Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Way of the Dodo

There is an element of the game that seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird. I'm thinking, of course, of the serve-and-volley tactic. It wasn't that long ago when nearly every player on the men's professional circuit, and a fair number on the women's side, practiced this dying art with skill and alacrity. Even players who were not tall with a long reach, or who did not have a huge serve, such as Rod Laver, folowed their serves into the forecourt, where they used their anticipatory skills, agility, and "soft hands" to win points quickly, as if with a parry and a thrust.

It made the game seem more "manly" in many respects. Practitioners of the s&v tactic were risk-takers; they were players who preferred to be in control of their own destiny; who would rather look silly stabbing at thin air than let the point turn into a war of attrition.

This philosophy extended beyond the mere s&v, as players looked for any opportunity to shorten the court, and point. Short ball? Good enough for me, I'm going in! Second serve? You bet I'll be chipping and charging! So what happened to have caused these effective tactics to be placed on the endangered list? In a word (no, better make that four), racquets, strings, technique and surface.

The advances in racquet design and technology have had enormous impact on the game, particularly among the professional ranks. The racquet speed that players generate today demands a racquet that not only can withstand off-center hits, but can deliver a solid, accurate placement on them. In the days of the Dunlop Maxply Fort or the Wilson Pro Staff, off-center hits generally resulted in a weak shot or an error. Racquet-head speed could be your friend and your enemy, on the same day. So most players opted for a swing style and speed that allowed them to maintain a high standard of ball control.

Remember, serving speeds have not risen dramatically, at least not when measuring the game's biggest servers, oveer the past three decades. Roscoe Tanner had a big bomb, as did little Colin Dibley, whose serve was clocked in the 140s. But ground strokes, and particularly returns of serve, have gotten dramatically more powerful. But watch clips of a match featuring today's players side-by-side with a match from the 1960s or 1970s, just as racquet technology was beginning to be explored, and you'd think the latter players were in slow motion.

This means that any foray into the net will not yield as deep a penetration into the forecourt as is desired to make a forceful volley. The opponent's reply will simply arrive too soon to get in optimum volleying position. This is one of the reasons the swinging volley has gained in popularity. Hit from the service line or farther back, it can penetrate through the opponent's defensives more quickly than the traditional "punch" or "catch" volley.

String technology has also left an indelible mark on the game, to the detriment of s&v. It has often been said that the Luxilon and other polyester strings, as well as the so-called "blends, in which a natural gut string is mixed with a synthetic is like playing with the banned "spaghetti racquet." Consequently, players are able to apply spins that result in revolutions per minute that were practically unimaginable 30 years ago. The passing shots now dip below the net more quickly and at a shorter distance from the net, making it less likely that a volleyer will get a ball above the netcord to work with.

Advances in stroke technique have also worked against the s&v. Open-stanced forehands and two-handed backhands essentially allow players to face the net to strike the ball, their hips parallel with the net, as they generate power from their back, or anchor, legs--pushing off the ground the way a baseball pitcher usd the mound rubber. This results in tremendous force being applied to the shots. In addition, it allows players to get a better "look" at the net-rusher and to disguise their passing shot. Furthermore, the open stances allow players to get back toward the center of the court, or to "bisect the angle" more rapidky, as the position of their feet and the distribution of their weight are more optimally suited for changing direction and getting a good "jump" on the ball.

It's no accident that plyometric training has been applied to the tennis stroke much more frequently and effectively since the general acceptance and practice of open-stanced stroke production. Explosiveness is built into the open stance approach, and professional players are maximizing this element in today's game, to the harm of the net rusher, who finds it more difficult to gain good positioning at the net, more difficult to "read" opponent's intentions, and more difficult to get to balls which are now hit with amazing power and accuracy.

Finally, court surface changes, from a macro perspective, have made the s&v tactic less effective than it once had been. In 1969, when Rod Laver achieved the Grand Slam for the second and last time in his career--winning the singles titles at each of the four major events, or Slams--three of the four Slams were vied for on grass courts. Today, two of those--the Australian Open and U.S. Open, have switched to hard courts. Despite the lack of solid evidence that the pro tour has abandoned all but hard courts, there is no question that the game's most prized titles have an effect beyond the lure of fame and fortune, and ranking points.

[NOTE: I'm off to catch some Zs. I will return to finish this tomorrow.]

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Clarifying the Game's Essence

It is time for some clarifying thinking. I use the term clarifying in its broad and alchemic senses, as in "to make clear or easier to understand; to clear of confusion or uncertainty [clarify the mind]; to make clear by removing impurities or solid matter, as by heating gently [clarify butter]" (from

Jose Higueras, former world-top-ten player and coach of Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Todd Martin and others, has correctly asserted in an essay titled, "Learning to Play," that "the most important thing is to know your game and practice in order to learn how to play it." He posits that most American junior players spend far too much time drilling and hitting balls fed from a basket by a pro or a partner, and devote too little time to playing practice matches, which he asserts is the only non-competition format where a player can learn and develop the shot patterns that result in good decision-making and effective point construction.

"Knowing one's game" is having a very clear understanding of your own capabilities or strengths, as well as your deficiencies or weaknesses. It is knowing what you can reliably do under pressure, and what not to do. Essentially, it is knowing what you bring to the court that enables you to win.

Stroke mechanics, also commonly referred to as stroke production, are of course an essential element of a tennis player's early development—the formative years, if you will. But as Higueras implies, strokes do not a player make. There are far more important factors in the development of a strong tennis game than strokes, although they are the essential building blocks. Placement, depth, disguise, court positioning, movement and, of course, strategy and tactics, play much larger roles. That said, if one cannot execute a forehand reliably and with enough pace, spin and accuracy to be able to use it to move opponents around and force errors or open up the court for attacks, then stroke production becomes a liability which must be addressed. However, take two players with similar skills, stroke-wise, and the player with better movement, court positioning, placement, strategy and tactics will win 90% of the time, if not more.

I recall how people were so impressed, even awed, by the way Bjorn Borg stroked the ball. The same was true of the general public's reaction to Jimmy Connors. And John McEnroe. And Chris Evert, Martine Navratilova and Steffi Graf. These were all great players, the best in the world for great lengths of time, and Hall of Famers each. Yet they all struck the ball in quite unique ways. This is a fact that we must never lose sight of. There are as many ways to strike a tennis ball successfully and effectively as there are ways to prepare an egg for breakfast.

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that there are only a handful of unshakeable truths or principles upon which to hang one's headband. That there are many "correct" ways to perform a tennis stroke is one of them. However, we are seeing today a normalization of this process, almost a perfecting of the art form, if you will. There are fewer and fewer wildly divergent methods employed on the professional tours today. There are no more Francoise Durrs, and I suspect the Fabrice Santoros will soon follow. This fact does not concern me, though, as I still contend that there are infinite slight variations in stroke production that not only make a player unique and inform his or her style, but that also lend something essential to that player's game.

