Monday, September 14, 2009

Tall Order: Del Potro Denies Federer His Sweet 16; Wins First Slam

If you like biting your nails, this was the Grand-Slam final for you. If you have a heart condition, maybe not.

Juan Martin Del Potro may have come into this U.S. Open men's final like a lamb, but he went out like a lion, scoring a hard-fought and tension-laden victory over living legend Roger Federer, 3-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2.

Del Potro, who at 6’6” is the tallest player to ever secure a Grand-Slam title, becomes the 2nd man to defeat Roger Federer in a Grand-Slam final, and the first to ever defeat him at the U.S. Open final.

After looking like a deer in the headlights for the better part of the first two sets, the 20-year-old Del Potro came to life, snatching his first service break of the match just as Federer looked poised to put his all-too-familiar vice grip on the match.

“Yes, the beginning of the match, I was so nervous, I can’t sleep last night. I didn’t take a breakfast today,” said Del Potro. “That’s part of the final, you know.”

Serving for the set at 5-4, 30-0, Federer, the holder of five consecutive U.S. Open titles, was two points from a seemingly invincible 2-set lead.

But Del Potro magically found a window that was big enough to crawl through.

The No. 6 seed, who will turn 21 later this month, displaying a rare sense of timing that only the true champions ever seem to possess, reeled off four consecutive points, finishing off the game by delivering two improbably clutch passing shots that were perfectly placed along the sideline.

The first was ruled out, but when Del Potro challenged the call, the replay overturned the point. Federer, who has long been critical of the Hawk-Eye challenge system, was miffed by the call, especially since it had led to a break point.

On the ensuing break point, Del Potro’s third of the match, the lanky Argentine intercepted a spinning Federer volley with a running topspin forehand that landed just inside the line for the break, and a 5-5 tie.

“I got off to a pretty good start,” said Federer. “I had things under control as well in the second set. I think that one cost me the match eventually. But I had many chances before that to make the difference.

“So it was tough luck today, but I thought Juan Martin played great. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”

Both players held serve into the tie-break, but as Federer shanked a forehand at 3-3, Del Potro had the mini-break that would give him an advantage he would never relinquish. Moments later, he closed out the set with a beautiful inside-out forehand and a fist pump to boot — suddenly a match that was two points away from being a lost cause was up for grabs.

In the third set, Del Potro looked energized. Hitting unfathomable forehands that seemed shot out of a cannon rather than struck by a racquet, the Argentine seemed to be taking the momentum from the Swiss maestro, slowly but surely.

“Good feeling with my forehand I think was the key of the match,” Del Potro would later state, in a post-match press conference.

It was the understatement of the day.

Del Potro was in a classic zone, and it was awe inspiring to see the almost unconscious ease with which his prodigious blasts were struck. And the blistering-fast forehand seemed to get better as the match progressed. The long-limbed Argentine regularly scorched winners as fast as 110 M.P.H. and he was launching his devastating cross-court forehand with deadly accuracy, even in the tensest of moments.

The New York crowds were impressed with the gutsy go-for-broke style that Del Potro employed, and Federer was impressed as well. “He definitely strikes it with great pace and good margin, too. Sometimes he hits crazy ones, too, but that’s what happens when you go for it a lot…I don’t know if it’s the best in the world right now. I don’t think so, but it doesn’t matter. He won the match, right?”

When Del Potro grabbed a service break in the seventh game of the 3rd set, it seemed like he was on the road to higher ground. But Federer quickly answered with a break of his own to level the set at four. They were neck-and-neck again.

After Federer hit a service winner to deny Del Potro another break point opportunity then took a 5-4 lead, another huge momentum shift took place.

Del Potro, obviously feeling the pressure as he was serving to stay alive in the set, awkwardly served two ill-timed double faults to gift Federer the set and a 2-1 lead.

Though it did seem to deflate Del Potro for a period, the resilient kid resisted drowning in disappointment and managed to summon key shots at crucial junctures and remain in the match.

“When I lost the third set, I started to think bad things,” said Del Potro. “It was so difficult to keep trying to keep fighting, but one more time the crowd and the fans helped me to fight…”

Still, it felt like he was hanging by a thread; against a player whom he had never beaten, Del Potro was trying to win a title that he had never won.

Pressure mounted on the young Argentine in the early games of the fourth set - but when he found himself facing two break points in the second game, and another in the fourth game, he was up to the task. A sudden shift in serving strategy seemed to relax Del Potro, and as he slowed his serve down to the low 100 M.P.H. range he achieved better results.

Federer was the first to yield in the fourth set. But again, he immediately broke back to level the set, and a fourth set tie-breaker ensued, with the electrified crowd lustily encouraging both players and doing its best to heighten the ambiance.

Remarkably, Federer served 11 double faults for the match, including one on the first point of the 4th set tie-break from which he was never able to recover.

A piercing down-the-line backhand forced Federer to miss a running forehand wide for 4-2, and after a strange point, in which Federer thought he heard an “out” call—which really came from the crowd—Del Potro took a 5-2 lead when Federer sailed a backhand long.

Moments later, Del Potro sealed the set with two straight points on his serve, and the boisterous crowd urged the players on as they prepared for the home stretch.

It was the second unsuccessful tie-break of the night for Federer, who was 4-0 in U.S. Open final tie-breaks, and 18-3 in Grand-Slam final tie-breaks coming into the match.

The fifth set would decide the winner at the U.S. Open final, for the first time since Agassi and Todd Martin went the distance on Arthur Ashe in 1999.

After Del Potro scored a break early in the 5th set, it stood to reason that it would soon be Federer’s turn to break back. But Del Potro kept him at bay. He managed one unsuccessful break point opportunity in the next game, but as the set drew on, Federer’s chances were fewer.

