Bjorn Borg

The all-time greats, Borg, Sampras, Federer, and Rod Laver.

Well, if the master hadn’t handled the student today.  Roger Federer, seizing on a quick indoor Wimbledon center court, on which he made only ten unforced errors, played the perfect grass court tennis match pretty much, in dispatching Novak Djokovic, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3.  Federer put his big serve to use, pounding second serves, where he also had a decided advantage. Federer won 72% of second serves, and that really got him out of almost all of his deep service games, in clutch fashion.  And when you think about clutch serving and Wimbledon, you have to think about Pete Sampras. Now Federer-Sampras comparisons are nothing new, but the twilight Federer-Sampras comparisons, we feel are very useful in demonstrating how, well, major they are.

The gameplan with Annacone all along was to get back to the top on grass, because that’s where serving and attacking take to the best.  Here they are.  And there Annacone once was with Pete Sampras, on the verge of a 7th Wimbledon title and what was then a record would be 13th major.  For Federer, it’s a Sampras tying 7th trophy, if he can get it, and 17th singles major.  That’s why we don’t see a lot of pressure on Murray in this spot, despite the fact that a British man has not won here in so long.  Since the Wimbledon champion is also commonly known as the champion of tennis, we think it fitting for Federer to be the 7 time champion of all tennis, pretty much the one record in major history that is most cherished and respected.  Murray doesn’t have the pressure on him that Federer does, though Murray is probably feeling it, and must relish a final without Djokovic or Nadal in play, to boot.

But here is where we think Federer has a good chance to come through.  Sampras had a few cracks at US Open trophies late in the game where he had gone out and played six great matches twice and then didn’t get it done in the finals, against Hewitt and Safin, younger guys.  We think in this older-younger matchup, Federer has a decided edge because of service.  Once again, a situation, as well, where Federer has not played one single match against Murray prior on grass.  Or clay, that we are at it.  For shame.  We would love an extension of grass court season, such as the one we will see this year with the Olympics being held next month in London, with perhaps a Masters on grass, at a state of the art place like Halle.  Because it’s better tennis.  We love our attack tennis, and that’s why we feel Federer is in a tremendous spot to handle Murray here and pick up the hardware.  Murray is not an attacker, and despite some big serving, we don’t see him as having the right makeup to attack Roger Federer on grass.  Djokovic is by far a better grass court player, and Federer handled him magnificently today, despite being outplayed at net by Djokovic, we might add.

I think we see the full fruition of the Federer-Anacone partnership right here.  Federer serving his way to major titles.  And it will be another similarity between Roger and Pete, that they came out and served well in big spots late in their career.  We’ve seen Federer capitalize on Murray’s inabilities to claim his most recent majors at Flushing and Melbourne.  In fact, we haven’t seen Federer pick up a major against anyone of Djokovic-Nadal calibre in quite a spell, recalling that the last four majors Roger claimed were against Murray, Soderling, Roddick, and Murray.

Roger must capitalize on this opportunity.  And ultimately, his durabilty, and his laterals are what gets him in this position, and of course, timely serving.  We have always slightly favored Pete because of what we perceive to be lack of clutch factor in Roger’s major finals, letting many nice opportunities go by the board, and unconscionably losing to Nadal in Melbourne on Plexicushion.  It’s why Roger needed an Annacone, and we see the influence on what Roger is doing, and we’ll see it on Sunday, we feel.  Annacone has essentially taken Roger’s two best shots, his serve out wide and his serve down the middle, and made them the staples of his gameplan.  Annacone, in his capacity as Captain of Great Britain’s Davis Cup team, worked intimately with Murray for a few years and no doubt has quite a book on the kid, who we feel is going to feel the enormity of the spot and the matchup/surface disadvanages.  At the heart for Murray, is a refusal to play attack tennis, an achilles heel for Murray throughout his career, which should certainly be exploited by Federer, best perhaps on these courts, where attack tennis should reign.

