September 13, 2019

Back in the Game

I almost spit out my wine last night when I saw that Kim Clijsters is planning to come out of retirement.

In a stunning tweet, the one-time world #1 and four-time Major winner, announced the news, saying she misses the feeling she has on court and promised to "see you in 2020."

Her decision certainly got a lot of people -- including Billie Jean King and Andy Roddick -- talking.

And why shouldn't it? At 36 Clijsters wouldn't be the oldest player in the field, but with seven years passed since her last professional match, she's certain to be a bit out of practice. But as she said, she's up for the challenge, and if anyone can do it, it's probably her.

After all, Kim is getting back in action for the second time in her career. She previously retired in 2007, had a baby, returned to tour two years later, won three Grand Slams and reclaimed the #1 spot during her first comeback. Two more kids later, she'll see how much more she can do.

But she comes back to a much different environment. There's a new crop of kids chomping at the bit for glory: Bianca Andreescu and Coco Gauff, sure, but also 18-year old Amanda Anisimova, who made the semis at Roland Garros, and Sofia Kenin, who counts a win over Serena Williams as one of her highlights this year.

And let's talk about Serena -- another testament to working mothers everywhere, the 37-year-old is of course still a force in the game. But she's been unable to clinch a trophy -- Major or otherwise -- since her return in 2018. And she's notched more than a couple losses to that next-generation talent.

Can Clijsters fare better?

Maybe she doesn't have to. The Belgian doesn't have a lot to prove (neither, of course, does Williams). She's already a legend. She's already in the Hall of Fame. She doesn't need to add any more accomplishments to her already-packed resumé.

Clijsters is doing this entirely for herself. And win or lose, her comeback is going to be a success story.

She hasn't officially entered any tournament yet, but she's hoping to make her return in January, if she feels ready for it.

And from the reaction she got since making her announcement, you can be sure there are a lot of people who hope she is.

September 9, 2019

The Lasting Legacy of Rafael Nadal

When Rafael Nadal lost in the quarterfinals of the French Open back in 2015, it seemed like it might have been the end of an era.

The hard-hitting clay-courter was closing in on 30 years old, and it seemed like his years of battering strength were weighing on his body. He lost in the first week of his next three majors, withdrew before the third round of the following year's Roland Garros, and ended up skipping Wimbledon in 2016 altogether. His struggles threatened to push him out of the top ten for the first time in over a decade.

Things seem much different today.

Nadal wakes up this morning a four-time U.S. Open champion -- that's as many titles as John McEnroe claimed in New York during his illustrious career and just one behind Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

Speaking of "just one behind", it also puts the Spaniard one short of Federer's record total of twenty Grand Slam trophies.

But here's something you might not have expected to see from Nadal all those years ago -- yesterday's championship was his fifth Major since turning 30. That's one more than Fed earned in the eight years since reaching that age -- Rafa needed just three himself. It's also one more than Novak Djokovic, whose fourth-round retirement at the Open raises questions about his own longevity.

(Worth noting that, while she's certainly had some difficulty tying the women's record for titles, Serena Williams has brought in ten Major trophies since she hit the Big 3-0.)

But Nadal's feat is all-the-more impressive given his competition. The lithe and graceful Federer has been around longer, of course, debuting in a Slam main draw more than four years before Rafa did. He played 65 straight Majors since 2000 and ended a four-year drought of championships in 2017 when he won the title Down Under at 35. He's added two more trophies to his mantle since. And Djokovic, who once lamented his fate of having been born in an era so dominated by Rafa and Roger -- remember that together they won all but two Majors between 2006 and 2010 -- has been nearly unbeatable since that standout 2011 season, winning 15 Majors in the last eight years.

When up against these two, it seemed, Rafa's playing style seemed destined to eventually fizzle out, at least when not on clay.

But here he is, 14 years after lifting that maiden French Open trophy, not only powering through, but also changing things up. Against Russia's Daniil Medvedev in Sunday's final, I have to say he surprised me. He served-and-volleyed more than I remember seeing from him in the past, got to the net nearly 70 times (and won almost 80% of those points), and showed more grace and touch from lob shots to drop shots. He ran down balls and forced his opponent to do the same. And, I have to admit, I worried when he seemed to squander a two-set-and-a-break lead and was forced to a decider by a player firing on all cylinders.

