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A Message To Roger Federer:  Look Only Forward

A Message To Roger Federer: Look Only Forward

img_2928First, I need to make a disclosure. Although I have great respect for Rafael Nadal, he is both talented and affable, I must admit to being a Roger Federer fan. At Nadal’s young age, win or lose, spurious or sincere, he always has the most gracious of words to refer to his rival. Thus, regardless of where my allegiances rest, it is impossible not to be drawn in by such a character. But to be frank, Federer was there first. When Roger started out, his demeanor reminded me of Stefan Edberg, a player I revered. The fact that he possessed the right tools to become a great player made it easy to gravitate to his corner.

With Rafael Nadal’s convincing win over Federer at the French Open, the former not only cemented further doubt in Roger’s psyche as to whether he would ever win that particular major, but also placed uncertainties in his mind as to whether he could be dethroned at the All England Club. Moreover, after that fiasco, I strongly felt that Roger should consult a sport psychologist as a preemptive move in case these two should meet in the Wimbledon final again because I was concerned that the mental aspect would be his greatest opponent. When Roger went down two sets to none to Rafael, I was convinced that his goose was cooked. Thus, I was pleased to see Federer push the match to a decisive fifth set and I came to the realization that Federer is a far more ferocious competitor than people have given him credit for the past few months. Although the outcome was not as Roger desired, I whole-heartedly believe he will come out a better man for having gone through this experience. As such, I feel compelled to write him this message.

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With ESPN & NBC Dollars Come First, Tennis Fans Last

With ESPN & NBC Dollars Come First, Tennis Fans Last

img_2763One has to look no further than the coverage of the French Open men’s semifinal to understand the reason why the major networks are losing viewership. In their desire to capture revenues, these organizations have failed to keep in mind their audience.

At the odd hours that the French Open is transmitted, only an avid fan would care enough to watch. Therefore, as one such fan, I feel slighted when instead of viewing live action, I am presented with pre-recorded programs. Gone are the days when television had a monopoly on this sort of information. Nowadays, with up-to-the-minute data a click away on the internet, this medium is running the risk of becoming obsolete in the world of sport.

From the outset on May 25th , I followed the competition on the Tennis Channel. Early on in the tournament, ESPN (ABC’s sister station) picked up where that network left off, making it a seamless transition. Then on June 2, as the Tennis Channel terminated its programming, I expected ESPN to show the next match, Croatian Ivan Ljubicic versus Frenchman Gael Monfils. Instead, there was a replay of the calamity of Maria Sharapova vis-à-vis Dinara Safina, culminated with the annihilation of American Robby Ginepri by Chilean Fernando Gonzalez. Any fan with computer access was probably aware of the results of these completed matches.

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The Untold Story Behind Henin’s Sudden Farewell To Tennis

The Untold Story Behind Henin’s Sudden Farewell To Tennis

img_3627 If tennis were her great love, this was a “Dear John Letter”. Justine Henin, the top female player, left fans and observers speechless with the statement that she has fallen out of love with professional competition and was calling it quits at the age of 25.

This striking decision comes on the heels of Henin’s best season ever, 10 of 14 tournaments won last year, including two majors. It leaves me pondering whether there is a furtive reason for this out of the blue departure.

In retrospect, we should expect the unexpected of Justine. An insular figure on the WTA tour, Henin has always marched to the beat of her own drummer. In the 2006 Australian Open final, Henin retired against Amelie Mauresmo, a few games from defeat citing a stomach ailment. The only woman to do so in the finals of a major in the open era, a blemish on Henin’s otherwise stellar career.

Henin’s results in 2008 have been mediocre at best . Some people may characterize Henin’s choice as radical, driven by fear of failure. Roger Federer, her male counterpart at number one, has similarly been going through a rough patch. Two weeks ago, after losing in the quarterfinals to Radek Stepanek, a player he previously owned, Federer was asked in his post match interview whether he thought this was “the beginning of the end”. Maybe, Henin’s decision stems from the fact that she feels ill equipped to deal with that kind of scrutiny. But, considering the upheavals that Henin has dealt with in her personal life since adolescence and the recent disintegration of her marriage, I doubt that the word “fear” is in her tennis vocabulary. Perhaps, this is a delayed response to residual marital baggage that Henin set aside last year which is now preventing her from fully focusing on her game.

Other than mononucleosis, Henin has evaded major physical ailments throughout her career. Of late though, she has been nursing a knee injury. Although this problem was not underlined as a reason for her exit, one wonders whether it is more severe than Henin let on. Injury leaves a player’s future in limbo and uncertainty can dampened anyone’s “passion and fire” to compete. As Justine herself said: “I am a perfectionist”. For some athletes, win or lose, satisfaction comes from just being out on the court; but that is not Henin. Knowing Justine’s dedication to being the best, it would go against her very nature to accept going from the peak to the valley of the sport. Tennis followers have witnessed the tumbling from the summit of Mauresmo since her appendectomy. A double major winner in 2006, Amelie has been unable to regain her “number one” form. The women’s game is so physically and mentally demanding that one must be in optimum shape to compete at the highest level. Thus, to this champion, retirement, the one factor she can control, may have felt like her sole option. Moreover, this choice may have seemed even more attractive by providing the chance to make history as the only woman to hang up her racket with the number one ranking.

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Who Would Have ‘Thunk’ It: Federer Tanking So Far In 2008

Since his debut on the tennis stage, it was apparent that Roger Federer was gifted. Recently, there was a showing of Federer’s 2001 confrontation with Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in the round of 16. What leaves a lasting impression is not the arsenal of shots on display despite his young age, but that in listening to the commentaries, the superlatives that were used to describe Federer’s game back then are still the same ones employed today by many analysts. With so much praise and adulation showered on Federer, granted deservingly, his recent stumbles in 2008 leave tennis devotees somewhat perplexed and speculation abound as to whether his career is on a downward slide.

