Monthly Archives: January 2008

Will the Australian Open End Up in China?

Now that the competition has ended at this year’s Australian Open, let’s look at some of the commercial and political issues that temporarily faded into the background while we were watching the fabulous play of Jo-Willie Tsonga, Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic

The Australians are concerned that they’ll lose their slam event to China. Shanghai is waiting with its gleaming Qi Zhong Tennis Centre and gobs of money to bid for the tournament, while the Melbourne Park facility has faded over time. Qi Zhong hosted the ATP Championships for the past three years and will host a Masters Series event starting in 2009. The Australian government is chipping in some money for a Melbourne Park upgrade but there is a second problem: the tournament is getting a reputation for unruly crowds.

Last year there was a brawl between Serbs and Croats and this year there were two notable incidents. Three Greek fans were arrested and surrounding fans were hit with pepper spray during a match between Fernando Gonzalez and Konstantinos Economidis. Novak Djokovic’s family was surrounded by security during his final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after Djokovic’s family complained about the behavior of Tsonga supporters.

If the Australian Open is worried about losing the slam because of its growing reputation for unruly fans, that’s a battle they will surely lose to China. You will not see fan violence at a Chinese sporting event. Chinese fans are well aware that they live in an oppressive country and the government will not tolerate that kind of behavior.

The Chinese government has already started imprisoning dissidents in preparation for this year’s Olympics. The New York Times reported today that Hu Jia, a human rights activist, was imprisoned last month on charges of subverting state power. Among other things, Hu was involved in the case of a factory worker who started the “We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics” petition drive.

The Olympics have become an important political and commercial symbol and that brings up interesting conflicts. NBA player Ira Newble and most of his teammates signed an open letter to the Chinese government urging them to resolve the crisis in the Darfur before the summer Olympics begins. Darfur is in Sudan, a major source of oil for China.

Should you use the Olympics to pressure the host team to make political change or should you go in there and force a bit more capitalism on them? Newble’s teammate LeBron James was one of the few players on the team who did not sign the letter. James and his marketing team are using the Beijing Olympics to increase his commercial visibility in Asia which is a huge market.

As the following example shows you, the two approaches can be combined. Many of us complained when professional tennis started selling its tournament slots to the highest bidder which, these day, is likely to be an Asian country. Some of those tournaments went to Arabic countries which don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Israeli players Shahar Peer, Jonathan Erlich, and Andy Ram were unlikely to travel to the Dubai Open because Israel has told its citizens not the go there. That is about to change. Erlich and Ram – the current Australian Open doubles champions – announced that they will play in the 2008 Dubai Open. The ATP has told them that they can provide adequate security.

This is even more important because the WTA Championships are in Qatar for the next three years and Peer is a top twenty player. Dubai and Qatar have been switching their economies from oil to tourism because their oil reserves will not last forever and that’s why they’ve been buying sporting events. This is a good example of commercial interests influencing political change.

I’d like to applaud the ATP and the WTA for being agents of social change but I suspect they were mainly interested in selling to the highest bidder and increasing their presence on the global market. Am I being too cynical?

Jo-Willie Tsonga Plays to Perfection: An Appreciation

One more look at Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s amazing victory over Rafel Nadal in the Australian Open semifinals

Now that the Australian Open is over and Novak Djokovic took home the men’s title, let’s go back to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s semifinal victory over Rafael Nadal because this was as close to a perfect match as I’ve ever seen.

Tsonga himself was stunned at the end of it. I’ve seen people in the zone before but they were usually high level players who’d been around for a while. And even then, they usually fell out of the zone at some point in the match. Tsonga never did.

In yoga we call it one pointed focus. All you see and hear is the ball. Nothing distracts you from your purpose. In the first game of the match there was a stab volley and a stunning reflex volley when Nadal tried to pass Tsonga at close range. Tsonga turned the ball so sharply that it went from one sideline to the other and never reached the service line.

