve the quality of her second serve. And that backhand kill shot won’t kill unless maybe you set it up first with a decent forehand drive.

Come on, Amelie, you know we love you and your game, that’s why we want to see these adjustments made. You could have won that match in Dubai. Next time we hope you will.

Justine And Amelie: A Royal Dust-Up In Dubai

Most likely Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo didn’t sit down and decide to cook up a stellar women’s tennis match yesterday, but the timing was beautiful nonetheless. Because earlier in the week it was announced that Wimbledon, finally, would pay the women equal money. With an announcement like that some of us were probably holding our collective breaths: how often do the players come out and play exactly the opposite of what the situation requires? Instead the two women delivered up a pretty spectacular final with a lot of great variety of play. They DESERVED equal pay for that performance. We should add that they probably got it too, not just from the purse (a hefty 1.5 million) but from the appearance fees that I assume both women received as well. I’m glad they took it seriously and delivered the goods to us, big time.

After all, it could have ended up like the debacle down in Buenos Aires, where that men’s event lost nearly all the top seeds, and in the end what we got was pretty much a non-match between DiMauro and Monaco. Someone should keep an eye on the tournament director, he’s probably looking for the nearest open window. If he hasn’t gone out of it already.

The sheiks in Dubai on the other hand must be very pleased with what they got for their money. They lost Sharapova and Serena Williams before the tournament started due to hamstring problems and flu, but the draw held up almost perfectly. Four of the five top seeds made it into the semis, the exception being Martina Hingis at Number 4 who lost to Number 5 Jelena Jankovic. This was probably no real surprise as Jankovic has beaten Hingis before and is on the way up, while Hingis probably ran out of steam after playing a very late night round of 16 match.

Justine Henin should probably buy a plot of land in Dubai like Roger Federer has. She loves this place, she has not lost a match here in 16 attempts. She won this title for the fourth time. It was also the first time that both top players have visited the final together.

The tone was set early in the match with both players showing off a variety of attacking shots, moving each other around early and coming forward at every opportunity. Justine stayed just a half-step ahead of Amelie most of the way, you felt her mentality was stronger, her shot-making more decisive. And that backhand. Wow! Actually, we got two great one-handed backhands, certainly the two best in the women’s game. But Justine has worked on hers a lot and it shows. She now gets an incredible amount of pace on her backhand. In fact she can probably hit it the way some women wail on their forehand sides. It was that impressive a shot.

Henin also went after Mauresmo’s serve, both first and second, which are still pretty big shortcomings in her game. Why can’t more of the women do what Justine did early in the first set when she took a second serve, stepped around and tomahawked an inside-out forehand winner up the line. It was like shooting ducks in a barrel.

Henin broke at 15-40 in the first game then fought Amelie off to hold with a great backhand passing shot up the line. Henin showed weakness at only one point, when she served at 4-3 in the first set. Amelie unleashed a great backhand of her own up the line for 0-15 then attacked Justine’s second serve (anything you can do I can do too) and came in behind her return, forcing Justine to net her shot. Then Justine double faulted for 0-40. You’d swear Amelie was going to even the set at this point but Justine fought her off and held for 5-3. The back and forth continued with pressure on both serving games, but Justine had the last word holding at 40-0 and closing the set with a great cross court backhand.

The second set continued the great play of the first, Amelie gave no signs of being demoralized, but Justine gave no signs of fading away. Amelie fought off a break point for a 4-3 lead. But you felt somehow that it was Amelie who was having to play catch-up. As well as Amelie could raise her game Justine was raising her level as well. One quick blink might decide this one.

It happened on Amelie’s serve at 5-all in the second set. She double faulted twice in this game giving Justine the lead, 6-5, and the chance to serve out the match. She used the occasion to show off even more of her brilliant shot-making on this day, coming into net and digging out a low volley for a cross court winner giving her 30-0. A forehand out wide that Amelie couldn’t handle gave Henin championship point and she closed the deal with another forehand crosscourt that Amelie netted.

