Sunday, July 5, 2009

Federer Perseveres: Secures 15th Slam After Titanic Struggle With Roddick

If the pressure of playing a Wimbledon final wasn't enough for Roger Federer, he could simply take a peek into the crowd at Sampras, Borg, Laver, and Nastase, all dressed immaculately, and whispering politely amongst themselves in the Royal box.

All this tennis luminescence, on hand to witness his crowning achievement.

What pressure?

As the Wimbledon men's final got underway, we were immediately treated to a glimpse of both Federer the immortal and Federer the human. Roger, surprisingly flat at times, and typically divine at others, seemed to be slipping in and out of both characters today on Centre Court.

And Roddick, seemingly impervious to the pressure and enjoying playing the role of spoiler yet again, also proved that he was not immune to it all. His epic meltdown in the second set tiebreaker happened just as Federer was slipping into his immortal costume. With four set points in the tiebreak, Roddick was one nasty serve from a two sets to love lead against Federer - something he had never held in their previous 20 encounters.

What has always been second nature for a power player like Roddick - strangling a tentative opponent when he's down - suddenly became impossible. He burned through set points like a tennis luminary burns through frequent flyer miles.

It was the beginning of the end for Roddick - before he had even realized that the match was his for the taking it no longer was. Or was it the end of the beginning? The way that Federer seemed to change from hunter to hunted, from believer to doubter, it was truly hard to tell.

This was a tense match from the beginning, with Federer unable to find the comfort zone that we typically see him in, and Roddick happy to benefit from that fact.

Neither player could challenge the others serve until the 11th game of the first set. It was Federer who earned the first opportunity to take the set, as Roddick committed a cluster of unforced errors (his first three of the set) and found himself facing not one, but four break points in total. On the third it appeared that Federer had broken through with a forehand winner, but a Hawk-Eye challenge by Roddick reversed the outcome of the point.

After fighting off the last of four break points Roddick quickly found himself with a chance to break the Federer serve. The Omaha native did just that, as Federer punched a down-the-line forehand wide and much to the surprise of everyone, the first set was Roddick's.

The second set was similar to the first, with neither player yielding on serve.

Federer, however, seemed to be playing under pressure. It was as if he was unsure as to whether or not he wanted to shed his human skin and slip into the velvety smooth epidermis of the immortal. One had to wonder if he had mistakenly perceived that the person across the net from him was Rafael Nadal. How could it be that he was in danger of going down 2 sets to love against his long time rag-doll?

However unimaginable, it was true.

Roddick's face wore a look of disbelief as he reeled off points in the second set tiebreaker. Then it happened. Roddick's meltdown coincided chronologically with Federer's uncanny and perfectly timed grace under pressure, and when the Americans backhand volley sailed several feet wide the two players were tied at the changeover, 6-6.

Two more points and the match was even. A colossal opportunity had been wasted, but Roddick, gritty American that he is, would not relent.

On the strength of his serve (27 aces in the match), Roddick managed to force a third set tiebreaker, but this time it was Federer who reeled off points, and while Roddick was able to fight off the first two set points, Federer was able to get the set point he needed by following up a booming serve out wide with a forehand winner.

Trailing 2-1, given the circumstances , it seemed that the time was ripe for Federer to turn on the afterburners and give the public a glimpse of the immortality that we've all gotten accustomed to seeing from him.

No such luck.

It was Roddick who scored the break, in the fourth game of the fourth set, and Federer could not answer.

Just as the last two Wimbledon finals had come down to a 5th set, so too would this match.

Roddick, now invigorated and adrenalized, seemed to sense victory.

Federer, meanwhile, seemed to be sensing defeat.

At the three hour mark the late afternoon sun was still making its presence felt on Centre Court.

The crowd, always dignified at Wimbledon, seemed neutral, almost distant from the match and detached from the the allure of Federer's greatness. They were like a human sponge, just taking it in, not feeling inclined to try to influence the outcome of the match.

Half way through the set neither had come close to breaking serve. If it was going to happen it was going to happen fast.

Beautiful and serene summer clouds floated overhead, contrasting with the tense flavor of the tennis.

While the rallies were succinct, the serving was brilliant.

The set was level at 5-5 with Federer serving almost as quickly as it had started. Now, one small hiccup of a game was going to determine the Championship. Two weeks of mental and physical warfare had been amalgamated into this immense pressure vacuum where every service game now represented winning or losing the title.

Federer with everything to lose, and Roddick with nothing to lose.

Shadows, finally making their presence felt in a small corner of the grass, just outside the tramlines.

Federer, in exactly the same spot that he found himself in last year, serving at 6-6 in the 5th set.

Make that 8-8.

Facing two break points in the 17th game, Federer slipped into his immortal costume to wiggle himself out of trouble. But always, he seemed to revert back to his other self when Roddick prepared to serve.

Roddick, meanwhile, was playing remarkably, blasting forehands the likes of which we'd never seen from him against Federer.

Yet more than anything, this match was a tale of two Federer's. And it would be decided eventually, one got the feeling, by the stronger of the two. Was he human or was he immortal?

Make that 9-9.

The Wimbledon record for the longest 5th set added to the dramatic flair, as the shadows finally worked themselves inside a small corner of the singles court.

Roddick a pillar of belief, Federer an undefinable pillar, a mixture of so much belief and doubt, a god seemingly stuck in his own purgatory, unable to break the Roddick serve for almost four hours now.

Make that 10-10, eclipsing the Wimbledon final record for games played in a match.

In the 22nd game, A small sliver of opportunity opened for Federer as he got to deuce on the Roddick serve, but it was quickly and confidently closed by a booming first serve.

Make that 11-11.

Shadows now covering significant portions of one half of the court. The crowd still refraining from encouraging either player too much, letting the action come to them, happy to be getting quite a bit more than their money's worth.

Make that 12-12.

This is clearly a battle of wills, a contest of belief, a test of mettle. Federer's 20th ace of the set gets him another hold, and another chance at the Roddick serve.

Make that 13-13. The word epic comes to mind, but I don't think it would do this fifth set justice.

Like a record perpetually skipping, this improbably pressurized match lingered on.

As if the gods of tennis were not happy with Federer's effort yet, as if they wanted him to truly work for it.

Make that 14-14. Shadows encroaching on the net.

Then, in the 30th game of the set, with Federer clinging to a 15-14 lead, a glimmer of light appears.

A break point for Federer is erased, but Roddick surrenders another one, and this one he can't erase.

This was the moment. Taken out of context it would appear to be just another point, but in the context of this match, and of Federer's career, it is ethereal. It is as magical as any of us could have ever imagined it to be. Roddick's flubbed forehand sails long and Federer has passed this long and difficult test.

The immortal Federer (the one who served 50 aces, including 22 in the 5th set), standing human and flawed at the door for the entirety of this grueling struggle, has now passed through. He's beyond all this - we can't judge him now. We can only marvel at his unparallelled success in the sport.
Federer prevails, 5-7, 7-6(6), 7-6(5), 3-6, 16-14, over a heroic adversary who didn't deserve to lose.

His 15th grand-slam title and 6th Wimbledon championship came in the most improbable fashion. At times it looked like it wasn't coming.

We should have known better.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Men's Final Preview: Federer Eyes 15th Grand-Slam

Andy Roddick has never lost at Wimbledon with Brooklyn Decker as his wife.

Too bad for him that the theme of tomorrow's Wimbledon Final may very well be that records are made to be broken.

Wife or no wife, Roddick's chances against the 14-time Grand-Slam and 5-time Wimbledon champion look pretty bleak. His 2-18 record against Federer can attest to that, as can his 0-6 record against the Swiss Maestro in Grand Slams, or his 0-3 record against Federer at Wimbledon. Should I go on or do you get the point?

But there is something about the transformation that Roddick has undergone this year under the tutelage of newly hired coach Larry Stefanki, and the level of commitment and belief that he seems to embody these days, that is different from the Roddick of the past few years.

"I'm excited about this one," said Roddick. "I didn't know if I was going to get to play a Wimbledon Final again. I'm certainly thankful to have the opportunity."

