Saturday, April 27, 2013

Waiting for and wondering about Roger Federer

Federer fans have had their patience tested as we wait and wait and wait for Roger to play again after a lengthy break in which he has taken time to spend with his family and also have a large block of practice time, which he felt he really needed after the very busy 2012 Olympic year.  Not only that, but we also have had the unusual experience of wondering, as we head into the fifth month of 2013, when he is finally going to claim his first title of the year.  After an amazing autumn in 2011 in which he didn't lose another match after the U.S. Open, followed by a brilliant start to 2012 in which he claimed his 17th slam title at Wimbledon along with quite a few other impressive tournament wins, it has been a bit disheartening that he hasn't held a trophy now in over eight months.

I admit to feeling some trepidation wondering what to expect with his return at the Madrid Masters.  He goes into the tournament ranked #2 thanks to a collapse from Andy Murray in Monte Carlo, yet with a minimal 10 point advantage.  As Roger won on the blue clay of Madrid last year (and will remain the only player to ever win a blue clay tournament, as it goes back to red this year), he has a lot of points to defend.  And speaking of points to defend, he will have semifinal points the following week in Rome, finalist points in Halle and then, of course 2000 championship points in Wimbledon.  That's a lot of pressure after a lengthy break following several months without his usual success.

The last time he took a lengthy break was after the highly disappointing loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal after holding match points.  Can he come back now as he did then with incredible motivation, anxious to show he is still a strong contender in every tournament he plays, without the surprise losses to players outside the top 4?  Or is his advancing age as well the continuing demands of his family starting to take it's toll?  Of course my hope is that the fact that he has failed to add to his impressive 76 titles since last August, along with the time he has had to rest, heal and get the needed practice, will be enough to push him past some of these confusing losses and see him still with several trophies in 2013.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Questions to be answered after Monte Carlo

The first clay court masters has come and gone and for those who have been frequent followers of tennis, for once there is a different result.  After eight years of the field trying and failing to dismiss Rafael Nadal from his throne in Monte Carlo, finally the world #1 Novak Djokovic has succeeded.  

I was personally thrilled to see a different result after eight years.  It simply doesn't make sense for any person, no matter who they are, to not be able to be beaten.  So in spite of an ankle injury which made Djokovic unsure if he would even be able to play in the tournament at all, he pushed through the pain because he wanted to be able to play in what he now considers a home tournament, since he has been living just down the street for the last several years.  Watching the intensity that he played with you could tell how badly he wanted this title.  Even so, after the almost bagel first set which eventually ended at 6-2, when Rafa got up a break in the second set I fully expected it to go three.  I was certainly unprepared to see him get broken at love serving for the set; and not only that, once it got to the tiebreak to see him only win one point.

Of course this all brings questions.  Was Nole able to win mostly because the conditions favored him, with the clay being damp from an early rain shower? Was it because Rafa isn't up to his full strength yet, claiming he got tired in the second set?  Is Rafa still struggling with injury, whether from his knee or the taping on his back?  All of these things remain to be seen.  I fully expect Nadal to rally and win in Barcelona this week.  What about Madrid, where he struggles a bit with the altitude, Rome, and of course the big question, the French Open?  Although clay is my least favorite surface, these unanswerables spice things up enough to make it all interesting once again.  In two more weeks Roger Federer will be back in the picture, with many wondering how he will fare having not won a title yet in 2013.  And with Andy Murray's lopsided loss we can't help but wonder if he will be any threat during the clay season.  As for me, I'm glad to have these questions to ponder as we wait for big guys to play once again.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The finals are set for Monte Carlo

I'm sure everyone is shocked to be having a Nadal-Djokovic Monte Carlo final (note major sarcasm!).  Before the tournament started my attitude was almost like "why even watch - we already know who is going to win."  However, along the with the most gorgeous view in tennis, there have also been some tantalizing matches, along with some drama to make things interesting.

Djokovic began his trip to the final very slowly, dropping the first set in his second and third matches.  There was much speculation on how his ankle was really healing (leftover from his impressive win in Davis Cup after twisting it in the first set).  Was it the injury causing the problem, or was he just having a hard adjustment to clay?  In each of those matches, however, once he got through the error prone first set he was able to pull away and win easily.  Eight time champion Nadal, on the other hand, began strong in his first couple matches, only to be really pushed in his quarterfinal against Grigor Dimitrov, dropping his first set in Monte Carlo in many years.  And very surprisingly in his semifinal against Tsonga, after a 6-3 first set he was up 5-1 in the second, looking like an incredibly routine win, when Tsonga mounted a comeback, breaking the King of Clay two times as he served for the match, saving match points along the way.  However, the luck ended there, with Nadal taking it in straight sets in a tiebreak.  I have to admit I was quite surprised, however, to see Rafa twice broken in what looked to be a routine win.

