Monthly Archives: March 20, 2023

Scary thought but is Federer getting better?

Well, it could have been worse. At least the first set was exciting. I’m sure Fernando Gonzalez is happy that he reached his first slam final and his ranking is all the way up to number 5, but how must it feel to steamroller your way past the number 12, 5 and 2 players in the world and hit 177 more winners than errors and still lose the final in straight sets. For sure he would have felt much better if he’d taken at least one set home with him.

He had a good shot at it. At 4-4 in the first set, Gonzalez hit a net cord that bounced over Federer’s head then Federer followed with an error to give Gonzalez a break point. On the next point Gonzalez blasted a few passing shots at Federer until he missed one and Gonzalez was up a break.

Gonzalez had two set points on his serve in the next game but Federer snuck in and hit a beautiful backhand volley that tapered away from Gonzalez. On the second set point, Gonzalez got an opening after serving Federer wide but he put the ball into the net. That may have unsettled Gonzo because he missed a few first serves and that was that, after two set points he lost the game to go down a break.

Before the match, Federer’s coach Tony Roche said that Gonzalez’ slice didn’t penetrate deeply and he expected Federer to attack it. Roche must also have told Federer to attack early and often to avoid getting bombarded by more of those winners Gonzalez has been hitting this past two weeks because it looked like two guys trying to get off the court as soon as possible in the early going.

In the first set tiebreak, Gonzalez hit a few forehand errors to go down 3-0 and lost the tiebreak 7-2.

There were some good games in the second set too. Gonzalez was still slamming the ball and Federer short-hopped a forehand off the baseline to hit a passing shot past the charging Gonzalez. In the seventh game, Federer hit the lines with three straight shots before he finally made Gonzalez miss a shot. Unfortunately that gave Federer a break point and Federer went up a break.

Then the match became routine. Federer held serve, Gonzalez held serve. Not much else happened. Federer almost hit a winner off a Gonzalez overhead. A few ball kids chased down a moth or some sort of bug that was dancing around the court.

With Gonzalez serving at 3-3 in the third set, something exciting did happen: the best point of the match by far. It was a baseline rally until Gonzalez hit a short ball and Federer came in and hit a slice approach shot. Gonzalez put up a lob and Federer had to hit and an emergency backhand overhead up in the air to get it over the net. Federer got to the net again on another short slice by and this time hit a much more solid backhand overhead. Gonzalez got to it and hit it down the line but Federer stretched out and blocked the ball back into the open court.

Roche was right, Gonzalez’ slice backhand didn’t penetrate, it came up short. More to the point, it gave Federer a break point. Gonzalez saved that one and it took a total of four break points but Federer got his break and a few games later he had his tenth slam.

Thankfully it wasn’t as dominant a performance as Federer’s semifinal win over Andy Roddick but the second and third sets were close. Federer lost two points on his serve in the second set and two more in the third set. That’s it, four points lost on serve in the last two sets. Oh, and he also won the tournament in straight sets. He’s the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win a slam without dropping a set.

Scary thought but is Federer getting better? He lost one set on his way to winning Wimbledon last year and two sets at the US Open. This is his 36th straight win which is a record for him. Gonzalez put it well after the match: “I have to congratulate again, again Roger. He’s a great champion. He played a really good match today, through the whole week and almost through the whole of his life.”

There was one slight conflict in the match. Federer hit a backhand winner but it was called wide. Federer challenged the call successfully and the chair umpire ruled that the point had to be replayed because Gonzalez stopped moving when the out call was made. Federer protested a bit then went back to the baseline. This is important because the chair umpire was Sandra de Jenken, the first woman to ever umpire a men’s slam singles final and it went flawlessly.

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Well, she’s done it! The improbable fortnight drew to a close in Melbourne and Serena Williams, unseeded, delivered a majestic shellacking of World’s Number One Maria Sharapova. In the unofficial Battle of the Citruses, Serena (lime) and Maria (lemon) whipped us up a fine little cocktail, probably a bit tarter for the Russian girl than the one from Compton. 6-1, 6-2 sounds pretty tart to me.

