Monday, December 29, 2008


The ATP came out with a new look and feel to their website (, and one of standard features, a link to head to head player comparisons, defaulted to one between Nadal and Federer. In the last incarnation of the old site a poll asked fans who would finish 2009 as #1 - guess who won?

Apparently, a few Nadal fans took umbrage at the poll itself, but more likely with the result: a majority of fans who answered the poll expect Federer to return to #1. This is an amazing conclusion given a few facts – in their 18 meetings, Nadal has won twice as often as he has lost, he's younger than Federer, his game appears to be continuing to improve and his 2008 season was one of the best in the history of the game.

So where’s the love?

A quick look at some statistics of their rivalry reveal something that may (sub-collective-consciously) contribute to why so many feel so confident that Federer will overturn last year’s results. First, of their 18 meetings, 10 have been on clay, of which Federer has won only one. To be fair, that’s about the same winning percentage on clay against Nadal as the rest of the tour combined, but nevertheless it shows one thing – those who would suggest their head to head is lobsided, without considering that more than half their encounters occurred on clay are ignoring the obvious question – what would the head-to-head look like if the encounters were evenly dispersed on multiple surfaces?

If we remove the clay court encounters between the two, we are left with 8 matches, and in these matches, Federer is up 5-3. On grass he’s 2-1 and on hard courts he’s 3-2. So if we extrapolate this out to have their encounters split evenly between 3 surfaces (clay, grass and hard courts) the record might look something like 1-5 on clay, 4-2 on hard courts and 5-1 on grass, in which case the overall head-to-head would be 10-8 in favor of Federer.

Fair enough, the number of grass encounters would, in reality, be minimal, but even if we give Federer the same results on grass as hard courts they're an even 9-9. But given Fed's dominance on grass, the 10-8 record probably represents what most feel is the relative difference in quality between the two.  So it seems the collective wisdom of ATP fans favors Federer, and the (adjusted) record seems to support it.

Of course tennis doesn’t work that way – it’s about results, and Nadal’s against Federer are better, but let’s compare another pair of titans and see how their results may have differed had their results been skewed towards one clearly favorable surface.

Borg and McEnroe played 14 times in 4 years, and split their results. Grass 1-1, Carpet 5-3 in favor of Borg, leaving their hard court results at 3-1 in favor of McEnroe – but fascinatingly conspicuous in its absence are results on clay. 15 years BN (that’s Before Nadal) Borg was universally considered the greatest clay court tennis player in the history of the game. In 9 years he lost twice at the French Open (to the same player) and skipped the tournament entirely in 1977. His career record on clay was 245 to 39: he lost as many on that surface as any of the others (except grass) but also played on it more than any other – in fact he won twice as many matches on clay as any other surface.

So, does anyone really think McEnroe would have split their encounters on clay?

Fair enough, McEnroe is underrated on clay because he never won the French, and it wasn’t his best surface, but not so underrated that he’d split his encounters with Borg.  In fact I’d say that if they’d played half their matches on clay (as have Federer and Nadal), and the rest on others, nobody would be comparing the Borg/McEnroe rivalry with any of the other historically great ones – the results would be too heavily in favor of Borg.

At the end of the day, it turns out that even head to head rivalries are a weak comparison of players because an anomaly like the number of times played (or not played) on one players’ obviously favorite surface, can skew the results.

Taken in a broader context, aside from his victory at Wimbledon and the Olympics this year – comparable to another hard court MS shield – Nadal’s results this year are comparable to his results in the previous 4. Federer, on the other hand has had a very unusual season – he failed to win a Masters Series shield for the first time since 2001 and failed to win more than one major for the first time since 2003.  Even so, he still reached 3 out of 4 grand slam finals, and remains, albeit precariously, #2 in the rankings. (I say "precariously" because I haven’t included Djokovic in this analysis.  No disrespect is intended - this column was inspired by the head-to-head between Federer and Nadal - but on a side-bar, The Djoker would have to repeat his victory in Australia to stay on Federer’s heels for #2, whereas Federer would need only reach the semi-finals in Melbourne to “defend his points”.)

Nadal on the other hand, has won just 3 of his career 12 Masters Series events on anything other than clay, with one each in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and would have to come up with a second Wimbledon and an additional non-clay MS victory (to match is Olympics victory) to defend his points in 2009 – a tall order for any man, including the best player in the world.

Perhaps in comparing the likelihood of each man repeating his performance of 2008 in 2009 the collective wisdom of ATP fans have concluded that Nadal has a harder road, whereas Federer would need to win at least 1 MS series tournament and reclaim an additional GS in 2009. Apparently, the fans believe the former is less likely than the latter.

Vox populi, Vox dei?

We shall see…

Friday, December 5, 2008


At the start of the open era, in 1968, tennis had an opportunity to do what was done in baseball when technology threatened to destroy the integrity of the game. With radical changes in equipment composition resulting in even more radical changes in the game itself there was an opportunity. And had the game been organized under a single sensible umbrella of administrators who cared about the game, more than they did the size of their own coffers, they would have done something that may very well have changed the game for the better:

Forced all professional players to use wood racquets and standardized their composition.

Now before you yell at your screen at the thought, consider this: ironically the racquets are about the only piece of equipment in tennis that goes largely unregulated in the professional game. Players are restricted on what kinds of shoes they may wear on different surfaces, the balls are standardized (they are loosely so in soccer), the court dimensions are rigidly standardized (they are loosely so in baseball), and even the surfaces are highly regulated.

So does it make any sense that the one piece of equipment that may have turned tennis in to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am young man's game it is today, is the one piece of equipment that's largely unregulated?

One of the reasons why so many great players of yore were serve and volleyers, was that most major tournaments were played on grass, and everyone used a wood racquet. To use a wood racquet is akin to a professional baseball player using a wooden bat - only the most skillful, athletic and learned players in the world can wield this weapon with proficiency, and only the least skillful, athletic and learned players used composites...or so it was.

If you compare the overall playing ability of players who learned the game with wood racquets, with the last generation (born after, say, after 1978) the breadth of skills has most certainly suffered the consequences.  I mean, it's almost as if any idiot with a big serve and mindlessly wielded forehand, can make a living playing professional tennis. Gone are the days when various spins, angles, court coverage and the desperately lost art of serve and volley, were prerequisites to success at the highest levels of tennis. You can probably blame this on two players who ultimately changed the game for the worse, despite their undeniable tennis talent and performance: Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

Up until these two quick and devilishly monotonous baseliners came along, most players had the ability to do many things with a tennis racquet. Both of these players had plenty of variation in their strokes, but they were the first two, in at least two to three generations anyway, to master the art of dominating from the back court, albeit in very different ways. And it's no irony that both initiated changes in racquet technology that ultimately morphed the game into something that would be scarcely recognizable to them in their heyday.

Connors mastered the Wilson T-2000 steel frame - a frame so heavy, fidgety and with such a small sweet spot, that he was the only player in the world (that's the world, not just professional tennis) still using it long after it went out of production. The frame was heavier than a wood racquet, which made it hard to maintain racquet head acceleration through the stroke, but Connors with his excellent vision and fully rotating body through the point contact, was able to make violently beautiful music with an instrument that most would have a hard time carrying a tune.

