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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