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The Tennis Phile

January 30, 2010 5:50 AM

Serena's Power Proves Too Much for Henin

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Serena Williams wouldn't allow Justine Henin to dupicliate her countrywoman (Kim Clijsters) by becoming the second wild card entry to win a Grand Slam title as she imposed her powerful game to defeat the now un-retired Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-2  in a close-but-not-really-that close match to claim her 5th Australian Open crown (second in a row) and with it, her 12th Slam victory (in 15 finals). Though Williams suffered a bit of a lapse in the latter half of the second set, she righted herself by serving brilliantly in the final set and never allowed Henin a chance to make it close towards the end. It was vintage Serena from the start - powerful serving, aggressive baseline play and wise forays into the net. For Henin's part, she proved that she is indeed one of the top few players in the world - this just after two tournaments back after a two year retirement. This bodes well for women's tennis in 2010.

Henin's game plan was obvious as she wanted to hit with more power than what we are accustomed to seeing. Gone apparently are the days when Henin was content to wait for a 15th shot in a rally before she struck a winner. She is determined to win points outright early and has beefed up her serve as well. She wants to join the other women who strike the ball with such force. Whether or not this is a smart choice remains to be seen - you know, to thine own self be true and all of that. But this much is obvious - it can be utter folly to engage in a battle of brawn against Serena and at times during the final, especially in the third set, Serena looked exponentially stronger than Henin. Not that Henin didn't impress - she even managed a second serve ace. But from this writer's viewpoint, she would have been better serve by trying to extend the points against her great rival. Serena now leads their rivalry eight matches to six.

With clay now the dominant surface over the next four months, Henin will find herself in her comfort zone and she'll no doubt be focused on winning her fifth title at Roland Garros, which is Serena's least favorite Slam event. If we're lucky, these two will meet in Paris.
January 29, 2010 12:20 PM

Serena vs. Henin - The One Women's Match We All Wanted to See

3986508.jpgWhen Justine Henin's return to the tour became official a few weeks ago leading up to the Australian Open, nearly every tennis fan was hoping that she'd make it to the final to take on her longtime rival Serena Williams. Sure, if the always-sunny Kim Clijsters had made it to the final, it'd be intriguing as well as she's the other big comeback story of the last year. But with so few compelling rivalries in women's tennis, it is utterly fitting that Henin and Serena will battle it out for the championship in Melbourne. After all, do you think fans were clamoring for an Azarenka vs. Wozniacki tussle? Let's be real here, this is the women's version of Nadal v Federer - albeit only about halfway as compelling. The women's tour is thrilled to have this match to promote. It's just too bad that most in the United States will be sound asleep as it doesn't start until 3:30 AM EST.

Continue to Serena vs. Henin - The One Women's Match We All Wanted to See

January 27, 2010 3:57 AM

Federer and Serena's Great Escapes Continue; Venus Chokes

3986508.jpgThe 2010 Australian Open continued to stamp itself as one of the most exciting, yet strangest, Grand Slam tournament in some time. On one day, three champions with 33 Slam titles among them were all faced with daunting challenges and mental lapses - two survived and one choked. It was clearly one of the oddest days of tennis in recent memory.

Perpetual world number one Roger Federer (he's finished on top of the rankings six of the last seven years) has, arguably, accomplished more than anyone in the history of the sport. With the record for most Grand Slam titles (15), he owns history.  So how does he appreciably add to his legacy? Simply, by having a thrilling final act to his career. And that is what is playing out in Melbourne as The Roger rallied from a set and a break down (and a 15-40 hole to go two breaks down) to rally against his latest nemesis, Russian Nikolay Davydenko 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5. After being literally pushed around the court for a set and a half, the Swiss stylist managed to weather the storm of Agassi-like power and precision from the diminutive Davydenko. And though Roger choked a bit towards the end as he was broken while serving for the match, he broke right back to claim victory. To Davydenko's credit, he made it a fight at the end after seemingly disappearing in the middle stages of the match - at one point he went a full hour without winning a game.

