November 28, 2008

I'm a Djok-er...

I realized this week that, since I didn't start this blog until September, I really haven't had the opportunity to talk about the success of Novak Djokovic, who was largely quiet this year until he took the ATP Masters Cup in Shanghai last month.

Now I know that isn't exactly fair. He did, after all, win the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam -- not to mention Indian Wells, Rome and Olympic Bronze.

But the summer season was dominated by talk of Roger Federer losing Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal taking the #1 ranking and Andy Murray hitting his stride. As a consequence, poor Novak was pushed out of the limelight and quietly chugged away at the tour.

Though he'd been ranked third in the field for all but one week since July of last year, Djokovic had made a name for himself more as a comedian than as a threat on the court. At 2007's U.S. Open he made fans (and maybe some enemies) with his now-famous imitations of Nadal and Maria Sharapova.

But even after he won in Melbourne I'm not sure anyone took him seriously as a champion. He may have beaten Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the finals, but in their next three meetings he couldn't repeat, demonstrating that his only major win might have been a fluke. Despite six semi or final appearances since May, Novak wasn't able to pull out another title. And with some early losses in Madrid and Paris, it seemed possible that he might lose his grip on his ranking.

Then came Shanghai.

Novak arguably had the easier draw at the ATP Master Cup, teamed with Nikolay Davydenko, Juan Martin Del Potro and Tsonga for the round-robins. But in a series of surprises, the two finalists both came from the Gold Group and Novak took no prisoners on his way to the title. With his victory he proved he wasn't just about getting giggles -- he was going to bring home the trophies as well.

Sure he'll be tested early next year as he tries to defend his title, and his critics will be watching. But so will his fans -- and they'll be laughing right along with him, all the way to the bank.

November 23, 2008

And the Winner Is...

Apparently Rafael Nadal wasn't quite linchpin I thought he was.

Argentina, well-poised to win its first ever Davis Cup, might have had home court advantage -- but that didn't stop Spain from powering through this weekend's finals, even without their star player.

Though the match-up may have looked pretty even on paper, most pundits seemed to favor the Argentines, led by world #9 Juan Martin Del Potro and #11 David Nalbandian. On the opposite side David Ferrer, who was Spain's highest-ranked player at #12, had been struggling in the latter part of the year, and when Nalbandian beat him in straight sets in the first game, it seemed the experts would be proven right.

But then Del Potro, who's seen his star soar this year -- he had been ranked as low as #81 in just April -- lost a surprising match to Feliciano Lopez, who'd peaked at #20 in 2005.

With the score tied on Saturday, all eyes were on the doubles match. Lopez and Fernando Verdasco were paired against Agustin Calleri and Nalbandian. After splitting the first two sets, the Spaniards squeaked by a tiebreak and didn't look back again. They won the fourth 6-3.

On Sunday with a 2-1 lead, Spain's coach Emilio Sanchez made the arguably risky choice of replacing Ferrer in the fourth match with Verdasco, a slightly younger player with less experience and fewer titles to his name. The Argentine opponent, Jose Acasuso would be formidable to either, holding a 4-3 record against David and 1-0 against Fernando.

But Verdasco was not intimidated today. In an exciting match that went the distance, Fernando was down one set to two before hitting his stride. Taking the last set 6-1, he clinched the Davis Cup title for Spain, their first since they beat the U.S. in 2004.

Incidentally, Marcel Granollers, the twenty-two year old called in to replace Nadal, didn't get his chance to play in the finals as the 3-1 lead established by Verdasco made Marcel's match unnecessary. But I'll be interested to see how he fares in 2009 -- maybe the recognition by Sanchez will give him the confidence he needs to notch some big wins next year!

¡Viva España!

November 20, 2008

Davis Cup Preview

This weekend the World Wars of tennis are being held south of the equator, and by Sunday a new Davis Cup Champion will be crowned.

Argentina, who pulled off a solid defeat of Russia in the semis, has home-court advantage and will face Spain, a team which is ostensibly missing one very important member -- Rafael Nadal, who injured his knee in Paris, will be watching the matches from Mallorca.

