Sunday, January 31, 2010

Australian Open Day 14: The King

Curtain Call

Player: Andy Murray
Nation: UK
Age: 22
Current Ranking: 4
Notable Conquest: Rafael Nadal (2nd seed, Spain)
Tour Page
Player Website
Today's Result: loss to Roger Federer (1st, Switzerland) in straight sets

It can't be easy to be Andy Murray, just as it couldn't have been easy to be Tim Henman. I will admit to being a bit rough on Murray myself but I do think the guy has more than enough to worry about with Fed across the net from him. Breaking down on the podium while apologizing for letting down the folks back home? That was hard to watch. I get annoyed with the tennis media for promoting the highest-ranking Anglophone (if you don't count Roger) over more deserving players and I can't help thinking that I've never seen Rafa slump his shoulders when he falls behind. But I can now count myself among those who would like to see Murray win one someday. On talent alone, I think it's a reasonable expectation.

What's left to be said about Federer? A year ago, it looked like it was going to be a Nadal year in '09 with questions looming over Roger. It turned out to be very much a Federer year with questions looming over Rafa. Now at 28 years old and with 16 Slams to his name, it seems the gap between Federer and the rest of the field is wider than it's been in a long time. He holds three out of the four Slam titles at the moment and no one else can even claim two final appearances in the past twelve months. With Nadal's future in doubt and no one else seeming able to mount a consistent threat, Federer should have the top ranking all to himself for quite a while.

Still, it's early. A lot can happen in a year.

For four rounds in a row, I have featured Federer's vanquished foe as the Curtain Call: Hewitt, Davydenko, Tsonga and Murray. I didn't plan it that way. All four should be said to have had good tournaments. All four are Slamworthy - Hewitt, of course, has already won two - and are probably disappointed not to have gone farther. But what can you do? Roger's the King. To be the best, you've got to beat the best. That's been a tall order for six years.

All Part of My Fantasy

I think I've been spelling "Racquet" wrong all this time for Racquet Bracket. Humblest apologies. I really should know better.

Once again, the World #1 has saved me from looking entirely the fool. My men's bracket was still pretty awful. Unlike the women's draw, I prefer the narrative I had in my bracket to the reality. I had early upsets over Djokovic and del Potro and a storybook run to the quarters for Carlos Moya (Spain). Plus, Jeremy Chardy (32nd, France) and Stanislas Wawrinka (19th, Switzerland) would have made their first Slam semis. And of course, any tournament with a Federer/Nadal final is automatically a great tournament.

Apart from Fed's continued dominance, I'd say the best story to come out of the men's draw is the rise of Marin Cilic (14th, Croatia). We'll be seeing him again, I'm sure.

Getting on with Our Lives

Goodbye to Melbourne. The tennis year is kicking off with some great story lines. A huge thank you to those who have taken the time to read my humble musings. It may be a while before I get back to tennis but there's plenty of excitement coming in the next few months: Olympics, NCAA basketball tournament, baseball openers, Stanley Cup playoffs, etc. March Madness, however, does extend to tennis with Indian Wells and Miami on the calendar. Hope to see you soon!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Aussie Open Day 13 Addendum: Wild Cards

I had intended to write about wild cards once Henin finally lost and then I plum forgot. I must remedy the situation!

Almost every professional tournament, large or small, is entitled to grant wild card entry to a small number of players who would not otherwise be eligible for direct entry. For a living legend and former champion such as Henin, it's a no-brainer but more often, the wild cards go to players of the host country.

At first glance, the wild card system seems a bit unfair. Why should local players be given an advantage over those who have earned higher rankings? However, one does have to appreciate the bigger picture of tennis's promotional needs. Boosting local players raises the in-country profile for the sport, particularly if a wild card does well. Our nearest big tournament is the one in Montreal. Canada has very few top tennis players but certainly hosts a world-class event. It seems a fair trade to give a few of their own an opportunity to shine. When Frank Dancevic made it to the quarterfinals in 2007, even managing to take a set off of Nadal before going down in three, the tournament got far more local press coverage than it would have otherwise.

Out of the 16 total wild cards granted in singles for the Australian Open, nine went to Australians. Four were granted as reciprocal deals with the French and US Opens. A nice innovation by the Australian is the granting of wild cards to players in the Asia/Pacific region as part of their larger marketing effort in that part of the world. Two Kazakh players, Andrey Golubev and Sesil Karatantcheva, were given the honor this year.

One would think that the four Slam nations would have a particular advantage. In fact, I suppose that for a long time they did as Australia, France, UK and USA were the dominant nations in the sport. That seems less worrisome these days as the power base has shifted to Spain, Argentina and Russia. Plus, there's that guy from Switzerland.

When a wild card makes it all the way to the final, as has happened the past two Slams, the tournament directors look like geniuses. Most don't make it past the first round but the investment is still a very important one.

Australian Open Day 13: Seven Repeat Champions

Curtain Call

Player: Justine Henin
Nation: Belgium
Age: 27
Current Ranking: not ranked
Notable Conquests: Elena Dementieva (5th seed, Russia), Nadia Petrova (19th, Russia) and Alisa Kleybanova (27th, Russia)
Tour Page
Player Website
Today's Result: loss to Serena Williams (1st, USA) in three sets

Henin is the story of the tournament. Once again, an accomplished Belgian has come out of retirement and made it all the way to the final. This was the first Slam final between Serena Williams and Henin. Serena leaves Melbourne with two trophies once again. She and Venus won the doubles title yesterday.

