Thursday, November 30, 2006

(Ink)Spot on the Calendar

The tennis season is way too long. Yes, it’s been said in more ways than one by just about everybody in and around the sport, but we fans, who are die-hard, to be sure, and have absolutely no influence on the calendar, can’t wait till 2007 begins. Pundits are already making 2007 predictions; tournaments are announcing entry lists for events as late as February and March; we’re voting on the best matches from 2006.

Meanwhile, the Davis Cup final has yet to be played. This is probably the biggest ink spot on the tennis calendar, and I can’t recall there ever being any major discussion to move it. If Tennis Masters Cup, the season ending championship, has already been played, and many players are off doing their exo’s, on holiday, training for the next year, what’s the point of playing this important event so late in the year? Around the world, the Davis Cup final gets relatively little attention, except, of course, in the two countries that make it that far.

Perhaps this is why the planet’s best player has decided to forego Davis Cup competition until further notice. Ironic, given that Roger Federer played against Serbia and Montenegro to ensure Switzerland a place in next year’s World Group, only to announce that he won’t participate in the opening-round tie against Spain at home. And after defeating his nemesis twice in a row and once in an exhibition, I wouldn’t want to believe that he’s avoiding Rafa. But I digress.

With all the talk from both tours to restructure the season and the tournament formats (I’m not a fan of round robin, period, much less in regular season events), I would hope that the traditionally stubborn ITF is considering tweaking the Davis Cup calendar as well. It simply makes no sense to contest the final in December while most of the rest of the field is enjoying their off season. Perhaps they might do what Fed Cup does and remove a round of competition so it can finish just after the US Open as well. But I’m not holding my breath.

Be that as it may, the Davis Cup final draw has just been announced.

Davis Cup Final: The Draw


Davydenko to open for confident Russians

Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Ignacio Chela will open the 2006 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final, with the pressure on the Russian world No. 3 to overturn a 0-5 record against the Argentine.

What is regarded as the marquee match-up of the weekend, Marat Safin versus David Nalbandian, will be the second rubber of the opening day, it was revealed at the draw on Thursday. With Nalbandian also selected for the doubles, the world No. 8 currently has a tough work schedule, being slated to play three matches in a row.

The full draw is as follows, although changes to the line-ups on Saturday and Sunday can still be made up to an hour before play starts:

Nikolay Davydenko (RUS) v Juan Ignacio Chela (ARG)
Marat Safin (RUS) v David Nalbandian (ARG)
Dmitry Tursunov/Mikhail Youzhny (RUS) v Agustin Calleri/David Nalbandian (ARG)
Nikolay Davydenko (RUS) v David Nalbandian (ARG)
Marat Safin (RUS) v Juan Ignacio Chela (ARG)

Chela comfortable on faster surfaces

Davydenko is ranked 30 places higher than Chela but the Argentine’s five wins in five matches include a three-set victory in the first round at the Cincinnati Master Series tournament in August this year. The pair have never met previously on carpet, but Chela is more comfortable on faster surfaces than his three clay court titles might suggest.

Crucially for his selection by captain Alberto Mancini as the No. 2 singles player here, the 27-year-old Chela won the decisive fifth rubber on carpet in this year’s quarterfinals in Croatia, albeit against the much less experienced Sasa Tuksar in four sets.

Davydenko happy to play first

Newlywed Davydenko’s name was drawn first by ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti out of the Davis Cup trophy at the draw, handing him an appearance in the opening match of his debut Davis Cup Final, and his first opening rubber in this year’s competition.

The Russian seemed comfortable with his opponent and playing first, shrugging off any suggestions that he might find it difficult to get back into the zone after his wedding celebrations. “I wanted to play tomorrow. I was ready to play. I wanted to play. Marat said he wanted to play second. Great, I wanted to play first.”

A bullish Davydenko added that Chela was picked “because they [the Russians] (sic) know there's no way [Jose] Acasuso or [Agustin] Calleri could beat me on any surface.”

Chela ready to fight

Mancini said that of course Chela’s head-to-head advantage over Davydenko had influenced his decision in picking Chela, although “The three players are very, very similar in terms of rankings. They all have a very good condition and shape.”

“I’m very confident,” said Chela. “I practised very well all the week. I'm ready to play tomorrow, to fight, to try to win.”

Nalbandian-Safin blockbuster

The outcome of the first match is likely to pay a large part in what happens in the Nalbandian-Safin blockbuster. It will be the players’ ninth meeting in an epic series which Safin leads 6-2. Those wins include two on carpet, one of which was in the 2002 Davis Cup semifinals played at the Sports Palace Luzhniki in Moscow, when Safin won 76 67 60 63 in the decisive fourth rubber to send Russia into the final.

Nalbandian and Safin have played twice this year, each match going to the wire: the Russian won in a fifth set tiebreak in the second round of the US Open, and the Argentine won in a third set tiebreak in their last encounter in the Madrid quarterfinals.

