Bethanie Mattek-Sands


Sloane Stephens (above), popping a serve off against Mathilda Johansson on Friday in an easy breezy victory.

While we understood Serena as the prohibitive pre-tournament favorite, we have said many times that clay is a different animal that always treats her differently.  We said that her M.O. at RG was that something always seems to go wrong.  Were we surprised at the loss to Razzano?  Absolutely.  Were we on it?  No.  Betting against Serena is a bad business, as we’ve said, and only further reinforced by her destruction of Azarenka in Madrid, and that little gambit we took with Vica.

Hopefully someone took our underdog philosophy and made some bank on Razzano.  Still, not an easy bit of business, down a set and 5-1 in the breaker before the tide turned.  How often does Serena choke one away?  Or lose R1 at a major?  Until Tuesday, the answers to both were never.  But then again, neither the partisan French crowd–in truth a pit of vipers–nor Chair Eva Asderaki, with whom Lady S has past history, were going to do her any favors.  On Asderaki: 1) That’s a tough over-rule.  I don’t like to criticize calls, as it’s bad form, and at RG, the Chairs do player a larger role than elsewhere because the stupid clay leaves stupid marks…and yet, there is simply no line call conflicts on any other surface and at the other majors, where they have gone to modern technology.  John McEnroe has said often enough that he feels he would have been far more successful with the current Hawkeye system because he expended so much energy fighting officials and that had such a negative impact on his game.  Anyone who remembers John John understands the point all too well.  Are the French cheap, stupid, or just stubborn?

Ding ding ding.  Anyway on to 2) Point penalties for “hinderance” on player audibles are never called, yet has now been called by 1 Chair in 2 different majors against Serena in the last calendar year.  Does Asderaki make that call against Azarenka and Sharapova, the tour’s loudest players?  No.  But then again, they haven’t called Asderaki a “hater” and a “terrible person.”  But then again, again, Asderaki’s 1st hinderance call in the US OPEN FINAL against Stosur was not prompted by unfortunate remarks.

The Chair has played way too big of a role in Serena’s most recent USO & RG losses.  The same Chair.  While we may stop short of calling Asderaki a racist on this page, we would have to agree with Serena’s assessment.  Also, we aren’t one of those types who scoffs at the notion of racism in tennis.  We also feel that Asderaki is obviously prejudiced against Serena, if not actually prejudice (although…)  In a virtually even match on points (Razzano won on total points by 5, 117-112), those 3 points essentially gifted to Razzano would have swung the total in favor of Serena by one.  Three points is practically a game, or half a breaker.  Frankly, the Chair should not play a determining role in ANY match, EVER.  If the Chair’s fairness is questioned, then it ruins the integrity of the game.

On to little Lauren Davis, who announced herself this week with a huge victory over very impressive German Mona Barthel.  We thought Barthel was set to turn heads here.  But Davis, on a foreign surface, abused Barthel.  Despite her loss to the American bulldog, Christina McHale in the next round, we are very pleased with her results, obviously coming into RG prepared for both the surface and the stage.  If Barthel hasn’t yet registered as a name, it’s only because ascent has been so meteoric.  That is a tremendous win.  Perhaps MJF is doing a better job with our young ones than we usually credit her for, having been awarded the Fed Cup post out of what we feel is blatant cronyism.  As for McHale, she may not be ready to take out Li Na, but we watched it closely, and also listened to RadioRG tell it in stretches.  We all thought that McHale scared Li very much with that strong, clean first set, and you can really see McHale winning a match like that next time around.  McHale seems to get as much torque on her forehand as any woman we’ve seen this week.  In short, Joy-zee was in da house.

John Isner, 2 years after setting the major match length record at SW-19 after his 70-68 5th set win over Mahut, now has the French Open record, this time losing to Paul Henri Matthieu 18-16 in the 5th.  This match has us considering if John McEnroe isn’t right about something else as well.  We were inclined to disagree with Johnny Mac, who has pushed for deciding 5th set breakers at all the majors.  We had felt that the extended 5th set format at the AO, RG, SW-19, and DC has a certain mystique and that the players who take part in those matches enhance the history of the game and their own names by playing in these most memorable matches.

But the epic Isner-Mahut affair did effectively scuttle the rest of both players’ 2010 seasons.  Mac talked about how the players have discussed job actions in order to pursue better prize money for lesser players and better protections.  He’s correct that the 5th set breaker would protect players health and ultimately their careers.  And the very personable Dimitry Tursunov underscored the travails of the lesser player in a phenomenal interview he gave to Matt Cronin and Matt Brown of RadioRG.  Tursunov discussed his gig as a pro tennis blogger and how fickle fans always threaten to unfollow him, and more serious stuff, like how expensive the tour is for lesser players like him, who God forbid, want to travel with a coach, a physio and even a girlfriend.  Tursunov candidly explained that in a city like Paris he can barely afford to do anything.  We loved Tursunov in this spot.  While Justin Gimelstob (who hit with Brian Baker prior to Baker’s win over Xavier Malisse and gave great insight as to the Baker story, an American who played in the RG Junior Final in 2003 and was injured the next year and then spent almost 8 years off the tour) is obviously our favorite TTC personality by a mile, we are considering throwing our support behind Tursunov as well, who would be a fine score for TTC.