The bearded Argentine in the yellow bandanna and sleeveless shirt held to love to lead 5-2, and the chants of his name echoed down from the nosebleed sections of Arthur Ashe Stadium as the players headed for their chairs.

When Federer took the balls to serve to stay in the match, his face wore a strange look of acceptance, as if he was resigned to his fate — apparently even the greatest of all time can meet his match on certain occasions.

Still, Federer withstood 2 Championship points with brilliant shot-making to retake the advantage in the game. Destinies still hung in the balance, with just one break separating the two, but the hungry Argentine would not relent.

Three points later (one of them a critical Federer double fault at deuce) it was over. Del Potro was lying flat on his back just beyond the service line. He looked like he was floating on an ocean of painted-blue cement, his intensity slowly morphing into exultation, his long limbs outstretched for a moment, then pulled close to his face to hide his tears of joy from the world.

He had beaten the odds and etched his name in the history books aside his heroes: Sampras, Safin, and the colossal presence on the other side of the net who was waiting to shake his hand.

“It’s difficult to explain this moment,” Del Potro later said. “ You know, since I was young I dream of this. It was an amazing match, amazing people, everything is perfect.”

“When I lay down on the floor, many things come to my mind. First my family and my friends and everything. I don’t know how I can explain, because it’s my dream. My dream is done... It’s over. I will go home with a trophy, and it’s my best sensation ever in my life.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beauty and the Beast: Federer - Del Potro Set to Tangle in Monday Final

Roger Federer hopes that his music can tame the savage beast that is Juan Martin Del Potro tomorrow.

If anyone can do it, surely it is the Swiss Maestro. The virtuosic Federer has now won 40 consecutive matches at the U.S. Open, and he has not lost since falling to another Argentine, David Nalbandian, in the 4th round in 2003. Since then Federer has been the conductor at the U.S. Open, with the rest of the men's field looking like lowly musicians in the orchestra pit.

Seeking his 6th consecutive U.S. Open title, and his 16th overall, the Basel, Switzerland native will attempt to neutralize the heavy hitting 20-year-old from Tandil, Argentina, who stormed his way past Rafael Nadal earlier today in decisive fashion.

Federer, meanwhile, was equally decisive in his straight set victory over Novak Djokovic.

While the relatively inexperienced Del Potro might seem like easy prey for a savvy veteran like Federer, his run to the finals this year has been surprisingly dominant. The 6'6" phenom made short work of 6-time Grand-Slam champion Rafa Nadal today, employing a nasty array of ballistic serves and lethal ground strokes to keep Nadal pinned behind the baseline for the majority of the 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 thumping.

As good as Del Potro has played, he'll need to find another level if he plans to triumph on Monday. He's been on the losing end of six straight decisions against Federer, including a straight set drubbing in the quarter finals of the Australian Open in which he managed only three games, and a dramatic 5-set thriller in the semis of the French Open where he blew a 2-1 lead after three sets.

While Del Potro clearly has a long way to go before he can say he's solved the mystery of Federer, the fact that he finally took two sets from the world No. 1 in Paris bodes well for his confidence in the final.

There will be plenty of confidence on the other side of the net as well, as Federer has won 32 of his last 33 matches, and is attempting to become the first player to win three consecutive Grand-Slam titles since Rod Laver completed his second Grand-Slam in 1969. In addition to that remarkable feat, Federer will also attempt to become the first player to win 6 consecutive U.S. Opens since Bill Tilden accomplished the feat from 1920-1925.

Federer's attempt at a record-breaking sixth consecutive Wimbledon fell short last year, so the hoarder of tennis trophies will more than likely be especially motivated to keep Del Potro titleless in order to increase his stranglehold on the record books.

"It's just a matter of hopefully I've got one more match in me now to get six in a row," he said. "It would be absolutely amazing, it's something I wasn't able to do at Wimbledon, even though I was so close. So I hope things go well for me. I'm feeling great and I really hope I can do it."

Del Potro, meanwhile, would like nothing more than to use his imposing height to tear a page from Federer's book. He could someday become the tallest player to ever achieve the No. 1 ranking if continues to improve at his current astronomical rate. Marat Safin, at 6'4", holds that distinction at the moment.

But imposing or not, the beast will have to hit some beautiful shots to wrestle to trophy from the hands of Federer.

Making Sense of Serena's Foot Fault

If you challenged several of the best Hollywood script writers to come up with the most excruciatingly frustrating finish to a tennis match imaginable — one that would leave viewers maddeningly confused and feeling utterly defeated — I think their ideas would have paled in comparison to the emotional maelstrom that actually occurred last night at the conclusion of the Serena Williams-Kim Clijsters match at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

After two days of sitting through seemingly interminable rain delays, die-hard tennis fans were forced to suffer through an ending that was even more piddly than the steady rainfall that has soaked Championship Weekend for the 2nd consecutive year at the U.S. Open.

As much as I'd like to spend the rest of the day berating Serena Williams for her thuggish tirade against an overly zealous lines person, I'll probably only spend half of my day doing that. With the other half, I'd like to berate the piddly lines person who took it upon herself to make the call.

It's probably callous of me, given the ire she's already drawn — a fuzzy yellow Wilson tennis ball was figuratively stuck (or was it jammed?) down her throat by a boiling-over and melting-down Serena, but I still want to take a jab at her myself. And while I'm taking a jab at her, can I please take a jab at the networks who failed to have a camera angle that could do anything but confuse viewers as to the legitimacy of the call?

Was it really a foot fault? Serena seemed to think so in her post-match press conference. She may have been in denial about a lot of things, most notably the fact that her actions on the court, no matter what the call or at what precious juncture of the match that it was made, were depraved. But she did not dispute the validity of the call.

