Archive for the ‘Tennis’ Category

Soderling vs. Nadal – 2009 French Open

In case you missed the upset of a lifetime, here’s the match in its entirety.  Robin Soderling does the unthinkable and hands Rafael Nadal his first loss ever at Roland Garros.  Nadal had won the previous four titles there, a run involving 31 consecutive match wins.

From the 2006 quarterfinals onward, he lost only two sets.  Let me make that clear:  In 20 matches, he only twice allowed an opponent to win ONE set.  Therefore, the idea of one person taking THREE sets off Nadal in the same match seems all the more preposterous.   Not only did Soderling do this, but he did so without having to play a fifth set.  I think this pretty clearly illustrates the magnitude of his accomplishment.  Especially since Nadal manhandled Soderling on clay in Rome barely a month ago, with Nadal conceding only one game!

In a discussion on The Tennis Channel, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova expectedly labeled the match one of the greatest upsets in tennis history.  But they also brought up a past-era analogy by pointing out Björn Borg, who with Nadal is considered arguably the greatest clay-court player of all-time.  Of the nine French Opens contested between 1973 to 1981, Borg won the title six times and lost only twice (he didn’t play in ’77).  But those two losses were to the same player:  Adriano Panatta, who defeated him in the 1973 round of 16 and the 1976 quarterfinals.  It’s an apt comparison, since Panatta and Soderling both beat men otherwise unbeatable on the Parisian terre battue.

Without further ado, here’s the full match of Soderling def. Nadal, 2009 French Open fourth round, 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(2):

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The Art of the Grunt

My radio piece about grunting in professional tennis is finally up on the web.

It’s part of this podcast I hosted last Friday.

Sit back and enjoy…

“The Art of the Grunt”

Federer vs. Murray – das ist übertennis!!

Because the US is unwilling to recognize tennis as a viable sport, I couldn’t see any of the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup on TV. (Double disappointment that Rafael Nadal – Mr. Biceps – withdrew with an injury).

However, I’ve been following the highlights, and Andy Murray’s narrow victory over Roger Federer produced some of the most exquisite, captivating tennis of the year.

The cerebration was almost tangible — this contest was a joint creative act between two thinkers.  Both are capable of hitting 100-mph winners, but the real story of this match was the way they constructed points.  It seemed each exchange produced dizzying variations in shot selection, pace, spin, and direction.  No angle was left unused, and the court-coverage of both players was impeccable.

At times, it seemed as if each shot was part of a dialogue, a mutual effort to create the “perfect” point.

Enough of my blab.  Some of the best points can be found here:

Along with some more extended highlights:

Thoughts on the 2008 US Open

1.  Lucky Number 13

Federer is now only one major title away from tying Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slams

Firstly, some gushing is in order…

Ridunculous.  Beautimous.  Outrageous.  Just plain awesome.

Those were some of the commonplace and/or nonsensical expressions going through my head while watching Roger Federer capture his 13th Grand Slam title.  He made Andy Murray look like Maximo Gonzalez (who Federer beat in the first round of the tournament).  Murray looked completely out of his league, amateurish even.  And not by any fault of his.  He was simply outplayed by an all-time great who, like any great athlete, showcased his best stuff at the biggest moment and on the biggest stage.

Murray tried to become the first man from the United Kingdom to win a Grand Slam since Fred Perry in 1936

Murray had a fantastic tournament, becoming only the third player from the UK to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era (Greg Rusedski in 1997 and John Lloyd 1977).  Along the way, he thoroughly outclassed the No. 1 player in the world, Rafael Nadal, displaying a mature and multifaceted combination of power, precision, mental fortitude, consistency, and control.  You know you’re doing something right when you have Nadal huffing and puffing, which is what happened after the penultimate point of the match (during which Murray controlled the speed and direction of the ball beautifully, mercilessly bending Nadal’s court position to his whim).

Some might say Murray’s lack of rest time contributed to the lopsided score of the final.  Although there might be some truth to that, let’s give credit where it’s due.  Federer once again made the game look easy.  After a year dealing with the aftershocks of mono — during which the media expectedly and opportunisitcally played the “Is Federer over the hill?” angle — Federer came alive in a way we haven’t seen all year.

At times, I was reminded of his performance during the final set of his match against Agassi in the 2005 final.  The parallels are striking.  In the 2005 match, Agassi gave a tremendous effort in sending the penultimate set to a tie-break, where Federer cleaned up.  The mental letdown of losing the set got the better of Agassi (justifiably), and Federer unleashed a frightening torrent of winners to go up 5-0 in the fourth.  By that time, Agassi had won only five (yes, five!!) points in the entire set.  He avoided the bagel, but still lost 6-1.

