Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nadal's first match, and the Spaniard retiring with the knee problem is...

David Ferrer!?! More details to come.

Update: Though Ferrer said he didn’t believe it to be a serious injury, he admitted to having problems with his knee prior to Wimbledon. “I cannot play. I prefer to relax for these few days and stand by for next week [in] Cincinnati… I want to take some time for treatment for this.”

Nadal had just gone up a break, 4-3, when Ferrer retired. Nadal had also broken his countryman to start the match, though Ferrer had gotten back on serve at 2-all after converting on his eighth break point. Nadal said: “I never expect this, this bad thing for David, so can say sorry to him and just wish him the very fast recovery to be ready for Cincinnati… And for me, it was nice [to] have a victory like this, and I say before [I’m] here to improve every day, to enjoy every game, every point.”

He said about returning to tour-level action: “The first movements is tough and hard to move well and to feel confident when you are touching the ball. But that's the normal thing. I must be happy, because I didn't play terrible. And the next round, I have another chance tomorrow to continuing to improve. Every match, every game is important to feel better for me.”


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

SB Tennis Misadventures

(Ed. note: this is the 2nd and concluding post. Click here for part 1.)

Serving at 1-1, I went down early again. My legs were starting to go, and my serve lacked pop. I wasn't getting the free points that made holding in the first set so easy. I fought back to deuce, but Kent broke me anyway. Pissed off that I had spent myself trying to hold twice now, I decided to let the set go and hope for the best in the Match TB. Swinging away, I ironically broke Kent back to 2-all, but it didn't matter. I went down again in my serve, and then stopped trying. I would powderpuff a serve over, then Kent would whack the return back for a clean winner; I didn't move an inch. After a second such point he looked over at me, surprised, but I think he had a good idea of what was going on. I determined that I wasn't going to make an effort on his serves, but I also wasn't going to let him ace me four times in a row; I wanted to drain his energy stores a bit before we got to the breaker. I'd hit a return to the corner, or a drop shot to make him sprint, then let him hit the winner to the open court. My service games were a little tougher; when I'd try to serve my leg would start to cramp up, and my right forearm started to lock in place. Kent ran out the rest of the second set 6-2 in 10 minutes, but I used that respite to start gathering energy for the Match TB.

The short breather did me good, and I stayed with Kent in the beginning of the 'breaker. I pushed to stay with him to 5-all, and I think he was surprised and maybe put a little off-balance. Previously I wasn't running for any balls, and now I was back to rallying with him. I put together a few good points, and with a couple of teammates exhorting me from the sidelines, I went up 7-5. The pressure got to Kent and he threw in a double fault. Finally I served for it at 9-6. My body was shaky as I got up to the line, and I decided to put everything I had into a first serve in an effort to close it out. Net. The adrenaline was coursing through me so much that I could feel my arm trembling as I went into my service motion again, but I got the second serve in and maneuvered the rally until I could swing away at a forehand, and then it was all over! I won 10-7! Kent slammed a ball to the back fence but greeted me at the net with a friendly shake.

I headed out to the shade next to the courts again and the excitement really began. Two of my teammates lost in 3rd set tiebreakers so we were down 2-1. The fourth match also went to a 3rd set tiebreaker, but we pulled it out and were even 2-2, with one match still to go. It went, you guessed it, to a 3rd set tiebreaker. At this point I was sitting with my friend Yun, drinking water and yelling at our teammate still locked in battle. All of a sudden my abs locked up, and I doubled over in pain from the cramps. I flopped down onto the concrete to try and stretch it out, to no avail, and soon the Quinine Guy was running at me. Unbeknownst to me, our teammate took a lead in his Match TB, and all of a sudden there was a lot of commotion; guys were yelling for him, guys were yelling at me, and I was doing quite a bit of yelling myself.

Two minutes after the pills, the cramps in my stomach started to subside. Robin, our captain's wife and a former Registered Nurse, was by my side trying to get me to drink. I took huge gulps of an energy drink but I couldn't get fluids back into me fast enough. My leg seized up and I skinned my elbows on the pavement as I tried to move into a position to stretch it. I was channeling memories of high-school soccer preseason, where I'd encountered similar cramps before, trying to remember what I did back then to make it stop. Back then a coach knew what was happening and helped me stretch out; this time I could only give vague directions to Robin to bend my leg this way or that. My hamstring spasmed and seemingly my whole leg locked up, even my foot arched and my toes dove downward as if pulled by some invisible force. "My big toe!" I screamed, "pull it up toward my knee!" "Fuck! FUCK!" shouted my friend Yun, feeling totally helpless. I continued to try to drink and stretch out, but nothing gave me long relief. After 30 minutes Yun asked if he should call an ambulance, and I screamed my affirmation.

EMTs soon surrounded me and got me stabilized. One noticed a bruise on my right inner elbow and asked if I recently had blood drawn. I mumbled that I gave blood 4 days ago. "What?!" was the incredulous response. They strapped me into a gurney, and wheeled me out through a throng of tennis players, who were applauding the actions of my saviors. Supar embarrassing. As I was leaving I saw Kent, and I jokingly said to him "You did this to me!" One of his teammates yelled back "Yeah, but you still beat him and we're never going to let him forget it!"

I got rushed off to the Emergency Room where the doctors hooked me up with an IV. Right back into the same arm that had the blood draw. My right elbow was a purply bruised mess. Meanwhile, the roasted red pepper sauce from my earlier Tuscan Turkey wreaked havoc on my stomach. I'm already predisposed to acid indigestion, and now it felt like lava was swirling around down there. However, three hours and two bags of IVs later the cramping was gone, and I gingerly left the hospital.

Oh, and the match? Our guy held a match point at 9-8 in the 'breaker, but lost the next 3 points and the match. However, since we had won the first match so easily and barely lost the second, there was a chance that we could still advance out of the round robin if San Diego beat Temecula. That exact thing happened, and the team played Sunday, sans Jesse, and captured a 4-1 victory. See you in Sectionals, baby.

Monday, July 20, 2009

World Team Tennis Gets Ugly

This video clip is unreal. First Leander Paes drills Robbie Kendrick with a volley that fires up John McEnroe, and then Kendrick responds by ripping a serve right at Paes. I'm not too sure what set Paes off initially...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

SB Tennis Misadventures

(Ed. note: due to length, this recap is split into two posts.)

"Arrrrrrghh!" I groaned in anguish as I flipped over on to my belly, anything to try and loosen the knots forming in my abdomen muscles. I rolled over on to my back again and tried arching, but succeeded only in firing off another round of back spasms. My body was rebelling against me in response to the last 4 hours, determined to not let my brain make the decisions anymore. Someone, a stranger, rushed up to me, spilling pills out into his palm as he thrust it at me saying, "Here, take these! They're quinine!" I cast a doubtful glance at him, but asked "How many should I take?" "All of them," he replied. Desperate, I grabbed the pills and swallowed them in one gulp. I flopped over again. I couldn't find a position that would allow me to relax, and started to panic about what would happen if I didn't find it soon. Shutting my eyes against the pain, I dropped my head to the dust-caked pavement, a situation that normally would've left this germaphobe running for the nearest bottle of Purell.

Eight hours earlier, I had set off bright and early for the 2 hour trip down to Long Beach for the USTA playoffs. Our team had been drawn into a round robin with scheduled matches at 11:30am and 2:30pm, and the forecast called for a general heat wave to be sweeping across Southern California. They weren't kidding. I pulled into the parking lot at 10am and felt the heat as soon as I opened my door. We had two courts reserved at the El Dorado Tennis Club at 10:30am, and I went through a languid warmup, determined not to waste much energy before our matches started. These tennis playoff sites usually have a tennis-themed carnival atmosphere to them. The organizers find a site with plenty of courts, and a couple hundred players descend on the location for the weekend, milling around watching, eating, and playing. At 11:15am we gathered under the canopy where the organizers had set up a headquarters, replete with a PA sound system. The booming voice called out the rules and regulations, including a warning that due to the heat, frequent hydration would be very important. And then they started to call out the matches. As each pair were called out the players would step forward while their teams cheered. This was almost like high-school wrestling, where running through a tunnel of your teammates got you psyched up enough to entertain the idea of rolling around on a mat with a complete stranger. Anyway, suddenly I heard "Jesse and Bernie!", and I walked up to the front table to shake hands with my opponent, and off we headed to Court 2.

Warming up, I noticed that Bernie sliced every backhand and had a decent forehand. He also had the slightly annoying habit of grunting every time he hit a serve, even a second serve. We started the match and he surprised me by coming over the ball and hitting topspin on his one-handed backhand. Still, I was feeling pretty smooth and was able to take control of the rallies, running him side to side until I found an opening for a winning shot. My serve also felt good, and I threw in a couple of aces and kick serves he struggled to return. My normal hitting partner, Marcus, is so fast that I rarely hit outright winners and almost never ace him, so it's always a pleasant surprise when I play someone else and my forehands whistle through the court, unencountered by the opponent's racket. I wrapped up a fairly routine 6-2 opening set and we started in on the second.

