Stella Artois Championships

Seen at the media/players’ restaurant and Indian Wells: Rafael Nadal. Besides remembering how huge the guy is I noticed he was carrying his racket in this hand while ordering his rice and fish. No racket bag, nothing else, just his racket. Do you think he goes to bed with it too?

I’ve been reading Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano, a lyrical history of soccer as it relates to the historical and cultural events of the past 100 years or so – particularly in South American where Galeano has lived most of his life.

The soccer ball as living being is a recurring theme in the book. Players talk to the ball and massage it and entreat it to stay on their foot and fly true. The idea is that the soccer player is just the caretaker of the ball – a helper, if you will – helping it to fulfill its destiny: fill up a soccer net.

I wonder if Rafa has a similar relationship with the ball and, by extension, his racket. He’s the only player I know who always walks onto the court with his racket in hand as if it’s something that needs warming up for the event as much as his body does. He did grow up in a soccer family after all.

When Rafa is taking forever between each and every point, maybe he’s praying at the altar of racket and ball. Maybe he’s asking the racket to guide the ball and the ball to cooperate in return as if the two are at least as important as he is.

The racket and ball are muses in the ancient sense when art arrived courtesy of the muses. Artists weren’t drinking themselves to death or indulging in some other kind of sadistic behavior because they failed to produce the masterpiece of their desires. If an ancient poet didn’t come up with a transcendent poem, that’s because the muses failed to pass one along.

I always remember Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards dismissing writer’s block as a problem arising from the bad thought that you created a song rather than the song finding its way to you. A tennis player, then, is there to bring the ball to life and the better they learn that, the more cooperative the ball will be.

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BNP Paribas Open.

If my theory was correct, Jelena Jankovic was running on borrowed time after skipping through her part of the Indian Wells draw without having to face Kim Clijsters, Flavia Pennetta, or Svetlana Kuznetsova. Today she faced Samantha Stosur in the semifinals and I thought Sam’s power and ability to rush JJ from the net would be too much.

It certainly didn’t look like it at the beginning. JJ got a break point in the very first game and she was the one pushing Sam into errors. Then came the fourth game of the set and that’s really our subject today – the never ending titanic tennis game that counts the same as all the other games but usually means so much more.

Sam was serving at 2-2 and what started out as a love game with a 40-0 lead segued into one such titanic struggle.

Sam was trying to slice JJ up – on one point she hit six or seven straight slices, so much for overpowering JJ – and it was effective at those times when it wasn’t skittering beyond the baseline. But it was too little pressure to produce errors. I lost track after Sam’s fourth game point and the seventh deuce but one last slice skittered long on break point and Sam had lost the battle.

I could just as well end coverage of the match at this point because Sam mostly mailed it in from here. I’ll spare you the details but give you the score: a 6-2, 6-4 victory for JJ.

Was Sam tired from a semifinal run? Was there a letdown after reaching a lifelong goal – in Sam’s case she reached the top ten for the first time this week? None of the above. It was frustration and anger. As she said after the match:

I think when I lost that service game from 40-love up, then all the frustration and anger built up and I let that carry on too long.

How long? When I asked her if she was tired she said:

No, I actually felt really good…I think as soon as you get a bit frustrated or agitated about yourself that that’s the first thing that drops off.

That first thing is footwork and it explains Sam whiffing on a JJ serve at the end of the first set and it also explains the return she mishit on match point. Her footwork went away and didn’t come back. Well, her emotions took her mind away so there was little left to monitor such things as footwork.

This is interesting because I was thinking of writing a piece about those power struggles that pass for titanic tennis games. It’s the kind of struggle missing in no ad tennis and the reason I hope they never make singles no ad. It’s the tennis version of a marathoner dragging a tired body across the finish line (the opponent in this case is the long road). Or a knock down drag out boxing match where the players can barely scrape themselves off their stools for the next round.

The only other place you find something like this in tennis is in fifth sets at slams which don’t have tiebreakers. You could be looking at an 18-16 score. But I’d argue that an 18-16 score is different because once that last game is over it’s over.

