Justin Gimelstob


imagesJustin Gimelstob (above, r.), who went big time, with sickening Jay Leno.

We did not think Rafael Nadal played very well in his much ballyhooed return to the tour on South American clay, as we watched him labor to beat Jeremy Chardy 6-2, 6-3 in a mid round match.  The score line may suggest relative ease, but that wasn’t the case.  The match took 1:31, a long time for a match to go in which you only drop 5 games, and Chardy had plenty of chances to make it even closer.  The rallies were long–too long for Nadal who is still out of shape–and Nadal drifted well beyond the baseline, practically playing many strokes with his back against the back wall.  And then there was the stalling.  Nadal was called, given warnings, for not serving within the allotted 25 seconds, which frankly, is always there when Nadal plays but seldom called.

A lot is being made over Nadal’s win in the final last weekend in Brazil over David Nalbandian, but one day before, Nadal was mere points away from being eliminated, down a set and fighting for his life in the second set breaker.  And that was against world # 91, poor man’s journeyman Martin Alund, who is now 27 and has zero titles in zero finals made.  We’d say that Nadal does not look good here in this return, and that had he returned for the Australian Open, he would have probably had a bad showing.

We were all over Justin Gimelstob that week on Twitter in the first week of Nadal’s return in Chile at Vina Del Mar, with good reason.  Gimelstob, a Nadal sycophant, seemed to have a list of Nadal talking points he wanted out there, which we have no doubt came from the star himself.  Like how Gimelstob urged that the chair use discretion when calling the time code, and how people were wrong to assume Nadal was stalling because of his knees when he routinely abuses the code as ritual, because Nadal likes to, as he explained, ‘really think through strategy between points.’

Really?  Because a guy that misses 7 plus months due to injury and who has chronic knee problems which have kept him out of 3 majors since 2009, would really raise the ire of an announcer when it is suggested that he stalls because the guy is lame?  By the way, we find Nadal’s one more ball back/heavy topspin forehand to backhand strategy completely simplistic and elemental, and the suggestion that Nadal is doing all of this thinking is insulting to us as real fans.  Especially when we feel that enforcing the time code is an important step that the chair has made collectively to improve the game.  Really, who in the game does not enforcing the code help other than Nadal?

Then you had Gimelstob state that Nadal is “one of the best doubles players in the game”, which, when considering the disservice that playing doubles at IW did to his career to follow, and how Gimelstob lauded Nadal for winning there, conveniently omitting the fact that Nadal has not even set foot on a hardcourt since, is questionable at best.  Nadal is a very talented doubles player, and we’ll not argue that.  But doubles has decimated Nadal, as has Plexicushion, and for everyone to pretend this is not the case for the sake of a constant Nadal love fest is disgraceful.  As is Nadal for missing a major in order to practice on clay instead, though if again, he is shaky on clay, it does not bode well for the rest of his game.  It’s nice that Nadal, at the age of 25, has finally figured out that Plexicushion is ruining him, but to say he’s needed a brick to fall on his head in order to realize as much would seem totally accurate.  It would also be nice if a high profile commentator like Gimelstob, who was himself an attacker, would acknowledge that Nadal’s constant grinding, inability to hit winners consistently, and necessity for long points has been essentially Nadal both living and dying by the same sword.  This is where we feel Gimelstob, who burst on the scene as a big time commentator due to his honesty and unabashed enthusiasm for the sport, has taken a back seat in recent months to announcers like legends John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and Jim Courier, who we thought for a while he was set to surpass.  What Gimelstob should have said was that Nadal’s doubles prowess has come at the expense of his singles career, because his job is to do more than throw out hollow platitudes, by offering more substantial commentary to the hardcore fans who are watching match to match on The Tennis Channel.  Because what match in, match out fans of the game are really sitting there marveling at Nadal’s doubles ability in the wake of him missing the entire US Open, Indoor, and Australian seasons, when the guy has zero doubles majors to his credit?  What a John McEnroe does in providing meaningful commentary is to point out that Nadal’s excellent hands at net, which he seldom showcases in singles, could be a boost to his longevity and might serve to prevent him from breaking down so much if he could find a way to be more intrepid.

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But therein lies the rub with Gimelstob, who, we assume in his role as an official ATP guy, is looking to divorce himself from controversial, i.e. honest stances.  Guys like Nadal and Murray, who are talented net players, but who only approach net a handful of times per match have essentially rendered that skill moot by way of ignorance, and so wouldn’t it be more relevant for him to talk about why these guys would squander such ability due to under use?  Instead, we hear Gimelstob pushing Nadal’s agenda, which is to suggest the YEC be played on clay, rather than questioning Murray’s lack of initiative, we hear him talking all about Murray’s new apartment in London.

