Monthly Archives: July 2006

Washington and Sopot

We’re still in the raggedy part of the ATP schedule. Clay court players are still in Europe and other European players are straggling into the hard court US Open Series one by one.

I can’t wait for Connors to come down to the court during one of Roddick’s matches and get into a yelling screaming fight with Gilbert.

Washington (hard court) is paying $74,250 to the winner and Sopot (clay) is paying $74,829.

Last week was a disaster, I only had one player left by the semifinals, Fernando Gonzalez, and he spent the day destroying his rackets on the way to losing to Dmitri Tursunov. Kitzbuhel was completely unpredictable because Nikolay Davydenko and Tommy Robredo lost in the first round. I have them in the final at Sopot because they have good records this year.

Agustin Calleri ended up beating Juan Ignacio Chela in Kitzbuhel, who could have predicted that? See what I mean by raggedy?

Guillermo Coria does not have a good record this year. He’s lost in the first round in five of his last six tournaments. His new coach, Jose Higueras, isn’t helping yet.

In Washington there will be two new high profile coaches. Brad Gilbert will make his first appearance as Andy Murray’s coach and Jimmy Connors will make his second public appearance as Andy Roddick’s coach. That matchup is almost as interesting as the match between their players. Too bad on court coaching isn’t allowed yet. I can’t wait for Connors to come down to the court during one of Roddick’s matches and get into a yelling screaming fight with Gilbert.

I have Murray beating Roddick and meeting James Blake in the final but, as I keep saying, I would save Roddick and Blake for upcoming Masters Series events if you haven’t used them very much. Roddick pulled out of Los Angeles after his quarterfinal victory because he strained a muscle in his left side. Washington is letting Roddick start on Wednesday but he might be questionable. This would be his third tournament in a row and next week is the first of two consecutive Masters Series events.

Washington is a 48 player draw and Sopot is 32 so you might want to pick 5 from Washington and 3 from Sopot if you have any clay court players left. Washington is a bit more dependable. Blake has been playing very well, Agassi should be able to beat Goldstein and Fish easily, and Hewitt should be able to go beyond the first round, unlike last week in Los Angeles, unless something is wrong with him.

If you don’t pick Roddick and Blake, consider Murray, Agassi, Tursunov, Hewitt, and Hrbaty. For Sopot, Robredo, Davydenko, and Calleri.

I’m off to cover the Los Angeles final, have fun.

US tennis after Andre

I want to draw your attention to the first-rate photographs at the tournament this week in Los Angeles. Michael Ferlan is the photographer and his work is excellent. You can see more of his work at Ferlan Photography.

“What he does [Roddick] is going to pull the chain for the youth of America.”

Here at the Countrywide Classic, US players Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Robbie Ginepri, and Paul Goldstein were all out after the quarterfinals, Roddick due to injury, the others lost their matches. As Agassi makes his way through his farewell tour, let’s look at US tennis after Andre.

At the Roddick – Jimmy Connors press conference earlier this week, in case you’ve been on the International Space Station, Roddick announced Connors as his new coach, Connors was asked about the status of US tennis with Andre leaving. He said that he didn’t think there was anything better for US tennis than Roddick playing Blake, they played an exciting three set final in Indianapolis last week. Connors, of course, emphasized effort: “Both those guys were playing flat out as hard as they could and the results showed it. …That’s the kind of tennis that American tennis needs to get into the next generation because, if not, we’ll miss the next generation.” Further he said, “What he does [Roddick] is going to pull the chain for the youth of America.”

US tennis has three top twenty players – well, four with Agassi but he doesn’t count any more – and one of them, Blake, is number 5. But Roddick is still the star so let’s look at him first.

Roddick can stay in the top fifteen with his current game, he still has the best serve in the game and a forehand that is a formidable weapon. His ranking is back up to 10 on the strength of his final appearance against Blake but players seldom stay put. The players in the top three or four places in the rankings are pretty steady, but the bottom of the top ten and down into the top twenty often looks like musical chairs.

If you’re a player like Roddick and you’ve been in the top five, you’re not happy when your ranking goes down to number 15 and you push yourself until you get back where you were. In the process, you either succeed or, as Roddick said in the press conference, you push yourself too hard and your game suffers then you drop even further.

