Paul Annacone


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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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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Australia’s Serbian born Marinko Matosevic (above), playing for his first ever tour final berth today in Florida.

Can’t say as we’re surprised and not delighted by the morning’s result, with Roger claiming his 5th career title in Dubai, and his first since 2007 with a 7-5, 6-4 victory in 1:37 over Andy Murray. For Roger, the title is his second of the year, second consecutive title (Rotterdam), and 72nd career tournament victory. Yeah, we were all over the action this morning, as we hinted last night, as it is certainly a most rare opportunity to lay the theoretical shekel on Roger Federer at so close to an even money line (-135). It was also most rare, of late, when Andy Murray had occasion to break the great man, in the 18th game of the match. Federer allowed 3 break points today, and saved two, but that was well more than yesterday when he neither faced nor allowed any against Del Potro. In fact, prior to Murray’s second set break of serve, the great man was not broken since the quarters in Rotterdam, a six match streak without being broken.

We’ve definitely noticed that Federer’s serve is beefed up, not just in the last two weeks either. Annacone has definitely impressed upon his liege the importance of making serve games stick, which was the hallmark of his former liege, Pistol Pete. As for the Federer-Murray matchup, the rivalry has seemed to dip decidedly towards Roger, with him taking 5 out of the last 7, all on hards. In fact, all 15 of their faceoffs have come on hards. What a dream it would be to see the two go at it on grass, and since the only grass event they play in common is Wimbledon, we’d be happy to take it at SW-19. As for Murray, Ivan Lendl’s new liege, the partnership has definitely been bearing fruit, and we’re surprised at how quickly. A testament to both men.

But tennis is so much in the matchup of styles, and while Murray has seemed to have made strides against The Djoker, over the course of 18 months, has seemed to reverted a bit against Nadal and Federer. Especially stuck in our craw were his semi-finals against Nadal at Wimbledon and the USO where he went down meekly in 4 sets. Andy Meekly, um, we mean Murray, is a guy we are anxious to see against Rafa, because we think Lendl joining the fray on the side of the Scot could have an impact in what is otherwise a one way Nadal fest. Both major semis were major disappointments. Murray, up an early set and a break at Wimbledon, where the crowd is his, came apart at the seams, and what’s worse, couldn’t recover in a 5 set match. Then in Flushing, where he has beaten Nadal in the same spot, seemed dead on arrival, making way for the epic Nadal-Djokovic rematch.

But what do you expect of a player who allows his mum to devise his game plan against Nadal? Now that Lendl is weighing in, we’re of the mind that Murray will give Nadal less of the off speed stuff he devours, and more pace, which pushes him back. If you noticed positioning back at their Wimbledon semi, when Murray drifted back of the baseline for good, which was around the 2nd game of the second set, then the match turned.

Because Murray and Federer send so much off speed stuff back at Nadal, he can easily pick his spots versus those players. But notice how Djokovic goes at Nadal with power and it works. Then there are no spots to pick. Both players really need to hit hard at Nadal at all times, and for some reason, the mighty coach Annacone hasn’t incorporated the play into Roger’s permanent Nadal play book. But back to Dubai, where we caught a whiff of content off Dandy Andy 2.0 off of the stunning upset of Djokovic. Perhaps the kid saw some of his press clippings, about the revenge on Djokovic and all that fluffy nonsense. And we can’t recall when Murray has ever beaten two such fine opponents as Federer and Djokovic on back to back days. Then there’s Rog, who went to Rotterdam for the first time in 9 years, then to Dubai. Why would he add a tournament like Rotterdam to his schedule? Because he wanted a win under his belt. Now Federer has two wins under the belt, with the unlikely win today.

Another guy with two wins on the year is David Ferrer, who Justin Gimelstob accurately described earlier in the week as the guy who gets the absolute most out of his talent out of anyone on the tour. Indeed. Ferrer is a gamer. But in this matchup, Verdasco seems to have some life. He leads the head to head 7-6, and is one of the few men to have an advantage over Ferrer on clay, where he is 6-3. Verdasco has not won a tournament in two years and Ferrer looked dead at times last night against a week opponent in Santiago Giraldo. Here are the odds:

2012 Abierto Mexicano Telcel Mens Final — 10 PM EST

David Ferrer: – 260

Fernando Verdasco: + 200

…..

