Diversity and Confidence in the Women’s Game

During my meanderings around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden this morning, I saw a huge camera crane sitting on the edge of the field where tennis players stretch and sometimes play soccer. As I walked closer to the camera crane I saw a small Spiderman figure suspended haphazardly from one arm of the crane.

I asked the crane’s keeper if the little Spiderman was a leftover casualty from the current $65 million Broadway show starring Spiderman. The show’s opening has been delayed six times because the choreography is too complex for the current technology. One human Spiderman fell out of an aerial stunt at thirty feet and plunged into the orchestra pit in midperformance.

Here at the BNP Paribas Open we have our own version of Spiderman: the Spidercam. Hopefully it will not fall out of the sky and land on the court. We certainly don’t need any more injuries. The quarterfinal match between Maria Sharapova and Peng Shuai should have been the third match of the day. Instead it’s the first match after Victoria Azarenka retired with a hip injury and Tommy Robredo withdrew with an adductor injury.

The Spidercam looks like a very large version of those old table microphones radio announcers once used. It’s attached by four cables – two to the north tower and two to south tower of the stadium court – and it swoops down to court level as the players enter and anywhere else in between as needed.

After all that work I put into introducing the Spidercam, it’s not swooping during the match between Sharapova and Peng. Maybe that’s because these two players don’t move around very much – at least not forward and back. Peng is a smaller version of Sharapova with a weaker – albeit more consistent – serve. Each player hammers the ball as hard as possible and hugs the baseline.

Peng seems a bit excited in the first set and overhits the ball while Sharapova is on fire and breezes through the set 6-2. Sharapova is rolling along in the second set just as Japanese tennis journalist Akatsuki Uchida and I are discussing serving problems in the women’s game. Wouldn’t you know it, Sharapova hits three double faults in one game and gives back a break to let Peng pull even in the second set at 2-2.

Sharapova had a serious shoulder problem and that partly explains her serving problems. But confidence – which is much of what the serve is about – is a problem in general in the women’s game. Ana Ivanovic is still recovering from winning the 2008 French Open. She hasn’t been past the fourth round in a major since. Dinara Safina reached three grand slam finals but hasn’t been past the fourth round in the last year and a half. She’s had injury problems too but confidence was a problem long before the injury.

Speaking of lack of diversity – I’m talking about an all around game by the way, not ethnicity – Sharapova gets a gimme at close range and puts it into the net to put Peng up 6-5. Now Sharapova has to battle her serve to stay in the set. She hits consecutive serves into the net – actually, rather low into the net which often belies hesitation. That double fault is followed by two forehand errors and Peng pulls even by winning the second set 7-5.

Confidence and diversity might benefit from a similar solution. I made the suggestion to Aki that women could improve their range of skills by playing more than one sport growing up. John McEnroe is trying this approach at his new tennis academy on Randall’s Island in New York.

On a volleyball court they’d learn to swing through the ball and improve their serve – let alone the benefits of jumping. On a soccer pitch they’d have no choice but to move forward and back. Hell, send them to a martial arts master. Not only would those kicks free up their hips and the punches strengthen their arms and shoulders, they’d also figure out how to fight. Put on some headgear and shin pads and let the sparring begin.

Better than that, teach them a Shaolin tiger form. Sharapova is certainly not a pussycat – I remember well the comments of her early coach Robert Landsdorp. When asked whether the women players were divas, he famously said that the bigger the bitches they are, the better they play. But we’re talking about developing confidence here and that’s not necessarily the same thing as being a, um, diva. Let a young girl run through a tiger form where she strikes and scratches and leaps about and watch her embody the spirit of the animal. An animal wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild if it was worried about what it looked like unless, maybe, it was a peacock.

With Sharapova serving at 2-3 in the third set, the photographer behind me suggests that Peng will go up 4-2 and I offer him $5 for the opposite side of that bet. (Please don’t let the WTA read this, they’ll kick me out for betting on tennis.) Peng does get a break point but Sharapova scrapes the sideline with a gorgeous backhand to get to deuce and wins the next two points. I didn’t collect, honest.