But Federer has undergone a resurrection of his own over the course of 2009. Practically written off by everyone except for himself after his heartbreaking loss to Rafael Nadal in Australia this winter, the great Federer went into a tailspin the likes of which we'd never seen him endure.

His once fluid and easy grace seemed forced and mechanical - so much so that not even he could believe what was happening.

Then, in a strange and remarkable chain of events that seemed to start with Nadal's stunning upset in Paris, Roger became Roger again. It wasn't sudden. It was more like the evaporation of a lingering doubt that finally disappeared in the heat of a Paris spring.

That doubt is clearly gone now. Rafa's stunning upset and subsequent injury have opened the door for Federer, and he's clearly up to the task of walking in and taking what he's always believed to be his - the 15th Grand-Slam and the parking spot outside the tennis hall-of-fame reserved for "the greatest of all-time."

Tomorrow's final will be the third Wimbledon final between Federer and Roddick. Roddick took the first set of their first final, but he wasn't able to take another set, losing in '04 in 4 sets and in '05 in straight sets.

The pair have a long and one-sided history, with Roddick usually coming in to their matches like a lion and going out like a lamb. Roddick's patented booming serve seems almost docile when Federer is standing the other side of the net against him, and Roddick's kamikaze charges to the net against Federer almost always seem to end up in vain.

Even when Roddick has managed to play well enough to win against Federer, he's been unable seal the deal in tight sets - he's 3-10 in tiebreakers vs. Federer.

At times Roddick's failures have seemed to stem from psychological shortcomings - he doesn't really believe he can beat Federer so his body is just doing what his mind is telling it to do, but at others it just appears as if Federer is on another planet - a place that guys like Roddick only get to visit for a thrashing.

That being said, Roddick has clearly benefited from the hard work that he has done to get himself into top physical form this year. We've seen him outshine Novak Djokovic in the Australian heat this winter, and after a solid run (best of his career) in Paris, he's come to Wimbledon like a man on a mission. His win over Andy Murray yesterday may have been the most impressive of his career - not just the win but the fact that he outplayed Murray from the baseline, and tactically as well.

If there ever was a time that Roddick might believe that he could actually give Federer a match on a stage as grand as this, this could be it.

But Federer is so good at moments like these, it's truly hard to imagine him letting this golden opportunity to ascend to the peak of the tennis world once and for all slip by.

Not only will he become the only player to win 15 Grand-Slams with a victory - he'll also regain the no. 1 ranking that he lost to Rafael Nadal in August of 2008.

"If you achieved a lot like I did for so many years, and then you don't win some tournaments, people say you're on the decline very quickly," said Federer. "But I hope it opens some eyes at least these last few months, because they have been very different maybe from what people expected."

In mid March, not many people expected that Federer would be on the verge of rewriting the history books tomorrow, nor did they imagine that Roddick would be the man he would be trying to do it against.

Regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's Wimbledon final, tennis fans can be sure they'll be pleasantly surprised when it's all over.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Williams Sisters to Meet in Fourth Wimbledon Final

Richard Williams absence in the coaches box can only mean one thing when the Wimbledon Women's singles final gets underway tomorrow.

Yet again, he's done his job.

The father and long time coach of the girls prefers to head home rather than watch his daughters try to dismantle one another on the court. "I can't even watch on T.V." said the outspoken Williams. "I can't watch my daughters play each other, I'd probably have a heart-attack."

The illimitable Williams sisters, who collectively hold 7 Wimbledon titles (5 for Venus and 2 for Serena), will notch number 8 tomorrow. That is a definite. The only thing that remains to be seen is which sister will hold up the Venus Rosewater trophy at Centre Court after the match.

And, as is always the case, flipping a coin might give you your best chances if you're looking to guess the winner.

In 20 previous matches, the dynamic sisters have scored 10 victories apiece. In 4 Wimbledon tilts, they have split 4, and in 2009, each sister has taken a match from the other, both in 3 sets.

The edge has gone to Serena when it comes to finals of Grand Slams, however. Serena has beaten her sister in two Wimbledon Finals (2002 and 2003), one U.S. Open final (2002), one Australian Open final (2003), and one French final (2002).

Venus, meanwhile, defeated her sister in the finals of the U.S. Open (2001) and at Wimbledon last year.

But Serena's knows that her sister has become more dangerous on the Wimbledon grass in the past few years. Venus is riding a 20 match winning streak, and she is also in the midst of a remarkable streak of 34 consecutive sets won.

"Well, you know, I feel like going into this final I have nothing to lose," said Serena when asked about the daunting challenge of playing her older sister on grass. "I feel like obviously she's playing the best tennis at this tournament."

She got that right. Along with winning every set, Venus has only dropped 19 games in the tournament, and has needed just 6 and a half hours to get it done.

Venus, while confident for many obvious reasons, is not taking her younger sister lightly. "Even if Serena is not playing her best it's just that fight that she has, you're facing that. So there's so much to face when you play her, it's definitely a lot to get your mind around."

Venus, playing in her 8th final at the All England Club, is looking to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1993 to win three consecutive Wimbledon finals.

Serena doesn't have quite the legacy at Wimbledon, but a win would give her an 11th Grand-Slam title, drawing her within one of the legend Billie Jean King, who closed her career with 12.

For three sets tomorrow the sisters will try to deny each other of achieving these milestones. But when it's all said and done they'll go home, share some dinner and have a good laugh about it.
How cool is that?

Murray Mania Up in Flames; Roddick Through to Finals

The pressure finally got to be too much for Great Britain's great white hope. Or maybe it was Andy Roddick that was too much. Either way you slice it, Murray Mania, that grand and glorious affair that was uniting all of Britain, and much of the tennis world, is now dead.

At least until next year.

Playing like a man possessed, hard-serving Andy Roddick made sure of it, denying Murray in his bid to become the first player from Great Britain to win Wimbledon since 1936, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6(5).

Serving at a 75 percent clip for the match, including 85 percent in the first set, Roddick was able to tilt the match in his favor from the very beginning of this highly anticipated affair. Even as Murray was able to win the second set, it seemed as if he was doing the greater percentage of the running for much of the match.

But that didn't stop the 22-year-0ld Scot from getting his opportunities against the Omaha native, who advanced to his third Wimbledon final with the win.

Murray had three break points against the Roddick serve in the first game of the third set. When Roddick fought off the third break point with a stab volley that died in the grass, there was a feeling that this might be the other Andy's day.

As the third set neared it's conclusion with Roddick clinging to a service break lead, Murray, urged on by the anxious partisan crowd, got another three break points while down 5-3. This time he only wasted one of them. On the second, a Roddick backhand sailed long and the match was on serve again.

Neither could make any more inroads on the other's serve, and the third set would be decided by a tiebreaker that would feature set points by both Andy's.

Murray was first to have the chance, but Roddick saved by placing an awkward drop shot just out of Murray's reach. After Roddick won the next point on his serve it would be Murray who had to save a match point. He did just that with a service winner.

Finally, a framed backhand by Murray gave Roddick his second set point on his serve. This time he did not miss, and the all-important third set had swung the match in favor of the underdog American.

In the fourth the Scot, much to the delight of the Centre Court crowd on this tranquil afternoon, had his chances yet again. As the shadows started their foray onto the playing surface, Murray managed to get to deuce from 15-40 in the 6th game of the set, but was coolly rebuffed by Roddick.

In the 8th game, Murray had his first break point of the set, but it was quickly erased by three very confident points from a clearly inspired Roddick.

Niether player would yield a break point for the remainder of the set, and another tiebreaker ensued.

Roddick look destined to cruise as he grabbed a 5-2 lead, but the resilient Murray was not about to pack it in. An exquisite drop shot led to a Murray winner that drew him closer at 5-4, and the crowd roared it's approval. Roddick took the next point and had the match on his racquet but Murray hit a passing shot that sent Roddick tumbling to the grass.

With Murray to serve at 5-6, the crowd did its best to quiet itself to let their hero concentrate.

Moments later, they were quiet for a different reason.

