Asia re-energizing tennis globally

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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
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.

Federer motivated to get Davis Cup win

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
Roger FedererAP Photo/Alastair GrantRoger Federer would like to add the missing Davis Cup piece to his career ledger.
Give credit to US Open men’s singles finalist Kei Nishikori and champion Marin Cilic, but you just know top-seeded Novak Djokovic and No. 2 seed Roger Federer were bummed out about the lost opportunity to win a major without having to go through Rafael Nadal, who missed the final Grand Slam of the year with a wrist injury.

Djokovic, who seemed disgusted with himself following his semifinal loss in New York to Nishikori, decided to skip Serbia’s Davis Cup World Group Playoffs tie against India this weekend, citing fatigue. But most observers also think Djokovic mainly wants to spend time with his recent bride Jelena, who is expected to give birth to their first child at the end of the year.

Federer, who has children in multiples of two (he has infant twin boys and twin toddler girls), isn’t too tired to answer the Davis Cup call for Switzerland this weekend as the squad strives to secure the championships for the first time.

The fact Djokovic has already led Serbia to a Davis Cup triumph (2010) certainly played into the world No. 1’s decision to sit this one out. He can do no wrong in the eyes of his countrymen, so Djokovic needn’t worry too much -- unless he really is all-in when it comes to playing for his country. A loss by Serbia on grass in Bangalore will be a humiliation, and it would relegate the nation to zonal play next year. And that means Djokovic will be under a lot of pressure to bring his nation back into the elite World Group in 2015.

Federer’s situation is far less complex. He -- along with reigning Australian Open champ and Davis Cup teammate Stan Wawrinka -- is on the cusp of a historic achievement for Switzerland, as well as on an unstated mission to fill the last hole on his résumé. And they’re in an excellent position to make that happen.

People who don’t buy into the Davis Cup narrative might just shrug and ask of Federer’s quest, “Who cares?” But Federer, a great traditionalist and a champion with real reverence for the history of the game, knows that Davis Cup matters. He knows that all of his most cherished peers, past and present, have led their respective nations to victory in the Davis Cup -- sometimes in ways that have become part of their respective legacies (for instance, Pete Sampras in 1995 winning both singles matches and a doubles match with Todd Martin to lead an unexpected U.S. sweep in Moscow, on clay no less).

Federer may not be required to perform such heroics. He’s ranked No. 2, Wawrinka is No. 4. The Swiss are at home on a fast surface against an Italian squad led by a head case in No. 17 Fabio Fognini. The scenario becomes less certain -- and more fun -- should the heavily favored Swiss advance to the final. They will be on the road against the winner of the Czech Republic versus France tie.

Thus, Federer has plenty of motivation to see him through the rest of this year. The same cannot be said for Djokovic, who seems to have been struggling with motivation since he won Wimbledon. If Serbia loses to India, Djokovic probably will take at least a little heat at home. And if Federer leads the Swiss to their second Davis Cup final (they lost at the U.S. in the 1992 final), he will be one step closer to filling that final remaining hole.

Perhaps Federer is lucky that after the US Open disappointment he still has something to look forward to career-wise this year. Djokovic has to be content with stewing in his own juices, and anticipating the joy of changing diapers.
As the summer hard-court events got underway, the odds that the players going into the US Open with the greatest head of steam would be Roger Federer and Serena Williams didn’t seem very good. Now, with the last of the big hard-court tuneups concluded, guess who stands atop the heap of US Open contenders?

Roger and Serena. Federer recently turned 33; Williams is hot on his tail in a race she won’t ever win, about to hit the same age at the end of September. Or, if you’re a Williams fan, about the time the champagne high from having won the US Open begins to wear off.

Roger and Serena. A grand total of 34 Grand Slam singles titles, evenly split. The race is on for the bragging rights up on tennis Olympus, because even these two can’t go on forever.

Roger and Serena. The reliables. It’s got the makings of a good action movie. That was amply demonstrated in the two finals at the Western & Southern Open on Sunday. You would almost think that Federer watched Serena’s systematic, 6-4, 6-1 demolition of No. 6 seed Ana Ivanovic and took inspiration from it. He is surely not the kind of dude who would have been under the headphones listening to Macklemore or Black Sabbath.

Ivanovic, sweet soul that she is, smiled during the trophy presentation and began her runner-up acceptance speech by saying, “I think today I just got a lesson in how to serve.” The match lasted barely an hour and two minutes, yet Williams found the time to club a dozen aces. She also won 80 percent of the points when she put her first serve into the correct box. As ESPN’s Chris Evert so succinctly put it, Williams is unbeatable when she makes more winners than unforced errors. Sunday she was 23-11.

If he took notes, Federer made good use of them as he made No. 6 seed David Ferrer his patsy for the 16th consecutive time, beating him 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 in the final. His serve was extremely effective, even in that throwaway second set. He made 65 percent of his first serves and won almost as high a percentage of those points (77 percent) as Serena did.

Ferrer’s entire career as a player aspiring to the highest of all levels was neatly -- and sadly -- summed up in the end of the first set. Serving to stay in it at 4-5, Ferrer played a game that he launched with an unforced inside-out forehand error, after which he smacked two double-faults -- the second at break point.