In yesterday’s match, Murray got to 5-all in the second set before Federer elevated his game and broke Murray to win the set 7-5.  And similarly, the letdown for Murray was noticeable.  In the blink of an eye, Federer had a 5-0 lead in the third, and Murray had won only…three points in the set!

I also saw a parallel to the man whose legacy Federer is now chasing:  Pete Sampras.  Like Federer in ’08, the Sampras of ’96 was plagued by a lackluster year.  For Federer, it was mono; for Sampras, it was the loss of his coach Tim Gullickson to a brain tumor.  Like Federer, Sampras lost at Wimbledon for the first time in several years.  And like Federer, Sampras looked to the US Open to salvage a thusfar Slamless year.

It doesn’t end there.  How about both men coming close to defeat in five-set matches??

Okay, so the Federer-Andreev match wasn’t nearly as close as the Sampras-Corretja behemoth, which went to a fifth-set tie-break.  That was one of the most dramatic matches ever played, during which Sampras doubled over with exhaustion, vomitted on court, saved a match point, and then hit arguably the greatest shot of his career (it’s not often you can say that the greatest shot by one of the greatest tennis players ever was a second serve barely over 90 mph).  But both matches went five sets, and were thus important physical challenges that put each man on the precipice of a year without a Slam.  And both made it through and went on to win the tournament (and swing the media predictably back in their favor).

During the finals, Federer danced around the court, striking winners of considerable difficulty with a fluidity that took on an aesthetic dimension.  I don’t hide my favoritism for Federer, but watching him yesterday, I was reminded why.  He has the ability to turn a strenous physical skill of unquestionable complexity into a dazzling display of mellifluous and balletic virtuosity.  It’s why I go out on a tennis court and practice diligently, trying desperately to attain the blissful satisfaction that comes with turning the toils of hard labor into the exquisite reality of a techincally flawless, perfectly struck winner.

When you appreciate that kind of brilliance, you can get a little overzealous about it.  I’d be the first to admit that my admiration for Federer can at times take on an annoyingly evangelical tone.  But that’s what happens when you have anything akin to a religious experience.  You want to spread the gospel.  (Hmmm…need I point out the irony of my atheism here??)

As I said in a previous post, if you scoff at my comparing sports to religion, I point you towards this wonderful article by David Foster Wallace.

So Federer becomes the first player in history — male or female, Open era or otherwise — to win five straight titles at two different Grand Slams (Wimbledon 2003-07, US Open 2004-08).

Hopefully, he’ll be able to recapture the No. 1 ranking before the year is out (although it will be tough) and regain his form at the Australian Open in January.

*  *  *

2.  The Youngins

Donald Young

Donald Young

In particular, it was a good tournament for young players.  First the Americans:  Donald Young pushed James Blake to five sets in one of the first night matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium.  Though Young lost, he’s not yet 20, and the poise and maturity he showed in pushing a player almost 10 years his senior showed that he’s going to be a terrific player in the up and coming years.  His speed and his lefty spin will be great assets.

In the fourth round, Sam Querrey pushed Rafael Nadal to four sets.  Unfortunately, his inexperience and lack of confidence ensured that he didn’t get into the match quickly enough.  But he broke Nadal three times in the second set and once again in the third set.  Since the start of the French Open in May, Nadal has lost only one match, and he’s rarely dropped serve, so Querrey’s four breaks are quite an accomplishment.

Sam Querrey

Sam Querrey

I expected Querrey to give Nadal trouble, because he’s extremely tall (6’6″), which means Nadal’s high-kicking, mad-spin strokes aren’t as big a problem.  He’s also got a big ground game and can hit strokes flat, ideal against Nadal.  He’s just not yet consistent enough, but that will come with time.

And how about Ken Nishikori!  In one of the best matches of the tournament, the 18-year-old Japanese phenom beat the No. 5 player in the world, David Ferrer of Spain.  The upset seemed a foregone conclusion when Nishikori won the first two sets.  But experience helped Ferrer claw back to win the next two sets and force a fifth, at which point everyone (including me) thought the teenager would fold due to a combination of inexperience and exhaustion.

But surprise!  Nishikori broke Ferrer to go ahead in the fifth set and served for the match at 5-3.  As would be expected, though, nerves got the better of him, and he lost his serve to put the set back on even terms.  To make matters worse, Nishikori squandered a match point along the way.  Surely now, after another let down, Nishikori would fall apart.  But he held his serve to go up 6-5, and Ferrer was forced to serve to stay in the match.

