Monday, February 28, 2011

And Finally, In The 'Completely Stupid' Category...

It's Davis Cup week. Yawn. At least until Friday, there's going to be pretty much fat nothing to write about. Except the INEVITABLE GLORIOUS RUN of my main man Nicolas Mahut in Cherbourg (antijinx). He is the second seed in the singles (after Grigor Dimitrov) and the top seed in the doubles with Edouard Roger-Vasselin. And they just won their first round doubles match. So... yeah. Awesome.

But due to this very little 'actual tennis' thing I have to write about, I thought I would write about this. It's a study. Possibly one of the worst studies of all time. The formula it uses analyses and tallies up how many wins players had over other 'quality players', regardless of arena, and then churns out a Greatest of All Time.

The GOAT, according to this study of stupidness? Jimmy Connors.

We all know where I stand when it comes to GOATness. If one has to pick, I'm Team Federer forever. But even if this survey had come out and said that yes, Federer is the greatest of all time, their methodology is clearly more than a little specious. Did you know that Federer has only, according to this, won 39 quality matches in his career? So that's eight victories over Rafa, thirteen over Djokovic, six over Murray, eight over Agassi... that's 35. Oh! one over Sampras. Make that 36. Chuck in a few others, and hey presto! Roger Federer has never won anything else ever.

And that's not even starting on the Rafa stats. He's only won 21 matches of quality. Because that's how you win five Roland Garros titles, bitches.

Surely when results like this came out of the study - Connors at #1, followed by Lendl and McEnroe - they should have realised it was a bit, how shall we say it... not very good? I mean, those dudes were great, and they did great things, but the greatest? I think not. If they're the results you're getting, your scale is wrong, bro.

I don't know if it is possible to quantify a Greatest of All Time. But if it is, this is not the right way to go about it.

I wonder how the system decides what a 'quality win' is, as well. Does Federer's victory over Andy Roddick in Wimbledon in 2009 count as a quality win? Because it was pretty freaking spectacular. But Roddick has been his bunny for a while now, so I'm sure that twenty-odd wins against Roddick can't be counted in those 39 wins he's apparently had. There's no regard to situation either, so matches like Roger's AO win over Baghdatis probably doesn't count.

I hope this 'prestige ranking' thing doesn't catch on. Because I am telling you right now that I think it is stupid. And you should all listen to me. Just because.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

One Step At A Time

There is no three title run for Nicolas Almagro. Such a thing was not writ in his destiny. Instead, David 'Lord Farquaad' Ferrer took the title. And he is looking gooooooooood. Australia was no fluke. David Ferrer is a force to be reckoned with and no mistake.

He is one of those dudes that, given the right draw, could go very, very deep at Roland Garros. Or even given the wrong draw. No one expected him to end up in the semis in Australia, and yet semis he made. So keep an eye on this one. No telling where he'll pop up.

He will be seeded. This we know. And he will be seeded high. So while it probably wouldn't be a top player's MOST FAVOURITE THING EVER to have Ferru land in their quarter, he's hardly a dangerous floater.

One of the other winners over the weekend, on the other hand, is. Welcome home, Juan Martin del Potro.

I don't want to go proclaiming that JMDP is 'back' in some definable sense of the word or anything like that. For one, that's not really a quantifiable concept; and two, it's a long way back up to where he was, because he was forced to fall from so very high. But winning titles is the way to get back up there - step by step, rung by rung, hand over hand on the ladder.

Sure, it was a Mickey Mouse tournament - there's not much else going on this week. But Mardy Fish and Janko Tipsarevic are quality opponents and JMDP basically ate them for breakfast. These are all good signs, positive signs. While Juan's results over the Australian summer might not have been spectacular on paper, I think they did give him some useful matchplay. Want to get your eye in? Try playing three hours against Feliciano Lopez. It's been a grinding, wearing summer for JMDP, but it is paying off.

Delray Beach is JMDP's first title since he lifted the trophy at the US Open in 2009. I don't see him lifting another Slam trophy this year - or maybe not even next year - but these signs are all good. In a lesser field, his return might be quicker. Unfortunately, we have an extraordinary level of depth in men's tennis at the moment, crowned with some truly extraordinary players at the top. If JMDP is going to get back up there, climb the mountain again, it's going to take a while. No single title win is suddenly going to propel him back among the echelons of the top ten.

But there's only one way to climb a mountain, and that's step by step. And winning Delray Beach is quite a large step - one might almost call it a leap.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

If A Tree Falls And No One's There...

I have found myself spectacularly uninvolved in the world of tennis this week. I know it should have been the first week that I really cared post-Australian Open, what with the return of my main man Roger, but no. I found this week terribly, terribly dull.

This is not to say that I am not a bit cross with the selfsame Roger Federer for his performance in the Dubai final. Djokovic is playing so well at the moment that even if he had played better I don't know if he would have been able to win, but missing overheads? Dude, seriously? Ferd the turd was out in this match in full force.

So let's not talk about him. Or I will shout. LIKE THIS. Instead, let's talk about Nicolas Almagro, who keeps, like, winning stuff. Like, lots of stuff.

He is in his third straight final, going for his third straight title. I know these are Mickey Mouse clay tournaments, but that is still pretty impressive. Almagro is a fearsome claycourter at the best of times (he is, after all, the Prince of Clay) but this is a good run for him. This is a run I don't think Rafa would be ashamed to have to his name, if Rafa were the kind of dude that played these tournaments.

And now Almagro is going up against another Spanish dude in the in-form David Ferrer. And you've got to think... if you've just played about 2394729387 matches on the trot, David Ferrer is the last dude you want to face. (Ask Rafa.) Because here is the thing - three finals in a row is a great result, but is it the best idea for your body?

As far as I recall, Almagro is not the most injury prone dude. He's no Tsonga, that's for sure. But clay is a demanding surface and even when you're winning pretty comfortably, as he has generally been doing, it's got to take a toll on your body. Again, let's look at Rafa, the clay machine. I think we can all agree that Rafa's fitness is superhuman, that he is lightyears ahead of the field on clay, and that there is quite a high possibility that he is a cyborg. And yet he didn't win those three Masters 1000s on clay until he stopped playing Barcelona.

If Almagro gets good draws - ie. doesn't come up against that selfsame Rafa, or Federer, or Djokovic - he is perfectly capable of going very deep in the important clay tournaments to come. On clay, he is top ten in the world, no doubt. But if he guns it too hard now, when no one's around, then he's going to burn out. And no one will remember these tournament wins here... because, as always, Roland Garros will eclipse everything.

(On Roland Garros - there is a slight possibility I might actually attend for a day or two this year! How cool is that?!)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Doggerel Time

On the world of tennis today
I do not have much to say
So I'll save it for another time
And instead give you this rhyme.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why You Should Never Listen To A Thing I Say

My sister and I have a new addiction. We live in different cities, but this is something we do together every week. Once a week - either on Thursday night or Saturday afternoon, depending on when we're both free - we sit down, put each other on speakerphone, and watch the weekly highlights of WWE.

Yes, this will be an article about tennis. I'm getting there. Trust me.

WWE may well be the funniest damn thing I have ever seen in my life. A soap opera about men wearing no pants pretending to punch each other? Genius. What is there not to love about something which is basically Passions with punching (and less pants)?

My favourite thing about WWE is not the punching - which I can take or leave - it is the hilarious storylines they have going on. I'm not sure to what extent WWE tries to take itself seriously, but it is HIGH CAMP THEATRE OF HILARITY. So last night, in that drifting state between waking and sleep, it came to me. What if the world of tennis was like that?

