Sunday, June 29, 2008

And on the seventh day ...

As they take the traditional break at the All-England Club, I figured I'd take a look back at the week that was—and what a week it was! Here's the recap of some of the big storylines:

• Upsets abounded: World number one Ana Ivanovic? Gone. 2004 champ Maria Sharapova? Ditto. 2008 Aussie champ Novak Djokovic? Blink and you missed him. Two-time runner-up Andy Roddick? Probably back in New York by now with his supermodel fiancee. All in all, of the top 10 seeds on the men's side, only four are heading into the second week, while on the women's side, six are through. For a minute there, it looked like no one could be considered safe!

• On a collision course: Amid all the carnage, though, among the top seeds, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal look like they're on line to book their annual Sunday battle. And after the women's draw has been wrecked, it's hard to see someone stopping the Williams sisters from meeting. Of course, those are the finals I predicted, so I have to say that! Seriously, though, it seems things are falling into place to make that happen.

• The comeback kids: Former top tenners Marat Safin and Mario Ancic both took out current members of the ATP's elite, Djokovic and David Ferrer. Injuries and overall headcasedness have slowed Safin in the past couple of years, but when his head's in the game, watch out. He has a great shot at making a real deep run here. Ancic hasn't even gotten to play that much over the past couple of years with a range of injuries and illness. That match he played against Ferrer was one of the best on grass that I've seen in a long time. I think he'll get to the quarters, but waiting for him there should be Federer. Still, it's been a great tournament so far, and hopefully he'll get back to where he was.

• All eyes on Andy: Andy Murray has been ripping through his matches here, much to the delight of the British crowd. I watched some of the Tommy Haas match, and man, can that kid play! The road ahead gets real tough, but if he keeps it together, who knows what he can accomplish here?

• Fashion statements: Nike definitely broke out some unique looks for some of it's stars: from Sharapova's tux to Serena Williams trench coat to R-Fed's cardigan. We know Alla Kudryavtseva didn't like the tux, but I kind of dug the cardigan. I'm not really a fan of the trench coat, but hey, to each their own!

(Photos: Getty Images)

Friday, June 27, 2008

How does Bethanie Mattek vs. Ai Sugiyama sound?

That's who I'm going with for the final Saturday on the women's side because predicting any top player might be a mistake: Number-one seed Ana Ivanovic just crashed out! More on this later.

Rain, rain go and stay away

There's been a rain delay at the grounds of the All-England Club so far. At least the tournament's gotten this far without a drop!

Here's a quick look at some matches that I think will be some good ones, provided they get them in. I know they took the tarp off Centre Court, but you just never know what happens out in London when one drop hits. It could be a prelude of things to come. Anyway, here's a few:

• Roger Federer (1) vs. Marc Gicquel: I actually follow what Gicquel does in his career. You may be thinking "who?" and "why?" I saw him BLAST Juan-Carlos Ferrero off the court at the U.S. Open and thought, "Man, what a player." He's alright, but he shouldn't offer too much resistance to the King. R-Fed in straights.

• Amelie Mauresmo vs. Serena Williams (6): Just two years ago, this would've been a credible final, now look where it's being played. If Mauresmo were healthy, I'd say watch out. But she's pretty hobbled now. Serena in straights, too.

• Mario Ancic vs. David Ferrer (5): Ferrer just took out Ancic last week on the way to his first grass-court title. I like Ancic to get him here. (I need Ancic to get him here, he's one of my few quarterfinal picks remaining!) Ancic in four.

Aside from Ancic over Ferrer, here's a few upset picks: Dellacqua over Vaidisova, Safin over Seppi and Reynolds over Lopez.

(Photo: AP)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Oh, how the mighty have fallen

In all of Grand Slamdom (or at the very least, since the Majors started seeding 32 players), has there ever been a two-day stretch like this?

Maria Sharapova's loss to Alla Kudryavtseva has to be one of the most shocking defeats I've ever witnessed. I've been reading the stories (among them Kudryavtseva dissing Sharapova's tux) and I didn't realize Alla has had some moments, like getting to the third at the French last year and almost beating Venus here. I don't know why her ranking has plummeted over the past year, either. Not to take away any credit from her, but if you look at the comment posted by Steve in the previous post, that makes for an interesting storyline. That's a couple of tough losses Sharapova's had in her last two majors. They almost make you forget she won the Australian this year.

And speaking of tough losses: Andy, Andy, ANDY! This loss to Janko Tipsarevic kind of bugs me because I consider myself an A-Rod fan. I'm also bugged because I don't know when, if ever, or where he'll win another big one. Know why I have my doubts? Because he hasn't had the right coaching situation for years. I never was a fan of the Jimmy Connors move, and really, if you look at it, what are his brother's credentials? I've been staying up late at night wracking my brain trying to figure out who he can get for a coach (I may be exaggerating a wee bit, but I have been thinking about it!) and only two names come to mind: Darren Cahill and (you're not gonna like this Andy) Brad Gilbert! A-Rod's still a Hall of Famer as far as I'm concerned, but things can be so much better. Anyway, about today: A big oh-for on break points just can't get it done.

James Blake fell, which I was kind of shocked about. He just beat Rainer Schuettler in straights at the French on his worst surface, so why couldn't he blast him off the court here? Something I've been kind of suspecting after he lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero last year and Max Mirnyi the year before, and falling to Fernando Gonzalez in a Davis Cup tie after being up two sets to nil is that mentally, he's not really that hot on grass. Situations can change quickly on the turf and I don't think he manages it well. That's just my opinion.

Along with those three, another NINE seeds lost between the men and women! However, you want to break it down, that's a lot of losing! We'll see how tomorrow goes!

(Photos: Sharapova, AP; Roddick, Blake: Getty Images)

What the 'tux' happened?

So how about that Tamarine Tanasugarn, knocking off Zvonareva, just like I predicted! : )

Totally kidding! There have been some upsets this year at majors, but nothing, I mean NOTHING like this one! Congratulations to Alla Kudryavtseva (I had to copy and paste her name there) for knocking off Ms. Menswear, Maria Sharapova. I followed the score on the Wimbledon site, but I didn't have any visual.

