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The Racquet Scientist: Canadian Tennis 08/14/2012 - 5:10 PM

Pic by Pete Bodo

Suddenly, Canada is cool. Okay, so it's always cool, literally speaking; our friendly northern neighbors keep it that way so they can continue to excel in hockey and win every danged walleye and pike ice-fishing contest you can name. But now it's cool, as in hip and happening, in tennis as well.

And that's certainly unusual, given that a short list of the most successful ATP and WTA pros in recent memory consists of names like Glenn Michibata (a Toronto native, who coached men's tennis at Princeton for 12 years; I guess the job at the Université de Moncton wasn't available); Patricia Hy-Boulais, the last woman (until Aleksandra Wozniak last week) to make the quarterfinals of the Canadian Open, aka Rogers Cup (alas, it was in 1992); Grant Connell (doubles specialist); Martin Laurendeau (former pro and current Canadian Davis Cup captain, and a heck of a salmon fisherman; I wouldn't kid you about that);  and — of course — Daniel Nestor, a doubles genius and Grand Slam champ many times over, still active. Nestor and partner Sébastien Lareau struck gold at the 2000 Sydney Games.

But strange and exciting things have been happening across the Detroit River and in the doggedly Francophone precincts of Quebec. Canada suddenly is producing players, most of them still more promising than proven, but some sort of synergy clearly is at work there. As the late Arthur Ashe was so fond of saying, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Is it a mere coincidence that the most dramatic tidal fluctuation on the planet occurs at the Bay of Fundy on the New Brunswick coast?

Canada has one of the most promising of the dangerous young ATP players in Milos Raonic, who's just 21 and has reclaimed his career high ranking of No. 19 after struggling with injuries. Vasek Pospisil is just 22 and has been ranked as high as No. 85. Wozniak once knocked at the door of the Top 20 and is headed that way again. Rebecca Marino, 21, hit career high ranking of No. 38 just a little over a year ago (but is currently off the tour, dealing with burnout). Frank Dancevic still pops up now and then to make an impression and Stephanie Dubois is still plugging away.

And did you notice that both junior champions a Wimbledon this year were Canadians? The boys' title went to Filip Peliwo, while the girls' winner was Eugenie Bouchard? Last week, Bouchard beat former No. 11 Shahar Peer in Montreal, and went down fighting against 10th-seeded Li Na, 6-4, 6-4. Sheesh. Pretty soon they'll replace the maple leaf on the Canadian flag with a Babolat racquet frame and I'll be sad because that's the prettiest danged flag on the planet.

Curious about all this, I called up my old pal Tom Tebbutt, the dean of Canadian tennis writers (check out his Tebbutt Tuesday blog here). One of the first sentences out of Tom's mouth when I reeled off a few of these names was, "And you should see these Abanda sisters, Elisabeth and Francoise. They're like our version of the Williams sisters."

He may have been exaggerating; you know those guys from Trois Rivieres. But not by much. 

Francoise Abanda, the younger of the sisters, is just 15, tall and willowy like Venus Williams, and she's already won a match in an ITF Challenger (Granby). She lost a reasonably close match (6-2, 7-5) in the next round at Granby to — Bouchard. She, of course, went on to win the whole shooting match, beating — you guessed it — another Canadian, Dubois, in the final.  Should either of these promising players (better yet, both) crack the champion code, enthralled reporters will no doubt ferret out the story of that Granby tussle. 

Francoise,who is of Cameroonian descent (think Yannick Noah) was seeded No. 14 in the girls division at Wimbledon, where one day she happened to be assigned a practice court next to Venus, who reportedly kept glancing in Abanda's direction, intrigued. I don't know if they ever spoke, but there's time for that, too. Abanda made it all the way to the semis at Wimbledon, but lost a tough three-setter.

Some Canadians think the tipping point for Canadian tennis was achieved in September of 2007, when the nation dedicated its National Tennis Center — the brainchild of a coach imported from France, Louis Borfiga. A former pro (and hitting partner of Bjorn Borg), the Monte Carlo native has coached numerous successful ATP pros, from Fabrice Santoro to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, and Gael Monfils. He has been vice president of high performance athlete development for Tennis Canada since 2006. Once the NTC was a reality, Raonic, Marino, and Bouchard (among others) became affiliated with the national program.

But Tebbutt and others know that very few successful generations are the product of a system, per se. It takes solid, dedicated coaching, willing talent, a little luck to get the ball rolling (fighter though he is, Peliwo did survive five match points in his Wimbledon semi), and — most important — stamina and resolve to keep it going. But as Tebbutt said, "You can't do any better than they (Peliwo and Bouchard) did at Wimbledon. It's all a little bit of a craps shoot, of course. But this is definitely a good sign for Canada."

It's a powerful tide up there in the Bay of Fundy, capable of lifting many boats — and lifting them higher than anyone imagined.

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The Long and Short of It 08/14/2012 - 9:28 AM

Jj

by Bobby Chintapalli

MASON, OHIO — Monday kicked off the women’s first round at the Western & Southern Open. (Tuesday brings with it 41 matches, including six second-round matches.) The tournament also held the WTA All Access Hour, where all of the top eight seeds but Petra Kvitova, who was busy preparing for the Montreal final, made themselves available to the press. Serena’s press conference was a standalone affair and a rollicking good time that will (and should) launch a hundred posts. This one isn’t about that but about two interesting matchups, with quotes from a winner and from Jelena Jankovic, who still wants to be a winner but, increasingly, can’t figure out how. (The picture above is courtesy of the tournament.)

Jelena Jankovic: “It’s a lack of confidence”

Maybe her first-round match was meant to end this way for Jelena Jankovic, what with all the 13s in the stats. Thirteen points into the third set tiebreaker, the 13th seed double faulted. A few points later she did what she’s done 13 previous times this year. She lost in the first round. Her opponent today was Peng Shuai, a two-handed player who played both offense and defense well.

Still this was Jankovic’s match to lose and — after nearly three hours, by a score of 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (8) — she did.

In the tiebreaker Jankovic lost it at 6-3 (her first match point) with a forced error. She lost it at 6-4 and 6-5 (her second and third match points) thanks to Peng winners, the first a fierce service return that touched the baseline and the second an overhead. Jankovic especially lost it at 7-6 (her fourth match point) with the aforementioned double fault. (The worst thing you can do in a tiebreaker, my favorite tennis partner told me, is double fault; it’s incontrovertible truth.) She lost it at 8-7 (her fifth match point) with a forced error into the net. Jankovic lost it, irrevocably, at 8-9. It was Peng’s first match point, and she hit a backhand winner that Jankovic watched go by. Earlier in the match Jankovic played defense like it was 2008; on this point, she didn’t even try.

At her post-match press conference Jankovic pinpointed the problem. Make that problems.

She walked into the main interview room, maybe 15 minutes after the match and 45 minutes before midnight, still in her tennis kit, wondering if anyone was in the room. Four of us were, and a local newspaper reporter kicked things off with this: “Talk about your frustration today having five chances to close out the match in the tiebreak.” Jankovic shook her head slightly, adjusted herself on her chair and sighed a long sigh. Maybe she wanted to make sense of the madness, to get it all out.

“It’s a lack of confidence and, you know, when I come to the finish line I’m just not able to finish in a good way and really execute my shots and do what I’m supposed to do,” said Jankovic. “So she took the advantage and won.”

It’s true. Jankovic lost despite winning the first set. Even after losing the second she led 2-0 and later 4-2 in the third set. Then there’s the whole five-match-points thing.

Another problem, as Jankovic also identified, were the double faults. Twelve of them. (Jankovic guessed “nine or ten” but who wants to correct a player who just lost a three-hour match after blowing five match points?)

She didn’t accelerate, said Jankovic, who also didn’t mince words. “It’s all in my control. Nobody is rushing me; it’s all up to me to do it.”

It wasn’t all bad news. Jankovic mentioned the aces (she hit nine of them, she guessed right on that count) and said her movement was better than it’s been the last few months. Fact is, she played a great first set — she hit winners and chased down balls and, along with Peng, gave fans something to text home about.

The problem for Jankovic, as for any player, is that a great first set isn’t enough.

Dominika Cibulkova: “So that’s my advantage”

Dc

A great first game isn’t enough either, but in Dominika’s Cibulkova’s case hers portended good things.

