Monthly Archives: March 2011

Tears of Tiredness at Indian Wells

Messed up my timing this morning. I wanted to cover the women’s final but arrive at the BNP Paribas Open just as Marion Bartoli is closing out the second set at 6-2 to pull even with Caroline Wozniacki at one set each. Thanks for giving me a third set to work with Marion. Appreciate it.

Luckily Marion took her requisite bathroom visit which gives me a bit of time to settle in. Here’s what it looks like from my little hive above the court in the Media Center.

The View From The Media Center

Marion is a funny duck. It’s not just the two hander off both sides and the Elena Dementieva corrective serve – the kind of mechanical, robotic serve you change to when the one you grew up with isn’t good enough for the pros. If you’ve served the same way for a long time, changing it is a big deal. Especially when you do it on the run – when you’re already playing on the tour. One way is to pare it down to it’s most basic constituents: arm straight back, then toss the ball, then scratch the back with the racket, then snap over the ball, one…after…the…other. And that’s how Marion serves.

But it’s not just that. I almost accidentally ran into her in the cafeteria yesterday. In that situation you each usually apologize and exchange weak smiles, but that persistent worried look on her face never changed for a second. When you interview her she has that same look. I thought maybe she didn’t like media responsibilities but no, it’s her general demeanor.

Maybe that’s the kind of attitude you need to beat the perpetually sunny Wozniacki.

The knock on the Woz is that she might not have enough offense to win a slam. She joins Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina as recent number ones who haven’t won a slam. Not a whole lot bothers Jelena but pretty much everything bothers Dinara and it didn’t help having Serena dissing you at every opportunity. Serena is having multiple problems of her own these days so Woz isn’t having to deal with that. The #2 breathing down her neck is Kim Clijsters and she likes everyone.

If you watched Maria Sharapova’s side of the net exclusively during her semifinal match against Woz, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking she won the match. She clobbered the ball, repeatedly. But she lost 6-1, 6-2. It’ll be harder for Marion because she’s smaller and her serve is a bit weaker.

Apparently Marion clobbered the ball herself in that second set and now you can see the toll it took. She hits a short shot early in the first game of the third set and Woz puts it away. Marion then comes to the net three times in the game. The first time was a surprise and it worked. The next two made me wonder if she was tired and trying to shorten the points. She goes down a break immediately.

Marion is down 0-2 on her next service game when she gets an ad point. The crowd cheers wildly. They’d love to see a tight match. This is the first time since 2005 there’s even been a third set in the women’s final here. She obliges the crowd in this game but continues to fade – she starts and ends her next service game with a double fault to go down 1-4.

Marion revives to break Woz in the next game but it’s temporary. With Marion serving at 3-5, she plays a point that shows you why the first words out of her mouth in the trophy ceremony explained her tears as “tears of tiredness.” Marion gets a high ball at the net and whacks it down the line. Unbelievably, Woz gets a racket on the ball then moves herself into position to hit another ball. Marion can’t control it and the point is over.

Wozniacki and Bartole With Trophies

Wozniacki wins her first title here, 6-1, 2-6, 6-3, after losing last year’s final to Jankovic. With Clijsters shoulder bothering her, I think Woz’s slam will arrive pretty soon.

Early Morning at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden

Just arrived at the BNP Paribas Open in the Southern California desert at Indian Wells. My rechargeable camera batteries won’t recharge so let me use my cellphone and my verbiage for an early morning tour of this very unique event.

The organizers take good care of the players, the media, and the spectators. Not only does a local restaurant grill your choice of meat and vegetable on the patio outside the player/media restaurant, the sunny garden eating area has potted plants on its picnic tables.

On the first practice court there’s a tall skinny player practicing crosscourt backhand slices ad infinitum. I’m pretty sure it’s Marin Cilic. If the athletic life looks glamorous from the outside, the grueling repetition is a good corrective for that image. At the moment, two tall skinny players are left in the draw – Ivo Karlovic and Juan Martin Del Potro. Karlovic missed the last six months of 2010 after surgery on his Achilles heel. Del Potro is finally doing well in a high profile event after wrist surgery and effectively missing all of 2010. Injury, surgery, and rehab – more correctives to that glamour thing.

