Monthly Archives: November 2008

The 2008 Top 13 and Roddick’s New Coach

I’ve recovered from my trip to Brazil, the flu, and an over-full stomach, and now I’m ready to get back to my exhaustive obsession with the world of tennis.

Starting with, of course, those terrifying year end lists. It’s not just that I’m startled to see another year sneak up on me much, much faster than I imagined possible – the worst part is realizing I’m not much closer to some of my dearly held goals than I was at the beginning of the year, it’s the task of predicting the future of tennis players who’s psyches may not be up to the task of being the next big thing.

Who’d thunk that Juan Martin del Potro would bust out and win four straight events and have the nerve to stand up to David Nalbandian by putting the year end championships ahead of the Davis Cup as if there were all the time in the world for Argentina to win its first Cup? In del Potro’s mind, there probably is plenty of time.

Del Potro is my pick for the ATP most improved player and here are the rest of the top 13 categories. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I want to talk about the prospects for Andy Roddick’s new coach, Larry Stefanki. Can he bring something new to Andy’s game? But let’s go through them for a few minutes.

1. ATP player of the year. Rafael Nadal absolutely. And I’m willing to bet that this is his highlight year, particularly with the Olympic gold medal thrown.

2. WTA player of the year. This is tough because no one dominated and Jelena Jankovic is the weakest number one we’ve had in terms of slam credentials. But Jelena wins it because she was by far the most consistent player while everyone else was either injured or unable to deal with injury – Ana Ivanovic’s thumb injury affected her confidence as much as it did her thumb, or unable to win a final – Svetlana Kuznetsova lost all five finals she played this year.

3. ATP match of the year (I know, I know, but maybe some people may disagree). The Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But I will say this, I still think the 1980 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg with that 18-16 fourth set tiebreak was better.

4. WTA match of the year. I’m picking the Wimbledon final between Serena and Venus only because it’s so good to see them go toe to toe in a slam final again.

5. ATP most improved player. JMDP. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gets an honorable mention.

6. & 8. The WTA most improved player. Dinara Safina without a doubt. And whoever it was that surrounded her with so much positive support that she positively busted out of her former insecure and self-lacerating persona, deserves the WTA coach of the year award.

7. ATP coach of the year. You know what, I’m giving it to Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle, because I don’t think he gets the props he deserves. Rafa’s game had improved every year and surely Toni deserves some of the credit.

9. Player who abused the medical timeout rule the most. This was just a weak attempt on my part to bring up the subject of Novak Djokovic because he didn’t fit into any other category, and he’s known for racking up impressive lists of injuries which don’t seem to keep him from winning matches. Maybe the category should have been “Player who most got in his own way,” because Nole managed to piss off the US Open crowd after Roddick teased him about his injuries, and he persists in being in your face arrogant. Still, I have him winning at least two or three more slams if he would just grow up.

10. ATP player who is most likely to drop far down the rankings next year. People have been picking James Blake but I think he’s still got another year or two in the top 10 or 15 before he sinks. He’s thirty years old but he doesn’t have a lot of miles on his body. I’m more concerned about David Ferrer’s confidence and, even though I’ve been wrong about him the past two years, David Nalbandian’s motivation.

11. WTA player who is most likely to drop far down the rankings next year. Far is a relative term. If you started the year at number two and ended the year at number eight, that’s a big drop. For that reason, my pick is Kunetsova because Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova will be back next year and Serena Williams and Venus Williams are now regular tour members.

12. ATP Player who is most likely to rise far up the rankings next year. I’m with Jenny on this one. Marin Cilic is now the number one player in Croatia and he’s up to number 22. He’s got a pistol whip of a forehand and great movement. He’s got so much game that it still might take him a year or two to reach the upper regions, but I’d put my money on him.

13. WTA Player who is most likely to rise far up the rankings next year. Agnieszka Radwanska is a teenager, she’s in the top ten, she played in the year end championships. She’s my pick and does she look like Dinara Safina’s sister or what?