6-4, 7-5 was the score, and my, was the handshake at the net brisk and cool. No love lost between these two. We’re all fine with that, aren’t we? A good hate relationship probably brings out quality tennis like this. Keep up the hatred, ladies!

The key was that Amelie could not protect her serve at the crucial moments. That is going to be part of my rant during the week as I plan to take up a WTA player each week and comment on their game. Amelie is first up to receive a bit of flame.

But for today, we saw some spectacular play from two women who hopefully will provide us a few more lovely matches throughout the year.

2007 Dubai, Acapulco, Las Vegas

<blockquote><strong> Yes it’s time for the Tennis Channel Open and the craziness that is Vegas. A racket stringing contest, paddleball matches, table hockey, a shotgun 21 tournament, shootings at a strip joint – no, wait, that’s the NBA All Star game.</strong></blockquote>
Martin Verkerk is popping up everywhere. He had a wild card in Rotterdam last week and now he’s in the main draw at Indian Wells and Miami. His ranking is 1538 and here’s the explanation: if a player drops off the tour due to injury for more than six months, he can petition to keep a ranking equal to his average ATP ranking during the first three months of his injury and use this ranking for his first eight tournaments back on the tour. Verkerk injured his shoulder in 2004 and his ranking was 39 at that time.

The court in Memphis last week was wicked fast. According to <a href=”http://www.tennisinsight.com”>tennisinsight.com’s</a> court speed rankings, there was a jump of 15% in the court speed relative to 2006. That’s a big jump and no doubt it helped Ivo Karlovic and his huge serve get to the final. It also makes Andy Murray’s victory in the final look that much better. He was the only one who could return Karlovic’s serves.

We’re in an era where a big weapon isn’t as important as being able to defuse the other guy’s big weapon. Murray isn’t a weak player, he can whack the ball when he wants to and Roger Federer has an exceptional forehand, but they’re exceptional players because they can break down their opponent’s games and that’s how you win tournaments today.

<strong>Dubai</strong> (outdoor hard court)

Half of the top ten is in Dubai. It’s gotta be the prize money – or appearance money in the case of Nadal and Federer – because everyone has to turn around and fly back to the west coast of the U.S. for Indian Wells next week. I will be at Indian Wells, by the way, in the media center looking out over the main stadium, so be sure to check in.

This is a pretty juicy draw. Marcos Baghdatis and Rafael Nadal play in the first round because Baghdatis didn’t defend his final at the Australian Open and he’s now down to a ranking of 17. Nadal has beaten him on grass and hard court so I have to go with Nadal but you never know when Baghdatis will wake up and go on a big run.

Tommy Haas has been tearing up the circuit but I think it’s time for him to lose to Nikolay Davydenko.

Robin Soderling keeps beating good players and losing to bad players. This year he’s beaten Richard Gasquet, Nikolay Davydenko and Baghdatis and lost to Alexander Peya and Florian Mayer. He has a 2-0 record against Tommy Robredo so I’m picking him to make it 3-0.

I’d like to get excited about a Federer-Haas semifinal but I can’t. Haas hasn’t beaten him in an ATP main draw since 2002. I’m not just saying this because I want to see Nadal-Federer X, but Nadal and Federer should meet again in the final with Fed taking the title this year instead of Nadal.

On last note about Dubai. Read <a href=”http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/more/02/21/qatar0226/index.html”>this</a> excellent article in Sports Illustrated by Jeff MacGregor about the Asian Games. The Games were held in Doha in December and if Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Arab world, then surely Doha is next in line. Doha put on a spectacular event with new buildings and sports venues designed to position them as a 2016 Olympics contender.

