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.