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Finding Roger Federer Meltdown footage on YouTube is like finding a seat on the Number 4 Lexington Avenue subway at 9:30 in the morning. [Non-New Yorkers, take note: it's rare.] The Greatest of All Time usually deals with blown shots by dragging his middle finger across his forehead and tucking his hair behind his ear. Not this time. This was a semi-final match with Novak Djokovic at the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida. Djokovic just broke Fed in the third and deciding set and was up 15-0 when the Greatest of All Time took his eyes off a routine approach shot that could have evened the score. Federer went through lots of racquets when he was playing the junior circuit; wonder if he felt a little wave of nostalgia upon banging this one hard into the court.

On the Sideline
Sunday
Mar232014

Top Five Break-Up Tips for Andy Murray

I'm not Andy Murray's BFF.  I don't even know the guy, though I did get close to his DNA.  I held a bottle of water he had left in the interview room at the US Open a few years back.  No, Haters, I did not take a swig from it.  Ew.

He just wasn't that into you, Andy: Murray, Lendl, split because Lendl couldn't spend the time with the world #6. Photo, courtesy Getty Images.

But if I were his best friend, I'd throw my arm around his shoulders, steer him to a quiet corner of the pub and offer him these tips for getting over his split with Ivan Lendl.  

Even though theirs was a professional liaison -- coach/player, mentor/mentee -- and Lendl was on Murray's payroll, that doesn't mean that feelings weren't involved.  Murray himself spoke of feeling "gutted" when asked about the split a few days ago in Miami, where Murray took out 32nd-seed Felciano Lopez in straight sets in the third round of the Sony Ericsson Open

1.  You are still a champion, and have more championships in you.  I know, I know, you were 0-4 in Grand Slam finals until Lendl joined your camp.  In your first year of working with him, you won an Olympic gold medal in the Summer Games in London in 2012, and a US Open title later that fall.  Then, nine months later, you won Wimbledon, the first guy to do so from Great Britain in 77 years.  That success is yours.  Sure, Lendl was a key ingredient, but the magic ju-ju doesn't disappear with him.  He taught you a way of going about your game that you can continue to rely upon, match after match.  It's yours.  Lendl doesn't take that with him.

"The mental side of the game is something that I learned a lot, working with him," Murray told Tennis Channel commentator Mark Knowles after his victory against Lopez, who Andy's mum calls "Deliciano."

2. Keep your eye on the ball.  Yeah, Tennis Instruction 101.  But now is not the time to let thoughts of what was and what might have been or should have been sneak into your head on court, especially after missing a shot.  You yourself said that the matches you played, post-breakup, "were not particularly fun."  Find something to love -- how 'bout that sunshine in Miami, huh? -- and repeat after me: bounce, hit.  Bounce, hit.  Bounce, hit.Ivan Lendl may have coached Murray to a Wimbledon victory, but it's still Andy's trophy. Maybe that's why Lendl wants to spend more time playing the senior tour. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

3.  There are other fish in the sea.  Even for a moody, down-at-the-mouth guy like you.  The world of tennis is filled with people who think they know how to improve your game.  You'll find someone who YOU think actually can.  Don't rush it.  I know you want someone in place by the French Open in May.  Take your time.  You've gone for long stretches without coaches.  Don't rush into something now, just because you think you need a coach in your box when you defend your Wimbledon title this summer.  A coach doesn't win Wimbledon. YOU win Wimbledon.  (See Tip #1.)

4.  Stick to your standards.  You wanted more time with Lendl.  Lendl wanted more time to pursue his own trophies on the senior tour.  You didn't want a coaching relationship that was "half-baked."  Don't blame yourself, or think, "Maybe I was asking for too much."  There was an article on just this sort of thinking a year ago on HuffPo:

Do you find yourself saying yes all the time to certain things in the relationship when in fact you really do not want to do them? Well, this is a sign that you are part of the women who love too much club. If you keep saying yes to things and situations that do not fill your heart with pleasure, you are not only being dishonest towards him but you will also fill your heart with anger and resentment over a long period of time.