The frame was also very malleable through the stroke and at the point of contact, creating a whipping effect that increased acceleration of the racquet head and imparted huge force on the ball that was unseen to that point. Nobody in the world had seen a player hitting outright winners from the baseline as Connors did with regularity. Facilitated by hitting a two-handed backhand, and rotating through his forehand in a manner that is common place today, Connors beat back both of these disadvantages and turned them into weapons of mass destruction that lay waste to his opponents for 5 years as he remained the dominant figure and #1 ranked player in men's tennis from 1974 to 1977.

Both the changes in stroke production and the introduction of his two-handed backhand heralded a new era in tennis, due not the least of which to his choice of racquet composition.

Bjorn Borg retired using a wood racquet, but he too violently thrust his body at the ball in a way not seen in tennis to that point, only he used that force to impart more topspin on the ball than any player in history. Accompanied by his supreme athleticism and speed, Borg became (and in my opinion remains today) the greatest clay court player in the history of the game. The combination of spin, force, and court coverage was dastardly, and resulted in him losing just 2 out of the 9 years he played at Roland Garros (both losses, in 1973 and 1976 were to the Italian Adriano Panatta - he didn't enter the field in 1977).

The secret to the spin Borg created was the obscenely tight racquet string tension he used. Rumored to be somewhere in the 85 - 90 psi range, his racquets often broke from the force of the string tension at high altitude tournaments, or in airplanes. The reason for the tight tension on the strings lies in the need to impart spin on the ball consistently - to do this, the racquet must first crush, then rotate the ball at the point of contact in a way the trampoline effect of a lower tension stringing cannot - imagine the difference between running into the net and bouncing straight back the way you came, and running into a concrete wall of the same height - you'd be crushed and probably flip over it - as does the ball - although the flipping effect, is more accurately embodied by the rotation of the ball and hence the spin.

Now most players seeking to compete with Connors and Borg's power and spin respectively, had no chance - first both players used a western grip to close the racquet head face at the point of contact, while most used a continental grip keeping it open to maximize the trampoline effect, but minimizing the crushing of the ball required to get the spin to keep the ball in court. So to compensate, racquet manufactures realized they could do two things - stiffen up the frame to create less vibration and maintain racquet head control, loosen the tension to create the trampoline effect, alter the composition of the strings themselves to assist with the creation of spin, and finally lighten the frame with a composite to increase racquet head acceleration.

The problem, of course, with increasing racquet head acceleration is that unless you are a player of the highest level of talent, it is difficult to hit the sweet spot of the racquet with the frames that were in use in those days, and any bigger frame on a wood racquet made it heavier and more prone to vibrations, diminishing control. To facilitate the ability to compete of players around the world who paled in comparison to the talent of these two titans, racquet manufactures increased the typical racquet head face size from 85 to 100+ sq. in. Once that happened, everyone and his brother became capable of hitting the ball like a ton of bricks, and staying in the back court just like Connors and Borg. Serve and volleyers also benefited, but the big benefit came in the form of oh-so many Bolletieri academy dead-heads who were taught to hit the ball hard with these new fangled composite racquets, and if that didn't work, hit it harder.

Don't bother coming to net Aaron Krickstein, don't bother learning how to hit an effective backhand Jimmy Arias, and never, under any circumstances, ever serve and volley Andre. Now, Agassi may very well have been capable of developing a more rounded game than his now-no-name Bolletieri predecessors, but why bother - with eyesight and hand eye coordination similar to Connors, he never had to, and the effects of these tools in his hands were exponentially beneficial to a man of his level of talent - much more so than it would have been to say, someone like David Wheaton, who beyond a big serve and big forehand, was about as useless on a tennis court as tits on a bull.

Had tennis had the foresight to restrict racquet equipment the way bats were restricted in baseball, we may very well still be watching the likes of Pete Sampras competing with the half-witted skill-challenged dolts who masquerade as professionals in the modern game. Have you ever seen James Blake execute a volley in a singles match? He looks like a club player. And Roddick looks more like someone with a death wish with his kamikaze forays to the net. Never has a player so committed to coming to net been passed so often.

In fact, even Federer, with all his talent and ability, has to force himself to come to net, and when he does, if he has to hit more than one volley, he's more likely than not, to get passed. I can only think of two true serve and volleyers to day in the top 50, Feliciano Lopez and Radek Stepanek, and they can hardly be considered the more talented players on the tour. They win matches against top opponents because they're able to put pressure by approaching consistently and with intelligence, and if they had any talent, may even find themselves in the top 10. Unfortunately for both of them, their talent sorely lags behind their skill set, and as a result they are destined to fall short at the feet of more brainless ball bashers who just close their eyes and swing as hard as they can.

Not only would we see top players compete longer, but we'd also see a different class of top player, if they were restricted to wood racquets, because when your strategy is to hit is as hard as you can, and doing so delivers hardly enough power to win points from the back court, they'd have to find other ways, more resourceful ways, to win points. This resourcefulness, or more accurately the lack there of, is why there is so little difference between the players in the top 50, but as a result, those who do have a brain have a huge advantage over even the second-best players in the world today. There would always be exceptions to the rules - just as Borg and Connors found ways to turn an era of serve-and volleyers into an era of baseline bashers, I'm certain that Nadal would have figured out a way to bang and spin with relatively equal venom as he does today. But how about Fernando Gonzalez? Or James Blake? Or even Lleyton Hewitt?

Do you honestly believe that these players would have careers as they do now if they when they laid the wood to the ball it was actual...wood?

Tennis lost a golden opportunity to preserve itself in 1968, when open tennis began. As long as they were changing the rules on eligibility, they could have done the same on equipment. But here's what might be very interesting - when players join the senior circuit, let's turn the clock all the way back and make them use wood racquets. Maybe Sampras, 12 years the junior of McEnroe, would still beat him black and blue with a wood frame...but I'm not so sure, and I for one would love to see that.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for about 30 years, and for this I commend him…but as far as this post is concerned, that’s about the last good thing I have to say about him. I was absolutely gobsmacked by the following post at and here on Tennis World in which Bodo places the entire blame for Argentina’s loss in the Davis Cup final to Spain, on the shoulders of one person. 

That one person isn't Juan Martin del Potro who came into the tie with no energy, no plan B, and went out with barely a hint of struggle. It isn’t Chucho Acasuso, who again was unable to come up with the goods to win a "must win" match. It wasn’t any one of a number of Argentine professionals (Canas, Chela, Monaco, Calleri, etc.) that have been so weak as individuals that none of them was preferred to a half-injured or half-hearted options. And it wasn't Alberto Mancini, who did little more than hand out towels and nervy energy for 3 days. No the person he chose to condemn was David Nalbandian.


