Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Next Big Thing

There have been plenty of tennis players that I've wished, dreamed and predicted big things of and for.

There was the resilient Mexican Melissa Torres who made noise at her home tournament over 18 months ago. Then there was Michelle Larcher de Brito, the young Portuguese star who was Jennifer Capriati, reincarnated at the Sony Ericcson Open last March.

Or more recently, Marina Erakovic, Laura Robson, Ernests Gulbis and a host of others.

So don't be surprised that I'm writing about a brand-new up-and-comer. And don't be surprised if she doesn't exactly win the US Open in the next two years, either. But the thing about sports writing is this: you must take chances on certain players. There will be future champions, there will be breakthrough stories. Perhaps today's qualifier is tomorrow's champion... you just never know.

The girl is Melanie Oudin. She's not much different from the rest of the players I've written about on here, except one minor detail: she's American. Actually, let's call that detail major, not minor. Why? You ask. This is why: separate from the Williams sisters, there have been zero American grand slam champions in the last five years. Yes, zero.

Oudin may not be Venus or Serena, but this past week she had her first big pro breakthrough, winning two matches at the Tier III Bell Challenge in Quebec City, which comes at the tail-end of a successful year for the 17-year-old.

(Oudin has a powerful baseline game. But what junior player doesn't these day? Photo by kpessa via Flickr.)

Successful may be an understatement, winning 28 matches - mostly at small, American challenger tournaments - and losing in the first round of just two pro events: Miami and the US Open. In this year, she's also won this country's most prestigious junior tournament, the Easter Bowl, and recorded wins over eight Top 200 players.

But what does all mean for Oudin? It means that she, along with US Open junior champion Coco Vandeweghe are the future of American girls tennis, at least for now. ESPN The Magazine made her a part of their NEXT campaign this past year, and she's one of a handful of players that the USTA has put mega bucks behind to help further her individual career.

But considering the Monique Vieles, Ashley Harkleroads, and Bethanie Matteks (who beat her this week) before her, it's unlikely that Oudin will have any sort of a lasting career - much less reach the No. 1 world ranking as she hopes to do. Sans the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, just three Americans stand inside the Top 100 on this week's rankings, and at the US Open, (without the Williams and Davenport) the group of starts and stripes went a dismal 1-12.

So what makes Oudin different? Different than Alexa Glatch or Vania King or Ashe Rolle or Mashona Washington, you might wonder. It's her slow, steady, mature and calculated rise to the pro tennis ranks that gives her an edge. At the age of 17, she hasn't been catapulted onto the international stage, but rather allowed to take on each level of tennis - from regional to national to international - and let her game adjust. It's not a guarantee by any means, but it's an approach that could benefit in the long run.

You might call it the Anti-Williams approach, and though there have been endless critics of what the two sisters have done, they've made it all right. So is Oudin destined for a crash?

Or is she the next big thing?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Almost Club

I started to write a post yesterday about two girls that I'm really excited about on the WTA Tour: Laura Robson and Marina Erakovic.

Each of these two young women have showed great promise and poise in the last six months as they've made their own inroads on the pro tour, but I can't help but think of them as part of a club that I feel is growing and growing: The Almost Club.

The Almost Club grows in membership each year, but in the last two years I've noticed that the application process has sped up and the applicant line never gets too deep - they just hop right in. Over at On the Baseline, Aaress did a great post on "The Most Frustrating WTA Players" on tour right now.

For me, the list could go on and on, but more than anything, I worry for the next generation - for girls like Robson and Erakovic - that they'll always be Almosters... that they'll never achieve greatness.

Perhaps it's something that I shouldn't lose sleep over. Fact is, there are few Venus Williams-like players in the world, and not everyone is destined for greatness. While working with the Easter Bowl, I'm learning how far tennis can reach (over 600 American kids play this tournament every year!) and how selective it truly is.

When it comes to team sports, greatness can be passed around from position to position. But in tennis, there is only one position: on the court. If you're not on it, you're off it. And if you're off it, you're probably not winning very much.

It would take me weeks to talk about all the Almosters on the WTA Tour, so I'll just stick with Robson and Erakovic. For now, they both have their careers ahead of them, so it's unfair to put them in one category or another.

But truth is, they probably will become a part of the Club, because we all know how hard it is to get into that other one club: the Club of Champions.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Difference of Needs

Jelena Jankovic needed to lose this week, while Ana Ivanovic needed to win and Roger Federer just needed to play.

This week was one of a myriad of different needs for the top players in the world, but it marked the first week since the US Open that the world's best were on stage - this time at two different events, in Madrid and Zurich.

It has been a dismal run for Ivanovic since winning the French. She had just been 5-6 on tour, losing early at both Wimbledon and the USO and looking like a player who was scared to hit a tennis ball instead of the number one player in the world. But this week in Zurich proved to be the reprieve she needed, winning two matches* and fighting hard against Venus Williams in the semifinals.

Jankovic, on the other hand, had been on a hot streak since the Olympics, losing just one match in that time - to Serena in the Open finals - and winning three straight titles in the fall season. But with the Season Ending Championships lingering in the near future, Jankovic's win streak would have presented more of a liability than anything else going into Doha. Her back-to-earth loss to Flavia Pennetta this week in Zurich let's her re-charge her batteries and find some hunger for a SEC title.