In the first round she played Akgul Amanmuradova, who is, at 6’3”, a foot taller than Cibulkova, who is, at 5’3”, one of the two shortest women in the Top 100. (Sara Errani is the other.) It didn’t feel that way. Not when Cibulkova won the first point with a winner, a forehand down the line, and the second point with another winner, this one an inside out forehand. When she got to 40-0 Amanmuradova, who got more comfortable, hit a service return winner. Cibulkova persisted, this time pulling out finesse and a forehand drop shot on game point.

A few games into the match the fans behind me figured Cibulkova would lose three games tops. (They went on. “She’s cute, this girl,” said an older gentleman. Added the woman in front of him, “And fast — you should see how fast she is.”)

The Twitterverse often mentions Cibulkova’s height as a disadvantage and assumes it is. But it didn’t feel like an issue for the part of the match I saw. (Part of the first set.) Cibulkova is an aggressive player, more Petra Kvitova than Caroline Wozniacki, in good ways and bad; she says so herself, if not in some many words. That’s what you notice, even before the feet or meters or any of that.

Which made me wonder. Does Cibulkova ever think of the height thing? Turns out she doesn’t: “No, I don’t really think about it… I really improved my serve, so I don’t feel it on my serve so much any more. And after I can be really fast on my feet, and I can be down and low and playing fast. So that’s my advantage against these high girls.”

Cibulkova, who came back from being 2-4 down in the second set to win the match 6-3, 6-4, says negative thoughts do enter her mind, every so often: “Sometimes when it’s somebody tall and serving really well it can get me pissed, you know.”

And now you do know, you know.

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Around the World, 8.13 08/13/2012 - 3:22 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

I suppose we could call this the post-Olympics ATW, as the Games ended just yesterday. I was away camping in the Adirondacks with the family a good part of last week, and I've been in the country (game-rich Andes, N.Y.) pretty steady since I returned from Wimbledon. By the time the Olympics closed down this past weekend, the tennis event seem like it took place ages ago.

I'm not a big fan of the Olympics; I think the original concept has been terribly bastardized and exploited  — if not exactly for pure profit, then for something like the collective ego of the Olympics establishment.

I must admit, though, that the final two or three days, when the Games featured classic track-and-field events, sure got my attention each evening. The USA women's track team has got to be the coolest collection of women on the planet, period. And my son Luke has become a Usain Bolt fan. He's running around some hay bales outside as I write this, doing Bolt's signature point-to-the-stars gesture.

One thing I'm tired of, though, is all the treacle we're served about "sacrifice" at the Olympics — and elsewhere — when it comes to the high-achiever athletes. Having great ambition in sports and doing everything possible to maximize your success isn't making a "sacrifice," in fact, it's the absolute height of self-indulgence.  Just as locking yourself up in a garret to write bad poetry instead of taking a proper job and/or leading a more conventional life, while fraught with some hardships, is also an act of profound, if not always wise, self-interest.

A sacrifice would be, say, giving up those athletic ambitions to care for a sick relative, raise a family, or to join the Armed Forces out of a sense of patriotic duty. Pro athletes, especially in remunerative sports like tennis, aren't all that different from others with high ambitions, including  those reviled "one-percenters," who get up at 4:30 am in Westchester to be in the office by 7 am on Wall Street — only to get home by 9 that night. They believe they're making sacrifices as well, usually under the guise of providing for their families.

Okay, the latter don't do anything worth watching or admiring, and don't necessarily love what they do, which is one reason we're so attracted to athletes. But they're in it for roughly the same reasons; personal fame and wealth. The end is always personal gratification, which is why it's so tempting to cloak the process in terms of "sacrifice" or even bringing glory to the nation. You just pick your poison if you're one of those achievers.

So let's acknowledge the hard work, artistry, and inspirational nature of so many great athletes. Let's appreciate the ways they make the world a better place.  But let's leave "sacrifice" out of it. They are lucky to be doing exactly what they want, and all for a glory that is first, foremost, and overwhelmingly personal.

Onward! 

ThumbsupNovak Djokovic had a dismal Olympic Games; seeded second he lost in the semifinals to eventual gold medalist Andy Murray of Team GB, and what's worse he was upset in the bronze-medal match by the No. 8 seed, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. The second-ranked Serbian also lost in the first round of the doubles, despite being seeded eighth with his partner, Viktor Troicki

But Djokovic bounced back to win in Toronto, and while that only seemed to underscore his failure at the Olympic Games, Djokovic took his setbacks — and subsequent success — with dignity and humility. After he won Toronto (d. Richard Gasquet, who fell to 0-3 in Masters 1000 tournament finals), he said,  "I truly did not expect myself to win this tournament after the emotional losses at the Olympic Games. I really took it hard. I tried to bounce back and recover; I've done great, I have to say."

Nole went on to say how happy he was with some post-Olympics tweaks, especially the aggression and precision with which he attacks the return after he serves. I like how honest — and enthusiastic —  he was yesterday  and how well he seems to have processed those recent losses at Wimbledon (three big ones, I'd say), and expect him to be ferocious at the U.S. Open. And watch out for him in the next Olympics, in Rio. . . 

ThumbsupYou have to feel for the pros who were shut out of the Olympic games, either because they didn't qualify (Slovakia's Magdalena Rybarikova missed the cut, ranked No. 102), or because their four-player national quota did not include them (the ATP's Sam Querrey and the WTA's Vania King and Sloane Stephens of the USA, who were ranked in the 50s but not among the top 4 American women).

You may not have as much feeling for someone like the USA's Mardy Fish or Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine, both Top 20 players who skipped the Olympics. Fish, the silver medalist in singles in 2004 (l. to Massu in the gold-medal match) in Athens,  simply didn't want to play. Dolgopolov wouldn't meet his national standard for qualification — thereby showing a singular indifference toward the Olympic Games, which represents a rare level of honesty, if nothing else. 

In any event, those who did a good job while being left out of the big show were, first and foremost, Rybarikova (she won Washington, DC the same week as the Olympics tennis, defeating top-seeded Anastasia Pavyluchenkova in the final). Her victim, incidentally, was left off the Russian team because of the Olympic Games quota system.

King and Stephens both made the DC semis, somewhat mitigating their disappointment. The quality non-Olympic men held their own as well; Querrey lost to Dolgopolov in the semifinals of Washington; "Dog" went on to win the tournament, conquering Tommy Haas (see below) in three sets, more or less thumbing his nose at the whole five-ring brouhaha. 

ThumbsupAleksandra Wozniak became the first Canadian to reach the quarterfinal of the Rogers Cup (aka Canadian Open, aka Montreal/Toronto, as the venues alternate hosting the ATP and WTA each year) since Patricia Hy-Boulais a full 20 years ago. You can always count on one of those Canadians to make the quarters of her national championships every two decades; it's like clockwork.

PicWozniak got there the hard way, too. She rallied from two sets points down in the first set to overcome Christina McHale, enduring an overnight rain delay while one game from victory. That can play on even a seasoned pro's mind, and McHale is a tough out even at the best of times. The 26th-ranked American is knocking on the door of the top 20, while Wozniak has been out of the year-end top 100 at or two years now, but is back up to 55 (and has been as high as No. 21, back in 2009). 

Wozniak's joy was short lived, even if her pride was not. Because of the rains that wreaked havoc with the event, the Quebecoise had to return that same night for her quarterfinal against near-namesake, Caroline Wozniacki. The No. 7 seed proved a bridge too far for the Montreal native. 

Also, a hat tip to Wozniak's countrywoman, rapidly rising Wimbledon junior champ and Montreal wild card Eugenie Bouchard, also of Quebec. She upset former No. 11 Shahar Peer and gave former French Open champ and No. 10 seed  Li Na all she could handle in a 6-4, 6-4 second-round clash. I'll be posting more on the Canadian surge in tennis tomorrow.

ThumbsdownBernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison are both finding the pro tour rough sledding — rougher, perhaps, than they had expected. Maybe it's that I'm an American, but I like Harrison and have high hopes for him. But he seems to have gotten a few steps ahead of himself in his eagerness to punch through to the big time, while Tomic has perhaps grown a little complacent since his great run at Wimbledon in 2011, and assumed that his future as The Next Big Thing is assured without his having to work very hard (to his credit, he admitted as much at Wimbledon).

If Harrison has a flaw, it may be that he's trying too hard — expecting success to come more quickly. It's just this inner timing thing, in my opinion, hippy-dippy as that sounds. That meltdown at the Olympic Games was not a pretty thing to behold, but it did put his dilemma in perspective.