The last of Murray's 20 unforced errors on the day gave Roddick a spot in the Wimbledon final, with his old nemesis Roger Federer.

"I did better than I ever had before. I had some very good matches, and, you know, I thought I played good tennis," said a disappointed but very mature Murray. "I thought I dealt with everything that was sort of put in front of me well. You know, I'll come back next year and try and do better, but it was a good tournament, wasn't bad at all."

An elated Roddick was dignified in victory, showing that he sypathized with Murray's plight.

"To be fair, he had all the pressure on him, and I just kind of had to swing away," he said.

So the long winding trail of Murray Mania has reached it's conclusion. Now the collective energy of the British faithful will no doubt settle on the task of willing one of its greatest hero's of all time to his sixth Wimbledon title.

For Murray, his best-ever Wimbledon performance at the ripe age of 22 is an achievement that may not have lived up to the unrealistic expectations placed upon him, but it's nothing to scoff at nonetheless.

Hopefully for Murray and for Great Britain, this minor setback will set the table for the major victory that will someday come.

Federer Ends Haas's Senior Moment

Roger Federer had never lost in six Wimbledon Semifinals. Tommy Haas had never played in one.

Haas got to play. Federer, of course, got to win.

In what was a tight match in the first two sets, Roger Federer played the big points with his typical grace under pressure and ended up with a straight set victory in the first Wimbledon semifinal of the day, 7-6(3), 7-5, 6-3.

Though each of the first two sets weren't decided until the latter phases, Federer's domination on serve kept him in control throughout the match. The Swiss maestro did not face a break point in the 2 hour and 2 minute affair. Additionally, for the second straight match, Federer only lost 11 points on his serve (out of 83).

But it wasn't only Federer who was blasting away on serve. Neither player faced a break point in the first set.

In the first set tiebreaker, Federer was impervious to the pressure once again. He used a close call by the omnipotent Hawk-Eye that went in his favor at 2-2 to get over the top and take the set.

In the second set it was much of the same. Both players were serving hot on the grass, and even though Federer had more winners, and a set point in the 10th game, he didn't make his decisive move until the 12th game of the set.

A Haas error sealed the deal on Federer's third set point, his back hand sailing long, and Federer assuming a commanding 2-0 lead.

A far cry from being down two sets, as he was in Roland Garros against Haas, Federer was able to relax and switch himself into cruise control.

Another superior spell of serving all but buried the 31-year-old German. Federer lost only two points in his six service games in the third set, and fired 6 aces for good measure.

The beleaguered Haas wasn't able to make the third set quite as competitive as the first two. 11 unforced errors, compared to only 1 by the demure Federer, set the table for a Federer feast. An easy break in the 8th game of the set stuck a fork in the already cooked Haas.

The rest was academic.

If you bundled all your superlatives into one heaping pile and spit them out in one sentence, it wouldn't be enough praise for the remarkable tennis that Federer has given Wimbledon over the past seven years.

Seven straight Wimbledon finals. Five Wimbledon titles. Only one loss to the phenom known as Nadal since 2002. The list goes on and on, and finally it points to the one task that Federer has yet to accomplish: The 15th Grand-Slam title.

Only one match stands between Federer and yet another irrefutable piece of the argument for his unequivocal greatness.

It'll be a grand breakfast at Wimbledon, no matter who he plays.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Serena Ousts Dementieva in a Heartstopper; Venus Mauls Safina

The longest women's semi-final at Wimbledon since the Open era began in 1968 may have been the most nerve-wracking as well.

Talk about a gut check. This one was a heart and a soul check to boot.

Serena Williams, down a match point at one critical juncture, and facing all kinds of adversity throughout this tension-filled struggle, finally booked her fifth appearance in the Wimbledon finals with a 6-7 (4), 7-5, 8-6 victory over Elena Dementieva.

For Dementieva, it is the second consecutive year in which she has had her hopes dashed in the semi-finals by a Williams sister. It might have been different had it not been for the remarkable fight that Serena had to muster in order to survive this pressure cooker of a match.

After trading service breaks in the first two games, both players managed to hold serve for the rest of the 1st set. But even in the first set, this match was not without tense moments. Dementieva, who was remarkably sound from the baseline, had to fight off three break points at 3-4. While she benefited from Serena's 12 errors in the first set, it was also clear that she was getting the better of many of the baseline rallies that took place.

In the first set tiebreaker, Dementieva took a 6-3 lead, and after a double fault on her first set point, managed to serve it out.

As Serena broke in the first game of the second set, then raced out to a 3-1 lead, it was obvious that Williams was stepping up her game - she had gotten a whiff of the seriousness of her opponent, and was switching up her determination a notch as only Serena can do.

Still, Dementieva stayed the course. The Russian was bringing a new found intensity of her own to the match. She took the next three games and had two separate break point opportunities that would have given her a chance to serve for the match. A close call on the second went Serena's way via the Hawk-Eye, and it was enough to stem the tide, at least for a while.

Finally after breaking to go ahead 6-5, Serena was able to serve out the set (but only after exchanging many blows with the pesky Dementieva, who earned four break point opportunities in the game, all of them magically erased by Serena) and level the match at one set.

As the third set got underway, Dementieva continued to make life miserable for Serena. She snatched the first break of the set to go ahead 3-1 but it was just another challenge for Serena - undoubtedly the best pressure player of all the ladies on tour - and she broke back immediately.

Much to Dementieva's chagrin, what Serena lacked from the baseline she made up for with her serve.

Williams boomed 20 aces, including 8 in each of the last two sets - without this uncanny display of power serving alacrity, this match may have been Dementieva's for the taking.

Amazingly, at 4-5 in the third, it still was.

After nearly 3 hours of improbably good tennis, the Russian had her match point.

But Serena responded, as usual.

In a daring charge to the net (similar to ones that had failed earlier in the set), on the most crucial of crucial points, Serena made the volley of the tournament. A screaming cross court backhand by the Russian was intercepted with the full force of Serena's right arm. Neatly struck, that actually clipped the tape before flying into the open court, landing untouched several feet inside the baseline.

One woman's triumph, sadly, is another woman's tragedy.

Three games later it was over. Serena, once again, had found a way to will herself to victory.

Unfortunately, someone had to lose this match. As is typically the case in big matches, it sure as hell wasn't going to be Serena.

Venus Blasts Safina in Lopsided Tilt

All the suspense must have left Centre Court along with Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva.

Venus Williams had no mercy today, a she motored her way into yet another Wimbledon final, committing only 1 unforced error in her straight set lashing of Dinara Safina, 6-1, 6-0.

Safina, in getting blown off the court, has further solidified her reputation as a big match bridesmaid - she's lost three straight grand-slam finals in addition to this semi-final, and in the process has made the worlds No. 1 ranking look like a misprint.

But she wasn't facing chopped liver in the semis, as Venus has now won 34 consecutive sets on the Wimbledon grass, and only her sister Serena stands between her and her third consecutive Wimbledon title.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Women's Semi-Final Preview and Picks

All good things must come to an end.

Apparently, Venus Williams didn't get the memo. Or maybe she got it and threw it away.

The five-time Wimbledon champion has not lost a set on the grass at the All England Club since the 3rd round of 2007 - a total of 32 sets- and she doesn't appear to be about to lose one either, in spite of that ominous looking tape job that she has been sporting on her left knee.

Enter Dinara Safina. Could this be just the thing Safina needs - a match where the tennis world will certainly be expecting her to lose and perhaps to lose big, in order to force those squeaky nerves of hers to take a back set to her better half, the half that can hit scorching winners with the best of them?

Tomorrow's Wimbledon Women's semi-finals are a study in contrast. They feature a pair of American sisters who are high on confidence (neither have dropped a set all tournament) against a pair of Russians who are perpetually low on confidence (neither of them, in spite of getting oh-so-close oh-so-often, have ever won a slam).

It seems almost borderline pathological to expect anything other than a Williams sister demolition. It happens virtually every year, so why should 2009 be any different? Since 2000, 11 of the 18 Wimbledon finalists have gone by the last name Williams, and there have been three finals between the two.

