Monthly Archives: October 2005

The Kremlin Cup 2005 semifinals: Safina and Pierce – immaturity meets experience

We are in the Olympic Stadium on a beautiful day in Moscow not far from the Red Square. From here you can see the red brick towers and onion swirled domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The cathedral, built in the 1500’s, has survived Napoleon and Stalin – not an easy accomplishment. Napoleon tried to blow it up, unsuccessfully, because he didn’t have the technology to take it home to Paris and Stalin rejected proposals to have it destroyed to ease traffic movement in the square. A proposal that was, no doubt, a thinly veiled attempt at removing a symbol of religion situated smack dab in the path of the Red Army parade route.

The Olympic Stadium is huge and there are multiple structures within it. Throughout today’s match we hear loudspeaker announcements from tennis matches in another part of the building. It has a red, of course, indoor court with a blue apron and one remaining Russian playing on it. Dinara Safina looks a bit like Lindsay Davenport. She has the slumped shoulders of a woman who doesn’t want to scare off potential suitors with her height. When she goes for a stretch volley, she bends over like a palm tree and lowers her racket to the ground instead of bending her knees to keep her racket head up.

Safina’s brother, Marat Safin, is the talented but infuriatingly self-destructive winner of two grand slams, including this year’s Australian Open. Their mother, Rausa Islanova, also over six feet tall, coached Marat and Dinara when they were younger.

Safina took out Maria Sharapova in the previous round. Safina had that opportunity only because Anna-Lena Groenefeld sprained her ankle after she had Sharapova down 6-1, 4-2. Safina was essentially finishing off Groenefeld’s work.

This was Sharapova’s first appearance at the Kremlin Cup and first tournament event in her homeland. It has been a homecoming accompanied by a huge outpouring of appreciation from the Russian people and a state award from the government. At least she came. Nadia Petrova and Nicole Vaidisova gave up altogether choosing to play in Thailand this week instead.

Safina will play Mary Pierce in the semifinal here today. The regal Miss Pierce. She doesn’t bother walking back to the ball-person to retrieve her towel. She has the towel brought to her so that she can wipe off her racket handle and her arms and her legs and her face without having to walk too far. She regularly flicks back the first ball bounced to her without even looking at it as if to say, “Why would you even think about offering me that ball?”

She is in her own world out there on the court. She walks at her own speed, prepares to serve at her own speed and prepares to return at her own speed. This serves her well; she maintains composure in tough situations. To get to this semifinal she beat Elena Likhotseva after being down 0-6 in the third set tiebreaker. That’s six match points against her, by the way. She won eight straight points to win the tiebreaker 8-6.

The counterpoint to Pierce’s regal bearing is her fidgetiness. She’s always tugging at her shirt, adjusting her braid, squinting her eyes, reigning in a stray hair, or finding a new body part to attend to. He calm bearing seems to be a coping technique to handle to storm of nerves underneath. Whatever it is, it works. She is having the best year of her career. She’s been to two slam finals and earned just under two millions dollars so far.

I haven’t seen Safina play before and, for some reason, I assumed that she was very unlike her brother. … It turns out that she is not so different.

I haven’t seen Safina play before and, for some reason, I assumed that she was very unlike her brother. How many players are there like her brother? It turns out that she is not so different. It’s not just the strong two-handed backhand and the fast serve. She hangs in well with Pierce in the first set and gets to a tiebreaker. She serves at 2-1 then starts to unravel. At 2-2, Pierce hits a cross-court winner and Safina screams at herself in a high pitched chipmunk voice and shakes her free arm as if she is desperate with herself. She proceeds to bounce her racket on the court and smash a ball down into the court. Interestingly, she blows up when Pierce hits a winner, not when she, Safina, makes an error. She seems to maximize self-criticism by attacking herself for not getting to a shot that no one could get to. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. Elena Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina recall Islanova as a hard disciplinarian who would scream and curse at her young charges on occasion.

While Safina is carrying on, Pierce wins the last six points to take the tiebreaker and first set.

