Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Nope, I'm not writing a column about golf's version of Wimbledon - I'm talking about the year-end championships that used to have all the cachet of a major, and had the one thing that the modern incarnation does not - interest outside of tennis.

The year-end championships of tennis have gone through so many iterations over the years, it's hard, even for the most ardent fan, to keep track of what it has been and become over the years. So imagine the difficulty of getting space "above the fold" in major sports media today, which is the surest measure of the popularity of the game outside the game.

The ATP World Tour Finals, one of the most idiotically named championships in the history of tennis, is the current version of what used to be known as "The Masters", and until 1990, it was magically more than just a tennis tournament - it was an event that the sports world followed almost as closely as the crowned jewels of the game (the four majors). And in a rare moment of agreement with John McEnroe, I think the move away from Madison Square Garden was the beginning of the end for the luster that once accompanied the event.

Of course, in his native-New Yorker narcissism, he thinks the answer is to move it back to the Garden, and while I think he's on the right track (and wouldn't necessarily disagree with such a move), I think the event is missing something that the other majors have in abundance - an identity. And it is by finding its identity that I think this once great sporting event can return to the pantheon of great sporting events, where it belongs.

In 1970, two years following the advent of open tennis, Grand Prix tennis had been initiated with the help of Jack Kramer, as an answer to the disparate hodge-podge of semi-professional circuits controlled by anyone with enough money to cobble together what passed as a tour. It competed with the WCT championships held in Dallas, which was based on results from the WCT tour, a tour run by Lamar Hunt as an answer to the open invitation to Grand Prix tennis which was controlled by the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF - the ancestor of the modern ITF).

The first year-end championships were held in Tokyo, which happened to be the highest bidder, and in their never ending, insatiable appetite for a bigger payday, the event moved six times in six years, to tennis hotbeds such as Paris, Barcelona, Boston, Melbourne and Houston - where it promptly had a problem.

Nobody outside of tennis particularly cared about the event because the rules for qualification, the format of the tournament itself, and the players that participated, were about as reliable as predictions of the weather. In the end, the perceived value of the tournament, outside of tennis, suffered badly, and so too did the event.

Then in 1977, somebody came up with a brilliant idea - bring the mountain to Moses. For the first time in a string of 13 glorious years, the Masters was played at Madison Square Garden - then the mecca of sports entertainment - and with it came all the cachet the tournament could hope for. Sure, along the way there were questions about the format, the rules of qualification, and of course the quality of the tennis. As a matter of fact, very often the tournament was played in the year after the year for which qualification was determined - so late it was in the tennis calendar. And complaints about injuries and fatigue were seen as just a subterfuge for players to tank some matches in favor of bigger fish to fry.

Nevertheless it was an event that people outside of tennis covered with almost as much gusto as the majors. And why wouldn't they - initially the popularity of Connors, Borg and Vilas, would give way to the triumvirate of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, and then Connors, McEnroe and Lendl. In all three cases, the differences in personalities and the personal conflicts between some or all the heads of the tennis families provided the base, spine and glitter to make it a great event. But as the top players got old, retired, or lost their personal animus towards one another, the event petered. And as playing at Madison Square Garden had less and less of a cachet, the brilliant minds at the newly anointed emperors of tennis (the ATP tour) decided to chase the money and move the event in 1990 to, where else...Frankfurt.


That's right, given that the game's dominant players were becoming predominantly European, and given the money they offered to host the tournament, Germany became the new mecca of tennis. First it was Frankfurt from 1990 to 1995, then that other internationally known metropolis, Hanover, hosted the event for a stretch from 1995 to 1999. And as you might expect, despite the star power of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and everyone else, the tournament slowly lost its identify, and as a result (in my opinion) its luster outside of tennis.

Along the way, it just so happened that when the ITF was frozen out of control of everything but the majors and Davis Cup, they decided (quite rightly) there was a gaping hole that they could fill, and promptly initiated a competing year-end championship called the Grand Slam Cup. And because one thing the ITF is very good at is hiding behind its tradition, they at least had the good sense to keep it in Munich for nine years from 1990 to 1999 as well (although they couldn't resist locating the tournament in Germany - where the money obviously was at the time). The other thing they're good at is hiding in front of prize money, but this time, they smartened up and put up an astronomical $3M payday to the winner of the Grand Slam Cup if they also happened to win a slam that same year. At the time, this was an astronomical sum of money - more than any of the majors, and way more than the ATP Tour World Championships.