It may be close to impossible, but, as Dinara Safina's favorite t-shirt says, "Impossible is Nothing." Now if she can just play like she believes it, fans may get their money's worth.

Here's a look at tomorrow's match ups:

1. Serena Williams vs. Elena Dementieva

Interesting and surprising fact: Dementieva has won 3 out of her last 4 matches against Serena. But when the pressure was really on in January in the Australian Open semi-finals, Serena returned to form to crush the soft-serving Russian, 6-3, 6-4.

In their only previous Wimbledon meeting way back in 2003, Serena put a 6-2, 6-2 whooping on Dementieva.

What can Dementieva do to neutralize Serena's powerful game? Probably not much. She'll have to play the best match of her life and Serena, for reasons beyond comprehension, will have to be uninspired.

Pick: Serena in 2

2. Venus Williams vs. Dinara Safina

Venus is looking to become the first woman to win three consecutive Wimbledon championships since Steffi Graf (1991 -1993).

Poor Dinara Safina, all she wants is just one Slam.

If she wants to get it at Wimbledon she'll more than likely have to go through both Williams sisters to get it. It's a long shot at best, even for the worlds No. 1 ranked player who has been the most consistent player on tour for pretty much all of 2009.

Safina is 1-2 lifetime against Venus, with that win coming in their last match this spring. But it won't do much to help her confidence because it came on the clay in Rome. That's a far cry from the grass of the All England Club, where Venus has won five of her seven Grand-Slam titles, and been to an additional two finals as well.

What can Safina do? Play like a maniac and hope for the best. If she doesn't leave everything she has on the grass, this one could be ugly, but hopefully not as ugly as Safina's Australian Open final against Serena where Safina remarked to the press after the match that she "was nothing more than Serena's ball girl."

Pick: Safina in 3

Federer Masters Dr. Ivo, Advances to 21st Straight Slam Semi

Not even shades could make the future look bright for Ivo Karlovic today.

Roger Federer notched a spot in his record 21st consecutive Grand-Slam semi-final by defeating the 6'10" Karlovic in straight sets on Centre Court, 6-3, 7-5, 7-6 (3).

Karlovic, who started the match with a streak of 78 consecutive service games without being broken, could only manage one hold against Federer before the streak was snapped.

Ten minutes into the match, Federer slapped a backhand winner past the flat-footed Croatian to gain his first break point. On the ensuing serve he slapped a forehand past Karlovic and the rest was history.

Federer's streak of 21 consecutive grand-slam semi-finals is a true testament not only to Federer's greatness, but also his consistency. Ivan Lendl and Rod Laver can attest to this. Each managed ten consecutive grand-slam semi-finals - brilliant no doubt, but paltry in comparison to what Federer has done.

Facing a man that kept his last four opponents at bay by raining a fusillade of aces on them, Federer was cool and calculated from the onset of this match. His only two break point opportunities yielded exactly what the Swiss Maestro needed - when he got his chances he proceeded to make his deadliest returns of the match, proving again that there is no one in tennis better at summoning brilliance when it matters most.

After breaking karlovic in the eleventh game of the second set, Federer consolidated easily to take the set and a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.

Remarkably, in ten matches against the giant Croatian, Federer has only suffered one service break. He did not even face a break point today, and he only lost 11 of the 85 points in which he served.

Karlovic, not achieving the results he had hoped for in his first ever appearance in a grand-slam quarterfinal, decided to remove the shades for the third set.

It didn't make much of a difference. Karlovic's final display of ruthless power serving (11 aces in the set and 2 more in the tiebreak) bought him a chance in a tiebreaker, but those chances were quickly squandered.

A few untimely errors later Karlovic used his tournament leading 160th ace of the tournament to fight off the first of four Federer match points.

It would only deny the inevitable. Such is the fate of mere mortals who try to usurp Federer's grass court magesty (unless your name is Rafa).

Federer will face Tommy Haas in the semi-finals on Friday, for a chance to play in his 7th consecutive Wimbledon final.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wimbledon Men's Quarter Finals: Previews and Picks

The collective British heart will no doubt be palpitating wildly tomorrow, as Andymonium round five takes to Centre Court with a chance to get one step closer to the holy grail.

Murray Mania survived it's most aggressive challenge on Monday, as Stan the Man Wawrinka, clearly inspired by all the attention and fanfare surrounding this tilt, pulled out all the stops in his attempt to derail the huffing and puffing locomotive known as Andy Murray.

In the end his herculean effort fell just short, with Murray fending off break points and repeated assaults from perhaps the most sizzling one-handed backhand in the sport.

Tomorrow's match doesn't look to be as challenging on paper, but they don't play Wimbledon quarter finals on paper - the chosen surface is grass, in case you've been in a dark and tennisless closet since before 1877.

Here's a closer look at the Murray - Juan Carlos Ferrero match, along with the other three quarter final match ups that are set to take place tomorrow.

Andy Murray vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero:

You don't have to search very far to find the results of the last meeting between these two: Murray put a thrashing on Juan Carlos in the semis at Queens Club, 6-2, 6-4. That was June 14th. The story of that match was that Murray won 86 percent of his first serves, while Ferrero only won 64 percent of his.

Murray's 9 aces were also a factor, and he needs to reconnect with his serve to make this quarter final match relatively easy compared to what he had to go through with Wawrinka yesterday. Make no mistakes, Stan the Man played out of his head yesterday.

But the good news for Murray is that he was able to deliver yesterday on the big points against Wawrinka. Even with the hopes and aspirations of a whole nation shadowing his every stroke, Murray can swallow up the tenseness and spit it back out as a break point saved. He saved 10 of them yesterday.

The only bad news for Murray is that he served only 44 percent in the first set and 42 percent in the third against Wawrinka. Imagine what Federer will be able to construct against him if he does that in a possible final that is truly too far off to even bother getting your hopes up for. Yet.

Pick: Murray in 4

Andy Roddick vs. Lleyton Hewitt:

What? What year is it?

Roddick made the point in one of his recent and typically fabulously hilarious pressers that the average age in the top (insert the number he actually said here - was it 100?) players was 26.

At 26, the other Andy is definitely not over the hill, and the way he has been training this year, and playing inspired tennis, is a true testament to the mans character. You don't have the nastiest serve in the sport (sorry Karlovic, but be real) without having loads upon loads of character. Slice it any way you like it but the results are going to come out the same, this is Roddick's match to win.

Hewitt is 28, but he did have the hip surgery. He also just had a tough five-setter against Radek the worm Stepanek, and had to call for the trainer for a rubdown in the process.

The Aussie's run here at the All England Club has been the stuff of dreams. A return to past glory is nothing to be scoffed at, and the 2002 champ is really showing that he loves to play on the grass. But Roddick is making a homecoming of sorts as well. He's a two-time runner up At Wimbledon and only Federer could stop him in those years.

Pick: Roddick in 4

Roger Federer vs. Ivo Karlovic:

Can you believe that Federer is actually taking a back seat to Andymononium at the moment? Perhaps the greatest player in the history of the sport going for perhaps the most important statistic of all? Are you kidding me?

I'm not sure if you caught the applause that he was given by the Centre Court crowd as he exited after his eleventh consecutive victory against Robin Soderling. It was really warm. It's almost as if the British crowd senses that they might have to turn against him in the final so they are making sure they give the Swiss maestro his props in the next few rounds.

Look for them to lend a hand to him against Dr. Ivo.

Murray is 8-1 vs. the Croatian giant. And don't think that the King of Grass isn't lying on his back next to his wife and the growing child inside her belly and reflecting on these 8 victories. Or maybe he's reflecting on the 1 loss? Only Federer himself knows how Federer himself works. All we as fans know is that he is a genius. How dare us to even speculate? We that chastised him earlier in the year for not taking on a coach. How could we?

And look at Federer now. It is obvious that releasing the part of his brain that was previously devoted to Rafa has released the uninhibited dare-we-say perfection possessed by the man.

Look for him to slice and dice the Karlovic serve. He'll be challenged just like Karlovic's previous four victims, but this is Roger Federer we're talking about.

