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Around the Olympics: Day 4 07/31/2012 - 9:02 PM

2012_07_31_bodoby Pete Bodo

For some reason, my index finger keeps wanting to type the letter s. . .s . . s. . ., over and over.

Lots of interesting words begin with "s," including "serve," which for our purposes can be defined as: A shot used to start any given point in tennis that, when implemented on a grass court by two big galoots, can induce a mild state of dreamy hypnosis (in them, as well as in you), or in some cases lead to oddly obsessive, repetitive behaviour, such as hitting ace after or ace, or experiencing an irrepressible desire to keep typing the same letter.

The serve was much on minds at Wimbledon during the fourth day of the Olympic tennis competition; Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Sabine Lisicki, Venus Williams, Milos Raonic, and Maria Sharapova almost all used that stroke to good effect (Roddick was the exception, as we'll see), and mostly in an entertaining fashion (the exception to that claim was the Tsonga-Raonic match, where it was used by either man to too good effect, and turned their match from entertaining into yawn-inducing).

Admit it. By 15-all in the third set, watching was a little like listening to a faucet drip in the dead of night. The only reason to continue watching was because you wanted to see it end, one way or the other. Then, when it did, you probably shrugged and thought: I can't believe I just spent four hours watching this. . . 

But that's what can happen when you pit two masters of the serve against each other on grass; it invites a disaster known in tennis as a final-set standoff with no tiebreaker guaranteeing that it will end any time before night falls. And even then, it will just be suspended until daybreak, or shortly thereafter. Just ask John Isner or Nicolas Mahut. Enough about that, though. Let's present our thumbs ups—and downs:

ThumbsupJo-Wilfried Tsonga of France survived the longest set ever played in Olympic tennis when he finally converted match point to subdue Canada's Milos Raonic, 6-3, 3-6, 25-23, in a match that lasted nearly four hours. Unfortunately (or not) John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have assured that there will be no monkeying around with the longest-this or the most-that for at least the present millenium.

The thing that got to me in the Tsonga-Raonic rock fight was the paucity of break points, especially in that third set. Raonic had seven break points early on (but converted just one, in the second set), then didn't see another one until the 23rd game of the third set, with Tsonga serving at 11-11. 

Even more startling, Tsonga didn't get his second break point of the match until his first match point— at 16-15 in the third set. Tsonga never even got to touch the ball at that juncture, because Raonic dispatched the danger point with an ace. Tsonga would have to wait another 11 games before he saw another of those, and failed to convert that one as well thanks to a service winner by Raonic.

By that time, though, it was becoming clear that Tsonga was reversing the tide; Raonic had held serve with greater ease early in the third set, but as the games wore on, Tsonga began to make deeper and deeper inroads into Raonic's service games. Forehand, backhands, volleys? Fergedddaboutit! It was all about the serve, and that actually overshadowed how well both men hit the ball—at least when they were able to get a racquet on it.

Credit the big man of the thumb dance with surviving this one for an additional reason. In the past, Tsonga had tendency to fade when leaned on, especially at Grand Slam events. He's been chipping away at the lingering notion that he's not just big and strong, but also, well, a little soft. . . at least when it comes to that highest level of challenge, when things get really tense and grueling. This match, along with that five-set semifinal Tsonga played against Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros, will go a long way toward discrediting that rap. 

ThumbsupI suppose you could have written off Venus Williams' win over Sara Errani of Italy (she was the No. 9 seed) in the first round as the result of a remarkably unfavorable match-up for the 5-foot-4 Italian, the recent French Open finalist. But it's also true that 6-foot-1 American has been nowhere near a Grand Slam final since 2010, when she was a losing semifinalist at the U.S. Open. And you know tennis; it's a "what have you done for me lately" kind of sport.

It turns out that Venus' win might have been prophetic—as well as the shot fired across the bow of her rivals by one of the greatest grass-court players of this or any other era. The five-time Wimbledon champ backed up her deconstruction of Errani with an equally convincing beatdown of a not equally decorated opponent, Alexsandra Wozniak. Williams pounded the Canadian, 6-1, 6-3, but faces a fate that can only be unfair. Her reward, if she gets by No. 7 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany—a very big ask, given that Kerber was a Wimbledon semifinalist and has clubbed opponents here—would likely be yet another of those all-Williams match-ups that nobody really wants to see, unless he or she has an obscene interest in fratricide.

ThumbsdownThe ITF and IOC get this big fat digit, for insisting on playing deuce sets instead of tiebreakers in decisive third or fifth sets. I'm not sure I'd ever hear myself saying this, but the Tsonga-Raonic match has convinced me of that. And it's not for the obvious reason—that they take too much time. It's because as much as it hurts to lose a marathon match, the player who really gets punished in most formats is the winner. They simply don't allow sufficient time for recovery.

Tsonga, the No. 5 seed, doesn't even get a day off tomorrow (see below) and he's also in the doubles, seeded No. 2 with his partner, Michael Llodra. Their match today was postponed for obvious reasons, and now they'll have to play it after Tsonga finishes his singles, where the Frenchman plays Feliciano Lopez for a place in the quarterfinals.

Tsonga will feel this Raonic match in his legs, even though he seemed surprisingly strong and characteristically jovial after his win. And in truth, a match lasting 3:57 would barely raise an eyebrow at Wimbledon or Roland Garros. But he gets a day off after every match at those venues, and doesn't at the Games. Given the tightness of the Olympics schedule, I think it's almost irresponsible to cling to an increasingly inappropriate format. 

ThumbsupSometimes, the best antidote to a real or perceived loss of form is a unusually tough match fairly early in a tournament. It can bring a player's motivation into sharp focus, and provide a natural gauge of the struggling player's real determination and desire—or lack thereof. In that sense, Novak Djokovic of Serbia couldn't have asked for a better opponent despite the obvious dangers inherent in meeting a second-round pairing with a former No. 1 and Grand Slam champ, Andy Roddick.

Fans of Roddick, mindful that a surprisingly muted version of Djokovic lost in the Wimbledon semis to Roger Federer and bought himself a pack of trouble in his first-round Olympics match, dared to hope. Djokovic has won just two tournaments this year (one of them the Australian Open, a Grand Slam), while at this time last year he'd triumphed in eight. And that 5-3 head-to-head advantage held by Roddick tempted wild thoughts, even if none of those matches were played in 2011 or later. Didn't best-of-three give Roddick an advantage, and wasn't he coming in with wins in title wins in two of his last three tournaments? Listening to that, you could almost convince yourself that it was Djokovic, not Roddick, who was the underdog.

ThumbsupThe other day, I struggled with the idea awarding a thumbs up to Sabine Lisicki of Germany, who survived a real scare against Tunisia's Ons Jabeur—a 17-year-old whose world ranking is a modest No. 279, but whose talent is sufficiently renowned to have earned to her an ITF wild card into the Olympics. That was a tough proposition for Lisicki, the No. 15 seed, and she was nervous enough to allow the first set to slip away, and to go to 7-5 to finally win it in the third.

Today, Lisicki faced a more formidable opponent in Kazakhstan's Yaroslava Shvedova, the "golden set" girl of Wimbledon. The women split sets, and the match was halted by the rain at 3-2 in the third. After the resumption, Shvedova asserted control and had a match point with Lisicki serving at 4-5. But Lisicki saved her day, then held, broke Shvedova, and served out the match.

You know how dangerous back-from-the-dead players at any tournament can be. Lisicki's next match is against Maria Sharapova—whom Lisicki tagged in the fourth round of Wimbledon, 6-4, 6-3.

ThumbsupIt looks like I pulled the trigger a little too quickly yesterday, awarding Australia's Lleyton Hewitt a thumbs up following his first-round win over Sergiy Stakhovsky of the Ukraine, an ITF wild card. Today, the 31-year-old, 5-foot-11 Aussie tore down the meathouse of Marin Cilic, the 23-year old, 6-foot-6 Croatian who's been playing as well in recent weeks as almost anyone on the ATP tour, consequently rising back up to No. 14 from a recent low of No. 32 (almost exactly one year ago). Hewitt won in straight sets, 6-4, 7-5, and the prize for the big win is a date with Djokovic in the next round. As long as Hewitt keeps winning, I'll keep giving him thumbs up.

ThumbsdownIt's funny how ambivalent I feel about Maria Sharapova, at intervals. I like her snarky sense of humor (a high point: a reporter once mentioned that he was reading the same book as Maria, to which she responded, absollutely deadpan, "Gee, maybe we should start a book club"), and she usually seems pretty genuine, or at least as much as you can expect from someone who is a "brand." And she has the realistic, slightly jaded attitude you often find those who, like her, have worked incredibly hard for the success they enjoy.

But I thought it was wrong—and transparently gamesmanlike—of Sharapova to take bathroom break immediately after Great Britain's Laura Robson broke back for 3-4 in the second set (Robson would not win another game, losing 7-6 (5), 6-3 (I am assuming the good Lord will forgive me if Sharapova really, really needed to pee at that moment).

I also get tired of hearing Sharapova, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., go on about how thrilled she is to represent her native Russia, which she needed to flee in order to develop her game to the satisfaction of her demanding father, Yuri. They accomplished their goal and god bless 'em, but with a great deal of help (not always paid for) from any number of Americans, starting with tennis coaches Robert Lansdorp and Nick Bollettieri.

I find Sharapova's attitude ungracious, and mind-numbingly so. I can only think that years ago Yuri somehow drilled into her little head the mythology and psychological reality of the "Mother Russia" mentality, which makes Maria seem more like a deluded character out of a Tennessee Williams play than a formidable "brand" and money-making machine. That's just plain weird; too weird to be true. I guess the money, creature comforts, and other attractions of the U.S. are more appealing than a life spent drinking in the piney mountain air of the Urals, or bobbing around in a boat in the headwaters of the mighty Don—great as it is to represent Russia in the Olympics!

In any event, I'd also like to think I'd feel precisely the same way about an American kid who moved to Russia at a very early age because he wanted to become a hockey player and couldn't find anyone to stake him at home. Say he made it to the NHL, then chose to represent the USA in international competition and loved blabbing about it while rarely expressing appreciation for what Russian culture and his Slavic mentors and general experience did to advance his career. I'd say he was an ingrate.

