tennis players

Citi Open Q&A: Rhyne Williams Talks Embarrassing Moments, Keeping His Cool on Court and More

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Twenty-two-year-old Rhyne Williams captured his first win at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. as he defeated good friend Robby Ginepri in the grueling heat, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. (Gallery at bottom)

The pair went our for dinner Friday night in D.C. joking about the possibility of having to play each other in yet another tournament, after Williams most recently defeated his fellow American to win the Dallas Challenger in February.

Williams acknowledged how tough of a competitor Ginepri was again today.

“I played Robby so many times, we know each other’s game so well,” said Williams.  “I knew it was going to be tough from the first point. We always have battles. He likes to run me side to side, I’ve noticed. So it was fun to get to play him again.”

Despite the nine aces, the Tennessee native admitted to having some right shoulder trouble the past couple of months and feeling “a little banged up right now,” but is hoping it’s nothing serious. He plans on checking it out sometime after this week’s tournament, but not before attending his sister’s wedding next weekend.

So what if Williams happens to make a deep run at the Citi Open and is forced to miss his sister’s wedding?

“She’ll probably be pissed,” he laughed. “But I have to do it!”

I sat down with the charismatic, funny and level-headed Williams as he talked about his family’s tennis legacy, his love for Chipotle and his most embarrassing moment among other topics. Get to know one of American tennis’ rising stars!

What is your most memorable moment?
I’ll probably say qualifying for the US Open last year. Not only qualifying but I got to play Andy Roddick on Ashe stadium. That was a blast. To feel that environment for my first time — I’ll never forget that. …. That’s by far my favorite tournament.

How did you first start playing tennis?
My mom taught me tennis. She was top 100 in the world, so she taught me when I was 7 or 8 years old. We got out there a couple of times per week. I also played a lot of basketball and baseball growing up, but decided on tennis. Everybody (in the family plays.) You wouldn’t believe it. It’s overwhelming at times, but they’ve done a good job letting me do my thing. My cousin is with me all the time, and that’s been great. We’ve been not only family, but best friends. We grew up across the street from each other, hit every day growing up. No one knows me really as well as Christopher does.

If you were hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite and why?
(Laughs) I would invite Roger (Federer) – he’s my all-time favorite. I guess I have to throw a female in there too. I’ll go with Ana Ivanovic, another one of my favorites. And then, I’ll probably invite my best buddy, Tennys Sandgren.

What is one thing that scares you?
Flying. I used to never, never be fazed. But lately, I can’t even handle a little bump. I freak out, grab an armrest. I’m terrified now; it’s awful.

Rhyne Williams_Citi Open_27 July 2013-6What are two things you couldn’t live without?
Chipotle …

There are a few in D.C.

Yes, we went. I’ve been.

Already?

Yea. (Laughs) … So, Chipotle … and college sports.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be doing?
I would probably be playing baseball. That was my first love. The first thing I picked up was a baseball bat and gloves. My dad and I used to throw the baseball around and have batting practice.

What is your most embarrassing moment?
(Laughs) I was playing a Future in Spain a long time ago — I think I was 16 years old. And there was a pretty good crowd; I was playing one of the hometown favorites and everyone was cheering for him. I was acting like an idiot. I think I ran for a dropshot, didn’t get it. Got mad. Kicked the net and my foot got stuck in the net. I fell down on the court and everyone in the crowd erupted into cheers. I actually injured my tailbone from doing that. I was hobbling around the rest of the match and ended up losing. I deserved it. (Laughs)

What’s the secret to keeping your cool on court now, after being somewhat notorious for smashing racquets and such?
Don’t jinx it! (Laughs) Maybe I’m just growing up, I don’t know. It’s such a day-by-day thing. Some days I really love being out there. Some days I just can’t stand it. That’s why I have Christopher to try and keep me happy and calm out there.

Sometimes there’s just no turning back (from an outburst), but sometimes I can catch myself before it gets out of hand. But I have been better. It really just depends if I’m mentally fresh, then I’m probably going to hold it together. If I’m worn out or something is bothering me off the court, then maybe I’m more likely to smash a racquet or something. But I’ve been working on it really hard for sure.

What are your goals for the year in terms of progress or ranking?
I really want to make the push for the top 100. I think I’m already really close. But if I do end up breaking that, I don’t want to be satisfied with that. I want to stay inside the top 100, and be in all the Grand Slams without having to qualify.