Pierce has a pretty solid game plan. She serves wide or hits crosscourt then hits down the line and approaches. That’s a bit dangerous with her two-handed backhand volley. On one play she misses a volley that was reachable with a one-hander and on another she midjudges a passing shot that was within her range. She’s smart; when she gets ahead she increases her attacks.

Pierce goes up 3-0 and gets to 4-2 when Safina stages a mini-rally and gets a break point. Now Safina is smiling to her friends in her box and shrugging her shoulders as if to say, “That’s just me, furious one moment and smiling the next.” Pierce responds with a winner and two aces to hold and the match is over. Pierce wins, 7-6(2), 6-3.

Certainly you don’t want to restrain a person’s spirit. Forcing Safina to be calm would only straightjacket her. But she could develop trust in her skills. She has a serve that can keep her in any match and a backhand that’s a bludgeon. It’s interesting to see nineteen-year-old Safina play certified tour veteran Pierce. Pierce is a bundle of nerves coupled with a calm confidence that comes from experience. She plays very good tactical tennis and maintains her own rhythm regardless of the score. If Safina can hang in there long enough to develop some of these skills, she could be a very good player.

American League Championship Series 2005: the “no catch” enters baseball lore

Don’t you just love baseball? First we had Steve Bartman, then we had the Red Sox winning the World Series after coming back from 0-3 against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series (ALCS), and now, instead of the “catch”, we have the “no catch”. Except that umpire Doug Eddings didn’t say “no catch” when Angels catcher Josh Paul rolled the ball to the pitcher’s mound after a third call strike on White Sox batter A.J. Pierzynski in the second game of the 2005 ALCS.

He didn’t say anything. He did, however, tepidly make a fist, the universal sign for “out”. Paul would not have seen that because the umpire is behind the catcher. Pierzynski, however, turned around as if to head to the dugout and realized that Eddings had not said “batter out” so he quickly hightailed it to first base. A classic case of ambiguity. Eddings was not sure if Paul trapped the ball or fielded it cleanly; thus the mixed signal of a fist signaling out but no words to accompany it.

Pierzynski is a catcher himself and he’d been burned on this very same play last year in San Francisco. Framing a ball, the practice of a catcher making the ball look like it’s in the strike zone when it isn’t, or running to first base after a third strike call, are examples of working the umpire. That’s what Pierzynski did. He saw Eddings’ indecision and he forced Eddings to make a call.

He had nothing to lose unlike Josh Paul. Rolling the ball towards the mound then running off the field to assure the umpire that you caught the ball, whether you did or did not, is a bad idea. If you’re wrong, you do have something to lose. The batter stands at first base and could bring the winning run to the plate. Which is exactly what happened. Even worse, it happened in the ninth inning of a playoff game. Paul’s glove hit the ground even if the ball didn’t. That’s an automatic play for any catcher. If there’s any doubt whatsoever, tag the runner.

A third string catcher – how many teams even have a third string catcher, an indecisive umpire, and a batter who’s memory bank pulls up the still fresh embarrassment of being burned by exactly the same play. A scriptwriter could not have come up with that story.

A third string catcher, … an indecisive umpire, and a batter who’s memory bank pulls up the still fresh embarrassment of being burned by exactly the same play. A scriptwriter could not have come up with that story.

The only thing that would have made it better is if the call had gone against the White Sox. They haven’t won a World Series since 1917. The futility of their title quest hasn’t reached the status of the now released Red Sox curse of the Bambino, but an Eddings curse might have elevated it to that status.

Eddings did confer with his fellow umpires as he should have. The umpires could not conclusively tell him whether the ball hit the ground or not. Eddings should have used this as an opportunity to stick with his original decision which was to pump his fist indicating that the batter was out. By choosing to decide that the ball had been trapped, and at this point, it was a decision that could have gone either way, he made himself look even more indecisive.

And created yet another item of baseball lore known as the “no catch”.