The other clarifying truths are:

1. The pendulum swings.

By this I mean that while we might currently be seeing a dearth of pure serve-and-volley players among the professional ranks (Radek Stepanek, Max Mirnyi, Taylor Dent and Robert Kendrick are about all who remain on the men's tour), this does not mean the art form is going to become extinct. Again, I think back to Bjorn Borg, who was so dominant from the baseline and his passing shots so feared, that he nearly single-handedly vanquished the serve-and-volley tactic. But then along came John McEnroe, whose lightning quick reflexes, relentless forward movement, deft touch at net and can-opener slice lefty serve re-established the style as legitimate and effective. Styles of play come and go, and come back again.

2. Never hit a shot that your opponent likes.

This is the simplest recipe for success on the court short of sheer overwhelming domination, and is a paraphrasing of the sage advice of the great Bill Tilden. By this I mean, and I believe Tilden meant, that while we might not be able to dissemble our opponent's awesome forehand, we can utilize spins, pace, direction and placement to our advantage so that he cannot use that awesome forehand of his to its fullest effect. Any great shot can essentially be defused, particularly if we do not allow our opponent to employ it in the way he or she desires or is accustomed to. This is often referred to as "taking an opponent out of his rhythm," but of course it is much more than that.

3. The serve and return of serve are the two most important shots in the game.

This should be obvious, because they are always the first shots struck and most often (especially among top players) determine who has the advantage during any given point. However, if you look down any bank of courts at most any tennis club or training academy while the elite junior programs are in session, you will be amazed to find that the serves and returns are practiced far less than practically any other shots, save the half-volleys, drop shots and lobs. You would surely come away convinced that the ground strokes are the most critical shots to master. In one of the game's strangest paradoxes, in many ways you would also be correct. And this is because the ground strokes are the basis of all point construction, once the ball is in play. In fact, the ground stroke is also the basis of the return of serve, although many players employ an abbreviated version of their groundstroke and some even use an elongated volley stroke.

Nevertheless, the players at the top of the game who possess the best serves and the best returns have the consistently better results.

4. A player is only as good as his or her second serve.

This is an old adage that really is true, especially the higher up the skills ladder one climbs. If you are playing an opponent with very good ground strokes and a very good return of serve (these often go hand in hand; see above), and you do not have an effective second serve, you will be in serious trouble every time you fault on your first serve. This consequently puts enormous pressure on you to get a high percentage of first serves in, which may lead you over the course of a match and particularly on crucial points to "play it safe" on your first serve, thereby affording your opponent a great opportunity to attack your first serve. Conversely, the player who possesses a very solid second serve, particularly one which he can hit with a variety of spins, paces and placements, has a huge advantage because his second serve is not as easily attacked, which subsequently alows him to be more aggressive, or take greater risks, with his first serve.

5. When serving, one should think like a pitcher.

Because there are two chances to get the serve in play on each and every point, there is a tendency by many players to "go for broke" on their first service delivery. They know that they have a "second chance" to get a serve in play, so they take a calculated risk in hopes of earning an "easy" point with an ace or unreturnable serve. This is akin to a baseball pitcher throwing his most powerful pitch—his rising 90 mph fastball down the pipe—on his first one or two pitches in hopes of blowing the ball by the batter. This strategy may work, particularly against lesser batters/players. But it can also backfire, particularly over the course of a game or match. Sooner or later, the batter/returner is going to figure out the server's game plan, recognize the pattern, and ready himself for that first "telegraphed" serve or pitch. And he is going to clock it for a home run or a big return up the line for a winner. Varying the pace, spin, and location of one's pitches (and serves) is a far better strategy in the long run. You keep the batter/returner guessing, and by not trying to hit your biggest serve all the time, you improve the percentage of first serves that are in play. And remember, the more first serves you put in play, the better your chances are in receiving a weak return and the fewer second serves you must put in play.

But to truly think like a pitcher is also to work to "get up in the count." This means "getting ahead" of the batter/returner. In baseball, essentially three things can happen—the batter can hit the ball into fair territory and race successfully to a base (called a "hit"), strike out, or take a base on balls (called a "walk"). The probability that a batter will achieve either a "walk" or a hit increases with every pitch thrown for a ball. Therefore, if the pitcher is continually getting "behind in the count"—meaning throwing more balls than strikes—he is increasing the odds that the batter will take a base.

The smartest pitchers work hard to always stay ahead in the count, thereby reducing the odds that the batter will get on base and subsequently expanding the variety of pitches that he can throw. A pitcher who gets ahead by a count of 0-2 (meaning no balls and two strikes) has many more options than one who gets behind by a count of 2-2 or 3-2. The pitcher with an 0-2 count might even intentionally throw a ball slightly outside the strike zone to tempt the batter to take a swing at a "bad" pitch. The batter is now reduced to guessing what will come at him next. On the other hand, with a favorable count of 3-2, the batter can fairly expect to see a pitch down the middle of the strike zone (what's sometimes called a "fat" pitch), because pitchers do not like to give batters free passes to first base. Personally, I think some adjustment in our collective thinking is long overdue on this last bit of wisdom, but that's a topic for another time.

In tennis the same principle holds true. If the server is able to maintain a high percentage of variable first serves in play, then the returner cannot know what to expect. He must guess, which reduces his ability to take a big crack at the return and gain the advantage in the point right off the bat (funny how that phrase fits). The more often a pitcher can keep the returner guessing about the placement, pace and spin of his serve (and the first serve is best for introducing this variety), the more successful he will be at inducing errors from the returner and/or gaining an advantage right out of the blocks (to use a phrase from track and field). The more often a server allows the returner to see second serves, the more likely he is to see retruns go whizzing by. So, servers should always strive to stay "ahead" in the count, putting more first serves in play, with greater variety, than second serves.

6. Most matches are lost, not won.

What this means, really, is that more often than not a match is won by the player who produces the fewest errors, not by the player who produces the most winners (unreturnable shots). While executing the unreturnable shot gets everybody's juices flowing, even the onlookers, a point won is still just a single point won, no matter how that point was won. After beginning his professional career as a flashy player who produced an abundance of winners (and as many errors), Andre Agassi employed this principle to his great advantage in his later years on tour. He would move players left and then right and then back again, running them into the ground the way a boxer might use a series of body punches to tire and weaken his opponent, taking away his ability to punch back with real force. After running down Agassi's shots, first 40-plus feet one way and then 40-plus feet the other, and again and again, few players could muster the energy to strike back with power and accuracy. He had reduced their ability to hit the winner by simply keeping balls well in play by using excellent court positioning to exploit the geometry of the court to maximum advantage. He often looked to be standing in the middle of the court while his opponents ran like rabbits. It must have been exhausting, and humiliating, to play Agassi when he was in full command of his faculties and shots.