The two nations have met twice before in Davis Cup history, at the 2003 semifinals and -- get this -- the 1926 quarters. Spain won both times.

With Nadal's absence, however, this year's field is more even than it might otherwise have been.

Playing for Argentina are ATP Masters Cup Qualifier Juan Martin Del Potro and former world #3, David Nalbandian. They're joined by Jose Acasuso and Agustin Calleri. On the other side of the court are David Ferrer, who's slid from #4 to #12 since just August, Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez and Nadal's replacement, 22-year-old Marcel Granollers. Never heard of him? Me either -- he hasn't gotten past the second round in a Tier I tournament all year.

And so the Davis Cup title, which could have been a slam dunk for Spain, is now truly up for grabs, and stats on both teams indicate this could be a battle.

Del Potro has had an outstanding year, rising from a low of #81 to a spot at the ATP Masters Cup Championships. Nalbandian has struggled a bit, falling out of the top ten, but still occupies a sound spot at #11. Spain's best two competitors, Ferrer and Verdasco are also contenders, both in the top fifteen. Granollers is really the wild card for them, I'd say, and this could be his big chance to make a name for himself on the world stage.

It might not be the final we were hoping for -- wouldn't it be great to see the Swiss duo of Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka back up their Olympic Gold or Serbians like Novak Djokovic and Nenad Zimonjic repeat their success in Shanghai? And what about France, which has two players in the top ten for the first time in how many years?

Even still I'm putting my money on Argentina in a tight 3-2 race -- though I'd be more than happy to see a different outcome.

As I said before, ¡viva España!

November 16, 2008

Shanghai Surprise

I don't think anyone believed we'd get to the last weekend in the 2008 men's tennis season and not see either of the two top players of the year battling for the ATP title.

But here we are and neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer are in the finals -- neither even made it to the semis.

Instead we saw two men who've consistently been in top form this year -- Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko, respectively #3 and #5 in the world -- take on two who've really seen their stars soar in 2008 -- Gilles Simon and Andy Murray.

Given the momentum Simon and Murray had brought with them, I admit I was surprised on Saturday when both ND's were successful. Apparently the rigorous schedules of their opponents finally took their toll -- Murray had only taken one week off after his U.S. Open final appearance, and Simon had entered a mind-blowing twenty-eight tournaments this year. And so both Novak and Nikolay were able to exert their slow and steady pressure and advance to the championship game.

I said earlier that I questioned whether the four semifinalists really represented the best of men's tennis this year -- and to some extent I still have my doubts. But after watching the final match, I'm not quite as indifferent about the two players who made it to the end.

The Djokovic-Davydenko final was somewhat of a reprise of their Gold Group second round-robin match-up which Nole won, despite losing the second set 0-6. This time, however, he wasn't willing to let his nerves take over, even for a second. The 21 year old Serb dominated the first set, taking it 6-1. Despite some excellent points Nikolay, looking much older than his 27 years, just didn't seem that into it until late in the second. Facing two championship points at 3-5, Davydenko not only impressively served out the game, but broke Dkojovic immediately following. But Novak quickly regrouped, won the next two games, the set, and the tournament.

With his win Novak cemented his position at the top of men's tennis. After a booming start to the year, with tiles in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Rome, Djokovic had become rather quiet. Even though he advanced deep into the draws at the French and U.S. Opens, he couldn't win another title -- and he lost three straight times to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the runner-up at the Australian Open.

But his win here proves Novak is not just a one-title wonder and even brings him within spitting distance of the #2 spot -- not a bad way to end a year. It could make Rafa and Roger a little nervous when they look to defend their rankings in 2009.

Incidentally, Djokovic wasn't the only Serb to see success in Shanghai. Compatriot Nenad Zimonjic teamed up with Canadian Daniel Nestor to take the doubles championship, beating the Bryan brothers in straight sets. Their win makes them the #1 doubles team this year, ending Bob and Mike's three-year hold on that title.

