Peter Bodo: Sony Open

Bum wrist has del Potro down again

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, is giving American Brian Baker a strong run for the title of Unluckiest ATP Pro. That’s a particularly stinging loss for the game because unlike Baker, Delpo is an established, elite player -- and one of the most well-liked players of any level on the ATP World Tour.

Just 26, del Potro has had to pull the plug on another season in order to undergo surgery on his left wrist.

Back in 2010, he was poised to take the place Andy Murray currently occupies in the Big Four alongside Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Just months earlier, he had pulled off one of the more stunning upsets in tennis history at Flushing Meadows. He handcuffed and steamrolled through Federer at the peak of his powers in the US Open final as the sporting public watched in stunned silence -- and awe.

Del Potro hit that glitzy No. 4 ranking in early January 2011, shortly before the Australian Open. In the ensuing major, he survived three rounds and lost a tense and bitter five-setter to No. 14 Marin Cilic. Then he abruptly announced that the chronic pain in his right wrist had not responded to rest or treatment, and he vanished for the better part of the year to undergo surgery and a long process of rehabilitation.

It took del Potro a long time to come back; he started the following year ranked No. 259 and didn’t make a final until the ATP 250 at Delray Beach, where he won the title over No. 52 Janko Tipsarevic. But by the time Wimbledon ended, he had clawed his way back up to No. 19 and finished the year ranked No. 11.

The following year, del Potro won four titles. More impressively, he had a host of wins over top-10 rivals, including two (in eight matches) over Federer. Del Potro also snatched the bronze medal out of Djokovic’s grasp at the London Olympics. Year-end ranking: No. 7.

Last year was theoretically the one in which del Potro would make another big push to join what had become the elite Big Four -- or turn the posse into a Big Five. He continued to solidify his position. He logged his first win over Nadal since that glorious 2009, and he carved out his first win over Djokovic since their Olympic third-place match. He seemed to be on the cusp of the big, permanent breakthrough.

This was supposed to be a big year for the big (6-foot-6) man with the weak wrists, and nobody can accuse him of not giving it his best shot this year, despite his aching wrist. (He’s right-handed, but he hits a two-handed backhand.)

Del Potro won at Sydney to start 2014, but things quickly began to unravel for him once again. He was beaten in the second round of the Australian Open by No. 62 Roberto Bautista Agut, and that debilitating five-setter punished his left wrist. He played with the pain in Rotterdam, losing in the quarterfinals to Ernests Gulbis. By the time del Potro started in Dubai, his wrist was shot. He quit after losing a first-set tiebreaker in his first-round match with No. 78 Somdev Devvarman.

Hoping against hope, he entered Indian Wells and Miami, but he pulled out of both. Shortly after informing the Miami Masters tournament that he was a nonstarter, he posted the following message on his Facebook page:

"I want to tell you that after a period of medical treatment, in which we tried to be competitive on a tennis court, and following new examinations done today, my doctor Richard Berger, decided that I should have surgery to fix the problem on my left wrist. It will be tomorrow, Monday, 24 March."

Of his travails since that magical September night in 2009, he said: "I experienced a similar situation and I know how hard it is to be out of the tour -- the desire to return, the endless weeks of recovery and how difficult it is to start fighting for the top spots in the rankings again."

This is a huge disappointment to tennis fans because, with the exception of Nadal’s continued excellence, the established order in tennis seems somewhat shaky. Nobody was better positioned to force his way into the conversation at the top of the game than del Potro, and now the gentle giant with Achilles' heels at the ends of his arms can only leave his friends around the world with this message: "The strength you send me and my desire will be crucial during my recovery."

Here’s hoping that his recovery will be a swift and successful one.

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.
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer finally restored order to men’s tennis after a wild 10-day shootout in the California desert, while the women left Indian Wells in a more chaotic state than when they arrived. But there will be a new sheriff in town in Miami come Wednesday: Serena Williams.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Or are we making the familiar mistake of confusing the Williams sisters again?

Take a closer look at the season standings. Venus is 1-1 in finals this year (winning in Dubai) and 9-3 overall. Serena, who’s 9-2, has made just one final in 2014, bagging the title in Brisbane in the first week of main WTA tour play.

Serena has been flying well under the tennis radar in recent weeks, trading air kisses at fab Oscars parties in Hollywood rather than swapping forehands with the likes Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka. When last seen by us, she was stewing in Dubai on the eve of what might have become another in that dwindling series of Williams family crises.

Another sister-on-sister clash seemed inevitable as the Dubai tournament wound down, and both women reached the semifinals. At least this time they were on opposite sides of the draw. But then Serena lost her semi to Alize Cornet, thereby holding the door open for Venus to win for the first time since she triumphed in a tiny event in the tiny country of Luxembourg in October 2012.

In Miami, which has always been a home game for the sisters, Serena is the top seed and Venus sneaked in just under the wire at No. 29. The good news for the Williams clan is that once again the sisters are on opposite sides of the draw. They haven’t met in a tournament final since Serena beat Venus at Wimbledon and then the WTA Tour Championships in 2009.

In case you’re wondering, Serena leads the head-to-head 14-10, but the fine print reminds us that Serena hasn’t lost to Venus since Dubai of 2009, when Venus eked out third-set tiebreaker. Of course, that was before either of them turned 30, but these two have aged extremely well.

Venus can, and has been, written off by many -- but for so long that the pundits increasingly sound as if they’re crying wolf. Sure she’s 33 (a year older than Serena) and forced to manage her case of Sjogren’s syndrome, a condition that leaves its victims susceptible to, among other things, fatigue. But as an athlete, she’s in the same league with Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, and when it comes to age in women’s tennis, 30 appears the be the new 20.

Venus showed us just how explosive and dominating she can still be with that run in Dubai. The lowest-ranked player she faced was her first-round opponent, No. 33 Elena Vesnina. After that, she knocked off, in succession, some worthy names: former No. 1 and Grand Slam champ Ana Ivanovic; Flavia Pennetta, who was Saturday’s winner over top-seeded Li Na and Sunday's winner at Indian Wells; and two-time year-end No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Venus didn’t lose a set in the tournament, and she obliterated Cornet in the final, three-and-love. Some would say Venus earned that smooth ride, given that she might easily have won every match she’s lost this year. Two of those three defeats were 6-4 in the third; the other was a third-set tiebreaker loss to No. 6 Petra Kvitova.

Granted, the heat and humidity in Miami could present a problem for Venus, especially if she becomes embroiled in a few tough back-to-back matches. And her draw doesn’t look very kind. She starts with Cornet (again), but she might then have to face No. 6 Simona Halep followed by a confident lady who would have no compunctions about trying to run Venus into the ground, No. 10 seed and recent Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova.

So yes, Venus has her work cut out. But I wouldn’t pin that tin star on Serena’s chest just yet.