It was not a good sign for Maria that her first serve was a double fault. That was the first of six for her. Even though she got to 40-15 in that opening service game, Maria ended up dropping serve. This was especially alarming because reportedly before the match Maria had been out doing a last-minute tuning of her serve, which has not been especially stellar here down under. Her serve has been up and down, mostly it has been down.

The stats on serving revealed the damage: Maria won only 6 of 23 points on second serves for 26%, while Serena earned 10 of 16 for 63%. And even on some of her first serves Maria appeared like a deer in the headlights. Serena was just too on her game and returning too well for Maria to make any headway with her serving game. Serena had 7 aces to 3 for Maria; double faults were 6 to 2. The errors were close, 13 to 11, but the winners showed Serena’s dominance, 28 to only 12 for Maria. When given break chances, Serena munched a bunch, earning 4 of 6 breaks to 0 of 2 for Maria.

I think Maria came out and was intimidated nearly from the get-go. When Maria Sharapova cannot use her biggest weapon, her serve, the night in question will probably stretch for an eternity.

Her other big weapon, her forehand, barely saw the light of day. The problem there was Serena just never let her into anything resembling a rally. If you want to devise a plan for beating Sharapova, this is nearly a perfect way to go: you serve like gangbusters and hope that her serve goes south, which it can. Then you pounce on her serves, first and second, and hammer them for outright winners, never letting her get into a rally. Basically, you smother the poor child. She never got a chance to see the light of day.

Serena spoke in the presser about her ability to hug the baseline, another reason she got the early drop on her opponent. She can step inside the court and take away the angles and pressure her opponent relentlessly from there. Sharapova plays well when she can get momentum going. This time Serena allowed her none at all.

As Serena has shown over the years that when she gets up in a match she is nearly always in control. She is 25-0 in matches when she wins the first set. Her main regret was that she could not bagel Sharapova, especially in the first set when it seemed clear that was what Serena was going for. She probably recalled how Davenport baked a couple of bagels for Maria at Indian Wells in ’05 and figured she should at least try for one herself.

Is it easier to go down to defeat feeling like you’re a seal pup at clubbing time, or would you rather have it come down to a hair’s breath between you? I mean, if you really HAVE to lose a match. Of course Maria would say that either way sucks. She is a woman who does not care to lose to anyone in any fashion, nor is it fun for her to look across the locker room and “see someone else sipping champagne.” She’ll suck it up like a big girl, she’ll hang out with Andy Roddick (rumor has it they have been quietly dating for a year now), they will commiserate with each other. Both will be back.

You kind of wonder what father Yuri had to say to her afterwards. Does she get another drubbing, this time verbally, from Pops? Probably not in this case. Serena was in a zone and Maria was not. There is not much anyone can do for you, Mama did say there would be days like this. That seemed to be Maria’s chief regret: it was her mom’s birthday, and her daughter could not give her the one gift she really wanted to give her.

For a minute there in the latter stages of the match, I thought I detected a tear rolling down Maria’s cheek. I nearly felt sorry for her.

Serena held thoughts of her dead half-sister, Yetunde Price, during the match. We really won’t know all that this family has been through in the last few years, as Serena has said. That’s why I think this win, her third Australian Open title and her 8th Grand Slam, has to be one of her greatest victories. A lot of order was restored to the House of Williams with this one.

For Serena I could not be happier. This was a tremendously satisfying win to experience with her. After all, we’ve experienced everything else with the Williams family. I made fun of her size and her outfits and her huffs and puffs as she covered court in her early matches. The “R” word for retirement was probably hovering around the heads of both the Williams girls, I thought.

