So you rose from No. 11 in the world in January to No. 3 in the WTA rankings by the end of the year, and along the way, you made a Grand Slam final in Paris. What do you do?

If you’re Simona Halep, you fire your coach.

So you made the semifinals (at least) of three Grand Slam events and rocket from No. 32 to No. 7. Incidentally, you also break out as a star and marketing sensation. What do you do?

[+] EnlargeNavratilova
Larry Marano/Getty ImagesCan Martina Navratilova help catapult Agnieszka Radwanska to her first Grand Slam title?
If you’re Eugenie Bouchard, you fire your coach. Although in her case, the official statement said that she and Nick Saviano agreed to part by mutual agreement. Translation: They fired each other.

So you’ve been ranked as high as No. 2 and made it to the Wimbledon final, thanks to your exceptional defense, wily tactics and remarkably deft “feel” and hands. What do you do?

If you’re Agnieszka Radwanska, you hire a woman known for her exceptional offense, straight-ahead serve-and-volley game, and all court aggression in Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova.

So you won the junior Wimbledon singles title at 15 and, according to some in-the-trenches coaches, you were the best prospect in Australia in the past two decades. You quit the game, abruptly and with no plans to return, at age 18. What do you do?

If you’re Ashleigh Barty, you become a tennis coach, hoping to find or help the next … Ashleigh Barty.

The proverbial “coaching carousel” has been spinning wildly these past few weeks. In fact, it’s spinning so quickly that anyone who hops aboard for a ride is likely to get flung off, or end up staggering away when the brief ride is over to go and hurl in the hedges. It’s fair to ask, “What on earth is going on here?”

The activity in the annual late-year coaching bazaar has been brisk as well as bizarre. What had once been a relatively straightforward and often long-lasting relationship between famous (or even not so famous) player and his coach (think Pete Sampras and Paul Annacone or even the more recently, Victoria Azarenka and Sam Sumyk) seems to have become a partnership built upon -- and often swiftly ruined by -- mystifying and insufficiently clear factors and conflicts.

For more and more players, having just one coach is as insufficient as having just one car in the family. Furthermore, the once comprehensive role that defined the coach has been shattered into splinters. There are coaches who wouldn’t touch a player’s forehand grip or ball toss if you paid him -- that’s because they’re more psychologist than tutor. Others have a purpose that could not be any narrower. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic hired Boris Becker last year because he thought the German icon might help him win the most critical of points in the biggest of matches.

At least one coach claims he was fired partly because he just isn’t a life-of-the-party kind of guy. Wim Fissette, recently let go by Halep, explained: “She is a girl who needs a lot of variation. That's why, for example, every tournament there were some family members to ‘entertain’ her.”

Fissette also said that Halep simply feels more comfortable with Romanians on her team, which might explain why she’ll now work with Victor Ionita, who is a fellow countryman but not why she’s also hired Thomas Hogstedt, who is not. Incidentally, there’s a new niche in the coaching trade, and Hogstedt, who has coached Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, defines it when he defers and describes himself as a mere “consultant” to Halep.

You can put James Blake in the “consultant” category as well. He’ll be working with America’s brightest prospect, 22-year-old and ATP No. 42 Jack Sock. Blake, who doesn’t want to travel, will mostly mentor Sock. “I'm definitely not in the role of being the day-to-day coach. That's Troy Hahn. He's worked with him closely. I help with some of the big-picture type things, keep the mindset the right way, make sure he gives his opponents enough respect. I think that's something a lot of younger players overlook. Keep his mind in the right place.”

[+] EnlargeSimona Halep
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSimona Halep changed her coaching direction following a career year.
In other words, Blake is the coach who will try to peel Sock’s eyeballs off his Twitter feed and make sure Sock knows the price he’ll pay for a late night out. It’s a far cry from ordering him to do 50 sit-ups or to serve out a shopping basket full of balls.

The motivation behind the Radwanska-Navratilova partnership is similar to the force that drove Djokovic to find Becker. Only Djokovic was a Grand Slam champ in a Grand Slam finals slump, while Radwanska still hasn’t punched through. The conspicuous difference in the styles of the two women raises some interesting questions: Will Navratilova advise Radwanska to chip and charge behind her service return if she gets to critical break point against a Sharapova or Williams in a French Open or Wimbledon semifinal?

The job definition for “coach” has become so pliant that even television commentators have jumped into the fray, as evidenced by the fact that Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob will replace Mike Sell as coach of the highest-ranking American, No. 19 John Isner. Navratilova is also a TC commentator. As is Lindsay Davenport, who will be coaching promising youngster Madison Keys in 2015.

Perhaps “coaching” is too strong a word to use in some of these cases. Davenport is locked into her commentary work for the upcoming year, and she’s also the mother of four. So she says she’ll just talk with Keys when she can, presumably with a phone in one hand and her 11-month-old in the other, bouncing on her hip.

Although the general U.S. economy may still be a bit sluggish, coaching certainly has become a booming and baffling business. My advice to any coach who has got a solid top 20-type player looking to improve: Don’t let her or him get anywhere near the top five or you might find yourself out of a job.

Serena WilliamsJulian Finney/Getty ImagesSerena Williams capped what looked like a lost year with titles at the US Open and WTA Finals.
In some years, the players of the year are those who clearly dominated the playing field. Think Roger Federer in 2006, Novak Djokovic in 2011, or Serena Williams almost any time (on the Mayan as well as Gregorian calendars).

This year, my choices for player of the year won but one Grand Slam title between them. And just one finished the year ranked No. 1 -- and that just by the skin of her teeth.

I’m guessing you know my WTA pick: Serena Williams. On the men’s side, my POY is Kei Nishikori.

First, let’s clear up any confusion about what qualifies a player for my award. You can’t play like dog poop and earn the distinction, but piling up the W's doesn’t get you the nomination, either. To me, the POY is the male or female who had the greatest impact on the game. Often, that’s also the best player, as in the case of Williams in 2014.

Sometimes the POY is the athlete who brought more than just a walloping serve or ball-crushing forehand to the party. It’s the player who captured our collective imagination, elevated the game in the public eye, or achieved something few had anticipated and surprised us. And that’s what Nishikori did this year.

Serena is one of the biggest tennis personalities ever to pull on faux biker boots. But most years she’s been so deadly efficient on the court that she was a strong candidate for POY based exclusively on her record. This year, it was different. This year, we weren’t asking, “Can Serena achieve a Grand Slam?” or “Will she lose a set during the tournament?”

Instead, for most of the year we were asking, “What’s wrong with Serena?” And let’s be frank here: By August, many wondered if she was through winning majors.

This situation caused endless anxiety for Williams fans, but it helped the game. And it provided a nice counterweight to one of the other big WTA stories of the year, the breakthrough by Eugenie Bouchard. For the media, Williams is the gift that just keeps giving. And she’s such a great player that she’s an even bigger story when she’s losing than when she’s winning.

Williams kept us on tenterhooks for most of the year. She lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Ana Ivanovic (who had never previously beaten Williams). She then suffered the worst defeat of her Grand Slam career when Garbine Muguruza allowed Williams just four games in a second-round clash at the French Open. At Wimbledon, she lost to Alize Cornet in singles and then withdrew (with partner and sister, Venus) a few games into a doubles match due to a disturbing episode of physical disorientation.

The story of Williams’s demise was all teed up for the U.S. Open. But after Wimbledon, Williams proceeded to win 19 of her last 20 matches of 2014, including a dramatic and entertaining U.S. Open final. She had kept us on the edge of our seats all year, and then turned a potentially sad story into a glorious one.