Federer fell behind 0-40 when he served for the set in the next game. But after a Federer winner, Ferrer made a sloppy backhand error on the second of the three break points and Federer took care of the last one with another winner. Ferrer would have another break point, but Federer saved that one, too -- with his best second serve of the afternoon. He went on to hold on a crosscourt backhand passing shot error.

OK, Federer’s concentration lapsed and Ferrer snatched away the second set. But Ferrer is always tough when playing catch-up, partly because staying ahead demands a lot more poise and confidence than trying to catch up.

Beyond that, Federer kept the match from becoming a track meet. That was partly because he’s found a new use for that backhand that everyone pounds away at nowadays. Instead of risking the unforced error with a big, one-handed, topspin cut, or allowing his opponent to take control of a point by playing a safe slice, Federer more and more uses the slice to get into the net to end the point there -- one way or another.

Federer is playing in a manner that people for years have been saying cannot be done anymore. We’ll see how right they are in a few weeks’ time at the US Open, for Federer has built up a lot of momentum starting at Wimbledon (four consecutive finals, with two wins).

Can it be that the American major will be all about Roger and Serena once again?
In 1992, Stefan Edberg played Michael Chang in the semifinals of the US Open, in what would become the longest match at the tournament since such records have been kept. Edberg won in an excruciating five hours and 26 minutes, after attacking the net 254 times against one of the great grinders of all time.

People rarely bring up that performance when they talk about the greatest matches of all time, but it surely deserves a place among them. But then Edberg was a genius in a number of ways, not least of which was his ability to duck the limelight. He won six Grand Slam singles titles, including back-to-back triumphs at the US Open -- the tournament many critics felt he would never win because he was “too laid-back” or just not temperamentally suited for success in the boisterous, hurly-burly atmosphere in New York.

Edberg is back among us now, and no less self-effacing than ever. He’s no longer torquing out those ridiculous high-kicking, American-twist serves or slicing backhand volleys that appear to be hit with a carving knife instead of a racket. He’s sitting in the player-guest box of Roger Federer, quietly contributing to the late-career success of the Grand Slam singles career champion. Although low-key to the point of being all but invisible, Edberg has played an enormous role in keeping Federer in the hunt.

It might not be the sexiest line item on Federer’s résumé, but at age 33 he still hasn’t been out of the top 10 since late in September 2002. Federer was ranked as low as No. 8 as recently as March -- just two months after he hired Edberg. Now he’s firmly entrenched at No. 3, and he’s been in the championship match at seven tournaments this year (with wins at Dubai and Halle). Don’t let anyone tell you Edberg’s coaching has nothing to do with this, even if he isn’t signing up to sell car insurance on television or huddling with reporters after every match.

The reality is that Edberg, whom Federer has described as a “childhood idol” of his, has had a profound effect on Federer’s vision of the game. It was never more apparent than in Federer’s win over Gael Monfils in the third round of the Cincinnati Masters on Thursday night.

Federer won that match, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, and he did it with swift assurance, winning in 1 hour, 48 minutes. That’s double time for a match as competitive as this one, and it underscores the extent to which both men stepped up, stuck out their chins and took their best shots.

The statistic that jumps out off an otherwise nicely balanced stat sheet (in the unforced error department, Monfils had 35 to Federer’s 33) is the one tracking points won at the net. Federer took the forecourt 44 times, winning 26 of those attacks.

OK, 44 is a far cry from 254. And a success rate of 59 percent might not sound so devastating. But in reality, the willingness to attack can have a shaping influence on a match, and in this one, it certainly helped Monfils decide that playing from 12 feet behind the baseline was not really an option. For the holdouts who still believe that too few players embrace the attacking game these days, this match was like cool water for parched throats.

We know Federer to be a stubborn cuss; it comes with the territory for a champion. Yet, over the course of this year, he seems to have made a decision to play bolder, more aggressive, risky tennis. He has decided that he needs to end points more quickly than in the past. He has accepted the dangerous mandate to change, to adapt.

The serve-and-volley strategy or even attacking at every hint of opportunity might not get the job done against a Novak Djokovic or a Rafael Nadal -- not unless the courts are made quicker. But, as we saw Thursday, the willingness to press forward to the net certainly can bear fruit against a lot of the other talented players on the ATP Tour -- against the players you have to beat to get a crack at a Djokovic, Nadal or Andy Murray.

Federer is a different, better player than he was at the start of this year, and a lot of the credit for that goes to that iconic exponent of the serve-and-volley game, Edberg. And it’s OK with him that few seem to have noticed. Edberg likes it that way; he’s more than accustomed to working at his craft with few distractions.

How much does Cincinnati matter?

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11

The promoters of the Cincinnati Masters are going to be hard put to top the show the ATP and WTA put on in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, last week during the Canadian Open. Each tournament was like a jack-in-the-box; you just never knew when a high-quality match or stunning upset would pop up. Yet both tournaments were won by blue-chip players, each in his and her own way needing a big win.

No. 13 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the men’s event; No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska won the women’s. OK, fate was rough on the Homecoming King and Queen, Milos Raonic. He was stunned by unseeded Feliciano Lopez, but at least Raonic survived to the fourth round. Eugenie Bouchard met her very own Carrie in the first round in the form of Shelby Rogers.

Eight of the final 14 WTA matches in Toronto were three-setters, the casualties including seeds No. 14, No. 11, No. 8 and, of particular note, No. 1 -- that was Serena Williams. The men put on some barn burners, too, not all of them thanks to No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov.

