quarterfinals

Learning from Roger Federer’s Demeanour

By Ritesh Gupta

The ball went up in the air and the way it swirled in the cold windy conditions, it looked as if the server completely lost the connection with the ball for that split second. He decided not to connect and chose to have a re-go at it. Nothing unusual till this point, especially considering the playing conditions. But what stood out was the way all of this was taken in his stride by the server, without even a semblance of uneasiness. In fact, what he did before returning to his service stance, exemplified what the man, who happened to be Roger Federer, is all about.

As Federer took steps towards the service line, with his collar going up and down, and hair continuously being blown away, he chose to stretch his arms!

Now be it for being calm about intricacies of playing in such environment or focusing on the job at hand, Federer just goes about tennis as if nothing can come in between him and his sport.

All this happened during the early stages of the third set of his eventual 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 win over Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals of the US Open.

Going by the style of play of the two players, especially the high service toss and the huge forehand swing of Soderling, one would be tempted to say that the Swede definitely was expected to have a tough time vis-a-vis his opponent. Even if one considers this, the way Federer served against Soderling was simply immaculate. Soderling served bigger, but Federer was much better in the same department. The Swiss maestro served 18 aces to Soderling’s two.

The service statistics for the match show how Federer adapted to the conditions. But for him, it was just another day.

In the post match, on-court interview, Federer said if he can’t serve in the windy conditions, after doing all this in his life, then there is definitely problem out there! He said be it for 2 o’clock or 4 o’clock in the morning, he can be taken out of the bed and he would still be able to serve. When a man of Federer’s stature says all this, it definitely isn’t arrogance. Its just sheer passion for the sport.

Other than his positive attitude, Federer looked in prime touch.

Soderling struggled and looked very unsettled at times. He missed four breakpoints in the first set. On the other hand, Federer converted on his first opportunity and that is all he needed.

Soderling broke Federer with a great defensive return followed by a passing shot early on in the second set. But the Swede was again broken in the following game. In fact, the slide was started by an error from Soderling to finish the game at 40-0 at 2-1. A high ball, which swirled, resulted in the Swede attempting a stroke in an awkward position. After that, his forehand deserted him twice. On the other side, Federer just went about his task the way he usually does.

Soderling exerted pressure in the third set but Federer soaked in all of it, in fact at times showing great defensive skills. The Swede did break in the eight game to go up 5-3. But Federer again broke back immediately, as Soderling netted two forehands at 30-30. Continuing in the same vein, the Swiss wrapped up the set and the match in the 12th game.

Federer is now 16-0 in night matches played on Arthur Ashe Stadium. This victory signals Federer’s readiness for the battle against Novak Djokovic for a place in the final. The triumph also resulted in a settling of scores as Soderling had beaten Federer in their last meeting at the French Open.

The Weekly Debrief – Federer praises Fish; Microphones in player boxes at US Open?

In this week’s Debrief, I catch you up on Sunday’s final in Cincinnati where Roger Federer fistpumped his way into a victory, touch on Mardy Fish’s current mental attitude, update you on the 2012 Olympics, and analyze the good, the bad, and the ugly about a new fan enhancement in effect at this year’s US Open, microphones in the player boxes. Wait, really? Yes. But first …. Federer.

Top Five

Roger Federer is once again the forerunner of this year’s US Open after taking the title Sunday in Cincinnati at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters. He defeated American Mardy Fish in a tight three-setter, 6-7(5), 7-6(1), 6-4.

What makes Federer’s run in Cincinnati so alluring is that he had only played a total of 37 minutes to reach the quarterfinals, and only 3 hours and 26 minutes to reach yesterday’s final. Compare that to Fish’s time on court prior to the final, 10 hours and 22 minutes, and the disparity is staggering. How could this have happened at a Masters 1000 event? And exactly how lucky is Federer? Well, Fish entered as a wildcard and proceeded to play all six rounds, with his quarterfinal and semifinal matches each going to three sets. Federer, however, had a first-round bye, a second-round retirement victory over Denis Istomin, and a third-round walkover from Philipp Kohlschreiber. Exactly how lucky IS Federer? Well, of the tournament’s four retirements, two came as a direct benefit to Federer.