There’s also this: When it comes to the WTA, Williams remains the only fixed point on an ever-shifting and confusing plain. It makes you wonder what will happen when she’s gone.

[+] EnlargeKei Nishikori
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesA measured, consistent approach helped Kei Nishikori make his mark this season.
If you wanted to nominate an "anti-Serena" in the personality department, Nishikori would surely be on your short list. The 24-year old Japanese isn't so much self-effacing as he is introverted. Nishikori is so absorbed in the day-to-day demands of his profession that he has almost no media presence. His game is equally understated, which is one of the reasons so many fans, upon seeing him in the U.S. Open final, wondered how he got there.

Well, the answer is fairly simple: He’s a wonderful ball striker with clean, grooved strokes. He’s remarkably nimble and willing to take the ball on the rise. Also, he has a grinder’s mentality. He can simply outlast run-of-the-mill opponents with his superior consistency and patience, and keep pace with the elite players because his focus keeps at bay some of the customary fears and doubts attendant to facing a Djokovic or Federer.

That alone wouldn’t necessarily net him distinction as the ATP POY. After all, Marin Cilic was an equally surprising U.S. Open finalist, and he beat Nishikori for the title. Another introvert, the 26-year-old Cilic has two years on Nishikori, but has won just three of their eight meetings (including 1-2 in 2014). At 6-foot-6, Cilic is another in a long line of sinewy, towering Croatians who have left their mark on the game.

By contrast, Nishikori is a mere 5-foot-10. In baggy shorts and a baseball cap, he looks as if he just wandered in from a panel in "Peanuts." He’s one of the players who seem designed to demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief (and the existence of thumpers like Cilic) that "bigger" doesn't necessarily translate into "better." Thanks to guys like Nishikori, slightly built men and women know there’s always hope.

Nishikori, who finished the year at No. 5, also established new high-water marks for Asian male players, a valuable service at a time when the game is enjoying a growth spurt throughout the Pacific region. To be sure, tennis is no novelty in Japan, nor will the Chinese fall all over themselves to embrace Nishikori as some sort of pan-Asian hero. But it was high time for an Asian man to step up and serve as a convincing regional role model.

This was a somewhat odd year in pro tennis, as presaged at the Australian Open by that Ivanovic upset of Serena and the muted men’s final that produced a 29-year-old first-time Grand Slam champion, Stan Wawrinka.

And, in some ways, the Grand Slam cycle ended with equally big surprises thanks to players of the year Serena Williams and Kei Nishikori.
Grigor Dimitrov Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAn ATP star was born in 2014 in the form of promising Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.
They hung the Baby Federer moniker on Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov nearly a half-decade ago, thanks largely to that gorgeous one-handed backhand. But in the interim you sometimes had to wonder whether the designated successor to the mighty Federer would ever take more than baby steps toward glory.

The waddling and stumbling appear to be over now for Dimitrov. He’s 23 years old, and in 2014 he took some giant steps toward elite status. Thus, he’s my pick as most improved ATP player of 2014.

Other players certainly could stake a claim to the honor. Stan Wawrinka won a Grand Slam event, a Masters 1000 and a Davis Cup championship in 2014. Japan’s Kei Nishikori became the first Asian to play in a Grand Slam final, and Croatia’s Marin Cilic was crowned a Grand Slam champ.

But all those men have more history in the game and had come close to glimpsing the promise before this year. Until 2014, Dimitrov had never been in the top 20; this year he reached No. 8 and finished with a year-end ranking of No. 11. More importantly, he’s put together a platform for taking that final, most difficult leap to the top.

Dimitrov won titles on three different continents this year (he had just one title previously) and on all three major surfaces: hard courts (Acapulco), clay (Bucharest) and grass (Queens). The takeaway is that Dimitrov is versatile enough to be a factor at all big events.

That versatility wouldn’t mean nearly as much were it not for a great improvement in Dimitrov’s consistency. His final match record was an outstanding 50-18, and over the course of the past 11 months he seemed to develop the reliability and focus that gets you into the top 10 and keeps you there.

Learning to win -- day in, day out, on days sunny as well as cloudy, cool as well as warm, and when the backhand is clicking as well as on those days when it’s on the fritz -- is an important mission for any young player. It’s doubly so for Dimitrov, a mercurial talent whose ball-striking prowess is matched by his flair and star quality. You can pooh-pooh that latter trait, but it’s something he has to live with and manage.

Dimitrov -- dark-haired, lean and sinewy -- penetrated the tabloid culture when he turned up as Maria Sharapova’s boyfriend back in 2013. Clearly, the liaison has been less a distraction than a source of motivation.

The most impressive thing about Dimitrov’s year may be that he lost in the first round (or second, on those occasions when he had a bye) only twice during the entire year. That would be an outstanding display of consistency by anyone, including many a Grand Slam champion. By contrast, No. 4 Wawrinka lost his first match four times in 2014.

Dimitrov’s other highlights in 2014 included a third-round win over Milos Raonic at the Australian Open. He also had two wins over Andy Murray -- one in the Acapulco semifinals and the other at Wimbledon, where Dimitrov knocked out the defending champion and wildly popular local hero in the quarterfinals.

Later in the fall, Dimitrov made the final of Stockholm (indoor hard court), where he was the popular defending champion. But he lost an excruciatingly close match to Tomas Berdych 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

Perhaps finding out the hard way that what goes around, comes around was the final lesson prepared for Dimitrov in 2014. It looks like he’s ready to put on big-boy pants.
It’s hard to pick anyone but Eugenie Bouchard as the most improved player, WTA division, for 2014. But if you were to award her a plaque to commemorate her breakout year, it might come with a warning label: Overexposure may be hazardous to your health.

Bouchard is perched close to the top of her world. She’s just 20 years old, but she reached two semifinals and a final at Grand Slam events this year. Credit an aggressive baseline game and a stable and courageous temperament. Her wins were predicated upon quick reactions and the ability and willingness to take the ball on the rise, from inside the court. Peaking at the most important of tournaments enabled her to vault from a ranking of No. 32 at the start of 2014 to her present No. 7. (She hit a career-high No. 5 along the way.) To top it off, Bouchard is charismatic and highly marketable, and she hails from a prosperous, tennis-conversant nation (Canada) that has been starved for a world-class female champion.

That potent combination of accomplishments and qualities has made her an overnight sensation. Yet in the past few months, she has seemed less star than star-crossed. Has a most improved player at the end of any year gone into the following one with as many turbulent questions roiling over her head as this 5-foot-10, sturdily built Quebecoise?

Bouchard burst upon our consciousness when she broke through to the Australian Open semifinals (l. to champion Li Na). She went on to claim the first -- and thus far only -- title of her career in late May, at Nurnberg, Germany. A first win is always a special moment for a pro, but in that one she didn’t beat a player ranked higher than No. 52. Nevertheless, Bouchard then powered her way to the semis of the French Open, where she lost once again to the eventual champ (Maria Sharapova). The Canadian hit the zenith of her year at Wimbledon, where she made the final. But Bouchard was beaten, swiftly and mercilessly, in a credibility-straining 6-3, 6-0 display of firepower by now-two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.

Then the lug nuts began to spin loose. Withdrawing from her first summer hard-court event (Citi Open) with an injured right knee, Bouchard did not make her North American debut until her hometown event, Montreal. She seemed fine physically but panicked and choked in her first match, losing a three-setter to American qualifier Shelby Rogers. Things went downhill from there.

