Monthly Archives: June 2009

Can Andy Win Wimbledon?

Can Andy Murray delight the British Isles by being the first guy to take the home slam in 73 years?

Let me count the ways.

  1. First point in the first game of the first semifinal at Queens Club today against Juan Carlos Ferrero: a backhand return ripped crosscourt followed with a drop shot then a running backhand winner down the line. Sublime. Andy doesn’t even take time to warm up before messing with his opponent. Arsenal.
  2. Second point in the first game: two high soft slices just inside the baseline followed by a hard backhand down the line. Change of pace. Diversity if you will.
  3. Fifth point in the first game: a sharp Ferrero forehand to one corner then the other at which point Ferrero thinks it’s safe to approach the net. It’s not. Ferrero gets to Andy’s first passing shot but not the second. Defense. Movement if you will.
  4. Break point in the first game: Murray breaks Ferrero. ATP statistics: Points Won Returning First Serve – Andy Murray #1, Break Points Converted – Andy Murray #2, Points Won Returning Second Serve – Andy Murray #2, Return Games Won – Andy Murray #1. Return of serve.
  5. First point in the fourth game: backhand to one corner followed with a drop shot to the opposite short corner followed by a winning lob. Point construction.
  6. Third point in the fourth game: a drop shot followed by a backhand slice lob. Ferrero gets to the lob but, expecting a topspin instead of a slice, swings ineffectively and the ball flutters harmlessly into the net. Unpredictability.
  7. Fifth point in the fourth game: short hop crosscourt backhand slice for a winner off a hard Ferrero shot down the line. Ability to produce “did you see that?” shots.
  8. Ferrero’s ad in the fifth game: Ferrero serves an ace and appears to win the game but Andy challenges the call and wins. Andy wins the next two points and gets the break. Good eyesight.
  9. Second point in the first game of the second set: Andy takes a high kicking second serve wide with his two-handed backhand and steers it crosscourt for a return winner. Tall stature.
  10. Number of break points Andy faces in the game (which he wins 6-2, 6-4): none. Good serve.

But will he win Wimbledon this year? No, I don’t think so.

He looked golden today but Ferrero is now down to number 90 in the rankings so it’s not a conclusive result. If Rafael Nadal’s knees are solid enough, Rafa can beat Andy. If Rafa’s knees are not solid enough, Roger Federer’s relief at winning the French Open and the precarious state of Rafa’s knees could make him a pretty confident player at Wimbledon, his favorite surface.

Besides, Andy still phases out sometimes as he did a few games into the second set and he can also lapse into defensive play when he should be turning the screw. I absolutely believe he will win a Wimbledon but I’d give him a year or two more to get there.

As for the other Andy who’d love to win Wimbledon – the last of his three career goals, Andy Roddick got taken out by the surface at Queens Club today. He twisted his ankle after running down a James Blake lob when his foot landed on the boundary between the grass and the concrete. Roger and Rafa can both beat Andy handily at Wimbledon and if, for some inexplicable reason, neither of those guys survives, Andy Murray can run rings Andy Roddick.

One last point here. In L. Jon Wertheim’s book about last year’s transcendent Wimbledon final, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, he talks about facial expressions as it has to do with Rafa’s dominance over Roger. Facial expressions have fascinated me ever since reading Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article about Paul Ekman in 2002.

Ekman studied facial expressions world wide and deduced two very important things: 1. Facial expressions are global – a smile in New Guinea means the same thing as a smile in Peoria. 2. Facial expressions are involuntary. The expression might last only a fraction of a second but if you slow down the videotape enough – or if you’re particularly observant, we can see your facial expression no matter how hard you try to hide it.

The mad scientist in the tennis world is Vic Braden and Wertheim reports that Braden studied Roger’s facial expressions when he plays matches and noticed something very interesting. When Roger plays everyone else, he has wide eyes that look straight ahead and he has an upturned mouth. Against Rafa though, he frowns and looks downward.

All you readers who said that Roger is psyched out by Rafa were more correct than you know. And it’s not like it’s depends on the progress of the match, Roger shows his discomfit right from the warmup. I wish I knew enough about facial expressions to see if Roger will have the same look now should he meet up with Rafa at Wimbledon. Take a close look for me and tell me what you see.

