Monthly Archives: June 19, 2021

The women’s year-end championship event was barely into the semifinals in Los Angeles when the men started their round-robin tournament in Shanghai. I suppose by the time it’s nearly over we will have figured out the time difference on that side of the world. If anyone doubts the season is too long, just look at how both fields were decimated leading up to the tournaments. And today it was announced that Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi have both pulled out due to injuries. We’re crawling across the finish line; no big bang here, just a lot of whimpering.

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“Six weeks off, a bad ankle, and no match play”

Is this the formula which might contribute to Roger Federer having a less than stellar day? David Nalbandian was probably hoping so. Time was when he used to have the edge over Roger in their matches. But that changed over the past two years, and Roger has started beating him consistently. Today proved to be no exception. It was an odd match to watch though. We are so used to seeing Roger’s flowing style that we forget the guy may actually have a bad hair day now and then. He may have to settle for winning ugly.

Roger Federer’s accomplishments are ticked off by the announcers in every match, and the list often sounds ho-hum. Until they get to that amazing stat: the guy has won five grand slams in two years. This is glorious and good, but Roger has added another weapon to his repertoire. He can prove he can win on days when he is not at his best. Don’t underestimate the value of winning ugly. Roger seems inclined to rest his body now and then, he is not afraid to take long gaps of time off from tournament play. So when he does play, given that beautiful game that relies so much on timing, he may not hit his stride early in a tournament. So winning ugly is a skill you need to have.

Brad Gilbert and Patrick McEnroe were doing the TV commentary, and Gilbert predicted that Nalbandian could pull off the upset. The courts here are extremely fast, and Federer has said he is not all that comfortable on them. His right ankle was taped from a lingering injury he sustained in practice, and everyone is looking to see how it fares here today. If Nalbandian was going to have a shot at winning, today was the day.

The ankle seemed fine. The little, subtle things were throwing Roger Federer off. The timing wasn’t all quite there, he’d miss shots. But then he would play beautifully, in patches. But then he couldn’t string the patches together in any flow for long. His long layoff since the U.S. Open really is showing the effects today.

But then he spices things up with little touches of miracle along the way. Towards the end of the first set, Roger dumps an amazing dropshot from well back in the court. It just gets over the net right by the sideline, and lands not only with backspin, but sidespin too.

“Are you kidding me?” exclaims McEnroe in disbelief.

I’m waiting to see if Federer smiles. Sometimes he gives this quaint little smile after some fantastic feat on the court, a cat who’s just swallowed the canary and is rather pleased with life. But today he doesn’t smile.

Nalbandian fights back in the second, he starts to nail his shots as Federer falters. Nalbandian wins the set, 6-2. Gilbert started talking upset again in the booth, even though he also took Nalbandian to task for being out of shape. The guy’s got a small paunch, says Brad, somewhat indelicately. But it’s true. The clothes just aren’t quite baggy enough to cover it. This is one guy I don’t want to see in a Speedo at the pool. Gilbert’s right of course, a guy who gets this far in the rankings should spend more time on his conditioning, so we actually see it. Nalbandian needs to be fitter if he wants to go farther. He’s got a solid game, he knows how to compete and gut hard matches out. His serve is rather lackluster, but maybe with better conditioning he could address that.

Federer struggles into the third set with his timing, especially on the backhands. He was missing a number of them today. Gilbert pointed out that it is tougher for a player to get his rhythm back on a faster surface than a slower one. But by the end of the set, Federer had stepped it up so that you had no doubt now that he would win.

Federer defeats Nalbandian, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

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Guillermo Coria and Ivan Ljubicic presented an interesting contrast in their opening match. Coria is barely 5’9″, Ljubicic is a strong-looking 6’4″. Mutt and Jeff, but there were no mutts out here today. Coria had no opportunity to get into a groove from the baseline. Ljubicic beat him to it. He simply overpowered his smaller opponent with deep strong shots from the baseline and some powerful serving.

I am torn between calling the big Croat “Lube” or else Nosferatu. He looks kind of scary, with that (nearly) bald head and that (almost) totally black outfit, along with a few stripes of white and neon yellow. For my money, this is going to be one of the best players on the tour. I see no reason why he can’t be the third man on the totem pole in men’s tennis. The first two spots are already sewed up by you know who, Mr. Roger and Mr. Rafael. But Ivan can work his way into the mix, and I expect him to continue into ’06 the strong year he has had in ’05.

