Monthly Archives: January 2005

Mighty Mouse takes on the Tartar Terror: Aussie Open 2005

The Mouse had more than his tail stepped on in the final of the Australian Open Sunday. The mouse being Lleyton Hewitt, who lost a four set final to Marat Safin that could best epitomize the phrase “power tennis.” The fourth set especially featured shot making that was not only spectacular to look at, but sounded like the cannons at the end of the 1812 overture.

Bang thud thumph whumpf. Lleyton gets pumped up watching the Rocky movies, or so we hear. And the boxing analogy would certainly hold up for this match. But as Patrick McEnroe commented, it was a mismatch. You had a heavyweight against a middleweight guy, and eventually we all know how this one will turn out.

The first set gave no indication of this. If anything, it could have turned into a blowout for Hewitt. He won it, 6-1. I was about to turn the TV off at this point, figuring Safin couldn’t get to his local Starbucks in time for a good jolt to start his day off right. The other sets would be just as bad.

But Safin kept his cool, and that, as it turned out, was the best shot in his repertoire. He clawed his way back into it, took advantage of Hewitt’s own moments of letdown, and then really started hammering the ball by the fourth set. Hewitt covered a lot of court, but today the balls flew past him even faster than his legs could keep up.

In a way I almost felt sorry for him and his smaller size. But only for a moment. Hewitt does not endear himself even to his own Aussie fans, who surely rooted for him as a representative of Australian sport, but clearly they have misgivings about their lad. He is not truly One of Us the way the Aussies of yore were, or even Patrick Rafter from more recent times. The guys in the locker room don’t like him one whit. He’s a brittle, testy little critter with an unfortunate habit of fist-pumping his way through matches when his opponents double fault or otherwise screw up. It’s ok when YOU make a brilliant shot, but it’s pretty embarrassing to watch him exult over other’s misfortune. No one likes that.

After a linesman called a Hewitt ball out, Hewitt got on his case then made a gesture at the linesman after the game was over signifying he should try opening his eyes, perhaps. The crowd did not seem to care for this, especially since Shot Spot showed the call was correct. Applause for Safin seemed to expand after that.

But the crowd would have done that anyway. The Aussies know and love their tennis, and they fully understood how thoroughly Safin was putting their guy through his paces.

Even the girlfriends were drawn into the fray, at least visually. The split screen showed the blonde lady friend of Hewitt alongside the dark-haired girlfriend of Safin, both looking understandably tense and worried.

But not enough to spoil their beauty, if the girls in question are really beautiful. My partner happened to glance at the screen at one of these moments of feminine loveliness. He saw the blonde, he saw the brunette. His pick should have clued me in to who would win the match finally.

“That’s Safin’s girlfriend?” he asks. “Wow, she should be tied to a chair and licked until she stops moving.”

Do the girls get to go out later and mud wrestle? Or, being that we are in Australia, do they try drinking one another under the table? One never hears about the girlfriends after a match is over. How do they fare, I wonder.

Perhaps the most significant stat was that Safin won 20 of 23 service points in the fourth set. He had only six double faults in the tournament. He went from two aces in the first set to nine by the third.

It was a formidable display of raw power. But contained still, because Safin kept his head when he was down. He hung in through his bad stretches until Hewitt went downhill a bit himself, then powered his way back into things. Safin didn’t hit the ball, he was crushing it.

It was an exhilarating match to watch, I would have not liked Safin to lose. After beating Federer in such a classic semifinal, he virtually HAD to win the final. It would have been a horrible letdown for everyone if he had gone out in three sets to Hewitt.

As it was, he has positioned himself right back in the heart of the men’s game. He is the only worthy challenger to Roger Federer.

Serena Williams resurrected herself in the women’s final against Lindsay Davenport the day before.

Marat Safin has undergone the same treatment and men’s tennis can only be a lot healthier for it.

the semis and a wake up call: Aussie Open 2005

Well, Roger Federer may join the ranks of the immortals someday. Just maybe not today, and maybe not alone. In a bruising 4-1/2 hour match, Marat Safin showed the tennis world how you win against the invincible Roger.