Sources close to her camp say that the knee injury kept Bouchard from developing adequate fitness for the US Open, where she made the fourth round but was upset by No. 18 Ekaterina Makarova. Bouchard rebounded to make the Wuhan final (l. to Kvitova) but was thumped in the opening round in Beijing (l. to Sabine Lisicki). Her results were indifferent for the rest of the year, and she left the Singapore WTA Championships without winning a set -- or more than three games in any set -- in any of her three round-robin matches. After she lost a 6-1 first set to Ana Ivanovic, Bouchard complained to her coach, Nick Saviano: “Why am I even playing this tournament?”

Meanwhile, Simona Halep, the other viable most improved player candidate, made a statement more typical of a surging player. She beat Bouchard, Ivanovic and Serena Williams in the round robin and took out Agnieszka Radwanska in the semis before Williams gained revenge by winning the final. Halep ended on a high note, rising to No. 3 at the final event of the year.

But there was more to come: In November, Bouchard and Saviano announced that they had terminated their relationship. And around Thanksgiving, Bouchard pulled out of a team exhibition match in India, citing an unspecified injury. All she said (in a news release) was: “I’m really disappointed I won’t be able to compete in the IPTL (International Premiere Tennis League) this year due to an injury I suffered in practice.”

The most disturbing element in Bouchard’s complicated saga is the breakup (by mutual consent) with her coach, Saviano. A coach whose reputation is a lot stronger among tennis insiders than the media and fans, he has declined to say anything other than how proud he was to help Bouchard, with whom he worked since she was a 12-year-old, achieve that No. 5 ranking. He has wished Bouchard the best of luck. When coaches and/or players decline to give any solid reasons they’re breaking up (it’s unlikely money is the culprit here, as Saviano has a successful tennis academy), it suggests that something has changed dramatically in the nature of their relationship.

Bouchard probably will need all the luck Saviano and others wish upon her for 2015, especially if her injuries were as impactful -- and persistent -- as it appears. She has loads of rankings points to defend and a great big target on her back. All eyes will be upon her, the way they once were on Sloane Stephens. The need to juggle her career as a tennis-transcending star surely will constitute a distraction for Bouchard. The challenges seem formidable, but then this lady has one great asset as she confronts them. Asked in a conference call recently whether she’s comfortable with all the attention she’s received, Bouchard conceded that she needed “to manage my time better.”

She also said, pondering the price of her high profile: “I knew what I was signing up for. If I didn’t want attention, I would have been a librarian.”

This clearly is one tough young lady. She’ll need to be, given what lies ahead.

Tennis things that tick us off

November, 26, 2014
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On Thanksgiving, we’re intended to express our gratitude for all our advantages and blessings. But what about the things that make our life tough or less enjoyable? When do we get a day to vent our feelings about the things we find annoying, irritating, odious, despicable, reprehensible or maybe just plain stupid -- you know, like needing to have exact change for a $2.50 (coins only, no less!) bus ride in New York City or tin cans that don’t allow the jelled cranberry sauce to just slide out easily?

So let’s take a moment to pause in our hectic daily lives at this time of appreciation, reflection and binge eating to ponder the things in tennis that truly tick us off.

• I’m not thankful for the player-guest box or close-ups of those in it whose credentials don’t say “coach.” In no other sport do parents and partners get so much air time. I don’t care how so-and-so’s mother or girlfriend is handling things. I’d rather they show me a potted plant.

• I love Hawkeye electronic line-calling technology, but I am not grateful for the three-challenge rule. It’s only a matter of time before someone loses a match on a bad or non-call because he or she is out of challenges. I say give them a half dozen per set. Nobody is going to want to look like an idiot by going 0-5 or 0-6 in challenges in a set, and if a few of those challenges do turn out to be correct, the player needs all the challenges he or she can get.

• I don’t have much use for Davis Cup reformers, although I’m all for the fifth-set tiebreaker (see below). This year’s Davis Cup tournament and final were testaments to the competition. Sure it would be nice if somehow the Davis Cup had evolved along the same lines as World Cup soccer. But it didn’t. What you saw is what we have, and what we have is pretty danged good.

• Tennis has any number of statistics that do little to enlighten us. Chief among them is the “first-serve points won” stat. You know who’s tied with a bunch of other guys in around 10th place that category, 12 percentage points lower than the leader? Rafael Nadal. And there is our friend Novak Djokovic, way down below Jeremy Chardy and Vasek Pospisil on that list. The leader: Ivo Karlovic (84 percent success rate for first serves, a hair better than Milos Raonic).

My math tells me that if a guy gets 50 percent of his serves in the box and he wins 80 percent of those points, he may be winning as few as eight out of 20 first-serve points, and that’s not winning him many matches. Most ATP-grade players have at least decent first serves or they wouldn’t be on the tour. Thus, the percentage of first serves you get into the right box is really the only meaningful first-serve stat.

• I’m not thankful for the deuce final sets still played at most Grand Slams and in Davis Cup. What’s so fascinating about watching two guys (or women) trying not to screw up and lose a service game? It’s too much like playing for a tie, and the end of those 12-10 or 16-14 in-the-fifth isn’t always exciting or climactic. By then, it’s often a relief. All tennis matches played to full length should end with a tiebreaker, especially now that John Isner and Nicolas Mahut slammed the record book shut for good with a fifth set score that will never be surpassed.

• I can’t help myself. Here we go again. How did the shrieking genie ever get out of the bottle? In the span of two or three decades, we’ve gone from accepting the grunt of effort as part of the game to tolerating all kinds of screaming, yelping and bellowing, even when the occasion is a drop shot. Legions of viewers watch WTA tennis with the “mute” button on the remote pressed -- or they simply flip channels. This is a fact.

• I’m disappointed that in the interest of a worthy goal -- protection from serious injury -- the injury-timeout rule is so flagrantly and frequently abused. These days, junior players routinely take time out for treatment when all they want to do is mess with an opponent’s head. Just ask them; they don’t even deny it. This is going the way of the grunting/shrieking scenario -- you just watch.

• On-court coaching in the WTA is an idea that has passed. We don’t really need to see and hear a parent or coach telling his kid to “get tough” or “hang in there” or “fight hard” in a variety of languages, do we?

• I am not thankful for fistic expressions. It could be Gael Monfils banging away at his heart like he’s just slain a dragon or Ana Ivanovic clutching her fist after hitting a winner at 15-all in the second game of a match.

Put away the fist, folks, and let’s all join hands and celebrate Thanksgiving.

Another link in Roger Federer's legacy

November, 23, 2014
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As they like to say, there is no “I” in the word “team.” But there is one in “Davis Cup team,” and that factor -- the artful combination of individual performance and team destiny -- is but one of the things that makes this such a great event.

That premise was amply demonstrated again Sunday, as Roger Federer led Switzerland to its first Davis Cup championship with a brilliant 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 win over Richard Gasquet in the fourth rubber, clinching the championship for the Swiss 3-1. (The fifth rubber wasn’t played.)

Occasionally, a Davis Cup tie is just as much about the “I” as the “we,” and just as much about one man’s legacy as it is about a nation’s record. That was the case in December 1995, when Pete Sampras played the best clay-court tennis of his life and won all three points (two singles and the doubles, in yoke with Todd Martin) on agonizingly slow indoor red clay in Moscow. It was also the case in Lille, France, on Sunday, as Federer finally added a Davis Cup championship to a résumé that is already as thick as the telephone directory in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland.

With Switzerland holding a 2-1 lead going in, Gasquet -- he of the windmill-grade backswings -- was France’s last hope. Gasquet, ranked No. 26, was called upon over Julien Benneteau to play in place of France No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The French team announced that an elbow injury left Tsonga unavailable.

Poor Gasquet. Federer pounded him mercilessly in a one-sided drubbing that took all of an hour, 52 minutes. Gasquet is known for his backhand, which he hits with a great flourish. A backstroke would have served him better while he was drowning in an outpouring of Federer forehands, as he hit 29 winners off that side alone.