Everyone was relieved to simply see Federer playing, and he looked good in his opening two matches. But his semifinal rematch with Andy Murray didn't go as planned, and the Brit put Federer out much to many people's surprise after the drubbing that occurred in New York just over a month ago. It again showed Federer is human, but more than that, showed that Murray is a force to be reckoned with to end the season strong.

While all three of these needy players have been part of the tennis gossip lately, they each have different needs on court as the fall comes to a close. It's up to each of them to make sure their number one need, come two weeks from now, is to win the last tournament of the year, and that's something you can be sure each of them want to do.

*This blog was published while the Ivanovic-Williams semifinal was still in progress.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Silencing Her Critics

For those of you who have been doubting Jelena Jankovic all this time, you may want to give that doubt a second thought.

Jankovic won her third tournament in a row (following a finals appearance at the US Open). It was the first time such a feat has been accomplished on the WTA Tour since 2005.

In that time, Jankovic lost just two sets while beating eight Top 20 players and six Top 10 players.

The weakest number one of all time? Let's see how she does in Zurich...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ash-ger Fed-ick-cher

You all remember Jennifer Potter, don't you? Or Justine Spears?

Well, this week, no tennis players were morphing into pop icons (or vice versa), but one pop icon was channeling a tennis player - or two - in a big way, so much that I had to do a double, no, triple take.

It's Ashton Kutcher as Roger Federer. Or does he look more like Andy Roddick? I can't decide which is which or who is who... but needless to say, if anyone in Hollywood ever wants to go big with a tennis movie (Wimbledon doesn't count), then you know who can play Rog - or A-Rod.



(Or Roger?)

Whoever he actually is, the video is worth watching.

(Video screen grabs via YouTube.)

Tennis Chatter: Weekend Thoughts

I had a busy first week at my new job with Seena Hamilton & Associates, but I'm learning a ton while helping plan a great event - The Easter Bowl. This tournament is a stronghold in junior tennis - some (including Seena), call it the 'blockbuster of junior tennis' - and attracts players from all over the country to the Indian Wells area for an incredible week of springtime tennis. Needless to say, it's a storied event.

One of the many things that my eyes were opened to this weekend is an individual known as Gene Scott. Among other things, Gene was the founder and editor at Tennis Week for many years, and was a pioneer in a variety of ways. When you start learning about an individual like Gene, it makes you look at tennis from a different angle. Such an angle might be that this is a 'lifetime game' or that tennis can teach us things we can't learn anywhere else.

My point is that Gene wasn't just a good tennis player, he was a stand-out human being. When he passed away unexpectedly in 2006, there was a great sense of loss in the tennis community. Who would come up with a "Vantage Point" similar to Gene's? Who would continue to criticize a game that he or she loved so much?

It makes me appreciate and respect players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who take their celebrity status and positions in the game to do good - to improve tennis and the world around it. Players like these guys and others - Andre Agassi comes to mind - make this game so great. We must continue to self-criticize (as a sport) and not shy away from challenging who we are and what we are as an institution in order to move forward.

No, I don't think tennis is the platform to change the world, but it can be a platform. Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo did so when they came out, Agassi, Andy Roddick and others do so with their charities and non-profits, and Andrea Jaeger proved that the tennis afterlife could be more than just coaching clinics and commentating gigs.

That's a funny thing to think of - The Tennis Afterlife - isn't it? I look at players like Irina Spirlea or Richard Krajicek and can't really muster up any thoughts or feelings other than how oversized tennis clothes were in the mid-90s. No, not every player can be an Agassi on and off the court, but tennis is just a game - a game encompassed in a life that asks us to work together and for each other, not alone and against each other.

So maybe that's why so many tennis players are so socially awkward (myself included). We are taught to be tenacious, to go for it, to "Off with their heads!" on the court and then asked to be buddy buddy with our over-the-net foe when we're off. It's not an easy switch to turn on and off.

That's one reason why I love working for The Easter Bowl so far: this isn't a pro tennis tournament. This is a junior tournament, where American kids are bred to be champions but few - and fewer these days, right? - actually play competitive tennis past college. This is a junior tennis tournament where a future outside of tennis is likely for all, and a chance to do good in the world is only just beginning to form.

I think that's an idea Gene Scott would've liked.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Post on Pete's

I'm feeling like Friday on this Tuesday because my email to Peter Bodo, Senior Editor at TENNIS Magazine and blogger for the TennisWorld blog on, was published today.

I had wrote Pete about how I thought Jelena Jankovic was breaking out of her shell as the Gril Who Might Have Been and is becoming the girl who can (and eventually, will).

Click here to read my letter and read Pete's savvy response. Back with more later this week!

Monday, October 6, 2008

No-ho Video

I officially hate my camera.

One of my favorite parts of this past summer was getting the chance to do video posts for the blog about the goings on around tennis. It was fun, fresh and something that I truly enjoyed. And, beyond that, it was something that no one else in the (tennis) blogosphere was doing... therefore I was a total trendsetter, right?

But as I've started to re-boot the blog (and my life) over the last few weeks, my camera has been nothing short of impossible. One minute it won't turn on, the next it will - but only to die two seconds later. Then (after re-charging), it'll let me record a video, link up to my computer, only to crash when I try to import.

The moral of this story: my camera is old. Not old, old, but rather 21st-Century old. I've had it for over three years and it's given me a lot of good pictures and videos in that time... but shouldn't it be built to last?

I was hoping for the Martina Navratilova of cameras, but I ended up with Justine Henin instead. Pooey.