Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Turning Points

Andy Murray doesn't care much for putting his opponents out of their misery. Instead he prefers giving them enough rope to hang themselves with - that way he can run circles around them and wait for them to do the job themselves.

It's been an effective style for Murray to date, albeit one that is under constant criticism from the talking heads of tennis. The 22-year-old Scot has ascended to a perch as high as No. 2 in the world (currently No. 3), but all the while he's had to listen to critics telling him he needed to be more aggressive.

Forget the rope, they've been telling him, and go with the guns blazing.

After last nights debasing defeat at the hands of Roger Federer, critics are clamoring again. Nobody in their right mind can fault someone for losing to Roger Federer, but they can and they will fault you for the way you approach the match strategically. And rightfully so.

Murray himself seemed to realize the error of his ways, as he talked about his second straight-set defeat in two tries in Grand-Slam finals against Federer. "The third set was a lot better," he said. "I think it (my strategy) was right for some parts of the match and wrong for others."

When asked what part of the match he'd do over if he could, he lamented some more. "I probably would have gone with a bigger forehand at 2-all in the first set when I had a break point. He mishit a forehand and I hit a high topspin forehand to his backhand and made a long rally after that. I probably would have gone back for a bigger forehand at that stage, but you know, it's a lot easier to say when you look back."

If, as we believe, admitting your faults is your first step towards recovery, then Murray will be that much better off if he finds himself in another Grand-Slam final. It may have taken him two disappointing finals to get the message but Murray clearly understands now that he needed to play bigger tennis to get results against Federer.

As Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal have proven in past Grand-Slam finals, the only possible way to get past Federer is put him under siege. As Patrick McEnroe so aptly put it, during ESPN's broadcast of the match, "he (Murray) is trying to out-Federer Federer from a strategic standpoint, and that's just not working."

But there was more to Murray's failure last night than just going for bigger shots.

What was missing, more than anything from Murray's game, was his ability to capitalize at crucial junctures of the match with his serve. After getting broken in his first service game of the match, Murray was never able to get his serving rhythm on track, and there isn't a more surefire recipe for big match disaster than that. While Federer was using his serve to get him out of trouble (a service winner on break point in the 5th game of the 1st set, and back-to-back aces to finish off that game) Murray finished the set at 45 percent, and won a dismal 4 out of 12 points on his second serve. When Murray served at 4-4, he again wilted and was broken easily, giving Federer a shot to serve out the set. Not surprisingly, he held easily.

In the third game of the 2nd set he was broken at love, and at that point Murray found the rope that he usually gives his opponents dangling around his own neck.

To his credit Murray pulled himself together in the 3rd set, playing decisively, hitting big, and serving boldly and with much better accuracy. But even with the 5 set points that all that hard work earned him, he couldn't make good on the biggest of points.

So the questions surrounding Murray's viability as a Grand-Slam contender aren't only about his passive nature - the bigger question might be about his ability to come through in the clutch.

He's obviously had success against Federer in the past, but it sure didn't look like it last night, when the stakes were considerably higher than they were in Indian Wells or Doha in 2009.

Many feel that if Murray committed to a more offensive strategy he would have had much more success last night. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how good your strategy is, you have to have the confidence to execute it. Federer, who for all intents and purposes played the perfect match last night, still faced many trying moments where he was forced into gut-check mode.

In other words, the Swiss maestro had to do more than simply choose the right strategy - he had to take care of business under pressure. After a letdown in the third set, he was faced with the real and existing possibility of handing over the momentum to Murray. He refused to let it happen and there is no other way to explain it. There is a different kind of talent that takes you through these rocky roads without losing a wheel, and that talent helped Federer fight off 5 set points and overcame the disappointment of failing on 2 match points of his own.

It is clear that Andy Murray has the physical and mental ability to make another run at a Grand-Slam title - maybe more - over the course of the next few seasons. He's a gifted athlete who has shown the capacity to make great strides in small periods of time. He's a master of court geometry and a fitness guru. He's got a serious chip on his shoulder and he's proven that he can be as good or better than anyone on any given Sunday.

But no matter what strategy Murray seeks to employ, he'll have to understand instinctively that a more valuable commodity than the tactics are the nerves of steel to flawlessly execute them.

He'll have to learn how to turn points into turning points, and whether he likes it or not, he'll have to do it with the weight of Great Britain's expectations sitting squarely on his shoulders.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Planet Serena Vs. Planet Henin

They are orbited by many aspiring champions, these two. But they are not equalled by many - maybe none - in their era. They are each giant entities unto themselves, relentlessly searching for and creating their own mythical tennis lore. They are each icons. Serena and Justine. One known for power and moxie, the other for finesse and intensity.

They are so different in so many ways, yet so alike in the one. Fittingly it is the one similar element in both of them - their desire for greatness - that draws them together. This desire puts them perpetually on a collision course. Each with a burning fire in their belly that drives them to this frantic and unyielding quest for glory. At first glance so different, they are elementally the same.

They are mercurial and they are cool calculators of the intangibles. They are hell-bent to win and shamelessly pursue the means to do so. They think like winners, therefore they are winners. They want never to lose, therefore they rarely do.

While the Azarenka's, Petrova's, and Kuznetsova's of the world - the orbiters of these two fiery planets, so to speak - are condemned to perpetual orbit, Serena Williams and Justine Henin are readying to meet in THE DREAM FINAL this evening at Rod Laver Arena. This one, my friends, will not be for the squeamish.

There are 18 Grand-Slam finals collectively between Serena Williams and Justine Henin, but today will mark the first time they have ever met in the final of a Slam.

Serena Williams- She of 11 Grand-Slam singles titles - stubbornly plowing through the doubles with her sister, wearing so much wrapping on her legs that she looks like a mummy.

Justine Henin - She of 7 Grand-Slams and 117 weeks at No. 1 - as intense as ever, but more immune to the pressure, thanks to all the soul-searching.

As tempting as it is to go back and analyse their 13 head-to-head meetings, it's really not necessary. It's plain to see that this final is about the here and now. In the future when we go back and delve into their storied pasts, today might very well be the day we point to and say "this is where it all turned for her."

Who will be her?

This one is in a class all by itself. It'll be their first Grand-Slam final and that fact immediately makes it their biggest match.

All these years it has been building to this sure-to-be knock-down drag-out climax. Two massive planets - each fixated on destruction of all threats to their own security - aiming straight towards one another. As good as each woman is at separating the winning and losing from their self image, whoever loses this one is going to feel some sting.

We didn't know it then, but ever since their first meeting, at the 2001 U.S. Open's 4th round, this is where this rivalry has been heading.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Calm Storm

There isn’t a more polarizing figure in tennis - maybe all of sports - than Serena Williams. Some people love to love Serena and some people love to hate her. Some love the way she plays but hate the way she acts. Others hate the way she behaves when she plays but love the way she makes no apologies for it (unless she absolutely has to - see 2009 U.S. Open). Some want her to keep winning so she can take her place among the Martina’s, Steffi’s, and Chrissie’s as one of the all-time greats of the Open Era, while others want her to fall flat on her face so she will be forever be known as someone who didn’t make the most of her enormous abilities.

For a brief period of time, yesterday’s match against Victoria Azarenka gave hope to the haters (You know who you are). Eventually, the match ended up providing us with more irrefutable proof that Serena does indeed belong on a pedestal with other former legends of the game.

But the day didn’t start gloriously for Serena. She was down a set and two breaks (4-0) and was getting absolutely hammered by the feisty Belarusian‘s penetrating ground strokes. Those who know Serena, know that she is capable of rescuing herself from the deepest depths of despair, but the hole that Azarenka was digging for Serena was starting to look more like a bottomless pit.