I would not wish it, of course. BUT IT WOULD BE HILARIOUS. Tennis players coming out into the middle of the court with a microphone, talking smack about their opponents... and then their opponents would come out, to the strains of hilariously hardcore music! Djokovic could be all 'the king is dead, long live the king', and out comes Federer! to the strains of Don't Stop Me Now! And he's all like, 'if you're the king, then prove it - let's have a match right here, right now!'

And then they play. And Mirka and Ana Ivanovic are on the side trying to interfere while the referee (who is probably Kader Nouni, on account of his excellent voice) isn't looking.

Grand Slams would no longer exist. Things like 'the Wimbledon title' would probably be redecided weekly. And there would be no trophies - oh no. There would be belts. HILARIOUSLY OVERSIZED BELTS. And things like 'the Nadal forehand' and 'the Federer volley' would become WWE-esque finishing moves that people would scream for and anticipate. No more of this 'RKO' or '619' business. It would be all 'FOREHAND!'

Of course, this would no longer be tennis. But it would be funny.

There would be terribly written storylines as well. I'm sure that the Roger character and the Rafa character would have some epic ongoing feud and would be punching each other and stealing each other's girlfriends all the time. Djokovic and Murray would both be trying to become the new #1 contenders and sometimes succeeding, but mostly failing. Murray would probably go through a straight edge phase. There would be a lot more crazy eyes, a lot more theme songs, and a lot less pants in this world. Because they would have to wear speedos. And leg warmers. Because that is what WWE is about. Or WTE, in this case - World Tennis Entertainment. It would not really be tennis, but it would be entertaining.

In case you can't tell, this entire post is trying to mask the fact that I don't have much else to write about. WTE is, of course, a terrible idea. But it is nightmarishly appealing. We can dream. Even if our dreams are not good ones.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Concentration Now Begins - Keep The Rhythm Going

So apparently it's news that Roger Federer is 'not Robocop' and that his mind wanders sometimes during matches. Anyone who has been a Federer fan for any amount of time will probably tell you of the unspeakable fear they experience in the moment (usually in the second set) when Roger seems to start wondering whether he left the oven on, so I have to admit that I laughed a little bit when reading this article.

But let's put our serious faces on here for a second. Of course tennis players' minds wander. They are, after all, not machinery - much as Rafa Nadal might try to convince you that he is, in fact, a cyborg. A tennis match can go for a really long time - ask Isner and Mahut. I just don't think it's physically possible to remain in that space of intense concentration for so long.

I am a university student (or will be again in a couple of months when I start my doctorate). I'm one of the lucky few that actually love what I study. But can I sit down for five hours (let alone eleven) and focus on it 100%? Absolutely not. Can I do it for one hour without my mind wandering? Not a chance. And that's without distractions like 'ow, my leg hurts', 'why did they play that song in the changeover?', 'why did that dude sitting behind the umpire decide to wear that horrible lime green shirt?', 'HawkEye is the devil', and 'I hope the twins aren't destroying anything'.

Some players are better at concentration than others. Rafa Nadal is the king of it. His mind is a steel trap. His 'not concentrating' probably looks like 'concentrating' for most players. But not even he can keep up 100% pure intense focus for five hours. No one can do that.

And then there's the added dimension that tennis is a tennis player's job. They might love the game, but it's still work. How many of us get through a workday with 100% concentration?

We've heard the term 'on autopilot', and there's a lot of people out there that claim that they or various other tennis players play better when they don't think. Concentration seems to be a function of thought, so maybe it's not the be-all and end-all. Muscle memory seems to have something to do with it - Federer talks in the article of serving down the T in his match today and barely being aware of doing it. When you hit as many tennis balls as these dudes do, then sometimes the auto switch is going to flick. And maybe that's better.

Though I would say that's more transcending concentration than not concentrating. But I am not a sports psychologist. This probably means you should disregard everything I've said in this post.

So, um, yeah, I think my point was that tennis players not only don't, but can't concentrate all the time. Like Roger said. Roger's on my side. Yep. When he's thinking about it, that is.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Rules Around Second Chances

So an interesting thing happened in Doha the other day. I'm a couple of days behind the pace, but... oh well. Mario Ancic's retirement was worth it.

Cautionary note: today I am writing about the WTA. I know I don't do this a lot, so proceed at your own peril. The likelihood of me saying a number of things which are wrong is high.

Okay. So this interesting thing that happened in Doha. Lucie Safarova beat Agnieszka Radwanska in straight sets. This was an upset (technically), but is not the interesting thing. No, I'm being all tennis-nerdy and referring to one weird call in particular.

Let me set the scene. The players! Radwanska and Safarova! The umpire! Kader Nouni! The stadium! Mostly empty, because it is Doha! And what happened is this.

Aga and Lucie are rallying, valiantly hitting the ball each to each. Safarova hits the ball to Radwanska. Radwanska has a play on the ball, but does not hit it, on account of the linesperson yelling OUT! Unfortunately for Aga, that linesperson also yelled CORRECTION! a split second later.

No matter, it seems. Aga challenges, hoping that the ball will be out and the point will thus be hers. But the ball is good. A let, it seems, should be played. But no! Kader Nouni awards the point to Safarova. And Aga gets maaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.

This one ended up with the tournament referee coming out to clarify the ruling, something which I think I've only seen once before (and hey, Nico, if you ever read this, do you want to explain the ruling in that match against Troicki to me? because I didn't understand it). The ref came down on Kader's side, which Aga obviously didn't like. And I don't blame her, because I totally understand her point of view.

The situation, as I understand it, was this: because Radwanska challenged the call, she thus forfeited her chance at playing a let, because she couldn't have two chances to win the point. I don't think Kader Nouni explained this particularly well to her - it took me a while to even begin to understand what he was saying. I totally see Aga's perspective on this - she was there, she had a play on the ball, the out call was interference, so it should be a let. And it would have been a let - had she not challenged. But no, because she challenged, the point had to be decided one way or another.

I certainly wasn't aware of this rule, and it doesn't seem like Aga was either. I've heard several criticisms of the interactions of HawkEye with actual umpiring, and it seems like this was one. This is clearly a pretty obscure rule, which doesn't have much call to be used... or does it? It seems like this situation would happen a lot, now that I think about it. Was Kader Nouni upholding the letter of the law where most umpires do not? I've never seen this ruling before and it seems like it would be pretty common - surely players challenge things all the time and lets are played? I can't put my finger on any particular instances of it at the moment, but it must happen. And I don't remember any players being particularly upset at their opponent being given Nouni's 'two chances' to win the point.

Aga clearly wasn't aware of this rule, otherwise it seems unlikely that she would challenge. It seems like a lot of players would be more reticent to challenge if this rule were employed more commonly. So does there need to be a clear delineation of the rules around HawkEye? Should Kader have told Aga before she challenged that if she was wrong she was forfeiting the point? Or should this rule - which obviously exists, because the tournament referee upheld it - be changed, so that Aga would get her let?


Monday, February 21, 2011

Goodbye to Super Mario

Mario Ancic is living proof that not every tennis player's story is a fairy tale.

He was a world #1 junior. He made the boys' finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2000, losing to Andy Roddick and the marvellous Nicolas Mahut respectively. He was Croatia's heir to Goran Ivanisevic, and like Ivanisevic, it seemed that he had a destiny.

He beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in his first ever Grand Slam match, and I bet there's a few guys out there that will tell you that that is something which is a bit hard to do. He won a Challenger in Hamburg in 2003, which seems like a little thing... until you realise that the other finalist was some dude called Rafael Nadal. He made the Wimbledon semis in 2004. He won a bronze medal in doubles with Ivan Ljubicic at the Athens Olympics.

And that's not even his career years yet. His career high ranking was #7, and he deserved it. Mario Ancic was a fantastic player. He won titles at St Petersburg and s'Hertogenbosch (twice). He was so, so close to making the Masters Cup a couple of times. He was basically made of pure awesome and the train did not seem like it was about to stop.

