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Headlights and Shadows 01/27/2009 - 9:06 AM

Good evening from Melbourne, where a heat wave is on the horizon. Temperatures will reach into the 100s the rest of the week and are bound to affect the remaining day matches. (You think Fernando Verdasco wants to play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with the roof closed? I don't.)Federerpotro

Will Serena handle the heat and the volatile Svetlana Kuznetsova? Can Carla Suarez Navarro, the tiny Spaniard who upset Venus Williams, stand her ground against Elena Dementieva's rugged baseline game? Can Gilles Simon, the clever Frenchman, set a trap for Rafael Nadal? We'll learn that and more later today. Until then, here are my observations from Tuesday of week two at the Australian Open.

Big Talent, Bad, Bad Night
Can Juan Martin "Deer in the Headlights" Del Potro become a great player? Many people believe so, and I want to agree with them. Two years ago, when the Argentine had a string of retirements and poor showings, I wondered whether he had the resolve to compete on the game's biggest stages. Last year, the 20-year-old erased many doubts by winning four titles and becoming the youngest man to finish inside the Top 10. The doubts returned last night in Melbourne.

Del Potro played an absolute stinker of a quarterfinal. Yes, Roger Federer was in form--by far and away his best form of the tournament--but it takes two to produce a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 score in a men's quarterfinal. Federer rattled off the final 13 games of the match as a sulking Del Potro retreated from the challenge.

Del Potro showed poise when he defeated Marin Cilic in the fourth round (he lost the first set before winning the next three). Clearly, though, he wasn't prepared to play Federer under the lights in a major tournament. We'll see over the next few months how much this hurts him.

Federer was fabulous. He drilled forehands, dinked drop volleys, served aces, and generally made the 6-foot-6 Del Potro seem like a boy of 12 years old. I can't help but wonder if Andy Roddick's victory over Novak Djokovic earlier in the day gave Federer an added burst of energy. He likes playing Roddick--they have a good relationship, whereas his rivalry with Djokovic is a bit more strained--and holds a 15-2 record against the American. Right now, the tennis world is just as Federer wants it. The Big Four is no more; instead, Federer and Nadal are on top, and everyone else lags miles behind. Are we on track for our first Federer-Nadal final at a hard court major?

Fast and Fit
Make no mistake, this was Andy Roddick's most important victory at a major tournament in quite some time. Since he won the U.S. Open in 2003, Roddick has played in two Wimbledon finals and one U.S. Open final, losing to Federer on all three occasions. In all those years, though, he has never beaten a Top 5 player at a major.

We all know what people say about the best-laid plans. Well, Roddick and his coach, Larry Stefanki, are not listening. So far, their approach to the Australian Open has been perfect: Lose weight, run fast, withstand the heat, serve big, and watch your opponents wilt.

Djokovic, who retired with cramps early in the fourth set, was at a disadvantage in this match. After his Sunday evening contest against Marcos Baghdatis, Djokovic went to bed at 5:30 a.m. He didn't practice on Monday; he also requested a night match on Tuesday, but the request was denied (not surprising considering Federer's popularity here--he belonged on prime time television). Still, the long night isn't the only reason for Djokovic's loss. He had to adjust to a new racquet and he also started his pre-season preparation a bit late. Djokovic didn't seem quite as fit, or composed, this year as last year. Credit to Roddick for exposing those weaknesses.

Me, Myself, and I
Dinara Safina did it again: She beat her opponent--the remarkable Jelena Dokic--and narrowly escaped defeating herself. Dokic's run to the quarterfinals has been the highlight of the tournament. She has overcome depression, ended her relationship with her temperamental father, and regained the form that once took her to No. 4 in the rankings. Here's hoping her good fortune continues.

If Dokic is the most inspiring woman in the draw, Safina is the most entertaining. One minute, she clubs four deadly winners, launches three aces, and belts a few swinging volleys. The next she smashes a racquet, draws a code violation for foul language, double faults four times in the decisive game of a set, and spikes a ball as hard as she can. How is it that this long, lean, gifted athlete can do no wrong for long stretches and then, at a moment's notice, become incapable of tying her own shoes? I asked Safina if she is her own worst enemy.

"Most of the time it's me against myself playing," she said, smiling. "You know, I play against me, my shadow, myself, everything against me. If one day I will play only against [my] opponent, this will be the perfect day."