It’s over, we thought. Stick a fork in her, added the haters. She’s getting what she deserves, continued the haters, because of that outburst in New York last summer.

But it wasn’t over. In fact, it was just beginning - and, remarkable as it may seem, it started with the look on her face. It was that hell-hath-no-fury look that Serena sports when she really needs to get some business taken care of. It is a look that contains no consternation, fear, anxiety, or anger. No, those would be the looks of lesser women. Serena - no stranger to negative emotions on the court - instinctively knew that there was no place for panic when it came to the monumental task at hand. This look was different and we all saw it. It was a look of calm. Perhaps you could call it menacing calm - and it didn’t bode well for Azarenka.

It was a look of calm that brought to mind those Indians who walk through fire without ever exchanging the expression on their faces.

It was a look of calm that elicited imagery of stoics laying down on beds of nails and resting peacefully ’til morning.

At the drop of a hat Serena had transformed herself into a pillar of belief. She had become an immovable vessel of concentration that had anchored herself to her singular desire to win. After winning a few games it was apparent that nothing was going to stop her from winning this match.

It was a look that brought forth the fire in her belly, the quickness of her feet, the purpose of her serve - which had all been previously missing up until that point. It was a look that told her opponent that she would have to walk through that same fire if she really wanted to take the match.

All of us who have ever stepped onto a tennis court wish we could do what Serena did yesterday. How is it possible to play perfect tennis just because you’ve decided you want to? For most of us, recreational players and Grand-Slam winners alike, it isn’t.

But for Serena the link between desire and tennis is as pure a relationship as we have ever seen.

It starts with a look, and ends with a win.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Can Davydenko Continue Streaking?

A new and improved Nikolay Davydenko will attempt to end one streak by continuing another today.

Two remarkable streaks will collide on Rod Laver Arena today - and only one of them will survive.

Actually, it is more than one streak that Davydenko is looking to continue. First, he's beaten today's opponent - The Mighty Federer - twice consecutively. While a third consecutive victory might be asking a bit too much from the tennis gods, we should note that Nadal has defeated Federer 5 times consecutively (twice) and Murray has defeated Federer 4 times in a row as well. Therefore, as difficult as it is to imagine another Davydenko win (especially given that we are talking about best-of-five) over Federer, we are not talking about an impossibility here.

Stranger things have already happened: After 12 consecutive losses against Federer, some disruptive force seems to have overtaken Davydenko's brain - or at least the part of the brain that stored the memories of all those drubbings that he suffered at the hands of Federer - and suffused it with an extreme level of confidence.

Suddenly I-can't-win turned into I can't lose for the Russian. A quick look at Davydenko's other streak is proof of that. The smallest member of the top-10 has reeled off 7 straight wins against top-10 opponents - for a guy who currently boasts a 34-46 record against the top-10, this current streak is nothing short of a genuine miracle.

Just what the hell is going on with Davydenko? Has an alien slipped into his skin? Is his wife whipping up magical borscht in the kitchen? Has he made a deal with the devil? Enquiring minds would like to know.

The fact that Davydenko is a phenomenal mover who can exhange punches with the best of them has never been a secret - he's finished each of the last five seasons in the top-10 - but the roll that he currently finds himself on is borderline extra-terrestrial.

Speaking of extra-terrestrial, Roger Federer's streak of 22 consecutive Grand-Slam appearances will be put to the test yet again in this highly intriuging match up. While it seems pretty ho-hum to followers of the Swiss Maestro (we've all come to expect him to win at slams - at least until the final), no other earthling has come anywhere close to duplicating this feat.

Let me help you put Federer's remarkable achievement into perspective: Rafael Nadal's streak was stopped at 1 last night. Novak Djokovic is looking to increase his streak to 2 today. Andy Murray's streak is now at 1 - and he'll find himself only a mere 21 brilliant Slams away from Federer - if Davydenko can pull the miracle on Rod Laver today.

But would it really take a miracle for Davydenko to win today? If anything can derail the Federer Express, why shouldn't it be the Russian Railroad? Everything that Davydenko has done in the last two months gives us reason to believe that Davydenko is the only player with a potent enough force-field to rattle Federer's sabre.

But he has been so hot for so long. One has to wonder- will the magic potion wear off or will there be enough gas left in the Davydenko tank to put a giant exclamation point on his 2-month-long statement to the tennis world?

Whatever happens, Davydenko is not going to get caught up in fantasizing about it. When asked if he's ever dreamed that this might be the time for him, he cooly responded "No, no, no. I never dream. Maybe in the night, but not in the day."

Pick: Federer in 4

Other Picks: Serena Williams over Azarenka in 3. Li Na over Venus in 3. Djokovic over Tsonga in 5

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pegging The Needle

The 5th set of the Tsonga-Almagro tilt - won by Jo-Wilfried by the score of 9-7 - was some high quality theatre last night on the Hisense Arena court.

Forget about the specifics. Don’t worry about how many break points it was that Tsonga rescued, or how many winners Almagro crushed with zest off the forehand side. Just remember that in terms of wow factor, this might have been the most captivating bloodbath of the tournament to date.

The fiery Almagro was going about his business with a sense of purpose. He seemed to be mixing in anger and lust but he always tempered it with a sense of practicality that kept him inside the lines with near perfect consistency.

And Tsonga? Well, he was Tsonga and there is really no other way to put it.

Anyone who knows Tsonga knows that it can be utterly captivating to watch him when he on his game. When Tsonga plays a point to perfection it can be one of the most beautiful things in all of tennis. I won’t argue for him when it comes to his decision making, but I will argue with anyone who ever says that he has a poor volley. He plays volleys with astuteness. He’ll stretch out and snatch a 90 m-p-h laser and plop it 1’ on the other side of the net with almost no bounce.

The guy is, simply put, a phenom.

But as phenomenal as Tsonga was, he found himself in very dire straits against Almagro last night, even after holding a two set lead. After a rejected challenge while serving at a crucial juncture in the 4th set tiebreaker, Tsonga ended up double-faulting on the next serve, because he'd apparently forgotten that he was hitting a second serve.

It was a one of several wtf moments for a player who rivals his genius with his own lack of tennis intellect at many times.

Many times throughout the 5th set it was hard not to wonder: Is Tsonga so focused on looking like a bad-ass out there that he is actually hurting himself by having no regard for the fragile ledge that his control of the match was perched on?

But by the end of the 5th set all criticism of Tsonga’s air-headedness was forgotten. The frenchman had proceeded to deliver clutch shot after clutch shot - and in the process he had denied Almagro the victory he deserved with equal parts fearless bravado and remarkable pinpoint accuracy.

I’ll not deny that there were plenty of errors in this match - it wasn’t perfect by any means. But in terms of the ratio of high-quality points to duds, this was a riveting affair that featured some truly inspired shotmaking from both players.

The two adversaries seemed intimately involved in a work of art at times, and hopelessly shipwrecked on their own personal islands of contempt for one another at others. The emotional dynamic of this match, and the heated hue of competition that colored betwen its lines was thick, gooey, and bloodred.

In the end, Tsonga prevailed, but this was a match where both players sank their teeth in, drinking the blood of the moment and showing us the grittiness of the game.

Women's Quarters Quick PIcks: Quarter Of Death To Be Decided Today


The Quarter of Death has been just that for the likes of Kim Clijsters, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Yanina Wickmayer, Flavia Pennetta, Elena Dementieva, and many many more.

But only one woman can survive. It's either Justine 'winning-Grand-Slam-matches–is-just-like-riding-a-bike' Henin or Nadia 'remember-me-I-used-to-be-in-the-top-10' Petrova in the semifinals.