With the titanic tennis game, the match is not over, you just feel like it’s over. Sam was so angry she couldn’t recover. That’s what titanic tennis games do. They tell you if the strategy you’ve chosen for your opponent is going to work. They tell you if your opponent is a better fighter on this day. They tell you far too much about yourself and much of what they tell you, you may not want to hear.

I was a bit surprised that a top player would let that game affect her so much but now I see why. I also think Sam Stosur was being more honest than most players in that same situation and that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

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BNP Paribas Open

Warning: Bad tennis outfit. You can see why Rafael Nadal said he’d change his outfit when he gets to Miami. Why he’s waiting that long I don’t know. Some people call them picket fence pants but to me they look like a pair of run of the mill boxer shorts that just happen to be elongated.

I was joking when I wondered whether a fight might break out between Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych in their quarterfinal match this evening. Berdych put a finger to his lips to shush the Rafa crazed crowd after he beat Rafa in the Madrid Masters event in 2006. When Berdych got to the net Rafa gave him a lecture on his behavior and Berdych was none too pleased.

But Berdych hasn’t been bothering anyone all that much for the past few years. He just hasn’t done very much on the tennis court. However, I’m happy to report that I was right. A fight did break out. Not the finger wagging type or fisticuffs – have you ever seen pro tennis players come to blows or, if so, I’m sure it was nothing compared to a fight in any other pro sport with the exception of golf or curling.

Mario Ancic once shoved his opponent at the end of a match but, honestly, the guy asked for it. And it was just a shove.

No, this was two hard hitters just slamming the ball and it puzzled me. Why would Rafa try to out hit Berdych? Isn’t that tantamount to putting the ball in the guy’s wheelhouse? And when Rafa did slice and dice and change speeds he was effective.

Rafa broke Berdych right off the bat then hit a beautiful lunging volley for a winner in the second game and for the first few games it looked like Rafa was gonna kill Berdych. Then with Berdych serving at 1-3 he started to find his range. He fought off a bunch of break points but somehow managed to hold on and we settled in for the fight.

Maybe Rafa didn’t want to play around with the wind – which was considerable – because he was hitting ropes and Berdych was hitting them right back. Power tennis can be boring when points are short but this was one hard shot after another. However, back to that slicing and dicing I mentioned above.

Berdych managed to pressure Rafa and even the set at 4-3 and in the next game Rafa appeared to be listening to me. He gave Berdych some changeups and won the game at love. Then, serving for the set, Rafa went back to power ball. And therein lies the answer to my puzzlement. It was the wind.

I asked Rafa why he didn’t slice more as Berdych was having trouble with his slices and he answered that it depended on what side of the court he was on. He didn’t want to slice into the wind. What can I say? I live in Los Angeles. I seldom play in the wind.

Both players kept up the shotmaking in the second set – I particularly loved a slice lob Berdych put up that landed just inside the baseline – and the power tennis resumed. It looked like Berdych could take the match to a third set after he got a good start in the second set tiebreaker, but he gave one point back on an error then suffered a double fault that gave Rafa the opportunity to serve out the match.

You know how that script usually goes if your opponent is Rafa. In this case, Berdych looped a lazy ball to Rafa then followed that up with an error. It was a timid ending to a major fight. If this had been pay-per-view I’m pretty sure you’d have heard a collective groan in fightland.

In this case, though, people were happy that Rafa won. There’s been a shortage of top players getting through the draw and everyone wanted to see him play some more magnificent tennis. So do I.

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BNP Paribas Open

Question of the day: can I sit through a tennis match under the brutal sun at Indian Wells? Answer: No. I lasted through the first set of the quarterfinal match between Jelena Jankovic and Alisa Kleybanova then retreated to the air-cooled media room to dry off my sweat drenched body.

JJ in her beautiful lime green majesty was playing first strike tennis with Kleybanova. That’s the polar opposite of grinding and a bit surprising considering JJ’s back story as a defensive player. Her serve is still tepid but the rest of her game is more expansive than it used to be.

And Kleybanova couldn’t take advantage of JJ’s serve anyway. JJ was up a break and serving for the first set at 5-3 when she hit two double faults to give Kleybanova a break point. Kleybanova then failed to return JJ’s next serve – an 84mph(135kph) kicker.