Sharapova breaks Peng in the next game then wins her serve to go up 5-3. She closes the game by running around her backhand and smacking a return winner and it’s over. Sharapova wins the match 6-2, 5-7, 6-3. She’s on her way to the semis for first time here since 2008. That should help her confidence.

Let’s Get It Started!

Okay let’s start this year off right on Tennis Diary and jump right in. I spent the first day of the new year at the Rose Bowl which, for non-American readers, is a quaint amateur college football game played in front of 94,000 people.

College sports in the U.S. command huge television contracts and 100,000 seat stadiums though the amateur designation is problematic. Remember when tennis was an amateur sport? Amateur in that case meant players were paid under the table. In the college football version, a father tried to sell his talented football playing son to a university for $180,000 last year.

We don’t have that in the tennis world today but we do have Wayne Odesnik. Odesnik was caught bringing vials of human growth hormone (HGH) into Australia this time last year and should have received a two year suspension. The International Tennis Federation reduced the suspension to one year thus allowing him to begin competing immediately.

The curt official announcement of the suspension reduction mentioned cooperation on Odesnik’s part. He gave information of some sort to the authorities and it had to be one of two possibilities. He gave up names of people who provide HGH to tennis players or he named tennis players who use HGH. Hell, it could have been both. But I doubt it.

In all the years that U.S. baseball has been dealing with steroid issues, very few people turned in other baseball players and only one of them was a fellow baseball player. Jose Canseco wrote a book naming baseball players who used steroids because he was angry that he’d been kicked out of baseball. And to make some money of course. If Odesnik did turn in other players he can expect a detached retina or two the next time he gets drawn to the net on a dropshot.

Odesnik should invest in a pair Oakley sunglasses to protect his eyes in either case. If he gave the names of HGH providers to authorities and those providers turn evidence on players to reduce their legal troubles, it’ll all fall back on Odesnik.

Instead of looking backward at last year I’m going to look forward. As I get older I find this a healthier approach to life. So what is the main trend this year? Like most other sports today the answer is rehab. No not drugs silly. Rehab from injuries.

Justine Henin says it’ll take months of play until she recovers properly from an elbow injury though for her that might be a good thing. In her first professional tour of duty, anger and hurt from a muddled childhood propelled her to seven slams with attitude. After she retired then returned she was too well adjusted to want to rip someone’s head off. Maybe an elbow injury is just the adversity she needs to get that attitude back.

Juan Martin Del Potro tried to come back at the end of last year after an eight month break for a wrist injury, but he lost both matches and shut it down. That injury was really unfortunate because he looked like he’d make the twosome of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal a threesome. We can only hope the injury was a one-time thing and not a result of his style of play else we’ll still be looking for someone new to fall in love with at the top of the men’s game.

Dinara Safina says she’s healthy after enduring a season full of painkillers for a stress fracture in her back. I’d never heard of a stress fracture in the back before and didn’t know what it meant. A vertebra actually fractures from the pressure put on the back and typically the fracture is in the lower back. Stress fractures happen slowly over time and that means Safina was playing in a way that put unmanageable pressure on her back. It’s that style thing I mentioned above. If she can regain her power game without having to change her style significantly she should be okay physically. Let’s not worry about that mental part at the moment.

Alright, tournaments are underway and one semi-tournament slash exhibition is already complete so hang around as we get ourselves underway.

U.S. Open Offense Defense

Andy Murray of England reacts after losing a point in the first set to Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland in Louis Armstrong Stadium on day 7 at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York City on September 5, 2010. UPI/John Angelillo Photo via Newscom

I tuned into the Andy MurrayStan Wawrinka match just as Wawrinka served and volleyed to put away the tiebreaker in the second set and pulled even at one set all in their third round match at the U.S. Open. Serve and volley is an aggressive move, especially at set point, and that was so appropriate, I thought to myself, considering that offense and defense have been on my mind in this Open.

For instance, why is it that Rafael Nadal can crush balls at Wimbledon but can’t get past the semifinals here? There’s an obvious answer. Roger Federer seems to be the only player who ever looks fresh at the U.S. Open. Rafa may not play a whole lot more tournaments than Roger but he’s got those tender knees and you can add at least two tournaments to his yearly total just by adjusting for all that running around he does on clay.

