Friday, June 29, 2007

I'm Stuffed

I enjoyed the feast of tennis today produced. And my dinner was good, too. I'm ready for bed.

Most of the matches today delievered. Fernando Gonzalez and Janko Tipsarevic had more flips than a floor excercise. That Gonzo couldn't hold his 5-2 lead in the final set was a letdown, though. And not because I had a huge stake in his victory, but because I don't like watching chokes.

Which made me rather uncomfortable when Lucie Safarova couldn't control her ball toss from 3-3 forward in the second set of her match against Jelena Jankovic.

Marat Safin: too much, too little, too late. Roger Federer was having none of it. He barked when he won the third set breaker, clearly relieved to have cleared a dangerous obstacle. It was a good performance. American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour blew kisses from her seat next to Mirka.

But Serena Williams put on the grass-court clinic of the event so far. Milagros Sequera didn't put up much resistance, mind you. She was too busy missing her own shots and smiling with sweet resignation as she watched Serena's serves and groundstrokes blow up titanium puffs off the lines. She was at her quiet, string-picking, slit-eyed deadly self. 43 minutes was all it took for her to lose a single game.

Andy Roddick broke a Pete Sampras record. That's not a joke. Andy bested Peter's streak of 16 consecutive tiebreaks won in 2000-2001 with his 17th straight win in 2007 alone. Useless trivia, for sure. But a marked improvement of Roddick's abysmal .500 record in 2006. Proof that he's mentally strong this year when the stakes are high. (Too bad Fernando Verdasco can't say the same. He's quickly becoming the Biggest Waste of Talent on the tour. Not even Manuel "Manolo" Santana, the last Spaniard to win Wimbledon, could help from Nando's player box.)

Former NCAA No. 1 Laura Granville, the quiet American, a journeywoman no one pays any attention, upset No. 9 seed Martina Hingis in straight sets. Well, not really. The former champ was buried on the graveyard court and she never had the gumption to even try to stop the digging. I can't see her competing on the WTA past the end of this season. Great win for Granville. Grass is her best surface. She's steady, determined, wields a vicious slice. And did I mention she's quiet? She matches her best effort at Wimbledon since she debuted in 2002 and lost to current defending champion Amelie Mauresmo in the fourth round.

A Dutch girl with Wimbledon in her blood caused the biggest upset. Michaella Krajicek, sister of 1996 champion Richard, outlasted an in-form Anna Chakvetadze in three tough sets. Just when I started to like the Russian and think the Dutch girl would never break through. AnnaC needs to stop all that crying. (See: Vera Zvonereva.) I'm still happy with the result. That former NCAA champ will be the Dutch girl's next foe. I'm excited.

France ruled the day. Maid Marion Bartoli, Richie Red Shoes Gasquet (who defeated another Frenchman, Edouard Roger-Vasselin), Jo-Wilfried Ali Tsonga, and Paul-Henri Mathieu all advanced to the second week. Amelie Mauresmo, Aravane Rezai and Gael Monfils have a chance to join them tomorrow if Gael can make Nikolay Davydenko remember that he hates grass and Rezai can play out of her mind. Mauresmo just needs to show up.

I'm going to watch Mathieu beat up on Ivan Ljubicic now, becuase I want to see how much of a threat he's going to be to my fave in the next round.

Tomorrow brings us a slightly less appetizing buffet. But I'm looking forward to David Nalbandin vs. Marcos Baghdatis, Lleyton Hewitt vs. Guillermo Canas, and don't be shocked if Nicolas Kiefer causes an upset. I won't.

The women's matches tomorrow? Yawn. If there's an upset, a young Polish girl will be the victor. If there's another one, I will be shocked. (Oh, and Elena Dementieva losing to anyone at Wimbledon doesn't count.)

Till next time....

