Sunday, May 31, 2009

The man to beat?


Wow. A day later and I'm still shocked.

I can't believe Nikolay Davydenko blasted Fernando Verdasco off the court like that! I guess it's safe to say that Davydenko's heel is, well, healed. Going into the tournament, I just didn't know where his fitness was, which is bad because that's such a key part of his game. He always sneaks up on you at a tournament, but to do that to Verdasco is a good sign for him. I'm officially marking him down to make the finals (he's not going to surprise me again!), especially since...

RAFAEL NADAL LOST TO ROBIN SODERLING!!!!

Holy Moley! I thought the only player that would've been able to beat Rafa here this tournament was Novak Djokovic. And if anything, I really thought Nadal had gotten over that losing-to-flat-hitters thing he had going on. I don't think that was the case; I guess he just had an off day.

I've watched a lot of tennis in my time, and I was trying to think of a loss that was this surprising. The only one that I could think of that involved a player being so dominant at a Major was Pete Sampras losing to Richard Krajicek in the quarters at Wimbledon in '96. I didn't think I'd see him drop a match there for years more to come. It's safe to say he bounced back from that, winning the next four Wimbledons in a row. So, I think Nadal's going to be OK. But you don't need me to tell you that!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Not-so-fantastic fours


It looks like that number-four seeding was not a good place to be on either side of the draw today, huh?

First, Elena Dementieva fell to Samantha Stosur in three sets. Granted, it was an upset, but with the way that Dementieva had been playing lately, you just never knew with her. Still, I thought her game would turn around here and she should've gotten through that match. What's going on with her? I guess that's a question for another day.

I say that because the shock of shocks so far this event happened as Philipp Kohlschreiber knocked off contender Novak Djokovic in straight sets. Phil Kohlschreiber is an old TTA? favorite, but I didn't think he'd be able to pull this one off! Going into the tournament, I was thinking that if Djoko would've ended up on the same side of the draw as Rafael Nadal, he would've won their semifinal encounter, then taken the title. Now, he's just a third-round flameout. But he's young and I really think he'll get a French before it's all said and done.

You know what I totally blame this loss on? Too much play the past few weeks. It was only four tournaments, but if you go deep in all of them, that's going to add up to a lot of matches. When you're a top player, you have to schedule a little smarter. And playing that glorified Challenger event in your home country right before the French that your family owns wasn't a good move. That tournament should've been played after the grass-court season.

Regardless, it's a good win for Phil and though he bristles at the notion that he'd need any help advancing, the man that stands to gain the most is Roger Federer. His path to the finals just got a lot clearer. This half of the draw is definitely intriguing!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ummm ...

Can you believe this Novak Djokovic-Phil Kohlschreiber match so far? He played a LOT of tennis the past month and a half. Is it his legs?

Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

'American gladiators' my *ss!


This will be real quick, I promise!

We all know how a lot of American guys fell in the first round at the French Open, right? Well, there was a story online yesterday that really got under my skin, particularly a couple of quotes in said piece:

"For the Americans, a lot of times, this isn't our main goal of the year. Ours is generally Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. I think if we were to try to prepare completely for the French Open, we would be giving away some of our advantage at the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. That's where we excel. We'd rather, I think, prepare best for what our strengths are." — James Blake

and:

"We're trying as hard as we can. Once these two weeks are over, the clay talk is over, and we'll be looking to my most fun part of the year: Wimbledon, grass courts. That's where we play our best." — Mardy Fish

Really? "Our strengths"? "That's where we play our best"? Not even getting to the fourth round at Wimbledon and only three quarterfinal runs between the two of them at the U.S. Open? Ummm, that's not really excelling. The only U.S. players that can make those statements are Andy Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan—and no one else.

The decent clay-court runs this season by Blake and Fish this year that I recently noted are absolutely negated by those first-round flameouts. And I think shaking off this loss with those choice of words indicates a total lack of awareness about where they really stand in the game. But the bad thing is they could do better. You just have to wonder where there heads are at when they can't get up for a Slam, even with it being on their worst surface.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Young wise men


So that was some battle Andy Murray had this morning, huh? Despite his improved play on clay this year, if he would've lost that match to Potito Starace, I wouldn't have been too shocked seeing as Starace's the type of player that could give Murray fits on the dirt. It was a good win for him, nevertheless.

