July 30, 2009

Triumph of the Underdogs

I have to admit that most of my focus has been on the West Coast tournaments this week, as some of the best men and women take to the courts of Los Angeles and Stanford, respectively. But I didn't mean to ignore some of the great matches still going on in Europe -- especially a couple of new faces making their mark.

Brazil's Marcos Daniel has already won three challenger events this year, and now in Gstaad he's trying to make his mark on the Tour. At thirty-one years of age he's not exactly a stranger to the circuit, but in the twelve years since he's gone pro he's never really made a dent. But last week in Indianapolis he avenged a loss to Taylor Dent at the Hall of Fame and he began his quest in Switzerland by notching a tight win over eighth seed Paul-Henri Mathieu and following it up today by defeating Julien Benneteau.

It marks only the second time this year he's scored back-to-back wins in a main draw. Next up for Daniel is Frenchman Florent Serra, a man who beat him easily in Memphis earlier this year. Obviously it will be a challenge for the #73 player in the world, but stranger things have happened.

Take, for example, the recent ascendancy of German Andrea Petkovic, the twenty-one year old who won her first Tour title last week in Bad Gastein. Before that tournament, she'd only won three matches in the big leagues -- ironically, all in Majors: the 2007 French and U.S. Opens and this year's Australian. But in Austria she won five in a row, only dropping one set to seventh seed Anna-Lena Groenefeld.

This week she's been equally impressive, losing only four games in her first two matches in Istanbul -- today she beat Paraguay's Rossana De Los Rios in under an hour, winning seventy percent of the points. Though she'll have to face her first seed of the tournament in the quarters, I'm not sure there's any reason for her to be intimidated by Olga Govortsova -- actually ranked lower than Andrea, Olga has lost both their previous matches and should be a fairly easy opponent.

It may be premature to call for her second straight title, but if Petkovic ever had an opportunity, this might be it.

Good luck to all!

July 26, 2009

A Perfect Record -- Where It Counts

Robby Ginepri is one of those also-ran American tennis players. He's been around for the better part of the decade, but never really reached the top tiers. Though he's made his was as high as #15 in the world, he's usually overshadowed by more prominent players like Andy Roddick and James Blake, and for the last few years he's slipped a few times into triple digits.

This year hasn't been that kind to him either. Before this week he'd only won a handful of games -- four to be exact -- and the best player he beat was #71 Andrey Golubev in Eastbourne. He came down with appendicitis, which kept him hospitalized for over a week, dropped thirty pounds and was sidelined for three months. When he came back in May, he lost all three of his World Team Championship matches in Dusseldorf, including one to #657 Andreas Vinciguerra.

But when he stepped on the courts in Indianapolis, something must've taken over him. It was here, four years ago, that Ginepri won his last title, defeating Andy Roddick on his way to the finals. It put him on the road to a great second half of the year -- he made the semis in Cincinnati, getting past Marat Safin, and Madrid, passing Nikolay Davydenko on the way. Most impressively, though, was his U.S. Open showing, where he played four consecutive five-set matches, eventually losing to Andre Agassi in yet another semi.

But potential opponents should know that, if Robby Ginepri makes it past that penultimate round, he's probably going to win. He did it in 2005 and he did it earlier today, when he was nothing short of spectacular in his win over third seeded Sam Querrey. In fact, he's never lost a championship match -- he's played in three during his career -- and if you watched him in action this afternoon, you can understand why. He kept his cool against the higher ranked favorite, controlled his shots and, surprisingly, out-aced the big serving Querrey. He was run all over the court, but played some really smart shots to break Sam not once, but twice in the opening set. And he stayed with him through the second, finally breaking Querrey late and winning his last service game, holding Sam at love.

Like Sam, Robby has a full summer schedule ahead of him, and he's scheduled to play Marat Safin in the first round in Los Angeles next week. It might be premature to say he's heading for the same run he had in 2005, but if he continues to play at the level he did this week, Ginepri is certainly off in the right direction. And maybe, with a little more luck, he'll be giving us all something to talk about this summer!

July 24, 2009

Summer of Sam

I first remember hearing Sam Querrey's name about two years ago when he forehanded his way into the top one hundred his first year as a pro.

Given his fast and consistent start, it's easy to forget that he's still really a kid. He was only nineteen when he made the semis at Indianapolis in 2007, beating big-serving Ivo Karlovic and countryman James Blake, both in three-set battles. He followed it up with a quarterfinal appearance in Cincinnati and a second place trophy in a challenger event in Vancouver.

He's had an up-and-down time since then, but never really fell out of good graces. He won his first and only championship -- so far -- in Las Vegas last March and reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open. But he's also notched a bunch of losses to much lower-ranked players like #137 Bjorn Phau and #194 Joseph Sirianni.