What happened?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A perfect day*

So, how's about that Marat Safin? What a great win for him. But dude, on behalf of tennis fans everywhere, please, PLEASE keep it going! Not just here at Wimbledon, but the rest of the year, and if it isn't too much to ask, the rest of your career!

I'm looking at that section of the draw, and it looks like a truck hit it. Who's going to come through? I would say based on just pure talent, it would be Safin. However, the best grasser (Is that phrase that I coined catching on? If not, let me know and I'll stop!) in that quarter would be Marcos Baghdatis. Getting by Thomas Johansson in straights on grass isn't anything to sneeze at. He really has a good shot at making the semis. He and Safin facing off in the quarters could be a good one.

Things almost got pretty bad there for Serbia today, with Ana Ivanovic just scraping by. I have to tell you, the more I see her play, the more I like her. There's just so much fight in her that's really fun to watch. Plus, it's like they always say, if you keep fighting, good things can happen—like balls trickling over netcords in your favor!

Tomorrow's got some more great matches on tap. Regular reader Iheartrafa asked that I picked some more matches that have the potential to be upsets. I don't really see too many happening, but there will definitely be some good ones, like these, for instance:

• Rafael Nadal (2) vs. Ernests Gulbis: Is Gulbis for real? Is Rafa? Just kidding about Nadal, of course he is! But every young player that you know is going to be a top-tenner eventually, such as Gulbis, loves to go out there and battle. I like Nadal in three, but it should be entertaining, nonetheless.

• Xavier Malisse vs. Andy Murray (12): Malisse's biggest career result has been making the semis at Wimbledon in 2002, a looonng time ago! Injuries have been his downfall, which is sad because the way he started off last year, it looked like he was finally gonna make a serious move toward the top 10. Murray did well to drop Santoro in straights the other day, and I expect him to do the same here. There'll be some great shot-making in this one.

• Andy Roddick (6) vs. Janko Tipsarevic: This one here is a biggie: While he has yet to make a big push to match his ability, everyone, including A-Rod, knows Tipsarevic is a baller. Roddick can't afford to let up at all in this one. If he does, it could be a wrap. I'm picking him to get through in four.

• Richard Gasquet (8) vs. Sebastian Grosjean: These former semifinalists and countrymen will put on a show of French flair for any and all to see when they square off. Expect crazy winners to come off their racquets. I'm going with Gasquet in this one, but he's gonna have to watch it. I'm sure Grosjean knows his game as well as anyone's.

And here's one upset match I'm picking:
Tamarine Tanasugarn vs. Vera Zvonareva (13): Tanasugarn really threw me for a loop winning last weekend. It's always good to see the veterans get it done! She's had a great Wimbledon career and I think she takes out Zvonareva, one of the most consistent players on tour this year, in three tight ones.

* The headline, "A perfect day" refers to all the upset matches I flagged yesterday. I got every one of them wrong! So, in other words, I was perfect. How many times can someone say that? (I'm definitely a glass-half-full kinda guy!)

(Photos: Ivanovic, AP; Others, Getty Images)

Honesty's the best policy


I'm gonna 'fess up: I had a statement at the end of my previous posting about Marat Safin beating Novak Djokovic, but it was totally tongue-in-cheek. i didn't think it was going to really happen, so I don't want to seem like Nostradamus or something. I mean, I'm good, but not that good! : )

More on this match later! Wow again!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lurking in the grass

Aside from the Davydenko upset, pretty much all the favorites today kicked off their Wimbledon bids in a winning fashion. The hottest player on the planet, Rafael Nadal, won in straights, as did Venus Williams, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova, among others.

However in the spirit of the Davydenko loss, I'm going to do something a little different. Yesterday, I picked out what I thought were going to be some intriguing matches. Today, I'm going to flag some matches for tomorrow that I think are upsets in the making. Some may sound far-fetched, others might really be quite conceivable. But hey, I'm a risk-taker, so why not go for it!

• Svetlana Kuznetsova (4) vs. Kateryna Bondarenko: Now, Kuznetsova has some grass-court prowess, having gotten to the quarters here a few times. But I'm going with form on this one: Bondarenko (pictured above) just won a title on grass, while Kuznetsova lost her only warm-up match on the green stuff. Bondarenko in three.

• Igor Andreev vs. David Ferrer (5): Ferrer's had a great run on the turf this year, but the buck stops here for him. I feel that if you can blast forehands on clay, like Andreev does, then they should really squirt through on the green stuff. Andreev in four.

• Samantha Stosur vs. Nicole Vaidisova (18): I almost feel guilty for flagging this one: Vaidisova can't buy a win and Sam just had a great run at a warm-up. Stosur has a shot to make it to at least the fourth round and the run starts in earnest here. Straights for the Aussie.

• Juan Martin Del Potro vs. Stanislas Wawrinka (13): Del Potro (pictured) is an example of that new breed of Argentinian player: The ones that can play well on fast surfaces and aren't just dirt-ballers, I feel. As far as Wawrinka goes, I'm still not convinced. He falls in four.

There's my upset specials. Would it be too crazy to say Marat Safin over Novak Djokovic? Don't worry, I'm not going to!

(Photos: Bondarenko: AP; Del Potro: Getty Images)

I hate to say I told you so ...

...But I told you so, Wimbledon seeding committee!

Why, oh why, was Nikolay Davydenko made the number-four seed over Andy Roddick? I KNEW this would happen when the seedings were released. All it would take was someone with a pretty big serve to knock him out. Congrats to career journeyman Ben Becker on the win, though.

Here's a note to the committee on this: Davydenko can't play well on grass!

Well, there's always next year for them to get it right.

(Photo: AFP)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mr. Federer's neighborhood

The first day of Wimbledon is in the books, with almost all of the big stars getting through, such as Ana Ivanovic (who cruised), Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who was back on his home turf looking very stylish in a classic cardigan.