But then came the monster that every tennis player fears. Injury. Illness.

Glandular fever. Broken bones. An ongoing back complaint. The mind was willing but the flesh was weak. Though weak is not the right word for it - Ancic forced his way back up to about #24 in the rankings for a while there. But he was never the same again.

Yesterday, Mario Ancic announced his retirement from professional tennis. At the age of 26, he is walking away from the sport. His body can no longer take it. The monsters won in this fairy tale. In terms of tennis, there is no happy ending here.

This does not mean that a) Ancic cannot be proud of his achievements, because he did really, really well in his time on tour, and b) that there are not bright things ahead for Ancic. From 2002-2008, Ancic was studying law as well as playing tennis, and he submitted his thesis on the legal underpinnings of the tour in 2008. He's probably one of the foremost experts in the world now on tennis and law, and I think that there is definitely a very, very excellent future for Ancic there. He might be done with playing the sport, but tennis and Ancic will continued to be linked for some time yet.

It's still really sad, though. It makes you realise that injury and illness can happen to any player out there - even the bright young things who seem to have all their career still ahead of them. We might not have seen much of him for the last few years, but we're still going to miss Mario Ancic. He was a big player with a big game and a big heart, and people like him will always, always be missed.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Roddick Gateway

We very nearly could have had exactly the same winners on the ATP tour this week as last week, if Andy Roddick had not carelessly (or probably carefully, actually) got in the way. I don't know how often this happens, but I'm going to venture 'not often'. And this week it was not to be.

Nicolas Almagro and Robin Soderling completed the first two points of the triangle - I am very glad that Soderling won in Marseille, by the way. If my beloved Nico M is going to get beaten, I would rather it was by some dude who's genuinely excellent than anyone else. And the Prince of Clay, Nicolas Almagro... well, he's making good on the nickname, and that is for sure.

Anyway. So we had Almagro (check) and Soderling (check) but Raonic, who would have made it a three-from-three, went and lost to Roddick. Three sets it took - though it easily could have been two either way, as the first two were pretty intense breakers - but Roddick it was who came out on top. Yoda I am talking like today. I am, oh yes.

I feel a bit bad about it, as I probably should be rooting for the underdog, but I'm glad Roddick came out on top today. Even though it is, as I said yesterday, like a spaceship with jet thrusters rather than a bandwagon, I'm just not on board with Milos Raonic yet. Probably the spaceship is going too fast for me to catch up on. If Raonic was to add a top ten scalp to his already growing bag of scalps - a scalp that is not the questionably mohawked scalp of Fernando Verdasco, that is - then I don't know if I could deal.

Roddick represents order in the tennis world. He's a top ten fixture. He exists in my world to place regular beatdowns on the guys ranked below him and to get shellacked by Roger Federer. He's the intermediary between the two worlds - the gateway, if you like. If you beat Roddick, then something serious is going down. It's not like beating Verdasco or one of the other top ten ne'er do wells - I'd place players like Berdych, who is (I think) ranked higher than Roddick in this category. Roddick is consistent. Roddick has been in the top ten for about a hundred years and stayed there. If you beat Roddick - especially if you start beating him regularly - well then, you could be launching an assault on the top guys. Or at least getting some wins against them.

Milos Raonic isn't there yet. The Roddick door is closed to him. And for me, maybe this is good. If he's going to get on board, I need his bandwagon to go a little slower.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

O Canada

I am back! If you were really hanging out for a dose of highly uneducated, highly biased opinions de la moi about tennis (along with some bad Franglais) then you have come to the right place.

And today we're talking about Canada. Firstly, I'd like to point out that I'm going to a conference there in May and I'm a bit excited about it. But that has nothing to do with tennis. And they appear to have a lot of that in Canada, all of a sudden.

Remember when Canadian tennis was all Daniel Nestor with a soupcon of Frank Rhythm-is-Dancevic, because I do. It was, like, six weeks ago. But since then, some kid named Milos Raonic has made the fourth round of the Australian Open, then two consecutive finals, won his first title, might win his second against Roddick, and has jumped over 140 places to be ranked #37 in the world. Oh, and he has something like 330 points to defend... for the rest of the year. Um, hello top 20. Like, next week.

Please, someone. Someone who watched Milos Raonic last year. What has he done? What has changed? What is the magic ingredient that's turned Raonic from a #150-odd-ranked journeyman into the next big thing? Between him and Sascha Dolgopolov, we seem to have the second coming of tennis right here.

I was determined not to jump on the Raonic bandwagon. Even now, his game - heavy on the aces - is not particularly appealing to me. But with the rocket ride he's taken up the rankings, it's pretty hard not to be on the wagon now. It's not even a wagon. It's some kind of eight-horse-powered alien invasion spaceship with jet thrusters that's trying to take over the world.

And Raonic isn't even the only Canadian who has taken a one way ride to awesometown. He's been the most meteoric, but following along quietly (but not that quietly) behind him is Rebecca Marino. I'd never heard of her before this year, but then went and pushed Francesca Schiavone all the way at the Australian Open and now she's in the Memphis final. And that is - well, that's just totally awesome. And she is a quality tweeter. Top ten. Easy.

I don't know how much credit Canada itself can claim for its sudden success, unless they put something in the water over off-season. But they have reason to be very proud of their young 'uns. Canada has suddenly - and quite unexpectedly - become a force to be reckoned with... at the Hopman Cup, if nowhere else!

Friday, February 18, 2011

You Cannot Escape Auto-Update

Having a life still occurring. But Mahut and Clement are in the semis in doubles, so pretend I wrote something about how awesome that was and continue with your day.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Auto-Update Strikes Back

Still having a life. This university thing is a bit epic. Back tomorrow, I hope. But I would like to point out that while Nico Mahut may have lost to Robin Soderling in straight sets, he only lost one less point in the whole match. That is a bit awesome.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

This Is What Happens When You Listen To Me

Hey, remember that thing called #wildcardformahut? I don't think I'll ever be letting anyone forget, so you better remember. Well, the Australian Open might have been cruel and coldhearted, but the Open 13 in Marseille was not. They gave my beloved Monsieur (Mademoiselle?) Mahut a wildcard. And it warmed the cockles of my heart to see that little W next to his name, let me tell you.

That is W both for wildcard and for win. Because that is exactly what he did.

A lot of wildcards are incredibly tokenistic, and end up with the recipient crashing out in flames in the first round. It's locals getting a go to play on the big stage, that kind of thing. And I guess Mahut was a local wildcard, being a Angevin French dude in Marseille, but he was the right kind of wildcard. The kind that really, really made good.

It's a special kind of wildcard - and, indeed, player - that can serve at 47% and still win 6-2 6-0. Welcome to the Nicolas Mahut bagel bakery.

Yes, it's one of those days. We're hosting a love-fest in the Nicolas Mahut bagel bakery today. Leave now if you don't want to gush.

I'm not a Mahuberfan because Nico wins. He's ranked #89 in the world, which sort of signals that major wins all the time are not his thing. But he is a damn stylish player, and when he's on, he's a freaking ninja. The percentage of second serve returns he won today was ridiculous. He saved all three break points he faced. He has that uniquely Gallic flair which can be disastrous when it's not his day but which is totally brilliant when it is.

And I'm glad that this victory was a little shorter than eleven hours. But you know if it had been eleven hours, he would have been able to deal with that. That's the way he rolls.

Up next is Soderling, who is a bit good. I've heard. You know. Just a bit. Rotterdam last week? I heard he won that. And he's, like, been to a couple of Roland Garros finals. And he won Bercy. Which seems to suggest he plays pretty well in France. And he sort of beat Mahut the one and only time they played. Which sort of suggests he might do it again...