His windup on the serve reminds me a lot of Greg Rusedski’s. Of course he’s a righty and not a lefty, but the power and depth are about the same and he worked it against Coria to great effectiveness. His one-handed backhand pleases me no end, it is one of the best in the men’s game. His forehand is smooth and consistent too, he reminds me here of the great Slovak player of the 80s, Miloslav Mecir.

This guy is ready for a big move up. As Brad Gilbert discussed him further in the booth, I wonder if “Lube” is ready to take on a coach like Gilbert. Assuming they were compatible of course and also if Gilbert wants to take up another pupil. But the change might be a great one for Ivan. He has all the strokes, now he needs that tweaking of his confidence to put him consistently in the running. Brad Gilbert may be able to instill that in him. Gilbert likes aggression on the court, and that is what Ivan Ljubicic’s game needs now, that ability to win points from anywhere on the court. Like maybe at the net too a bit more. His conditioning has been first rate, although he could use a bit more speed. But at 6’4″, he will inevitably suffer from the large player’s flaw, what he has in strength and power he will lose in swiftness.

But his competitiveness is excellent. This is a guy who leads all the other players in an interesting statistic: Ljubicic is humber one in the world when it comes to saving break points.

He played a decisive physical match against one of the most physical players in the game, and beat him handily.

I think 2006 is going to have yet another (nearly) bald guy in the top ten.

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Two French players, Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce, are in the finals of the WTA Championships. Mauresmo beat Maria Sharapova, 7-6(1), 6-3, and Pierce beat Lindsay Davenport, 7-6(5), 7-6(6), in front of a crowd of 8, 723 at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Pierce is arguably American. Her father is American, she was raised in the United States and she lives in Florida. Since her mother is French, she was able to move to France as a junior and get support from the French Tennis Federation. Maria Sharapova is a woman without a nation. She moved from Russia to the US with her father at age seven but she has never played Fed Cup for Russia or the US. Davenport is the only self proclaimed American here.

Maybe that’s what confused the crowd today. Davenport lives down the road in Laguna Beach but the spectators didn’t go crazy for her. Whenever Sharapova celebrated, she turned to her box of supporters and pumped her fist, completely ignoring the crowd. If she were to cut the umbilical chord with her father, Yuri, and engage the crowd, they might embrace her. Pierce is so self-contained, we feel privileged to get the slightest nod or glance our way.

Maybe the crowd would have been more excited if one of the four grand slam winners made it to the semifinals. Three of them are not here, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Serena and Venus Williams, and the fourth, Kim Clijsters, was too tired to play effectively.

Davenport does not like to play in Staples Center. There is no backdrop and the seats go back gradually making depth perception difficult. “I can’t say I’m disappointed to not have to play a match here again, ” she said, “I have struggled every year I’ve played here.” That might explain nine double faults in her round-robin match against Sharapova and four double faults in the first three games today. Not a good idea against Pierce. She is on a roll. She was the only player to win all three of her round-robin matches.

Pierce broke Davenport in her first service game but as Davenport’s serve improved, so did her play. She hit three forehand winners to break back at 4-5. Pierce won the first four points of the tiebreaker but two aces and a service winner took Davenport to 5-6 before Pierce hit a net chord winner for the first set.

We all have ways of dealing with insecurity and doubt. Pierce has chosen faith.

This was a very well played match. In the second game of the second set, thirteen of the eighteen points were decided by winners. Pierce faced three break points in that game but there were no breaks in the second set. Pierce hit 40 winners and had 10 unforced errors for the match. “I don’t know if I have ever done that before, ” Pierce said. She also hit ten aces. After hitting ten aces in yesterday’s match against Mauresmo, Pierce said, you guessed it, “I don’t know if I’ve ever done that before.” A good indication that she is playing some of the best tennis of her career at age thirty.

In the tiebreaker, Davenport and Pierce each started with three winners to get to 3-3. Pierce hit a service winner at 5-5 to get her first match point. On her second, two points later, Davenport hit a forehand long and Pierce was in her first Championships final since 1997.

Pierce has been asked countless times during the tournament to explain her success this year. The answer usually has two parts. First, she said that faith helped her to “to give my best and enjoy it and just leave the rest up to God.” Second, a little part of her began to believe that she can beat players that she’d never beaten before and that part grew with victories then snowballed over time.

