Rafael Nadal usually begins licking his chops right about now, as the clay-court season fast approaches. The segment probably never has looked better to the struggling “King of Clay” than it does right now.

Nadal was beaten Sunday at the Miami Open, where he was seeded No. 2. He was taken down by a 31-year-old fellow Spaniard, lowly No. 29 seed Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3. Nadal had beaten Verdasco the first 13 times they met, but that turned out to be Verdasco’s lucky number: He has now beaten Nadal the last two times they’ve met.

Nadal is still a respectable 15-5 on the year -- “respectable,” that is, for someone not named Nadal. And in truth, the 28-year-old, 14-time Grand Slam champion has been snakebit throughout his career in Miami. He’s the only member of the vaunted Big Four who never won on Key Biscayne.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal came up short at Indian Wells and Miami this month.

But here’s the really troubling stat: While Nadal has already won a title (Buenos Aires, on his beloved clay), he has played only two top-10 players thus far this year. No. 7 Tomas Berdych beat him in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and No. 6 Milos Raonic bounced Nadal in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells.

In theory, Nadal will return to the clay and find his game as he generally does every year. But it may not be as easy to turn theory into practice this year. Nadal missed a good portion of the back end of 2014 with a wrist injury and an appendicitis. He has had plenty of time to get his game sorted out over the past few months, but it hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t about forehands and backhands now; it’s about his confidence and the pressure he feels if it isn’t at an adequate level.

Nadal is both realistic and honest about his situation. “It’s not the question of tennis,” he told reporters after this latest setback. “The thing is the question of being enough relaxed to play well.”

Nadal went on to say that, a month or six weeks ago, he felt he didn’t have the game to generate great results. But while his game has improved in the interim, his comfort level has not -- even though he’s practicing well and generally feeling fit. It was once impossible to talk about Nadal choking, but lately he has been choking -- and leading the parade of pundits batting around the issue. He admitted, “Still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing a little bit anxious.”

Press conferences with players who are struggling often become like therapy sessions -- at least they do when the player in question is open to sharing his thoughts and emotions at a difficult time with a roomful of strangers. Nadal has become a master at this, and it never, ever comes off as spin or as oversharing. His session following the loss to Verdasco -- a guy who, while something of a head case, can certainly whale on the ball -- was noteworthy for the candor and clarity.

Nadal’s year began with a loss in the first round of Doha to No. 127 Michael Berrer. He said that his anxiety at the beginning of the year was nothing unusual. He put it this way: “I am not saying that [choking] didn’t happen in the past, because it happened. But it happened for a very small, for one point, two points. I have been able to control my emotions during, let’s say 90 percent, 95 percent of the matches in my career -- something that today is tougher, to be under self-control.”

It’s funny how a guy can admit he has been choking and can’t handle the anxiety of a close match yet still come off as being on top of his situation. Nadal may be losing and he may be struggling, but he doesn’t appear to be floundering, clutching at straws or fooling himself. If anything, that may make him more dangerous as the clay-court season gets underway.

“It the next thing for me,” he said of the upcoming tournaments. “I am excited. I am enough motivated to keep working hard, and that’s what I gonna do. The tournaments that are coming are historically good tournaments for my game, good tournaments for my confidence.”

At his age and with his résumé, Nadal has no pressing need to worry about ranking points, ATP Masters Series titles or his head-to-head with fellow top-10 players. He may not have all the time in the world -- a subpar clay-court season would certainly complicate his situation. But as his clay-court proficiency shows, Nadal is patient, hard-working and determined.

“I gonna fix it,” he promised. “I don’t know if in one week, in six months or in one year. But I gonna do it.”

The King of Clay is not the kind of ruler to abdicate. If you want his throne, Novak, Roger and Andy, you’d better be ready for an epic struggle to take it.

Serena Williams is still on track to begin the defense of her WTA Miami Premier title in Key Biscayne, Florida, although she knows she probably will have to manage persistent pain in her right knee.

Her opponents will have to manage the persistent pain of going toe-to-toe with perhaps the greatest female tennis player who ever lived, on a court where she’s already won the title seven times -- a court that represents the green, green asphalt of home.

If you’re Romania’s Monica Niculescu, who gets to play Serena for the second time in a Premier event in the span of two weeks, you’re probably giving thanks that Serena had a first-round bye, so that your trip to Miami wasn’t a complete waste of time. Or you may be wondering why fellow countrywoman Simona Halep has all the luck. She advanced to the final of Indian Wells last week when Serena pulled out of that tournament shortly before their scheduled semifinal meeting with a tender right knee.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Al Bello/Getty ImagesSerena Williams has won the Miami Open a remarkable seven times.

“I didn't think I would be doing this interview today,” Williams told reporters the other day. She explained that she’s still receiving treatment and experiencing pain in the damaged knee. However, this being Miami, her mood improved substantially and her plans changed when she first picked up a racket again earlier this week. “I stepped on the court and I was just like, ‘I love this place.’ You know, I love playing at home. I live just down the road.”

In fact, if you laid the women Serena has beaten end-to-end, the line would probably stretch from Crandon Park to Serena’s home in West Palm Beach, meaning the five women who have beaten her in Miami comprise a special sorority.

Those women are, starting with the most recent winner: Caroline Wozniacki (2012 quarterfinals), Victoria Azarenka (2009 final), Venus Williams (1999 final; quarterfinals of 2005), Jennifer Capriati (2000 fourth round; 2001 quarterfinals) and Martina Hingis (1998 quarterfinals).

Before you Capriati fans start yelling, “You go, girl!” let me remind you that after that loss in 2001, Serena won her first Miami title the following year, and then defended successfully in 2003. Guess who she beat in both of those finals?

Since Serena bagged that first title, she’s made it to the final every year she entered but three. And she’s been pretty effective in general against the women who have stopped her in Miami. Capriati is five years older and had an advantage in her prime. She also left the game at the relatively young age of 28, denying a mature Serena more chances. Serena still came out on top, 10-7.

Venus? Serena leads that head-to-head 14-11, but the sister vs. sister dynamic was always a little weird. Wozniacki’s win over Serena in Miami was the Dane’s only triumph in 11 matches, and the only thing that can make Azarenka feel better about her 3-14 record against Serena is that Maria Sharapova hasn’t beaten the world No. 1 at all in 10 years (and is 2-17 overall). It’s all relative with Serena, right?

It’s no wonder Serena said in her presser: “I don't feel any pressure because I have won this title a few times, so I feel good about being here. When I hit on the court today, just something about Miami, you know. I just feel so good out here.”

Interested in some other details regarding Serena’s performances in Miami?

She has four wins over Sharapova in Miami and has lost just one set to the Russian.

Serena’s very first win in the Miami main draw was over the Czech Republic’s Denisa Chladkova, who was ranked No. 59. Serena won 6-4, 6-0. Chladkova is 36 years old now and still playing.

In 1999, at age 18, Serena defeated then No. 3 Monica Seles and No. 1 Martina Hingis, but she didn’t win the tournament. Venus stopped Serena’s run in the final 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.

Serena played former No. 1 and two-time US Open champ Kim Clijsters in Miami just twice. Clijsters never got closer in any set than losing 6-4 -- and that was just once.

The lowest-ranked player Serena ever defeated in Miami was No. 171 Zhang Shuai of China (second round, 2012). Zhang got five games in that one, three more than Clijsters collected in her first Miami meeting with Serena.

On two occasions, Serena lost to the world No. 1-ranked player only to bounce back the following year to beat the same woman. In 1998, the first year Serena played in the main draw, she lost a heartbreaking third-set tiebreaker in the quarterfinal to No. 1 Hingis. But with another year of experience under her belt, Serena beat No. 1 Hingis in straight sets in the 1999 semis.

The last time Serena played a No. 1-ranked woman was Justine Henin in 2008. Serena clobbered her 6-2, 6-0. The previous year, Serena had scratched out a tough, three-set final win over Henin.

Capriati was also No. 1 in 2002 when Serena finally got the best of her after a pair of losses in Miami. That year, Serena dispatched No. 3 Hingis in the quarters, No. 2 Venus Williams in the semis and top-ranked Capriati in the final.

Serena has never beaten any player love-and-love in Miami, but she logged the first of the three matches in which she lost just one game in her seventh main-draw match -- a 6-1, 6-0 win over then No. 25 Magui Serna of Spain.

There’s always a new goal to shoot for, right?

Whoever first observed that tennis isn’t “rocket science” had it right. It’s only racket science, a slightly less daunting discipline, but one that has its own special challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers and details recently generated by the sport.

Desert or beach? If you’ve been around long enough, you know that this idea of a “fifth Grand Slam” was the brainchild of Miami Open founder Butch Buchholz. Back in 1985, when the tournament was first played at the Rod Laver Resort in Boca Raton, Florida, the rival tournament that would become the Indian Wells Masters was played in Palm Springs and named for a pen, The Pilot Pen Classic.

In the interim, Indian Wells has expanded and staked a serious and more credible claim to “fifth major” status. The tournament owners created the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a spectacular facility that has come to overshadow the Miami Open’s current home at Crandon Park. Only Grand Slam tournaments attract larger crowds than Indian Wells. (This year, the total attendance was over 450,000.) The main stadium at Indian Wells is the second-largest permanent tennis venue in the world (after Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York). Thanks to the deep pockets of entrepreneur Larry Ellison, who bought the tournament in 2009, the spectacular growth of Indian Wells continues.

[+] EnlargeCrandon Park
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThe Miami Open has lost some of its cachet lately, in large part because of the strides Indian Wells has made.

Miami, while financially successful, enormously popular and heavily supported by Latin Americans from near and far, hasn’t matched that growth. It’s partly because the event is played in Key Biscayne, a largely private island. Not all the well-heeled locals are fans of the event, and environmental issues have always clouded expansion plans.

The Crandon Park facility has but one permanent stadium (Indian Wells has two, with another on the way), and it’s only eighth on the list of most capacious tennis stadiums. (The 13,300 seats are 2,800 fewer than Stadium 1 at Indian Wells.) Where Buchholz & Co. once saw the Palm Springs/Indian Wells event as a juicy warm-up and interest stimulator for the much-hyped Miami Open, the horse and cart have changed position.

This dramatic role reversal isn’t evident in the roll of champions, though. The events have quietly been bitter rivals, albeit under different names and in various locations since 1987. In that span, the lowest-ranked player to win either event is No. 45 Tim Mayotte, who won the very first iteration of Miami. But only one player ranked outside the top 10 has won in Miami since then, and he was destined for greatness. Jim Courier was ranked No. 18 when he won in 1991.

The top-ranked player in Miami has won just six times, as personified by Rafael Nadal’s hard-luck saga. He’s been runner-up in Miami four times but never the champ. Every other member of the Big Four has won on the key more than once.

In that same time frame, three players ranked No. 26 have won in the desert: Courier, 1991; Alex Corretja, 2000; Ivan Ljubicic, 2010. (If No. 26 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez had big plans this year, they came to naught; he was beaten in the first round by Thanasi Kokkinakis.) Three other men outside the top 10 have claimed the Indian Wells title: Mark Philippoussis (No. 16 when he won in 1999), Michael Chang (No. 15 in 1992) and Miloslav Mecir (No. 13 in 1989). The No. 1 player has won this tournament nine times. The only member of the Big Four who hasn’t won Indian Wells is Andy Murray.

Sure, you can serve, but can you return? Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki, Garbine Muguruza, Coco Vandeweghe … all those women are among the top 10 in the “service games won” (by percentage) category. Yet only two of those women are also in the top 10 when it comes to breaking serve. As you might have guessed, the two are Williams and Sharapova. There’s a reason they’re ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.

Curse of the top 10: A few weeks ago, much was made of Ryan Harrison’s streak of 22 consecutive losses to players ranked in the top 10. (It ended when he defeated defending champ and ATP No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov at Acapulco.) But since Harrison has never been ranked higher than No. 43 and is just 22 years old, you have to wonder just how significant that streak was.

Not very, it turns out. For example, 29-year-old Simone Bolelli, currently No. 47, lost 35 straight matches to top-10 opponents before he broke the streak with an upset of No. 6 Milos Raonic earlier this year at Marseilles. Potito Starace, now No. 188, is exactly where Harrison was before Acapulco, with 22 consecutive losses. Starace, though, gets an asterisk, as he’s had a top-10 win before the current streak began.

The guy to watch: Marinko Matosevic. He’s lost 16 straight -- and counting.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Or do they?

Novak Djokovic may be on the verge of passing Rafael Nadal in the prestigious “weeks at No. 1” category, and Andy Murray is on the cusp of becoming the 10th active player with at least 500 wins. The quartet that has dominated the ATP in recent years is still the Big Four, but it’s still a relative rarity for all four members (now ranked Nos. 1 through 4) to gather in the semifinals of a tournament.

One or the other of these men has won Indian Wells 10 of the past 11 years. But they’ve all made the quarterfinals on just two previous occasions, 2013 and 2009. And they’ve never done their barbershop quartet thing at Indian Wells in the semifinal stage. That could change Friday.

No. 4 Murray and No. 1 Djokovic have fulfilled their end of the bargain. Murray advanced to the semis with his 10th consecutive win over Feliciano Lopez, and Djokovic got a free pass when resurgent Aussie Bernard Tomic withdrew from the tournament Thursday with a sore back. Given that Tomic was the lowest seed (No. 32) and Lopez a manageable No. 12, you can’t blame No. 2 Federer or No. 3 Nadal for feeling that he drew the short straw.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsRafael Nadal hasn't been happy with the tennis balls at Indian Wells, but he's still reached the semifinals with little resistance.

Nadal will have to plow through No. 6 Milos Raonic and that gargantuan serve, while Federer meets as tough a No. 9 seed as you can conjure up in Tomas Berdych.

The way the two major stars tell it, the decisive factor in their matches may be the suddenly controversial Penn balls used at this event -- or more accurately, how well the players adapt to using the changeable balls. According to Nadal, the properties of the ball change radically with the time of day.

“Yeah, the conditions were much slower today,” Nadal declared after his fourth-round win over No. 13 seed Gilles Simon on Wednesday. “The other day the ball make big change with the weather conditions. Ball today was softer, bigger. The whole day yesterday, [the ball] was very small and very hard. No control.”

You could dismiss this as Nadal at his obsessive best but for the fact that Federer, and the player he eliminated in the third round, Andreas Seppi, backed up the complaint. As Federer said: “I just felt like it was tough for me to control the ball. Seppi said the same thing at the net, just like not really feeling the balls.”

On Friday, after Federer kicks things off at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN, Nadal will take his turn in Stadium 1, and he’ll know anxious moments if the ball again feels “like a stone.” Never mind fretting about a place in the semis. With Raonic sending rocks his way at 150 mph, Nadal would be justified in fearing for his safety.

Nadal lost a service game in his match with Simon but still won the first set. Nadal was broken again in the second game of the second set at down 2-0. He was able to break right back, but he knows that is unlikely to happen if the scenario repeats with Raonic. Contemplating Raonic’s ability to hold serve, Nadal said: “Every point has a lot of value. You cannot lose your concentration in no one moment with your serve. You know, what happened today with my serve twice cannot happen next day if I want to have any chance.”

[+] EnlargeFederer
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsRoger Federer knows a reinvigorated Tomas Berdych is anything but a pushover.

But while Raonic has been playing well this year (he’s been in a semi, a final and the Australian Open quarterfinals), Nadal’s game has been Raonic's personal Rubik’s cube. The 24-year-old Canadian has won just one set from Nadal in five previous matches. The conditions at Indian Wells, which Raonic described as “a clay court that’s a little easier to move around on,” will favor the three-time champion, even though the relatively high bounce of the gritty hard court will make Raonic’s kick serve extra deadly.

Nadal’s confidence deficit all year has been striking. He presents a great contrast with Federer, to whom everything seems just hunky-dory. True, Federer has two titles to Nadal’s one, but the men have won the same number of matches (14). Nadal has lost three to Federer’s one, but the Swiss champ’s attitude is something other than confident. He’s also relaxed and seemingly free of stress. That will certainly help him when he squares off with Berdych.

Contemplating his opponent, Federer suggested: “[Berdych] has been around for so long, he knows his potential. He knows his limitations. … I think he does very well, and probably also with a new team now he feels eager to try out new things that maybe give him extra energy.”

That new team is led by Murray’s former coach, Dani Vallverdu. While the change of climate must be refreshing, Berdych is rapidly approaching 30 years of age and it’s difficult to imagine his game changing much. Federer has generally been able to exploit Berdych’s meat-and-potatoes game (big serve, hard but relatively flat shots that penetrate yet rarely stretch the width of the court).

Federer leads the head-to-head 12-6, but the 6-foot-5 Czech tagged Federer in two of their past three, and Berdych has pushed three consecutive matches to their three-set limit.

History suggests that the entire membership of the Big Four cannot make the semifinals. Djokovic and Murray are already in. That could be bad news for either Federer or Nadal -- or both.

How Dr. Ivo makes a sweet living

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17

Whoever first observed that tennis isn’t “rocket science” had it right. It’s only racket science, a slightly less daunting discipline, but one that has its own special challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers and details recently generated by the sport.

Maybe it is all in Ivo’s head: Statistics in tennis tend to underscore how critical the “mental game” is to success. Take the “first-serve points won” numbers. The difference between 2015 tour leader Ivo Karlovic and second-place Milos Raonic is just two percentage points. (Karlovic was successful 85 percent of the time in 17 matches; Raonic won 83 percent in 14 matches.)

[+] EnlargeIvo Karlovic
Mal Fairclough/AFP/Getty ImagesIvo Karlovic not only serves huge, but he serves huge in clutch situations.

Roger Federer is No. 3 on that list with 81 percent in 12 matches. Three men, Sam Querrey, Tomas Berdych and Gilles Muller are all one measly percentage point behind Federer. The statistical margins in tennis tend to be very slim, as many as five or six players are often deadlocked with identical numbers.

Thus, Karlovic’s utter dominance in the “break points saved” category is striking. Going into Indian Wells (where the big fella lost to Steve Johnson), Karlovic had successfully fended off 90 percent of the break points he faced (57 of 63 in 17 matches). The next man on the list is Federer, who’s at 77 percent (33 of 43 in 12 matches). That’s an enormous gap that can’t simply be explained away by the fact that Ivo has a monster serve. Mullers does, too. And if Federer doesn’t, he’s certainly the craftiest server out there.

Karlovic got off to a great start this year, and this statistic helps explain why. He has served his best when he’s needed it most. And that’s not something everyone can do.

The Kournikova Factor: Anna Kournikova, the most frequently searched “term” on the Internet at one point back around the turn of the century, took a lot of criticism for never having won a WTA tournament. People simply forgot -- or preferred to ignore -- the fact that she was a Wimbledon singles semifinalist (1997) who was ranked as high as No. 8 in singles (2000) and No. 1 in doubles. If you had to choose, would you take the career of, oh, Karin Knapp (she won Tashkent last year) over Kournikova’s?

Anyway, the data miners over at the Tennis Abstract have searched out the best players who have yet to win a WTA event. The top five, starting with the highest ranked: No. 19 Shuai Peng of China, No. 30 Varvara Lepchenko, No. 32 Zarina Diyas, No. 33 Camila Giorgi and No. 35 Casey Dellacqua.

One name jumps out of that list of frustrated contenders -- No. 42 Sloane Stephens. She will have to wait longer after losing to Serena Williams in three sets at Indian Wells.

He actually does bleed red: Switzerland’s failure to defend the Davis Cup in a first-round tie with lowly Belgium a few weeks ago was a non-story. But we ought to acknowledge that the Swiss B-team, which is also the nation's C, D, E and F team, acquitted themselves honorably, forcing the host team to a fifth-and-decisive rubber to secure the 3-2 win.

Some complained about Federer's and Stan Wawrinka’s apparent lack of tennis patriotism when they chose to skip the tie. While it certainly looked like the two stars had secured the trophy for the Swiss for the first time merely so they could check off the accomplishment on a career bucket list, the reality is both men have given much to the Davis Cup through the years. Federer is 50-17 overall, 38-8 in singles. Wawrinka is 25-25, 21-13 in singles.

So let’s compare the numbers of some recently retired stars to see how they match up. Boris Becker of Germany was 54-12 (38-3 in singles), Andre Agassi was 30-6 (all in singles), Pete Sampras went 19-9 (15-8), while Andy Roddick was 33-12 (all in singles). Bjorn Borg was 45-11 (35-3). Among active players, most of whom are at least four years younger than Federer, Rafael Nadal is 24-5 (21-1), Novak Djokovic is 30-9 (27-7) and Andy Murray is 25-7 (21-2).

It doesn’t look like Federer owes Switzerland anything, does it?

This is the most significant month of the year for American tennis players not named Williams. The prestigious 10-day hard-court combined events at Indian Wells and Miami offer players from the U.S. a familiar surface, the support of fellow countrymen and all the comforts associated with home, such as free Wi-Fi and drive-through fast food.

Trouble is, while Serena Williams or Roger Federer can grouse about how lonely it is at the top, it’s nothing compared to the crowded, desperate, cannibalistic conditions at the bottom. And that’s exactly where the bulk of American players currently toil -- albeit with good luck through the first two rounds at Indian Wells.

U.S. women went 13-11 through the first two full rounds of play. In a stroke of good fortune, there was only one first-round family feud between homegrown players (the same was true in the men’s draw). On the WTA side, 18-year-old Taylor Townsend won a battle of the wild cards 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 over Bethanie Mattek-Sands .

This looms as a potentially pivotal year for the left-handed Townsend, who made the third round at the French Open and won two ITF singles titles last year. As for Mattek-Sands, who turns 30 on March 23, she’s still trying to dial in her singles game after missing most of last year following hip surgery.

[+] EnlargeSloane Stephens
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSloane Stephens looks like she might finally be enjoying tennis again.

The second round produced one All-American WTA clash as well. After a noteworthy first-round win over Alla Kudryavtseva, wild card Sachia Vickery ran afoul of the No. 26 seed (and thus bye-holder) Varvara Lepchenko, who looked strong in logging a smooth straight-sets win.

The other U.S. women who survived the first round (we won’t count bye-holders) were Sloane Stephens, Alison Riske, Irina Falconi, Lauren Davis, Christina McHale and Madison Brengle. By the end of Round 2, though, only five remained: top-seed Serena Williams, No. 16 Madison Keys, Lepchenko, No. 30 seed Coco Vandeweghe and Stephens.

Keys is playing in her first event since her breakout Australian Open. After she won her first match over Klara Koukalova, the American was asked by the media how her life has changed in the wake of her sensational performance Down Under. She replied: “It’s pretty similar to before. I get recognized a couple times. It's the same. … As great as Australia was, I’m just trying to build from it and keep going and not just be really happy with what happened there.”

However, it was Stephens who made the most pronounced statement on the court among the U.S. women thus far. She knocked out No. 13 seed Angelique Kerber. Stephens has struggled after hitting a career-high singles ranking of No. 11 in October 2013. She’s outside the seeded group at No. 42. And she’s been criticized for getting lost in the funhouse since she shot to stardom with a resonant upset of Serena Williams at the Australian Open of 2013.

True, Kerber has been in a swoon for some time now, but the win was tonic for Stephens, who late Sunday backed it up, advancing to the fourth round with a good win over two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova.

On the ATP side, it seemed a pity that the only clash between Yanks had resurgent Ryan Harrison meeting Mardy Fish, who was playing his first ATP match in more than 18 months -- and has spent the past three years battling somewhat mysterious heart and anxiety-related problems. Harrison survived two match points and won it in a 2˝ hour three-set marathon.

A four-time ATP Masters 1000 finalist (albeit never a winner), Fish has the strongest résumé of any active male American player and could probably still carve out a place for himself at or very close to the top of the American game -- if he can put in the time. Sure he’s 33 years old, but so is Roger Federer.

The encouraging news is that he’s been problem-free for more than three months. After the loss, Fish told reporters: “I worked extremely hard to put myself in the best position to not have to worry about things when I was out there. If I was out of shape or if I didn't feel well or if it was going to be a long match or a hot match or something like that, when a lot more things creep into your head.”

A pair of first-round matches that occurred simultaneously provided us with sharp images of a brace of American players heading in opposite directions. Sam Querrey seemed to have thing under control after winning the first set of his match with Sergiy Stakhovsky, but Querrey allowed the 29-year-old Ukrainian to turn the tables. By the end of the 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss, Querrey was in a funk.

[+] EnlargeDonald Young
Harry How/Getty ImagesA mature Donald Young has played the best tennis of his career so far in 2015.

While Querrey was wasting his chances, energetic Steve Johnson was putting the finishing touches on a crisp 6-2, 6-3 win over Marcel Granollers. Presently ranked No. 44, Johnson keeps accumulating experience and getting better at defending and even retaliating with his vulnerable one-handed backhand.

The overall record for U.S. players on the ATP after the first two rounds is 9-5 -- thanks largely to three rousing wins Sunday. Donald Young got the ball rolling with a convincing 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 31 seed Jeremy Chardy. Jack Sock showed great poise in fending off a match point in the course of dismissing Gilles Muller, and Johnson built on his good start with a win over No. 21 seed Ivo Karlovic.

Johnson told reporters after his first win: “Everything has just kind of come together. You put in a lot of time and a lot of aches and pains. … Once it kind of all kind of clicks and comes together, it's fun.”

Young put his emphasis on the mental aspects of the game: “The way I see myself [now] is totally different. I think I'm fighting a little better on the court and competing. I kind of know myself a little better than I did in the past. All those things combined, coming together on a more consistent basis, is helping out quite a bit.”

Sock, who deferred his planned return from hip surgery in December by almost a full month (he originally was to play first in Memphis), told reporters Thursday, “I had been practicing and working out, but there were still a few things that I wanted to polish up before coming out. I didn't want to put myself at 85 percent and put myself at risk for anything going out there [earlier], because obviously when the match starts there's no really going back.”

With Serena and Stephens on a roll, and a trio of U.S. men joining No. 18 seed John Isner in the third round, the outlook at the start of the big month is red, white and rosy.

Whoever first observed that tennis isn’t “rocket science” had it right. It’s racket science, a slightly less daunting discipline, but one that has its own special challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers and details generated by the sport last week and see where the inquiry takes us.

John Is-nervous goes down in five … Again: It was ugly. You all saw it. John Isner of the U.S. lost the second rubber of the weekend’s Davis Cup tie with Great Britain. It was the pivotal point in the second consecutive World Group first-round win by the British over Team USA. Isner, the ATP No. 20, was upset by 27-year-old No. 111 James Ward in a match that lasted nearly five hours, 6-7 (4), 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 15-13.
[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsDespite a couple epic wins, John Isner has not fared well in five-setters throughout his career.

This was Isner’s fifth five-set Davis Cup match, and he hasn’t won any of them. He’s lost to Novak Djokovic at the upper end of the rankings, Paul Capdeville of Chile (No. 165) down in the netherworld and Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil and Nicolas Almagro of Spain in between. Unfortunately for the 6-foot-10 North Carolinian, his overall career record in five-set matches isn’t a great deal better. His winning percentage is 27.7 percent (5-13).

It all began well enough; after losing his first five-setter as a pro to Juan Ignacio Chela, Isner created a sensation with a huge five-set win over Andy Roddick at the 2009 US Open. He was 2-1 in his next three tries but then hit the five-set wall. He won just one five-setter in 10 tries between January of 2011 and that loss to Capdeville in the U.S.-Chile World Group first-round tie in February of 2013.

Six of Isner’s five-set epics went into “overtime” (beyond 13 games in the final set). His win over Roddick at Flushing Meadows might have gone long, too, except they play a fifth-set tiebreaker at the American major.

The bright spot in this tale of woe is that Isner won the match that has probably earned him a secure place in the record books in perpetuity. In 2010, Isner defeated Frenchman Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon 6–4, 3–6, 6–7 (7), 7–6 (3), 70–68.

The dark fortnight for the Big Four: With the Indian Wells Masters 1000 upon us, let’s remember that the Big Four -- Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray -- have won 20 of the past 23 Masters 1000 titles when the entire quartet has been represented in the draw.

Curiously, two of the three exceptions to that dominance were recorded in the span of just two weeks. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Paris Masters in 2008, after which the dry spell for contenders lasted about 15 months. Then came Indian Wells and Miami in 2010. None of Big Four survived to contest either final, but one outsider appeared in both. That was Andy Roddick, who lost the 2010 Indian Wells final to Ivan Ljubicic, then bounced back to defeat Tomas Berdych in the Miami final.

A sting for the King of Clay: On March 1, Rafael Nadal won the 46th clay-court title of his career at Buenos Aires, seemingly tying the record held by Guillermo Vilas. But before the day was out, the ATP and ITF acknowledged that three of Vilas’ recorded hard-court tournament wins actually took place on clay: Toronto in 1974 and 1976 and Virginia Beach in 1977.

Thus, Nadal still trails Vilas by three clay-court titles. Some Nadal fans have made snide references to the quality of the Virginia Beach tournament and to its small field (16). They might want to think again. The entries included Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis. And with his first-round bye at Buenos Aires, Nadal was playing in a 16-man draw too, right?

Team USA hits another low point

March, 8, 2015
Mar 8
Just when you might have thought the future couldn’t look gloomier for American tennis, Team USA loses to Great Britain in the first round of Davis Cup World Group play for the second consecutive year -- this time in Glasgow, Scotland.

That’s dispiriting in and of itself. What takes mere unease over the line into the realm of panic -- or nightmare -- is that at roughly the same time Australia clobbered a Czech team that had won the championship in two of the past three years.

History tells us that from 1932 until 1974 no nation other than Great Britain, the U.S. or Australia managed to win the Davis Cup. That isn’t satisfactorily explained by the fact that in those years, the “Challenge Round” format was in effect (the holder of the championship sat out the following year’s competition until the final round, when a challenger emerged from the elimination rounds). The plain fact is that the axis of three Anglophone nations simply dominated tennis. And that the USA and Australia marched toward glory more or less in lockstep.

I’ll see your Ken Rosewall and raise you one Arthur Ashe. I’ll see your Ashe and raise you a Rod Laver. I’ll see your Laver and raise you a John McEnroe. And so on.
[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Mark Runnacles/Getty ImagesJohn Isner had a weekend to forget against Great Britain in Davis Cup.

The U.S., though, has been the best: It won the championship 32 times. But the nation is clearly living on its reputation. Since World Group play began in 1981, it has won six titles, but just two in the past two decades.

The key to the British win this weekend was ATP No. 111 Jamie Ward’s win over a fella who can pop aces like an ATM machine spits $20 bills, No. 20 John Isner. That win, in the second match (or “rubber”) of the tie was the pivotal moment -- as well as a reprise of Ward’s statement win at the same stage last year in San Diego over Sam Querrey.

There will be calls for USA captain Jim Courier’s head in the coming days. The guy in the crisp suit and pretty tie will take the blame, but it was the kid in the short pants and sweaty baseball cap who dropped the proverbial ball. Not only did Isner play a poor match against Ward, but as the senior singles player on the squad, he also bears responsibility what Andy Murray’s brother, Jamie, described as the visitors’ poor team spirit.

Murray was a loser in a heartbreaking doubles match against Mike and Bob Bryan. Afterward, Jamie said, “It’s obvious to me that we’re a much tighter team than the Americans. The way everyone on the bench is getting behind us. I didn’t feel that from their team at all.

“They weren’t getting up or cheering or anything for the Bryans. Our guys were going hell for leather every point.”

That was prime bulletin-board material for the Yanks. Unfortunately, nobody in team USA appeared to read or post it. You can shoot the messenger if you like, but Jamie was just describing what he saw -- and felt.

Meanwhile, in Ivan Lendl’s hometown of Ostrava, Czech Republic, the Aussies were busier than hogs in a corn crib. Granted, the Czechs were without their top player, world No. 9 ranked Tomas Berdych. But Australia’s top-ranked player, 19-year-old ATP No. 36 Nick Kyrgios, also missed this tie. Plus the Czechs were at home, facing a squad with an old-timer (Hewitt is about to turn 34), a wet-behind-the-ears youngster, 18-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis and nothing-between-the-ears Bernard Tomic.

But Kokkinakis pulled off a Davis Cup stunt for the ages. Lukas Rosol served for the match leading 5-4 and 2-0 in sets. He then allowed Kokkinakis his first break point. The kid from Adelaide took it and went on to make the long climb for the win. Tomic then backed him up with a second rubber win over Jiri Vesely. That was no gimme: At No. 45, Vesely is ranked just five spots lower than Tomic.

Let’s be honest about this. Although the U.S. team is mired in the blues, and seemingly in myriad ways, the Australians -- also victims of hard times in recent years -- appear to be flourishing.

Davis Cup is the great but by no means sole indicator. The average age of Tomic, Kyrgios, and Kokkinakis is 19. It appears that the emergence of the two younger men has suddenly lit a fire under reckless 22-year-old Tomic. Perhaps he has decided that it wouldn’t be so cool to end up a cautionary tale for prodigies, while Kyrgios and Kokkinakis carry on the legacy of the two Pats, Cash and Rafter.

Also, in Hewitt, the young pups have an amazing role model. The guy bleeds Aussie green and gold, and that has already influenced the youngsters. That pride, team spirit and sense of superiority will certainly carry over as Tomic and company wander the pro tour.

Team USA doesn’t have a Lleyton Hewitt (it lost the closest thing it had when Andy Roddick called it quits). It also doesn’t have a Kyrgios or Kokkinakis. All it has is a great tradition and, in the Davis Cup, a canary in the mine.
As usual, intriguing questions abound on the eve of the first round of Davis Cup World Group play. But with neither Roger Federer nor Stan Wawrinka of the defending champion Swiss squad lacing them up this weekend, the biggest question of all might just be: “Is it time to bring back the Challenge Round?”

Think about it: It has been barely three months since Federer earned his historic first Davis Cup championship, and Wawrinka used the occasion to pop out once and for all from the shadow cast by his revered countryman. It was quite a party in Lille, France, back in late November, when a record crowd of over 27,000 watched the Swiss shatter the hopes of the home squad.

This weekend at Liege, Belgium, the Swiss are fielding a squad on which no player has a higher ATP singles ranking than No. 292.
[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
AP Photo/Keystone/Martial TrezziniDon't expect this kind of celebration from the Swiss this season, mainly as a result of the long, laborious Davis Cup format.

Call it the “hangover” portion of the Davis Cup program. The Swiss don’t appear to have a chance. It’s likely they will have held the precious, long-coveted, hard-earned Davis Cup trophy for a grand total of three months. That’s a pity.

For those of you who aren’t students of tennis history, the Challenge Round format was used until the present-day World Group scheme was adopted in 1972. Before that, for most Davis Cup’s 100-plus-year history, the champion earned the right to sit out the competition until a single challenger emerged from the yearlong tournament. The World Group format now forces the champs to start from scratch, along with everyone else, at the start of every year.

The irony is that the better the squad (which is usually a matter of superior personnel), the greater the chance that its stars will elect not to play to defend the title. You remember what happened after Spain, led by Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, whitewashed the Czech Republic 5-0 in the final of 2009? Spain was still strong enough to defeat Switzerland in the first round a few months later (neither Nadal nor Federer played in that one). But without Nadal in their second-round tie, mighty Spain was shut in July out at France.

The World Group format was adopted four years into the Open era. It was clearly an attempt by the International Tennis Federation to capitalize on the opportunities offered by the suddenly booming professional game. It was also a way to protect the Davis Cup franchise and ensure that it remained relevant. Why “punish” the sport -- and its fans -- by making a great player like Rod Laver or Arthur Ashe sit out all year just because they won it the previous year?

In some ways this was an excellent idea. But it did not anticipate two related developments: the success of a “Grand Prix” style tournament calendar and the escalating demands on the bodies and time of the very best players.

You can’t lay all the blame for Davis Cup’s troubles at the feet of the players, although a good number who profess to love the competition don’t really walk the walk. At least they don’t support the event as unconditionally as did, say, Andy Roddick. But the real fault lies with the format.

I’ve never been a big fan of Davis Cup reform, certainly not of those cockamamie plans that would destroy traditions such as the alternating choice of ground and surface rules by playing the entire event in a big-media market over a set period. But the ITF could reinstitute the Challenge Round and thus stand a better chance of convincing a Federer, Nadal or Novak Djokovic to make an effort to defend.

Back in the day, the competition was organized along zonal (geographic) lines. Perhaps a return to the Challenge Round and a reshuffled zonal approach (to reduce the wear and tear of travel on the teams vying to challenge) would lead to more consistent player support.

True, the ITF could not have seen what was coming when it redesigned the Davis Cup format in hopes of leveling the playing field, giving more nations a shot at winning, and growing the event. But the law of unintended consequences kicked in, and it may be time to find a better future by looking to the past.

Team USA notes: In Glasgow, Scotland, Great Britain got the draw it hoped for when No. 1 Andy Murray was drawn to play U.S. No. 2 Donald Young in the first rubber. But keep in mind that Young has beaten Murray on a hard court before, at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 in 2011.

U.S. No. 1 John Isner, ranked No. 20 in singles, will play No. 111 James Ward in the second rubber. That’s not as much of a mismatch as it may appear. Ward was the key to Great Britain’s upset of the U.S. in the first round last year at this time in San Diego, where he knocked off Sam Querrey in the second rubber after Murray dispatched Young. Can history repeat?

Bob and Mike Bryan are as reliable as mailmen in doubles, but things could get more interesting for them if Great Britain pulls No. 38 (in doubles) Dominic Inglot and pairs Murray with his brother, Jamie. It could happen, especially if Ward loses to Isner.

Understanding the meaning of tennis statistics isn’t an undertaking that merits comparison with rocket science. Nevertheless, racket science has its own challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers generated by the sport last week and see where our speculations take us.

In hot pursuit of Ivo Karlovic: Two men hurtled toward the 9,000-ace mark during the first few weeks of the new year, Ivo Karlovic and Roger Federer. Karlovic, the 36-year-old Croatian ace-maker, got there first; at Doha, he passed Andy Roddick for No. 2 on the all-time list. But Federer was not far behind. He got to 9,000 last week in Dubai. It seems the desert is conducive to blasting aces.
[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Karim Sahib/Getty ImagesYou don't think of Roger Federer as an all-time great ace machine, but the stats say otherwise.

The top four as of Monday are Goran Ivanisevic (10,183 aces), Karlovic (9,375), Roddick (9,074) and Federer (9,007). The top three ace-makers accounted for a total of two Grand Slam titles (Ivanisevic and Roddick each won one major). The fourth man on the totem pole has a mere 17. It’s ironic, but can anyone think of three players less like Federer than his peers in the top four? What’s he doing in this group anyway?

Federer undeniably has an excellent, versatile serve. But his ace count is more of a tribute to his consistency and longevity than his power.

Federer hit his 9,007 aces in 1,189 matches, an average of 7.57 aces per match. No. 3 Roddick hit his aces in 780 matches, for an average of 11.63. Karlovic accumulated his aces in just 499 matches -- an average of 18.78 per match. Ivanisevic, the all-time volume champ, broke the 10K mark after 895 matches for an average of 11.3.

Thus, if Karlovic had been good enough to play (which really means win) as many matches as Federer, he would now have 22,329 aces -- almost twice the number drilled by ace king Ivanisevic.

(Bad) Luck of the Irish: When James McGee scored a prized wild card for Dubai, he became just the third Irish player to take part in an ATP main tour event since 1990. Can you name the other two?

Louk Sorensen made his ATP debut at Chennai in 2010, while Conor Niland first played Houston in 2010.

McGee is currently the highest-ranking Irishman at No. 211, but the 27-year-old Dubliner lost to Joao Sousa in the first round of Dubai. He’s probably hearing footsteps. Sorensen is No. 226.

Sorensen’s father, Sean, made the main draw at Wimbledon in 1977 and lost in the first round to Rod Laver. When Louk qualified for the Australian Open in his best year, 2010, he became the first man from Ireland to play in the main draw of a Grand Slam event since his father in 1980. Louk, now 30, hit his career-high ranking of 175 in 2014. He’s 5-6 in main tour matches for his career and still plugging away.

Niland, now 33 and no longer playing, won nine of 24 ATP matches in his career. He reached a career-high ranking of 129 -- the highest attained by an Irishman since Matt Doyle hit No. 65 in 1982.

The Irish had a national tennis career moment in 2011, when both Niland and Sorensen qualified for the U.S. Open -- with Niland drawing Novak Djokovic as his first-round opponent. The bum luck of the Irish was further exacerbated when Niland had to quit the match on Arthur Ashe Stadium down 6-0, 5-1 because of a bad case of food poisoning.

[+] EnlargeErnests Gulbis
Steve Bardens/Getty ImagesErnests Gulbis is winless on the season, but he isn't worried -- far from it.
The semi-importance of being Ernests: In a line destined to go down in tennis lore and legend, ATP No. 15 Ernests Gulbis said of his 0-5 start this year: “It’s the calm before the storm.” Droll guy, that Ernests. Who said today’s top tennis players have all the personality of an IRS tax auditor?

If history is any indication, Gulbis can continue to enjoy the calm that has descended on his game. Vince Spadea lost 21 consecutive main tour matches (the ATP record), the final 17 of them in 2000, before “the storm.”

Spadea, now 40, was once ranked as high as No. 18. (Gulbis hit No. 10 in June of last year.) Gulbis has six titles to his credit, while Spadea won just one, at Scottsdale (he defeated Nicolas Kiefer). But Spadea, whose pro career spanned 17 years, had wins over Federer (that one included a bagel set), Rafael Nadal, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi -- pretty much everyone who was anyone.

When the storm broke after those 21 losses, it was in spectacular fashion. Spadea outlasted British hope and former US Open finalist Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon in 2010. Spadea won the first-round battle 9-7 in the fifth.

You have a long way to go, Ernests.

video Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both won tournaments on the same weekend for just the third time in their entwined careers this weekend, and they did it with flair that reminded many of the days when they alone dominated the tennis headlines.

Federer produced a masterful win over top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Dubai, while Nadal bagged his first title of the year in Buenos Aires, at the expense of his former PlayStation buddy and local favorite, Juan Monaco.

It was a historic win for each of them, as Federer surpassed the 9,000-ace mark during the week, and Nadal’s win was the 65th of his career -- good for No. 5 on the all-time list led by Jimmy Connors (109).
[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Karim Sahib/Getty ImagesOn Saturday, Roger Federer joined a very elite group of players who have hit 9,000 career aces.

If you had to pick the more impressive performance, the clear choice is Federer’s. Taking advantage of the fast court in Dubai (it is, after all, Swiss native Federer’s home-away-from-home court), Federer built upon his slim head-to-head lead over the Serbian star (20-17). It’s a significant stat for his legacy, given that Nadal pulled away in his own rivalry with Federer some time ago. Now ranked No. 4, Nadal has an overwhelming 23-10 advantage over No. 2 Federer.

It has been a somewhat stressful start to 2015 for both Federer and Nadal. Although Federer won his first tournament of the year (Brisbane), the 33-year-old icon was speared by ATP No. 46 Andreas Seppi in the third round at the Australian Open.

In his previous Grand Slam appearance, Federer was stopped in the semifinals of the US Open by the eventual champ, first-time Grand Slam finalist Marin Cilic. Federer may or may not have felt he had a point to prove in Dubai, but it’s indisputable that he did have a brilliant game plan. He attacked Djokovic freely and brought points to a swift ending, neutralizing Djokovic’s formidable rallying skills.

Federer kept the points short and successfully avoided engaging in rallies that had him pinned back and hitting backhands. Djokovic managed to return serve to Federer’s backhand on just 10 occasions, winning nine of those points. The rest of the time, Federer kept him under pressure and unable to find the weak link in Federer’s game. The result: 6-3, 7-5, Federer.

True, Djokovic had trouble finding his A-game. But Federer also made sure that one-handed backhand remained out of reach with an expert display of guileful serving. Fittingly, Federer cracked the historic 9,000th ace of his career during this final, a feat that leaves him fourth on the list that also includes Andy Roddick, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivo Karlovic. It’s hard to think of three other guys with whom Federer would have less in common, and against whom he’s a combined 35-4. It’s a tribute to Federer’s great versatility.

Being Roger Federer, he knew exactly which serve it was, too: "I think I remember which one it was because I was even counting a little bit,” he sheepishly admitted. "I think it was one of the swinger wides … maybe. I'm not sure. But I think it happened in the second set at some point.”

OK, it’s a lot of “maybes.” It’s also undeniably a lot of aces.

Nadal’s week was not quite as epic. Like Federer, he was on his preferred surface (red clay). If anything, he was in even greater need of making a statement. In three previous tournaments this year, Nadal hadn’t beaten a player ranked higher than No. 15 Kevin Anderson. He didn’t take down one in Buenos Aires, either. The highest-ranking player he defeated was No. 59 Federico Delbonis.

Being Rafael Nadal, he looked as if he had just won another title at Roland Garros after he throttled No. 60 Monaco without ever facing a break point, 6-4, 6-1. Nadal’s game may have been AWOL these past months, but his schoolboyish enthusiasm remains intact.

Despite the fact that this was a mere ATP 250 (Dubai is a 500), Nadal also penetrated deeper into the history books with the win. His 65th career title broke a deadlock with a pair of worthy champs: Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg.

Fourteen of those titles Nadal has accumulated are Grand Slam championships. At age 28, he still has time to catch his old frenemy in Federer, the all-time leader with 17 major titles. But it has looked more and more like an uphill battle for Nadal, who has managed to bag just one major (at Roland Garros) since his win over Djokovic in the 2013 US Open. And that’s just where Federer could be of great value to him.

When Nadal began to assert his superiority over Federer, there was much a talk about how their games match up to Nadal’s favor, and about how Nadal was “in Roger’s head.” While Djokovic prevailed over Federer in their last Grand Slam meeting (Wimbledon 2014), Federer is now 4-2 against Djokovic in their most recent clashes.

If Federer takes a cue from his nemesis and manages to insert himself in Djokovic’s frontal lobe, Nadal’s hunt for major titles could become that much easier. Nadal still leads Djokovic 23-19, but Djokovic has won four of the past five.

Djokovic was once the third wheel in the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Federer might find himself thrust into that role, enabling Nadal’s march to glory.

Ryan Harrison's burning desire

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
video Ryan Harrison may have spent most of his young career thus far knocked out flat on his back, but the 22-year-old who looks like Huck Finn on a weight-training program keeps gazing at the stars.

Wednesday in Acapulco, Harrison punched through with his first win (in 23 attempts) over a player ranked in the top 10, Grigor Dimitrov. And then Thursday, he slowed down Delray Beach champion Ivo Karlovic in a 7-6-in-the-third barnburner to reach the semifinals. But the gregarious Louisiana native wasn’t thinking prudently or extolling the virtues of taking his career one step at a time.

“I want to be the best tennis player in the world,” Harrison told the press after eliminating No. 3 seed Dimitrov in the second round at Acapulco. If this were anyone other than Harrison, that might sound presumptuous -- or at least deserving of the reply, “Keep dreaming, bub.”
[+] EnlargeRyan Harrison
Francisco Estrada/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesBy beating Grigor Dimitrov, Ryan Harrison is showing that he can win at a big-time level.

But this is Ryan “All-In” Harrison. This is the guy who’s so sincere in his desire to be a great player and so intense in his pursuit of success that you may want to grab him, give him a shake and tell him there’s more to life than being a great tennis player. But if you did that he’d probably just look at you as if it was you, not he, who’s got a screw loose.

“It’s one of those things where you care about what you’re doing,” Harrison went on, trying to put his motivation into proper context. “You love what you’re doing, and you want to be the best.”

If anything, that burning desire in Harrison might have been something of an impediment once he hit a wall in his career. The more you want something, the more you may be apt to tie yourself up in knots if you fail to earn it, or if getting it seems to demand more than you can or want to give.

Harrison approached the elite ATP level highly regarded and beaver eager. He was articulate, expressive and seemingly mature beyond his years -- to the point where his U.S. Davis Cup teammates couldn’t quite decide if he were the smartest, or most annoying, teenager any of them had ever met. Harrison earned his first ATP ranking points at age 15 in 2007. In 2010, he became the first American teenager since Andy Roddick to beat a top-20 player.

In 2011, Harrison was the second youngest player in the top 100 (behind No. 42 Bernard Tomic). Harrison reached his career-high ranking of No. 43 in July of 2012, but the wheels began to fall off shortly thereafter. From mid-July on, he won just two singles matches the rest of the year.

Harrison has often played well but lacked the mental strength and/or composure to win, struggling to keep his mind on the task at hand. This year alone, Harrison has pushed three of his four losses (in five events thus far) to three sets. His Grand Slam efforts have produced a fair share of clunkers, as well as an unforgettable loss in the second round of the 2010 US Open (for which Harrison had to qualify). He lost a wildly entertaining five-setter on the Grandstand court -- 7-6 (6) in the fifth -- to No. 36 Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Harrison said in the interim he lost his way, that he listened to too many voices and often worried overly about what others were thinking. “You can’t worry about what everyone is going to say or think,” he said. “You just have to get yourself organized. Hopefully everyone can see how hard I’m working and how much I want to get to the top.”

To that end, Harrison recently re-hired a former coach, Grant Doyle. He’s also been aided considerably by his neighbor in Austin, Texas, Andy Roddick. “When I’m home, Andy hits with me, pretty much every day,” Harrison said. “He advises me. He keeps me organized. And he’s doing it for no money. Nothing.”

Unlike his protégé, Roddick always knew what he had to do to win and he avoided trying to do things that were beyond his reach. Some of his match management skills may have rubbed off on Harrison. When he fell behind love-30 in the first game of the final set against Dimitrov, Harrison recognized the “pivotal” moment. He had surrendered an early break that enabled Dimitrov to win the second set. Harrison knew that another early break would be equally disastrous. He rallied his resources, held, and never lost another game.

This win was especially poignant because Harrison was up against another heavily publicized former prodigy. The 23-year-old Bulgarian has achieved considerably more spotlight than has Harrison, but this is a year in which Dimitrov needs to consolidate his position after starting 2014 ranked outside the top 20. After the match, the defending champ in Acapulco gritted his teeth and admitted, “It was a bad loss for me.”

Both these young men might do well to study the approach of the tournament’s top seed, Kei Nishikori. At 25, Nishikori may seem like the elder statesman among the ATP’s promising youngsters. Already ranked No. 5, Nishikori is within striking distance of both No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 Rafael Nadal. More important, Nishikori, the 2014 US Open finalist, has fully backed up that somewhat unexpected result.

Nishikori is 22-4 since Flushing Meadows, and he’s embraced and mastered the pressure that comes along with status as a top seed. Just two weeks ago in Memphis, Harrison qualified for the main draw, won a match and pushed eventual champ Nishikori to the limit in a three-set loss.

That was the kind of match Harrison will have to win more often if he hopes to realize his ambitions. It’s one thing to keep looking at the stars and quite another to reach them.

The old adage warning us that while the cat’s away the mice will play is never more relevant in pro tennis than in February. Most of the top players have fallen silent after dominating the headlines at the Australian Open, but tournaments are still there to be won, and there’s money to be made, plus rankings points to collect.

If Grand Slam tennis is a lavish feast, the events in February and early March constitute a tapas bar. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff to digest, some of it relevant to the big combined events to come along shortly, some of it not. February is, contrary to the common perception, a colorful month. It’s a little wacky, but awfully satisfying if you can appreciate the talents of, say, Daniela Hantuchova (she won at Pattaya) or Ivo Karlovic (the king of Delray) or even Kim Clijsters.

Say what?

Yes, “Aussie Kim” was with us once again, albeit as a last-minute substitute at Antwerp, where Carla Suarez Navarro was unable to play the final a few weeks ago because of a neck injury.
[+] EnlargeKim Clijsters
Dirk Waem/AFP/Getty ImagesKim Clijsters might be retired, but she proved she still has plenty of game.

Clijsters, a much-loved former No. 1, laced them up once again to play an exhibition against the healthy finalist, Andrea Petkovic. It was not a difficult decision: Clijsters is the tournament director of Antwerp, and her first reaction to the news that Suarez Navarro was unable to play was a panic attack. “Before I knew it, I was playing,” she told reporters later.

Clijsters, now 31, won the showcase 5-3. Making light of the result, Petkovic quipped during the trophy presentation ceremony, "I hope you don't take any offense, Kim, but I'm glad you are done playing on tour.”

For the local Clijsters crowd, it went over big, but you have to wonder if a fan who paid full freight for the finals ticket felt satisfied.

That was perhaps the most unusual February moment, but some others also tested our credulity -- chief among them Rafael Nadal’s loss to Fabio Fognini. It was Nadal’s first loss in a clay-court semifinal in 53 matches spanning 12 years, although David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Novak Djokovic might not be all that impressed. All of them have logged clay-court wins over Nadal in the past year. They just didn’t accomplish it in the semis.

Poor Rafa might have known better than to test the waters in February, for the month really does belong to the have-nots -- or have-somes. Ferrer may be the ultimate “have-some,” and true to form, he popped up to end any designs Fognini had on the Rio title after his rousing upset of Nadal. At roughly the same time, west of Rio, 29-year-old Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay was in the process of winning just the third title of his career, at Sao Paolo.

And how about Gilles Simon? The speedy, 30-year-old Frenchman tripped up No. 4 Andy Murray at Rotterdam and followed up his semifinal appearance there with a win over Gael Monfils in Marseilles. That one was a corker, decided in a third-set tiebreaker. February might not be a month that evokes reflections on bitter rivalries, or even intense and desperate set-tos. Yet the French players have remarkable enthusiasm for the indoor events played on home soil in either February or the fall.

Richard Gasquet won his second title at Montpellier this February. Simon has won four of his 12 career titles at Marseilles (two) and another French town, Metz (two). Monfils has two titles at Montpellier and one at Metz.

What happens to these fellas when the French Open comes around is a subject best left for another occasion.

Two Grand Slam contenders did impose a modicum of order on the ATP events. In the most significant February ATP event (until this week in Dubai), ATP No. 7 Stan Wawrinka frustrated No. 8 Tomas Berdych in the Rotterdam final. And Kei Nishikori did a fine job upholding his top seeding in Memphis. All three of these men are legitimate Grand Slam contenders who, unlike the Federers and Djokovics of this world, can’t afford the luxury of taking off the month of February. All of them did due diligence in the past few weeks.

On the WTA side of the fence at Rio, Sara Errani also justified her top seeding. Simona Halep, who’s grown proficient at cleaning up at smaller events, bagged the most prestigious title on offer with a succession of quality wins in Dubai over Ekaterina Makarova, Caroline Wozniacki and, in the final, Karolina Pliskova.

Perhaps fittingly, three of the winners so far in February also won titles a year ago at this time: Halep, Ferrer and Nishikori. Halep is No. 3 in the WTA world rankings, Nishikori is No. 5, and Ferrer is hanging in at No. 9 -- but he’s a Grand Slam finalist who has been ranked as high as No. 3.

Even among mice, quality will tell.

Can’t keep this Donald Young down

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
It wasn’t so long ago that 25-year-old Donald Young appeared to be the prodigy who never would arrive. Now he’s becoming something like the guy who won’t go away.

Young made the final of the Delray Beach ATP 250 on Sunday, earning another opportunity to bag the first title of his career in over 10 years as a pro. He was denied in pre-emptive fashion by Ivo Karlovic, a 6-foot-11, 35-year-old Croatian who set a Delray Beach tournament record by firing a grand total of 91 aces last week.

Somehow, the loss seemed emblematic of Young and the travails he’s known. He gets to a final showing wonderful skills and versatility -- and he meets a guy who won’t let him get the ball in play. But Young is like one of those inflatable punching “bop” bags. Knock it down, it pops back up. In Young’s case, the rebound may take a little longer, that’s all.
[+] EnlargeDonald Young
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDonald Young has had plenty of peaks and valleys, but we're finally seeing a player who will do whatever it takes to win.

A decade ago, Young was the world’s No. 1 junior player. (If that doesn’t seem to compute chronologically, the problem isn’t my math; you can blame it on Young’s extraordinary talent, for he was all of 15 at the time.) He was the youngest man to win a Grand Slam junior singles title (Australian Open, 2005), and at the end of that year he became the youngest-ever year-end No. 1 junior, at 16 years, 4 months.

Young also won the Wimbledon boys’ singles title in 2007, at 17. By then, he’d been a professional for nearly three years, leading a strange double life. By day, he was just another struggling young pro trying -- with no great success -- to crack the ATP code in Futures and Challenger events. By night, so to speak, he was the junior champion of the world, ready to take on all comers.

Has any player more convincingly demonstrated that no talent is large enough to guarantee a successful transition from junior to professional tennis?

In 2007, the native of Chicago finally appeared to hit his stride. At 18, the slightly built 6-foot left-hander shaved nearly 400 points off his year-end ranking, finishing for the first time inside the elite top 100 (at No. 98).

But by the end of the following year, he’d slipped 42 notches, and 2009 was even worse; Young nearly fell out of the top 200 (No. 194). Just when many wrote off his long-term prospects, Young regained nearly 70 places in 2010 -- and so on. The curve of his career has been less arc than roller coaster.

There has always been plenty of room for debate on the “What’s wrong with Donald Young?” front, particularly after his stunning rise to No. 39 by the end of 2011 and the crash that followed (12 months later he was back down to No. 190).

True, Young never did develop serious firepower. He’s well on the small side in today’s game and clearly more “tennis player” than buff, all-around athlete. He has marvelous touch, but his finesse and slice-and-dice mentality leave him vulnerable to first-strike attackers.

Some argue that Young turned pro too early and all the one-sided beatings inflicted on him did permanent damage to his confidence. Still others have criticized the continued, dominant role his parents/coaches, Don Sr. and Illona, have played in his life. They have been alternately accused of sheltering, pampering and controlling their son. The Young family’s conflicts with the USTA player development program also are well-documented.

Mostly, though, it seems Donald marches to the tune of a different drummer. That suspicion was planted early.

As a 14-year-old playing in one of his first big junior finals (the U.S. Clay Court 14-and-under Nationals), Young rebounded from the loss of a set to Jesse Levine to win the second set and lead 5-0, 40-15 in the third -- whereupon Levine ran off 23 consecutive points to win the match. That’s the most dramatic, if by no means singular, example of Young’s tendency to lose his focus and mentally check out of a match. In fact, he appears to check out of matches for months running, and that may help explain those peaks-and-valleys on his résumé.

Young’s first shot at an ATP main-tour title came in 2011 at Bangkok, where he was crushed 6-2, 6-0 by No. 4 Andy Murray. On Sunday, ace-maker Karlovic smacked 13 clean ones against Young in a 6-3, 6-3 victory, fending off all seven break points the younger man earned. Young was philosophical in defeat:

"[Karlovic] kind of tosses [the serve] in the same spot, and he can hit all the spots on the court," he said. "You look and see some tendencies. I was able to pick quite a few, but just not when it actually mattered. He played well. He beat me. I didn’t play the best I wanted to play, but all credit to him."

Donald Young was knocked down again Sunday, but lately he’s been bouncing back nicely. He’s off to a good start in 2015 (10-4, with a final and a semi in his last two outings). He’s back up there in the rankings, at No. 45. It sometimes seems as if that first ATP title is just an agonizing inch away -- in a sport where an inch might as well be a mile.

The Andy Murray problem

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
I posted a tweet about midway through the Australian Open men’s singles final accusing Andy Murray of being “unprofessional.” It was ironic, I later realized, because Murray has a reputation as one of the most diligent and dedicated of ATP pros. But my comment was a gut reaction to the way Murray was behaving during the match.

If you’ve ever been a spectator at a sanctioned junior tournament or even a high-level rec event, you’ve seen similar behavior. The screaming. The self-flagellation. The monologues, quad thumping and acid comments directed at everyone and no one in particular. Can you say “freak-out”?

But here Murray was, playing not in the town championships of Mudville but in the Australian Open final. And we thought Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had made such histrionics seem, well, silly. Childish. Unprofessional.
[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
AP Images/Peter DejongHow much does Andy Murray get in his own way from achieving more success?

Maybe I would see this differently if Murray had drawn energy and courage from his outbursts and gone on to win that final instead of losing 12 of the final 13 games -- a meltdown that happened to coincide with his most flagrant loss of self-control. Maybe I would see this differently if Murray had gone into the news conference after Djokovic knocked him out and admitted he lost control, instead of accusing Djokovic of sandbagging.

Maybe I would see this differently if I could just pass off Murray’s actions as a testament to the glorious individualism of the game -- or even as a doomed, romantic blow struck for what Jimmy Connors might describe as old-fashioned “showmanship.” The stuff that, according to Connors, gets folks juiced about tennis.

But I can’t see this differently.

I do believe that in some ways Murray’s conduct reflects an otherwise admirable determination to remain true to himself. Say what you want about Scots, but they are rarely accused of being “phony” or overly eager to please. And it’s also true that Murray’s game, lethal as it can be, has a do-it-yourself quality. That he’s a multiple Grand Slam champion with a DIY game (a quality evident in both his stroke production and his overall approach to strategy and tactics) is a tribute to his unique talent and desire. Give him some breathing room, let Andy Murray be Andy Murray.

But as seductive as some of these rationalizations and their implications are, the bottom line is that Murray made a hash of his most recent Grand Slam opportunity. An awful, embarrassing mess.

Going into the final, pundits of all stripes were touting his (once again) newly aggressive game. He logged a masterful win over Tomas Berdych in a semifinal that had all the overtones of grudge match. (Imagine, Berdych had the nerve to hire Danny Vallverdu, the coach whom Murray had fired!) Murray also was being hailed as an enlightened kind of guy for having a female coach -- as if he had hired former Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo in that capacity because of his social conscience.

Hardly 48 hours later, all that was left for his boosters to cling to was his loyalty to Mauresmo -- a fealty that will be rigorously tested if Murray, who’s back up to No. 4 in the rankings, can’t make greater inroads against an aging Federer, an increasingly banged-up Nadal or the player who is his natural-born rival, Djokovic. The win in Melbourne put Djokovic ahead 16-8 and 5-2 in their meetings at majors.

Djokovic was born just a week after Murray, and the two have been compadres since their days as junior rivals -- details that made Murray’s suggestion that Djokovic engaged in gamesmanship in their recent meeting particularly biting. That Djokovic chose to take the high road instead of firing back at Murray made the loser’s grapes seem particularly sour.

Murray played in Rotterdam this week but lost to Gilles Simon in straight sets Friday. Before he was ousted, Murray tried to walk back his comments about Djokovic. "Everything has been made out to be much bigger than what it was," Murray told reporters. Implying that the controversy was blown out of proportion, he added, "That happens all the time these days."

Well, the official transcripts are there for all to see. And at the end of the day, Murray’s comments did serve to take attention away from his lack of self-control during the final. John P. McEnroe’s reputation as the only elite player who managed to play better after going ballistic remains safe for now.

The cold truth is that Murray screwed up in a big way. He had a great draw, facing just two top-10 players en route to the final, mentally fragile Berdych (No. 7) and wet-behind-the-ears No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov. (They have exactly one Grand Slam final appearance between them.)

Granted, Djokovic in Melbourne is about as tough an assignment as you can imagine (Nadal in Paris being the only exception), so I can feel for Murray. But I don’t believe Murray is especially interested in earning my sympathy; he’s interested in earning more Grand Slam titles.

Judging by the way Murray handled the Australian Open final, his own emotions may present a formidable obstacle to his realization of that goal.