Category Archives: AMS Indian Wells

he’d found a way to cool off the hottest player in the tournament on one good ankle with a mixture of moonballs, drop shots, slice forehands and a ton of heart.

murray-0317071.jpgIn a champion’s career there are often defining moments. Sometimes a player overcomes emotional distress and manages to win an important title. Sometimes a player overcomes physical exhaustion, maybe a severe case of cramps in the searing heat at the U.S. Open. Here at Indian Wells last night, Andy Murray picked himself up off the court and played out the first defining moment of his young career in his quarterfinal match against Tommy Haas.

Murray lost the first set and had a 2-0 lead in the second when he hit a serve and volley. He lunged for a passing shot and landed badly on his ankle then crumbled to the court in pain. Haas ran over to help him and the chair umpire brought ice. Murray was in tears. He was in pain and a bit of shock. He’d landed on his hip, scratched his knee and hurt his side and he was worried that he’d re-injured his problematic ankle.

The trainer set up a chair where Murray had fallen, propped him up and treated his ankle for what must have been at least 15 minutes. ESPN showed footage of Haas’ ankle from Wimbledon in 2005. He tripped on a ball during the warm up and his ankle swelled up like a large grapefruit. Luckily for Murray, his ankle wasn’t so bad but how could he keep up if an able bodied Fernando Gonzalez went down to Haas so easily?

Here is where Murray’s genius comes in. Haas described it very well after the match:

Well, for one, he moves really well. He knows where to be most of the time. But it’s actually incredible how slow he plays… You know, it’s almost sometimes like a couple of rallies are almost – you think you’re back in the juniors.

And that captures the match perfectly because here was Murray with compromised movement yet he managed to pop up in the right place at the right time. In the media room we were trying to think of another player like Murray. We batted around a few names before I realized the obvious answer: Brad Gilbert.

My memory is not that great, post-menopausal memory loss I suspect, but as resourceful as Gilbert was, Murray does him one better. Many times I saw Murray hit a forehand squash shot, which is usually a desperation shot, before I realized that he was actively using a forehand slice. He explained it like this:

And then, after ten minutes, it wasn’t my ankle that was hurting, it was my side because I’d fallen, you know, so hard on it. And it was quite hard to push off on my right leg for the serve and the balls on my forehand and that’s why I had to slice quite a lot on my forehands.

He also played the points of his life. He was serving for the second set when Haas hit an approach deep to the corner. Murray barely got to it and hit a lob that landed in the deepest part of the opposite corner. That was frustrating enough but he followed it up with a drop shot that left the media room in an uproar and Haas muttering to himself. At 4-4 in the third set he ran in and hit a fantastic passing shot off a Haas drop shot. Slow, maybe, but more than fast enough.

Murray was wearing Haas out with his rope-a-dope game. Haas took an injury time out for cramps late in the third set and had trouble serving in the tiebreaker. Still, he got two match points but couldn’t close it out. Murray hit one more passing shot and he’d done the improbable, he’d found a way to cool off the hottest player in the tournament on one good ankle with a mixture of moonballs, drop shots, slice forehands and a ton of heart.

Despite the bitter loss, Tommy Haas came out of this match looking good too. He has a well deserved reputation for being a self-centered guy who throws temper tantrums when things aren’t going his way, but he ran over to help Murray when he went down – unlike Maria Sharapova who stood behind the baseline and bounced a ball while Tatiana Golovin lay writhing in pain from a twisted ankle in Miami last year – and in the media session after the match he said this:

I’ve had some problems in the past and twisted my ankle and things like that. So you always worry about your opponent and want to make sure he’s fine.

What a sweetie. Haas is now 28. He suffered through two shoulder surgeries and a significant absence from the tour to climb back to the top ten. He also struggled through a horrific motorcycle accident that severely injured his father. He’s not likely to take over for Andre Agassi as the tour’s elder statesman any time soon but he comes out of this match looking a lot less like the self-centered tennis star and a lot more like the concerned veteran who’s overcome more than a few problems himself.

