Thursday, December 28, 2006

Year End Thoughts...Looking Ahead to 2007


"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" - FDR

"I just can't help the feeling I'm living a life of illusion" - Joe Walsh

These will be the competing inner thoughts for those men who seek to challenge Roger the Great in 2007. Up to this point, only Rafael Nadal has seemed able to actualize the words of America's greatest 20th century President. The rest of the field has bowed down to the number one player and appears to have convinced themselves that the notion of defeating Federer is illusory.

2007 will prove to be a crucial year in this Era of Federer. Either he will further solidify his deserved stature and lay claim to the title of the ultimate player of the Open Era or Rafael Nadal will accelerate his improvement and threaten Federer on multiple surfaces.

Nadal will continue to be the featured topic on this site for some time to come, as the anti-Roger, until someone emerges and joins Rafa to take on the real Athlete of the Year, Roger Federer. (Don't want to waste too much time here complaining but it is an utter travesty that Federer was not picked as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Even the guy who won the AP award, a golfer named Woods, concurred that his new found buddy Roger deserved the accolade)

It is my belief that Nadal will continue to be the only continuous threat to Federer in 2007 - at least until the up-and-comers - the mercurial Andy Murray from Great Britain, France's super-talented Richard Gasquet and the hard-hitting Tomas Berdych from the Czech Republic - can find a way to consistently thwart the strengths of Federer. Berdych and Murray have both claimed victories over Federer in his three-year run at immortality but not in a Grand Slam event.

For the afore-mentioned to rise up to the challenge they must - control their moodiness (Murray), become more consistent and reign in their shots just a bit (Gasquet) and improve their court movement (Berdych). (As for Federer's weaknesses, there really aren't any except he could develop a more powerful service return. )

Though Nadal has lost to Berdych a couple of times and has similar problems with another hard, flat hitter in James Blake, these players have not shown the mettle to advance to the penultimate round of a Grand Slam as of yet. And with Nadal almost a sure bet to improve and expand his game, I doubt that his #2 slot is in jeopardy.

Andy Roddick made undeniable progress on his way to the US Open final, assisted by the exhortations of coach Jimmy Connors to turn himself into a more complete player. His forays into the net, no matter how ill-advised at times, were proof that he is ready to put full effort to regain permanent residency in the top five.

I do believe that we will have someone halfway to a true Grand Slam by the time Wimbledon arrives - and his name is Nadal. (part of this I confess is wishful thinking yet I do believe Federer's reign of complete dominance will come to an abrupt end this year, as he will claim no more than one Slam title in 2007) I think Nadal is ready to triumph Down Under. (Note - I will have a more extensive preview of the Australian Open when the draw is announced on Friday, January 12th.) Nadal's conditioning is superior to all other players - again, as usual, with the exception of Federer whose practice and tournament preparation is second to none - and will be of great benefit in the stifling heat in Melbourne which usually claims a few victims.

The second reason, and this has been widely discussed, is the Rebound Ace courts are definitely slower than the Deco Turf hard courts which serves as the terrain at Flushing Meadows. This will most likely allow Nadal to get the ball up high to Federer's backhand side which has been the main advantage in their compelling rivalry. The higher bounce will also neutralize, somewhat, the early ball strikers like Berdych and Blake.

One will be able to gauge Nadal's development immediately in the first couple of rounds in Australia. He has apparently worked diligently to diversify his game this off-season and it will be fascinating to watch if he takes the ball earlier, sends his powerful missives more consistently deep into the back-court and wins more free points on his serve and increasingly effective volley.

January is a wonderful time for tennis-starved fans in the throes of winter (well winter as we used to know it as the East Coast has been bereft of any seasonal weather thus far). The late nights and very early AM's spent viewing ESPN's live coverage is a wonderful way to start the year. This year's Australian championship should start the transition from the Roger Era to an as yet determined epoch.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Cold War Nostalgia and the Masters Cup

Maybe the late-night clarity of thought which I place so much trust in is deceiving me or perhaps my nasty winter virus has made me somewhat foggy in my notions but I've been ruminating of the link between the Cold War and the Masters Cup. Forgive me for the rather suspect and circuitous route I take to connect the two - think of it as a "degrees of separation" exercise.

