Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Checking In

It's pouring rain. Has been all day. Figured I'd cozy up to the television and finally take in some tennis. Watch a full match, even. Missed 99% of the USA vs. Russia Fed Cup tie. Haven't even checked to see who advanced. I suspect Russia. When are the women going to learn how to hold serve?

Since my favorite clay court tournament began, I've seen about 10 total games. Here and there. Saw Juan Carlos Ferrero thoroughly outhit by a player I don't believe I've ever heard of. Ferrero isn't getting any younger. Played too much tennis in South America. Gotta make hay while the sun shines, no? Saw Roger Federer completely disappear in the last stretch of his match. As though he, like me, had something else to do.

Clay is funny that way.

Maine clay is even funnier. This farmer is right out straight and I'm not even done with spring planting. Couldn't even keep my eyes open in front of the television. Probably shouldn't have taken on the other thing I've taken on that I've yet to talk at all about in these parts. We'll get to that some other time.

Meantime, enjoy what appears to be a rather listless event. Says the one who's watched a mere 10 games.

Where the hell is Andy Roddick?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Remembering How To Win II

Rafael Nadal of Spain poses with his trophy after winning the final  of the Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament in Monaco April 18, 2010.  Nadal defeated his compatriot Fernando Verdasco.
Reuters

It was champion Rafael Nadal's turn to finally get a victory, any victory, I suppose, but to make history by winning his 6th consecutive Monte-Carlo title over his frustrating and frustrated compatriot to the loss of a single game must have felt awfully good.

Weeping into his towel before the trophy presentation, it must have been a huge relief, too. He has now tied Roger Federer with 16 shields and is likely to break Andre Agassi's record with a title in Rome and Madrid. That is, if he plays them both.

::

Meantime, Francesca Schiavone won her third career title at the Barcelona Ladies Open in a lopsided 6-1, 6-1 all-Italian final against Roberta Vinci.

And over on this side of the pond Sam Stosur crushed Vera Zvonareva 6-0, 6-3 to take the Family Circle Cup in Charleston.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Return On Risk

by Randy Burgess, guest blogger

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24:  Coach Larry Stefanki watches  Andy Roddick of the United States of America in his fourth round match  against Fernando Gonzalez of Chile during day seven of the 2010  Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2010 in Melbourne,  Australia.

Coach Larry Stefanki watches Andy Roddick of the United States of America in his fourth round match against Fernando Gonzalez of Chile during day seven of the 2010 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia.

::

For the last year or so, Andy Roddick’s box during matches has been occupied with what I sometimes think of as the human equivalent of two bobble-headed dolls. One is grizzled, the other gorgeous, yet both of them seem to be doing the exact same thing whenever the TV camera pans to catch their reactions: nodding in approval.

The gorgeous one of the pair is model Brooklyn Decker, who we can assume is simply nodding out of empathy and support for her man. Wouldn’t we do the same in her shoes, or should I say in her shades? The grizzled one, though, is more of a puzzle. He is Larry Stefanki, the coach Roddick hired at the end of 2008, and it would seem not to make sense that he nods not only when his charge makes a big play, but when he frames a forehand or offers up a sacrificial lamb of an approach shot. Aren’t coaches supposed to be more critical than that? Shouldn’t he occasionally be frowning instead of nodding?

It’s probably just in my imagination that Stefanki only nods, but he remains a mysterious figure to me. And so it was out of curiosity that I recently combed through interviews and articles on the Web, to assemble what I think are some intriguing aspects of this marriage of shrewd coach to stubborn player. As research goes it’s a quickie––but the results are still interesting, I think, especially given how many fans have expressed disappointment in Roddick’s playing style post-Wimbledon and prior to his title win this April in Miami, at what we are now pleased to call the Sony Ericsson Open.

Are these fans right in thinking that Roddick should lose all the “slicing and dicing” and revert to his older style of going for broke with big forehands? Or that the Wimbledon loss left Roddick devastated, and that what enabled him to pick up the title at Miami was not better strokes or better tactics, but simply a renewal of self-belief?

