Peter Bodo: Andy Murray

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.
Rafael Nadal, who won the French Open for an unprecedented ninth time last Sunday, has now produced a far better trivia question for tennis fans of the future.

Nadal was the victim of, conceivably, the least surprising upset in tennis history Thursday in Halle, falling 6-4, 6-1 to German wild card Dustin Brown in under an hour.

Upon winning, Brown fell to his knees and kissed the turf (it’s easier on the lips than red clay). If I had to draw a thought bubble over his head, it would say: “Thank God I got him this year, not in 2015.”

The reason? If Nadal plays at Halle again next year, it won’t be four days after he won at Roland Garros. Should he add that 10th French Open title (you have a better pick?), he will have at least a week-and-a-half to rest and prepare for Halle.

Next year, Wimbledon is moving back a week on the calendar, and the ATP is juggling events as well as adding a new one and re-jiggering an existing one to create a longer grass-court segment.

So next year, the ‘s-Hertogenbosch ATP 250 will move up a week (to the week after the French Open), along with the new Stuttgart 250. They’ll be followed by the two premier grass events, Halle and Queens. They’re both 250s now, but will become 500s. The 250 tournament now in Eastbourne (next week) will move to Nottingham and conclude the day before Wimbledon begins.

You have to wonder, could a shift of one week on the calendar give you more bang for the buck than this one?

A look at the draws at Halle and Queens will tell you all you may need to know about the present situation. Nadal is out, Novak Djokovic (Nadal’s victim in the French Open final) wasn’t ever in, and even with a solid 10-day head start on the grass season the inestimable Roger Federer found himself on unsure footing in Halle, a tournament he’s won six times.

Federer lost a first-set tiebreaker then had to claw his way through a 6-4 set before he finally eliminated Portugal’s Joao Sousa, who hasn’t even be able to qualify for the main draw at Wimbledon in three tries.

Andy Murray had even more incentive to do well at Queens than his rivals. He’s the defending champ at Wimbledon, and he’s playing on grass under the watchful eye of his new coach Amelie Mauresmo for the first time this week. He needs work on the grass but all he got was one win before he was ambushed yesterday by grandfatherly Radek Stepanek. Could it be partly due to the fact that Murray had his best French Open (losing in the semifinals to Nadal) in years?

All of these ifs, ands or buts will be mitigated, if not entirely eliminated, next year. Players who go deep at the French Open will have the luxury of resting for a week after that tournament before the important Halle and Queens 500s begin.

Should an elite player want to get the extra work, or need to rebound from an early loss at the French Open, he can play the grass events in Stuttgart or ‘s-Hertogenbosch as well as the two 500s.

"I lost today because my rival was playing better than me," Nadal said after losing to Brown. "And at the same time, as I said yesterday, the transition from clay to grass is difficult, especially when you arrive a little bit tired and not at 100 percent. But I tried my best."

If you remember, Nadal pulled out of Halle last year after he won the French Open, under doctor’s orders to rest his knees. This year, he made a noble effort to honor his committment, and he made Dustin Brown’s day.
Tennis pros don’t like working under distracting conditions any more than the rest of us do, which suggests that the upcoming clay-court Masters events and the French Grand Slam will be an interesting test of the top players’ ability to focus.

As we approach the heart of the European clay tour, No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka is the only ATP player who has won major events and who ought to be free of care or complication. He won the Australian Open and most recently the first Masters title of his career at Monte Carlo.

True, at age 29, Wawrinka is no up-and-coming talent. But before this year, he often seemed a down-and-going mystery, destined never to fulfill his obvious talent. For Wawrinka these days, it’s all good.

Not so for his all of his peers in the elite class. Let’s start with No. 8 Andy Murray. If you’re wondering what kind of new -- or fuzzy -- math makes Murray part of some Big Four with that ranking, you’re on to something. The reality is that Murray still hasn’t won a tournament since he won Wimbledon last year, then skipped the entire fall to undergo back surgery and rehab.

Murray more or less declared himself fit and back in tiptop shape at Acapulco in late February. But he played a terrible match against Milos Raonic in the fourth round at Indian Wells, and Novak Djokovic crushed him in the quarterfinals in Miami, where Murray was the defending champ.

Clay is Murray’s poorest surface. Last year, he won a grand total of three matches in the three Euro clay Masters and missed Paris with back problems. Murray may or may not be thinking about his back in the coming weeks, but he just has to be thinking about how challenging it would be for him to defend that historic Wimbledon title if he doesn’t get some traction in his comeback, and soon.

No. 4 Roger Federer seems to be loving life -- and for good reason. He’s got everyone but Rafael Nadal bamboozled. Unfortunately, this is the time of year when Nadal traditionally punishes all comers, Federer included. But Federer and his wife, Mirka, are also expecting their third child (they have 4-year-old twins) sometime soon, and Federer has said he won’t miss the great event.

“It’s a priority for me trying to be there, trying to support my wife,” he recently told reporters. “I’ve played enough tennis matches. Missing a tournament or missing a match wouldn’t change anything for me.”

Even if that means breaking his streak of consecutive Grand Slam appearances (which stands at 57), you may wonder? “Yeah,” Federer said. “But let’s talk about it when it would happen. At the moment we hope it’s not going to be that way.”

ATP No. 2 Djokovic has made it clear since the end of last year that his priority for 2014 is winning the French Open. That would not only strike a vicious blow at his rival Nadal, it would also complete Djokovic’s career Grand Slam. Djokovic looked better than he has since 2011 when he won the two U.S. hard-court Masters in succession a few weeks ago. Then came the distractions.

The first was a happy one. Djokovic learned that his fiancée is pregnant. Jelena Ristic isn’t expecting to deliver for months, but this is a real life-changer for Djokovic. It might be purely inspirational, but for the unhappy distraction that came along with it -- the wrist injury that Djokovic carried through the Monte Carlo Masters. He lost to Federer in straight sets in the semifinals, then declared that he might have to take off an indefinite period of time.

Djokovic is facing a tough assignment, and the last thing he needs to be worrying about is his wrist -- or what he’ll name his kid.

