Monthly Archives: January 2006

Hrbaty and Federer – part-time versus overtime

Watching Dominik Hrbaty play Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth round of the Australian Open gave me yet another level of appreciation for Roger Federer.

Hrbaty is in excellent physical condition, he’s considering entering the New York Marathon, and he has compact, consistent form on his ground strokes. He also knows how to rise to the occasion. He almost singlehandedly beat Croatia in the Davis Cup finals in a heroic effort.

Hrbaty is a baseline player who seldom attacks the net. You are at a distinct disadvantage if you get into a baseline battle with him, but there is a disadvantage for Hrbaty also. By the time he finished his fourth round match with Davydenko, a five set loss, he had spent close to 14 hours on the court. His first three matches were five round affairs totaling 11 hours.

Roger Federer has been on the court for 4 hours and 25 minutes through his first three rounds.

If Federer is to reach Pete Sampras’ record of 14 grand slams, the less time he spends on the court the better. Sampras used to accept a huge appearance fee to play in Dubai, turn up the day before the tournament, lose in the first round then move on to Australia to prepare for the Australian Open. He focused on the slams and it paid off. While Federer is an efficient player on the court, he plays Dubai until the end and usually wins it. He plays a lot more tournaments and, since he usually gets to the final, a lot more matches than most players.

The ATP broke the schedule into tiers – slams, Masters Series, and International Series – so that players could play fewer matches by concentrating only on the important tournaments. But the Masters Series are often two week affairs and the season is longer. If you play in the season ending championship, you have maybe two or three weeks off before it is time to start training for the new season.

It will be interesting to see if Federer’s efficiency on the court will offset the number of tournaments he plays. If his body can survive the long tennis season, his chances are good.

At the Open: Conditioning Matters

The heat has finally arrived in Melbourne as the first week of the Australian Open draws to a close. Sticky courts, ice packs and closed roofs are now making their appearances. You’d think the boys and girls would really want to get their matches over in a hurry when it’s 1oo+ on court, but no. Five set matches are still taking place. Fabrice Santoro enjoyed a five set win over Number 8 seed Gaston Gaudio. Yesterday Dominik Hrbaty won his third straight five-setter over Igor Andreev. Sebastian Grosjean took out Guillermo Coria in four sets, continuing what has been a rather easy run for the Frenchman. Nicholas Kiefer had a good match against Juan Carlos Ferrero, taking the Spaniard down in four sets.

My Dark Horse pick, Tommy Haas, rolled again easily in three sets over his American opponent, Paul Goldstein. Then he took out the last Aussie in the draw, qualifier Peter Luczak, in four sets. “I guess we should start talking about Tommy Haas,” says Mary Carillo in the booth. I guess you should, although we don’t want to jinx the man. But a lot of people are now looking forward to that fourth round match-up between Haas and Roger Federer. Their styles are rather similar, both with all-court games and gorgeous one-handed backhands. Tommy is almost the roadshow version of Roger we could argue.

Roger had his way easily today over good buddy Max Mirnyi in straight sets. Even faced with a huge serving opponent in his match, Roger seemed unfazed. Mirnyi was serving over 70% through the first set on his first serves, and he still lost. As the heat blazes and tempers flare, Roger moves about as if from another realm. Serene, poised, impeccable. He barely breaks a sweat. It hardly seems fair. If Roger has a weakness, suggested Cliff Drysdale in the TV booth, then it might be that he needs more experience putting the clamps on early in a match when he’s ahead. Not letting it morph into a longer match. Gee, quipped Patrick McEnroe, doesn’t he do that already? Like in the warm-ups?

Andy Roddick continues rather effortlessly through his matches. This is good, as Andy has taken up poker it seems and now he has more time at the tables. Roddick seems as relaxed off-court as he is aggressive on. The run continues. Let’s just say it, why not? Roger and Andy. Andy and Roger. In the Final. Good, that’s out of the way.

The top women are mostly taking care of business. Lindsay Davenport needed three sets against Kirilenko and they weren’t exactly objets d’art, but she won. Ditto Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne. Justine is surprisingly thinner this season. Apparently Henin-Hardenne decided she didn’t need all that muscle she added during last year. For someone with her style of play, quickness and speed may be better bets than muscling her way through power shots.

Mary Pierce’s loss to Iveta Benasova leaves her the highest woman’s seed to go. At the women’s year end tournament in Los Angeles in November, I had written how Mary’s game is too erratic to predict the same success this year she had in 2005. Her loss to Benesova bore that out. Pierce could not string together much of anything to make a match out of it. Or she would set up points but then blow them.

Yesterday the women’s field also lost Serena Williams. Daniela Hantuchova had never managed to win a set off her. She not only won the set, she won the match. Physically it was an odd-looking event. Hantuchova still looks too thin in my book; Serena on the other hand looked like she snagged every cupcake from Miami to Melbourne. Chunky, BBW, or just plain fat, Serena’s got to get it together. She and her sister Venus both appear “filled out.” That sounds nicer.

