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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

Entries in Victoria Azarenka (10)

Monday
Sep012014

US Open: Azarenka Needs 3 Sets to Get Past Qualifier Krunic 

Victoria Azarenka was all fight, emotion and, in the end, song, in her 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 thriller Round of 16 match over feisty qualifier Aleksandra Krunic at the US Open.

Racquet back, flap like a bird: Vika Azarenka suffers a bout of self-criticism in her fight against Krunic.Krunic had knocked off two seeds - No. 27 Madison Keys and No. 3 and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova -- on the road to her nighttime match on Arthur Ashe Stadium.  She nearly beat No. 9 Vika, who has been injured and hasn't had a lot of match play.

It showed in that first set.  Azarenka had a 3-0 lead but ended up losing it, as Krunic hit amazing winners and used drop shots to her advantage.  So frustrated was Azarenka with Krunic's variety that she started muttering to herself, gesturing to her camp, and, in one weird moment in the third set, chided herself for not moving forward toward a backhand shot thatby sticking her butt out and spreading her arms like a startled chicken.

Vika demonstrates how NOT to set up for a backhand.She was exhuberant in victory, all gush and goofy.  In her on court interview, Azarenka told Mary Jo Fernandez, "I love tennis, I love that yellow ball, I love hitting forehands and backhands, I love the way that feels."  And she coaxed a baffled crowd at Ashe into singing "Happy Birthday" to Gael Monfils.

Later, on ESPN, Vika turned even more philosophical, banishing all signs of Tennis Hate with its best antidote: gratitude.

"Sometimes you forget that life is beautiful.  Sometimes in the tough moments you forget that. But if you can keep reminding yourself that it's a new day, you can do something better, that seems great."

So close to smacking her racquet on the court, SO CLOSE! But Vika resists the urge, tapping it several times instead.

Tuesday
Aug122014

Cincy Open, Where Hot Streaks Get Extinguished

People ask me, what do you hate about tennis?  I offer them today's first round ousters of Venus Williams and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who just last week were kicking ass and slaying giants.

That Tennis Hate look: Lucie Safarova, on learning that her match point winner against Venus Williams was actually a fault that puts her in jeopardy of a break.There they were, Venus at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Jo-Willy at the men's tour equivalent in Toronto, burning through the draw.  Venus, unseeded, was a surprise finalist, losing to Aggie Radwanska but beating her sis, world No. 1 Serena, in the semis.   Tsonga dismantled four Top Ten players -- Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dmitrov and Roger Federer -- on his way to becoming the first Frenchman to win the tournament since 1881.  Seriously.

I know Quebec wants to secede, but shouldn't Canada be nicer to the French than that? 

Williams' and Tsonga's success was so 72 hours ago.  As on Wall Street, past performance in tennis is no predictor of future winnings.  I ask you....what's NOT to hate about that?

Here in Cincinnati, Williams lost to the 16th seed Lucie Safarova, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 4-6. It's Safarova's first victory ever over the seven-time Grand Slam winner. Safarova not only handled Venus' big serves, breaking her four times in the last two sets, she kept Tennis Hate at bay when, serving 5-2 for the match, the umpire overruled a line call to give Venus the break, and some hope.  Williams held, but Safarova clinched the set and the match it in her next service game.  

Venus was gracious in defeat, offering no other excuse than that her opponent was better.  "I think she just played really well," she said.  "No matter what shot I hit, she hit a winner, or if I hit it really deep she somehow managed to control it down the line."

At least that one went the distance -- three sets, in nearly two and a half hours of play.  Tsonga's loss to journeyman and Tennis Hate icon Mikhail Youzhny (you'll understand why here) was a wipe out at 6-1, 6-4. This was not the Tsonga who beat four Top Ten players, including Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, to claim the title in Canada last week.   He looked pooped. 

Also going down, but off court: defending champ Victoria Azarenka, who finally succumbed to the knee injury she suffered in Montreal.  

"I'm going to get more treatment and get more work done and should be good for the US Open," she said, her lips to God's ears. "But I had to make this decision.  I feel strongly that it's the best for me at this moment."

Sunday
Jan122014

Australian Open: Nadal Over Wawrinka, Li Over Azarenka

The Australian Open is about three hours away AS I TYPE.  Talk about Tennis Hate.  I'm hating 16 hour time zone differences and draw sheets.  I'm scrambling to submit mine by 7:00 PM Eastern Time for Tennis Channel's contest. Every day, at WNYC, I work under deadline pressure.  Why should my Sunday afternoons at home be any different? 