“I feel Nikolay has better chances to beat Chela,” said Safin, echoing his teammate’s confidence. “I didn't want to play too early. I want Nalbandian to feel some pressure. If Nikolay beats Chela, Nalbandian will be feeling the pressure, plus he'll also be playing doubles. It will be good for me. He will realise the stakes in this tie will be higher. It will be easier for me. Hopefully we can finish it off in two days.”

Large burden for Nalbandian

Nalbandian will do everything in his power to prevent that from happening but with a gap of 19 places between him and the next highest-ranked of his teammates (Acasuso), the burden for his country falls more squarely on his shoulders this weekend than it does for Safin.

“He's [Safin] a great player, said Nalbandian. “I think I'm not afraid of him. I beat him last time. I'm very confident for tomorrow. He's a great player, but I'll be ready.”

“I don't play many tournaments, so I'm fresh,” the Argentine No. 1 added, but what he didn’t say was that he hasn’t played so much this season because of injury, in particular a nagging abdominal injury. Playing the second singles on Friday, the doubles on Saturday, then the first reverse singles on Sunday is a daunting prospect, particularly if the doubles goes as long as it did when the teams last met in Moscow. Both Safin and Nalbandian were involved in that six-hour-20-minute marathon.

Russian unbeaten at home for 11 years

The home team’s confidence is bolstered by the knowledge that they haven’t lost at home for 11 years. For Safin personally, “The only thing that really can make this year to be worth I think is the Davis Cup. We have everything. It's in our sight. We don't want to lose it 'cause I don't know when is going to be the next time.”

Hawkeye debuts in Davis Cup

The ITF also announced on the day of the draw that Hawkeye Officiating will make its Davis Cup debut on Friday, and will be used at the final to review line calls without restriction. Challenges will not be limited, in the same way that the electronic system was used in its introduction to professional tennis at the Hopman Cup mixed team competition in January. (It's about time. And without restriction? When will the rest of the tour catch on?)

Winners to Errors, 4th Set

Houston Chronicle US Clay Court Championships will move elsewhere after next year. But where? Will Roddick continue to play it or skip it and head to Europe? What say you, Jimbo?
The Raw Story Argentina denies problems within its Davis Cup team stirred up by the Russian media.
The New York Times ...and speaking of Argentina...
The Celebrity Cafe Venus Williams design chairs at part of a star-studded charity event to fight homelessness in New York City.
The Charlotte Observer The McDonald's Williams Sisters Tour will end in Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 7 and benefit local charities. That trial better end soon. The sisters have more important matters to deal with. New season on the horizon.
ESPN Taylor Dent talks about his "long sticky road" to comeback after chronic back problems and surgery. I wish him well. His classic serve-and-volley game is sorely missed.
Palisadian-Post Sunday, the Bryan Brothers will play "Rackets, Stars and Guitars," an exhibition to celebrate the 1oth anniversary of the Palisades Tennis Center. Organizers hope to raise 1,000 racquets for underprivileged children, Los Angeles Parks, Toys for Tots, and after-school tennis programs.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Jennifer Hudson Sings the Hell out of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going"

No, this doesn't have anything to do with tennis. But hey, it's the off-season (why, oh why can't Davis Cup be completed by now?), but it's high season for all the Oscar hopefuls to debut and make their cases. So I've decided to cut and paste an entry from my Fumbling Toward Divinity blog. Just for a little somethin' different. Sure we all love tennis, but I've no doubt many of us love the silver screen, too. We cannot live by tennis, and tennis alone, can we? Enjoy!

I couldn't be more exicted. This Christmas, the long-awaited film version of Micheal Bennett's Dreamgirls will open in theaters nationwide. The film needs no other introduction. Surely, everyone must be wondering what Jennifer Hudson of American Idol fame will do with the show-stopping number at the close of Act 1, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" made famous by the incomparable Jennifer Holliday (how ironic that both singers have the same first name; same initials!) in a powerhouse rant/rave/exorcism that tore down Jericho's Walls back in 1981. The song became the defining moment of Jennifer Holliday's career, and to this day, she sings it whenever and wherever she performs. Jennifer Hudson proclaimed after she was booted from American Idol that she wanted to play the role of Effie White on stage. Well, grace shined upon her, and she was cast in Bill Condon's film version of a story based loosely on the life of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Can Jennifer Hudson bring her own mojo to a song many consider will always belong to Jennifer Holliday?

I say: Most Definitely.

