There is no doubt that Andy Roddick and 2004 silver medalist Mardy Fish are feeling justified in skipping the Olympics. They are among four of the eight quarterfinalists who did not travel to Beijing. Neither Juan Martin del Potro nor Gilles Muller qualified at the entry deadline. Another, Andy Murray, was dismissed in the first round of the Olympics – so he had additional days to recover for “the world’s toughest tournament.”
The Big Three of Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic, who continue to show they are a cut above the field, are the only players who went the distance in Beijing and are still standing in Flushing. Consider their collective Olympic experiences to be the handicap that will bring them back to the field. Each has looked vulnerable at times throughout the tournament, and has admitted to running on fumes at this point.
This trend is less telling on the women’s side. The best two-of-three set format for women is more welcoming for such a hectic, demanding, grueling schedule.
I have always advocated that the men play best-of-three at the majors (like they used to do at the US Open from 1975-78) until the quarterfinals. During the latter rounds, the full “championship distance” is appropriate. In the preliminary rounds, the longer matches are too taxing on the players. It has a wearing affect, and thus the level of play is compromised at the end of the event. The fans are rarely engaged throughout long five-setters. Oh, well. By the way, the player who is ahead after three sets (either 3-0, obviously, or 2-1 in sets), wins well over 90% of the time.
It has been great to see the net-rushing, serve and volley tactics at this US Open. Federer, Fish, and Muller have been racing forward frequently. The other five players have also demonstrated a willingness – and comfort level – in doing so. Why is this? For one, players are increasingly forced to block back the huge serves. These blocked or chipped returns are easy balls to volley with authority. On second serves, players are often receiving from well behind the baseline (sometimes much further back in dealing with kicking second serves than on the harder, flatter first serves), and compromising this territory makes it more inviting for players to serve and volley. Finally, the surface (as hard as it may be on joints) is easy to plant and change directions on. It has been enjoyable to observe these tactical changes, as contrasts make for better viewing.
If the US Tennis Association wishes to support doubles, and doubles at the professional level, then it ought to start the tournament on Sunday (and not Monday). The extra – or 15th – day would allow more of the world’s top players to consider playing the team event.[ad#adify-300×250]
Supposing it was a 15-day event, the top singles seeds would be scheduled in approximately the following manner: Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, Labor Day Monday, Wednesday or Thursday, Super Saturday, and Final Sunday. The increased off days might entice at least some of the top players to participate in doubles. Thank heavens for the Bryan brothers, because the other teams in the quarterfinals at this year’s US Open are virtually unrecognizable among even hard core tennis aficionados. The prize money for doubles is already stratospheric at the Open- greater than at any other event in the world. It would be better for the sport if the world’s truly best players were competing.
Furthermore, the first Sunday (day and evening) session(s) would showcase some of the world’s most famous players, and allow our sport to reach a weekend audience on the best day for televised sports. Wimbledon’s stubborn refusal to play on the middle Sunday is laughably archaic. This would be yet another opportunity for the US Open to lead the way forward.
If Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic or Andy Roddick or Roger Federer were assured of extra days of rest between singles matches, it is conceivable that they would opt to enter doubles, as they do occasionally during ATP Tour events. Andy Murray did this year. John McEnroe famously used his doubles efforts as, essentially, practice for his singles matches. Roger Federer has attributed his rediscovered comfort in attacking the net to his having won Olympic gold in doubles.
Obviously, an additional Sunday session(s) would mean increased revenues for the USTA. More importantly, it would assure that the US Open becomes a three-weekend, two-week event-and thus increased exposure for our sport. The success of the pre-tournament Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day underscores how effective this plan could be. There is no doubt that the US Open management team would create a bonanza of an experience. Fingers crossed.
By the way, the grounds at the USTA/Billie Jean King National Tennis Center have never looked better. I have heard the word “magic” to describe how the nation’s largest public tennis facility shines during the tournament. It is a wonderful place to be – even when not watching matches – for anyone who enjoys tennis, sports, people-watching, eating, going on dates or family outings, or simply getting some sun. Well done.
The crowds at the US Open are demanding, but they are also more sophisticated about tennis than virtually anywhere else. At the All England Club, punters are respectfully church-like quiet, even on the field courts for preliminary round mixed doubles matches. At the Open, people are boisterous, opinionated and talkative. When a match reaches a crucial juncture, a surprising hush come across the massive stadium, and this heightens the drama. At Roland Garros, the French are known to whistle and jeer even their own players. On changeovers, they frequently engage in the wave (hard to imagine, but the wave makes Paris feel like being in Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium in the early 1980’s!). At the US Open, people are busy watching themselves on the big screens during changeovers and, like weekenders in the Hamptons, apparently happy to be there. It remains the greatest place in the world to watch tennis.