But this only adds to the confusion — If Serena is not disputing the validity of the call, what does that say about her rampage? Do her actions say that she believes that foot faults should be overlooked at critical junctures of matches? If so, then why doesn't she just come out and say it? While I don't subscribe to the act of "swallowing the whistle" at crucial junctures of matches (a term made famous by hockey referees), in this case I believe that it would have been the right thing to do by the lines person (based on the camera angle, it looks too close to call).

Instead of letting Clijsters take a whack at that 2nd serve at 15-30, and seeing if she had the goods to finish off the only woman to come back from match point down to win a Slam this year, we got a bunch of piddliness, that led to thuggishness. Was it really necessary? And couldn't it have been avoided? We'll never know.

Clearly tennis officials need to look into making foot faults challengeable by the athletes. It would have at least given Serena closure on the matter. And it would have allowed her to move on and deal with 2 match points instead of ranting and raving and embarrassing herself (and the sport) on National T.V.

Unfortunately, doing it now is going to be the equivalent of putting a stop sign at an intersection after a child gets run over by a Mack truck.

The damage has already been done. Clijsters won the match, and deservedly so, but in the end this was a Super Saturday where everybody lost.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rain Leaves Rafa and Gonzo in Question; Woman's Semifinals Off

Things are getting very dicey at the U.S. Open, as rain has further delayed the Nadal-Gonzalez quarterfinal match, which is still awaiting a conclusion to a tense 2nd set tie-breaker. Both woman's semifinals have just been cancelled for the day.

The rains have been relentless, putting super Saturday in jeopardy, along with the Saturday prime-time woman's final, and the Sunday Men's final. If no matches are played today, the most likely scenario is that everything will have to be moved back one day to accommodate the players.

The news can't be music to Rafa's ears. After battling back from knee tendinitis, Nadal has been hindered by an abdominal strain in the last few matches that he first developed in Cincinnati. The daunting prospect of playing on three consecutive days will undoubtedly put Nadal at a disadvantage even if he does finish off in-form Chilean Fernando Gonzalez today.

Rafa is currently hanging in the players lounge, trying to make the best of a miserable situation for the worlds No. 3 player.

A three-set victory as soon as possible would probably be the best case scenario for Nadal, but considering the way Gonzo has been battling Rafa thus far, and the unpredictable results that will inevitably result from starting play in the midst of a tense tie-breaker (led by Nadal, 3-2), it's impossible predict what kind of workload Nadal and Gonzalez can expect to endure whenever they do resume play.

Meanwhile the other three semifinalists (Federer, Djokovic, and Del Potro) can order room service and cue up a movie. Lucky them.

When mother nature outplays the world best players at the U.S. Open, someone always gets the short end of the stick.

Today, in addition to the players who are forced to endure the misery of trying to prepare for a match that they are not sure when or even if they are going to play, the fans suffer too - many are still hanging around the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center in the hopes that they will get to watch at least one third of what they came to see today.

Insert your argument for a retractable roof here.

After that, stay tuned.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rafa's Pain Machine is Switched on Again

Tuesday nights highly physical and thoroughly entertaining 4th-round match between Rafa Nadal and Gael Monfils served to remind tennis fans of what kind of indomitable phenom Rafa can be when he is in top form.

Looking more dialed-in and revved-up than he has in the month since his return, Rafa dished out several heaping portions of pain in the form of punishing ground strokes and world-class service returns last night to a Gael Monfils who seemed, for a brief period at least, bent on running toe-to-toe with Nadal.

That might have been a realistic endeavor two to four weeks ago, but last night it was a task more suited for Hercules than a mere mortal who is happier on clay than on the blistering fast hard courts at the Billie Jean USTA National Tennis Center.

After a first set that had to be the most entertaining and also grueling set of the men’s tournament to date, Monfils looked like he had been through a war. Nadal, meanwhile, looked like he was lusting for one that was just about to begin.

The second set was the beginning of the end for Monfils. It was here where Nadal switched up the intensity, and it was here where Monfils started to appear as if he was in way over his head. Credit Monfils for his brave attempt to stay relevant in this match - he didn’t go away, but Rafa emerged in such a way as to make the flashy Frenchman seem ill-equipped to go the distance. At times the crowd tried to will the charismatic Monfils back into the match, and at other times Monfils tried to pump himself up for big games and big points, but the theme of the match always remained intact. The harder Monfils played, the more resistance he would feel from the pain machine.

For the first time since his return, Nadal was absolutely deadly with his ground strokes, patiently alternating between his inside-out and cross-court forehands, which served to keep the agile Monfils on a perpetual treadmill, and eventually fatigued him so much that later in the match he was forced to go for winners before he really had a good shot at the point.

It was such a decisive display of physical and mental prowess that it is now is quite easy to envision Rafa inflicting his personal form of torture on the rest of the men’s field.

It wasn't so easy two weeks ago. After erratic performances and less-than-average serving did Nadal in at Masters events in Montreal and Cincinnati, where he lost in the quarters to Del Potro and in the semis to Djokovic respectively, it was hard to imagine him being a legitimate threat for the title in New York.

But Tuesday nights dominating performance changes all that.

The feel that he was desperately searching for (and not quite finding) before the open started has returned in the last few matches. The slice is biting. He’s timing the ball on the run. The volleys are finding the open court again, and after last night it is painfully (sense a theme developing here?) obvious that Nadal is still the most fit man in the draw, regardless of his injury status.