After an easy R1, Isner spoke with Bill Macatee of TTC, and discussed how he really likes playing on the clay, because of the time it affords him and because the ball bounces up high, right into his strike zone.  We weren’t paying close enough attention, and missed on another upset.  Paul Henri Matthieu is perhaps the flattest hitting Frenchman there is, and goes very flat on both sides.  Even flatter, we feel, than Gilles Simon.  Isner got a bad matchup in that regard, and is not as good when he has to get down low to play balls.  But the central issue with Isner remains his inability to generate opportunities in the return game.  We talked a lot about how Kevin Anderson was such a bad matchup for him back in Delray, because Anderson holds serve easily.  How many times have we seen Isner play these matches where he can’t muster a break?  We know that Jim Courier has been coordinating his efforts with guys like Isner and Harrison, and their coaches.  Isner’s coach, Craig Boynton, has done a great job getting this giant to play defense as he does, but the laterals are always going to be the question with a guy this big.  And now, in 3 recent majors (2012 AO, 2012 FO, 2010 SW-19), he has had to go to an extended fifth set, and all 3 times he faced unimpressive servers (Nalbandian, Mahut, Matthieu), or relatively unimpressive servers.

Isner has heart and smarts and weapons, but he has to do better in spots like these.  Matthieu in the 2nd round, on a collision course with Andy Murray, weak on clay in the quarters, then possibly Nadal, who he pushed to a 5th set here last year, Nadal’s only 5th set ever at RG.  That’s a bitter defeat.  But Wimbledon should also offer a wealth of opportunities for a guy who serves out of a tree top.

Then there’s Sloane Stephens.  Wow.  This is why we have been begging for her inclusion on the Fed Cup team.  She’s our best bet.  She’s not tiny like McHale, but she can defend like McHale, and her weapons are real.  Frankly, she has dominated this week, blowing out BMS and Johansson, and also straight setting Makarova, who was a big favorite.  We are going with her tomorrow against another SS, Sam Stosur.  We’ve gotten hot, pegging Varvara Lepchenko for good things throughout the week so far (another American), and today we had Granollers, Kanepi, and Rus.

Tomorrow it’s Sloane at +475.  As we see it, Stephens has the pace to target Stosur’s backhand and actually get the ball there.  If Stosur is allowed to run around every forehand, she wins.  She probably does enough to win here tomorrow, but she has been very wonky since winning the Open, and Sloane has the power and speed to show her up a little.  We do not see this line as being a realistic indicator of the scoreline.  We do not see the rock solid Stosur we saw two years ago here.

We’ll be happy to watch it all play out, provided NBC and ESPN and TTC can get the coverage straight, and we don’t have to watch a Spanish feed of the match off the internet (as we did today for Raonic-Monaco).  And hopefully Asderaki is chairing on another court, or better yet, no court at all.

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

 

Ryan Harrison (above) on the red clay of Roland Garros.  At 19 years and 11 months old, Harrison will be the youngest competitor in this weekend’s Davis Cup quarter-final round.

American “number one” and world #9 Mardy Fish has withdrawn from this weekend’s Davis Cup quarter-final tie in France, citing exhaustion or fatigue.  For the tie, which will be played on outdoor red clay, Captain Jim Courier has called on world #66 Ryan Harrison to fill in for Fish.  This marks the first time that the 19 year old Harrison will compete in live singles for the United States Davis Cup team.  While French Captain Guy Forget said earlier that Harrison is a future prospect at this point, and not an established player, we feel he may be underestimating this weekend’s USA squad.

We can’t fault Courier here with his pick.  You know we like Courier very much as DCC, and we haven’t really criticized him yet.  We’ll make a minor criticism here.  Courier opted to play Mardy Fish in the doubles with Mike Bryan, pulling Harrison when he felt America had best go for the definite doubles victory over Federer and Wawrinka, and they got the win.  But in watching how Fish “hurt his partner”, according to our old friend Fred Stolle, when teamed with Bethanie Mattek Sands at The Hopman Cup, when his lazy play cost America the match, we grew very irritated with Fish as a doubles player as well.  Fish had played earlier that day in Perth, and we guess he was exhausted.  Though that is no excuse.  We thought Courier should have gone for Isner in that spot.  Isner was hot, and he’s the guy that’s won a few doubles titles lately, and not Fish.

Then Mardy Fish goes on and has a pretty pedestrian start to the year.  Then he gets flipped by Juan Monaco in Miami, one and three.  I’m sorry, but that’s a poor effort.  Mardy Fish has got to do better there in that spot.  On hards, in Florida, heavy favorite.  Okay.  We lost a few theoretical units on Fish, so we are perturbed.  But who is surprised?  At any of it?  Fish is not a strong nine.  He comes up small routinely.  And it’s not as if he is so exhausted because he’s been winning titles left and right.  To get grossly abused by Juan Monaco last week, and to have his soft forehand totally exploited, was unimpressive to say the least.  We are happy to see this withdrawal.

Does Fish perhaps have Mono?  Well, we wouldn’t like to see it.  But we’d hate to see even more if Fish, claiming fatigue this week, ends up at Sabadell next week, ready to roll.  Because that would belittle the Davis Cup and mock America.  We think Fish should’ve gone to France.  He has to get ready for red clay by playing on clay, and nothing is better than a good couple of best of five set matches.  We think Fish is setting himself up for a poor clay season, which again, will not be surprising because it’s Mardy Fish we are talking about, and he’s bound to disappoint.

Ryan Harrison is a perfectly scrappy and quick player, and is well suited to the red clay.  We’re comfortable saying this, even though we are having trouble finding any wins of his on European Clay.  He won the Houston championship, upsetting James Blake, another all time dog.  Small time pressure player.  Courier had Harrison on the last squad and had him hitting with the team at points last year, and Courier is very comfortable with the selection.  Harrison is going to be thrilled to get into to this tie, and he is going to do what he does, which is scrap and retrieve and limit the errors, hit the occasional winner, and flash a decent serve game and good hands at net.  We think Harrison is setting up for a nice clay court season this year, and it will start this weekend.  Getting some real big matches in over there is going to do worlds for him, and at #66, he is on the bubble for Masters Series events coming up, and may have to play in to a tourny through the qualifiers.  This type of match play can be just what the doctor ordered for both Harrison and the US team.