I continued to cruise, feeling particularly happy with one sequence in which I chipped a backhand return deep crosscourt and followed it in to the net, anticipating his down the line response and cutting it off with a forehand drop volley. The heat was starting to get to me though. At 3-0 I started to feel overheated. I thought that I was going to need to run to the bathroom at any second, but I tried to force it out of my mind and wrap up the match asap. I did just that and got off the court with a 6-1 second set, and headed toward the shade of the nearest tree. My teammates were performing similarly well and we won the match 5-0. We headed out to Quizno's for a quick lunch, and I had the Tuscan Turkey sandwich in a decision that would come back to haunt me later.

Back at the Tennis Club, our captain was working out our lineup for the second match. We had one extra player to sub in, and the question was who was going to sit out. The captain decided that our other singles player would be sitting out to rest up for Sunday's match. I talked to him and said that I thought I had about one more set of good singles left in me. I'd prefer to play doubles for the second match due to the heat, but if no one wanted to play singles then I'd do it. As I was the youngest player on the team by a solid 20 years, he kinda looked at me and said "You're playing singles."

My opponent this time around was named Kent. A sturdily-built guy from Temecula, I guessed he was in his mid to late 30s. San Diego, the first team we faced, would be taking on Temecula at 5:30pm in the third and final match in our round robin, so that meant this was Kent's first match of the day. His fresh legs advantage was tempered by my calm; I had gotten rid of the first match jitters a few hours earlier. Kent was a step up from Bernie, although their games were very similar. Each had a deceptively punchy forehand, and a one-handed backhand. Kent's serve packed a little more power though, and he placed his groundstrokes better.

Right from the warmup I could tell that the heat would factor into this match for me. I needed to conserve energy, which in a weird way boosted my game. Instead of worrying about chasing down every shot he hit, I played more aggressively and took control of the rallies early, looking to end the point by wrong footing him on a forehand or charging in for a volley. Kent helped me out as well - his style of play seemed designed to keep points short. He held to open the match but I had chances to break him. My serve came up and happily I found that I still inhabited The Zone, throwing down a few aces and generally holding with ease. I broke him early in the set and again to close it, 6-3.

I was back to my grape Gatorade tricks on the changeovers, and I was drinking more than usual. Water too, anything to try and cool down. I could feel my energy sapping away though, and I served to start the second set. After going down early, I fought back to deuce and had to save several break points before ultimately holding serve. I was up 1-0, but had spent a ton of energy to get there. The format for these matches is best of 3 tiebreak sets, but if you split the first two sets, you play a Match Tiebreaker to 10 in lieu of a full third set. My mind started exploring the possibility of throwing the second set to conserve energy and trying to pull it out in the Match TB. Kent served and held in what felt like 10 seconds. 1-all. Excuses were just pouring through my mind at this point; it's super hot, you're used to Santa Barbara weather while this Temeculan probably wears a winter coat when it's in the 70s... you're the only one playing two singles matches, everyone will understand if you don't have enough energy to win the second one, etc. Suck it UP! I screamed at myself.

(How did things end against Kent? Did the heat beat me down like a red-headed stepchild? Check back on Wednesday for the Emergency conclusion!)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Andy Murray Likes Kissing Toes!

Andy Murray turned Gulbis upside down and wiped the court with him, winning 6-2, 7-5, 6-3. The official stats for the match recorded just 5 unforced errors from Murray. Even taking Wimbledon's generous statisticians into account, that's an exceptionally clean match.

Gulbis though, continues to disappoint. I didn't really expect him to beat Murray after the horrendous year he's had, but I'm really starting to question whether he'll ever live up to the lofty expectations I had for him. Despite his considerable power Gulbis wasn't able to hit through Murray, who chipped balls back into play and waited for Gulbis to make the mistake. Ernests agreed in his surprisingly honest press conference, giving away the secret to beating him: "I think before the match he exactly knew how he's gonna play against me. He took a really good tactic. He was giving me slice to my backhand, that kind of shot which I don't like, because I have to hit it, you know.

He hits the shot with no power. He breaks the rhythm of the game. Then I have to hit it. I can hit it once, twice, third time, then I make mistake. You know, I'm not consistent enough from the baseline to go long rallies.

He perfectly knew, and he slices very good. He didn't miss it. I think perfect tactic."

Okay Ernie, prepare yourself for an onslaught of slices to your backhand in the future. Speaking of press conferences, here's Murray explaining bets his team makes to keep training interesting:

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the forfeits you've been handing down to members of your coaching team?

ANDY MURRAY: No, I don't hand them down to anyone. We play football, and whoever loses the game has to do whatever the forfeit is. But one of the parts of the forfeit is that when you lose, you know ‑‑ my fitness trainer was walking around with a cricket helmet on yesterday.

If someone asked you what it's for, you're not allowed to tell them that you've lost a bet. You just have to say that you like it and whatnot.

Q. Just on the forfeits, they're very funny. But who chooses them? Because you never seem to lose. Is it you who sort of says you have to do this or whatever?

ANDY MURRAY: No. Before the start of each game, we decide what the forfeit's gonna be. And then, yeah, I'm better than them, so I don't lose as much (smiling).

When we play for small forfeits I lose the games more, because [I] don't concentrate as much. It doesn't bother me like when we play for push‑ups and you have to kiss the other guy's toes. Like I'll lose them.

But if it's stuff like a cricket bat or you have to get lunch for everyone and stuff, I concentrate a bit harder.

So let me get this straight: you'd rather kiss another d00d's toes than walk around with a cricket bat?

The Falcon Prefers to Fly Low

Novak Djokovic's presser after winning his 2nd round match against Julien Benneteau:

Q. You seem to be downbeat about your chances. Clearly you have the game to trouble anybody.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I do. I'm aware of my qualities. It's just that I don't want to, as I said, create an extra pressure on myself, because I know how hard it is to deal with it. And I'm happy that the people are not talking about me in this moment.

To be honest, I wish for that so I can really focus on my game and try to perform my best tennis as possible.

Q. You said that you're just as happy people aren't talking about you; that you're not the favorite. Why is it that, and how is it different when you are one of the favorites for you psychologically?

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, it was different, because then there is a lot of side factors, obviously. Media is one, which has an affect on your psychological, you know, situation in the certain moments, in the periods when you play tournament, for example. When I played this year's Australian Open, I had a lot of expectations as the defending champion.

But yet again, I changed the racquet and some things. Of course, I felt a huge amount of the pressure, and I couldn't really deal with it in the best way.

Pete Sampras talked about the target drawn on your back when you're the #1 guy. Clearly, Nole prefers to be the hunter rather than the hunted, but if he has designs on the top spot that's going to have to change.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Nadal OUT!

"Rafael Nadal has said he isn't 100% fit and has decided he cannot play at Wimbledon this year."


Monday, June 15, 2009

"Why you hittin such bad shots, dawg?"

Lately I've been wondering what happened to Donald Young. Young ripped up the junior circuit, winning everything in sight, and big things were projected for him. He took a number of wildcards straight into ATP events, and learned the hard way what separates the men from the boys. An 0-9 record destroyed his confidence and sent him into a tailspin that he only began to recover from last year.

But this year? Neither hide nor hair of The Kid. I didn't see his name in the Australian Open, or even when I looked for him in the qualifying. Ditto for the French. With Wimbledon though, he has reemerged. He popped up on Day 1 of Qualifying, which isn't even held at Wimbledon - it's at a club in Roehampton. As reported on Wimbledon's site:

Donald missed the French Open to play Challenger events to earn more points. He wants to qualify directly for the US Open on his own merit, not as a wild card. But he has made an exception for Wimbledon for several reasons, because grass court tennis is suited to his game, he has had success here before and because Wimbledon is the tournament everyone cares about.

"If you do well here you can make a name for yourself. Even people who don’t watch tennis, they know about Wimbledon."

Unfortunately Donald lost 6-4, 6-4, a nod to the title of the post (my buddy Jacobs and I heard Donald utter the line to himself while watching him lose at the US Open). Young's conqueror was Alejandro Falla, a journeyman from Columbia.

Young, who turns 20 next month, was despondent after losing the first set but picked up his confidence early in the second when he had four points to break Falla's serve and lead 4-2.

But Falla, ranked 20 places lower than the American, battled furiously to escape losing his serve and once he had held for 3-3 he began, slowly, to look the stronger player.

At 4-all, Young faced five break points and although he saved four of them the fifth went Falla's way with a forehand cross court service return winner. Falla held to 15 for victory and a disconsolate Young was left with a long and lonely walk to the locker room.

Weekend Wrap

Andy Murray def. James Blake 7-5, 6-4
Tommy Haas def. Novak Djokovic 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-1

The most surprising result of the weekend came from Halle Germany, where the often-a-groomsmen-never-a-groom Haas took out World #4 Djokovic for the title. According to Djokovic, he gave it away. "I did not play well at all," Djokovic said. "I was lucky to win the second set." Still, I'm happy for Haas, who is back playing well after his third shoulder surgery.