While his greatest challenges most certainly lie in wait for him, Nadal’s form last night on Arthur Ashe says a lot about how he’ll handle them. Win or lose, I predict pain for his opponents.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mother's Day? Woman's Quarters Preview

Quarterfinal No. 1: Kim Clijsters vs. Na Li

Is there anything that Kimpossible can't do? Hang around Flushing Meadows until Saturday and you just might have your answer.

Kim is vying to become the first mother to reach the semifinals of a Grand-Slam since Yvonne Goolagong stormed to the Wimbledon title in 1980. After surviving an up and down match with Venus Williams in Sundays 4th-round match, Clijsters will be looking to keep Chinese Veteran Na Li from becoming the first Chinese player to ever advance to the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

Li is 1-3 in her career against Clijsters with the win coming in their last meeting in 2007.

The 27-year-old from Wuhan China has yet to lose a set in the tournament.

Clijsters has benefited from tremendous support from the N.Y. crowds, and this could help to get her over the edge in what will more than likely be a very competitive match.

Pick: Clijsters in 3

Quarterfinal # 2: Serena Williams vs. Flavia Pennetta

Flavia Pennetta became the first Italian women to grace the top-10 with her presence earlier in the summer, but the milestone hasn't appeared to diminish her desire for more recognition. The 27-year-old from Brindisi, Italy was irrepressibly bold in fighting off six match points against Vera Zvonareva on Sunday evening, and she'll be looking to become the first Italian woman to ever make the semifinals of a Grand-Slam (Italian women are 0-10 in Grand-Slam quarterfinals).

But does Flavia have the firepower to contend with the games most dynamic player, Serena Williams? In their only previous meeting she lost 6-2 in the third set to Serena (Miami 2008).

Even as Pennetta has been playing the best tennis of her career, winning 23 of her last 26 matches (titles in Palermo and L.A.), and is high on confidence, it seems like a stretch to imagine her getting past Serena in New York.

Williams has yet to be tested at this years Open, winning each of the 8 sets she has played. The three-time U.S. Open champion has won three of the last four Grand-Slams she has played in.

Tonight's match vs. Pennetta will be her 8th career U.S. Open quarterfinal match - she has won four of seven, and each time she has won she has advanced to the final.

Pennetta was a quarterfinalist last year, losing to Dinara Safina in straight sets.

Pick: Williams in 3

Monday, September 7, 2009

Isner Can't Keep American Tennis From Hitting New Low

It's finally come to this. John Isner's magical albeit brief run at this years U.S. Open was ended by Fernando Verdasco on Monday, and the 4th-round loss means that 2009 will be the first time that there hasn't been an American man in the quarter finals of the tournament since the open era began in 1968.

But don't blame Isner. His performance this year was definitely a giant step in the right direction, and he'll move into the top 50 when rankings come out next Monday for the first time in his career.

While it is disappointing for many American tennis fans, who've been spoiled by the likes of Connors, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi, and Courier, I have a theory on why hitting a new low might actually be good for the Americans who are currently moving up the ladder on the ATP tour.

First, American tennis has been languishing for several years, with Andy Roddick doing everything he can to carry the workload, but really an alarming dearth of talent beneath him. Roddick's early exit this year has exposed the weakness behind the approach of American coaches and players who've chosen to forego versatility and consistency for the allure of being a "power player." In the past, the American style of tennis had payed dividends on the super fast hard courts at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center, but this year has been a different story.

Perhaps these desperate times will force the USTA to rethink it's development philosophy. Power is an integral part of today's tennis, but it shouldn't have to come at the expense of other equally important traits such as guile, finesse, versatility, and patience.

A quick glance at the American players in the draw says a lot about the American tennis philosophy. Taylor Dent and Jesse Witten tried to blast through the draw. They had to play perfect tennis to get as far as they did. James Blake is like a pitcher with a 100 M.P.H fast ball but no curve or change up. His strategy was good enough to get him into the top-10 when he was in his prime, but now at the age of 29 his methodology seems woefully inadequate. Roddick, Querrey, and Isner seem to understand more of the nuance of the game, but with such phenomonal serving acumen, each seems to be performing a little beneath his potential at the moment.

Second, perhaps the lack of tennis icons in the current crop of Americans to live up to will actually lessen the pressure on our young talent. It hasn't been easy for Andy Roddick to be compared to the 26 combined Grand-Slam titles that Sampras, Agassi, and Courier provided in the previous era. Maybe the Querrey's and Isner's of today will benefit from the fact that there isn't an impossibly tall mountain between them and success in tennis.

Third, everything is cyclical. The Americans have had a great run, and like all great runs, it has come to an end. While it's hard to accept, actually looking in the mirror and seeing a tennis program that isn't on par with the top powers in the world might be a good thing. We've got legions of ex-phenoms that may look at this as a call to arms. We've got a lot of young players in the U.S. who should be taking this personally. Great tennis comes from great desire. If American tennis wants to avoid the 72-year-Grand-Slam drought that Great Britain is currently enduring, then today's players and coaches need to build a fire in the belly of the program, and collectively ensure that it doesn't go out.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pennetta and Zvonareava: Grace Under Pressure and Melting Under Pressure

Last nights heated 4th round battle between Flavia Pennetta and Vera Zvonareva was the mind blowing type of tennis warfare that we tend to expect during the Slams. It is why we get squeamish when faced with the possibility of missing a match on television. It is why we hoard the remote control, refusing to acknowledge the presence of other sports, and rolling our eyes at the insensitive requests of anyone crazy enough to desire even a temporary channel change.

During the U.S. Open, high drama is more of an inevitability than a possibility. We know the mind blowing, stomach searing tennis is coming, but we just don't know when.

