Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Does Olympic Gold separate Agassi from the pack?

Winning a career Slam? Check. Leading your home country to a Davis Cup title? Been there. Emerging as the best of the best at the ATP World Tour Finals? Done that.

Getting that Olympic Gold medal draped around your neck for a singles victory?

Well... that's where Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer—two of the greatest players of all time—fall short.

In fact, the only male player ever who can check off "all of the above" is none other than Andre Agassi. 

In the era of the "Big 4" and records falling by the wayside, Agassi's solo accomplishment becomes even more impressive. Prior to this year's Summer Games in Brazil, which he had to miss due to injury, Federer was the prohibitive favorite for singles Gold in each of the Olympics he participated in. And based on all he's accomplished in the past couple of years—including completing his own career Slam at this year's French Open—Djokovic was tabbed by many to win in 2016. Instead, he fell to his 2012 conqueror, Juan Martin del Potro, in the first round.

So another Olympics will go by with Agassi as the lone male in history to have pulled off one of the game's rarest feats. (He does have company at home, though, as his wife Steffi Graf has also won all of those big prizes, even upping the ante with a "Golden Slam" in 1988. Serena Williams joins them, too.)

Agassi's run to the title was slightly more unexpected than those of Graf and Williams. In 1995, the Las Vegas native had the best year of his career up to that point, winning the Australian Open and reaching number 1 in the world, both for the first time. During the summer hard-court season, he appeared to be unbeatable winning four tournaments in a row before the U.S. Open. Agassi got to the finals in New York, but fell to Pete Sampras in four sets.

That loss knocked the wind out of his sails and he went without a tournament win for the rest of the year. That slump continued throughout much of '96 as he won only one event going into the Olympics tournament in Atlanta. 

The draw that year wasn't exactly the most fearsome: Agassi was the top seed, followed by Goran Ivanisevic, Thomas Enqvist and MaliVai Washington. There was no Sampras, Michael Chang, Thomas Muster or Boris Becker near the tournament. Agassi, in fact, only played one seeded player on the way to the title—Wayne Ferreira, whom he beat in the quarterfinals.

Still, playing for Olympic glory can often inspire athletes to achieve more than they thought ever possible. Look at what Leander Paes did that year, for example. A wild card into the tournament, the now-legendary doubles specialist took home the Bronze. And former two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera, struggling as well up to that point, fought through to the biggest hard-court final of his career.

But Agassi wouldn't be denied. He was the favorite going in and spoke often of his desire for the Games, following in the footsteps of his father, who boxed for Iran. Ferreira gave Agassi a tussle during their matchup, but he cruised through his other matches and salvaged a difficult year.

Three years later, Agassi completed his career Slam at the French Open in 1999 and put the finishing touches on his all-time feat—one that might never be matched now. When the 2020 Olympics roll around, Djokovic will be 33 and Federer will be pushing 40. Rafael Nadal is a World Tour Finals title away from expanding upon Agassi's club of one, while Andy Murray would still need to win an Australian and French.

Despite achieving something no other man has done, Agassi is often left out of the GOAT conversation. But perhaps that should be re-evaluated, particularly as more players state how important getting that top prize at the Olympics is to them.

For Djokovic, Federer and the rest, they're still chasing Agassi, the man who set the Gold standard.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Kvitova: the game's great mystery


So before I get into the subject of the headline, let me make this post disclaimer:

I don't like to see top 10 players, or those that can make a run at a Major, in action the week before a Slam.

It's deep-rooted from watching Andre Agassi dominate the summer of '95, winning everything up until the eve of the U.S. Open, then falling short in the final. What if he'd dropped New Haven from his schedule? Would he have been sharper for the Open? Plus, the fact that he had to work hard in that New Haven final might've sapped him however minutely for New York. I guess you can't tell, but why chance it?

And to today's players: If Double-A couldn't do it...

Anyway, fast-forward more than 20 years later to now, switch tours and surfaces, and you have the WTA stop in Eastbourne, the last warmup for the women before Wimbledon. There's more top 10 women there than there are in the top 10! (Just kidding, obviously: That's what we writers call "a witty line.") Seriously, though, there are four of them in the draw and one right outside of it, two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova.

