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Three Years Later 11/30/2011 - 12:03 PM

ArgToday's Internet experience may be geared toward the present—following your friends on Facebook, keeping up with news on Twitter—but we've always been able to revisit the past with just a few, simple keystrokes. For the most part, I'm glad for that. But there's always an exception.

In 2008, my college roommate and I made the 12-hour journey from Central New York to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to watch the United States host France in a Davis Cup quarterfinal. My friend was there to enjoy the tennis and keep me awake on the ride, and if he hadn't taken the wheel during a through-the-night slog up Interstate 81 early Monday morning, who knows what would have happened. But these are the things you do to break into the infinitesimal world of tennis journalism. I was mainly covering the tie for Pete Bodo's blog, but also filed a piece for use on the home page. And I will personally let you do the Googling if you're interested in reading it.

Neither nation would reach that year's final, which pitted Argentina against Spain on a quick, indoor hard court in Mar del Plata. Then-world No. 1 Rafael Nadal didn't make the trip to South America due to a knee injury, which only strengthened the argument that Argentina would win its first-ever Davis Cup. Its primary singles players, Juan Martin del Potro and David Nalbandian, would enjoy the comforts of home and a fast court chosen specifically to counter Spain's dirtballers, not to mention boisterous crowd support. Everything pointed to an Argentine triumph, but after four matches, Spain had wrapped up its second title in five years. A quick web search yields many well-written articles on the sizable upset.

Both the Argentine squad and I head to Spain this week looking to eradicate the 2008 Davis Cup from memory. I'll try to do that with Racquet Reactions of each match—there's the "present," again—plus a few posts on this blog, starting tomorrow, when I touch down and figure out the always-deceiving Wi-Fi situation.

For Argentina, only a win will do. Second place in a 16-team tournament is a fine achievement at face value, but a loss in Seville would mark the country's third runner-up finish in the last six years, and fourth in its Cup-less history. If the streak is to be snapped, it will take a colossal effort. Spain is as prohibitive a favorite as Argentina was three years ago, with Nadal a near lock to win on his preferred surface (the matches will be played on red clay, indoors), a capable David Ferrer backing him up, and a proven doubles team of Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco—the heroes of the 2008 final.

No, it does not look good for Argentina. Yes, the talented, mercurial Nalbandian can beat anyone, and 32-year-old Juan Ignacio Chela continues to deny Father Time, but I don't trust either of them in best-of-five-set competition, especially in this environment. The underdog's best hope is that del Potro takes the next step in his comeback, which needs to be a giant leap. He'll almost certainly need to beat either Nadal or Ferrer to give Argentina a realistic chance at victory, but unfortunately for del Potro, those two are a combined 25-0 on clay in Davis Cup singles rubbers. If you're looking for positives, the 2009 U.S. Open champ, though still far from the dominant force he was two years ago, found consistent success this season and finished the year ranked No. 11. One of his wins sticks out—in September, before he played (and beat, via retirement) Novak Djokovic in the Davis Cup semis, del Potro subdued a vocal Serbian crowd and Janko Tipsarevic, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, in Belgrade. Upsetting Nadal, or even Ferrer, this week will be a much greater challenge, but del Potro seems the only man for the job.

Internal dissent was often pointed out as a contributing factor to Argentina's failure in 2008. It would be foolish to think the same thing will happen to the camaraderie-rich Spanish side, even in some Bizarro World, but there's an outside factor that could work in Argentina's favor—fatigue. Both Nadal and Ferrer are coming off a week of matches at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, and both groused about the taxing tennis calendar—nothing new for Nadal, but for the indefatigable Ferrer, those were telling comments. Surely the two are tired in this now 12th month of the season, and on the contrary, the Argentine team is fresh, seemingly solely focused on this event for some time. Del Potro even planned his fall schedule around the tie, but did have to withdraw from the Paris Masters with a shoulder injury. We'll see what that all translates too, if anything—remember Nadal's blitzkrieg of his French opponents in the Davis Cup semis, just days after losing the U.S. Open final? But it's not outlandish to suggest that the only way Spain can be beaten is if they beat themselves.

Enough about the past, or the present—what does the future hold? Steve Tignor will make a prediction in his preview tomorrow, so there's that. I only know this: There will be opportunity. A chance for Juan Martin del Potro to make believers of us all again, and for David Nalbandian to earn the biggest title of his career. A chance for Argentina to become the (lucky?) 13th nation to win the Davis Cup. A chance for Rafael Nadal to end a year filled with struggle on a positive note. A chance for Spain to continue its dynastic ways.

And a chance for me to bring Seville to your computer, tablet or mobile device. This time, it'll be worth the read.

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Coming to America 08/15/2011 - 2:44 AM

201108141801649059540-p2@stats_com I believe we started calling Novak Djokovic’s year “unbelievable” in March, after he followed his Australian Open win with back-to-back titles at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. What do we call it now, with three more Masters trophies, Wimbledon, and more than double the amount of wins added to that early-season haul?

I would call it believable, because I watched the Serb, who has managed to outdo himself at almost every tournament this year, in person for the first time in 2011. To me, the word unbelievable implies that something isn’t possible—until you actually witness it. What I saw from Djokovic in Montreal were segments of the spectacular, 54-piece puzzle he’s built (with one piece missing; doesn’t that always happen?):

—His forehand, with near-flawless form, fitting since his season can be described in kind.

