Monthly Archives: March 2007

Benni Becker: The Anti-Phenomenon

This is part of a regular series following Benjamin Becker’s progress on the ATP tour. This is not a Benjamin Becker fan site, we’ll trash anyone given the opportunity (constructively, of course). The idea is to follow the progress of one player on the tour as an ongoing serial biography.

Donald Young was sixteen years old last year when he got a wild card into the first round at Indian Wells, Miami and the U.S. Open. This year he’s been named a hitting partner for the upcoming U.S. Davis Cup match. It’s not that easy being a tennis phenomenon. Young has yet to win a match on the main tour and he feels alienated from the junior tennis circuit. Last year at Wimbledon he sounded like a lonely young man:

I’m not accepted in the juniors, because the others are all upset that I have deals and an agent, and the pros, they’re all upset because you’re 15 years younger and it feels like your taking their living. So there’s really nowhere really for me right now.

Young got another wild card into Miami this week but this time it was for the qualifying tournament. He lost in the first round.

You could call Benni Becker an anti-phenomenon. He played a few futures tournaments in the ATP minor leagues when he was nineteen but he certainly didn’t have an entourage. He didn’t start college until he was twenty and when he arrived at Baylor University, his coach Matt Knoll said he was “shy, listless and ambivalent about playing tennis.” Becker went back home to Germany after his first year at Baylor, put his racket in the closet and left it there until he returned to school.

His attitude changed after his team suffered a disappointing loss in the NCAA tournament his sophomore year. He dedicated himself to playing tennis so he could help his team win the NCAA title. Here’s another way that Becker is an anti-phenomenon: he didn’t find motivation in individual goals in what is normally an individual sport, instead he ended up playing tennis in the one place in the world where tennis is a team sport – college tennis in the U.S.

The next year, Baylor won the NCAA team title and Becker won the NCAA individual title. Yet he still came back for his senior year. Maybe he needed more time to make that transition from playing a team sport to playing an individual sport. In an email interview I asked him how he made the transition:

I never had personal tennis goals until now so I find motivation, but playing for the NCAA showed me how to set goals and work towards [them]. Just the feeling of winning it and giving something back to the university and fighting and practicing with friends made it a special goal.

That’s an incomplete answer – where does he find motivation? – so I’ll have to go into it more when I speak to him next time, but it’s an unusual statement considering that most tennis players play for themselves from an early age.

I couldn’t speak to Becker in person because he’d already lost his first round match at Indian Wells by the time I arrived. He also lost his first round match at Miami this week. Being emotionally mature doesn’t make you immune to the fluctuations that every career goes through, the road to the top is seldom a straight line and Becker’s sharp rise, in particular, has been tiring. Every tennis media outlet in the world wanted to speak to him after he sent Andre Agassi into retirement at last year’s U.S. Open and he recently played Davis Cup for the first time and signed a clothing contract with Boris Becker’s line which no doubt increased the media inquiries in Germany.

Speaking of that Agassi match, if you remember, Becker started to cramp in the fourth and final set and he cruised through Agassi’s service games until they got to 5-5, then he broke Agassi and served out for the match. I asked him if that was an intentional strategy:

I did not really wait for one game but tried to save my energy a little in the fourth set and just go for winners on his service games. At 5:5 15:0 I kind of felt a second wind and gathered myself physically and mentally again and played a great game to break.

So it wasn’t entirely intentional but it was adequate and I doubt that Donald Young would be equipped at this point in his career to take that victory in front of 23,000 of Agassi’s biggest fans. For sure, the younger Benni Becker could never have pulled it off.

2007 Miami: Draws And Picks

Federer and Nadal again. Are you ready?

Sorry I’m late with the Miami picks, much of the second round is already set, but I was sick earlier in the week and the ATP site wasn’t working properly yesterday.

James Blake over Marat Safin should be an easy pick but Blake has been maddeningly inconsistent. He lost his first match at Las Vegas and ended up ringing the death knell for round robins when ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers mistakenly gave Blake a free pass to the quarterfinals after Blake’s second round opponent retired on him. Blake then lost to Julien Benneteau at Indian Wells as soon as he realized he didn’t have to face Roger Federer who shockingly lost his first round match. It’s a good thing Blake’s coach is a wise and patient guy, I would be pulling my hair out.