I'm sure you all had that one predicted.
Henin-Petrova, 11:00, Rod Laver Arena

While it isn't the Clijsters-Henin dream match that many had hoped for, Henin-Petrova has some allure of its own. Over the first 4 Rounds Nadia Petrova has played some of the most decisive tennis of her career - in this her 8th career Grand-Slam quarterfinal Petrova has seemed charmed at times but - more importantly - dominant at others. No matter what adjectives you pick to describe the 27-year-old- Russian, there is a noun that can more aptly describe her tournament thus far - she has been a juggernaut.

Meanwhile Henin has been nothing less than spectacular in her own right. She had a rough spell against Alisa Kleybanova in the 3rd round, but it was to be expected, given that she was met with much resistance from Elena Dementieva in the 2nd round. In the end, Henin has passed all tests with flying colors, and while doing so she has introduced an element to the women's game that we haven't seen in quite some time - net play.

She has even played some serve-and–volley on crucial points, and the results of her forays to the net have been good: She's won at least 16 net points in all of her four matches, including 35 of 43 v. Dementieva.

Petrova has done it with her powerful ground strokes and a surprisingly efficient return game. The Russian has won 35 of 45 points against her opponents 2nd serve in the last two matches, and she has looked remarkably fit and inspired while doing so.

Henin has won 10 of 12 (including her fourth consecutive over Petrova win in Brisbane earlier this month) against the Russian over the course of her career - and that could be of great use to her psychologically.

Pick: Henin in 2

Zheng- Kirilenko, 2nd Match, Rod Laver Arena

When Maria Kirilenko and Jie Zheng do battle today, it will be the 1st Grand-Slam quarter final for the 23-year-old Kirilenko. Will the fact that she's had more swimsuit modeling appearances than Grand-Slam quarterfinals hurt Kirilenko? She has nothing to lose and that could be more to her advantage than to her detriment.

Across from her on Rod Laver will be the only Chinese woman to ever reach a Grand-Slam semifinal, Jie Zheng. The former Wimbledon semifinalist (2008) is also one half of the first Chinese duo to ever simultaneously reach the quarters of a Slam, along with Li Na. Apparently China plans to add top female tennis players to its list of viable export alternatives.

While it's a sensational achievement, Zheng has the better shot to advance advance Kirilenko than Na does against Venus on paper. Zheng, ranked 35 and unseeded in the draw, has to like the fact that she has won her last 3 matches against the 58th-ranked Russian, including 4 out 5 all-time.

But as Kirilenko proved in upsetting Maria Sharapova, she's not someone to be taken lightly.

Pick: Zheng in 3

Men's Quarterfinal Quick Picks: Muray-Nadal Set To Renew Hostilities

Tennis Obsessed,

Well, well, well. Here we are at day 8, and we've got 8 women and 8 men remaining. My, how the time flies.

Before we could even get used to the hustle and bustle of the early rounds, we look around the grounds and find that the men's and women 's singles has been replaced by juniors, doubles, and mixed doubles on the outer courts.

Suddenly our singles draws are all thinned out - so much in fact that it isn't even challenging to keep track off them any more. No longer do we have to write all itty bitty small on those tiny little brackets that we've printed out for ourselves. We know who plays, and we don't need six channels to watch them play - though it would be nice to keep track of the doubles and mixed doubles.

We are finally past the hors d'ouevres and into the main course of the tournament. It's on, people!

So without any further ado, here are my quarterfinal quick picks for the bottom half of the draws:
Men: Andy Roddick - Marin Cilic, 3rd match on Rod Laver Arena

Cilic came through with flying colors against del Potro - it was definitely the biggest and most impressive win of his career (though the win over Murray at the last U.S. Open has to rank as well). In getting past del Potro Cilic avenged two previous 4th-round losses to the Argentine, and also proved that he is worthy of mention as more than a "dark horse" these days.

He's a real and legitimate threat to win this title, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he was making his first-ever Barclays Global World Tour Finals appeareance come late November.

Roddick, meanwhile, has been benefiting from having a long off-season, and may not be suffering physically as much as Cilic, even though he was pushed by Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Gonzalez in the 3rd and 4th rounds.

I have a feeling that this will be an even match, with stretches of domination from each player. And I have a feeling that tiebreakers will again be very crucial.

Cilic has played two 5-setters in the last 3 matches, so get your popcorn ready - and expect the Nadal-Murray match to begin later than expected.

Pick: Roddick in 5

Nadal-Murray, 1st match, night session (19:30 start), Rod Laver Arena

Murray has beaten Nadal in 2 of their last 3 hard-court encounters (including the 2008 U.S. Open semifinal) so I don't recommend taking too much stock in the fact that Rafa is 7-2 v. Murray over the course of his illustrious career.

Nadal has won their only previous meeting in Melbourne (a 5-setter in 2007, 4th round).

Many have said that Murray has looked better than any other player at the 2010 Australian Open. Indeed, it is the first time he's ever made the quarterfinals of a Slam without losing a single set. But if you look at his 2009 results it is plain to see that he is a strong starter in all slams. The fact of the matter is that there will always be doubters who believe that his lack (or lack of desire to employ) an offensive arsenal will ultimately lead to his failure in the business end of a Slam.

Nadal, meanwhile, seems to be coming into high form. He really wasn't challenged much in his first three matches, but the fact that they each relatively easy on his body puts him in position to mount a titanic struggle against Murray - even if Murray plays his best tennis.

Without a title since May of last year, Nadal's voracious appetite for destruction could be even greater than it usually is - and because of that this match has the potential for being a classic in many ways.

Long, artfully constructed shots should be in the majority.

What is perhaps the most heavily anticipated men's quarterfinal seems destined not to disappoint.

Pick (gulp): Nadal in 4

Saturday, January 23, 2010

He Said She Said - Day 7

"I don't know...big country (laughing)." - Nadia Petrova, on why there are so many good Russian Female players on the Women's tour.

"I know that I can make a living, and a really, really nice living playing tennis. So I'm going to work hard, as hard as I possibly can. I'm not going to waste any opportunity." - John Isner, when asked about his confidence level now, compared to what it was when he had just entered the pro ranks in 2007.

"I didn't deserve to win." - Svetlana Kuznetsova, after a disappointing 3-set loss to Nadia Petrova on Hisense Arena today.

"I always get my coach to serve at me from the service line - even if he's acing you - just to get used to how the ball is bouncing high." - Andy Murray, on how he prepares for a big server like John Isner in practice.

"I'm sure sometimes I even surprised her, how well I was chasing the balls." - Nadia Petrova, on how she wasn't really worried about how long her 4th-round match with Svetlana Kuznetsova would go, because she feels that she is in better shape than she has been in the last few years.

"Every mistake with your one set." - Rafael Nadal, on how important it is to take care of your serve against Ivo Karlovic.

"No hesitation, no panic, no pause - just WHACK!" - Cliff Drysdale, on Juan Martin Del Potro after he unleashed a vicious forehand to save a break point in the 8th game of the 3rd set against Marin Cilic.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Isner’s Got Serve - But He’s Also Got Nerve

As the 2010 Australian Open heads toward week 2, everybody in Melbourne Park is finding out about John Isner’s serve. They can’t help it. They can hear the loud pop of his strings traveling like thunder across the grounds, even as they watch other matches on the side courts. But while Isner’s serve is a well-known phenomenon, not everybody understands just what kind of a pressure performer the North Carolina native is.

With two 4th-round appearances in his last two slams, people are getting the chance to take a good hard look at Isner’s game. Many are impressed by what they see.

Isner’s serve is a nightmare for opposing players to face. Not only does he fire aces practically at will on the first serve, but he also generates such kick on his second serve that his opponents are forced to either make contact above the shoulders - never an easy task, even for the pros - or to get aggressive and take it early. Frequently, as Isner’s percentage of service games won indicates, his opponents fail.

But the essence of Isner, believe it or not, is not his serve.