But perhaps I shouldn't be so shocked. After all, Rafa is no stranger to long matches -- and at nearly five hours, this one ranks high up there -- so why shouldn't we expect his career to be just as long? At 33 now, he's got a couple years left before plays as deep as Federer (38) or Serena (37) -- not to mention McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who played into their 40s.

Will he be as effective in the next couple years as he has been in the last three? Of course, it's too soon to say. He's obviously the clear favorite at one particular event, but by racking up a handful of titles in Flushing Meadows, he's certainly no one-trick pony. And of course Nole, about a year younger than Rafa, could certainly far surpass him when all is said and done.

Still, Nadal's accomplishment cannot be overlooked for what it says about his long-term potential. Medvedev's fight may prove there's a whole new crop of young talent ready to set and break their own records. But given what Rafa has done -- and continues to do -- you can bet it'll be a long time before they can fully take over the reins.

September 13, 2018

The Global Embrace of Naomi Osaka

There was obviously a lot of ugliness that came out of Saturday's women's final at the U.S. Open.

Accusations of sexism in the sport brought to the forefront in a most spectacular, if not badly-timed, fashion. The issue especially poignant since it was highlighted not even two weeks earlier when Alize Cornet was penalized for changing her shirt on court, something men are able to do freely.

The actions of a chair umpire who -- maybe not ultimately, but at least at a key moment during the match -- seemed to have his finger on the scale of the championship. Whether he actually favored Naomi Osaka over Serena Williams or was just being a stickler for the rules notwithstanding, the outcome may have been dictated more by Carlos Ramos than by the players themselves, and that's never good.

And then there's the cartoon. Horribly offensive or over-policed satire? I think the answer is pretty obvious, but this isn't necessarily the time to discuss it.

Like many, I was afraid that all of that would overshadow what was, by any measure, a stellar performance from the 20-year-old Osaka under especially difficult circumstances.

First off, she was facing her idol -- a woman 16 years her senior, going after a record-tying 24th Major title. Someone she not only looked up to, but practically couldn't believe truly existed. In the lead up to the match, Osaka's fangirl-ness was on full display. But her nerves never got the best of her.

On top of that, Osaka endured an outsized level of theatrics and handled them with the maturity and grace of someone much more experienced, both on the court and to the spotlight. Remember the last time Serena had a meltdown so dramatic -- and faced such a match-affecting penalty -- it was against Kim Clijsters, who already had a Grand Slam title to her name and knew how to keep her cool under pressure. For the much more junior Osaka to close out the match is not something to be overlooked.

And let's be honest -- Osaka simply dominated that match. There is no asterisk beside her name in the record books. She blew through the first set in a half an hour and responded to losing serve in the second by breaking right back. She out-aced her opponent (out-returned her too), played a cleaner game, and withstood a crowd that was clearly hoping they'd see Serena make history. It would have been a shame if that athleticism was lost amid the furor.

But more of a concern for me was what it would do to Osaka -- seemingly shy and nervous in media appearances before the final, she covered her face with her visor during the trophy presentation to hide her tears. She even apologized to the fans in her acceptance speech for not giving them what they wanted. She admitted days later that she thought all the booing was directed at her -- just another thing she fought through that day.

Would the weight of all that get to her? Would talk that Serena was "robbed" -- certainly of a game, possibly of a point, perhaps of the title -- affect her momentum or her still-nascent career? There have, after all, been no shortage of phenoms who peaked early and all but vanished in short order.

I worried.

But in fact the thing that might eventually help Osaka most is what I initially felt might make her most vulnerable -- the fact that she doesn't seek the limelight and that she actually thrives being the underdog.

In the days since the final, her tears and guilt have given way to smiles and confidence, as supporters came out from all corners. Serena certainly did her part, putting her arm around her as they were awarded their prize money and urging the crowd to behave. Other players tweeted how she didn't deserve such a caustic environment when she should have been celebrating her first Grand Slam. Her star has also risen over worlds far outside of tennis -- she snapped a pic with LeBron James and Channing Tatum, made the media rounds, and got a shout-out from her celebrity crush.