A guy like Boris Becker, who shoots straight as an arrow, has even been heard to criticize the great Roger Federer.  Martina Navratilova, as solid in the booth as they come, has panned players like Murray and Wozniacki, labeling their failures and the correlation to passive play as “the same old story.” She has labeled Nadal’s injury woes as “the same old story.”  These announcers have done something serious by denouncing the style of play, and in Nadal’s case, have connected the style of play with the physical toll, which Gimelstob disservices us by failing to admit exists.

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Gimelstob doesn’t have the star power that they do, making honesty all the more precious a commodity for him, though he has definitely lost it along the way somewhere.  In fact, upon reflection, we’re happy that we were not subjected to this type of hack announcing from Gimelstob, who was noticeably absent from the AO ESPN mix channels coverage.

So Nadal plays perhaps his worst match on clay ever in that final and loses in a 3rd set breaker to Horacio Zeballos, then around world #73, and it is obvious to any true fan of the game that this is not the same indestructible clay court Nadal we have come to expect.  Gimelstob essentially tiptoed around the issue, another real disservice, we thought, to the tennis world.  As it would be to play the YEC indoors on clay, as indoor clay is the height of tacky, the most bush league a move there is, reserved for clay court specialist team tennis nations and the Porsche Cup at Stuttgart, which is a high quality surface in exactly zero arenas, and in most cases, is just clay heaped carelessly atop a hard wood, like the surface upon which John Isner, who we don’t see ever beating Roger Federer on an outdoor clay court, upset Roger Federer in Fribourg in February of 2012.  And frankly, we recall Federer’s back tightening up in that match, which we attributed to traction issues.

The next week, Nadal is set to play doubles with Nalbandian, and withdraws due to “knee overuse.”  The finals loss and the subsequent doubles withdrawal, coupled with the fact that playing doubles helped put Nadal in this predicament in the first place, was a huge tennis story, and we commend honest reporting like Matt Cronin’s, who was all over the withdrawal, calling it one of the strangest bits of phraseology he could ever remember regarding injury/non injury propaganda.  But then Nadal goes on to win Brazil despite the showing against Alund, which now seems a non a issue.

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Today the story broke on Twitter regarding Nadal skipping Indian Wells, which Nadal already refuted, since putting out a statement through his camp that he ‘intends to play.’  Nadal has not played on hardcourts since IW in 2012, and at this point in the season he is usually playing on hards, but obviously this year he has played exclusively on clay.  If he missed a major where he was a defending finalist, why would he risk playing at IW in the Masters Series, with relatively little at stake besides points?

We think Nadal is playing coy when he says he ‘intends to play.’  We think he said he intended to play Melbourne, and how’d that turn out?  It seems to us that Nadal is trying to pull it together to play the soft court season only, and that like last season, he will barely keep it together through Wimbledon.

What would Gimelstob think of that?  We think we know already,though we don’t expect him to tell the truth.  We think Gimelsob is, at this point, resigned to seeing Nadal on a limited basis, and that he feels a little Rafa is better than none, which is probably why he has been on the shill for a clay court YEC.  One thing you can’t fault Gimelstob for is wanting Nadal back at a high level, as it is good for the sport, which is why we are always outraged when players who can go skip majors, as we do not think that is good for the sport or show’s the proper respect to the majors that they deserve.  Instead of getting together with Nadal to disseminate propaganda, Gimelstob and Nadal should deliver the bad word about Plexicushion and other soft hards, which beat the hell out of the players worse than anything, while promoting bland, timid, reaction tennis and one dimensional defensive style tennis.  Since Roger Federer has already announced that he will skip Key Biscayne and it’s tacky, bland, frustrating Defense Pro soft hardcourt, which frankly, we feel plays worse than fucking Lenglen and Philippe Chatrier.

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A couple of years back during the US Open, Roger Federer, sitting for a panel interview, on one of those nights where the tennis ended way too early, found himself basically in the midst of an “Ask Roger” sort of segment, as ESPN prayed for time.  One of the questions that came was who he liked to watch play.  I guess Roger wasn’t in the mood to compliment any of his fellow men, which reminded me once of an interview I saw where Notrious B.I.G. was asked which rappers he listened to.  “Slow Jams” was all he’d say.  Roger had said that he liked watching Svetlana Kuznetsova play tennis.  The panel was somewhat surprised.  When they pushed him for more, the great man said, “she knows when to hit her shots and hits the right shots at the right time.”  Later on in that event, Federer’s comments were repeated to Kuznetsova.  The lady was in shock.  Not a mild shock either.

