Sunday, March 29, 2009

Four on the floor

Wow, the women's draw took some hits today, didn't it?

Four top 10 players got knocked out today with Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva, Ana Ivanovic and Nadia Petrova falling to Sam Stosur, Li Na, Agnes Szavay and Ekaterina Makarova, respectively. I wasn't expecting any of those top players to win—I still think it's Serena's to lose—but my personal picks took a hit with Zvonareva and Ivanovic falling. Safina's been in a bad way lately (like Jelena Jankovic, who lost Saturday) and I don't know what's up with Petrova.

I wonder, with all these losses, you almost have to look at the whole sitch in a historical context: Is this the deepest EVER that women's tennis has been or are a lot of the top tenners pretenders to the throne? Think back even 10 years ago: You never would've seen this many stars go out this early. And it's not like Miami is a rare occasion; this has been going on kind of consistently for the past few months.

Part of me wishes that it's a sign of more parity, but the other side misses the days of seeing all the big names make it to the later rounds unless they're a legit up-and-comer, like the four who lost today used to be.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A sunshine state of mind

The pros are in Miami this week for the Sony Ericsson Open, aka "the Fifth Slam," (or at least that's how it used to be colloquially referred to back in its "Lipton" days) and nearly everyone who's anyone is there. It's also the spotlight of this week's VANtage Point over on Down the Line!, so check it out. I'm picking the top seeds to come through, that being Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.

But I want to do something else here at Tennis Talk, Anyone?, and give the tournament a little bit of the TTA? Grand Slam treatment since it's such a huge event. What do I mean by that? Well, glad you asked (even if you didn't)! I usually break down the draws and make my quarterfinal predictions with details of who's getting there and how they'll get there. Of course, I don't always get it right, but there are moments like the legendary Mardy Fish quarterfinal pick at the U.S. Open that make it all worthwhile!

I'm not going to go into as much detail as I do at the Slams; I'll just give you the picks.

For the men:
Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer
Andy Murray vs. Radek Stepanek
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Novak Djokovic
Andy Roddick vs. Roger Federer

For the semis:
Nadal over Murray, Federer over Tsonga

For the finals:
Nadal over Federer

For the women:
Serena Williams vs. Vera Zvonareva
Venus Williams vs. Dominika Cibulkova
Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Caroline Wozniacki
Ana Ivanovic vs. Flavia Pennetta

For the semis:
Serena over Venus, Ivanovic over Kuznetsova

For the finals:
Serena over Ivanovic

There's my picks and I'm sticking to them!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Don't call it a comeback (please)!

I promise you: I'm not as curmudgeonly as it may sometimes seem on this blog!

Sometimes, I can be a Donnie Downer, I'll admit, but it's all in the spirit of what blogs are about: expressing your opinion.

Take, for instance, the news today about Kim Clijsters being close to making a comeback. There's even news that she asked for a U.S. Open wildcard. It's definitely buzzworthy since she appeared to be in the prime of her career when she quit to get married and have a family.

But … (I thought I'd switch it up from my usual "However"!)

Do you remember what she was like the year or so before she retired? The constant complaining about the travel? The grind of the tour? The desire to quit early and start a family? And it wasn't just her: Lindsay Davenport was the same, too, before she "quit."

Now I've been following the pro game a long time and I swear, I've never heard two players gripe as much about being professional players and making millions: male or female.

Clijsters got a lot out of the game: dozens of titles, a number-one ranking in singles and doubles, some Slams in both. Why come back? You have the family and you're a surefire lock for the Hall of Fame. If you hated it so much before, why go back?

Clijsters, and Davenport, too, remind me of boxers: Those guys are always making comebacks. But for what? Pride? Money? There's a whole world out there. The sport you seemed to hate so much at the end gave you the opportunity to explore other options.

If Justine Henin were to announce a comeback, or even (going old-school here) Jennifer Capriati were to make a comeback then I'd be fine with it. Henin clearly had to step away and injury has slowed Capriati. But with Clijsters, dissing the game and lifestyle so many people wish they could have and then returning to it just seems bogus to me.