Naomi Osaka, under the radar even to rabid tennis fans just a month ago, is now a household name for people who don't follow a lick of the sport -- another thing that can't be said about all Grand Slam winners. (Do you think most people are familiar with, or know how to pronounce, Marin Cilic?)

And that's worth something -- reportedly $10 million for Adidas, which would make her the athletic brand's highest-paid female endorser and the second most valuable female athlete in any sport. She's also signed on as an ambassador for Nissan, and it's likely more deals are coming.

Of course all the attention and sponsorships will eventually fade and so, truthfully, might her luster. She won't win every time she steps on court, and she may never hoist another Major trophy.

Will that be a letdown? Maybe. Will it be a meltdown?

My money says no.

March 8, 2016

We Need to Talk About Maria

So I realize it's been a while since I posted anything here, but after yesterday's shocking announcement from Maria Sharapova, it's hard to stay silent.

For those who don't know, here's a quick recap: the former world #1 on Monday announced she'd failed a drug test. During this year's Australian Open, she tested positive for Meldonium, a medication she says she'd been taking since 2006 to help treat a variety of ailments including low magnesium and possible symptoms of diabetes. Following the test, the ITF implemented a "provisional suspension" on the five-time Grand Slam champion that will start March 12 and could last as long as two years -- maybe even more.

But what does that mean? For Maria? For her career? For the sport?

Well first, the good and the sorta-good: Days after receiving the test results, Sharapova admitted her "huge" mistake, apologized to her fans and took the blame entirely upon herself. She said she was ready to accept both the responsibility and the consequences of her actions. As for the drug itself -- Meldonium was only added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's this year, so Maria probably tested positive for it for years without ever violating any regulations.

On the other hand...

Meldonium isn't exactly a mainstream drug. While it can be used for chest pain and to treat heart attacks, some medical experts doubt whether it has any efficacy with diabetes patients. Developed by a Latvian pharmaceutical company, it's available in Lithuania and Sharapova's native Russia, but not approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. And you would think Maria, the highest paid female athlete in the world last year -- though with sponsorships from Nike and Porsche getting dropped after yesterday's announcement, her income will certainly take a hit in 2016 -- wouldn't have to take chances on second-rate medications.

And while the medication did only become illegal this year, it had been in WADA's monitoring program prior to 2016, so authorities were aware it potentially posed a problem. Maria said when the group sent around their newest list of banned substances in late December, she neglected to "click on the link" and didn't read through the changes. Yes, that could be a simple oversight -- the holidays are always crazy, and it was only weeks later that she tested positive, so maybe she (and the six other athletes who tested positive for the same drug since January) really just didn't get around to it.

Still, if you're taking a substance that's on any kind of watch list, shouldn't you be hyper-aware of what's allowed and what's not? At a press conference today, ahead of an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, current world #25 Caroline Wozniacki said:

"Anytime we take any medication I think we double and triple and quadruple check. Because sometimes even things like cough drops or nasal sprays can be on the list, so I think as athletes we always really make sure that there's nothing in it that could put us in a bad situation."

And shouldn't one of the cadre of doctors, physios, trainers, etc. on your team at least alert you to the fact that something you're taking may raise questions? Former top-ranked phenom Jennifer Capriati certainly took issue, tweeting:

"I didn't have the high priced team of drs that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up. The responses are exactly what i am talking about. Everything based on illusion and lie driven by the media for over 20 yrs. Beyond unfair."

But the reaction from of most of Maria's peers was positive. Martina Navratilova urged everyone to reserve judgement until the ITF's investigation was completed, former pro James Blake called her admission "classy", and young gun Ryan Harrison said it was an "honest mistake from a great champion". At the same press conference at MSG, Serena Williams, who's certainly had a long history with Sharapova and hasn't always been her best friend, said:

"Most were happy that she was upfront and very honest...As Maria said, she's ready to take full responsibility and I think that showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart, and I think she's always showed courage and heart in everything that she's done, and this is no different."

Others on social media were not so forgiving. Many pointed out that, even with performance enhancing drugs, Maria hadn't beaten Serena in over ten years, or wondered whether public sentiment would be so positive had it been the [African-American] world #1 who'd tested positive.

