Wednesday, July 29, 2015


If you google him, you'll read about a couple of school boy stunts that, if he'd never picked up a tennis racquet, you'd think little of it.  And if you search him on YouTube, the first clip you'll see is the now infamous one where he asks the umpire to ask his father to leave the court, and then thanks the umpire when he gives him a code violation for coaching.  Now there are about 1,000 reasons why that may be of interest to you, but if you've bothered to search clips of him I would implore you to go to the second clip - the one of his best points.  In it you'll see an array of shots, point constructions and a display of some of the best hands in tennis, against some of the best players in the world, over and over again.

This is the real Bernard Tomic - the player who won the Australian Open Juniors when he was 15 years old (yes 15 years old) and the US Open Juniors when he was 16 years old.  The Bernard Tomic that won Sydney in 2013, Bogota in 2014 and again in 2015.  The Sydney title was especially encouraging given its proximity to the Australian Open, and much was was expected of him as a result, but unfortunately for him he ran in to Roger Federer for the second year in a row, and failed to progress beyond the 3rd round at his home major.  Next year, he had the great fortune of facing Rafa Nadal at his home major (for those of you in the blogosphere that still believe draws are fixed).

So what is it about his game that has brought him his results?  His serve is good, but not overwhelmingly so, his forehand can be hit with venom, but is as often hit inside out with side-spin and while equally awkward and effective, nobody would suggest that it is the best in the world.  While his backhand is this most reliable shot, both the flat double-hander and the slice (which he has indicated is his favorite shot) it doesn't always have the pace that one would associate with a weapon.  He volleys well, and has a solid return of serve when he's in the mood, but none of these tools in his kit would appear to be one that could deliver the coup de grace at any given moment in a point.

That's because Bernard Tomic's greatest strength is his hands - with supple touch, and an ability to both inject and extract pace from the rally, his hands give Tomic a breadth of capability on the ball that eludes the vast majority of his contemporaries.  While their games are based on brawn and overwhelming force, Tomic's is based on guile, dexterity and improvisational acumen, reserved for only the most talented of players.  And because talent can so frequently be overcome by brute force, Tomic's greatest strength often appears to be insufficient against those players least likely to surpass what I belief will be an outstanding professional career.

The key to tennis is technique, and although Tomic stands at nearly 6'5", it is not physicality that strikes you when you watch him play, it is sheer ball striking ability that conjures angles, spins, pace and delivery that is so unique, it can appear awkward when not firing on all cylinders.  I am of the opinion that this is the reason he is so frequently accused of giving less than his best effort.  He is, in my opinion, no more or less committed and any other 22-year old (yes, he's only 22) that finds himself seeded at the majors.  But the impression left by his technically sensitive game, is conflation of a lack of freneticism with a lack of effort - the two couldn't be less mutually inclusive.  Just because you hoot and holler on every stroke, groaning like the pard, sweat like a mule, and slip and slide around the court like you're playing on linoleum, doesn't mean you're giving your best effort.  I mean, what about the effort of that "muscle" that sits three feet above your ass?

For anyone with the opportunity to watch Bernard Tomic play in person, the absence of such outward displays does not connote an absence intent.  After all, how can you measure how hard a player is thinking?  And if you're not putting to best use your understanding of how to hit a tennis ball, how to set up a point, how to disrupt your opponent, and how to use the tools available to you in the most effective way, who's to say you're giving your best effort?

The thing I like the most about Tomic's game is his ability to improvise - no player on tour, with the exception of perhaps Roger Federer, appears to come up with unforeseen ways to win a point than him.  It would be easy for him to rely on his physical qualities, which are formidable, but Tomic does what so many players on tour today seem unwilling or unable to do - every time he plays he teaches you something new.  He teaches you that you can be just as effective with side spin as with top, that you don't have to slice cross court every time, that you don't have to come over the forehand every time and still beat some of the best players you play.  As a matter of fact, if Tomic teaches us anything about tennis, it's that sometimes the best thing you can do to win a point is the exact opposite of what your opponent wants you to do.  And to do that takes skill, intelligence, and a commitment to a tactical approach that could be more effective, but will deliver you to a great deal of criticism if it isn't - that takes a kind of courage of conviction that tactics and technique are the key to success in tennis.

Tomic doesn't get stuck in cross court rallies with players who are better at that than he is, and in doing so, straight away, he takes away a strength of 90% of his opponents.  He is also capable of hitting inside out from either wing, frequently with sidespin causing his ball to trail away from his opponent, having the added effect of disrupting the optimal footwork and point of contact for his opponent, and eliciting errors or soft responses (what I would call "soft" errors that don't lose the point immediately, but lead to an opponents shot that will).  This too diminishes the impact of one of the characteristics that separates the best players in the world from the rest of us - their footwork.  One of the reasons why it's always guess work as to exactly when a player starts to get tired, is that the stroke is actually the last place where it will show up - the first place it shows up is in the footwork.  And this is why errors begin to pop up on players when they start to get tired, before the racquet head decelerates appreciably.  Essentially, as the body tires, it can no longer reliably repeat the optimal technique.

The brilliance of Tomic's technique is that his ball, so quirky on one shot, so flat and true on the next, deep and penetrating on one wing, then disruptively short and angled on the next, mimics the kind of  muscle memory amnesia that frequently results from fatigue.  As such, when he is at his more imperious, it is not Tomic his game that appears awkward, but often his opponent's.  And like Leo Messi, causing a world cup winning defender like Jerome Boateng to trip over their own feet nothing tells an opponent that they're for a long day, like making him destroy himself for no apparent reason.  That only happens when your technique is superior to your opponents, and I can't think of many players on the ATP tour that do that better than Bernard Tomic.

I have a feeling we're going to see the real Bernard Tomic in Washington, DC.  Not the guy that so many people seem to want to criticize.  And when he comes to the Citi Open, I'm going to watch him practice and I'm going to watch him play, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to learn one or two things along the way.  

For that gift, to all tennis players, I say "Thank you Citi Open".

Monday, July 27, 2015


Recently, a New York Times article made a lot of people very upset for asking a very simple question - if Serena Williams' physique is key to her success, why don't others emulate her?  If one can ignore the chorus of the lunatic fringe, who censure the obvious (and coincidentally irrelevant) "-isms" of every comment about her that is anything less than superlative, you might notice that the question is actually a fair one - check that - it's a good question.

But just asking it has landed Ben Rothenberg in hot water with a striation of the blogosphere who conflate any perceived denigration of any individually great woman, with the denigration of all women.  As such, this reasonable question, asked with what I assume are good intentions (also coincidentally irrelevant) becomes a sideshow to the deluge of righteous indignation and dubious offense taken by many who wouldn't know an '-ism' if it slapped them in the face.  But this "-ism", the "-ism" of low expectations, where the pursuit of knowledge beyond the perfunctory is prohibited by a self-appointed moral police, is  counterproductive.  They are so obsessed with coming to the defense of those suffering from any "-ism", they won't even allow the pursuit of understanding to exit the womb.  This is the worst kind of "-ism" because it robs us of even the opportunity for analysis that might actually lead to eliminating the source of the offense it seeks to kill in the crib.

Take, for example, this parody of the above article, which replaces the female tennis players in the original, with American footballers, ostensibly to elucidate the absurdity of Rothenberg's piece, and the quotes therein.  Unfortunately, lost in translation is the irony of all ironies - the most absurd comments in the original article come, not from men, but from other women.  The culprit in the presumed disrespect the piece supposedly visits on Serena, comes not from the author, or some sniveling dark hand behind it all, but her fellow professionals.  Which begs the question - by eschewing a rational competition with her athletic prowess, for an irrational competition for aesthetic appeal, who really loses out on the former, and who is responsible for the subjugation resulting from the latter?  In my view, Serena is laughing all the way to the bank, and her contemporaries, if they are to be believed, have only themselves to blame.

