Interview with James Blake

August 28, 2010

NEW HAVEN, CT - AUGUST 25: Jame Blake cools down between games against Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine during the Pilot Pen tennis tournament at the Connecticut Tennis Center on August 25, 2010 in New Haven, Connecticut. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

TennisConnected’s featured columnist Rob York recently had a chance to interview American James Blake.

Struggling with a knee injury throughout the season, Blake has enjoyed a successful career that took him to the No. 4 ranking in the world.

Discussing his newly designed Fila line, while looking forward to being honored on the first night of the US Open, Blake’s positive outlook on the remainder of his career is a must read.

For the full Bleacher Report interview, click the link below.

James Blake interview.

Cincinnati Roundup: Federer the Favorite?

August 23, 2010

Roger Federer: One could point to Federer’s easy start to the week, with Denis Istomin quitting in the first set and Philipp Kohlschreiber not even picking up a racket, and call it luck. But, as Thomas Jefferson said, “I find the harder I work the more I have of (luck).”

With a runner-up performance in Toronto and the win in Cincy, The Great Swiss has put forth his best pre-US Open summer hardcourt season since 2007, when he achieved the same results. He has not looked quite as dominant as then, when he steamrolled through Cincinnati and Novak Djokovic needed a third-set tiebreak to beat him in Canada, but he continues to compete well.

Despite losing the first set against Mardy Fish in the final, Federer managed to hold serve throughout the match before finally breaking the big-serving American in the second to last game.

He isn’t winning as easily as during the middle of the decade, but with Rafael Nadal playing uninspiring tennis at the moment, Juan Martin del Potro injured and Andy Murray yet to prove he can win 21 sets, competing well may be all he has to do.

Mardy Fish: And that fact that Federer had to turn to those competitive instincts to win on Sunday showed how far his opponent had come. Now 29 (less than a month younger than the Swiss), Fish lost their first five meetings, taking just one set. But in Cincinnati he not only pushed the most decorated player of the Open Era deep into a third set, he improved to 3-0 against Andy Murray this year and 2-0 against Andy Roddick.

Fish has always had the serve, the backhand, the return and the volleys of a top flight player, but in a game where top 10 players must erase all weaknesses, he had three: his movement, his fitness, and his forehand.

Having lost 30 pounds since last year, Fish is now moving and striking the ball better than ever, and may have emerged as the best chance, not only for American tennis at the Open, but for attacking tennis in general. This is happening just in time, too, with the major with the slickest surface just ahead.

The trouble with Fish, though, is that he’s gone into majors with momentum before. In 2003 he also reached the finals of Cincinnati. Earlier this year he got to the last round at Queens. In the majors that followed, Fish could only convert that momentum into second round losses to Karol Kucera and Florian Mayer.

He should go further this year, and reach the second week. The trouble is, his next trip to a major semi will be his first.

Andy Roddick: The American’s return to the semis of Cincy this week brought good signs, particularly with his narrow defeat of Robin Soderling, his second win over the big Swede this year.

This was enough to end his brief stay outside the top 10, something that hasn’t happened to him in eight years. His 6-1 third set loss to Fish, though, doesn’t leave many encouraging indicators. Another sign of trouble: He hasn’t been past the USO quarters in four years.

For now, his fans should be hoping he matches last year’s fourth round appearance, keeping his points and staying in the top 10.

Marcos Baghdatis: Like with Fish, the Cypriot with prior fitness issues seems to have regained form, and was rewarded with a win over Nadal, an opponent whose game once left him flummoxed.

Unlike Fish, though, Baghdatis was unable to impose any kind of pressure on Federer in the next round. The 6-4, 6-3 scoreline doesn’t really tell the tale of their 70-minute semi.

Will Baghdatis be a consistent presence from here on? He’s come a long way since last fall, when he had to play Challengers to get his ranking up, but all that effort seems to have put him in a position where he can be simply brushed aside the game’s best.

Rafael Nadal: The world No. 1 is, frankly, not playing like it on the asphalt. Despite coming in with plenty of confidence from a stellar European summer, he has not duplicated his form from 2008 and 2005, when he won titles in Canada.

The good news is that he had less momentum last year and still made the Open semis. The bad news is that that result won’t be good enough for a player seeking to capture the only major he hasn’t won yet, and who ought to do so now that he’s in his mid-20s and is at the summit of the sport.

His best hope is that, like at Wimbledon, he can face a tough match early to play himself into shape. We’ve seen him do that on the grass more than once, but not at the US Open yet, so I remain unconvinced that he can.

Andy Murray: The Toronto champion appeared fatigued from his run there, so his loss to Fish in Cincy wouldn’t be that discouraging. With his play in Canada still a fresh memory, Murray makes the shortlist of Open favorites, but I can’t place him above Federer.

Not until proven otherwise.

Toronto Roundup: Murray Comes Through in the Clutch

August 16, 2010

TORONTO, Aug. 16, 2010 Andy Murray of Britain holds up the champion trophy during the awarding ceremony after the final match against Roger Federer of Switzerland at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Canada, on Aug. 15, 2010. Andy Murray won the match 2-0.

Andy Murray: Can you believe Canada is Murray’s first tournament win this year? Oh, wait, you probably can, since the Scot hasn’t really been dominating the conversation since his run to the Australian Open final. That doesn’t mean, though, that he hasn’t been listening to it.

In response to charges that the Scot was too passive or just didn’t have the weaponry, he stepped up his aggression levels considerably, complementing his natural affinity for counterpunching in dismissing David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal. Then, in the final, he brushed aside any doubts about his competitive instincts, saving a break point in the final game with some Becker-esque clutch serving.

This can’t be the end, though; Murray must assume that Federer and Nadal (and maybe someone else) will improve between now and the latter round of the US Open. I won’t make a pick for the Open until after the Cincinnati Masters, but if Murray continues at this level, his chances are good.