Both Dubai and Doha host ATP events. We complained last year that you won’t get into Dubai with an Israeli passport and now this from the Sports Illustrated article:

<em>Country by country the athletes are introduced. The host nation receives the greatest ovation during the alphabetical parade, from Afghanistan through Yemen. Folks from the, um, Axis of Evil, however, run a close second. Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria all walk in to lusty applause. Israel’s invitation probably got lost in the mail.</em>

I don’t like invoking the term “axis of evil” even if you qualify it with an “um” because it just continues the ideological war of words. But the Olympic Committee of Asia, which controls the Games, excluded Israel and asked it to join the European Olympic group and now it wants to host the Olympics? Okay, fine, then let Israel compete in the Asian Games and hold an event that lets sports do its job: bringing people together from all over the world to engage with each other in a majestic and exciting competition.

<strong>Las Vegas</strong> (outdoor hard)

Yes it’s time for the Tennis Channel Open and the craziness that is Vegas. A racket stringing contest, paddleball matches, table hockey, a shotgun 21 tournament, shootings at a strip joint – no, wait, that’s the NBA All Star game. Anyway, it’s not your usual tennis tournament and it also happens to be this week’s version of the funky hybrid round robin format.

In the hybrid format, the main draw elimination round starts before qualifying ends and round robin matches start before the elimination round ends. That means we don’t know the identity of one third of the players in the round robin groups because they come from the winners of the elimination round. See why this format has to go away?

We do know that Benjamin Becker and Robbie Ginepri will play each other in round robin play. Ginepri dropped from number 21 down to the 40’s after the US Open while Becker is climbing up the rankings at a breakneck speed – he jumped from 421 to 58 last year. They’re both in the mid-forties at the moment and I’m thinking that Ginepri will stagnate and Becker will keep rising.

The only player in the top ten here is James Blake. Lleyton Hewitt is ranked number 20 but that’s misleading, he hasn’t beaten anyone of consequence since last year. You could switch around the players in the bottom half of the finals round and it shouldn’t matter, Blake should be able to repeat as the winner.

<strong>Acapulco</strong> (clay court)

Acapulco has not posted its draw yet but it looks like all of the players from Buenos Aires will trudge right over to Acapulco. It’s hard to pick a winner after what happened in Buenos Aires. Look at three of the semifinalists: Alession Di Mauro, Juan Monaco and Diego Hartfield. Monaco beat Nicolas Almagro and will meet Di Mauro in the final.

<strong>Never-Mets</strong>

Never-mets are matches between players who’ve never played before. There are too many tournaments and not enough top players available to enter them. This week, for instance, there are three tournaments on three different continents. As a result, players don’t play each other often enough and rivalries don’t develop.

Almost one third of the matches at Las Vegas are never-mets and that’s because they have only one top ten player. Dubai has five top ten players and there are only two never-mets. Not only that but two sets of players who played each other in Rotterdam last week will meet in the first round at Dubai. Imagine that!

To see the draws and my picks in those draws, click <a href=”http://ninarota.com/fantasytennisguide/?p=3″>here</a>

Sportswriters Working For Free, Version 2.0

The sports world is moving away from hard core journalism and towards a focus on fan participation.

honk-if-you-dont-exist-02222.jpg
Last week I talked about Sports Illustrated laying off employees while simultaneously purchasing FanNation.com. The original content on FanNation consists of fan blogs which are written for free. My take was that paid employees with benefits were being exchanged for volunteer employees without benefits. Lynn Berenbaum of offthebaseline.com left a number of very good comments about the role of hardcore journalists versus bloggers and this week’s Time Magazine joins us in the discussion.

In an article titled “Getting Rich Off Those Who Work For Free”, Justin Fox points out that software writers work for free too. If you’re using Firefox (what the hell does that name mean?) to view this post or log into Wikipedia to find out what Goran Ivanisevic’s ranking was when he won Wimbledon in 2001 (answer: 125), you’re benefiting from volunteer labor. Wikipedia is written by a consortium of volunteers and Firefox is open source software meaning that it’s also written by volunteers.

According to the Time article, the world of software seems to be humming along just fine with a mixture of paid and unpaid workers. IBM may charge huge money to install the open source operating system Linux on its computers but volunteers can make money as Linux consultants.

