Monthly Archives: July 2007

Stepanek Psyches Out Blake in Los Angeles

Radek Stepanek outworked and outthought James Blake to take the title in Los Angeles.

Radek Stepanek is one of those cerebral tennis players. Maybe that’s part of the attraction for his fiancée Martina Hingis, sometimes referred to as the “cerebral assassin”. You never know quite know where Stepanek’s ball will go or what speed it might have. He’ll hit a drop shot then pass you at the net and serve and volley in spots. And for a finesse player, he’s got plenty of serve. Twice in his victory over James Blake today in Los Angeles, he dug out of a 0-40 deficit with service winners and aces.

Blake had survived those annoying grinders Paul Goldstein and Vince Spadea earlier this week but this was different. Stepanek drew Blake to the net with drop shots numerous times and though Blake started to pick up on them in the second set, he never did figure out that Stepanek likes to hit his running forehand passing shot cross court.

Both sides played excellent tennis in the first set. In the tenth game, Blake hit an approach shot followed by a short hop volley then watched as Stepanek hit a gorgeous running backhand down the line and past him. Stepanek hit one of those running forehand passing shots to even the tiebreak at 6-6 and three points later, won the tiebreak and first set.

In between points, there was a different, unspoken competition taking place and it affected the outcome of the match. Blake likes to play fast and he gets annoyed when his opponents play games. That’s almost an invitation to play games and Stepanek him up on it.

He broke a string in the first set tiebreak and took his sweet time going through the rackets in his bag to find a replacement. He went to his chair to get a towel in between points instead of handing it to a ballperson standing behind him.

He complained to the chair umpire about Blake’s posse – the J-Block – making too much noise. A tournament official went over to the posse and publicly told them to cut it out. I’m sure Blake didn’t appreciate that. There was even a mini-stare down after Blake tried to hit a ball through Stepanek’s belly.

Stepanek started to tire towards the end of the second set. He started spraying his shots. At 5-5, Blake hit one of his rocket returns and two passing shots of his own to get a break, then served out the set to even the match.

Blake should have had the advantage in a third set because Stepanek hasn’t been very deep in tournaments since missing six months due to injury. Blake was smart enough to recognize this. He ran Stepanek around and hit some drop shots to tire him out.

It seemed to be working when Stepanek called a medical time out for a hamstring strain early in the set. He was breathing hard and the leg problem could have been cramping. Or he could have been taking a “phantom” medical time out to get a rest, a slightly longer version of his previous delay tactics. Not that I have a problem with that. If it works and it’s legal, then he’s a smart player.

No doubt the thought seeped into Blake’s mind because he hit a double fault in the next game to give Stepanek a break point then lost his serve to go down 1-3. Serving to stay in the match at 2-5, Blake hit an error then a forehand that ticked the net but refused to go over and Stepanek had two match points. Stepanek hit a passing shot by Blake and the match was over. Stepanek had won only the second title in his career, 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-2.

Stepanek had managed to psyche Blake out. He affected Blake’s rhythm with delay tactics, got Blake’s posse in trouble, and recovered his breath with a medical timeout.

I hadn’t paid much attention to Stepanek because as soon as he got to the top ten last year, he dropped off the tour for six months with a dislocated veterbra in his neck. Besides, he only had one title so why should I pay attention? Now I’ll pay attention.

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Read other articles about Los Angeles:
Interview with a Modest James Blake
ATP Fantasy Tennis: Do You Pick Nadal or Not?
The Greatest Road Trip in Sports Hits California
Safin, Nalbandian, and Gonzalez Hit the Wall
James Blake Survives Goldstein and Spadea
James Blake: Life is What Happens While You Make Plans

ATP Fantasy Tennis: Should You Pick Roddick?

ATP Fantasy Tennis Season is under way and I’ve posted a Fantasy Tennis Guide with fast facts, strategies, and statistics to help you play the game.

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Rear View Mirror – a look at last week’s picks

I picked the winner at Stuttgart but that wasn’t so difficult since it was Rafael Nadal on clay. I got a finalist in Los Angeles – James Blake. We’ll see later today if he wins the title or not. Unfortunately, Nicolas Almagro went out in the first round at Amersfoort but so did Nikolay Davydenko and I told you to stay away from him. Tommy Robredo also lost in the first round for the second week in a row at Stuttgart.