Just substitute "players" for "women," and "coach" for "him," and you'll see how you shouldn't let this happen to you.

5.  Make a fun change.  I stole this suggestion from an About.com Teen Advice column.  Yeah, you're 26, but the underlying principal is the same: "Breakups can be good excuses for fresh starts. Make a fun change: give yourself a makeover, get into a new hobby, join a new after-school activity or redecorate your room. It'll make you feel happy and give you a big burst of confidence." 

Now, go out there, champ, and take it to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday. You're doing great!

 

Wednesday
Mar192014

Indian Wells: Obligatory Post About the Winners

The tennis world's attention has turned to the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, but I still have an hour before first round action begins to talk about Indian Wells. I love a deadline.

World number 2 Novak Djokovic takes home his third Indian Wells trophy. Photo, courtesy BNP Paribas Open.com.

Oops, I should have given you a spoiler alert.  That guy, pictured above, Novak Djokovic?  He won.

You want to see this kind of tennis in a championship final, the kind Djokovic and Roger Federer delivered at Indian Wells. Amazing get-out-of-jail free shots, powerful hitting, close games and a deciding set tiebreak between two well-matched opponents with a history, one that just got a lot more interesting.

Alright, you know already that Djokovic beat Fed, regrouping after failing to serve out the match at 5-4 in the third set, to gobble up the tiebreak for a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3) victory at the BNP Paribas Open. What you may not know is that Nole is now 16-17 against Roger, making their match-ups more compelling than the much-vaunted rivalry between Fed and Rafael Nadal, where the discrepency is larger. Nadal has a 23-10 record against The Greatest of All Time, making Nadal more of a mountain to climb for Fed than a sparring partner.

These Worthy Opponents were so evenly matched in this final. Both had 6 aces. Federer double faulted 4 times, Djokovic, 5. Djoko won just one more point than Fed overall, 99 to 98. Wow.

What the numbers show is that Federer was pushed further during his service games than Djokovic was. Fed faced six break points, fighting them off 4 times, while Djokovic only stared down three break points, losing two of them.

One of those break points, of course, was the one at 0-40, 5-4 in the third, that let Fed back into the match. It was the second time Djokovic faltered when serving for it all. Two times, he was serving for the match against John Isner in the second set of their semifinal on Saturday.

Federer: "I have been on the winner's side more often. Maybe that softens the blow a little bit." Photo, courtesy of BNP Paribas Open.com."The way I won this title is something that makes me very happy and gives me mentally a lot of satisfaction because I have had specifically these three matches against [Marin] Cilic and yesterday's semi-final and today's final, situations where I played three sets where it was very tense, very emotional," said Djokovic.

"A few points really here and there could go either way, and then it went my way. I stayed mentally tough, and that, for me, is something that gives me a lot of encouragement and hopefully a confidence boost for the rest of the season."

Federer acknowledged his worthy opponent's victory over Tennis Hate.

"At the end he made sure he kept the ball in play and I might have made a few too many errors when it really mattered," said Fed. "But credit to him for toughening it out and winning that second set and getting the breaker in the third."

Federer said he's happy with how he played, after struggling with back problems and a drop in confidence last season.  

"A few weeks ago, months ago, a few people said I couldn't play tennis anymore," he sais of the haters.  "So for me, I need to focus on my own game, my own routines, hard work, make sure I keep a good schedule for myself, for my family, and, you know, enjoy it. But at the same time, that fire, wanting to win, is important, and right now I have that.  I think have a really good balance right now."

Haters, this sounds like a man on a mission.  Slam number 18 at Wimbledon, perhaps? The way he's been playing, I don't doubt it.  He's 19-3 this year, won Dubai, finaled in Brisbane and made the semis at the Australian Open.  His recovery from back problems and his embrace of a bigger racquet are working.  

The women's final between victor Flavia Pennetta and Aggie Radwanska was not as edge-of-your-seat satisfying. Radwanska, the number 2 seed, was injured, and Pennetta, seeded 20th, upset her easily, 6-2, 6-1. But the headline for I Hate Tennis is that the 32-year-old Pennetta almost quit tennis at this event a year ago.

