By sachs on Jan 8, 2012 | In tennis
That is to say, a new tennis season is upon us, rising in the East, and where the year to unfold may already be read in the sky.
The first tourneys are under way, scattered across Asia Pacific as the players swarm hemispherically 'round Australia in preparation for the year's first Slam in a week's time. ANd those tourneys are telling us what to expect for this year.
If I had written a week ago of the prospects for this year, I would have rated Nole as the likely year end #1 with Roger and Rafa each contending at the Slams. I put Roger back up with Rafa because he tore through the nobody-cares fall calendar, including demolishing Rafa in the World Tour FInals.
But I also would have said I see room for breakthroughs this year, and I would have pegged Tsonga, Murray, and Del Potro as the most likely. I also would have bet on Milos Raonic and Alex Dolgopolov breaking into the top ten.
Fate has reached out through this first week of tennis to confirm her intentions: At the Doha tournament, Gael Monfils took out Rafa, and then Jo Wilfred Tsonga took out Gael in the finals.
In Brisbane, Andy Murray knocked out Dolgoplov in the final. And in Chennai, Milos Raonic took out top tenners Almagro and Tipsarevic en route to the title.
Expect it: big years are coming for Tsonga and Murray in terms of contending at Slams, and from Milos and Dolgopolov in terms of breaking into the top tier.
As for The Great Oz: I just don't know. I think perhaps the only player who can take out Djokovic there might be Murray- the only man who really doesn't fear him. I would say, I expect Nole, Murray or Roger to win. Would not be shocked to see Rafa or Tsonga in the finals, but don't think they'll win.
Of course, other players to keep an eye on, as always, include David Ferrer (the invisible man), Thomas Berdych, Gael Monfils, and youngster Australian Bernard Tomic. And yesterday Del potro gave an interview claiming he is at his peak preparation and condition for the Slam this year. So lots of cool stuff going on.
Don't look behind the curtain.
UPDATE: Murray hired Lendl as his new coach. How cool is that? Their games are nothing alike, but they have one thing in common: each broke into Slam finals and stalled, losing several in a row. Lendl went on to win MANY (7?) as a late bloomer. Can Andy?
UPDATER: Murray is often called the best player never to have won a Slam. I always thought that couldn't be true. Surely in the history of tennis there were better players that had never won Slams. Nope. By just about any standard I could think to check, mainly, number of tournaments won, number of Masters won, number of Slam finals and semis, Murray is easily the best player never to have won a Slam. Cedric Pioline, David Nalbandian and Todd Martin won far fewer tournaments, for example. Vitas Gerulitis won a Slam (who knew?) Give that Murray has an amazing record in finals outside of Slams, and a pretty good record against the Big Three outside of Slams, you have to think he's going to win one.
Jumping on the Vagabond Zeitgeist Bandwagon, here's SI's look at best retired non-Slam winners:
By sachs on Sep 6, 2011 | In tennis
As rain delays play on some of the more uninteresting Slam quarterfinal matchups I've ever seen, let's take a stroll down memory lane by examining a case of a a great athlete's spiritual resurrection. Ivan Lendl gets little love these days, what with the Macenroe brothers dominating TV commentary, constantly exhuming the careers of Borg and Connors and, like Stalin, trying to write a nemesis from the history books.
But Lendl lives!
In one Rafael Nadal...
I'll state at the outset that Rafa is already more accomplished than Ivan, but there are some strong and varied parallels in their career. What got me started on this was wondering whether Rafa had any forebears in his situation of relative-surface dominance. This brought me to Lendl.
Each of these two players was considered, for a time at least, as the best player of his era. Each was also considered one of the greatest clay court players of all time.
Rafa fans are quite sensitive to the idea that Rafa is a great clay courter, as if saying this somehow is an insult to how great he is on all surfaces. The thing is, he's just not an all time great on hard courts and grass. His record on those surfaces is not just well below Federer and Sampras- its below Connors, Macenroe, Edberg, Becker, Agassi- and now, just about equal to the younger Djokovic.