Speaking of which, that is actually one contention in the piece with which I would take issue, not because it is offensive, but because I believe it to be the following false premise:  if other women in the game wanted to achieve a clearly advantageous (from a sporting perspective) physique, they could.  But the paucity of like-minded and like-bodied contemporaries is merely a matter of choice, rather than a limitation of their genetics. Now, discussing genetics runs the risk of bleeding into questions of race.  This has been the case ever since Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder contended back in 1988 that black Americans were "bred" by slave owners to have superior innate physical abilities.  In this context, black athletes (and their unsolicited defenders) are particularly sensitive about the discussion of genetics factoring into the prevailing success of black athletes as a group.

Despite the fact that many blacks make the same assumptions about their athletic prowess that others do, the offense comes from the presumption that, given their genetic head start, a black athlete who achieves athletic success is simply doing what they're supposed to do, and thus less deserving of praise.  After all, would you congratulate a male sprinter for defeating a female sprinter, given his predisposed advantage?  Conversely, any white athlete who is even remotely competitive, is lauded as a modern-day David holding at bay the innate advantages of an army of black Goliaths.

While these assumptions are offensive to many, resisting them of the sake of black athletes as a group, does not exclude recognizing individual black athletes whose athletic abilities are well beyond the sixth sigma.  Not all blacks are athletically gifted, nor are all black athletes relatively gifted to athletes of other races - and those that happen to be don't succeed exclusively due to their individually innate capacity with which they were born - it could just as easily result from hard work and training - which happens to be the case with Serena (and Venus for that matter) whose father compelled them to do push ups and sit ups nightly from a very young age, learn to throw a football, and other unique muscle building exercises...for women, anyway.

Therefore, citing Serena's physique as a factor in her success does not necessarily negate the other qualities that make her the champion that she is.  Conversely, try as we may, (with the best of intentions) we can bury our heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge those gifts.  But this omission will not necessarily elevate her other qualities, as the key to her individual success.  The answer is clearly somewhere in the combination of the two, but when we approach a great athlete from the perspective that there are only certain qualities we are allowed to discuss, we do ourselves the disservice of not fully analyzing all factors that contribute to success.  As such, we diminish our capacity to identify and nurture the same in others, whom we would seek to help achieve their maximum results.  That proverbial head we bury in the sand is metaphorically cut off.

I should also point out that Serena Williams is not the only black tennis player on the WTA tour.  Therefore, discussing Serena's achievements is an individual assessment, and the true racism lies not in honestly analyzing all the factors in her success, but in the assumption that any of those qualities are due to her race.  The failure of other black tennis players to achieve any success on par with hers (including her sister who shares a gene pool) plainly dispels that uncomfortable myth.  So whether one comes to her defense as a black woman playing tennis, or one launches an attack on her that is actually or just perceived to be, racially based, the results are equally pernicious, because both ascribe too much significance to her race.

Serena is a great tennis player, with an extraordinary physique, deep skills in her tool kit, and a competitiveness that has brought her to the pantheon of great players in the history of the game.  These are facts that are undeniable, and that she happens to be black is entirely irrelevant to that.  This is one of the most important things to take away, not only from Rothenberg's piece, but from her career on the whole.  Rothenberg does not ascribe her success to her race, but to her individual physical qualities - and of that ascription, would it were any other player of any other race, in all likelihood it would not be met with such vehement resentment.  It is only in the context of racial bias, or a desire to mitigate racial bias, that it does.  By this measure, the article and the question posed by it, can lead to the mitigation of racial bias, but only if it is allowed to be asked, which the lunatic fringe of Serena's supporters, by the fervency with which they attack the piece, ironically wind up preventing.  And the one who suffers that unintended consequence is...Serena.

The question of her femininity is almost entirely irrelevant to her record as a champion.  The author didn't even call that into question, either in intent or practice.  That can be blamed entirely on the answers of her contemporaries to the question of why others don't emulate her physicality - as if to be, or not to be, as strong, fast, flexible and resilient as she is is a boolean choice available to all her contemporaries.  But I would beg to differ.  There are certainly players on tour who might have the natural genetic template to build a similar physique if they chose to pursue it.  But I would argue that such a choice is not available to most players, and to assume that it is eschewed by competitors simply as a matter of aesthetics, even if players insist that is the case, constitutes a false premise that is neither probative nor informative.  The real question is why they don't bother to try?  Isn't it some failing of their commitment to compete?

In fact, the responses of her contemporaries bear some analysis of the irrational competitiveness of women on the WTA tour:  is their objective to succeed on the tennis court or in some ethereal realm of aesthetic appreciation - either within the game or in their personal lives?  One could argue that it is doubly irrational to be concerned with the latter, because it would translate into financial benefits, if (and only if) there is commensurate success on the field of play.  There are a lot of beautiful tennis players ranked 100 to 1,000 that most have never heard of - this is as it should be.  One can argue further, (and pointlessly, in my opinion) that Maria Sharapova is more beautiful than Serena because hers is a physique that is more in line with tennis fans, and not that of an elite athlete.  But this too is largely a matter of taste and largely irrelevant to their place in the competitive record of the sport.  Isn't this all that truly should matter?  So while the road is paved with good intentions, insisting that Serena be appreciated for her aesthetic appeal, as well as the functional qualities of her physique, leads, in fact, to a continuation of the problem of an irrational competition.

Furthermore, eschewing a competitive advantage that might result from a less aesthetic, but more effective physique, entails a misplaced priority on something that the tennis world ought to be the last place one might find it.  That speaks to the irrational competitiveness of the women on the WTA tour, and not viewers that may or may not find personally attractive, a certain body type.  Does anyone care if any women find the physique of JJ Watts aesthetically appealing?  Of course not, precisely because his physique is functional, and it is the function for which he is lauded.  The paucity of similarly superficial emphases on aesthetic appeal on the ATP tour is not the result of some insidious conspiracy to subjugate women to the demands of male-driven interest.

It is the result of a proper priority placed on functional qualities by the players themselves, who would grow an elbow straight out of their forehead, if they thought it would give them a competitive edge.  Collectively or individually, they would never in a million years indicate a preference to remain less muscular or less fit because it is more appealing in the abstraction of their chosen field of endeavor.  The men are almost monolithically committed to success on the court, and many would take any opportunity to achieve that success (up to and including illicit means - a subject for another post) regardless of the consequences, because the priority is on success, and not appeal.

I mean, can you imagine if Rafael Nadal's ATP profile photo looked like this:

Instead of like this:

He would be laughed right out of the locker room, not because the first photo lacks aesthetic appeal - to the contrary one could argue its only appeal is aesthetic - but that would be precisely the problem.  So what of the collective self-perception of his female colleagues? 
The website has rightfully moved away from profile photos that look more like this:

...which I applaud, not because they are not beautiful, but because they have nothing to do with why we even know who they are.  As such, does it make sense to point the finger at Rothenberg for asking a question about athletic qualities, and getting answers that are right in line with the absurdity of photos like these?  I believe the WTA is coming to their senses and realize that because they are responsible for the impression the world has of women's tennis, they must lead from the front, and avoid the celebration of an entirely irrelevant point of judgement.

Count me among the supporters of the game who is hoping that the players will follow the WTA's lead.  Women who view the world of professional sports as unduly focused on the pulchritude of its female participants, at the expense of an appreciation of their athleticism, do themselves no favors by castigating articles like Rothenberg's - after all, his only crime was posing a question about functional body sculpting.  That the answers he got back were dripping with commentary perceived to be sexist or racist (neither of which can be assumed unless one attaches Serena's the individual qualities to all women - an absurd proposition), is damning of her contemporaries, and not their messenger - but boy have some tried to kill the messenger on this one.  

The truth is, somewhere in this conversation, in deep dark places, where we only talk about things at parties, the irrational competitiveness of these women, aspiring to intangible and ethereal qualities at the expense of the rational competition of their sport, must surely constitute a more salient question than the author's motives.  We should all be asking why in the world would a professional athlete care whether she is perceived as beautiful to the extent that she limits her athletic potential?  Rather than insisting that Serena Williams be perceived as beautiful because she's a great athlete, and thus feeding into this misplaced priority, would it not make more sense to address the irrational desire to be beautiful in a completely inappropriate context?  Either her own desire (with which she has, according to the article, come to terms - and hence the article should be celebrated) or her millions of female supporters who tangentially, vicariously and desperately hang on her every success and/or perceived appreciation thereof?

