Andre Agassi

168245563One handed heir apparent, Grigor Dimitrov (above), about to cut a deadly slice from beyond the tram line on Tuesday.

In October of 2012, world #1 Novak Djokovic came upon talented upstart Grigor Dimitrov in an early round match at Shanghai, on a liberal hardcourt (where Djokovic is hands down the best in the business, despite losing the 2012 USO final to Andy Murray), and made short work of the lad, then ranked around 50-something in the world.  It went to the king, 6-2, 6-3, over the squire, but the kid played better than the score line indicated.  As you may know, we’ve had Dimitrov marked as prime stock since his junior days, and whenever we are asked who will carry the mantel as the next great one hander, we say Grigor Dimitrov.  Even at 18 and 19 years old, rarely has the kid stepped on the court and not flashed the brilliant potential we associate with him.  Dimitrov is in a class of comers, with Milos Raonic (who made for one half of an interesting if unsuccessful doubles pairing here with Dimitrov this week, coincidentally) who you know we love, and Jerzy Janowicz, who has an electric game and a fluid serve motion reminiscent of the king of swing himself, Pete Sampras.  We’ve taken to Raonic and Janowicz because they play the game on their toes, and their countenance is aggressive.  But with Dimitrov’s arrival, we find it not only refreshing but proper and rightful to see a one hander compete at the highest level in this era, and one who we think is destined to win majors.  If Janowicz and Raonic and their big time serves are the new kings of swing, then we’d like to anoint Dimitrov as the new king on the backhand wing.  His Tuesday tussle with Novak Djokovic would be an excellent barometer of the kid’s flat out superb skills on that wing, as Djokovic has the best backhand in the sport, but could not take Dimitrov in BH to BH rallies–  on clay–which is extremely notable, since the higher bounces favor 2-handers.

We thought that Djokovic was far more impressive off the forehand side, and dictated play much better with the forehand, which has improved so much, along with his heart and grit, as he has ascended into the stratosphere with his game.  Good news for Dimitrov, especially since he does not have an imposing forehand.  That wing will need to improve dramatically in order for him to one day claim the top spot, which we think he is destined to do.  As for the grit and heart, he already has it.  Despite serious cramping, Dimitrov bucked up late in the 2nd set on Tuesday, and found his way to match point, though he had a 10 or so minute stretch during which he could barely move.  We must also note that Djokovic was more or less good to go, after 2 weeks of rest that followed his spanking of Rafael Nadal at the MMC, handing the Spaniard what was only his 3rd loss ever on French clay (counting MMC and Roland Garros).  We had our own questions about Djokovic’s ankle going into the MMC, but after his fine form and 2 weeks recovery, there are zero questions that still persist.  Now if Djokovic, the former king of quit, and by our count, the only top player to retire at 3 of the 4 majors, could learn to turn that weakness into a strength, then so too can Dimitrov with the forehand, which, after all, is a tennis shot.

Especially in the case of a Dimitrov, as we do not really usually assume improvement, and when we do, we don’t do it lightly.  We never assumed James Blake was going to have his big break through, and we even knew he’d still lose that match to Agassi in the QF’s at the USO in 2005 when he was up 2 sets and on fire.  Good thing we didn’t assume greatness for Blake, because if we had, we’d still be waiting. Dimitrov however is a rare breed.  This no Bernard Tomic.  This kid gets up to play matches, comes with a plan, and believes he can win.  Even if the plan seems rather lacking in sense, like going backhand to backhand with Djokovic on slow dirt.  Or believing he could play with Rafael Nadal, as an 18 yr old at AMRO in Rotterdam, and playing him closely in a  7-5, 3-6, 6-3 loss in which he was not afraid to go after Nadal’s (who was then #1) forehand, which most players are terrified to do.

On that note, we have a bone to pick with Milos Raonic, who repeatedly approached the Nadal backhand at the MMC and got burned, winning 3 of the 1st 4 games and then losing 11 of the last 12.  We aren’t gonna say Raonic’s development has stalled or taken a hit, as talent needs to develop and breathe and can not usually be measured strictly week to week.  That’s why we are measuring these 2 against top talent instead.  Raonic’s gameplan was flawed, and we felt, lazy.  A Spanish team (Raonic coach Galo Blanco who we usually have high praise for) should understand that tall players that go after Nadal’s forehand, in rallies or on the approach, are having success, since they deal well with the high strike zone and have the power to do something with his topspin, whereas giving Nadal a target on the backhand, which he can direct with the top hand, is really the only backhand he hits for winners–passing shots.  To that end, Raonic also quit on that match, and had we paid to see it, we’d have been very angry.  The listless play bordered on lack of sportsmanship.  By the way, Raonic was abysmal on 2nd serve that day, which we also could not understand so well, since Raonic gets so much action on his 2nd ball and since Nadal returns serve from so well beyond the BL.