As the ATP's year end championships slowly but surely caught up with the prize money of the Grand Slam Cup (money problems caused them to reduce their prize money to make it closer to the ATP's season finale), the latter suffered, and had to change when the event was held, as well as include a women's championship for two years 1998 and 1999 (both not surprisingly won by Venus Williams and Serena Williams respectively), in an effort to remain relevant. It didn't, and eventually was subsumed by the Tennis Masters Cup in 2000 - itself an homage to both year-end championships. They all figured half of a big pot of money is better than all of a small one, so they did the only sensible thing and merged.

But once the Masters moved from MSG, and the Grand Slam Cup lost its purely capitalist appeal, what was left was an event that served as nothing more than a book-end to the ATP tour's nine flagship events, and an anti-climactic denouement to the year's major quadrilogy. This interested nobody beyond the game. Within the game, it can be argued that the importance of the tournament was not only maintained, but improved. After all, points started to count towards ranking and the money was hard to ignore. But something was missing...an identity.

So here's my solution.

If this tournament is really all about (dare I say it) the money, then don't be ashamed of it - embrace it! Put the prize money at $10M for the winner if he is both a grand slam champion and finishes the year ranked #1 - you could clip off $2M for each of the two conditional compensations, and simply call the winner, if it happens to be someone like Nikolay Davydenko (instead of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic), the $6 million dollar man...I'm only half joking, by the way.

Also, they should put it at the same venue and leave it there for at least 10 years (in fact if they had a brain, would build a venue that they could keep it there forever). That way, the event and the venue would both benefit from the cachet of the other, and would help to perpetuate the other's viability. This business of chasing the money by changing the location every time someone shows up with a bigger check is the very reason that the women are now furtively begging to join the men at the O2. Although the venue is new, it has sufficient razamatazz to be an event in and of itself. The problem is that, at the moment, it's carrying the tennis. They should each do their own share of the heavy lifting and that's where the last component would come in.

Put the points to the champion on par with winning a major and make the final a 5-set match. Then the money and the points won't seem to have been capriciously handed out to someone who got hot for 8 sets. Making the final a 5-set match, and putting major-level points on the table would be the final piece to the puzzle making this tournament everything it should be both inside and outside of tennis.

So, $10M to the winner, major-level points, a consistent venue and a 5-set final. Now who could ignore that?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


A lot's been made of the issue of grunting, so here's a little something I found humorous in that vain.


Enjoy it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


There's been a lot of discussion about the hindrance rule, and how it was applied in the US Open final Sunday, between Sam Stosur and Serena Williams. Here is the rule as it is written in the USTA rules of tennis which govern this match:


If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.

However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture)."

Now let's take a look at the point in question:

So, there are two parts of the hindrance rule: (1) was it a hindrance? and (2) was the act that caused the hindrance deliberate?

In this case it's fair to say that Serena called out before Stosur got her racquet on the ball, so it was a hindrance. The second question is whether the act that caused the hindrance was intentional, and since Serena fully intended to shout, "Come on!", both parts of the rule apply, and the point was duly awarded to Stosur.

All other discussion about it is pontification, because the rule is clear and so too are the conditions of this point. The umpire had no choice but to call a hindrance, and she did her job. It would have been easier to ignore it and hide behind the crowd and the moment, but she did her job properly and should be commended.

But this has happened to Serena before - with the same umpire. No, not the incident from 2009, that was a different umpire (a young blonde European umpire, yes, but not the same one). Take a look at this.

Here too, Serena yells out, "Come on!" before the point is over, but the umpire calls a let. The same umpire! So what gives?

Well, first, we must read the rule that governs this match, which is the WTA year end championships, and is thus governed by the WTA rules. There, the hindrance rule is written slightly differently:


If a player hinders her opponent, it can be ruled as either involuntary or

1. Involuntary Hindrance

A let should be called the first time a player has created an involuntary
hindrance (e.g., ball falling out of pocket, hat falling off, etc.), and the
player should be told that any such hindrance thereafter will be ruled

2. Deliberate Hindrance

Any hindrance caused by a player that is ruled deliberate will result in
the loss of a point."

