Monday, September 29, 2008

David Ferrer Channels His Inner McEnroe

Well besides the gang-related shooting on my block (I'm serious), it was a busy weekend in the tennis world. Andy Roddick took the China Open, beating Dudi Sela in the final. It was David Ferrer, however, that stole the spotlight. This guy always impressed me as a quiet, hardworking, slightly boring player. Boy was I wrong. In the clip below he reveals himself to be a hot-head extraordinaire, and a bit of a misogynist:

A loose translation of the incident goes like this:

"I can't hit the fucking ball! I just can't hit it! My head is full of shit! Of SHIT! It's impossible to play like this."

"Warning, Mr. Ferrer. Code violation, audible obscenity."

"Why are you warning me? I'm just talking!"

*silence from the chair umpire, who is female*

"It's normal, you're a woman. Women can't do anything."

Wow! That ought to please the faction that long for the days of McEnroe and Connors flipping out on court, Ultimate Ninja Power-style.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Bull and the Matador

"SQL" Querrey managed to get more than three blinks. He got a set and 2-0 up before his disembodied head rolled to a stop on the dusty clay of the Las Ventas Bullring. Not bad - he certainly impressed this skeptic. Somehow thesmallspot got some misinformation on Friday, thinking that Roddick vs. Nadal was going to be the first match up. Not to worry, we've fired our whole QA department over the weekend and are bringing in some top-notch fact checkers.

Anyway, back to the USA-Spain Davis Cup semifinal. On Friday, Roddick lost a heart breaker to Ferrer, 8-6 in the 5th. The tie was effectively over at this point, but Mardy Fish and Mike Bryan played a great match to salvage the doubles, and Sunday brought us the marquee match up. Current #1 vs. Former #1. Rafa Nadal and Andy Roddick. There was a sense that Roddick could turn a miracle here; Rafa was tired from a long year, maybe Andy could ambush him, and with the decisive rubber coming up, who knew what Sam Querrey could do?

From the start Roddick had a game plan and was committed to it; he knew he didn't have a prayer of trying to out-rally Nadal from the baseline, so he attacked the net at every opportunity. Taking a page from Querrey's moderately successful strategy, Roddick served out wide to Rafa and followed the ball in to the net. I'm still amazed at how well top pros return Roddick's serve, even on clay. I mean, that sucker is coming in at 140mph! But that was Rafa, putting balls back into play from deep behind the baseline. Roddick showed some good hands and improvisation, massaging some drop volleys over the net and slicing others deep. Nadal has world-class speed though, and caught up to balls that looked surely out of reach, banging them down the line for winners. You could see PMac urge Roddick to continue attacking; he probably told Roddick that if he didn't get passed 20 times, he wasn't coming in enough. Roddick's serve bailed him out and he continued to hold. In one return game, Roddick ripped a backhand up the line off a second serve from Nadal and followed it in. It was a Big Boy play, and I was impressed to see Roddick come up with it. But Nadal scrambled to his left and ripped an even more impressive forehand pass up the line that Roddick couldn't even touch; it seemed to be a sign. Nadal started catching up to more of Roddick's volleys and found the range on his passing shots. He broke soon after and secured the 1st set, 6-4.

In the buildup for the second set the commentators, Leif Shiras and Barry McKay, talked about how despite the setbacks, Roddick needed to continue attacking. They trotted out the bullfighter analogy for the 2^9592065 time. Really, though, that was just confusing. Is Roddick the Bull, or is he the Matador? I mean, doesn't Rafa have to be the Bull? He even has a bull branded on his tennis shoes! Yet Roddick is the one pawing the clay and charging the net, only to be bamboozled at the last second by a Rafa passing shot. And really, I've had just about enough of Barry McKay. The dude sounds like he's hunched over an In n Out double-double, muttering "'s good." anytime a ball goes remotely near the line. We ALL know it's in Barry. That's why the linesman hasn't said anything and the players continue to chase after the ball. Tennis Channel, if you want to be taken seriously, you're going to have to shell out for some higher-quality talent. Leif Shiras is a good start; Barry McKay needs some serious coaching to stay and Doug Adler just has to go.

Watching this match, you get a sense of the conversation Roddick and Patrick McEnroe might have had as they were strategizing. "So Andy," Patrick might have started, "you have a phenomenal serve, mediocre volleys and solid if unspectacular approach shots. What about attacking all day and putting Nadal under heaps of pressure? Do you think that he has what it takes to come up with tough passing shots all day in the pressure-filled atmosphere of Davis Cup?" The answer to that is an emphatic yes. Nadal annihilated Roddick in the 2nd set, 6-0. He was hitting return winners off Roddick's 1st serve (sursly, how do you do that?!) and missed only a couple of the passing shots he attempted. Roddick backed off the go-for-broke strategy a bit in the 3rd set, and his traditional game plan was only able to get him 4 more games as Nadal wrapped up the 3rd set and the win for Spain, 6-4.

