Wednesday, November 25, 2015


There was something unsettling about the interaction between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in 2015, but it's hard to put my finger on it.  Every double act has a straight man and a comic:  the straight man says, "Go and fetch me the morning paper," and the comic promptly slips on a banana peel on the way, and gets the big laugh.  It works because it's like Japanese pantomime - we all know what's going to happen before the curtain goes up, but (1) we stay for the show from start to finish and (2) take a kind of sadistic pleasure in the exasperation of one and the desperate futility of the other.  We know the names of the ball players are Who, What and I Don't Know, but that leaves us no less capable of resisting the sweet misery of Bud Abbott trying to explain that to the dimwitted and the intellectually fleeced Lou Costello. Along the way, we suspend our disbelief of the absurdity of it, with the inutility of skepticism essential to enjoyment of the ruse.

But the curious case of Nole and Rog in 2015 makes me wonder exactly which one of these two titans in the tennis kingdom of heaven is playing the stooge?

Watching the way, the closest thing Djokovic had to a rivalry this season, played itself out, I am struck by the near certainty with which both players play their part in the intrigue sans script, but no less assuredly than one might expect with one.  Their first encounter in Dubai led some to believe that Federer was on the ascendency, that he had reversed whatever deleterious effect Djokovic's win at Wimbledon may have had on the ethereal realm of his confidence.  But that dissipated so quickly, with his nearly complete and feckless capitulation at Indian Wells, that one couldn't help but wonder if the Djoker had, in fact, left something in the tank in the middle eastern desert, knowing full well that the Californian desert is the only one that really matters in the spring.

They didn't meet again until Wimbledon, and in a rematch of last year's epic final, this year's turned out to be infinitely less dramatic but no less compelling.  Victory seemed certain almost from the first long rally that turned from Federer's favor to the Djoker's.  And that sinking feeling that Fed-fans get when the Serb has decided he'd rather lose to anyone but their immortal beloved, would have moved from a subtle flutter in the stomach to a lead lump in the throat, as General Federer made his last stand in the 4th set at SW19.  Somewhere the ghost of Sitting Bull was having the last laugh all over again.  Though in some ways Roger was playing better than the year before, there was never really a moment in that match where the perception of a momentum change was anything more than wishful thinking.

Then came the revelation of the SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) in Cincinnati - another of Roger's watering holes that's good for a laugh, particularly at the expense of the vast majority of his contemporaries.  There he humiliated one player after another with not only this cheeky new "weapon", but also a brazen display of genetic superiority to those young affections that gape to be his heir.  Feliciano Lopez profanely played the part of the stupefied stooge, who yet again thought he had a shot at his Bugs Bunny, only to discover that the proverbial rabbit out of the top hat was a combination of the new racquet, the new coach, the new backhand...and the old superiority that once again insisted on imposing itself.  Even the Djoker, who would certainly have been fatigued from all those weeks of rest post Wimbledon - what with changing diapers and posting pics on twitter/facebook/instagram, and any other (wrong) place he might be looking for love - was compelled to succumb to his Hairness.

Though they've seen him do it before, and in all likelihood he'll do it again, the popularity of the most popular girl guy at the ball tournament (and as always, in the world of tennis) engulfed that poor Serbian boy who's allergic to something that everyone's heard of, but nobody really knows what it is, and just once, just once, wants to be revered as something other than the straight man.  But I wonder if he isn't the stooge?  After all the machinations and success, the clothes, the sense of humor, the talk shows, the dancing and the jokes...after all the jokes, for god's sake?  It just takes one Lucy shaped shaped Swiss guy with a little talent and some high class friends, to pull that football away from his oncoming kick, sending him flailing in the air like a rag doll, and make it all for naught.  In the end, in this tennis town (by which I mean planet Earth) there really isn't enough room for anyone not named Roger Federer.  

And yet, like a good stooge, he continues to try...

Nadal sucked the air out of the (newly half-roofed) room at Flushing Meadows, by losing to some crazy Italian bloke, who himself was usurped by his own tender Juliette's unexpected victory and confusing retirement. Though her countrywoman slew the giant with a thousand cuts, she needed a 1,001 to complete the insanely unlikely story, and unfortunately it was one blow more than she had at her disposal.  And while the rest of the tennis universe (and the celebrity one) pined openly for the coronation of a grand queen for the first time in 27 years, poor Nole toiled in near anonymity, bludgeoning and sliding his way through a field of paltry challengers, including the defending champion, who had nothing but the best of intentions and the worst of capacities.  Try as they may, the immovable object had already met the irresistible force, and combined to form the 2015 Novak Djokovic - the most dominant tennis player in the open era.

Nevertheless, the final was highly anticipated - the one that we came so tantalizingly close to before King (for a day) Kei and (Cheech) Marin Cilic really overstayed their welcomes in last years final installment of the Grand Slam quadrilogy.  Finally, we would have our real drama, with a palpable belief on the part of everyone except the one that needed it the most, that the grey men of the tennisocracy so desperately wanted and needed.  Elmer Federer just may finally catch that rascally rabbit.  And in that duel between the only two men that anyone truly believed had a shot at the title in the first place, we would finally have our unexpected result.

But the pantomime returned, the stooge slipped on the banana peel and the audience went home knowing nothing more than what they did at the start of the fortnight.  The Reign of Terror that is the dominance of Novak Djokovic continues until he no longer possesses the means or the desire to occupy the throne.  Though they bayed for his blood like sanguine plebeians at the Colosseum, the result only made more stark the contrast between good and evil, by the script of this running gag, that the game has been teasing us with for the last two years.  No matter how desperately we want it to be so, nobody is beating Novak Djokovic in 2015 except maybe...well, Novak Djokovic.

Then, like Alexander, he travelled to edge of the known tennis world to that relic of yore in Shanghai, and (once again) conquered his tartan nemesis, leaving no doubt that the future is dark if your hopes for a respite from his tyranny would come in the form of a soft  Glaswegian brogue.  And after an inexplicable capitulation to the wrong Spaniard, Federer regained his composure in his backyard, and proceeded to painstakingly lumber through 3 sets to get the wrong result over the right Spaniard who despite his anno terribilis in 2015, still seemed genuinely convinced that he should have won the match, and was rightfully disappointed that he didn't.  This time, Wily Coyote finally caught the rabbit, and he went (back) to London brimming with all the confidence that his newly expanded bubble reputation could afford.  