A few years back, Federer was akin to a bulldozer with the capacity to rollover his opponents. At times, he seemed to win a match even before getting on the court. Although he won three of the four majors in 2007, comparatively by ‘Federess’ standards it was a decent year; signs were visible that the Federer Cruiser may have encountered choppy waters. Previously, it was inconceivable for Federer to lose in the preliminary rounds of a tournament, and yet, last year, this occurred at two consecutive events, the Pacific Life and Sony Ericsson Open. To add insult to injury, Federer was eliminated by the same player, Guillermo Canas. Moreover, except for the French Open, once Federer reached the finals of an event except for the French Open, he was “Mr. Automatic”. But last year, there was plenty of drama with the need for a fifth set to tame “El Tauro”, Spaniard Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Furthermore, at the U.S. Open final, the boy wonder, Novak Djokovic seemed to want to usurp Batman’s territory almost forgetting his position as sidekick, but eventually Roger prevailed. At the year-end Masters Series tournament, Fernando Gonzalez outgunned Federer in the first match of the Round Robin format. It took a few hapless losses by his rivals in order for Federer to squeak his way into the next round of competition. However, the Federer Cruiser seemed to veer back on course when he defeated David Ferrer in the finals, a man who had played brilliantly up to that point, even taking down Djokovic.

Then again with all this being said, perhaps it should not be surprising that Federer’s start in 2008 has been so stormy. In some respects, predicted in its ATP 2007 Review peril for Roger in the upcoming season as it became evident that the difference between Federer and the rest of the field was closing. But what is harder to explain is that Federer’s ship appears to have been hijacked and not just taken off course. At this year’s Australian Open, Djokovic went on to take the title after dismissing Federer in the semifinals in straight sets. When a few months later it was revealed that Federer’s uncharacteristic performance might have been due to a viral infection, a bout of mononucleosis, his fans exhaled. After all, Federer’s troubles were not limited to the semifinals in Australia, throughout the tournament his game looked mediocre requiring a fifth set to advance to the round of 16 against Jarko Tipsaravic, a player he had beaten in the past. The confounding variable in need of an explanation found comfort in the virus theory, but relief would be short-lived. At his next tournament, the Dubai Open, where he was the defending champion, Federer was browbeaten by Andy Murray in his first match. By this time, the question to ponder was whether Federer’s Cruiser had actually sprung a leak and been marooned on Tennis Island. This conjured up flashbacks of 2005 when Andy Roddick did the American Express commercial where he was looking for his ‘mojo.” This is the same feeling that one has watching Federer play of late. It appears that over the Christmas Holiday, someone may have stolen his ‘mojo’ or maybe it is that pesky virus still hanging about. The hope was that the Pacific Life would prove that Federer was on the road to recovery.

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Does Height Matter? Justine Henin:  A Little Dynamo With A Dynamite Game

Does Height Matter? Justine Henin: A Little Dynamo With A Dynamite Game

At 5 feet 5 inches, in the arena of women’s tennis where the average height in the top 10 is 5 feet 8 inches, Belgium’s Justine Henin can be likened to a shrub in a forest of sequoias. Yet, in spite of her diminutive stature, in the last few years, Henin has become a dominant force on the tour. Last year, Henin earned two majors’ trophies and won ten of the fourteen tournaments she entered. Ironically, as the height of her competitors has grown, Henin’s game has evolved and her ranking ascended to number one in the last year. In a world where the opponents are becoming more powerful physically, it is a wonder that such a player has been able to thrive.

Partly, Henin’s success can be explained by talent. To the observer, the racket can be defined as a quasi-natural extension of her arm. The one handed backhand, in particular, is hit with such finesse, the spectator is mesmerized that someone of her size can generate such precision, control and power simultaneously. This type of shot enables Henin to take the upper hand in the rally from anywhere on the court. As Henin herself has stated in speaking of her backhand, “it’s natural [since] I was five, it [has been] the same . . . I think it was in me.” Moreover, what seems remarkable is Henin’s ability to keep her opponent guessing by varying that shot, thereby, opening up her options in order to finish off the point. There was a time when the forehand was labeled as Henin’s Achilles heal, but even that has been solidified, in turn making the backhand an even more potent weapon.

While height has not been a hindrance with these aforementioned shots, one area of Henin’s game that has suffered because of her lack of inches has been the serve. In fact, it is rare to see her produce aces in a match. Nonetheless, Henin has compensated for this weakness by varying the serve’s placement thereby increasing the degree of difficulty for the returner while still maintaining the upper hand. Although there is a lot to admire technically about Henin’s game, from my viewpoint, talent is only one factor in understanding her triumph in the sport. After all, there have been plenty of so-called talented youngsters who never realized their potential or who became one slam wonders; thus, being gifted is seldom enough. Probably the greatest element contributing to Henin’s success is what she has between the ears. Simply stated, she just has a great mind for the game fuelled by perseverance and determination, which are keys for making it to the top.

Henin’s meteoric rise began in 2001, when she went from a ranking of 100, the previous year, to 45 in January of that year. By June of 2001, she was the world’s fifth best player, quite an amazing feat. Considering that when one starts out in this profession, it is usually as a teen, the patience and dedication required to succeed can be too much to bear. For someone so young to develop the discipline to practice and a good work ethic can be a challenge when there are so many outside distractions. But it was evident from the start that Henin was driven and focused on being the best player she could be and was prepared to put forth the prerequisite time and effort. Most importantly, early on Henin learned to recognize what parts of her game were her strong suits and to use them to her advantage. In an August 2001 interview, Henin was asked how she could counteract the power coming from the rackets of the Williams sisters or Davenport, taking into account that their height provides them with such a significant advantage. Henin replied “ It’s not a problem for me . . . I think that . . . they are strong, they’re playing hard . . . But I think I have other things in my game to [oppose] that . . .I’m very fast on the court. I move well . . . I work hard . . . I [will] be more strong . . . I think that everybody has her place on the tour.” In other words, while height was a limitation that she could not alter, there are other elements in the game she can control, thus, she was going to do her best at maximizing her potential.