This was only Federer’s second title of the season, as he had fallen in his last three finals in Madrid, Halle and Toronto.

This is a breakthrough of sorts for a champion whose tennis genius has been challenged by several players this year alone. The wide gap that once existed between the “King” and the rest of the players has diminished, allowing the upcoming US Open to have one of the deepest fields in recent times. Federer could come out crushing in Flushing Meadows, but he could also come out crashing as he did in Wimbledon, struggling from his very first match. Either way, he is fully prepared to attain that coveted trophy again.

Speaking of Mardy Fish, he’s had quite a decorated summer himself. Despite losing to Federer in a match that could have gone either way, he also improved to 2-0 in the year against Andy Roddick and 3-0 against Andy Murray.

His newfound game is most directly a result of his weight loss, but as with any change in a person’s life, their mental attitude tends to be even more telling of their physical state. Take, for example, John Isner’s recent annoyance about “still” being questioned regarding his second-round Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut. Or Francesca Schiavone’s “so over it” attitude concerning how her life has changed after her Roland Garros win this year. Fish, on the other hand, has been constantly questioned about his weight loss and how it’s affected his game. He began his regimen when he went in for knee surgery in September of 2009. He then changed his diet, lifestyle, and obviously mindset because, almost a year later, he still doesn’t mind the reporters and fans asking him the same question about his weight loss. He’s proud of his commitment and it has paid off, why not enjoy it?

In Federer’s presser after his win over Fish, he applauded him for his “great serve,” accuracy and mixing up his shots and pace to keep Federer on his toes. “He’s got a great serve,” Federer remarked. “He keeps you guessing. His first serve is particularly hard to read and get any proper play on it. I saw the stats against Roddick, and he had 95% first serve winning percentage, not only here, but in Atlanta.” Although it looks like Fish will be seeded in the US Open, he will likely be at the top of many people’s lists for a possible upset of any of the top four men in the field.

On the heels of Serena Williams’ announcement that she has withdrawn from the US Open, last year’s men’s titlist, Juan Martin del Potro, has also withdrawn citing a recovering right wrist injury. To most avid tennis fans, this isn’t really “news,” but when it’s officially stated, it still stings.

Del Potro’s only tournament this year came at the Australian Open where he made a run to the fourth round. Currently, at number ten in the world rankings, after the US Open he is expected to drop out of the top 30. No doubt, a plummet in the rankings hurts del Potro’s return. However, it will also alleviate some of the expectations that people have of him coming back and winning every tournament he enters right away. “It would have been a pretty tall task for him to come back and [at] his first tournament be a major player,” said Andy Roddick. “That’s something that’s built up over time.”

So, the ugly injury list continues. We now add del Potro to an already-growing field of withdraws: Mario Ancic, Ivo Karlovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tommy Haas. Here’s to hoping this list doesn’t grow any longer, but with the intensity of today’s tennis game and players being in a perpetual state of injury and pain, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least two more players withdrew.

The 2012 Olympics in London are still two years away, but there are already announcements coming from tournament staff concerning the dress code at the tennis games. While Wimbledon is known for its all-white dress attire, the All England Tennis Club has decided to suspend the dress code for the London games which will be played at the same venue. “We have been very supportive to the Olympic organizers throughout the process,” stated AELTC chief executive Ian Ritchie. “We hope to some extent there will be a different type of audience. It is not a repeat of the Championships. It will be its own competition, have its own style and it will play out in its own way.”

Another change will be that only 12 of the available 17 courts will be in use, bringing down crowd capacity from 40,000 to 26,000. The question I have is whether there will still be a desire from fans to watch tennis a mere 20 days after the completion of Wimbledon, especially when there are so many sports at the London Games. The 2012 tennis event will also be the first to have mixed doubles, bringing the medal count to five: men’s and women’s singles as well as men’s and women’s doubles. If nothing else brings in the money, the mixed doubles may. It will be interesting to see possible new pairings such as Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic, or Serena Williams and Andy Roddick.

Last week, the USTA announced that it is expanding its “fan enhancements” for the 2010 US Open. It began with the inaugural US Open National Playoffs earlier this summer and will continue with venue improvements in Flushing Meadows, as well as online.