I liked that he came out and dropped the hammer on his good buddy, Dominik Hrbaty. Surprisingly, he'd never beaten him before. Hrbaty's really fallen by the wayside the past couple of years, though, and wasn't able to offer much resistance. R-Fed looked very sharp regardless, and didn't even relax too much after the changeover where Hrbaty sat next to him!

Serena, on the other hand, looked a little shaky. I thought Mary-Joe Fernandez made a great point this morning: She really needs to get back to establishing herself as the true favorite in these Slams, noting that she hasn't gotten past the quarters at a major since winning the Aussie last year. Djoko dropped a set, but I figured he'd be OK.

The biggest names to fall were David Nalbandian and Ivo Karlovic. When I was doing my predictions for the tournament, I originally had Djoko going against Nalbandian, but I figured it would be too risky since you never know which David will show up. So I went with Karlovic thinking, "Hey, he's won grass-court titles and he has to come through at a big one at some point, so why not now?" Let me tell you: The guy just doesn't have it up top. Never making a Major quarterfinal with his game? There's something wrong.

Well anyway, that section of the draw as far as my predictions go is blown for me! I think Marcos Baghdatis is now the favorite there, but I'd also watch out for what Frank Dancevic can do after knocking out Nalbandian.

Tomorrow has some interesting matches on tap. My pick on the women's side, Venus Williams, kicks things off, and Maria Sharapova is taking the court, too. These are a few, though, that would almost tempt me to call out sick for work to stay home and watch!

• Fabrice Santoro vs. Andy Murray (12): This, my friends, is a match to watch! No one out there likes playing against Santoro because of his style. Playing in his last Wimbledon, he's frustrated more guys to defeat than anyone this side of Brad Gilbert. If Murray, probably the most volatile player on tour, can keep his head in the game, he could get through this quickly. If not, it could be a very long day at the office. I'm going with Murray, though, and just to make it interesting, I'll say it'll be a five-setter.

• Richard Gasquet (8) vs. Mardy Fish: It's hard to pick which way to go with this one: Gasquet is way more talented than Fish, but is having some well-documented mental-toughness issues. This would be a perfect opportunity for Fish to make a statement, since grass is one of his favorite surfaces, but I said that last year when he played Rafael Nadal in the first round here and he ended up getting destroyed. I'll go with Gasquet in four. They're both major head cases and good grassers, but as I said, Gasquet has a little bit more game. It wouldn't shock me at all, though, if Fish won.

• Nicolas Mahut vs. Dmitry Tursunov (25): Mahut's the closest thing to a true grass-court specialist on the men's tour: You only hear his name for three to five weeks out of the year and that's it. Tursunov plays well at Wimbledon and his game is so big, it's hard to go against him in an early-round match here. However, that's just what I'm going to do! Mahut in four.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...

...Happy birthday, dear Tennis Talk, Anyone?, Happy birthday to you!

Yes, today is the one-year anniversary of Tennis Talk, Anyone?, and it's been a ton of fun doing it! Thanks to anyone and everyone that's stopped by and read the content here, and liked what you saw. And if you didn't like what you saw, thanks for stopping by anyway! Thanks for all the comments, too. As far as I'm concerned, there's few things better than talking about tennis. Hopefully we'll be doing much more in the years ahead! --Van


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Maybe they should rename it the Venus 'Williams' Plate (Wimbledon women's quarterfinal predictions)

It doesn't matter if she hasn't come within a mile of even making a final this year: When it gets around Wimbledon time, you'd have to be hard-pressed to go against Venus Williams winning. Everything's all good when she gets on the grass, and that's why I'm going with her to win her fifth title. And I'm expecting her to play a pretty familiar foe in the finals. Here's how I see the draw breaking down, from the quarterfinals on:

Ana Ivanovic (1) vs. Anna Chakvetadze (8): Ivanovic, heading into her first tournament as the number-one player in the world, should have no trouble getting to the quarters, even though she hasn't played since the French. I had a lot of trouble looking at the other section of this quarter because the high seeds in it, Chakvetadze and Nicole Vaidisova, haven't been exactly lighting the world on fire. I'm going with Chakvetadze because her route to the round of 16 isn't as perilous as who could emerge from Patty Schnyder's section: Watch out for Samantha Stosur, Casey Dellacqua and a player that while she hasn't done much on grass at all could still be dangerous: Akgul Amanmuradova. But it doesn't matter if Ivanovic had been off for months: With this draw she shouldn't break a sweat to this point. And I'm expecting her to get through this one pretty easily.

Agnieska Radwanska (14) vs. Serena Williams (5): Radwanska, this past weekend's champ in Eastbourne, has been one of the most consistent performers on tour this year. I'm expecting her to emerge from Svetlana Kuznetsova's portion of the draw, as I'm tapping one of the Bondarenko sisters to knock out the number-four seed in the second or third round. Williams has an intriguing possible third-rounder against Amelie Mauresmo, like her, another former champ, but she should be OK getting to the quarters. Serena could be forced by Radwanska, but her experience at this stage of a major will definitely get her through.

Dinara Safina (9) vs. Maria Sharapova (2): OK, I've admitted time and again that maybe I was wrong about Safina and she does have the goods. Her section of the draw is kind of tricky because anyone could emerge from it as the only grasser there is Lindsay Davenport. But Ma Davenport hasn't played since I can't even begin to remember when and could get knocked out by Elena Dementieva, the five seed, in the third round. In a Safina-Dementieva fourth-rounder, I think Dinara will just have too much firepower. There's not too much to say about Sharapova's section: She should coast, unless Ordina Open finalist Nadia Petrova could give her some trouble in the fourth round. Sharapova gets her revenge for that French meltdown here.

Venus Williams (7) vs. Jelena Jankovic (2): Well, it's obvious what I think about Venus getting this far as I'm picking her to win the whole shebang! If Sania Mirza can make it to the third round, with that big forehand of hers, she could give Venus a little bit of a match. There's a couple of players that can give Jankovic a match early, like Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva or veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn, but she'll come through. Venus makes her first big statement of the tournament by taking this one.

