Monthly Archives: November 2007

Roddick and Blake Drive the U.S. to a 2-0 Lead in Davis Cup

Andy Roddick and Dmitry Tursunov played cat and mouse while James Blake played drama queen as the U.S. won both matches on the first day of the Davis Cup final.

Whenever you see footage of the 1995 Davis Cup final. you always see Pete Sampras crumple to the court immediately after winning a five set marathon over Russian Andrei Chesnikov.

Sampras was the ultimate winner. His mind was able to hold off his body and its meddlesome cramps until the very last second. When that second came, two trainers had to carry Sampras off the court, his legs dragging along behind him.

That may not be necessary this year. Sampras’ match was on clay. We’re on an indoor hard court this weekend in Portland, Oregon, and who wants to be dragged along a hard court and risk scraping the skin off your body? Besides, Andy Roddick and Dmitry Tursunov play the first match so don’t expect too many long points.

There were more long points than expected because Roddick and Tursunov were playing cat and mouse. Roddick was keeping the ball in the court and waiting for Tursunov to hit an error. Tursunov was drawing Roddick into rallies and waiting for him to hit an error.

This was a classic no win situation. Roddick was counting on Tursunov to play his usual thoughtless game and hit everything as hard as possible thereby racking up bunches of errors, whereas Tursunov was expecting Roddick’s ground strokes to fail in long rallies.

It was a contest to see which of these two players had the worst baseline game. The answer is Tursunov and it only took five games for him to hit enough errors to lose his serve and go down 2-3 in the first set. Even Roddick has trouble hitting errors when he’s just trying to keep the ball in the court.

Tursunov gave up his strategy as soon as he went down a break, as he did in every set, and that’s when he played his best. He had his chances because Roddick was not returning serve well. At one point Roddick had converted only 1 out of 14 break points and he hit an unusually high number of squash shot returns – otherwise known as desperate forehand slices.

But this is a fast indoor hard court and Roddick is the biggest server of all. He hit 25 aces and a selection of serves over 140 mph (225 kmh) and the result was a relatively easy 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win.

At the end of his match, Roddick told the crowd: “Now we gotta get Jimmy Blake through his next match.” Roddick was not being helpful, he was being honest. The crowd and the team really would have to get “Jimmy” through his match with Mikhail Youzhny because he could not be counted on to do it himself.

Any best of five set match is an adventure if you’re counting on Blake. He’s currently 1-10 in five set matches and there are two reasons for that.

He has one style and one style only: go for broke. That works fine until the shots stop falling and his first serve breaks down and that’s when he gets into fourth and fifth sets and the fun begins.

Blake doesn’t deal well with pressure. He went up 4-1 in the first set and was cruising until he served for the set and hit a double fault to give Youzhny a break point. He recovered to win the game and the first set and he won the second set tiebreaker.

When it came to closing out the match in the third set tiebreaker, however, he lost five of the last six points. The pressure had risen and the drama had begun.

Blake broke Youzhny to go up 4-5 in the fourth set and all he had to do was hold serve to win the match. Where’s the drama in that I ask you? Nah, he’d rather hit three straight errors, essentially giving the game away, and ratchet the pressure up just a tad more.

Blake got behind in the fourth set tiebreaker before he finally decided he’d had enough drama for one day. He won six of the last seven points to win the match, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-7(3), 7-6(3).

The media gets in trouble because we’re always questioning players’ mental toughness but I like to think we play our part in developing players by pushing them to excellence. After the match Blake said he was tired of having his mental toughness questioned:

I don’t think anyone can be in the top ten …without being mentally tough and I wanted to prove it today.

That 1995 Davis Cup final was the last U.S. Davis Cup title and it was won entirely on Sampras’ shoulders. He won both his singles matches and teamed with Todd Martin to win the doubles.

It doesn’t look like any such heroics will be necessary this time. The U.S. needs one more win and the Bryan brothers should be able to take care of business in doubles. Instead of watching two meaningless matches on Sunday, I’d rather go out and play some tennis myself.