Now, for my upset specials for tomorrow:

Men: In order to support the thoughts expressed at the top of this post, I'm going with Feliciano Lopez over No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Personally, I can't believe they scheduled this third-rounder as second match on after a women's battle on Court 18. I guess everyone has to play tomorrow. But I also say, beware Dennis Istomin, who plays Roger Federer on Court 1.

Women: Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, the No. 8 seed, probably will have her hands full with Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, who lost just three games in her second-round win over Alize Cornet (after Hantuchova ousted No. 10 seed Li Na in her opener). Strangely, I put the start of Wozniacki's ongoing decline to her failure to break through at a Grand Slam in 2011, after she'd already finished 2010 as Slamless No. 1. And the woman who took out Wozniacki in the third round at Roland Garros that year was Hantuchova.

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Around the Olympics: Day 3 07/30/2012 - 5:51 PM

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by Pete Bodo

The gods of thunder and lightning were kind to tennis today, and with so many matches on the schedule, the action was fast and furious, from the 11:30 start time until dusk settled over the heavily trodden courts. They scheduled 55 matches for Monday and they managed to get in 53 of them, including all the singles.

What kind of day was it? Well, Roger Federer was second on Centre Court (he blitzed Julien Benneteau, 6-2, 6-2), and was one of the last four players still gamboling on the greensward at last light, as he and fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka began their defense of their doubles gold medal with a few hiccups before they finished off surprisingly truculent Kei Nishikori and Go Soeda of Japan.

Team USA had a shaky start in London on Saturday, with Ryan Harrison and Christina McHale out of the event almost before it began. Today, though, their teammates stepped up (or, in the case of Serena Williams and John Isner, continued to be a force) and put those nerve-wracking first-rounders out of the way. The USA was 6-0 on the day, but in keeping with the spirit of my thumbs up/thumbs down approach, I feel obliged to whittle down the list of eligibles and award just one "thumb up."

Isner and Andy Roddick both were distinct favorites today and performed no particular heroics in their wins, so that leaves them out. Varvara Lepchenko, another American singles winner (a native of Uzbekistan, she's become a U.S. citizen and is thrilled to represent the nation that adopted her) was also a favorite, given that she's ranked No. 40 and her opponent was the gifted but still callow 20-year-old from Paraguay, ITF wild card Veronica Cepede Royg. Lepchenko won the two-hour and 34-minute war (held over two days), 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-2. Note: Lepchenko is in the soft, bottom quarter of the draw and is facing a terrific opportunity. But let's face it, the top honor has to go to the woman who has won five singles titles on these same Wimbledon courts.

ThumbsupVenus Williams fans must have groaned when she drew Sara Errani of Italy, the No. 9 seed in these Olympic Games, as her first-round opponent. Although Errani prefers clay to grass, she did go three rounds at Wimbledon before being by Yaroslava Shvedova. More to the point, Errani was the losing French Open finalist in early June, has rocketed up to No. 9, and at age 25 is in the prime of her career—a seasoned, crafty, mobile counter-puncher who won't beat herself.

By contrast, 32-year-old Venus has a game that has always relied heavily on the explosiveness and athleticism we ordinarily associate with youth; she's also been fighting a bitter battle with the auto-immune disease, Sjogren's Syndrome, and has played just six tournaments in 2012, yielding a modest 12-6 match record.

The only distinct advantage Venus appeared to have going in was height: She is 6-foot-1; her opponent all of 5-foot-4-and-a-half (as the media guide informs us). Venus was a real tower of power today; she hit 32 winners (to 10 by Errani) but made only 11 more unforced errors than the Italian (16). And that signature Williams serve (a family trait) was a factor in the match; when you're 32, anything you can do more or less standing still is a gift. I've been working really hard on my serve," Venus said. "I really haven't had my serve where I wanted it this year. But I definitely worked a lot on it, so that way it would be a real weapon for me, which is what I'm used to."

This was a convincing win that has transformed Venus from an enormous question mark into a gold medal contender.

ThumbsupBelgium's Steve Darcis backed up his first-round upset of No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic with bitterly earned win over Santiago Giraldo of Colombia, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-4. The tough assignment for any player who records a major upset is backing it up for at least one more round. You can ask any number of players who fired shots heard round the world at major tournaments, including Lukas Rosol. You remember how he batted Rafael Nadal out of Wimbledon, only to lose in straight sets the very next (third) round to Philipp Kohlschreiber. The situation is aggravated when the big upset occurs in the first round, when everybody is a little more prone to the jitters; knock off a top seed in round one and lose your next match and everybody shrugs and thinks, "fluke."

ThumbsdownAnyone else growing tired of waiting for Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, the latest "Baby Federer" (France's Richard Gasquet being the original), to grow up and demonstrate that he respects his talent enough to put it to good use? Granted, France's Gilles Simon is the No. 12 seed at these Games, but how do you surrender so meekly to a counter-puncher so completely in one hour, 6-3, 6-3? It's not like Simon played out of his mind, either. He hit the same number of errors as winners (14) while Dimitrov made 24 errors, 10 more than his winner count. But the stats aren't that relevant. Dimitrov, who's ranked No. 53 and is still just 21, appears to be pressing Bernard Tomic—hard—in the wasted talent department.

ThumbsupIt's been a hard couple of days for Australia. No. 5 seed Sam Stosur was beaten in the first round by diminutive Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro. Almost immediately thereafter, Stosur—once known more for her doubles than singles game—and her partner Casey Dellacqua were stomped by yet two other Spaniards, Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, winning just one game in each set of a laughter. Their teammates, Jarmila Gajdosova and Anastasia Rodionova, went down swinging in doubles as well.,"Zero from three is a bit of a disaster isn't it?," offered Stosur. Perhaps she was trying to be polite—or kind—when she refrained from citing Tomic's 7-6 (6), 7-6 (6) loss as well. 

The Aussies had nobody left by the end of the first day but 31-year-old, No. 159 ranked, Lleyton Hewitt. And today he justified the wild card awarded to him. Forget the stats, Hewitt beat Sergiy Stakhovsky of the Ukraine, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, because he's got a heart that's probably bigger than a basketball, and because there's absolutely no back-up in him. Giant thumb for Li'l Lleyton, the Platonic realization of the "Aussie battler."  

ThumbsupEver since Nadal pulled out of the Olympics, I've had this sneaky feeling about Feliciano Lopez—the replacement for Nadal, and a guy who probably was deeply bummed out when he didn't make it into the draw despite a No. 17 ranking, due to the bedeviling limit of four players per nation.

You can't find a more convincing reason to criticize the ITF's quota system—for that's exactly what it is—than the four-person limit in a sport that is famous for being a strict, individualistic meritocracy. To add insult to injury, Lopez is a left-hander who enjoys hitting the approach shot and volley, both excellent qualities on grass courts. And at age 29, Lopez is unlikely to qualify for the next Olympic Games.

Playing his first-round match today, Lopez outlasted Russia's Dmitry Tursunov, 9-7 in a two-hour and 16-minute battle in which the Spaniard Lopez hit 47 winners, almost twice as many as his opponent. Okay, F-Lo has struggled in his most recent tournaments (especially after he was learned of his Olympic fate—mere coincidence?), but this is the kind of thing that can really boost a player's confidence. I don't know which is more dangerous—a guy with something to prove, or one playing with house money. In either event, watch out for Lopez.

Did I mention that, later in the day, Lopez and David Ferrer dispatched the Austrian doubles team of Jurgen Melzer and Alexander Peya?

ThumbsdownYoung David Goffin of Belgium won lots of hearts at the French Open with his run from qualifying to the fourth round, where he lost to Federer. He backed up that performance at Wimbledon, where he took down lazy prodigy Tomic and the USA's Jesse Levine before he lost to talented grass-court veteran Mardy Fish. The 21-year old—who doesn't look a day older than 17 and stands under six-feet tall—might have done some damage in the Olympics, but he was blown out today by Argentina's Juan Monaco, 6-4, 6-1.

Okay, Monaco is the No. 9 seed, he's won three titles this year, and is now officially in the Top 10. But he's a clay-court expert. . . or is he? He's 28, but never won a match at Wimbledon in his first four trips. But this year he finally cracked the code and won two over decent players: Leonardo Mayer and Jeremy Chardy. Still. . . the most telling stats today were Monaco's edge in winners (15-11) as well as at the net. Monaco won nine of his 11 approaches (the task is made easier when you come in behind big approach shots), while Goffin advanced just one time more and won just seven of his approaches.

ThumbsupBrunstrom and Lindstedt may sound like a Swedish law firm, and what they did to the No. 8 seeds in the men's doubles was certainly legal, if painful for the beaten duo from Serbia, Novak Djokovic and Victor Troicki. Johan Brunstrom, the pride of Fiskebackskil, Sweden, is ranked No. 72 in doubles; the only time he's played with Robert Lindstedt this year was in Davis Cup. That may be because with a doubles ranking of No. 10, Lindstedt is in great demand as a partner. 

Despite a relative lack of familiarity with each other's games, the Swedes went right at Djokovic and Troicki, taking the game to the Serbs and dominating the field of play—as evidenced by the edge in the volley winners department, 13-2. The big question, of course, is just how much effort Djokovic felt obliged to put in, or how much desire he was able to muster, given that he's pre-occupied with singles, struggled in his first round (he needed three sets to beat Fabio Fognini) but must face a rejuvenated Andy Roddick in his next outing.

ThumbsupIt's bad enough that I somehow picked up a Feliciano Lopez vibe. The other name that keeps poking up out of the draw for me is that of Dennis Istomin of Uzbekistan (although he lives in Moscow). He's just 22, but a ruggedly built 6-foot-2 with a ranking of No. 35. He's always struck me as just one of those really good players who easily falls between the cracks, partly because he comes from a far-flung outpost of the game.