For the semis:
Ivanovic vs. Serena Williams: She's definitely cooled off from her hot streak a few months ago, but I just think Serena is a better grasser than Ivanovic. If her head's in it, she can take her in three. Ivanovic won't go down without a fight, but down she will go.

Sharapova vs. Venus Williams: I don't know what happens to Sharapova when she faces a Williams late in a Major, but things generally don't work out for her. I'm not expecting them to this time either. Venus in straights.

For the final:
Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams: Most people think Serena's the better player of the two, but on grass, I just don't see it, even though Venus lost their previous two final matchups. Third time's the charm for her as she nabs her fifth Venus Rosewater dish. (or "Williams" dish!)

(Photos: Venus, BBC; All others: Getty Images)

Friday, June 20, 2008

The joy of six (Wimbledon men's quarterfinal predictions)

He's only won two titles this year. He got waylaid in the French final. His chief rivals are playing better than ever. Despite all this, I'm still going with Roger Federer to pick up his sixth Wimbledon title in a row. But I don't like to just try and predict the winner: It's much more fun to take a closer look at the draw and write how I think it's going to go down, from the quarterfiinals on. So here we go:

Roger Federer (1) vs. Mario Ancic: It may be the natural assumption that Federer will automatically coast through to the quarters, but a look at his draw shows he could be made to possibly work a little. First off is Dominik Hrbaty, who's struggling but is up 2-0 in their head-to-heads. Then he'll probably play big-hitting Robin Soderling. Gael Monfils lurks as a possible third-round opponent, then Lleyton Hewitt (who I'm picking to knock out Fernando Gonzalez) and after all that, he still has to face Ancic, the last person to beat him here. I'm picking Ancic to come through the part of the draw where David Ferrer is the high seed. I'm still not convinced of Ferrer's grass-court ability, even if he ends up winning the Ordina Open this weekend.

Novak Djokovic (3) vs. Ivo Karlovic (18): Djoko's path to the quarters should be easy. I would say he should watch out for Marat Safin in the second round, but Safin hates grass, so it shouldn't be too tough. In the fourth round, Djokovic is seeded to meet Stanislas Wawrinka, but I'm not convinced about him at all. Look for Sam Querrey or even Juan Martin Del Potro to serve him off the court. As for Karlovic: Every year, he's considered a dangerous floater, but he never steps up in the majors and makes a big dent. This is where he sheds those past failures. David Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdatis are the high seeds in this section, but much like those two, if he shows up, he's hard to beat—especially with that serve of his. Karlovic has to come through at some point, right? Why not now?

Andy Roddick (6) vs. Jarkko Nieminen: It looks like A-Rod's the beneficiary of being in the section of the draw with Nikolay Davydenko, the four seed. As I've mentioned before, I really wasn't too big a fan of seeding old Nik that high; he could very easily go out to Benjamin Becker in the first round. His quarter is pretty much up for grabs, but I had to pick someone, so that's why I went with Nieminen. He'll have to watch it against Marin Cilic in the second round and Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth. Andy's section is pretty loaded with clay-courters. Janko Tipsarevic could be tricky in the second round, though; and Nicolas Mahut should give him a game in the third round, as well as Blake in the fourth. But I'm still going with A-Rod.

Andy Murray (12) vs. Rafael Nadal (2): A lot of people are ready to hand Nadal the title, but not me, not yet. There's some real tough guys in his quarter, Nicolas Kiefer and Radek Stepanek among them. If Stepanek were healthy going in, I'd say watch out, but since he's not Nadal should be more than OK. Winning Queens showed he can beat all types of players on grass. If Fabrice Santoro doesn't frustrate him to the brink of insanity in the first round, Murray could possibly coast in the next two matches until he faces Richard Gasquet in the fourth. That'll be a good win for Murray, but the run should end against Nadal.

For the semis:
Federer vs. Djokovic: This is where Federer makes Djokovic pay for every little word that has come out of his mouth over the past few months. R-Fed shows no mercy in this one.

Roddick vs. Nadal: This could be a great win for Roddick, but I don't think it's going to happen. A-Rod's one of the best grassers of his generation, but he doesn't have anything to throw off Nadal. I'm going with Rafael in four.

For the finals:
Federer vs. Nadal: After having done away with all the contenders and pretenders to the throne, these two will be having their annual "Breakfast at Wimbledon." And like the other years, too, it'll be R-Fed taking the title and, I would assume, putting rest to any doubts about his future.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

For tradition's sake

With the biggie a few days away, I decided that if I can do it for the French, why not Wimbledon? Starting tomorrow, I'm going to do a countdown of my three favorite memories from years (upon years) of watching it all go down at the All-England Club. Nothing like an old stroll down memory lane!

Speaking of memory lane, there's a great Wimbledon quiz you can take at Top Spin Tennis Blog. It's tough! I like to think I know my history, but I only got four, possibly five, answers right if I'm lucky!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Seeds of discontent

Not that the All-England Club has to run anything by me, but if it was to have asked my opinion, I would have definitely done the seeding differently on the men's side than it did.

Wimbledon is the only Slam that seeds players based on their past records at the tournament and their grass-court ability. That being said, the organizers made a MAJOR screw-up as far as I'm concerned: How do you hold to the rankings among the top seven players and seed Nikolay Davydenko and David Ferrer above Andy Roddick and David Nalbandian? Davydenko and Ferrer have absolutely no grass-court credentials between the two of them, while Roddick and Nalbandian have both made it to the finals at Wimbledon, and made multiple semis and quarters there. Plus, Roddick has four Queen's Club titles! What else do you want?

Those couple of spots make a huge difference: Now, more than likely for the quarterfinals, Roddick will probably be drawn to face Novak Djokovic, while Nalbandian will be expected to square off against Rafael Nadal. At this point, both of the higher seeds would probably be the favorite. If Roddick and Nalbandian would have been seeded four and five, respectively, then those two would have been likely drawn against each other in the quarters, and the winner of that would have been a deserved semifinalist.