You simply outbludgeon him from the baseline, you hunt everything down he throws at you, you serve awesomely (Safin’s serve percentage was about 80% through most of the first set). You come to net at every chance. And you keep your cool when calls go against you, often wrongly, as they have repeatedly during this tournament.

Both players had fits of temper and a bit of the old racket tossing, how could you not in a match like this of such nerve-wracking intensity? But the nobility of the occasion kept both men honest and plugged into the task at hand. A gracious and warm shaking of hands was the appropriate ending. After all, they brought out absolutely the best there was in each other today.

Pete Sampras was quoted the other day as saying Roger is the best mover by far on the court. Marat Safin may be the next fastest, faster perhaps than Lleyton Hewitt. Roger would drive a ball into a corner where it seemed impossible for Marat to retrieve it, yet he did over and over. It hardly seems fair to possess so much power and yet move like he’s 4’6″, not 6’4″.

Mats Wilander commented that Federer needed to see more serve and volley thrown at him. He predicted that Marat Safin’s game could do that more effectively than Andre Agassi’s. Today, that happened.

A rather unusual thing also occurred with the men’s semifinals. The top four seeds actually made it through. Lleyton Hewitt added ten pounds of muscle so he could be the one to take it to Roger. Andre Agassi lost ten pounds so he could move to those fantastic deep corner shots of Roger’s. Andy Roddick fired one coach and hired another to find the magic formula he could use.

But at the end of the day – and hopefully a ton of more days to come – Marat Safin is the man who will prove to be Roger Federer’s major competitor over the years. Because he’s the only one of those top three who can stay consistently in Roger’s face.

Roger needs that, and the men’s game needs it too. Much as I personally am a fan of his and love to see him win, it would be sad to see the game become his own private shooting gallery. I don’t think Andy Roddick will be able to stay up with Federer. His game has added variety but not enough to consistently bother Roger. Ditto Lleyton Hewitt, in spite of the new muscles.

Today Safin was the Giant Killer, and I for one am feeling very pleased about the state of men’s tennis tonight.

A Wake Up Call For the Williams Sisters

After watching Venus Williams lose her match to Australia’s Alicia Molik and Serena Williams claw her way back from losing the first set in her win over Maria Sharapova, it occurs to me that you can’t win a women’s Grand Slam event now on a part-time tennis schedule.

It used to be you could. Up until about a year or so ago, the women’s field was not that strong and only a few women dominated the game. Watching much of women’s tennis is really pretty boring I think, because the first week is usually about the top two or three women lording it over the rest. Absolute blowouts really, you can’t even call them matches.

Roger Federer likes to say that a tournament doesn’t begin for him until the second week. Well, with women’s tennis, that happens all the time. Nothing begins in women’s tennis until about the quarterfinals.

How galling that must be for the other women. The Williams sisters could go off and pursue their outside interests and still play the Slams and win them.

But now the rest of the field has caught up to them in a major way and the sisters may have to adjust. Everyone is gymning themselves into oblivion, pumping iron, training longer. Chubby little girls are now morphing into trim Amazons.

ESPN announcer Mary Carillo thinks the Williams sisters can dominate again if they improve their serves to where they once were. But to do that they need to play more tournaments. And to play more tournaments they need to rededicate themselves to the game, full-time.

Venus and Serena were tossing in serves that seemed consistent enough, but they were about three-quarters the speed of what they needed to be. Their opponents are no longer intimidated.

Alicia Molik can now join those ranks of the Unintimidated. She’s a big, powerful blond of Polish descent with a formidable serve, a huge ground game based around her big forehand, and a ballsy kind of attitude that can help her hang in through the tough patches of a match. She took it to Venus Williams. Venus probably looked over the net and saw a game oddly reflective of what her own once was.

Fashion design is all well and good but Venus can pursue that when she’s retired. Right now she needs to remember that an athlete’s life is a fragile, short-lived thing and grab onto it with both hands. One wonders if her enthusiasm is quite there fully.

With Serena the enthusiasm is still there, judging by the leaps of joy she performed after she beat Sharapova in an excellent 3-set match. For her, this was a final of sorts, a juicy little tidbit of revenge on Sharapova who won the year-end championship in November that Serena should have won.