Even still, now just twenty-one years old, he's probably a much better player than his #37 ranking gives him credit for. A few weeks ago I got to watch him in the Newport semifinals, where he took on Fabrice Santoro on the grass courts of the Hall of Fame. I was impressed by his serve, of course -- at 6'6" he fired an amazing eighty aces during the tournament -- but also his finesse as he worked the court with long baseline rallies and delicate drop shots. Though he eventually lost in the finals to qualifier Rajeev Ram, he seemed to be making a statement.

And Querrey's going to be playing a lot of tennis this season in order to make that statement.

Today he sailed through the quarters in Indianapolis with a decisive win over France's Marc Gicquel. Though the scoreboard indicated a fairly close game -- 6-4, 7-5 -- Sam was dominant. He won 88% of his first serve points and only allowed two break opportunities, saving both of those points. In about ninety minutes, he score nineteen aces and easily earned his place in the semis, where he'll meet Canadian Frank Dancevic.

Even if his ride ends there, though -- which I hope it won't -- he won't have much time to rest. He's the eighth seed in Los Angeles next week and continues his summer-long road trip with showing in Washington, Cincinnati and New Haven, all before the end of August!

Luckily for Sam, it doesn't seem like he'll be alone. Like Mardy Fish's Fish Bowl and the J-Block before them, Querrey seems to have his own set of groupies -- his "Samurais" flew to Indianapolis from Santa Barbara and have been front-and-center during his matches all week.

If he continues the success he's had so far this season, it looks like they'll have a lot more to cheer for!

July 22, 2009

A Cast of Characters

On Monday two former #1s take the court in Los Angeles in the LA Tennis Open's "Millenium Challenge" -- fourteen-time Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras will meet Russian Marat Safin in a rematch of the 2000 U.S. Open final, what turned out to be Marat's first career Major victory.

The exhibition promises to be an exciting match -- while maybe not one of the classics, there was certainly a real rivalry between these two stars around the turn of the century. Safin, who has announced that 2009 will be his last year on the Tour, took the #1 ranking away from my dear Pete with the help of that win in Flushing Meadows, and he holds a surprising 4-3 record over the legend. While the two couldn't have more disparate personalities -- Marat often brash and combative when a point doesn't go his way, versus Pete who rarely showed any emotion on the court -- when they got on the court, you knew sparks would fly.

There aren't a lot of players on Tour now that have that same energy -- while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are undoubtedly fascinating to watch, on the court they're all business. In a press conference today Safin was asked if he thought he was one of the last great characters in the sport. Marat seemed to think it was just a matter of time:

"Because tennis, actually they need somebody -- not a little bit not crazy, but just a little bit untender, but it has to come natural...Sooner or later it will come, people like that, and tennis will live another nice era."

Though he didn't offer any suggestions of who some of those players might be -- I'm not entirely sure he understood the follow-up question -- certain personalities do spring to mind.

There of course are the hot-heads: Tommy Haas and Lleyton Hewitt may have cooled off a bit in their old(er) age, but you can still see the fire in their eyes when they screw up. And more recently there was the odd -- and masochistic -- reaction from Mikhail Youzhny when he lost a point to Nicolas Almagro in Miami last year.

But now we have a bit more breadth in our emotions. Take the entertainers: Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils always enjoy putting on a show. The heartthrobs: Andy Roddick and Dmitry Tursunov always manage to look good, no matter how hard they sweat. And the crowd-pleasers: Andy Murray and James Blake perpetually get the hometown fans behind them no matter how well or badly they're playing. And, most comforting, the ingenues -- the kids whose innocence and genuine happiness to win even one match is enough to get the entire crowd excited.

So I'm not worried about the personalities of tennis -- there are plenty of players bringing their personalities, either through charm or idiosyncrasies, out to the court with them. And it all just adds to the fun!

July 19, 2009

In the Fast Lane

Jeremy Chardy was just barely left out of the seedings at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, a tournament which, as it turned out, was pretty evenly matched. At #43 in the world, he's barely a hundred points behind Jose Acasuso, the eighth seed who he met in the first round.

But arguably he's had the more successful year so far, and I'm not sure many people were surprised him to pull off the upset in his opening match. He made his first career final in Johannesburg in February, defeating David Ferrer in the semis before eventually losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He'd beaten Tommy Haas in Delray Beach and Mardy Fish in Indian Wells -- I actually gave him more than a fighting chance against Andy Roddick in the first round at Wimbledon and was surprised that he lost so handily.

Chardy might have been a little annoyed too and seemed to come to Germany with something to prove. After taking out Mischa Zverev, who'd ousted top seed Gilles Simon in the second round, and former world #4 Nicolas Kiefer, Jeremy found himself facing Victor Hanescu for the title. Somehow he was able to brush off a 1-6 loss in the first set to not only level the match, but eventually win it, 6-4 in the final set.

It was his first championship trophy, but I think it's safe to say it won't be his last. Incidentaly he also won a brand new Mercedes E350, and I'm thinking it'll serve him well as he drives through his opponents during the rest of the summer.