The U.S. Wins the Davis Cup – on Paper

The U.S. should beat Russia in the Davis Cup final that starts tomorrow in Portland, Oregon but then, the Michigan’s college football team should have beaten Appalachian State and England’s soccer team should have beaten Croatia. But they didn’t.

What could go wrong this weekend in Portland?

Andy Roddick’s back could start hurting again and Mike Bryan would have to play one of the reverse singles matches. Roddick hurt his back in the year end championships.

Mike Bryan’s elbow could start hurting again and James Blake would have to play doubles. The Bryan brothers skipped the year end championships because Mike’s elbow was injured. I thought those guys were going for too many aces with their new Prince rackets. Don’t they know doubles players should focus on getting the first serve in?

James Blake could fail under the pressure of a Davis Cup final and lose both of his matches. He’s lost more than half his Davis Cup singles matches when the outcome of the tie was undecided.

Dmitry Tursunov could rise to the occasion and beat Roddick 17-15 in the fifth set of the decisive match as he did when Russia defeated the U.S. in Davis Cup last year.

Mikhail Youzhny could beat James Blake just like he did in last year’s Davis Cup match with Russia.

Here’s why that won’t happen.

Roddick will have a day off to rest between matches and Davis Cup means the world to him. If he can’t beat Roger Federer and win Wimbledon, at least he can bring home a Davis Cup title.

Mike Bryan’s elbow can make it through one match.

James Blake might lose two matches but Roddick will win both of his singles matches and the Bryan brothers will win doubles so it won’t matter, luckily, what Blake does.

Tursunov beat Roddick on clay last year and it’s a miracle that Roddick even got to a fifth set on clay. On an indoor hard court, he should be fine.

So what if Youzhny beats Blake? Go back two paragraphs and see why that doesn’t matter.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned Nikolay Davydenko. He’s Russia’s top singles player yet he’s scheduled to play doubles. Russia’s top doubles player, Tursunov, is scheduled to play singles.

Davydenko has had a bear of a time since he was implicated in a possible fixed match in August of this year. Former Scotland Yard investigators interviewed his brother and wife on behalf of an ATP investigation into the matter.

The ATP gave Davydenko seven days to submit phone records to the investigators despite the fact that they had little legal standing to do so. Davydenko is so beleaguered that he has agreed to turn the records over. That might be an indication that he is wearing down because it makes little legal sense to turn over such evidence. In the U.S. at least, the ATP should get that information from the phone companies if they are legally entitled to it.

You know what, this has all the ingredients of a huge upset. The pressure is all over the huge favorites while the underdogs feel little or no pressure. This is especially true for the Russians since they’ve won two Davis Cups in the last five years while the U.S. hasn’t won since 1995.

Could happen but probably won’t. Feel free to weigh in and clobber me if I’m wrong. I’d expect nothing less.

Read more about Davydenko’s legal problems: Celebrity Tennis, Gambling, Blow and Poison.

The Case for Minor League Football and Basketball

I’ll be right back with a Davis Cup preview but let’s look at college sports for a quick moment.

My 95 year old mother is in the hospital so I’m flying home to help in any way I can and that’s why I was sitting in the airport when a woman next to me said into her phone: “So, no news on the kidney transplant yet?”

The words “human rights or somethin’” popped up in the conversation a few minutes later. I can only hope the subject was not illegally harvested organs. My week has been dominated by medical talk. It has also seeped into sports.

National Football League (NFL) player Sean Taylor died from a bullet wound to his leg fired by an intruder who broke into his home. There’s been a lot of discussion about Taylor’s past problems and his college days at Miami, a college known for recruiting rough and intimidating players. Taylor is the third Miami player to be murdered since 1996 and Miami helped start a bench clearing brawl against Florida International that was memorable by any standard.