Roger Federer: For all his struggles recently, the Great Swiss has won four of the last eight majors. He’s won a grand total of two Master’s Shields in the last three years, though, so it’s not all that surprising that he fell short here.

But it’s a kind of victory to see him battle back from behind against Tomas Berdych, his conqueror at Wimbledon, and narrowly top Novak Djokovic, a player whose game (and personality) bothers Federer. He is not playing at his best level yet, but following a series of tight losses, it’s really good just to see Federer competing that well.

The better he competes now, the better his chances of finding his range under the New York skyline.

Rafael Nadal: It was pretty clear from the moment Stanislas Wawrinka pushed the world No. 1 to a 14-12 tiebreak that Nadal was not on top of his game. Unlike at other events where this has been the case recently, like Wimbledon and Madrid, the Spaniard could not play himself into finer form.

Murray, though, deserves credit for playing aggressively and not allowing the Spaniard to find his range. The good news for Nadal is that those who win the US Open tend not to care if they lost in Toronto. What less good is that Nadal has never won in Cincinnati, his next stop, and this year isn’t looking too promising.

Novak Djokovic: He’s no longer No. 2 in the world, but it’s just as well, as these days few would have said that Novak Djokovic was the second-best player in the world. Even as he fell short against Federer in the semis, there were reasons to be encouraged.

For one, the player who went away against Berdych at Wimbledon and was subject to an epic collapse against Jurgen Melzer in Paris competed gamely after a disastrous first set, and managed to push the Swiss to the limit. Furthermore, at the end of the match Djokovic’s counterpunching appeared to seriously frustrate the Swiss, to the extent that the Serb had break points at the end and could have served for the match.

Two and a half years ago I never suspected that we’d be looking for encouragement from Djokovic’s narrow losses in Master’s Series events, but at least he appears to have stopped the drop.

David Nalbandian: So, is Da-veed back? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “back”: He is once again a dangerous player capable of causing upsets, as he proved by stopping No. 12 David Ferrer and No. 5 Robin Soderling in his first two matches.

But he is not yet back to his late-2007 level, when he beat Federer and Nadal twice each in the Madrid and Paris Master’s events, allowing the Swiss one set and the Spaniard none. Even in his big win in Washington, Nalbandian seemed to be having a bit more trouble taking care of his service games than he did then, and that goes a long way in explaining why it took him three sets each to dispatch Ferrer and Le Sod.

That, coupled with the energy exerted against the big Swede, left him in bad shape for the match against Murray.

The good news is that he still appears to be climbing, as his ranking is all the way back up to 37 now, and he still has time to improve between now and the Open. For now he’s still the USO dark horse, provided he doesn’t injure himself in the meantime. Injury, though, is the big unknown, as the Argentine’s build places more stress on his joints and his service motion remains an ab injury in the making.

What Drives Thomas Muster?

August 11, 2010

Austria's and former player Thomas Muster is taking part of the 5th edition of the Lagardere Trophy at the Racing club de France, Paris on September 19, 2008. Photo by Corinne Dubreuil/Cameleon/ABCAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

Thomas Muster first attracted attention for his strokes. Ivan Lendl, who defeated the then-21-year-old in the semis of the Australian Open in 1989, said the Austrian had one of the hardest forehands on tour.

Those strokes had made him the first Austrian to go that deep in a major or reach the top 10, and he looked likely to keep ascending: Just a couple of months later, he backed up his Australian run by reaching the finals of the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, where he was set for another encounter with Lendl.

It was not to be, as Muster was hit by a drunk driver just hours after winning in the semis, leaving him with a severely injured knee. This setback, though, only served to reveal a bigger weapon than his forehand: his determination.

The Austrian became one of the stories of the men’s tour that year as he was videotaped on the courts sitting in a specially designed chair that allowed him to practice hitting as his injury continued to heal. Then, just six months after the accident, he was not only recovered but back on tour, and would win Adelaide, the first event he played in 1990.

Muster would forever be associated with this comeback, and it would be repeatedly cited by those who could think of little else that was nice to say to about him.

For Muster, though he deserves mention alongside Jimmy Connors and Lleyton Hewitt as one of the game’s great competitors, shared with those two a reputation for prickly behavior on court and solitary activity off of it. At various times in his career he earned the ire of some of the game’s greats, including Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Brad Gilbert notably said once that, due to a mid-match stare-down from the Austrian, Muster was the only guy that Gilbert had ever “wanted a piece of” after the match.

But that combativeness was at least somewhat beneficial: It helped him stretch every inch of his natural gifts. Despite the loss of momentum dealt by his knee injury, Muster had a reputation for clay court savvy early on. He lacked Connors’ revolutionary ability to hit early and crush returns, and was not the pure athlete that Hewitt could claim to be, but he had still won 22 clay court titles going into the 1995 season.

And then his results on the surface simply exploded: By ’95, thanks to the pioneering play of Lendl, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier, big forehands were no longer rare, but Muster had supplanted Lendl and Courier as the game’s fittest player. With almost no limits to his endurance (he’s said to have once run a marathon’s distance by accident when he took a wrong turn while jogging) and the mindset of a prizefighter, Muster made every point on clay a distance run.

Much like with Bjorn Borg in the late-‘70s, he simply ran down everything an opponent hit at him from the backcourt and ripped passes by them if they came to net. In that year alone, he won 11 clay court titles, including the Roland Garros crown, where he simply destroyed several well-known clay court players, including Andrei Medvedev, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Michael Chang.

As his confidence grew, he also had some success in translating those results onto harder surfaces that year, including in the indoor courts of Essen, where he beat Sampras along the way.

When he reached the No. 1 ranking in the following spring, though, his forays on the hard courts had done little to insulate him from the charge that he was one-dimensional, and had run up the score on his favorite surface to place him ahead of Sampras and Agassi, his more well-rounded rivals.