He'll get his first chance to prove himself this week in Hamburg, where he has earned the fifteenth seed and a bye in the first round. Jeremy does face a tough draw, though, and more than a few people who've been making their names known this year are in his section of the bracket. Besides second-seeded Nikolay Davydenko, he could face Philipp Petzschner in the third round, or even force a rematch with Hanescu in the quarters.

It'll be hard, but now that Chardy's proven himself he's got to back it up! Nothing's more disappointing than watching such great talent fall back off into the shadows.

But I wish him the best of luck! And definitely will continue rooting for him!

July 16, 2009

The Case for New York

The USTA today announced the ten towns named as finalists for the first ever "Best Tennis Town" contest. The field was narrowed from an inital group of fifty-six cities, and now we all get to vote on the the one we think best captures the spirit and passion of our sport.

The contenders span the country, from North Carolina to Michigan to California. But, somewhat surprisingly, there's nothing in New York, the home of the last Grand Slam of the year -- nothing even in the northeast.

Okay, we don't have the best weather year-round, and like everything else in Manhattan it is always a process to get a court in Central Park.

Then again there is a real tennis community here. Every day during the summer, a line of regulars is queued up, some as early as five in the morning, at the Tennis Center as old friends catch up and share their picks for the current tournaments. Services like TennisTIP provide classes at various levels and help lone tennis players find hitting partners throughout the five boroughs. Monica Seles even thanked our former mayor David Dinkins, a Director at Large of the USTA, as her honorary coach when she was enshrined at the Tennis Hall of Fame last weekend.

And there's a boatload of history here. Since the early 1900s the first U.S. Tennis Championships were held in Forest Hills, initially on grass and then on clay. When the Open moved to the faster hard courts of Flushing Meadows in 1978, it brought with it all the excitement of the city's vibrant nightlife. While counterparts in Paris and London shut down at dusk, evening matches at Flushing Meadows often go past midnight, past one a.m., with crowds getting so rowdy I sometimes wonder if I'm at a sports arena or a sports bar.

Like with everything else in our lives, New York tennis players are hard core, true fans of both the sport and the atmosphere surrounding it -- we don't go down without a fight and we don't take crap from no one! And if that doesn't make this one of the best tennis towns in the States, I don't know what will! your arguments for why your town is the best, and tell me who you think will win the USTA challenge!

July 15, 2009

Taking a Breather

We've reached that time in the tennis calendar where a lot of the top players are still sleeping off their Wimbledon hangovers and aren't yet ready to hit the pavement on the hard courts quite yet.

Rafael Nadal is of course recovering from his knee injury, but plans to make his summer debut in Montreal. Jim Courier told me last week that Roger Federer is taking some time as he prepares for impending fatherhood. Even Andy Roddick, who was supposed to get right back on court for the Davis Cup quarterfinals last weekend, had to pull out.

And that leaves a few weeks in the schedule for some lesser-known names to take advantage and rack up some points. So today I'm taking a look at some of the under-the-radar pros that have been able to stand out over the last week and a half.

Last Sunday Rajeev Ram, ranked in the triple-digits, became the first Lucky Loser this year to claim a Tour title when he battled through the qualifying rounds with a calf injury and defeated third seed Sam Querrey in the finals at Newport. The singles trophy was not only the first of his career, but also shaved seventy-three positions from his ranking.

And in Bastad, Sweden heavy favorite Caroline Wozniacki made her sixth final of the year -- pretty impressive, considering she's played in sixteen tournaments already. She must've been tired when she met Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez for the title, because she lost to the forty-second ranked Spaniard in straight sets.

This week the men took to the clay of Sweden, with Fernando Verdasco taking the top seed. Even still there are plenty of others ready to contend for the final.

Former top-ten player Guillermo Canas has seven career titles to his name, but has only won a handful of Tour-level matches this year. But in Bastad he pulled off a straight-set win over wildcard Grigor Dimitrov in the first round. Next he'll meet Andreas Vinciguerra, who has seen his ranking fall from #33 in the early part of the decade to #460 (!!) now. Andreas was able to score himself an upset over sixth seed Florent Serra, marking only his second match win on the Tour in 2009.

And in Stuttgart another Lucky Loser is trying to make his presence known. When Albert Montanes had to withdraw with a knee injury, Alexandre Sidorenko took his place. The Frenchman has only played one non-challenger match this year -- he lost in Roland Garros to Marat Safin. In fact the relative youngster hasn't yet won a single Tour match. But this week he managed a victory over qualifier Daniel Munoz-de La Nava and followed it up by sending home Oscar Hernandez. He'll have a battle in the next round against Victor Hanescu, but why shouldn't he have a fighting shot?

After all this is the best opportunity some of these guys have had -- or will have -- in a long time. And what better way to start their road to Flushing Meadows than by making a statement now?

