Monthly Archives: March 4, 2021

We witnessed a rare type of tennis match in Miami today and let’s take a quick look at the state of the tour before the red clay kicks in.

I sat down to watch what precious little broadcast material I could lay my hands on this evening and what did I get, Mr. Rafael Nadal and his sacrificial lamb Teimuraz Gabashvili at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. I was a bit grumpy about that as it didn’t sound too promising and I stayed grumpy until midway through the fourth game.

Gaba was already a break down and had just managed to win his first service game when my grumpiness turned to delight. Poor Gaba had been running around like his pants were on fire all match long as Rafa was positively on fire himself. In the second point of that fourth game, Rafa served up a kicker and Gaba sent back two straight high loopers – mainly in self defense. A few shots later Rafa hit a sharp crosscourt shot that sent Gaba scurrying out of the court to track it down and when he did track it down, he tried to hit a running forehand winner down the line. Instead, he ran his butt all the way to the opposite corner to track down Rafa’s response. All Gaba could do was put up another looper and Rafa tapped the ball lightly into the open court.

Sony Ericsson Open Day 6

Rafa was a bit too casual with that shot and he allowed Gaba to get to the ball and hit a beautiful running forehand down the line for a winner. Yes! We have a boxing match not just a rope-a-dope. I’m telling you, that was one of the best points of the year, and two points later Gaba had broken Rafa at love.

It was short lived excitement as Gaba failed to win another game in the set and, of course, it’s the highest testament to Rafa’s skills that someone has to play points like that to beat him. And the final score was 6-2, 6-2, which looks bad, but Gaba pushed Rafa into a “can you top this” short points bonanza the likes of which we seldom see with the slow gummy courts we have today. I was positively nostalgic.

In the last game of the match, Rafa served up a ball then ran around Gaba’s return till he was standing in the deuce corner and unloaded an inside out forehand with so much overspin that it landed well inside the service line. And that baby was flat, I mean it barely got over the net. You can see why Rafa is cleaning up on hard courts this year.

I settled in for the second telecast of the evening only to find out that it was a copy of the first – Gaba and Rafa all over again. That’s what I get for practicing my overhead and serve all afternoon instead of tuning into to TennisTV.com.

I’m generally not a good aggregator – I’m better when I stick to one subject at a time rather than the entire pro tennis tour – but let’s take a look at the state of things now that we’re coming to the end of the winter/spring hard court season and we’re a week away from the heavy duty clay court season.

The Top Ten

Don’t hate me Sakhi but Andy Murray is looking like the real number two on the men’s side. Look at this. Rafa’s record for the year: 22-2. Andy’s record for the year: 21-2.

Nikolay Davydenko has played only three matches all year because he has a foot problem and he’s about to drop out of the top five because he can’t defend his title in Miami. Is the fast little scooter finally wearing down? Will he ever see the top five again?

Svetlana Kuznetsova is down to number 8 and she’s lost her first match in the last two events she’s played.

Andy Roddick has three semifinals, a final, and a title in the five events he’s entered this year. And he has the most wins on the men’s tour with 24. Maybe Roger Federer should have stolen Larry Stefanki away from Fernando Gonzalez instead of letting him go to Roddick.

Vera Zvonareva is 18-2 for the year with two titles including Indian Wells. And unlike Roddick, who surely doesn’t welcome the clay court season, Zvonareva was 17-3 on clay last year. Oh, and she’s 7-0 in doubles.

Roger Rasheed is not a good coaching choice for Federer but Rasheed has done something that seems almost impossible: He’s turned Gael Monfils into a relatively consistent top ten player.

Who’d take a $500 bet that Rafa can win the grand slam this year? I would.

The Rest

After losing to Gisela Dulko today, Jelena Janovic is 4-4 on outdoor hard court for the year.

Jeremy Chardy has a quarterfinal, semifinal, and final already.

Richard Gasquet is down to number 25 and it’s not going to get much better with the new ranking system that rewards good results at big events. Gasquet does have three semifinals but he lost in the third round at both the Australian Open and Indian Wells.

What did I leave out?

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A short history lesson on communism and capitalism in the pro tennis tour.

Andre Agassi and Brooklyn Decker (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and fiancée of Andy Roddick) were on Dan Patrick’s sports radio show this morning, and therein lies a history lesson which brings us smack dab into the middle of this week’s tennis news.

