Monthly Archives: May 2005

French Open: American history

Today we’re already on the fourth round and, so far, I’ve totally ignored the Americans. Why bother? I don’t expect them to come close to winning in Paris.

Andre Agassi was the last to win here in 1999 and that was pretty improbable. He spent the week before the Open in the U.S. getting treatment for an injured shoulder. In the second round his opponent cramped up needing only one more game to win. Pouring rain arrived just in time to give him a physical and mental break in the final so could come back from two sets down to beat Andrei Medvedev.

I thought Andy Roddick would get to the third round, maybe. It took inspired tennis by Jose Acasuso to beat Roddick though Roddick didn’t help himself. What was he doing hitting moonballs on match point, especially when he’d been attacking effectively?

Chris Evert won here seven times. Even Martina Navritilova, queen of serve and volley, has two titles. By the way, add this to her mountain of accomplishments. She is only one of three players to win a “boxed set” of grand slams: singles, same-gender doubles and mixed doubles in all four grand slams. Wow! That is impressive.

Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams are recent winners but they’re not here. Lindsay Davenport has barely hung on through the first three rounds, even she’s surprised. She’s had an up and down year even though she is still ranked number one. She lost to Kim Clijsters at Indian Wells and the Nasdaq 100. She suffered a third set meltdown against Serena Williams in the Australian Open final. See that, Australian Open final, two Americans. French Open final, not likely.

I had planned to concentrate on the French players but they’re not cooperating. The French fans are making more noise than the French players. Fans held up play for over nine minutes with Rafael Nadal up 1-0 in the second set against Sebastien Grosjean because the chair umpire, Damien Steiner, would not honor Grosjean’s request to look at a ball mark. Fair enough, Grosjean has to stop play immediately if he disagrees with a call. But he didn’t, he kept playing.

Nadal walked up to the baseline a few times to serve during the melee but Grosjean turned his back. Not quite quickly enough to hide the smile on his face, though. If he wants to use such tactics to his advantage, he needs to be a bit more transparent. At least John McEnroe made you think he was losing his temper when he stopped play at critical junctures in a tight match and threw down a monumental fit. Many times he was only trying to undo his opponent and take back the momentum his unfortunate opponent had recently grabbed away.

Clijsters has beaten Davenport that last six times they’ve met. Let’s see if Davenport can surprise herself even more and beat Clijsters this time around.

Clijsters wins the first set 6-1 and it looks like business as usual. A few games into the second set, Clijsters starts to hit more forehand errors. There may be a few players who’ve had more experience on the WTA tour than Davenport but not many. She picks up on this right away and starts to attack Clijsters forehand. Clijster’s knee is heavily wrapped and though she says it’s 90% healed, it may be affecting her.

If this had been a Tier I or II tournament and not a slam, Clijsters may well have chosen to rest her knee until it was 100%. Luckily for Davenport, Clijsters decided to play.

Davenport hits the ball a ton but she’s big and doesn’t move all that well so Clijsters is trying to run her around. Davenport wants to end points as soon as possible to avoid getting the runaround. The result is a strange match. Few of the points go longer than four or five strokes. That might be entertaining if we were at Wimbledon but we’re not.

Clijsters gets to 5-5 in the second set but now she’s piling up double faults. Davenport wins the last two games to even the match.

This is kind of amusing to watch. Mix in Clijsters errors and Davenport’s discomfort on clay and you can see why they might be on serve in the third set with Davenport up 4-3 after each getting two breaks. This is not your classic twenty stroke per point topspin claycourt marathon.

Clijsters finally breaks down altogether with her tenth and eleventh double fault and throws in three forehand errors in the next game to lose the third set, 3-6. Davenport wins 1-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Sometimes those nagging injuries are just bad enough to throw off your strokes. And sometimes there is a domino effect. If one stroke goes, another follows. In this case Clijster’s forehand errors quickly led to a bunch of double faults. Clijsters injured her knee in Berlin three weeks ago and dropped out of the previous tournament in Rome. If this had been a Tier I or II tournament and not a slam, Clijsters may well have chosen to rest her knee until it was 100%. Luckily for Davenport, Clijsters decided to play.

French fans were also disrespectful to Patty Schnyder though in a more subtle way. Schnyder managed to win the second set 6-1 after losing the first set to Mary Pierce by the same score. The fans reacted by doing…nothing. They ignored Schnyder’s great comeback and stomped and yelled Pierce’s name during Pierce’s serve. Pierce’s father is American, her mother French. She may play for France but as far as I’m concerned she’s just like me, a citizen of two countries. If she makes it to the final, it will be kind of like having an American there. That might have to do. Davenport and Pierce play next.

French Open: Nadal and Gasquet – follow the leader

Richard Gasquet and Rafael Nadal were born fifteen days apart eighteen years ago. They’ve both blown up on the tennis scene recently and everyone wants to see this match. Gasquet hits the ball as hard as anyone from anywhere on the court and sometimes that anywhere means four or five feet behind the baseline. Nadal, well, he just runs you into the ground and wins lots of clay court tournaments. Five this year alone and it’s only May.

Nadal is ahead in his development at this point but Gasquet is gaining. He is one of two players who have defeated Roger Federer this year.

When you post an ad on craigslist, you can choose to say “yes, it is o.k. to transmit this posting into outer space.” That is what happened to the first five games of this match. I have since signed up for ESPN Classic. I can now watch Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins break a backboard and see Rocky V for the nth time.

Gasquet serves to start the second set but serves two double faults and he’s already down 0-1. This is the same way the first set started. Nadal won that 6-4.

In the second game, Gasquet comes to the net on all four points and wins the game at love. He likes to hit the inside out forehand then come in and volley to the open court. Gasquet is a power player and he’s aggressive.

Andy Roddick also has a power game but doesn’t come in as much as he could. I think Roddick is being left behind by a few kinds of players in today’s game. First, by the all court player like Federer. Roddick has beaten him only once in nine tries. Second, by a player like Gasquet who hits the ball hard and gets to the net frequently.

Nadal wins the fourth game at love then Gasquet plays some loose points on his serve to go down a break yet again. Here is where Gasquet needs to improve. He is still too inconsistent.

You can see how Nadal’s forehand drives people crazy. It’s like a lefthanded pitcher throwing a curveball that breaks to his left – it tails away from right handed players. It’s already hard enough to slide into a ball instead of reach for it when playing on clay. This just makes it harder.

Even though Nadal has twenty pounds on Gasquet, Gasquet has the harder shot. It’s just that Nadal is relentless. That takes a different kind of strength. Nadal has the mental strength and physical conditioning to get to everything and hit it back all day long. Not only that but it’s 88 degrees on the court today and then there is the pressure of being a French tennis player at the French Open. Gasquet was on the cover of a French tennis magazine when he was nine years old. What is it with sport’s organizations? Why do they do that? It’s like eating your young.

Gasquet hangs in there well enough to get to 3-5 but he’s facing set point on his serve when we get to the best point of the match and probably the tournament. Gasquet hits a backhand approach off a short Nadal return then volleys a ball that lands on the baseline behind Nadal who somehow gets to it and pops it up in the air. Gasquet smashes a backhand overhead but Nadal is waiting way behind the baseline to jump up in the air and hit a backhand into the open court. Lights out. It’s probably over. Nadal punches the air and backpedals his way to his chair in celebration.

In the break between sets, Gasquet asks to see the tour medical doctor. He’s suffering from the heat. Even so, he doesn’t do anything about it. I’d at least be wrapping my head in ice between games.

Gasquet was on the cover of a French tennis magazine when he was nine years old. What is it with sport’s organizations? Why do they do that? It’s like eating your young.

Everyone can see that Gasquet is having trouble so Nadal tries to run him all over the place while Gasquet tries to shorten the points by coming in even sooner. They trade breaks and Gasquet manages to stay on serve til he serves at 2-3. On break point he runs Nadal left and right then sets up a perfect backhand winner down the line. But he doesn’t quite have the energy to get it over the net and now it really is over. Nadal wins the last two games and the match, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

As they meet at the net, Nadal puts his arm around Gasquet and asks if he’s o.k. It’s a sweet thing to do but it also sends a message: “Just hang in there fella, you’ll catch up soon but right now I’m in charge.”

being French at the French Open: Gasquet, Mauresmo and Tsonga

Early ESPN broadcasts of the French Open start with an ode to the beauty and timelessness of Paris. Images of the city float by as a voice wonders how you could ever hold onto something timeless or “capture the soul of the city of lights.” In my one extended stay in Paris, Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha had just opened and there was a citywide exhibit of Hokusai’s work. At first I thought it was the work of an entire era of Japanese art. I was astounded to find out that it was the work of one artist. I was so transformed by the experience that I started to write my signature with the Japanese characters for my name. After one too many forms returned with the complaint that it was unsigned, I returned to my usual Roman alphabet signature.

Being an athlete in the city of lights and copper red clay comes at a price. With the possible exception of a British tennis player at Wimbledon, the pressure on a French player to win at Roland Garros is greater and starts earlier than for any other Slam. There are huge posters of Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils on the grounds even though they are both teenagers and Monfils has played in a total of twenty ATP matches. Gasquet won the world junior title at age sixteen then toiled in challenger events for a few years before he finally sought the help of a psychologist to deal with the pressure of his country’s expectations.

Monfils and the third member of the promise land trio, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, also carry the responsibility of having immigrant parents in a country still coming to term with its multiculturalism. Monfils’ parents are from Guadeloupe and Martinique and Tsonga’s father is from the Congo. Zinedine Zidane’s two goals in the France’s 1998 World Cup victory over Brazil was a watershed moment in the lives of immigrants in France. Zidane, the son of an Algerian family, became a symbol for the new pluralism in French society. Being a symbol of pride in French sports is pressure enough without having to represent over four million immigrants.

With the possible exception of a British tennis player at Wimbledon, the pressure on a French player to win at Roland Garros is greater and starts earlier than for any other slam.

Yannick Noah, whose father was from Cameroon, was the last French player to win the French Open. He is sitting in the player’s box with Amelie Mauresmo’s coach this year because Mauresmo has recently hired him to help her win a grand slam. She has come close, she reached the Australian Open in 1999, but she seems to lose her nerve at critical points. The farthest she has gone here is the quarterfinals.

Hard to believe that this is Mauresmo’s eleventh French open. In the first round her opponent is Australian Evie Dominikovic. There might be close to ten hours of coverage a day but that doesn’t stop ESPN2 from skipping over to Agassi’s match. That’s because Mauresmo trounces her opponent, 6-1, 6-2, in less than an hour. Mauresmo goes for big first serves, she even gets an ace off a second serve, and comes to the net often. She finishes with 22 winners against 16 unforced errors. It’s a good thing to get the first match out of the way.

Gasquet is probably headed to a third round showdown with the other hot 18 year old of the moment, Rafael Nadal. So let’s look at Tsonga’s game while we have the chance since his first round opponent is Andy Roddick.

Tsonga has a big forehand and can hit a 130 mph serve but he insists on coming in on weak shots and doesn’t move that well. He’s also reckless which makes for some interesting points but not good results. In the fourth game of the first set, Tsonga hits a backhand approach followed by a cross court volley that Roddick tracks down and hits down the line. Tsonga gets to it and flicks it just over the net but Roddick gets to the ball again and hits it behind Tsonga who swings at it but can’t keep it in the court.

Twice while returning serve Tsonga runs around his backhand so far that he almost runs into a line judge. On another occasion he tries to hit an inside out forehand while running backwards. It’s not all bad. In the third set hits a gorgeous running passing shot after Roddick pulled him wide on an approach shot. If Tsonga could get into shape and learn to make smart decisions on the court, he has possibilities. He already has victories over Carlos Moya and Mario Ancic so there is hope.

Other players are feeling different kinds of pressure here. Anastasia Myskina is famous for looking into the stands and railing at her poor coach when she is not playing well. It’s embarrassing and fascinating at the same time. A kind of co-dependent tennis relationship. But Myskina’s mother is very ill and Myskina’s is so upset about it that she could barely muster a fierce look or two at her coach. I’m sympathetic and upset along with her. She loses in the first round.

I’m also sympathetic with Andre Agassi. Early this week I developed a slight case of sciatica. Time is catching up to Andre. He is 35 years old now and he has had a problem with sciatica all year. He’s already had one cortisone shot. If you haven’t been here before, I’ve told you more than enough times that a structural problem is not going to go away with a magic pill. I’m sure he’s getting physical therapy and lots of it but it it would have been wise to skip the clay court season and address the problem that is causing the sciatica. From everything I know and respect about Andre, the only reason he is out here is to win another major and it could happen. If he could have avoided Federer, he had a chance to win the Australian Open. But playing on this beautiful red clay is sometimes like slogging through mud. Not the best thing for an inflamed sciatica nerve.

Pressure will only mount as the tournament continues. Stay tuned for round three.

a cold day in hell…er..Paris: first week highlights at the French Open

It is too bad that Lance Armstrong doesn’t play tennis, because he is the only American who seems routinely to do well in Paris.

It’s that time of year again in the tennis world, when the American players start moaning and groaning and trying to stay alive in the one Grand Slam event that they routinely play poorly at. This year is no exception. At least our boys didn’t keep us in suspense: they started dropping like flies almost immediately. Most of the nine entered male players were gone by the end of the second round.

Andre Agassi fell on the first day of play. An inflamed nerve in his back affected his movement on court. The guy could barely walk yet he chose to tough it out. Sure, he was up two sets to one, but plainly he was not long for this match. We don’t like it when players throw in the towel too soon, but personally I think Andre waited way too long. Why risk further aggravating the injury just to give the fans their money’s worth? Isn’t Andre Agassi the one guy in this sport who has consistently treated fans well over the years? He has put a great deal back into the game, so I wanted to say to him, “Andre, you’ve done enough, it’s ok guy, you can pull out of the match.” I hope Andre’s final hours are not going to be, in the words of Bud Collins, balanced on a hypodermic needle, painkillers and the like. That would be a sad way for a wonderful career to end.

As if this weren’t bad enough, we the viewers had to keep on seeing the TV ads for Genworth investments. Featuring, of course, Andre Agassi duking it out with his wife, Steffi Graf. I don’t know which bothered me more, the ads or his losing. Painful on both fronts. I wonder if Genworth was happy they bought the airtime.

Best Shot of the Tournament: Gaston (“Stick it in his ear”) Gaudio, who nearly ripped the Frenchman Benneteau’s ear off in a little tete-a-tete at the net. Benneteau tried to duck, he tried to get his racket up for protection, but missed. Gaudio did not. Shades of Ivan Lendl, crooned the commentators, who obviously found the first week’s play rather lacklustre; they were on the lookout already for blood, wherever it came from. Who says tennis is always civilized? Leave it to those Argentinians. Apparently they are not as cohesive as the Spaniards, in fact, they seem to hate each other’s guts. Gaudio and Coria have traded insults on and off the court, reportedly. Nalbandian is aloof from the whole pack of them. It’s every man for himself down in Argentina now, it seems. Good for the game, though.

The guys on top came through pretty much, Roger Federer has barely broken a sweat. Rafael Nadal never seems to STOP breaking into a sweat, the guy has a relentless energy on the court that must really be intimidating to his opponents. He often jogs to the chairs at the end of games. And he’s in the doubles too. He must be running around in an 18 year old’s body, since not many guys want to play both events in a tournament like this. It grinds you down too much playing on the clay. The French seem quite taken with Nadal, no doubt he is the sexy boy at this place. Already the Frenchmen are donning those white knickers in droves after watching Nadal on court.

Today was the hardest American loss to take, with Andy Roddick winning the first two sets against Jose Acasuso of Argentina, and then, well, basically blowing the match. Andy seems to have a lot of cramping of the brain, in the final game of the fifth set he was hitting moonballs back. Acasuso tied into one of them, and as he had done all afternoon, he crushed another shot up the line to end the match.

Brad Gilbert provided nonstop commentary on this match and you could hear him getting a little agitated as the match went on. As Andy’s previous coach, he probably hopes none of today’s misfirings end up on his doorstep. Andy is not aggressive enough, he kept saying, he’s giving up the baseline too much, he should be moving forward more…why does he keep setting up Acasuso on his backhand side? The guy was driving dozens of balls up the line on that side, and Andy did not make any adjustments for it. And how does a guy with such a booming serve manage to win only half his tiebreakers this year, and why is his overhead so poor?

Maybe the American women will salvage something for us yet. Lindsay Davenport dug herself out of a real hole on Wednesday. Her attitude this year about Roland Garros appears to be, “Well, I’ll just show up and hope for the best.” She played very little on clay leading up to this tournament, it is her weakest surface, but she’s getting thru the early rounds. So far she has been able to get away with that attitude. The American men have not. They usually arrive in Paris with very little clay court play under their belts. And each year, it shows. Sampras was the epitome of this attitude, he liked to talk about how he really wanted to win the French, but nearly every year that he competed he spent little time in Europe during the clay court season.

What remains to be said? Clay is not pretty.

heard on sports radio today

I turned on the radio while I was making the breakfast this morning and heard the following comments about the WNBA on 1540 The Ticket sports station:

Talk show host #1: “Female basketball is hideous! I compare it to boy’s eighth grade basketball.”

Talk show host #2: “What if your daughter was a WNBA basketball player? Would you be proud? What would you say to her?”

Talk show host #1: “It’s like a 4 year old who brings home something from school that looks like a malformed penis. What do you say? “Honey, that looks great.”