If Roddick wants to get back to the top five, he will have to change something and a new coach is a very good start. Roddick has never quite recovered from firing Brad Gilbert and though Connors is an unknown quantity as a coach, at least he’s as opinionated and knowledgable as Gilbert and just as strong a personality.

It’s easy to forget that James Blake is a late bloomer. He was out of the top one hundred at the beginning of 2005 and ended the year at number 23. He managed to come through the clay court and grass court season, his two weakest surfaces, with his highest ranking. But if he wants to go further in the rankings or hold onto it for any length of time, he has to get to a few slam semifinals. I’m tired of writing it so I know he’s tired of hearing it but you can’t do that if you can’t win five set matches. Many players have two or three five set matches on their way to a slam semifinal, Ginepri played four straight at the US Open last year, but Blake is a perfect 0-9 in five set matches. He disappeared in the fifth set against Mirnyi at the Wimbledon losing it 6-0. That is not a sign of improvement.

Robbie Ginepri’s middle name should be yo-yo. He got up to a ranking of 25 in February, 2005, then, as he admitted, took his ranking for granted, got lax about his training and fell out of the top 100 by July of 2005. He went on a tear in the second half of the year getting to the semifinals in two Masters Series events and the US Open to reach a career high ranking of 15. But somewhere in the off season he lost his momentum and had a terrible start to the 2006. He didn’t win two games in a row until May.

Evidently he is a momentum player. Some players need confidence to win a match and some players need to win a match to have confidence. Ginepri clearly appears to be in the latter camp. He’s now in an upswing with a semifinal and quarterfinal in the last two weeks and he’s still hanging in there at number 20, but he’s number 80 in the ATP race which starts each player with zero points at the beginning of the year. Unless he defends his last year results at the US Open, Cincinnati and Madrid, he’ll be somewhere between twenty and eighty.

There are two promising young players in the conversation. Donald Young just turned seventeen years old. He received nine wild cards into ATP event this year and last, including four Masters Series and one slam, and never won a match. That may have been a mistake. Hopefully he can establish himself in futures and challenger events and regain his confidence.

If Donald Young is a cautionary tale, Sam Querrey is a success story, so far. He stayed at home through Thousand Oaks High School – you can see his high school buddies dressed up in green above – and went to his high school football and volleyball games. He traveled to the junior championships at Kalamazoo and a few junior slams but but kept the semblance of a normal life. He reminds me of Lindsay Davenport who also graduated from a normal high school experience before joining the tour. Querrey won two challenger events after turning pro in June and won first round matches at Indianapolis and here in Los Angeles.

Here’s the scouting report on Querrey. Positives: good first serve, excellent forehand, good size, 6′ 6”, and good reach. Negatives: average return, can’t control the point with his backhand, questionable movement, phases out and loses focus in the middle of matches. If that sounds like Roddick, it’s accurate in two ways. At the top of the tennis world you have one Roger Federer. Two of his biggest strengths are his movement and his return of serve. Those are Roddick’s two weakest points. And they are Querrey’s weakest points. It’s silly to worry about Federer if you’re Querrey but relatively poor movement has limited Roddick’s ability to develop himself into a good volleyer because his footwork is not as good as many other players.

The conclusion: if you want to have a long and successful career, it would be smart to look at Agassi as an example. He’s a very intelligent player who worked on improving his game to the very end. He made a concerted effort to get into the top ten rankings for service returns in the middle of his career and the older he got the harder he worked. Running up hills on Christmas morning to get ready for the Australian Open, that kind of thing.

Roddick is an intelligent man with good self awareness and a strong desire to improve. The same thing can be said of Blake. Blake has more game so I expect him to stay on top but Roddick should be able to stay in the top ten or twelve and, as Connors said, that will help US tennis. Ginepri is an unknown and, I would say, an unknown to himself. Agassi may have had some identity problems early in his career but he cleared them up. If Ginepri can’t do the same thing, he’ll sink again. Querrey is just a tiny blip on the radar at this point and Young is totally off the radar.

It took Agassi a long time to become the grand man of US tennis so it’s a good idea to give current US players the same time to find their way. They’ve had an excellent role model.

