September 27, 2009

A Long Time Coming

You may know Gael Monfils for his crazy cornrows, his eccentric victory dances, his bulging muscles. But for the most part, you do not know him for the mountains of trophies on his mantle.

True, as a junior, he'd been #1 in the world, capturing the Boys' championships in Melbourne, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But until this week, the funny Frenchman had only won one Tour title, the lightly contested Polish clay court event at Sopot in 2005. He's made more than a couple of finals since then -- Doha the next year, Poertschach in '07 and Vienna last year. Just in February he lost to Nicolas Almagro in Acapulco, where he took less than forty percent of his second serve points.

Regardless, his showing south of the border propelled Monfils to a career-high ranking of #9. He followed that up with a win over Andy Roddick in Paris, but an injured wrist kept him out of Wimbledon. At the U.S. Open he put up a huge fight against Rafael Nadal, even taking the first set, before succumbing in four.

Clearly he's had hisups and downs.

This week, however, he returned to his homeland with something to prove. At the Open de Moselle in Metz, Gael had the top seed. He hadn't played the tournament since his breakout year when he made it all the way to the finals, beating a few familiar names and a couple highly-ranked players in Richard Gasquet and Dominik Hrbaty before eventually losing to Ivan Ljubicic.

In 2009 Monfils had little trouble making the championship match again -- he defeated vet Sebastien Grosjean in just over an hour, serving ten aces and winning almost eighty percent of his first serves. He benefited from his opponent's retirement in the third round and was on point in a rematch against Gasquet in the semis.

Today Gael faced second seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber, a strong German who's had some success this year, but hasn't yet been able to score a big win. After losing the first set of the tournament to Bjorn Phau, Philipp had a similarly easy time making the finals, defeating Paul-Henri Mathieu to get there.

The first set was nearly perfect -- Monfils didn't drop a single point on his first serve and Kohlschreiber stepped up on all six break points he faced. Ultimately, though, the top seed prevailed in the tiebreak. Philipp regrouped in the second set to tie things up, frustrating Gael a bit -- it can't be easy to have only one title after seven finals.

It wasn't until the sixth game of the deciding set that Monfils finally earned his first break point. He brought up his second serve percentage (which had fallen to a dismal twenty-seven percent in the second set) and kept his cool, eventually taking another break and winning the two-plus hour match.

After a long wait, and many close calls, Monfils finally gets to bring home his second Tour trophy.

Speaking of long waits, Kimiko Date Krumm gave herself an early birthday present by beating second seed Anabel Medina Garrigues in straight sets at the Hansol Korea Open. A day shy of thirty-nine years of age, she became the second oldest woman to win a Tour title -- Billie Jean King was almost eight months older when she took home the Birmingham championship in 1983. And after going twelve years without a trophy, she might just have been the hungriest person in the circuit.

But not anymore!

Congrats to all this week's winners!

September 26, 2009

Gotta Have Seoul

I'd be willing to bet that many of the Pretty Young Things at the top of the WTA today hadn't even picked up a tennis racket when Kimiko Date Krumm was at the top of her game.

The thirty-eight year old Tokyo native turned pro in 1989 and cracked the top-ten in 1994 after winning the title in Sydney. She reached a career high #4 ranking the next year and had notched wins over Hall of Famers like Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Gabriela Sabitini, not to mention Conchita Martinez and Lindsay Davenport before retiring at the Tour Championships in 1996.

But last year Kimiko came back on the circuit, playing -- and winning -- a handful of ITF titles in Japan. In January she qualified for her first Grand Slam tournament in twelve years. And while she continues to do well in the challenger events, she hadn't won a single match in a main draw in 2009.

Until this week.

At the Hansol Korea Open in Seoul the persistent hitter may have gained late entry, but she made it to the semifinals with wins over fifth seed Alisa Kleybanova, against whom she was down match point, and tournament favorite Daniela Hantuchova, on her own comeback trail. This morning Kimiko scored her fourth straight victory with a win over an underrated Maria Kirilenko to make her first Tour final since her return.

Tomorrow (or, tonight) she'll face Anabel Medina Garrigues, the woman who ousted her in the first round of Guangzhou last week. About twelve years her junior, Kimiko's opponent will certainly be the sprier of the two -- but the veteran is clearly the sentimental favorite. In both her wins and losses this year, Date Krumm has proven that she's got some real heart and a determination few other professionals can also claim.

A win on Sunday will certainly give Kimiko some great momentum going into next week's Pan Pacific Open in her hometown, a title she won back in 1995. A wildcard in Tokyo, she'll face another youngster Aleksandra Wozniak in her opening round, and potentially U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki -- who, incidentally, wasn't even alive in 1989, when Date Krumm went pro -- in the second.

There's a daunting road ahead of her, but Kimiko has already proven just how strong she can be amid adversity. And I'm sure going to love watching her!

September 22, 2009

What Did I Tell Ya?

Several months ago I opined on Kim Clijsters return to the WTA Tour, mentioning how I hoped it would spur another former #1, Justine Henin, to also return to the game.

At the time Henin was clear that she had no intention of coming back, but today, just ten days since her countrywoman claimed the crown in New York, she announced her intent to re-enter the circuit in January.

Of course I'm thrilled about her return -- I've been longing to have such an elegant and powerful athlete back in the game. But it makes me wonder what the sport's going to look like for the young stars still trying to make a name for themselves.

Current #1 Dinara Safina can't be happy. Yes, she won the pair's last meeting, Henin's final appearance before calling it quits -- but she'd lost five times before that, never even taking a set. The Williams sisters are, of course, less intimidated -- Serena has won just more than half of their thirteen contents, Venus leads seven to two.