After reading about all the enhancements, I realized that one stood out unlike the rest. “Microphones in the Players Boxes.” Wait, is this what I think it is? “For the first time, microphones have been installed in the player boxes in Arther Ashe Stadium, which will help viewers get even closer to the emotion and drama of the US Open by adding perspective of the players’ guests as matches unfold.”

Can I admit that I’m a bit surprised this is allowed? As much as I would enjoy getting into the head of a player’s coach or parent, I wonder if every player and their guests are aware of this new “enhancement.” Some players don’t talk about their personal lives much, and many don’t disclose what they need to improve on in their game specifically. This lack of privacy that this new enhancement allows simply can’t be what they signed up for. Although I’m sure there will be player guests and teams that don’t cheer or say much during a match, others are quite vocal. Taking it one step further, who will be monitoring their conversations? The ESPN2 and Tennis Channel staff? They’re already armed with more information than the typical fan needs sometimes, why further disrupt the privacy of a player’s team by granting us access to their guests? I think a line needs to be drawn now or soon there may be a new “enhancement” that forces coaches to wear microphones at all times while they’re coaching so we can get “added perspective” as fans. Come on, enough is enough. Let us just watch what we signed up for: the beauty of the game.

ATP Bonus
Two greats, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, were interviewed by Cincinnati.com junior journalists last week. They ask Rafa how he celebrates after a great win and Roger on his cooking skills. These girls are asking great questions and better than some professional media out there!

That’s it for this week’s Debrief. Just stop by anytime you want a recap of the ATP Tour. We’ve got you covered!

Legg Mason QFs: Press Conferences & Analysis of Berdych, Verdasco, Baghdatis, Nalbandian

It’s quarterfinals Friday here at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, DC and the last eight singles players were all in action today vying for a spot in the semifinals. Two upsets were in full-effect as we saw the #1 seed Tomas Berdych go down as well as #3 seed Fernando Verdasco.

The first match of the day was between top seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and Belgian Xavier Malisse.

The match saw a surprise winner in Malisse, ranked #62 in the world, topping Berdych in three sets, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. The wind seemed to be the biggest factor in the first set for Berdych as he couldn’t rely on his serve, getting broken twice before going down 1-5. Malisse also outplayed Berdych hitting more winners off both sides. The second set was much closer statistically before Malisse double-faulted allowing Berdych to serve the set out, which he did, fist-pump jumping in the air.

The third set saw two breaks of serve and a bit of drama in the second game. Malisse hit a cross-court forehand that just clipped the line. Expecting it to be a bad call, Berdych challenged. Hawkeye review showed it ‘out’ by less than 1 millimeter, but recall that Hawkeye is only accurate within 3 millimeters. Berdych was, of course, surprised and started walking up to the umpire exclaiming: “That is not accurate! It’s not in and you know it!” Played continued but Berdych was visibly frustrated even into the following point when he pointed again to the mark with his racquet and shook his head. However, Berdych stayed collected enough to win the game. Berdych lost his next service game, followed by three backhand down the line misses bringing the score to 4-1 for Malisse. Berdych has a strong backhand and it seemed to be working for him more than his forehand during the match. But he continually would run around his backhand to hit a forehand and then send it straight into the net because of insufficient backswing. An easy forehand volley into the net by Berdych gave Malisse match point and that it all he needed to break Berdych again and win the match.

Malisse’s press conference was light and quick. He is quickly becoming a favorite presser of mine because of his unexpected easy-going personality. During the first set and some of the second, he was intentionally twisting his right leg and foot as if something was bothering him. I asked him about it and he replied that it was just a small bone under his big toe that flares up from “time to time” but that it wasn’t anything to worry about. It’s more of an “annoyance” than any real injury. He also reflected that he was “returning well” in the first set and that the “third set was one of the best sets I’ve played.” He responded to a question asking about the quick time turnaround from yesterday’s matches lasting until the early morning hours and starting today already at noon. He replied that he much more preferred to play at noon than at 3 P.M. when the heat was stronger.