Or is it Stefanki who’s right, when he says that even the slicing and dicing is part of Roddick becoming a more complete player; that the Wimbledon loss was a mental plus and not a minus; and that 2010 is the year that Roddick stops underachieving and starts winning slams again?

You’ll find no absolute answers in what follows––just a smorgasbord of the quotes and contrasts I have found most tart or most tantalizing.

Roddick’s Return Game

At one point Stefanki did an interview with Steve Flink of TennisChannel.com (the URL is apparently no longer available) in which he described one of his goals for Roddick thusly:

Andy is a big-body athlete, more of a Boris Becker type of athlete. He is not a David Ferrer or a Davydenko, so he needs to make an adjustment and take risks at the right times. This past year he was below 30 percent on capitalizing on break points and he needs to bring that percentage way up. Andy can take more chances on the return off second serves, coming in and putting a lot of pressure on guys. That is how I see him playing.

I missed the crucial 2nd and 3rd sets of the Nadal match at Miami, but I hear that in fact, Roddick did start attacking the second serve, and with good results. But if we check out Roddick’s ATP stats for 2010 so far, we’ll see that for the stat Stefanki was talking about, break points converted, Roddick is as bad as ever––just 31 percent. That ranks him 63rd on the tour in this area.

It would be interesting to know why Stefanki mentioned this particular stat. It doesn’t seem especially meaningful when taken in isolation, given that the current leader is the amazing Evgeny Korolev. I think it more telling that Roddick trails badly in all return categories compared to the very top players. The category that really shows the difference is for return games won: Murray, Nadal, and Federer are ranked 5, 6, and 7 here, while Roddick is out of sight at 53.

So unless the Nadal victory represents a sudden breakthrough for Roddick, he has got a lot of work to do on his return game if he is to meet Stefanki’s expectations (not to mention ours). Can he do it the way he did against Nadal––flick a switch mid-set? And even if he can, does he want to, or will his innate conservatism win out and keep him passive? That brings us to our next topic.

Rabbits And Risks

Stefanki and Roddick often don’t seem to be on the same page when they talk to the press, especially when it comes to the need to take some risks. Here’s Stefanki from the Flink interview, reiterating his view that Roddick should play as big as he is and “take a lot more chances”:

As I told Andy, the longer a point lasts against a Davydenko or a Ferrer, the odds are more against him. If the ball crosses the net 25 times and Andy gets farther and farther back behind the court, here is this big body guy playing against a rabbit. He doesn’t want to be running side to side, over and over again. And they are loving it if Andy does that. Andy holds serve 91 percent of the time which is the best percentage in the game. So I mean, come on, he should be taking a lot more chances and putting more pressure on these guys.

But here’s that same big-body guy at his press conference after the Nadal match, describing what it felt like for him to unleash some forehands:

You know, I took a lot of risk there in the last two sets. I said it on the court and I’ve it said a couple times: The best thing I can think of is I rolled the dice a lot and came up Yahtzee a couple times.

Your best weapon after your serve, a near-legendary shot in its day, and you compare it to rolling dice? What does that say about your appetite for going for winners?

And here is Roddick trying to wriggle out of the logical next question: given that playing big rather than small worked so well, why hasn’t he done it before?

Q: In the eighth game of the second set when you broke at Love and you were ripping and/or taking some nice cuts on your forehand, what’s prevented you in the past from doing that?

AR: Well, like I said, you can’t exactly plan on sticking three returns in a game on the line and backing him up. It’s not as easy as, “See ball, hit ball.” If that was the case, a lot of us would do that. I started sticking returns, and I got hot on my first and second serve returns. I think that’s what enabled me to really kind of get two feet under myself and take a cut.

Notice that Roddick doesn’t pause and say something like, You know, you’re right. Maybe my big cuts went in because I still possess an excellent forehand. And after all, my coach does want me to become more of an attacking player. Maybe I should listen to him.