Today, Istomin subdued Gilles Muller, Luxembourg's only player in either singles draw, in a rough-and-tumble affair, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (3), 7-5. Istomin approached the net successfully 23 of 29 times and he smacked 12 aces and 39 winners. Clearly, he's not afraid to pull the trigger. All these details and stats take on a greater significance when you understand that the next man in his road is Roger Federer.

Let's wrap it up for today with a new feature; an upset special that we'll choose each day in both draws:

Men: If you're Andy Roddick, it may not be such a bad deal to get Novak Djokovic in the second round. Twenty-nine years old now, and sufficiently slowed to have fallen to No. 21, Roddicks' ability to get to the big dogs this year has been a bigger problem than how he reacts when he finds himself face-to-face with one—as he showed when he upset Federer in Miami. 

Some of you will be surprised to read that Roddick holds a 5-3 edge in the head-to-head with Djokovic, but bear in mind that they haven't played since 2010. No matter. Roddick must be happy that he doesn't have to worry about losing to an Edouard Roger-Vasselin or Xavier Malisse at the Olympics (both have beaten Roddick this year) before he can get to the kind of match that can bring out the best in him.

Roddick must feel plenty of pressure round-by-round these days, but he has no reason to feel any against Djokovic. That could be a powerful weapon against an opponent who has shown signs of unease and a tendency to get distracted and lose control of his game with stubborn and surprising frequency lately. 

Women: Heather Watson of Great Britain meets Russia's Maria Kirilenko in a second-rounder tomorrow. I never quite understood Kirilenko's game; I'd watch it and turn away some time later with no impression whatsoever. But that's neither her nor there. Watson is a British girl, so you know she's pumped sky high, and she's coming off a good little run at Wimbledon, where she lost in the third round to runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska.

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Around the Olympics: Day 2 07/29/2012 - 7:36 PM

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by Pete Bodo

It was a classic Grand Slam-style moment, available only to television viewers but memorable nonetheless. Out on Centre Court at the All England Club, in a first-round Olympics match, Brazil's Thomaz Bellucci was giving as good as he got in a rally of warp-speed ground strokes with No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Bellucci felt a visible surge of elation as the linesman confirmed that a prodigious backhand by the Frenchman Tsonga had flown just long.

Game and first set to Mr. Bellucci, seven games to six.

Moments later, on Court No. 1, Fabio Fognini of Italy, ahead 8-7 in the first-set tiebreaker suspended due to rain hours earlier (at 7-all!) drew a bead on No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic's service return and did what he had failed at when he had a set point earlier in the match—he stepped in and attacked the ball with conviction, driving a backhand winner down the line to salt away the set just like Bellucci had done. 

It briefly looked like we might experience firsthand how different best-of-three set tennis can be from the familiar best-of-five drill we see during Wimbledon, but that wasn't in the soggy cards today. Both favorites roared back to win (see below).

Some of you may have had the same feeling I did when I looked at the draws and schedule yesterday morning. I felt, well, overwhelmed, especially when I took into account the doubles. The singles draw may be 64 for both men and women (creating an already tight schedule for a nine-day event), but this is the Olympics. The medals they give out for doubles have the same value and prestige as any other in the Games, and they count just as much in the record book and medal standings.

I realized a few hours in yesterday that I didn't fully appreciate how quickly best-of-three matches can fly by, even ones that go the distance, but clearly Wimbledon and ITF officials did. But one thing they can't be predicted as accurately is the weather. And the rain today was as threatening as it was irritating.

Sure, the Centre Court has a roof; unfortunately, that only guarantees that the tournament will finish on time if the rainouts occur late in the tournament (as was the case a few weeks ago at Wimbledon). It's a little different during the Grand Slam event in London, where the 13 day schedule and the overwhelming priority on singles allows for a lot of flexibility—and therefore a lot of rain. But at the Olympics, where doubles counts for so much, the tournament will really suffer if we get significant washouts in the next two or three days. The schedule today called for 48 matches; only 12 were completed.

And here's a wild-card factor: Because of the state of the courts after Wimbledon, only 12 courts were to be used for the Olympic event (one prominent exclusion: The very cozy and pleasant Court 3 stadium). Would the referee decide to use some of the off-limits courts, even if they were somewhat chewed up, if the need were dire?

Okay, we'll burn that bridge when we come to it. And now for the distribution of our accolades and otherwise: 

ThumbsupGermany's Julia Goerges pulled off the biggest upset of the first two days when she survived a comeback by Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, seeded No. 2 and a Wimbledon finalist just weeks ago. The scores were 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-4. It was the second straight day that a recent Wimbledon runner-up was beaten (on opening day, it was Tomas Berdych, the losing finalist in 2010, who went down in flames), which suggests that Maria Sharapova, Vera Zvonareva, and Andy Roddick had better watch their backs.

Radwanska is a significant scalp to take because it isn't often that she beats herself, while Goerges is the opposite—somewhat prone to emotional ups and downs, and a forehand that sometimes has a mind of its own. If you saw the way Radwanska bolted out to a 6-2 lead in the second-set tiebreaker or how, after seizing the momentum by winning the set, she broke Goerges for 1-2 in the third, you might have been convinced that Goerges had merely set off a false alarm. Not so.

Regaining her composure—as well as the range on her serve and forehand—Goerges broke back for 3-all and went on to break Radwanska in the 10th and final game of the third set with a terrific inside-out forehand service return winner. The Serena-esque win by Goerges was built on 20 aces and a grand total of 56 winners—more than twice as many as Radwanska hit.

ThumbsupTsonga and Djokovic, as noted above, both escaped upsets at the hands of, respectively, Bellucci and Fognini, the latter seemingly arriving fresh off the set of the latest movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (Fognini playing Johnny Depp's long lost twin brother).

Okay, kidding. But in any event, Fognini played the first set in swashbuckling style in every sense of the world (he was dressed in Wimbledon-worthy whites that contrasted sharply with his keenly groomed, jet black facial hair). But Djokovic helped Fognini with some uncharacteristically sloppy—or was it "nervous"?—play. He made 17 unforced errors in the first set, but then just six more over the last two sets of his 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-2 win.

It was an excellent fightback, but it also had to leave his fans feeling a little nervous because he seemed a little lackluster, a little too within himself, just as he had in the Wimbledon semifinal with Roger Federer. Fognini was 1-16 against Top 10 opposition (he recorded his lone win at Wimbledon two years ago, against Fernando Verdasco), so it's pretty clear that Djokovic is likely to meet more dangerous and threatening competition in the coming rounds.

Tsonga's come-from-behind win saw him in greater danger for a longer time. Bellucci, a mercurial, gifted left-hander, has been making strikes in the mental department lately. He went deep in two clay-court tournament just before the Olympics, losing in the semis of Stuttgart to Janko Tipsarevic and exacting vengeance the following week over the same rival in the final of Gstaad. Pundits galore have been waiting to see if Bellucci would ever get his head together, could it happen at the Olympics?

Bellucci and Tsonga were both in fire in the first set; both had a first-serve conversion rate above 70 percent and neither lost a point on his second serve. It was an old-fashioned grass-court shootout, and Bellucci struck the first significant blow when he bounced back from a mini-break that made it 1-2 in the first-set tiebreaker to even it up at 3-all. There were no more mini-breaks until the final point (described at the top of this story).

By then, it was clear that Tsonga was having trouble with his footing; he was slipping, sliding and tumbling left and right. He changed his shoes for the second set, which solved some of his footing problems enough so to make him confident. The match remained competitive and entertaining. Bellucci demonstrated once again that he has the ability to reel off winners, but also that he's more apt to do it when he's just trying to stay in the rear view mirror of his opponent. "He's a lefty, he's tall, and he's really impressive," The No. 5 seed said of Bellucci, after he put up his 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4 win. "You think he will kill the ball but he has a very nice touch as well."

Bellucci is improving, but he still has a long way to go to fulfill his potential.

ThumbsdownYou have to feel for Bernard Tomic of Australia, who lost to Japan's Kei Nishikori in a pair of identical, 7-4 tiebreaker sets. Just 19, Tomic had a breakout year at Wimbledon in 2011 (he qualified and even got a set off Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals—Tomic's eighth match of the tournament). But he's now lost in the first round in his last six tournaments, and his ranking (No. 49) is likely to plummet. 

What's worse, Tomic was frankly and touchingly fired up about the Olympics, recently telling the AAP news agency, "You can't put into words what winning a gold medal would mean. I can only dream of it. (The Olympics) is like a fifth Grand Slam and something I always wanted to do better at than Grand Slams." 

Tomic also reckoned that lower-ranked players stood a better chance at the Olympics because of the best-of-three sets format. The handwriting was on the wall for this one at Wimbledon, where Tomic split sets with talented and diligent Belgian wild card—and ATP No. 70—David Goffin, only to take his foot off the gas and petulantly take a four-set loss.

Nobody has ever questioned Tomic's talent; what concerns were expressed have been about his competitive character and work ethic. He's young and still absorbing the harsh facts of tennis life—the first of which is that you must remain eternally vigilant and perpetually diligent.

ThumbsupIn the "at least this hasn't gone viral on YouTube" department, we have the racquet-smashing tantrum Ryan Harrison threw during his loss on Day 1 to Santiago Giraldo of Colombia. Harrrison would ordinarily have gotten a simple thumbs down yesterday (the incident escaped my attention until this morning) for making an ass of himself, because his actions reflect to some degree on the USA. But also because it wasn't like Harrison lost a third-set tiebreaker on a let-cord winner. He was waxed by a clay-courter, 7-5, 6-3.

However, today he gets a thumbs up for going on television during the long rain delay to apologize—sincerely and repeatedly (perhaps a little too much so, but you can hardly fault him for that)—during a chat with Olympics tennis host Pat O'Brien.

I thought Harrison's enthusiasm for making amends showed just how awful he felt about his meltdown, and his inability to control a temper that caused him to yell at ballboys and, ultimately, smash up his racquet. He seemed on the verge of tears at times during the interview, and while I make no apologies for the incident it also shows just how tense and tighly-wound Harrison was as a first-time Olympian. He's just 20, after all. Perhaps he and Tomic ought to go out together for a milkshake or a cherry Coke and commiserate.

