October 29, 2008

Doubles, Doubles, Toil & Trouble

Halloween is fast approaching, and the ghouls and goblins are haunting the eerily quiet doubles' courts as paired players make their own bid to play for the year-end championships next week.

Both the women's Bell Challenge in Quebec and the men's BNP Masters in Paris feature some of the best talent in doubles -- even if they are overshadowed by their solo counterparts.

I've long been of the opinion that doubles tennis never gets the attention it deserves. To some extent it makes sense that the top players would eschew the doubles bracket in an effort to avoid potential injury and focus on their singles game. It's rare to see the matches broadcast, even during the major tournaments, unless it's the championship or there's a rain delay. Even at the high school level, doubles is relegated to the back courts while the "star" singles athletes get top billing.

But watching a real high-quality match can often be more dramatic and entertaining than anything two solo players can pull off on the court.

This year at the U.S. Open, I was able to watch Virginia Ruano Pascual and her partner Anabel Medina Garrigues take on Americans Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears. The Spaniards, seeded fifth at the tournament, were given a run for their money by the hometown -- or home-country -- favorites, losing the first set and being forced into a third set tiebreak before pulling out the win. But with hard-hitting volleys, multiple heart-pounding gets and reaction times that would rival the most skilled marksmen, there was no doubt that these ladies were working for their buck.

And while the very top singles players seldom make any real effort in doubles, usually happily languishing in the triple-digits for rankings, the opposite isn't always true. Katarina Srebotnik is currently ranked #3 in doubles and #21 in singles while Ai Sugiayama is #4 and #31 respectively. Jonas Bjorkman, currently part of the fifth best doubles team in the world, was once ranked as high as #4 on his own.

At the top of the women's game right now are Zimbabwe's Cara Black and the U.S.'s Liezel Huber. Together they've won a jaw-dropping nine title matches since January, including the U.S. Open -- Cara also took the mixed doubles championship in Flushing Meadows, beating her partner Liezel in straight sets. Incidentally, the #1 women's singles player, Jelena Jankovic, has won a relatively paltry four tournaments in 2008.

On the men's side all eyes are on the Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, the twins who regained their #1 ranking after winning the U.S. Open in September. Bob pulled out of the Davis Cup semifinal match against Spain with a shoulder injury, but the two are back in top form in Paris this week, looking to capture their sixth title of the year.

Despite the dominance of both pairs in their respective fields, there is unfortunately a huge discrepancy in the rewards of both games. Jelena, for her four titles and no majors, has taken home $2.7 million this year just in prize money; Cara Black, including her take from the U.S. Open, has made only $730K. The Bryans together have earned a combined $1.5 million, less than a fourth of what Rafael Nadal has won. Sponsorships and endorsements, of course, add even more to the purse of singles players.

Every now and then you begin to hear rumblings that singles players should be required to enter the doubles draws at major tournaments. To an extent that happens at the Olympics, where Roger Federer won gold with Stanislas Wawrinka, and at Davis Cup and Fed Cup matches -- Mardy Fish stepped in for Bob Bryan against Spain, and actually won. And you occassionally see a pairing like Nadal and Argentina's Juan Monaco, who've already notched a first round win this week in Paris.

But what about the rest of the year?

Purely for the entertainment value I think there's a great argument for it -- imagine watching heavy hitters like Federer and Andy Roddick pounding down Nadal and James Blake. But even from a strategic standpoint I feel there is a benefit, forcing players who are traditionally content to wear down the baseline to develop a real serve-and-volley game and ultimately improve their overall play. Yes, the potential for injury or exhaustion is a concern, but isn't that just time they'd be spending on the court anyway?

And maybe a few recognizable names in the doubles draw is all the sport needs to get people interested.

So drive the ghosts off the courts, grab a couple of friends and get out there and play!

'Til then, I'm off to find myself a Halloween costume!

Happy Haunting!

October 26, 2008

A Race to the Finish

With only a few tournaments left before the year-end championships for both men and women, all eyes of the tennis world were this week turned to Europe. From Luxembourg to Linz, Basel to Lyon, and even as far east as St. Petersburg, players were making their last minute bids to qualify for a spot.

Switzerland is supposed to be a neutral country, but with native son Roger Federer seeded at the top of the draw in Basel, I'm sure the fans there were anything but. He was the winner here for the last two years and, after an early exit in Madrid last week, he was eager to defend his title. Despite dropping a set in the first round to twenty-six year old American Bobby Reynolds, Roger easily coasted through his next three matches to make it to the finals.

There he met former world #3 David Nalbandian, who's trying to make a late-season surge of his own. He's fallen to #8 after a couple of tough years and a solid performance in Switzerland would certainly help him secure a spot to play for the ATP Masters Cup. After early exits at all four Grand Slams this year, the Argentine began his comeback by winning in Stockholm and beating both Benjamin Becker and Juan Martin Del Potro for his right to play for the title here.

