Saturday, March 31, 2007

And Then There Were Two

Serena Williams and Justine Henin hadn't met in a WTA Tour match since the summer of 2003 - a span of nearly four years.

You remember it well, don't you? Henin had just pulled her "No, I didn't put my hand up, Serena, keep playing!" bit at the French Open and with the help of the help of a largely anti-American crowd, Williams crumbled in the third and Justine won her maiden Slam title.

It was just four weeks later when Serena got her revenge, pounding Henin in straight-set fashion on Centre Court at Wimbledon to win her first Wimbledon crown and send a message to the WTA Tour: the Serena Slam isn't over.

It was a time in tennis that was aching for a feisty rivalry. The Russians were just blooming while Capriati, Davenport and Venus had begun to wilt. The diminutive Belgian couldn't have been more of an opposite to the large-and-in-charge play of one S. Williams.

Yet the next time the two of these tennis greats would meet was today, in the finals of the Sony Ericsson. It was a match that was full of drama (as usual) and some pretty good tennis. But most of all, it was a match of the two best women on the tour right now, hands down.

While 2003 may have needed this rivalry bad, '07 needs it worse, much worse. The women's tour is going through what we're beginning to see as a re-invention stage, and though there are many up-and-coming teens to cheer about, two veterans are the glue keeping this gig together.

So to a healthy, and happy year for both Serena and Justine. May their matches be dramatic, erratic and mostly entertaining. For if we are to see a rivalry form between the two, this is the year.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Clip of the Week: Serena Bashing

Perhaps the man who yelled derogatory words at Serena Williams during her match against Lucie Safarova in the 4th round of the Sony Ericsson should have thought twice about who he's messing with.

Serena, known for her forth-coming approach and no-bull attitude, was quick to point out to the chair what was going on. In this case, two things worked in Serena's favor: first, the chair judge actually listened to her and second, the fans sitting behind the man were eagerly ready to take out their pointy fingers and get the guy o-u-t out of there.

A Sliding Sharapova

Maria Sharapova lost to Serena Williams at the Sony Ericsson yesterday. It not only was Sharapova's second loss to Williams this year, but her second straight embarrassingly drubbing by the younger Williams.

Let's take a look back at Maria's hiccups over her career; that is, the ten - yes, ten - matches in which she has won just four games or less:

1. 2002 Indian Wells R64 Monica Seles (4) 6-0, 6-2.
2. 2003 Seat Open Luxembourg SF Kim Clijsters (2) 6-0, 6-3.
3. 2004 Indian Wells R16 Anastasia Myskina (5) 6-2, 6-1.
4. 2004 FRENCH OPEN QF Paola Suarez (14) 6-1, 6-3.
5. 2004 China Open Beijing SF Svetlana Kuznetsova (5) 6-2, 6-2.
6. 2005 Indian Wells SF Lindsay Davenport (1) 6-0, 6-0.
7. 2005 Tour Championships RR Nadia Petrova (10) 6-1, 6-2.
8. 2006 Pan Pacific Tokyo SF Martina Hingis (UR) 6-3, 6-1.
9. 2007 AUSTRALIAN OPEN F Serena Williams (81) 6-1, 6-2.
10. 2007 Sony Ericsson Open R16 Serena WIlliams (18) 6-1, 6-1.

This list should come as no surprise to any of us. The names on it are all familiar - Suarez and Petrova being the only slam-less females here - and the losses usually occurred late in a tournament when Sharapova can often be tired (how fit is she?) or be questioning her body in one way or another.

What did surprise me was that six of these ten losses came AFTER her breakthrough slam victory at Wimbledon '04. Along with that, four of the six matches in which she has lost three or less games fall in that same category. My hypothesis upon beginning this research was that Sharapova would have several crushing losses early in her career and they would thin out as her game developed, but the facts prove me wrong.

So what does this say about the Russian? What can we gather about Maria Sharapova, her game, her head and her ability to compete at the top? Perhaps it is solely that her high-risk games produces peaks and valleys. Or is there a pattern here I'm not seeing? Hmm.

Giant Killer

Guillermo Canas has done what no man since Rafael Nadal in 2003 did: beat Roger Federer in two consecutive events.

His win yesterday at the Sony Ericsson proved much more difficult than his victory a week ago against the current number one. It took two tiebreaks, but more noteably, it was Canas who won both breakers, not Federer.

Yet the timing of this "slump" for Federer couldn't be better. Weaknesses that his sometimes flawless-looking game certainly has were exposed against the Argentine and we all know that we can leave it to the Mighty Fed to be even more prepared for the upcoming clay-court season.