ThumbsdownI can't stand it when commentators and/or cameramen go ga-ga over celebrities who attend tennis matches, especially when they're more likely to be, say, Desperate Housewives than "First Woman in Orbit" types. Did I really need to see 30 shots of Chris Evert's former spouse, (golfer) Greg Norman, today?

But at least Norman, like Caroline Wozniacki's squeeze Rory McIlroy, is an accomplished athlete of sorts (if a golfer can be so described). But why the big deal over Chelsea Handler, who showed up to watch Maria Sharapova's match?  It was bad enough that it rendered some of the Bravo broadcast team awestruck (so I would learn; my own TV was muted at the time, so I missed the fuss). What was worse, I thought, was that Rennae Stubbs took up valuable time during the already brief on-court interview to ask Sharapova about it—by which time my sound was on again.

"You had a special guest in the player box today," Stubbs said, coyly.

Sharapova then explained who she'd gotten an email from "Chelsea" late the previous night; she was looking for tickets, and Maria replied, "Do you know how tough it is to get. . . Yadda-yadda-yadda" as if she didn't get a handful of guest-box passes to every match. 

Apparently, Handler is "just Chelsea" to these folks, because that's how Stubbs also identified her, as a result of which and I ended up wasting 10 minutes of my precious life in a panic, Googling "Chelsea and Clinton and Maria Sharapova" to learn the identity of this mystery guest. I almost had a Ryan Harrison moment when I found out that Handler's a late night talking head, most famous (tennis-wise) for daring to ask Sharapova if she's a "b*tch."

Sharapova confirmed in that interview that she is, for those of you who were wondering. 

ThumbsdownPhilipp Kohlschreiber of Germany will crack the Top 20 for the first time in his career when the rankings come out on Monday, but he's paid a heavy price for playing in Kitzbuhel, Austria, this past week on red clay (losing in final to Robin Haase). And so has the winner, who's from the Netherlands. They are the only men from their respective nations in the Olympic men's singles draw.

Haase and Kohlschreiber were both due to fly to London tonight, with Haase set to play France's Richard Gasquet in his first-round match tomorrow, while Kohlschreiber was meant to face off against Blaz Kavcic—who's ranked in the 70s and needed an ITF wild card to get into the draw. Kohlschreiber, however, pulled a hamstring in the Kitzbuhel final, or so the story goes, and abandoned his place in the draw. He was replaced by Vardhan Vishnu of India, who was on site as Leander Paes's doubles partner, and is ranked No. 302 in singles.

Time was, Germany could place the maximum four players in the Olympics field, including two Wimbledon champs (Boris Becker and Michael Stich). Now, there won't be a single German man in the entire 64-playerdraw. The only consolation is that the German women probably have the best chance to put more than one woman on the singles medal podium than at any time since the heyday of Steffi Graf and Anke Huber.

Call me crazy, but is it worth missing the Olympics to play Kitzbuhel?

We'll see you tomorrow. The schedule is loaded! 

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Around the Olympics: Day 1 07/28/2012 - 7:02 PM

2012_07_28_swby Pete Bodo

As the Olympic tennis event began today, the panaromic view of Wimbledon's field courts, with the stadium in the distance, reminded me of one of those old and to me always stupendously uninteresting prints of Victorian gentlemen and women at play at the country club. The courts seemed to stretch away forever, with scant few people scampering around on them, and clutches of idlers watching from the sidelines. I could almost visualize a lady with a parasol, sipping tea in the shade of an elm. 

In other words, it sure looked different from the crowded and energized Wimbledon most of us know. That the most striking difference, to me at least, was all that empty space and the thinness of the crowd—despite the flash mob that gathered on Henman Hill to perform some orchestrated dance moves while Tomas Berdych was getting whipped by Steve Darcis. That the mobsters were able to coordinate the dance was more impressive than the show itself.

My other impressions were that the purple bunting draped everywhere around Wimbledon (to identify the site and ongoing event as part of the London Olympic Games) took away, a lot, from the familiar, classy ambiance of Wimbledon. Or maybe I'm just mired in old habits and addicted to the familiar. I also felt that jettisoning the predominantly-white rule for this nine-day spell may demonstrate more than anything the value and wisdom of that fusty old dress code. I missed the elegance of white clothes against the warring shades of green (pale, lime green courts and dark, almost black windscreens and walls). I always felt that looked especially good in the overall Wimbledon color scheme.

So much for first reactions. Now let's get on with the wrap-up of Day 1. We decided to go with the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down approach we often take on our typical Around the World entries that run most Mondays. But over the course of the next few days, all the posts here will be like this one, simply because of the bewildering number of matches going, on at least through these early rounds of singles and doubles. I'm going to make observations and cherry-pick the results in posts that will appear no later than 7 p.m. most days. So let's get going:

ThumbsupSerbia's Ana Ivanovic has been through a lot in recent years (has there ever been a more "one step forward, two steps back" comeback than the one this diligent and pleasant pro has undertaken since her fall from grace in 2006?). Thus, the former French Open champ and one-time No. 1's first-round match against up-and-coming Christina McHale of the USA must have raised red flags all over the place. And when McHale battled back from 4-6, 3-5 in the second to break Ivanovic, it looked as if McHale's considerable competitive instincts might kick in and combine with Ivanovic's tendency to lose confidence to ensure a third set.

But after a pair of holds, Ivanovic played a crisp game to break McHale and win it, 6-4, 7-5. It was still early in the day at Wimbledon, but considerable air went out of the American balloon with this loss, because Ryan Harrrison had already kicked off the American singles effort with a poor performance. He lost to No. 43 Santiago Giraldo of Colombia—a clay-court expert who had never won a match at the All England Club, and had only won one Wimbledon qualifying match, at Roehampton, since 2007. Later in the day, Donald Young also folded, and rather meekly, losing to Andreas Seppi, 6-4, 6-4. 

ThumbsdownThere was much discussion leading up to the Olympics of Wimbledon's highly scientific and well thought-out and tested attempt to rehabilitate the grass courts that take such an annual beating during the Grand Slam tournament, which ended just about three weeks ago.

But watching Tomas Berdych, the No. 6 seed, slip and slide and fall on his butt in the course of his shocking 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 76 Steve Darcis of Belgium had to make you wonder if something about the new grass, or the rush to grow and make it suitable for play so quickly after it was planted and grown from pre-germinated seeds, wasn't awry. It sure looked a lot less stable than usual underfoot.

Granted, Berdych, from the Czech Repubic, is no Roger Federer when it comes to footwork and mobility. But Darcis had his own problems, and the sight of the soles of his shoes when he went over was telling—it looked like the soles of his tenneys were made from some green substance. This suggested that the grass was extremely lush, which translates to slick and damp. The impression was reinforced by the clever and productive use Darcis made of the sliced backhand; it was the shot that won him the match. Darcis adapted to the conditions better than did Berdych.

An elated Darcis said, touchingly: “It’s an amazing feeling. For me, it was the first time I had played on this amazing court [Centre Court]. When you’re young you watch Pete Sampras playing there and you think, 'maybe one day.' Today, it was my day.”

This was a terrible showing by Berdych, who also lost in the first round of Wimbledon to a comparably low-ranked player, No. 87 Ernests Gulbis. And others managed the conditions with better luck. Later, even seven-time Wimbledon champ and grass connoisseur Federer would admit, "It's a bit of a surprise, really, that the grass is so slippery." 

ThumbsupAfter the bleak start by the U.S. players, two thundering American guns helped salvage the day for the USA, as John Isner and Serena Williams both won singles matches—convincingly so. Isner swamped 5-foot-6 Olivier Rochus in a trademark performance, 7-6 (1), 6-4. Or "trademark" at those times when Isner is on top of his game—which hasn't been very often lately. If you remember, he lost an Isner-ish epic, 18-16 in the fifth set, to No. 261 Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round at Roland Garros, and he was bumped out of Wimbledon in the first round by Alejandro Falla. Isner left England a few weeks ago a hurt, confused and depressed young man.

Today, though, he again played positive "big man" tennis, taking care of his serve until it carried him to the first-set tiebreaker. Isner held the first point of the 'breaker, then hit a powerful forehand approach that forced a backhand error, and attacked behind his service return to force a backhand pass error to take a two mini-break, 3-0 lead that provided all the cushion he needed. After Isner rolled through the 'breaker 7-1, all the pressure was on Rochus to hold, but Isner found a way to get the critical break he needed to serve out the match. Isner has improved his record against players 5-foot-8 and shorter to 8-0. How stupid is that stat?

Serena took care of business with familiar dispatch in what loomed as a potentially tricky first-round against former No. 1 and current WTA drama queen Jelena Jankovic. That Jankovic was beaten by Serena in the only Grand Slam final she's played (U.S. Open, 2008) was one thing; that the two had never played before on grass quite something else. But Serena, perhaps inspired by the presence of her fist-bumping girlfriend, first lady Michelle Obama, played with savage authority to advance, 6-3, 6-1.

ThumbsdownIt was a bad day all around for Chinese Taipei, which lost both its players in round one. It may not have been a big deal in New York, Paris, or Melbourne, but bitter, politically obsessed fans in China and Chinese Taipei surely were riveted by the battle between Peng Shuai of the mainland, People's Republic of China and Su-Wei Hsieh of the democratic island republic, Taipei.

PicOn form, Peng was the favorite; she's ranked No. 29 while 's Hsieh is No. 55.  But partly because of the rivalry between the two nations, the women produced a real doozy. In the end Peng outlasted Hsieh, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-5. Peng had 20 break points in the match, and converted. . . five. (Hsieh, by contrast, was 2 of 4; twice as good as Peng's, but not good enough to prevent the win.)