There he cashed that Czech who has no business beating him, but seems to do just that with irritating frequency, before proceeding to sadistically set us up one last time.  He beat Djokovic so handily in their round robin match, that the man felt compelled to state the obvious (much to Roger's chagrin) - despite assurances to the contrary, the match had been handed to Federer on a silver platter.  It even smacked of sour grapes to some, but as the wheels started to come loose against a plucky Nishikori, then in a sloppy but tactical win over his countryman, the ugly truth began to take shape.  Still, having experienced the dramatic manner in which Wawrinka bludgeoned his way to within 3 or 4 match points of a well deserved victory last year (ironically spurred on by the unseemly goading of Lady McFederer) this year's victory over his countryman gave us pause.  Could this year's final be the crescendo that everyone expected last year? 

It was anything but.

So there we were, at the World Tour Finals of 2015, expecting once again to be dazzled by the chance of a new generation of this rivalry, one that appeared less as pantomime than genuine drama.  The intrigue ratcheted up by a startling result in the round robin, a catty long distance exchange over perceptions of this result, and on the back of a 3rd victory over the young king (as many as the rest of the world combined), the trap door once again opened at the final step, and enveloped not only Roger Federer, but the hopes of his fans, and any remaining doubt that in this now sad tale:  his only victories are those that count less than the defeats.  Once again, the straight man was set up for a comedic finish that left us crying with laughter, with the coup de grace coming in two uneventful London.

I am reminded of the final scene of "Pulp Fiction" when Jules Winnfield calmly explains to the gentle thief at his disposal, that through the comedy of errors that brought them to the denouement, he realized that his initial interpretation of his own preamble to murder (which is not actually in the bible, by the way) was faulty.  In fact the biblical joke was on him:  he was neither the righteous man navigating the iniquities of the selfish, nor the shepherd of the weak through the valley of darkness...he was in fact the tyranny of evil men.  

I mention this because the entire year, thinking of what passes for a rivalry between Federer and Djokovic, I know it's a damn pantomime, but I've been trying to figure out which one is the stooge?  Is it Federer, who like Indiana Jones, gets his hand on the golden idol, only to have it taken from him by his own personal Belloq?  Or is it poor Nole, who every time he thinks he's going to break through and reach the pantheon of fandom, not only of the tennis world, but of tennis heaven, where he is revered with equally rapturous fervor as his own personal Zeus - only to be kicked down the side of Mount Olympus once again?  

No, like Jules Winnfield, the joke is on us - the vein slapping addicts of sporting drama, desperate to see something other than what we know, in our heart of hearts, is always going to be the same result.  We look around the poker table, trying, in vain, to figure out who the sucker is.

The truth is that as long as Nole wishes it so, it is us.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


He's been written off frequently since then, but every time he does something extraordinary he reminds us of just how special he is.  Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time - the machinations required to question that, and withhold the only accolade left for him are so convoluted and illogical, there is really no sense in arguing it any further.  Djokovic and Nadal could surpass him, and for all we know, there is some kid who just picked up a racquet yesterday who could put them all to shame.  But as I write this, this conclusion is as obvious as it is irrelevant, because it could change at any time.

But it's been three years since he won a major, and his favorite tournament outside of Wimbledon and Halle, has once again bestowed upon his historically broad shoulders the status that he hasn't had since he last lifted the trophy at SW19:  the favorite to win the US Open.  The toughest tournament in tennis just got tougher for Djokovic, with the mystery malady to his arm and core that required treatment and could flare up at any time.  Nishikori looked like a world beater at the Citi Open, when he went the distance in 3 of four matches, and defeated three of the biggest serves in the history of tennis with the quickest hands in the game - but he too has succumbed to the injury bug, and is a doubt for the Flushing.  Nadal has never been seeded this low at the US Open...never.  His form is as uncertain as the reasons behind his startling demise this year, and his chances at the US Open, while they can't be discounted, cannot rise to the level of favorite based on his form since he last lifted a major trophy.  If he cannot win at Flushing in 2015, it will break a streak of 10 straight years lifting a major, and the first since 2009 that one of those didn't include Roland Garros.

There are floaters who could be problematic for Federer:  despite defeating Andy Murray rather dismissively in the semi-final on his way to the title in Ohio, Federer has never been a sure thing against his Scottish rival.  While he's gotten the better of him the last 3 times they've played, he won't have it all his own way if Murray's game can rise to the occasion the way it has when we least expected it.  Interestingly, one of the defeats that Murray has suffered at the hands of his Swiss nemesis, was a humiliating capitulation at the World Tour Finals last year in London.  There, Federer all but admitted he had taken pity on him and given him a game, which actually strikes me as worse than completing the emasculation, and Murray himself was left to apologize for his performance, such was the weight of the defeat.  But interestingly this defeat, indoors at the O2, may give Murray his biggest worry if he is to face Federer this year under the new roof at Arthur Ashe. 

To begin with, Federer may still be the best indoor player in the world.  His last major was won with 4 of his 7 matches completed under the roof.  Against Benneteau, Federer was down 2 sets to love before the roof was pulled over the court, and suddenly he found his way past the Frenchman who somehow, by some osmosis, took on the physical deficiencies that led to Federer imminent demise in the first place.  Against Xavier Malisse, a player  whom Nick Bolletieri once proclaimed to be one of the three most naturally talented players he'd ever encountered, Federer overturned a 2 sets to 1 lead to win in 5.  Against Djokovic, the speed of play and resulting discombobulation put the result outside his reach almost from the outset.  That match was played in its entirety under the roof, and the sure bounce and thin air through which Federer's serve found its mark repeatedly, facilitated the kind of cut and run, death by a thousands small cuts approach that Sugar Ray Roger generally requires to defeat his more powerful opponents.