Mikhail Youzhny and Marcos Baghdatis isn’t so easy to call either. Youzhny lost in the first round at Indian Wells and Baghdatis hasn’t decided whether he wants to play outdoors this year, he’s 9-1 on indoor courts and 5-5 on outdoor courts.

I’m going with Blake and Youzhny only because they’re the favorites but I wouldn’t lay my lunch money on either one. If Blake does get through he should meet Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Blake is 3-0 lifetime over Nadal but I think Nadal wins this time as Blake hasn’t totally recovered.

Tomas Berdych has slipped behind two other young players, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Berdych is only 21 but I’m losing hope for him. He hasn’t won a title since winning the Masters Series event in Paris in 2005. He’s playing as if he already reached the ceiling of his desire. Very few people in the universe have the all-consuming desire necessary to get to the top ten and stay there and it looks like Murray and Djokovic do. I have Berdych losing to Chela.

I’m assuming that Andy Murray can take out Fernando Gonzalez by applying the domino theory. Murray beat Tommy Haas on one good ankle in Indian Wells and Haas took out Gonzalez easily before he met up with Murray. Besides, Murray is my new favorite player.

Nikolay Davydenko has the easiest draw and should get to the semifinals.

Murray and Andy Roddick could meet in the quarterfinals. They’ve played each other twice this year on hard court and split. According to court speed ratings at, Miami is significantly faster than Indian Wells so I’m giving the advantage to Roddick. If Roddick meets Nadal in the semifinals the result could be closer than the debacle at Indian Wells where Nadal beat Roddick 6-4, 6-3, but the end result will be the same.

So, tennis fans, Nadal was on a roll last week and it looks like we could get Federer-Nadal X. About time I say. As for the winner, I agree with my co-writer Pat Davis, bet the house on Federer in Miami after his untimely exit at Indian Wells.

You can see the draw and my picks in the draws here.

The B*tch And Sing Dept: After The Desert

We’re moving across the country from the dry heat of Southern California to the sticky stuff in Miami where both tours begin a nearly two-week event called the Sony Ericsson Open. Somehow the mugginess of Florida doesn’t promise much respite after the desert furnaces of Indian Wells, but it’s good to get out of town. I can think of a handful of players who probably think the same way.

Having received a surprising comeuppance in the desert, it would be wise to bet the entire house on Roger Federer this week. I expect him to come out with blood in his eye and smoke pouring from his ears emitting both “fire and music” as the inestimable Margo Channing once said. Appropriately we suppose, his opener occurs this coming Saturday night. It features entertainment ripped from the pages of Super Bowls past, replete with fire and music, sound and light, and a rendition of our national anthem from some secret superstar singer. If Roger is not laughing hysterically at the thought of all this hyper inflation, as I am now, then he should go out and win, convincingly, with style and panache, just to show who’s in charge. You’ve bought pizzas for all the ball kids, Roger, and you hung around like a really good guy and schmoozed the world in Indian Wells after your loss. But now we want to see you on your feet and swinging. Entrails scattered around the court would be nice too. Andreev’s or Querrey’s. One of them you’ll meet in your opener.

It would be nice to see him face Nadal again in a final. They have not met since the semi-finals of the year-end ATP championship in Shanghai. Roger won in two sets on the indoor carpet surface. I hope you guys meet again so I don’t have to keep watching my Shanghai tape to remind myself of how great it is when Federer meets Nadal. That match featured some serious heavy ground strokes from both players in long rallies. Nadal played a wonderful match but Federer was just sublime. Fans and inspectors need more of that intensity. If we are to experiment further with the round robin format, let’s use it to get Federer facing Nadal in more finals. Why fool around with anyone else, let’s just cut to the chase.

It’s good to see Nadal with a big win under his belt. He was having a long hiccup there. I am not a diehard Rafa fan, but it’s important for the game that he runs into Roger more often. Now that he’s finally gotten into a final, maybe he’ll get a taste for staying in them. The match on Sunday was a lot more vital for Nadal to win that Djokovic but the fact that he won and Federer lost doesn’t really import any dramatic changes anytime soon in the shape of the men’s game. Federer is far ahead of the pack, even far ahead of Nadal, yet Nadal is also far ahead of the pack.

Hopefully the pack can generate a few more rivalries of its own since they really can’t touch the top two players. Murray and Djokovic would be a good rivalry since they are the same age and are already familiar with each other’s play. It may be more of a rivalry now rather than later as I see Murray rapidly developing an all-court game. He has hands in the great tradition of Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe.