Here is the audio clip from the movie:

Jennifer Hudson

The latest Hollywood buzz has already pegged Dreamgirls as the frontrunner for best picture. I also have a feeling that Jennifer Hudson is going to steal the show and garner a nod as supporting actress for her screen debut. Anika Noni Rose was nothing short of a miracle in her Tony-Award winning performance in "Caroline and Change". Beyonce has lived the live of Deena Jones and was born to play this part. I'm not sure she'll be respected enough by the voters to garner a lead actress nomination, but if she turns it out, there can be no denying her. Insiders say this movie will resurrect Eddie Murphy's career. He's perfect cast as James Thunder Early and the man can sing! And is there anything Jamie Foxx can't do? Surely he won't fall victim to the snub Richard Gere received for "Chicago" and he'll be receiving his third nomination in a few months. Can this highly anticipated movie be the second film adaptation of a blockbuster broadway musical to take Tinsel Town's most coveted prize this century?

I say: Hell Yeah.

Here's the trailer for the movie:

Agassi featured as one of Barbara Walters' "10 Most Fascinating People of 2006"

And speaking of Hollywood celebrities: Andre Agassi will be on the Barbara Walters ABC News special, Thursday, December 12, at 10:00pm EST. The link features an impressive photo gallery of the recently-retired legend.

Winners to Errors: 3rd Set

Los Angeles Times Venus and Serena testify in "Battle of the Sexes" breach-of-contract lawsuit in Florida.
NewsGuide Angela Buxton's documentary about her friendship with legendary doubles partner, Althea Gibson, will debut at Wimbledon in 2007 to commemorate the 50th anniversay of Gibson's first Wimbledon crown.
Independent Online Maria Sharapova gets seven figures and an easy draw at the Hong Kong Invitational. Sharapova. Easy draw. Say it again: Sharapova. Easy draw. And again: Sharapov...
Chinanews China's Li Na and Zheng Jie to lead Asiad Women's Tennis at the Asian Games in Doha, December 4-14.
indiatimessport Sania Mirza made the Top 10 - for beauty. She's on the list for Top 10 Tennis Beauties past and present. And, um, Justine Henin-Hardenne made the list too. Uh huh. Yeah. Sure. Well, perhaps the voters saw this picture.

The Wichita Eagle In an apparent bid for another Saturday Night Live gig, Andy Roddick entertains the fans with a comedy routine at Brenda Schultz-McCarthy's charity exhibition in Kansas.
EuroSport Slump? What slump? Rafael Nadal is quite pleased with his 2006 season, thank you very much.
Daily Telegraph Lleyton Hewitt sets up sports and events management career for post-retirement.
Fox Sports ...and talking about Hewitt...
LTA Andy Murray returned to Scotland to open a £1.3 million extension to the Scottish National Tennis Centre at the University of Stirling.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Chanda Rubin Comes Back - Again

Chanda Rubin, one of my favorite players, has endured so many injuries throughout her career, I'm surprised she hasn't already hung up her racquet. But this classy competitor with the monster forehand is going to try another comeback on the WTA tour.

Her mid-season outings this year left me wondering if I'd ever see her play again. She only won one match (against Martina Muller in the first round of Luxembourg) out of the eight she contested all year. But after being MIA for so long due to surgery after surgery, she had to start somewhere and take her losses like a woman.

Kudos to her for staying the course and making the tough decision to try to end her career on her own terms. She'll open her 2007 campaign at the Australian Women's Hardcourt at Royal Pines on the Gold Coast beginning January 1.

Here's hoping lady luck shines on Chanda in 2007.

Czech Star Jiri Novak Retires

"A special prize was presented to Jiri Novak on Saturday, at the Golden Canary awards for Czech tennis player of the year. The award was in recognition of all that Novak achieved during a long professional career, which recently came to an end when he played his last tournament, the Swiss Indoors in Basel..."

Novak looks back on career

Here Comes the Groom

Newly-wed Nikolay Davydenko has postponed his honeymoon until after the Davis Cup final, where he hopes to receive a dream of a wedding present.

Image Hosted by

Monday, November 27, 2006

Marcelo Rios to Play 2007 Viña del Mar Open

Marcelo "El Chino" Rios, often called a tennis genius and the first Latin American to reach the No. 1 ranking in the Open Era, will return to the ATP tour in January for one event and one event only (as it is right now, anyway) at the Viña del Mar Open in his native Chile.

And what a genius he was/is. Too bad he didn’t have the mental fortitude to become a great champion; too bad chronic back injuries ended his career; too good that he is back on the court displaying his wonderful talent.

Rios came out of retirement earlier this year and took the Merrill Lynch Tour of Champions by storm, winning his first 24 matches and 6 events and reaching No. 1 by an overwhelming margin. He recently lost his first two matches to Paul Haarhuis and Goran Ivanesivic—he had to lose to someone at some point, I suppose—but his success on the Tour of Champions caused many to speculate (or wish) that he might give the ATP tour another go. At 30, he’s still relatively young. Although I doubt he’ll make an official comeback (again, one can hope, can’t one?), I’ll take what I can get. Oh, how I enjoyed watching this left-handed wizard play. Talk about making it look easy. And he could out strategize the best strategists in the game. Beautiful and effortless ought to be Marcelo’s middle names.

(I’m of the belief that Roger Federer copied Marcelo Rios—except that Roger is right-handed—but that’s a whole other story, and we definitely aren’t going there right now).