Nadal is heading for Madrid as a loser in back-to-back clay-court events (Monte Carlo and Barcelona) for the first time since he was 18 years old (2004, Stuttgart and Bastad). Given that Madrid hasn’t been entirely friendly to his game (it’s all relative, but in his past five appearances he’s won the event “only” twice), is a third consecutive loss in a clay event possible?

One thing Nadal has going for him is that this sudden loss of dominance is his only distraction, although having something else to occupy his mind might not be such a bad thing.

Big Four crumbling as we know it?

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21

In case you hadn’t noticed, the tight little group of ATP players who once were called the Big Four have been fruitful, and they’ve multiplied: It’s now more like a Big Six or Eight … and counting. It raises the question: Are we in the midst of a major ATP transition?

Last week, we finally kicked off the European clay-court swing with the closest thing tennis has to news, a real “man bites dog” story. Top-seeded Rafael Nadal lost in Monte Carlo, where he was 50-2 for his career (with eight titles) -- until No. 6 seed David Ferrer bushwhacked him in the quarterfinals, thereby improving a dismal head-to-head record with Nadal to 6-21. What’s this world coming to, when Ferrer beats Nadal in Monte Carlo?

Novak Djokovic, the No. 2 seed and defending champ, relapsed after winning the two big U.S. hard-court Masters. He got his Belgrade rung in the semifinals by No. 4 seed Roger Federer, who's still as dangerous as a cobra, with Nadal the only reliable mongoose on the tour.

Andy Murray -- remember him? -- is down to No. 8 in the rankings. He decided to keep his powder dry for the upcoming Masters events and Roland Garros by taking a pass on Monte Carlo.

Stanislas Wawrinka, who’s moved ahead of Federer on the Swiss national team’s depth chart, won Monte Carlo. He thereby built on his No. 3 ranking and added to his street cred as a guy who’s fully prepared to take his place alongside the only three men who have won Grand Slam singles titles since Juan Martin del Potro won the U.S. Open in 2009 -- Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray.

With Wawrinka now joining the elite, will Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, respectively Nos. 5 and 12 in the rankings, be shamed into making their long-anticipated breakthroughs as Grand Slam winners this year? When pigs fly, you might think. You might have had the same reaction, though, if I’d asked whether Ferrer can beat Nadal at Monte Carlo.

It’s too early to theorize that the fortress of the Big Four is crumbling, but there appear to be cracks in the wall. Federer may be demonstrating that there are all kinds of “senior moments,” not all of them bad. But though he’s climbed back and hangs in there at No. 4, Federer is, after all, 32 years old. Djokovic can’t seem to hang on to that 2011 feeling, and Murray seems in no hurry to win titles again -- heck, he seems in no particular hurry to play matches, as demonstrated by his withdrawal from Monte Carlo despite all the ranking points on offer.

This week won’t advance this theme significantly, because Nadal and Ferrer are the only members of the top 10 who will be playing in the Barcelona ATP 500. It’s easy to overlook this tournament, wedged as it is between Masters 1000 events, but it means a lot to the Spanish players and public. It’s the closest thing you can have to an invitational for the cream of the Spanish crop, and all the top men from that nation are entered. If you were wondering why Nadal bothers to play this event, there’s your answer, or at least part of it -- pride.

On the heels of that loss to Ferrer in Monte Carlo, Nadal now is officially more successful at Barcelona. He’s won it eight times in nine tries, just to make sure all those other Spanish dudes remember who the boss is. Nadal is the least shaky of the Big Four, but the fact remains that he hasn’t won a tournament since Rio in mid-February. He’s been a bust in his last three events -- all Masters 1000s, including one on clay. If Nadal doesn’t get the win this week in Barcelona, we’ll embark on the heart of the clay-court season in more exciting disarray than we’ve experienced in a long while.

The walls of the fortress may still be pretty solid, but cracks are always more likely to expand than to close up.
The clay-court swing is officially underway, the first blow struck by Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who won on the green clay of Charleston last Sunday.

There are WTA events underway this week in Katowice, Poland, and Bogota, Colombia, where top seeds Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic (respectively) are rolling along.

On the ATP side, the clay season is off to a bizarre start.

The top seeds in the two ATP 250 events now underway (Casablanca, Morocco and Houston, Texas) didn’t get a win between them: ATP No. 9 John Isner was dusted in Houston in the second round (he had a first-round bye) by Dustin Brown. Ditto for No. 19 Kevin Anderson, who was busted in Morocco by 32-year-old No. 89 player Victor Hanescu. He’s exactly the kind of clay-bred warrior who presents often unsolvable problems for players such as Isner and Anderson, whose power isn’t complemented by the kind of patience -- or consistency -- that wins matches on clay.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Ella Ling/BPI/Icon SMIDoes early 2014 success have Ana Ivanovic primed for wins on clay?
The results thus far seem emblematic of what lies in store on both tours in the coming weeks. The women are loaded with players who enjoy the clay and know how to play it, like the those mentioned above.

And let’s not forget that the winner in Monterey, Calif., (a last lingering hard-court event) last week was former French Open champ Ana Ivanovic. The women’s tour is chockablock with contenders on clay. Jankovic has been No. 1 in the world and, like current No. 3 Radwanska, she’s been a Grand Slam finalist.

Should Serena Williams surrender the stranglehold she has on the WTA tour in the coming weeks, it’s really impossible to say who, if anyone, might take her place. No. 2 Li Na has been more consistent than ever in recent months, but she’s wandered off-script before. Victoria Azarenka has been out with a foot injury, and she’s not due back until Madrid in early May; who knows how long it will be until she’s match tough again? Maria Sharapova, down to No. 8, hasn’t made a final this year.

The ATP side of the game offers a clearer picture. Rafael Nadal has shown no signs of being anything less than the ruthless, implacable, inexorable punisher of the Euroclay segment. Over the last nine years, he’s won Monte Carlo (the first of the red clay Masters 1000 events) eight times, and the Madrid and Rome Masters titles a combined nine times. He’s feasted on red clay, and he’s coming back for more like he always does.

Nadal, current ATP No. 1, lost exactly one match during the two-month clay-court season last year, and that was to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. It strains credulity to envision Nadal losing more often this year, unless Djokovic can hit the level he found when he hammered Nadal in the recent Miami Masters final. That match reminded pundits of 2011, when Djokovic won six straight against Nadal (two of those wins in the two major Euroclay Masters, Madrid and Rome).