We like Verdasco and this positive money line. Even though he’s coached by know nothing Darren “killer” Cahill, probably a slight downgrade from Andy Murray’s mum. Remember, this is a matchup and tennis is all in the matchups, and Verdasco here has the edge. In Delray, on another dubious hardcourt, there are two matches on tap, and we like the underdogs in both. Here are the odds:

2012 Delray Beach International Tennis Championships — Semi-finals

Marinko Matosevic: + 130

Dudi Sela: – 150

__ __ __ __

Kevin Anderson: + 165

John Isner: – 210

……

We are going with Matosevic and Anderson here. Say what you want about Dudi Sela, and we love a good little one hander, as you know, but this guy is not a good favorite. Though Matosevic had not won a match before showing up in South Florida this year, he’s gotten on a roll here, taking out past Champion Ernests Gulbis along the way, and he’s a lanky guy whose serve seems to be clicking.

Anderson scored a decent upset of Roddick earlier in the week. These two giants play close matches, lots of breakers and whatnot, and we feel, despite the rankings, that Anderson, at this time, is the sharper returner. Whomever gets the traction going in the return game is going to rule the day. We’ll say that’s Anderson, despite our regular interest in Isner.

In fact, we will be betting for Anderson to go on to win his second career title tomorrow here in Delray Beach.

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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.

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Grumpy as we are, and as big as they come in terms of our patronage of Roger Federer (struggling above), there’s just no way we can sugarcoat this.  Any of it.  By the way, great job (that’s sarcasm) by ESPN, finding a way to not televise one of the best nights of live tennis in both the men’s and women’s games when they are the exclusive rights holder, going instead with boxing or little league baseball or NASCAR or poker or whatever it was they were trying to pass off as programming, and will do so again today, finding new ways to submerge our game in a cesspool of Americana.  But we were able to, thank God, pick up the feed to both matches live online, at the suggestion of one of our readers, who has a cool live streaming tennis site, and another site we found with a Google search.  http://watchonlinetennis.com/ and www.fromsport.com have been saving my life over here, and we are currently watching Stosur and Vinci live in the first ladies quarter-final from the Rexall Center in Toronto.

There are multiple feeds to every match available, and for Roger/Tsonga, we were lucky enough to find Robby Koenig’s and Jason Goodall’s feed.  Goodall asked Robby what was wrong with Roger while the players were snapping practice serves.  Koenig was pointed, essentially lambasting Roger for having “no plan B”, for continuing to go for his shots when they aren’t working, and for not showing a lot of fight, particularly in his Wimbledon loss to Tsonga.  We have to agree.  In a best of 5 set match, one has plenty of opportunities to change the momentum in match.  Slow the pace, speed the pace, call the trainer, take a bathroom break…do something.  I mean, we say what we want about Nadal, obviously, but we have to hand it to him for being able to change a match’s momentum.  In his last 2 major finals alone, Nadal changed the momentum at the end of the 1st set at Roland Garros that basically sewed up his 6th title there, and did so again, admirably, in defeat, to get the 3rd set from an unbeatable Djokovic at Wimbledon.

Roger?  It almost seems like he wants off the court at times, rather than digging in.  Sure he dug in against Nadal, 2 hours into the match, against his greatest rival, when the match was all but over.  But against Tsonga, up 2 sets to love, he just slid back down the mountain like an avalanche.  Okay, so we are in a mood and tough of on Roger here obviously, but we won’t apologize for it.  Was he due to lose a match at a major after winning essentially 175 and losing zero when up 2 sets?  Fuck that.  For us, it marks a different Roger.  And to see Roger in a return engagement with Tsonga here last night, watching him drop the first set in a breaker without facing a break point, and to, in the end, see the great man fall to the same guy not named Nadal or Djokovic in 2 of his last 3 matches?

We’ll come back to that.  Paul Annacone came in, and we know what he’s about.  I wouldn’t say he hasn’t made a difference.  Roger is hitting more aces, and has his serve percentages up since Annacone came on board.  Roger is serving and volleying more, and he’s winning a high percentage of those points as well.  Overall, he is getting to the net more and finishing pretty well there.  Last night in the second set, Roger’s set, he finished 12 points at net, and on this fast court, Tsonga could only get in 3 times.  These aren’t the problems.  For Roger, it’s pressure serving, and not bearing down on break points, a plague in big spots for him going back to the FO final in 2007 when he blew 18 chances, the Wimbledon final against Nadal in 2008 when he did not break serve at all (and let’s face it, Nadal’s strength is not his serve), and the 2009 extended fifth set final when it took him about 5 hours to finally break Andy Roddick’s serve.