Harrison lost to Tomic in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati yesterday, in what, were it a movie, might have been called: Battle of the Young Guns (That Keep Misfiring). At 20, Harrison is slightly older than 19-year old Tomic, and he's ranked No. 58 to Tomic's 49.  But Harrison is nothing if not plain spoken. And he said, after that loss to Tomic:

"We’ve got a ways to go. There’s been two or three Top 10 wins from all of us and unfortunately, I’ve contributed a zero. For me I’ve got to break the Top 30. There are so many steps. Once you start beating those guys in the Top 10 you have to do it consistently. And they have such a stranglehold on the tour it’s a ways to go. The way you get to that level is to keep pushing each other, keep working and trying to improve."

Tomic, meanwhile, hasn't been past the second round since early May, at Munich.

ThumbsupTommy Haas is no Bernie Tomic or Flyin' Ryan Harrison; he's 34, coming off so many surgeries I've lost count, and he missed a great chance at representing Germany in the Olympic Games because he just couldn't get his singles ranking up high enough.

But it tells you something that while he was outside the Top 100 at the cut-off date for direct entry into the Olympics (the official cut-off was No. 56,  but the real one ended up some 20 ranking places north of that), the former No. 2 is now an astonishing No. 23. His latest successes: that loss in the Washington finals to Dolgopolov, and his wins over tricky David Nalbandian, Gilles Simon, and Radek Stepanek in Toronto where he pushed eventual-champ Djokovic to three sets before losing. 

ThumbsdownWhen they write the history of Serbian tennis, this day may be remembered as the WTA version of the Battle of Kosovo, also known by the mysterious and enchanting (were it not so bloody)  Battle of Blackbird's Field. In any event, Ana Ivanovic, seeded No. 11 in Montreal, and  Jelena Jankovic, No. 13 both lost second-round matches (after byes) on the same day, winning a grand total of just  five games. 

Ivanovic was humiliated by No. 28 ranked Roberta Vinci in a mere 45 minutes in a loss where injury was  an issue: The former French Open champion withdrew from Cincinnati today with a tear in her right foot. Jankovic wriggled on the hook for a little longer, but capitulated to Wozniak (see above), 6-2, 6-3. It's borderline surreal to think how Ivanovic and Jankovic, the two most famous Vitches in WTA history, are struggling these days. Neither one is anywhere near over the hill, age-wise. And both have been former No. 1 players. Although Jankovic never did win a major, she was also the year-end No. 1 in 2008. 

ThumbsupKing Juan Carlos of Spain apparently doesn't settle for those choice seats at the French Open and then forget about tennis. Spain's figurehead ruler was well aware of the ongoing knee tendinitis that forced his countryman Rafael Nadal, ranked No. 3, to pull out of the Olympics (as well as the two big hard court events that precede the U.S. Open; Rafa's availability for the final Grand Slam of the year remains undecided) — so much so that he called Nadal the other day (while King Juan was on a visit to Mallorca) to offer him a little tea and sympathy — in their case, not being British, it was dinner.

They apparently had a nice meal and bout of commiseration, while tourists who spotted the two Spanish icons grabbed for their cameras and pens. Royalty usually doesn't pal around with even the most illustrious of commoners, other than the odd gamekeeper, so you know that the King Juan's interest in tennis — or is it merely Rafa? — is genuine. That's good for the game, even if it doesn't help Nadal, the 11-time Grand Slam champion, figure out what he needs to do to topple Djokovic or Roger Federer.

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Talking About Practice 08/13/2012 - 10:45 AM

Serena

by Bobby Chintapalli

MASON, OHIO — Sunday was a good day to be out on the practice courts of the Western & Southern Open. It’s one of five tournaments outside the majors that simultaneously hosts top-tier ATP and WTA events, and top names were out perfecting their skills. As qualifying matches continued and men’s main-draw matches began, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and many others hit the practice courts with hitting partners, past and future opponents, even their dogs (that would be Venus Williams’s dog, Harold). The Lindner Family Tennis Center, situated on 19 acres of  land and in the third year of a three-year renovation, boasts 16 total courts. Below are scenes from a few of the 10 courts used for practice on Sunday. (The picture of Roger Federer is courtesy of Jennifer Mauer, and the one of Serena Williams is courtesy of the Western & Southern Open.)

Serena Williams (9:25 – 9:50, Court 10)

Gates open two hours before the start of play, which was 10:00. By 9:25 kids were running — several of them and not figuratively — towards Court 10. There, in purple tights that hugged her muscles and curves, with a white baseball cap on her head and a sturdy brace on her left ankle, Serena Williams reigned over the proceedings.

She hit groundstrokes mostly, those bread-and-butter backhands and forehands she relies on when an ace isn’t readily available. She took a few balls out of the air, sliced more backhands then expected and ended one or two points with (mediocre) dropshots. A few times she hit approach shots for winners, garnering applause on a practice court, as Nikolay Davydenko toiled in relative anonymity on the next court and as six people watched U.S. Open defending champion Sam Stosur practice two courts over.

On Serena’s court nearly every spot by the fence along the sideline was taken, and the bleachers along the other sideline and one baseline were filling up. Onlookers watched Serena’s shots knock the fuzz off the ball. There was no puff of glitter like in those WTA Strong Is Beautiful videos, but judging by the reactions this was enough. The economy of Serena’s shots, the ease with which she hit them, and the effect — oh, the effect! — were enough.

With every new person who approached, by choice or chance, there was new excitement. Every new person had something to say.

“That’s Serena,” said one thirtysomething woman.

“No, it’s not,” said her male companion.

“That’s Serena!” the woman repeated.

The man looked closer. “She looks too little in real life. I thought she was huge,” he said. One part of her anatomy assured him it was, in fact, Serena. “Her arms are still huge.”

Hardly 10 feet away Serena kept hitting, without smiling, without hesitating, without missing.

Sam Stosur (9:52 – 10:05,  Court 13)

“I’m not being negative,” said Sam Stosur, putting more emotion into it then you’re used to seeing from her on a tennis court.

The words came after a break during which Stosur and her coach, David Taylor, had a long, animated conversation.

Practice resumed and with it normalcy, as Stosur turned her attention back to groundstrokes. The trademark spin was impressive as ever. But after 25 minutes of Serena, Stosur’s groundstrokes seemed to lack something. Depth, power and — it wasn’t hard to feel, especially from so close by — a certain oomph.

Yaroslava Shvedova (11:15 – 11:25, Court 10)

Back on Court 10 Yaroslava Shvedova’s shots lacked the oomph of Stosur’s, fierce as they were. It was like ‘The String Theory’ by David Foster Wallace. Dan Brakus was “a very good tennis player”. Just not as good as Michael Joyce, who was just not as good as Andre Agassi.

Not that everyone was talking about Shvedova’s shots. Some wondered who she was. (Several knew she was from Kazakhstan and said the word, even if they pronounced it in a variety of ways, and they knew she was the top seed in qualies.) Others wondered where Serena was.

“Serena was on this court,” said a woman on the bleachers to the  inquiring boy beside her. “I tell you what — there was a big group.”

Roger Federer (11:27 – 11:52, Court 5)

I tell you what — there was a very big group for this guy. By now more ticket holders had made their way through the gates, and many checked the practice schedule and went in search of Roger Federer. More people watched Federer than the actual matches on adjacent courts, where Eleni Daniilidou and Kateryna Bondarenko played a qualifying match on Court 3 and Sesil Karatantcheva and Olga Govortsova played another on the smaller Court 6. Fans packed the bleachers on both sides of Federer’s court, while amateur photographers with professional cameras clicked away as though Maria Sharapova was serving and adults told kids to move to the right so they could see.

Federer

What fans saw was a man who wasn’t going all out. Some of the practice felt like the strenuous part of a picnic. Federer wasn’t lolling about eating sandwiches and potato salad. But it didn’t feel more intense than a serious game of frisbee. Maybe he made it look easy — he’s Roger Federer, isn’t he? — or maybe that’s how he practices.

In practice there’s something about Federer that’s childlike. Maybe it’s the carefree walk, the lighthearted way he picks up balls and tosses them to Severin Luthi or how he plays with them on the frame of his racquet and back and forth between his legs. In practice Federer doesn’t have the gravity you see on TV. In its place is a gaiety that’s unexpected, refreshingly so. It makes Federer seem years younger than Serena, who’s months younger than him but whose intensity during  practice is akin to what you see during matches.