We all have ways of dealing with insecurity and doubt. Pierce has chosen faith. She throws her worries and doubts into into the great beyond. Others, Marat Safin, for instance, implode and disintegrate. There is an image of a Safin implosion in Bill Simons excellent article for Inside Tennis, The Dance of Doubt and Certainty. Whether you believe that the mental part of tennis is 90% or 10%, it’s hard to disagree with Simons’s characterization of a successful athlete: “The true combatant is a master of doubt management.”

Amelie Mauresmo has not mastered it yet. During her match with Sharapova, she was down a break in the first set when Sharapova started to hit a lot of errors. Mauresmo took advantage of them to break back at 4-5 to force a tiebtreak. Sharapova won the first point in the tiebreak then hit six straight forehand errors and a double fault to give Mauresmo the first set.

Sharapova strained a pectoral muscle earlier in the year and it started to bother her during the match. “Towards the end of the first set the (pain) gradually started, ” she said, “It affected my serve and my forehand.”

During the second set, Sharapova served in the 70’s and hit high looping shots, it was obvious that something was wrong with her. Mauresmo must have known but it wasn’t enough to hold the demons at bay. Serving for the match with a 5-1 lead, the doubt kicked in. “I could tell she was getting nervous towards the end, ” Sharapova said.

Mauresmo started the game with a double fault and ended with two errors. After getting a match point in the next game, Mauresmo hit popups on successive serves from the weak-limbed Sharapova. Mauresmo managed to hold on in the next game to win the match but if she gets nervous against an injured opponent, how will she beat Pierce, her hard hitting, injury and worry free opponent in tomorrow’s final?

There is an eerie coincidence between this year and last year’s final. During the second set in the match between Serena Williams and Sharapova. Williams injured a ribcage muscle. Despite the fact that Williams could barely serve, she went up 4-0 in the third set before finally losing, 6-4, 2-6, 4-6. Sharapova collapsed in relief rather than celebration when it was over. Sharapova’s father then ran onto the court to hug his daughter in a blatant act of disrespect to Williams who had fought a brave fight. A spectator correctly chided Sharapov as he left the court and they had a shouting match.

When a reporter asked Sharapova after the match if she considered defaulting after her injury flared up, she was offended by the question. “I’m not going to end my year by walking of the court, I can tell you that for sure, ” she said with more than a hint of attitude. Sharapova’s attitude will serve her well. She has a strong game and confidence in herself. But her image belongs to Nike, Canon, Tag Heuer and her father. If she stepped out from behind that image and turned to us during matches, if her father let other suitors court his daughter, she might have a nation to applaud her.

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For the first set at Staples Center last night, not much happened in the match between Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova except for a medical emergency. An unfortunate man collapsed in the stands. Medics gave him CPR but it didn’t look good. They carried him out during a break between games. The next game started without any delay. I was once on a ferry between Vancouver and Victoria Island when a man collapsed on the deck. Medical personnel worked for twenty minutes to keep the man alive until the ferry returned to Vancouver. Last night they gave the man CPR for a short period of time then carried him out. It made you wonder if disturbing the match was less important than trying to revive him.

When two players with virtually identical power games play each other, don’t expect long rallies. Each player tries to finish the point as fast as possible. Davenport and Sharapova have big forehands and big serves. Davenport’s serve should be harder since she outweighs Sharapova by forty-five pounds, but it was hard to tell because Davenport didn’t get many first serves in. In the eighth game of the first set, she hit five second serves to give up the break. In the third game in the second set, she hit six second serves and couldn’t get a first serve in to give up another break.

This match is a dead rubber for Davenport. It doesn’t mean anything. She is already in the semifinals. Davenport said that she complained to the WTA last year. She asked them to include a financial bonus for number of matches won, similar to the ATP tour Masters Cup year-ending tournament. The WTA made no changes and now they have a Friday evening of tennis matches with no significance except to determine matchups for the semifinals.

This match is a dead rubber for Davenport. It doesn’t mean anything.

If a product is not popular, a corporation should make changes to improve it. NASCAR created the Chase to the Championship to make races at the end of the year exciting. Once the Chase begins, only the top ten drivers can win the championship. Golf is considering moving its tour championships to creat a more exciting finish. Compared to those changes, creating a bonus system is not that difficult. The WTA should have listened to Davenport.