The same David Nalbandian who has won 17 singles rubbers and 10 doubles rubbers for his country. The same David Nalbandian who has enthusiastically played for his country without hesitation for 6 years straight. And the same David Nalbandian that gave Argentina the perfect start to what should have been their coronation, by winning his opening singles rubber in straight sets against David Ferrer.


Here we have a player who has never shied away from representing his country – who genuinely believes there is honor in the competition, and hopes to be appreciated for it. What a rare trait! Federer and Nadal have both flipped the bird to Davis Cup over the years, and we fall all over ourselves to congratulate them when they take the time out of their busy exhibition calendars and play for honor. But when Nalbandian gives his heart and soul to the cause, he’s accused of somehow turning a team competition into an exercise in personal vainglory. Somehow, now, it’s a bad thing that Nalbandian wants to win a Davis Cup?


I also find it shockingly, and patently transparent, that Bodo has gone out of his way to heap accolades on Roddick for being a “team leader”, which is nothing more than an attempt to give him praise for something…anything…in the absence of winning a major for the last 5 years. I don’t criticize Roddick – he deserves his praise 
 but the insinuation that somehow Roddick’s commitment to the USA, trumps Nalbandian’s to Argentina is, as the English say, just bollocks. 

What exactly is this "team leader" non-sense anyway? An invented crown full of costume jewelry, worn only by Roddick because, try as we may, there’s really nothing much else we can say about his game that’s been exceptional over the last 5 years. He was supposed to be the savior of American tennis and he’s failed miserably, and rather than accepting this like other countries do for their underachieving players, we concoct new and exciting ways of putting him right up there with the greats of the game that have...dare I say it...actually won majors. 

But this is absolute non-sense. 

Roddick has nothing to do with Blake or the Bryan's winning or losing their matches. Try as we may to relate the two, Blake is as inconsistent in Davis Cup as he is in everything else. And the Bryan's win all the time, not just when Roddick is cheering them on from the bench.

Speaking of whom, if anyone has turned Davis Cup into his own personal glorification, it’s Roddick.  But Bodo has nothing but kind words for him. I’m not suggesting Roddick should be criticized – I happen to admire his commitment to Davis Cup – but why then has Bodo chosen to criticize Nalbandian for the same virtue? Apparently he admits he has an axe to grind when it comes to Argentine players, but fails to mitigate this and proceeds to lambaste Nalbandian. The strange thing is Bodo should know better – he should know that all this talk of team spirit, and togetherness is bull – tennis, even when played in a team context, is still about one man trying to destroy the other. 

And at the end of the day, one man, and only that man can either will his way to win, or find a way to lose. That’s why it’s so important, in Davis Cup, that you have a team of real men who are fit enough, good enough and courageous enough to do like the Raiders and “just win, baby”. Spain did and Argentina didn't – how is this Nalbandian’s fault again?

Davis Cup is what it is:  an imperfect test of the best tennis playing nation in the world. It’s a team competition and the team is the tennis playing nation, not 2 or 3 players, as the American's success in 2007 would have you believe. Frankly, I think the Americans were damn lucky they didn't have a similar situation – had Roddick come up lame before any of his Davis Cup matches, we’d all be lamenting that there were no others to hold aloft the mantle of “team leader”. But that didn't seem to bother the Spaniards, did it?

Here we have everyone and his brother bemoaning the misfortune of the Argentinians that their flavor of the month, del Potro, was injured and couldn't do the job on Friday. Excuse me, but has anyone ever heard of a player who was completely absent from the Spanish squad named Rafael Nadal? He was probably on a boat somewhere not contributing one iota, and if Spain had lost, we’d all be asking how different it would have been had he played. In fact they were without Nico Almagro and Tommy Robredo, two players ranked higher than Verdasco, but they still found a way to win. Instead, in hindsight, we've all got 20/20 vision, and now, going to Argentina without the best player in the world was somehow an advantage to Spain?

Oh, it gets stupider…

Then, there is this business of Nalbandian criticizing his teammates 
– dare I ask, so what if he did? After all, they deserved it  and if Acasuso had won on Sunday, you can bet someone, somewhere, would be giving the credit to Nalbandian for "motivating" his teammates.  And as if the soap opera weren't pathetic enough, he throws in this unconfirmed story of Nalbandian trying to "finagle" the location of the final to be somewhere close to Cordoba  which is apparently his home town.  But I ask you this:

What in the hell difference does it make where they play if you can’t keep the ball in between the lines? 

Did Nalbandian make Chucho aim for the fences (and often hit them) time and time again, giving away countless points to Verdasco, who gladly just kept the ball in play waiting for him to self-destruct?  Did Nalbandian make Lopez play the match of his life? And if del Potro was not motivated, this is Nalbandian's fault? What's the source of Nalbandian's motivation? According to Bodo, he wants to make up for all his personal underachieving by making the Davis Cup "David's Cup". But this assumes he feels somehow he should be ashamed of his career. Maybe Bodo feels he's underachieved, but that has nothing to do with Nalbandian's self-perception, and thus, his cynical assumptions about Nalbandian's motivation (while ignoring the absence of del Potro's) is beyond absurd – it is in fact sinister. 

The fact of the matter is Argentina lost because they lacked depth 
 full stop. The Spaniards have a lot of options, even when the best player in the world is on vacation. The same could not be said for Argentina. Their best hope was to win 3 singles matches, even though they put in a hell of an effort in doubles, but fell short. Nalbandian did his part, but when he looked over his shoulder to see who else was going again into the breach, he saw a 19 year old kid with no plan B, and a guy who 2 years ago, looked like he was on the verge of depression after losing another deciding rubber  this one in Moscow.  Next to that, they had about 6 other players so out of form or shape, they didn't even bother to suit up.

And it is this lone warrior, who gave everything to the cause, that Bodo chooses to isolate for blame. 

Shame on you Peter Bodo – after all these years you really should know better.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Well, with egg on my face, I must admit, I got it all wrong with regards to the ATP Rankings, and the ATP Race. Basically, I jumped the gun on my assumptions about the reasons for the differences, and have come to the conclusion that, in the words of Congressman Dick Dodge from The Distinguished Gentleman:

“Son, the system ain’t perfect; but the fleas come with the dog.”

First, to explain the differences between the two points systems, and why each, in some form, is necessary to maintain legitimacy and sense in professional tennis.


As I write, the #1 ranked player in the world is Rafael Nadal. This ranking is based on the system of the official name “Entry Ranking System”. To be honest, I still haven’t quite figured out what is the meaning behind this name, but basically it is a rolling 52-week backward facing accumulation of points, giving a 1-year snapshot of the relative ranking of all professionals. It is used to determine which players are eligible to enter the various events, and the seeding thereof.
The points are allocated across 7 categories of tournaments:

[1] Grand Slams
[2] The Masters Cup (Year End Championships)
[3] Masters Series
[4] International Gold
[5] International
[6] Challenger
[7] Futures

The ATP Race serves two purposes: first, it determines the year end #1 player for the season, and it also determines which eight players will play in the TMC. The genesis of the ATP Race was the perception that the #1 ranking was not intuitive, and observers not intimately involved in tennis had a hard time keeping track of who was the #1 player.