Reducing errors always pays off in the end, and by not trying to win by hitting winners only, you also take a lot of pressure off of your shoulders so that you can relax and play your game.

7. Adopt a game style that suits your temperament and personality.

If you are a go-getter, Type A, hyper-energetic, assertive or aggressive kind of person, you might fare better choosing to be an attacking player, one who is willing to take a few more risks than his opponent and frequently initiate the attack in the service of forcing your opponent to come up with something special under pressure. If you are a creative type who likes variety and experimentation, you might fare best by choosing a game style that allows you to use all the shots in your arsenal and explore all avenues or employ all parts of the court to win a point. Conversely, if you are a shy person, or less assertive, or prefer to react to things instead of seize the bull by the horns, perhaps a counter-punching style would suit you best, wherein you respond to your opponent's attacks, much like parrying a thrust in fencing. Counter-punchers usually rely on precision placements, particulary passing shots, and a deep well of stamina, consistency, and mental focus to beat their opponents one hard-fought point at a time.

Letting yourself grow into a playing style that feels comfortable wil afford the best chance for long-term success. But parents, remember that your 4'6" 8-year-old may merely grow to a 5'9" 20-year-old, so don't try to establish these correlations too early in the development process.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What a Difference One Match Makes

The 2008 Davis Cup final, pitting perennial contender Spain against a strong Argentina squad, was to be the perfect finale to an amazing year—a year that saw two first-time Grand Slam champions hailing from the small nation of Serbia in Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic; the first back-to-back French Open-Wimbledon winner on the men's side since Bjorn Borg and subsequent ascendancy by long-time #2 Rafael Nadal to the world #1 ranking; the resurgence of the Williams sisters, too long from the top of the game, competing for the Wimbledon title; the inevitable but still unexpected fall from the mountaintop of Roger Federer, who had dominated his sport for four years and 237 consecutive weeks; the slow and steady rise to the WTA #1 ranking by Jelena Jankevic, a woman who had yet to challenge for a Slam title; and the emergence of a slew of relative newcomers on both the women's and mens tour, all ready and eager to shake up the established pecking order.

Among these newcomers is Juan Martin Del Potro, a lanky giant of a man not yet of drinking age but full of promise. Del Potro went on a 23-match tear over the summer, garnering four straight titles along the way. So, when the Spanish team found itself after the Paris Masters Series event without its stalwart, world #1 Nadal, out with tendinitis of the knee, the Name Del Potro suddenly loomed ever larger. Alongside David Nalbandan, an already proven warrior known for his late-season heroics and fondness of indoor venues, Del Potro began to look like the guy who would help Team Argentina—four times a finalist without a Cup to show—achieve her destiny.

Friday, the first day of play, saw David Nalbandian take on David Ferrer in the first rubber and Del Potro battle with Feliciano Lopez in the second. Nalbandian secured the early lead for Argentina with a straight-sets win over Ferrer, and it looked as though the loss of Nadal and others to injury and the Argentine home-court advantage might be too much for a Spanish team that is otherwise deep in talent. Then a funny thing happened—Lopez knocked out Del Potro in four sets, two by tiebreak.

Suddenly, what seemed an inevitable 4-1 or 3-2 Argentina victory began to look like an upset was in the making. By evening up the score at 1-apiece, Spain goes into Day 2, the doubles, with the momentum and with confidence that the experienced and skillful doubles team of Lopez and Fernando Verdasco can put Spain out in front going into the third and final day.

In isolation, the Lopez win might not be so significant, but put into the context and flow of the Davis Cup format, it may very well turn out to be the deal-breaker (or sealer, if you've been betting on Spain all along). If he and Verdasco can win the doubles rubber, putting Argentina ahead 2-1 going into the last day's reverse singles matches, Spain will have to be considered the favorite, her odds greatly improved. Winning two straight singles matches on the final day is a daunting task, and one that will certainly cause the Argentine players to feel a great deal of pressure, given the pre-Cup expectations in the midst of Nadal's absence.

The Lopez singles win over Del Potro also has shown once again how crucial the doubles rubber is to a team's bid to win a Davis Cup title. It just cannot be overstated. Funny how Lopez figures in that one, too. We may just have a new Davis Cup hero by Sunday afternoon, and an unlikely one at that. A fitting end to an unpredictable year full of wondrous surprises.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The New World Order

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of putting tennis in the Olympic Games. My reasons mainly pivot on a bias toward maintaining (or should I say returning to) the traditionally amateur nature of Olympic competition, which sadly has given way to professionals like the U.S. basketball squads—the so-called “Dream” and “Redeem” teams.

But something happened this year to give me pause. Spain’s Rafael Nadal, the impending world #1, and world #3 Novak Djokovic of Serbia met in the semifinals.

Djokovic took the year’s first Grand Slam title in January at the Australian Open in Melbourne, where he beat then-world #1 Roger Federer in the semifinals. That win added to previous hard-court wins at Key Biscayne and Montreal, and final showings at Indian Wells and the 2007 U.S. Open, where he lost to Federer. These results, and his successive conquests of then-world #3 Andy Roddick, then-#2 Nadal, and then-#1 Federer in the 2007 Rogers Cup Masters Series event in Montreal, have made Djokovic the new hard-court favorite.

Nadal, who has always struggled more on the hard courts, lost in the year’s first Grand Slam to the fiery Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in the semifinals. Since then, of course, Nadal has had a career year, winning eight titles already, including the French Open, his fourth straight, and Wimbledon. Both wins came at the expense of Federer, Roland Garros in convincing fashion and Wimbledon in what may be considered the greatest Slam final in history. Nadal’s win in this year’s Rogers Cup Masters Series event in Toronto began to dispel the doubts about his ability to win on hard courts.

As if to make it clear he has earned bragging rights, Nadal defeated Djokovic in three tough sets in Beijing to move on to play Fernando Gonzalez for the gold medal. Nadal won the final in convincing fashion—as he is prone to do with so much at stake—to add Olympic gold to his Roland Garros and Wimbledon crowns.

The day after, August 18, will be remembered as the day the new world order was ushered in. It’s been a long time coming, and finally arrived two full weeks after Rafael Nadal had earned enough tournament points to overtake Roger Federer for the number one spot in the computer rankings.