 

Serena Williams seems likely to pick up her 18th Grand Slam title, which would put her in the same company as Chris Evert and Martina Navratalova.  Yeah, she has to beat Victoria Azarenka, but she can do that.  She just did in Brisbane, and Williams' last take-down of Azarenka was for the US Open title in September.  It won't be easy, though.  Both of those matches were close, with Serena needing three sets to beat Vika at Flushing Meadows.

But there's Li Na lurking in the semifinal, to spoil it all for Serena.  Haters, you know how I love that.  If Li gets past Serena, she could see a rematch with Vika in the championship round.  Azarenka is going for her third consecutive Australian Open trophy.  

Li Na could upset the conventional narrative of this tournament in so many ways.  It would be awesome.

I want Li Na to beat Vika Azarenka in a go-for-broke three-set chamionship match.

What I'll be looking for to entertain me in the interim: an early exit for 7th-seed Sara Errani, who suffers from Tennis Hate and doesn't think she belongs in the Top Ten.....an upset of Azarenka by young gun Sloane Stephens in the Round of 16, just like she last year to Williams in the quarters...a Kerber/Kvitova nailbiter in the Round of 16.....and, in third round action, Jersey girl Christina McHale besting 10th seed and former world number one Caroline Wozniaki, who's too distracted by plans for her upcoming wedding to Rory McIlroy.  

On the men's side, I'm actually predicting more unpredictability than on the women's half of the draw. Unconventional, I know.  I don't think Andy Murray is going to go very far.  He's recovering from back surgery. Philip Kohlschreiber can take him in the quarters, after he confounds John Isner, who will suffer a letdown from his skin-of-his-teeth 7-6(4), 7-6(7) victory over Yen-Hsun Lu (who?) in Auckland.

I'm making a sentimental pick, by-passing a world number one Rafael Nadal/world number 2 Novak Djokovic dream final, for a championship match between Nadal and 8th-seed Swiss Stan Wawrinka.

Stan will have to upset Djoko in the process.  He came close last year in the fourth round in Melbourne, leading at one point 6-1, 5-2 (ah, the Tennis Hate that ensued!).  It was one of the best matches of his life and in tennis. Stan's no longer languishing in the fading Federer's shadow.  He stepped up his game in 2013.  He climbed back into the top ten for the first time since May 2008 -- reaching his current spot of 8th in the world in July, a career best --  and collected his fourth ATP World Tour title at Oeiras, his first since 2011.  

So, payback time for Stan when he meets Djokovic in the quarters.  I think he can do it, and defeat Berdych, too, in the semis.  But he won't get Rafa.

What I'll be looking for to entertain me in the interim: Ryan Harrison, losing his cool and busting some racquets over the shots of quicksilver trickster Gael Monfils in the first round....16th seed Kei Nishikori, newly empowered by advice from Hall of Famer Michael Chang, giving Nadal a scare in their fourth round match....the battle of the beautiful one-handed backhands in the fourth round between Wawrinka and 9th seed Richard Gasquet....a first-round battle of the old-timers, American Michael Russell and might-as-well-be-American Dmitry Tursunov (Russian, seeded 30th)....and how quickly the Greatest of All Time, Roger Federer, will get sent home to his pregnant wife and twin daughters.  

 

Saturday
Sep072013

US Open: Wake Me When the Women's Final is Over

Haters, don't call me during Sunday's US Open re-match final between defending champion Serena Williams and number 2 seed Victoria Azarenka.  

I don't want my nap interrupted.

So familiar: Serena exhultant, after beating Li Na in semifinals. Photo courtesy of AP.

Yes, this year's US Open has been a real snooze-fest, especially for fans who've paid hundreds of dollars to score prime seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the show court of the US Open.   The matches have not been very compelling, especially if you've been following world number one Serena's march through the draw.

Williams has lost 16 games in six matches.  In her semi-final against 5th-seed Li Na of China, she dropped just three games, 6-0, 6-3. That bagel in the first set was one of seven she's buttered up for her opponents so far. Her double-bagel beat-down of Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals took 55 minutes. Anyone who took a bathroom break during that match missed much of it.