Djokovic has to prove that he can resurrect -- and sustain -- that level on clay. Nadal is 13-3 against Djokovic on the surface, and while many of those wins were early in the rivalry (Djokovic is 3-4 in their last seven meetings on dirt), clay remains the surface on which Nadal is most effective against his nemesis.

Roger Federer, back up to No. 4, was feeling so exuberant after clinching the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan that he took a wild card into Monte Carlo. It was a bold and confident move, but let’s remember that Nadal is even more dominant over Federer on clay than he is over Djokovic. Nadal is 13-2 against the all-time Grand Slam singles champ. He hasn't lost to Federer on clay since May 2009.

As for the rest of the ATP cast, Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has slowed down in recent weeks, faltering in the fourth round at Indian Wells and Miami. Top 10 staples such as Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (now down to No. 12) and Richard Gasquet have failed to deliver when it most counts. Andy Murray, No. 8 and the defending Wimbledon champ, always seems to struggle on clay.

If we’re going to witness a shake-up in the pecking order, it’s more likely to occur on the women’s side. Nadal is a Superman on red clay; only Djokovic has the kryptonite, and Nadal is usually immune even to that.
Let’s assume you’re new to tennis and have heard mostly negative things about the Davis Cup.

You’ve been told that nobody cares, that the top players don’t feel passionate about it, that the best-of-five-sets format (with no tiebreaker in the fifth set) is outdated, and that tennis isn’t a team sport, so trying to make it one makes no sense.

Have I covered most of the bases?

Well, if you then watched Davis Cup this past weekend, here are the surprising things you might have learned on what has been one of the finest exhibitions of Davis Cup tennis over a full weekend in a long time:

Passion overflows
[+] EnlargeAndreas Seppi
AP Photo/Salvatore LaportaDavis Cup fans were firmly behind Andreas Seppi and the Italians -- and everyone else -- over the weekend.
"Nobody cares" should read "nobody cares more than Davis Cup fans," as demonstrated by the crowds that filled the venues where the four World Group quarterfinals were played.

You know how conservative and boring those Swiss are, right? Well, if you tuned in to the Kazakhstan at Switzerland match at any point in the weekend you saw how the Swiss fans, so many of them decked out in bullfighter red and white, shook the rafters with their stamping, hooting and hollering.

In Italy, Andy Murray actually petitioned chair umpire Pascal Maria for help during his match with his No. 1 counterpart, Fabio Fognini. The Italian fans were shouting and screaming at Murray even as he tossed the ball to hit a second serve. It might have been ugly, but it wasn’t like nobody cared.

Big effort from big names
Although the demands of Davis Cup lead most top players to pick and choose the years and/or ties in which they play, almost all of them hold the competition in high regard, and once they sign up, they’re all-in.

The major heroes of the weekend for the winning teams were big names. World No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka overcame a bad case of nerves in the critical, fourth-match battle of each country's top players to stave off elimination for the heavily favored Swiss.

World No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did the same for the French after they fell into a 2-0 hole against Germany, and No. 25 Gael Monfils ultimately clinched it. Also, No. 4 Roger Federer clinched for the Swiss in the fifth and final match of that tie.

Murray of Great Britain, now No. 8 in the world but the defending Wimbledon champ, almost had a heroic moment of his own before running out of gas on Sunday after having to play most of two matches on clay on Saturday in Naples.

The format works
The format of the Davis Cup certainly is not television-friendly. That’s one of the reasons broadcasters have shied away from it. A five-set Davis Cup match can go on for five or six hours, wreaking havoc with programmers. But so what? Sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

I’m in favor of fifth-set tiebreakers. But those epic overtime matches (like German Davis Cup rookie Peter Gojowczyk’s 8-6 fifth-set win over Tsonga on the first day) become part of the lore and legend of the game, especially when they feature underdog heroes like Gojo.

And the fact that the two singles players each play two matches (barring a second-match substitution) means redemption is a frequent Davis Cup theme. Just ask Wawrinka or Julien Benneteau. The latter was a surprise selection to play No. 2 singles for France over No. 25 Monfils despite being ranked No. 50 overall and just ninth on the French depth chart.

Benneteau was crushed by Germany’s Tobias Kamke (No. 96) on the first day but then partnered with Michael Llodra on “double Saturday” to stave off a humiliating German sweep with an excellent win over Andre Begemann and Kamke.

There’s a lot more strategy in Davis Cup than you might think, given the four-man teams and five-match format. Had the French lost the doubles, captain Arnaud Clement would have been the goat of the tie for promoting Benneteau ahead of Monfils. Davis Cup may not be chess, but it isn’t checkers, either.

Team angle brings intrigue
As for the team aspect of the competition, most players will tell you that being on a team and playing for your nation puts you under loads of pressure. That helps account the frequency of Davis Cup Cinderella stories and improbable upsets, like the four that occurred over the weekend.

But the agony of defeat and thrill of victory are unparalleled in the sport.

I don’t know about you, but for me, any event in which the likes of Federer and Wawrinka (themselves an Olympic gold-medal doubles team) end up with their backs to the wall and fighting for their lives is a very good thing.

Andy Murray doing the wrong things

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21

Among all the people who are out of work in our struggling republic, the one I’m least worried about is Ivan Lendl. Coach to Andy Murray until a few days ago, Lendl was as prudent as he was spectacularly successful in his salad years on the pro tour. He doesn’t need Murray’s money, and Murray got what he needed from Lendl -- a leg up over the final hurdle in his career.

But while winning a Grand Slam title (two, in Murray’s case, as well as a gold medal in Olympic singles) is the ultimate capstone on a player’s career, the difference between a player and a coach is that the former can’t drop the racket and walk away as easily as the coach can put away the wrench and put his feet up when he’s fixed a guy.

That final hurdle? It multiplies. Murray has four lying in his path as I write this, and that’s just this year. That’s why this is an important week for the 26-year-old from Dunblane, Scotland. He’s the defending champion at the Sony Open an ATP 1000, which started Wednesday. He’s said all the right things since his return from minor back surgery, but lately he’s doing some of the wrong things.