Chances are though, today’s practice isn’t how Federer always practices or wants to. He made numerous errors off both wings. It didn’t perturb him until he did that, oh, 10 times. At that point he grew slightly dissatisfied and easily distracted. When Govortsova’s grunting got a little loud Federer looked over, just like he had 10 minutes before, but this time longer.

Federer being Federer, he still managed to make his hitting partner run without trying, still made a backhand overhead volley like it was your standard forehand. There were plenty of ‘ooh!’s. And whether balls landed in or out, onlookers watched with appreciation and more.

Said one fan reverently, “Nice! A little of everything.”

You could say the same thing about practice courts.

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The Racquet Scientist: Final Set Tiebreaker 08/08/2012 - 9:26 AM

FedDel

by Pete Bodo

The U.S. Open looks like the laggard among the Grand Slams these days because it has no roofed stadium to ensure that at least some tennis is played every day, and to top it off USTA officials recently announced that their comprehensive $500 million renovation has no provisions for a roof or domed venue.

But in other ways, the U.S. major has been — and continues to be — a pacesetter. One conspicuous example is the embrace of the fifth-set tiebreaker. It is the only major tournament that embraces it, and even the recent Olympic Games — an event quadrennially shoehorned into the already crowded tennis calendar — elected to play out final sets.

I must admit, I was never a big fan of the final-set tiebreaker. Playing full sets seemed to be such a strong indicator of gravitas. There's always been something macho, in a good way, about the practice. It was "old school," and "traditional," and all that. And in all honestly, the lore and legend of tennis is strewn with 21-19 (Andy Roddick d. Younes El Aynaoui, Australian Open, 2003), 19-17 (Roger Federer d. Juan Martin del Potro, Olympics, 2012) scores. Why eliminate that interesting element in the game?

But we recently had that epic  70-68 (John Isner d. Nicolas Mahut, Wimbledon 2010) result, and let's face it — that monster put the kibosh on any hope of establishing a new record for most games, longest elapsed time, and most aces in a tennis match. Or it did for at least the next 200 years. Compared to that wrestle, Federer over Delpo at the Olympics seemed like small potatoes. So it's a good time to call it quits, kiss the deuce set good-bye, and embrace the final set tiebreaker. I take the Isner-Mahut mindbender as a sign from on high that it's time to move on.  

The recently concluded Olympic tennis changed my mind on this issue, but my main reason for embracing the final-set tiebreaker is not the obvious one that would be cited by most time-sensitive television producers. The real problem with deuce sets is that when a match goes as long as Federer v. Delpo or even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga v. Milos Raonic (that one went 25-23, for Tsonga) the reward for the winner's heroic feat is almost always a quick subsequent loss. 

This is one of those "what you only find in the fine print" issues. In 2003, when Roddick won that great quarterfinal clash with El Aynaoui, he lost in the semis to unheralded Rainer Schuettler of Germany, in four tepid sets. After the storied 70-68 win over Mahut at Wimbledon, Isner lost to No. 46 ranked Thiemo de Bakker in the second round.  Isner got five games in three sets. After Paul-Henri Mathieu knocked off heavily favored Isner, 18-16 in the fifth at Roland Garros earlier this year, he lost his next match to No. 23 Marcel Granollers. And we all saw what Murray did to Federer in the Olympic Games gold medal match after the top-seeded Swiss survived that long (4:26) match with Delpo, a battle that established a new elapsed-time record for a three-set match.

Granted, del Potro did go on to snatch the bronze medal from Novak Djokovic. But I tend to think of that as the exception that proves the rule. And so what if Tsonga put up a win over Feliciano Lopez after his marathon with Raonic? Fatigue is cumulative as well as immediate. 

So count me among those who believe final sets ought to be decided like the ones that came before, by tiebreaker. It just seems silly to cling to the full final set format when it almost always ensures that whoever wins enjoys only a phyrric victory. I suppose I could live with the idea of deuce sets in a final, where tomorrow doesn't matter, or even in Davis Cup — if the Lords of Tennis want to keep the flame of tradition flickering. We've seen many Davis Cup players rebound with amazing strength after a tough first match, but the three-day format is friendly to such heroics.

In typical tournament tennis, even at Grand Slams, playing out the final set before the final round stage is like issuing the competitive death warrant for both players. And that doesn't do anybody, or the game at large, any good.

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The Coliseum Speaks 08/06/2012 - 8:09 PM

Womendoublesmed

by Pete Bodo

It looks like 2012 may go down as the year when the tennis at the Olympics hit the tipping point. By the time it was over, very few critics could voice complaints about the level of commitment or interest by the players other than those, perhaps, who diminished their chances to earn a medal on Wimbledon grass by playing clay-court events between Wimbledon and the Games. Nobody among the top contenders went that route, so the cavil is sort of academic.

Personally, I still don't believe that tennis ought to be in the Olympics (neither should other highly commercial pro sports, like basketball, soccer, or — in four years time — golf). But the barn door is open and the horse is out, so the point is moot. I can enjoy it as much as anyone, especially now that tennis has become a full-blooded member of the Olympic family, as attested by the fact that eight of the flag-bearers (it's a high honor) were tennis players, and it would have been nine had Rafael Nadal been able to lead the Spanish contingent into the Olympic stadium in London.

This final validation of tennis (at least in the eyes of tennis people) began in 2008 at Beijing, where Rafael Nadal won gold at the end of a fairly predictable tournament.  It was verified this year in London, and perhaps it was no coincidence that the vehicle for this maturation of tennis was the All England Club, which also hosts Wimbledon. The venue certainly gave tennis added credibility and visibility, both within and without the tennis community.

Whatever the case, unless things change drastically there will be no reason to debate the validity or significance of the Olympic tennis event from now on. No, an Olympic gold is not the equivalent of winning a Grand Slam; it's more prestigious, in the broadest sense, but also less significant in the judgement of those who know best, the tennis community. Whatever the case, it sure as hail means a lot more than winning any Masters 1000 or Premium Mandatory event.

So let's award our final accolades and demerits. We're awarding just one individual thumbs up in each gender division. Everyone else is will be an honorable mention.

ThumbsupAndy Murray's gold-medal win was a superb performance, and it lent something enchanting to these Games, not least because of the painfully and elaborately chronicled troubles British men — including, to this point, Murray — have had winning Wimbledon.

Nobody is going the confuse winning the nine-day, six-round, best-of-three-set Olympic event (until the best-of-five-set final) with a triumph at a two-week, seven-round, best-of-five (from the start) Grand Slam event. In fact, some pundits are sure to point out that Murray was extra-lucky at Wimbledon because he's already shown that he's at his best in high-quality events played on a compressed schedule comprised of best-of-three matches. Murray has won many more Masters 1000 titles than anyone outside the Big Three. The next man in the rankings, No. 5 David Ferrer, has yet to win his first Masters event.

But I wouldn't confuse these Olympics with a Masters event for all sorts of reasons, including the singles-doubles workload carried by most players, the fact that third sets were played out (no tiebreakers), and that the final was a five setter. Say what you want, going out to face Roger Federer of Switzerland in a five-set final on grass at Wimbledon just doesn't compare to butting heads with him on cement over three tie breaker sets in Montreal.

Add the inherent pressure of playing for your nation, which doesn't diminish even if the Olympics as an entity overshadows any individual event, and particularly one that isn't exactly a classic Olympics sport (like, track-and-field or swimming), and you have to be impressed by what Murray, part of "Team GB" accomplished in his little half-acre.

ThumbsupWilliams of the USA gets the high honors in the women's division, and you can take your pick, Venus or Serena. I'm not going to choose, because they are truly a unit in some vital and transcendent way, and never more so than at the Olympics. They brought great distinction upon themselves and represented the USA in exemplary fashion in London. The unprecedented third double gold medal they scooped up as a team is just the beginning of it. 

Venus Williams had high but fragile hopes coming into the singles event, but she had an excellent tournament when you factor in her age (32) and the long battle she's fought with injuries as well as that insidious auto-immune condition, Sjögren's Syndrome. One symptom of Sjögren's is rapid fatigue — not exactly an easy work-around for a top pro athlete. Venus knocked off No. 9 seed and recent French Open finalist Sara Errani of Italy, and then took out Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada. She gave each woman all of four games.