That’s where I want to be the rest of my career. I think it’s doable. I still have a lot of work to do and a lot of growing up to do, but I think I’m on the right track. And I see guys like Steve (Johnson), Jack (Sock) and Denis (Kudla) who have all done it. We’re all pushing each other up the rankings, and that’s so great about having peers that are trying to do the same thing you are. You want to push yourself to stay on pace with them. It’s been nice having a group – we’re all friends and good buddies — who are doing the same thing as you.

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

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Janko Tipsarevic on Davis Cup, his DJing career, and His Serbian Teammates


Current world #9 Janko Tipsarevic is a force to be reckoned with on the tennis court, having finally won his first two titles on the ATP Tour last year. The Serb helped his country win the Davis Cup last year and credits his teammates as his best friends. I had the chance to chat with him about his time in Miami, the start of his DJing career and his Davis Cup win.

Knowing you enjoy house music, have you had a chance to catch to catch any of the Ultra Music Festival going on in downtown Miami?

I didn’t have a chance to go out to Ultra.

Is it on the schedule?

I think today is the last day, right?

Yes.

So, no. Luckily, it’s not on the schedule, so that means I’m performing well.  I went out on Saturday to “Mansion” and it was overcrowded because it was the beginning of Winter Music Conference.

I am starting my DJ career. Last week, I was DJing with Bob Sinclair [at the player’s party] and picked up a few tricks. I was really happy about that.

What is your most memorable moment on court?

Winning the Davis Cup.

If you are hosting a party, what three tennis players do you invite and why?

I would probably invite the Serbian Davis Cup team because they are my closest friends, and I feel most relaxed when I am around them. We can talk literally about anything. Novak [Djokovic], Viktor [Troicki] would be my first picks.

What are two things you can’t live without?

Two things? People are not counted so I do not have to say my wife, right? (Jokes and laughs). I would say cell phone and internet.

If you could invite any three people to dinner, living or dead, who would they be and why?

Living or dead? Hmmm. (Long pause). I would invite probably Swedish House Mafia.

DJ a little with them, maybe join them?

Pfff. That would be good!

Fun Q&A With Sam Stosur


Australian and current world number 5 Sam Stosur has been riding high since winning last year’s U.S. Open, and she has cruised through her first match here at the Sony Ericsson Open. With her game still soundly developing and her mental strength peaking, Sam is on course to potentially be a multiple-slam champion. Only time will tell, but in the meantime, enjoy the Q&A I did with her in Miami. We talk about her most memorable moment, Steffi Graf and flying.

One of the more easy-going WTA players, she came across friendly and eager to participate.

What is your most memorable moment on court?

Definitely the U.S. Open last year — the final, the whole last two weeks was fantastic. And I remember every match but, of course, the final was the standout one.

Looking back on it with what happened with Serena Williams, does it overshadow your victory or anything?

Not in my eyes, no! (Laughs) I don’t even think about that point in time. Obviously, it was a big point in the match and that could have really turned it, but that’s not something I look at and it doesn’t make anything with it sour.

What player do you least like to face on court and why?

I don’t know. There’s a few players I have never beaten before, I guess. So probably those. There are lots of players you like playing against and you like the way they play and the way the ball comes off. And then there’s others that you definitely don’t [like to face on court].

Any particular players?

I won’t name names but you can see who I’ve never beaten before and put them in. (Laughs)

*Editor’s Note: On a quick search, Sam is 0-6 against Victoria Azarenka, 0-5 against Kim Clijsters and 0-4 against Flavia Pennetta.

If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?

Probably Steffi Graf. She was my idol growing up and I loved the way she played, loved her forehand, her demeanor court, everything. She’s got to be one of the greatest players that’s ever played, so I would like to play her.

Have you ever had a chance to hit with her?

No. I met her once though so that was pretty cool. I was probably more nervous meeting her than playing most of my matches. (Laughs)

If you were hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite?

There are some fun ones on tour … [Francesca] Schiavone, Na Li, Alicia Molik – she’s retired now, but you can put her in. (Laughs)

What are two things you can’t live without?

Lip balm and maybe a computer.

Are you online a lot, staying in touch with family/friends that way?

It fills in time, doesn’t it? (Laughs)

Do you watch movies on your laptop?

Yup.

What’s the most recent good one that you have seen?