I missed the women's final but woke up in time for the last two sets of the men's doubles final. Doubles TV coverage is rare and precious and the opportunity to see the world's top two teams go head-to-head even more so. The Bryans (USA) and Nestor (Canada)/Zimonjic (Serbia) are both finely tuned operations and they inspired a high level in one another today. As explained in a Masters Cup post, I have a bit of a grudge against Daniel Nestor from when he dumped Mark Knowles (Bahamas) so it seemed like poetic justice that it was the break against Nestor's serve in the third set which paved the way for the Bryans' victory.

So, with Serena in women's singles, the Williamses in women's doubles, the Bryans in men's doubles, Shingo Kunieda (Japan) in men's wheelchair singles and doubles (though with a different partner), Peter Norfolk (UK) in quad singles and Nick Taylor/David Wagner (USA) in quad doubles, we have seven repeat champions thus far. That will be it for this year, though. Last year's champs are already out in men's singles and mixed doubles.

I loved Federer's on-court interview with Courier the other night. 15 Slams and fatherhood have mellowed the man. It's so nice to see. He's genuinely funny - and in multiple languages! Now that he's playing for nothing but the joy of the game, is he, in fact, more dangerous?

All Part of My Fantasy

Thanks to Serena, I don't look like such an idiot after all. With her victory, I finished in the top 26% in the Racket Bracket. The narrative I had set out in my bracket was a pretty good one with Serena gaining her revenge over Clijsters but the reality was better: the first S. Williams/Henin final, two Chinese women in the semis and a nice run for Petrova.

Can Federer help me save face on the men's side?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Australian Open Day 12: Tsonga!

Curtain Call

Player: Jo-Wilfred Tsonga
Nation: France
Age: 24
Current Ranking: 10
Notable Conquest: Novak Djokovic (3rd seed, Serbia)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Roger Federer (1st, Switzerland) in straight sets

Tsonga is not the most talented of tennis's new wave but he is the most charismatic. Seriously, if this guy isn't marketable to a world audience, I can't imagine who would be. There is, however, the question of whether or not he qualifies as part of the new wave in that he's actually older than Nadal. His game is certainly Slamworthy and he has been to a Slam final but he hasn't yet shown the consistency to be a threat over the course of the tennis season.

Aussie has been Tsonga's best Slam: runner-up, quarters and semis over the past three years. There's no shame in that, of course. It was Agassi's best Slam, too. But what does it say about a player when he has great success in Melbourne but hasn't been past the fourth round at any of the others? To me, it says that his off-season conditioning is excellent. When well-rested, he can stand toe-to-toe with just about anyone. But as the season wears on, his physical advantages diminish. Many questions loom over the 2010 season with Nadal's injury situation (out for four weeks officially - but then what sort of player will he be upon return?) and perhaps Tsonga is another who stands to benefit. If he is to do it, he'd be wise to make a strong move before clay court season begins in April. Tsonga is definitely not at his best on the dirt.

For Federer, the consecutive Slam finals streak is up to eight. Far more impressive to me is the fact that for the 23rd consecutive Slam, a stretch nearly six years in length, Federer will once again either win the tournament or lose to the guy who does. He is the gatekeeper, period. It's absolutely amazing. Is there any precedent for this?

Why oh why did they have to move the singles finals to the night session? I go through the dilemma every year: do I get up at a ridiculous hour to watch or do I sleep? Every year, I say I'll try to get up. Every year, sleep wins. Fortunately, the men's final has gone on long enough the past few years that I can still catch a bit towards the end upon rising at a reasonable time.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Australian Open Day 11: Fell Asleep on the Couch

Curtain Call

Player: Li Na
Nation: China
Age: 27
Current Ranking: 17
Notable Conquests: Caroline Wozniacki (4th seed, Denmark) and Venus Williams (6th, USA)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Serena Williams (1st, USA) in straight sets

With her run to the semis, Li will be the first Chinese woman in the top 10.

I missed the tennis entirely last night. It was a rather tiring day with the car fiasco and I was fighting to stay awake by 8:30. I was disappointed that the Tennis Channel did not run the men's doubles semifinals at 7 as advertised. I will always prefer a live match to a replayed singles match from the night before but I suppose that puts me in the minority. Regardless, I didn't stand a chance of lasting until 9:30 for singles.

I've also been posting these at TalkAboutTennis and a commenter yesterday suggested the Ivanovic/Dulko match as comparable to Li/Williams as a "painful match to watch." I missed that one - just as well, I guess!

Catching Up with Old Friends

Marin Cilic (Curtain Call, US Open Day 11) - No doubt, big tournament for Cilic! No title this time but it does seem inevitable that he'll grab a Slam sometime. Many prefer his game to that of del Potro (4th, Argentina). I'm not quite there but he has to feel good about gaining some revenge against JMDP by taking him out in the fourth round. The Argentine had beaten him in the quarters at the US Open. Cilic also rung up Andy Roddick (7th, USA) in the quarters. Sadly, he couldn't duplicate his US Open upset of Andy Murray (5th, UK) in the semis. There's no question, Cilic is a star in the making. We'll see plenty more in years to come.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Australian Open Day 10: Mystery Man

Curtain Call

Player: Nikolay Davydenko
Nation: Russia
Age: 28
Current Ranking: 6
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Roger Federer (1st seed, Switzerland) in four sets

Oh, I did so hate missing this one. With so many dangerous players on the men's side still involved, an awful lot of great tennis is going to happen in the wee hours stateside. Davydenko has been the hottest player on tour, having taken out both Federer and Nadal in each of his last two tournaments. But Federer has made quite a lucrative living providing reality checks to players on hot streaks. Once again, he has made it to the semifinals of a Slam. Once again, the sun shall rise in the east.

So, what happens next for Davydenko, tennis's mystery man? Does he build on his success of the last few months or does this loss take the wind out of his sails? If he chooses the positive outlook, the next few months hold some great opportunities for him. He was out for a few months last year, missing the Australian, Indian Wells and Miami. He'll gain a point boost from this result and should be able to collect quite a few more. He is also a much better clay court player than other notables in the top 10 such as Murray, Roddick and Tsonga. Especially given the current situation with Nadal, there may be more opportunities than usual this year for Davydenko.