Flavia Pennetta wins the biggest title of her career, moves to 12th in world. Photo, courtesy BNP Paribas Open.com.

"I think this one is after so many years so much work and everything, this is the moment I always waiting for, no?" she said. "Finally I have a good trophy in my hands."

Radwanska was super-bummed, and look at times on court like she was going to cry.  Haters, when it gets to tears, it's over.  I can think of players who smash racquets and shout at their box and then go on to win, like Ernests Gulbis or even Djokovic, who had such an outburst against John Isner in their three-set semi.  Anger can motivate you.  Sadness and fear just throw sand in your gas tank.

"I think it's just the worst thing for a player, you know, to not giving the 100%, especially in the final of the big event. And I just couldn't run as much as I normally do.  And, well, just bad luck," she said.

Could she rise above the Tennis Hate, and see some good things in her two-week run? A reporter at Radwanska's post-match press conference must've read my mind. 

Q.  Aga, is it the disappointment that you feel from having to be injured in the final?  I mean, this is still, you know, the first final that you have made here and a positive week.  Is it hard to focus on the positives, or right now do you just feel disappointment?

AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA:  Well, I think disappointing feeling always comes first, I think, especially when you really, really, you know, have ambition to win the tournament.  Of course still good two weeks.  First final here. Big event.  And, you know, still good result.  But it's always disappointing that, you know, I really couldn't play my 100% today.

In doubles, the world number 1 women's team, Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai, won their first BNP Paribas Open title, beating doubles veteran Cara Black and Sania Mirza, who were seeded 5th.  Hsieh and Peng are now 11-0 in WTA doubles finals.  

On the men's side, world number 1s and top seeds Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan kept their men's doubles crown by beating second seeds Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares, 6-4, 6-3. It's the twins' 27th ATP Masters 1000 title and their 95th overall.  

I'll close this post with an observation: Bob and Mike are so twinned, even their wives look alike.  

The twins and their families celebrate title #95. Photo courtesy of BNP Pariibas Open.com.

Tuesday
Mar112014

Indian Wells: Gulbis Smashes Racquet, Dmitrov

Ernests Gulbis got his Tennis Hate under control long enough to beat the hearthrob of the tennis media and Maria Sharapova, Grigor Dmitrov, 2-6, 6-1, 7-5. 

I break racquets with this: Ernests Gulbis, triumphant over Grigor Dmitrov. Photo courtesy Stephen Dunn/Getty Images.

It came with all of Gulbis' signature qualities: his rocket serves (he had 10 aces), his casual, devastating drop shots, his awkward Warrior Two forehand wind-up, his racquet abuse.

Yes, Haters, before bearing down on Dmitrov, Gulbis bore down on his racquet, down 0-3 in the third set.

"This is great stuff," he told Tennis Channel's Justin Gimelstob and Lisa Leslie in a post-match interview. They were playing video of Gulbis' racquet-busting action in slo mo. "This is when the emotions come out."

He went on to offer a vigorous defense of Tennis Hate. "I don't think it's not that bad. It's not that bad for the sport. You have to be respectful to your opponent. You can't break his game or rhythm. To the crowd, you also have to be respectful."

But the respect ends there. "It's my racquet. I respect it or not, it's my business."

Dmitrov, seeded 15th, was upset by 20th-seed Gulbis. Photo courtesy of Stephen Dunn/Getty Images.Of his opponent, Gulbis said Grigor Dmitrov is not all that. "Everyone talks about him being the next number one," he said. "I think he still has a way to go."

Gimelstob and Leslie were grinning, drunk on Gulbis' willingness to be blazingly, even foolishly, honest in front of rolling cameras and live mics.

It's my racquet.  I respect it or not, it's my business."

"Tell us about your serve, talk us through your technique," said Gimelstob.  He didn't really want to know.  The question was just a way of setting up the real purpose of the interview, which was to get Gulbis to talk about his racquet-busting tendencies.