What is the Federer Effect? Players have gotten betterer. Igor Andreev was another example. If Roger Federer wants to regain his place atop the rankings, he needs to get faster, stronger, and even more versatile. He raised the bar for everybody, now he needs to keep up with the same pace of improvement. He also needs someone to remind him that he is Roger Federer. Paul Annacone did this so successfully with Pete Sampras near the twilight of Sampras’ career. When you are an all-time great champion, it is fair to have a certain swagger.
Lastly, by writing this paragraph I am hoping to reverse-jinx it so that it does not occur… My biggest concern is that one of the finalists will not be fit to finish the Championship match due to an injury brought on by the brutal summer schedule. There. By writing about it, it cannot happen. Enjoy the high drama!
In honor of the 18 medals that were awarded to tennis players over the weekend in Beijing, I offer 18 quick- and final- thoughts on the Games that exceeded expectations.
1) Both the men’s and women’s doubles gold medal teams were comprised entirely of “singles specialists.” Go figure. There is an old argument that great doubles players or teams would handle great singles players who paired together occasionally. I am not so sure about that. Roger Federer looked mighty formidable out there. There was little that doubles specialists did to disrupt him, and his skill level was obviously superior.
2) If Fernando Gonzalez sincerely did not hear or feel James Blake’s passing shot click off his racquet during their tense third set, then… we should all give him a break. If he has lied about this, then I wish on him six months of severe insomnia where he can grapple with his guilt.
3) Elena Dementieva is the best mover in women’s tennis. Her gold medal in women’s singles confirms her position as the best player to have yet won a major title.
4) The Russian women earned the gold, silver, and bronze medals in singles. There are eight teams that compete in the Fed Cup’s world group each year, and- if they were allowed- Russia has a deep enough talent pool for four completely different teams in this event. Remarkable.
5) Roger Federer’s delight at having won the doubles gold medal was wonderful to behold. He demonstrated more energy and positive emotion during his last three Olympic doubles matches than he has all season in singles.
6) Was the tennis stadium really filled to capacity at 3:30 AM on Friday while the Chinese pair of Yan and Zheng eked out a win over Russian team of Kuznetsova and Safina? If so, this is beyond incredible.
7) Dinara Safina looks like she could become #1 in the world, especially given the uncertainty of the position atop the women’s rankings. Her brother Marat Safin spent nine weeks at #1 on the ATP Tour. If she makes a big run in Flushing Meadows, then she could actually break this Safin family record.
8 ) While the humidity was reportedly thick in Beijing, the air quality and smog became a big non-story for tennis players. Thank goodness.
9) Can you imagine Rafael Nadal living in the Olympic Village? By all accounts, he has had a blast. I have visions of him waking up at dawn to take on all comers in table tennis, grabbing an enormous breakfast, going on a warm-up run with the Spanish track team, racing over to take part in the basketball shoot-around with Pau Gasol, challenging a few wrestlers to a bench pressing contest, trying his luck in archery, followed by an enormous lunch, some beach volleyball practice, a quick tennis match, some ice/treatment/media, an enormous dinner, a quick trip to the Ice Cube for an Individual Medley race against all member of the Spanish contingent, and then eight hours of video games against… all-comers.[ad#adify-300×250]
10) The despair and sadness etched on Novak Djokovic’s face after losing the semi-final combined with his elation after winning the bronze medal match over Blake were proof positive of how he deeply these players cared about the Olympics.
11) I got a big kick out of the fact that all the players were forced to cover the logos on their racquet and gear bags. If I were representing HEAD, Wilson, Babolat, Prince, Dunlop, then this would have infuriated me. The IOC definitely has a sense of humor!
12) The Williams Sisters will defend their gold medal at the London Games of 2012. They employ tactics – or non-tactics- that distinguish them among the best teams of all-time: See the ball, hit the ball really hard, giggle afterwards.
13) It says here that Mama Lindsay Davenport will compete in the 2012 London Olympics (in doubles).
14) Jimmy Arias did a magnificent job broadcasting the Olympic matches from NYC’s Rockefeller Center building. He is insightful, funny, acutely aware of tactical nuances, and measures his words prudently. Those characteristics differentiate him from the vast majority of announcers. As he has reached the top of the class, he ought to get a chance to work more of the bigger events.
15) I would expect that there were some Olympic medalists (or at least coaches) who were relieved that Juan Martin del Potro was not in Beijing. He is playing like a beast this summer.
16) Chris “Mad Dog” Russo abruptly resigned his post- after 19 years- on the popular “Mike and the Mad Dog” sports talk radio show on WFAN. The Dog was a big tennis fan, an avid player, and he relished discussing big matches on the program that was typically devoted to baseball, football, and basketball. It was always amusing to hear Russo try to pronounce words like “Djokovic” or “Wimbledon” or “statistics.” He will inevitably be back soon, and our sport will be the better for that.