On the other side of the globe, Argentina finished Russia off in a closer-than-I-expected tie, 3-2. Spain will travel to Argentina for the final, to be held Nov 21-23 on fast, indoor carpet. Hard to pick against Nadal right now; this seems to be a year destined by the Fates, even if he is slightly injured (Nadal supposedly almost didn't play Roddick due to an injury in his famous posterior). Argentina will be going for their first Davis Cup championship ever, and the home crowd will be pulling for them like crazy. Who's your pick?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

So you're telling me there's a chance!

There's a chance, but it is anchored in Andy Roddick taking out David Ferrer in match 1. Davis Cup this weekend, and the US is up against it, away at Spain for the semifinals. Ravi Ubha has an excellent rundown on all the ties happening, so I'll avoid piling on and instead focus on just the US tie (thesmallspot: xenophobism, ur doin it rite, akshually!).

The key to this tie is Roddick putting the US up 1-0 and instilling belief in his teammates. They believe they can beat Spain, but they don't really believe it, if you know what I mean. I get the feeling that they look at losing the semifinals against Spain as an acceptable loss, especially away on clay, with less than the A team. Except for Roddick. That guy is a Davis Cup animal! If he wins and the patchwork doubles team of Mardy Fish and Mike Bryan can pull through, there's no telling what could happen on the final day.

And don't tell me that there's a chance Querrey beats Nadal. Please. I saw that US Open match where Querrey surprisingly took a set off Nadal, and that was because Nadal went on walkabout while up 5-2. Quick side story: When I was in 7th grade I was on the wrestling team, and our first meet was against Octorara. I was a decent but unproven wrestler, not unlike Querrey in the Davis Cup. The weight class lists were revealed right before weigh-ins, and it turned out I was going to wrestle the unknown-to-me-Matt Wood. "Matt Wood?!" one of my teammates exclaimed, "You're going to get KILLED!" Another wrestler, Keegan, jumped to my defense before my confidence was totally shot. "Shut up man, Smallz is good, and he's quick." I nodded at him, glad for the encouraging words. The meet opened and I raced out to the mat to wrestle what turned out to be a cyborg stuffed into an 8th grade boy's body. To this day I still don't really know what happened; this guy did "SHOCK and AWE" in a way that would've eliminated terrorism. As soon as the referee's whistle blew he bowled me over; I don't think he even used a real move and I was pinned in 10 seconds flat. They say that when the guillotine chops off your head you have time to blink twice before you're dead. It was like that for me. *Blink, blink* and I was back on the bench watching the 95 lb match.

Sorry Querrey, but Nadal makes Matt Wood look like the tooth fairy. My advice? Try to last three blinks.

TV Schedule for the matches:

Friday, September 19
12:00 pm - 3:00 pm Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 1) Versus (L)
3:00 pm - 6:00 pm Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 2) Versus (L)

Saturday, September 20
12:00 pm - 3:00 pm Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 3) Versus (L)
8:00 pm - 11:00 pm Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 3) Tennis Channel (T)

Sunday, September 21
12:00 am - 3:00 am Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 3) Tennis Channel (T)
12:00 pm - 3:00 pm Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 4) Versus (L)
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 5) Versus (L)
8:00 pm - 11:00 pm Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 4) Tennis Channel (T)
11:00 pm - 2:00 am Davis Cup: USA vs. Spain (Rubber 5) Tennis Channel (T)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New blog banner/logo!

The old one, you may recall, looked like this:

You like?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

SB Tennis Misadventures

Pulling up into the parking lot, I nestled my car into a row of gleaming 'Benzes. Odd, I thought. This _was_ Santa Barbara, but I was going to play in a public park, not in one of the country clubs. A cry from a nearby court caught my attention. "ohmigod!" the anguished kid screamed as he made another error. A guy wearing a shirt with 4 vibrant colors (I kid you not) walked past and realization dawned; I was catching the tail end of a junior tennis tournament. The kid's meltdown was in full flight as I neared, and I smiled inwardly, glad that those days of junior tennis were behind me. I passed a group of well-heeled tennis parents hovering by and walked onto an open court for my regular match with Marcus, one of my buddies.