—His point-ending backhand, the Djoker’s trump card appearing at a—often pivotal—moment’s notice.

—His defense, stymieing countless potential winners and smoked serves.

—His new aura; it felt like the NHL's Canadiens were playing during his matches.

—Most impressive, his insatiable desire for more—more points, more wins, more titles.

He showed all of this, one more time, in the final, fending off hard-luck Mardy Fish, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.

Fish appeared to be reprising his last meeting with Djokovic, a one-sided defeat in this year’s Miami semifinals. But down a set and 0-30 on his serve at 1-2, the American finally began to reap the benefits of his aggressive mentality. Using the all-court attack that got him this far, Fish avoided the fatal double-break deficit, turning around not just the game but the match. He earned his first break in the next game, started to hit with greater authority, and frustrated Djokovic, who gave away the set with a dreadful service game.

“There were frustrations,” Djokovic said afterward. “But, you know, I managed to hold my composure when I needed to. I think it was decisive.”

Resetting, Djokovic made Fish labor for an opening hold and would consistently apply pressure in the third set. It brought out some of the best in Fish, who gave the top seed by far his most difficult challenge of the week. But at 2-all, Djokovic would earn triple break point—and break—and at 5-3 secured triple championship point on serve. Fish stopped Djokovic from running away with the title earlier, and did so again here, wiping away all three opportunities. Clearly feeling the pressure, Djokovic was elated after a Fish forehand sailed long, setting up a fourth title chance, which he converted after another error.

“I did get tight in the end,” Djokovic said. “Up to the last moment, you didn’t really know who is going to win. But I believed I could do it.”

This week was also my first look at Djokovic as world No. 1, the hunted rather than the hunter. We were reminded of that distinction by this well-worn statistic: Before today, the last men’s player to win his first tournament as No. 1 was Pete Sampras, in 1993. Djokovic did what Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal couldn’t by dismissing Nikolay Davydenko and Marin Cilic—hardly pushovers—in the early rounds, two dangerous Frenchmen in subsequent evenings and finally Fish (now 0-4 in Masters finals) to win his ninth title of the year. The feat was “a big satisfaction,” according to Djokovic, and it keeps alive the possibility that we’re watching the Greatest Season of All Time unfold.

As first impressions go, Djokovic’s reminded me of what I saw from Nadal three years ago at the Rogers Cup. Rafa wasn’t officially No. 1 then, but fresh off his seismic win over Federer at the All England Club, it was clear who tennis’ top dog was. Both men carried their momentum across the Atlantic, won the title without much trouble, and left their closest competition even further behind (Federer lost his opener in 2008 to Gilles Simon, Nadal lost to Ivan Dodig in his first match this week). In short, the impression impressed.

“It is probably a little mental advantage when you get on the court knowing that you’re the player to beat,” said Djokovic about his new status. “But, on the other hand, it adds the pressure and expectations as well because you are a favorite to win each match you play, whoever you play against.”

The expectation is that Djokovic will go a step further than Nadal in 2008 and follow his victory at the Canadian Open with another at the U.S. Open. Before that, however, is another Masters event in Cincinnati. It would seem to be a week for rest, practice and whatever matches come Djokovic’s way. But as he’s twice proven this year, the second of back-to-back Masters tournaments can turn out even better than the first.

Or, Djokovic could indeed suffer that early-round loss we’ve all been waiting for. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

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A Man for All Seasons 08/13/2011 - 11:16 PM

201108132006723936930-p2@stats_com MONTREAL, Canada—We can all appreciate Novak Djokovic’s four wins over Rafael Nadal in Masters finals this season, but we should not forget how he reached those career-changing Sundays. Three of them were preceded by difficult, three-set, semifinal victories: There was nemesis Roger Federer in Indian Wells, potential party spoiler Thomaz Bellucci in Madrid, and the most difficult challenge of all, Andy Murray in Rome, where Djokovic needed to break serve late and win a tiebreaker to prevail.

For a while tonight in Montreal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga looked like he would join that list, if not advance himself. Just like he did against Roger Federer two nights ago, the Frenchman went all-out with all his shots, making things difficult for the Serb, who for all his defensive gifts couldn’t handle the entirety of Tsonga’s bombardment. But Djokovic uses his opponent’s pace better than anyone on tour, and he got enough balls back to make Tsonga sweat. At 2-1 in the first set, Tsonga saved three break points, and he escaped an 0-30 deficit at 3-4. But when Djokovic earned his first set point two games later, Tsonga fell off the tightrope. Smacking a near flawless wide serve only Djokovic could return, Tsonga was stunned as the world No. 1 took a one-set lead. It looked like Djokovic’s first shot of the point was hit even harder than Tsonga’s.

“I think high quality tennis for an hour, first set,” said Djokovic. “It was even. I think I had more chances on his service games than he had on mine. I was returning really well, had a lot of break ball opportunities. The break came at the right time.”

It was understandable, then, to see Tsonga mix speeds when the second set began, not giving Djokovic the kilometers he craves. It didn’t work; Djokovic soon led 2-0, with Tsonga handing over the break via double fault. And what felt like even sooner, Djokovic advanced to his ninth final of the season—Tsonga walked off the court in retirement after the third game, losing 6-4, 3-0. The under-seeded No. 13 said he had “pain in my arm,” and that may have accounting for his change in hitting.