Rios now prepares for the BlackRock Masters, the Tour of Champions season-ender in London, December 5-10.

Anyway, for those of you lucky enough to attend next year’s event in Chile: Enjoy. Take lots of pictures and send some to me!

Serena In Ghana

Watch Serena Williams do the kpanlogo dance during a visit to Ghana.

Argentinean Tennis: A New Golden Era?

Olympic Stadium, Moscow, Russia - Chris Bowers

“Argentina’s presence in the 2006 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final against Russia represents the high point – so far – of the second world-class generation of Argentinean tennis. With the greatest respect to Gabriela Sabatini, who put the country on the women’s tennis map single-handedly during her best years of 1988-93, it’s not since Guillermo Vilas first popularised tennis in Argentina in the 1970s that the South American nation has featured so prominently in the jewels of tennis’s crown, the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup.

“Vilas played a similar role in Argentina to that which Manolo Santana played in Spain – taking tennis out of the affluent classes and making it a sport that interests large swathes of the population. But to fully understand Vilas’s contribution requires an understanding of the turbulent background that is Argentina’s 20th century history...”

Argentina’s second generation cements legacy of Vilas and Clerc

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Winners to Errors: 2nd Set

Guardian Unlimited - "Without Prejudice" - A glorious article profiling the courage of Amélie Mauresmo, the only OUT lesbian singles player on the WTA tour. Amélie talks candidly and vulnerably about what she calls her maladresse in coming out, her father's death, and what it took to overcome her demons and finally win a Slam (or two).

BBC Sport - Tennis Australia has accused the LTA of offering large sums of money to lure coaching staff to the struggling British tennis program. Has Brad Gilbert already proved to be unworthy of his outrageous salary? Paul Annacone is expected to take up the post as head of men's tennis. But wait: there's more.

Turkish Press published a post-Shanghai profile of James Blake who feels confident that he can win a slam in 2007. That is, if he can do something about that Roger Federer.

Fox Sports - And about that Rajah: In a special to Fox Sports, Matt Cronin writes about how Federer's dominance threatens to ruin interest in the men's game. More idol worship from Blake. Will he ever stop?

The Wichita Eagle - Brenda Schultz-McCarthy talks about her unlikely comeback to the WTA tour at age 35. She recently planned an exhibition in Wichita, Kansas, where former player and best friend Natasha Zvereva participated along with rising American Sam Querry and Andy Roddick, who she lured to the event through his mother Blanche.

Tennis Week ... and speaking of Andy Roddick...

Winners to Errors: 1st Set

Talk About Tennis (TAT) talks about Elena Dementieva in a famous Russian pop star's music video.
Men's Tennis Forums features a great thread that includes a 2006 Year End Review in pictures with some hilarious captions from forum members.
The Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting in-depth feature on Gavin Hopper and his daughters Jade and Skyler who plan on being the next Williams sisters. Or maybe that's their father's dream. But if these youngsters fulfill any part of that dream, Tennis Australia will have someone to boast about, even if it hasn't been able to give Jade, the eldest, much help. [src]
Xtreme tennis news alerts tennis fans that many of YouTube's cherished tennis highlights may already be missing. Since Google acquired the popular do-it-yourself video site, YouTube has been deleting copyrighted material from the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. No more Sampras Federer Wimbledon 2001 highlights?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Roger & Rafa: Korea Exhibition

On November 22, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played an exhibition in Seoul, Korea. I was unable to watch the match, but reports all over tennis fandom proclaimed the relaxed and smiling competitors played exquisitely before the enthusiastic crowd. Roger won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Davis Cup: Official Final Team Nominations

Russia and Argentina have named unchanged teams for the Final of the 2006 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, to be held in Moscow December 1-3. The offficial team nominations can be found below.

Under Davis Cup rules, nations must nominate their official four-man team at least ten days before a tie. Up to two nominations may then be changed up to an hour before the draw, which takes place on Thursday 30 November at 1300 hrs local time (1000 hrs GMT).

World Group Final: Russia v Argentina
Venue: Moscow, Russia
Surface: Indoor carpet

Nikolay Davydenko
Dmitry Tursunov
Mikhail Youzhny
Marat Safin

Captain: Shamil Tarpischev

David Nalbandian
Jose Acasuso
Agustin Calleri
Juan Ignacio Chela

Captain: Alberto Mancini


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Andy Roddick's 2006 Thank You

Making lemonade out of lemons

Andy’s note to his fans provides a level-headed reflection on his 2006 season and gives us something to look forward to in 2007. With Jimmy Connors and his brother in his corner, accompanied by his commitment to continued improvement, we have every reason to be optimistic about seeing more success from our favorite tennis brat.