On the court, physical power is only one part of the equation when it comes to winning; power is also derived from being able to dissect your rival’s game. Using that knowledge to unmask the opponent’s handicaps can make the difference in the outcome of the match. In a 2001 interview at the Australian Open, Henin was questioned once again by a reporter about her frame: “Are you discouraged at all knowing that with your built you are going against girls who are larger and stronger down the line like Venus, Serena, Lindsay type. Is that discouraging for you?”. Henin answered “ I am not a stronger player. I think I play with everything in my game with my slice, with my head . . . So I am not a stronger player like them. But [I play] with [my] possibilities.” Being cognizant of players’ strengths and weaknesses presents another dimension to analyze as Henin formulates what strategy to employ against her competitor. This statement may have seemed a bit trite, but it was tremendous insight for a mere 17 year old.

Barring injuries, passion is one of the assets that permits an athlete to be durable and sustain a productive career in his sport. Without the hunger to compete, for some even the huge monetary compensation seems a hollow reward. Luckily, Henin has a great love for the game. Despite being younger, fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters at 5 feet 8 inches turned pro a couple of years earlier then Henin. While both players’ careers peaked at the same time, Clijsters’ stamina for the tour was not as strong and her triumphs not as great. Although she reached the finals of five majors, Clijsters won only one while Henin has prevailed in 7 of 9. Clijsters never appeared to exude the same passion for the sport as her countrywoman. This can be inferred from her decision to hang up her racket in 2007, at the age of 24. Although injuries may have pushed her to that conclusion, Clijsters had always made it clear that her main priority in life was to get married and have children at a young age, following in her mother’s footsteps. Nowadays, Clijsters is pregnant living hopefully in marital bliss with baby soon to be in tow with tennis relegated to her past.

Henin’s passion for the sport arises from having shared a love of the game with her mother. Regrettably, at the age of twelve, Henin’s mother passed away from cancer. When such a calamity befalls an adolescent, he or she can go down one of two paths, that of wallowing in self-pity and self-destruction or that of drawing strength from disgrace; Henin took the latter. This tragedy became a source of motivation for her to pursue her dreams and aspirations. Moreover, it seems that with Henin, tennis serves as a means to honor and remember her mom. In fact, her unwavering conviction in her calling and her affection for the game led Henin to abandon her home in pursuit of tennis glory because her father did not understand her devotion. In witnessing her mother’s battle with her illness, it is likely that the primary lesson that Henin extracted was the importance of perseverance even in the most adverse of situations. With the pressures and tension of competition, mental fortitude can tip the scale in favor of a player. Early on in her career, Henin recognized the importance of mental toughness. In a 2001 post match session she was asked: “where does your mental strength comes from?” Henin answered: “I think that it may be natural. . . I think it’s the [most] important part of my game…. I can play very well, but if I don’t have the head to play a good match, it’s not good . . . I try to be positive and be aggressive and go and try to win”.

In 2007, Henin was handed another crushing blow when her marriage of four years fell apart. For many people, this would have resulted in a lost of concentration and a tumble down the rankings. But after a brief sabbatical, Henin refocused her attention on tennis and got back to the business of winning, putting together her best year on tour to date. In light of the circumstances that Henin has had to deal with at a tender age, it was not surprising that Henin was able to put that chapter of her life into perspective. To Henin, the racket seems to be an outlet that helps in balancing her life. For Henin, the game can be described as a refuge from daily preoccupations, the bonus is that she can also earn a decent living at what she enjoys. Agility, mobility, shot making ability and a gigantic fighting spirit, all the tangible and intangible facets that comprise her game, are the reasons Henin has become a revered player.

Perhaps, the ultimate compliment that has been paid to Henin is that she is “the female Roger Federer”. Considering that Federer is being pegged as possibly the best player ever, that is indeed high praise for Henin. Yet, unlike Federer, she has had to deal with her height as a limitation, making her accomplishments even more commendable. It appears innate in human nature to root for David against Goliath. Maybe, the feeling of pride in seeing the underdog triumph comes from identifying with that particular athlete. The world is replete with little girls who will never be 5 feet 8 inches or taller, but with the goal of someday becoming a sensation on the tennis circuit. How wonderful that Henin exists to remind them that physical attributes can only take one so far, indeed, drive and hard work do count and can lead them to their goal. So to the vertically challenged, do not despair, hold on to the dream of being the next great champion. As Henin stated “I think . . . size maybe important. But I don’t think [that it’s] the most [important]”.

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The Serve and Volley: A Dying Art

Although it may seem like eons ago, there was a time in tennis when one could distinguish two different types of players because they relied predominantly on one style of play. Competitors were earmarked as either baseline grinders or serve and volleyers. In the last few years, there has been a scarcity in the singles’ game of the latter type of play. Homogeneity has become the rule with competitors apparently content with being branded baseline specialists, not venturing to the net even when the occasion clearly presents itself. Thus, this begs the questions as to whether the “classic” serve and volleyer will become a thing of the past.