Here, the hindrance rule doesn't specify that the ACT causing the hindrance need be voluntary, but the hindrance itself. Unfortunately it cites an example of two hindrances that are clear-cut involuntary. But clearly Serena did not intend for the shout to hinder Kuznetsova (even though the shout itself was intentional) and thus the hindrance is involuntary and merits a let the first time it occurs.

I don't know why the WTA feels the need to have a different set of rules from the ITF - the USTA rules are exactly the same as the ITF with the exception of the 5th set tiebreak rule, but that's a different story.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Belief. That's it. That is it!

That's all you ever hear about these days when tennis analysts try to come up with the reason why a player suddenly is able to get results that heretofore seemed beyond their grasp. Chris Fowler of ESPN is the patron saint of the belief religion in tennis - traveling the world espousing the kind of pseudo-psychological drivel that drives genuine students of the game mad. Sure it sounds succinct, and seems plausible - how do you win a match that you don't believe you're going to win? It's impossible, right?

Not really. 

In fact not at all. Of all the things you need to win a tennis match, at the very bottom of the list is belief. At the top of the list is tactical acumen and technical execution. From those two, you develop belief, yes, but by then, you already have everything you need to win a tennis match - any tennis match - and not a damn thing more.

Instead of delving into how/why Sam Stosur beat the hell out of Serena Williams for the US Open title, I'd like to present the case of Novak Djokovic, and in particular against Roger Federer. Anybody watching that 2011 US Open semi-final could see that Djokovic was not at his best in those first two sets - far from the player who had come to dominate the tour. And no player on tour has preached the virtues of belief more than Djokovic - it's all you ever hear him talking about, so it has to be true. To win a tennis match, you have to believe you're going to win.

I beg to differ.

Djokovic was down two sets to love, and playing poorly for reasons only known to him - in fact, I would venture to guess that he had no idea why he was losing. That Gallic shrug that we see so often from our francophone favorites on tour, was omnipresent with Djokovic those first two sets. The "woe is me" plaintive gazes at the faceless crowd that never seem to be on his side, despite how hard he has worked at being likeable (all over again).

So what happened in the 3rd set? Well for starters, Djokovic stopped making unforced errors (12 in the first, and 8 in the second, versus 5 and 2 in the third and fourth) respectively. Now the false prophets of belief would have you believe that in the third set, Djokovic suddenly started to believe he was going to win the match, even though he was down two sets to love and playing like a bag of dirt - as in, "I got this SOB right where I want him!" But that's laughable. The truth is that unbeknownst to the Chris Fowler's of the world, Djokovic's coach identified major problems he had when matches got tight in the past, and worked (not so) innovatively to correct it. And the very things they worked on earned Djokovic his victory Saturday, and dare I say his overall improvement this year, and ascension to #1.

Martin Vajda, a coach who I had thought very little of, given Djokovic's stagnation as a player since 2008, realized that Djokovic was making a very rudimentary technical error when the chips were down - something that most club players do without even thinking about it, and apparently so was Djokovic. The natural tendency when you're on the verge of winning is to try not to lose - in other words, keep the ball in play, and don't give the match away with an unforced error. To do that, most players subconsciously rely on racquet head deceleration, and Djokovic was no different. So when the going got tough, he would make childish unforced errors because he lacked the racquet head speed to control his shots with pace and spin.

Ironically, the only way to consistently control direction and spin is to accelerate the racquet head through the point of contact. Knowing this, Vajda decided that the only way to achieve this would be to practice forcing Djokovic to maintain racquet head speed - and the best way to do that is to practice hitting deep hard shots with pace and spin from the ball in hand - like you do with kids when they first learn to play. To hit a solid shot from a ball in hand (or a slow slice, or loopy deep topspin) you have to generate more racquet head speed than you do from a normal shot, because you have no pace to work with coming at you. And this forced racquet head acceleration translates very well in tight points, because your opponent is as likely as you are to take pace out of their shots to make sure they "keep it in". From that training, Djokovic developed a massive cross-court forehand that has a obliterated his opponents (especially Nadal, whose typical response is a slice backhand, which used to trip him up, but now sets him up to pummel with a cross court backhand or forehand up the line, both of which were already a great shots).