In his tournament appearances thus far in 2014 (he missed the entire fall of 2013 because of his back problems), Murray is 14-5. He hasn’t made a final. More telling, he’s lost to three guys outside the top 20, including No. 40 Florian Mayer in Doha.

The loss to Mayer was understandable; it was in the first week of the new tennis year. Murray, still ranked No. 4 at the time, then had a good Australian Open, losing in the quarters to No. 6 Roger Federer. Murray was feeling so exuberant and optimistic afterward that he jumped into the fray in Rotterdam after further boosting his confidence with two sleek and slick Davis Cup wins over unthreatening Americans.

You could forgive Anglophiles from all over the world -- those folks from whom Murray has never been able to hide -- for leaping to their feet, waving their Union Jacks and screaming, “Go-o-o-o-o An-dey.”

But not so fast.

In the weeks since he made the quarters in Rotterdam (losing to Marin Cilic), things got a little dodgy for Murray. He had a good tournament in Acapulco, taking a semifinal loss to No. 22 but oncoming sensation Grigor Dimitrov. After the loss, Murray declared that his workload (matches over four consecutive days) for the week convinced him that he was finally, fully and hopefully irrevocably fit and in full control of that hard-to-characterize game. (Murray plays jazz compared to Federer’s classical or Rafael Nadal’s heavy metal.)

Murray seemed set to dole out some punishment at Indian Wells, in the first Masters 1000 of the year. Then the pre-Lendl Murray re-emerged. He made baffling decisions, blew leads, and he created problems and then bitterly complained about them as he lurched through three tough matches, flaming out after being in firm control of his fourth-round match against No. 11 seed Milos Raonic. (Now there’s a guy who could use Lendl’s services).

Perhaps it’s significant that Lendl was not present. In Lendl’s absence, Murray once again fell into the clutches of the Whine Monster. All the negativity that once seemed to hold Murray back appeared to return, flowing into the vacuum left by Lendl like scotch whiskey filling a flask.

Since his return, Murray has fallen from No. 4 to No. 6, for which his reward has been a potential Miami quarterfinal against No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic.

Murray might not be out of work, but I’m more concerned about him than about the guy who is.

Indian Wells crowns up for grabs

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
The most refreshing thing about the Indian Wells tournament that is taking place in the California desert is that both titles appear to be up for grabs in a way they haven’t been for a long time, particularly on the ATP side of the pro fence.

Now that the first weekend is over (you can think of that first Wednesday through Sunday as a kind of mega-qualifying event for the week that begins Monday), a pattern is beginning to emerge from the confusion that is part and parcel of any major or combined 10-day event.

The two No. 4 seeds, Tomas Berdych and Victoria Azarenka, have bitten the desert sand. Berdych was upset by an emerging talent, Roberto Bautista Agut. Azarenka has larger problems -- mainly a nagging foot injury so serious it might jeopardize her entire spring -- or worse. That’s noteworthy for the WTA contenders because Azarenka, a former No. 1, also has been the champ on the gritty and slow desert hard courts.

The No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany also has gone kaput, as has that unpredictable but deadly desert flower Daniela Hantuchova. Although her seeding was a lowly No. 29, Hantuchova improbably won this event twice. That makes her a force to reckon with, but now she’s just one less thing to worry about for top seed Li Na.

Li, the recent Australian Open champ, is on a mission to prove she’s a worthy Grand Slam champ and potential No. 1. That means she’s making an effort to perform at her highest level more consistently than ever. With Serena Williams once again taking a pass on this event, Li has a terrific opportunity to walk the walk.

Of course, an opportunity so big for a player so capable of seizing it also brings to bear a certain amount of pressure. And that’s something Li has not always handled well. One of the major obstacles in Li’s path is ultratalented but power-challenged Agnieszka Radwanska, who also has performed unpredictably in big matches. The other, Maria Sharapova, can be terribly erratic. Her scream is often louder than her bite.

Given that Li herself has been prone to lapse into ugly and counterproductive moods and attitudes, we might even see a relatively fresh face accepting the winner’s trophy: long-overdue Caroline Wozniacki, Dominika Cibulkova, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur or perhaps even Sloane Stephens.

The tale of the men’s draw is surprisingly similar, which is saying a lot given the way Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have dominated the conversation in recent years.

The back problems Nadal experienced at the Australian Open haven’t cleared up despite a significant break and rehab. And, although the top seed and world No. 1 likes to put a brave face on, we all know back injuries are the trickiest and potentially most problematic of all.

Partly because of continued back pain, Nadal barely pulled out a win over 35-year-old Radek Stepanek in the second round this weekend. With his service motion altered in response to pain, Nadal banged out eight double faults (a career high) and gifted Stepanek with 10 break points.

That probably was welcome news to Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka et al., given Nadal’s record at Indian Wells. (He has won the title three times and has made at least the semis every year except in his debut in 2014.) Add to this cloud hovering over the head of Nadal the apparent resurgence of Federer, the emergence of Wawrinka, the fitness of Andy Murray and what appears to be the pulsating motivation of Djokovic and you can see why nobody, not even among the pundits, is conceding the title to anyone.

It’s difficult to imagine someone other than the men mentioned in the above paragraph winning this thing, but take a look at that third quarter of the men’s draw -- the one with the huge hole in it thanks to losses by No. 4 Berdych and lesser seeds Florian Mayer and Philipp Kohlschreiber (both of whom are tough outs).

Grigor Dimitrov, the talented No. 15 seed who needs to make a move to justify all the hype that has surrounded him, is in that quarter, and he just might fit through that gap, and once he pops into the semis -- who knows?
The Indian Wells Masters 1000 is underway, and Miami follows immediately on its heels. Sweeping the two events is a major accomplishment (among the Big Four, only Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have done it). Call the accomplishment a Masters mini-Slam. The feat may not yield the same prestige as winning a Grand Slam title, but it does pay off with the same number of ATP ranking points (2000).

That raises two interesting questions: Who’s got the best shot at completing a North American Masters mini-Slam, and who’s got the most to gain from doing it?