On a side note, Li/Williams was just about the worst tennis match I've ever watched. It was as if neither could quite stand the thought of winning. I was grateful when Li brought it to its merciful end.

I'm marooned at home this morning - can't get up our hill. It seems to happen once a winter - one day when our little Civic, Harvey, just can't tackle the icy road. It's not his fault he's not cut out for Vermont winters. We got him before we moved here. Good snow tires help, but only so much. Sigh...

Catching Up with Old Friends

Francesca Schiavone
(Curtain Call, US Open Day 7) - It's been a great tournament for Schiavone. In singles, she made it to the fourth round, a big improvement over last year's first round showing. She took out Agnieszka Radwanska (10th seed, Poland) in the third round and gave Venus Williams (6th, USA) a pretty good fight in the fourth. Her quarterfinal finish in doubles with partner Alisa Kleybanova (Russia) is actually slightly down from last year's semifinal run but still pretty good. I think she's a lot of fun to watch: aggressive and emotional with a fundamentally solid game. Opportunity looms in Paris - just a first round finish last year.

All Part of My Fantasy

Venus is out. Only my champions remain. Wouldn't that be a kick if I got the champs right but nearly everything else wrong?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Australian Open Day 9: Farewell to the Mix

Curtain Call

Player: Gisela Dulko
Nation: Argentina
Age: 24
Current Singles Ranking: 36
Current Doubles Ranking: 28
Doubles Partner: Flavia Pennetta (Italy)
Notable Conquests: Su-Wei Hsieh (Chinese Taipei)/Shuai Peng (China) (4th seed) in doubles, Ana Ivanovic (20th seed, Serbia) in singles
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Lisa Raymond (USA)/Rennae Stubbs (Australia) (6th) in three sets

As clearly demonstrated above, Dulko has had a tremendous tournament in both singles and doubles. She is honored here for her doubles performance. Her run to the quarters with Pennetta matches her career best in Melbourne.

I thought Martina Navratilova was pretty rough on Nadia Petrova (19th, Russia) during her loss to Henin. In general, I feel that Navratilova is the one person in tennis who has earned the right to say whatever she likes but she was like a nagging mother in outlining the flaws of her one-time doubles partner.

It really bothers me when the commentators cast one player as a protagonist in the match as they did with Maria Kirilenko (Russia) in her match against Jie Zheng (China). Granted, Kirilenko had the higher profile to start as she took two big names out of the tournament: countrywomen Maria Sharapova (14th) and Dinara Safina (2nd). But at the beginning of the match, you'd hardly have known that there was a player on the other side of the net, let alone one who had taken out three seeds herself (Bondarenko, Bartoli and Martinez Sanchez) and was, at that moment, taking Kirilenko to school.

Did I jinx Nadal by singing his praises yesterday? I, for one, hope his retirement from the match is not a further sign of chronic decline. As I trust I've clearly expressed, I believe Nadal is really good for the sport. I'd hate to see his career truncated by physical wear and tear.

Boy, I sure miss the Mix Channel already. I realize it probably wouldn't gain sufficient viewership with all of the senior singles matches on one court but I'd love to see more doubles. See you in Paris, Mix Channel!

All Part of My Fantasy

With Nadal out, I now only have three players left who can earn me any points in my brackets: Federer on the men's side and the Williams sisters on the women's. As I write this, I'm in the top 60% in the women's bracket and top 98% in the men's. Downright pathetic!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Australian Open Day 8: Rusty

Curtain Call

Player: Lleyton Hewitt
Nation: Australia
Age: 28
Current Ranking: 22
Tour Page
Player Website
Today's Result: loss to Roger Federer (1st seed, Switzerland) in straight sets

Mr. Hewitt requires no introduction. He is one of but a handful of active players on the men's side who are recognizable by name and face to those with a peripheral interest in tennis. After struggling against him early in his career, Roger now owns Hewitt. This was Fed's 15th consecutive victory over Rusty, covering a six year span. Nonetheless, the fourth round result is a big improvement on Hewitt's first round exit last year.

This is technically Hewitt's home Slam but he is not exactly embraced by the Australian public. Though he has mellowed with age, Hewitt has a well-earned reputation for surliness. While the Aussie faithful would surely love for one of their own to win the title here (hasn't happenned since 1978 and won't happen this year as Sam Stosur is out of the women's draw as well) one expects they would probably prefer someone a bit more likeable. I don't think it's coincidental that Aussie fans seem far more eager to claim foreign players as their own than are fans at other Slams.

Fair or unfair, Hewitt's career will forever be linked with that of Marat Safin (Russia). They are close in age and, at least early on, their careers followed very similar paths. Each won his first Slam at the US Open against Pete Sampras in the final - in consecutive years, no less. Together, they seemed poised to take over the sport as the Sampras-Agassi axis declined. Little did they know that Federer and Nadal were coming up behind them. While Hewitt and Safin each took a turn at #1, Hewitt quite a long one, it was clear their era was over once Federer took up residence at the top. Both were dogged by less than stellar reputations - Hewitt for being obnoxious, Safin for being, well, crazy.

And yet, while Hewitt has been seen as the overachiever and Safin as the underachiever, Safin has always been more popular with the public. While facebook fan pages are an admittedly unscientific measure of mass appeal, it is not insignificant that Safin's is ten times the size of Hewitt's. It certainly doesn't hurt that Safin is better looking but there's a lot more to it than that. While Safin has been absolutely maddening for anyone who has chosen to follow his career, he has never antagonized the public as Hewitt has.