Federer put 72 percent of his first serves into play and won 84 percent of those points. He penetrated Gasquet’s serve early and often. If you insist in finding some fault in Federer’s stats, blame him for converting just five of 16 break points -- a nice problem to have, in light of the fact that Federer allowed Gasquet no break points at all.

The Swiss were able to wrap up this championship with relative ease despite facing routine and unique hurdles. They surmounted those obstacles because they didn’t allow personal conflicts (the tiff the previous week between Federer and Stan Wawrinka), unexpected challenges (Federer’s back injury) or hubris to taint their effort.

There’s also this: Those “boring” and “conservative” Swiss who had to buy their way into the event simply shamed the host nation’s fans with their unbridled, voluble enthusiasm. The French managed to set an attendance record for a sanctioned tennis event (over 27,000 fans, most of them French, packed the Stade Pierre Mauroy each day), but that mob set no new mark in the support department. Could it be that the team, which hasn’t won the Cup since 2001 despite the dazzling array of talent at its beck and call, has lost the French fans?

It’s a shame that, rightfully or not, an individual story (Federer’s) will dominate most narratives of this final. For this was a Davis Cup rich in storylines and brimming with the elements that make the competition so intriguing. This was the tie in which Wawrinka really stepped up and out from Federer’s shadow. He played a terrific match against Tsonga to launch the final and played so well in the doubles that the Swiss were able to accomplish a mission almost as important as the principal one of winning that rubber: getting off the court as quickly as possible to spare stress on Federer’s tender back.

On a related front, Swiss captain Severin Luthi’s decision to bring in U.S. doubles coach David Macpherson (his protégés: Bob and Mike Bryan) to help the Swiss maximize their chances in the critical “swing match” doubles was a stroke of both selflessness and brilliance.

As for the decision by French captain Arnaud Clement to throw Gasquet, the lamb, in with Federer, the lion, in this critical match, well …

Sure, the French options were limited. But Gasquet was woeful in singles all fall. He was relentlessly picked on and mentally ruined in the doubles, and he can’t return serve unless it comes with a prepaid return label. Benneteau had done a good job nursing Gasquet through the doubles and might have been the better choice.

The only bright spot for the French was Gael Monfils. The beating he inflicted on Federer on Friday now looks like it had a lot less to do with Federer’s back than with his gag reflex -- not to mention Monfils’ skill and mental strength.

Now that Federer has won a Davis Cup championship, his critics have one less arrow in their quivers. Immediately after the match, Federer oddly -- and perhaps a teensy-weensy bit disingenuously -- downplayed the amount of personal satisfaction he derived from the win. He insisted that the win was not for his legacy. It was “one for the boys.”

That was an unconvincing claim but the only unforced error he committed on the day Switzerland -- and Federer -- finally broke the Davis Cup hex.

The Roger Federer-Stan Wawrinka beef

November, 20, 2014
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File this one under the heading, “Extreme Irony.” Is it possible that Roger Federer’s attempt to add a Davis Cup championship to a résumé that demands appended pages on an almost weekly basis will be wrecked by his teammate and friend, Stan Wawrinka?

That’s the last-minute twist to the upcoming Davis Cup final -- a tie that had no shortage of storylines even before the events of the past few days. Those happenings left folks wondering if Mirka Federer won’t emerge from this tie looking like the Yoko Ono of tennis -- - Ono being the woman who was blamed for breaking up the Beatles.

All right, it’s probably easier to picture the bearish Wawrinka as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer than as either John Lennon or Paul McCartney. But the tiff he had with his megastar teammate over Madame Federer’s repeated heckling of Wawrinka in the semifinal match between the two men the ATP World Tour Finals last week has cast a chill over the most important Davis Cup tie in Swiss history.

[+] Enlarge Roger Federer
AP Photo/Christophe EnaRoger Federer says there are no hard feeling whatsoever between him and Stan Wawrinka.
It has also forced both Swiss players into issuing those forced, semi-humiliating and not entirely convincing statements about how they really, truly are good friends despite that unpleasant business in London.

“There’s no hard feelings whatsoever,” Federer informed the media the other day in Lille, where France is hosting the final on indoor red clay in an arena that will accommodate upward of 27,000 fans. “We're having a good time here. We are friends, not enemies.” “We had no problem together,” Wawrinka added, diplomatically refraining from adding that in the first place, his beef was with Mirka, not Roger, Federer.

That now infamous semifinal in London produced another obstacle that the Swiss will have to overcome in a tie that increasingly looks destined to break Federer’s heart -- or provide us with the spectacle of Federer breaking his racket over Wawrinka’s head. Wawrinka forced Federer to play nearly three hours in London, and to overcome four match points, before he won. Federer’s back was unable to take the strain, and he had to issue a walkover to Novak Djokovic in the following day’s final.

What’s going on here, a reprisal of “Amadeus,” with Wawrinka playing a bitter and jealous Antonio Salieri to Federer’s Mozart?

As if having to convince the media and fans that Stan and Roger are still super-tight bros isn’t distracting enough, Swiss captain Severin Luthi has multiple other problems to worry about. The biggest of them is that while Luthi is in command of a two-man team, the French have a deep and versatile squad led by world No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Alongside him: No. 19 Gael Monfils, No. 25 Julien Benneteau and No. 26 Richard Gasquet.

Let’s assume that Federer will be in shape to play Friday. (He is scheduled to practice Thursday for the first time since last Saturday). The Swiss will be very lucky to win both Friday singles on red clay before nearly 30,000 French zealots, which means that the “swing match” doubles could be pivotal.

Benneteau won a Grand Slam doubles title this year at the French Open (with Edouard Roger-Vasselin), and he wouldn’t be giving up much -- if anything -- were he to pair with Gasquet or Tsonga. Thus the question becomes: Does Luthi dare play one or both of his two journeymen subs (Marco Chiudinelli, doubles rank No. 206, and/or Michael Lammer, doubles rank No. 528)?

Perhaps the better way to put this question is, can Luthi ask Federer and/or Wawrinka to play a best-of-five doubles sandwiched between best-of-five singles matches on consecutive days on red clay? The obvious answer is “no,” but he might have to do just that -- unless the Swiss are up 2-0 at the end of Friday.

Of course, the wild card here is the mood of the French team -- something that can’t always be accurately predicted. The French dodged a bullet of humiliation in the World Group quarterfinals, when they were almost beaten by what amounted to Germany’s C team -- and on French soil, no less. But les Bleus rebounded from an 0-2 deficit to win the final three matches.

Stung, the French stepped up in their next tie, sweeping the defending champion Czechs behind overpowering singles performances by Gasquet and Tsonga. The French men surrendered a mere 15 games in the first two singles matches. Gasquet and Tsonga applied the finishing touches in the doubles.

The French have developed a reputation as underachievers in recent years; in 2014, they’ve taken on the look of a team of destiny. They surely welcomed the news that the Swiss had been bickering. Mirka Federer is sure to be vocal in her support for Wawrinka as well as her husband come Friday, and between points she might even be caught humming the tune to “Give Peace a Chance.”
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As befitting a major final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, a number of records were broken by Sunday’s championship match of the ATP World Tour Finals. Unfortunately, all of them were of the wrong or undesirable kind.

Roger Federer withdrew (with a bad back) from the widely anticipated final just 30 minutes before he was to commence torturing Novak Djokovic one last time this year. It was the first walkover in a championship match in the 45-year history of the event, and just the third time that Federer -- who has never retired during a match -- declined to play one.