Earlier, while the AFC Championship was played (so sorry New England!), and as the Rangers were getting killed, we were spying tennis scores, and saw that Wozniacki and the Federer favorite, Kuznetsova, were going to a deciding third set.  Obviously Wozniacki has a conditioning advantage over Kuznetsova, who has never been mistaken for a hard body, and the slow Plexicushion also favors Wozniacki a bit, even if it is a bit more quick this year because in deference to copious player complaints, Laver Arena was not repaved, and as you may or may not know, the older a court, the faster it plays.  Why is that, you ask?  Because as a surface loses its jump, the ball bounces lower, and low bouncing balls skid nicely through the court.  Doug Adler, perhaps our most favorite announcer, at least this fortknight anyway, since we keep missing Justin Gimelstob, talked very candidly of the court on Saturday night during Gasquet-Dodig, of how the outer courts were not repaved or else, were not repaved with any grit in the top layer, which also reduces the friction on the ball, causing it to move quicker.  And Adler also said that in some places, they have still not been able to get up the old Rebound Ace, and that those spots are essentially more dead, causing for quicker points.  Leave it to Tennis Australia to better the game via its own inefficiencies for irony.

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Sam Querrey had said earlier in the week that these courts this year were the fastest hard courts he’d played on in “a long time.”  Federer had said that in his estimation, the courts are playing at least 10% faster.  We’d have to say we’ve noticed.  Many big servers and hard hitters have been able to out muscle their opposition, namely Maria Sharapova, never confused for a finesse player, and as Adler said, where and when have we seen Serena hit her top serve bracket (129-131 MPH) with such regularity.  Now we’d be rooting against Wozniacki no matter what, but considering all there was to consider, we wish we’d have bet Kuznetsova, who we were certain was going to come out on top in that 3rd set on Laver.  Unfortunately for us, we missed the post time to wager.  And also unfortunate was that the 3rd set went 75 minutes, and the coverage went from the very dignified team of Bill Macatee and Martina Navratilova to the ESPN team of Patrick McEnroe and Chris Evert, as at 9 PM EST, TTC loses their right to cover matches, and at that time, the deuce gains theirs.

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At a few minutes to 9, on a brilliant play by Kuznetsova, who does know when to hit what shots when, she pulled Wozniacki way out wide, forced a hand off of her racquet, and came forward to knock off an easy forehand volley.  Perfect tennis.  At that stage, the match was about 90 minutes long, and the graphic flashed that Wozniacki had only 4 winners on the forehand side.  Navratilova, who also respects Kuznetsova a great deal, and not so much Wozniacki, called the Dutch Miss’s situation “the same old story”.  How right she is.  Wozniacki, like ESPN2 on a US Open short night, just prays for time.  Kuznetsova closed that game out on the next point, seeing that the Dutch Miss was a good 2 meters beyond the baseline, by drop shotting, forcing Wozniacki to scramble forward, and then coming up with the easy pass.  These type of plays make up the play book against Wozniacki, who hates coming in, and who hates taking her hand of the racquet on the backhand side.  Navratilova has some very interesting perspective on Kuzentsova’s game, a pleasure to hear her share really.  As Martina tells it, when Kuznetsova was very little, her parents, at some event where Martina was, asked the star if she could take a look at the young girl, and tell them what she thought of her game.  Martina liked her so much, that they would play doubles together when SK was a young teen.

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And then we switched off the tennis to catch Bernard Pollard rock Stevan Ridley’s world and sink the hopes of Patriot nation, and when we came back to the tennis, TTC was done, and we had to deal with PMac and Evert, who spoke not a word of Kuznetsova, practically, while they gushed for Wozniacki, predictably, who they kept calling “gutsy” and “a fighter.”  And, who is a loser.  At one point, we nearly had to throw up, when on an important second serve which Kuznetsova needed, she went to an 82 MPH kicker, got it out wide, and when the next ball came back mid court, Kuznetsova jacked an opposite corner forehand, and then approached, and hit a very nice half volley forehand winner, Evert exclaimed, “Kuznetsova took a chance right there.”  Um yeah.  It does often work for players with talent, Chris.  We long for the days when Evert was out of vogue, shuttered up in Florida with The Shark.

The match came down to that very atittude in essence.  Kuznetsova made 23 of 25 net points, while Wozniacki made 8 of 19, and “Koozie”, as Martina affectionately refers to her, hit 52 winners to the Dutch Miss’s 21, and Wozniacki has now stretched her run of futility all the further, despite being a terrific fighter, but as we know in tennis, it’s tough to fight with pop guns.

Set your Tivo for tonight at 3 AM EST to see some real attack tennis, when Raonic gets his latest crack at Roger, who he has yet to beat in 3 tries, but the matches have been really close.  Each of the 3 Fed wins were best of threes in which Federer has narrowly won in 3, and they have already played 4 tie breakers.  We see it as being a very tight match for both guys, though Federer is moving like early prime Federer right now, and frankly never ceases to amaze.  Too bad we have to ride out the rest of this tournament without the great announcers on the mix channels, as ESPN moves into exclusive coverage this week.  Hopefully they won’t show a poor women’s match during Federer-Raonic like they did with Fed-Davydenko, especially compelling because of the stunning turn around in their last meeting in Melbourne, when Fed took a bathroom break and then won 14 game straight.  And, hopefully they will not show a loop of Raonic-Federer after the match ends, instead of live tennis, like an advantage set between Monfils and Simon.