The one tower of consistency still standing when the smoke cleared was Tsonga’s victim, No. 2 seed Roger Federer. If the 33-year-old, all-time Grand Slam singles title champ isn’t careful, people are going to give him a nickname along the lines of “Old Reliable” or “Old Faithful.”

So once again, seers are suggesting that we’re coming to an end times in the ATP (how else would you describe the fracturing of the Big Four?) and witnessing an equally disruptive transition on the WTA Tour. The latter is much easier to imagine because -- let’s be frank about this -- that turnover will occur if and only if and when and only when Serena Williams is deposed.

The men are ruled by a committee; the WTA, however, is a simple and pure dictatorship. It’s a Big One -- not a Big Four.

But let’s not get carried away. We’ve had similar signs of transition in the recent past, including Stan Wawrinka’s win at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal’s unexpected failures on the Euroclay circuit and the emergence of the hard-charging Bouchard and Simona Halep. But look at how all that worked out this summer: Nadal and Maria Sharapova won the French Open while Petra Kvitova and Novak Djokovic each won another Wimbledon title.

Some skeptics suggest that the real reason the Canadian Open proved such a shootout is that nobody wants to go all out in back-to-back Masters/WTA Premier events -- not just a few weeks before the long, hot summer hits the high point of the US Open. The tradition of playing “tuneup” tournaments (even one, never mind a slew of them) may be vanishing. Top-ranked Djokovic in particular seems comfortable tuning up for the majors on the practice court.

It may be counterintuitive, but having a number of options going into the US Open may even work against players looking to round into shape for a major. All players would rather win than lose; it’s a fact. But you can play plenty of tennis in the weeks leading to the US Open, take a few losses and feel like you have plenty left in the tank come the Open in New York. And the better you are, the less urgent it is for you to win one of the run-up events. At the top of the game, it’s not really about the rankings points anymore.

Given that, it will be interesting to see how Cincinnati will play out. All the top 10 women with the exception of out-of-commission Li Na are entered in the Western & Southern Open. All the elite men are playing there, too, with the exception of No. 2 Nadal, who’s out with a bad wrist. They all are there for a number of reasons, but getting ready for the US Open isn’t the towering one. The events are mandatory for most of the men and a staple for the top women, and while rankings points aren’t the end-all, be-all for top 10 players, it’s pretty hard for the ATP stars to ignore the value of 1,000 rankings points.

Any player who feels a great sense of urgency about making a statement before the US Open is down to his or her last big opportunity -- even if the only player who really seems to be in a must-win situation of her own making is Serena Williams.

If the early doings in Toronto and Montreal this week are any indication, the final Grand Slam of the year is going to be a spectacular shootout in which no champion is safe.

None, that is, with the exception of those two reliables, Serena Williams and Roger Federer.

Williams seems to be rounding into shape. On Tuesday, the top seed destroyed former US Open winner Samantha Stosur in Montreal. Then on Thursday, Williams battered Lucie Safarova. Federer, seeded No. 2 in Toronto, squandered six match points in his protracted third-round win over No. 15 seed Marin Cilic. Some feared it was the onset of dementia, for Federer is the 33-year-old grandpa of the ATP. But it’s more likely that the old man, still ranked No. 3 but without a Grand Slam title since the summer of 2012, just wanted to walk on the wild side once more.

Meanwhile, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was thumped in the third round Thursday by tennis' version of a dancing bear, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He’s a big, powerful and thickly built, and he does things that make spectators go “oooh” and “aaaah.” But he’s too tame to take down the top players but for once in a blue moon. The Wimbledon champ and newly married Djokovic looked somewhat flat and slow, like a guy trying to do one thing while wanting to do something else. You just get the sense that recent events have left him sated rather than stimulated.

Unseeded Kevin Anderson bopped No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka in straight sets, Feliciano Lopez knocked off No. 4 Tomas Berdych and No. 8 seed Andy Murray might have ducked the bloodbath of champions only because No. 12 Richard Gasquet pulled a stomach muscle and threw in the towel.

Back to Montreal: Did you see little Carla Suarez Navarro outthink and outrun No. 4 seed Maria Sharapova in a three-set festival of service breaks? There were 42 break points in that one. Whoever said in tennis it’s assumed the server will hold needs to rethink that premise.

The Montreal tournament got off on the wrong foot thanks to a massive power outage, followed by the demolition of Montreal’s homecoming queen, No. 5 seed and recent Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard. In addition to Suarez Navarro’s big win Thursday, Venus Williams put out No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber. Ekaterina Makarova eliminated No. 2 seed and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, and U.S. hope Coco Vandeweghe outdueled No. 7 Jelena Jankovic.

And then there’s this: Rafael Nadal, the defending champ in Flushing Meadows, isn’t playing either of the two Masters 1000 events leading up to the final major. His right wrist, injured during practice at home on the island of Mallorca a few days before the start of the Toronto ATP event, is in a splint and bandage. You can see it on YouTube if you’re a Nadal fan, or some kind of splint freak.

Nadal is still planning to defend his US title. It looks as though he’ll have to do it without the benefit of a single match since he became the fourth-round victim of 19-year-old wunderkind Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon -- not exactly the most confidence-inspiring memory to take into the cauldron of Arthur Ashe Stadium. He’s been out so long that he may have to ask the chair umpire which side he serves from at 15-all.