Seeing Murray gut out a win like that reminds me of how special he and Novak Djokovic are as players. I say this because if you've noticed sitting in Murray's box the past two clay-court seasons is two-time French Open runner-up Alex Corretja. This reminds me of a couple of years ago when Djokovic had Mark Woodforde in his box. Both Murray and Djokovic weren't looking to hire these former greats as full-time coaches, but rather to work on specific parts of their game to help them on their paths to the top, such as Corretja helping with moving on clay and Woodforde giving tips on volleys.

To me, it's so refreshing to see players that aren't willing to concede anything to the guys in front of them and doing whatever it takes to improve on any surface, whether it's one in their comfort zone or not. A lot of players could learn a thing or two from these young guys!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Glatch a rising star


You know what? Sign me up as a fan of these young U.S. women pro players! I can't even believe I wrote this post earlier in the year in regard to the state of the game here.

But after that Fed Cup win against the Czech Republic, where the team came together to pull off the upset on the road, led by Alexa Glatch, and Glatch's amazing win against Flavia Panetta, things appear to be OK.

Or who knows? Maybe it's just Glatch!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nothing like Paris in the springtime (French Open quarterfinal predictions)


So I'm under the gun with this post because the start of the French is just a couple of hours away! I wanted to do a bigger posting of why I think certain things will shape my quarterfinal picks, but it's a little late (or early depending on your time zone: I'm looking at 2:30 a.m. here!) and I need to start thinking about bed time!

Well, you know what? I will share a couple of thoughts before I put up my calls for the tournament:

• I thought Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal would've ended up on the same side of the draw being ranked four and one, respectively. And here's the wild thing: I was all set to crown Djoko the champ! Once Rafa's in the finals it's a wrap; I think you'd have to get him before then and I thought Novak would've been the one to do it. Now I don't think it's going to happen and he'll add a fifth trophy to the mantelpiece.

• I'm not expecting much from Andy Murray. I know he had a couple of good results on clay the past few weeks, but I still don't think his game translates well to the surface.

• I also don't expect to see the Williams sisters in the second week as I think they both have too many decent dirtballers in their respective draws.

• Roger Federer's win in Madrid was great, but he also broke Nadal's clay-winning streak in Hamburg a couple of years ago, too, and still walked away with the runner-up plate in Paris.

There's plenty of other factors shaping these picks that I'll hopefully get to share with you, but for now, here it goes!:

MEN

For the quarters:
Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco; Marin Cilic vs. Mikhail Youzhny; Juan Monaco vs. Novak Djokovic; and Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick (yep, you read that right!)

For the semis:
Nadal over Cilic; Djokovic over Federer

For the finals:
Nadal over Djokovic

WOMEN

For the quarters:
Dinara Safina vs. Carla Suarez Navarro; Sabine Lisicki vs. Kaia Kanepi; Jelena Jankovic vs. Elena Dementieva; and Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Flavia Panetta

For the semis:
Safina over Lisicki; Kuznetsova over Jankovic

For the finals:
Safina over Kuznetsova

That's how I see it! I'll be back throughout the tournament with more musings!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Qualified for the job?

Can you believe that the start of the French is just a few days away? For some reason, it appears this stretch of the year has flown by. Why it seems like only yesterday that I was thinking, "wow, the clay-court season's almost here!" Now it's almost gone. (Sorry for all that time-displacement talk: I must have Star Trek on the brain or something!)

Play has already started at Roland Garros, actually. Well, it's the qualifying rounds, but it is play nonetheless! For some reason, looking at the draws, none of the matchups are really captivating me. I don't see anyone at all on either side making a decent run or causing trouble for a main-draw player.

I guess you have some decent players out there like Fabio Fognini (top seed in the men's qualies), Nicolas Mahut (a Frenchman who's better on fast surfaces), Scoville Jenkins (an American who looks like he's going on the right track), Lukasz Kubot (the Serbian Open finalist) and veteran Dominik Hrbaty (a semifinalist here about 10 years ago). But will any of them really make a main man sweat?

