Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Nalbandian met in the Masters Series final in Paris. The winner would go to the year end championships in Shanghai. The loser would go home.People looked at Pete Sampras as a brilliant shotmaker and supreme big match player but a somewhat boring personality. I always thought shotmakers were emotional players, players who fed off the moment and only fully blossomed when the stakes were high. And they were, in my mind, the opposite of players such as, say, Sampras’ opponent Ivan Lendl who prepared for the moment as much as he fed off it. Lendl popped off to cardio conditioning classes when year round conditioning was a new idea for professional athletes and changed his home court surface to match the US open surface precisely. Roger Federer threw me off too because he’s another brilliant shotmaker yet you hardly heard a peep out of him during a match, and while people called his domination boring more than they called his personality boring – he’s always been very good about doing media interviews and photo shoots, they did ask for more expressiveness on court. Now that Marcos Baghdatis is on the shelf until he can figure out that being a professional athlete means putting in some time at the gym and doing a few forward bends now and then to avoid injury, we have the best candidate in some time that combines raw, in the moment shotmaking, with an electrical personality: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And this week at the Masters Series event in Paris, he’s come through in spades. I’m not wild about Jo-Willie’s thumbs pointing at shoulders celebration that says “look at me, look at what I did” in a way that out-egos even the biggest prima donna in US football or world soccer, but I’m an old fuddy duddy about that. Younger fans seem to like such things. But Jo-Willie has it all: big serve, athleticism, speed, and big shots on big points, and this week he put it all together. He started the week ranked number 13 and made his way to the Paris final despite never having reached a quarterfinal at a Masters Series event, and if he could beat his opponent in the final, David Nalbandian, he’d be in the year end championships, something few people expected. If Nalbandian won the match, he’d be the one flying off to Shanghai for the championships and not many people expected that a few weeks ago either. Nalbandian was the guy who looked nervous at the beginning of the match. He hit a double fault to lose his first service game. Jo-Willie was a bit shaky but, unlike his earlier matches this week, he came out and blanketed the net early and held on to the break of serve to win the first set 6-3. Jo-Willie blanketed the net behind seven aces in that first set and that was huge for him because he struggled this week when his first serve hasn’t been there. It’s not a Sampras-like serve but he won’t be able to beat an un-fatigued Novak Djkovic or a never-fatigued Rafael Nadal without it, he’s just not steady enough from the baseline. Lucky for him the year end championships are indoors on a very slick surface and Nadal and Federer are ailing and Djkovic isn’t playing well. He might do very well at the year end championships but that would be misleading because he skipped the slower courts this year – both clay and hard court, so we don’t know how he’ll do through an entire season. Serving at 3-4 in the second set, Jo-Willie hit and error and followed that up with a double fault and found himself down three break points. He hit four aces to pull himself through the game and that’s the marquee of top players like Sampras and Federer: their serve gets them out of trouble. But both of those players had power and consistency and Jo-Willie has only one of those skills at the moment, and it’s not consistency. Which cost Jo-Willie the second set. He went down three set points while serving at 4-5 to stay in the second set after hitting a few balls out of the court. He hit another ball into the net to give Nalbandian the set, 6-4. Jo-Willie is inconsistent because he insists on pounding every ball as hard as he can and when it works it’s beautiful. Nalbandian couldn’t get his first serve in and Jo-Willie pounded away successfully enough to break Nalbandian early in the third set and go up 2-1. If Jo-Willie could hang on to that break just long enough, he’d have an all expenses paid trip to Shanghai. And he did hang on, literally. Serving for the match, he hit a popup volley then served a double fault and found himself down three break points yet again. Nalbandian gave up the first break point when he couldn’t return a second serve, Jo-Willie then got away with another popup volley and followed that up with tremendous second serve to get back to deuce. Another ace and one more punishing forehand and he’d done it, he’d won his first Masters Series shield. There was no “look at me” celebration, though, just tears and a hug for every member of his family. He’d have hugged every spectator if he could have, and I’d have given him a hug because I’ve been waiting, like all of us, for another shotmaking machine who can rise to the occasion. First, though, Jo-Willie will need a broader ground game and that’ll not only get him through the slower court seasons, but a few finesse shots might also take some pressure off his body and let him actually get through an entire season.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga passed some important tests in his second and third round matches in Paris.
Damn, the guy is a shotmaker. In the third game of the match in the Paris Masters event between Radek Stepanek and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stepanek hit a lazy forehand to the middle of the ad court and Tsonga ran around his backhand until he was standing smack dab in the middle of the doubles alley and hit an inside out forehand at such an angle that it landed in the corner of the opposite service box.
