Monthly Archives: April 2009

A Claystorm in Rome, Terrorism and Davis Cup

Richard Gasquet tries to knock off a top ten player in Rome. Davis Cup organizers have political decisions to make.


I talked a bit about Richard Gasquet recently. I suggested that he’s one of those players who are more comfortable being in the second tier than the top ten. I also suggested that his clay court swoon last year constituted an adjustment down to a ranking where he could find that comfort.

Today Gasquet played Fernando Verdasco in the third round at the Rome Masters event and this was a good test of my theory because Verdasco is now at number 8 while Gasquet is down to number 23. If Gasquet could beat Verdasco, my theory is probably wrong.

In the first game of the match, Gasquet unloaded one of his killer cross court backhands and followed that up with an even better one in the fifth game – this time as he was falling away from the ball after running down a hard Verdasco shot down the line. In the next game Verdasco’s confidence waned a bit and sunk even further when he missed a second serve by a mile. That gave Gasquet an opportunity for a break point but he put a tame slice into the net and Verdasco recovered to make a fantastic inside out forehand and win the game.

Gasquet’s still one of the best shotmakers in the game but he’s not mentally outplaying the big boys and you can see it by his results: he’s playing well in the smaller events and bombing out in the big ones. This year he reached the third round at the Australian Open and the second round in Indian Wells.

Gasquet continued to play aggressively but Verdasco got a break to go up 5-4. Then Gasquet turned smart and, with Verdasco serving for the set, he hit a ton of high deep balls to keep Verdasco back on his heels. A short return by Verdasco gave Gasquet a break point but it took four break points and a bad bounce for Gasquet to get the break back.

It was temporary, though, as Verdasco won the next two games and the first set. In the second set Gasquet was broken early then both players traded breaks thus giving Verdasco the match, 7-5, 6-4. This was much better on Gasquet’s part than his 6-3, 6-2, loss to Verdasco in Indian Wells and I expect him to make his way back to the top twenty pretty soon. But this was basically Verdasco playing like the top ten player he is and Gasquet playing like the top twenty play I think he is. As of now, my theory holds.

Rome is probably the worst place on the planet for foreign opponents. I remember when Italian fans used to throw small coins at them in matches against Italian players. They’re big on coins. Back then if you threw one coin into the Trevi Fountain in the heart of Old Rome, it meant you’d return to Rome some day. These days it has a different cultural interpretation. If you’re unmarried and throw three coins into the fountain it means you’ll get a marriage proposal. If you’re married and throw three coins into the fountain it means you’ll get that divorce you’ve been craving. I wonder if four coins means you’re hoping for gay marriage.

ATP Masters Series - Rome: Day One

Hawkeye makes it harder to cheat on the foreigners now but there were a few ridiculous attempts at bad line calls against Albert Montanes in his first round match with Italian Potito Starace. I’m not sure how Starace lost that match considering that he had all the momentum going into the tiebreaker and was up 5-1 once he got there.

I guess it was the windstorm. Clay was flying everywhere including into the players eyes. Pieces of papers were landing on the court, loose awnings were rippling and making a huge racket, and signs were blowing over. Honestly, it looked like the Lawrence of Arabia Open and Starace and his contacts couldn’t take it.

Starace served and volleyed to get to 7-7 in the tiebreaker and that’s pretty gutsy for a clay mucker, but Montanes is the better player and he finally put Starace away 10-8 in the tiebreaker then won the second set and the match, 7-6(8), 6-4.

Things are going pretty much to plan in the Rome draw with a few exceptions. Juan Monaco took out Andy Murray which is unfortunate for Murray but not all that surprising. We shouldn’t have expected him to turn into a clay court master overnight. I wasn’t surprised to see Nikolay Davydenko leave early as he’s barely recovered from his long injury and Gilles Simon is still hopeless in big events.

For me the most surprising match was Novak Djokovic’s 6-1, 6-1, knockout of Tommy Robredo. We may have been too hasty in giving Murray Djokovic’s number three ranking. And watch out for Juan Martin Del Potro. He reached a career high number 5 this month and he’s Djokovic’s next opponent. Basically I’m trying to generate enough excitement here to make up for what is probably a foregone conclusion as Rafa the Terminator continues to live up to his name.