Agassi is the husband of Steffi Graf who laid a double bagel on Natasha Zvereva of Belarus in the final of the 1988 French Open. After the match, with a little encouragement from commentator Bud Collins, Zvereva held up her check for the prize money and said it wasn’t worth much because she had to give all of it back to her tennis association in what was then the communist Soviet Union, also known as the USSR.

BNP Paribas Open Day 9

Zvereva was the first USSR athlete to publicly demand that she be allowed to keep her prize money and soon enough, she and her fellow tennis players got their hard earned independence. This paved the way for Moscow-born Anna Kournikova who was also mentioned on Patrick’s show because she’s still making public appearances left and right. Kournikova signed her first management deal at age 10 – just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and promptly moved to Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida where she’d go on to rack up an unrivaled number of sponsorship deals.

Maria Sharapova was also born in Russia and made her way to Bollettieri’s when she was 7 years old. She has managed to outstrip even Kournikova in the corporate world. You could say that Sharapova is the corporate face of the WTA. She has a four year deal that makes her the global brand ambassador for Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications which is the main sponsor for the WTA and the title sponsor of this week’s Masters event in Miami.

It was a good idea at the time but Sharapova hasn’t played since last August due to a shoulder injury and now she’s missed two consecutive Sony Ericsson Opens and last year’s Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships. Sony Ericsson’s sponsorship deal ends in 2011 and the marketing chief who brokered the deal has now left the company. It’s not looking good.

If that’s not bad enough, this past week the WTA lost its CEO. Larry Scott is leaving to become commissioner of the PAC 10, a West Coast collegiate sports league in the U.S., and we can blame the ATP for that. When Etienne de Villiers stepped down – well, was pushed out – as CEO of the ATP last year, Scott tried to convince the ATP board of directors to merge with the WTA and hire him as CEO of the combined tour. The ATP hired Adam Helfant instead and Scott decided to take the PAC 10 job.

The merger would have been a ground-breaking decision but a good one. The tour is increasing the number of combined men’s and women’s events as it is, and if Scott is good at anything, it’s prying dollars out of corporate hands. At least the WTA still has a main sponsor. The ATP lost their sponsorship deal with Mercedes Benz and is having to kick back money to tournaments as a result.

Intersexuality

Speaking of combined men’s and women’s events, let’s have another history lesson. A few years ago I was working on a documentary when I became absolutely fascinated with timelines. Looking back at the 1950’s and 60’s I was astonished at the number of social movements that started during that period: the environmental movement (Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, a book about the pesticide DDT), the gay rights movement (the Stonewall Riots of 1969 on the day of Judy Garland’s funeral), the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of the bus in 1955), feminism (the Equal Pay act of 1963, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique in 1963).

And then there was the transgender movement. In the early 1950’s, Christine Jorgenson became a transgender celebrity. She was born in the U.S. as a man and had gender reassignment surgery in Denmark. Tennis had its own transgender pioneer in Renée Richards, also a man who transitioned to a woman, and now tennis has a new pioneer.

Sarah Gronert is a 22 year old German tennis player who is currently ranked number 555 and has a 13-3 record this year. She was born with male and female genitalia and, according to FanHouse.com, an AOL sports site, “harsh words and treatment” from her opponents almost led her to quit the game when she was 19 years old. The article quotes the coach of one of Gronert’s opponents complaining that “This is not a woman, it’s a man, ” so we can only guess what her opponents said.

Instead of quitting the game, Gronert underwent surgery to remove her male genitalia and successfully petitioned the WTA to play again. I don’t know enough endocrinology to say whether removing male genitalia is enough to significantly reduce testosterone and whatever else it is that makes men physically stronger than women – are there any doctors in the house? – but I think it’s unfortunate that someone has to chop parts of themselves off to play the game of tennis.

I’d bet that Gronert is not the first intersexed person to play tennis. I’d say she’s just the first one whose gender identity was not decided at birth by cutting off one of her genitalia because that was the practice until recently. Now that there is an intersex movement, it happens less frequently.

This is a tough, tough subject because we assume that male and female are two separate, clearly defined genders and you can see here that they’re not. And you can bet that an intersexed person is going to choose to compete on the women’s tour, not the men’s. As the intersex movement’s power grows, this will become a bigger issue in the sports wold.

