Confessions of a Tennis Junkie

The Peter Nez category


By Peter Nez

I woke up eager for the start of Wimbledon, brewed my coffee, brushed my teeth, washed up and turned on the tube… WHAT?!?! Federer is down two sets to Love in his first round?? My phone was blowing up with beeps, and chimes, like a cacophony of Mockingbirds wailing in unison, messages blared, signaling a deafening call, a hollow haunting spell, doomsday has arrived – the tennis universe has collapsed.

Alejandro Falla, who had a winless record against the Maestro, losing badly in the warm-up to Wimbledon in Germany just a couple of weeks prior 6-1, 6-2 against Roger, had flipped the London skies over, stormed Big Ben, mowed the lawns with a trailblaze blitz of high octane ground strokes, beginning the firework display a tad too early. We were on the brink of the biggest upset in the history of tennis, even bigger than Soderling’s win over Nadal at the 2009 Roland Garros. At 4-4 in the third set, serving at 0-40 it looked to be in the forecast that the clouds of change were rolling in. Then it happened… Federer replaced the stone in his chest with the heart of a champion and took out the big paper shredder and everyone ran to their publisher telling them to cancel the dramatic headlines proclaiming ‘Federer has Fallan Down!”

The interstellar game of Falla came back down to earth and Federer was able to lift his wobbly game back up, something we expected to see at the French, but the problem was that Soderling stayed in orbit. This is what it takes to beat the greatest of all time – a day of all days, where the tennis gods inject your game with super fuel accuracy and pace, errorless, flawless, and a little luck doesn’t hurt, and actually goes a long way. For four grueling sets Falla exhibited one of those days. In a three set match there woudn’t have been enough time to come back down, but in a best of five gravity is always beckoning.

I was watching the Larry King show last night and his guest was Mick Jagger, who was promoting a much anticipated ‘Exile on Main St.’ deluxe edition with outtakes re-release and the suspender weaving King asked Jagger what the key to his longevity was, whereby producing a pondering pause from the great legend and finally Jagger responded with, “Well it takes a lot of luck. You have to be in the right place at the right time.” It seems that most people who excel in their chosen craft or profession never fail to overlook this crucial element. Federer certainly recognizes its significance. In Roger’s press conference following the match he spoke about how “unlucky” he was to lose matches this year that he felt, as did much of the tennis world, he “should have won.” Not taking away from his opponent’s skill and deserved victory, but merely acknowledging the importance of the intangible, something you can’t find on stat sheets, data analysis docs, and match up breakdowns.

“I definitely got very lucky out there today,” Federer said after the match. Maybe his luck has finally turned and he can return to the form we saw at the beginning of the year? Who knows? In a men’s game where the depth of talent is fathomless, he may need more luck than ever before.


By Peter Nez

Sitting with some friends at a coastal tavern, throwing back some vodka cranberries (just barely a splash) made by a bartending staff that was made to pour the perfect liquid delight for squeezing every last drop of tension out of the five senses, the discussion turned over to a forgotten champion, a forgotten giant amongst women: Maria Sharapova. “You know what I love about her?” said my cohort, in a solemn tone, “the way she walks. She has one of the most regal walks out of any of the women on tour. She walks like she isn’t fazed by anything, like she owns the world.”

I always liked Maria, Masha as I like to call her. She possesses the perfect mixture of charm, fight, tenacity, elegance, and charisma out of any of the WTA contenders, and has a mental agility that can be on par with the likes of Nadal, outlasting her opponents with sheer will, and brushing off squandered opportunities without the slightest hint of hesitation. Rarely do you see Sharapova hang her head in resignation or “walk” to the chair on a changeover after she had just been broken with the plod of the dismayed. She has an uncanny elevation of spirit and marked maturity for someone only twenty three years of living. And yes, most of that living has taken place in the world of money, contracts, planes, cars, fame, and hoopla galore, and yet there is a residue of innocence in all she engages in; a quiet gratitude that resides in all her activities and interviews that are a testament to her character which is as rich as they come. Yes, she is beautiful, and yes, she has all the makings of a diva snob, but there is something more to her than that, something brimming under the surface.