The less exciting match (but the only one I saw) showcased Murray's newfound grasscourt prowess. He beat the crap out of Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semifinals - seriously, that wasn't even a match - before taking Blake out in a not as close as the score suggests straight-setter. Blake seems to have the type of game that would translate well to grass; athletic, go for broke shotmaker, but while watching I never had the belief that James could actually beat Murray. Meanwhile, Andy played well. Maybe I''m late to the party here, but Murray really impressed me with his serve. One of the commentators, remarking on Murray's improved game, called Murray "the best mover in tennis." What? I'd still rate him 3rd at best, behind Nadal and Federer, in that order. Still, with his solid performance this week he has to be considered one of the favorites heading into Wimbledon.

Friday, June 12, 2009

SB Tennis Misadventures

There I was, warming up with Dano on Cathedral Oaks' court 6, but mostly messing around. The sting from my last loss in the Interclub league hadn't worn off, but we were playing Cathedral Oaks, who had yet to win a match. To top it off, our captain Bob had penciled me in at #3 doubles (our first time around I played #1 with Wooten and won in straight sets). So I was feeling pretty comfortable until Bob walked up and said that instead of playing #3 with Graham, I was going to play at #1 with ... Anthony!

A little background on Anthony: he's in his early 40s, 5'11" and thin - he was a long distance runner in his youth. His salt and pepper stubble is usually styled into some short fad; a soul patch one week, chin whiskers another. He's gregarious and likes to joke around off-court and during warmup. His weekly margarita mix is looked-forward to by teammates, and he always makes sure to bring an extra special glass for his doubles partner that day; an elevation over the plastic cups the rest of the team casts around with. Also, like me, Anthony is a huge Sampras-phile. We've both patterned our serves on the "Chong", Pete's service motion, but Anthony's reach advantage has let him develop into an attacking serve-and-volleyer, while I grind it out from the baseline. Partnering Anthony in doubles, however, can be a true tightrope act. Don't be fooled by his jokes in the beginning of the match, because Anthony gets more serious as the set wears on, and he hates to lose. The cardinal sin of playing with Anthony is dumping easy volleys at net on his serve; if he gets broken because you committed an error, you better get ready for the Silent Treatment. He makes me afraid to miss, which means I'm less aggressive when we play.

After turning the intensity up to 11, I finish my warmup with Dano and head over to court 1 for our match. Today we're playing Vern and Francois. Wooten and I took on Francois last time, so I know his game well (tough kick serve, decent volleys, bad backhand return) but Vern is an unknown quantity. Anthony's seen him before though, and cautions me that while Vern's serve isn't going to overpower me, he'll spot it well. We win the toss and elect to serve, and while I'm fully confident in my serve, I like to give my shoulder a few extra games to warm up these days. Anthony serves to start and Vern rips a forehand return that Anthony can only bat back into the net. 0-15. A serve to Francois and it's almost a carbon copy of the point before. 0-30 and now I'm starting to get nervous. Anthony's no longer joking about the great return they hit. Another rip by Vern and all of a sudden we're down 0-40 and facing 3 break points right off the bat. I'm tight as a piano string and not sure what to say. Anthony's not making it any easier on me either; I try to toss him a ball and miss wide. Instead of reaching his racket 3 feet to the side he let's it go, walking all the way back to the fence to retrieve it. Fail. I turn around and get ready. Anthony's in no-screwing-around mode now and fires an unreturnable serve. At 15-40 he misses the first but throws in a filthy slider out wide for a 2nd serve ace. Another unreturnable serve at 30-40 brings us to deuce, and I start breathing easier. We win the next two points and hold, but the tone of the match has been set; this is a serious affair.

Anthony and I discuss receiving options on the changeover. Traditionally I play the ad side since my backhand return is one of my strengths, but since it failed me 3 weeks ago with Marcus I've had little confidence in it. I decide to try the deuce side to get out of my own head, and it works. I start returning well, but Francois and Vern are volleying exceptionally and hold. Soon we're zipping through games, everyone holding easily; I hold my own serve at love. At 2-3 us Francois serves and goes up 40-0, but Anthony and I make a few good returns and pull back to deuce. Anthony and I are still trying to get in sync; one point that we win ends when Anthony sends a volley at Vern's feet that he can't handle. "Great shot!" I say, running up to offer a fiver. Anthony slaps my hand and says "It was a good shot, not a great shot, but a good shot." Oooh-kay dude, what do you want me to say? I'm playing well though, and starting to feel more comfortable on the court. Francois kicks a serve to my backhand and I drive a dipping return low that he can't handle. It's our first shot at a breakpoint, and Anthony sets us up with a nice return that we convert and break for a 4-2 lead. I hold and we make the one break stand up to take the first set 6-3.

Between sets I'm guzzling my grape Gatorade again and listening to Anthony strategize for the second set. Somewhat surprisingly, they've decided to start with Francois serving even though he was the only person broken in the first set. Anthony and I slap hands and determine to start this set off with a break. Doesn't happen - Francois holds easily, and it's our turn to serve. We decide Anthony should start, even though he's had a harder time holding serve so far. Part of it is me stoking his ego, but really his serve is effective; the other team has just been picking it up well so far. It turns out to be a terrible decision - Anthony gets broken and we go into a 0-2 hole. I'm worried that this will bring out the Silent Treatment, but to Anthony's credit, it does not. He stays positive and exhorts me to punish the return and set him up for an easy put-away. We eventually get the break back and holds start accumulating. It starts feeling like my match with Marcus, where I started panicking about when we were going to break them.

At 5-all Vern collects the balls for his serve. As promised, his serve isn't overpowering but he has a knack for placing it right in the corner on my backhand side, with a little slice so that it comes in toward my body. The sidespin keeps it low and makes it harder to deal with. This time he decides to try and slide it out wide to my forehand, but he misses the target. The ball comes slicing into the middle of the service box and right into my wheelhouse. I unload on a forehand and Vern's subsequent volley flies out. On the next point we get into a little exchange, then Anthony goes for an extreme angle. Vern cuts it off and hits an even more extreme angle that I think ends the point, but Anthony sprints after it and slices a backhand around the netpost for a winner! He shouts "c'mon!" and this time there is no correction when I congratulate him with a "Great shot!" We break and head to the changeover with a 6-5 lead.

We're up 6-5, and I'm serving to close the match. This is a position I like to be in, but that doesn't mean I'm immune to the pressure. I've had an excellent serving day so far; 0 double faults and haven't been remotely in trouble - I don't think they've even gotten to deuce on my serve. I slide it out wide to Vern though and he repays me from before with a return that I can't handle. Two points later I'm down 15-30. Ruh roh. I take a deep breath while Anthony and I decide where I should serve to Francois. Anthony notices that Francois has been cheating to the backhand side since I've been going there heavily, and advises a serve up the T. I toe the baseline, toss the ball, and fire a serve up the middle. Francois does lean out wide and my serve catches him unaware; a clean ace. Two points later and we wrap it up for a tight 6-3, 7-5 win. Boo yah.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Mental Strength of a Champion

Somehow having snuck past security, the lunatic in a red get-up gathered himself on a court side seat, leapt over the divider onto the court and made a break for Roger. Startled out of his returner's position, Federer took a step back and tried to wave the guy off. The idiot would not be denied though, and tried to force a cap onto Federer's head before getting chased around and eventually flattened by security. The YouTube videos of this incident are getting taken down left and right, but this one currently exists (no embedding possible): watch video here. Roger committed a string of errors to lose that game, but regrouped quickly and went on to defeat Robin Soderling 6-1, 7-6(1), 6-4 and win his first Roland Garros title.

Emblematic of that final, Roger's greatest adversities seemed to come off-court rather than the opponents he faced on-court. First Novak Djokovic bowed out. Then came the surprise of the tournament, with Soderling taking out Rafael Nadal, followed by Andy Murray falling to Fernando Gonzalez. All of a sudden Federer was installed as an overwhelming favorite to win the only major title that eluded him, and he was playing far below his best. In his match against Tommy Haas the pressure appeared to be too much; Federer dropped the first two sets and was five measly points from losing before roaring back to win in 5. The pressure to win, and win now, felt enormous. Who knew if Federer would ever get a shot at a title match again, nevermind a shot without having to face Nadal? As Federer mentioned in his press conference:
When I walk on the streets or drive in the transportation or I go for dinner, everybody is like, This is your year. You've got to do it.

They're screaming from their scooters and out of the car. They even get out at the red lights and want me to sign an autograph or take a picture. It's quite incredible this last couple of weeks.

Obviously, Roger felt a lot of support from the French crowd. I don't know about you, but when someone tells me I _have_ to do something, or they're expecting me to pull through, I feel more pressure. Right before I turned 16 and got my driver's license, my sister or mom was talking about how crazy a driver I would be, and it was only a matter of time until I had an accident. My dad cut in though, and said "No, Jesse'll be a good driver." That set me on edge; now I had an expectation I had to live up to, rather than one I could prove wrong. If you ever want to motivate me just tell me I can't do something - I'll be working on it immediately.

