February 26, 2009

Much Ado...

The controversy surrounding last week's ladies' tournament in Dubai spilled over into the men's draw this week as several of the top players were noticably missing from the bracket.

Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal pulled out with a knee injury while now-perpetual runner-up Roger Federer withdrew due to continuing problems with his back. Andy Roddick, winner in Memphis just a few nights ago, protested the refusal of Shahar Peer's visa by bowing out himself, and two other top-ten players also stayed home with various injuries.

One player that was notably present however, was Israeli Andy Ram. The twenty-nine year old doubles player was granted a visa last week, though UAE officials didn't specify why Ram was allowed entry and Peer was not. After all the talk about it, I suppose it was a bit of a disappointment when the fourth-seed lost in the first round to Marat Safin and David Ferrer -- but hopefully some of the tension has been relieved.

On the single's side the absense of Rafa and Roger placed Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray as the top seeds. Ferrer even scored a #4 seed, despite struggling through recent upsets to lower-ranked players like Jeremy Chardy and Mikhail Youzhny.

Through the semifinals, there were few on-paper surprises. Djokovic and Simon made it through their sections of the draw and even Ferrer justified his former #4 ranking. Only Murray was missing from the final four because of a virus. It would be nice to see Novak make it to a title match -- he hasn't made it past the semis since the year-end championships in Shanghai, where he beat Simon -- but I have a feeling Gilles will be out for revenge here. And Ferrer, who will be taking on Frenchman Richard Gasquet, could be on his own roll.

It might not be who you'd expect in the winner's circle when the tournament ends, but this year Dubai has certainly become one of the venues we'll be talking about the most.

February 24, 2009

A Word From Our Sponsors

Several years and a lifetime ago I was an investment banker working on the bankruptcy proceedings of Conseco, an insurance company whose liquidation was, at the time, the fourth biggest in U.S. history. While the company made national news for its financial woes, it was better known in the community for its Conseco Fieldhouse, home to the Indianapolis Pacers.

Conseco and its stadium are still around, but some others aren't so lucky.

Take for example Enron Field, where the Houston Astros played -- when that company went under, it was renamed Minute Maid Park. Makes sense, I suppose -- orange juice sounds more inviting than oil, especially corrupt oil. Then there's PSINet Stadium where the Baltimore Ravens used to play and Adelphia Coliseum, formerly homefield for the Tennessee Titans.

More recently the nation's banks have come under fire for keeping their names attached to sports arenas -- Citigroup is paying $400 million for its name to fly above the brand new home for the New York Mets even as the company is expected to post yet another loss in the first quarter.

With the Dow Industrial Average at the lowest levels in more than a decade, it's interesting that companies struggling to hold onto any penny they can find continue to sponsor teams or tournaments which have little to do with their businesses.

And tennis is no exception. Look at some of the logos gracing the major tournaments: BNP Paribas' stars are all over the French Open, JPMorgan has more than a few box seats at Flushing Meadows, and Barclays' name features high in what's become a very controversial tournament in Dubai.

But maybe there's something to be said for such backing during crises. When accepting his trophy at last week's Regions Morgan Keegan Championship in Memphis, Andy Roddick even acknowledged the irony when thanking the sponsor:

"We all know it's a tough economy out there, so we really appreciate your support with this event."

Sure he does -- the bank awarded him $300K along with his title.

But maybe there's an intangible at work here -- the positive PR associated with being an involved member of the community could be worth more in goodwill than any of the potential costs.

It may not be quite the same as a bailout. But maybe it's a step in the right direction

February 22, 2009

Roll Out the Red Carpet

The stars are out in Hollywood tonight as big names battle to take home their shiny gold Oscars. But elsewhere other trophies are being contested as well.

Earlier this week Andy Roddick made a political statement, withdrawing from next week's ATP World Tour 500 event in Dubai to protest the tournament's refusal of a visa to Shahar Peer. And today he made another statement on the tennis court, taking home the prize for Best Action Sequence -- or something like that.