Harrison is going to be a very good player, as perhaps Guy Forget is suggesting.  But the kid is a good player now too, and he may be a matchup problem for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who he will play on Friday.  Harrison is going to get a lot of balls back on this damp court.  Tsonga is going to have a long day if he tries to muscle through the court.  And you know Harrison is going to play his balls off.  That’s his nature.  It’s been only by a slim margin that he lost recent matches to very hot players like Federer, Murray, and Raonic.

We don’t think Tsonga or Simon are in that class.  Harrison, yet to have a truly big notch on his belt, will also have a good opportunity in the reverse singles against Simon because they are mirror image players, and grinders sometimes have matchup problems with guys who grind really hard against them, and we feel Simon is that type of player.  Harrison has young legs and a young spirit, and despite his lack of notches, you can tell he’s a true competitor and a smart player.  He has also improved a great deal.

As for Fish, who will ever forget the absolute American nightmare at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where he lost in the gold medal match to Nicolas Massu, losing after leading two sets to one?  Then the problem was that Fish was fat.  Now that Fish slimmed down and got with Stacey Gardner, he thinks he can play rally tennis and hits way more shots than he used to.  He had to improve his footwork and did.  But he still has to go for winners, and we don’t always see it.  The more tennis he plays, the more air seems to creep under that forehand.  Not a good thing.  And if he is tired coming into clay season, how can he expect to survive it and prosper?

Obviously a lot is thought of the French squad.  Vegas has them as the second favorite in the world group at (+400), second only behind champion Spain, at (+275).  But Vegas was counting on Gael Monfils to be the French B player, and with him on slow dirt in France, that is a lot to handle.  As it is, Harrison will go in and start things off against Tsonga in the first match on Friday morning.  We like his chances, and we aren’t as scared of France in this spot as we could be.  Everyone is going from hards to clay in this tie, and since America also did it in Switzerland against Federer and Wawrinka, we think they are in good shape.

It’s also nice to have the Bryans back together.  The Bryan brothers have never lost in the Davis Cup on clay (9-0) and are truly the linchpin of the American squad.

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

Mardy Fish (R.) with Jim Courier on Saturday, with whom his improved standing impart lies.

We’ve always liked the things Jim Courier has had to say, first as a commentator on USA Network, and now as Davis Cup Captain.  Starting with his first major remarks, way back to last year, when he captained his 1st tie in a suit and tie on a horribly kept clay court in Chile.  When asked why he didn’t cheer much, and why he wore the  real suit over the warmup suit, Courier said that his guys didn’t need a towel waver, a cheerleader.  What they needed was strategy, and that was why he was there.

Courier is more than strategy though.  He is a winner, a rock for our squad.  Recall in his first ever tie against Chile when Isner was robbed of a point in a return game in the 5th set of a rubber that would have given him 2 break points, when he had none previously.  But 15-40 became 30 all and within minutes, Capdeville had the break and Chile had the rubber.

Courier showed no emotion at all afterward, and did not so much as question the call that could have spelled out America’s demise.  What he would say was that in a 5 set match, Isner has to return serve much better.  No one, he said, could expect to win a match without earning a break point, calls or no calls.

That has been the difference between the McEnroe and Courier squads.  Courier is honest.  He doesn’t play the buddy game with guys who might need a kick in the ass.  Like Isner, who, on a worse clay court than in Chile, and against a better opponent in Roger Federer, managed 3 breaks of serve on an impressive 12 opportunities on Friday.  Isner is that much better, yes, and his Davis Cup experience has furthered his development.  Hard to imagine Courier’s affect on him in any but a positive light.  For that matter, we think it little coincidence that Mardy Fish has played so well since Jim Courier became captain, making his first ever YEC last year.   Courier was emotionless after Isner’s epic win.  He was almost stoic.  Courier was the person in that horrid muck bandbox who believed in Isner’s ability to win most.  And why would he celebrate any win in a tie that was still in its first day, far from over?

Courier knows winning and understands the urgency.  So when he inserted proven doubles player Mardy Fish, after Fish’s 4 hour and 20 plus minute rubber on Friday, to play with Mike Bryan, the move smacked of USA’s realization of the immense importance of that doubles match.  Very un P-Mac like.  We were never big fans of little brother, ever, whether as a player, a coach, broadcaster or what have you.  We will say that it wasn’t a question of work ethic.  And that P-Mac stepping in to coach Andy Roddick after he and John Roddick split, was also very good of him.  Though, with Roddick’s importance to DC, he didn’t have any real choice.

We think substituting Fish for Harrison was the right move and suggested it here on Friday.  Well, Fish or Isner, for that matter, since the last time Fish played tired doubles he left Bethanie Mattek-Sands hanging out to dry at Hopman Cup.  We also think Courier is the type to have less of a problem making that call than buddy buddy Patrick McEnroe, and that if he thought Fish tired, he’d have used Isner instead.  McEnroe was always very proud of the fact that players played for him, a big problem in DC and Fed Cup.  Part of the reason they played for him, he felt, was because he didn’t really ask them to do too much.  We see that point, knowing full well some top players have shied away from the international team competitions.  Others have played and then thrown their country under the bus.