July 12, 2009

The Birth of Tennis

If you've never been to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, I highly encourage you to book your tickets. It's an experience any tennis fan will love.

Hidden among the immense and ornate mansions of the Vanderbilts and the Astors is the unassuming entrance that leads to one of the most beautiful grounds I've ever seen, a grass court club that served as the home of the first U.S. National Championships in 1881 and which, even today, is open to the public who want the experience of hitting on the sacred surface.

Also within the walls is a museum dedicated to the history and evolution of tennis. Starting from the days of jeu de longue paume, played in Belgium in the 1300s up to Roger Federer's historic Wimbledon victory just last week, it's stocked with pictures, artifacts and memorabilia from years past. In fact this year's inductee, Monica Seles, permanently donated all of her fifty-three trophies to the exhibit.

Even today the Hall of Fame is serving as a training ground for the country's next generation of talent. At the championship match held earlier today, Lucky Loser world #181 Rajeev Ram won his first Tour title with a 6-7, 7-5, 6-3 win over third seed Sam Querrey. And because there's no such thing as tiring out a tennis player, he got back on the court minutes later and also claimed the doubles title!

Congratulations on a great week!

By the way thanks so much to the Hall of Fame for hosting me and the tournament this weekend. It was a great time and I can't wait to come back next year!

So today I leave you with some of my pictures of the grounds and the museum. Of course they don't come close to doing the Hall of Fame justice, especially as they were taken with my dinky little camera, but hopefully they'll give you a good taste of the experience.

The grounds of the Hall of Fame

A battoir and a jeu de paume, the earliest rackets

They included May Sutton Bundy and William & Ernest Renshaw

Wonder where today's players would be with these rackets?...

...Or these outfits?

Modern tennis began with the advent of the Open Era when "amateurs", who were allowed to play in tournaments, could finally compete against "pros", who were getting paid

And then came a man named Arthur Ashe, who changed the face of the sport forever...

...And a man named Rod Laver, whose 2nd Grand Slam the Museum was celebrating

A separate section honors each of the four Grand Slams as well as the many other tournaments of the Tour

The newest display showcases what Roger Federer wore when he won #15

Better make that a "6"!

July 11, 2009

It's Only a Game, After All

This morning I came as close as I ever have to tennis royalty. At the 2009 induction ceremony at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, I had the great pleasure of sitting a row behind 1994 honoree and long-time writer Bud Collins and only a few feet away from this year's youngest inductee Monica Seles.

What struck me most was the diversity of this year's class -- some of whom I didn't know the others who've grabbed headlines for years. And each, not surprisingly, made his or her own very important contribution to the sport of tennis.

"Those That Make Dr. J Mad..."

Dr. Robert Walker "Whirlwind" Johnson might not be a name you recognize -- he started out as an athlete on the gridiron, not the tennis court, and played football for Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After college, though, he founded the American Tennis Association Junior Development Program, a all-expense paid tennis bootcamp in Lynchburg, Virginia which gave young plack athletes the only opportunity they had to get into the sport in a still-segregated South.

Dr. J instilled in his students a discipline and honesty that was unparalleled. Accepting the certificate on behalf of his grandfather, Lange Johnson told of how he would instruct kids to concede a point to their opponent whenever a ball dropped even two inches outside the lines, stressing that in a racially-divided society, minorities could not afford to be accused of cheating. Young players at the academy didn't dare break the rules as the punishment was immediate ejection.

Johnson was also instrumental in bringing a young Althea Gibson into the spotlight. He discovered the Harlem teenager in 1946, brought her to his school and gave her a chance to play at Forest Hills. The rest is history, and Dr. J can rightfully claim the lion's share of the credit.

"I'm a Lucky Guy"

Donald Dell was once ranked #4 in the world in singles, #1 in doubles. He played Davis Cup for the U.S. from 1961 to 1964 and served as captain for the winning '68 and '69 teams. Though he left the Tour to get his law degree, he couldn't ever really leave the sport. As a businessman he dove into the world of sports marketing and claimed Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith as his first clients.

In 1972 Dell founded the Association of Tennis Professionals, the precursor to today's ATP, a big step in his efforts to legitimize tennis as a career. In his acceptance speech he stressed that he didn't want athletes to be considered tennis "bums", as if it was merely a pastime, and in essence began the first real union for the sport. The ATP in its current form is somewhat different from what it was in the seventies, but clearly the landscape of the professional world has evolved because of Dell.

El Matador

Andres Gimeno said that, towards the end of his career though he'd already won seven singles titles and climbed to #9 in the world, he thought he'd leave the sport without ever having won a Major. But then, he joked, God felt sorry for the poor Spaniard and, in 1972 at the ripe old age of thirty-four and ten months, allowed him to claim the title at the French Open -- the oldest man ever to do so.