So to me, the way Roger handled the pressure and emerged a champion is even more impressive. If you've followed Peter Bodo's blog he's given Federer some grief in the past for not having a Warrior Badge Moment, a la Sampras serving his way through tears against Courier in the Australian Open, or Michael Chang fighting off cramps and defeating Lendl at the French. I'm stepping into Pete's office temporarily, ripping a WMB off his desk, and pinning it on Roger for that inside-out forehand winner he hit against Haas on break point, down 2 sets to love. And credit to McEnroe, who immediately pointed out the significance of that shot should he go on to win the tournament. With this victory Roger becomes only the 6th man to complete a career Grand Slam (winning all 4 of tennis' major titles), and ties Pete Sampras for the lead with 14 Slams. In the wake of these achievements many have already weighed in, proclaiming Roger the Greatest of All Time, including the likes of Sampras and Rod Laver.

Speaking of McEnroe, a big thumbs up to the Tennis Channel (I refuse to call it just Tennis Channel) for their gigantic improvement. I've criticized them in the past, but their coverage of Roland Garros was on par or even better than ESPN's, and they shelled out for some serious talent in the booth and in the production trailer. Really, a job Well Done.

The first few days of post-Roland Garros has seen the tennis landscape change dramatically. Federer and Nadal have now split the last 4 Grand Slams, and with news of Nadal's knee tendinitis and his Wimbledon participation in jeopardy, Roger has to be considered the favorite. Things are getting really interesting as we race toward the Super Bowl of tennis; Wimbledon, starting up in London on June 22. See you there.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Match Preview: Federer vs. Monfils

Federer's French Open campaign is starting to look destiny-kissed as he marches toward the final and a date with immortality. Winning the only Grand Slam he has yet to capture would tie him with Sampras for the record, but leave him alone in most people's minds. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have all fallen; Federer's chief obstacles are out of the way, but he still has three very tough matches to go before he can lift the trophy.

Next up is Gael Monfils, the acrobatic Frenchman that Federer met in the semis last year at Roland Garros. The head2head is 4-0 for the Swiss, with the '08 French their last meeting. Federer took that match in 4 tough sets, and with the energy Monfils has displayed so far, this year's matchup looks to be just as electric. Here's a classic point from Monfils, scrambling, diving, and whipping the crowd into hysterics.

Dobeng - looks a little like Steven, no?

Phew! That was CLOSE.

R. Federer def. T. Haas, 6-7(4) 5-7 6-4 6-0 6-2.

And now Murray is out! Federer is the only 1 of the Top 4 seeds remaining. No pressure, Roger.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

SB Tennis Misadventures

"Nice serve there, Billy Idol!"

Last night was league night. My team, the Yacht Club, has been the dominant team in our league for the past three years, running roughshod over the likes of La Cumbre, Knowlwood, and the perennial cellar-dwelling Cathedral Oaks. This summer, however, Tennis Club of Santa Barbara has risen up as a formidable challenger. After 3 weeks of play we were both 3-0, distancing ourselves from the rest of the pack. Last night we faced off at their courts up on Foothill Rd.

Our captain's lineup card had me playing at #2 doubles with my friend Marcus. That was ideal. My game meshes well with Marcus', and I've played with him often enough to have the comfort level necessary to ride out rough patches in play. We started to warm up with our opponents, Ed and Justin, who looked fairly solid. Ed served to open the match, and his deliberate service motion was followed by a deliberate serve. Marcus hammered back a forehand return but Ed surprised us with exceptionally good hands at the net, volleying past us for a winner. I drilled my first two returns into the net, still feeling the early match jitters, but then we started to pick up our play. Justin, as it turned out, did not present as formidable a net presence, and we started directing traffic his way. We broke and I stepped up to serve.

In doubles I generally stick with a heavy kick serve even on my first delivery. My strategy is to keep a high percentage of first serves in and place the serve to set up a volley winner by my partner. If the quality of the returner is higher I'll start going for more on serve, but my serve was diving down into the corners and giving our opponents fits. I held easily and we started to open up a groove. I felt like I could do anything with my volley, directing them deep to a corner or finishing off with a delicate drop shot out of their reach. Marcus and I established a good momentum and picked up a 2nd break on our way to a 6-2 first set victory.

On the changeover I enjoyed some grape Gatorade (my fave) and looked around to see how our other teams were doing. Over on Court 1 Wooten and Anthony looked to be in a bit of trouble. Wooten had accidentally spiked Anthony in the back with a serve and the mood was dark. After their errors they glared at the ball with disdain; even winning shots they hit were celebrated with nothing more than silent resignation. It didn't look good.

Marcus and I started the second set hot, going up an early break at 2-1, which we promptly gave back. Both teams accumulated holds, but there grew a sense of foreboding as we pushed on to 3-all, then 4-all. These crucial games went by, and the question in my mind turned from "when are we going to break these guys?" to "if we don't break soon we're going to be in danger" to "crap we need to hold on just to get to the tiebreaker!" I tried to fight against this rising sense of panic. Feeling that way can lead to paralysis, and one of the worst things you can do in doubles is stop being aggressive. Meanwhile our opponents had definitely upped their level of play. Ed moved to cut off volleys whenever he had the chance, and they hardly missed any returns. Marcus and I were fighting hard just to hold, but we pushed it to the tiebreaker. I like tiebreakers. I fully expected to steamroll Ed and Justin in this breaker, but to my ever-growing horror we won the first point and then lost the next 5 in a row. Shortly thereafter they closed it out 7-2, and knotted the match at 1 set apiece.

At this point all the other matches had long since finished. The rest of the guys from both teams were up on the clubhouse deck, already breaking into the post-match beers. We had a choice whether we wanted to play out the 3rd set, or finish things in a sudden-death Match Tiebreaker. I definitely wanted to play the 3rd set out, despite the late hour. A tiebreaker is a little bit of a crap shoot, and I wanted the longer 3rd set to let our quality win out. Everyone else felt the same way (but maybe not about our quality), so we decided to play it out. We picked up our bags and transferred over to center court, right next to the clubhouse deck, and turned the stadium lights on. The drinkers, now with gladiators to entertain them, roared their approval. We had an audience.

We started to play it out to exhortations from our fellow teammates. I've recently become a "rubio de farmacia" (blonde by way of the pharmacy), hence the cheer from above. During one point our opponents threw up a lob, and I came up with an overhead (never my strongest shot), slicing it away for a clean winner. Ryan shouted "When did Jesse learn to hit an overhead?!" and someone else shot back "That's not Jesse, can't you see he has blonde hair!" Despite this, Marcus and I were playing hesitant tennis, meeting the ball a fraction too late and missing our target more often than not. We went down a break, then another break, and all of a sudden Justin served for the match at 5-2. Marcus and I slapped hands on the changeover, giving each other a "let's take this one point at a time" when we really meant "well, here goes". With such a large deficit to overcome the pressure was off, and of course Marcus and I started to dial it in. I began to hit my backhand like I should have from the beginning, driving through my return and dipping the ball at their feet. We quickly broke to a chorus of cheers from the Yacht Clubbers. Dan leaned over the fence and told me, "we're down 3-2. If you guys win we'll tie 3-3". I stepped up to serve at 3-5, but after a few hard-fought points we were down break point, facing match point. At this point I was like a cornered wildcat, pissed off about the situation and almost snarling to myself. I threw everything I had into a kicker out wide, which Justin could only bat back into the net. Another break point, two more, and we saved them both. Finally we got to Ad-In, and I reached back to send another one to his backhand. Marcus closed off the net for a volley winner and we held! I punched the air, loosed a "C'MAAAWWWWN!" and the crowd went nuts. We were nearing 2.5 hrs and by this point I had finished the Gatorade and started in on water. After the changeover we lined up to receive serve, but unfortunately Ed and Justin quelled our uprising and held to take the match 6-4.

I still have a bad taste in my mouth from this loss, a day later. The champs have been knocked down and there's a new team to beat; TCSB has taken the #1 spot in the standings. Check back throughout the summer to see how the Yacht Club responds, as we go through the regular season and ramp it up for what should be an exciting playoff!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Federer opens a Magic Box of whupass on Nadal

Time flies when you're ignoring your blog, doesn't it? A week slips by, then two, and you realize you haven't posted anything. Like a high school ex-girlfriend, you start avoiding eye contact with her in the hall, devising alternate routes to class, anything to miss the awkwardness of that first conversation. A month goes by and you realize you can't keep this up forever, but now that you've waited so long you better have something important/interesting to say.

Well, Sunday's match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal saved the day and provided the icebreaker! Federer and Nadal met in the final of the Madrid 1000, a top clay tournament and the final tune-up to the French Open. Against all predictions, Federer stunned Nadal in a straight-set shocker, snapping Rafa's 33 match win streak on clay (and simultaneously ending Federer's title drought).

