downward spiral

LA Open Day Four

It was a cool 77 degrees this summer afternoon at the LA Tennis Center at UCLA campus on Thursday, July 29th with a slew of 2nd round matchups on the schedule promising some good fighting and formidable challenges for top seeds. I reached the Grandstand for the first singles match between Mr. Beautiful, Feliciano Lopez taking on the Israeli Dudi Sela. Sela contested the first set with vigor taking it to a tiebreak, succumbing to Lopez 6-7 amidst a rancorous contingent of Israeli supporters in the crowd. Lopez, with his Spanish swagger of someone who has just created the Earth, looked out at spectators with that look of you-should-feel-privileged-to-be-in-the-same-hemisphere-as-me, was unfazed by the loud chants of Sela supporters going on to take the match in straight sets.

The next match pitted Latvian train wreck Ernest Gulbis against up and comer, Mr. I almost beat Federer at Wimbledon 1st round: Alejandro Falla. Gulbis is as much as an enigma as anyone on tour. He has a boat load of talent, a ripping, aggressive game; one of the best first serve and forehand one two punches around, and the captain doing all the steering is running around deck stumbling drunk, making choices that would make a Tennis mom wince. I just don’t understand it. Gulbis wins the first set comfortably, having never had his serve broken, and the first point of the second set he misses a forehand into the net, and the “other” Gulbis arises, turmoil legible in his stride, head sunken low, and constant looks to his coach’s box of dismay and dejection. I was seated next to a Latvian girl who was cheering Gulbis on in his language I assumed, and I couldn’t resist asking her, after Gulbis threw his racquet, (3 times total in the match) why he was so mad? She sheepishly replied, in a strong accent, “We all have temper from that part of the world.” Well, that temper led to a downward spiral that allowed Falla to relax and go for his shots, resulting in a plethora of mismanaged drop shots by Ernest who eventually fell to Falla in three sets. In the press conference afterward Gulbis began to look more like a young Cassius Clay than a Latvian up and comer. He was still fuming from the loss obviously, and maybe that had a lot to do with it, but hold back he did not. Questions parroted at him about his decision making and he snorted back with gusto. “It was a not a good match. I played terrible. I was really tired. I haven’t played for two months so I was not ready to win. If you don’t fish for two months, you going to catch fish?” The crowd seemed to bother Gulbis, especially in the third set tiebreaker, and he was quick to comment on the effect. “It bothers me. I can hear everything. When they boo me for throwing my racquet it is ridiculous. I am a professional. This is my job. I don’t go to your job and scream at you do I?” A very telling comment resonated with my observation of Gulbis and my overall assessment of his attitude. I always thought to myself, “This guy just hates to be out there. He does not look like he enjoys any bit of it, even when he wins.” My thoughts were confirmed when a reporter asked him if he had been enjoying his stay in Los Angeles. “There is no fun in tournament time, “ Gulbis said. “You play, you practice, you go hotel, eat, and then sleep. That is it.” I almost wanted to ask him where the invisible gun was that was pointed at your head?

The next match scheduled was a semi-injured James Blake, who has made it to the finals here before, taking on the stoic German Benjamin Becker. Blake has been a ghost on tour the last couple of years, the age wear showing more and more, and since 2008 watched his ranking drop out of the top 100. He had more to prove here than anyone. I actually picked Becker to take it in straight sets, but Blake didn’t read the script. As a matter of fact he burned it and wrote a whole new movie. With Celtic Superstar Kevin

Garnett watching (a friend of Blake’s), ‘All or Nothing’ James exhibited the hustle and fight of old, willing himself to victory, hitting his marks and paving his way to the Quarters with a straight set victory: 7-5, 7-6. In the press conference afterwards James said he felt better than ever. All of us press media awaited his arrival (he was twenty minutes late), and in he walked with a large bag of ice taped to his right knee. The first question was how the knee felt? James smiled and said, “On a pain scale of 1-10, it’s a one. It’s feeling better and better.” We shall see how it feels tomorrow, when he faces a confident Lopez aiming to make his deepest run.