Karlovic has been impressive in his four breakless victories, no doubt. He hasn't even faced a break point since the first round. How is that even possible? The 6'10 mammoth man won two tiebreakers in his victory over Federer at the Cincinnati Masters event in 2008. But that's only 1 win in 9 tries. And Federer won their last meeting (and while in the midst of his slump), this year at Indian Wells.

Federer is 8-3 in career tiebreakers against Dr. Ivo.

Federer is 25-4 in his last 29 Wimbledon tiebreaks.

That says it all to me. Roger is the essence of the word clutch. And He's going for 15, while Rafa's icing his knees. For him there is no better scenario.

Pick: Federer in 5

Novak Djokovic vs. Tommy Haas:

The forgotten man at Wimbledon 2009 has definitely been Novak Djokovic. That may have something to do with the fact that he was nowhere to be found in the second week at Roland Garros this year.

But like Roland Garros, Wimbledon's semis have also seen the red-blooded Serb take part in them. Novak was a semi-finalist in 2007, and in spite of his Roland Garros loss to Kohlschreiber, I think he's got to be the favorite against the oldest man left in the draw.

Tommy Haas had that wonderful suspense-filled match against Marin Cilic in the third round (the one that had my vote for match of the tourney until the Murray 4th rounder), and then the 31-year-old German cruised to victory against Igor Andreev in the fourth round.

Haas possesses an elegant game that features a gorgeous one-hand backhand and a classic serve motion. It is always fun to see him in top form.
This will be a battle of former No. 2' s in the world, with Novak's stint at the top being much more recent.

After playing a sloppy first round match, the salacious Serb has delivered some of his most inspired tennis of the season. He made easy work of Mardy Fish in the 3rd round, and then did the same against Dudi Sela in the 4th. Haas will be a step up from that level of competition, but Djokovic will be playing to avenge the loss he suffered against Haas earlier this month in Halle, Germany.

You can look at that grass court final, won by Haas in 3 sets (6-1 in the 3rd), in two ways: as a sign that Haas is ready for the semis, or as a sign the pain and suffering that this loss caused Djokovic to suffer will be paid back in double by the in-over-his-head Haas.

Pick: Djokovic in 4

Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 7: Williams Sisters Breeze into Quarters

Wham bam, thank you ma'am. If you could summarize the Williams Sisters performance on Manic Monday at Wimbledon today with one phrase, that would be it.

In a decade that has only witnessed one final that didn't feature at least one of the Williams Sisters (Mauresmo vs. Henin in 2006), the likely scenario appears to be unfolding again, as both sisters rolled easily into the quarters, neither losing a set in the process.

Serena was dominant against unseeded Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova today, and she needed only 56 minutes to close out the 6-3, 6-1 victory. She was able to win 57 of the 87 points that were played in spite of landing only 54 percent of her first serves.

"I have definitely have been solid and playing consistent," said Serena, who like Venus has yet to lose a set in the tournament. "Obviously there's always room for improvement in my game...I definitely felt like I could have served a little better today."

While it's hard to imagine her playing much better today, her perfectionism may be exactly what she needs in the quarterfinals against Victoria Azarenka, a player that many people consider to have the best shot at usurping the Williamses Wimbledon supremacy.

Serena's big sister Venus, the reigning Wimbledon champion and five-time title holder, was equally methodical in her assault on No. 13 seed Ana Ivanovic of Serbia.

The fleet footed Venus converted on 10 of her first 12 net approaches and stormed to a quick 5-0 lead against Ivanovic. After closing out the first set 6-1, things would take a turn for the worse for Ivanovic.

While serving at 30-40 in the first game of the second set, Ivanovic felt a sharp pain in her left thigh. After seeing the trainer and getting the leg treated and wrapped, the Serb tried to continue but was forced into a teary retirement after the conclusion of the first game of the second set.

Venus expressed sympathy for Ivanovic in a classy post game press conference, but when she takes the court against Agnieszka Radwanska tomorrow in the quarter finals, she'll undoubtedly be feeling fresher as a result of her relatively easy forty-seven minutes spent on court today.

Slammin' Sisters

Proving that it is truly all in a days work, the sisters joined forces on the doubles court to put an emphatic beat-down on their Chinese opponents, Zi Yan and Jie Zheng, 6-0, 6-0.

The forty-six minute victory lands the sisters in the quarterfinals of the ladies doubles draw, where they will face the German-American tandem of Groenefeld and King.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Day 7: Women's 4th Round Preview/ Picks

For the last decade at Wimbledon it's been Venus Williams party. Sometimes she invites her sister Serena, but for the most part, the rest of the top women tennis players in the world have found themselves on the outside looking in.

Ana Ivanovic would like nothing more than to spoil Venus's party.

But she'll need some luck. With the way the former No. 1 from Serbia has played in 2009, it looks to be an uphill battle. Venus, a five time champion, and Ivanovic, who entered last years Wimbledon ranked No. 1 in the world, will highlight a heavy ticket that features all eight 4th round matches.

Here's a look at what's on tap:

1. Venus Williams vs. Ana Ivanovic:

Ana looked so bad in her first round match against Lucie Hradecka from Czechoslovakia, that many were predicting more doom and gloom for the emotional Serb. But somehow she found her game in time to score straight set wins over Sara Errani and Samantha Stosur.

But the most daunting challenge in women's tennis awaits her now, and the lack of confidence that she concealed in her last two matches will more than likely come back and bite her again on Centre Court.

Venus is riding a seventeen match winning streak here, and she is hell bent on becoming the first woman since Steffi Graf to win three consecutive titles. This would be a monumental win for Ivanovic if she could get it, but it just seems too far fetched given the turbulence that has permeated Ana's game since her French Open title in 2008.

Pick: Venus in 3

Dinara Safina vs. Amelie Mauresmo:

Poor Dinara, all dressed up in that No. 1 ranking with no place to go. The combative Russian has been zealously pursuing a title for over a year now, but nerves seems to catch up with her whenever she reaches a final.

Perhaps she'll benefit from the fact that all eyes are on Venus and Serena and make a sneaking mad dash for the crown? She's not known for her grass court expertise, but she is the world No. 1, and hasn't lost a set in the tournament.

To advance she'll have to face the 2006 Wimbledon Champion, Amelie Mauresmo, who at 29 is playing like she has nothing to lose. That's probably because she hasn't. She's already won Wimbledon, and nothing can take that away from her. If Safina gets a case of the yips look for Mauresmo to casually capitalize.

Pick: Safina in 3

Caroline Wozniaki vs. Sabine Lisicki:

19-year-old Sabine Lisicki is on a tear. 18-year-old Caroline Wozniacki is on a tear. Okay now, who is gonna tear who apart then? Good question.

The two teenagers have split their two meetings to date, with Lisicki winning their last meeting in straight sets in Charleston. But overall Wozniacki has been the better player in 2009. The great Dane has been steadily climbing up the rankings, and her grass court title in the Wimbledon tune-up at Eastbourne has given her confidence a boost.

Pick: Wozniacki in 2

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Melanie Oudin:

What a difference a week makes. Melanie Oudin played her way into Wimbledon by winning three qualifier matches, and now she finds herself with a good shot to make the quarter finals.

Why? Because as good as Radwanska is, she doesn't have the tools to hammer the 17-year-old American like most of the other ladies in the draw.

Expect this to be a wild topsy-turvy affair, as Oudin has lost the first set and come back in all of her matches, and Radwanska is rolling second serves in at around 60 mph, hardly a recipe for domination.

pick: Radwanska in 3

Serena Williams vs. Daniela Hantuchova:

Hantuchova might have the edge in swimsuit modeling, but when it comes to the 4th round of slams it's all about Serena.

The Slovakian is 1-6 in her career against Serena, with one of those wins coming at the Australian Open in 2006. Hantuchova is only 21-15 on the year and has seen her ranking drop to 32.