Not sure where to start as I sit here in Austin a little confused what to do on a day without a set schedule. 2006 brought me more joy than any other year in my tennis career thus far. Yes, you heard me correctly. I had more exhilarating fun coming back this summer than I had had before. It was almost comparable to when I was first coming up when I was seventeen and had everything to prove. Going back to that place where I went into matches unsure of what was going to happen, to feeling like a force in the tennis world again was a crazy journey. Nothing felt better than winning big matches again, after the struggles, and the questions of the first six months. I don’t think I will ever take winning for granted again. It was a learning experiencethat I won’t forget anytime soon.

I also want to thank all of you fans for sticking by me. It was tough to keep up a strong exterior with a lot of negativity and questions swirling what felt like all the time. It was nice to know that some people still had faith and were more interested in helping me build it back up as opposed to tearing it down for the sake of a story.

I can honestly say I feel very very good about 2007 as well. I will have a couple of months to train and get even more used to my new style of game. I thought I played an attacking style well at times the second half of the year, but had hardly anytime to really get down to practicing it for an extended period of time. I should have beaten Roger at Shanghai, and I feel with more time and preparation heading into next year, I will be able to produce more matches like that. How I played for those first two sets is the direction I see my game heading as far as style. I really do believe that struggling early on this year will help me from here on out. I mean I feel like things could have not gone much worse for a the better part of the year, and yet I still ended up at Maters (sic). I guess that is a good thing in a weird way.

Thanks again for your support and I am looking forward to sharing 2007 with you.


A bad year? Relatively speaking only. Andy ended the year with another TMS shield, a Grand Slam final for his fourth consecutive year (only Roger Federer can say that), and another year-end Top-10 finish for his fifth consecutive year (again, only Roger can say that). Not too shabby, considering this was his “worst” year since entering the Top 10.

Good luck in 2007, Andy!


Monday, November 20, 2006

James Blake: New No. 1 American

James Blake moves to a career-high ranking of No. 4 after his unpredictable run to the Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai final, overtaking Andy Roddick, who finishes the season at No. 6, as the new top-ranked American on the ATP tour.

American men in the Top 200:

And for the first time in forever, no American women finished the year ranked inside the Top 10. American women in the Top 200:

United States

What’s up with American tennis?

Numbers don’t lie. From the looks of these, it seems as though American tennis has sunk into the mire. But Bonny DeSimone provides a diffferent perspective in her ESPN article from earlier this month:
A lot of ink got spilled and keystrokes logged on the malaise in American tennis this season. No U.S. player made it to the semifinal round of any Grand Slam event until Andy Roddick surged to the U.S. Open final. The Williams sisters long absence deprived the women’s game of two proven headliners in every sense of that word. Lindsay Davenport spent much of the year sidelined, and Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova bowed out, making 2007 the first year since 1981 that neither will compete under U.S. colors.

All this teeth-gnashing might not be doing justice to the big picture, however. Breaking down the numbers reveals a few less obvious trends.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Shanghai: No Surprise

Roger Federer Wins Third Tennis Masters Cup Title

No wonder Roger Federer preferred to play James Blake in the final over David Nalbandian, one of only two players to take a set from Roger at this event. Before play began, this is what I wrote in my preview:

If PR doesn’t redeem his end-of-year blemish in last year’s final and isn’t hoisting his third Masters Cup on November 19, I may have to stop writing for a week. And I’ve little doubt PR won’t hesitate to tell us just how fabulous he is, and just how unbelievably he played, and just how much he deserves his 12th title of 2006.

Well, this is what the Swiss World No. 1 said after his ruthless 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 destruction of James Blake in a final that seemed to go so fast, I got whiplash just watching it from the computer screen:

“It’s quite incredible. To finish off the season by winning the Masters Cup is really, for me. It’s obviously the perfect ending to an incredible season.

“There’s not much more I could have done. I gave myself the best possible chance basically at every event. To come out like this, on top, I surprised even myself.

“I had to laugh at one stage how well I was playing, I always came up with a great answer, you know. I was in control pretty much all the time.

“It’s quite surprising to come out and beat a fellow top 5 in the finals so convincing.

“Everything I wanted to do worked. To come to this point in my career where I feel so happy with my game, it’s come such a long way, you know, that I also am out of words really to describe this performance.”

Uh, no you’re not.

And Blake, true to form, responded in kind.

“I really appreciate the support — whether I’m playing well or being given a lesson by Roger. Roger is the best of the best, not only this week but maybe in the history of the game.

“I’m honored to be considered one of his colleagues. It’s so great watching him play.”

Which was exactly what you did. On the court. It’s honorable to be gracious in defeat and all that, but c’mon.

Blake was overwhelmed from the start and became utterly demoralized as he watched Roger’s 41 winners whiz by. Arguably the fastest man on tour, James found himself flat-footed and frozen in the midst of the blizzard. Yes, Roger is the best player in the world and does everything better than James, but to see James just standing there without even trying to chase down balls was mindboggling. This wasn’t an exhibition, but that’s exactly what it appeared to be.

And James was a voyeur.