The night match starred number four in the world, British hopeful, Andy Murray taking on American Tim Smyczek. The first set looked automatic for Murray. He looked like a potential grand slam winner, gliding across the court with ease, making all the right decisions, outwitting Smyczek, rotating between power shots and finesse, letting the tricks out of the bag at the perfect moment. Murray took the first set 6-1, and the energy of the crowd hushed and lulled. You could almost feel people planning their morning, drifting off from center court, texting and blackberrying, ready for an early departure. But Smyczek had other plans. He wasn’t going quietly into the night. He didn’t read the script either, and with brilliant movement and shot making took the second set 6-4, and the Los Angeles night crowd forgot about tomorrow and drifted back to center court with eagerness. This was a match again. Andy had never played this tournament before and maybe playing an American on foreign territory was getting to the Brit. I don’t think so. Murray, in his usual fashion, bounced back, employing all the maneuvering that got him to two grand slam finals, and put all the eagerness to bed with a comfortable 6-2 third set win, sending him to the Los Angeles night with a quarterfinal birth, where he will face Alejandro Falla.

PRAISE TO ANA IVANOVIC: THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Serbian Turnaround – Over the course of the last year or so, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic have experienced varying degrees of a downward spiral in their careers, but signs seem to indicate that they are well on their way to turning things around.  Earlier this spring, Jankovic snagged the Indian Wells title, and she showed great mental toughness to defeat both Williams sisters back-to-back in Rome.  With a few more big wins under her belt, she may just find the consistency that took her to the top of the game in 2008.  My bigger praise, however, has to go to Ana Ivanovic.  While she lost early in Madrid to countrywoman Jankovic, she did put together a great run in Rome that included wins over Azarenka, Dementieva, and Petrova.  She’s gotten herself a new coach, she’s lost some weight, and most importantly, her mindset couldn’t be better.  Ivanovic acknowledges that she’s faced her worst fear in experiencing her playing slump and is ready to begin the climb back up the rankings.  Kudos to both, and I hope that they’ll once again strongly factor into the top of the women’s game.

Chaos Reigns – Roland Garros is just over a week away, and with the decimation of the seeds in Madrid, the women’s field couldn’t look more open. After winning Stuttgart, many (myself included) thought that perhaps Justine Henin was worthy to wear one of the heavy favorite tags, but her upset by Aravane Rezai, which included a bagel in the third, might suggest otherwise.  Serena Williams has looked decent for a player who hasn’t competed since the Australian Open, but with her failure to twice serve out the match against Jelena Jankovic in Rome and a listless performance against an inspired Nadia Petrova in Madrid, she hasn’t exactly looked solid.  Throw in that names like Wozniaki, Sharapova, Safina, Dementieva, Kutznetsova, and last week’s Rome champion Martinez Sanchez have all made an early exit in Madrid, and the time may be ripe for a dark horse to step up and take her first Slam victory at the second major of the year.  And yes, I realize that the seeds that have fallen in Madrid haven’t exactly had the greatest past couple of months, but that only sets the stage further for a surprise victor or finalist in Paris.  But then again, the champions are champions because they can turn it on when it counts.  One thing is for sure…it should be an interesting two weeks at the French Open.

Turning Back the Clock – First there was the return of Kim Clijsters that was then followed by the comeback of Justine Henin. Now there’s another news item that harks back to days gone by. With her three-set victory over Francesca Schiavone this week in Madrid, Venus Williams has guaranteed that she will be the No. 2 player in the world when the new rankings come out on Monday. Younger sister Serena currently holds the No. 1 ranking, and the occasion will mark the first time since May 2003 that the sisters have held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots.  While the Williams sisters aren’t dominating the game as they once did when they previously held the world’s top rankings, their longevity and ability to come up big on the sport’s grandest stages, which has led to their return to the top, deserve tremendous applause.