It is no more progressive to insist that Serena be universally embraced on questions of aesthetic appeal, based on her unquestionable pedigree in an athletic assessment, than it is to insist that a female athlete should be as interested in being beautiful as they are interested in being successful in their chosen field of endeavor.  Both are absurd, and both feed the absurdity of her colleagues body image.  I contend that for some, Serena Williams is a beautiful woman who happens to play tennis magnificently.  I contend also that for others, Maria Sharapova is the beautiful woman who also happens to play tennis - not as well as Serena, but pretty well.  

But the former part of each of those contentions, is a matter of personal opinion which we can no more morally oblige anyone to hold, than we could deny the latter parts thereof.  Insisting on anything else would side-step a rather obvious conclusion, alluded to by Rothenberg and universally ignored by all those who would (with either the best or worst of intentions) step into the "sexier" but largely irrelevant debate, rather than the reason we actually bother with sports.  For this is Rothenberg's gift to Serena and anyone reading the piece, if they'd actually read it with genuine curiosity, rather than prejudiced derision:

The records have leave no room for personal opinion - you either did or you didn't.  And it is the very freedom afforded by this underlying principle of sports, that we are judged by what we do and not how we look doing it, that could actually liberate those of us under the real, or perceived, yolk of one "-ism" or another.

Would it were so in all of life.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


The year was 1987, and it marked the rebirth of the Sovran Bank Tennis Classic as a special event on the ATP tour.  Gone were the temporary bleachers, the tents and stagnant water and the har-tru strewn throughout the facilities, to be replaced by one of the most beautiful stadium courts in the country, a world class player facility, paved walkways as pristine as they were efficacious, and deco-turf II - the exact same surface used at the US Open.  The american version of the classic European rustic surface had been a fixture since 1969, which convened nicely with the change of surface at the US Open to the the green dusty stuff in 1975.  But when the last major of the year converted to a surface more conducive to American players in 1978, the har-tru continued to attract a subset of European and South American professionals.  The pedigree of the game's luminaries like Guillermo Vilas, Jose Luis Clerc, Andres Gomez and Yannick Noah, was undeniable, but juxtaposed against the clay surface, seemed to give them an opportunity to artificially pad their ranking and seeding at Flushing Meadows.  Unfortunately, the prestige of the event suffered as a result.

But all that would change almost overnight in 1987, when everything about the tournament screamed alignment and preparation for the toughest test in tennis, and the commensurate improvement in the field of players who came to our beloved little event, was testament to its new place in the pantheon of great dates on the calendar.  This year, the best player in the world, by a long way, was Ivan Lendl, who hadn't returned to Washington DC since took the money and the title in 1982, not to return until the event, more befitting his stature and world famous preparation for the US Open, was worth the detour.  He had won Roland Garros for the third and last time (second year running), but then lost the Wimbledon final to Pat Cash, the irascible Australian who's joy at defeating Lendl was rivaled only by the one and only major of his career.  Undeterred, Lendl came to  DC as the top dog not only in the draw, but in the world rankings, and it would mark the middle of his best professional season, making three of 4 major finals, and winning two of them.

Following him to the nation's capital for the first and last time in his career, was none other than Das Wunderkind from Liemen, Boris "Boom Boom" Becker.  He had been scheduled to play in 1985, in all likelihood assuming he wouldn't have gone as far in the draw as he did at Wimbledon.  The tournament was still on clay at the time, part of an anachronistic US summer clay circuit that included Indianapolis and Forest Hills.  As such, requently Europeans and South Americans came to pad their results before seedings were calculated for the US Open, so the Sovran Bank Tennis Classic would have been an excellent opportunity for him to do just that.  Of course the need to do so disappeared when he shocked the world by winning Wimbledon.  After that, he won two singles victories over the United States in a Davis Cup World Group play-off in 1985, over Aaron Krickstein (that other teen sensation who had by then lost some of the luster on his marquee due already to some knee issues and the results of some very talented European contemporaries - i.e. Becker and Edberg) and Elliot Teltscher.  His return in 1987, as the penultimate seed, laid the groundwork for a hugely anticipated #1 vs #2 final.

Unfortunately for Becker, 1987 was an annus horribilus.  He had defeated Tim Mayotte and John McEnroe in a Davis Cup tie in St. Louis, coming back from 2 sets to 1 down in both matches to do so.  In his first match against McEnroe, a 5 hour 22 minute back breaker for players and spectators alike, he wore down his cantankerous opponent in a match that reminded us all why McEnroe was both a blessing and a curse to the Davis Cup.  Becker, had held his nerve, despite McEnroe telling Germany's captain, Niki Pilic, to "shut the hell up", telling a black linesman whom he felt wasn't patriotic enough that he "...didn't know there were any black germans" and the entire American crowd to stand up and repeatedly interrupt Becker's first and second serves.

In the end, this was largely the highlight of Becker's year - he lost in the 4th round of the Australian Open to a player that his former manager and mentor, Ion Tiriac, had (sort of) abandoned him to manage, one Slobodan Zivojinovic.  Zivojinovic was a rare contemporary of Becker's who's claim to fame was that he was probably the only player on tour that made Becker look like the 19 year old manchild that he, in fact, truly was.  At 6'4" and 220 pounds, he also had a serve that made perfect sense for a man of that stature - frequently hit above 130mph, which did him a world of good at Kooyong.  Becker then lost the semi-final at Roland Garros, a good result for most players, but not for a player who had grown up on clay, and actually enjoyed the opportunity to display the full breadth of his ground game.  There he lost tamely in 3 straight sets to true clay master (and fellow 17-year old grand slam champion - his a Roland Garros in 1982) Mats Wilander.

But it was a Wimbledon that Becker's star truly began to fall - losing in the 2nd round as the 2-time defending champion to a player, Peter Doohan, who'd enjoyed most of the success in his career at the NCAA level - where he won a national title in doubles (presaging his 5 professional doubles titles).  Becker scratched and clawed, and fought every minute of that match, but unlike previous years where his stature seemed to grow as the match got tight, in 1987, Becker waited for Doohan to come back down to his expected level...only Doohan never did, and after 2 and half hours of near perfect serve and volley tennis, dethroned the boy king from Bavaria for what remains one of the biggest upsets in the history of professional tennis.

So under that shadow of disappointment, Boom-Boom sonic-boomed his way to Washington DC with the full expectation that he could restore some measure of lost gravitas by bludgeoning his way to the title, scooping up the scalps of several Americans in his half of the draw, and the most valuable one of all, in Ivan Lendl's.  The problem was that nobody bothered to tell one Brad Gilbert of Oakland California. After defeating 3 Americans along the way (including current USTA coach Jay Berger), Becker ran into the Talkinator Gilbert on the 2-year upswing of the zenith of his career in 1989.  As if his year wasn't bad enough by his already lofty standards, Boris Becker would lose to Brad Gilbert for the first of 3 consecutive losses in 1987 in DC.  The match was a study in what Gilbert would later describe mercilessly as "winning ugly".

The first set had Becker forcing the play with his powerful serve, which Gilbert, almost by rote, initially tried to return with depth and pace, to which Becker responded with easy 1-2 combinations and power volleys.  But in the second, Gilbert changed his strategy to focus on doing the exact opposite of what Becker wanted - where Becker wanted pace, Gilbert hit with a soft short slice, with the desired effect of pulling the German to the net before he wanted to go there, which Becker frequently obliged.  Never known for his footwork, Becker's was particularly poor when lumbering to net, which he made up for with great reach and dexterity on his volleys, particularly for a man of his endomorph physique - but he rarely made it to net after the first set, such was the frequency of his errors on approach.  That was due in no small part to Gilbert's expert neutralization of the pace and spin coming to him.

Where Becker wanted short replies from the forehand, Gilbert frequently hit with high and deep questions into Becker's backhand, forcing him to generate pace and spin while moving backwards, a difficult task for even the best of players, and more so for one having a bad year.  Becker had a unique ability to hit his backhand from behind him, likely due to the strength of his shoulders and forearm, but that capability usually followed an approach shot with pace - Gilbert gave him none to work with.  And Gilbert, rather than serving and volleying, would hit kick serves to Becker's backhand in the ad court, respond to Becker's returns with short flat forehands in the deuce court, then long slice back to the ad court - the yo-yo on the string was Becker at this point, and the madness that it elicited not only resulted in an unexpected loss, but an embarrassing final set obliteration - a rare bagel of the uber-competitive strawberry blonde Bavarian who, at 19 years old, was already, and rightfully, viewed as one of the fiercest competitors in tennis.