By that measure, Dimitrov took Nadal to 3 sets at the MMC, was in every point, was unafraid, and had a real shot to win at 4 all in the 3rd.  Theoretically it is the Raonic type matchup that Nadal recoils from and the Federer type matchup he embraces.  But Dimitrov is a much better player than Raonic right now, despite Raonic’s ranking and wealth of weaponry.  That Raonic can’t get near executing an Isner type strategy against Nadal is perplexing.  That Dimitrov can execute the Federer type strategy against Rafa (which not even Roger can do) is enormously encouraging.  Dimitrov has a real it factor, and moments do not intimidate him, nor do shots or reputations.  Why does Dimitrov’s backhand hold up so well?  We see him as an extremely early ball striker, reminiscent of Blake in that regard, but far better at it on clay, probably closer to an early to mid prime Gustavo Kuerten, or as we ponder it, perhaps even Ivan Lendl, though Lendl was a forehand player.  Dimitrov also shows a lot of patience in backhand exchanges, and relishes them, unlike Federer, save for a few times in his career, like against Davydenko in Melbourne in 2010.  Dimitrov seems to have tremendous bite on his slice, which stayed out of Djokovic’s strike zone even on clay.  Anyone watching closely enough might have noticed that in Federer’s last two major victories over Djokovic, in 2011 at Roland Garros and last year at Wimbledon, that slice played a major factor.  As far as Dimitrov, he understands when to go to the safe, deep cross corner topspin backhand, coming way over top of the ball, and then, at 2-1 and 30 all in the 3rd on Tuesday, he zaps the backhand down the line after he had pinned Djokovic into the opposite corner.  Bravo.  And this is after GD nearly pulls out that tie-breaker while cramping, and loses it, which would have broken many a player, young, veteran, top ten, etc.  It was the best point we’ve seen all year.  Mark it down, and do not discount the pressure of the moment, as if he misses there, he is down a BP to the greatest returner in the game and his odds of winning reduce dramatically.  Because giving that break back right there after the game he put together to earn it in the first place gives Djokovic whatever he needs, as even at 2-2 that match is probably over.  Djokovic is just that good.  Check out the play of this kid, especially on the backhand side, in this clip below:

We totally agree with the call, “this is magnificent!”, which comes at 11:29 of the video when Dimitrov hits the particular down the line backhand that we already described above.

Now if you still are over there questioning Dimitrov’s ability to improve, just consider how strong his serve has become.  Djokovic, for our money, is by far the best returner in the game.  Dimitrov aced him 13 times on slow clay, and held his nerve on several critical 2nd balls placed deep in the box, a skill that Milos Raonic has lost track of.  Dimitrov won 63% of all his service points, 52% on 2nds, and saved 10/12 BP’s.  If his serve can get to that level on clay, then his forehand can go a lot farther, as top dogs like Djokovic’s and Azarenka’s has.  Elite class players are always developing their game (recall Federer adding the forehand dropper), and right now Dimitrov is pre-prime, though still poised to move from #28 into the top twenty with nice showings in the coming weeks, already up more than 20 spots now than where he was at the end of 2012.  Dimitrov should also expect his best results come the fast court legs of the tour on grass and American hards (as a junior, Dimitrov won Junior Wimbledon, the Junior USO, and the Orange Bowl).

The obvious comparisons, from hairstyle to sponsor to the one handed backhand is Roger Federer, and that they were both coached at the junior level by Peter Lundgren doesn’t diminish the comparisons, though Dimitrov seems to learn from all his coaches, which have also included Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou and current coach Michael Tillstrom.  We think the Federer comparison weak stylistically if not substantively.  Federer is a forehand player and Dimitrov is a backhand player.  Dimitrov does not manipulate backhands into inside out forehands.  He doesn’t have to.  But we think he will be able to in time.  When he does, look out.  This kid is marked for greatness the same way Roger was, which might be their greatest commonality.  That, and his ability to put points together, which might even be a stronger skill set than Roger’s, especially pre-prime, have us very high on one handed tennis again, which as any purist understands, is the most dynamic and talent affirming style there is, and which is noticeably absent from the game these days due to the game’s over-homogenization at the hands of safe baseliners, safe baseline coaching, clay, slow hardcourts, and thick grass.

If you’re wondering about Djokovic going out so early at a Masters Level tourny, recall that Querrey got him at the Paris Indoor, which there was no shame in, considering that Djokovic rebounded by claiming his 2nd career Year End Championship title.  The last time it happened at a Masters Level tourny on clay?  Date back to 2006 when Federer took out a very green Novak Djokovic at Monte Carlo.  Speaking of dating…

Unknown-1Yes, that is Dimitrov with “serious girlfriend” and career slam champion Maria Sharapova.

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990593-16126026-640-360Rafael Nadal (above) seeks his 9th Monte Carlo Masters 1000 shield 10 hours from now.