Berdych was up next and his interview was much more telling of his condition. He came in sulking and looked disappointed. I thought it was because of his performance today. It was, but there was more to the story. He said that he felt “sleepy” in the entire first set and that’s why his serve was broken twice. Mind you, his match yesterday finished around the same time as Malisse’s but he did say he finally got to bed at 2 A.M. His next comment then stopped me in my tracks because of it’s honesty. He was hoping that being the #1 at a tournament you would have a better schedule than this. Being up first today after playing so late into the night yesterday frustrated him and he expressed his disappointment in the tournament. He was then questioned if he had taken this issue up with the staff and he simply said: “No. But maybe I’m not going to come next year. If you like the tournament, if you like the place, then you always want to come back. But if you get an experience like that, we will see.” I have to agree with him here. He was the #1 seed and he wasn’t even scheduled on stadium court or grandstand because other Americans were still in the draw. He was on an outside court and the atmosphere is very different there, more intimate but trickier with the noise. Recall that yesterday he stated he doesn’t enjoy night matches because of the lights. But he didn’t like being up first either. The best solution would probably have been to put him up first for the night session instead.

The second matchup of the day featured #3 seed Fernando Verdasco and #8 seed Marcos Baghdatis, who dueled it out in a tight two sets before Baghdatis come out on top, 7-6(3), 6-4.

The match lasted just 1 hour and 42 minutes, but it felt much longer with the heat and inconsistent play from both players. Considering how long these two players have been on tour, it was surprising that this was their first meeting. Neither player went on any real ‘run’, neither served well and the changing wind didn’t help either. The first set tiebreak alone saw several double faults from both players. In the second set, Verdasco seemed frustrated as he sent ball after ball either straight into the net or flying past the baseline.He couldn’t quite find his rhytmn in his return game either, especially on the backhand side. Play was inconsistent and it was very tough to read tactics. The turnaround point came when Verdasaco sent a deep forehand down the line to pull Baghdatis back — almost to the stadium banners — which Baghdatis retrieved and sent across the net. Verdasco then moved in on the ball to send flying, but at the last minute changed his grip and tipped a drop shot across. Baghdatis, however, read the shot (almost before Verdasco had made up his mind), and began running for the net. He guessed correctly, made contact with the ball and put away the crosscourt winner. Baghdatis then broke Verdasco to go up 5-4 and serve out the match, which he did successfully. The best part of the match was something that came right after the last point was won. Baghdatis walked over to the other side of the net, got down on his hands and knees near the service line and kissed the court. He truly loves this game and there is no denying it.

In Verdasco’s press conference, there were a few things of note. He felt that he “didn’t play well” and that it was “tough to play” because the “wind was changing” and the “bounce of the court was irregular.” All in all, he was “not feeling the ball good.” He was asked how last night’s late end affected him today and if he felt tired. He responded that it was indeed a factor with not enough rest. He went further on and said that all week the earliest match starts at 4 P.M. so you wake up, eat, and get to bed much later. Then today, the time was pushed up to the early afternoon and he needed to change when he got up and ate. That change is never easy when your body gets into a rhythm. He also talked about how much he enjoyed the D.C. crowd and that he felt the support right away. He said there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in this area and it felt great to hear them cheer for him. The last thing he talked about was his upcoming schedule and his plans post-US Open. He talked about wanting to do well in Toronto next week and improving on his first round loss in Cincinnati last year. He also wants to make a better appearance at the US Open by going beyond his quarterfinal appearance last year. “I push myself to be in [the] best shape.” He then went on to say that he will take some time off after Flushing Meadows to workout. And hopefully take a well-deserved vacation, but he didn’t say.