Up until Saturday's five-set thriller between world number one Novak Djokovic and 9th seed Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, Arthur Ashe ticket holders were not getting any better value for their dollar from the men.  Djokovic, last year's US Open runner-up, has been carbo-loading on bagels, too, delivering a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 platter to Spain's Marcel Grenollers in their fourth round match.  Defending champion and Wimbledon winner Andy Murray wasn't exciting to watch, either.  He won his early matches easily and then, just as easily, went down to Wawrinka. Wawrinka's more well-known countryman, Roger Federer, looked inspired in his 6-3, 6-0, 6-2 dismissal of Adrian Mannarino of France, but seeing Federer in top form was the only thing going for that lopsided match. Two days later, on Ashe again, the once-dominant Federer was upset by 19th seed Tommy Robredo. That match was compelling because of Roger's early exit, and not because of the quality of the match.  Federer went down meekly in straight, sloppy sets.

The tennis I'll remember from the 2013 US Open won't be the marquee names and the center court matches.  It'll be the matches on the outer courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, between the lesser stars in the pro tennis constellation.

This is where the best fan experience is.  It's real tennis, as in, tennis you can sink your teeth into.  Tennis you can see, for one, without binoculars.

I was one row back from the baseline in Louis Armstrong Stadium for Wawrinka's fourth round upset of 5th-seed Tomas Berdych of Czechoslovakia.  I watched them pace in front of me, toweling off, muttering under their breaths.  I could see, without the benefit of TV close-ups, how keyed in they were to the flight of the ball, how fast they were reacting to each shot, could see the ropes of the muscles of their forearms jump as they walloped the ball. It was a see-saw battle between two evenly-matched players that took 2 hours and 47 minutes to decide, nothing like the easy victories being played on Ashe.

On Court 17, another memorable match was the grueling, sweaty five-setter between the young Canadian, Milos Raonic and the veteran Frenchman, Richard Gasquet.  It was a day session match that had stretched into a humid night.  The stands were packed equally with Canadians and French. Chants of "Let's go, Rao-nic!" were countered by "All-ez, Gas-quet!"

I felt swept up in the moment, the madness, the sport.  It's why I love tennis on the smaller courts.  It's what made my US Open special.  And it's what I hope, but don't expect, for the fans in the gilded gold seats of Arthur Ashe Stadium when Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka take the court for their final. That bagel in the first set was one of seven she's buttered up for her opponents so far.

Wednesday
Jan302013

Australian Open: Finishing Shots

From a Tennis Hater's perspective, there was a lot to love about the 2013 Australian Open (yes, Haters, I relish getting into your heads with my syntax; might as well, since I can't do so with my game).  

She's got game AND gamesmanship: Azarenka, after winning 2nd Australian Open. Photo courtesy of European Press Photoagency/Dennis SabanganThe final between Victoria Azarenka and Li Na was a graduate course in managing one's emotions on the court. Azarenka successfully defended her title despite a hostile Aussie crowd that cheered every time she missed a first serve. Li kept pace with Azzie, through early breaks of serve (she opened each set, and was broken each time by Azarenka), two tumbles to the court and a knock to her head during one of those falls that had her seeing stars.  Both players had to contend with a ten-minute break for Australia Day fireworks.

Blogger Matt Zemeck at All I Need is a Picket Fence thought the women's championship was a "more impressive competition" than the men's final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray:

The way in which a person competes refers to immeasurables and intangibles, to realities that can’t easily be defined by numbers or raw assessments of technique....The men’s finalists, in short, were not subjected to the hardships that the women’s finalists had to walk through. Yet, when presented with a vast array of physical and psychological challenges, the point remains that the women showed so much more as competitors than the men did.

I agree.  The first set of the Murray-Djoko match was exhilarating for its fierce speed and aggressive athleticism, but after that, it got boring and predictable.  Murray eased off his shots.  Djokovic went for his.  Bada-bing, bada-boom -- game, set, match, Djokovic.

The Azarenka-Li final was like a good mystery novel.  You stayed to see how it would end, how all the clues would come together.

Li Na had 30 unforced errors off her usually-steady backhand. Photo courtesy of AustralianOpen.com.One clue for me was the look on Li's face near the end of the second set:"Oh, shit, it's 2011 all over again." That's when she lost the AO championship to Kim Clijsters, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.  

She could as well have said, "Oh, shit, it's 2012 all over again." She lost to Clijsters then in the Australian Open's Round of 16, dropping the second and third sets after winning the first.

Do I sense a pattern here? Does Li Na?  Did it mess with her head?

Yep, yep, and yep.  

"I really feeling I wish I can win the title because this my favorite Grand Slam," she told reporters, after being asked why she cried after losing.  ("It seemed like after the loss in 2011 you were a little more happy," said one.  Clearly, this journalist doesn't play tennis.)