But Roger was not to be subdued. In two simple sets, he walked away with his third straight Swiss title.

In Linz, Austria, another former #1 was trying to regain some glory. Ana Ivanovic has had a less successful second half of the year, losing in the second round of the U.S. Open to a relatively unknown Julie Coin and then making early exits in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow. She made it to the semis in Zurich, but lost in three long sets to Venus Williams. Linz held better prospects for Ana, though, as she made it past Zurich finalist Flavia Panetta and nineteen-year-old Aggie Radwanska to play in the finals.

There she faced Vera Zvonareva, the one Russian player that hasn't quite gotten the attention she deserves. The Olympic bronze medalist made her way into the top ten almost unnoticed this year and even won titles in Prague and Guangzhou.

But Ana emerged the victor in Austria, winning in straight sets. It was her first title since she took the French Open in June.

In St. Petersburg Andy Murray took his fifth ATP title of the year, but it should surprise no one that I don't want to spend much time on him.

The real story in Russia this week was the other finalist, Andrey Golubev. The twenty-one-year-old Kazakh is currently ranked #150 in the world and had never made it even to the semis of an ATP event. But this week the qualifier made it past four opponents, including Marat Safin, to reach the finals. His eventual loss to Murray wasn't surprising, but making it that far was certainly the highlight of his relatively short career.

Back to Luxembourg where the women were playing in the Tier III FORTIS Championships. I've alluded to my frustration with Elena Dementieva before. Like James Blake, she's one of my favorite players, and though she often makes her presence well known on the court, she can easily lose in the clutch. She made it to the fourth round in Australia but lost to eventual winner Maria Sharapova, the quarters at Roland Garros where she fell to Dinara Safina, the semis at Wimbledon and ceded to Williams, and the semis in Flushing Meadows where she lost to Jelena Jankovic. She's also posted losses to much lower seeded players: Agnes Szavay in Paris, Zvonareva in Charleston, Katarina Srebotnik in Tokyo, among others.

That's not to say Elena hasn't had some success this year. She won gold in Beijing and the title in Dubai. The fact that she advanced so far in so many tournaments helped bring her ranking from #11 in January to #5 now. But given her inconsistency, I couldn't help feeling anxious when she found herself facing Caroline Wozniacki in the finals in Luxembourg.

Wozniacki has been a real force in women's tennis this year, and she notched decisive wins over Anabel Medina Garrigues and Na Li on her way to the finals.

But my worries were calmed this week when Elena scored her second win over the Danish teenager, coming back from a first set loss to with the third in a tiebreak. And happily I was finally able to see my favorite earn a long-anticipated title.

And finally in Lyon a couple of lesser-known players were competing for the title at the Grand Prix de Tennis.

Sweden's Robin Soderling has not won an ATP singles title since 2005, though he's played in three finals this year. Nevertheless he's been able to bring his ranking from #53 to #27 since January with wins over Richard Gasquet, Andy Roddick and James Blake. In France he took out Roddick for the second time this year as well as rising star Gilles Simon.

His opponent in the finals was Frenchman Julien Benneteau who was looking for his first ATP singles title. Despite three career doubles championships, Benneteau has had twelve first-round exits in singles draws this year and only made one final in Casablanca, where he lost to Simon. But with wins over Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, it looked like Lyon might be his best opportunity to notch that first title.

Unfortunately for Julien that turned out not to be the case, and Robin won his first title in over three years.

So, congrats to all this week's winners, and good luck in your quests to make it to the championships! You've all shown you're up for the challenge!

And to everyone else, see you next time. As always, serve well and play hard!

October 23, 2008


I'm in search of a new racquet.

I certainly don't need one -- I play with a newly re-strung Prince Shark that I received as a promotional gift four years ago, right after Maria Sharapova won her first major title at Wimbledon was looking to capitalize on her success. It's beautiful and blue, lighter than air, and actually gives me good power. The head's a little big, but I just started playing again, so I figure it could save me some embarrassing whiffs on the court.

But like all girls, whenever I see something shiny and bright, I want it. And every time I step on a court these days, I'm checking out the goods.

Earlier this summer my friend Andy had invited me to get back on a tennis court for the first time since I tore my meniscus in college. I had no idea where I stood anymore, if I could get a ball over the net, much less in the court. So I brought my never-used Prince (now dubbed lovingly as "Maria") and my old trusty Wilson, the racquet I'd played with in high school. It was a good thing I did bring both, it turns out, since Andy didn't have a racquet of his own, a fact I find amusing since, not only had he invited me to play, but he was the one who'd paid the $100 to become a member of the NYC Parks Department.

Apparently he had another plan. The Central Park Tennis Center in New York has a great program. In exchange for $25, for a month you can play with any of the brand new racquets they have in their Pro Shop -- Prince, Wilson, Head, Dunlop -- as many as you want, as often as you can. At the end of the month, if you choose to buy a racquet from them, they credit you the twenty-five bucks. Not a bad deal, when you consider that all their merchandise is new to the market, and you're not going to get these things cheaper at your local Sports Authority.