Then there’s offense defense. On clay, no problem. Rafa knows exactly what he needs to do. On grass there’s also no conflict. It’s offense from the get go. On the New York hard courts, though, which is it? What’s too offensive and what’s too defensive?

The first answer is ramp up your serve as high as possible. My grudging appreciation for Rafa’s grinding style continued to soar as he dumped in a 134mph(216kph) serve in his second round victory over Denis Istomin. That was impressive! Hard serving can be too offensive if your first serve percentage drops but Rafa still managed to get 65% of those in. Also impressive.

Istomin was the aggressor in that match however. He went for shots time after time and made a lot of them. He played the match of his life and still lost in straight sets, poor guy. There may be other players on tour who could have won that match, but none of them would have done it in straight sets. None of them has Rafa’s combination of fight and defense.

Rafa may win this thing next Sunday, especially with his new warp speed serve, but I’d love to see a bit more Istomin in him because then I’d guarantee it.

Murray is another guy who’s defensive but without the fight. Maybe fight isn’t the correct word because he’s an ubercompetitive guy. Let’s just call it focus. He broke Wawrinka to start out the third set then flew apart. He started grumbling at himself and challenged a ball that was three feet out inviting a few boos in the process.

He gave the break back and, in the next game, made an ill-advised approach on a crosscourt shot then timidly bunted a backhand right into Warinka’s wheelhouse. Offense/defense confusion. Andy’s main coach at the moment – except for his mum – is Alex Corretja, a former player who never got past the quarterfinals at a hard court slam and only reached the second round at Wimbledon. Maybe not the best aggression counselor.

I lost a match badly yesterday to a very good player. I emailed my coach and complained that I had trouble being aggressive because I get too emotional when I play tennis. He suggested the problem is not being too emotional but being too judgmental. Maybe my comment about wanting to jump of a cliff clued him in, not sure.

Anyway, Murray has the same problem. If his strategy isn’t disarming his opponent he turns a gun on himself and abandons his game. That’s particularly annoying when you consider that he’s got more game than 95% of the tour. I know he saw a sports psychologist in 2007 after injuring his wrist because he was concerned about injuring it again and maybe it’s time for another visit.

Or maybe he’s got some parental issues and needs to replace the coach he recently let go, Miles McLagan. I know Murray likes to do the tribal thing with his coaching staff but a solid figurehead might be useful when you’re slogging through those five set matches and the heat and the noise of New York.

Wawrinka won that third set and was up 5-3 in the fourth when Murray played a bit of cat and mouse by hitting a backhand overhead drop shot. Honestly, I don’t know what else to call it. He ran his racket softly across the ball and dropped it short in the service box. Wawrinka got to it then ran down a Murray lob, turned, and powered a perfect backhand down the line past Murray.

The game didn’t end there but the match was over. How better to demonstrate the point. Murray was fooling around and Wawrinka ended all the foolishness with a powerful statement.

One last comment about defense. After beating Andy Roddick in the second round, Janko Tipsarevic said that Roddick was playing too defensively. I’m gonna give Roddick a pass because I think he’s still suffering the energy drain of mononucleosis. Roddick reported that he’s had a mild case of mono for the past two months.

Roddick had no energy on his groundstrokes and those foot faults told me that he has slightly impaired balance. His front foot kept creeping forward in his windup and that shows some instability. Low energy will do that to you.

I’m tempted to blame Roddick’s mini-Serena meltdown after his first foot fault on mono too, except that Roddick has always been a very emotional guy. Roddick was pissed off because the lineswoman told him the wrong foot when he asked which foot touched the line.

Roddick asked the question to intimidate the lineswoman because his front foot would have been halfway into the court if the fault had been called on his back foot. You’d have to be suffering from dropsy to be that unaware. The problem is that the chair umpire responded by removing the lineswoman instead of warning Roddick to calm himself down or face a penalty.