Venus's progress was halted in the third round by one of the most dangerous women on the tour these days, No. 7 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany. It took Kerber, who lost in the quarterfinals to top-seeded Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, two tiebreakers to topple Venus. But then Venus partnered Serena to take the doubles.

As for Serena, what can anyone say anymore? If she's not the greatest woman player of all time, she's certainly the most dangerous ever. Citing this as the best tournament of her career, she lost a mere 17 games and her serving stats were off the charts good. She beat Maria Sharapova so severely in the final that I was a little surprised the loser didn't claim to be an American (she does a fine impersonation) just to spare her compatriots the embarrassment.

The bad news for the women in all this is that the progress they appeared to make with the hot streak of Azarenka, the promise (largely unfulfilled thus far this year) of Petra Kvitova, and even the career Grand Slam completed in Paris by Sharapova is that if and when Serena chooses to play, they all would better off heading for the tall and uncut. Serena can make a laugher of a match with any of them.

Okay, so let's do our honorable mentions, ladies first:

ThumbsupMaria Kirilenko of Russia was the major surprise of the women; seeded just No. 14, she made the semis thanks to qaulity wins over No. 6 Kvitova, Julia Goerges of Germany (who knocked off No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska) and even Great Britain's Heather Watson, who was playing well and certainly had the crowd behind her. . .

Unseeded No. 29 Kim Clijsters of Belgium expected too much of herself and seems to have been milking the system for all it's worth these past few years (why retire, even if your heart's not in it, when there's so much easy money to be made playing?). But given her unprotected status and lack of consistent seasoning, those were good wins over Italy's Roberta Vinci and No. 11 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia. They got Clijsters to the quarterfinals (l. to Sharapova) — she was the only unseeded player in that round.

Kerber once again met expectations by making the quarters (l. to Azarenka); say what you will, Venus Williams was not an easy out at this event but Kerber toughed it out in two tiebreakers. Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic lost the doubles final to the Williams sisters but making the final as the No. 4 seeds was a great effort, not least because enroute they bumped off top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond of the USA. 

ThumbsdownGermany came into the Olympics with a formidable women's line-up, but was kept entirely off the podium. . . Petra Kvitova could have regained a lot of ground with a strong Olympics, and the fact that surface was grass and the venue was Wimbledon, where she won her first Grand Slam title in 2011 (and failed to defend it this year) ought to have given her plenty of motivation. But she caved to Kirilenko in the quarterfinals. . At age 30, she was almost certainly taking part in her final Olympics as a singles star, but No. 10 seed Li Na of China has also played the best tennis of her life over the past two or so years, but she was knocked out in the first round by flighty Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia. 

Thumbsdown I don't know if this was a Sharapova or a Rennae Stubbs thing, but all that un-funny blabbering about Chelsea Handler, who's a talk show host and minor celebrity, after a couple of Sharapova's otherwise fine performances really cheapened the broadcast. I mean, who really cares that Handler is in the box, how she got there, etc. etc. And did anyone else get tired of Stubbs using the word "positivity?" . . . Huber and Raymond of the USA crashed and burned at the Olympics, after a lot was made of the top-seeded team's great record; the record is still great, and I can see how having the Williamses in the draw automatically had to make them start thinking of silver or bronze, but they ended up with nothing.

Now for the men:

ThumbsupJo-Wilfried Tsonga of France had an excellent tournament after being handed a draw made up in hell. He beat mercurial Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil, flamethrower Milos Raonic of Canada (that record-setting one ended 25-23 in the third), and dangerous, attacking lefthander Feliciano Lopez before he came up, a little leg weary, against Djokovic in the quarterfinals.  And to top it off, Tsonga partnered Michael Llodra to a silver medal in the doubles — their semifinal against David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez of Spain went to 18-16 in the third. Tsonga the runner-up to Murray as the male MVP of the Games.

ThumbsupJustin Gimelstob has made great strides as a commentator. I know he rubs many people the wrong way, but he started with a great fund of knowledge (having been a pro himself) and has only expanded it and grown into the role of color commentator. The guy never fails to make a handful of really insightful observations in any match he covers, he's in thick with the players, and he has tremendous enthusiasm — even if he is a little too eager to declare this backhand or that drop shot "the best in the history of the game!"

ThumbsupBob and Mike Bryan of the USA won doubles gold, greatly enhancing their status as a doubles team, given how many people assume that their scintillating record would be greatly diminished if the top singles players deigned to play doubles . . . Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina had a terrific tournament, his progress halted only by Roger Federer, who had to go to 19-17 in-the-third to quell the insurrection. Given the length of that match (4:26), it was a great effort when Delpo bounced backto take the bronze over No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic. . .

And how about Aussie battler Lleyton Hewitt, 31-years old, ranked up around No. 159 (when the Games' started), coming off five surgeries, in only by virtue a wild card? He knocked off two top 50 tour players, including No. 13 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, before he bowed to Djokovic — but not without winning the first set.

ThumbsupKei Nishikori of Japan did yeoman's work as the No. 15 seed, eliminating No. 4 David Ferrer of Spain before he had the misfortune to run into Delpo. He was still the lowest ranked player in the quarters, and the only gate-crasher based on seedings. . .And while neither Julien Benneteau or Richard Gasquet of France did much in the singles, they had a great doubles tournament, knocking off two formidable and highly seeded teams before they yielded to the Bryans in the semis. Undeterred, they then edged out Ferrer and Lopez to take the doubles bronze for France.

Andy Murray and Laura Robson also deserve a great thumbs up for securing the mixed doubles silver, bowing in the super tiebreaker in the final to top-seeded Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. It was a great effort by the British, especially when you factor in that Robson is just 18 and Murray had just completed the men's final.

ThumbsdownThe Serbs had a terrible Olympics on both sides of the gender divide. No Serb won a medal. It was worst for the men, as No. 2 Djokovic lost in the bronze medal match to del Potro. No. 7 seed Janko Tipsarevic fell to No. 10 John Isner of the USA, and while you'd be hard pressed to call that a terrible loss it was consistent with the theme because Tisparevic and doubles expert Nenad Zimonjic lost to Benneteau and Gasquet in the doubles. . . 

The Spanish men had nothing much to crow about, either. Ferrer was knocked out early by Nishikori, No. 11 seed Nicolas Almagro was solid, but Murray got in his way, Lopez was beaten by Tsonga and No. 14 Fernando Verdasco was out in the first round, a victim of Denis Istomin. And the doubles was no better, as the top Spanish team finished runner-ups in the bronze medal match.

 It was no consolation for the Spanish, I'm sure, but India did nothing either, despite the nation's  great doubles tradition. Neither feuding former wunderkinds Mahesh Bhupathi nor Leander Paes, who refused to play together,  got a sniff of the medals in either men's doubles or mixed.

Andy Roddick of the USA, who had shown strong signs of revival, was just battered in the second round by Djokovic, who didn't even end up on the podium.. .Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland lost in the first round of singles, and was more millstone around Federer's neck than reliable partner when the Swiss tried to defend their gold medal.

Okay, next stop — Rio! 

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Gold Found on Henman Hill 08/05/2012 - 5:16 PM

2012_08_05_AMpray

by Pete Bodo

It was supposed to happen just like this, only one month earlier. One month earlier in any number of recent years, and you could argue it might even go as far back as those painful Tim Henman years. When Andy Murray of Great Britain, with a few extra miles per hour on his serve thanks to the British crowd (as he would tell us later), hit that final, match-ending ace against Roger Federer of Switzerland to claim the Olympic games singles gold medal, the crowd on Henman Hill erupted, like some complex pointillist canvas leaping to life on the museum wall.

Murray's reaction at the moment of victory was interesting mainly because it was so unexpectedly restrained. He bent over and eased into a crouch, as if his back had suddenly gone out, or he was about to get sick after a rousing night up at the Fox and Dog pub in Wimbledon village.

In a sport where even a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal is given to dramatically falling to his knees or pitching over flat on his back as if shot, with an accompanying scream, Murray chose not to meet his long-deferred moment of greatness with theatricality. Besides, as a man who had yet to win a Grand Slam, and who has been a Grand Slam whipping boy to those experts at falling down in the throes of ecstasy, he seemed to sense that such a demonstration would be a little too much like taunting or trash-talking a great, great player. This was Federer's final dream in tennis, and probably his last chance to realize it. And it unraveled so quickly over the course of the surprisingly easy 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 win by Murray on the Centre Court at Wimbledon that you had to feel for the beaten 17-time Grand Slam champion.