Japan Open 2005 final – getting your money’s worth

Here at the Japan Open men’s and women’s final in Tokyo, the broadcast is in Japanese and the on-court announcements are in English. One thing that might require some translation is the reason for the huge disparity in prize money. The women’s champion will get $27,000 and the men’s champion will get $118,000. That is more than a 400% difference! It’s not like the men are playing best of five set matches either. It’s hard not to interpret the difference as a statement of Japan’s opinion about women’s tennis and possibly a woman’s place in the workplace. This is pretty ironic considering that Japan has five women ranked in the top 100 and no men in the top 100.

One thing that might require some translation is the reason for the huge disparity in prize money. The women’s champion will get $27,000 and the men’s champion will get $118,000.

It’s a good thing that there are two matches today because the women’s final between Nicole Vaidisova and Tatiana Golovin ends with Golovin retiring at 6-7(4), 2-3, due to an Achilles tendon problem. That’s what the tournament gets for shorting the women financially. Why should they play an entire match if they’re not getting paid fairly? I thought we’d settled the issue of equal pay on the tennis circuit long ago.

Vaidisova, ranked number 18, and Golovin, ranked number 23, are very similar players. Vaidisova has more power, especially on her serve, and Golovin is the better defensive player, but they’ve both reached the fourth round of at least one slam, they both have two-handed backhands and they both have a strong disinclination to approach the net. Of course, that could describe any number of players on the WTA Tour today, especially players raised in Eastern Europe and Russia.

After trading breaks in the first set, Vaidisova managed to hit a few more hard serves than errors in the tiebreaker to take it 7-4. In the first game of the second set, Vaidisova hit a short lob to Golovin who was at the net. Golovin let the ball bounce then hit a forehand instead of an overhead. See what I mean about disinclination to play the net? She turned an offensive shot into a neutral shot and allowed Vaidisova to return a low dipping ball that Golovin sent long with a two-handed backhand volley.

This is not a problem in the men’s final. If my eyes do not deceive me, I believe I am watching a match between two, yes, make that two, serve and volleyers. Mario Ancic and Wesley Moodie (who?) are in the second set tiebreaker after Ancic has won the first set 6-1. If Ancic wins the tiebreaker, he wins the match.

If my eyes do not deceive me, I believe I am watching a match between two, yes, make that two, serve and volleyers.

I’ve never heard of Wesley Moodie. He’s a 26 year-old South African who is currently ranked 95 in singles and 28 in doubles. It’s safe to say that, up until now, he’s been a doubles specialist. After 2008 on the ATP tour, only players in the singles draw will be allowed to play doubles with two exceptions so it’s a very smart move on Moodie’s part to make a move up the singles ladder. It’s as if he’s changing jobs before the company closes down.

On his second match point, Ancic serves then angles a low backhand volley deep into the deuce corner. Moodie gets to it and hits a running forehand that curls around Ancic and lands just inside the baseline. “Yaaaaah,” the Japanese announcers yell in unison. Well said, that was a fabulous shot by Moodie under the pressure of being down a match point.

Moodie hits another beautiful passing shot for a set point of his own then wins the set with a service winner on his second serve. He’s on fire. He’s playing out of his head. Service winners on second serve, low dipping returns and picture pretty passing shots, he’s doing it all.

With Ancic serving at 4-4, Moodie gets two break points then Ancic gives him the game with a forehand error. Moodie can now serve for the match.

Ancic knows he has to break Moodie or it’s all over and this leads to a mistake early in the game. Ancic sneaks in behind a short forehand return and Moodie passes him easily. Ancic has to attack else he’ll lose the match, but he needs to choose a better time to do it. At 30-30, they have an honest-to-god baseline rally. When was the last time I was happy to see a baseline rally? It ends with an Ancic backhand over the baseline followed immediately by a long painful scream – Ancic has given his opponent match point. He made that mistake out of indecision. He started to run around his backhand, changed his mind then ran out of time to get into position to hit the slice properly. Service winner, game and set to Wesley Moodie.