Zero Pressure – That’s what American Andy Roddick should be feeling as he goes into Roland Garros. Roddick opted to skip Monte Carlo and Rome and do his Paris preparation in the Spanish capital. A stomach virus has since forced him to alter his plans, however, as the virus resulted in his withdrawal from the Madrid Masters before even playing a single match. Not that Roddick has probably ever held great expectations on the red dirt, given that it is his worst surface, but this year in particular he should really be swinging freely. Who knows? Perhaps possibly mental lower expectations will ultimately lead Roddick to his best finish in Paris.

Off into the Sunset? – A lot of tennis fans, myself included, are wondering when Spaniard Carlos Moya will decide to hang up his racquet.  The 33-year-old Moya has rarely played in recent months, and his showing against Benjamin Becker this week was dismal. One wonders if he is able to play Roland Garros, which is currently his plan, if that won’t be the last we see of him.  Having won a major, reaching the No. 1 world ranking, and even winning the Davis Cup, Moya has nothing left to prove. And with Moya and his girlfriend Carolina Cerezuela expecting their first child later this year, he may find it the perfect time to call it a career.

THE FRIDAY FIVE: IVANOVIC THE NEW FRAULEIN FOREHAND?

By Maud Watson

The New Fraulein Forehand? – A couple of weeks ago I criticized Serb Ana Ivanovic for appearing to disrupt the balance by focusing on too many off court activities while her tennis career was in a fast downward spiral. Today I must applaud her for once again seeking a full time coach, and a good one at that. Ivanovic has hired Steffi Graf’s former coach Heinz Gunthardt. Granted, each individual player has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, but given the champion player that Steffi Graf evolved into under the tutelage of Gunthardt, there’s reason to believe that Ivanovic may soon find her game back on track.

Career Resurrected – Nearly 7 years ago, Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero was on top of the world. He’d won Roland Garros, reached the finals of the US Open, and achieved the No. 1 ranking. Then, a bad bout of chicken pox and other miscellaneous injuries saw his ranking fall off the map. Nearly the forgotten man, it would be 6 years before he’d break his title drought with a tournament win at Casablanca in 2009. After a shaky start to 2010, El Mosquito has won Brasil and Buenos Aires back-to-back and has put in a good showing in Acapulco. His ranking is now in the top 20, with a realistic chance of being inside the top 10 for Roland Garros. It’s nice to see his hard work pay off, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll add another Slam to his resume before he hangs up the racquet.

Shakin’ with Shakira – While allowing his knee to recuperate, Rafael Nadal had a bit of fun making it on the small screen. The famous Spaniard teamed up with Colombian pop sensation Shakira to shoot a steamy music video for her new single Gypsy, which will be out this coming April. Don’t let too many tongues start wagging, however. Both are in long-term relationships and deny that there is anything going on between the two of them.

Cautious Federer – It’s rare to see the Swiss maestro pull out of an event due to injury or illness, but that’s exactly what Roger Federer was forced to do at Dubai this week. The 16-time Grand Slam winner is suffering from a lung infection. He hopes to be back at Indian Wells, but he’s making no promises. You can’t argue with Federer’s cautious approach. After all, part of what has allowed him to build such a stellar legacy is his relative good health and lack of injuries over the course of his career. That doesn’t happen by accident. He’s nearly always been excellent in setting his schedule and recognizing when his body needs to rest. This time is no exception.

Tomic Makes the Team – Due to a combination of his improving results and Hewitt’s unavailability for Davis Cup duty, Aussie Bernard Tomic has now become the youngest player to be named to an Australian Davis Cup squad. There’s no doubt that Tomic has the talent to make it to the top, but his attitude and meddlesome father have caused him more than his share of troubles in his young career. Perhaps a dose of maturity and a good showing for his adopted homeland will do much to improve his image and serve as a springboard to greater success.