Meanwhile, one Andy was able to continue his march in a Federer-less draw while another failed for the second straight tournament to capitalize on the world number one's absence.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dunzo in the Desert

For Daniela Hantuchova, it was her first title in five years. For Rafael Nadal, the first in nine months. Which stretch was more surprising? Probably Nadal's. Whose title was more surprising? Probably Hantuchova's. All in all, it was a great two weeks at Indian Wells.

There was the early-tournament faulters by the top seeds. One went down to a lucky loser while another fell to a resurgent countrywoman.

A Chinese woman banged her way to the semis. While she may not be the most well-behaved of them all, she's their best chance next summer in Beijing.

Andy fizzled against Nadal while the rest of his American boys struggled to win matches.

The American women fared no better.

For now, it is off to Miami. Maybe the marshes will treat those who didn't fare well (and those who didn't even show up) a little better.

And in other news:
-Amelie is out for a month.

-Kim might be marrying an American, but that doesn't mean she necessarily feels obligated to play here.

-If you habla espanol, enjoy the commentary. If not, the tennis is pretty good too:

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Taking Shape in the Desert

-Now this is a great story.

-At least one American is having fun at the Pacific Life.

-This is adorable. How can you not be a Bammer fan?

-Bye bye, Tatiana. Will you ever achieve the greatness you're capable of?

Starting today, it's spring break at school. Will spring ever come to Seattle? I'm guessing not.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Clip of the Week

Andy Roddick does some pretty funny stuff, both on the court and off. This ad campaign ran last fall after the infamous "Mojo" series from '05 (when Roddick lost in the opening round of the USO).


Wavering Women

Things were looking bleak for the women of the tennis world at the beginning of last week: no-shows by many of the top women at the Pacific Life, plus the continuing question of the commitment of both V and S of the Williams clan loomed over the desert at Indian Wells.

Tuesday proved to be the bombshell day we were all fearing. Seeds falling one-by-one, slowly but painfully stripping the draw of this Tier I tournament of any luster it had left. Roland Garros 2004 anyone? I think so.

So why? Why is the women's game going through so much trouble right now? The road has certainly gotten bumpy, if not treacherous as of late. And to think that six weeks ago we were staring at a beaming Serena imagining the glory that could be this year - well, at least I was.

But that road might only get worse. Peter Bodo spoke of the WTA Roadmap to be discussed next week at the Nasdaq, and not only have the stars made taken their bows at the PL, but no American woman is left in the draw. But perhaps this is the chance for those starlets-in-the-wings to take center stage? Vaidasova, Kuznetsova and Golovin are all still alive. As Bethanie Mattek noted in an interview last month, perhaps the WTA should put more emphasis on these up-and-comers, because when tournaments like this take their form, we need names other than Sharapova and Williams.

The future really is now, can the WTA figure that out?

Monday, March 12, 2007

An Interview: Doug Verdieck

It's no secret that tennis isn't a thriving sport in Seattle. There are few public courts to play on, fewer rain-free days to allow it and ample amounts of wilderness and - er, coffee? - to distract Seattleites from the game of love.

Yet for a few in this city, tennis is a daily passion. That crowd includes Doug Verdieck, Director of Tennis at the Seattle Tennis Club. A lifelong player, coach and advocate of the game of tennis.

While tennis might not be drawing as many fans as the Seahawks or Mariners (we might have the Sonics beat, though) the STC is a healthy and vibrant club. With over 3,000 members, the club has an eight-year wait list to gain membership. It features 19 courts, including six indoors and three green clay. As one of the oldest in the country, the club sits on the picturesque shore of Lake Washington in the middle of urban Seattle. Two past USTA presidents have been STC members, something few tennis clubs in the US can claim.

I sat down a couple weeks ago with Verdieck to discuss tennis in the Northwest, the ups and downs of today's American pros and how junior tennis has evolved over the years.

Q: How has tennis changed over the past couple of decades in the Pacific Northwest? In Seattle?
DV: "Tennis in the Pacific Northwest has dramatically grown. My father was the coach of the University of Redlands tennis team when I was growing up, and when we came up here (Seattle) in the late '60s there were virtually no indoor was just a summer activity. With more indoor courts in the region, you allow more people to participate year-round. Amy Yee is the only indoor public facility in the city right now, and it's overcrowded. I know that they're looking to build more indoor courts around the city. That is the key: more public places to play inside."