The 6’9” North Carolina native possesses the most coveted intangible in the tennis world: Nerve.
Some call it clutch, and some go one step further and say that clutch is everything in tennis.

Whatever you call it, Isner definitely has a lion’s share of it. Even when he was a rookie on the tour, Isner exhibited the rare ability to elevate his game in crucial moments of matches. In 2007, the 6’9” University of Georgia grad came out of nowhere in Washington D.C. to win five straight 3rd-set tiebreakers and make his first career ATP final. It was a remarkable stretch that saw Isner complete a run in the rankings from the mid 700’s to finally cracking the top-200 for the first and last time.

Since then he’s done everything to prove that his tiebreaker genius is anything but luck.

Later that summer, while still unsure if he had what it takes to make it on the ATP tour, he advanced to the 3rd-round of the U.S. Open to play Roger Federer. Guess who won the first set tiebreaker? In a year where Federer’s tiebreaker record was 15-1 at Slams, a kid with a 193 ATP-ranking dinged Roger with his only tiebreaker loss.

While his serve has made a huge contribution in racking up tiebreaker wins (he’s 3-0 in Melbourne so far, including 2 against Monfils yesterday), the nerve of Isner is the glue that makes him clutch.

After all, he doesn’t get to serve every point in the tiebreaker. When the pressure gets hot, Isner’s also very very good at cutting down on errors, attacking with his underrated forehand, and following approaches to the net in order to take away time and space from his opponent.

He’s so good at it that he has now won his last 8 Grand-Slam tiebreakers, including the biggest of his career, the 5th-set tiebreaker that sealed his upset win (one of Isner's 3 victories over top-10 opponents last year) against Andy Roddick at the 2009 U.S. Open.

It's uncanny, to say the least. Isner is just one of those rare tennis players who plays much better under extreme pressure. He was 6-1 in deciding set tiebreakers last year, and as the legend grows, the advantage that he will have over his opponents in these situations should only widen. Just ask Gael Monfils.

John Isner may be a work in progress in terms of developing a return game that would allow him to win more matches easily and thereby put less stretch on his gargantuan 245 lb. body. In the big picture that may allow him to become a fixture in the top-20.

He'll have plenty of time to work on his weaknesses, because he needs no practice when it comes to coming up big in the business part of sets.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do What The Sneaker Tells You To Do!

Should we still do what the sneaker tells us to do and believe in Melanie Oudin?

Melanie Oudin taught us a lot last summer in New York. She taught us that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that truly matters. She also taught us that if you can dream it, you can do it. Believe, the sneaker said, and boy did she do just that. In Oudin we had a fierce dog who wouldn’t back down from a challenger, but we also had a sweet innocent puppy who would lay down in our lap after biting an intruders ankle.

Unfortunately, Oudin’s surprise rise to the quarters of the U.S. Open at the age of 17 also taught us just how eager we are to identify a new definition of women’s tennis in America. It isn’t that the Williamses are boring to us - for it is widely known that they are anything but that - or that we aren’t both proud and lucky to call them our own here in the U.S. It’s just that being a one-trick pony can be a little stressful at times. What happens 2,3,5, or 10 years from now when the Williamses finally decide to stop saving American’s bacon as a Women’s Tennis nation?

In Oudin, for a brief 2 month period last summer, we thought we had our answer. Not only was the kid from Marietta, Georgia complementing her exceptional foot-speed and tenacity with a surprisingly potent forehand, but she also possessed those rare and desirable traits that have historically proven to be an integral part of the makeup of any true tennis champion: she was mentally tough and she didn’t just deal with the pressure - she embraced it.

True, she was young. So young, in fact, that we worried about what all the attention was going to do to her. Instantly famous, Oudin seemed both nonplussed and starstruck by her new status. I’m just me, she said. Why are so many people googling me, she wondered.

Since that inspiring U.S. Open there is cause for concern. The fact of the matter is that Oudin has had as many photo opportunities with Justin Timberlake as she has had wins - 1 of each.

Her last loss, a 1st round 3-set heartbreaker to Russian Alla Kudryavtseva, was a match that Oudin could have easily won in straight sets. Instead the poster child for belief became a picture of doubt as she failed to convert 4 match points in the 2nd set. After a comeback from 4-1 down in the third set, Oudin again slipped, failing to hold serve to stay alive in the match.

While it was a disappointing match for the girl who has simultaneously been on top of the world and had the weight of the world on her shoulders since September, her reaction to the defeat provided evidence of why we should still continue to believe in Melanie. Oudin didn’t whine about the loss, even as it tore her up inside. She hustled to the net and warmly congratulated her opponent for a good match.

It was a subtle exchange, but it spoke volumes about the character of Oudin. There was something in that handshake that reminded me of why she is so endearing as a competitor. She’s not one to run and hide behind excuses. And she’s not one to fail to acknowledge when she’s been beaten.

Ultimately, the ability to accept her imperfections will help Oudin as she navigates her way through the early years of her career - and through the early years of navigating America’s expectations for her.

In her post match press conference, Oudin reiterated the fact that she is still very much a work in progress. “I only did well in one tournament, and I’m still learning,” she said. “Everyone expects me to play like that all the time and I’m trying to get better.”

The press grilled her successfully after the following quote - “The good thing about today is that I’m not going to let that happen again. I’m not going to be up 6-2, 5-3, and think I have it.” - by asking her in a smug tone to tell them what precisely she could have done out there that would have made any difference.

When the 18-year-old Oudin couldn’t satisfy the press, I felt the desire to come to her aid. I felt bad for her because she can't be a kid anymore - we simply won't let her because it isn't feasible - she knows that as well as we do.

We live in a world where only dogs get to be kids, but that is a whole different story to tell at another time, my friends.

Anyway, I knew I couldn't really help her, and I'm sure she'll eventually come up with the words to help herself. But that fact didn't stop me from wanting to give her the following words to say to the press, just to make the uncomfortable environment in the room a little more uplifting: “True champions are able to identify certain situations and label them as pivotal during a match, and those certain champions bring their best tennis forward - every ounce of energy, confidence, cleverness, and ability - in these situations to ensure that they capitalize on those moments. It is a string of moments that makes a match momentous. And momentous matches are the kind of things that make a good career great. (insert long, emotional pause here - with feeling) I want to be one of those players that crosses the line of good and marches into the territory of great.”

Just because she didn’t say it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t in her heart. It is very early in Melanie’s career, and I do believe that she will emerge from her recent fall from grace as a better player.

The belief that she so proudly made her calling card has been tested - deep down I don’t think the fighter in Oudin would have wanted it any other way.

To Think or Not to Think?

To think or not to think? Federer and Henin do Both

Tennis is a visceral sport, and this is definitely one of the reasons that the sport is so spontaneous, so flowing, and so emotional. There isn’t enough time between strokes to really give a whole lot of deep thought to what is going on out there on a tennis court - players must engage, yes, but their actions must be a product of subconscious calculations rather than pen and pencil geometry.

I’ve always been aware (sometimes painfully) and intrigued by this fact. The fact that in tennis it is better to avoid thought while playing.

But is it really?

In the last two days, as I’ve watched Federer and Henin, two of the most serene and artful players in the world at the moment, I contemplated this issue further.

Can it really be possible that the best players in the world are not thinking at all on the tennis court - on purpose? And if this is the case, then how will they navigate the ever-changing set of circumstances that inevitably occur during each and every match? Don’t calculations and strategies need to be formed regarding sun, wind, the opponents best shots on that given day, the opponents weaknesses on that given day, etc…?

For instance, if Roger Federer wasn’t thinking out there on Rod Laver yesterday, how did he recognize that his unruly adversary, Igor Andreev, needed to be fed (nice play on words, eh?) a steady diet of ground-hugging slice to his backhand side - otherwise he would continue to be hurt by the Russian’s mammoth forehand?