The categories of the ATP Race differ from the ranking points in that only the first 4 categories of the ranking points transfers to the ATP Race – challenger and futures events are excluded from the ATP race. The points allocated to the yearly points is also smaller by a factor of 5, but proportionally the same. The only remaining difference between the two is that the Olympics are not included in the ATP race points, and as such have no bearing on the year end #1 ranking, or the TMC invitations.

The structure of the ATP Race is that all players begin the year with 0 points, and begin to accrue points in various categories of competitions throughout the year. This differs from the entry rankings in that players maintain points accrued from the previous year, into the current year. The players earn points at the grand slams, all the masters series events, and the best five results from the two international series in both systems.

If the ATP had their druthers, they would do away with the entry ranking system, since it is not a palatably marketable tool to promote the casual fan tracking the progress of the season, but the problem comes with the seeding at tournaments. If there were not carryover from the previous year, players could only be seeded either by the tournaments themselves, in a haphazard way, or based on the ATP race points, and players who either manage their schedule or suffer injuries would suffer unjustly.

For example, Mikael Youzhny, and Michael Llorda would have been the top two seeds at the Australian Open, while Federer and Nadal, could possibly have wound up facing each other in the earlier rounds, and nobody wants to see that. Furthermore, if for some reason one of them were injured early in the season, they would see their ranking suffer terribly, and have a very big hill to climb for the remainder of the year.


For these reasons the dual system exists, and on the face of it, makes perfectly good sense. That there are two points systems in play at any one time would seem to make it very confusing for anyone outside of tennis trying to follow who’s doing what during the season, and would over emphasize the value/quality of a hot player, versus one who consistently demonstrates superiority over the field over the course of a year.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the points go back a year in terms of the confusion, and because in Olympic years there are proportionately more points available for seeding than there is to determine the year end #1, it makes for the possibility that depending on the results, a player could wind up with a higher ranking, but still lose out on the year end #1. It would require an extremely coincidental and convoluted series of results to expose such an oddity, and fortunately, because tennis is sport that tends to be dominated by a consistent small group of players, particularly the top 5, we haven’t seen a lot of peculiarities due to this asynchronous allocation of points.


Ideally there should be one system that everyone refers to, and the entry ranking system could be renamed the entry seeding system, to alleviate confusion. After all, David Nalbandian is ranked #7, but given that he was the highest ranked player at Stockholm, he was the #1 seed, but nobody is going to confuse him for the best player in the world. Even the casual observer could look at the ATP race and see that he must be seeded so high because nobody else with a better ranking (or in the new system, seeding) is playing in the tournament.

It turns out that there is really no problem at all with the entry ranking system per se – the real problem is with the #1 ranking. It has taken on a significance all its own, independent of the results in the slams, some kind of badge of honor that (for them most part) only the best players in the history of the game have been able to attain. Each time we get a Marcelo Rios or a Jelena Jankovic reaching #1 in the world without winning a grand slam, it feels wrong because we know the prestige in the game is related to results in the crowned jewels of the game, and as such, the #1 ranking is an artificial accolade, created by the ATP many years ago in order to standardize seedings and create a holy grail towards which their sponsored/controlled events are geared, giving them more gravitas than they would otherwise have on their own.


Maybe we should do away with the #1 ranking. It would take a genius to figure out that the #1 ranked player in the world can’t really be determined until the end of the year, and leading the ATP Race, wouldn’t hold much value until the TMC came around. But there’s something about being able to rank players from one event to the next, and have a ranking commensurate to the marketing of an event that makes tennis special. In college sports, there is an excitement around #1 versus #2 that tennis benefits from because of its ranking, but that system is fraught with problems as well.

I don’t know if it would matter to anyone if the abstract #1 ranking disappeared. It’s only been around for 35 years and would, in history, be treated as an aberration owing to the evolving structure of professional tennis that was eventually rectified by the consolidation of power in the ATP and the introduction of the ATP Race as a proper vehicle to determine who the best player in tennis was in a year.

It would also eliminate, or at least mitigate the embarrassing historical asterisk of the Marcelo Rios’ of tennis.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Here are some new lyrics to the song, "Yesterday" by McCartney and Lennon, written as an ode to Justine Henin, the last all-court player in women's tennis who has chosen to retire from the game:


I just used to love the way you play
Now it seems that there’s another way
To play, but not like yesterday


Sharapova’s not so cute to me
I wouldn’t watch Serena play for free
Big babe tennis came suddenly.

Why she,
Had to shriek I don't know, she wouldn't say.
I said,
Close your mouth and play the way they used to plaaaaayy…

Tennis was a lovely game to play
Now I need a juice and tanqueray
To watch the way they play today

Why she
Had to quit I don't know, she wouldn't say.

I said,
Nothing’s wrong, with the games of yesterdaaaay.

Big babe tennis was so strange to say
Now it seems as though it's here to stay,
Oh how I long for yesterday

Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmmmm....

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Here’s what I can’t stand about Andy Murray – it’s not his ridiculous haircut, or his insufferable demeanor, nor the absurdity of his ever-growing entourage of trainers, mothers, masseuses and coaches. What I can’t stand about Andy Murray is his sense of entitlement.

To be fair, it’s hard to expect more of someone who’s been showered with more undeserving praise than anyone in professional tennis. The British media, renowned for their willful collaboration with sporting "authorities" to create the unmerited illusion of competitiveness in sports they once dominated (take your pick: rugby, football, tennis, cricket…) have taken this to a new level with the inexplicable obsession with Andy Murray. It’s true that he’s beaten Roger Federer a couple of times (so has Willy Canas, but you don’t see the Argentine press fawning over him) and he’s the highest ranking British tennis player in the world (which is not saying much since they haven’t had a decent crop of players since Rusedski and Henman), but the effect of this has created a monster that is neither pleasant to behold, nor easy to contemplate.

Recently Murray indicated, to the horror of British tennis fanatics around the world, that if he couldn’t compete in the top 10 he’d retire from tennis. I don't believe I've been so keen to see a player drop out of the 10 ten in 30 years of watching tennis. There was, of course, no mention of what he’d do if he weren’t playing tennis – but when you’re spoiled and think the commonwealth is your oyster, you tend not to consider these things on the odd occasion that you contemplate something other than your next paycheck.

This week, Murray had a first round match in Italy against Juan Martin del Potro – a spindly 6’5” Argentine who hits like a ton of bricks, but generally whose accuracy is inversely proportional to his power. While his results have improved dramatically over the last two years, very few people outside of tennis have any idea who he is, and until he gets some decent results, Monday’s farcical exchange with an equally narrow Andy Murray, will probably be what he is best known for.