In a way, it does make one appreciate Rafael Nadal all the more. It is possible to play the indomitable warrior during the match and then become beautifully human as soon as it's over. That's how you get 2 million on your fan page.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Australian Open Day 7: Young Talent Abounds

Curtain Call

Player: Vera Dushevina
Nation: Russia
Age: 23
Current Doubles Ranking: 45
Current Singles Ranking: 40
Doubles Partner: Anastasia Rodoniova (Australia)
Notable Conquest: Nadia Petrova (Russia)/Samantha Stosur (Australia) (5th seed)
Tour Page:
Official Site:
Today's Result: loss to Sally Peers (Australia)/Laura Robson (Great Britain) in straight sets

A good doubles result for Dushevina, hopefully making up for a first round singles exit. She'll have more doubles points to defend in Paris than singles points: third round in doubles last year as opposed to first round in singles.

Robson's an impressive player at 16. As a lefty with power from the back and touch at the net, she'll be in high demand as a doubles partner for the next 15+ years. As for her singles career, the number of mishits are a bit concerning - lapses in concentration, perhaps? She already has a Wimbledon junior title to her name so she does know how to win.

Incidentally, Dushevina is also a former junior champ at Wimbledon: 2002.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Yanina Wickmayer (Curtain Call, US Open Day 13) - Wickmayer's no ordinary qualifier. But then, the last few months of her life have been far short of ordinary. If you follow tennis, you know the story well. If you don't, a synopsis:

Before the US Open, Wickmayer had never made it past the second round of a Slam. In New York, she went on an absolute tear all the way to the semifinals. She's young, having just turned 20 in October. She's tall at 6 feet. She hits the ball as if it has offended her personally. Her ranking soared. The potential for greatness seemed high.

Then, the trouble began. I have to admit that I barely understand the details on this, but basically Wickmayer failed to fill out some forms in regards to a doping test and was banned from tennis for a year. She appealed successfully and was reinstated on December 16th, too late for a direct entry into the main draw in Melbourne. So, she had to go through qualifying. She won three qualifying rounds and three in the main draw, taking out 12th seeded Flavia Pennetta (Italy) along the way. In the fourth round, she ran into Justine Henin, Belgian national hero, and went down in three.

As noted in a previous post, Wickmayer does not have the most endearing on-court personality. But her game is big. We're going to be seeing a lot of her, I expect - assuming she can stay on top of the paperwork.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Australian Open Day 6: Don't Ask Me about Mutual Funds

Curtain Call

Player: Alberta Brianti
Nation: Italy
Age: 29
Current Ranking: #73
Notable Conquest: Sabine Lisicki (21st seed, Germany)
Today's Result: loss to Samantha Stosur (13th, Australia) in straight sets

Brianti is another older player who has found her best form late in her career, having reached her career-high singles ranking (#67) just in the past year. She didn't play the French Open last year so she'll have a chance to grab some points there as well.

It was great, as always, to catch some doubles on the Mix Channel. It is sad, as always, to know that both doubles and the Mix will disappear from the coverage next week.

The juniors tournament begins on Day 7. The top-seeded boy is Daniel Berta of Sweden. He won the French Open Boys title this past year. The top-seeded girl is Timea Babos of Hungary. She is all of 16 years old. It's been a long time since an Aussie Boys champ also won the Men's title: Stefan Edberg (Sweden) took the juniors in 1983 and the seniors for the first time in 1985. It has been even longer since a woman won both: Evonne Goolagong (Australia) won the juniors in 1970 and the seniors for the first time in 1974.

All Part of My Fantasy

So, I made up some ground in the women's draw. I'm now in the top 30%. Of course, that won't last long. As explained previously, my bottom half of the draw is all gone. On the men's side, I'm completely tanking: top 96%, which is a nice way of saying that I'm in the bottom 4%. I guess I should be grateful that I'm picking tennis players and not stocks.

Australian Open Day 5: Whoopee! Whoopah!

Curtain Call

Player: Angelique Kerber
Nation: Germany
Age: 22
Current Ranking: #118
Notable Conquest: Aravane Rezai (26th seed, France)
Today's Result: loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova (3rd, Russia) in 3 sets, 6-4 in the third

Kerber is yet another qualifier who took out a seed. She took the first set off of Kuznetsova as well but couldn't close the deal. The third round is a big improvement on last year's first round result so she probably won't have to go through qualifying in Paris.

I can already see that Yanina Wickmayer (Belgium) is going to be a difficult friendship for me. I suppose life wouldn't be complete without one or two. I have one powerful pet peeve in tennis: players who can't stop themselves from arguing line calls. If Hawkeye technology has proven anything, it's that the calls which players themselves get wrong most often are baseline calls. In fact, it's the line right under their feet that is hardest for them to judge. And yet, that is the line you most often find them arguing to the point of self-distraction. Wickmayer was particularly obnoxious about line calls in her match with Sara Errani (Italy). Really, you're going to imply to the chair umpire that a line judge is favoring your opponent? Seriously?

If all players were like this, I don't think I ever could have become a tennis fan. Indeed, the main reason I preferred Lendl back in the day was that he didn't argue line calls - or if he occasionally did, it wasn't part of his professional makeup the way it was for McEnroe and Connors. I'm not sure I ever saw Sampras argue a call. Paradorn Srichaphan would sooner concede a point he'd rightfully won. Federer and Nadal so rarely say anything that when they do, one suspects they might actually have a point. I don't think basic decency is a lot to ask and I would hope that even when players do have legitimate gripes, they could express themselves without belittling everyone else on the court.