Sign of the Apocalypse
I'm not trying to stir up trouble here, but I just can't resist a little speculation. What if Serena Williams falters in the heat, or if Svetlana Kuznetsova plays way over her head on Wednesday afternoon? I don't give Kuznetsova much chance, but if she does win, we might well have four Russians in the semifinals. And not just any four Russians, but Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Kuznetsova, and Vera Zvonareva, who crushed Marion Bartoli on Tuesday. Yes, that's right, these are the four Russians most incapable of winning big matches at majors, the ones most susceptible to dramatic collapses and mind-blowing defeats. Kuznetsova is the only member of the group who has won a major, and she did it with a lot of help from Dementieva, who couldn't cope with the pressure of the U.S. Open final. If it happens, what we lose in quality tennis we'll make up for in fine theater.

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Butterfly Feet 01/26/2009 - 6:48 AM

"Is that Andy Roddick?" one onlooker asked, pointing to the shirtless American as he practiced with Larry Stefanki (his new coach) and two hitting partners on Court 4 today. The implicit question was, "Why in hell would Andy Roddick be doing that?"Roddick

Stefanki calls the game "squares." Imagine doubles, but all four men start inside the service lines, facing one another across the net. One player feeds the ball (softly) to any of the other three, including the player beside him, and a touch rally ensues (essentially, a series of half volleys). The ball can go over the net and even ricochet off the net on a bounce as long as it only bounces once (bounces over the net are not allowed). If the ball hits you or gets by you, or if you miss, you're saddled with a point. The first player to 10 loses (the other three men win).

Roddick and company played for a half hour or better this afternoon; Stefanki said he lost two games out of five--not bad for a 52-year-old playing with men half his age. Roddick doesn't lose, though he did collect seven points yesterday, a record high for him (remember, "high" equals "bad").

"It's just to get your feet moving," Stefanki said. "He likes it, it's a relaxing thing and it helps him around the net."

Stefanki did not invent squares--"It's been around forever," he said--and Roddick has played it for years. (When I told Stefanki that I had never played it before, he said, smiling as he pointed to my digital tape recorder, "That's why you're doing this." I can't argue with the man.) Even so, the purpose of the game indicates a new approach to coaching Roddick. As Stefanki put it, "I want him to have butterfly feet."

You've heard by now that Roddick lost about 15 pounds leading up to this tournament. For all the coaches and critics who have talked about what's best for Roddick--go the net more often and don't retreat behind the baseline, to name a few of the recommendations you've heard many times--none has ever given such a simple, and logical, method for effecting change. To cover more ground on the baseline, close the net more quickly, and shorten the court, a player ought to be fast and agile.

It's so obvious--at least, it is now that Stefanki has said it (like all first-rate coaches, Stefanki has a knack for uncovering obvious solutions that seem to elude everyone else). Here's what Stefanki wants Roddick to remember most: A smaller Roddick means bigger tennis.

"He was a pusher in the juniors," Stefanki said. "He was tiny and he grew seven or eight inches in a year. He says, 'I always fall back on that.' And I say, 'No, no, you're a big guy now.'"

What does Stefanki think of Novak Djokovic, Roddick's quarterfinal opponent on Tuesday afternoon? He's a fierce competitor and incredible mover with a backhand that is more solid and reliable than his dangerous forehand.

"[Roddick] needs to come to the net 45, 50 times," Stefanki said. "[Djokovic], he's a little more agile than Andy from the backcourt--I call him Gumby. That's good in tennis, that flexibility. He digs out a lot of balls back there."

Though Djokovic's movement is an asset, Stefanki also sees it as an injury risk, unless Djokovic improves his "body control."

"I've been around a long time," Stefanki said. "That power sliding, rolling your ankles, it's great when you're 21, but it's brutal on your joints."

Favorite Falls
Andy Murray, a pre-tournament favorite, is finished. For more on Murray's reaction to his fourth-round loss to Fernando Verdasco, visit Abby Lorge.

Williams defeats Roddick, 6-1
Andy Roddick admits to losing to Serena Williams when the two were children, but he says Serena is exaggerating the score. They talk about it here.

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Baghdatis Nights 01/26/2009 - 12:56 AM

He won't reach the final this year, won't stand in the rain as his flag waiving fans dance and sing. He won't work quite as late as he did last year, when he fought Lleyton Hewitt until 5:30 a.m. For the third time in four years, though, Marcos Baghdatis has given Melbourne a fabulous late-night memory, even if he was again cast in the supporting role.Baghdatis

Not that he's particularly pleased about it. Baghdatis, the forgotten member of next generation after an injury-filled season in 2008, knows that he belongs alongside the game's best players, a fact that was obvious to anyone who watched his thoroughly entertaining--and at times electric--fourth-round loss against Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, 6-1, 7-6(1), 6-7(5), 6-2. Baghdatis's talent is abundant. His confidence, unfortunately, is fleeting.