In this match, Murray, in all his tactical genius, decided at 4-4 in the second set to serve and volley. This of course involves volleying which, despite his grossly exaggerated reputation as an all-court player, Murray is not particularly good at. The serve was laughably weak, and del Potro promptly pummeled it at his feet, to which Murray replied with a weak looping volley that dropped just beyond the service line to his right. This situation is tricky for del Potro – if he tries to belt it up the line, he has to get it up and down where the net is 6 inches higher, and as such can lead to an error long or in the net. Try to push it up the line, and Murray gets a cheap shot at another volley. Rope it cross court, and any player with a modicum of tactical sense will know this is the higher percentage play, and will typically cheat in that direction, hoping to poach to the open court for a winner.

On this particular play, which you can see in the first point of this clip:

Murray actually begins to cheat to his left, but then suddenly stays where he is. Del Potro, recognizing the situation rightly hit it as hard as he could right down the gut – in fact it was a little to Murray’s right, and may even have ventured long had Murray not gotten his racquet on it. What ensued is almost as comical as it is revealing:

For some reason, unbeknownst to either del Potro, the chair umpire, or the 3-4 unbiased onlookers who stuck around to see the conclusion of this (mercilessly) rain-delayed match, Murray expected an apology from del Potro, and even kept his forehand extended pose long enough for him to see if he bothered to look back at Murray. He didn’t, and he didn’t, and apparently Murray took exception to this.

Now we all know that Murray is accustomed to being watched intently and playing in front of large audiences, so the empty stadium likely did nothing to garner his attention, and understandably he may have needed a lift to take the match a little more seriously. But rather than digging deep and slapping himself in the cheek (either literally – which would have suited me just fine – or figuratively) he chose to use this curiously inferred slight as his cue to get pumped.

Only Murray didn’t bother to play better or even more adventurously – he simply began cheering del Potro’s errors. And Judy Murray being Judy Murray, joined in the festivities. Del Potro may be a qualifier, but any self-respecting player would take exception – there’s nothing more annoying than an opponent (and his mother) patting him/themselves on the back as reward for points given to him/them on errors. But Murray being Murray, expected an apology for the non-drilling (which he didn’t deserve, and didn’t get) and later had the temerity to make allusions to it on the change-over. He went so far as to extend his rather giraffe-ish neck around the umpire’s chair to reiterate his expectation of an apology for his opponent hitting his shot 3-4 feet to his right on a crap volley.

Then came this adorable exchange:

Murray: You try and hit a ball at me and you think it's fine.
del Potro: You are always the same hey? You never change.
Murray: You yeah.
Umpire: OK boys, I'll handle it now.
del Potro: And your mother, she's the same always.
Umpire: Just save it 'till later.
Murray: Do you want to speak about my Mum again? Huh?
Umpire: Andy...
Murray: No, no, no... that's unacceptable.
Umpire: That's what I'm just about to say, let me handle it...
Murray: This guy hits it straight at me...
Umpire: Well, he can do that!
Murray: Then I can say something when he's hitting off the frame too!
Umpire: It's only going to get worse if you get involved, trust me, just let me handle it...Juan, that's enough okay?

So his complaints began with the expectation of deference to his oh-so-beautiful face (i.e. “How dare you have the nerve to hit a ball within 10 feet of my million-pound-sterling smile”), and migrated to the exception he took to del Potro righteous indignation.

We still haven’t come within a country mile of either the scud-missile Murray claimed was aimed at his head, or the insult for which he was so ready to challenge del Potro to a duel. Frankly I think Fergus Murphy did him a favor, because he nearly bought himself an on-court ass-whipping had the umpire not graciously stepped in to save him from himself.  But what exactly was it that got Murray so hot and bothered? That’s right – not getting an apology for not hitting the passing shot within 5 feet of him.

Now this is, in my opinion, the epitome of an undeserved sense of entitlement. Murray doesn't get any special dispensation because the British play him up to be the next best thing, and his mother doesn't get any special protection because her son thinks she’s the nicest lady in the world – what spoiled brat doesn't think the same of his own mother.

If she’s going to be antagonizing her son’s opponents by sticking it in their craw every time they hit the ball off the frame, then she’s going to come into some criticism, and Sir Quit-A-Lot shouldn't bother coming to her defense. If she doesn't want to be criticized, she can keep quiet and watch the match in anonymity like every other sane mother on tour. And if Murray doesn't want to risk getting hit by the ball when he’s at the net, then one of his 16 coaches can teach him to volley properly.

Let's not gloss over the fact that Murray patently lied about the entire incident when asked about it in his press conference. Now, why anyone bothers to attend these circus shows is beyond me, but in response to a question about the exchange Murray claimed, according to the AP, that del Potro went head-hunting on the pass, and then insulted his mother. The video above refutes both charges, where it is clear that not only did del Potro not hit at him (although it is his right to do so), but he also didn't just spontaneously spout off an insult to his mother. He was in fact, antagonized by Murray (which was conveniently not reported), and responded, I would say, rather mildly to it.

Murray revealed himself to be a liar, an instigator and a self-absorbed prig in one brief moment of lunacy - therapist's chairs have seen less revealing sessions. In fact, I don't know how much of a revelation this was - more like a confirmation.

At the end of the day, it is the prince of the other most unbearable family in tennis, the Djoker-vic’s that may have said it best:

"In the UK a lot of kids are a little bit spoiled. If you have perfect conditions and everything you want, you don't know the real meaning of tennis and you don't work as hard as you are supposed to. You do not have hunger for success because everything is on a plate."

Rather than berating him for the piercing nature of his comments, the British press would do well to heed his observations and consider their own role in creating the Enfant Terrible that is Andy Murray and every other British tennis player that shows some promise. Stop the hype, and wait until the kid earns some of the praise you just can’t wait to heap on him, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find someone on the island that can play tennis, and...dare I say one for the Queen.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Following a seemingly meaningless victory in San Jose, and having just lost to journeyman Robin Soderling (probably more famous for his antagonizing antics against Nadal at Wimbledon in 2007 than for his own game) in Memphis, Andy Roddick appears to have found his mojo.

With two convincing straight set victories over Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in succession, marking the first time in his career he has beaten the #’s 2 and #3 players in the same tournament, Roddick’s supporters are awash with optimism that seems destined to resemble so many other false hopes that he might regain what many view as his rightful place in the acropolis of the tennis. And with hordes of tenniserati questioning his insistence on getting in a tournament in Tennessee before flying off to Dubai, it seems he knows something more about his own preparation than outside observers.

In a star-studded draw that included 8 of the top 10 players on tour, and despite being on the other side of the draw from his usual nemesis, Roger Federer, few would have put their money on the boy from Omaha coming through to the final. Fewer still would have bet on him winning in any case, since Federer’s path to his own redemption appeared ready made with the exception of an intriguing first round match up against that other frustrating Andy - Andy Murray. Murray took care of that bogey for him, and then promptly bottled his quarterfinal with Davydenko – another of Federer’s favorite whipping boys who stood in the way of what would have been a fascinating final.

This week, Roddick announced his separation from his current guide and mentor, Jimmy Connors. When the partnership began, it was hard for me to imagine it lasting very long. Never known to think of much more than himself, the manifestation of Connors helping Roddick break through the glass menagerie would have likely led to a conflict of credit for the success, and not a strengthening of the marriage, as it would most coach/player relationships. When Roddick reached the US Open final in 2006, it seemed their union was all the rage in tennis. Even Connors couldn’t resist the temptation to suggest that some of what made him “great” could rub off on Roddick, and with that the die was cast for this terrible idea to take hold.