Members of the Chinese crowd, who sat on the edges of their seats for every match of the event, so fully engaged they were in every point, collectively sighing and moaning and gasping and shrieking, were often eerily silent as Roger struck winner after winner into the corners, picking up balls off his feet and redirecting them down the line, up the line, wickedly angled, and over Blake’s head. Blake’s shots had so little pace on them tonight, they more times than not just sat right up for Federer to pummel. Roger’s backhand, to me, has become more of weapon than his forehand.

I couldn’t stop shaking my head.

In Blake’s defense, he had to be overwhelmed just by making the final, a commendable accomplishment on his debut appearance. Besides, there wasn’t a huge chance he’d be able to repeat what he produced against David Nalbandian. But I could always hope. Still, I have to wonder if his regard for Federer, which borders on cultic, also locked up his feet.

As for Roger: one does run out of superlatives to describe his best form. A message-board buddy said that the “FedBot” would take this final with ease while the real Roger would already be headed to Korea to play his exhibition against Rafael Nadal. I laughed when she put it that way, but lo and behold, there was something eerily prescient in her irreverent description — sometimes Roger doesn’t seem to be human out there.

Well, the fluid FedBot has just become the first player in history to earn more than $8 million in prize money in a single season, posting an incredible 92-5 record with 12 titles, and winning his 29th match in a row, the second longest winning-streak of his career. He also became the first player to win three season-ending championships since 7-time winner Pete Sampras, that other great champion to whom he’s often compared.

Roger Federer adds his name to an illustrious Honor Roll of tennis legends, including Sampras, who’ve all won at least three year-end titles: Ivan Lendl (5-time winner), Boris Becker (4-time winner), Ilie Nastase (4-time winner), and John McEnroe (3-time winner).

Enough said.

Fed Facts
Fed's Magic Numbers

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Shanghai: The Final Showdown

Roger Federer to Face James Blake for Masters Cup Title

Nobody, and I mean nobody, saw this coming. James Blake, the last player to qualify, has earned the opportunity to face the undisputed world No. 1 in the Tennis Masters Cup final. I may be wrong, and if I am, I hope one of you fanatics will post a comment to correct me, but this is the first time since Arthur Ashe lost to John McEnroe in 1978 and only the second time in tennis history that a Black male has contested a season-ending championship final. Just over a year ago, Blake was playing challenger events, and now, in his Masters Cup debut, no less, he’ll have a puncher’s chance to take the title. His performance against David Nalbandian in the semifinals was nothing short of breathtaking. Blake has all the tools and the talent to defeat anyone on any day, and although he has yet to defeat Roger, if he plays his game, keeps the pressure on, and resists his penchant for idol worship, he might shock the world yet again.

Still, Roger Federer is the overwhelming favorite. After his victory over his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, in an emotionally charged and intense semifinal, you might think he’d have a letdown that could affect his final professional performance of the year (he and Rafa are scheduled to play an exhibition in Korea in a few weeks). But I wouldn’t bet on it. Roger, whose name, fittingly, means “famous, noble warrior”, has the heart of a lion and the ego to go with it: two essential ingredients of all great champions. But he was pushed hard by James in the US Open quarterfinals this year in a match that he called his toughest of the fortnight. Roger will have to serve well and consistenly harder than he normally does because James stands right on the baseline and blasts returns off both first and second serves. But as I said before and mean again: the famous and noble warrior is chasing history and nothing or nobody will stand in his way.

Roger Federer in five sets

Shanghai Semifinals: Straightforward

(1)Roger Federer d. (2)Rafael Nadal 6-4, 7-5

How will Federer approach this match? Will he stay back or come to the net and pressure Nadal?

The first game provides no clear answer since he serves three aces and holds to 15. His groundstrokes are venomous: he whacks a 103 mph forehand to win the first point on Nadal’s serve, forcing him into a double fault. Uncle Toni, sporting a lime-green get-up, is already mumbling to himself in the stands. Roger must’ve watched Blake’s match against Rafa because he’s on fire. But then again, we’ve seen this before: taking an early lead in a match against Nadal, only to fall away from full-blast in the next set. The Dubai final immediately springs to mind. Yes, I’m getting too far ahead of myself, but it’s worth noting. Nonetheless, Federer takes the first game on Nadal’s serve and casts a cutting glance over the net at his archrival. Federer leads 2 games to 0.

Serving at 0-3, Nadal finds himself down two more break points. Federer’s barrage of shots has broken Nadal out into a dripping, shirt-clinging sweat just 15 minutes into the match. Warrior Nadal fights off both break points and hits a screaming backhand passing shot up the line to get to game point. A forehand error and it’s back to deuce. Two forehand errors from Federer and Nadal gets on the board. Federer leads 3 games to 1.

The crowd is going wild: shouting, blowing horns between points, chanting “Roger!” and “Rafa!” and waving flags. A group of men wear the emblem of the Swiss flag on their painted faces, red all over with a white cross intersecting at the bridge of the nose. Mirka is subdued, befitted in black garb. Roger’s agent sits forward on the edge of his seat.