Australia and India

Australia defaulted a Davis Cup match this week and that’s a pretty big deal because Australia could get a one year suspension as punishment. Australia refused to play in Chennai, India, and I have to say that I understand the decision

Sri Lanka is just off the coast of Chennai and it’s in the middle of a civil war as the Tamil Tigers fight the government to establish a separate Tamil state. In March, they attacked a bus carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team to a match in Pakistan injuring at least six players. In November of last year, terrorists based in Pakistan attacked Mumbai, India, and killed at least 173 people. The Tamil Tigers didn’t target foreigners but the terrorists in Mumbai purposely targeted luxury hotels and the foreigners who stay there.

Earlier this year, Sweden held a Davis Cup tie with no spectators in Malmo. Sweden’s opponent was Israel and Malmo has a large Muslim population that criticized Israel’s recent Gaza invasion and threatened to disrupt the tie. By the time Stockholm offered to host the tie and resolve the situation, there wasn’t enough time left to organize moving the tie.

The India-Israeli tie should have been moved to a neutral site somewhere between the two countries geographically. But as the situation in Sweden should have told us, these days, Davis Cup organizers needs to be better prepared in such situations by following the political trail. Terrorism associated with Pakistan has increased while it has decreased in other areas of the world, and the ATP and WTA had just finished dealing with tournament organizers in Dubai who’d refused entry to Israeli player Shahar Peer before finally agreeing to give Israeli player Andy Ram a visa.

If there’s going to be a Davis Cup tie in an area affected buy a current political conflict, Davis Cup organizers must be prepared to make a decision on requests for change of venue much sooner to allow enough time to find an alternative site. Though organizers might protest that their job description doesn’t include political forecasting, two incidents on one year should convince them otherwise.

2009 Fed Cup Semis: The WTA Gets Taller

Tall players dominated on day one of Fed Cup. Is that what the future looks like?

I wanted to watch David Ferrer take out Fernando Gonzalez is a third set tiebreaker in Barcelona, but it’s on delay and I’m going to an over 50’s party this afternoon (you don’t think they’d have parties for older people at night do you?) so let’s take a look at Fed Cup.

BNP Paribas Open Day 7

I don’t pay much attention to Fed Cup, particularly U.S. Fed Cup team because U.S. players don’t pay much attention. True to form, both U.S. singles players are Fed Cup rookies. Bethanie Mattek-Sands is one of my favorite WTA players but not so much for her game as much as her personality.

There’s the fashion thing with the low cut bustier, plaid cowboy hat and knee-hi socks, but she’s also the sauciest player on tour – she’ll say anything and that’s rare. Today her fashion is toned down with a plain white top and tennis skort except for the red, white and blue color scheme.

Bethanie and her opponent, Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, express the difference between U.S. and Eastern European tennis. Bethanie is 5′ 6″ (1.68 m) and Kvitova is 6′ (1.83 m). Kvitova isn’t a great mover – she has those slumped shoulders tall women sometimes have as if to pretend that they really aren’t as tall as they are – but, as you can imagine, she hammers the ball and today’s match is on a fast indoor surface.

It’s not like the U.S. never had such players. I’ve just pretty much described Lindsay Davenport complete with slumped shoulders and Venus Williams without them, but Venus is an exception and Eastern Europe has size in spades. No one in the top ten is shorter than 5’ 7” (1.7 m) and seven of them are over 5’ 10” (1.79 m) and except for Venus and her sister Serena, they’re all from Eastern Europe.

I’m tempted to say that women’s tennis has turned into what the men’s tour might look like if Ivo Karlovic, John Isner, and Sam Querrey were in the top ten and Querrey is a good comparison for Kvitova because, though Kvitova is foot-heavy as is Querrey, she managed to get to the fourth round of the French Open last year and Querrey is not terrible on clay either.

But I think a player like Kvitova will have more success than Karlovic and Isner if not Querrey because her strength will be more valuable than that of a tall guy on the men’s tour. Rafa the Terminator can move as well as anyone but is also as strong, whereas on the women’s tour you get one or the other – strength or movement. Jelena Jankovic is 5’ 9 ½” (1.77 m) – that’s probably an exaggeration – and she’s all movement.

