The new season got under way last week and already we have a good sampling of what is likely to be the year in tennis: some really good-looking play, some rather surprising upsets, some lowly guys making good for a change, some stars taking it on the chin. And we didn’t even have the Number One male and female players present. Because they weren’t. Roger Federer won’t show up until next week in Melbourne for the start of the Aussie Open, although he is playing an exhibition this week in Kooyong with a lot of money involved. A bit of chastisement maybe in order here but then we would also need to extend it to Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian, Tommy Haas and a handful of other name players who chose to play Kooyong and ignore the scheduled tournaments.
Justine Henin-Hardenne has pulled out of the Aussie Open due to personal reasons. Rumors are flying that her marriage is heading even further south than Australia so she stayed home to work on things. Seems like Pierre-Yves may have wanted a wife instead of a tennis player. Someone should have told him. In film school I wrote scripts with a Swedish woman director who married a Frenchman. After several years it dawned on him that he didn’t have a wife, he had a film director. Someone should have told him too. They ended up divorcing amicably.
Lleyton Hewitt talked some big talk over the holiday but he couldn’t walk the walk. His coach Roger Rasheed could, though, and after Hewitt lost in surprising fashion to Igor Kunitsyn in Adelaide last week, Rasheed took a hike.
My personal great pleasure of this week was the arrival, finally, after much prodding, of The Tennis Channel in my neighborhood, in my house, dare I say, at long last. This disproves my theory that Martians would land before Comcast signed onto TTC. Comcast finally added it to their programming but it’s listed incorrectly as being in their two most popular packages. It is not. I had to sign up for a sports package but that was fine, it was seven dollars less. TTC repeats a lot of stuff rather endlessly, but the commentary of the matches is pleasantly restrained, even minimal. Patrick and Cliff, we love you guys at ESPN2, but sometimes silence is golden.
So, what did the Tennis Channel cough up this past week? Only half of the stuff I wanted to see: Adelaide (with Hewitt, Djokovic, Gasquet) and the women’s final from the Gold Coast event. Hewitt could not even get out of the round robin at Adelaide and Gasquet exited in the quarters at the hands of Australian lefty Chris Guccione. They call him “Penthouse, ” we hope, because he’s a giraffe of a guy at 6’7″ and not for pulling wild late nighters. He’s actually a mellow appearing guy with a rather easy, deceptively simple wind-up on his serve. Gasquet saw 22 aces fly off that racquet and, although Gasquet won the first set 6-1, Guccione came back and stunned the Frenchman by winning the next two. Suddenly the Aussie fans have a new hero to root for, given that their aging star Mark Philippoussis went out with more knee trouble and will be gone for a while.
We all hoped for a Hewitt-Gasquet final but we got Novak Djokovic against Guccione instead. At least the Serbian teenager was the number one seed. But you know what, this match was pretty entertaining and pretty good quality for what it was. Guccione got the crowd behind him and made it a close match with Djokovic who finally pulled it out in three sets, 6-3, 6-7(6), 6-4. He is now the youngest player in the Top 20.
The best match of the week was offered up by the women. Dinara Safina played the best match I have ever seen her play against Martina Hingis. Safina’s serve was so strong and consistent throughout that Hingis had some trouble just getting into the rallies. When she did, Safina showed good touch at the net and unleashed a flurry of backhand winners up the line. If Hingis hoped the big Russian would go away in the third set and crumble under the pressure of having lost their two previous meetings, it was not to be on this day. Safina battled her for three sets before pulling out a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 win.
But go figure: this week in Sydney, Safina is already gone at the hands of Australia’s Nicole Pratt who actually lost the first set, 4-6, but came back strong to win at 3 and 2 in the next two.
For Hingis this was a foreshadowing of what she will face during the rest of the year: big girls who can push her around and she without the power in her game to respond well enough. Look for the usual pattern to emerge with Hingis: she’ll get her fifteen seconds of fame whipping through the lower ends of draws then she’ll run aground on the bigger girls waiting in the later rounds.
This week was no improvement. After losing in the final to Safina, Hingis headed to the WTA event in Sydney only to lose in three sets in the first round to Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic is not a huge physical type like Safina, she is about 5’9″, but she wails on the ball like she thinks she’s 6 feet tall. She won her first tournament of the year beating Vera Zvonareva in the three grueling sets.
“I came, I saw, I conquered, ” smiles Jankovic after her win. Cheeky little thing, isn’t she? And she can probably say that in the original Latin since she’s taking college classes in her off hours. We sung her praises a lot last year so it is nice to see her come charging out of the gate. She sounds confident of her chances and has no problem saying she can beat some bigger names. I love her fearlessness.
The event in Chennai, India, with Rafael Nadal as the top seed, was not televised by TTC. Neither was the event in Doha (Mssrs. Ljubicic, Murray, Davydenko). A bit of strangeness went on in those tournaments as well. Nadal lost in the semis in straight sets to Xavier Malisse, another chronic underachiever on the men’s side. Nadal professed in his post-match presser that he was still confident about his chances for the year. But you have to wonder when he loses to a guy like Malisse, whom I termed “Baby Safin” because he has an enormous wealth of talent and shotmaking skills when he chooses to show them to us. Malisse may have had a hot week of play and that’s what undid Nadal, but then Rafa ran into a lot of guys in the second half of last year who treated him in the same fashion. I am already holding my breath over his chances for this year, even during the clay court season.
Tuesday morning the bad news continued for Nadal: while trailing 5-6 to Mr. Penthouse Guccione in Sydney, Nadal strained a groin muscle and had to withdraw. Now he won’t get to meet Tomas Berdych, who would have been his likely quarterfinal opponent, and we’re left hoping that Rafa can be ready for next week’s start in the Open.
A hop and a skip from Chennai over in Doha last week, Andy Murray pulled an upset out of his hat against number one seed Nikolay Davydenko in the semis, but lost rather meekly in the final to Ivan Ljubicic in straight sets.
This week the men are playing in Sydney and Auckland, the women in Sydney and Hobart. Of note was the return of Serena Williams, unseeded, into the Sydney event. So far so good: in her opener she mutilated Sweden’s most accomplished female player, Sofia Arvidsson, 6-4, 6-0. After Borg, Wilander, Edberg and Enqvist, why haven’t the Swedes produced a great female player? They have the head for the game, they certainly have the temperament, and they have a system in place to bring tennis kids along. So what’s the deal, Swedes? Give us your tired, your poor, and especially your babes(!)
Ho-hum, looks like another boring year in tennis, doesn’t it?