As for the women, some Americans are still alive: Carly Gullickson, Angela Haynes and Vania King. Then there's veterans like Yvonne Meusberger and young guns like Michelle Larcher de Brito. Actually De Brito might make some noise here (besides the shrieking when she hits the ball!)

But otherwise, the qualifying rounds are kind of quiet this year. Will someone step up when they get to the main event?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Shouldering a burden


I figured I've filled up the comment fields at GoToTennis about this enough in the past few weeks: Now I need to go ahead and put something on my blog about it!

Maria Sharapova made her singles comeback today in Warsaw and managed to get through a three-setter against Tathiana Garbin. She came out smokin' in the first set, but had some rusty spots that led to the match being extended. Still, it was a good win for Sharapova and I'm glad to see her back as she's one of my favorite players on the WTA Tour.

But I think she should've just skipped the clay-court season!

That shoulder injury of hers was (or is?) obviously pretty serious, and I think clay is the worst surface for any kind of arm injury. I know the serve is the stroke most affected by that particular joint injury, but if you're out there hitting a lot more balls than you do on faster surfaces, then that's going to put some strain on the shoulder. Strain that's unnecessary to go through I feel.

I was saying this to Freakyfrites and the other GTT readers that to me, she should've looked at the clay like Patrick Rafter did toward the end of his career. It gets overlooked, but he was definitely a decent clay-court player during his peak years. After his shoulder injury, you rarely saw him playing on it as much those last couple of years he was on tour. And he went on to make back-to-back Wimbledon finals! Now, I wasn't in Rafter's camp at the time, so I don't know his exact train of thought, but it doesn't look like you can argue with whatever decision he made as far as scaling back his dirtballing went.

For Sharapova's sake, I'm glad there's only a couple of weeks left in this part of the season for her, and my concerns for her coming back now were probably deeper when she was talking about playing Rome and Madrid. I just hope she doesn't set herself back further when there was no need to come back now. But I guess that's what I like about Sharapova: All the off-court stuff is cool to her, but you just know she loves to be out there competing.

I just wish she would've waited till the grass-court season!

(Photo: AP)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Second best can be good enough (or my crazy theory on broken streaks)


You know what I would've said to myself if Rafael Nadal had lost that epic match yesterday against Novak Djokovic? And you know what I think after he lost to Roger Federer today?

Good for him! (And believe it or not, the "him" I'm referring to is Nadal!)

You see, I have this feeling about players on huge streaks going into Majors: I actually don't like to see them, particularly if a player is the favorite to win the event that's set to start just days after their latest victory. I think a loss to break a decent stretch can actually be a good thing. Two examples come to my mind that kind of shaped my thought on the matter, and in both of these cases, I think a loss would've helped going into the Slam, but it didn't happen.

The first one happened waaay back in 1989: That was the year Ivan Lendl won his first Aussie, Stefan Edberg made two Slam finals and Boris Becker won two Majors, but still didn't end the season in the top spot. Michael Chang won the French and John McEnroe was a top-five player.

As I mentioned, Becker won two Slams, one of them being the U.S. Open. But you know what's funny? Despite his good form all year, he wasn't the hands-down favorite heading into the Big Apple. There wasn't one: not Lendl, not Edberg. Nope, a lot of things changed that summer because Mr. Winning Ugly, Brad Gilbert, was dominating the hard-court season. If you don't remember way back when, I promise you I'm telling the truth! Gilbert was having a career year in '89 and hit a ranking high of four. Going into the Open, he had won three tournaments in a row, including the big Cincinnati event, where he beat Becker and Edberg back to back. He got to Flushing Meadows as the man to beat, but a game Todd Witsken and a stomach virus knocked him out in the first round. This was supposed to be his moment, but the fates conspired against him.

Let's say he loses in the quarters of one of the second event he won: Could a tiny bit of extra rest helped his body? Maybe made him a little more cautions going into New York? Who knows, but I've always wondered.