Which is kind of an aside to help me get to differences: Lendl never got his white whale. Rafa did. The career slam, a validation that one time at least, Rafa was the greatest player in the world on each surface. Lendl's Wimbledon dream never came true- and he WAS a good grass player (2 finals and 5 semis), its not like he never had chances. (Contrast with Sampras who really really sucked at the French Open).
But Rafa's clay dominance, too is more complete and long lasting than Lendl's. Only Borg was in Rafa's class; Rafa's dominance at all tournaments is far more complete than Borg's, but I think Borg's clay competition was deeper: Gerulitis, Panneta, Connors (who won US Open on clay), Solomon... Rafa has had Fed, to be sure, but who beyond Fed has really been a clay court force during Rafa's career?
Back to Lendl. Lendl had something else in common with Rafa: they each led the wave of a new technology with new styles of play, and Rafa's really is an evolution of Lendl's.
Rafa has been called the killer of the serve and volley game. OK, that's an exaggeration, but his rise pretty much coincided with the disappearance of SandV as a competitive style at the very top levels.
Look at the grass wear patterns from Nadal's win over Berdych in 2010:
Compare to the wear in Borg and Macenroe's day:
(The change in Wimbledon grass to slow it down was a major part of it- Rafa's emergence coincided with the general trend in the game; he took advantage of it and made it the leading edge)
Lendl was in the same situation: he heralded the baseline basher era of Jimmy Arias, Becker, Agassi and Courier. Around 1990, we were hearing that the net game was doomed. Of course, that talk died down when Sampras became #1. Lendl was the first to combine the new graphite racquets, which allowed for more topspin and harder hitting without shattering the arm, with a new physicality. Lendly set a new standard for fitness on the tour at that time. As Rafa has set a new standard for physicality today with his bruising baseline game and extreme topspin (enabled by the superior strings most of today's players have adopted). How did Novak supplant Rafa at the top? By out-Rafa-ing Rafa. He runs fasters and chased down more balls. His rallies with Rafa are now out and out marathon, the ball arcing many feet above the net.
What's my point? Not much, really. Just some neat parallels. Unless... is there out there a Sampras to shortcut the Rafa era?
Here's Lendl in his prime. Note that SECOND SHOT by the returner- look familiar??
By sachs on Aug 31, 2011 | In tennis
I was going to write a more in depth analysis of the women's draw, including Serena's potential path to the finals and my alternative picks : French Open champ Na Li and Offensive-like-a-Williams Marion Bartoli.
But after two rounds, both Li and Bartoli are out, and Venus has withdrawn. So am I a crappy tennis shaman-guide? No. The women's tour is pathetic. The current #1 Caroline Wozniaki is pushed so hard as a marketing boon because she's almost pretty, though built like a horse, but she has a cringe-worthy personality, trying so hard to be the funny quick-witted star her handlers want her to be. I don't remember the last time she won a tournament, and I'm almost curious enough to look up for myself just how the hell she can still be #1. Then #2 is Vera "Why are my legs bludgeoned?" Zvonereva. I like her. She's smart, funny and has a hell of a game. But she's nuts. Remember her whipping her own legs with her racquet at the USO a few years ago? And tearing all her injury wraps off in frustration as she screamed and cried?
#3 is Maria Sharapova, who can play real tennis, has a head on her shoulders, and the heart of a champion. But her career was derailed by shoulder surgery and ever since then, the fact that she can win tournaments with a collegiate level serve is only evidence of the weakness of the woman's tour.
Samantha Stosur is a man, and Francesca Schiavone is an old man. Jankovic is a bitch and Ivanovic is hot. But they're not real champions.
The woman's tour IS Serena Williams, and when she's not there the champions list is bogus. We need some fresh blood.
Julia Goerges and Andrea Petcovik would be good ponies to hope for, also Christina McHale.
By sachs on Aug 29, 2011 | In tennis
This year began with 3 storylines worth watching, but after 3 of the 4 majors have played out, two fizzled and one grew to epic proportions. The diminishing stories were the return of Del Potro and emergence of young guns, Raonic, Harrison, Tomic and Dolgopolov.
But the story of the year, without a doubt, is Novak Djokovic who has turned in one of the great seasons in tennis history, complete with 5 straight championship match wins over Rafael Nadal, on hard courts, clay and grass. Nole has only lost twice this season, once in possibly the match of the year in the French semis to Federer, and once last week when he quit in the Cincinnati finals to Andy Murray citing a shoulder injury.