In the final, under the beautiful sun of a beautiful 2:00pm start, Murray looked like he was going to blow Federer off the court, let alone win his maiden Wimbledon title.  There, Federer frustratingly inched his way back into the second set, so when the roof emerged for the third set, the echo from the strike of his ball announced a change not only in conditions, but in momentum that he rode to his 17th major title.  And it is these conditions, in which we might easily find ourselves at Arthur Ashe (where Federer is almost certain to play all of his matches), that give the old man who's given himself a few years yet, the best opportunity to reach 18 and put a little more distance between himself and those who would gape to be his heir in the GOAT debate.

The word from Patrick McEnroe, which Federer picked up on gleefully as he basked in the glory of his victory lap in Cincinnati, is that just the structure of the roof, even without the roof itself, has the added effect of making conditions more sedentary, more consistent, removing the toilet bowl effect of the vortex that frequently plagues the most important matches.  The 2012 final was a battle of the elements, where Djokovic appeared to be by far the stronger player, but was confounded by the uncertain flight of the ball, mitigating the attacking elements of his game.  Murray, on the other hand, whose natural instinct is to defend, and has to be forced to be more aggressive, gladly played the percentages for 2 sets until conditions settled sufficiently for the Djoker to threaten yet another 2 sets to love come back.  In the end, Murray's staying power won the day and his first major, and laid the ground work for what had been his real target all along - Wimbledon 2013.

I am of the opinion that roofs at majors are not a good thing - one of the things that make the majors what they are is the consistency of conditions - including the elements.  Rain and wind have no idea what year it is, and if it was good enough for Jimmy Connors, and Rod Laver and Pancho Gonzales and Bill Tilden, it should be good enough for the modern supplicants to their thrones in tennis heaven.  But the US Open could ill afford to fall behind all three majors in this regard, not to mention the atrocious run of luck that saw so many men's finals pushed to Monday over the last 10 years, so the structure of the roof will make its appearance for the first time in 2015, with the roof itself to follow possibly next year.

So whether it's opened or closed, I think this more than any other condition gives Federer that one fleeting shot at glory that has escaped him for 3 years, and in all likelihood would be the last time he lifts the Swiss Flag on major soil in his storied career.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


Okay, I'll take the bait - I am a tennis fan after all, and even the silly stuff gets my ears perked up like a German Shepherd.  And if you're reading this, you've heard of the comment Kyrgios made on court last night during his injury driven victory over Stan Wawrinka.  If you missed it, here's a link to as much of the story as you can handle - believe me.  It's not the worst thing I've ever heard in the heat of a sporting battle, but as far as tennis goes, he may as well have hurled the n-word.

Don't get me wrong - he's been a right pain in the arse for a while now, and deserves the derision he's on the wrong end of, but this idea that he should be punished for a stupid locker room dig at Wawrkina (and Vekic, for that matter) strikes me as being more than a bit over the top.  And this got me thinking:  what is the worst thing I've ever heard on a tennis court?  Depends on your definition of "the worst", I suppose.  I've been watching tennis for 30+ years, and I've seen a lot - and that may be one of the cattiest things I've heard from player to player - but is it the worst?  I don't know.  

You be the judge...

Davis Cup 1987 - John McEnroe to a Linesman

This one may surprise you, because we've all heard the worst of the worst at Wimbledon and the US Open where McEnroe has told umpires and linesman everything from:

"You guys are the absolute pits of the world, you know that?" 


"...this guy's an incompetent fool..." 


"What do you want, Mr....whatever your name is...Mr. Incompetent?"


"You're a disgrace, and everyone here is a disgrace..." 


"You're pathetic, you know that?  You're the worst umpire I've ever seen in my life!  You're never going to work another match if I have anything to say about it!" 


"Answer my question!  The question, jerk!"

...and that's just what I can post without deleting expletives(--rimshot--)!  

But honestly that was peanuts compared to what he said to a linesman in Davis Cup match with Boris Becker in Hartford, Connecticut in 1987.  

Earlier in Becker's career, in 1985, McEnroe had ironically been in the position of chastising a young player who had the temerity to argue line calls - just let that sink in for a second - McEnroe giving it to Becker for arguing with the officials.  That day, he told Becker to "...try winning something before you start complaining."  Three months later Becker won Wimbledon - McEnroe's Wimbledon to be specific, as he was at that time the two-time defending champion - so the relationship had a rough start to begin with.

On a side-bar, that probably wasn't the worst thing Becker would hear in his career - that could go to what Pat Cash said to him during their 1988 Wimbledon quarterfinal.  As the two last winners of Wimbledon (Becker in 1985/1986, Cash in 1987) the match was tense from start to finish - except for one moment of levity where Cash, chasing down a drop shot, fell face forward over the net, and Becker - in jest - did the same a second later.  Cash was having none of it, and as they each returned to their respective sides of the net, he muttered, loud enough for Becker to hear, "You're a fucking smart-arse Kraut."  Becker paused, momentarily as if he contemplated physically assaulting him, but settled for blowing him off the court in straight sets instead.

But what McEnroe said, not to Becker, but to a linesman, that day in Hartford, during his first match against Becker, a 5 hour 22 minute back breaker for players and spectators alike, was far worse.  He had already said to Germany's captain, Niki Pilic, "You shut up, Niki!  God damn it!  Shut up!", when the tension of the match really got the better of him...yet again.  Feeling that the (largely American) line judges had been unacceptably objective in their calls, McEnroe told a black linesman who'd called a Becker ball good, "I didn't know they had black germans."  The linesman had at once been insulted for his race, and had his patriotism questioned - all for doing what we Americans would say was his job that day - to dispassionately call the lines.  He responded by lowering his head in anger and admirably finishing his shift.