Some other noteworthy matches through the week were the Wawrinka-Murray match, where Murray only managed to win three games!  Looks like some work is needed with Mr. Lendl.  Jarko Niemenen played some impressive matches, showing some of his best tennis at 31 years old.  In his quarterfinal match against Del Potro there were some incredible points played with amazing defense against what looked like sure winners.  After two incredibly physical matches in a row, however (he also won a three-setter against Raonic in impressive fashion) he didn't have much left against Djokovic.  He will definitely be one to watch in the upcoming clay season, however.

As for the drama, how about the match between Gulbis and Monaco where Gulbis had already been warned about his behavior so many times that when he decided to slam his racquet against the umpire's chair on his way past he was penalized not just a point but in an entire game.  Get a hold of yourself Ernie!!  And what about the story that Matosevic, while playing Rafael Nadal, decided to see what would happen if he kicked over Rafa's water bottles on his way past?  In spite of Nadal's compulsive behavior to carefully arrange his bottles just so on each changeover, he was able to just laugh it off while looking to his box.  What would the tennis world be without a little drama?

So who is the favorite in the final?  Hard to say that Nadal isn't, having won it eight times in a row, but I don't want to write off the world #1, who totally had Rafa's number in the 2011 season, beating him a couple times even on the clay.  I won't hide the fact that I would love to see Djokovic begin to challenge him once again, with Rafa having won three title already since his comeback, but I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Isner back in form in Houston

I have to admit I've been a bit of a skeptic when it's come to John Isner this year.  After an injury at the start of the year, after which he lost his spot as #1 American man on the ATP tour, it just seemed that his game was headed the wrong direction.  Known for his incredible serve, which seems as if he's serving from a tree, as Andy Roddick once said, he usually can hold serve easily, but then is able to do little on his opponent's serve.  When he started having trouble this year even holding his own serve, though, things definitely weren't looking good. 

I watched his semifinal against Juan Monaco in which he got broken three times in a row to lose the set 6-1.  It really was quite shocking and my negative view was being further cemented.  I left the TV on, however, and was impressed to see him change his style of play in the next set,  becoming more aggressive and able to claim the next two sets for a victory.  I admit, however, that I wasn't hopeful for a win in the final against Nicholas Almagro, a known clay court player. In fact, when I had to leave after Isner got broken in the first set I figured it was a done deal.  I was impressed when I turned it on later to find him serving for the match!

I have since gone back to watch the whole match.  The thing I have been impressed with in both the semi and the final is that neither of these matches had a tiebreaks, something John is known for it seems like in almost every set he plays.  Usually his return game percentage is atrocious.  However, something seemed to have clicked for him in Houston this week and he found a way to add the aggression to his game on his opponent's serve and pull off his wins with breaks of serve to take the sets, the way tennis really should be played.  It sure would be great to see him be able to translate what he did here over on the clay courts of Europe.

Speaking of clay courts in Europe, the real clay season is starting.  Oh how I would love to see a change from the norm we have been used to seeing with Rafael Nadal stealing virtually every clay court title.  Surely there has to be someone who can beat him!  How about starting in Monte Carlo so he doesn't take an incredible nine titles in a row, which is just ridiculous by any standard.  While I certainly think what Rafa has done on clay is completely amazing, I have to say I'm very ready to see someone figure out the puzzle of how to beat him.

Unfortunately Roger Federer fans will have to wait a few more weeks to see him grace the courts again.  He is choosing to stick with his original schedule, taking a very long break for some down time, but also some intense training/practice as he prepares for his return in Madrid in May.  We will be incredibly anxious by then to see if these long weeks have paid off to get him back to the form that has been missing so far in 2013.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Inspiring Davis Cup weekend

It was Davis Cup weekend, with matches taking place all over the world.  Though I don't always like the idea of Davis Cup every year, several times during year, with the players having to choose whether to expend even more energy to play in a couple more best of five matches in an already exhausting season, it can make for some pretty high drama.  There were several examples of that on this occasion.

Since I'm from the U.S. I will start with that.  On Friday team USA and team Serbia ended up splitting sets, with John Isner losing to Novak Djokovic and Sam Querry pulling out a high intensity five setter against Victor Troicki.  Most people assumed, with the #1 Bryan Brothers playing the doubles rubber against Nenad Zimonjic and virtual unknown Ilija Bozoljac, that it was almost a given it would soon be 2-1 USA.  Many were saying Bozoljac was the weak link and assuming straight sets.  They didn't bargain for the incredible fight the Serbians put up, taking the first two sets in tiebreaks.  The Bryans came back to level it in the next two sets and then the match really began.  With no tiebreak in Davis Cup in the fifth set it became a battle of wills to hold serve and each team did their job with amazing veracity.  It was quite nerve wracking watching from my couch as the score crept higher and higher.  Finally, in the 27th game of the set, the Bryan Brothers faltered and the Serbian team came up with a break.  In spite of tremendous crowd support for the U.S., team Serbia pulled off an incredible victory, clinching it at 15-13.  All credit to them for an amazing win against the best doubles team of all time.