But then there's U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, whose counter-punching style may not be able to withstand the surprising bursts of power contained within the teeny Belgian. And recent clay-court champions like Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic might find it hard to repeat at Roland Garros against the four-time French Open champion -- she's beaten both in the Paris finals before.

And then there are those who've never faced Justine -- Victoria Azarenka, earlier this year touted as one of the favorites on the hard courts, Sorana Cirstea, who made her breakthrough on the red clay, and even Sam Stosur, one of the most consistently successful players of 2009, have no first-hand experience with Henin on the pro Tour and are bound to be in for a nasty surprise as they try to establish themselves at the top of the game.

She hasn't been gone for two years yet, but already the women's game has changed so much. I can't wait to see what Justine brings back to the court and how today's stars respond to the threat of not one, but two champions back in the mix -- and I can't wait to see the rivalry with Clijsters reignited.

And if the summer season's proved anything, there's definitely room for her back at the top!

September 20, 2009

It's Playoff Time!

There's a crisp wind in the air these days, and I can smell a turn in the season. Football teams are back in action and baseball players are staging their last campaigns to make the World Series. With all this excitement, it's no wonder that tennis too is getting in the team spirit this fall.

In just a few months, Spain will get the chance to defend its Davis Cup championship. This past weekend a strong team comprised of former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero and currenty top-twenty David Ferrer only ceded one rubber to a surprise Israeli team in the semifinals.

This December they'll meet another unlikely team in the finals -- the Czech Republic is making its first title run since breaking apart from Slovakia. They clinched a win over Croatia despite their opponent's strong serving Ivo Karlovic and U.S. Open quarterfinalist Marin Cilic.

And while the efforts of the two possible champions this weekend were spectacular, somehow the results of the World Group playoffs captured more of the attention.

Fresh off his heart-breaking loss at the U.S. Open finals, Roger Federer chose to take some time to regroup with his countrymen. He looked like his old formidable self against Italy, beating Simone Bolelli on Friday and surviving a two-plus hour rain delay on Sunday against Potito Starace on a surface that should have been much more comfortable to the Italian. With the help of Stanislas Wawrinka, the Swiss closed out their tie with a 3-2 win in the foreign land.

Serbia was similarly impressive in their win this weekend. Though #4 Novak Djokovic was absent, recuperating from a long summer in the States, the country's second best player Viktor Troicki was more than present. He battled through a persistent foot injury to win both of his rubbers, the first taking five sets and over three hours to complete. His teammates were just as unrelenting -- Janko Tipsarevic, who's had some success on the singles Tour, and Nenad Zimonjic, half of the #2 doubles team in the world, paired up to clinch the win, and even little-known Ilia Bozoljac, ranked in the triple digits, did his part to help in the sweep of Uzbekistan.

But the most unlikely victors this weekend were probably a under-appreciated team from India, led by veteran doubles champ Mahesh Bhupathi and former college standout Somdev Devvarman. In Johannesburg they took on a host of South African players whose names are much more recognizable -- Rik De Voest, Jeff Coetzee, Weslie Moodie -- but they were not intimidated. The University of Virginia alum, who's already beaten both Cilic and Karlovic this year, easily won his first rubber and survived a nearly five hour match against de Voest, coming back from two sets down, to clinch his team's victory. And so India, three times a runner-up for the Davis Cup title, made it back into the World Group with their performance this weekend.

You can be sure all these teams will be in a battling mood, seeking to back up what they showed us over the last few days -- we have yet to see who can talk the talk, but I know it's going to be quite a battle!

September 18, 2009

The Lessons We Learned

What, you thought it was over?

It took a few days, but I'm finally over my U.S. Open hangover withdrawal and I've had some time to reflect on the happenings of the past two weeks. As with all tournaments, we created a few new stars, found a slew of surprising hotheads, and came to terms with a couple of facts we might have been trying to ignore.

Remember in 1999 when the Gonzaga Bulldogs, an unheard of team seeded tenth in the NCAA basketball tournament, advanced to the Elite Eight by beating #6 Florida and #2 Stanford? What a Cinderella story! But then the next year, again ranked tenth in their region, they beat another second seed in St. John's, and in 2001 they took out #5 Virginia. And still the moniker stuck. That made me think that maybe we should stop calling them "Cinderella" -- maybe we should just call them good.

Take note of that when you talk about Melanie Oudin. Yes, her run in New York was magnificent -- I don't think anyone else took out three top-thirty players this year, especially no one so unaccustomed to the big stage, and I certainly don't mean to detract from her accomplishments. Then again, Melanie's already proven her worth -- she took out Jelena Jankovic in Wimbledon, and in February she recorded a key victory over Argentina's Betina Jozami to keep the Fed Cup hopes of the U.S. alive.

Plus, she's not that young! Maria Sharapova was just a few months past seventeen when she won Wimbledon, and Martina Hingis was sixteen when she took home her first Australian Open crown. By that standard, Oudin -- without a single Tour title yet -- is kind of behind the curve. Sure she's new to the pro circuit, and if she's able to control her serve better, she's bound to become a champion. But maybe we should just confess that her performance is not a miracle.

Lesson learned: Maybe her wins are just a reflection of her hard work and developing talent, something that will hopefully pay dividends in the future.

The stories weren't all good, of course -- the tournament was muddied by outbursts from some unlikely sources. Most notably, of course, there was the frightening breakdown of Serena Williams, but there was also an angry Vera Zvonareva smacking the net and an annoyed Daniel Nestor berating a fan -- even consummate professional Roger Federer lost his cool during the final and was penalized $1,500. All in all the Open collected $31,500 in fines for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Lesson learned: Shut your trap! (Especially when there are microphones around!)