One theory to explain all this, which regrettably has a measure of credibility, is that most of the top players don’t really want to play two or three warm-up events before a major anymore. So their hearts aren’t really in it when it comes to something like the U.S. Open Series. The European clay court, which gets great support from the elites, is a little different. The year is just picking up steam, and cabin fever motivates everyone to get outside to start working on his or her tan.

There’s probably some truth in that. Thankfully, we have Serena and Roger.


Tennis will stage its own "Game of Thrones" this week in Montreal and Toronto, the equal-opportunity cities where the WTA and ATP alternate staging their simultaneous versions of the Rogers Cup -- or the Canadian Open. In recent months, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard have established themselves as, respectively, the king and queen of Canada, and this will be their homecoming.

But certain sinister forces, including but by no means restricted to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, have ambitions that would spoil the week for Canadians. Williams won the Stanford WTA event Sunday; she'll be in Bouchard's hometown of Montreal, top-seeded and hoping to usurp the throne. And Djokovic, the Wimbledon champ, leads the parade of ATP seeds in Toronto, where the U.S. hard-court circuit begins to truly matter, building critical mass until the big bang in New York. He knows that if Raonic isn't brought down a peg or two, who knows what damage he might wreak in the coming weeks?

Bouchard is the No. 5 seed in Montreal, partly because WTA No. 2 Li Na and No. 3 Simona Halep are both sidelined with injury. Ordinarily, that elevation in seeding would be a good thing. As luck would have it, though, Bouchard still fell short of the seeding (No. 4) that would keep her from meeting one of the top three seeds before the semifinals. And the upshot is a potential quarterfinal with Williams.

Bouchard can console herself with the fact that Williams looked somewhat ragged this week in her win at Stanford, or she can freak out because Williams looked ragged -- and still won the tournament with a straight-sets triumph over Angelique Kerber. Given that Bouchard is so combative and ambitious, I imagine she’ll focus on the glass that’s half full rather than the one that’s half empty.

The only woman to make at least the semifinals at the first three Grand Slam events this year, Bouchard also may be scheming to extract her pound of flesh from Petra Kvitova. The beating Kvitova gave Bouchard in the Wimbledon final must still be fresh in the Canadian’s mind, and she certainly has had plenty of time to brood about it -- having played no competitive matches in the interim.

Kvitova is seeded No. 2 and entrenched in the opposite, lower half of the draw, where her sternest test may come from either rusty Victoria Azarenka, flighty Jelena Jankovic or out-of-sync Agnieszka Radwanska.

If the draw gods weren't particularly kind to Bouchard, they certainly smiled upon the ATP No. 6 seed, Raonic. The 23-year-old world No. 7 couldn’t be rolling into Toronto in better form. He won in Washington, D.C., on Sunday over his fellow countryman Vasek Pospisil. That latter name may not have the same ring as Rafael Nadal, who ended Raonic's terrific run in the Montreal finals last year, but it was a difficult situation for the favorite and he handled it with aplomb.

Raonic is in the bottom half, his main potential antagonists hardly the most antagonizing guys on the tour: No. 4 Tomas Berdych, who always finds a way to lose a big match; No. 5 David Ferrer, who no longer grinds as enthusiastically and consistently as in the past; and No. 2 Roger Federer, who is … Roger Federer, but still subject to veteran's blues and more easily overpowered than the three big guns in the top half.

That trio would be Djokovic, No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka and No. 8 Andy Murray. And don't forget the one player who seems capable of spoiling the Canadian party before it even begins: feckless, raw-boned and powerful No. 11 Ernests Gulbis, who could be waiting for Raonic in the third round.

Murray's seeding position is laughable, and Djokovic may be in a position to affirm that as the two could meet in the quarterfinals. But don't count out Wawrinka, who likes the hard courts. And No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov is a big win waiting to happen.

I don't know what the oddsmakers say about a Raonic-Bouchard double, but these two are making history for Canada (long a hapless giant in tennis) on a daily basis. They've demonstrated that they're unlikely to go to pieces under the press of expectations, but the big serves of a Serena Williams or the sledgehammer forehands of Novak Djokovic are a different thing altogether.
Is it too early for fans of the Williams sisters to begin obsessing over a quarterfinal clash at Stanford between Venus and her baby sister, Serena? They’re one match removed from rekindling one of the weirdest, most frustrating, least loved (by them) and yet most historic rivalries in tennis.

The sisters have met only once since they clashed in the WTA tour championships back in 2009, and that was over a year ago at the modest green-clay tournament in Charleston. But each of the women faces a significant stumbling block before they would have to play a match neither of them has enjoyed despite having had two dozen opportunities to make their peace with it. Serena currently leads the sororal rivalry 14-10.

But for the sisters to meet, Serena will have to eliminate Ana Ivanovic, and Venus will need to get by resurgent German Andrea Petkovic. As recently as a year ago, you could reasonably expect Serena to overpower that former No. 1 Ivanovic, whose game lacks the heft of Serena’s.

