Monthly Archives: March 2007

In Miami: It’s Canas And Djokovic

Whew, hang on, folks, the end is in sight! We know that because the level of play has started to fall off after ten days of hectic upheaval and upsets galore. It was probably bound to happen simply because so much outrageous stuff has occurred already. Like the decimation of the seeded players, especially on the men’s side of the draw. The number one male and female player bit the dust in rather shocking fashion. We had to be brought back to earth. Today we crawled our way into the semifinals hoping for something normal we could sink our teeth into. Surely we could count on at least one of the matches being half-way decent. But today, no cigar, babies.

The first match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray promised a really good semi-final. Same age guys, they know each other well and their games well too. They have been two of the hotter, most interesting players this year. But like many a match-up that looks great on paper, the actual event can often be lacking in drama. Such was the case today. Unless one considers it “dramatic” to watch one of the more dismal performances I have seen on the men’s side in quite a while. Let’s be plain: it was a disgraceful performance from Andy Murray.

If I were Brad Gilbert, I’d want to reach for my spanking rod at this point. 6-0, 6-1. Guy, next time just phone it in, don’t bother waking us up, puleese! I hope some intrepid reporter at his presser piped up with, “Do you think you played like a real woman today, Andy?” For those of you who may not know the story, Andy Murray made a faux pas in describing one match he played with an opponent as one where “we both played like women.” He was flamed on all sides for that one. Wouldn’t you love to be the fly on the wall and overhear the first crack out of Gilbert’s mouth to his star pupil? Maybe the thought even crossed Gilbert’s mind, “What did I sign up for?”

Well, certainly not this. Murray came out like he had just tumbled out of bed. The energy wasn’t there, the shots weren’t there. Instead, Djokovic played like he was the guy with the all-around game, which I still don’t believe he has much of. His natural inclination is to stay on the baseline; he comes forward only when he must. He served big, he came to net and he ran Murray ragged with his expert drop shots. These two guys have only one guy between them in the rankings here in Miami, but today that gap looked like a chasm.

The evening match featured Ivan Ljubicic and Guillermo Canas, a match that also promised lots of goodies. Ljubicic probably felt like this was his golden moment. Federer was gone and Ivan must have liked his chances. After all, he pushed Roger in all three sets in last year’s final, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. If he felt like he was entitled, he should think again.

Canas again came out and outplayed his opponent. Ljubicic had three break points early in the first set and he could not convert any of them. That experience must have been so debilitating that the big Croat never recovered. Even though he did not lose a point on his serve until well into the first set, it did not matter. He played too cautiously when he should have been expanding on his already pretty big game. His brain just didn’t seem to be working out there. He could not play the big points well.

Sound familiar? Federer had the same problem against Canas. Here I was thinking Ljubicic had the game to stand up to Canas, more so than Federer. His strokes seemed longer and deeper, he’s taller, his backhand up the line was working well, and he was serving well – at least through the first set. Canas on the other hand struggled to hold and fought off numerous break points. Eventually, that gave him confidence. Canas turned the corner after breaking Ljubicic late in the first set then served out to win the set. Ljubicic waved his racquet a bit in the second, but you never felt like he was going anywhere. It wasn’t the dismal performance of Murray, but certainly a letdown in terms of how well Ivan has played before in big matches. The final score was 7-5, 6-4.

Canas? Wow! I am over the loss Federer took on the chin because Canas has convinced me he belongs back on the big stage. This man has the heart of a lion. But on Sunday he will be playing a man ten years his junior. He’s not yet a full blown lion himself but look out for Djoko, he has some claws. Patrick McEnroe picked him to beat Canas and I am inclined to agree. But Canas may end up having a supreme week wherein he can accomplish everything.

If he wins, let’s take him out into the bay, surely he can walk on water too?

As for the women, well, thank God for Serena. She has certainly redeemed the women’s side, what with the loss of Sharapova and Kuznetsova. Clijsters and Hingis went too, along with one of my favorites, Jelena Jankovic. She went out rather early to make it two early exits in successive events. Henin and Williams are playing the best tennis right now so we should be able to hope for a decent match in the final.

