Friday, December 25, 2015

Tennis and my mom

So, this might be one of the oddest return-to-blogging posts in history, but as I sit in an airport alone on Christmas, I figured why not take the time to jot some thoughts down. Be forewarned, this post will be a downer, but hopefully, not a total one.

The reason I'm in an airport alone is because my mom died on Christmas morning. If that's not a tough thing to deal with, I don't know what is. She was visiting my sister in Mobile, Ala., and had just gotten into town Christmas Eve. My mom drove over from Georgia, where she'd been living for years on her own. The past few years had not been kind to her at all, health-wise. 

Actually, you know that phrase, "understatement of the year"? Multiply that by 50, and that should be a more accurate summation of that "health-wise" sentence. I guess, if anything, it's good she got to spend some time with my sister and nephews.

Anyway, as I'm waiting for my delayed flight (adding to the roughness of this trip), I figured I'd come here and share a couple stories about tennis, me and my mom. After all, this is a tennis blog!

* I played my first tennis tournament when I was 15. We didn't really know if there was a dress code or anything, but my mom figured I should look the part. So I got a polo shirt and shorts from JC Penney, and the kit looked all right, but it was not functional. At all. This was in the '80s, the height of the "short shorts" era. These shorts were that and then some, and were made of the stiffest material ever. I couldn't move: heck, I could barely fit a ball in my pocket. Tightness--nerves- and shorts-wise--did me in, but in my mom's mind, at least I looked right.

* A little bit later in my playing career, I was playing a first-round match I was a heavy favorite in. Like, it was supposed to be a cakewalk, but I ended up dropping the first set. I couldn't keep a ball in the court. I made eye contact with my mom and she mouthed, "change your racquet." You see, the week before, I had gotten a new model and I obviously hadn't gotten used to it. Luckily, I had one of my old sticks in my bag, I switched to it and breezed through the next two sets. I still consider that one of my biggest and most memorable wins. And I'm glad there was no one roaming the courts looking for coaching going on!

Not just because I'm involved in it, but I've always felt tennis was the most difficult sport out there. You don't have teammates (unless it's doubles) and can't get coaching when you're out there. You're taught something and it's up to you to put your lessons to good use while competing. It's very important to at least have someone out there watching you. I was very fortunate to have that with my mom. Funny: I just played some doubles last Saturday night for fun, talked to her afterward and she asked me how I did. She always did that through the years. 

She was a great "coach," and an even more amazing, wonderful mom. (And that might actually be "the understatement of the year.")

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A stroke of brilliance with the U.S. Davis Cup lineup


If you didn't know this about me, then let me fill you in on a personal fact:

I love Davis Cup, specifically the U.S. Davis Cup team. And there was an announcement this week that has me more excited about the squad then I've been in a minute—and for a playoff tie, no less!

Amid the Serena Slam-chasing, the Federer-romping, the Djokovic-winning and Flavia-winning/retiring and other happenings going on at the U.S. Open, the lineup for the U.S. in its playoff against Uzbekistan was announced. Making up the team will be Steve Johnson, Donald Young, Jack Sock and Sam Querrey.

Yes!

Now why, you may ask, would this have me excited? Because I wholeheartedly feel that it's the best way to develop these young players.

I wrote something along those lines for Tennis View Magazine a couple of years ago. It's kind of the sink-or-swim theory: Throw the youngsters into pressure-packed situations and see how they handle it. Just imagine the confidence Sock or Young could gain from winning a live fifth rubber against a hostile away crowd. Or conversely, being able to soak in the praise of pulling off a feat like that at home.

Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier's counterpart, Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, has been going with the younger players for years—often because of the Williams' unavailability—and has had stellar results. I wrote something about that for Tennis View, too. (I guess I write a lot for TV!) A good draw with young talent and a bit of a veteran presence can do a lot of damage: i.e., Australia this year.

Anyway, I think the guy that broke the mold on in recent years of going with young talent was Courier's predecessor Patrick McEnroe. One of my all-time favorite coaching moves in sport is when he told Bob and Mike Bryan they had to win a Slam first before he put them on the team, forsaking an all-singles players lineup. They did, and the rest is history.

Now, not to say that John Isner and the Bryans should be kept off the team: All three have had amazing results over the years. But if there's a situation like this, let the neophytes play. And be sure to bring along Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, Taylor May Fritz—any/all of those whipper-snappers—as practice partners.

A youth movement can only be a good thing.

(Photo: AP)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sloane did it!

