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10 Gifts from '07 12/24/2007 - 1:22 AM

NovakI was flipping through my trusty 2007 Official Guide to Professional Tennis, better known as the “media guide,” one afternoon last week—everyone has to have their fun, right?—and accidentally came across a description of the Next Generation Adelaide International tournament. An image of Novak Djokovic in a red shirt making a speech during the trophy presentation in Adelaide popped into my head. I remembered being surprised at the time by how personable and gracious he was. Then it hit me: That was this year! It seemed impossible, so I checked it on the ATP’s web site. There was the photo of Djokovic holding the winner’s plate in Adelaide in January 2007; I even had the red shirt right. How far Nole would travel in the next 12 months!

What I’m trying to say is hardly news to anyone here: The tennis season is long. With all the travel, the various playing surfaces, and the mini-tours that lead-up to each Slam, it can seem like more like two or three or four seasons in one. As Boris Becker once said, a tennis player’s life should be measured in dog years. Djokovic’s long journey up the rankings and onto the media’s radar in 2007 is testimony to that.

You know about the downsides of an 11-month season. But let’s look on the bright side: It gives tennis writers and fans plenty of stories, moments, and matches to choose from when they make up their year-end Top 10 lists. Isn’t that worth a few injuries and burnout cases?

Casting my mind back over the season, I had a few more “did that really happen this year?” revelations. Did someone named Fernando Gonzalez actually crush his way to the Aussie Open final? Did the U.S. win a Davis Cup tie on clay? Did Xavier Malisse win two titles (he did, just in case it slipped your mind, in Chennai and Delray)? There were plenty of moments I won’t forget from 2007, and thousands that I already have. But here are the 10 I thought most worthy of going into Concrete Elbow’s personal historical record.

Some were big events, others personal favorites—it’s unlikely you’ll agree with, or even remember, my Andy Roddick choices. The only unifying theme was that they were highlights of my season as a fan. This may seem like an odd thing to say at a time when the relationship between the individual fan and his or her favorite sport has been downgraded, if not demolished. At this point, every move by every athlete is analyzed to tiny, pointless bits by an army of blowhard pundits seven days a week (not including CE, of course). Does today’s defenseless fan, out there alone against the forces of ESPN, still stand a chance of forming a unique response to a sporting event?

These are my individual responses from the 2007 tennis season. If you can cast your mind back that far, I encourage you to let us know a few of yours. The more obscure, the better.

10. Pete Sampras Teaches History
Like the ghost of tennis greats past, Sampras materialized at season’s end for three days and reminded us that he could play a little ball, not just in his day, but here and now. Balder and bigger than I remembered, the 36-year-old looked like a dad out at the public park trying to face down Roger Federer. Until he served, that is. One glimpse of that effortlessly snappy motion and its brutal result was enough to bring back 1990s tennis in all of its sporadic glory. And yes, its tedium as well—Pete still doesn’t play what I’d call an entertaining game.

In fact, his style seemed hard to believe. Here was a guy who wouldn’t let Federer get into a rally, let alone dictate one. The combination of Sampras’ serve and go-for-broke attack threw the world No. 1 off at times and made their exhibitions more competitive than anyone would have thought possible. In the process, Sampras showed us what today’s players aren’t doing against Federer, and made me think twice about handing Fed the Goat crown just yet.

9. James Blake Wins a Big One
It didn’t happen until his last match of the season, but Blake finally followed up his breakthrough 2006 with an important win. It came on the first Friday of the Davis Cup final between the U.S. and Russia. Blake was the question mark of the tie; even Andy Roddick, after his win earlier that day, begged the Portland crowd to help get his teammate past Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny. Blake, who had failed in this situation many times before for the U.S. team—he lost to Youzhny in the Davis Cup semis in Moscow last year—didn’t play the match of his life. But maybe what’s important is that he learned that he didn’t need to.

The American has been guilty of going for too much in the clutch, and he didn’t exactly hold back this time. In the end, though, he fought off a determined rally from Youzhny by keeping the ball in play and letting the Russian take his own turn at self-destruction in a fourth-set tiebreaker. The win doesn’t mean career redemption for Blake—there will be more disappointments in big matches—but it helped give the U.S. team a well-earned and long-delayed chance to celebrate a defining accomplishment for their generation.

8. The Vitches Take Paris
No matter what you thought of Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, or the Williams sisters as individual players and divas, there was a sense at the start of 2007 that the WTA was in dire need of new blood at the top of the sport. The only sure-fire star to emerge this decade had been Sharapova. Did we get another in 2007? Not quite, but we did see the collective ascent of a younger generation of ladies-in-waiting.

Most prominent among them were two Serbs, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, who finished the season No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, both career highs. They made their biggest splash at the French Open, where Jankovic beat Venus Williams to reach the semifinals (where she was soundly thrashed by Henin) and Ivanovic hammered Sharapova to make the final (where she was soundly thrashed by Henin).

In Paris, Ivanovic was bubbly off court and bruising on it. She harnessed the effortless power in her forehand and only came down to earth in a nervous final against Henin. Best of all was her attitude, which betrayed not a hint of entitlement—it was nice to see someone so obviously happy to be where she was.

Jankovic was equally winning on court and off. Her talk-first, think-later approach made her a press darling, and belied a serious work ethic. She played more matches than anyone—pretty much as many as humanly possible—but it was hard to get tired of her reckless athleticism, especially the way she launched herself into her backhand. Jankovic is worth watching if only to see her create a dozen distractions, then find a way to play through all of them.

Andy_mario7. Andy Roddick Shows His Many Sides
The image Roddick would like to remember most from 2007 came at the end of his last match, against Dmitry Tursunov in the Davis Cup final in Portland. Roddick finished with arms outstretched, the U.S. crowd applauding thunderously. Some people might have other memories of Roddick in '07—the deer in the headlights look he had by the end of his loss to Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon, perhaps.

For me, Roddick’s most memorable moments were more obscure, and revealing. The first came at the Australian Open, where he played one of the best matches of the year, a five-set tug of war with Mario Ancic. Roddick had started this tournament in an ugly way, berating the lower-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round for daring to hang with him in a first-set tiebreaker. The next week, Roddick, playing a guy he respected, turned his attitude around 180 degrees. Anyone watching his match with Ancic might have expected the winner to drop to his knees in celebration (this certainly would have been the case if Novak Djokovic had been involved), but when Roddick clinched it 6-4 in the fifth, he raised an arm calmly and . . . that was it. He had too much respect for his opponent and the match they had just played to rub his face in his defeat. Instead, Roddick and Ancic walked to the net for an old-school handshake—no hugs, no head rubs, just a nod of acknowledgement after a match well fought.

Fast-forward five months to the final at Queens Club. Roddick played Nicolas Mahut in an entertaining three-setter. The American couldn’t seem to decide whether he respected Mahut, even while the Frenchman was pounding him through the first two sets. Mahut reached match point and had an easy passing shot lined up. With his first career title on the line, he rushed and drilled the ball into the tape. Instead of turning around to walk back to the baseline, Roddick backpedaled and watched Mahut the whole way. The look on Roddick’s face was, simultaneously, one of shock, relief, scorn, intimidation, and, somewhere deep down in there . . . sympathy. He could relate. Mahut had, perversely, earned his respect at that moment.

How many other professional athletes, let alone tennis pros, can express anything like that range of emotions while they play? It's why we’ll miss Andy Roddick when he’s gone.

6. David Nalbandian Pulls Off a Double Double
Like Pete Sampras, Nalbandian did his own reappearing act as the season was winding down. His performance at the Madrid and Paris Masters events was nothing short of jaw-dropping. In Madrid, he beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer in succession for the title; in Paris he beat Federer and Nadal again, in—dare I say it?—routine fashion. Along the way, he gave us another version of tennis excellence circa 2007: Calm, smooth, never hurried, with a new and nasty serve and the same old effortless backhand. Nalbandian moved his famous opponents past the sidelines and finished points at net with ease.

Was there any reason to downgrade this performance because it came after the Grand Slams? Absolutely not—these were Masters tournaments, and the guys on the other side of the net were the best the world had to offer. The only downside for Nalbandian: Now he must show us something at the Australian Open.

5. Oracene Says “Keep Your Chin Up”
Serena Williams was looking awful at one point in the Aussie Open, most likely during her epic struggle with Shahar Peer. Williams was hitting off her back foot and sending balls 20 feet out. She stared up at her mom with that Serena-in-trouble face: Half enraged, half little girl about to cry. Oracene gave her the most concise and effective piece of coaching any player would get all year: She put her hand under he chin and lifted both up: “Keep your chin up!” was the message, and she wasn't talking about her daughter's technique. Serena immediately turned the match around and a few days later finished the tournament with the most outrageous performance of the tennis season, when she barraged Maria Sharapova in the final with laser-like winners from all over the court. Oracene, knowing her daughter better than any coach could, reminded Serena what the core of her game and identity has always been: her unshakeable self-belief. That was all she needed.