But the computer isn’t finished, the shuffling of the deck not yet complete. With Djokovic the most likely candidate to give Nadal a run for his money on the sports grandest stages, we may very well see Roger Federer, who held the top rank for 237 consecutive weeks, slip to the third-place spot before next year’s Wimbledon. What’s more, if Federer were to fail in his defense of his U.S. Open title or the Masters Cup Year-End Championships, and Djokovic were to win the U.S. Open, the Masters Cup or the 2009 Australian Open in January, Federer could fall to world #3 by February.

What I especially like about Djokovic is his ability to first withstand the barrage of viciously heavy topspin forehands from Nadal to the backhand. With his uncluttered, technically sound two-handed stroke, Djokovic not only absorbs those blows from Nadal, he can turn them on their head. He does this by taking the ball early, on the rise, and powering through the hitting zone to drive the ball either with precision up the line or cross court flat and deep to Nadal’s forehand corner, where Nadal has shown some vulnerability. This vulnerability, which has been exploited expertly by players such as countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Murray of Great Britain, is due mainly to his preference for open-stance forehands and his inability to generate as much pace or rotation when he is forced to hit his forehand from behind the baseline on the dead run with a cross-over step and the ball moving quickly away from him.

And by using his two-handed backhand instead of stepping around that wing to crack an inside-out forehand, Djokovic does not leave open to attack his forehand court. He takes away what would be a vulnerability created by a one-handed player making a risky move.

Federer’s struggles against Nadal boil down to his inability to construct a solid answer to Nadal’s cross-court forehands and wide-slicing serves into the advantage service box, both of which reveal the one chink in Federer’s armor—a one-handed backhand that can be exploited through powerful, high-bouncing balls and serves stretching him wide and opening the court.

Andy Murray can challenge both Nadal and Djokovic when healthy and running on a full tank. Others who will soon be in the mix are Juan Del Potro, recent winner of four straight tour events, and Ernests Gulbis, Gilles Simon and Marin Cilic. Of course, I’d love to see a healthy Tsonga trading shots with the top dogs every week, but his body seems as frail as it is impressive.

Any way you look at it, the game is evolving as the players with big wingspans and two-handed weapons are making the court wider and longer and the service boxes narrower. In the new world order, only the supremely fast and fit can survive.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

A Non-Golden Moment

Sometimes athletes reveal themselves in ways that they think flatter them but when viewed from a different perspective actually do not. For me, two such moments stand out from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The first of these non-golden moments occurred in the semifinals in Men’s Tennis Singles. In a hard-fought contest between American James Blake and Chilean Fernando Gonzalez that featured some amazing shot-making and equally amazing blunders, we got to see into the souls of both athletes—and it wasn’t especially pretty.

Blake had reached the semifinals and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete for an Olympic medal by finally defeating Roger Federer. Federer had never lost to Blake before their quarterfinal match in Beijing, winning so convincingly in their previous meetings that Blake had only managed to win one set from Federer, back in the 2006 U.S. Open.

Gonzalez, an unlikely semifinalist in many respects, came to Beijing with two Olympic medals from the 2004 Athens Games, where he took the bronze in singles and the gold in doubles with teammate Nicolas Massu. Outside of his one Grand Slam final appearance—the 2007 Australian Open—the man with the huge forehand and great variety had always managed to perform beneath his potential.

Both men certainly had plenty of motivation going into the match, and both were on top of their games on a court that seemed suited to their gun-slinging styles.

Early in the match Gonzalez had an opportunity near the net to pass Blake and chose instead to go at the American’s body. A perfectly legitimate play, it nonetheless stung as Blake glared at Gonzalez.

Fast forward to 8-9 in the third and final set. Gonzalez serving, first point. Gonzalez makes a foray to the net and Blake, with a passing shot on his backhand side, goes directly at his opponent, who in moving to avoid being hit appears to make contact with the ball on the throat of his racquet. The ball sails over the baseline and is a called out.

Blake contests the call, questioning whether Gonzalez inadvertently touched the ball as it sailed past. Viewers in their living rooms see a replay that clearly shows the ball deflected off the throat of Gonzalez’s racquet, but Gonzalez maintains that he does not know what happened and that he “felt nothing.” The call stands. Point to Gonzalez, 15-Love.

Gonzalez goes on to win the match and in the presser Blake makes a big deal out of that single, contested point and Gonzalez’s unwillingness to rule against himself. Blake speaks about the Players Code, his upbringing, and how his father would have yanked him off the court had he ever behaved so unsportingly. Gonzalez, in his presser, maintained that he could not feel the alleged hit and therefore did not feel compelled to overrule the chair umpire.

What we saw in that one moment and in the moments that followed were how far players will allow themselves to go to justify a win—and a loss.

Should Gonzalez have ruled against himself, informing the chair umpire that he had inadvertently touched the ball before it sailed long? Certainly yes, in a perfect world. In a perfect world, we would be able to tell with certainty that he knew he had made contact with the ball. In a perfect world, the Player Challenge and Instant Replay would be used to resolve these types of dispute, not simply to make calls of “in” or “out.” It is not, as most of us know, a perfect world.

Should Blake have brushed it off, put his head down, and gotten down to the business of beating his opponent with renewed vigor and purpose, even righteousness? Of course, but he did not. And in the end, what really made the difference in the match was the 70 unforced errors from Blake’s racquet.

The second non-golden moment was just after the 200 meter (4x50) freestyle team relay. Coming out of the water with a silver medal, the third in these games for 41-year-old American swimmer and relay race captain Dara Torres, the poolside reporter asked the women about their experience. Olympic great Natalie Coughlin spoke of preparing for “this meet” and how much they enjoyed “this meet”—as though she were completely unaware that this was the Olympic Games.

Talk about having too-little appreciation for the moment. Or, maybe it’s just her personal mindset in getting ready for the largest swims of her career—it’s just another meet, no cause for fear or nerves.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

Eight Days in August

This blog post is a rare departure from my singular focus on all things tennis, but then these are rare times we’re experiencing.

08.08.08. Few of us will ever forget that date in history, or these numbers: Eight one-hundredths of a second. Eight golds in eight events. Fewer still will soon forget these names: Michael Phelps. Nastia Liukin. Dara Torres. Just a few of the U.S. hopefuls to achieve greatness at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The Games kicked off with the most magnificent—if also allegedly unreal in places—opening ceremony ever witnessed on the eighth day of August. Eight days later, history had been made, and I had been forever altered.

The Michael Phelps story, the biggest of these Games, was certainly compelling, as it played out over the course of eight days. It was very difficult not to look—a bit like trying to avert one’s eyes from a highway disaster that has just occurred. To me, though, the real story was Jason Lezak’s herculean effort to keep Phelps in the hunt for his Olympic-record eight gold medals, edging out boastful Frenchman Bernard in the final, freestyle leg of the 400 meter team medley. Making the turn at 50-meters, Lezak trailed the world-record holder by almost a full body length. But with his teammate’s historic quest in jeopardy, Lezak did the seemingly impossible, pulling even with Bernard with less than a meter to go and touching the wall first—by a mere eight one-hundredths of a second.