“I've had this since three days,” said Tsonga. “At the end, at 1-0, after that it was really difficult for me to hit the ball well and enough hard. That’s why I took this decision … I don't have the pretension to beat Novak without my arm.”

It was an unfortunate end to a match between perhaps the two hottest players in the game, forever linked by their first meeting, in the 2008 Australian Open final, which Djokovic won in four sets. Tsonga still leads the career head-to-head, 5-4, but Djokovic has now won their last two matches, including a well-played four-setter in last month’s Wimbledon semis. The thunderous, capacity crowd in Stade Uniprix, including the ubiquitous Serbian flag bearers in the upper rows—can they really all be Serbian?—appeared to be watching a match of comparable quality, but like so many Djokovic’s wins this year, it was over quickly, in straights.

Now wielding a staggering 52-1 record in 2011, Djokovic will face another surging player, Mardy Fish, in Sunday’s final. There was one Masters semifinal I didn’t include in the above roll, and that was Miami, where Djokovic throttled Fish, 6-3, 6-1. The way Djokovic is playing, you can’t completely discount the possibility of a repeat thrashing, but considering Fish’s improved form, the stage and the surface, odds are against that happening, which fans would surely welcome after tonight’s deflating conclusion.

“Miami, the bounce is bigger than here,” explained Djokovic. “It’s slower than this surface. I’ve been playing night matches. He’s been playing day matches. Tomorrow we play at 3:00. Maybe it’s going to be hot … But I think if I return well, as well as I did in the last two matches, I have a good chance.”

It will be, as they say, a contrast of styles, with Fish making every attempt to impose his game on the baseline behemoth by coming to net. After the American’s semifinal win over Janko Tipsarevic, I said that he’d need to do that in order to win, and the sixth seed said nothing to dissuade me in his post-match presser:

“No, he’s going to beat me in every baseline game we play,” said Fish. “We’re not going to play baseline games, fortunately for me.”

Fortunately for us, we’re going to see a significant result no matter what happens tomorrow. If Djokovic wins, he’ll become the first player to win five Masters titles in a season—and would still have three more opportunities to add to that record. If Fish pulls off what would be a huge upset, he’d win his first Masters final in four tries, further cement his position as the top American man in tennis—and become the first player to beat Djokovic on hard courts this year, the biggest takeaway during this year of Novak. His campaign could surpass any we’ve witnessed, and these summer hard-court tournaments in North America will go a long way to determining its ultimate position in the sport’s annals. It’s been the summer of Mardy so far, but Djokovic has proven to be a man for all seasons.

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Montreal Marooned 08/12/2011 - 1:08 AM

201108112104758672053-p2@stats_com MONTREAL, Canada—As Roger Federer grows older, we get to see him in new situations, many of them unfortunate, because professional tennis is not kind to the aging. There was the lopsided loss to Rafael Nadal in this year's Miami semis, one of the only times Rafa has trounced Roger away from clay. More recently there was Wimbledon, when for the first time at a Slam, Federer let a two-set lead evaporate in defeat. The opponent that day was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and the explosive Frenchman did many of the same things tonight against Federer as he did at the All England Club. He won once again, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1, and was even better in the match's final set, during which Federer was simply embarrassed. I'm sure Federer has been on the receiving end of a 6-0 or 6-1 set in the past few years, but this bludgeoning seemed like something totally different, especially considering that Federer confidently closed out the second set. This match may not have been Federer's lowest moment of the season, but it's definitely on the short list.

What Tsonga did well at Wimbledon and this evening was remain true to his mega-aggressive game. It's now worked against Federer in two consecutive meetings, but it doesn't always click, and that low margin for error is one of the reasons why Tsonga hasn't won as many big titles as you'd think. But it gives him the best chance to win, and the more violent forehands and fearless serves he hits, the better. The latter was what got him out of trouble in the first set, when Federer earned three break points, including one set point. Tsonga hit three good strikes, never allowing Federer a chance to capitalize, and eventually prevailed in a tiebreaker. "I maybe should have won the first one," said Federer afterward, and I tend to agree.

Tsonga's all-out attack was what cost him the second set's only break; a sloppy game gave Federer all the cushion he needed with his commanding serve. He held at love to end the set, and everything pointed to a dramatic and competitive decider. Instead it was over quickly, with Federer errors and Tsonga winners moving this brisk evening along at a similarly brisk pace. "Just be aggressive all the time, take the control early in the point," said Tsonga about his victory. "That's it."

It wasn't all that simple. There was the point at 3-0 when Tsonga hit a one-handed backhand pass to reach 15-40. Playing his rush, Tsonga implored the capacity crowd to rise to their feet, a telling if not uncommon image. It's rare we see such bravado against Roger Federer; it's rarer when we see it when Roger Federer is on the verge being blown out. But what was once uncommon against the Swiss isn't as shocking any more, even though tonight's third-set domination was still rather jarring. Tsonga would secure the double-break lead with another series of backhands, this time of his typical two-handed variety.

Montreal hasn't been kind to Federer over the years. In 2003 he suffered one of his two career losses (against 20 wins) to Andy Roddick. In 2007 he lost the final in a third-set tiebreaker to an up-and-coming Novak Djokovic. And two years ago, he led Tsonga 5-1 in the third set, yet somehow lost the match. ("Two years ago he didn't really deserve the victory," said Federer. "I believe he played a lot better today, and he deserved it today.") Trailing in tonight's final set 5-1, Federer must have thought back to that moment, even if only for a second. It was an aberration, nothing more. Tonight's third set was real, and so was Wimbledon. And so is this: Tsonga's second straight win over Federer shouldn't come as a surprise, not with 10 losses and just one title to the Swiss' name in 2011.