This is the real reason why I've never been able to get fully behind James Blake (USA) as a player. I've watched him plenty and yet I've never seen a match in which he didn't argue line calls - and I do mean never. And, he tends to let the frustration derail his game, just as Wickmayer did today. I believe those who say Blake is a genuinely nice person and Wickmayer might be, too, for all I know. But the proof is in the pudding, folks.

On a lighter note, Wickmayer's "Whoopee!" as she crushes the ball is downright hilarious. The fact that Errani was returning many of her shots with a "Whoopah!" made for high-class comedy.

All Part of My Fantasy

I would have thought that Jelena Jankovic (8th, Serbia) would have been a pretty safe bet for my suicide pool pick. She did have a tough opponent in Bondarenko (31st, Ukraine) but in truth, Jankovic played terribly. So, I'm out.

What have I learned? Probably best not to bet against a former finalist, as I did with Querrey over Schuettler, or against a seed when there are other options, as I did with Jankovic over Bondarenko. The suicide pool concept is a great one, though - I'll definitely try again.

For now, time to check out the Loser's Lounge:

My brackets took a couple of hard hits, too. I had Clisters (15th, Belgium) in the women's final and Wawrinka (19th, Switzerland) in the men's semifinal. I am currently in the top 48% for the women's draw. My entire bottom half of the draw is now completely shot. The top half, however, are all still alive - odd!

My current situation in the men's draw is much worse: top 84%. My finalists, though, are both still alive. Of course, I'm not the only one who picked a Federer-Nadal final so that would only help me so much.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Australian Open Day 4: No, Marcos! Not the Shirt!

Curtain Call

Player: Ivan Dodig
Nation: Croatia
Age: 25
Current Ranking: #185
Notable Conquest: Juan Carlos Ferrero (23rd seed, Spain)
Tour Page:
Today's Result: loss to Stefan Koubek (Austria) in straight sets

Dodig qualified for his first ever Slam and then promptly took out a seed in the first round. Granted, Ferrero is far from the player he once was but the resume is nothing to sneeze at: French Open champion, US Open finalist, Aussie semifinalist and former World #1. Dodig will have a good story to tell for the rest of his life.

Volleyball Coach is a friend from my time in Japan. She is a bit of a tennis fan - at least more than most of my friends are - and is particularly appreciative of the eye candy on display in the men's draw. Arms and shoulders are her thing and she sings the praises of such muscular specimens as Nadal, Monfils and del Potro. She and my wife have, in fact, engaged in a bit of a tug-of-war over Rafa on facebook.

Volleyball Coach was, however, far less impressed by Marcos Baghdatis's shirt removal after his five-setter with David Ferrer (17th, Spain). Given her criteria, I can understand why. The arms are pretty scrawny.

Baghdatis (Cyprus) is a bit of a mystery. On talent alone, this guy should be firmly entrenched in the Top 5 for his entire career. His game is beautiful. To watch him is to watch a master painter at work. Some of the shots he finds reflect true genius. He is a former finalist in Melbourne and a fan favorite. He also plays a highly endearing role in Agassi's recent memoir. And yet, his career has been all over the map. Injuries and poor fitness seem the primary culprits. Personally, I think his high emotional investment has a tendency to work against him. When the inspiration is strong, he is magnificent. When it lags, he concedes too much. I'm not sure how you teach someone to have Rafa's every-point-is-a-war approach to the game but Baghdatis lacks it. I'm very fond of him as a player and would love to see him prove me wrong. The fact is, there are higher-ranked players who would kill for his weaponry.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Petra Kvitova (Curtain Call, US Open Day 8) - Kvitova's second round showing is an improvement on last year's first round exit and will thus help shore up her ranking points. She missed the French Open entirely in 2009, having made it to the fourth round the previous year, so she should be able to rack up some points there as well. No question, she got tuned by Serena Williams today but that puts her in good company. She's still only 19. The future looks bright.

All Part of My Fantasy

Carla Suarez Navarro (32nd, Spain) won, keeping me alive in the suicide pool.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Australian Open Day 3: Ireland's Number One

Curtain Call

Player: Louk Sorensen
Nation: Ireland
Age: 25
Current ranking: 284
Tour page:
Today's result: loss to John Isner (33rd seed, USA) in straight sets

You don't hear much about Irish tennis players. Sorensen is yet another qualifier in his first Slam. He won his first round match in the main draw as well, becoming the first Irishman to win a Grand Slam singles match in the Open era. He did have a countryman in the qualifying tournament: Conor Niland who lost in the third qualifying round.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Kai-Chen Chang (Curtain Call, US Open Day 3) - Chang lost in the first round today to Iveta Benesova (Czech Republic). However, this is the 19-year-old's first Australian Open and, thanks in large part to her success at the US Open, she did not have to go through qualifying this time. Her career is firmly on an upward trend, having cut her year-end ranking in half in each of the past three years. She also had a win over Safina in Tokyo this fall.

All Part of My Fantasy

Shahar Peer (29th, Israel) and Nadia Petrova (19th, Russia) both won, keeping me alive in the suicide pool for the women's draw.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Australian Open Day 2: Burned by Schuettler

Curtain Call

Player: Zuzana Kucova
Nation: Slovakia
Age: 27
Current ranking: 138
Tour page:
Today's result: loss to Gisela Dulko (Argentina) in 3 sets, 7-5 in the third

Another qualifier playing in her first Australian Open, Kucova is a player on the rise. At 27, she's well past the age when most players give up the game and yet she has improved her year-end ranking each of the past two years. She took Dulko the distance today. She made it to the French Open first round last year so she will have some points to defend going forward.

Men's and women's doubles begin on Day 3!