Now if there's any player I'll ever give a free pass to playing the week before a tournament, it's Kvitova. She could win Eastbourne then get bounced in the first round at the Big W. Or vice versa. You just never can tell.

She has to be on anyone's short list to hoist the Venus Rosewater dish at the end of the fortnight, and that's despite the fact she's only reached one semifinal on the season so far. 2016 has seen her fall to the likes of  Saisai Zheng, Daria Gavrilova, Shelby Rogers, etc.

This year is almost a near-mirror of what she went through in 2014: Back then, pre-Wimbledon, it was Alisa Kleybanova, Luksika Kumkhum and Heather Watson among the players notching victories against the potential Hall of Famer. At Wimbledon, she breezed through her first two matches, then got into an epic struggle with Venus Williams before just escaping. After that, the rest of the tournament was a breeze.

Aside from Serena Williams, it's hard to tab anyone as a favorite for the title this year. Maybe last year's finalist Garbine Muguruza? It'll be interesting to see how the Spaniard follows up her French Open title. Kvitova should be in the mix, too.

Or not: You just can't tell.

(Photo: AP)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Note to self: Don't overthink it, just enjoy the tennis



If you're seeing this post right now, then that's a good thing. It meant that I was able to get past the brain drain the French Open just put me through and I was actually able to write something!

Novak Djokovic won his fourth Major in a row and his first French title, and completed the career Slam. Garbine Muguruza announced her arrival among Grand Slam champs with her first big title, shocking Serena Williams for the W. Muguruza's countrymen, Feliciano Lopez and Marc Lopez, won the men's doubles title and on the women's side, Frenchwomen Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic took home the title. In mixed, veterans Leander Paes and Martina Hingis completed the career Slam (together and apart) in the discipline.

Big stuff, and a lot to be celebrated post-Paris. But with all that happening, among other things, my mind's been on spin cycle with questions, musings, wonderings, etc. These are some of the things I've been thinking about:

• I'm big on Novak Djokovic. I love his approach to the game and his desire to be the best out there. I'm going to say this, too, which I can't recall seeing anywhere else: I bet if he was American with his dominance and personality, there'd be a tennis boom in the States like you wouldn't believe.

But...

I'm still hesitant to put him up there in the GOAT conversation, and this isn't through any fault of his own. The way the surfaces play so uniformly now has just changed the complexion of the game. Djokovic's game is solid in every department, but I wonder, what would happen if he played Ivo Karlovic on the type of grass at Wimbledon that Boris Becker won his first title on?

It's a different ball game now. (Gosh, I feel so old after typing that last sentence. And typing "Gosh" made me feel even older!) Djokovic's accomplishments are amazing and there's more yet to come from him, but I guess I'm too much of an old fuddy-duddy to give him the GOAT title.

• Speaking of "old," I told my seven-year-old daughter that Serena lost and at first she couldn't believe it. After I convinced her, she said Serena's getting "old." I thought that was kind of funny. I'll never say Serena's "old" and I'll give her favorite status going into any Major for at least the next three years, if she's still playing. However, these last few Slam losses have been kind of weird. Well, maybe not the Muguruza one, but for sure the ones to Angelique Kerber and Roberta Vinci. I think Serena's not only capable of equaling then topping Steffi Graf, but also Margaret Court, as well. It should happen soon, though, before she gets too old!

• More legend stuff: Great run by Bob and Mike Bryan to the finals, as their past year and a half has had more ups and downs than they've ever experienced during their legendary careers.

• And (half a) legend stuff: What's up with Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza? It's crazy that they went from being so dominant and looking like an all-time team to early-round losses left and right, including at the French. Will a rough grass-court stretch be the end of them?

• The future of the sport is in great shape with so many young players making breakthroughs. Dominic Thiem, Shelby Rogers, Kiki Bertens...I could go on and on. It's an exciting time to be a tennis fan, which is something I should remember. Don't let the nuances weigh me down: I should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

That is, until the next tournament, when more questions will undoubtedly pop up.

(Photo: Espana Tennis)

Monday, February 8, 2016

What the first month and change has shown us

So, over the years for various websites—including this one—I've written a post after the first week of the season called "What the First Week Has Shown Us." I like to think you can gauge a lot on how the approaching tennis season will go based on what goes down in Brisbane and the like.