Brad Gilbert spoke throughout the match about Serena’s movement, or lack thereof. She was not able to move well and get set up for her next shot, and this was simply due to her lack of conditioning. Personally, it was painful to see the shape the woman was in yesterday. She still insists on wearing outfits that say nothing flattering at all about her figure. From either a fashion or a fitness point of view.

Can’t we all remember the times when the sisters dominated the game thoroughly just on their serves alone? Even their second serves caused much consternation, because they were in the 90s. Now they can barely get the speed over 70 mph.

This was the earliest exit ever for Venus and Serena from a Grand Slam.
After the match Mary Carillo commented how the sisters “won’t get away” with the kind of tennis they have been putting up of late, that this early defeat would be a “cold bucket of water” for the sisters. The best thing that could happen to them. We hope flames of rage are seen emitting from their heads as they work their way back into the rest of the year. Hopefully, they still HAVE flames of rage to summon up.

Maria Sharapova will be the first to congratulate Hantuchova on her victory over Serena. They were scheduled to meet next. We all heard how Sharapova wanted another crack at Serena, but trust us, she’ll be very happy with Hantuchova. Another skinny-assed white girl she can push around a lot more easily than Serena.

The big upset on the men’s side was Number 3 seed Lleyton Hewitt going out in straight sets to Juan Ignacio Chela. This was a reprise of last year when Chela was caught apparently spitting in Hewitt’s direction at one point. He went on to lose to Hewitt in a highly contentious match. Much has been written in the Australian press about Hewitt’s somewhat spotty preparation this year. He has been preoccupied by a new wife and a new baby and a circle of publicity that have conspired to take him away from the court time he needed to play well at a slam. The flu kicked in too, taking the normally feisty Australian away from his energy base. Deprived of his physical game and combativeness, Hewitt went out, dare we say, as meekly as a newborn.

Interesting Match-Ups:

Other than the Federer-Haas showdown, several good matches are in the works. Fourth seed David Nalbandian faces #16 Tommy Robredo. Seventh seed Ivan Ljubicic meets #10 Thomas Johansson. These are good tour workmen, going about their tennis in solid if unspectacular fashion. Andy Roddick should trounce Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus later today, but this could be a raucous match. What ethnic group is not in attendance here? We’ve got the usual motleys of Swedes, Argis and Hewitt fans, now we’ve added a crowd from Cyprus. Expect lots of chatter, from fans and players.

Among the women, #1 seed Lindsay Davenport faces Svetlana Kuznetsova, #14th. Kuznetsova has made a good start at getting her game on track again this year. But Lindsay should be ready now to step it up and take her out in two sets.

A really intriguing match-up features the rising teenager, Nicole Vaidisova of Czechoslovakia, ranked 16th, against #3 seed Amelie Mauresmo. Amelie has moved very quietly through the draw, taking care of business and getting some luck thrown her way too. Yesterday her opponent, Michaella Krajicek, withdrew because of the heat after losing the first set. Amelie must feel like she died and went to heaven, and they call it Australia. No obnoxious French press hounding her with their expectations. She’s probably feeling anonymous and loving it.

And Martina Hingis. Martina Martina. Well, we should start expecting more from her, shouldn’t we? Her countryman Roger Federer spoke rather highly of her game the other day and predicted she could be back in the top twenty in no time. This was not just a sampling of how the Swiss stick together; more like birds of a feather flocking together. It has become apparent to all of us that the style and panache of Martina Hingis is something this guy Roger Federer has a sprinkling of too. If Roger can scatter some pixie dust her way, why not? To paraphrase Orson Welles in the film “The Third Man,” the Borgias in Italy got wars and bloodshed but they also got the whole Renaissance. The Swiss had years of peace and prosperity and produced nothing, save the cuckoo clock.

Well, not just the clock. Now they can claim a man and woman who play the game of tennis with more artistry than just about any pair has ever done.

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Indian doubles

I am now on the southwest coast of India in Kerala staying at a seaside resort. I had expected this part of the country to be quieter because it is far from the city, but India is in the middle of the Temple Celebration, as far as I can tell there is a religious festival every week in India, and the small town where I am staying is celebrating by blasting music in the village center from 6am to 11pm. I can hardly complain, I came here to study yoga because India is exceptional for its knowledge of the inner sciences – meditation practices and the search for the inner self.

It might take four days to get a train reservation and you might not have hot water for two days running in your hotel, but India focuses on its spiritual life and responsibility to family, not making sure that I have hot water. Surely this is an appropriate way to live your life.