Good one that I’ve seen? I haven’t watched too many good ones recently. (Laughs) The last one I downloaded was “The Help” but I haven’t watched that one yet.

It’s good, I enjoyed it – made me cry.

(Laughs) I will probably cry too then.

Last question, what is one thing that scares you?

Flying.

Flying, really?!

Yea, I don’t like flying. (Laughs)

You’re a tennis player and you have to travel so much?

I know, it’s a really bad combination!

(Photo courtesy of Neal Trousdale. You can view his full Flickr gallery here.)

Milos Raonic Talks About Biggest Fear, Pete Sampras, and Good-Looking Girls


Milos Raonic stands fervent among a slew of young ATP players hoping to break into the top 10 of the world rankings this year. At 21-years-old, this Canadian has stood as a gauge of what the next generation of tennis players has to offer. Today at the Sony Ericsson Open, I had the opportunity to catch up with Milos and ask him some fan-friendly questions, including what he would be if he weren’t a tennis player and what three tennis players would he want to party with. Always honest and friendly, his answers are sure to leave you laughing!

What is the greatest moment in your career?

Winning San Jose and then defending it.  First title, and then being able to back it up is amazing.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be?

I would be trying to play basketball. I love the sport. But I think really I would be finishing University.

If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?

Pete Sampras, he was my idol. I got to play him actually last year. But any other player I would like to play? (Pause) McEnroe or Borg because it’s a big change since they played and I think it would be amazing to step up against them.

If you’re hosting a party, what three tennis players do you invite?

Feliciano Lopez. (Smiles) He’ll bring a lot of good-looking girls.

Daniel Nestor, he’s funny and we like to tease him a bit. He’s not the biggest partier, but he’s fun to have around.

And the third player that I would pick to party with? (Long pause, converses and jokes with ATP rep). Oh, Marat Safin. He’ll bring a lot more good-looking girls too. (Laughs)

What is one thing that scares you?

(Long pause) Ok, let’s say, the biggest thing that scares me is probably being stranded in open water.

WTA Spotlight on American Tennis Player Vania King


American Vania King may seem like a veteran on the WTA Tour but at only 23-years-old, she is one of the more experienced younger players in women’s tennis. Currently sitting at a steady world number 54, she will soon best her career-high of #50 from back in 2006. I had a chance to chat with Vania after her first-round win about her Wimbledon title, her education, and the players she would most want to party with.

What is your most memorable moment on court?

Winning Wimbledon with my doubles partner [Yaroslava Shvedova]. I think I screamed for like twenty minutes straight — I couldn’t believe it. It took me like two weeks for it to settle in, so that was pretty incredible.

If you weren’t a tennis palyer, what would you be?

I think I would be like a guidance counselor for kids; that’s something that I want to pursue. I haven’t declared my major yet, but I’m studying it online right now. I would like to work in elementary education or psychology.

How long have you been studying?

For about half a year.

Do you have any superstitions on court?

I try not to. I know girls that don’t like to step on the line. Sometimes I make it a point to step on the line to make sure that I don’t have a superstition. Some players want to stay on one side if they keep winning. But eventually, you’re going to lose on any side you’re on and eventually you’re going to lose if you didn’t step on the line. So I think superstitions shouldn’t affect you. The only thing they can do is harm you.

If you were hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite?

(Laughs) Obviously, everyone wants to see Rafa [Nadal]. And then one of my good friends is Anna-Lena Groenefeld and we’ve gone out and partied before and she’s really fun. And the third one, I would say one of my best friends is my doubles partner, Yaroslava Shvedova. I would have to invite her or she would be really mad at me! (Laughs)

What is your biggest indulgence?

I try not to let tennis consume me, so I try to be good with food. But sometimes I’m not good with food — I just figure that I’m really hungry and I want to east what I want to eat. (Laughs)

Is there a sweet that you tend to go for?

Cupcakes and French macaroons.

What are two things you can’t live without?

Music and books.

Any type of music in particular that you like?

It varies on the mood. I can’t pick just one because when I’m in an upbeat mood or if I need to have some energy, then I’ll listen to some club music. If I need to calm down, I’ll listen to classical or cinematic music.

The Way the Body Works: Players Recovering from Stomach Bug Expected to Play Better at the Sony Ericsson Open

The top tennis players in the world converge this week for the 2012 Sony Ericsson Open in pristine Key Biscayne, Florida. As the world’s premier tournament outside of the four grand slams, these next two weeks are sure to bring many storylines and possibly some surprise winners on both the ATP and WTA tours.