Gulbis, stretched physically. Often, stretched mentally. Photo, courtesy of Stephen Dunn/Getty Images."If you know a thing called Russian roulette, then you'd know," said Gulbis of his service toss. "I throw the ball up and I hope it doesn't go too far away from me."

My Tennis Hate love for Ernests just grew like The Grinch's heart on Christmas Day.

Gimelstob and Leslie, stoked by Gulbis' candor, both went on to ask versions of a question that boiled down to this: How can someone like you win like that, when you're such a hot mess?

"I just went for my shots," he told them. "I didn't think. and just went for some shots. I was lucky to break him early. That was key."

Ah, Tennis Haters, he didn't think. In the end, he did what any mental tennis guru will tell you: stop thinking about your missed opportunities and your woulda-coulda-shoulda's, and hit the damn ball.

Here's Gulbis, Tennis Hate in full flower, at Indian Wells a year ago against Andreas Seppi.

Tuesday
Mar112014

Indian Wells: Halep Edges Bouchard

Canadian Eugenie Bouchard looked like she didn't want to be playing when her third round match began against Romanian Simona Halep.  She had a sour look on her face, one that her coach, Nick Saviano, sought to wipe away.

Halep wallops a fearhand. She and Bouchard are seen as up and comers on the WTA tour. Photo courtesy SteveGTennis.

"If you want to be great, you have to fight for every point," he told her after Halep did a beat down on the Australian Open semi-finalist, 6-2, in the first set.  He told her to get her head out of her ass and into the court by moving her feet, showing more intensity and exploding up to the ball in her serve.  

Well, Saviano said everything except the "head out of the ass" part.  That's what I was shouting at the TV set as I watched.

The pep talk worked.  Bouchard tightened up her game.   She made just 7 unforced errors compared to 12 for Halep, and took control of the second set, 6-1.

But all the pep talks in the world -- and Saviano gave several -- couldn't get Bouchard a round closer to claiming her first tour title.  Halep, who's collected seven in the last nine months, oozed confidence and calm. She rallied from a break down in the third to win the last three games and the match, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4.

"I was a little nervous in the second set, and she's a very fast girl," she told Tennis Channel.  "I fought for every point."

Sounds like she overheard Saviano's tips for Eugenie.

"I play well now with difficult tennis," Halep said of her recent success.  She hit the top 20 last August, and the top 10 in January.

I found some Tennis Hate advice from Halep.  She told TennisWorldUSA.org you have to "take pleasure from the game."

I’ve had those experiences when I can’t move my body or hit the ball, and that’s because I’m too stressed. Just try to enjoy it, and don’t think about the results. If you’re more relaxed on court, you can play your best tennis. So try to have fun, and just focus on playing the next point. That way, you’ll be able to take pleasure from your tennis.

I wouldn't have thought to use pleasure and tennis in the same sentence. 

Neither would Rafael Nadal, perhaps, after the world number one and defending champion fell 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) to Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine. Dolgo beat Nadal even though he had more errors (49) than winners (36) and got just 40 percent of his first serves in. Nadal's first service percentage was 63.  Go figure.

Alexandr Dolgopolov is now 1-5 against Rafael Nadal. Photo courtesy of Getty.

"Today was an accident," Nadal said.   

Earlier this year, he beat Dolgopolov in straight sets to win the title in Rio.  He picked up his 62nd ATP tour title in Doha.  This, and his loss to Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final, were his only defeats this season.  

He smiled away questions about his back, which seized up in Melbourne.

“Forget about the back. I don't want to talk about the back anymore because my back is fine. The bad feelings were with my forehand and backhand," he said.

Early exit for the defending champ, who insists his back is not the issue. Photo courtesy of Getty.Dolgopolov, meanwhile, had Nadal at 5-2 in the third and was serving for the match when a 500-pound gorilla climbed onto his back.  Tennis Hate strangled his whiplike service motion.  He couldn't get a first serve in.  He lost the game at love.  Nadal stormed through three games in a row to tie it at 5-5.  Both held serve to bring it to a tiebreak.  Nadal got the early lead at 5-2, but hit balls long, including a gimme volley at net, and Dolgopolov had match point on his racquet.