Ken Nishikori

The 12th game went to deuce, and the two traded advantages before Nishikori finally earned himself another match point.  Ferrer stretched him out wide on the forehand side, but he got to the ball, threw up a perfect defensive lob which landed on baseline.  Ferrer replied with a weak forehand that dropped in the middle of the court, and Nishikori smacked a forehand to Ferrer’s backhand side.  As it landed in and bounced out of Ferrer’s reach, Nishikori fell to the ground in celebration.  Ferrer, meanwhile, tossed his racquet violently to the ground.

Nishikori’s win makes him the first Japanese male player to make the Round of 16 at the US Open.  He’s known as “Project 45” at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy where he trained, because the highest ranking ever for a Japanese player is 46 (Shuzo Matsuoka, who made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1995).  If Nishikori continues this kind of play, he’ll be there very soon.  And he’s only 18, so he has plenty of time.

Unfortunately, he lost in straight sets in the next round to Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, another teenager, who went on a ridiculous winning streak (winning four tournaments in a row going into the US Open before before losing to Andy Murray in the quarterfinals).

Juan Martin del Potro

Juan Martin del Potro

Yet another teenager, Marin Cilic of Croatia, gave an ominous performance and threatened a high seed.  In another of the tournament’s best matches, he won the first set off of No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic.  The similarities in the games of the two were eerie:  huge groundstrokes, incredible court-coverage, and massive serving.  There was one point where I actually mistook one for the other.  Ultimately, Djokovic’s experience, consistency, and superior fitness won out, but Cilic will continue to get better, and again, there’s plenty of time.

Marin Cilic

Marin Cilic

A wild day at the US Open

Inexplicably, I managed to snag tickets to the Men’s Semifinals at this year’s US Open. I’m thankful I did, because yesterday was one hell of a day.

I was doubtful there’d be any play, since the weather forecast called for rain all day (due to the remote influence of Hurricane Hanna). But the overcast skies refrained from drenching us, and I found myself back in Arthur Ashe Stadium, ready to watch Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray battle to get into the finals.

Double bonus when tournament officials let people in the nosebleed seats (like me) move closer to the court — most likely because the forecast kept people from showing up. There was also another possible reason: rumors were circulating that tournament organizers would move one of the matches to the smaller Louis Armstrong Stadium, so the two matches could be played simultaneously, increasing the likelihood that both matches could be completed before the worst of the weather hit. I was desperately hoping that wouldn’t happen, but I put it out of my head for the moment.

First up: Federer vs. Djokovic. I watched as my all-time favorite athlete (Federer, in case you didn’t know by now) took the court to play the guy who crushed him in the Australian Open semis earlier in the year and thrashed Andy Roddick two nights ago.

The crowd was firmly pro-Federer, not only because Federer’s struggles this year have courted the collective sympathies of the crowd, but also because Djokovic had drawn the ire of other players for his frequent (and possibly strategic) injury timeouts. Before his match with Djokovic, Roddick made some hilarious and slightly off-color remarks at a press conference. Djokovic wasn’t amused, and after he had beaten Roddick, he ill-advisedly got a little loose-lipped in front of a full house at Ashe. The crowd, needless to say, found this less than charming and responded appropriately.

Back to the match. I’ll be honest — I didn’t think Federer would win. Since he got knocked down by mono, he’s been a step slower and not as crisp in his ball-striking. And the younger players like Djokovic and Nadal (who has since usurped the #1 ranking) have taken advantage. I thought that Djokovic’s great court-coverage, balance, and deep groundstrokes would overwhelm Federer.

Not only was I pleasantly surprised, but I was treated to a nearly three-hour extravaganza of exquisite shot-making from the man known to Argentinian tennis enthusiasts as “El Reloj Suizo” (“The Swiss Watch”). Federer was sublime. If it weren’t for a brief blip that cost him the second set, Federer might have finished this one off in straight sets. He lost only four points on his serve in the first set and committed only one unforced error in the fourth set.

Djokovic kept things competitive until 5-all in the third set, when Federer broke him for a chance to serve for the set. Then, in the first point of the ensuing twelfth game, Federer pulled off one of the most astounding shots I’ve ever seen…and I got to see it live. I was looking like an idiot, leaping from my seat and screaming at the top of my lungs (and most likely pissing the hell out of the Djokovic supporters sitting next to me).

I won’t bother describing the shot. See for yourself. It’s hard to see at first, but watch the replays, and it will be clear what happened and just how special this shot was…

Former player Todd Martin described the shot as an “overhead lob”. If you play tennis, you’ll know how backwards that sounds. That shot, to me, was the breaking point for Djokovic. Federer served out the set and ran away with the fourth, as Djokovic grew tired and frustrated.