I do so love the Mix Channel on DirecTV. I can enjoy the illusion of being at the tournament and choosing which matches to watch. I've only been to see a Slam live once: one night session of the 2001 US Open. My wife had scored us tickets from someone at work - she really does love me. It was fun to go but if I had to do it again, I'd do it differently. We just went dutifully to our seats at Arthur Ashe. It was only the third round, I think, so there were plenty of smaller courts in action and we didn't stop by any of them. What can I say? I was not yet the tennis junky I would eventually become. I didn't know any better!

A couple of years ago, we went to the Masters tournament in Montreal for the last day of qualifying - free admission. We had, at least for me, a more satisfying experience. We hung out in our nose-bleed show court seats for a little while but the real fun was on the grounds. Loads of stars on the practice courts plus seats much closer to the action for the qualifying matches. As a result, I have first-hand knowledge of what it's like to have an Ernests Gulbis serve coming right at my head. Very impressive! If we were to go to a tennis tournament again, I'm not sure I'd spend any time on the show courts at all.

My daughter enjoyed it, too. She got a magnet, a frisbee and a popsicle AND got her face painted - definitely a good day.

In the meantime, DirecTV serves me pretty well.

All Part of My Fantasy

So, Sam Querrey crashed and burned against Schuettler so I'm out of the men's suicide pool. I lost a semi-finalist on the men's side as well: Jeremy Chardy (32nd, France). He was my long shot so I can't be too broken up about it.

I'm still alive in the women's suicide pool, though I'm still awaiting the Shahar Peer match, moved back to Day 3 because of the rain on Day 1.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Australian Open Day 1: Some Days, It Rains

Curtain Call

Player: Blaz Kavcic
Nation: Slovenia
Age: 22
Current ranking: 124
Today's result: loss to Wayne Odesnik (USA) in four sets

This is Kavcic's first appearance in a Slam and he got to the main draw through three qualifying rounds. He went down swinging, taking the first set off of Odesnik before going down.

Caught a decent portion of the day's rain-limited action but the Golden Globes were on and at our house, award shows are high priority. I can't even blame my wife - I was switching back and forth between the two even after she went to bed. There were other distractions, too: I had to mute the Clijsters match at one point so I could hear the coyotes whooping it up outside in the woods. And, of course, there's the need for sleep.

All Part of My Fantasy

Even with the limited action, I've already lost one of my semi-finalists! I suppose it shouldn't be such a huge shock that Sharapova lost early, as she's been out of action for a while. Still, you can usually count on her to muscle her way through the early rounds.

I had better luck with the suicide pool as Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez (24th seed, Spain) double-bageled her opponent, Evgeniya Rodina (Russia). Due to the rain, I'm still waiting on the Sam Querrey (25th, USA) match. I'll admit it's a little risky picking him over Rainer Schuettler (Germany), a former finalist at the event, but it's slim pickings in the men's draw. It's hard to see anyone beyond Federer and Nadal as safe.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Australian Open 2010: My Picks

Men: Roger Federer
Women: Serena Williams

Once again, I'm being boring and picking the 1 seeds. Believe it or not, I spend quite a ridiculous amount of time studying the draws before I make my pick. I swear I'm not just playing it safe. It hardly matters, of course. I was 0-5 with my US Open picks.

In filling out my brackets, I was a bit more daring in the early rounds, particularly on the men's side. I have both Djokovic and del Potro losing in the first round. It's not actually likely, I will grant you. But if it happens, I get to look like a genius. High risk, high payoff. My last four for the men:

Federer v. Chardy
Wawrinka v. Nadal

Fed over Nadal in the final, avenging last season's loss.

I played it a bit safer on the women's side. Henin was my first round upset. Again, unlikely. But anything's possible. Final four:

S. Williams v. V. Williams
Clijsters v. Sharapova

Serena over Clijsters in the final, avenging her US Open defeat and perhaps gaining a measure of moral redemption as well.

Nothing too risky in that quartet. All four have won multiple hard court Slams.

Shame on me for failing to list retractable roofs among the Aussie Open's assets. Melbourne's got 2, New York 0. So here we are with a rain delay right of the bat and yet two courts are playing tennis.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More Reasons to Watch the Australian Open

You Can Play Along
Tennis offers many opportunities for those who enjoy fantasy sports. I highly recommend The Tennis Channel's bracket challenges at:

Women -
Men -

Suicide pools are also popular and I'm giving it a shot for the first time this year. For each day, you pick one man and one woman to survive to the next round. Only catch: you can't pick the same player again later in the tournament. I'm playing at:

This is my first time trying it. You do need to register with the site to play. Picks can be made once the Order of Play is published for Day 1.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why You Should Watch the Australian Open

If you live in a northern climate as I do, glimpses of summertime anywhere else in the world can provide a welcome relief. Thank goodness for the Southern Hemisphere! The sunshine over Melbourne can seem relentless and I don't envy the players the heat but it's so pleasant on the TV screen. Then there's the people. To say that Australians are more laid back than Parisians, Londoners or New Yorkers is an embarrassing understatement. The atmosphere of the tournament is reflected accordingly. The beer is free-flowing, though, and crowds can occasionally tend to the raucous. If any Slam feels like a day at the beach, this is the one.

No Longer Optional

The Australian Open was, for decades, the ugly duckling of the Slams. Quite often, the top American and European players would decline to make the trip Down Under at all. That time has passed. Endorsement contracts are now structured to give everyone ample incentive to show up. Also, ever since Pete Sampras established total Slam titles as the measure of all-time greatness, no one in search of a legacy can afford to pass it up. While perhaps still not as glamorous as its brethren, the Australian Open is a world-class event by any measure.

The Big Kickoff
The tours have already been in action since the beginning of the month but Melbourne is the first big gathering of the tennis season. Some are critical of the fact that the tennis year begins with such an important event right off the bat. It's not quite as strange as NASCAR beginning its year with the Daytona 500 but the timing does present unique challenges. The summer Slam season is a marathon. The physical challenge is to pace oneself at the smaller events and peak just in time for the big pay day. As for the Australian, this is the first tournament of the year for many of the top players. Those who trained well in the off-season are rewarded here.