McEnroe's said some pretty mean spirited things on a tennis court, most of which, if you asked him about it now, I'm sure he'd double down on it...assuming he remembers saying it.  Bill Scanlon (who had for years been a thorn in McEnroe's side - his own personal Brad Gilbert, so to speak) claims that McEnroe, in the middle of a match in 1981 in San Francisco attempted, in a perfectly calm and rational way, to explain to Scanlon that not only did he not deserve to be on the same court as him, but that he should do everyone there a favor and lose the match because nobody wanted him to win.  If it weren't so crazy, I wouldn't believe it, but believe it I do.  And I'm sure that, to this day, McEnroe would double down on the sentiment.  After all, who the hell was Bill Scanlon (but an NCAA champion who won six career titles and beat McEnroe at the 1983 US Open when he was the #1 player in the world, Wimbledon champion and had won the title for the third year on the trot two years two year earlier...but I digress)

But this comment to an American, I'm certain he would recant...well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't...but it was pretty bad.

2001 US Open, Lleyton Hewitt

For me, the greatest irony of the whole hullabaloo about this Kyrgios kid is that, of all people on the planet, the one he's turned to for guidance and mentoring is Lleyton Hewitt.  


I know it's 2015 and he's retiring this year, but has it really been that long since Hewitt was cited for doing almost exactly the same things as has drawn so much derision for his young compatriot?  The list of transgressions is too long to cite every incident, so there is certainly enough fill this column with plenty to refer to "His Irascibleness".  How did Hewitt irritate the tennis world? 

Oh, let me count the ways:

There was his favorite expression to abuse linesman, whom he felt were, "...weak as piss..", his defamation suit against the ATP in 2003, in which he sought $1.5M in damages for being accused of (and fined for) skipping an interview.  In 2005 he once drew the ire of tennis' significant gay community by calling an umpire he disagreed with, "...a poof."  That was in addition to the myriad of his opponents whom he referred to as, "...arseholes...", or specifically the two Argentines whom he 1) shoulder bumped on a changeover (David Nalbandian 2005 Australian Open) and 2) whom he told to "fuck off" (Guillermo Coria) after he directed an overhead smash at Hewitt in a Davis Cup match in 2005.  The Argentine Davis Cup supporters, known for their contextual xenophobia, then coined (and joyfully chanted) this cute little soccer stadium style song:

"Y que paso, 
Y que paso, 
Que Lleyton Hewitt se cagoooo!" 

(translation: "And what happened?  And what happened?  Llyeton Hewitt shit himself!"

But, I would say the worst thing Hewitt ever said on a tennis court was this little delight in the second round of the US Open in 2001, where in a match against James Blake, he demanded the removal of a black linesman whom he insisted was making calls against him, and in favor of his black opponent, out of racial bias:

"Change him, change him immediately!  I've only been foot faulted at one end!  Look at 'im, look at 'I'm mate, and you tell me what the similarity is?"

Let's set aside the idiocy of Hewitt removing a black linesman because he was playing a black player.  I mean, how would it work out if every black player wanted every white linesman removed every time he felt he was getting rooked?  Let's also set aside the stupidity of actually vocalizing terrible thoughts that, if we're honest, go through everyone's head at the worst of times.  You can't help what you think, but you can certainly think twice before expressing the worst of your thoughts.  Is this what he'll be mentoring Kyrgios about?

I would say that the best thing that Hewitt could mentor Kyrgios about is how to apologize for one incident after another...that is, if Hewitt had ever apologized for anything...except to actual spastics after he called an umpire one in 2006.  In fact, in that incident with Blake he simply feigned ignorance, and flatly denied having said anything racial - after trying to sell that mess to the press, he may as well have tried to sell them some oceanfront property in Nebraska.  Maybe he sold it to Kyrgios, because for the life of me, I can't understand the logic behind being mentored by someone who was hated more than you.

Maybe Hopefully the mentoring is entirely technical, in which case I say, "Good on ye' mate!"  Nobody squeezed better results out of their natural-born abilities than ol' Rusty.

Serena Williams, US Open 2009

I'm not going to lie - I wanted to love Serena Williams, I really did...honest.  And if I had a shorter memory, I might have been able to get past the litany of things she's done and said that has placed her right at the top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) of my list of least favorite players on the WTA.  

When she insulted Martina Hingis for a lack of formal education, I found it more than mildly ironic for someone who has a degree in nothing. When she made that hullabaloo over "The Hand", I sided with Henin, because I thought if Serena saw the hand up, she shouldn't have served, and therefore she got what she deserved:  a second serve.  When, after having an overhead smash rightfully directed at her feet, she glared at Maria Sharapova in their Australian Open final of 2007 and muttered "bitch", unlike the Rod Laver Arena audience, I didn't think it was funny. 

But when she threatened to shove a ball down a lineswoman's throat at the 2009 US Open semi-final with Kim Clijsters and was defaulted only for a third code of conduct violation, that really took the cake.  Actually I thought she got off easy, because she should have been immediately defaulted from the entire tournament, including the doubles final, which she played and won with Venus.  But to me, almost as infuriating as the arrogance of her comment to the lineswoman, was the shameless attempt by her supporters to couch her outburst as simply swearing, then call the media and the USTA to task for having a double standard when men do the same - as if the issue was swearing.  There's nothing I hate more than comparing two unlike things, bemoaning the unlike reactions to them, and then claiming some "ism" as a result - mostly because it distracts from actual "isms"...but I digress.

I also thought it was an act of pandering when the USTA chose to give her only a suspended fine and suspension, which actually didn't expire until the week after her 2011 US Open final, where she was again cited for code of conduct violations.  The "sentence" still wasn't enforced, and I wasn't surprised that she didn't cite being black, or a woman, or the player to beat, for that bit of leniency, even though I suspect all of those contributed to it.  I thought it was absurd that she had the audacity to do to Jelena Jankovic the exact same thing Justine did to her, both at the Family Circle Cup in 2013, and again in Dubai last year.  It was just another in a long list of examples of entitlement that she has, in her view, "earned".

Oh well, nobody's perfect, but I've not heard anything worse on the women's side in a long time...6 years, to be exact.