Roddick is the cash cow of U.S. broadcasts so he was never going to be tossed but the chair umpire should have stood up for the lineswoman. He should have given Roddick a warning and advised him, in a friendly enough manner, to get over it.


Wildfish and William Tell

Roger Federer (L) of Switzerland shakes hands with Mardy Fish of the U.S. after defeating him in their championship match at the Cincinnati Masters tennis tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio, August 22, 2010. REUTERS/John Sommers II (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

I’m not exactly sure how it is that Mardy Fish needed a wild card to get into Cincinnati after reaching three finals this year and winning two of them, but I’m pretty sure Roger Federer is not William Tell.

If you wander over to this video on youtube you’ll see the latest Gillette ad featuring the ever suave and sociable Roger. It’s a little reality based episode in which Roger appears to be taking a break from an ad shoot to show the director his own version of Tiger Woods’s trick shot.

Tiger’s trick shot consisted of bouncing a golf ball on his sand wedge a few times then flipping it up in the air and hitting a drive on the fly. Tiger is out of favor now so it’s Roger’s turn and Gillette has chosen an appropriate reference for the Swiss tennis player.

The director balances a bottle on his head and Roger hits a serve that sends the ball flying a la William Tell – the Swiss patriotic hero. In the 1300s Tell refused to bow to the hat of an invading Austrian tyrant and was forced to shoot an apple off the top of his son’s head with his crossbow or be executed along with his son. Tell eventually killed the tyrant and precipitated a rebellion that led to the Swiss Federation.

However, while Tiger’s shot was real, Roger’s is fake as you can see here (go to the 2:30 mark). That’s only one of the reasons I miss Tiger. I only watch golf when he plays and I knew I’d always see something amazing. Currently, though, he’s in a liminal state and we’ll have to wait until he passes through it before we’ll see amazing things again. I’m sure that’s a strange new word to most of you, at least it was to me.

Someone in a liminal state is going through a transition and Tiger is going through the huge transition of addiction recovery. There are many, many other transitions we go through and one of them is death – both big deaths such as the end of our lives and little deaths such as the end of a phase in our life.

When Mardy Fish faced knee surgery this time last year I’m pretty sure he was face to face with one of those “end of life phase” deaths. He was 27 years old and ranked #48 at the time. I’d say 27 years is about 60 in non-athlete years. The athlete has been cruising along making a living and doing okay then all of a sudden he has knee surgery and he starts calculating how many years he has left. At this point he can either start thinking about his next career or get his butt in gear.

Fish got his butt in gear. He asked his physiotherapist to move in with him, hired a cook, and made the most of his three month surgery recovery. He’s now 30lbs/14kg lighter and a lot more mobile. The specter of career mortality will do that to you.

That is why Fish had three finals and two titles this year and that is how we found Fish facing Roger in the final in Cincinnati today. Fish is never going to beat Roger without a big first serve percentage I said to myself as Fish served up a double fault in his second service game. While that’s probably true, maybe it’s a bit less true because Fish can now do marathons. That second service game lasted almost 14 minutes and featured two double faults and a missed putaway and Fish still managed to win it.

I always thought Fish was doomed to live out his career as a serial streaker because that’s what you get when you go for a winner on every other shot – streaky play. I was wrong. He was an overweight out of shape aggressive player. The streakiness is still there but now there’s foot speed to run down enough shots to ameliorate the streakiness with a few saves here and there. And that makes a big difference in matches where the point differential can be a few shots. And the first set turned on a few shots.

Roger is going through his own transition. He’s got his record 16 slams which takes some edge off the pursuit of greatness, and he just turned 29 himself. It showed in the first set tiebreaker. With Roger serving at 5-4 he got beaten by a Fish approach shot. While that’s not so bad, on the next shot Roger hit a weak shot into the net to give Fish a set point then Fish closed it out with an ace. Fish hung in there just as well in the second set, but in the second set tiebreaker Roger stepped up and went for shots and even a very fit Fish couldn’t catch up.