Now Serena is already laying plans for the French. As she puts it, there are “some things” she wants to work on, now that she’s got the bit firmly between her teeth again. Is she saving Wimbledon for Venus? I hope so. The other Williams sister is going to want in on this hand, she was the one who helped Serena get back fit enough to enter Melbourne. In their offseason training it was Venus who was really pushing her sister, in spite of her wrist injury. At some point very soon Venus Williams will join her sister and they will feed off each other’s success once again.

With her ranking suddenly now catapulting to number 14 in the world, Serena should feel a lot of incentive to keep improving. There is a great rush of energy when you win a big event; you want to keep building on that. We all have wondered what this means for women’s tennis, to have a former champion suddenly emerge from inactivity to the top of the heap. Is this a good or bad thing? Does this completely demoralize the rest of the field? Probably not in the way that Federer’s dominance poses problems for the men. He really is running away with the field.

But right now in women’s tennis the real estate at the top just opened up again. We have a handful of women who could vie for the top spot at year’s end. It’s up for grabs. Justine Henin will return, in what sort of spirit God only knows after her divorce. Mauresmo is flickering again like a candle in a sudden draft. Sharapova is back to her drawing board and Serena Williams needs more fitness and yet more matches.

Today it’s especially good to be a Yank, but hopefully we can all celebrate the return of one of the game’s real power brokers. This could be a fun year in tennis!

Go Serena!

See Also:
Warrior Women: Serena Meets Shahar
The Yanks Step It Up In Melbourne

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The set was a 6-0 shellacking that was worse than the score looked.

In the The New Yorker last week there was an article about color consultant Leslie Harrington. She helps companies choose the current popular color for such products as furniture, appliances, and clothing. She belongs to the Color Marketing Group which meets twice a year to predict the upcoming season’s favorite colors. The candidates for 2008 include a brownish orange called Abodaba, a warm earth tone called Brokeback Bronze and Forbidden Plum, which I assume is a dark purplish reddish color and would be my choice for next season’s hottest gothic lipstick if such a thing existed.

According to the article, wasabi – a yellow green – has been the biggest color for the past five years. That probably explains all of those Nike green and yellow outfits at this year’s Australian Open. Rafael Nadal was wearing shiny green pirate pants and a yellow shirt before Fernando Gonzalez took him out in straight sets in the quarterfinals and Serena Williams has rolled into the final – yes the final, against one Maria Sharapova – in a resplendent green dress with yellow straps.

I don’t really care about fashion that much, it’s just that I’m bored. I’m having trouble getting excited about the matches and who can blame me. I was very excited about the semifinal match between Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. Roddick got a set off Federer at the U.S. Open last year, he had three match points on him in round robin play at the Tennis Masters Cup, and he finally beat him at Kooyong two weeks ago. Roddick looked like he was ready to step in for Nadal and hold up the Federer rivalry until the clay court season rolls around.

Alas, it was over not long after it began. In case you don’t hang out in sushi restaurants, wasabi is a very hot, spicy root known as Japanese horseradish and could well apply to Federer at the moment. He hasn’t lost a set here and today’s performance looked a lot like the double bagel he laid on Lleyton Hewitt at the 2004 U.S. Open final.

Serving in the first game of the match, Roddick hit an inside/out forehand and came to the net. Just as quickly, Federer hit a winner down the line and that was that, he had his first break point and, one point later, the break of serve. Federer picks your weaknesses apart and while it’s critical that Roddick attack the net, he’s not the best mover and in the time it took Roddick to run around his forehand and get to the net, Federer had passed him.

Federer made some errors early in the first set but still managed to break Roddick again and won the set 6-4. Then he started hitting completely ridiculous shots.

In the third game in the second set, Roddick hit a good serve wide then came in and whacked a forehand as hard as he could. On the dead run, Federer overran the ball slightly and casually flicked a backhand for a cross court winner. No smile, no nothing, just a quick shake of his racket. The set was a 6-0 shellacking that was worse than the score looked. Roddick won exactly six points.

It wasn’t that Roddick played so badly, he threw in some serves in the 140’s and kept attacking and I never saw him give up, it’s just that the passing shots kept flying past his ears and Federer hit everything exactly where he wanted the it to go.