When a young player breaks out like this, it looks like he arrived all in one moment. You don’t see the years and years of practice and problems he worked through. The bulging disc, a stomach problem, the jitters when he was a junior, the chubby body that preceded the muscular one you see today. But Tsonga played through all of it and, on this day, everything came together and he played the perfect match.

Tsonga was up 5-2 already and Nadal looked rattled. He put a jump overhead into the net. Tsonga then hammered a forehand down the line and left Nadal standing there staring at the ball. I mean Jo-Willie was overpowering. On the next point he hit an approach and followed that with a racket-deadening drop volley that wilted and died on the court. The thing is that this was an accident. He mishit it. That’s what happens when you’re in the in the space that Tsonga was occupying.

You can’t play like this unless you’re relaxed and easy because you couldn’t respond quickly enough. You’d bee too tight. Thoughts would only interfere. Doubt would interfere. Worry would interfere. Fear would interfere.

When I used to dance, we called it body time. The mind was shoved aside and we were moving without thinking or doing. The body responded with lightning quick movement because it knew just what to do. You couldn’t think too much not only because it would slow you down but because you’d fall out of body time and the fraction of difference in response is the difference between a hit and miss.

Tsonga won the first set 6-2. Now it was real. This wasn’t just a streak, he was destroying Nadal and he wasn’t working that hard at it.

Here’s another thing and it has always puzzled me: why is Rafa so successful at holding serve? Yes he moves his serve around and changes speed and spin, but his first serve averages under 110mph (177kmh). Tsonga had no trouble returning it. He won almost half of the points on his return of serve.

Things that were going right for Tsonga were going wrong for Rafa. Tsonga hit a volley that Rafa could have gotten to easily but he tripped and lost his racket. Even when Tsonga hit an average shot, he got away with it.

Then it got ridiculous. Serving at 1-1 in the second set Tsonga hit a serve and ran in behind it. Nadal’s return bounced at his feet but Tsonga managed to short-hop it for yet another dropper. If Tsonga looks a bit like Muhammad Ali, he was also playing like him. Jo-Willie was rope-a-doping Rafa: smash the ball then soften it and hit the drop shot. Deep then short then hard then soft. The ropes in this case being the baseline, the sideline, and the service line and Tsonga hit them all night long.

Three games later and now we were just laughing because how more ridiculous could it get? Nadal hit a forehand that drove Tsonga outside the doubles line then followed that up with his own drop shot just a few feet over the net. Tsonga ran from one corner of the court to the other and hit the ball up the line and past Nadal. The guy is 6ft 2in (187cm) and 200lbs (90kg) and he just outhustled Nadal, the fastest guy on tour.

It’s not like Nadal was playing poorly. He wasn’t making errors, he got almost 70% of his first serves in, and he hit tough dipping passing shots. At 4-3 Nadal hit another dipper at Tsonga’s backhand. Tsonga smacked his racket on the ground as he stabbed at the ball and came up with yet another perfect drop shot. One more fancy volley and a jump overhead and Tsonga served for the set. His third ace in the game came in at 139mph (224kmh).

Certainly Roger Federer has played his share of exceptional matches so what was so special about this? It’s a slam, it’s the semis and Tsonga is not just winning, he’s slaying the competition: a slow court specialist who hadn’t lost a set on this slow hard court. I’ve never seen an unseeded guy dominate the competition so clearly this late in a slam.

Tsonga was so focused that everything was easy for him. He didn’t have to think about it. He floated off the court at the end still in his focused state. Then he remembered, he’d just eased his way into a grand slam final and he could barely believe it.

2008 Australian Open Men’s Final Live Blog

Hello Everyone. Welcome to the 2008 Australian Open men’s final. It’s 12:30am in California (Hi Pat), 1:30am in Texas and Arizona (Debra, are you awake? Hi Jason), 3:30am in Bloomfield Hills (that would be bleary eyed Nate), and breakfast time in Europe (I know Maria is watching, and you Jenny?). Farid, where are you located? Drop us a comment and we’ll log your current time. You too Sakhi. That’s goes for everyone. Please leave comments throughout the match and we’ll get everyone talking to each other.