Continue to Federer and Serena's Great Escapes Continue; Venus Chokes

January 26, 2010 1:24 AM

Roddick's Grand Slam Tour of Heartbreak Continues

3986508.jpgMarathon Man Marin Cilic extended his coming out party in Melbourne with yet another five set victory (his third such in the event and second in a row) as he defeated Andy Roddick 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3. The 14th seeded, 21 year old Bosnian survived a giant momentum swing as he nearly blew his two-sets-to-none lead. But Roddick failed to capitalize on three break points in the opening game of the final stanza and then reverted to a more tentative style of play which eventually became his undoing. To his credit, Roddick was dealing with a sore shoulder and arm throughout the match and that no doubt contributed somewhat to his defeat. The 7th seeded American is now 12-15 in five set matches throughout his career.
It was an odd match with Cilic looking unbeatable, especially in the second set. But then Roddick decided on a more aggressive style that quickly rewarded him as he repeatedly broke Cilic in the third and fourth sets. It looked at that point that Roddick would outlast an exhausted Cilic, especially when he earned those three break points in the first game of the fifth. It was Cilic's calm demeanor which proved the difference in the end as he was able to redouble his efforts as he once again became the more aggressive of the two.
For Roddick, this is a microcosm of his difficulties over the last year. Though he is a far more consistent player under coach Larry Stefanki's tutelage and is in better physical shape, he still has a tendency to revert to a defensive style. This often serves Roddick well earlier in the big events but he's going to have to continue to attack against the top players. Last year's Wimbledon is a great example where Roddick sustained his intense level and nearly won.
The win now solidifies Cilic's credentials on the Grand Slam stage.  Whether or not he can recover physically to take on the winner of tonight's Rafael Nadal-Andy Murray encounter is another matter. Whatever the case, the intelligent and soft spoken Cilic is a welcome addition to the tennis conversation. 


January 25, 2010 12:00 PM

Nadal-Murray Headline Sensational Quarterfinals

3986508.jpgA Grand Slam draw of 128 players is similar to a screenplay before production of a movie commences. The plot lines are clearly drawn, the players can follow the arc of the narrative in front of them as they know who they will play each round and the exciting sequences are structured towards the latter half - that is if the story holds up and the action follows the written word. And after all, most films are not worthy of viewing and most tennis tournaments are bound to be somewhat disappointing.
But not so with this year's Australian Open on the men's side as the quarterfinals are now upon us. A better quartet of matches with the world's top players would be hard to conjure at this point. And each of the eight participants has something to prove - well Roger Federer actually has nothing left to prove, that is until he meets Rafael Nadal again in a Slam final - which is possible in Melbourne this weekend.
But for all the others there are powerful points to be made -- is Novak Djokovic, who has quietly advanced with ease through the draw, ready to win another Slam; can Andy Roddick perform self-amnesia and rid his mind of his Wimbledon sadness from a year ago; is Marin Cilic ready to fully announce his arrival in the elite; can Jo Tsonga return again to a Slam final and finally deliver on his enormous potential; can Nikolay Davydenko make his first Slam final; and then of course there are Nadal and Andy Murray who play in the featured match late tonight. Nadal desperately wants to take back what he thinks is rightfully his, that being the number one ranking that he had a lock on before a miserable injury ruined his Paris spring and forced him to miss Wimbledon. And for Murray, his desperation is of a different kind. Perhaps no other player the last several years has been labeled as the heir apparent to messrs. Federer and Nadal as frequently as the soon to be 23 year old Scot. Murray has only advanced to one Slam final (at the 2008 US Open where he was summarily dispatched easily by Federer) and the groans from Slam-title-starved Great Britain will grow exponentially if he doesn't deliver on his supposed promise soon.
If Murray is to beat Nadal tonight he's going to have to play more aggressively than he is accustomed. With a 2-5 record against the Man from Mallorca, it is imperative that Murray attempt to keep Nadal on the defensive and not allow the Spaniard to force the match into a physical contest. If the late night drags on and on, that is a sure sign for a Nadal triumph as his conditioning and stamina is another quality that separates himself - along with The Roger - from the rest of the field.  For Nadal's part, he'll have to vary his serve with greater frequency against the best returner in the sport. If Murray senses a routine from Rafa's deliveries, he'll then feel free to take more chances and seize control of the match early from the Spaniard.
Whatever the case, it should be a superb match, as all the quarterfinals look to be.
Quarterfinal matches:
Tonight:  Roddick-Cilic, Nadal-Murray
Tomorrow night: Djokovic-Tsonga, Federer-Davydenko

January 24, 2010 8:41 AM

Getting Crowded at the Top - Cilic Outlasts Del Potro

3986508.jpgFor two decades now the nations that make up the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia) have gifted the tennis world a slew of talented players - starting with 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, who possessed the most lethal of serves in the1990's,  up through today with  Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, Ivo Karlovic, Ivan Ljubicic and others. And now 21 year old Bosnian Marin Cilic, a player whom many have thought was close to knocking on the door,  has made a huge breakthrough of his own as the 14th seed defeated reigning US Open champion and fourth ranked Juan Martin Del Potro in a battle of giants in five thrilling sets to reach the quarterfinals in Melbourne. Armed with a somewhat unorthodox but powerful serve, precision ground strokes and solid movement for a man his size (6'6), Cilic withstood the fierce Del Potro (who wasn't at his best physically with a sore wrist) forehand.