In a society where the desire for instant gratification is the norm, one would think that the serve and volley would be better appreciated because it does not demand a long attention span. Simplistic as it may sound, there may be a logical explanation for the gravitation towards baseline play, power- the ultimate high. From my viewpoint, this love affair may arise from one’s desire to take his or her aggression not only on the ball but to also demonstrate his or her dominance over the opponent; a statement made less effectively by the serve and volley precisely because the points are too short. Advancements in technology are in part to blame for the prospect of this art form being retired to the tennis hall of fame. As wooden rackets have given way to metal ones, players have been able to generate so much power with their shots that their primary goal appears to be to hit a winner from five feet behind the baseline. Granted, this type of play is simultaneously exciting and exasperating. Enjoyable in the sense that one is amazed at the player’s ability, for instance, to maintain a thirty plus stroke rally. On the hand, endurance at times gives way to boredom on the part of the viewer when he or she realizes that shots are just mirror images.

Baseline play appears quasi a duel, a display of raw power, conjuring up images of two battling gladiators. Yet, the beauty of the serve and volley lies in the subtlety with which power is exhibited; power is the essence of that style of play. Historically, the most successful serve and volleyers have been the likes Boris Becker and Pete Sampras whose blazing serve was their invitation to the net. These days, big servers are widespread, but proficiency at the net is lacking. At times, net play seems either an afterthought or a tactic of last resort. Even the volley itself has undergone some modifications. With the traditional volley, the player maintains his racket in front as he rushes the net where he finishes with a crisp shot with the racket in that same stance. Nowadays, the uneasiness that some competitors feel with the conventional volley, since they utilize it so sparingly, has given birth to the “swing volley”, a more aggressively struck shot, leaving the only similarity between the two the location from which the ball is hit. To the observer, this is further evidence that some players are just having difficulty mastering the fundamentals of volleying.

In essence, technology has been both a blessing and curse in that the serve and volley may become obsolete on the surface best suited for it, grass. With the exception of Bjorn Borg who was a baseline player and won five Wimbledon titles, history has shown that when the “classic” serve and volleyer is confronted with the baseline hoverer in the finals, the former has usually come out the victor. The speed of this type of court has always favored the competitor willing to come to the net. Over the last few years though, baseline play has invaded even this surface, at the end of a fortnight of competition, the baseline is the part of the court that is most worn out is while the grass around the net stays pretty intact. Lately, there have been rumors the All England Club may be altering the composition of the grass to “slow” down the court. Invariably, this kind of move may mean that players whose game fare better on a clay court may have better result while serving to the detriment of the serve and volleyer. It seems that the talented athlete should be able to adjust his game regardless of the surface without technology having to be a key variable.

In my opinion, variety is an important element when it comes to spectator sports. The ideal player is one who can marry the two forms of play. Versatility provides excitement and captures the interest of the viewer, thus, there is still a place in the game for the “classic” serve and volleyer. Two excellent examples are Martina Hingis and Roger Federer, both from Switzerland. The words often used by tennis connoisseurs to describe Hingis are a “ smart player”; she is an expert at both baseline and net play, with variety being the cornerstone of her game. Although Hingis was formidable enough to defeat lower ranked players, she could not keep up with the so-called “power hitters”. Ironically, power was often the latter’s only weapon against Hingis’ well-rounded game. Like Hingis, Federer is a master at shot selection. He knows when to charge the net and when to stay back or play from the baseline. Unlike his compatriot, Federer is capable of bombing the serve or to sustain a rally and hit a winner from the baseline when the opportunity presents itself; thereby, neutralizing the opponent’s power.

Since everyone is not as gifted as Federer or Hingis, there exists a need to focus on finding out where the player’s talent lies since that is an integral part of the equation. Obviously, all baseliners are not proficient at the craft. Otherwise, there would a more equitable distribution of trophies and not the skewed dominance exhibited by just a few players. The hope is that the current trend is cyclical. Perhaps, eventually balance will be restored whereby both styles can flourish so that the serve and volley will not become a dying art.

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Top Ten Matches Of 2007

As 2007 draws to a close, the staff at would like to pay tribute to what we feel were the preeminent matches of the year. On the men’s side, the picks have been limited to five setters because undoubtedly, they were the most compelling.

#10 Maria Sharapova versus Justine Henin, Finals WTA Championships

After making the cut once Venus Williams pulled out due to injury, Maria whose serve had been affected all year by a shoulder problem, appeared to have regained her past championship form impressively dismissing higher ranked opponents to reach the finals. In a hotly contested match lasting 3-hours and 24-minute, Sharapova demonstrated she had “game” by winning the first set 7-5 and pushing Henin in the second set prior to loosing it 7-5. The contest came down to a final third set which was fiercely disputed, but Henin prevailed 6-3.

#9 Serena Williams Versus Justine Henin, Wimbledon Quarterfinals

After the drama of the previous round where she won despite a calf injury, Serena continued to battle against her archrival, Henin, taking the match to an ultimate set after loosing the first. Regrettably, Serena was not a 100-percent physically and went down 6-3 in the third. For her courage and effort, we must tip our hat to Serena.

#8 Robin Soderling versus Rafael Nadal, Third Round Wimbledon

Here are just a few reasons why this was a memorable match: 1) bad weather resulted in play spanning the course of four days. 2) Theatrics were the order of the day, when Robin decided that Rafa’s habit of constantly picking at his shorts between points was worthy of mimicry. And 3) this ended up being a five set marathon with great shots being made from both ends of the court. Nadal’s experience and physical strength were keys in aiding him to come out on top 7-5 in the fifth. It is doubtful that Robin and Rafa will be going out for drinks anytime soon.

