Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other

January 16, 2011

by: Adam Wexler

Recently, there has been plenty of talk in the tennis world as to whether or not holding all 4 Grand Slam titles in the same calendar year is as prestigious as holding all 4 titles, but overlapping two years.

Commonly referred to as a “Grand Slam”, the last player to win all four major events in the same year was Rod Laver in 1969.
Since the 2010 U.S. Open ended with Rafael Nadal hoisting the winner’s trophy, conversations and ticket prices have suggested that the 2011 Australian Open contains an additional story line. After pulling out of the quarter finals against Andy Murray in the 2010 Aussie Open, Nadal went on to win the remaining 3 majors of the year.

In what many purists are calling a “Rafa Slam”, this storyline is being written before the end plays itself out.
My question is whether this all matters? Are we, as fans and journalists, just busying ourselves with labels and semantics or are we tampering with history if we deem the true definition of a Grand Slam flexible?

Agassi’s Albatross

November 10, 2009

By: Adam Wexler

agassi3Sure, Andre has softened a little. He has even lost all his hair. He may, some would say, speak in a slightly higher voice than he once did. But did he not win four Australian Open titles, one French, one Wimbledon and two U.S Opens? Can you ignore the three Canadian Open titles, one Olympic Gold medal, and that he dated Brooke Shields? I was always an Andre fan. He was consistently worth the money you paid to see him. His flamboyance created a positive vibe around the game, apparently for everyone but himself. With the recent release of Agassi’s autobiography “Open”, and 60 Minute interview with Katie Couric, a new story has emerged. Apparently, he did not love the game as much as we thought he did. Moreover, he lied about taking recreational drugs in 1997.

Agassi was always a grinder out on the court, using his return of serve to cut down larger opponents. Today, he continues to inspire young people to either play the game hard, or enjoy the game in the same sense that we thought his exhibitionism indicated that he did. He has become an accomplished philanthropist and elder statesman for the sport.

Does it matter he was miserable throughout his career? No. That was his burden. Does it matter he lied to the ATP about his drug use? Yes. But who cares. That was twelve years ago, and it is a performance debilitating drug. Andre was a victim of an overbearing parent, the American dream, and of our need to inflate people to beyond human levels of expectation.

We all benefited from the way Andre was always up and down, down and out, and then back on top: tournament directors, sponsors, players, media and fans and more. One reprehensible act, which only inflicts suffering on oneself, is no reason to trash a man’s reputation. Martina Navratilova has obviously never watched baseball.

I suppose her partner is the ball fan. But when she compared Andre to Roger Clemens, I thought, are you crazy or just desperate to talk about anything but another one of your failed marriages. As Perez Hilton states: “…it’s going to be an even messier divorce which promises many dark secrets from Navratilova’s past and present life … such as the intrigue surrounding arch-rival Chris Evert, the incestuous nature of The Women’s Tennis Association, former lovers, improprieties between business associates, and more.” While Perez is no expert, the point is everyone has their issues. Six of one half dozen of the other. We all make mistakes, get over it. It is an unfortunate situation all around, but Agassi is the man.

Love the game.

A Juanderful Surprise

September 16, 2009

By: Adam Wexler

Exclusive to TennisConnected

At cocktail hour on Monday, September the 14th, Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro began what became the biggest match of his career. That is saying a lot, after all he was coming off a straight set win over second seed Rafael Nadal. In a 3-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 victory over Roger Federer, Delpo not only beat the number one ranked Swiss for the first time, but also earned his first Grand Slam trophy.Argentina Tennis

As Federer said moments before walking out into Arthur Ashe Stadium, he was in a dangerous position. Having all the factual evidence in the universe foreshadowing another title, Roger was once again the hands down favourite to add to his record 15 Grand Slam titles. He was appearing in his 21st Grand Slam final, had a career 51-4 record at the U.S. Open, had not lost there since 2003 (40 matches earlier), and had a lifetime 82% winning percentage on hard courts. Add to this that he was facing a 20 year-old who was relatively new to the big stage, and somewhat of a Federer admirer himself, this match seemed to be wrapped up in a nice little package around the 4pm start time. In addition to having a slew of stats on his side, Roger quickly got off to a 2-0 lead and easily took the first set 6-3. But Fed also said, right before walking on the court, that Del Potro had little to lose in this type of match. This left me, Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale, and about a couple million more people primed for a surprise.