Not that the Hill Dwellers at that moment cared a whit about all that. All they knew was that Murray had won; a Brit was the last man standing at Wimbledon. Earlier in the event, when seats in the stadium were readily available, the crowd on the Hill was often sparse and rarely very expressive or vocal. Today, though, it looked like as if had re-convened the entire group that had turned out to watch the same two men battle for the Wimbledon title just a month ago, with Federer the winner. I wished they had been those same folks; it would make the world seem a fairer place. For this time, instead of an enormous collective groan at match-point, and dumbfounded looks into each other's teary eyes, the HIll Dwellers responded to the final point with a triumphant roar — a burst of joy so voluble that it had to bring a smile to your face, unless it was painted red with a white cross across your nose.

Immediately after the match, commentator John McEnroe asked Murray how it felt to win the Olympic singles event as compared to, say, a Grand Slam. Murray answered with his customary mixture of frankness and equivocation. "Well I don't know how winning a Slam feels," he drawled. "I know how this feels and it's just great."

Murray played a spectacularly good match, and you could almost be persuaded to think that some of the glitzy Williams sisters hip-hop magic had rubbed off on the pasty and often gruff Scot. It isn't often that either Venus or Serena is the warm-up act for anyone, but today they were the twin table-setter for Murray on Centre Court. They added to their astonishing record as doubles player with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic.  The sisters play infrequently, but when they play, they win. Period. Punto Finale. End of story.

The Williams sisters became the first players of either sex to win four gold medals (both of them have a singles gold and three golds in doubles), and the doubles victory made Serena just the second woman (Steffi Graf is the other one) to record a career "Golden Slam." With yesterday's terrific whipping of Maria Sharapova in the women's singles final, Serena has won each of the Grand Slam titles at least once — as well as an Olympic singles gold. Imagine how good these ladies could be if, like men's doubles gold medalists Bob and Mike Bryan, they actually bothered to get together to play more than a couple of times a year.

Murray played the match that every one in the long string of coaches he's had knew was in him, but the player himself seemed to withhold — sometimes, seemingly to the point of perversity — as if he were intent on extending the "will he or won't he" drama. Granted, nobody on the planet beats a Federer when he's firing on all cylinders the way Murray did today, but it isn't like Murray has had all the luck when it comes to unlocking the door to excellent form and mental and emotional stability on the day of big finals. That record-setting, 4 hour-and-26 minute semifinal with Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals on Friday certainly left the Federer blade with a dulled edge, but he had no one to blame for that but Federer himself, or Delpo. 

This match was over in under two hours (1:56), but the single, towering turning point came shortly after the orchestra had stopped tuning up and begun to play. After Murray won the first set and leaped to a 2-0 lead, Federer threatened to break right back. But in a game lasting nearly 15 minutes, Murray fought off six break points and capitalized on Federer's uncharacteristically error-prone tendencies to somehow escape with the game — and a lead that, at 6-2, 3-0 suddenly looked awfully large.

By then, Federer's brows were knitted up and his default expression a sour one. It was the kind of  frown you sometimes find on a Chinese wall hanging, or mural. I couldn't help but wonder if Murray, so long a master at encouraging his opponents with transparent, self-sabotaging  body language, noticed. You know Roger Federer is in trouble when he holds his right arm fully extended along his side, racquet face parallel to the ground as if it were a frying pan, and he stares at the pattern of his string as if they constituted a ruined omelet.

One of the main complaints about Murray has been that he's too much the unpredictable subversive; too addicted to doing something clever and unexpected to take full advantage of his 6-foot-3 height and sinewy power to take the game to his opponents. Today, he satisfied those critics, while you could almost say the opposite of Federer. Too often, Federer seemed willing to bide his time, trusting his superior shot making to flummox Murray as soon as the Scot began to get get coy. But Murray didn't get coy, except on one or two negligible occasions. Today, he was the straight man.

Murray kept turning down the screws, and as he did Federer began looking too defensive, too willing to entrust control of the match — or lack thereof — to Murray. And that put him into awkward positions that further contributed to the shellacking he absorbed on a day when he committed 31 unforced errors to 17 by Murray, and made three fewer winners (24-27). When you lost those two battles and also that of the second serve (Federer converted just 37 percent of his second serve points, while Murray's rate was a sparkling 63 percent), you have the makings of a perfect storm.

About midway through the third set McEnroe made an interesting observation after Murray pulled off a slick surprise attack-and-volley winner. He said that given Murray's mobility, reach, skill and touch, he doesn't come close to using his volley/net game to full advantage, adding that it was the next frontier in Murray's development. That sounds pretty good to me. Murray did win 9 of his 12 net points today,  but that figure is always deceptive because Murray is still among those players who approaches the net only on a sure thing (unless he finds himself drawn up there inadvertently). 

One other factor surely came into play on Centre Court today, and that was the pressure — or lack thereof — that Murray felt. In that sense, he may have been lucky that this edition of Olympic tennis unrolled at Wimbledon. As a part of something much larger than itself, and with the familiar narrative of Wimbledon (last British man to win, and all that yadda-yadda-yadda) neutralized, it wasn't all about Murray in SW19 this past week for a change. He had more breathing room. He had more chances to relax. As he said afterward: "I didn't feel all that nervous. I  spoke with (my coach) Ivan (Lendl) after Wimbledon and he told me, 'You'll never play under more pressure than you did during the Wimbledon final.' That helped me today."

Murray's work wasn't finished, though. He was next on Centre in a mixed doubles gold-medal match, partnered with Laura Robson against 35-year old doubles specialist Max "the Beast" Mirnyi and women's No. 1 Victoria Azarenka.

Murray and Robson were unseeded, and had peeled a few big names out of the draw in the preliminary rounds — Hewitt and Stosur of of Australia, and Lisicki and Kas of Germany (conquerors of second-seeded Americans Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber). The Brits won the first set, 6-2, but the pressure on Robson, who's just 18, began to build quickly. It didn't help her cause that by the middle of the second set Mirnyi, the 6-foot-5 Beast, was fully living up to his name, firing point-blank shots at Robson wherever he could find her. No complaints though, these are big boys and girls, all of whom know what they've signed on for.

At one point in that second set, I found myself wondering: What could be better than being Andy Murray at this moment? You just won a gold an hour ago in singles with a win over Roger Federer, and you've got the Belarusians on the ropes. You're on track for another gold before a packed house and who's gonna care if you don't pull it off? Life just doesn't get any better. . . 

Turns out I was wrong. Eventually, Mirnyi and Azarenka wore down Robson and Murray, who were unable to reverse the tide despite surviving two match points before the Belarusians salted away the super tiebreaker, 10-8. Walking off the court, Murray wasn't basking in the applause cascading down all around him. He was frowning and smacking the net with the head of his racquet, cleary frustrated by how things had worked out, but too much the self-possessed, decent guy to get too demonstrative about it. I suppose he's read that famous Kipling line about "triumph and disaster" on the sign above the entrance to Centre Court too often for it to be any different.

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Olympics Crisis Center: The Final Day 08/05/2012 - 12:13 AM

FedGood mornin'. I'll be covering and posting on the Olympic tennis finals today, but I wanted to make sure you all had a place to gather and jaw about the matches before, during, and after they play out. Easy Ed McGrogan fans will be glad to hear that his wedding went off beautifully, and I'm still kicking myself for not having the presence of mind to snap a photo or two with my Blackberry, to post here.

Ed looked nothing less than dashing in a cream-colored suit and his bride, Danielle, was smashing in a Grace Kelly-ish way. They made a wonderful couple and the ceremony in a small stone church in Cold Spring, New York - a quaint town with a pretty waterfront on the broad-shouldered Hudson River - was traditional and refreshingly streamlined.  

Enjoy the finals today. I'm looking for a Williams sweep, and if the weather reports are accurate we may be watching "indoor" tennis tomorrow. That would certainly help Federer - as if he needed any more of that. Earlier in the week, Murray himself suggested that his game works better under al fresco conditions because, Murray feels, he can do more with his shots - and more that can discombobulate his opponents. Murray winning a gold in London at Wimbledon would be not just a great honor, it would be a somewhat unexpected reward for having been such a game competitor at those grounds, and on behalf of the same UK, for such a long time, almost all of it under Jess Ennis-grade pressure.