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Last week in Toronto, Venus Williams put in her best week of singles work since before the Sjogren’s disease, falling to Li Na in the semis, the eventual champion.  Great to see Venus playing good tennis, with depth and precision off both wings, and her trademark cat like quickness moving inside the court.  Venus told a reconfigured ESPN panel of tennis announcers (about time they shook things up, but Jimmy Arias?  Really?) that she first started to feel like herself in London for the Olympics, even though she went out in the 2nd round of singles, in straight tie-break sets to the very hot (you have a dirty mind if you are not thinking tennis!) Angelique Kerber.  Venus told the panel that despite that loss, she felt like she had her groove back, and “thank God because it’s the Olympics and the Olympics are so so huge.”  And then, ho hum, another Olympic doubles gold for Venus and Serena, making for 3 Olympic golds, all totaled, now in her vast trophy case.

The Olympics as huge is not always a concept we particularly embraced.  Like when Elena Dementieva tried to pass off her major-less career as something more because of gold in Beijing, saying that it made her a celebrity in Russia, and blah blah blah.  I mean, that still is not too impressive to us, as we don’t think too many players were all that upset to lose out on that gold.  But that was Beijing.  It is a shame about Dementieva, who anyone with any heart at all had to feel bad about by the end of the day, and her failed plight for a major.  She really was a very notable big time player, making many major semi-finals, losing the French Open final in 2004 and the US Open final that same year, and twice losing in the doubles final at The Open, to boot.  But how bad can you really feel for a player who can barely break 85 MPH on a first serve?

The Olympics at Wimbledon is another story entirely.  Especially, when played so close to um, Wimbledon at Wimbledon.  What we have seen in tennis this year was an incredible phenomenon with what was essentially an extended grass court season for the top players, who did not need to scurry back to clay or hardcourts in between SW-19 and SW-19.  A lot has been made about the cheesy purple cloak around the grounds of The All England Club, and we’d make the point that definitely, Wimbledon did more for the Olympics than the Olympics did for Wimbledon.

We’d also have to note that conditions are different at SW-19 a month after the major and that those conditions played a role at the Olympics.  Like slippage, for one, and brightness, for another.  We’ve never seen Wimbledon so bright and sunny.  Or so slippery.  We’d say that a guy like Tomas Berdych, a former finalist, going out early, constantly losing his footing, in that match with Steve Darcis, who we think had never beaten a top ten player before, was certainly affected very greatly by conditions.  As dozens are routinely at Roland Garros every year.  You have to deal with conditions.  Period.  Darcis was the more mobile player, he had his footing, and you could really see, in that match, that the ease of motion we associate with the one handed shot played heavily into Darcis’ favor.  Since the lawns were very chewed from the major and hadn’t had time to replenish naturally, the groundskeepers had to lay new sod down and that sod didn’t always hold best, especially on the outer courts.

When Serena laid waste to Maria Sharapova in the gold medal match, all the more impressive because Serena, between claiming her 5th Wimbledon crown and her 1st singles gold medal, went out to Stanford and grabbed another title at the Bank of the West, doing all that extra travel, and pulling the surface switch twice, from grass to hards back to grass.  Serena was rightly hailed for her double gold, and the American media, usually at odds with Lady S, came a crawling back to her camp.  Indeed, they had found amid their bias a minute’s break from bashing Serena as a poor sportswoman, except for her dancing that is, to make these arguments that she had never played better, was a woman among girls, and all the other nice stuff they only get around to saying when we are in heated competition for medals with the entire world.

The same standard by which the US media has feted Serena has been used to denigrate Andy Murray for his most impressive showing at the London games.  It’s simply not fair.  Murray is 0-4 in major finals and almost all are quick to point out that if he was going to beat Roger Federer in a Wimbledon final, then he picked the wrong one to do it in.  Nothing could be more obvious.  But to label him a modern day Nicolas Massu?

The Olympics are a huge accomplishment, especially at Wimbledon, and a tremendous feather in Murray’s cap.  For one, Murray proved he can beat Federer in a best of 5 set match.  Prior to the Olympic gold medal match, across three matches, Murray had managed to take just one set off Federer in best of 5 set play.  And two of those matches were blowouts.  Murray also proved that he could beat Federer on grass in best of 5 set play, joining a very select club.  A mature Federer has only lost to Nadal, Berdych, Tsonga, and now Murray in that type of setting.