Rafa’s Knees

The Rochus brothers aren’t ready to give up their tennis careers just yet but some changes might be in order for Rafael Nadal

I see that Benjamin Becker has made his way back into the top 100 by winning three challengers and he’s still moving up in Halle this week. He plays Olivier Rochus in the quarterfinals tomorrow. Let’s call that the “comeback player stakes” match.

Becker started his trip up the rankings by sending Andre Agassi into retirement at the 2006 U.S. Open and reaching the fourth round. He stayed in the top 100 for the next year then slowly dropped down the rankings and started this year at number 135. He’s a small guy – 5ft 10in (177cm) – with a big serve and an average ground game and I wondered if he’d figure out how to add enough groundies to his game to take advantage of his serve.

Rochus is even smaller at 5ft 6in (167 cm) and he was in the top 20 as recently as 2006. But last year he fell out of the top 100 and now finds himself at 136. Maybe Rochus is inspired – or even pissed off – that his older and equally small-statured brother Christophe has crawled all the way up to number 61 after almost falling out of the top 200 last year.

Getting to the top can be a lot easier than crawling back up there after falling way down. What keeps you going if you’ve been a top player and you lose it? By top I don’t necessarily mean the top ten. I mean a solid ranking and a yearly income in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for running around the world playing tennis. In Becker’s case he’s only been on the tour four years so he’s still learning, but Olivier Rochus hasn’t sniffed a ranking this low in nine years and that was when he was on his way up.

Maybe the Rochus brothers feed off brotherly jealousy, maybe they feed off brotherly support, or maybe they’re freaked out by the thought of dropping off the tour and having to find a day job like people I know who’ve extended their college careers way beyond any educational interest because the last thing they want to do is join the real world.

Olivier and Christophe are players near the end of their careers who are hanging on as long as they can and bless them for that, but what about players in their prime with serious and recurring injury problems. When should they hang it up? How long should they hang around?

I’ve lost count of Tommy Haas surgeries at this point and I wonder how long into his retirement it’ll take for arthritis to start settling into his troublesome right shoulder. Haas is near the end of his career too but what about Rafael Nadal?

Rafa hasn’t looked right since he pulled out a titanic semifinal over Novak Djokovic in Madrid. He lost the final to Roger Federer and then we realized how bad things were when he lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round at the French Open. The problem is tendinitis in both knees, which is a recurring problem, and though Andy Roddick had this to say about Rafa’s situation this week, “I’ve had tendinitis for years and years. It’s a fancy term for overuse. It’s uncomfortable and painful but it’s not something that’s career-threatening if you play on it,” I don’t believe it.

I’ve no doubt Roddick has tendinitis and has had it for years but I haven’t seen it affect his movement. He’s been in the year-end top ten for the past seven years and this year, in fact, his movement has improved. Rafa’s movement, meanwhile, is clearly hampered.

Rafa is a young guy, he just turned 23, and he’s got chronic problems already. What does he do, skip the hard court season – the surface that he blames for most of his problems? Play selected events? Play only one of the two hard court Masters events leading up to the U.S. Open? Not bloody likely. Rafa has a good shot at a career slam too Mr. Roger and he’s not going to pass that up.

In the past Rafa has played until he dropped then skipped however many events he needed to recuperate. Not an intelligent approach. Last year he missed the year-end finals because he wore down at the end of the season. Two changes are obvious and minimal: cut down the playing calendar and not just on hard court – skip Barcelona for heaven’s sake, and stop playing when the pain starts, Rafa, not when it becomes disabling.

The biggest problem for Rafa is predicting the future. Let’s say he retires in a few years because his knees give out. Does he play sporadically to play longer or play like hell until that day comes? And how does that affect his quality of life when he retires? Here in the U.S. we have plenty of ex-athletes who can barely walk up the stairs when they get into their later years. How many slams are worth that?

Most athletes would say I’ll take the slams but that’s their younger self talking. My older self does exercises seven days a week to manage the remnants of a severe back injury and hold tendinitis and cracking joints at bay, and I’m hugely distressed when a new snap crackle and pop turns up in my spine or I have to load another pillow under my knees to get through the night pain free.

Whatever happens, Rafa has reached a point where slam appearances are affected. Expect other parts of his career to be affected too.

The Pressure Gets to Safina as Kuznetsova Wins the French Open

Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Dinara Safina, 6-4, 6-2, to win the French Open title in Paris today in a see saw battle of nerves.