Baghdatis’ press conference came after his doubles’ loss with partner Stanislas Wawrinka, but he was still in a happy mood. Even in the doubles match, he was enjoying the absolutely packed stands on Grandstand court and he flourished with the cheers from the crowd. In the interview room, he was candid and smiling, making eye-contact with each questioner. He was first asked about what was tough about the match. He responded: “Everything.” He said that playing at night was not the same as the day because the humidity changed in D.C. He also said it different playing on Stadium versus an outside court and that “today I felt like the balls were flying a bit so I couldn’t control them very well.” He also recently changed coaches and has been in the ‘new’ partnership for only two weeks now. I put ‘new’ in quotes because it is the same coach he had when he was 17-20s years old, “so it’s not a big change for me.” In fact, he said, it’s “perfect.” Something that players have been getting asked since Andy Roddick crashed out last night was their thoughts on the American men falling out of the top 10 for the first time since 1973. He gave a heartfelt answer saying that playing this high caliber tennis is very tough and takes a lot of energy. But this was golden: “I didn’t know it was th first time since 1973 … That’s a long time!” He feels fit and healthy and ready to move on to the next challenge.

The third singles match of the day was between Roddick-killer Gilles Simon and wildcard David Nalbandian, who was playing in his first tournament since April due to an injury.

Nalbandian came out on top with a score of 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 but not without plenty of drama and superb shot-making. Simon came out swinging and took a commanding lead to go up 3-0, breaking Nalbandian’s service game easily. Nalbandian was only able to win one point on Simon’s serve. It seemed that this match would be over quickly. However, Nalbandian pushed it up a gear and won the next three games. Things were starting to heat up, but Simon was still playing more solidly and moving better than Nalbandian. Nalbandian had only lost 9 games in the entire tournament going into today’s match, so the scoreline was staggering when Simon took the first set 6-3 in just 33 minutes. But, just as quickly as Simon had won the first set, he lost the second. There were four breaks of serve before Nalbandian went up 4-1. He was starting to look like the strong precise hitter we know, and the points won on his first serve nearly doubled in the second set. He began to play more freely and was very solid at the net. Nalbandian understood the pressure he put on his opponent and knew when to execute approach and drop shots. He also found the angles exceptionally well flustering his opponent to start yelling in French into the sky. In fact, both players were yelling and cheering themselves on, bringing more inspiring play onto the court, and getting the crowd even more involved.

The beginning of the third set saw the best tennis of the day so far. As quick and adept as Simon is, it was surprising that Nalbandian came out the winner on the night’s longest rally. Both continued hitting the ball incredibly low and quick, Nalbandian penetrating the back corners with precision each rally. On one rally Simon sent a deep shot that would normally be a winner and followed it up to the net. Nalbandian read his movement and sent a beautiful overhead lob past Simon that hit the baseline. Simon scrambled to get back but the ball bounced out of his reach. Nalbandian was on fire, taking a 2-0 lead, and couldn’t miss. But then, he did.Simon put away a tricky forehand volley and Nalbandian seemed to be running out of steam. The score evened at 2-all. Then, all momentum was lost seeing each player dominate for a few points before being easily defeated the next, and on each other’s serves. In the ninth game, Nalbandian was serving for the match and he started hitting forehand bombs and took a chance on every shot. He closed the match with two aces. This is Nalbandian’s first time in a semifinal this year and it was well-deserved.

Gilles Simon unfortunately never made it to do the press conference, but it came as no surprise. He was fiery and irritated with himself in the second and third sets and clearly his head was not in the right place at the end of the match. He has great shot-making abilities from the baseline and his backhand finds angles on the court to stress his opponents. His serve was inconsistent and probably proved to be his downfall as he became more agitated with himself.

Nalbandian was caught up with the television crews, but eventually made it over for an interview with the media. He was easy-going even playing with his phone when he first came in. He joked about having to actually HOLD the microphone as he spoke. It was entertaining. He then got down to answering questions. He spoke about picking his game up in the second set and serving better: “When you’re serving good it is much easier to play more offensive.” He also mentioned that although he is not 100% healthy, he is “feeling good enough” and takes it as a positive. “I try to win every match I play.” It was also his first time in D.C. and he was asked why he decided to come back here: “I wasn’t playing enough tournaments and I needed to play matches to be prepared for Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open. I just enjoy every time I play.”

The last match of the day was between Serb Janko Tipsarevic and Croat Marin Cilic.

