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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

Agassi: Nadal is Greatest of All Time

Eight-time Slam winner and tennis Hall of Famer Andre Agassi threw another log on the fire in the long-smoldering debate over who is the greatest tennis player of all time, siding with those in the Vamos Rafa camp.

Speaking to Singapore's New Straits Times, he said he'd put Federer in the Number Two spot.  Is it even worth it, to be spoken about as ONE OF the greats? Can greatness settle for sloppy seconds? Or does Tennis Hate muck up the discourse with its need to be right?

Agassi is basing his rankings criteria on the quality of the competition they've faced, and not just on trophies collected and Grand Slam titles accrued.  In that department, Federer leads Nadal, 17 to 13.  But five of Fed's 17 Slams were won between 2003 and 2005, before Rafa started finding his form and his way into the second week of major tournaments.  It was in 2005, in the semifinals at Roland Garros, when Federer and Nadal met for the first time in a Slam.  Rafa went on to win that match, and the championship agains Mariano Puerta of Argentina, to take his first of eight French Opens and the crown as King of Clay. 

Fed, wiping off sweat during Indian Wells in March, where Novak Djokovic snapped his 11-match winning streak and beat him in the final. Courtesy AP.

"Federer separated himself from the field for four years," said Agassi.  "He separated himself from (Andy) Roddick and (Lleyton) Hewitt.  Nadal had to deal with Federer, (Novak) Djokovic, (Andy) Murray in the golden age of tennis. He has done what he has done and he’s not done yet.”

Whose side am I on in this debate, Haters?  I have to agree, grudgingly, with Agassi.  I say grudgingly, because I love Fed's game, his class, his all-court style, his effortless effort, his footwork.  But Nadal is smarter in competition, more mentally tough. He has not only beaten Fed, Nole, Andy, he's done so after coming back from big physical set backs, like the knee injury that had him laid up for seven months in the latter half of the 2012 season.  

Whose side are you on in this debate?

Remember that streak, Haters? Most other players - think Andy Murray right now with his back injury -- take a while to find their form.  Not Nadal. He finaled in his first tournament back, at Vina del Mar, then went on a tear, winning 22 consecutive matches and picking up titles like girls at Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break: Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Indian Wells.  Ten in all, out of a career-high 14 finals, including victories over Federer in the final in Rome, the quarters in Cincinnati and the semis in London.

That's amazing resilience.  That's Greatest Of All Time kind of mental tenancity and confidence.  

Is he writing in shorthand, GOAT? Rafa, in Madrid, signing autographs. Courtesy AP.


Madrid: Does Nadal Believe He Can Win?

We all know Rafael Nadal, number one in the world, King of Clay and all that, can and should win in Madrid.  He's won it the last two years.  He's 302-23 on clay, what Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal rightly described as "absurd." So why is everyone worried?

Rafael Nadal in a rare moment of defeat with David Ferrer. Ferrer is now 6-27 against Rafa.

Perrotta's article is titled "This Isn't the Nadal We All Know."  On the ATP's website, it's "Nadal Hoping to Banish Doubts in Madrid."  Over at Grantland, Louisa Thomas writes about Rafa's "Land of Nod," as in, nodding off, like he's in the midst of a bad dream and needs to brush off the cobwebs like he knocks the red clay out of the soles of his shoes before serving.

That's because Nadal is heading into Madrid having lost in the quarterfinals of the last two clay court tournaments he's been in, to guys he's routinely beaten.  

Here's how Perrotta sets up the conundrum:

The first defeat came against David Ferrer in Monte Carlo (where Nadal has won eight titles). Nadal had previously beaten Ferrer 17 straight times on clay. Then, last week in Barcelona, where Nadal had won eight titles and 41 consecutive matches dating back to 2005, he lost to Nicolás Almagro, who had never beaten Nadal in his career.

To those of us long accustomed to the logic of Nadal + Clay Court = Victory, just like 1 + 1 = 2, this New Math answer of Loss doesn't compute, especially when there's no apparent injury hampering him.  

Nadal's knees aren't broken this time.  What appears to be broken is his spirit.  He's suffering from Tennis Hate.