A year later, at the 2008 Australian Open, Roddick openly complained about the paucity of quality time with his sen-sai, and although he never mentioned it, few would blame him for resenting the suggestion that Connors greatest asset, his unending selfishness masqueraded as competitiveness, would be the key facet of this gem of a pairing. As if Roddick’s problem was that he wasn’t competitive enough. Nobody on tour shows how much he hates losing, as much as Roddick – maybe Federer in his own way – but certainly not with the unbridled petulance, presented as a fiery belly, that Roddick always seems to display, even when he plays well and loses (as he did in the 2007 US Open).

To be fair, the biggest problem in Roddicks’ game is, and always has been, one of technique. With the heaviest serve in the history of tennis, Roddick’s arsenal looked more like that of an aircraft carrier – plenty of power for collateral damage, but when the mission required the precision of an attack submarine, a girlish backhand, and a suddenly spinny forehand too often abandoned ship on their captain and the results were almost too painful to bear, even for those with little love for former SNL host. If you watch slow-motion video of Roddick hitting his forehand, there are so many technical problems with it (delayed racquet head acceleration, a point of contact parallel to his body, and a tendency to watch the result of the shot before he’s hit it) and compare it to any of his main rivals, you’ll see why the basics of his game so often abandon him.

But this week, something strange happened to Andy Roddick. Despite all his technical weaknesses, and inability to maximize his game vis a vis those of his best contemporairies, he won. He didn’t just win - he competed ferociously in the first set and handed out real beat downs in the second in both of his star-studded quarter-final and semi-final match-ups.

More than the results, I was impressed with the extent of his disbelief at winning both matches. You could almost see a trail of monkey feces running down his back as he shook hands as the victor, first with Nadal, then with Djokovic. Never shy of displaying his emotions, you couldn’t help but be mildly surprised, even for all his hall of fame pedigree of winning the US Open, winning the Davis Cup, and having been ranked (albeit many moons ago) #1 in the world, at the obvious impact all the talk of shrinking to the occasion has had on his psyche.

Apparently Federer wasn’t the only one cloaked in the dark cloth of mystique, and when the last ball was struck against his swarthy opponent from Mallorca, the genuine smile, absent from his game for so long, reappeared like that of a natural beauty we all knew in high school who finally put her make-up on again. Who knows what would have happened had he met Federer in the final, instead of Feliciano Lopez, but on the strength of his recent form, and Roger’s, it’s not hard to imagine that this could have been his moment against him too.

There’s a lot of talk about Andy losing 15 in a row to Federer, when in fact, that streak was interrupted briefly in 2007 at Kooyong. Cynics would tell you that Federer was experimenting, or that it was just an exhibition, but Federer did reach the final, and nobody likes to hold aloft a lovely crystal plate, when there’s a brilliant gold cup being handed to your opponent, so my guess is the result was legitimate.

But Roddick’s problem never really was lack of belief. As a matter of fact, belief in his pedigree seemed to deepen his frustration at underachieving when it counted – even when it didn’t (such as in the last round-robin match of the YEC in Shanghai). At the end of the day, A-Rod seemed to put too much pressure on himself to get results, and the technical failings in the rest of his game couldn’t match up to the technical perfection of his serve.

At Wimbledon he gave away a 2-set lead to Richard Gasquet, and as anyone who knows the French will tell you, they are not known for their iron-will. That gallic shrug that is so familiar to francophones the world over is as much a metaphor for their perspective on life, which makes them well-rounded people, but generally underachieving athletes. Throughout their titanic encounter, it was on full display that day, even as the French version of Roddick was engineering his historic comeback, so something was going wrong for him in that match, and it wasn’t his will to win.

With Roddick there is this an ever-present tension that seems to belie an underlying knowledge that the limitations of his game mean his best bet to win anything important is to get on a wave, usually started by his serve, and ride it until the white foam comes crashing down on match point. The restlessness so evident in his demeanor seems to stem, in my view, from the knowledge that at any moment, the curtain will be drawn on the Emperor’s changing room, and we all (that includes his opponent) will realize that aside from a big serve, he comes onto that court as naked as the day he was born.

The look on his face when Gasquet or Federer or Djokovic so easily handle his serve reminds me of the look on Agassi’s face when he would realize that Sampras’ serve was on, and the rest of his game didn’t have too many holes in it.

That was a look we never saw this week, because Roddick wasn’t broken a single time in the entire tournament.

So for those who think they’ve just seen the return of the A-Rod of 2003 – the trash talking, big serving, forehand drilling phenom turned dominator that ran through the US Open like the wind – think again. It just takes one bad day on his serve to return Roddick to his under-achieving worst, and fortunately for him, he didn’t have one this week. But I have a feeling that if he meets up with either of the two he demolished this week, they’ll be focused on one thing and one thing only.

That would be getting a beat on his serve.

With most players you’d say that just getting the return back in play gives them about 25% chance of winning the point, but with Roddick that number’s probably well above 50%. And as Agassi opined in Roddick's match against Federer last year at Flushing Meadow, each successive stroke Roddick hits seems to reduce the likelihood that he’ll win the point. The biggest bang for the buck is just getting the return in play because with him, it’s more than half the battle.

I didn’t see enough out of his game this week to tell me that he was ready to return to the pinnacle of tennis, even if it’s just for a 2-week period. He’ll have to serve like he did for 4 matches for 7 if he wants to be in with any chance of winning Wimbledon or the US Open this year – let’s not even mention the French. Frankly, I don’t see that happening when everyone is as geared up as he obviously was for this tournament.

The best sign this week is the removal of Jimmy Connors from his camp. Connors was an aggressive baseliner, and some would put Roddick in the same category, only armed with a Howitzer serve – but then why is it that he hasn’t won anything worth winning (aside from the Davis Cup) in 5 years?

Connors, for alls his prowess from behind the baseline, spent very little time there. He wasn’t a serve and volleyer, but even in those days, he wasn’t dumb enough to think he could beat everyone exclusively with his ground strokes. An unnatural volleyer who actually used a western grip on the forehand side even at the net, Connors was sufficiently serviceable inside the service line to cut points off against bigger, stronger and harder-hitting opponents well into the period in his career when he suddenly became everyone’s favorite guy to root for. He made his living pounding from the baseline, but he won his titles at the net.

It was in this area that Roddick seemed to be taking his cues from Connors, and it was in this area that the paucity of his overall tennis ability was revealed. In convincing Roddick that he had to make his life easier by approaching the net and finishing off the points, he failed to translate that strategy into the tactics of how and when to approach. Instead, an unyielding barrage of kamikaze forays into the net against some of the more precise players on tour – precisely the type of players who still understand the art of the passing shot – probably cost Roddick a shot at winning on his own terms or at all, for that matter.