Andy has re-emerged this year, stronger and fitter than he's been in quite some time. He made it to the finals in Doha and the semis at the Australian Open, upsetting Novak Djokovic. In Memphis he defeated 2008 champion Steve Darcis, compatriots Robby Ginepri and Sam Querrey, and former #1 Lleyton Hewitt for his right to play in the finals.

On the bottom half of the draw a surging Radek Stepanek was trying to maintain the momentum that's already won him two titles this year. On his path he hadn't lost a single set, even taking out second-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro with just one tight tiebreak. The final would be an almost-immediate rematch of the San Jose semis played barely a week ago, where Stepanek notched his first and only win over the world #6 after four straight losses.

But this week Andy was out for redemption.

He saved three break points late in the second set and finally broke Stepanek in the twelfth game, taking his first championship of the year, 7-5, 7-5. He didn't dominate in any major statistic, really only holding an advantage in first serve percentage, but that was apparently enough. And with such strong performances in every tournament he's played in 2009, Roddick is certainly -- and single-handedly -- making a case for the resurgence of U.S. men's tennis.

Also in Memphis, Victoria Azarenka won her second title of the short year, trouncing fellow teenager Caroline Wozniacki in the women's final, 6-1, 6-3. Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga also won trophy number two in Buenos Aires and Marseille respectively.

And if these results are any indication, it looks like 2009 could be the year for a few new faces to shine. Can't wait to watch!

February 21, 2009

Getting Past the Politics

So Shahar Peer wasn't the only one upset by the goings-on in Dubai this week. But even though the Israeli tennis star was denied a visa to play in the women's draw, she did receive some compensation as the WTA awarded her both prize money and ranking points to make up for the opportunity she missed.

Other players didn't fare so well.

Second-seeded Dinara Safina lost in the second round to eventual finalist Virginie Razzano while Jelena Jankovic was ousted easily a match later by Kaia Kanepi. Venus Williams took out the other top seeds in her half -- Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals and her sister Serena in the semis.

The match-up between Venus and Virginie went off pretty much as you'd expect -- the sixth seed won her fortieth title in straight sets while the Frenchwoman went home with the second place trophy.

But Razzano certainly proved her worth in Dubai this week. On her path to the finals she defeated not only Safina, but Kataryna Bondanrenko, Daniela Hantuchova and Vera Zvonareva -- all of whom are ranked higher than her. It's been over a year since she last played in a final, but she looks poised to make a comeback this year.

Elsewhere, my prediction of an all-teenage final in Memphis seems to have come to fruition. Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka will battle each other for the Regions Morgan Keegan title -- ironically the two are also paired together in the doubles draw and will take on the surprise team of Yuliana Fedak and Michaella Krajicek in the finals for that championship.

Can't wait to see the fireworks!

February 19, 2009

In the Home of Elvis

The political maelstrom continues to swirl in Dubai, but elsewhere this week tennis matches are being contended without the same shroud of controversy.

In Memphis, the land of grace -- or at least Graceland -- some of the best names on the men's tour are in action this week. Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro and James Blake led the draw for the ATP World 500 tournament where a purse of $300k awaits the winner. Radek Stepanek has a relatively paltry fifth seed, but he seems to be on a roll, having already won two tournaments this year.

There were some surprises early in the week. Most upsetting for me was Lleyton Hewitt's defeat of Blake, only his third match win in a year when he's lost in the first round in his last two tournaments. And Kei Nishikori, who stunned the world last year with his meteoric rise, failed to convert again and lost in straight sets to Marcos Baghdatis. Mardy Fish, who'd made it to the finals in San Jose last week, got through his first match but faltered against 72nd-ranked Christophe Rochus.