But if we are to closely examine this, the players want to play and they want to win.  So if Courier facilitates that, then he is a good captain who will keep guys interested.  Let’s be real.  Fish and Isner both just had career weekends playing for country.  And if the Williams sisters were able to be whole last weekend and had it been a hotly contested tie, Venus, Serena, and all of the nation would have wanted them to take part in the doubles, they being the all time team they are.

Obviously this weekend was not a banner one for Federer, whose abilities were limited by the poor quality of the surface.  If you saw the doubles Saturday, you may have seen an absolute rarity: Federer swinging and completely missing on a ball (backhand).  We’ve always maintained and always will that clay is strictly low rent, and tends to work better for lesser talents.  That said, Federer needed to adjust to the court.  The player who did was Isner.  Isner played big man tennis and was prepared to do so from the start.  He stuck with it even after going down a set.

Was Roger unprepared?  We think so.  It seemed like he thought he could roll out of bed and win.  Last year we began to criticize Roger for his lack of participation in DC, and noted that Tsonga and Berdych, who defeated the great man at Wimbledon in successive years, both play a lot of DC and may have been better prepared because of it in a 5 set format.  This year, players who do not participate may find themselves without Olympic eligibility.  Federer, who has never won a DC, should be amply motivated to add the distinction to his otherwise stellar resume.  But he looked listless over the weekend at Fribourg, which might suggest that he was only there to satisfy Olympic eligibility requirements.  In fact, we thought it an extremely poor showing by the entire Swiss Tennis Federation, from planning to execution.  Why would they choose to play this tie on indoor clay?  Surface selection is the responsibility of the home team’s captain.  Severin Luthi, captain and Federer co-coach, put his team at a disadvantage by choosing a surface so incompatible with  its best player.  We do not espouse the logic that Federer would excel on that clay because he is Federer, likely the 2nd best clay courter of this era.

What is fact is that Federer had not played on clay since early June, some 9 months.  Federer went deep at Melbourne, and has been resting.  He hasn’t been practicing on bad clay as Isner and Fish have been, since their early Australian ousters.  Courier knows a thing or two about success on clay, and is the first American in the modern era to win 2 French Open titles, doing so in back to back years.  He is vocal about America and its lack of success on clay in recent years, and has confronted head on the perception that America doesn’t practice on clay enough to be successful, by practicing his guys hard on dirt.  If Federer looked unprepared, then Isner looked completely prepared, hitting several kick serves that bounced up over Federer’s head.  He knew the court and he liked the surface, and said so after the match, citing how slow courts actually work to his advantage because he has more time, tennis’s most precious commodity.

Luthi is a very poor DC captain.  He failed to enlist Federer in DC for so long, and now that he has him, has failed to get anything out of him.  Next to Courier, Luthi looks out of place in his Yonex tennis reds, but that is not the only reason he is looking bad next to Courier.  This tie should have been played in Federer’s home town, Basel, on hard courts where Federer has prevailed as champion 6 times, including last fall.

On a bad court, it takes more than just cursory practice to adjust, especially when switching surfaces.  While Federer has proven in his peak prime that he can go clay to grass without much warmup, he is no longer peak prime Federer and he wasn’t switching over to grass, where he has 6 Wimbledon titles.

Luthi seems to have benefitted much from his association with Federer, but has Switzerland benefitted that much from the association?  Luthi has kept his captaincy we feel, ironically, due to his friendship with Roger, while not even getting Federer out for Davis Cup.  The buddy buddy approach is not one you will see from Courier, and had it really worked best with Roger, we doubt he’d have hired Paul Annacone to do the heavy lifting.

America will play France in the quarter-finals on the first weekend in April.  While Roland Garros may be the venue, we expect the French to choose an indoor hard court.

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

2012 Australian Mixed Doubles Champion, and her war paint, Bethanie Mattek Sands (above).

After a great Australian Championships, where across the board the very best seem to have won things that would rightfully be theirs, America does not go away poorly represented.  Americans won majors in Mixed Doubles and the Juniors with some very worthy play, and very nearly saw the Bryans set the record for most career majors together, further cementing them as an all-time best doubles team.  The win would have given Bob and Mike their twelfth major together, 2 more than the all-time team of John McEnroe and Peter Fleming.  Unfortunately for the Bryan brother’s, who came up with a clutch tie-breaker and fought off a match point in the Semi’s, they did not make the shots and hit far too many second serves in a match that saw Radek Stepanek and Lenader Paes, who we met at the US Open and who was very cool, the career doubles slam.

The Paes team dominated on points and on serve, holding the Bryans to 0-2 on their only break chances.  But the Bryans didn’t play badly, and made only 3 errors in the match.  But they didn’t play well enough Saturday, and that is going to happen sometimes in doubles, because the game is moving so quick that you are not going to see a lot of chances to break, and poor serving better right itself quickly or else you are going to get blown out.  Make no mistake, the Bryans are an elite doubles team.  They have had sustained success, and have been essentially the best team for 6-7 years.  They are no doubt going to go on and get their twelfth major soon enough, and then beyond.

Paes and Stepanek were the better team on Saturday, by a little, but by enough, and by and by, had the better tournament on the whole as well.  Worthy Champions indeed.  And many would say Paes is getting all the credit due to the career slam, but Stepanek was a huge part of this team, coming up with at times brilliant tennis.  Here is a very smart player with a great deal of flair.  This may be a very good team going forward.