If Marcos Baghdatis can be moved up 15 spots from his ranking of 25, then the All-England Club doing this with Roddick and Nalbandian is a huge mistake. If Davydenko is drawn against a big-serving qualifier in the first round, I guarantee he loses. He just doesn't like to play on grass. Ferrer, I'm a little bit more optimistic about: I mean he's at least playing a warm-up tournament this week! But those two are not legit contenders for the Wimbledon title; Roddick and Nalbandian are.

I was going to let the club slide on the women's seedings, but they messed that up, too. OK, it would be hard to have the number-one player in the world not at the top spot, but Jelena Jankovic at two over Maria Sharapova, and Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva over Serena Williams and Venus Williams? Come on! That's insane!

The All-England Club should either do away with the tradition or put me on the seeding committee!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Caught with my pants down (or the latest installment in the "Oh yeah, I play tennis, too" series)

Let me tell you about something I've never experienced on the court before in my 20 years playing! It was a "clothes" call, indeed!

Today, I made my first appearance since September at the racquet club I belong to. I've been on the disabled list for a while with pretty bad Achilles tendinitis, and had to do a couple months physical therapy to get back on track. It's helped tremendously and I started hitting again about a month ago. But that's been it, just hitting. So I figured I needed to get out and play some points, games, sets, whatever, especially as I'm planning to enter a tennis tournament in three weeks!

I finally got up early enough to go out to the early-bird program at the club. It's the best deal there, I feel: You get to play sets of singles and/or doubles, you're rotated around and there's a lot of good players that go. Most of them are older, but it's been a big plus for me over the years as I've learned a ton competing against them on the Har-Tru, having grown up playing on hard courts.

Anyway, I'm out there and everyone's paired off, so I hit for a while with the pro. We're hitting and decide to play some games until someone comes along. Well, someone comes over to the court, dressed in a polo shirt and pleated pants, lugging a racquet bag. He and the pro are making small talk, and I figure this is who I'm going to play after he goes to the locker room and changes. Then this guy and the pro walk up to the net, as if we're about to play now! The pro says this guy is a player and you two should have a good set. I'm thinking to myself, "He's wearing pants. Dockers even!" We warm up and I couldn't figure out any weaknesses to really probe: He could hit big, had nice feel, serve big or with a heavy spin. Maybe there was something there and I was distracted because he had on pants! Pants, I say!

We play a set and I lost 6-2. There was no shame in it, because despite his abundance of outerwear, as the pro said, "He's a player." I'd love to hit with him again, now that I know what I could be facing!

After he and I played, I squeezed in a few games with someone I've played against many times over the years and she was ahead in the score by the time the alarm rang to end the early-bird session. The day was an eye-opener as far as where I need to be in my game and fitness level, seeing as how on a scale of 1 to 10, I'm about at a 5.5 gamewise and a 4 physically.

Maybe if I play in pants, it'll help me out!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Taking five

Both tours are playing their final warm-ups before hitting the All-England Club for the biggie: The men are in Nottingham and the women in Eastbourne, and both are in s'Hertogenbosch for a co-ed affair they like to call the Ordina Open. But while taking a look at the draws for the two women's tournaments (and last week's two) I noticed something: Where are the five top contenders for to come away with the Wimbledon crown? That being Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, new number-one Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic?

I know injuries, fatigue and general "wanting-to-rest-uppedness" are more than likely the reasons for no warm-ups among the five. Also, those aren't the only spots where you can get in some grass-court practice, but I'm of the mind-set where players showing up at tournaments before the Major can only help them in the long run as long as they don't overdo it.

Ivanovic (pictured at the parade in her honor back in Belgrade) I can see taking a break: After all, she did emerge the winner of the last big tournament, the French. The others, I'm not sure. They should be as sharp as possible going into possible matches against each other. Who knows? Maybe playing that extra tournament would have given the edge in a match-up.

The five I mentioned are pretty much heads and shoulders above the other players on most occasions, I feel. And you don't even have to look at a Wimbledon draw to know the winner should emerge from that group. But what happens when Serena or Jelena has to play Kateryna Bondarenko, who's just won on the grass and is match-sharp? Watch out.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mowing them down

The last man standing at the Queens Championships was someone I didn't expect to see taking a bite out of the trophy: Rafael Nadal. Not only did he win his first grass-court title (fresh off the dirt, mind you), but his feat was more impressive than the premier grasser of his generation, Roger Federer, who took Halle.

In Nadal's final three matches, he beat two of the biggest bombers out there—Ivo Karlovic and Andy Roddick—and probably the second-most versatile player, Novak Djokovic, taking him out in straights. It's been kind of tough for me to accept the versatility Nadal has in his own game, but I think this win squashes any doubts I had in me.

Federer did well winning Halle, but I think the level of the players there was totally different from that at the Artois Championships. I guess it doesn't matter for him who he plays on grass or where, as seen by his millionth match win on the turf in a row. He took out Phil Kohlschreiber pretty easily, which was to be expected after Phil beat James Blake yesterday. Personally, I'm a Blake fan, but I wonder about him sometime. I've said this time and again: There's so many matches he loses against guys that are so far below him in the rankings. He just can't be losing to guys like Kohlschreiber at certain stages in tournaments.

As far as R-Fed goes, I know there's been some wondering as to how that French loss will affect him. Personally, I don't think it will. I don't think he needed this title win at Halle for "a confidence boost" or anything like that. Don't worry about him, he's a-ok.

On the women's side, at the DFS Classic, the kid sister in the Bondarenko bunch, Kateryna, won her first career title, taking out Yanina Wickmayer that ended as tight as a match can end: the third-set tiebreak.