"I have one regret and that's that I didn't believe I could win this match, and that pisses me off a bit," Baghdatis said at a little after 3:00 a.m. Monday morning. "It's the same story. I'm 23 and I had these problems when I was 20, so I just want to maybe change them for once."

Baghdatis, never one to withhold a wry comment, found one benefit to playing until 2:30 a.m.

"My objective was to play the second week of the Aussie Open, so, I made it by a bit, by three hours, so thanks to the tournament director who put me late so I could make it," he said.

Djokovic, who started this tournament slowly, was in vintage 2008 form by the middle of the second set, smashing his forehand, serving big, and pounding his broad chest, much to the delight of his boisterous fans. Baghdatis stayed with him step for step, his fast hands whipping the ball and his feet whirling along like they did three years ago, when he reached the final as a 20-year-old. One could see, though, that the pace of the match--the speed of the ball and the quick thinking required to survive each point--came easier to Djokovic. Like Baghdatis, Djokovic pushed his way into the Top 10 at a young age. But he hasn't budged and he's more comfortable working without time. At the end of the night, Baghdatis' Cyrpiot supports saluted Djokovic and chanted his name. Touched, Djokovic thanked them.

"We are Orthodox brothers," he said, inspiring a rousing applause.

In tournament mired by fan violence and misbehavior, this moment of camaraderie and acceptance put the finishing touch on what is now a Melbourne ritual, a spectacular Baghdatis Night.

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DNA 01/25/2009 - 8:07 AM

I'm guessing most of you are sad that Roger Federer will reach the ripe old age of 28 later this year. Not me. I'm thrilled with it, and for purely aesthetic reasons.Federerberdych

As much as I've enjoyed watching Federer humble opponent after opponent over the years (no tennis player in history has made blowouts more satisfying), I much prefer what happened on Sunday inside Rod Laver Arena. There stood Federer, three times a champion of the Australian Open, trailing on the scoreboard and pressured on every point. Across the net, Tomas Berdych, a hulking man with superhero shoulders and muscles that redefine definition, whaled away. Every player on the men's tour can hammer a tennis ball. Only a handful, however, can make the ball beg for mercy. Berdych is one of the chosen few.

As Federer misfired on a few backhands and arrived a few seconds late for his forehands, Berdych returned serve beautifully and aimed for the lines. Since Federer first became the No. 1 player, few men have outmuscled him, rather than smothered him with defense. The best example came at this tournament in 2005, when Marat Safin saved match point and downed Federer in the semifinals ("I never played better," Safin said last week). Berdych looked liked the new Safin and Federer looked like the old Pete Sampras--more than a step slow. The 23-year-old Czech won four of the first five games and held his nerve in the second set tiebreaker.

Then the fun began. A dominant Federer is fine theater, but a challenged Federer, a Federer who is given nothing--well, what more could you want for your entertainment dollar?

Federer started the third set with a break and promptly gave it back. He and Berdych traded breaks again before Federer confirmed that he has Federer DNA, and Berdych confirmed that he does not. (Is there a man with more talent than Berdych who has accomplished less?) At 3-3, Berdych served with a 40-15 lead. He lost it. He then held his advantage and lost it--three times. On the most decisive point of the match, Federer, in trouble, flicked a short, harmless lob into the air. Berdych, his joints suddenly stiff, his muscles suddenly flabby, hit the worst overhead this side of a high school tennis match, Division D. Into the net went the ball and into the gutter went Berdych. Federer broke Berdych's serve to begin the fourth set and never looked back, 2-6, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Last year, when Federer lost in the semifinals here, his streak of consecutive major finals ended at a remarkable 10. Another astonishing streak remains intact: Federer has reached the semifinals or better for 18 consecutive majors. No champion has come close to performing at that level, week in and week out, in the history of the sport, and Federer won't do it again. No, from here on out, his victories at majors--and I'd be surprised if he doesn't win at least two more--will look more like his run at the U.S. Open last year. More ups and downs, more challenges from powerful and increasingly confident opponents, more vulnerable moments. Even though Federer has many good years left in him, the inhuman Federer, the flawless Federer, may be gone forever. The good news is, that just gives us more chances to witness a champion in the thick of battle, which is to say, a champion at his finest.

Safinacornet Quotes of the Day

As much as Safina has escaped her brother's shadow (he casts a much smaller shadow these days), she cannot escape her heritage. She is thoroughly, convincingly, unquestionably a daughter of the Safin family. Here's what she had to say about today's dramatic comeback victory against Alize Cornet, who held two match points before collapsing (Abby Lorge offers more on the match here). As you might expect, Safina was not happy with the way she hit (mostly, pushed) the ball.