Stepanek is a funny hybrid player. He does everything well but nothing spectacularly. He serves enough aces to be a consistent serve and volleyer, he can be magical at the net – he’s the best doubles player among the singles player but maybe only because Roger Federer hardly ever plays doubles. And he’s willing to be the villain.
Mind games have gone out of fashion in the current version of the ATP tour except for some systemic tics like Rafael Nadal’s 30 second time outs between each point (you can page through a Nadal match quick and easy by clicking on the skip forward button on your DVR remote which skips ahead exactly 30 seconds) and Novak Djokovic’s incessant ball bouncing, but Stepanek has an entire range of annoyance tactics that rival his bag of strategic skills. Tsonga was serving at 1-2 in the first set when Stepanek spun a beautiful pirouette and hit a backhand volley winner then backpedaled the entire length of the court in appreciation of his marvelousness.
Stepanek is lucky he’s not a baseball player. If he hit a home run and pulled off that same behavior on a baseball field, the next time he came to plate he’d find a baseball lodged in his ear. I suppose Tsonga could direct a serve at Stepanek’s private parts, it has been done before though, I believe, not intentionally. Tsonga had his chance. He can be just as magical at the net but he let Stepanek take control of the net and found himself down set point in the first set after having lost his serve. Stepanek served and volleyed and did a showman’s leap when he hit a short hop volley off Tsonga’s return. If I were Tsonga, I’d have rocketed the ball right at Stepanek’s head being the hothead I am. Tsonga, not as hotheaded but maybe a slight bit annoyed at Stepanek’s show, overhit his approach shot and that was that, Stepanek had the first set 6-3.
Tsonga has never played Stepanek before and it was an important growing up moment for him. You can’t blast a trickster off the court because they’ll avoid getting into a groundstroke battle with you by taking away the net just as Stepanek did in this match. Any top player should be able to overpower Stepanek, but it takes skill and it was interesting to watch Tsonga try to figure it out.
Tsonga beat that other trickster, Fabrice Santoro, on a fast surface in Lyon last week but it took him three sets to do it and by the look of this match today, I’m guessing Stepanek could have beaten him on a slower outdoor court. As for Stepanek, let’s see how Tsonga figured him out.
Serving at 2-3 in the second set, Stepanek took another one of his little showman hops as he hit another cute shot at the net, but this time Tsonga hit a beautiful cross court approach shot for a winner and followed that up with a passing shot down the line to get his first break point. Not only did that get Tsonga’s home crowd going but it got Stepanek in trouble. On break point, Stepanek hit a fault then smashed the ball in anger to the consternation of Tsonga’s people. He followed that up with a double fault to lose his serve. You live by annoyance, you die by annoyance.
But Tsonga still hadn’t figured it out. Serving at 4-2 he saved two break points by outsteadying Stepanek – rule number one against the trickster: keep the ball in play – and taking over the net, but he still ended up giving the break back because he couldn’t handle Stepanek’s elegant junk. It looked like he’d finally figured it out when he gobbled up Stepanek’s slices and misdirections and pulled even by winning the second set 6-4, but he lost his serve again early in the third set because he didn’t get to the net and when he did, he wasn’t putting the ball away. He couldn’t quite decide when to smash the ball or not.
Tsonga is a rhythm player and an emotion player. Those passing shots gave him his rhythm and then, with Stepanek serving to stay in the match at 4-5, he found his emotion. He hit a shot down the line he thought was in because he couldn’t hear the out call over the roar of the crowd and by then it was too late to challenge. That got him mad and now he started going for his shots instead of fooling around and he came up with three great shots in a row to close out the match: a beautiful running passing shot, a high looping topspin lob that landed just inside the line, and a return that curled round the doubles alley and back into the court. He had the break on Stepanek and he had the match, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Tsonga’s third round opponent, Novak Djokovic, is a different matter altogether. He WILL slug it out with you from the baseline and he has a better backhand than Tsonga. But he’s not as cute at the net and that is Tsonga’s advantage. Would Tsonga figure out how to use it?
Pretty much, yeah. Djokovic was serving at 2-2 in the first set when Tsonga hit a drop shot. He followed that up with a push volley that should have been a putaway volley, but he managed to win the point by picking off a lob volley and hitting in right at Djokovic to get a break point. Djokovic hit an error on an easy forehand to lose his serve and then it was time to ask: Can Djokovic get through an entire season and stay in top form? Or, more to the point, will Andy Murray overtake Djokovic before Djokovic can overtake Roger Federer?
Djokovic is in the top four and the other three players are trucking along and he’s not. Rafael Nadal, Federer, and Murray are still alive in Paris and each of them reached the semifinals in Madrid, while Djokovic lost to Tsonga in the Bangkok final then lost early in Madrid. You could say Djokovic did better last fall when he won the title in Vienna and reached the semifinals in Madrid.