The fact of the matter is that Roger was thinking out there. There has to be a certain degree of strategic decision making on the court, and this is where the best players separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

The best players know how to think and not think at the same time.

Take Justine Henin last night, as she played a crucial point late in the second set against Elena Dementieva. The Russian had seized the advantage in the point and worked her way into the net while Henin was on the defensive. As Dementieva punched a volley to Henin’s backhand (probably the wrong move) Henin had very little time to react to the shot. Instead of putting that classic follow-through on her backhand, Henin stopped her follow-through almost immediately after contact and punched a flat ball down the line for a winner.

This is a classic example of thinking and not thinking at the same time. Henin just instinctively knew that the full follow-through was either too difficult to execute or would have caused her to push the ball long. She also know that rushing her shot was more important than setting up and hitting it with more pace, because taking time away from Dementieva while she was at the net in an offensive position gave her the best chance for the point.

All this thinking was done in the split second that it took for the play to occur - and all of it was done instinctively, subconsciously, and most importantly, decisively.

All of the players on tour must think without thinking. It is the essence of the sport, and it is implicit in every shot.

While another player may have just teed off on the backhand and sailed it wide, Henin’s central processing unit allowed her to effectively make the decision and it also allowed her to keep the decision separate from her stroke production - that always needs to be thoughtless.

While another player may have successfully determined the proper strategy to employ against Andreev’s massive forehand, Federer’s central processing unit allowed him to do so without letting the decision weigh down his stroke production.

It isn’t easy to think without thinking, but the great ones, as always, find a way.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

He Said, She Said, Day 3

He Said, She Said - Day 3
- Notes and Quotes from Around the Grounds

“If there has been any erosion of her skills I haven’t seen it yet.”

Mary Carillo, on Justine Henin (After watching the Dementieva match, I will disagree with Mary on this one - It seems that Justine is having more serve-toss issues than I remember her having in the past. She had to catch her own toss at least 20 times last night, maybe more. Off the ground though, and tactically, Justine is as unbelievably good as ever.)
“The break-fest continues on Laver…”

Justin Gimelstob, while giving the score of the Justine Henin-Elena Dementieva match, as he was calling Blake-Del Potro on Hisense. The match featured 13 breaks of serve in 24 games, including the last four games of a pressure-filled 2nd set.
“As beautiful a stroke as her backhand is, the forehand is Henin’s biggest weapon.”

Mary Carillo, on Justine Henin, as she fought her way to a tense 7-5, 7-6 victory over the No. 5 seed, Elena Dementieva. (I’m not so sure I’d agree with this one, but I guess it’s okay to put the matter up for discussion - what do you guys think?)
“Those are the kinds of points that she needs to play when she’s ahead in the score.”

Corina Morariu, after Justine Henin played a splendid point while down set point in the 2nd set tiebreaker against Dementieva. Morariu pointed out that Henin wasn’t playing as decisively when she was ahead in the match, and that she would be doing herself a favor if she did so.
“He has not threatened that linesperson yet.”

Chris Fowler, after Juan Martin del Potro was called for his second foot fault of the match in the 8th game of the 2nd set of his match against James Blake.
“Blake, trying to improve upon a 4-12 5-set record…”

Justin Gimelstob, noting the stats as he called the riveting 5th set of the Blake-del Potro tilt. Credit Blake for a gutsy effort in defeat, but nonetheless his 5-set record drops to 4-13. But also not that at one point, he was 0-11 in 5-setters - so he has made some improvement in the area. (he’s also now 1-12 v. top-10 opponents in Slams).
“I think if Justine goes to an amusement park she’s intense, I mean, this is one of the most intense women I have ever known.”

Pam Shriver, on Justine Henin, as she played the first set of her match against Elena Dementieva.
“That’s a universal symbol right there!”

Justin Gimelstob, as Juan Martin del Potro flexed his muscles for the crowd after his epic 5-set victory over James Blake.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Andreev's A + Game Is Not Enough To Tame Federer

He's got a .500 record over the course of his career (7-7 in Australia, 5-5 at the U.S. Open) in the hard court Slams, but man did 26-year-old Igor Andreev look like anything but an average player yesterday in his first round match with Roger Federer.

Andreev, who took Roger to 5 thrilling sets at the U.S. Open in 2008, began the match as if he had some unfinished business with the reigning king of tennis. He was clearly in the mood for usurping.

Many a great tennis player has been beaten by Federer before the first balls have been struck, this is the psychological reality of preparing to play a man who is pretty much untouchable in Grand-Slams, let alone in the first round of one. But it was obvious that the slumping Russian bear was ready to wake up from a 5-month hibernation that started in N.Y. with an upset loss at the hands of American journeyman Jesse Witten in the 2009 U.S. Open.

Federer, to his credit, seemed to sense the mood of his attacker from the onset. From the first few games of the match it was clear that we were in for some of that eye-popping, jaw-dropping tennis that makes us proud to be tennis fans. Even the commentators, Patrick McEnroe, Darren Cahill, and Cliff Drysdale, sounded like the hairs on the back of their neck were standing up.

"This one does not have the feel of a first-round match," quipped McEnroe, as things started to heat up.

When you're number one in the world like Federer, you have to be ready for this sort of thing - players like Andreev have nothing to lose and everything to gain from beating you. Why not come out and swing for the fences? Against Federer it is an all or nothing proposition - either you bring your A + game, show your teeth, and try to do some damage to the Federer empire, or you take your place in the dog and pony show and try to humor the crowd without getting hurt.

Andreev chose to show his teeth. And he was hitting wildly, with no fear for the consequences.

It seemed that no matter what shots Federer played he couldn't keep Andreev from hitting massive forehands into both corners of the court. Even when Federer hit his backhand slice deep and almost to the sidelines on Andreev's backhand side, there was Andreev, backpeddling into the doubles alley and teeing off on the forehand - an in-your-wildest dreams forehand that kept Federer on the defensive for much of the match.

With things level in the 3rd set, Federer found himself in serious trouble - he was playing catch up for much of the set and he had to fight off 3 set points in the final game (after serving for the set with a 5-3 lead) before finally pulling out a tiebreaker.

Andreev, mired in a slump, had lost 8 of his previous 9 matches - but today he played some of the best tennis of his life. It was beautiful to watch, and it gave the fans something more than the usual Federer first-round walk in the park.

But as is so often the case with Federer's usurpers, Andreev couldn't pull the trigger when he had the Swiss Maestro in his sights. By the time the 4th set began, Andreev knew that he had blown his best chances. He fell with a resounding thud, unable to capture a game, his best tennis now evaporated into the Australian summer air.

While it will look like just another loss on paper for Andreev - his 9th in 10 matches - he should try to learn from it. He played with a sense of belief and freedom that would have made him a threat against any of the top players in tennis. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that if Andreev could play like he did yesterday on Rod Laver on a consistent basis, he'd be back in the top-20 in no time.

Andreev has the game to beat anybody out there, but unlike Federer, he doesn't have the other intangibles that facilitate wins.

The little things are so big in tennis. Belief and desire can fuel a career. A big forehand cannot.

He Said, She Said:
– What they are saying in the booth and around the grounds at the Australian Open:


Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, when asked who he'd like to play in the second round.

"Because he's not really offensive, so it's better because I don't have to really run when the player in front of me is not offensive."

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, when asked why he'd rather play Fognini.

"Look, if I buy everything to my wife, how can I invest money?"

Nikolay Davydenko, when asked what he did with his 1 Million prize money from the Barclays World Tour Finals.

“There just hasn’t been any hesitation whatsoever in her game.”

Mary Joe Fernandez on Justine Henin, as she calmly dispatched fellow Belgian Kirsten Flipkens in the first round.