17) I heard Michael Phelps’ being referred to as “the Rafael Nadal of swimming” and it made me laugh. Things change quickly at the top-level of sport.
18) The US Open qualifying event begins Tuesday. The year’s final major will be interesting, as players battle fatigue from a brutal schedule, jet-lag for those returning from Beijing, a wide-open women’s event, and- apparently- the passing of the torch at the top of the men’s game.
The Olympics event has gotten increasingly compelling.
The Russian women have their 3rd, 4th, and 6th ranked players in the semi-final round (Safina, Dementieva, and Zvonareva respectively). This is unprecedented since the Olympics were reinstated in 1988.
In a nod to the International Tennis Federation (ITF), who did the seeding for the doubles, it seems as though some of the best “singles” players in the world are poised to be decorated in doubles gold. This is in stark contrast to Rennae Stubbs’ comments. The affable Aussie offered a self-serving criticism of the seeding policy (before losing to doubles “specialists” from Spain), suggesting that it is incorrect to factor in singles rankings when seeding for the doubles event.
Roger Federer has continued his quest for gold… but in the doubles. With partner Stan Wawrinka, also ranked top 10 in the world in singles, redemption should come at the hands of surprise Swedes Tommy Johansson and Simon Aspelin during the gold medal round. I will continue to presume that if Roger Federer actually played doubles frequently (and the same can be said for the Williams sisters in women’s tennis) that he would be atop the world ranking. This is reminiscent of Barcelona, when two great singles players (Boris Becker and Michael Stich) ran the tables to take the gold.
The top-seeded Bryan brothers take on Michael Llodra and Arnie Clement for the bronze. The French team beat the Bryans in Davis Cup earlier this year and in the 2007 Wimbledon final.
James Blake lost a heartbreaker to Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the semi-final. The match was marred by an incredulous moment. The first point of the 19th game in the third set was decided when Blake rifled a passing shot point-blank that evidently clicked off Gonzalez’ racquet before sailing long. Replays confirmed this. Unfortunately, the umpire did not see or hear this. In an act of dubious sportsmanship, the Chilean offered nothing. Commentator Jimmy Arias, who might well be the best in the business, called it exactly what it was: Cheating.
This has been gum-chewing time for US coaches Rodney Harmon and Jay Berger. Like tennis coaches are wont to do, Harmon and Berger have looked presciently calm on the sidelines, but their stomachs surely have been churning.
In the second men’s semi, the relentless Rafael Nadal managed to overcome Novak Djokovic. Theirs is fast becoming the best rivalry in tennis, as Djokovic has the movement and groundstroke artillery to compete favorably against Nadal. The final point of the match came when Rafa chased down some bombs and lofted a short lob that was sure to be smashed away. Unfortunately nerves came into play or Djokovic simply took his eyes off the ball, but he missed the simple overhead smash. His tearful reaction while walking off the court confirmed just how meaningful this Olympic opportunity was for him.
I have been among the naysayers about Olympic tennis, but could not have been proved more wrong. The painful, inconsolable reactions from losing players, and the sheer tension at the end of close matches, have told a clear story. The players love this event, and are desperate for success. Citius, Altius, Fortius indeed!
I suppose that I owe a apology to over a billion Chinese people. Although, to paraphrase Arthur Ashe, I suspect that they would not care too much. Way back when, I predicted that the majority of top-ten players, both men and women, would avoid the Beijing Olympics like the plague. I was wrong.
It was hard for me to envision players flying from America to smoggy, humid Beijing and then back just before the US Open Tennis Championships. These are professional players who (as Jim Courier once put it) eat what they kill. There is no prize money at the Olympics and the US Open offers the most prize money.
In tennis, players grow up dreaming about competing in the majors and a lucky few harbor realistic thoughts of winning them. Tennis at the Olympics always feels like an aberration. It is has made the US Open Series this summer fairly impotent, and I fear that results in my beloved US Open will be particularly screwy due to burn-out and jet-lag. Time will tell.
Meanwhile in Beijing, however, the Americans appear poised for a substantial medal haul. Serena and Venus Williams are in opposite halves and an all-Williams singles final is feeling preordained. James Blake has drawn the increasingly vulnerable Roger Federer in the quarterfinal. If ever the American is to come through against the all-time great Swiss, this could be the time. Bob and Mike Bryan have their eyes firmly set on taking home the gold, as an Olympic title is, literally, the only prize missing from their twin-sized bachelor pads. Lastly, the L & L team of 1996 gold medalist Davenport and current No. 1 ranked doubles player Huber are also strong threats to medal. The tennis event has been pleasantly compelling thus far.
If you support tennis in the United States, then I urge you to visit your local newsstands and purchase the July 14-21 double issue of Sports Illustrated. First of all, it celebrates “the Greatest Match Ever” with an action shot of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer doing battle. This will be a collector’s item for years to come.