After winning her first major in 2004 at Wimbledon, at the tender age of 17, beating the likes of Serena, there were little doubts as to where the Siberian Siren was headed. But being active during the reign of the Williams sisters, who are touted as two of the best players of all time, and plagued by injuries, especially in the last two years, which seemed to come and go ever so often sidelining her on many occasions, missing slams, the doubts began to build and build. In 2008, Sharapova started off the year desecrating the competition at the first slam of the year, the Australian Open, slaughtering tennis sovereigns Lindsey Davenport and Justine Henin along the way, showing the world once again that the Russian dawn was upon us once more. The blistering forehands, the baseline fury, and the romping serve were in full fledged doomsday mode. She was back. She was confident. She had the world in her palm. Unlike other Russian starlets, and most other Tennis babes, Sharapova wanted to be known as a champion, and transcended the label of diva beauty queen with ephemeral results, matching her passionate looks with passionate competitiveness, working harder and harder at improving her game and her ranking. After the AUS Open in 2008, nothing looked to be a huge obstacle in attaining her rights amongst the greatest. Then it happened. A brutal injury to her serving shoulder sent her to the disabled list for almost a year and a half, squelching all the momentum she had built and provoking her to change her game entirely, more specifically her serve – that same serve that pounced opponents into submission time and time again, producing win after win, and essentially the key to her success.

After losing in the first round at the 2010 Australian Open, Sharapova became a ghost in the conversation surrounding the women’s game. She lost to Henin in the third round at the French, and many dismissed her having a chance at ever winning another slam. With the likes of Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone plastered across headlines around the globe, setting off atom bombs in the women’s game, and new faces such as Caroline Wozniacki emerging, creating major cause for concern to reigning dominators Serena Williams, and her sister Venus, Masha loomed nowhere. Let’s not forget the return of Justine Henin which I am sure caused a stamp on the ground, or at least a mild hot flash by Serena when hearing of that bit of news. But grass has replaced clay, and the shift may be the perfect transition for the statuesque Russian.

Maria entered the AEGON Championships, the first grass court event leading up to Wimbledon, as the 17th seed, and nobody gave her a big shot at winning. But grass suits the long limbed Sharapova’s game, and she reached the final, losing only to Chinese top seed Na Li. Nothing builds confidence like winning a tournament before a major, but reaching a final and losing to a worthy opponent is a close second. With all the talk and expectations falling on other women during the Wimbledon Championships, Maria may be able to squeak by if she can retain her old grit and power packed serve. I wouldn’t count her out on grass. I know she wouldn’t. And with the surprise at the French Open and the overall schizophrenia that seems to constantly hover over the women’s game, anything is possible. We may see that prowl all over the lawns of London come final Saturday. Since 2004 Sharapova has won a slam ever two years: 2004 – Wimbledon; 2006- US Open; 2008- Australian Open. 2010- Wimbledon?

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By Peter Nez

With Wimbledon only one week away, the talk has shifted from sheer dominance on the sandy surface to an all out blitz of question marks and shrugging shoulders as to who will take away lawn glory. It’s hard to refute a 76-2 record on grass for the past seven years by defending champion Roger Federer, and one would be remiss if he wasn’t, on all accounts, the decisive favorite, but circumstances are bound to change, the wind can shift, and church bells may toll, sounding off eras swaying, and epochs coming to an end, as we saw inevitably happen in France when Robin Soderling dismissed the G.O.A.T. in the quarterfinals, ending an astounding streak of 23 semis or better in a row.

Roger, who typically plays his Wimbledon warm up tournament in Halle, Germany, the Gerry Weber Open, did the same this year, only bypassing it twice in the last eight years. He had a strong week, reaching the finals, taking out some accomplished grass court players along the way, losing only to Lleyton Hewitt, a former world no. 1, and former Wimbledon champion; an accredited savant on the green stuff, in three sets on Sunday. Not a terrible start to Federer’s grass campaign, especially considering how quick the transition is from clay to grass, and the results of his arch rivals and other top players: Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Novak, all went out fairly early in their Wimbledon warm up at the Queen’s Club in London.