ATP MASTERS 1000 FINAL — Monte Carlo, Monaco (8 AM EST)

Rafael Nadal:  – 225

Novak Djokovic:  + 175


Nadal leads the h2h 19-14, and has grabbed 13 of 14 on clay in the matchup, and the last 3, including the “hotly” contested 2012 final at Roland Garros at which Rafa cried and whined about having to play in a little rain (since he was getting pounded during that stretch).  We don’t see these odds as Vegas being that into Rafa here, despite the whole slow red clay story.  Nadal has won the previous matchup at the MC, back in 2009, going 3 sets.  Not sure if Nadal has ever lost at MC in fact, and not he shouldn’t be the bigger favorite here.

Djokovic is a wilting lily no more.  He and Azarenka both had the trait, and as they matured, they have both developed extreme toughness.  We’d like to commend him on that now, and Azarenka, we’ll save for later.  It is very hard for an athlete to change their personality, and in tennis, the turnaround is so stark, especially with Djokovic, that we would have to harken back to Andre Agassi, to think of a similar mentality change.  And Agassi won at RG late in the game, after his attitude adjustment.  We see Djokovic getting his RG trophy a lot earlier than Agassi did, and we were thinking this year.  So we were of course very disappointed to see Djokovic hurt his ankle so badly in DC versus Sam Querrey.  It may not seem to affect him, and he has won 6 straight matches since rolling the ankle, but he will need his wheels today.

Djokovic wants it badly, for sure, and usually, we’d take a flyer on him, even in this situation on clay versus Nadal.  There are probably those of the mind that if he is playing, then he’s fine.  And certainly, the ankle did not slow the main man down against Sam Querrey, breaking Querrey in his first game after the injury, and getting stronger as the match went on to boot, allowing Sam Q only 1 of the last 13 games.  But we think Djokovic should get himself absolutely perfect for RG, and we don’t see how war of attrition tennis versus Nadal 5 weeks before Paris helps him to do that, unless Djokovic is so there mentally that he has completely blocked the injury out of his mind, and is looking to make a statement here versus Nadal, who we don’t think has played that great here, playing very close matches with Grigor Dimitrov, who split 158 points with Nadal evenly, and with Tsonga, who usually has no traction at all against Rafa on clay (6-3, 7-6 is very close for Tsonga, LOL).

We’d like to see Djoker at his best on that first Sunday in June, but there have been whispers that he may lose his ranking during the clay season if he takes his foot off the gas.  We will trust the decision to the Djokovic camp, who has been making all the right moves since jettisoning Todd Moron, um, Martin, sorry.  One thing we can not stand though, is to see a hurt player making an extended go of it.  See Angelique Kerber’s brutal play these last few months.  Health comes from rest and treatment.  All that said, this will be compelling tennis for a variety of reasons.  Gun to our head though, we’d probably take Rafa, pained as we are to admit.

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The great man and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in civilian clothes (above).  Tomorrow they will get to meet again in the finals of the Masters 1000 Series Paris Indoor Final.  Recall that Tsonga dealt Federer his first loss ever after leading a in a major by two sets to love in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.  Then Roger completely blitzed Tsonga in straights under the lights at Flushing with clinical precision, in 3 fairly easy sets.

It looked all week as if the matchup for tomorrow would have been anything but these two.  Federer has Murray on his side of the draw, who has had a stellar indoor season, putting considerable distance between his newly won world #3 ranking, and Federer, now world #4, and over a thousand rankings points behind the Scot.  But Murray didn’t have the pop yesterday that beating Tomas Berdych in a slugfest required.  Then Federer abused Berdych this morning, playing ultra clean tennis, dominating on serve, and at net on his few trips in, and controlling the match with the Federer forehand circa 2005–the lights out laser beam.  Berdych had taken 3 of the last 5 matchups with Federer coming in to the morning’s action, and Federer has seemed at a loss against Berdych to match the big man’s power.  Today Berdych seemed spent, as he did barely get out alive versus Murray, in a match where the big man did lots of running for the full 3 hours, give or take.

Not so today.  Federer won in decisive fashion–the kind of tennis that makes you go ‘oooh’–ripping 34 winners to the Czech’s 16.  Federer flashed the brilliance last week in winning Basel for the 5th time in 6 years, but let’s be real.  Nishikori in the final was a gift from the Gods.  Nishikori had defeated a weary Novak Djokovic, in what was only his 3rd loss of his astounding season.  Djokovic, after a tough match with countryman Victor Troicki, then forfeited prior to squaring off with Tsonga due to a recurring shoulder injury that nagged at him all summer.

Tsonga then got to face American giant John Isner today, and in what was a highly entertaining match, Tsonga fought off 3 match points on his way to a very narrow victory, taking the 2nd and 3rd sets in tie-breakers.  A tough loss for the American, no doubt, who seemed to tighten up at 5-6 in the third, with a few looks on MP’s at Tsonga second balls.  Tsonga would love to take home the hardware here in front of the home crowd, no doubt, but Federer is incredibly hot, once again peaking heading into the YEC.