But it sure looks like I'll have to do some serious updating of Roger my recently published e-book, Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals (see upper right corner of this page, or just click here).

 -- Pete

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Around the Olympics, Day 6 08/02/2012 - 6:01 PM

MariaKirilenko (2)


by Pete Bodo

Well, the days and matches are dwindling down to a precious few, and the thumbs up/thumbs down meme is beginning to outlive its usefulness. That's okay, because this was to be the last day for that approach anyway. I'm off, and off to, Easy Ed McGrogan's big day (no, he doesn't get his driver's license — he's getting married!). I'll be back on Sunday, though, to write about the finals. I will post a Crisis Center for you each day as well.

Now, let's get down to business, at what has turned into perhaps the most "predictable" (as in, upset-free) of Olympic tennis events, despite having been held on the least predictable surface, under conditions that were by any stretch of the imagination an experiment. Nobody knew just how the courts at the Olympic tennis venue, the All-England Club, would hold up under stress and wear when the official Wimbledon tournament was completed a scant three weeks earlier. And nobody knew how the stress of competing for your nation rather than yourself would affect players in best-of-three matches on slick grass. The most unpredictable aspect of these Olympics has been its predictability. So, onward:

ThumbsupI neglected to single out Kei Nishikori of Japan for a thumbs up yesterday, but only because we were eager to get my report up at the usual time, and Nishikori's upset of Spain's David Ferrer went right on into the British dusk.  Nishikori beat the No. 4 seed, 6-0, 3-6, 6-4, and ended up as the lowest seed (No. 15) to make it to the fourth round — and the only "outsider" to crack the elite rank of the quarterfinalists. That upset was huge, not least because it came late in the tournament, but also because Ferrer is a tough out at the best of times, and usually dominates players who rank below him.

Nishikori ran into a customarily tough Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina  today, but he went down swinging, 6-4, 7-6 (4). Nishikori hit as many aces as Delpo, he hit just three fewer winners (18), and made four fewer unforced errors (16). This tells you that he was just outplayed in a high-quality match. I guess outfoxing a small guy and then outgunning a big one on back-to-back days was just too big an assignment for Kei — as it would be for almost anyone else as well.

ThumbsupVenus and Serena Williams of the USA simply crushed No. 2 seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci of Italy, 6-1, 6-1. Early in the second set, when it looked as if the Italians might break back, Venus and Serena collided as both of them called for a very short drop volley and raced toward it — Serena along the net, Venus from the backcourt.

This being the Williams sisters, both women wanted to field the tricky ball. As Justin Gimelstob aptly observed, both of them want the ball in a critical moment, and that's part of what makes them great. But the women collided as they arrived at the ball together. Venus went down, hard, and lay on her back. Serena, barely able to keep her feet, ended up well off to the side of the net post.

The ball ended up crossing the net and dropping for a winner as the astonished Italians looked on. 

ThumbsupMaria Kirilenko of Russia is a player who, despite her obvious good looks, can get lost in the woodwork of the pro game despite being a consistent high-achiever. At 5-foot-9, she's not too big, not too small. She has decent power, but lacks menacing weapons. She's a typical baseliner, yet is proficient enough at the net, with sufficiently soft hands, to be an excellent doubles player. She's been in around around the Top 20 for a long time, and has won five singles titles, but more than twice as many in doubles. It's small wonder that she gets lost in the shuffle despite having much to recommend her.

Kirilenko presently is just one notch below her career-high singles ranking (14), and coming off her best Grand Slam result yet, a tough three-set quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon to losing finalist Agnieszka Radwanska. Given that she's such a textbook case of the good but not great player, someone who's more than journey woman but far from being a champion, nobody really anticipated that she would take down No. 6 seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. But Kirilenko managed it, winning 7-6 (3), 6-3. And she's also punched her ticket into the medal round of the doubles.

ThumbsupThe unseeded team of Sabine Lisicki and Christoper Kas of Germany defeated Liezel Huber and Bob Bryan of the USA in the mixed doubles in  7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 10-5 thriller (all mixed doubles matches are decided by the super tiebreaker [first to 10 points] when the teams split the first two sets).

It was touching to see that Lisicki had overcome the disappointment she must have felt after she squandered numerous chances in her losing effort against Maria Sharapova of Russia just yesterday. The winners of the mixed doubles gold medal will become an instant trivia question, because this is the first time that mixed is a medal event in the Olympic games.

ThumbsupMaria Sharapova is on fire (more on that below). As hot as that that brilliant vermilion dress. But she has one big problem, and it isn't the woman she's playing in the semifinals, fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko. It's Serena Williams of the USA, who won her 15th consecutive match today, a 6-0, 6-3 pasting of that other lady in red, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.

The scary thing is, she didn't even play all that well, and that's bad news for Sharapova. For this is no doting, distracted mommy, nor a gangly blonde who may have won Wimbledon too soon that she'll be facing. It's the most powerful force ever seen in women's tennis, and I have even more bad news. She's steamed that, unlike her sister Venus Williams, she's managed to miss out on winning an Olympic singles gold medal. She hasn't won a single one of those, but has won everything else, often many times over.

The last attempt to turn Sharapova vs. Williams into a rivalry followed the latter's relatively close match with Sharapova in the fourth round of Wimbledon last year, 7-6 (9), 6-4. But Williams won their next two matches by identical 1-and-3 scores. As someone once said, "It's only a rivalry if both players win a few. . ."  and Sharapova hasn't beaten Williams since late 2004 (Williams leads the head-to-head, 8-2). Let's see if they both survive their semis.

ThumbsupI can't help but fall back on the old cliche — all he does is win, baby. . .

That's Roger Federer of Jupiter, er, Switzerland, who moved into the semis today with a win over Long John Isner of the USA, the scores were 6-4, 7-6 (5). It was the day after Swiss hopes had been crushed in a number of Olympic events, including the men's doubles in tennis. Federer and his partner, Stan Wawrinka, were the defending champs but they walked away with squat — just like the other hopeful Swiss athletes scattered throughout London.

But who better to shoulder the load of Swiss depression than "the maestro," who grinned after the match and said, of yesterday, "We (Swiss) were getting a little nervous."?

What can you say about his outstanding performance against one of the most dangerous players anyone may have the misfortune to meet on grass? Isner converted an outstanding 71 percent of his first serves, yet Federer, who served 63 percent, won more of his first serves than did Isner (albeit by a narrow 78 to 75 percent margin).

The first point of the second set tiebreaker was a classic. Isner hit a second serve that Federer handled with a dink return that drew Isner to the net. The American hit a drop volley with his forehand, just as Federer had anticipated. He passed Isner with a picture perfect down-the-line backhand. 

ThumbsupMaria Sharapova, who's from Bradenton, Fla, but plays for the Russian team, was fighting for a place in the medal round (semifinals), and she turned in a gold-worthy performance against retiring hausfrau Kim Clijsters, an unseeded quarterfinalist from Belgium.

The No. 3 seed, Sharapova looked terrific. Clijsters had a banner day at the service notch, converting 76 percent of her first serves, yet Sharapova shoved many of them right back down her throat (you can read my Racquet Reaction to the match elsewhere), thanks to the shot that's been the catalytic ingredient in what is shaping up as Sharapova's career year — her service return. 

Clijsters, a part-timer for various reasons including injury, is still dangerous. But I don't think she's had enough recent experience against seasoned, dedicated professionals like Sharapova. While many of the points were exciting, Sharapova blew out Clijsters in the first set and cut through her life a knife through butter at crunch time in the second set. Sharapova was nice enough to give her post-match interview in perfect English, without a trace of Russian accent. 

ThumbsdownI understand that living up to expectations when you've won Wimbledon at age 21, but Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic is developing into a disappointingly erratic  — and to her fans, maddening — player. She had a great opportunity to make the medal round at the Olympics and had a surprisingly kind draw all the way to the quarterfinals and her match today with Maria Kirilenko.

All credit to Kirilenko, but didn't you also expect more out of the slumping Kivtova and this manageable draw she was given? At the start of the year, she was a few swings of the racquet from becoming the new No. 1. Instead Victoria Azarenka of Belarus grabbed the honor. Kivitova has had some decent results since then (remember, in tennis you're graded on a curve) but more ghastly ones. She should wait until she's at least as experienced, and has been through as much (good and bad) as Li Na of China before she emulates her.