But surprise, surprise -- Serena has had a tough year so far, particularly in Grand Slam events. And it was Ivanovic who launched the trend, taking top-seeded Serena down in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Both women have been ranked No. 1, and both are Grand Slam champs. (OK, Serena has 16 more than Ana, but never mind.) And Ivanovic will have even greater motivation because, with Li Na pulling the plug through at least the US Open, Ivanovic has a great shot at getting back into the top 10 for the first time since May 2009.

Venus’s obstacle is no Grand Slam champ. The closest Petkovic has come to a Grand Slam singles trophy was walking past the guy polishing it up in Paris a few months ago. But the injury-prone, free-spirited German has rocketed back up to No. 18, and besides making the semifinals of the French Open (losing to Simona Halep), she was a recent winner at Bad Gastein. Raw-boned, naturally strong and fit, Petkovic is blessed with a big personality as well as good intentions. Petkovic won’t be intimidated by the Williams aura, either, so expect Venus to have her hands full.

Going on the evidence Thursday night, it doesn’t appear that Serena would be a lock to win against her big sister, who in years past had been suspected of rolling over for her younger sibling. True, Venus is 34 years old now (roughly 2 years older than Serena), but she appears to have wrestled down whatever doubts, inhibitions or ailments had been cramping her style. Venus is having an excellent year. She won in Dubai, and at her beloved Wimbledon, Venus took eventual champ Petra Kvitova the full three-set distance in one of the best matches of the entire tournament.

Venus is not just playing well; she appears to be wholly committed to the effort. She’s ripping serves, running like a gazelle and blasting forehands with the kind of authority and consistency we haven’t witnessed in a long time. The remote stare and that curious state suggesting supreme disinterest that we sometimes saw in recent years isn’t evident now.

In her win over Victoria Azarenka on Thursday night, Venus did something that for her has been truly unusual in the recent past: She stepped up her game a notch late in the struggle, when it was vital for her to do so. Instead of watching her run out of energy, as we had time and again in the past, we saw her come on strong and yank the match out of Azarenka’s hands.

Serena has had a rough and, in some ways, strange year. The last thing she needs at this point, as she tries to rally for her last shot at a Grand Slam this year, is the complication of another match with Venus. But it may be just what she gets. And that should be enough to make you stay tuned.

Big week for Serena Williams

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
The latest we saw of Serena Williams, the owner of the greatest serve any woman ever threw down at Wimbledon, she was feeling woozy and serving up balls that flew like bottle rockets and produced four straight double faults in a Wimbledon doubles match. She and her sister, Venus, defaulted that match immediately, while others ran for cover, convinced it was a sign of the End Times.

This week, we’ll see if those bottle rockets will be transformed once again into the familiar, Scud-like missiles that have so helped Serena establish the rule of law in the WTA kingdom.

There’s a lot of excellent talent breaking out all over the place in the WTA, but it says something about the gap between Serena and the rest of the pack that she still holds the No. 1 ranking (and has for 74 straight weeks, the longest run since Martin Hingis' 80 weeks in 1997 and ‘98), despite faltering before the quarterfinal stage at the first three Grand Slams of the year. Are we sure those seven dwarfs surrounding Snow White weren’t really girls named Li and Simona, Petra, Aga and Maria, Genie and Angelique?

Still, the recently unthinkable now looks a lot like the possible, if not the probable: The end of the Serena Williams era in tennis. Her back is against a wall, and the walls big players back into tend to be tall. And that’s without the intrigue and gossip that followed the Wimbledon doubles default, when the venerable club’s officials declared Williams was suffering from a “viral illness.”

Now that’s a pretty unassailable diagnosis, there being merely six billion different viral illnesses out there and new ones appearing daily. The cure for the one Serena contracted appears to have been a trip to the seaside resort town of Pula, Croatia. Let’s hope the holiday also helped alleviate how “emotional and sad” Serena felt (according to a press report) in the wake of her unexpected third-round loss at Wimbledon to Alize Cornet.

The side effects of viruses are many. If there’s a bright side to what Serena has been going through in recent weeks, it’s the possibility the virus wiped out her memory of that loss to Cornet and perhaps that second-round failure at Roland Garros against Garbine Muguruza. We might as well throw in that fourth-round loss at the Australian Open to Ana Ivanovic.

Stanford looms hugely important to Williams in light of all those frustrations. It marks the start of her quest for an 18th Grand Slam title, which she’ll try to earn at the US Open. Given that Williams leaves herself as little margin for error in her scheduling as she does when she dials in a backhand winner, at this point, another shocking loss might seriously imperil her ability to win that next major. You have to wonder how long she can hold onto the top ranking if she can’t win majors and plays a limited schedule (just nine events so far this year).

Given that Williams turns 33 in less than two months, each missed chance seems like another number ticked off in a final countdown. Although Williams is done with the heavy lifting of her career, going an entire year without winning a major championship (that’s only happened three times in the past dozen years) is likely to introduce the “R” word (retirement) into her press conferences -- unfair and impertinent as it might seem.

And that conversation, as numerous top players can attest, is a pretty bad virus unto itself.
The U.S. Open Series kicked off this weekend in Atlanta, and North American fans already have something to moan about: Sam Querrey, the No. 2 American behind Atlanta top seed and No. 12 John Isner, was defeated by Dudi Sela in the second round by the lopsided score of 6-2, 6-4.

Querrey is 6-foot-6, and he has a flamethrower for a serve. Sela is 5-foot-9, and he has a funny first name.