 The drama continued the following day for the Serbian team.  Djokovic was due to play Sam Querry.  Though Querry has beaten Djokovic before, it still appeared it would be a fairly easy win for world #1 Novak Djokovic.  However, in only the 2nd game of the match Djokovic turned his ankle mid point.  He continued on to finish the point, only to fall to the ground as soon as it ended in obvious pain.

The big question was would he be able to continue.  When he was barely able to get off the court it certainly didn't appear he would be able to.  But the responsibility he felt in getting a victory for his country propelled him on and with some extra wrapping on the ankle and pain pills he continued to put forth great effort and energy.  Though he did drop the second set, soon he was on a roll and easily completed the victory for his team.  There is certainly speculation now, however, as to what this means for him in his next couple scheduled tournaments beginning the clay court season.

It was quite an exciting weekend for Canadian tennis fans.  The Canadian Davis Cup team has reached a new milestone - a trip to the DC semifinals, something they had never achieved before.  After splitting matches with visiting team Italy on day 1, their doubles team of Nestor and Pospisil did what the Bryan brothers weren't able to do - they closed out another five setter with the exact same fifth set score as the American-Serbian match - 15-13, giving Canada a 2-1 lead.  Milos Raonic had the honor of clinching the winning match for Canada, which will take them to Serbia in the fall for their first semifinal.  You can tell what the victory meant to Raonic.

 And finally I have to give some props to the team from Great Britain.  They were playing against Russia, not in the main draw of Davis Cup but in one of the lower tiers trying to gain entry into the elite group for next year.  Without their main man Andy Murray, they were playing with low ranked players who haven't been able to do much at the normal ATP level.  Down 0-2 after the first day of competition, their chances were pretty slim.  But at that point what did they have to lose?  After getting the doubles point to give them a slight chance, first number 214 James Ward came back from being down 2 sets to 1 to pull off the 5 set upset against Dimitri Tursonov.  But the likelihood of world number 325 Dan Evans, with all the pressure in the world sitting on his shoulders, beating someone ranked 245 places above him seemed virtually impossible.  Yet it turned out to be a fairly straight forward straight set win for an inspired player trying to get his team back into the World Group again.  Incredible effort by team Great Britain.  

Quite an inspiring weekend to lead us into the clay court season.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Hard courts over and out

It's April now, which means the hard courts are done and we head to clay.  So the tennis March Madness is over with the two big Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami.  The Miami tournament was a bit anticlimactic this year on the men's side being that we were missing two of the huge drawing cards, Federer and Nadal.  The resurgence of Tommy Haas into the semis did bring some excitement, however, taking out #1 Novak Djokovic in the process.  At that point I was really hoping to see a very unusual final, Haas against Gasquet.  However, things went along the much more predictable lines and gave us Murray and Ferrer. 

It was a strange, brutal and error prone match between the two.  Ferrer ended up with only 14 winners in three sets with 50 unforced errors while Murray had 23 winners and 45 unforced.  Not only that, but there were 15 breaks of serve between the two, at one point six games in a row!  The rallies were long, often ending with an error, and by the time the match was over Ferrer was badly cramping, something I never thought I would see, and neither one hardly had the energy to finish.  Faster courts anyone?  Andy Murray managed to pull off the win in a third set tiebreak (which I didn't get to see since I was watching on the DVR and didn't know CBS would be ending their coverage - but that's a different story!).  With this win he passes Roger Federer for the #2 ranking.  It's the first time in over nine years that neither Federer or Nadal has held either the #1 or #2 ranking.  Wow!

I was concerned about the women's match between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.  I have seen enough blow-out matches between the two that I went into it wondering if they would even make it to an hour.  But Maria obviously came out with a game plan and Serena took a while to find hers, meaning that Maria took the first set.  But Serena being Serena, part way through the second set she found her form and by the time they got to the third Masha's plan had totally gone out the window.  A bagel third set for the beautiful world #2 had to hurt.  Looking back, though, she will have to feel good that she at least found a way to win a set against Serena, something that hadn't happened since 2008!

Clay court season has already started for the women in Charleston this week, albeit green clay.  Then next week, after Davis Cup over the weekend in various places around the world, we move over to Europe once again and the world will be watching to see if Rafa Nadal is going to clean up once again or if someone can hold their nerve to finally beat this guy on the red stuff.