...but you never count out Nico Mahut. And whatever he does, he does with style and aplomb. Sometimes in a dress. So while I don't mind if he loses, I will be cheering for him to win. Hard. Because when you give Nicolas Mahut a wildcard, he rocks that wildcard so hard.

(Please. Give Mahut a wildcard. I don't care what you're giving him a wildcard to, but give him one.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

There's Something About Milos

I didn't want to. I didn't want to be the person that jumps on every bandwagon I see. I was determined to be the one person in the world who wasn't screaming and shouting OMG MILOS RAONIC FOR EMPEROR OF THE UNIVERSE! I was going to be the lone dissenter, the annoying cynic in the corner, the one that was determined it was all a fluke. In my mind, Milos Raonic was the second coming of Casey Dellacqua.

And then he had to go and win San Jose. Beating a top ten player in the final. (I mean, sure, it was Fernando Verdasco, but still.) And now I have to get on the bandwagon or risk being left behind.

Raonic has a singularly spectacular serve. I think Verdasco described him as having the body of a 12-year old... and then still firing down serves at 240km/h plus. Which is, like, a bit fast and stuff. But there are plenty of players with massive serves and not much else. This is the category I was determined to pigeonhole Raonic in.

But it looks like he's a bit more than that.

Problem is, I can't quite put my finger on it.

I think I'm going to have to watch him play a bit more, because there's obviously a little bit of something something going on with Milos. You don't jump from #156 to #59 in the rankings just like that because you have an enormous serve. I mean, he's obviously had an enormous serve for a while now. He might have grown into a bit, but there's just not enough time for there to be such a massive difference between 2010 and 2011. The off-season isn't long enough. Something's clicked for Milos. Something's suddenly started going right. I just can't work out what it is.

Maybe it's not his game at all. Maybe it's in his mind. Looking at the San Jose final, it certainly seems like Milos has quite a bit going on upstairs. We can't all be blessed with the iron mind of Rafael Nadal, but when you rally from 6-2 down in a breaker to grab a set, you are strong in the head. That's just the way it is. Your opponent can really only make so many mistakes.

And then there's the fact that Milos only dropped serve once in four matches. No matter how good your serve is, it's hard to hold your serve that consistently. Like, mega hard. Ask Isner and Mahut.

But has something come together in his game? What's the magic ingredient that I'm missing? Because it looks to me like the dude was losing a lot and now he's winning a lot... and I can't work out why. I must know the why. Because there is clearly something about Milos.

Sorry. Couldn't resist the wordplay. No matter how bad it is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Many Faces of Roland Garros

I know there are a ton of problems with the Roland Garros site. I know it is tiny and squished and hard to get to and rubbish when it rains. And I know all this despite never having even been to France. So is it bad that I am super glad that the French Open is staying there?

Maybe I just sort of like tradition. The French Open has been at Roland Garros since the 1920s, after all, and that's a long time. Maybe I just couldn't adjust to calling the French Open Marne-la-vallee or Gonesse or Versailles - it's been Roland Garros for so long. I know that other Slams have survived moves before - Forest Hills and Kooyong are much quieter these days - but I feel oddly relieved that the French Open is going nowhere. Roland Garros is going to stay Roland Garros.

Not that the tournament would have moved for a few years anyway - the current arrangement expires in 2015. So I guess what we're going to see in the next few years will be a little like what we saw at Wimbledon when it was being renovated - a changing tournament, an evolving tournament. The many faces of Roland Garros. By the time 2016 rolls around, Roland Garros will be very different indeed.

They are putting a roof on Court Philippe Chatrier, to which I say THANK GOD, why didn't you do it before? Seriously, the roof is the best thing ever to happen to tennis stadiums EVER. And it guarantees good weather. You get a roof, I promise you'll hardly ever have to use it. Just ask Wimbledon. There's going to be no roof for Court Suzanne Lenglen, though, which seems silly. Surely there's some kind of 2-for-1 deal out there that they can take advantage of...?

The site is going to expand, bringing it up to 13 hectares - though if the locals have something to say about it, this won't happen, because it's taking over some of the nearby botanical gardens. So let's see how that one goes. There's supposed to be a new court built inside the gardens with 5,000 seats, but it sounds a little bit controversial, so I wouldn't be surprised if that was the first thing to go if any kind of bargaining goes on.

Though the French Open desperately needs a new show court. Like WHOA.

The one change that really does make me sad is the fact that the bullring court (Court #1) is going to be knocked down. I've watched a few matches on that court (televised, obviously, not actually!) and I really like the atmosphere. But I suppose we have to make some sacrifices. Wimbledon lost Court #2, Graveyard of Champions, and it still seems to be going strong. Stuff has to change. This is life.

But at least the whole site didn't change. Roland Garros is still going to be at Roland Garros, and I'm pretty happy about that.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Playing To Survive

So I was idly checking the qualifying scores in Marseille - a tournament very much in my good books at the mo on account of how they have given a wildcard to Nicolas Mahut, which obviously fills me with #wildcardformahut joy - and I was a bit struck by something. Some of the names looked very, very familiar.

'Hmmm,' quoth I, 'where have I seen these people before? Verily, I have seen their names recently!'

And then I remembered. I'd seen them in Challenger draws. Not just any Challenger draws. Draws of Challengers which are still happening.

Let's take Laurent Rochette, for example. He had a win in the first round of qualies for Marseille, a three setter. But just a couple of days ago he was in Quimper, where he made it to the third round, beating Amir Weintraub on the way. Essentially, by playing Marseille qualies, he is playing two tournaments in the same week.

Obviously, if he had gone further in Quimper, he wouldn't be playing Marseille qualies. So many decisions on the satellite tour seem to be so split second. It reminds me of that bit in Amir Weintraub's blog where he goes to Brisbane to play qualies, but then realises he has no hope of getting in, so heads straight back to the airport to head to Noumea. 'Entry lists' just don't even seem to be a thing on the satellite circuit. You just rock up somewhere and hope you have the ranking to get it. Even if that place is on the other side of the world.

And there are always more points to be made. Laurent Rochette, if he had won Quimper, would have got 80 points. He made the quarters, which garners him 15 points. But before the week is even done, he's in the hunt for more points in the Marseille qualies. It's brutal and opportunistic and crazy, but ranking points are everything.

Seriously, when do these guys sleep?

In the most recent installment of his blog (which is here, if you haven't read it), AW talks about how he's been so hungry for ranking points that he's played nine weeks on the trot and is picking up injuries like crazy. And yet, as far as I am aware, he has somehow avoided essentially playing two tournaments in a week like Laurent Rochette. People often mock Caroline Wozniacki for how much tennis she plays. The satellite tour makes her look like she spends her weeks lying about in a hammock. Seriously, they must play so much tennis.

And it can't be good for them, physically. It's nuts. But to quote AW: "All I see in front of my eyes are ranking points, points, points. I realise I no longer play to improve, but instead run and check each time which place in the world ranking some more points will take me to."

It's an uncertain life. You never know where you're going to be, week to week. The only stability - for Weintraub, anyway - is Davis Cup. Everything else is up in the air, up for grabs. Weintraub is right. The crazy points chase that dudes like Laurent Rochette is on isn't playing to improve. It's playing to survive.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Art Of Happiness

Watching Alexandr Dolgopolov play makes me happy.

He's not the most aesthetically pleasing player. Considering how much I like pretty tennis, my adventure into Dolgopolove is a little bit unusual. He's stylish, a showman, master of the trick shot (the way to my heart), but beautiful tennis? Not Sascha.

I think one of the reasons I like watching the Dog so much is because he's genuinely happy. At that makes him play better.