I have to admit, I had some serious doubts about Sloane Stephens getting that first final/title anytime in the near future. The past year had its ups and downs as far as results go with losses aplenty and coaching changes.

But any kinds of doubts were erased this week in Washington as the young American won her first career title (in her first career final). She beat Sam Stosur in the semis, then turned around and tagged Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. In the last three sets played between those two matches, Stephens dropped only three games.

That's some serious ballin' right there.

(A side note: That's about how many games I've won in my last three sets. I'm really in a bad funk, right now.)

Anyway...

Extremely well done by Sephens. Here's hoping she can keep it up and live up to her potential.

(Photo: AP)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The summer of Sam Stosur?


A funny thing, from a couple of years ago:

After Samantha Stosur won the WTA stop in Carlsbad, Calif., in 2013, she immediately went to the top of my favorites list for that year's U.S. Open. I even wrote about it for Bleacher Report and everything. But things weren't meant to be for the '11 Open champ.

And that might actually be a bit of an understatement as she fell in the first round of the tournament to American Vicky Duval. Grand Slams have been a bit tricky for Stosur since her breakthrough. She managed a quarter and a semi in 2012, but nothing that deep since. You can almost mark her down for an early-round upset victim at any Major.

However…

Call me crazy, but I'm getting those old '13 feelings about her again. She's in the quarters in Washington, D.C., this week and is currently riding a seven-match winning streak, having won her second clay-court title of the year in Austria last week. She's playing solid tennis on her favorite surfaces and can hurt almost anyone with her serve and forehand.

Of course, it's super-early in the hard-court swing and Stosur's only two matches into it. But let's say she wins Washington, which from her vantage point as the second seed, is very doable. A 10-match roll would be a perfect thing to build upon as she gets ready for New York.

It's a long summer, but it could be a great one for Sam.

(Photo: AFP)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The TTA? challenge

There's nothing like a challenge to get the old blood flowing and the keys moving, I always say!

Let me tell you about one I've just been issued.

While figuring out some writing stuff, namely how to do more of it, my wife issued a challenge to me: Do at least four posts a week here up until the U.S. Open. Seeing as how it looks like I've fallen into doing four a year nowadays, I thought that would be kind of tough.

But you know what? Who says life is all fun and games? I'm going to take the missus up on her challenge and go for it. It should be doable and there are benefits all around: I get to write, you get to read (hopefully). It's a win-win all around!

So stick around here for more posts and the like. There is so much happening in the tennis world right now: TTA? aims to be along for the ride--four times a week!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Wimbledon picks (from the round of 16 on)


Would you believe me if I told you I knew Stan Wawrinka and Serena Williams were going to win the French Open a few weeks ago?

Yeah, I wouldn't believe me either, especially without any proof in the form of a blog post to back it up.

So I figured I'd better get my Wimbledon picks up for documentation!

Here you go, for the men, in TTA? patented round-of-16-on fashion:

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Kevin Anderson (14)
Marin Cilic (9) vs. Kei Nishikori (5)
Stan Wawrinka (5) vs. Marcos Baghdatis
Richard Gasquet (21) vs. Milos Raonic (7)
Vasek Pospisil vs. Rafael Nadal (10)
Gilles Muller vs. Andy Murray (3)
Tomas Berdych (8) vs. Gael Monfils (18)
Feliciano Lopez (15) vs. Roger Federer (2)

Quarterfinals
Djokovic vs. Cilic
Wawrinka vs. Gasquet
Nadal vs. Murray
Berdych vs. Federer

Semifinals
Djokovic over Gasquet
Murray over Federer

Finals
Djokovic over Murray

And for the women

Round of 16
Serena Williams (1) vs. Venus Williams (16)
Victoria Azarenka (23) vs. Belinda Bencic (30)
Maria Sharapova (4) vs. Flavia Pennetta (24)
CoCo Vandeweghe vs. Lucie Safarova (6)
Paula Parmentier vs. Angelique Kerber (10)
Sabine Lisicki (18) vs. Simona Halep (3)
Ekaterina Makarova (8) vs. Madison Keys (21)
Elina Svitolina (17) vs. Petra Kvitova (2)

Quarterfinals
Williams vs. Azarenka
Sharapova vs. Safarova
Kerber vs. Lisicki
Makarova vs. Kvitova

Semifinals
Williams over Sharapova
Kerber over Kvitova

Finals
Williams over Kerber

Check back to see how I made out!