That's it. I promise, I'm really a nice guy!

(Photo: AFP)

California stars

OK, so I didn't get the calls right on who would win the BNP Paribas tournaments this past weekend in Indian Wells, but I don't think there could've been worthier champs.

Vera Zvonareva (maybe I should put in front of that, "The much-maligned-by-TTA?" in front of her name) won the women's crown by beating Ana Ivanovic (my pick) in the finals in straights. I'm pretty happy for Vera to FINALLY pick up a big title. See, the reason she's been kind of maligned around these parts is that she spends so much time picking up rinky-dink titles, to me it looks like she's ducking out on the decent-sized ones. Then when she does play the bigger events, it looks like she's not ready to go up against her fellow top tenners. Anyway, I hope picking up Indian Wells (in both singles and doubles) shows to herself that she belongs. And it was a great tournament for Ivanovic and young gun Victoria Azarenka.

As for the men, what can you say about Rafael Nadal. Thirteen Masters titles before the age of 23? That's pretty sick. And I know the wind might've affected the results against Andy Murray in the finals, but he went in there with a game plan and stuck to it. Sometimes, it's hard for me to pick Rafa for hard-court titles (even though I did for the Aussie this year) because I still don't think he earns enough free points still. But the fight in him, I guess, more than makes up for that: something I'm sure David Nalbandian will attest to!

My original finalist picks, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer, had good runs with both losing in the semis. And A-Rod even managed to scoop up the title in dubs here. You know, looking back at the first sentence in this paragraph, if I were to really sit back and think about it, maybe Fed's run wasn't that good after all. He's gotta figure Murray out: It's only going to get tougher.

Anyway, I just wanted to give a send-off to Indian Wells. The big one, Miami, kicks off tomorrow. Looking forward to it!

P.S. I wish the Bryans would've won the doubles crown. Did you know that if they would've won, the only big title in tennis they'd lack would be an Olympic Gold medal? They just can't seem to get over the hump here at their home-state tournament.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Friday, March 20, 2009

The turning point?

I'm doing a lot of Larry Stefanki name-dropping here!

In my last post, I mentioned how I thought James Blake could've used him, and I'm about to talk about his current charge, Andy Roddick and what will be the true test of their relationship starting today. I wonder if his own family gives him this much props!

Anyway, if you didn't catch it before the tournament started, over on VANtage Point at Down the Line!, I predicted a Roger Federer-Roddick final, fully under the realization that A-Rod would have to go through Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for that to happen. Well, today is where the first part of that mission starts with Andy and Djoko facing off in the quarters. This is really the first true test for Roddick and Stefanki, more so than that quarterfinal match at the Australian Open this year, when Djokovic retired in the fourth set.

Roddick's had a few good wins in the past few weeks against David Ferrer, Stanislas Wawrinka and Radek Stepanek. But while those three might be pretty decent, they're nowhere near the big four on the ATP tour. To be a true contender for Slams this year, and I'd even go on to say for the rest of his career, opportunities to take out big guys back-to-back at Masters series events has to be the building block for that. And this is where Stefanki will earn his paycheck.

Monday, March 16, 2009

You know who could've used Larry Stefanki as a coach?

Oh, what could've been …

So, I read this article on Black Tennis Pros that originally ran in USA Today about James Blake and Andy Roddick taking different approaches in their career regarding coaching. Roddick's had a few, to say the least, while Blake has stuck with the same guy, Brian Barker, since he was a kid.

Roddick's working with Larry Stefanki now, the guy that made a huge impact on the career of the guy Blake lost to today for the seventh time in a row, Fernando Gonzalez. There's a reason the Chilean earned the nickname "Gonzo," and it just wasn't because it was a shortened version of his last name. Fernando swung out at practically every shot from any spot on the court—a style Blake knows all too well. But if Gonzalez could get under control—and make a Slam final in the process—why couldn't JB?