Jimmy Connors, 1991 US Open

For some people, it was the greatest thing that happened to the US Open - in fact to a lot of people it still is.  Just ask anyone who's made it through an interminable rain delay in Flushing Meadows, watching that match again and again, until the image of Connors hilariously neon yellow racquet is burned into your retina.  This despite the likelihood that the most impressive performance was his encounter with Patrick McEnroe, who will unfortunately be remembered best (as a player, that is) for that memorable collapse, and his ATP final against older brother John in Chicago, that same year.  At this time I could point out that Patrick McEnroe should be remembered for winning French Open doubles in 1989, and making the semi-final of the Australian Open in singles in 1991...but I'd digress.

Connors had been away from the game for almost the entirety of 1990, due to a wrist injury that just wouldn't go away.  There were many who were prepared to write his professional obituary, and despite the fact that Connors had developed a certain cult following (with a certain late night crowd at the US Open) generally he had never really been fully appreciated in the tennis world as he is almost universally now.  In the beginning of his career, Connors irritated a lot of people simply by virtue of who he was beating so mercilessly on his way to winning 3 of 4 majors in 1974.  The beloved Ken Rosewall, at age 39, had never won Wimbledon, and Connors did more to cement his reputation as a ruthless competitor, by obliterating the sentimental favorite in the last throes of his career.  Rosewall, for his part, was emotionally trying to etch his name on the wall, 21 years after he lost his first final there to none other than Lew Hoad.  

When he did it again to Rosewall at Forest Hills, what few fans he had at the time, Connors squandered by deigning to do what anyone in his position would have - win big.  The manner of the defeat was the coup de grace from which his popularity wouldn't fully recover until that fateful fortnight in 1991.  It didn't help that, having been raised by women to compete with men, he had something of a chip on his shoulder, which also had him grabbing his crotch, and telling himself to take his skirt off when he felt he wasn't hitting the ball well.

Connors had made no friends by saying about those contemporaries that were less than enamored with him, "Most of these guys are windbags; if any of them wants to start some shit, I'll be ready..." back in his heyday.  He once sued the fledgling ATP (having refused to join it or its boycott of Wimbledon in 1973), and its president Arthur Ashe in 1975, for the part they played in him getting banned from the 1974 French Open, which most assumed he would have won along with the calendar slam that year, had he not insisted on playing World Team Tennis.  Curiously, the same fate had befallen Bjorn Borg in 1977, but somehow the derision readily directed towards Connors, was restrained when it came to his fair haired nemesis.  Speaking of Borg, Connors once told an interviewer, whilst in the midst of a desperate 10 match losing streak to Borg, "I'll follow that son a bitch to the ends of the earth until I beat him again."

In 1984, while getting his ass handed to him by John McEnroe at the semi-finals at Roland Garros, Connors famously wagged his finger in McEnroe's face and told him his 8-year old son behaved better than he did, and that he should grow up and shut up.  Mildly ironic to those who remembered him telling McEnroe to, "...keep your mouth shut when you're out here," in their 1980 Wimbledon semi-final.  Furthermore, he endeared himself to nobody at the US Open in 1977, when he ran over to the other side of the clay court in his 4th round encounter with Corrado Berazzuti to wipe out a mark the Italian was in the process of questioning. He would go on to lose that final to Guillermo Vilas, poetically on an equally dubious call which was overturned based on a mark in the clay.  Vilas is still waiting for his handshake from that match.

But 1991 was his moment, and while the world were enamored of his memorable run to the semi-final of the US Open, losing to Jim Courier, the tournament reached a kind of anti-climax when the heir apparent to his competitiveness (if not his behavior) put him out of his sweet misery before losing to Edberg in the final.  Connors had played Aaron Krickstein in 4th round in Louis Armstrong stadium, where his young "friend" suffered the ignominy of being the most memorable of 5 losers to Connors that year in his run.  And it was during that match, Connors uttered one of the more memorably disgraceful things ever said on a tennis court to umpire David Littlefield.  To start, he took issue with an overrule that Krickstein had suborned, saying:

"Get your ass out of the chair, you're a bum - you're a bum!  I'm out here playing my ass off, 39 years old, and you're doing that?  Very clear, my butt, my butt, very clear!  You wouldn't 'a said anything if Krickstein had gone over!"

Later, after another ball had been called long, which he didn't overrule, perhaps out of fear of getting involved unecessarily, Connors had this to say:

"Get the fuck out of here, god-damn it - you are are an abortion!  Do you know that?"

To me, that takes the cake - the worst thing a good catholic kid from St. Louis could say to an umpire, and he said it twice.  Littlefield, to his credit, behaved entirely professionally, and didn't respond in kind, although it was his right to do so.  He didn't even cite him for a code violation, which in my opinion was a mistake, but who would have had the courage to do so under the circumstances?

For my money, I've never heard anything worse on a tennis court.


I think a lot worse things have been said on a tennis court than somebody slept with your girlfriend a year ago, who may or may not have been your girlfriend at the time.  It's a daggy thing to say at any time...but under your breath, facing the other way, 90 feet away, I hardly think Kyrgios was saying it for Wawrinka to hear.  In the worst case scenario, it was a stupid thing to say, and may get him "Penn 1" tattooed on his chest the next time he faces Wawrinka, but hardly the equal of some of the more unsavory things cited above.

A little perspective never hurts...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Dear Ms. Hampton:

You don't know us because we've never met and you probably wouldn't remember if we did, but we are fans of yours.  Now, we're certain that somewhere in your heart you felt the butterfly wings of trepidation upon reading that, such is the world we live in, but we can assure you that our admiration is strictly professional.  That is to say, it is based in our love of the game you play professionally and more specifically, the way you play it.  We don't think you're the best player in the world, but that didn't stop us from enjoying the games of Henri Leconte, or Ilie Nastase.  And while the likelihood of usurping the still fire-breathing "babe-o-crats" of tennis is low, it is our opinion that your game, or some derivation thereof, is the best candidate to do just that.  Not because of what you do, but because of what you don't do...but allow us to explain.

We have always shared the opinion that if one seeks to be great, the worst thing to do is exactly what everyone else does, even the great ones who precede you.  If it were feasible to do so, while they still inhabited their place at the top of the pyramid, it would have been done long ago - after all, the world hates nothing more than an empty throne or an unworn crown.  But the path of least resistance is rarely the most effective for achieving something beyond being "one of the bottle" as Jose Mourinho once famously said - better to strive to be, "...a special one."