And what to make of 41-year-old Dara Torres, swimming in her fifth Olympic Games, having missed the 1996 and 2004 Games? She swam in spectacular form, missing the gold medal in the 50 meter freestyle by one one-hundredth of a second. The clock cannot measure it any closer than that. A real trooper and team player, even in defeat, Torres immediately went back in the water to lead the U.S. to a silver medal in the 400 meter freestyle relay. In all, she swam in three events, earning silver in each. Incredible.

However, when it comes to the Olympic Games, the very fact that it occurs only once every four years lends a larger-than-life element to each event and to each competitor. There is a suspense that pervades the site and hangs in the air before each crack of the starting gun or blow of the whistle. It is this suspense and the grandeur of the moment that can produce a cathartic experience for me. And I am rarely moved to the way I was watching the women’s individual all-around gymnastics event. Only four such moments come to mind in all the years I’ve watched professional tennis.

The 1975 Wimbledon final, when Arthur Ashe defeated the heavily favored Jimmy Connors with a brilliant strategy and near-flawless tactics. The French Open final, 1983. Yannick Noah wins his nation’s title and Grand Slam, beating the heavily favored Mats Wilander, and then weeps openly. The 1995 Davis Cup final in Moscow. Pete Sampras collapses on the red-clay court after defeating Andrei Chesnokov and winning all three matches he played to give the U.S. a 3-2 win over hometown favorite, Russia. The U.S. Open quarterfinals, the following year. Pete Sampras’ overcomes the effects of dehydration, vomiting on court, and a match point against him to win a five-set thriller over Spain’s Alex Corretja in what would be one of his most famous career-defining warrior moments.

Truth is, very few sporting events offer the level of suspense and drama that gymnastics’ all-around does. No other sporting event, save perhaps the decathlon, asks so much of its competitors. No other event demands that the athlete demonstrate such a diverse array of skills in such a short time. The floor exercise couldn’t be more different than the uneven bars, the balance beam than the vault. And the athletes must go from one directly to the other, with very little time to recover, reflect, regroup or retool. The pressure simply accumulates, greater and greater with each successive routine or apparatus.

Watching the U.S.’s Nastia Liukin seize the gold medal from favored compatriot, Shawn Johnson, was a moment to behold and to treasure. Forget for a moment that Miss Johnson was the 2007 world champion and was the U.S.’s best hope for a medal. Forget that the flexible young Yang Lilin, from China, would make all of her routines look easy. Or that the U.S. had never placed more than one female gymnast upon the medal podium. Forget that a poised and matured Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the all-around, gazed on from the stands.

What made this moment extraordinary was the way in which Miss Liukin went about her business. Throughout the evening she had a look of calm that yet betrayed her determination and strength of mind. She didn’t look or act like an underdog. After the uneven bars, she trailed Yang. Moments later, she stuck her landing on the vault, showing she was a serious contender. Then Liukin performed a near-perfect balance beam routine, culminating in a picture-perfect dismount that was identical to her vault landing, putting her in the lead. In the final apparatus, the floor exercise, with the pressure on and now leading the reigning world champion in the floor exercise, Shawn Johnson, by a slim margin, she performed with the grace and self-assurance of an Olympic champion. Johnson followed with a brilliant performance of her own, a more muscular acrobatic performance that brought her the silver medal.

Standing on the medal platform together, it was evident that both young women felt overwhelming emotion. Pride in themselves, though visible, was momentarily overshadowed by pride for their country and for each other. What really got to me, though, was observing Liukin passing through a series of competing emotions, each fully capable of bringing her to her knees in a heap of spent energy. I could see in her eyes and on her face the years of exertion, of disciplined training, of dreaming and hoping and waiting for this moment, all washing over her like baptismal water, both cleansing and freeing her. The weight that she had borne for more than four years was now lifted from her shoulders, yet instead of relief there was a kind of sadness that lingered there, as in experiencing a great loss.

It was too much to handle, and as she trembled with the effort to remain poised, to keep from weeping openly, I felt a welling up inside me. I would bare, in the safety and privacy of my living room, what in that moment she could not.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Fading Light

As Rafael Nadal readied to serve to Roger Federer for the 2008 Wimbledon title at 8-7 in the fifth set, the light finally faded to the point of no return. Nadal would serve into the void. Roger Federer would stab at a barely visible blur. This is what it came to: the greatest men’s Grand Slam final match since the 1980 Borg v. McEnroe classic, decided on account of darkness.

The man who had been swathed in the warm light of fan and peer adulation for going on five years was no longer stage-center. His rival for the past three years emerged from behind the curtain and was suddenly bathed in the bright white light of flashbulbs bursting like celebratory fireworks. A new world champion had taken his place at center stage.

The fade and flash of light was a fitting portent to this marked milestone in the careers of two of the greatest players ever to step onto the grass at Centre Court—symbolic of each man’s evolution. Exiting the stage was Federer, five-time Wimbledon champion and owner of 12 Grand Slam titles—the undisputed world #1 for more than four consecutive years. In his place a proud new champion who had stood in the wings for three years, biding his time and biting the neck of every trophy he collected in a gesture that underscored his insatiable hunger.

Federer’s rise is an example of organic evolution. A world champion in the juniors, as a young pro he displayed virtuoso talent as well as a diva-like quality, which showed in his frustration over his own less-than-perfect performances. Once he learned to quell the perfectionist within, his talent allowed him to blossom into a rare star—colorful yet traditional, shy yet confident, powerful yet controlled, graceful yet wildly ambitious. Seventeen Grand Slam starts after turning pro, he finally “emerged” one month shy of 22 with his first Wimbledon crown, a rather long draught for such a promising player.

Another 17 Slams later, Federer had amassed 12 titles—three times winning three Slams in one calendar year—a dominance not seen among the men in the Open era, and not seen at all since Steffi Graf won eight of nine Slam titles between the 1988 and 1990 Australian Opens and 10 of 11 Slams between the 1993 French Open and 1996 U.S. Open.

Federer’s descent from the pinnacle of greatness has been like that of a falling star, which catches our gaze and keeps us transfixed. It arguably began with his back-to-back losses in 2007 to Argentine Guillermo Canas, who had just returned to the tour from a two-year doping suspension. Those two losses exposed Federer’s Achilles heel. His next notable loss would come in the semifinal of the 2008 Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, the Serbian player who often comes across as too full of himself. There’s never been any love lost between these two, and that loss took its toll.