Tennis has not gotten its due in recent years from SI. The most important sports magazine in the US has not had a tennis player on the magazine cover in over five years
(Serena Williams was the last, from way back in May 2003). What is the corporate reason for this slight? Apparently, the Sports Illustrated “tennis issues” have traditionally been among the worst-selling.
So… tennis supporters please heed the call. Go to your newsstands and purchase one (or many) of this great issue and send a clear message to advertisers and the mainstream media. For a review of ALL the times that tennis players have graced the cover of SI, visit http://subs.timeinc.net/SI/coverstore/CoverMain.jhtml?category=Cover&subcategory=tennis.
By the way, nothing should please the U.S. Tennis Association more than seeing this SI issue. Tennis has enjoyed a growth period over the past half-decade that puts golf (to name just one traditional sport) to shame. The USTA mission is to promote and develop the growth of tennis, and this cover exposure on Sports Illustrated is an invaluable marketing bonus.
Speaking of magazine covers, the August issue of Playboy magazine hits newsstands on Friday, July 18th. America’s Ashley Harkleroad, the No. 72 ranked player on the WTA Tour, is this month’s cover girl. This is a brave – and lucrative – move for the 23-year-old. She joins a list of other athletes to pose for Playboy, which includes Amanda Beard, Katarina Witt, and Gabrielle Reece.
Harkleroad will surely enjoy additional attention, and some extreme media scrutiny, throughout the summer on the “greatest road trip in sports.” The US Open Series got underway this week. Visit http://www.usopenseries.com/home/default.sps for daily updates and various previews and features.
On a feel-good note, if you are anywhere near a World Team Tennis franchise, take a carload of kids to these matches. The unique format (men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles played in shorter sets and with no-ad scoring) creates an entertaining night out. It also includes some of the greatest names in our sport, including past champions, current stars, and future prospects. A small sampling of these players includes John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport, Bob and Mike Bryan, Serena and Venus Williams, and- of course- Anna Kournikova. For a full list, as well as the schedule and standings, visit www.wtt.com. Thankfully, the Tennis Channel is covering many of the matches. Enjoy!
Lastly, a few weeks ago our sport lost a dear friend. Thomas Pura, of Bedford Hills, NY and Los Angeles, passed away suddenly. Pura produced the documentary “50,000 Balls” about top-level 12 & under tennis. His precocious son, TJ, is one of America’s top young prospects. Tom was always a smiling, positive presence in the junior tennis community, and his love and support of our sport was obvious. The Pura family requests that in lieu of flowers any donation in Tom’s name should be made to Partnership for After School Education (PASE), 120 Broadway, 2nd Fl., New York, NY 10271 or Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, 130 West 143rd Street, New York, NY 10037. Rest in peace, Tom. You will be sorely missed.
Some final thoughts from Newport, Rhode Island and the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships… It was a treat to see “The Magician”, Fabrice Santoro, defend a title for the first time in his long career. The Frenchman did not lose a set all week at the Hall of Fame Championships. He served well, moved exceptionally well, and treated fans to his usual assortment of quirky, disguised shots.
The grass courts at the Newport Casino played like grass courts from yesteryear. In fact, they played like the courts at the All England Club prior to 2002. After years of complaints that Pete Sampras was boring and the big-serving efforts of Goran Ivanisevic during his improbable run to the title in 2001, the AEC committee changed the texture of the grass (by importing four tons of quicksand) to make sure that longer rallies were more likely. Be careful what you wish for… most matches at Wimbledon 2008 looked like they were being played on medium-paced hard courts. Newly-inducted Hall of Famer Michael Chang spoke of the obvious changes in playability of the Wimby grass. Had the courts been as slow during Chang’s prime as they are these days, then he would have surely contended for a title at the Big W.
If there were more old-style grass courts or lightning-fast indoor courts on the ATP Tour, then Prakash Amritraj would be ranked higher than No. 204 in the world. He volleys decisively and moves aggressively in the forecourt, and these skills are becoming increasingly rare in professional tennis. Vijay Amritraj was a beacon of fair play and sportsmanship throughout his playing career. It was a little surprising to observe his constant and blatant (illegal) coaching during his son Prakash’s semifinal and final round matches.
John Isner took his first ATP Tour doubles title with Mardy Fish. It was great to see these American players working so hard on their fitness on the practice courts after they both lost their first matches in singles. It will be another grinding hard court season this summer, and that fitness work will pay dividends.
Monica Seles ought to be inducted into the Hall of Fame next July. She should surely be joined by her former coach, Nick Bollettieri. The ageless Bollettieri was in Newport last weekend supporting the sport, and has been the most successful coach in the Open era. Michael Stich should also receive serious consideration for the roll of honor.
Lastly, for the thousands of tennis enthusiasts who are eager to feel what it is like to play on natural grass, visit http://www.tennisfame.com/ithof.aspx?pgID=895.