Safina: "I telling myself, 'Hit the ball,' and just arm doesn't go because my mind is just stupid."

Safina: "The problem is that I'm doubting because I'm not playing the game I used to play. I'm just--I don't know. Either somebody just smacks me so hard in my head that something shakes finally and I put the cables together."

Safina: "Come to the court and completely like just shadow is playing. Like, you know, Dinara is there, but just not me."

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Thumped 01/25/2009 - 4:09 AM

I remember this Jelena Jankovic. The one who whines on court when the ball doesn't bounce her way. The one who uses instant-replay challenges as if they were as abundant as oxygen. The one who stubbornly refuses to think.Jankovicbartoli

It's been a while since this Jankovic showed up at a major tournament, however. Through all of last year, there was a sense that Jankovic was on the upswing--an upswing confirmed by her fine performance at the U.S. Open, where she pushed Serena Williams to her limit in the final. When Jankovic later took over the No. 1 ranking, she showed no satisfaction with her accomplishment. Instead, she trained harder than ever over the off-season with the intention of arriving in Melbourne as the favorite to win her first major title.

The wait continues. Jankovic's plans were derailed on Sunday by one of the WTA Tour's most dangerous and unpredictable players, Marion Bartoli of France. This wasn't quite like Bartoli's performance at Wimbledon in 2007, when she ran roughshod over Justine Henin on her way to the final. It's safe to say, though, Bartoli is on her game in Melbourne this year. She has lost weight (and suppressed her obsession for chocolate) and recovered from a virus that left her tired and unable to train for about three months in the early part of 2008. One of the worst moments came at the Indian Wells tournament, where she felt she could not move from her bed. She didn't win three matches in a row until late July.

"Some days I was staying three days in a row inside my room at home or even in the hotel room when I was on the tour," Bartoli said. "I couldn't practice at all for three days in a row."

Before most fans had filed into Rod Laver Arena on Sunday, Bartoli held a 5-0 lead. She polished off the match 6-1, 6-4 in an hour and 22 minutes. Match-ups matter in tennis: Just ask Tommy Robredo, who dropped his 10th straight match to Andy Roddick yesterday. Robredo doesn't return serve well; Roddick serves harder than anyone. Bartoli and Jankovic are equally at odds. I wouldn't expect Bartoli to outrank Jankovic anytime soon, but I wouldn't be surprised if she wins the next time they meet, too. The Frenchwoman, who hits with two hands on her forehand and backhand, doesn't think much of topspin and clobbers her service returns (like the Williams sisters, she takes three or four steps inside the baseline). Jankovic, on the other hand, can't serve. In this match, she won a mere 47 percent of the points on her serve and only 29 percent on her second serve.

Jankovic had not looked terribly strong leading up to the match. She suffered a setback when she took ill in Hong Kong earlier this year, and didn't play enough matches before this tournament began. Still, she rightfully gave herself an "F" for her tactical performance on Sunday. It's not wise to trade hard groundstrokes with a hot Bartoli. When Jankovic used more spin (and less pace) and hit more severe angles, Bartoli was forced to move up and back (she doesn't excel at it) as well as side to side (her lateral movement is underrated). Jankovic neglected this strategy all too often.

"When I'm on the top of my game, you know, it's very hard to beat me, because you really have to kind of spill blood if you want to win the match," Jankovic said. "But at the moment, I'm not there yet. I still need to get better, to improve, be much, much tougher out there."

Though Jankovic said she wouldn't forget this loss for "months," she couldn't bottle up her bubbly side.

"Was it you there in the match, or was it somebody else talking to me during the match?" she asked a reporter. "When I was getting a towel, there was a man just like you. To be honest, it's for real. Maybe it's your clone or something."

At last, the real Jelena Jankovic arrives in Melbourne. Too bad she sent her clone on the court.

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Board Banger 01/24/2009 - 8:45 AM

When you see the score--3-6, 3-6, 7-6(10), 6-2, 12-10--and learn that Richard Gasquet held a match point in the third set (on his serve) you'll conclude, reasonably, that the tortured 22-year-old Frenchman choked his third-round match against Fernando Gonzalez. This was no choke; it was at once something better and something far worse.Gasquet

Better because Gasquet, despite a boisterous band of Chilean supporters who sang and shouted and banged on the billboards that ring Margaret Court Arena, did not fold. He played through an injury to his toe. He attacked the net the entire match--all four hours and nine minutes of it--and did not retreat when Gonzalez ratcheted up his forehand and pumped his fists. Gasquet wasn't rattled when Gonzalez taunted the chair umpire (on two occasions) for failing to overrule what he believed to be bad calls (this observer sided with the umpire). Gasquet held serve, often effortlessly, time after time in the fifth set, despite serving from behind the whole time. On Gonzalez's first match point, Gasquet fixed his eyes on a deep Gonzalez ground stroke, stepped back, and, falling backwards, unleashed a bullet forehand for a crosscourt winner and deuce. Only a brave player could hit a shot like that one. Two points later, though, Gonzalez ended the match with a backhand winner down the line. Bedlam ensued, with the Chilean fans lighting flares and chanting the name of their hero.