4. Novak and Radek Get a Little Wild and Crazy
Second-round matches don’t get much more colossal than the five-set, five-hour U.S. Open duel between Djokovic and Stepanek—imagine a neck-and-neck marathon, if you can. Every set went to 7-5 or 7-6, and every point was a mini-war of attrition, with both guys baiting each other, slicing safely, playing the angles, and then suddenly making breakneck charges to the net.

Second-round matches also don’t get much quirkier. Interspersed with all those carefully crafted points were a series of oddball antics that only got odder as the match progressed. First you had Stepanek lifting his leg and fist-pumping downward like he was tying a large knot, something he did even did after missing a backhand long. He took this a step further by adding a dance step with it, a move that Djokovic mimicked in slow motion after winning a huge point. As the match reached its apex with the fifth-set tiebreaker, Stepanek juiced up the crowd in his geeky way, by twirling his index finger above his head as he was getting set to receive serve. Oh, how I wish he had won that breaker, if only because he could have given New York, and the world, its best chance to see the Worm performed on a tennis court, in front of 10,000 people.

But it was Djokovic who got to drop to the court in the end, and deservedly so. While he would go on to put on his biggest show a week later with his night-match impersonations, this was the Djokovic performance that mattered. After five hours, a thousand strokes, and those wacky celebrations, when the match was on the line Djokovic refused to miss. It’s a show we'll be seeing again.

Jh3. Justine Almost Loses It
There were many Justine Henin moments to remember from 2007. With two majors, a 63-4 record, 10 titles, and the No. 1 ranking, this was a redemptive year for her, and maybe her best. I watched her hit dozens of brilliant backhands, forehands, volleys, and overheads (yes, real live overheads), cover every inch of every court she stepped on, fight off her nerves at crucial moments, and play rings around her bigger opponents.

So why is the Justine moment I remember more than any other the one where she came closest to losing control? It happened during the third set of her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Serena Williams. Henin was way up, but Serena was beginning to make a run. Justine was shaken and lashed out at her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, as she walked back to the baseline after losing a point. She seemed on the verge of an historic meltdown. It didn’t happen: Henin righted herself just long enough to finish Williams 6-3 in the third.

On the one hand, this was a moment when Henin and Rodriguez went too far with their on-court communication. On the other, it may have been the highest drama we saw in tennis all year. Besides the explosive forehands, backhands, and overheads, Henin gives us something that her male counterpart and fellow No. 1, Roger Federer, doesn’t—vulnerability at its most intense and dramatic.

2. Rafa Sacks Rome
Want to know where the press section is at a tennis tournament? Look for the empty seats. Or, failing that, look for the expressionless faces. Tennis reporters don’t get worked up too often; even if they wanted to, they’re not allowed.

Which makes the reaction of a few press guys to the Rafael Nadal-Mikhail Youzhny match in Rome this year something to remember. With each blistered—yes, that is the right word—winner off the Nadal racquet, the reporters in front of me were spinning around in their seats and making guttural noises. These weren’t Spanish press homers, either, but seen-it-all British adults. Their reactions weren’t inappropriate. There was something about the way Nadal was hitting the ball—the crack coming off the strings; the trajectory over the net, which was both high and flat; the penetration from way behind the baseline—that I had never seen before. It only took about four games before Youzhny was laughing as the ball screamed past him.

Improbably, Nadal maintained that level in his next match, against Djokovic. Ranging behind the baseline and far past the sidelines, he was like the most powerful and accurate backboard in the world—Djokovic’s shots were good, but they came back much, much better. All the Serb could do in the end was surrender. He deliberately dumped the ball into the bottom of the net on match point. Nobody blamed him.

As the year ends, the bloom is off Nadal, as it has been the last two seasons. He had another mediocre second half by his standards, losing twice to Nalbandian and getting crushed by Federer in Shanghai. But since this is a year-end wrap-up, let’s remember the first half that Rafa put together. He won his first title at Indian Wells and dominated on clay as always. His streak on that surface may never be broken. And I don’t know if anyone will match the kind of tennis he played in Rome in the coming year. I don’t expect to see tennis reporters spinning in their seats again anytime soon.

Fednad1. Roger Federer Claims the Belt
After Rome, I wrote that Federer and Nadal were like pro wrestlers who owned different world-championship belts, and that it was time they were unified. Well, I got the bout I wanted on the court that has become their neutral territory: the grass at Centre Court. Hey, they both love it there, and you couldn’t ask for a better spot!

Have we forgotten the power—the sun-drenched grandeur, even—of this match a little? I suppose with Nadal’s relative decline and the rise of Djokovic, the Wimbledon final of 2007 may have to wait a few years before it gets its full due. I watched it at my tennis club, on a small TV high in the corner of the room. I remember the match as a mix of the spectacular—have two guys ever covered a grass court like that?—and the grinding. The service holds piled up, and the feeling in the room was that Nadal was slowly tightening his grip.

Then he blew chances to break in the third set, and Federer grabbed it out of his hand in a tiebreaker. Same thing in the fifth—up 15-40 early in the set, Nadal sent a makeable backhand return long. He looked like he knew he’d just blown the whole thing, and he had. You can’t just fight well, you have to knock the champ out, they say in boxing, and Nadal left Federer on his feet one game too long.

Federer grabbed the set and the match this time, and he looked like a man just let out of jail as he did it. The forehands flowed from everywhere; he was in his fullest flight, as they say, and he may never soar higher. If you want to capsule up Roger Federer and send his essence to the future, you could start with the last four games of the 2007 Wimbledon final. But I thought he topped it with his speech during the trophy presentation. He said that he had told Nadal when they shook hands that they both deserved to win that day. It was a humble (and truthful) statement coming from a guy who had just won his fifth straight Wimbledon. But beyond that, the fact that Federer had taken the time, in the middle of his celebration, to console an obviously crushed Nadal at the net with those words made it a great act of friendship.

Even if Federer and Nadal never reach these heights together again, they’ve already done their share for this era of tennis. We mourn the Borg and McEnroe "era," but the peak of their rivalry lasted just two years. Then it was over for good. The same could happen to Fed and Rafa. Let’s give this match, and these two giants of tennis, their due right now.

OK, that’s it for Concrete Elbow for 2007. This has been the busiest year on this blog since I started doing it in ’05. I wrote more posts (this being the longest ever—sorry) and received more comments in return. I can say for sure now that getting immediate feedback from around the world is addictive. Having written only for magazines, I wasn’t quite ready to hear it from the readers when I started the blog—I was used to talking at people, not with them.

But like Pete Bodo over at Tennis World, I feel like the format offers much more, to me and to other readers, than a simple column. When I put up a post and finish reading all the (intelligent) comments on it, I know a lot more about the subject that I would have otherwise. There’s a density of knowledge that comes from a group, and which you can’t get from even the most thoroughly reported article. I feel like the blog surrounds it topics, and that there are 10, 20, 100 different, valid, and insightful ways of looking at them.

That doesn’t mean CE or TW are utopias. I’m aggravated by all the usual suspects: trolls, stat abusers, the Federer police, one-line ponies who read a thousand words I’ve written in praise of a certain player, then trash me for a single less-than-worshipful aside. I still have to brace myself before I click on the comments bar. At the same time, I wouldn’t want every comment to consist of “Great post, Steve!” (Actually, now that I mention it …)

Let me finish with a story I was told by a friend I met through this blog. I had dinner recently with TW regulars Asad Raza and Andrew Friedman (it’s hard to believe I've only known those guys since the spring). Asad recounted running into Patrick McEnroe at a restaurant and asking him about an upcoming Davis Cup match. PMac was shocked and very happy to hear that someone he was meeting randomly even knew what the Davis Cup was. Anyone who works in tennis in the U.S. understands what a rare and exciting feeling that is. I played squash with a guy from Peru a few weeks ago who mentioned that he had watched the Masters Cup. My first thought was, “Did someone just say the words ‘Masters Cup’ to me?” I was floored.

That’s what the blogs have been like for Pete and I. We’ve suddenly been put in a room with hundreds of people who know what the Davis Cup is, and who say the words “Masters Cup” all the time.

It’s been nice to meet you. Stick around, a new season isn't far away.

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Great Shots Wrap 12/21/2007 - 12:13 PM

GrafWe're coming to the end of our excursion into the game's greatest shots. The final two entries aren't strokes, but attributes: mental game (which will be revealed Monday) and movement. The latter award went to Roger Federer, which I'm not going to contest: No one has ever moved with such lethal elegance on a tennis court. He edges out Bjorn Borg on the men's side, in my mind, though I may have taken Steffi Graf over both of them. I remember her footwork—those Adidases bouncing like they were on hot coals—more vividly than any other player's.