Since Sania Mirza is out of the Australian Open singles and I now have a television that gives me a clear picture of the tennis court instead of a fuzzy, dayglo green psychedelic image, I hoped I would be able to watch Andy Roddick or Federer or even Lindsay Davenport play a match or two. Instead, I woke up early this morning to see Mahesh Bhupathi and Wesley Moodie play Leander Paes and Martin Damm in a doubles match. After that ended, I was sure that I would now see a match without an Indian player but it was not to be. Sania Mirza is still in the tournament. She and Stephen Huss played Bob Bryan and Vera Zvonareva.

Again, I cannot really complain. You can be sure that the U.S. Open would schedule a semifinal between two American men in prime time over two foreign players even if they have much higher rankings.

Interestingly, the doubles matches here are not following the new ATP format – no ad scoring and best of three sets with a third set supertiebreak. They are playing best of three sets. Paes and Damm won their match two sets to one. The only curious thing in the second match was Bryan’s curious decision to play the deuce court. He is left-handed so this means that righthanders are spinning the ball wide to his backhand in the deuce court. Usually the woman plays the deuce court, unless it’s Martina Navratilova, goddess of doubles tennis.

Bryan and Zvonareva hit 90% of the balls at Mirza to win easily, 6-3, 6-3.

Starting Thursday, I will be on a backwater tour for two days. By the time I return, one of two things will happen. Either I’ll see a tennis match without an Indian player or India will be through the roof because one of their players is in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

Australian Open 2006: India loves Sania

Juan Ignacio Chela may have “towelled” Lleyton Hewitt, as one India newspaper put it, and knocked him out of the Australian Open, Mary Pierce may have had a bad match and lost badly to Iveta Benesova, and Martina Hingis may be marching her way to the quarterfinals, but the only person India cares about is Sania Mirza, the young woman from Hyderabad.

On the fuzzy screen in my hotel rom in Chennai, India, Sania’s matches are shown in prime time. Unfortunately for India, Sania is now gone from the tournament so they will have to turn their attention elsewhere. Leander Paes from Calcutta and Mahesh Bhupathi from Bangalore are still alive in the doubles with their partners. That will have to do for now.

You can understand the excitement. Mirza is the first Indian woman to be seeded in this tournament and, at age 19, she has a lot of potential. She recently made a smart move by hiring Tony Roche to work with her part-time, presumable when he is not working with his other part-timer, Roger Federer.

Mirza struggled in the first set of her first round match against 16 year-old Victoria Azarenka. Wearing a Dominik Hrbaty shirt – it has a vent between the shoulder blades, an interesting choice considering that Mirza is a Muslim and Muslims usually favor conservative clothing – Mirza served for the first set at 5-4. When Azarenka was not throwing fits, she was hitting a lot of winners. She hit a return winner to get a break point and won the game to even the set at 5-5. She hit another return winner in Mirza’s next service game to go up 6-5.

The problem is Mirza’s serve. Her first serve is errant and her second serve is weak. Most tennis players are slightly off-vertical when they make contact with the ball on their serve – Andy Roddick is the exception, he is straight up which contributes to the power of his serve – but Mirza appears to fall away from the ball. She has a very strong forehand and good court coverage but she will have to improve her serve if she wants to move up the rankings.

Mirza managed to break Azarenka at the end of the first set to get into the tiebreak, which she won 8-6, then, at the start of the second set, she played much more aggressively and took the set easily at 6-2. In the future, she might want to use that strategy earlier in a match.

In her second round match against Michaella Krajicek, Mirza not only had problems with her serve but she also couldn’t keep her forehand in the court. Krajicek may be only 17 years old but she’s strategically smart. After winning the first set 6-3, she started to attack Mirza’s forehand which forced Mirza into even more errors and left her standing with her hands on her hips looking up at Tony Roche as if to say, “You’re my coach, tell me what to do!”

Krajicek broke Mirza to go up 4-2 then gave the break right back but she stayed with her strategy and it payed off. Serving at 5-6, Mirza hit a double fault to give Krajicek a match point then hit yet another forehand error to give Krajicek the match, 6-3, 7-5.

Krajicek is another promising youngster. She has a good first and second serve and good strokes off both sides. She’s currently ranked 43rd in the world while Mirza is ranked number 32. It will be interesting to see which of these two players has the higest ranking at the end of the year.

Sorry India, my money is on Krajicek.

Early Rounds: The Australian Open

There is something surreal about coming to Melbourne for the Australian Open. Surreal is now one of the most overused words according to a recent poll, but how else to describe the pleasant shock of this transition time into the first Grand Slam of the year? Here we are in the San Francisco bay area, freezing our tushes off and having to wear tights now on our cycling rides, then we turn on the TV and seeing gorgeously tanned people, packed into the stands under warm skies.

“There seem to be a lot of blondes here,” quips Patrick McEnroe from the cool shade of the announcer’s booth. And not all of them are seated in Hewitt’s box either.