I don't know if you can tell he's happy just by watching him. I don't think it's that easier. But after reading the article in the most recent Deuce (you can find it here) I'm more and more convinced that this is the case. Sascha has risen dramatically lately - his form, his profile, his game, everything. And it seems to me it's just because he's enjoying himself.

The article talks about how Sascha's coach, Jack Reader, looks after Sascha as a person first and a tennis player second. Sascha grew up under the eye of his father, a very by-the-numbers, methodical sort of coach. Given how he spent his childhood on a tennis court in this kind of atmosphere, it's unsurprising that Sascha wanted something totally different. He must have grown up with tennis as work. It seems to me what Jack Reader has given him is tennis as fun. And quite apart from the tennis, fun in general. There's a great story in the article about how they once pretended to be a gay couple to get cheap flights. Reader really does seem to have made life on the tour an adventure for Sascha, and that's clearly working well.

Obviously the Jack Reader method isn't for everyone. A lot of players really wouldn't flourish in his 'I don't believe in gyms - the whole world is a gym' approach. But it has worked great guns for Sascha Dolgopolov. Reader has got him healthy and happy and confident in his game, and look how that's turned out.

And that, I think, is really important. Reader is for Sascha a mentor as well as a coach, and I fail to see how his 'take care of the person' thing wouldn't work for a lot more players. Tennis is a game and games are meant to be fun. I think there are a lot of players who could benefit from treating tennis as a game again instead of as a job. And the coach, well - he seems to be a dude who could do a lot about that.

Ask Jack Reader. Look at Sascha Dolgopolov. And look how that's turned out. Happy people play well in the adventure that is tennis.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Way To My Heart Is Through Stupid Trick Shots

I've been adopting quite a few players from the satellite circuit as Favourites Beyond The Baseline lately. Challenger tennis is fun times. And sometimes these dudes go and play on the big stages. And sometimes, even when they lose, they are a little bit excellent.

I am talking, of course, about Benoit Paire. He ate a bagel in the first set against Ljubicic in Rotterdam today, and then he went down in the second pretty tamely too. It happens. Paire is young and Ljubicic is a class player.

But two points from defeat, he played a shot that made me love him forever.

It wasn't a sensible shot. He didn't even win the point. But come on, how am I not going to love who plays a dropshot from between his legs jumping a metre in the air while in a dead sprint?

It's just silly. And that's why I love it. I like a bit of silly in my tennis sometimes. And while I wouldn't have liked the shot if he didn't make it, he did make it. Sure, he got beaten the very next shot, but maybe if he hadn't fallen over...

Benoit Paire, you are going to have a little bit of love from me forever now. I love a man who can play a tweener.

Benoit Paire first came to my attention when he got the reciprocal wildcard from the French Federation into the Australian Open. I was angry because a) Mahut should have got it and b) I'd never heard of Paire, which meant Mahut should have got it even more. And while I still think Mahut deserved a goddamn wildcard, Paire was not a bad choice. He is young and talented and full of promise and he played a dropshot tweener from a metre in the air on the full stretch.

Benoit, there'll always be a line or two for you here beyond the baseline. You might not get Mahut-level coverage, but there's always going to be a little space for you. Because I think you're awesome.

Oh, and I saw him play in the first round of the Australian Open and I was all, like, impressed and stuff. You can go back and read the blog entry if you like. It is totally true. It isn't just because he played a stupid trick shot and I'm easily impressed by showy low percentage tennis.

...though yeah, that is a big part of it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Festival Of Maybes

Reaching a Grand Slam final is a big damn achievement. Even if you lose, simply reaching the final is something massive. Ask Marcos Baghdatis. Ask Fernando Gonzalez. Ask Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Ask Guillermo Coria, Arnaud Clement, Martin Verkerk, Mariano Puerta. Even though these players all lost the one Slam final they made, I'd bet that loss still rates as the high point of their career - and that their runner up cookie tray is one of their most prized possessions.

Andy Murray has three cookie trays now. And I'd say that getting those cookie trays probably rate as some of his worst memories ever.

Let's revisit Murray's three Slam finals. His first one was in the US Open, 2008. He faced some dude called Roger Federer, who was going for his fifth consecutive US Open crown. Federer had not had his bestest year ever - he hadn't won a Slam yet - and a year without a Federer Slam, well... the world was definitely not ready for that to happen in 2008. Federer had the experience and knew how to win a Slam, especially in New York. Murray was green and maybe a little tired coming off his two day big win over Rafa Nadal. And also beating Nadal and Federer back to back? You'd have to be a wizard to do that.

Murray went down in straights. But not everyone can be Roger or Rafa and win in their first ever Slam final. Djokovic lost the final of the US Open in 2007 in straights before going on to win the Australian Open in 2008. Surely it was only a matter of time for Murray.

But then he didn't make a single Slam final in 2009. Oh well. It's still only a matter of time. Murray has got the goods. He will win a Slam. This was hammered into our heads over and over again. It's not a question of whether, but of when.

Australian Open, 2010. Murray makes the final playing absolutely scintillating tennis. And who is waiting there for him? Roger Federer again. But this time, Murray is ready. Oh yeah. He's pumped. He knows it's only a matter of time before he wins a Slam. And he can take Federer. He's beaten him a bunch of times before. He can do it again. This is his moment - the Murray moment.

Except it's not.

Roger Federer takes Andy Murray to school. Straight sets, down Murray goes. He shows a flicker of life in the third set tiebreaker, but it is too little, too late. There is no performing CPR on this match. The trophy is in Federer's hands and once again, Murray holds the cookie tray. And then he enters a slump so pervasive that it takes him till around Wimbledon to recover.

But he's still going to win a Slam. It doesn't happen in 2010, but it's still going to happen. Maybe the break he took was too long. Maybe he should have come back sooner. There is a festival of maybes.

And one of the maybes that starts to creep in is this one - maybe Andy Murray won't ever win a Slam.

But no. It's 2011. It's a new year, a new Murray. He's recovered from the scars of last year and he is playing magic tennis. He is cutting through the draw like a hot knife through butter, and destiny seems to be on his side. Soderling is swept from his path. Nadal is swept from his path. He has a couple of tough moments with Dolgopolov and Ferrer, but it is largely a ticker tape parade straight to the final.

And it's Djokovic he's facing this time. Only Djokovic, people want to say. It's not a finals thing Murray has - he's won tons of finals! He has a bag full of Masters and 500s and 250s. No, it's just a Federer thing. Federer lights up when he gets to finals. Murray can take Djokovic. Only Djokovic.

Except he couldn't. I don't know if anyone could have taken Djokovic down in this tournament, but Murray was barely there at all. The dude that showed up in the final was not the normal Andy Murray. It was the scared little boy that got his arse kicked by Federer.

If Andy Murray - the Andy Murray, the one that has been in the top five for about 150,000 years now - showed up in a Slam final, he would have a fighting chance. But I've never seen him. Not even once. And while there are plenty of great players who have never won a Slam, the effects of these finals on Murray is affecting his normal play. We saw the long slump after the Australian Open final this year. Now Murray has just gone down to Baghdatis in Rotterdam.

One loss is not that big a deal. But when you look at the way Murray's 2010 played out after the Australian Open, this is not a great sign for 2011.

Murray's first Slam final loss was not, I think, that big a deal. He was new and green and one Slam loss to a guy like Federer is very honourable. I think the rot really set in in 2010, and that scar tissue has lasted a lot longer than we thought. And now that Murray's lost to a guy not named Roger Federer in a Slam final, who knows what could happen?

It's an awful thing to say, but in a way, Murray's career might be better if he stopped making those Slam finals. The cookie trays are not for him a prize, but a burden - a reminder of how close he came and how he didn't come through. They're a tangible sign of failure - because for him, I think, not winning must feel like a failure, even though just making the final is a massive, incredible achievement.