"I mean, he beat me at Wimbledon. So I don't know how much of a surprise it is. He's playing well. I thought if he was going to play well again, me not at my best, he could do it again. It's not like he's beating me the first time."

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The 50th Victim 08/11/2011 - 6:40 PM

201108111549569451362-p2@stats.com MONTREAL, Canada—Marin Cilic’s stock was soaring last February. He had just won Zagreb for the second consecutive year, a month after claiming victory in Chennai during the season’s opening week. In between, he made a convincing semifinal run in Melbourne, beating Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick along the way. Del Potro’s victory in the prior year’s U.S. Open had seemingly opened the door for tall tennis to take over the tour, and the 6’6” Cilic looked to be the next man to walk through it.

At the same time, Novak Djokovic’s stock was stagnant. He was still the world No. 2, still reaching the later rounds of nearly every tournament he entered. But it was now a full two years since his first Grand Slam title, two years since such lofty expectations were set by himself, the fans and media. Djokovic was quite capable of winning Masters events and demolishing the tour’s rank-and-file, that we knew. But after a third consecutive loss in the quarters or semis of a major, we didn’t know if Djokovic could scale the highest heights again. By now, these kinds of defeats were rote, and he would suffer two more in the next two Slams: To Jurgen Melzer at Roland Garros, in which Djokovic led by two sets, and to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon, a straight-sets elimination.

The two Eastern Europeans have taken very divergent paths since. Cilic’s decline is best measured in numbers; he’s down 20 places from his career-high ranking of No. 9. He’s not seeded at this tournament, the Rogers Cup, and at Flushing Meadows he’ll have something around a (25) tethered to his name. It’s not a number that signals strength, it’s one that makes you think, Is he my first-round upset pick?

Djokovic’s numeric movement carries more weight, even if it’s only one ranking position. Of course, it’s the biggest one of all. Playing a tour event as world No. 1 for the first time, Djokovic is eliciting the same response from fans that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal received when they reached tennis’ summit. When the Serb takes the court, you can tell he’s the alpha male—and when Federer and Nadal make that same walk, you can sense that they aren’t.

The players seem to have noticed as well. Would Ivan Dodig have upset Nadal had the Spaniard been No. 1? As well as Dodig played last night, something in me says no. Yesterday afternoon, Nikolay Davydenko botched a volley at a critical juncture of his match with Djokovic that he routinely makes. Today, Cilic did the same thing on a 30-all point when serving down 5-6. Every player in this exclusive draw has physical gifts; they can all strike the ball as we only wish we could. It’s the mental differences that have kept such a consistent pecking order in the ATP for so long.

Cilic’s volatile case is an exception. He’s always struck me as a strong-minded individual, and his current struggles appear tied more to his hitting than his head. It became apparent today, sitting three rows behind the baseline at Stade Uniprix, after watching both men and remembering where they were a year ago. Cilic and Djokovic both had very involved strokes—Djokovic in particular on serve, Cilic with his forehand. Djokovic has tightened up his game considerably over the past 18 months, but you can still pick out the many motions that coalesce into one (now fantastic) shot. With Cilic, the hitches are much more obvious—watch his forehand frame by frame; it’s amazing that it’s as consistent as it is—and his shots tend to break down over time. Against a player like Djokovic, whose backhand didn’t fold against Nadal on clay twice this season, it was a bad match-up. Facing set point after that volley miss, Cilic’s forehand failed him after an extended rally, giving Djokovic the decisive advantage.

Djokovic victoriously (7-5, 6-2) shook hands for the 50th time this year when Cilic double-faulted down match point. It’s another number to take notice of, but I offer you another, one that pertains to Cilic: 22. That’s how old the Croat is, and it means there’s plenty of time for him to better execute his shots, learn from this swoon and become stronger in all facets of the game. He only needed to look at the man whose hand he shook to know that such a turnaround is possible.

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Wandering Wednesday 08/10/2011 - 8:04 PM

201108082013728092903-p2@stats_com MONTREAL, Canada—It’s been a busy day at the Montreal Masters and it’s far from over, with a rain delay pushing matches into the evening on all courts. Before I check them out, here’s a sampling of scenes from the daytime:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga d. Bernard Tomic, 6-3, 7-6 (1)

When I saw Tomic play a junior match at the U.S. Open two years ago, I didn’t understand the sizable hype surrounding him. But maybe size is the reason why the Aussie prodigy is beginning to justify his great expectations. Tomic looked much bigger than I remember, including when I watched him on TV seven months ago at the Australian Open. And not just taller—the 18-year-old was well within his right to don a sleeveless shirt at the player hotel. He put the finishing touches on Yen Hsun-Lu on Monday night with a forehand borne of effortless power, more swat than swing.

There weren’t enough of those today against Tsonga, another player who looks magnified in person. The Frenchman owns one Masters title, which opponents are permanently reminded of by a decal affixed to his on-court nameplate. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have collected so many that theirs appear reduced in size (and arranged on top of another) so they’ll all fit on one side. There’s a solitary sticker next to Tsonga’s name, but it’s unmistakable and should remind him of what he’s accomplished. In taking out Tomic, Tsonga earns another match with Federer, who he’s defeated from two sets down and, two years ago at this very venue, when trailing 5-1 in the third set.

