Monthly Archives: December 2005

Match Point–cycle of uncertainty part II

Instead of the usual highlights of last year and predictions for the next year, we are in the second part of a two-part series that looks at the unavoidable uncertainties in life. We’ve already established that sports experts are no better at making predictions than a well-informed fan, today we’ll look at the roll of luck.

Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy were the cornerstones of the early Boston Celtics basketball championship teams. Auerbach won nine NBA championships – only Phil Jackson has won as many and he had the best NBA player of all time, Michael Jordan. Yet Auerbach, Russell and Cousy all landed in Boston with more than a touch of luck.

…people are unwilling to admit how big a role luck plays in life.

Auerbach managed to get one scholarship offer coming out of high school and that was from a junior college. In a scrimmage between his junior college team and George Washington College, the George Washington coach noticed Auerbach’s toughness and gave him a scholarship. Otherwise Auerbach would likely have been a career high school coach.

Russell was an awkward high school player with very little offense, but an alumnus from the University of San Francisco saw Russell score 14 points in his last high school game and the University gave Russell his only scholarship offer. By the time the offer arrived, Russell had already started work at the San Franscisco Naval Shipyard. In another stroke of luck, Russell’s roommate at USF was K.C. Jones, his future teammate on the Celtics.

Cousy was a star at Holy Cross College near Boston. He led the team to an NCAA championship and assumed that the Celtics would draft him, but Auerbach thought he was more flashy than effective so Cousy was drafted by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. When the Chicago Stags folded, the Blackhawks had to give up Cousy in return for acquiring a Stags player. Including Cousy, that left three players who were still unclaimed. The commissioner of the league was so tired of the fighting over Tri-Cities star , Max Zaslovsky, that he put three pieces of paper in a hat with the names of the players and let the fighting teams draw from the hat. The owner of the Boston Celtics picked second and, you guessed it, Cousy became a Boston Celtic. You can read about this in John Taylor’s excellent new book, The Rivalry: Bill Rusell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball.

Woody Allen has no illusions about luck. In his new movie, Match Point, the opening scene shows a tennis ball move slowly back and forth in one direction then another before ticking the tape, lingering in the air, then finally floating over the net. Early in the film, the main character, Chris Wilton, a professional tennis player who has just retired from the tour, notes that people are unwilling to admit how big a role luck plays in life.

It’s not that Allen doesn’t believe in hard work, Allen is one of the hardest working filmmakers alive, he’s made 35 movies in the last 39 years. Isn’t that a record of some sort? Wilton is under no illusions either. He does whatever is necessary to ingratiate his way into the role of son-in-law in a very rich London family. Being born into a rich family is a form of luck after all and there’s no reason he shouldn’t share in it, even if he doesn’t love his wife.

There are those who think that God has a plan for us if we could just figure out what it is and, at the other end of the spectrum, those who think we are born with a clean slate and it’s up to us to make our way – there is no higher authority, only morals that we agree upon. At the end of the spectrum that thinks there is no higher authority, you’ll find an egotistical nihilist or two. If there is no higher authority, and if, as happens in Match Point, guilt goes unpunished due to a bit of luck, then why bother considering anyone else’s needs but your own? At one point in the film, Wilton goes to bed with a paperback Dostoevsky novel – Crime and Punishment is the obvious reference. When his marriage is threatened, Wilton decides that he must protect his gains at any cost. When faced with the fallout of his actions, he refers to one of the casualties as “collateral damage.”

Andy Roddick has been the recipient of bad luck the past two U.S. Opens.

Allen appears in many of his films and even when he doesn’t, one of his actors might just as well be a stand-in for him. At least two film reviewers have noted that Allen doesn’t have a surrogate in Match Point but I disagree. Allen falls near the nihilist end of the spectrum and though he’s nowhere near as soulless as Wilton, Allen has been known to do what he wants regardless of the consequences. He must have known how devastating it would be to his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s family if he started a sexual relationship with her adopted daughter, but he did it anyway.

Just like the nature versus nurture debate – is our personality formed by our surroundings or do we arrive with certain personality traits? – the debate between those that think there is a grand plan and those that don’t has a boring answer: the truth is somewhere in between. Even if there is a higher authority, there’s still free will. If there is no higher authority, well, you are still responsible for your actions.