Let’s start with Federer: The guy has been saying all the right things about his motivation and his new racket. Besides, he’s still the only man to have accomplished the mission in back-to-back years (2005 and ’06). A hat trick on the U.S. hard courts would be a second cherry on top of his Masters resume.

As little as two weeks ago, the very idea of Federer slashing his way to the title at Indian Wells and Miami seemed untenable to all but the most blinkered of his fans. Then he won Dubai last week, with back-to-back wins over Djokovic and Tomas Berdych. Federer has shown, once again, that you count him out at your peril.

The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. How much success does Federer need or crave? And what real motivation does he have to go big at this point in the year?

Granted, a Federer revival that leaves him with two Masters and the Dubai title as the tour heads to Europe would be a major story. But Federer isn’t focused on publicity; he’s concentrating on the major events and Davis Cup this year. A win at either one of the upcoming Masters would boost his momentum, but it isn’t something he really needs at this stage of his career.

Rafael Nadal has been denied the honor of a hard-court spring sweep, and he’s certainly demonstrated the ability to pull it off. But as good as he’s been at Indian Wells (three titles, including last year’s) is as unlucky as he’s been in Miami, where he’s never won (three-time runner-up).

Given Nadal’s proficiency on clay (where he’s completed the Masters mini-Slam of Madrid and Rome three times), it wouldn’t exactly be stop-the-presses news if he won a pair of Masters on hard courts in successive fortnights.

It all may be moot anyway. The maintenance of his troublesome knees may dictate that he take a pass on Miami, as he did last year. If he defends successfully at Indian Wells (where the court speed is said to be very slow), I can’t imagine Nadal even showing up in Miami.

There’s not much for Nadal to gain by winning both of the events -- not when you factor in the physical toll the feat would take with all that low-hanging fruit waiting on the European clay circuit. Nadal likes playing at Indian Wells, and he’s good buddies with billionaire tournament owner Larry Ellison. But I don’t think he’s dying to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back.

And how about Andy Murray, who’s a little bit like the poorest guy in a club composed of billionaires (still not bad work if you can get it)? A sweep of the spring hard-court Masters would be a powerful statement. At this point, though, it may be too much to ask, and not just because he’s the most junior member of the Big Four.

Murray missed most of the fall because of back surgery, and he’s reluctant to push himself. He’s down to No. 6 in the rankings and has a 13-4 record in tournaments this year, but he hasn’t been beyond the quarterfinals. Making a final in either of the hard-court Masters coming up would be a big step forward for him.

As for the benefit, Murray has proven to be a Masters 1000 warrior. He has just two Grand Slam titles, but nine Masters shields -- a situation that has led to much speculation in the “horses for courses” vein. Murray is healthy now, and he’s had a good dose of match play. He could really benefit from winning one of these Masters events, and winning both would be a declaration of war on Nadal and Djokovic.

That leaves Djokovic, who won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back in 2011. Djokovic sorely needs to recapture the magic he had in that dazzling year, and his trials and tribulations this year -- the first year since 2006 that he’s without a title on the eve of the these two big events -- only adds to the urgency.

Djokovic has absorbed some unexpected losses this year, but he’s played very well for pretty long stretches. The slow hard courts are his best surface. What questions swirl around him have more to do with motivation than the X’s and O’s of his game.

I can’t imagine a better time for Djokovic to re-invent himself by repeating his feat of 2011. Nobody would benefit more from completing a Masters mini-Slam than Djokovic, and the time for him to get his game in gear again is right now.
Although Monday’s World Tennis Day festivities in Madison Square Garden are merely an exhibition, the matchups in the BNP Paribas Showdown are fraught with meaning when it comes to the short- and/or long-term status of the competitors.

In the main-event singles, ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic will meet his pal in No. 6 Andy Murray. The doubles will be a battle of the brothers: John and Patrick McEnroe will bump up against Mike and Bob Bryan, the Grand Slam doubles record-holders (15 major titles). They also, in the eyes of many, are the greatest doubles team of all time -- eclipsing, among others, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming.

John McEnroe does not like to be eclipsed. But more on that later.

Everyone knows this exhibition is mainly a chance for tennis nuts to get together to celebrate and feel good about tennis. And though this World Tennis Day concept may not be quite ready to challenge Super Bowl Sunday or the day they run the Kentucky Derby in terms of single-day public interest, it is beginning to develop some legs -- thanks partly to the number of nations where tennis is a popular spectator (and participant) sport, and the way the various national federations affiliated with the ITF can whip up interest in this kind of thing.

"Hit-and-giggle" tennis is all well and good, but it just so happens that both Djokovic and Murray could use a little more hit and little less giggle these days. This doesn’t mean the two junior members of tennis’ Big Four (the other two are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) will go at each other hammer and tong, but at this stage you could say both men could use a win -- any win.

Djokovic, so recently the dominant No. 1, hasn’t won a tournament yet this year, and the two big U.S. hard-court Masters 1000 events are just around the corner. You have to flip back through lots of calendars to find the last year he found himself in that fix. (It was 2006, so early in his career that it was no fix at all.)

Granted, Djokovic has played just two tournaments this year, the Australian Open and Dubai. With scheduling like that, you’d better do a lot of winning. But Djokovic is 6-2 and coming off what must be a sobering and perhaps demoralizing semifinal loss to Roger Federer in Dubai. Among other things, the loss enabled Federer to keep Djokovic at bay in the head-to-head rivalry. The Swiss icon still leads it, 17-15.

Murray isn’t much better off. He’s just 9-3 in three tournaments (Rotterdam, Australian Open, Dubai), and only one of those losses was to a peer. Federer took him out in the quarterfinals Down Under. His other losses were to talented but flawed Marin Cilic and, last week in Dubai, to solid but unspectacular Florian Mayer.

Down to No. 6 on the ATP computer now, Murray had pronounced himself fit and glad to be playing pain free again following minor back surgery last fall. The best rationalization of his struggles is that he still lacks match toughness. Unfortunately, he’s suggested otherwise, and that puts him in the same boat with Djokovic, and that vessel is leaking.