Here's the roster of greats that Joel Drucker selected over the last two weeks; in parentheses, I've noted where I disagreed and made my own selection (I'm seriously hampered by having never seen the Aussie legends. As Joel has made clear, those guys were hard to beat when it came to the quality of their individual shots.)

Serve: Pete Sampras

Return: Jimmy Connors

Forehand: Roger Federer (I would have picked Steffi Graf's; her forehand wasn't nearly as smooth as Federer's, but she won 22 Grand Slams virtually with this shot alone)

Backhand: Ken Rosewall (Chris Evert—she changed the sport with hers, and made it her dominant side; Justine Henin needs an honorable mention as well)

Forehand volley: John Newcombe (I'm taking Joel's word; in my lifetime, I would choose Pat Rafter's)

Backhand volley: Martina Navratilova (might have taken Tony Roche here, on the evidence of the backhand volleys he hit in the Aussie Open match against Rod Laver that I linked to in the my last post—it was a bomb)

Overhead: Pete Sampras (original pick: Chuck McKinley; Joel changed his mind on this one. I never saw McKinley, though now I'd like to. I can't argue with Sampras.)

Lob: Ken Rosewall (in my time, I think I would go with Lleyton Hewitt)

Dropper: Manuel Santana (my favorite was his countryman, Manolo Orantes; might also pick Chris Evert)

Movement: Roger Federer (as I said, I might go with Graf here, but Federer is an equally good choice)

What have we learned from this exercise? A few things stand out to me.

—You don't have to own one of the greatest shots to have been one of the greatest players: Rod Laver is conspicuously absent from this list. He just did everything well. (Watching that clip of him against Roche, I'm starting to think Laver might have been the real Goat of all Goats, but that's a discussion for another day, or many other days.) At the same time, having a huge weapon doesn't hurt: Pete Sampras and Roger Federer own four of the 11 greatest shots between them.

—If you take the men and women together, the two keys to all-out dominance in the modern era are the forehand and a player's movement. Federer and Graf are superior in both of these areas, and they own 34 majors between them.

—Comparing the men and women in one list is a thorny issue. It's more fun to make a definitive "best ever" choice rather than picking two people for each stroke. But of the great shots, just one was awarded to a woman (Navratilova's backhand volley). I have to think that a bias toward the men's superior athleticism came into play here.

—Chris Evert has a reputation as a tennis metronome, but judging by this she had a more well-rounded game than she gets credit for. Her backhand was a standout, no one used the drop shot more expertly, and she had an excellent lob.

—Spaniards Manuel Santana and Manolo Orantes were cited for their drop shots, but their countryman and modern-day equivalent, Rafael Nadal, was left off that list entirely. Now it's true that Jurgen Melzer, who did make the cut, uses the dropper a lot, and he does it with two hands, which is something different. But we're not looking for quantity or novelty here. Nadal uses his drop more judiciously and successfully, and as far as I can tell, he employs it just the way Orantes did, often following it to net to knock off a floating reply. Is Nadal's absence a symptom of an aesthetic bias—typical among tennis purists—against his physical, rather than elegant, playing style?

—The Aussies. They own three of the 11, and could have been cited for more. This makes me wonder: Were they really a superior breed of tennis player, or do we just believe that because, well, we think everything was better in the past? There's a sense that they played tennis the way it was "supposed" to be played, using the whole court, and that today's baseline slugging is a soulless and twisted abberation.

Whether the subject is sports, movies, music, books, or anything else, I try to fight the "past was better" argument at every turn. But when I watch Laver and Roche from 1969, I can see the appeal. Lots of court coverage and movement; beautifully clipped strokes; an overall sense of logic, order, and civilized sportsmanship.

Or do I enjoy this simply because it's a novelty to see guys serving and volleying with wood racquets? If that became the dominant style again, would I quickly get sick of it and seek out clips of Nadal vs. Ferrer, to see the game played the way it was meant to be played, by baseline warriors? For now, I'll just say that the Aussies earned their selections. They set a standard, just as Federer, Nadal, and Henin are setting standards today—different times, different on-court needs, different standards. Comparing them isn't perfectly fair to anyone, but so what? Being a tennis fan would be so much less fun if we didn't.

There's one more great shot to go, and I've got one more post for the year, whch I'll try to get up this weekend. Thanks for all the discussion these last two weeks.

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The Great Shots, Week II 12/17/2007 - 11:48 AM

Mac_volleyIt's hard to get started on Mondays, isn't it? The weekend ended with a quiet Sunday evening of movie watching (recommended: The Wind That Shakes the Barley; no it's not a farming movie, it's about good stuff like firearms, revolution, and possible fratricide) and radio listening (click on the "Stochastic Hit Parade" show on WFMU to hear what Sunday night sounds like around my place). So it was a shock to have to brave the 20-degree gusts off the East River this morning and pile into a subway stuffed with winter coats, hats, and scarves (and the people somewhere inside them).

But I'm ignoring the Monday rust and getting an early post up, because's great shots series is beginning its second week. Today Martina Navratilova makes her first appearance, as the owner of the greatest backhand volley of all time.

She joins Pete Sampras (serve), Jimmy Connors (return) Roger Federer (forehand), Ken Rosewall (backhand), and John Newcombe (forehand volley) on the list of big shots revealed so far by our writer, Joel Drucker. The only choice I would take issue with is the backhand, which I would give to Andre Agassi, or maybe Gustavo Kuerten. The shot has developed quite a bit since Rosewall's day, and it's more important, relatively speaking, in today's baseline-oriented game than it was when the Aussies ruled and points were decided at the net.

Back to Navratilova. As with Sampras, fans who only saw Navratilova at the end of her career, or who only know her as a 40-something doubles specialist and side act, probably have trouble imagining her in her athletic prime. Few players, men or women, have ever moved so fluidly or explosively or hit so naturally. Rod Laver caught a glimpse of her when she was just getting started and pointed her out as someone to watch in the future. Other women had very good backhand volleys, but Navratilova's was a mix of flowing artistry and sharp-angled effectiveness. I can still picture her closing on the net with fast feet, her racquet cocked behind her right ear and her hair flying behind her.

On the men's side, I didn't see much of Tony Roche's or Rod Laver's backhand volleys, both of which I'm sure are justifiably famous. Check out the clip of their epic 1969 Australian Open semifinal below if you don't believe me. Roche's looks like a bomb of a volley, and Laver's is, well, Laver's. The Rocket won in four and a half hours on a hot day, 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 to begin his march to his second Grand Slam.

The backhand volley that sticks out to me is John McEnroe's. I was a huge Bjorn Borg fan as a kid and was crushed when he lost the 1981 Wimbledon final to McEnore. The shot that killed him, and me, was McEnroe's stretch backhand volley. Against most players, Borg could win points with his backhand pass up the line. Not against Johnny Mac, who kept sticking his racquet out and finding a way to angle the ball off crosscourt for winners of his own. If it wasn't the best ever, McEnroe's backhand volley might stand as most important to the history of the sport.

Any thoughts on these subjects are welcome. Who has been wrongly forgotten, underestimated, or overestimated in the great shots discussion?

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Playing Ball: The Insane Hustle 12/13/2007 - 5:56 PM

Niederhoffernayar1Did you know that squash is a trendy sport these days? No? You obviously haven’t been reading the Styles section of the New York Times. Either that, or you’re not a member of the city’s competitive-parent set, who have recently discovered that squash could be just the résumé-booster that their 5-year-old Miles or Dylan or Hadley or Julian needs to get them over the Ivy League hump one day.

Having grown up outside the East Coast proper, I only heard rumors of squash as a kid. Two cousins of mine played it at the Episcopal Academy, a prestigious Ivy League–feeder school in Philadelphia. I never saw a match and had only the sketchiest idea of how it was played, but the sport had a mythic quality to me. The name itself, whimsical but down to earth, and the rarefied surroundings in which it thrived, seemed infinitely more civilized than the indoor games I played in Small Town USA. Racquetball and wallyball at the Nautilus on East Third St. sounded so much less, well, worthy, than squash at the Merion Cricket Club.

It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I got my first look at squash. This was the American hardball version of the game, which was phased out in favor of the international softball style in the mid-90s. The courts were kept as cold as possible in those days. It felt like you were in a drafty barn as you sat in the bleachers with your knees glued together. Still, I thought squash was cool; it fed my curiosity about all things WASP and East Coast proper. The courts were whiter than white, the long, thin racquets looked preppy and lethal at the same time, and there was more emphasis on touch and placement than in tennis. The only problem was the big, foggy goggles the players had to wear. I doubted that even freshmen girls could forgive those. But I also remember thinking, with the cockiness of a tennis player coming to what I considered a minor-league game, “I could crush people in that sport.” Unfortunately, our tennis coach, who also coached the squash team, wouldn’t let us even set foot on the courts.