The Cold War has been front and center in my mind of late. The morbidly fascinating and truly bizarre Russian spy-poisoning case ongoing in Great Britain and Russia is straight out of Graham Greene or John Le Carre. In an odd way there is almost something nostalgic about this puzzle - with so many random acts of violence and government aggressiveness resulting in unspeakable casualties these days, this "old fashioned" intrigue regarding the tragic death of Alexander Litvinenko is a reminder of days when enemies were supposedly more clearly defined.

Also, not needing any prodding to absorb myself in music (or tennis) from the 1970's, I recently saw Lou Reed in concert, performing his 1972 masterpiece album Berlin in its entirety. Reed's harrowing excursion into decadence and personal despair in the divided German city furthered my engrossment with Cold War themes.

So what does any of this have to do with the season-ending championships? Well, the last time the ATP held their year-ending tournament in New York was 1989, the year which also marked the end of the Cold War when the Berlin Wall was torn down late that year.

However dubious a connection this is, it nonetheless serves as the segue to discuss the location of future Masters Cups.

As I wrote in my article in the December issue of Tennis Week - enclosed above - magazine, I believe the Masters Cup should return to Madison Square Garden in New York. It has been far too long since the world's most important and greatest city hosted the Masters.

When the tennis powers that be shifted the Masters Cup to Germany in 1990 - coincidence with the end of the Cold War or perhaps more validly due to the sport's popularity there as Boris Becker and Steffi Graf were on top of the tennis world at the time - it seemed like a somewhat logical place for it as New York had had a monopoly on the event for nearly fifteen years.

But when the ATP began shifting the event to various cities - notably Sydney and Shanghai- in an attempt to showcase the event in "developing" tennis markets, it robbed the tennis fan of a consistency that is so key to keeping one's interest in the sport current.

Most importantly the time difference made it nearly impossible for most fans in the West - where the overwhelming majority of tournament tennis is played - to view the tournament live this year. In addition there wasn't the built-in hype machine that New York offers to generate further interest in what should be a showcase event for the ATP.

ATP President Etienne de Villiers has publicly stated that he wants to bring the Masters Cup to London when the current agreement with Shanghai runs out in 2008. Though not the NYC locale I advocate for, it would at least be more time-friendly for most fans and Europe is the locus of most tennis activity. (the ATP is shifting the majority of its operations to Europe over the next year as well)

I think the fairest way to conduct the Masters Cup is to rotate it between MSG and either London or Paris. These are three of the cities which host Grand Slams and if fans knew it'd always be in one of two places then interest, and especially media attention, would follow.

And how about rotating the surface for the event? Just because hard-courts serve as a type of equalizer doesn't mean you can't vary the surface once in a while. And what about having two surfaces during one event? Some will say injury risks will be too great but if clay and grass were used, the two surfaces viewed as the easiest on the body, than that risk may be minimized. I doubt it'd happen but food for thought nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Previous Tennis Articles - Tiebreakers, Astrology

I will occasionally post articles I've written over the last several years. Below are two of them - one discussing the merits of not having a tiebreak and the other devoted to a more trival topic - astrology.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Nadal's Needs

As the tennis world awaits the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal needs to time travel to the recent past of tennis' Renaissance of the 1970's during this absurdly short "off season" in the tennis calendar (which, by the way, is another topic worthy of column space as pro tennis has never seemed to figure out how to schedule in a rational fashion). Uncle/Coach Toni must exhort the energetic Rafa to receive inspiration from the original King of Clay, Bjorn Borg. Borg's six French Open titles in 8 years (1974, '75, '78, '79, '80, '81) is and will be the benchmark for all who toil on the red dirt.

But what elevates Borg to top five all-time status of course is his even more phenomenal five consecutive Wimbledons, 1976-'80. His sudden, stunning and lasting success on the slick, low-bouncing grass should provide hope for Nadal - if he takes the Swede's cue and alters his game significantly.

Borg desperately wanted to perform well at tennis' premier event and so he and coach Lennert Bergelin worked tirelessly for weeks before the 1976 Championships by training exclusively on grass and developing a potent first serve and capable volleying skills. Clearly the work paid off.

In Nadal's case it is not just trying to show he can play on grass. The Spaniard already has improved his grass court skills - where he showed off his underrated net play at Wimbledon - and surprised most seasoned observers by reaching the finals at Wimbledon this past summer - and perhaps just a blown volley separated him from a Wimbledon title. But he has still yet to take advantage of his southpaw ways and develop an effective slice serve. He'd be well advised to develop such a service weapon this winter as he enjoys the Mallorcan sun. I do believe a Wimbledon title is in Nadal's future.