And there were some disappointing shows on the court too. Top seeded Dinara Safina failed -- again -- to win her maiden Major. She was pushed to the limit by teenager Olivia Rogowska and Germany's Kristina Barrois, both of whom took the first set tiebreaks, before ultimately falling to Petra Kvitova, ranked #72 in the world. And second seeded Andy Murray was hailed far and wide as one of the favorites to go all the way. Commentators were left singing another tune, though, when the Brits' best hope for a trophy was sent packing in the fourth round.

Dinara, of course, has long had to endure accusations that she didn't deserve her ranking, but this was the first time I'd heard anyone question Andy Murray's place near the top. All of a sudden there was talk that he'll never make it unless he can convert at the Slams -- this from the same people who'd been touting him for so long.

Lesson learned: Make sure you can back up your -- and others' -- tough talk.

And, I have to admit, I'm also becoming painfully aware of one other fact -- this may be the end for James Blake.

His third-round loss to Tommy Robredo was easy to overlook, given that it happened on the most tumultuous day of the tournament, but it was nonetheless a letdown. He had a break lead in the first set, but somehow ended up falling in straights. That matched his performance last year and was his earliest exit since 2001.

More disappointing, it's now been more than two years since he won his last title in New Haven, and while he did reach a couple of finals this year he just can't seem to capture the crown. And, while I was being somewhat facetious about Oudin's age, just a few months from thirty James really is getting up there -- he's going to have to pull himself together if he hopes to stage a comeback like Tommy Haas.

Lesson learned: I gotta find someone else to love.

So as we move into the last few months of this tennis season, we'll see if these lessons are taken to heart or if we're just fated to relive our mistakes in 2010. Though I guess that wouldn't be the worst thing -- after all, the U.S. Open was one of the most exciting we've seen in a long time.

And it just sets the stage for all the fun that's left to come!

September 14, 2009

The Stuff of Fairy Tales

Year in and year out it seems we get to this part of the tennis season and are left singing the same song. Like the Valiant Little Tailor, Roger Federer had swatted away one opponent after another in his effort to accomplish what few others could. He may be credited with being the king of the All England Club, but us locals knew that it was really New York that was Roger's castle.

That is, until tonight.

It had been 2,200 days since the current #1 has lost at Flushing Meadows -- in 2003 Argentine David Nalbandian eliminated Fed in the round of sixteen. This year one of Nalbandian's young countrymen became the unlikely hero that would end Roger's quest for a sixteenth Major title.

His task would be a formidable one -- five different opponents, each champions in their own right, had taken their swipe at Roger and the best any of them could do was to take a set off him. Let's take a look back.

2004: Lleyton Hewitt (6-0, 7-6(3), 6-0)

The Australian was ranked fifth in the world at that point, and was coming off one of his most prolific years. He'd won titles in Sydney, Rotterdam, Washington and Long Island and hadn't dropped a set on the way to his third Slam final -- he'd won both of his other attempts.

Roger, for his part, had struggled a bit more. He'd dropped a set in the second round to Marcos Baghdatis and was pushed to the limit by Andre Agassi in the quarters. But he'd already won two Majors that year -- Australia and his second Wimbledon -- as well as six other titles.

In his first U.S. Open final, Roger began to show signs of the greatness he would only develop further as time progressed. He bageled Lleyton in the first set, got pushed to a tiebreak in the second, but retorted with another 6-0 immediately after. The entire match took 109 minutes, an impressive start to what would become an even more impressive run.

2005: Andre Agassi (6-3, 2-6, 7-6(1), 6-1)

The next year Roger faced heavy crowd favorite Agassi, who was thirty-five at the time and, though we didn't know it yet, a year from retirement. Ranked seventh in the world, the Nevada native had spent ages on the court already that fortnight -- more than fourteen and a half hours, with his last three matches each taking the full five sets to decide.

Roger, on the other hand, had just reiterated his win over Lleyton in the semis and came to the finals only having dropped two tight sets. Against Agassi, he surprisingly succumbed a bit, losing serve twice in the second before rallying in the third set tiebreak. He finished off the last Grand Slam winner, 6-1 in the fourth to claim his sixth Major crown.

2006: Andy Roddick (6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1)

In 2006 Andy Roddick was not having his best run. The former #1 had seen his ranking drop to the lowest it had been in four years. He'd only won a single title in Cincinnati, his least productive year since turning pro. But somehow in New York he seemed to regain his composure, surviving a scare from then-unknown Fernando Verdasco and battling past a persistent Mikhail Youzhny to reach his fourth Major final.

Unfortunately he was meeting the man who'd denied him his two previous attempts at his first Wimbledon title. By this time, we all knew Federer was a force unlike many others. At twenty-five he'd already racked up forty titles -- eight big ones. In New York that year he was nearly perfect, losing only one tiebreak at nine to James Blake, the newly instated best American tennis player.

He was similarly relentless against Roddick, firing off seventeen aces against the otherwise big server. He only ceded his game twice while breaking his opponent six times. Like with Agassi the year before, Federer came back after losing the second set and steamrolled over his opponent in the fourth, winning at 6-1.

2007: Novak Djokovic (7-6(4), 7-6(2), 6-4)

I admit I'd forgotten that Nole had made the finals at the Open during his break-out year. The Serb burst on the scene winning four titles before coming to New York and entertained a legion of fans with his impressions of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. He'd climbed to a #3 ranking, and despite some rough rounds had made it to his first championship match at a Slam.