Serena is searching for her 3rd career Wimbledon title, and is also dead set on making sure that her big sister Venus doesn't outdo her.

pick: Williams in 2

Victoria Azarenka vs. Nadia Petrova

Victoria Azarenka is still playing with the bitterness of bowing out in Roland Garros to Dinara Safina after taking the first set easily. She's the type of player that doesn't need to learn the same lesson twice. It's been a great year for Azarenka: She reached her first Slam quarter final and she has earned a spot in the WTA's top-10. Most players would be satisfied with that, at least for a little while.

Not Azarenka. The powerful and exceptionally quick and intense Belarusian seems to be the player on tour with the greatest fire in her belly.

Expect Azarenka to come out fast and furious, looking to avenge last years Wimbledon 3rd round defeat at the hands of none other than the cagey veteran Petrova.

Pick: Azarenka in 2

Elena Dementieva vs. Elena Vesnina:

In this battle of Elena's it is Dementieva who has the edge in experience. Dementieva made it all the way to the Wimbledon Semis just last year, and she has taken both career meetings against Vesnina, one of which came on grass.

The 22-year-old Vesnina scored a huge upset in taking out Dominika Cibulkova, but she is in uncharted waters now against the ever-dangerous Dementieva.

pick: Dementieva in 3

Virginie Razzano vs. Francesca Schiavone:

This is a gravy match because neither Schiavone or Razzano has ever been past the third round at Wimbledon, so it's all gravy from here.

Schiavone has won all three of their previous meetings so maybe it will be Razzano's turn on Monday.

Pick: Razzano in 3

Day 7: Men's 4th Round Preview and Predictions

The most overworked lawn in all of England gets a well deserved breather on the middle Sunday of the Wimbledon Championships.

Hopefully some of those bare patches can grow back because when Monday morning rolls around a frantic race to the finish will officially begin.

All 16 men and women left in the singles draws will compete on various courts tomorrow, with star-studded action on six different courts. This plethora of quality tennis gives holders of grounds passes the opportunity to view high profile matches in the intimate settings of Wimbledon's lesser known side-courts.

Here's a sneak preview of all of the 4th round match ups that are on the docket:

MENS, 4th Round:

1. Roger Federer vs. Robin Soderling, Centre Court:

Soderling did the unthinkable in Paris in the 4th round against Nadal, and that is good enough reason to consider him a threat, even though he has lost to Federer in all 10 of their previous encounters.

Of the six sets they have played on grass, Soderling has only won one, but half of them have gone to tiebreakers. So it's not like Soderling has been getting blown off the court by Fed. Still, it takes a pretty fecund imagination to visualize Roger getting beat here, on the surface he likes more than any other.

Pick: Federer in 5

2. Andy Murray vs. Stanislas Wawrinka, Centre Court:

Murray Mania is a beautiful thing for the English, and you can bet if the loyal enlistees of Andymonium are needed to get the wildly hyped Scot through a rough spot in this match, they will perform admirably.

That being said, the way Murray has performed in the Championships thus far, the more likely scenario is that those lucky enough to have Centre Court tickets can sit back and enjoy another classic Murray puppet act (with Andy pulling the strings, and Stan the Man reacting).

In their last big time match, Andy scored a decisive 4th round victory over Wawrinka at the U.S. Open in straight sets. It's hard to imagine the results here being any different. Wawrinka has taken 3 out of the 7 matches that the two have played, but Murray has taken 4 out of the last 5.

Pick: Murray in 4

3. Fernando Verdasco vs. Ivo Karlovic, Court 1:

Serving more aces than a Vegas dealer, Ivo Karlovic is the man that no one wants to face. And there's good reason for that. Karlovic leads all of Wimbledon with 102 aces, and he hasn't been broken in his first three matches (faced 4 break points in his first round match against Lukas Lacko, but saved them all).

But before you start anointing Dr. Ivo the new King of Grass, realize that Karlovic has never been beyond the 4th Round at Wimbledon, and he suffered losses in the first round for the previous 4 years.

That being said, he did beat Verdasco last year in their only previous encounter on grass (in a third set tiebreak at the Nottingham Finals), and Verdasco has never been beyond the 4th round at Wimbledon either (lost in both attempts in 5 sets).

Someone has to give here, and it'll be fun to see who does.

Pick: Verdasco in 4

4. Tomas Berdych vs. Andy Roddick, Court 1:

For those of you who were miffed when Berdych suddenly retired against Roddick after one set and 2 games at the 2007 U.S. Open (4th round also), here is your long awaited rain check.

Both heavy hitters come into this match riding a nice wave of momentum. Berdych is one of only two players to not lose a set thus far in the tournament, while Roddick, boasting a 36-6 record in 2009 under new coach Larry Stefanki, is looking more like the 2004 and 2005 Roddick who appeared in two consecutive finals.

This should be a high octane affair, as the two thrashers are both sensing that a win here might propel them into the semis.

Pick: Roddick in 5

5. Lleyton Hewitt vs. Radek Stepanek, Court 2:

Hewitt is 2-0 vs. Stepanek, but this one will feel more like a strange encounter than a familiar one. Both meetings were in 2003, and while the born again Hewitt is interested in reproducing the glory of yesteryear, Stepanek seems to be getting smarter as he gets older.

So throw the records out the window for this match.

This one will be won on heart and soul, not past accomplishments.

One thing to note is that Hewitt has come through the draw without losing a set, and Stepanek has been forced to labor through consecutive five-setters against Starace and Ferrer. Plus the rowdy Aussie supporters will be there to pick up Lleyton when he's down.

Hewitt, as a former Wimbledon champion, will be the favorite coming in, but Stepanek is one of those guys that you can never count out.

Pick: Hewitt in 4

6. Novak Djokovic vs. Dudi Sela, Court 3:

After his 3rd round loss in Roland Garros, and amidst all the hype surrounding Federer and Murray and Nadal these days, Novak Djokovic has become the forgotten man around the All England Club. Guess what? He likes it, and if there was ever something to put that chip back on Novak's shoulder, this might be it.

His straight set annihilation of Mardy Fish was impressive, and he has been a Wimbledon Semi-finalist before, so he knows the lay of the land.

Meanwhile, Sela has become quite the giant killer. He entered the tournament with a record of 12-11 on the year, but since his first round five-set thriller against qualifier Santiago Gonzalez, he has knocked off last year's semi-finalist Ranier Scheuttler (in 4) and No. 15 seed Tommy Robredo (also in 4).

Could the 5'9" 147 giant killer have another giant upset in him? Or will the forgotten man be remembered?

Pick: Djokovic in 4

7. Juan Carlos Ferrero vs. Gilles Simon, Court 3:

The diminutive yet indefatigable Simon is finally doing some damage after a long and disappointing slumber for much of this season. He's still ranked # 7, but big wins have been hard to come by for the 24-year-old. He's benefited from a fortunate draw, and the only seeded player that he's had to play so far was No. 31 seed. Victor Hanescu. Nonetheless, he's come through, and he's now one match away from his 2nd Slam quarterfinal of 2009.

Ferrero, a Wildcard, has a 21-8 career record on the Wimbledon grass, and is looking to match his 2007 quarter final performance with a win over the Frenchman. Ferrero's five-set upset over Fernando Gonzalez was grueling, but if he can recover nicely on his day off, he'll have a good shot to derail Simon.

Pick: Ferrero in 4

8. Igor Andreev vs. Tommy Haas, Court 4:

After blowing a 2 set lead against Roger Federer in Roland Garros, Tommy Haas has rebounded nicely. First he took a grass court title in Halle, Germany, and now, after winning a nail biter extraordinaire against Marin Cilic, he'll get another chance to make good in the 4th round of a slam.

His opponent on Monday, No. 29 seed Igor Andreev, has never been this far at Wimbledon, so he is going to have to cross his fingers and hope that youth trumps the experience of Haas, who is the oldest man left in the draw.

Pick: Andreev in 4

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Day 6: Murray Mania, Part 3

The only thing that 22-year-old phenom Andy Murray couldn't do today was raise the roof.

The weather, threatening for most of the 3rd round victory by Murray over helpless Serb Viktor Troicki, held. In six days of play, the only function of the 150 million dollar retractable roof has been to provide shade for the royal box.