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After the match, Murray called Davydenko a ball machine. If so, Murray is a broken ball machine. You never know where the ball’s going or what height it will be or how hard it will be hit.

I actually braved the desert heat at Indian Wells today. It wasn’t the best idea to wear a polyester shirt with a high collar in 94F/34C degree weather but it was worth it to get a close look at the fourth round match between Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko. Murray is a thinker and he’s teamed up with the best tennis coach for a thinker – Brad Gilbert – and I wanted to know how they would attack Davydenko’s metronomic game. Would Murray be throwing non-stop junk at Davydenko and winning ugly? Yes he would and it worked very well.

Again and again Murray hit loopers and moonballs followed by a flat hard backhand. There were hard serves and there was even a second serve kicker for an ace. I thought he overdid it at times. Early in the match he had a break point and hit a hard return down the line followed by yet another looper. Isn’t that the time to attack? He must know what he’s doing a lot better than I do because Davydenko hit the next ball long and Murray got his break.

Murray lost his serve twice in the first set and I wondered if he’d ease up on the junk but he hit even more in the second set. Some of them went beyond moonballs, they were unprovoked lobs.

They’re a fascinating contrast these two players. Murray stands still and rocks back and forth while he waits for the serve, no unnecessary movement. Once he gets going, he’s much faster than you think he will be. He has excellent court coverage and defensive skills with those long legs and arms. You could call him Stretch if his older brother hadn’t already snatched the nickname.

Davydenko could be called Twinkletoes. He bounces around lightly whiles he’s waiting for the serve, hip hopping in the same triangular pattern then lightly dropping into a stutter step as if the bottom of his feet were tender. Davydenko has power, it’s just that it’s not his power. Last year when I saw him lose to Marat Safin here, balls were catapulting off the little guy’s racket courtesy of Safin’s strength and size.

After the match, Murray called Davydenko a ball machine. If so, Murray is a broken ball machine. You never know where the ball’s going or what height it will be or how hard it will be hit. But that’s not all he does. He still has trouble closing out sets, it took him five set points to win the first set, but now he plays the big points much better than before. He broke Davydenko to get into the first set tiebreaker and hit big serves when he needed them.

There’s one more thing and this is the reason I put him at the top of the class of the twenty and under crowd: on match point, he unleashed a 136mph/219kmh ace. Touch and power and he’s only just started to work on his conditioning. I can’t wait to see what happens when he’s fitter and stronger.

Let’s have one more look at Maria Sharapova’s loss to Vera Zvonareva and take a quick look at Andy Roddick’s match last night.

The Sharapova match had an interesting parallel to Roger Federer’s loss to Guillermo Canas. Like Canas, Zvonareva has also been a top ten player; I saw her play in the WTA Championships in Los Angeles in 2004. She had some injury problems in 2005 and dropped down but she rebounded in 2006 and it’s not shocking to see her beat Sharapova here.

One thing you certainly didn’t see in the Federer match was on court coaching – not legally anyway. In the WTA, though, it is legal and both Zvonareva and Sharapova used it during the match. As usual, I seem to be on the wrong side of this issue. I support it because it should lead to more competitive matches if players have access to mid-match coaching. Most players and and many tennis writers, including my co-writer Pat Davis, oppose it.

There’s an interesting part to the WTA coaching rules: “if a player takes a medical time out or bathroom break, the opposing player only may request her coach.” This could help curb “momentum change” injury timeouts and bathroom breaks that are rampant on tour. If the player who takes the timeout does not have access to on court coaching and her opponent does, it might make those timeouts less appealing because an opposing player can get helpful advice while the timeout take is pretending to go to the bathroom.

Roddick is just rolling along. He’s playing with the passion and confidence of the adored crowd favorite and it’s good to see. The swagger is fun to watch but I do have one comcern.