Down a break in the second set and hearing the crowd going crazy for her, there was actually a wave and a “Let’s go Lindsay” cheer, Davenport started cracking returns for winners. “When I got close to losing, ” she said, “my pride kicked in.” With Sharapova serving at 5-4, deuce, Davenport kept hitting the ball deeper and deeper and Sharapova kept backing up until Davenport finally put the ball away. Instead of match point for Sharapova, it was break point. “I’m still thinking, ‘Why didn’t I come in?” Sharapova said, “That’s why I lost the second set.”

In the fifth game of the third set, Davenport starts with a double fault and hits three more second serves, the theme of the evening, to go down a break. There is a “double dip” theory in tennis. If two highly ranked players meet and one of the players starts out poorly but is able to pick up their game and stay at a high level, that player is likely to win the match. If, instead, the player starts poorly – the first dip, picks up their game, then plays poorly again – the second dip, they are likely to lose. If you gain momentum then lose it, it’s very hard to get it back against a strong opponent.

There is also the “lucky effort” theory. If you are playing with maximum effort, the net chord balls drop on your side of the net. During Davenport’s resurgence at the end of the second set, she got the net chords. At the end of the third set, they drop on Sharapova’s side of the net. Sharapova won the match, 6-3. 7-5, 6-4.

Later in the evening, Amelie Mauresmo beat Elena Dementieva, 6-2, 6-3, knocking Kim Clijsters out of the semifinals and giving Davenport the year-end number one ranking. That match did mean something for Davenport.

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Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova, the top two seeds, pulled out of the Advanta Championships in Philadelphia last week, presumably due to injury but also to rest before this week’s WTA Championships. It didn’t work. No one here can stay awake. When a player prepares to serve for the match, you wonder if you might have to walk over to her seat during the break between games and wake her up from a nap.

Listen to these comments: “We’re all just trying to survive the week.” “It felt really tiring. I felt like I had to win in two sets.” “At the moment, the only thing I want to do is go to the hotel and go to sleep.” Davenport, Mary Pierce and Kim Clijsters are speaking. Though it might not sound like it, Davenport and Pierce have won both of their matches at the WTA Championships.

My pick to win the title, Kim Clijsters, lost both of hers. She wanted to go back to sleep after Mary Pierce thrashed her in their Tuesday night match and she was still tired during her loss to Amelie Mauresmo last night. Clijsters can still move into the semifinals if Elena Dementieva beats Mauresmo but it doesn’t look good. Mauresmo beat Dementieva last week in Philadelphia to take the title.

Despite playing last week, Mauresmo might be the freshest player here. She took a break during the summer and fall schedule. You could argue that it’s the players’ fault if they play too many tournaments, it’s not the fault of the long season. The problem is that tournament directors want the highest ranked players at their tournaments. If players decide on self programmed vacations, the tournament draws will be watered down.

Before you complain about spoiled millionaires, consider that tennis players cannot drive to Australia. PGA players drive their $500, 000 luxury buses all over the US and Canada to play their golf tournaments. The tennis season starts in Australia, moves to Europe for the clay and grass court season, to the US for the outdoor hard court season, then onto Asia for the indoor season. That’s four seasons in four different parts of the world. At the very least, shorten the seasons and insert a a break at the end of each one.

Before you complain about spoiled millionaires, consider that tennis players cannot drive to Australia.

Clijsters is a one-speed player – that is, when she is not sleeping– she hits the ball hard and flat, always. She makes other players adjust to her. Mauresmo has a number of speeds and arcs. Last night she hit low slice backhands to take the edge off Clijsters speed and induce errors.

In the fourth game, Mauresmo played excellent defense to break Clijsters and go up 3-1. On one point, she hit a beautiful low backhand shot to short hop a ball that landed on the baseline. She is by far the most graceful player on the tour. Unfortunately, she gave the break right back with a double fault and errors.

The theme last night was “grinder versus artist”. Before the Mauresmo and Clijsters match, Davenport beat Patty Schnyder. Artists are unpredictable and Schnyder can be infuriating to play against because she is her own worst enemy. Her game is volatile – passive in one moment and explosive in the next. This also describes her temper.

Schnyder lost the first set quickly then broke Davenport in the third game of the second set with a series of dazzling winners. After hitting a double fault in the sixth game to give the break back, Schnyder was so incensed that she hit the ball as hard as she could and barely missed hitting a linesperson at the other end of the court. Davenport broke Schnyder in the last game in the set to win the match, 6-3, 7-5. No officials or spectators were hurt during the playing of this match.