Happily, the doubles pairing also is intriguing -- mainly because John McEnroe has been complaining recently about the state of doubles. In a thinly veiled criticism of the Bryans' success and claim to honors as the best doubles team in history, the older McEnroe brother said:

“I don’t know what doubles is bringing to the table. The doubles are the slow guys who aren’t quick enough to play singles. Would it be better off, no disrespect, but would it be better off if there was no doubles at all and we invest all the money we save elsewhere so that some other guys who never really got into a good position in the sport end up playing more in singles?”

Ouch. I have a feeling that "no disrespect" qualifier fell on deaf ears in the Bryan camp, so I'm expecting those point-blank volleys hit right at an opponent's body traveling with a lot zip, and perhaps leaving a mark.

From bad to worse for U.S. Davis Cup

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
Here’s how bad it is for the U.S. team in the Davis Cup: The squad lost in the first round of World Group play this past weekend to Great Britain, a nation that had not won a single WG match (a “tie” in Davis Cup patois) in 30 years.

Not bad enough for you? Try this: The previous time a visiting British team beat the U.S., we were just three years into the new century -- the 20th century (1903).

As U.S. Davis Cup coach Jim Courier said sardonically, when he was asked Sunday how all of that felt: "It feels great to be alive in 2014. We certainly don't feel a lot of kinship to the last team that lost to the Brits on American soil since they've been dead a long time."

The man most responsible for the breakthrough win by the Brits in San Diego was Jamie Ward, a 26-year-old English journeyman ranked No. 175 in the world. His upset of Sam Querrey in the second match (or "rubber") ensured that as long as heavily favored Andy Murray -- by far the best player on either team in this matchup -- won his two singles matches, the Brits could salt away the tie.

Granted, John Isner is the highest ranking U.S. player (No. 13 in the ATP rankings), and he had to withdraw from the team at the 11th hour because of a continuing right ankle injury. He was replaced by Donald Young, who got blown to pieces by Murray in the opening match in San Diego. But that was just a preview of “ugly.” Ward then recovered from a terrible start to beat Querrey in four sets -- the final one so dismal that Querrey won just one game.

This latest insult to the great tradition of U.S. tennis seems emblematic of our woes in the larger picture. It just seems that the U.S. never could get traction in the effort to find Grand Slam contenders to pick up where players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Courier and Andy Roddick left off. Young, once a prodigy, has become just another struggling ATP journeyman. Ryan Harrison, another highly touted youngster, is flailing around outside the ATP top 100. And Isner and Querrey, though solid ATP pros, just haven’t produced the impressive wins. They’ve been to a grand total of one Grand Slam quarterfinal between them (Isner, US Open, 2011).

The Davis Cup gives us a pretty good lens through which to view this struggle. Though U.S. fortunes were already crumbling during the Roddick-James Blake-Mardy Fish years, the U.S. was at least competitive in Davis Cup play, and it won the event in 2007. Granted, the singles guys got tremendous help from Bob and Mike Bryan, the superb doubles specialists who have played an outsized role in the consistent success of the American squad.

Isner and Querrey were the heirs apparent in singles, and they were gifted the Bryan brothers to take some of the pressure off (the Bryans did their job in San Diego, winning the doubles). Isner and Querrey made a promising debut as the singles players in a World Group first-round tie in March 2010 against Serbia. At one point that year, both were ranked in the top 20 and considered potential future stars. The U.S. lost that tie, but there was no shame in it -- the tie was in Belgrade, on red clay, and the Serbs had Novak Djokovic.

Fish saved the U.S. squad from the humiliation of falling out of the World Group later that fall by winning two singles and teaming with Isner to take the doubles in the playoff round later that year (only the winners in the playoff round remain in the World Group, tennis’ major league). In subsequent years, Roddick, the Bryan brothers and Isner kept the United States in the World Group. The squad even made the semifinals in 2012 before losing the away tie to Spain.

Isner emerged as an excellent Davis Cup player. Unfortunately, Querrey did not. His singles record has fallen to 3-6, if you discount two meaningless dead rubbers (those are matches played after the five-rubber tie is already decided).

The Davis Cup mirrors Querrey’s day-to-day struggles on tour. He’s down to No. 55 now, but he certainly has time to get his game together before the Davis Cup playoff round in September. If he can’t manage to improve, though, the U.S. -- still the most successful of all Davis Cup nations -- could very well stumble out of the World Group for the first time since 1987.
Until Wednesday, the first round of Davis Cup World Group play shaped up as a low-key spectacle. Andy Murray, the most junior member of tennis’ suddenly beleaguered Big Four, was the only member of the quartet who volunteered to do national service.

All that changed in the blink of an eye when Roger Federer, the most prolific of all Grand Slam champions, threw his hat into the ring. He announced that he will be joining newly crowned Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka (now No. 3 in the world rankings) on Team Switzerland.

Who knew that the smooth, diplomatic, straight-arrow Federer had such a wicked sense of humor?

Switzerland is visiting Serbia, the 2010 champion and last year’s runner-up to the Czech Republic, on an indoor hard court in Monica Seles’ home town of Novi Sad. Does anyone else get the feeling that, somewhere, smoke is pouring from the ears of Novak Djokovic?

You could hardly blame Djokovic, whose allegiance to Davis Cup thus far in his career has been unimpeachable. He decided to take a break this year, partly because the Serbs couldn’t muster an adequate supporting cast. Viktor Troicki, who was ranked inside the top 40 at the start of the year, is sitting out a suspension for violating the anti-doping regimen. Janko Tipsarevic, who was No. 10 as late as May of last year, has been plagued by injuries and mired in a rankings free-fall. Given that Marco Chiudinelli, the likely Swiss No. 2, is ranked No. 180, the Serbs were in with a fighting chance even in the event that Wawrinka wins both his singles rubbers.

Now it just looks like the Serbs are in for humiliation. What’s worse for Djokovic is that losing teams this weekend will be obliged to play -- and win -- later in the year in the Playoff Round to remain in the elite World Group for 2015. So though Federer and Wawrinka might be hogging the limelight in the September semifinals, Djokovic may find himself pressed into service in some far-flung outpost of the game just to keep Serbia up in the big league.

Thanks, Roger.

Federer’s decision to play automatically overshadowed the commitment made to this round by Murray. While No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Djokovic are cooling their heels, Murray is leading an overmatched British team against the U.S. in a tie at Petco Park in San Diego.