Roger Federer d. Vasek Pospisil, 7-5, 6-3

The 30-year-and-one-day-old icon wrapped up a practice session on Court Central just after 10 am, posing for pictures afterward with his hitting partner (and his female companion). Federer also signed a ball for his pre-match opponent. Three hours later, Federer was on the same court with another player who looks up to him, Pospisil, the second-ranked Canadian at No. 155. Not yet in peak form, Federer was in another giving mood, and the 21-year-old from Vancouver took advantage of his openings. But at 5-5, Pospisil finally gave in to the extraordinary odds, was broken at love, and soon found himself down a set, as everyone had expected.

Elastic might be the right way to describe Pospisil, who fires from all parts of the court and upset Juan Ignacio Chela yesterday to earn this dream confrontation. He acquitted himself and his country well during his short stay in Montreal, especially when you consider the mostly forgettable history of past Canadian wild cards at this tournament. Along with Milos Raonic, the future of Maple Leaf tennis seems brighter than in recent years.

As for the old man’s future? This month could be telling, what with three events featuring all of his primary rivals and some newer threats. He took care of one of them today, inside a packed stadium, and by the end Federer was clearly in comfort mode—the time when he rushes his serve, but in a good way. At 30, he still looks great to me.

Ivo Karlovic d. Philipp Petzschner, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (6)

In a packed day of play, the best match I saw was on Court 2, used for singles only because of Tuesday’s rain. I walked in at 1-all in the third and was immediately presented with a question—should I just come back for the inevitable tiebreaker?

I’m glad I stayed, even if the overtime seemed destined. I saw the sharp, biting backhand slice of Karlovic up close—I was sitting for about 10 minutes before I finally saw the big man hit an actual one-hander. Oddly, that was the shot I’ll remember most. I guess clips like this desensitize you to 140 mph serves:

There was also Petzschner, the tortured soul who had plenty to be frustrated about on this steamy afternoon. Besides Karlovic’s missiles, there was a questionable call at 4-4, 30-all, with Petzschner returning serve. When a second-serve ace was called in, Petzschner called the lineswoman out: “Too hot for you to see? Just asking, could be. Nice job.” The German also berated himself (nothing out of the ordinary there), slammed his racquet (it was only a matter of time) as well as his hat (that was kind of funny).

When it came time for the tiebreaker, Karlovic was the better man, and Petzschner soon launched a ball into the other side of Jarry Park (that’s why we endured this midday heat). But there was more to this contest than theatrics. Petzschner ended up saving three match points, one on Karlovic’s serve, adding some late-match drama. When he double-faulted down a fourth, Petzschner, now retired to his chair in defeat, tried in vain to snap his Wilson frame over his knee. But what he did next was most surprising of all: He turned around, walked straight ahead, and signed a ball for a young fan.

Novak Djokovic d. Nikolay Davydenko, 7-5, 6-1

Would lightning strike twice in Canada? Top seed Caroline Wozniacki lost her opening match in Toronto, and on the same day, in Montreal, Nikolay Davydenko was serving for the first set against new No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The Serb was fortunate to only be behind 5-4; Davydenko had a double-break advantage and was hitting the corners with his forehand, keeping Djokovic on the move.

Davydenko did this enough to earn a set point, though he wouldn’t convert it. But on the ensuing deuce point, Djokovic was hopelessly out of position, even by his impeccable standards, while Davydenko sized up a harmless return while approaching. Thwack! The ball was in the net. The crowd, and surely Djokovic, couldn’t believe the Russian stoned that volley.

With the turning point played, Djokovic would go on to break Davydenko, then break serve again, in the process walking one of tennis’ ultimate tightropes—coming from double-break down to win a set, without doing so in a tiebreaker. Having nothing to show for his three breaks of serve, Davydenko faded in the second set. Emboldened, Djokovic collected his 49th win (in 50 matches) of the season, just as lightning bolts pierced the dark, cloudy sky.

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Mike & Mike 08/09/2011 - 9:24 PM

201101211906688199457-p2@stats_com MONTREAL, Canada—The obvious story was Michael Llodra. The Frenchman’s first-rounder with 11th seed Mikhail Youzhny was scheduled second on Court 9, and I had my pick of angles: Watching serve-and-volley tennis up close; the language connection with the Montreal fans; comparing how he and I use our Wilson Pro Tour racquets (I did play this morning, after all).

But as I watched Youzhny put the crowd in a tennis trance during the warm-up with picture-perfect ball striking, I was reminded of how much this man has accomplished. It’s impressive, but often overlooked: quarters at the Australian and French Opens, and two U.S. Open semifinal showings, including last year, when he lost to Rafael Nadal. The Russian’s arresting strokes captivated me, too; I wanted to watch some more. So the Llodra paean was postponed, and it’s just as well—there was actually minimal serve-and-volleying early on, and no overt support for him. And the less I discuss my performance this morning, the better.

There was a good reason Llodra shied away from net forays, and that was Youzhny’s return game. Llodra’s service pace worked against him in the first set, as Youzhny’s compact return motions had the effect of full swings, hit low and hot over the middle of the net. “Returns fast, eh?” spoke a nearby observer. Against sliding, lefty strikes, Youzhny’s slice kept the net-charger at bay. Llodra’s preferred tactic was a nonfactor, and he suffered because of it, losing the opening set 6-3.

