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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
Jan262014

Australian Open: Wawrinka Wins, Getting 1st Slam Title and 1st-Ever Victory Over Nadal

Stanislas Warinka beat a wounded world number one, Rafael Nadal, to lay claim to the Australian Open championship title, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.  But most of all, Stan beat Tennis Hate out on Rod Laver Arena.  It was really starting to push Wawrinka around in that third set.

Stan delivered: first Slam victory, first win over Nadal, first time as World No. 3. Photo courtesy Getty Images. 

Wawrinka was a Stanimal at the start, doing the unthinkable:  he won the first set.  He'd never won a set against Nadal in their 12 previous meetings.  Wawrinka also got an early break in the second against Nadal when Rafa's back seized up, apparently on a first serve.   Rafa bent over at the baseline and squeezed his eyes shut in pain.  

Not his knees, for once. Nadal's history of injury-plagued Aussie Opens continues. Photo: Amy EddingsIt's rare to see that from Nadal.  The guy plays with pain all the time.  He's got two creaky knees, one that kept him out for 7 months and caused him to miss last year's Australian Open.  He's been playing with a huge blister on his hand.  So to see Nadal doubled over like that, and breaking down briefly into a towel, you knew whatever he was feeling in his lower spine had to be bad. But the crowd thought it was gamesmanship, and booed Rafa when he took an injury time out.  Even Stan was barking at the umpire. 

Wawrinka kept his cool and closed out that second set.  But, as ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert puts it in his classic, Winning Ugly, "Beware the Wounded Bear."  And beware the Wounded Bear on Vicodin.  Especially Rafa Nadal.  The guy came back last year after a seven-month break to tend to one of his many knee problems to tear through the 2013 season and return to the number one spot.  You knew he wasn't going to let Wawrinka win in straight sets.

Wawrinka must have been thinking the same thing -- I can't let one of the greatest players ever to lose another set! -- so he gifted Nadal with the third set.  He wrapped it up with unforced errors and tied it with a bow by letting go of two break point opportunities.  

Stan almost let it go in the fourth set, too.  He was the first to break, getting Rafa to go up 3-2.  But nerves and Wawrinka's old story of being the Fighting Failure got to him.  (The tattoo on his left arm is a Beckett quotation, ''Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.'')  He couldn't buy a point in the sixth game and gave the break right back at 0-40.  

Maybe Wawrinka re-read his tat during the changeover and decided that the way to fail better is to win.  Stan brought Rafa to another nervy 15-40 spot.  He looked at his box, pointed to his head and punched it a few times. That must've rattled something into place, because Wawrinka seized the moment, the game, and, serving it out at 5-3, the fourth set, the match and the tournament.  

Maybe Wawrinka re-read his tat during the changeover and decided that the way to fail better is to win.

It took Wawrinka a few beats to even acknowledge his winning shot, a gutsy inside-in forehand from inside the service  that he blew down the line into the corner of the deuce court.  Nadal, who usually owns the baseline, a champion defender, a guy who gets to every ball, just stood there, flat-footed, and watched it sail past.   

It's the 28-year-old Wawrinka's first Grand Slam victory.  He becomes the number 3 player in the world.  That other Swiss, Roger Federer?  He drops from 6th to 8th.  

Wawrinka was muted in his victory celebration.  He wasn't beaming or bumping his chest (Djokovic) or pointing to the sky (Murray) or doing wirlygigs (Tsonga).  He just smiled.

He said during the trophy ceremony that he was still wondering whether he had won.  "Last year I had a crazy match, I was crying a lot after that match," he said of his five-set heartbreak against Novak Djokovic in the Round of 16. "Let's see if I'm still dreaming."

To Rafael Nadal, he said, "Your back is going to be fine."

Down Under, everything is topsy-turvy and upside-down.  It's been a tournament of upsets.  Rod Laver Arena is where Nadal and Djokovic sat down during the 2012 awards presentations after their epic, record-shattering five-hour, 53 minute final. It's where the usually calm, cool and collected Federer became undone and wept openly after his 2009 loss to Nadal.  

Now it was Nadal who was tearing up as he accepted the runner-up trophy. "I'm sorry to finish this way.  I tried very, very hard."  

He called it was one of the most emotional tournaments of his career.

Photo: Amy Eddings

 

 

Thursday
Jan232014

Australian Open: Nadal Advances to Final to Play Surging Stan

Rafael Nadal did what he usually does when he faces Roger Federer: he beat him.  And he did so fairly easily, too, in their Australian Open semifinal, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3. Nadal has now beaten Federer 9 times in their last 11 Grand Slam meet-ups, and owns a 23-10 record against the Greatest of All Time.  

Nadal gets the GOAT's goat. Photo: Aaron Favila/AP

Which again brings up the question: IS Federer the greatest of all time?  

Certainly, Rog has the record of most Grand Slam wins -- 17 -- and the  most consecutive weeks as Number One. But the 27-year-old Nadal, "in the meaty years of his career," as Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim put it, is just four Slam wins away from tying that record.  His career trajectory still seems on the rise, bad knees be damned, while the 32-year-old Fed's is trending downwards.