Cilic held the 4-0 head-to-head prior to coming into the match and he followed it up with a 7-6(4), 6-4 win tonight. Both players held their serve in the first set and were pretty even. For a guy that measures in at just 5’11’’, it was surprising to find Tipsarevic still getting even lower on his backhand side. Tipsarevic let the tiebreaker slip away from him when he loss a crucial point at 3-all that ran both players into all corners of the court for the most exciting rally of the day. In the second set, Tipsarevic continued playing more defensively but putting an insane amount of topspin on his forehand. But it was to no avail as he seemed to be just trying to keep up with Cilic’s movement and coverage. At 3-4 ad-out, Tipsarevic challenged a ball still in play that he thought was long, but he was wrong and lost his service game. Both players then held serve before Cilic held three match points before he finally converted on the fourth attempt. Since the match finished late and because of the tough scheduling from yesterday, neither player came for media interviews. Both players put in a valiant effort that saw Cilic come out the victor.

The day was full of suspenseful matches that saw the top two seeds go down in surprising fashion. The top seed left in the tournament is Marin Cilic who will face David Nalbandian Saturday evening at 7 P.M., while Xavier Malisse will face Marcos Baghdatis at 1 P.M. for a spot in the finals.

Tennis Is Well Represented At The ESPY Awards – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Defending Champs Out – This past weekend marked the quarterfinals of the 2010 Davis Cup competition and promised plenty of good tennis matchups. But one result few could have seen coming was France’s thrashing of defending two-time champion Spain. Spain has gotten used to dishing out some 5-0 defeats of its own, but unexpectedly found itself on the receiving end of such a defeat as it suffered its first 5-0 loss since 1957. There’s little doubt that this was a disappointing showing for Spain, irrespective of the fact that they were without their No. 1 Rafael Nadal. They have won without him before, and France certainly wasn’t able to field their star players either. It was Spain’s misfortune that they ran into the one team that could match them for depth of players, and congratulations are in order for the nation of France that may be ready to make its first run to the title since 2001.
Coach in the Corner – Peter Lundgren is going to be coaching a man from Switzerland, but this time it isn’t Roger Federer. It’s the number two man for the Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka. This is a great move on Wawrinka’s part, whose results over the course of the past year have been up and down and have seen his ranking slip to outside of the Top 20. Lundgren has had another high profile pupil in Marat Safin, so there’s no doubt he possesses the ability to handle talented players and get their careers going in the right direction. Hopefully he will be able to do the same for Wawrinka by getting him to channel his talent and play within his own boundaries. If so, he could well be headed back to the Top 10.

Back on Track – On the historical grass courts of the Newport Casino, Mardy Fish suddenly found his game and emerged victorious. Fish has been an unfortunate victim of some serious injuries over the course of his career, and he’s also admitted to being more than a little negligent when it came to ensuring he was putting in the time on and off the court to be at his best. But they say it’s never late than never, and nearing his 29th birthday, Mardy Fish may be ready to make a run to the upper echelons of the men’s game, his ranking having jumped 30 places with his victory in the city by the sea. Last year’s Newport finalist appearance turned out to be a catalyst to a great summer for Sam Querrey, and it may bring Fish the same kind of results during the 2010 US Open Series.
Highest Honor – This past Saturday saw the induction of seven new members into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This induction also had a different feel as it focused on some of the greatest doubles teams of all time (though not the first…see Hewitt/McMillan, Class of 1992), and saw the induction of the first wheelchair tennis player, wheelchair tennis founder and pioneer Brad Parks. Don’t expect this to become a trend at the Hall, but rightfully I think we can expect to see more stellar doubles teams and wheelchair tennis athletes behind the podium during Enshrinement Weekend in the future.
And the ESPY goes to… – Okay, not as prestigious as the Oscars or the Emmys, and personally I think there’s a bit of American bias with these awards, but it is worth noting that tennis was well-represented at the 2010 ESPY Awards. Not surprisingly, Roger Federer and Serena Williams took top honors in the sport of tennis, while Kim Clijsters was named the Comeback of the year. But what was best was seeing that John Isner vs. Nicolas Mahut took the cake for best Record-breaking Performance. Again, the quality of the tennis was not the greatest in this match, but a big thank you to those guys for gutting it out for just over 11 hours and putting tennis on the map in a multitude of ways.

YOUR GRASS IS MINE! 2010 WIMBLEDON PREVIEW

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…

US OPEN DARLING MELANIE OUDIN BACK ON TRACK?

