Monthly Archives: March 2010

A Viral Malaise Hits Indian Wells

BNP Paribas Open

This edition of Indian Wells has been weird, just weird. When 96 players turn up in a draw, there are usually a number of gripping matches that come with them but it didn’t really happen. Take today. There were two three set matches in the men’s semifinals and neither one had me on the edge of my seat.

Rafael Nadal looked like his normal self when he broke 31-year-old Ivan Ljubicic in the first and last game of the opening set. Then, long about the end of the second set, Rafa didn’t look like himself.

Looby hit a deep shot that Rafa should have been able to handle but didn’t then Rafa hit a double fault and that was it. Looby evened the match. Rafa was still in a malaise at the beginning of the third set and lost his serve. Viral malaise I’d have to say.

The problem isn’t that Indian Wells, as one of the journalists described it today, is a “quiet and sleepy kind of place full of rather ancient people.” It’s always been a quiet and sleepy kind of place full of rather ancient people yet we’ve had strings of fantastic matches here before.

The players just didn’t seem to be up for it. Nicolas Almagro walked off against Andy Murray with an ankle injury that didn’t look all that bad, Novak Djokovic didn’t turn up in his match against Looby due to Davis Cup exhaustion, Murray started his match against Robin Soderling losing the first five games and didn’t really get going till the end of the second set when it was too late and lost in the tiebreaker anyway.

We sat there in the media center tapping our fingers waiting for Rafa to perk up and put Looby away and I, meanwhile, received the following text message: “WTF w/ Nadal?” That same person suggested I ask Rafa why he didn’t volley more considering that he’s in the men’s doubles final today and that was the problem. Rafa put off his media session till after his doubles match which was hours later. Unless something was wrong, he just didn’t seem to care enough.

And, as someone said to Looby after the match: “Did you think you’d ever see the day when Nadal would be out of the singles and in the doubles final?”

Rafa broke back right away in the third set then had a match point at 4-5 with Looby standing at the net – a perfect setup for a typical Rafa passing shot on a critical point. Instead, Rafa aimed right at Looby’s belly button and missed low into the net.

Rafa won exactly one point in the tiebreaker and I’m not the only one who was puzzled. Matt Cronin – who’s way better at this stuff than I am – wondered aloud on twitter why Rafa was so “tentative.”

All credit to Looby. I love the guy. Always have. He’s always been one of the more mature and insightful players on tour and he came up with 17 aces and a bunch of groundstroke winners against the toughest baseliner in the game. And when asked about Andy Roddick as his possible opponent in the final, he said that Andy is “pushing the ball back” then added, quickly, “but he’s doing it well.”

I guess Looby wanted to temper his assessment of Andy as a pusher – a defensive player who just gets the ball back over the net. After Andy’s semifinal match with Soderling I planned on trying to provoke him a bit by saying: “Ljubicic called you a pusher. What’re you gonna do about it?”

Before I could, though, someone put it in a more polite way and Andy responded with words that said he didn’t care but body language that showed some irritation. He should be a proud pusher because he outlasted a very hot Soderling by fending off numerous deep hard shots and, most of all, returning so well that it probably made the difference in the match.

Andy has never won this event and Looby has never won a Masters event. We will have one extremely happy tennis player at the end of the men’s final tomorrow. My attention will already be on its way to Miami to see if we can turn up the heat a little bit in every way possible.

Rafa and the Tennis Muses

Stella Artois Championships

Seen at the media/players’ restaurant and Indian Wells: Rafael Nadal. Besides remembering how huge the guy is I noticed he was carrying his racket in this hand while ordering his rice and fish. No racket bag, nothing else, just his racket. Do you think he goes to bed with it too?

I’ve been reading Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano, a lyrical history of soccer as it relates to the historical and cultural events of the past 100 years or so – particularly in South American where Galeano has lived most of his life.

The soccer ball as living being is a recurring theme in the book. Players talk to the ball and massage it and entreat it to stay on their foot and fly true. The idea is that the soccer player is just the caretaker of the ball – a helper, if you will – helping it to fulfill its destiny: fill up a soccer net.

I wonder if Rafa has a similar relationship with the ball and, by extension, his racket. He’s the only player I know who always walks onto the court with his racket in hand as if it’s something that needs warming up for the event as much as his body does. He did grow up in a soccer family after all.

When Rafa is taking forever between each and every point, maybe he’s praying at the altar of racket and ball. Maybe he’s asking the racket to guide the ball and the ball to cooperate in return as if the two are at least as important as he is.