The other incident I remember was in 1995 and involved my main dude, Andre Agassi. That year, Andre's resurgence from the end of '94 was in full swing. He won the Aussie on his first trip down under and only lost before the quarters at a tournament once the whole season. His big stretch of success that year also came before the U.S. Open when he won four events in a row going in. One match during his run sticks in my head: The last one before the Open when he played Richard Krajicek in the finals in New Haven and he had to rally big-time for the win. I had already been thinking, "Why was he even playing that tournament"? But play on he did and won (Just barely in that final). He did storm through the draw at the Open and got his winning streak up to 26 matches in a row before losing to Pete Sampras.

And this is another thing I wondered about: If he had lost his match against Krajicek would he have gone into the Open a little-less invincible-feeling against Pete? That loss really derailed Agassi for a while.

I'm sure Rafa would have been just fine going into the French on an amazing streak, but I feel this loss gives him a moment to pause, reset the batteries and be even hungrier at his next event, which happens to be the big one. And look what's happened the past couple of years when he's lost during the clay season.

I know this mind-set of mine might seem a little out of the ordinary, so if you feel that way, please feel free to let me know!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Djoke's on me


In case you missed it, over on VANtage Point at Down the Line! this week, I made what I thought was a pretty bold call (or crazy, take your pick!): Novak Djokovic would fall in the third round to Andreas Seppi.

I made that call not knocking Djokovic's ability or thinking Seppi is some kind of future breakout player, but just going by the fact that Nole's awesome run the past couple of months had to end at some point.

It's been overshadowed by what Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have been doing (and what Roger Federer hasn't been doing), but just look at the results: three Masters Series finals in a row, plus a tournament win. And I totally agree that he has every right to be disappointed with the rankings system because what he's done should've at least been enough to hold on to the three spot. (Check this out at GoToTennis for some thoughts from three of the big four about the deal.)

Rankings aside, though, I wonder what Djokovic will have left in the tank come French time? He's played a lot of matches over the past few weeks. I hope it doesn't come back to bite him because to me, the way he's playing shows that he's the second-best clay courter out there right now. If he's on the opposite side of the draw from Nadal, those two could possibly play a real interesting final at the big one.

(Photo: Getty Images)

American gladiators


I recently wrote something about the lack of U.S. men in any draws at the beginning of the European clay-court season and how I couldn't figure out why they hadn't been having any success. And I quote from said entry:

"Serve big, serve kickers, set yourself up to blast forehands."

It looks like that's being taken to heart by the guys over the past few weeks as they're actually starting to play like dirtballers out there!

Take James Blake, for instance: Dude's been in a midst of a slump all year, but he managed to fight through his first-round match at Estoril and make it to the finals there, where he actually had match points. He couldn't pull it off, but it was still a good run. He's won his first two matches in Madrid this week and fought back for a really tough win against Ivo Karlovic yesterday.

Then there's Mardy Fish, who's beaten such players as Igor Andreev, Janko Tipsarevic and Ivan Navarro, and hung as tight as tight can get with Tommy Robredo and Fernando Verdasco, none of which are easy tasks.

And you can't forget "The Newlywed" Andy Roddick, who made his season debut on the clay and fought off two match points against Tommy Haas to win. That's a great win for A-Rod, especially as Haas had gotten him four times in a row on the dirt.

I don't know how long the guys can keep up this good form, but it's nice to see them play like they realize success can be found this time of year.

UPDATE: Roger Federer blasted Blake this morning, but Blake has nothing to hang his head about; he's been playing good ball.

(Photos: Getty Images)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A special public service announcement: All TTA?, all the time

I've made mention before of how I like to check out Yahoo's tennis page for the latest scores and headlines. Today, I was looking at it and saw this headline, "US men in longest Grand Slam drought since ’60s." Very interesting story, and I recommend checking it out.

The funny thing about this story, though, is that I thought of the same subject last week! And didn't post anything about it! I even went through the lists of all the titlists for each of the four Slams to corroborate this: Just to satisfy my own tennis-statistic-obsessed curiosity. (And I'll have to go back and double-check, but I thought I figured it out as to where this was the longest drought in history. I'll get back to you!)