Djokovic versus Canas should be excellent too. These guys are at the peak of their competitive abilities; they have ferocious, and voracious appetites out there on court. They know how to grapple with an opponent. Djokovic has more finesse in the end, more natural ability, and better court sense than Canas. But it could likely be a very close duel to the end. We need a few more three setters here. At least give us one in the final. Let’s hope all the manly parts hold up physically so we can get through it successfully.

Uneasy And Just Plain Wrong about Cañas and Djokovic

Was Cañas just careless? Why did Djokovic smash Murray?

This is the first time I can ever remember not being excited by a pair of semifinals at a Masters Series Tournament. Maybe it was the plume of orange smoke that filled the sky above my house early this afternoon. A 5 acre brush fire spread to 150 acres quicker than lunch less than a mile from my house. If the wind had blown south instead of north and the fire had reached the Hollywood sign, my house would have been a thing of the past. I gathered my last will and testament and my passport and prepared to evacuate. Luckily, more than 200 firefighters managed to bring the fire under control. I’m going to the nearest firehouse tomorrow to personally thank them.

But it wasn’t just that. I have to admit that I feel uneasy about Guillermo Cañas. I want to know: did he intentionally take a masking agent to cover up the use of a performance enhancing drug or was he just careless? When baseball player Rafael Palmeiro pointed his finger at members of congress and said “I have never used steroids, period,” I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. When he later tested positive the steroid stanolozol, I felt better because then I knew

Cañas has been on fire – ugh, maybe I should use a different term. At Indian Wells he beat Roger Federer. After beating Federer again in Miami, he beat Tommy Robredo then beat Ivan Ljubicic today to get to the final.

Cañas’ guilt shouldn’t matter, he served his suspension and he’s now playing exceptional tennis, but the legal case still isn’t finished. First Cañas appealed his original suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which reduced his suspension and reinstated tournament results, then he appealed the CAS decision to the Swiss Federal Tribunal. Either Cañas is determined to prove that he was treated unfairly or he’s protesting so much that I’m suspicious all over again.

But it’s not just that I’m uneasy either. It’s that I’m just plain wrong. I expected Andy Murray to be the first youngster to make it to the top ten, instead it’s Novak Djokovic. It wasn’t even close. Djokovic took about an hour to beat Murray, 6-1, 6-0, and move into the final against Cañas. As my friend James would say, “wow wow wow.” That score is shocking.

Djokovic is also playing exceptionally well. He got to the final at Indian Wells and beat Rafael Nadal in Miami. But he powers his way to victory instead of reading his opponent. When Djokovic was serving for the match against Nadal, he still insisted on hitting his approach to Nadal’s forehand making it easy for Nadal to pass him. One point in that game, though, showed why Djokovic is ahead of the pack.

Facing a break point, Djokovic hit a hard serve and Nadal popped up the return. Djokovic came in and hit the ball as hard as he could but Nadal got to it. Djokovic hit an overhead and Nadal got to that too. Djokovic came in and hit another hard shot and to the crowd’s delight – they were squealing in disbelief by now – Nadal chased it down. One more overhead, one more lob and then it was over, Djokovic finally put the ball out of reach.

He looked up at the sky then bent over on the court. He had survived the onslaught and defeated it. Welcome to the top ten young man. Power and nerve will serve you well.

I’ve decided to treat my uneasiness and disappointment with a short trip to Las Vegas. I’m off tomorrow see the legendary Prince perform at his nightclub at the Rio. Lets see if the sexy little guy can put my mind at ease.

The Revenge of Cañas

Guillermo Cañas got his second shot in a row at Roger Federer at the Masters Series event in Miami.

When Kobe Bryant went on a recent tear and scored at least 50 points in four straight games for the Los Angeles Lakers, his coach Phil Jackson suggested that Bryant was motivated by two recent suspensions. Bryant was pissed off because he thought the NBA treated him harshly when they gave him two one game suspensions for flailing his arms and hitting players in the face.

Guillermo Cañas was already angry. In 2005 he received a two year suspension for using performance enhancing drugs prescribed by an ATP doctor and delivered to him by ATP staff. Later that year the ATP kicked him off the grounds of the U.S. Open when he tried to see his girlfriend play a match. Cañas appealed the decision and got the suspension reduced to 15 months but he was out to prove that the suspension was unfair.

