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.