The first day Andy tested out the Head MicroGel and a Babolat Power Game.

Wait a minute -- Babo-who?

Up until this summer I'd never even heard of the company, an ignorance I'm embarassed to admit. But suddenly Babolat was everywhere. Whenever I went to play I saw no fewer than five other people carrying the company's merchandise. I immediately looked them up.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that Rafael Nadal is a Babolat Boy -- in fact in 2007, he signed a 10-year contract with the company. Andy Roddick, Dinara Safina, Fernando Gonzalez, Nadia Petrova and Carlos Moya also favor this brand.

So who is this upstart company?

Turns out, not so upstart. Babolat started making racquet strings in 1875 out of natural cow gut. (Ew, I know -- I won't ever mention or think about it again. Happily fifty years ago they switched to nylon.) They didn't start making racquets until the mid-nineties, but their rash of champions speaks to the quality of their product. Now they offer everything from shoes and bags to balls and grips, and even markers to decorate your strings.

Most Babolat racquets run in the $175-$190 range with a few of the fancier models crossing above $200, about on par with other brands. They're light as air, eleven or twelve ounces when strung, but so are most racquets these days -- the Wilson I played with in high school is comparatively a lead pipe. The Babolat-developed Cortex technology, available on some of their products, promises to filter vibrations and allow for more control. The heads are on the larger side, with beginners' racquets getting as large as 118 square inches -- even those designed for advanced players are about 98. If you're interested in the specifics, the website is full of all the specs and stats for each of their many offerings.

But of course, there's no better way to find out if a racquet is for you than to get on the court and play!

I'll be there, secretly coveting your new toy.

See you out there!

October 20, 2008

The Importance of Being Anna

In my very first blog post I mentioned how, after every tournament, I inevitably come away with a few new favorite players -- either a resurging name like Mardy Fish who found new success on a well-trod court or someone who seemingly came out of nowhere and notched a series of upsets and shockers like Juan Martin Del Potro.

Last year that player was Anna Chakvetadze.

From a distance the tiny Russian (she stands only 5'7") resembles the other Anna of tennis -- she shares Kournikova's difficult-to-pronounce surname, cute face and blonde hair, which is so long it once got caught in her racquet on a backswing.

But Chakvetadze was quick to prove that the similarities to her namesake ended there.

While Kournikova never won a singles title, this Anna was more successful from the start. She finished 2006 with two tournament wins -- one in Guangzhou, China where she beat Jelena Jankovic in the semis, and the other at Moscow's Tier I Kremlin Cup, where she scored victories against four compatriots: Dinara Safina, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova -- and brought the momentum with her into the new year.

She started 2007 with her highest career ranking, lucky number thirteen, and won the first tournament she played in Hobart, Australia. But that was just the start of what was a winning year. She made it to the quarterfinals at the Australian and French Opens, but really hit her stride during the summer's U.S. Open Series. She won titles in Cincinnati and Stanford and even beat Venus Williams in San Diego before making it all the way to the semis in Flushing Meadows, sending her to a career high #5 ranking.

Then things took a turn for the worse. In December a robber broke into her home outside Moscow, tied up the tennis star, and walked away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods. Anna wasn't hurt, thankfully, but I'm sure the incident was far from pleasant. It also couldn't have helped her start 2008 on the right foot.

She lost in the first round in Sydney and was upset at the Australian Open by Maria Kirilenko. She followed up a win in Paris with first round exits in Antwerp and Doha. Since then she's lost her first match at six other tournaments this year, her second match in eight more. She's doubled her ranking from #6 to #12.

This week Anna's back on the court at Luxembourg's Fortis Championships where she was given the second seed. On Monday she made it through her first round match against France's Mathilde Johansson in straight sets, but she still faces a tough road. The draw includes Dementieva as the top seed as well as Daniela Hantuchova and Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish teenager who's already beaten Anna twice in the last two months and has had her own breakthrough year.

I'm hoping Anna's able to pull off a end-of-year surge, maybe take one or two of the few remaining titles. She has an unmistakable spunk that helps bring excitement to women's tennis, and certainly no one can argue against that.

So good luck this week! Here's to a great 2009!

October 18, 2008

The New Reign in Spain

There was a battle of kings taking place in Spain this week.

The Mutua Madrileña Masters held in Madrid marked the first tournament since the U.S. Open when the current #1 tennis player in the world and the man from whom he wrested the title would be battling for the same crown.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer haven't once met since Wimbledon, when Rafa's win ensured that he'd overtake Roger in the ATP rankings. Their paths could have crossed at the Beijing Olympics, but my dear James Blake notched his first victory against Federer and prevented the match-up. The next opportunity came at Flushing Meadows in September, but that train was derailed after Andy Murray's two-day battle which ultimately stopped Rafa one step short of his first U.S. Open final. In both instances the early elimination of one cleared the road for the other to eventually take the title.