It’s a sign of changing times that the U.S.-Great Britain tie will be played on outdoor red clay, a surface on which No. 13 John Isner has had terrific Davis Cup results in the past. However, Isner pulled out of the competition Thursday with an injury. He will be replaced by Donald Young, who had a bit of an auspicious run in Australia. Although both Young and No. 49 Sam Querrey, now the United States' No. 1 singles player, could easily lose to Murray, the No. 2 singles for the Brits probably will be an overmatched No. 175, Jamie Ward. It’s times like these that make U.S. captains like Jim Courier and his predecessor, Patrick McEnroe, fall to their knees and thank the heavens for the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan.

This year’s first round has some intriguing matchups: Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil of Canada challenging the Japanese team led (at home) by Kei Nishikori and a crafty Italian team featuring Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi ought to give host Argentina all it can handle. There probably will be some tense moments and intense competition this weekend in many nations, if not Serbia.

Rafael Nadal to be tested early in Oz

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
The Australian Open has been very kind to Novak Djokovic, and at first glance, it seemed to get even more magnanimous. The defending champion, Djokovic is poised to become the first man in the Open era to carry off the title five times, and he appears to have been gifted with a draw that’s significantly friendlier than the one foisted on top-seeded Rafael Nadal.

But is it, really? Let’s look at the draw quarter-by-quarter, starting at the top, Nadal section.

If Nadal’s quarter seems tougher, it’s largely because his first-round pairing jumps out at you. He’s going to meet the great Australian hope (and, sometimes, dope), Bernard Tomic. Forget all the controversy about Tomic and his wacky father. Apart from anything else -- including the hype this match will generate Down Under -- Tomic always lifts his game at home. He’s a tricky, shifty player, and he probably wants to win back some of the fans he’s lost with his antics.

A third-round rematch with Gael Monfils (whom Nadal beat in a three-set final in the Doha final last Sunday) is no gimme, either, and Nadal’s projected fourth-round opponent is a tough out, No. 16 seed Kei Nishikori. If nothing else, the draw will certainly leave Nadal broken in for a potentially grueling quarterfinal battle with No. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro.

Moving into the second quarter of the draw, Roger Federer may be down to No. 6 in the rankings, but the way they now do the draw, he’s ensconced in the slot that once was reserved for either the No. 3 or 4 seed (this year, David Ferrer and Andy Murray respectively) -- the very bottom of the top half.

As it turned out, Murray ended up at the top of that second quarter. It’s probably fine with him, because he’s now got good reason to rethink those gloomy predictions he’s been making about his chances in Melbourne. (Murray was out most of the fall for minor back surgery and rehab, and has played exactly two tournament matches since shortly after the US Open.)

Murray appears to have little to worry about until a fourth-round meeting with No. 13 John Isner (Murray could get a qualifier in both the second and third rounds). By contrast, Federer in that quarter might have to survive former finalist and No. 10 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or former semifinalist Marin Cilic, to make a projected date with Murray in the quarters.

With Murray and Federer both in that second quarter, the third quarter is up for grabs. The high seed is No. 3 David Ferrer, and the biggest threat to his semifinal dreams appears to be the next-highest seed in that section, No. 7 Tomas Berdych. Ferrer seems to be having trouble grinding with his familiar enthusiasm now that he’s 31, and Berdych is consistent, but he didn’t win a title in 2013 (although he did lead the Czech Republic to a highly valued Davis Cup title).

That third quarter will be an interesting one, stocked as it is with unpredictable, but dangerous players like No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz and No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny, flashy Alexandr Dolgopolov, No. 12 and former semifinalist Tommy Haas and power servers Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson. If this tournament is going to have a surprise semifinalist, he’s likely to come out of that section of the draw.

And that brings us to the bottom half, and what some see as a relatively easy draw for the defending champ.

Very few players are going to outmaneuver, outrun or outrally Djokovic on the courts at Melbourne Park -- or anywhere else. But Djokovic’s quarter of the draw (as No. 2 seed, he’s at the very bottom) contains a number of men who could conceivably outhit him -- especially if the courts are playing as fast as early reports suggest.

Djokovic could meet Dmitry Tursunov in the third round. Tursunov is an unpredictable, electric shot-maker and he’s playing well. After that, Djokovic could run into one of two other explosive players in his quarter: mercurial Ernests Gulbis or Sam Querrey. And that’s before he even gets to the quarterfinal, where he could meet either Richard Gasquet or (on form) No. 8 seed Stan Wawrinka -- two more guys who rely on fearless and powerful groundstrokes.

Remember, Wawrinka challenged Djokovic in the fourth round in Melbourne last year, and that one turned into an epic, and according to some, the best match of 2013. Djokovic finally won it 12-10 in the fifth, but Wawrinka was No. 17 at the time. He’s a player of a different class -- and ranking -- now.

So though we may not be dropping household names here, nobody in his right mind would call Djokovic’s dance card an easy one. The truth is that if Nadal and Djokovic hope to meet in yet another dream Grand Slam final, they must be prepared to jump through comparably hazardous hoops to make it happen.

If not Nadal, then who would win PoY?

December, 9, 2013
It's the awards season in tennis, and there isn't a more coveted title than Player of the Year. It’s an individual sport's answer to the Most Valuable Player award in team sports but, regrettably, it's rarely the horse race that it sometimes is in those league-based team sports. That's because of the importance of the Grand Slam events, and the extent to which they determine the Player of the Year.

In any year when one player wins more majors than his or her rivals, he (or she) is almost a lock for Player of the Year. That shuts down the debate pretty effectively. And it's too bad, because many great, sustained performances go unremarked because of our addiction to the majors. It’s fun to contemplate just who might be a worthy choice for PoY if you eliminate from consideration the obvious choice. Call it the Player of the Year runner-up derby. Let’s take a shot at it:

ATP: Rafael Nadal is the uncontested Player of the Year choice, but whom would you choose if you exempted him from consideration? I find it hard to bestow the honor on Novak Djokovic, although he clearly had the second-best year. Great as he is, Djokovic lost to Nadal on too many big occasions (Roland Garros semis, US Open final) to feel he made huge strides this year.