It's ironic that he now shares the Spanish stage with one of the youngest men to dominate the clay of Paris. But with Rafael Nadal nursing a knee injury some at the Hall of Fame press conference wondered whether he'd be able to make a comeback. When speaking of his countryman, Gimeno said, "The problem of Nadal is not his game. The problem of Nadal is his physicality." First it was his ankles and now his knees. Gimeno obviously conceded that Nadal is still a great, smart player, but Andres worried that he might not be able to keep playing into his thirties.

"The way these players are, aggressive, I think my record will stand."

It's true, of course -- better training, more advanced equipment, different court conditions all allows today's tennis stars to hit harder and run faster -- and ultimately do more damage to their bodies -- than their forefathers. But if the nickname for Gimeno is any indication, the old stalwarts certainly had just as much heart.

Game...Set...Match...Miss Monica Seles

We all know the story of Monica Seles. The former #1 held that spot in the rankings for an amazing 178 total weeks and was the youngest woman to win a title at Roland Garros. She took home a total of nine Grand Slam trophies, eight of which she won by the age of nineteen. And after her two-and-a-half year absense from the sport due to a tragic stabbing, she came right back to make the finals at the U.S. Open in 1995 and win the Australian in '96.

Talk about a fighter.

But the one thing I took away from her speech was just how much the delight she got from playing tennis meant to her comeback. She was always such an intense player, and more than one time today was jokingly chided for her menacing grunts. But she said today that the joy she felt on the court was the main reason she came out of recovery and got herself back on Tour.

And she's right. Even though Dell went through so much to establish this sport as a profession, at the heart of it all, this is just a game, and all the the men and women merely players. How could "work" be any better?

Incidentally after the ceremony I had a chance to speak with former #1 and 2005 Hall of Famer Jim Courier. He expressed his excitement to be in Newport and the importance of keeping the history and tradition of grass court tennis alive in the U.S.

By the crowds that have gathered here this weekend, it seems clear that his mission is so far a success -- and we're all here to enjoy it!

July 10, 2009

Davis Cup Surprises

First off, I want to apologize for the scarcity of posts this week. I promise to be more diligent! But some tennis stars are going to have to be diligent this weekend.

Today the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup began with some surprising results. Defending champs Spain claimed homecourt advantage in Marbella, but are still tied with Germany at one rubber apiece. And the U.S. had to struggle through two five-set matches and now needs to win all three of their remaining matches against Croatia.

Top-ten player Fernando Verdasco had a bit of a hiccup in his match against German Andreas Beck, dropping two close sets but taking his three fairly easy. But Tommy Robredo, who's already won two titles on clay this year, was wholly unimpressive against Philipp Kohlschreiber. The twenty-five year old scored thirty-three winners to Robredo's nineteen and kept his serve percentage high. In three relatively quick sets Philipp notched his first win in five tries over his opponent and held his country even with the heavy favorites.

Slightly more disturbing is the performance of the U.S. Not too long ago all the talk surrounded James Blake and his inability to win a five-set match -- when he finally got the monkey off his back at the 2007 U.S. Open, I thought he was on his way to undisturbed greatness. Unfortunately today the headlines were reversed and James allowed someone else to jump over that hurdle. He had an impressive two-set lead over big-serving Ivo Karlovic in their rubber but eventually gave the Wimbledon quarterfinalist his own first victory in a match that went the distance. Ivo stayed tough in the fourth set tiebreak and converted late in the fifth to give the Croats an early lead.

In the second rubber Mardy Fish took on Marin Cilic, a rematch of last year's Pilot Pen championship, which Fish lost. Mardy had been called in as a replacement for Andy Roddick who had pulled out of the competition due to a hip injury sustained in his epic Wimbledon final last week -- he wasn't meant to play here this weekend, but he was obviously going to put up a fight. He took a two-set to one lead and broke back at 3-5 in the fifth, putting the pressure on Cilic just as he was trying to close out. But extra innings were too much for him, and Mardy eventually fell 6-8 in an hour-plus final set.

As disappointing as those matches were, the biggest shock had to have come in the Russia-Israel match-up. Russia has won two Davis Cup titles this decade and is led by strong players like Marat Safin and Igor Andreev. Israel, on the other hand, boasts a realatively unknown Dudi Sela as its best player, followed by world #210 Harel Levy. But the Israelis were not deterred, taking both singles rubbers in four sets and setting themselves up with a comfortable lead going into the weekend.

Incidentally in the final tie being battled this weekend, 2008 runner-up Argentina is tied at one match apiece with the Czech Republic as Juan Martin Del Potro and Thomas Berdych each took their respective rubbers. The winner will get to meet either the U.S. or, more likely it seems, Croatia in the semis. But it sure would be fun to watch a comeback -- and I am definitely excited to see if they can do it!

By the way, I'll be at the Hall of Fame championships -- which Fish pulled out of to play in Europe -- in Newport this weekend. I'm sorry I won't get to watch him in action, but am totally psyched to catch the games on the grounds of the one-time host of the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships!