Entering major tournaments in good form is all about momentum, and nothing can build momentum like match play and excellent results at preceding tournaments. This couldn’t be exemplified any more than what happened this past spring where Rafael Nadal took three back to back masters titles upon entering the French Open; riding on a mountain of momentum, there was little doubt as to what the Savage Spaniard would do at Roland Garros. I don’t think there was one ‘expert’ out there in the tennis universe who didn’t pick Nadal to win it all, and many thought that maybe spring 2010 would mirror spring 2008 for the Mallorca Madman, who won not only The French Open, and Wimbledon, but the warm up to Wimbledon in the interim, (Queen’s Club Open) taking out a red hot Novak Djokovic in the final. But all for not, Nadal lost to Feliciano Lopez in the quarterfinals in straight sets, his only other loss to Lopez coming when Rafael was a bubbly seventeen year old, raw on the tour. Nadal seemed relaxed about his loss saying he was, “looking forward to going home,” and was happy so he could, “play golf and see family.” A peculiar attitude to exude before the Super Bowl of Tennis, but who am I to speculate on Rafa’s preparation? His track record speaks for itself. A friend of mine said, about Nadal’s performance, who was a National Doubles Champion for the USTA, in his smooth southern drawl, that “It looked like he wasn’t timing the bounce as well. He looked unbalanced.” It’s not out of order to speculate that he may be feeling the magnificent run he had this past May, and a bit tired, and I don’t see any cause for alarm for Nadal fans, but I don’t get the feeling that 2010 will sing a cover song anytime soon for the Spaniard, but even more than that, I have reservations about King Roger as well.

Federer has been in a title drought since the Australian Open, and his clay season was anything but normal, and we know how important confidence is to him, and to lose to Hewitt, somebody he has owned in past meetings, in a final of a grass court tournament that he has won many times before can’t bode well. Something is amiss. I get this strange feeling that there may be something more to this “lung infection” he acquired back in February and that it hindered him more than anyone thought, including himself. Who knows, maybe the universe is saying it’s time for somebody else, that the old adage about greed may prove true. The “uncharacteristic losses” have been accumulating since 2007, and Roger fans have been biting their nails more readily during his matches these days. Between the alien arrival of the spraying forehand, and the cryptic breakdown in his first serve (something we saw full fledged against Ernest Gulbis, in Federer’s first round loss at the Rome Masters), the impenetrable veneer of the Federer palace is looking to wane. But, the caveat to that is the swirling doubts have been parading around the press rooms and fan sites before every major, and Roger seems to silence the naysayers time and time again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he places a giant index finger across them yet again, by holding the coveted title that fortnight.

If anything, this year’s Wimbledon will be the hinge that turns the door on the rest of the season for anybody, especially the top players. Who can do it? A number of players can step up. What about Murray? Maybe he can finally reach grand slam glory that he has come so close to tasting before? Last year he was a semi-finalist and has an entire nation pulling for him. Henman Hill has now been transformed to Mound Murray. Can Djokovic finally turn back the hand of time and resurrect the career many expected he would encompass? What about Roddick? He always has a chance, as he proved last year. This is the next sunrise, the new morning, the middle of the ATP season, the cathedral of tennis, the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon, where dreams come true, and tears tremble the blades of grass, and in a men’s draw loaded up with bursting at the seams talent, anything can happen. Federer and Nadal are the two super powers, and it would be great to see them in the final again, battling it out, knifing through the English dusk with their artistry and brute will, but something tells me there may be new blood lurking in the Channel, that the familiar silhouettes may have different shapes this year coming out of the tunnel. I don’t know exactly what it is, it’s just a feeling, but I sense something blowin’ in the wind…


By Peter Nez

Roger Federer is in Halle, Germany this week playing his typical warm up tournament before Wimbledon (Germany’s only grass court event) where the latest news reports that Roger has signed a lifetime contract with tournament organizers, meaning he is committed to the event as long as he is playing professional tennis. “It’s a sort of marriage,” Roger quipped about the lofty contract with the Gerry Weber Open. And while the entire media world is buzzing over Rafael Nadal’s fifth Roland Garros title he attained last Sunday by smearing the red clay with Robin Soderling’s face, nicknamed Rockin’ Robin, after his blistering ground strokes that sound like cannon fire when struck, who appeared more like a subdued Canary tweeting rather than Rockin’- and big headlines announcing the ‘Return of the King of Clay’ and ‘Rafa is back!’, referring to his reacquisition of the top slot in men’s tennis, there is another king, of another surface, some would say the true king going quietly into the night, preparing for a Wimbledon defense, and maybe something else…