And though Muster had proven that he could win on the asphalt by this point, he remains the only Grand Slam champion and world No. 1 to have never won a match at Wimbledon (he didn’t even bother playing there after 1994). The criticism from his peers and from the media further motivated the Austrian, though, as he sought to burnish his credentials on other surfaces.

In 1997 he reached the semis of the AO for the second time before falling to Sampras. Then he won in Dubai that February.

And then, in a poetic turn, he made his way back to the Lipton that March, finally winning the event where he had been denied the right to even contest the final seven years prior. This win was all-the-more profound in that it would be his last.

He was 30 at that point, and had done well to extend his winning ways that long, but his clay court season in 1997 was disastrous, as he won no titles on the surface and exited in the first or second round seven times. He reached one more tour final in 1998, but following his first round exit from Roland Garros in 1999 he never played on the ATP Tour again.

Until this year, that is. When I first heard that Muster, now literally double the age he was when he reached his first Slam semi, was accepting wild cards and returning to top flight competition, I thought it was a joke. Muster had not played a pro match in 11 years, won a title in 13, and had not exactly been dominant on the seniors’ tour in the previous decade.

But Muster has in fact returned and played twice this summer, getting manhandled by 145th-ranked Irishman Conor Niland in Braunschweig, Germany, in June and dropping a closer match to No. 99 Dustin Brown in Kitzbuhel, Austria early this month. He’s had very little to say about what has motivated him, but that’s nothing unusual for Muster, who never officially retired.

“At the time all I said was I was going on holiday,” he said in June, “so now I’m back from my holiday.”

We can’t know how successful he’ll be, or how long he’ll keep it up if it proves unsuccessful. We don’t even really know why he’s doing it yet, but I suspect he sees it as just the latest challenge.

Just like his knee injury, winning in Paris, getting to No. 1, and winning the Lipton. I don’t know what motivates him to keep trying for these goals, but it’s a quality I wish more players had.

Looking Back: How Chris Woodruff Conquered in Canada

August 3, 2010

While playing for the tennis team of my high school in small town West Tennessee, I was occasionally asked about my chances of going pro one day.

I always found this amusing; sure I was usually winning my matches, and sure, I eventually became, in my senior year, the No. 1 seed on our team. And of course, I was a teenager wholly ignorant of the workings of the world outside of the space I’d known in agrarian West Tennessee.

But even I found the idea of my going pro ridiculous. I mean, I wasn’t even the best player in my own family. My brother-in-law Jay had played for a prep school in one of the bigger cities of our state, where tennis is actually regarded as more than an afterthought enjoyed by less popular students not big enough to play football or athletic enough to dunk a basketball.

I had never beaten Jay, and even he had never contemplated going pro. He had a better idea of what that level entailed, however, having run into Chris Woodruff when both were in their pre-teens.

“I couldn’t get back the balls he was hitting,” is how Jay has described their encounter.

Moving Up

Then again, the balls that Chris Woodruff hit weren’t easily retrieved by anyone. Less than a decade after their encounter he was enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and was an All-American in his freshman year of 1992. As a sophomore he leapt from one of the best collegiate players in the country to the best of all, taking the NCAA singles title in 1993, and subsequently taking his skills pro.

But by the middle of 1997, traveling the world as a tennis pro had brought precious little glamour to the life of this Tennessean. In his first three seasons he didn’t even win most of the matches he played at the tour level. In 1996 he had reached his first finals in Philadelphia and Coral Springs.

That same year, he made the news across our home state when he upset Andre Agassi in the second round of Roland Garros.

But going into the Canadian Open at the end of July, Woodruff was No. 57 in the world and had never won a tour title. He was enjoying the best year of his career thus far, with a 23-14 record, but came into the event having lost three matches in a row.

The 57th-best player in the world does not make it onto TV very frequently, unless his opponent is one of the game’s 10 at the moment. Still, in the early goings of a Masters (or, at the time, Mercedes-Benz Super 9) Event, ESPN liked to show how the American players were faring at the event. With Pete Sampras skipping the event and Agassi in his career nadir of a season, the answer was: Not great.

Vince Spadea nearly topped Yevgeny Kafelnikov, but dropped a final set tiebreaker. Jeff Salzenstein took a set from Thomas Muster before pulling up lame and falling in three. Michael Chang was money in the early rounds but didn’t look any closer to closing the deal on the final Sunday of a Slam.

I got to catch a bit of Woodruff in his first rounder against Jocelyn Robichaud, a native Canadian ranked 564th in the world. They went to a tiebreak in set one before Woodruff finally started to exert his will. In the second set, I could sense that my fellow Tennessean, annoyed with the persistence of the native Canuck, was trying to blast him off the court; the camera’s distance from the court generally disguises the pure pace and makes televised pro tennis look like a more competent and well-devised version of the sport played by my high school team, but Woodruff clearly hit hard.

They were hard, but his groundstrokes were not the smooth, flowing shots of Agassi and appeared to involve little aside from the arms. His serve was holding up, but his motion made it look as though he were trying to sit on a footstool as he tossed the ball into the air.

And his draw was about to get a lot tougher.

On a Roll

It wouldn’t be televised, but his next match would be against Jan Siemerink of the Netherlands. A left-hander who charged the net, Siemerink took Woodruff to the near-limit in all three sets they played, as Woodruff fought off a match point to prevail 7-6 in the third. A good result, but Siemerink’s tricky serve and solid volleying were necessitated by his lack of punch.

Next would be Goran Ivanisevic, the future Wimbledon champion who knew a thing or three about tricky lefty serving, having blasted Woodruff out of the Australian Open just six months earlier. By now, though, Ivanisevic was struggling, falling in the second round of Wimbledon and was on his way to a first-round exit from the US Open. Woodruff won the first set in a tiebreak and ran away with the second 6-2.