Photos by Catherine O’Neal
Vince Spadea “ain’t afraid a-ya” and the magical Fabrice Santoro have reached the other semifinal. When these thirty-somethings square off, it will be a nice contrast to the first semifinal that I wrote about in the previous column.
Santoro, referred to as The Magician for his inventive ways of returning balls, is the defending champion. At the age of 35, he has been battlin g on the ATP Tour for nearly two decades. Remember that he was once a precocious teenager, and he played in his first Roland Garros main draw at the age of 16 in 1989. Santoro is the defending champion, having beaten fellow Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the 2007 final. He is certainly a crowd favorite in Newport.
A few weeks ago, Santoro achieved a unique career milestone when he lost to Andy Murray at Wimbledon. He had played on the main stadium courts at all of the majors except for the Big W. While he lost in three entertaining sets, it was nice to see another of the two-hander’s dreams fulfilled.
Vince Spadea, soon-to-be 34 years old, reached the Newport finals in 2005, losing a heartbreaker to Greg Rusedski after leading 5-3 in the 3rd set. This loss would have haunted him, because Spadea has taken but one ATP Tour title in his 16 year career. Considering that Spadea has played 344 tourneys as a professional, the fact that he has only garnered one title is a remarkable statistic. His lifetime professional record stands at 304 wins against 343 losses.
The grass courts are playing plenty soft and the bounces are low and erratic. It is like old-time grass court tennis. I had the privilege of playing on these courts yesterday, as anybody can. These are the only public grass courts in America, and one more reason that all tennis players and fans should pilgrimage to Newport at least once each summer.
I played against former University of Georgia Bulldog and current publishing magnate Randy Walker. Thankfully, the book orders for his recently published The Bud Collins History of Tennis, are coming in more consistently than any of Walker’s service returns.
Saturday’s induction ceremony is shaping up to be another wonderful day for our sport. There will be six speeches, including from John McEnroe and Monica Seles, and the usual flawless Newport summer weather. Missing, however, will be Hall of Famer and MC extraordinaire Arthur “Bud” Collins. The ageless Collins has been a fixture at every summer tennis event in Newport, Rhode Island since 1881, including the first US National Championships which were played at the Casino.
The colorful Collins is nursing a leg injury sustained in Paris (where was Billy Norris when he needed him the most!?!). While the injury will keep Collins from playing barefoot on the grass courts this summer, a full recovery is expected. Collins is the greatest player- or hacker- in the history of Lima, Ohio and his humor and grace will be missed at this year’s ceremony. Get well soon, Bud. Our sport needs you.
Frank Dancevic is set to square off against Prakash Amritraj in the semifinals of the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships on the grass courts of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in America’s Resort City. It is always exciting to see young players (aged 23 and 24, respectively) compete for high stakes as they look to establish top-class credibility.
A win for the top-ranking Canadian Dancevic would represent his second visit to an ATP Tour final. He would become the first Canadian to play for a title in Newport since Greg Rusedski in 1993, who won three times. Recall that Rusedski’s first title was for the Maple Leaf flag, about a year before he began wearing Union Jack headbands.
The Californian-bred Amritraj represents India in international competition, and should he take the title, then he and his father will be celebrated as the first father-and-son combination to have won the same ATP event. Like Rusedski, Prakash’s father Vijay Amritraj also won three times in Newport. The smiling former champion, and actor from the James Bond flick Octopussy, is in Newport this week cheering for his boy.
Prakash’s uncles, Anand and Ashok, also played in Newport, so suffice to say that the Amritraj family is pretty comfortable in this town- and certainly on the grass. Anand Amritraj defeated 18-year-old John McEnroe in the 1977 event, while McEnroe was days removed from his improbable run to the Wimbledon semifinal as a qualifier in his debut at SW19.
Speaking of John McEnroe, he is back in Newport this weekend, poised to present Gene Scott with his posthumous induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Gambling is strictly prohibited at the Newport Casino, and taboo in the world of tennis, but there are- apparently- some punters who have established an over/under of 25 minutes for McEnroe’s introduction. I would gladly take the over.
The greatest doubles team in the world was often- and famously- considered to be John McEnroe and Anybody. However, this was not always the case, and former US Davis Cupper Gene Scott was proof. In 1977, McEnroe and Scott entered the qualifying for the Wimbledon gentlemen’s doubles, but never made it out of Roehampton. McEnroe’s subsequent success (78 career doubles titles) made the story amusing, and became a source of needling between the two New Yorkers.
Gene Scott was for many years the conscious of tennis, and he used his pulpit as Founder and Publisher of Tennis Week magazine to assure that justice was always called for. McEnroe has used his pulpit as an exceptional television commentator, as well as his compulsive need for the public stage, to carry on in the Scott tradition. I hope that he speaks for as long as he pleases (and pity the soul who tries telling him to stop!).
Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim previewed the Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer Wimbledon final by suggesting that it was the most anticipated championship final in the history of our sport. High praise indeed, but when does the competition outdistance the hype in this day and age? Practically never is when.
Sunday’s match was simply astonishing. Two absolute giants of our great game did battle for nearly five hours on the world’s most important court. As John McEnroe of NBC Sports likened it to his 1980 final against Bjorn Borg, he acknowledged that there were, truly, no losers in this match. No less an authority than Bud Collins called it the “best Wimbledon final ever.”
When McEnroe interviewed Roger Federer as he walked off the court, it was incredibly poignant. They now share a bond, as both lost epic “Greatest Match of All Time” encounters on Wimbledon’s centre court. Federer started to lose his composure and McEnroe offered a hug. It would have been appropriate for Mac to have consoled Federer by telling him that more people have patted him on the back for his efforts in losing the 1980 final then for his three wins at the Big W.
A few weeks ago, Bill Simmons, a writer for ESPN Magazine, took some snarky shots at the sport of tennis. In fact, his article- which was, by the way, abruptly removed from ESPN.com- was based on the premise that if he was offered the promise of the greatest match ever in the Wimbledon final, then he would still not choose to watch it. I admire Simmons, and as a die-hard Boston sports fan, I always appreciate his (warped) perspective. After reading his article, I actually felt defensive for a little while. I thought: What the hell is he talking about!?!? Thankfully, I am confident that if Simmons tuned into “Breakfast at Wimbledon” for Rafa and Roger, then his perspective would be considerably different.
Simmons offered some idiotic “solutions” to what ails our sport. I presume that these were written in jest, because they were pretty lazy ideas. In giving “The Sports Guy” more benefit of doubt, he has purposely written reverse jinx pieces before (such as, the Celtics cannot win this year) that have proved to be good luck for his hometown teams. Maybe that was his true intention. If so, then we all owe him a big Thank You.
Venus Williams did not lose a set in singles or doubles during the 2008 Championships.
Serena did not look happy (big surprise!) after losing in the final. Expect her to dominate at Flushing Meadows in a few weeks.
Congratulations to Canada’s Daniel Nestor for re-gaining the world’s #1 ranking in doubles and completing the career grand slam in doubles. Not bad for a 35 year old!
Farewell to Jonas Bjorkman. Saturday marked his final Wimbledon appearance in The Championships. Of course, guys are already “queuing up” to play in the senior invitational doubles with him next year.
The Bryan Brothers faced off against one another in the mixed doubles final. Reportedly, they evenly split all of their prize money and endorsements. I am guessing that would have been a pretty relaxed final round encounter. Bob and Sammy Stosur straight-setted Mike and Katarina Srebotnik over on Court One while Federer and Nadal were playing their fifth set on Centre Court.
A few final thoughts on The Championships…
Thank heavens that there will be a retractable roof on the Centre Court beginning next year. The delayed start to the gentlemen’s singles final, and the two subsequent rain delays, would have been avoidable. This adversely affects several million world-wide fans. In the end, the sport loses when viewers tune out. I wish that Wimbledon had made- and then acted on- this decision thirty years ago, but it is a sign of progress.
One example of where there has been NO PROGRESS is the middle Sunday of The Championships, the tournament’s traditional “day of rest.” Like millions of tennis fanatics all over the world, an ideal Sunday for me is a good breakfast, hit some balls and maybe even play a few sets, and then watch tennis for the rest of the day. The AELTC sacrifices tens of millions of pounds (double that figure in US dollars!) in sponsorship revenue and international TV licensing fees by refusing play on that prime weekend slot. By 2008 standards, it is outrageous, arrogant, and archaic. It is also hypocritical, because the men’s final has been played on a Sunday for a quarter century. They were lucky that the weather was uncharacteristically pleasant during the first week of the tournament. Relying on luck each year is foolish though.
The Russian women made another huge splash, with 6 of the final 16 players hailing from Russia. There were 17 Russian ladies in main draw of the singles. That is impressive. It is not unprecedented, however, and- in fact- pales in comparison to some years where the Americans reigned supreme. In 1984, 64(!!!!) of the 128 singles players were American men. The Yanks had the champion, the runner-up, two semi-finalists, four quarterfinalists, and 11 who reached the round of 16. As American Frank Sinatra used to sing… it was a very good year.
Does everybody still think that Roger Federer will annihilate Pete Sampras’ all-time records? It says here that he might get to 14 majors, but this is not a mortal lock. The sport has changed before his very eyes. He will need some luck (a Nadal injury, or a Novak Djokovic disappearance in the autumn) to finish as the year-end #1. The expectation that this would be Federer’s fifth straight year at the top is fading, and he would still be one year shy of what Pete Sampras accomplished.