That was bad enough. Then Roger Federer chimed in. After Federer lost to Cañas in Indian Wells, this is what he said about Cañas’ suspension:

They always fight for it anyway, everybody that was tested positive, you know. That’s, for me, just not understandable, you know. Everybody who gets caught always says, “I didn’t do anything,” so…

It’s just not right, you know.

I don’t blame Federer, how can you believe anyone if everyone says they’re not guilty? But Cañas surely didn’t appreciate it and here he was two weeks later at another Masters Series event with another shot at Federer. This was gonna be fun.

Canas won the first set tiebreaker but Federer came back and took the second set easily, 6-2, and it looked like Federer had taken the measure of Cañas’ game and figured out how to beat it. In Indian Wells, you remember, Federer had a blister on his foot which impaired his movement. Now he had no excuses and he was taking care of business.

Federer got up a break in the third set and had two break points to go up another when it got interesting. He failed to convert either break point and this set the crowd loose. Cañas is an Argentine and there are a lot of South Americans in Miami. The crowd was rowdy all day and they delayed the beginning of Federer’s serve in the next game with cheers of “Willy”, Cañas’s nickname. It wasn’t just Argentines, there were a few Brazilians in the crowd too. It was the Swiss Federer against South America.

Federer put a hard serve down the middle but Cañas managed to bunt it back for a good return. It is windy in Miami but then it’s been windy all week so it seemed a bit strange when Federer hit the ball more than a few feet beyond the baseline. He did the very same thing on the next point. Nothing else you can call that but nerves.

A point later Federer seemed to forget how to move as he put an easy forehand into the net to give Cañas two break points. One more Federer shot beyond the baseline and non-South Americans were putting their hands to their face in astonishment.

We’ve been talking about slumpers this week, James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez in particular having been having problems. Maria Sharapova isn’t doing so well either. Her serve has been dismal since she injured her hamstring at the end of January and she got trounced by Serena Williams here for the second time this year. Federer could probably sympathize.

When your rhythm goes off your confidence will take a hit and the first place a player will feel that is on the big points. Federer had already botched a few of them earlier in the match. When he served at 4-5 in the third set tiebreaker, he had another opportunity.

He hit a good serve wide and got a popup from Cañas. Federer then stepped inside the line and hit a swinging volley. Right into the net. Instead of pulling even, he’d given Cañas two match points. Cañas was the number 8 player in the world when he was suspended so his results this year shouldn’t a surprise. Cañas put a good serve right down the middle, Federer, perhaps appropriately, whiffed at it and Cañas had his second victory over Federer in as many tournaments.

Federer managed to win three grand slams around back to back losses to Rafael Nadal last year but he also won both Indian Wells and Miami. We’ll see if is this month has been a blip for him or the start of a bigger problem. It’s a lot easier to push yourself up the rankings when you feel you’ve been wronged than it is to maintain a number one ranking for over three years so it would not be shocking to see Cañas continue to thrive and Roger experience further problems.

Bitch And Sing Dept: More Carnage From Miami

If you thought the tennis from Miami would be more orderly for the seeds than the last event in Indian Wells, well think again. Day one for the main draw started with seeds going down and the trend continues. James Blake was the first of a long line, followed by Safin, Baghdatis, Hrbaty, Hewitt (he retired) and Tommy Haas. And that’s before the television coverage kicked in. On Sunday we lost Gonzalez and Youzhny. Yesterday it was Davydenko, Gasquet, Berdych and Nalbandian. Is there something in Miami about the water that we should know about?

Still, it’s been a fun tournament. Why I don’t know, it just feels fun, the matches have been all over the place and if you are a spectator you have probably enjoyed yourself. In fact part of the viewing fun has been watching the crowd. Unlike the desert of Indian Wells, where people have both time and money on their hands, Miami has a more urban proletariat feel. This bunch could have wandered in from the beach. Crowd Control? What’s that? Changeovers? Huh? Large groups of people are allowed to file into the stadiums at the most inopportune times, annoying the hell out of the players who are about to serve. Crandon Park looks like it’s situated in a swamp, so I was half-expecting a few gators to come wandering in too. It’s been that kind of tournament. Weather has been a problem too with rain backing up the first few days, and it seems to be perpetually windy here as well.