There were some clay-court straggling tournaments being played this week as well: Nikolay Davydenko won in Warsaw, Poland, and Maria Kirilenko won in Barcelona, Spain. Now, I can see Davydenko getting in some extra dirty work: He likes to play and despite making the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, he's probably the least grass-playing-capable member of the top 10. But Kirilenko, I just don't get it. It's obvious she can ball; shouldn't she have been playing a grass-court warmup? She's had pretty lousy results at Wimbledon, but isn't she still young enough to try and reverse that?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lawn jockeying

The promoters of the Artois Championships must be thinking this is the perfect 30th anniversary gift with the matches they'll end up with over the last three rounds! With that quarterfinal lineup having been such a monster, of course you're going to get the same for the semis! Here's my little rundown of what I think will happen there:

David Nalbandian vs. Novak Djokovic: Nalbandian came through in a tough third-set tiebreak against Richard Gasquet. With Nalbandian, you never know if this is going to be one of those tournaments where he's just knocking off guys ahead of him in the rankings left and right. However, I don't think that'll be the case this time, and I'm going with Djoko in straights.

Andy Roddick vs. Rafael Nadal: Rafa survived a ton of heat coming at him by beating Ivo Karlovic, and he can expect more coming from A-Rod. Much like Roland Garros is Nadal's personal playpen, I think the same applies to Roddick at Queens. A-Rod in three.

Oh yeah, there's another big grass-court tournament going on in Germany, where some guy named Roger Federer is playing. He's through to the semis against homeboy Nic Kiefer, and James Blake is playing Tennis Talk, Anyone? fave Philipp Kohlschreiber, also a local boy done good. I think it'll be an R-Fed-JB final come Sunday there.

And the DFS Classic in Birmingham has an interesting player there making a little run: American Bethanie Mattek is making a nice run. It's nice to see her calling attention to herself with her play and not her silly outfits! I think she has a great shot to make her first career singles final. I'm sure there's an outfit in the closet waiting for that moment!

(Photos: Getty Images)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Major turf battles

In my last post, I was kind of pondering and lamenting the state of grass-court tennis, but I have to admit, the quarterfinal lineup at the Artois Championships is pretty amazing for any tennis fan, even if there is guys in it that would've never been there 10 years ago! This could easily be the quarterfinal lineup at Wimbledon, sans Federer, who's playing over in Halle.

Since it looks like it's worthy of a Slam, I thought I'd do a quick breakdown of the matches:

Rafael Nadal vs. Ivo Karlovic: These two have played once before, years ago on carpet, and Rafa won. It's real tempting to go with Karlovic for the upset, but I think Ivo's lefty serve won't hurt fellow lefty Nadal as much, so I'm going with Rafa. Karlovic is gonna be seeing a lot of balls at his shoestrings in this one.

Andy Roddick vs. Andy Murray: I personally feel that after Roger Federer, these two are the most gifted grass-court players on the tour. It's a battle between one of the best servers and returners, and only one can come through! I'm going with Andy in this one. : )

Richard Gasquet vs. David Nalbandian: Another battle between great grass-court players. Gasquet seems to be in pretty decent form mentally. It seems that coaching change has already had a big impact on him. Nalbandian knocked off a good grasser (my new word for 'grass-court player') the round before in Nicolas Mahut, but the buck should stop here.

Lleyton Hewitt vs. Novak Djokovic: Hewitt's actually playing pretty decently, as seen by his run at the French after not playing for weeks, and he really loves this place, having racked up the titles. However, I think Djokovic might be a little too solid for Hewitt, so I'm going with Djokovic in this one.

It should be a good one, nonetheless, as will all the other matches here.

(And I'm not gonna cop out in the battle of Andys! It's a tough call: My heart and head says Roddick, So A-Rod it is.)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Whatever happened to grass-court tennis?

Hey, wasn't I just talking about clay courts and endless baseline rallies just a few days ago?

There's a few straggling tournaments on dirt throughout the rest of the year, with a couple this week: Warsaw for the men and Barcelona for the women. However, the main thing happening for most of the pros is making the adjustment to playing on grass. The men are in Germany, where Roger Federer—the current Lawn King—is the defending champ and won his first-round match today, and in England for the Artois Championships, which features Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and multiple champs Andy Roddick (pictured making that rarest of shots nowadays, a volley) and Lleyton Hewitt. The women are playing the DFS Classic in Birmingham, where top seed and last year's Wimbledon runner-up, Marion Bartoli, got bounced. (Man, is she struggling!)

But as players gear up for the big W, I have an important question, one that's been nagging me for a few years:

Why isn't grass-court tennis now like it used to be?

Remember just a few years ago when the clay-courters would skip the grass-court season and be caught golfing instead? When, after trudging on the dirt for what seemed like months, serve-and-volleyers knew it was their time to shine? (By the way, whatever happened to serve-and-volleyers? A question for another time, I guess.) Now, it looks like its being played on a fast clay court, much like the old grass they used to play the Australian Open on when Mats Wilander won twice in the early 1980s. (I'm really aging myself with that one!) The balls are fluffier, the courts aren't lightning-quick anymore: What's wrong with a little contrast?

I admit, Rafael Nadal's feats of making Wimbledon finals two years in a row is impressive, especially after coming off a grueling clay-court season. But would that have happened in the days of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, just to name a few guys, and the stuff they were playing on? No way! Much like he almost lost that match to Robert Kendrick a couple of years ago, that would have been the case on a regular basis back then.

I think the definite sign, though, that showed things changed for good was the year Hewitt won in 2002, taking out David Nalbandian. Three out of the four semifinalists were primarily baseliners, poor Tim Henman being the lone net-rusher. Hewitt had a game similar to Andre Agassi's that could do well on faster surfaces. I think Nadal's is different than their's: Just look at his results on hard courts and carpet compared to those two.

Now that Federer guy, he plays a pretty nice game of grass-court tennis, and so does Roddick: I don't think he just benefits from having the biggest serve out there. He returns well enough on grass and rallies well enough, too. Some of these other guys, I just don't know...

For the women, if you don't hit like you're launching balls from a cannon, you don't have a shot. Probably the most unlikely champion in the past 15 years would be Martina Hingis. She was just so much more talented than everyone in '97 when she won and playing Jana Novotna was pretty much like target practice. Now, if you tried to play like she did or Novotna for that matter, you'd likely be eating a lot of turf that day from trying to dodge rockets coming at you from Serena and Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova.