Instead, he says you can’t count on being “hot” (read “lucky”) and so he doesn’t––he prefers to play it safe unless, as he said elsewhere about the Nadal match, the situation is “desperate.”

This is the sort of comment that makes me wonder what exactly Stefanki is nodding at all the time. Because Stefanki also said this in the Flink interview, and you know that means he has said it to Roddick countless times by now:

He has got one of the biggest forehands in the game and I told him that as a big guy he has to take advantage of that . . . Now he tends to just roll it crosscourt. That is not my style of play and not how Andy should be playing. And he knows that. Like every great player, Andy is a perfectionist with the highest standards. He knows he doesn't want to fall into the trap of just getting balls back.

Argh.

The New Slice Backhand

But then again, if it sometimes seems that Roddick has been working too hard on his rabbit imitation, rallying endlessly where his fans just want to see him punch it, maybe there’s a reason for that. In particular, his slice backhand.

The slice came in with Connors but Roddick has been working hard on it. And in fact some of the slices I saw Roddick produce during the Berdych match were not only effective but beautiful––low skimmers that were sometimes angled so wide they took Berdych out of the court.

Stefanki likes the slice:

He has a lot of things to fall back on to win when he is not playing great. He does have the best serve in the game at the moment, day in day out, but if you add all the other components, the slice and so on, it puts him in a different echelon.

And reporters covering the Berdych match at Miami liked it too:

Roddick did not face a break point during the entire match, thanks not only to his serve, but also to his incredibly deft use of the backhand slice shot that has really developed into a weapon under Larry Stefanki's tutelage. (The Daily Forehand)

Roddick's slice backhand repeatedly forced the 6-foot-5 Berdych to hit the ball at ankle level, robbing his forehand of power. (China Daily)

So the slice is cool.

The Missing Down-the-line Backhand

Talking about backhands, I wish Roddick would remember that as recently as Wimbledon he had developed a highly effective two-hander down the line. I seem to remember Ivan Ljubicic striking a few pretty one-handers down the line against Roddick at Indian Wells; didn’t this give Roddick a little deja vu?

Apparently not. It seems his current thinking about the two-hander is that it will help him rally longer (go bunny go), but never become an offensive weapon. From his press conference after winning the Miami title:

Q: Can you just pinpoint a couple things you think you're doing better on the court now that you changed, or are you just playing more effectively?

AR: Yeah, I mean, I think obviously one of the big things [is] my backhand is better. I don't miss it really. It's never gonna be the shot that you say, Wow. [But] I think I understand it and how I can use it to be effective. I understand kind of the boundaries of it, so that helps.

Boundaries, yes. Self-imposed in this case.

By contrast, here is sportswriter Kurt Street, writing in the L.A. Times on July 5, 2009, right before the final with Federer. The main point of the piece is that back when Stefanki was a college player, he was coached by someone named Tom Stow––who also coached Don Budge in the 1930s.

It was Stow’s coaching that put a stamp on one of the sport’s all-time greats, Oakland-bred Budge, the first man to win all four Grand Slam event singles titles in one year, the Wimbledon champion in 1937 and 1938.

Budge’s best shot? Arguably, the backhand drive. It’s not a coincidence that one of Roddick’s most improved shots at this year’s Wimbledon has been his backhand, taut, tight and down the line.

I have no idea if Street is right to connect the dots the way he does. But I enjoy his description of Roddick’s improved backhand––that is how I remember it and how it still looks on video of the Federer match. Where has that shot gone?

Wimbledon As Motivator

Enough negativity. Let’s hear some positives. One of these, according to both Stefanki and Roddick, was Wimbledon.

Roddick, from his recent interview with Inside Tennis:

I got a lot of kind of condolences after Wimbledon with people asking, “Are you okay?” and I said, “I’m disappointed. Obviously, it was a little heart-breaking. But let’s put this in perspective. I got to play in one of the best Wimbledon finals ever. I got cheered and I’ll have those memories forever.” I look back and have a lot more great memories than bad ones. At times like that, you have to have a little respect. I was never going to feel sorry for myself.