Nadal at Barcelona, where he lost to Nicolas Almagro. Not a face we often see on Nadal on clay.

Nadal tried to seize control of the storyline today.  As reported on, he told reporters in Madrid, “When you lose, you have a hard moment, you have more doubts. But that's what happened. I've already said it several times. I didn't try to win Monte Carlo 12 times or Barcelona 12 times. Maybe that isn’t normal. This is the reality of the situation. Maybe it's normal to lose three times in the quarter-finals."

Wait a minute, is Nadal now second-guessing his past success?  "Maybe that isn't normal"?  Yes, it's extraordinary for most people, but it's been normal for him.  

Haters, this doesn't sound like a winning mental strategy to me.  Does it to you?  Hell, I've tried this! I've caught myself saying variations of it.   

  • "Maybe I'm supposed to lose to my husband.  After all, he's a guy and I'm a girl, and guys are just better at this eye-hand coordination thing."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win any matches my first year playing on a USTA league."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win, ever, because I am just not very good at this."  
  • "Maybe I'm not supposed to win because winning is for really competitive, bossy, control freaks and I'm just here to have fun."

My colleague, WNYC digital editor and 5.0 tennis player Caitlin Thompson, thinks Nadal's back-to-back quarterfinal losses to lesser players means he's in real trouble.  

Nadal's confidence took a hit after his 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open in January.

"For a streakier player, such as Serena Williams, this would not be a big deal at all," she said in an e-mail. Williams is not as "emotionally invested" in a loss at a lesser tournament than she is in a Slam.  "For Nadal, who famously plays every point as intensely as the last, all losses are equal, which means they're all equally troubling. 

"When I was a junior tennis player, something my coaches tried very hard to instill in me was the idea of belief. Most matches, they'd tell me, were lost or won before the players struck the first ball - the winner having been decided by [the person whose confidence] was stronger. By thinking you could win, you made yourself able to win, and often did win.

"The big players - Rafa and Serena and all the others who dominate the rest of the field - have the biggest belief. And sometimes more important, they're helped out by their opponents lack of belief. Nadal's losing record indicates he's having a hard time - and he knows it." 

Nadal said he hopes the energy he draws from playing in Madrid, a tournament he describes as "special," will boost his confidence. He said he's also training hard, looking to make little changes.

"I don't think I have to change many things," he said. "I think I can change very small things, and the change can be quite drastic and quite big."

This is a great tip, Haters. You don't have to throw the racquet over the fence. I find I load up too much on all the things I'm going to do to win the next point. "Okay, watch the ball and hit through the ball and breathe as you hit and move your feet." And then what happens? None of the above. I'm too busy trying to remember what the first item on the To Do list was to even notice the ball coming over the net.

"I hope that it just works out," said Nadal. That's all you can do in this game, right? That hope-y, change-y thing. Hey, it worked for our nation's first black president. "If things don't come out well, we will go to Rome; if things don't work out there, we will go to Paris

Onward, through May, through the clay.


Think Tennis Hate is Bad? Golf Hate is Worse

Sometimes, the Hate half of my seesaw relationship with tennis soars higher than my Love, and I feel like quitting altogether and taking up another activity. It'd better not be golf.  Frustration with that sport has people walking away in droves.

Okay, now give me a big soccer-sized ball to hit. And a baseball bat for a club. Photo, courtesy of Associated Press/Paul Abell.

A New York Times article notes that, by the National Golf Foundation's own estimates, five million golfers have bent their clubs over their knees and have walked off (or hobbled, depending on how that club-bending knee jab went). The NGF estimates about 20 percent of the 25 million existing golfers will do the same in the next few years.

"People under 35 have especially spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn and has too many tiresome rules," wrote the Times' Bill Pennington.

Golf and tennis share a lot of Hate.  These sports aren't easy.

Golf and tennis are often compared. They're both games for life. You can play from 8 to 80. They have codes of conduct, an etiquette that is not evident in hockey, football, basketball or soccer. Both are traditionally country club sports, with tennis doing a much better job of increasing its diversity. Quick, name another black American golfer besides Tiger Woods. Now, think of tennis: Serena, Venus, Sloane, James Blake, Donald Young, with junior champion Taylor Townsend lurking in the wings.