Using his size and power to destroy one forehand after another, Del Potro was also able to shed the pressures of playing a tennis icon in front of a rowdy New York crowd, and got down to business in the second set…..eventually. While Fed broke him early on, Delpo earned his first three break points of the match in the fourth game. As expected, Federer calmly played through it and went up 3-1. Then came, in my opinion, the turning point of the match; a forehand shot by Pots that the Hawk-eye system proved to be in. This distracted the usually unflappable Federer, and may have had some part in him being broken the very next point on another devastating Delpo forehand. Add to this 11 double faults, a 50% first serve percentage, and 62 unforced errors, and you`ve got one thrilled Del Potro. What`s more, is he became the fifth youngest player to win a Grand Slam. Happily, he is now also the tallest at 6’6”.

I think most would agree that we have plenty of exciting tennis left to see from the 20 year-old Del Potro. He has a lot of game, and as long as he can keep improving especially his serving and conditioning, he should consistently challenge the four players now ahead of him in the world.

As for Fed, I hope he wasn`t as content with losing as he seemed to be in the post match ceremony.

Federer Finally Breaks Through to Tennis Immortality

July 7, 2009

After another epic finals at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, surging American Andy Roddick fell to Swiss maestro Roger Federer 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. In doing so, Federer has achieved yet another historic milestone in his already illustrious career. Today’s thriller, a marathon match in which Fed was down a set and 6-2 in the second set tie break, cements this man’s fate as the greatest of all time. While the result did not come in as black or white a manner as many had predicted it would, Fed played the smooth criminal and finally broke Roddick after over four hours on court. In winning his 6th Wimbledon title, Roger surpassed onlooker “Pistol” Pete Sampras for the most career Grand Slam championships ever with 15.  But Fed has also given hope to anyone who has thought of conceding to adversity, criticism or failure.fed-wimby

It all seemed to be coming to an end. For much of the past year, critics would have you believe that Roger’s dominance of the men’s tour was over. As opposed to being witness to more championship wins, many thought conversations involving Fed would come to be prefaced by “Remember the time…” Last year’s Australian Open semi-final loss, coupled with finals losses at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, ignited much of the debate. The 27 year-old, and soon to be father, was being written off as a fading legend. The darkest part of the night, however, comes right before dawn. The iconic Federer is now not only the holder of the most career Slam titles, but he will regain the number one ranking which he held for a heroic four years, nine months and six days. In 2009, Rog has also won the only title to elude him at last month’s French Open, and perhaps as importantly, he may have taken the first steps in levelling out a one-sided competition between himself and Nadal when he beat the Spaniard on clay in Madrid. Even though Federer’s efforts have been aided by an untimely injury to his one Achilles heel in Rafa, he has always put himself in a position to win. But was Federer ever really fading, as fans and media have suggested?

While he did fall to, gasp, #2 in the world, Fed has been in 16 of the last 17 Grand Slam finals, and an equally impressive 21 consecutive Slam semi-finals; more than five years worth. That is unheard of, especially when you consider that a wonky back and bout with mononucleosis are rarely mentioned when anyone, including Federer, speak of Federer’s 2008 campaign. To focus on a short list of recent defeats at the hands of one lefty from Mallorca does not tell the real story. The consistency of Fed’s success, something that barely wavered through on and off court distractions, is what makes him better than anyone on the tour right now, even Nadal. Greatness is synonymous with longevity, and right now Nadal has a lot left to prove.

Today few can dispute that Federer is that which is inscribed on the Wimbledon championship cup: the “Single Handed Champion of the World”. Well, maybe that’s overstating it a touch. Nah. And he ‘aint done yet.

Another Classy Loss for Roddick

June 3, 2009

 

 

 

In a straight set, fourth round loss to Gael Monfils (11), Andy Roddick (6) proved yet again that the only thing worse than his game deep into tournaments are the excuses he comes up with to explain his losses. In another on-court tirade, Roddick took the time to insult Monfils, the chair umpire and probably the viewers at home for looking too closely at their TVs.

After beginning to complain about it being too dark late in the second set, Roddick’s game crumbled while his whining gained momentum. Like he did in last year’s Australian Open loss to Kohlschreiber (“[I’ll] speak slowly so you can understand me”), Roddick began to question the chair umpire via a series of childish questions prefaced by his trademark “…just tell me, so that I know you know…” type quips. This isn’t the first time Roddick has lost his cool, and focus, on court. The guy TENNIS-FRA-OPEN-ROLAND-GARROSthinks he’s entitled to a spot in the top 5, but his game suggests he’s fortunate to be top 10 (currently 6).