A Slower Hard Court?

The hard court surface used in Melbourne is of a different chemical composition than that used at the US Open. The stuff is called Plexicushion Prestige and is apparently slower than the Deco Turf at Flushing Meadows. Thus, it is not so surprising that Rafael Nadal has found greater success here than in New York. I'm not sure I really buy it - concrete is concrete, right? But as I have no personal experience whatsoever in the comparison, I must defer to the experts.

Ideal for Night Owls and Early Birds
If you live in the Western Hemisphere and are at your best in the afternoon, the Australian Open is probably not the tournament that will turn you on to tennis. But, if you're like me and just start to hit your stride around 10 p.m., the coverage will suit you just fine. Similarly, morning people like my wife could watch over morning coffee (assuming they care more about tennis than my wife does, of course). It upsets me that so much of the tennis is played as I slumber but my schedule works out pretty well for the other Slams so I really can't complain.

The Men's Game
It is such a marvelous time for the sport. Pick your story line. Can Fed add one more to the trophy case? Is Nadal really in decline? How long before del Potro wins another Slam? Can Murray finally win his first? Where does Djokovic fit in the current pecking order? Can Davydenko continue his impressive form of the past few months? Who will be the next threat to emerge? The men's tour is a murderer's row. Great matches are, no doubt, in store.

The Women's Game
The biggest story heading into the tournament is Justine Henin who, like Kim Clijsters before her, is coming out of retirement (more of a sabbatical, really). There will be plenty of other narratives to follow, of course. What will be the fallout, if any, from Serena Williams's explosion at the US Open? Can Yanina Wickmayer, fresh off of having her drug suspension overturned, build on her New York breakthrough? Is Melanie Oudin America's best new hope or just a flash in the pan? Can Dinara Safina finally get the monkey off her back and win a Slam?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Follow Up: Curling Murders

Now, you knew I wasn't going to let Mock's comment go by without finding out for sure. Apparently game is the most common terminology for a complete curling competition. Match does pop up from time to time, though. A tournament is called a bonspiel.

To learn more:

Somewhat surprisingly, curling is not especially popular in Vermont. It is, however, quite a big deal in nearby Quebec, as Mock's comment would suggest. Yet another argument for DirecTV to carry the Canadian stations!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Follow Up: Tennis World Cup and Vernon Goes Curling

In a post about Davis Cup a while back, I suggested the possibility of a Tennis World Cup. Well, wouldn't you know it, leading players have proposed just such an arrangement to the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Here's the article:

Also, I've been dying to post this one. Vernon Davis, my fantasy football team MVP, is going to be an honorary captain for the USA curling team at the Olympics in Vancouver. I never would have imagined that this guy would turn out to be so interesting. Details:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bowl Season: Cellar Dweller

So, I had Texas while the guy behind me had Alabama. I gave up on the Longhorns at halftime and went to bed. Thus, I finish sixth out of six. I can only plead inexperience.

Of course, I had a great time. My fantasy football league for the NFL was fun, too, but fantasy leagues can be a bit troubling in that they emphasize individual achievement in team sports. We've already had one member of our league beg off for next year for that very reason. A bowl pick'em contest emphasizes the team and is thus purer, somehow. It certainly got me to watch a lot more games than I normally would so it is definitely a successful marketing concept! It was also my first time following the bowl season as a distinct entity. Patterns do emerge over the three weeks.

For the record, Marc finished second in the league and Mock finished third. So they get trophy icons on their profiles. My cupboard is still bare. Someday...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bowl Season: Rotten Ending to a Great Game

So, what would one put in a GMAC bowl? Auto loan paperwork? I will say, Mobile, Alabama has always looked like a fun town to me. Oldest Mardi Gras parade in the US, you know.

A blocked field goal is a rotten way to end a great game. To me, a great game is one in which both teams play well and it's just a shame that one of them has to lose. Overtime or extra innings are not necessary. A great finish does not make a great game. Both Central Michigan and Troy played fabulously tonight. It was certainly the best game I've watched so far this bowl season. But it ended on a mistake. Can't blame the kicker. Somebody missed the block at the line. Players and fans of the losing team won't remember the rest of the game. Just the blocked kick - second year in a row that Troy has lost a bowl game in this fashion. That's a shame.

For me, it's down to a battle for fifth place tomorrow night. The math is pretty straight forward. If I pick the same team as the guy in sixth and our team loses, I win fifth place. If our team wins, he takes fifth. If we pick opposite teams, I win if my team wins. Since I can't win the group, the next best scenario is for Mock to win it. He's currently in fourth but can win if his team wins and everyone ahead of him picks the opposite team. Got all that?


Bowl Season: Good News and Bad News

The good news is that Iowa won. Iowa was my pick and a team for which I have some affection as I spent four years in the state. The bad news is that I can no longer finish any higher than 5th place out of our group of six.

I also discovered the College Bowl Pick'Em has a limited capacity for influencing my rooting interest. It would actually have been better for me overall if Iowa had lost. My opponents gained more points for the result than I did, thus relegating me to second division status. I can't help wondering, though, if it's just more important to me to be right. Someone really should write a thesis on the psychology of rooting interests.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bowl Season: With Salsa and Guacamole on the Side

For the most part, I think the practice of corporations buying naming rights to bowl games is really obnoxious. However, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl kind of works. I'm hungry just thinking about it. Too bad I already brushed my teeth.

