Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Quarterly Report
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Quarterly Report 04/07/2009 - 4:35 PM

Rn The tennis season is long, but like anything else that doesn’t involve your own daily 9 to 5 labor, it passes with disconcerting speed—“Time is a jet plane,” Bob Dylan sang, “it moves too fast.” Maybe it’s the scattershot, peak-and-valley nature of the early-year schedule—massive tournament to start, nothing for a month, followed by two big events in rapid-fire succession—that catches us off guard. We’re not worn down by weekly results yet. By the time the players get to Europe and that grind begins in earnest, a quarter of the year—one Slam, two Masters/Premier events, a round of Davis and Fed Cup—is gone.

With that in mind, the time seems right to take stock of how the game and its players have measured up to expectations so far in 2009.

Victoria Azarenka

Just when it appeared as if the WTA would never give us another girl with the fortitude and irrational desire to be a champion, we get this 19-year-old Belarusian beanpole. Granted, Serena was hurt in the Key Biscayne final, and Azarenka did throw in a couple of anxiety-ridden double faults when she was trying to serve out the match. But instead of panicking when things go wrong, she gets mad and tries her best to figure out how to fix the problem. And if I don’t love the bird-like whoo-ooo she makes when she swings, I do like the swings themselves, especially the graceful punch she gives the ball on her backhand side. A

Juan-Martin del Potro

The gently brooding giant has bounced back nicely after his Davis Cup debacle last winter. He won in Auckland to start the year and reached his second Slam quarterfinal in Melbourne. While he suffered an embarrassing two-bagel loss to Federer there, del Potro bounced back again to make a Masters semi in Key Biscayne. Biggest of all, he recorded his first win in 14 attempts over one of the Big 4 when he came back to beat Nadal in Miami. That’s important—he had looked utterly lost and overwhelmed against the top guys until then. DP's development, after last year’s breakthrough, remains on track. He may take his losses hard, but he can forget them. A-

Novak Djokovic

We learn more and more about the wacky Serb every few weeks. When we first met him, he was quick to call it a day if events weren’t proceeding in a manner that favored him. Then he was serene and sure of his destiny to become No. 1. Then, when destiny was derailed, he was a ball of frustration ready to immolate itself at the first sign of trouble. Now, he’s starting to seem like a guy who can throw in an unmitigated clunker one week—see his dismal Indian Wells quarterfinal loss to Roddick—and bounce back a week later to beat Tsonga and Federer and make a Masters final. Djokovic lets his anger get the best of him, but he lets his pride pick him back up. Do you have any idea what he’ll show us next? I don’t. But I want to find out. B

Roger Federer

From a performance point of view, you’d have to say this is his worst start since he became No. 1 in 2004. At least last year he had a debilitating illness as an excuse. While Federer still knows how to work the majors, he looks more and more lost at the Masters events. Watching him self-destruct against Murray in Indian Wells, I began to think that his version of tennis artistry, defined by a 0-to-60-in-two-seconds-flat transition game, was looking a little dated compared to Murray’s side-to-side, slice-and-scramble approach.

But from an emotional standpoint, Federer has been the most compelling figure in tennis. He provided, to his chagrin, the signature moment of the year by bawling in Melbourne, and then he made our jaws drop with his stoically savage destruction of his racquet in Key Biscayne—it was like watching a magician destroy his wand. None of this should surprise us: Tennis players, whatever their outer selves communicate, are deeply emotional. Why wouldn’t Federer, the best tennis player, have the deepest emotions of all? B+

Indian Wells/Key Biscayne

These tournaments offered plenty to the fan willing to (a) attend one or both of them; and (b) seek out and stick with FSN as it stumbled its way toward covering both events. But for someone tuning into the semis and finals on the weekend, both tournaments left a lot to be desired. Federer was entertaining and revealing in one sense, but only in a negative way. The two women’s finals were ruined by wind and injury, respectively, while the two men’s finals were uninspired and only marginally competitive. What would the casual viewer of Key Biscayne have made of a Saturday spent watching Serena hobble and a Sunday spent watching Djokovic narrowly avert heat exhaustion? And as much as I like Murray’s style, I can’t view it as a good sign for the game that he won more matches than anyone by taking fewer risks then ever. C+