All credit to Kleybanova because she beat Kim Clijsters to get here but she played like someone who has one lower tier title. She failed to consolidate a break late in the second set by serving up two double faults then gave up her next service game after getting flustered by a deep ball that might have been out.

Passing thought: Who’d have thought that JJ would be in the top ten while her compatriot Ana Ivanovic was #28 and dropping? Another passing thought: Is there a better retriever on tour than JJ? Clijsters maybe but JJ is so graceful it’s just a beautiful thing to watch.

While I was waiting for the shuttle to go to dinner, a group of volunteers next to me was bemoaning the boredom of their jobs. There just aren’t that many people here this year. Today’s lineup offered one top ten woman and one top ten man only and this is the quarterfinals.

All in all I’d say it’s old school week here at Indian Wells. JJ’s run has put her into the semifinals without having to face Kusnetsova or Clijsters and now 30-year-old Ivan Ljubicic is in the men’s semifinals. He’s back hitting 134mph(216kph) bombs and, honestly, that’s the problem. Ljubicic beat a Novak Djokovic exhausted by Davis Cup, Federer is long gone and Davydenko left even earlier.

I’d even call Tomas Berdych old school. The last time he won a Masters event was 2005 and he hasn’t gone past the fourth round of a slam since 2007. I feel justified in the term. Berdych took out Fernando Verdasco and you wonder how serious everyone is treating the event this year. When Djokovic was knocked out he said he was looking forward to a few days rest before Miami.

Oh well, let’s settle in and see if Berdych can push Rafael Nadal as hard as John Isner did yesterday. That would make me feel better. Maybe Rafa and Berdych will have a fight. That’d be fun too. I’ll have the full report later.

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Sam Querrey and John Isner

Sorry, just getting my feet wet at Indian Well so I missed Novak Djokovic going down tamely to Ivan Ljubicic today on an outer court. I was riveted to the Rafael Nadal and John Isner match.

See that image above? Isner (on the right) is three inches taller than Sam Querrey but look how much longer his limbs are. I’d love to see a tale of the tape comparison between those two like they do for boxers. And I’m curious. Who’ll go farther – Isner or Querrey?

First, let’s look at the match. Long about 5-5 in the first set I’m surprised by how much Isner goes for his shots and how good his forehand is. Here’s Rafa’s take on his game:

He has good movement around the court. He can improve his volley but he volleys well and he has a very good forehand so it’s gonna be really difficult to stop him if he keeps improving.

Okay, so I’ll give Isner the edge over Querrey for movement. With Isner serving at 5-5 in the first set, Rafa tightened the noose a bit. He hit a deep return that Isner flubbed and then hit a net cord that drew Isner to the net whereupon Rafa passed him. Bad luck but it’s all in the timing at the top level of tennis and Rafa is a master at it.

Isner suffered through the usual lull after a first set loss – why is it that a tall tall player hanging his head looks so mournful compared to a shorty? – but he managed to hold on long enough for Rafa to play a horrible game in the fourth game of the second set to go up a break. As someone in the media center blurted out, “Blimey.”

Isner took the second set but lost his serve early in the third set and here’s the problem: Isner is ranked #48 in converting break points while Querrey is #10. Isner couldn’t put enough pressure on Rafa to break him and when he did try, he repeatedly overhit. Match to Rafa in three sets.

Querrey has played Rafa three times and every time he’s taken a set off him. Querrey beat Isner for the Memphis title this year but Isner beat Querrey here in the third round. Querrey is probably the better clay court player but Isner has already passed Querrey for career high ranking by two places at #20.

They look like twins to me and given the current state of tennis in the U.S. and its long in the tooth top players, maybe the question isn’t who’ll be better but do either of these players have a chance of matching Andy Roddick’s run at the top? And can either bring home a slam?

If they’d both turned up at the same time Roddick came along, yes, they’d have a chance because they have better all court games than Roddick and only slightly worse serves. I’ll give them a few slam semifinals on hard court and a some hard court Masters titles but there are too many all court players with incredible reflexes for me to give them any more.

I’m gonna say that Roddick and James Blake will be replaced by two players who’ll consistently hang around between #10 and #20 but they won’t touch their forebears combined record for appearances in the final eight at the year end tournament.

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