That would not be the case in Madrid.

Current tennis royalty were all present to battle for the title -- each of the top twelve players had entered the tournament, but, as should be expected, the draw was rife with upsets. Not only did my frustrating favorite suffer a loss to Gilles Simon in the second round, but Nikolay Davydenko fell to the inconsistent Robby Ginepri, David Ferrer dropped straight sets to fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, and Andy Roddick lost to French showman Gael Monfils.

The biggest shocks, however, came in the semifinals when both Roger and Rafael, champions here in 2006 & 2005 respectively, fell to their upstart opponents.

Andy Murray was apparently eager to avenge his U.S. Open loss to Federer and came back after dropping the first set to take the last two 6-3, 7-5. I can't say I'm wholly surprised -- despite my bias against him, even I have to admit Andy's had a pretty good year. He fell as low as #22 in the spring after a second round loss in Miami, but quickly gathered up points over the summer and reached his first Grand Slam final in New York and a career high #4 ranking.

But the real story this week was France's Simon, who followed up his victory over Blake with tough wins over Ginepri, Ivo Karlovic, and finally Rafa, in a match that lasted nearly three and a half hours.

While unseeded at this tournament, Simon was hardly out of his league in Madrid. It may seem like he's come out of nowhere, but just this year he's posted wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Novak Djokovic and even Roger Federer. He's won titles in Casablanca, Indianapolis and Bucharest (for the second straight year), and has seen his ranking soar as high as #13. A win in Madrid could bring him into the top ten for the first time.

On paper the match-up is actually pretty close. Simon and Murray have split their only two meetings, both on clay. Gilles has won five titles to Andy's six, they've played about the same number of matches this year and have similar percentages on stats like first serve percentages, points won, and break point conversions. But with a higher ranking and more than twice the career prize money, Andy is easily the favorite to win the Madrid championship.

I, of course, am rooting for the upset.

There are only a few more tournaments of this caliber left before the year-end championships in Shanghai. Clearly a title in Madrid would be a crowning moment for either player, and I'm sure tomorrow's final will be an all-out battle on the court over which each hopes to rule.

And to the eventual King of Madrid, may your reign be long and prosperous.

And as always, serve well and play hard!

October 16, 2008

The Ball's In Your ... Sand?

This past weekend I found myself watching a curious little game. On the sand of Long Beach, New York, just an hour outside Manhattan and forty-five minutes south of Flushing Meadows where the U.S. Open is played, four women were competing in the National Championships of Beach Tennis.

It was a strange contest, part beach volleyball, part badminton. The play drew more continuous cheers than your average tennis match, where fans are expected to be pin-drop quiet during points, but didn't quite attract the kinds of crowds Misty May and Kerri Walsh are able to bring out to their tournaments.

And while there was a certain amount of intensity in the players' eyes as they smacked the slightly depressurized ball at their opponents, for me at least, the event didn't quite create the aura of competition that usually surrounds sports -- and especially championship matches.

To be fair, beach tennis is relatively new to the world of professional athletics. In fact I'm not sure it was ever really an amateur sport, except in the way we all used to knock around a tennis ball on our family trips to the shore.

A formalized concept for the sport was started in the Netherlands, but the first leagues began in Aruba at the turn of the century, where the first international tournaments were held in 2002. New York native Marc Altheim brought the sport stateside in 2003, established a governing body and launched a national tour in 2005. But it was only last year that the first beach tennis tournaments were broadcast on TV, complete with sponsorships from Penn, Head and Dos Equis.

The rules of beach tennis are simple. So far there's no such thing as "singles" in the sport, nor is there a second serve. Scores are kept the same way as in tennis -- 15-Love, 30-15, Deuce -- but there are no advantages after 40-40, and the next point determines the winner. They play one "pro-set", where the first team to eight with a two-game lead wins; a twelve point tiebreak determines the outcome of any draws. Unlike tennis the ball can't hit the ground (I don't imagine there'd be much bounce); unlike beach volleyball there's only one hit per side -- no setting up your partner for the smash.

The court is a comparatively small thirty by sixty feet and the net is strung above ground, five feet-ten inches high. The players I watched in Long Beach used regulation tennis racquets, but some other professionals, mostly in other countries, use paddles that resemble elementary school toys.

So who plays beach tennis? Well presumably we all can. The good folks at Beach Tennis U.S.A. assure me that I can easily set up my own league -- all I need is to be somewhat close to a beach (or, I suppose, a large sandbox). I confess, a little part of me wonders whether I'd be able to support myself if I quit my day job and went pro, or at least became a pro coach.

But on a professional level players come from all over -- some are retired tennis players like Jay Berger or Pablo Arraya, others are trying to make a name for themselves as sand-court specialists. Three-time defending national champion, Nadia Johnston, a local Long Beacher, paired with former WTA player Elena Jirnova in this year's final. They lost to the Maloney sisters from San Diego who could've picked up the sport in their own backyard.