This wasn't their highest-quality match; I don't have the stats in front of me atm but I believe Federer was only even in the winners to unforced errors ratio and Nadal was in the negative. Yes, Djokovic had worn Nadal down the day before with a 4 hr semifinal, but more important was the way Federer played this match and what it could mean for the near future. Federer finally made a few changes to his game to switch things up against Nadal: he ran around his backhand and hit his forehand inside-in (up the line to Nadal's backhand, instead of inside-out to Nadal's more powerful forehand), he serve-volleyed on occasion, and he made liberal use of the dropshot.

Quickly then, since this is our first post back and we don't want to seem boring to our new ex-girlfriend: The importance of Federer's win outweighs the importance of Nadal's loss. Nadal wrote this off as a bad day on a very fast clay court. "To me, this tournament has nothing to do with Paris. This tournament is practically another surface compared to Paris," he said. For Federer though, this win provides a much-needed confidence boost one week before the only Grand Slam he has yet to win starts. If they meet again on June 7, Federer's quest for the career Grand Slam would seem a lot more attainable.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Get Wilson on the phone!"

Roddick vs. Djokovic, part 5.

This rivalry has become interesting of late due to the trash-talking that went down at last year's US Open. Djokovic won that one and proceeded to call out Andy afterward. They ran into each other again at the Australian Open in January, and Djokovic quit in the middle of the match. Now, they met again in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells.

Going into the match pundits declared Roddick the favorite, which surprised me. Yeah, Djokovic struggled in his lead-up matches, but I maintain that had Djokovic faced Roddick in sane conditions Down Under, he would have come out ahead. Well, Roddick just tuned the Djoker 6-3, 6-2 in just over an hour.

Roddick played efficient, tidy tennis, keeping his errors to a minimum and letting Djokovic litter up the stat sheet. 29 unforced errors is waaaaay too much. Djokovic recently switched to a new racket before the season and despite his protestations to the contrary, it seems he's still getting adjusted. Really, that switch made no sense at all. Djokovic won the Masters Cup last year, switched rackets in January as the defending Australian Open champion, and lost his mojo.

Anyway, onward and upward for Roddick. The Larry Stefanki experiment is a bona fide success now, and Roddick's win shook the loose tooth of the Top 4 even more, to the point where Djokovic is swinging in the wind. Against any prediction I might have made, Roddick has a good shot at being the one to fill the gap.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Roger Federer updates

Alright, back to the Pro Tour. After 6 weeks of absence, Federer returns and the news reports are flying in fast enough to give you whiplash. First Federer hires Darren Cahill as his coach. Then reports come out that it's not true, Cahill turned Federer down because it would be too much travel. And today, Federer drops the bomb that his long-time girlfriend Mirka is PREGGERS!

I also have some really awesome news to share with all of you: Mirka and I are excited to let you know that we will be parents this summer! Mirka is pregnant and we are so happy to be starting a family together. This is a dream come true for us. We love children and we are looking forward to being parents for the first time. Mirka is feeling great and everything is going well.

Speak soon and thanks for all your continued support!



I've long suspected that Federer was holding off on marrying Mirka because he didn't want anything to change. I mentioned how superstitious I got in one weekend of tournament play; you can imagine how much Federer wanted things to stay the same as he dominated for 4 years. Well, that's all over. There are several male pros that have successfully played on the tour with a wife and kids in tow, including Agassi, but this will be a big change for Federer. Will it be the distraction that derails his career and pursuit of his record-tying 14th Grand Slam? Was that going to happen anyway, thanks to Nadal? It'll be interesting to see.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sandbagger, part IV

(Here's the conclusion of the mini-series on my tournament experience. Click here for Parts 1 2 and 3.)

Immediately following my semifinal match, I headed over to the scorers' table. Jon-Paul had advanced from the other half of the draw, and he met me there. At the end of my semifinal match I had felt the beginnings of cramping start to set in on my calves, and I knew that I didn't have another match left in me. I also knew that Jon-Paul traveled over an hour from his home to get to this tournament, and that he'd want to play the final today. His first scheduled match this morning never materialized due to a pull-out, so he had only played one match. He also had a bye in the 1st round, so all told he was heading into the final with only 2 matches under his belt; it would have been my 5th.

After reporting my victory to the scorer the tournament director asked us what we wanted to do. "I prepared to play three matches today," my opponent volunteered. "I've played four matches this weekend already,..." I started to say. "Same," he responded. Waaaay-haaay-te just a minute there, buddy. He wasn't entered in the doubles. I knew about his byes. There was no way he could have played the same number of matches as me. I started to argue but the tournament director cut in with "I'm not going to make you play 3 matches," and effectively ended it. We scheduled the final for the following Friday, did an a priori photoshoot: one with me holding the champions trophy, and one with him holding it, and left.

Sunday night felt pretty good. I relaxed a little bit and enjoyed the victories from earlier in the day. Despite my best intentions, a few of my friends found out about the tournament and offered congratulations. But the euphoria was short-lived. Pretty soon I started looking toward the upcoming final, and by Monday night I felt the tournament crucible start to close in. I hadn't had an opportunity to scout my opponent so I had no idea how he played. He could be great for all I knew. Every time I thought about the match my heart skipped a beat. Even my Tuesday night match with Marcus had an uncomfortable edge to it. Whenever I missed a shot I envisioned myself making that error on Friday. It was totally irrational; I actually played well against Marcus and walked away with a 6-4, 6-4 victory, a win that should have emboldened me.

After 4 long days Friday finally rolled around. We had scheduled the showdown for 4pm; a time I was initially happy about. I wouldn't have to worry about waking up early, and the 4pm start was reminiscent of high-school matches, a time when I was dominant. However, as I started stressing about it at work I wished it had been a morning match; I would've just woken up and gone straight into it with little time to overthink.

At quarter to 4 I headed to Pershing. Jon-Paul had staked out Court 6. Not so coincidentally, a bunch of the guys on my summer league team were practicing on the courts next to us, and turned into an audience for the beginning of our match. All day long I had been looking forward to getting on the court; once I got out and started to play, I knew the nerves would go away, and getting a good look at my opponent's game would help. We started to warm up. I could see that his backhand was the weaker wing, with an interesting twist. The harder you hit it at his backhand, the better he handled it. A ball with no pace gave him trouble. I was having trouble of my own, however. I was spraying my backhand in warmup, and wondered if he was going to target it during the match. That would be fine with me, I thought: my backhand is really my steadier shot. I can't do as much damage with my backhand as my forehand, but it doesn't tend to break down, either.

We broke off the warmup and started the match. By this point things had gotten really windy and the temperature had dropped. What had started off as a nice day was quickly devolving into unfriendly conditions. I won the toss and elected to receive. Jon-Paul's first serve was big. He put everything he had into it, and took me by surprise. His 2nd serve was a puffball - he just tapped it in, but I was having trouble getting my act together. He held. I sprayed a few shots in my first service game and all of a sudden I was in a hole again, down 0-2! I took a little walk behind the baseline before I got ready to return and tried to calm down. He served and aced me. Another big first serve that I couldn't handle. A rally that I eventually lost, and I was down 40-0 in game 3, but I dug in and fought back to deuce. I pressed the attack on his backhand and started approaching the net off a slice. That proved very successful, and I was able to break back. Getting on the board was a mental boost and I headed back to the bench rejuventated. I got on a good roll and ran off the next 5 games to take the opening set 6-2.

Taking the opening set really allowed me to settle down. The wind had reached borderline unplayable conditions by this point, and forced me to be less aggressive with my shots. I directed traffic at his backhand until it broke down, or a short ball that I could attack popped up. I still had to contend with his first serve though, and he held to open the set. Eager to stamp out any thoughts of prolonging this match, I reeled off another 5 straight games before he held again, and I stepped to the line to serve for the championship at 5-2. Three quick serves brought me to match point, where we rallied for a few shots before I elicited the final error. And that was it! I took the tournament!

A few final thoughts about the tournament experience as I can finally relax and not worry about playing any more matches. Even though this tournament was relatively meaningless, I still got nervous for my matches. It's given me even more of an appreciation for the pros. Assuming I had the game to cut it on the ATP Tour, I'm not sure I could handle it mentally. At the lower levels of the game, winning literally determines how well you're living week to week. The ones who make a successful living from it are absolutely mental giants. Also, I can see why most of them are so superstitious. I wanted my routine to be the same match to match; I wanted to wear the same shirt and shorts (even if it meant doing the laundry three times!), have my rackets re-strung and re-gripped a certain way, and warm up the same way. Now that it's over I'm looking forward to feeling free with my tennis again. Here's a shot of me with my new hardware!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sandbagger, part III

(Here's part 3 of the mini-series on my tournament experience. Here are Parts 1 and 2.)