One thing that is amazing about Roger, among many other things, is his ability to put things in perspective, and shrug off losses that most players would never be able to bounce back from. Andy Murray comes to mind, whom after losing to Roger in the Australian Open final this past January, hasn’t been the same player since. Novak Djokovic, another top player, who won his first slam in 2008, has been hampered by uncharacteristic losses and henceforth hasn’t been able to muster a similar run at any of the subsequent slams. Andy Roddick, after losing to Federer in the epic 2009 Wimbledon final, lost to John Isner in the following slam (US Open) in a startling fashion. After attending the Annual ITF awards dinner in Paris, following his defeat to Soderling in the quarterfinals of the French Open a week ago, which garnered stunned faces by reporters, participants, attendees, and Gustavo Kurten himself (guest of honor), as to his appearance after a loss like that, “Nobody expected him to show,” Mary Joe Fernandez commented; a salivating press contingent swooned to get some time with the great one, and Roger was blasted with the usual doubts, speculations on his demise, questions as to his game, ect. He answered, in his usual candid demeanor, full of cool, that he was grateful for the past year where he won the French Open and Wimbledon back to back, about the birth of his daughters, and the magnificent summer, and the Australian Open victory this year, without a shade of despondency, or any signs that he was worried in the least. He exemplified gratitude, and emitted a perspective that was just thankful to still be playing, and healthy, and with a huge smile on his face, was looking forward to grass, where, let’s face it, the records speak for themselves, he is the King. I only wish that the media and fans alike had this propensity to put things in perspective.

All I read about now, and hear about in the rumblings and byways of the tennis realm, is Rafa this, and Rafa that, and Rafa is the one to beat, and Rafa is the usurper and all of that. I have no qualms with Rafael Nadal. I think he is a fantastic player, a true ambassador, and a great role model. But, when I read things like Roger can’t beat Rafa, and that Roger has never beaten a fully healthy Nadal, and things of this sort, there is an obvious upset in the balance of things; people are not looking at the big picture, and least of all adopting any sort of sensible perspective on matters.

I have no desire to list off all of the accolades of Mr. Federer, for they should be automatic by now, and need no mention. Let us take the notion of Roger never beating a healthy Nadal, especially on clay. First of all, the health of your opponent is out of your control, can we at least agree on that? Second, if the running statement that Roger can’t beat a healthy Nadal stands on any significant grounds, how about the vice versa? Let’s take a look at the 2008 Wimbledon final, touted as the ‘Greatest Match of All Time’. If we have a short term memory, many may not remember that Mr. Federer was battling a year long bout with Mononucleosis that started just prior to the Australian Open and, maybe didn’t subside until the end of that same year. That would mean that not only was Federer “unhealthy” but it took a super healthy, super confident, super momentum filled man in Rafael Nadal to beat Roger, and it took everything he had, all the way to an epic fifth set finale. Nobody speaks of that of course. On top of that, does anyone fail to see that Rafa has an outstanding record against Roger maybe because most of their head to head matches have taken place on clay? And there is little argument as to who is the greatest of all time on clay. Also, has anyone commented on why there are so many masters’ series tournaments on clay, and why the clay season is the longest on tour, and why there are only two tournaments on grass each season, and no masters series tournaments on grass? I’ve never heard mention of this either. Let us take a look at Federer’s legacy as far as slams go: Roger has reached a staggering 23 of the last 24 slam semi-finals, a staggering 19 out of the last 21 finals over the past six years, and 16 grand slam titles and counting. Who beat Roger in the last six years? Well, let’s see: Rafael Nadal, the king of clay; Novak Djokovic, a top four player, playing a not so healthy Roger (2008 AUS Open); Marat Safin, in the 2005 AUS Open, playing his absolute best tennis; Del Potro (2009 US Open) and Soderling (2010 French Open) who defied physics with their pace for over two hours of play. Do you ever hear Roger justifying himself, as is his right, about any of all the talk and doubt and scrutiny? No. He talks about one thing: moving forward. And what is ahead? Grass. The king returns to the holy grounds where he has set up his palace shrine for the past seven years. Maybe after he wins another Wimbledon will things finally be put in perspective… I doubt it.