I think my favorite women's grass-court players of all time were Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova. There was enough of a contrast in their styles to make it interesting to watch, where you'd wonder if Navratilova's lefty serve-and-volleying would be enough to overcome Graf's forehand, slice backhand and sheer athleticism.

I'm sorry to sound like an old fogey. I guess I just liked how it used to be in the old days. Just think back even to that Ivanisevic-Pat Rafter final when you're watching Federer and Nadal at Breakfast at Wimbledon again and you'll see what I mean.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Au revoir, Paris!

Another French Open has come and gone, and it seems like only yesterday that I was picking Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova to complete their career Slams. We all know how that went, unfortunately. I just wanted to take a final look back before moving on to greener pastures, aka the grass-court season, which has kicked off today.

• Fantastic four: Rafael Nadal won his fourth French title in a row, stomping through the field, and he's only 22. He could easily win another four before he turns 30. I would really like to see him pick up another Major somewhere else, though.

• Number 1 stunner: Ana Ivanovic had a weekend of firsts: a number-1 ranking to go with her first Slam. Last year, I was thinking she's too Kim Clijsters-like, you know, too nice to win many majors or even care if she loses. But I like what she said after taking Indian Wells this year, that she was really ready to do it. She has to be considered a favorite wherever she plays now.

• Back in black: Even though he lost the final at the French, and pretty handily, I think Roger Federer is definitely back. He got deep in all his clay-court tournaments, making four out of five finals, and that's his worse surface. I think he can grab another six titles before the year is out, and at least one major. That's a pretty good year by anyone's stretch of the imagination.

• Breaking through (finally!!!): Dinara Safina and Gael Monfils had the biggest results of their careers at the French. I know I had pretty much written off both of them. I just hope this was finally the stepping stone for them and that they're here to stay.

• No place like home: Aside from Monfils, there were four other French male players that made it to the round of 16 at their home Slam.

• The lonely American: Robby Ginepri was the only American singles player, male or female, to make it to the second week as the best chances—Serena and Venus Williams—both got upset in the third round. The American men did better than last year, though, as to where at least some of them won matches!

• I blew it: On a personal note, I'm not too dissatisfied with how my breakdown of the men's draw went, landing five out of eight quarterfinalists. But on the women's side, man, was I off! Two out of eight picks is nothing to write home about at all. I even predicted the wrong Serbian to make the final!

That's it for me on the French. Tons of other stuff happened, of course, but it's time to move on. Until next year, mon amis!

(Photos: Nadal, Federer: Getty Images; Ivanovic: AP)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I guess it was a four-gone conclusion

The trophy ceremony's done and Johnny Mac is talking to Federer. In case you blinked and missed it, Rafael Nadal won his fourth French in a row. This next statement will probably be the understatement of the year: Nadal looked really good.

(Photo: Getty Images)

He'll have to do it in five, now

Set two is in the books and it's also Nadal's. He really does look better than ever. But I'm not counting R-Fed out yet!


I can see Nadal breadsticking guys like Almagro, Verdasco and Nieminen, but Roger Federer? Wow.

The commentators were saying over that first set, or the beginning at least, how R-Fed was moving around to hit his forehand, but I don't think he stuck to that plan. Granted, a lot of it was Nadal. I promise I've been saying this for years: Why doesn't Roger slice his backhand more?

(Photo: Getty Images)

He's on the board!

Whew! That was looking scary there for a minute. But I think Roger was doing well to get into the net. Now let's see what he does on Nadal's serve.

History's on the line

The main event is mere seconds away! Who'll win? Who really knows? But I can tell you this, it should be a good one! I'd say Roger's definitely back on track. Rafa's been playing better than ever. What'll be key for Roger is to get off to a fast start like he has the past few years and just keep it up. Variety in his game will be important, too. For Rafa, he should ... I'm not even going to say anything.

I'll be stopping by at the old laptop over the course of the match to update ye olde blog!

And I picked R-Fed to win before the tournament, so I'm sticking with it: Roger in four. Let's see Jose Higueras earn his money!

Let's get it on!

(Photo: Getty Images)

One to remember

Could the tournament have gone any better for Ana Ivanovic? Why, just a couple of weeks ago, she was the number two player in the world and Slam-less, but at least, she had two Major runner-up appearances. Now, she's the number-one player with her first big one in tow after taking the French over this year's surprise of the tournament, Dinara Safina.

Things will only get tougher for the rest of the year as that old cliche comes into place: The hunter now becomes the hunted. And the first obstacle is the grass-court season. She got to the semis at Wimbledon last year, which proves she can play on the turf. But there's some other players out there with multiple titles at the big W, so she'll have her work cut out for her. The hard-court swing is when things will really heat up. It's going to be a great few months ahead for women's tennis. Who'll come out on top? I've written my opinions on that before, but I might have to do some rethinking on the matter with Ivanovic definitely emerging.

But that's a ways away anyway. It's Ana's time: Congratulations!

'Scratch' that

The men's doubles final definitely didn't go as anyone could have expected: Unseeded South American team Luis Horna and Pablo Cuevas dusted Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, the number-two seeds, in just under an hour. A little more order was restored as the Spanish team of Virginia Ruano Pascual and Anabel Medina Garrigues, the number-10 team, took the title over unseeded Casey Dellacqua and Francesca Schiavone in a tight three-setter.

Not to knock the unseeded teams who made it to finals, but personally, I don't like that when it happens in doubles. I'm a fan of players doing big things on a consistent basis (such as Ruano Pascual picking up her ninth major and Nestor going for his fourth). I don't mind fluke runs that much in singles, because nine times out of 10, when it happens in a major, you can expect pretty solid things from a player who pulls it off (such as a Gustavo Kuerten or a Mats Wilander). But in doubles, "scratch" pairings kind of make a mockery of what these doubles specialists are supposed to be out there doing.