At this early stage, if I had to put my money on a final showdown, I'd have to say we could see a rematch of the San Jose semis with Roddick and Radek taking center stage this weekend. Sure Stepanek still has to get past Del Potro, but the Argentine hasn't really been showing his best stuff this year. And Andy's biggest threat in his half of the draw is probably Sam Querrey, who he could face in the quarters -- though I'm sure Lleyton will want to make his own stab at his first final since 2007. Ultimately I hope Andy will be able to win his first title since Beijing last year and help bring American tennis back to the forefront, but I admit I am a bit worried that the momentum is with Stepanek.

It's not just the men playing their hearts out in Memphis this week. But with the very top players wrapped up in the political and climactic heat of Dubai, Caroline Wozniacki took the top seed in the women's draw, followed by Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who's already won one title so far this year -- not to mention a set from Serena Williams in Melbourne.

Early round action was more predictable here -- only one seed, 62nd-ranked Alla Kudryavtseva, didn't make it to the quarterfinals. The biggest shock, I feel, was Lucie Safarova losing her third round match to Germany's Sabine Lisicki. Less than two years ago Lucie was ranked 22nd in the world and already this year she's notched victories over Sybille Bammer and Samantha Stosur. Her exit will, I feel, clear the way for Azarenka to make it to her sixth career WTA final.

On the top half, Wozniacki is in good form. She avenged her loss to Jelena Dokic in the third round of the Australian Open with a straight set win in Memphis. If she can make it through two more matches she'll set up only the second meeting with Victoria -- the Danish teenager won their only previous contest at last year's U.S. Open -- and be fighting for her fourth WTA title.

So there's a lot at stake in the home of Elvis this week. And you can be sure everyone's gonna be shaking their stuff as fast as they can to capture the prize.

Good luck to all!

February 16, 2009

Politics & Tennis Don't Mix

The Middle East is a hotbed of all sorts of tension -- religious, political, and now apparently athletic.

The Barclays Tennis Championship in Dubai hadn't even begun when controversy sprang up. Officials at the United Arab Emirates denied Shahar Peer, a native of Israel, a visa to enter the country one day before she was to begin competing in the fifty-six player draw. While no reason was given for the refusal, officials speculated it was due to anti-Israel sentiments in the Gulf State.

It wasn't the first time Peer faced the weight of political pressure. Last month in New Zealand protesters stormed her third round match against Elena Dementieva, days after Israel invaded Gaza. And in 2006 she was forced to split from her doubles partner Sania Mirza amid objections from Indian Muslims.

But this time the UAE's decision sparked the interest of WTA chairman Larry Scott, who said the Dubai tournament could be stricken from the women's tennis calendar as a result of their treatment of Peer -- and for a contest that attracted every one of the sport's top ten players, and eighteen of the top twenty-five, that could mean a big loss of revenue for the state. A recent New York Times article told of how the spreading global recession is beginning to hit even this once-hot mecca -- I wonder how these latest developments could stain Dubai's reputation. It just doesn't seem to me that such external factors should influence how the sport is played.

Meanwhile Japan's Ayumi Morita, who was given entrée to the tournament after Peer was forced to pull out, won her first round match against a still-struggling Anna Chakvetadze. And that wasn't the only upset in early round action -- qualifier Urszula Radwanska beat out her ninth-seeded older sister Aggie in the first round while Auckland finalist Elena Vesnina took out compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second.

If these results are any indication there will certainly be a lot more excitement in Dubai over the next week, and maybe even more controversy -- but here's hoping all the action is kept on the courts, and out of politics.

February 15, 2009

Three in a Row

There aren't many people that can boast a winning record against world #1 Rafael Nadal.

Roger Federer certainly doesn't. James Blake, somewhat surprisingly, holds a tenuous 3-2 lead. Joachim Johansson notched a win in their only meeting over two years ago. And Lleyton Hewitt comes close, splitting their eight matches down the middle.

And now Andy Murray is trying to join that very elite group. He already has a 5-2 record against Federer, and after this week's final in Rotterdam, he's gaining on Nadal, having won their last three match-ups. The first triumph came famously at last year's U.S. Open, then there was his win at the Capitala Exhibition in January. His latest victory gave him his tenth career title, his second of the year, and 500 more ATP ranking points.