The Bryans get this criticism sometimes that they dropped 2 Wimbledon and French Open finals, and that they maybe should have seized those titles, but it would be crazy to doubt the Bryans well earned status as an elite team.  Everyone loses a few finals.  Sure we are disappointed whenever they lose, but in total, they have won 11 majors and been to five other major finals.  Very rarely does a team give us so much great doubles.  That is why real fans of the game have to be satisfied by all the tremendous doubles that we have been treated to by the Bryan brothers and the Williams sisters.  Truly phenomenal. The Bryans have also been the absolute lynch pin in Davis Cup, making the US squad a virtual contender every year, and playing and winning on the winning American team in 2007, also secures them as an all-time team, that may well be, at the end of the day, equal or better to McEnroe/Fleming, who played phenomenal tennis on their way to dominating the early eighties.

Taylor Townsend, the Girl’s Champion, the 14th seeded exciting American lefty, played very collected tennis when she needed to, and dominated at net, which she got to 23 times more than the 4th seeded Putintseva.  Aside from a period where she seemed to zone out, early in the second set, Townsend thoroughly outplayed the the very ill tempered Putintseva, who would not speak to reporters after the match.  Townsend is very athletic, and she plays the right way, which is refreshing.  Hopefully she is now considered a top prospect by the powers that be, i.e. Patrick McEnroe and Mary Joe Fernandez, because she soon needs to be on a very professional training regimen, with a top coach.  Might be fun, considering her style, that she get Tim Gullickson, who would encourage her to use the approach, which she does so well.  As for Putintseva, she has to grow up a bit.  She seemed to develop some kind of beef with Townsend, and the behavior was completely unbecoming on this stage.  The kid simply can not behave that way at a major final.  Good for Townsend, who we want to see more of.  She showed great poise, guts, and touch, and the USTA should now fast track her.

Then there’s Bethanie Mattek Sands, who we’ve, let’s say, assessed rather bluntly at times, but who we have also given her due, seeing her play some very brave tennis over the years, and making the utmost out of the talent she has by playing the angles, playing creative, and playing at net, the most exciting ways to play.  Sands became a major champion Friday, as she and the excellent Roumanian player, Tecau prevailed, with her doing more than her fair share, denying the very solid team of Paes and Vesnina in straight sets.  Sands played sick tennis, making several big crosses, on Paes’s serve, which many men failed to do throughout the fortnight.  This is very nice due for Sands, who has truly maximized her tennis, and who does her best to play an interesting, exciting match every time out, and who always maximizes her talent.  As we said earlier in the week, if you could put her brain into one of the younger, taller up and coming American females, then we might as a nation be taking the right to steps to get some resemblance of respectibility  as singles nation.  We are especially referring to Coco Vandeweghe and Melanie Oudin (though she isn’t very tall), though we must note that we also give due to Oudin for winning the mixed at the US Open.  She’s another one we’ve killed, but frankly, she plays tiny tennis.  She doesn’t try to win, and so, unless she is getting gifted 20 doubles by Sharapova or error upon error by Petrova, she’s not going to win.

Good job by this group to see that the nation had some noteworthy success at this major.  We enjoyed it.

Crack (https://crackbillionair.wordpress.com)

Stacey Gardner (left, above) and Ester Satorova.

Originally we were going to light up The Tennis Channel for it’s diminished coverage of our beloved Hopman Cup, which is a celebration of tennis, a multi-national competition sometimes decided by our dearly beloved mixed doubles–how novel–and the greatest of New Year’s pick me ups.  It is true that TTC only televised three sessions of the Hopman Cup, but in it’s quest to cover American tennis primarily, and with the blah team of Mardy Fish and Bethanie Mattek-Sands representing America, could we really blame them?  In this day and age, if you can’t find just about any tennis online live, you have no business criticizing the The Tennis Channel anyway.  But criticizing Fish and Sands?  That’s a cottage industry.

Well, if you hearken back to last year when John Isner–a winner–and Sands partnered up to win Hopman Cup XXIII, you couldn’t have been too displeased with Sands, who perhaps had no business tussling with Justine Henin, but who did pull her weight admirably in perhaps sharing with Isner in her greatest tennis glory.  And was it not a sight to see Justine Henin returning serve to John Isner?  Let’s face it, Sands is a middling player at best, a blight on our Fed Cup team, a high socked, neon dyed chubby little picture of bad fashion with the girliest popgun forehand in the women’s top 55, but she is not a disgrace to American tennis.  The girl gets doubles, understands well her limitations, and therefore uses the net, approaches as much as possible with nice touch at net, and again, she came through as much as one could expect her to last year to get USA her sixth Hopman Cup.

It’s not her fault that her meager game gets trotted out so regularly to horrible results by Mary Joe Fernandez.  That would be the USTA’s fault.  So when the Czech sounded the American death knell the other morning, and Sands got obliterated by Kvitova, as she should, and when Fish got abused by Berdych, as expected, we put no blame on Ms. Sands.  After all, the Americans were up a break in the second set of the mixed, and it was no fault of Sands that Mardy Fish blew about ten volleys in 4 games and netted four crosses in the exact same damned spot in the net.  As our mate Fred Stolle aptly pointed out, if Fish were tired from being beaten so badly by Tomas Berdych, that was not an excuse for dead legged tennis in the mixed, crossing like a kamikaze to blow volleys that the 12 year olds over at the NYJTL make regularly in the school yard.  Fred Stolle, who we only get down under and occasionally during mixed package major season, the first seven days of the majors, when we are very lucky.  Fred, why couldn’t you have stayed with ESPN back in the day and that hack Cliff Drysdale have gone?