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that when I think of something like the above story, I'm putting it down either here or on the Tennis Talk, Anyone? Twitter page. I'm launching an all-out blitz of tennisness! You'll be seeing more TTA? here, there and everywhere. I'm always thinking about tennis—past, present and future—so why not share and discuss it even more with like-minded individuals? And if you see a post lingering for days like the one before this one has, then feel free to comment and say, "Get off your butt, Van!"

After all, I live to serve!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

That 'later post' on Serena I was talking about


So last time around here at TTA?, I said I would mention something about Serena's statement last week about being the true number one, not Dinara Safina, then turning around and losing her first-round match in Rome. I know it's kind of old news, but after getting my thoughts together, here it is:

I think Serena is the best in the world and I don't mind her saying so, as I said before (as in the post right under this one), since once you stop believing you're the best then you're only hurting yourself. And she does have the stats to back up her claim, especially when measured against her peers.

But here's my thing: A lot falls on Serena to make sure there are no questions about who deserves to be on top. When was the last time she was on one of those three- or four-tournaments-won-in-a-row streak? When was the last time she played a tournament and just completely dominated from start to finish? These are all things she should be able to accomplish. It all brings to mind that controversial open letter Chris Evert wrote in Tennis magazine a few years ago about how both Serena and Venus should concentrate on dominating and save all their off-court pursuits until after they retired.

I agree with some of what Evert said back then, but you can't argue against the fact that they both have beaten the burnout phase that hit some of their old peers, such as Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. But just a little more effort and focus would erase any doubts about who the "real number one" is.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rome, if you want it


The day after the foot-in-the-mouth result felt around the world* at the Italian Open had some pretty good action going on with Dinara Safina and Venus Williams winning tough ones. This year's "It Girl," Victoria Azarenka won and so did last week's Stuttgart champ, Svetlana Kuznetsova.

I actually think this is one of the best quarterfinal lineups seen on tour this year on the WTA. Sure, there's a couple of interlopers, like Kaia Kanepi and Maria Jose Martinez, but they both took advantage of holes punched in the draw or made their own. The other two quarterfinalists, Jelena Jankovic and Agnieszka Radwanska, have made good runs—like they should be doing on a regular basis.

Me, I'm expecting a Safina-Azarenka final, but the way this lineup looks, almost anyone can come through. It should be fun to watch!

(Photo: Getty Images)

* I didn't mind Serena saying that she's the best player in the world, especially as I think she is. But I do have something to say about it, which I will in a later post!

Monday, May 4, 2009

In the driver's seat


Rafael Nadal won his fourth Rome title yesterday with a straight-sets win over Novak Djokovic. That venue, like many other clay-court venues on the tour, has become Rafa's personal playground. To set the record for most title wins by a male at this prestigious event is really something.

All in all, I thought it was a good tournament to watch: Djoko looked really good out there, Juan Monaco had a nice run, there was an American sighting or two. All in all, not a bad one to watch.

On the WTA, Svetlana Kuznetsova FINALLY won a title by beating new world number one Dinara Safina pretty comfortably in Germany. Last I checked, Kuznetsova had lost like nine of her last 10 finals played, which is a remarkable statistic for someone of her ability. Glad to see her back in the winner's circle!

(Photo: AP)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Oh my, Gaudio!


Now this has to be acknowledged:

The Challenger circuit was a little busy this past week with events in Tunisia, Greece, the Czech Republic, Colombia and Spain. This one result really caught my eye among all the tournaments: Gaston Gaudio, he of 2004 French Open winning and burnout fame, won in Tunisia.

The past couple of years have been rough for Gaudio in regard to his tennis. It's great to see him capable of having some moments, and more importantly, wanting to have them. I don't think the game has passed him by yet. Here's hoping it doesn't! I always like a story where someone's making their way back to their former glory by working their way up from the bottom. It builds gumption, I tell ya!

Anyway, congrats to Gaston and a wish for more success in the future.

(Photo: AP)