Despite being 42 years old, Marcus has a face and game of someone closer to half his age. He serves big, moves well, and has a point-ending forehand that he can drill into either corner. He's also extremely competent at net, and looks to pressure you by moving forward and ending points with the volley. The backhand is his weaker wing, and is the Italy of his game's Axis; it is the stroke that I target to take the advantage in rallies.

We begin our warmup, rallying from the baseline in a smooth, controlled manner. One of my favorite things about watching live tennis is to see players rally, making it look effortless as they strike the ball. I derive immense satisfaction from doing the same. Groundstrokes, volleys, overheads, and then serves. We've done this so many times now that I know when Marcus is ready to switch, and move over to the ad court before he says "Mind if I take a few from the other side?"

The set starts and it takes a few games for both of us to find the rhythm. At one point I hit the ball into the net 3 times in a row. "Just get the ball in," I mutter, totally disgusted with myself. I had played a match against Wooten earlier in the week and I was up 5-0 in the tiebreaker. Game is to 7, win by 2. A 5-0 lead is virtually unbeatable, until I proceed to drop the next 6 points, and eventually the set, 9-7. I couldn't even look at a tennis racket for 3 days after that match. I wonder if I'm feeling the after-effects. Anyway, Marcus and I play a scratchy first set, full of breaks, but I eventually come away with it 6-4. Now here comes the pain. In the last 5 (!) matches we've played, I've won the first set each time and then gotten obliterated in the 2nd. Marcus is some sort of 2nd set specialist. The pattern seems to be holding again and I'm down at 1-4, only one break, but struggling to stay in it. A couple of errors later I unleash a "cohoyo mielchina!" that they hear 7 courts down. Not quite "ohmigod!", but maybe I haven't left behind those junior days as much as I'd like to think. Marcus quickly runs out the rest of the set, 6-1.

On the changeover I pound Gatorade and try to get myself together for the 3rd set. I resolve to "miss less". If I make 4 errors in a game, I want to cut that to 2. If I make 2, cut it to 1. Just Miss Less. It becomes my mantra. The set starts and I'm very happy when I come out serving well. I had taken a look at some pictures of Sampras serving and noticed how far into the court he tossed the ball. From that position you wonder how the ball could possibly NOT explode into the corner. I copy this, tossing the ball farther out into the court than I think I should, and all of a sudden I've got extra pop on my delivery. After an easy hold I fight hard to get a foothold on Marcus' serve. "Miss less," I continue to tell myself. I eventually get the break and hold again to make it stand up. Marcus' serve disappears on him and he makes it easy on me, double faulting and pressing on the forehand. I wrap up the third set and the win, 6-1.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Roger Federer def. Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2.

On Monday Roger Federer became the first man to win 5 straight US Opens since "Big" Bill Tilden in the 1920s (he said the 1920s!). That's pretty heady stuff, and puts Federer back on track to surpass Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles (Federer's now at 13). It also saves his year and re-establishes Federer at the top of his game, halting the penstrokes of various sportswriters in the midst of writing his obituary.

If you're looking for objective analysis of the final you'll have to move on; nothing to see here. I was incapable of watching this match from anything other than a fanboy perspective. The first set you almost had to spot Federer; Murray was clearly tight in his first Grand Slam final appearance, and Federer came out with guns blazing. The second set was a hard fought affair and could/should have been tighter had Murray gotten the break that he deserved (TV replays confirmed one of Federer's shots was out on break point). Once Federer broke at 6-5 and served it out, the match was effectively over. Federer was able to fully relax and went into full-out attack mode, while the air went out of Murray. The set was not even as close as the scoreline, 6-2.

So then, how did Federer turn it around and get back to his vintage form, when Jim Courier stated that Federer was still recovering from mono and a step slow, even in this tournament? It's a good question; I'm not sure myself. The biggest difference between the dominant Federer of the past 4 years and the shaky Federer of the past 4 months has been his forehand. That shot was absolutely lethal; Federer could hit a winner from anywhere on court with it. No less an authority than John McEnroe deemed it the "biggest weapon in the history of the sport". This year though, Federer had been misfiring from that side, and the critics came out en masse. "His confidence is shot", "He needs to use a bigger racket" (Federer plays with the smallest racket head on tour, at 90 sq inches), and others. I thought an entry from his post-match presser proved illuminating:

Q. An argument could be made that you had the mono early on and it's taken you all this time really to fully recover. Do you think that's possible?