I can’t believe I’m saying this after years of complaining that Roddick had an allergy to the net, but now he might be coming in too much. He’s a big guy and not the best mover out there so he needs to approach on a very good shot. Against Richard Gasquet there were a number of times when he had to scrape the ball off his toes because he didn’t get to the net quick enough. That might be alright against Gasquet, he was too inconsistent to challenge Roddick for two sets, but it could be a problem against the better players in later rounds.

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I got to the media center here at Indian Wells just in time to see Maria Sharapova fall apart in the third set against Vera Zvonareva and lose the match. P.J. at californiatennis.com joked that it might have been one of the Maria Sharapova look-alikes Canon hired to roam the tournament grounds instead of the real Sharapova out there on the court.

Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian were up next on the stadium court and I was stuck, should I stick around and see the first match of the tournament between two veteran top ten players or should I go to Sharapova’s media session and ask her about the Roadmap 2010? Roadmap 2010 is the WTA’s answer to the ongoing problems with player injuries and withdrawals. For the full picture with historical notes that are critical to the discussion, tune into Peter Bodo’s column today.

The upshoot of Roadmap 2010 is that the US could lose a number of its Tier I tournaments because US tournaments are not willing to put up the money necessary to host a top level tournament under the new plan.

Look at California for instance. There are three WTA tournaments in California outside of Indian Wells: Stanford, Los Angeles (actually played in Carson) and San Diego. San Diego is the only Tier I tournament and this is it’s last year Roadmap 2010 or not. The other two are Tier II and there are problems for these tournaments in the Roadmap too. They would have to increase their price money precipitously if they wanted to field more than two or three top players.

San Diego, Stanford and Carson are all part of the US Open Series, the series of WTA and ATP events that lead up to the US Open. If the smaller tournaments can’t afford to attract top players, they’ll suffer and the US Open Series will suffer and that brings us another California tournament in the Open Series: the ATP tournament in Los Angeles. In years past it was a top tournament – Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras are past champions – but now it struggles to attract top players and it will struggle more if the US Open Series suffers.

There is a parallel between round robins and Roadmap 2010: they address the same problem. Both the ATP and the WTA have too many tournaments and that leaves small tournaments without top players. The ATP experimented with round robins to help small tournaments market their players by keeping them around for at least two rounds. The WTA wants to create a more exclusive group of top level tournaments and penalize players heavily if they skip them.

It’s a good idea because Justine Henin just played Dubai followed by Doha and skipped Indian Wells to play Miami. Dubai and Doha may help players’ pocketbooks but tennis would be better served if all of the top players were available for Indian Wells and Miami, the “fifth and sixth grand slams” if you will.

Next week in Miami, the WTA will formally announce Roadmap 2010. At the same tournament, the ATP brass will be convening to consider what to do about round robins since their implementation has caused so many problems. It’ll be interesting to see whose plan works best but there might not be a winner because neither plan includes thinning its calendar and the WTA could be hurting one of its grand slams.

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Ljubicic ending up beating Nalbandian despite an inflamed patella tendon that caused him to take a medical timeout after the first set. I was going to talk about Ljubicic and Nalbandian and their tendency to lose in the semifinals or finals – neither of them has a Masters shield though Nalbandian did win the year end championships in 2005 – but after hearing Ljubicic hold forth about the state of tennis during his media session, I think I might nominate him for the CEO position when Etienne de Villiers steps down.

Someone at the media session asked him his opinion about the leadership in tennis at the moment considering the recent problems with round robins and the ITF’s resistance to moving the Davis Cup cup a week earlier despite a petition signed by nineteen of the top twenty players (the ITF runs Davis Cup and the grand slam).

His take on the leadership:

The ATP is always trying to do something new, trying to improve the sport, the ITF is just sitting there and resisting, they never want to accept any kind of change… I don’t mind testing things and trying things. The round robin, we tested it, we figured out it’s not working so we probably gonna get rid of it. I think Etienne is a good leader and I think in the future we are going to improve our sport.

I’m not sure I’m in total agreement but I’d vote for Ivan and this sounds like a good campaign speech to me.