#7 Carlos Moya versus Tim Henman, First Round Wimbledon

In his farewell Wimbledon match, Tiger Tim had fans atop “Henman Hill” on pins and needles with another five set nail-biter. The last set was dead even at 5-5 when play was suspended due to lightning. When Henman returned, he electrified the crowd with sensational shots and won 13-11 in the fifth. Sadly, the joy of his British compatriots would be short-lived as in the second round Henman would be defeated by another Spaniard, Feliciano Lopez. Anxious for a home grown champion since 1936, the Brits will have to wait at least another year.

#6 Andy Roddick versus Richard Gasquet, Quarterfinals Wimbledon

As the higher ranked player and with his previous grand slam experience, Roddick had all the elements in his favor to proceed to the next round. He was leading two sets to love and with Gasquet having never previously come back from such a deficit; Andy’s fate appeared to be sealed. But destiny took a wrong turn as Gasquet found the means to work his way back into the match with spectacular backhand passes and eventually walked away with the upset, winning 8-6 in the fifth. A dazed and confused Roddick probably had nightmares for days following that one.

#5 Maria Sharapova versus Serena Williams Finals Australian Open

Subsequent to an injury-filled year which resulted in her ranking plummeting to 81, it would not have been shocking for a visibly out-of-shape Serena to lose in the initial rounds of the tournament. Williams proved all the naysayers wrong when she reached the finals where she dominated the proceedings against Sharapova, who at the time was the second seed, and earned her third Australian trophy. In so doing, Serena placed the rest of the field on notice that she was back at the top of her game.

#4 Daniela Hantuchova versus Serena Williams, Fourth Round Wimbledon

After winning the opening set easily, Serena found herself battling in the second. While serving to extend that set into a tiebreaker, Serena literally went down when she began to experience pain in her calf muscle; speculation was that she was struck by a case of severe calf spasm. Once play resumed after a medical time out, a grimacing, teary-eyed Williams was unable to generate much power on her shots causing her to forfeit the second set. With her movement gravely hampered, Williams’ prayers for a reprieve were answered by a two-hour rain delay during which she received additional treatment for her problem. Guts, shear determination, and a befuddled Daniela, who was conspicuously uneasy with having to beat up on a wounded opponent, helped Serena pull out a 6-2 win in the third set. Therefore, for your die-hard attitude Serena Williams, we at salute you.

#3 Justine Henin versus Marion Bartoli, Semifinals Wimbledon

You would think that having James Bond 007 (a.k.a. Pierce Brosnan) in the stands would make one nervous. Such a dapper and debonair presence in most cases might be a distraction, apparently not in the case of Marion Bartoli, to her he was a source of inspiration. Seeded 18th , Bartoli of France probably believed that she had no more than an outside chance to win against Henin, the world’s number one. After losing the first set 6-1, Bartoli should probably have discarded the idea of an “outside chance”. Yet, Marion stated that when she saw Brosnan, her favorite actor, in the stands she realized that she could not continue with such an embarrassing display. Bartoli started to perform better, propelling her to win the second set. On the other hand, Henin surprised by the turn of events essentially became unglued. Henin’s level of play took a nosedive. Shots which for her were usually a surety were converted into errors leading to her dismissal in the third set 6-1; Henin’s quest of obtaining her first Wimbledon trophy will have to be postponed yet another year.

#2 Roger Federer versus Andy Roddick, Quarterfinals U.S. Open & Ranek Stepanek versus Novak Djokovic, Second Round U.S. Open

Tied for second place are these two matches on hardcourt for the quality of the shots although only one went the distance. Roddick could not have performed any better; his serve was phenomenal while his groundstrokes were dead on. Yet, Federer decked out in his Darth Vader evening attire had the force with him. The first two sets were decided by tiebreakers with Federer coming up with some surreal passing shots while Roddick tried all within his powers to stave off the assault. After loosing the first two sets, Andy was a broken man and fell in the third set 6-2. This match was reminiscent of his play at Wimbledon 2004, where as Andy stated he “threw everything at Roger but the kitchen sink” and still could not get the victory. So maybe next time, Andy will need to remember to bring the kitchen sink.

In what turned out to be a spectator’s dream for an opening round contest at a major, this five set thriller was jam packed with first class shot making from both Stepanek and Djokovic. This 4-hour and 44-minute marathon fittingly ended with a fifth set tiebreaker where Djokovic prevailed, the initial step towards his punching his ticket to his first grand slam finals.

#1 Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal, Finals Wimbledon

The hallowed grounds of tennis’ premiere tournament were the setting for this epic battle between these top-ranked contenders. For the first time since capturing the number one ranking several years ago, Federer was at risk of being displaced by Nadal. The match started out with Roger pulling ahead in a tough first set tiebreaker. In the second set, Roger had the chance to place further distance between himself and his opponent, but Rafael picked up his level of play and equalized the match. The third set was also a fiercely contested affair which saw Federer come out on top once more in a tiebreak. At that point, one thought that Federer would put the pedal to the metal and run away with the trophy, but much to Federer’s dislike, Nadal had more to say. Throughout the course of the match, Federer took exception with some of the calls that the electronic line monitor was making; repeatedly his challenges were proven wrong. A normally cool and composed player (let’s face it, the guy appears to hardly sweats on court), Federer almost went, ballistic, at one point asking the umpire to turn off what he felt was a faulty machine. Clearly, the tension was getting to Roger. A factor which probably contributed to his losing the fourth set 6-2. For the first time at his favorite grand slam, Roger would need to go to a fifth set to win. When Rafa took an injury time out, a rattled Federer was able to regroup and regain his composure; this permitted him to find his rhythm in the ultimate set where he broke Nadal twice to capture his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title.