The irony of Gilbert's victory was that, in assigning the name "Winning Ugly" to this style of play that lead him to overachieving in the game based on his talent, it leaves one with the unfortunate impression that his game was entirely lacking in pulchritude - to the contrary, Gilbert's tactical acumen was one of the more beautiful things to behold on a tennis court.  Realizing that the vast majority of points are won with forced errors, Gilbert understood that frequently the most effective method of overwhelming one's opponent is to allow him to self-destruct.  And nothing presses that button like taking away a strength and forcing a better player to win with his weakness.  Frequently when a new great player emerges, the only ones who figure out how to beat them consistently are the ones who understand this incredibly essential characteristic of tennis - you can only play as well as your opponent lets you.  And if your opponents tries to beat you at your game, he is merely giving you the sword which you will gleefully plunge in his heart.  But turn the handle around, and the aggressor frequently falls on his sword, and nobody did that better than Brad Gilbert.

Except perhaps Ivan Lendl.

Lendl's performance in the final was a carbon copy of Gilbert's in the semi-final.  He had played a low quality, but highly effective, match against Jimmy Connors, where he fed him a steady diet short slice to Connors' forehand - a tactic that, 12 years after it was first effectively employed by John Newcombe at the Australian Open, and then Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon, Connors still hadn't figured out how to handle.  Lendl had a reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in several major finals before finally breaking his duck at Roland Garros in 1984 on the one characteristic of his game that he would eventually become famous for:  his fitness.  After becoming stronger than anyone on tour, he discovered that his ability to play the same shot over and over again became a tool as effective as Chinese water torture - nothing dynamic, but eminently effective.

Against Gilbert, he realized early on that Gilbert was nervous, having lost to him 12 times in a row, and making the final of the first important title of the summer US hard court circuit, in a brand new beautiful stadium, was more than he could handle.  The enormity of the occasion, and the intransigence of his opponent, one of the few men on tour who could claim to be fitter, and more resolute in his tactical commitment, melted all of Gilbert's tactical expertise away, leaving only his innate natural talent to hit a tennis ball, to bear the burden of the competition.  Ironically, Lendl, never known as the most talented player in the world, was probably more talented than Gilbert, and on this, the 12th of 16 occasions that they met on the ATP tour, Lendl's superiority would prevail - in fact he never lost to Gilbert in his career.

I, myself, was fascinated with Gilbert's game - it seemed so simple, and so effective, I could never figure out how he did it.  How did he always seem to find a way to defeat players who were, in terms of their pedigree, far superior to him.  He rarely struck the ball hard, and even his serve, which was accurate and consistent, was not what one would expect of an athletic 6'2" inch American raised on football and baseball.  The secret to his success was something more feminine, something more simple:  he took his opponent's greatest strength, and reduced its influence on the match, which would in turn forced a better player to beat him with their weakness.  Under those circumstances, the match could be played on his terms.

In truth, tactically Gilbert was the Chris Evert of the men's tour, with less talent, and worse results of course - but strategically and tactically, they were mirror images.  Evert never appeared to have physical superiority, or even technical superiority - most of her opponents had more tools in the kit - but Evert's true special talent was the depth of the skills she did possess and her ability to make shallow the skills of her opponents.  The modern game suffers from a kind of fatal narcissism, where players all think the key to their success is their own game.  They assume that because tennis is an individual sport, the last thing they have to worry about is the other guy on the court.  Fed by the paucity of quality coaching, where the "mental game", and its ugly offspring "belief", seem to be the focus, lost from the modern game is the art of strategy and tactical execution - in short, there are no more Brad Gilbert's in the men's game, and very few in the women's game.

I recall 3 years later watching Gilbert obliterate a young Michael Stich in DC, a year before Stich's solitary victory at a major at Wimbledon in 1991 (over none other then Boris Becker, I might add).  The amazing thing about this match was that Stich, consistently serving in the 125+ range throughout that match, gained absolutely no advantage from the serve, because Stich made error after error trying to do just that.  Throughout the match, Gilbert brilliantly returned soft and deep, thus negating the advantage of a heavy serve, but in his mind Stich felt compelled to take advantage of his huge serves, even though that advantage didn't exist.  Thus he went for ill-advised setup and kill shots over and over again - destroying himself and probably wondering along the way, how he could possibly be losing to a player who was hitting so few winners and taking so few chances.  Add to that the heat, and the relatively quiet audience, watching in bewilderment how this praying mantis of a player, with a gargantuan but easily produced serve, managed to get broken 4 times in just 10 service games.

Winning ugly is a misnomer, because there is something very beautiful about tactical acumen played out so mercilessly in a tennis match.  Nothing says, "I know this game better than you do," like beating someone you have no business beating, over and over again.

For that lesson from Brad Gilbert and Ivan Lendl, I say, thank you Citi Open.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


You know how the first thing you do when you walk on a tennis court is always the first thing you do when you walk on a tennis court - a ritual, a rite of passage, an homage to the faces on Mt. Rush(the net)More?  For some it's doing your laces a certain way, for others perhaps arranging the water bottle in some perfect alignment with an empty can of balls, that serves a purpose known only to your own imagination.  Well, I have a ritual every time I go to the Citi Open - the first thing I do after I cross the main entrance, and pass all the promotional modules is hang a hard left to visit the first 3 practice courts.  These days one of those courts is Grandstand 1, a beautifully seated stadium court, from which almost every seat has a perfect vantage point to view a match tennis - sufficiently distant to appreciate the angles, but close enough to feel the weight and pace of every shot.

But back in the day, Grandstand 1 used to be 3 practice courts where you could often watch 6 of the worlds best players at once, getting into the kind of groove that you rarely get to see in a match.  And it is as they train that you truly appreciate what it takes to be a professional tennis player.  The warmups begin with a slow exercise in simply increasing the blood flow and finding the range - they are hardly putting anything on the ball, and all the pace and spin are generated by rote.  This is where, if any conversation takes place, it will take place - I remember back in 1990 watching John Boytim, a top shelf junior from the great state of Texas, who had turned professional to ignominious results, telling his practice partner every sordid detail of a dinner and a movie he had been to the night before.  I was as fascinated by the day to day lives of these players, as their games...but I digress. Not so any more - with the pervasive presence of perma-coaches, these conversations are not as extensive or intimate or frequent.

Then the pace picks up slightly, with players putting a little more spin on the ball, making the flight path tighter and tighter over the net until it reaches an impossibly tight curl over the net and the ball lands somewhere in the middle of the no-man's land (that area just beyond the service line and before the baseline).  With modern poly-strings and composite racquets, the spin on shots landing that short push players at least 6 feet beyond the baseline at this point in the warm up.  By now, the sinews are stretched, the blood flows readily, and the players are ready for their full throated knock about - this is when it becomes truly amazing.

Because at this point, the players begin to strike the ball with true venom, full-bodied pace and spin, on a line tighter and tighter towards their partner, harder and harder, until one of them folds by dumping it in the net or long.  They're not moving themselves around, in fact that is considered a soft cop out, because the objective in this exercise is to hit the ball as hard as you can straight at your opponent, and they do the same, straight back at you, until somebody folds.  In this way, they're fighting a battle of attrition, and the loser is the guy with the ball on his side of the net.  This goes on until they have to wipe the sweat from their hands, or someone breaks a string.

They then move onto a long session of volleys, with the same principle, you're not trying to pass your partner, as much as you're trying to hit the ball through him, and he loses if he dumps a volley straight into the net or long.  They do this over and over again until the reactions are so quick and instinctive, you almost wonder how their minds are able to process all the variables and decision points to arrive at just the right point of contact.  After a few overheads, then a few serves and returns, a practice set is played.