Surprisingly, Roger faced the tougher draw that year, meeting #5 Roddick in the quarters and #4 Nikolay Davydenko in the semis. Even still he'd again only dropped one set -- to an upstart American named John Isner in the third round. In the final, Novak stayed close to start, forcing two tiebreaks, both of which he lost. But again Roger doubled his opponents on aces and scored the critical break point in the third set to secure his fourth straight title in New York.

2008: Andy Murray (6-2, 7-5, 6-2)

Last year was a whole different story. Though I began 2008 with the fear that Roger was just about to roll to his record fifteenth Grand Slam, thus dethroning my dear Pete Sampras, suddenly I found myself wondering if Federer would even win a title at all. He'd fallen to eventual winner Djokovic, who was out for revenge at the Australian Open, and suffered two brutal losses to Rafael Nadal at the French and Wimbledon finals. He lost his #1 ranking and was beaten by players like James Blake, Ivo Karlovic and Gilles Simon.

Murray on the other hand was riding a wave of momentum that culminated in a stunning victory over Nadal in the semifinals. Pundits were beginning to predict he might win his very first Major in the rain-delayed Monday night match.

Somehow, though, that didn't happen. As he usually does, Roger pulled out his best magic in the final and in less than two hours had won this match too, his thirteenth major, and put himself back on course for what turned out to be a pretty great 2009.

Juan Martin Del Potro (6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-7, 2-6!)

This year Roger faced the latest prince trying to slay the giant. Or, more accurately, the latest giant trying to slay the prince. After a rough start Roger had reached a slew of milestones in 2009, acheiving a career Grand Slam, surpassing Pete Sampras's Major record, becoming a father. When he made it to the finals in New York, he was the clear favorite.

But Juan Martin -- who hadn't won a single one of their previous six matches -- played the tournament of his life, beating Rafa in the semis without losing serve once. Tonight he rebounded from almost going two breaks down in the first set to take the second in a tiebreak. He even grabbed an early lead in the third, getting so far under Federer's skin that Roger cursed at the chair umpire during a change over.

Amazingly, though, the big man regrouped after again giving up a break lead in the fourth to force the first five-set U.S. Open final since 1999, and it was the gangly Argentine who took the first break of the deciding set. After another half hour of play DelPo found himself with a handful of championship points -- the third of which he converted to win his first Grand Slam trophy at the ripe old age of twenty.

It was a startling outcome, like Shrek felling the dragon -- albeit a much more attractive Shrek and a very talented and deserving dragon. Juan Martin had played spectacular tennis for most of the summer, but looked exhausted in his defeat by Andy Murray in Montreal, causing most commentators to speculate over his fitness here. But he proved to be not only more resilient than his detractors posited, but more mature than his age suggested. With so many opportunities for him to fold and go quietly into the night, Juan Martin Del Potro ended the five-year reign of Roger Federer in New York in such spectacular fashion that only a Major's finale deserves.

This year's U.S. Open will be remembered for many things -- good, bad and ugly -- but hopefully for most, it will be remembered for its ability to make dreams come true for the biggest underdog.

So dust of your racquets, people! Next year, it could be you!

September 13, 2009

What a Super Sunday!

For the second straight year rain has pushed back play at the U.S. Open, forcing the men's semifinals and women's championship to be played a day late. But boy, was today's action worth the wait.

Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro took the stage first -- a little after noon the newly reinstated #2 in the world took on the six-foot-six Argentine who was looking to make his first ever Grand Slam final.

Going into the match, all the commentators were giving the clear edge to two-time Washington champ DelPo, who had actually won the pair's last two meetings. I was only somewhat surprised by the bias -- these guys have a serious case of fair-weather friendship, and though just days ago everyone from John McEnroe to Mary Carillo was harping on Juan Martin's fitness to play in the hot summer sun, today they all seemed certain he was the favorite.

In truth, he was -- Rafa has been struggling with a stomach strain since Cincinnati and, while DelPo finished up his quarterfinal match years ago, Nadal had to wait more than a day and a half before finishing off Fernando Gonzalez on Saturday. And from the start the Spaniard seemed out of sorts -- he lost his serve first and couldn't capitalize on any of his five break chances to get beack in the match.

But somehow the scoreline -- 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in DelPo's favor -- doesn't reflect the fight from the six-time Major winner. The seemingly one-sided match took nearly two and a half hours and included some long rallies -- twenty-seven strokes in one -- that reminded you why Nadal was so recently the best player in the world.

That's not to say Juan Martin didn't deserve the win -- he clearly played a fantastic match today, controlling his serve better and winning four points for every three of Nadal's. Though he might have been considered more of a favorite last year, when he came into the Open having won four straight tournaments, this year he benefitted from a little more maturity -- and the fact that someone else took care of his biggest threat. But in doing so, the twenty-year-old earned the right to play for the title.

He'll have a rough time of it tomorrow, though. In Monday's final DelPo will face Roger Federer, who has already met and dismissed five different opponents in his last five championship matches in New York. He obviously hopes Juan Martin will be lucky number six.

Federer had a bit more of a struggle this evening than the Argentine, with fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic putting up quite a fight in each of their three sets. The Serb -- the only man besides Roger or Rafa to win a major since Roland Garros in 2005 -- actually got the first break of the match. But then couldn't really pull things together again and had to rely on theatrics, quite literally praying for calls to go his way.

But as plenty of players have learned before him, Novak discovered that Roger is different kind of force in the Grand Slams. He delivered an amazing between-the-legs shot to give him match point while Nole was serving for a third set tiebreak and followed it up with a winner to earn his sixth straight appearance in this Major's final. Djokovic put up a fight, winning just fourteen fewer points than Fed, but the much more experienced player was just too good tonight -- as, of course, he is almost any other night of the year.

That match was followed by the women's final -- one with two unlikely players battling for the title, though both were riding some pretty impressive streaks. Kim Clijsters, who advanced after a controversial point last night, last appeared in Flushing Meadows in 2005 when she won the title. She wasn't able to defend the next year due to a wrist injury, and then she retired -- so before tonight Kim had won thirteen straight matches here.

In the final she met Caroline Wozniacki, whose semi against Yanina Wickmayer, relegated to Louis Armstrong Stadium on Saturday, was the lowest-attended singles event of the tournament. After a slow start to the summer, she rallied in New Haven to defend her title there, and through tonight has won eleven consecutive games of her own.

Everyone gave Clijsters the advantage tonight -- she'd beaten four seeded players on her way to the final and had performed well in both of the tournaments she'd entered since un-retiring, and obviously had all sorts of experience on her side. But Wozniacki came out firing. After losing her first service game, she won three in a row, even serving for the first set. The Danish teenager saw her nerves get the better of her, however, and eventually dropped it, 5-7.

In a final that was more exciting than anyone could have imagined, eventually Clijsters secured the only break of the second set and after slamming an overhead won the second Major of her career. She fell to the ground in victory and cried tears of joy on the sidelines, able to do one month into post-retirement what it had taken eight years to do the first time around.

Clearly it was an impressive comeback after being gone for over two years, but you have to give credit to Wozniacki too, who was the picture of class both during the match and in her defeat. It looks like both these ladies will be around for a long time to come!

Congrats to all of today's winners!

Incidentally, this also marks a year of Tennis Spin! (Actually, a little more, as a late Labor Day pushed the whole U.S. Open back a bit, but I digress...) My first post came out the morning of the last ladies' final, which also took place on a Sunday. Thanks so much to all of my readers and followers -- I really appreciate your loyalty, insights and comments! Keep it comin'!

And here's to several more years of Spin!

Ladies & Gentlemen, Please!

Okay, so there were plenty of factors that could have contributed to Serena Williams' frustration today.

The defending U.S. Open champion was supposed to play her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters yesterday, but the first drops of rain to foul up the year's last Grand Slam came at a bad time and forced tournament officials to reschedule the few matches left this weekend.

Serena probably expected to finish up her match much earlier today, but a very persistent misting suspended play some time around 1:30 p.m. and didn't allow the women to take the court until after nine.

When they did, there was a much smaller crowd than you'd expect for most Major semis -- and last year's trophy-holder was playing to a more depleted audience than she's used to.

And to top things off, she found herself well outplayed by a woman who'd been absent from the Tour for two years, retiring at the ripe old age of twenty-three to get married and have a child. Serena was broken at 4-5, giving the first set to Clijsters are slammed her racquet to the ground in anger, earning her first code violation of the night.

Unfortunately the second violation, like the rain, also came at an unfortunate time, when Serena was down 15-30 while serving at 5-6 in the second set. She was (probably wrongly) called on a foot fault that would have given her opponent double match point. That was bad enough.

But instead of composing herself, as she seemed to initially do by taking a deep breath at the baseline, she went off on the lines woman, screaming about how she would shove a (expletive) tennis ball down her (expletive) throat. After a meeting of the minds, tournament referee Brian Earley docked Serena a penalty point which, given the score at the time, also meant Kim won the game, the set and the match.

To her credit, Serena seemed to have calmed her nerves by the time she held her press conference almost immediately after the match ended. She was smiling and had some perspective on what had happened, admitting that there was nothing she could do about a penalty on match point. But I wonder what was going on in her head -- it's hard to believe she could be so out of control on the court and so together just minutes later. It was actually kind of surreal.

It's a shame, too, that such an important match in a Grand Slam had to be decided that way. I understand that rules are rules, but even accounting for the second violation, the point from the erroneous foot fault call should have been given back to Serena. They could have played that one extra point to let Clijsters earn the match she'd been working so hard for all evening.

Of course there have been other controversies in tennis. Ironically, during the rain delay CBS was showing Jimmy Connors' fourth round against Aaron Krickstein from 1991, in which he lost it when a chair umpire called his ball out in the second set, but went on to win the match in five. In her press conference after the loss, Serena acknowledged that many other players have gotten away with a lot worse:

"There have been a lot of things out there, a lot of arguments in the past. And, you know, they unfortunately ‑‑ well, fortunately didn't lose the match."

It's not that I'm taking Williams' side -- she was clearly out of line -- but it's rough that she had to lose on a violation. Neither the fans nor Kim were happy with the outcome. But in the end someone has to keep a semblance of decorum -- if not the players, then at least the officials. This is the gentleman's sport, after all, and Serena's response after the fault was clearly unbecoming of an eleven-time winner, whether it was on or off the court.

And as a friend pointed out after the game, there's a difference between a champion and someone who just wins a lot.

September 10, 2009

Down the Homestretch

There are only a few more days before we crown the king and queen in the year's last major, and so far it's certainly lived up to the hype.

But unlike the women's draw, which boasts two former trophy-holders, two unseeded players, and two teenagers in the semifinals, the men's side looks a little more as you might expect. So far, two top seeds have already booked their spots in the final four -- Novak Djokovic rallied after a hugely disparate second set to defeat a wily Fernando Verdasco yesterday afternoon and five-time defending chamption Roger Federer pulled out his twelfth straight win over Roland Garros runner-up, Robin Soderling.

Today the last two spots will be decided.

In the first men's singles match being played this afternoon #6 in the world Juan Martin Del Potro will take on an unlikely giant-killer, Marin Cilic. DelPo's advance to his second-straight quarterfinal is not really surprising -- he repeated his win in D.C. earlier this month and made another final in Montreal, both times taking out Andy Roddick in the process. While he bowed out of Cincinnati due to exhaustion, he's facing much cooler and more restful conditions in New York. The tall, lanky Argentine has looked in top form, losing only a set to Daniel Koellerer while winning eighty-three percent on his first serve and firing off sixty-two aces in his first four matches.

Juan Martin has to be happy with the man who will be standing on the other side of the court today. Sixteenth seed Cilic hasn't had the most impressive summer -- at least not until Tuesday. After a third round exit at Wimbledon, he lost early in three straight U.S. Open Series tournaments and then didn't defend his title in New Haven. But on Tuesday, facing second seed and 2008 runner-up Andy Murray, the Croat was relentless. Aggressive from the start, he bombed twice as many aces and sprayed more than a few errors. In the end he'd converted on five break points and turned a couple ardent Murray supporters into skeptics. He also prevented a rematch of the Canada final, where Murray smoked a deflated DelPo in the deciding set, and last year's quarters, in which I found myself one of the few in the crowd rooting for the Scot to lose.

The two put together one of the tallest match-ups in my memory -- at six-foot-six both have the ability to ace out their opponents. But with some big wins under his belt, and a little more consistency, you have to give DelPo the edge, and I see him making his first Slam semi in Flushing Meadows.

In the night match third-seeded Rafael Nadal will meet Chile's Fernando Gonzalez. By reaching the quarters, Nadal will regain his #2 ranking next week, regardless of the outcome of this match, but I'm sure he's more than motivated to reach the semis. Though he's battled a knee injury and strained stomach muscle all summer, in his late-night match against Gael Monfils on Tuesday, he showed signs of the old, energetic Rafa who's already captured six Majors in his short career. There were hard-hitting rallies, fist pumps, even a kiss from fan who rushed the court after the match.

He's got a tough opponent in Gonzo, though, another clay-court specialist and a semifinalist this year both at Roland Garros and in D.C., where he lost to DelPo. The former #5 player in the world and one-time finalist in Australia, Fernando definitely can hit in the big leagues -- he dismissed seventh-seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets despite only breaking serve two times. And though I don't think I can forgive him for mistreating my dear James Blake at the Olympics last year, I have to admit he might pose the biggest threat Nadal has faced in the Open to date.

Then again, Rafa has won the pair's last five meetings, four of them on hardcourts, and as long as he stays healthy the Spaniard should make his second semi in New York -- I'm going with Nadal in four tight sets.

If my predictions hold true, we could be in for some high-quality tennis this weekend! And while it might not be as drama-filled as the ladies' draw has been, with the men's trophy in their sights, you know these guys are going to lay it all on the line.

Can't wait to see it!

September 7, 2009

While You Were Otherwise Occupied...

I admit that I, like almost all American tennis fans, have become a huge cheerleader for Melanie Oudin over the past week. What the young Georgia native -- Georgia, like the peach, not like the former Soviet Republic -- has done in defeating three straight seeded players at this year's U.S. Open has been nothing short of spectacular.

But while we were all distracted by the ingenue, throwing her arms up in the air time and time again in victory, there were a couple other players quietly making their way through the draw.

Last night Flavia Pennetta, the best women's player from Italy, took on the fourth best player from Russia, Vera Zvonareva, ranked way down at #7 in the world. Pennetta has had a great summer, winning three straight trophies on a couple different surfaces and notching wins over Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams along the way. Zvonareva has done well too in 2009, taking home the title in Indian Wells after beating defending champion Ana Ivanovic in straight sets.

Vera took the lead early in their fourth round matchup, breaking Flavia four times in the first set and closing it out in just thirty-three minutes. She held a couple of match points in the second, but was forced into a tiebreak where she ceded a couple more. That was when things fell apart for the Russian. She took a long bathroom break where she presumably retaped her knees, but then came back even worse for wear. She tore off her supports while on the sidelines, argued with the chair umpire when she wasn't allowed to call for a trainer, and drew a code violation after she cursed herself (and likely the ump) loudly.

Throughout the drama Pennetta kept her cool, looking like the far more experienced player, and let her opponent make all the errors. In the third set she won every point on her first serve and only lost two points on serve total. In another half hour she'd bageled Vera and earned her second straight quarterfinal in New York, where she'll face an intimidating Serena Williams.

On the other end of the draw, a couple of similarly new-ish players are also finding some big success. Belgian Yanina Wickmayer won her first Tour title in Estoril a few months back, but she's still had to qualify for many of the lead-up U.S. Open Series tournaments. Still she opened her second appearance at Flushing Meadows by beating sixteenth-seed Aravane Rezai, immediately matching her best ever Major appearance.

She surpassed that mark quickly and today got further than I'm sure she ever thought she would. She took on Petra Kvitova in her fourth round, the woman who just a few days ago "stunned" top-seeded Dinara Safina on the day of upsets. After dropping the first set, Wickmayer regrouped to force a third and, like Pennetta before her, kept her cool. In the final hour of play she committed half the unforced errors and minimized her double faults. And for the first time in her career, she earned a spot in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

There was also a valiant effort by Kateryna Bondarenko, who seemed to be out for revenge this afternoon. She took on Gisela Dulko, the Argentine who'd eliminated her older, seeded sister Alona in the second round. While the pair always seem to have a volatile relationship -- as doubles partners, there are often some loud exchanges on the same side of the court -- the younger sister did her sibling proud today. Kateryna has been a wily player all season -- besides beating Ana Ivanovic in the first round, she's also taken swipes at Patty Schnyder, Aggie Radwanska and Venus this year. And over Dulko she was unrelenting -- she served five aces to none, made six errors to twenty and scored seventeen winners to seven. In forty-seven minutes she avenged her sister's loss and marked her own best-ever Slam run.

And then there's one of my favorites, yet another teenager -- Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki. She's been no stranger to big stages -- in her short career she's won six titles, and less than ten days ago repeated her champion's run in New Haven's Pilot Pen. She's also no stranger to big players -- already this year she's beaten Elena Dementieva and Pennetta twice. Already in New York she's gotten her footing, finally beating her doubles partner Sorana Cirstea after losses in their last two meetings.

Tonight she faced her biggest challenge, sixth seed and French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, surprisingly the last Russian standing at Flushing Meadows. After being demolished in the first set, 6-2, Caroline somehow sturdied herself in the second. Though she failed to serve out the set, she did dominate the tiebreak. Then again, she was broken when she had the 5-3 lead and squandered a few match points on Svetlana's serve before getting to another tiebreak. I thought for sure she'd let the momentum shift -- I mean, how could another teenager keep it together after such a disappointment. But in a thrilling decider that capped off one of the hardest-hitting women's matches I've ever seen, Wozniacki came out on top, 7-3 as Kuznetsova pounded a ball into the net.

Caroline had a huge amount of crowd support tonight, but she may have fewer followers when she faces Oudin in the quarters. In her post-match interview, she admitted, "Hopefully some from the crowd will cheer for me!" I, for one, will have some trouble choosing who to root for -- but I know I'm going to be watching some fantastic athletics!

And, by the way, let's not under-emphasize what all these matches have done to elevate the quality of women's tennis this year. We started with that amazing Serera-Dementieva semi, and then there was the Jelena Jankovic-Dinara Safina final in Cincinnati, both of which provided us with some of the best shot-making I've seen in a long time.

These girls can hit!

And I can't wait to watch what's left to come!

September 5, 2009

"I Thought All Along I Would Win Today"

That's what John Isner said in his post-match news conference after his semifinal loss to heavy favorite Andy Roddick at the Legg Mason Classic last month.

He didn't win then, but he sure did today.

I missed most of the match because (expletive!) CBS isn't nearly as diligent as they should be and mistakingly decided to air (expletive!) Ghost Whisperer instead of the most exciting match of the U.S. Open to date. (Not that I'm annoyed or anything.) But thankfully the Slam's official site does provide some live streaming, which I discovered in time to see that Roddick, after falling to a two set to love deficit had clawed his way back and was now tied at four games apiece in the fifth. He held serve to force the tiebreak, but that's where his run for a fifth straight Major fourth round would come to and end.

Instead former University of Georgia star Isner took the first mini-break to bring a 4-2 lead into the changeover. After that he didn't look back, holding three match points before eventually advancing with a 7-5 score in the decider. It was his first win over Roddick and just another indication of how he's grown as a player. In D.C. he had several chances to make the final, and while I was afraid he might not be able to regroup in time for the Open, he proved his maturity and finally triumphed over his nemesis on the grandest of stages -- the same stage, incidentally, where Roddick won his only Grand Slam six years ago.

Isner must have had a little bit of inspiration from a young girl named Melanie Oudin, who in the match just before his took out 2006 champion Maria Sharapova in a thrilling 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 shocker. It was her second big upset of the tournament, and her third of the year. And though she said she couldn't "believe" she'd notched the upset over Elena Dementieva earlier this week, the slogan etched in her sneakers reminded her otherwise, and she again kept her cool over a much more experienced -- and decorated -- player to move on to her second consecutive fourth round.

Isner will next face Fernando Verdasco -- he might be a bit disappointed as the Spaniard ousted Tommy Haas in another five-set squeaker, as John's beaten the German a few times already in his short pro career. Melanie will get Nadia Petrova -- a woman who herself must be excited that she won't face Sharapova for the fourth time this summer. But their opponents should be carefull not to allow themselves any false sense of security. In my latest poll, you guys voted John and Melanie the most likely of all this year's standouts to advance well into their respective draws. So far they've proved you right, and now that they have just a little more confidence, and a lot more belief, both should be considered legitimate threats for the remainder of the Open.

It might still be premature to say either could bring home the ultimate trophy at the end of this week, but you can be sure I'll be rooting for them the rest of the way!

September 3, 2009

It's Not Easy Being a Seed

Here's the problem with being one of the best tennis players in the world -- everybody is gunning for you.

It's easy for a big underdog to feel intimidated when he or she enters a grand stage like Arthur Ashe Stadium. But at the same time, when everyone -- including me! -- is talking about you as if you're one of the main contenders, there's all the more pressure to perform.

This year at the U.S. Open, more than a couple top-seeded players have bowed under the weight of great expectations.

First there was Ana Ivanovic, the #1 seed in New York last year. But her struggles in 2009 have been well-documented as the pretty Serbian fell out of the top ten with recent losses to players like Lucie Safarova and Melinda Czink. At the Open the eleventh seed began her opening match with a strong first set against a tough Kateryna Bondarenko but couldn't hold onto a break in the second. Her third set lasted longer than the first two combined, and in a 7-9 tiebreak Ana made her earliest exit from a Grand Slam -- ever.

Wednesday turned into a slaughter of other double-digit seeds -- Aggie Radwanska, Marion Bartoli, Sam Stosur and former #1 Amelie Mauresmo all saw their runs in New York come to an end in their second round matches. But the biggest upsets to date was saved for Thursday afternoon.