Given the excitement over Nadal's historic performance in Melbourne, it was easy to forget that Murray had been the one with all the momentum in 2009 and was actually favored to win his first major this month. And, if this week's performance was any indication, he was the one who rebounded better. Even before sustaining an injury in the second set, Rafa hadn't had the smoothest road to the finals in the Netherlands -- he'd dropped a set in each of his first three matches and struggled through Gael Monfils in the semis. Andy on the other hand only lost one set to Marc Gicquel, who eventually retired in the third round and now holds an impressive 12-1 record on the season, rivalling Elena Dementieva's near-perfect mark.

After this week's results I'm beginning to wonder if we haven't seen the seeds sown for a new rivalry in men's tennis -- Roger may have conceded a little ground in Melbourne, and Nadal and Murray are probably the hottest players on tour right now. And while I do admit I hope for a reversion to times when Nadal was back on top, I do look forward watching their next battle.

It could be another epic.

February 14, 2009

The Hard-Hitting Heartthrobs

In the spirit of Valentine's Day -- or something like it -- I've dediced to dedicate today's post to my American boys.

The U.S. men had a spotty showing in Australia. While Andy Roddick made it to the semifinals and the Bryan brothers took home the doubles title, other supposed standouts found it more difficult to advance. The second best American, my dear James Blake, made it to the fourth round before being ousted in straight sets, and upstart Sam Querrey, who'd made it to the finals in Auckland just the week before, was stopped short in the first round by Philipp Kohlschreiber.

This week in San Jose, though, the top U.S. players were on their home turf, ready to show their stuff. In a draw of thirty-two players, ten were American-born and they claimed five of the eight seeds. Roddick was hoping to win his fourth title at the SAP Open and Blake was looking to take his first championship in over a year. The two put in a strong showing early and, by the weekend, they along with Mardy Fish -- who defeated former champ Lleyton Hewitt in the first round -- had earned three of the semifinal spots.

It's been a while since U.S. men were at the top of their game. The last time an American has won a Grand Slam was in 2003 when Roddick beat Juan Carlos Ferrero at Flushing Meadows. Compare that to the 1990s when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and -- believe it or not -- Jim Courier combined to take an amazing twenty-one major titles.

I've mentioned before that there are some promising youngsters in our arsenal that could, in a few years, be the country's best hope. But in the meantime, it's on the likes of Roddick, Blake, Fish and even Querrey that our best hopes lie. And with a few good results in San Jose, they might be able to make a case for themselves, and the state of American tennis.

'Til then, Happy Heart Day!

February 11, 2009

Fed Cup Wrap Up

I know, I know -- I'm late! But it's like 70 degrees in New York this week and I decided to spend my time actually playing tennis rather than writing about it. Sue me!

Anyway, the first round of Fed Cup action wrapped up this past weekend, and the defending champion Russian team was quick to make their bid to repeat, while the U.S., which boasts the #1 and #6 players in the world, struggled through the opening round.

The World Group I pits eight top teams against each other -- the four winners, as is standard in Fed Cup rules, would go on to play for the title while the losers would have to battle for their right to make it back in 2010. The structure is a little strange, I admit -- as I've said before I'm not sure that the teams in this competition really represent the best of women's tennis -- or even the best of the country. Even still this weekend's action did come out largely as it should have.

Russia vs. China

Russian women have been having a good couple of years -- they boast five of the top ten spots in women's tennis, they swept the medals at last year's Olympics, and three of the four semifinalists at the Australian Open donned Russia's flag. Every member of their Fed Cup team is ranked in the top thirty globally.

China has two players in the top thirty, but their #1 Jie Zheng was forced to pull out of play with a wrist injury and Na Li sat out this year. Their best remaining player, Zi Yan, is ranked 117th in the world and has won only one singles title over three years ago.