Against Federer, that shot, struck consistently for the first time with venom in the third set had the opposite effect on Federer's game - whereas Djokovic was able to reduce his unforced errors, Federer's error increased (9, 12, 12 and 13 in sets 2 through 5 respectively) because of the pressure he was under. Whereas in the past he has been able to hide behind a deep slice or heavy topspin backhands rolled deep into the corner (reducing his errors, but keeping his opponents under pressure) yesterday, he couldn't. And, unable to step in on Djokovic's cross court forehand, push it up the line to Djokovic's backhand and approach the net, he was left to try to duke it out from the back and mishit after mishit ensued. So Djokovic's increased power against Federer's off-pace offerings in the third and fourth sets had the added benefit of keeping Federer away from the net - advantage Djoker.

Finally, Djokovic's serve, the bane of his existence for the 18 months before the Australian Open this year, in the 3rd was at 54% first serves, but he won a whopping 92% of those points and 73% of second serves. He also had 80% first serves in the fourth set (90% and 54% first and second serve points won). Basically he was unbreakable. And as anyone will tell you, being unbreakable puts a hell of a lot of pressure on your opponent's serve, and guess what happened to Federer's serve in the 3rd and 4th sets? The first serve percentage and points won on first and second servers dropped dramatically, and he was broken 3 times in two sets - while he himself earned no break points at all in those two sets.

So the two things that have made the biggest difference in Djokovic's game this year, the suddenly dominant and reliable cross-court forehand (even in the face of off-pace offerings), and a much better serve, finally appeared in the third set and carried him through to the fourth. This was at a time when he had to realize it was more likely that he would lose than win, so what does the religion of belief have to say about that?

Nothing. Because it's complete BS.

But it doesn't stop there - by the end of the fourth set, he had to believe he was going to win that match - anyone would, given the way he destroyed Federer in the third and fourth. So just when it seems that belief should be on his side, what happened - he got tight again and very nearly blew his chance at an historic comeback. In fact, he was down 2 match points. Now if you think he believed he would win the match down a break at 5-4, with Federer serving at 40-15, I've got some oceanfront property in Nebraska I'd like to sell you. In fact, last year, facing match point, similarly on his way out, he admitted he just closed his eyes and knocked the piss out of the ball. And a funny thing happens when you say to yourself, "F--- it; if I'm going to lose, I'm going down swinging!"

You tend to take a pretty good cut at the ball - i.e. racquet head speed.

And surprise, surprise - after not getting a sniff of Federer's serve for the almost the entire 5th set, he belts a winner on the first match point return, to put huge pressure on Federer to close it out at 40-30, to which Federer promptly got tight and hit the top of the tape on the next point.

And one last thing - for years there were a lot of questions about Djokovic's fitness - constantly retiring, and breathing heavy anytime the match went long and/or tight. Bjorn Borg once said the following about playing 5-set matches:

"I never got tired in a tennis match, so I never panicked when I had to go to 5 sets." 

And what happens when you panic in a tennis match? You bail out of a point trying to hit a stupid winner, when you should live to hit another shot. And you abandon sensible tactics because you're tired, and don't think you can leg it out. I mean, we've all seen the Djoker scramble frantically chasing down shots in the past, but I always had the feeling that he was just trying to keep the ball in the play - now he only scrambles when he has to, otherwise, he's tactically aggressive and sound. And when he does scramble, he's almost as dangerous as he is when he's in control of the point.

Now, a lot of people would have you believe that Djokovic suddenly "believed" he was a better player this year, and that's why he's winning. But nothing could be further from the truth. He identified weaknesses in his game (his serve, his forehand and his tactical decisions), the causes of those weaknesses (a hitch in the stroke production, racquet head deceleration and poor fitness) rectified them (altered his serve motion, practiced with ball in hand, and improved his diet) and suddenly, the causes of his inconsistency were mitigated, a whole new set of tactical options are available to him, and he could execute under duress.

I'm not saying Djokovic's belief hasn't increased during this run - to the contrary I know it has. But his belief has come as a result of addressing technical, tactical and physical problems with his game, getting results and having a blue-print for success. This belief did not come from some idiotic pseudo-psychological exercise in hypnotizing yourself into believing that even though your game hasn't changed one lick, you're suddenly going to win more consistently. That's doing the same thing over and over again and "believing" you'll get a different result - and that's just idiotic.