Murray blew out Roger in the gold medal match, handing the great man his most lopsided straight 3 set loss since the Roland Garros final in 2008, when Nadal steamrolled Federer, with whom Mono still lingered.  We don’t know if Federer has ever been blown out like that on grass.  Murray deserves many kudos for this showing.  Federer had also announced his intention to compete in the London games, and obviously win the gold medal, during Wimbledon in 2007 and 2009.  We loved Federer coming in to the event, feeling that Federer is even more dangerous when he has the confidence to announce his intentions.  Especially when those intentions are stated so far in advance.  We’d also note that on the eve of Wimbledon this year, Federer considered himself the favorite, and then had his best semi-final and final showing at a major since his last win, which was Melbourne in 2010.

The press has cited Federer’s fatigue going into the final because of the semi-final marathon with Del Potro, which went to 19-17 in the 3rd set.  It was a factor, for sure.  But this talk of Murray owing his gold to Delpo is just silly.  First off, Federer did not take care of business.  He threw in a nervous service game and got down love forty at 10-9 when trying to serve it out.  Does the final play out differently if Roger gets done with his work 17 games earlier than he did?  It’s a moot point because it is on Roger.  Murray saw fit to dispatch Djokovic quickly in that spot, and he was the fresher for it and it was well deserved.

We’d also like to point out that for some of the players, guys like Roger, Murray, Djokovic, and Del Potro, who stayed on grass the entire extended season, from mid June through the Olympics, we really got to see how it played out between the very best players on the very best of surfaces.  For that, we are so grateful for the London Olympics having the foresight to play tennis at The All England Club.  As we always tell you, the Wimbledon champion for that year is the champion of all tennis, today, tomorrow, and obviously, historically.  It is why they call Wimbledon “The Championships.”  Grass accentuates all that is truly great in the game: the graceful, the bold, the mighty, and the true talent, skill, and artistry that can only be mastered with hands and footwork, and not marathon grunt work.  Wimbledon, the opposite of Roland Garros, favors grace over grunt.

So many times over the course of the event we heard our man Justin Gimelstob exclaim that we were watching “the perfect execution of power tennis.”  Like with Tsonga-Raonic, Federer-Isner, and Federer-Delpo.  For Murray to play aggressively enough to win an event staged at Wimbledon, beating the guys who he did, means not only did he up his usually meek game considerably, but that also, he played perfect counter attack tennis on a very fast grass track.  Did anyone notice the forehand redirect he hit, in the 2nd set, business end, versus Djokovic, which was essentially a half volley he hit for a winner from the middle of the baseline?  And only dropping 7 games to Roger Federer?

Sorry, but that’s major.  So give the kid his due.

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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.

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The deadly Milos Raonic serve (above) which produced 14 aces today.

We are kicking ourselves this morning after just having seen Canadian wunderkind Milos Raonic upset world #4 Andy Murray at Sabadell in Barcelona, 6-4, 7-6 (3). Last night we had identified the match in which Raonic was +300 as a potential upset, though we were reluctant and did not pull the trigger. We were of the mind that Murray, after going toe to toe versus both Djokovic and Nadal last year on the dirt, and with the addition of Lendl to his camp, simply moved too well for a Raonic on clay at this stage.

On clay it is very hard not to take the better mover, but clay is changing. How many times in recent years have we seen power surprise us on clay? We all recall Sunday Bloody Sunday, our affectionate name for the day on which Soderling outslugged Nadal. We’ve also seen big men like Del Potro and Isner excel on clay, both seriously tussling with Nadal in DC and Isner taking Rafa to 5 sets at RG, the only time that’s happened.

So after a breezy first set of tennis in which Murray did not get a single sniff on the Raonic serve, we knew it was uphill sledding for Murray, who simply could not dial in for any real traction. Raonic has very wisely gone about his business since leaving the American “hardcourts”.

Not many North Americans rolled out to MC last week but Raonic was there, and though he lost in the 2nd round, he got 2 matches in. Spaniard Galo Blanco should be a tremendous asset in preparing the kid for clay. The coach has been that this year. Taking Raonic to Spain to train has been a successful tact for many looking to beef up on clay, including Andy Murray, today’s loser, and Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won at Roland Garros after a hard spring spent training in Spain.

Raonic has improved laterally, but what the kid does best aside from serve is think the game and keep to plans. As much as a 6’6 kid improves his side to side, you aren’t out laterally moving Andy Murray. The kid hit serve bombs and loaded forehands, playing the match on his own terms. Once he had the 1st set, you got the sense that Murray was in big trouble and he was.

Raonic is an excellent front runner and he has legs on clay, winning four matches in straights this week, 3 against specialists (Falla, Andreev, Almagro).

We had him against Almagro, liking the line very much (+200). Too bad we hesitated last night. A little too much credit we afforded Murray, who we had pencilled in for Sunday’s final.