Is Melanie Oudin, the darling of last year’s U.S. Open, finally back on track? The 18-year-old Georgian busted out of a six-match losing streak to be the heroine of the U.S. Fed Cup team’s 4-1 upset win over France over the weekend.

Oudin beat France’s Julie Coin 7-6 (3), 6-4 on indoor clay in Lievin, France to clinch victory for the United States and send Captain Mary Joe Fernandez’s squad into the semifinals against Russia in April in the United States.

Oudin gave the USA a 2-0 lead on Saturday when she beat Pauline Parmentier of France 6-4, 6-4.

Since her celebrated run to the quarterfinals of the 2009 US Open, Oudin has registered only a paltry 1-6 record, losing her last six matches entering this Fed Cup series. Her two match wins against France was her best win streak since she beat in succession at the US Open Russians Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, before losing to eventual finalist Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in the quarterfinals. Her U.S. Open success earned her media opportunities on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” among others but not many more match victories.

Will her inspired effort in France lead to more success on the WTA Tour?

THE SHRIEKS OF AZARENKA

The other day, I was sitting in my living room in the UK periodically listening to what sounded like an exasperated woman exhaustingly felling a great oak tree.

Weird, no trees in this part of the city.

I opened the window, looked up and down the street. I’m not imagining it; I can still hear the grunts and squeals. Weird, what could it be?

Then I turned on the TV. Ah, Azarenka’s on court again!

Yes, Victoria Azarenka was busy deafening the Australian public while dealing with Vera Zvonareva at the other end of the court.

In an astonishing matchup which ended with Azarenka winning ten straight games to overturn a one-set deficit and reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open for the first time, only one talking point emerged – her vocal “talents.” Her “talents” were in their full glory again Wednesday when she was up a set and 4-0 on No. 1 seed and defending champion Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, only to lose 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.

These shrieks are like nothing heard before. Maria Sharapova merely whispers compared to this Belarusian bullet.

Against Zvonareva, the crowd mocked her, often mimicking her moans and groans between points and the whole scene became farcical as the umpire struggled to hold control over proceedings.

It was more pantomime then professional sport at times.

This isn’t Azarenka’s first brush with a fuming faithful either. The picky Roland Garros crowd once booed her heaving exhales and her mood swings while she has also been mocked at Wimbledon too.

And quite frankly, rightly so! It is well known that some tennis players forcefully shriek in an attempt to put their opponents off and this has to stop.

As was seen against Zvonareva, there is little umpires can do. While they continually ask the audiences to hush their mocking jibes surely their reprimands should be aimed either side of the net?

Had Zvonareva complained it may have been a different matter. Would the umpire then have the authority to tell the opposition to shut the hell up?

In an age where more and more players seem to be employing this tactic, particularly in the women’s game, the authorities have to step in.

At times it’s just laughable, through exasperation and disbelief more than anything, and takes a lot away from what is a highly respectable sport and, on this occasion, what was a terrific match.

If they wish to remain in the higher echelons of the sporting world then governing bodies have to address such niggling issues before they shout their way out of hand.

MARIA KIRILENKO IS LOOKING SWELL AT THE AUSSIE OPEN!

So is it a surprise that the ever swell looking Maria Kirilenko has reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open? To me it is. I never expected her to reach the second week of the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.  But like I wrote in my “I’ll supply the love: Maria Kirilenko” post and I quote:

I have high hopes for her this upcoming tennis season. I am actually hoping she will grab at least one title and make it into the fourth round of any Grand Slam tournament.

And she has exceeded my expectations already by reaching the quarter finals of the AusOpen 2010. Now it’s time for her to be consistent and I hope that she will be throughout the rest of the 2010 season. Just one step at a time. There is no need to rush.

When asked what she is going to do for her birthday she replied with the following:

Q. I believe it’s your birthday in an hour.

MARIA KIRILENKO: That’s true.

Q. What are you going to do?

MARIA KIRILENKO: I mean, I don’t know. When I was a kid, I had a dream, you know, to be in a Grand Slam main draw in Australia when I have a birthday. I think my dream comes true.