And golf and tennis share a lot of Hate. These sports are not easy. The defending United States Open champion (golf, not tennis), Justin Rose, told the Times his five-year-old son doesn't want to play anymore because he's tired of failing at it.

The United States Tennis Association saw a similar problem and is about five years into an effort to reverse it with its 10 and Under Tennis program, once called QuickStart. It promotes the use of big foam balls, shorter nets and smaller courts, so that kids can hit more easily and rally longer, and, presumably, boost their satisfaction level so that they stay with the sport. To encourage -- others might say force -- notoriously independent American teaching pros to adapt, the USTA changed the rules for junior tournaments so that they required the foam balls and smaller courts. In 2010, when I reported on this for WNYC, only 50,000 of the two to three million kids taking tennis clinics went on to participate in USTA junior-level matches. Meanwhile, adults were coming to tennis in droves; 350,000 were participating in USTA leagues.

"Very few sports have more adults playing than kids, but tennis is one of those," the USTA's chief executive of community tennis, Kurt Kamperman, told me then. "We want to turn that upside down. We want to keep all the adults, but we really want to see a kids' revolution."

How is golf dealing with its crisis of Hate?  It's turning to tennis.

Yo, USTA, what about also working with what you have, which is an adult revolution? Why not try innovative ways to help adults find more satisfaction with tennis and play more? Why not give them more opportunities to compete, rather than the few open tournaments offered in which a 3.0 player can find herself playing a 5.0 club pro? Ah, a rant for another time.

Photo, courtesy of the meantime, there's been a lot of ranting against Ten and Under Tennis, especially since the USTA changed the rules for junior tournaments in 2011 to require foam balls and smaller courts.  That has rankled some parents and teaching pros, who don't want to get with the program.  They've included Fox commentator Sean Hannity, who has two kids in the junior tennis circuit, and teaching great Wayne Bryan, father of doubles living legends Bob and Mike. The backlash has been so fierce on social media that the USTA had to convene a pow-wow with Bryan and other top dissenters in 2012 to calm things down.

How will golf address its crisis of Hate? They're turning to tennis. According to the Times, the PGA has put together an "eclectic" 10-member advisory panel that includes former USTA exec Arlen Kanterian, "who led American tennis’s successful effort to reverse a decline in participation."  He was gone in 2008, a few years before Ten and Under started getting actively promoted, but hey, he's the guy to go to if the USGA and PGA want to find ways to boost revenue and audience.  During his 8 years as chief exec of pro tennis at the USTA, Kanterian brought in instant replay, blue courts, a Sunday women's US Open final and Patrick McEnroe as head of player development.  And folks are STILL griping about the woeful state of American tennis, especially on the men's side.

Some golf leaders, including pro Sergio Garcia and golf-ball maker executive Mark King of TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, are suggesting a Ten and Under-style shift for golf, too, for youngsters and adult Golf Haters alike.  They include changes to courses like "pizza-sized" 15-inch holes, juiced balls, shorter rounds, tees for every shot and mulligans for every hole.  There are some who are even trying "foot golf," an unholy alliance of soccer and golf that involves kicking a ball into a hole.  Time to do a Johnny Mac here and exclaim, "You cannot be serious!"

Some golf purists are hoping they aren't. In fact, they're counting on it. 

“I don’t want to rig the game and cheapen it,” said Curtis Strange, a two-time United States Open champion and an analyst for ESPN. “I don’t like any of that stuff. And it’s not going to happen either. It’s all talk.”


These Swiss Don't Miss: Federer, Wawrinka, in Monte Carlo Final

It's an all-Swiss final at the Monte-Carlo Rolex tournament on Sunday, with Stan Wawrinka going up against Roger Federer.  How convenient for the citizens of the Principality of Monaco that they share the same national colors of red and white with the Swiss!  Fans can don face paint for either player and not draw the ire of Prince Albert II.  