Settle in with your coffee and croissant to watch the first slam final in three years without a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Instead we have 20-year-old Nole Djokovic and unseeded upstart Jo-Willie Tsonga. Can Nole complete the progression that started last year with semifinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and a final at the U.S. Open by taking the title today? Can Jo-Willie come up with the same perfect performance that ran Nadal off the court? If not, can he impose his game on Nole as he has on everyone else here? Tighten your seat belts, we’re off!

First things first: predictions?

Nina: Pat and I figured that Tsonga could probably get a set off Djokovic. I’d like it to be a great match but I also might like to go to bed before 4am! Love the poetic ESPN intros by the way.

Jason has joined us and here’s his prediction: Tsonga in 4 tight sets: 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6.

Pat: ESPN is nothing if not poetic, and how ever do they do it, at 12:30 in the morning??? Good morning all, having hoped Tsonga gets at least a set I have decided I don’t care about sleep, Nina, let’s give him the whole match, shall we? Even if it takes hours (I still knock on wood!)

Nate: I don’t know how many sets, but I’m going with Tsonga.

Nina: Welcome Nate and Pat. Why do you think Tsonga is the crowd favorite over Djokovic. Are people turned off by Djokovic’s brashness or do they just want some new meat?

Nate: I don’t know if people are turned off by Djokovic (although message-boards would lead me to believe so…). I think it’s more a matter of everyone being electrified by Tsonga’s game, appearance, and manner.

Tsonga 0-1 (break)

Nate: Tsonga is clearly nervous

Nina: Jo-Willie had better stay out of ground stroke rallies with Nole. Nadal is a topspinner but Djokovic is a good baseliner who hits through the ball and that’s harder for Jo-Willie.

Djokovic serving at 1-2

Nate: Well, Djokovic handed the break back, and now Tsonga looks a lot calmer. So far, you’re right about the long rallies, but Jo-Willy didn’t allow too many in that game.

Tsonga 2-2

Nina: Nole held but Jo-Willie is now keeping the ball out of the middle of the court. He has to attack as soon as possible. Whow, that was some point on break point, both of ’em were hitting lines. I’m starting to believe in Jo-Willie. Ooooh, two jump overheads with a retrieval in between. This is gonna be a barn burner.

Jason: It looks like Tsonga is really running Nole around…perhaps Tsonga is trying to tire Nole out

Djokovic 2-2

Nate: Tsonga’s definitely opening his shoulders. But I’d say he’s more trying to simply win points than to tire Djoko out per se…Wow, he finally missed a touch shot. Anyone notice that slice return of his a couple games ago that almost turned into a good drop shot? Is he playing within the same laws of physics as everyone else?


Pat: Ohhhh, that drop shot from Tsonga was a bit ugly, but he’s picking up everything else, this could be a really fiery one.

Nina: Jo-Willie has to get a high number of first serves in. Lucky for him that Nole is making errors. From what I’ve seen so far, Tsonga can impose his game on Djokovic is he gets more first serves in and goes for corners from the get-go.

Tsonga 4-3

Nina: Do you think Nole might have an hangover from the Federer win? He’s making some uncharacteristic errors.

Pat: Maybe Nolo had too many of his mom’s pancakes, Nina, he’s probably hung over from that. I like the confidence I see in Tsonga, it is so nice to see this will not be a blow out, thank God.

Tsonga 5-4

Jason: Perhaps Nole felt like beating Federer had won him the championship and has underestimated Tsonga. I agree his UE’s in the rally’s isn’t like him

Tsonga 6-4

Nina: Crap, unuruly fans again. Are people that much down on Nole that they’re bothering his family? I’m unhappy to see that. Clearly Jo-Willie can stay with Nole off the ground if he attacks and he’s got his serve going. The dropshot isn’t working but look at that defense! A winner off an overhead to give him a set point!Ooooooooooh, what a lob.