The new number one as of this week is Dinara Safina and that’s a bit of an issue because she’s one of four women who reached number one without winning a slam. Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo are two of those players and, of course, they did go on to earn the number one by winning a slam. I’m pretty sure Safina will get her slam but the fourth woman in that foursome is Jankovic and I’m not so sure about her.

It seems to me that the women’s game is undergoing a transition that isn’t yet complete yet. It’s as if the quintessential WTA player of the next few years hasn’t turned up. If Querrey and Kvitova are indicative of the future, maybe the size of the average WTA player is taking a big jump and we’re just waiting for a few of those players to develop and start winning slams along with the number one ranking.

Except for a dry spot in the second set where she lost her serve, Kvitova just looked too strong for Mattek. She closed out the second set tiebreaker at 7-2 to win the match 6-3, 7-6(2), and put the Czech Republic up 1-0.

Alexa Glatch is 6’ (1.83 m) and she’s only 19 years old. And she’s from the U.S. She beat Iveta Benesova 6-1, 6-2, in the second match and that’s pretty shocking because Benesova is ranked number 29 and Glatch only 114. On the other hand, Benesova has lost to Kvitova twice this year already so maybe those tall players are starting to take over.

I’m looking forward to that Glatch-Kvitova match tomorrow because that’s what tennis will look like pretty soon: a few six foot and overs going at with a kind of uber power game. I have to say that I’m not exactly looking forward to it – I’d rather watch someone who mixes power and speed any day, but if it gives us a bona fide number one now and then and a few players who can consistently perform well at slams, I’ll take it.

French Global Dominance Interrupted and College Sports in the U.S.

France could be dominating the top ten in tennis but for injuries. Why does the U.S. insist on educating the world’s athletes?

French Dominance Interrupted

Richard Gasquet lost to Christophe Rochus in Barcelona this week and though Rochus is making a good comeback after a forced return to challenger events – he made it to the third round before meeting up with Rafa the Terminator this week, can you imagine what the top ten would look like if Gasquet and his fellow Frenchies Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils weren’t perpetually injured?

Sony Ericsson Open Day 5

As it is, France has the number 9, 10, and 11 ranking spots (Gilles Simon, Monfils, Tsonga) and they could have another top spot if Gasquet had his head and shoulders screwed on correctly.

Gasquet missed Miami (except for carousing with the Miami Dolphins’ cheerleaders as you can see above) and Monte Carlo with an injured right shoulder and he missed the French Open last year with a knee injury. But, as I not so subtlety suggested, that was partially a head injury. He flamed out in the clay court season with an existential crisis. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in life or what he was doing on the court.

To me it looks like Gasquet made a mental adjustment designed to find his comfort level. Going into the clay court season last year he was in the top ten. Since that time he went down to the mid- twenties and is just now moving back towards the teens. I think he feels more comfortable in the 10-20 ranking than he does in the top ten. I think he’d rather leave that pressure to his fellow Frenchies.

Jo-Willie is probably the most ambitious of the lot but it’s his body that betrays him, not his head. He’s remarkably consistent at reaching quarterfinals and semifinals when he’s healthy, but he misses significant portions of each year with an injury. Last year he missed the clay court and grass court season. This year he hadn’t missed anything till he injured his right knee and skipped Barcelona.

For Monfils, it’s his left knee and it could keep him out of the French Open where he reached the semifinals last year. Monfils suffered from Osgood-Schlatter disease when he was younger and that sometimes causes knee inflammation and, for sure, his gymnastic style of play and those wonky splits on those spindly legs cannot help the situation. And while I’m not exactly sure we could say he has head problems, we could use the word immaturity.

Monfils seems to be recovering from immaturity and appears to have settled into long-term tennis domesticity with Lleyton Hewitt’s former coach, Roger Rasheed. Hopefully La Monf will keep maturing but I wonder if it galls the French in any way that it’s their most plodding, least charismatic, least artistic player – Gilles Simon – who’s now their number one.

College and Sports in the U.S.

Having said all that about the French players, players often break down early these days because they start young and wear their bodies out by playing millions of hours a day. I thought about this while reading about Jeremy Tyler. Tyler is a 17 year old U.S. basketball player who’ll skip his last year of high school to play basketball in Europe.