Federer just seems to have a lot of jump, power, and precision indoors, on windless courts where he is spiking first serve after first serve.  Federer is now 9-0 on the indoor circuit this season.  Here are the odds, at current, for the morning final:

9:00 PM EST


Roger Federer:  – 360

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga:  + 280


Federer is 5-3 lifetime versus Tsonga.  They’ve met once indoors in Madrid (2008), in which Federer won in a waltz.  Should Roger win tomorrow, he will have won two tournaments in a row for the first time since November 2010 (YEC)/January 2011 (Doha).  Federer will look for his 69th career singles title tomorrow in Paris.  Should he win, he will become only the 2nd man to win both Roland Garros and the Paris Indoor.  Andre Agassi is the other.

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We will go through the match for you in a few ways, looking at what the numbers indicate, and our impressions of the actual match–the final of the men’s Italian championship from Rome–in which Novak Djokovic (above), truly to be heralded, defeated world #1 Rafael Nadal for the second straight time on clay, and the fourth straight time overall, in moving his overall record to 39-0 this year.  Now Djokovic is in company with only two other men, Federer and we believe Gaudio, who have beaten Nadal twice on clay, and is the only one to do so twice in the same year.

We hate to go crazy for the Masters Series like this because we are purists and tennis historians who reflect on the years and achievements of players mostly by looking at results from majors, Davis Cup, and the Year End Championships.  That said, they contested two finals in the last 8 days, both on Nadal’s surface, and Rafa did not win a set.  Very rarely does the best clay court player in a season not win Roland Garros.  Djokovic is the best clay court player this season, and even if he should not win there, he has arrived, and will be considered a better threat than Nadal to win there for the next several years.  Guillermo Coria is one guy we can think of who had the strongest clay court season and did not take the major.  John McEnroe, obviously, is another.  We think Federer was the best clay court player in 09 when he completed his career slam.

Hate to jinx it, but we think Djokovic is gonna be the champ there the same way he was in Madrid and today in Rome.  Djokovic may let him get a set in a final we are all set to book for 3 Sundays time, but he hasn’t let him get one yet, not even on Nadal’s home soil.  This brings a lot of questions to mind.  Nadal, the clay court god, has all of a sudden lost it?  Isn’t he the “King of Clay”?  He hasn’t lost “it” but he has lost that distinction.  This is why I love the King of Clay, King of Grass, GOAT, and all of these other tennis nonsense conversations.  None of these discussions can take place until long after these guys retire, unless we hold them out of the conversation and judge only players who are retired.

If we were to do that, we’d have to say Rod Laver is the best player of all time, that Roy Emmerson is very, very close, that Bjorg and Sampras, in no certain order, should probably come next in the discussion, and that just about everybody else is on a lesser tier.  To Emmerson’s credit, he won 16 doubles majors, and won the French twice, but all of these guys, even the ones on the other tier, have immense major immeasurables or specific achievements that further enlighten their careers.  Frankly, Djokovic doesn’t have any, but that’s not for this discussion.  With the Djoker, he’s the best right now on clay and slow hards, and we’ll see about the rest soon enough.

But Nadal does not have the weapons to penetrate Djokovic any longer on clay, and scampering around from 15 feet back of the baseline and pushing the ball back is not going to get it done for Nadal against Djokovic any longer.  The mighty forehand of Rafael Nadal went whole half hours today without producing a winner, as Djokovic easily won on the winner count today off both wings, hitting about 12 more winners, and winning 8 more total points.  It was the difference in the match.  The guy who could step up into the court and hit a winner is the guy who won.  Nadal actually had an edge in net play that had he exploited better, he could have won.  Only, how do you get to net when you are so far back of the court?

Unlike last week’s performance which we considered fairly dominant, considering the opponent, we thought that this week Djokovic looked more average.  The fatigue was more apparent from the Saturday semi and from the week.  And Djoker was walking gingerly all second set, and kept stretching out his legs, which our friend Robbie Koenig was saying was a hip flexor.  Usually a great sign for an opponent–a gimpy Djoker.  Only, these things don’t seem to matter anymore, like he’s superman, especially in the best of three set format.  Djokovic got down in actual games, especially on his own serve, though he never actually trailed, but he played with the knowing confidence that when he had to, he was going to jack the ball and take the point from Nadal out of a haze of loopy topspin.  This wasn’t done on serve, either.  Djokovic served no aces.  These were crushing groundstrokes, the likes we have not seen probably, since the Soderling run in 09.

Last week, Nadal can go in and not sweat too much, because he can still have the attitude that it’s one match, in case he loses.  This week, Nadal knows all week that he’s gonna have to play much better to win, and that should be a big edge to him, but it’s not, and he’s even less of a favorite.  Nadal stayed close with Djokovic the whole way, unlike last week when he was quickly down 4-0, but Djokovic just upped the level on the big points today, hit the groundies a little harder, a little gimpy or not.  It’s still going to take a great effort to beat Nadal at
RG, but that’s Nadal after 6 more matches, this time of the best of 5 variety.  We think it works against him poorly, and always does, when he plays too many essentially meaningless events.

