Thursday, September 30, 2010

How will Fernando Verdasco look back on 2010?

Fernando Verdasco got bounced in Thailand by Benjamin Becker in straights. Becker's tough, but Verdasco should be able to handle him. Aside from that quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open, the second half of the year really hasn't been that great for the Spaniard.

I thought he would've been able to build on that breakthrough '09 and it looked like early on this season that was going to be the case with titles indoors and on clay. But the guy played a ton, I mean 2000 pounds, worth of tournaments this year, and even though he's strong as a bull, it's just been too much. Like, why play the week before the French Open when you've made deep runs on the dirt that whole stretch?

The dude works hard off the court to be able to maintain that physical style of play, but some pacing has to be done. I think a lighter schedule next year can help continue that upward path of a year ago.

(Photo: AP)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Kimiko Date Krumm and the irritation inducers

How does she do it?

One of the craziest comeback stories in women's tennis keeps rolling along as Kimiko Date Krumm knocked off Maria Sharapova at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, mere hours before she hits the big 4-0.

Now looking at it on paper, you'd think Sharapova would be able to blast Date Krumm off the court, but obviously that's not the case because what Date Krumm lacks in power she makes up for with flat, penetrating groundies that can give a lot of players fits in today's topspin-driven game.

That got me to thinking about some other players over the past couple of decades that defied the odds and notched up big scalps on their way to becoming one, based on games that gave their peers fits.

For the women:

* Date Krumm: Most 40-year-olds don't come back after years and years out of the game to become a solid top-75 player, but Date Krumm has. You'd be hard-pressed to find a player out there, male or female, with strokes like hers.

* Francesca Schiavone and Patty Schnyder: I put these two together because when was the last time you were able to say, "Wow, she cracked that forehand" or "Look at all those aces she racked up." They probably know the nuances of the court more than 90 percent of their peers.

* Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario: Hustle can go a long way, as seen by what she managed to accomplish in her career. She had to come up with tricks to diffuse the power players of her day. Who has hit a better moonball?

As for some of the men:

* Michael Chang: Speed kills, and his did, for sure. His groundies were textbook but he had to hit a LOT of them on the run. He rode that grind-it-out style to the Hall of Fame.

* Lleyton Hewitt: Hewitt's accomplishments are some of the most fascinating to me ever: How did he dominate the game for two years? I still can't figure it out, so I'll move on!

* Brad Gilbert: Speed and court sense carried him to a place no one would've ever predicted for him. No one would ever accuse him of hitting the ball too hard, but he did OK with 20 titles and a top-four ranking, achieved against some of the greatest players of all time.

* Gael Monfils: He drives me crazy watching him play, so I can imagine how the guys on tour must feel!

There are so many others throughout the histories of the ATP and WTA, but I just wanted to throw these players out there, and give props to Kimiko Date Krumm, who's doing it for irritation-inducers everywhere!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Nary a top 10 player in sight (and maybe some should be)

The Slam season has come and gone (actually it's been gone a couple of weeks now), but there's still plenty of tennis to get excited about. The men are competing in Bucharest on clay and on indoor hard courts in Metz, France. The women have a couple of stops, too, in Seoul and Uzbekistan, both outdoors on the hard stuff.

But a funny thing about this week: No members of the current top 10 on the ATP and WTA sides are out there looking to pad their stats by entering these draws. Granted, there's some top-20 players out there, like Marin Cilic and defending champ Gael Monfils in Metz and Nadia Petrova in Korea, all who've been ranked in the single digits in their careers. I feel, though, a few members of the higher-ups should be out there. For instance:

* Nikolay Davydenko should be in Romania: Now Davydenko, I hope, would be the first to tell you he shouldn't be in the top 10 right now with the year he's had. But he hasn't played since that first-round ouster at the U.S. Open. He has a lot of indoor points to defend from last year, so maybe he's gearing up for that. But I think a solid clay-court run could've helped him out confidence-wise.

* Andy Roddick should be in Metz: I'm usually a big A-Rod cheerleader, but I'm feeling a lot less optimistic. Why not play indoors against a field of guys that he's done a lot of running over in the past? Hopefully, he's just at home doing everything possible to get ready for the last big indoor tournaments, Shanghai and Paris. I just don't know about him contending in the larger events right now: That Miami win was a looonng time ago.

* Francesca Schiavone should be in Korea: That U.S. Open run was nice, but I think a little more play could help her in the months ahead as she's had some success indoors. I'll cut her some slack: After all, she did win the French Open!

* Elena Dementieva should be in Tashkent: This season hasn't gone as planned for the veteran. A romp through a less-than-stellar field could've shown she was back on track.

I guess everybody needs a break, though, and I bet these players are glad I don't make their schedule!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

THAT'S what Davis Cup is all about!