Well, Jamie Hampton, your game is a special one, and it is missed.

Though it is a marvelous sport, the game of tennis cannot simply be a utilitarian pursuit - if it were, the French wouldn't love it so much.  In fact, one of the reasons why the rest of the world finds French tennis fans, particularly those that attend Roland Garros every year, so capricious, is precisely what makes the game of tennis so special.  To play the game correctly, is to play the game beautifully, and doing so simply must be the most effective method - otherwise, as Jesus said of a God who would compel his (or her) worship, there is no point to it.  

That is because no other sport begs to be played beautifully like tennis - sure teams and individuals in other sports play beautifully - sometimes they win, sometimes they lose - but tennis isn't supposed to be like that.  The worst thing that can happen to the game of tennis, is for its greatest exponents to play the game in a way that is less than aesthetically appealing.  Granted:  aesthetics are a matter of opinion, but like those who inhabit the upper gallery at La Scala in Milan (poetically placed above the rich and privileged), only those who value form and function as co-equal branches of the same governing principle, are in a position to judge.  And for those principled few, the gavel falls hard on those who would sully the game with efficiency at the expense of inspiration, with brute force at the expense of violently beautiful music, with victory at the expense of exaltation.

That's what is missed about your game.

Your are not endowed with all the gifts of the game's greatest exponents and greatest athletes, but you are endowed with those that we value most.  If you study the history of tennis you'll note that the name of the game comes from the Old French expression, "Tenez", which itself is derived from the earliest versions of the game, also coined by the french, "Jeu de paume" or "Game of the palm [of the hand]".  And, as you have certainly surmised, since the predecessor of tennis was a game of the hands, good hands remain today, the hallmark of what true amateurs (in the Latin sense of the word) admire in tennis.  Good hands that can as readily slice a backhand as come over it, flatly drive a forehand up the line, as roll it at an acute angle cross court, as cut a judo chop that it teasingly drops the ball inches from your opponents side of the net.  It is the hands of Riggs, Laver, McEnroe, Federer, Tomic and yes you, Jamie Hampton, that can make game look as it should - like it's still played with the palm of the hand.  

And that's also what is missed about your game.

But lest you think we are only interested in your tennis for its looks, we would point you to your own words, when asked to introduce/describe yourself as a tennis player.  Taken prima facie, perhaps attached to someone else's name, it might be interpreted as the height of arrogance - to us it was merely a statement of fact:

"I think I can do a little bit of everything. I can play offense; I can play defense; I can take time away; I can serve well. I can return well; I have a backup plan if plan A is not working".

Ah, the back up plan - as rare as an albino whale, which, we the tennis world's passengers on the Pequod, have been looking for ever since Justine Henin retired, and in you we seem to have found two or three.  And as far as backup plans go, it is only as good as it can be executed.  And once again, your execution had the hallmarks of the Jacqueline of all Trades we know you to be.  The game sorely lacks your variety, but more importantly lacks the hope that even if faced with an immovable object, you and your hands might find the force that it cannot resist.  Time and again tennis is, today, played like an evening of Japanese pantomime, where the intrigue is so lacking (because the beginning and the end is already known to the audience) that only the scenery and execution can entertain.  

But you disrupt the script, and we implore you, whereever you are, whatever you're doing, to disrupt it once more.  Please come back to the game that so richly deserves your talent, and is so sorely missing your brand.  Let the plebeians have their Empresses and the subjects thereof, so long as you return and give to us, once again, the palm of your hand where we would, so happily, reside...we promise to neither boo nor hiss.


The Virtual Loggionisti of Tennis

Monday, August 10, 2015


So what did we learn from the 2015 Citi Open?  A hell of a lot.  With one of the strongest fields in the history of the tournament, including two players ranked in the top 5 for the first time since 1987, and one of the best performance from the collective American entrants, there's much to ponder about the world of tennis in general, and specifically preparations for the US Open in September.  Here are some of the thoughts that I came away with.


There were so many players standing taller than 6'3 in the tournament this year, Mr. Dell may need to consider raising the doorways.  At 6'10", the tallest man in the draw did everything he could to finally break his duck at the ATP 500 level, and had it not been for the mercurial resistance of one of the shortest players in the draw, John Isner may very well have done just that.  But he wasn't alone breathing "the air up there", with 6'9" "Dr." Ivo Karlovic, 6'8" Kevin Anderson, 6'6" Nicolas Jarry, Marin Cilic, Sam Query and the precocious big man, Alexander "Sasha" Zverev, all raining down a plague of monster serves, and (almost) irresistible leverage on their ground strokes.  One wouldn't be unreasonable to wonder if the game reached a tipping point.  

Despite the fact that only two men above 6'3 have ever won majors in tennis (both at the US Open in Juan Martin del Potro in 2009 and said Croatian Marin Cilic in 2014) it seemed the height of champions at the Citi Open, like the height of tennis players in general, was once again on the way up.  And last year's Canadian finalists, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil seem like scramblers compared to the line up of spindly, rangy, praying mantises of men that littered the field in 2015.  But each and every one of them was felled by the sword of a man at least 6 inches shorter than them, so while the median athleticism of the game continues into the realm of other sports, there continues to be a place in the game for those sufficiently fleet of foot and hands, to stake their claim to this little throne, and potentially the big one at Flushing Meadows.

Kei Nishikori continues to show the world that there is no substitute for technique in tennis.  Neither the raw athleticism of the 6'4" Aussie Rules football moonlighting Sam Groth, nor the tobacco row basketball wannabe John Isner, nor the volleyball obliterating, bump-set-spiking physique of the Marin Cilic, were able to disrupt his path to the head of the table.  In fact, in many ways, the player that gave Nishikori the most trouble was another vertically challenged player, James Duckworth, who took the champion to 3 sets in his first match in DC.  (For a little perspective, James Duckworth, who looks up at most of his opponents these days, is the exact same height at Pete Sampras).  So it seems the fastest hands in tennis, are still able to slice and dice their way through a field of giants who's imposing physical presence reminds us of two maxims of sports we should never forget:  nobody can cover more ground than the ball, and if you do nothing else, be sure to hit it where they ain't.