Peter H. Nez

The women’s game is back! A return to elegance, a return to charm, a return to that sweet display of all-court fastidiousness and unabashed attack. A return to women who actually know how to serve. A return to likeability? Yes, I said it… Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone are likeable women, unlike others on tour. In an era of women’s tennis where question marks and strained TV ratings were plaguing the WTA Tour, an era that witnessed inconsistency and unfulfilled prophecies, one Dinara Safina comes to mind, an era that produced infidelity amongst usual loyal fans, I know I fast forwarded most of the women’s matches on my TiVo, we have a mighty welcomed return to the game’s true spirit in Stosur and Schiavone. What a great story these two have inspired in the last week and a half of play at Roland Garros.


I remember back in 2006 when I was watching a young Sam Stosur play in a doubles match at Indian Wells, and wondering to myself, “Why doesn’t Sam have a great singles record?” My friend I was with at the tournament, a very knowledgeable tennis player himself, agreed. She had all the tools, all the weapons, and a mental adjunct that seemed appropriately balanced and tantrum-free. I think I can safely say that we will never see Sam Stosur violently shaking her fist at any unassuming linesperson ever, and I mean EVER. Sam is just too professional for that, too decent, one could even say. Yes, there is something very likeable about Stosur, almost something angelic about her. In her visage on court one can see the fierce determination, coupled with the vulnerability that we see in the likes of past champions like Navratilova, Evert, and even Nadal maybe. There is a sweet innocence about her, which really comes out in interviews. She has the quiet Lioness in her, which roars and bellows when on court, flexing those very toned, and shapely arm muscles, that are very female, whipping her cyclone kick serve, which compliments this surface so well, and bashing ground strokes past her bewildered opponents, but then is reduced to a soft kitten when the spotlight is shone on her, flashing that shy, vibrant smile, almost ashamed of what she has accomplished, much like Nadal in that matter – very understated.

To get past Henin was a big enough feat, but to maul through the likes of Serena “I should be playing on the ATP Tour” Williams, is another thing entirely. Herein lies the divide: On one side of the net, you have the indomitable one, the dump truck, the entourage, the glitz and glamour, the cell phoneitis, the fashion, the diva, the attitude, the limousines, the rappers, the basketball stars, Miami, the cars, and money. And across from that you have the grace, the humility, the honor, the girl from down under, the water and breeze, the harmony of the elements, the silent assassin, the shape and fit, the look, the grace, the Lioness. I felt like I was watching the resurrection of what used to be, what should always be. The Gods are not crazy after all. Stosur moved beautifully, served like a top women’s player should serve, and didn’t seem to look back, or wonder what if at all. After the first set went Stosur’s way, and then the break in the second, one could almost sense the turning of the tide, not just in this match, not just in this tournament, not just in women’s tennis, but a shift back to a realer way of life, a realer way of carrying oneself, a dignified return to nobility in a game as old as time.

Then the screech in the skies erupted, the clouds returned, the dark matter unfolded yet again: Stosur got broken in the ninth game (the first time in the entire match) when she was serving for the match. Navratilova, who was commentating for the match foreboded another gloomy meltdown from another woman, who shoulda, woulda, and coulda… History was against Stosur, her record against Williams worked upon her psyche, she would have to self induce a lobotomy psychosomatically if she was to have a chance of forgetting that missed opportunity. Everybody who plays tennis, both recreationally and professionally knows what Stosur was going through. You feel sick, you want to break something, yell at a kitten, smash your head against the wall, dig a hole right underneath you and wait till dawn to reappear. Well, there goes her chance, the collective psyche of the tennis world communicated. No way was Serena going to lose now. And after coming back to take the second set, it seemed inevitable. With her trademark Yelp, and fist pumping, confidence reemerged in Serena’s serve, and her ground strokes. Poor Stosur was all I could think, all anyone was thinking. Except for Stosur herself. It was remarkable to witness. Stosur fought against the will of the Earth, she wasn’t going to listen to those booming expletives resounding in her head, she washed the doubt away with her Roland Garros towel, grit her teeth, picked up her weapon and fought with the entire pride riding on her shoulders. She didn’t care if God was on her side or not. She played with destiny like it was a ball of putty in her hand, like a Lioness playfully batting a baby gazelle, before taking a big chomp. It almost seemed that in her disposition she was saying to herself, “Well, what are you gonna do Sam? Just walk away, or go out with blood trickling from your feet?” The result speaks the choice she obviously made, and it was the first time in a long time that I yelled and jumped in the air for a women’s match in years. Against all odds, against all prospective bets, against the no. 1 player in the world, Sam Stosur showed what it takes to be a true champion. And after whomping Jankovic in the semis, it’s her tournament to take. And we will all be there watching, maybe the most watched women’s final in years. Maybe then, will the true Queen of the jungle be crowned.