Tyler has dropped out of high school and is practicing eight or nine hours a day while he waits to join a European team. He can’t play in the NBA until 2011 at the earliest. While it’s that eight or nine hours that got my attention – no wonder players break down in their early to mid-twenties if their running and jumping for eight or nine hours a day – education is an issue that comes up in tennis from time to time.

Does a young man or woman suffer by leaving school and joining the tennis pro tour at a young age? Pete Sampras was never a scintillating conversationist and I do remember a journalist somewhat unfairly impugning his intelligence because he didn’t know what the word “jocular” meant, but many people would like to be leading Sampras’ life right about now.

But, you say, what about players who turn pro and don’t make it? They’re left with no money and no education. Not exactly. First of all, most players get high school equivalency degrees and not only that, if they bomb out on the pro tour, they can often go to college free in the U.S. no matter what country they come from.

Foreign-born players have won the U.S. college singles title for the past five years. After some college tennis coaches complained about older foreign players getting scholarships because they were beating up on the younger, amateur U.S. players, U.S. colleges put an upper age limit on scholarship players and only allowed pro players who’s winnings never exceeded their expenses.

However, my point here is not to complain about foreign players, it’s to complain about the U.S. education system. Europe does it right. If you want to become a professional basketball player or tennis player, you join the lower level pro tours.

Jeremy Tyler can’t play in the NBA because it doesn’t allow him to enter the NBA draft or play in its minor leagues until he’s 19 years old and one year removed from high school. By pushing players to U.S. colleges, the NBA is essentially making college basketball its minor league. No other college system in the world that I know of gives free scholarships to athletes including the young tennis players of the world.

I hope many more young basketball players go to Europe because it will force the NBA to change its rule and allow younger players to turn pro. I’m not advocating abolishing athletic scholarships. I’m suggesting that athletics return to its role as an enhancement to college life, not its focus as it in the U.S.

Give amateur athletes – including tennis players – partial scholarships and let them lead a normal college life. And let professional sports franchises take the responsibility of training the serious professional athlete.

Murray Improves on Clay But Nadal is Still Supreme

Andy Murray spent the semifinals in Monte Carlo trying to figure out how to beat the unbeatable Rafael Nadal on clay. Andy didn’t succeed but he made notable progress.

Andy Murray has already gone two further rounds than he did all last year on clay by getting to the semifinals here in Monte Carlo. Unfortunately, that means it was time to face the clay terminator Rafael Nadal. I, for one, think it is way too much to ask Murray to jump from his previous status as a middle of the pack clay courter to a terminator beater, but what he can do is keep the pressure on Novak Djokovic until grass and hard court come along and then pass Novak to take the number three ranking, and who knows, maybe number two while he’s at it.

TENNIS - ATP Masters Series 2009 - Nadal and Murray Exhibition Match

I’m not enough of a stathead to know whether Andy made up any points on Novak this week because Novak is into the final (he beat Stanislas Wawrinka in three sets in the other semifinal), but I do know that Novak has to reach three semifinals and a final this clay court season to keep from losing ranking points, so Andy has a good shot at gaining on him if he keeps getting to semis. And it’ll get a bit easier if Roger Federer starts regularly bowing out in the third round as he did this week.

The first thing you noticed when you watched Rafa and Andy is court positioning. Rafa was running side to side on or near the baseline and Andy was so far back he could have picked a linesperson’s pocket. Honestly, when the camera was looking over Andy’s shoulder, he was so close to the stands that you couldn’t see his legs.

That puts a lot of pressure on the guy who’s wandering in the hinterlands. It’s difficult to hit a shot hard enough to get it by the speedy Rafa from back there and by the fifth game of the first set, Rafa was getting a good selection of overheads and approaches to put away. Andy had to hang on for dear life just to get to 2-4 in the first set.

Playing back there also means you have to cover a lot of ground – doubly important this week because there was a lot of rain in Monte Carlo and Andy had to play one and a half matches yesterday – the second of which took more than two hours to complete. Rafa played two matches also but they were significantly shorter and besides, he appears to have an infinite source of energy relative to everyone else.