The racket and ball are muses in the ancient sense when art arrived courtesy of the muses. Artists weren’t drinking themselves to death or indulging in some other kind of sadistic behavior because they failed to produce the masterpiece of their desires. If an ancient poet didn’t come up with a transcendent poem, that’s because the muses failed to pass one along.

I always remember Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards dismissing writer’s block as a problem arising from the bad thought that you created a song rather than the song finding its way to you. A tennis player, then, is there to bring the ball to life and the better they learn that, the more cooperative the ball will be.

Stosur Loses a Titanic Game to Jankovic

BNP Paribas Open.

If my theory was correct, Jelena Jankovic was running on borrowed time after skipping through her part of the Indian Wells draw without having to face Kim Clijsters, Flavia Pennetta, or Svetlana Kuznetsova. Today she faced Samantha Stosur in the semifinals and I thought Sam’s power and ability to rush JJ from the net would be too much.

It certainly didn’t look like it at the beginning. JJ got a break point in the very first game and she was the one pushing Sam into errors. Then came the fourth game of the set and that’s really our subject today – the never ending titanic tennis game that counts the same as all the other games but usually means so much more.

Sam was serving at 2-2 and what started out as a love game with a 40-0 lead segued into one such titanic struggle.

Sam was trying to slice JJ up – on one point she hit six or seven straight slices, so much for overpowering JJ – and it was effective at those times when it wasn’t skittering beyond the baseline. But it was too little pressure to produce errors. I lost track after Sam’s fourth game point and the seventh deuce but one last slice skittered long on break point and Sam had lost the battle.

I could just as well end coverage of the match at this point because Sam mostly mailed it in from here. I’ll spare you the details but give you the score: a 6-2, 6-4 victory for JJ.

Was Sam tired from a semifinal run? Was there a letdown after reaching a lifelong goal – in Sam’s case she reached the top ten for the first time this week? None of the above. It was frustration and anger. As she said after the match:

I think when I lost that service game from 40-love up, then all the frustration and anger built up and I let that carry on too long.

How long? When I asked her if she was tired she said:

No, I actually felt really good…I think as soon as you get a bit frustrated or agitated about yourself that that’s the first thing that drops off.

That first thing is footwork and it explains Sam whiffing on a JJ serve at the end of the first set and it also explains the return she mishit on match point. Her footwork went away and didn’t come back. Well, her emotions took her mind away so there was little left to monitor such things as footwork.

This is interesting because I was thinking of writing a piece about those power struggles that pass for titanic tennis games. It’s the kind of struggle missing in no ad tennis and the reason I hope they never make singles no ad. It’s the tennis version of a marathoner dragging a tired body across the finish line (the opponent in this case is the long road). Or a knock down drag out boxing match where the players can barely scrape themselves off their stools for the next round.

The only other place you find something like this in tennis is in fifth sets at slams which don’t have tiebreakers. You could be looking at an 18-16 score. But I’d argue that an 18-16 score is different because once that last game is over it’s over.

With the titanic tennis game, the match is not over, you just feel like it’s over. Sam was so angry she couldn’t recover. That’s what titanic tennis games do. They tell you if the strategy you’ve chosen for your opponent is going to work. They tell you if your opponent is a better fighter on this day. They tell you far too much about yourself and much of what they tell you, you may not want to hear.

I was a bit surprised that a top player would let that game affect her so much but now I see why. I also think Sam Stosur was being more honest than most players in that same situation and that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

Pay Per View: Nadal v. Berdych

BNP Paribas Open

Warning: Bad tennis outfit. You can see why Rafael Nadal said he’d change his outfit when he gets to Miami. Why he’s waiting that long I don’t know. Some people call them picket fence pants but to me they look like a pair of run of the mill boxer shorts that just happen to be elongated.

I was joking when I wondered whether a fight might break out between Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych in their quarterfinal match this evening. Berdych put a finger to his lips to shush the Rafa crazed crowd after he beat Rafa in the Madrid Masters event in 2006. When Berdych got to the net Rafa gave him a lecture on his behavior and Berdych was none too pleased.

But Berdych hasn’t been bothering anyone all that much for the past few years. He just hasn’t done very much on the tennis court. However, I’m happy to report that I was right. A fight did break out. Not the finger wagging type or fisticuffs – have you ever seen pro tennis players come to blows or, if so, I’m sure it was nothing compared to a fight in any other pro sport with the exception of golf or curling.

Mario Ancic once shoved his opponent at the end of a match but, honestly, the guy asked for it. And it was just a shove.