Dinara Safina has a problem. She’s been in three of the last slam finals and each time she’s underperformed. And with each final the pressure rises.

There was pressure to win her first slam in the 2008 French Open final against Ana Ivanovic. Then there was pressure to win her second slam final at the 2009 Australian Open against Serena William. And today there was pressure to wipe out her miserable performance in the Australian final AND prove that she deserved her number one ranking in the French Open final against Svetlana Kuznetsova

That miserable performance gave Serena her 10th slam title and Serena has been doing her best to drag Safina into a psychological battle for the number one ranking. Serena always punks her vanquishers when she loses and she did it again this week after losing to Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals: “Honestly I think I lost because of me and not because of anything she did.”

Serena also punked Safina in Rome last month: “We all know who the real No. 1 is. Quite frankly, I’m the best in the world.” The pressure keeps rising and each time it takes away part of Safina’s game. Today it was her serve. She double faulted seven times and lost match point on a double fault. And though Kuzy vanquished a few of her own demons today by playing just aggressively enough to win – until winning Stuttgart last month she’d lost six straight finals dating back to August 2007 including a U.S. Open final – Safina helped her and I don’t think she was pulling a Serena during this exchange after the match:

Q. Is there any comfort to you that she played a very good match. It wasn’t like she put you in a position to win but you didn’t win. Does that make it any easier for you, or…

DINARA SAFINA: No, because she gave me chances and I had chances. She was not so aggressive as she usually [is]. I just didn’t do anything.

Q. You basically beat yourself?

DINARA SAFINA: I lost myself.

If that’s a lost in translation moment it describes Safina’s state of mind. In the first set she had the competitive glare going but it was less a matter of sticking her jaw out than it was trepidation and fear of losing fighting it out with justified feelings of domination (she’d won 20 or her last 21 matches).

This was less a slam final than a battle of nerves starting off with both players losing their serve. After that they settled down and we got some good tennis, but when Safina served at 3-4 in the first set her serve started deserting her. She lost that game and then it was time for Kuzy to wig out and lose her serve. But Safina’s serve deserted her again in the next game and that gave Kuzy the first set.

Kuzy broke to go up 4-2 in the second set and Safina’s dominance finally caved in to the trepidation and fear of losing. After a bad shot in the next game, Kuzy had a chance to return the favor but she kept her cool with what the British call keepy uppy and surfer slackers might call hacky sack – a little footy with the tennis ball in other words – and that was the difference. Kuzy found a way to hold on to herself while Safina could not.

What can Safina do now? Well she can start with faith and faith depends on memory, particularly for an athlete. There’s the memory of the goal you are moving towards and the memory of what you’ve been able to achieve in the past and the two of them work together to propel you forward. Safina can remember that a short while ago she was in the habit of giving in to self-doubt in the form of berating herself when things didn’t go well on court. She’s learned how to change that well enough to reach the number one ranking in the world and that should give her faith.

If Safina can change that, she can also learn to handle nerves. She could also look across the net at Kuzy and remember that it was five years between slams for her with a lot of tough questions in between. Kuzy is as earnest as any athlete out there in facing the music with the media after a tough loss and she’s had plenty of them. And now she’s the only multi-slam winner among the vaunted Russian women who were raised in their home country.

If all else fails, maybe Kuzy could teach Safina some keepy uppy.

Who the Hell Is Samantha Stosur? and Martina Is In Trouble Again

Samantha Stosur ran all the way to the French Open semifinals before finally falling to Svetlana Kuznetsova so now I guess I’d better start finding out who she is.

Samantha Stosur

Of course I know the name Samantha Stosur. She’s a great doubles player with 22 doubles titles – including two slams – and was once ranked number one in doubles. And I vaguely associate her with Alicia Molik, another very good Aussie player whose career was dismantled in some way or another by illness and/or injury.

In Sam Stosur’s case the illness was Lyme Disease, a potentially dangerous illness which is contracted from tick bites. Stosur got up to number 27 in singles before getting ill in 2007 and missed almost a year. She’s what I’d call an average player in singles mainly because of her size. She’s a tick under 5ft8in (173cm) and weighs in at 143lbs (65kg). Svetlana Kuznetsova doesn’t have the skinny tall build of many of the Eastern Europeans – she’s only slightly taller than Stosur – but she’s got a good 15 more pounds (7kg) of power and that’s what sunk Stosur in today’s semifinal.