He is, possibly flirting with Johnny Mac's 1984 campaign, which went something like 80-odd wins and 3 or 4 losses (sorry, no easy internet connection at the cottage, so stats are from memory). If he wins the USO, compiling 3 Slams in a season, it will be up there in the list of great seasons in post-Laver times (Fed had 3 Slams, a 4th Slam Final, a Year End Championship and about 5 losses in 2005 or 2006. Fed has actually hit the 3 Slams and a Final mark 3 times! Last year, Rafa won 3 Slams but had somewhere close to 10 losses).
By the way, I always liked Novak and found his antics pretty funny. The more exposure that he gets, the more sick I am of seeing him take his shirt off and flex.
your favourite for this years US Open, hands down, Novak Djokovic.
Then you have Rafa. What to make of the bumpicking baseliner? After shocking clay court beatdowns to Novak in two straight Masters tournaments in the spring, he resumed his traditional place in the French Open's champion spot, only to lose convincingly to Novak at WImbledon. THere is no doubt Novak is in Rafa's head much as Rafa has been for so long in Federer's (one interesting difference: Rafa admits it, Fed continues to pretend not to notice).
Rafa has had a shitty hardcore summer so far. But he's clearly changing his tactics again, looking to regain the aggressive, offensive form that he took to the USOpen trophy last year. Its so hard to count Rafa out in a Slam, but right now he does not go into this tournament with the other players shaking as he has for the last few years. That alone will cost him a few points here and there.
Newly demoted #3 Roger Federer keeps telling everyone he's happy with his game, and after over a year with his new coach (former Sampras aide) Paul Anacone, he does look good. Except when he doesn't. And it only has to happen once a tournament. As long as Federer doesn't run into someone having a career day, he's winning, but he seems to be running into players-at-their-best a LOT lately. Like to Soderling at the French last year, then Berdych at Wimbledon. After a very tight French Open loss to Rafa this year, Fed lost to a sizzling Tsonga at Wimbledon, then AGAIN to Tsonga playing one of the greatest matches I've ever seen in Montreal, and AGAIN to a hot Berdych in Cincinnati. There are seven matches to a Slam trophy and it seems to me that somewhere in there Fed will face someone having a great day. Fed is having a hard time finding that level.
Still, he's doing better than Andy Murray. After getting blown out in Novak's Oz coming out party, Murray has been showing up at the Slams, making decent semifinals runs, then disappearing for all other tournaments. We were ready to forget about MAndy altogether until… he won Cincinnati, knocking out the unbeatable Novak in the finals just last week.
There are three or four players right now that could be outsider shots at a USO title, or at least finals: Jo-Willy Tsonga, who is finally getting some consistent health and showing that when he's on, he can match up with anyone in the world. He has a flat out beautiful game, his victory over Fed at Wimbledon was stellar, but his performance in Montreal was just magic.
Then there's DelPotro. DelPotro won the 2009 USOpen, beating both Rafa and Fed, then took a year off with wrist problems. His return this year was a terrific story, a constantly upwards trajectory, beating several top tenners convincingly, then taking a set off the (then undefeated in 2011) Novak at the French and fighting Rafa to what was essentially a draw at Wimbledon (losing out by the barest of margins in tiebreaks). Most of the tennis world expected the summer hardcourts to be where he'd take the next step, alas, its been a step backwards. He's had a few straight lacklustre losses, not great prep for New York. But he is a champion, and one with more effortless power and natural offense than anyone on tour.
Our third dark horse is Mardy Fish. The stoner underachiever from the Fed-Roddick generation finally got off the munchies, dropped about twenty pounds, and rose for the first time into the top ten. This summer, he's been playing the best tennis of his life. He's never made it past a Slam quarters, but he's never played like this before. His serve is lights out and he may be the best volleyer on tour right now.
If I were to force one more contender out it would be Berdych, who has shown some signs of life this summer after a major let down following last years Wimbledon finals.