The best set of tennis I saw last year won't show up on the AT P's head to head records.  That's because it was a practice set at, hideaway on practice court 2, between Richard Gasquet and Michael Llodra.  And after the initial pleasure of watching an extended 30 minute warmup, I then witnessed one of the best sets of tennis I've ever seen.  Not only because Gasquet has one of the most beautiful backhands in tennis, and Llodra is one of the last bona fide serve and volleyers left in the game.  The set was extraordinary because the spirit of these two players, their trades plied at opposite ends of the tactical spectrum, is exactly the same - swashbucklers.  Not that the term isn't overly used, particularly when it comes to french tennis players, but it very much applies to these two.  They do whatever they can, whatever it takes, whenever they can do it, to win the point, and entertain, and not necessarily in that order.  There is a quality of the spectacle which is as important to french players and french audiences, that must be met in order for the match to have been worth watching.  And boy was this one worth watching.

Gasquet started serving, wide serve in the deuce court, which is the right play against a lefty with a one-handed backhand, but because the pace was reduced to ensure placement, Llodra promptly replied with a drop shot return - I repeat, a drop shot return - to which Gasquet had no choice but to pump his desperate foray to net with a cross court angle which Llodra promptly hit around the net post for a winner.

That was the first point.

And it continue like this, shot after shot was hit with angles so acute the players were continually trying to avoid running into things - the net post, the side fence the back fence, the change over chairs, etc.  Some players shrink the court by forcing you to hit to the same spot over and over again, but the vision and improvisation of Gasquet and Llodra had them making the court every larger with each point.  Llodra once hit a kick serve to Gasquet's forehand in the deuce court on break point, which Gasquet replied with a chip forehand lob over Llodra's backhand side.  And as if that wasn't difficult enough to handle had he taken it conventionally, Llodra decided to hit a tweeter lob (also over the backhand), which Gasquet dispatched with a blind leap and incredible backhand smash - made all the more impressive when you recall the he stands 5'11 if he's got two pairs of socks on.

And there's something about the vantage point of watching from the side, as those practice courts force you to do - particularly when you watch from the net.  As a conventional tactic, topspin is usually associated with more margin over the net, but keeping the ball inside the baseline, but actually from this vantage point I could see the effects of Gasquet's reverse forehand (hit almost as frequently as Nadal's but his with a continental grip that also allows him to switch to or from a forehand slice) not only imparted enormous topspin, but used in conjunction with a very low net clearance, actually worked to keep the ball very low.  This is of particular use to a player who hits through the ball on the forehand side and is unaccustomed to having to generate either his own pace, or his own spin on the ball.

The set finished in a tie-break after each player broke once, then the other immediately broke right back.  The serves were not huge, but hugely effective, placed in all four corners, with slice, top and flat making for a beautiful array of 18 different kinds of serves from two players using the serve to set up very different things.  The shotmaking was fearless, which is nothing to shake a stick at when you consider the kind of impact losing would have on either players' reputation in their relatively large circle of compatriots (people talk about Spanish tennis, but really, it's the French that have the most players of consequence in the top 100 today).  But most importantly, although there were only 5 people watching that set, it was enough motivation to those two to entertain, curse each other out (in a playful way) and along the way play one hell of a practice set of tennis - indeed one of the best I've ever seen at the Citi Open.

So, for making the first thing I do, one of the best things I do, every time I go to Rock Creek in August, I say, "Thank you Citi Open".

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Other than my father, I'd never seen a black man playing tennis - and certainly not a black man like Yannick Noah.  At 6'4", wiry muscle, and legs that looked taller than me, I couldn't believe how perfect he looked.  His waist was small, but his shoulders broad.  His thighs scarcely contained the quadriceps that would launch him into the air on his infamous overhead, and the racquet looked more like a ping pong paddle in his hands, such was the efficacy with which he wielded his weapon of choice.  His forehand was contrived, but he seemed to be able to put limitless amounts of spin and height on the ball, and still keep it in the court.  His slice backhand, stayed low even on the green clay, and when he came over it, he seemed to launch the ball with every inch of himself - from his calves to his fingertips - a kind of full bodied heave up and over the top of the ball.

But for all the potential in that sinewy frame of his, his kinetic energy was disarming.  As a serve and volleyer, he sort of ambled casually into the court, with his right foot landing first, but in absolutely no particular hurry.  And regardless of how he hit it - whether slice or top, or flat up the "T", there was a kind of tele-transportation quality to his net approaches.  From the side, you would watch the serve, and his initial step, almost falling in to the court, the return would come, and as you followed the ball presumably back to the baseline, your eyeline was interrupted by the sudden appearance of this praying mantis of a man at the net.

How in the world did he get there so fast?

And lobbing him, desperate measure that it was, rarely worked, no matter how well it was hit - with two elegant paces in reverse, he would go from within touching distance of the net to the service line, and leaning backwards, with his right foot raised above his waist, and a violent flick of the wrist, the ball disappeared in the other direction.  Noah's greatest quality was his guile - he knew that making the tennis match a test of consistency and repetition would play right into his opponents' hands.  And since nobody on tour could match him for movement and improvisation, his game was a myriad of slices, drop volleys, heavy topspin and monstrous overheads.  Try as they may to disrupt him, his opponents were forced to play the game on his terms, and in this domain, his arsenal was superior to almost all others.

In 1985, Jimmy Connors came back to the DC National Bank Tennis Classic, and with his boorish, ball bashing branding of tennis, despite the clay surface, few players could contain the dynamism of his strokes.  No other player on tour could match his ability to almost arbitrarily inject pace into a rally.  While most had better volleys, some hit with more topspin, and almost all had a bigger serve, the boldness of Connors game belied his diminutive stature, which almost by optical illusion, disappeared the minute he started launching himself into his strokes. Inevitably most players would shrink at the prospect of resisting the weight of his pedigree, personality and (most of all) his strokes.

But when he played his semi-final against Yannick Noah, the first thing I noticed at the coin toss, was that Noah stood at least 6-8 inches taller than Jimmy Connors - it was a bit like realizing that Cassius Clay was much bigger and stronger than Sonny Liston as they took instructions from the referee for their title bout in Miami in 1964.  And as such, the power and penetration I normally expected with Connors, just melted away in a never ending deluge of slicing and dicing from the first point to the very last.  Noah would bomb a serve out wide, which Connors would stretch into the doubles alley and return with interest.  From there Noah approached, and a drop shot would ensue, and Jimbo would desperately make his way to the net for a meek reply, which Noah would calmly lob into the very corner from whence Connors had just come.  It was like a man toying with a boy, and Connors was none too pleased.

The match was exhilarating and tense, with one winner following another, and both players demonstrating the full arsenal of weapons at their disposal, but Noah never appeared to physically extend himself beyond what his body could potentially muster, whereas Connors leapt and stretched on nearly every shot.  I wondered how long he could go on doing it, but it wasn't until match point that he finally conceded - physically or otherwise.  The court appeared smaller than normal, with shots from Connors T-2000 screaming across the net, and replies from Noah's finding angles and locations I had never witnessed.  It was one of the best tennis matches I'd ever seen, full of drama and humor and desperately competitive men striving to force the other into submission - but only one could prevail, and that day belonged to Noah.  He won in three sets and proceeded to obliterate Martin Jaite in the final for the title.

But of all things Yannick Noah did on that court that blistering hot afternoon, it was his serve that was the pinnacle of his aesthetic appeal.  I remember noticing how easy and loose his hand held the racquet as his body formed the trophy position - I could literally see the lines on his fingers as they spread languidly at the top of the toss, then closed as the racquet disappeared into a blur of wood and fiberglass and he launched himself into the serve.  It was a picture in my mind that I took, and tried desperately to emulate on the court...but alas I am no Yannick Noah.

Years later, I was a ball boy at the then Sovran Bank Tennis Classic, and Noah had come to play doubles primarily, but I didn't care - I just wanted to see him play, so I snuck over to the last practice court near the main entrance and watched him float through a practice session like he didn't have a care in the world.  He had grown his dreadlocks out again (in 1985 he sported a very African tight 'fro) so the now familiar look had returned, but something about him was amiss.  He wasn't disinterested, but he wasn't fully committed, and while he had that same easy gait about him, as he strode across the court, the snap of the wrist, the leaping backhand, were gone.  A childhood hero is a childhood hero, and being six-inches from him was like being close enough to reach out and touch the sun, but I must admit, I was less impressed than I expected to be.  And as his practice session came to an end, just as I thought I would go home with nothing particularly interesting to tell my parents, he did something that I'll never forget.