Pat: Wow, Nole broke down there, he had chances to take charge of that point and he let it slip and Tsonga made the forehand pass. How about that topspin lob? Is this unbelievable or what? Go baby!

Tsonga 6-4, 1-0

Nate: Yeah a scrambling lob winner on set point! That is clutch play. Lets see of Tsonga relaxes more, and whether Djoko tightens up, or gets more aggressive…A poor drop shot and forehand error–so far he’s tightening…

Tsonga 6-4, 1-1

Nina: I’m not sure that Nole took Jo-Willie lightly but if I were Nole, there is part of me that would think, “I beat Federer and that is my biggest hurdle.” In other words, he probably doesn’t have Jo-Willie in his mind as a big player like Federer and that is costing him.

Tsonga, 6-4, 2-1

Pat: They discussed the seating arrangement of the competing fan bases…how on earth did they come to seat both families nearly on top of one another? No Djoke that, I guess we can say, no? Someone Down Under has a really wicked sense of humor. Go Willy! Free Willy!

Nate: Djokovic comes into the net to close out a point after getting passed on a shaky approach the previous point. That’s the kind of confidence that’s gotten him here.

Tsonga 6-4, 2-2

Nate: Tsonga seems to be letting all his tension out complaining about line calls. His touch game has been shaky though.

Tsonga 6-4, 3-2

Nina: Yeah, I’ve seen Nole come halfway to the net on a groundstroke and stay back but he can’t afford to do that. Gasquet came to the net about 73 times in his match against Tsongs and still couldn’t beat him. Nole doesn’t have to do that but he has to come in more. He has to do something to upset Tsonga’s rhythm and get his own momentum going.

Jason: 2 things Tsonga is doing well so far that he needs to keep up; keeping his groundstrokes deep so Nole can’t get too agressive – and keep pressuring Djokovic on his service games

Tsonga 6-4, 3-3

Nate: It looks like it’s going a bit now. That was his first hold at love if I’m not mistaken.

Nina: Pat, families at slam usually sit close to each other. Sometimes in the same box. I’ve seen the families congratulate each other at the end of the match. The Aussie Open is getting a well-deserved reputation for fan problems. This is the third incident.

Tsonga 6-4, 3-4

Nate: That was an unbelievable block return from Djokovic!…He’s got the break now, let’s see if he can run with it.

Pat: Nolo got life there, a great first service return certainly helped. Tsonga caved a bit on his first serve and Nole has the first break since the opening games of the match.

Tsonga 6-4, 4-6

Nate: Djokovic served that last game out with confidence. Everything he’s doing has more bite to it now, and Tsonga seems to be unraveling slightly. The first few games of the third set will tell us a lot about Tsonga’s level of belief.

Tsonga, 6-4, 4-6

Pat: Djoko got his serve on track a bit better at the close of the second set, also a combination it seemed of Tsonga not quite getting a handle on Nole’s second serves. I think Tsonga needs to come out and really try to grab a break early, and try to reassert himself.

Tsonga 6-4, 4-6, 1-1

Nate: Djokovic is the last guy you want to leave an opening for down the line. Tsonga needs to learn that.

Tsonga 6-4, 4-6, 1-2

Nina: I’m feeling a bit bad for Nole. For sure he is arrogant but he’s 20 years old and they’re riding him pretty hard. Seems a bit unfair. Jo-Willie is losing his sharpness just enough to keep Nole’s confidence going. And now the break. It’s not looking good.

Nate: Yeah, maybe the crowd hasn’t forgiven Djokovic for his taunting them in the third set of the Fed match…Tsonga is definitely losing it out there. I can feel the Nole Express heating up…

Tsonga 6-4, 4-6, 1-3

Nate: God, Tsonga’s ground-strokes have just gone. He’s getting more gunshy too. Throwing in more loopers.

Tsonga 6-4, 4-6, 2-3

Nina: We should remember that Jo-Willie has never been to the final of an ATP event – which is a five round event, best of three sets – and this (oh my god, I’m getting pornographic ads on my carrier, oy) while a slam is seven rounds with best of five sets. His legs are leaving him.