Djokovic has the drive to succeed but can he add more to his game? He can serve big but from what I saw of him against Nadal, his serve may not be big enough. Nor consistent enough. His forehand is his weapon de jour but that’s about all that’s in his bag. I don’t feel particularly drawn to his personality or his style of play. I have seen it all before. Federer has spoiled me rotten. I want to see every new player showing his particular gift; something unique. Djokovic is more of the same. I am happy to see my co-writer agrees with me in this regard. He will make the top ten after last week but I hope Murray follows closely on his heels because he has the more interesting game. Too bad Novak wasn’t playing a five-setter because he might have been able to get his teeth into it a bit more.

Blake-Roddick should be more of a rivalry too. Both guys of late appear so fragile at times against those foreigners that maybe they just need to play each other for a change. Maybe then they can channel their aggressive styles better. Speaking of Roddick, some photos of him on a crotch-grabbing spree between points at the Aussie Open this year are circulating around the internet. Not current, but timely anyway. The way Nadal took it to Roddick on Saturday, I wouldn’t be surprised if Andy repeated that gesture on occasion. Just to make sure they’re all there. Wouldn’t you? Nadal will leave a trail of manly men clutching their balls this spring.

Kudos this week also to Tommy Haas who is showing great stuff this year. He should have beaten Murray and he knows it but both guys emerged as winners from that dust-up. We kind of neglected the women last week so congrats also to Li Na for livening up the women’s draw, and how about that Daniela Hantuchova’s win over Kuznetsova? Five years is a long time between titles. Better late than never we suppose. She showed a lot of composure and strength in winning only her second tour title.

It’s good to see, if not exactly new faces, then new winners in the winner’s circle. Sometimes it’s revealing when the top seeds go out of a tournament. Good things emerge in their wake.

2007 Indian Wells: the tripleheader that wasn’t

All credit to Roddick for climbing back to number three after a horrible start last year but how does he move forward now?

My gracious hosts Here at Indian Wells wanted to know what time I would be home for dinner. I told them not to hold dinner for me, there were two men’s semifinals and a women’s final to be played this afternoon and I expected to be at the stadium for a good seven or eight hours.

I was wrong. I could have been home for dinner by six and that is not a good thing.

Earlier this week, Bill Simons of Inside Tennis asked Rafael Nadal an interesting question. He wondered if Nadal was getting too comfortable with his number two ranking. Did he still have a burning desire to be number one? It took a few people to successfully translate the question into Spanish but Nadal finally answered that he was comfortable with number two because he didn’t see an opportunity to be number one but his goal, of course, is to be number one.

Andy Roddick will now have to decide how comfortable he is at number three because he lost badly to Nadal in the first semifinal today, 6-4, 6-3. Roddick is more than a thousand points behind Nadal in the ATP rankings and less than one hundred in front of Nikolay Davydenko so Simon’s question is important because this is competitive sports, if you’re not moving forward then you’re probably slipping backwards.

All credit to Roddick for climbing back to number three after a horrible start last year but how does he move forward now? Some of his problems today were temporary. During the three games he lost his serve, he got a total of three first serves into the court. And some problems need fixing.

I said Roddick would have problems later in the week if he tried to serve and volley because those higher ranked guys hit very good passing shots. But he also had trouble getting to the net because Nadal’s topspin kicked up and kept him behind the baseline. Roddick realizes he has to do something. After the match he said:

I mean, we were talking about it, Jimmy (Connors) and I just now, and we said, you know, we’re going to have to go back and look at this match and really kind of think about what we would try to do a little bit differently.

Nadal said he had his best match of the year today and clearly Roddick did not so the gap isn’t as wide as it looked, but this is the era of the supercoach and I’m looking forward to seeing what Connors comes up with next. After Andy Murray dismantled Tommy Haas in the quarterfinals last night you have to appreciate Murray and his coach Brad Gilbert. We know Gilbert can coach a player to number one, he did it with Andre Agassi, and it’ll be fun to see how Connors deals with the challenge.

Both women’s finalists, Daniela Hantuchova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, suffered from early success. Hantuchova won the title here in 2002 and hadn’t won a tournament since. Kuznetsova won the 2004 US Open and reached a career high number four then had a terrible 2005 before winning Miami and getting to the French Open final last year. She is now back at number four.