“I mean, it’s my style, you know,” Llodra would later say. “I have to do a lot of serve and volley because, you know, I play not like s***, but it’s difficult for me to stay from the baseline. Anyway, it’s my game, so I have to do that to make a lot of provocation. If I have to play from the baseline, you know, I have a good chance to lose. I know that.”

If Youzhny was simply executing the fundamentals while returning, he was sometimes forced into more acrobatic means while rallying. After a running net-cord winner in the match’s second game, Youzhny tried a risky play down break point a game later. With Llodra approaching, Youzhny hit a sweeping, short backhand that grazed the line, saving the game and demonstrating his fine control of such a lovely shot. Many swear by Richard Gasquet’s one-hander, but Youzhny’s is another piece of art.

With a 2-1 lead, Youzhny broke out a stretch lob to secure a break. He backed it up with stout serving the rest of the way in a brisk first set, with Llodra somewhat overwhelmed by Youzhny’s variety. And yet, Llodra would be the player to win it all, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4). Considering Youzhny’s first-set form, it was a surprising result, one that I didn’t contemplate until, down 1-2 in the second set and facing triple break point, the thus-far stoic Youzhny pierced the air with a loud scream. It was not a prelude to further outbursts—there was no blood on the court today—but it gave Llodra validation that his provocation was finally doing some damage.

“It doesn’t matter who [I] play,” said Llodra. “If I play [Novak] Djokovic, I have to play the same way. It’s my game. Even if sometimes it’s not working, I have to continue.”

Llodra continued it all the way to the absolute end of a Masters-level meeting, a third-set tiebreaker. And the longer this match went, the more I felt it was his to win. While Youzhny was never out of the contest until Llodra won match point, he peaked in the first set. For his part, Llodra gradually made more serve-and-volley combinations, received more vocal encouragement, and used his racquet at times like a magic wand. “Sometimes when it becomes to be tight it’s better for me,” said Llodra, “Especially in a tiebreak, close to the end of the set, I think I have more chances to put pressure. They can be afraid sometimes.”

So maybe the story turned out to be Llodra after all. (He’s an entertaining subject. Replying to a question about how he recently broke his rib, Llodra offered this, en Francais: “It was around a swimming pool. I’m not going to tell you what I was doing. Stupid things, of course.) But Youzhny remains an interesting case. Has he peaked? At 29, probably, but he’s still firmly in the Top 20 and almost always beats the players he should. That wasn’t the case today, but I can see him atoning for it at Cincinnati or the U.S. Open, where he’ll likely be placed on another side court in the early rounds. Should you be attending either tournament, his tennis, and occasional temper, makes Youzhny worth seeking out.

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Bogo Sticks With It 08/08/2011 - 8:59 PM

201107281610582236005-p2@stats_com MONTREAL, Canada—The growth of tennis TV coverage in the United States has been both a blessing and curse for American fans. They’ll never miss a match featuring Andy Roddick or a Williams sister; oftentimes, it will be seen both live and on delay. They get exposed to rising prospects like Ryan Harrison and dogged veterans like Michael Russell, players who might not normally penetrate the casual follower. As top-heavy as the sport can be, fans have ample opportunities to learn about both the game’s upper crust and middle class thanks to this increase of information. But sometimes it can be overkill. Did you know that Mardy Fish lost weight over the past year? Or that Bethanie Mattek-Sands wears funky outfits? Whether you like it or not, you’ll be reminded of these facts the next time ESPN2 broadcasts one of their matches.

Few U.S. players escape the media’s reach, but even if Alex Bogomolov Jr. hasn’t—his run to the third round of Wimbledon garnered some recent attention—the 28-year-old has gone about his business very quietly. “Obviously I would like the whole crowd to be cheering for me, but I haven’t had that, ever, I don’t think,” Bogomolov told me after his 6-2, 7-6 (4) first-round win over Adrian Mannarino at the Montreal Masters. “Just because my last name is Russian and I play for the U.S., people get confused, what country I represent. But the U.S. has raised me; I play for the U.S.”

The top U.S. men—Roddick, Fish, John Isner and Sam Querrey, all of whom possess superb serves—should be proud of Bogomolov’s effort today. He struck eight aces and won 90 percent of his first-serve points; Mannarino never had a read on his opponent’s serve, which was kicked and smacked throughout the service box. It bailed Bogomolov out at 4-4 in the second set, a juncture at which Mannarino, with his short backswing but long court coverage, appeared to find an opening. But down 0-30, Bogomolov blasted two unreturnable strikes, and later saved a break point with a change-up kicker that preceded an easy putaway. About 20 minutes later, the steely focus that characterized Bogomolov all match was shed, as the sound of his victory yell touched every bleacher on close-knit Court 5.

“I wasn’t expecting to serve that well, but it was there for me today,” said Bogomolov afterward. “But you can’t win with just the serve against these guys. Something has improved, I just think it’s an overall outlook. Every point is different, every match is different, every day is different, so you have to be able to adjust during the match if something is going wrong, and I’ve been doing that well.”