Now we know that Raonic’s style, well described by our man G-Stob as “blunt force trauma”, is ready to keep on red clay. Raonic may even play through to Sunday’s final, especially since at the moment, David Ferrer is struggling mightily with Feliciano Lopez (6-7, 3-3). Raonic has trouble with the pesky Ferrer, though we would like to see that matchup revisited, especially with Raonic playing so well.

Raonic’s victory today was his first ever against a top 5 opponent. First of many to come. We look forward also to seeing Tipsarevic-Nadal today. We took a flyer on Tipsy at a whopping +1500.

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Heavyweight champion of the world, Victoria Azarenka (above).

We could not have been more surprised with Saturday’s semi-finals which yielded the Federer-Isner final.  Isner has been giving the big three all they can handle for the last few years, and with wins over Federer and Djokovic this year, he has truly earned his way into the top ten.  He’s a kid who plays to his strengths amazingly well.  Usually, you feel like the Americans, both younger and established, don’t play to their strengths very well, don’t really think matches.  Isner does.  He went 70 services games without managing a break in one set of tennis, but he also held serve 72 straight times, in that same set of tennis.  Frankly, the question on him is the movement.  He was not moving his feet a few weeks ago against Kevin Anderson, but that was still a good result for Isner, in Delray Beach, and the margin was very slim as it was.

Isner is playing well.  He is moving those feet.  Beat Djokovic?  Get your due.  Beats Djokovic, actually winning while losing on points by 11.  Managed one break of serve in the match, but made it stand up.  And he played the big points better.  With shot making.  The Federer-Isner matchup is still very much a bad matchup for Isner despite the recent win he had over Roger in Davis Cup.  Federer woke up to Isner, and there was blood in the water today, with the champ smelling a very nice win and paycheck.  Isner doesn’t do that well against guys with good serves.  Most of that 6’4, 6’5 set can all pound the serve and stay with Isner.  Federer is that kind of player too, locating the serve or hitting with pace, but Isner has only broken Federer a handful of times, lifetime.

So that’s a good quality win for Roger, who we think may be on a high right now.  Obviously, the win over Nadal is a nice win for him.  Hadn’t beaten Nadal on an outdoor hardcourt since 2005.  It’s hard for us because we’ve always maintained that you can’t read in a lot to a Masters Series win or loss, for a Federer, but who can’t say he wasn’t playing well at the last few events where he won shields or YEC’s.  Was he not playing absolutely lights out when he won Cincinnati in 2009?  Now we all thought he’d go right on and win his 6th US Open title two weeks later, but he couldn’t pull it off, playing a sub par final, for Roger.  There’s not even a major leading in this time, but he is also playing lights out right now.

We don’t think Nadal was tired.  He wasn’t match tested prior to this week for a little bit, and sometimes in best of 3 finals after a layoff, or even prior, is that kind of time when Nadal might lose these days, when he’s not losing to  guys not named Djokovic.  Nobody is sharp enough to beat him head to head at a major, from what we’ve seen.  I mean, Federer has not beaten Nadal at a major since 2007.  If not Federer or Djokovic, then who?  David Ferrer.  He’s been a better four than Murray in our estimation, in certain resepects.  Ferrer plays  extremely hard and never comes out ambivalent or uninspired.  For that matter, Ferrer has been much better than Federer in the last 5 years at the majors against Nadal.  So he gets that respect.

If Murray played his defensive style gung ho, or played consistently aggressive, either one, he would push Federer for #3.  But Murray is caught in between.  He doesn’t think matches either.  And really, Federer has been incredibly hot, making it harder for Murray to get traction in the ratings.  Federer has now won three events in a row and there’s got to be a different feel around the Federer camp about his ability to do something.  In a couple of the last few years, Federer didn’t win a tournament at all until much later in the year.  Federer is playing so well on his own serve, you have to wonder if he doesn’t feel the magic.  Unfortunately, there’s not a major coming up, but we think the belief will be there when he faces off with the heavy hitters at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  He’s looking very dangerous right now, which probably some Federer fans might have felt was never happening again.

So way to go Roger.  By the way, doesn’t it seem like, at moments like this, there is a pattern at play when Federer does get the better of Nadal?  Really, this very angle on getting to Nadal is why Federer brought in Paul Annacone, and it has to look like right now things are working quite well with the coach.  Federer, here and at the YEC, did not let Nadal expose his backhand, by hitting everything to Nadal’s backhand.  If Nadal can’t get to Fed’s forehand then Federer is hitting a lot of forehands, and when he isn’t he is ripping the backhand at Nadal’s backhand.  Finally, Roger is playing with a discernible game plan against Nadal.  When he does this, he plays very well against Nadal.  But usually, he doesn’t do it for more than one set at a time, if he does pull it off.