I'll tell you what I think: The coaching holds him back. Barker did get Blake to number four in the world. While that's very impressive, there's not enough title-winning hardware to go with that result. If you've made multiple Masters Series finals, as Blake has, then you should at least be winning some of them. And if Gonzalez can make a Major final, then Blake should, too.

But you know, let's step aside from winning the big ones: Coming up short in the two finals made last year in Houston and Delray Beach, almost-glorified Challengers, is ridiculous.

I think it's too late for him to win a Slam or even make a Major final, which is sad because I think he could have. But I don't think it's too late for a coaching change to salvage more out of his career, because it looks to me that Barker's strategy, or lack thereof, has run its course. I think Brad Gilbert or a Brad Gilbert-type could work wonders.

Who knows? Maybe this latest run of bad form is a result of coming up short in the Olympics last year. But a fresh voice could possibly help him move past that. It's a shame to see a talented player stuck in a rut without considering other options to get out of it.

(Photo: Getty Images)

When will it end?

As most tennis fans like to do in their spare time when they're not playing or watching, I like to check the sites to read what's going on. I usually hit Yahoo's tennis site then make my way around that big ol' Worldwide Web of ours, but I froze at a headline I saw:

"Safina inches closer to No. 1 ranking"

I guess that's good for her, but as far as the women's game goes, I think there's a bit of a double-edged sword situation going on. Sure, some excitement is created because you're always wondering who's going to be on top this week. But in some ways, it also looks like a sham of sorts is being perpetrated. Safina, like Jelena Jankovic before her, has been playing at a pretty high level over the past 12 months. But also, though, there's one big thing the two have in common (which we all know):

Neither of them have won a Slam!

Now, I was willing to give Jankovic a break, but it's just getting out of hand now. I would assume just by virtue of winning the last two Slams that Serena Williams would have the top spot locked. I guess the fact that she hasn't played much else in the past few months takes her out of the running. But you know what? Why isn't Venus Williams more in the mix? She did play the Aussie and won two tournaments back-to-back this year.

Plus, I know Safina's worked hard on her game and made a big turnaround, but she hasn't even won a singles title of any sort this year. How's that going to look if she makes it to the final and doesn't win but takes the top spot? That's all she has to do here—finish runner-up and she's got it.

I don't know: The women's ranking system has been confusing to me since I started following tennis in the late '80s. You could have players winning Slams and only move up two spots. I think a bigger concentration on quality over quantity should come into play before it gets too late, if it hasn't already.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Friday, March 13, 2009

All signs 'Point' to Indian Wells

Hey, just in case you were one of the few people in the whole world to miss it, I wrote a mini-preview of Indian Wells in this week's edition of VANtage Point at Down the Line!, a blog I do some blogging for besides this blog. You can check it out just by clicking here. I have some things to say about IW over the next week that you'll be able to catch here at Tennis Talk, Anyone?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rainy days and Mondays and disappointing Davis Cup performances always get me down

It waw a dark and dreary day here in Brooklyn-land today. Now, I'm just sitting at home pecking away on the computer, reminiscing about this past weekend's Davis Cup ties. I thought some players put in some pretty big performances, among them Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Harel Levy, David Ferrer and Nicolas Kiefer.

However, I can't help but think of a few guys that really didn't step up, starting with the biggest of them all:

• Novak Djokovic: I'll give him this: He did just win a tournament on hard courts the week before, but to lose to the guy you just beat in that final, Ferrer, when you're a more-than capable clay-court player? No good, especially when you're the star of the team and its best hope to salvage something out of the tie.

• James Blake: Now Stanislas Wawrinka is a tough player, but come on! That's a bad loss when you're playing at home and you're expected to be a solid contributor to the team. I can't think of the last time Blake had a quality win in a Davis Cup tie. I think you might be seeing a bit more of Mardy Fish in the future in that number-two spot if this keeps up.