Francesca Schiavone

On another practice court, Francesca Schiavone is foaming at the mouth and it’s still only 10am. No wonder she’s a champion. She grunts and struts along the baseline like it’s the finals and she’s already out of the tournament. A woman stands across the net from Schiavone and feeds her another ball before she barely finishes her service motion. It’s a way of mimicking a hard hitting opponent by feeding balls from a short court.

Schiavone is small but she’s got those muscular thighs you see on players like Dinara Safina and Kim Clijsters. I love the contrast between delicacy and muscularity in top athletes. Schiavone’s delicate wrist gently bounces the ball in preparation for her service motion. On the next shot, that same wrist snaps off a hard smack down the line.

On the Stadium 2 court, Ivan Ljubicic squats on the side of the court next to his hitting partner who also squats. Ljubicic then runs around the court a few times while Ljubicic’s coach Riccardo Piatti warms up the hitting partner with soft looping balls. I’m looking around the courts to find out which player is grunting and groaning through their practice session when I realize I’m listening to Piatti. Even coaches grunt now.

tennis trading cards

The Tennis Garden is covered with rows of green tents selling products geared to the tennis crowd. I stop in to talk to a guy selling memorabilia and, besides learning that there are such things as tennis trading cards, find out that business is markedly down this year. Probably an indication that that the continuing housing slump has settled into the psyche of the west coast. I myself have a house at the moment that’s upside down.

At least that house is still standing. The people I’m staying with have the television tuned nonstop to coverage of nuclear reactor problems following the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. Both of them are hard of hearing so they don’t bother with the audio and we sit watching one horrific image after another. The images sink in deeper than the words. In the main stadium, Victoria Azarenka and Carolyn Wozniacki walk onto the court for their 11am match carrying a Japanese flag. The stadium observes a moment of silence before the players start their warmup.

Azarenka is down 0-2, 0-30, when she walks off the court. Ten minutes later the match resumes but only temporarily. Down 0-3, Azarenka walks off permanently with a hip injury. Wozniacki will now face either Maria Sharapova or Peng Shuai in the semifinals. Yes, Peng Shuai.

Oh, and Del Potro just got bumped up to the semifinals free of charge after Tommy Robredo drops out with a strained adductor muscle.

I’ll be back later today to cover more matches if anyone is still left standing. Stay tuned.


The Slam Semis at Indian Wells Part I

It’s SRO time at the BNP Paribas Open here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. On this unseasonably cold day, people stand on the top row and others push through the crowd on the ground to get a glimpse of the action. A crane camera hovers overhead while another camera moves up and down the side of the court. And this is only the warmup.

Roger Federer’s warmup. He gently jogs around half the court and casually hits a few forehands and backhands as the crowd grows. It’s men’s semifinals day and we’ve got four slam winners in four semifinals slots and we are psyched.

I bet there’s a stat for that right? Last time Indian Wells had four slam winners in the semis. Last time a slam had four slam winners in the semis. Must have been a while ago because these are the only four players who’ve won a slam since 2005.

Rafa's Backhand

We start with Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro. I’ll write about Federer and Novak Djokovic in my next post.

Del Potro's Backhand

Del Potro is lucky this isn’t a slam. He’s reached #90 in the rankings after getting as high as #4 then missing almost all of 2010 after a wrist injury. Best of five sets on a fast court against Nadal can be torture. Nadal is playing his first event except for two Davis Cup matches since he injured his thigh at the Australian Open.

Del Potro gets out to a fast start winning the first three games then something strange happens. Rafa hits three lets in a row then a fault and by the time the fifth serve comes, Del Potro muffs it. Tired of waiting I guess. It breaks Del Potro’s rhythm but he manages to hold his next service game to go up 4-1.

Del Potro’s defense is impressive. He gets around the court so quickly and gracefully given his 6’6” (198cm) frame. He’s kind of like those 6’6”, 250 lb. (113kg), linebackers in US football who run the 40 yard dash under five seconds and jump out of the gym. Football has to keep changing it’s rules to prevent these fleet behemoths from killing someone. If the players keeps growing, maybe tennis will have to make an adjustment. Raise the net maybe? They do something similar in basketball. The women pro players have a smaller basketball than the men.

Unfortunately, I was marveling at Del Potro’s defense because he’s now playing too much of it. Rafa is starting to dictate points and when he gets a break point in the sixth game, he hits a short shot to bring Del Potro to the net then passes him to get back on serve at 4-3.