The tournament is only a few days along, but already it feels like a million years gone. Stuff has happened, lots of it. Among the men, it feels almost like there was a conspiracy of sorts, and they got together and decreed that hardly anyone would get through a round without playing five set matches. They were everywhere, which suggests that perhaps a lot of the lesser ranked guys went out and practiced hard during their off-time. Here they are now, ready to hang in longer with the higher ranked players, thus giving rise to really long matches.

Guillermo Coria, Nikolai Davydenko, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian had their hands full. Although their opponents played well, these were matches that should not have taken five sets to win. In Nalbandian’s case, he was up two sets before his opponent decided to play after all. On the one hand, we could regard this extra effort as a good conditioner. Or we could take it as a sign that lots of guys are going to be completely worn out by this trench warfare going into the second week of the tournament.

Numbers One and Two would certainly not complain if that happened to the field. Roger Federer and Andy Roddick have gone through their early matches in efficient, ho-hum fashion. Barring major upheavals here, it seems inevitable they will meet in the final.

The women’s field saw the usual wild array of weird upsets and major crush jobs. Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova and Mary Pierce made short work of their opponents. Amelie Mauresmo needed a third set before beating her opponent. Patty Schnyder got by Greece’s Eleni Daniilidou in straight sets, perhaps the most interesting first round women’s match on paper. Elena Dementieva looked like she hadn’t quite gotten off the plane even, going down in straight sets to a German, Julia Schruff, who has surprised her before.

Just as my eyes were getting used to the glare from Venus’ canary yellow outfit, suddenly she was gone. Ousted by Tszvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria. Notice the care taken in spelling this one correctly. Perhaps in future Venus will check passports, this is the second Bulgarian player she has lost to in the year. The first one, at last year’s French Open, was Sesil Karatancheva, now known as the player with the two-year ban for using an illegal substance.

Pironkova will probably be asked to donate for testing nearly every bodily fluid she has after her match with Venus. Only 18, she is a tall 5’11”, the daughter of a canoest dad and a swimmer mother. Her style of play has a cramped look, she loves hitting the ball almost in on her hands. Her service motion is straight up, very little movement of her body into the court. She kept her cool remarkably well. Venus may have hoped she would get nervous and go off her game, but that never really happened.

“Obviously she benefited from my largesse,” quipped Venus later. A nice way of putting it when you have 65 errors in the match to your opponent’s 22.

The other interesting women’s match in the early rounds was the return of Martina Hingis against Vera Zvonareva. Perhaps because we were not expecting huge things from her, everyone seems rather pleased when Hingis played so well. Her body looks stronger, the shoulder girdle seems wider and her deltoids more prominent. She has more power on her serve and forehand, and she looks fit enough to run forever on court. “Isn’t it nice to see someone out there actually thinking,” said Mary Carillo. Isn’t it though? There is always more room for actual thought processes in the game of tennis.

The Rest:

Into the Twilight: Carlos Moya and Tin Henman both lost their opening matches. It seems only a few weeks ago that Carlos was here in the final himself against Pete Sampras. Henman has had a terrible time trying to get some consistency in his game this past year. Interesting to note that as they near the ends of their fine careers, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are ready to follow them onstage. Nadal was a no-show due to injury, Murray lost rather handily in three sets to Juan Ignacio Chela. Henman has complained about how the press has been touting Murray as his successor, while Murray complained after his loss about being Henman’s successor with all the pressure that comes with that. Is no one ever happy in tennis? No one from Britain, anyway.

The Americans: Robby Ginepri won his first two sets in the second round against qualifier Denis Gremelmayr, was up 3-0 in the third, then dropped the next three sets. Ouch. This reporter was expecting good things from Ginepri this year. We still do. But it’s a good thing they didn’t show Robby’s match. James Blake looks good, he has made it into the third round.

A Dark and Ugly Moment: Fernando Gonzalez, seeded 9th, got into a shouting, snarling match with American qualifier Alex Bogomolov Jr. And didn’t we all discover how great we are at reading lips? Apparently Gonzalez complained to the chair about the American’s behavior on court (too demonstrative). One thing lead to another, and the referee had to step in between them. Darn. Haven’t you ever wondered how tennis players would fare if they had to throw a punch or two? When the dust settled, Gonzalez saw the match slip away from him in five sets. The highest men’s seed to exit so far.

Dark Horses: Tommy Haas is back and looking great. He cut his hair, lost a good ten pounds and fired his long-time coach. The man is serious. Ask Richard Gasquet, who lost to Haas in straight sets in rather petulant fashion in the first round. His opponent in the fourth round, assuming he claws his way into it, would be Roger Federer.

And wouldn’t that be a lovely battle of lovely one-handed backhands?

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