Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A hitch in our plans

No, I'm not talking about Roger Federer's French Open preparation.

Yours truly is getting married this weekend! And with at least 7,542 things left to do before Saturday, I think I'm going to have to postpone the blogging for a few days. Plus, if I get caught blogging by the missus when I should be helping with the seating arrangements, things could be over before you know it!

I'm gonna try to do some more Tweeting on what's happening in the tennis world around us and post something here maybe early next week, so I'll see you then!

Enjoy Rome, Stuttgart and Fes!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Believe in miracles!

Fed Cup: It's like the 1980 Winter Olympics all over again!

Back then, the U.S. beat Russia in hockey in the famous "Miracle on Ice" game. Thirty years later, there's a new parallel to that with the U.S. Fed Cup team beating heavily favored Russia to advance to the finals of the competition.

On paper, the U.S. should've been hard-pressed to win one rubber, much less the whole tie. But I have to tell you, the job Mary Joe Fernandez has been doing the past two years is nothing short of remarkable, especially with nary a Williams sister in sight. She's taking a group of young players (such as Melanie Oudin) and mixing them with veterans (like Liezel Huber) and getting it done.

Nearly every tie, whether home or away, the U.S. team is the underdog. But MJ is following a great formula for winning in team competition: Split the singles and win the doubles. That's easier said than done, but it seems to be working.

I have to admit, before last year, I wasn't much of a Fed Cup fan. Actually, "wasn't much" might be a wee bit of an understatement: I wasn't a fan at all, which is funny because I can't get enough of Davis Cup. But the chance to witness Team USA doing its thing has been great, and I almost can't get enough of Fed Cup now.

This is a story all sports fans should get behind. It's like if the New York Yankees were to win without its high-priced lineup or the Chicago Bulls winning without Michael Jordan or the Colts without Peyton Manning. You go with backups and do enough coaching to have those players ready to run through a brick wall for you. And Team USA has been running through a lot of them.

So, to sum this all up, I love the U.S. Fed Cup team! And if you haven't been following it yet, be sure to catch the finals against Italy. Beating the Italians would really be a miracle, but one has been accomplished with the win over Russia, so why not another?

(Photo: AP)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spanish intuition

There's only one tournament on the ATP calendar this week, the event in Barcelona. Rafael Nadal was the top seed, but withdrew before the tournament started. Not that it really matters to him, but that's fine with me: Approaching his schedule with some caution is a good move.

I have to admit, I am anxious to see what he does his next time out after watching him completely and utterly destroy the field in Monte Carlo. Every scoreline, even the finals against countryman Fernando Verdasco, was like "Whoa, did you see that?"

But despite Nadal's absence, the field is still really strong in Barcelona and three of the local boys are poised to battle for the title based on the year they're having so far.

Verdasco hasn't picked up a title on clay yet this year, but his wins at Monte Carlo indicate he's in good form, which he's carried over here so far as shown by his win over Richard Gasquet.

Then there's the veteran, Juan Carlos Ferrero, who's been playing this year like it's 2003 all over again. He's already won two titles on the dirt and almost had a third in a row if not for former top-four player and countryman David Ferrer stopping him in the finals in Acapulco.

I know it's not a shock to see Spanish guys doing big things on clay. I just have this feeling that this year is going to be more special than ever in what we've seen from the country. And depending on how the draw breaks at the French, if five Spaniards were to make the quarters, I wouldn't be surprised.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Competition or surface: What's better for French Open preparation?

Fresh off winning her first title of the year last weekend in Ponte Vedre Beach, Florida, Caroline Wozniacki is keeping it rolling this week at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston. She has to be the heavy favorite to win the title with the form she's been displaying.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the WTA calendar, Francesca Schiavone and Roberta Vinci have advanced to the finals in Barcelona, a good result for both players.

But I'm left wondering something related to both of these events:

Which one is better preparation for the queen of clay-court tournaments, the French Open?

Is it the Family Circle Cup, which had six top 20 players in the draw, making for the stronger field, but played on Har-Tru courts? Or is it Barcelona, which only had two top-20 players entered and none in the top 10, but is played in Europe on the red clay similar to Roland Garros?

It's hard to say because over the past 20 years, the prolific French Open winners such as Justine Henin, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Steffi Graf all have won titles on the green stuff, and in the years they bagged the big one.