If you set aside the keen disappointment felt by some 17,000-odd fans who were pumped to see this final, the desires of an international television audience and the hope most of the ball kids entertained that either Roger or Nole would grace them with a few kind words, it was almost a fitting end to this event.

Djokovic had yanked the drama plug unceremoniously on Friday by clinching the year-end world No. 1 ranking with his third successive, superb round-robin victory (thus ending Federer’s parallel quest for the honor). So the issue seemed settled. But was there really an issue?

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty ImagesAfter his semifinal battle, Roger Federer didn't look like a player capable of beating Novak Djokovic, even if the Swiss were healthy.
Djokovic won six titles to Federer’s five this year, including a Grand Slam event, Wimbledon. Not only did Federer fail to win a major, it was Djokovic who denied him his best chance on that July afternoon in London. Federer won more matches (.860 on 68-11) going into these championships, but Djokovic had an infinitesimally better winning percentage with his 57-8 (.876) mark. Federer was 5-5 against the four Grand Slam champions of 2014, Djokovic was 5-2 against his three fellow slammers, 7-5 if you add his 2-3 mark against Federer. Even there, that one-match edge for Federer comes down to a win the least consequential of the five events (Dubai).

Beyond that, the walkover ended an event in which the matches right up to the semifinals had been so one-sided that you would have thought the players were paying hourly for their own parking at the 02 Arena. And the way Federer’s turncoat wingman Stan "The Occasional Man" Wawrinka had exercised Federer in their 2-hour, 48-minute barnburner of a semifinal, did anyone really believe Federer could drag his 33-year-old bones out there on less than 24 hours rest and ward off the pile-driving groundstrokes of Serbia’s grim reaper?

Federer undoubtedly would have played the match if he were able. Consider him lucky to have been incapacitated.

The abandoned final was the last unpleasant surprise of one of the more muted and unsatisfying year-end championships, but not all the takeaways are negative. Let’s review some of the more encouraging ones:

• A new wave of players including Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov (who narrowly missed qualifying) is threatening to displace the Grade B players who have regularly camped in the 02 (and elsewhere) without the ability to win it -- or any other major title. There’s a shakeup brewing in the ATP, which could use the infusion of fresh blood.

• Djokovic set a new standard for hard-court excellence, losing a mere nine games in his three round-robin matches. He lost just one set -- to Nishikori in the semis -- but rebounded by winning the third set in that one, 6-0.

• Twenty-four-year-old Nishikori played like a young man who’s among the elite to stay. His secret? He takes time away from opponents by taking the ball early, from on or inside the baseline. It’s one of the few ways to frustrate a great defender like Djokovic. Nishikori had Djokovic muttering to himself and casting panicked glances at his coaching team during the second set of their semi. Nishikori ran out of gas in the third. With another year of seasoning, he may not shoot his wad so easily next time.

• Bob and Mike Bryan won the year-end doubles championship for the first time since 2009 -- an unusually long drought for a team of their caliber. They won their 103rd title with a 6-7(5), 6-2, 10-7 squeaker over Ivan Dodig and Marelo Melo. This was also their 10th title of the year, the fourth year they’ve won that many.

• Federer’s transition to a more aggressive, attack-ready game has taken a quantum leap forward in recent months. All of those “should I stay or should I go (to the net)?” discussions that began way back when Paul Annacone was still Federer’s coach have now matured -- with the help of Stefan Edberg -- into a mesmerizing monologue. While the sore back sets off warning bells (Federer struggled with back pain for a good portion of 2013) for next year, there’s no point speculating until Federer takes a good, long, well-deserved rest. A competitive Federer is good for the game.

• The cream still rises to the top despite the inherent problems in the round-robin based format. Loads of fans probably were pulling out their hair on Friday morning trying to figure out what a Wawrinka or Nishikori or Berdych might have to do in order to make the cut for the semis. When it comes to qualification for the WTF semis, tennis actually is a lot like rocket science. But that’s a small price to play for advantages of round robin -- like being able to guarantee that all eight players will be on display for at least three consecutive days.

Moreover, in the end it all does seem to work out. The most legitimate bone of contention might be the complaint that the event is always held on indoor hard courts, and that certainly favors players with a certain skill set. But that’s a pretty broad skill set -- even that quintessential clay-courter Rafael Nadal has made two finals and two semis in six tries. Usually, the player with the best overall record wins this event. The asterisk that will be attached to this final has nothing to do with that, for once again the best player won.

Novak Djokovic's job only half done

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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Playing the role of the man in black in the sport famous for its fixation on “tennis whites” suits … Novak Djokovic. Wearing black above and below the waist, the top-seed at the ATP World Tour Finals has gone about his business with a chilling efficiency and patience, and that hint of dire inevitability we generally associate with the Grim Reaper. The outstanding difference is that Djokovic bears not a sickle but a tennis racket.

Djokovic backed up the image Friday by clinching the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking for the third time in four years by virtue of a persuasive beating of Tomas Berdych on the final day of round-robin play in London.

The score was 6-2, 6-2, but Berdych could console himself with the fact that he forced the issue for over an hour (1:09), most of it spent on life support. It’s been that kind of week for Djokovic, who has lost just nine games in three round-robin matches, breaking serve 15 times in 22 attempts.

There’s not much point in parsing the details of this one. It was evident from the start that Djokovic was feeling no pressure to beat Berdych in order to avoid potentially having to play Roger Federer for the year-end No. 1 ranking come Sunday. It was equally obvious that Tomas Berdych was unprepared to insert himself into the midst of the conversation that has been driving our interest in tennis for the past few months: Could Federer, the No. 2 seed in London, catch and surpass Djokovic in the rankings?

That storyline is stone-cold dead now, thanks to the efficiency with which Djokovic shut down Berdych, kicking things off with a service break. Djokovic won the first set in 31 minutes, largely because he won 78 percent of his second-serve points, while Berdych converted an anemic 38 percent of his own. Given his 2-16 record against Djokovic, and the way Berdych’s meat-and-potatoes power game plays right into Djokovic’s strength (superb groundstrokes and defense), the No. 6 seed’s only real chance was to shoot out the lights. But it was Djokovic who ventured the greatest risk and reaped the greater rewards.

Djokovic smacked 18 winners to just eight for Berdych, he out-aced his rival 4-2 and attacked more frequently and productively, claiming eight points on 12 trips to the net, while Berdych won just five of eight.

So the man in black moves on, preparing to win these year-end championships for a fourth time. Should he play No. 2 seed Federer, a six-time winner of this event, the underdog will certainly compete with the taste of bile in his mouth. Djokovic keeps closing the gap on some of the more vital statistical fronts (next: the attempt to surpass Rafael Nadal in total weeks spent ranked No. 1. Nadal held that ranking for 141 weeks; Djokovic is at week No. 121), but that doesn’t mean that his persona as the outlier, the man in black, is any less accurate.

Djokovic, with help from Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, crashed the rankings in 2006, putting the nation of Serbia on the tennis map. Djokovic quickly became the third wheel in the cozy relationship between two wildly popular stars, Federer and Nadal. That Djokovic was confident, brash and either struggling with ailments and injuries or exhibiting a streak of hypochondria added more polarizing elements to the awkward narrative.

Over the ensuing years, Djokovic evolved from a callow youth into an engaged, sophisticated adult -- an appropriate ambassador for the game. But the pattern was set by then, and neither Federer nor Nadal was particularly keen on turning a split kingdom into a tripartite one. The third wheel has become a permanent fixture, and as Federer pushes 34 years of age and Nadal has had to start paying the principal on his punishing, ultra-physical game, their 27-year old Serbian tormentor seems ready to make another push, cutting deeper into the legacies of his rivals.