Now do they really help him, long term or short?  No, save for financially.  Nadal, the master of Masters, has more shields than Federer, Agassi, Sampras.  He has the most.  But being the best week to week is not as important as being the best at the end of every season, which players thinking more about winning majors have in the forefront of their minds.  For a guy who runs as much as Nadal, and who has wheels issues so much, the play should be to pick and choose, and that would leave him fresher for majors.  A few weeks ago, Nadal plays Sabadell, wins it, ends up picking up a few points, which ultimately isn’t going to keep Djokovic from taking his ranking, and adds 5 matches and about 8 needless hours of court time to his joints.

We see him as tired going into Roland Garros, and more tired going into the final weekend.  He could still win, and we’d respect that immensely.  But either way, the guard has changed, and since we can not stand his passive pusher style, we think it an excellent thing.  Now that doesn’t mean that Djokovic’s play translates exactly to grass next month, meaning Nadal will be a strong favorite on the lawns of Wimbledon.  But we’d bet Djokovic will play very well on grass, and that his and Nadal’s extended period of excellence this year, winning or final-ling at just about every event, will take a toll during the dog days of summer, that a glider such as Federer might afford.  Djokovic does do his share of pushing now, we might add.

As for the imeasurables, the Djoker might be about to get in the books.  Today marked his 39th straight win from the start of the year.  If he gets to the round of 16 at RG, he will have surpassed John McEnroe’s 42 matches straight from the year’s start, and by winning RG and his 2nd round match at Queen’s Club, he will tie Guillermo Vilas’ string of 47 straight wins to start the year.

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World #1, if far from best, Caroline Wozniacki (below).

It isn’t often that mystical clay court seasons just line up by the grace of gods, and the stars align to make the typical one-hander who likes to see entertaining, shot making tennis genius and the validation of such genius.  Well, there was 09 of course, when Roger completed the career slam.  We mean, the way Nadal got upset by Soderling, out of nowhere, meaning that the attacking player, the magnificent artist, the man himself, Roger Federer, was going to get the RG crown and the career slam.  And by the way.  We don’t throw the word slam around.  We are tennis purists.  There are career slams, and there are calendar slams.  You win them all in your career or you win them all in calendar order.  Since nobody ever wins them in calendar order to the point that it is rarely a discussion, you have a few slam conversations going on, but not many.

Might Clijsters get it?  Those looking at the woeful women’s tour and Clijsters fans had to think, with her flakiness, and the God awful women’s top 20 right now, that she can’t be counted on to play for too many more majors, but she could have been counted on heavily at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon this year.  Ah well.  There are the injuries that we are hearing will limit her.  We see a good chance for Clijsters to win these tournaments if she is healthy, and here’s why:  Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Justine Henin are all not playing, Kuznetsova is playing as bad as she has ever, career, Sharapova is not all the way back, and there are questions as to her ability to ever return to the top of the game, and then…we mean, we could go all day.  That’s why another clay court season for the shot mking purist was last season, on the women’s side, with Francesca Schiavone winning her first major title.  I love Schiavone–the top one-handed female until Justine Henin hopefully returns, and she has great flair, but in a healthy field, we doubt highly that we are all suffering a Schiavone-Stosur finale.  These are girls that the Williams sisters, Henin, and several others trounce on a regular basis.  In fact, Venus Williams has never lost to Schiavone in 8 meetings.   Stosur?  Must we really?  A representative top ten of the most talented women in the world, regardless of who is shuttered off in a Belgian bowling alley and who, unfortunately, cut her foot and went through so many sins with recovering from that.

We are not trying to denigrate Francesca.  In fact, we’d love her to repeat.  Considering the shoddy field again.  We have got to look at a woeful top 20 right now.  Former champ Ana Ivanovic, whose game we actually don’t quite terribly mind, is outside the top 20, which says a lot about her plight, and you’ve got one of the least talented and diverse top 20’s there has ever been.  Kaia Kanepi?  Shahar Peer?  Petkovic?  Bartoli?  Radwanska?  Pavlyuchenkova?  Please don’t get us started about Jelena Jankovic, who feel is the most incomplete player in the women’s game.  Besides being an advertisement for how not to play, she hits most of her shots off of her back foot, can not take an overhead out of the air, can not make a volley, and has no serve.  This women’s game is an insult, and perhaps then we shouldn’t take as such an insult the fact that America got dusted in Fed Cup two weeks ago, but we still do.  Pitiful.