Ancic bites his lip to keep from crying. He puts a towel over his head and drops over in his chair. He let the match get away from him and lost the opportunity for a tour title. It’s gotta hurt. During the awards ceremony, he barely moves a muscle to avoid betraying his emotional state further.

He should take solace in the fact that his opponent had to play the match of his life to beat him. Today’s match is similar to Gilles Muller’s victory over Andy Roddick at this year’s US Open and Joachim Johansson victory over, ahem, Andy Roddick at last year’s Open. Everything Muller and Johansson hit stayed in the court and aces were just popping off their rackets.

Unfortunately, today was not a good advertisement for equal pay. It wasn’t just that the women’s match ended with a default. Serve and volley tennis is more exciting, especially on a hard court. On a grass court, serve and volley points can be too short. Best of all is a match between two full-court players such as Roger Federer and, well… let me think, oh yes, James Blake. Or Amelie Mauresmo (on a good day) and Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Maybe they should determine prize money based on style of play. The pay scale for the winner of a final, as an example, might look like this: baseliner – $30,000, serve and volleyer – $40,000, full-court player – $45,000. Any leftover prize money could go to the recently established “Full Court” franchise of tennis academies around the world.

Tennis academies would benefit and we would be highly entertained.

Porsche Grand Prix 2005 – Davenport drives away

We are in Filderstadt, Germany for the final of the Porsche Grand Prix tournament. Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Mauresmo are playing today. Davenport has already won five tournaments this year. Kim Clijsters was knocked off in the quarterfinals by Elena Dementieva so there is a chance that Davenport can end the year at number one.

The TennisSporthalle is a boxy indoor stadium with a very fast hard court. The bottom tier of stands has only a few rows at the end and only five rows on one side. An overhanging tier brings the spectators close to the court and makes the building seem small. It looks like an elegant high school gym in comparison with the huge outdoor stadiums where many tennis tournaments are now held. Clearly the prize money does not rely on gate income.

Davenport hits hard flat shots and has a strong first serve. Mauresmo hits looping topspin shots and has an average serve. Mauresmo’s weaknesses play to Davenport’s strengths which are magnified on this fast surface. Davenport’s serve will be stronger and her flat shorts will get where they’re going that much quicker. If I were trying to make some easy money, I’d place more than a few dollars on Davenport in this match.

On the first point in the third game, Mauresmo floats a ball to Davenport who then slams it into a corner out of Mauresmo’s reach. You have to put the ball in the middle of the court and keep it low to prevent Davenport from hitting winners. Mauresmo hit it to the middle but it was high and that allowed Davenport to take the ball early and put it away. Mauresmo is broken at love in the game.

On some days a player hits the ball so well that it doesn’t matter what their opponent does. Early on, that’s what Mauresmo must be saying to herself. Everything Davenport hits goes for a winner. But it goes both ways. In some matches one player starts out playing poorly and this stokes the other player’s confidence so much that it helps propel them to a high level of tennis. Mauresmo knows that she has to play more aggressively if she wants to win a grand slam so she’s been adding more net play to her game. She starts the match by coming to the net often. Problem is, Davenport passes her and it’s just gets worse as the set continues. In fact, by the end of the match, Davenport will have come to the net more often and won more points there, 10/14 versus 7/12.

If I were trying to make some easy money, I’d place more than a few dollars on Davenport in this match.

It might be hard for Mauresmo to flatten out her topspin ground strokes, they come in handy on clay after all, but she could improve her serve. She falls off to the left at the end of her service motion. If her toss propelled her into the court instead of off to the side, she would have more power and get more aces – something she desperately needs today. Watch Davenport’s serve. Her toss is far forward and she ends up a few feet inside the baseline at the end of the motion. When she gets behind, she can throw in an ace or a service winner to catch up.