Ana Ivanovic

I know she says she’s happy with her new coach and back on track with her attacking game. And I hope it’s true. But even in her run to the Indian Wells final, Ivanovic was excessively up and down, not just from match to match, but from game to game. As of now, her confidence can still be blown away in the desert wind. B-

Jelena Jankovic

Poor JJ. Is her sudden and precipitous decline a product, like she says, of overtraining? Or is it an inevitable market correction for a woman who never belonged at No. 1 in the first place? Now that’s she fired her in-house fitness guru, Pat Etcheberry—he may have neglected to consider the finer points of Jankovic’s finesse game before trying to add 10 pounds of muscle to her—we’ll find out. JJ has bounced back from worse slumps before; but she wasn’t 24 then. D

Andy Murray

When did the game’s resident miserable brat become its most upstanding citizen? While Federer was smashing, Djokovic was staggering, and Nadal was blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead, No. 4 kept his head and body intact and left the U.S. with the best overall record of any player who was in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. On a small scale, he weathered bad patches of play against Monaco and Djokovic with just the barest amount of testiness, before quickly reasserting his low-key control over both matches. Whether it’s a match or the season at large, he’s clearly thinking long term. My only reservation, as I said earlier, is that he has found a way to win that requires minimal risk. Good for him, but potentially bad for us. Murray has the variety to do much more, and eventually we’re going to want to see him use it again. A

Rafael Nadal

He’s extended his turf while tightening his grip on the top spot. As the champion in Melbourne and Indian Wells, Nadal is now the favorite to win any hard court tournament he plays. You might chalk this up to the sport's long-running move toward slower surfaces. But I’m going to chalk it up to Nadal’s dogged expansion of his own game. By now, his rallies can consist of anything—drop shots, low chips, stealthy forays to the net, exclamatory overheads, and, of course, the meat and potatoes, uncannily accurate topspin drives. There’s something for any tennis fan to like, which is no more and no less than what we want from the new face of the sport. Rafa is taking No. 1 in stride; he’s comfortable there without acting entitled about it. Why would we have expected anything else? A+

Andy Roddick

Like Murray but unlike Nadal, Roddick has assessed the modern game and found that less is more. Fewer risks, more balls in play, lots of running, and a big serve to back it all up is the recipe du jour. And as it is for Murray, it’s a winning recipe for Roddick, but it may not taste all that good to us in the long run. Roddick has won a lot of matches in 2009, but I’ve enjoyed watching him most during the few games where he let his strokes fly—à la 2003—against Federer in Key Biscayne. Of course, he lost that one, so chances are we won’t see it again. He's gotten too smart for that. A-

Dinara Safina

I like her story, her personality, her persistence, her intensity, her emotion, her mid-career surge— everything, in other words, other than actually watching her play. I’ve tried, but at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne Safina's game looked very labored, as if she and her strokes and especially her serve just didn’t want to be out there. I want to see more from a player who is at least nominally fighting to become No. 1 for the first time. B

Serena Williams

With her 10th Slam coming a full decade after her first, you might say this is a time to celebrate Serena, her longevity, and her apparently effortless dominance. And it is. There are many things to enjoy in Serena’s game—the coolly lethal serve, the exemplary racquet extension, the indomitable fight. It’s just that when I turned on the TV to watch her in Key Biscayne, I didn’t see those things. I saw her spraying shots, slumping her shoulders, acting like she couldn’t believe this was all happening to her, and standing still and hitting all-or-nothing shots because she had suffered another injury. The physical problems may not be her fault, and the erratic play and flamboyant frustration can be filed away in the “Serena being Serena” department—that’s just how she is sometimes. But when you’ve seen her focused and at her best, the way she was for most of the U.S. and Aussie Open finals, this version of her isn’t much fun to watch. I hope she gets better in all ways for the rest of the year. A-

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Posted by Joe 04/10/2009 at 08:45 AM


So often I'heard people saying that Nadal's proffesion is going be short. I have remind you have been saying it for 5 years o so, and he'still going. All players have some kind of problems. back, knees, wrisk, feet, shoulder etc

Posted by Mike 04/10/2009 at 09:17 AM

Fed won 9 GS in 3 years ... and is entering his 10th full time year on the Pro tour, with 13 GS. Rafa has 6 GS going into his 6th full time year. And your point is .. ?