He took a tennis ball out from under the net, rolled it with the sole of his foot up to the bridge it, and began juggling it (in the soccer sense) on that foot, repeatedly.  The ball, rotating furiously backwards appeared to be tied to a rubber band, the way it willfully returned to the exact same spot in the middle of his laces, over and over again, and by the time I stopped counting he had done it at least 30 times - then he switched feet, and did the same with his left, all the while skipping around the service court until he'd done it another 20 times, and just when I thought he was finished, he propped the ball up to his thighs, alternating them, cradling it just adjacent to his stomach, then further out in front of him as though he wanted everyone to see the ball from all angles, then up to his head, like a seal, bouncing it on his forehead, until it came back down to the first foot that started the whole this circus act.

I was floored - I mean, it wasn't enough that he looked so comfortable on the court that a practice looked like a stroll in the garden - he just had to let us know that he could have been a professional in another sport altogether too.  I went home and told my family about it until they begged me to stop talking.

He didn't play the Citi Open very often, but each time he did, he had a lasting impact on this young tennis player in a way that has left an impression on me to this day.  I hadn't really known how athletic and majestic a tennis player could look until I saw Yannick Noah play at the William H. Fitzgerald tennis center in 1985, and again in 1989.  It informs my current appreciation for the jocks that now play the modern game.

For that, I say, once again - thank you Citi Open.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


This is a piece I did on Barry MacKay, back in July of 2012, upon learning of his passing.  I repost it here as part of my series "Thank You Citi Open" where I recount tales of the personal history I have with one of the premier events on the ATP Tour.

Recently the tennis world lost one of the good guys - I'm sure there's some fellow out there that might have a bad thing to say about Barry Mackay, but I'm just as certain that he has long since forgiven him, such was the kindness and generosity that became as much his hallmark as that endearingly long face, booming voice, and broad shoulders that stood tall for years at tennis courts around the world.  

I won't belabor a semi-official biography about him - you can get that from Wikipedia or the various halls of fame where he has been, and will almost certainly be, inducted, after a long career that included an NCAA singles championship in 1957 (along with the one and only team championship that same year for the University of Michigan), a Davis Cup title for the United States in 1958, defeating the seemingly indomitable Australians in the the final, and a long career as an amateur, then as a ronin touring professional for Jack Kramer, then fully into the daylight of open tennis (although by then his best years were long behind him).

To be honest, I think what made Barry Mackay a really special person was the kind of thing that he did when I had the pleasure of meeting him in 1990 at what was then called the Sovran Bank Tennis Classic (previously the DC National Bank Tennis Classic, later the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and what will be for the first time this year called the Citi Open).  I was a ball boy for the first time, and I had been wanting to be a ball boy ever since I first came to the tournament with my family in 1981, but circumstances had conspired to prevent it for 9 long years.  

When I finally did my first match, it was in the qualifying tournament, and I remember seeing Barry around the courts from time to time, saying hello to volunteers, shaking hands, and generally treating everyone like he had all the time in the world, even though he really didn't.  I had listened to his commentary on television over the years, and he seemed like a nice guy, but I never bothered to introduce myself, even though he seemed to know some of the other ball kids.

One night, I was scheduled to work a doubles match that was supposed to start at about 11:00pm.  All the match crew were tired after starting the day at 11:00am, and back then they didn't bother to feed us - for that we were on our own.  Our only respite from the hot sun and tiring work was water, occasionally Gatorade if the players happened not the use up their allotment for a practice, and a tent near what is now the hospitality and concession area today, that stunk so horribly from ever present puddles of standing water that you could probably stand-on with all of the gunk it had in it.

But we couldn't have cared less - we were so excited to be going onto the stadium court that we could hardly contain ourselves, because it was the first night session of the tournament and none other than my childhood idol Yannick Noah was entered in the doubles.  By then Noah was at the end of the best part of his career and the next year he would lead France to it's first Davis Cup title for 50 years, over a United States team that included Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the doubles tandem of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso.  But Noah was still fit as a fiddle and could do amazing things on a tennis court - especially in doubles.  As we waited for the players to arrive at the tunnel, staring out at the entrance like those kids at the end of the second Indiana Jones film, I heard that familiar booming voice over my shoulder.

Barry: "Hey kids!  How's it going!"
Us: "Good!"

Barry: "Boy, this outta be a good one yeah? Yannick Noah - any of you ever seem him play before?"
Us: "No!"

Barry: "Oh, you're gonna enjoy it - he's a lot of fun. But hey, don't let him pull the ol' hot ball trick with you - you keep an eye out for that one!"
Us: silence and blank stares

Barry: "You don't know about the hot ball?"
Us: quizzical looks and more blank stares

Barry: "You ever notice how when a player's about to serve with new balls he always shows it to his opponent?  Well that's to keep from givin' em the ol' hot ball.  What you do is when you get a new can of balls opened up, you take one of 'em and push it way down deep in your pocket, and always keep another ball on top of it. Then when you're up against a break point or you've got a set point, you pull that bad boy out and 'BOOM'!
Us: uproarious laughter

Barry: "Okay kids - have fun out there!"
Us: "Thank you!"

I couldn't believe it!  It was hilarious, but could it be true?  Was he just telling us a story, or did he really do it?  Who knows...and who cares.  If he wanted us to not be nervous and enjoy ourselves, he really sent us on our way.  And I have to say that even though I was so tired I could have curled up and gone to sleep right behind the umpire's chair, I don't believe I've ever had so much fun on a tennis court before or after that wonderful moment. 

And to me, that's what made Barry MacKay so special, and why I'm so sorry to have heard of his passing.  Because there are a lot of people in tennis pretending to be nice guys - there's always a camera around when they're signing autographs or attending a charity, and it's all well and good if it helps their image. 

But how many of those guys do you think would bother telling a great story like that to a ball kids crew at 11:00pm on a Monday night in Washington, DC - 3,000 miles from his own home in California and what may as well have been a million miles away from a camera?  All that just to make us feel good before we went on court.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Everything about it was blistering hot - the seats, the air, the sidewalk, the parking lot - the kind of heat that makes you want to hide somewhere dark, the kind of heat that makes you feel that one more second of sunlight is going to put you over the edge of your sanity.  It affected everything we did - where we parked, the matches we chose to watch, where we sat in the stadium,  and how long we waited for autographs afterwards.  I had trouble keeping hold of my father's hand as we walked through the complex because the sweat dripping for his hand, mixed with mine, made it more like holding onto a newly caught fish.  And there were so many people walking around here and there, that I worried I would let go of the grip and get lost.

He never did let go, though.

I remember the stench of stagnant, standing water everywhere - it's been long since resolved, but back in the day, it just wasn't well irrigated, and after frequent DC midsummer deluges, the combination of heat and trash and ever-present insects, made it oppressive.  It was so pungent, I swear, I could taste it.  And as we walked towards the stadium for the first match of the DC National Bank Tennis Classic in 1984, my first time at the tournament, and in the stadium, my thoughts were invaded repeatedly by the fear of taking one wrong step and placing some part, god forbid any part, of my body in that repulsive stagnant water that had accumulated near the concession stands, under the admin tents, and even at the entrance to the stadium seating.

But the minute we entered that makeshift colosseum, the sensory overload of seeing Guillermo Vilas, languidly stroking backhands from 12 feet behind the baseline in the warm up, left no room for the potential revulsion that had consumed my mind 10 minutes earlier.  Already drenched in a full sweat, with his barrel chest protruding ominously through the fibers of an almost effeminate Carolina blue and white striped Ellesse shirt, and his feet twitching endlessly as the sound of the har-tru crumbling under the weight of his mammoth legs and tiny feet, the sight of Guillermo Vilas on a tennis court, was enough to make a 10 year old boy feel like he'd seen the other side of the galaxy.