He did graduate from the University of Georgia in 2007 and has been playing on the ATP for 8 years since, but you may be still surprised to discover that John Isner joined the over 30 club in 2015.  That club includes a number of players that are also on the wrong side of that milestone, but still seem to ply their trade with all the vim and vigor of their more (naturally, but) heavily hormoned contemporaries:

John Isner - 30
Lleyton Hewitt - 34
Feliciano Lopez - 32
Ivo Karlovic - 36
Tommy Haas - 37
Victor Estrella Bourgos - 35
Marinko Matosevic - 30
Ivan Dodig - 30
Teymuraz Gabashvili - 30
Benjamin Becker - 34
Lu Yen-Hsun (Randy) - 31
Malek Jaziri - 31
Gilles Muller - 32
Go Soeda - 30
Dudi Sela - 30

By my count, 15 of the 48 players in the main draw were on the wrong side of 30 - or who's to say it is the wrong side?  One of them made the final, and although none of them made the quarterfinal, this was an unexpected results, as many of the biggest names in the field were felled by some very disrespectful brethren who will need to continue to kick, scratch and claw their way into the hallowed ground of appearance fees and lucrative endorsements.  This begs the question:  with the average age of the top players inching closer to that magic number, should more junior players eschew the early (if not easy) money of turning pro before they're ready, and try their hand at collegiate tennis?  

After all, with no less than 4 NCAA champions in the tournament this year (2 who made/played the main draw) and John Isner, a stalwart of the NCAA team champion University of Georgia in 2007, it seems there may be more to learn about the game, and the game of life, in the virtual classroom of the tennis court and the real classroom (you know, with books and stuff) of a college education?  When I asked him about it in his press conference after the final, John Isner said he had expected this would be more and more the case given the density of players over 30 in the top 100, but that a new crop of young players making their way directly into professional tennis may delay that.  But ultimately he feels that what he and Steve Johnson, and other players who've come the way of the NCAA's, have learned from that experience something that is as often in short supply, as it is valuable to a professional tennis player - the art of competing.


Translated from Japanese, literally this means, "After a long day, we are very tired," and is used to congratulate someone coming through a very long hard road to success.  If anyone deserves to hear that at the end of the 2015 Citi Open, it's Kei Nishikori.  Man, did he ever do it the hard way.  Not only did he play 3 players at least 6 inches taller than him, he also played 3 out of 4 matches that went to 3 sets, coming back from a set down in each.  The fascinating thing about his victories, aside from the herculean depths of resilience he displayed, was the way he used his best weapon to his advantage - his ability to analyze and adjust.  I am of the belief that this underrated skill is second only to technique in the world of tennis, because no matter how hard you hit the ball, there's always someone out there who hits harder, therefore the players who have something in the tool kit to counteract the monolithic ball-bashing that takes place in the modern game, always have the advantage when the going gets tough - and boy did it get tough for King Kei.

Against spirited resistance from James Duckworth, at first glance he appeared to be the better player - there was just one problem, his second serve points were problematic, particularly when under duress.  As an adjustment he took speed off the first serve in the second set, and Duckworth's natural instinct to play conservative returns on the first serve (frequently in spite of the fact that they're eminently attackable) resulted in Nishikori winning 100% of his first serve points, but more importantly (since they were less frequent) 65% of his second serve points, as opposed to just 50% in the first.  In doing so he didn't face a single break point the entire set, and the pressure that put on Duckworth's serve was more telling - he went from winning 47% of his second serve points to just 25% in the second.  

Against Cilic, the serve was again the key factor, not for Nishikori, but for Cilic.  Nothing puts pressure on a serve like a returner who can burn one by your feet before you've finished your stroke, and watching his hands come through the point of contact in a blur over and over again had an irresistible effect on Cilic.  The most interesting part of the match was the extent to which Cilic's second serve speed diminished from the first set (which he won) with several coming in at 100mph+ (two at 116mph matching Nishikori's top first serve speed), versus the second, with none breaking triple digits and a couple clocked in the high 80's.  What was the difference? Nishikori got a beat on the first serve, and put several past Cilic with aplomb, and this caused him to be more conservative, which had the ironic effect of letting Nishikori have his way even moreso on the return.  The obvious solution would have been for Cilic to go bigger on the second serve, but that is far easier said than done, and going big on the second delivery is the domain of only greatest serves in the history of the game (think Pancho Gonzales or Pete Sampras).  As well as he can serve, Cilic will not finish his career in that category.

Finally, against Isner, Nishikori was able to make the adjustment in his court positioning to take away the wide serve in the deuce court, which Isner uses to set up his post potent delivery up the T.  As well as he serves, even Isner cannot rely on blowing the ball past his opponent up the middle on every occasion - eventually a rational professional moves to the middle, and when forced to serve out wide, the margins seem to shrink for him, making both serves less effective.  That's why it's so important for Isner to establish the wide serve first - which Nishikori didn't allow in the second set.  Although Isner maintained triple digit speeds on the second serve, the placement was not nearly as good in the second as it was in the first, and Nishikori, having resisted Isner's bid to break in the first game of the second set, gained the inroads he required to force Isner's overall game to carry the weight of his (only slightly) lacking serve.  That is not his recipe for success, and the result was as telling as Nishikori's cerebral approach to cutting down his opponents, bit by bit, until they're no taller than a stump in the ground.

Nishikori's hands are also useful at net, and against Duckworth, who approached at every opportunity available to him, he made a concerted effort to engage in sneak attacks off of 1-2 combinations, as well as a deceptively effective slice backhand approach that stays low and forces his taller opponents to hit up on the pass.  Nishikori, on the other hand, doesn't have as much of that challenge as they do, and nobody in tennis passes better than him.  If he can combine his already excellent passing shots, with an ability to take the net away altogether, it will help him conserve his energy at the US Open, and possibly get over the hurdle to win it all this time around.