But is that just a testament to their ability? After all, they each have Hall of Fame stats. It must be because from what I gather, even though the Har-tru is referred to as "clay," it plays almost like a different surface compared to the red stuff. The weather also has a big impact on the playing conditions, and the climes in the "Southern Swing" and Paris in the springtime couldn't be more different.

So why play in the U.S. this time of year? Not that I really have any complaints: It's great to see a few tournaments holding court here. Aside from the competition and surface differences, money plays a big part as the pot in Charleston is more than three times the size of the one in Barcelona.

I'm going to inject myself into the middle of this thrilling debate and say that if I were a French Open contender, I would be playing exclusively on red clay. It'll be interesting to see who goes further at the French: Schiavone or Wozniacki. And what will be the bigger factor in determining that? Acclimation, competition or just pure talent? We'll see soon enough!

(Photo: AP)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why I'm not worried about Rafael Nadal

The Monte Carlo Masters event has gotten well under way and a lot of the big names have been in action. Novak Djokovic blasted Florent Serra off the court and Andy Murray in turn got blasted off the court by Phillipp Kohlschreiber.

And the five-time defending champion Rafael Nadal? He demolished Thiemo de Bakker 6-1, 6-0 in an hour. Sure, de Bakker had to get into the tournament as a qualifier, but that can be a good thing sometimes because it means you've gotten some matches under your belt and are used to the conditions. However, that didn't matter at all to Rafa.

And I know a lot of talk has been made about Nadal not having won a tournament since last year in Rome, which can be primarily attributed to injury, but I think he's going to be A-OK. I don't mean to downplay his ailments or the impact his game, which is so physical, has on his body. There are other factors that are going to carry him through in the future and current indicators that show he's not playing that bad, despite not taking home the hardware.

First, as much as his style of play might wear on his own body, it does the same to his opponents as well. When guys on the other side of the court have to constantly deal with balls bouncing up to their shoulders that's a draining style to go against, especially on clay. Then there's the mental drain that has to be dealt with as well—knowing that Rafa's never going to give up or give in and chase down every ball. And the guy gets excited after getting one break in a set: He loves to win!

Plus, it doesn't matter what style of play you bring to the table—baseline, serve-and-volley, all-court, monster serve, counterpuncher—Nadal has the tools to counter it. And this statement should sum that up: He's beaten Roger Federer on grass! If you can do that, which is as close to impossible a task as there's been in pro tennis history, then winning a title in Monte Carlo should be a cinch—even on one leg!

And if you look at his record for the year, which again, shows no singles titles won, things really haven't been that bad: Four tournaments played and reaching at least the quarters in all of them, and that's all on hard courts. But you want to know my favorite result of his for 2010? Winning the doubles in Indian Wells with Marc Lopez, who isn't exactly a world beater. They beat a few Grand Slam winners on their way to the title, which makes the feat even more impressive. So if he can do that on his toughest surface and in an aspect of the game he rarely competes in, then his form is fine.

Here's one more thing that I think shouldn't be overlooked: He's so young! Nadal turns 24 this year and he already has six Majors to his name. Let's say he were to have knee surgery today and shut it down for a year. He comes back around Monte Carlo time 2011, when he'd still only be 24. Would you bet against him winning the whole thing?

So while it's a little shocking he hasn't won an event in so long, I would say don't worry about him. The titles will come, along with a further assault on the record books.

Monday, April 12, 2010

This is my brain on drugs

Before I get on to talking about the Monte Carlo Masters, I just thought I'd do a little reflecting on the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston, which ended with Sam Querrey falling in the finals to Juan Ignacio Chela.

Probably the biggest news of the event was Wayne Odesnik showing up there and advancing to the semifinals, despite the threat of what some might call (myself included) a well-deserved suspension for pleading guilty to smuggling human growth hormone into Australia at the beginning of the year. Querrey Tweeted before their semi that there was no way he was gonna lose to Odesnik. The match was pretty close before Sam pulled it out. Then he fell in three in the finals to Chela.

But I was thinking before that match that if he would've won, Querrey would've taken out two guys back-to-back that had been involved in drug controversies. Remember, Chela was suspended back in 2001 for a drug-related offense.

And here's another thing that caught my eye this morning on AOL's sport site FanHouse in a story written by Greg Couch: the fact that Odesnik beat Xavier Malisse in the quarters, who was almost suspended for failing to make his availability known for testing.