“I think the second serve has been pretty weak for Nadal throughout the match.”

Patrick McEnroe on Nadal’s effort in the first two sets against Peter Luczak in round 1. (He changed his opinion on that as the match progressed)

“That is some serious pop.”

Brad Gilbert, on one of Rafael Nadal’s many well-hit two-handed backhand passing shots. (They talked a lot about how he hits flatter and maybe even harder from the backhand side, especially in this match).

“I don’t see anything stopping a Nadal-Murray quarterfinal.”

Brad Gilbert, on the chances of Nadal and Murray meeting. (Works for me)

“He took Anderson to the woodshed - that was a 6’8” guy that he just gave a beat-down to.”

Brad Gilbert on Murray’s first-round win against South African Kevin Anderson.

“I like it more than the pink he wore in Roland Garros.”

Chris Fowler, on Rafa’s latest attire, a mixture of plaid and stripes, during an animated discussion on the subject. Brad Gilbert mentioned that he didn’t think Rafa’s Australian Open digs were going to sell very well at “Brad Gilbert’s Tennis Nation” in San Rafael, Ca.

“The bigger the swing the more things that can go wrong with it.”

Martina Navratilova, on Carsten Ball’s big forehand windup, as he netted one against Fernando Verdasco. (Carsten Ball played very well in this match, and his serve is top-notch, but I think Martina is right – he needs to simplify his swing a bit. He’s big enough to generate power with less windup. If he does that he could be a top player because his serve is just plain nasty.

“Definitely no woman’s land there…”

Jeff Tarango, on Jelena Jankovic’s attempt to move into the net after a gorgeously constructed point against Monica Niculescu where she netted an easy volley. Jankovic made many strange looking volleys today, but still won easily,

“Andreev is at his best when he is running around his backhand and hitting that big forehand, and there are too many opportunities right now for him to do that.”

Brad Gilbert, on the state of the Federer-Andreev match when it was early in the 3rd set. If you didn’t get a chance to catch the third set of this match, you missed the best set of tennis thus far in Australia.

“Mirka can’t watch…this is painful for her.”

Patrick McEnroe, as Igor Andreev prepared to serve on set point in the third set.

“Toys-R-Us time now…”

Patrick McEnroe, as Roger Federer played yet another exquisite point against Igor Andreev in the 3rd game of the 4th set. It was one of those points where he lured Andreev in and then finished him off with a jumping backhand smash.

“I don’t know who he is but he’s obviously a good player.”

John Isner, on his 2nd round opponent from Ireland, qualifier Louk Sorensen. Isner is the No. 2-randed American as of the beginning this week.

“I prefer easier matches, but this works well.”

Roger Federer, when asked by Jim Courier if straight sets or being pushed is better for him during an on-court post-match interview. It was a pretty funny moment, as Courier kind of hammed it up and lightened the mood nicely.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

He Said, She Said, Day 1

Serena Williams, on whether or not her knee was bothering her in her loss to Elena Dementieva in the Sydney final.

"I definitely wasn't at my best."

Lleyton Hewitt, on his upcoming match with Brazilian Qualifier Ricardo Hocevar

"Qualifers are always tough. Over 5 sets though, I'm going to get a feel for him...they're always tough because they've come through qualies and they've done it the hard way and they've won matches...They're used to the conditions, they've got very little to lose when they're in the main draw. So you can't take them lightly."

Novak Djokovic, on the state of his game now compared to his 2008 title run

"Maybe I lost a little stability and confidence from the baseline, you know. I might not play as well as I did from 2008 from the baseline, but I still have a lot of belief that I have a great game."

Maria Sharapova, on the stellar women's draw in Melbourne

"I honestly hope that this will be one of the most exciting years in Women's Tennis. You know, you have the story lines of the comebacks. You have the depth of the top-10. There's many possibilities."

Nikolay Davydenko, on what finally beating Roger Federer has done for his psyche.

"I beat Federer there and my mind started to give me a chance. If I play against Federer, in my mind I don't lose the match beforehand now."

Day 1 Preview: Lights, Camera, Action!

Greetings Tennis Obsessed,

Well, it's that time of year again. I always equate the days before a Grand-Slam starts to the days before Xmas when I was a young child. Everything is similar: The anticipation, the anxiety, and the fact that you almost don't want it to start because that will mean that it's almost over...

But alas, here we are — less than 6 hours from tennis thunder down under - so, without any further ado, I'd like to preview some of the first day's match ups.

While many of us have been busy projecting semifinal participants, there is still lots of business to be taken care of between now and then, and as always, there are always be a few supposedly nondescript matches that will inevitably spontaneously combust into classics before our eyes.

Perhaps one of the following five could be that match?

1. Radek Stepanek (13) vs. Ivo Karlovic (court 6, 11:00)

If this match is one half as good as their Davis Cup World Group Semifinal match was in September, this might be the best match of the first round. In that match Karlovic served a record 78 aces, but was not able to keep Stepanek from beating him for the 3rd straight time, 16-14 in the 5th set.

2. Elena Dementieva (5) vs. Vera Dushevina (Margaret Court Arena, 3rd match)

Dementieva is 3-0 lifetime against Dushevina, but their last match went 3 sets. Dementieva, the Sydney champ, would like nothing better than an easy match — she'll need every ounce of energy for her projected 2nd round tilt with Justine Henin.

3. James Blake vs. Arnaud Clement (Court 6, not before 5 P.M.)

Blake is 7-0 vs. Clement, winning 14 of 16 sets, but Clement just went to the finals of Auckland, and he's a former Australian Open finalist. Something tells me this one is going 5 sets.

4. Justine Henin vs. Kirsten Flipkens (Hisense Arena, 4th match)

Justine has drawn a fellow Belgian in her First Grand-Slam match since retiring in 2008. After a run to the finals and a 3-set loss to Clijsters in Sydney, it appears that Henin is picking up pretty much where she left off. All that remains to be seen is how well she'll respond to the pressure of a Slam. Today should be a good first test.

5. Marin Cilic vs. Fabrice Santoro (Show Court 3, 3rd match)

High-flying 21-year-old Cilic will face the legendary Santoro as he extends his Grand-Slam playing career into its fourth decade. "The speed of the game has changed a lot and when I look at the matches I played 22 years ago and now, it's two different sports," said the 37-year-old Frenchman.

While Santoro is revered by all the players on tour, Cilic would like nothing more than to give the magician a taste of the essence of baseline behemoth tennis. More than likely, he will do just that, but this one will be entertaining regardless of the final outcome.

Click here for today's Order of Play:

Friday, January 15, 2010

2010 Australian Open Women's Preview: The Williamses, The Belgians, The Russians, and So Much More

A plethora of engaging story lines are keeping women's tennis fans in a state of utter bliss as the 2010 Australian Open nears its kick-off.

On paper, this year's event promises to be one of the most entertaining, chaotic, and competitive in recent history, as the recent un-retirements of a pair of Belgians, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, have added a fever-pitch to the excitement surrounding the field.

In addition to the long awaited Grand-Slam return of Justine Henin, the 2004 Champion and 2006 runner-up, there are two other former Australian Open Champions in the draw. Serena Williams is looking to snatch her 5th title (2003, '05, '07, '09) and Maria Sharapova (2008) is looking to prove that her comeback from shoulder surgery is complete.

In total, their are 7 former Grand-Slam title holders in the draw, in addition to a group of young players who are eager to make their presence felt.

Last year, we were one set from having an all-Russian semifinal (Safina, Dementieva, Zvonareva, and almost Kuznetsova), but this year's version promises to be more diverse. Surely, with all the hype surrounding the Belgians and the Williams sisters, a dark horse is bound to make some waves.

