Monthly Archives: September 2005

Hawai’i sports

After a bizarre incident during e-ticket check-in that required me to pick up a phone and wait on hold while surrounded by some one hundred United Airlines employees – the final nail in the coffin for the theory that technology saves time, some lost baggage and a wrong turn on a road wiped out by lava, I’m in a rain forest on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Without a raincoat.

And I left my digital camera at a USTA match last weekend so I’m in one of the most beautiful places on earth with an $8.95 throw-away camera.

The Big Island – also called Hawai’i – is a volcanic island currently being chased by two cyclones. The tennis court is submerged and I happen to be staying in a cottage with a tin roof. It’s not only raining cats and dogs but it also sounds like them.

There are actually five volcanoes here but only two of them are active. That’s more than enough. You can drive forever on hardened lava and end up in a parking lot that is within four miles of the volcano called Kilauea. At night you can see the red spots where the lava comes to the surface. If you look up, you see steam where lava is still spewing out of the top of Kilauea. If you look out over the beach, you see steam where lava enters the ocean.

A man recently walked the four miles to get a closer look at the lava. He misjudged the distance on his return walk and ended up lost on the huge expanse of lava for three days.

Not one person has mentioned sports during my stay here. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of athletes in Hawai’i. Dylan Rush, of Konawaena High School on the Big Island, was named the Bigger Faster Stronger 2005 National High School Athlete of the Year. An All-American in football and wrestling, he also competes in powerlifting and Judo and plays on a baseball team. He has accepted a scholarship to UCLA to play football.

Two weeks ago, Brian Viloria from Waipahu, O‘ahu, won the World Boxing Council light flyweight title by beating Eric Ortiz. In his previous fight, Viloria pounded his opponent, Ruben Contreras, so hard that he suffered brain damage. Viloria invited Contreras to the title fight and gave him a check for a few thousand dollars in front of the newspaper cameras at the end of the match. This is similar to Shaquille O’Neal’s offer to pay for George Mikan’s funeral. Mikan, the NBA big-man pioneer, died earlier this year. Offers of financial aid should be made in private and carried out in private. It’s embarrassing to need a handout. Helping someone should be a noble activity, not a photo-op.

Anyway, the point is that there are sports here but when you can hike around lava fields for days at a time and surf in the Wai’pio Valley, a stunning beach with two impossibly high and beautiful waterfalls, you don’t spend a lot of time indoors watching college football. Even if you do, the islands are six hours earlier than the east coast on the mainland so you can watch your game and still have time to spend the afternoon swimming with the dolphins.

My swimming was limited to riding on a blowup dolphin in the pool at the resort where I am staying. Sounds easier than it was, the damn thing kept tipping over and it was very hard to mount because it sat so high in the water. But that was enough for me. I had no urge to sponge off the tennis court and actually exert myself.

Maybe that’s why there aren’t a lot of professional athletes from Hawai’i. Who needs the stress?

US Open 2005: Clijsters – slaying demons

Maria Sharapova has won a grand slam event but she has never beaten Kim Clijsters. Clijsters has never won a slam event but she’ll get her fifth opportunity to change that if she can beat Sharapova in their semifinal match.

Displaying a total lack of imagination, journalists always ask Clijsters if she is too nice to win the big one. This question implies that the women who have won majors are less than nice. There might be some truth to that. Mary Pierce took two back-to back five-minute timeouts, one for a back injury and one for a thigh strain, after losing the first set in her semifinal match with Elena Dementieva. Her legal, but ungracious, delaying tactic threw Dementieva off her game and played a big part in Pierce’s three set win. But, as Clijsters diplomatically pointed with much more patience than most people would show after being asked the same question ten million times, Roger Federer is a very nice guy and it hasn’t stopped him from winning a whole lot of grand slams.

Neither player looks like they want to win the match at the outset. The first four games are breaks of serve. Clijsters is known for dropping into an impressive but very uncomfortable looking split to get to wide balls. This balletic move only complements her quickness. Sharapova is having trouble keeping her ground strokes in the court and Clijsters’ speed only makes things worse as Sharapova goes for too much to keep the ball away from her.

Clijsters finally holds to go up 3-2 after Sharapova sets her up perfectly by running her right, left and right again to get an open court but hits the closer shot wide.