Because tennis is such an individual sport, it is nothing new to have players vent on those closest to the action: the umpires. But when Roddick chirped to Monfils the other day that “you’re not that good to be that cocky”, he proved again the brash sense of entitlement often embodied by this American. Monfils is a clay-courter. Roddick most certainly is not. His serve (only 4 aces) and forehand were significantly dulled by the red clay, but he certainly was playing the best clay court tennis of his career. Never before had Roddick been to the 4th round at Roland Garros. The reason is in large part due to his net play.

In his previous three matches, Andy came to the net 24, 26 and 13 times respectively. That’s pretty good for him, especially as he was able to convert the majority of those attempts into points. He converted on only 12/30 net approaches, compared to 7/10 by Monfils. The good news is that Roddick had the right idea. But several lazy volleys and one notable swinging volley miss sealed Andy’s fate against Monfils.

Admittedly, I am not generally a huge Roddick fan (save for when he took his cool new bride to a Dave Matthews Band concert during their honeymoon), but this year I thought he was playing well and could advance late into the tournament. Unfortunately, every time I turn the TV on this guy is giving me (and now all of France) new reasons to cheer against him. Roddick did, however, tone it down for his post-match interview and look for him to avenge this loss later in the season.

Higher Risk Strategy Proves High Reward for Federer

May 19, 2009

 

 

 

  

For the first time since 2007, and only the second time ever, Fed finally earned a clay-court victory over the Spanish juggernaut that has run over him (and his confidence) for some time. Fed took the title of the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open with a 6-4 6-4 win over the world’s top ranked player, Rafael Nadal. Whether this occurrence was an anomaly, or the foreshadowing of things to come, remains to be seen. What is for sure, however, is that Fed made some seemingly minor adjustments that had major implications.federer-5

Rafa’s high topspin forehand to Fed’s backhand has obviously been the bain of Fed’s existence recently. In Madrid, Fed mitigated the devastating effects of this matchup nightmare by tactfully hammering his forehand down the line to Nadal’s backhand. Rather than focusing on nailing a winner, Fed put the ball in the corner and set up the next shot with Nadal scrambling to get back into position. Not only did this keep the looping ball away from Fed’s backhand, but it also cost Nadal some positioning strength.

On the topic of positioning, Fed was also able to disrupt Rafa’s through the use of timely drop shots. We will not know for sure if this strategy worked because Nadal was fatigued from the previous day’s match (4+ hour win over Djokovic), but perhaps this is the way Fed will need to exploit Rafa if he hopes to win in Paris.

Fed also seemed more aggressive in returning Rafa’s serve, which has received some attention in the past months. Nadal has hinted that his second serve could use some work, an indication that maybe his confidence is not as bullet proof as it has been since his run at the #1 ranking and into this year. If Fed is to have any chance of winning at the French this year, he will need, amongst other things, something to rattle Rafa’s confidence. While the Madrid title is peanuts compared to any major, Rafa may finally be feeling the pressures of being expected to win every time he hits the court. Perhaps this will allow Fed to relax and execute his game-plan better.

While it is far too premature to project the results of this one match on to the rest of the season, the end of Nadal’s 33 match winning streak on clay gives Federer’s legion of fans the slightest glimpse of hope heading into Roland Garros.

If Gasquet Did It

May 18, 2009





Disclaimer: This article is not condemning Gasquet just yet, rather exploring the hypothetical situation of an ATP player being caught for taking cocaine.

Being a professional tennis player is a great gig. You travel the world, train in the sun, and are not hampered by the traditional constraints of a team. With the recent news surrounding the Gasquet camp, I can’t help but struggle with my own opinions on the matter. The youthful and very liberal part of me wants to say “who cares if he did a little cocaine, it’s not like it’s helping his game.” Or, like Safin, suggest that testing for doping is “becoming very intrusive”. But when I really think about the precedent and message that comes out of turning a blind eye to the extra-curricular activities of men on the tour, I can’t help but side with the more conservative and pro-establishment point of view.

When you become a professional player you are held to a higher standard than the average person for a reason: you represent the ATP tour, your sponsors, and an image that kids latch on to and emulate. Players live the good life and in return have to make a few sacrifices. If you can’t refrain from putting some powder up your nose than you are showing that you want to have your cake and eat it too. I do not think that taking coke has any major effect on a player’s game (unless of course they are always on it), but rather it just isn’t a responsible thing to do (and even less responsible to get caught).

