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.