Mauresmo hangs in better in the second set. In the best point of the match, Davenport serves wide and low and Mauresmo hits it back with an equally wide crosscourt shot. Davenport has to run completely off the court to get to the ball and hit it down the line and into the corner. Mauresmo manages to stab at it and get it over the net and that’s enough because Davenport still hasn’t made it back to the court. On the next point Mauresmo hits a rocket flat backhand so fast that Davenport doesn’t even take a step towards it. See, she can do it. Davenport wins the game with yet another ace but Mauresmo has picked up some momentum and gets to a 3-2 lead.

Mauresmo has luck and skill in the next game. Davenport has game point when Mauresmo floats yet another return. She then runs Davenport wide left and right. Davenport manages to makes two great saves but Mauresmo runs her back the other way one more time and the point is over. Lucky for Mauresmo, Davenport goes through one of those walkabouts she sometimes takes when she gets a set lead. She started off with a double fault and hit five more errors in the game to give Mauresmo a 4-2 lead.

Things are back to normal quickly in the next game. Davenport breaks with three winners. The crowd is trying to make this a match, they rhythm clap any time Mauresmo gets behind, but Mauresmo sends too many balls long and into the net. She’s had her chances, she had six break points but only converted one.

It’s over pretty quickly now and Davenport has her fiftieth career title, ninth on the list of all-time career titleholders, a beautiful candy red Cayman S Porsche. It’s worth about $58,000. That explains some of the prize money. Davenport can add this to her black Cayenne and Carrera from her titles here last year and 2001. Maybe she’ll trade a few of them in for a Toyota Prius if gas prices keep rising.

The day ends with Davenport folding her six foot two inch frame into the car and driving it in a half circle on the court while the announcer sits in the passenger seat with a microphone and asks her about the sound system. If Porsche is going to put up all that money, they’re going to get their mileage out of it.

ATP doubles controversy – where is the players’ union?

The ATP has spoken. They have told the Master Series Madrid tournament that they “are not in a position to unilaterally make such changes”, referring to the tournament’s decision to cancel the doubles competition until the suit between the top doubles specialists and the ATP has been settled or dropped. The players sued the ATP in response to new changes that will eventually phase them out of tournament competition. You can read about the changes here.

In his excellent column, Peter Bodo’s Tennis World, Bodo brings up two very interesting points. The first is that the doubles controversy exposes an intrinsic problem with the structure of the ATP. Until the ATP took control of the tour in 1988, the tour had been run by a group composed of the player’s union (the ATP), the tournament directors, and the International Tennis Federation. When the ATP took over, that made them both the employer and the union for the employees.

Think of it like this. What if Major League Baseball represented both the team owners and the players? Or the auto industry represented both the automakers and the workers? Who is standing up for the ATP players? By suing the ATP – which does stand for the Association of Tennis Professionals by the way, the doubles players are suing themselves. Actually, what they’re doing is demonstrating that there is no union.

What if Major League Baseball represented both the team owners and the players? Or the auto industry represented both the automakers and the workers?

The second point Bodo makes is that Ion Tiriac is the owner of the Madrid tournament. Tiriac has had his hands all over tennis since the early 1970’s. He’s a former tennis player with forty titles in singles and doubles and he was the manager of Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and Boris Becker, among others. As a player, his game tactics prefigured those of his bad-boy protege Nastase. He has a reputation as a wily and ruthless businessman with interests ranging from tennis tournaments to private banking. Vilas was suspended from Grand Prix tournaments for a year near the end of his career because Tiriac accepted a $60,000 appearance fee in cash from a tournament in Rotterdam. Other players received appearance fees but Tiriac always pushed as far as he could.

Who better to test the ATP’s duplicity than Tiriac?

What started out as a fight between the poor cousins of tennis, the doubles players who live off the income generated by the singles players, has the potential to blowup a fundamental contradiction in the organization of the ATP.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any solidarity amongst the players. The singles players have not had much to say about the plight of their doubles compadres. Why should they? It doesn’t affect them. When was the last time Andy Roddick played doubles?

So expect the doubles players to fade away or accept a much smaller draw and less prize money and expect the ATP to keep rolling along till they manage to piss off enough singles players to force a confrontation between their dueling responsibilities of both promoting the tour and representing its players.