Tsonga, 6-4, 4-6, 2-3
Pat: Ohhhh, a second serve that Tsonga just dumped in the net, darn!Novak just consolidated his break, but Tsonga is only down a break, he has to remind himself of that. It’s not over yet.

Nate: Yeah, he’s looking green isn’t he? But it seems like his head as much as his legs. The way he smothered that second serve return at 15-30 was a fair demonstration of his mentality right now. And I’m sure Djokovic took note of it.

Djoko, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3

Pat: Well, maybe it is over yet(!) Tsonga’s heart should be broken, and I’m wondering, how much does he want it? How much can he muster?

Nate: Tsonga was looking amazing again saving those first six set points. But it was back-against-the-wall amazing, and no one can keep that up forever…I totally agree with the Fed comparison, Nina. Djokovic stayed patient, and took control–just as we’ve seen Federer due about a billion times.

Djokovic 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 1-1

Maria has joined us: TSOONGAAA!!!!! he probabbly lost the match just now. The magic is gone, c’st dommage. what if Tsonga relaxes and just starts playing his game forgetting the tittle is at stake and finding his serve and volley tennis game

Nina: Maria, we feel bad too. We want a good close match and we wouldn’t mind seeing Jo-Willie win. I think everyone agrees that he’s physically (and mentally) worn down.

Djokovic, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 2-2

Pat: Nina, you pinpointed what I don’t like about Djoko’s game, why I could never warm to him, is that he is TOO workmanlike, you’re right, we don’t get the Federer grace, or the wonderful shots. Tsonga reminds us of that too. He is a great shotmaker. But Djoko is a worker type, a Jim Courier, a man for whom I had a lot of respect but his baseline gritty game did not fire me up either. And if he really expects to be the Number One man in tennis someday, he’d better clean up his act a little and earn people’s respect. Coming in the wake of a man whose attitude is always nearly impeccable, Novak should aim to present himself well in the public eye. I love the imitations, but frankly he’s got an abrasive thing going on that is not very attractive, certainly not to many in this Aussie crowd.

Maria: 2-2 can he get back in the match?

Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 3-2

Nate: Djokovic has always been vulnerable physically. Maybe the signs of weariness he’s showing can encourage Tsonga? Jo-Willy had better hold…

Nate: Injury time-out for Djoko. The expert commentator on Star Sports is getting all high and mighty about how the players are allowed to receive treatment for strains, but not for cramps. Has he watched any tennis in the last five years?

Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 3-3

Nina: Remember the five medical timeouts Nole took against Gael Monfils at the U.S. Open a few years ago. He’d very good at gutting out matches when he’s physically hampered. By the way, what’s the likelihood that he had five different physical problems – four of them were probably for cramping.

Marina: We shouldn’t be deceived by Djokovic’s making believe he is is a huge tactic to get the momentum for him once again..I hate those mind games he plays all the time.

Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 4-3

Nate: Good point, you guys. I also remember that match with Baghdatis last year at Wimbledon. He basically rope-a-doped him throughout the fifth set, didn’t try on any of Baghdatis service games. Then all of a sudden sprang a trap at 5-4, and stole the match. Who’s reminiscent of Muhammad Ali?

Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 5-4

Nina: Jo-Willie should have the advantage if this set gets to a tiebreaker. He’s serving much better. Maria has her own cheering section for Jo-Willie. So far it’s eleven comments urging him on and it appears to be working.

Nate: But it could be trap time…

Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 5-5

Nate: Tsonga held his nerve! This is getting good again…

Djokovic wins, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6

Pat: How sad, I so thought having fought his way back that Tsonga would have served his way to a fifth set. Kudos to Novak for dealing with all of it the crowd and whatnot, and steeling himself to take it.

Nina: Novak Djokovic was solid if not spectacular. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was spectacular but inconsistent. Nole has a lot more slams in front of him but hopefully he can become a more fan-friendly, graceful champion. What looked like a runaway in the middle sets turned into a tight final set but Nole could not be shaken. Like most people, I’m looking forward to Jo-Wilfried. I want another artistic French champion in the world of tennis.

