world stage

Federer After Strong End to Year, Azarenka in for Doha and Rafter to Captain Aussies for Davis Cup Play

*Roger Federer insists he is ready for a strong end to 2010 despite a decidedly off-day at the office when he lost to Andy Murray in the final at the Shanghai Masters. “I’m certainly not yearning for the year to be over,” said the 16-time Grand Slam winner. “I’m very positive for the rest of the season. I had a bit of an off day in the Shanghai final. It’s a pity, but Murray pushed me to that. Mentally I have a lot left for the end of the year.” He added: “I’ve played pretty well since Wimbledon. I hope to go deep into this event and hold up the trophy at the end of the week.” Federer is preparing to play at the Stockholm Open for the first time in a decade and he told BBC Sport how he was looking forward to the occasion.

*According to tennis critics a lot of players have gained from Serena Williams’ injury absence in the latter half of the year and this is true in the case of Viktoria Azarenka who will replace the stricken US star in the WTA Finals in Doha next week. The Belarusian confirmed her place by beating Andrea Petkovic in the first round at the Kremlin Cup.

*Following John Fitzgerald’s retirement after a decade in the role it is Pat Rafter who will take up the reigns as Australian Davis Cup Captain. The two-time US Open winner receives the blessing of “Fitzy” himself and a host of Australian tennis greats coming in to the post. “I am really looking forward to working with the team and helping lift Australian men’s tennis on the world stage,” said Rafter. “We’ve got a lot of young players that have a great opportunity to play for Australia. My standards and expectations are extremely high. This is a great opportunity to be part of something that means a lot to me.” Another Aussie legend, Tony Roche, joins him as coach. For full reaction to the announcement check the ITF website.

*Last week’s HP Open in Osaka was one for the history books. Kimiko Date Krumm (40) shocked the likes of Sam Stosur and Shahar Peer on her way to meeting Tamarine Tanasugarn (33) in what was the final between the oldest competitors ever, with a combined age of 73. By beating Stosur, Krumm also became the first 40-something to ever beat a Top 10 player. Krumm was trying to break the record for the oldest title winner, Billie Jean King having won at Birmingham aged 39 in 1983, but it was Tanasugarn’s day. “I just tried my best and fought as hard as I could,” Date Krumm said. “Nobody wants to lose, so I tried everything. Now I’ll play some ITF events followed by the Asian Games – so I’ll be continuing to play tennis the rest of the year.” Tanasugarn was happy with her performance: “I tried to be more aggressive in the third set and I finally made it,” she said. “Osaka is a great city. This is a great feeling and hopefully I can continue to play like this and get a good start to 2011.”

*Andy Murray says that his win over Roger Federer at Shanghai has once again given him belief that he can lift a Grand Slam. Asked after his shock defeat to Federer’s friend and compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka at the US Open whether he could achieve the feat Murray simply replied: “I’m not sure.” Now things are different. “I need to win tournaments like this,” said Murray. “Beating guys like Roger, beating guys like Rafa (Nadal) gives you confidence that when you do play them in the big tournaments you will beat them. I need to play like I did this week for a whole tournament in the Slams, but it’s pretty simple. I don’t think my game needs to improve so much. I think I have the ability to win them. I’ve been close a few times.” The full interview can be seen at the BBC Sport Tennis website.

*Polish star Agnieszka Radwanska will miss the rest of the season and the 2011 Australian Open after undergoing surgery on a stress fracture in her foot, reports the Polish Times. She is expected to return in February or March.

*Betty Blake, mother of American star James Blake, is releasing her own book on how to be a “tennis mom.” ‘Mix It Up, Make It Nice: Secrets Of A Tennis Mom’ will give insight in how to train and prepare a future tennis star and focuses more on education and family values rather than athletic and tennis training.

*Former world No. 1 Thomas Muster will return to tour-level action as a wildcard at next week’s Bank Austria Tennis Trophy in Vienna. He turned 43-years-old this month but is still hungry to add to the 44 tour-level titles he has already lofted before his retirement following the 1999 French Open, the site of his sole Slam triumph in 1995. “I’m looking forward to it enormously,” Muster told Austria’s Krone. “I want to inspire the crowd with my fitness and fighting spirit. I’m fighting like in the good old times and I will give everything in front of the fans in Vienna.” Muster will now become the oldest player to compete on the tour since Jimmy Connors competed at the same age in Atlanta in 1996.

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?