As for the internet media world, things are not so clear. Take YouTube for instance. YouTube is the first honest-to-goodness internet television station. It’s as if major networks, cable outlets, and the satellite stations all got together and decided to stream on one site. You could get anything you wanted from the television world just by logging on to YouTube.

Now that YouTube has been bought by Google, a lot of those pirated clips are being taken down but a lot of them will stay because YouTube is making deals with television producers to share the online advertising income from those clips.

What about the volunteers who provide programming for Youtube in the form of user uploaded clips? YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley announced in January at the World Economic Forum that YouTube will start sharing revenues with these users. By the way, World Economic Forum? Jeez, that tells you how big YouTube is in case you’ve been off-planet for the past year or so.

How is the “gift economy” shaping up in the sports world? Sports Illustrated bought FanNation so it could make its site more fancentric. The sports world is moving away from hard core journalism and towards a focus on fan participation. It started with fantasy sports – CNNMoney reports that there are between 15 million and 18 million fantasy sports players in the U.S., fan blogging sites joined in, and now fan sites are being bought for big bucks.

Financially there’s not much difference between writing for a fan site and being an independent blogger. The independent blogger gets all of the ad income on their site but they also have to maintain it. The major benefit of writing for a fan site is exposure. For instance, I get press credentials to tennis tournaments because MVN has such a big readership – around 20 to 30 million hits a month. I’ve also appeared on an online radio show through a connection at my site.

If I get to enough tournaments and make enough connections and write enough engaging work, I’ll get an opportunity to write for a website or publication that actually pays freelancers. Even so, as the media employment world becomes more fractured and steady work becomes harder to find, I’ll be in the same scramble to find work as current journalists are to hold onto work.

Murray Tops Big Guy Ivo At The SAP Open

It was no surprise to see Andy Murray here in the final today, he was my pick to get by James Blake and then Andy Roddick. Blake pretty much shot himself in the foot against Ivo Karlovic in the quarterfinals, and Roddick succumbed to Murray yesterday in straight sets in the semi-finals. Roddick seemed strangely muted by Murray’s excellent anticipation on the return of serve. With his power game on hold, Roddick instead tried to play cat and mouse around the court. This was unwise and did not signal any trumpeting calls that Roddick was going to win this match. He needed to force his game more on Murray, and really go after his serve and attack him at every chance. After game three I realized this was going to be Murray’s match to win.

Ivo Karlovic presented similar problems in that Murray had to figure out a way to mute Karlovic’s serving power the way he did Roddick’s. An interesting contrast was provided by how Beni Becker fared in the previous day’s semi-final match against Karlovic. He couldn’t decipher the direction of Ivo’s big serves at all. Sometimes he would guess, a lot of the time he was the proverbial deer fixed in the headlights. Murray, though, managed to get some part of his racquet on many of Karlovic’s serves, first and second. This was the biggest factor in his win today.

Is it the quality of his hands at work? They’re very soft, the way McEnroe’s were, and McEnroe loved to blunt the power of the big servers. He would often be inside the line to return serve knowing he could anticipate and handle it.

Murray took pace off many of his shots and, at least, Karlovic tried to attack more than Roddick. But his execution was poor. A ton of shots ended up in the net when he was in a dominant net position.

The pair traded sets then concluded the third with another tiebreak. At 2-1 in the tiebreak Ivo stepped around a second serve but knocked the forehand long to go down a mini-break, 3-1. Murray hit to his forehand again and this one sailed long too, 4-1. Karlovic wasn’t dead yet and uncorked a second serve ace up the T to crawl back to 4-2. But then he doublefaulted(!) for 5-2. A chip and charge play was next on Ivo’s To Do list but he netted it. Murray closed the tiebreak and the match out with an ace. The final score was 6-7(3), 6-4, 7-6(2).

Good work Andy, Good work Ivo, you had a great week, and welcome