Should Djokovic meet Federer on Sunday and win, it will also go some way to undoing the theme that Federer, with his artful and increasingly aggressive game, has become Djokovic’s nemesis. (Federer has won three of their past five matches.) Djokovic completed Part A of a two-part operation when he clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking. We’ll have to wait to see how well he handles Part B over the weekend.

For the time being, Djokovic doesn’t even seem to need to worry about Andy Murray playing Nadal to his own Federer. Djokovic and Murray are no longer a bargain-basement version of the Swiss and Spanish icons. Murray is out of the picture for the moment, and unless Federer can convince us otherwise Sunday, the man in charge going into 2015 clearly will be the man in black. His track record at the Australian Open is formidable (43-6 with four titles).

Of course, by next January, Djokovic’s clothing sponsor surely will have him wearing different, more colorful clothing. But it hardly matters. No matter what color he’s wearing, in spirit Novak Djokovic will probably always be the man in black.
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The gap between the sublime and the ridiculous is usually enormous, but Roger Federer leaped across it Thursday with ease at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. He destroyed resurgent Andy Murray’s hopes of capping his recent revival with a win in the year-end championship -- while keeping alive his own improbable dream of finishing 2014 as the oldest player ever to earn the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking.

Making a mockery of his age as well as the vaunted defense and coy game of his opponent, No. 2 seed Federer advanced to the semifinal stage of the year-enders with an astonishing performance, bamboozling Murray in barely 56 minutes 6-0, 6-1. It wasn’t as close as the score indicates, and when it was over Federer met Murray at the net, gently patted the Scot’s damp chest, and offered some inaudible words of consolation.

Murray’s reply, however, was stoic and easily heard: “Don’t worry about it.”

Even the most partisan of Federer fans could not have claimed to see this coming. For one thing, Federer had been assured of qualifying before the match began; he had no particular reason to destroy Murray. For another, Murray was a desperate man who could still make the semifinals -- should he upset Federer in two sets. As well, Murray has been on a tear this fall, playing six weeks running to pick up enough points to qualify for the elite eight who comprise the singles field. The only top player who enjoyed anything like comparable success -- and also played a robust schedule -- was Federer himself.

As if all that wasn’t enough, this tournament had been a carnival of blowouts thus far -- the only three-set match took place earlier Thursday, and it didn’t even feature one of the top eight qualifiers. Alternate David Ferrer was called upon to step in for Milos Raonic, who had withdrawn with a muscle tear. Ferrer promptly went where none of the elite had gone this week, forcing Kei Nishikori to three sets. (Nishikori thus joined Federer as a Group B qualifier for the semis.)

Surely, Federer and Murray -- tied in their career rivalry with 11 wins apiece -- would deliver a match worthy of the fifth most prestigious event in men’s tennis?

Early in the match, it appeared that salvation might be at hand. Federer served the first game, and opened the ball with a wild volley error. Murray won the next point, as well. But at 15-30, Murray missed a makeable down-the-line backhand pass. Federer managed the hold and then converted his second break point to bolt to a 2-love lead. The slaughter commenced thereafter, and just 19 minutes into the match, Federer had a 5-love lead.

It was clear by then that Murray was off his game and Federer was in the zone, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be taken from Murray’s nightmare. For one thing, Federer demonstrated that with sufficient aggression Murray’s familiar “gotcha” style, rooted in his curious habit of hanging back and waiting for the game to come to him, can be exploited.

Murray is at his best when his temptation to react (rather than take charge) is at ebb, and that wasn’t the case Thursday evening. He allowed his opponent to bring the game to him, and the pace, power and accuracy with which Federer delivered stunned Murray.

Granted, Murray had an all-around miserable day. His second serve was ineffective, his forehand was atrocious and his storied defense was broken down time and again. But that only shed a harsh, clear light on the degree to which an all-court aggressive game can still bear fruit in this age of defensive, baseline play. Federer was so light on his feet that he appeared to be skating, rather than running, and he attacked freely and frequently. A less aggressive player might have given Murray a little more breathing room to rally his game and find some sort of rhythm.

Federer accomplished all that despite logging a lower first-serve conversion rate lower than Murray’s (38 percent to 45 percent). When Federer did put his first serve into play, he was perfect: 14-for-14.

Murray had never absorbed a love-and-love beating in his 631 previous pro matches. The closest anyone came to laying that much wood on him was Novak Djokovic, who beat him in the Miami Masters of 2007, love and one. As this beating went on, straining credulity game after game, the big question was whether Federer would go for the 6-0, 6-0 score line.

In the sixth game of the second set, with Murray down 5-0, Federer jumped out front with a pretty drop-shot winner. Murray then hit a double fault. Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, Federer took his foot off the gas. He missed a forehand volley. Murray hit an ace. Federer donated a backhand error and then swatted at yet another second serve as if the ball were merely a pesky fly. Murray, having won the face-saving game, was appreciative enough to give Federer little trouble in the final game, which Federer closed out when Murray made a backhand rally error.

“I think I just picked apart his game,” the winner said, speaking as if this were not a demolition but a delicate, surgical procedure. In truth, it was a little bit of both, as is so often the case with the improbable Mr. Federer.

Asked afterward if he had thrown Murray a bone in that sixth game, Federer said he tried to win it, but added, “I was actually happy it didn’t happen.”

On a day when the sublime morphed into the ridiculous, it seemed a fitting confession.

Federer reminds us why we need Rafa

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
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The O2 Arena is rapidly becoming “Oh no!” stadium as the ATP World Tour Finals teeter on the brink of becoming a carnival of blowouts. With five matches logged by late afternoon Tuesday in London, the most pertinent prematch question has become, “Is this one going to break the one-hour mark?”

The latest player to log a triumphant yawner was Roger Federer, who disposed of Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 in under an hour and 10 minutes today. It ran the string of straight-sets wins to five and shattered the dreams of those who had been hoping to at least get to watch a tiebreaker. Not that it would have mattered much. In the only tiebreak played over those five matches, Federer pitched a 7-0 shutout against Milos Raonic.

Tuesday’s clash between No. 2-seeded Federer and No. 4 Nishikori looked promising. Nishikori had beaten Federer in two of their three meetings since the spring of 2013. He was a recent US Open finalist and is the first Japanese player to qualify for the WTF. On opening day, Nishikori licked resurgent Andy Murray with ease. We were hoping to witness a spectacular battle matching Federer’s aerialist maneuvers with Nishikori’s surface-to-air passing shots. Instead, Nishikori complained about a bad wrist and littered the court with 30 unforced errors, many of them when he could least afford the misfire.

So it already looks like it might take an act of God to keep Federer out of the semifinals before the second day was even completed. Factor the stats regarding indoor hard courts into this equation and it all adds up to a perfect storm that could see Novak Djokovic win his third successive year-end championship with scores that might remind us of the bad old days of the WTA.

It’s times like this when it’s easy to miss Rafael Nadal. The 14-time Grand Slam champion is finished for the year after undergoing surgery to rid him of his appendix (great, his rivals must think, now he’ll be that much lighter -- and faster!). He will also be getting an infusion of stem cells in his spine to cure an aching back -- as if this guy didn’t have enough backbone already.

In truth, Nadal has never loved the WTF, and he survived the preliminaries to play a final just twice -- losing on both occasions. Nadal may not always have found his A-game in the grand finale, but he always brought his A-effort. A few of this year’s players might take a cue from that as the rest of this event plays out.

This was a strange year indeed for Nadal. At the outset, he was positioned to mount a challenge to the Grand Slam singles title record (17) held by his pal and original rival Federer. Nadal seemed on his way when he reached the final of the first Grand Slam of the year, with only first-time major finalist Stan Wawrinka to beat for the Australian Open title. Wawrinka played well and deserved the win, but Nadal’s back was all locked up and undeniably played a role in the outcome.

