Monday, December 29, 2008

As seasons roll on by...


It's only a mere matter of days before the pro tennis players hit the court again for the 2009 season. I know: It seems like they just left! I mean, weren't we just talking about Shanghai and Doha?

Here's my thing, though: I've always had mixed feelings about the offseason for the pros, particularly its length. Everybody who follows tennis knows what the pros think about it—it's way too short. And I guess if you were to think about it, then technically they're right. I mean, most of the players are participating in a season that takes up 40-something weeks of the year. Once that huge run is done, there's a few weeks off, then Bam! Right back at it. Throw in the travel around the world and back, and all the practice that has to be done while not at an event, and it makes for a ridiculous grind.

I can't think of a pro sport that's close to being as long with the extra elements. Golf? You can't say that because for the most part, the tours are regionalized. Ninety-nine percent of the PGA Tour events are played in the U.S. And there are different continental tours, meaning you can play from close to the comfort of your own home.

However...

Here's why sometimes I don't sympathize with the tennis players on their complaints about the offseason:

You don't have to play every week! You have mini offseasons in-season.

Let's say you're a top player: Rafael Nadal, for instance. In 2008, Rafa played 19 events (including the Olympics), winning eight titles. He also played two Davis Cup ties for Spain. Now let's say that's about 25 to 28 weeks of the year, including the two-week events. Now last time I checked, there are 52 weeks in a year. So that's about 24 to 27 weeks of no tournament play! I don't know about you, but I think more than five months off is a pretty nice chunk.

Also, if you were to win every match you play during the tournament, that's still only five days out of seven at a one-week event you're out there, or seven out of 14 at a Slam. So there are off days over the course of a tournament.

And here's something else: An eight-hour shift is not devoted to practice, practice, practice. I'd assume about half of it goes to that.

See why I'm mixed on this? In relation to other sports, the pros definitely have it rough. But from what I gather, there's a lot of down time over the course of the year. And I don't want them playing every single week of the season, the argument just gets kind of lost on me sometimes. I wish I had an offseason! Don't worry, not from TTA?, but the regular 9-to-5. I can't let my boss see that because there's a word for offseason in my world: "Fired."

(Photo: thesun.com)

Friday, December 26, 2008

'URL' get a kick out of this

First, let me say Merry belated Christmas! If you observe it, hope you had a good one!

And as a special gift to me, I've taken 10 bucks of my hard-earned lettuce and bought me one of those customized domain names. All the kids are doing it, so why not me?

So if you want to change the address in your bookmarks, feel free to: Tennis Talk, Anyone? can now be found at .www.tennistalkanyone.com. However, if you don't want to, then no worries: The old address will still bring you here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sweet home, Alabama (I hope!)


The latest from the world of Davis Cup is that the U.S. will be hosting Switzerland in my home state of Alabama, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena in Birmingham. It's the first time 'Bama is hosting a Davis Cup match.

I've been kind of excited about this tie since the draw for next year was announced. Truth be told, though, I'm a little worried. I mean Switzerland does have that Roger Federer guy on its team and we all know how he gets down. Plus, with he and Stan Wawrinka playing a pretty mean game of doubles (having beaten the Bryans on the way to the Gold in Beijing) that makes the match-up even more scary.

But aside from Switzerland's lineup, I'm a little worried about a tie being hosted in Alabama. Unless things have changed since I lived there, I can't recall any section of the state being a hotbed of tennis activity, unless, I guess, you count where I'm from, Mobile, which has one of the country's largest public facilities. I don't think many in-state fans will be willing to trek there, but hopefully some will come in from Tennessee to make the place pretty rowdy. I mean, this is as good a first-round tie the U.S. could ask to host. It would be a shame to see thousands of empty seats while I'm watching it in New York.

Something else that comes to mind when thinking about this tie: Who does the U.S. pick? I guess Patrick McEnroe's first inclination would be to throw out Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers. It'll all depend on who's really in form. But let me throw this out at you: When was the last time an American male has been hot for more than a couple of weeks? Blake in the summer of '07? I don't think any of the guys had a decent streak going last year. So that even adds more pressure to the situation.

Anyway, I hope plenty of fans come out to show some Southern hospitality because the U.S. is facing a tough-enough task as it is. It could be even rougher with no fans out there.