The Stanimal feasts on David Ferrer, 6-1, 7-6(3), to reach Monte-Carlo final. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

In a twist, it's Stan who enters the match as the top Swiss men's tennis player in the world, not Fed.  Wawrinka is ranked third in the world, behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and Fed is fourth.  Roger could elbow his Davis Cup teammate aside with a win tomorrow.

Federer defeats an injured Novak Djokovic, showcases his healthy wrists, in Monte-Carlo semifinal Saturday. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

Beside that bit of ranking friction, there are other story lines that recommend this match.  Fed has never won Monte-Carlo.  It, and Shanghai, are the only ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophies that have eluded the Greatest of All Time.   He has come close.  He was runner-up to Rafa, King of Clay, three years running, from 2006 to 2008.  

While Federer has 22 Masters 1000 trophies to dust, Wawrinka has none.  He, too, has come close.  This is third Masters 1000 final (there was Rome in 2008 and Madrid last year).  Though he's a daunting 1-13 against Federer, Wawrinka has been having the year of his career.  He won his first Slam, the Australian Open, in January.  To get it, he had to shake off another losing streak by beating world number one Rafael Nadal for the first time in 12 matches.  A month earlier, Wawrinka snared the title in Chennai for a second time.  He is 19-3 since the start of the season.  As my husband often says as he stares at his cards at the blackjack tables, "he's due."

And if all of that isn't compelling, Serena Williams' coach, Patrick Moratoglou, likes the Monte-Carlo final because it's a one-fingered salute to all those teaching pros who are coaching their kids to hit two-handed backhands.

It was Wawrinka's backhand that demolished David Ferrer, 6-1, 7-6 (3) in their semifinal.  Stan avoided Ferrer's fierce forehand as much as possible, wearing him down through backhand-to-backhand duels.  He raced out to a 5-1 lead in the first set in under 30 minutes.   He reined in his unforced errors for the second set tiebreak quickly enough to get a 4-0 advantage early on Ferrer.  

"It was important to move well, be aggressive. That was my plan," said Stan.  At one point in the match, after handing his towel to a ball kid, Wawrinka crouched down on his haunches, sprang up, and did a series of football-player-running-through-the-tires steps  while waiting for Ferrer to serve.  I thought, uh oh, is he cramping? No. He was just reminding himself to move his feet.

Roger Federer reached the final by upsetting defending champ and wounded world number 2 Novak Djokovic, 7-5, 6-2.  Nole's been nursing a wrist injury all tournament long, but it didn't seem to hurt him until today.  He walked onto the court with his right forearm heavily bandaged and a heavy look on his face.

"It's unfortunate that when you're playing at this level against Roger, big tournament, that you are not able to play your game because something else is taking away all your energy and effort," Djokovic was quoted as saying in USA Today. "This injury has been present for last 10 days, and I tried not to think or talk about it. I did everything I could, really. I was on the medications every day, I was doing different therapies, injections." 

Djokovic said he's going to take some time away from tennis.

"I just rest now. I cannot play tennis for some time. How long, I don't know," Djokovic said. "I'm going to rest and see when it can heal 100 percent, then I will be back on the court."  His next scheduled stop on the tour is in Madrid, which starts May 4.  And the French Open is beckoning.  It starts May 25.  


Saintly Pro: Joe Dinoffer

Saintly Pro Joe Dinoffer hits two milestones this year. He turns 60, and his tennis training tools company, On Court Off Court, turns 20.  That's a pretty big deal, those two decades, when you think of what a niche market he's operating in.  

 Joe Dinoffer, made a saint for all the times he's had to say, "racquet back." Photo, Joe Dinoffer. Halo conferred by Amy Eddings.

Flip through a catalog or click through On Court Off Court's website, and you'll find the tools in a typical tennis pro's teaching arsenal: brightly colored cones, flat plastic targets, ball machines and big foam tennis balls.

But there are also gadgets like the Forehand Fixer, the Billie Jean King Eye Coach, the Contact Doctor and the enigmatic Arm Pocket Developer, which sounds like a sewing notion.  It's not.  It's an arm band that helps correct for big backswings.