• Jurgen Melzer: If you've never seen Melzer play, do yourself a favor and catch him if you get a chance because he has every shot in the book—the dude can flat-out ball. However, there's something not right there mentally with him. His loss against Philipp Kohlschreiber was the fifth time in his career he's been up two sets to none and lost. That's real bad.

• Mats Wilander: He's not on court playing, but when your guys lose five-setters like they did at home that's gotta be on the captain. You know what's sad about the state of the Swedish Davis Cup team? I bet old Mats can get out there and fight for a spot!

(Photos: Getty Images)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Where have you gone, Stefan and Boris?

For the past few weeks, the Tennis Channel has been showing some classic Davis Cup matches, as well as highlights from last year's event, such as the U.S.-Spain semi and the Argentina-Spain final.

I've been checking out the matches when I can, or if I can't, I might DVR it if it's a good one. (DVR can be used as a verb nowadays, right?) Anyway, I got to record a match between Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker in the 1989 finals on Becker's home turf in Germany. "Boom Boom" blasted Edberg off the court in that match, weeks after losing to the Swede in the Masters finals.

Those two played a lot against each other over a stretch of a few years and were playing against each other in their second Davis Cup final in a row. Becker's team went back to back capturing the Cup in '88 and '89, But don't feel bad for Stefan: He's got his share of Cups, too.

But I have to tell you: If this week's Davis Cup lineups for Sweden and Germany are any indicators, I don't see those once-dominant nations pulling out many victory laps in the future. Those Cups they won in the '90s could be it for a while.

Did you see the lineup Mats Wilander (also a Davis Cup hero) is trotting out against Israel? It's pretty rough: He's counting on Thomas Johansson and Andreas Vinciguerra to lead the team in singles, both who are coming off pretty big injuries (which is nothing new for Andreas). Israel's definitely the favorite in my mind, believe it or not, with its team of journeymen led by Dudi Sela.

Germany is going up against Austria, and is starting Rainer Schuettler and Nicolas Kiefer. While those two may have been top tenners in the past, that's definitely in the rearview mirror. It'll be a dogfight, when in reality it shouldn't be.

It's something to see, watching a once-dominant nation fall off (speaking from experience as a Team USA fan!), but I guess those teams led by Edberg and Wilander and Becker set such a ridiculously high standard. Check this out, though: Between Germany and Sweden, since 1990, there have only been five Slams won by a player from either one of those countries on the men's side: two apiece by Edberg and Becker, and the Australian Open in 2002 by Johansson. That's some pretty low numbers counting the players from those countries that have reached the top 10, and even top five, over that time.

I guess it's tough to be playing in the shadows of two of the all-time greats. But you have to break out at some point.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Their Cups runneth over

I know it was a few days ago, and I know it was just an exhibition that Billie Jean Cup, but when you think about it, can there be any doubt that this will be the Williams' year?

Venus is playing like she's on a mission and Serena won the Australian. They both have been running roughshed over their opponents so far, and what can you say about Venus' Dubai-to-Acapulco, hard court to clay feat over the past couple of weeks?

Indian Wells is coming up next, which they're bound to skip, but after that is their "home" tournament in Miami, which they've dominated.

Now the question is (along with those other questions I asked earlier!), can anyone stop them this season?

Yeah, it'll probably be those same two that halts them most of the time: themselves.

Injury, some questions about focus, going up against each other should be the major factors stopping them this time around, which I don't think is always the case. In the past, there have been the Maria Sharapovas and Justine Henins and Jennifer Capriatis of the world that's put a dent in their numbers. But none of them are out there right now to do that.

Their Billie Jean Cup opponents, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, are having iffy patches right now. Dinara Safina seems to be pretty close to reverting to her old ways. Probably the toughest player the Williams will go against this year will be Elena Dementieva (who, I know it's early, I'm giving the nod to at the French). Other than that, I really just don't know who can get it done against the two.

Regardless, it should make for an interesting season: at least for Venus and Serena.

(Photo: Getty Images)