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2007 ATP Year End Review

In many respects, the 2007 ATP tennis season can be summarized as a case of déjà vu, particularly where the grand slam tournaments are concerned. As he did in 2006, Roger Federer repeated at the Australian, Wimbledon and US Open while Nadal claimed his third consecutive French Open trophy. Majors aside though, Federer faltered throughout the year at the Masters’ Series, the second most prestigious competitions on the tour. At the Pacific Life Open, Guillermo Canas who entered the draw as a lucky looser, after a prolonged suspension from the sport for steroid abuse, provided the year’s first stunner by beating Federer in the second round, putting an end to the latter’s 41 match-winning streak. In so doing, the door was opened for Serb Novak Djokovic to make it to his first Masters Series final where he eventually lost to Rafael Nadal.

A few months later, at the Sony Ericsson Open, Canas demonstrated that his prior win was not a fluke, lightning can indeed strike twice, he again eliminated Federer in straight sets, a tremendous feat considering that in 2006, only Nadal and Andy Murray had been able to register wins against Federer. Moreover, the Sony Ericsson Open turned out to also be Djokovic’s coming out party; he exacted his revenge against Nadal by defeating him in the semifinals and went on to stop Canas from becoming the first qualifier to win the Ericsson Open, claiming his first Masters Series trophy. Without a doubt, Djokovic’s star was on the rise in 2007. He not only beat Federer at the Masters in Montreal, but also went on to make it to his first grand slam final at the US Open where he would prove to be a worthy contender before finally surrendering to Federer.

In the last few years, tennis has been a tale of two surfaces while Federer has been king on grass and hardcourt, Rafael Nadal has been “Rey” on clay, and 2007 was no exception. Rafa extended his winning streak to 81 on the “terre battue” including titles in Rome and Monte Carlo before Federer was finally able to get the better of him in Hamburg at the finals. This unforeseen result fueled speculation that perhaps Federer might win his first French Open title; but such a prediction never materialized. Rafa reasserted his dominance in beating Federer in the finals. Unfortunately, despite a strong stance at Wimbledon where he once again became a finalist, the remainder of Rafa’s season can best be described as lack luster. Plagued by injury, Nadal was unable to rack up another title, the only tournament final he reached, the Paris Masters, proved to be a debacle, a lopsided win by David Nalbandian. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the latter part of 2007 is a period that Nadal would like to relegate to the distant past.

Besides Novak Djokovic, 2007 had some other nice surprises, primarily, the resurgence of a few so-called veteran players. For his part, at the tender age of 31,Carlos Moya, the former French Open champion, saw his rededication to the game pay off; posting his best results over the last several years. Moya reached the finals at the Medibank in Australia, the semifinals and quarterfinals on his best surface clay at Hamburg and the French Open respectively. Moya even demonstrated his competence on hardcourt by making it to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. Perhaps as is the case with the Spanish wine Rioja, Moya gets better with age. Undoubtedly, Moya’s fellow countryman, Ferrer, was one of the most exciting players to watch in 2007. Customarily, the Spaniards can be expected to do well on clay, but Ferrer surprised everyone when he beat Nadal on hardcourt on his way to earning a spot in the U.S Open semifinal where he eventually fell to Djokovic. A few months later, Ferrer returned the favor at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, easily defeating Djokovic as well as two other players to make it to the series final. For all his troubles though, Ferrer sealed a date with Federer who despite looking sluggish in the initial rounds of the event, managed to pull out yet again another victory.

Another individual who decided the time had come to revive his game was Nalbandian; his recommitment was evident with a new fitness trainer and coach, weight loss translated to a renaissance of his powerful two-handed backhand along with spryness on the court. In the last few months of the year, Nalbandian’s game flourished, the reward was wins over both Federer and Nadal at the ATP Masters final in Paris and Madrid. Nalbandian has always been a difficult opponent for Federer, strangely enough, he is one of a hand full of players with a winning record against Roger. Thus, if he continues to work hard and improve, 2008 will prove to be an interesting season not only for him, but also for tennis fans alike.

Regrettably, for those fanatical about American tennis, 2007 continued to disappoint. Andy Roddick failed to reach the finals of any of the key tournaments, his best showing was semifinalist at the Australian; while James Blake appears to be spiraling down, he did not make it past the fourth round at any of the grand slams. This leaves many to wonder when the drought of American champions will come to an end. Hope may lie with a young Atlanta teenager by the name of Donald Young, who decided to dabble in the adult league in 2007 while still playing on the junior circuit. In 2008, Young will probably join the ATP full-time, his inexperience will be a hindrance for several years, as impatient as Americans are, it is doubtful that their hunger for a consistent champion will be satisfied early enough. Regardless, all was not lost in 2007; team tennis was the brightest spot for the USA. After a twelve-year hiatus, the Davis Cup returned to its home on US soil, when the US convincingly defeated Russia.

Probably, the biggest story in 2007 was for the shenanigans off the court; tennis was revealed not to be immune from an ugly aspect of professional sports, gambling. At times, one forgets that tennis is not just a game; it is after all a business. With so much money involved, there is no lack of temptation. Allegations of match fixing surfaced when one of tennis’s most prominent stars, Russian Nikolay Davydenko was accused of possibly throwing a match against a relatively obscure opponent. Eyebrows were raised when an inordinate amount of bets was being placed in favor of Davydenko’s adversary despite the fact that he had been pummeled in the first set. When the Russian retired in the third set supposedly due to a foot ailment, suspicions heightened that something illicit was afoot. Subsequently, a few players admitted to having been approached with the proposal of loosing matches for monetary gains. The investigation in Davydenko’s case is still ongoing, but the repercussions that this type of blemish may have on the sport are troubling enough to the ATP officials that a few months later an Italian player was temporary barred from play after he was found to be betting on matches.