The belief comes from results, and the results come from making changes - technical changes. To every problem in tennis there is a technical solution, and if you can't execute technically, how on earth are you to "believe" you can win? Your mind follows what your body and game can and cannot do, not the other way around. And wasting your time wondering why you don't "believe" you can win, is likely to elicit a whole host of psychological issues, when the obvious solution is just to put in the hard yards and improve technically.

Rankings in tennis are like the opposite of the Richter scale - going from #2 to #1 is just one ranking, but the order of magnitude in improvements required are much bigger than going from #20 to #10, or #10 to #5, and of all the things that help you make those improvements, belief is less than the least of your problems - it is in fact a distraction.

There's only one kind of person that signs on to the new religion of belief in tennis - and that's the person who neither has the courage, nor the wherewithal to make actual technical and commensurate tactical changes to their game. You get comfortable at #3 or #10 or #20, and you figure, why risk losing your ranking by going out of our comfort zone when you can just believe you're going to win and do everything exactly the same way.

If you look at all the players who have stagnated and have made no headway in improving their results, you'll see they're all kool-aid drinking sheep in the belief congregation...and their results are equally distinctive.

ADDENDUM:  IT SEEMS RAFA AGREES WITH ME - listen to his answer to the question of why he gives "confidence" or "belief" to his opponents by admitting to the periodic frailty of his game.

...as I live and breathe my friends...as I live and breathe.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


At the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the powers that be may have been delighted at the prostpect of a brand new blonde-haired, blue-eyed, girl next door champion of women's tennis - even if you'd have to be familiar the cyrillic alphabet to read her name on the mailbox. There were no less than four "ova's" in the quarterfinals, six Eastern Europeans, and suprisingly there was just one Russian amongst them, and ironically she happens to be about as Russian as she is a damn monkey, but who's counting. They're all European, and just one of them had a major title to her name, and that was three years ago in Australia, so statitically, we had an 87.5% chance of a new champion. That normally incites a lot of rumination about the state of the game, and I, of course, have my opinion.

First, the return of the Williams sisters at Wimbledon brought so much energy and anticipation - all the more reason it's so disappointing that Venus will have to take a hiatus from the game. It has obviously been a tumultuous 9-12 months for both of them, never more revealed than through the tears of Serena after her first round victory over Aravane Rezai at Wimbledon and the shocking withdrawal of Venus at the US Open. Who could blame them, after facing death and retirement so recently. And for some, the air may have gone out of the Championships when the siblings succumbed to the Slavic invasion (well, Bartoli is french, but I couldn't resist the alliteration). But John McEnroe could have hit the nail on the head when he contended that it's actually good for women's tennis that they didn't come back and win Wimbledon after being away from the game for so long. As good as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are, I can't imagine them leaving the game for 6 months and winning a major, let alone 12. The same could be said for Stosur's victory at the US Open - unwittingly, she just may have salvaged the reputation of women's tennis.

Having said that, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to all the good will towards Serena at Wimbledon. I mean, on ESPN it was an aboslute love fest, with piano ballads in the background, and black and white slow motion clips of her wiping her brow, and every commentator remarking on how "emotional" it was for her. It was a bit like the film "Quiz Show", hearing one Senator after another commending Charles van Doren for his "soul-searching" testimony - if they hadn't all fallen over themselves to praise her simultaneously, I might have found it more genuine. She promptly let the air out of that balloon by doing two things - (1) making the women's game look like it hasn't evolved one iota, with her domination of the US Open series (and very nearly the US Open itself) and (2) her sense of entitlement and bad demeanor on court in the final, but more on that later.

But even at Wimbledon, when she was getting pounded by Marion Bartoli in their 4th round match, Dick Enberg was forced to admit that the English audience were squarely behind the quirky frenchwoman. In other words, they were rooting against a woman who was just returned from death's door 6 months ago. I think it suprised both Enberg and Mary Joe Fernandez, although only she was willing to confront it. Enberg, rather transparently, tried to attribute it to Bartoli being the underdog. But there was something else about it...something more practical, maybe. Perhaps they too felt it would have made a mockery of the game if yet another opponent failed to beat a woefully out of practice Serena. For, who could take the game seriously if the best player turned out to be someone who hadn't played in a year?