But that doesn't change the fact that when we get what we expect it never really comes in the form that we expected it to come in. It is always a surprise, gift-wrapped in gripping suspense, and we always watch in that awestruck state of disbelief, wondering how in the heck these players can perform these super human feats of athleticism under all that pressure.

Vera Zvonareva looked to be on the fast lane to victory in the latter stages of the 2nd set last night. The 24-year-old Russian and her Italian opponent, Flavia Pennetta, were engaging in sweat inducing rallies that were as beautiful as they were long, with each player paddling the ball squarely, and playing the angles artfully.

It was one of those matches that you just felt lucky to be watching, with each point seemingly a story within a story, and each player striving to create an opening for herself and then courageously stepping up to go for the kill in the form of a winner when the situation called for it.

But as Pennetta prepared to serve to stay alive in the 2nd set, she found herself in a heap of trouble. Zvonareva had been intense all evening - extremely focused, calm, and moving with a sense of purpose that was not at all hindered by the heavy tape on both of her legs and one of her ankles. Now, it looked as if Zvonareva was going to put this one to bed.

Pennetta had been playing well, but it appeared as if it wouldn't be enough to force a decisive third set. In spite of her feisty baseline play, the Italian had been serving poorly all evening (she had a first serve percentage of 37% during the 2nd set, and 45 % for the match). As the 12th game of the 2nd set progressed, it looked like the lack of a few key first serves would be the thing that would do her in.

Then suddenly, as the Italian stared death in the eye, and as Zvonareva found herself one more point from a post match celebration that she could no doubt taste, the psychology of this match became more intriguing than the clinical precision and breathtaking physicality of the tennis. A seething undercurrent of emotional content carved another layer into this match, and when Pennetta found herself in real trouble she was able to find a sense of purpose that was stronger than her sense of fear.

Whenever Pennetta faced a match point, she seemed to be able to ignore the heightened tension of the moment and revert to a very smooth and relaxed form of tennis. Somehow, the Italian was able to take her mind out of the equation, and by doing so her body seemed free to do what it had been trained to do. Meanwhile, Zvonareva seemed attached to what was at stake. Not that you can blame her, she had six chances to end the match and advance to the third grand-slam quarterfinal of her career. She played cautiously, limited by this new reality, hoping for the Pennetta mistake that never came.

The air became thick. Both players looked ornery, like starving predators after days without a kill. Each wore agonized expressions on their faces, as if they sensed that there was some clear and imminent danger ahead, that they were being led by their competitive spirits into some kind of burning cauldron that they would later regret visiting - but still they played remarkably, each stepping in and taking lustful swings at the ball with even more authority than they had when they had started the match fresh.

It is at times like this when tennis seems to separate itself from the other sports. Two women, completely alone, desperately fighting to maintain the kind of unnatural concentration that the sport demands from its competitors. No teammates. No coaches. No time limit. Just an abundance of pressure and an unyielding array of mental and physical challenges.

Pennetta's determination was unrelenting, but at first it didn't seem to phase Zvonareva. She was, after all, playing with gusto. But slowly, a tiny crack in her spirit started to spread. As hard as she tried and as well as she hit the ball, Pennetta found a way to stay alive. She wouldn't die. Suddenly, after four match points denied, the crack in Zvonareva's spirit was looking more like a chasm.

This match was a test of wills more than it was a test of talent. Talent gets you to the door in a Grand-Slam, but perseverance gets you into the kingdom of winning. Pennetta, after fighting off six match points in dramatic fashion, is through the door and into the quarterfinals. Zvonareva, after melting down and losing the connection with the focus and calm that made her so incredibly impressive for the first two sets, is left to contemplate how she let her anger and frustration with six lost points ruin her chances in the third set.

It didn't have to be this way. Pennetta could have gone away, but something inside of her made her impervious to the same pressure that was slowly destroying Zvonareva.

There is a fine line between grace under pressure and melting under pressure. Tennis players must walk this tightrope every day. Flavia Pennetta has a lot to be proud of. Vera Zvonareva has nothing to be ashamed of. Being a professional tennis player is not always easy. This was obvious to see tonight.

Oudin's Mental Toughness is Her Biggest Weapon

Melanie Oudin, at least for the moment, has what most of the WTA lacks. The 5'6" 130-pounder from Marietta, Georgia has become an engine of belief while a large contingent of the WTA's top players is shrouded in self-doubt.

Oudin's upset win over Maria Sharapova yesterday has catapulted the 17-year-old into the 4th round of the U.S. Open, and with the huge tailwind of emotional support that is following her everywhere she goes, she's a good bet to advance further.

Unfortunately for Oudin, there is no longer such a thing as a good bet in women's tennis. The carnage has been well documented on the woman's side, with Dinara Safina being the latest top seed to tumble last night against a hardly lethal Petra Kvitova (ranked No. 72 coming in). Safina is just one of many women who came in with high expectations and who are now waiting to catch the 7 train out of Queens.

Given the circumstances, Oudins trip to her second consecutive round-of-16 appearance at a slam should not be all that surprising. She's got something that many of the other higher ranked girls currently lack: Mental toughness and fighting spirit.

And she knows it.

When asked at her post match presser about what her best weapons were, her answers gave us insight into the precocious mind of Oudin.

Question: What do you think about the weapons you have in your game?

Oudin: "I think the biggest weapon can be mental toughness. It doesn't have to be a stroke or a shot or anything like that. If you're mentally tough out there, than you can beat anyone. I think that's what I really did well today and what I've done in my past matches. I'm so focused and I fight super hard. So it's not going to be easy to beat me."

It's impressive that the kid could speak about herself in that way, and it bodes well for her that she has constructed her personal mission statement accordingly. The first 6 days of the U.S. Open has made it painfully obvious that the current woman's field is too fragile emotionally to consistently achieve results that match expectations. Many of the women seem overwhelmed by the pressure. Oudin, on the other hand, has chosen to embrace it.