While Andy Roddick’s recent coach, Jimmy Connors, was getting himself arrested for failing to disperse after getting into a tiff with the police at a UC Santa Barbara basketball game – this happened, by the way, before the game had even started, Andy’s new coach, Larry Stefanki, was figuring out what possible changes he could bring to a veteran’s game.

As you could guess by now, the number one priority is Roddick’s return of serve. Tennis players today are vastly improved when it comes to return of serve. Federer is right at the top and Nadal is not far behind. And I remember watching Rik De Voest, who’s now ranked number 154, return Andy’s serve pretty handily at the Los Angeles ATP event and thinking that Andy was in trouble.

But he’s not. He held serve 91% of the time this year and that’s the best percentage on tour. In an interview with tennis writer Charlie Bricker, Stefanki didn’t exactly talk about Andy improving his return of serve as much as changing his attitude:

Confidence is built on the right mechanics and having the right philosophy in your head. Andy, especially on second serve returns, needs to get more aggressive. Not necessarily going for everything, but not just sitting back and returning the ball.

And this too:

He’s not a David Ferrer 5-foot-9 roadrunner. You’ve got to take more risks and unless you do you’re not going to create that presence you want on the court.

First of all, if you’re not a good returner, at least act like one. No standing way off in the hinterlands to return serve – as Roddick used to do awhile back. Players can smell fear a mile away and nothing buoys confidence like fear in an opponent. Bunting a second serve back into the court falls into the same category. It’s not the same as backing up, but it’s passive at the very least.

And, if you’re deficient in a particular skill, you have to take more chances. That should be easier for Andy than many other players as Stefanki also pointed out. If your serve is deficient and you take chances by going for winners, you could easily lose your serve. If your ground strokes are deficient and you aim for the lines, you’ll run up unforced errors. But Andy will hold his serve 9 out of 10 times; he can afford to take a few whacks at second serves.

Works for me. Andy ended the year at number 8 but he was number 6 when he went into the year-end championships. If he ends 2009 at number 6, that would be a major victory considering the emergence of Tsonga, Gilles Simon, and del Potro.

Andy dropped out of the year-end championships with an ankle injury and he missed some tournaments this year with a shoulder problem. Athletes are like cars. Once they start having problems, it’s often downhill from there. For his sake, I hope he’s got a few more years on him because he’s a guy who does as much with what he has as any other player out there, and I appreciate that.

Spain Takes the Davis Cup as Verdasco is the Last Man Standing

Spain ruined home country Argentina’s try for its first Davis Cup title as Fernando Verdasco beat Jose Acasuso in a tough five set match.

You could say that the ATP got what is deserved. It had a year-end championship without its top player – Rafael Nadal’s knees couldn’t take the pounding anymore, its second ranked player wasn’t feeling so good either – Roger Federer hurt his back, and then Federer wore out its fourth ranked player – Andy Murray fell apart in the semifinals after beating Federer in the last round robin match.

And here was the Davis Cup final which should have featured four of the top 12 players in the world and only one of them made it past the first day. Thus it was that a third rubber (matches are called rubbers in Davis Cup, a quaint word that has all kinds of other meaning by this time in history) that might have featured ArgentineanJuan Martin del Potro but featured, instead, his teammate Jose Acasuso because del Potro hurt his leg in the second rubber. Injuries are unavoidable but del Potro had already been limping to the end of the year and it’s fair enough to add him into the “worn out” category.

I know, I’m a conspiracy theorist, but on the second point of the match between Acasuso and Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, Verdasco had to stop in the middle of a point and hold up his hand and request Hawkeye. A ball that should have been called out wasn’t. For sure, the Spanish were not going to get any breaks today and if you say, “What’s the big deal?”, consider that making a bad call in the middle of the point is much harder for a player do deal with than if it comes at the end. The player not only has to think about what he’s doing in the point, in the middle of that he then has to decide whether to stop the point and call for Hawkeye or continue playing, and then he has to endure jeers and whistles from the crowd if he does stop the point.

Acauso did what he does – hit his forehand very hard. But there’s a reason he lost his serve to go down 2-4 in the first set. Whereas the 16th ranked Verdasco has developed consistency across all surfaces, the 48th ranked Acasuso is inconsistent on all surfaces, and it felt like this might be a less than satisfying ending to what looked like such a promising event. But the fast surface here rewards hard hitters like Acasuso and he somehow turned this into a memorable, if ultimately disappointing, match.