Los Angeles says goodbye to Andre

It was 110 degrees on the court here at the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles. The ice fans pointed at the players as they sat down on the changeover. Andre Agassi was playing Fernando Gonzalez in the quarterfinals. Agassi is 36 years old and he’s about six weeks away from walking into his tennis afterlife. He’ll retire after the US Open.

…it’s not just the game you’re leaving, it’s the people you’ve shared this experience with, which is just as important.

He’d won four titles here but a loss today would be Southern California’s goodbye to Andre Agassi.

He first started coming here as a junior tennis player when Southern California was a mecca for junior tennis. “Being from Vegas we would drive down here every other weekend to compete in tournaments. …It’s a special place. In some cases when I’m driving around, I have more memories as a child even than as an adult because I spent so much time here,” he said after the match. But he’s not just walking away from memories and he’s not just walking away from tennis: “…it’s not just the game you’re leaving, it’s the people you’ve shared this experience with, which is just as important. I’ll miss it. I’ll miss it dearly.”

He did lose the match but it was a superb three set battle. Gonzalez had to play an excellent strategical game as well as hit a few rocket propelled forehands to win it. He hit a forehand so hard in the first set that it looked like a knockdown. Agassi stumbled trying to react to it and the ball knocked the racket out of his hand. The journalist sitting next to me, Scott Schultz, head writer for, I’m serious, likened it to “getting your ankles broken by an Allen Iverson crossover dribble.”

Gonzalez broke Agassi on that shot and won the first set but Agassi took the second set on a point where Gonzalez was curiously unaggressive. The ball was called out but it landed on the line and Gonzalez didn’t challenge the call. Hasn’t he been paying attention, instant replay has arrived. He’d been up 40-0 but lost that point then lost the game to go down a break.

Agassi battled back from 0-40 and three match points to get to 5-5 in the third set before finally losing his serve and the match on another memorable point. The match was over, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. Gonzalez has been playing a smarter game since he hooked up with his new coach Larry Stefanki, former coach of John McEnroe among others, but today we should talk about Andre. It was time to say goodbye.

When you see him close up, it’s surprising to see how big he is. Not tall but wide. He has broad, strong shoulders and a solid physique. More surprising is the softness of his voice. After he walked into the interview room, all of the journalists ran up and put their voice recorders on the table beside him to be sure to pick up what he said because he speaks so softly.

We started with the usual questions about the match. Is your body holding up? “Yeah, I’m hanging in there.” Did the heat bother you? “No, …the heat of his forehand was much more of a factor.” Your game seems to be improving. “Yeah, I’m more in the flow of my rhythm out there.” And he gave an expert and lengthy analysis of Gonzalez’ game. But really, everyone wanted to know how he felt about leaving Los Angeles and tennis and what will he do after he retires.

Tiger Woods is finally opening up emotionally to the public, he broke down and sobbed for a good long time after he won the British Open last week, but this has never been a problem for Andre. I can’t think of a more heartfelt, personable athlete. If you ask him a question, he answers with care and feeling. He thinks nothing of telling you how dear the people in his life are to him.

…it’s not just the game you’re leaving, it’s the people you’ve shared this experience with, which is just as important.
Pete Sampras won fourteen grand slams by focusing singularly on tennis. After a few years he retired but he got bored and returned to play World Team Tennis this summer. Agassi has always been a diverse guy. He has a charter school in his name in Las Vegas. He’s had a tennis program there for the last seven years. He has a business that his best friend, Perry Rogers, has run for the last thirteen years. “I anticipate certain challenges but being bored is not one of them,” he said.

He’s built a family, a close community, and he’s looking forward to working even closer with the people in that community. I feel like I’m speaking in hushed, reverent tones here and I am. I’m in awe of the man. I have great respect for him and I have to tell you, when someone asked him if bowing to all four directions of the stadium after each of his matches had more meaning now that he was leaving the game and Agassi responded, “I think the better understanding you have of the world around you, the more everything means. The longer I’ve done this, the more it means to me for sure,” I was in tears.

I’ve only been a tennis journalist for a few years and attended only a few media sessions with Andre but they’ve been memorable because he’s a memorable person in this sport. I’d seen him play many times, of course, but I didn’t realize how intelligent his game is before I started studying the game in so much detail.