Djokovic has three sterling titles this year: the Australian Open, and the Masters Series events in Rome and Indian Wells, but Murray has a slam final, two Masters Series events, and five titles altogether – the same number Djokovic had last year. So it’s not looking good for Djokovic if Murray can stay injury free.
Tsonga held onto his break to take the first set though it wasn’t easy, and he showed his Pete Sampras jump overhead early in the second set. Athleticism is all good and well but consistency is better as Tsonga lost his serve a few points later then completely fell apart in the second set. His thigh was bothering him – he took a medical time out at the end of the second set which he lost 6-1 – but he had only to look across the net to find someone who plays well despite injury, real or imagined.
And you could say Tsonga learned that lesson too. In Djokovic’s first service game in the third set, Tsonga lunged to return a wide serve then ran down a low shot to the other corner and batted the ball past Djokovic at the net for a break point. Then he outdid that on the next point by flicking a deep Djokovic volley crosscourt for the break.
In both of Tsonga’s matches he played a few magical points in very important situations to get the win. Before we get carried away, we should remember that while Djokovic has trouble staying strong the entire year, Tsonga barely plays half the year due to his multiple injuries. But we did see some important progress this past few days and I’m thrilled about that because I’m still looking forward to seeing that magic in many more slams to come.
How would you describe Maria Sharapova’s tennis career, or anyone else’s for that matter, in six words or less?
Just before that Ray Davies piece in The New Yorker, there’s a story about a new book called Not Quite What I Was Planning, a book of six word autobiographies. Not Quite What I Was Planning, get it? It’s a six word autobiography.
If I were to write my own six word autobiography it might look like this: “Honest, I’ll eventually get it right.” What about tennis professionals? What would theirs look like? Instead of exactly six words, we’ll allow six words or less.
Maria Sharapova is finally developing a net game or, maybe it’s safer to say, her allergy to the net has improved much as I can now drink milk without, well, you don’t want to know. Still, her game is power so I nominate the following for her career autobiography: “If I could hit it harder…” The obvious unsaid ending is “I would” but we’re only allowed six words.
Roger Federer’s might be “Fly like a butterfly sting like a bee” which is more than six words and is completely stolen from Muhammad Ali, so how about this: “Most dominant except for Tiger.”
Pete Sampras, poor guy, he gets so much grief for his charisma shortcomings so we could go with this: “Everything was boring but my game,” but I prefer, “Will throw up for a win.”
Martina Hingis has now retired to her horses and her boyfriends, but when she was playing, there was no smarter player out there and that little grin of hers let you know that she knew it. Therefore I give you: “The cerebral assassin strikes again.”
In this month’s issue of Tennis View, a new lifestyle magazine by Teresa Thompson, Teresa asks James Blake to complete the following sentence: “I wish journalists would stop asking me…” I’ll let you guess his answer but I will offer you this as his six word tennis autobiography: “Stop asking me about my goals.”
When Daniela Hantuchova turns her back to her opponent at the beginning of each point to psyche herself up, I always assume she’s singing the refrain from the Pointer Sisters song, Yes We Can Can. I imagine her singing, repeatedly: “Yes I can can, can can.”
Many six word autobiographies could describe Ana Kournikova and most of them would focus on her many assets, but here is one that highlights her assets without directly mentioning them: “Who needs titles to be famous?”
Lastly let’s tackle one of the best ever, Chris Evert. She was a conservative little miss in her earlier years. That changed over time as only it could if you were thrown into a locker room with rabble rousers Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, but one thing that never changed was her dominant will. I offer this with all due reverence: “Less than perfect, don’t be ridiculous!”
As you can see, this kind of thing is not exactly my forte so help me out here in two ways:
1. Give us your autobiography in six words or less.
2. Give us an autobiography in six words or less for your favorite and least favorite player.
Best set of autobiographies gets a copy of the book, Not Quite What I Was Planning. For real.
Join us for the men’s Australian Open final! We’ll be blogging live on Sunday morning, January 27, at 12:30am (PST)/3:30am (EST)/9:30am (CET). We’ll stay up if you’ll stay up.
Roger Federer will not be in his eleventh consecutive slam final thanks to Novak Djokovic. What effect will this loss have on Federer’s legacy?
Novak Djokovic had his own booster club in Rod Laver Arena during his semifinal match against Roger Federer. His parents and two younger brothers each had one letter of Djokovic’s nickname spelled out on the front of their black and white Adidas outfits and when they stood up you could read it: N O L E.
They stood up a lot. Nole knocked Fed out of the semifinals at the Australian Open and for the first time in 10 slams, we will not be asking ourselves if so and so can beat Federer in the final. He’ll be on his way home. The king of tennis has been deposed.