I'm a little behind on doing that, but figured I'd try to get something in before we get too deep in the year and my predictions/thoughts become meaningless! So here's what I think you can be on the lookout for during the rest of 2016.

The Novak Show Will Go On: Yeah, this might seem like a no-brainer, I know. Djokovic started off the year perfectly, and he handled the two guys behind him in the rankings—Andy Murray and Roger Federer—pretty easily in Australia. Personally, I keep thinking someone's going to solve the Djokovic riddle someday, but it doesn't look like it will happen on a consistent basis. I don't know if he'll win the French, but I'd be very surprised if someone beats him at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

The Serena Show, I Guess, Should Go On: Serena had a year for the ages last year: completing another "Serena Slam" and coming oh-so-close to the Grand Slam. However, there were a lot of close calls during the course of her run, but because she's such a fighter and elite champion, she was able to pull through and lift the big hardware at the end. It didn't happen in New York, though, and what I find pretty surprising, didn't happen in Australia. Williams should still end the year on top—I assume it would take Aussie champ Angelique Kerber winning the Grand Slam herself to dethrone her—but I can't see her winning multiple Slams. Then again, Serena's the boss at proving folks wrong!

If Azarenka's Not in the Top 3 by the End of the Year...: I don't want to finish with "I'll Eat My Hat" because you never know how things go with injuries and all, but I really think that she'll be there. Winning her first tournament in a while, then making a run to the Aussie quarters are pretty good signs she's back, and with her fight and experience, it'll be hard to bet against her. OK, I've convinced myself: I won't eat my hat, but for every spot she's away from the top 3—if it happens—I'll do 10 pushups. (I hate pushups Vika: Please hit the top 3!)

You Can't Count Rafa Out—But Should You?: The year started off well enough with a runner-up finish his first time out, but that loss to Fernando Verdasco at the Aussie has to be disturbing for Nadal. He should still pick up a few minor titles over the year, and as far as I'm concerned, he'll always be the favorite at Roland Garros, but as far as proving to be a consistent threat to Djoko's reign, I just can't see it.

• The Andy Murray Hurdle: I think that little subhead can be looked at two ways for 2016. One, instead of dethroning Djokovic, it looks like guys are going to have to work to get past Murray first. And two, Murray faces a big hurdle between him and any more Majors, namely Djokovic. It just seems to be getting worse in his head-to-heads with Djoko, but he is playing at a high-enough level to hold on to the 2 spot.

I'm not going to go into as much detail as the above observations, but here are a few more things I think we can see going forward:

• Roberto Bautista Agut will be the year's surprise top-10 debutant on the men's side.

• Despite her early Australian Open exit, Sloane Stephens can exceed her career-high ranking.

• Injury might be the only thing that slows down the Martina Hingis/Sania Mirza team: Grand Slam, anyone?

• Speaking of doubles, Bob and Mike Bryan will be OK and are more than capable of grinding their way back to the top. But—and not to put any thoughts in their heads—how cool would it be if they won Olympic Gold or the U.S. Open and then walked away on top?

• These American kids like Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, etc., are something else and will rise even further up the rankings.

• Maria Sharapova has a Slam or Gold Medal in her. But someone's going to have to knock Serena out of the draw for her to win either.

At any rate, the year ahead promises to be a good one!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Tennis and my mom

So, this might be one of the oddest return-to-blogging posts in history, but as I sit in an airport alone on Christmas, I figured why not take the time to jot some thoughts down. Be forewarned, this post will be a downer, but hopefully, not a total one.

The reason I'm in an airport alone is because my mom died on Christmas morning. If that's not a tough thing to deal with, I don't know what is. She was visiting my sister in Mobile, Ala., and had just gotten into town Christmas Eve. My mom drove over from Georgia, where she'd been living for years on her own. The past few years had not been kind to her at all, health-wise. 

Actually, you know that phrase, "understatement of the year"? Multiply that by 50, and that should be a more accurate summation of that "health-wise" sentence. I guess, if anything, it's good she got to spend some time with my sister and nephews.

Anyway, as I'm waiting for my delayed flight (adding to the roughness of this trip), I figured I'd come here and share a couple stories about tennis, me and my mom. After all, this is a tennis blog!

* I played my first tennis tournament when I was 15. We didn't really know if there was a dress code or anything, but my mom figured I should look the part. So I got a polo shirt and shorts from JC Penney, and the kit looked all right, but it was not functional. At all. This was in the '80s, the height of the "short shorts" era. These shorts were that and then some, and were made of the stiffest material ever. I couldn't move: heck, I could barely fit a ball in my pocket. Tightness--nerves- and shorts-wise--did me in, but in my mom's mind, at least I looked right.

* A little bit later in my playing career, I was playing a first-round match I was a heavy favorite in. Like, it was supposed to be a cakewalk, but I ended up dropping the first set. I couldn't keep a ball in the court. I made eye contact with my mom and she mouthed, "change your racquet." You see, the week before, I had gotten a new model and I obviously hadn't gotten used to it. Luckily, I had one of my old sticks in my bag, I switched to it and breezed through the next two sets. I still consider that one of my biggest and most memorable wins. And I'm glad there was no one roaming the courts looking for coaching going on!

Not just because I'm involved in it, but I've always felt tennis was the most difficult sport out there. You don't have teammates (unless it's doubles) and can't get coaching when you're out there. You're taught something and it's up to you to put your lessons to good use while competing. It's very important to at least have someone out there watching you. I was very fortunate to have that with my mom. Funny: I just played some doubles last Saturday night for fun, talked to her afterward and she asked me how I did. She always did that through the years. 

She was a great "coach," and an even more amazing, wonderful mom. (And that might actually be "the understatement of the year.")

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A stroke of brilliance with the U.S. Davis Cup lineup


If you didn't know this about me, then let me fill you in on a personal fact:

I love Davis Cup, specifically the U.S. Davis Cup team. And there was an announcement this week that has me more excited about the squad then I've been in a minute—and for a playoff tie, no less!

Amid the Serena Slam-chasing, the Federer-romping, the Djokovic-winning and Flavia-winning/retiring and other happenings going on at the U.S. Open, the lineup for the U.S. in its playoff against Uzbekistan was announced. Making up the team will be Steve Johnson, Donald Young, Jack Sock and Sam Querrey.

Yes!

Now why, you may ask, would this have me excited? Because I wholeheartedly feel that it's the best way to develop these young players.

I wrote something along those lines for Tennis View Magazine a couple of years ago. It's kind of the sink-or-swim theory: Throw the youngsters into pressure-packed situations and see how they handle it. Just imagine the confidence Sock or Young could gain from winning a live fifth rubber against a hostile away crowd. Or conversely, being able to soak in the praise of pulling off a feat like that at home.

Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier's counterpart, Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, has been going with the younger players for years—often because of the Williams' unavailability—and has had stellar results. I wrote something about that for Tennis View, too. (I guess I write a lot for TV!) A good draw with young talent and a bit of a veteran presence can do a lot of damage: i.e., Australia this year.

Anyway, I think the guy that broke the mold on in recent years of going with young talent was Courier's predecessor Patrick McEnroe. One of my all-time favorite coaching moves in sport is when he told Bob and Mike Bryan they had to win a Slam first before he put them on the team, forsaking an all-singles players lineup. They did, and the rest is history.

Now, not to say that John Isner and the Bryans should be kept off the team: All three have had amazing results over the years. But if there's a situation like this, let the neophytes play. And be sure to bring along Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, Taylor May Fritz—any/all of those whipper-snappers—as practice partners.

A youth movement can only be a good thing.

(Photo: AP)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sloane did it!

I have to admit, I had some serious doubts about Sloane Stephens getting that first final/title anytime in the near future. The past year had its ups and downs as far as results go with losses aplenty and coaching changes.

But any kinds of doubts were erased this week in Washington as the young American won her first career title (in her first career final). She beat Sam Stosur in the semis, then turned around and tagged Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. In the last three sets played between those two matches, Stephens dropped only three games.

That's some serious ballin' right there.

(A side note: That's about how many games I've won in my last three sets. I'm really in a bad funk, right now.)

Anyway...

Extremely well done by Sephens. Here's hoping she can keep it up and live up to her potential.

(Photo: AP)