Federer only has to play the opponents who advance to play in the finals.  If he can do that, based on his overall excellence and longevity, he is going to have his chances sometimes against guys who might be tailored made for him at a given time.  Personally, we think it would take a lot for Federer to lose.  This is the opportunity that he lives for, and coming up with the goods against Murray has never been a problem, not at least at a major, where Murray has yet to break his cherry against Federer.  This is looking like vintage time warp Roger, circa 2007, and if he can find this level now, he may be able to find it a few more times before the lights go out.

If Federer wins Sunday, he would tie Sampras for 7 Wimbledon singles titles, and 12 US Open and Wimbledon titles, combined.  If Murray wins, he will become a first time major champion and the first Wimbledon winner from Britain since Fred Perry.

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Lady V in her grass court whites (above).

Venus Williams fought hard in her 3rd match back from the hip injury that has seen her out of action since the Australian Open.  But in her quarter-final today at Eastbourne against Daniela Hantuchova, she dropped a 3 setter, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 in 2 hours and 23 minutes.

For Venus, who proclaimed she was “here to win” over the weekend, the outcome is not a total loss.  In her 3 matches this week, Venus got in about 5 and 1/2 hours of court time, and now gets 3-4 days to rest up before the main event begins. 

For Hantuchova, it was a monumental win–her first ever–against Venus, who is now 10-1 against the Slovak.  Today’s match makes us recall the 18th career encounter between Bjorn Borg and Queens’ own, Vitas Gerulaitis, when Vitas notched his first win ever against the Swedish machine.

Gerulaitis walked into the press room straightfaced, after that matchup in Palm Beach, and said “Nobody beats Vita Gerulaitis 18 times in a row.”

Vitas is missed.  As was Venus.

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10 PM EST…

The champ, Francesca Schiavone (above).

Ladies Semi-finals Odds (Thursday, 9:30 AM, EST)


Na Li:  + 170

Maria Sharapova:  – 210


Marion Bartoli:  + 145

Francesca Schiavone:  – 170

We love Schiavone.  And how rare to have a two handed player, forehand and backhand, versus a one-hander on the women’s side.  Schiavone goes for her 13th consecutive win at Roland Garros, where she has developed the “it” factor.  Her intangible qualities far outnumber Bartoli’s, who is probably going to be the home town favorite.  Though it is hard to imagine the crowd taking to someone more than they have to Schiavone.  As for the match, the slow clay is to Bartoli’s advantage.  It gives her more time to change her stupid, gangly double fisted hack grips.  And she’s well conditioned, for her.  We’re grateful to her for upsetting Justine Henin at Wimbledon once upon a time, giving Venus a virtual walk in the championship.

We’re wrong all the time, but we can’t see the ultra fit Schiavone losing this match.  Maybe she loses to an ultra jacked up Sharapova in the final, or some other storyline plays out, but we like Schiavone to be in the final on Saturday morning.  As for the prop betting, Schiavone is favored to win in 2 sets (+ 125/ + 275) and 3 sets (+ 250/ + 350).  If anyone has a bit of lag from Tuesday’s tight 3 setters, we’re betting it’s Bartoli, who may have chased off some of the baby fat, as she is known to do from time to time, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to beat a far more tested and conditioned player in Schiavone, who is just a natural on the clay.

As for the other match tomorrow, Sharapova is still standing, and while we knew she’d flatten Petkovic, we are really surprised that Azarenka couldn’t do the job.  Not that Li Na is any slouch.  She’s super well conditioned, and a very tough cookie indeed.  Standing up to the Chinese Tennis Federation took great guts, and worked out well for her to boot.  But neither player is a clay courter, and we could see picking Sharapova here, which is the sexy pick.  We’d be surprised though, if we weren’t surprised in some way by this match tomorrow, though we’ll stop short of picking Li.  Li has won the last 2 matchups in straights, on grass, and interestingly enough, Sharapova won the last matchup on clay, here at the French in 2009, and it was a shaky shoulder Sharapova.  Li does seem to have improved, as did Sharapova, from her 2009 form.  Keep in mind the better mover on clay usually wins.  That’s all we’ll say.