Okay, so I’ve spent all this time questioning the things that Roddick says about his game––why should I believe him here? But we also have Stefanki, from the Flink interview again:

If you don’t handle a loss like that right, it can be a devastating negative, but that was not how it was with Andy. That is what you look for as a coach. Is it going to have some residue hangover, an after-effect? With Andy I don’t see that happening at all. He is at motivated as I have ever seen a player at 27. He knows that it is just a matter of time and if he puts himself in that situation enough times, good things are going to happen.

Stefanki goes on to claim that the tough matches Roddick lost subsequent to Wimbledon had to do with other factors, mostly Roddick’s failure to be aggressive enough during key points.

That’s why the win against Nadal matters––it is the most hopeful sign of late that Roddick, in spite of his stubbornness, may be learning something.

Here’s our final excerpt from that great Flink interview:

[Andy] hit one return against [Janko] Tipsarevic at Wimbledon [in 2008] on a big break point in the bottom of the net. We talked about that and he said he was choking badly. And I said, “No, no, no, no. That’s where you have to know that you have the best return and it’s rock solid and you are going to be aggressive. That knowingness and that thing in your head that clicks in is what you need to draw on. And knowing it and bluffing it are two different things.”

In other words, Stefanki believes in building new and better skills, allowing the player to relax on court and simply execute. I like that. That takes poor play out of the realm of the moral (“You choked”) and into the realm of technique. And with all the blame and self-blame taken away, Roddick not only has a shot at playing better in the last years of his career, but having more fun, too.

Who wouldn’t want a coach like that?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Monte-Carlo, Charleston Open Thread

In the weeds.
Still.
Sincere apologies
to all our dedicated
readers. I'll
be back soon.
I swear.

Meantime, an
interesting essay
approaches...

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Sabbatical

As you might have noticed, I have no time this week to even post scores. I'll be back in full swing for Monte-Carlo.

Talk about the beginning of the clay court season as you wish. Share a good link or two.

Hope everyone is enjoying spring.

::

FRIDAY, APRIL 9, 2010 at 9:45 PM

You know it's bad when I misspell the title of a post. Have mercy...

Monday, April 05, 2010

Champions For Chile



It was a busy weekend. Didn't keep Andy Roddick from participating in his friend Fernando González's fund raising event to help the earthquake victims in Chile. Gustavo Kuerten and Jim Courier joined them. I'm not sure the event got much coverage, but then again, I was planting all weekend.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Remembering How To Win

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 04:  Andy Roddick of the United States  holds up the trophy after defeating Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic  in straight sets to win the men's final of the 2010 Sony Ericsson Open  at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 4, 2010 in Key Biscayne,  Florida.
Getty

Andy Roddick of the United States holds up the trophy after defeating Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic 7-5, 6-4 to win the men's final of the 2010 Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 4, 2010 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

::

It's been a long time coming.

Of course I have a lot more to say about this victory. I just don't have time at the moment to say it. For now, I'll let the man's face speak for itself.

Miami Men's Final Open Thread

Is Tomas Berdych ready to win another Masters shield, his first one outdoors? Can Andy Roddick remember how to win again? Who needs victory the most?

It better be a barn burner.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

I Coulda Had A V8

Belgium's Kim Clijsters hoists the women's championship trophy  after defeating Venus Williams of the U.S. at the Sony Ericsson Open  tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Florida April 3, 2010.
Reuters


Belgium's Kim Clijsters hoists the women's championship trophy after defeating Venus Williams of the U.S. at the Sony Ericsson Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Florida April 3, 2010.

::

Been a long, warm, sunny, but most of all productive day, planting, planting, planting so I only have two things to say.

1. I hope the men's final is better, though I can't imagine it could be anywhere near as awful as that mess we saw today.

2. Two years running, a Williams sister limps into the final and all her opponent has to do is keep the ball in play to win the title. Yawn.

