Monthly Archives: July 2009

Benni Becker’s Long Hard Trip Back to the Top Fifty

Benjamin Becker started off his ATP career with a bang by reaching the fourth round at the U.S. Open and ending Andre Agassi’s career in the process. After dropping out of the top 100 he’s back in the top 50. What happened along the way?

LA Tennis Open Day 2

In 2006/2007, Benjamin Becker reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open and got to the semifinals and a final in three other events. In 2008 he had only three quarterfinals and by early 2009 he was down to a ranking of 135. Then in April of this year, he got on a roll that started with three challenger titles in four weeks and ended in June with his first ATP title at s’Hertogenbosch.

In Los Angeles today, I asked him how that all went down. Let’s start with April and work our way backwards.

Number one, he changed his coach just before the Miami event at the end of March. Ah yes, the coach bump. Happens all the time on the ATP tour.

Andy Roddick’s results bump up every time he hires a new coach. After hiring Brad Gilbert he won his only slam and got to number one. After hiring Jimmy Connors he won the Cincinnati Masters and got to the final at the U.S. Open. After hiring Larry Stefanki he came within a hair of winning Wimbledon. Not long after hiring a new coach last year, Juan Martin Del Potro won four tournaments in a row.

Why does this happen? Is it like a new romance? A new relationship? Is everything hunky dory because you haven’t known each other long enough to develop conflicts? Am I being too cynical?

The secret may lie in listening. Benni had actually been coaching himself since the Paris event last year and who knows, maybe he just wanted to save some money, but this is the reason he gave:

Before the coach takes care of the tactics but I wanted to do it myself because I feel like if I do it, I’ll also do it on the court and learn from it better than if someone tells you do to it and you’re nodding but you don’t really hear.

For sure a player listens to himself, but what about his longtime coach? Maybe the old coach’s voice becomes background noise while the new coach’s voice is saying something new and exciting enough to actually pay attention to, just as we sometimes dismiss the ramblings of our longtime boss while we hang on every word of a new boss to make sure we know what we’re suppose to be doing.

Why did Benni fall down the rankings? In a word, pressure. Winning a few big matches can come easily, repeating it means wrestling with expectations that weren’t there be before:

Before I had nothing to lose. I never expected to be that high in the rankings and all of a sudden I find myself in the top 50 and I started thinking about it and I started to defend it and then you don’t play as well.

You don’t play as well and your ranking drops and you put more pressure on yourself and you get more and more unhappy and then, one day, you’ve dropped out of the magic top 100. Instead of playing to win, you play to keep your ranking. You play to hold on to what you have instead of taking the risks that might lose you a match here and there but are necessary if you want to beat higher ranked players. On top of that, you still have to travel from country to country and continent to continent only to lose in the first round more often than not.

It’s all too much and by the time Bangkok rolled around last September, Benni couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t even making sense. But he’s a smart guy – don’t underestimate the value of a college education, or, more specifically, the maturity that a college education gives you time to develop – and he made an adjustment:

If I want to do this I have to have fun too. So I’m trying to have fun. Trying to do things that maybe don’t help my tennis but make me happy. Because players who are happy, they enjoy themselves and they’re doing better.

I didn’t ask him what those things might be. Maybe I should have. And it may or may not be enough. Benni lost in two tiebreakers to John Isner today thereby losing in the first round. But I’ve been interviewing Benni since he started winning challengers in 2005 and I’ve always been impressed with his smarts. I don’t know how high he’ll go in the rankings but I’m pretty sure he’s resourceful enough to find a way to stay in that magic top 100 and that would make for a pretty good career.

Pete Sampras Talks About Freakouts, Babies, and Roger Federer at the LA Open

Pete Sampras took some time to talk to the media before his exhibition with Marat Safin at the LA Open and he had a lot to say about his friend Roger.