So where does luck come in? The higher the stakes, the more important its role can be. Roger Federer will beat Davide Nalbandian in a tennis match four out of five times, maybe five out of five times. But in the year-end Masters Cup final, Nalbandian beat Federer because Federer had injured his foot and hadn’t played for the previous six weeks.

You can’t win a grand slam without at least a bit of luck. Andre Agassi needed two opportune rain delays to change the momentum in matches that he was losing, including one in the final, to win the 1999 French Open. Andy Roddick has been the recipient of bad luck the past two U.S. Opens. In 2004, he lost in the quarterfinals to Joachim Johansson, who played the match of his life then lost easily in the next round. In 2005, Gilles Muller played the match of his life to beat Roddick in the first round before coming back to earth and badly losing his next match.

Still, there’s a reason that Federer has won five slams in two years and there’s reason to think that the years spent developing mental and physical skills are a good investment. Most of the time by far, the better player will win.

I once had a wonderful roommate named Lenor. When I’d get dressed up to go out to a party she’d say, “Good luck,” meaning good luck scoring at the party. As I walked out the door I’d yell back, “Luck and skill, baby, it takes luck and skill.”

Martina Hingis–cycle of uncertainty part I

Sports pages are full of summaries of last year’s big stories and predictions for next year. I’m terrible at summarizing and even worse at predicting – I predicted that Kim Clijsters would win the WTA year-end championship even after she sleepwalked through her first match, a loss, then said that she was so tired that all she wanted to do was go back to her hotel room and lie down – so I am taking a slightly different approach to the end of the year.

Instead of making predictions, I am going to look at our craving for certainty. We like certainty in our lives. We like to think that someone among us can predict the future because that means the steps we take in our lives today will affect what happens tomorrow. If life is totally random, what’s the point of good behavior? In this first part, I will look at Martina Hingis’s return to the tour.

Tetlock found that the experts were no more accurate than those who regularly read newspapers and followed current events.

In the first week of January, Martina Hingis will walk onto a tennis court and compete in a WTA tournament for the first time in three years. She’s playing in the Mondial Australian Women’s Hardcourts in Gold Coast, Australia, a tune-up for the Australian Open. Martina’s heels are healed and she’s anxious to see if she can compete against the bigger, harder hitting women on the tour today.

I’ve missed Martina because she’s outspoken and sometimes speaks before she thinks. I wouldn’t normally condone this kind of behavior but I’m so tired of the stock answers that most tennis players give the media that I’m beginning to feel like John Kerry. Kerry invited John McCain to be his vice-president even though McCain is a Republican because McCain is that unique politician who speaks his mind. At least he used to before he decided to run for president in the next election. Now he’s beginning to sound like any other politician.

Can Martina hang with the big hitters? Is her wile enough to make up for her short stature and lack of power? Is her serve hard enough? I write a sports column about tennis, I should be able to answer that question. Legions of sportswriters make predictions every day. They pick NFL winners, they tell you which players to use on your fantasy football team or which player will win the Australian Open or which team will win the World Series. They are experts.

According to Philip Tetlock’s research, as reported in an article by Louis Menand in the December 5th issue of the New Yorker, these experts might be no more expert than the interested sports fan. In his book, Tetlock describes his twenty-year study of 284 political and economic analysts. He asked the analysts to predict the outcome of various scenarios – the likelihood of the U.S. going to war in the Persian Gulf for instance – and looked at the accuracy of their predictions. Tetlock found that the experts were no more accurate than those who regularly read newspapers and followed current events. Not only that, the bigger the reputation of the expert, the more their accuracy suffered.

This is not new information. In one study, clinical psychologists and their secretaries were given test results related to brain damage and asked to make a diagnosis. The clinical psychologists did no better than the their secretaries. That’s a scary thought.

Why do experts perform so badly?

Let’s say that I want to predict the likelihood that Martina will win a grand slam next year. If I say: “Well, she could win a grand slam if she doesn’t get injured”, no-one is going to pay me to go on ESPN and say that. Any idiot could tell you the same thing. If I say, “Mary Pierce will beat Justine Henin-Hardenne in the French Open final because Henin-Hardenne will break down physically, Clijsters will take up where she left off and win the Australian and the U.S. Open, and Serena Williams will win Wimbledon to prove that she’s still the best tennis player in the family,” then I’ve created an interesting scenario and also brought up something worth arguing about. Argument is the mainstay of sports talk, after all.