Federer’s calmness is mirrored by his coach, Tony Roche, who sits in the stands calmly. Andy Murray talks to himself while looking at his coach, the talkative Brad Gilbert. Roddick is excitable and so is his coach. Jimmy Connors leans over the railing and pumps his fist or points his finger urging Roddick to take it to his opponent right now, dammit! And here we come to a major theme on the ATP for the last year: high profile coaches.

Fernando Gonzalez is tearing up this tournament and he’s been playing with exceptional consistency since he started working with Larry Stefanki in May of last year. In today’s New York Times, Stefanki described Gonzalez’ decision to hire a coach: “Fernando had a mirror moment. At age 25, he decided he wanted to do something more, that what he had was not enough.” If Gonzalez had a mirror moment, so did a lot of other players and in the mirror they saw Federer. What did they have to do to have a chance at beating him? They had to hire a coach who’d either won a few slams or had coached a player to slam wins (Stefanki used to coach John McEnroe) and they had to learn to love the net. No one is going to beat Federer standing on the baseline, at least not on anything but clay.

Gonzalez and Tommy Haas will meet in the other semifinal. Haas was the only player to push Federer to five sets last year and he also beat Federer at Kooyong last year. Still, I think I agree with Roddick on this one. After Roddick’s drubbing a reporter asked him what chance Haas or Gonzalez has against Federer. His response: “slim.”

Roddick lost eleven straight games before he managed to win a few in the third set of that drubbing. He lost the match, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2. He was on his way to closing the vast divide between his game and Federer’s and now the gap is as wide as ever. What should he do? Lick his wounds and improve his approach shot. Roddick can get away with his short approach against most players but not against Federer.

Still, it’s been a good tournament for Roddick. He played good tough matches against Marat Safin and Mario Ancic and it’s good to see him back in the semis. He should be there often this year.

See also:
Warrior Women: Serena Meets Shahar
2007 Australian Open: Peyton Manning and James Blake
2007 Australian Open: The Americans Are Coming!
The Yanks Step It Up in Melbourne
2007 Australian Open: Loosey Goosey Young And Talented
2007 Australian Open: Rubbermade
The Australian Open: Early Rounds
2007 Australian Open: Second Life

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Back when I was a feral youth I had occasion to thumb my way through Israel, arriving at a southern kibbutz where I promptly headed for the showers. To my great astonishment, an Israeli girl my age got into my very small shower with me. Now, there were about fifty other fine showers in the immediate vicinity, but she happened to pick mine. God, something interesting to write home about, I thought. My first lesbian experience. Or something like that. No such thing happened, she was probably just being a good water-saving citizen. But her aggressiveness really threw me.

I happened to recall this episode yesterday when I saw Shahar Peer push Serena Williams all over the court in the first set of their quarterfinal encounter. Basically the Israeli came out and got in Serena’s face in a major way. Serena probably thought, like I did, “What the hell is going on?”

This was not the same 6-1 drubbing Serena got from Nadia Petrova in the first set of their encounter in the third round. This set went 6-3, but I was more worried here about Serena than against Petrova. We know Petrova can go the way of the Big Chokes. Shahar Peer sends out the message, very strongly, that she’s not a choker; you have to beat this babe, she won’t do it herself. I saw her play for the first time last summer when she beat Dementieva in the fourth round at Roland Garros. Her game had heft and her personality had the fire and strength of a future Top Tenner for sure.

This is one tough cookie. We can safely say that Peer has a level of experience that the other women on the tour don’t have: she’s been in the Israeli army. Maybe I am overly impressed by this fact, but this girl can kick ass. Serena unfortunately has a lot of ass to kick. We have made fun of her rather mercilessly here of late, but Serena is getting the last laugh on all of us. Peer made a good leap at the throat of Serena in this match and, particularly in the first set, she showed us a powerful repertoire of shots.