Another fine match, but it had been Woodruff taking advantage of a classic head case at a low point in his career.

Then came Mark Philippoussis, the most intimidating server of the time. Standing 6’4” and 200 pounds, the Australian would stalk up to service line, assume the gait of a power lifter about to pull something twice his weight off the ground, then uncoil a first serve the returner could only hope would go out (and that the line judge would be able to see it).

Woodruff beat him 6-4, 6-4, and now clearly had some momentum behind him. The Tennessean whom Courier would call “one of the fastest white guys” he’d ever seen was tracking down the shots these big hitters were launching and striking the ball cleanly.

His fellow Tennesseans now dared to see him as a legitimate threat in the semis against Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who’d won Roland Garros the previous year and was ranked No. 7.

He lost the first set 7-5, but recovered to top YK by the same score in the second, then took over in the third. He won it 6-3, giving him a chance to win his maiden title at one of the game’s premier events.

The Jordan Effect

It was in many ways a continuation of a year that had been full of surprises for the men’s tour. Patrick Rafter and Carlos Moya are familiar names to even casual followers of the game now, but were jolts when they arrived on the scene that year, with Moya reaching the Australian Open final and Rafter taking the USO. Cedric Pioline was on no one’s shortlist at Wimbledon, and yet there he was, facing Sampras on second Sunday at the All-England Club.

But the biggest surprise of the year would have to have been Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, who’d entered Roland Garros ranked No. 66 in the world, with no career titles and a losing record on clay, before upsetting three former champions and winning the French title.

He was back in Canada seeking his second tournament win, and looked a good bet to take it over Woodruff. That wasn’t just because of his higher ranking; in the semifinals he’d destroyed Michael Chang 6-3, 6-1. From 3-all in the first set, the world No. 2 player had not held serve again, as the Brazilian had simply whipped the ball from corner to corner in his typically gleeful manner.

After the match Kuerten seemed almost as stunned as Chang, describing it as the best match he’d ever played and stating, almost sheepishly, that at that level he’d have “a chance” of winning the final.

Watching following his win over Kafelnikov, Woodruff somehow saw something in that onslaught he could exploit. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he saw the one thing he should not do.

“I saw Michael Chang playing him and I thought he was a little passive,” he said later. “I wanted to step inside the baseline and force the issue.”

He started less than forcefully on Sunday, getting broken in his first service game, but quickly loosened up, started moving into the court and taking the ball early. His shots kissed lines and Kuerten, facing an opponent who worked to take his time away from him, could not duplicate the form from the previous night.

During that week Woodruff talked about Michael Jordan, and how in big moments His Airness played his best, took his shots and didn’t wait for the opponents to miss. He also said he’d been serving bucket after bucket of balls at home to improve his serve, finishing with 18 aces. The final ace came on match point, as Woodruff won his first career title, having beaten five straight seeded players. In doing so, he cut his ranking nearly in half, to No. 29.

After the Peak

I’d love to tell you that this was a turning point in Woodruff’s career, and that this was the springboard to more and more titles, eventually culminating in Grand Slam glory.

Woodruff, though, was already 24 when he won the Canadian Open, approaching middle aged status in tennis years. He appeared ripe for making a run at the US Open, and actually would crush future Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson in round one of New York, but couldn’t even play round two due to injury.

He wouldn’t win his second title for another two years, capturing Newport in 1999. It was the last title he would win.

In 2000 he reached the semis of the Australian Open, his deepest run at a Slam, before falling to Sampras. Less than a month later, he filled in for Sampras during a Davis Cup tie in Zimbabwe, winning the make-or-break fifth rubber over Wayne Black for the only result that would rival Canada as a career highlight.

After a succession of injuries, he retired in 2002, taking a coaching position at UT, where he serves as associate head coach for the men’s tennis squad.

Whereas the Samprases and Agassis of the tour win multiple majors and Master’s Shields, occasionally earning the chance to achieve something truly historic, the Woodruffs of the tour, and of the world have lower-profile goals. What his tournament wins have in common with Agassi’s career Grand Slam or Sampras 13th major title is that they were rare chances one spends years preparing for.

My fellow Tennessean took the opportunity that was presented, though, and has his share of lessons he can impart to the athletes he’s now coaching. I won’t ever know what it’s like to be a tennis pro, but there’s still something I – and everyone else – can learn from that experience.

Wimbledon Review: Part 2

July 11, 2010

Wimbledon Championships Day 07 2010 30/06/10 Roger Federer (SUI)in his quarter final match Photo Susan Mullane Fotosports International UK ONLY Photo via Newscom

Last time we looked at those who either met or exceeded their Wimbledon expectations. However, one player’s success at a major comes at another’s expense, and a surprise victory by one guy requires him to disrupt another’s plans. Here are some guys who left SW19 with regrets, and what we can expect from them on firmer footing.

Roger Federer: There certainly have been better times to be The Great Swiss. After a triumphant turn Down Under, Federer has not won a single tournament and has lost at the quarterfinal stage of the last two majors. That said, when one looks at each of the matches he’s lost this year —from Marcos Baghdatis in Indian Wells to Lleyton Hewitt in Halle—one sees that each match was competitive.

Even his four-set loss to Tomas Berdych at the All-England Club went four sets and Federer had break points as the Czech was trying to serve the match out. This indicates that a piece of the puzzle is missing, and if he finds it he’ll be back in the last weekend of majors.
I can’t tell you what that piece is, though; if Federer could tell us we probably wouldn’t be having to ask him about it.

The US Open is a month and a half away, and question is whether or not he can take the steps required to put himself back in contention there. His five straight titles from 2004-08 indicate that the surface suits his game just as well as grass and, as a bonus, suits Rafael Nadal’s game not so well.