Andy Roddick was next up to bat, and he defeated Federer at the Miami masters event in the quarterfinals, Federer’s first meaningful loss to Roddick in 12 matches. The way Federer lost was so uncharacteristic that it made one wonder whether he had lost something else beside his invincibility, his magic. With a chance to hold at 3-4 in the third set, Federer hit four first serves in play and shanked or buried four straight groundstrokes to hand the balls over to Andy to serve it out, which he gladly obliged.

It was discovered that Federer may have been suffering from mononucleosis in Melbourne. He took on Jose Higueras, who coached Jim Courier to two French Open titles, to help him gear-up for a run at Roland Garros, and he spent a good part of the spring season battling the lingering effects of the mono to build his strength for that run—a strategy many questioned.

Nadal’s ascendancy, and despite the computer rankings still showing Federer hanging on at the top he has clearly ascended, has been a long time coming also, but with three straight years as the world #2 it is more of a breakout than a coming out. Just the way in which he has assumed the mantel is impressive.

After defending his titles in Barcelona and Hamburg in the European clay-court run-up to Roland Garros, Nadal put the hammer down on the competition in Paris, not dropping a set on his way to the highly anticipated final against Federer. From the first game with Federer serving, Nadal got his rival in a vise and never let up, beating him for the third straight year, this time convincingly. It was the second most lopsided score in a Slam final in the Open era—6-1, 6-3, 6-0.

That drubbing of the world #1 was the match that propelled Nadal to the top of the tour, in the eyes of his peers and those in the know, if not by the logic of the ATP computer. He went into the Wimbledon tune-ups brimming with confidence, and took the title at Queen’s Club in three tiebreak sets, despite being aced 35 times by big-serving Croatian, Ivo Karlovic.

By mid-June, the storyline heard most was that Federer would prevail on what had virtually become his “home court” for a sixth straight crown, surpassing Bjorn Borg’s record. The story heard almost as often was that Nadal would seize this one from his friend and rival, also putting him in legion with Borg, who is the last man to win the French and Wimbledon back to back. Borg himself was one of those who picked Nadal to win. There couldn’t have been a more highly anticipated event in tennis, if not in all of sport.

So there they were, with the light fading fast, two warriors battling it out for ultimate bragging rights, for the record books, and for personal pride. The match should have been called due to darkness. But there’s no chance it would have been, not with a full house and millions of viewers tuning in late in the evening on the final Sunday to see the best in men’s tennis duel in the dying sun. To suspend play would have been the worst way to end the day and the championships. There would be no escape hatch, no exit.

And at that pivotal juncture in the match, serving at 7-7 after having rebounded from two-sets down by winning the next two sets in tiebreaks, Federer faltered. Perhaps he had a moment of doubt, or as we like to say, the yips. But he lost his nerve and his serve, and Nadal would serve for the match in the dark. Facing a nearly insurmountable task, and knowing that the referee and tournament director were not inclined to suspend play, Federer seemed to merely fade away, as an actor on a stage might back away from the dimming spotlight, ghostlike. His joie de vivre had finally left him, there on the court that had brought him his glory and fulfilled his potential as the most gifted tennis player the sport has seen. It was a sad moment.

So, perhaps it is fitting that on the last day of July in the sweltering heat of Cincinnati, home of the Bengals and Reds, the champion of cool and control went down in defeat to a player he’d never lost to before, the big man who brings the heat on serve after serve, 6’10” Karlovic—the same man whose 35 aces could not pierce the armor of Nadal just a month earlier on grass. Federer’s loss to Karlovic symbolically ushers in the august of this champion’s Hall of Fame career.

A champion’s time is limited in sport, and in tennis that window is becoming increasingly narrow. It is no longer a given, as it was just a few short months ago, that Federer will surpass Pete Sampras’s Grand Slam title count. Federer won his first Slam title just shy of 22; and at 27 he may have won his last.

It is the natural order of things: the guiding light from a star fades as the searing heat of the sun ascends to take its place. Nadal’s sun has risen. The question is: how long will it burn?

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

By the Content of Their Characters

The 2008 Wimbledon men’s final, pitting the world’s top two players in a 4-hour, 48-minute rain-delayed marathon that was completed under the threat of darkness, had all the elements of an instant classic—a pageantry of athleticism on a field of grass colored by incredible shotmaking and momentum swings from two rivals who have played more Grand Slam finals (6) than any of the other notable rivalries in the Open era.

Like the great rivalries of the past 40 years, the Federer-Nadal match-up was as much a demonstration of contrasting personalities as it was a display of opposing playing styles. Looking back at the epic Open-era match-ups, the differences in their styles of play were equaled or surpassed by the contrasts in their character. And these contrasts in character are what make great drama—elevating an athletic contest to the level of operatic theatre, complete with villains and heroes, inborn character flaws and personal redemption.

In Laver v. Rosewall, we had the self-assured risk-taker against the even-keeled rock of patience and precision. In that historic 1975 Wimbledon final between the veteran Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors, who was at the height of his powers, we witnessed intelligence and wisdom facing off against youthful overconfidence. In Connors v. Borg the swaggering street fighter went toe-to-toe with the steely Swede of unbending will and unerring defense. Borg and McEnroe opened a lens into the breaking of that will under the constant pressure of the quick-thrusting touches of the temperamental red-head with the acid tongue. McEnroe and Lendl was nitroglycerin meeting oxygen; the off-court animosity between them as great as the on-court pyrotechnics. Sampras v. Agassi demonstrated how power can be blunted but never fully denied when the will exists to overcome those insuppressible moments of self-doubt.

In Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, we have two of the most distinctive personalities ever to play the game.

Federer is metro-man, the worldly Swiss who is fluent in three or four languages and who cuts as dashing a figure in his cardigan or gold-embroidered jacket as in an Armani suit. But behind that polished, poised exterior is a man driven by passion and ambition. He is Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet who swiftly transforms into a superhero by donning his tennis sneakers.

Nadal is less refined, a simple man from a small island village in Spain, an earthly savage with a halting gait who speaks, when he is prodded, in clipped sentences. His is the more imposing physique, with thick thighs and bursting biceps. He is the beast that lies beneath the surface of this modern-day Bruce Banner, waiting to be unleashed at the slightest provocation—like a raging Hulk. Yet his outward appearance belies an innate intelligence and a gentle wit.

Propelling these two warriors is the unspoken truth of Nadal’s ambition to unseat Federer, which is matched only by Federer’s desire to remain there. So it was that this year’s Wimbledon final would answer the question of who reigns supreme as the world’s best player. Nevermind the points race; with his fourth straight French Open trophy already perched on a shelf in his Mallorcan villa, Nadal has momentarily wrested the title of World #1 from the five-time and defending Wimbledon champion.

We watch their Grand Slam rivalry to learn what each man is made of, what is at the core of their characters.