(Photo: AP)

Friday, December 12, 2008

All good (and bad) things must come to an end (From the sublime to the ridiculous, part 3)


So this is the final chapter of my year in review. Gee, I'm getting all misty-eyed with this reminiscing! This one won't be as long as the others because all my picks were so awesome (yeah, right!).

Anyway, on to the last part of the trilogy:

SEPTEMBER

The Good and the Bad

• "I bet this is the ONLY place you'll find the following statement: The U.S. team can, and will, pull off the upset this weekend! I know, I know: A rookie's on the squad and one-half of one of the greatest doubles teams ever is out. The other team is led by a 22-year-old, who's already a legend. Plus, the hosts are playing on their favorite surface, one in which they've become pretty much synonymous with. However, here's why I'm picking the U.S. for one of the most stunning upsets in Davis Cup history … " (Sinking the Spanish armada, Sept. 16)

NOTE: "Good and Bad? What are you talking about, Van? It's just bad!" There, I took the words right out of your mouth! In case you didn't catch the post the first time around, I picked the U.S. to beat Spain in Davis Cup. In Spain. With Rafael Nadal playing. On clay. I'm giving myself a "Good and Bad" grade because I really, truly believe it could have happened, despite the most daunting odds probably any team has ever faced. Check out the post to see my reasons why. It may seem crazy, but I kept the faith!

OCTOBER

Up in the Air

• " ... Then hopefully you'll be reading about her on the pro circuit! I'm planning on making her into a serve-and-volleyer. Nobody does that anymore in the women's game. What do you think?" (I'm giving her until at least around 2024..., Oct. 22)

NOTE: Another switch-up from the "Good" and the "Bad." The "her" I'm referring to is my new daughter. 2024 is still the target date; rolling the tennis ball in front of her starts next week!

NOVEMBER

The Good

• "However, the match after that one is what I think will be the most important one of the tie: Juan Martin del Potro against Feliciano Lopez. … For all his success, del Potro is still a kid and this has to be the most pressure he's faced in his life: playing a Davis Cup final at home and being the favorite. Lopez has been around the block a little, plus he's Spain's best fast-court player … So, in other words, I'm declaring that the tie goes as F-Lo goes." (Going with the F-Lo?, Nov. 20)

NOTE: Lopez pulled off the upset on the first day of the tie, then partnered with Fernando Verdasco to take the dubs and put Spain on its way to winning the Davis Cup. I hope this carries over to next year for F-Lo.

The Bad (There's a couple, so watch out!)

• "Except for Zvonareva, I wouldn't be surprised if any of the top seven won the whole thing. That's how even I think it is this go-round. You really can't say that every round-robin match could potentially be a classic, but I think this time, you can. (Except for, again, ones involving Zvonareva. Sorry, Vera!)" (Please, please, PLEASE let everybody be healthy!, Nov. 3)

NOTE: I thought this was the strongest field in years at the WTA Championships, save for Vera Zvonareva. Man, was I wrong! She only almost won the whole thing before falling to Venus Williams!

• "Rafa's not here, but Roger Federer—the man he replaced—is. I'm picking R-Fed to add to his Masters Cup haul this year—and would have even if Nadal were playing. It won't be easy, though." (Master of his domain, Shanghai predictions, Nov. 8)

NOTE: If not for Andy Murray going 3-0 in round-robin play, I would've completely blown everything I said in this whole post! I didn't even make it out of the round-robin stage! Props to Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko for exceeding my meager expectations for them by winning and making the finals, respectively.

And I'm gonna wrap up this little series here. December's just had some drips and drabs of things happening, mainly exos, a few Challengers and some seniors stuff. It was a great year to be a fan and make predictions, both good and (horrifyingly) bad!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sharapova? For the French? (From the sublime to the ridiculous, part 2)


Oh, what memories!

Digging through the archives over there for the second part of my Year in Review brought one question to mind:

"Dude, what were you thinking?"

That being said, let me kick off the May to August review:

MAY

The Good

• "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." (Three the hard way, May 15)

NOTE: Well, Serena got to the top, if only for a brief moment; Sharapova's year was wrecked by her shoulder and Venus fought some aches, but had some pretty good results. Injuries all played a part in how they finished.

The Bad (These might be my two worse predictions of the year!)

• "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." (Is it REALLY a rivalry?, May 17)

NOTE: We all know how that turned out: Rafa only took over the top spot.

• "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." (A career Slam in the cards?, May 24)

NOTE: Wait, let me explain why I picked her to win the French! She was the hottest player on the planet the first half of the year, and I thought with her draw, she could cruise to the finals and roll over whoever made it through on the other side. See, there was some logic behind it!