For now, though, Gronert has been medically certified as a woman so let her just play the game.

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David Nalbandian almost ran his record to 3-0 over Rafael Nadal last night in Indian Wells. What’s Nalbandian got that other players don’t?

Unfortunately, I’ve had to drive back to Los Angeles from the BNP Paribas Open so I can fly to my family’s home in Virginia and attend a funeral. Pat Davis is going to fill in for me on Saturday. But before I go I just want to put up a short post about redirection theory.

David Nalbandian came within five match points of beating Rafael Nadal last night at the BNP Paribas Open or, more accurately, this morning, since the match ended at 2am. It looks kind of humorous to say “within five match points” because that’s a lot of match points to squander, but up until that time, Nalbandian had the best of Nadal and it’s worth looking at why that is.

ATP Masters Series

Nalbandian had beaten Nadal in their previous two meetings. Granted, those matches were at Nalbandian’s favorite tournaments and on Nadal’s worst surface: the indoor Masters events in Madrid and Paris, and they were both in 2007, but that Paris match was the final and Nalbandian hosed Nadal 6-4, 6-0.

Nalbandian’s ATP profile says that he weighs 175lbs(79kg). Maybe, but that is one bulky guy and he uses his bulk and excellent stroke mechanics to redirect the ball very effectively. That backhand is strong enough to neutralize Nadal’s biggest weapon: the high kicker into a right-hander’s backhand corner.

There’s another guy on tour who has a two match streak over Nadal going and while Andy Murray is not bulky, he makes up for it with height so the high kicker doesn’t bother him quite so much, and he has that same solid backhand. Nalbandian doesn’t play around with the ball quite as much as Murray, but he’s one of those hybrid counterpunches of which there have been a few in the top ten lately.

Nikolay Davydenko fits in there and so does Gilles Simon. I don’t know what to call Gael Monfils’ style of play. Any suggestions? But those other players are backboards with added spring. They don’t just redirect the ball, they move it all over the place and Nalbandian was hitting corners like crazy in the first two sets last night. Davydenko and Simon are too small to have consistent success against Nadal, but they did both beat him last year.

Novak Djokovic is another guy who redirects the ball well and I was surprised that he has a 4-11 record against Nadal. But Djokovic’s best surface is hard court and in his three matches on hard court against Nadal last year, he won two of them.

Of course, that’s the strategy and skill part of playing Nadal but those five match points tell you something else. Nobody outlasts Nadal, nobody wants it more, and if there’s a way to win a match Nadal will find it. Except for the outlasting part, my pick for second on the list of people sharing those same characteristics is Murray.

Murray now has a 5-2 record over Federer and he’s beaten him the last three times they’ve played – each time losing the first set and winning the next two. It appears to take him a set to figure Federer out, but then he’s o.k. Murray also beat Djokovic the last two times they played.

If Murray can figure out how to win a slam one of these days, and that’s no guarantee because he’s physically fragile relative to the guys in front of him, maybe he’ll be the one tagging along right behind Nadal, not Djokovic and Federer.

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Last year the top three Serbs were flying high. What happened?

I’m just settling into my seat overlooking center court here in Indian Wells at the BNP Paribas Open. I want to check out Roger Federer’s game and see why he got only one ace in his third round win over Ivo Karlovic. His opponent today is Fernando Gonzalez but before that gets underway, I want to make a few comments about the Serbian trio.

Of course I’m talking about Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Ana Ivanovic. I made a bet with Sakhi that Djokovic would keep on powering his way to slam semifinals and, for sure, I thought he’d get to the final in the Australian Open, but he retired due to heat exhaustion in the quarterfinals. [In an earlier version of this post I said that he hadn’t won anything this year. My error. I forgot that he took the Dubai title.] He let Tommy Haas pull even with him in the second set of their match here before closing him out in the tiebreaker and he looked positively out of sorts doing it.

I had always looked at Djokovic’s hubris as a good way to “fake it till you make it” and I figured that once he’d won a few Masters events and a grand slam title, he’d make the transition from bratty underdog to deserving titleholder. But there was always another component to his arrogance. For whatever reason, he has a “me against the world” complex and it got him in trouble at the US Open last year.