After losing the first set to the steady, deep shot-making of Peer, Williams got herself in gear a bit and took the second, 6-2. But even with that comeback you were holding your breath for her chances. Shahar was not going to be a bagel in the third set, as is often the case with the big women stars who play lesser female players. How often have we seen one of them fight a set off of a name player, only to see that player come back and punish her severely in the third? This is where bagels get baked. Peer was not going to be in this league. And to her credit, Serena realized she was going to have to dig very deep to beat her.

Let’s pick up the action in the third set, the set where Mary Carillo said we’ll see “who stands up and for how long.” It looked like Serena was on her way, finally, when after four deuce points she finally broke Peer for a 3-1 lead. She consolidated the break serving for 4-1. But Peer broke back to make it 4-3, then fought off Serena to hold for 4-4.

Peer swings a good two-handed backhand and she has a booming forehand. She may want to build up more power on her serve though. Right now it has a big roundhouse motion but not a lot of power coming into the ball. It reminds me a bit of that other loopy server, Patty Schnyder.

Serena Williams however still has a great serve, it has helped her through her earlier matches here, and this was about the time she figured she had better use it. At 4-4 with two break points against her, Serena uncorked an ace for 30-40, then did it again for deuce. She wriggled her way free of that game with yet a third ace and it was now ahead 5-4 with Peer to serve.

Serena had a total of 11 aces, Peer had none. The serve may have separated the two players in the end. As Serena’s serving got better, Peer had trouble getting her first serve in, and Williams was enjoying a bit of a munch fest on the second one. Peer struggled to hold for 5-5 thanks to a few more errant forehands from Serena.

Crunch time came with Williams serving to go up 6-5. She knocked another forehand wide for love-15. But there was nothing wrong with her backhand, which she used beautifully to pick up a ball from a low angle and hit cross court for a winner to get to 15-15. A moment later at 30-30, Serena knocked another forehand into the net and she was down a break point. Her serve helped her out. A good rocket serve out wide to Peer’s backhand set up an easy swing volley that Williams knocked off for deuce. But she missed her first serve and Peer hit the second for a clean forehand winner up the line for a break point. Williams then uncorked a daring second serve up the line to Peer’s forehand, but Peer handled the return well and Williams smacked ANOTHER forehand wide. A break for the Israeli, and a chance to close the deal at 6-5.

This was where Peer needed a bit more experience under her belt; Williams has been living in these moments for a long time now. She knows the drill. Peer missed a couple of first serves and Serena made hay with the second. At 30-30, Peer hit a forehand wide, then on the long rally for the next point another forehand went into the net and Serena had broken back for 6-6.

The Australian Open, like Wimbledon, does not have a tiebreak in the closing set, so whoever wins by two games takes it all. Serena could smell the goodies now, and to celebrate she started off with a 122mph ace for 15-0, then aggressively moved into net on a short forehand from Peer and put the point away with a winning backhand. She went up 40-0 with another ace, then got the break when Peer netted another easy forehand.

Trailing 7-6, Peer served, and Williams unleashed a good forehand return of serve for a winner, 0-15. Following a fierce rally, Peer came back with her own great forehand up the line for 15-15. Williams netted a backhand for 30-15, but then Peer went into Williams’ forehand and Serena put it away for 30-30. Peer decided to come into net but overhit a backhand volley, match point against her. After another intense rally the Israeli pushed a forehand long and Serena was the one leaping for joy.

Whew! Is it great to have her back or what? I know my co-writer thinks Serena will have little motivation to get fitter if she does advance further into this tournament, but I disagree. I think the joy of getting through these tough rounds is going to translate into Serena Williams heading back to the gym and riding that emotion to a new fitness level. I think she will want to celebrate her good fortune, her sudden resurrection, which now only she can make permanent. She will become a grunt again. She must become a grunt again.