Last week during the BNP Paribas Open, the tournament saw several high-profile players pull out due to a sweeping 48-hour long stomach bug that effected players, coaches and fans alike. One theory not yet tested in tennis is just how successful these same players will be in the week after their bodies and immune systems have had to fight off a vicious virus. That being said, will the players affected by last week’s stomach bug perform better or worse than their healthier counterparts this week in Key Biscayne? The answer: much better, and here’s why.

When the body is forced to fight an infection or virus, the immune system is initially compromised. But because of immunological memory, the body becomes more alert and “remembers” the pathogen it previously killed. You may have experienced this added alertness after recovering from a cold – you are less likely to contract another cold or virus directly after your initial cold because your immune system is more alert to foreign pathogens.

As tennis players’ immune systems are no different than our own, it’s very likely that they will respond in the same manner: the players who pulled out last week from the BNP Paribas Open are less likely to contract any new virus this week, and thus more likely to have extra energy as their bodies should be fully recovered and their immune systems more alert.

The list of pull-outs is no short list, and includes Petra Kvitova, Francesca Schiavone, Gael Monfils, Vera Zvonareva, Vania King, Jurgen Melzer, Mike Bryan, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Andreas Seppi, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Magdalena Rybarikova. Meanwhile, even Roger Federer stated he felt “under the weather” at the beginning of the tournament.

As the players range anywhere from number 1 on the ATP rankings to number 86 on the WTA rankings, it will be interesting to see the players’ progression through the draw. As some will undoubtedly fizzle out due to other factors, it’s no certain science, but I would bet that at least a few of these players will have better than expected results during the next two weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schiavone or Melzer bust through with excellent runs, and now you would know why. It’s all thanks to their immune system.

If I Were The Tennis Santa

I really feel bad for the tennis players over the holidays.  They work so hard for so little and barely have time to relax!  So if I were the Tennis Santa, what would I bring them to lighten their load and bring a smile to their faces during this season of cheer?

The first thing I would wrap up and put under the e-tree would be the Fountain of Youth. Did you know that it’s actually an Archaeological Park in Florida?  How cool! I’d pass out a lot of these since quite a few players are at or around the age of doom (30) and could use the assistance turning back the clock and prolonging their tennis primes. I wouldn’t give one to Federer though. He doesn’t need any help.

Speaking of turning back time, I’ve found the perfect gift to help Andy Roddick re-discover his days of glory- or at least his days of hair. The Afro-Visor!


For Andy Murray, I thought some “Understand Your Mother (Instantly) Breath Spray” might be helpful, considering his mother’s eternal wisdom and awesomeness.

I’d give this “Sharp-End Dog Pencil Sharpener” to Rafael Nadal, mainly just to see his reaction.  What’s the fun in playing Santa if you can’t be a little bit naughty?

 

On the other end of the spectrum Robin Soderling just got a new puppy, so I will certainly have to bring him an embarrassing costume for the adorable pet!

I thought I’d get the cerebral Sam Stosur something special to help those match to-do lists stay put. Sweat-bands and sharpies are too finicky of a combination for a Grand Slam Champion!  She’ll love these “To-Do Tattoos”.

 

I’ve decided it’s time for Agnieszka Radwanska to finally come out of the ninja closet.  This “Ninja Hooded Mask” will reveal her true identity in 2012. Watch out WTA!

 

For Mikhail Youzhny, and maybe the rest of his Russian compatriots, I’d like to try to eliminate the brain farts on the court.  Therefore, why not help them get out of their system off the court?  The “Brain Fart Whoopie Cushion” should do the trick.

 

And finally, I’d like to prolong the day that Jelena Jankovic inevitably runs out of entertaining excuses for losing tennis matches. With this “Instant Excuse Ball” the colorful Serbian should have material for years to come!

 

So that’s my list- what about you? What would you virtually gift to your favorite players if you were the Tennis Santa? Feel free to share in the comments section, or tweet me with your lists. And no matter what you celebrate, be sure to have a safe and happy Holiday season. There’s no time to be too naughty, the new tennis season is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christina McHale Ready to Continue Ascent in 2012

Christina McHale chooses not to think about being the next American tennis champion. The 19-year-old also tries not to set specific ranking or tournament goals for herself.