As to what one can interpret from Sloan Stephens victory at the Citi Open..well there are two sides to every story, and depending on whether you want to believe she's turned a corner or dispassionately reserve your judgment, here are a few reasons for each, starting with the latter:

Reserving My Judgment
  1. The strength of the field on the women's side was not the equal of the men this year.  Although there were two major champions in the field, Svetlana Kuznetsova (who's last came at Roland Garros in 2009) withdrew due to injury, and Sam Stosur (who won her one and only major at the US Open in 2011), whom Stephens beat (semi) convincingly in the semi-final, were both ranked outside the top 20 before the start of the tournament.  In fact the only player in the field ranked in the top 20 was Ekaterina Makarova at #12, and she was the #1 seed.  The work only gets harder from here in Canada, Cincinnati and New York.
  2. Her serve needs, a lot of work.  Although not nearly as critical in the women's game as the men's, Stephens' serve fails to impress, particularly her second delivery, which rarely breaks the 85mph mark, and frequently costs her breaks of serve.  In fact, of all the strokes in her game, specifically (and ironically) the worst is her serve, this despite having the leg and shoulder strength that most (reasonably competitive) female tennis athletes would die for. A ball in hand is better than two coming over the net, yet Stephens seems to prefer receiving to taking.  But she's going to have to take it to win the bigger titles, because 'dem big babes at the top sure as hell won't give it to her.
  3. The privilege of pressure does not suit her.  When asked in a press conference whether she experiences more or less pressure facing an up and coming young American (like Louisa Chirico) she claimed that it was the same as any other player.  Bullshit like that may fool a player from American Samoa - who will never face a countryman on tour, but for an American who has just raised her head above the swelling tide of Americans coming through the door of the WTA tour, to claim that there is no difference, smacks of denial.  And just like the river in Egypt that it "ain't", it doesn't bode well for her ability to embrace what Billie Jean King coined "the Privilege of Pressure", which is the most common trait amongst true champions.
  4. There isn't a single thing she does better than everyone else in the world.  Her forehand can be monstrous, but not moreso than about 5 women who's names end in "ova", let alone the entire WTA.  Her backhand can penetrate, but she is that rare combination of technically asymmetry, but with almost no tactical adjustment to account for it.  For the most part she plays as if her backhand were as good as her forehand, and as a result, it's easier for the better players to force it to be.  It isn't and that makes it harder to deliver against the best of the best.  Her defensive skills are deceptively counterproductive - she's quick, but she uses that to stay further behind the baseline than her immense power potential can fully take advantage of.  Somewhere down the road, like Dimitrov on the men's side, she'll have to adopt a generic strategic objective and design a tactical plan around meeting it - so far she dips her toes in the shallow waters of both - neither well enough to win big.
Wanting To Believe

If you're American, and you want to believe that Sloan Stephens is the next best thing, this week was just the tonic for you, and here are the best reasons why:

  1. The only thing worse than a weak field, is losing to it, so, for those of you who would castigate her for winning under those conditions:  what else is she to do, reserve her maiden WTA victory for the US Open?  And the fact of the matter is that if she wants to do just that, for at least 3 rounds, she'll have to beat the same field of players that she beat this week in DC, which has not been a sure thing over the last couple of years.  It bodes well that this week, she has found her way through the land mines players that have no business beating her (and a couple that do) - if she had a virtual mine sniffing dog with her this week, she should feed it only Orijen Regional Red Grain until the second Monday in September.
  2. She came to her senses and returned to Nick Saviano, who has the honesty and background with her to know when she's full of shit with her effort, and when she's really giving it her best.  Time and again he talks to her about putting in the full effort, and not trying to guarantee a result by not losing, and it seems to have helped.  Where Nick needs to improve (as well as Sloan) is in giving her the tools, both tactical and technical, to implement physically, what he's convinced her to do mentally.  It's one thing to talk about committing to grinding out every point, but doing it is another.
  3. She's still the most athletic of all the young Americans that are making a bid to join the other big babes at the adult table.  Madison Keys lacks the grace and Navratilova-like pitter patter of her feet when ghosting about the court.  Jamie Hampton lacks the fitness (she's been out the whole year after double-hip surgery) and Christina McHale lacks any discernible athletic prowess - not that she doesn't have any, she just not going to win a broad jump or 100 dash any time soon.  There are other Americans worth mentioning, but none more ready physically to compete against the best in the world, and the women's game is fast becoming a battle of physical, rather than technical, prowess.
The Ruling:  A Suspended Sentence

I don't think her time is yet, but that's not the end of the world for a 21-year old who's just won her first tournament on the WTA tour.  The cons currently outweigh the pros, but things always do and will change - the hope is that this week in DC signals a change for the better.


I can't say enough about some of the people I met while working the Citi Open - the PR folks from Sheena Pegarido to Molly Flores to Gabo Lemons to Lindsey Foster to Cindy Wilsbach to everyone I'm forgetting, they made it so easy to cover the tournament, and the avalanche of posts on the Citi Open I shoved down the mountain this year is all down to the infrastructure they have in place, and the support they've provided.  And the press conference moderators, whose names escape me, painstakingly spread the wealth and never once made me feel unwelcome (including when I asked a question that got as big a laugh from the press corp as it did a roll of the eyes from the interviewee).  I had a great first experience, I hope to do more, but if I never do it again, I will always be thankful to them for making this one the best it could be.

I also met quite a few fellow residents of the blogosphere, including Mehrban Iranshad of Tennis Files and Steve Fogleman of Tennis Atlantic, two colleagues who gave me great information about where to go and what to do, who share a passion for this marvelous game of ours, but most importantly demonstrated the patience of Job all week.  Either one of them will tell you that, if you let me, I'll talk your ear off about tennis, and boy did they let me - when they were waiting for a press conference, eating, watching a match...doesn't matter, I talked to them and they never once told me (which was their right) to shut the hell up!  It was a lot of fun guys, and you represented the blogosphere well.  I encourage you to check out their websites - I certainly will.

Well, thanks again, and until next year...check that, until the Rogers Cup...oh shit - that's starts today, doesn't it? 

Off to write that post...