If you're in the area give me a shout!

July 8, 2009

A Tragedy Amid Revelry

Yesterday, just a few days after glorious history was made, the tennis world received news that one of its players, twenty-four year old Mathieu Montcourt of France was found dead.

Ranked #119 in the world Montcourt had never won a title and failed to qualify for either of the first two majors of the year. Unfortunately the biggest splash he made in his career came Monday, when he was sentenced to a five-week suspension and fined $12,000 for betting on other players' matches -- a punishment, he had complained, that was too harsh.

On his website former world #1 offered his sympathy for the man he used to play with as children:

"When someone like this disappears, when something like this happens, you realize where you are and you put into perspective your life, winning or losing a tennis match, not competing at an event and everything else."

My deepest condolensces go out to Montcourt's family and friends.

In the meantime I've decided to repost an article I wrote a few months back, just to remind everyone that this is the one sport where chivalry is appreciated.

Previously Published on 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.

July 5, 2009

"Sorry, Pete...I Tried!"

So said Andy Roddick as he accepted his third runner's up platter at Wimbledon, his fourth second place finish to the great Roger Federer in five Grand Slam finals.

From the get-go it seemed clear that if Roger was going to surpass my dear Pete Sampras in total Grand Slam titles, Andy was going to make him fight for it. For more than four and a quarter hours, the twenty-six year old American was the only thing that stood between Roger and tennis history -- and for a good portion of that time, it looked like he might succeed.

Roddick's been playing well in 2009, winning a title in Memphis and making the second week of the French Open for the first time in his career. He's at the top of the leaderboard in most service game statistics, winning 79% of his first-serve points and scoring 427 aces in forty matches this year. His upset of third-seeded Andy Murray in the semifinals last Friday was widely heralded as the match of his career and even converted some hard-core British fans to Roddick supporters.

But still no one gave him a real chance in today's final. Roddick had only won two of his previous twenty matches against Federer, and even though their previous match-ups at the All England Club had been close, Andy had only taken one set from him at the Championships. A couple fans tweeted to me that maybe Andy might win a tiebreak but then would go quietly into the night, and my own hitting partner adamantly swore that Roger would trounce him, rolling quickly and without contest to the title.

Of course we know how the match began -- Roddick broke late in the first set and held his serve through the second, earning but squandering four set points (which, in retrospect, would turn out to have been championship points) in the tiebreak. When he dropped the second set, again 6-7, we all figured this would be it.

But Andy's serve didn't let up on him -- he won nearly ninety percent of his first attempts in the next set and was able to convert on Federer early on to tie things up. When we got to the final and deciding fifth, Roddick would force Federer to do something he hadn't been able to in his first twenty-three service games -- break him.

It turned out not to be such an easy task. The men played the equivalent of two and a half sets, going strong for another ninety-five minutes -- incidentally, longer than the entire women's final. Roddick had another two break opportunities, essentially two more "match points", in the seventeenth game and didn't allow Federer to get closer than two points from the trophy -- at least not until the thirtieth game, when a frustrating mishit sent his return somewhere into the stands and Federer jumping for joy.

And so Pete Sampras's nine-year reign as the Grand Slam king comes to an end, just a month after Roger tied him at Roland Garros. It was a shorter-lived record than you might have expected -- after all Roy Emerson had been at the top for thirty-three years before Sampras surpassed him at 2000's Wimbledon. It seems fitting that it would happen at the All England Club, the grounds over which he ruled for seven years, as he watched with pride from the royal box. But Pete was certainly conquered by Federer -- and defended by Roddick -- in the grandest of styles.

And for as long as Roger holds on to this newest record, at least Pete take comfort in the fact that it was well-earned and even more well-deserved.

By the way, along with the slew of commercials that aired immediately after Federer's win, congratulating the Swiss giant on making history, check out the opening screen the ATP adopted to celebrate the man who just reclaimed his #1 ranking.


July 4, 2009

Any Given Saturday

It's funny to me that, every time the draws are announced for a Grand Slam tournament, such an uproar ensues if Venus and Serena Williams are slated to meet anytime before the finals -- as if, regardless of their seeds, that's the only match-up anyone wants to see.

But as I stood in line at the Central Park Tennis Center this morning listening in on the conversations of a bunch of amateur commentators, I realized that I wasn't the only one who wasn't particularly excited about today's women's final at Wimbledon. Despite the fact that Venus had the opportunity to make history, that Serena had the chance to break the tie between them, that there were so many statistical consequences to the match, I truly couldn't care less.

It would be the twenty-first time the sisters had competed against each other -- the twelfth time at a Grand Slam, the tenth time when a championship title was on the line. After more than eleven years on the pro Tour, their match-ups have become more commonplace than something special, and we now expect to see Venus and Serena on the last Saturday of any Major.

It's just another day at the office -- if the office were the grandest stage in the tennis world.