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Around the Olympics: Day 5 08/01/2012 - 7:24 PM

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by Pete Bodo

It occurred to me about halfway through the schedule at Wimbledon today that if this were to be one of those familiar, topsy-turvy events of Olympiads past, this would have to be the day of the bloodbath. And for a while there, it looked like it might be. Early on, high seeds Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Maria Sharapova were all down a set.

But by the time what dust could be beaten out of those verdant lawns had settled, it was clear that for the second Olympic tennis games in a row, the tournament will be more rather than less like a Grand Slam tournament, which are traditionally the domain of the top players. In fact, because of the crapshoot, best-of-three-set format used in the men's draw, there have been even fewer upsets that we had a right to expect.

So it's official. The male contenders no longer seem as susceptible to gold-medal fever, that terrible affliction that ends up with a Marc Rosset or Nicolas Massu standing on the highest block on the medal podium (the women, by contrast, have always been immune to the affliction, perhaps because they play best-of-three sets all the time). As I write this, the quarterfinals are set and no player in the men's draw would be considered a party crasher.

Among the women, the only unseeded player in the quarters is Kim Clijsters—and she's a former no. 1 and multiple Grand Slam champion. The lowest seed in the quarters is Maria Kirilenko, No. 14. It will take dust-ups of epic proportions to produce surprise medalists from this point on. Today was, unofficially, over-the-hump day, and the Appollonian forces won the day from the Dionysian (Google that one!). So let's pass out our awards:

ThumbsupNot to be outdone by the antics of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic, Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares of Brazil won their doubles match against Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic in three sets—24-22 in the third. That's just two games shy of the third-set score Tsonga and Raonic put up yesterday in singles play, but still a record for most games in an Olympic doubles match.

Now here's the even more notable thing: While unseeded, Melo and Soares have taken two significant scalps already in these Games, with wins over the fifth-seeded Czechs and also over the potentially formidable (and unbreakable) pick-up pairing of the USA's Andy Roddick and John Isner

Melo is ranked No. 24 in doubles and has won nine doubles titles in his career. His preferred doubles partners appear to be Croatians—Ivan Dodig, or Marin Cilic (when available)—perhaps because his own size is neither S, M, L, or even XL; it's "C" for "Croatian." Melo stands 6-foot-8.

Soares, ranked No. 26is just 5-foot-11. He's won six titles in his career, and has one championship this year (Sao Paulo), with his regular partner, Eric Butorac. The pair gets No. 2 seeds Tsonga and Michael Llodra of France next. 

ThumbsupAngelique Kerber of Germany, the No. 7 seed, put an end to Venus Williams' run. Despite being 32 years old, the Ameircan put together formidable back-to-back performances in her first two rounds, losing a total of just eight games in that brace of matches (four in each). Venus is a triple gold medalist—one in singles (Sydney, 2000) and two in doubles (both w/sister Serena Williams, at Sydney and Beijing, 2008).

It was a gritty performance against an Olympic Games icon by Kerber. There's been a lot of buzz about Venus at the games, and when she arrived at set point in the 10th game of the first set, it seemed Kerber might back off just enough to let Venus sneak by—which is just what she did in her semifinal against Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon. But Kerber, seeded and ranked No. 7, fended off three set points in that critical game, and battled back from a 1-5 deficit in the first-set tiebreaker to keep Venus from taking control of the match. Kerber went on to win it by the symmetrical scores of 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5). 

Stat of the match: Venus, who had been serving bullets, threw in seven double faults—three of them in the tiebreakers. 

ThumbsdownStanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland never got his mojo going at these Olympic Games, and as a result, he and Roger Federer are out of the doubles. The defending gold medalists and No. 6 seeds, they lost today to Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram of Israel, 1-6, 7-6, 6-3. As has been true so often in the past, Wawrinka once again looked really tight, and played within himself—and not in a good way.

John McEnroe's regular doubles partner, Peter Fleming, was once asked to say who he thought was the best doubles team of all time. He replied, "John McEnroe and anybody." I'm not sure Wawrinka would make that list of McEnroe partners. I know that playing with Federer brings along a certain amount of pressure, but it's also a privilege.

At some point you have to get used to the honor, and maybe even pull more than your share of weight from time to time, inspired by how much your partner brings to the table on a daily basis. Given that this is Federer we're talking about, I imagine that those expectations of his amount to: Just don't anything too stupid, like show up drunk or punch a linesman; I'll take care of the rest. 

Turns out that Wawrinka just isn't able to wear those big boy pants comfortably, but rest assured that die-hard Federer fans will see the conspicuous silver lining in this disappointment. Federer now is free to focus exclusively on the singles draw, where he's slated to play the ace-machine Isner for a place in the semis. But maybe Federer and Martina Hingis should have continued to bat around that idea of playing mixed doubles together.

ThumbsupAndy Murray of Great Britain was one of the high seeds who lost a first set today, but he pulled it out against Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, ending the match with a beautifully and savagely struck cross-court forehand winner. The final score was 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. This was a big win for the third-seeded Scot, and you could see it by how he exploded with joy the moment his last shot landed. Murray has struggled with Baghdatis (the head-to-head going in favored Murray by only 4-3), who served for the third set after splitting the first two with Murray in their most recent previous encounter—on the same Centre Court at the most recent Wimbledon.

I'm thinking that one reason for Murray's great form so far this tournament is that while he's playing at Wimbledon, it's not. . . Wimbledon. You know what I mean. All the other news and hubbub of the Olympic Games must take some pressure off, and Murray is a guy who already handles pressure very well (at least in London). This entire week I haven't heard a single pundit or talking head mention that no British man has won at Wimbledon in more than 75 years. Not only will this make it easier for Murray to play his best here, a win would also take off a lot of the pressure he faces at Wimbledon time every year and could improve his chances to win his home Grand Slam.

ThumbsupMaria Sharapova of Bradenton—oops, Russia—extended her unbeaten streak in three-set matches in 2011 to eight (and she's lost just once in her last 23 matches that went the distance) with a high quality, come-from-behind win over No. 15 seed Sabine Lisicki of Germany, 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-3. Bear in mind that Lisicki routed Sharapova in straight sets just weeks ago at the same venue, during Wimbledon.

This was another up-and-down affair in which both women had plenty of chances, but in the end Sharapova was just that much more determined. Yesterday, I took some flak for criticizing Sharapova's aggressive Russian patriotism, but I can't say a negative thing about her fighting spirit. She won the match despite making eight more unforced errrors because she hit more than twice as many winners (44-20). As is often the case, victory went to the bolder player.

ThumbsupJohn Isner of the USA is finally playing "big man tennis," which his coach Craig Boynton and numerous other pundits and insiders insist is his one and only ticket to victory. As Boynton has said to Isner, "If you find yourself in a rally going for longer than six or eight shots, just catch the ball and throw it in the swimming pool, because you're not going to win that point." Who said tennis isn't rocket science?

Anyway, Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia is the kind of fleet, rangy, clever player who can counterpunch with force and authority—unless you can keep points from developing into a game of chess. That's the essence of big-man tennis. Crack the serve, go for the winner, or hit aggressively enough to force an error in the first two or three exchanges. You can play big-man tennis even if you're not big (Isner himself is 6-foot-9); if you're under 6-foot-4 they're just prone to calling it "first-strike" tennis.

Isner hit 22 aces in his 7-5, 7-6 (14) win, including 22 in the tiebreaker, which ended with perfect symbolism when Tipsarevic, hard-pressed to keep pace with his opponent's serve proficiency, threw in a match ending double-fault. Also, Isner had one break point, Tipsarevic none. And Isner won the contest of winners, 37 to 22, while keeping it close in unforced errors (Isner had 12, Tipsarevic, 10). Oh, and Isner put up an 82 percent first-serve conversion percentage, which overshadowed Tipsarevic's excellent 75 percent.

All in all, it was a match for the Big Man Tennis Hall of Fame.

Now, for my Thursday upset specials:

Men: I'm going with Tsonga over Djokovic, ho's lost a set in two of his three matches so far. Having survived that epic singles match with Raonic (and today's tricky bounce-back against Feliciano Lopez), I think he has the chops to medal here, as well as the ability to impose his big game on the favorite.

Women: I've been impressed with Kerber's game since I took a few close looks at it at Wimbledon, and believe she has the game—and confidence—to take down top-seeded Azarenka. But the battle of former U.S. Open champions—Clijsters and Sharapova, also bears watching.

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