That’s a bit of an understatement when you consider where Bogomolov was not just earlier this year, but earlier this decade. The Miami native first cracked the Top 100 in November 2003, falling out by month’s end. He wouldn’t return for eight years, when his run to the final of the Sarasota Challenger this April pushed him back into double ranking digits. The Challenger circuit has been fruitful for Bogomolov this season; he’s reached three finals, winning one, in Dallas over former Australian Open finalist Rainer Schuettler. “That enabled me to get a lot more confident, that kind of got things going,” said Bogomolov.

What happened next was Miami—“the big breakthrough,” Bogomolov admitted—during which he qualified for the tournament, saved a match point against Victor Hanescu in the first round and upset Andy Murray in the second. “The thing that was so special was that it was home. People didn’t realize it, but I practiced on that stadium court since I was 13.”

Between Bogomolov’s success at Miami (third round, losing to Isner), Wimbledon (third round, losing to Tomas Berdych) and a few weeks ago in Los Angeles (semifinals, losing to eventual champion Ernests Gulbis), his story has been retold, the many downs of his career remembered. There was his one-and-a-half month suspension in 2005 for testing positive for a banned substance (an event that seems similar to what Robert Kendrick is currently going through). There was his divorce from WTA player Ashley Harkleroad a year later, and his subsequent 2007 season, during which Bogomolov bottomed out at No. 470. Just 18 months ago, Bogomolov was ranked outside the Top 250. Now he’s a career-high No. 57, on the cusp of direct entry into Masters tournaments. (Mannarino, ranked No. 55, was the last man in.) He made the Montreal main draw by advancing through qualifying as the top seed, an achievement but hardly his goal.

“If your goal is just to qualify for an event, then you’re just a Challenger player that’s happy to be here,” said Bogomolov. “I’m not that easily satisfied, especially now with the results I’ve had. It’s sort of made me confident and yet still very hungry because I feel like there’s a lot more that I can do. I’m looking for that one win, one extra push, one second breath during every match.”

Bogomolov may not have the look of a typical American player, or the traditional upbringing. Born in Moscow, he learned tennis from his dad, a former Soviet national coach. (Bogomolov recently consulted at the Gotham Tennis Academy in New York City, overseeing the elite junior group.) Today, after Bogomolov served out a game at love, I counted the number of people who applauded—three. You could hear their claps that clearly. In short, don’t expect Querrey’s Samurai fan club to be rivaled in number by the Bogo Sticks any time soon.

But regardless of support, you’ll be noticed if you win matches. It’s been a disappointing year for many top American men, but not Bogomolov, who we'll be seeing more of in Montreal. And with French entertainer Gael Monfils his next opponent, maybe we'll even see him on TV.

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We're Talking About Practice 08/08/2011 - 2:27 PM

Rafa MONTREAL, Canada—Play is underway in Montreal, which was pelted by rain last night. Today's forecast looked ominous, along with the morning clouds, but Parc Jarry is currently filled with sun and patrons. Most of them are in Stade Uniprix, the largest court in the complex, watching Stanislas Wawrinka hammer David Nalbandian.

It's not like they had much choice, though admittedly, David vs. the Swiss non-Goliath was the day's best match, on paper (Wawrinka won, 6-1, 6-4, in just over an hour). Only three other courts are being used for match play, and one is Court Banque Nationale, a medium-sized stadium. For those of you who enjoy attending the early rounds of a tournament for intimate, side-court access, you might come away from Montreal disappointed.

But what the tournament holds back in match play, it gives back in player practices. I've never been a huge fan of watching the pros' hitting sessions, mostly because you're often standing at least a court away from the sparring partners in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. And if there's wind screens, like there are at Flushing Meadows? It's not worth your time. Montreal, for the most part, isn’t like that. After slithering through a corridor of courts and seeing Philipp Kohlschreiber, Marin Cilic and many others get in their morning workouts, I spotted two of the tournament’s top seeds trading blows: Mardy Fish and Rafael Nadal.

You always hear that players “look good” in practice—typically because their practice partner isn’t even close to their league. But when I say that Nadal looked good in his exchange with Fish, a fellow Top 10er, I report that with confidence. Their back-and-forths gradually morphed into all-out points, with Nadal winning the majority. He changed speeds seamlessly, hit his spots near the baseline, didn’t appear at all affected by foot trouble, and of course, was the focus of many photographs, including the one above. Although many fans watched Novak Djokovic play doubles on nearby Court 9 (him and partner Janko Tipsarevic beat Philipp Petzschner and Mark Knowles, 5-7, 6-3, 12-10), this may have been a rarer sight, the equivalent of Rafa being relegated to Court 16 at the U.S. Open.

I've watched Nadal so many times that none of his strokes came as a revelation; it was, however, a lovely vantage point to view them from. But the proximity gave me a good reminder of why Fish has made such a turnaround. The American's flat shots are the perfect antidote for heavy spin, a prescription issued by 90% of his opponents on tour. Fish didn't just reset points by returning hard and flat, he put Nadal on the defensive during today's practice. That Nadal overcame this firepower so effectively speaks to my position on his form. It's not perfect, though as we saw last year, Nadal can get pretty close to that level. But isn't that why you practice in the first place?


Off to watch another American who's experienced a career resurgence, Alex Bogomolov Jr.

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The Rule of Three 08/08/2011 - 2:21 AM

201102132154788601981-p2@stats_com MONTREAL, Canada—The top-ranked, established champion was dealt a career-changing blow at Wimbledon by the world's hottest player. It happened five weeks ago, when Novak Djokovic became the first person besides Roger Federer to beat Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam final. It also happened three years ago, when Nadal finally overcame Federer at the All England Club.