It’s a much different denouement for Roger than for Pete Sampras, the closest comparable.  When Pete began to slide, he packed in to the net much more, often looked like a dead man walking, and was frequently passed like a sitting duck.  But Pete’s serve rarely faltered, and the great man could still muster up big man tennis when he served.  And he could still catch lightning in a bottle, showing enough flashes of brilliance to get him his last USO title as an unseeded player at the age of 31.

When just about every set is going to a breaker, and one successful chip and charge could be all you need to grab a mini-break and thus the set, then you can still look dead as a dog on certain points and win.  Like John Isner.  The guy looks spent, but pulls out big serves, deft volleys, and huge forehands when he needs them, and often, it’s all he needs.  Obviously Annacone has stressed this style to Roger, who seems content to abandon it.  And speaking of big forehands, these alarming trends could be stopped cold if Roger stepped up and took control of points with his forehand, rather than allowing guys to pepper his backhand, Nadal style, until the wing breaks down and he’s shooting and spraying the ball long and short and wide. 

Roger had a golden opportunity here.  Nadal was vanquished, paving a smooth road to the final, which Roger needed to make in order to defend his points.  Cincinnati is coming up, a place where Roger aabsolutely loves the court speed.  Roger is the two-time defending there, and he’ll need to defend those points too.  But moreso, it’s a place where he has probably looked the best overall in the last 2 years, bar none.  If he is not himself there, then what we have come to know of Roger being himself might be by the boards.  Today’s action below.

Masters 1000 Series Men — Montreal

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12:00 PM EST

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Mardy Fish:  – 160

Stanislas Wawrinka:  + 130

———-

2:00 PM EST

———-

Tomas Berdych:  – 170

Janko Tipsarevic:  + 130

———

5:30 PM EST

———

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga:  – 360

Nicolas Almagro:  + 280

——-

Novak Djokovic:  – 1000

Gael Monfils:  + 600

—–

Canadian Open Ladies Championship — Toronto

____________________________________________________

1:00 PM EST

———

Galina Voskoboeva:  + 400

Victoria Azarenka:  – 600

———-

3:00 PM EST

——–

Agniezska Radwanska:  – 125

Andrea Petkovic:  – 105

——–

7:00 PM EST

——–

Lucie Safarova:  + 400

Serena:  – 600

……..

By the way, huge props to our girl Serena on a most gutty win last night over Jie Zheng.  Though it’s more easily willed in the women’s game due to diluted talent, Serena has been able to will some impressive victories since coming back, after having bad starts.  At Stanford against Bartoli, the French women we despise so much was dominant early on, blasting serve after ugly serve, and making us think perhaps she had Serena’s number.  And then Lady S pulled it together, reeled off about 8 consecutive games, and walked away with her first title since the comeback.  Last night, Zheng looked to be timing the ball like Ted Williams, and you might have said to yourself, ‘well, Serena’s gotta lose sometime.’  But Serena kept coming, doing whatever it took.  Shots on the run, groundstrokes on the line, a magical lob, angles that stretched the diminutive Zheng off the court, ridiculous passing shots.  That was probably the match she needed to win in order to claim her first Masters level event since she has returned, with Clijsters, Zvonareva, and Kvitova all losing this week.  And Kvitova’s loss, 6-1, 6-2 to Petkovic, is a further blight on the women’s game that should bolster even further the confidence of the Serena camp with The Open approaching.  I mean, could anyone imagine the last 3 Wimbledon’s Mens Champs getting dusted like that in their next action after SW-19?  Wouldn’t be happening.  If and when Serena dusts Safarova this evening, she’ll face Azarenka/Voskoboeva in the semis tomorrow, and then the Stosur vs. Radwanska/Petkovic winner in the final.  If our math is right, a winner’s trophy here could see her crack the top 30 in Monday’s rankings.

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The Isles collectively winced today, when their great hope, Andy Murray (above), rolled his right ankle in his 3rd round matchup at Roland Garros versus German Michael Berrer.  Murray, with a seemingly plum draw into the semis where he’d possibly meet the anointed, Novak Djokovic, played very well after the injury, though gingerly.  Does a bad ankle necessarily spell doom for Murray?  We’ll say that physically at least, Murray is a lot tougher than he looks.  There isn’t anyone alive right now who’d want to face Djokovic at less than full speed, but Murray did not play compromised tennis today.  As he said to the press, he’s never had much problem with his right ankle before, but he’d wear a brace and go out and hit tennis balls tomorrow, in preparation for tricky Victor Troicki on Monday.

He also said he might not be able to go on, but you shouldn’t worry about that.  Murray likes drama.  We remember back to 2007 when Murray had a bad wrist injury.  He suffered it in Hamburg, right before the French Open, and then struggled to get back on track for the US Open.  He won his match back at the Rogers Cup against Robby Ginepri, then got dusted by Fabio Fognini, 6-2, 6-2.  He was then on to Cincinnati where Marcos Baghdatis gave the lame Murray one of the worst beatings in his life, 6-1, 6-2.

A guy like Nadal, let’s face it, they may talk about what a lion he is and all that, but he wouldn’t even try to play in Murray’s position with the wrist.  As it was, it seemed like ESPN wanted to give Nadal an on the spot ESPY for not retiring against David Ferrer down under, as he did the year before when facing Murray in the semis.  So that summer of 2007, Murray makes his way to Flushing and he won easy in round 1, and then truly gutted out a win over Jonas Bjorkman, 6-1 in the 5th.  You could see it on his face right there.  He was done.  But he came out the next round, against H.T. Lee, and I remember it well as a spectator, because it was a unique moment.  Before the warmup, he and Lee exchanged words, and Muurray told Lee that his wrist was shot and that he was very limited, but that he was going to try to gut it out.  Then he goes down 2 sets, and I’m thinking, “throw in the towel, kid.”  Instead, he takes the next set, before Lee finally beat him in 4.

You all know I don’t like Andy Murray.  No secrets there.  Like and dislike is really all relative though to what is best for the continuation of risk and reward tennis, shot making, variety, and sheer brilliance with racquet and not the feet, on the court.  Andy Murray is good for the game right now.  He has a chance to beat Djokovic, and to win a major, which we all know is historic.  I mean, a Brit hasn’t won any type of clay court tournament since the 70’s.  It’s a shame that Murray caught this break, but we think that Murray is here to play, no matter what.  We also think he’s got the clay court thing figured out better than he ever has in the past. 

A turned ankle is not the worst thing ever.  John McEnroe talked about playing with one, and he used to actually move forward into the court, and he still thought Murray was in good shape, and that it could even prompt him to do what he must to win, addressing the age old knock on Murray, which is to be more aggressive.  Kobe Bryant routinely plays on full blown sprained ankles.  When he injured his ankle badly recently in the playoffs, and was asked if he would still play, he commented that playing hurt was “basically old hat” for him.

So we aren’t going to shed any tears for the UK just yet.  As for the odds for tomorrow, not a lot of respect being shown to past champs on the women’s side:

Hantuchova:  Even

Kuznetsova:  – 130

_________________________________

Jankovic:  – 145

Schiavone:  + 115

We’d be the first to tell you if we thought Kuznetsova was grossly out of shape, as she appeared at Indian Wells.  She’s actually in fine form.  We like that matchup for her, and think she is in the mix for the title.  Sure, we were trashing her as recently as 2 weeks ago, but apparently, she went to Spain and got into great shape, for her, and found her clay court game.  She did look a little tired in the 2nd set of her 3rd round match, but she’s had 2 days to rest.  We’ll take her.  And we love betting against Jankovic, and rooting against her, as her awful mechanics and fundamentals are very bad for the game and for brilliant tennis.  Don’t you hate that accent too?  So annoying.  We’re hoping that Schiavone, the little one hander that could, defends her title ably tomorrow.

Bartoli:  – 190

Dulko:  + 150

______________________________

Zvonareva:  – 220

Pavlyuchenkova:  + 170

_________________________________

We love Zvonareva in general, and hate Bartoli, in general, but who knows how these matches will go?  If we had to speculate, we’d say Vera and Dulko, who can hopefully retain the magic for one more match.

As for the men, there are some huge favorites:

Federer:  – 1100

Wawrinka:  + 650

____________________________________

Djokovic:  – 2000

Gasquet:  + 1000

____________________________________

Ferrer:  – 400

Monfils:  + 300

_________________________________

Fabio Fognini:  + 160

Albert Montanes:  – 200

Federer and Djokovic are heavies for a reason, but who wants to lay out a thousand or a couple thousand to get back a hundred?  Roger did put on a clinic against Stan in Melbourne, and has appeared in fine form, but is Federer now the kind of guy who can come out flat in a major against a guy he should beat, like he did against Falla at Wimbledon?  We think he’s better here in this spot with Annacone.  But keep in mind, Stan’s only win versus Roger came on clay, that it’s a repeat of last year’s round of 16, and that Stan is coming off a tough 5 setter.

At these rates, we love Monfils as well.  And we’ll take the one hander, Montanes, over Fognini, who is just happy to have made the round of 16, in all likelihood.  Though we like Gasquet’s game, would we dare go against the mighty Djokovic?  Probably not, but keep in mind he is playing a match on a third consecutive day, and a win would give him one more than McEnroe’s perfect 42-0 start to 1984.

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In today’s semi-final under card at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, 2009 US Open Champion Juan Martin Del Potro (above, top) takes on world #1, Rafael Nadal, in a rematch of the 2009 US Open semi in which the totally beyond compare and above reproach Rafael Nadal–the undisputed king of clay and looping topspin–was road graded by the bigger, stronger, and more talented Argentinian.  A command performance by JMDP who is the only player to ever defeat Nadal and Federer at the same major, claiming his first major title in the grandest possible fashion.  Sure, we were surprised.  That he beat Roger.  But Roger played the big points that day like the trophy was already on his mantle, confusing the 09 crown with the 04-08 crowns.

Bad mistake by the great man, and one he should never have repeated.  Lo and behold, he repeated it the next year, in practically the same exact spot, up 2 sets to 1 against Djokovic (above).  That victory has seemed to embolden Djokovic, who has played at a ridiculous level, handing Federer two consecutive major defeats, grabbing a 1st Davis Cup crown, and a 1st for his nation also, and a 2nd major title down under.  The tennis world, plagued with chronic tunnel vision, has jumped ahead to anointing Djokovic, yet to lose in 2011, as the world’s best tennis player.

This may not exactly be laughable considering his recent play, but it’s also not right.  Nadal currently holds 3 of the major titles.  Had Djokovic beaten Nadal in Flushing, these arguments would be valid.  But since Djokovic’s US Open run ended right after slaying Roger, and lost in impish fashion to Nadal, who is really not built for Decoturf and has little business winning the US Open without a sparkling draw and a matchup with a heartless quitter in the final such as The Djoker, we are still going to say Rafa’s the best right now, pains us as that does.

Is Djokovic the same heartless quitter he has always been though?  At least against Roger, he seems to be rather resilient these days.  But right after Roger in NY, Djokovic reverted back to being a clown who disrespects himself by saying that he was spent, that if the final was played on Sunday he’d have “no chance”, and then on Monday, claiming he was still so exhausted.  This guy?  He can act like a man.  He’s the 1 guy in tennis who calls trainers and defaults more than Nadal, and that’s saying something, because Nadal has permanent trainer’s hand prints on both his calves and quads.  Like Nadal was fresh in that dreadful final where he won in straights?  Nobody’s fresh at the US Open.  Not after 8 months of intense touring and 3 majors on different surfaces.

Djokovic is playing lights out, indisputably.  The Prince of Plexicushion, on which he has played exclusively, except for one tournament.  Good for him.  Yes, he won Dubai and straighted Roger there on a Decoturf court, albeit one topped with as much or more sand than any other.  Yes, he served up bagels to three separate opponents here at IW, including countryman and DC mate Victor Troicki, who took Djokovic to 5 sets last year and almost walked out with his pelt at Flushing.  Wouldn’t Roger have done back flips if that came to pass?