Rafa won the next two games to take the first set 6-2 but really, Andy didn’t look that bad, he just played too defensively. Still, he now had a tough decision to make because Andy isn’t comfortable going for big shots and Rafa eats you up at the net. For the first part of the set I could actually see Andy’s legs so I knew he’d moved closer to the baseline, but he lost his serve to go down 1-3 in a game where he made a point of going for big shots.

That seemed to deflate Andy and he retreated back to the hinterlands thus finding himself right back where he was in the first set, down 2-5. Then, sure enough, he appeared to find the right balance between defense and offense. After a titanic struggle, he broke Rafa to get back on serve at 4-5 and pushed the match to a tiebreaker. He wasn’t hugging the baseline but he was going for lines when he had an opening and the tiebreaker was scintillating.

Rafa got up 3-0 in the tiebreak right away but it took a ridiculous inside out forehand to do it. I’d bet a thousand dollars that the number of inside out forehand winners Rafa hits absolutely dwarfs the number of winners he hits from the ad side of the court. Andy stormed back from those two mini-breaks to get on serve, but Rafa hit a ridiculous backhand winner this time and that put him up 6-4.

Rafa won the next point and the tiebreak and though I don’t see Andy beating him in clay this season, you could see Andy working it out in his mind as he went along and finally he landed on something that allowed him to play even up for the last four games of the match and push Rafa to have to make ridiculous shots.

I’m hardly going out on a limb when I say that Andy looks like he’ll be the number two somewhere around the U.S. Open barring injury or any other unforeseen circumstances. Is there any reason to think otherwise?

Novak’s Razzle Dazzle Pasties

Head’s new ad campaign has monsters, potty talk, and Novak Djokovic

Sakhi sent this video to me. Haven’t seen it on TV but I’m happy to see that Novak Djokovic has returned to clowning because that’s his personality and he’s looked awfully glum since he stopped doing his hilarious player impersonations.

When I looked into the ad campaign a little further, I realized that this is one of the more sophisticated ad campaigns I’ve ever seen from the corporate tennis world. As you can see by those razzle dazzle tasseled pasties in the video, I’m not talking about sophisticated entertainment, I’m talking about its reach as in marketing online and referencing everything from monster movies to video game shootouts. By the way, Novak is a talented dude isn’t he? I’m not sure I could do that spinning pastie thing and I have a lot more to shake than he does.

The pastie ad is only the beginning. At (Novak’s racket is the Head YOUTEK Speed Pro Racquet, head speed – get it?) you’ll find a number of stroke lessons that appeal directly to the video game obsessed male youth of today. In a series of simple but wonderful line drawn animations, you’ll find a Butt Winder missile twisting its way up the rectum of a fleeing Godzilla character who’s forced to turn and run because his smash hit isn’t fast enough. No worries, he finds his smash hit (a song called Cabaret of Aggression – wait, is this a reference to the German cabaret movement in the Weimar Republic?) and ends up eating skyscrapers and making spaghetti out of train cars.

And I was wrong. There is some sophistication here. Once Godzilla finds his smash hit, it looks like he sits in triumph on top of the Guggenheim Museum as we hear a toilet flush. I can see it now: an academic conference deconstructing art criticism as seen in tennis ad campaign videos. We might be talking sophistication but not subtlety. The smash lesson reiterates its message that speed kills by showing a tennis player’s (biological) balls being separated from his body then being run over by a tank.

In the service stroke video, a slow French waiter (server is another word for waiter) adds enough speed to his serving to wipe out his restaurant customer and steal his customer’s brainless bosomy girlfriend. There’s also another art reference when a hapless tennis player’s face gets sliced up until it looks like one of Picasso’s cubist women. Clearly Head is not targeting women tennis players in these ads.

Potty talk, smashed balls, buxom women, and lots of blood splatter: what else could an adolescent male ask for? And this is the point of the campaign. The racket is called the YOUTEK. You should be able to get whatever you want. But it’s also a reference to the You Generation and if you remember, “You” was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006. They were referring to youtube, myspace, and all of the other web goodies the youth of today obsessively communicates with. Head has done an intelligent thing by taking advantage of it.

Tennis fanatic Elton John is performing at Andy Roddick’s wedding this weekend. I bet Elton could do a bang up razzle dazzle pastie performance on cue.

I’ll be back tomorrow to talk about the Monte Carlo semis. Nadal versus Murray and Djokovic versus Wawrinka.