So, why do I say this loss was also worse than your garden-variety choke or collapse? Because it was the sort of loss that seemed to confirm that for all Gasquet's talent, he will never quite challenge for major titles or the No. 1 ranking. I can't think of many men with quicker hands (Gasquet hit one backhand reflex volley winner off a Gonzalez forehand that was struck a mere 10 feet from the net), a better backhand overhead (except, perhaps, Rafael Nadal), or more flair. Yet Gasquet distinctly lacks the attitude of a champion. He can play elite tennis--you'll recall the day he defeated Roger Federer on clay, or the time he knocked Andy Roddick out of Wimbledon after losing the first two sets--but he can't seem to become the elite player many expected him to become.

"Really sad because I had match point," Gasquet said when asked to describe his feelings after the match. "But I couldn't do better than I did. That's tennis."

Indeed, Gasquet could not have done better. Unfortunately, he might never.

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Oz Report Card: Week 1 01/24/2009 - 3:41 AM

Head of the Class
Jelena Dokic: No matter what happens from here on, she is the story of the tournament. Even in good times, though, Dokic can't escape controversy.Dokic_j

Men's Tennis: Are we in the middle of a Golden Era in men's tennis? Roger Federer may soon break Pete Sampras' record for major titles--and he's ranked No. 2 in the world, behind Rafael Nadal, who last year won the French Open and Wimbledon (a feat last achieved by Bjorn Borg). He beat Federer in both finals. So who's the favorite to win the Australian Open? Why Andy Murray, of course. Or is it the defending champion, Novak Djokovic? Or do you prefer one of the young giants, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (last year's finalist), Juan Martin Del Potro, or Marin Cilic? Ever hear of Gilles Simon? He reached the Masters Cup last year and has cruised into the fourth round here. Indeed, it's an embarrassment of riches on the men's tour right now. Let's hope new ATP CEO Adam Helfant knows how to make the most of his good fortune.

Russia: Maria Sharapova remains on the sidelines, but the Russian tennis machine chugs along. Seven of the remaining 16 women in the draw call Russia home. Will one of them win the title?

Graduates with Honors
Fabrice Santoro: Santoro finished his 17th Australian Open (and 66th major overall) will a third-round appearance. May his retirement party continue through the end of 2009.

Most Likely to Succeed
Bernard Tomic and Brydan Klein: These young Aussies gave this struggling tennis nation hope with first-round victories.

Carla Suarez Navarro: The 20-year-old Spaniard dumps Venus Williams after trailing 5-2 in the third set, and then returns two days later to crush a fellow Spaniard on the cozy confines of Show Court 2. All in all, a great showing for the young woman with the wondrous backhand.

Most Dedicated
Taylor Dent: Few thought he would play again after surgeries on his back. Nice to have him in the mix.

Kimiko Date Krumm: When a 38-year-old woman qualifies for a major and loses to a 23-year-old opponent 8-6 in the third set, you know she has put in the hours.

Philosopher in Waiting
Gael Monfils after his third-round victory over Nicolas Almagro: "I never think about the past and even the future. If you stay in the past, [or] in the future, you cheat on the present." If only Monfils could learn to play closer to the baseline, rather than 10 feet behind it (he has showed improvement this week, so beware).

Absent-Minded Professor
When asked to name the favorites in Melbourne, Marat Safin replied: "Roger [Federer], he's definitely playing well. He played really well today. In the important moments he was at his best. He served well. Also surprised me a lot Murray, the way he's moving and the playing around the court and the way he observes the other player on the beginning of the match. He's very clever and [has] great hands. He's one more person. Djokovic is there. He's dangerous. I'm pretty sure that  [nobody] else coming to my head right now. Definitely going to come up, somebody. Gilles Simon, for example."Safin

Q: What about Nadal?

Safin: "Oooph. Oh, yeah. Exactly. See? That's what I'm missing."

Quiet Type
Gilles Simon: Not many people are talking about the fast, smooth-swinging Frenchman. He faces countryman Gael Monfils in the fourth round.

A's and B's
Amer Delic: Delic, ranked No. 127, made the most of his lucky loser status and reached the third round. You also have to love a guy who can speak eloquently and intelligently about crowd violence. No doubt he did more than play tennis when he attended the University of Illinois.