I served to open the match and Stan immediately went into lob mode. The guy was a moonball artesan. It was like he had read the book on how to play me; he was giving me no pace and hitting high and deep, leaving me with little room to attack. At first I let myself get pushed back and replied with moonballs of my own, but quickly grew disgusted with that. That kind of crap is for juniors, I thought, and moved forward to take the ball on the rise. I started hitting harder, and missing. Frustrated, I tried to take an overhead off the bounce at the baseline, but bricked it and lamely put the ball into the net. To make it even worse, I kept picturing how easily I would deal with such a strategy in a practice match, where the lack of nerves would allow me to step in, hit the ball on the rise, and follow the approach to the net, where I would put away a winning volley. I lost my serve, the first game I had lost in the entire tournament. Then he held. Then I lost serve again. Before I knew it I was down 0-3 and headed for a changeover.

"It's a practical joke, right?" Stan chuckled as we met at the bench on the change of ends. I gave a nervous laugh, but didn't get what he meant until a minute later. I thought he meant I was thinking he was playing a joke on me, giving me a steady diet of lobs. What he really meant was that I was fooling with him, letting him take 3 games after I had beaten everyone else so easily. Either way, the joke was on me.

As I headed back to the baseline to receive serve, I thought about the situation. I decided that if he wanted to send over moonballs, I was going to moonball back and wait it out. I would run all day if I had to, but I was not going down in an avalanche of errors. Also, I renewed my resolve to make him move. Even if I was going to be airing it out, I would at least change the direction and make him go corner to corner. Lastly, I wanted to bring my chip backhand into the mix, slicing it short to purposely bring him to the net, where I was sure I could pass him.

It started to work. Trying to hit those lobs on the run introduced more errors in Stan's game. He started to pull away from the moonball strategy and played more straightforward, which is exactly where I wanted him. And slicing the ball made him run even more; I'd hit a short slice to his backhand, then drive a forehand deep to the opposite corner. I also noticed that he would rely on me to collect one of the errant balls instead of going to find one himself; I cut that out and let him fetch the balls equally. In short, I could see he was beginning to flag. I ran off 6 straight games and took the first set 6-3.

A group of my friends had gathered by the court to watch and were offering my encouragement when I'd hit a winning shot. This started to irk my opponent. I served to open the 2nd set, and at 40-30 Stan lined up about 2 yards behind the service line to receive. Usually you do this for a variety of reasons; to throw the server off mentally, or to give yourself a different look at the ball. Stan had been struggling to return my kick serve and had been changing up his return positions, but this was almost insultingly close to the line. But I didn't care. I knew that returning my serve from that close would be extremely difficult. I tossed the serve up and hit a big kicker out wide. Stan timed the ball absolutely perfectly and nailed a clean winner up the line. I applauded the shot with my racket. One of my friends clapped. Stan made some comment about the audience, but I thought he was joking. I held, and when we headed back to the bench said, "Home crowd. Next time we'll have to play in Victorville" (which is where he was from). "Who are those guys?" he shouted indignantly. "No, I'm serious, that's ridiculous! I absolutely blasted that ball and only one guy clapped!" A cold shiver ran down my spine despite the afternoon heat. Things were going well, and I didn't want any part of this dispute. "I can only be responsible for me, and I clapped for your shot. It was a great shot," I said, and picked up my racket. Stan walked over to the group and argued with them for about 10 seconds. At the end of it they all laughed, so I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to work. My strategy remained successful, and I went on to take the 2nd set and the match, 6-0. We met at the net and all was forgiven; to his credit he worked it out with the guys without things getting any uglier. I was into the final!

(How did I fare in the tournament's final match? Check back for the conclusion of the Sandbagger series!)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sandbagger, part II

(Here's part 2 of the mini-series on my tournament experience. Part 1 can be found here.)

Sunday dawned bright and early and I headed over to the Muni courts for my 8:30am match with Marco. Previously all the 4.0 matches had been relegated to the courts at Pershing Park, but now we were going to join the rest of the field at Muni. I frequently play at Muni. In fact, most of my matches with Marcus happen there. The problem with Muni is that it is *right* next to the freeway. There's currently construction going on to erect a sound barrier between the courts and the cars whizzing past, but right now it's a zoo. The first three courts are a little sheltered, but anything beyond that and you're dealing with noise, wind, and courts in need of resurfacing. They sent Marco and I out to Court 8 to play. On our walk to the court Marco told me that he knew Gary. In fact, he had been sitting courtside and watched our doubles match yesterday. Gary told Marco that I was "going to kick his ass". I laughed and we started to warm up. My dual 6-0, 6-0 wins from yesterday had made a statement, and whispers were flying around that there was a ringer in the 4.0 draw. Marco hit the ball hard but was wildly erratic; pretty much the perfect opponent for me. I ran off my 3rd 6-0, 6-0 win and was into the semifinals in less than an hour. I was ecstatic; I'd never been this far in a tournament, and so far I had played almost the minimum number of games. I was hopeful that fitness wouldn't be a factor. But things were about to get much tougher.

Since I finished so quickly I went to scout out my next opponent, the winner of the Andrew-Stan match. Andrew had lost the first set but looked to be making a strong push in the second. He is an energetic, young guy who likes to force the action, I noted. Stan is much older; I guessed he was in his 60s, and seemed to be a pusher. He floated balls back, dinked other shots, but looked to be a little slow. I figured if I faced off against him, I'd just make him move. Happy with my analysis, I went home to stretch and cool down.

Throughout the tournament I had been pushing myself to hydrate as much as possible, to the point where my stomach would feel slightly unsettled because of it. At this point I had drunk something like four bottles of Gatorade, and the equivalent of eight bottles of water, if not more. Factor in almost constant nerves, and I was going to the bathroom like crazy. I headed back to Muni for my 11:45am match and found out that Stan had advanced. I was going to play the old-man pusher. Now that we were at Muni, we ran into the scheduling difficulties that frequently crop up in the tournaments. Due to a backlog of matches, we started almost an hour later than scheduled. I had peed three times just while I was sitting there waiting. They sent us out to Court 11 - I didn't even know there were 11 courts there (Ed. note - there are actually 13)!

Up close I could see that I had mistaken Stan's age; he was "only" 48. We warmed up as the temperature climbed. Saturday had been unseasonably warm; 73 degrees at the end of February, and Sunday was shaping up to be more of the same. The conditions had yet to affect me, but the sun was beating down on my suntan lotion-less face. Still, both of us looked pretty strong in the warm up. So far all the guys I had played had been very nice guys. I dislike arguing line calls and gamesmanship, and luckily none of that stuff had entered into my tournament experience. Yet.

How did I fare against the old-man pusher? Did I wilt in the noonday sun like week-old flowers? Check back for the next part of the saga! The series continues with Sandbagger, part III.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sandbagger, part I

(Ed. note: due to length, I've decided to split this recap into series. Here's part 1)

This past weekend was the Leslie Allen Tennis Tournament. I have something of a love-hate relationship with these local tennis tournaments. I want to win one of these things to prove myself, but every time I do enter I get so worked up in the days leading up to the tournament that I psych myself out, play poorly and lose to someone I generally think I should beat. Yet whenever they roll around I sign up, and this one was no exception.

I decided to enter the 4.0 singles bracket. There's a little history here. When I first joined the USTA I self-rated at 4.0 in order to join a league here in Santa Barbara (see the previous post). After that league ended I was bumped up to a 4.5 rating, despite an appeal. I guess I did so poorly in the 2 years afterward that I got bumped back down. I decided I needed some confidence-building wins, and entered the 4.0 division, with much eye-rolling from my tennis buddies. My friend Ed also convinced me to join the 5.0 doubles.

The Wednesday and Thursday prior I started compulsively checking the tournament website (remember what I said about the days leading up?) and to my ever-growing horror watched the 4.0 bracket balloon up to 24 players! This meant that I'd have to win 5 matches over the weekend to take the title, not counting any doubles matches that I'd have to play. On Friday after work I headed over to the El Escorial tennis courts for a practice session with Ed, and that helped calm me down. Breaking a sweat helped clear some of the pent-up anxiety and put aside any doubts I had forgotten to play this game. If I was going to go down, I was going to go down swinging, and someone was going to have to play well to beat me.

The draw had me slated to face a guy named Darren in the opening round, Saturday morning at 8am. My normal wake-up time is 8:30am, so in order to avoid a short night of sleep I took some sleeping pills Friday at 8pm and was out by 10pm. I got a solid 9 hrs of sleep and was up at 7am, with plenty of time to prepare. I forced down a bowl of Cheerios and tried to drink some water to stay hydrated. The butterflies in my stomach were in full flight.

I drove myself over to the courts and the players started to drift in. Some had already hit the courts and were warming up. Every guy that I didn't recognize became Darren. When one of the players warming up looked impressive, I'd think, that's definitely going to be Darren! Then the call rang out "Jesse Small! Darren Stevens!" and we took the court. We started to warm up and it was apparent very quickly that his backhand was the weaker wing. And after facing Marcus weekly for the past year, Darren's serve and forehand didn't present many worries either. I quickly ran that match out 6-0, 6-0 and got off the court in less than an hour.