There are rumors that Taylor’s murder might be linked to gang activity from the neighborhood he grew up in. We don’t know whether that’s accurate or not but you can be pretty sure Sean Taylor was more likely to end up with a bullet in his leg than Heisman candidate Tim Tebow who was raised by missionaries and home schooled.

I’m not espousing religion here, in fact I don’t believe there is a creator. As far as I’m concerned, the universe is continuous with no beginning and no end and therefore no need for a creator. No, I have a different take on the situation.

I believe that many football and basketball players would be better served by going to a minor league out of high school rather than a big-time college sports program. By that I mean a minor league similar to baseball minor leagues.

Or, if you will, tennis minor leagues. A young tennis player has to go through three steps to earn his or her way into an ATP tournament draw. They start by playing futures events then move on to challenger events. When they’ve earned enough points, they can enter the qualifier for an ATP tournament and win they’re way into a main draw.

If the tennis player starts losing too many matches, its back to futures and challengers again, just like a young baseball player who isn’t hitting in the bigs goes back to the minor leagues.

A college football or basketball player, instead, gets a scholarship to college and is immediately handed an easy class schedule and a tutor for every course. This was basketball star Greg Oden’s course load his first semester at Ohio State: The History of Rock’n’Roll and Sociology 101. He got two more credits for playing basketball.

Colleges not only cater to players but sometimes they contribute to their criminal behavior. Tony Taylor had a history of sexual assault when Jim Harrick gave him a basketball scholarship to the University of Georgia. When Taylor was accused of sexual assault again while he was at Georgia, Harrick denied knowledge of Taylor’s past history even though he’d been recruiting Taylor since high school.

Here is a question from Taylor’s final exam in a basketball course – yes, basketball course – he took while he was at Georgia: “How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?”

If players, instead, went to a minor league, they’d be responsible for feeding and housing themselves instead of spending the night at a luxury hotel the night before the big homecoming game. If they got into legal trouble, they’d be on their own. If they didn’t play well, they’d be dropped from the team.

In short, athletes would have to mature well enough to manage their own lives. For many players that would be far better preparation for the life of hero worship they’ll find in the pros than three years of a suffocating college sports program that caters to their every whim.

They’d also avoid the misleading designation of amateur student-athlete and be what they truly are: professional athletes.

This is not a conclusive take on the subject. Professional athletes from poor neighborhoods have a difficult time divorcing themselves from childhood friends with criminal records for a number of reasons and I’ll go into that some other time. And my take would shrink the huge commercial operation known as NCAA football and basketball. Good luck with that.

But we owe it to athletes to provide them with job opportunities other than big-time college sports programs. These programs recruit problem players and make a lot of money off them without giving them the tools they need to be mature professional athletes.

Justine the Reality TV Show

Twenty-five game winning streak, 63-4 record, 14 out of the 16 tournament wins, two slams and a year end championship title. This is not the ATP, this is not Roger Federer, this is Justine Henin and it could have been three slams if she hadn’t skipped the Australian Open to deal with her divorce.

I spent a fair amount of time looking up comparable records on the women’s side this morning. As far as I can tell, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova are the only women players with a better won loss record. Graf’s record was 86-2 in 1989 and Navratilova was 86-1 in 1983. Notice how many more matches women played in that era, by the way, and yet they didn’t appear to break down anywhere near as much as today’s players do.

We’ll see if Justine goes on to surpass, say, the Williams sisters in slams – go to the sidebar and cast your vote on the question – but it’s more interesting to look at Justine’s emotional arc than her numbers.

The Williams sisters have their own compelling story: hardscrabble childhood, crazy like a fox tennis coach father, competing careers in fashion and entertainment. But Justine has somehow managed to play out her emotional life in front of us as she’s made her way to the top, and unlike Serena and Venus, she’s done it by revealing as little as possible about herself. No reality show for Justine just yet.

These days Justine is a veritable fountain of sharing relative to the early part of her career. At that time we knew her mother had died when she was 12 years old, and we knew she was estranged from her father and siblings, but that’s about it, and she wasn’t going to tell us much more than necessary. If you saw her in the players’ cafeteria, there she was with her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, the two of them a little island in a sea of players. Even now she’s one of those people who close her eyes when she talks to you as if to be sure she doesn’t give away too much.