We all know that I'm not a massive Murray fan, but I don't want to join the litany of media condemning him. I fully believe that Andy Murray can win a Slam. He has the game and the brain and the tools he needs. But the first thing he needs to do is to somehow shed this scar tissue and turn up. Even if he turns up and loses, I think that would be better. If he'd turned up against Djokovic and still lost, I don't think the pain would have been so bad. But if he turns up, there is a lot of Slam finals he can win. The turning up is the problem.

He needs to get rid of the maybe - the maybe is what is killing him. Because the more people say 'maybe Andy Murray will win a Slam' (or worse, 'maybe he won't') that pressure is going to continue to mount.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Actuality of Six

It is time for celebration, for Amir 'The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword, But The Racquet Is Mightier Yet' Weintraub has won his first round match in Quimper in a tough three set match against Florian Reynet. And yes, there is definitely going to be a post called 'Not With A Bang But With A Quimper' sometime this week. Even if it is the awesomest tournament that ever awesomed.

By winning said match against said Florian Reynet, AW (which stands for both Amir Weintraub and Awesome Writer) will gain a very valuable six ranking points. This seems like fat nothing until you consider that you actually get fat nothing for losing, which I think is a little bit mean. You should get at least a point for making the cut.

But anyway, yes, six ranking points. This is a small amount, but when you are ranked #259 in the world and have only 181 points anyway, six is quite a respectable amount. If the rankings were to remain completely static apart from AW, this means he would jump close to ten ranking spots. Not bad at all. Especially when you consider that he has the chance to turn that six into fifteen by beating either Josselin Ouanna or Laurent Rochette in the next round...

But I digress. We're not talking about the possibility of fifteen. We're talking about the actuality of six. Which is a lot, if you're Amir Weintraub.

Which takes me back to a favourite subject of mine - Grand Slam wildcards.

For losing in first round qualies of the Australian Open, AW got eight ranking points. In case you are not good at maths, eight points is better than the six points he got for making the second round in the Quimper Challenger. Nicolas Mahut, who was cruelly denied a wildcard but qualified anyway and made the second round, got 45 points from his Australian Open campaign. I'm pretty sure you get 25 points for a first round loss.

Forgive me, ranking points system, if I am cruelly maligning you, but it seems to me like players from nations with a Slam are getting a bit of an advantage here. If I'm AW - and thus from Israel, a non-Slam country - my chances of getting a Slam wildcard into the main draw are pretty slim. But if I'm, say, Carsten Ball, I'm pretty much assured of a wildcard into the Australian Open every damn year. And I have a decent shot at the reciprocal wildcard into the US Open and/or Roland Garros. I get all those points just for being from a Slam country.

And also, if I'm AW, I don't even know if I'm going to get into qualies. I don't know if I've made the cut. But if I'm, say, Luke Saville... hello, eight points on a plate, even if I get totally drilled by the awesomeness of Nico Mahut in the first round.

Maybe I am totally wrong and there are different points for qualifiers and wildcards. In which case this blog entry is pretty much pointless. But I like to think that it is more ammunition on the bonfire of the Wildcard For Awesome (tm). Wildcards -whether into the main draw or the qualies - shouldn't just be for people from Slam-having countries. Awesomeness is international.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Missing Ivan Dodig

Here is a list of facts I know about Ivan Dodig:

1) He is from Croatia.
2) His first name is Ivan.
3) His surname is... wait for it, drumroll please... Dodig.
4) He is humanoid. (Probably. I assume.)
5) He plays tennis.
6) He is pretty good at playing tennis. (I think.)

Seriously, had anyone heard of Ivan Dodig before this year? I have totally never heard of him. The first time he popped into my frame of vision was at the Australian Open this year when he played that epic late night match against Karlovic. I could have stopped by and seen a little bit - I was in Rod Laver Arena that night - the night that Djokovic beat Granollers - and that session finished before this outside court epic.

But I didn't stop by. Me and Ivan Dodig missed each other again.

Dodig lost in the second round of the Australian Open (there is another fact I can add to my list!) which seems pretty unremarkable, until you consider who he lost to. You might have heard of him. His name is Novak Djokovic and he's been doing pretty okay recently.

So okay, in fact, that he only dropped one set in the whole tournament. He played a bunch of awesome guys - Federer, Murray, Berdych. But that one set he lost to was to some guy named Ivan Dodig. Of whom I had never heard.

I didn't see the match. I missed Ivan Dodig. Of course.

But clearly his set-winning was a sign, because Ivan Dodig, of whom I have never heard, just went and won himself a title at Zagreb. He's also got a pretty good 2011 record - he's won seven matches and lost twice, or so the ATP website tells me. And those two losses came to Djokovic at the Australian Open and Berdych in Chennai, so he's not exactly losing to Mickey Mouse opponents here. Ivan Dodig - whoever he is - has very suddenly made the big time.

Zagreb had a couple of local hopes in there who were real chances at the title. Marin Cilic was one. Ivan Ljubicic was another. If either of these dudes had taken out the title, then it wouldn't have been surprising. But this Dodig guy? He's the homegrown hero that no one expected. Because as far as I can tell, he just popped into existence this year.

I wish I could say something more meaningful about him, but you've seen all I know about him in my awesome List of Ivan Dodig Facts. (To which I can add this, courtesy of the ATP website - he is coached by a dude called Martin Stepanek. Any relation, do you think?) What it really proves - once again - is the depth of the field. I think I'm pretty knowledgeable when it comes to, you know, knowing tennis players exist and stuff. Put me in front of a Challenger draw and I'll recognise a bunch of the names. But before this year, Ivan Dodig wouldn't have been one of them. And now he's gone and won not a Challenger title, but a full tour title.

That is a major-ass achievement. There is a whole ton of tennis players out there - very successful ones - who have never won a title. Never come close. Look at Janko Tipsarevic, for example. We all know who he is, but he's never won a title. Same with Potito Starace. Rendy Lu. But this Dodig dude has. He's smashed through the wall that these dudes never have.

And all I can tell you about him is that he is humanoid (probably). Tennis can always surprise you.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

100% Top 100


If you look at that string of crazy ALLEZs and assume that I am a little bit happy about something, then you would be right. My new best friend Nicolas Mahut has gone and won himself a Challenger title in Courmayeur in stunning style, and I am a little bit pleased about that. Just a little. Not a lot.


Okay, so quite pleased.

This win will put him squarely back inside the top hundred - if my calculations are correct, he will jump nearly 30 places and land at about #90. How about that?! He said at the Hopman Cup earlier this year that his goal for this year was to get back inside the top hundred. In the past month, he's jumped about 50 spots to achieve this goal. That is 100% pure awesome.

The real battle, of course, will be staying in the top hundred. Breaking in is one thing, staying in is another. Amir Weintraub could probably write a lot more eloquently about the vagaries of ranking. However, just getting in at all is hard enough - Mahut's been out of it for about two years, what with injury and whatnot. And the fact that he's jumped back in at around #90 (as opposed to #99 or something) gives him a little cushion.

There is no rest for those hungry for ranking points, of course. Mahut's been given a wildcard (it feels oddly satisfying to say those words) to this week's Challenger in Quimper, where he will be the top seed. If he can pull a good result here, he can go even higher in the rankings. And according to a French article I read (or tried to read, given as I don't speak French) it seems likely that he'll be given a wildcard to the ATP tournament in Marseille.

Honestly, all these people jumping late onto the #wildcardformahut bandwagon... I thought of that WEEKS ago. It's raining wildcards!

Also playing in Quimper this week is Amir 'Awesome Writer' Weintraub, and I'm going to try and catch one of his matches if I can. I want to see if his game is mightier than his pen. (Also, Nicolas Mahut should seriously consider giving a column a try. I think he'd have lots of amusing things to say. He seems like that kind of guy.)