Quote For The Day

"Well, I think I started the match playing pretty well in the beginning. Later I had the match, well, under control in the first set with my serve. Later in the second set Andy was serving well. No, I didn't have a lot of chances on the return. He play very aggressive game and started to play more aggressive in the game where he did me the break. It was a change, and it was surprise for me." --Rafael Nadal

It was a (welcome) surprise for me, too. Like him or not, men's tennis is simply more interesting when Andy is playing well.

Women's Final Open Thread

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 01:  Venus Williams of the United States  celebrates after defeating Marion Bartoli of France during day ten of  the 2010 Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 1,  2010 in Key Biscayne, Florida.
Getty

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 01:  Kim Clijsters of Belgium celebrates  after defeating Justine Henin of Belgium during day ten of the 2010 Sony  Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 1, 2010 in Key  Biscayne, Florida.
Getty


It's Venus Williams against Kim Clijsters in a rematch of the US Open quarterfinals today. Or as Savannah would say, the Celestial Body versus the Saint.

I haven't seen Venus strike a single ball at this event but I said she'd win before looking at the draw and here she is in a final once more. She hasn't lost a match in months, so if Kim is going to stop her, she's going to have to do it the hard way.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Rafa Andy Highlights



::

Men's Singles - Semifinals
[6] A Roddick (USA) d [4] R Nadal (ESP) 46 63 63
[16] T Berdych (CZE) d [5] R Soderling (SWE) 62 62


Men's Doubles - Semifinals
[4] M Bhupathi (IND) / M Mirnyi (BLR) d [8] M Fyrstenberg (POL) / M Matkowski (POL) 76(4) 64

Women's Doubles - Semifinals
(3) Petrova/Stosur (RUS/AUS) d. Chan/Zheng (TPE/CHN) 61 75
Dulko/Pennetta (ARG/ITA) d. (4) Raymond/Stubbs (USA/AUS) 64 64

Miami Semifinals Open Thread

KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 01:  Kim Clijsters of Belgium walk past  Justine Henin of Belgium after a changeover during day ten of the 2010  Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 1, 2010 in Key  Biscayne, Florida.
Getty

The women's final is set. Venus Williams trounced Marion Bartoli and Kim Clijsters edged Justine Henin. Saw some of the second match, none of the first. Will Clijsters ever learn that her matches with Justine are always on her racquet? Will Justine ever regain enough of her core strength, if she ever had core strength to begin with, to close out a kill when she smells blood? Their matches are a car wreck I can't seem to look away from.

Today, the top half of the men's draw features a match-up between two power merchants that I've always wanted to see. Tomas Berdych impressed with his follow-up victory over Fernando Verdasco in a match apparently as ugly as the one between the Belgians. I missed all of it. And here is Robin Söderling deep in another big event. When one can use the word consistent to describe the lumbering Swede....

Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal will face off in the other semi, making the organizers and fans alike ecstatic, I've no doubt. The two former No. 1's, who could use a long vacation with each other to share woes, unwind, and help each other remember how to win, could play a match that goes on forever if one of them doesn't just step up and close out the thing. Both may have losing to Ivan Ljubicic last event on their minds. I'll watch, but I'll probably have my eyes closed most of the time.

Who's going to win?

::

Women's Singles - Semifinals
(3) Venus Williams (USA) d. (13) Marion Bartoli (FRA) 63 64
(14) Kim Clijsters (BEL) d. (WC) Justine Henin (BEL) 62 67(3) 76(6)

Men's Singles - Quarterfinals
[5] R Soderling (SWE) d [13] M Youzhny (RUS) 61 64
[16] T Berdych (CZE) d [10] F Verdasco (ESP) 46 76(5) 64

Men's Doubles - Semifinals
[3] L Dlouhy (CZE) / L Paes (IND) d N Almagro (ESP) / T Robredo (ESP) 63 60

Men's Doubles - Quarterfinals
[4] M Bhupathi (IND) / M Mirnyi (BLR) d A Clement (FRA) / J Tsonga (FRA) 64 67(5) 10-4