Monthly Archives: April 2009

Minor League Clay Court Tennis

The clay court minor league season started up in Houston and a few unexpected players will meet in the final. Oh, and someone got married.

Let’s warm up for the clay court season by going to a minor league event in Houston. Okay, I’m being a bit obnoxious but how else can you describe an ATP event where John Isner, the very tall epitome of hard serving hard court tennis, makes it to the quarterfinals?

The clay in Houston is red this year not green but it’s not the Tuileries Gardens red clay. Those beautiful gardens next to the Louvre used to be a red clay quarry for tiles long ago – hence tuile, the French word for tile. According to a reader who left a comment on Lexa’s excellent post about the vagaries of clay court tennis earlier this week, the Houston clay is a mixture of red stone and brick dust.

I’m assuming this means that it’s faster than the green court and slower than the true red court, but it’s hard to tell because there are few true clay courts players here to test it out with their high bouncing kickers. Most everyone trots out their hard court game as if we were still back in Indian Wells. Take Wayne Odesnik.

Odesnik got to the third round of the French Open last year and he beat Guillermo Canas in three straight tiebreakers along the way so he’s one of the better U.S. clay courters. Today he played Bjorn Phau in the semifinals to try and get to his first ATP final. First of all, the court doesn’t look like a demolition derby with skid marks left and right. It looks well-groomed and Odesnik almost fell over on a forehand running passing shot – a winner by the way – because he expected his lead foot to land and grab. Instead, Odesnik’s body was ready to turn back to the middle of the court but his feet were still moving towards the stands.

You’re supposed to slide in to those shots Wayne. It worked out, though, because Phau doesn’t have much firepower – he’s a small guy who plays his size. He’ scrappy, though, and he’s back up to number 77 after disappearing for a few years. Which reminds me. I was reading an article in Bill Simons’ excellent publication Inside Tennis when I realized that I hadn’t seen Donald Young lately. It seems he’s all the way down to number 161 and having trouble getting out of qualifiers. I feel for him.

Roger Federer married Mirka Vavrinec is his hometown of Basel, Switzerland today. Just thought I’d throw that in here. He’ll spend his honeymoon taking a wild card in Monte Carlo. For years Roger has played the minimum number of events possible but now he’s scrambling a bit to get some consistency in his game. Thus the last minute wild card.

Back to Houston.

Lleyton Hewitt took on Evegeny Korolev in the other semifinal. Hewitt reminds of Andy Roddick. They’re both stiffs. Just kidding. What I mean is that they both have stiff takebacks on their two-handed backhands because they extend their arms as you can see below:

Hewitt’s a small guy who is a consummate counterpuncher and exceptional competitor who won his slams before power took over the game. He has some power because he was able to tool up his serve to hit aces, but that stiffy backhand doesn’t help and I always thought his forehand was a bit funky too. It looks like it’s all arm because he brings the racket back so far, but when I looked a bit closer today I saw something else. I compared Hewitt’s forehand with slow motion videos of Carlos Moya’s forehand because he’s another guy who has a high takeback. See what I mean:

The angle of the camera is different and Moya is hitting an inside out forehand, but I see hip movement followed by trunk movement followed by shoulder movement followed by the racket follow-through in Moya’s swing – his body unfolds in segments then he hits the ball. In Hewitt’s swing, those body parts don’t seem to follow one after the other as much as they move together.

For sure, Hewitt’s style is responsible for his hip surgery – his body has a few million tennis court miles on it, but maybe he could have lasted a bit longer before needing surgery if his swing technique had allowed his body to work a bit more efficiently. His competitiveness hasn’t worn out, thankfully, and Korolev helped Hewitt out by hitting for the fences on every point, and so Hewitt is into his first final in two years with a straight set win.

Come back again next week when the major league clay court season starts with the Masters event in Monte Carlo.

Why Isn’t Murray Any Good on Clay and Who is Craig Kardon?

Why does Andy Murray have a losing record on clay and do you remember who Craig Kardon is?

Andy Murray on Clay

Andy Murray Promotes Barclays ATP World Tour Finals At O2

That’s not a picture of Andy Murray on clay. It’s a picture of Andy at the O2 Arena in London, site of the ATP year end championships. There are a few things to talk about today but let’s start by asking the question: Given his all-court game and excellent movement, why isn’t Andy a better clay court player? I’m going to start by looking at Andy’s final win in Miami over Novak Djokovic last Sunday because my DVR recordings got wiped out when I went Hi Def so I don’t have any of Andy’s matches on clay to watch. told me that they plan to have on demand matches in the future, thank heavens, though I should add that that this tidbit of info was included in an email warning me that I was breaking their service agreement by telling you guys how to record matches off the computer screen. Oh well, whatever it takes.