Nate: Tsonga just wasn’t ready. And Djokovic was…Still, on the strength of the first set-and-a-half, I’d say their games match up very well. Let Jo-Willy get a little used to winning, and he’ll be a formidable presence on the court, even in Slam finals.

Maria: Well, he deserved it! great slam and strong mind

Jenny: So sorry Jo-Wilfried and Maria. Djokovic deservedly won the title so many congrats to him. We can relax now Maria, but didn’t Jo-Wilfried do just great also.

Nate: G’night everyone. Tennis is more interesting than it was two weeks ago. I think this year is going to be intense…

Pat: Here we’ve had Gasquet, Berdych and Murray, our Infernal Trio, hemming and hawing over whether they want to be in the Top Ten or not, and here’s Jo-Willy coming right out and passing them all! I like that a lot. He deserves to be in the Top Ten the way he played. Too bad he’s not one of ours. Great game. Nighty night all, me go crash.

The Reign is Over: Djokovic Deposes Federer

Join us for the men’s Australian Open final! We’ll be blogging live on Sunday morning, January 27, at 12:30am (PST)/3:30am (EST)/9:30am (CET). We’ll stay up if you’ll stay up.

Roger Federer will not be in his eleventh consecutive slam final thanks to Novak Djokovic. What effect will this loss have on Federer’s legacy?

Novak Djokovic had his own booster club in Rod Laver Arena during his semifinal match against Roger Federer. His parents and two younger brothers each had one letter of Djokovic’s nickname spelled out on the front of their black and white Adidas outfits and when they stood up you could read it: N O L E.

They stood up a lot. Nole knocked Fed out of the semifinals at the Australian Open and for the first time in 10 slams, we will not be asking ourselves if so and so can beat Federer in the final. He’ll be on his way home. The king of tennis has been deposed.

He will not win the grand slam this year and he will not win the golden slam – all four slams plus the Olympic Gold medal. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that it’s very unlikely that he’ll win a grand slam in the future and that means something very, very important.

Fed can move ahead of Pete Sampras in the Greatest of All Time conversation with three more slams, but Sampras has always had to share that title with Rod Laver. Laver won two grand slams and Sampras never got close. Laver might be the Greatest of All Time 1a, but the conversation will always have to include him and that makes Fed’s loss to Nole huge. Federer got close to a grand slam, very close, and he still could win the French Open, but he will not stand alone as the best tennis player ever to play the game.

I am eternally thankful that I live in an era where I’ve been able watch Roger Federer do his magic. I liked nothing better than to sit down to a slam semi or final and know, absolutely know, that Fed would come alive at some point and take over the match. He’d hang around and poke and prod his opponent until he turned the switch on and cruised to the finish. And in every match there’d be at least one shot that would make me freeze then turn to the person next to me and ask, “Did I really just see that?”

The truth is that what a champion loses over time is the ability to raise his level on command. There’s no pill for that. None that are legal, anyway. Nole was cracking the ball and Fed couldn’t respond.

There were signs. There were those consecutive losses to Guillermo Canas, a Wimbledon final that Fed won by attrition more than anything, consecutive losses to David Nalbandian, and then the five set squeaker over Janko Tipsarevic, of all people.

The reign is over and now that it is, well, I’m sad. But I also have to say that these last two days have been as exciting as any I can remember in my long love affair with tennis. I can literally feel the body of tennis jump up out of its chair and throw its arms to the sky. The world is watching tennis again.

Everyone is talking about Nole Djokovic and the perfect match unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played to knock Rafael Nadal out of the semifinals. Wimbledon is now up for grabs and people want to know how long it’ll take Nadal to overtake Fed for the number one ranking or will Djokovic be the one to do it and is Tsonga really that good?

Most of the tennis season lays ahead of us and right about now, it looks like it’s gonna be a whole lot of fun.