However, it was at last year’s Open that the alarming trend of big guys with really big forehands who could simply hit through Federer’s more complete game began. Now a little more than a year removed from 30, the Swiss seems less able to counter their pace through defense, variety, and sheer wiliness.

He could hit the weight room, believing that greater strength would help him ward off the physical beating guys like Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych inflict. He could also try updating his racket with more head space to improve his margin for error.
However, both of those steps require an adjustment that Federer probably won’t be interested in taking on with less than two months to go before the year’s last major, and a series of minor events to play between now and then.

One positive sign: A year and a half ago, with Nadal dominating the tour and questions about Federer’s ability to counter him circulating, the Swiss said that he had to work on his serve. A couple of months later, he was winning the Roland Garros final without being broken and then hitting 50 aces on the way to an epic Wimbledon triumph.

Federer has probably retreated after Wimbledon, looking to tweak some part of his game that has struggled as of late in time to reassert himself in New York. He’ll be 29 by then, so whether a technical fix is enough is the big question.

Robin Soderling: In many ways this was a successful Wimbledon for the Le Sod, who made American veteran Robbie Ginepri and up-and-coming Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci look well out of their weight classes in week one. Then he raced out to a 5-0 lead in the first set against Nadal and it looked like he was set to repeat the feat of Jim Courier in 1993: proving that on grass, the Big Forehand is the new first volley.
However, even in taking the first set of that match, Soderling ceded the momentum by allowing Nadal to grab back one break, and he facilitated that break by going for a reckless second serve ace down break point.

When Nadal is being outslugged he will, much like Andre Agassi used to, land little jabs that he can hopefully add to later. As the match progresses, and he starts forcing the big guy to run more, those little jabs add up and soon his opponent finds that he’s bruised all over.
Soderling did have a hurt foot, but the amount of running Nadal made him do probably had a lot to do with that.

Soderling’s lack of finesse and mobility don’t look good for his chances of winning a major one day. If he doesn’t learn to recognize a match’s critical points and play them accordingly, he has probably peaked. That realization is disappointing indeed.

Andy Roddick: To find a moment in the American’s career as low as this one, you have to go back pretty far. His early loss at Wimbledon 2008 was a setback, but he had recently missed several months due to a back injury.

His 2007 Wimbledon loss to Richard Gasquet had a remarkably similar score to his defeat this year against Lu Yen-Hsun, but that was against a young prodigy with vast quantities of untapped talent, not a 26-year-old journeyman whose heart and scrappiness masked a lack of offensive weapons.
Roddick’s preparation for this Wimbledon was not ideal, but we should explore his reasons for doing so. In 2008 he attempted to play a fuller season on the clay, which blunts his serve and requires more effort from him. What Roddick, then 25 (middle age for tennis pros) got for his troubles was the back injury that kept him out of Paris and sent him packing early in London.

Reviewing Wimbledon: Part 1

July 10, 2010

Taiwan's Lu Yen-hsun reacts in his match against Serbias Novak Djokovic at the 2010 Wimbledon tennis championships in London, June 30, 2010.   REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

It’s too early to make predictions for the US Open; I think they at least have to play the Master’s Series events in Canada and Cincinnati before we do that. That’s especially true now that the defending champion of the event won’t be playing it due to injury, the player who has dominated the event in the past decade is slumping, and the man dominating the tour at the moment hasn’t been past the semis there.

But one thing we can do is look at the players who made a splash at this year’s Wimbledon, where they stand now, and what they need to do between now and then to be ideally prepared for the year’s last major. We start with none other than …

*Rafael Nadal*: After winning his eighth major and solidifying his stature as the game’s No. 1, we’ve seen a few, including (sigh) Chris Chase speculating about whether the Spaniard can match Roger Federer’s 16 Grand Slam wins.

Let me be emphatic: We should not be talking about this yet. It’s been five years since Nadal won his first major and he now has eight; he’s also been through a grocery list of injuries in that time and is having to schedule more and more carefully to avoid hurting himself. For now, let’s focus on a few other goals that more attainable but far from automatic.

First of all there’s the US Open, the one major he hasn’t won. This year is reminiscent of 2008 in more ways than one, now that Nadal has completed the Channel Slam for the second time and has firmly established himself as the best in the world. He fell short that year, losing to Andy Murray in the semis, saying later that the season had finally caught up with him and he had “nothing left.”

The US Open’s position as the last major of the year is always going to be tough for the player who works hardest on the court, and it’s surface is both faster than Nadal’s liking and least forgiving of his brittle joints.

This year is different from 2008 in one key respect: no Summer Olympics, meaning the Spaniard won’t be flying halfway around the world to win one more event before the Open starts, thus tiring himself out even more. That should work in his favor, but if he’s going to win the Open, it’ll probably need to be in the next couple of years, and need to be accomplished by weathering the storm of huge, flat hitter who pushes him to the distance.

Rafa’s goals for the near future are probably to grab that US Open trophy and break Bjorn Borg’s record at Roland Garros. That would give him three more majors, which would also equal Borg’s GS total. If he achieves that in the next couple of years, then we can start talking about the possibility of him equaling Pete Sampras total. Then, and only then, would I start talking about him matching Federer’s total, and that’s assuming the Swiss hasn’t added to it.

*Tomas Berdych*: In between the stretches in which he appeared completely unnerved by the setting of the Wimbledon final, the big Czech looked as though he were capable of really hurting Nadal with his serve. He probably could have made a great match of it had he saved his best performance for final Sunday and raised his game for the big occasion; in other words, if he’d been a bit more like Nadal.

It goes without saying by this point that Nadalian characteristics, especially mental ones, aren’t that common. Berdych’s success on the grass (and his semifinal appearance) on the clay of Paris have contributed to his having a ranking of No. 8, and should make him confident going into the
summer hard court season (where he’s beaten Nadal twice).