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It’s time for the first Masters Series event of the year and the men are ready – all top ten players are here. The women? That’s another story. Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, and Kim Clijsters are staying home. It’s understandable given that Indian Wells is a two week event followed by another two week event, Miami, and Miami is required attendance for the women. But there’s another way to look at it.Henin just completed the “emirate swing”: consecutive titles in Dubai and Doha – two very rich tournaments on the other side of the world from the desert town of Indian Wells. Doha just announced that it’s doubling its prize money next year and that makes it the richest Tier I tournament and even puts it ahead of Indian Wells.

There are currently too many tournaments and too few top players to go around but this example tells you why it’s unlikely to change any time soon. Tournament directors don’t want their tournaments taken away, the president of the ATP, Etienne de Villiers, doesn’t have enough clout to take them away, and the players won’t give up huge paydays.

A lot of crapola rained down on me last week for daring to suggest that round robins are a good idea but here you see a problem that round robins help solve. If you’re a small tournament and you only have one or two top twenty players, round robins keep those players in the tournament for at least two matches and help you market your product.

Speaking of Dubai, Roger Federer spends a lot of time in Dubai and owns property there but Kristian Pless is the first player I’ve seen who actually calls it home. And now I see why. Just like Monte Carlo (the usual second home for tennis players), Dubai has no personal income tax. Pless is from Denmark. If there are any Danish readers, how do the tax rates compare to the rest of Europe?

Justin Gimelstob is in the draw. Didn’t he just have back surgery? Wasn’t he retired?

I’m tempted to put Sam Querrey past Nikolay Davydenko because Davydenko has never gone past the third round at Indian Wells. Davydenko is a good returner but what the hell, Querrey is winning 86% of his service games so I’ll take him. Gulp, that means I have Querrey through to the quarterfinals. Could happen.

For statistical geeks, check this out. If you’re wondering who’s the best all court player outside of Federer, click here and look at Tomas Berdych’s core ratings on all five surfaces. Core ratings tell you how good a player is on a particular surface by considering such factors as won-loss record and quality of opposition. Berdych is good but Novak Djokovic does him one better. Look at his core ratings.

Djokovic should get the quarterfinals where he’ll meet James Blake. Blake is not an all court player but hard court is his specialty. He made it to the final here last year and lost to Federer. This year he should lose to Federer in the quarterfinals.

Mikhail Youzhny has been a monster this year. He already has two finals, a semifinal and a title. Which brings up the following problem: his likely second round opponent, Sebastien Grosjean, has beaten him all four times they’ve met. Normally I’d go with head to head record but Grosjean hasn’t beaten anyone this year so I’m going with Youzhny.

Picking top flight hard court events this spring has become an exercise in figuring out who will take out Rafael Nadal because someone usually does. At the U.S. Open it was Youzhny. Last week in Dubai it was Youzhny. Unfortunately for Nadal, Youzhny is in his eighth of the draw and will probably do it again.

What has happened to Nadal? He hasn’t reached a final since Wimbledon last year. If Nadal is just as strong on clay this year as the past few years, then we’ll know the problem is court speed. Players have figured out how to beat Nadal on fast courts. Nadal recently said the problem is not his tennis, it’s his mental consistency. If he falters on clay too, then he’s right.

David Nalbandian has continued to stagnate. He has a losing record for the year. Is his interest waning? I don’t think he’ll make it past the third round.

Fernando Gonzalez has the most interesting quarter of the draw. He could meet Tommy Haas then Andy Murray. Gonzalez beat Haas at the Australian Open and Indian Wells is pretty fast so I’m choosing Gonzalez again. Murray is improving rapidly and should take out Gonzales and lose to Federer in the semifinals.

The other semifinal should be a U.S. Open redo: Andy Roddick and Youzhny. I’d love to take Youzhny but he has a terrible record at Indian Wells and lost his last three matches to Roddick.

Final: Federer-Roddick XV. Current standings: Federer 14 – Roddick 1. Need I say more?

For the draws and my picks in those draws, click here.

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