The joy in China was short-lived, though, as the country's best hope, No. 10 seed and former French Open champion Li Na, was beaten by streaky Daniela Hantuchova

That still left Taipei's male contender, Yen Hsun Lu. He had drawn for an opponent one of the ITF's special exemption wild cards, Tunisia's Malek Jaziri. If you didn't know better—and I admit I didn't—you might have expected Lu to manhandle a fella who seemed to be there mostly because he was some sort of tennis pioneer in his African homeland. In point of fact, Lu was ranked just two places better than No. 70 Jaziri, so on paper the match was a pick 'em. Jaziri won it, 7-6 (10), 4-6, 6-3.

Thumbsup
I don't know if top-seeded Federer consulted with Isner in the locker room they share before the Swiss went out to play Falla. Maybe he just commiserated with him, because the Colombian—who dismissed Isner in the first round of Wimbledon this year—once put the fear of Jayzus in Federer at the same venue. Falla served for the match in the fourth set in a first-round Wimbledon match in 2010 after winning the first two sets.

Federer seemed well in control of today's match when he won the first set and rambled out to a 5-3 lead in the second. He reached triple match point with Falla serving in the next game, but Falla dismissed the promise of a swift ending. He wiped away all of them to hold, then broke Federer twice in succession. Suddenly, they were at a set apiece—and they would trade breaks in first four games of the next set. Clearly, it was anyone's match.

This might suggest that Federer was not his usual self (after all, his opponent is ranked No. 51, and the world No. 1 won Wimbledon just a few weeks ago), but the reality is that when that left-handed juju kicks in and Falla gets on a roll with his sometimes electric shotmaking and deadly counter-punching, anything can happen. Well, almost anything.

Today, as on that summer day two years ago, Federer found a way to stem the tide of Falla's skill and confidence. Playing with visible urgency, Federer broke Falla's serve at 3-all in the third, then held and ripped through his service again to break for the match, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.

In brief:

ThumbsupFrenchman Julien Benneteau scored a quality win over Russia's Mikhail Youzhny; sneaky good Dennis Istomin of Uzbekistan upset the Spanish No. 14 seed Fernando Verdasco; Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia recovered from his clay-court excellence to find his grass-court game and hog-tied the always dangerous Argentinian David Nalbandian

Overshadowed kid sister Urszula Radwanska of Poland counted coup on a tough German opponent, Mona Barthel; Alize Cornet of France justified her ITF wild card with an upset of Austria's Tamira Paszek; Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro went the distance to sew up a 10-8 in-the-third win over the unendingly disappointing No. 5 seed, Australian Sam Stosur; Petra Kvitova almost went the way of her countryman Berdych, but recovered to save a 6-4 in-the-third win over the Ukraine's Kateryna Bondarenko, and Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova rekindled that dangerous grass-court game to smother No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia.

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Five-Ring Circus 07/27/2012 - 11:16 AM

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by Pete Bodo

I could hear Boris Becker bellowing from three courts over, and I knew by the nature of his howlings that things were getting ugly out there. So I made my way over and elbowed through the crowd gathered around the red clay court, taking up every inch of viewing space, and saw enough of the scoreboard to make out that Becker was down two-sets-to-one and clinging to his competitive life in a third-set tiebreaker.

This was a first-round match at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Becker's opponent was a Norwegian ranked No. 312 and in the draw as a lucky loser, Christian Ruud. The underdog had a serviceable backhand and a good forehand, but those weren't really the things that had Becker, the No. 5 seed, bamboozled—alternately shrieking like a jungle bird and roaring like lion with a rotten molar. Becker's real problem was that this was the Olympics, and try as he—or anyone else—might, it just seemed. . . so different.

Becker would win that match, 6-3 in the fifth, and survive one more opponent before he capitulated in the third round to that master of tennis legerdemain, Fabrice Santoro. He wasn't the only high seed to fall victim to an unexpected, perverse manifestation of the "Olympic spirit," either. Top-seeded Jim Courier? A victim of Switzerland's Marc Rosset. No. 2 seed Stefan Edberg? Out in three sets in the first round to Russia's Andrei Chesnokov (Edberg got all of eight games). No. 3 seed Pete Sampras? Bounced in the third round by that other Russian Andrei, Cherkasov. I could go on, but you probably get my point.

The gold medalists in 1992 were Rosset and Jennifer Capriati. She was 16 years old, but gifted enough to beat perhaps the greatest woman player of all time, Steffi Graf, on the German's preferred surface (Capriati was at her best on hard courts). Then as in later years, the women's event unfolded more predictably, suggesting either that they have a stronger stomach when it comes to the stresses and challenges of Olympic competition than the men, or that there's something about the Olympics that enables those from the ATP to tolerate and promulgate upsets at a greater rate than at Grand Slam and Masters events. As I write this, 29 of the last 30 Grand Slam tournaments have been won be one of the vaunted "Big Three." But only one of them, Rafael Nadal, has also bagged a gold medal.

The Olympics conundrum is perhaps best summed up by the saga of Roger Federer. He first played in the Sydney Games in 2000. It would be the first year that he played each of the Grand Slam tournaments, and he embarked on the Olympics with an 0-2 career Grand Slam record. Unseeded, the not-yet-Mighty Fed slashed his way to the semifinals, where he was beaten down by another unseeded player, Tommy Haas. Federer had to play for the bronze, and he lost, giving his French opponent instant immortality as a trivia question as well as a bronze medal: Arnaud di Pasquale was his name.

By the next Olympic games, in Athens, Federer was already a three-time Grand Slam champion and on the cusp of entering his golden years. He was top-seeded in the event, but lost in the second round to Tomas Berdych, and the gold went to the Chilean No. 10 seed Nicolas Massu. In fact, two Chileans ended up on the podium to receive medals; Massu and the superior singles player to Fernando Gonzalez, who earned a bronze.

Beijing was next, and again Federer was the No. 1 seed. He had won eight of the previous 11 Grand Slams, but he had been rocked after his customary runner-up finish in Paris in by a seismic loss to Nadal at Wimbledon. It was an omen of sorts for the Beijing Games, for Federer was upset in the quarterfinals by James Blake, and had to console himself with a gold in doubles (w/Stanislas Wawrinka). 

An order of sorts seemed to emerge at those Beijing games; the bottom half semifinals were Nadal and Novak Djokovic (respectively, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds). The top was still a bit of a mess: Blake was there in the place of Federer, and the No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko—admittedly a weak No. 4, compared to these days—yielded his semifinal slot to No. 12 seed Gonzalez, who then beat Blake. Gonzalez thus was assured a silver, and he remains the only male player with two Olympic medals, neither of them gold, displayed on his sideboard. Gonzalez was certainly a worthy medalist, as he was a worthy Grand Slam contender through his entire career.

The Beijing results suggest that it has taken an entire generation to get acclimated to the Olympics as a kind of "fifth major." It's easy to forget that a great debate raged back in the late 1980s about whether or not tennis ought to be in the Games at all—a discussion that had to leave even the players themselves uncertain, and willing to take an Olympic loss a bit too easily ("It was only the Olympics, after all. . .")

But that's all water under the bridge now (you can read some of my own thoughts on that at my recent Racquet Scientist post). The men, at least the elite ones who can afford to take an appropriate rest after Wimbledon and make what adjustments they need for the Olympics, agree on the importance and value of the Games. And the advantage they have as high-earners and performers (the luxury of rest and preparation) implies that if anything, the Big Three (or whatever version of that evolves) will dominate at the Olympics—as they dominate elsewhere.

Still—Nadal's withdrawal from the upcoming Games is a momentous event that is bound to have interesting and unpredictable repercussions. The volatile, wild-and-woolly history of the Olympics might re-assert itself one more time. Imagine, Feliciano Lopez—Nadal's replacement—taking the gold. It would almost be a fitting comment on the history of the Games, as well as some of the tennis event's built-in weaknesses or, if you prefer, signature quirks.

Granted, Lopez has been playing lousy tennis for almost two solid months (he's won just three matches since the start of the Madrid Masters, two of them just this week on red clay), and he's fallen far from the No. 17 ranking he held on June 11th, the original cutoff for direct entry into the Olympics. But remember that Lopez was denied a place in the draw not for lack of merit, but because of the arbitrary, four-player-per-nation limit. But here he is, by the grace of his countryman Nadal, ready to go out on Wimbledon grass with that big lefty serve and sharp volley to compete in best-of-three-set matches against a hodgepodge of players.

Do not for a moment think that Lopez (or a David Nalbandian, John Isner, or Milos Raonic) has no chance to win this thing. Beijing results notwithstanding, Olympic history still suggests that there's a 50-50 chance that the guy getting the gold medal hung around his neck at the end of the event could be Denis Istomin just as easily as Federer. Since tennis returned to the games in 1988, three of the six gold medalists on the men's side were Grand Slam champs and/or No. 1 ranked players (Andre Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Nadal), while three were long shots (Miloslav Mecir, Rosset, Massu). Check out the list of medalists: of the 21 total medals awarded thus far, only seven went to Grand Slam champs. Among the medalists: Jordi Arresse (Spain), Arnaud di Pasquale (France), and even Leander Paes (in singles!).

Two features of the event in London suggest that the form chart may not rule as it did in Beijing. One of them is the surface; without going into too many details, grass is simply the least predictable surface, both in terms of its properties (which can change dramatically with the ambient conditions) and the way it affects specific players and styles. The other element that may encourage upsets is the schedule. At Wimbledon (the tournament), they play seven rounds over 13 days. In the Olympic event, they'll play six rounds in nine days. That diminishes the signature gravitas of Grand Slam events, the tennis equivalent of the Russian novel, and makes it that much harder for all but the best players to endure over a fortnight.

Then there's the way the skies above the north Atlantic so promiscuously open their tear ducts over the United Kingdom. Rain, especially over the first few days, could wreak havoc with the Games. The schedule ensures that there will be a Russian roulette factor to these Games when it comes to rain. See those six umbrellas? One of them, when opened up, will explode in your face and blow you to smithereens.

The weather will be a wild card, as will the venue—who wouldn't get the tremors playing at Wimbledon, or even go a little weird when they see how the familiar clubscape has been transformed in honor of the Games (or is it obeisance to the commercialism of the event?). So my prediction is an unpredictable event; once again, chaos may reign at the Olympic Games.