No matter how badly we want to credit coaches (the Henin Rodriguez partnership comes to mind) at the end of the day, the player has to have the innate sense of when to attack, when to defend, and when to throw the kitchen sink. Let me be clear: I’m 100% against on court coaching. But even a purist like me has to admit that you could tell a baboon to reach Chaucer, and he’d probably eat the text instead.

The truth is there’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing, and clearly, in Connors playing philosophy he did, and Andy doesn’t. I’ve never seen someone get passed so often who tried so hard to come to net. I applaud his openness to the tactic, but that doesn’t mean he can execute. Basically it looked to me like Andy was trying to employ the tactics that Connors did, rather than discussing a strategic objective and figuring out ways to execute his own tactics to achieve it. It seems Roddick found a way to employ the strategy of putting pressure on your opponent, but he is not (as Connors often did) doing it by approaching the net. A-Rod in 2003 rarely did, and this week it was more of the same. In that sense, Andy seems to have found himself gain. It remains to be seen if his self is enogh for a victory. I’d flatten out the forehand, take off a little bit of pace, and approach only on short balls, or well struck shots in the rally.

This week it appeared he didn’t do too much of that, and it’s a good news/bad news sort of deal:

The good news is Andy Roddick is doing it his way.
The bad news is it hasn’t worked in 5 years.

Call me a cynic, but I still think it’s way too early to be heralding the return of the A-Rod just yet.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


The attention of the tennis world will certainly be on Dubai this week. With so many top 10 players in this tournament, Andy Murray (ranked 11th) couldn’t get so much as a seed, and as such had to win his first match against none other than world champion Roger Federer. But I have to say I watched a wonderful little event in Acapulco, Mexico on ESPN Deportes this week and discovered a player who has really impressed me with his game.

You may have heard of Nicolas Almagro, one of many Spanish players playing second fiddle to Rafael Nadal, but if you haven’t seen him play (and it's likely that you haven't), and you get a chance, particularly during the clay-court season, I would recommend you tune in.

Almagro is a swashbuckler – no doubt about it. That racquet looks more like a sword in his hand, and even on clay he’s not afraid to unload off of both sides – and boy can he ever unload. Add to this a curiosity amongst Spanish players – a killer serve – and suddenly you’ve got a player who, if he can perform consistently, clearly has the game to do well on larger stages.

In his titanic semi-final encounter with Chu-Cho Acasuso of Argentina, Almagro so entertained the Mexican crowd that they honored him with one of the rarest displays of collective public affection in sports. As he stood in the center of the court, sending kisses to his contingent of supporters, Almagro was showered with seat cushions thrown onto the court. It's an interesting cross between honoring an undersized winner in sumo wrestling, and exalting a matador in bullfighting. I suppose there's a little bit of both in Almagro.

I’m sure his opponents are not impressed with some of his histrionics – two years ago, in a match he won against Marat Safin in Valencia, although Safin had spent many of his formative years in that very region of Spain, it was the man from Murcia who garnered the crowd’s affection with a dazzling display of shot-making, defense, and pure guile. In response, Safin walked off the court and actively refused to shake hands with the victor who had spent more than a generous amount of time after match point gesticulating while laying supine on the rust colored surface.

One of the most appealing aspects of his game is his backhand. For an average sized player technique is his savior, and the consistency and power he generates off his single-handed reverse is impressive. Typically he runs around it to finish off points, and his forehand is definitely his better side - but if it's a weakness, we should all be so lucky to have one like his. There will be more than one opponent who will wonder just how he managed to smoke so many shots up the line, while also finding magically acute angles on his cross court offerings on the same side.

Ultimately, in the final against Nalbandian, the telling factor was his serve. It got him out of trouble on more than one occasion, and in the first set put so much pressure on Nalbandian to produce on the second serve return, that the Armenian-Argentine often over-hit and gifted Almagro points that he really needed to win. Compact and cultured by overwhelming spin, Almagro shows us that there is no substitute for form and follow through on all strokes including the serve. At the end of the day, most of the motion prior to the point of contact is ironically a waste, whereas the strike zone and the follow through seem to fuel his mammoth stroke production.

We’re still about 3 months away from the French Open, and Almagro has disappointed at Roland Garros in the past. After playing well in the 2006 European clay court season, he lost in the first round in Paris. There’s a distinct possibility, as is always the case in tennis, that his performance in Mexico, on top of his win in Brazil two weeks earlier, will put pressure on him that his emotive and loose limbed game cannot bear. For players who rely more on touch, feel and technique than brute force, the mental approach to the game is paramount to their success in a way that makes high expectations their kryptonite.

However there is a possibility that at age 22 – around about the age that both Federer and Sampras emerged from two years of faltering under the weight of expectation – this could be his time.  In the blogosphere you often hear complaints that tennis has become too predictable and boring.  I have never been one to hold it against a player because he is dominant – it’s not his responsibility to make it easier for his opponents to beat him – but I have always found it curious of Federer’s detractors (who are almost as often Nadal’s fanatics) that the dominance they deride when displayed by Federer on most surfaces is somehow more appreciated when displayed by Nadal on clay. You would think that if boredom with the game is the source of their crusade against Federer they’d be equally antagonistic towards Nadal (and his opponents, for that matter) on clay. Typically they are not.

Here, we just may have someone with the game and the attitude to do in Paris what Djokovic did in Melbourne – show the tennis world (especially Federer's detractors) that the beauty of tennis is that on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. In doing so, Djokovic should have reminded them of just how good Federer has been over the last 3-4 years, in avoiding defeat so often. If Almagro can do the unthinkable and win on clay in Paris, perhaps they'll appreciate Nadal’s dominance on that surface, as lustily as they laud the end of Federer’s dominance on every other.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I'm quite certain I'm not the only one who feels this way, but Novak Djokervic's retirement from a Davis Cup tie for Serbia against Russia, has to be the most disgraceful thing I've ever seen in tennis. This event is nothing if it is not honorable, and if its participants are not going to take it seriously, then why should anybody else.

To be fair, this isn't the first time he's run from a fight, and I'm guessing it won't be the last, but in the past the impact has only been to himself. Now, a country newly proud of their tennis pedigree (and rightfully so) has to live with the shame of its prodigal son returning to the colors of their flag, and turning them bright yellow.

I know there are few top players who take Davis Cup seriously. Federer, Nadal, and now Djokervic, have all thrown in the towel when it comes to this hallowed competition, which seems more important now to tennis nation minnows, than it does to the players who earn (for everyone) the big bucks. But with the exception of the Americans, who are so committed to playing for their country that they've had the same line-up for almsot 2 years straight, no tennis country can seem to muster up the best players with any consistency, and those of us who revere Davis Cup for what it stands, and what it can be if we put some mustard on it, are quite fed up.

But here, with the Djoker, there's one glaring difference. This kid actually quit in the middle of a match, because of a fever...a fever!  And in a melodramatic show of either petulance, or feigned emergency, Djokervic walked off the court without bothering to even collect his belongings. I'm sure one or two Russians had more than a mild chuckle at the sight of a Serbian turning tail and running from a fight on Russian soil. I'm sure they're wondering how they ever lost the Soviet empire. And the ghosts of Serbians past, who most certainly can't stand Russians, are probably rolling in their graves at the sight of this slinking weasel, scuttering off the court in shame.