Day 5: France Takes Over

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Like A Kid In A Candy Store

by Craig Hickman

After the first uninterrupted day of play at SW19, rain is once again in the forecast for tomorrow. But it needs to stay in the clouds, because the only drooling I want to experience is my own as I feast upon a great plate of third-round matches.

Surely, much of the focus is on the Roger Federer, Marat Safin showdown. Is Raja, who just notched his 50th consecutive victory on the lawns, vulnerable? Which Safin will show up? Many people have said that their titanic 2005 semifinal in Melbourne was one of the best matches they've ever seen. Raja and Marat haven't played at a Slam since. Safin has been injured for much of that time. But even when he's been competing, the man with a circus in his head, as our own oddman is wont to say, has been as unpredictable as the lottery.

In interviews before the match, Raja has admitted that Marat, along with Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal, is one of the players over whom he doesn't have total control in a match. If Safin makes up his mind and plays to his ability, he has more than enough game to beat anybody. Even if Raja plays well. "I hope he doesn't take me out," said Raja in an interview as honest and straightforward as I've ever seen from him. No bullshit. No preening. Just truth. As critical as I can be of the man, I give him his kudos today.

For his part, Safin said that, overall, he wasn't feeling particularly confident, "Why should I be? I've only been in one semfinal back in March," but he was focused on getting to the third round to take on Raja.

Safin gets up for big matches, on big stages, against top opponents. The last time he had that opporunity was in the third round of Melbourne in January against Roddick. This readership chose that match as the best of the entire event. Marat made Andy work for that victory.

Based upon his play today against Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, a Pakistani qualifier who had quipped before the match that he hoped Safin woke up on the wrong side of the bed. No such luck. The Russian's ground strokes were precise, his movement solid, his return of serve top-notch and his volleys crisp. His first serve wasn't as sharp as it could be but he still didn't drop serve in the match.

He'll be ready for tomorrow, weather permitting, and win or lose, he's going to make Raja work.

But wait, there's more.

We get Roddick vs. Fernando Verdasco, James Blake vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Janko Tipsarevic vs. Fernando Gonzalez, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Feliciano Lopez, Paul-Henri Mathieu vs. Ivan Ljubicic, Dmitry Tursunov vs. Tommy Haas. If you can pick these winners, I applaud you. I can't.

Andy's the favorite, but Verdasco has been playing better off the ground. Andy has beaten Nando in six of their eight matches. One was a retirement, the other that match on clay in Rome where Roddick overruled a Verdasco double fault on match point. A much talked about show of sportsmanship. Their five-set US Open battle will be in the backs of both their minds.

Blake has never been beyond the third round in London. Ferrero has. Neither is a pillar of mental strength. The American has more weapons, but he can shoot himself with them fast as I can type. And I type fast. And he hasn't beaten Ferrero in two tries. Still, this one could go five, in which case it will be time for James to overcome the "anamoly" (his word, not mine) of his 0-9 record if fifth sets.

Janko claims that he's been motivated by positive jealously as a trio of compatriots have stepped to the front of the stage. He's due for his Slam breakthrough. No better time than on a surface he favors. Fena has been to the quarterfinals here and is playing like a warrior. Just last week, he beat Janko in a third-set breaker in Queen's on the Serb's double fault. Surely that won't happen again, will it? I see five-sets written all over this one.

Tsonga, the Muhammed Ali lookalike, is on a hot streak. With a cannonball serve, a blistering forehand, and all that French touch, grass is his best surface. He booted four-time Queen's champ and defending titlist Lleyton Hewitt right out of the club last week. In straight sets. Lopez, in a show with more plot twists than a Hollywood thriller, just sent the sentimental favorite packing and he won't have a day of rest. That is, if.... Lopez is rooming with Rafa, and as Mary Carillo observes, such determination can rub off. Ali and F-Lo have never met.