After taking a look back at the past year, it would only be fitting to peak into the tennis crystal ball and tread into the realm of forecasting what may unfold in 2008. As it turns out, the crystal ball appears cloudy; therefore, what to expect the upcoming season is anyone’s guess. The predictable question remains as to whether Nadal will at last relinquish the French Open crown to Federer thereby anointing him the best player the game has ever seen or as was the case with Pete Sampras will that trophy continue to remain elusive. What is undoubtedly clear in reviewing the events of 2007 is that the gap has been closing between Roger and the rest of the field; thus, Superman may be forced to come down to earth in 2008 and permanently reside amongst the commoners.

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2007 WTA Year End Review

Sadly tennis enthusiasts, the time has come to bid adieu to the 2007 season, but fear not, the hiatus will be brief. Soon enough, the courts will be ablaze with the shrilling grunts of Maria Sharapova, the artistry of Roger Federer and the mercurial ever-flamboyant fashions of Serena and Venus Williams. Prior to foretelling what 2008 may unwrap, let’s take a moment to reflect on the marquee events which shaped tennis this past year.

On the women’s side, Serena Williams started 2007 in grand fashion by winning the calendar’s first major. Serena, who had been sidelined for most of 2006 by a myriad of injuries, was unseated when the 2007 Australian Open started; consequently, she was the dark horse of the tournament. Serena not only reached the finals, but also comprehensively beat a befuddled Sharapova. Who can forget Oracene Williams’s advice to her daughter “ get out of Melbourne”, referring to the painted sign on the court where Serena had been camping out, pushing her too far off the baseline. Well, Serena followed her mother’s pointer and got out of Melbourne, but not before snatching the coveted Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. At another prestigious venue, the Ericsson Open, Serena again demonstrated her tenacity coming back from a bagel lost in the first set and fought off two championship points by her opponent to win the tournament against a relentless foe in Justine Henin. Although the year started out with a sizzle, it would end with a fizzle with Serena losing consecutive quarterfinal matches against Henin at each subsequent major tournament. Once more, Serena’s last few months on tour were racked by injuries leading to her withdraw from the season ending tournament in Spain.

After a tumultuous start to her year, with the turmoil in her personal life (the dissolution her marriage) and being forced to skip the Australian Open where she had been a finalist in 2006, Justine Henin had undisputedly her best season on tour. Henin won 10 of 11 finals including her third straight French Open while participating in only 14 events. The sign that Henin is human came at Wimbledon where she lost to a French player in the semifinals, not Amelie Mauresmo, but relatively unknown, Marion Bartoli, whom Venus Williams summarily defeated in the next round to claim the Venus Rosewater dish. Therefore, as Rafa Nadal seems to be Federer’s handicap on the clay in Paris, in 2008, it will be interesting to see if the All England grass and the French women continue to be Henin’s kryptonite.

In a run reminiscent of 2005, Venus worked out the rust in her game to make Wimbledon the highlight of her year. Fit and focused, Venus showed the brilliance that can illuminate her game toppling three top ranked opponents to capture the cup with her namesake. Venus continued to excel the remainder of the season although she had to cede her place at the season ending championship tournament to Sharapova because of illness. The Russian diva took full advantage of the gift by making it to the finals in Madrid where she gave Henin a run for the money prior to falling in a thrilling three setter rescuing a par year plagued by a sleuth of health problems. Thus, it remains to be seen whether in 2008 the Siberian ice queen’s game will continue to heat up or will need to be rescued from the frozen tundra once more.

2007 will be remembered as the year which propelled a small nation called Serbia into the tennis spotlight and one woman in particular Ana Ivanovic. The teenage phenom heralded her arrival with her phenomenal play at the French Open culminating with an appearance in the finals prior to collapsing under the weight of the occasion by losing to Henin. With a blistering forehand, Ivanovic will definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming season; the question that will need to be answered is whether fellow countrywoman Jelena Jankovic will also be a factor.

A woman’s right to choose saw the exit of a champion and return of another for contrasting reasons. Kim Clijsters decided that after winning one major trophy, she had her fill. For Kim, it was time to move on to marriage and children. While Lindsay Davenport returned to the court after the birth of her son hoping that there is still life in her career. Moreover, the 2007 sports season will be recalled as the year marred by drugs from steroids use in baseball to the career-ending shocker whereby Martina Hingis abruptly retired disputing the outcome of positive cocaine on a drug screen at Wimbledon.

Since this is a locally slanted outlet, I would be remised if I did not mention Ahsha Rolle and her exceptional performance at the U.S. Open. After earning a spot as a wildcard, the 109 ranked Rolle became the buzz of the tournament after her opening round victory over the 17 seeded and talented star Tatiana Golovin. The bee from Miami would have the best showing of her career to date in a major making it to the third round where she was ousted by Danira Safina. I was fortunate enough to attend one of Ahsha’s matches, in my opinion, a major weakness in her game is her one-dimensional backhand; she constantly slices it back. If Rolle is to have continued success on the circuit, she will need to develop more sting and variety to her backhand.

Considering the horde of new comers who impacted the game in 2007 and with so many youngsters doing particularly well at the final major of the year defeating experienced players to make it past the fourth round, the upcoming season promises to be gripping. In my viewpoint, the newcomer to watch will be Agnes Szavay from Hungary. Szavay looked impressive on the hardcourt making it to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open after being a finalist the previous week in New Haven where she was forced to retire against the #1 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova due to a back injury. With the surface change in Australia to reflect more of a hardcourt feel, I predict that she will be poised for another great run there. Overall, the young guns from the Soviet Union and the former Eastern Block look ready to make an even greater mark on the game this coming year. On the other hand, Henin appears to have taken a liking to the #1 spot; therefore, everyone will be vying to dethrone her. At times, the psychological part of her game has proven to be her weakness, thus, along with skill, mental fortitude will be the key to the opponent’s ability to dismantle her game. A player who does possess these weapons in her arsenal is Lindsay Davenport; I anticipate that with her return Henin and the Williams sisters will be breathing a little tighter.