Dinara Safina: She continues to improve after a slow start and couldn't ask for a better road to her second major final.

Marcos Baghdatis: After an injury-filled season, the charismatic Cypriot once again has the Melbourne fans dancing and shouting.

Andy Roddick: The Larry Stefanki era couldn't be off to a better start. Neither could Roddick's luck. His draw has opened up nicely.

Alisa Kleybanova: The 19-year-old Russian lost several leads against No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic yet still prevailed.

James Blake: Not many of us (full disclosure, including yours truly) expected much from Blake after a difficult last few months of 2008. He's proven us wrong. I was struck by his composure, variety, and overall steadiness in a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 win over Igor Andreev.

Jelena Jankovic: The No. 1 seed hasn't dazzled, but she hasn't had to. Can she win her first major?

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: The frequently injured Tsonga still seems to favor his back from time to time, but he's hitting big and smiling wide. Firepower alert: Those lucky enough to attend Tsonga's fourth-round match against Blake ought to bring earplugs.

Svetlana Kuznetsova: No one expects Kuznetsova to contend for major titles, yet here we are in week two and she has outlasted Venus Williams.

Alize Cornet: The young Frenchwoman showed a strong spirit against Daniela Hantuchova. A shoulder strain could limit her the rest of the way.

Marion Bartoli: The former Wimbledon finalist who once admitted she can't resist candy has lost weight, put on muscle, and remembered how to win.

Victoria Azarenka: She's playing well, yet every time I watch Azarenka I'm reminded of Maria Sharapova--and I miss Sharapova dearly. They have the same gangly stride (like a colt on ice) but the similarities stop there. Sharapova has more power, more moxie, and more attitude. Whether you're a fan or not, tennis suffers for her absence.

Ivanovic Lost My Homework
Ana Ivanovic: In truth, she's lost her serve, and some of her nerve. Will she peak again once the French Open rolls around?

Stand in the Corner
Sam Querrey: The top young American suffered a dismal first-round defeat.

Caught Cutting Class
Venus Williams: Williams blew a 5-2 third-set lead against a 20-year-old playing her first match inside Rod Laver Arena. Not exactly the stuff of champions.

Nicole Vaidisova: How much lower will this incredible talent sink? After she lost to Severine Bremond in the first round, 6-2, 6-1, Vaidisova skipped her press conference and was fined $2,000. She also split with her coach of nine months, David Felgate.

Radek Stepanek: Perhaps Stepanek and Vaidisova are destined for each other. Stepanek lost two love sets in his third-round match, 6-4, 6-0, 6-0 to Fernando Verdasco (who has been training hard). Two love sets in men's tennis? It shouldn't happen unless one of the men is named Federer.

Violent fans: Let's just say it's a good thing the chairs inside Melbourne Park are made of plastic.

Naked Man on Court 3: Dear streakers of the world, it's the year 2009. Stop it.

Department of Suicide Pool Destruction
How many of you picked Carla Suarez Navarro, Anabel Medina Garrigues, Dominika Cibulkova, and Elena Dementieva to fight one another for a spot in the semifinals? We could also file this under Alphabet Soup: Those four names use 18 of the alphabet's 26.

Department of Anagrams
Speaking of Anabel Medina Garrigues, see how much fun you can have with her name? My favorite: A Bandana Eerie Girl Smug.

Quote of the Week
The best line of week one comes from my sleep-deprived colleague, Ms. Abby Lorge. First, I'll set the scene: Australian Open press room, late afternoon, several hours after a fight on the grounds between fans of Novak Djokovic and Amer Delic. Reporters clamor for answers. The loudspeaker crackles. "Attention press, Victoria Police will be giving a press conference at 5:50."

Lorge: "Who's Victoria Police?" (Abby, good sport that she is, allowed me to make fun of her in public. I won't give her the same courtesy. But I will link to her excellent roundup of player quotes.)

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Flatline 01/23/2009 - 8:20 AM

Dokic The title of this post has two purposes. First, it describes Thursday evening's much-hyped third-round match between Roger Federer and Marat Safin. If ever there was a marquee match with a weak pulse, this was it. There were some fine winners and a few spirited rallies. Mostly, though, there were reminders of how far Safin, who beat Federer here four years ago in one of the finest matches of the decade, has fallen. Even his tirades are low-grade these days (a foot-fault call in the third-set tiebreaker set him off, but he quickly tired of arguing). In the end, Federer dispatched the sometimes great, usually entertaining, and always mad Russian in three routine sets, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(4).