Hopefully their seasons will see them staying healthy. That’s the first step for the Williams sisters. The next is playing, playing and then more playing.

the Roger rule: Aussie Open 2005

Maybe I jinxed him. Yesterday I praised Andre Agassi to the high heavens and, of course, he loses to Roger Federer.

Federer won the match before he took the court. Agassi has so much respect for Roger’s game that he didn’t play his game. He’s a grinder, he grinds people down. Against Federer, though, he went for winners early in the point and made a lot of errors. Federer did his part before the match by figuring out how to counter Andre’s attack. He knows that Agassi loves to pound the ball to his opponent’s backhand relentlessly. Agassi is such a consistent clean hitter that it works against most opponents. Federer decided to hit a lot of backhands up the line to force Andre to play to his forehand. Why don’t more people do this to Agassi? Try it some time. It’s not easy to hit consistent deep shots down the line over the high part of the net off your backhand.

And the serve. At one point Federer had seventeen aces and Agassi none. Agassi is, I guess now I should say was, the best returner in the sport.

Being the competitor he is, I’m sure Agassi will only stay around if he thinks he can win another major. He might be able to win the French Open but he needs help from others. He can play more tournaments and get a higher ranking. That way he would meet Federer later in the draw and increase the possibility that someone can knock Federer out before Andre sees him. He can hope that Federer fails to improve his clay game. Not very likely. Federer has added the drop shot so he can punish those clay courters who like to hang around way behind the baseline. Worse than that, Agassi lost in the first round at the French last year. It’s not looking good.

Federer. What more can anyone say? I only hope I don’t jinx him too. Federer has won Wimbledon but is intent on adding a net game to his already huge repertoire. Federer’s backhand is supposed to be his weak shot but this week he short hopped balls off the baseline and turned them into passing shots. Who does that? His serve is not the fastest but it’s exceptionally difficult to read and he can pull out aces when his opponent has break points. Pete Sampras with a serious full court game and the ability to make adjustments mid-match. Oy!

Federer is one of those players who force a transition in their sport. Magic Johnson was another. Here was a six foot nine point guard throwing the ball behind his back in traffic then off down the court to lead the break. Now the league is full of seven footers throwing up threes and it’s hard to find centers with good post moves. The Williams sisters ushered in the power game in women’s tennis. The power game from the baseline, that is. Big servers like Andy Roddick like to stay back. If you want to beat Roger, you need power, touch, tactical intelligence and brilliant shot making.

Sony Ericsson is the new sponsor of the WTA Tour. Sports Illustrated reports that there have been discussions about letting coaches sit courtside and showcasing the company’s technology by miking the coaches.

Let’s call it the Roger rule. The male players will look at the WTA Tour and say, “Hey, we want our coaches on the court during the matches too! That might be the only way we can beat Roger.”

Agassi the genius: Aussie Open 2005

I remember watching Andre Agassi play early in his career. He had a ton of talent but the image outpictured anything else he might have been. I scoffed when Barbra Streisand called him the Zen master. I felt self satisfied in my opinion when he dropped down to 141 in the ATP rankings. He was a very clean hitter but not a very heady player. He could hit you off the court but not out-think you.

Then he was smart enough to start working with Brad Gilbert and learned how to outmaneuver his opponent. Then he improved his conditioning. Then he improved his return of serve, if that was possible. Then I read Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back, Winning Ugly for coaches I suppose you could call it. Gilbert describes his friend as a gracious, intelligent warrior who remade himself and his game to get to the top and stay at the top well into his thirties.

The final thing that got me was Agassi’s introductory speech for his wife, Steffi Graf, when she was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004. I’m telling you, I cannot read it without tears in my eyes. For instance:

“From the roar of voices inside the lines of center court to the quietness of a child’s bedroom, that generous soul, that unbending strength, that soft spoken integrity has not been shaken. The arena of tennis simply gave you a platform and an opportunity to refine those inner qualities even more.”