(Photo: Tenis, Londres)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

My call, once again, for American men to hit the dirt in Europe


I hope I don't sound like too much of a broken record on this one, but I just can't figure out why the top American men don't play a heavier schedule on the red clay in Europe.

I know that that's a long way from home base. I know there are finances involved. I know that there's the inclination to save oneself for the faster surfaces. But there's so much potential there to do well on the clay, and pick up points and prize money.

Jack Sock just won the U.S. Clay Court Championships and did so in quite impressive fashion, counting among his wins Roberto Bautista Agut—no slouch on the clay at all. Why couldn't Sock hit Munich?

I think if there was ever a surface built for current U.S. number-one John Isner, it's clay. He's battled Rafael Nadal to the brink on it a couple of times, and beaten Roger Federer. I'd think he could've made a dent in that Istanbul draw if he'd played.

It might sound crazy, but I think an American male of this generation could have a better shot at going deeper at the French than Wimbledon. They can't follow the Courier/Agassi/Sampras/Chang model of showing up for the big warm-ups, either winning them or going deep in the draw, then advancing far at Roland Garros, mainly because those four are among the greatest players of all time.

If the commitment's there from this current crop, though, the results will come.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Miami shaking out OK for Andy Murray


It's been an interesting 2015 so far for Andy Murray.

There was that Australian Open final. There was that return to the "Big 4." There was that stretch of tournaments without a sniff of a semifinal. There were those convincing defeats at the hands of Novak Djokovic.

But I guess you'd have to say the good outweighs the bad, for the most part, especially coming off a season where he was rebounding from back surgery--not really the easiest thing in the world for a professional athlete to deal with.

Anyway, the reason I bring up Andy Murray is because of Rafael Nadal and his upset loss to countryman Fernando Verdasco. Not that Nadal's exactly been a Miami world-beater, but in my mind, his loss makes a Murray run to the finals as close to a sure thing as it gets. I'd say the toughest player left in the bottom half of the draw is Tomas Berdych, and Murray's come through against him with regularity.

I'm not necessarily tapping Murray for the finals once he gets there--I don't know what can derail the Novak Djokovic express--but a title-round tilt can be another notch in what has been an interesting campaign so far.

(Photo: USA Today Sports)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

One of the best top tens in years?


Over the weekend, Kei Nishikori won his first title of the year in what's essentially become his home court, Memphis. Stan Wawrinka took home his second trophy of the season after winning Rotterdam.

Wawrinka beat Tomas Berdych, a fellow member of the top 10, who has been having a very solid season as well.

This has got me wondering: Is this one of the best top tens in men's tennis in years?

You know Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray are going to get theirs--and have been doing so for years.

What makes things different nowadays is that the other guys are showing such a high level of mental toughness. Nishikori fought all the way through that Memphis draw. Wawrinka bounced back nicely after failing to defend his Australian Open title. Berdych's consistency has been at a high level all season. And you can't overlook Milos Raonic and David Ferrer: at opposite ends point-in-their-career-wise, but both eager for continues improvement.

The jury's still out on Marin Cilic, who's been battling injury all year. Whenever he does return, he'll have a big battle ahead of him to maintain his spot among the above-mentioned players, who all appear eager for any challenge.

(Photo: The Associated Press)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

One of those crazy Australian Open thoughts...


So, this seems a little odd for me, chiming in at this point of the year's first Grand Slam when I usually would've had my patented round of 16 predictions all said and done by now, with another post or two in between. But I just had this crazy, nutty, out-of-this-world thought:

What if no one from the "Big 4" made it to the semis?

Like, suppose Nick Kyrgios continues to play like the fearless teenager that he is and rides the momentum of hometown support, and shocks Andy Murray in the quarters? What if Tomas Berdych decides no one beats him 18 times in a row and takes it to Rafael Nadal in their final-eight matchup?

Roger Federer's already gone, having lost to Andreas Seppi in the third round. That just leaves the top dog himself, Novak Djokovic, who's been looking like the man to beat so far. He faces a resurgent Gilles Muller, then if he gets past that, big-boomer Milos Raonic or the underrated Feliciano Lopez in the quarters. Could one of them pull off the biggie?

I don't know when the last time all four of the four were entered in a tournament and not one of them made the semifinals. I'd probably have to guess the safe answer would be "never." But what if it happened now?

Crazier things in this world of ours have happened. And this would definitely be up there, tennis-wise.

To be clear, I'm not actually rooting for that to happen, but if it did, it would be mind-blowing.

And who doesn't like a little mind-blowing every now and then?

(Photo: The Associated Press)