Acauso lost the first set 3-6 but he broke Verdasco early in the second set though he had help from the crowd. Verdasco served up a double fault on break point as the crowd whistled and yelled during his serve. Turnabout is fair play. If you remember, a Spanish fan did the same thing to Nalbandian yesterday. After exchanging breaks later in the set, Acasuso gave up his break advantage while serving for the set. He managed to pull it out in the tiebreaker, but it looked like he’d only delayed the inevitable and the wildness and unforced errors would sink him sooner rather than later.

Not quite. Acasuso hit a fantastic jump winner off a Verdasco overhead in the first game of the third set that belongs in the top thirty of all-time shots considering the pressure of the situation. Verdasco, meanwhile, hit his 7th double fault – not surprising as he was still hearing whistles and jeers throughout his serve – and Acasuso was up a break in the third set. There’d be four more breaks in the set as both players were kind of ragged, but the breaks were shared equally so Acasuso won the set 6-4 and found himself, improbably, up two sets to one.

After almost exactly three hours – which was part way through the fourth set, Acasuso officially joined the legion of the “worn out.” His energy flagged just enough to let Verdasco break him and that was all Verdasco needed to take the fourth set, 6-3. And then, wouldn’t you know it, Acasuso went from the worn out to the injured as he received treatment for an abdominal strain. From there it was all downhill as Acasuso went down 0-4 in the fifth set and ended up losing it 1-6.

Spain had managed to win hit Davis Cup without it’s king Rafael. And what a year for Verdasco: a career high ranking, a win in a Davis Cup deciding rubber, and a trophy girlfriend named Ana Ivanovic who is also a sweetheart. As high as he must be right now and as much as this will do for his confidence – this was only his second victory in a live rubber (one that has any bearing on the outcome), I’d have to think that David Ferrer is wondering what the hell is going in. Verdasco replaced the higher ranked Ferrer after he was ineffective in the first rubber against Nalbandian.

I thought Ferrer outperformed himself last year. While that’s a rather a ridiculous statement if you think about it, how can you outperform yourself? You can’t perform better than you are unless you use performance enhancing drugs or the spirit of some past sports warrior overtakes your body for a short period of time. These things do happen you know. But it was unlikely that he could hold onto the fourth or fifth ranking with players like Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga coming along.

The problem is that as Ferrer tumbled down the top ten – he’s now number 12, he lost the confidence that he was a top ten player. As unnatural as it sounds, if he could accept slightly lower expectations, he might be able to rebuild his confidence and get back where he belongs.

I’m glad they canceled the inconsequential fifth rubber between Nalbandian and Feliciano Lopez. In some way it makes the whole thing more dramatic. When it’s over, it’s over. Argentina is a country that truly loves its tennis. Soccer even likes tennis in Argentina. The country’s sport demigod and recently named coach of its soccer team, Diego Maradona, regularly harasses opponents during Argentina’s Davis Cup ties.

So I’m disappointed that Argentina didn’t win its first Davis Cup title, but nobody gets it handed to them. That’s why they play the tie.

Argentina Gets Unnerved and Drops the Davis Cup Doubles Rubber

Argentina went down 1-2 in the Davis Cup final after losing the doubles rubber in four sets to the Spanish team.

I’ve given you an Italian feed with highlights of the Davis Cup final doubles match between Spain and Argentina. It’s just tennis so you can probably figure out what’s going on no matter what the language, but I will say that the term “brutta risposta” – heard after Nalbandian puts that easy volley into the net – refers to a pretty bad shot.

The crowd was roaring with every fault and virtually every shot in the overloaded arena in Mar del Plata, Argentina. If you didn’t know Spanish, you might have thought one of the players was named “por favor” because the umpire had to say it after every point to quiet the crowd. It sounded more like the soccer match I went to last week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with everyone standing up and chanting and drumming. I half expected to see patches of the arena covered with twirling six foot high flags containing likenesses of the Argentinean players. In Rio, one fan had a huge flag with an image of Che Guevara. I’m still trying to figure that out. Was Che a crack soccer player?