And his mother, shaking her head all along for the cameras, pretending that he's doing something that isn't to be expected of him (i.e. take off his skirt and finish a match for his country if it kills him) is just a side-show to the continuing parade of disgraceful images and actions with which this whole family have sullied the beautiful game of tennis.

At least Jimmy Connors didn't bother to play Davis Cup for 14 years rather than disgracing himself on this stage. Fair enough - he was going through some family issues in 1984, and didn't give his best when he bagged it against Sweden in the final that should have been ours, but at least the man had enough self-respect to finish the match.

In my opinion, there's only one way to finish a Davis Cup match, and it is as the Romans told their soldiers before coming back from a fight:

With your shield or on it.

Friday, January 25, 2008


That's right - the best player in the world, 12-time grand slam champion Roger Federer, choked away the first set, and his best chance to retain the Australian Open title he has held for the last 2 years.

It happens.

That is not to take away from the outstanding performance of Novak Djokovic, who's play throughout the tournament has been nearly flawless, didn't choke, and was able to come up with the goods when it counted. There are a lot of people who couldn't believe it would happen until the moment it did, and even held out hope during the 3rd set tie-break that if Federer could have mustered a way to win it, he would have found a way to make a stunning comeback.

But at the end of the day, when Fed had to be at his best he wasn't, and when Djokovic had to be at his best he was. No matter how you cut it, this is indicative of a change in men's tennis. Because for four years, we have come to expect nothing but the best from Federer, particularly at later stages in the tournament, and it hasn't been since the same tournament in 2005 that Federer has exited in the penultimate round of the tournament. But with this victory, Djokovic has shown that not only is Federer beatable on a surface other than clay, but that he is beatable at a stage when he was, for so long, unflappable.

This is the second victory for Djokovic over Federer, and many observing the US Open final of 2007 felt that today's result is one that could have occurred at Flushing Meadow had Djokovic held his nerve. As it were, it took another six months before the Serbian with confidence and personality was finally able to over come the fear of losing when he damn well knows he should win.

It will be interesting to see how Federer responds to this, given that he has no coach, and certainly had designs on winning the grand slam in 2008. Now he will have to wait until Roland Garros to restore his pedigree, and in the mean time will need to find answers to some questions that have been raised by his failure in Australia.

First, his consistency. Looking at the statistics, Federer had only slightly less than twice the number of errors as winners, and his serve seemed to be a telling factor. In truth, his serve saved him at Wimbledon last year against Nadal, where his 30 aces seemed to come at the most opportune times. But in Australia, unable to come up with the serves to hold when he needed to, the rest of his game was left to bear the burden of the moment, and it was not up to the task.

Tactically, Federer's game has always been one that is based on control of the points from the baseline, with a willful search for opportunities to approach. And where he had trouble in 2007 was against players who were able to take control of the points from the back, pin him behind the baseline, and assert their own designs on the rallies. In this context, Federer, like any other player, struggled to win critical points from the baseline. The winners coming from his heavily targeted backhand were few and far between. And his forehand, once the most dominating weapon in men's tennis, was too often astray at crucial moments.

At the end of 2007 in Shanghai, it seemed Federer had made an important tactical adjustment that allowed him to romp to his second straight YEC. Following his surprising defeat to Fernando Gonzalez, an anomaly that he wouldn't repeat for the remainder of the tournament, he began taking every opportunity presented to him to approach the net. Federer attacked his opponents, and mitigated his inability to control the points from the back court. Rather than try to find a way to step inside the baseline and dictate, he rushed the net to devastating effect, and his path to the final left the remaining top 8 players in the world in his wake.

In Australia, the speed of the court prevented him from rushing as early and opportunistically as in Shanghai, and as such, puts a big question mark next to his chances of winning the French Open. Until somebody goes out and beats Nadal for the first time at Roland Garros, he will remain the favorite to win that title, but what of the other grand slams? Wimbledon would seem to present him with the best chance to return to the formula that won him Shanghai, but Nadal is fast improving at this venue, and Djokovic will have taken heart from his victory in Australia.

And when the hard court season begins in summer, will these problems resurface?

For sure, Federer lost to the better player today - Djokovic is yet to lose a set, and unless Tsonga turns in a similar performance to his demolition of Nadal in the other semi-final, it's hard to imagine any image other than that of Djokovic raising the Australian trophy. To be fair, although Djokovic is the younger player, Tsonga has less experience on these grand occasions and recent history does not look favorably on upstart finalists in this situation.

But either way, somebody other than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will lift a grand slam trophy for first time since January of 2005 - nearly 3 years, and as such, it certainly is the end of an era.

Monday, January 21, 2008


The biggest thing to take a way from Tipsarevic's near upset of Federer is not that you have to play your best to beat him, but that you only have to play better than him on the day. You see, one of the advantages of being the best in the world for 4 years is that your opponents tend to feel they have to beat your legacy, and to do that, unless you've got a legacy of your own, you have to "play your best."

Truth is, Roger committed 64 unforced errors in 5 sets, which is a pretty high number of errors, and as such, a good player with a pedigree like Berdych or Blake probably doesn't have to play his absolute best to beat him on a day like that. In fact, if you just play solid tennis, and put him under some pressure by attacking the net, flattening your strokes, and pinning him behind the baseline, you may get an even better result than Tipsarevic.

But take a look at a couple of quotes from James Blake, AFTER Fed's encounter with Tipsy:

"Every time I've stepped out on the court with him I've felt IF I PLAY MY BEST, I give myself A SHOT with anyone in the world."

"Just Janko taking him to 10-8 in the fifth shows that it doesn't matter who you are, YOU CAN PLAY YOUR BEST AND TAKE HIM TO THE LIMIT. You know, a couple breaks here and there, that obviously could have been Janko's match."

Now, here are Tipsy's comments:

"...he's not giving too many chances in the match...and if you don't have this complete positive attitude that you've earned this chance and then you're going to take it, there's a huge percentage that you're going to choke or [over-hit]".

"...with him, and with Rafa, I felt that the game is really point after point."

"Tactially I was prepared, talked to Novak before the match and with my coach, had an idea, had a game plan..."

Nothing in that quote about having to play your best, and having "a shot". Furthermore, Tipsarevic had a game plan, which means he had an idea of how he was going to win the match beyond, playing his best, which nobody can ever guarantee.

The idea here is that:
  1. You have to have an idea of how you're going to win beyond just playing your socks off
  2. Your game plan has to include a way to bring out the worst in your opponent, no matter who he is
  3. You have to stick to the game plan if it works and/or change it if doesn't
We all know what happens when Blake thinks he has to play his best - he panics and over hits... a lot.  But really, all Blake has to do is play better than Federer on the day. If he starts playing Fed's pedigree instead of the match, I think it's lights out for Blakey...again.