I also knew he’d taken time off from the tour to come to terms with himself. He was taking time off so he could make the switch from playing the game for others, primarily his impossible-to-please father, to playing the game for himself. He came to the realization that many of us come to after we finally get tired of battling the critical voice of our parents persistently rattling around in our head. We realize that our parents were doing the best they could and we accept them for that. In the process, we come to accept ourselves because we can’t blame them any more.

Along the way he turned into a thoughtful, caring human being who could easily communicate his feelings. And he looked around him and starting helping others in his community.

It’s not like he’s walking off into the sunset. He’ll play a role in US tennis in some form or other and he’ll be more involved with his projects in Las Vegas. But I will miss him and I might have to wait a long time for someone else like him to come along in the tennis world.

The Jimmy Connors Show Act II

I wasn’t quite prepared for the arrival of Jimmy Connors when Andy Roddick announced him as his new coach on Monday here at the ATP event in Los Angeles and it’s a big deal. It’s the Jimmy Connors Show Act II and it bears further comment.

Everybody is celebrating Andre Agassi’s career but Connors was forty when he retired, four years older than Agassi. We tend to forget that Connors came back and played the US Open again the year after he beat Aaron Krickstein in that epic fourth round battle in 1991. When he retired, Connors had played twenty years on the tour but he didn’t really retire. He immediately started a senior tour and played on it from 1992-1997.

After all that he needed a long rest and now he’s ready to get back to work. For the last two years he’s been a BBC commentator at Wimbledon and earlier this year he released an instructional DVD featuring such players as Rafael Nadal, Marat Safin, Marcos Baghdatis, Sania Mirza, Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Connors wasn’t looking for a coaching gig and didn’t expect to get one. “I thought my knowledge of the game that was given to me by my Mom was going to stop here,” he said on Monday. Roddick can take some comfort in that. Connors has the utmost respect for his mother. He isn’t a coach temporarily out of work taking the next job offered. He’s an adoring son passing on his mother’s gift. Roddick can take that as a sign of faith.

As Roddick goes through the first disappointing stage in his career, Connors can remind him that his new coach lost almost as many slam finals as he won.

Vic Braden was at the press conference and I asked him what he thought about Connors coaching Roddick. Vic is a psychologist and a master tennis teacher besides being a sweetheart of a guy. The psychologist part of him rattled off Connors’ and Roddick’s Myers-Briggs Personality Types, ISTP for Connors and ENTP for Roddick. I don’t know much about personality types but I did notice that under stress, ENTP types express emotions in an “intensive and uncontrolled way” while ISTP’s “display intense feelings towards others.”

“Intense and uncontrolled” brings to mind Roddick’s emotional meltdown in his loss to Igor Andreev at Indian Wells earlier this year. Sitting in the stands was like watching a very large kid have a temper tantrum. As for Connors, there are too many examples of “intense feeling” to include here. That could just as well describe his entire life. This may not end up being the most harmonious relationship.

My Myers-Briggs personality type is INTP. INTP types are those annoying people who tell you what’s wrong with an idea before they tell you how it might work. Now that I’ve done that let’s look at the positives.

Connors technical skills weren’t great, his serve was weak and his strokes were unorthodox, but he should be expert at teaching Roddick to construct a point because he was an expert strategical player. Connors mother was smart enough to hand her son over to Pancho Segura, a top tennis player in the 40’s and 50’s, early in Connors’ career. Segura was unorthodox too, he had a two-handed forehand, but he was a master strategist and he passed that on to Connors.

Connors should be able to give Roddick some sense of perspective. Anyone with a twenty year career suffers a lot of heartbreak and disappointment in between the euphoria of transcendent victories. As Roddick goes through the first disappointing stage in his career, Connors can remind him that new his coach lost almost as many slam finals as he won.

A sense of perspective is often lost on the media. We want excellent results and we want them now. Especially if you are the country’s top player. James Blake might be ranked higher but Roddick is still the US star. As I was leaving the UCLA Tennis Center last night, people were standing in a line the length of the stadium wall hoping to get Roddick’s autograph.

Roddick faces the holy triumvirate of the media, the public and his endorsements.