This wasn’t exactly the way most U.S. tennis fans wanted to see Querrey set forth on the heavily publicized “road to the U.S. Open.” The USTA and other American operators have been getting a lot of grief for failing to produce elite players in the wake of the Sampras-Agassi era. But you can’t blame the infrastructure of American tennis this time.

The reality is that the establishment led by the USTA has done an awful lot to create friendly conditions for homegrown players as they prepare for the final Grand Slam event of the year.

Most of the credit for creating the U.S. Open Series goes to the USTA’s former CEO of Professional Tennis, Arlen Kantarian. At the time, Kantarian was thinking the tennis world could be more or less divided into spheres of influence, with something like self-sustaining mini-circuits leading up to each of the Grand Slams -- sort of like the way the European and PGA golf tours are organized.

It didn’t take a genius to see the possibilities. After all, a de facto Roland Garros series already existed in Europe. It did, however, take a visionary to try to implement the vital changes that would make the series worth its name in the U.S. market. Those changes included securing a comprehensive television package, which Kantarian did in partnership with ESPN.

Since then, the series concept has taken a beating despite the continued success of the Euroclay circuit in May and June. Given the demands of the present-day game, the tendency of the elite players is to reduce the number of tournaments they play in advance of any major. Novak Djokovic, who doesn’t play unless his commitment to the ATP’s mandatory Masters 1000 tournaments requires it, may be the face of the future.

The idea of the tune-up tournament sounds almost quaint now. The only exception is that quick transition from clay to grass, when more players feel the need to have a trial run. But Djokovic even skips those. And with Wimbledon moving from the last week of June into the first week of July next year, the players get more time to rest and/or practice on grass.

So the U.S. Open Series, which consists of 10 tournaments (five each for the ATP and WTA), is on shaky footing if you take the global view. But on the brighter side, it has evolved into an excellent training ground and laboratory for domestic players.

Isner knows this, and he appreciates it more than most. He’s entered in every one of the men’s U.S. Open Series events and plans to take full advantage of whatever boost he can get in the rankings. Besides, one of the events (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) is in his home state, and his participation so dominates the event that they could just as soon call it the Isner Open.

All this could prove valuable spadework for an as-yet-undetected resurgence in the American men’s game. When the players are ready, the game will be, too. It also helps make the U.S. Open Series seem more relevant to the overall game than it would if the intent were simply to create, for commercial purposes, a series of linked tournaments at a time when top players are interested in playing less, not more.

All we need now is for a few American players to step up. If and when that happens, the U.S. Open Series may end up looking like a helpful and successful idea.
There are no memories quite like summer memories; if you don’t trust me on that, just name off the top of your head the hits or timeless standard songs that celebrate the joys of February or November. On Sunday in Hamburg, Leonardo Mayer -- once an up-and-coming player from whom great things were expected -- experienced something that will stay with him for the rest of his days.

The years have slipped by quietly for Mayer. Can it be just a couple of months ago he turned 27? Yet he had never won an ATP tournament of any kind, never mind a Masters 1000, never mind a Grand Slam title. He never played on a team that won the Davis Cup.

This kind of thing can happen to a player who’s talented enough not to have to be running scared, a guy who knows that even on cruise control he’s going to have good checks rolling in. Mayer has been in the top 100 for most of the past five years, and he hit his career high of No. 46 a year ago. Life is good -- life may even be easy. Tennis, like surfing, has an endless summer. You can get lulled into just going with the flow.

But Mayer is also a tennis professional, and while down deep he may never have felt the overpowering need to win Wimbledon, he was well-aware that he’d never won anything at the ATP tour level. Nothing. Zippo. Squat. And, having been one of the most successful juniors in the world in 2005, he must have been acutely conscious of the stillborn nature of his career. In a blaze of glory back in '05, he made six consecutive junior finals, winning four of those events.

The reality is that Mayer had a monkey on his back, and for so long that he probably grew accustomed to it. But with one mighty shrug Sunday, he heaved off the simian, perhaps for good. And perhaps he’ll be a different player in what is essentially the back end of his career.

Unseeded Mayer won Hamburg, becoming the lowest-ranked player to win an ATP 500 in three years. Better yet, he beat three players seeded No. 10 or higher, including the top seed -- his victim in the final. Best of all, in that final he mastered a player who, while losing a bit of his once-superior consistency, has a reputation as one of the most implacable competitors on the ATP Tour: David Ferrer.

Yes, that David Ferrer. The one who has salted away 21 ATP Tour titles in a long and distinguished career through which he’s never lost the innate optimism of a champion -- not even when he was repeatedly and routinely crushed by slightly better champions.

Mayer packed an awful lot of career memories into this final, too. He was forced to three sets on a day when world No. 7 Ferrer’s age of 32 seemed not much of a factor. Mayer had a break advantage on two occasions in the first set, but Ferrer earned them back and ultimately won a tiebreaker. Not deflated, Mayer also broke twice in the second set, and that time he didn’t hand back the edge, closing it out 6-1.

In the final set, Mayer served for it at 5-4, but Ferrer being Ferrer, Mayer wasn’t out of danger -- not by a long shot. Ferrer broke back, but then Mayer showed the perseverance, cool head and calm nerves to keep it together. He forced a tiebreaker and won that one 7-4.