While the WTA always proves difficult to predict, one thing is a certainty - drama will reign supreme.

Here is a look at the draws:

Serena's quarter:

Serena has a thing for the odd years at Melbourne, as she has won the last four of them. But odd years won't be enough this time around for Serena. She will undoubtedly be on a mission to prove that while the Belgians may be back, she is still the real No. 1 in Women's Tennis.

Fortunately for Serena, she won't have to worry about Justine Henin in her half of the draw. Even so, she could face some challenges, with a possible 4th round match up with Sam Stosur or a young and powerful Sabine Lisicki (if seeds hold) and a possible quarterfinal bout with the ever-tenacious Victoria Azarenka.

Still, it's hard to imagine anybody but Serena emerging from this quarter of the draw, especially if she keeps her mind on her opponent and off the excitement surrounding the rest of the ladies.

Pick: Serena

Wozniacki's quarter:

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Great Dane Caroline Wozniacki was not in the top-10 and had never been past the 4th round of a slam. Since then she has appeared in a Grand-Slam final, the year-end Championships in Doha, and is currently ranked No. 4 in the world.

Still it's funny that we are not calling this Venus' quarter of the draw. That being said, if the seeds hold, we should be seeing a very enticing quarterfinal match between Wozniacki and Venus. If this happens, we won't have to wonder whose quarter it is anymore - we'll let them decide it on the court.

Other floaters in this quarter include the crafty Agnieska Radwanska, the slumping yet worthy-of-consideration Melanie Oudin, the able and consistent veteran Na Li, and the in-form Shahar Peer.

There could be some excitement in this quarter before it's all over.

Pick: Na Li

Safina's quarter:

Dinara has returned from the back injury that forced her out of the year-end Championships in Doha in body, but it isn't yet clear if she has returned in spirit. After a stressful year of dealing with the expectations that may or may not have been unfairly placed upon her shoulders by the media, her coach, and herself, Safina is ready to take another crack at a Grand-Slam.

Unfortunately for her, Maria Sharapova is sitting very close to her in the draw, and if Safina can avoid an upset in the first 3 rounds, the bar will be set much higher if she faces Sharapova in the 4th round. While Maria has yet to prove that she can serve to her potential after surgery, she has proved that she will fight anybody tooth and nail regardless. Even if she isn't getting free points from her serve, she's got the game to do serious damage in this part of the draw (which also included Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli).

A very enticing 3rd round match between Sharapova and Cibulkova (rematch of their French Open bloodbath) should occur, and if Maria can get over this hump, look for her to build on that momentum.

Pick: Sharapova

Kusnetsova's quarter:

This one is a doozy, and there's no other way to put it. If Svetlana can make her seed stand up in this quarter, she may just be headed for WTA player of the year accolades.

No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva (who just took out Serena in a one-sided Sydney final) is also in this quarter, along with Flavia Pennetta and Nadia Petrova. But that isn't the real kicker. It isn't even half of the real kicker. In a strange and unfortunate draw for Kuznetsova, she drew both Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin in her quarter.

This, my friends is the Grand-Slam quarter to end all Grand-Slam quarters.

If she can avoid the land mines in the early rounds (Rezai, Pavlyuchenkova) Kuznetsova will be headed for a 4th round match up with Kimpossible (she's 1-7 lifetime against the Belgian).

Meanwhile, in the other half of this uber-stacked quarter, a 2nd round tilt between Justine Henin and Dementieva looks to be a certainty. The winner will feel fortunate to survive, but other floaters like Sorana Cirstea, Alisa Kleybanova, Flavia Pennetta, and reinstated qualifier Yanina Wickmayer will be waiting for whomever does survive.

This will be enough to have fans of Women's Tennis biting at their cuticles into the wee hours of the night.

Pick (gulp): Henin

Semifinals: Serena over Li, Sharapova over Henin

Finals: Sharapova over Serena

2010 Australian Open Men's Preview: Federer Seeks His Fourth Title, But Many Are Poised to Challenge

Roger Federer will attempt to become only the second man in Open Era history to secure his fourth Australian Open title as play gets underway in Melbourne on Monday.

Federer, a titlist in 2004, 2006, and 2007, boasts a career record of 47-7 at the event, which puts him only one win behind Andre Agassi, who went 48-5 at the Australian Open, including a record four Open Era titles.

But the 28-year-old Swiss maestro will be forced to deal with many a challenger before he can claim his 23rd straight Grand-Slam semifinal appearance or his 16th Grand-Slam title.

Rafael Nadal, the defending champion in Melbourne, would like nothing better than to become the first man to repeat as the Australian Open titlist since Federer in 2007.

Additionally, many feel that the draw is as wide open as it has been for many years, with Federer at 28 and seemingly content, and Nadal having genuine difficulties returning to form after an injury-marred back half of 2009, the door appears open for a handful of top-15 players to make a move on the pack.

For the first time in many years, since Federer began his reign of terror over the ATP in 2003, it could be said that at least 5 or 6 players have a legitimate shot at taking the crown. Names like Del Potro, Davydenko, Djokovic, Roddick, and Murray are all being thrown around by pundits as possible usurpers to the throne.

There is no doubt that the ATP is drawing closer to its first real whiff of parity in over five years, but if Federer and Nadal have their way, the door will remain closed on the usurpers for a little while longer.

Here is a look at how the Men's draw shapes up:

Federer's quarter:

When the draw was released I was surprised to find that, yet again, Roger Federer has been dealt a favorable draw. With the shift in the rankings that took place last Monday, it was very possible that Federer could have had a Del Potro or Murray in his quarter, but as it turned out, his stiffest challenges should come from either Fernando Verdasco or Nikolay Davydenko.

Davydenko has been En Fuego over the last month, and he has remarkably reeled off 7 consecutive victories against top-10 opponents. On paper, Davydenko seems as dangerous as they come, and it's hard to argue with that assessment.

But the longer he's kept this remarkable streak of amazing play going the more likely it seems that he'll fall from grace just when we start to think he'll never lose again.

One player that he hasn't beaten in his streak is Fernando Verdasco. If the seeds hold, Davydenko would meet him in the 4th round - and that should be a real bloodbath. Though the Russian holds a 6-1 career advantage over Verdasco, nobody can forget the mind blowing tennis that Verdasco spewed forth last year in Australia.

Meanwhile, aside from a challenging first-rounder against Igor Andreev, who took Fed to five sets in the 2008 (and has won sets against him in each of the two matches they've played), and a possible 4th-rounder with Lleyton Hewitt, Marcos Baghdatis, or Gilles Simon, Federer shouldn't be tested too much until the quarterfinals - and I'm not sure he'll be tested in that round either. But, as any Australian Open historian will tell you - stranger things have happened.

Pick: Federer

Djokovic's quarter:

It seems that the feisty Serb, a champion here in 2008, has been more interested in discussing the length of the ATP's grueling schedule than preparing for the tournament. But don't let him fool you. After a drubbing at the Kooyong at the hands of Fernando Verdasco, Djokovic stated that he's "tired of all these matches."

While he may be tired, if the ATP's 2009 win-leader finds the spark that guided him to his maiden (and only) Grand-Slam title in 2008, he should have a good chance to get through his quarter of the draw - and who knows where from there?

But speed bumps and roadblocks will appear in the form of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (no stranger to getting hot in Melbourne), Robing Soderling (provided that his ailing elbow doesn't prevent him from going all-out), Tommy Haas (he of the resurrected career), Richard Gasquet (finding his form of late) and Mikhail Youzhny (finished 2009 on a strong note).

This quarter of the draw is Novak's for the taking, but the question will be, as it always is for the mercurial Djokovic, will he be in the mood to take it?

Pick: Djokovic

Del Potro's Quarter:

The newly anointed Grand-Slam champion and No. 4 player in the world has not returned to top form since his epic win over Federer at the U.S. Open final in September.