He will not win the grand slam this year and he will not win the golden slam – all four slams plus the Olympic Gold medal. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that it’s very unlikely that he’ll win a grand slam in the future and that means something very, very important.
Fed can move ahead of Pete Sampras in the Greatest of All Time conversation with three more slams, but Sampras has always had to share that title with Rod Laver. Laver won two grand slams and Sampras never got close. Laver might be the Greatest of All Time 1a, but the conversation will always have to include him and that makes Fed’s loss to Nole huge. Federer got close to a grand slam, very close, and he still could win the French Open, but he will not stand alone as the best tennis player ever to play the game.
I am eternally thankful that I live in an era where I’ve been able watch Roger Federer do his magic. I liked nothing better than to sit down to a slam semi or final and know, absolutely know, that Fed would come alive at some point and take over the match. He’d hang around and poke and prod his opponent until he turned the switch on and cruised to the finish. And in every match there’d be at least one shot that would make me freeze then turn to the person next to me and ask, “Did I really just see that?”
The truth is that what a champion loses over time is the ability to raise his level on command. There’s no pill for that. None that are legal, anyway. Nole was cracking the ball and Fed couldn’t respond.
There were signs. There were those consecutive losses to Guillermo Canas, a Wimbledon final that Fed won by attrition more than anything, consecutive losses to David Nalbandian, and then the five set squeaker over Janko Tipsarevic, of all people.
The reign is over and now that it is, well, I’m sad. But I also have to say that these last two days have been as exciting as any I can remember in my long love affair with tennis. I can literally feel the body of tennis jump up out of its chair and throw its arms to the sky. The world is watching tennis again.
Everyone is talking about Nole Djokovic and the perfect match unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played to knock Rafael Nadal out of the semifinals. Wimbledon is now up for grabs and people want to know how long it’ll take Nadal to overtake Fed for the number one ranking or will Djokovic be the one to do it and is Tsonga really that good?
Most of the tennis season lays ahead of us and right about now, it looks like it’s gonna be a whole lot of fun.
Not the game of tennis itself. That’s not boring.
Serena and Venus Williams took home a pair of slams and we had a fantastic final at the women’s year-end-championships. Roger Federer still got his three slams but he missed out on four Masters Series titles by losing consecutive matches twice to an unexpected player. One of those unexpected players, David Nalbandian, not only resurrected his career, but he improbably took it further than it had ever gone before.
It’s not over yet. Next week Andy Roddick gets a chance to lead the U.S. to its first Davis Cup title since 1995 and leave his mark on the game as one of the great Davis Cup players of all time.
No, it’s the other stuff that’s missing. Look at the rest of the sports world, for instance.
Barry Bonds was indicted and Michael Vick reported early for his jail sentence in the past week. Alex Rodriguez’ superagent screwed up and upstaged the baseball World Series thereby damaging A-Rod’s reputation so badly that A-Rod sidestepped his agent and asked the Yankees to take him back. University of Alabama football coach Lou Saban got in trouble for comparing two straight losses to disasters such as 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. England lost to Croatia knocking them out of the 2008 European Championship and fired its coach.
Tennis has had a few drug suspensions this year but, hell, the entire peloton at the Tour de France was probably juicing up their blood. Last year’s champion was barnstorming the U.S. to raise money for his defense fund and this year’s yellow jersey holder was sent home because he’d lied about his whereabouts to avoid pre-race testing then got caught lying about his lies.
Tennis does have a gambling controversy. Nikolay Davydenko is buckling under the pressure of the investigation into whether he fixed a match and Alessio Di Mauro got a nine month suspension for laying down $15-20 bets on tennis but that’s all we got. Baseball had the Black Sox scandal which had eight players fixing games. And they also had Pete Rose who bet on baseball and lost his guaranteed place in the Hall of Fame.
Tennis is like ice skating: we have one criminal. Ice skating has Tonya Harding and we have Roscoe Tanner, though he’s old news. There is actually some new news about him and I’ll get to that in a few weeks.
Is tennis culturally relevant? Other sports are.
Baseball reflects cultural and political changes in the U.S. The number of Latino ballplayers is increasing yearly while the number of black ballplayers is decreasing. That reflects the U.S. culture as the Latino community is passing the black community both in economic and political power. The NBA reflects the growth of the global market with its high number of international stars including a new star from China this year, Yi Jianlian.
Same thing in tennis. Tennis in the U.S. is losing popularity and losing tournaments while the huge Asian market is getting new tournaments. Shanghai gets a new Masters Series event in 2009 and Roger Federer and Pete Sampras flew all over Asia – not Europe or the U.S. – for their barnstorming exhibition this week.
Tennis is exciting to watch and more or less culturally relevant. Two out of three ain’t bad don’t you think?