Meanwhile, Nadal is gradually finding his rhythm. Both knees wrapped once more in rubberband-like bandages and he’s scrambling about the court like a cat. His forehand has just fired its first few winners, and after an easy hold, he takes Federer to deuce. But Federer maintains, and finishes his game with an ace to forge ahead 5-2.

Nadal serves his first love service game and the ball is beginning to spray off Roger’s racquets on both wings. Haven’t we seen this before? Serving for the set, Roger misses a forehand and tossing in his second double fault. 0-30. A serve volley to the backhand and Roger misses a volley easy as it gets way beyond the baseline. He even made it look awkward. A netted forehand and Roger drops his serve. Roger leads 5-4. But just barely. Rafa yells “C’mon!!!” Usually Roger doesn’t collapse against Rafa until after he’s tucked away the first set. But not tonight.

Rafa begins to run Roger side-to-side. Roger’s shots have lost their sting. But thanks to a misguided dropshot and a backhand error from Rafa, he’s gifted two set points on Rafa’s serve. After a loooong rally (I lost count of the strokes), Rafa’s forehand clips the net, falls on his own side and Roger snatches the set 6-4. He clenches his fist, grits his teeth and sneers up to his box like I’ve never seen him sneer before.

Psychological warfare.

As always at the beginning of a set, the energy subsides and both players have to be careful not to allow any letdowns to affect play. For the first three games, they both succeded. But in the third game at 15-15, Rafa approached the net only to watch a lightning fast Federer race to his forehand side and hook a Bolo forehand up the line for a passing shot winner. Rafa erred on the next point and faced two break points. His heavy stopspin kicking up the court like a mule forced a forehand error from Roger to save the second. A backhand error gave Rafa game point and his slice serve out wide leveled the set at 2-2.

Roger faced a breakpoint of his own in the next game but a forehand that hit the corner saved it and Roger spat out a “C’mon!” of his own.

And then I dozed off. Tennis in China throws off my sleep patterns. But more than that, this match wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped it would be. I’ve seen better this week and certainly between these combatants.

When I awoke, Nadal was facing match point on his serve at 4-5. He saved it with a backhand error from Roger, but his own error gave Roger another. A forcing forehand approach to Roger’s backhand and a wild miss from Roger saved it. Rafa missed his first serve and Roger took control of the point. But an eager forehand beyond the baseline gave Rafa a game point. He wasted it with an eager backhand approach that was nowhere near the sideline. Deuce. Yet another Roger backhand error gave Rafa a game point. And another wild forehand error from Rafa wasted that. Deuce. Rafa missed yet another first serve and Federer gifted him the point with another forehand error into the net. Advantage, Nadal. A wild forehand from Roger and Rafa held. 5-5.

Psychological warfare.

Roger didn’t believe enough when it really mattered, as it had been in their four of their five meetings this year. Break points earned (or gifted); break points wasted. Huge skill; tremendous tension. Let Rafa hang around, you play with fire. And yet, Roger rebounded and held serve to love.

Players trade netted forehands to open the 12th game on Rafa’s serve. Rafa attempts another dropshot, but to no avail. 15-30. Missed serve. Rafa responds with a courageous forehand winner up the line. 30-30. Roger whacks a forehand into the Pacific Ocean. 40-30. A ferocious groundstroke rally ends in a Rafa forehand error, just beyond the baseline. Deuce. Missed serve. An extended rally, and a fearless and relentless Rafa prevails with a backhand winner down the line. Advantage, Nadal. And then the video on my computer screen buffers during a long rally (no, ESPN is not airing this match live in the United States, pathetic network that it remains), but the audio continues and Federer hit his first backhand winner of the match: up the line and from outside the doubles alley. Deuce. Rafa’s resolve cracks and he sends another forehand beyond the baseline. Matchpoint number three. Missed serve. Rafa breaks open a long rally and surprises Roger with a dropshot, but it wasn’t surprising enough. A determined Federer, racing like a skittish cat, reaches the ball just before it tails away, and whips a blazing forehand at a devastating angle crosscourt that whirs past a stretched-out Nadal and it’s all over. Roger shows more emotion than I’ve ever seen, crouching and pumping and pumping and crouching as though he’d just scored a touchdown. I suppose he had.

You think this victory meant something to him?

Is Rafa finally off his back? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Neither played consistently great tennis. Federer converted only 3 of 11 break points and committed 4 double-faults. Nadal showed flashes of his warrior self, but his confidence has been non-existent on the tennis court post-Wimbledon and he couldn’t find his best stuff when it mattered most today. But even though the tennis was spotty, the drama was off the charts. Tension thick as molasses seaped into every shot, every rally.

Pyschological warfare.

Match point was the best point of the match, and the best man won it.