Clijsters was too tired to grind. She made errors and failed to capitalize on three break points in the last game to give Mauresmo the first set. Mauresmo was winning with the low slice backhand because she followed it to the net. She forgot to do that in the second set, predictability is boring, and she failed to hold serve and close out the match at 5-4.

It helps to be one of the few players who is not complaining of exhaustion. In the tiebreaker, Mauresmo was fresh enough to run from corner to corner and awake enough to come to the net one more time. She won the tiebreaker and match, 6-3, 7-6(4).

The winner will be the last one standing.

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I expect Kim Clijsters to win the WTA year-end championships. She dominated the summer and fall season and is the strongest player in the field. She has promised herself that she will retire in two years and that should help her mentally. It’s like knowing that the season will be over after this week. It allows you to push yourself.

Davenport can beat every player here but sometimes an athlete loses an edge towards the end of their career. They get to important finals but they can’t play the critical points well enough to win a slam or year-end championship. Davenport reached the Australian and the US Open finals this year and won the first set in each match before losing both. This makes Pete Sampras all the more exceptional. After failing to win a tournament for two seasons, he won the US Open in 2002 then promptly retired. How many players win a slam on their last try?

I still think Kim Clijsters is the favorite but last night she forgot that it’s not next week yet. In the first match of the tournament, Mary Pierce had six service winners and an ace in three service games and hit a ton of winners to take the first set, 6-1. Afterwards, Clijsters said that Pierce would probably have won the first set no matter what she did but Clijsters was being gracious. She is the best defensive player on the tour. When a journalist asked Pierce who was the most athletic player she ever faced, she didn’t hesitate, “Kim is the quickest person I’ve ever played against.”

Clijsters said that she was so tired that the lights in Staples Center bothered her eyes and she couldn’t see the ball. This is the end of a year in which she played four of the five tournaments in the US Open Series and won the US Open to win her first slam. It was probably worth it, she won $2.2 million dollars at the Open – the richest prize in women’s sports history – and will win over $4 million for the year if she reaches the final here. That’s a lot of money. So far, only one woman has won over $4 million dollars in one WTA season: Clijsters, in 2003. She should send a thank you note to Billie Jean King, the main person responsible for establishing a separate women’s tour.

Playing that many tournaments can make you tired, but winning the US Open can be exhausting. “It’s not just the tennis”, Clijsters said, “it’s the attention and everything too. It was fun … but after a while you need your rest.”

“It’s not just the tennis”, Clijsters said, “it’s the attention and everything too. It was fun … but after a while you need your rest.”

In the first game of the second set, Pierce ran forward to reach a net chord ball and ran into the net causing it to collapse. It’s not quite the same as Shaquille O’Neal smashing a backboard with a monster dunk but it took a while to reposition the net. Clijsters seemed to find her rhythm after the break and we started seeing the famous Clijsters split, the gymnastic movement that looks like it should hurt a lot. The first set began to look like an anomaly. Pierce hadn’t won a set in three previous meetings, one of them a lopsided loss to Clijsters in the Open final.

When Clijsters broke Pierce to go up 4-3 in the second set, things looked like they were back to normal. Clijsters was hitting hard flat shots to the corners and Pierce was floating back weak returns. Then, serving for the set at 5-4, Clijsters hit three double faults, one on set point, before managing to win the game and even the match. In two sets, Clijsters had seven double faults. Definitely not normal.

Clijsters broke Pierce in the first game in the third set but gave the break back with her ninth and tenth double faults to even the set at 4-4. All night long, Pierce had been going for winners early in the point to keep Clijsters from running her around. It worked in the first set but by the end of the third set, forehands down the line were going wide or into the net. An inside out forehand error gave Clijsters another break and let her serve for the match.

A journalist asked Clijsters if she was too tired to realize that she was serving for the match. “I knew I was up, ” she said, “but I didn’t feel physically like I was up.” Her brain was in the building but her body was not.

After another double fault and aggressive play by Pierce, including a shot to Clijsters belly button at close range, the match was over. Pierce hit four winners in the first five tiebreak points to win the match, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6(2), and get her first point in the round-robin format.

As she got up from the table at the end of the media session, Clijsters yawned.

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