First of all, Tommy Robredo accused Djokovic of faking injuries to take breathers during his five set win over Robredo in the fourth round. After that, Andy Roddick joked that Djokovic might have anthrax, bird flu or Sars for all we know. Djokovic didn’t get the joke and he acted aggrieved in his on-court interview after beating Roddick in the quarterfinals and what had been a journey towards maturity collapsed into a childish fit. Here’s a guy whose delightful parodies of the top players had won him a lot of love, not to mention thousands of youtube hits, and he couldn’t take a joke.

He lost to Federer in the semifinals and had a miserable fall season until he won his first year-end title at the Tennis Masters Cup and I, being forever hopeful, looked for one more step towards maturity because that’s how we all learn – in steps, not smooth trajectories, and the steps are bidirectional: they go down as well as up.

But then the hubris kicked in again and he changed his racket from Wilson to Head at the beginning of this year. Djokovic played with a head racket before and the racket world can be deceptive. Players sometimes switch to a different racket manufacturer but actually play with the same old racket painted to look like the new racket. Or sometimes a racket manufacturer will make a prototype of the old racket for the player so the change isn’t too radical.

But Djokovic admitted racket problems earlier this year, so we can assume his hubris led him to believe that he could adjust to a new racket in the short period after the Tennis Masters Cup and before the Australian Open, and he compounded the matter by celebrating New Year’s Eve in Monte Carlo instead of getting his butt to Brisbane where he lost his first match, therefore messing up his title defense preparation.

Jankovic is another story and no one could ever accuse her of hubris. She always plays too much, not too little. Her story plays right into the current state of sports medicine. At least I think it does. I can’t ask her because she isn’t here anymore – she lost her first match and has only one semifinal to her name all year. After her loss here she explained the problem:

I was really bigger and it was something that I was not used to. I was always a certain weight and always, my best weapon was my legs. I always moved and I had the anticipation and I was always on the ball. Now I just cannot do that.

In the second half of last year she added muscle so she could get a bit more on her serve. At the Los Angeles event she was pleased at winning some easy points on her serve, but added muscle is added weight and she has a dilemma. I liken it to my eye exercises. My eyesight is bad because I’m old. If I do eye exercises to improve my far sight, I impair my near sight and vice versa. I have to keep the two in balance and even then wear glasses so I don’t run over some poor pedestrian in the evening light.

Jankovic is currently ranked number three after ending last year with the number one ranking, but number three is a realistic ranking for her if Serena Williams is healthy and Maria Sharapova returns. If Jankovic bulks up in a bid to compete with Serena and Maria, she loses her most valuable weapon: her speed. If she doesn’t, she drops down the rankings.

But that’s not necessarily true and this is where sports medicine comes in. I’m always asking my trainer, Lenny Parracino, if I can do pull-ups and pushups and lift weights and he always discourages me. Look at the pictures on Lenny’s Kinetic Conditioning site. No one is sitting on a bench lifting weights. They’re all doing a complete movement of some sort and they happen to have weights in their hands.

The idea is to improve the kinetic chain of activity – the step by step procedure your body goes through to complete an activity, not to focus solely on increasing your muscle mass. If Jankovic wants to improve her serve, she needs to improve the mechanics of the entire movement that propels her serve. That typically means balancing the muscles in that movement and it usually involves flexibility which should complement her movement. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask Jankovic but I’m guessing that’s not what she did.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Ana Ivanovic except that she’s playing very well at this event after failing to reach a semifinal all year. She’s only lost one set on her way to the quarterfinals and she seems to be recovering from confidence problems she acquired after injuring her thumb last fall, an injury which came shortly after her first slam title at the French Open.

And that’s what each member of this trio is going through. Djokovic and Ivanovic have each won a slam and each one is trying to climb the mountain back up to their next slam title, while Jankovic is trying to climb the mountain back up to the number one ranking. And that second trip is usually harder than the first.

As for the Federer-Gonzalez match, Gonzalez sprayed balls all over the place to lose the first set 6-3, but he pulled even at 5-5 in the second set. Fed then upchucked a double fault and Gonzo kept enough balls in the court to get the break and serve out to even the match. That double fault was Gonzo’s doing because he was eating up Fed’s second serves and Fed was forced to go for a bit too much on second serves.

I hope Gonzo gets himself a new coach to replace the departed Larry Stefanki. Gonzo’s matches are always accompanied by oohs and ahs for those improbable winners from untenable positions, but he misses as often as he hits and he went back to missing in the third set. Federer won the match 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, but he’s not looking all that convincing.