Of course it'll be a different story if she makes it into the top-10 and the pressure dynamic becomes more likely to affect her negatively. But for now, the No. 70-ranked Oudin can enjoy the moment and be buoyed be the fact that she has nothing to lose.

It is the age of the underdog in the WTA. And Melanie Oudin possesses the perfect weapon to win in this unconventional form of tennis warfare.

As long as she continues embracing the pressure while others are wilting beneath it, the sky is the limit for her.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Preview: Wozniacki - Cirstea Look to Bolster Their Slam Reputations

Chaos reigns supreme in the woman's side of the draw at the U.S. Open. Under scrutiny for much of the year for having a No. 1 ranked player who is clearly inferior to its No. 2 ranked player, the WTA has done little to dissuade critics of its dearth of consistency at the top in the first five days of singles action at Flushing Meadows.

18 of the 32 seeds in the ladies draw have been unceremoniously bounced from the tournament, including No. 4 Elena Dementieva, No. 5 Jelena Jankovic, and No. 8 Victoria Azarenka.

But what the WTA lacks in predictability it certainly makes up for with spontaneous combustion and gut-wrenching drama. Whether you are nonplussed by the poor quality of serving currently being seen on tour, or disappointed by the lack of variety in the woman's game (volleys are as rare as double faults are common), these deficiencies seem to lend themselves to a heightened sense of drama as the matches unfold. Unlike the men's matches, where one break of serve often means that the set or the match is over, on the woman's side, nobody is ever out of a match.

For those who claim that the current state of women's tennis is not up to snuff, I ask the following question: Which is more exciting, an environment where anybody can win on any given day, or the alternative, the classic stranglehold where a few rule the many, and the good matches are those titanic struggles that instead of happening on any given day, happen in the quarterfinals and beyond?

Whichever your preference, it won't change the reality of the situation. Other than the Williams sisters (particularly Serena), we might as well wipe the slate clean after every match. Anyone can win, and we'd be wise to embrace the situation rather then moaning about it.

Of the eight 3rd round matches on the docket today at Flushing Meadows, there are only two in which both opponents are seeded.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sorana Cirstea is one of them.

Once again, rankings don't tell the whole story as the lower-seeded Cirstea has triumphed over Wozniacki in their last two matches. In 2009 Cirstea defeated Wozniacki in the third round of the French Open (she eventually advanced to the quarters - something that Wozniacki has never done in a slam) and she also defeated Wozniacki earlier in the summer in L.A, coming back from a 1-6 drubbing in the first set to win a third set tie-break.

Wozniacki has had another great year, but even as she has finally cracked the top-10 this year, her Slam results leave a little bit to be desired. She came in hot at Wimbledon this year, but bowed out to Sabine Lisicki in the 4th round after winning the Eastbourne title one week earlier.

19-year-old Cirstea comes in to the match serving quite well. She's 2nd in aces among all women with 15, and even more impressively she's first among all women in first serve points won (78%).
I watched Cirstea's 2nd round match against Canadian Stephanie Dubois on Thursday and came away from it unsure about whether Cirstea had the stuff to make a run similar to her French Open run this spring.

Her serve was very tough, but she was plagued by double faults (5 in the third set, 8 over all). Her forehand can be a weapon but it can also be erratic. But what was most impressive about Cirstea's performance on Thursday against Dubois was that she was able to maintain concentration in a very difficult third set. Dubois had the crowd on her side and was playing perhaps the best match of her career. And yet as the third set neared its conclusion Cirstea started nailing her forehand with reckless abandon.

Long story short: Instead of getting tight, Cirstea got loose. When it comes down to tight matches you can throw the numbers out the window. The winner more often than not is the player who can overcome her fear and let her desire dictate her actions. Cirstea appears to be the rare breed of player who is guided by hunger instead of limited by fear. In todays WTA that could go a long way.

As for Wozniacki, she's getting a taste of what life in the top-10 can be like. There are no guarantees, and you are only as good as your last match.

It should be a good one on Armstrong today between these two up-and-coming 19-year-olds with great games and even greater aspirations.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Day 4 Behind the Scenes: Del Potro Hits a Ruthian Cloud

Greetings tennis junkies,

A long and wonderful day at the Billie Jean USTA National Tennis Center, and once again there were more amazing moments than there are balls in a Wilson tennis ball hopper (mine holds 80, fyi).

I will start with something that I witnessed while scanning the practice courts in the early afternoon. It was about midway through the session and Alize Cornet and Zheng Jie were battling it out in the third set as I sat at the top of the bleachers at court 4. I could have been court side, counting the beads of sweat on the back of Cornet's neck (and there were a lot, but more on Cornet later) but I elected to move to the top of the bleachers to get a smidgen of shade from the trees that line the west side of the grounds, and also to take a birds-eye view of the practice courts.

As good as the Cornet - Jie match was, I couldn't help craning my neck a bit to look over at another Andy Murray footie session. The more I watch these footie sessions that feature Andy and his entourage, the more I become aware of just how good these guys are with their feet. And their heads. They have a surprising amount of control of that little tennis ball, and it's a great way for the No. 2 player in the world to keep his mind relaxed and get loose for a hitting session.

After Murray worked with the flexibility bands he headed to the baseline to wallop some groundies.