No, this was two hard hitters just slamming the ball and it puzzled me. Why would Rafa try to out hit Berdych? Isn’t that tantamount to putting the ball in the guy’s wheelhouse? And when Rafa did slice and dice and change speeds he was effective.

Rafa broke Berdych right off the bat then hit a beautiful lunging volley for a winner in the second game and for the first few games it looked like Rafa was gonna kill Berdych. Then with Berdych serving at 1-3 he started to find his range. He fought off a bunch of break points but somehow managed to hold on and we settled in for the fight.

Maybe Rafa didn’t want to play around with the wind – which was considerable – because he was hitting ropes and Berdych was hitting them right back. Power tennis can be boring when points are short but this was one hard shot after another. However, back to that slicing and dicing I mentioned above.

Berdych managed to pressure Rafa and even the set at 4-3 and in the next game Rafa appeared to be listening to me. He gave Berdych some changeups and won the game at love. Then, serving for the set, Rafa went back to power ball. And therein lies the answer to my puzzlement. It was the wind.

I asked Rafa why he didn’t slice more as Berdych was having trouble with his slices and he answered that it depended on what side of the court he was on. He didn’t want to slice into the wind. What can I say? I live in Los Angeles. I seldom play in the wind.

Both players kept up the shotmaking in the second set – I particularly loved a slice lob Berdych put up that landed just inside the baseline – and the power tennis resumed. It looked like Berdych could take the match to a third set after he got a good start in the second set tiebreaker, but he gave one point back on an error then suffered a double fault that gave Rafa the opportunity to serve out the match.

You know how that script usually goes if your opponent is Rafa. In this case, Berdych looped a lazy ball to Rafa then followed that up with an error. It was a timid ending to a major fight. If this had been pay-per-view I’m pretty sure you’d have heard a collective groan in fightland.

In this case, though, people were happy that Rafa won. There’s been a shortage of top players getting through the draw and everyone wanted to see him play some more magnificent tennis. So do I.

Old School Indian Wells

BNP Paribas Open

Question of the day: can I sit through a tennis match under the brutal sun at Indian Wells? Answer: No. I lasted through the first set of the quarterfinal match between Jelena Jankovic and Alisa Kleybanova then retreated to the air-cooled media room to dry off my sweat drenched body.

JJ in her beautiful lime green majesty was playing first strike tennis with Kleybanova. That’s the polar opposite of grinding and a bit surprising considering JJ’s back story as a defensive player. Her serve is still tepid but the rest of her game is more expansive than it used to be.

And Kleybanova couldn’t take advantage of JJ’s serve anyway. JJ was up a break and serving for the first set at 5-3 when she hit two double faults to give Kleybanova a break point. Kleybanova then failed to return JJ’s next serve – an 84mph(135kph) kicker.

All credit to Kleybanova because she beat Kim Clijsters to get here but she played like someone who has one lower tier title. She failed to consolidate a break late in the second set by serving up two double faults then gave up her next service game after getting flustered by a deep ball that might have been out.

Passing thought: Who’d have thought that JJ would be in the top ten while her compatriot Ana Ivanovic was #28 and dropping? Another passing thought: Is there a better retriever on tour than JJ? Clijsters maybe but JJ is so graceful it’s just a beautiful thing to watch.

While I was waiting for the shuttle to go to dinner, a group of volunteers next to me was bemoaning the boredom of their jobs. There just aren’t that many people here this year. Today’s lineup offered one top ten woman and one top ten man only and this is the quarterfinals.

All in all I’d say it’s old school week here at Indian Wells. JJ’s run has put her into the semifinals without having to face Kusnetsova or Clijsters and now 30-year-old Ivan Ljubicic is in the men’s semifinals. He’s back hitting 134mph(216kph) bombs and, honestly, that’s the problem. Ljubicic beat a Novak Djokovic exhausted by Davis Cup, Federer is long gone and Davydenko left even earlier.

I’d even call Tomas Berdych old school. The last time he won a Masters event was 2005 and he hasn’t gone past the fourth round of a slam since 2007. I feel justified in the term. Berdych took out Fernando Verdasco and you wonder how serious everyone is treating the event this year. When Djokovic was knocked out he said he was looking forward to a few days rest before Miami.

Oh well, let’s settle in and see if Berdych can push Rafael Nadal as hard as John Isner did yesterday. That would make me feel better. Maybe Rafa and Berdych will have a fight. That’d be fun too. I’ll have the full report later.