The pleasures of this event for me are coalescing around the budding careers of some new babies on the block. One of them is Juan-Martin Del Potro. Just last week I mentioned to my co-writer Nina Rota that we should probably start speaking more about this kid. Then he went out and upset Youzhny, so now we really have to talk about him. The Argentines are extremely fond of his prospects and now I see why. He’s only 18 but his head and his nerve seem about 28. He’s got great height at 6’5”, but he moves nimbly for a big guy. He’s got a two-handed backhand that looks solid, as does his forehand. He takes both shots with elbows quite bent and arms close in to his body, but he gets his shots off effectively. His serve is solid and he is not adverse to coming forward given his chances. He’s still got to get through Nadal in the next round, but given how things have gone so far here no match can be said to be nailed down. Look for a free-swinging battle in that match-up, since Del Potro looks too young still to be scared. And last but not least, he has hair. Lots and lots of it! Yum.

The other find out of this tournament is one of ours, sort of. Amer Delic emigrated nearly ten years ago with his family from the war in Bosnia, and that’s good news for Americans. I can’t remember when I ever saw Nikolay Davydenko being so frustrated on a tennis court as he was yesterday. He could never figure out the riddle of returning Delic’s powerful serves. This guy’s name has appeared on the horizon over the last year, and his win yesterday should give him a big leg up in confidence. Delic is 6’5”, lean and strong, with a muscle T he looks like he belongs in. He reminds me of Safin, with the same power and rangy speed that allows him to get around the court well. He started the match inauspiciously, his serve wasn’t quite grooved and his one-handed backhand let him down a lot. Towards the end of the first set he fought his way into the match, getting an early break back and forcing Davydenko into a tiebreak. Normally the Russian returns well but Delic was such a new item that Davydenko had trouble reading his serve. Then Davydenko’s normally reliable game started breaking down, particularly the forehand. Davydenko had four set points and couldn’t close the deal. Delic was off to the races, winning in two sets.

The other stand-out is a veteran, Guillermo Canas, who is as hot as he was in Indian Wells. This guy is a dream competitor, he has energy and perseverance up the wazoo. Being out of the game for such a long time seems to have focused his desire to get back to the top. The guy is honed in now like a laser beam. He continues to serve well and cover the court like he was born to play the net. He had too much firepower and consistency for Richard Gasquet yesterday. Next up is the dream rematch of Canas with Roger Federer. I want to see Roger get his own back, but the way Canas is playing…..gulp! That’s why this has been a great spectator’s tournament, the match-ups have been terrific.

Yippie tai yai yay, as the cowboys say. Maria Sharapova will be yelling that too. It’s Tuesday, 11:34 a.m. and Serena Williams just stuck the knife into her. We’re going to start calling Maria “Yippie,” because she’s got the service jitters really bad. 6-1, 6-1 was the score, and it felt like we barely saw the players warm-up. The problem started for Maria down in Australia, and her service motion is not getting any better. As Pam Shriver said, it’s all mental, there’s just nothing you can do about it in practice. It only shows up for a player during a match. You wonder what advice her current date Andy Roddick has offered up. Maybe he should wonder if it’s catching.

My picks going into the round of 16:

Murray over Mathieu (Murray dropped the opening set, but came back to win).

Delic over Chela: Chela’s had a good run, clipping Tomas Berdych yesterday, but I like the American’s chances, and if that big serve is working he could pull this out.

Robredo over Stepanek (right now they are going into a third set).

Nadal over Del Potro – Much as I would love to see Del Potro shine again, Nadal may have too much experience and firepower. Besides, don’t we all want a Roger Nadal final? Sorry, Juan.

Ljubicic over Nieminen – Lots of craft and guile in this one. Both guys had some trouble getting here. Too much height advantage and firepower from the big Croat.