I love Davis Cup.

But you already knew that if you've been around this site before. However, after last year's final, for the first time, I started to have a little doubt about Davis Cup creep in. That tie between Spain and the Czech Republic was so bereft of drama that I barely tuned into it.

But this weekend, my friends, wiped out any and all concerns I had about my favorite sporting event. From the World Group semis to the playoff rounds, so many great stories happened:

* Serbia (yes, Serbia!) makes it to the finals of the Davis Cup. Now, the only person in the universe that had a right to say anything about the scheduling of the semifinals this year was Novak Djokovic, who was playing a Slam final less than a week ago. However, he comes out and wins the fourth rubber, which sets it up for his less-heralded teammate Janko Tipsarevic to clinch the tie. Awesome, awesome result for the tiny nation.

* France makes it to the final for the first time in eight years by steamrolling Argentina. I can't even believe it's been that long for the Frenchmen because with the talent captain Guy Forget can call upon, anyone would be hard-pressed going against them. Great win for the team.

* Mardy Fish--doing his best Pete Sampras circa 1995 against Russia impersonation--might be one of my favorite sports moments of the year. Fish's efforts in Colombia should not be overlooked in comparison to what he's pulled off this season. Two singles and one doubles win against solid top-70 players on their home turf in crazy conditions is amazing.

* India's comeback win over Brazil in the playoffs was huge. Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes come together and spark the turnaround after a dismal first day in singles play for the home team.

* And last but not least, Kazakhstan will be playing in the World Group next year after blanking Switzerland. Talk about an incredible result! Now, Switzerland was playing without Roger Federer, but Stanislas Wawrinka is nothing to sneeze at. Andrey Golubev and Mikhail Kukushkin held strong, though.

A result like that shows you never know what's going to happen on a Davis Cup weekend. I hope we'll see more of those in the future, and that any talk of changing the format is tabled.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rafael Nadal and the greatest men's Slam year EVER

There, I said it.

I've been pondering that since he clinched the U.S. Open title over Novak Djokovic, adding his name to the short list of players with a career Slam and the even-shorter list of players with a career Golden Slam. It's obvious Rafa had an awesome year at the Majors, but the best ever? You're probably thinking, "Dudes win three Slams a year all the time. How many times has Roger Federer done it? Heck, Mats Wilander even did it." Or you might be saying, "What about the cats that made all four Slam finals in a year, like Fed, or the homeys that won all of them, like Rod Laver?"

Well, to answer all your questions, I'm going to break it down for you in just a few words:

It's all about the completely different surfaces he won on.

There are only five guys that have won Majors on three surfaces: Jimmy Connors, Wilander, Andre Agassi, Federer and now Nadal. Three of them have won three Slams in a year: Connors, Wilander and Federer. Connors' trifecta was achieved on grass back in 1974, while Wilander won on Rebound Ace, clay and hard courts in 1988 and Federer pulled that off for the first time in 2004. What knocks Wilander and Federer out of the running for me in this conversation is that Rebound Ace's properties were too similar to a hard court, albeit a slow one with higher bounces.

And I know Laver won all four in a year twice, which is a tremendous achievement, but to do that on only two surfaces kind of takes away some of the oomph of that for me. If Federer or Pete Sampras played three of their four Majors a year on grass, how many titles would they have?

It's been old hat the past few years for Federer to make all four Slam finals in a year, too, but you have to go back to that old adage (how many times do you get to read the word "adage?"), "No one remembers second place."

I'm not trying to diminish any of those great players' accomplishments at all. But what we witnessed in 2010 with Rafael Nadal dominating as usual on the clay of the French Open, coming back two weeks after that to take the grass-court title at Wimbledon and then winning on the hard stuff at the U.S. Open is an extremely rare feat in the men's game, one we might not see in a while. Unless he pulls it off again!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rainy days and Mondays ...

Who needs a roof when you always have Mondays to make up Grand Slam finals?

I guess that's the USTA's train of thought as a roof at the National Tennis Center isn't being discussed that much, despite yet another Monday men's final. Personally, I'm OK with it, this year at least: The weather was pretty good for the most part and at least tennis in the public eye a wee bit longer, which I'm always pulling for.

But enough of talk about roofs and eyes and weather: How about this men's final we're about to have? And how about how it even came to be?

The way Rafael Nadal was playing, it was pretty much a given he was going to get there. But Novak Djokovic coming through in five against Roger Federer? I didn't see that, obviously, if you read my U.S. Open predictions! I'm not going to sound the death knell on Fed after that loss, and what has turned out to be a kind-of mediocre season by his standards. I think he's still got at least two or three Slams left in him, but I was a little concerned when he said he's not going to watch the final and he's been out playing for weeks and weeks. It was the same post-Wimbledon, too. Look at his schedule: Folks, he doesn't play that much. And you know what? He needs to watch the final. It's like in other sports when the opposite team clinches the title on your home court: You can rush into the locker room and try to put the whole thing behind you, or you can sit there and watch those guys celebrate, then use that as motivation to make sure that never happens again. Federer could stand to do that and be a little pissed off to ensure getting those extra Slams. The Djokos and Rafas of the world are just going to keep coming and coming.