I was in my late-20s when I finally walked onto one. I was living in New York and had been struggling for years to find a reasonably convenient place to play tennis in the city. Courts were either too expensive, too far by subway, or too difficult to reserve, unless you got up at the crack of dawn. Even then, it was next to impossible to play for longer than an hour. The one place where you could play more, in a park along the East River, featured an open manhole just behind one of the baselines.

After quitting tennis, then coming back, then quitting again, then tentatively coming back, I met a guy in my office who suggested I try squash. He said New York is the only place in the world where it’s easier to play squash than tennis. He may be right. I joined the ultra-cheap YMCA on the Upper West Side, climbed the many staircases up to their squash floor (which consisted of two beat-up, converted racquetball courts), and found a group of guys—including, strangely enough, Rick Moranis—ready to play any time, any day of the week.

It didn’t take long to figure out why they were so devoted. The appeal of squash is simple: It’s a rush. From a tennis player’s point of view, it’s a condensed and speedier version of the game we know. The ball flies faster, bangs off walls at sharp angles, and forces you to shorten your strokes and quicken your first step. It’s a blur or white walls and a pinging black ball. Fifty minutes of it and you’re doubled-over.

There are a few immediate reasons that tennis players love squash. First, there’s only one grip needed—Continental—and one stroke, a short, hard chip that you use for both forehands and backhands. You only get one serve, which means it’s just a point-starter, so there’s no elaborate wind-up to master. The first time I played I came out blasting serves as hard as I could. It didn’t take me long to realize I was wasting tons of energy, as was as looking like the game’s first known roid-rage case. Best of all, it’s virtually impossible to hit the ball out in squash. All you have to do is get it over the “tin” (the equivalent of the net, but much lower) and you’re in the point. There’s no baseline to worry about, so you can blast away without fear. Hence the rush.

Unfortunately, I also found out that there are a couple reasons that tennis players struggle with squash. One of my first times out, Moranis (a fellow lefty) took my serve and hit a drop shot that nestled in just above the tin and died the way only a soft rubber ball can die. I didn’t move for it. The ball was all the way at the front of the court, seemingly far out of my reach. A couple points later I turned the tables with my own soft drop and waited for Moranis to congratulate me. Instead I stood dumbfounded as he took off toward the front wall—how could one of the McKenzie brothers move that fast?—and somehow wedged his racquet under the ball just as it was about to bounce for a second time. I continued to stand and watch as he flipped the ball just above the tin for his own counter-drop winner.

I stared at him for a second and said, “Don’t tell me your supposed to get those kinds of shots in this sport!”

“Yup. You’re supposed to get every shot in this sport,” he said, breathing hard.

I quickly learned he was right. Squash was, at bottom, not about strokes or power or touch. It was about hustle. Insane hustle. One of the sport’s origin myths, which mirrors my own story with Moranis, happened in India when the game was brought there by the English decades ago. In England, it had been a gentleman’s sport and a “shooting” contest (“shooting” means going for the equivalent of a winner). If you hit a great drop shot, that was it, you deserved the point and the other guy wasn’t going to run after it in his long pants. But the best Indian players started to do just that. They ran after the Englishmen’s drop shots, infuriating the old boys and turning the game into the battle of attrition that it is today.

In the end, the insane hustle only makes the squash experience more addictive. I’ve played as much as possible every winter since those days at the West Side Y seven years ago. It’s become an annual rite of fall: At the end of October, when the falling leaves get too thick to see the court at my tennis club, I put away the racquets and pull out the squash sticks. I play four times a week at a club near my apartment. It’s surprisingly easy to make the transition each year. There’s more running in squash, but there’s not as much upper-body exercise, so the fitness levels are similar. The one major difference is the respective footwork needed for each sport. They’re diametrically opposed: The biggest sin in tennis is to lung after the ball without using little steps. In squash, alll you do is lunge; there’s no time to do anything else. Each fall I head back to the squash court using little steps and watch the ball fly right past my racquet.

But it's always pleasing to return to the starkness of squash: The bright white walls bound by thin red lines, the small black ball that you pound straight down one wall and then send screaming across the court on the next shot; the extra intensity and competitiveness that comes from having two players in close proximity and jostling each other for position. It's pure, and vicious.

There’s a new language to learn as well. “Depth” in tennis is “length” in squash, as in “work on your length.” A down-the-line shot is a “rail” and a crosscourt shot is a “cross.” A volley is typically called a “cut-off.” A lob is, well, a lob. When it comes to picking up the ball, you never, ever pin it between your racquet and your shoe and lift your foot up, the way you do in tennis. I was called nothing less than a “dork” for doing that early on. Instead, you flick the ball off the court with the edge of your frame and send it off the nearest wall and back into your free hand.

I’ve gotten better at the game over the years, and I run my a-- off for drop shots. Unlike tennis, I have no youthful standard to hold myself to. My best days aren’t necessarily behind me—which is kinda nice. There are also more people to play at my level, including women, who regularly compete with men. For some reason, there are more competent squash players than there are tennis players. I wouldn’t say I prefer squash to tennis, but I’m glad I can split my year between them.

It’s been years since I felt addicted to tennis the way I do squash. It’s nothing less than a healthy drug. I played this morning at 8:00 for an hour with a regular partner, Lissa, a former captain of the Penn women’s team (I’ve entered the East Coast proper at last). It was a brutal wake-up call. We’re both shot-maker types who wrong-foot each other at least twice in every rally. We’re always stopping in our tracks and trying to get our bodies to turn 180 degrees in a millisecond. One guy who was watching us recently said, “There’s never a dull moment out there.”

In 10 minutes I was sucking wind; in 20 minutes I could feel my legs getting sore; in 30 minutes I looked up at the clock. It was 8:30 in the morning and I felt like I was in a war. It may have a preppy reputation, but remember, preppies also fill the Ivy League’s crew teams. I guess WASPs really do love to test themselves—or punish themselves. Good for all the little brats who are learning to play the sport in New York. They may not make the Ivy League, but they’ll know what a fight to the death is like.

Lissa went up 2-1 in games, but I was determined to force it to a fifth. The first step is the key in squash. The best players don’t just get to the ball, they get there early enough to have a choice with their next shot. I ignored my legs, my heart, my brain and pushed off just a little harder on my first step. As always, when I started to win points, I became less tired. That’s what momentum is all about in this game—playing well enough to ignore your exhaustion. I finally won the fourth game. My racquet fell out of my hand and clattered to the court. I staggered, gasping for breath, to the water fountain. On my way there, I thought, not for the first time, that nothing in the world beats a nice game of squash.

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The Great Shots Debate 12/11/2007 - 4:51 PM

KenNow that tennis fans are in a brief hibernation period—a nice, relaxing couple of weeks from my point of view—and we have a few minutes to breathe (or sleep), is filling the gap this week with a series by Joel Drucker on the greatest shots of all time.

Monday we found out that Pete Sampras had the best serve ever; Tuesday we were informed, somewhat more controversially, that Jimmy Connors owned the finest return; and Wednesday it was revealed that Roger Federer has the best forehand of all time.

It's hard to argue with the Sampras pick. His serve was a model of effeciency and deadly in many ways. It was fast, heavy, and wickedly spun, and it always ended up right in the corner on a big point. It was the ultimate insurance weapon; having it in his back pocket allowed Sampras to relax and take more chances with the rest of his game. And it's still working. Even Roger Federer struggled against the 36-year-old version last month.

The only modern serve I can think of that challenges Sampras' is Goran Ivanisevic's laser lefty delivery. I feel like Sampras still could have won majors (though not 14) even if his serve had been a bit less stellar. It's hard to guess how far the explosion-waiting-to-happen known as Goran would have gone if his serve had been anything less than extraordinary. (Then again, he may have been forced to develop another major weapon if that had been the case.)

The best return is harder to pick, at least among the men. I'd say we've got Connors, Agassi, Hewitt, and Federer (Seles' and Venus' are pretty strong on the women's side). I'll eliminate Hewitt because he's not quite of the stature of the others. Federer's is the most consistent of the remaining three; he has an uncanny ability to read even the biggest serve and get his strings there in time to calmly put the ball back in a good spot. Agassi was the most aggressive with his return. He regularly guessed where the serve was going because he wanted to be offensive with his return and take away the server's advantage right away. Connors was also a fierce hitter, especially on the backhand side; but, as Drucker says, Connors had to deal with more serve-and-volleyers than those guys. In other words, he had to be more exact with his placement on his return.

It's a compelling argument. For me, it's a toss-up between Agassi and Connors. Having seen Andre rip so many returns over the years, it's hard for me to believe that anyone can do it better.