But whatever McHale is doing, it seems to be working.

In just her first full year as a professional on the WTA Tour, McHale has a resume most young tennis players dream about. She upset world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in Cincinnati, reached the third round of the 2011 U.S. Open and brought home a bronze medal while representing Team USA at the Pan American Games.

“I’ve gotten a lot more experience this year, playing a lot more matches at the bigger level consistently,” said McHale about her successful season. “I improved my fitness too. I think the big part of it was a lot more experience playing with the top players and playing the full year schedule.”

McHale finished the 2011 season as the second ranked American at No. 43, behind only Serena Williams’ No. 12 ranking. McHale, with her powerful strokes and movement she labels as her “biggest weapon,” leads the contingent of young Americans talents.

Despite the growing accolades, McHale is not letting the success get to her head.

“I really try not to think about [being the next top American player] or put pressure on myself,” she said.  “What I’ve been doing this past year, I haven’t been thinking about things like that. I’ve just been focusing on my game and practicing and things like that. I just want to keep that same mentality.”

McHale grew up in Teaneck, NJ, only a short drive away from the USTA National Training Center in Flushing Meadows, NY – home of the U.S. Open. But her tennis journey began in Hong Kong, where her father, John, was stationed for work. McHale first picked up a racquet at four-years-old, following in the footsteps of her older sister Lauren, who is currently a junior on the University of North Carolina tennis team.

Upon leaving Hong Kong at the age of eight and moving to Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where she resides now, McHale and Lauren shot up the junior ranks. The sisters, who idolized Serena and Venus Williams, both won national titles and set a record for being the first siblings since 1996 (Bob and Mike Bryan) to be in the top 10 year-end rankings in the same age division in 2007.

Three years later, McHale was faced with the decision to turn pro or play in college like her sister. Even with the mounting success and trophies, the choice was not easy.

“I only turned pro last year when I graduated high school [in 2010],” she said. “I was definitely weighing both options. Eventually I knew this is what I wanted to do, and I wanted to take advantage of a time like now. It was definitely a big decision for me.”

The decision has paid dividends, and McHale, with her quiet confidence, is poised for a strong 2012 season. McHale took 10 days off to relax after the Pan American Games but is already in her third week of full training, proving that there is no rest for the weary.

When asked if she was ready to take it to the next level and attention that comes with it, the easy-going McHale responded with wisdom beyond her years.

“I think if I continue to do what I’ve been doing this past year and not get too anxious from results, and if I just let it happen when it’s ready to happen, then I think I’ll be ready.”

(Photos via Getty Images)

Sony Ericsson highlights: Ana Ivanovic dances the Petkovic

So how is everyone’s first week of the Sony Ericsson Open coming along? Are your favorites still in or are they already out of the singles tournament? I hope for many of you that it is an enjoyable ride so far.  It has been for me and it is not because of the news that Roger Federer tied with Pete Sampras’ 7th place with 762 victories each.  Or that Kim Clijsters is feeding daughter Jada extra jodium to counteract radioactive radiation that hit the atmosphere after the tsunami in Japan two weeks ago.  Because of that disaster Clijsters has said to the press that she will not play in Japan or Beijing for this year. In  a statement released by the WTA Tour, Clijsters had the following to say:

“Most importantly, my thoughts and sympathies are with the people in Japan,” Kim Clijsters said in the statement. “It’s heart-wrenching to see what they’re going through right now. Of course the health and safety of anyone traveling to a potentially impacted area is my top priority as well as the WTA’s, and I know that the WTA will continue to monitor the situation.”

It is very understandable that you don’t want to go play there but I also think that a tennis tournament could be the furthest thing on their mind. Ofcourse we are very greatful for the great message that Kim Clijsters and other WTA tour and ATP Tour players have sent to Japan. From benefit soccer matches to Caroline Wozniacki & Victoria Azarenka creating a huge ad. It is great to see that tennis players are so involved with the world and are politically aware . They raised money for Haiti in 2010, Australia in 2011 and now Japan.It is a great gesture.

To complete my ongoing list of  remarkable things that happened this week in the world of international tennis, the racy ad that featured a very sexy Serena Williams in a Topspin 4 commercial. Now I don’t have a problem with that advertisement but then again I am from the Netherlands. I don’t know if that makes a difference with whereever you are but it does, apparently, in other parts of the world. But then again I can understand 2K Sports for not running it. They are selling a tennis game and not subscriptions to Playboy.