JUNE

The Good

• "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." (Seeds of discontent, June 18)

NOTE: I thought it was weak for Nik Davydenko to be seeded so high. He ended up losing in the first round to Ben Becker.

• "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!) (Maybe they should rename it the Venus 'Williams' Plate (Wimbledon women's quarterfinal predictions), June 21)

NOTE: For the future, I won't be able to count this as a good pick since it seems like she'll be winning Wimbledons for years to come, but I'm taking it now!

The Bad

• Actually for this one, the whole "Lurking in the grass" post! I tabbed four upsets and blew them all, then I had a cutesy statement at the end about Marat Safin beating Novak Djokovic, but backed away from actually making the call, because I thought it was too far-fetched. I could have looked like a genius!

JULY

The Good

• "Now, if you know Dubois, then you get a gold star because I sure don't. Everyone is supposed to know Harkleroad, though, since she's currently the cover girl on the latest issue of Playboy. But what has that Playboy cover accomplished? Nothing. What will it? Nothing." (The 'Road less traveled, July 22)

NOTE: Poor Ashley. That decision to pose is going to trail her for the rest of her career, and not necessarily in a good way.

• "Federer's had a tough year, and that loss to Simon last night was really bad (it doesn't matter if Simon had just won a tournament while Federer hadn't played since Wimbledon). He should be OK, though, and he's still my favorite for the Open. I think he's made of the same stuff Sampras is and look how '96 and the rest of his career went for him." (Shades of 1996?, July 24)

NOTE: Federer went on to win the Open, which added to his Slam title haul.

The Bad

• You know what? I'm going to take it easy on myself, and say I didn't have anything crazy for the month. I guess I had to dial it down after May and June!

AUGUST

The Good

• "You know, I'm just gonna jot down my predictions from the quarters on: No details; I still have to pack! For the men: Rafael Nadal vs. Mardy Fish, Juan Martin Del Potro vs. Andy Murray, Fernando Gonzalez vs. Novak Djokovic, Dmitry Tursunov vs. Roger Federer" (I had such grand plans, Aug. 22)

NOTE: This was the most accurate Slam quarters lineup I've ever picked. Fish himself didn't even think he was going to get to the quarters!

The Bad

• "For the final: Safina over Dementieva" (I had such grand plans, Aug. 22)

NOTE: That was my women's final for the U.S. Open. Things went so well for me on the men's side, but this and other quarterfinal picks (Amelie Mauresmo, Aggie Radwanska, Svetlana Kuznetsova) brought me down.

Anyway, I hope you kept reading after the Sharapova pick! There's more to come later!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Friday, December 5, 2008

The French Connection


So back to BlackRock before I embark upon more of my hits and misses of 2008!

I saw that Cedric Pioline took out John McEnroe in straights today and is set to play Pete Sampras, the guy that blasted him in his two Slam final appearances, next. Seeing old Ced still going at it and playing well doesn't surprise me because in his day, he was definitely one of the better ball strikers out there and could compete on any surface.

This got me thinking, though: What is it with the French men?

For the third year in a row, they've led the way as a nation on the ATP's top 100 rankings, this year placing 14 among the most successful. They're often the most versatile—finding success on any surface—and can hit any shot in the book. It's something, though: No one's had the career that Pioline has had and you can't automatically say the young guys (like Jo-Willie Tsonga, Rich Gasquet and Gael Monfils) even will, for sure.

See, even though he only won five titles while on tour, I think you can make a case for Pioline (who made the top 5) being the second-most successful French player of the Open era. (You have to give the top spot to Yannick Noah because he's the only one with a Major.) There have been a couple of other Slam finalists and numerous top tenners, but no multiple Slam runner-ups from France. If you wanted to put more weight on the Majors, then maybe you give Pioline the nod.

I'm gonna compare him, though, to some French top 10 players over the years, excluding Noah:

• Henri Leconte
Best Slam finish: Runner-up at the '88 French.
Career-high ranking: 5
Number of titles won: 9
Biggest title: German Open (1986)
The nod goes to: Pioline. Sure, Leconte won more titles, but one Slam final? With his game?

• Guy Forget
Best Slam finish: Two quarters at Wimbledon and one in the Australian.
Career-high ranking: 4
Number of titles won: 11
Biggest titles: Cincinatti, Paris (both in 1991)
The nod goes to: Pioline. Forget had great doubles results, but underachieved in singles for years before turning it around. Not even a Slam semi. Tsk, tsk.