ROGER FEDERER: Possibly. I mean, I didn't feel like I was moving all that great still, you know, for the last couple of months. I thought it was okay, you know. I think I was okay on clay and on grass. Then when I came back to hardcourts, I think just my coordination was missing a little bit, because first of all, I haven't played on hardcourt for a while, and usually that comes back quite automatically, without me having to force the issue. But I didn't feel like it was all that great moving, especially in Cincy and Toronto.

I think there were some good moments at times, occasionally, as well as the Olympic Games. And I think here as the tournament went on, I started to feel like I was moving better and better. I think that was a good sign for me, and that also gave me a lot of confidence being able to know I could play defense and offense, because sometimes I just had the feeling I had to play offense because my defense was just not acceptable in my standpoint.

Andy Roddick once made the observation that everyone talks about Roger's ability on offense, but defensively "he has no peer". It's really an underrated aspect of his game (still). Federer is the rubber-band man out on court, ranging wide to slice back would-be winners and stretching for balls beyond the reach of most other players. With his movement, and by extension defense, compromised by the mono, Federer felt the need to press on the forehand and started missing. The resulting losses had to have hurt his confidence, which only exacerbated the problem. However, starting with the Djokovic match, Federer moved brilliantly, and he continued that pattern into the final. I did NOT think he moved all that well against Andreev, so it's interesting that he chalks up the poor movement to the mono. It will be interesting to see if his movement stays at this level now, and how he will fare in the indoor swing.

So what's the tennis forecast going to look like heading into 2009? Will Federer return to the #1 ranking and dominate again? I do think Federer will return to the top spot, but I don't think he will dominate as he did. And this may surprise you: I think Federer's return to the top will be less a function of his own play than the decline of Rafael Nadal. I can't imagine how Nadal's managed to play so well this year given the style of play he employs. Just looking at his schedule wears me out. He's been pushing so hard for so long to get past Federer and now that he's had his golden year I think he will have a hard time sustaining that drive. Hard thing to say about Nadal, but his body has to give out at some point, right? I think Federer's main competition for 2009 is going to be Djokovic, who has the ability to win without expending a lot of energy. Looking farther ahead, I'm not buying Marin Cilic; that forehand take-back is way too busy. But keep your eye on Ernests Gulbis. I'm predicting a Top-5 future for him, and maybe more.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Fueling the Fire

Two points from leveling the match at 2 sets all, Roddick steps up to serve. His matte-black baseball cap is further dulled by the sweat that soaks through it, making it look like a cast-iron skillet. An apt comparison, to go along with his searing serve. On the other side of the net Djokovic bounces up and down, his spiky jet-black hair shining in the glow of Ashe's floodlights. Roddick's first delivery misses. He gambles on his second, going for the ace. Clips the tape. 30-all now, and Roddick again misfires. Two double-faults in a row! 20,000 fans in Ashe murmur in shock. At breakpoint Roddick hits the panic button. For Andy, that means rushing the net at inopportune times. He kicks his first serve out wide, rushes in to play a backhand volley, and is trapped as Djokovic's lob sails over him and lands inside the baseline. The 4th set goes to a tiebreaker, but becomes a formality as Djokovic captures the early advantage and withstands a late rally by Roddick to finish the deal.

A couple minutes later Djokovic managed to turn those cheers into boos during his on-court interview with Michael Barkann. Djokovic obviously had a huge chip on his shoulder, and basically said that he was happy to beat Roddick since Roddick said he had "16 injuries". Barkann tried to rescue the interview but Djokovic would not let it go. He kept talking about how it "wasn't nice that Roddick was telling the crowd he was faking injuries". I think this event got blown out of proportion, so I'll just say that I agree that Roddick's previous interview (see below post) was mostly in jest, and also that Djokovic never broke the rules by calling the trainer when he played Robredo. If you've got a problem with that, beat him, or change the rules.

So what happened in this match? Roddick was in such a hurry to lose the first set that I only caught the tail end of it when I got home from work. Djokovic was blocking Roddick's first serve back, deep, and waiting for Roddick to make an error, which Roddick was only too eager to oblige. The second set was more of the same. Djokovic would push Andy behind the baseline with a deep shot to the middle, then swing him out wide to his backhand, but with margin; a safety shot. Roddick's reply was to hit his backhand hard crosscourt, where Djokovic was ready and waiting to send his next shot down the line for the winner. Simple but very effective. Roddick also seemed unable to finish off short balls for winners, sending them long. He changed tack and started hitting these balls as approaches to finish off the point at the net, but Roddick's forehand doesn't lend itself to an approach shot. His extreme Western grip makes it harder to get down to low balls, and his heavy topspin makes the balls jump up into the strike zone, instead of penetrating through the court. Roddick's black-and-white striped shirt was the zebra to Djokovic's lion, watching passing shots zip through him all night.