IS Federer the Greatest of All Time?

Federer has entered this season trying to shake things up, with a new, bigger racquet and a celebrity coach, 6-time Slam winner Stefan Edburg.  But the strategery was no match for Nadal.

"For nearly two weeks now, Federer had played like the Federer of old — but Nadal beat that Federer, too, for the most part," said The New York Times' Greg Bishop.

"I tried a few things," Federer said.  "I think Rafa does a good job of neutralizing you."

Check out Nadal the Neutralizer:

Nadal said it was his best match of the tournament. 

"I think I played great," Nadal said.  His only dissatisfaction with his level of play was on a point during the first set tiebreak.  Yes, Haters., just one point.  I can only dream.  

Here's how he analyzied the tiebreak:

In the deuce position I made second serve return with a backhand that I had mistake.  That is the only point I am not happy about the way that I played on the tiebreak.  With 5-1, I missed a forehand down the line but it was the right shot.  Missed it for just little bit.

It's a little window into Nadal's Tennis Love, how he learns from his mistakes.  He doesn't get into whining and self-flagellation, doesn't indulge -- at least, in front of reporters -- in self-pity.  IHis analysis was a dispassionate dissection of what was working and what wasn't.  He asked himself simply: Was it the right shot at the right time?  

Nadal plays for the championship against Federer's countryman, the now-best Swiss player on the tour, Stan Wawrinka.  He defeated Tomas Berdych, 6-3, 6-7 (1), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) in their semis.

It's Stan's first Grand Slam final, and he'll be unnerved, no matter what.  Stan is 0-12 against Nadal.  The blog Busted Racquet points out that Nadal has not lost a set against Wawrinka.  But Stan had lost to Novak Djokovic 14 times in a row before upsetting The Djoker in the quarters Wednesday night.  With the top seeds Djokovic, Serena, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka ousted during this year's Aussie Open, why not bet on Wawrinka beating Rafael Nadal?

"I didn't expect to make a final in a Grand Slam and now it's happening," Wawrinka said.  "I'm just really happy."

He's got another day to enjoy that feeling before looking across the net at Nadal.

Wednesday
Jan222014

Australian Open: Everything Old is New Again

Roger Federer is into the semifinals of the Australian Open, his 11th straight, edging past a gritty Andy Murray, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 in three hours and twenty minutes.  Credit his new, big racquet or his new coach, Stefan Edburg, but Federer is playing like his old self: confident, aggressive, controlled. No more mishits on his forehand, no cat-and-mouse chip returns.  He looks ready to add another Grand Slam title to the record 17 he already has.

He still has it in him. Now, can he find a way around Rafa? Photo, Ben Solomon, Tennis Australia.

It wasn't one of those "of course he's going to win" victories, as in those heydey years when he was world number one for a record 237 consecutive weeks.  The 32-year-old got his fans biting their nails when he failed to get rid of Murray in straight sets.  Fed squandered a 5-2 lead in the third set and a 6-4 one in the ensuing tiebreak.  

I thought, 'I'm still in the lead, not that bad.'" -- Federer

Murray showed remarkable heart, not like the 2010 Australian Open final against Fed, or the 2011 championship match at Melbourne Park versus Novak Djokovic, when the grumpy Scot played passive tennis.  This was Ivan Lendl-inspired Murray, the guy who made Djokovic earn the title last year in a 7-6(2), 6-7(3), 3-6, 2-6 victory.  This was US Open/Wimbledon champ Murray.  He stared down two match points and made the Mighty Fed blink.

"Andy did well, he put the pressure on me," Federer said in his on-court interview about letting Murray push him to a fourth set.  "I had no choice but to stay out there.

"I thought, 'I'm still in the lead, not that bad.'"

That's right, Haters, instead of thinking I suck, I blew it, he thought, I'm still winning.  

Andy Muttery. "I was proud of the way I fought." Photo: Ben Solomon, Tennis AustraliaThis is how my Worthy Opponent, on the court and in the home -- my beloved Mark -- thinks, and I hate him for it.  He'll volley a ball long, just out of the reach of my flailing racquet -- whew -- and say to his partner, "I was there!"  But for a few inches, he had me cold, and he'll make the necessary adjustments to get the winner next time.  And the subtext of the comment is, there will be a next time.  

That just burns me up.  What?!  Who are you to have your confidence grow with mistakes? That's not the way it works!  Nothing comes from mistakes except losses and heartache.  That's why they are called mistakes.

I find that spirit so hard to muster when I've let slip winning opportunities.  Instead of saying, I'll get it next time, I say, see, you're never going to make that shot.  From there, it's a hop, skip and a backhand into the net before I'm saying, I Hate Tennis and I'm taking up tiddlywinks.  

I think that by stating what is, to me, the obvious, I'll goad myself into trying harder.  It doesn't work, and never has.  What is it that they say about the definition of insanity?  It's doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Sign me up for the loony bin.  