The Championships - Wimbledon 2009 Day Thirteen

Welcome to the first day of the Los Angeles Tennis Open presented to you by the Farmers Insurance Group. Last year it was the Countrywide Classic but the subprime mortgage crisis threw a wrench into that arrangement. Apparently Farmers didn’t put up tons of money else we’d be having the F.I.G. Open this week.

Vince Spadea, the dead serious rapper/author who usually provides our entertainment at the LA Open, suffered a discouraging double bagel loss to Robert Kendrick this afternoon. Not to make Vince feel worse or anything but that’s only the third double bagel at this event in the Open Era (1967 forward).

I love Vince because he thinks nothing of taking on other players in print or in the interview room while no one else will say boo. He’s probably still mad that Patrick McEnroe chose Mardy Fish over him for the 2004 Davis Cup team. Still, that score was pretty embarrassing and Vince isn’t making it out of qualies these days so maybe he should think about starting a family.

Speaking of family, Pete Sampras is on the premises to play an exhibition against Marat Safin tonight – you could call it a rerun of Safin’s 2000 US Open title courtesy of Pete. I asked Pete about Roger Federer’s instant family.

Roger’s wife Mirka gave birth to twins last week and I asked Pete if he thought to himself, “Uh oh, twins,” when he heard the news as in one new child is manageable on the ATP tour but two is pushing it. Despite joking that Roger would immediately hit the road to escape two screaming babies, Pete said he didn’t think it would affect Roger’s career at all: “I don’t think it’s going to affect him. I don’t see Roger changing diapers at 4am in the morning.”

He may not being changing diapers at all but Pete considers raising his two sons his fulltime job so I’m not convinced that it won’t affect Roger. I feel bad for Pete, by the way. Not only did he lose his grand slam record to Roger but now his media sessions consist almost entirely of questions related to Roger.

When someone asked Pete to compare his era to Roger’s era, Pete said that “no one scares” Roger because everyone stays back – meaning that Roger doesn’t have to face serve and vollyers at Wimbledon. Does Nadal scare Roger? “Not the way I felt playing Goran [Ivanesivic] on grass, that scared me a little bit,” Pete answered. Having said that, he does think Roger realizes that he’s met his match in Nadal and as for losing to Nadal in the Australian final this year: “I think it sort of freaked Roger out a little bit in Australia. Wow, maybe this kid’s better than me.”

It seems to me that being freaked out is a pretty close companion to being scared and this is not anything we couldn’t have figured out ourselves. I think a lot of people were freaked out when Nadal beat Roger in Australia and Roger himself was so distraught he could barely bring himself to speak at the awards ceremony.

But this info comes from a guy who is a good friend of Roger’s who regularly exchanges texts with him and that’s a big deal because Roger is not likely to publicly admit that Nadal may be better than he is anymore than he’s likely to say that he was ever freaked out by anything less than a tsunami or maybe a world war. That kind of stuff does leak out in personal communications, though, and Pete is not always the most revealing guy so I pay close attention when he does reveal something.

Safin managed to stop fooling around long enough to pull out the exhibition in a supertiebreaker in this, his last year on tour before heading back home to Moscow for good. Somehow I don’t think we’ll be seeing him sitting in the guest box at Wimbledon or any other slam and we’re not likely to see him hanging around Los Angeles unless he gets a movie role as a tortured superhero which is actually not a bad idea. But I do expect him to take on some projects, unlike Sampras who hasn’t figured out quite what to do with himself post-tennis, I just can’t imagine what they’d be.

Do you have any guesses or maybe even a suggestion or two? I’d be happy to pass any suggestions directly on to Safin.

Serena Cruises and Andy Roddick Astonishes

I expected Serena Williams to take the Wimbledon title despite her protests. Andy Roddick’s win over Andy Murray was a different story altogether.

The Championships - Wimbledon 2009 Day Twelve

After Serena Williams beat her sister Venus to take the Wimbledon title today she said, “This is one of the few times I didn’t expect to come out with the win today.” Her immediate reaction supports that statement because she looked truly astonished after the last point of the match. It took her a good while before she was in any state of mind to perform her usual four corner salute to the adoring crowd.

But, unlike the outcome of the Andy Roddick vs. Andy Murray semifinal, which was truly astonishing, I wasn’t astonished in the least. When Serena wants something bad enough, no one is standing in her way. Think about it.

First of all she was mightily mad after she lost to Venus in last year’s final. Serena lost her composure during the match and, with it, a chance get closer to the 12 slams she’s aiming for so she can tie her tennis idol Billie Jean King. She should have been going for number 12 today, instead, it’s slam number 11.

And then there’s that t-shirt she wore to the post-match media session. Written in bold letter across Serena’s bosom on her t-shirt were the words “ARE YOU LOOKING AT MY TITLES?” A not so subtle hint that she’s not happy with her number two ranking. Serena had won two of the last three slams coming in and she’s number two? No way. The family was agreed on this little matter as big sister trashed the pretender at number one, Dinara Safina, winning 54 of the 74 points in their semifinal.

Serena was mad at everything including the chopped up surface and it’s multitude of bad bounces. But she didn’t lose her composure. The sisters muddled along in the first set until the tiebreaker when Serena’s will kicked in and she hammered the ball in all directions, including over the head of tall Venus with a lob that closed out the tiebreaker 7-3. And she kept it up in the second set. She lost only two points on her serve in the set while Venus double faulted away a break in a match that wasn’t that interesting until the titanic last game when Venus fought off three match points before finally succumbing, 7-6(3), 6-2.

You may be able to will your way to a title on the women’s side, especially since Justine Henin retired and Amelie Mauresmo had her appendix taken out, but you can’t do it on the men’s side. There’s just too much skill and variety on the rackets of Roger Federer and Murray and though Rafael Nadal comes closest to imposing his will, he’s also the best retriever out there so he’s not so much imposing his will as keeping himself in 99.9% of his matches.

Our reader Sakhi is right again – Murray’s conditioning is still not good enough to win a slam, particularly his home slam what with knowing that the Queen is holding her schedule open should he make it to the final. It’s not just physical conditioning, it’s knowing that there will be at least one and possibly more than one match that will be the hardest match you’ve every played.

Murray lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Fernando Verdasco, in the quarterfinals at the French Open to Fernando Gonzalez, and now in the semifinals at Wimbledon to Roddick who played one of the two or best three matches of his life. Verdasco and Gonzalez played out of their minds too. As Murray put it, “I have played well actually, and just come up against three guys who played great, great tennis.” Yes they did play great tennis but that’s why Federer and Nadal have won the last gazillion slam titles: they win those matches.

Three Americans were still in the Wimbledon draw so you knew some tennis would bleed over to the U.S. sports radio airwaves on its day of independence. Over breakfast I had to listen to a sports commentator tearing his hair out because Roddick hasn’t made more of his talent over the length of his career. He could not have been more wrong.

Radio guy doesn’t realize that Wimbledon has done a u-turn on the poor guy with the monster serve and less than average movement skills and slowed down its surface speed with thicker grass and a bigger, heavier ball. What is a hardship for Roddick is a godsend for Nadal. And it’s worse this year with the new roof. Even when the roof is closed the overhang protects the grass more than before which keeps it from getting dry and bare – its quickened state.

Yet here was Roddick trucking up to the net as if it were his forte – which it isn’t and never has been – and looking nothing less than solid from the baseline – something else that has never been his forte. And how about those drop shots? As the ground around him has changed, he’s hired enough good coaches and made enough changes to his game to end up in the year-end top ten for eight straight years. As far as I’m concerned, he’s maxed his talent.

I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the crusty, ornery Roddick. With each new resurrection he edges closer to inclusion in my exclusive pantheon of sports heroes. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be astonished if he beat Federer in the final, I’d be totally gobsmacked. But consistency counts for a lot.