I'm probably in the minority on this, but I like the concept of the doubles specialist. It's good to watch the best do what they do, and it sucks seeing interlopers make runs. In actuality, though, it all comes to the players. And winning a major is a special thing, regardless if you're 1 or 1,000 in the world. I guess when it comes down to it, though, it's up to the specialists to stop the scratch teams from doing what they do. It's just hard for me to fathom how these pairings pull it off.

Congrats to the winning teams—and the fallen finalists—on your accomplishments. Hopefully, continued success lies ahead and isn't just a flash in the doubles pan.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Mixed fortunes

I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to the first champions at the French this year: Bob Bryan and Tennis Talk, Anyone? French fave Victoria Azarenka, who took the mixed title. Bob and his brother Mike have racked up many a Major mixed title over the years, while this is the first big one for Azarenka. Congrats to the pair, who only decided to play at the last minute!

*A note: It's been called to my attention this is Azarenka's second major, having won the U.S. Open mixed last year. The explanation's in the comments field. Thanks mjgrace22!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Just in case you missed it

Rafael Nadal has done his part to complete the dream final on everyone's mind going into the tournament by pretty much waylaying the biggest obstacle to making that happen, Novak Djokovic.

Now, Roger Federer must do his part to ensure it happens by taking out Gael Monfils. He's up a set right now and it's pretty tight in the second. He's never lost to Monfils before, BUT crazier things have happened. Taking on an inspired and animated Frenchman at his home Slam, who's finally living up to his potential? That can make for a tough situation for anyone. We'll see how it goes!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Give it another 10 minutes or so...

... and Rafa should have it just about wrapped up. Up two sets to nil, a break in the third—no, wait, TWO breaks in the third, it should be just a little bit now. So much for being the "match of the tournament!"

One down, two to go?

The most-anticipated match of the tournament has gotten well under way and, as probably expected, Rafael Nadal has taken the first set from Novak Djokovic, 6-4.

Going into this match, Rafa was the clear favorite, but everyone expects Djoko to make him work a little. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of this plays out. Nadal's been SO dominant this tournament that he could just as easily steamroll now that he has a set in the bag. But if Djokovic holds tough mentally and physically, maybe he can get Rafa thinking a little.

Stay tuned!

My concession speech

My fellow tennis fans, in the spirit of the election season, I am finally ready to admit that I have been defeated. It's been a long and well-fought battle in the blogging realm, but I have come to accept the evidence that has been recently proved time and time again across a variety of different locations: Dinara Safina is a legitimate tennis player and therefore should be endorsed by Tennis Talk, Anyone? as the favorite for the French Open title.

Over the course of the past few weeks of the clay-court season, she has proven herself on the court by defeating a number of top-ranked players, among them this blog's choice to win the French Open this year, Maria Sharapova. Off the court, she has constantly defied the criticism lobbed her way many a time by Tennis Talk, Anyone? and stands on the precipice of her greatest career achievement.

After thoroughly dismantling Svetlana Kuznetsova to set up a final with the new number-1 player on the WTA tour, Ana Ivanovic, this blog has decided to put its weight behind Dinara Safina going forward and encourages others to do the same. We must be unified in our support of this worthy champion who has consistently showed her mettle and determination over the course of the past two weeks.

Thank you.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

And the crowd goes wild!

Waaay back when this little thing we call the French Open started, I took a look at the draw (as I'm apt to do for the Majors) and started making my picks. Here was my train of thought when I saw that Gael Monfils was to play Arnaud Clement (since I just love sharing my inner thoughts with everyone!):

"Hmm, let's see, Gael Monfils vs. Arnaud Clement. Monfils just won a Challenger on clay a couple of weeks ago, so he might be back in good form. But he won a Challenger last year before Miami, got there and bombed out in the first round. Clement's not the greatest French clay-courter in the world, but he should be able to do just enough to frustrate Monfils. Will the real Gael Monfils EVER show up? It won't happen here: Clement in five."

Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don't; but that's what makes it fun trying to guess the outcome of a tournament. And every now and then, you get surprises like this one: Gael Monfils making the semifinals at his home Slam, taking out Tennis Talk, Anyone? semifinal pick David Ferrer in four. I just hope whatever happens next, Monfils can build on this and have the type of career everyone predicted he would have after dominating in the juniors.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

There are officially no more pun headlines to use for 'Serb' or 'Serbia'

I've used "Serb"-ing Notice before, and then I thought I could go with "Youth Is Serbed," but if you Google that, it's all over the Internet!

The point being, I wanted to mention the feat by Serbia's three stars—Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic—all getting through to the semis today. Djoko got pushed around a little by his old buddy, Ernests Gulbis, but still won in straights. Next up for him? Oh, just that Rafael Nadal fellow, that's all. I feel safe to say this (as opposed to those crazy, fleeting thoughts I had about Nicolas Almagro): Novak should make Rafa work a little; at least way more than anyone else has this tournament. Does he have a chance? If he hangs in there physically, sure. It's going to be like a boxing match and he'll have to go toe-to-toe with Nadal, making sure he doesn't get jerked around. I'm still going with Nadal, though.

As for Ivanovic and Jankovic, it's actually a shame that they have to be meeting at this point in the tournament as opposed to the finals. They've clearly been the dominant players. I think the winner of this match is strong enough to beat anyone on the other side. Among the three Russians and the Estonian on the other side, the only one with a major title is Svetlana Kuznetsova. Elena Dementieva's been in Slam finals, while this equals the best run Dinara Safina has ever had. I'm pretty sure Kaia Kanepi's dream run will end in her next match. The point I'm trying to make is that no one has any overwhelming experience to top the two Serbs.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Serving up breadsticks

Man, I'm glad that Rafael Nadal-Nicolas Almagro match ended so quickly before I got the chance to write something preposterous, like "Rafa's going to have to be careful. Nic's won two titles on the dirt this year and is playing great here. He might be able to make Nadal do some work."

While I was thinking all of that up, Nadal did away with his childhood chum, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. So, in his last two matches, he's given up six(!) games. That would be scary if he were playing in the juniors draw. To do that to top-25 ATP players is pretty much frightening.

(Photo: Getty Images)