Spain lost the first set of the match after Lopez and Verdasco managed to win only 25% of their second serves while Argentineans David Nalbandian and Agustin Calleri won an incredible 73% of theirs. For some reason, Lopez and Verdasco stayed back when receiving serve and that’s pretty ridiculous considering they were already down a set and Lopez is one of the few serve and volley guys left in the world.

Still, Spain was up 6-5 in the second set and Argentina was serving to stay in the set when Calleri chose an awful time to make a mistake. He hit an overhead into the net at 30-30 giving Spain a set point. On the next point, Calleri missed a volley and one very unhappy Argentinean tennis player slunk over to his seat on the courtside bench.

The third set was kind of crazy as each team broke twice and when they arrived at the tiebreaker, the Spaniards were aiming at Calleri trying to get him to cough up another set. It didn’t work as Argentina got up 4-0 which, of course, excited the crowd even more if that was possible. When the teams changed ends, Argentina was up 5-1 and then a Spanish fan decided that it was her duty to help out her country by yelling during a Nalbandian second serve. Nalbandian ended up hitting it long.

You know, I can’t decide what should happen in a case like that. Should the woman who yelled have been escorted from the match posthaste, or should she be given the Prince of Asturias prize for excellence in sport if Spain ends up winning the Davis Cup because, believe it or not, by the time Nalbandian missed an easy volley and Verdasco floated a lob over Calleri’s head, Spain had another set point and, as you can imagine, the crowd whistled and booed mercilessly as Verdasco served for the set. Didn’t matter, Calleri put a ball into the net and Spain was up two sets to none.

When I went to that soccer match, we noted that opposing teams’ fans have to enter through different gates lest violence erupt before the match even begins, and though tennis is barely more rambunctious than golf, some Spanish and Argentinean fans were going at each other and security had to step in to keep peace. Each year we see more fan disturbances at tennis matches but this was probably tame for Davis Cup and any player who can’t deal with unruly crowd behavior will have trouble winning a Davis Cup match.

Not only that but it could be much worse. At 2-2 in the fourth set, Nalbandian hit a second serve that was clearly wide but was called in. You can bet Argentina would have picked up a few points right about now if Spanish players didn’t have their friend Hawkeye to keep the linespeople on their toes. The truth is that Lopez and Verdasco handled the crowd disturbance and Nalbandian and Calleri didn’t.

Nalbandian’s double fault gave Spain three break points and the Spanish broke serve. They broke serve a few more times and won the match, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(5), 6-3, and now Argentina is in trouble. Juan Martin Del Potro broke down in his loss to Lopez yesterday with a leg injury and he’s supposed to play the first rubber tomorrow. There’s no official word about the status of the injury but the second and third choice to play that rubber – Calleri and Jose Acasuso – have won roughly half their matches on tour this year, not a good bet for a do-or-die match. If Spain wins that rubber, they win the 2008 Davis Cup.

Stay tuned for more fireworks tomorrow.

The Davis Cup Final, Roddick’s New Coach

The Davis Cup final between Argentina and Spain starts up on Friday and Larry Stefanki is Andy Roddick’s new coach.

Davis Cup

Believe it or not, there’s still plenty of tennis coming up. Friday marks the beginning of the Davis Cup final between Argentina and Spain in the coastal resort of Mar Del Plata in Argentina. Before Rafael Nadal went down with knee tendinitis, it might have been hard to pick the winner, but now it looks pretty easy.

Argentina was smart enough to choose a fast indoor court and let their players David Nalbandian and Juan Martin Del Potro test the surface out as they worked on it, and Nalbandian is 27-6 indoors over the past two years. Spain will send David Ferrer, who’s been slumping, and the inconsistent Feliciano Lopez into battle in singles.

What I find curious is Nadal’s decision to run himself into the ground instead of preparing for the Davis Cup final, especially as he said it was so important to him. He played only Madrid and Paris in the fall season, but if his tendinitis is severe enough to keep him out of Davis Cup, it’s because he played on sore knees. If he wanted to avoid the fine for skipping a Masters Series event, he should have played a match or two then pulled out with the tendinitis. If he wanted to play so he could keep his rankings point lead over Roger Federer, well, was it worth it?