****

Roger Federer is the top seed at the Olympics, and this in all likelihood is his last chance to earn that elusive gold medal that would complete his resume, as far as individual achievements go. For more on his glory years, you can download my e-book, Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals, either by clicking on this link or on the box at the top right of the TennisWorld page.

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Hot. . . Or Not: The Women (Olympics Edition) 07/26/2012 - 2:52 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

Yesterday we looked at some of the men who will embark on their quest for Olympic gold with the right to be confident—or with legitimate fears based on recent or long-term history. Today, we'll look at who's hot, and who's not, on the women's side. 

One of the more interesting aspects of this inquiry is that the women's Olympic singles event tends to be more predictable than the men's. Unlike the men's singles event, the women's has produced very few medalists who did not also win Grand Slam events or rank No. 1—since the games were re-instituted in the Olympics in 1988, the only women in that category of over-achievers were: Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva, Alicia Molik, Mary Jo Fernandez, Zina Garrison, and Manuela Maleeva. Of them, only one (Dementieva) won silver or gold. She took gold in Beijing and silver in Sydney.

With that in mind, let's look at the prospects of some current entries: 

No. 47 Yaroslava Shvedova. . . Hot! The Kazakh who made history with her "golden set" at Wimbledon (she won the first set in her match against French Open finalist Sara Errani without losing a single point) ran wild at Wimbledon until Serena Williams finally stopped her in the fourth round—but the eventual champ had to go to 7-5 in the third to do so.

Shvedova, coming back from injury this year, also survived three rounds of qualifying to get into the French Open, then won four matches before her run was stopped by Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals. She played more matches in Paris (8) than the eventual champ, Maria Sharapova. Shvedova has not played since Wimbledon, presumably to stay fresh, and on grass, for the Olympics. Watch out for her. 

No. 37 Tamira Paszek. . . Hot! Another woman who hasn't played since Wimbledon, Paszek was down to No. 58 before the Eastbourne tune-up tournament for Wimbledon, and had won just two matches in 13 events up to that point. But she won the title in Eastbourne, defeating, in order: Marina Erakovic, Daniela Hantuchova, Tsvetana Pironkova, Marion Bartoli, and Angelique Kerber. She backed it up in the main event, taking out former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round at Wimbledon. She made it to the quarters there before Victoria Azarenka halted her run. 

No. 36 Kim Clijsters. . . Not. I think Clijsters has demonstrated that she can no longer be counted on to go deep at tournaments against quality opposition. She lost in the fourth of Wimbledon to Kerber, and the rust showed. Granted, this is her swan song and something like her extended farewell tour (without the "tour" part, thanks partly to injury), but she's a multiple Grand Slam champ and former No. 1, so she might become inspired to partake of glory one more time.

No. 26 Christina McHale. . . Hot! The 20-year-old American has the patriot gene, and she's a tough and gritty competitor who won't be overly intimidated by the challenge of the Olympic quest. She's been gaining valuable experience, taking out Wozniacki in Eastbourne and playing talented Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova close at the same event before she lost, 6-4 in the third. Having Serena there in London competing alongside her and giving her advice will also help. I'm going out on a limb to predict that she'll be in the final eight—or better.

No. 14 Vera Zvonareva. . . Not. She's been sliding in the rankings, and clearly is no longer the player she was in 2010, when she finished No. 2 in the world on the strength of two Grand Slam finals. It's only gotten worse this year.

Zvonareva retired against Clijsters in the third round of Wimbledon, with some sort of respiratory difficulty, but was back on the court playing doubles just a few hours later. Odd. She's volatile and emotional, prone to choking and bouts of self-pity. But her Russian countrymen are mad for the Olympics, and she rewarded them in Beijing with a bronze medal. She can make up for a lot of recent disappointment if she earns a medal in London.

No. 13 Dominika Cibulkova. . . Hot! This Slovak dynamo is hampered by her short stature (she's just 5-foot-3) but she completed her preparation for Wimbledon with a tournament win at Carlsbad (d. Bartoli in the final), and her extreme degree of energy and electric shotmaking could carry her far on the grass at Wimbledon. She's better than her recent grass-court results suggest (last year, she was in the semis of 's-Hertogenbosch and the quarters of Wimbledon, with wins over current Olympians Julia Goerges and Aleksandra Wozniak). She is an excellent long-shot pick for a medal.

No. 9 Sara Errani. . . Hot! Forget about being the victim of that golden set by Shvedova at Wimbledon. Errani is having a career year, and the 25-year-old from Bologna has shown herself to be a tough little customer—emphasis on little (she has one inch and a Grand Slam final trophy on Cibulkova).

A finalist in the French Open, Errani has had better results on grass than that nightmare against Shvedova suggests. The Italian bounced back from that disappointment by winning at Palermo, and while that was on clay, and against so-so competition, it seems that she's back on track. If nothing else, this game counterpuncher could make life very difficult for any Top 5 player she meets.

No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki. . . Not. Wozniacki's free fall through the Top 10 continues; she's won just two matches in the last two majors. But things are so bad that she just might go out there and surprise everyone—although I doubt it.

PicNo. 7 Angelique Kerber. . . Hot! She's been nothing less than on fire since Rome, continuing her remarkable surge into the elite tier of the game. Can it really be that, as all accounts have it, this 24-year-old languished as a journeywoman until last fall only because she lacked the self-belief she currently possesses?

An athletic and mobile lefty, Kerber spearheads a powerful German squad. I would be amazed if the German women—Kerber, Sabine Lisicki (whom Kerber beat to take a semifinal place at Wimbledon), Goerges, and Mona Barthel—didn't walk away with at least one singles medal.

No. 5 Sam Stosur. . . Not hot. Take away that semi at the French Open (where Stosur was a former finalist) and Slammin' Sammy's year has been dismal. She's demonstrated that she hasn't overcome a cringe-inducing tendency to get tight and choke despite having won the U.S. Open in magnificent fashion last fall.

Given how poorly Stosur reacts to pressure, the best you can say for her is that there is absolutely no pressure now, because even her die-hard fans could be forgiven for giving up hope. Stosur's by rote, somewhat mechanical game has rarely stood the test of grass (she won just one match on grass this year, including at Wimbledon) and it probably will not this time around either.

No. 4 Serena Williams. . .Hot!!!! Olympic gold is the only item left on her champion's to-do list, and we're talking about singles gold here—she's already mined the Olympics for gold in doubles (twice, both times with her sister Venus). Serena is fired up, healthy, and when was the last time Serena played a tournament immediately after a Grand Slam (she won Stanford the week after the end of Wimbledon)? She did that partly to keep her momentum going for the Olympics, and that has to make her the odds-on favorite to wear the singles gold medal when she leaves London.

Afterthoughts: The way Serena asserted herself at Wimbledon makes it difficult to look at her companions in the Top 4 (Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka, Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska, and French Open champ Maria Sharapova) as "hot" contenders, but they've also been far too reliable to be cast into the "not hot" bin with Stosur. The same goes for No. 6 Petra Kvitova, who at least is getting significantly warmer. Should Serena falter early on, any one of those women could win it all.

One thing that struck me is that as powerful as the German women are, the Russians are in surprisingly poor shape—with the outstanding exception of Sharapova. I find it hard to come up with three less inspiring contenders than the rest of the Russia's four-woman (maximum) contingent—Zvonareva (see above), Maria Kirilenko, and Nadia Petrova. It's a pity that Svetlana Kuznetsova, a multiple Grand Slam champ, and Pavlyuchenkova, a lavishly gifted but apparently confused 21-year-old, have performed so dismally this year. It will be interesting to see how the Russians—men and women—fare as a team.

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The Racquet Scientist: Olympic Tennis 07/25/2012 - 4:45 PM

201207041108401222482-p2@stats.comby Pete Bodo

Even as the excitement builds toward the tennis event at the upcoming London Olympics—and I'm as caught up in it as anyone—I still haven't gotten over the question posed way back in the 1980s: Does tennis really belong in the Olympics? I still must say "no," and nothing about Olympic tennis has persuaded me of its greater glory.

But let's be real, tennis is not going to be withdrawn from the Olympics. Olympic status has helped tennis in two enormous ways: First, it made the game far more appealing in nations—like those of the former Soviet Union—where Olympic status was mandatory for a sport to matter. We've seen the results of that change. Second, it persuades governments to funnel money into tennis, because every nation has Olympic ambitions and programs. This condition remains a global reality most important in less wealthy nations.

Okay, Olympic tennis only grows the sport, and besides—isn't it great to see guys like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal showcased in what remains the most prestigious of all global athletic extravaganzas? Sure it is. Olympic tennis is like a great big ladle of gravy dumped atop the ATP and WTA calendars. But when you rule out all these practical, almost political concerns, it's pretty clear that Olympic tennis is, if not exactly a sham, then an event with a lot more credibility than it has earned—even if marquee players like Federer, Novak Djokovic, and the two Andys (Murray and Roddick) have come to embrace it.

Case in point: The ATP calendar continues to roll out almost exactly as it would without the Olympics, and some of the top Olympic contenders have been playing competitive tennis right up to the opening bell in London. Guys like ATP No. 10 Juan Monaco and No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic were in finals of tour events just days ago—on clay. I think it's safe to assume they would not have entered tournaments a week before a Grand Slam played on an entirely different surface. Clearly, the very top players penciled in the Olympics because the Games somewhat conveniently take place during the long break they usually take after Wimbledon anyway. It's not like they've passed up other tennis priorities to focus on the Olympics, and there's no real financial sacrifice involved.

Lesser lights like Monaco and Tipsarevic would have to take a financial hit in order to gamble on coming up with a knockout Olympic performance, and this shows they clearly are unwilling to do it. The best example of all is Philipp Kohlschreiber, Germany's only male singles Olympian and a recent quarterfinalist at the very place where the Games will take place, Wimbledon. He's on the court as I write this—in Kitzbuhel, on red clay.

In what other Olympic sport do the athletes compete in significant, or even major—as in "Wimbledon"—events just two or three weeks before the big show? The way Olympic tennis is shoehorned into the calendar, it may be nothing more than a lark for tennis pros. They suffer from an embarrassment of riches. I wonder how athletes in less remunerative, opportunity-rich sports feel about tennis potentially stealing their thunder.