Djokovic over Lopez – Feliciano has great hair too, and he had for him a great run this week, taking out Safin early on. But Djokovic is a steely kid, and he’s caught a good draw here.

Roddick over Ferrer – Ferrer does amazingly well for a little guy, and he nearly forced Roddick into a first set tiebreak today. But way too much firepower and consistency now from Roddick.

Federer over Canas – I still say bet the entire house on Roger. We will see entrails scattered about here, as I wrote earlier in the week. I just hope they’re not Roger’s.

That’s it, folks. Four Spaniards, three Argentines, two Americans, one Frenchman, a Scot, a Croat, a Serb, a Czech, one lonely Finn and that Swiss guy what’s ‘is face. Shake well, cocktails are on the way. It’s going to be one powerful brew.

Slumps And Plateaus in Miami: Blake, Gonzalez, et al.

I’m not sure Gonzalez is in a slump, he could be experiencing a plateau.

What is going on in Miami? Players are dropping like flies. Juan Carlos Ferrero lost his first match though it was Guillermo Canas who beat him so maybe that’s not such a big surprise. Tommy Haas lost his first match to Alejandro Falla and that was a big surprise. James Blake lost his first match to Florent Serra which is no longer a surprise. Blake hasn’t gone past the third round since Delray Beach and the clay court season is next and that’s unfortunate because clay is his worst surface.

Blake is in what we call a slump. Baseball hitters have them, golfers have them, I’m sure even curlers have them though they probably blame the ice. Blake knows that everyone will experience a slump at some point in their career and he knows exactly what happens during a slump, you lose your confidence and it shows up foremost on the big points.

It happened to Blake at the end of the first set tiebreaker in the match with Serra:

What happened is I locked up. That’s where my confidence came up…I locked up at the last second and saw he was covering where I was going to go. When I’m playing well I don’t even look up and I don’t notice what he’s doing. I just hit my shot to where I want to go.

What can you do when you’re in a slump? Blake has a plan for regaining his confidence:

Hopefully I can count on being a dumb jock and I can fool myself into thinking that I can play confidently next time. I think I can do that. It’s just a little bit of tricking yourself, and before you know it, the confidence just comes naturally.

If it works, Fernando Gonzalez might want to try it. He was tearing his hair out during his loss to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round. Gonzalez is barely over .500 for the last two months.

But I’m not sure Gonzalez is in a slump, he could be experiencing a plateau. Since Gonzalez hired Larry Stefanki as his new coach last year, his style of play has changed. He used to hit the ball as hard as possible and throw in a few drop shots here and there. I could be simplifying but certainly subtlety was never a feature of his game. Stefanki has added change of pace to his game and encouraged him use more strategy and less firepower.

Whenever you make a big change, you go through a learning process and that process often resembles a staircase. At the beginning you run up the stairs two or three steps at a time as you discover new things. Gonzalez reached three straight finals last fall and had a stellar performance at the Australian Open in January. But you can only jam so much learning into your noggin before you need a period to process and integrate and here is where you end up on the landing running in place before your next burst of improvement.

If Gonzalez thinks that learning is a linear process – you only get better – and forgets that he’s on a longer journey with even more adjustments ahead, he’ll get frustrated and angry as he did in the Mathieu match. Worst of all, he reverted to his old style of play.

Both Blake and Gonzalez could learn from two players who’ve recently made adjustments. Rafael Nadal’s win at Indian Wells was his first title in ten months. That’s definitely a slump for him but slumps aren’t always self-induced. Players caught up to him on fast courts. They hit through the ball and came to the net to take time away from him and it worked. Nadal improved his serve and rediscovered his forehand all the while holding on to his number 2 ranking and now he looks like his old self.

Andy Roddick’s problems weren’t self induced either. The game was passing him by. The best serve in the game and a pretty good forehand were no longer enough. He was getting his butt kicked on grass by Roger Federer and Andy Murray, players with better all-court games. Roddick had to round out his game by being more aggressive on returns of serve and coming to the net more often. After dropping to number 12, Roddick is now comfortably at number 3.

Notice the theme here, it’s no longer enough to be a clay court retriever or a hard court banger, you have to be an all court player to get to the top. As Charles Darwin said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.