I have yet to figure out what it takes to be a power in beach tennis. The only rankings I could find seemed to be focused on Italian players and had two people ranked as #1 -- which might make sense as this is a doubles sport, but eight people are ranked fifteenth. In the U.S. teams are awarded a hundred points just for entering a tournament and five times that for actually winning; the stakes are of course higher for the "bigger" events. Thus merely signing up for a few games is just as good as winning just one.

Who knows if the sport will get the traction it needs to gather a real following. It's interesting to watch -- once, maybe twice -- and I'm sure fun to play competetively. But I don't know if sports fans will really be satisfied with a contest that could be over in just a few minutes. And I know plenty of people who object to the concept of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport, saying it's just recreation, not athletics -- isn't beach tennis the same?

Maybe it just needs a few more years, a few more TV stations to broadcast a match here and there, a few more notable athletes to bring a face to the game.

Maybe it just needs someone to start talking about it.

So talk -- and what the heck? Go out and start your own league. At the very least, how bad is a few extra days at the beach?

See you on the sand!

October 14, 2008

The Frustration of the J-Block

I love James Blake.

Have I said that?

And not in the, "Oh my God, you're so hot!" kind of way. But in the "Wow, I really admire how you've handled yourself through everything you've been through and how you've conquered all the bumps in the road and have totally come out on top! You're a role model for any athlete and people in general! Oh -- and you're really hot!" kind of way.

I don't think many people would argue that the journey Blake has had over the last several years has been nothing short of inspirational. He overcame childhood scoliosis and was just hitting his stride in the world of professional tennis when he broke his neck, was diagnosed with shingles and suffered the loss of his father. But he came back stronger than ever, proved he was a real force in tennis, claimed a slew of Tour titles and became the best tennis player in the country, even climbing ahead of former world #1 Andy Roddick.

His dedication to the sport and his magnetic presense on the court is obviously manifested in the loyalty of a group of friends and family that are front and center at every tournament, cheering him on. They can be loud, they can be distracting, but the J-Block has certainly become a staple at any of his matches.

But as one of his biggest fans -- and a J-Block'er in spirit -- even I have to admit that it can be very frustrating to watch James play.

Take for example the 2007 U.S. Open. Blake had for years battled a naggingly disheartening statistic -- he had never won a five-set match. When Frenchman Fabrice Santoro took him to that last and deciding set in the second round, all the pundits wondered if James would be able to shake the monkey off his back and reach his personal milestone. He did, in a game that ended way past midnight, eliciting ardent cheers from fans and his opponent alike.

Two rounds later, though, he lost to Tommy Haas in another five-setter, proving he hadn't quite broken the curse.

Then there was this year's Olympics. James reached an emotional career high when he took out Roger Federer in Beijing, the first time he'd ever notched a victory against the then-#1. Unfortunately he next lost to Fernando Gonzalez in a controversial match that cost him the chance to play for the gold medal.

Later in September he pulled out his fourth five-set win against compatriot Donald Young in the first round at Flushing Meadows. But in the second round I gritted my teeth as I watched him lose the first set to 62nd-ranked Steve Darcis. If the Belgian hadn't withdrawn in the third set with an injury, I fear James may not have made it through.

In the next round he lost in straight sets to Mardy Fish.


This week, Blake gets back on the court for the first time since New York. He's playing in Madrid where Federer is making his own return after taking a three-week break. As the eleventh seed, Blake gets a bye in the first round, but will play Gilles Simon later today. While James has never lost to the Frenchman, Simon nevertheless poses a real threat -- earlier this year he notched wins over Roger in Toronto as well as Novak Djokovic in Marseille and Tommy Haas in Indianapolis.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed and of course hoping Blake not only pulls out the win, but continues deep into the draw. With everyone in the top ten playing at the same tournament, Madrid is a great opportunity to rack up some points and, while it may be a long shot, I'm hoping James earns his first title of what's been a barren 2008.

It's been almost two years since Blake reached his career high #4 ranking after making it to the finals at the Tennis Masters Cup. Since then he's more or less stayed within a stone's throw of the top ten. But every so often I, and a legion of other J-Block supporters, are left to worry that he may soon lose that tenuous grip.

It's strange, in a way -- for all intents and purposes, Blake should be a dominating force on the tennis court. He's got power, a great serve when it's working for him, and a menacing forehand. He's had epic matches against Rafael Nadal (which he won) and Andre Agassi (which he lost) and titles at several top-tier tournaments. And, of course, those fans.

Yet for some reason, he just can't pull out a major win.

But I will continue to root for you, James, whether from the makeshift J-Block I've created on my couch or from the stands when I'm lucky enough to watch you play. And I hope that some day you're able to hold that trophy high above your head with pride.

'Til then: Fire it up one time... Bam!