Indeed, things are getting very crowded at the top in men's tennis as the Golden Age that started with Federer and Nadal now seeks to extend itself with upwards of now six players playing near the peak of their games. Special times for tennis, that's for sure.

It's hard to call it a huge upset. Cilic made noise at the US Open in September when he upended the underachieving Andy Murray and served notice at that time that he belonged in the Top Ten in the near future. And the quiet Cilic also made a wise decision in his choice of counsel. He is currently being coached by Bob Brett, one of the legendary coaches who counts Boris Becker and Chris Evert as previous clients. Under Brett's tutelage, Cilic has displayed a steady improvement and a solid competitive instinct.

Cilic's  reward for beating Del Potro is a meeting in the quarterfinals with Andy Roddick. The top ranked American came back from a two-sets-to-one defiict and defeated the always streaky Fernando Gonzalez in a match that went well into the Aussie night, ending after 1 AM Melbourne time. It's already been a riveting tournament and it only looks to get better as we enter the final three rounds.

  

January 23, 2010 7:55 PM

Nadal Makes Necessary Adjustments

3986508.jpg Over the course of his career Rafael Nadal has been nothing if not a quick study as his stellar play on all playing surfaces attests. And after a sub-par effort in Melbourne on  Friday that saw him regress to bad habits by allowing his tentative side of his nature to emerge, Nadal righted his course today when he defeated the always dangerous Ivo Karlovic in four sets in their round of 16 encounter.

Almost as if to prove he reads and takes to heart what writers and commentators say about him, the Spaniard accessed his aggressive instincts by moving much closer to the baseline on returns and hitting his backhand with greater authority and precision. Having to take on the powerful Karlovic serve is actually superb preparation for future matches in the tournament. It gives Nadal a chance to tighten up his return game and it forced him to shorten up his back swing and not rely solely on his vicious topspin.  And even more importantly, Nadal continues to prove that he indeed has overcome the career-threatening knee tendonitis that beset him in 2009 as he scampered and slid around the hard court as if it were his beloved clay.

Now that the script that is a Grand Slam draw has been followed to the letter,  Nadal and Scotsman Andy Murray will be fulfilling their appointed date in the quarterfinals. The talented and moody Murray, who many expected would already be the owner of a Slam title by now, dispatched American John Isner is relatively easy fashion today. But Murray will soon by 23 and if he doesn't triumph at a Slam this year, the whispers that he's been overrated will turn to screams. Though he has a vastly different style than Nadal, Murray is prone to withdrawing in big matches and reverting to a retrieving, defensive stance. It is imperative he not do that against Nadal. Their encounter on Tuesday night (or very, very late Gotham time on Monday night/Tuesday morning) should be fascinating.

... and speaking of the draw, it's a shame that Nadal, Murray, Del Potro and Roddick are all in the same half. Whereas Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have little competition on the other side.   

Notes: Dick Enberg has been one of the most versatile and pleasant sports broadcasters over the last 30 years. But his irritating and just plain wrong of way of pronouncing Nadal's name - he constantly refers to the Spaniard as "Nuhdahl" - is tiresome. I hope the powers that be at ESPN either bar Enberg from announcing any future Nadal match or hire a  diction coach to help soothe our ears. 
January 22, 2010 9:24 AM

NADAL MUST BE MORE AGGRESSIVE

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One of the most demanding challenges that face us all everyday is not falling into the same negative, damaging and tiresome patterns that can so often serve as an impediment to progress. And it doesn't matter what field one is engaged in - we're all prone to slipping back into predictable and sluggish behavior. And so it is true for that magnificent Man from Mallorca, Rafael Nadal. Now that  his physical condition and foot speed appear to be back to normal (which is great news in itself) as there appears to be no negative carryover from his miserable finish from 2009, Nadal can focus once again on strategy.

After watching his harder-than-it-should-have-been victory over rail thin German Phillip Kohlschreiber early this morning, it's evident that old habits die hard for Rafa as once again he has lapsed into his dangerous manner of standing too far behind the baseline, allowing his opponent to dictate play. Time and again, Rafa was forced to hit balls upwards of 10, 15 feet back of the court and it gave Kohlschreiber opportunities to extend the match. When striking his topspin missives from the rear, Nadal's balls frequently land at mid court, rendering his usually vicious topspin benign.  