Jelena Jankovic was the second match on Arthur Ashe today, the #5 seed and Cincinnati champion taking on Yaroslava Shvedova, not yet ranked in the top fifty. Like her countrywoman, the former #1 has had a rough year, but she seemed to get her stride back in Ohio. When Shvedova took the first set, however, you kind of got the feeling that we were in for a battle.

To her credit, Jelena overcame another break in the second, eventually winning that set in a tiebreak, and she was able to play offense late in the third to force another decider when the Kazakh had two opportunities to serve for the match. But then she squandered two match points at 6-4 and eventually saw Shvedova close out with an ace down the line.

That upset, of course, pales in comparison to the one that came just before it. U.S. Open Series champ, and my personal favorite, Elena Dementieva got off to a quick start against American teenager Melanie Oudin, ironically the same women who made her name when she stunned Jankovic at Wimbledon.

But the perennially questionable part of Elena's game, which had somehow seemed to work for her all summer -- her serve -- fell apart. She eventually won the first set, 7-5, but ceded the second after another hour of play. The deciding set was a comedy of errors as the two traded five consecutive breaks of serve before Oudin was able to hold for a 5-2 lead. Elena regrouped long enough to win her first service game of the set, but after nearly three hours of play, last year's semifinalist was ousted way before her time.

For every loss, of course, there is a winner. And if Melanie's performance in London didn't argue that she is one, today's certainly did. A bunch of you said you thought she'd go further in this U.S. Open than any of the other upstarts -- but I'm not sure I believed that until today.

Oudin still has a tough road ahead of her, a possible third round match with Maria Sharapova looms most noticably, but there's no reason to believe she can't score another couple of victories in New York.

And if she's not careful, a host of new players will be coming after her next!

September 1, 2009

#2 in Their Countries, #1 in Our Hearts

Something amazing happened over the weekend without my even realizing it.

By virtue of a busy and largely successful summer, Sam Querrey became the second best tennis player in the United States. His final appearance in New Haven on Saturday not only cemented him atop the U.S. Open Series leaderboard, but also helped him climb to a career-high #22 ranking, a mere eighty points ahead of long-time top-tenner, and my personal favorite, James Blake.

This "upheaval" in the rankings got me thinking about some other #2's.

Fernando Verdasco captured our hearts in Melbourne this year when he virtually came out of nowhere to reach his first Major semifinal. His five hour-plus assault on eventual champion and compatriot Rafael Nadal was the longest match ever played at the Australian Open and earned Verdasco a #9 ranking, making him the second best player from Spain.

While he hasn't quite made the headlines since then, he's clearly been a breakthrough success -- Fernando was a quarterfinalist in five Masters tournaments in 2009 from Miami to Monte Carlo, showing he is a force on hard courts and clay. And just last week he won his first title of the year without dropping a set, taking out Querrey at the Pilot Pen. Though admittedly I was rooting for the American, it was satisfying to watch Verdasco hold the trophy over his head -- a well-deserved reward after a long year.

Today Fernando took the court at the U.S. Open, a tournament in which he's never advanced past the fourth round, where he faced German Benjamin Becker. No slouch, the 's-Hertogenbosch champ not only won the pair's last meeting on the way to that title, but also beat Andre Agassi in his farewell appearance in New York in 2006. This afternoon, however, Verdasco was aggressive from the start, serving twelve aces and winning eight of his ten net approaches. While they traded breaks throughout the match, the Spaniard capitalized when it counted and advanced in straight sets.

Of course Serbian women were all over the news last year when both Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic rose to #1, but the men were left with only Novak Djokovic who brought home the crown at the Australian Open last year. In 2009, however, twenty three-year-old Viktor Troicki has become another Serb to watch. Ranked thirty-first in the world, he's never won a title, but he made the finals in Washington last year, defeating Andy Roddick on his way. This year he's notched wins over Querrey, David Nalbandian and Victor Hanescu and led his country to the World Team Championship in Dusseldorf.

In New York he got #78 Peter Luczak in the first round and got off to a fast start. But after racking up a two-set lead, Troicki began to struggle, winning only three games in the next two sets as the Pole drew even. Thankfully he kept his cool, holding his opponent to less than thirty percent on his first serve and went on take the final set, 6-1. From here Viktor should have a fairly easy run to the quarters -- though Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is in his section, there aren't too many big threats. Troicki's never advanced past the third round of a Slam, but if ever he had a chance, this is it.

Facing a slightly bigger challenge today was yet another #2. With Roger Federer so dominant not only in the world of tennis, but in the much wider world of sports, it's not surprising if you didn't know that there's another top-twenty player that hails from Switzerland. Now ranked #20, Roger's Olympic doubles partner -- and co-gold medalist -- Stanislas Wawrinka got as high as #9 last year, when he made the finals in Rome. This year he even pulled off a stunning victory over his countryman with a straight-set win in Monte Carlo.

Wawrinka took on another former top-ten player, veteran Nicolas Lapentti, in the first round at Flushing Meadows. He began by losing his opening service game and dug himself into a 0-3 deficit, but he quickly rallied to take a two set to love lead. Lapentti steadied himself in the third set, though, to force and win the tiebreak and traded breaks through the fourth before getting back to six-all and eventually taking that one as well. After a forty-three minute deciding set, stretching the length of the entire match well over the four-hour mark, Nicolas broke Wawrinka for a seventh time, advancing to the second round at the Open for the first time since 2003. Hopefully the Swiss will be able to take the loss in stride.

All these guys are major athletes in their homeland, but could unfortunately be forgotten because of their much more successful contemporaries. But that shouldn't detract from their inherent talent. Of course I'd love to be the second best anything in my country, even if it means being overshadowed by someone so far superior. So let's give these runners-up some credit for what they've accomplished -- and wish the winners the best of luck this fortnight!