This much we know: Nadal has shown repeatedly that he is incapable of losing. Like Borg before him, he can come from behind to snatch victory out of the hands of a stunned opponent or break his foe’s will in the early going, rendering the outcome a foregone conclusion. Yes, he can be beaten, he can be bested. But he has yet to succumb to the yips, to shrink out of fear or self-doubt. He seems hard-wired for the psychologically charged one-on-one battle, as if the only thought to enter his head is to fight and to keep fighting until the last ball has been struck. This is a most rare and special gift among tennis players.

Federer’s gift is found in his unique skills—his talents. He has grace and speed, agility and balance, out-of-sight hand-eye coordination and other-worldly racquet skills. He can win against nearly all odds. He is rarely if ever beaten. But he can lose. He occasionally gets the yips, and sometimes appears to unravel at the seams.

Despite Nadal’s winning the French Open and Wimbledon back to back, there are questions that remain unanswered.

Are there built-in character flaws that will keep Nadal from seizing hold of this opportunity to finish the year as the number one player in the world? Or will his Wimbledon win boost his confidence and propel him to new heights? What about Federer? Can he rebound from two huge defeats at the hands of the same man—the first a complete and utter knockout and the latter an epic battle of wills, of character, that may or may not have revealed a chink in his armor?

Did the mononucleosis that hampered Federer through the first few months of the year have an affect on his will to compete? Or did he overcome it in time to get his game in tune for the hard court season? Will he bounce back from his Wimbledon loss to take the U.S. Open and put to rest any doubts about who is still the best player on all surfaces, day in and day out? Will Nadal’s knees be able to withstand the hard court grind? And if so, would winning a shootout with his rival in the U.S. Open final settle things for once and for all, or would it merely enhance the already legendary status of this rivalry?

Whatever the outcome of the hard court season, we an be sure of one thing: it will test these men’s characters. Two men now carry targets on their backs, and each will be faced with unprecedented pressures, from themselves, their opposition and the media. We will learn what makes each man tick, and what chinks their characters may contain.

So, we’ll watch wide-eyed as the weeks unfold and the tension builds, in hopes of learning which man can summon the inner beast or superhero when all the chips are on the table and the last hand is dealt. It’s a rivalry for the history books, yet like those others before it is compelling because of the personalities and the characters of the two men entwined.

Characters welcome.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

String Theory

In A Briefer History of Time, Stephen Hawking discusses developments in theoretical physics. In his introduction to string theory, we meet some unusual particles that behave as though “left-handed.” So now, alongside gravity, strong, weak and electromagnetic forces comes left-handedness! Lately, this left-handedness, or “Lefty Spin” for short, has been wreaking havoc on the natural order of things and rendering even the world’s best tennis player hapless.

Surface Tensions

Today’s top players rely on topspin hooks for their offensive shots. The balls dip, dive, kick, explode, curve and carve up court-space like gravity bends light. Things have not always been this way. Just over 30 years ago, three of four Grand Slams were held on grass, Roland Garros the lone dissenter. On grass, the low slice followed by a net rush was the ticket. Jimmy Connors’ and Bjorn Borg’s achievements are remarkable for their unorthodox style of play—Connors blasting flat balls and Borg carving out angles with topspin, both men planted at the baseline. Connors was a throw-back; Borg a revolutionary.

Topspin has become the norm for two reasons. First, it is less risky and rewards the faster, more powerful athletes of today. It can be hit higher and harder yet stay in play. Net clearance and swing speed can be increased. Second, the predominant surfaces of today are harder and produce a higher bounce. Generally, harder surfaces reward topspin shots.

In 2008, hard court tournaments comprise 37 of the 66 ATP events scheduled, while 23 of 66 are on clay. Of the total, 91% are on surfaces that yield a high bounce, which favors topspin.

There are exceptions to today’s standard style. Fabrice Santoro is a top-100 player who uses slice liberally. But he is a rarity on today’s tour. The Santoroes are found mostly on the public courts.

What’s So Unique about Lefty Spin?

Lefty Spin is unique because it’s rare: there are fewer left-handed people in pro tennis. When a lefty like Rafael Nadal is playing a righty like Roger Federer, Nadal has an immediate advantage because he is more likely to have competed against other righties than Federer is to have played against other lefties. Meetings between lefties are rare.

Why Does Lefty Spin Provide an Advantage?

Observe how Lefty Spin matches up against Righty’s backhand. When Lefty Spin goes cross court to Righty’s backhand, Lefty Spin instantly seizes the advantage. Why? Because of the inherent strength differential between a forehand and a backhand, whether one-handed or two. If Righty is using a two-handed backhand, when Lefty Spin hooks the ball away from Righty’s outstretched arms it stretches him wide, and may even force Righty to drop his left hand to slice or block the return. This is what John McEnroe did to Bjorn Borg, using Lefty Spin to extend Borg and force a weak reply.

The strength differential between a two-handed backhand and a one-handed backhand is plain, but it is true that Righty can reach farther to his left with the one-handed backhand. Still, a reach across his body means he cannot reach as far to his left to hit a backhand as he can to his right for a forehand. These built-in imbalances in strength and reach provide the second advantage to Lefty Spin.

There’s a more powerful advantage. Splitting the court into two “sides”—a Deuce court and an Ad court—coupled with convention yields a third benefit to Lefty Spin. A majority of games are decided in the Ad court. There are only four scenarios in which to end a game in the Deuce court. Moreover, all closely contested games are decided in the Ad court. Every one of them. This is a simple by-product of the rules of play and the scoring system.

When Righty plays Lefty Spin, he is likely to have to defend and/or win most of his receiving games from the Ad court, where he has a distinct disadvantage. Lefty Spin can use his powerful hook serve away from Righty’s backhand to force a weak reply. We saw this again and again when McEnroe served his famous “can opener” to Borg’s two-handed backhand in the Ad court. There is little a Righty can do save take the ball early, a risky play leaving him vulnerable to the serve up the middle or to Lefty Spin’s next shot.

Naturally, because the majority of games are decided in the Ad court, Righty’s advantage in the Deuce court eventually gives way to Lefty Spin’s. It’s physics and anatomy coupled with geometry.

Overcoming Lefty Spin

There simply is no one-handed backhand reply from the Ad court receiving position that can fully neutralize Lefty Spin’s advantage. Righty’s two-handed backhand is stronger on the high-bouncing balls, but the reach limitation cancels out any strength advantage two hands give him.

The best way to counter Lefty Spin is to win the receiving games at 15-40. Once the game reaches 30-40, Lefty Spin will likely prevail and bring the game to Deuce. From there the game will be decided in the Ad court, where Lefty Spin has the clear advantage.