More important, though, the headline above applies to Jelena Dokic, whose heart seemed barely to beat as she pulled off the latest of her Australian Open upsets against Caroline Wozniacki, the 18-year-old from Denmark and No. 11 seed, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. Dokic has a dead stare, a look of supreme concentration and conviction that must be a wee bit unnerving for her opponents. After three years away from tennis--time spent battling demons and depression--she has found the form that once made her certain for stardom.

Those who have followed tennis long enough will recall how good Dokic once was. At 16, she qualified for Wimbledon and trounced top seed Martina Hingis in the first round, 6-2, 6-0 with a barrage of flat ground strokes (Hingis was playing her first match after she embarrassed herself in the French Open final against Steffi Graf). Dokic continued on to the quarterfinals. A year later, she reached the semifinals. But one could sense that her life would unravel as early as 2000. At the Australian Open, her father Damir attacked a cameraman. At Wimbledon, he was escorted off the grounds; at the U.S. Open, he verbally assaulted a cafeteria worker and was banned (Jelena left the grounds with him that day in tears). By 2004, Dokic, who reached No. 4 in the world two years earlier, was a wreck. She lost in the first round at all three majors she entered. From January 2005 to the end of last year, she played one match at a major tournament.

All the pain has given her strength this week.

"I think with all the events that happened the last three, four years I somehow feel so strong mentally," she said. "I'm there every point."

Just a few weeks ago, Dokic lost to a 16-year-old junior in a round-robin playoff tournament for a wild card into the Australian Open (she eventually won the event). If that's not enough to confirm how quickly fortunes can change in tennis, consider the current state of Ana Ivanovic, last year's French Open champion and, for a time, No. 1 ranked player.

Ivanovic became the second top women's seed to bow out of the tournament when she lost to Alisa Kleybanova, seeded No. 29, 7-5,6-7(5), 6-2.

Ivanovic struggled with injuries late last year and her confidence seems a bit shaken at present. She couldn't locate her toss and her intensity fluctuated between off-the-charts high (lots of fist pumps and "Come ons!") and flat (there's that word again). In her post match interview, she was as cheerful as ever. Is it possible to take losses too well? One hopes Ivanovic regains her winning ways soon, so we don't have to probe that question further.

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'Dark Side of the Mood' 01/23/2009 - 5:48 AM

Another day in Melbourne, another fight, this time between fans of Novak Djokovic (who is Serbian) and Amer Delic (who is Bosnian-American). The incident took place in the garden outside Rod Laver Arena and was quickly controlled by the police. I'll write nothing more about it, other than to offer the succinct description of Chris Duthie of the Victoria Police: "A number of people got into a bit of a chair throwing competition." If you'd like to know more, you can find it here. If you prefer to read about the streaker who visited Court 3 while the Williams sisters played doubles, click here. Just make sure you return if you want to know more Djokovic, the reigning King of Melbourne who looks, to this point, like he will be deposed before this tournament ends.Djokovicmood_2

Since the start of this season, the world No. 3 and defending Australian Open champion has inspired doubts and tennis commentators the world over. He switched racquets, from Wilson to Head, and now bristles when reporters ask him if the decision to change was a wise one. In his first match of the season, he lost to Ernests Gulbis. He followed that up with a defeat at the hands of Jarkko Nieminen in Sydney. Since arriving in Melbourne, he's been cast as an underdog behind Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray, despite his rank and his status as defending champion. Several times this week, he's been knocked about in the press for his subpar play and his prickly manner.

His performance yesterday, a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(4) victory, won't convince the doubters or give much confidence to his fans. Though Djokovic never trailed against Delic, he couldn't quite take hold of the match, either. Djokovic, of course, is the controlling type. The best adjectives to describe his tennis are economical, efficient, and precise. He knows how to manage a match, or at least, he does when he is at his best. Against Delic, he missed several easy forehands and often couldn't control his slice backhand; most of his shots lacked the heft that we saw last year (more spin, less penetration into the court).

Blame Delic for some of this. Many men on the tour have what we commentators often refer to as a "big game." Delic has one of the biggest: Huge serve, laser-like forehand and backhand, and powerful volleys, too. He doesn't steer the ball between the lines often enough, however, or move nearly as well as the best players on the tour. Delic, you'll remember, lost in the last round of the qualifying tournament and needed a bit of luck to reach the main draw. Yes, he's a dangerous player, but not for the Djokovic who lost one set last year, and that set was in the final against a man (one Mr. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) who has more firepower than anyone on tour--and can move with the best of them, too.

After the match, I sat down with Marian Vajda, Djokovic's coach. Djokovic's parents are not in Melbourne this year; Vajda said they are home preparing for the new ATP tournament in Serbia, which the Djokovic family purchased last year. Djokovic would prefer to have them around, Vajda said, but he wouldn't attribute his pupil's struggles to their absence.