Leonardo Mayer shows signs of taking his game to the next level at Wimbledon, as well. (He made the fourth round at Wimbledon this year.) But whatever happens from here on in is not likely to diminish his memories of this particular summer, and this particular week in Hamburg. Somebody ought to write a song about it.

Not your average Hamburg summer

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
You know you’re in trouble when master-of-mayhem Fabio Fognini “leads an exodus” anywhere. In this case, it was back to the pool and karaoke lounge at the official ATP player hotel in Hamburg. The ATP website described it back on Wednesday as an exodus of seeds at the Hamburg 500 event.

Last year’s finalists, No. 2 seed Fognini and No. 13 Federico Delbonis, both lost on what fans in Hamburg will undoubtedly remember as Black Wednesday -- or perhaps Weenie Wednesday, the better to commemorate the weak showing of so many capable players. Fognini lost to once-promising junior Filip Krajinovic. Delbonis, seeded No. 13 this year, stumbled out at the hands of wild card Tobias Kamke. They were second-round encounters only on paper; each loser had a first-round bye.

Those were just the highlights, though. Other casualties included No. 9 seed Fernando Verdasco and No. 5 Mikhail Youzhny, who also was among the Magnificently Malodorous seven seeds who were knocked out that day.

There are many theories being floated to explain the bloodbath, starting with the notion that these boys were all tired after the long slog through the clay-court season and Wimbledon. Nice idea, but none of the beaten seeds had a particularly great Roland Garros-Wimbledon combo, least of all the two men who ought to have been the most fired up: Fognini and Delbonis. Fognini didn’t make the second week at either event; Delbonis barely made the first week -- he lost in the first round at both events and not exactly to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Another theory to explain the massacre is that this is the dead week in the ATP, and nobody really cares. What’s that you say? Last week was the dead week? Granted, there were no ATP 500 events or top-tier WTA meetings the week after Wimbledon. Many fans were lurching away from the sofa, armchair or desk after consuming the enormous amount of Wimbledon coverage provided over the Fortnight.

But Wimbledon has an afterglow, and grass-court tennis has a last hurrah at Newport, bolstered by the International Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The World Cup was still in progress last week, and basketball free agents sifted through their offers. All that, led by the futbol, combined to keep at least some of us interested in summer sports that don’t require tow ropes or air pumps.

This week is different. The Hamburg organizers have worked to make their event a highlight of the Hamburg summer, and a crown jewel of the mini-me summer clay-court circuit. But they’re swimming against the tide of torpor. You think not? Tell me what else is going on in tennis this week. The only other ATP event is a hard-court tournament in Bogota. The women are in Bastad, Sweden and Istanbul.

What, nobody thought to take the tour to Dar es Salaam?

Tennis, however, never sleeps -- and neither do its most hard-core fans. The chaos in Hamburg has helped create a story that might make this week in the dead zone memorable after all. Seventeen-year-old Alexander Zverev is on the cusp of a remarkable breakout despite the way the tour is smiling upon aging veterans rather than exuberant prodigies these days.

A Hamburg native and wild-card wunderkind, Zverev became the youngest player to win a match at an ATP 500 in five years, and what a win it was. He tore down Robin Haase in the first round by the Serena Williams-esque stats of 6-2, 6-0 in under an hour. He took on No. 5 Youzhny next and sat him down in straights. Then he knocked off, respectively, No. 11 Santiago Giraldo and Tobias Kamke. Now he’s in the semifinals, where he’ll probably meet top-seeded David Ferrer. Uh-oh.

The last 17-year-old to win a match at a 500 was Grigor Dimitrov, and you saw where he ended up: riding shotgun in one of the 55 Porsches won by Maria Sharapova.

So it turns out we do have a story worth following this week, even if none of the Grand Slam champs is working. Dimitrov, along with the other elites, is resting. And why not? Everybody deserves a break now and then. Even Fabio Fognini.
In recent years, the steady stream of American male tennis players descending on London in mid-June to compete at Wimbledon have been coming back a week or more before the conclusion of the event, tails between their legs, freshly strung but unused racquets in their thermal tennis bags.

The string jobs aren’t wasted, however, because the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships tournament at Newport, R.I., begins immediately after the men's icons fight it out for the Wimbledon trophy. The beaten multitudes laboring under the Stars and Stripes get another chance to prove their mettle on the lawns of the Newport Casino.

It’s just like Wimbledon, right? Grass courts. Charming, ivy-bedecked buildings. Newport even has something that Wimbledon lacks: a famous gazebo. Who needs Henman Hill, anyway?

Here’s a fact that ought to warm the hearts of U.S. tennis fans: Since 2009, an American player has been in the final or won the event every year but one (2013), and Michael Russell did plant the American flag in the semis last year. And the year before, Ryan Harrison and Rajeev Ram joined John Isner and Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals.

[+] EnlargeLindsay Davenport
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLindsay Davenport won three Grand Slam titles en route to the Hall of Fame.
That’s three Americans and one almost-American. There wasn’t a “Vamos!” to be heard, nor a smug Swiss fan anywhere in sight waving an obnoxious placard saying, “Shhhh ... Genius at Work!”