Looks like there's going to be some sparks flying on the doubles' courts as well!

See y'all in January!

November 14, 2008

I Smell an Upheaval...

The upsets in Shanghai continued on Friday.

Andy Murray continued his stand-out season and avenged his U.S. Open final defeat by ousting Roger Federer from the Tennis Masters Cup -- stopping him short of even a semi-final berth.

Roger, who has played in the final match every year since 2003 -- and won four of those times -- leaves Shanghai with a 1-2 record after also losing to Gilles Simon in his first round-robin match on Monday.

That results, in my humble opinion, in what will be a rather unexciting final four: Murray and Simon will play Nikolay Davydenko and Novak Djokovic, respectively.

Not to discredit any of these athletes -- they've all had stellar years. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam and Simon scored some impressive wins on the way to his three titles. And despite not passing the fourth round of a Grand Slam this year, Davydenko's three Championships have kept him firmly in the top five.

But despite these success stories it almost seems like the deck is so stacked in Murray's favor. As much as I hate to admit it, Murray's rise to the #4 spot is almost more dramatic than Rafael Nadal's ascension to #1. He fell as low as #22 this year, but bounced back quickly and re-entered the top ten three months later. He's beaten Rafa, Roger and Nole all since July and he's taken five tournaments this year. Andy and Nikolay split their previous six meetings, but I have a feeling Murray will ride his round-robin momentum into the finals.

Of course in tournaments like this, especially with Federer and Nadal out of the picture, it really is anybody's game -- and as always, I'm hoping to see some fireworks!

With four brand new players left, that change I was hoping for will soon be upon us!

November 12, 2008

And So It Goes...

Like with the women's year-end championships last week, the men's tournament in Shanghai was full of surprises right from the start.

Before most of the qualifiers even got on the plane to China, world #1 Rafael Nadal pulled out -- the knee injury he sustained in Paris forced him to withdraw -- and was replace by the surging Gilles Simon. As a result former Top Dog Roger Federer took the highest seed to lead a round-robin grouping that included the two Andys -- Murray and Roddick -- as well as Simon. In the other, seemingly less stacked, half second-seeded Novak Djokovic joined Nikolay Davydenko, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin Del Potro.

When play began on Sunday with the Gold Group taking the court first, things seemed to go as expected -- higher ranked Djokovic and Davydenko both won their matches while Del Potro and Tsonga, the last two to originally qualify for Shanghai, took the losses.

But on Monday when the Red Group began play, Gilles Simon notched his second victory over Roger Federer this year -- the man who barely made it to Shanghai remained undefeated against the four-time ATP Champ. And if that weren't enough, today Andy Roddick dropped out of his second match due to an ankle injury. He was replaced by 27th-ranked Radek Stepanek -- a strange logic I still don't understand, but that's a whole other issue -- who happened to be vacationing in Thailand at the time.

With two more days of round-robin matches left, so far Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have secured spots in the semifinals. I would guess Roger and Davydenko will fill out the remaining two spots, but who knows? Del Potro is certainly capable of taking out Nikolay. And if Murray is successful against Federer -- he does, after all, have a winning 3-2 record against him -- while Simon continues his summer surge, things could get pretty interesting in the final weekend.

After all, where's the fun if there weren't some surprises?

November 9, 2008


I go off on vacation for just a couple of days and look at what happens!

You might have thought the first few rounds of the year-end Sony-Ericsson WTA Championships in Doha would go off without a hitch, but the surprises started from the get-go.

The original eight women began in Qatar as planned -- the round-robin draws looked as you'd expect if you've followed women's tennis this year. In one half the two Serbians, top-seeded Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic were randomly grouped with Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva; on the other side the two Williams sisters were to take on two more Russians who've seen their own stars rise this year, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva.

But before the semifinals even began there were some big changes. Third seed Serena Williams pulled out after splitting her first two matches with a stomach muscle injury -- the second year in a row she had to withdraw -- and Ana Ivanovic was forced out with a viral infection. Alternates Aggie Radwanska, the nineteen-year-old from Poland, and Nadia Petrova, the fifth Russian in the draw, took their spots.