Andy has a career losing record on the surface and was 7-5 last year and didn’t make it past the third round of a clay court event. So what does it take to play winning clay court tennis?

Speed. No problem there. In Andy’s first service game, he and Novak played a cat and mouse game of drop shots with a five stroke exchange that Andy won handily. Novak started off with a drop shot just over the net and even though Andy had to run all the way from the opposite half of the court, he had to slow himself down as he got near the ball to make sure he didn’t overrun it.

Conditioning. There are plenty of reports on Andy’s off-season boot camp in the South Florida humidity with the swimming, wind sprints, iron pumping, yoga, and scrimmaging against the University of Miami women’s soccer team. Oh, and the 6000 calories per day intake. And that’s been a huge part of his success so far this year. But he’s still a delicate kind of guy next to clay court bulls like Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer and I already wrote about Andy overworking himself and how that might have contributed to the virus that knocked him out of Davis Cup. And he’s injury prone.

Bullishness. Or maybe we should call it aggressiveness. After a bad start by Novak, and I mean really bad – he hit volleys and overheads in to the net and lost the first set 2-6, he recovered to take a 4-1 lead in the second set. While Andy hit running passing shots for winners time and time again, that’s a defensive shot if you think about it. It means that your opponent is getting to the net. Andy made his own recovery to take six of the last seven games, but you have to play relentlessly aggressive tennis on clay courts to win a match, and even then you might still be out there for hours.

Having said all this, Novak’s confidence built steadily throughout this event so this loss must have really hurt – especially as he had a set point in the second set. So while his clay court results are likely to drop because he reached the semifinals or better in every clay court event he entered last year, Andy’s results are likely to improve. A respectable clay court season on Andy’s part could well take him past Novak and into the number three ranking by the time grass comes around.

Who is Craig Kardon?

Craig Kardon is Ana Ivanovic’s new coach, that’s who he is. If you’re old like me, you know him as Martina Navratilova’s coach, and if you’re a World Team Tennis fan you know him as the coach of the Philadelphia Freedom. He’s not a big name now as you can tell by looking at his website. The picture of Kardon with Navratilova is too dark, the forums have no entries, his on tour calendar is empty, and the tennis library is “Coming Soon.”

But Kardon could be an inspired choice for Ivanovic. Navratilova played in an entirely different era so clearly Ivanovic isn’t going to turn into a serve and volley player, but playing more aggressively could help her confidence, and from everything I know, as much as I love Martina – and absolutely I do, she was a very emotionally up and down player behind that swagger and Kardon handled her beautifully.

We won’t mention any names but maybe a few players on the men’s side could dig a bit deeper to come up with an inspired coaching choice themselves.

This would be a good time to step up on the women’s tour. Dinara Safina will take over the number one ranking on April 13 and not because she snatched it away from Serena Williams, but because Serena has lost two straight matches with that injured thigh. I seriously doubt Serena would have taken off for Marbella this week only to lose in the first round if the number one ranking wasn’t in danger.

For just a bit of historical perspective, Safina will be the 19th player to reach the WTA number one ranking, a system that dates back to 1975. The men have had 24 number one players dating back to 1973. As of today, both tours had one number one who didn’t win a slam. Marcelo Rios is the ATP version and he’s never gonna win one. Jelena Jankovic is the WTA player and she’ll be joined by Safina who has two slam finals on her record but no slam titles.

I’m gonna say that Safina gets her slam but not Jankovic. What do you think?

Azarenka Wins the Title in Miami and Federer Acts Like a Human

The Disappearing Woman

The Sony Ericsson Open in Miami should really be called the Williams Open. Serena and Venus Williams have won the the title 8 out of the last 12 years and it could well have been 9 out of 13 if Serena hadn’t dragged herself on to the court today with her left thigh all taped up. Serena’s movement deteriorated as the match went on and the newest new WTA star was crowned after Victoria Azarenka served out to win the final, 6-3, 6-1. And my first thought was, “Is this another woman who’ll win a big event then disappear?”