At 2-1 in the 3rd set Djokovic played an extremely loose game and Roddick took advantage to get the break. This seemed to give his serve the shot it needed, as up to this point Roddick was aceless. Now it was raining big buckets of Roddick aces. He made the one break stand up and took the 3rd set. The 4th set started and Roddick really seemed to hit his stride. He abandoned the panicky bluff-my-way-to-net strategy and started going for his groundstrokes, especially on the forehand, hitting several nicely angled inside-out winners. He started anticipating Djokovic's down the line strike and recovered closer to the center line after hitting backhands. Djokovic, clearly rattled by the pro-Andy crowd and the suddenly powerful groundies, began to press and miss a bit more. Roddick broke at 3 all and it looked like we were heading to a 5th set. John McEnroe was happy, Ted Robinson was happy, and it looked like the USA Network would get the send-off that they were looking for. And then they didn't.

To his credit, Roddick showed good sportsmanship at the end of the match and walked off the court waving to the crowd. From their press conferences later, it appears that they cleared the air in the locker room afterward. And although he lost and extinguished the dream of an American man winning this year, I think Roddick's run has to be considered a success. Since he seems to thrive on people writing him off, I'll add some fuel to his fire; you'll never win another major, Andy!

Bulletin Board Material

The stage is set - tonight's prime-time match at the US Open features two of the sports biggest showmen, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic. Roddick has had an up-and-down year, and this match is large for him. A chance to claim another Top 3 scalp. A place in the semifinals. A shot across the bow to remind the tennis world that he's still a top player.

Roddick has been in sizzling form the past week, obliterating Gonzalez, his most recent foe. Djokovic has struggled, with his opponents and injuries. He survived a 5 set battle against Tommy Robredo in the last round, but Roddick isn't buying the ailments that supposedly plague Djokovic:

Q. When asked about his injuries today, mentioning the right ankle as opposed to the left ankle, the other day ‑‑

ANDY RODDICK: Isn't it both of them? And a back and a hip?

Q. And when he said there are too many to count.

ANDY RODDICK: And a cramp.

Q. Do you get the sense right now that he is...


Q. Lot of things. Beijing hangover.


Q. He's got pretty long list of illness.

ANDY RODDICK: Anthrax. SARS. Common cough and cold.

Q. Got a lot of things going on with him.


Q. Do you think he's bluffing?

ANDY RODDICK: No, I mean, I'm sure ‑‑

Q. The way you're saying it, almost means you feel like...

ANDY RODDICK: No, if it's there, it's there. There's just a lot. You know, he's either quick to call a trainer or he's the most courageous guy of all time. I think it's up for you guys to decide.

That, friends, is bulletin-board material. Roddick v. Djokovic, tonight, 8:15pm EST, USA. Be there.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

SB Tennis Misadventures

A post on my own tennis misadventures...

The other night was our league match again, and I played at #2 with this other young guy named Ryan. The two guys we were playing were pretty old, in their 50s probably, so I thought we'd roll them. The match starts and one of them turns out to have a pretty big serve, a decent forehand, and good volleys. Actually they were both quite good at the net; they had really soft hands and hit a lot of drop volleys that I wasn't expecting. Anyway, I lose serve and then Ryan does too, and we lose the first set 6-2 in like 15 minutes. Second set we get our act together and go up an early break, and I'm thinking we're gonna roll, but we just keep the one break advantage and hold out to 6-3. However, the other team figures out that we're not that great on overheads. I'm average, ditto for Ryan; we just can't put these things away. We hit a hard serve and *poof* they launch one skyward. Then they keep lobbing us until we hit it hard enough that they can't return it, or we miss. And of course when you miss an overhead you feel like a total ass, because you should win that point outright.

Third set comes up and I get broken immediately. We're caught in this vicious lob cycle and can't seem to break them. I'm serving again down 1-3, 15-30. I serve, *poof* goes the lob. I'm tracking this sucker down and drill it... into the bottom of the net. That was just it for me so I grab the ball, whirl around, and launch that sucker out of the courts. I had only meant it to hit the back fence, but I took a squash-shot forehand to it, and the backspin made it keep rising. It sailed over to a dude's house across the street, bounced off one of his pillars, and rolled back to our side of the street. That tension release must have done a little good because I came back from 15-40 to end up holding, and we all held serve. They served for the match at 5-3, but we played a miracle game to break back, held into a 3rd set tiebreaker, and finished it off 7-5! By far the most competitive match I've had in that league.