Final score: Federer over Djokovic 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2. A few highlights of the match can be found here.

Then things got a little interesting. Let me backtrack…

After Djokovic won the second set, an announcement was made that the Nadal-Murray match would indeed be moved to Louis Armstrong stadium. Understandably, the crowd started booing. I joined in. My first thought was this: how the hell are they going to handle all the people that will undoubtedly pour out of Ashe Stadium when this match is over and descend upon Armstrong like a swarm of locusts??

By the time Federer had won the third set, the scoreboard update let us know that Murray had taken the first set, 6-2. Whoa!! That I didn’t expect, especially since Murray is currently 0 for 5 in matches against Nadal. I knew Murray had gotten physically stronger and fitter, but when I saw highlights showing Murray blasting 130 mph serves by Nadal, I was shaking my head in disbelief.

Anyways, I made the decision to stay with the Federer match until its conclusion, and after it was over and Roger gave his post-match on-court interview, I left Ashe and headed for Armstrong, knowing full well I probably wouldn’t get in.

I know the locust simile I just used is cliched, but trust me, it’s entirely apropos. Hundreds of people were crowding around the tiny openings to the gates of Armstrong. Police and tournament groundspeople were trying in vain to stymie the tide. It was pandemonium — yelling, screaming, pleading. The officials did their best by lying and saying that they’d close the gates for good if people didn’t back off.

I decided for the moment to retreat from the mob and watch the match on the giant jumbo-tron screen on the side of the stadium. Murray had a break point at 5-all in the second set, but squandered it, and the set went to a tiebreak. Anyone who knows tennis was likely thinking the same thing: of course Nadal will win this tiebreak and level the match. It’s what he does.

But no! Murray continued to serve well, and his court movement was impeccable. He capitalized on Nadal’s tendency to linger behind the baseline and hit big, flat groundstrokes at extreme angles (a strategy Mardy Fish tried against Nadal in the last round, but couldn’t pull off with consistency). I was amazed that Nadal’s strokes were beginning to falter. Down 6-5 in the tiebreak, Nadal was now serving down a setpoint. Murray returned his serve to the deuce court, Nadal’s backhand side, and Nadal did the unthinkable — he committed an unforced error, sending the backhand wide and giving Murray a two-set lead. I couldn’t believe it.

I decided to take another crack at getting into Armstrong. I was angry that tournament organizers not only put throngs of fans in an awkward position, but also made life difficult for the police and groundspeople. Of course, I was one of the fans trying to push and shove his way into Armstrong, but at the same time, I sympathized with the guards who were pushing back against us, barking and screaming at full volume.

One guy behind me started chanting pseudo-populist slogans about “the people” uniting and refusing to be divided. Funny that he was dressed like a well-to-do middle-aged professional on the cusp of a comfortable retirement.

Trying to squeeze into the gates was uncomfortable, but so much fun. The atmosphere was electric. Somehow, I found it fun to see people unified in complaint and frustration. It helped that they were all as passionate about seeing a tennis match as I was…not something I get too often in my day-to-day life.

Long story short (I know, too late): after about a half-hour, I made it in to Armstrong and took another 10 minutes to find a seat. I sat down and got comfortable, ready to watch Nadal, who I was seeing for the first time live…

Drip…drip…drip…

Oh, hell no! I started to feel droplets on my neck. Around me, I saw umbrellas emerging all over the stadium. Nadal and Murray took their seats as the match was momentarily suspended. Please, let this pass.

But finally, the promised deluge reared its ugly head. The official announcement was made: all matches were cancelled for the remainder of the day. I was crestfallen…

…until they announced that tickets for the day’s matches would be good the next day when the matches resumed! Yay! So I get to go to watch the completion of the Nadal-Murray match today — this time, they have the good sense to put the match in Ashe.

Yesterday was, without a doubt, one of the most fun days of tennis I’ve ever experienced.

I’ll be back with an update after today. Allez Roger!!

Roger vs. Rafa for the third year in a row

Nadal & Federer

It’s a Nadal vs. Federer final at the French Open for the third year in a row.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a diehard tennis fan. I’ve been playing since I was five, and I grew up watching the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe (late in his career), and Michael Chang — to name just a few.

But I’ve enjoyed none of these players more than Roger Federer, who’s been #1 in the world since February 2004, has won 12 major titles thus far (two short of Sampras’s record), and reached 10 major finals in a row where the previous record was just four.