New York fast courts should reward his serving and flat hitting, but will be hard on his slim physique. That bad news is that he’s never been past the fourth round there, but the good news is that he’d never been past the fourth of Roland Garros or the quarters of Wimbledon before this year.

*Andy Murray: *Britain’s No. 1 showed up at Wimbledon playing well, wasn’t overwhelmed by the occasion, and showed no fear of Rafael Nadal in the semis. In that sense, the fact that he lost in straight sets is all the more disheartening, as it appears he couldn’t have done much of anything better.

With Darren Cahill now at his side, the Scot has a lot of defense to play in North America, both in the sense that he’s defending points from his victory in Canada last year and must prove that he’s still a threat at the majors. Should he take good care of his body, though, a better result than last year’s fourth round showing at the Open should be a given, and it’s speed will make it more possible for him to take time away from guys with big forehands.

*Novak Djokovic: *After an early struggle with Oliver Rochus, who has a history of causing struggles for the Serb, Djokovic looked awfully good for four rounds, outdueling the hot grasscourt hand Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth and obliterating Andy Roddick’s conqueror Lu Yen-Hsun in the quarters.

Then, against Berdych in the semis, he simply didn’t have the answers. Berdych’s game had a lot to do with that, as he hits winners with ease, punishes weak serving, and offers few opportunities on his own service game.

What was most discouraging about that result, though, was how Djokovic responded to the loss of the second set. His body language suggested defeat was inevitable, and he surrendered his final break of service by double-faulting. True, he has struggled with his serve ever since Todd Martin made the odd choice of trying to tweak it, but the direction of that last double and his reaction to it suggested not so much a technical breakdown as indifference.

And the 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 scoreline was depressingly similar to his loss to Marat Safin at Wimbledon 2008 (6-4, 7-6, 6-2). This, combined with his early (but thankfully not recent) tendency toward withdrawals suggests that, once he falls behind, Djokovic is already thinking about his next match.

That mentality bodes more ill than his serving woes or breathing problems.

*Lu Yen-Hsun:* Kudos to the man from Taoyuan for his big fourth round win over Roddick. That said, whenever a little-known player scores a big win over a big name, there’s a simple test for predicting where they go from here: Listen to the commentators, the coaches, or the other players to see if they say this little-known player has the biggest or best (insert shot) or the best or most (insert attribute) on tour.

No one was saying anything like that about Lu, which made his beating at the hands of Djokovic easy to anticipate. His age (26) also suggests that he won’t be back.

I’ll be back later to give similar treatment to players who had a disappointing Wimbledon.

Wimbledon Finals: Nadal vs. Berdych

July 3, 2010

July 02, 2010 - Wimbledon, United Kingdom - epa02233393 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic reacts during his semi final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia for the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, in London, Britain, 02 July 2010.

The first time I watched Tomas Berdych play was in the fourth round of the US Open against Tommy Haas. He was only 18 then, but had already attracted some buzz for having knocked Roger Federer out of the Olympics in Greece just weeks earlier.

And at the time, it was impossible not to already be impressed with his shotmaking.

It was not like with Andre Agassi or Fernando Gonzalez, where even the viewers watching on TV could see and hear how hard the ball was being hit, but Berdych, when he had time to set up, had a way of almost casually flicking the ball into corners, lines, and angles that could not be retrieved.

In that first set alone, Berdych must have hit two-dozen winners, but it wasn’t enough. Haas squeaked out that first set and the big, lanky Czech went away after that.

The following year he returned, scoring his first victory over Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati, and capturing his first Master’s Shield in Paris. He had lacked the intangibles required to beat Haas a year earlier, but they appeared to be adding up, pairing with those stunning strokes, creating a potential Grand Slam champion.

So what happened after that? I’m not privy to Berdych’s private struggles, but over the next few years he appeared to regress. Part of the problem was Federer: That shock win over the great Swiss in Greece brought Berdych to our attention, but also to Federer’s. In 2006 the Swiss, in the midst of his most dominant season, dealt a pair of lopsided straight-sets defeats to the Czech at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Berdych had more success against Nadal that year, as his 6’5” height made Nadal’s enormous spin less imposing and his flat hitting kept the Spaniard on defensive. He racked up two more wins in Canada and Madrid against Nadal, but the latter of those two actually ended up being a detriment to the Czech’s momentum.

At the end of the match, in a moment of poor judgment he chose to mock the home crowd’s support for Nadal by gesturing for them to be quiet. In the next round against Gonzalez, they poured their scorn on Berdych, rattling him and sending him home with his metaphorical tail tucked.

For the next couple of years his results were less impressive, as Nadal broke his losing streak against him and started a new six-match run of his own. Well into his 20s, Berdych simply had not built upon his early success.

Until the end of 2009, that is. They didn’t receive much attention at the time, but Berdych’s efforts were instrumental in leading the Czech team to the Davis Cup finals. He won tough five-set encounters against Gilles Simon of France in March, Juan Monaco of Argentina in July, and most impressively, Marin Cilic of Croatia in September.

Cilic was a hot hand at the time, having beaten Andy Murray and reached the US Open quarters just before that, so to stop him in Croatia indicated big things ahead. And, about half a year later, they arrived when he topped Federer in Miami, snapping an eight-match losing streak against the Swiss.

In Roland Garros he plowed through the field, beating Murray to reach the semis before falling just short against Robin Soderling in a superheavyweight clash. The Czech took one more set from Soderling than Federer had in the previous round, and in his postmatch comments the Swede said that nearly every ball Berdych hit had been landing “six inches from the line.”

But Wimbledon may be the biggest payoff of all from the Czech’s efforts, as he has now beaten Federer for the second straight time. His quarterfinal win over the Swiss marks the first time in eight years that Federer will not reach the final round of the game’s most prestigious event.

It also gives Berdych a chance to duplicate the feat of his fellow six-fiver Richard Krajicek, who ousted Pete Sampras at the same stage of the 1996 Wimbledon.