Any thoughts on these subjects?

I'll be back with a couple more posts, including a "best moments of '07" wrap-up, before shutting down for the year.

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Deep Tennis: Disrupting the Cup 12/06/2007 - 4:51 PM

With the Davis Cup finished and nothing much on the horizon, here's a DC-based Deep Tennis, simulcast as always at No Mas.

“Steve, the U.S. win in Davis Cup was impressive, but I was surprised by how civilized it was. I remember Davis Cup being pretty volatile and political back in the day. What were some of the crazier things that happened?”

You’re right on both counts. The atmosphere for last weekend’s U.S.-Russia Cup final was completely apolitical. Andy Roddick said the only thing he remembered about the Cold War was Rocky vs. Drago, and when Dmitry Tursunov, a Russian who lives in California, was asked what the two countries had in common, he said they both “have owned Alaska.” What you probably remember were the Davis Cup’s angry glory years of the early 80s, when little Johnny McEnroe, just out of his teens, was providing the thrills and chills. He led the U.S. to the title in ’81 and ’82 while almost being defaulted by his own captain, Arthur Ashe, for his behavior during a doubles match in '81 (at the same stadium where the U.S. beat Russia last weekend, Portland’s Memorial Coliseum).

Those were wild times, but you wouldn’t say Mac was a political figure, exactly, unless you count the time he yelled at a linesman during a home tie, “Are you an American!!!???” It was in the years just before his arrival, the early-to-mid 1970s, when Davis Cup, like a lot of other sporting events, went current events on us. The background was the Cold War, but the far-reaching nature of the Cup—every tie is played on one country’s home soil; there are no neutral sites—put it in the crosshairs of local conflicts around the globe.

19leadvijayold1At the start of the 70s, the Cup’s format was also changing. For decades, the champion received a de facto bye into the following year’s final, called the Challenge Round. This helped the U.S. and Australia, the world’s two tennis super-powers, maintain a choke hold on the event (the two still own far more titles than any other nation). With the advent of Open tennis and the game’s continued spread to non-Anglo corners of the world, the champs’ free ride to the Challenge Round was abolished and pros were grudgingly allowed to participate, though not fully until 1973. (Davis Cup is run by tennis’ old-guard, amateur-era ruling body, the International Tennis Federation, which as of 1977 was still known as the International Lawn Tennis Association. A musty, traditional quality clings to the Cup even now—each round is known as a “tie” and individual matches are “rubbers”; the matches that don’t count end up with the coolest name of all: “dead rubbers.”)

At the same time, international politics was increasingly visible on the sports landscape. The most famous example was the kidnapping of Israeli weightlifters by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972, but tennis wasn’t far behind. A month later, the same terrorist group, Black September, issued death threats against two Jewish members of the U.S. Davis Cup team, Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon, as they were getting ready to go to Romania to play the final. Gottfried said no one was overly bothered by it; the team had “played the whole year surrounded by guys in raincoats with machine guns.”

He was probably referring to a tie that the U.S. had played earlier that season in socialist Chile, a hotbed of anti-Americanism at the time. There the team’s captain, Dennis Ralston, had received his own death threat. A year later the U.S. government helped engineer the successful Pinochet coup in Chile, which brought a whole new round of political protests to the sports world. These peaked in Davis Cup three years later when Sweden, led by 19-year-old Bjorn Borg, hosted the Chileans in Bastad. Swedes protesting the Pinochet regime promised to disrupt the tie and even threatened to kill Jaime Fillol, a Chilean player. (Who knew the Swedes had it in them?) Chile tried to get the tie moved to a neutral site. They were denied and the tie was played “almost in private and under heavy guard on a court besieged by protesters,” as DC historian Alan Trengove put it. “Armed boats patrolled the harbor, aircraft hovered overhead, and huge nets around the stadium protected the players from projectiles hurled by demonstrators.” A thousand policeman were called in for protection.

There were many incidents in this vein around the world in Davis Cup. But it was South Africa and its apartheid government that would prove to be the most long-lasting problem, and lead to a particularly low moment for the competition. The country had been part of the Anglo tennis establishment for decades. They didn’t produce a dynasty, but they gave tennis one of its finest doubles teams, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan—they won a career Grand Slam together—as well as one of its quintessential characters, Cliff Drysdale. But at the start of the 70s, South Africa’s inclusion in both the new men’s tour and the Davis Cup were controversial. Arthur Ashe protested at a tour meeting, but Drysdale, the ATP's founder, said that his tennis federation shouldn’t be lumped in with his government. As for Davis Cup, the ITF had banned South Africa in 1970. Three years later, Ashe was invited to play a tournament in Johannesburg, in part because the country wanted to be considered for re-inclusion in the Cup. Ashe famously accepted and reached the final.

South Africa was readmitted to Davis Cup the following year; the ITF saw the country's tennis federation as a separate entity from its government. The sport's officials were trying, in their way, to keep politics out of the game. But they only succeeded in tying the two closer together, with dire consequences for the Davis Cup.

First, Argentina refused to play South Africa in the opening round in 1974 and defaulted. Then the Chileans wouldn’t play them on their home soil, forcing the tie to be moved to Colombia. South Africa, anchored by Drysdale and Hewitt and McMillan, won there and at home against Italy. Suddenly, the world pariah was in the Davis Cup final, where they were scheduled to play India, led by Vijay Amritraj (pictured above).

Except that the Indian government refused to let its team play. The South Africans had the home-court advantage but were willing to go anywhere. India’s tennis federation wanted to play, but the government, which said that an Indian ethnic minority was being oppressed in South Africa, was having none of it. So, as it says in the record books today, the 1974 Davis Cup champion was South Africa, in a walkover.

Bizarrely enough, the country remained in the competition until 1978. In ’75, Colombia and Mexico defaulted to them; the next year Mexico did the same again; and in 1977, a protester in California got into a violent on-court confrontation with U.S. captain Tony Trabert during a tie between the Americans and South Africans (the U.S. won 4-1). By the middle of '77, 15 countries had withdrawn from the competition in protest. Finally, in 1979, as the DC was reconsolidating itself into the World Group format that it uses today, South Africa was banished once again, this time until 1992 and the demise of apartheid.

Sports have their share of plagues now: steroids, potential match-fixing, multi-million dollar player salaries, and media overexposure, among others. You could say putting politics into the mix just made sports in the 70s even uglier, but it also made the games more honest—they couldn’t hide behind the “entertainment” façade. Looking back, the disruptions of Davis Cup in the 70s seem shockingly, even satisfyingly, weighty compared to the issues we blather on about today.

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DC Wrap 12/03/2007 - 1:58 AM

DcOn Saturday Andy Roddick was asked if he cared whether the final score against Russia ended up being 5-0. He said no (obviously), because he didn’t have any “Belichick in me.” With that in mind, I won’t do any beside-the-point analysis of Sunday's matches, except to say that Bob Bryan looked a little better in singles than I remembered. Matt Cronin from Inside Tennis mentioned this weekend that he still couldn’t believe Bob had given up his singles career, and that he would have been solidly in the Top 50. He may be right.

Instead, here are 10 odd-and-sods-style observations from the weekend that didn’t make it into my other posts.

1. If only doubles had the kind of presentation that it gets in Davis Cup more often. Halfway through the first set on Saturday, I realized that I was more involved in the dubs from point to point than I had been in during the singles. You have the rapid-fire points, the hands at net, and the variety that comes from seeing four players and four styles. All of which is so much better when every point means something. How do you create this kind of forum for doubles on the tour? Jon Wertheim, a big supporter, suggested one way would be to put doubles finals on before singles finals at majors.

2. Was there local interest in the Cup? A moderate amount, I'd say. Posters of the U.S. team were plastered on lightposts downtown. There was a brief feature on the local news each night (one local female newscaster thought the Bryans were “cute” because “you know, they’re twins”). The Oregonian covered it on the front page of its sports section, though the New York Times had more coverage, with news pieces by Chris Clarey and columns by Harvey Araton.

3. Did Shamil Tarpischev, the Gary Kasparov of tennis, finally slip up? I wondered about his decision not to play Igor Andreev in singles. He has a 2-1 record against Roddick, though Blake has owned him, winning all five of their matches. Tarpischev could have slotted Andreev at No. 2 and sent him in against Roddick on Friday. But it's true that Andreev is not a fast-court guy (Roddick straight-setted him at Wimbledon in 2005), and no one expected Tursunov to lay an egg like that.

What was funny was watching Tarpischev basically blame it all on Youzhny while the guy was sitting right next to him at the press table. Tarp said that his plans—to send in Andreev and Davydenko on Sunday with the team down 1-2—were blown because he expected his No. 1 to win. Youzhny didn’t look bothered by the comments, and I’m sure Tarpischev didn’t mean anything disparaging by them. He thought he was going to win, that’s all. But it was hard to imagine Pat Mac saying the same thing about Roddick with Andy 2 feet away.