So what is troubling Djokovic? It seems to me that he's learning what every champion before him has learned. He's learning that winning a major for the first time can just as well make winning a second one more difficult, rather than less difficult. He's learning that expectations increase once a player becomes a champion. He's learning that perceptions--of fans, of fellow players, of writers and commentators--change quickly and brutally and can't be controlled no matter how hard one tries to control them. He's learning that the life of a champion has a dark side, too.

"It's fun, it's still fun," Vajda said, pausing briefly. "I mean OK, you can see a little Dark Side of the Moon sometimes, you know? Or 'the Mood,' I would say. It comes from the pressure sometimes."

As any great champion will tell you, climbing to the top of tennis takes lots of talent, lots of hard work, and lots of luck. Falling from grace takes very little effort. To me, this is the most impressive aspect of the Roger Federer story. After Federer won his first major title, at Wimbledon in 2003, he needed only two more majors to win another. He then ran roughshod over his colleagues for the next four years. It wasn't until last year in Melbourne that the "monster" of expectations--and a bout with mononucleosis--got to Federer.

Right now, Djokovic seems to be battling a mini-monster. Vajda's job, he said, is to release tension, to keep Djokovic from becoming too anxious for the great future that so many--including Djokovic himself--have predicted.

"Once you go out of this circus for a couple of months, you don't get back," Vajda said. "It's very easy to let it go. Hoh, it's very easy."

Vajda meant to say "circuit," but circus, somehow, seems more suitable. For Djokovic, the high-wire act continues, whether he has his footing or not.

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Vanishing Act 01/22/2009 - 8:47 AM

After her quarterfinal appearance at the French Open last year, Carla Suarez Navarro won six matches for the rest of the season. Apparently she's been saving up her best tennis for the proper occasion.Suarez_navarro

Suarez Navarro jolted the women's draw on Thursday evening in Melbourne when she upset Venus Williams, a fashionable pick to win the tournament (no need to remind me, dear readers, that she was my pick, too). The Spaniard had other ideas about how the tournament ought to unfold. After dropping the first set in her first match inside Rod Laver Arena, Suarez Navarro reduced her errors and increased her aggression: Essentially, she played the match of her life. She also saved a match point in the third set.

In the hallways of Rod Laver Arena, a collection of Spanish coaches, trainers and friends celebrated with smiles and hugs as Albert Costa, Spain's new Davis Cup captain, handed out cigarettes. Spain is the king of men's tennis--it's home to the No. 1 player and proud defender of the Davis Cup--and the king of soccer, too. Is women's tennis its next conquest? Before you answer, consider that the 20-year-old Suarez Navarro is one of three Spaniards in her quarter of the draw. She had no explanation for her victory.

"I don't know what I do," Saurez Navarro said in her on-court interview after the match. "I only play--I don't know what to say." She can't say much more than that in English, but several Spanish reporters told me she's rather shy in Spanish, too.

No need for words, though, when you have a beautiful backhand, a long, flowing, swashbuckling one-hander that gives one the urge to dig up grainy clips of Gabriela Sabatini on YouTube. Her shoulders whipping open time and again, Suarez Navarro pushed and pulled Venus for much of the evening, coaxing errors and opening alleys for down-the-line winners. Venus, in a stunningly poor display of problem solving, did nothing to stifle her opponent's tactics. She rarely attacked the net, far and away her best strategy in recent years. She served a mere four aces. Instead of looking like an imposing, 6-foot-1 power player, Venus retreated behind the baseline and settled for loopy rallies.

Though her failings were many, Venus, to her credit, said not a word about them.

"She was super consistent and aggressive and just went for her shots," Williams said. "I think she just played really well."

Suarez Navarro is an oddity in women's tennis. She didn't begin to play until age nine and didn't take up serious training until age 17, after she finished her basic education. For the last two years she has worked with Xavier Budo and Marc Casabo of the Pro-Ab Team Tennis Academy in Barcelona. Casabo, whose English is limited, gamely tried to answer my questions after the match. With a little help from a Spanish reporter, it was easy to identify Suarez Navarro's improved fitness as the key to her success in the last year. Everyone who spoke about her agreed that her backhand is a gift. Most everything else she has learned.

As Saurez Navarro left the court, she smiled, waived to the crowd, and signed a few autographs. One man shouted down to her, "Thanks, you made me a fortune!" Autographs, or course, are not worth that much. Just goes to show that even when you're Venus Williams, seven-time major champion and smart pick to win the Australian Open, there's at least one person who will place a wager--and a sizeable one at that--against you.

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