October 12, 2008

Sidebar -- Kremlin Cup Update

I just wanted to write a quick post to congratulate Jelena Jankovic on her win in Moscow this week. For the first time since Nicole Vaidasova did it in 2005, a woman has won three consecutive WTA Tour titles -- in Jelena's case the China Open in Beijing, the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart and now the Kremlin Cup. She's obviously ready to prove that her #1 world ranking is not accidental.

Congrats, girl!

Separately, congrats to Igor Kunitsyn who earned his first title in Moscow this week, beating the much more experienced Marat Safin in three sets, two of which were forced into tiebreakers. It was Igor's first win after five previous losses to his fellow Russian, and his victory continues the more than three and a half years since Safin has won a title -- and allows me at least one more week to smile smugly and revel in Marat's defeat.

No offense, Marat -- but yay, Igor!

See y'all next time!

October 11, 2008

From Russia With Love

Russia hasn't been the source of the the most inspiring headlines recently. They started a war with the Republic of Georgia, suspended trading in their stock exchange, and offered Venezuela a big chunk of money to buy weapons and develop its military. And that's just since August.

But on the tennis courts this week, Russians were showing off their best stuff.

Men and women were both battling in Moscow's Kremlin Cup where the likes of Dinara Safina, her brother Marat Safin, and compatriots Nikolay Davydenko, Elena Dimentieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and others took their opportunity to seize homecourt advantage.

It's already been a pretty good year for the Russian women -- and little of the good news comes from the country's most recognizable star, Maria Sharapova. They occupy half of the top ten spots, won the Fed Cup last month, and swept the Olympic medals.

Incidentally the Beijing medalists -- Elena, Dinara and Vera Zvonareva -- also took three of the four semifinal spots in Moscow. Dementieva ended up losing a hard battle to Jelena Jankovic, preventing an all-Russian final and frustrating me again, but Vera's decisive victory over Safina puts her in her sixth final of the year.

Russian men on the other hand have struggled a bit more this year. Defending Moscow champion Davydenko holds the highest ranking at #5, but the only interesting title he's earned this year was at the ATP Masters Series in Miami. Nevertheless Russians took five of the eight seeds at the Kremlin Cup, and two will meet in the finals on Sunday -- though not necessarily the two you might expect.

Those who know me know that Marat Safin is far from my favorite player -- I've never quite forgiven him for beating my all-time favorite Pete Sampras in the finals of the 2000 U.S. Open. Since then his career has been a series of ups and downs. He was ranked #1 for six non-consecutive weeks in 2000 and 2001 but fell as low as #104 in 2006. He started this year at #57, dropped to #93 and is currently #40. As further proof of his struggles, Marat hasn't won a single single's title since the '05 Australian Open -- or even played in a final since 2006.

The vindictive side of me is ecstatic that he hasn't been able to regain his former glory -- the objective side is shocked that such a talented and strong competitor hasn't had more success against the top ten players.

In the finals Marat is taking on Igor Kunitsyn, a twenty-seven year old who just broke into the top 100 in May. But he's shown his own mettle in Moscow, beating Dimitri Tursynov, Robby Ginepri and Fabrice Santoro on his way to the finals. A win here would not only be the first ATP singles title of his career, but also rocket him into the top fifty rankings.

You can guess who I'm rooting for.

Sunday's final holds important implications for all players involved. Jelena, I'm sure, is eager to win her third tournament in a row, her first while ranked at the top; a victory for Vera could vault ahead of Venus Williams in the rankings. Marat is hungry for his first championship in almost four years, and Igor for his first ever.

We'll see if two Russians will be able to walk away with trophies in their native land. But in any case this week's play has highlighted the country's drive, ability and talent.

And, love 'em or hate 'em, they sure are fun to watch!

'Til next time, serve well and play hard!

October 8, 2008

The Guns of Mallorca

The closest I've ever been to Mallorca was a three-day visit to the nearby island of Ibiza, known best for its all-night clubbing, designer shopping and celebrity getaways.

But just to the north and west of Ibiza, floats the slightly larger island of Mallorca. It's about 1,400 square miles of beaches, mountains, Gothic architecture and quaint villages.

Mallorca, part of the Balearic archipelago, may be a little more quiet than its rowdy neighbor, but it still boasts as residents celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, Claudia Schiffer and Annie Lennox.

It also happens to be the birthplace and home of the best tennis player in the world -- Rafael Nadal.

No one can argue that 2008 hasn't been a great year for Rafa. He won his fourth straight French Open, his first Wimbledon title, Olympic Gold and unseeded Roger Federer as the #1 men's tennis player. But his sitting atop the rankings has been a long time coming.

When Nadal stepped on the court at the French Open for the first time in 2005, few people knew who he was. He started the year ranked #51 in the world and at the time he got to Roland Garros he had never made it past the fourth round of any Grand Slam event. I remember talking with my coworker the Monday after nineteen-year-old Rafa took the crown and saying, "Where the hell did that kid with the massive guns come from?"

Thus started Rafa's meteoric ascendancy to the top of the tennis world -- he finished the year ranked second, a position he held for three very long years.