This week we have the second tournament in the U.S. Open Series – Indianapolis, and two more clay court tournaments – Kitzbuhel and Umag. By the way, I’m ranked number 40 in the ATP fantasy game out of over 11,000 teams. Is that cool or what?

KITZBUHEL (clay, $152,380)

This is a 48 player field with the most money. Robredo might face Igor Andreev in the third round so forget him. Andreev is an annoying guy. His ranking is low because he’s coming back from injury so he keeps picking off higher seeds but we can’t pick him because he was ranked below 100 when the fantasy season started.

Nicolas Almagro looks like he has a good path to the semifinals. He lost that first round match last week to Werner Eschauer but Eschauer went all the way to the final. Besides, there’s not much else to choose from in that quarter of the draw.

As for Mikhail Youzhny, I made a mistake by picking him last week. He reached the semifinals at the U.S. Open last year, the quarterfinals at two of the remaining Masters Series events, and has won St. Petersburg which has big prize money. I should have saved him since I can only use him five times. Youzhny is in the top twenty on every surface in’s surface adjusted rankings. That was pretty dumb of me.

Juan Monaco should be able to get to the quarterfinals and he’s beaten Andreev both times they’ve met on clay.

Feliciano Lopez beat Juan Carlos Ferrero at Stuttgart last week and they could meet in the second round here. If Ferrero beats Lopez he should meet Werner Eschauer who got all the way to the final at Stuttgart. Still, I’m going with Ferrero because Lopez is inconsistent and Eschauer is untested.

Kitzbuhel draw

UMAG (clay, $76,970)

Novak Djokovic will win this tournament but you have to save him for the Masters Series events and the U.S. Open.

Ivan Ljubicic has reached two quarterfinals and a semifinal here in his home country so I’m taking him from the top half of the draw.

Carlos Moya keeps chugging along but he gets Stanislaw Wawrinka – a finalist in Stuttgart – in the first round and could meet David Ferrer in the quarterfinals. Moya has beaten Ferrer every time they’ve played on clay but the last time was 2005 so I’m going with Ferrer this week.

Umag draw

INDIANAPOLIS (hard court, $73,000)

Here’s the question: do you pick Andy Roddick to win $73,000 here or save him for later? You have to pick him for the U.S. Open and the Masters Series events in Montreal and Cincinnati and you’ve already used him for Wimbledon so you have one pick left. He hasn’t done well indoors except at Paris and he’ll probably skip it because he will have already qualified for Shanghai. He’s never played St. Petersburg, Moscow or Tokyo and those are the only non-Masters Series events left that pay big money. I’m picking him here because he’s won it twice and though he lost to James Blake last year, I watched James Blake in Los Angeles this week and I don’t expect it to happen again.

Blake is a different story. You have to pick him for the U.S. Open but he hasn’t done well at any of the remaining Masters Series events. He did well at Bangkok and Stockholm last year but that leaves two more weeks you could pick him if you also picked him for Los Angeles. I would save him for New Haven and see if he heats up later in the year because he’d only get $42,800 as a second prize this week.

Tursunov has a relatively easy path to the semifinals so I’m going with him.

Indianapolis draw


I’m taking Almagro, Monaco, Ferrero and Juan Ignacio Chela at Kitzbuhel. That’s a bit funky because Almagro and Chela are in the same quarter but Kitzbuhel has all the money and there are no good picks in Youzhny’s quarter. At Umag I have Ljubicic and Ferrer. At Indianapolis I have Roddick and Tursunov.

My team: Almagro, Monaco, Ferrero, Chela, Roddick, Tursunov, Ljubicic, Ferrer.

Happy fantasies!

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James Blake: Life is what happens while you make other plans

James Blake has a best selling book and an 18-4 record in semifinals. What’s not to like?

James Blake came out firing and got three break points on Hyung-Taik Lee early in the first set of their semifinal match at the Countrywide Classic here in Los Angeles. Blake lost that game. In fact he lost the next eight points and then his serve to go down 1-3. In the next game, Blake hit two gorgeous winners and now you know what it’s like hanging with James Blake. Feast or famine you could call it.

Did he lose his serve because he’s a bomber and bombers are notoriously inconsistent or was he discouraged that he let a three break points fall through his hands? Here’s the answer: if Blake drops his shoulders, he’s discouraged and when he does that, his opponent immediately perks up and digs in.