Posted by Mike 04/10/2009 at 09:32 AM

Also ... Pistol Pete had multiple opponents that have winning records against him ... does that mean that they are all better candidates for GOAT than he is?

It's how good the player is against everyone that matters at the end of the career, not one player (or 2) that has his number.

Posted by Joe 04/10/2009 at 09:44 AM

Did Fed win 9 GS at 22 years old? has he win GS in all the surfaces? nope, so my point is.... he can't be the GOAT, no way!!

Posted by Mike 04/10/2009 at 10:18 AM

Joe ...

'... and is entering his 10th full time year on the Pro tour, with 13 GS. Rafa has 6 GS going into his 6th full time year. And your point is .. ?'

Rafa is 22, but has been a fulltime Pro going on 6 years. Not typical 22 year old mileage on that body.

Posted by Mike 04/10/2009 at 10:36 AM

Ahhh ... GOAT arguments are stupid, anyway. There are way too many variables (equipment, conditions, strength of competition, etc.)

Posted by TripleF(FedFanForever) 04/10/2009 at 11:58 AM

These posts (although I love reading both Bodo and Tignor) are getting to be a bit tiresome. Any single loss of Fed was analyzed like in a Therapy session. Now Rafa goes through that as well. Do a bit of match analysis, do play by play or overall, and then all I can take. Call it a bad day in the office, and leave it at that. Instead...a shrug at the presser, a frown during a point, an off the record comment during the training session...all are analyzed to bits. We love to construe and extrapolate things. Of course, it makes it interesting to read, but am sure the players are getting tired of it. I don't think any of the earlier generation (lovely poll a couple of days ago by the way) went through this level of psycho-therapy. I am sure it is part of the internet age - locked-in, captive audience and daily or hourly updates make it possible. But, c'mon...

Posted by TennisFanxTwo 04/10/2009 at 02:36 PM

It's definitely a part of the internet age. I've spent a lot of time on blogs lately, and this was/is a refreshing change from what I was getting used to (espn, fox, to name a few). It's nice to read intelligent and sometimes amusing posts, as opposed to the personal bashings and "hate-mail" postings seen elsewhere. Sometimes fans get fanatical, and at that point the line of "fan of" and "obssessed with" is very blurred. The posts I've seen here are, again, intelligent, amusing, and simply a joy to read through page after page. I will agree with TripleF, the hyper-analysis of any given loss is getting old. The GOAT talk is also very overdone, and I'm sure even Roger would agree at this point, a non-issue. One more thing I think is very nice about the postings here is the "personal" relationships that seem to have been made here, the back-n-forth on a day to day basis. Hats off to all who post here who have remained humane :)

Posted by bandit04 04/10/2009 at 03:40 PM

The last 2 posts are spot on. The media and fans love to build up and tear down players at a whim. It has gotten tedious and often ridiculous. It would be nice to just appreciate these players and give them room to breathe.

Posted by Joe 04/10/2009 at 09:35 PM

It would be nice to be more fair (Federer fans) and give credit to whom deserves it. I think Nadal is the one

Posted by Siddharth Shankar 04/10/2009 at 09:36 PM

I agree with the grades. I still like Fed thou!!!!!!!!

Posted by gabriela valentina(NADAL, Death Cheater) 04/11/2009 at 09:36 AM

like your pertinent asessment of most of the players and thought you were spot on in your observations on Djokovic and Roger!!

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