Of course all that time Rafa was playing second fiddle to the great Roger Federer, a man he had actually beaten en route to his first major victory in Paris. It must be frustrating to be ranked behind someone against whom you have such a strong record. The two have met eighteen times in their careers, on grass, clay and hard courts, with Nadal holding an impressive 12-6 lead. I'd be hard pressed to find any other player that has been so dominant against Roger.

But regardless, for three years the best Rafa could do was #2.

It wasn't until this past August, nearly four and a half years after their first meeting -- which, incidentally, Rafa won -- that Nadal finally took his place in tennis history.

I've had friends who said Nadal was only a clay court player, that he would never be able to win on another surface. We now know how wrong that assertion is -- after 2008's Wimbledon final no one can say Rafa's only a one-surface player.

But he's had across-the-board success for years -- of his 31 career titles, seven are on hard courts and two on grass. Even when he hasn't won he's certainly made his presence known, playing in the finals twice at Wimbledon before winning this year and making it to the semis both in Australia and New York.

That's not exactly the sign of a fish out of water.

It's only a matter of time, I think, before Rafa claims his first (and second) major hard court victory. In fact I'm willing to make a fairly bold statement -- I wouldn't be surprised if Rafa completed a career Grand Slam before Roger wins the French!

Don't agree? Discuss.

In any case who knows how long Rafael Nadal will stay at the top before Roger Federer makes another play for the #1 ranking -- if last week's news holds up, it may not be until next year. But I do hope that this becomes the next chapter in a book that already includes epic rivalries between the likes of Evert and Navratilova, McEnroe and Connors, Graf and Seles. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course; great battles are the cornerstones of all sports -- who can say they're not excited for the next Rafa-Roger match-up?

And until then, serve well and play hard!

October 5, 2008

The Upsets and the Not-So-Upsets

It's easy to forget about the smaller tournaments in tennis. Outside of the Grand Slams and the Tier I matches, I have to admit that even I find it difficult to keep up with the draws at the Cachantun Cup and the Pattaya Open.

That's not to say they're any less crucial to the sport or the players. While the majors obviously offer the most points to the winners and therefore have the biggest impact on their place in the standings, the majority of the season is played in smaller venues. And rankings can just as easily be won -- and lost -- at the lesser-known tourneys.

Take, for example, the Tier II Porsche Grand Prix fought this week, not on a racetrack, but on the hard courts of Stuttgart, Germany. The draws had Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva as the top four seeds, but also featured qualifiers like Sandra Zahlavova and Tsvetana Pironkova (who actually won her first round match against nineteenth-ranked Alize Cornet).

And while Stuttgart only offers $100K in prize money and 300 ranking points to the winner (I know, I know, we're in a recession and that's a lot of money -- but compare it to the $1.5M and thousand points awarded to Serena after she won the U.S. Open), by just the second round we saw a sea change: China's Na Li beat world #1 Williams and paved the way for Jelena Jankovic to reclaim the top spot in the new rankings coming out on Monday, continuing the musical chairs that is women's tennis this year.

But that wasn't the only upset.

In the quarterfinals Venus Williams dropped Safina before losing in the semis to Jankovic -- who was obviously eager to prove she'd truly earned back her ranking -- and Victoria Azarenka, who'd already beaten world #10 Aggie Radwanska, went on to oust Olympic Champion Dementieva; she eventually lost in the next round to Nadia Petrova.

By the time the tournament ended on Sunday, Jelena had taken the title, her second in a row after winning in China last week.

Summary: Serena's sad, Jelena's happy, and I'm frustrated that Elena never seems to win a match I want her to.

Clear across the globe in Tokyo, the stakes were not quite as high -- the AIG Open is a Tier II tournament with just enough prize money to buy a mid-range Toyota. But for top seed Caroline Wozniacki it held the opportunity to put a cherry on top of what's already been a pretty good year.

The teenager from Denmark started the year ranked 60th in the world, but claimed her first two Tour titles with decisive wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova in Stockholm and Anna Chakvetadze in New Haven to boost herself to #16.

She took number three when she beat Kaia Kanepi this weekend.

Winning the title in Japan doesn't quite take Wozniacki into the top ten, but it certainly pushes her to her highest career ranking, and I'm willing to bet there are plenty of smiles in her circle these days.

Congratulations to all this week's winners, and to the rest, see you next time! You never know when the next upset will benefit you!

October 2, 2008

Maybe Next Year...

The 2008 season may be over for two former champions -- and I'm not talking about the Yankees or the Mets. (Sigh.)

On Tuesday Maria Sharapova said a shoulder injury which has been plaguing her since Wimbledon would prevent her from playing the rest of the year. A day later Roger Federer withdrew from next week's Stockholm Open and said he may be sit out the rest of the season due to fatigue. (Yes, that's the same pesky rationale James Blake gave for withdrawing from the Davis Cup semifinals last month.)