Ultimately the field was whittled down to Jelena, Elena, Venus and Vera -- the latter two players advanced to the semis with impressive 3-0 round-robin records. Given their stellar performances over the last several days, it's really no surprise that Venus and Vera were the ones who made it through to the finals.

On paper the final was one that few would have called. They were the last two to qualify for the tournament and held the seventh and eighth seeds going in. Neither had seen quite the success of Jankovic, who won three straight titles after her final appearance in Flushing Meadows, or Safina, whose triumphs during the summer gave her the U.S. Open Series. Vera has never made it past the quarterfinals of a major tournament, and Venus, who hasn't qualified for the year-end tournament since 2004, has recently notched some surprising losses to Flavia Panetta (twice this year!), Na Li and a relatively unknown Petra Kvitova, among others.

But aren't these two really some of the best women's tennis had to offer this year? Vera has had a great 2008, earning titles in Prague and Guangzhou, as well as Olympic Bronze, on her way to a career-high #9 ranking. Venus, too, despite her defeats has seen some real victories, winning in Zurich and of course Wimbledon -- her third straight championship there.

Williams and Zvonareva have met six times before their Doha final, with Vera only winning the first match-up at 2003's French Open where Venus was ranked #3. The stage this time may have been too much for her, and Venus eventually took the title after three long sets. But I'm optimistic that we haven't heard the last of the spunky Russian.

As the Doha Championships come to a close, the final standings look quite a bit different than they did last year (with 2007's year-end ranking in paren):

  1. Jelena Jankovic (3)

  2. Serena Williams (7)

  3. Dinara Safina (15)

  4. Elena Dementieva (11)

  5. Ana Ivanovic (4)

  6. Venus Williams (8)

  7. Vera Zvonareva (22)

  8. Svetlana Kuznetsova (2)

  9. Maria Sharapova (5)

  10. Aggie Radwanska (25)

Ostensibly missing from the list are Justine Henin, of course, Anna Chakvetadze, unfortunately, Daniela Huntuchova and Marion Bartoli -- maybe next year!

Congrats on a great 2008!

And, with the women's matches decided, we're off to China where the men have already started their year-end championships.

See you in Shanghai!

November 3, 2008

Vote for Change!

Tomorrow Americans have the opportunity to exercise their very important right to help elect a new President.

And over the next two weeks, the world's best tennis players have the (probably less important, but still quite significant) opportunity to dethrone the reigning king and queen and crown new Top Dogs themselves.

Politics aside, we could see a true changing of the guard, both in Doha where the women take the court and in Shanghai where the men will battle. Justine Henin and Roger Federer have claimed the year-end championships two years in a row, but their reigns could end this year. We all know about the premature end to Henin's career and the earth-shaking rise of Rafael Nadal as the top men's player of 2008. And that leaves the door open for change -- maybe by just a crack or possibly by a mile, depending on your particular point of view.

Let's start with the ladies, who relocate from Spain to Qatar to begin playing for their title tomorrow. The draw is markedly different from last year when Justine and Maria Sharapova played for the title -- neither will make the trip to Doha. Current #1 Jelena Jankovic returns, along with Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova. But missing are Anna Chakvetadze, Daniela Huntuchova, and Marion Bartoli. (What ever happened to the one-time Wimbledon finalist who last year replaced an injured Serena Williams in Madrid? She's now quietly languishing at #16.) Their vacancies are filled by both Williams sisters and the three Russian Olympic medalists: Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva, and Vera Zvonareva.

On the men's side the Shanghai draw wasn't decided until just yesterday. The top five seeds were in place weeks in advance: Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko. But as late as Wednesday of last week, the Masters Cup website listed twelve other players in contention for the final three spots, with a host of scenarios that would allow each to qualify. The BNP Paribas Masters tournament in Paris was the deciding factor.

Ultimately Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, with his win over David Nalbandian on Sunday, were the lucky qualifiers. The latter two and Murray would be playing for their first Master Cup.