• Arnaud Clement
Best Slam finish: Aussie Open runner-up (2001)
Career-high ranking: 10
Number of titles won: 4
Biggest title: Washington (2006)
The nod goes to: Pioline. It looked like Clement was on to big things after that Aussie final, but such was not the case. He's still going at it and is a threat on faster surfaces, but is no more than a top 50 player at this point.

• Sebastian Grosjean
Best Slam finish: Aussie, French and Wimbledon semifinalist (multiple years)
Career-high ranking: 4
Number of titles won: 4
Biggest title: Paris (2001)
The nod goes to: Pioline. Grosjean's career has been as solid as they come, but no Slam finals? That's pretty weak for his results.

• Richard Gasquet
Best Slam finish: Wimbledon semis (2007)
Career-high ranking: 7
Number of titles won: 5
Biggest title: Gstaad (2006); he has made two Masters series finals, though
The nod goes to: Pioline. What can you say about Gasquet? Probably one of the best players on tour, but if he makes a Slam final, everyone will be surprised because he's so mentally fragile.

• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Best Slam finish: Aussie finals (2008)
Career-high ranking: 6
Number of titles won: 2
Biggest title: Paris (2008)
The nod goes to: Pioline. But not for long—finally, someone that will break the Pioline era of dominance! Barring injury, Tsonga has the best bet at becoming the most successful French player of the Open era.

So, I guess the point I was trying to make here is that it's kind of wild for such a prominent tennis nation to be led by a guy that's only picked up five titles. Come on, young French guys: Allez!

(Photo: Getty Images)

UPDATE: Pioline won the BlackRock title over Greg Rusedski, further adding to his "legacy"!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

From the sublime to the ridiculous: A different type of Year in Review, part 1


I was thinking of writing a "Year in Review"-type post, but after reading the one at GoToTennis and the series at Tennis is Served..., I decided against it because those have everything wrapped up in great, concise packages. However, I can't just let the past season go, so I'm going to do something a little different.

One of my favorite things to do in life is to look at the draw of a tournament and make predictions on how things are going to shake out. (That's true; it really is one of my favorite things to do—how sad!) I'd say I come out about even on the hits and misses, and this year I had some doozies on both sides!

So I'm going to dig in the archives and do a little series on the predictions I made, both good and bad, over the year. Feel free to cringe along with me over some of the ridiculous calls!:

JANUARY:

The Good

• "Watch Out for the Young Guns: The biggest tournament on the men's side was the one played in Doha, which was won by Andy Murray. If he stays healthy, watch out. I'm thinking he's going to be top 4 by the end of the year. ... Another young guy to watch out for is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: That kid's a beast! If he stays healthy, too, look for him in the top 15 by the end of the year." (So what has the first week of the season shown us?, Jan. 6)

NOTE: Murray ended up at 4, while Tsonga ended up in the top 10.

• "Sister Sledgehammers: This is to Venus and Serena: Please, PLEASE stay on track this year! The winning weekends you had (Venus at an exhibition tournament, Serena at the Hopman Cup) could really bode well for the season ahead. … I'm picking you two to stay in the top 10, but just being there is not a true testament to your ability." (So what has the first week of the season shown us?, Jan. 6)

NOTE: They both went on to win Slams over the year and also picked up other big titles. Serena even got back to number one!

The Bad

• "Finals:
Federer over Roddick: Another major final for Andy, another loss to Federer. R-Fed's getting closer to history!" (Aussie Open picks: The men's edition, Jan. 13) NOTE: Mono and Phillip Kohlschreiber messed this up for me!

• "Venus Williams vs. Eleni Daniilidou: ... Daniilidou has had a pretty good start to the year, winning a title already, and while I could never figure out why she hasn't put it together, maybe this year is the time she finally does, starting with taking out Ana Ivanovic in the second round." (Aussie Open picks: The women's edition (late!), Jan. 13)

NOTE: Who? Why, oh why, did I think this quarter was going to go down like that? Ivanovic ended up making the finals, while Daniilidou went on to ... pretty much nothing.

FEBRUARY

No posts or predictions were made! I guess I gave myself the month off!