We're still trying to get tennis players to embrace the use of training aids more like golfers do

"These things all definitely help, there's no question about it," said Dinoffer in a recent telephone interview with me.  "I think, intrinsically with tennis, there are people who would use training aids more -- and some do use them -- but there haven't been companies promoting training aids.  One of the reasons is, the numbers are small enough that companies that come up with one or two ideas cannot sell enough of them to stay in business."

That hasn't been a problem with Dinoffer, who started delving into the science of learning out of a desire to help his students improve more quickly.  "We've got a little over 200 proprietary products that I designed," Dinoffer said.  Some are simply modifications for teaching carts and ball baskets, but others clearly involved thinking out of the box, or, in this case, the court.  

The opening salvo in the War On Cones: Joe Dinoffer's Ropezone, which creates target hitting zones. Photo, On Court Off Court.His first product was Ropezone, a set of four, brightly-colored flat ropes that clip onto the net and are used to create target areas.  Dinoffer said Ropezone not only helps players develop directional hitting, it builds confidence.

"When I started my company, I jokingly called it Join The War On Cones," he said. Why the Cone Hate?

Tennis pros walk on court, typically, with a mind set that they're getting paid to find what's wrong

"If you aim for a cone that's 60 or 80 feet away, and you hit it, it's just pure luck.  People fail 95 percent of the time or more," he said.  That leads to Tennis Hate.  Haters, we know where that can lead us: straight off the court and onto the couch.  Dinoffer said target zones are more forgiving than cones, they can be adjusted to a player's skills and abilities and they offer higher chances for success.

"Tennis pros walk on court, typically, with a mind set that they're getting paid to find what's wrong. Consequently, that's what they'll do.  They'll see you, Amy, hitting a forehand [editor's note: I'm cringing here, which tells me he's on to something] and feel like, 'Wow, the more I notice what you're doing wrong, the more I can tell you what you're doing wrong, the better job I'm doing.'  But that's going to backfire on the student.

"I came up with the theory that a 70 percent to 30 percent success to failure ratio was a reasonable thing to help people feel good about themselves and their experience."  What Joe's offering through his products -- the funky Arm Pocket Developers, the ropes, the straps, even the little buzzing electronic shoe inserts designed to cattle-prod you onto your toes -- is encouragement and confidence.  Hey, I can do this, too.  I think I'll stick with this sport.   

A tennis training aid, a Hannibal Lector restraint device, or a goalie mask? You decide. Photo courtesy Square Hit Tennis.It takes a lot of balls, though -- and I don't mean the fuzzy, yellow kind -- to show up at your club and strap on your Flex Trainer.  I bought a Wrist Assist (check out the photo, left) after seeing coaching great Brad Gilbert shill for it on Tennis Channel, and it quickly moved from my wrist to the trunk of my car.  I was too embarrassed to wear it.

Even gadget-less training efforts can draw stares from others.  I once tried replicating a Bryan Brothers kick serve drill, one that involves serving from the baseline on your knees, to force you to hit up on the ball.  Two guys on the next court stopped to watch.  "Is that something you learned from watching Tennis Channel?" one jerk quipped.

I persisted for a few more serves, my cheeks bright red, every ball flopping into the net.  I got up a few minutes later and tried to look nonchalent as I picked out green grains of Har-True that were embedded in my knees.  Ouch.  In more ways than one.

Saintly Pro Joe Dinoffer was sympathetic.  "We're still trying to get tennis players to embrace the use of training aids more like golfers do," he said.  "People swing golf clubs in their backyards more freely to practice than people will swing their tennis racquet.  It could be that to play golf is a serious decision in that it takes half a day and it costs more money.  I guess it motivates golfers to practice a little more.  Tennis, perhaps, is taken a little more casually."

Well.  I'm not a casual type of gal, Haters.  I've put a lot of effort into trying to improve, and it often feels like it's been to my detriment.  That Wrist Assist I threw out cost me $59, and I used it maybe 5 times before I let shame deter me.  These things don't work anyway, I fumed.

I wonder if Joe Dinoffer offers an Attitude Adjustor?

That Wrist Assist, by the way? Joe says his Angle Doctor gets the job done for about half the price, something he hints at in this instructional video.

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