The four singles matches were easy wins for Russia -- Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova dominated, and happily so did Anna Chakvetadze, who's been struggling for months, and Alisa Kleybanova, whose win over Ana Ivanovic in Melbourne helped her rise to a career-high ranking. The doubles match was a little closer, going to three sets, but the Russians came out on top, sweeping their first round 5-0.

U.S. vs. Argentina

Serena Williams has won the last two Grand Slams, her sister Venus won the one before that. They also took doubles titles in Australia, Beijing and Wimbledon.

Too bad neither were representing the U.S. in Fed Cup this year.

Instead, the best players we could offer were Liezel Huber, part of the best doubles team in the world but not even on the radar for singles, and Jill Craybas, a thirty-four year old veteran who's just holding onto her spot in the top hundred. The other two players on the team, Julie Ditty and Melanie Oudin are the fifth and tenth best in the country.

If possible, Argentina's team was comprised of even lesser-known talent. Other than Gisela Dulko, who I only recognize because Serena admitted she'd given her the runaround in their second round match in Melbourne, I couldn't place one other member.

Dulko won both of her singles matches, but her teammate Betina Jozami lost both of hers. It came down to the doubles match, where Huber's unquestionable talent came through -- she clinched the victory with Ditty in straight sets.

Czech Republic vs. Spain

Spain was the runner-up at last year's Fed Cup, where they were dominated by Russia. This year they were coming off some strong momentum from Australia, and could have been a real force.

Carla Suárez Navarro famously took Venus Williams out of contention at the Australian Open in just the second round and made it all the way to the quarters. Teammate Maria-José Martina Sanchez scored a few upsets of her own in Melbourne, including over #32 Tamarine Tanasugarn in the first round.

But the Czechs are no slackers either. Lucie Safarova had been ranked as high as #22 last year, and though she's had ups and downs, she did notch wins over Samantha Stosur and Sybille Bammer this year. And Petra Kvitova and Iveta Benesova just battled each other in the finals at the Hobart Cup in January (Petra won). Their team only dropped one match in eliminating the Spaniards hope of improving on last year's results.

Italy vs. France

The most shocking score, I feel, came in the final Group I matchup.

France has a solid team -- Alize Cornet has seen her ranking rise steadily over the past year, from #56 last January to #13 now; Amelie Mauresmo has battled through some injuries, but still holds a respectable #24 position; and Nathalie Dechy and Severine Bremond are both accomplished players with some solid wins behind them

The Italians also have some tough players. Sara Errani beat Daniela Hantuchova in Brisbane and Maria Kirilenko in Melbourne. Flavia Pennetta scored two impressive wins over Venus Williams last year. And Francesca Schiavone has spent six straight years in the top thirty.

If any face-off was going to be close, it should have been this one.

But Italy was not intimidated by its neighbor. Amelie took an early lead in her match against Pennetta and Cornet put up a fight in the third against Schiavone, but the Italians went five-for-five for the right to meet the other undefeated team in the semis.

World Group II

In the other Fed Cup bracket eight additional teams were battling for the right to play next year. Former #1s Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic helped Serbia defeat Japan while Slovakia won their first round against Belgium, led by Hantuchova and Hopman Cup winner Dominika Cibulkova. Germany and the Ukraine were also victorious.

They will fight the losers from World Group I in April, and I promise I'll be watching for you!

February 8, 2009

Following Through and Fighting Back

Most of the world's top tennis players took the week off after a grueling Australian Open. But there was still plenty of action all over the world, and some players who'd struggled in Melbourne were eager to prove their doubters wrong, while others wanted to show their success was not a fluke.

The Movistar Open in Chile boasted home-grown Fernando Gonzalez as its top seed. He'd eliminated Lleyton Hewitt early at the year's first major, but was taken through five excruciating sets in the third round with France's Richard Gasquet. After four hours on the court, he was no match for Rafael Nadal in his next game. But playing on his own soil was certainly an asset for him -- he made it to the finals without losing a set.