Thinking Outside the Box

There are two possible ways to negate the Lefty Spin advantage.

First, require Lefty Spin to begin his service games from the Ad court, so that all closely contested games will be decided in the Deuce court, where his advantage is less profound.

Alternatively, use the Van Allen Simplified Scoring System. In this system, there is no Deuce or Ad; when a game reaches three-points apiece, the seventh point is played to the service box of the receiver’s choice. VASSS is being used in collegiate matches today, and it goes a long way in putting Righties and Lefties on equal footing.

A sport so steeped in tradition is loath to make radical changes, and no one wants to be seen as picking on a minority group. Lefties are certainly in the minority. At least for now. But if Uncle Toni has his way….

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The French Have Their Wine... We've Got James Blake!

I anticipated the coming of the Davis Cup tie to North Carolina with great excitement this year, as Team France looked to be a very formidable opponent, at least on paper. With Richard Gasquet currently at No. 10, the much improved Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at No. 13, Paul-Henri Mathieu at No. 12, and a host of accomplished doubles players, including Michael Llodra, Julien Benneteau, Arnaud Clement, and Fabrice Santoro, this was not a team to be taken lightly. In fact, this was a team that we might not even be able to take. Throw the wildly athletic Guy Monfils in there, and you've got all the elements of a high-wire carnival act.

So, I went online at 10:00am Eastern Time on March 17, as did thousands of others, to purchase my tickets for me and my older brother, Tom, who would be flying in to RDU International in Raleigh on Friday at around noon from his business trip in Kansas City. My first attempt to purchase the tickets through TicketMaster came up empty: I used the drop-down menus to select the "Best Available" seats "At Any Price" (big mistake!) and the Web application came back with $500 tickets. Great seats, I'm sure. But 500 bucks?! Try again.... So I tried the $190 option, but couldn't get two tickets together. Finally, fearing I'd never get anything, I tried the $90-per-seat option, and was successful. Unfortunately, I'd be in the Upper Section again, same as last year.

The good news is there really isn't a poor seat in the house—the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, also known as the Winston-Salem Entertainment-Sports Arena, home to the Wake Forest men's basketball team, the Demon Deacons. Steely Dan even wrote a song about them in the 70s. Check it out sometime. "They call me Deacon Blue...".

Anyway, I was getting seriously pumped up for some prime-time tennis with Andy Roddick, James Blake, and the twin towers, Bob and Mike Bryan. Then the bad news trickled in. First, Tsonga pulled out. Then a few days later, Gasquet is sidelined. Holy crap! What just happened? Thankfully I didn't put down 1,000 smackeroos or I'd be one angry baboon.

It's a testament to the depth and heart of the French team that they came out and played some awesome tennis without their two top guns. (Even though Mathieu is ranked one spot above Tsonga, most feel that Tsonga would be a stronger pick on the fast surface.)

On Friday, Mathieu nearly upset No. 8 Blake in a riveting, electrifying five-setter that, in the end, showcased Blake's defensive skills and fearless shotmaking. Down 5-4, 40-15 in the fifth set, Blake made a remarkable return off Mathieu's wide slice serve to the deuce court, which completely opened the court for a winner that was nullified when Blake flew across the baseline and knifed a backhand slice as fine as any I've ever seen in my forty years watching tennis. That save sent the crowd roaring with approval and chants of "U-S-A... U-S-A" and Blake seemed to puff up with confidence as he reeled off huge return after huge return to break Mathieu and get himself back in the match. From that point on, he was a monster, although it still did not come easy, as Mathieu clawed and fought as gamely as any competitor ever has on foreign soil in front of a boisterous home crowd. I don't think there's any argument that on that day Gasquet could not have fought any more gamely than his countryman Mathieu did.

Then, on Saturday, the French team of Llodra and Clement played tactically smart, heads-up tennis to take down the No. 1 doubles team in the world in four sets with the tie on the line. The Bryan brothers came into that match 14-1 in Davis Cup competition, and the doubles point was considered about as "automatic" as in the days of McEnroe-Fleming. That would be John McEnroe, of course. But those of you who know and follow tennis recall that Llodra-Clement had taken down the Bryans in the 2007 Wimbledon final. And Llodra-Benneteau had upset the Bryans in the Las Vegas final earlier this year. What's more, Llodra has captured two titles this year already. This would be anything but automatic.

Here's the way it unfolded, in a nutshell. Bob (the lefty) and Mike (the righty) lined up with their forehands in the center of the court when receiving. Llodra (the lefty) and Clement (the righty) lined up in the traditional formation (a la McEnroe-Fleming), with the lefty wing on the outside of the court covering the ad-court sideline and returning the wide serves with that big hook forehand. I turned to my brother and said that I thought the Bryans would try to serve down the middle and blanket the center, while Llodra and Clement would serve more wide slices and kickers to pull the Bryans off the court and force them to return from their relatively weaker wings, their backhands. As it turned out, this was mostly true, at least when Llodra and Clement were serving.

One factor that no one could have predicted is how well Clement served. Putting in 70% of his first deliveries was huge. As Clement told Justin Gimelstob in his post-match on court interview (and I paraphrase here): "I don't serve so big, so it's important for me to get a good percentage." It began with Clement serving at 3-4 in the first set, as the balls were changed and he served up new ones. With new balls in hand, he hit two aces and held at Love. From there on out, he never looked even remotely vulnerable on his serve. (Perhaps all the talk from partner Llodra about drinking expensive wines after the match kept him loose.) If there was another factor, it was that Clement and Llodra stepped up the power and aggression on their returns, starting in the third set. At one set apiece, they clearly and visibly made an adjustment, deciding to go for bigger returns and take more chances around the net, poaching and feigning whenever possible. In essence, they began looking a lot more like the Bryans than the Bryans. And it paid of in a mighty big way, as we all know.

It was extremely disappointing, though understandable, that the Bryan brothers did not stick around to speak with Gimelstob, whose interview style has gotten a lot more polished, despite the fact that he still looks a little goofy in a suit.

I sold my Sunday tickets to a good friend on the cheap, so that brother Tom and I could play tennis and hang out with my seven-year-old before we had to get to the airport, so I cannot comment on the Sunday matches. You can read the blog of TENNIS Magazine's Peter Bodo (TennisWorld) if you want a more complete breakdown of the weekend's matches.

Let me sign off by sharing this last nugget. I've seen three Davis Cup ties now (2001 versus India, 2007 versus Spain, and 2008 versus France, all in Winston-Salem), and one thing remains constant: expect the unexpected. Look for Andy Roddick and James Blake to each win once, and for the Bryans to tie the winning record of McEnroe and Fleming, on the crushed red brick in Spain.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written or verbal consent of the author. Thank you for your cooperation.