In any case, what ultimately happens to Sharapova is still unknown -- before her press conference it was widely rumored she would announce her retirement, and she acknowledged that speculation, saying she hoped she wouldn't have to end her career this way. She doesn't necessarily have to -- Marin Cilic, who served a four-month ban for doping, came back to win the U.S. Open in 2014, and Martina Hingis, forced out for two years after cocaine was found in her system -- she denies ever taking the drug -- was not only inducted into the Hall of Fame, but returned to Tour and has won three Grand Slam doubles titles since.

Of course Maria may not be so resilient -- plagued with injuries for years, the twenty-eight year old has said before she's unlikely to play into her mid thirties like Serena or her sister Venus. And if she's suspended for any significant length of time -- though she'll certainly have had the time to recover -- she honestly may not be as much of a force when she gets back to work.

So Sharapova is certainly in a tough spot, and as she's one of the most recognizable faces of the game, so is tennis. The "Gentleman's Sport" may not seem so high-brow if the legacy of one of its brightest and most bankable stars is tarnished. But if this really was just an honest mistake, hopefully she'll be able to come back swinging even harder when it's all over.

November 30, 2015

Davis Cup Final -- 111 Years in the Making

Things sure have been tense in Belgium the last few weeks, and certainly on topics much more important than tennis. But while the world's eyes stay focused on what's happening in Brussels -- and what's happened so recently in Paris and, of course, in so many other places across the globe -- just a couple dozen miles away from the capital city in Ghent, this year's Davis Cup championship was contested, thankfully without incident. And in a rematch of the 1904 final we got a glimpse of just how hungry these two teams were to return to glory.

I've talked before about how long it's been since either the Belgians or the British got this far at Davis Cup, and it kind of makes sense. While they both have their stars -- two-time Grand Slam champ and world #2 Andy Murray and 2014 comeback kid David Goffin lead the packs -- their second place players are little farther down the rankings. Aljaz Bedene, who rose all the way to #45 this year, didn't play for the Brits in this tie, making sub-hundred Kyle Edmunnd the other singles player. And while Steve Darcis has certainly scored some big wins in the past, he's still ranked just within double digits. So to put together full teams that can get through top rate talent all year long can be a bit tough, and against all odds these guys did it.

And their big guns came out firing from the start -- Goffin, just off a career high at #16 in the world, has been a little quiet lately and was tested mightily from the start. But after dropping his first two sets to the huge underdog Edmund, he rallied in the back half, losing just three games to give Belgium an early lead. But Murray was quick to get momentum back on his side -- against largely unheralded Ruben Bemelmans, a workhorse on the Challengers' Tour, he took the first two sets easily before having to battle through the third. Ultimately though he claimed victory in straight sets and drew the Brits even going into Day Two.

In the doubles rubber Goffin paired with Darcis and Murray with his brother Jamie -- a decorated veteran in the paired discipline. The elder Murray -- a finalist at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon -- narrowly missed making the semis at the year-end championships in London, but may have made up for it here. After splitting the first two sets with the Belgians, the doubles specialist was able to take the lead, and powered his team through to the 2-1 advantage, always key in these events. And in Sunday's premier match-up, the younger sibling got right back on court against Goffin, hoping for a repeat of his Paris Masters 6-1, 6-0 drubbing of his opponent. Things weren't quite so easy this time around, but Murray nevertheless persevered, overcoming Goffin's only break of the match in the third set, and clinching the win in just under three hours, securing the Championship for him and his country.

It was the Brits' first Davis Cup trophy since before the second World War, and in an era that's been so dominated by upstart teams, it's interesting to see the reversion this year. Whether the victory is a sign that British imperialism is back in the world of tennis remains to be seen, of course -- but with the kind of firepower they brought all year long, there's no reason there isn't more to come.

November 22, 2015

Nothing Motivates Like Success

It's kind of a weird saying, right? You'd assume the sharp pain from a recent loss would be all a competitive athlete needs to improve his game and come out swinging even harder the next time he hits the court. But perhaps it's only the very best out there who can so easily shake off disappointment, proving any setback is just a minor bump on the way to even bigger achievements down the road. And at this week's ATP Championships in London, that's exactly what Novak Djokovic did.