The fact that I'm already talking about Quimper shows (yet again) how the satellite tour never sleeps. You win one tournament and already you have to think about the next one. There is no sleep, no rest... just an all consuming quest for rankings points. It's brutal. It is 100% hard to the core.

But for now, let's just say ALLEZ! Nicolas Mahut has gone and won himself a Challenger. And I, for one, think that is pretty awesome indeed.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Not A F%^&ing Tourist

It is no secret that I am not exactly the biggest tennis patriot ever. However, I was/am genuinely interested in the Fed Cup tie between Australia and Italy going on in Hobart, and I am totally devo that they are only showing it on pay TV, which I do not have.

The live scoreboard is good, though. Why don't they use it at all the tournaments?

It's also no secret that I currently find men's tennis more interesting than women's tennis, but the Italy/Australia tie is as good a match up as you will ever hope to see and kicks the arse of a lot of Davis Cup ties. In the Italian corner, we have Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. In the Aussie corner, we have Samantha Stosur and Jarmila Groth. Let the games begin.

It's one of those ties in which no result is surprising. I wouldn't have been surprised to find either team 2-0 up after the first day, and so 1-1 is, I guess, kind of an expression of that. And yet it was still surprising. The one point for Australia comes from Groth, who upset Schiavone. Stosur went down to Pennetta.

And yet, even though Stosur is ranked way higher than Pennetta at the mo, I am somehow not surprised. Because all four singles players playing this tie are 100% absolute quality.

I couldn't tell you how Stosur lost or why Pennetta won or anything like that, because of the whole not having TV problem. What I can say is this: this is one of the best results of Jarmila Groth's career. Beating a Grand Slam champion and defending Fed Cup champion... wow. That is something else.

Particularly after coming back from one set to love down as well. That is an awesome result. When I saw Groth play Wickmayer at the Aussie Open, my immediate impression was of a player with heaps of talent and all the shots, but who could go AWOL mentally at any second. She could light up (ie. second set) but also come crashing down to earth without any notice (third set).

What Jarka showed me here in Fed Cup was that she can grit her teeth and get it done. And if she keeps gritting her teeth and getting it done... well, I could see her definitely making top twenty. Because she is majorly talented. And she is, in her own words, not a fucking tourist.

Reverse singles today (and doubles), with Groth taking on Pennetta and Stosur taking on Schiavone. I'm going with another split result here - I say Groth and Schiavone coming out on top. I don't see Frankie losing two days in a row, and I think Jarka might be on a roll. So this fascinating tie could come down to the doubles...

This is the kind of tie Fed Cup needs. I often talk about how maligned Davis Cup is, but Fed Cup is worse. Probably also because it has such a boring name. But with awesomeness like the awesomeness in this tie... Fed Cup could be on its way up.

(Also, Nicolas Mahut is into the final in Courmayeur! He'll play Gilles Muller. And also, he and Gicquel won the doubles. And I think making the final will send him into the top hundred! Mahuberfans unite!)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Worth Watching

This week, I watched my first ever Challenger tennis. I've always known it was out there, sort of in the abstract... you know, out there, existing, but I never thought of watching it. Or even checking the results.

You have Nicolas Mahut to thank for my transformation. With a soupcon of Amir Weintraub, because his column has got me absolutely fascinated with the hardcore life these players live.

The match I watched was an absolute cracker - a Hopman Cup reunion match in Courmayeur between Ruben Bemelmans and my beloved Nico. Mahut ended up winning in a third set tie break. It was engaging and entertaining and generally, the level was pretty damn high. I mean, neither dude is Federer or Nadal, but only two dudes get to be them. It was a good match. I don't think it would have been out of place in a tour level tournament.

Amir Weintraub writes in his column about how playing Australian Open qualies really made him feel like he was on the same level as the guys ranked #100-#200 and how he could really send himself skyrocketing up the rankings, how it was real and tangible and could really happen. But then the next week in Eylat he lost to a guy ranked in the #600s and he got all depressed, because he felt like maybe he wasn't doing as well as he thought.

What this really highlights for me is how good so many guys are, how close. It's a fight for every ranking point on the Challenger and Futures tour because one ranking point can be a big difference. At the top of the game, it wouldn't matter whether Nadal gained a point or lost a point, because he'd still be 3,000 points ahead. On the satellite level... if you gain a point, you could jump quite a lot on the computer.

If Nicolas Mahut wins in Courmayeur, I'm pretty sure he'll go back into the top hundred. I felt pretty gypped on his behalf when I found out he got 45 ranking points for making second round at the Australian Open - I felt like that was barely anything. And then I read Weintraub's column about how happy he was to get eight ranking points just for playing first round qualies - how he played the tournament in Eylat in the hunt for 17 points. 17. It seems like nothing. But it's everything.

And yet the level of these guys, if the Mahut/Bemelmans match is used as an indicator, is not so far off the tour level. It's a very fine line between good enough and not quite there. And it seems to me that there must be a lot of luck involved - as well as talent and skill and tenacity and whatnot - in getting there. Getting into the top hundred, playing on tour level instead of being stuck in the satellite dogfight... everyone works for it, but only a few get lucky.

There's part of me that wants every single guy on this satellite circuit to make it - for their hard work to pay off. The reality is that not every guy is going to make it. Not every guy gets the fairy tale. Some guys are going to be stuck here slogging it out forever, in this world where one ranking point can make you or break you.

But that doesn't mean that they're not awesome tennis players.

Challenger tennis. It's worth watching. For reals.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Going Solo

The Amir Weintraub column has really made me think. (See yesterday's post, if you are all like 'who is this Amir Weintraub of whom you speak?') The difference between life for a player ranked #25 and one ranked #250 is something I found very, very striking. Hence devoting that whole post to it yesterday and stuff.

One thing which I found particularly remarkable and that I thought deserved a little more space was the fact that players on the Challengers and Futures tours generally can't afford to bring their coaches with them. Weintraub notes in his column that some people do travel with huge entourages - sometimes they're top echelon players on their way back, other times guys who are somehow scraping the money together because they are so desperate to succeed - but for most dudes like Weintraub, it's a solo act. He brings his coach with him to a tournament in Israel - where he's from - and even that is a massive financial stretch.

I talked a bit yesterday about the striking link between tennis and money - the top guys earn heaps and never have to think about it, the little guys earn pretty much nothing and are constantly pre-occupied with it as a result - but that's not so much what I want to talk about here. I often say that one of the reasons I love tennis so much is that it's a true gladiatorial battle. Two people walk onto a court, with only their wits and their abilities to recommend them. Two men enter. One man leaves. Welcome to Thunderdome.

In the upper echelons of the game, people travel with massive entourages. Not only do they have coaches, but they have fitness trainers and physiotherapists and all kinds of crazy things - quite apart from their families. But when you get down to the satellite tour, all there are are the players. They might have coaches, but they're not there. They truly are alone.

I don't know if this somehow makes satellite tennis a purer form of the game or whatever, but the court must be a very lonely place for people down there. If you're a top seed playing on Rod Laver Arena or Court Philippe Chatrier or wherever, you might be by yourself on the court, but you've got a whole support team who've carried you there. They're there looking down on you, and even though they can't help you on the court - much as they might try to help you, coaching warnings be damned - you know they're there and that they're there for you. And there's a whole crowd to carry you too.

Let's cross over to the satellite tour. No coach. No player's box. Probably not even a crowd. Just you. You are all you have to depend on.

And in a way, that's kind of awesome. Not that players shouldn't have coaches or coaches should be banned from matches or whatever - nothing crazy like that. I'm not suggesting a revolution. But there's something very appealing to me about the idea that you - your mind, your body, your skills - are literally all you have to depend on.