Q: Why have the number of top-notch American professionals fallen in recent years?
DV: "To me, college tennis is the minor leagues for the pro game. We are seeing more and more international players flocking to these American colleges and taking spots that typically used to go to US kids. Colleges are recruiting internationally to stay competitive. The fact is, the best athletes in the US aren't turning to tennis. Younger international players are seeing tennis as a way to get out of their countries, and a lot of times they are more disciplined and harder workers than the tennis players here."

Q: How has junior tennis changed as a result of international competition and growing pressures from parents?
DV: "It's harder now for junior players to practice together because our nation is so big. For players to get better, they have to compete at a high level. It's difficult for top-level high school players to get that practice because they can't practice with college players due to NCAA regulations. That's frustrating. The goal is have a locally-developed, stable, family-centered environment and bring the players together around that. That's hard to find."

Stopped Cold

No one expected Roger Federer to lose in his opening match at Indian Wells this year, no one including the man who beat him.

Guillermo Canas, continuing his work to return to the upper echelon of the ATP tennis world knocked off Federer 7-5, 6-2 in the second round on Sunday.

It's hard to decide what is more baffling: that Canas lost earlier this week in qualifying and was granted a spot in the main draw after Xavier Malisse pulled out, or that Federer hadn't lost in 41 matches, or since August of last year.

Federer is always shaking off early-round rust at tournaments like these. He did much of that the last two weeks in the Middle East, battling through tight two setters and getting over hiccups to overcome early opponents, but Canas - returning from a 15-month doping ban - did what no one has done since Andy Murray in Canada last summer: beat Roger Federer.

In matches like these, the rest of the tour has to exhale a sigh of relief, Federer is indeed human. Sometimes - especially in the recent past - we tend to forget that the world's number one can be beat, and can look very human in a 39-error loss.

Yet the question that remains for me is where has rivalry gone on the men's tour? Nadal has struggled, as has Roddick, Blake and many other of the usual Federer-chasers. It's been guys like Canas and Murray who have been able to tame the Mighty Fed, yet no one has posed a consistent test for the Swiss.

For that is what both tours are in need of, those great rivalries that makes the game so riveting. Because with the floating untouchable-ness that Federer has had of late now gone, rivalries like Agassi-Sampras and Borg-McEnroe must materialize in order to keep the fans interested.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Clip of the Week: The Bump, Revisited

A couple weeks ago while playing around on YouTube I set off on a previously unsuccessful adventure: find the Spirlea-Williams bump video. You know, the CLASSIC match between Venus and Irina Spirlea in the 1997 US Open semifinals where Spirlea purposely cuts into Venus' path during a changeover. It's still one of the most talked-about incidents in professional tennis and is this week's Clip of the Week.

Of course, a few weeks later, Richard Williams got involved in the whole scuffle. Surprise, surprise.


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Let the (American) Games Begin

The Pacific Life Open kicks off tomorrow in Indian Wells, California as the first major tournament in the U.S. this year. As Peter Bodo notes, while the men's field may be full (the top 33 will be there) the women are lacking on star power - really lacking.

I'm always searching around for those surprise stories within a newly-released draw. A lot of times it's an up-and-comer getting his or her first chance, or a local player getting their shot at greatness.

This time, however, it's a has-been trying to re-create the greatest she captured in the late '90s. Mirjana Lucic, now 25, was the teenager who had it all: she won her first-ever WTA singles tournament she entered Bol in 1997 in front of a home crowd. Then, in '98, she paired up with world #1 Martina Hingis to win her first-ever WTA doubles tournament at the '98 Aussie.

In 1999, Lucic made history by blazing past Monica Seles, Nathalie Tauziat and three others on her way to the semifinals at Wimbledon. Yet Lucic was just 6-12 that year outside of the All England Club and had a topsy-turvy career through 2002 before off-court issues sidelined her for the last three and a half years.

But now the 25-year-old Croatian is ready to make a bona-fide comeback. Attempting to put her past behind her, Lucic will open play against American Lindsey Nelson, a qualifier ranked #628 in the world as of last week. While I expect her comeback to be as bizarre and sporadic as her past, one can only hope that this time around will finally give Lucic the shot at greatness she is capable of.

Monday, March 5, 2007

A Week of Wacky

This past week in the tennis world certainly was one to remember. February is usually the dullest of dull when it comes to the tennis season. Both the men and women are dotting the globe at obscure locations, and while these tournaments are gaining better coverage from the media and greater participation from top players (see 'Gulf Double') it really isn't until this week when the tour can make its second debut of the year at Indian Wells.