Supported by a small but vocal group of supporters, Peer played peerlessly for the first set, then was able to turn around her lack of consistently good play in the second and make her way back in the third to the doorstep of victory. The fact that she could not close the deal just means she does not yet have enough experience in really big moments. That will change. But how she got to this really big moment is a matter all of her own doing. She should take away as much from this match as Andy Murray will out of his encounter with Nadal.

Mazel Tov!

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Blake would have to win the first five setter of his career to get past Gonzalez. Maybe he should have taken some inspiration from Peyton Manning.

James Blake was trying to get past Fernando Gonzalez and into the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and he was having a few problems. He had triple set point in the first set but ended up losing the set 7-5. In the first game of the second set, Gonzalez hit a short cross court shot and conceded the point but Blake still managed to put the ball into the net. Oy!

Blake had more problems at 4-2 in the second set. He was up 40-0 in the game but Gonzalez fed him soft junk balls and Blake hit them out to lose the game and give up his service break advantage. Gonzalez broke him again to go up 5-4 then served out to go up two sets to none.

At the very least, Blake would have to win the first five setter of his career to get past Gonzalez. Maybe he should have taken some inspiration from Peyton Manning. They’ve been saying Manning can’t win the big one since he played college ball at Tennessee, but after he led the Indianapolis Colts from 18 points down against New England to a victory and a trip to the Super Bowl, he is the toast of the NFL.

I’ve been following Peyton Manning since his days at Tennessee. I knew his father was a famous football player and I also knew that Manning the son was obsessed with football. A post-game date with his girlfriend consisted of sitting in his dorm room watching the game he had just played on television. There was some question whether Manning or Ryan Leaf would be the first player taken in the 1998 NFL draft but that was just the p.r. machine working, Manning was and is the quintessential NFL quarterback and Leaf is long gone.

Being a sports star is a tough road and, to some degree, mirrors the struggles we all face day to day. That’s why I follow sports, to watch athletes figure out how to overcome adversity and win a championship. Each athlete’s career is a biography I can follow as it unfolds and here was Manning, a two-time MVP who already has a number of NFL passing records yet all you heard about him was, “he can’t win the big one.” As Manning said, the only thing that matters is “what have you done for me lately”.

Manning’s teams had been good teams in the past but the New England Patriots had been better and then life intervened. At the end of last season after the team started out 13-1, the son of Colts head coach Tony Dungy committed suicide. A personal tragedy can sometimes motivate a team but suicide is something different. It carries a hopelessness with it and that begets despair, the opposite of motivation.

Life intervened on James Blake too. He cracked a vertebrae in his neck running into a stanchion while chasing a ball on a tennis court and during his recovery, his father died of cancer. Shortly after his father’s death, he woke up with a painful case of shingles that blurred his vision.

Blake overcame all that and ended last year ranked number four in the world after getting to the Tennis Masters final. The next step was to win a five set match and make it to the semifinals – or final – of a slam. But he wasn’t ready.

He didn’t serve well against Gonzalez and he put easy balls into the net. Anyone can do that but his demeanor was even more telling. He was muted as if he was thinking too much. After the match he said things like, “At that point, yeah, I felt like maybe the breaks were going to start going my way, maybe I’m going to come back and get this set.” If you’re trying to break through to a new level, it could well be a struggle – look at Manning, he had to come from 18 points down – and you’ll be on the wrong end of it if you’re counting on getting a break.

No matter, Blake has shown us that he gets better at his own pace and I have another ongoing biography to follow. I’m looking forward to jumping up and down when he finally breaks through just as I did when Manning got his trip to the Super Bowl and Amelie Mauresmo won her first slam.

It could end differently; Blake could retire without a slam. But I’d bet the house on a semifinal or two and, for him, that could be victory enough.

See also:
2007 Australian Open: The Americans Are Coming!
The Yanks Step It Up in Melbourne
2007 Australian Open: Loosey Goosey Young And Talented
2007 Australian Open: Rubbermade
The Australian Open: Early Rounds
2007 Australian Open: Second Life

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