Which is why on court coaching is such a freaking stupid idea. (Sorry. Had to get that dig in there.)

It must be horribly, horribly hard to be so alone. But in a way, it must be character building too. If you can survive all by yourself on the satellite tour with nothing but yourself to depend on... if and when you make it to the top echelon of the game, you'll be tougher for it. And a player who can throw down when the chips are down, who knows that if they're in a hole, they'll have to dig themselves out of it... that's the makings of a good tennis player, right there.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Wow. Just wow. If you have not Amir Weintraub's column what life is like when you're ranked #270-odd, READ IT NOW. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.

When we write about tennis, when we talk about it, when we think about it, we think of it as a rich sport. We think of Federer and Nadal and their massive entourages, of Sharapova and Ivanovic and Wozniacki with their huge endorsement deals... of rich people who got rich by being great at sport and who basically attract money like giant magnets. We see them on red carpets, on billboards, at fashion shows, at soccer matches... modelling Armani, driving in Mercedes Benz cars, wearing Tiffany earrings. And we see them holding aloft massive trophies with massive cheques shoved in their back pockets, and this is normal.

What we don't think about is the guy for whom playing the first round of qualies and picking up eight ranking points and $3000 is a massive, massive achievement.

"In the next few weeks I'm going to tell you about my life, about the life of a pro tennis player, and how it is nothing like you would imagine." This is the first sentence of Amir Weintraub's first column and he is dead on the money. I don't know about you, but this is not how I imagined the life of a professional tennis player.

He writes about getting to Brisbane for his first ever 'big' tournament and then learning he has no hope of getting into the qualies... so turning around, going back to the airport and flying to Noumea for a $75,000 event. So that he can get free accommodation, he has to play singles and doubles (after a night or two crashing on the floor in another player's room). "You need to understand that a big part of the considerations players in our level make have to do with how to save costs," he writes. "Sometimes those considerations exceed the professional considerations."

I'd heard that life was hard on the satellite tour. I didn't know how hard.

He gets injured in his victory in the second round of qualies for this tournament and the doctor and physio tell him not to play today. He replies, "I didn't make all this way from Israel to this hole so someone could tell me whether I'm healthy or not." He plays - injured. He loses second round in both singles and doubles. He doesn't even break even on the whole trip, but, as he says, "what's money in comparison to the chance to earn a few more ranking points?"

To do this - to live the life that Amir Weintraub does - takes guts, chutzpah, dedication and heart. Huge amounts of each. But most of all, it takes a great love for tennis. How much do you have to love a sport to keep living flight to flight, no certainty, no surety, never knowing what will happen next?

And alone, too. "Me, like other players in my status, are a one man industry," he writes. "No family, no coaches, no nothing. I don't want to make it sound like an excuse, but I have too many thoughts about things other than tennis, about the future and about procedures, like flights. In general, flights and flight arrangements occupy about a third of a player's time." I cannot even begin to imagine how intense living in that kind of uncertainty must be.

And why do you do it? For the chance, that one, small, tiny chance, of playing in Slam. Weintraub doesn't even know if he'll make the cut for qualies - he's two spots out - but he's so excited about being an alternate and getting two cans of new balls for practice (instead of three old balls) that it all seems worth it. But damn it, he wants that badge that says 'player' on it - the alternate badge brands him as an outsider.

And he gets it! He's the last player to make the cut for qualies. He gets his player badge and access to all the facilities that go along with it - including a locker next to Andy Roddick's.

He loses in the first round of qualies, but he's pleased with his performance. He's exhilarated by the whole Slam experience. And he's determined to get back next year. "Leaving Australia. Swearing I will do everything, but everything everything, to be back here sometime. This can't be my first and only time." I hope it isn't. Because if you're back in Australia next year, Amir, I am going to come to at least one of your matches - and I'm going to cheer my freaking head off.

Because this dude clearly loves tennis so, so much. Listen to this:

"For the very first time I able to understand what fellow tennis players and friends are talking about when they tell me, 'Come on, Amir. You haven't seen a thing. The day you reach a Slam you'd understand'. Understand why people won't give up their careers, why they are willing to hold on to this dream by their fingernails, why they won't retire even when they know it's over."

Hot damn, Amir Weintraub. You can write. Someone get him a book deal, stat.

He goes on to write about playing a Futures event in Eylat, Israel - which he describes as like leaving a Champion's league game to play a C league one. I won't spoil it for you, because you need to read it yourself. Seriously. AMIR WEINTRAUB. His column. Read it. I cannot emphasis this enough.

It's so easy to forget that under all the glitter of the upper echelons of Slams is this world, where players play week in, week out, where getting one ranking point is huge, where players live or die by tournament cutoffs - to quote Weintraub, "'The Cut' is the term players in my level die by". To get to the top, you usually need to go through this world - but not everyone makes it. Some people stay here, in the dogfight, for their whole careers - Weintraub talks about a guy he once played whom people were saying was destined for the Top 20, but he forgot how to hit a forehand literally overnight and gradually lost all his ranking points. It's a hard life - a demanding, stressful, full-of-pressure life. I think Weintraub says it best when he says this:

"I'm back to the reality where victory is worth one ranking point (how can you move ahead like that? It's like trying to conquer Everest when you're only allowed to take one step every day) and to a financial reality where I spend more money than I make."

And why do this? Why live this life? Why live like this, with all this pressure: "The pressure to get ranking points. The pressure not to mess up in small tournaments, the pressure not to mess up in Davis Cup. The pressure to start and make some money. Pressure." Why do it?

For the love of the game. For the chance to go to a Grand Slam once again. The chance to play the qualies. It's a mountain, one that Amir Weintraub and hundreds other like this are trying to conquer. "Point by point. Game by game," he writes.

And that love - the simple love of tennis - is enough. Enough to keep fighting. And that is something else indeed.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Foot Of The Mountain

One of the strangest things about the time immediately after a Grand Slam is the fact that there is still tennis going on. There is no quiet time, no downtime... the players who gathered in Melbourne have scattered to all corners of the earth, unable to put their racquets down. Tennis players must feel like they're wearing the fairy tale red shoes sometimes - they just can't stop playing.

Of course, if you're Roger or Rafa or one of the top dudes, you can take a break. But for the little guys, there is none of that. You need the points to claw up the rankings. Every week is another battle. And just because a Slam is over and the whole tennis world is trying to catch its breath doesn't mean that you get the luxury of a break.

No, no, no. You are in Santiago or Zagreb or Johannesburg, trying to win a few rounds and gain some much needed points if you're a little little guy or notch up a tournament win if you're slightly bigger. Or some little guys might be in Courmayeur or Burnie or Kazan playing on the Challenger circuit, trying to grab the win and the valuable points there. And this is what you do, week in, week out.

When you're at the top, you can care about sensible scheduling. When you're not, then every week is another dogfight.

My newfound great love for Nicolas Mahut, he of the awesome hair, means that there'll probably be a lot more of the little guys on this blog - which is a good thing, I think. The little guys need some love. It's easy to be a Fedal fan (which, as you know, I am LIKE WHOA) but when you're not so famous, when you get shunted to the furthest court there is when you manage to qualify for a Slam... you deserve some screentime.

Mahut is the fourth seed in the Challenger in Courmayeur this week, and he had a first round win against Dieter Kindlmann last night in two breakers. Yay! He also jumped fourteen spots in the rankings up to #118 after his second round showing at the Australian Open! Also yay!

I tried to stay up to watch the match - Courmayeur has a livestream - but it didn't, you know, happen. However, I am definitely going to make an effort to watch at least a little of this tournament this week. Challenger tennis is something I don't know much about, and that's something I endeavour to change. Grand Slam tennis may be the pinnacle of the mountain, but Challengers and Futures are all about the climb.