Federer is in the mix big time at the next three majors.  He has to be very confident that he can pull off a record 17th major win, and we’d love to see it.  We knew he was playing well, but this kind of well has us thinking big.  You have to wonder a little bit how Roger is going to translate onto clay next month.  But we have a long view of this.  He hasn’t played this well probably since he was number one.  And serving and hitting this weekend, with the wind like that, is also very encouraging.

We also have to wonder about how Victoria Azarenka, now 23-0 this year, translates onto clay as well.  She lost to eventual champion Li Na at Roland Garros last year, and in the final to Kvitova in Madrid in a tight match.  She also won a minor tournament.  She is playing with such confidence.  She is playing so great, muscling the field from right on top of the baseline, without even muscling serves.  She will probably be very tough to beat on clay as well, and we don’t see the field as overly dangerous right now.  And she thinks a match too, unlike Sharapova.

Sharapova has been horrible against Azarenka because she can’t get around the fact that she is getting out paced in a pace war, and has no discernible plan B for when a player out paces her.  Sharapova was thoroughly beaten.  Look, Sharapova’s not great at all.  Like Wozniacki was at one, Sharapova at two is a measure of the weakness of the field.  If this field was completely healthy, we don’t see Sharapova as a top 4-5 player.  She looks dejected against Azarenka and she should.  That is where the two players are at.  Sharapova’s penchant for keeping two hands on the racquet is killing her against Azarenka’s pace.  Azarenka is stretching Sharapova out on her backhand and Sharapova has no slice to fend it off with.  She must’ve had close to 40 errors today, and they were many times backhands into the net.  She only won 43 points in the final today.

Sharapova held serve only 3 times today, and was broken 6 times on 12 BP’s allowed.  They weren’t even loose serve games either, like they usually are with her.  She had something going with her serve down the tee.  Azarenka is that good.  She is a ball crusher.  The mph’s that Sharapova’s serve is down post shoulder surgery makes her serve simply ineffective against most power players who are good first ball return players.  Then, in the rallies that extend, Azarenka is pushing Sharapova left to right, and then stretching her out on the backhand.  Azarenka is a beast, sure.  Still, Sharapova must improve if she wants to win more majors.  Top competition can do the things that Azarenka does to destroy Sharapova.

We still would like to see Kvitova have her sot at Azarenka.  But there was no doubt that victory today, as well as Azarenka’s entire year, have been extremely dominant, and a beauty to behold.  And Indian Wells was pretty good this year, so we’re sorry we told you to stop watching it.  You know we don’t like Plexicushion, but it was a great event this year, and TTC’s coverage was excellent all week.  It’s a shame we didn’t get to hear Davenport and Gimelstob on all the men’s and women’s matches.

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Guillermo Garcia Lopez (above), slicing and dicing Andy Murray with the one hander, all the live long day.

It was our viewing pleasure to watch the pride of the isles, “the best world #4 of all time”, Andy Murray Saturday in his latest travail.  On successive Saturdays, Murray excited us with his losses, and we say to that, kudos!  About the best #4 nonsense, know that is no title we attached, but rather, something that we think Doug Adler’s partner of late, Sam Wilder (?) has been trying to make stick to sell soap probably while feeding into the great Andy Murray hype machine.  We don’t like Murray.  Never did.  Never will.  But sometimes we have to root for him, like when he plays Nadal.  Since we have to root for him at times, we’d like to see him play the kind of tennis he needs to in order to win.  We’d like to see him lean forward when he strikes his forehand, so that the shot has the full weight of his momentum.  One thing these guys should learn is that cute does not win big.  Must we recall Federer getting cute with Nadal on that drop shot toward the end of the second set last year at Roland Garros?  Or Federer blowing a threw the legs volley against Safin down under in 2005?

Cute doesn’t win.  So when Andy Murray draws a guy in and that guy is to be a lame duck at net on a conventional pass, and Murray tries to throw up a fancy lob when he has an entire alley both cross court and up the line, well, then there’s a moment where you say to yourself that Ivan Lendl in the kid’s box has to take that out of the playbook.  The opponent, GG Lopez, is not exactly a little man at 6’2, and going with an offensive lob in a night match subject to desert winds, is simply not very bright.  This play, one of the very few in the entire match dictated by Murray, which he lost when Lopez slam dunked the lob into the crowd, was everything wrong with the old Andy Murray, which he has supposedly shed like bad skin.

We know better.  It’s very hard to squeeze a yellow streak out of player.  Make no mistake about it.  Djokovic was a pussy, and that was a mental issue, and not a tennis issue.  Djokovic plays brave tennis.  His body and mind had to leave the pussy behind, and they did.  Murray is a different story.  He has never played brave tennis.  He’s a puke.  And since he is so good against the average guy, he rarely has to play brave tennis, and so he really only tries to play brave against Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer and aside from some small successes and moral victories, he hasn’t been getting it done against those guys.  The Lendl I know was like Djokovic.  Didn’t play soft tennis, but he was soft, and so he found a way to become hard.  Murray is physically hard.  He’s a great athlete, and at any given event, may be the best conditioned guy present.  Lendl is trying to adjust the kid’s style of play, because as our good buddies Justin Gimelstob and Doug Adler always say, backboard tennis is simply not good enough at the top level.