I feel bad for Gasquet; he’s young. I’m sure he feels terrible right about now. But if he’s old enough to play on a men’s tour, and reap all the benefits, then he is old enough to know to steer clear of drugs like cocaine. As for the two year ban, I do think it’s harsh. I would call for a new rule whereby players are banned from all majors for the year, and hopefully some sponsorship money would be lost too. Maybe a two year ban (or more) is appropriate for repeat offenders. I joked with a reader of this website that perhaps a ‘toxic asset’ like Hingis and potentially Gasquet should be relegated, for a time, to a Holiday Inn while travelling to tournaments, or that their winnings are capped at a normal salary like $70,000 USD. My point was to bring back into perspective (for the players) the perks of being an athlete, and how minor a sacrifice it is to refrain from using recreational drugs. And by the way, a lot of people do cocaine to temporarily feel like a celebrity. So if you already are one, it can only be doing harm. The rules are saving these athletes from themselves.

I’m also a sucker for the tennis fan who pays good money to see a tournament. In this case, Gasquet is an underachieving player. I don’t think the slide in his ranking (7th in 2007 to 21st today) has been entirely (or even largely) because he parties too much, but I bet it’s not helping. Allowing players to do drugs devalues the product for the fans. If a player wants to do drugs because it makes an already ridiculously glamorous and fun party even more amazingly awesome seeming, then I suggest they become actors (or rock stars).

 

End note: the last sentence is not meant to conjure up images of McEnroe, Gerulaitis, Cash and Noah playing a concert in 1992 in….gulp….Paris.

 

What are your thoughts on the issue?

The Drive To Greatness

April 20, 2009







Women’s Tennis. To the general sports fan there are perhaps no two words that conjure up less excitement then these, save for women’s golf. I am a sports fan, but I am a tennis player at heart. I was/am a die hard Andre Agassi fan, but also of Monica Seles. I remember watching Andre in the 80s down at Bollettieri’s Academy in Florida, and modeling my own game, equipment selection, and attire after his. I also have found memories of seeing Seles, also in Florida, walking along the beach with tennis guru Bud Collins. Agassi and Seles are two icons of tennis who are most influential in my life as a tennis fan.

Andre was a kid loaded with talent but who struggled with his focus early on. His tumultuous career, in my mind, was epitomized by Agassi being able to become the only player ever to win a major as an unseeded player (1994 US Open). Sure he had his ups and downs, but you can’t keep a champion down for long.

Monica, on the other hand, was full of focus and talent (won the French Open in 1990 at the early age of 16), but who faced a different kind of struggle when she was stabbed in the back while on court in Germany. Although this signaled the end of her reign on women’s tennis, she was still able to battle back to win another major (1996 Australian Open). Both and Agassi and Seles sacrificed for the game they loved. A young Agassi would boast of a cheeseburger diet, while the reinvented man quietly ran wind-sprints on New Years eve in Las Vegas. Seles needed no change in image; her on-court grunts said it all.

Fast forward to today. Serena and Venus – the two most physically dominant women’s players of all time – at times seem bored with playing despite frequently dominating opponents. Maybe it’s that they know their biological time-clocks are ticking, but wouldn’t that only make them fight harder now, when they can play without the distractions of motherhood? Or what about Henin, retiring at the top of her game? We’ve all heard the official reason why she quit, but to all the great players, tennis was their reason d’être – even a distraction, or release from, their off-court problems. There is an unflattering trend, I am contending, that has emerged in women’s tennis these days. It is one that is evident to the crowds and tv audiences of any WTA event. There are more blowouts in women’s tennis matches than with the men. They seem to give up quicker, and generally fight less for each point. In 2007 I had the pleasure of sitting in a locker room at the Roger’s Cup with John McEnroe and Jim Courier just prior to their legends of tennis exhibition match. The match was scheduled to go on after the first night match; however the women were involved in a three set marathon in front of a capacity crowd. McEnroe, characteristically aggravated (by the change in schedule), turned away from the locker room TV and quipped “the fans are here to see us, turn this s**t off. Do you get the comedy network here?” McEnroe is a great personality and ambassador of tennis, but the guy’s a jerk. Notwithstanding, was he right? Would the stands have been as packed if he and Courier were not slated to play that night? Probably not.

On the men’s circuit we see grit. We see Roger and Rafa fighting harder with each passing point to become the best players ever. To have the world’s two best players display these traits sets the pace for the rest of the ATP players. Go hard or go home. I may watch women’s tennis, but the avid fan will not.