Fish Fish Fish.  The worst thing anyone could possibly do is to put their faith in Mardy Fish in the big spot.  Now you might say, well, didn’t Fish win the bespeckled tennis ball with a driven Serena a scant few years back?  Yes.  But Serena is so great that she can make Mardy Fish a winner for a week, something we’ve yet to see anyone else do.  She carried Fish, she banged unreturnable serves to the men and women, and her presence on just about any doubles team has generally always produced medals and champion trophies.  It was lucky for Mardy that Serena likes bling so much, was healthy, and so motivated to get another blinged out tennis ball from old Lucy H.  For when Fish had the opportunity to take home the gold, he lost in five sets to…Nicolas Massu.  And he’ll never live that down.

And the excuses abound.  And that’s just tiresome.  Like hearing about Mardy Fish’s ankle all summer.  Let’s face it.  Nadal is more heavily taped up on a day to day basis by a lot, and he only wins majors.  While Fish is rationalizing to the cameras on Hopman Cup that at least Bethanie got in some matches.  Again, Sands is not the dominant player here.  When she won, it was Isner, and when Fish won, it was all Serena.  But can’t Fish state a grand intention for once, even if it’s only at Hopman Cup, where he is a past champion paired with the defending champion?  Instead it’s always like, ‘well maybe I can make the quarters.’

So we aren’t upset that America lost, considering the roster, and that so many other rosters were much much stronger.  Had a special eye on Bulgaria with our lad Grigor Dimitrov, the best up and coming one hander in the game, and Tsvetana Pironkova, Wimbledon’s mistress–quite a team.  BTW, Dimitrov did not look like a prodigy but rather, a prodigy realized, when he spanked Mardy Fish 6-2, 6-1.  Loved France with super talented one hander Richard Gasquet and two-hander Marion Bartoli, an utter hack but taken with Gasquet, a very diverse tandem.  And the Czech obviously were going to be heavy favorites because they were loaded, with Kvitova a given to win and Berdych sitting very pretty.  If the Americans could have actually stretched it out TTC would have shown us more tennis, but they still had the good grace to televise the final which we happened to catch last night at 4 AM, and despite the lack of drama due to the sweep and the no mixed match which would’ve been a hot contest, we got to see the dominant left hand of Kvitova, the dominant serve of Berdych, and the flair of Gasquet, one the game’s best shot makers.  Gasquet took the backhand early and made many beautiful backhands up the line, made incredible forehand return winners, making for a very interesting match which Berdych took 7-6 (7-0), 6-4.  Berdych is in fine form.  His return game was clicking, popping several huge forehands for winners in his own right, and even on the tacky blue plexicushion, we felt the indoor conditions made the court play extremely fast.  It was bang bang tennis, and both guys should get credit for going for shots, coming forward, and pursuing the attack.

A nice bit of warm spirit after the contest was when Bartoli came down to console Gasquet after the match, and when Kvitova came to congratulate and celebrate with Berdych.  This is a great competition and always has been, in the name of the great Harry Hopman who coached from Laver and Rosewall to McEnroe and Gerulaitis, and who stressed the serve, the overhead, and getting to net and sticking your racquet out.  Unfortunately from a sentimental aspect, the event has had its last run at Burswood, but is sounds like the Hopman Cup is moving to an even better venue in Perth’s new arena.

It’s no real comfort to America, but Fish goes home with Stacey Gardner, so obviously these losses aren’t sweated too heavily.  And Berdych to Ester Satorova.  Damn.  We should’ve had a battle of the tennis babes featuring those two.  But there’s still time.

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USA Federation Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez with tennis power broker husband Tony Godsick (above), who is part of Roger Federer’s management team.

After three days and 8 straight sets of losing tennis, America finally got on the board, taking the first set in doubles at the Porsche Arena in Stuttgart, Germany.  Too bad for our Federation Cup team, our national pride, and the state of American tennis that by then it was too late and obviously too little, as the team of Liziel Huber and Vania King still lost in 3 sets to cap one of the worst weekends in American tennis history.  Needing to win the tie to remain in the World Group of Federation Cup, from which we have never been relegated, Captain Mary Joe Fernandez trotted out an FC squad that did not boast one player of distinction, worthy enough to present a decent challenge to any members of the German squad, including world #156 Sabine Lisicki, who dusted Jersey native Christina McHale in mop up duty yesterday, filling in for Julia Georges, who would have been, at that point, risking her health unnecessarily by continuing to play in a tie that was academic, a glorified exhibition, but one that featured less talent than an actual exhibition.

That’s right.  Playing America is now unnecessary.  The Americans are irrelevant in the women’s game, led by Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, who not so long ago had her contract extended for another two years.  Has the team’s production on the court warranted an extension?  It’s debatable, but we certainly do not think so.  Fernandez, part of the dazed and confused American tennis establishment, is the first captain to ever preside over a relegated team in the history of the Federation Cup.  And we’ll give her little credit for reaching finals in her first two seasons, and losing, but more credit indeed because of the power her husband wields behind the scenes in the game, which in all likelihood, in combination with her profile as an ESPN tennis personality, is what got her the gig.  Because she certainly didn’t win the job on the basis of her success as a player or coach.  In 2010, we especially fault the American squad for losing the championship tie on “hardcourts” in San Diego to Italy.  But in part thanks to Fernandez, California doesn’t have any real hardcourts anymore, and so the ladies played on a track of soft blue foam (the dreaded Plexicushion) that gave the Italians as much of an advantage as the prior year when America could not take one match at Calabria, Italy on outdoor red clay.

How do we get around to blaming Fernandez for everything from California’s putrid tennis courts to the quality of our Fed Cup teams that have failed miserably and continue to do so, to the point that we are out of the world group?  Easily.  She’s the captain.  Not only has she been the captain for 3 years, but before that, she sat at then captain Zina Garrison’s obese elbow for a good year, playing Stan Laurel to Garrison’s Oliver Hardy.  We are tired of it all.  Fernandez obviously endorsed and worked with a Garrison led group that produced zero in terms of titles and developed no meaningful players.  That’s what we mean when call her part of the establishment, for you do not get the captaincy if you do not support the horrid regime that came before you, and the horrid surfaces that big business looks to slap down.