By Peter H. Nez

After the forecast gloomed something awful, and tennis fans geared for their action packed Tuesday, by towing umbrellas and slickers, the quarterfinal between the defending champion Roger Federer, and the upstart who crashed the fiesta Del la Espanola last year: Robin Soderling, started on the eve of a potential 24 straight semis or better run by Federer, a streak that is unmatched in the sport, or any other sport for that matter. Broadcaster Patrick McEnroe called the streak, “The greatest streak in tennis history.” I go even further by calling it the greatest streak in sports history period.

Soderling the wiry, lanky Swede, with Dr. Suess face, and quirks to match, had a 0-12 record heading in. If given the right color, and the right kind of eyes, one could see the shades of the Grinch in the young Swedes smirks and overall demeanor on court. Could anyone foresee Soderling manifesting the Grinch that stole Tennis Glory? Two years in a row?

The first set was typical in their historic matchup. Roger, with majestic movement and balletic flourishes, took the opener 6-3. Commentator Brad Gilbert remarked, “I’ve never seen anyone slide on clay better than Federer,” going as far as saying, “Even his socks stay clean. He glides so well, that he doesn’t have the typical smears and smudges most players have.” It looked that number 24 for Roger would be inevitable. Then something happened that may have only happened once in tennis history in the past five or six years: Soderling’s racquet morphed into a 12 gauge shotgun, with the accuracy of a laser sighted pistol. Line after line bombasted and thumped past the Swiss Maestro’s flailing efforts to defend, set after set. Soderling was compiling an offensive so massive that the Roger base looked pitiful in comparison. You could feel the Swede’s pop on his racquet swelter the Maestro’s usually impervious front. This was reminiscent of the Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro’s missile strike at the 2009 US Open. Forehands blistered, serves rocketed, and the flag was still there. This wasn’t the lefty anomaly of spin mayhem that Nadal mustered to garner a winning record against the holy one, but an all out onslaught of power that inspired large oohs and aahhs from the Parisian spectators. Darren Cahill repeatedly commented that Soderling was “Bringing the heat!” Soderling’s average second serve ranged in the 115 to 118 mph zone, and he held serve much more comfortably than he had in previous meetings. But wait a minute… this was the “Greatest of All Time” wasn’t it? There had to be a response right? One would think. But, the same thing happened that I have been witnessing happen, with scratchy head and bewilderment, for the past several years: The Federer kryptonite forehand emerged. Amidst rain soaked Parisian skies and grounds, the usually competent, jedi-light-saberesque forehand of Roger’s, sprayed the back of the courts almost as much as the groundskeepers’ water hose. Routine short balls ended up five feet out of bounds, and the Roger Empire in Paris was crumbling fast. And as Roger’s ground strokes became more wobbly, Robin’s ground strokes gained heat and the white lines of Roland Garros couldn’t have been bigger for the Swede, as stroke after ripping stroke painted the lines regularly. If one looked closely one could see smoke fuming from the top of Soderling’s Head racquet. If the story last year was ‘The Slaying of the Dragon’ than this year’s would indubitably be ‘The Demolition of The Royal Palace.’

Still, even after the near perfect assault of Soderling on the Royal grounds, Roger’s streak of 23 semis stands alone in sports history and in my mind will never be surpassed. In today’s game, where the top fifty players in the world would easily have been top ten or better fifteen years ago, to reach a milestone as that even supersedes the 16 slam titles in my humble view. And with Roger’s game and playing style, if he can remain healthy, which he has done, and doesn’t lose the hunger to play, which he has claimed is safely in tact until at least 2015, who knows? Could it be fathomable that Roger could be the one to beat the streak?