Del Potro beat Rafa the last three times they met, all on hard court. But that was before Rafa started hitting serves in the high 120s and learned to flatten out his forehand. At the post-match media session, Rafa added two more improvements: “my backhand is better” and “I am playing closer to the baseline.” Rafa breaks Del Potro with a good return of a 133mph (214kph) serve and goes up a break at 5-4. At this point it’s hard not to think that this set it toast for Del Potro.

Those US footballs players run the 40 yard dash in the Scouting Combine, an event that leads up to the annual NFL draft. Teams are looking for a number of things in a player – can he run fast, jump high, and lift tons of weight? Does he play his position well? And one more thing – is he a playmaker? Can he make a play when the team needs it most?

Rafa’s a playmaker. Maybe it’s the ace he hits to close out the first set 6-4. Or maybe it’s taking a game point away from Del Potro then hitting a gorgeous passing shot to go up a break in the second set – about which Del Potro said, “I made my best forehand, but he made a better passing shot.” Del Potro is more of a grinder – a slam winning grinder but nonetheless, a grinder. He pummels you till you go down rather than coming up with those signature shots that pull a match out of the fire.

After that break in the second set, Rafa holds and goes up 4-2 and I go off to lunch. We’re seeing some great points today but I can see the outcome already. Rafa beats Del Potro 6-4, 6-4, and is into the final.

Oh, the last time we had four slam winners at this event: 1995. The last slam with four slam winners in the semis: 2005. See you in a minute for Part II.

Slam Semis At Indian Wells Part II

Novak Djokovic Backhand

Novak Djokovic walked into the media session after his win over Richard Gasquet at the BNP Paribas Open yesterday with a huge bag of ice wrapped around his left knee. When someone asked him if his knee was hurting, he said no, it was just a normal precautionary procedure. Today he walks onto the court for his match with Roger Federer with funky black tape wrapped around that knee. He’s written “Japan” in white letters on the black tape to support victims of the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan. I sincerely hope he’s not developing a chronic knee problem. That’s becoming way too common for comfort.

This morning, someone in the media center asked a colleague if he thought Rafael Nadal could win 16 slams and catch up with Roger. The friend answered yes but by then Roger would probably have 18 or 19 slams. I’m not sure Roger will win even one more slam but his injury free career has been one of the more astounding parts of his game. Except for an ankle injury, his longest layoff came from a bout of mononucleosis.

I’ll be interested to see if the world of sports medicine can keep Rafa in the game long enough to match Roger. I also wonder if current tennis players will have the same physical problems retired baseball and basketball players suffer from. For sure that doesn’t include concussions, but structural problems can be severe. For example, moving a retired athlete’s bedroom downstairs when he reaches the grand old age of 45 because it’s too painful to walk up and down the stairs.

I doubt the ATP has health insurance for its players or a retirement health plan, though there is a pension fund. Forgive me for this line of thought but the US is currently in the middle of bargaining sessions between owners and players in both basketball and US football. Health care costs now essentially define labor relations in the US as some family paychecks go exclusively towards health insurance costs.

Enough of that. Let’s get started on the second slam semi of the day. At the moment things are moving along smoothly in the match between Rafa and Roger as they are on serve through four games. In the next game Roger survives one break point but gives another one away with a loose forehand. Roger then shorthops a rather defensive shot by Nole and it lands somewhere other than in the court to put Nole up a break at 3-2.

I guess Nole’s knee isn’t bothering him that much.

We’re seeing some vintage Roger today with a jump overhead and some beautiful volleys in the first set. I could watch his beautiful glide to the net all day long. But then I groan as he misses yet another shot that used to be automatic. Serving to stay in the set at 3-5, he faces a second break point when he gets Nole way out of position then totally misses an inside out forehand wide.

I’m about to start feeling bad for Roger when he breaks Nole in the third game of the second set. As Roger serves for the set at 5-3, Nole hits a forehand that barely reaches the net and then misses a not so difficult volley on set point. My head’s on a swivel looking for the trainer. Surely something’s wrong with Nole and he’s never shy about calling for the trainer.