The nonsense about Serena and Venus not playing?  We’ve had enough.  The Williams sisters, when young, led us to our last two Fed Cup titles in 1999 and 2000.  Then they lost interest in the FC, their commitment to it, and the competition.  People want to blame the sisters for that, who had been there and done that.  Part of the whole ‘Let’s rip Venus and Serena for having fashion lines and enjoying the limelight’ craze that swept the nation and still reverberates in some circles.  What people do not get is that the sisters never burnt out on tennis, and continued to play their asses of at majors, in singles and doubles, regardless of any and all outside factors, even when injured.  For players who have won the Federation Cup, or the Davis Cup, there is no legitimate criticism that can exist should they have reasons for skipping the competition.  And while we have criticized Roger Federer in this space for skipping Davis Cup regularly, despite being coached by Swiss DC captain Severin Luthi, Roger obviously has himself a plan to win majors, and Davis Cup runs counter to that plan.

So our body of incompetent tennis minds here in America, with which even we are associated (proud USTA members, LOL–the deals on tennis tickets are too good to pass up!), chooses Garrison, another loser, to guide our squad.  Why?  Because they thought that hiring a black woman would give them a leg up on convincing the Williams sisters to play.  That’s just plain racist.  Frankly, the Williams sisters have a lot more respect for great tennis minds than they do for black women.  Just ask Asha Rolle.  Instead of blaming the Williams sisters for making choices appropriate for their careers, the USTA should have been working a lot harder on developing talented players like Venus, Serena, and Lindsey Davenport–who aside from the Williams sisters, is the last American female to win a title of any sort, as far as we can recall.  And she won it as a ghost, fresh from retirement, further highlighting America’s lack of meaningful young talent.

Yesterday comes news that Venus Williams has withdrawn from Rome and Barcelona, citing her lack of readiness.  There’s no real time table on Serena, and while we know she will return, any projection would be optimistic considering the travails she has endured since cutting her foot.  At least she is up and about (click on the link above to see her and a friend on South Beach recently).  So basically, we are stuck with this piss poor Fed Cup squad and its captain.  Mary Joe Fernandez is not a winner, but is a better politician than Garrison.  Patrick McEnroe, a much worse tennis talent than both, also owes his job to television, politics, and probably a healthy dose of nepotism (his brother lobbied for his appointment, though John John probably wouldn’t have him on his list if you asked him right now, after seeing the state our game go unchanged for years) .  These are the people in whose hands the national tennis program and developmental programs rest in.  Thankfully, Patrick McEnroe has stood aside and Jim Courier, a real winner, has taken on the captaincy of the Davis Cup squad, and is off to a great start, defeating Chile in tough conditions.  As you can tell, we don’t give Patrick McEnroe any credit for squeezing 1 DC title out of a team that boasted a 1 time #1 in Roddick, 2 perennial top 10 guys in Roddick and Blake, and the #1 doubles squad–a huge advantage in team competition.  We should have won more.  But at least McEnroe, roundly criticized, even by big brother John, had the sense to pick fast tracks to play on as the host nation that are advantageous to Americans and our style of tennis.

Fernandez gets no credit.  She’s been around this team for 4 years and we’ve seen all we need to see of Oudin, McHale, Vandeweghe, and the like.  People want to shower MJF with praise for spotting these players, but these players would go unnoticed anywhere else, with good reason.  They have no talent.  They are grinders who can not even play on clay.  Pop gun players who can’t serve and have no true tennis talent.  What is the population of Germany?  How is it that our top player can’t take a set from any decent German woman?  How is it that none of our players could even make the German squad, who was also competing to avoid relegation?  This is not a Steffi Graf in her prime led German team.

McHale, for a nice run she made at Indian Wells last month, will get some buzz, but if she is the young face of our game, we need a makeover.  Fast.  Forget Venus and Serena.  Act like they don’t exist.  Oudin?  Since that summer where she played way over her head, she hasn’t existed.  We need new blood, new ideas, new coaches, new courts…and a new captain.  Probably the best young American, Alison Riske, who separates herself from her poor pusher peers with her big serve, is not a product of the USTA, but rather, a kid who came up playing in the Pennsylvania high school system.  Exactly John McEnroe’s point when he denigrates the work that his brother is doing, the state of the American game, and the homogenization of the American game which is now one dimensional baseline half tennis.

Since Fernandez won’t be fired, especially with a new pact in hand, here’s some advice for her: pick Decoturf, a surface which will speed up her players’ 80 mph 1st serves and slow groundstrokes.  It’s the national surface for a reason, and Americans play better on it than any other nation does.  And feature the girls with actual potential, like Lauren Davis, Riske, and Sloane Stephens.  McHale and Oudin haven’t exactly done wonders for the nation.  Riske at least has a bigger game and a bigger frame with which to cover the net, and Davis and Stephens have expectations in place, and are used to dealing with expectations, as they are the only true budding pros we have of note.  We’d also probably put a veteran doubles player like Craybas or Mattek-Sands (when healthy) with Huber and work on locking up at least 1 match in every tie.

For future reference, the captain does not need to be a woman, and if it is, it needs to be a woman with a real winner’s pedigree, which means, probably not an American.  Richard Williams has produced the two greatest American women of our time.  He should be on the short list.  As should Monica Seles, who is a fixture in the game and who actually commands the respect of young players based on her merits.