The problem is that my scenario has a lot of conditions that need to be met: Henin-Hardenne and Pierce would have to get to the French Open final then Pierce would have to completely change character and play well in a slam final, Clijsters would have to continue to play well, and Serena would have to be so competitive with her sister, Venus, who won Wimbledon last year, that she’d change her focus from being a glamorous star to being a grind-it-out tennis player. The more conditions there are to be satisfied, the less likely the prediction will come true. What makes good press doesn’t necessarily make good accuracy.

…no-one could have foreseen that Serena would trip over her dog while getting out of her limousine therefore re-injuring her knee and ending her season.

If Pierce doesn’t win the French Open and Clijsters doesn’t win two slams and Serena doesn’t win Wimbledon, no problem, I’ll just say that a bad line call in Henin-Hardenne’s semi-final match kept her from making the French Open final, Clijsters would have won the US Open if she hadn’t been pregnant and decided to get married and retire, and no-one could have foreseen that Serena would trip over her dog while getting out of her limousine therefore re-injuring her knee and ending her season.

You probably won’t hold me accountable because we don’t hold experts accountable and they don’t hold themselves accountable. Even after all of his evidence shows that the future is unpredictable, Tetlock is as desperate for certainty as the rest of us. He suggests that political experts monitor their predictions much like NFL experts keep a running record of their picks for the season. As far as I can tell, that hasn’t helped NFL experts.

We like to think that science is the one thing that gives us certainty. If science can make physical measurements, it can predict behavior. If we aim a space vehicle correctly, it should reach Mars. This is true for large objects but for subatomic particles such as electrons, quantum theory dictates uncertainty. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the more precisely you know the position of a particle, the more uncertainty there is in the measurement of its momentum and vice versa. To put it an other way, the closer you get to pin-pointing a particle’s position, the farther away you are from measuring its momentum. This means that you can’t predict a particle’s behavior. At it’s most fundamental level, nature snatches certainty away from us.

The truth is, I have no idea how well Martina Hingis will do, I’m in the same boat as you are.

Consider Tony Dungy, the well-liked and respected coach of the Indianapolis Colts football team. The Colts were sitting at 13-1 and looked like a shoo-in to win the Super Bowl. Then Dungy’s eighteen-year-old son, James, committed suicide. A triumphant season has turned into a tragic season. No one could have predicted that.

Many wonderful things happened this year along with the bad. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series after eighty-eight years of futility, Clijsters deservedly won her first slam, Andre Agassi looked as good as ever and James Blake recovered from a spinal injury and his father’s death to get to the US Open semifinals and play a fantastic match.

Shit happens, there’s no getting around it, and when it does, it helps to be a realist. Plan for the best, be pleasantly surprised when it happens and graciously accept it if it doesn’t.

Mariano Puerta – eight years to life

Argentine Mariano Puerta has been banned for eight years by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for a positive drug test taken after the finals of the 2005 French Open final, which he lost to Rafael Nadal. Puerta tested positive for etilefrine (also know as effortil – an appropriate name for a performance enhancing drug), a cardiac stimulant his wife takes for hypertension.

Puerta took the line of defense that he inadvertently drank from a glass of water that his wife had used to take the stimulant. Etilefrine is available over the counter in Argentina and can be taken by putting drops into water. The independent tribunal didn’t believe Puerta’s explanation because he first said that the B sample would prove him innocent then gave the ‘water glass’ explanation only after the B sample tested positive, the ITF report suggests, because he knew that a positive test could result in a lifetime ban from tennis. Puerta knew by August that etilefrine was the substance in question but he didn’t present the “water glass” explanation until November and when he did, the details of events in June were so clear as to be suspicious.

Puerta was banned for nine months in 2003 for using clenbuterol, an asthma medication. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) uses World Antidoping Agency guidelines, the same as those used in the Olympics. A second doping offense can result in a lifetime ban.

Why did it take so long to render a decision? Puerta was tested in June, the final report was released in December.

The ITF is not accusing Puerta of deliberately taking the stimulant: “We accept the player’s evidence that he did not deliberately dope himself. We accept on the balance of probabilities that the player’s contamination with effortil was inadvertent,” but they rejected a plea of “no fault or negligence” and accepted a plea of “no significant fault or negligence.”

The message is that a player is responsible for banned substances turning up in their body no matter how they got there.