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Unsportsmanlike Conduct—A Portrait Of Serena

There’s an old maxim which states that with age comes maturity and wisdom, but as is customary, there’s an exception to every rule. Despite her multiple major titles and twelve years on the tennis circuit, Serena Williams has yet to learn how a true champion carries herself. Winning is the easy part of sportsmanship, but the character of a class act player shines not in victory but in defeat, when he or she demonstrates that adversity can be borne with grace and honor.

When the Williams sisters first arrived on the scene, there had been a dearth of minorities succeeding in the game. Surely, one remembers players such as MaliVia Washington and Zina Garrison who encountered fame and fortune, but none of these was touted as the heir apparent to Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe; black players who actually reached the summit of the sport by holding some of its most coveted trophies. In the prim, proper, predominately white world of tennis, these black teenagers from the inner city with beaded hairdos were different from those who had come prior, resulting in their behavior possibly being scrutinized a little more. Although tennis conventional behavior had been challenged by the likes of foul mouth Americans such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, their diatribe was somewhat excusable either because they were Americans or white, probably more the latter.

Initially, Serena’s behavior may have been excusable, the stares across the net, the exhibition of self-confidence in order to prove to others and herself that she could indeed reach the pinnacle of her profession knowing all the hurdles that she has had to overcome. Despite her success and the adulations of fans (for the most part, Serena seems to be well supported by the public regardless of the event she participates in), Serena’s attitude has changed little over time irrespective of the lessons that she has learned on or off the court.

At the last two majors this year, Serena’s advance was halted at quarterfinals by Justine Henin, the #1 ranked player. On both occasions, rather than giving credit to her opponent for exposing the weak spots in her game by comprehensively beating her, Serena’s analysis of the matches boiled down to her counterpart making lucky shots. Moreover, at the US Open post match press conference, Serena was churlish to reporters. This type of behavior is inexcusable.

When it comes to these two individuals, there is more than just an intense rivalry; one would probably be on cue in classifying their relationship as antipathetic. The history of animosity between the two stems from an incident at the 2003 French Open whereby Henin clearly prevaricated, not acknowledging that she had placed her hand up during Serena’s serve in order to ask for time, affecting the latter’s concentration resulting in her dumping the ball into the net. To Serena’s dismay, Henin’s action also went unnoticed by the chair umpire, who subsequently refused to give her a first serve anew. The situation further deteriorated when the crowd turned against Serena for protesting despite the fact that she was in the right. After leading by a break in the latter stages of the third set, Serena’s game became unhinged costing her the match and possibly a second French Open title.

Unfortunately, bad calls come with the territory in any sport, more importantly; there are players who take gamesmanship to the extreme, as was the case with Henin at the French. Hence, although it may sound trite, the time has arrived for Serena to demonstrate that she is the classier champion by recognizing great play, irrespective of the racket from which it is being produced. Moreover, these are not insular instances with Serena, one at times get the impression that she suffers from the sore looser syndrome. There is no dishonor in confessing that one’s opponent was the better tactician that day, thereby, recognizing one’s own failings. It is only through defeat that one can learn the aspect of his or her game that needs to be improved upon.

From my viewpoint, in the last few years, there has been an epidemic of poor sportsmanship on the women’s side. In particular, two incidences come to mind, one pertaining to Maria Sharapova and the other again to Justine Henin. At the 2006 NASDAQ Open in Miami, in her semifinal match with Sharapova, Tatiana Golovin injured her ankle. At first, Golovin tried to play through her injury, but within a matter of seconds, her ankle swelled to the point one thought that it had swallowed one of the tennis balls. While being attended to by the trainer, Golovin was teary eyed and grimacing in pain. The entire time, Sharapova remained on her side of the court playing shadow tennis, oblivious or simply not caring as to what was going on the other side. Who knows, maybe Sharapova believed that this was a ploy on Golovin’s part to slow down the match, which would have been preposterous thinking on her part considering that Golovin was winning and outplaying her. In the end, Golovin had to retire from the match and was sidelined for weeks with torn ligaments in her ankle.

The next case worthy of analysis is that of the 2006 Australian Open final where Henin was being summarily beaten by Amelie Mauresmo, this was to be the latter’s first major championship. Her moment of glory was marred by Henin deciding to retire with a stomach ailment after loosing the first set and with Mauresmo ahead in the second, needing just a few games to win and claim her moment in the spotlight. Mauresmo showed first and foremost that she is a great person with the conspicuous concern she demonstrated for her opponent despite the disappointment she must have felt at the way her triumph was tainted. Surely, that day, she gained a few more supporters. In their quest to reach the top of their sport, these women have forgotten to work on the fundamentals, how just to be decent human beings. Because of their lack of empathy, the public views them as unsympathetic characters.

Coming back to the issue of Serena Williams, her behavior may be in part dominated by the example set forth by her father. Richard Williams finds it difficult to praise or give credit to his daughter’s opponents regardless of their high ranking or proven past successes against his offsprings. In his mind, by elevating the stature of the challenger that would be giving something away, ultimately affecting the outcome of the match. Therefore, it is refreshing to see Serena’s mother Oracene applauding when the opponent plays a brilliant point or makes a spectacular shot. Thus, perhaps Serena should follow her mother’s example; in my opinion, being deferential is by no means a sign of weakness or a way of giving one’s counterpart the edge. It is simply a confirmation of the old adage that mother knows best, advice that many of these women could benefit from.

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