So if you're wondering how Montreal—the first tournament to include these three tennis titans since Wimbledon—will turn out, the 2008 Canadian Open (held in Toronto) seems like a good place to start. I was at that event, which saw Federer collapse in his opening match against Gilles Simon, while Nadal continued his rampage by winning his fifth consecutive title. It wouldn't be a total shock to see something similar this week, considering Nadal's uncertain health and lack of practice. That said, I'd be slightly surprised if the four semifinalists aren't the four selected in this draw assessment.

With an eye on the past and present, here's what I'm thinking about as the Montreal Masters gets ready to begin. I'll be reporting from the Rogers Cup through the final, both on the Racquet Reaction blog and this one.

Let's Start at the Top
Novak Djokovic enters August with a luminous 48-1 record and a realistic shot at one of the greatest seasons of all time. If the superb Serb wins one of the two forthcoming Masters events and the U.S. Open—meaning he'd enter the fall with something like a 65-2 record—a case could be made that he'd already have surpassed any year Nadal or Federer put together, as astounding (sacrilege?) as that is to write. Also, if Djokovic wins two more Masters tournaments in 2011, he'll become the first player to win six in a season. (Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl each won five events of Masters-level stature in a calendar year.) Do these numbers mean anything to Nole? Starting this week, we'll see how much he wants to keep that intense light shining.

OK, enough about Djokovic for now. As I said, Federer, still stinging from his Wimbledon defeat, lost a shocker to Gilles Simon three years ago in Canada. And would you look at that—Nadal could get a pretty tough Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy, in his opener. It would be a fun match, but Chardy must first escape Ivan Dodig, the Croatian who's shot up the rankings in the last two years. Rafa, along with the other top eight seeds, gets a first-round bye.

Circular Logic
Many people say we're due for a surprise finalist in a big men's tournament, seemingly on the basis that there are 50 or so players entered besides the tour's elite echelon. But the men's Top 4 has been so consistent lately that it would be a bigger surprise if one of them didn't advance far in the draw. Still, it can happen, as we saw three years ago when—quick, name the 2008 Toronto runner-up. Stumped? It's Nicolas Kiefer, who fought his way to the final unseeded.

With early-round blue-chippers Andy Roddick, David Ferrer and Robin Soderling missing in action this week, there's more room for someone in the middle tier to make a deeper run than usual. Maybe it will be Thomaz Bellucci, who resides in the Nicolas Almagro octet of the draw. Or Janko Tipsarevic, who's playing with Djokovic in doubles this week. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Late Registration
My musical tastes are eternally behind the times and rarely venture outside of the mainstream. While taking in Toronto, I was knee deep in Dave Matthews Band, listening to a concert I attended earlier that summer, one of the last that would feature saxophonist LeRoi Moore. This year, I've turned my ear to Kanye West. His latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, can be jarring at first, but if you appreciate the man's talent, you'll eventually discover it in this acclaimed effort. (Somewhere, Steve Tignor is minimizing this window and firing up a jazz playlist on iTunes.)

But this brings me to a point about discovering artists: There's truth that you'll uncover some of their best material when you listen to entire albums, not just the singles; it's also true that you can appreciate those frequently-played tracks more when you develop a better connection to the musician. "Two Step" is a good example of this for DMB—I went so far as to title a post after it—and I've found more with West, particularly "Stronger", which has some fantastic lyrics. Few of which can be repeated here, of course.

Oh, Canada
One of the posts I wrote three years ago focused on the progress—really, the lackthereof—of Canadian tennis. Well, if you think back to February, there were few stories bigger than Milos Raonic, the Ontario native who followed his fourth-round run at the Aussie Open with his first ATP title in San Jose and a final in Memphis. The server extraordinaire couldn't keep up that pace, but he didn't wilt under increased scrutiny and had Wimbledon and Montreal firmly in his sights.

Unfortunately, Wimbledon is where this story takes a sad turn. The Canuck retired five games into his second-round match because of hip problems and is now recovering from surgery. The omission leaves the Maple Leaf in the hands of Erik Chvojka and Vasek Pospisil, who've combined for one top-level victory. Good luck to them (they'll need it against Alexandr Dolgopolov and Juan Ignacio Chela, respectively) and to Raonic on his comeback. The future appears far brighter than it was up north.

Trip Advisor
Spotted in the lobby of my hotel: Simon, Stanislas Wawrinka, Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor. This year's accommodations are certainly an improvement over those in 2008, the dormitories at York University. There's times you want to relive college life, your freshman year. That was not one of those times. Though I was later told that Marin Cilic once stayed there, on campus.

Opening Day
You can see Djokovic and Nadal Monday on Court 9, where they'll be doing doubles duty (not together this year). But I'm more interested in the singles. Wawrinka could have a short stay if he's not careful against David Nalbandian in a strong Court Central opener; Juan Martin del Potro also plays there, not before 5:30, against Jarkko Nieminen. In between, Alex Bogomolov Jr. faces Adrian Mannarino on Court 5, a match I'll watch for the resurgent, veteran American. There's night tennis, too—Fabio Fognini and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga bring fireworks to Central, while Bernard Tomic gets the spotlight on Court Banque Nationale with Yen-Hsun Lu. That's a poor name for a court, but to schedule a player there whose name features a type of currency? That's just funny.

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