Nobody really wants to be known as the guy who is great at bouncing back, mainly because nobody wants to fall far enough to require a rebound. But this year, Nadal once again was obliged to carom off the rail of misfortune and, perhaps alarmingly for his future, more than once. He regained his fitness after the Australian Open in time to win the French Open, but after he was blasted out of Wimbledon by Nick Kyrgios, a bad wrist prohibited him from defending his US Open title.

Nadal picked himself back up and returned during the Asian swing, only to come down with appendicitis. If you’re keeping tabs at home, that’s three setbacks and two resets in about 10 months -- more than some players have had to undertake in entire careers.

Nadal always struggled at the WTF. He is just 13-11, and even in a good year on that indoor court in London he has had a tendency to lose plot. Last year, he won four straight matches only to lose in muted fashion to the grim reaper of the O2, Djokovic. The scores were 6-3, 6-4.

Before that, Nadal had battered -- or been battered -- in numerous matches, giving as good as he got. In 2011 (he missed the 2012 playoffs), he survived a hairy third-set tiebreaker with Mardy Fish in his first round-robin match but got knocked out in his third group match by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in another tense three-setter. Nine of Nadal’s 24 matches at the year-end championships have been three-setters.

I could use one of those close ones right about now.

Roger Federer's doomed mission

November, 10, 2014
Nov 10
6:50
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A person could be forgiven for wondering why Roger Federer looked so angry when he set forth Sunday at the ATP World Tour Finals to complete what has become his Mission Improbable -- to snatch the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking out of top-ranked Novak Djokovic’s hands before the end of this week. Doing so would make Federer the oldest year-end No. 1 since the rankings were instituted.

In just the second game of his first match, the all-time Grand Slam singles titlist drilled a ball right at the navel of his opponent, Milos Raonic. When he broke Raonic’s serve a few points later, he grunted out an exclamation. It wasn’t that familiar, sotto voce “Come on,” either. It was some sort of exotic expletive, coughed out like a bark.

Sheesh. You would have thought it was Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe out there. Why so angry, Roger? You have 17 major titles. You have a lovely wife and you got four kids for the price of two with that pair of twins. You’ve won 82 singles titles and more moolah (over $86 million) than a winner of the Powerball lottery. Does finishing No. 1 -- something you’ve already done on five previous occasions (the last in 2009) -- really mean that much to you?

Oh … silly of me to ask.

Actually, Federer had fairly valid, less-than-cosmic reasons to go into his first match at the year-end championships with his nose out of joint. It was Raonic, an otherwise likable Canadian giant, who put Federer into the bind he faces this week. Raonic knocked Federer out of the Paris Masters 1000 a little over a week ago. That helped Djokovic cruise to the title. It also turned what was shaping up as a noble effort on the part of the Swiss icon into what looks like an almost certainly doomed one.

The upset by Raonic meant that top-seeded Djokovic entered the WTF needing to win only his three round-robin matches to hang on to the prestigious year-end top ranking.

Federer, seeded No. 2 in the WTF, didn’t allow himself to get all bummed out by the altered landscape. He just took his frustrations out on Raonic, pummeling the pride of Thornhill, Ontario, 6-1, 7-6 (0). Federer almost certainly went to sleep hoping that Marin Cilic might find the form he showed at the US Open and batter Djokovic off the court in the WTF opener for both men Monday. But that didn’t happen. Djokovic hammered the No. 8 seed 6-1, 6-1 in an ugly match that lasted barely 55 minutes.

So much for the idea that fatherhood -- a state Djokovic has experienced for exactly 21 days now -- has mellowed or perhaps even distracted the Serbian champ. Djokovic is 57-8 on the year, but he’s undefeated as a papa. Against Cilic, Djokovic played as if his kid, Stefan, would never have shoes if he lost.

Cilic, a raw-boned Croatian who stands 6-foot-6, won just half of the points when he put that big first serve into play, and a dismal 24 percent of the second-serve points he offered up. Cilic’s mentor is the all-time ATP leading ace-maker, Goran Ivanisevic. Cilic is so besotted with his coach that he’s redesigned his service action into an almost exact copy of Ivanisevic’s. Given that, the successful service-points-won numbers are dismal -- but don’t neglect to factor Djokovic’s service return into your analysis. The ability to read an opponent’s serve and whale on it is one of Djokovic’s most striking assets, even if sits there as something like an inconvenient truth for nonbelievers.

I’m not sure just how Djokovic devolved into the guy so few people really trust anymore, at least not when it comes to big moments. I suppose going 2-5 in recent Grand Slam finals (after going 5-2 in his first seven major finals) might have something to do with it. So does Rafael Nadal, who keeps meeting Djokovic’s push to win a French Open final with the athletic equivalent of disdain. Roger Federer also has contributed his share to the saga; he’s fought Djokovic to a 5-5 standstill in their past 10 meetings (since Wimbledon of 2012).

Djokovic himself has contributed to this narrative. After declaring himself the new marshal in town in 2011, he’s regressed to the Nole of yore, the player who was always a little, well, complicated. He’s mercurial, brilliant and saddled with an instinct for self-sabotage. He’s got a yen for drama, which isn’t always a virtue when it comes to production because it isn’t very dramatic to win -- or lose -- all the time.

Nevertheless, the way Djokovic played Monday demonstrated that he’s fully aware of what Federer is up to -- and not having any of it. We’ll see what Tuesday brings, with Kei Nishikori poised to challenge Federer in the early singles match. Perhaps if he’s feeling sufficiently sadistic, Djokovic might feel moved to watch as the walls close in on his rival.

Why Andy Murray went rogue

November, 6, 2014
Nov 6
11:46
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If you were looking for a hero during the ATP’s post-US Open fall swing, you had a surprising number of choices: There was Kei Nishikori, backing up his exceptional US Open by qualifying for the ATP World Tour Finals. How about Roger Federer, piecing together a challenge for the year-end No. 1 ranking -- at age 33? Or Milos Raonic, stepping up in a must-win situation to complete the “elite eight” field for the year-enders.

Valid choices, all of them. But my hero this fall is Andy Murray. At the conclusion of the US Open, the struggling British player was demoted from membership in the Big Four to a place in the Big 11. But instead of falling back on the sense of entitlement that accrues with winning a major or two, Murray clenched his jaw, lowered his head, and charged forward -- resolved to qualify for the World Tour Finals.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty ImagesAndy Murray may no longer be considered one of tennis' Big Four, but he played his heart out down the stretch of this season.
It was a welcome decision. London would be a little less intriguing and a little less fun without the presence of the scowling, self-berating Scot who in 2013 became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 6,769 years. OK, it was just 77 years. But didn’t it seem a lot longer?

This year was difficult for Murray. The afterglow of his epic win at Wimbledon in '13 had to be disorienting -- how could it not be? After he won Wimbledon in July 2013, Murray never made another semifinal until he pulled the plug on his year in mid-September in order to undergo minor back surgery. The procedure kept him sidelined until the start of this year.

Murray did not pronounce himself fully fit and match-tough until after he played three grueling hard-court matches in Acapulco in late March. But then he bombed in Indian Wells, losing to No. 11 Milos Raonic. And Murray mustered only cursory resistance in a loss to top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals in Miami. In the wake of that monthlong misadventure, Murray’s ranking fell to No. 8. The drumbeat began: “What’s wrong with Murray?”