The chief area of concern though is with the hard courts. Again, he can look to the Swedish icon for inspiration. Borg also struggled on the hard courts and he did fail to win a US Open but his improved serve and net game did yield results at Flushing Meadow where he reached three US Open finals on the hard courts, in addition to the '76 final on Har Tru. If he is to triumph at either of the hard court Slams - Australian and US Opens - Nadal will need to employ similar techniques that he used at Wimbledon.

His disappointing result at the this year's US Open where he lost to Mikael Youzhny exposed Nadal's flaws. Youzhny took advantage of the lack of depth from Nadal and continually forced Nadal into a retreating, scrambling position. The Russian also followed one of the oldest tenets in sports - attack the opponents strength. He relentlessly assaulted and eventually broke down the typically impenetrable Nadal forehand.

Now the slower hard court in Melbourne may suit Nadal's game better but he still needs to focus on keeping the ball deep and he should actually pretend he is playing on grass. It almost appears that Nadal actually prefers the grass to the hard courts now. At Wimbledon, it's almost as if he knew that he had to alter his game significantly if he were to have any chance of success. But on the hard courts, it appears that he is more indecisive. Because hard courts do allow baseliners to perform nearly as well as all-court players, Nadal almost has too many options and relies far too much on his clay court ways rather than his new-found Wimbledon methods.

While it may seem anathema to Rafael to suggest such a thing, perhaps a change in coaching is in the cards - not a wholesale change but rather one of augmentation by bringing in a service expert to develop the afore-mentioned slice serve. Nadal is obviously very comfortable with his Uncle Toni overseeing his play but he needs to acknowledge that something has to be changed in order to raise his level of play.

For the record, it also must be stated that just because a player, a great player for that matter, decides to embark on an intensive effort to change their playing style, doesn't guarantee the desired result. The clearest personification of this is Ivan Lendl. Lendl's aversion to grass was well known but he did attempt to conquer his kryptonite. He even went so far, in an act of folly and betrayal, to skip his beloved French Open in order to prepare for Wimbledon in 1990. Lendl's efforts never paid off in London, losing the Wimbledon final twice ('86, '87).

And lest I forget another all-time champion from the Open era, Jimmy Connors. Connors, after years of grinding out points, finally took some pressure off himself by developing a new serve in 1982. (Granted, he also took advantage of Borg's sad exit from the sport as he hadn't beaten the Swede in several years). He tossed the ball out in front of him more and the few free points he earned from it quickly yielded results as he took both the Wimbledon and US Open titles that year.

Nadal's continued pursuit of Federer and their wonderful, still developing rivalry is crucial to the health of professional tennis. Nadal's lefty ways and indefatigable spirit allow him to compete with Federer harder and more consisntely than anyone else. Most players bow to the #1's throne and seem excited to often just win a set. So before Murray or Gasquet or Berdych make significant progress in their pursuit of the Swiss star, Nadal remains the one hope of keeping the sport competitive.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

First Missive From The Tennis Phile

Welcome to The Tennis Phile. I will post weekly articles on tennis (with a greater frequency of dispatches during Grand Slam events), covering a variety of issues associated with the sport, concentrating mainly on the ATP tour. Match summaries and analysis will be included, especially during the Grand Slams, but the narrative thrust of The Tennis Phile will focus more on the state of the sport. Another aspect to The Tennis Phile will be placing issues within a historical perspective - superlatives are utilized far too often in contemporary parlance resulting in a dramatic loss of perspective.

The first two posts will cover disparate topics; the call for a return of the Masters Cup to Madison Square Garden, and the need for Rafael Nadal to emulate a fellow clay court icon - Bjorn Borg - in order to meet the challenge that is Roger Federer.

In addition to the weekly posts on this blog, I will attach links to my previously published articles in Tennis Week and elsewhere.

I encourage highly charged and thoughtful comments and debate. Tennis is a wonderful sport and is not receiving the attention it deserves in the conventional sports media. It is a sad state of affairs when car racing and - worst of all - poker command more TV time than tennis. (The Tennis Channel does a great job but is not yet available to most cable subscribers). My hope is that fellow tennis enthusiasts will turn to The Tennis Phile for in-depth and prescient commentary, unique stories and match analysis that will illuminate coverage of our favorite sport.