Perhaps Andy Murray will join me.  He sounded like he thought he should have played his old way to get past Roger.

"I changed my tacktics a little bit, started playing a little bit more aggressive," he said.  Yes, yes, this all sounds good, the ESPN commentator in me says.  But Murray continued.

"That was maybe my undoing a little bit at the end, because I really started going for my shots to get myself back into the match.  Then, when I got broken in that fourth set, I went for three balls.  Maybe one or two of them weren't there to be hit."

Murray searched for his Silver Lining Playbook.  He reached the quarters in the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam since having back surgery a few months ago.  Back.  Surgery.

"I don't know how many players have come back from surgery and won the first Grand Slam back in their second tournament," he said.  "I just need to use this as, I guess, a steppingstone to getting better and be happy that I got through five matches."

Roger Federer, meanwhile, faces yet another hurdle in his tough draw: world number one Rafael Nadal, who's beaten him in their last four meetings and has a 22-10 record against Fed.  

 "I'm looking forward to it.  It's going to be brutal and all those things."

 

 

Tuesday
Jan212014

Australian Open: Snow, Azarenka Falls

While stinging, wind-driven snow blinds New York City, upset fever continues to decimate the brackets at the Australian Open.

 Snow blankets NYC while upsets bust brackets half a world away in Melbourne. Photo: Amy Eddings

First, as I dressed for a snow day with tights and two layers of socks, I watched Stan Wawrinka shake off 14 straight losses against his Grand Slam nemesis, Novak Djokovic, beating him, 9-7, in the fifth set of their quarterfinal. Djokovic was going for his fourth consecutive championship at the Australian Open. Instead, Stan is in his first Australian Open semifinal. 

She was doing everything better than me.  I was just watching like a spectator. -- Azarenka 

Now, on the women's side, Victoria Azarenka has been denied a third Australian Open crown by Aggie Radwanska. The Pole, seeded fifth, took down the number two seed and former world number one, 6-1, 5-7, 6-0. Azarenka, the defending champ, was favored to win after Serena Williams was upset.  Now, it's anybody's guess who's going to win. Brackets are busting up all over. And it's nowhere near spring. Certainly not here in Brooklyn, where there's 8 inches of snow clogging Jefferson Avenue. 

No tricks up my sweat bands, just tricky shots. Radwanska advances to first Aussie Open semi. Photo: APAzarenka's power game was no match for the defensive finesse of Radwanska. She was everywhere, scooping up the ball near her shoelaces to slice a winner up the line in the deuce court, hitting lob winners that kissed the baseline, tapping an awkward backhand overhead into the short cross-court that had Vika tripping forward to dump it into the net. 

Courtside, she was asked how she came up with her creative game.

"Twenty years playing tennis," said the soon-to-be 25-year-old Aga.

Azarenka looked like she was going to cry after double faulting on break point to go down, 0-5, in the third set. She was clearly flummoxed by Aggie's game and overwhelmed by Tennis Hate. She made 47 unforced errors to Aga's 15.  FIFTEEN. Her mighty forehand disappeared. She made 5 double faults.  Radwanska?  One.  

Aga was measured and controlled and calm.  Vika was shrieking after shanking shots.  The crowd was not pleased.

"Perhaps if she stopped screaming like that, the fans would get behind her more," noted ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale.  Indeed, attendees at the Happy Slam were not digging Vika's negative vibes.  The cheers for Radwanska were especially full-throated, not only because she was pulling off spectacular shots but because she was getting the better of a power baseliner strutter like Azarenka.  

"She was doing everything a little better than me," said Azarenka.  "I was just watching like a spectator."

 

Tuesday
Jan212014

Australian Open: Wawrinka Ends Djokovic's Winning Streak

What in the devil was Novak Djokovic thinking when he served and volleyed, 30-40, on match point against Stanislaus Wawrinka?  He hadn't done that for the entire match, now in its fifth set in their quarterfinal match.

 Wawrinka Wins: Nobody beats Stan 14 straight times! Photo: Amy Eddings

Nole will have plenty of time to think about it.  He blew the volley wide into the deuce court, giving Stan a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 3-6, 9-7 victory that ended his three-year reign as the defending Australian Open champion.  

Djokovic lost because of a brain fart.  Wawrinka had just stabbed at the backhand return.

Wall Street Journal tennis reporter Tom Perrotta Tweeted, "Amazing to see Wawrinka upset Djokovic by just getting that last ball in play."

The relief on Wawrinka's face was palpable, even half a world away.  He'd been close to outlasting Djokovic before, losing a heartbreaking fifth set, 10-12, to the Djoker in their Round of 16 match one year ago on this same court.  Stan couldn't squelch Novak in another five-set dust-up just five months ago at the US Open.  Wawrinka was 2-14 against the world number 2 going into this match.  

"I always fight, I always try," he told commentator Jim Courier in their on-court interview afterwards.  

 

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