Like with Krajicek, Berdych at his best is in a different weight class against most opponents; in his straight-sets win over Novak Djokovic in the semis, it appeared the Serb wasn’t just fighting Berdych, but gravity.

And now Berdych, who hasn’t actually won a title yet this year, has a chance to win the game’s biggest. All he has to do is beat Nadal one more time.

Too bad he hasn’t done so since that noisy day in Madrid. It was the Spaniard who ended Berdych and the Czech Republic’s Davis Cup run last year, dispatching the big man in straights on Spanish clay in December.

Nadal was an impressive player in 2005 and 2006, but has grown further since then, reaching the game’s top ranking twice now and complementing his clay court dominance with a Wimbledon and Australian Open title. He’s coming off a clay court season in which he went undefeated, sweeping all three Master’s Shields and the RG title.

His performance at Wimbledon has been impressive for nothing so much as his determination: Taken to five sets twice in week one, he has dominated week two ever since pulverizing Paul-Henri Mathieu in round four. Soderling was hitting so hard as to knock opponents’ rackets out of their hands in week one, but Nadal broke him down in the quarters, dropping just one set.

Murray played high-quality tennis in the semis, matching the Spaniard shot for shot for three sets. Nadal, however, snatched the barest hint of an opportunity that Murray gave him in sets one and three. In set two, when Murray gave none, the Spaniard simply created an opportunity.

And that’s why it’s hard to bet on Berdych, as much progress as he has made of late. One can debate whether or not Berdych’s game, with its laser groundstrokes and spot-serving, is better for grass than Nadal defense, speed, and heavy spin.

What one cannot debate is that Nadal has so many non-quantifiable advantages that we might as well call him the Intangible Man.

Since winning his first major in 2005, Nadal has lost only one Grand Slam match after winning the first set. Since then, I can think of only two times—one against Federer in the 2006 RG final, and the other in this event against Soderling—where Nadal has served for a set and been broken. In neither occasion did he actually lose the set, though.

Anger has never prompted him to throw/break a racket on court or curse at a lines judge. What should be deflating setbacks like losing the fourth set of Wimbledon or debilitating knee injuries are to him mere delays of what must come to pass.

There are those who will never enjoy Nadal’s game as much as Federer’s, and they have that right. His aggressive, physical play may lack Federer’s magical, lighter-than-air qualities, but it’s a game full of its own marvels. Against this master of the intangibles, Berdych’s beautiful ball striking probably won’t be enough.

It should provide a bright future for him, nonetheless, including a successful rest of 2010. But, on Wimbledon’s second Sunday, I pick Nadal in four.

Fight for the Future: Andy Murray vs. Rafael Nadal

July 1, 2010

Jan. 26, 2010 - Melbourne, AUSTRALIA - epa02006062 Rafael Nadal (R) of Spain and Andy Murray of Britain after Nadal retired from the men's singles quarterfinal match following injury at the Australian Open Tennis Tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 26 January 2010.

There’s a famous scene in Chinatown where private detective Jake Gittes faces the evil tycoon Noah Cross, who has been stealing water away from the needy populace to lower the price of land that he can then buy.

“Why are you doing it?” Gittes asks. “How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

“The future,” Cross responds. “The future!”

Rafael Nadal seems a far more pleasant human being than Noah Cross, but his motivations appear to be similar. With seven majors and one of the all-time great clay court résumés already to his credit, Nadal is still looking to add on, even if it comes at the expense of contemporaries starved for Grand Slam success.

Unlike Roger Federer, who could never pick up a racket again knowing he’s already established a compelling case for Greatest of the Open Era, Nadal still has plenty to prove. Holder of seven Grand Slam titles, Nadal needs one more to move past Mats Wilander and John McEnroe, and two to get past the power baseliner triumvirate of Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, and Andre Agassi.

The chances of his being ranked higher than those names in the history books go up even higher should more of his major wins take place on a surface other than clay.

Andy Murray has another type of history to chase. Though he proudly identifies as a Scot, the English public has proudly adopted him as the player most likely to end Britain’s drought at the majors, which stretches all the way back to Fred Perry in 1936. Murray in many ways plays the classic counterpuncher’s game, frustrating heavier hitters with his speed, defending, and ability to turn a defensive position into an attacking one.

These attributes have elevated him as high as No. 2 in the world, not to mention enabling him to win four Master’s Shields and reach two Slam finals.

In a men’s game where more and more players are making a living by crushing forehands, it remains to be seen whether Murray’s more patient, cerebral style of play can net him a major. Twice he has been to the finals of a major, and twice he has been beaten in straight sets by Federer.

Beaten in the quarterfinals of this year’s Wimbledon, The Great Swiss will not obstruct Murray’s way this time. If he is to reach his first final at the All-England Club, though, he will have to navigate his way through the semis against Nadal, who recently broke out of a protracted slump and has no desire to cease winning now.

If Nadal wins this event – only the second one in which he didn’t beat Federer along the way – he continues to carve an identity for himself separate from the Swiss and from the clay where five of his major victories have come. It would also be extremely hard to see any player denying him a second year of finishing as No. 1.

If Murray wins, he will elate an entire nation, prove a lot of doubters wrong, and show that forehand torque is not a prerequisite to major success.

Nadal leads their head to head series 7-3, but they are 2-2 in the majors. Murray has won their last two meetings on the hard courts of the US Open in 2008 and the Australian Open this year. Due to its setting, though, this match will probably draw comparisons to the 2008 Wimbledon, where Murray turned a corner by beating Richard Gasquet in round four, but was then pummeled by the Spaniard in quarters.

That one-sided affair will not be repeated this time. Murray isn’t coming off a draining five-set epic like he had against Gasquet that year. Nadal, while he has put up a determined performance in week one and outlasted Robin Soderling in the quarters, is not playing at his career-best level of ’08.