Djokovic, on the other hand, appears to have found his scrappy defense and that’s good news. He beat Stanislaw Wawrinka in two straight tiebreakers by coming up with big games when he needed them and let’s hope this is one of those steps forward.

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Instead of announcing a new coaching arrangement on his website, Roger Federer announced something altogether different.

BNP Paribas Open Day 3

I’m in that netherworld of the opening rounds of a tennis Masters 1000 event and while those opening rounds are real enough, they don’t exist in the media and that means they don’t exist at all as far as most fans are concerned. This week and next we have the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the website still has interviews from last year despite the fact that Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray have already given interviews as have many players who have actually played matches such as Shahar Peer.

Broadcasting doesn’t begin till Saturday and that means live streaming begins on Saturday too. I’ll be on my way to Indian Wells
by the middle of next week but what if Roger Federer flames out early – it has happened you know – or Andy Murray re-injures his ankle? Last year tournament co-director Charlie Pasarell said the event would look into putting webcams on all courts. I’m ready and waiting because, really, how hard can that be? And I’ve missed enough tennis already.

While I’m waiting, let’s talk about Mirka Vavrinec, Federer’s longtime girlfriend. First of all she is pregnant. And that means Federer will be having a baby instead of a coach because his short trial session in Dubai with Darren Cahill ended without a coaching agreement. Cahill won’t commit to twenty weeks a year with Federer because he has his own babies at home in Las Vegas – a four and a seven year old – and he doesn’t want to be away from them for so long.

Now this is rather curious to me. Surely Cahill knew what coaching Federer entailed before traveling all the way to Dubai. Twenty weeks is a part-time commitment as it is. Was Cahill thinking of turning up for the slams and Masters 1000 events only? Wouldn’t that be the minimum you’d expect if you were coaching an ATP pro?

Guess what, add up four slams and nine Masters 1000 events and you get 19 weeks if you count Indian Wells and Miami as two weeks events. Skip Shanghai if the poor guy doesn’t want to travel all the way to China with Roger and substitute a few weeks of training sessions in the off-season and there’s your 20 weeks.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d suggest that Cahill got to Dubai, started working with Roger, and decided that it wasn’t going to work for some reason or another, then politely went back to Vegas and cited his young children as his reason for turning down the opportunity.

Federer’s huge issue is Rafael Nadal and forget, for the moment, beating Nadal on clay. Federer needs a way to beat him on hard court before he can even think about clay, and consecutive events in Indian Wells and Miami should have been a perfect opportunity to try out a strategy that Cahill and Federer agree on. Cahill has already said that Federer should attack the net more on fast surfaces and surely Federer knew that, so strategy disagreement isn’t likely to be the problem.

Maybe Cahill really did get back to Vegas and realize that he couldn’t be away from home for 20 weeks a year – maybe he looked around the playroom and realized his kids needed him or decided he wasn’t ready for the coaching grind just yet, but if he did, I’m guessing that something in Dubai contributed to it.

I have to say that the first thing I thought about when I read about Mirka’s pregnancy was former U.S. football player Travis Henry. The New York Times reports today that Henry has nine children by nine different women and some of the children were born only months apart. For obvious reasons, he’s having trouble meeting his child support obligations and he’s also under arraignment on drug charges. Federer is 27 years old and Mirka is 30 years old and this is their first child. Henry is 30 years old.

Henry may be an exception in the degree of his proliferation but the cultural divide between these two examples is indicative of the two different sports – U.S. football is a working class sport – and, to some degree, the two different cultures – Federer and Mirka are Swiss citizens. This is a huge subject that I’m touching on only lightly, but it’s hard not to be struck by the contrast between the two news items.

I’m coming back to Mirka for another reason. I found this paragraph in an article in Tennis Week last week:

Federer, who has worked with Australian Tony Roche and Sweden’s Peter Lundgren in the past, often consults long-time girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec, a former WTA Tour pro, on certain opponents, but has said he is receptive to hearing a new voice with different ideas. Federer split with Roche, his last full-time coach, in May of 2007.

Federer will continue to work with Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi as his de facto coach but Mirka will be otherwise occupied at some point and Luthi is unlikely to offer a much in the way of different ideas. So what are you going to do now Roger?

And how about you out there? Got any suggestions?

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