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Isner and Mattek-Sands (above), champions at Hopman Cup in Perth.

Roger had a little trouble with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Doha semi, who seems to come to Australia and always play his best tennis.  Tsonga, a big man, really capitalizes on the two month break and is always at his best when he’s fresh.  Sure Roger won the first set easily, and had to take the second in a breaker 6-3, 7-6 (3), but Tsonga has the game to challenge Federer, though that challenge was only slight yesterday as Federer continues in fine form.  The great man was again barely challenged this morning in Federer/Davydenko XVII.  Davydenko, who dusted world #1 Rafael Nadal in straights Friday, got dusted by the great man for the 15th time in 17 encounters, 6-3, 6-4 in little over an hour.

And we’re gonna take a sec to toot our own horn here, because in last month’s piece about Roger and Venus, we mentioned the fact that a healthy Davydenko is a bad matchup for Rafa, and well, what we saw in our crystal ball came to pass some 6 or 7 days later.  But this is primarily about Roger, of course.  The great man takes his 67th ATP tournament victory in his 95th finals appearance.  Those numbers are a testament to Roger’s brilliance and consistency over time.  Federer has been serving lights out on the Plexicushion, only broken once so far in 42 service games leading up to the final.  Today Federer won a staggering 40/51 points on serve, and faced no break points. 

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This is not to say that Davydenko did not play well.  He played to a very high level, but could never mount an offensive against Rog, who we will repeat, appears in his finest form since 2006.  With more results in and more time to analyze, it would appear that Paul Annacone has focused on Roger’s serve, and impressed upon him the absolute necessity in holding serve.  We haven’t seen Federer throw in more than 2-3 bad service games since October, and he dominated Nadal on the strength of his serve, and agressive first strike tennis at the YEC in London to end the year.

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Next stop for Fed is likely the Kooyong Classic, a well run Melbourne exo where Roger and a few other big names usually get 2 or 3 matches in.  Remember a few years back that Federer lost to Roddick at Kooyong, and then demolished him in the AO semi-final, as the great man obviously keeps a few tricks in the bag until he hits Rod Laver.  Andy Murray is also expected to show up at Kooyong, and it could be interesting to see Roger playing coy with the other Andy there.  Speaking of Murray, the lad completely out-classed Giant John Isner in the men’s portion of the final B tie at Hopman.  But thankfully, Bethanie Mattek-Sands had already clinched the Americans spot in the final with a trouncing of teen Laura Robson.  As for Isner, he only managed 2 paltry aces versus Murray, who set the tone in the match’s first game with an easy break of Isner’s serve.  The Isner serve, gigantic in terms of MPH, was no problem for the quick reflexes of Murray, who dialed in to Isner’s serve very easily, and on some returns, took the ball close to 2 meters inside the baseline and struck 1st ball return winners.  We aren’t quick to praise Murray who we despise for his passive style, but as Fred Stolle remarked, Murray delivered quite a wakeup call to Isner, and illustrated vividly the difference between world’s #4 and 19.  If Isner doesn’t play aggressive first strike tennis on the Plexicushion, which is a hard surface to hit through on, he has zero chance.  Murray moved the ball around, and the lumbering Isner was the one on the defensive.  Murray tired Isner out with side to side rallies, and executed several almost perfect drop shots that left Isner frozen in time.

In the end, no cause for alarm for the Americans, who faced Belgium unexpectedly in the final, because the group A leaders, Serbia, had to drop out of contention due to an aggravated stomach muscle suffered by Ana Ivanovic.  There are no injury replacements permitted in the Hopman Cup.  Though Henin gave quite a lesson to Mattek-Sands in the first match of the tie, clinically dispatching her, Isner shook off the loss to Murray quite nicely in defeating Belgian youngster Ruben Bemelmans.  As is often so fascinating with Hopman Cup, the tie came down to the mixed portion, where you have Giant John Isner serving to one of the greats, Justine Henin, giving away a foot and a half to the American.  Unlike Serena, who has carried the US to several Hopman Cup titles, the best female could not elevate her squad to victory this morning.  Isner and Mattek-Sands defeated the Belgian team, and we are very hopeful that they will remain paired and take a run at the mixed title in Melbourne, where the AO begins in 8 days.

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In Brisbane this morning, Andy Roddick overcame a loose second set and a very powerful opponent with a big serve, South African 24 year old Kevin Anderson, who played his college ball at the University of Illinois in Champagne.  We have seen the poor returning Roddick have big difficulty with big servers, notably John Isner in the round of 16 at the USO, and of course Roger Federer.  Anderson served big, and kept Roddick off balance with his pace, which prevented Roddick from taking control at the net.  In the 3rd set, Roddick made an important adjustment, following slice backhands in, which travel slowly and give him the time to set his feet at net.  Good to see from Roddick, who doesn’t always have a strong plan B.  Roddick took out Anderson in 3 sets, and played the majority of the big points better than his opponent.  Roddick looks to be in great physical condition, and may have dropped a few pounds.  As the match wore on, he seemed like the guy better able to be at war, while fatigue seemed to creep in for the young Anderson.  Dandy Andy will take on Robin Soderling in the final tomorrow (Soderling easily straighted Radek Stepanek earlier), and we love Soderling’s game over the past few years, and figure he will be favored going in.  We’ll pull for Roddick, but we are figuring on Soderling having too much pace and being too aggressive for the safer Roddick to stay with.

By the way, our woman Brooklyn Decker was looking very casual next to Roddick’s ace coach, Larry Stefanki, in the player’s box.  We also well await the Decker/Jenni Mostrom matchup tomorrow morning.

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