Troicki, disillusioned in the same fashion as Murray's last two Wimbledon opponents, did not hold.

Murray gained his first break in the 5th game of the first set and he never looked back.

Rolling out his full arsenal of tricks - rally changing slice, booming serve, exquisite angles - and once again displaying a remarkable ability to play error free tennis, Murray glided easily past Troicki, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, much to the delight of the capacity Centre Court crowd (and the hordes of Murray Mania enlistees frolicking on Henman Hill).

"I've got to be happy with the first week," said Murray afterwards, "I felt better and better with every match. But I have to play better if I want to come away with the title next week."

Murray, who faced only one break point during the match (he fought it off with an ace), only committed three errors in the first set, and then took a total of seven consecutive games to pretty much put Troicki out of the picture.

"The crowd is behind him," said a shell shocked Troicki. "He might be a champion. If not this year then next year. Even this year, he's looking good."

Not to disagree with Troicki, but he's looking better than good. This may be perhaps the best tennis that the young Scot has ever played. He appears to be embracing the pressure and enjoying the unabashed support of the crowd, a responsibility that some feared might prove to be too much for a young and unproven player in terms of Grand-Slam victories.

But Murray has been the consummate professional throughout, both on the court and off the court. His play has been as sparkling as his vintage Fred Perry attire in all three matches, and Murray's uncanny sense for the courts geometry has been complemented nicely by his ability to mix speeds and locations - he never allows his opponents to gain a sense of comfort out on the grass.

The only thing that remains to be seen is whether or not Murray can remain this hot. It's hard to fathom that he'll be able to navigate all seven matches without a few nervous moments. And he hasn't faced the real heavy hitters yet.

Stanislas Wawrinka lies in wait as Murray's next opponent. The 19th seed will be the highest seeded player that Murray will have seen thus far. Wawrinka was Murray's victim in straight sets in the 4th round of the U.S. Open last year.

Murray's already soaring confidence level will likely benefit from that fact, and from the support of the fastest growing cult that tennis may have ever seen.

Murray maniacs can now enjoy their Sunday high tea in a relaxed mode - their hopes and dreams a.k.a. Andymonium, are alive and well.

Day 6: Mauresmo and Hewitt Draw From Past Experience

Once a champion always a champion.  

Amelie Mauresmo, Wimbledon Champion in 2006, and Lleyton Hewitt, Wimbledon champion in 2002, are both heading into the second week of the fortnight with a lot of confidence.

"Yeah, I guess when you're at the top of your game and you're No. 1 in the world, you kind of take it for granted." said a jubilant Hewitt, referring to his past glory at Wimbledon, after his 3rd round defeat of German Philipp Petzchner.   "When you're unseeded, it's not always that easy to get the easy draw to come through the Round of 16 and make the second week of these kind of majors."

"That's what's pleasing this week, is to come through and do it against worthy opponents. You know, and not drop a set so far is nice, as well."

In a grass court season that is so short that many players don't even play a single match on the surface before their first match at Wimbledon, past champions like Hewitt and Mauresmo have a distinct advantage over much of the competition, regardless of what the draws look like.  

Mauresmo, who defeated Justine Henin in the 2006 final, dealt with the pressure quite admirably today, as she fought off 9 of 10 break point opportunities against Flavia Pennetta.

The 7-5, 6-3 victory advances Mauresmo to the round of 16 for the first time since 2007. During her illustrious career, the no. 17 seeded Frenchwoman has reached the semi-finals three times ('02, '04, '05) in addition to her victory in 2006. 

Mauresmo will face the No. 1 seeded Dinara Safina in the round of 16 on Monday.  It is an intriguing match up, and Mauresmo may be able to take advantage of the Russian's relative inexperience on the grass surface.  Additionally, Mauresmo already has the one thing that Safina is dying to get:  A Grand-Slam title.  

Mauresmo, in the latter stages of her career, may be able to pull the upset.  She knows the pressure is not on her, and she knows how to play the grass.  

Meanwhile, Hewitt will face a very beatable opponent in Czech Radek Stepanek.  Hewitt is 2-0 against Stepanek in his career.  

For the moment, both Mauresmo and Hewitt are pleased as punch to be heading into the second week of Wimbledon.  

The 29-year old Mauresmo is all about keeping it in perspective these days, and her relaxed mindset has definitely helped her on the court.  

"To keep playing for me was really a matter of enjoying myself on the court and being able to live some other great moments of emotion on the court, which I had already a few times this year," she said. "Hopefully I'll have some more."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Roland Garros Fans or Wimbledon Fans: Which are better?

Many people this week, both players and commentators alike, have been making the point that Wimbledon is the most prestigious tournament of all four Grand-Slams.  While it may not lend any more credibility to the debate, Wimbledon's official website makes the same claim.  

All four Slams are so divine in my opinion, and divinity is something that you can't quantify, so why try?  Isn't it pompous to regard your own event more highly than other events that are worth equal points in the rankings?  Let the players and fans decide, but please, by all means, avoid placing your own tournament on a pedestal in your own website.  It's tacky at best. 

Which brings me to my next point, about something equally as unquantifiable - the fans.  

I've come to the conclusion, after the first five days of Wimbledon, that the British fans are flat-out better than the French fans.  I know what you're thinking.  You're saying what kind of a nut ball compares fans, right?  Fans are just there to root for their favorite players and buy tickets and merchandise so the show can be paid for, right?  

But there truly is a nuance to being a fan, and in my opinion, the Wimbledon fans get it, and the Roland Garros fans do not.  

Take for instance Sunday May 31 at Roland Garros.  Why the heck were the French fans so eager to get behind Robin Soderling as he pulled the upset of the millennium against Rafael Nadal?  As John McEnroe later said, "they're cheering for Soderling in the 4th set tiebreaker? A guy that doesn't even get cheered for in Sweden?"  

While I won't go so far as to take away the French fans right to do whatever the heck they want and root for whomever the heck they want to root for, I just have to admit that I'll never understand their reaction to that match.  It was strange.  Fatalistic.  And it made me wonder about just what it is that makes the French fans tick.  

Why do they insist on heckling the female ladies whenever they question a line call?  Why do they shout and whistle at any player who is showing frustration out on the court?  Do they really frown upon this behavior?  Are they morally opposed to tossing a racquet in frustration? And, if they are morally opposed to that, wouldn't it make sense that they'd be morally opposed to infuriating hard working tennis players by unnecessarily heckling them at times when they are seriously stressed?  

Okay, enough.  I'm not writing this to rip the French fans - I merely had a few things to get off my chest after watching Rafael Nadal - the heart and soul of the French Open for four years running - be sent off to a smattering of jeers and cheers for Robin Soderling.  The guy deserved a thirty minute standing ovation after that match, and the fact that he got nothing from the French fans is a travesty.  

Somehow I feel that if an upset of that magnitude would have taken place on Wimbledon's Centre Court there'd have been an entirely different reaction.  Why?  Because the English fans get it.  

Decorum is second nature in Great Britain, and this has a lot to do with it.  But there is also a certain empathy that is detectable in the reactions of the collective British fan.  It is apparent that they respect the game of tennis immensely.  They are silently reverent when a player is riddled and becomes frustrated out on the court.  When a player argues a line call, they may giggle or sigh, but they most certainly do not whistle and cat-call like the French love to do.  

I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking I'm bashing the French.  I'm here to tell you that I'm not.  Ask the players.  Ask anyone who attended the French Open.  This is how they behave at Roland Garros.  

Thankfully, it's not how they behave at Wimbledon.  One tournament with a rude and insensitive fan base out of four Grand-Slam's is enough.  I'm all for diversity,  and I wouldn't dare deny the French fans their right to indulge themselves in any fashion that they see fit.

They paid good Euros for those tickets, and they are running a world-class event in Paris.  And while I don't necessarily care for the behavior of the French fans, I will admit that their enthusiasm and boisterous banter makes the event a truly unique and memorable one.  They've got great energy and Roland Garros is electric - it's just got too much negative energy for me.  

In my opinion the fans at Roland Garros should turn on their televisions and watch some of Wimbledon - There's a lot to learn from the British fans, and the Roland Garros fans, in my opinion, should take heed.  