Given this proclivity, I was surprised to learn that Blake had a17-4 record in ATP semifinals coming into this match. It leads one to wonder why he has such a sterling semifinal record and such a terrible five set record – 0-9. I can think of a few reasons for this.

Five set matches are much longer so it’s a lot harder for a bomber to keep his high risk shots in the court. Just ask Roger Federer. When he plays Rafael Nadal on clay, he has to go for winners because Nadal is the ultimate baseliner. That’s hard to do over five sets.

A five set match also gives Blake a lot more opportunities to get discouraged against those grinders who play good defense and like to keep the ball in play. They lie in waiting for your big forehand to go off and when it does, they’re smart enough to step in and apply more pressure. Vince Spadea is very good at this. A big reason he’s still in the top 75 after 14 years on the tour.

Blake lost the second set to Lee and, much as he did against Paul Goldstein in the second round, kept firing away and got a break late in the third set and served out the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

As I said I would, I asked Blake what his coach Brian Barker says to him after a match in which he’s had a letdown such as the Wimbledon match against Max Mirnyi last year where he lost the last two sets badly. After that particular match, Barker reminded him the score was misleading because “his serve went off” and they talked about how to fix that. Then he told Blake to to keep his head up and remember that it only takes a few shots to turn things around.

I asked Blake this question because Pam Shriver said that Blake’s camp doesn’t tackle his mental letdowns head on. It’s an unspoken subject. Who knows what goes on behind closed locker doors but hearing Blake’s comments over the past years and looking at that quote above, I agree with her. Barker talks about the mental side, of course, but he doesn’t appear to challenge Blake directly about a part of his game that is holding him back. I’m not sure how a score is misleading if you’re serve goes off. The serve is one part of the game Blake has total control over.

Bill Simons of Inside Tennis asked Blake about a quote in his new book, Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life, which debuted at number 22 on the New York Times best seller list. The quote is from John Lennon and goes like this: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Blake said he chose the quote because he gets upset with people who fall into the trap of thinking that a promotion or new relationship or a top ten ranking will make their life perfect rather than stepping back and saying, “Right now, there’s nothing wrong with the way things are going.” He prefers to appreciate what happened today and be happy with that,

For now, everything is rosy – he’s in the final – and even if it’s not, Blake will find a way to appreciate that. He might even get a best selling book out of it.

I’m still waiting for his book to arrive but if you’ve read it, leave a review in the comments section.

Check out our new myspace page and add us to your friends network!

Read other articles about Los Angeles:
Interview with a Modest James Blake
ATP Fantasy Tennis: Do You Pick Nadal or Not?
The Greatest Road Trip in Sports Hits California
Safin, Nalbandian, and Gonzalez Hit the Wall
James Blake Survives Goldstein and Spadea

James Blake survives Goldstein and Spadea

Two thirtysomething players make life difficult for James Blake.

When I do my fantasy team picks each week, I don’t pick every match in every draw because it takes too long and sometimes I miss something big. Here’s one I missed: Vince Spadea had a 6-1 record over James Blake before their match today here in Los Angeles at the Countrywide Classic.

Blake hasn’t beaten Spadea since they met in Vienna in 2002. Spadea has been around for a while, he celebrated his 33rd birthday this week. I didn’t watch those Spadea-Blake matches but after watching Blake play Paul Goldstein last night, I can guess how Spadea won all those matches.

Goldstein is 30-years-old himself and had beaten Blake in their only previous meeting. He must have been exhausted because his wife Abbie gave birth to their first child just five weeks ago. It showed in the first set. Blake won it 6-0 by smashing each of Goldstein’s second serves down his throat and blasting forehands. In the second set, though, Goldstein eased into his specialty – he calls it “being the wall” and it includes literally throwing himself at a ball if necessary – and it frustrated Blake.

Blake was still firing away but now he was missing. Players like Goldstein and Spadea are grinders. They keep the ball in play and since they don’t go for tons of winners, you don’t get many angles to work with. Blake is the opposite. In an ESPN interview with Patrick McEnroe and Cliff Drysdale, he said that the only way he he’ll get deep into a slam is by playing high risk tennis. He’s going for winners no matter what.

Goldstein won the second set easily and actually got a match point at 5-5 in the third set. Blake fought it off and broke Goldstein in the next game then served out the set with three aces to win the match, 6-0, 1-6, 7-5. Spadea went down in straight sets today but it wasn’t easy, the difference was only one break as Blake won, 7-6(2), 6-4, and moved onto the semifinals.

