A number of top players have miserable results this year. What’s the problem?

I considered going on at length here about the killings at Virginia Tech. I was shocked and scared. Had any of my 18 nieces and nephews, 47 great-nieces and nephews, or 22 grand-nieces and nephews wandered near Blacksburg? Most of them live in southeast Virginia.

Would the U.S. finally ban private ownership of handguns? Would that make any difference? There are a number of very complex issues to work out; least of all unraveling an American psyche that leads to frequent incidents of people killing everyone in sight because they happen to be angry.

It’s just too much to talk about at the moment so while we all try to work it out, I find myself doing the same thing I did after 9/11: reading each and every biography of the fallen and moving on to the sports pages soon thereafter.

This week we have a Masters Series tournament so I can watch matches all day long. It’s one of the few weeks we can see most of the top players in one place and I have to say, a number of them are looking decidedly raggedy and out of sorts.

After losing the final in Marseille earlier this year, Marcos Baghdatis flew all the way to Dubai then on to Indian Wells and finally ended up in Miami. A lot of good it did him; he lost in the first round at each tournament.

He did stop off in Cyprus to lead his country past Finland in Davis Cup but this week he lost his first match again. It hasn’t been a terrible year for Bagdatis – he won a title in Zagreb and he doesn’t have many points to defend between now and the grass court season since he’s a middling clay court player – but there is a disturbing pattern emerging.

Baghdatis plays by emotion and feel rather than analysis and that’s a problem because there will be times – and lately there’ve been a number of them – when his game is off and then what does he do? It’s like a baseball pitcher who doesn’t have his good stuff but still finds a way to win by outsmarting hitters. Baghdatis doesn’t have another way to win.

Take his match here with Max Mirnyi. Mirnyi came to the net all day long and Baghdatis didn’t do anything about it. He didn’t get to the net first to take it away from Mirnyi and he didn’t lob to keep Mirnyi back. Basic tennis strategy. Mirnyi hadn’t won a singles match since the Australian Open and he’s hardly a clay court maven and yet he beat Baghdatis in straight sets.

We used to call David Nalbandian Mr. Semifinals for a reason but he hasn’t won more than three matches in a tournament this entire year. And he retired during his third round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber with a back injury. He’s not moving well so either his body is wearing out or his interest is flagging.

Marat Safin got to the semifinals at Las Vegas but that’s a piddly little tournament and other than that he hasn’t done much. Since he returned from a knee injury early last year, he’s reached exactly one final.

It’s not like he doesn’t try. At 8-8 in the second set tiebreaker of his match with Kristof Vliegen, he threw himself at a passing shot and left himself sprawled and twisted in the red dirt with his right arm pinned underneath him. He’d won the first set easily, barely lost the second and got an early break in the third but he still managed to fritter away the match and lose.

The one place he’s excelled is Davis Cup. Russia won the cup on his racket last year and he won the decisive match over France this year to send Russia to the semis. That ATP final he reached was in Moscow and both those Davis Cup ties were in Moscow. Maybe he’s tired of all this ATP stuff and just wants to go home.

Fernando Gonzalez looks disorganized. He hasn’t gone beyond a quarterfinal since his final appearance at the Australian Open and he melts down more often that he plays well.

In the twelve step community – groups such as alcoholics anonymous for instance – people know that a relapse can be a necessary part of recovery. You will fall off the wagon because that’s one way you’ll remember why you gave up that life in the first place.

I’m not suggesting that Gonzalez is a recovering alcoholic but he is a recovering whacker. He used to whack everything as hard as he could before he added subtlety and strategy to his game. He’s going through a relapse at the moment but instead of accepting it as an opportunity to refine the changes he’s already made, he’s getting mad at himself and making inappropriate shots.

Gonzalez lost to Igor Andreev in the second round. I’ve been expecting Andreev to make his way back up the ladder after returning from a knee injury. Players who miss time due to injury get a protected ranking they can use for their first eight main draw events after their return. When Andreev injured his knee he was ranked number 27 and he was number 100 when he returned. He’s now down to 235.

He should have played challengers when he returned instead of jumping right into main draw events. Guillermo Canas tore up the challenger circuit after he completed his suspension for performance enhancing drugs. He, of course, did not get a protected ranking since he wasn’t injured and it may have been better for him. Martin Verkerk has a protected ranking after being off the tour for two and a half years with a shoulder injury. He played terribly in three challengers then jumped into main draw events where he has yet to win a match.

By the way, see what might happen if the women synchronized their schedules with the ATP and played all of the Masters Series events with the men. I’d be watching men and women this week. The ATP and the WTA are adding two combined events: Madrid and Beijing. It would be a good idea to add even more. The top six draws on the calendar are the slams, Indian Wells and Miami – all combined events.

And here’s an item from the Bad Transcription Department. Look at this exchange after Julien Benneteau beat Monte Carlo resident Benjamin Balleret in the first round:

Q. What does Balleret need to do become to Top 100?

JULIEN BENNETEAU: … I saw he was a rooster in Bangkok. He passed around. He plays well. …

I don’t think he meant to call him a rooster. I believe the word was “loser” as in lucky loser. Balleret lost in qualifying in Bangkok but got into the main draw as a lucky loser and beat Alexander Waske. No idea what “He passed around” means. Any clues anyone?

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