Both players had been ranked at #1 earlier this year -- Maria taking over after Justine Henin retired in May and Roger just falling recently, a month after his defeat in the U.K.

Initially when each lost their spot they still posed a very real threat of reclaiming it quickly. Maria had just won her third Grand Slam in Australia and Roger, well he made a very strong argument for himself at the U.S. Open.

But now it looks like more prolonged absences for both will throw the doors wide open for their chief competitors. Rafael Nadal can put miles between him and Federer in the few remaining months of 2008, and Novak Djokovic even has the chance to rise to #2. On the women's side Maria, who has already fallen to sixth, could soon drop out of the top ten for the first time since 2003.

Hopefully, though, the break is exactly what Maria and Roger need. Of course you have to take time to recover from injury, and, as a former banker, I know something about the toll exhaustion can take on a person. When they return I hope they do so stronger and better than ever. Both have unparalleled presences on the tennis court -- Roger one of intimidation and awe, Maria of power and beauty -- and they'll definitely be missed over the next few months.

So here's to 2009! I can't wait to see you both next year.

And 'til then, serve well & play hard!

October 1, 2008

A Gentleman's Sport

Tennis is known as the gentleman's sport.

There's no bum-rushing your opponent like on a football field, slamming him into the plexiglass barriers of a hockey rink, or drawing fouls like on a basketball court. Refs don't rush out to break up fights between players, competitors and coaches aren't ejected from the games, fans don't beat up others cheering for the other team.

Tennis is one of those games where players are expected to conduct themselves with certain amount of dignity and grace.

Take for example Andy Roddick, who after his win last week in Beijing announced he would donate his prize money to help those affected by the earthquake in the Sichuan Province last summer.

Now that's a gentleman.

It's not to say tennis is completely devoid of conflict. Even I'm old enough to remember John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors ranting, throwing racquets, screaming at chair umpires. That tradition hasn't ended -- Marat Safin, Serena Williams, and even Roger Federer have been known to lose their heads on the court a bit, justifiably or not. But for the most part, you hope that players respect each other, themselves and the game.

A few recent events, however, might lead you to question the civility of the sport.

In August my perennial favorite, James Blake, was stopped short (read: "robbed") of the Olympic finals in Beijing when a shot he returned glanced off Fernando Gonzalez's racquet and sailed past the baseline. The ump said there was no indication that Gonzalez had made contact with the ball and awarded him the point.

Blake raised a stink but the ump dismissed his complaints. And when James looked to his opponent to confirm what was obvious from slo-mo replays, the Chilean made no move to admit the fault. Blake went on to lose the game and the deciding third set, a grueling nine games to eleven.

Of course no one point really determines the outcome of a match, and there have always been, and will always be, bad calls. But real athletes can't possibly be proud of winning a point they didn't truly earn.

Similarly, no pro should ever step on a court unless they're going to give their all. Take for example the case of Nikolay Davydenko who last October was fined $2,000 at the St. Petersburg Open when the umpire cited him for "lack of effort".

He cried -- seriously.

It might be an amusing and innocuous story if not for the fact that the ATP was, at the same time, investigating Davydenko in connection with a gambling probe, an allegation from which he was only just cleared last month. Apparently odds that the Russian Davis Cup semifinalist would lose his match against a little-known Argentine player increased even after Davydenko, then ranked #4, won the first set. Nikolay eventually pulled out of the match in the third with a foot injury, sparking speculation that he may have thrown the match and resulting in $7 million of bets being nullified.

Now I'm not saying that Nikolay was involved in the betting scheme. Even the best athletes can lose to an underdog, injury or not -- that's what makes any sport worth watching. But the ATP has suspended eight players for their connection to gambling, and any such association, however tenuous, sullies the sport's reputation.

And of course the most obvious stain on any athlete's record comes when allegations of steroid or drug use pop up.

Martina Hingis was enjoying semi-success in her WTA comeback in 2006-07, rising as high (no pun intended) as #6 despite the fact that she hadn't won a major singles tournament since the 1999 Australian Open. (To be fair, of course, Jelena Jankovic has only played in one Slam final even though she's currently ranked second.) But since she returned to the sport, Hingis had managed to win three tournaments total -- Rome & Calcutta in 2006 and Tokyo in February of 2007.

Then in November of last year, Martina announced her re-retirement due to a persistent injury (she first took leave due to ankle trouble -- now she was having problems with her hip). At the same time she revealed that she had tested postive for cocaine use during the previous Wimbledon Championships, a violation which later resulted in a ruling that she repay nearly $130,000 in prize money.

Hingis has vehemently denied the allegation that she used cocaine, questioning whether her sample was really the one tested and claiming that the drug came from a spiked drink. Again, I'm not here to play judge and jury and I have no intent to slander anyone. Nevertheless the accusations mark a sad end to a career that started with such a bang.

So let's keep the scandal out of tennis. You can still fight for every point without making a mess of things!

And remember, gentlemen, "please" and "thank you" are always appreciated.

Carry on.