Sharapova has an additional problem. She strained a pectoral muscle this summer and it seems to be affecting her serve. She fails to hold serve in the first set, wins exactly zero points on her second serve then double faults on set point to go down, 2-6.

Nobody worries about Sharapova’s mental toughness. She’s a fierce competitor who’s managed to win a slam and a tour championship with a somewhat limited game. In the second set, she improves her serve and gets more of her shots in the court at the same time that Clijsters gets more tentative. Uh oh, is Clijsters folding again?

Clijsters regains her aggressiveness as the set goes on and gets three match points with Sharapova serving at 0-40, 5-6. Then comes the longest and best point of the match, a twenty-nine stroke battle that ends with a beautiful Sharapova combination: a moonball followed by a flat inside out forehand and then a drop shot. Sharapova saves the second match point with a moonball to one side and a hard shot to the other and Clijsters gives her the third with an error. Clijsters manages to get two more match points but she hits errors both times and the set goes to a tiebreaker.

Sharapova rides her momentum to a tiebreaker win by swinging for the lines and getting them. She wins the second set, 7-6(4), then goes off for a bathroom break leaving Clijsters with time to think about the five match points she just squandered. This is a career defining moment. Clijsters can come back and take the third set or she can cement her reputation as the sweet girl who can’t win the big one.

Clijsters can come back and take the third set or she can cement her reputation as the sweet girl who can’t win the big one.

Maybe Clijsters’ yearlong layoff for career threatening wrist surgery put tennis in perspective. Maybe the life-changing decision to call off her engagement with Lleyton Hewitt gave her a stronger sense of confidence. Maybe it was just her time. Whatever it was, Clijsters regains her momentum in the third set and Sharapova helps out by winning only one of her thirteen second serve points. Clijsters wins the match, 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-3, and storms into the final with Mary Pierce having removed a large monkey from her back.

The semifinal was the hard lifting for Clijsters. Pierce can’t hit the side of a barn and loses the first set after which she runs off to take a bathroom break. Enough already. Would Oscar De La Hoya leave the ring and take a bathroom break in a twelve round championship boxing match? Would Jeff Gordon stop his car on the track, jump out and get a chiropractic treatment in the middle of a NASCAR race?

The ploy doesn’t work and Clijsters slays any remaining demons to win her first grand slam, 6-3, 6-1, along with a cool 2.2 million dollars, the prize money for the Open plus a 100% bonus for winning the most points in the US Open Series.

This is the single biggest prize ever in women’s sports and it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

Agassi-Blake: No Big Choke Here

After the first two sets the other night during the Blake-Agassi thriller, I was nearly ready to turn off the TV. Andre was being overpowered, and I did not want to see his demise. Lo and behold, the Aged One mounts a comeback. Both players carried it right down to the wire, in a thrilling fifth set tiebreak. When people say, as they are already, that this is one of the greatest matches ever played at the Open, what they are also implying is that no one choked in this match. Both players rose to the occasion and all their best stuff came out. They both laid it all out there on that court. This is why it will be remembered as a great match.

As Andre said later, “Two guys need to play well.”

We always feel good about matches when we know both guys have played their best. We hate to see someone win because the other player has screwed up. Even if it’s Lleyton Hewitt. Tennis gets great when both sides show perfection. We feel rewarded by that. We have gotten our money’s worth.

Great matches almost always suggest that both players rise to the occasion. Without choking. Why do some players pull it out and others go right into the can? Dealing with choking should be one of the main things that coaches teach about tennis. Right up there with two-handed backhands, or one-handed. Or working on the serve. But people seem reticent to discuss it. It’s a murky, complicated thing, let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. We are manly men, after all. And ballsy women too. Each player has to wrestle with it in his own way. You do it on your own time behind closed doors. Like masturbation and toiletry functions, we presume.

Part of athletes’ fascination with the performance enhancers is based on this desire to avoid the dreaded choke. If we can pump ourselves up to superhuman levels of muscularity, maybe that will protect us, and get us through the tough matches. We won’t have to worry about choking.

Yet athletes are better conditioned than ever before, they are physically as prepared as they will ever be. Still, matches get blown. Something else enters into the equation here. The elusive edge that so many athletes are seeking comes, not from the physical realm, but the mental.