Then there is the Olympic mixed doubles event, which is simply a travesty. The draw consists of 16 teams (selected from on-site players) and if teams split sets, they will play a first-to-10-points super-tiebreaker to decide the match. I've always said that one of the good things about Olympic tennis is that the medals in singles and doubles have the same worth, and are the same color. That clearly is no longer true, no matter how much the medalists in the mixed will cherish or show off their hardware. 

The qualification rules and procedures also seem flawed, and are at odds with the very nature of an individual, rankings-based sport. Before Nadal pulled out, it looked as if his solid, Top 20-countryman Feliciano Lopez would be out in the cold because of the four-player limit per nation in singles. Ernests Gulbis of Latvia is a head case, but he's awfully talented, and the same can be said for Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil. Yet Bellucci got in, while Gulbis did not. Meanwhile, Canada got a free pass into the draw for Vasek Pospisil, and with all due respect to Pospisil, maybe someday someone can tell me why.

Tennis continues to be a square professional peg in a round Olympic hole. I can't think of another Olympic event that is as compromised and jiggered up to compensate for its poor fit—or athletes who, with the exception of the gilded elite, are as indifferent to the call of Olympic glory as tennis players. The Olympics as an enterprise and commercial venture benefit greatly from the inclusion of tennis. More traditional Olympic athletes and the sports they play do not.

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Hot. . . Or Not: The Men (Olympics Edition) 07/25/2012 - 1:24 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

Given the historically unpredictable nature of the men's singles event at the Olympics, it's borderline crazy to take informed guessses at how things will shake out.

After all, Roger Federer—the man most spectators and pundits would name the greatest player of all time—has never won any Olympic medal in singles (can you name the men he lost to in his four Olympic efforts?) For that matter, neither did the other Open-era contender for that honor, Pete Sampras. 

Guesswork at the best of times, the grass surface on which this year's medals will be decided adds yet another volatile element to the mix. The matches are also best-of-three sets, which suggests we'll see plenty of upsets owing to how easily a player with a hot hand can run through two sets on turf, against an opponent of any quality.

Throw in the absence of defending gold medalist Rafael Nadal and you just know things are going to get a little western in this event. So instead of waiting for the draw, let's take a look at who's hot—and who's not—as we head into Olympics. I'm only going to comment on certain players who strike me as falling into one or the other category. Some, like Andy Murray, just seem like they could go either way. We'll take the men first.

No. 25 Milos Raonic. . . Hot! I'm sure Raonic wasn't ecstatic with his grass-court season; on the other hand, it was nothing less than solid. The highlight was Halle, where Raonic took Federer to a third-set tiebreaker before the pride of Thornhill, Ontario, capitulated in the quarters. There's no shame in losing to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, although Raonic's subsequent failure against No. 112 Benjamin Becker at Newport must have been tough to swallow.

Never mind. Raonic's power game, built around his serve, is very effective at Wimbledon, and you have to love his Olympic spirit—as represented by his decision to stay on grass instead of picking up some easy cash and rankings points between Wimbledon and the Olympics on either hard or clay courts.

No. 23 Philipp Kohlschreiber. . . Not. Kohlschreiber bounced Nadal from Halle, and it took Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to keep him from advancing to the semifinals at Wimbledon. You'd think Germany's top-ranked player would have a great opportunity in these Games, but Kohlschreiber is actually playing this week in Kitzbuhel, Austria—even though he's the lone German representative in the men's draw.

Kohlschreiber will go straight from two red-clay tournaments into a grass event that will be well underway if he makes his No. 1 seed and lands in the Kitzbuhel final. I think that even violates the ATP's own rule against being entered in overlapping events.

The thinking behind this scheduling is, frankly, unfathomable. Can it be that the bragging rights to Germany—Florian Mayer, the next-highest-ranked German, is the No. 2 seed in Austria—and all that being No. 1 near home promises, endorsement and bonus-wise, is an issue here?

No. 22 Andy Roddick. . . Hot! Anyone who's been to three Wimbledon finals and a semifinal, and was beaten in those matches by no less a player than Federer, is a threat to win on grass. While Atlanta, where Roddick won last week, is a hard-court tournament, emerging as the top American there surely boosted his morale. He'll return to Wimbledon, where he has had such a great if bittersweet history, ready to roll the die in best-of-three shootouts. Sure, he's struggled and fallen out of the Top 10 in which he was a fixture for a decade. But I still like his chances, not least because whatever else he is (or isn't), Roddick is a terrific competitor.

No. 15 Marin Cilic. . . Hot! Having boosted his ranking up into a solid seeding position, Cilic will go into the Olympics with plenty of momentum. He was ranked No. 25 at the start of Queen's Club, won that grass-court tune-up and lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon to finalist Murray—but not before he and Sam Querrey had played the second-longest match in tournament history (in elapsed time) in the third round. Cilic then went on to win on home soil in Umag, and did anyone else notice that in the semis of Hamburg, he played Tommy Haas tough in a tiebreaker, then folded his tents, dropping the second set, 0-6. Olympics on your mind much?

PicNo. 9 Juan Martin del Potro. . . Not. That other kid from Tandil, Argentina, Juan Monaco, is breathing right down del Potro's neck, having cracked the Top 10 for the first time this week. That puts Delpo's problem into perspective. It took a fine effort for him to get back into Top 10-territory after he missed most of 2010, but let's face it—the 2009 U.S. Open champion seems to have stalled, and he appears to lack the requisite confidence and determination demanded by matches against the very top guys.

Del Potro may get over that and win more majors, but for now he seems to be spinning his wheels. Much like Tomas Berdych, though, a sudden change of attitude or rise in confidence and he could sweep all the other chess pieces off the grass-court board with a few mighty swings of that long right arm.

No. 7 Tomas Berdych. . . Not. It seemed for a good long period over the past two years that Berdych was on the ascent, and that a major title was almost sure to be the upshot. But the wheels began to fall off not long after he lost to Federer in the Madrid final on blue clay. His French Open was merely decent (loss to del Potro, fourth round), and he was a big disappointment on grass—he went out in his second match at Halle, and was the victim of a shocking first-round upset at Wimbledon (to Ernests Gulbis).

Look on the bright side; Berdych will be well rested for the Olympic games. And when you come right down to it, he's exactly the kind of big-game guy who can really do some damage in the Olympic format.

No. 5 David Ferrer. . . Hot! While accustomed to playing picador to Rafa's matador, Ferrer is having a career year at age 30, and you can bet that he's just dying to make just one gigantic career statement—like win a Grand Slam, or sneak away with Olympic gold—before he passes to the downhill side of career. These chaotic Games, where the best-of-three format is used, will boost his chances. Ferrer has five titles so far this year, and he demonstrated in his run to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon that he can play well enough to win on grass despite being more proficient on clay.

No. 2 Novak Djokovic. . . Not. Sure, he's the No. 2 player in the world and won a Grand Slam title to start the year, but he's won just one other title—and lost in three finals. Months ago, Djokovic declared that his big goals for this year were the French Open (that didn't work out) and the Olympic Games. That puts a little pressure on him in London, just as he's coming off a painful semifinal loss at Wimbledon to Federer. None of this means that Nole can't or won't run the table and bag gold, but given the choice between coming in with motivation or momentum, I'd take the latter any time.

No. 1 Roger Federer. . .Hot!!!! With that out of the way, the answer to the above question is: Federer lost in the bronze-medal match of the Sydney Games in 2000 to Arnaud Di Pasquali - after he lost to Tommy Haas, who bagged the silver medal (in the first two Olympic tennis events, the losing semifinalists both were awarded bronze medals. Starting in 1996, the losing semifinalists played a match for the bronze). In 2004 Federer lost to Tomas Berdych in three tough sets in the round-of-32 in Athens; and in Beijing in 2008 Federer lost to James Blake in the quarterfinals—Blake's lone win over Federer in 11 career matches.

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Around the World: July 23 07/23/2012 - 1:49 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

Afternoon, everyone. It's time to take a quick trip around the tennis world and check the news of the past week. We'll go the thumbs up/thumbs down route this time.

The pending Olympic games have not had an enormous impact on the events of the week, although the events of the week might have a noticeable impact on the Olympics (more on that later).

Let's face it, the most celebrated gladiators of tennis aren't all the eager to depart Wimbledon and jump right onto a hard court in the humid U.S. or a clay court in summery Europe—especially not when it's a mere ATP 250, or WTA International event. 

Like the two weeks immediately preceding Grand Slam events, the past two weeks were a time during which the small fry, players with ground to make up, and game competitors on the cusp of a breakthrough—or looking to suck it up and boost their rankings—took their chances. I'm not going to give thumbs up to every winner; I'll just pick the most worthy player on each tour and add them to odds and ends that make up most of this space.

ThumbsupJuan Monaco gets our thumbs up for this week on the ATP side, narrowly edging out Andy Roddick, who won in Atlanta, and Thomaz Bellucci, who upset top-seeded Janko Tipsarevic in Gstaad.  

I wouldn't underestimate Roddick's achievement in winning the unofficial "U.S. Nationals." (All the top Americans play in Atlanta, and the lack of big foreign stars gives them a good shot at claiming the ultimate bragging rights. John Isner was the top seed, Roddick No. 4.) And we know that Tipsarevic has become a regular steady-eddie when it comes to holding his place in the second half of the Top 10 (a discipline to which the mercurial Bellucci thus far can only aspire). Thus, the Brazilian's coup was a fine win by an standard. 

However, Hamburg was an ATP 500 (the other two were 250s), and Monaco's win over resurgent former No. 2 Tommy Haas before the latter's ga-ga home crowd ensured him a place in the Top 10 for the very first time in his career. The Argentinian city of Tandil now has two men in the Top 10; the other one is Juan Martin del Potro. Monaco also was a finalist last week in Stuttgart (where he lost to Tipsarevic), and the back-to-back finals pushed him over the top. As the elated Monaco said of his newfound status: "It's a dream come true. I will always remember this great week because it's very important for me and my team."