Ofcourse one of the biggest the surprises this week was Andy Roddick’s demise. He didn’t give up without a fight though. He admirably finished his lost match versus Paraguay’s Pablo Cuevas 6-4, 7-6. After three visits from his trainer in the second set and his  trouble breathing because of chest congestion Roddick admitted to the press that he has sustained an injury but would not ellaborate any further.Roddick has struggled with a bronchial infection since last month and plans to see a doctor when he gets back to Texas.

More exciting news was  LeBron James and Dwayne Wade came to watch Rafael Nadal’s match. And they didn’t just watch the game but they were also part of the coin toss.

“There’s certain things in Miami that guys should experience,” Wade said. “So I had to drag LeBron out here, but I think this is something he’ll probably come back to next year and come back for years after that. This is a good experience. It’s something different and it’s a great day off, getting over here with the kids.”

Now that is interesting. Last year we had Kim Kardashian and this year we have two major basketball stars. I wonder who they will get for next year’s edition. And to be honest all this makes me wonder why Europe does not have such a pre  event. A coin toss with soccer players or former soccer players like Zinedine Zidane or Lionel Messi would be great. We did have Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos and others watch the Madrid Open of last year. That was pretty cool but no coin toss.

My highlight of the week was Ana Ivanovic dancing the Petkovic!  I was just as baffled when I first saw it as you who is going to hit play in just a moment. Even Petkovic was baffled by the fact that she managed to pull it off to have Ana dance her dance.

 

And here is the video:

And I found another funny video of Ana Ivanovic. She won the official bomb competition in Australia. Bomb competition? Yah, just watch the video and you will see what I mean!

US Open: Why Top Players Lose

At the start of every tournament, a player’s slate is cleaned. Whether they’ve won the previous week’s tournament or failed to even qualify, in tennis, everything can change in a week. Player’s go on hot-streaks as well as cold-runs, losing to lower-ranked opponents who simply took advantage of the opportunity to play a big name in a big stadium at a big tournament. And this was the case in the opening rounds at this year’s US Open, where several seeds took early surprise exits.

On this big of a world stage, anything can happen: youngsters take out veterans and darkhorses, players finally fulfill their potential and take out higher-ranked opponents, and heat favors the mentally strong ones. But why do the game’s elite succumb to players sometimes ranked 200 spots below them? It is simply nerves? Yes and no.

After a loss, we sometimes hear the top-seeded players give the easy answer: blaming the wind and crowd, grasping at any phantom injury they could think of, and overall citing their games’ weaknesses instead of their opponents’ clear strengths as the deciding factor. What they fail to mention, is the state of their psyche. For a sport so dependent on mental strength, it seems strange that players don’t talk about that more often. Mental fortitude was clearly the culprit that kept Tomas Berdych from breaking through until earlier this year in Miami. Like him, many players have the talent, the tennis I.Q., the physical strength, yet simply lack the stability in the mind to come back from 0-5, 0-40 down. After all, tennis players are still human, though as fans, we tend to build them into superheroes. But, as evident by Roger Federer’s struggles this year claiming only two titles, even superheroes can falter.

Kei Nishikori of Japan. September 2, 2010

Take, for example, Kei Nishikori’s second round defeat of #11 Marin Cilic yesterday. Not only did the match almost break the record for the longest match at the US Open at a whopping 4 hours and 59 minutes, but Nishikori handed Cilic a breadstick in the fifth set, 6-1. Cilic is no slacker however. He overtook both Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick at the year’s first slam, the Australian Open, to reach the semis, beat Rafael Nadal in Beijing last October, took out Andy Murray in straight sets at last year’s US Open, and has been firmly planted in the top 20 since January of 2009. Nishikori, on the other hand, is ranked #147 in the world and even fell out of the rankings earlier this year due to an elbow injury sustained last year. He’s on a comeback trail and clearly using his experiences away from tennis to fire himself up in his game. After the 3-hour mark of a match, fitness can no longer be cited as the culprit for a player’s loss, as clearly both are fit to last the scorching New York sun. After 4 hours, it’s all about mental strength and who can stay focused and ‘win ugly’ better. With the first four sets being marginally close, the 6-1 score in the fifth set is pretty telling of who lasted longer mentally.