There are two good questions to ask here:

1. Why did it take so long to render a decision? Puerta was tested in June, the final report was released in December. Puerta has three weeks to appeal the decision but if it stands, he will lose the $330,925 he made in tournament play from June through December. Puerta knew he had tested positive, he had the choice to sit out the last six months of the year but why would he do that? It’s an admission of guilt and an act of submission. Puerta played in the Masters Cup tournament in Shanghai, the ATP year-end championship. That should never have happened if he tested positive in the middle of the season.

2. Has the drug testing system become so complex that a player can be penalized with what is essentially a lifetime ban for inadvertently taking a substance whose amount “was too small to have any effect on his performance?” Granted, Puerta may have taken a larger dose and the small amount may have been all that was left at the time of the test but you can’t penalize someone for something you don’t see. In dismissing the ‘water glass’ theory, the report finds it more likely that someone contaminated Puerta without his knowledge so that Puerta could proclaim innocence, a member of his entourage for instance, or Puerta and his wife could have “carelessly shared a glass in their hotel.”

If your career comes down being paranoid about carelessly sharing a glass with your wife, the drug policy needs to be modified.

If Puerta used a stimulant to get through two straight five set matches to make it to the finals of the French Open, he deserves to be punished, in a timely manner. But the report has accepted that he took the drug inadvertently and the tested amount did not affect his performance.

In a U.S. court of law, you have to knowingly take an action to be considered guilty. Surely a livelihood cannot be taken away on a standard lower than that.

The empire of liberty and the World Baseball Classic

Robert Shenkkan’s new play, Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, begins with Lewis and Clark’s travels through the Louisiana Purchase, a parcel of land acquired in 1803 under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson that doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson was fond of referring to his young country as an “empire of liberty,” a contradictory term mixing imperialism and democracy. When Lewis and Clark encountered tribes in the new land, they informed them that they now had a “Great White Father in the East.”

In Shenkann’s version, the trip takes a few unexpected twists and turns. After their first wrong turn, Lewis and Clark end up at San Juan Hill in Cuba fighting with Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish American War somewhere around 1898. Another wrong turn places them in the Philippines. After the end of the Spanish American War, Spain sold the Philippines to the US for $20,000,000, at least the Louisiana Purchase was cheaper at $15,000,000. After a third time-warp wrong turn, Lewis and Clark are in Vietnam and, finally, they make it to the Euphrates River in Iraq where they unwittingly become the source of bad intelligence that provides evidence of weapons of mass destruction thereby giving the U.S. its excuse to invade Iraq.

What starts out as a trip to announce the arrival of democracy to unsuspecting citizens in the Louisiana Purchase, ends with a role in the exportation of democracy to Iraq. The term “empire of liberty” could just as well have come straight from the mouth of George W. Bush.

After the Spanish American War, the U.S. occupied Cuba until it managed to get its independence four years later. When Fidel Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista forty-five years ago and established a Communist state, Cuba became a pariah in the U.S. Batista was a friend of the U.S government; a dictator is acceptable as long as he is not a Communist. The U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1962.

And now you know why Cuba cannot play in the first edition of the World Baseball Classic to be held in March 2006.

Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association are the organizers of the sixteen-team tournament that will be played in Japan and the U.S. While it might be nice to think that they organized the tournament to make up for the calling their championship the World Series despite the fact that the world is not invited, the real reason has more to do with expanding Major League Baseball’s global market.

The U.S. Treasury Department has told the organizers that Cuba can’t play in the tournament because the embargo forbids Cuba from earning money in the U.S. This has parallels to the embargo of South Africa during apartheid with one important difference – the U.S. is the only country enforcing the embargo. The United Nations has repeatedly asked the U.S. to end it.

The Cuban baseball team did play a home and away series against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. The Orioles got around the embargo by donating all proceeds to sports programs in both countries. Last July, Cuba qualified for the Concacaf Gold Cup, a soccer tournament, and played games in Seattle and Foxborough, so it’s possible that a compromise can be reached.

The World Baseball Classic is a good idea, it could grow into an event similar to the World Cup soccer tournament and heaven knows the U.S. could do with some positive P.R. at the moment. Instead, they are punishing a tiny neighboring country that is so crazy about baseball that it has won the last nine Baseball World Cups, an event organized by the International Baseball Federation, a group based in Switzerland under whose rules the World Baseball Classic will be played. Which brings up the question: why is the MLB organizing a new international baseball competition when one already exists?