If Clijsters doesn’t play, then we’d count 5 players when healthy and right, and maybe a sixth–Ana Ivanovic as being bigger favorites going into Roland Garros than the current field.  BTW, we count Dementieva in that group.  A lot is on injuries, obviously, but we can’t tell you we are happy a Dementieva or a Henin stepped away from the game in their prime.  You watch a Justine Henin match?  Listen, she may have cheated against Serena, but her matches were beautiful things.  Her backhand is text book.  She is a beautiful shot maker and she lit the game up for almost 2 years.  It was pretty to watch.  So we aren’t too happy, and we won’t be next Thursday when the draws come out for Roland Garros.  That Stosur was such a big favorite last year, and looks so strong again?  We apologize, but we don’t feel this caliber of player deserves to win a major.  Winning a major is special.  Will we see it from Wozniacki?  When she pulls it off with those putrid vollies, and her go is death game.  And you know what?  We like her next week.  What does that say?  Because we despise her style of play.  But this is France, and the most vile style usually wins out.

Except when Roger won it.  And the time Mac had Lendl 2 sets and a break.  Kuerten?  Here’s the thing.  He didn’t have near the shot making ability on other surfaces, so we didn’t go crazy when he won here.  We rooted for Courier and against Agassi, and f0r Federer a boatload of times, and when we were young we watched a lot of guys who we didn’t have business winning majors win this thing.  But that’s the French Open, for the women especially, and it looks like we may get a very shaky champ again, which speaks volumes about the women’s game.  If Clijsters can go hard, she is going to have a great shot to pull off the career slam, because she’s the only one around with the focus and the talent.  And so you know, we hate her counter punching style, but will concede she goes for more winners now and is easier to watch.  You see, the French Open, on special occasion, has not been the home of the shittiest tennis champion of them all.  The years when a Navratilova or a Williams or a Graf didn’t win.  The years when it was the Moyas, Andres Gomez’s, Chang’s, and Costa’s.

Would those guys, any of them, win a real major on a court that required brilliance and not doggedness?  We think not.  So here’s to our Roland Garros wishes that if a shitty woman has to be champion, let it be Schiavone, because little girls around the world may model their game after hers, and so that she can build a little legacy for a one-hander, even though she hasn’t ever beaten Venus Williams.  Because that’s a lot better than one of these hacks like Wozniacki, Jankovic, and Radwanska.  Either of those three would horrible for the game.   Zvonareva?  You know we love her, and we like the way she’s went deep at majors lately, building a resume, but we’d say she has a much better chance on Wimbledon’s lawns than on the disgusting mud at Roland Garros.

Tomorrow on the women’s side in Rome:

Wozniacki:  – 200 (bet 200 to win 100)

Sharapova:  +160 (bet 100 units to win 160, plus the initial wager) 


Li Na:  + 170 (bet 100 units to win 170)

Stosur:  – 220 (bet 220 units to win 100, plus initial wager)

Here’s what we think.  Even though we hate Wozniacki, she has the game for clay, if not really any true talent tennis or weapons, and Sharapova doesn’t.  It might help Maria that Azarenka retired today, allowing her to conserve energy, but we’d have to to go with Wozniacki, who is the better mover and the better clay mover.  Mark our words.  You rarely see a match won on clay on a given day by the player who doesn’t use his feet best.  In that vain, we’d have to take the exercise and conditioning freak, Stosur, who is now building quite a little resume for herself on clay, and she’s another poorly talented but favored woman of Roland Garros nontheless.  And the loss last year?  There are Australians we know who lost their shit over it.

We’re not ready to pronounce Sharapova completely dead yet, but without the lights out serve, she really isn’t gonna hurt too many people, and RG has never been her thing.  So we are thinking Wozniacki/Stosur on Sunday, and when we see the odds, we”ll give you our thoughts.  But we aren’t buying at these rates.  The biggest favorite is Stosur at – 220?  If you are going to do something, you shoud be buying dogs.

Then there’s the men where there figures to be a compelling day of tennis, even for clay.  Lines have been shifting the last few hours, as Nadal and Djokovic are becoming bigger favorites.  As of now:

Nadal:  – 1200  (wager 1200 to win 100 plus your initial wager)

Gasquet:  +700 (wager 100 to win 700)


Djokovic:  – 700

Murray:  + 450

Without getting too into the RG breakdown, we’d like to give you our quick thoughts.  Much better values in the dogs once again, especially on the men’s side.  Personally, we have seen a lot of lines, and Andy Murray is probably a plus 450 2 or 3 times only in about the last 3 years.  This guy is a very good player, and the difference in odds is steep considering the match will probably be won over a couple points.  And Nadal/Gasquet?  That’s a match where you have a guy who has never beaten the other guy, and the other guy is on his favorite surface where he rarely loses.  Gasquet just does not match up with Nadal very well, never did.  Doesn’t serve well enough.  That about covers it.  Very talented player, but nearly enough weapons.  But the little extra rest a loss for either favorite might do could go a long way in what could be very close matches, ones the odds don’t seem to respect.  We wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a long day of tennis tomorrow.  And we again hope for a classic day of clay court tennis.