But my indifference does not come from being bored with watching the same match over and over -- after all I still revel in any opportunity to watch Rafael Nadal take on Roger Federer. But for some reason, I don't find a lot of drama in these siblings' rivalry -- one's win doesn't necessarily feel like the other's loss, and no matter who takes home the bigger trophy, the state of tennis doesn't really seem to change much.

Today's match was a repeat of last year's final -- well, at least in terms of the names on the program. In terms of the performances, though, the results were completely different. The sisters began the game brilliantly, neither allowing a single break opportunity in the first set. At the same time they flew through the opening games, getting to a tiebreak in just over forty minutes.

That's when Serena really began to dominate -- she saved three break points early in the second set and then took a 4-2 lead over the elder Williams. The longest game of the match was the last, where Venus was trying to force Serena to serve for the championship -- she was able to save three break chances but eventually ceded her title by smacking a backhand into the net.

So Serena takes the lead in their head-to-head history -- at least for now. She wins her third Wimbledon crown and her eleventh Major. But we'll see them on the same court again soon (actually we already did -- the Williamses teamed up and just a short time ago also claimed the women's doubles crowns).

And I'll be just as excited as I was today!

Happy U.S. Pride Day!

I just want to point one thing out on this Independence Day, with just a smidge of patriotism, as we Americans celebrate our freedom and vanquishing of the British. Besides the obvious Revolutionary match held yesterday, where Andy Roddick battled past the heavy hometown favorite Andy Murray (haha!), there is something else we have to cheer for.

For all the smack that's been talked about the current quality of U.S. tennis, at this year's Wimbledon -- for the first time I can remember -- there is a chance, albeit a small one, that Americans will win every major title at this tournament!

Of course on the women's side it's inevitable -- either Serena or Venus Williams will put the eighteenth Grand Slam trophy on the family mantle later today. But Roddick also has a chance when he takes on Roger Federer on Sunday -- it'll be difficult, as he's only won twice in twenty tries against the world #2 and lost both previous attempts at the finals here, but weirder things have happened.

In doubles too, Serena and Venus will be playing for a title -- today they took out top seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber, who were only able to manage three games against the seemingly unstoppable duo. They'll take on Australians Samantha Stosur and Rennae Stubbs a few hours after their singles match ends.

Another familial doubles team -- twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan -- will also be going after their second Wimbledon title. They advanced to their fifteenth Grand Slam final without dropping a set in the past two weeks.

And if you want some indication that the future remains bright for the U.S. as well, check out seventeen-year-old Jordan Cox who'll be playing for the Boys' championship against Russia's Andrey Kuznetsov. He took on countryman Devon Britton in the semis, going 16-14 in an eighty-four minute third set. Clearly he's one we'll be talking about in a few years!

So this year at your backyard barbeques and parkside picnics, raise a glass to your country and those men and women (and boys and girls) overseas battling for national pride! It's time we brought a few trophies home!

Happy Fourth!

July 2, 2009

The Injustice of It All

A few months back I questioned a new system the ATP had adopted to score and rank its players, wondering whether tracking a trailing twelve-month score really reflected the current state of tennis.

So far, I'm not impressed.

For example Andy Murray who started the year with three impressive championships remained behind Novak Djokovic until mid-May, despite the fact that Nole suffered some big losses in Australia and a disappointing exit while trying to defend his title in Melbourne.

And there's another point I'm still not clear on -- perhaps someone can help. Rafael Nadal was the first player to qualify for the year-end ATP Championships, but one rule requires players to play in all four Grand Slams -- something Rafa failed to do when he pulled out of Wimbledon with a knee injury. Does he forfeit his spot even though he had been playing the best tennis on tour and almost swept the clay court season?

The problems also make their way into the women's side of things. Back in April we found out that Dinara Safina was going to take over the #1 spot from Serena Williams, the woman she'd lost to in Australia and who'd taken the trophy at Flushing Meadows just a few months before. I don't mean to say Dinara hasn't had a good year -- she won in Rome and Madrid and played in four other finals, including at Roland Garros. But she's never won a Slam while the two women ranked just below her have won three of the last four and share seventeen Majors between them.

So, yes, the ranking system has its issues, but they've never seemed so apparant as they have during this Wimbledon fortnight.

The Championships at the All England Club, more than any other Grand Slam, have the ability to seed players based on their strength on the surface, not their ranking. That allowed Ivo Karlovic, ranked thirty-sixth in the world, to command the twenty-second seed, and Marat Safin to go from #24 to #14. Maria Sharapova was clearly the biggest beneficiary as officials ignored her injury-addled #60 ranking and blessed her with the twenty-fourth seed.

But Dinara, who'd never made it past the third round here and lost in the quarters to Tamarine Tanasugarn at a warm-up tournament in the Netherlands, kept her top spot while five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams had to slog it out at #3.