Day 5: Dr. Ivo Aces Another Exam

55 Aces wasn't enough to get Ivo Karlovic over the hump at the French Open on clay.  

46 was just fine on grass today.   

Karlovic's 7-6 (5), 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5) over a downtrodden Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was more like a serving clinic than a tennis match.  

Tsonga never gained a break point in the match, and although he served well himself, his almost juvenile approach to dealing with the 6'10" Croatians thundering serve was ineffectual at best. 

After the No. 9 seeded Frenchman fought back to take a second set tiebreaker, there was a glimmer of hope that he might make some very necessary adjustments against the Karlovic serve, which averaged 127 mph for the match.  

Instead, Tsonga chose to haphazardly try to guess the direction of Karlovic's serve while the toss was in the air.  It was a puzzling technique by Tsonga - on most of Karlovic's aces he never even moved in the direction of the ball - and he just ended up conceding most points to Karlovic without even getting his racquet near the ball.  

As the tiebreakers rolled around, Tsonga actually tried to return serve, and he looked much better during the three tiebreakers that were played, but in the end Dr. Ivo was just too amped up for the bewildered Tsonga to handle.  

46 Aces gives Karlovic the tournament lead with 102, and he has yet to be broken in his first three Wimbledon tilts.  His first round opponent, Lukas Lacko of Slovakia, is the only opponent to manage a break point against the Croat.  He had four of them in his straight set defeat.  

While there wasn't much that Tsonga could do against the big man today, it was still very disconcerting to see the lack of effort that he put forth on his return of serve.  For a player with so much athletic ability, and such quick hands, he could have at least tried to string a few good games together.  

It raises questions about the dedication of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  He is certainly one of the most dynamic and athletic players in the game today.  But his performance today was so devoid of those trademark characteristics that define champions - mental toughness, tenacity, and patience -  that it is very hard to imagine him ever recreating the form that led him to the finals of the Australian Open in 2008 if he doesn't steepen his commitment.  

As for Karlovic, he is dangerous on grass, and Fernando Verdasco will have his hands full when the two meet on Monday.  Hopefully, for the sake of the fans and for his own sake, Verdasco will approach the daunting task with more fervor than Tsonga showed.  

Karlovic had lost in the first round in each of the last four years at Wimbledon, and his previous best performance was a 4th round appearance in 2004, in which he was defeated by Roger Federer in straight sets.

The Croatian is 2-1 against Verdasco in his career, including a win on grass in the Nottingham finals last year.  

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cilic vs. Querrey: The Psychology of a Heartbreaker

Wednesday's third and final match on Centre Court between Marin Cilic and Sam Querrey was a battle of lesser known players that turned out to be thrilling beyond expectations.

Search the globe far and wide and you'll not find a tennis venue that is either more daunting or more inspiring than Wimbledon's Centre Court. For two young players like Cilic and Querrey it is the sort of thing that causes heart palpitations. Idyllic and pristine, it ignites this almost other worldly electricity, for it is home to so much compelling history.

The passage of time in the tennis world has always been marked by the exploits of iconic legends of the game who have come of age on the hallowed grassy grounds that Cilic and Querrey, each for the first time in their promising careers, alighted upon with reverence.

The glorious cathedral of tennis that these two lanky phenoms went to work in, each with his sights set on the third round of the tournament, and possibly another chance to do it all over again, immediately became the setting for a brand of tennis warfare that was physical and spiritual; but most of all, as the match wound toward its conclusion in waning daylight, it was psychological.

But that shouldn't be a surprise. Psychology is the prevailing theme that runs through each and every tennis match. Sometimes it is implicit, camouflaged behind the prowess of the competitors, almost as if it didn't exist at all.

At other times, as in yesterdays struggle between these two boys desperately hungry to become men, psychology becomes as important as the techniques - topspin forehands, kick serves, footwork, or what have you - that these world class players seek to employ.

When 20-year-old Sam Querrey found himself up a set and leading 5-2 in the second set, there was a feeling that Querrey was driving a sports car off into the sunset - all he had to do was keep his foot on the accelerator and he'd reach his destination. Cilic at this point, seemed little more than an afterthought. A quiet objector that was soon to be forgotten.

But somewhere along the road, Querrey stopped to put the top down and fully enjoy his Wimbledon moment. Perhaps he felt that his work was done and he could just coast to victory. Perhaps he was tired and thought this was a perfect moment to take a breather. Whatever the reason, this was his big mistake; the psychological gaffe that led to the the unravelling of circumstances that he should have never had to face.

There is a certain instinct that the great ones have, call it a special ability to see the future, vision if you will. It is something that tells them to strangle the life out of a half-dead opponent, and to make sure that he breathes no more. True champions have this killer instinct, and that is why they can, at times, be boring to watch.

But Querrey, green as a summer squash and lacking the nerve to kill, seemed content to prolong the ride.

Instead of opening a vitally important internal dialogue with himself (the one where he convinces himself that this is the time for his best tennis, that he needs to pull out all the stops here, because blowing a 5-2 lead and a huge chance to put a stranglehold on a career changing upset on Wimbledon Centre Court is not what he has trained all these years for) he fell asleep at the wheel.

Querrey should have been saying to himself the following words: " passed on a USC scholarship for this! You are kicking the snot out of this guy...choke him out and break his will...keep doing what you've been doing except now do it with more conviction...this match is yours!"

But Querrey had the top down. He's only 21 after all. The stereo was cranking, and he couldn't hear the thoughts. Maybe he didn't think them at all. Maybe this is why he's never, in spite of his atomic serve and triple-digit ground strokes, been past the fourth round of a major.

But here was his chance. And as Cilic scratched and clawed and found a way to force a 2nd set tiebreaker, and later as he won that tiebreaker, you could feel the Querrey vehicle start to decelerate.

The psychological advangage was clearly shifting hands.

Now Cilic, quiet as a mouse for the better part of two sets, suddenly realized that he had been near death, and that his opponent was nice enough to lack the stomach to put him out of his misery. Give a world class tennis player almost two hours, and he'll more than likely start to find his game. Cilic, world class striker that he is, must have felt like he was born again.

Emotions. Psychology. Tennis warfare. Boys trying to become men. Sweating it out on the most timeless, ageless stage known to tennis. What could be better?

After the two players traded sets beneath the balmy British sun, it became clear that both players were feeling that this could be their day. But neither seemed quite convinced.

As the fifth set began, a duality set in. Querrey finally did what he should have done in the second set when he held what was very close to being an insurmountable lead. He pulled the top down, gritted his teeth, and placed his foot firmly on the accelerator. He was near his destination and he played like a maniac.

After winning seventeen consecutive points on his serve, however, he still hadn't managed to gain an advantage on the scoreboard.

Cilic had no answer for Querrey's atomic serve. But he did have courage to keep fighting. He hung on to his serve, but it wasn't pretty. He couldn't seem to dial in his first serve, but he didn't let it phase him. Querrey, meanwhile, was cruising. If this were a race, Querrey would have already been at the finish line, waiting to shake hands with his opponent.

But you can't win a fifth set in tennis without a service break. No matter how superior Querrey looked compared to Cilic for the first nine games of the set, no matter how much faster his sports car was travelling, nothing was gained.

And when Querrey stepped up to serve in the tenth game, needing only to reproduce exactly what he had been doing in the last four games to prolong the match, everything was lost.

Tennis isn't about how good you are. It's about how you good you are when you need to be good. When Querrey absolutely needed to be good, he couldn't muster the form that had been with him all set. A double fault and some uncharacteristically nervous points later, he was still a boy on a man's stage. His final backhand sailed long and Cilic sank to his knees in celebration.

Grace under pressure and a killer instinct are the tools of men who have helped write the storied history of Wimbledon's past. Unfortunately for Querrey, he possessed neither.

Perhaps someday he will.

Sometimes the only way to learn to succeed is by being so painfully close to victory that the sting of falling short never leaves you.

In Querrey's case, we know he was so close. The question that remains, is how much it will sting.