4. The USTA and music: hopeless?

Songs heard before matches: “For Those About to Rock”; “Theme from Star Wars.”

Song played by marching band during the doubles: “Call Me” (yes, it’s from a movie about a gigolo).

Song played when the U.S. got close to victory in each match: “Louie, Louie.”

Songs played after matches: “Wooly Bully,” and after the clincher, Neil Diamond’s “America.”

On second thought, “For Those About to Rock” did indeed rock, and during the Blake match “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” ripped its way through the arena. It sounded downright evil in that setting.

5. Wayne Bryan, the bros highly verbal father, was his usual ubiquitous self. On Thursday morning, I saw him sit down with a writer for an interview in the hotel restaurant. I left, drove to the Coliseum, waited in a long line to get my credential, and returned to the hotel two hours later. There was Wayne, still chattering away at the same table, to the same poor woman.

On the night before the doubles, another journalist and I ran into him in the lobby. He rarely watches the bros live; both sides get too tense. Believe it or not, Wayne had planned to fly to Chicago on Saturday, the day his sons would be playing in the DC final, to emcee a senior event with Jim Courier. But at the last minute, when it was clear that Bob and Mike had a very good chance to clinch, he changed his mind and stayed. The next day he was at the center of a huge group of Bryan family members, all in matching T-shirts

6. Roddick was asked a couple of times during the week whether he remembered anything about the Cold War. He said no, except, of course, for Drago vs. Rocky. At the end of that answer, as another reporter began a new question, Roddick looked up with a mock-concerned look: “That was a movie, right?” The guy loves playing dumb.

7. Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri were also in the house. They came along as high-level practice partners, though Ginepri also seemed to have been drafted as a figure of fun for Blake and Roddick. In the buzzy post-clinch presser, the two begged us to “ask Robby Ginepri a question!” Roddick said, “Ask him to multiply something!” Someone finally went to Fish instead, who excitedly pulled the mike up to his face and said, “Bring it!” He was asked how it felt to watch the victory on the sidelines. Fish gave a warm answer about how everyone from the trainers to the practice players were made to feel like they were part of this team.

Ginepri did get a question at the end, but his answer was not as memorable as Roddick and Blake promised us it would be—he may have gotten farther into the champagne than the others. Afterward I saw Ginepri walk past Donald Young, who was doing a one-on-one interview, and pull the unsuspecting teen's sweat pants down. The next day, Bob Bryan said about the previous night’s celebration, "I left around 1:00 because I knew I was probably going to be on the card. But I guess, you know, Robby Ginepri got back at 5:00 in the morning. Some guys went a little deeper.”

8. Both Friday and Saturday, in the midst of the over-the-top pre-match build-up, the blaring music was silenced and the swirling lights were dimmed for the Russian national anthem. A woman from the Portland area came out in an evening dress (in the early afternoon) and sang it beautifully. The Russian team put their arms around each other, swayed a little, and sang along. It was something for them to hold onto in a sea of Americana.

9. Did you see the ball boy take a tumble during the Blake-Youzhny match? At 5-5 and deuce in the second set, a very tense moment, he knocked off a singles stick while gathering up a netted first serve by Youzhny. The delay forced the chair umpire to give the Russian a first serve, to Blake’s irritation. Youzhny hit an ace and slapped five with the ball boy. I had to root hard for Blake to win that set, so the kid couldn’t be held responsible for losing the Davis Cup for the U.S.

10. As for Portland itself, I didn’t get to see enough, and what I did see was often through driving rain. I went to two very good restaurants and visited the outstanding Powell’s bookstore (purchased: a cool old paperback of Cheever’s Wapshot Chronicle; ditto for Wilcox’s Modern Baptists; and a collection of SI legend Dan Jenkins). If I lived here, I would almost certainly waste hours, days, weeks, months in that place. I also spent a late night in a hotel bar where a room full of strangers were involved in one big, heated discussion of the BCS.

Sunday I met up with the former editor of Puncture, a defunct rock magazine that I wrote for during the 90s. It was a true blast from the past, back into another life when music, movies, and books were life-and-death subjects. Steve is the editor’s name, and he told me today that he and his wife had moved to Portland 15 years ago because they “didn’t want to have jobs.” They’ve succeeded in this fairly low-rent town in avoiding the 9 to 5 world while still publishing magazines and books.

We had a good time doing what you do in Portland, sitting in a coffee shop and talking about how we could get our hands on some Jamaican gospel records (any ideas?). I told Steve that I’d heard an old favorite band of ours, the Clean, had played a reunion show in a small club in New York this weekend. “I’ll bet that would have beaten the Davis Cup,” he said. Would it have? Not quite, I finally decided: The Clean were a great band, but they’ll play again someday, somewhere. The U.S. team breaking a 12-year Davis Cup drought in front of a home crowd? That's not happening again any time soon.

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Answering the Questions 12/01/2007 - 10:47 PM

ArjbIn the third set of Saturday's doubles match, just after the Bryan brothers had broken for the first time and put one hand firmly on the Davis Cup, the big screen at the top of Memorial Coliseum flashed back to the last time the U.S. was in this position, in 1995. That was against the Russians as well, and the screen was full of the man who beat them single-handedly and in dramatic fashion that year, Pete Sampras. I looked toward the sideline to see whether the player he beat to clinch that weekend, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, happened to be watching. Instead, it was Andy Roddick who was standing, his full attention on the screen above. When the clip ended and Sampras was shown saying, "it was one of the greatest accomplishments of my career," Roddick clapped loudly and nodded in satisfaction.

Those well-known pictures of Sampras winning and falling to the clay in agony must have been an inspiration to Roddick for years, but his relationship to them was about to change. After seven years of toiling in Ostrava, Bratislava, Seville, Göteborg, and dozen of other far-flung tennis outposts, he wasn't going to have to live up to those legendary images anymore.

Neither were James Blake and Patrick McEnroe, or Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri, for that matter. That's because their teammates, the Bryan brothers, after two close sets, had broken the serves and spirits of their Russian opponents Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev. The Bryans would get one more break for good measure, and after Bob popped a volley off the court and into the stands, this generation of American men finally had a team title to call their own.

The third point in the tie was never seriously in doubt Saturday, but for a set and a half it hadn't exactly been easy. One shot-maker can do a lot of damage on a doubles court, even if the format isn't his specialty, and Igor Andreev proved that today. We know he has one of the most explosive forehands around, but watching it up close I was surprised by how viciously he cuts at it. In his practice session in the morning I thought he was swinging as hard as he could just for the hell of it. But as the match began it was clear this was how he hits it all the time—by the end of the match I was half-expecting his arm to fly off.

To warm them up for Andreev, the Bryans had asked Robby Ginepri to hit his forehand "as hard as he could." That's about all you can do to get ready for it, but Andreev still set the bros back on their heels with a few nasty returns and mid-court bullets. More surprising was Andreev's skill around the net. Despite his beyond-extreme forehand grip, he adjusted well up there and knocked off a series of angled backhand volleys, including one that he flicked in the opposite direction at the last second. The Russians stayed back even on their first serves and never poached—returns from the Bryans that would have been mauled by most teams floated down the middle of the court unharmed—but they still matched the Americans hold for hold.

No matter how vicious, you can only rely on ground strokes for so long against a net-crowding team who knows what it's doing. The Russians went up 3-1 in the tiebreaker, but that's when they finally fell back to earth. The turnaround came at 3-3, when Bob outrallied Andreev in a crosscourt forehand exchange. Three points later, Andreev, hero of the first 12 games, double-faulted the set away for the Russians. When Davydenko was broken one game later, the floodgates were open.

At that point, the Bryans appeared to begin moving in fast forward. They walked more quickly between points, knuckle-bumped in a hurry, and snapped off their volleys with more disdain. Each of them foot-faulted at least once—they may have just been in too much of a rush to throw themselves into the court and put the team one point closer to the Cup.

As for the Russians, they kept firing forehands into the Bryans defenses but couldn't find a way through. Three blasts from the baseline would just lead to a fourth that flew long. The Bryans kept moving forward, into the Russian attack—Mike knocked one forehand volley for a winner as he was ducking. The Bryans crowded closer and closer to the net, as if it were the finishing line for the Davis Cup and they were in a neck-and-neck race to pound each ball away. Two points before they reached that finish line, the crowd made them pause for a deafening roar and the big-screen camera panned to Roddick, who had tears in his eyes.

Throughout the week, Roddick said that even after seven years, getting to play Davis Cup for his country remained a "surreal experience." When a reporter told him that his win Friday tied him with Arthur Ashe for Davis Cup victories, Roddick looked dumbstruck. He was silent for a second, then said that hearing his name with Ashe's was "insane."