"The second time I was in the final, and twice I was lost the match.  So, of course, I was feeling a little bit sad."

Meanwhile, the Bludger from Belarus successfully kept newspaper headlines like "It's Melbourne v Victoria" from getting under her skin and into her game.

"I knew what I had to do.  I had to stay calm.  I had to stay positive.  I just had to deal with the things that came onto me," said the Iron Maiden.  "I was actually really happy that I went through so many things knowing that I can still produce the tennis that I can and keep the focus that I can."

Someday, maybe Li Na will experience that kind of happiness. 

OTHER NOTABLE MOMENTS OF TENNIS HATE: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, saying Serena Williams and the other "girls" on the women's tour "are more unstable emotionally than us," leading to Williams' quarterfinal upset by up-and-comer Sloane Stephens, and no consistent Top Four, like the Djokovic-Federer-Murray-Nadal block.  

"It's just about hormones and all this stuff.  We don't have all these bad things.  So we are physically in a good shape every time, and you are not.  That's it."

Tsonga is forgetting long runs at the top of the women's game by menstruators like Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, who took 31 of the 36 Grand Slams between 1968 and 1976...or Evert's and Martina Navratilova's classic rivalry through the 80s...or 22-time Grand Slam champ Steffi Graf's dominance during the 1990s.  And then there are the Williams sisters, hoarding 21 of the 49 Grand Slam titles since 2000.  Testosterone has been known to make men say, and do, stupid things.  

Dr Ramon Spaaij, a research fellow at LaTrobe University, says sexism like Tsonga's colors people's view of most professional sports, and is what makes casual observers think the women's game is less predictable, more uneven and more competitive than men's tennis. 

There is compelling evidence that the prevailing belief that men’s tennis is currently highly predictable and less competitive than women’s tennis is false when we look at the entire tours. Economist Liam Lenten calculated that overall, men’s tennis is actually (slightly) more competitive than women’s tennis in terms of the percentage of matches that go to the deciding set, the likelihood of upsets, and so forth. 

I think the women's game is wobbly because of the serve.  Excluding Serena, who's the best ever, certainly the best right now, the top players cannot hold serve.  In their final, Azarenka and Li traded breaks, racking up seven of them in the first set alone.  Women on the WTA tour don't have the big boomers that win them easy points, and they don't have crafty, reliable second serves to get them out of trouble.  Why, I don't know.  Tsonga would say their breasts get in the way.

AND FINALLY, I may be giving too much credit to Novak Djokovic's mental toughness and confidence for the way he's been able to recover from grueling matches and notch more victories.  The New York Times had noticed this, too.

Last year, after a brutal semifinal victory over Murray, he bounced back with one day’s rest to beat Rafael Nadal in nearly six hours in the final.

This year, he played for 5 hours 2 minutes against Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round on Sunday night before winning, 12-10, in the fifth set. After his recovery work, he said, he went to bed at 5 a.m. on Monday and did not wake up until 2:30 p.m.

Djokovic's response to a question about how he does it got me curious.  

“After five hours of match, you need to really put a lot of time into recovery, different kinds of recoveries," he told reporters.  What KIND of recoveries?

“I understand that many people have many different views and opinions, and I respect that."  WHAT views and opinons?  "But I’m doing everything that is legal, that is correct, that is natural that I can, possibly can, in my power. And it’s working well.”  Legal?  Correct?  Natural?  What is Djokovic doing?

He's resting in an egg after matches, Haters.  Djokovic's secret weapon, contrary to HEAD ads, isn't his racquet or his gluten-free diet.  It's a $75,000 egg-shaped pressurized chamber. He's been using one since at least 2011, which is when the Wall Street Journal got wind of it:

The machine, which is made by a California-based company called CVAC Systems and hasn't been banned by any sports governing bodies, is one of only 20 in the world....The company claims that spending up to 20 minutes in the pod three times a week can boost athletic performance by improving circulation, boosting oxygen-rich red-blood cells, removing lactic acid and possibly even stimulating mitochondrial biogenesis and stem-cell production.

Rock star Axl Rose owns one.  It's where he goes when he's not churning out an album every fifteen years.  According to the WSJ, Djokovic stays at the estate of tennis pro and former ranked player Gordon Uehling III in Alpine, New Jersey when he's in New York for the US Open, and uses Uehling's egg.  Does this mean I can call Uehling an egg donor?  

Djokovic told the New York Times he didn't have a CVAC pod with him in Australia.  Too bad; it would have made for a spectacular arrival at Melbourne Park: