Saturday, May 31, 2008

Five for fighting


Talk about some incredible matches going all five sets today on the men's side! Gael Monfils looked today like a player who really wants it as opposed to just being someone coasting by on talent and rallied to beat someone who I think is also a perpetual underachiever, Jurgen Melzer, 6-2 in the fifth. (Maybe that's a topic for discussion in the future: the all-underachiever squad. Definitely something to ponder...)

Anyway, another player who got down two sets to one and came back was David Ferrer, who got all he could handle from Lleyton Hewitt. I had Hewitt down for first-round fodder here since he hadn't played since god knows when. How long was their match? 10 hours? No, it only felt like that!

Fernando Gonzalez went "Gonzo" on Stan "not close to being the man" Wawrinka and won from two sets down. But THE rally of the day goes to Ivan Ljubicic (above) coming from two sets down to beat Nikolay Davydenko. (Maybe kicking the crap out of Marat Safin and ruining my quarterfinal predictions tired old Nik out!) Anyway, that has to be old Lubey's best win in at least a year and a half. Just a few weeks ago, I asked what the heck is going on with him. He keeps this up and I guess we won't have to worry about that anymore!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Wow, wow, WOW!!!

I don't know who could have seen THIS coming. I did wonder earlier if bailing out in the Italian would come back to bite her (and Maria Sharapova, too, since there's nothing like an extra match or two, I say). But still I never, ever would have expected this result: Serena Williams falling in straights to Katarina Srebotnik.

I don't think anyone in that half of the draw can relax, though, now that Serena's out. It's still loaded down there. So players, be on guard!

* A footnote: Big sis Venus ended up losing, too, falling to Flavia Pennetta. So much for a sister run here, or one by U.S. women, for that matter. Where have you gone, Chris Evert?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

What a day (or not) to be French!

So, I'm finally getting over the Safin-Davydenko match, and I'm looking up to see there were other matches played around the French today besides that one! To recap:

• Mixed Fortunes for the French at the French: This is probably the story of the day as far as they're concerned over in Paris: Jeremy Chardy (he of the 145th in the world fame, pictured) rallies to beat David Nalbandian 6-2 in the fifth. Maybe that offsets the loss by Amelie Mauresmo to a qualifier. How do the French fans handle the ups and downs of their players? It drives me crazy and the closest French ties I have is that my family's from Louisiana! Gael Monfils (he of the eternally unfulfilled potential) wins in straights today, but could just as easily have been blown out, just because you never know with him.

• Roger Rolls (kinda): Roger Federer dropped the first set in a breaker, but rebounded quite nicely, thank you very much, particularly in those middle two, taking them 1 and 0. I really like his draw his next few matches. I think playing guys with pretty different styles the first two rounds in Querrey and Montanes should be able to prep him for Mario Ancic and (probably in the 16s) Robin Soderling. Who knows how the quarters will go for him since ...

• Robby Rolled (shockingly!): Robby Ginepri took out another of my quarterfinal picks, Igor Andreev. (Next year, if you're a Russian male and you've been picked by Tennis Talk, Anyone? to make the quarters of the French, start packing your bags: It's not gonna happen for you!) Great, great win for Ginepri. If there's any U.S. guy that should never complain about playing on clay, it's him, unlike his compadres, James Blake and Mardy Fish, who both fell. Blake lost to Ernests Gulbis, who I think is headed for great things, even though he hadn't done much at this point, and Fish lost to Lleyton Hewitt. But back to Ginepri: His game is perfect for clay. A possible quandary: Where does Jose Higueras sit if Robby and R-Fed face off in the quarters?

• A Two-Man Spanish Armada: Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer were like a demolition crew on French players today: You knew Rafa was going to roll, as he's apt to do, but I didn't think Ferrer would crush Fabrice Santoro like he did. One game surrendered in three sets? Wow.

• Plenty of Bagels Served: Many of the winning women today, I guess, were in a hurry with Katarina Srebotnik, Dinara Safina, Francessca Schiavone, Dominka Cibulkova and Olga Govortsova all winning at least one set 6-0. Tennis Talk, Anyone? quarterfinalist pick Victoria Azarenka (pictured) went a little further and dropped double goose-eggs on her opponent.

Looking ahead, here's what I think will be the matches of the day tomorrow:

• Agnieska Radwanska (14) vs. Alize Cornet (19, pictured): These two are in great form. In a few years, this will be a semifinal match, easy. If she wins her next match, Jelena Jankovic will face the winner of this one. The bottom half of the women's tournament is almost like its own entity with all the tough players there. This section really picks up steam with this match right here.

• Eduardo Schwank vs. Paul-Henri Mathieu (18): I've probably spent more time talking about my man Eddie Schwank than his own family has! If he took out one seed already, why not another here? He and Novak Djokovic in the fourth is going to be a sight to see.

• Jarkko Nieminen (26) vs. Rafael Nadal (2): Surprisingly, Nieminen's been playing better so far this tournament than he has in months. He's a pretty big hitter, which is something Rafa really hasn't seen yet. Nadal should still roll, I feel, but it should be entertaining nevertheless.

I think all that writing got the Safin-Davydenko match out of my system!

(Photos: Chardy, Ginepri, Cornet: AP; Azarenka: Getty Images)

See, what I meant to say was...

That my man Nik Davydenko was going to come through in straights!

Just kidding. I'm gonna have to really stop underestimating Davydenko sometimes. I think in potentially dangerous situations for him match-wise, the ONLY time I've ever thought he was going to win was against Nadal in Miami, and that was just because I figured after he beat Roddick the round before (one of his most difficult opponents) things were definitely going to go his way.

In a way, despite being so far down in the rankings and on current form alone being the underdog, I could see this as a very tough loss for Safin. A win here would have definitely affirmed he was back on track, but to lose that badly has gotta hurt.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Just watch, he'll come back!

As I write this, Marat Safin is down two sets to none and a break in the third. So now, I guess instead of winning in four like I earlier predicted, it's gonna have to go five!

See? He just got on the board in the third and is now only down 3-1. The comeback's starting!

The Russians are coming!

Play has already gotten well under way at the French, and while there are a ton of matches on tap with all the stars coming out, this match has match of the day written all over it: Nikolay Davydenko vs. Marat Safin.

Now, I've written before how optimistic I was about a Safin turnaround, and this is his chance to really make a huge statement. I tend to typically underestimate Davydenko, and true to my usual form, I'm doing it here! I picked Safin at the beginning to pull off the upset, and I'm staying with that. Safin in four.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ummm, on second thought ...

Well, she got through it at least.

That sure was a tough opener for Maria Sharapova, who's only my pick to win the whole tournament!

I'm gonna chalk it up to the blustery conditions and her opponent playing solid as opposed to my already-shaky pick not really being ready to win the French. She's gonna have to shore it up, though. But at least she gets to play another day.

And I'm still sticking by my earlier call!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Should I stay faithful? (Or, "Oh yeah, I play tennis, too—the '08 edition")

We've been together about seven years now, and things are good, but sometimes I can't stop thinking about what things would be like if I were to explore my options, so to speak.

Of course, since this is a tennis blog, you must know I'm talking about my racquet of choice!

I figured while the French Open has been deluged with rain (even though some matches got played: I totally blew it on my Wawrinka-losing call, but did get it sorta right with the Soderling pick, I could take this time to write about a tennis issue all of us players face, namely when to switch racquets. And is it REALLY necessary to do so?

I've only used two frames in the past 16 years: the Prince Graphite II and the Prince Triple Threat Bandit. After using the Graphite II throughout most of the '90s, I felt the game (at least at the level I play, 4.0) was passing me by. It had a pretty thin beam, which was good for control purposes. It was just that people that I was playing with were hitting bigger than me even though we were pretty equal ability-wise. So I decided to go for something with a little more ummph to it and picked the Bandit, which was a slightly thicker frame, but one that still afforded some control. I feel it's definitely helped me, but I've been playing with it for a few years now. I don't have any complaints about it; I just wonder if there's something out there that's truly better or am I being tempted by the technologies that are advertised?

I will say that I'm a Prince guy, having started with Pro-Kennex and then Wilson when I was a kid. Prince has been promoting the "O" feature for a few years now, which I know nothing at all about from a personal experience. I'm pretty lazy about demoing racquets, which I guess would help me decide. I just question the demo concept sometimes because let's say you do try one out: The string tension you might be used to might not work for this new racquet. Then, let's say you pick out a racquet that's supposedly for your playing style. If that frame sucks, do you go back and get another one? Do you get trapped in this endless demo cycle? Admittedly, I did choose ye olde Bandit through demoing it, but I wonder: Did I do it right? Was there another racquet out there better for me and I just subconciously told myself this stick kicked ass so I wouldn't be checking out frames left and right?

I guess I'm asking: Do I really need a new racquet now, or am I just being tempted by Prince's "Show me your 'O' face" campaign? Please feel free to weigh in!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Well, it wasn't a complete wash

Despite the scene above, more than a few matches were played today, with my pick for the whole shebang, Roger Federer, getting a nice workout in.

His opponent today, Sam Querrey, was going to be tricky enough to let Roger get a feel for the tournament off the bat with his big serve and forehand. And with his recent attitude adjustment about playing on clay, I'm sure Sam thought he'd be able to push R-Fed, but such was not the case, obviously. One down, six to go for Rog!

Other thoughts, musings, opinions, what have you about the tennis today:

• Blowing a Gasquet: Richard Gasquet, France's (fingers making quotation marks with MUCH sarcasm) best player dropped out with knee pain. I do hope it's nothing serious, like that case of the summer sniffles at the U.S. Open last year. That was rough! Just kidding, because it would really be nice to see him legitimately get in the mix of players doing big things. His game's great, it's just the mental part.

• Venus Rose: Venus Williams got off to one of her typical Slam slow starts but eventually won in three against a player I can't even think of pretending I know anything about, 35-year-old (that's older than me, and I'm old-34!) Tzipora Obziler. It's good that she tightened up the ratchets, but she's gotta be on top of her game this tournament since it's going to get way tougher.

• So long, "Willies": Now Guillermo Coria I would have expected to lose with his comeback trail kind of kicking off this year, but Guillermo Canas? To Wayne Odesnik, no less. But to Odesknik's credit, he did play well in World Team Cup last week. Nevertheless, it's a great feat.

Matches of the day for tomorrow:
I'll try this again since I apparently goofed with my match picks yesterday: I don't think Stanislas Wawrinka and my man Phil Kohllschreiber got on the court — or were even supposed to! Sorry for the goof; they make the list today!

• Rafael Nadal vs. Thomaz Belluci: Just for the sake of watching Rafa destroy an opponent.

• Aravene Rezai vs. Nadia Petrova: Remember a couple of years ago when Petrova had that career season? For whatever reason — injuries, lack of motivation — it's a thing of the past. I'm going with Rezai for the upset.

• Robin Soderling vs. Juan Monaco: Up until just this weekend, I thought all Swedes nowadays hated playing on clay (no Bjorn Borg wannabes in this bunch). That is until they won the World Team Cup, led by Robin Soderling. This could be an upset here, and if so, I think it could be beneficial to R-Fed down the road, who was drawn to play Monaco in the round of 16.

(Photos: Getty Images)

And ... they're off!

The French Open has more than officially gotten in swing, and what a day it was! To recap (kind of briefly, because I'm supposed to be up in a matter of mere hours to play tennis myself!):

• So long, Guga: Everyone's favorite mop-top, Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten (above), played the final match of his career, falling to Paul-Henri Mathieu in straights. Has there been a player that everyone could just see the joie de vivre in every time he stepped on the court? I don't think so. So long! We'll all miss you! Glad to see you break out the 1997 gear, too, in a nod to the past!

• "Schwank's" a lot: For coming through in my upset prediction, Eddie! (I know the Schwank's kinda corny, but what do you want? It's 1:15 in the morning! : ) If he holds his nerve, he should be able to give Novak Djokovic a run for his money.

• A Star-Spangled Banner Day: How about that? An American male won a match at the French Open? Hats off to James Blake, who could win a couple of rounds in that quarter of the draw, particularly since I got ...

• Stiffed on "Tip": I lost a quarterfinalist pick as Janko Tipsarevic fell to Nic Lapentti. I thought it could go either way looking at the draw, and it went the other way from how I called it!

• Serena and the Playboy bunny: Serena Williams routed Ashley Harkleroad in the first round, then revealed she's going to be in Playboy magazine. Great way to ease into the tournament Williams. As for Harkleroad, at least she'll get some press. Here's a tip: Work on your game so you can at least make a showing against a top player!

• Nothing really to write home about: There weren't any epic upsets today, pretty much a mellow kind of opening day for the major.

Here's my pick for the must-watch matches of the day tomorrow:

• Roger Federer vs. Sam Querrey: Sammy had a good run in Monte Carlo earlier this year and is capable of serving bombs. This should be a nice little test for R-Fed to get in a groove at the tournament.

• Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber: Stan the Man falls to the often-Tennis Talk, Anyone?-picked Kohlschreiber, the first top-10 player to bow out.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

And the winner is ...

Like his number-one counterpart on the women's side, I expect Roger Federer (he of "the greatest-ever" fame) to complete the career Slam with his first French Open title. I'm sure he, like everyone else who follows the sport, will think "It's about time" by the tournament's over. Here's my quarterfinal breakdown:

Roger Federer (1) vs. Igor Andreev (27): The Federer Express keeps rolling. I see him getting through some big bombers (Sam Querrey and Mario Ancic) mixed in with some gritty clay-courters (Albert Montanes and Juan Monaco) on his way to the quarters, where Andreev will be sitting. But while Andreev can blast away with that forehand of his on clay it shouldn't be too much trouble for R-Fed to handle. This section of the draw includes Stanislas Wawrinka, Fernando Gonzalez and Richard Gasquet in it, but I see Andreev prevailing against those higher-ranked, yet unpredictable, players.

Marat Safin vs. David Ferrer (5): In an all-Russian battle for the ages, I think Safin's going to make a big statement in a second-round match with Nikolay Davydenko, stopping old Nik before he makes his annual semifinal appearance. Ferrer's road to the fourth round is pretty easy, with the other high seed in his quarter, Tommy Robredo, having to fight through possible matches with Casablanca winner Gilles Simon and Radek Stepanek.

Janko Tipsarevic (32) vs. Novak Djokovic (3): Two Serbian males in the quarters of a major? Who would of thunk it? The high seeds in Tipsarevic's section of the draw are James Blake and Tomas Berdych. I thinkTipsarevic will end up taking out both of them in his run to the quarters. There, he'll face off against the story of the year in men's tennis, Djokovic. But please take note here of who I think Djokovic will play in the fourth round (I've mentioned this guy before): Eduardo Schwank. Who, you might ask? Only the hottest player on the planet, male or female. Going into this year's tournament, Schwank will have won 18 matches in a row: three Challenger titles and three matches in qualifying. Carlos Moya probably cringed when he saw what qualifier he was going to have to face. I expect Schwank to take that match and get to the round of 16, where he'll face Djokovic. But Novak does have a potentially tough first-rounder and could meet Guillermo Canas in the third round, but he should come through.

Nicolas Almagro (19) vs. Rafael Nadal (2): Rafa getting this far is a no-brainer. Looking at his quarter, there's no one there that should even be able to make him sweat. Almagro's been one of the hottest player on the dirt this year, picking up two titles early and finishing runner-up in Valencia. He should be able to take out David Nalbandian in the fourth round this year.

For the semis:
Federer vs. Ferrer: Ferrer's scrappy style falls right into Federer's hands. Ferrer likes to run, right? He'll be doing that a lot here. R-Fed in straights.

Djokovic vs. Nadal: One day, these two will be on opposite sides of the draw, and you can expect to see a tremendous final between them. Until that day happens, though, semis it is. Nadal wins here, but not without a fight from Djoko.

For the final:
Federer over Nadal: OK, I'm a big-enough man to admit that I was wrong: The Jose Higueras hiring for R-Fed will pay off. This time, when Federer gets on a roll against Nadal at the start, he will stick to it. Nadal can't win 'em all, can he?

(Photos: Federer, Nadal: Getty Images; Ferrer, Djokovic: AP)

A career Slam in the cards?

She's only won one clay-court title in her career (on Har-Tru, no less), but Maria Sharapova (above) has to be thanking the draw gods heading into the French Open this year. If there's a shot for her to add the only Slam missing from her collection, it's this year. Now, I know Jelena Jankovic is the popular pick, but the bottom half of the draw is ridiculously difficult: the Williams sisters, Ana Ivanovic and a couple of players that have been hot over the clay-court season—Alize Cornet and Agniesza Radwanska—are all down there. I just can't see a winner emerging from down there, due to the fact of whoever reaches the finals will be dead to the world by the time she gets there. So I'm going out on a limb with my Sharapova pick. But first, I'm going to do my quarterfinal predictions:

Maria Sharapova (1) vs. Vera Zvonareva (11): Maria's run really starts here. She has some tough players in her quarter of the draw, such as Maria Kirilenko and Dinara Safina (provided she even gets past her first-round match against Kateryna Bondarenko). But she should still come through. Zvonareva has had a great year so far, and I'm expecting her to beat Elena Dementieva in the fourth round. She just won't be able to stand up to Sharapova's firepower.

Victoria Azarenka (16) vs. Agnes Szavay (12): Huh vs. who? This really should be Svetlana Kuznetsova's section to dominate. However, she hasn't done anything this clay-court swing. If she gets past Francesca Schiavone in the third round, I still see her falling to Azarenka, provided Victoria's healthy (she retired in her last match before the tournament). Szavay is the second-highest-ranked player in her quarter after Anna Chakvetadze, but sometimes you just have to go with the in-form player, which in this case is Agnes (left).

Venus Williams (8) vs. Jelena Jankovic (3): See what I mean? Now doesn't this sound like a more difficult prospect than anything in the top half of the draw? IF Jelena gets past the winner of that slugfest between Alize Cornet and Agnieszka Radwanska, she still has to play Venus, who should be cruising at this point. It only gets rougher for whoever after this one.

Serena Williams (5) vs. Ana Ivanovic (2): Ditto for these two, except I think you'll see both of them pretty well-rested, with few tests on the paths to the quarters. I'm sure they're both thinking, "Whew!" up until this point.

For the semis:
Sharapova vs. Szavay: A possible walk in the park for Maria.

Jankovic vs. S. Williams: Team Serbia and Team Williams have split their matches. I think Jankovic has a little more going for her on the dirt right now.

For the final:
Sharapova over Jankovic: It's crazy to think, I know, but the bottom half of the draw is just too loaded and whoever comes through will have won a tournament within a tournament, and could possibly be easy pickings for Maria.

(Photos: Serena: AFP; Sharapova, Jankovic: Getty Images; Szavay: AP)

Favorite French moment #1: FINALLY!

The countdown concludes with what is my favorite memory across all sports (and I'm a HUGE sports fan): Andre Agassi winning it in 1999, to complete the career Slam.

Everyone's familiar with the story of how, in 1997, he had slipped to 141 in the rankings and instead of deciding to pack it in, hit the Challenger circuit to get his ranking back up. He stormed back in 1998, finishing in the top 10 in the world. 1999 had a pretty ho-hum beginning to it for him, as over the first half of the year, he only won one minor tournament in Hong Kong. And at the beginning of the year, after he lost to Vince Spadea at the Australian Open, I had little faith he was going to pick up any more majors. What was I thinking, doubting my guy?

What's funny about the French Open win was the fact that it was a last-minute decision if he was even going to play it or not! He had retired from his World Team Cup match due to injury the week before and had the minimalist of minimal clay-court preparation a player could have. He gave it a go, though, and man, did it pay off!

He got through the first three rounds with some struggles, particularly against Arnaud Clement in the second round, going five with him. Then in the fourth round, he played the defending champ, Carlos Moya, and took him out in four. After that, I started wondering, "Can he actually do it?" He breezed through his next two matches and next thing you know, he's in the finals. There, he met someone making a little comeback of his own, Andrei Medvedev, the former top-tenner who had fallen to 100 in the world.

Personally, I was happy with Andre getting to the finals here, a place where he hadn't been since 1991. Still, it was pretty tough seeing him get blown off the court the first two sets. I don't know what went through his head at that point, but somehow, some way, he started to work his way back into the match, winning the third set, then the fourth, until reaching match point in the fifth.

I was thinking back to how I watched him lose those finals against Andres Gomez in 1990 and Jim Courier in '91; dropping an early-round match to Chris Woodruff (Who? Exactly.); and not even playing some years, and here he was now on the verge of history. When he won, I think my celebration was more joyous than his! My girlfriend at the time was in the next room (she could only take so many hours of tennis, not being a tennis fan and all), and I ran out to her screaming, "He did it!" Then I went back and watched every last second of the trophy ceremony, his speech and lifting the big cup, something I thought I'd never see him do.

Even though, if he were still playing, he'd be 38 by now, it's still kind of weird to see Andre Agassi not out there doing his thing. But he's doing OK for himself! And his wife-to-be had a great run: Steffi Graf won her last career major at that tournament.

So that wraps up my favorite French moments. And here's a picture of one of my favorite moments ever: (Who's that great-looking guy standing next to Andre Agassi at a trade-show party in Las Vegas?)

(Photos: Top two: BBC, Las Vegas Review-Journal; bottom: Warren Shoulberg)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Favorite French moment #2: Through the eyes of a child

So landing in the middle of my favorite thoughts about the French involves two of the most captivating and charismatic players of the past couple of decades, Jennifer Capriati and Gustavo Kuerten, respectively, and my favorite young player—my soon-to-be 10-year-old nephew, Carlos Smith. (Remember that name!)

It was waaay back in 2001 and I was going to visit my family back in Mobile, Ala., staying at my sister's house. In conversations with my mom and my sister, they said they had been tossing a tennis ball to my nephew for him to hit with an old racquet. Hearing this, I thought as any tennis nut would, "That's great! It's never too early to start them playing tennis!" So I went down with one mission: to make sure tennis is the priority in his young 3-year-old life!

I tossed some balls at him and he managed to make contact, which was great, I thought. But it wasn't the right exposure he needed, I felt. Luckily, it was finals weekend at the French, so we'll just plop down in front of the TV and scope out the matches. And what a weekend of matches it was!

First, on Saturday, was the instant classic between Kim Clijsters and Jennifer Capriati. I tried to explain to him how Clijsters was going to do great things in her career, but this was really Capriati's time to shine. See, Jennifer was a child prodigy (kind of like I was trying to groom him to be), but had been derailed off the path of greatness due to personal trials and tribulations. But in one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history, she won the Australian Open earlier in the year for her first major title, I told him. I don't know if he really cared about all that because I had to make a deal with him to turn to the Disney Channel during commercial breaks!

So in between the channel-switching back and forth, Capriati and Clijsters got to a third set, which somehow Jennifer won 12-10 to pick up her second Slam of the year. I was excited and tried to convey it to young Carlos, but after it was over I don't think he could've cared less. Oh well, I thought, there's always tomorrow.

The men's final saw "Guga" Kuerten going up against Alex Corretja. Guga was going for rarefied ground with his third French, while Corretja was trying to bag his first major, I explained to him. We pretty much had the same thing going with the viewing patterns of the match, but when it got toward the end, I told him I really wanted to watch the winner celebrate and see the trophy presentation.

Well, Guga went on to win, celebrating in a pretty unique way: After pumping his fists, he repeated his fourth-round gesture to the crowd in which he drew a giant heart in the clay and laid down in it (pictured above)—his way of thanking the fans. I tried to point out to my nephew how cool that was, and then I wanted him to see the big trophy the winner got. My work was done (I hoped!)

Fast-forward seven years later, and Guga's getting ready to say goodbye to professional tennis, with this year's French being his last tournament, and Capriati's still holding out hope for a comeback that seems more distant everyday. My nephew, on the other hand, has become quite the little athlete, particularly in basketball, where his team has gone undefeated two years in a row. It's tennis season now, and he's getting out there a couple of times for lesson, something's he been doing for years now.

Part of me wishes he would just play tennis, but I guess he's having fun doing a variety of things. My soon-to-be-born daughter on the other hand will only eat, drink and breathe tennis! (But keep that on the hush-hush, her mom doesn't know that yet!)

(Photos: Guga shots: Getty; Capriati: BBC)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Favorite French moment #3: Courier delivers

Here's the first (or I guess third, however you want to look at!) in my countdown. Two of my favorite tennis players of all time are Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. Those two are the ones I've tried to emulate most over the course of my playing, and are guys whose career stats I know pretty much like the back of my hand. This, as the headline above implies, is about Courier.

I had been following Courier's career since around 1989, and was ecstatic in 1991, when he won his first Slam in that classic five-setter against Agassi at the French. (Well, ecstatic might be too strong since he was going up against Agassi; maybe "hapy" might be better.) Anyway, this is actually about the 1992 French, when Courier put on what I feel was one of the most dominant performances in Grand Slam history—one, also, that gets totally overlooked in great performances.

Disregarding his first-round demolishing of Swedish journeyman Nicklas Kroon, Courier faced a murderer's row of opponents like none I've ever seen before or since, and over the two weeks only dropped one set against these guys! His final six foes would end their careers with a total of 61 clay-court titles (including all the major ones played on clay), multiple years spent in the top 10 and 11 Slams.

It first started with Thomas Muster: Perhaps you've heard of him, the former number-one player in the world who won 40 career clay-court titles? Courier beat him 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. Then came former Italian and Monte Carlo champion Alberto Mancini. The result? 6-4, 6-2, 6-0. Next, Courier beat the up-and-coming teen Andrei Medvedev (who would go on to reach number four in the world and become a French finalist later in his career) 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.

After breezing through those matches, Courier had his first hiccup in the quarters against his old rival in the juniors, Goran Ivanisevic. Goran was the only one to take a set off Jimbo but still fell 6-2, 6-1, 2-6, 7-5. The semis was a rematch of the previous year's final, with JC taking on my man Andre, but this one was a lot easier: 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. (A note: Matches between those two were always the hardest for me to watch!)

In the finals, Courier played the surprising Petr Korda, who did well to get through a bottom half of the draw that had been completely wrecked. Courier took it 7-5, 6-2, 6-1.

Now, take a look at those players and what they went on to do in their careers. If anyone can find a display of dominance by ANY Slam champion over the years on the men's side, you're a better man than me!

And before I forget: You know that little victory speech custom that's been done over the years of addressing the crowd and sponsors in French? Well, it started here with a 21-year-old kid from Sanford, Fla., kicking it off!

(Thanks to the ATP for those scorelines: My memory's good, but not that good!)

Countdown to the main event

With the French Open only three days away, each day until then I'm going to count it off with my three favorite memories of the event. There'll be some laughs, some tears — everything you'd want as I take the walk down memory lane! I'll be posting the first memorable moment later on.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The old college try

Tonight, in the midst of some serious channel-surfing, I came across an unexpected treat on ESPNU: the NCAA Finals. No, not a repeat of the Memphis-Kansas men's basketball finals, but the men's tennis championships. (This is a tennis blog, after all!)

Georgia beat Texas for the title, an awesome result for the 'Dawgs, especially after they've lost some top players over the year. Being a Southern guy by birth, I was, of course, rooting for the boys from Athens to come through. It would've been nice to see my alma mater, South Alabama, get that far, but they fell kind of early on. Back in my day, the South men's team had reached the Elite 8 one year and had numerous All-Americans.

UCLA won it's first title on the women's side, beating their in-state rivals California. And just in case you didn't know, Sampras coaches that team!

(Not Pete, but his sister Stella.)

Anyway, congrats to both teams!

(Photos: AP)

Monday, May 19, 2008

What we can all learn from last week

As Rafael Nadal and Jelena Jankovic won the last two big clay-court tournaments before the French (Hamburg and Rome, respectively), I thought the course of the week revealed some interesting things to look out for come Paris. To start:

• Rafa's the favorite going into the French: Well, duh! He was that anyway, but before you automatically hand him the trophy ...

• Roger Federer is back: Admittedly, I was ready to write him off (Well, as much as you can write Roger Federer off: Meaning he'd probably only get one Slam this year instead of the usual three!) and I was pretty skeptical about the Jose Higueras hiring. But until he ran into Nadal, he was destroying guys who probably thought they had a chance of an upset, which was good to see. And let me tell you this: The way the draw is likely to fall at the French, he could be a beneficiary of Novak Djokovic-Nadal beating each other up in the semis and be more rested than either one of those two should they get to the finals.

• Jankovic is a solid contender: Well, duh again, Van! She's been one of the top clay-courters over the past couple of years. I've posted before that she might not get to taste the glory of reaching a Slam final, as I also thought the rest of the big titles over the year would go to Serena and Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova. However, ...

• Will their laissez-faire attitude come back to bite them?: S. Williams and Sharapova basically treated the Italian like it was a Tier IV tournament with their bailouts. V. Williams lost a tough three-setter to Jankovic. While the only one of the three to win a French has been Serena, I still saw one of them taking the crown. Now, a little doubt's starting to creep in. We'll see how the draw goes.

• Eduardo who?: And since there's also tournaments being played on the tours in what can be called the "minor leagues" by some, you've read it here first: Watch out for this guy, Eduardo Schwank. Provided he makes it to the main draw of the French (he's currently the top seed in the qualies), he'll make it tough for anybody he faces. He just picked up his third Challenger title of the year this past weekend. But speaking of the less than heralded ...

• If last week's Italian Open finalist Alize Cornet doesn't make any noise at the French, I'll eat my hat. Promise!

(Photos: Getty Images)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Is it REALLY a rivalry?

For the second year in a row, it's down to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the finals in Hamburg. And judging by the way he's been playing the past few weeks, I think you'd really have to like R-Fed's chances, even though he just lost to Rafa a couple of weeks ago in Monte Carlo.

But as these two get ready to play their quadrillionth (actually 16th) match against each other, something kind of came to mind: Is Rafa a true rival or just a roadblock? Rafa leads in the head-to-heads, and has been a justifiable number two in the rankings all these years. However, is he a legit threat to what Roger's going to do in a given tennis season? You're probably thinking, "Van, what are you talking about? Look, Rafa's won more than he's lost against Federer. What else do you want?" Well, let me tell you!

What I want out of a rivalry is that bit of anticipation of who's going to win when the two face each other — you know, "It's his turn to get him" — and I think the R-Fed/R-Nad one lacks it because so much of it depends on the surface they're playing on. If it's on clay, nine times out of 10, Rafa's gonna take it; the exact opposite is the case if it's on grass or carpet. Hard courts offer a little bit of a toss-up, but technically, Federer should be able to nab those seven or eight times out of 10.

Also, even though he's probably the most musclebound player in history, Rafa's basically disappeared post-Wimbledon the past couple of years due to his body breaking down on him. I think Nadal is way more prone to early-round upsets once you get off the dirt than Federer is, his recent slump aside.

Nadal's made big strides in his game as his back-to-back finals at Wimbledon shows. However, I just don't see him being a year-round threat to Federer. They're just no Chrissie and Martina, or Seles and Graf, or McEnroe and Lendl. Novak Djokovic could become a more legit year-round rival, but he's not there just yet.

So while there may be roadblocks in Federer's path, rivals are lacking.

(Photos: Federer, Getty; Nadal: AP)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wait, back it up

Two-thirds of the big three I pegged in the previous post are out of the running at the Italian Open as Serena Williams (above) pulled out with a back strain and Venus Williams lost a tight three-setter to Jelena Jankovic. As I'm writing this, the other member of my triumvirate, Maria Sharapova, has just lost the first set to Patty Schnyder.

It looks like this is Jankovic's tournament to lose at this point, as I'm not expecting Alize Cornet or Anna Chakvetadze to put up much of a fight. However, I don't see this tournament having much of a forebearing on what will happen at the French, especially if Serena says she should be all right. I can't see Jankovic going through that many tough players at a Major, plus having the nerves to handle the situation. So I'm still sticking with my big three to dominate the season.

(Photo: AP)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Three the hard way

Day 1 of the post-Henin era sees Maria Sharapova take over the number-one spot on the WTA rankings, but can she hold on to it? That's the million-dollar question. The way I see it, there's really only two other legit contenders and here's a hint: Their last name begins with "W" and ends in "illiams."

By the time it's all said and done, I think that barring injury the top three spots at the end of the year will be filled by Maria, Serena and Venus: not necessarily in that order, but there, nonetheless. Here's why:

• Coming to the surfaces: S. Williams and Sharapova have both had pretty dominant clay-court seasons so far, which both would say is their worst surface. And V. Williams, after taking some time off for whatever reason, had a really good win today over Vera Zvonareva, who's having one of the most solid seasons on the tour right now. They're racking up great results now. Imagine what will happen when they all get to the grass and hard-court seasons.

• Power balling: No one hits all-out like the Williams and Sharapova. Henin could give as good as she got, but she also mixed up her game to thwart their bomb-dropping, throwing in slices and loops to keep them off balance. No one in the top 10 has the variety Henin has, save for Patty Schnyder, and it's past the point of her coming through. Now I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility for SMV to just totally blast opponents off the court.

• The Major difference: Besides the big 3, the only other top 20 player out there with a Slam right now is Svetlana Kuznetsova, and she can't even win a regular tour final right now. Ana Ivanovic has gotten to a couple of Major finals, but lost them. Jelena Jankovic hasn't tasted Slam runner-up glory yet, and I don't see it this year. Serena, Venus and Maria all know about sealing the deal, and have each come through with at least one big title in the past couple of years. They know what to do when it comes down to playing for the big hardware, especially if it's NOT against each other!

Things will really heat up week after next when the French Open starts. Expect one of the big three to come through with the other two nipping at her heels!

(Photos: Getty Images)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Whoa, part 2

And I thought it would've all just turned out to be a bunch of baloney. You see an article at 5:45 in the morning like I did today reporting something no one saw coming, what else would you think? But turns out it was true: Justine Henin, the number-one player in the women's game, only 25 and coming off a career year, announced her retirement, effective immediately. Now after reading all the stories, here's what I think:

I'm not buying it.

It's not that I don't believe she's leaving the game right now, because it's obvious she's doing that. I honestly think she'll be back, though, at least in a year-and-a-half or two. If Lindsay Davenport got the itch to start playing again after complaining for years that she couldn't wait for her career to be over, then what will Henin be like? I know she has her academy to build up and has a world of outside interests to keep her busy.

However, I can't think of another women's tennis player that enjoyed the competitive aspect of the sport as much as Henin did, except for maybe Monica Seles. I think Henin loved to beat those players that were bigger than her and showing them that heart and determination can go a long way in beating what appear to be insurmountable odds. I've been rooting for her to pick up a Wimbledon title for a few years now, just because I love to see history being made in the game, and I bet that'll stick in her craw, too.

If this is truly the route she wants to take, you can't help but respect her career and her decision-making on this. Plus, it's always great to see an athlete go out on top. I just can't picture her staying away for too long; not as determined as she is.

I already have a headline picked out for when she starts talking about a comeback — Belgian waffling? I think I'm gonna get that trademarked!

(Photos: Getty Images)


How's about this little bombshell I saw at 5:45 on my way to go play tennis?

More later as the story develops; if there's one at all.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Twins peaking

As Novak Djokovic and Dinara Safina were bagging the big titles at Rome and Berlin, respectively, a step closer to history was made on the doubles court. As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty big stat-head, or tennis dork, if you will, and there's something I've been wondering the past couple of years: Taking singles and doubles players into account, will the Bryan Brothers win a wider range of major tournaments than anyone in the history of the Open Era? And if so, does this make them true legends of the game, and put them up there in a class with Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, etc.?

Winning the Italian Open this weekend gave them their eighth different Masters shield (out of nine possible); the only place they've missed out at is their "home" tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. Already having a career Slam and winning the end-of-the-year championships puts them pretty close to being in a class by themselves. Winning a Davis Cup, too, last year only helps their cause. The only other big title they're missing besides Indian Wells is the Olympics, which if they don't pull it off this year, I think they could still have a decent shot at the Gold in 2012.

I'll do a brief comparison against some of their peers past and present, on both the singles and doubles sides, which if you were to look at it, shows how the Bryans are close to doing something of epic proportions. I'll start with some of the best doubles teams and players:

• The Woodies: Career Slam, Olympic Gold, Davis Cup and sheer dominance. But the Aussie pair fell short by a couple of Masters shields and can't do anything about that now because they're both retired.

• Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis: A career Slam for the Dutchmen, but not a sniff of a Davis Cup or Gold at the Olympics.

• Jonas Bjorkman: A career Slam, Davis Cup and only one Masters shield away from winning them all. However, time definitely isnt on the side of the Swedish veteran. I don't think he has much of a shot at the Olympics this year, and the Kevin Ullyett partnership doesn't appear to be paying off so far as to where he'll get a shot at the lone Masters title eluding him.

• John McEnroe and anybody: Isn't that the old answer for "Who's the best doubles team out there?" Well, he played most of his career with Peter Fleming and while they were pretty dominant, there are a lot of major titles missing from their resumes.

Now, the singles players:

• Andre Agassi: I'm starting with him because he's the only male singles player of the Open era with a career Slam, Olympics Gold and the Davis Cup; plus he has a ton of different Masters shields, but he doesn't have as many as the Bryan Brothers, missing out on Monte Carlo and Hamburg.

• Pete Sampras and Roger Federer: I'm lumping these two together because while they're considered two of the greatest across any era, they're nowhere close to doing what Andre did, which I think doesn't get discussed enough. Pete never won the French or the Olympics, and while Roger might pick up the French before it's all said and done and the Olympics, too, there's no way he's going to win the Davis Cup.

I've mentioned it before where I think the Bryans should have way more Slams than they do, but what they've achieved in the game is nothing short of amazing. Not to pump up the hyperbole, but what do you say if they bag Indian Wells and the Olympics (which personally, I think the only thing they should think about the rest of the year is Beijing)? Do you say they're two of the best athletes in all of sports? Something to think about.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Crashing the parties

It looks like all the action today on the court was at the WTA's German Open, where at least the two semifinal matches were finished! Over in Rome, the day was pretty much a bust with Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka both advancing when their opponents quit. In Germany, Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina both continued their impressive runs.

Regardless of the outcomes of the two finals tomorrow, the stories of the week have been the coming-out party for Wawrinka and Safina beating top players left and right. I have mixed feelings on these two.

First, Dinara: I think the main thing you have to say about her is, "She is her brother's sister." Meaning, she's almost as unpredictable as her brother, Marat Safin, is. She's been due to break out for years now, but she never maintains a consistent level of play. She's one a Tier ! title before, but this run kind of reminds me of when she got to the finals of the Italian Open a couple of years ago, only to get dusted by Martina Hingis. I wouldn't mind seeing her take this title and possibly start living up to her potential. Odds are, though, even if she wins, she'll fall back off the path to greatness and continue stumbling along.

Now, Stanislas: He's one of the best ball-strikers on the tour, but for some reason or another just hasn't put it together until the last couple of weeks. I've been waiting for him to make a breakthrough of sorts for a few years now. Is he here to stay? He'll be in the top 10 come Monday (giving countryman Roger Federer some company there). I think the question about him is mental toughness. There's been some situations where he just hasn't come through. Is it his time now? We'll see how the rest of the year plays out.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Close it out, James: CLOSE IT OUT!

I haven't seen the match report yet, just the scoreline, but James Blake just lost to Stanislas Wawrinka 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-1. There's been a few matches that JB has lost this year when he's been in a winning position, mainly both his final-round appearances. And what happened in the third? Come on, James! You fought off Verdasco yesterday; you could've done the same here!

I hope this isn't the case, but I always feel U.S. male players on clay nowadays just let matches go when it gets tight: "Hey, clay isn't my best surface" or "Oh well, I'm not going to win the French anyway, so why bother?" or "Quarters at the Italian? That's good enough."

Let's see what Andy Roddick does against Tommy Robredo.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

He almost made my "what the heck is going on with ... " list

But I figured I'd give him a break!

Hats off to Juan Carlos Ferrero for such a huge win yesterday over Rafael Nadal at the Italian Open. I know Rafa was bothered by injury, but all credit to JCF for not folding and coming through. Truth be told, I wouldn't mind seeing him follow it up with a great run there. It's crazy that he hasn't won a title in five years!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What the heck is going on with ... ?

It's official (and beating last year's nemesis, Willy Canas, only confirms it): Roger Federer is out of his funk.

But what about all the other slump-ridden players out there?

Whether it's caused by injuries, age, mental hang-ups or other players just figuring your game out, a slump can be a rough thing to try to get out of. There's a few players out there competing in Rome and Berlin this week that have hit the heights before, but recent results show no signs of getting back to where they once were. Here's a look at a few of them:

Ivan Ljubicic
• The Good Times: Remember back when he was the clear-cut number three player in the world behind R-Fed and Rafa? Here was a guy that peaked at a pretty late age and at one point, was making finals left and right. He made it to the semis of the French (where I actually thought he had a chance to beat Rafael Nadal) and also led his country to a Davis Cup win. • The Bad Times: He's chalked up a few first-round losses this year, the most recent being at the Italian Open. To me, though, his worst result of the year was losing the final of his hometown tournament in Zagreb to a lucky loser, Sergiy Stankhovsky, who hasn't done anything since then. • The Prognosis: I'm gonna have to go with bad. It was a great run: top-3 ranking, nearly $7 million in prize money, a few titles. I just don't see a comeback happening.

Carlos Moya
• The Good Times: Moya built a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career as far as I'm concerned: A Slam, a runner-up at a Slam, time at number one, tons of titles. • The Bad Times: He's been in a final this year, but a recent four-match losing streak on clay (his best surface) portends an ominous sign methinks. • The prognosis: I think he'll pick up a title or two before it's all said and done, but I'd say his best days are probably behind.

Amelie Mauresmo
• The Good Times: The "best player to never win a major" did away with that title in style, nabbing an Aussie and Wimbledon to go along with her ton of other tournament victories. To me, it looked like she was on her way to becoming one of the greatest. • The Bad Times: After finally beating her mental hang-up problems, injuries and illness have really derailed her, particularly that appendicitis from last year. She actually pulled out of Berlin with another malady. • The Prognosis: She's as talented as any player out there, but she was never the toughest mentally. Number one and Slams are definitely not in her future again.

Marion Bartoli
• The Good Times: The Frenchwoman had her career moment last year making the finals of Wimbledon. She had been on the up-and-coming trail and really showed she could hang with the big girls. • The Bad Times: She had a convincing win today against another player that could be in the "What the heck is going on with ..." category, Lucie Safarova. But for the most part, it's been pretty downhill since Wimbledon and she has a sub-.500 record this year. • The Prognosis: Bartoli's still pretty young, so you can't completely rule her out, but she needs to dump the wacky training methods and techniques (Serving off your tippy-toes? Come on!) and dump the coach behind those ideas--her dad.

These are some of the big names among the slumpees out there. Who knows? Maybe they can turn it around like my man Younes El Aynaoui. But they need to do it quick.

(Photos: Ljubicic, Mauresmo: AP; Moya, Bartoli: Getty Images)