Djokovic goes for his 36th straight…vying to also set up a meet with Nadal, who he could conceivably beat two weeks in a row.

Catch it on TTC.

Crack (,


Australian prodigy Bernard Tomic (above), a colorful young player who seems to have a bit of Andre Agassi in him, blitzed Spaniard and world #31 Feliciano Lopez in two successive tie breakers, 7-4 and 7-3, and currently leads Lopez 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 4-3.  Tomic, at world #199, is giving away a lot of power to Lopez and yet, he has him on the ropes due to his defensive skills on the Plexicushion and overall smart play.  On several points in the match, Tomic has traded slice backhands with Lopez, who, for some reason is allowing Tomic to dictate with his foot speed and shot selection.  The pride of Australia has played the big points better, winning 2 of 3 break points, and by keeping the ball in play with only 17 unforced errors.

Tomic, who practiced with Nadal last year and was said to have frustrated him because he plays Rafa’s topspin well, similar to Davydenko or Agassi, who we mentioned earlier.  Tomic takes the ball early and uses his opponents pace against them.  Tomic/Rafa would be a wildly entertaining match, and we’re pulling for the kid and a chance to see that match on Saturday, even though we aren’t in love with Tomic as a sportsman.  Especially since he recently had an altercation with our favorite prodigy, the one handed backhand ripping super talent Grigor Dimitrov.

Tomic 4-3 on serve in the 3rd right now, and just saved 2 break points.  He’s impressing…Tomic just got the break in the 8th game of the set and served it out.  7-6 (4), 7-6 (3), 6-3 in fine form.

Crack (,

Three super fine tennis champions (above).

At the 2010 U.S. Open, in watching Roger Federer cruise throughh 5 rounds without dropping a set and clinically dispatching Robin Soderling in gail force winds in the quarter-finals, and then to see him come out so flat for his super Saturday main event semi vs. Novak Djokovic, to blow 2 sets and several match points, I was struck with this Venus Williams sort of feeling.  Venus’ last major showing at a major was in the O9 Wimbledon final against “little’ sis.  She failed to capitalize on a 1st set business end break opportunity and she didn’t get another sniff.  Serena blitzed big sis in the breaker and 20 minutes later, instead of holding a 6th singles title of her own, she was watching little sis hoist her 4th.  Since, we’ve seen Venus play some flawless matches in majors, but she has been unable to put a complete fortknight together.  Venus made runs in Melbourne and Roland Garros in 2010, and of course, we wanted desperately to see her add both pieces to the trophy case.  We bought the hype hardcore on the red clay, especially, as Venus won an event on the dirt in the spring and played nearly flawlessly 2 weeks before Paris in Madrid, until she was upset in the final by Aravane Rezai.  The thing about Venus of late that we feared was beginning to apply to Roger was that looking good 1 day had absolutely no conceivable carry over effect.  Venus was barely taxed at RG, dropping no sets until being bounced by Petrova in straights in the round of 16.

In fairness to Rog, aside from his failings vs. the Djoker in the semis, the man had an outstanding Open, and the command performance vs. Soderling and another highlight reel tweener shot, with a routine 24,000 spectator standing O would attest to that.  Our opinion?  The great man suffered a big let down after battering Soderling in a highly anticipated rematch of the 2010 French quarterfinal which he lost.  After 23 straight major semis, and then 2 straight misses, we think that Roger was also a bit satisfied with returning to the final 4.  The great man’s concentration waned.  Still great, but not great enough to throw away sets and still win majors, as he proved at the prior Open in his finals loss to Juan Martin Del Potro.  In retrospect, we’ve been very hard on Federer this year.  Deservedly so.  Sure, he won a major, went to 2 other major quarter-finals and an Open semi, and had a year anyone not named Roger Federer would die for.  But he went from February to August without winning an event, lost gimmes to Montanes in Estoril and to Lleyton Hewitt at Halle, giving Hewitt his 1st win vs. Roger in about 8 years to boot–a more epic drought against the master than Roddick’s famous time in the desert.

And worse yet.  Roger, on his best surface at this stage of the game, left a 2nd consecutive US Open title on the table.  If you’re of a mind to think grass is Roger’s best surface, think again.  It was true in the midst of his run of 5 straight Wimbledon titles, but at this point, Roger is almost a hardcourt specialist.  He hasn’t won on clay or grass since July 09 and his last 6 titles have all been on hards.  Still worse than that: putrid counter pucher’s defensive tennis at the hands of Rafael Nadal has prevailed in the wake of Roger’s beautiful, elegant shot making gone MIA.