Is Djokovic that good?  Is the world #3 now better than a very able Troicki at #16, by a 6-0, 6-1 scoreline?  Well, serves don’t really take to the clay, I mean Plexicushion, the way they do to a real acrylic hard court not sand topped, like unadulterated US Open courts or the courts in Cincy or at the Paris Indoor.  Unless you are Karlovic, Isner or Raonic.  As the announcers often remarked, Djokovic is playing lights out without even serving that well.  Sure is.  But the surface issue is a big factor.  Even more so than at the Australian Open, Djokovic’s “stomping grounds”, which is technically considered a medium paced court.  Melbourne’s Plexicushion, still considered by us a travesty to the game, at least has allowed some dominant servers to have their day.  But the groundstrokes come in slow, suiting these putrid, safe, soft serving baseliners like Murray, Djokovic, and Nadal.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that the only major finals that have not included Federer or Nadal going back 5 years have been at the AO?  Or that the only guy with 2 majors to his name since the Federer/Nadal dominant period began won them down under since Plexicushion was installed?

Kids, in Australia they have the “nice” Plexicushion.  Technically, the courts here at IW are called slow hardcourts.  In fact, the actual surface is called “Plexipave IW Slow.”  It is a synthetic, or as we like to call it, a fake hardcourt.  Why?  Because California is America’s training ground for homogenized boring baseliners west.  Oh yeah, all this nonsense about a slower, softer court being better in the desert because the balls can really pop in the dry air, and the heat?  Right.  It’s a business.  Slow tennis 2 handed morons want to see slow tennis with lots of rallies, even in America, where the courts should favor the better players, which, here, are fast courts.  But there is not one decent woman playing this game for America right now, and as for the men, well, Richard Gasquet pretends he’s sick when he has to face Andy Roddick indoors and on IW Slow he takes him apart like he’s Federer.

We guess they are pretty happy with the results this year, where the cream has risen to the top, either with the aid of or in spite of this awful surface.  No Mardy Fish’s or Ljubicic’s in the final four this year.  JMDP has muscled his way through the draw.  Good for him.  The game missed him.  Nadal didn’t, but the court, and Del Potro’s lack of long term tour level conditioning may not favor Argentina’s finest today.  Here are the odds:

Nadal:  – 240 (Wager 240 to win 100 plus initial investment)

Del Potro:  + 180 (Wager 100 to win 180 plus initial investment)

If we were willing to go with Karlovic the other night over Rafa, best believe we can stomach the dog here as well.  Do not get the wrong idea about us.  We don’t play who we necessarily expect to win.  We play who we like and who has odds we like.  That would be Del Potro.  The difference between winning and losing in tennis is a handful of points, and big favorites offer no real return, just nervous moments.  Like if you had Rafa the other day versus Karlovic at – 750 and had to sweat out a 3rd set extended tie breaker to win 1 penny for every 8 you laid.

Then there’s the feature match:

Djokovic:  – 180

Federer:  + 140

Say what?  Roger is underdog in a match not against Nadal on red clay?  When was the last time that happened?  Good question.  Honestly, we can’t recall it, and we are up on such things.  You guessed it.  We’ll happily ride 2 dogs today.  To be frank, Federer has a lot on the line today.  The #2 ranking goes to the winner.  Federer, for the 1st time in 8 years, is not in current possession of a major title.  Djokovic seems to have his number.  Especially on the slow icky blue track.  But Roger knows the deal.  Annacone is coaching him up.  Federer needs to absorb the pace, not give the pace to Djokovic.  On slow hards, Djokovic, like Agassi was, is a master at using your pace against you.  When Federer hit out on the slow garbage versus The Djoker in Canada, he looked bad.  He looked like he couldn’t hit a winner, and was over-hitting in an attempt to dictate.  When he gave Djoker junk, and used his variety of spins and slice, then the Djokovic must over hit.  We still feel that Roger has the edge in a close match, and we like the sunny conditions.  We’ve also been loving Roger’s quick hands at net all week.

How many times do you really get to play Federer as a dog?  And how many times is Roger playing for the chance to win a singles and doubles title in the same weekend?  Not sure when or if that’s ever happened either.  Federer/Wawrinka defeated Nadal/Lopez in the semis in doubles and will take on Malisse/Dolgopolov in the final today.

As we have said, we aren’t fainthearted Federer fans.  Not even on Plexicushion.

2 PM live on The Tennis Channel…

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