Q. Do you get to have champagne or do you not have that because you’re still in the tournament?

MARIA KIRILENKO: No, I don’t want to get drunk before my next match (laughter). It’s going to be difficult for me to play then. But, yeah, maybe after when I finish with my tournament I will celebrate with the girls from the locker room, with all my friends.

Anyway I am sure you have enough of my ramblings and so here we go with the photos:

[nggallery id=14]

BRING ON A HENIN vs. SERENA FINAL

A blockbuster Justine Henin vs. Serena Williams women’s singles final at the 2010 Australian Open looks like a strong possibility.

A renewal of one of the best rivalries in women’s tennis over the last 10 years looks to be in the cards as the bottom half of the women’s draw opened up with losses by No. 2 seed Dinara Safina and No. 3 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Henin defeating fellow Belgian Yanina Wickmayer 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, to advance into the quarterfinals.

To reach the Australian Open final in only her second tournament back from a 20-month retirement, Henin will have to beat Petrova and then the winner of the Maria Kirilenko vs. Jie Zheng quarterfinal.

Henin won six and lost seven matches against Serena during their rivalry and the two future Hall of Famers have combined for 18 major singles titles. The two players seems destined for a second-round collision course at the pre-Aussie Open event in Sydney, but Henin withdrew from the event after losing an exhausting final the week before against Kim Clijsters in Brisbane.

“I’m sure she’ll be ready and amped to go,” Williams said two weeks ago about the possibility of playing Justine in Sydney. “She has a good record against me so I’m sure it will be a good match.”

Williams lost only two games in their last encounter at Miami in 2008, shortly before Henin announced her shock retirement from tennis while holding the No. 1 ranking. Their most famous – and contentious – match came on June 5, 2003, as documented and excerpted below in the book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.TennisHistoryBook.com)

2003 – Serena Williams is defeated by Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in front of a raucously pro-Henin Hardenne crowd in the semifinals of the French Open, ending Williams’ 33-match major tournament winning streak. The match is highlighted by an incident in the third-set that proves to be contentious and acrimonious between the two rivals for years to come. With Williams serving at 4-2, 30-0 in the final set, Henin-Hardenne raises her hand indicating she is not ready to return serve. Williams serves in the net, then protests, to no avail, to the chair umpire and tournament referee that she should be given a first serve, while Henin-Hardenne says nothing of her gesture. Williams then loses the next four points to lose her service-break advantage and eventually the match. Says Henin-Hardenne, “I wasn’t ready to play the point. The chair umpire is there to deal with these kind of situations. I just tried to stay focused on myself and tried to forget all the other things…It’s her point of view but that’s mine now and I feel comfortable with it….I didn’t have any discussion with the chair umpire. He didn’t ask me anything. I was just trying to focus on playing the returns. She saw me and she served. It was her decision to serve. I just tried to stay focused on the second serve. One point in the match doesn’t change the outcome.”

Safina retired with a back injury in her round of 16 match with Maria Kirilenko, trailing 4-5. Petrova, who upset reigning U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters 6-0, 6-1 in the third round, continued her run by upsetting reigning French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.  Serena Williams faces Aussie Sam Stosur in the round of 16 on Monday night.

BAGHDATIS NETS REVENGE WIN OVER HEWITT

There are no seeds left after quarterfinals at Medibank International in Sydney as local favorite Lleyton Hewitt, the only seeded player in quarterfinals, was defeated Thursday 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 to Marcos Baghdatis.

“The first set and a half I was hitting the ball pretty well, and I was happy with my ball striking,” said Hewitt. “Even after that, my ball striking wasn’t too bad.”

The match was a re-match of a famous match where Hewitt beat Baghdatis two years ago in Melbourne in latest finish match ever (4:34 AM). In the semifinals, Baghdatis will play Mardy Fish. The American ousted the other Aussie, Peter Luczak, 7-6, 6-2 in the night match.

In Auckland, Albert Montanes advanced to his first hard-court semifinal after 6-3, 6-3 over qualifier Michael Lammer. He meets next John Isner, who reached first semifinal outside United States by upseeting No. 1 seed Tommy Robredo 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-4, recovering from 1-3 in the third set.