So TTC cameras kept showing Murray’s mum and Lopez’s team, but I don’t see Lendl anywhere.  This Wilder (?) guy talked and talked like Lendl was in the coaching box though, or, as if Lendl is God’s gift to coaching and that now Murray is a veritable terminator.  Then the cameras focus on Darren Cahill, decked out like a clown in crazy colored Adidas attire, and the announcers casually mention that Lendl isn’t there, again, and so Murray wanted Cahill there, because he can call on any coaches in the Adidas stable.  Now, we joked last week that Cahill was perhaps the only coach around worse than Murray’s mum and so that’s the guy he chooses, the worst pusher hack coach available, who we could imagine telling Murray it was a good idea to pussy foot around with Lopez and hit lots of balls to his backhand and keep the rallies going because a guy like Lopez will break down.

Clearly it was what Wilder (?) thought, who kept implying, broken record, that Lopez was not going to be able to sustain the level, and then almost creaming when Lopez went down love forty in about the 6th game of the 1st set.  But Adler gritted his teeth, clearly not a good match chemistry wise with this annoying fuck, and when Lopez had dug out of that hole and when about an hour later, had a 6-4, 6-2 victory, we were as gratified as Adler at the fact that a classic one hander, a shot maker, had stepped up and that backboard tennis wasn’t good enough, not even against the world #98.

While we don’t like Murray, we are past the point of hating him.  His tears in Melbourne 2010 sort of humanized him for us in a way, and we get all the pressure that comes with being perhaps the first Brit since Fred Perry to do something in the game.  We’d have been thrilled regardless of who the pusher was and who the glider was on Saturday night.  But Lendl is off globe trotting to exos while his boy, in a week’s time, went from hot back to hangdog.  And Cahill, who comes from a different school of thought than Lendl, if you can call it that, is presiding over this horrible loss.

Lopez played brilliant tennis.  He had reasoned out that Murray’s game plan was not to try to win, but to make less errors than his opponent.  So Lopez did not make any errors.  Lopez went backhand to backhand with Murray and did not break down.  When he could take the ball early, he ripped the one hander and had Murray scrambling.  When he couldn’t, he sliced the backhand, totally neutralizing Murray.  He even hit a clean winner off a slice backhand, which was possible because Murray guessed the wrong way, and Lopez was all over it.

A lot of times, really big name guys don’t get totally into the commitment aspect of coaching on the tour.  It seems like Lendl is that type of guy.  You can’t even describe Indian Wells as a minor event if you tried.  5th major?  Nonsense.  There are four majors, and that 5th major talk is frankly disrespectful to the history of the game.  But how is Lendl not here for Murray?  Murray needs a full time coach.  We never sound any alarms when guys lose in the Masters Series, because for all of that nonsense ‘kinda major’ type talk, it was just one match.  But we see some things breaking badly for Andy Murray, and he needs to pay attention because he is not a major champion and he is very unlikely to change that at Roland Garros or Wimbledon.  His youth is vanishing, and we feel, given his propensity for the yellow streak, he is far from a lock to win any major ever, and may go out with a fat zero by his name.  If we had to bet on a number of majors for him in fact, we’d happily take zero.

Less of a problem for our lefty love, Petra Kvitova, who somehow lost to American Christina McHale last night.  Kvitova has the hardware, for one.  For her, a slump is more permissible.  Sure, she hasn’t played great tennis, and has little business losing to McHale, but McHale is making her name as the American Radwanska after all, is she not?  We don’t think it’s more than a little slump.  It’s not like an Ivanovic slump where she wins the major and then goes underground.  Kvitova won Wimbledon, then didn’t have the ideal summer, but ended the year as the veritable number one, winning the YEC and the Fed Cup, virtually unbeatable the final 9 weeks of the year.

We think Kvitova might have figured on winning down under, and that loss to Sharapova was a bad shock to her system.  In our minds, she was a big favorite in Melbourne, and she had been virtually untouchable coming in, and could not have been quivering at the thought of taking on that field.  We can’t argue against Azarenka right now, who has definitely proved she earned the ranking.  But we will remain resolute that Kvitova is the better player of the two, and we’d expect that to begin to bear out again on clay the way that it had on indoor hards at the end of 2011.

Kvitova is a better clay courter than Azarenka, and probably, like a lot of people, she can’t wait to get off these tacky American slow hardcourts.  BTW, just saw Mardy Fish get finished off by Matthew Ebden.  Good of Mardy to put a youngster on the map like that.

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