Last Friday, Jim Rome interviewed David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, on his radio show. When Rome asked Stern if there was something he wanted to do beyond basketball, Stern replied: “to demonstrate that sports has the potential that has been little used in terms of being a force for good on a global basis, … if I had my druthers, we would improve our business then be able to improve what we do about using that business in a much more socially effective way.”

Stern is being a bit shortsighted here. The Olympics have been an important force for good relations on a global level for a long time and traveling exhibitions of sports teams have been instrumental in improving relations between countries much as cultural exchanges have been helpful.

He also doesn’t say exactly how he would carry this idea out but he might want to place a call to a high government official who is a former part owner of the Texas Rangers and spell it out.

Tennis Highlights, 2005 (In Case You Blinked)

Now that the year-end championships are over, and our annual bout of tennis exhaustion is finally receding somewhat, we can look back and assess the year in tennis and forget we were swearing (not so long ago) that we would never look at a tennis ball again. Ever.

One word comes to mind: LONG. Whatever else we can say about it, the season is way too long. You know it’s a long season when even the tennis writers are crawling across the finish line with their tongues hanging out. You’d think my co-writer Nina Rota and I had played the entire season ourselves. After the U.S. Open concluded, she skulked off to Hawaii for a week, I disappeared into the Sierras. Tennis does that to you.

So that’s the first thing about the year we noticed. It is exhausting and long. If you have doubts, just look at the injured rosters as they piled up. We all hope the Powers That Be shorten the season in some fashion, but we all know that won’t happen. Greed Is Good, and when it comes to tennis, it’s also Great.

Part of what it may mean to be a “great” player is the player’s ability to schedule himself wisely. From this standpoint, I would say Roger Federer probably listened to his body better than anyone and didn’t play himself into the ground. He knew when to take time off, not only when he was injured, but even when he just needed more rest.

Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, seems to specialize in driving himself into the ground. He makes me feel tired and that’s just from watching him BETWEEN points. His schedule was exhausting. His style of playing takes a lot out of him too, and by the year’s end it did catch up to him. I don’t know who his advisors are, but they should think about reining him in a little.

There were other players who did well this year too, but basically it came down to the two leading players, Federer and Nadal. In any other year, Rafael Nadal would have been the leading light of his day. He played incredibly well and racked up a fantastic record too. But Roger Federer had an even better year, eclipsing Nadal’s.

And to think we’re going to get probably a good eight more years of this. Quel horreur!

The problem for the men’s field was to create enough good challengers to Roger’s crown. Several men came out of the gate, notably Marat Safin and Andre Agassi, who stood a chance to beat Federer in the big matches. And there were a few chances for the upcoming players too, such as Richard Gasquet, who beat Federer in the spring at Monte Carlo, one of the smaller lead up tournaments to the French Open.

The men’s championship at year’s end should not be a “smaller” tournament but it proved that way when most of the field pulled out, and suddenly you had guys entering the fray – David Nalbandian, Mariano Puerta and Fernando Gonzalez – who would not have been there otherwise. It should have been a bigger tournament with a stronger field. Fortunately, David Nalbandian helped to rescue things by providing a strong challenge to Federer and delivering only one of his four losses this year.

While the men’s field basically distilled itself down into two leading players, the women’s tour exploded into an array of new configurations of well-matched players, and the results in tournaments reflected that diversity. Every woman seemed to garnish a piece of the pie. I almost forgot that Venus and Serena both won Grand Slams. That’s because a bevy of other players won titles too. Kim Clijsters gave us one of the best moments when she finally won a Slam herself. Justine Henin-Hardenne mounted a fine comeback. Maria Sharapova was all over the place, and so was Lindsay Davenport, although she had more ups than downs overall.

The Russians in general seemed to follow Sharapova’s suit and a number of them went right into the tank this year in matches. I keep saying that the reason all the Russians have had such good technique is that they have to hold those spikey temperaments at bay. Technique helps maintain control. Even so, they may be too anal, too perfectionist to be consistently great players, and they get down and beat themselves when they get mad. So sue me.