Simona Halep
Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty ImagesIt may have gone somewhat unnoticed, but Simona Halep won six titles this season.
From the time Nadal returned in early February, world No. 1 Djokovic's mission was clear: Stop Nadal in his tracks. This Djokovic failed to accomplish, and in a very striking way. In fact, the way Djokovic snapped to life in the fall season, after Nadal had finally run him down and stripped away his No. 1 ranking, attests to how ineffectively he initially met the challenge of Nadal's return.

Was it hubris? Nerves? Lack of determination? Who knows? The bottom line is that as good a year as Djokovic had, he failed in job No. 1, which was to stop Nadal.

In light of that, there's really no candidate more worthy for ATP PoY runner-up honors than Andy Murray. Sure, Djokovic tagged him in the Australian Open final. It kept Murray suppressed, with just one Grand Slam title to his name despite his status as one of the Big Four ATP men. Murray was unable to compete in the French Open because of his back problems, but his subsequent win over Djokovic at Wimbledon was historic -- enough so to mitigate Murray’s loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals of the US Open.

Murray was unable to build on his success of the summer on the fall hard-court circuit because he pulled the plug on his season in order to have back surgery. We should all be as good as Murray was in 2013 with a back so compromised that it required surgery.

The resonance of Murray’s win at Wimbledon was indisputable, but he also benefited from the fact that nobody, but nobody, stepped up in a big way to make a case as a player of the year (not the difference with my WTA choice, below). That includes most of the men in the top 10, who were almost uniformly disappointing.

ATP No. 7 Wawrinka had a career year, but he won only one title -- that of the ATP 250 in Oeiras. Richard Gasquet, who hit No. 9, won three titles -- but they too were lowly 250s. The fact remains that getting the job done on the big stage of Masters or even ATP 500 events remains the towering mission for Gasquet as well as Wawrinka.

As for their fellow travelers in the top 10? David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych et al remained excellent players in search of a career-validating win. So though Murray gets the nod for PoY runner-up, it seems almost as though it's by default.

WTA: It's a little easier to come up with a Player of the Year if you take Serena Williams out of consideration. Jelena Jankovic made a great comeback, all the way to No. 8 (after starting the year at No. 22). But then, she has been the year-end No. 1 (2008), so it isn't as if she's breaking new ground. We have to look elsewhere, but not that far.

Simona Halep set forth in 2013 with a ranking of No. 47 and finished the year at No. 11. Moreover, the 22-year-old Romanian won six titles this year -- the first six of her career. While short (at 5-foot-6), she’s powerful and fearless.

Halep's greatest shortcoming this year was her inability to improve substantially on a career-long flaw -- failure in Grand Slam events. Through Wimbledon of this year, Halep had been as far as the third round at a major only once -- and that was way back in January 2011.

Perhaps it was an omen that Halep made the fourth round of the last US Open, thanks to a good win over No. 14 seed Maria Kirilenko. Whatever the case, to break a career of famine with a six-title feast is more than enough to make Halep the shadow Player of the Year in the WTA.

Fall tennis gets the Heisman -- again

September, 20, 2013

One of the more persistent criticisms of tennis is that the game has no real offseason, but the lengthy calendar doesn’t really stop tennis from going over a cliff in the fall -- loaded ATP and WTA schedule or not.

In just the past few days, WTA No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 3 Maria Sharapova officially pulled the plug on upcoming commitments to the Asian tour. British insiders are reporting that Andy Murray is about to withdraw from his own Asian commitments. Heck, even Martina “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Hingis is fed up. The 32-year-old who can’t seem to get enough of this game just canceled the rest of yet another comeback tour. Did she really have to add insult to injury by pulling out of Tokyo, the same event Williams and Sharapova are snubbing?

Sharapova continues to struggle with bursitis in her right racket shoulder; she’s skipping the entire Asian swing and says she hopes to be back for the year-end championships. I’m not sure I’d count on that. Williams withdrew from Tokyo, declaring that she’s still exhausted from the effort that earned her the US Open title. She may even expect that someone, if not anyone, will take this as a reasonable excuse three weeks after she played her last tennis match. The smart money is speculating that it’s going to take a prize as juicy and glittery as the year-end championships in Istanbul to lure Serena off the chaise lounge by the pool and back into fighting trim. And why not? She’s the hardest-working woman in the tennis business.

Murray is said to be pulling out of three Asian tournaments (Thailand, Tokyo and the Shanghai Masters) and may even be done for the year. But at least you can’t second-guess his reasons if this news -- still fresh and unconfirmed by the Murray camp -- is true. The British press keeps a close watch over its overnight icon, generally with his blessing. So the tweets breaking this news are as close to bankable as you can get without actually swiping your ATM card. Clearly someone broke an embargo, probably requested by Murray himself, on this intelligence.

And troubling intelligence it is. When you say “back surgery” you think of names such as Miloslav Mecir (who underwent it and was never the same player) or former No. 1 Marcelo Rios (who didn’t have surgery but was never the same player as in his halcyon days, either). He was forced out of the game by back pain by age 27.

If Murray does have back surgery, it’s going to present him with an interesting dilemma, for he already has qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals, which will be held again in London’s spectacular 02 Arena.

As the Wimbledon champ, Murray would certainly be the hottest ticket in London, and thanks to the hybrid round-robin/knockout format, spectators could buy tickets well in advance, assured that they will see him through at least three nights of play. But would it be wise (or even possible) for Murray to prepare for, and compete in, the WTF so soon after surgery?

Is there any such thing as “minor” surgery for a tennis player?

Veteran British journalist Simon Cambers already has tweeted that Murray plans to have a full training block this winter and hopes to travel to Australia fully fit to compete, and that sure makes it sound as if Murray is done for the year.

Thankfully, Rafael Nadal -- once a chronic complainer about the fall schedule -- has fish to fry on the Asian tour. He’s in the process of overtaking Novak Djokovic in the race for the year-end No. 1 ranking. And No. 5 Roger Federer could use a few wins himself to shore up that crumbling ranking. That’s the opportunity presented by Murray’s situation, and a good reason for Federer to be one of the few elite players who actually welcomes the fall tournaments.