The world #1's hiccup came during his round robin matches where, in his first defeat since August, he dropped in straight sets to Roger Federer. But a solid win over Tomas Berdych in his final group match secured him spot in the semifinals, where he took on an impressively resurgent Rafael Nadal, who'd gone 3-0 during his early rounds. But the former top-ranked Spaniard, still looking for his first ever World Tour Final championship, ran out of steam on Saturday, never ever earning a break point and ultimately falling in less than eighty minutes.

Meanwhile Federer was able to keep his momentum going a little longer -- after winning all three of his round robin matches, losing just one set to an on-the-mend Kei Nishikori, he was riding high atop his group standings. Meanwhile compatriot Stan Wawrinka's fate went down to the wire -- splitting his first two matches in London his battle Friday against hometown favorite Andy Murray was do-or-die. But the reigning French Open champion, having won the pair's last two meetings kept his streak going, closing the gap further with his rival. The effort may have taken a bit out of him, though -- despite what seemed on paper like a closer score, Roger needed even less time to score the win Saturday and earned himself a chance at a seventh ATP Championship

But Djokovic wasn't about to crumble again against the only man who's beaten him in months -- in Sunday's final, he got a break early and barely looked back, withstanding solid serving from his opponent and pouncing on his returns. After two quick sets, he'd become the only man ever to win four straight World Tour Finals and cemented his place at the very top of the ATP this season.

Nole's win this week is not unlike what Serena Williams did at the WTA Finals last year -- after a dominating end to her year, she rebounded from a stunning loss to Simona Halep in the round robins, only to crush her adversary in the championship match. Djokovic has a little ways to go before he can earn a full comparison to one of the most decorated players in the field, but after his amazing performance so far this year, it certainly seems he's well on his way.

And with the momentum he's got in his pocket already, there's no telling when he'll stop.

November 18, 2015

One to Go...

Two sets of round robin matches are in the books at the year-end championships, and now we're starting to get a clearer picture of who will ultimately be playing for the title -- and a couple men you might not have expected are really taking the chance to shine. But with everyone still having one match left, there's still a lot that can happen, and even for those who've already clinched a spot in the semis, there's still a lot on the line.

Group A

Novak Djokovic, undefeated since August, was the clear favorite among the first group of London qualifiers, but he's not the one who's been most impressive so far. Roger Federer, who's had a couple early losses since the U.S. Open had fallen to the third seed this week but came out firing anyway -- after an easy win over Tomas Berdych he absolutely pummeled Nole on Tuesday, making himself the only undefeated player among these four and securing his ticket to the semis. Nole isn't totally out of contention, of course -- he opened with a quick win over a struggling Kei Nishikori on Sunday. But the man from Japan, who only just made the cut for the World Tour Finals having lost in the first round in New York and retiring at the Paris Masters, bounced back from his early loss by notching his own win over Berdych. How these two guys perform tomorrow will mean everything -- Kei's beaten Roger more than once before and another victory could earn him a spot in the final four or push the Swiss into second place for the group. And Djokovic, still hoping to reach the semis, could even vault back into the first spot, giving him a big advantage when things really become heated.

Group B

Of course the bigger surprises came in the second group of finalists. Rafael Nadal, who despite his many honors has never won in London, has been famously up and down all year long. But he opened by avenging his Paris loss to Stan Wawrinka and then stunned Andy Murray in his second match today, scoring his biggest win since last year's French Open final. Like Roger he's now the only one in this bunch who hasn't lost this week and he's also booked his ticket to the semisfinals. He has a good shot at keeping his top spot too -- he has a solid 23-6 record against David Ferrer, his only remaining opponent -- but the veteran Spaniard did beat him last year in Monte Carlo and has arguably been the more consistent player over the last few months. But the bigger battle will certainly be between Murray and Wawrinka, a pair of powerhouses who've nearly split their head-to-head -- neither have reached the final in London yet, but both have come pretty close. And while it seems like they're just playing for second place in this group, the opportunity could still be great -- they're both gaining ground on both Roger and Nole, so whoever ends at the top of the other section will be in for a fight as soon as they get back on court

So perhaps things have gotten a bit more interesting than we were anticipating at this year's ATP Championships, but it certainly seems like we're seeing a couple players really upping their games at the end of the season. And while the competition will only get more intense from here, the ones who've shined brightest might just be the ones best able to take advantage.