He thought he won it with an ace, but an electronic review showed it a smidge wide.  I wondered about that invisible gorilla.  Was it tugging on Alex' ponytail?  Wrapping a fat old paw around his serving shoulder? Fogging up Dolgo's focus with his banana breath?

Dolgopolov elbowed the beast away and won with a flourish, snapping one of his signature flat backhands crosscourt for a winner that zoomed just out of the reach of the ever-efforting Nadal.  Dolgo shook his head in disbelief.  It was his first-ever win against Rafa.

 "I think I found some smallpoints, in the middle of the point," he told Tennis Channel.  In previous matches, he said, Nadal pushed him off the court.  "I just tried to turn off my head and go for the shots...find a good shot to risk and go for it."

He gets Italian Fabio Fognini in the fourth round.  Simona Halep faces qualifier Casey Dellaqua of Australia, who won in a walkover of Lauren Davis.  The American got food poisoning and withdrew.

Sunday
Mar092014

Indian Hell: Tennis Hate Roils Early Rounds

Tennis Hate was rolling through Indian Hells like norovirus on a cruise ship. Many succumbed to the pressure.  Racquets -- and brackets -- were busted.

Lost in Translation: Fabio Fognini spews Tennis Hate at ump during Indian Wells second round match with rival hot head Ryan Harrison. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

First to succumb to the nausea at the BNP Paribas Open: Sam Querry. The Californian native curled up and died after blowing 2 match points against 29th-seed Andreas Seppi of Italy in the second set, losing 4-6 7-6(3) 6-3. The loss adds to the crisis of confidence Sam's been going through since elbow surgery in 2011 and an abdominal injury late last year. Once ranked as high as 17 in the world in 2011, he's now 57, and trending downwards.

Tennis Channel commentator and former number one Jim Courier, who's Querry's Davis Cup captain, said the solution to a loss of confidence is a win.  "It's pretty hard to be positive when you're where Sam's at these days," he said. Ouch.

Isn't this what I've always told you, Haters? Winning helps cure Tennis Hate.  It's just that Tennis Hate often gets in the way of winning.

Sabine Lisicki was just two points away from sailing into the third round when she mentally vomited.

Sabine Lisicki, seeded 15th, was up 4-0 in the third set but lost focus and let it get to a tiebreaker against the unseeded Aleksander Wozniak of Canada. Then, in that tiebreak, the German was just two points away from sailing into the third round, leading 5-2, when she mentally vomited. She lost to Wozniak , 4-6 7-6(3) 6-3.

Lisicki joined fellow Germans Angelique Kerber (seeded 5th) and Julia Goerges on the shuttle bus to the airport.

Over on Court Three, it was a Tennis Hate dream matchup between two hotheads, Italian Fabio Fognini and American Ryan Harrison. It was Harrison who cracked first, smashing his racquet after Fognini built up a 5-2 lead in the first set.

That got the other racquets in his bag to think twice about their poor performance.  After that brutal display of Tennis Hate, Harrison won six games in a row, snatching the first set away from Fognini,  7-5, and getting to an early break to lead Fognini 1-0 in the second.

At set point in that topsy-turvy first set, Fognini looked "over it" to The New York Times' Ben Rothenberg, who Tweeted he "smack[ed] a return to the sky."  

What's that Italian swear word that Pope Francis inadvertantly used?  Cazzo?  Yeah, I'll bet Fognini was muttering that a lot as Harrison used Tennis Hate to his advantage.

Fognini tried the tactic himself, getting into a shouting match with the chair umpire over a line call he didn't like. It worked.  Or, more likely, his return game started to work.  He started getting a feel for Harrison's booming serve, improving his return game from just 18% of return points won to 35%.  And he started feasting on Harrison's second serve.  Fognini rolled over Harrison in the second set and won the match, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4.