Where does choking get its power from? It’s fear talking to a player, big time. You don’t think inside that you can pull it off. You can feel your nerves building, until you think they are going to run away with you. Tennis is like an obstacle course at times. Many things can come along to distract a player, often at key moments. Often even before you hit the court. Anastasia Myskina’s mother has been ill this season, and it has been mentioned as a cause of her less than excellent year. She could not let it go when she walked onto the court. Your opponent takes a long injury timeout, as Mary Pierce did today during her semifinal match with Elena Dementieva. Certainly the rules allow for it, but it clearly threw a wrench into Elena’s plans for a win. She let it get to her. Or your opponent serves at an abominably slow pace. Or the wind has just picked up, and it’s your turn to serve. Or that Dominik Hrbaty guy has shown up again with another one of his fantastically sculpted new jersies, and if that won’t drive you around the bend, you are probably dead already. The list of distractions goes on and on, and those distractions get under the skin and make you uptight about everything going on.

Fear can also appear in more subtle forms. You have arrived at a key point in the match, your opponent is getting the best of you. You know to counter this that you have to, for instance, come into net more. But basically you’re a baseliner. Normally you come to net once every year. Now you have to step it up, even though it is not your natural style. Can you mentally handle this, or will you muff your chance? David Nalbandian against Roger Federer the other day is a good example of this. Nalbandian, a natural baseliner, looked atrocious at the net in a straight set loss.

All these things have to be worked through. Not choking means you play through all the distractions, you distill it down to the bare moment itself, and in that moment you try to win only one point at a time. You develop a really good case of Tunnel Vision. The other day, Jim Courier commented on this during the Robby Ginepri-Guillermo Coria match. When asked what the guys were feeling on court when the match was on the line, he replied, “This is all about fear.” And, he implied, who will be the better man that day at dealing with his fear.

Mentally the way to deal with fear is, firstly, to acknowledge that you have it. Feel it. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug. Let your body choke a little, so you don’t have to choke a lot. Experience the sensations. Then it is easier to let go. A tense physique is not going to be a good conduit for hitting accurate shots. These little awarenesses can help you relax a bit, you may even start to flow with your shots the way Roger Federer does. You feel like you may even be the ruler of your domain on this day. Hell, tennis may be a wonderful sport after all.

Andre Agassi had another thought on this after his match with James Blake. “It’s about just authentic competition, just getting out there and having respect for the other person, and letting it fly, and letting it be just about the tennis.”

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US Open 2005: heard on sport radio today

Tennis! That’s right, tennis.

On Jim Rome’s show today, the clones from C-town and Chi-town took a break from phoning in smackdowns and referring to their fellow clones with such terms as “testosterone challenged dwarf from Orange County” long enough to talk, respectfully, about the James Blake – Andre Agassi match that ended around 1:15 am New York time last night. How cool is that?

The match was a titanic struggle by two thoroughly likable and courageous American tennis players. That American part is important. Tennis was very popular in the US when Connors and McEnroe were going at it. Now that European countries have increased the number of tennis courts and training centers and turned out the bulk of top players, the popularity of tennis is stronger in Europe and less so here.

Spain has eight players in the men’s top fifty, the most of any country. They also have the Sanchez-Casal, Bruguera and JC Ferrero Tennis Academies, among others. Everyone from Andy Murray to Svetlana Kuznetsova has trained there.

The US has tennis academies also but a precocious athlete here will usually end up playing basketball, football or baseball if their plan is to make money as a professional. In Europe, the game of choice is likely to be soccer.

Still, it’s a good sign that Rome’s show and many others devoted a good amount of time to talking about tennis instead of the usual staples at this time of the year – wild card races in baseball and the start of the college and professional football season.

If only Rome knew when to put a lid on it. He spends a lot of time keeping his clones under control when he could be talking about something interesting in sports. Instead of ignoring it totally and keeping any futher ideas out of the heads of his already overactive listeners, he read the following email:

Dear Romie,

I hereby nominate myself for man of the year.

Signed, Martin Navratilova

Two steps forward and one step back.

US Open 2005: Mauresmo’s short game

The Cramps should have been the headline act at Glam Slam, the US Open kickoff party. It looks like the men are setting a record for number of five set matches and number of players going down with cramps.