In Pete Sampras’ new book A Champion’s Mind, he lists (in no particular order) himself, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, and Ivan Lendl as the top-five players of the Open era. After his Wimbledon victory, I would place Rafael Nadal among John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and (probably) Mats Wilander in the next tier (with apologies to Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John Newcombe, Gustavo Kuerten, and Jim Courier).
Speaking of Pistol Pete, it took him a little while to “solve” grass court tennis. In fact, a surprising number (17) of different players registered wins over the once-and-still GOAT. Our Editor in Chief, Manfred Wenas, has a little swag for the first reader to submit the complete list of players that owned a piece of Sampras’ scalp on grass.
World Team Tennis began its 33rd professional season in the US over the weekend. Go to www.wtt.com for information about players, upcoming matches, standings, etc. It is a great opportunity to watch past, present, and future Wimbledon champions. It is also the only competition in tennis that prioritizes doubles and team-play over singles.
Venus and Serena Williams are shattering the myth that good doubles teams would beat great singles players who pair up together. They won their 7th major doubles title together, and it would be safe to assume that they do not practice the nuances of doubles too frequently.
At the beginning of Rafael Nadal’s ascent up the rankings, I asked Wayne Bryan (whose sons Bob and Mike were ranked #1 in the world at the time) who would win a match between his boys and Federer-Nadal. He hedged his bets, but thought that his boys would pull through. He did suggest, however, that if Federer were to play with Lleyton Hewitt, who had more doubles success at that stage, then he thinks the result would be reversed. So, I will pose these questions to our readers, who would win the follow mythical doubles matches?
1) Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer vs. Bob and Mike Bryan
2) Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi vs. Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde
3) Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg vs. Ken Flach and Robert Seguso
4) John McEnroe and Peter Fleming vs. John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl (yes, you read that correctly)
5) Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors vs. Bob Lutz and Stan Smith
Tennis Week in Newport is always one of my favorite times of the year. This year’s class of inductees is highlighted by Michael Chang, and supported by contributors Mark McCormack and Eugene Scott. Visit www.TennisFame.com for a wealth of information about these new- and, in fact, all- hall of famers.
When Gene Scott died suddenly in 2006, it was an awful loss for our sport. It also, naturally, affected hundreds (more like thousands, actually) of people personally. I had developed a great fondness for Gene Scott and treasured the time I got to spend with him. I believed that- for some unknown reason- he had taken a liking to me, and wished to help me along in my career. During the outpouring of grief, his dear friends at Tennis Week created a Web site (www.EugeneLScott.com) where people were urged to offer their tributes to the great man. Reading some of these tributes, a few years after his passing, left me feeling as sad as the day he died. Back then I wrote:
Gene Scott was like the North Star. Speaking with him or reading his column… he’d always bring you to your senses. Nobody else had his vantage point, and he knew it. That never kept him from sharing though, and his generosity was unparalleled. His departure has already left a terrible void. Goddamn that he is gone. Lucky that he touched so many while he was around.
I wish that Gene Scott had been enshrined into the International Tennis Hall of Fame a decade ago. His induction speech would have been brilliant. Hall of Famer John McEnroe will offer his testimonial and introduce Gene’s wife, Polly, who will accept on his behalf this weekend.
Who else should be inducted into the Hall of Fame? I offer a dozen candidates who I believe ought to be bronzed:
1) Donald Dell.
2) Monica Seles.
3) Andre Agassi.
4) Gustavo Kuerten.
5) Jennifer Capriati.
6) Martina Hingis.
7) Nick Bollettieri.
8) Dennis Van Der Meer.
9) Michael Stich.
10) Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
11) Justine Henin.
12) Todd Woodbridge & Mark Woodforde.
Of course I will be in America’s Resort City (Newport, Rhode Island) this week to watch the best little tournament in the world and then enjoying the induction ceremony of the latest inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. If you are a fan of this great sport, you MUST make a pilgrimage to Newport.
While at the Newport Casino, I will spend a lot of time rehashing points and moments and drama from the “greatest tennis match ever played” with old and new tennis friends. Congratulations Rafa! Congratulations Roger!
Note by the Editor-in-Chief: The little swag for the first reader to submit the complete list of players that owned a piece of Sampras’ scalp on grass only goes for those who use the comment system down below on TennisGrandstand.com. Other submissions will not count.
Some random thoughts from a fascinating Roland Garros and the first look forward to the grass…
Roger Federer’s performance in the Roland Garros final against Rafael Nadal was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s fight against Larry Holmes. A mismatch from the start, Ali pulled out his tricks but had no answers for the younger, stronger Holmes, and was battered mercilessly. Like Sunday’s final, this was simply a bad match-up, and- to use the age-old explanation- styles make fights. Nadal moves better, defends better, and can control points off the ground (on clay, anyway) better than Federer. Like seeing The Greatest get punched around the ring, it was still surprising to witness Federer looking so vulnerable.