It’s not just the media either. When Roddick bombed out of last year’s US Open, he not only disappointed the US public but he disappointed American Express who had bankrolled a set of prime time ads based on tracking Andy’s mojo. Roddick faces the holy triumvirate of the media, the public and his endorsements.

While Connors was talking about Roddick’s prospects on Monday he slipped in a snide remark about the media pressure on Roddick. Roddick is a grown man, he’ll still do his own media session after every match, but it should help to have Connors deflect some of the media attention his way.

Another ENTP characteristic is trying to do too much. After playing the singles and doubles final at Indianapolis last week, Roddick decided to accept a wild card into Los Angeles while he was on a roll. It may have been too much. Up 4-1 in the third set against Scott Oudsema tonight, he strained a lower back muscle. After getting by with his warmup serve for a little while and leaning over in obvious pain after more than a few of his shots, he managed to hang in there long enough to win the match, 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-2.

It’s too early to tell but maybe that Jimmys’ blood and guts, victory at any cost attitude is already seeping into Roddick.

Becker – life in the ATP netherworld

This is life for the second and third tier tennis professional on the ATP tour.

Your ranking is down in the 200’s or 300’s, you’re a promising player and there is a tournament in your home country so you might receive a wild card entry. Scott Oudsema, a US player with a ranking of 390, received a wild card into the Countrywide Classic here in Los Angeles.

Sometimes, instead, those wild cards go to a high ranked player who decides to enter at the last minute. Andy Roddick was on a roll after reaching the final at Indianapolis last week so he decided to come to Los Angeles. Good thing really, this tournament has a long history with a storied list of winners including Rod Laver, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, and Jimmy Connors, but they suffer in the current ATP schedule and Roddick’s star power should help their attendance. Top players don’t come to Los Angeles because they prefer to focus on the Masters Series events in Toronto and Cincinnati which are closer to the US Open.

Maybe your ranking is between 100 and 150 and there are two or three tournaments this week and one of them is a 64 or 48 player event. In a larger tournament, there is probably a place for you in the main draw.

If there’s a smaller 32 player event on your favorite surface, you have a good chance of getting through three rounds of qualifying and earning a first round match against Andy Murray. If you lose in the last round of qualifying and Andy Murray pulls out of the tournament– as he did this week – you can take his place as a lucky loser

One of the players in that netherworld is Benjamin Becker, current ranking: 140.

Becker is consistently making it into draws at ATP tournaments. He was in the regular draw last week at Indianapolis – a 48 player event – where he made it to the second round, and qualified into the draw here. As he played his first round match against Oudsema yesterday, I sat in the stands and watched him play.

Oudsema was the best draw Becker could have hoped for. Becker could have played Nicolas Mahut who is ranked number 64. After he lost his serve in the first set, my heart sank a little bit. It’s hard not to pull for a player who’s on the edge and trying to make it. The ups and downs seem more important than they do for a player who’s established and won’t suffer as much from an early loss. Hewitt lost in the first round to Paul Goldstein later in the day but I don’t worry about him.

Becker lost his serve in the second set also and lost the match 6-4, 6-4. After the match I asked what has improved most about his game and what his biggest weakness is. His answer was the much the same as you’d expect from a tennis player at any level of the game: mental focus and consistency.

I’m playing more aggressively, my serve is a little better, just a little bit of everything. …But today my mind wasn’t really in the match. I was lacking some aggressiveness I had last week.

Sometimes I feel like I’m mentally strong and sometimes I feel like I’m losing because of my mental weakness. The consistency is not there yet.

Becker’s goal is to reach the top 100 by the end of the year and get into the main draw at the Australian Open in 2007. He qualified into Wimbledon and won his first round match so it’s a realistic goal. Small victories mean a lot at this level. I asked him how it felt to walk out onto the grass at Wimbledon.

It felt pretty good. It gave me some confidence. I would have liked to win the second round but it was a great experience. It gives me motivation to do everything I can to get back there.

As for now, he’ll be at the next tournament, qualifying or getting into the draw on his ranking alone, and still trying to get to the third round.

Correction: Scott Oudsema won his wild card by winning the All-American Shootout competition on the Friday before the tournament started.