He didn't so much hit the ball as bully it - an abusive muscling of it hither and fro, the racquet disappearing in a blur of wood, fiberglass, strings and grit.  And although I had played tennis already for 6 years, and had seen it on television for four, I didn't truly comprehend the full extent of the human capacity to manipulate something, anything, in such a violently balletic way, until I saw him run around a backhand return to hit inside out to the opposite corner of the court.  

Sending his opponent, one Jimmy Brown, scrambling comically to his right to retrieve his opening salvo of the point, the racquet head disappearing behind his head in my first live sighting of a reverse forehand, Vilas made a kind of music with the slide, the grunt and the melodic pinging of the ball against his strings, that belied the overbearing nature of his strokes.  By the end of the point, Vilas was at the net hitting a drop volley, and Brown was lampooning some cartoon characters whose slipping feet take all the power out of their desperate lunge forward, only to remain in the same place and watch the ball bounce two, then three, then four times before it was retrieved by a ball boy.

How I wanted to be that ball boy!  How I longed to be on that court!  

I had read about Vilas, even seen him lose to Ivan Lendl in the semi-final of he US Open the year before, but here in person, he seemed enormous, nothing more so than the bulging meat hook masquerading as a left forearm, that I imagined being strong enough to lift me in one fit of dismissive brute force.  His sultry black locks  bounced perpetually off his shoulders, with each shuffle to the left, and shuffle to the right, then up above the back of his head as his body contorted mercilessly to apply the finishing touch on another forehand, this one hit inside-in, up the line, for another winner.  There wasn't a moment of hesitation in him, nor a hint of expression on his face, such was his concentration on the minutiae of hitting a tennis ball, and this too was a revelation.  Because it never dawned on me, until that moment, watching Guillermo Vilas pummel some poor American kid from Florida, into a dusty green oblivion, that a tennis ball could be hit with such apparent abandon, but actual precision.

And as he galloped timidly towards the net at the conclusion of this match, despite evidence to the contrary (the heavy breathing, the sweat and the strings of his racquet askew in every direction) Guillermo Vilas looked more like he had finished a practice session than a three-set victory over a woefully overmatched, but resolutely committed opponent, that poor Jimmy Brown from Florida.  He looked like he could have played three more sets, like he wanted to play three more sets, and in that moment, my understanding of just how incredible these athletes really are, exploded like a little big bang in my mind, that continues to expand and expand to this very day.

And then I felt that damn heat again.

There are moments in my personal history with tennis that are etched indelibly in my mind - moments that if I close my eyes, and lose myself in thought, are as rich and vibrant today as they were some 31 years ago.  For one of those moments, watching Guillermo Vilas play a tennis match on clay, and the inspiration that it continues to provide me to this day, I owe a debt gratitude not easily repaid, to this marvelous tournament - I'm damn well going to try.

Thank you Citi Open.

I've just received word that I have been approved for press credentials at the Citi Open in Washington, DC, from August 1-9.  And during the tournament I'll be posting my impressions, and interviews, and images from the William H. Fitzgerald Tennis Center at 16th & Kennedy.  So be sure to check in daily to The Tennis Column for updates.

Monday, July 13, 2015


So, what did we learn from the final this year?  Not much, to be honest.  Actually, the result this year, is really the result we should have had last year, where Federer was down a break and (miraculously) found a way to tie the match at two sets a piece.  But this year there was no respite from either Djokovic's improved serve and his ever-present return, which neutralized his opponent's greatest strength yet again.  There's been a little talk this year in the blogosphere about what is the key to success on grass, and I've always been of the opinion that the return is far more important.

If you needed any more evidence of that, just take a look at the way Djokovic broke the serve of Federer as frequently as he needed to, and how much trouble Federer had doing the same.  Both of them have been strong in the serve throughout the tournament, Federer even longer, losing one service game out of the previous 96, before the final, and then proceeded to be broken 4 times today.  So while it may seem that the serve is the key success factor, it was clear that with all of the failed break point opportunities on one side, and the successful ones on the other, and who wound up winning the title, it's clear that the key was the return.

The interesting thing is that while Federer appears to continue to be the best player in the world on grass (with one glaring exception) it is Djokovic's viability that I begin to question - after all, how long can he expect to remain as nimble and pliable as he is now?  How long can we expect lightning quick responses with impeccable hand-eye coordination, the stretching out of points over and over again, and the impenetrable wall of defense that he's putting up these days?  With the exception of his outlier Wimbledon title in 2012, Federer hasn't really won a major for 5 years, and before that he held three at a time and had made the last 7 major finals in a row - that was after making 10 finals in a row before that.  Nadal was at the peak of his powers in 2010 and again in 2013, after taking 6 months off - since then, he's won a single major and hasn't made it past the quarterfinal round in his last 3.

So we come to Djokovic, and he appears to be at the peak of his powers, having made 14 major finals in the last 5 years, winning 8 of them, it would appear he is well on his way to the end of the rainbow, but it remains to be seen if there is a pot of gold, or leprechaun waiting for him.  The end comes quickly, for those who choose it, and those who do not, and it's hard to imagine him doing much better than he's doing now, but not hard to imagine him doing much, much worse.

On the women's side, Wimbledon has confirmed the one thing that we've all known - Serena Williams is far and away, the best player in the world, and it remains to be seen if she will anoint herself the greatest player in the history of the game.  But there is something that hasn't been brought to light, out of either deference or political correctness, that bears discussion:  is the state of the women's game the equal of the men's game?  And if not, does the palpable absence of reverence for her accomplishments result from one of the "isms" she is wont to claim, or simply an acknowledgement of the paucity of quality that surrounds her?

Gone are the great competitors, with games that had the capacity to challenge her on a regular basis (including her sister's) and left behind is a litany of weak clones with all the aesthetic appeal of her game, and absolutely none of her capacity.  I don't usually subscribe to the weak era argument, but watching one paltry substitute after another play exactly the same way, only much much worse, for the last 3 years, has begun to make me wonder.  In a quote often ascribed to Albert Einstein that, "...madness is defined as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result."  If so, women's professional tennis is a mad, mad world, indeed.

But on the men's side, the result of the final, was exactly what we should have expected from last year - with only the first and second set results reversed.  According to Chris Evert, Federer did what he did last year with a bad back, and as such, with his ruthless dismissal of Andy Murray, there was an expectation that he would be able to get a different result this year.  But as it turned out, the one who played better than last year was Djokovic, and the result was equally more in line with where they are in their match up.

Federer still depends heavily on the quality of his serve, and although it had been firing on all cylinders for the past 12 matches, in this one, the quality of Djokovic's return forced him just beyond his comfort zone, and whereas he was broken just once in 12 matches, he was broken 4 times in this one.  One can question whether it was the chicken or the egg (did his serve falter or was it caused to falter by the quality of the return), but these are largely academic questions.  As it stands, without his serve affording him 1-2 free points per game, the remainder of his arsenal is insufficient to trouble the best player in the world on his worst surface, where he now has 3 Wimbledon titles to his name, and has never lost a final.

This tournament had the potential to mean a lot of things to a lot of people - Nishikori petered out early with an injury, Dimitrov lost to an inspired Gasquet (with the loss looking better and better as he progressed through the draw), Raonic looked right at home on what should the best surface for his serve, and then promptly lost to the first person who could return it with any level of consistency.  Gasquet looked like he would finally fulfill the potential of his talents, lauded on the covers of French magazines since he was 9 years old, but he too ran into the juggernaut that his Djokovic and was largely ineffective.  His last victim, Stan Wawrinka, was on the verge of entering the pantheon of great players in world tennis, but he, perhaps prophetically, confirmed before the fact, that he is not at the level of those that precede him in prestige and success.

Murray was playing some of the best tennis of his career at Queens and then at Wimbledon, but even the totality of British support for him couldn't overturn the advantage that Federer has over him when it counts.  It wasn't to be for him, nor his conqueror.  And finally, Nick Kyrigos impressed us with the breadth of his personality, and the shallowness of his game, but in the end, he failed to leave much more of an impression than that of a petulant manchild with more bark than bite.  Only time will tell if he can become something more than an Australian Monfils, and finally deliver to that country the major champion it so desperately seeks.