It seems like old times for the Americans when you watch tennis at Newport, just as nostalgia for the good old days beckons when you take a stroll through the rambling old wood-sided building that houses the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. There, you can find under glass a pair of sneakers worn by a great American Grand Slam champions of the past, presented just as artistically as a natural history museum displays the fourth rib of a woolly mammoth.

This is also the ITHF induction week, the honorees led by Lindsay Davenport (in the “recent player” category), who was one of only four women who held the year-end No. 1 ranking four different times in her career. Davenport won three Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal in the Atlanta games, and if she had possessed the same drive and single-minded focus as some of her peers, she might have won many more.

Nick Bollettieri is also being enshrined, one of the three individuals chosen for their contribution to the game. Anyone who follows tennis knows what Bollettieri brought to the table with his eponymous tennis academy (now the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy), yet the 82-year old dean of tennis coaches was overlooked by selectors for many years because of his reputation as a flamboyant self-promoter.

Whatever the case there, the reality is that Bollettieri developed or helped develop wave upon wave of the pros who helped shape the pro game, starting in the late 1970s. His proteges include Jimmy Arias, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Jim Courier and many, many others.

Bollettieri is already at Newport (giving clinics for the kids -- what else?), and he’s no doubt taking in some of the men’s tennis. John Isner, a two-time champion, is in the quarterfinals and hoping to complete a Newport hat trick.

You might scoff at that as a modest accomplishment in relative terms, but look at it this way: The guys Isner has lost to at Wimbledon, with the exception of Nicolas Almagro, all were ranked outside the top 25 at the time. Alejandro Falla, who stopped Isner in the first round in 2012, was No. 73 at the time. In other words, Isner loses at Wimbledon to the class of player he has handled well at Newport.

So let’s count our blessings and be happy that Newport has proved such a welcoming place to players from the U.S. But if I were Bollettieri, I might spend more time looking for a gifted, willing and eager youngster to take back to the academy than watching the Americans in attendance.
Novak Djokovic is a great tennis champion, but merely the latest in a long line of people to learn the hard way that it’s always darkest before dawn.

There Djokovic was, midway through the fifth set in the Wimbledon final, swinging the stringed stick while trying his best to suppress what creeping doubts, anger and disappointment nibbled away at his heart and will.

It was all caused by the fact that Djokovic had let Roger Federer -- the great Roger Federer, the seven-time Wimbledon champ -- off the hook late in the fourth set, when Djokovic failed to convert a match point with Federer serving for his life at 4-5 and Djokovic up two sets to one.

Up in the player box, the fleshy face of Djokovic’s co-coach Boris Becker was turning lobster red (Boris don’t need no stinkin’ SPF 40!). Across the net, Federer was cracking aces like a regular Lazarus. Rafael Nadal probably was bobbing around in his yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean, watching on his cellphone and chortling. Would this be the day when Nadal's nemesis, gifted as he is, would earn the humiliating moniker Novak Chokevic?

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Carl Court/AFP/Getty ImagesPreviously unseen fortitude and determination helped lift Novak Djokovic past Roger Federer.
Going into Wimbledon, Djokovic had a 6-7 career record in Grand Slam finals. Early in the year, he had failed to defend his Australian Open title (he didn’t even make the final, for the first time in four years). In Paris, his main goal for the year of completing a career Grand Slam with a French Open victory was blown to smithereens thanks to another beating administered by Nadal, the King of Clay.

Now here was Djokovic, on the verge of becoming the guy who held the gate open as Federer marched through to become the first man in 66 years to win a Wimbledon final after being down match point -- just another line item to add to Federer’s phone-book-sized list of accomplishment at a huge cost to Djokovic’s legacy.

However, if all of this put a certain amount of strain on Djokovic, he didn’t show it as the fifth set came to a climax. Ultimately, his composure and refusal to lose faith won him the Wimbledon title (with a little help from his service return, if you want to get all technical about it). It was the previous lack of those very intangibles that led Becker, one of the most courageous if not the most successful of champions, to his seat in the player’s box on a sunny, hot day in London.

It was easy to forget the women’s final in the wake of the spectacular show put on by Djokovic and Federer, yet in some ways the wins by Djokovic and the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova -- just a lowly No. 6 seed -- had some commonality.

Djokovic had accomplished far more than Kvitova leading up to this tournament (although at a comparable age, Djokovic was also struggling), and his star power exceeds Kvitova by a few orders of magnitude. But anyone who took account of the power and precision Kvitova showed when she won the Wimbledon title in 2011 surely had to be baffled by how infrequently she’s been able to summon that game on the big stages in recent years.

Painfully shy (something Djokovic has never been accused of) and forced by her nerves to wage a constant battle against anxiety, Kvitova hadn’t even been to the semifinals of a major since the spring of 2012. Granted, she was barely 21 when she first won Wimbledon. But just how much time does a player need to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere at the top?

The reality is that people were acknowledging Kvitova as a contender only when goaded into it. She just found too many ways to lose, too often. Until last weekend.

Kvitova put on a display of aggressive tennis as formidable as anything we’ve seen pouring off the racket of Serena Williams. Kvitova took Eugenie Bouchard, a genius at competing and a young lady destined for greatness, and simply demolished her. Now, Kvitova is back in the conversation that begins with the question “What happens when Serena and Venus retire?”

For Djokovic and Kvitova, the theme of this Wimbledon was vindication. Each of them achieved it, albeit in vastly different ways.