Since the match went so quickly I had just under 2 hrs before my next match started. I headed home, stretched and started rehydrating. Cramping has been a frequent enemy in my athletic past, and I was determined to nip that problem in the bud. My next opponent was Dave, the tournament's #1 seed. He had a bye in the first round and was going into our match completely fresh. My displeasure at this imbalance was tempered by the knowledge that seeding means next to nothing in these tournaments.

At 10:30am I was back at the courts. The upside to playing down at 4.0 is that I knew my game would match up favorably with most of the players there. The drawback is being the favorite, and having the expectation to win. Dave was clearly a step up. Whereas in my first round all I had to do was put the ball back, against Dave I had to rally a little more and move him around. He had this habit of presenting the ball before each point he served, as if announcing that the balls were new. At this same time he'd look directly at you. That's pretty rare; most players will glance at you to see if you've changed your positioning, or give a look to the service box, but this guy seemed to be boring holes into my brain, trying to pick out where I was going to hit the return. I decided to avoid his gaze and focused on his feet instead, changing to the ball when he began his toss. Dave had good hands at the net, most likely on account of a lot of doubles play, but I prefer a target and like when opponents come in on me. I also started picking on his forehand because he had a windshield-wiper like motion on that side. An hour or so later and I was back home with my 2nd win of the day, another 6-0, 6-0 double bagel.

Just a quick note about the doubles: Ed and I had drawn my buddies Ryan and Gary in the 1st round. They are both great players, and to beat them at any time is a big ask. We gave it our best, but went down 0-6, 4-6. I could feel the strain of 3 matches taking its toll on me. The warming up/cooling down is an underrated aspect of tournament play; just loosening up and serving practice put a strain on my shoulder. I was happy that I didn't have to play any more that day. I repeated my knock-out procedure Saturday night and slept like a baby.

Check back to read the next part of the saga! The series continues with Sandbagger, part II.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sixty and Still Swinging

"A good forward game and quick hands at the net."

That was Alan Richter's description of my game as he sent out an email to the team announcing my addition to the lineup. It was late summer 2006, and my wife and I had just gotten married and moved to Santa Barbara one day after our honeymoon ended. After three months of newlywed bliss, I was itching to get back out on court. The trouble was I didn't know anyone; all of my tennis buddies were 3,000 miles away in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

I started taking Kerry out to the court in hopes of meeting strong players. You can imagine how that worked out. Kerry, still high on our love, just wanted to spend time together and occasionally hit the ball. I wanted a good workout, and had an ultimate goal of ditching her to play with someone else. Marriage 101 it was not. Frustrated, I showed up on a Monday night at the local courts for a mixed-doubles night. Again, the level of play was too low and worse, I had to pay $8 for this hit-and-giggle! I finally hit the Internet to search for tennis leagues and stumbled across Alan's email address.

After a quick hit with Alan to make sure I wasn't a n00b, I joined the X-Pensive Winos on their quest for SB tennis domination. Oh, the halcyon days of '06! The league consisted of two teams; us and the Tennis Club of Santa Barbara. I was installed at 3rd doubles, playing with a group of guys where the average age was solidly 40+. Our first match I partnered with Alan, who was hungover from too many margaritas the night before. We played two guys who couldn't have broken a window pane with the ball, but we still managed to lose in straight sets. I was totally disgusted and learned that you can never underestimate people in doubles; the game is just that much different from singles. But I was happy to be playing. I met Dan-o, Hon, and Marcus in this league, and also signed on to a bigger league the following season where I met Yun, Wooten, and Anthony, all regular tennis buddies of mine today.

This past weekend Alan turned 60. To celebrate, his wife Penny threw a surprise birthday party for him and we all gathered at John's house at 6pm. Unbeknownst to me, Alan is also a driver. The guy has like 3 part-time jobs. Anyway, Penny had brought the limo company in on it and sent Alan on a bogus VIP pickup to a house down the street, 4722 Cresta. Alan was met at the door by an unfriendly man who stated "No. I didn't order a car!". Well fuck, that was rude! Alan thought. He started to get a little hot under the collar and called his dispatcher, who told him the address was actually 4742. At this point we started walking down John's driveway, as the plan was to intercept Alan on his way up the street. We got to the top of the driveway just in time to see Alan's exhaust as he lit up the street like a bat out of hell. Luckily, 4742 didn't exist, and with his dispatcher giving him the business, Alan jerked the car around to head back our way. By this point darkness had fallen, and we were milling around the edge of the road. I could see the headline on tomorrow's paper: "Man mows down 17 partygoers for his surprise birthday!". I decided to hang back and let the others take center stage, as it were. It all worked out though; Alan sounded a long relieved honk when he saw us, and we headed back to the house for a barbecue and the last surprise. We had all thrown in a few bucks to send the old boy to Bolletieri's for a week-long tennis camp, a Mecca for hardcore tennis enthusiasts. I was happy to be part of the gift to the man who has been a gateway for me into the Santa Barbara tennis scene.

So Happy Birthday Captain, and thanks for bringing me aboard the Good Ship SB Tennis.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rafa wins the Australian Open

R. Nadal def. R. Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2

Is this the watershed moment? The match where Rafa makes a clean break from Federer and takes over No 1 in dominating fashion? As impressive as Nadal was in 2008, and he was mighty impressive, in the back of my mind I had the sense that it couldn't last. Nadal's style was too physical to keep up. Federer's off-year due to illness would be over and he'd return to win a lions' share of titles, if not dominate outright. But Rafa's win here made a believer out of me.

The Grand Slam Kingdom, if you will, is divided up into 3 major parts; hard court (2), clay (1), and grass (1). Before this match, Nadal dominated the clay of Roland Garros and had even squeezed out a win on the grass of Wimbledon. Federer fans (including yours truly) could write that off, however, as Nadal barely won 9-7 in the 5th, and Federer has long-dominated Wimbledon. Since Federer is the #2 clay court player in the world, he could gain an adequate number of points during that season, and then mop up in the hard-court Slams, where Nadal had never even made a final. Now that's all changed, and Federer's territory is under attack from all sides. What's more, Nadal's win gives him a 3000 pt lead in the rankings, ensuring that he's going to be #1 for at least the first half of the year.

The match itself was an insta-classic. The first 5 set final in 21 years, it capped one of the best Grand Slam tourneys in recent history, IMO. It was not, however, at the level of their Wimbledon final in '08. Both men were broken several times, and Federer had a dismal serving day, at only 52% first serves in. He somehow lucked out the 2nd set serving in the low 40s. I thought Federer's forehand was rock solid, and the key for him to be able to win despite such poor serving. The most stunning statistic from the match came from Nadal's service placement, and Federer's inability (or unwillingness) to run around the backhand on the return of serve.

Out of 59 second serves, 2 went to Federer's forehand, both in the ad court. Rafa went out wide a whopping 0 times in the deuce court. Early in the 1st set Federer ran around a backhand on breakpoint and drilled a forehand return up the line for a clean winner. Why Roger didn't continue to do this throughout the match is beyond me.

In the wake of this match the "Roger needs a coach!" drum has been pounded loud and often. "A coach could point out that Roger needs to run around the backhand return!" they cry. Listen, Federer's no idiot. He's often praised for his ability to problem solve during matches and subtly change tactics. I've gotta believe that Federer knew about the return. For whatever reason, he chose not to do it. Stubborness? A fear of giving up too much court?

There are major matchup issues that Nadal presents Federer. Primarily the fact that as a lefty, Nadal's forehand goes into Federer's backhand. Yeah, you say, but Federer's forehand goes to Nadal's backhand as well! The difference is that Federer (and everyone else) usually plays against righties, and are accustomed to using an inside-out forehand to take control of a point. Nadal often returns that inside-out forehand with an even stronger forehand, and instead of being in control of the point, Federer is unexpectedly on his heels. Similarly, the chip backhand Federer uses to take opponents out of position goes right into Nadal's wheelhouse. Also, Nadal's topspin allows him to exploit Federer's lack of power on a high backhand, a limitation of the one-hander. Most of all, I think Patrick McEnroe nailed it when he said that against Nadal, Federer has to push himself to be more aggressive. He's used to relying on defense until he can get his offense working again, but Nadal is just as good at the transition game and punishes any ball Federer leaves short. Federer has to play outside his comfort zone. I do agree that Nadal is in Federer's head, and maybe a coach could help in that regard. I'm not sure, but I'm not going to jump on Federer for not having a coach just yet. If he had won, wouldn't we have been praising him for how he managed to pull himself out of last years slump to win the US Open and the Australian Open, all single-handedly?