Let us be truthful here.  We are always pissed when Roger and Venus go down in majors.  Always.  Unless they win it, we feel they could have done better invariably.  With the way Roger ended his summer, we were very concerned that even with Paul Annacone in his corner, that his will was fading.  Then we watched vintage Federer circa 06 this fall, and we felt really good about his chances at the YEC in London.  Federer did not disappoint.  Straight set, easy wins vs. Murray, Soderling, Ferrer and Djokovic, and his 1st win over Nadal since June 09–in style at that–for his 5th YEC have us daydreaming about more than just Roger’s 17th major.  We are envisioning the scenario that sees Federer return to #1, and though it will be bitter sweet as an even bigger fan of Pistol Pete, breaking Sampras’ all time record for weeks at #1, we could stand to see it and regard it as one of the few records of note that Federer has not yet broken in the singles game.

The YEC means more to Federer than it does to the field.  Aside from his 4 YEC titles going in, there was only 1 other YEC title even floating around in this year’s 8 man field (Djokovic).  Usually Roger makes a very strong run at the YEC for the hardware.  Two years ago, the great man could hardly bend over and still gave his all in 2 marathon 3 setters vs. Murray.  In 2005, when the final was still best 3 out of 5 sets, Federer was rolling against Nalbandian, up 2 sets and cruising until hurting his calf.  Instead of retiring (see Djokovic and Nadal), Federer trudged on with greatly hampered mobility and eventually lost in 5 sets.  The win in 5 over a gimpy Roger represents Nalbandian’s greatest triumph to date, and prevented Roger from ending that year with the all-time best year end record ever, as he finished at 81-4 rather than 82-3, which would have topped John McEnroe’s record 1984.

But why so much optimism regarding Federer in 2011?  Well, the best in the land, the fairest by far, is once again playing like it.  When the year kicks off down under, Roger Federer will be looking for a 5th Australian crown and 17th major title.  He’ll be fresh and uber motivated, and who navigates the landscape better at majors?  Federer also tends to benefit, as does Murray, Djokovic and Soderling from the full time return of injured Nadal killers Del Potro and Davydenko.  Davydenko’s ability to get balls back throws the most prominent aspect of Nadal’s success right back at him, and his take-it-on-the-rise-while-crowding-the-baseline style means he can go from D to O very quickly, and is effective at turning Nadal’s pace against him.  Then there’s the next legitimate #1, Juan Martin Del Potro, who at 6’6 is able to take Nadal’s high bouncing topspin well within his strike zone.  Del Potro mauled Nadal in a laugher in the 09 Open semi, 2, 2, and 2.  Nadal, who does not play first strike tennis well, is left constantly on his heels by Del Potro’s immense serve and huge groundstrokes.  The return of Davydenko and Del Potro to major tennis means more challenges for Nadal through the draws, and at the very least a greater physical toll will be exacted.

Personally, we feel Nadal owes his US Open title and career slam to Del Potro’s wrist injury more than any other single factor.  Del Potro could also be the player best suited to take up the mantle on clay, his natural surface.  and Del Potro’s 135-140 MPH serves are not dampened much by the dirt.  After watching Rafa take just 3 out of 54 in the YEC final on Roger’s 1st serve, we again see Nadal’s return game against quality servers as a weakness.  The same way in which Nadal won 1 major in 09 and then “fell apart”, so did Roger in 2010, and so could again Nadal in 2011.  After Melbourne, Roger will be poised to gain points, as we are already pencilling him in for better results almost unilaterally across the tour.

Can Roger get back to #1?  He can if he keeps playing like he’s 24.  And what about Venus, our best lady, now thirty something?  Can she add an 8th singles major title in 2011?

It certainly does boggle the mind that Lady V would exit the Australian Open in the quarters at the hands of Na Li, in a match she led handily, and that after beating eventual RG champ Francesca Schiavone in Madrid, that she’d be blown off the court by a lumbering Petrova in France.  While we like Tsvetana Pironkova as a player and have admired her poise in big spots, she has no business beating Venus 6-3, 6-2 on Wimbledon lawns.  But the fact is, the women’s game is wide open.  Venus went to the semis at the USO–her last major–and came this close to taking out eventual champ Clijsters in a tough 3 setter when a win would have paved the way for singles US Open title number 3.

Venus went 38-7 last year, won 2 tournaments, made 2 other finals, and did not lose before the round of 16 in any event.  she also partnered with Lady S for French and Aussie major doubles titles, bringing her obscene majors total to 21 (7 singles, 12 doubles, 2 mixed).  Hearing her comments about the US team’s Fed Cup Finals loss to Italy (“I was too sick to watch”) and of her committment to Mary Joe Fernandez’s squad for 2011, makes me think that Venus is focused, and she realizes she is on the clock.

I used to frequent an awful trollfest of a tennis message board littered wall to wall with morons–you know the type.  Agassi and Nadal fanboys.  In 2006, their lack of collective genius came up with a thread before Wimbledon called “What’s wrong with Venus Williams?”  She only won the tournament.  My friends bumped the thread the next year, and she won it again.  And the next year. 

I imagine there’s a “What’s wrong with Roger?” thread too.  I also imagine them playing flawless tennis, and feel neither is that far removed from doing it again.

Crack (,

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