Speaking of those guys, I'm just hoping for a good final tomorrow, which I think they're obviously capable of putting on. It should go four or five sets with them both pulling off shots and gets you only see in video games. If I had a tip to give Djokovic, calling upon all of my NTRP 4.0 wisdom, I'd tell him to hit hard and flat down the middle. If he does that and wins, then I'll be the first one to call me a genius!

(Photo: AFP)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stanislas Wawrinka: the Swiss mystery

As I type this, Stan Wawrinka is battling it out against Mikhail Youzhny at Arthur Ashe stadium.

This is already the furthest Wawrinka's gotten at a Major, and I wonder if he has more in him to go even further. Slam quarters were supposed to be a given for Wawrinka, but for whatever reason it didn't happen. He has all kinds of game and has been in the top 10, but he also only has two career singles titles, when once it looked like he would've had a Novak Djokovic-type of career.

He has Peter Lundgren in his camp, and I think they both really need each other: Lundgren to show that just because he had one of the greatest players ever under his charge, he knows his X's and O's, and Wawrinka because it's good to have a guy that's seen everything.

I'm not sure how far he's going to go at the Open, but I hope it's only the start of more good things for him.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Federer, Zvonareva, Djokovic and Wozniacki: The Wind-Breakers

Last night, I had to run to a bodega around the corner in my Brooklyn, NY, neighborhood for dishwashing detergent, and thought "Man, it's windy and cool out here. This kind of sucks."

Then I understood what Pam Shriver said during the Caroline Wozniacki match about the weather, if you were planning to meet a buddy out in that wind for a hit, you'd probably both be like, "Forget this. Let's go grab a beer!"

So congrats to the quarterfinal winners yesterday—Roger Federer, Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Novak Djokovic—for getting it done in such tough conditions. None of them were in trouble against their lower-ranked, but very solid, opponents. Still, when the weather is tricky like that, you never know what can happen.

And I guess they're all happy it wasn't that blazing heat like it was at the start of last week! Their semifinal matches should make for some great encounters.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Major hurdle for Sharapova, Roddick and Murray

This has been some U.S. Open, huh? Favorites running through, new kids coming up, fights in the stands—the works. But I guess that's just New York and the Open: You never know what to expect!

As the quarterfinal fields between the men and the women are close to being set or are already, there are three players I seriously thought would have made it that far that fell short. And the fact they're on the sidelines now indicates a level of unpredictability in the game and concerns for their Slam-winning future.

In case you skipped the headline above and just went into what I've written, I'm talking about Maria Sharapova and Andys Roddick and Murray, three of my favorite players on tour.

Let's look at Roddick first. Now as you know, if you've been around this old blog of mine, I'm always optimistic about his chances on any surface, but now a little bit of doubt is creeping into my head on him winning a Major in his career again. Sure, there was the bout with mono this summer, but I think problems started surfacing when he missed the entire clay-court season. I know there were some injury concerns around that time, but it seems his level of intensity dropped after winning Miami. And if you look at the grass-court stretch, there's no reason he should've lost to Rendy Lu. Or Janko Tipsarevic at the Open, not if he wants to be considered a Slam contender.

As for Andy Murray—not to be a negative Nellie or anything—but the whole season now has to be chalked up as a lost one. Sure, there was the final in Australia, but the main thing is that he went 0 for 4 in the Slam-winning department. Sorry, Andy, if this gets back to you (yeah, right), because I don't want to put any more pressure on you now then you must feel already. Everybody always says he has the game—me included—to take a big one, but there's a matter of actually putting it all together at the right time.

But you know, if I were to really think about it, is his game strong enough to take out three top-eight players in a row in the last three rounds of a Major in best-of-five situations? Plus, the level of pressure on him is almost immeasurable?

And then there's Sharapova: Sure, Caroline Wozniacki had been playing lights out up to their fourth-round match-up today, but I think for a confidence boost in her game going forward, Maria really needed to win this match—almost desperately. She was off the court so long with that shoulder injury, but her schedule has been pretty full this year, indicating her arm must be in decent shape. Has the game passed her by? Will she be able to beat the Wozniackis, Azarenkas and Williams of the world in order to pick up a fourth Slam? It only gets harder from here on out.

These are three of my favorite players on tour, and I'm going to keep pulling for them at the Majors. It's something watching the windows of opportunity close for them, though, with each Slamless year passing by.

(Photo: Getty Images)