The closest comparison would have to be to 2007, where Nadal had won the RG, lost early in Queens, then battled through two early five-setters at Wimbledon. Like then, he now appears in decent form for the second week.

For Rafael Nadal, “decent” form means that he can be beaten, but it will take an enormous effort to do so.

Is Andy Murray up to the challenge? He will need to play as aggressively as he did in Australia, doing his best to keep the Spaniard on the defense and unable to pound away at the Scot’s legs. His matches, particularly in the last round against Soderling, have shown Nadal to be starting slowly and unable to exert his will early in a match.

As the match drags on into the third and fourth sets, though, Murray’s second serve becomes more and more of a drag. In the five matches he has played so far, the Scot’s second serve speed has averaged in the low-90s. Nadal’s second delivery has been similarly paced, but his first-serve percentage has been in the high-60 range in all five matches he has played.

Murray, on the other hand, has only topped 60 percent in first serve percentage twice, against Jarkko Nieminen in the second round and Gilles Simon in the next. Murray will need a first-serve percentage of at least 60 percent, because the Spaniard is a far more patient baseliner than Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Sam Querrey, and a far more potent one the Simon or Nieminen.

If his first serve percentage stays in the 50s – or dips into the 40s like against Querrey – Nadal will eventually start to exert more control over the rallies on second serve points. When that happens, there’s no one on tour who can stop the Spaniard.

I have picked Nadal to win from the outset of this event, and as impressive as Murray as looked at times, I think the Spaniard will break him down in five. Nadal’s summer has been one for the history books, and his near future looks just as bright.

Murray’s Opportunity Knocks

June 27, 2010

June 26, 2010 - 06092379 date 26 06 2010 Copyright imago BPI Andy Murray of Great Britain Celebrates Victory ON Match Point PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUKxFRAxNEDxESPxSWExPOLxCHNxJPN Tennis men All England Championships ATP Tour London Wimbledon Action shot Single Vdig 2010 Square premiumd Tennis.

Andy Murray has everything a counterpuncher needs: speed, consistency, feel, and intelligence.

Plus, standing 6’3”, Wimbledon’s fourth seed has a couple of things that even the game’s best counterpunchers—from Bjorn Borg to Mats Wilander to Lleyton Hewitt—didn’t have. Those guys had to serve clutch and take care of their volleys when they came to net, but it was asking a lot of any of them to reach 130 mph regularly while serving. What’s more, being 190 centimeters in height, Murray enjoys more reach at net than they ever had.

Gilles Simon, Murray’s third round opponent, knows a thing or two about the strengths and drawbacks of the counterpuncher’s game. It’s the style of play that took him as high as No. 6 in the world at the start of 2009 and has netted him six career titles. Lacking the enormous serving or huge forehand required to bully opponents, though, his results have been erratic of late and he entered Wimbledon seeded at No. 26.

He counterpunched his way to a third-round meeting with the big Scot, but standing 5’11”, soon found that Murray could do everything he could, and then some.

Murray hit 15 aces to Simon’s two, and won 83 percent of first serve points to the Frenchman’s 65. The Scot’s height also gave him a trajectory advantage, enabling him to put 65 percent of his first serves in play to Simon’s 54. Murray’s average first serve speed was 120 mph, five faster than Simon’s and 11 more than Hewitt managed in his third round win over Gael Monfils.

In matchup of two rock-solid groundstrokers, Murray’s serving (and volleying) advantages took the pressure off his backcourt game, allowing him to sweep to a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory.

Of all of Wimbledon’s top five seeds—the others being Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick—Murray is the only one to enter the second week at Wimbledon without dropping a set.

It gets harder from here, but he will be the overwhelming favorite against the even bigger—and even bigger-serving—American Sam Querrey, who is putting together a nice year but doesn’t have the complete game or the court coverage of Murray. Furthermore, Querrey labored in his last match with Xavier Malisse, and certainly won’t be the fresher of the two.

Should he reach the quarters Murray should face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, who is expected to overcome compatriot Julian Benneteau in the fourth. Tsonga has the artillery hurt anyone, especially off his forehand wing. Unless he can recapture the form that took him to the 2008 Australian Open final, however, he’d probably be at a loss against the Scot in long rallies.

It’s in the semis that things become really interesting. The highest seed in Murray’s half of the draw is Nadal, fresh off a clay season of unprecedented success. The Spaniard, though, has struggled in the last two rounds, pushed to five sets against Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner.

Nadal should still get past Paul-Henri Mathieu—a good power baseliner unfortunately born in an era full of good power baseliners—but beyond that lurks nemesis Robin Soderling, who hasn’t lost a set. Accounts vary as to whether or not Nadal’s struggles are due to lapse in form (and injury) or the high quality of his opponents’ play, but there’s no question that Soderling has the potential to beat him.

For Murray, the semis will be the test. The Scot’s game is more varied than either the Spaniard or the Swede’s, but Soderling, is serving even bigger at the moment, while Nadal defends about as well. Furthermore, both of these guys can do the one thing Murray can’t: completely dominate off the forehand wing.

In the semis, it will take all of the Scot’s game to overcome that disadvantage

That said, this is as good a chance as Murray has ever had to win his first major. On the opposite side of the draw, Federer has not appeared in top shape and has faced stern challenges early. Djokovic has looked better with each match, but faces an enormous challenge from the resurgent Hewitt.

Hewitt, like Roddick, has been to the final stages of a major and beyond, but Murray has winning records against both and more options than either. If his current form persists, the opportunity is ripe for him enter his first Wimbledon final.

As Federer is nearly six years older and Nadal’s knees continue to ache, this shouldn’t be the last opportunity for Murray to bag his first major, but he shouldn’t risk it. If it’s still possible to counterpunch one’s way to Grand Slam glory, it will be Murray who does so, and he can do so here.

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