Vina del Mar had in fact attracted a slew of locals -- eleven Argentinos including Juan Monaco and Agustin Calleri, as well as players from Uruaguay, Brazil and Ecuador, in the twenty-eight player draw -- so it shouldn't be surprising that two South Americans, Gonzalez and Davis Cup finalist Jose Acasuso, were the ones playing for the title. In his first tournament since October, Jose made his way to the championship match dropping only one set in his upset of Tommy Robredo.

The two, who play later tonight, have played nine times before, with Gonzalez holding a 7-2 lead. But Acasuso did win their latest matchup in Canada last year. Whoever the winner, he will hold bragging rights on the continent for some time.

The top seed in Croatia didn't fare quite as well. Igor Andreev lost in his first round to Ivan Dodig who, prior to this week, had never won a match as a pro. He posted another win over Ernests Gulbis before losing to countryman Mario Ancic, who'd once been ranked as high as seventh in the world. Ancic, now #29, had made it past Ivo Karlovic in Australia before losing to a super-hot Gilles Simon in the third round and was looking for his first trophy since 2006 in Zagreb.

On the bottom half of the draw, fellow Croat Marin Cilic wanted to follow up on his fourth round appearance Down Under, where he had given Juan Martin Del Potro a run for his money. In his homeland Cilic made the most of his #2 seed and worked his way to the finals without dropping a set and downed Ancic in just over ninety minutes.

But it was in Johannesburg where the highest-ranked players were at work this week. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was trying to improve on his quarterfinal appearance last month -- though he'd advanced as far as his seed suggested he should, he was, in my opinion, unfairly punished for losing to Fernando Verdasco, and slipped from #7 to #14. In South Africa he was in a draw that included Marcos Baghdatis, whose upsets of Robin Soderling and Mardy Fish helped him climb twelve spots, Jeremy Chardy, who'd made it to the quarters in Sydney, and second-seeded David Ferrer, who still hasn't been able to regain his stride -- he'd lost to Cilic in the third round in Melbourne.

Marcos was the first to fall -- to Ferrer in the third round. But David subsequently dropped to Chardy, who earned his first career final. Tsonga, on the top half of the bracket, happily only faced one seeded player on his way to the title match, Belgium's Kristof Vliegen who isn't even ranked in the top hundred. Jeremy certainly showed his mettle during the nearly two-hour match, only losing his serve once. But that was all Tsonga needed -- with a 7-5 score in the second-set tiebreak, he won his third ATP title, and hopefully pushed himself back into the top ten.

Next week the top players are back in action -- Tsonga could face both Nadal and Andy Murray in Rotterdam while Andy Roddick tries to defend his title in San Jose among a field that includes Del Potro, James Blake and Mardy Fish. And you can be sure the action will be worth watching!

See you out there!

February 5, 2009

After the Storm

The dust has settled in the post-Australian Open world and things, which were a bit shady in the weeks leading up to the year's first Grand Slam, have become a little clearer.

Before the tournament began, all the talk centered around Andy Murray and whether he would win his first major. After notching wins in an exhibition tournament and at Doha in the weeks leading up to Melbourne, his odds for a championship were equal to those of Roger Federer. Even I feared it might happen.

Before the tournament began, I hoped Elena Dementieva would pull out her first Slam. She'd made a semifinal appearance at the Sony Ericsson Championships in November on her way to her best year-end ranking and had already won two titles this year -- why not capture #3?

Before the tournament began, American doubles partners Bob and Mike Bryan had lost their grip on the top spot, ending 2008 ranked behind Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic. Cara Black and Liezel Huber were coming off a year that included nine titles of their own, including the U.S. Open.

How things can change in a fortnight -- or maybe, more appropriately, change back.

Of course the big stories are the glorious win of Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams's victories both in singles and doubles, with sister Venus. The Bryan brothers took back their #1 spot with an sweeping win in the third set of their final.

But there were stories for the Open that go beyond the winners, many of which I've covered, but some which flew under the radar.