But things aren't exactly settled quite yet. With Roger and Nadal both pulling out of their Paris semifinal matches, I can't help but wonder whether they'll be able to play in Shanghai. Of course I hope neither of their injuries is enough to keep them from competing in China. As much as I'd like for James Blake to get another chance to compete for the championship (he's tenth in the race after his semifinal appearance in Paris), I don't feel it will mean as much to him, or any potential winner, if either Nadal or Federer do not compete.

As the women begin their round robin matches in the morning, I can't help rooting for some big changes in the status quo. Not that I have anything against Jelena, who has the top seed this year, Dinara, though I'm not a big fan of her brother's, or even Serena, who won in 2001 and has made two final appearances after that -- but I'd love for Dementieva to finally score a big win. As for the men, as long as Blake isn't competing, I might as well cheer for the other American to finish his comeback and bring home the title. The U.S. could use some good news these days.

While we, as fans, might not have any say in who wears the tennis crown at the end of the day, there's no harm in rooting for a shake-up!

So good luck to all -- and remember to vote!

November 2, 2008

A Marathon Event

The New York City Marathon is being run outside my apartment this morning. Forty thousand men and women are pounding the pavement of the five boroughs, and the only thing I can think about is how I'm going to cross First Avenue and make it to the Central Park courts on what might be the last nice day of fall -- that, and how I hope none of the runners forgot to turn back his clock last night, but I digress.

Across the Atlantic some of the world's best tennis players are nearing the end of their own marathon. Since January these men have been competing for their chance to vie for the ATP Masters Cup, and this week the final three spots would be filled.

But there will be plenty of time to discuss that later. In the meantime action in Paris held its own set of upsets, thrills and downright shockers that threw the tournament -- and the ATP race -- wide open.

It started in the second round when a flailing David Ferrer, who received a first-round Bye, lost in straight sets to Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber. Ferrer has lost his first match at six other tournaments this year and only won titles in two minor tournaments, making me wonder why he's still ranked fifth in the world. True, at #30 Philipp wasn't exactly David slaying Goliath, but the win certainly provided a boost to his confidence, and stalled Ferrer's hopes for making it to Shanghai.

The surprises didn't stop there. On Thursday Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took out world #3 Novak Djokovic in three sets, his second straight victory over the Serb after losing to him in this year's Australian Open Final. He followed that up with a win over Andy Roddick, who earlier in the week became the sixth player to secure his spot in Shanghai. Tsonga has had a pretty successful year, rising from #38 to #14 now, and coming within a stone's throw of the top ten in May. His performance this week just solidified his position at the top of the sport.

But the real turning of the tide came in the other matches on Friday.

Besides Tsonga's defeat of Roddick, there was David Nalbandian's impressive victory over Andy Murray (resulting in my doing a little happy dance). They'd only met one time before at Wimbledon in 2005, and Nalbandian won that match too. But those were wholly different times -- the then-surging Argentine was ranked tenth and on his way to finish the year as #6, while the still unheard-of Brit hadn't even cracked the top two hundred yet. With this week's win David ended Murray's fourteen-match winning streak and his hopes to be the first player to claim three consecutive ATP Masters Series shields.

And in yet another twist, both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer bowed out of their quarterfinal matches. Nadal retired with a knee injury while Roger withdrew from the tournament with a sore back -- raising the question of whether either will be back to form in time for Shanghai. Those two defaults paved the way for Nikolay Davydenko and James Blake to enter the semifinals.

Their roads would stop there though, it seemed. Nalbandian and Tsonga both won their matches on Saturday, upsetting the higher ranked favorites, setting up a final for Sunday that would ultimately decide the last man to qualify for Shanghai.

The two players have never met before, and with Jo-Wilfried ranked tweltfth in the ATP Race and David fourteenth, the match-up could be pretty exciting. It's been a long race for both this year, with ups and downs along the way, and as they sprint toward the end I'm looking forward to a close and thrilling race.

See you at the finish line!