But I digress.

Speaking of Bartoli - has there ever been a player on tour who more epitomizes everything that sticks in the craw of old school tennis?  To begin with, her father successfully circumvented the French tennis federation, which in and of itself is not such a bad thing (after all, the Williams sisters circumvented the USTA, and look how that turned out). But Bartholi's game is so bizarre that those of us who enjoy the aesthetics of a well produced one-handed backhand, face the dark epiphany that maybe, just maybe, our concept of the game is well and truly passe.  Everything about Bartholi's game smacks of gimmicks; from hitting with two hands on both wings, to the extra long racquet, to the irritating dress rehearal between points.  The coup de grace for those of us who long for brave and solitary combattants who rely on their own intrinsic committment and determination, is this irritating habit of looking at her box and shouting "Allez!" after every...single...point.

I mean, give me a break, already.

There's something about the "team" concept in tennis that is just plain irritating. Is it the obvious exploitation and suckling at the teet of talent by the entourage? And what of this concept of coaching? If coaching were so crucial and so critical, you would expect something other than the monotonous big babe ball bashing we see sullying our beautiful game with all the subtelty of a cream pie in the face. Instead, every coach seems to give the same awful advice, "Hit it hard and cross-court, don't change the pace, direction, or spin, don't take any chances and whatever you do, don't EVER come to net." That, and the, "Just play YOUR game," speech is about as helpful as handing them an anvil to carry with them on the court. They'd all be better off coachless - at least they'd have more money to take home. I mean, at the very least, you'd think one of these coaches, who are obviously way over-paid, would bother to teach one of these ladies to serve properly.

But I digress.

Unfortunately for Bartoli she represents all of this to those of us who consider ourselves, or would be considered by others to be, old school. And so perhaps there is a kind of sick satisfaction with her ultimate demise - if only it were at the hands of a player who wasn't merely less irritating, but no less monolithic than Sabine Lisicki. At the end of the day, women's tennis today is a game that is beset by worthless hangers on, including parents and coaches who do worse than prey on the insecurities of these young women - they in fact encourage them - the better to make onself indispensible.

And thus the team concept in tennis lives on.

I feel this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and commentators blithely glossing over this phenomenon does not help. Unfortunately many of the commentators are current and former coaches, and as such would be very brave to strike so near to their own livelihoods. Most of these coaches should do the honorable thing and fall on their swords (quit) when they have so woefully under performed in their stewardly duties. Frankly, I'm surprised that the greats of tennis' past have been silent on this issue, but they're so busy promoting the game to its own detriment, they either haven't noticed, or haven't the fortitude.

I firmly believe that women's tennis would be better off if players couldn't play professionally until they were at least 18 years old; that would give them more time to develop complete games, and they wouldn't start playing professionally until they were in the burgeoning stages of their own adulthoods, rather than the throes of a their parents' mid-life crises, dreams and aspirations. This would give them the independence to drop some of their entourage if they sought genuine improvement, including parents or coaches. As it is now, they are children when they turn professional, they develop the habit of dependence on their "teams" that continues long into adulthood, and this doesn't do anyone any good.

But then we get to the case of Sam Stosur...ah, Sam Stosur. Those of us who observed her new physique and viciously produced forehand, following her 2 year hiatus recovering from lyme disease, wondered if we were witnessing the advent of a brand new kind of women's tennis. One more akin to the men's game (which is developing it's own brand of monotony, by the way - but that's for another post). Her movement can be graceful, particularly when setting up the inside-out forehand. And her serve is a real novelty - above average consistency AND above average power - and spin that's simply off the charts. I thought her breakthrough was there for the taking at Roland Garros last year, where she beat Justine, Serena and Jankovic...but then that pluckly little Italian threw a monkey wrench in the machine. And it seems she had some trouble coping with that loss. (Speaking of Schiavone, what a breath of fresh air she is as well - but that too is for another post).

But she slowly and surely progressed this year. Her results were awful - failing to reach the quarterfinal in any tournament for the first six months of the year (with the exception of Dubai). But, she was adding a little more net play and a slice to her game that she hadn't really mastered until the US Open. That slice won her the final. She'd played Serena in Toronto and hadn't really mastered it. And her forehand, played too far behind the baseline, sat up right into Serena's wheelhouse, and boy did she ever make it look ordinary. Fred Stolle commented at the Hopman Cup in January that he felt her backhand was her albatross, and in that assessment I believe he was correct, but he offered no advice on what to do about it. It is a painfully manufactured stroke, much like her forehand, but lacks the bite, disguise or consistency.