Many players fall apart when life intervenes in their career. Nikolay Davydenko is buckling under the pressure of an ongoing gambling investigation as we speak. Henin, though, just appears to be getting stronger.

This year she divorced her husband and created a bit more independence from Rodriguez and his family – which was her substitute family after all. At the same time she welcomed her father and siblings back into her life. In the process of opening her heart a bit more to herself and to the public, she seems to have learned that the stoicism that carried her through the early part of her career was a brittle strength. It didn’t allow her to stand on her own.

For most players on the tour, though not all, tennis is an all-consuming passion. For Justine I think it goes one step farther and it’s the key to why she’s been able to keep rising up the ranks despite an emotionally wrenching journey.

Tennis has been the substitute for some of Justine’s life outside of tennis and now that the outside world is creeping back into her life, her tennis is secure enough that it enhances her game. Most people need their personal lives in order to perform well in their career. Some people do it the other way around. Success in their career gives them the confidence to open their hearts to those in their personal lives.

Justine doesn’t need a reality TV show, we’ve been watching it all along.

Volatile Tennis

Which players have the most volatile games and what does it say about them?

Not volatile temper, silly, volatile game. Volatile in the sense that a volatile player will break serve often but will also lose his serve a lot.

I, for one, believe that we are much better off embracing gambling and educating ourselves than bemoaning the trend and pointing fingers. To that end, I’ve been reading gambling advice on’s blog and found an interesting piece about volatility.

Matthew Walton rated all of the ATP players as follows: if the player broke serve or lost his serve, his volatility ranking would increase. If he held serve or failed to break serve, his volatility ranking would go down.

As you can imagine, big servers who don’t move all that well had low volatility rankings. Andy Roddick has the huge serve but he doesn’t break his opponent’s serve that much. Sam Querrey is in there too and so is Benjamin Becker who depends on his serve far too much. That may be why he’s slipped down to number 87 in the rankings. Querrey might want to take note of that and spend a lot more time on the clay developing his sliding skills.

Clay court players, as you’d also expect, since it’s harder to hold serve on clay, are the most volatile and Filippo Volandri is the most volatile of all. He’s already pretty popular with the bettors if you look at the number of suspicious matches his names pops up in but this is one more reason he’s popular and here’s why.

Betfair is a betting exchange. Bettors offer bets to each other rather than making bets with a bookmaker. A betting exchange is also different than the usual betting operation in that you can make bets throughout a match, not just before a match starts.

As Walton points out, there are a lot more mid-match betting opportunities on a match with volatile players than non-volatile players because Roddick and Querrey are in trouble if they lose their serve so the outcome is more predictable. If Volandri loses his serve, no big deal, because he breaks serve a lot too.

Why should you care if you’re not a day trader in the tennis market? The volatility ranking tells us some interesting things. As Walton also points out, if you’re in the middle of the pack it probably means you hold your serve well and break your opponent’s serve, which is a good thing.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are in this group but so, surprisingly, is Ivo Karlovic. You’d think that being 6ft 10in would automatically put him in the “doesn’t move so well” category but apparently it doesn’t and that explains why his ranking has shot up in the latter part of this year.

Two other people in that mid-group are Paul-Henri Mathieu and Marcos Baghdatis and that means one thing: they have the potential to be top players, they just aren’t fulfilling their potential.

I don’t have time to lay down hundreds of bets but I would love to be on Betfair because they stream tennis matches from around the world. I can’t use Betfair, though, because I live in the U.S. and offshore gambling is illegal. If you have a few coins in your piggy bank and you love tennis, it could be worthwhile to set up an account just so you can see tennis matches from Beijing and Bangkok on your computer screen.

Just don’t come complaining to me if you lose your pennies. In other words, if you have any addictive tendencies, stick to the telly.