As for the men Friday:

Rafael Nadal:  – 575

Andy Murray:  + 425


Roger Federer:  + 240

Novak Djokovic:  – 300

We’ll keep an eye on these lines, which we can see moving quite a bit.  Especially Nadal’s line.  We won’t say much, but we’ll say this: we told you not to count out Andy Murray.  BTW, could you believe those quotes from Rafa about not expecting to win, and not enjoying the game, that it’s been too much work?  Didn’t we hear the same from Borg and Wilander, once upon a time?  Such is the life of a grinder, and we’ve been saying Nadal would max out at 24, but that said, we wouldn’t be surprised if he is biting trophy Sunday.  In fact, there is no outcome on the men’s side that could surprise us.

All four guys would make worthy champions, and 2 already have.  We’ll get you the odds changes as they come.

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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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2011’s only undefeated tennis player, Australian Open Champ Novak Djokovic.

A few words placed well.  Roger Federer was plus 450 on the money line this morning, with Rafa coming off at – 700.  Never have we seen a line like that.  We didn’t touch it, but as always, we liked Federer, and we didn’t think he played that badly.  It was a very good 1st semi-final, and Roger verified some things for us.  He can still mount a charge, even on clay, and we think he looks good going into Rome and Roland Garros.  And had he got in a few more first serves in the second and third set, he definitely could’ve beaten Nadal.  You’d never hear differently from us anyway.  The real story here is that Novak Djokovic extended his undefeated streak in 2011 to 31 matches with a tough win over Brazilian clay court specialist Thomaz Belluci, who, upon watching him this afternoon, we thought, wouldn’t it be neat if he ends up in Nadal’s draw at RG?

Bellucci had everything but the staying power.  And now Novak Djokovic has some pretty big milestones in his sights.  For one, the world is yet to see Djokovic take out Rafa on clay.  Will the time come tomorrow, or maybe in a few weeks in an RG final?  Wouldn’t that delight?  Well, the odds makers don’t seem to like his chances.  In the Mutua Madrilena Masters 1000 final tomorrow,  here are the current odds:

Nadal:  – 300 (wager 300 to win 100 plus initial wager)

Djokovic:  + 220 (wager 100 to win 220 plus initial wager)

We don’t think too many people are expecting Djokovic to best John McEnroe’s record out of the box in 1984 of 42-0.  That would likely mean that Djokovic wins tomorrow and wins RG, and wins Rome of course, too.  But if Djokovic can get that first win against Nadal tomorrow on clay, then he likely moves into 2nd place on the all time best start list, because he’d be 32-0 and could then tie Bjorn Borg’s 33-0 start, in we believe 1975, by winning his first match in Rome.  Either way, we have high hopes for the Serb.  We think the odds are good that if Djokovic and Nadal have to square off 2 or 3 times here in the coming weeks on clay, including at Roland Garros, unless of course Roger decides to intervene, that they will wage a war of attrition on themselves that can’t be bad for Federer this summer at real majors, and which could lead to an upset of Nadal at RG.

Last year, Nadal did not drop a set on the dirt.  Already this year, he’s dropped two.  Andy Murray had a downright regal hour and a half against him in Monte Carlo, and Roger held his own today.  If Djokovic’s hold/return numbers stand up in the dirt the way they do on soft hardcourts (he wins something like 90% of his service games and 42% of his return games), and Nadal labors a bit (he looks a little weary running down those droppers), as he did not last year, then we certainly shall see.  Starting tomorrow.  Here’s to a classic clay court match.

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Captain Jim Courier, John Isner, Andy Roddick, and the Bryans (above, from left to right).