MARCH

The Good

• "Kevin Anderson vs. Novak Djokovic (3): Now you're probably thinking, "What kind of match can a qualifier give the hottest player on the planet?" Well, when you happen to serve bombs like Anderson does, have already played a few matches at the venue with qualifying and winning the first round, and recently coming off your first career final, your confidence should be pretty high. I still expect Djokovic to come through, but he definitely needs to be on guard." (It's tricky, tricky, tricky*, Friday, March 28)

NOTE: Anderson got the defending Miami champ, then promptly lost in the next round.

The Bad

• "The Andys (Murray and Roddick) and Michael Llodra also have two titles each on the year. OK, I can see the Andys pulling that off, but Llodra? If Llodra kind of cuts back on the doubles playing, I can see him finishing in the top 20 by the end of the year." (Since I've been gone..., March 17)

NOTE: Llodra definitely ended up cooling off despite the hot start. I barely even remember him playing the rest of the year!

APRIL

The good

• "You know, why not tonight for Andy Roddick to break his losing streak against Roger Federer? If he protects his serve like he's never protected it before, get into some breakers, grab a mini-break or two in said breakers and who knows? Now's the time to do it. Roddick, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4). That's my pick and I'm sticking to it!" (Why not tonight?, April 3)

NOTE: A-Rod broke his 50-match losing streak (it only seemed that long!), but then had a losing streak broken against him in the next round, falling to Nik Davydenko in the Miami semis.

The bad

• "Technically speaking, from a tennis standpoint, Blake should be able to beat Nadal pretty much any time they get on a fast surface, particularly hard courts. But Nadal is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and definitely won't go down without a fight, especially to someone who's had half the career he's had. Enough of the preludes: Here's how it will go down! I'm going with Blake on this one, but he has to do it quickly. He can't get into a third set with Nadal, because then it gets down to intangibles, where Blake definitely takes a backseat. ... It's all about matching up game against game, and his just doesn't go up against Blake's as well as it does others. So my scoreline on this match, 7-6, 6-2 for Blake." (Payback time, April 2)

NOTE: Nadal fought and came through in this one, then went on to make the finals in Miami. If Nadal EVER loses to Blake again, I'll eat my hat! (And for a personal note on how this match went, check out "Sometimes, it's all in your head.")

That's some of how the year went down in my eyes! There's more doozies (such as Maria Sharapova, French Open Champ!) to come!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kickin' it old school


Well, it's not all completely null and void in the world of tennis this week.

The BlackRock Tour of Champions wraps up its season in London this week with the BlackRock Masters Tennis event. I've been meaning to write something about this tour (and to use that headline!) forever now!

This event is like the other stops on the tour and goes with a round-robin format: In one group, you have Greg Rusedski, Guy Forget, Pat Cash and Stefan Edberg going up against each other, while the other one pits Jeremy Bates, Cedric Pioline, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras head to head to head to head.

This season on the BlackRock tour has been pretty good, particularly if you've been a fan of the game for a while. It was great to hear of Sampras stopping by for an event or two; and a couple of guys I really wasn't expecting to see play much—Edberg and Patrick Rafter—also broke out the racquets. Michael Chang and Yevgeny Kafelnikov made their debuts, too. Marcelo Rios, who absolutely dominated last year, scaled back on his play this year and Goran Ivanisevic is at the top of the rankings this year.

Now, I really dig this tour, but I think some guys you could definitely do without seeing in singles competition—and I hope I'm not committing blasphemy to the tennis gods—such as Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas. Whenever I see that those two are in an event, my interest level drops about 50 percent. I mean, really: What chance do those two have against the serves of Ivanisevic and his Wimbledon-winning buddies, Michael Stich and Richard Krajicek, who can both still bring it? I know there's been some complaining among the oldest and most out-of-shape players about these younger guys on tour, but I'd much rather see the stars of the late '80s and early '90s anyway.

McEnroe, though, is an exception to that rule: I don't know if anyone else thinks this, but that guy is an athletic freak! He looks like some average Joe, but think about how he plays the game: the eyes, the hands, the reach... all tools that still help him succeed.

Anyway, if you get a chance to somehow watch any of the action in London this week, I'd recommend doing it. I think you can at least catch highlights on the BlackRock Masters site. And a tip (one Englishmen can be proud of): Watch out for Jeremy Bates here. Back when they were all on tour, the other guys would have chalked him up as a guaranteed win, but now everyone's a little slower and more on the same level. Plus, he's got the home crowd behind him. I'm sure he'll be looking for a little payback!

(Photo: Getty Images)