Argentina has never won a Davis Cup and I don’t expect them to let the opportunity pass by now.

Roddick’s New Coach

Bjorn Borg’s longtime coach Lennart Bergelin died earlier this month. I was looking online for something that Peter Bodo wrote in his book Courts of Babylon. As I remember it, Bodo was making the point that Borg essentially abandoned Bergelin after he retired. Borg failed to contact Bergelin when Bergelin had two heart attacks and didn’t call him up when he made his short-lived attempt return to the tour.

It turns out that Bodo’s book has not been scanned into google books yet, but I did find a section on coaches in Bill Scanlon’s book, Bad News for McEnroe, the title of which is, I believe, a tongue in cheek reference to Scanlon’s three career victories over John McEnroe (against nine losses).

Scanlon won nine singles titles in the 70’s and 80’s and recorded the only known golden set in professional tennis when he beat Marcus Hocevar in February, 1983, and won the second set without losing a point.

In the chapter titled, appropriately, Support Systems, Scanlon cites Ion Tiriac and Bergelin as the first professional touring coaches though their roles were vastly different. Whereas Bergelin was a glorified babysitter who made sure that Borg’s huge stash of tightly strung rackets were restrung the moment they pinged, Tiriac was a megalomaniac who first ruled over Guillermo Vilas. He not only drove Vilas to greatness with practice sessions that were brutal and unheard of at the time, but he controlled everything about Vilas’ career down to the cut of his tennis shirts and took a hefty cut of Vilas’ income in return. Tiriac continued that role with Boris Becker, taking over his career when he was a teenager and collecting, again, a hefty cut of Boris’ income for his dual role as manager and coach.

Much of sports management today has been taken over by large marketing firms. Somewhat similarly, if you want to make big money in coaching, go to work for a national tennis association. Roger Federer’s sometime coach Jose Higueras was just hired by the US tennis association. Brad Gilbert was paid a million bucks a year by the LTA, Great Britain’s tennis association, when he coached Andy Murray, and Pete Sampras’ former coach Paul Annacone gets big bucks from the LTA as head coach of men’s tennis.

Speaking of which, the LTA and Wimbledon just signed a new agreement that will bring even more money into the LTA’s pocketbooks. Does any other country in the world have such a rich tennis association for such a small population? France, maybe, but they appear to do much more with it. Having a slam should help a country’s tennis association but France seems to be the only one of the four slam countries with a strong field of established and developing players. Patrick McEnroe, General Manager for Elite Player Development in the U.S., please take note.

So if you’re not working for a national tennis association and didn’t pick up your tennis charge when he was still wearing braces, what do you do?

If you’re Larry Stefanki, you try to find some way to convince an established player to change his approach to the game and good luck with that. He managed to push Fernando Gonzalez up to the number five ranking after he reached the Australian Open final last year, but Gonzalez has dropped down to number 15 and now Stefanki gets a go-round with Andy Roddick after Roddick hired him this week as his latest coach.

I haven’t seen too many coaches who came along late in a player’s career and made a big difference, but in Roddick’s case, he needs someone but it doesn’t have to be someone to change his game, just someone to make sure that he does what he already does well. When Jimmy Connors coached Roddick, he got him back up on the baseline for the return of serve and boosted his confidence. I’m not sure Stefanki has to do a whole lot more except keep Roddick playing aggressively.

Roddick might have finished a step or two higher in the rankings if not for the injuries this year including dropping out of the Tennis Masters Cup with an injury. He came into the Tennis Masters Cup at number six and ended the year at number eight so he lost two ranking places there. If he can end next year at number six, Stefanki will have more than earned his keep. Besides, who else was there?

Did Ana Ivanovic Win a Slam Too Early?

Ana Ivanovic won her first slam at the French Open this year but things haven’t gone so well since.