That's a lot of controversy in one tournament!

So this has me wondering, does tennis have a drug problem? It seems like the only mainstream coverage the sport gets is when something pops up related to that. If my opinion matters, I would answer that with a "no." Situations like that are evident in all walks of life. And I don't know if what has happened is enough to be considered a problem.

I do know that it's extremely disheartening for this fan to see, and players that cheat should receive as much punishment as possible from ATP and WTA officials. And I'm glad to see outrage from those with that hanging over their heads be the target of anger from their peers, as opposed to what goes on in other sports when other players are quick to give a "no comment" or laud that player's "accomplishments."

So, in other words, right on Sam! And remember players, just say no!

(Photo: AFP)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

... It's down-and-dirty time!

The week is almost over and there's not a hard court in sight for the pros on both tours. Yes, the clay season is well under way with the men playing in Casablanca and Houston, while the women are in Spain and Florida.

Some interesting things have transpired so far:

• Houston's really been a trip so far: You have HGH-smuggling Wayne Odesnik out there playing—which is insane that's he even able to play; Eduardo Schwank getting fined for "tanking"; players galore retiring—just craziness! Tell you what I'm gonna do, though: For more details, I'm going to tell you to go to GoToTennis, one of my favorite blogs out there. Freakyfrites has the scoop!

• At the Andalucia Open—that's the Spain tournament I was talking about—Kim Clijsters, fresh off her Miami win, lost to a qualifier in the second round. Funny thing about this tiny tournament: It sure does get some big names to play. Last year, Serena Williams was there and fell early. I guess it's a pretty nice venue to fulfill tiny-tournament-playing obligations!

• Casablanca has Stanislas Wawrinka as the top seed and he's advanced to the quarters. Here's something that always strikes me as odd when it comes to him, something you might not have thought about: He only has one career tournament title! Who is he, Van Sias or somebody?

• In Florida, Caroline Wozniacki could pick up her first title of the year as she's near light years ahead as far as ranking goes compared to the other players in the field. But you never know. What if a youngster like Melanie Oudin was to win? Wait, Wozniacki is a youngster! Never mind that question!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Now that the hard part's over...

I have to say I'm pretty happy with the way the spring hard-court season wrapped up!

But of course, if you've read TTA? in the past, that goes without saying!

I pull for Andy Roddick a lot around these parts, and I'm glad to see that he won such a big tournament. But more importantly than that, he took out one of the big four on his way to doing so. Sure, he's managed to get some wins against one of those guys in a draw, but it's been a while since he accomplished that with getting the big-boy trophy at the end.

And hats off to his opponent in the final, Tomas Berdych. It was good to see him get that far after such having good wins in the tournament. There's no reason talent-wise he shouldn't be up there in the top 10 on a consistent basis.

As for the women, all I can think of to say about Kim Clijsters is wow! In the past six or seven months, she's won two of the three biggest hard-court tournaments out there. Her game just really translates well to the tough stuff, and if I were to look back at my story on On the Baseline, I think I'd have to give her the nod.

Venus Williams had a great run to the finals, and if her body doesn't break down on her, she should really be making a run for the top spot. I hope so. It's looking like Clijsters is really making her charge!

(Photo: The Canadian Press)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Another classic

Man, how about that Tomas Berdych-Fernando Verdasco match?

Naw, just kidding. It was alright, but it was no Justine Henin-Kim Clijsters. These two are really going down to the wire in their matches, huh? The last time they played, in the finals in Brisbane this year, the match was again decided by a third-set tiebreaker.

I'm a little bit shocked by the end results of both of those matches. I've never felt much separated those two physically, but I always did think Henin was the one that was more mentally tough. Maybe Kim does have the edge when it comes to hard courts, but I really don't know; it's a tough call. But check this out at On the Baseline, written by yours truly, and weigh in. (How was that for a plug/segue?)

Aside from those two, though, Venus Williams has really steamrolled her way into the finals: She's playing like it's 2001 or something! I picked her to win and I'm sticking with it. Regardless, it should be a good final.

But speaking of picks, my tournament predictions really didn't work out too well on the men's side. My men's champ, Andy Murray, got waylaid and Roger Federer lost for the second tournament in a row in a third-set 'breaker. Oh well, at least Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick are still around!

(Photo: Getty Images)