Nothing is wrong. Nole breaks Roger to start the second set then holds. Roger is still Roger and he hits a stunning lob on the dead run in the fourth game and Nole double faults to give the break back. They’re now at 2-2 in the third set but that’s the end of closeness for the day. Roger doesn’t win another game and my tally of Roger’s missed opportunities grows. In the next game he fails to take advantage of an excellent first serve with another lose forehand.

Nole moves on to the final with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, victory and takes over Roger’s #2 spot in the rankings. I think the slam foursome is about to become a threesome.

Nole Sounds Like Roger

Novak Djokovic Interview

I left the Media Center at the BNP Paribas Open last night to go to dinner when I noticed something strange out of the corner of my eye: massage chairs. Whoa, massages? For who? For me. It turns out, and anyone else using the Media Center. I told you they take good care of us here.

Today I want to see why Novak Djokovic is 13-0 on the year going into his quarterfinal match with Richard Gasquet. I watched the beginning of the match as I walked past “the big screen on the green” in the middle of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and noticed how flat Nole was hitting the ball. When he changed his racket a few years ago he was popping it up. Nole agrees. After the match he said:

I can flatten it out a little bit and take charge of the short balls …which maybe wasn’t the case in the last year or two.

I was surprised to find out that Gasquet was up 2-0 by the time I got to my seat.

Okay, I’m at my seat now and wondering what Gasquet is doing differently. Down a break in the third game, he serves and approaches then scoops up a short hop volley and wins the point. The next two points same thing – putaways at the net. He’s obviously making a concerted effort to come to the net.

Gasquet is one guy who hits as hard as Nole – just not consistently enough. He typically goes for too much which is an interesting mix since his is a much more reticent personality next to Nole’s party persona. Before his Australian Open final this year, Nole hired a band for his victory celebration. I’m pretty sure his opponent, Andy Murray, didn’t approach his match the same way.

I wonder, has any backward hat guy ever won a slam? What does a hat turned backward say? Does it suggest reticence or nonconformity or complexity? With Gasquet I think of reticence. Here is a guy who backs up on the service return. And once he backs up he keeps going – three or four feet behind the baseline for much of the match.

And complexity. Gasquet backs up then goes for winners from that backed up position. He undercuts his vast talent by making it hard on himself. After those putaways at the net in the third game, Gasquet starts going for those big winners I mentioned and loses his serve. Honestly, watching the first few games here, even though Gasquet got out fast, I’m not in the least concerned that Nole will win this match.

A backward hat person almost won a slam. Guillermo Coria won the first two sets in the 2004 French Open final against Gaston Gaudio then served twice for the championship in the fifth set but lost. He won a small clay court event the next year but that was it – no more titles. Maybe he should have turned his cap around.

Nole goes up a break and is now ahead 4-2. I told you I wasn’t worried. And I’m writing this in real time.

Down 2-5, Gasquet taps his racket a few times at the baseline as if trying figure out what to do next. He hits a funky short shot to get Nole out of rhythm and while it doesn’t work just yet – he loses the first set 2-6 – Nole is decidedly out of rhythm at the beginning of the second set and Gasquet goes up 3-0.

Wait a minute, Gasquet has stopped backing up on his return of serve! Soon after, though, I notice he returns to his retreating ways and Nole wins a service game to get to 1-3. And so it goes. Nole hits a few winners to get his focus back and Gasquet hits a dropshot as an afterthought on break point to put Nole back on serve. Gasquet manages to win two more games but it’s Nole going away at 6-2, 6-4. And I swear, after the match he was sounding a bit like Roger Federer.

Someone reminded Nole that he had a fast start in 2008 too – he won the Australian Open and two Masters Series events in the spring including Indian Wells. He asked Nole how he’d changed and this was the answer:

Right now I’m very clear in my mind what I need to do on the court, off the court, to prepare well and to give my maximum on court. And as well have time to enjoy with my friends, with my team, and just enjoy the off-court life.

That could have come straight from Roger’s mouth. He seldom tells you anything is amiss in his life. Life is good. His world is totally copacetic. That’s Nole’s state of mind at the moment.

Nole meets Roger in the semis tomorrow morning. If he beats him, which is a good bet, he’ll overtake him at #2 in the rankings. Nole spent some time at #2 last year before dropping back to #3 late in October. Maybe his stay will be more permanent this time.