The Draw and Matches
Semifinals line up as Novak v Fed and Murray v Rafa. Remember that Fed knocked Novak out of the French, and Murray has twice beaten Rafa at hardcourt Slams.
Fed has by far the toughest draw overall, Rafa's is a cakewalk.
Quarterfinals line up as
Novak vs Berdych
Fed vs Tsonga or Fish
Rafa vs David Ferrer
Murray vs Robin Soderling.
Great match-ups, real and potential:
Ryan Harrison, the very promising young American against the formerly very promising young Croat Marin Cilic.
Nikolay Davydenko vs recent Rafa-slayer Ivan Dodig
Grigor Dmitrov vs Gael Monfils
Mikhail Youzhny vs Ernest "Hooker Lover" Gulbis
After that, we look forward to:
Federer vs Brazillian Boy Ball Basher Bellucci in the 2nd rnd
Australia's Future Top Tenner Bernard Tomic vs American Future Top Tenner Harrison in the 2nd
Gilles Simon vs Del Potro (3rd)
Murray vs The Other Swiss Stan Wawrinka in the 3rd
Gasquet vs Dolgopolov in the 3rd
Then we get some doozies the best of the 4th round include:
Tsonga/ FIsh (MATCH OF THE FIRST WEEK!)
Ernest Gulbis or Jurgen Melzer vs Rafa in the 4th
For whats its worth: I have Tsonga over Fish, and Fed over Tsonga.
I have DelPo over Simon, SOderling, Murray and Rafa. Crazy, no? Yeah, I'm nuts that way.
I have Fed over Nole, and a Fed/DelPotro 2009 rematch.
WHAT SAY YOU??
Kim Clijsters is out with an injury. Everybody else sucks except Serena Williams. Caroline "I Can't Believe She's #1" Wozniaki has been playing awful. Maria Sharapova has been alright, but she's got a bad shoulder and bad serve that will be murdered if she faces Serena. Serena is ranked, like 30th, since her injury layoff, but that is just bad news for the upper seeds who have to face her early.
By sachs on May 27, 2011 | In tennis
The two storylines of the year collide at Roland Garros tomorrow:
Novak Djokovic, whose impossible streak has included the Australian Open, two masters events on hard court and two masters events on clay, 4-0 against Rafa, 3-0 against Fed, 41 straight wins (ties Fed's best streak), 39 straight to start the year (two back of Mac's best start-of-year in the open era.
Juan Martin Del Potro, the comeback kid. Remember him? He beat Rafa and Fed back to back to win the '09 USOpen, the finaled in the end of year Masters Cup. DelPo had rocketed up the rankings for two years and had a game the top players feared. He was on his way to #1, I thought. A month or two later he was out for a year with wrist problems.
He's been back several months now. He's won two tournaments, and beaten world #6 Robin Soderling twice. What I find so interesting about DelPo is that when he left the game a year ago, he was on the steepest improvement curve I'd ever seen. You could see him getting better from tournament to tournament.
Now he's back and, starting from way disadvantaged in fitness and game, he has gotten better from tournament to tournament.
A lot of folks don't think DelPo has a chance. Nole is absolutely dialed in.
I don't know if anyone can stop Nole now. But I like DelPo's chances almost as much as Rafa or Fed's. And if DelPo can't beat him now, I'd wager by summer he'll be able to manage it. This kid's potential is simply enormous- provided his body doesn't break down.
After (or due to) 2 rounds of boring match-ups, the undercard on Day 1 of Round 3 is stacked: Tsonga vs Wawrinka should be a great battle of two huge hitting, aggressive players who can move. Gasquet vs Bellucci pits the resurgent former wunderkind (and cocaine kisser) vs the current wunderkind. Both are playing great, entertaining tennis. The fourth best match of the day is only Federer vs the always entertaining Janko Tipsarevic who is, though a big underdog, playing some good tennis. Also Ferrer playing.
Saturday, Rafa will be in action, trying to get his game into a higher gear after four straight losses to Djokovic and a very difficult first two rounds. Fortunately for him, he has a real nobody next round. Andy Murray, Robin Soderling, Hot Sauce Verdasco, and The Dog will also play Saturday. Not all at once on the same court like a wrestling battle royale, but that would be neat.