The rankings for the top five men didn't change, but under the super elite there were some shifts, some shaking, and some leaps. Andy Roddick, fitter and slightly lighter, seemed to get his stride back, and climbed back to #6 with his defeat of defending champion Novak Djokovic. And Murray's vanquisher Fernando Verdasco jumped six spots into the top ten for the first time, thanks to his valiant effort against Nadal in the semis.

But those weren't the most significant moves -- Tommy Haas, Dudi Sela and Marcos Baghdatis all moved up the rankings by more than ten spots. Croatian Mario Ancic only won two matches in Australia, but his upset of Ivo Karlovic was enough to get him into the top thirty. And Ernests Gulbis's win over Igor Andreev in the first round advanced him seven spots. It wasn't all good news, of course. Last year's runner-up, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, tumbled down to #14 while former #1s Juan Carlos Ferrero and Lleyton Hewitt both fell out of the top hundred thanks to their first round losses.

The women's side was shaken up too. The two finalists moved up one spot each, sending Jelena Jankovic back to #3. And like in the men's draw last year's finalists couldn't repeat -- Ana Ivanovic slipped three spots after her third round exit and Maria Sharapova, unable to defend her title while she recovers from a nagging shoulder injury, left the top ten for the first time since before she won Wimbledon in 2004.

On the upside, Carla Suárez Navarro, who eliminated Venus in the second round, climbed into the #30 spot while Jelena Dokic more than halved her ranking from #187 to #91 as she made it through to the quarters. Both Kateryna Bondarenko and Lucie Safarova proved they should be taken seriously with first round victories over top players.

The Sony Ericsson Champions Race is even more interesting. Marion Bartoli stands at #5, helped by her final appearance at Brisbane and her defeat of Jankovic in Melbourne. And Victoria Azarenka, who nearly collaped in the heat of her fourth round match with Serena, is seventh. It supports my concerns that early race figures might be misleading, but does satisfy me that they do capture the best of the year so far.

American family teams took both doubles titles. The Bryan brothers won their seventh major while the Williams sisters took their eighth. India's Sania Mirza won her first Grand Slam, taking the mixed doubles title with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi, a finalist with Mark Knowles in the men's draw.

And so with the first major of 2009 in the books, the rankings stand as follows:

February 2, 2009

Who Cares About Tennis, Anyway?

As I was watching the Super Bowl yesterday, it struck me how much more excited we, as Americans, get over football than almost any other sport. Crazy fans, rowdy players, tickets that cost thousands of dollars, spectacular halftime performances -- even the commercials are an event! There are few other games that can put on such a show.

Poor little tennis, it would seem, can't begin to compete with that.

But, I wondered, exactly where does my personal favorite rank against the alternatives?

I was surprised at the answer.

In a completely unscientific and not at all exhaustive study, I turned to one of Google™'s amazing little features. The search engine's Trends site allows users to enter multiple terms and compares search and news volume on each of the topics. It even breaks down the results by region, city and language so you can get an idea of who's making the requests.

First I compared tennis to football. Not surprisingly, tennis was far out-matched, more than three to one. Spikes in searches for the gridiron game seemed to coincide with the start of the season in the fall.

What I did find interesting was the geographic breakdown. Of course football was more popular in the U.S. -- but even in the U.K., France, and even Australia, where the year's first Grand Slam wrapped up just yesterday, football was way ahead. When I thought about it, though, it made sense -- football, the term most of the world uses to descibe what we know as soccer, would certainly be more popular in these other countries. A search for tennis versus American football yielded more intuitive results.

Against baseball tennis actually held its own pretty well, falling behind mostly in the spring but then resurging even through the summer and fall. Understandably it was only in the U.S. and Canada where the Great American Pasttime had any real advantage.

Basketball seemed to rank on par with tennis, though at different points of the year. The spikes, somewhat surprisingly, coincide more with the onset of March Madness than they do with the NBA playoffs which begin a few months later -- a fact I completely understand, being more of a college hoops fan myself.