But in the US Open final, rather than coming over her backhand, she consistently sliced, forcing Serena to hit up on both her forehand and her backhand, which she promptly dumped in the net time after time due to her lack of topsin. To compensate, Serena started taking pace off those shots, and left the ball short and in the middle of the court, which Stosur promptly belted inside-out and inside-in on the forehand side. So adding an effective slice to her backhand repetoire actually helped her forehand. And as anyone who's played against someone who mixes slice with topspin can tell you, it's very hard to maintain your rhythm and play your best.

Hmm...a slice backhand with a purpose - what a novel idea.

I've always wondered why it is nobody tries to do anything different against Serena - and after reviewing the players at the "top" of the game, the reason is obvious - nobody can. They all play the exact same way, all have the exact same problems, and all of their weaknesses play right into Serena's strengths. No variety, nothing to throw her off her rhythm, and no serve; so, it's no surprise that she has had no problem dealing with them one by one. And all this idiotic talk about being intimidated by her - what do they think? That she's going to reach across the net and beat them up? What are they so afraid of? Losing? They're doing it every week anyway, so what difference does it make if they lose to Serena? You may as well try something different against her - that is, if you have something different to try - which of course none of them do.

And I don't feel sorry for Caroline Wozniacki (Who? oh, yeah - the #1 player in the world). She's made almost no effort to go beyond being a backboard, and until she does, she will not only not win a major, but she'll continue to symbolize much of that's wrong with the WTA. Take a look at this clip of a match between Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova in 1985 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMqaJz510E4&feature=related). The athleticism and shot-making was phenomenal, and I suspect a relic in the history of the game that we'll only come across when sifting through the archives, like archaeologists discovering a new method of firing pottery in the stone age. Fascinating, but never more.

I sure hope I'm wrong.

Finally, I have never been particularly impressed with Serena's attitude on court - some excuse it by saying it's her personality and that gives her her edge. I think that's nonsense - plenty of women were just as determined and committed (if not more so) and exhibited very little of the entitlement and paranoia, that always seems to eek out at the most inopportuned times with Serena. In her defense, I believe her general behavior throughout the tournament was excellent - better than most of her contemporaries. No tantrums, no crying on court, and no desperate yelps of tension masquerading as the side-effects of exertion (i.e. no 3-note grunts). She was all business and I loved it - until...

The littany of bad-behavior all elicited by a correctly applied hindrance rule was almost as comical as it was ugly. First, she demonstrated her ignorance of the rule. That's not so bad - I'm sure most players on tour barely know the hindrance rule. Not that it would have made a difference - she didn't shout, "Come on!" before the point ended because she thought she'd get a let!

But then she proceeded to accuse the umpire of being the same one who screwed her over in 2009 against Clijsters (she was not) or (as McEnroe suggested) in 2004 against Capriati (wrong again), and thus concluded that the umpire had it in for her. When she was properly assessed a code violation warning for verbal abuse, she then went on a tirade telling the umpire to walk the other way if she sees her in the locker room, which could be constured as threatening, that she truly despised her, and that she's ugly...on the inside. Because after insulting her, and calling her a cheat, the last thing you want to do is tell her she ugly too - at least on the outside.

Just like in 2009, the umpire was just doing her job (and doing it correctly, by the way). I don't think Serena deserves a ban for her behavior, it was just ugly - at least she learned not to let loose with the kind of foul language and physical threats that got her in trouble the last time around.

At the end of the day, Sam Stosur did women's tennis a big favor by winning that match the way she did. If Serena had won, after unjustly lambasting the umpire, it's all anyone would have discussed, and the victory would have been hollow to all but her most ardent supporters. Never mind the fact that there wouldn't/couldn't have been more salient evidence that the women's game hasn't evolved at all in 12 months, and that doesn't do anybody any good. If Stosur can sustain her level of performance, it may force some of her contemporaries to do more than close their eyes and hit it as hard as they can.

Well, at least we may see one or two more slice backhands.