Meanwhile Cornet was screaming after a 20-stroke rally. Then she was leaning on her racquet, looking completely exhausted, and I couldn't help remember the time she blew match points against Dinara Safina in the 4th round of this years Australian Open and then got down on her hands and knees and let out cries of frustration. And the match was tied! Young tennis players, if you ever want to give your opponent a competitive edge, lay down on the court and cry before the match is over. It did wonders for Cornet in Australia, and it worked yet again yesterday out on court 4. Not only was Cornet clearly low on oxygen, but the fact that she was outwardly letting it show had to be the equivalent to putting oxygen in Jie's lungs.

Sure enough after a gutty hold, Cornet lost the final three games of the match.

As Murray started his practice, Juan Martin Del Potro was rallying on the baseline one court down. It was pretty incredible to see these two phenoms juxtaposed, and to observe how different their individual strokes are. Murray, so compact and efficient, and Del Potro, like a swordsmen yielding his weapon high in the air than looping it around to contact.

As compelling as all the matches were around the grounds, watching Murray and Del Potro whack balls about 50 feet apart from each other was one of the highlights of the day. Glancing one court east of Del Potro and seeing the Bryan brothers warming up for their doubles affair by hitting singles together made it even better.

Then it happened. Del Potro's coach, Franco Davin, and another member of his staff, were blasting balls up at the imposing facade of Arthur Ashe Stadium. There were fans hanging over the top rows and surveying the grounds. Davin hit a few balls and neither of them got much more than half way up the red brick wall of the mammoth tennis stadium. Then it was Del Potro's turn. After a short swing, he blasted the first ball off the top row of the stadium. The ball was still on his way up and I had to laugh. He hit another one and this one climbed high over the walls of the stadium and into the giant bowl.

So, if you were sitting in Ashe yesterday after the Oudin upset of Dementieva, and a tennis ball came from out of nowhere and hit you in the head, you have the No. 6 seed in the tournament, Juan Martin Del Potro to thank.

While it was just a little goofing around after a practice session, the Ruthian clout that Del Potro hit reinforces the belief that Del Potro might be the strongest male player on tour. And while Murray may be a better footie player, I'd give Del Potro the edge in a home run derby.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Day 3: Tennis Heaven and $8 Heineken

Greetings tennis obsessed lunatics,

It was an absolutely pristine day for tennis at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center, and I mean that in every sense of the word.

While the night session centered around two grand-slam hoarders - Federer and Serena coasted to easy victories - the day session was an entirely different animal. It was a mixed bag of upsets, blowouts, and nail biters that kept the grounds buzzing with excitement, in spite of the fact that a Grey Goose cocktail was selling for $13 in the food court.

There were simply too many exceptional moments to fit into one blog post, so I'm going to do my best to consolidate the highlights of the day into an orderly and concise piece of tennis journalism:

1. Monfils took his compatriot Jeremy Chardy to the woodshed in the first match of the day on Grandstand. Simply put, the kid is a remarkable athlete. Up close and personal, it is just awe inspiring to watch the lethal combination of foot speed, quickness, and sheer imposing size that Monfils possesses. He was truly magnifique today, and Chardy, who played as if he was still asleep for the first three games of the match, was never given the chance to wake up by Monfils.

Throw in a little shadow boxing after Monfils drilled a winner off a short Chardy volley on match point, and the fans at Grandstand had already gotten their moneys worth before the shadows had made it on to the court.

2. Speaking of Grandstand, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what a distinct pleasure it is to watch a match on this court. As far as I'm concerned it is THE PLACE TO BE when it comes to viewing the U.S. Open in person. Spectators can get so close to the players that they can practically read the grip size on their racquets. And if you want to go for the double whammy, you can walk up the stairs at Louis Armstrong and shuttle between standing with the photographers who are shooting the birds-eye view of Grandstand, and the larger yet still intimate stadium that is Louis Armstrong.

Either way you slice it, Grandstand lends a flavor of intimacy to the U.S. Open venue, with its trademark shadows encroaching on the playing surface as the day progresses, and the warm and cozy boxed in feeling that you feel when you are sitting in your seat, or standing and letting your arms dangle over the 4' high blue rails that the photographers use to rest their massive telephoto lenses on.

3. Kim Clijsters a.k.a. Kimpossible defeated Marion Bartoli on Louis Armstrong, just as the sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon.

Before we get to the glory of Kim's comeback, I would like to give some props to Marion Bartoli. She may not the prettiest or most conventional player on the WTA tour, but what she lacks in those areas she most certainly makes up for in heart and determination and courage - and these are things that the more athletically gifted players like Safina and Ivanovic could most definitely use.

But nonetheless Clijsters, behind the seemingly unconditional love and support of the N.Y. crowd, was able to continue her marvelous comeback after a 27 month absence from the sport, coming from behind to defeat Bartoli for the 2nd time in less than a month, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2.

It looks like Clijsters is headed for a 4th round match with Venus Williams, and the fact that the health of Venus' knee is in question makes this a pretty difficult pick. I'm thinking Clijsters, but I'd never be so stupid as to rule Venus out.

4. Victoria Azarenka was absolutely dominant in her straight set destruction of Barbara Zahlavova Strycova today. Is there any woman who patrols the baseline with the panache of Azarenka? She is an absolute phenom back there. That's the good news, but the bad news is that her first serve very rarely clocked out above 90 M.P.H. If she can somehow find a way to tack on another 10-15 M.P.H to that serve, she could be a potential No. 1, no doubt about it.

4-a. I heard two interesting comments about Azarenka while meandering on the Grandstand yesterday: A woman from Cape Cod (who I had a nice conversation with) said that Azarenka and Zahlavova Strycova sounded like "two porpoises." I think I agree, but I'm not sure.