Tennis and hockey were similarly complementary -- more results for tennis appeared in the summer while hockey peaked, though at a lesser level, in the winter. Our neighbors to the north were the source of the most searches for the ice sport, with Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary accounting for the most inquiries.

I also wanted to take a look at how tennis ranked outside the sports world. Despite the MTV show featuring contestants desperate to be her "New BFF", tennis is thankfully more popular than Paris Hilton...

...And, maybe slightly more disturbing, our newly-inaugurated President.

So maybe we can't attract crowds like the Super Bowl, but that doesn't make us any less popular, and we obviously have universal appeal.

The lesson? Don't be intimidated by the high-school quarterback and his cheerleader girlfriend -- tennis is just as cool, if not cooler!

February 1, 2009

#1 For Now -- Possibly Forever

Sports history is filled with great rivalries.

Yankees vs. Red Sox. Lakers vs. Spurs. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Duke vs. UNC.

If there were ever any question before today that Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal belong on that list, the Australian Open final served as final confirmation.

The pair had met eighteen times before Sunday, with Nadal holding an impressive 12-6 lead -- a stat few, if any, men will ever be able to claim. Since most of their careers they've been ranked #1 and #2, the majority of those matches have been in finals, seven at Grand Slams. But Roger has won three of their five meetings on hard courts, and they have never met in either the U.S. Open or down in Melbourne. And, as I love to mention, they've haven't once battled since Nadal became the top player in the sport last August.

Both men had a huge motivation to win today's match -- outside of the prize money and the ranking points. Rafa long ago declared he was the man to beat on clay -- he's won four straight titles at the French Open. After Wimbledon last year he proved he was also a threat on grass. A win in Australia would prove to his detractors -- and there are a few -- that he's an all-surface player.

Roger was also looking to make history. After a sparse 2008 he rallied through the draw at Flushing Meadows to win his thirteenth Grand Slam title -- one behind leader Pete Sampras. The championship trophy in Australia would make it that much easier to make 2009 the year he takes the lead.

I admit that every time the possibility comes up, I hold my breath a little and hope for a miracle to allow my Pete's record to stand a little longer -- but I had a feeling today would be the end of Pete's six-year solo reign.

Roger had played an amazing tournament, losing only two sets in the fourth round to Thomas Berdych, but had an easy road since then. Nadal had that epic match on Friday which he had one less day to recover from. And Roger clearly had the upper hand on hard courts -- he's won three titles Down Under and five straight U.S. Opens.

But I knew it wouldn't be an easy match.

The first set started with both players losing their serve. They traded off again a few games later. After fifty-eight minutes, one minute shorter than the entire women's final, Rafa and Roger had put only one set to bed, and Nadal took the early lead. Roger came back in full force in the second, breaking Rafa twice and winning the last four games in a row. Nadal won the third set in a tiebreak after fighting off what seemed like dozens of break points, and Roger the fourth, 6-3.

It wouldn't have been right if this match didn't go the distance -- four of their previous matches have required a fifth and deciding set and this one was just as crucial as all the others.

After nearly four hours of play, the last set was relatively quick. Rafa only needed 34 more minutes to win his sixth Grand Slam. Federer lost only his fifth major final of his career -- every one of those defeats, of course, have been at the hands of Nadal.

Up until now all the talk has been about when Federer was going to surpass Sampras for Grand Slam titles -- but maybe the focus needs to be shifted. Nadal, at twenty-two, has four more majors than Federer did at his age, and he's showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The kid doesn't get tired, and he doesn't let emotions haunt him. He's healthier than almost any other player on tour, and he proved he can domiante any surface. Now he's only one U.S. Open away from a career Grand Slam.

Sampras himself has said Roger might win eighteen or nineteen majors -- how many can Rafa earn before all is said and done? Twenty? Twenty-five? Margaret Smith-Court had twenty-four and is the all-time leader -- why can't he beat that?

Roger may get on top first, but I have no doubt that Rafa will catch up pretty quick.

And the rivalry -- while it lasts -- is gonna be a great one.