Unlike the Bryans, Fish, or Blake, Roddick still strikes me as an accidental tennis player, a guy who might have naturally gone to baseball or basketball. He says his parents didn't know anything about tennis when they were younger, but they liked individual sports so they put his older brother, John, in a clinic as a kid. Eventually Andy followed him onto the court.

Roddick is a cocky guy, no question, but he still brings a "do I really deserve to be here?" attitude to representing the U.S. The fact that he's had to live with names like Agassi, Sampras, and Courier ringing in his ears hasn't helped. When he reached No. 1 in 2003, he might have plausibly believed that he was going to succeed them as the next great American champion. It hasn't worked out that way in the Grand Slams, but that's only made the quest to win a Cup—a tradition among top U.S. players—that much more important to Roddick.

Today's win is the culmination of years of team effort from a group of guys who have taken a lot of criticism. But it's Roddick's win more than anyone else's. He's the guy who has played everywhere, played hurt, and made a specialty of clinching ties. His dedication to DC, which has been deeper for a longer period of time than Sampras' or Agassi's was, let people know that the U.S. cared about the event again. For years, the best American players were more committed to winning individual major titles than Davis Cup titles; now the U.S. may be more committed to the team concept than any other country (we'll see what happens now that they've won it, but that's not a question for today). One reason the Americans won this weekend is simply that all of their best players were there, while one of Russia's, Marat Safin, didn't show.

We could hear the boys coming in the press room today. Blake, Roddick, Ginepri, Pat Mac, the Bryans, John Isner, Donald Young, and other assorted hangers-on chanted "U.S.A.!" on the way in. They careened through the door with cups in their hands, their hats on sideways, and what I can only assume was beer all over their shirts. As Roddick sat down, he yelled to the room at large, "I'm not answering sh--!"

When it comes to his place in U.S. Davis Cup history, he doesn't have to anymore.

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Going Up Swinging 12/01/2007 - 5:30 AM

2007_12_01_blake The tennis fans of America were out early and often in Portland Friday morning. Walking past the restaurant at my hotel at 8:00, I passed a blur of red, white, and blue hats, shirts, scarves, and bow-ties sitting down to breakfast. Coming in the opposite direction, through the revolving doors, was a family in matching red sweat shirts that said “Bryans’ Bunch.”

There was a lot more of the same over at Memorial Coliseum, which was remade into ground zero for U.S. tennis for the day. A little before 1:00, the arena went dark, lights swirled on the ceiling, and what sounded like the theme from Superman filled the air. A sea of stars and stripes washed over the bleachers: There were red, white, and blue cowboy hats, baseball hats, rasta caps, rattles, Frisbees, sweat shirts, kazoos, cow bells, batons, pom-poms, drums, horns, basketball nets stretched across dudes' skulls, and my favorite, two guys in the front row done up as Captain America and Uncle Sam. (They let the Russians hear it all afternoon.) As the players were announced, firecrackers went off, thunderstix smacked, and the big screen above exhorted us to chant the letters of our country (“you-ess-ayy!”). Jon Wertheim, standing next to me, leaned over and pierced the moment just in time: “That’s what I love about the USTA,” he said. “The subtlety.”

That wasn't all they had in store for us. Between games, just in case someone in the audience couldn’t go 90 seconds without being entertained, we had jugglers, ring-tossers, cheerleading squads, T-shirt throwers, a 9-year-old singing the national anthem, and a decent-sized marching band with their own section halfway up the bleachers (head-scratching song choice: “Don’t You Love Me, Baby?”). Combine that with the 1970s-era seating in the Coliseum, and the whole thing felt like a cross between the Donny & Marie Show and Robert Altman’s Nashville.

In other words, we were throwing the kitchen sink at Russia's Dmitry Tursunov. Even better, we were throwing Andy Roddick’s serve at him, on a court that Tursunov said was “laid out for Andy especially, for his serve.” Roddick, who added that the surface “took” all of his service spins well, hit his heater up the middle, sent bullets wide in the ad court, and slid the ball away from Tursunov on the deuce side. He finished with 24 aces, many just when he needed them.

Roddick saved some of the biggest of all for the longest game of the match, when he served at 5-4 in the first and held seven set points. By the end, he was audibly huffing and puffing as he scrapped to stay in points from the baseline. When the rallies ended, he rared back for another monster first serve. After a 146 and a 143, I wondered how many he had in him. Just enough, it turned out, as he finished the set with a 147-m.p.h. unreturnable heave.

This was a vintage Roddick win in many ways. He scrapped with his ground strokes and bombed with his serve—has there ever been a player with a serve like his who had such a fundamentally defensive mindset? But Roddick also did everything well Friday. His slice, an odd stroke that he hits—chops, I should say—with his legs completely straight and standing on his tippy-toes, was more effective and varied than usual. He floated it just deep and soft enough into the corner so that Tursunov had time to run around and either go for too much or leave himself out of position. After the match, Roddick said his strategy had been to stay consistent on his return games and wait for the streaky Russian to hit a bad patch. It couldn’t have worked any better.

Tursunov was despondent and resigned in his presser, virtually conceding the tie to the U.S. He had played an odd and, as he said, “passive” match, only focusing when he got down multiple break points, which he did many times. That’s when he played his calmest tennis and put together complete points rather than gunning away from behind the baseline. Tursunov remains a difficult character to understand, particularly for a pro athlete. If you’ve ever wondered why irony is often the furthest thing from a jock’s personality, look no further than the always-facetious Tursunov. He doesn’t have the blind belief in himself that's common to many of the most successful athletes. Like his fellow Russian Marat Safin, Tursunov looks like he plays tennis out of obligation to his talent rather than joy in competition. Today he brought out his best game long enough to stay close to Roddick, but his negative body language—he often walks around between points with his racquet head pointed loosely at the ground, which makes his whole body slump—was enough to let you know he wasn’t about to do any front running today. There was something about cursory about his performance, and he knew it afterward.

By the time I got back to my seat, James Blake, traditional loser of second Davis Cup rubbers, was just where I didn’t expect him to be: up 4-1. The first backhand I saw him hit was as free and fluid as Justine Henin’s. He was mixing up speeds on his serve, tracking down everything, and not missing any forehands when he had time to set up for them.

That’s how it went for most of the first two sets. Blake improvised with a surer hand than usual and out-backhanded one of the best backhands around. The testy Russian, meanwhile, was testier than usual. He wasn’t just fighting Blake, but was also in a running battle with the ball kids, none of whom could do anything quickly enough to suit him. A few times, after a kid dropped a ball or was slow to get Youzhny his towel, he looked up at the chair umpire as if to say, “See what I have to deal with?”

Still, his body language was better than Tursunov’s, and it was only a matter of time before he clawed his way in. Youzhny started to open up the court with angles and combinations, and matched Blake’s power from the baseline. The result was a lot of winning tennis from both guys in the last two sets, as they traded bombs from the baseline and flying fist-pumps to celebrate them.

Then each of them took turns blinking. Blake, serving for the match and essentially the Davis Cup, missed first serves, forced two forehands and made errors, and was broken at love. The question that Blake had appeared all afternoon to be ready to put to rest—are you tough enough?—was in the air again. You could pretty much taste it a few minutes later, when Youzhny went up 2-0 in the tiebreaker and looked like a lock to reach a fifth set.

Whether it was the energy in the building or mental exhaustion from having battled back so far, Youzhny couldn’t cross the threshold. At 3-3, he missed a return badly, and then made his dumbest move of the afternoon. Rather than make Blake win it under pressure, Youzhny tried a drop shot, something he hadn’t done much all day. He stoned it and went down 5-3. Blake could see the finish line; the crowd, the moment, the momentum pushed him across.

Afterward, Blake said he’d wanted to prove his critics wrong and show he could win a big match (though he then denied this, implausibly, in his presser; his line amounted to: “I never think about those negative articles that I keep happening to mention.”) But Blake was right in saying that he had learned from his tentative performance in the semifinals in Sweden, and that he was going to go down swinging today. It was a simple approach that helped him stay positive through the long fourth set, when he easily could have started rushing or hanging his head, which has been his standard reaction in the past.

Until the final point, though, I had trouble believing Blake was going to break that pattern. In the middle of the fourth-set tiebreaker, I noticed Roddick on the sideline staring at the ground, his hands on his head. He looked the way I felt—I just didn’t want to see Blake lose this match, this way, in this setting. After Youzhny botched his drop to make it 5-3, Blake hit a fantastic reflex crosscourt return winner, a shot only he would try. The crowd broke loose; it was suddenly match point. In the press section at tennis tournaments there’s an iron law against applauding, but when Blake hit that return my arms shot forward in an automatic reaction. I wanted to put my hands together, but deep habit held me back. Captain America and Uncle Sam looked like they had it covered anyway. Now I wish I had joined them. James Blake deserved a hand today.