After the match with Spadea, I reminded Blake about his high risk comment and I asked him what happens when he gets into a match in a slam and he can’t keep his high risk shots in the court. What does he do then?

His first plan is just what we saw against Goldstein and Spadea, keep firing away:

I don’t think I go directly to plan B. I think I keep going after my shots…

There is a plan B though:

…there’s also other ways of just trying to figure out what can make the other person ineffective. If it’s chipping a lot of balls and they don’t like moving in, something like that.

I have seen Blake try to get to the net when he’s behind but I’ve seldom seen him chipping very much. If you’ve seen it, leave a comment. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he gets discouraged at times, if he can’t overpower his opponent, he’s not as confident with his other options.

Pam Shriver was sitting in the stands and she interviewed Blake’s temporary coach – his regular coach Brian Barker is taking the week off. She asked him if Blake’s camp talks about the mental game and he said they don’t talk about it much. That’s rather hard to believe.

I’d like to know what Blake’s coach says to him when he plays a match like his loss to Max Mirnyi last year at Wimbledon. Blake went up two sets to one then lost the last two sets, 1-6, 0-6. I’ll ask him tomorrow after his match.

Check out our new myspace page and add us to your friends network!

Read other articles about Los Angeles:
Interview with a Modest James Blake
ATP Fantasy Tennis: Do You Pick Nadal or Not?
The Greatest Road Trip in Sports Hits California
Safin, Nalbandian, and Gonzalez Hit the Wall

Does Tennis Need a Commissioner?

Three tennis experts think that tennis needs a commissioner, but I’m not so sure.

John Feinstein, columnist for the Washington Post and author of numerous books about sports, sat in for Jim Rome on his sports talk show for a few days last week. Feinstein thinks that there are a number of problems with tennis these days but he talked about two problems in particular and wow was it great to hear tennis on national sports radio, at least for a few days.

Feinstein interviewed Patrick McEnroe and introduced the first problem by asking him the following question: “What’s the biggest problem in tennis?” McEnroe’s answer? He thinks the biggest problem is the lack of a leader, or commissioner, who has enough power to change the tennis calendar.

Feinstein agrees with McEnroe. He wants a commissioner who will reorganize the tour structure to make it similar to the PGA tour. Smaller tournaments would be relegated to lower levels such as the Nationwide Tour which is second-tier to the PGA.

A commissioner could also establish and enforce a prohibition on appearance fees – money given to players to “appear” at a tournament in addition to prize money. That’s a good idea but even the commissioner of the PGA hasn’t been able to do anything about appearance fees yet.

Pam Shriver turned up at the open media session for the Countrywide Classic last Friday because she was being inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame that evening. While we wandered over to a nearby fence so her young son could watch a huge construction crane in action, I asked her about McEnroe’s comments. Here’s what she said:

That’s always been a big criticism, the sport’s not unified enough. And then it’s so political that you just can’t get things moving these days with any momentum in one direction that makes good business sense. So I don’t know if that’s the most serious problem, not having a commissioner, but I would say that unified leadership would certainly be beneficial.

Most major sports have a commissioner and a players’ union and the commissioner is hired by the owners. If the owners are unhappy with the commissioner they get rid of the commissioner. Baseball owners got rid of Fay Vincent because, among other things, he accommodated players too much during the 1990 lockout.

If there was a commissioner of tennis, I’m not sure it would be much different than the current structure. Currently, ATP decisions are made by the board of directors. The CEO, Etienne de Villiers, has one vote, three representatives of tournament directors each have one vote, and three player representatives each have one vote. And only the tournament director representatives and the player representatives vote for the CEO so the players arguably have more power than major sports where the owners hire the CEO.

The problem is that the players don’t exercise their power. If they’re unhappy with the tennis calendar, they withdraw from tournaments. It sends a message to the tournament directors but since there’s no organized work stoppage, it’s not a strong enough message.

I support the idea of a commissioner but only if it’s accompanied by a players’ union with a leader who can organize the players well enough to threaten a work action. Of course, the players would have to vote for that and since they’ve shown no inclination to do that up to now, we might be stuck with what we have for some time to come.

What do you think? Does tennis need a commissioner?

By the way, the second problem Feinstein discussed is the lack of access to players and I’ll get into that later in the week.

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