Sony Ericsson Tennis Open

And my first thought after that was Daniela Hantuchová followed by Svetlana Kuznetsova. Stream of conscious, admittedly, but there is a trail to be followed. Hantuchová won the Indian Wells title in 2002 then disappeared for a while before winning it again in 2007. Kuznetsova won the 2004 U.S. Open and she might be a bad example because she’s reached two more slam finals, but that led me to Anastasia Myskina who won the 2004 French Open then disappeared, followed by Maria Sharapova who has three slams but has also disappeared. At least from the court.

One of our disappearing women will make a return this year. We’ll get Kim Clijsters back but don’t hold your breath waiting for Justine Henin who literally disappeared overnight. Azarenka, however, looks like she might drag us out of this disappointing syndrome for a few good reasons.

Every woman who’s won the title in Miami has won a slam. Okay, Azarenka had a bit of luck when Serena waddled out looking like a mummy, but Azarenka had a one set lead over Serena in the Australian Open this January before she had to retire from the match in the second set. Also, Azarenka has a good record against higher ranked players and that’s the best indicator that a player will continue their climb up the rankings. This past year she’s taken out Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina.

The only caveat I have is Azarenka’s injury history. There was that retirement against Serena this year and there were four more retirements last year and a knee injury. Who knows what will happen but I tell ya, I’d give my left eye for a multiple grand slam winner at this point.

The Mangled Racked Heard Around the World

You’d think the world had come to an end judging by the reaction to Roger Federer’s mangled racket attack in his semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic. Everyone in the tennis world appeared to be in total shock. After winning the first set handily, Fed lost his grip in the second set. He wasn’t just missing, the ball was flying off the edge of his racket and into the stands, and it was his best shot that went missing. Final tally: forehand winners 7, forehand errors 29. That’s enough to make anyone smash a racket. After the match Fed said this:

It’s been a tough last year or so, especially on the hard courts. My game never really clicked except at the [U.S.] Open where I thought I played great. I think when I was finding my form again it hit me with the back problem. So it was unfortunate but thank God the hard court season is over.

When someone asked him if he could overcome his problems by himself or did he need help in the form of a coach, Roger got a bit mad: “I’ve had like five coaches in the last two years,” followed by a pause followed by the somewhat snide remark, “You write what you want.”

I don’t know who the fifth coach is and, as always, there’s a thin line between denial and positive thinking, but there are two rather huge denial alarms in those comments: 1. He’s implying that his chances of winning on clay are better than hard court. 2. He’s had four or five coaches and what good has it done him?

Having said that, Fed pretty much always makes it to the semifinals and though Andy Roddick failed to get to the semifinals this week for the first time this year, I’m seeing Federer as a bit of an anti-Roddick.

I don’t look at Roddick as a grinder because of that serve. No one with that serve could possibly pass as a grinder. But he’s been supreme at making the most of what he has relative to other top ten players, most of whom have better movement and a much better backhand. In Fed’s case, it’s just the opposite. He can skate along in the top five for some time to come with his skill set but his grinding abilities have never been great and now they’re periodically disappearing.

Andy Murray and Djokovic meet in the Miami final tomorrow and it’s kind of curious to note that all seven of their matches have been in Masters events. I’d like to pick Murray because he beat Djokovic in their last two meetings, but Djokovic has won both Indian Wells and Miami and both events are remarkably similar in their ability to predict slam winners. Because Murray hasn’t performed well at slams yet, I’m going with Djokovic.

Del Potro Takes Out Rafa, The Ismene Complex, and the ATP Cup

Del Potro Cashes In

I don’t have a lot of time to go into the entire match today, but I do want to say this. When I chose Juan Martin Del Potro as my most improved player last year, the tennis world didn’t exactly jump up and applaud, and that’s mainly because those four consecutive tournaments he won last year were small fry. Today that pick is looking good after Del Potro beat Rafael Nadal to get to the semifinals in Miami.

Sony Ericsson Open Day 8

Del Potro stormed back from two breaks down in the third set to get to the tiebreaker and put the match away convincingly once he got there. He finished off what his Argentinean compatriot David Nalbandian couldn’t do with five match points against Rafa in Indian Wells and he did it on his first match point.