First question for Saturday: What’s the over/under on the number of chest bumps the Bryan brothers give us? Kamakshi and I are making a conservative estimate of 12.

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Droll Ceremony 11/29/2007 - 9:11 PM

2007_11_30_davis “Portland, who would have thought?”

These were the words of a British TV producer waiting with me in a very slow-moving press-credential line this morning inside Memorial Coliseum. I confess that I had a similar thought when my plane floated in under the ever-present low-hanging clouds here at 11:30 last night. Unlike the east coast, where the lights of the suburbs thread out for hundreds of miles around any city, flying into Portland you get nothing but blackness below, until you come over a hill and discover the town nestled in a valley all by itself. If you were a Russian player, you could be forgiven for wondering how the USTA ever found this place.

In part it’s a marriage of convenience. Davis Cup is a tough thing to plan for. The organization can’t book a site until it’s sure the team is going to make it to the next round, and it has to find an arena with nothing scheduled for a full week, because Davis Cup rules stipulate that each team must have that much time to practice on the surface. Hence: the Memorial Coliseum in Portland, former home of the NBA’s Trailblazers, who sold out every game there for 10 straight years (their current arena is across the street).

By the time I walked out of the Coliseum this morning, I felt like this somewhat-remote location made sense in the end, at least for my conception of Davis Cup. Part of the appeal of DC for me is that it’s a prestigious event followed avidly by tennis fans but virtually unknown to the rest of the sporting world. Have you ever tried to explain how it works to someone? No wonder it’s off everyone’s radar. I’ve had ESPN on in the background for an hour now while writing this, and I haven’t heard one word about the fact that the U.S. is trying to win its first men’s team tennis title in 12 years. Good! Let’s keep Davis Cup in the family. We know what it means. Isn't that enough?

The Coliseum has an innovative design. All the support structures are on the outside, so there are no beams obstructing any part of the view inside. It was famous for being an intimate venue for basketball, and there’s no reason it won’t be for tennis. The 12,000 tickets offered for DC were gone in 20 minutes.

The court looks pretty quick. I caught the tail end of a James Blake hit; he was pretty sharp and all business. On the other hand, according to Chris Clarey of the NY Times, Igor Andreev was having trouble adjusting his long strokes to it.

All of which brings us to the player selections made today at the draw ceremony, which was held in the Portland Performing Arts Center at high noon. In reality, the dreary skies made it impossible to tell what time it was, but there was a stab at festive promotional fanfare nonetheless. Fans, press, and assorted tennis quasi-VIPs—“holy sh--, is that Cliff Richey?”—gathered in the lobby of the Arts Center to await the arrival of the two teams, who were supposed to walk through the front doors and down a red carpet to the accompaniment of a marching drum corps.

We duly gathered and waited. A live guitar-and-violin combo calmed us with Scottish ballads. Then the drums began and the cameras started clicking. The Russians were here: Andreev, taller in person and totally impassive with his hands in his pockets; Tursunov, even taller and somewhat thinner in person; Youzhny, stone-faced; Tarpischev, smaller than you might think and looking like an actor who I can’t place (Joel Drucker says it’s Gary Shandling, but I’m not sure about that); and finally Davydenko, who, after all the press attention of the last few months, suddenly has starpower. All five hesitate at the front door, then walk down the carpet, shake hands with Bud Collins (they're happy to see Bud; even Youzhny gives him a big smile), and head for a bank of elevators. There they stop, unsure of whether to get into one. Bringing up the rear in their crew is Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who has . . . well, let’s just say he’s a little heavier now.

In the meantime, the Americans have arrived. There’s no hesitation here. Andy Roddick puts his head down and leads the team straight to the elevators, where they get on the first one available. The Russians are left to fidget until the next one comes.

Upstairs, the draw ceremony, or “droll ceremony,” as ITF chairman Francisco Ricci Bitti pronounces it, begins with the teams standing for a long time on either side of a theater stage, listening to speeches. Davydenko is loose, jumpy, and all smiles; he and Tarpischev seem to be making fun of someone’s shoes. On the other side, the Americans stare at the floor and give away nothing. Roddick finally claps when the speeches are over and the referee is announced. It’s time to get down to business and find out who, after weeks of speculation, he’s going to be playing this weekend.

Is this why Davydenko is so loose? The referee announces that Russia’s top-ranked player has been left off the singles roster in favor of Youzhny at No. 1 and Tursunov at No. 2. The move by Tarpischev makes sense, as Davydenko has never beaten either Roddick or James Blake, and both Tursunov and Youzhny are comfortable on faster surfaces. The Russian doubles, however, looks like a joke—Tarpischev has gone with two baseliners, Andreev and Davydenko. Patrick McEnroe was quick to say in the press conference afterward that he didn’t expect that team to be the one facing the Bryan brothers on Saturday.

What else did we learn in this big-stage presser? First, that there’s not much left to learn at this late date. Both teams as ready as they’re going to be. The U.S. seems happy with the court, say they’ve been practicing well, and by all appearances are calm and set for business, as you would expect from a group of guys who have been pointing relentlessly toward this moment for five years. I didn’t get any sense of nervousness from them. That’s a positive for Roddick and the Bryans, but Blake, who said more than once that he has prepared as well as he possibly could, struck me as perhaps a little too peaceful. “Let the chips fall where they may” seems to be his approach to this pressure-cooker situation. Understandable, but I’d like hear a little more hunger in his voice. You can certainly hear it when Roddick and the Bros talk.

Oh, we were also reminded of Roddick’s sense of humor. When asked how he and Blake were different, he said that while Blake recited him soliloquies he learned at Harvard, Roddick “briefed James on ‘The Little Engine that Could.’”

The Russians? They're enjoying their underdog status and have come in with nothing to lose. (Tarpischev has said they have a 35-percent chance to win; not only is the guy the tennis version of Bill Belichek, he’s starting to sound like Lou Holtz as well.) Davydenko was not the only one who was loose up there. At times, they all looked ready to break down in giggles. When Tursunov, who has lived in California for years, was asked if he'd be bothered when U.S fans rooted against him, he said he wouldn't care because he didn't have “ties in Oregon.” Dmitry had his teammates close to tears when he asked the interpreter on stage to translate an English question for him into Russian, then took the mike and answered the reporter directly, in English.

Tarpischev giggled along with his boys, but he also showed a politician’s knack for smiling, nodding, and crafting a perfectly useless answer. Asked to give his assessments of Roddick and Blake, his responses slowly circled further and further away from the questions.

The key question for the Russian captain, of course, is whether his selections for Friday’s singles will once again make him look like the smartest guy in the room. Let’s take a look at what might happen tomorrow (I’m not going to speculate about anything after that, considering the high likelihood of Russian substitutions.)

First rubber: Andy Roddick vs. Dmitry Tursunov
On desire alone, you have to like Roddick. He’s less likely to wilt if things don’t go his way early. Other than that, there isn’t much between these guys. Roddick won their hard-court match in Indy two years ago in a third-set tiebreaker; Tursunov won on clay in DC last year 17-15 in the fifth; Roddick won again in straight sets on grass at Queens this year, in a match where Tursunov looked less than motivated. But this should be a good situation for Tursunov—he’s got nothing to lose, but he’ll be more focused than usual by the team concept (the same way Youzhny and Marat Safin often are in DC). It’s hard to imagine him packing it in at any point. Still, this is Roddick’s career-in-a-day, and I don’t think he’s going to let it slip away.
Winner: Roddick

Second rubber: Mikhail Youzhny vs. James Blake
They’ve only played once, on clay in Davis Cup last fall, and Youzhny won in four sets. The Russian seems like a bad matchup for Blake. Youzhny can do a lot of different things—sneak in, crack the down-the-line backhand, slice the ball out of his opponent’s strike zone—to keep Blake off balance. Chris Clarey said today that in his opinion Blake had never won a big match in his career, and I couldn’t come up with one to counter him. In other words, it will take an unprecedented effort from Blake. He'll have the fans to help him: Will the tennis nuts of sleepy Portland, who know what Davis Cup is all about, be up to the task?
Winner: Youzhny

Finally, after the ceremony and a lingering press lunch, I walked downstairs and back into the Arts Center lobby. The place was deserted, all the players gone. But there was our star, Nikolay Davydenko, still answering questions with a small group of Russian reporters. God knows how many answers he's had to come up with in the last few months. He says now he'll hand over his phone records to the ATP. It's a good move, and he was surprisingly cheerful all day—Tarpischev praised his handling of the whole situation—but I don't get the feeling the guy is going to get any peace anytime soon.

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