This tournament has been a bit of a letdown because Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo are not here and Maria Sharapova went out early. Kuznetsova explained it like this: “…Justine, Amelie, they were not here this week. And then, afterwards, other top players that lose early. And, for me, not to make the final would feel very low. At least I made it, you know.” And maybe that was the problem, being satisfied with the final, because she had trouble keeping the ball in the court and she let Hantuchova dictate the match with aggressive play.

And maybe Kuznetsova is too comfortable at number four. Look at this exchange:

Q. Svetlans, does this sort of take …a little bit of pressure off you going into the next week where you’ve got all winners points to defend? [remember, Kuznetsova won the title at Miami last year]Kuznetsova: Yeah, definitely, definitely it’s easier. I mean, you know, otherwise, I always defend all the points, you know. So it’s much easier to me next week.When you win a tournament on the professional tennis tour, you have to come back and win it again next year else your ranking is likely to drop. The pressure only increases, it never really decreases. That’s why very few people are well equipped for this job. Hantuchova got the second title of her career today winning it 6-3, 6-4. Five years after her first title she’s much better prepared for the job.The last match of the day featured the two best young players on the ATP tour: Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Murray is ranked number fourteen and Djokovic thirteen. Their games and their temperaments are very different and it should have been fun to see them slug it out on the hard court but it wasn’t.

Murray hurt his ankle and his hip during his win over Tommy Haas in the quarterfinals last night but he played today because he was told he couldn’t hurt himself further. He had second thoughts about it after the match:

I had a bit of an unprofessional decision on my part to have gone on. You know, I guess the older you get, the more you learn that it’s not always about just going.

Murray couldn’t move and that’s the biggest part of his game. Djokovic won the match easily, 6-2, 6-3, and moved himself into the top ten for the first time in his career.

The cafeteria closes during the last game of the last match. After Djokovic won his fourth game in the last set I knew it would be over pretty quickly so I took off to get my dinner much earlier than I thought I would.

Nadal finds his forehand and wins Indian Wells

Every tournament has its own personality and often it has a revelation or two along the way. While Novak Djokovic was losing to Rafael Nadal in the final at Indian Wells today, I thought back to Friday night’s match between Andy Murray and Tommy Haas.

Andy Murray was the revelation this week for me and watching Djokovic brought it to mind. Djokovic is a typical young and upcoming tennis player. He hits the ball very hard from the baseline and will approach the net if the situation calls for it. He has a favorite shot and it’s the favorite shot of most professional tennis players today: the inside out forehand.

Jim Courier is the first player I remember watching who hit that shot so it’s not particularly new but now it has become ubiquitous. Serving wide to the deuce court then hitting an inside out forehand to the opposite side of the court is part of most players’ repertoires. The problem is that most players’ repertoires are not as large as they could be.

And that’s where Murray comes in. He puts the ball wherever he wants it to go at any speed and any altitude. Inside out forehand, drop shot, moonball, defensive lob, short shot to draw his opponent to the net, top class first serve, he has it all. Along with the shots he has the intelligence to use them well enough to dissect his opponent’s game. He’s not alone, Roger Federer is pretty good at it too. And he’s also not ranked as high as Djokovic who moved into the top ten with his appearance in the final today. But I would have chosen him to beat Djokovic and get to the final if he hadn’t fallen and hurt himself in the Haas match.

Take this for instance. I don’t think it would have taken Murray more than a set to realize that running around your backhand to hit an inside out forehand leaves an open court for Nadal to hit a forehand down the line. More than a few players have beaten Nadal this year by attacking his forehand but if Djokovic had seen Nadal take Andy Roddick apart in the semifinals, he would have realized that Nadal seems to have found his forehand once again.

A few games into the second set Djokovic starting hitting to Nadal’s backhand and we finally had a tennis match to watch. With Nadal serving at 2-1, Djokovic managed to get three break points but couldn’t convert them. Serving at 5-5, he faced his own break point and got himself in position to hit a good volley. Unfortunately the ball limped off his racket and landed right in Nadal’s wheelhouse. Nadal got his break and served out for a 6-2, 7-5, victory and his first title since the French Open last year.

Djokovic didn’t play the important points well but he’s only nineteen years old and this is his first Masters Series final and he did well to get here. Next time, I’ll be waiting to see what happens when both Murray and Djokovic are healthy. Oh, and if Federer can stick around long enough in Miami next week, maybe we’ll even get to to see Federer and Nadal go at it again.