Roger showed once again why and how he has been able to create his own heaven on today’s tour. And he’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to take back the Tennis Masters Cup World Championship title he surrendered last year on this very court.

Match Highlights

(8)James Blake d. (7)David Nalbandian 6-4, 6-1

How would Blake handle the prospect of advancing to the Masters Cup final on his debut? Would the occasion of his first big event semifinal off US soil cause him to tigthen? How would Nalbandian play with a heavy heart? Would he be able to put aside his pain once more and focus his best effort into his work?

Feeling each other out since they’d never played before, Blake and Nalbandian began the match tentatively. In the fourth game, it appeared as though Blake had figured out what to do and was ready to make a statement by breaking David’s serve with a trademark forehand up the line. But he couldn’t consolidate and let David right back into the set. Perhaps he James didn’t really know what to do. He exhibited little patience throughout the set, going for broke when way out of position. But that’s his game. Live by the sword; die by it.

Well, at the close of the first set, he lived by it. Receiving serve at 5-4, Blake pressured Nalbandian with punishing shots and jaw-dropping speed and athleticism. To earn his first set point, he hit a forehand so hard and at such an acute angle, it seemed as though he’d struck a passing shot while David stood on the baseline and watched the ball whiz by. After an extended rally, David carved under the ball and finessed a drop shot that James reached but couldn’t control to save set point. Two Blake errors, and David had game point. But David hit a weak backhand into the net to waste it. A surprising half-volley backhand passing shot gave Blake another set point. A forehand winning return sealed the set for Blake in 43 minutes.

An extraordinary rally closed out the first game of the second set. Nalbandian hit 5 would-be winners, but Blake chased them all down and sent them back with interest. Nabandian had enough. He ran through a backhand he tried to take right off the bounce, sliced it straight into the net, and threw his racquet high into the air like a juggler. He’d have to pull some major magic out his bag of tricks, because in the next game, he was broken at 15 when Blake’s dipping crosscourt backhand passing shot hit his shoelaces. But Nalbandian tried. A game of cat and mouse at the net also went in Blake’s favor as he chased down a drop shot, then a lob, a slice forehand deep and wide, another drop shot, and then finished off the game with a drop shot of his own.

It was the straw that broke the Argentine’s back. Dejected and deflated, he changed shirts on the changeover hoping that might change his luck.
The defending champion, who’s been called a bulldog because he competes so well, could not be counted out, although it was painfully apparent he didn’t have much say in the matter.

With a 3-0 second-set lead, it seemed that Blake could only lose this match if he lost it. With more rapid-fire returns, Nalbandian found himself facing two break points to fall behind 0-4. But a good approach saved one and a Blake backhand error brought the game level at deuce. On the next point when Blake ran around a backhand and fired another forehand winner up the line that Nalbandian could only watch with resignation. A missed first serve allowed Blake to take control of the point and he forced David into a backhand error. 4-0, Blake. The bulldog was being bullied.

The fat lady cleared her throat.

But was she preparing to sing? Blake raced out to a 40-0 lead, but then watched two shots fly by, the third and fourth winners of the set for Nalbandian. Three Blake errors later and David was finally on the scoreboard.

Had Hurricane Blake blown over? Andre Agassi often said that you just had to wait until Blake fizzled and the match could be yours. But in a best-of-three encounter, it didn’t seem likely. Blake regrouped and earned three consecutive break points behind two winners and a Nalbandian error. He wasted the first with a backhand return that sailed wide, Nalbandian saved the second with a vicious backhand winner of his own, but James took the third when David’s forehand just missed. 5-1, Blake.

Could he serve out the biggest match of his career to date?

David certainly hoped not. A missed dropshot put Blake down 0-15 and he chastised himself aloud for that braincramp. But two more winners brought him to 30-15. A double-fault leveled the game, and a Nalbandian volley winner earned him a break point. Blake saved it with a surprise serve and volley smash. Two points later, Blake raised his arms in victory, looking skyward as though he could sense his father there cheering. His brother and mother and long-time coach rose to their feet and applauded jubilantly from the stands. James walked to the net to shake the hand of a shell-shocked and disconsolate opponent.

The fat lady’s siren song modulated a step higher.

A great match? Not really. In fact, it couldn’t be called a match at all quite frankly. A mismatch would be more appropriate.

“A magnificent display of free-flowing tennis from Blake who never wavered in his resolve,” beamed John Barrett. “Nalbandian played the walk-on part in a tour-de-force performance.” Tour de force indeed. Blake smacked 32 winners, 9 off the return of serve alone, in one of the finest displays of baseline power tennis in recent memory.

And now he’ll have the opportunity to take on the world’s best for the fourth time this year. No, we won’t get to see a rematch of last year’s championship match as many had predicted (hoped for) once the semifinalists were determined. Instead, this late-blooming new man on the block will show us whether or not he is finally able to win a big title and legitimize beyond the shadow of any doubt his place at the top of the game.