The 28-year-old is now 31-10 on the year, and keep in mind that this isn't the first time he's been on a nice little roll. He had a terrific spring (how about those back-to-back-to-back wins in Miami over Gael Monfils, Roddick, and Mardy Fish?) that came crashing down on him thanks to an ill-timed ankle injury at Monte Carlo—on the red clay where he is most effective.

Monaco bounced back strong, though, and now heads to the Olympics. Although he fares better on clay (he earned all six of his career singles titles on the surface), the success that similarly talented David Ferrer enjoyed at Wimbledon this year ought to give Monaco hope.

"To change the courts is not going to be easy for me, but I have five days for practice (before the Olympics) to be with the guys there," said Monaco. "So, let’s see how it goes."

ThumbsupSteve Johnson is a 6-foot-2 throwback in any number of ways, starting with the fact that he chose to stay in college for his full term instead of bolting for the pro tour at the first possible opportunity. Johnson also is an old-fashioned iron man who was 32-0 as the top singles player for the University of Southern California Trojans this year. He ran his winning streak to 72 collegiate matches a few weeks ago when he won his third consecutive NCAA singles championship (a record he shares with Ham Richardson, a Tulane University player who did it in the early 1950s).

As a player, Johnson is in the same mold as was Team USA Olympic men's coach Jay Berger and any number of other players whose games look herky-jerky and conspicuously lack power. But Johnson is a tough, shrewd competitor who simply loves the challenge and finds ways to outmaneuver his opponents—as he did to Donald Young this week in Atlanta before losing a very close match (two tiebreakers) to fellow American Jack Sock. Johnson is No. 362; I think he'll be Top 75 by this time next year.

ThumbsupPolona Hercog made one of those magical journeys from the pits of despair to the peaks of elation last week and, as I'm a sucker for a good story, she gets the WTA tournament thumbs up for this week—even if Dominka Cibulkova's win over Marion Bartoli at Carlsbad was a resonant and had greater Olympic implications.

PicHercog, a 21-year-old Slovenian, was in deep trouble when she showed up in Bastad, Sweden, to defend the only title she'd ever won. She hadn't won a match—never mind a title—in two-and-a-half months, was sidelined off and on with a back injury, and her ranking had slipped down to a full 50 places to No. 86. As if the pressure of defending your title, what with that giant target on your back, wasn't concerning enough.

But Hercog found her game just in time, with solid wins over No. 2 seed Julia Goerges and No. 4 Mona Barthel—both German Olympians. And Hercog spotted her final-round opponent Mathilde Johansson seven games to start the final. But instead of folding, Hercog persevered and worked her way back into the match. She eventually found herself leading 5-1 in the third, with a match point. But Johansson saved it and then astonishingly closed to 5-all.

Hercog kept it together, again, and won. "It was a lot of fighting today and a lot of ups and downs," she said afterward. "I'm very happy to win. Second year in a row is amazing. . ."Bastad has some kind of magic power for me, I guess!"

Don't you just love a good old-fashioned seaside shoot-out?

ThumbsdownPhilipp Kohlschreiber is the top seed in Kitzbuhel this week, and I'm assuming that like many of the American lads in Atlanta last week, he's pulling in some serious appearance money. His value ought to be high, given that he had an excellent Wimbledon (he lost in the quarterfinals to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga), improved his ranking to No. 24, and has to be counted among the long-shot contenders at the upcoming Olympics.

But therein lies the rub. What's he doing playing on clay in Kitzbuhel—an event that isn't even over before the Olympic tennis event at Wimbledon begins? Earlier today I wrote a post for ESPN on how Roddick might have damaged his chances at a singles medal when he chose to play Atlanta (on hard courts) last week, and Kohlschreiber is jeopardizing his hopes to an even greater degree, what with the Olympic event on grass.

To add insult to Olympic injury, Kohlschreiber is the only German entere in the men's singles event. Either this guy doesn't really care much about Olympic medals and experiencing the Games, or he likes thoses things—but not as much as he likes the appearance money and ranking points he can scoop up with a win off-site.

And here's the kicker: the No. 2 seed (and only other Kitzbuhel entrant who's ranked inside the Top 40) is Kohlschreiber's German countryman, Florian Mayer, who was ranked just one place below the top seed when they both entered the event. Mayer isn't even playing in the Olympics. So much for the vaunted German nationalism I cited the other day.

ThumbsdownThe International Olympic Committee continues to reject pleas to hold a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics to honor the memory of the 11 Israeli athletes slain at the Munich games 40 years ago by members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist group. Okay, this isn't specifically tennis news, but the IOC's stance in the face of a very public campaign (backed by, among others, U.S. President Barack Obama) only gets more and more baffling.

The IOC claims that the opening ceremony is no place for a statement that could be interpreted as "political." Good grief, if the decision to observe a moment of silence for athletes slain by terrorists while trying to live up to the Olympic spirit can be called "political," I no longer have a functional definition for that word. And what does that make all this medal counting, and marching around waving your nation's flag?

ThumbsupVenus Williams, the five-time Wimbledon champion, and Andy Murray, the no-time Wimbledon champ but recent finalist will be among those taking a turn jogging with the Olympic torch today. The torch has already been to the Channel Islands, Stonehenge, and Murray's native Scotland, but he'll be carrying it toward Wimbledon, not Betty Hill or some godforsaken, monster-occupied loch. One of their fellow torchbearers today will be Patrick Stewart, the Brit who played Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise-D, on the wildly popular cult TV show, Star Trek

You got a smart remark on that, post it below. But that's it for me. Beam me up, Scotty!

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WTA: Under the London Radar 07/21/2012 - 12:42 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

The other day, we looked at three ATP players who are not in the very top rank of men's pros, but who could each make his career breakthrough at the London Olympic Games, which are just a week out. We noted that the fact that 50 percent of the gold medalists since tennis was re-instituted into the Games in 1988 were men who never won a Grand Slam title, or finished No. 1.

Curiously, the case is a little different among the women, where form holds up much better during the quadrennial games (I'll have more to say about that next week, as we begin our ramp-up to the competition). Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka—all of them are likely to prove hard to beat in London. But let's look at three relatively unsung WTA women who could get the job done.

The most difficult time I had coming up with this trio was the number of contenders from Germany. We all know that a strong strain of nationalism has always run through the German character, and that can be a powerful incentive and inspiration. Even with Andrea Petkovic out of the Olympics with injury, the Germans have a powerful yet not entirely fulfilled squad composed of four strong players: WTA No. 7 Angelique Kerber, No. 17 Sabine Lisicki, No. 24 Julia Goerges, and Petkovic's replacement on the squad, No. 41 Mona Barthel.

All but Goerges fairly leap off the page as potential medal contenders, and even big-swing Julia's chances aren't half bad. But just doesn't feel right to put two Germans (and I think you know which two are the obvious candidates) on this list of three. So let's take the three under-the-radar contenders in order of ranking:

No. 17 Sabine Lisicki gets the nod slightly ahead of Kerber, even though Kerber won their anything-goes quarterfinal at Wimbledon. I'm going with Lisicki because she has such big weapons, starting with the serve, and because the injury-plagued 22-year old has been such a reliable performer at the All England Club. In the past three years, she's managed to make two quarters and a semi at Wimbledon, and has put up wins over, among others, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na, Marion Bartoli, and Maria Sharapova. That's an extremely powerful record. 

Lisicki gets into a visible, almost eerie comfort zone at Wimbledon. She loves everything about the tournament, and in her case that has been a source of motivation and inspiration, rather than of pressure. She did get a little shaky in her match with Kerber, a match she could just as easily have won, but Lisicki is a robust, down-to-earth type who's unlikely to get tripped up by that going forward. Granted, the All England Club will look very different when it's all decked out with Olympics signage, but the playing surface will be the same and Lisicki's go-for-broke style ought to pay the same dividends at the place she so loves.

PicNo. 25 Zheng Jie is a dynamo who stands just a shade below 5'5", and is as steady as the day is long. Now 29, Zheng was a pioneer of Chinese tennis, and the first player from her nation to make the singles semifinals of a Grand Slam event (Wimbledon, 2008). She also won the bronze medal in doubles (with Yan Zi) at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Put one and one together (Wimbledon and Olympics experience) and you have a medal contender who probably will be further inspired by the fact that, in all likelihood, this is her last shot at Olympic singles glory.

But sentiment and history aren't her only allies here. Just a few weeks ago, Zheng forced eventual Wimbledon champ Serena Williams to go the distance in their third-round clash before faltering, 9-7 in the third. She was also a semifinalist at Birmingham (losing to Jelena Jankovic), one of the major Wimbledon tune-ups. Short of power and size—think of her as an anti-Lisicki—Zheng is mobile, consistent and crafty. 

In seven turns at Wimbledon, Zheng has lost to Kim Clijsters, Serena (three times), and to 2011 champ Petra Kvitova. Daniela Hantuchova took her out once, and she is one of the tour's most streaky players. Zheng's only bad loss at Wimbledon was in 2011 to 133rd-ranked Misaki Doi. That's a solid Wimbledon record, and a career's worth of experience.

PicNo. 62 Tsvetana Pironkova is a bit like Lisicki, in that she's found a way to turn her respect and affection for Wimbledon into an asset that often serves to lift her game to unexpected heights. The 25-year-old, while seeming a journeywoman at most tour events, was a semifinalist and quarterfinalist at Wimbledon in back-to-back years (2010 and 2011). She beat five-time Wimbledon champ Venus Williams on both those occasions, and also counts former Wimbledon finalist Maria Bartoli among her victims at the All-England Club.

Pironkova, the best current player from Bulgaria, took Sharapova to three sets in the second round at Wimbledon this year before the magic wore off. She's a speedy, crafty player who plays on grass as if it were second nature to her, which is a great asset at the All England Club. She also hails from an Olympics-obsessed nation where a single medal probably is considered far more precious than half-a-dozen Grand Slam titles. The incentive is there for Pironkova to do well; so is the game.

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