Lastly, I've never been a huge fan of Nadal; his game is just too workman-like for me. But I gained a tremendous amount of respect for him as a person for the way he handled the post-match ceremony. As Federer broke down (my opinion? not a fan of the tears, Rog) and the emcee said they were going to present the trophy while Federer took a break, I thought, wow how is Rafa gonna deal with this? His handling of the situation was pitch perfect. Putting his arm around Roger to console him while preserving his right to speak last was a stroke of genius. I was struck by Nadal's poise and maturity at only 22 years old. I know that Federer is 5 years Rafa's senior, but in this moment the roles had reversed: Rafa was now the big brother.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Roddick vs. Federer, Round 18

Roddick hopefuls like to remember that he beat Federer in their last match, in Miami. The ugly truth is Federer owns Roddick 15-2 in the head-to-head matchup, and the loss last year came in the midst of one of the worst slumps in his career. Let's look at what the players are really saying in anticipation of tonight's match:


Q. You've said on court that people haven't given enough credit to Andy, but you always have. He's lost some weight and he's moving better on the court. You've always upped your level against him. How is that going affect your game plan?

Translation: It won't.

We have played many times, which is nice as well. You go out there and you know what's going to happen on the big points.
I know exactly what that n00bifier is going to do, and it's not going to be enough to stop me.

Just a matter of who's going to play better on the day. I mean, look, seems like he's playing well.
Just not well enough to beat me.

On top of that, I think he beat me last time we played. Maybe now he's in better shape. I should have no chance.

Of course, I'm not going to expect a result like what I did today or what happened two years ago against him. I expect to be in a real battle.
I expect the same thing as 2 years ago: a whitewashing.

Q. You've talked about facing Federer, and now it will be 18th time without playing matches on your own terms. Talk about playing matches on your terms and not on his terms. Talk about what exactly that would mean.

ANDY RODDICK: Well, you know, the thing about Roger, one of the things that makes him great, is he makes that very difficult.
Translation: Have you seen this guy play, dude? He only loses to one guy, and it ain't me.

You know, I think it helps that I, you know, stopped a big streak against him last year in Miami.
Because, you know, maybe lightning strikes twice.

He has nothing to prove. He's the greatest.
No really, I believe I can win this match.

The beatdown commences at 3:30am EST.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oz Open Screws Djokovic

What's that? A little tough on the way down? Novak Djokovic had to retire against Andy Roddick last night, admitting defeat to a man who previously called him out for complaining about questionable ailments.

Djokovic started out on fire, but in the end couldn't match the heat of the court. ESPN's courtside thermometer measured the on-court temperature at an astounding 142 degrees (61 C). What should have been a thrilling quarterfinal turned into an ugly retirement as Djokovic quit trailing 7-6(3) 4-6 2-6 1-2. Why didn't they close the roof? How much hotter did it need to get before the excessive heat policy kicked in?
The Australian Open Extreme Heat Policy (EHP) will be applied at the Referee’s discretion and may be altered at any time.

At the Referee’s discretion, when the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature only (WBGT) is equal to or above the pre determined threshold, the Referee may suspend the commencement of any further matches on outside courts.

Any matches currently in progress will continue until the end of the current set. At the completion of the set, play will be suspended.

Where play in any match commences outdoors (or with a roof open) and the WBGT temperature is equal to or exceeds the pre determined threshold, the match will continue until the completion of the set. At the end of the set a decision may be made by the Referee to close the roof for the remainder of the match and the following matches, when the EHP is still in effect.

A roof will only be closed because of extreme heat if a decision has been made by the Referee to suspend the completion or commencement of matches on the outdoor courts.

This is slightly unclear. It's left up to the discretion of the Chair Umpire, but it also states that there is a pre determined threshold. Surely 61 C is over that threshold? I couldn't find an answer on the website, but a report from '05 states that the policy goes into effect when the temperature is 35 C.

I'm going to call a spade a spade: Tennis Australia really screwed over Djokovic, the defending champion. You can make the argument that Djokovic wasn't fit enough, that the 15 lbs Andy lost enabled him to withstand the heat better, but I'm not buying it. Djokovic is a fit player, and we've seen him go the distance before. Yesterday he lasted only a set before his level plummeted.

Djokovic's previous match started after 11pm, and 4 sets later he finished off Baghdatis at 2:30am. By the time he finished post-match activities, press, cool down, etc, he didn't go to bed until 5:30am. There's just no way you can properly recover that quickly to play in the kind of extreme heat he faced Roddick in yesterday. Djokovic requested a night match against Roddick but was rejected (I think a night match would have only been fair). Federer is hugely popular Down Under so TV mandated that he play in the prime-time slot. The least Tennis Australia could have done was close the roof. Let it be noted that Djokovic did *not* make this same argument in his press conference, and instead chalked this up to not being as fit as Andy.

Listen, I'm no Djokovic apologist. And I give plenty of credit to Roddick for grinding Djokovic down. If Djokovic had to play me, for example, I'm pretty sure he would've been ok, even in the 140 weather. Roddick's new quickness allowed him to get to some very impressive drop-shots and send winners back over the net. At the end of the day though, this was less about tennis and more about survival, and I don't think Tennis Australia did right by Novak.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Love for the Worldwide Leader

What a weekend of tennis! It was a lot to take in, from the 5 setters with Gonzalez, Federer, and Verdasco, and I'm not sure where to start. Let's do a drive-by:


Let me preface this by saying we've seen life without ESPN, and it isn't pretty. When ESPN dropped coverage of the Indian Wells and Key Biscayne tournaments last year, FSN "stepped up" with some horrible coverage and awful commentating (I'm looking at you, Justin Gimelstob and Barry Tompkins). So, welcome back ESPN, and please don't leave us!

The worldwide leader always seems to take some flak over the way they structure their tennis coverage. I was part of that chorus a few years ago when they would stick with the same match, even if it was a blow-out, in order to show Americans, rather than cutting to a more compelling match featuring foreigners. Worse, they would repeat the same match the next day in the Taped timeslot! This infuriated me, as they usually showed Williams sisters matches repeatedly. Federer had yet to turn into a living legend, and so wasn't a big TV draw yet.

ESPN wisely realized the short-sighted nature of this approach, and started giving viewers more Federer and Nadal lest they ascend as virtual unknowns. The coverage these days is excellent; it's not uncommon for a single camerman to set up camp in the bleachers of an outer court to bring in a live feed. This year we saw Delic take out Mathieu in a 5th set from this vantage point, as well as a 16 yr old Christina McHale succumbing to cramps. I don't know how many hours of coverage ESPN is doing, but it's a lot. Between them and Tennis Channel you can watch almost the entire tournament. I know there are complaints about the number of talking heads that ESPN employs, but I can accept even that this year. I watched a little bit of tennis with my friend Matt, a sports fan in general but not a tennis fan, and when the split-screen graphic showing 8 or 9 commentators came on he said, "Wow this is a big deal!". ESPN: Impressing upon casual viewers Grand Slam importance since 2008. Besides, I DVR all the matches and just fast-forward through that stuff anyway.

Along with the coverage, the quality of the feed is excellent. I don't know what the difference is between the two, but when I flip from Tennis Channel to ESPN it's like I feel my eyes relax. And it's not just visual - the audio is vastly superior. The acuity is so good you can pick up the courtside camera shutters as they snap shut right before players hit the ball, like an overzealous church not quite clapping on the beat: clip-cli-cli-clip-THWOCK! The Murray Verdasco match was satisfying just to hear the canonshot noise coming from Verdasco's forehand. At one point in the 4th set Fernando hit an overhead so hard it made a lightning-like crraaaack-BOOM! as the ball met his strings and the court in quick succession. Speaking of Verdasco...

Murray v. Verdasco

Good on ya, Verdasco. Much has been made of his offseason training regimen with Gil Reyes in Las Vegas. That physical work is significant, but just as important was the belief he gained by pulling out the deciding win in the Davis Cup final last year. I kept waiting for Fernando to get tight in the 4th and 5th sets and leave the match up for the taking. To his credit, Verdasco kept going for his shots, stepping up and erasing a breakpoint with a 130mph+ serve up the T.

The Mighty Fed

No 'thing' was happier about Federer's turnaround in the 3rd set than my couch, which I had been abusing for two sets as Berdych bullied my hero around the court. To me, Federer's movement looked off. He was misfiring badly on his forehand, and it looked like he wasn't even trying to run down Berdych's winners. Paul Annacone said Sampras' best attribute was that he never panicked, and Federer sure looked the same way against Berdych. I mistook the calm exterior for a sense of resignation, but he revealed his desire to win once the match turned and the fist-pumps and C'mon's started flowing. Federer cut down his errors and started forcing Tomas to hit one more ball each rally, and Tomas responded with 3 bricks so hard that they rebounded off the rim out to the 3 pt line. Federer's forehand misses are disconcerting though, and he'll have one match to get them worked out against Del Potro before he faces off against Roddick or Djokovic, where he'll absolutely need to be on top of his game.


We've got a rematch of the US Open quarterfinals, with Roddick and Djokovic squaring off circa 11pm EST. Pays to be on the West Coast :) I'm really looking forward to this match, as we'll get to see where Roddick's game really is. He's had a Betty Crocker draw so far (easy bake), but he'll need his best stuff to beat Djokovic. Roddick will need to serve and return extremely well, as Djokovic outclasses him by more than a little in the backhand and movement categories. Let's see if slimming down really does mean moving up for Andy Roddick.