There were a few hiccups in the tiebreaker. Rafa hit a lob volley and Del Potro wheeled around in perfect form to hit a winner in to the open court only to hit the ball dead in to the net thereby giving up a gimme mini-break. Rafa had a hiccup himself. After getting his own mini-break on a net cord return of Del Potro’s serve, Rafa telegraphed a drop shot which gave Del Potro plenty of time to get his long legs to the net and hit a shot Rafa couldn’t get back into the court. Rafa looked distraught afterwards and wrapped his arms around his head in despair. You don’t see that every day.

For sure, Del Potro watched that Nalbandian match as has everyone in the top ten and he used the same tactics. He hit behind Rafa whenever possible – that’s how he got his match point, he hit to Rafa’s backhand repeatedly to set up the flat inside out forehand, and he ran Rafa corner to corner to set up those short court shots down the line.

It took Del Potro three hours to do it so I’m not picking him to beat Andy Murray – especially as Murray took less than an hour to completely dismantle Fernando Verdasco, 6-1, 6-4 – but I’m happy to see my guy do something special.

The Ismene Complex

Dinara Safina reached the French Open Final last year and lost. She reached the Australian Open final this year and lost again, this time badly. She got bageled by Serena Williams in the first set. Safina had a few opportunities this year to take the number one ranking away from Serena but she appears to have mixed emotions about the whole thing. If she’d reached the final in Miami, she’d have been number one no matter what Serena did. Instead, she lost to Samantha Stosur in the third round by the snively score of 6-1, 6-4.

Is there an Oedipal complex for sisters? You may remember that Oedipus was the guy who killed his father but didn’t realize it until after he’d already wed his mother and had four children with her. Freud went to town with that story and ascribed certain childhood neuroses to the male child’s unconscious wish for his father’s death so he can have his mother’s love all to himself. Freud called it the Oedipal Complex.

Oedipus banished himself after he realized what he’d done and his sons ended up killing each other in a fight over Oedipus’ throne. Oedipus’ daughter Antigone defied a royal decree by burying one of her brothers. Her sister Ismene refused to defy the decree and bury her brother so I’m calling this the Ismene complex.

There may be other reasons that Safina hasn’t gathered up the wherewithal to win a slam or take over number one, but maybe she doesn’t want to bury her brother. Maybe she doesn’t want to surpass his two slams or the seven weeks he spent at number one. Maybe she doesn’t want to reach her potential because he never reached his.

I had a rakish, unpredictable brother and he was the apple of my mother’s eye – an Oedipal setup if ever there was one. My father’s attempts to discipline him were lost on my mother and that was only partly because my brother turned up less than nine months before my father returned from the war. The point is that I did not find it an easy situation to deal with and my confidence was severely challenged, to say the least.

Considering all that, Safina has done well to make two slam finals. Hopefully there’ll be a few more slam finals because she’s only 22 years old. She’s in an excellent position to go far considering that she’ll be around a lot longer than Serena and her sister Venus and the WTA is a free-for-all at the moment.

The ATP Cup

Everyone and his brother knows that James Blake likes to play at a fast pace. They also know that he gets upset at bad sportsmanship. If you want to beat James, you slow the game down as much as possible, especially on his serve. Tomas Berdych followed that formula and beat James in the third round in Miami, but what was notable was the way the chair umpire handled the matter. The chair umpire eventually gave Berdych a code violation but when the microphone picked up their conversations, the umpire was subservient in his attitude towards Berdych and Berdych was dismissive in return.

The players run the asylum in all of pro sports today but there’s a problem with that and we saw it in the match between Fernando Gonzalez and Radek Stepanek. Stepanek was making Gonzo wait to serve and Gonzo’s response was to stare at the chair umpire as if to say, “Why the hell are you letting him get away with it?” That was his first response anyway.

By the time the fifth game came around, Gonzo decided to take matters into his own hands. He put a hard serve down the middle and got a short return from Stepanek. Gonzo then ran to the net and tattooed Stepanek’s right butt with the ball and you can imagine where it would have landed if Stepanek hadn’t turned away. Gonzo didn’t bother with even the slightest hand wave of apology.

If the ATP doesn’t give their chair umpires enough power to handle the match, players will take things into their own hands as Gonzo did, and if that happens, well, players will start taking to the court wearing protective cups. Oy, I can see it now. Instead of tugging at their pants, toweling off and bouncing the ball ten million times, players will tug at their pants, towel off, adjust their cup and bounce the ball ten million times. It’ll be worse than watching a baseball game except for the spitting. Thankfully tennis players don’t spit.