Americans Ryan Harrison and Beatrice Capra

Then, there are those youngsters who have absolutely nothing to prove and walk away with a great victory over a top player. Ryan Harrison’s defeat of #15 Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, or Beatrice Capra’s advancement to the second round including a win over #18 Arvane Rezai shows another side to why seemingly great and capable players lose to relative nobodys. After having lost her chance to get a wildcard into the US Open by losing in the Girls’ 18 national tournament, Capra went home to Ellicott City, MD to “chill.” She then received a call from the USTA to play in their wildcard playoff tournament and voila, she got into the main draw as a wildcard after all. Harrison, on the other hand, went through the qualifying tournament and had match-play under his belt when he took on Ljubicic. With both Rezai and Ljubicic, you could say the heat and nerves were a factor as neither had played a match in days and perhaps weren’t acclimated. But with their gutsy defeats, Harrison and Capra say the rest is “just bonus.” The youngsters had more time on court, nothing to lose, and increased confidence in their game. Their competitors simply weren’t prepared and couldn’t study their opponents in time.

World #214, Andreas Haider-Maurer. August 30, 2010

And that brings up another reason why top players struggle in the opening rounds: the relative lack of knowledge about their lower-ranked opponents’ game. The elite play each other week-in and week-out, and know what to expect in another’s shots, playing style and strategy. Journeymen, however, travel the futures and challengers circuits struggling to win but tend to have a strange familiarity with the top players’ games when they are slated against each other. The journeymen already know the ins and outs of the top opponent’s play, as they’ve either watched them live, on tv, or perhaps even grown up admiring them. The top dog, on the other hand, may never have even heard of his opponent. Now, how do you study and learn someone’s game who you’ve never even heard of? Well, if you have a smart enough coach, you would scope out the player’s previous match. This can be time-consuming and even often prove unreliable since players at that level are inconsistent and may simply win by default because of their opponent’s more aggressive, but error-filled, play. All in all, if you’re a ‘Djokovic’ taking on a ‘Jesse Witten’ like in last year’s third round at the US Open, you may become easily frustrated when your 276-ranked opponent is blowing you off the court with his forehand and unexpected lateral speed. Four days ago, we saw a similar pattern in Robin Soderling’s opening match against 23-year-old Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer. Haider-Maurer, currently ranked 214, not only won the third set tiebreak but also won the fourth set, forcing a fifth. He barely lost 6-4 in the fifth to a man who has commandingly beaten both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in recent times. It’s interesting watching Haider-Maurer stay cool and collected while Soderling scrambled to figure out his opponent.

Another factor during a match also includes the high heat and humidity, but which player does this favor, the journeyman or top dog? In short, neither. While it’s easy to think that the top players have gotten to the top precisely because their fitness overcame the heat, in reality, fitness almost becomes null at this level of the game. It’s a strange concept to analyze, but it makes more sense when you realize that the scorching heat envelopes everyone’s lungs, legs and head in the same way. Rarely do players have the upper hand when play gets heavy, dragged out, sloppy and almost slow-motion. The big guys, like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling seem to be exceptions and all have speed, strength and stamina. But how do players like Michael Llodra outplay and outwit ones like #7 Tomas Berdych in the first round? Or how Robert Kendrick was able to take Gael Monfils to 6-4 in the fifth set, or Viktor Troicki take Novak Djokovic to 6-3 in the fifth as well? Or even how newly-fit Mardy Fish was forced to five sets against Jan Hajek, even while winning three of them 6-0, 6-0, 6-1? Tennis is a strange sport and it is hard enough picking winners on any given day when the weather is mild. Throw in 140-degree temperatures on-court with not a single cloud in the sky, and you have the recipe for any top player’s nightmare. At these temperatures it’s hard to argue that a win comes about because of fitness or physical capabilities when neither player retires from the match. Instead it seems to favor the one who is able to squeak by with a few more winners and more playing experience on a big stage. Both players are battling the same demon and this is when mental toughness sets the two players apart.

Tomas Berdych. September 1, 2010

The first three days at the US Open were filled with storylines about cinderella stories and other notable exits by top players, such as Andy Roddick going out to Janko Tipsarevic in surprising fashion. But as tennis fans we expect this sort of drama to happen. In fact, it’s almost a pre-requisite to viewer involvement; it’s what makes tennis so exciting and unpredictable. But then one question still remains for me: why do we insist on calling all of these losses ‘surprise exits’ if we expect them to inevitably happen? What’s your take?