In the ensuing weeks, Murray showed flashes of brilliance -- and that was the problem. Guys like Ernests Gulbis or Gael Monfils are the ones who show “flashes of brilliance.” A man who had been embraced as a legitimate peer by his fellow members in the Big Four is supposed to show steady, incandescent genius.

Things got worse. Grigor Dimitrov hammered Murray out in the quarters at Wimbledon. Murray’s form continued to fluctuate like water in an irrigation ditch. Following a weak US Open, at which he lost a quarterfinal to the top-seeded Djokovic, the Scot was wallowing at No. 11.

Murray might have chosen to coast to the finish and write off a disappointing 2014 to a combination of his back troubles and an understandable, lingering loss of motivation following his great Wimbledon moment. He could claim things just sort of got away from him. Instead, Murray did the most difficult thing, which was probably the right thing, and certainly the most humble thing -- in other words, the kind of thing you see less and less among the elite players: Andy Murray went rogue.

Murray decided to throw his schedule out the window and make an all-out effort to qualify for the World Tour Finals in London. As befitting his diminished station in tennis, he was doing the Nishikori or Raonic thing, not the Djokovic or Federer thing. Murray was adding tournaments, taking on risk. He became a man on a mission. After the US Open, Murray went 20-3 with three titles -- his only three of 2014.

Despite those dazzling numbers, Murray still did not qualify for London until he won his third-round match in the final tournament of the year, the Paris Masters 1000. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that the grouchy stars of tennis had to be dragged kicking and screaming -- and pleading physical cruelty -- to London? This year, Andy Murray played six weeks in a row after his loss at the US Open, in outposts ranging from Shenzhen, China, to Vienna, Austria.

Hey, when did this guy turn into David Ferrer?

Murray’s autumn has truly been the “hero’s journey” that Hollywood so loves. By definition, that trip has also been a learning experience. Perhaps Murray has learned -- or remembered -- that he still belongs among that Big Four.

And when his journey was completed, the sigh of relief that rose in London was so heartfelt that it probably fogged all the windows in Battersea.

Asia re-energizing tennis globally

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
4:00
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Pity poor Kei Nishikori. With Li Na gone, the burden of carrying the tennis message to Asia -- or is it the Asian message to tennis? -- now falls squarely on his decidedly sloped shoulders.

The other day, the recent US Open finalist helped the ATP kick off the “Asian swing” in Hong Kong. He was obliged to plough across the city’s harbor in a traditional Chinese “junk” boat, after which he was peppered with questions from a group of international and local media during a working lunch of dim sum.

Under other circumstances, those culturally correct activities might have seemed grievously insulting, given that Nishikori isn’t Chinese but Japanese. Asia is where everything is hot and happening. Asia is less a place than an idea these days. A deliciously enormous entity that could be the agent that re-energizes tennis.

That process is well underway, having really picked up steam with the success of the first Chinese Grand Slam champion, Li. Nishikori’s nation of Japan, however, is a different story. Tennis has been popular in Japan since the heydays of Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis, and just about any tennis pro who knew one end of a racket from another. Now Japan is called a “mature market,” and while it went into recession when Shuzo Matsuoka and Kimiko Date retired in the mid-1990s, Nishikori has brought it roaring back. (Date married and returned a decade later as Kimiko Date-Krumm, and she’s still adding to her remarkable legacy by keeping a place in the top 100 -- at age 43.)

Asia is feeling good about its tennis these days, and for good reason. Nishikori is already No. 8 in the world, and he’s still just 24. Tatsuma Ito (ATP No. 103) is also making a name for himself along with Japanese WTA pros Kurumi Nara (No. 36) and Misaki Doi (No. 88).

Li was ranked No. 2 in the world just weeks ago, and although she’s retired, China now has two women in the top 35 (No. 21 Peng Shuai, No. 33 Zhang Shuai) and three more in direct acceptance territory (No. 68 Jie Zheng, No. 102 Saisai Zheng and No. 106 Wang Qiang). The latest Chinese woman to generate headlines on the court was Peng, who advanced to the US Open semifinals with notable wins over No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 14 Lucie Safarova. Oddly, the Chinese are having trouble producing male stars -- but that’s a subject best left for another time.

These and other players from the region are flourishing partly because of all the tournament action in Asia. The ATP is proud that China now hosts events across all three ATP categories (250, 500, 1000 events); it’s the first nation outside the U.S. to do so. The growth on the WTA side is even more impressive. China had but one WTA event in 2007; this year it has eight, including two prestigious Premier category tournaments and three International level ones.

As far as the Asian invasion goes, the future is already here. Asia has taken over from Europe as the hotbed of fall tournament tennis for both men and women. And with Li gone now, Nishikori is Asia’s most famous face. He begins his drive to nail down a place in the elite eight who will contest the ATP World Tour Championships at the end of the year in Kuala Lumpur this week. I don’t know whether he sailed there in a junk boat or not.

Li Na's titles bigger than tennis

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
12:09
PM ET
video “Can you tell the Chinese [fans]: Don’t teach me how to play tennis?”

-- Li Na, to chair umpire Alison Lange, as the Australian Open final of 2011 was slipping out of her grasp.


Li Na has retired from tennis with chronic knee injuries. There is no evidence that the injuries were in any way related to the fact that, for so many years, Li carried the weight of the entire Chinese nation on her shoulders.

China is a big nation. Li was just 5-foot-7, but her shoulders were surprisingly strong.

Li’s career almost perfectly parallels the history of her homeland over the past decade-plus; they emerged and sought success and credibility at the same time on similar global stages. It was quite a reversal for Li, given that early in her career she had been tempted to quit the game in disgust over the suffocating hold the Chinese sports establishment had on her.

Li even withdrew from the tour for an extended period, just as she was becoming a player of note, in order to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. (That accounts for the fact that her career as a Grand Slam competitor spans just nine years -- far fewer than that of most other elite players.)

That costly hiatus has been interpreted as part of a long-running poker game Li played with the Chinese “national team” administrators as she sought to wrest her autonomy. No autonomy, no potential Grand Slam champion for China, she appeared to be telling them. It was a high-stakes game, and Li won.

As a result of Li’s pushback, all Chinese players following in her footsteps benefited -- and will continue to benefit. It was a victory that might not have been possible had she not been a player so gifted that despite all the hardships she faced -- from the language barrier to those troublesome knees to her husband Jiang Shan’s snoring -- she would become a two-time Grand Slam champion.

Li’s victory at the 2011 French Open was undeniably her single greatest performance. Gliding across the clay at Roland Garros, firing those crisp down-the-line backhands and maintaining her concentration (not always an easy task for Li), she played aggressive, confident tennis to beat a succession of four top-10 players, all of whom had won -- or would win -- major titles.

That win represented exoneration after her failure just months earlier at the Australian Open. In Melbourne, she’d won the first set from “Aussie Kim” Clijsters. But she lost her composure as the second set slipped away, and a large group of Chinese, desperate to see her win, began showering her with advice. (Hence her request to Lang.) If they worried that Li would never have a comparable chance, they were mistaken. All she needed was a little breathing room. A little trust.

It’s fitting that the Australian Open, which likes to bill itself as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific, was the major where Li produced her greatest success to offset some discouraging failures. After that first final in 2011, she made it back to the championship match in 2013. On that occasion, she lost to defending champ Victoria Azarenka in a bizarre match during which she rolled her ankle twice, bumped her head on the court following a serious spill (it required a medical timeout) and had to take a nine-minute respite to watch the Australia Day fireworks display -- plenty of time to wonder why, once again, the final was getting away from her.

But Li was undeterred. This February, she finally won the tournament that is closest thing she has to a home major. It was a career-capping win, and perhaps the second time in her career when she was entitled to feel truly free.


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