My favorite part of sports, besides playing them, is the opportunity to read the ongoing biographies that constitute the sports pages. Each season I get to know an athlete a little better. Did they face their demons down and reach their potential? Did they live up to their huge contract? Did they win the gold medal an entire country expected them to win? Sometimes they fail horribly. Mayhem and murder even. And sometimes they grow into themselves and become deeply caring human beings. Here is someone who suffered from a common but debilitating sports disease: the athlete who plays sports in a futile attempt to win the praise of a critical parent who never praises you and is never satisfied with your accomplishments. Agassi had already won slams when his father said, “Well, he could have been President by now. Why isn’t he President? He could have been.” Andre dealt with it. He got the counseling he needed and learned to compete for his love of tennis, not his father’s.

Which brings us to yesterday’s match against Joachim Johansson. Johansson set a new record by serving 51 aces in the match with Agassi. Richard Kracijek set the record of 49 aces in a five set match. Johansson needed only four. At one point Johansson had 27 winners to Agassi’s 7. But Agassi protected his service game, got to the tiebreaker in the last three sets, and won each one. This was a masterly display of patience and, above all, mental toughness. No throwing fits or turning to your coach and whining, not even a “come on!” Just put your hard hat on and keep working at it until you find the slightest opening or weakness you can exploit. Agassi kept changing his service return position – he was almost in the shade at one point – moved his serve around and did anything he possibly could to give Johansson a different look. It was enough. Just enough. That was a great testament to his transition from a power hitter to a mentally tough master technician.

Practice and Competition Report: played two sets with M., 7-5, 4-6
Solutions Analysis:
1. Trunk twist is everything. If I swing the racket with my arm only, the ball dribbles over the net. If I twist my trunk and step into the ball, I hit it solidly and deep. This is particularly useful if I get pulled out wide because I can still hit a solid shot without a lot of footwork if I make sure to twist and hit.
2. When M. gets behind, she hits the ball short then lobs me when I come in. She also starts to hit more junk: short balls and spin. To counter this I should hit shorts balls to the corners of the service box before she hits them. Also, I need to keep the ball deep to make it harder to hit short balls.
3. I got tired in the middle of the second set, understandable for my first match in two and a half months I suppose.
4. Lost rhythm on my serve. See Sean Brawley about this.
Success Analysis: improved my slice serve. You actually do have to hit the side of the ball, just like they always said.

entertainment and role reversal: Aussie Open 2005

Most Entertaining Match So Far

had to be Federer’s match with Suzuki, and although the Japanese player is only 5’8″, he put on display a game style other players should think about adopting if they want to make inroads on Roger’s winning ways. He came out serving very aggressively and effectively, rushing the net repeatedly. I think Roger was a bit taken aback…at least until the magical game eight, when he shifted into the high gear, got the break and served out the first set.

The style that can beat Roger, in other words, is basic old serve and volley. Too bad hardly anyone is playing it today, and the most likely candidate – Tim Henman – has had good success against Federer, at least up until last year, when Roger gained the upper hand.

The rest of the match was an amazing display of Roger, Roger, more Roger. Yes, I suppose there’s really nothing more to do…other than walk off the court when the guy hits the around the post shot barely six inches off the ground!

Still, the crowd loved and really appreciated Suzuki’s effort and gung-ho style of play, and I just want to know how a guy can be ranked in the 300 range on the tour and play as well as he did…for at least a good portion of the first set, against the world’s best player.

Role Reversal

Used to be the men’s game was the thrilling game, a number of guys could beat each other on any given day to take a title. Then a guy named Roger Federer came along, and even though Brad Gilbert thinks the four top guys can win it (Federer, Roddick, Hewitt, Safin) along with Andre (#8), it seems Roger is the one who will most inevitably rise to the surface at the end of the day.

Not so the women, although it seems only a brief while ago when Serena and Venus were exchanging titles amongst themselves. Now there are a handful of Russians, along with a rejuvenated Lindsay Davenport, and the always powerful Amelie Mauresmo, who can keep Serena and Venus company.

If last year’s slam record for the women is any indication, the trophy wealth will be spread around, with a different woman winning each slam. A great deal for the women’s game!
Although Mary Carillo made the interesting comment that the Williams sisters would dominate again, if they can get their serves back to where they once were.

Hopefully the men can get it going too. Much as I love to watch Roger Federer play and win matches, tennis will be better served if he has a pack of howling guys nipping at his heels.