For his coaching team and many fans, this is especially agonizing because Nadal knows that this is a pattern that he cannot continue. He will not get away with this style of play when facing the likes of Murray, Del Potro or Federer (against Roddick, Nadal could maybe escape when  implementing this flawed strategy). It's a mystery of sorts as to why Nadal would regress into his wrong ways. After all, he knows the only reason he was able to conquer other surfaces than clay was his ability to start stepping into the court and becoming the aggressor. It's paramount that he seeks out that sense memory and starts to play aggressively  again as the matches will become more daunting, starting with facing 6'10 gentle giant Ivo Karlovic in the fourth round.

And now that  his physical condition and foot speed appear to be back to normal (which is great news in itself) as there appears to be no negative carryover from his miserable finish from 2009, Nadal can focus once again on strategy.
January 21, 2010 5:50 AM

ANA'S AGONY

Tennis, with the exception of boxing, is the most naked of all sports, literally and figuratively. There's no equipment or other player to hide behind if one wants to conceal their emotions. Joy and sorrow are openly expressed, whether one likes it or not. Unless a poker face is part of one's repertoire, those watching a match can usually tell what is happening by watching a player's body language and countenance.

 

And when one is a fan of a player, seeing he or she struggle with emotions and not able to play one's best, a nearly parental instinct takes over. It's like watching your child cry - sometimes there's just nothing you can do to help and it hurts too much to watch.

 

This was all too true in Melbourne on Thursday when 20th ranked Ana Ivanovic, the strikingly attractive and talented Serbian, lost a difficult but all too familiar second round match 6-7, 7-5, 6-4 to Gisele Dulko, a player to whom she is clearly superior.

 

And the entire range of the emotional spectrum was etched - make that carved - into Ivanovic's face during the match. After winning a tight first set, Ivanovic was deeply betrayed by the stroke which is usually the culprit in her breakdowns, her serve. Broken nine times and unable to find a consistency with her toss, Ivanovic's attempt to return to her peak form (she won the French Open at the age of 20 in 2008) was derailed all too early for a Grand Slam event.

 

Witnessing a top player grind so mightily while grappling with a meltdown with that most important of shots was a sight that any recreational player could easily relate to. Which is why it's hard not to feel for Ivanovic as she seeks to reclaim her once potent game.

 

Maybe she's too thoughtful and well rounded for her own good; in addition to being one of the best players in the world Ivanovic is also pursuing a college degree and is an active UNICEF ambassador, receiving accolades from the US State Department on the way. Or perhaps her romance with Australian golf pro Adam Scott has affected her game (both of their rankings plummeted after going together)?

 

Whatever the case, women's tennis is better when Ivanovic is in the mix at major tournaments. She should be one of the four or five players always talked about in a Slam. And being so young - 22 - at least time is on her side.

 

January 20, 2010 5:25 AM

THE INSOMNIAC SPECIAL FROM MELBOURNE

australian open.jpgIt's rare when a Grand Slam tournament delivers one extraordinary match in the second round involving a marquee player. But tonight the Australian Open offerred up two such encounters in one of the more riveting early-tournament action from a Slam that this writer can recall. It was truly a night made for insomniacs - and for this father of a two-month old, the nocturnal sleeplessness finally paid off.

The always underachieving James Blake, now 30, played one of the great matches of his career but it wasn't quite enough as he went down to defeat to #4 seed and reigning US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in five sets, 10-8 in the fifth. After blowing a chance to win the match while serving at 6-5, Del Potro withstood an impressive onslaught of vicious ground strokes and, most surprisingly, constant forays to the net from the 30 year old American and eked out the victory. Though he couldn't pull it out, Blake's effort was remarkable and a testament to his massive talent, even this late in his career. 

This was truly a bittersweet effort for Blake. Why has it been so long since he's put forth such an effort, even in a loss? ? Even with all the dramatics he's supplied at the US Open Blake has still yet to ever reach a semifinal of a Grand Slam. With all his talent and speed it seems criminal that this is the case. And it is now obvious that Blake is on the downside of his tenure - as his ranking of 45 indicates - but he must get loads of credit for hiring a new coach and recommitting himself this late in the game.

Though more error-prone and lacking the shot-making acumen that the Blake-Del Potro encounter provided, the match between fifth seeded Elena Dementiava and Justine Henin, in just her second tournament back since cutting short her early retirement, was filled with its own set of dramatics. After winning the opening set,  Henin survived four consecutive service breaks - which were gifted back by the always suspect serving Elena - and  finally triumphed in a tiebreak in the second winning the match 7-5, 7-6. Henin is now on a collision course to meet her countrywoman and that other incredible comeback story, Kim Clijsters, in the quarterfinals.

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