Rafael Nadal did not hit a single ace in the semis or final. He hit only seven aces during the entire two weeks. This serving approach will change on the grass. He will need some free points at crucial moments.
Darren Cahill brought up an interesting point on ESPN about Nadal’s Wimbledon preparation. Instead of rushing across the channel to play the Artois Championships, he should rest for a few days and skip the Queens Club event. Recall that he was spent by the end of Wimbledon last summer, although admittedly he was forced to play five (rain-delayed) matches in the last seven days of The Championships. Had Nadal been fresher, then he would have likely taken the fifth set of last year’s final.
Of course the cynic can offer about one million reasons why Nadal will compete at Queens Club again this year. It is hard to pass up that kind of appearance fee loot no matter how wealthy he has become. To paraphrase Bob Dylan (from “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry”), don’t say I never warned you if Nadal loses early this week.
It was great to see Bjorn Borg attending matches during the final weekend of Roland Garros. In an interesting on-court interview with his great rival John McEnroe, Borg agreed to play with Mighty Mac in the over-45 doubles next year.
Borg also told McEnroe that this was the first time he had returned to Roland Garros since winning the event in 1981 (beating Ivan Lendl in a five-set final). Evidently Borg forgot that he did television work for NBC Sports in 1983 (interviewing Yannick Noah and Mats Wilandner after their final) and presented the Coupe De Mosquetaires on-court to Gustavo Kuerten in 1997. Guga famously bowed to the great Borg, as though the Swede was royalty. Let’s just presume that Borg’s passing shots were better than his memory!
Ai Sugiyama is preparing to break the all-time record at the All England Club by competing in her 56th consecutive major tournament. She currently shares this record with Wayne Ferreira, who played 56 straight from 1991 to 2004. This is a remarkable strength of will and consistency.
In the For What It’s Worth category… After last year’s epic Wimbledon final, Roger Federer did an interview with a standout former player. Afterwards, this player, off-camera, of course, told his colleague that the Swiss would never win another Wimbledon title. He saw cracks in the armor last summer.
Fingers are crossed that Slazenger has produced livelier balls for this year’s grass court season. It has been disappointing to see men’s professional grass court tennis look like… hard court tennis. If that’s what people really want to see, then the grass should be paved for a more “fair” hard court surface. I would prefer that it retain the traditional allure for attacking players and reward players for net-rushing tactics.
In 1984, there were 64 American men in the singles main draw of Wimbledon. That will never be matched again. I do, however, expect to see several Yanks doing some damage at SW19.
Serena Williams would have been really annoyed with her result at Roland Garros. She will keep the Venus Rosewater Dish in the Williams family’s possession this year.
Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas and Peruvian Luis Horna completed a storybook run to the French men’s doubles title. In the quarterfinals they took out former champions and the top-ranked team in the world, Bob and Mike Bryan. This match received a lot of attention because afterwards the Bryans refused to shake hands with Cuevas, as they were offended by his show of exuberance in the third set tiebreak. As the South American pair raced to a 5-1 lead, Cuevas leaped the net to switch sides- instead of walking around the net post. While it might have been a bit much, hopping the net certainly appeared to be an act of spontaneity on Cuevas’ part. The Bryans have perfected the leaping chest bump, so their reaction seemed a bit harsh.
To offer some context, the Bryan brothers have saved men’s professional doubles. Without them, it might not even exist these days. They carry the weight and responsibility of, literally, preserving this form of the professional sport. Furthermore, they have each distinguished themselves as fierce competitors and gentlemen throughout their storied career. They get it. Therefore, the Bryans deserve some slack. I’ll bet that they wish they had not reacted so strongly during the heat of the moment. I’ll also bet that they are hoping for a rematch against Cuevas and Horna at the Big W.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have much to gain these next months, and Federer much to defend. Pete Sampras finished as the world’s top-ranked player for a remarkable six straight years (1993-98), and Federer’s assault on that record is looking bleaker. Roger will need a “turn back the clock” effort for the remainder of 2008 to avoid relegation to No. 3 in the year-end rankings.
Less than half of the world’s top-ten players will compete in the Beijing Olympics. Keep reading the agate type in your sports sections for listings of injuries, because most of the top players will find them before hopping on a plane for Asia in August. This is as sure as the sun rising in the East.
I always write about making a pilgrimage to beautiful Newport, RI for the Hall of Fame Championships each July. For any fan living or traveling in Europe, please visit Eastbourne. This is a charming coastal town in the south of England, and a wonderful warm-up tournament for The Championships. The honor roll of former champions stands as a “who’s-who” list of Hall of Famers. The grass courts are typically as good as any in the world, and the players love the relaxed environment. In fact, the accessibility to the players is virtually unprecedented in this day and age.