Moments later, another well dressed and sufficiently tanned woman with big sunglasses and an alabaster-skinned boyfriend was imitating Azarenka as she headed for the exit. When she finished her imitation she stated that Azarenka was "so annoying" in very flippant manner. Again, I think I agree (though not flippantly), but to be honest, I'm was too awestruck by Azarenka's magnificent groundies to be annoyed by her screeching. And, to be quite honest, it's a lot louder and more annoying on T.V. than it is in person.

5. It can't be easy for a top-20 (and former No. 4) player like David Ferrer to head out to court 4 for his first round match, but that is where he was playing when I walked out to the court, which is located on the far west side of the Tennis Center, just to the south of the practice courts (where Andy Murray was enjoying a nice game of doubles footie with a few of his coaches).

Ferrer seemed uninspired by the very tame settings, and he quickly got behind his fellow Spaniard, Alberto Martin, 5-1 in the first set. Yet somehow the feisty (with a capital F) Ferrer found his game, and he stormed back to take the next 6 games against Martin.

The diminutive Ferrer showed why he is regarded as one of the best returners on tour, breaking Martin 3 consecutive times by getting deep returns and then hammering away on the backhand side of his opponent.

Even as Ferrer lost a closely contested 2nd set, he was still able to regroup and advance in four, securing 11 breaks of serve in the 7-5, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 victory.

It is a true testament that the players who are scheduled on the side courts can play the game at such a high level. There are numerous distractions out there, with the crowd constantly moving about in the tree-lined walkways between the courts, craning their collective heads to see over each other and generally doing all the things that they would be chided for if they were on one of the show courts.

6. Evgeny Korolev and Andreas Beck played a dramatic five-setter on court 7. It is the type of the match that you'll never see on sportscenter or even the tennis channel, but it was a gritty display by both players, with Beck blasting out to a two-set lead, and the determined Korolev playing out of his head to level the match.

At the conclusion it came down to a few larger-than-life points, and those were the points that Beck, currently ranked No. 40 in the world was able to use as a springboard to his 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 2-6, 6-4 victory (which netted him $12,000 in prize money, in case you're scoring at home).

And I haven't even mentioned the likes of Nadal (who pummelled a drug-free Gasquet on Armstrong) and Del Potro (who demoralized his compatriot Monaco, also on Armstrong).

It was a magnificent day at the U.S. Open! If I said it a thousand more times it wouldn't be enough to truly express the way I feel about the beauty of Grand-Slam tennis at a world class venue such as this.

Now it's time to shut down my computer, so I can get up early and head back to the place where the magic occurs.

Thanks for reading,
The Fan Child

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Safina Wins Ugly

Safina: Winning Ugly Keeps the Dream Alive

For those of you who had that feeling that Dinara Safina might be able to finally cull her collective shortcomings and sweep them under a rug for a fortnight, think again.

Safina may sport the “Impossible is Nothing” t-shirt from Adidas, but anyone who has been watching her play this summer, and for that matter the better part of the last year, knows that there is a great difference between wearing the shirt and actually embodying its message.

Poor Dinara. One can’t help but feel sorry for the talented Muscovite, whose desire is limitless but inferior when compared to her old nemesis - performance anxiety. In spite of a hard fought 3-set triumph in which she trailed by a set and was also trailing 3-0 and 4-2 in the 3rd set, The WTA’s No. 1 player looked extremely shaky in her first round match against Australian qualifier Olivia Rogowska. Thankfully for Dinara, so did the young Aussie.

After a first set that featured 9 double faults and 6 service breaks in 11 games, Safina did manage 2 set points - but she couldn’t close it out. The feisty 18-year-old from Melbourne held to force a 1st set tie-break, and this was just the beginning of an error-plagued match that would extend late into the afternoon.

Perhaps a scare is exactly what Dinara needed: But the 2009 season has been an unwelcome series of scares, and while she’s been able to succeed at maintaining her ranking since April 20, Safina’s fragile psyche appears to be damaged beyond repair. As her struggles mounted today her drill sergeant of a coach, Zeljko Krajan, appeared severely nonplussed. Often times he was found smirking, almost maliciously laughing at Safina when she committed one of her 11 double faults or made one of her 48 errors.

It caught the attention of ESPN’s analyst Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver and they were quick to point out just how negative Krajan can be. Throughout the match Safina would look to him for comfort or some form of strength and all he could muster was a downcast glare at his own feet, his hands covering his eyes nervously, as if he was embarrassed to be associated with Safina.

In his defense, Safina has clearly made some excellent strides under the tutelage of Krajan. She was named the WTA’s most improved player for 2008, and she eventually stepped out from the shadow from her big brother Marat to claim the WTA’s top ranking. But Krajan’s negative energy has to be wearing on a girl that is clearly suffering from issues with her confidence. While there is no doubt that he’s helped her become the player is, one has to wonder if Safina wouldn’t be better off if instead of Krajan in the coaching box during her matches, there was a sports psychologist there - someone who could radiate belief and keep Safina from sinking deeper into despair when she glanced over to look for some support.

At her post-match presser, Safina didn’t come to the defense of her coach when questions were asked about his demeanor in the box:
Question: How did you feel when you looked over at your coach at times during the match, presumably for support, and he had very negative body language?

Safina: Well, I guess I had to think what I’m doing wrong that he’s so negative.

Question: Do you respond more to a negative approach or a positive?

Safina: We’ll skip this answer.

Fortunately for Safina her heart was bigger than her fear today. When she trailed 3-0 in the final set she found enough of what is good about her game to claw her way back into the set.

Finally, serving for the match at 5-4 Safina played her best service game of the day, holding at love, and then looked very relieved as she walked to the net to shake hands with the woman who’d almost pulled the biggest upset in U.S. Open history.

The good news for Safina is that she probably can’t play any worse. The bad news for Safina is that at the moment it’s hard to envision her playing much better.