And Mary Pierce. Everyone coos about Mary’s comeback this year. I feel strangely above all this feel-goodness. When Mary was good, she was very very good. When she was bad, she was very very bad. She did a variation on Amelie Mauresmo’s usual riff, bulldozing the field up until the final, and then going out meekly like a lamb to the slaughter. She had a great resurgence at age 30, but for some reason I don’t have much faith she can carry it into 2006. Maybe because I have put faith in her before and seen my hopes dashed. Maybe because she can turn on a dime and go from being really good to playing like a piker the next day. I just don’t feel she will cash in next year. I don’t want to invest myself in her as a spectator.

The best thing about men’s tennis in 2005: Roger Federer, followed closely by Rafael Nadal’s emergence into superstardom at age 19.

The best thing about women’s tennis: it is now truly competitive. Maybe soon they can shame us into equal pay for the women.

Roger Federer and Marat Safin started the year off with a big bang down under, two artistes going at it in five intense sets. We were all savoring the prospect of Safin emerging as Federer’s main rival. But instead he falters, then becomes injured.

Fortunately for Roger Federer and the rest of us, Rafael Nadal breaks out at the French Open, winning his first slam on nearly the same day he turns 19.

Venus and Lindsay competed in a duel for the ages in the Wimbledon Women’s Final. Venus played remarkably well and deserved to win. On any other day Lindsay would have deserved it. I think this was the match that won it this year for passionate intensity. The number one thriller of the year.

And then Venus went and put her foot in her mouth with her comment about her biggest moment of the year being not the Wimbledon win, but attending her sister’s prom. I feel embarrassed for her when she does stuff like that. It shows a certain disrespect for the tour and the sport that allowed her to HAVE that reality TV show that everyone apparently just LOVED to watch. I try to focus on her play at Wimbledon.

Kim Clijsters not only staged a remarkable comeback, she worked her way easily through the draw at the U.S. Open and finally snagged that elusive first big title. Hopefully now the others will just flow.

Roger Federer continued to cruise along. He lost only three matches going into November, to Safin, Gasquet, abd Nadal. After the Nadal loss, which occurrs in the French Open semis, Federer still carries on his winning streak that extends to the last match of the year – 23 finals won in a row – before losing in the Shanghai year-end final to David Nalbandian. And he loses in a way that is so remarkable that he STILL takes your breath away, even in defeat.

The two young lions meet early in the year, when Federer beats Nadal in five tough sets in April at the Nasdaq Miami. But Nadal beats Federer later in the spring at the French Open on the way to his first Grand Slam. He is a hottie for sure, and will add some genuine fire to compete against Federer’s cool Suisse. But after those encounters, the pair do not meet again.

In Shanghai, Nadal pulls out because of injury and the expected Federer-Nadal showdown final never occurs. The Chinese have every right to be annoyed. They’ll probably be among the first to lobby the Powers That Be to shorten the season so the top players don’t arrive on their doorstep in Shanghai utterly stripped of purpose and energy to play. And worn out from injuries. Of course they dropped like flies. The Chinese are right to feel they kinda got snookered. Andre should have said something first to the Chinese officals. He should have known the etiquette, he’s usually attuned to stuff like that.

And lastly, the Americans were not completely without hope. Andre Agassi held up his end in losing to Roger Federer in the U.S.Open Final, but the standard of tennis was amazingly high. That match could be a turning point for Andre, it could convince him to play for at least three more years, barring injury. It was that good. He still has it.

Robbie Ginepri turned it on consistently through the summer and into the Open, before going down in the semis. A little belief in yourself goes a long way. James Blake had a fine resurgence after a harrowing 2004, filled with injuries and personal loss. His victory over Rafael Nadal at the US Open was one of the great feel-goods of the year.

Andy Roddick is already talking about his plans to be more aggressive with his return game when the season starts. That is good, because this past year should be quickly forgotten from Roddick’s standpoint. Fortunately for him there are now a good handful of guys of whom much is expected this coming year. Maybe the expectations for him will not be as intense.

My personal highpoint of the year:

The third set tiebreak, U.S. Open Final
Roger Federer-Andre Agassi
They had split the first two sets, but clearly the tide had turned against Roger, and the crowd was certainly with Andre at this point.

Federer suddenly shifted into high gear, reached inside somewhere to a place of calm and battened down all the hatches, lost the first tiebreak point, then uncoiled with seven straight points to win the set. And, really, the match. Agassi was crushed, and it went quickly from there on out. It was one of the most ferocious displays in such a concentrated period I have seen in a while on a tennis court.

Welcome to the tennis year of 2005. Yes, you are in the Age of Roger Federer.

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