Fish played with the slightest bit of slop at 4-4 in the third set to lose his serve and Roger served out for the match. Don’t blame Fish too much or go overboard in praise of Roger. This was Fish’s sixth match of the week and his semifinal was a three setter with his good friend Andy Roddick. For Roger this was only his third complete match of the week after starting off with a bye followed by a retirement followed by a walkover

Fish needed a wild card here because he was #79 when Cincinnati announced the seedings, though he was #36 by the time the event rolled around. If Fish’s fantastic year continues he’ll have to defend all these points he’s racking up this year. If he plays Cincinnati next year he’ll have to reach the final or lose a lot of points. We’ll see what state he’s in when he has to deal with all of that and you can be sure I’ll be paying close attention.


Andy and James Do Los Angeles

Serena and James

I’ve arrived at the beautiful campus of UCLA for the ATP Farmer’s Classic event. Novak Djokovic was supposed to join me here but he dropped out for personal reasons. That’s what you say when you change your mind about a lower level event. No medical condition required.

Luckily Andy Murray was looking to play and my home town event now has a bone fide top five player. This is Andy’s first trip to Los Angeles and he’s getting off easy. The highest projected temperature through Saturday is 81F/27C. I’m wearing thick black socks today and last night I considered throwing my thermal bean bag into the microwave to keep my toes toastie warm as I dropped off to sleep.

This is a 28 player event so Andy has a bye for the first round and won’t play until tomorrow. I have a few suggestions for the tourist. There’s the The Bunny Museum in Pasadena which has the largest (inanimate) bunny collection in the world and is open 365 day of the year as long as you call ahead since the museum is in a private home.

If that’s too tame Andy could always go to the Playboy Mansion and consort with live bunnies. Speaking of which, burlesque is making a comeback in a big way. The hottest burlesque star at the moment is Dita von Teese. You can see a classy G-rated tease for Perrier here According to my friend Deb, who is a rabid Dita fan, Dita lives in Los Angeles. I’m sure something could be arranged.

As for the tennis, I was hoping to see Mardy Fish this week because he’s reached the final in three of his last four events and won the last two, but he tweaked an ankle last week and dropped out. Fish apparently decided to clean up his act and stop eating pizza, fries, and cheeseburgers and generally pay close attention to when and what he eats. People don’t usually make such drastic changes for no reason and for Fish it was knee surgery last September.

Anyone my age can tell you extra weight is tough on knees, but the process catches up much faster to pro athletes. The pain we might experience in our fifties catches up to pro athletes towards the end of their careers which is the late twenties for most tennis players – Fish is 28. One piece of connective tissue stops sliding against another piece and stiffness and pain settle in. If you’d like it spelled out in cadaver-like detail, check out The Fuzz Speech by Gil Hedley courtesy of Lenny Parracino, tissue manipulator extraordinaire.

There’s another knee story this week. James Blake is playing Leonardo Mayer this afternoon and James had been slowly sliding off the ATP tour with knee pain. He’s currently ranked 117 after being in the top ten as recently as early last year.

While Fish seems to be grabbing onto tennis, James appeared to be letting go as recently as a month ago. After losing in the first round at Wimbledon this year, he mentioned retirement if his ailing knee didn’t improve. His advisors and doctors were telling him to take an anti-inflammatory but he’s always refused in the past because he thought it was bad for his health.

Maybe the specter of career mortality changed James’ mind because he finally agreed to dig into modern medicine and now his knee is healthy. He looked fast and mobile as he tore through Mayer 6-1, 6-4. The only exciting part was having Serena Williams in the house and, oh yes, that first set break when the speakers started blaring the Lou Reed song Walk on the Wild Side. Something about “he was a she” and “in the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’ but she never lost her head even when she was giving head…”

Do you think maybe the organizers forgot to tell the DJ that it’s Kids Day here at UCLA?

I remember James saying he doesn’t even take vitamins because he’s concerned about running afoul of the drug testing policy, so I asked him if he refused to take an anti-inflammatory for the same reason. No, it’s just the health nut thing. He’s also leery of taking painkillers because he wants to be able to feel his shoulder and his arm and his knee when he wrenches them.

That sound pretty intelligent to me but, hey, if the Veteran’s Administration now let’s its patients use medical marijuana, James should be able to dabble in drugs, right?