Yet February may remain a crucial month for the future of tennis. If organizers can put together a healthy Asian swing of Tier I and II tournaments, more men and women from the top of the fields will stay in the Pan-Pacific following the Aussie to play these events. This brings tennis to more people, assures us that we are a truly 'global' game and keeps fans interested instead of falling into mid-winter lulls.

Though officials in Melbourne have expressed that moving the Australian Open to March from January would be tournament suicide (January=good weather, big crowds), think of the impact of this already-entertaining major if it were to follow not only Sydney, but Tokyo, Dubai and other February draws. The effects could be incredible, and I assure you ratings would go up everywhere, even if the tourney filled a few less seats.

I won't waste my time all day on forecasting the probably-impossible future. However I did want to give you a good fill of the week of wackiness that occurred these past seven days. Enjoy!

-Do we really trust Hawkeye all the time? I know Rafael Nadal now doesn't.

-Now that's what I call a stamp of approval.

-So who's still a fan of the round-robin format? Seriously.

Oh, and always the aspiring-journalist that I am, I wanted to wrap up a story I started last week. Mexican Melissa Torres, a virtual unknown, finally lost in the quarterfinals in Acapulco last week. The local girl had a spectacular run and I hope to see more from her in the future.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

An Interview: Leslie Dunham

Adding local color to anything is something I'm always a fan of. Seattle isn't necessarily a tennis mecca, but there is a healthy tennis culture that exists in the Pacific Northwest.

I got the opportunity to sit down with Leslie Dunham, a tennis player and former captain of the tennis team at Seattle University for a conversation about her experience as a tennis player.

NM: When did you start playing tennis?
LD: "I started playing when I was in the 5th grade. Me, my twin sister and younger brother got into lessons at the local club with the encouragement of our dad. He really wanted us to learn the game, it was his dream to have kids that he could one day play tennis with. I didn't take it seriously at that point, I'd hit forehands and spin in circles giggling, but I really liked it."

NM: But you stuck with it, right?
LD: "Yeah. We started playing USTA tournaments a year later. In my first tournament, I lost 6-0 6-0. I was so embarrassed! After that our family really became a part of the tennis community in Eugene and all of Oregon really. I won my first tournament two years later in Vancouver (Wash.), it was so exciting for me."

NM: Tell me about one the funnest or wackiest memories you have of something that happened on court growing up?
LD: "My junior year of high school we were playing in the semifinals of the district tournament against a team that we knew that we could beat. Early in the first set I was up at the net and got hit in the eye with the ball. It didn't hurt that bad, but my contact fell out! We searched all over the court but couldn't find it anywhere. My dad raced home to find a replacement contact for me, but meanwhile we had to keep playing. We lost the first set, but my dad got there right in between sets. I put the contact in only to realize it was the wrong prescription! I played the rest of the match trying to adjust my eyes, my depth perception was terrible. We lost that match, but it was a pretty funny experience."

NM: Did you have any tennis heroes growing up?
LD: "I loved the Williams sisters. Serena is my favorite though because she's younger. I'm younger by a few minutes - but I'm still the little sister."

NM: If you could watch any two players in history play a match on any court, who would it be and where would they play?
LD: "I think Centre Court at Wimbledon because of all of its history - the tradition of the game is all there. I think I would want to watch Roddick because I love his serve...and I would want to watch him play Jon McEnroe. I'd like to see Roddick's reaction to someone yelling at him! It'd be hilarious."

Clip of the Week

Looking at the past to learn about our future is something I always see as valuable. In today's media, it's continuous discussion of the present-day Iraq war and the parallels it holds to the Vietnam disaster of the late 60s.

In tennis, however, we have lower stakes to deal with. Yet there is much to be learned from the champions of yesterday. Looking at this clip of the 1984 French Open final between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert reveals this to me: champions can be good friends. Navratilova and Evert hug at the net, chat about the match and then make their way to the trophy presentation. What surprised me most was the body language of the two: a gesturing hand, the easy-going smiles, the sincerity of their laughter. This was one of the most intense rivalries in WTA history, yet they understood what tennis was in this world: a game.

What baffles me is that there are only 11 Navratilova clips on YouTube, a despicably low number. Yes, I understand that YT is a new phenomenon and is mostly used by the younger generation, but I consider it a crime that such a history-changing champion isn't better represented on the Internet's most-used video Web site.

What I'm getting at here is that the Sharapovas, Henins, Ivanovics and Vaidasovas of today should be all ears and eyes when it comes to understanding how the game of tennis fits into the game of life. It pains me so to see tremendous champions isolate themselves for the glory of a game that in the long run is just...well, a game.