The discrepancy was clear in today's semifinal match when Dinara was completely dominated by Venus. In less than one hour she won only a single game and twenty points in total. She whiffed sixteen unforced errors and looked nothing like the #1 player she's supposed to be. Even still, because she made the semis, she'll get 900 points and stay out of reach of both Serena and Venus, whomever wins (I believe -- I hate calculating these points).

You know who else gets 900 points?

Not-so-lucky loser Elena Dementieva, who gave an epic performance against the second-seeded Serena Williams -- someone she was not supposed to beat. That match, which lasted nearly three hours, was one that single-handedly revived the case for women's tennis. Both ladies were hitting hard, serving bombs, maintaining rallies, and being pushed way outside their comfort zones. Elena, who'd been struggling all spring, did something no one's been able to do this tournament -- she took a set away from Serena, and she even had a match point late in the third. Watching the last few games I was actually nervous -- seriously, from my desk in New York, thousands of miles away from the action, my heart was honestly pounding as I waited to see who would come out on top.

But because Elena wasn't able to convert on her opportunity she gets the same payday as Safina, who looked no more impressive in her first five matches than she did in her sixth. And what could've been a final match that any fan would pay top-dollar to see is relegated to the semis, played midday in the middle of the week.

It's always heart-wrenching when someone has to lose a match that was so well-fought, beginning to end. After such a long battle, it's a shame that both couldn't make it to the Saturday match. And it's an even bigger shame that there's no way to compensate the player who put on such a great show.

Who knows if they'll change the points system again and make it more fair. I doubt anything done will be terribly drastic.

But I can tell you that if I had control, the rankings on Monday would be much different than what's actually going to come out.

July 1, 2009

The Quest to Shake Things Up

The four men left in the singles draw at Wimbledon have fifteen Grand Slam trophies between them -- the four remaining women have seventeen. Of course all that metal is concentrated on just a few mantles. Roger Federer, of course, has the lion's share with fourteen and Serena Williams follows closely with ten of her own. Poor Andy Roddick only has the one trophy he received at the 2003 U.S. Open.

But more so than in years past, this looks like the year in which someone new can take home their very first championship crown.

Dinara Safina certainly wants it -- she's ranked #1 in the world and has played in the last two Major finals, losing in straight sets both times. But Dinara's shown some signs of weakness in her recent matches, getting behind a set to Amelie Mauresmo and, more disturbingly for her, to unseeded Sabine Lisicki. Though she did manage to pull off a win over her semifinal opponent, Venus Williams, in Rome a few months ago, there's been a lot said about her inability to perform on the big stage -- and there's nothing bigger than facing the five-time defending champ on Centre Court.

No, I believe the woman with the best hope to force a non-Williams final is the fourth ranked Elena Dementieva -- and not just because she's my personal favorite. After starting the year with a bang, though, Elena has had a tough spring -- she lost in early rounds all season on clay and in her second match at Eastbourne. I actually thought she had a pretty rough draw at Wimbledon, facing Alla Kudryavtseva, who reached the fourth round here last year, and Strasbourg champ Aravane Rezai right off the bat.

But for the past ten days Dementieva has played nearly perfect tennis, never having dropped a set and spending barely an hour on court per match. And she's done so quietly -- I don't think I've seen coverage of a single one of her matches on the major channels. Plus she has the advantage of knowing she can beat Serena -- Elena has a respectable 3-5 record against the second seed, having won matches at last year's Olympics and in Sydney this past January. It won't be an easy task to score the upset on Centre Court, especially as the younger Williams has been equally impressive, but I won't count her out quite yet.

On the men's side all talk is over Andy Murray who is the obvious hometown favorite, and often the critics' choice, in his quest to capture his first Grand Slam trophy. By I just can't bring myself to root for him.

While of course I am cheering for the other Andy -- Roddick -- to send home the Scot, I'm also hoping world #34 Tommy Haas is able to score a career-changing win over Roger Federer on Friday. Haas won his twelfth career tournament a few weeks back in Halle after more than two years without a title and is clearly out to work his way back into the tennis elite.

I began to develop a tiny crush on the gorgeous German when, after his retired match with Michael Llodra, he played a pick-up game with a lucky ball boy. And since then he's more than proved his mettle, surviving a sleepover match against Marin Cilic and earlier today outmatching fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic -- incidentally, the runner-up at Halle -- in his quarterfinal match.

Tommy hasn't defeated Roger since the 2002 Australian Open when the Swiss giant was ranked a middling twelfth in the world, but he certainly put up a fight last month in Roland Garros by running off to a two-set lead in the fourth round. There is certainly momentum on the side of both players, and if we've learned anything this year, it's that no one is unbeatable.

Besides, I wouldn't mind having my dear Pete Sampras share his spot in the record books a bit longer.

So here's to a little bit of excitement in the last few days of this great tournament! I mean, how much fun is it when everything goes as planned?!