Admittedly I’m not a big follower of the women’s game but you can’t exactly blame me for not knowing much about Stosur. This is the first time she’s been past the fourth round at a slam in singles and her career record on clay is barely above .500. And she has no singles titles.

Stosur seemed to be thinking the same thing because she looked a bit spooked in the first set. She’s got an excellent service motion but she wasn’t going for first serves until she was already down a set and even then she got down 4-1 in the second set tiebreaker before uncorking a hammer of an inside out forehand and coming back to win the tiebreaker 7-5.

Kuzy countered by taking a protracted bathroom break after the second set and then, possibly concerned about a blister on her foot and a slight ankle sprain from her quarterfinal win over Serena Williams, she started playing more aggressively to end points and get her butt off the court as soon as possible. Of course that means more errors and Stosur got a break point at 2-2 in the third set. But Stosur missed two straight returns and, in the next game, made two more consecutive errors to go down a break.

Kuzy held on to her nerve and found her way in to the final against Dinara Safina. Commentator Martina Navratilova, see below, thinks that Stosur has enough stuff to win a slam some day. She’ll be up to a career high ranking of 18 after today and she got some guns on those arms of hers, but I think a lot of the top players can overpower her and it would be unusual to see someone make their way into the top ten all of a sudden in her mid-twenties.

If Stosur does something special at Wimbledon, a surface her game is better suited to, then likely I’m wrong.

Martina Navratilova

Martina, bless her heart, is in trouble again. She’s always been outspoken and thankfully that hasn’t changed. At the Paris ceremony to receive the Philippe Chatrier award from the International Tennis Federation this week, Martina offered ten changes to improve today’s game.

Some ITF people thought Martina should have chosen a different platform to express her views – especially as the ceremony took place in the middle of the French Open and the award is named after a former French tennis player and journalist who was president of the ITF for 20 years.

But what better platform could there be? See what she had to say below courtesy of Bob Larson’s Tennis News and tell me what you think. I disagree with the standardized tennis balls and hard courts – they add a diversity that’s unique to tennis, excessive ball bouncing – it’s taken care of by the time clock rule, and false tosses – a bit too fascistic for me, but otherwise I’m with her 100%. Six out of ten ain’t bad.

  1. NO LETS “We need to speed up the game and this would certainly help. If the ball hits the top of the net on a serve, so be it. There’s no need to stop the point. Let’s keep going and maybe we could call this the Patrick Rafter Rule because he argued against it so much a few years ago.”
  2. NO MORE THAN FIVE BOUNCES OF THE BALL BEFORE SERVE “Again this would speed the game up and there really is no need to spend so much time preparing. Without a doubt we could call this the Novak Djokovic Rule.”
  3. NO MORE FALSE TOSSES “Same sort of thing but if a server gets things wrong that’s his or her fault and should not delay the game.”
  4. GRUNTING NEEDS TO COME TO AN END “It’s annoying. It can be a hindrance. It is completely unnecessary. This is one piece of legislation I would really like to see enforced for the good of the game. You don’t hear Roger Federer making a wail or a shriek every time he hits the ball.”
  5. FASTER COURTS “This would most certainly encourage players to come to the net a lot more and make the sport more varied again. Too many players play exactly the same way nowadays.”
  6. SMALLER RACKETS “Technology now means the best way to play is simply sit on the baseline and hit big groundstrokes. I’m not advocating a return to wood but just making the head size smaller would put more importance on true skill.”
  7. A TIME CLOCK RULE “How many players nowadays pay heed to the rightful time they should spend between points and how many officials honestly enforce it in the way it should? Team Tennis has proved having a clock on court would also involve the spectators and make it impossible to digress.”
  8. STANDARDISING TENNIS BALLS “Too many injuries are caused and consequently too many leading players get injured and therefore miss important tournaments because balls vary so much from week to week. Having one uniform ball would help resolve this issue.”
  9. STANDARDISING HARD COURT SURFACES “Of course this does not apply to clay or grass but so many hard courts are so different. So are really hard, some are much softer and once again this variation makes players much more likely to sustain injury.”
  10. WHY IMPOSE RULES ON THE SIZES OF LOGOS AND PATCHES? “Golf has flown way in front of tennis when it comes to endorsements and sponsorship. There is no need to hit the manufacturers and potential backers when they want to put money into the game.”