This weekend Andy Roddick finished what he started in impressive fashion, thumping the 2004 double Olympic gold medalist Nicholas Massu on Friday, and then clinched the tie early Sunday with a come from behind four set win against world #165 Paul Capdeville on a very impressive slow red clay court in Santiago, Chile.  Roddick, widely panned for his clay court prowess, was broken exactly once in each match.  That’s not to say he played dominant first strike tennis.  Roddick, who has grown tremendously as a player on clay and as a guy who thinks a match out–2 of his lesser abilities historically–showed off both skills on Sunday.  After dropping the 1st set to Capdeville on grotesque and horribly slow red clay that groundskeepers watered on changeovers, Justin Gimelstob, who The Tennis Channel was too cheap to send to Santiago, said from an LA studio (so low grade!) that Roddick had let his opponent grow too comfortable and would have to change his tactics.  Such a pronouncement 3 or 4 years ago would not have sat too well with the close Roddick observer.

First time captain Jim Courier did not bat an eyelash.  In fact, the proven winner and distinguished major champion, showed nothing but calm the entire weekend, even when Roddick’s opponent Capdeville, in his match Friday versus Isner, seemed to at worst cheat and at best display questionable sportsmanship at a critical stage of the fifth set on a break point which he lost.  Isner hit a winner from the back of the court which Capdeville did not play, claiming he heard an out call.  Right.  We were extremely annoyed.  It was a classless move on the part of the Chilean, an obvious ploy that we’ve seen tried on occasion by the desperate, but which we can’t really recall a big league chair buying.  Enter Friday’s clown show.  The chair called the ball a let, and Isner who couldn’t buy a break point all match, literally, until that point, didn’t get another.  Gimelstob once again provided the dead on commentary, reading our minds by taking the poor returning Isner to task.  G-Stob called Isner’s return game a glaring weakness, noting that the big man could not cry about calls when he generated so few opportunities for himself.  About 1 game letter, Isner began to cramp, and once his legs had tightened up, he was basically done, but he did manage 4 holds in the decisive 5th set, and with the stolen break, would’ve won the match.  In fairness to Isner, the kid shows tremendous promise, has steadily improved since taking the tour by storm out of the NCAA’s, and is the American who most deserves the Davis Cup Singles B role.  Unlike Sam Querrey, Isner shows excellent killer instinct, a volleyer’s touch, and doesn’t shrink from big moments.  Isner has had several breakthrough wins while Samurai Sam has yet to notch any of note, especially at the majors.  America’s only other option, world #15 Mardy Fish, is also someone we aren’t comfortable seeing in James Blake’s B role.  Fish is a very bad big match player.  If he was ever going to beat a Chilean in the big spot, it would have been at the 2004 Olympics where Massu bested a then chubby Mardy for the gold.  We don’t put a lot of stock in Olympic tennis for the sake of its actual tennis importance, but as an American sports fan, we don’t give Fish the option to lose to a Nicholas Massu with gold on the line.

Back to Roddick, who stayed level throughout a tense second set that really was a must win for both guys.  Roddick blew a late break chance, shook that off, went into the breaker and then blitzed Capdeville, getting out to a 5-0 lead which carried him to the set win.  It was all down hill from there.  Roddick dominated the last two sets in uncharacteristic fashion.  He had managed only one ace through 3 sets.  Roddick, who tends to play a passive style too much these days, was on the ‘perfect’ surface for it.  He gave up the net and counter punched to perfection, hitting more winners off of his usually defective backhand wing in one match than we can otherwise recollect.

Roddick has long been due a re-appraisal by the stubborn Andy-can’t-play-on-clay faction.  He’s come through plenty of times for America on the dirt, and more times than any other American in the storied history of Davis Cup, now having clinched 12 ties (5 on the road).  And Roddick has played several fine matches at Roland Garros in the last 2 years, making the round of 16 in ’09, which is something many doubted he’d ever do.  In our opinion, Roddick might be the best player of all time who has only won 1 major, and had a guy named Roger Federer never came around, Andy would probably have several major titles.  Losing 4 major finals to Roger Federer is nothing to be embarrassed about.  Roddick is one of few guys to ever have been #1, to have won a major, a Davis Cup title, and to have been in the top 5 for 5 consecutive years.  And unlike Roger, Roddick always seems to turn out for country. 