Boise State has crushed my hopes of winning the pick 'em group. In fact, I can now only finish third at best. I suppose I couldn't have expected too much in my first shot at this. It has been fun, though, and it has inspired me to watch the bowls far more than in previous years.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bowl Season: Only Four More to Go

It was a big day for the bowls with five games on the schedule. It was a brutal one for me as I dropped from first place all the way to fifth. There are four games left to play and I'm 32 points off of the lead. I'm not out of it yet but the margin for error is shrinking.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On the Coffee Table: Andre Agassi

Over our holiday travels, I whipped through Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi fairly quickly. It is rare for me to find a book which I devour so enthusiastically. My admiration for the book goes well beyond the subject matter. Agassi and his ghost writer, J.R. Moehringer, did a very nice job of compiling a highly engrossing book. The present tense takes a little getting used to but I think it ultimately helps to draw the reader into the emotional moment.

Now, full disclosure: Andre Agassi was never my favorite tennis player. In fact, I think it's fair to say that I rooted against him in almost every match I ever watched him play. Early on, I bought into the style over substance portrayal and always preferred Sampras's walk softly and carry a nasty cross-court forehand approach to the game. Even in reading the book, I rooted for Sampras in their matches and bristled at Agassi's criticisms of Pete. I almost feel as if I should read Sampras's book out of loyalty.

Off the court, it's a different story. I'm not sure there's an athlete in the world more worthy of admiration than Agassi. The man built a charter school, for crying out loud. By the time of his retirement, he was donating $10 million a year to charitable causes, twice as much as Lance Armstrong, the next most generous athlete. He's also the best color commentator on Earth. Whenever he stops in the broadcast booth to share his thoughts on tennis, I always come away with a greater understanding of the sport. No one else even comes close, in my mind - in any sport.

All of the shocking revelations in the book had lost impact by the time I actually got around to reading it. The crystal meth admission, in particular, has gotten plenty of press in the tennis world. I would never advocate for illegal drug use but I really don't feel Agassi's use and subsequent cover-up are so unforgivable. Everyone's got skeletons in the closet. Just look at how quickly and completely Tiger Woods has lost his halo. Federer and Nadal sure have beautiful images these days but it seems inevitable that something will come out someday. Would it be better for tennis if Agassi had never sinned? Of course. But I really like what he said in his NPR interview, that the aim in testing players for recreational drugs should not be to punish but to help them. Performance enhancing chemicals are another matter but nobody's going to play better with a meth or coke habit. If tennis wants to maintain a clean image, fine, but then take some responsibility for addressing addiction as a medical issue.

I feel that the most troubling revelation of the book is his admission - on the first page, no less - that he hates tennis. This hatred is, in many ways, the central theme of the book. Andre Agassi is, by any measure, a tennis grandmaster and yet he makes it very clear that this career was chosen for him by his abusive, tyrannical father. Andre has been held captive by his gift essentially from birth.

One does wonder how many professional athletes feel the same way. I am reminded of an exchange in Searching for Bobby Fischer:

Bonnie: How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers' love every time they come up to the plate?

Fred: All of them!

It's hard to feel too sorry for Agassi over the long run. In addition to bringing him considerable wealth and fame, tennis has brought him to the extraordinary people with whom he has shared his life. Indeed, the great eureka moment of the book is when he finally comes to the realization that most people hate their jobs but they do them anyway because they must.

Agassi is often uncharitable towards his rivals, which can be difficult to read. I suppose it's to be expected in an individual sport but calling out Sampras for being a lousy tipper is rather petty. And Pete got off easy compared to some. Michael Chang, Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors all get slammed pretty hard. This is offset by his reverence for others: Federer and Nadal, certainly, and even Sampras earns some praise over the years.

Of course, Agassi's favorite player is his own wife. The chapter on his courting of Steffi Graf is worth reading on its own - I made my wife read that part as soon as I finished the book. They really do seem meant for each other. I will be genuinely upset if the two of them ever split.

I recommend the book very highly. It's a good read even if you're not a sports fan, I expect.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Bowl Season: Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all! May 2010 and indeed the new decade bring good things.

In as much as football can be elegant, the traditional January 1st bowls are. Back when I first started paying attention, it was still just the big four on New Year's Day: Cotton, Rose, Sugar and Orange. The Rose Bowl is a particularly significant one in my family as my father marched with his high school band in the parade in 1959. Even my sister, who grew up hating sports with a passion equal to my enthusiasm for them, thinks the parade is great and was actually thinking of going this year (she lives in LA County).

During our holiday travels, I didn't get to watch much except to check scores from time to time. I am, however, doing well in the pick-em group at the moment. I'm in first place but everyone's about to take a big bite out of the margin. I was the only one who picked Cincinnati in the Sugar and it's pretty clear at halftime that the Bearcats are toast. Fortunately, I only risked one confidence point.

I commend Brent Musberger, not usually my favorite, for complimenting the camera and tech crews during a play review in the Rose Bowl. There is loads of downtime in football and it was nice to hear the on-air talent using the time to recognize the people who do the heavy lifting in the television industry.

I got some good quality time with The Washington Post while visiting my parents. Growing up, every day started with the Post over breakfast. My sports sensibilities were influenced as much by Thomas Boswell, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon as anything else. Newspapers will never compete with the Internet for immediacy but it was a treat to be reminded of what a luxury a well-written paper can be.

In other news, Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco), the season MVP for my fantasy league team, is going to his first Pro Bowl as the NFC's starting tight end. Two of my quarterbacks are going, too: Philip Rivers (San Diego) and Drew Brees (New Orleans). DeAngelo Williams (RB, Carolina), my first round draft pick whom I ultimately had to trade away, is going. My defensive units also included Pro Bowlers: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, both Indianapolis defensive ends. I suppose I can also claim the AFC's special teamer, Kassim Osgood (WR, San Diego).

I also finished Andre Agassi's new book, Open. A review will soon follow.