Jelena Jankovic has been called the weakest number one the WTA has ever had because she has a grand total of one slam final but she’ll end the year at number one. I remember Lindsay Davenport getting a lot of grief for ending the year at number one in 2004 because she didn’t get past the semifinals in a slam that year, and again in 2005 when she had two slam finals but, again, no slam.

Davenport can be excused because she already had three slams and an Olympic gold medal by 2004, but the problem will continue until the WTA changes the rankings system to reward wins over higher ranked players rather than rewarding the player who enters the most tournaments.

Davenport is a courtside commentator at the WTA championships in Doha this week – is that a tacit way of acknowledging her retirement? If so, it’s not surprising in the least that she’s doing it with such little fanfare. The discussion about JJ’s weak status as number one came up in the opening match between JJ and Ana Ivanovic and the way the match played out led me to wonder: Did Ana win a slam too early in her career?

Wouldn’t be the first time. Pete Sampras won a slam in his third year on tour and it was a watershed experience for him because he won the first one with no pressure. He got to another slam final two years later but by then the pressure had ramped up and he couldn’t deal with it. By the third year after his first slam, he’d finally worked out that, yes, he did want to win a slam and, yes, he was willing to have the target on his back that came with it.

Serena Williams won a slam in only her second year of playing them and it took her another two years before she could figure out how to do it again. Svetlana Kuznetsova won the US Open in her third year of playing slams and she hasn’t done it since. Davenport, by the way, won her first slam in her eighth year of playing slams.

Ana won her first slam at the French Open this summer – her fourth year of playing then. After that, her year fell apart and she didn’t reach a semifinal until the middle of last month as she dropped from number one to number four. The thumb injury seemed to affect her confidence and she wasn’t looking so good against JJ in Doha either.

Ana was 5-0 over JJ in the past two years but she lost her very first service game in the match and Jankovic was up 3-0 before Fernando Verdasco could turn his head. He was sitting in Ana’s box with her parents and wow, is he a handsome dude. That pairing would certainly turn out some dark haired beauties. Her first slam and now a boyfriend – that’s enough to throw your life into a tizzy.

Ana managed to break back in the middle of the set but she gave up her serve again and lost the first set 6-3. She looked out of sorts. More than a few times she looked over at her box with a look that was a mix of desperation and resignation. (More about that later.)

While Ana has been struggling, JJ has been rolling along. She won three tournaments this fall and she’s going through a rare patch without injuries of any kind. It’s worth noting that JJ is pretty good about playing with injuries – a good thing as she’s had many of them – while Ana’s confidence seemed to dented pretty good by her thumb injury. It’s also worth noting that JJ has two years on Ana and maturity is part of our theme today. It takes time to grow into fame and learn to manage the pressure of winning and Ana may be experiencing the growing pains that go along with it.

Ana lost her patience in the first game in the second set and it looked as if she still couldn’t find her rhythm. She lost the game to go down a break but she showed signs of life with JJ serving at 3-2. JJ hit a lazy serve and followed that up with a loopy backhand and Ana just crushed the ball down the line to pull even at deuce and won the game to get back on serve. But she gave the break right back and then broke down altogether.

While serving to stay in the match at 3-5, she pulled up in the middle of a point, bent over in discomfort, and called for the trainer. Her movement didn’t betray a muscular problem and it wasn’t muscular – she was having trouble breathing. The Olympic organizers in Beijing must love that after U.S. cyclists walked off the airplane wearing facemasks to avoid pollution.

Ana popped up off the chair after the timeout and finished off the game but JJ served out the match and the reason for those mournful looks towards her box and the breathing problems became apparent after she lost her second match (to Vera Zvonareva) and it was reported that she’s suffering from a flu bug.

A bad thumb, a flu bug, sagging confidence. It’s not been a kind year since Ana won the slam and she’s got finalist points to defend in the Australian Open only three weeks into next season. It could get worse before it gets better. To me, Ana is a young 21 years old and I fully expect her to get it together, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see it take her another year or so to get her second slam.

I’m off to Brazil tomorrow for a week – I have a short film in the International Festival of Erotic Animation if you can believe that. I’ll check in as much as I can but, remember, you can create your own blog if you like and lay down your thoughts. Consider it.