Paradorn Srichaphan rolled around the court in obvious pain during his four hour and twenty-four minute match with Davide Sanguinetti. After Sanguinetti won the third round match, he hugged Srichaphan as if they’d been through a war together. Nicolas Massu barely made it to the end of the longest match of the tournament, a four hour and thirty-two minute fight with Guillermo Coria in the fourth round. The two almost came to blows after Coria mocked Massu’s gimpiness. Coria won the match but it took a lot out of him. He double faulted on Robbie Ginepri’s fifth match point in their quarterfinal match and served 14 double faults altogether.

Ginepri got another gift in his previous match when Richard Gasquet ran out of gas in the fifth set and lost it 0-6. Interesting to note that the oldest guy here, Andre Agassi, has not slowed down or cramped up. In his first ever five set tiebreaker at the US Open, he beat James Blake in one of those matches you feel fortunate to have watched. Two Americans, Aggasi and Ginepri, will meet in a US Open semifinal for the first time since 1996.

The women play best of three matches, not best of five, and they’ve played plenty of three set matches but also plenty of short, two set matches. The parity in the men’s game is not as apparent in the women’s draw. Today we’re going to look at a match that lasted only one hour and five minutes.

We’ve been picking Amelie Mauresmo’s psyche apart here lately. Let’s look in on her quarterfinals match with Mary Pierce and see how she does. Pierce has been in three consecutive grand slam quarterfinals and made it to the finals at the French Open. She’s playing the best tennis of her career. It should be a tough match but Mauresmo beat Pierce in their two previous meetings this year.

Pierce likes to slam the ball and she starts the match by taking the game to Mauresmo. She hits hard, flat shots that keep Mauresmo from attacking, gets to the net and finishes points off with a funky two-handed backhand volley. She breaks Mauresmo in the first set to go up 4-2.

Mauresmo needs to seize the momentum somehow. She holds serve with an ace, two service winners and a serve and volley then hits four passing shots to break Pierce and get back on serve, 4-5. Pierce applauds Mauresmo’s passing shots. It’s not like Coria and Massu, or Coria and Hewitt – Coria slammed an overhead at Hewitt during their Davis Cup match and mocked his celebrations, or Coria and anyone else these days, for that matter. I notice that Coria made a point of high-fiving Ginepri during their match. That was probably an attempt at image management.

Hitting passing shots is a good idea but it’s not exactly a display of power. Mauresmo has often been faulted for her lack of mental toughness but she also suffers because she doesn’t have a power game. She can serve aces now and then, but she doesn’t have one weapon that anyone fears. Roger Federer is a finesse player too, but the racket speed he generates on his forehand is fearsome and his serve, while not as fast, is just as effective as Andy Roddick’s rockets.

Mauresmo is in the unfortunate position of having the game for red clay, good defense and natural topspin strokes, but not the stomach to deal with the expectations of her fellow citizens in France where the red clay grand slam is played.

Then there is that lack of mental toughness. She gives the break back with two double faults and an error and loses the first set in thirty-seven minutes, 6-4.

The second set is more of the same. Mauresmo double faults twice in her first service game. Two points away from going down 1-5, Mauresmo sets up an easy overhead then hits it at least three feet beyond the baseline. You can hear the collective groan all the way from Flushing, NY, to the Champs d’Elysée. Pierce beats Mauresmo, 6-4, 6-1, in one hour and five minutes.

Mauresmo is in the unfortunate position of having the game for red clay, good defense and natural topspin strokes, but not the stomach to deal with the expectations of her fellow citizens in France where the red clay grand slam is played.

Consider a player like Elena Dementieva. With that serve of hers, she has to be very mentally tough to make the most of everything else in her game. During her quarterfinal match later in the evening with Lindsay Davenport, she sent the third set into a tiebreaker with a double fault when she could have won the match if she’d held serve. It must be brutal to have to play Dementieva. You never know where that serve is going and the second serve snakes away from you after she hits the ball with that low sidearm sling.

And Davenport, she had twice as many errors as Dementieva and couldn’t hit the side of a barn all evening – she only won one game in the first set – then pulled out a marvelous point with three deep shots to alternating corners to draw herself even in the tiebreaker. She was winning more points on Dementieva’s serve than her own. Dementieva managed to pull it together one more time and hit a drop shot then a backhand winner to take the match and get to the semifinals for the second year in a row after serving 12 double faults.

Looking at the power of veteran players like Pierce and Davenport and the power and mental toughness of young players like Dementieva, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Mauresmo gets her grand slam victory.