Mathieu knows he can beat Roddick, so he'll be eager to get past Ljubicic, who, till just last week, never contested even the quarterfinals of a grass court event. Both have big serves and big shots off the ground. With the grass bouncing up to 7.5 inches higher (and depending on who you ask, 7.5 inches is a big difference) than it did 3 years ago, Ivan won't be so rushed on his big-swinging, stiff forehand. Neither is a pillar of mental strength (is there an echo in here?), so this could go five sets, too. They split their two meetings, but they haven't played since 2003.

Tursunov has a machine-gun game tailor-made for grass and he plays well at Wimbledon. Haas is returning from more shoulder woes, but has looked strong in his opening two matches, depsite a few lapses that can most likely be attributed to lack of match play. Haas has won three of their four matches, but all their fast court encounters have gone the distance. They've never played on grass or in a Slam. Tursunov is more match tough, coming off a run to the Queen's semifinals last week, but the veteran is hungry as ever.

And that's just the men.

Most of women's third round matches on the schedule for tomorrow seem pretty straight forward with the higher ranked player expected to win comfortably.

If I had to pick two matches that might be more challenging than they appear, if even upsets don't happen, I'd go with Justine Henin vs. Elena Vesnina and Jelena Jankovic vs. Lucie Safarova.

Vesnina played Henin well in Paris a few weeks ago and has an attacking game that can pay dividends on grass. Justine will remember that and likely play first strike tennis, attacking the net before her opponent does. But Vesnina possess enough power to send Justine scrambling back to the baseline. I wouldn't be surprised if the Russian takes a set. And if Justine's shin or foot or whatever injury she might be nursing (clay is brutal) affects her movement at all....

Safarova has strapping from her upper groin to just below her knee on her right leg, so who knows how fit she'll be. Jelena, despite playing a ton of tennis, looks fresh as the grass up around the net. But Safarova has a deceptive serve and flat bullet groundstrokes that will shoot through the court, no matter how high the bounce. If she makes Jelena play defense, and the Drama Queen can play defense, Lucie may prove too much for the Serb to handle. And Safarova has that Safin thing going: she likes to beat big players on big stages, even if she can't follow it up. JJ beat Lucie in two close sets in their only meeting last year, but if Lucie can run, this one could go three.

Bring it.

Day 4: So Many Matches, So Many Pictures

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Day 3: Quips & Pics

by Craig Hickman

Rain was today's biggest winner, as only a few matches were completed, further backing up the schedule on the morrow. Play will begin on the outer courts at 11:00 instead of noon. Why they didn't bump up play on all the courts already today is beyond me. But that would've been too much like right. As it is, the show courts are sticking to their 1:00 start, which simply makes no sense.


When there are so many rain delays, Chris Fowler gets lots of airtime with other analysts in the ESPN studio. Here's my favorite little exchange from the studio today:

Darren Cahill: You see that handbag Roger is carrying around?"

Mary Carillo: Roger's becoming more and more metrosexual hourly.

What I want to know is this: what possessed him to carry that onto a tennis court? And how many little dogs can fit in that thing?

Back up on Henman Hill, Pam Shriver was at her deadpan best.

Pam Shriver: Is this for Tiger Tim?

Man with stuffed tiger: Actually, I quite fancy Feline-ciano Lopez.

Pam Shriver: That's pathetic.

Man: I heard you say 'That's pathetic' earlier today.

Pam Shriver: Yeah, well I'm consistent.

What does ESPN pay these people?

Serena Williams and Alicia Molik played a great match, after which, Serena had this to say:

Q. Yesterday you encouraged your sister. Today you were sort of like yelling at yourself, agonizing. Was this a tough match? Were you just not playing well? She was serving well.

SERENA WILLIAMS: Yeah, she was serving really well. She's playing really well on the grass court. She has one of the biggest serves in women's tennis. She has a very consistent serve. She's hitting a lot of slice. She's really a good grass court player. If she probably hadn't have played me, she probably would have gotten really far in this tournament. I knew that going in. It was just a match like that.

This from the woman many say never gives her opponents any credit? Whatever.