Sunday, April 29, 2007

And the Winners Are...

Rafael Nadal, 2007 Open SEAT Champion, his 20th title.

Gisela Dulko, 2007 Gaz de France Budapest Grand Prix Champion, her maiden title.

Paul-Henri Mathieu, 2007 Grand Prix Hassan II Champion, his third title.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Star Wars: Battle of the Surfaces

(Photo Source)

May 1, 2007, in Palma Arena, Mallorca, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer - the two best players in the world - will face off in a unique exhibition match: the Star Wars.

This isn't just any exhibition match, though. It's going to have a very special court laid to complement the reigning King of Clay and the Grass Court Maestro. You see, on one side of the net the court will be clay; the other side, grass. Call it spring Christmas in red and green.

While both men dominate on their respective surfaces (Rafa has 70 consecutive clay court wins, and Federer has 48 consecutive grass court victories) both perform very impressively on the other surface. It was a Federer-Nadal final at both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2006, so this is sure to be a great battle. [src]

It also promises to be a fun, exciting, color-blinding event. Roger, who hasn't lost a match on grass since 2002(!), sees the event as a way for both players and fans to remember why tennis is played in the first place.
We also enjoy playing tennis for fun for a change. It doesn’t always need to be crazy serious out on the match courts… The result is not the most important thing, it’s about having fun out there. And Mallorca, it’s a place I’ve never been to. It’s [Nadal’s] home city… It’s going to be exciting and a good atmosphere.

Corned beef hash marks offers a unique perspective on this event, putting it in the context of other newsworthy events in the tennis world.

Two-time reigning Roland Garros champion Nadal owns a 6-3 record against Federer, including a 4-0 mark on clay courts. The pair have split their four hard-court clashes.

Apparently, the exhibition will feature only two sets and the players will switch sides between sets. Seems a bit anti-climactic to me. Roger will win the set from the clay side and Nadal will win the set from the grass side, right?

“The duel is as hot as ever, and through “The Battle of Surfaces”, we’ll have the chance to see the best of Federer against the best of Nadal,” affirms José Luis Ballester, General Sport Director.

“I would love this to turn into a classic. When I see a city as inspiring as Palma de Mallorca, where tennis is so relevant through giants like Moya and Nadal and with a leading-edge stadium as is Palma Arena, I feel the situation is ideal for this idea to take place,” says Pablo Del Campo, creator of the idea and President of Del Campo Saatchi & Saatchi.

(Getty Images: Click to enlarge)

Event Press Release

Update: Match is TODAY

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Who Is That Man Behind the Curtain?

by Savannah

I found this article by Matt Cronin posted on Men's Tennis Forums. There wasn't a lot of commentary about it - most fans were too busy with the Hermitage 3+1 - but I think this is a very interesting look at just what is going on with the ATP right now and why. The entire article is here but I'll post some excerpts (emphases mine) and then comment.

For some odd reason, there's a misconception out there it's the players who have the most say on major tour issues. They don't and haven't had a significant impact in quite some time...

But let's be really serious here about who hired de Villiers in the first place: the tournament directors, who received, in my not some humble opinion, a rubber stamp for the players. You didn't think that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Ivan Ljubicic had time to conduct extensive job interviews, did you?

That doesn't mean that de Villiers is completely beholden to the TDs, but when he takes a look at the other six members of the ATP Board of Directors, he knows who is cutting his paychecks and where the power lies. Currently, it lies with the TDs and the major sports agencies.

de Villiers has one vote, as do tournament reps Charlie Pasarell (the Indian Wells owner who is certainly one of the most powerful men in the sport), Auckland Tennis CEO Graham Pearce and Monte Carlo TD Zeljko Franulovic (back to him later). The players selected super agent Perry Rogers (Andre Agassi's agent), Jacco Eltingh and Iggy Jovanovic. I'll give the players two strong votes in former doubles standout Eltingh and Iggy, who used to be a communications official. But that's it. Rogers understands the players concerns, but he's a business guy first and is likely looking at profit as the primary motive. Plus, he's American and sees more potential in keeping four strong Masters Series in North America (Indian Wells, Miami, Cincy and Canada), than he does in saving Hamburg's or Monte Carlo's TMS status (although maybe Steffi Graf is trying to convince him otherwise.)

I'm not sure how the vote broke down when the board voted on de Villiers recommendation for the 2009 calendar – which was to downgraded Monte Carlo and Hamburg, add Shanghai and move Madrid to the spring – but my guess is that Franulovic balked in a big way and stormed out, de Villiers and the two other tournament directors said fine, and so did Rogers. That's enough votes, folks, regardless of what Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and ATP Player Council president Ivan Ljubicic asked their player reps to do.

Look, if the players want to make the ATP a "player organization," then they have to get the tiebreaking vote on board of directors. I don't believe that they've ever had that on a consistent basis from their CEO, so they are sitting clay pigeons when it comes to major issues like the calendar, unless they force their CEO to the wall, which they have done this week.

Now, when they have embarrassed de Villers publicly with players like Ljubicic saying "ET doesn't understand tennis," they bring out a big stick by essentially saying that we are not buying into your calendar and you can take your mandated tournaments and shove them into your racket bag.

That's the power that they do have … which is not show up where they don't want to play. Just imagine how happy Shanghai is going to be if most of the top competitors don't go. Guess who's going to get an earful and a request for a major refund - de Villiers.

According to the Daily Telegraph's excellent Mark Hodgkinson, de Villiers told Federer, Ljubicic et al that's he's willing to be flexible and maybe, just maybe, they will reconsider letting Monte Carlo keeps its status. But Hamburg still appears to be in real trouble.

My conclusions? The player reps on the board have absolutely no power whatsoever. The Americans, and the man from Auckland plus ET form the majority block. The one European tour director is reduced to allegedly "storming out" leaving his fellow board members to do, and vote, as they please. The man who should be the swing vote, Perry Rogers, votes with the Passarell block which should come as no surprise to any adult in the business world. He runs a sports agency not a non-profit.

There were overflowing crowds at Monte-Carlo all week. A full house is guaranteed for Rome. But the Americans are only concerned with making sure their Masters Events become the only game in town. Indian Wells, Cincinnati, Canada and Miami are going to stay unless something drastic happens. It will take more that a united front by the European players and TD's to change this. The Board will argue profit while not mentioning that the American and Canadian stadiums are bigger than many of those in Europe. Yes the people behind Hamburg and Monte Carlo have filed suits against the ATP in the American state of Delaware but it's too soon to tell how that particular deck will be stacked.

So while the fans were celebrating the coming together of the top men in the world, neither of whom is American, The Powers That Be were smiling in their club chairs and puffing on their Cuban cigars. I for one don't see this ending well.

Tuesday Tirade: Meet Richie Red Shoes

Q. This question has nothing to do with tennis. But did you see that in the magazine Le Point there was an article about Lagardere who denied the rumor about your relationship.

RICHARD GASQUET: I was absolutely not happy about that. This question has come back hundreds of times, and every time someone turns up saying, Oh, I have evidence. It is just bullshit. Neither him nor me are homosexuals. It's absolutely obvious.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ruler of the Red Stuff

Nadal Wins Third Monte-Carlo Title

by Craig Hickman

The sold-out crowd at the Monte-Carlo Country Club was rooting for the underdog. Whenever Roger earned a break point on Nadal's serve, the din of applause increased. For all of Rafa's declarations that he was feeling no pressure, his errant forehand throughout much of the first set betrayed his words.

But Roger couldn't capitalize. Break point after break point, the tenative Swiss struck his forehand out.

The tension, palpable.

In the 9th game of the first set, Roger cracked, striking two errant forehands, an errant backhand and stared down the barrel of triple break point. He saved the first with a wide forehand approach and Nadal's trip over the linesman. But Roger's forehand beyond the baseline, his 7th unforced error in the last 8 points, gave Rafa the opportunity to serve for the first set.

But Rafa got tight. Both players shanked forehands. 30-30. Roger lost patience, snatched badly at a backand and Rafa had his first set point. A brilliant rally where Nadal turned defense into attack earned his forehand a short ball that it struck crisply, racquet head a blur, for a clean winner.

The Spaniard sat one set away from a hattrick of titles.

The second point of the second game of the second set brought the entire crowd to its feet. A protracted rally ended in Federer's favor when Nadal tried to between-the-leg an excellent lob Roger touched over Rafa's head. Roger won the point. Rafa, the game.

It's as though that knocked the sails out of Roger. He donated his next service game with tenative, sloppy play. That deliciously ornery mood of earlier in the week spread over him like the crushed brick on the ground under his dusty feet.

Rafa was four games away, and unless Roger snapped out of it, they'd come quickly. Rafa yanked Roger all over the court on his gamepoint, consolidating the break when Roger's squash-shot forehand slid long. Three games away.

After holding serve, Roger earned half chances, squandered them. I was beginning to think he was beginning to feel like a forming diamond. Two games away.

A few Roger mishits and a double-fault, and Roger stared at break point. But a heavily backspun dropshot save it. His fourth double-fault sailed long by a French countryside mile. Exhale. Nadal hit an easy forehand sitter just wide. Deuce. Serve and volley. Rafa's dipping return forces Roger to miss. Exhale again. Rafa mishit a forehand lob just wide. Service winner. Twice. Jeux, Federer.

How will Rafa respond to wasting those break points? Will Roger take advantage?

The crowd thunders applause when Rafa steps to the line to serve. They want this to go the distance. Roger wants nothing of it. Four flailing errors elicit a frown on coach Roche's face. Mirka hides her consternation behind too-big glasses. One game away.

Roger begged for a point to be replayed. No wonder. Rafa's exquisite slice backhand drop volley that died in front of Federer was sickening. "Please, sir, can't we replay the point? I was distracted. By his bandanna." Carlos Bernardos says no. Rafa questions a close serve, gets a few boos and hisses, Roger opens his shoulders and, angrily, whacked two balls into the corners that Rafa couldn't get to. Hmmm. Where was this intensity from the start?

Rafa hasn't been broken the entire match. Will he serve it out? From his first two screaming forehand winners, one would surely think so. As I said yesterday, this man will not be denied. After an hour and 33 minutes, Roger's shanked backhand gives, Rafa his second match point. Roger saves it with a blistering forehand down the line.

But Rafa's got two more. He only needs one. Roger lets another backhand fly, and the King of Clay's reign is baked hard in the earth.

67 consecutive victories.

The trophy presentation started out feeling more like a funeral than a celebration. Roger looked forlorn. Nadal, subdued, didn't rub it in.

Tony, can you help me?

But then the place returned to life when Nadal urged the ATP, in Spanish, to keep Monte-Carlo a Masters event. One of the most beautiful and intimate venues on the tour, it enjoys the love of fans and players alike.

The Bryan brothers (What? Wait. Americans in Monte-Carlo. Winning?) joined the celebration and received their trophies for their first doubles title at the foot of the mountains beside the Mediterranean.

Roger, a bit more than Rafa, chatted together casually.

Ah. There it is. Roger is a bit more casual than Rafa on the red stuff. And Rafa, smiling assassin, makes him pay. This time in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4.

Bold prediction: Monte-Carlo is the only final we'll see these champions contest this spring.

Fed Cup: The Final Four

by Craig Hickman

How can it be that all the winning teams produced shutouts of their opponents? Surely this has got to be historical. Even if it's happened before, I'd bet the farm that we'd have to go searching through the annals to find it.

Anyway, it was nice to see young Vania King clench the tie for the US. She replaced Serena Williams, who felt knee pain, in the first reverse singles match. Vania showed a lot of heart in rallying to win the match. The experience will pay off down the road as she builds her career.

USA defeats Belgium 5-0
V Williams d K Flipkens 75 62
S Williams d C Maes 61 64
V King d K Flipkens 46 64 75
V Williams d Y Wickmayer 61 62
King/Raymond d Hendler/Maes 61 62

Italy defeats China 5-0
T Garbin d T Sun 64 26 63
F Pennetta d S Peng 06 75 30 ret.
T Garbin d S Zhang 36 62 64
M Santangelo d T Sun 64 62
Santangelo/Vinci d Sun/Sun 62 64

France defeats Japan 5-0
N Dechy d A Sugiyama 75 61
T Golovin d A Morigami 62 64
T Golovin d A Sugiyama 76(3) 60
V Razzano d A Morigami 76(4) 16 62
Bremond/Dechy d Morita/Sugiyama 61 62

Russia defeats Spain 5-0
N. Petrova d A Medina Garrigues 63 64
S Kuznetsova d L Dominguez-Lino 63 62
S Kuznetsova d A Medina Garrigues 63 46 60
A Chakvetadze d N Llagostera Vives 36 75(5) 62
Petrova/Vesnina d Dominguez-Lino/Pous-Tio 61 46 62

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Monte-Carlo: Clash of the Titans

Clay, Part V

by Craig Hickman

The TMS Monte-Carlo final will feature tennis' greatest rivalry, the (re)match fans worldwide most wanted to see. The King of Clay brings a 66-match claycourt winning streak to the table against the Swiss Maestro, who hasn't appeared in a final since Dubai. Neither has dropped a set this week.

"It's always fun to see the No. 1 and No. 2 playing against each other," Federer said. "I hope we can live up to the expectations and play a good match."

Roger will want to notch his first win in five tries over Nadal on clay to boost his confidence for Roland Garros.

But Nadal, who's dripping with an unparelleled ferociousness right about now, doesn't look like he'll be all that fazed.

"I arrived here playing better than last year," Nadal said. "Last year I was very nervous all the time because I was defending a lot of points. This tournament, I feel so much better. I am playing without pressure."

Not good news for Roger, who, quiet as it's kept, is weighted with pressure to win Roland Garros, which most rational minds agree won't happen unless he can beat Nadal in a best-of-five encounter.

The Monte-Carlo final, unlike their previous claycourt epics, is best-of-three so Roger's chances increase, if only by a smidgen. Overall, he's won 5 sets against Nadal on clay, but never more than two in a match. Unfortunately for him, that was in a best of five final in Rome last year. And even then, Rafa was the first to get two sets under his belt.

It's unwise to pick against Rafa in a claycourt final. It would be even more unwise to do so given Nadal's current form and state of mind. I'll stick with the King of Clay in three sets.

Serena & Venus Reunite for Fed Cup

by Craig Hickman

For the first time since 2003, Serena and Venus Williams will both represent the USA in Fed Cup play. This weekend they face Belgium in Delray Beach, Florida. With Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters posting no-shows, the USA should win without much fanfare.

Lisa Raymond and Vania King round out the US team, while Belgium will be represented by Fed Cup stalwart Kirsten Flipkens, unheralded Caroline Maes, and upstarts Yanina Wickmayer and Tamaryn Hendler. I've never heard of them either.

The winner of the tie will face either Russia or Spain in the semifinals in July.

Related Articles
Multitasking Williams sisters seek to be on top
Look Out: Venus Could Rise Again
William sisters back on team for USA against Belgium

Monte-Carlo Semfinals Preview/Review

by Craig Hickman

(1)Roger Federer (SUI) vs. (16)Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP)
If you're looking for an upset, look here. The Spaniard has quietly, efficiently made his way through the draw of an event he's already won twice. He showed big balls against Richard Gasuet in their quarterfinal. He loves the conditions and it's not as though he's never beaten Roger, no matter how long ago it was. (See: Canas). Roger's mood is in the toilet this week. He's jaded, ornery, and has played scratchy tennis for most of his run here. Sure, he usually raises his level when he has to, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if he fizzles out of the tournament right here. Wouldn't be the end of the world. Not sure how another Nadal beatdown would help his overall cause on the terre battue this year. Nevertheless, jaded or not, Federer will find a way to get through to see where his game against Nadal stands.

Postmatch remarks: Ferrero led 3-1 in the first set and had two break points to take a 4-1 lead. On the second one, Federer's mishit forehand clipped the tape and dribbled over the net. After that bit of Leo luck, it was all downhill for Ferrero. He lost 7 games in a row to fall behing 0-2 in the second set. Though he recovered his early match form shortly thereafter, it was too late. Federer advances to his second consecutive Monte Carlo final.

(2)Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. (10)Tomas Berdych (CZE)
Several tennisheads have predicted that if there's an upset today, it will most likely happen here. I poured that Kool Aid down the drain. So what Berdych has gotten the best of Rafa on hardcourts the last three times they've played. This is Rafa's kingdom, people. He will not be denied in this round or the next. And he'll be eager to avenge his last loss to Berdych in front his home fans. It got ugly. Rafa felt completely disrespected and verbally attacked Berdych at the net during the handshake. I expect him to do all his attacking between the lines this time around.

Postmatch remarks: In the first set, Rafa cleaned Tomas' clock to love in 27 minutes. But the Czech fought back in the second set, got to the net a bit more, and managed to win 5 games, exactly the same number Nadal surrendred in his quarterfinal. A tight service game at 5-5 was the Czech's final undoing. Nadal served out the match to 15. Tepid, perfunctory handshake.

Rematch. On.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday's Fleeting Thought

by Craig Hickman

I know, I know. I'm getting way ahead of myself. But I can't help it. Grass is my favorite surface and, well, it does immediately follow the claycourt season as a complementary colored coda. And I find myself drifting as far from the television as the claycourters from the baseline when watching the dirty red, yawn-inducing snoozefests.

People often ask if serve-and-volley tennis, which was honed on the lawns in the 50s, is dead. The Walrus just featured an intriguing article on the subject. (Thanks, Ed.) Here's the thrust of the matter:

When you follow your serve to the net, you force the player opposite you to make a difficult passing shot. The objective is to set up a volley — a shot in which you return the ball before it touches the ground — that will either be an outright winner or set up an easy finishing volley. While it sounds simple, volleying is an immensely difficult feat that requires lightning agility, intense concentration, and instinctive hand-eye coordination. Tennis is a game of time: you must take time away from your opponent. If you succeed, your adversary will make more mistakes, and you will hit more winners. “Serve-and-volley can be unbelievably tough to play against,” says Dean Coburn, the Tennis Canada coach who works with Peter Polansky, one of the country’s top male prospects. “They just keep coming. It is demoralizing. Of course, in order to serve-and-volley well, you have to be mentally tough. Resilient. You have to have a ‘next’ mentality, a belief that your opponent is going to break down at some time under the pressure.”...

...Yet today, the art of serve-and-volley is on the verge of becoming a relic, atrick to be employed once in a while to keep an opponent off balance. “In college tennis,” says Coburn, “a lot of top players believe in serve-and-volley, but few guys on the professionaltour are doing it.” In fact, you’ll find only a handful of pure serve-and-volleyers among the top one hundred players on the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals (atp) tour. In coaching circles, there is a drift away from cultivating the idiosyncratic genius of serve-and-volley players such as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, and Patrick Rafter, and toward fostering the overwhelming efficiency and consistency of Spanish phenomenon Rafael Nadal, or the versatility of today’s dominant player, Swiss right-hander Roger Federer, who is happy to pack a lunch and camp out at the baseline. “Ten years ago there were a lot more serve-and-volleyers. No one now is going to come in,” a defiant Sampras, who still plays the occasional game on the World Team Tennis tour, told reporters during Wimbledon in 2006. “I will die serving and volleying. It’s my natural instinct.”

I say serve-and-volley isn't dead (well, maybe for women it is, save Amelie Mauresmo on grass) insomuch as those who swear by it have limited success because racquet technology has made the return and the passing shot such deadly weapons. Not to mention the slowing down of all the fast surfaces, including grass. Still:

Ivo Karlovic just won a title. On clay, no less.
Max Mirnyi made the Monte Carlo round of 16.
Amer Delic made noise in Miami, taking out a top tennner.
Jurgen Melzer is ranked at No. 29.
Mardy Fish, No. 30.
Marc Gicquel, No. 46.
Chris Guccione reached a career high this year.
Feliciano Lopez likes to do it on grass. So does...
Andy Roddick. Indoors sometimes, too.
Martin Verkerk just returned from an extended injury absence.
Mario Ancic is recovering from mono.
Taylor Dent is recovering from back surgery.
Mark Philippoussis is recovering from knee surgery. May not be back.
Greg Rusedski just retired.
Tim Henman, the best volleyer in today's game, is fading.

Related Article: (Thanks, Savannah)
Pancho Gonzalez: The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Monte-Carlo Quarterfinals Preview/Review

by Craig Hickman

(1) Roger Federer vs. (12) David Ferrer (ESP)
Ferrer can beat Raja if, and only if, he believes in himself. Ferrer hits flatter than most claycourters, which plays into Raja's hands, but if the Spaniard keeps his head in it (DON'T bet the house!), he's got a puncher's chance. My money is on the Swiss Miss(ter), who just happens to be in a deliciously ornery mood this outing.

Postmatch remarks: Fuck belief. David Ferrer needs to go out and buy some topspin and some length of shot. Not to mention a serve. It was a shellacking, featuring the day's second serving of bagel. And Roger is still in that mood. Even his 500th career victory couldn't bring a smile to his face.

(16) Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP) vs. (11) Richard Gasquet (FRA)
Haven't seen a complete Ferrero match, but the former King of Clay dismisses the Frenchman, who's luckier than a Sagittarius in December to be in the quarterfinals given his mental vacuousness and his prior opponents' brazen inability to close out matches.

Postmatch remarks: Despite being down a set and 1-4, Juan Carlos Ferrero never gave up. His ability to weather the ebb and flow of a claycourt match like the former Champion he is paid dividends. Despite Richard's physical ailments, he was able to play great tennis. His reaction time at the net as he tired cost him late in the match. Both players together struck 92 (50 for Richie) winners to only 56 unforced errors (23 for JC). Featuring some of the best claycourt tennis from both sides of the net in the tournament so far, I didn't find myself falling to see. JC seems to be digging back into his old self, stealing the final sets 7-5, 6-2. He loves Monte Carlo, he's won here twice, and he seemed determined to get back to another final.

(10) Tomas Berdych (CZE) vs. Robin Soderling (SWE)
On this surface, it's a toss-up. Don't wager a thing. Really. A slight edge to the Swede only because he's coming off a Davis Cup victory and he won their last two encounters. But he can crumble quick as stale cornbread. Then again, so can the Czech. Nuff said.

Postmatch remarks: Up 7-5, 3-0, Soderling pulled off the biggest, most Titanic tank I've ever seen on a tennis court. Committed to whacking the ball out, he lost the last twelve games of the match. Stale cornbread doesn't do him justice. Berdych takes the early Christmas present and advances to his first Masters semifinal on clay.

(2) Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. (Q) Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER)
If the German feels like he's up to it, he will give Nadal all that he can handle. His backhand isn't *sweet,* as some would have you believe. It's vicious. His forehand isn't bad either. He's got confidence, what with his Davis Cup debut win against Belgium Easter weekend. Could be the match of the day. Nonetheless, *unbeatable* Nadal will get one step closer to defending his title, even if he has to break the German's momentum with his calculated and now legendary stalling tactics to do so. Besides, Kohlschreiber, as a qualifier, has played three more matches than Nadal so far this week.

Postmatch remarks: Forget the scoreline. This match was actualy pretty competitive and well-played. The qualifier stuck to his gameplan. An exciting player to watch, he served-and-volleyed, attacked Nadal's backhand, went after second serves, ripped his own backhand to vicious angles. In short, he kept the pressure on Nadal from first point to last, saving four match points on his own serve at 2-5 in the second set and another on Nadal's serve at 5-3. But Rafa had an answer for everything. And I mean everything. Rafa had to earn this victory with a determination that was quite a bit fiercer than last year when he ruled the terre battue. Short an injury, he won't be dethroned. If you're a FedNut, do yourself a big favor: just fugghetaboutit.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It's All About the Schedule

And Other Musings: A Reply to Savannah

by Craig Hickman

Q. Sounds like you're not playing Monte-Carlo. How does that happen?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, for me it's something that doesn't quite fit into the schedule. It's going to be real tough to go from Houston all the way over to Monte-Carlo, then come back just for a week or two to train for Rome.
For the Americans, that tournament has never been exactly the easiest one in the schedule. I'm not going to be able to make it to that one.

Q. Any sanctions for not doing that, because it's a mandatory event?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, I think I'll get a zero pointer. I'll lose my chance to get points there. I believe there's a way that you're allowed to miss one and not get fined. This will be the one I miss.

As I've been saying for years, Monte Carlo just doesn't fit the Americans' schedule. Nothing more; nothing less. (The Europeans who live in the States such as Grosjean and Haas don't tend to play the event either, opting for Houston instead. Hewitt hasn't played much on clay for the last few years and though I'm not sure what the Australian media says about his absence on the dirt, but I'd be suprised if he were verbally hung every spring. I bet the Swedish media don't shout that their players are inferior to Europeans. Oh, yeah. Sweden's in Europe, isn't it?)

Quiet as it's kept, most top players play only two of the three claycourt TMS events in Europe, no matter where they live on the globe. Quieter still, most eligible Americans still play Rome and Hamburg every year.

And Roddick has made the quaterfinals (last year) and semifinals (2002) in Rome, which is more than many a top European or South American claycourter can claim.

I just think this whole subject about Americans not playing Monte Carlo or other European clay events is blown way out of proportion.

Quick--how many top Europeans play the US hardcourt events leading up to TMS Canada in the summer?

Where's the outrage for their absence? Perhaps it comes in the European media, but I doubt it.

Savannah, I think I mostly took issue with your characterizion that 1) Roddick is miserable on clay since parting with Tariq and 2) the American men's absence in Monte Carlo and other European claycourt events is an insult to the sport. You seemed to be making the argument, by extension, that our men are playing into what Mr. Disney is trying to do to the tour. Maybe some are. I don't know who has or hasn't signed the petition against separating the tour. But even before Mr. Disney came along, Americans didn't play in Monte Carlo with any consistency. The U.S. Men's Claycourt Championships is a legitimate claycourt event and has quite a history in the States. Just because it isn't a TMS event doesn't mean that the players who chose to play it aren't becoming acclimated to the surface in preparation for the big event.

As for the other points in your post, I think it would engender better discussion to separate them out instead of throwing them all into a pot of gumbo. What Mr. Disney is doing might be connected to the American approach to tennis, but it's largely a business decision that I don't agree with. That's a separate issue from developing players who are comfortable on clay.

But even that, I feel, deserves a different kind of discussion than the one usually put forth. Clay is a surface. What it takes to win on it, in and of itself, doesn't encapsulate what makes a great player great. You call it the Great Equalizer. I call it the Great Penalizer. The history of the surface and Roland Garros supports this persepective. Back in the day, the four French Musketeers couldn't defeat the Australians and Americans with any regularity on grass so they introduced terre battue in 1928 the same year the French Championships became Roland Garros as a way to give themselves a better chance. It didn't actually work. Even though Henri Cochet won it the first time it was contested on the crushed brick, following the Second World War the championships were dominated by American and Australian players, with French names rarely making the honor roll.

Throughout the years, men who executed their aggressive games were still able to win Roland Garrros. Yannick Noah and Tony Roche immediately spring to mind. Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier were aggressive baseliners. At the top of his game, you might even call Juan Carlos Ferrero an aggressive baseliner.

The grinding-wear-them-out style of play that many south American and Spanish "specialists" have perfected over the last few decades has changed the nature of what constitutes "true" claycourt play, and by and large, the male players have succumbed to this myth. It's too bad. When a player begins to believe that his biggest weapons won't work on clay, he steps onto the court in a losing position. But the truth remains: big weapons work on any surface. Players can be aggressive on clay, they've just got to expect to hit one or two more shots to win a point. But make no mistake, claycourt rallies can end in three shots just as they can on any other surface. Good first serve, decent return, volley winner (or error). End of point. Martin Verkerk contested the 2003 Roland Garros final.

Look at the list of women players who've won Roland Garros over the last two decades. Why have women with aggressive games had better success on clay than men? Why is the greatest claycourt player the game has ever seen a woman -- a flat striker of the ball, no less -- from southern California? Another discussion indeed.

Nowadays, it takes an exceptional player to be able to win on every surface the sport has to offer: grass, outdoor hard, indoor hard, indoor carpet, and clay. (Would love to have seen matches on wood!) Roddick is an exceptional player. It takes an extraordinary player to be able to win big on every surface. Federer is an extraordinary player. As of this writing, these are the only two active singles players on the ATP who have managed to win ATP titles on every available surface today.

It seems, then, come spring, that what spoiled Americans are really complaining about is that we don't have more than one exceptional man and no extraordinary men. And in our arrogant complaining, we have lumped our exceptional one together with our good ones and have worn out the gloom and doom cry, "We suck on clay. We don't know how to play tennis. We suck, period. We'll never do America proud in Paris." So be it. There are many of us who feel that clay sucks much more than we suck on it. Regardless, our complaining has seemed to work. We have brought down our exceptional one. In 2004 and 2005, Andy put himself in a position to advance the the last 32 in Paris. Both times, he faltered.

Way back when, I wrote a Fleeting Thought about the torrid relatinship between Andy Roddick and Roland Garros. Roger Federer, whom no one would dispute is a far better player than Andy Roddick, has also had a spotty affair with the event. Yes, Roger's last two outings have been noteworthy, but nothing short of winning the title will be considered success by him (or his many disciples) at this point. And media's readiness to declare him the definitive Greatest of All Time (GOAT) with a victory there has created the situation. Because of this added pressure, Roger may never win Roland Garros. And those who overexalt claycourt play will call him a failure if he doesn't. From GOAT to failure in 10 seconds flat.

We talkers like to hear ourselves talk. Some of us feel better about our words if everyone else is singing the same old song. Such herd mentality transcends race, nationality, gender, and achievement.

So while Roddick and Blake elicit criticism as the top American men, let's criticize with facts, not regurgitated myths. If Mr. Disney is to be criticized for trying to tear up the tour, let's keep the focus on his ineptitude and related issues and petition the ATP for his ouster. If American tennis is to be criticized, let's offer up suggestions to make it better.

The pen is still mightier than the sword.

A Rebuttal, And A Reply

by Savannah

Craig and I often share posts and he is my editor from time to time -- a lot. We've also talked about having discussions but the situation has never been right for having one. Craig did send me a reply to my post about Justin Gimelstob's blog entry about American men and their clay phobia that I thought needed its own post, and a bit of a reply from me.

Here is Craig's reply along with a correction he posted later. (Craig's note: This discussion actually began when Savannah posted her Monte Carlo draw and preview here. I thought to respond with a separate post, but I replied with a comment within that post instead. Savannah, as usual, has chosen the smarter, more accessible, route.)

You're absolutely divine on your soapbox, but I'd like to dispel a few myths, if I may.

Under Tarik, Roddick won 3 claycourt titles (Atlanta, Houston, St. Poelton), made the semifinals of Rome, the third round of RG where he retired to Hewitt after twisting an ankle, and also lost in the first round the same year he won St. Poelten (2003. Incidentaly Federer lost first round that year as well). The press hounded Roddick to change coaches. He did. He also never won a Davis Cup match away on clay under Tariq.

Since Tarik, Roddick has won two claycourt titles (Houston, 2x), made the quarterfinals of Rome, choked away two winnable second round matches at Roland Garros up two sets to one (Mutis - 2004) and two seets to love (Acasuso - 2005), and lost in the first round through retirement last year. He's also won four crucial Davis Cup matches away on clay.

In short, Roddick's record on clay post Tarik is only nominally worse, considering that he won exactly the same number of Roland Garros matches, finished a round earlier at Rome, qne one less title, but won 4 more Davis Cup matches.

Does "Roddick won on clay before dropping Tarik as his coach. He's been miserable on it since," still sound reasonable?

I don't generally defend Blake, BUT... before losing to Monfils and Zabaleta, he defeated Almagro (ESP) and Juan Monaco (ARG), respectively, neither of whom is any pushover on clay. It's also safe to say that his impatience against Zabaleta had to do with 1) his grueling 3 setter against Monaco the night before and 2) his recent Davis Cup efforts. His choke to Monfils was exactly that. I remember you saying he had that match and let it slip away. But that's Blake more than the surface.

If I recall, Blake choked to Ancic in the 16s or the quarterfinals of Hamburg last year, something he can do on the big stage on ANY surface.

Andre Agassi never backed off the baseline on clay, never slid, never imparted too much topspin on his shots. He didn't overadjust his game to the surface and didn't appear to have any mentally allergies to the surface. He won Rome once, Roland Garros once, and made another (two?) finals in Paris. He didn't grow up on clay.

Michael Chang won Roland Garros and never another Slam. Is clay supposed to be the supreme measure of a tennis player? Just because it tests your patience and your endurance but, by and large, penalizes your shotmaking? Just curiuos.

Tony Roche and Yannick Noah, to list just two, won Roland Garros by serve and volleying and chipping and charging. On a slower surface with wooden rackets. The points were short. Tony Roche didn't grow up on clay.

Martin Verkerk serve and volleyed and chipped and charged his way to a Roland Garros final on a medium slow surface with a high-tech racket, defeating at least one defending champion along the way. The points on his serve were short.

I'm not exactly sure what Justin Gimelstob is talking about. But it sounds familiar, that's for sure.

Roddick's biggest problems on clay are mental. See his results against Tommy Haas, a player he's never beaten on clay (but handled on other surfaces) and yet Ivo Karlovic, a player with a similar game and less athleticism, can defeat Haas on clay in straight sets the first time he plays him. Matchups. I know. Which support the same claim since matchups are more mental than anything else.

Every year we hear the same old story about American men on clay, even before the season is in full force. Isn't it entirely possible that the players' mental allergies to clay are simply reinforced by this barrage of redundancy?

Wouldn't it be interesting if, for instance, an American journalist pointed out the improvement of American men on clay as their Davis Cup results and their collective TMS results on clay over the past two years have indicated? Even Mardy Fish won a claycourt title.

Wouldn't it be as revealing to compare Roddick's 5 claycourt titles to David Nalbandian's ZERO? Roddick's career claycourt record to [insert name of any second-tier claycourter from South America or Europe here]?

And speaking of Roddick and coaches, Jimmy Connors knew his way around the slow stuff with his flat strokes and big old heart.

I hope Roddick's hamstring heals well enough so that he can be competitive in the claycourt events he does contest. He's got Rome quarterfinal points to defend, afterall. Lord knows he played Verdasco like he was on a claycourt, drifting 20 feet behind the baseline to absorb Verdasco's topspin and pace, and he still won the match in straight sets. On a fast indoor hardcourt. With a sore hamstring.

I've seen Roddick (and Blake) construct points on clay. Roddick, in particular, falls short because he doesn't expect anything of himself, doesn't believe in himself. Is he ever going to win Roland Garros? Only if a series of miracles occur. But I think he'd do a whole lot better there than he has if the talkers, whom he listens to and takes seriously, don't doom him before he even sets foot on Philippe Chatrier.

Our words have power. Perhaps, if we want to see more success from our men, we try pumpimg them up instead of cutting them down.

He then added this correction:

Oops. I think I stand corrected. I believe Nalbandian has won a claycourt title. One for sure. No more than two, I don't believe.

My first response was to wonder if Craig was right, that people are projecting so much negativity towards American men right now that perhaps what we see is the law of diminishing returns. You see it all the time in the classroom. Tell a kid often enough that he or she is stupid and can't learn and what do you get but a kid who won't learn.

But the more I thought about it the more I thought that Craig is right as far as he goes but I think Gimelstob was making a bigger point.

In my opinion the critical paragraph in Justin's blog is the first one I quoted:

American players are raised to focus on building weapons and finding ways to attack and win points. Clay-court tennis puts a premium on defense and manipulating your opponent into low-percentage positions where he will eventually lose the point.

How you see the world is how it presents to you. Your reactions to what is presented to you is based on how you have been taught to react to outside forces. The reactions are cultural, and especially today, societal. If you come from a culture which teaches you to shoot first and ask questions later you will be perceived as agressive, always on the move, and clearheaded. A culture which values analysis of what is coming at you and then trying to find a way to get around it or change it to suit you values patience, contemplation and a more laid back approach to things. People raised in the "ready-fire-aim" culture see those from the other culture as lazy and sneaky. People from the other culture see those from the "ready-fire-aim" culture as hotheads, hucksters, childlike and unable to plan ahead.

Of course I'm simplifying things here but this is a tennis forum and a certain shorthand is needed. In the paragraph cited above Gimelstob has used the same shorthand.

Does this mean that Americans have to hire European coaches in order to at least learn how to manuever on red clay? If they do this does this in some way alter American style tennis which is geared to hard court play? (I'm leaving out grass for now because that is a whole other can of worms. [Craig's note: Which I'm sure we'll get to!])

I am old enough to remember when being a good tennis player required knowledge of how to play on every surface. That is why you have Andre with decent clay court results. It's often said that Chang was only able to win the French Open but as an Asian, an ethnically Chinese friend of mine told me way back then Chang was too small to compete at the highest levels of tennis for any length of time. No one wants to say that though. Instead, his one Slam is cited as proof that those who win the FO can't win anywhere else.

I understand that positive reinforcement yields better results than negative reinforcement but as Craig points out Roddick was pressured to change his non-American coach and he did. I think his game has suffered for it.

Blake's problems are different. He has never been able to handle the pressure of a big event and has found his niche playing and sometimes winning smaller events. As more and more guys are making that same career choice, his road is going to be a lot harder. Ivo Karlovic won Houston this week beating Mariano Zabaleta who took Blake out rather easily.

Roddick and Blake are the top American players and thus come in for some criticism but I think they are the symptoms not the causes of the problems American tennis is facing now. What is scary is that the United States tennis establishment, working through the ATP seems to be saying to European and South American players "it's our way or the highway". The American tennis establishment would love to get their hands on players such as Rafael Nadal. Instead Nadal, Federer and their peers have closed ranks against the ATP and implicitly the American establishment in fighting the changes the ATP is trying to impose on the sport. As an aside, I have to give Andy Roddick his due and applaud him for signing the player petition against splitting the ATP into European and American branches.

So Craig, please understand that it's these issues that need airing. My comments are not meant to "pile on" and demean men who are playing their best within the system they represent. There are very serious problems with American tennis. Picking up their marbles and stalking off is not the answer the sport needs.

Agassi Hits Graf in Face with Racquet

by MadProfessah

Appearing at an exhibition at the Westside Tennis Club on Sunday during the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship final won by 6'10" Croatian Ivo Karlovic over Argentine Mariano Zabaleta, 8-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi hit 22-time Grand Slam champion Steffi Graf in the face with a volley. The two were holding hands at the time and Agassi had the racket in his left (non-playing) hand. Graf needed three stitches on her lip.

"She's OK," Agassi said. "It was an unfortunate accident."

I suppose what everyone is thinking: How did he miss her nose?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

TMS Monte-Carlo Main Draw

by Savannah

And the clay court season is under way. Interesting draw here at what is arguably one of the most beautiful venues on the tour. There doesn't seem to be a really bad seat in the place and most everyone comes to play. Not to mention many players get their residency requirements in during this event.

[1] FEDERER, Roger SUI vs BYE
LEE, Hyung-Taik KOR vs BJORKMAN, Jonas SWE
MOYA, Carlos ESP vs [13] YOUZHNY, Mikhail RUS

[12] FERRER, David ESP vs SIMON, Gilles FRA
BYE vs [6] DJOKOVIC, Novak SRB

Looks like they want to set up a Djokovic vs Federer showdown. Djokovic is one of the few men Federer has admitted to disliking so that would be interesting to see. On the way, there are some interesting matchups.

I'm sure Federer wants to come out taking names. The most exciting match in his quarter is Youzhny vs Moya. Moya can still pull some good tennis out of his butt and if he shows up this may be one of the more interesting first rounds matches. The winner should face the winner of Federer's second round match.

In Djokovic's quarter there are several nice matchups starting with Ferrer vs Simon. David Ferrer hasn't been playing well lately after doing pretty well last year. (Craig's note: he's been nursing a shoulder injury since Miami.) I'm sure he'd like to win this opening round match and go on to face either Benneteau or Balleret.

Tursunov vs Gaudio is my star match up in this quarter. Gaudio desperately needs a win. Tursunov should be fresh since he didn't play Davis Cup this go around. If Djokovic comes out playing the same level of tennis he played in Miami he should beat either of them in the second round. But this is clay. Let's see how patient Djokovic can be and how good his conditioning is.

[4] GONZALEZ, Fernando CHI vs BYE
MASSU, Nicolas CHI vs VOLANDRI, Filippo ITA
HENMAN, Tim GBR vs [16]FERRERO, Juan Carlos ESP

Another random draw where they put Gonzalez and Massu in the same quarter. Random draw, blah blah blah. Andreev vs Acasuso is a nice undercard. Gonzalez hasn't shown much since Australia and it'll be interesting to see him here on the dirt. If Acasuso comes to play Gonzalez will be facing him in the second round. Massu has been playing well of late but it's pick 'em in his match against Volandri.

Juan Carlos Ferrero vs Tim Henman should see Juanqui meet the winner of Massu/Volandri. This isn't an easy quarter for Gonzalez since everyone but Henman can play on clay. Tough section.

[11] GASQUET, Richard FRA vs VERDASCO, Fernando ESP

Gasquet, benched by Guy Forget for the deciding rubbers in Davis Cup play has seemed annoyed about suggestions he is the young gun left behind. I think that distinction goes to Monfils right now but I digress.

The Spaniards have a lot to prove after their dismal DC showing and I'm sure they want to send the message that it was all about the surface not them. Both Gasquet and Verdasco are loaded with talent rarely seen on a tennis court.

Stepanek should be facing Ljubicic in the second round but you never know with Monfils. He has been playing away from the main tour and we know he loves the dirt.

As I have often said clay is the great equalizer. What should happen isn't always what does happen. Another iffy section.

[5] ROBREDO, Tommy ESP vs BYE
CLEMENT, Arnaud FRA vs [WC] SERRA, Florent FRA
BECKER, Benjamin GER vs [WC] JOHANSSON, Thomas SWE
ALMAGRO, Nicolas ESP vs [10] BERDYCH, Tomas CZE

When it comes to Tommy see what I said above about the men who played on the Spanish Davis Cup team. Almagro wasn't on that team and he's going deep at Valencia. That may give Berdych an edge in their match, but just. Unless lighting strikes Becker should be meeting the winner of Almagro/Berdych.

I do give Thomas Johansson credit though. At least he tries, unlike the men from a certain country who develop mysterious injuries or fatigue when it comes to the early part of the clay season.

BYE vs [3] DAVYDENKO, Nikolay RUS

Nice section. Weakest links may be Soderling and the man who makes it via qualifying. The Swedes come here and play. For that they get my respect. Not an easy section for Davydenko.

[8] MURRAY, Andy GBR vs BYE

Let's see if Mouth Almighty has his charge ready for clay. Since Americans have an aversion to the red dirt it'll be interesting to see how Murray does here. Neither Mayer nor Gicquel are pushovers and Nalbandian just had a nice tuneup exhibition in Mallorca.

[15] NIEMINEN, Jarkko FIN vs SAFIN, Marat RUS
VLIEGEN, Kristof BEL vs [WC] MATHIEU, Paul-Henri FRA
CHELA, Juan Ignacio ARG vs VERKERK, Martin NED
BYE vs [2] NADAL, Rafael ESP

Vliegen vs Mathieu caught my eye here. Will we see Mathieu vs Safin Round 2? Will Marat decide it's worth his while to play well here? Who knows? But it's going to be fun.

Clay draws are more equal because the surface brings everyone to the same level. Clay favors the players who are patient, in good shape, know how to slide and know how to build points and think well on court. Vliegen made a nice statement during his interview on ATP Tennis. A point on hardcourt can be over in three shots he said. On clay you have a lot more balls coming at you and you have to wait for your opening.

Again I applaud the Swedes for playing here and yes I'm rubbing it in. Tennisheads know their preferred surface and that clay is not it. Yet they come. Because of the leveling effect of the dirt every player has a chance and they take theirs. It's insulting to the sport for the American men not to even try and play much before Rome and why Murray's performance here is something to pay attention to. Will Brad Gilbert have him ready for a deep run? With the ATP trying to downgrade this and all but a few of the big clay tournaments Murray going deep here would allow Gilbert to name his price almost anywhere and make what the LTA is paying him look like chump change. It would also put the lie to the talk that American's can't play on clay because there are no professional level coaches able to teach it. The talk about Americans just not wanting to learn I can't deny because in this case actions are speaking louder than words. Maybe Murray has an advantage over other Brits because he's trained in Spain. I'm by no means a big fan of Brad Gilbert but there is really no excuse for the American's to not even show up here and try.

This is always an exciting tournament and this year should be no different.

Let the games begin!