Never been a better time than right now, right?

While Delpotro has had issues with his wrist, his pullout of the Kooyong classic is rumored to be more of a precautionary measure than a real performance-threatening issue. If that is the case, than we can expect Del Potro to be his usual surly self when the ball drops in Melbourne.

And he will need to be. If the seeds hold, there will be a highly anticipated 4th round match with Marin Cilic. Cilic is considered by many to be very close to a breakthrough in a slam, and nothing would do more for the 21-year-old's confidence than an upset over Del Potro, whose victory over Cilic in the U.S. Open quarters sparked the Giant Argentine's first title run.

Meanwhile, lurking on the top half of this quarter is an in-form Andy Roddick. Roddick, a four time semifinalist in Melbourne, may be the only top-10 man who experienced a true off-season. The 27-year-old, who is already fitter than he's ever been, will no doubt be looking to exploit his fitness advantage over those players who aren't quite prepared for the insufferable Melbourne heat.

If he can avoid a major upset, he'll likely tango with Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the 4th round. This could be a battle royale, but if it becomes a battle of wills, expect Roddick to prevail.

Other players in this quarter of the draw who could makes some noise are, Stanislas Wawrinka (ever dangerous, albeit ever disappointing) James Blake (low expectations could free him up) and Viktor Troicki.

Pick: Roddick

Nadal's Quarter:

Some might say that Rafa has one of the more difficult quarters in the tournament, but when you take a close look at it, it's actually kind of favorable for him. Rafa's been struggling against tall and mighty hitters like Cilic and Del Potro, and neither of them are standing in his way at the moment.

A possible 3rd-round match with Philipp Kohlschreiber could prove challenging if the seeds hold, as could a 4th-match with Radek Stepanek. But Nadal, who seems to know and like the Plexicushion surface quite well, should be able to find his way through to the quarters, where he will likely have to deal with Mr. Andy Murray.

Rafa is 7-2 lifetime vs. Murray (including a five-set victory over him in Melbourne in '07), but if the two meet in the quarters, this would be one of the most highly anticipated matches of the tournament. Something tells me that it would be a classic.

Pick: Nadal

Semifinals: Roddick over Nadal, Djokovic over Federer

Finals: Roddick over Djokovic

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Australian Open 2010: The Contenders

"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever." - Napolean Bonaparte

While glory awaits the winners of the 2010 Australian Open, many hard fought battles will surely take place on the baby blue Plexicushion in Melbourne before we know who is truly bound for the promised land.

Nobody wants to die in obscurity, but when the curtains close on the 2010 Australian Open, there will only be one man and one woman who have avoided such a fate.

Who will emerge, and how will they manage to do it?

As the day of reckoning nears, there are only questions. Who has made the most of their off season? Who has learned from the mistakes they made last year? Who is ready for the war of attrition that is about to take place?

In a tournament that can sometimes become a battle of wills more than a battle of skills, we will soon find out who is prepared for the heat.

For now, let us look at the contenders for the crown:


1. Roger Federer - With a streak of 22 consecutive Grand-Slam semifinal appearances, there can be no doubt that Roger Federer knows how to prepare for the grind better than anyone else on the men's tour. But does he still possess that burning desire that brought him to the pinnacle of the sport yet again in 2009?

Chances: Pretty damn good

2. Rafael Nadal - Rafa is titleless since May of '09. Don't think for a second that that doesn't burn him up inside. But is his body ready for war?

Chances: It's possible

3. Novak Djokovic - Novak is a legitimate contender in any tournament that he enters. If he can find the chip that was on his shoulder in 2008, and put it back up there, he just might get it done. The Serb needs to quit being Mr. nice guy and start playing mean if he wants another Slam.

Chances: It's possible

4. Andy Roddick - The Australian Open is a brutal event. Roddick had the longest off-season of anyone else in the top-10. He's ready and he proved it with a statement-making win in Brisbane last week.

Chances: I can see it happening

5. Nikolay Davydenko - Has the tours hottest player been pressing his luck? As awesome as his play in London and Doha have been, it's going to be really hard for him to maintain that level - especially when he himself admits that he is a better player in 3-set matches.

Chances: Slim

6. Juan Martin Del Potro - The giant from Tandil would be well-served to keep his three-set drubbing at the hands of Roger Federer here in Melbourne last year in the front of his mind. He's been a gentle giant since his victory in New York, but if he gets that fire in his belly, watch out!

Chances: Definitely possible

7. Andy Murray - Maybe dropping to No. 5 in the rankings will incite a riot in Andy's mind. And maybe the Riot will remind him that you can't win a Slam by not losing.

Chances: It's possible

8. Marin Cilic - Last week the 21-year-old notched another title in Chennai. Cilic possesses one of the deadliest games on tour, but consistency has not been his calling card up until now. That being said, as he continues to improve with experience it is hard not to imagine him breaking through sometime soon.

Chances: Slim, but you never know

9. Robin Soderling: Soderling has been dealing with a nagging elbow injury since the U.S. Open series last summer. After a withdrawal at Kooyong today, he's going to undergo some treatment and hope for the best next week.

Chance: Very slim

10. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: He's poetry in motion when he's on. But can he stay switched on for 7 rounds?

Chances: Very slim

11. Fernando Verdasco: Some players, especially those that establish relationships with Gil Reyes, geat great results in Melbourne because they are in top shape while many others are just finding their form. Verdasco proved that he can use his fitness to his advantage last year, if he can do it again this year, he's a threat to do some major damage.

Chances: Very slim


1. Serena Williams: She's got an iron will and a ballistic serve. And when the serve fails her the will gets stronger. The four-time champion is hungry to prove that the Belgians don't have her number. If there is a question it will be her fitness.

Chances: Pretty damn good

2. Kim Clijsters: Kimpossible is playing with belief, joy, and attitude - it's a beautiful thing. With Jada as a good luck charm, she has yet to lose in a Slam.

Chances: Pretty damn good

3. Justine Henin: If you watched Justine play Kim in Brisbane you know that she's still got plenty of game, plenty of fight, and a relentless baseline tempo that will make even the strongest ladies want to throw in the towel. She's a bonafide contender for this title, end of story.

Chances: Pretty damn good

4. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Sveta plays free these days, preferring to let it all hang out rather than playing scared and hoping for her opponent to make errors. There are times when she can be her own worst enemy, but if she finds her groove, she can be absolutely lethal.

Chances: It's possible

5. Maria Sharapova: If Maria has managed to improve her serve in the off-season, then she will quickly find herself in the top-10 in 2010. Her return game is vicious, and the rust is gone from her 10-month layoff after shoulder surgery. She's only 22, and she's hell bent on getting back to the top.

Chances: It's possible

6. Venus Williams: Venus was hurting at the conclusion of 2009 - but she's had the off-season to retool and she's not done making statements yet. If she's serving well she'll be a nightmare for whomever she plays.

Chances: It's possible

7. Caroline Wozniacki: Caroline is deadly from both wings on the baseline and while her serve isn't world-class, at least she's not yippy.

Chances: Slim

8. Elena Dementieva: She is the WTA's fine wine - getting better with age - but will she ever reach her peak?

Chances: Slim, but you never know

9. Victoria Azarenka: In spite of having the best return game in women's tennis, her serve makes her extremely vulnerable. And that vulnerability causes her to become frustrated - that's when she loses matches that she clearly should be winning. Maybe this time the lightbulb will click.

Chances: Slim to very slim

10. Dinara Safina - Can she learn from Kuznetsova and just play a free and easy brand of tennis? Probably not, especially when Zelko is acting like he's embarrassed to know her in his box. I guess some things never change, but we can still dream, right?

Chances: Slim to none