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Bartoli's athleticism lost battle, won war
Ponder the athletic genius of Marion Bartoli. Look beyond the bizarre service motion. Think what you will of her doctor father and the idiosyncratic training habits he instilled in her. Transcend the negativity that can seep into her body language.
Instead, closely study what athleticism in tennis really means. This is not a game of strength or even size. It is a game of timing. To be fast is helpful, but perhaps not as useful as being alert (if you disagree, compare the résumés of James Blake and Lindsay Davenport).
Most of all, athleticism in tennis requires the ability to do effective things with the ball that force the opponent out of his or her comfort zone. For this is precisely what Bartoli did throughout the entire tournament. The Frenchwoman did it by playing her brand of hard-hitting baseline tennis, frequently pinning opponents into corners with depth, pace and laser-like accuracy. In an era of women's tennis governed heavily by defense -- where fitness, court coverage and counterpunching often carry the day -- Bartoli's approach proved quite revealing.
Hardly the best mover, hindered to some degree even more in that category by her double double-handed style and, yes, that awkward serve, Bartoli used her penetrating groundstrokes to stretch Caroline Wozniacki considerably. In some ways, Bartoli attacked Wozniacki the same way Li Na had in beating the Dane in the semis of the Australian Open. In Melbourne, Wozniacki had succumbed to passivity. Here at Indian Wells, Wozniacki knew she would have to step up her own offense, an insight that could prove pivotal for her quest to earn a Grand Slam title. But even beyond Wozniacki's efforts to excel, the example of Bartoli's offense will hopefully be a catalyst for many women players current and future.
Two hands are better than one (unless you're a genius)
In a delightful piece of symmetry, the men's semifinalists at the BNP Paribas Open were the four players who have won the past 24 Grand Slam singles tournaments. But the man who's won 12 of those 24 -- Roger Federer -- was the only one of this quartet with a one-handed backhand.
With contemporary men's tennis played primarily on slow surfaces -- be it hard or clay or even grass -- Federer's one-hander is not forceful enough to endure lengthy baseline rallies. He likely knows this, having often since last summer shown signs of increasing offense -- a willingness to create more openings, charge forward, shorten points and plant doubt in his opponent's head.
The downside in the Swiss great's quest to execute this plan is that this year he will turn 30 and such significant rivals as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro are five, six and seven years younger. The upside is that Federer's first-rate footwork puts him in the company of others who played superb tennis well into their 30s -- Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi. How well Federer is able to calibrate the need for offense with appropriate defense will tell the tale of his 2011 -- and beyond.
Meanwhile, the bazooka-like two-handers of Nadal, Djokovic and del Potro fit perfectly in today's tennis world. The topspin forehand that Nadal has whipped cross-court so often versus Federer played right into Djokovic's strongly chiseled backhand. The Serb likely now owns the best backhand in tennis, a shot made even stronger by his improved forehand. And though Nadal and del Potro look to create openings with their forehands more than Djokovic, in the desert they too showed off their mastery of contemporary power baseline tennis.
If the high bounces and slippery movement of clay still make Nadal a favorite as Roland Garros nears, both Djokovic (who won Rome in '08 and has twice reached the French semis) and del Potro (loser to Federer in the '09 French semis 6-4 in the fifth) figure to contend more strongly than ever at the French Open.
The fifth Slam is a carousel
Figures such as attendance and the presence of many singles players in the doubles amplified the BNP Paribas Open's desire to be regarded as the fifth Slam. Like the fifth Beatle, this position is often claimed by many and by nature is constantly up for grabs.
No doubt such talk will continue on behalf of the Sony Ericsson Open, when the traveling tennis circus soon recommences business in Key Biscayne, Fla. After all, it was Key Biscayne founder Butch Buchholz who first started a men's and women's event that wasn't a Grand Slam. Does seniority count? Or do Indian Wells' larger numbers tip the nod its way?
As the dual-gender clay-court event in Madrid continues to grow, why not throw its hat into the ring? And what about the debut of a dual-gender event in tennis-happy Cincinnati this summer? Attendance, player fields, doubles draws, TV, sponsors -- all part of the mix, all serious and friendly competition that continues to aid the growth and in many ways provide a far more intimate fan setting and value than all other tournaments. Perhaps instead of claiming to be ancillary Beatles-Slams, these distinguished and disparate events should rename themselves the Rolling Stones.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.