Tangentially, the one area that did surprise me was the extent to which ESPN took advantage of the considerable knowledge and analytical skills of Jason Goodall, who along with Robbie Koenig, is part of the internet's most insightful analyst team in the game, and has been for the last 10 years.  But with the advent of hawkeye technology and statistics, to supplement his propensity to analyze the only thing that matters in tennis - the technical - Goodall put to shame the perfunctory pseudo-psychological drivel that normally passes for analysis in the studio.  All the talk about pressure and confidence and belief sounds more like the expression of their own perceptions of what they felt as players, but brings us no closer to the answers to the question that we all (should) want to know:  how the hell do they do it?  It could be that Goodall's long overdue inclusion at the table, and his clear prowess at it, was the only surprise this year.

So in the end, the Championships at Wimbledon 2015 had the potential to make an impression on the tennis world, but once again failed to do so, and as such we learned little from this tournament that we didn't already know.  Will the US Open do the same?

I have a feeling that just like the last 5 years of that tournament, the last major of the year will turn out the last surprise of the year as well - because this one sure didn't.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


That's four years in a row now - four years in a row that Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, has lost to players that he has no business losing to at Wimbledon.  For a man who made 5 finals in a row (with a one year hiatus when he skipped the tournament in 2009) to go from a man to be dealt with to this is as surprising as his demise, at this venue anyway, was precipitous.  And ironically, while the agents of his struggles on this surface, one that is in many ways well suited to his particular set of skills, have changed, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The outlier in this 4-year nightmare, was actually the first in 2012, when he lost to an unknown and unremarkable Belgian Steve Darcis.  A player with almost no record of success to speak of (other than his generous ranking of 100+), and absolutely no grass court record, didn't win the match so much by his prowess, as his persistence.  Rafa didn't appear to be at his best from the first ball tossed to the last, and afterwards the oddity of his opponents qualities along with the ever present undertone of some mysterious injury to which the result was supposedly indebted, most of us chalked this up to the exquisite unpredictability of sports.

But 2013 began an unnerving trend, that has persisted to this year, and without evidence to the contrary, one must finally now begin to wonder if this is the new norm.  Lukas Rosol readily filled the role of villain in 2013.  He supposedly distracted Rafa with an elaborate return routine, rivaled only in complexity by Rafa's well known intricate serve routine - an irony not lost on those who are fed up with both types of indulgences.  He didn't back down emotionally, nor did he play the supplicant, deigning to insist on the right of way at the change over, to which Rafa responded with an Irina Spirlea-styled shoulder to the chest.  These little trinkets did nothing to endear himself to the legion of Rafanatics who viewed those indignities as a lack of respect owed to the object of their collective affection.

But what really got their goat, what really stuck in their craw, what really pissed them the hell off that day, was that Lukas Rosol played his socks off - way above his pay grade.  Not for three flash-in-the-pan sets, which could be dismissed as a moment of perfect lunacy major upsets are typically perceived to be, but for five blood thirsty, sledgehammer wielding, ball busting sets.  He never backed down, he never blinked, and he never took his foot off the pedal - for those trespasses he was despised.  But at the end of the match, even having added to the litany of complaints against him by, at once, dismissively and exuberantly chucking his racket through the net and onto the other side of the court in celebration, nobody who'd actually watched the match could contend that he hadn't merited the result.  There were no strange bounces, sleeping line judges or shouts from the peanut gallery that could be cited as explanation.

The brave bull had simply been slaughtered.

Revenge was sweet in 2014 when, despite further acts of benign petulance like knocking over Nadal's  carefully stationed water bottles at the changeover, the result we'd all expected the year before came to fruition, and Nadal was through to face another who would gape to have his taste of glory.  But nobody bothered to tell Nick Kyrgios that his role as understudy was non-negotiable, and so he didn't negotiate.  He took what was rightfully his by playing the exact brand of ball-bashing, first strike heaving, savage attack tennis that had unnerved the great champion the year before, but that he had appeared to have rectified a round earlier.

The bigger the moment, the bigger Kyrgios hit the ball.  The more Nadal dug in, the deeper into a technical hole he seemed to fall, where nothing he did reduced his deficit, and nothing he thought of made a difference.  Everything Rosol had done, Kyrgios did better, and while it appeared Rosol had reached the zenith of his career, and thus the result could again be dismissed as an outlier in the sample, the same could not be said of the young Australian buck.  Here, the rumblings of something afoot became more than the low guttural murmur of Rafanatic hearts fluttering at the unbearable scene playing itself all over again.  But as Kyrgios continued to amass results against top players the rest of the year and earlier this year, some may have taken solace in the growing perception that Kyrgios is the second coming of an Australian messiah.

But how in the world can we explain Dustin Brown?

Yes, he had beaten Rafa the year before at Halle, but he was coming off of a three day separation from his 9th title at Roland Garros against the one man that most believed could and would usurp him  on that throne.  So one could be forgiven for chalking that result up to the cup having runneth over.  Yes, grass is by far, the best surface in an otherwise abjectly indistinct career of a journeyman whose talent has frequently appeared to be inversely proportional to his understanding of the game and/or his technique.  But nobody expected lightning to strike twice - not now when Nadal had a relative vacation as compared to years past, giving him plenty of time to recover, including a win in Stuttgart along the way for his first second title of the year and his first on grass for 5 years.

So how did he do it?  And what does this say about Nadal?

First how he did it:  technically Nadal is by far a more consistent player, with better margins for error, far superior fitness and infinitely greater stamina of concentration.  As such, the only way for Brown to overcome this, was to eliminate those advantages from the equation, and intentionally disrupt all of conditions which would normally be in his favor.

He served almost as hard on the second serve as the first, giving Nadal few legitimate looks at the serve in which he could impose his superior return game.  He blasted flat hard shots off both wings to the corners, preventing Nadal from taking control of the point or playing points at his preferred cadence.  He took away his movement, athleticism and concentration, by restricting points to less than 4 shots - win lose or draw - and as such was as likely to impose his will on the great champion, as the great champion could do the same to him.  If the flat hard shot didn't elicit a winner, a drop shot would follow, disrupting Nadal's comfort level in the point, as well as his preferred court positioning.  And rather than hitting volleys through the court, giving Nadal a chance to keep the point alive for one more shot, he decided to kill the ball and the point with angled and drop volleys.

The tactical approach was perfectly planned, and shockingly well executed, and as such it's hard to find fault in Nadal's game, but there was of course a great deal to find fault with, as is always the case on the losing end.

First, Nadal's serve earned him few free points, which is not a problem when you are a player who is better at earning points than anyone else in the world - perhaps in the history of the game.  But because Brown had on his mind to take away that distinct advantage, Nadal was left with a 50/50 chance of winning the point.  For every other player on tour, the 50/50 chance of winning the point is only sustainable if your serve is earning you free points elsewhere.  But Nadal has long since abandoned the technique that allowed him to essentially serve his way to the US Open title in 2010, a first for him.  The result; having to earn each point (as he normally does so well), but now within 3-4 shots, became a bridge too far.

Also, Nadal's return positioning was unchanged throughout the duration of that match - no adjustments were made throughout the match, and as a result his profligate returning cost him any chance of breaking Dustin Brown's serve when a break was so desperately needed to give him any chance of winning the match.  As I have said in a previous post, it is not the serve that is the critical success factor on grass, it is the return, and because Brown was able to put pressure on Nadal's serve with his returns, in a way that Nadal was not able to with his returns, the match was a fairly straightforward obliteration of the great champion.

And that's the part that becomes so disconcerting.  Despite legitimate caveats to the contrary, this is the fourth year running that he has lost early to a player he had no business losing to, and a such it felt oddly very routine.  And if you didn't know any better, you'd think that both he and his opponent had reached the conclusion early on in the match, that it wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary for him to lose, yet again, the way he has lost so frequently at this venue.  Although Dustin Brown's level was due for a drop, and despite his affable nature, he played the role of villain again, as did a long line of players had in the years preceding this result.

And as such, it has to be asked as far as Wimbledon is concerned:  is this exactly where Rafa Nadal is supposed to be?