I first watched him play against Andy Roddick in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2003. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to a religious experience watching a sport. (It certainly beat going to temple and forcing myself to feel the presence of a deity). To say Federer made the game look easy would be selling him short. The sheer fluidity of his movements, the creativity of his shot selections, the perverse geometries of his passing shots — the ball seemed under his telekinetic control. Especially when I watched Roddick labor just to get the ball back into play.

(By the way, if you laugh at my bringing religion into a sporting conversation, read this excellent article that David Foster Wallace published in the NY Times a couple years ago.)

Federer’s spent four comfortable years at #1, but there’s been one persistent thorn in his side: Rafael Nadal.

Nadal’s what you would get if you spliced together genes from a tireless matador, the rabid bull he’s up against, the Tasmanian Devil, and anything that dwells deep in the Mines of Moria (Balrogs are sweeeeet!). He can run down balls for five hours and shake it off like he’s fresh from a weekend retreat in Mallorca, Spain (his home). His biceps are bigger than some small children.

Wait…why am I talking about it? Here:

Nadal

(Yes, I’m well aware that I’m decorating one of my first blogposts with pictures of fit, sweaty men in athletic poses.)

But the point is this: his brute physicality and his endless endurance make him ideal for play on clay courts. For those who don’t know, the ball bounces much higher on clay courts, and thus there is extra time to track down balls that might otherwise be out of reach. So, if you can just continue to run and retrieve, playing stellar defense, you can wear down an opponent who’s trying to put a shot away.

This is in contrast to hard courts and especially grass courts at Wimbledon (where the ball bounces very low, favoring people who like to end points quickly).

Now, this is why so many of the greatest male players have never won the French Open. Despite Sampras’s 14 majors, he never got the French. Jimmy Connors never won it. Edberg, Becker, Cash…nope. McEnroe never got it, although he should have in 1984.

Some of the greatest offensive players in the history of the game have found their power neutralized by the cruel red clay at Roland Garros. And Roger Federer is one of them. He’s won five Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens, three Australian Opens…and zero French Opens.

In 2005, he reached the semifinals at the French for the first time, and he was favored to win the match. But his opponent threw him some heavy spins, and Federer collapsed under the pressure. The young man who beat him celebrated his 19th birthday that night and went on to win the title. That young man’s name was Rafael Nadal. Most just call him “Rafa” now.

As of today, Federer and Nadal have played nine times on clay. Federer’s walked away the winner only once. In 2005, Federer lost only five TOTAL matches for the year. Four of those were to Nadal. You read correctly.

But most important, and now most pertinent: Since 2005, Federer has not lost a match at the French Open to anyone, except one person. After losing to Nadal in 2005, Federer made the finals of the French in both 2006 and 2007. Both times, he was forced to watch Nadal hoist the trophy.

If Federer had won any of those French Opens, he would have completed a “career Grand Slam”, which refers to winning all four major titles in the span of a career. Agassi was the last person to do it.

And Sunday, Federer will have another chance. But the odds are stacked against him.

Nadal has yet to lose a set in the tournament. He was only mildly tested today by a lackluster Novak Djokovic, who’s #3 in the world and close to overtaking Nadal as #2. The two had played a competitive match on clay in Rome last month, so I was hoping for a good hard fight on an even bigger stage. But Djokovic looked out of the match from the beginning. He looked as if he already agreed with what all the commentators are saying: Rafa is unbeatable at Roland Garros.

In the gallery watching the match was Bjorn Borg, the Swedish sultan of sangfroid (hey, I’m allowed a cheesy bit of alliteration every now and then) who won the French Open six times, four of them in a row (1974-75, 1978-81).

If Rafa were to win Sunday’s final, he too will have won the French four times in a row, and Borg will no doubt show up for the occassion.

Rafa is relatively fresh, and he’ll look to bully Federer with his high-spin strokes. If Federer’s to have any chance at pulling off a major upset (and by the way, this is about the only situtation in which Federer’s an underdog), he’s got to play one of the most ruthlessly aggressive, high-risk, high-octane matches of his career. Anything less, and Rafa will dictate play and run Roger ragged.

If Federer can achieve the impossible and somehow win three sets against Nadal where no one else has won even ONE, then he will have all four majors, and he could rightly be considered the greatest male tennis player in history. He would also be one major shy of tying Sampras’s record, and he would have a chance to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back, which no one has done since…guess who…Bjorn Borg.

The loyalist and idealist in me are focusing on the fact that it IS possible for Federer to beat Nadal at the tournament where Nadal has never lost a match. He has the game to do it. But the realist in me says it’s probably not going to happen. Especially if Federer is stubborn and insists on getting into extended rallies, as he has done against Nadal thus far.

If he loses to Nadal in the final for the third year in a row, it’s going to be this for a long time:

Federer screams