You all know of our devotion to Federer, but you should also know we try to tell it as we see it.  It doesn’t sit well with us that Federer abandoned his country’s Davis Cup squad.  We know his arguments, and we understand them.  He needs to pick and choose, he can’t risk too much exposure in a non major setting…we get it.  But Nadal can?  A frequently hobbled Nadal usually doesn’t duck Davis Cup, and to his credit, he has a championship to show for it, as does Roddick.  Federer doesn’t take Davis Cup calls from Severin Luthi, one of his own coaches, and while the rest of the men’s tennis world is sliding around on disgusting mud courts, Federer is hob nobbing with Pete Sampras and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles (below). 

Again, we get it.  Federer is the all time mens singles major champion with the Swiss flag behind him, so what does it matter that he doesn’t have a DC title?  A tennis purist would say it does matter some.  There is no definitive greatest player of all time, and everyone from Borg to McEnroe, Sampras, and Nadal have won the DC, and in most cases, had at least one title they were the impetus behind.  The only greats we can think of that have not won the Davis Cup are the ultra selfish and loutish Jimmy Connors, and Federer.

Perhaps Federer, like Connors did, will feel the hole in his immortal resume, and come back to Davis Cup in his twilight years.  And unlike Connors, Federer is great enough to pull off such a thing and win a late DC title, maybe even into his early 30’s.  Maybe Federer has lost a bit of his ‘major edge’ because he isn’t as tested in Davis Cup lately and in the best of 5 set format as the last 3 guys who have beaten him at majors, Soderling, Berdych, and Djokovic.  As for the other Jimbo, our new skip, Jim Courier, we are ecstatic to have him (especially over the hack that is Todd Martin), and he must be ecstatic that Roddick takes his calls.   Let’s face it.  Courier is a winner.  He’s been there and done that.  Chile in a mud storm in front of the worst tennis fans this side of France while getting potentially tie deciding bad calls does not phase him in the least.  Not only does Courier play the same style, more or less, as the top American singles players, but he was a better player than all of these guys, and has greater insights about top tier tennis than the former DC coach, Patrick McEnroe, who had less talent than Courier, less desire, a lesser work ethic, less athletic ability, and we think, a lesser mind for the game in general.  We think it’s not a coincidence that the national junior program is foundering with PMac at the helm.

Next up for the US squad will be Spain in the quarters, about one week after Wimbledon concludes.  Before anyone gets around to anointing Spain, let’s all keep squarely in mind that home countries have an enormous advantage in Davis Cup.  In Courier’s first home tie as captain, he will decide the venue and the surface which as yet, is unannounced.  The surface is sure to be a fast hardcourt, and though there might be attendance concerns, in a play from the British play book, we think it would be very wise to consider Flushing Meadows for the tie, the way that Britain tries to play their ties on Wimbledon’s centre court.  America always chooses hards, and for a few years now, have only had the pick off-season, choosing slick indoor surfaces in Baltimore, Birmingham, and Austin.  You can’t really play this thing indoors in July.  Should the Americans opt for a more intimate setting, we think Cincinnati would be perfect.  The Cincinnati Masters Series has long been considered the fastest outdoor tournament in the world.  We can think of no recent Spaniard who’s had any success there. 

Also, we love the dynamic created by forcing the Spaniards to play on fast hards in the shadow of Wimbledon, especially if Nadal goes deep at SW-19.  In fact, we can hear Nadal crying about the turn around and surface switch from here.  Don’t be surprised if he asks out.  If he doesn’t, we look forward to seeing him finally clash with Roddick on a fast hardcourt, and we like our other guys as well versus the Spaniards on the hards with stars and stripes flying.

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