Thursday, January 23, 2014
A 16-hour time difference won't keep tennis fans in America from tuning in to tonight's semifinal between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, scheduled to air around 3:30 am ET in the States. The sports' rivalry of the decade, thought to be a distant memory, is back in the first Grand Slam of 2014 when we thought we had seen its last chapter at this magnitude.
Federer is playing Federer-like tennis again (close enough) after his fall from grace in 2013, while Nadal is the World No. 1 and top seed in the Australian Open, the tournament he missed one year ago with a severe knee injury. Both are battling injuries -- Federer has old man feet; half of Nadal's hand is missing -- but both know the importance of tonight's match and long to be the one holding the ink pen when this chapter of history is written.
Nadal holds the lead in the head-to-head series, 22-10, and hasn't lost one since 2012, five matches ago. But Federer, five years older and fighting to stay relevant, is out to prove he still belongs in the conversation in 2014.
It's going down, folks. Get your evening naps in now.
Forgive me for my absence from The Outer Courts these past couple of days; I haven't been myself since Eugenie "Genie" Bouchard confessed to having a crush on Justin Bieber. Ugh, I almost vomited typing that.
After her quarterfinals victory earlier this week, tennis' new sweetheart told courtside commentator Sam Smith that Bieber would be her
The Biebs, who was arrested last night in Miami -- not a good look, bro -- added fuel to the fire the next day by tweeting Genie, our Genie, before her semifinal match against Li Na.
@geniebouchard good luck :)
— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) January 22, 2014
I almost vomited reading it again. Nope... wait... yup... there it was... just vomited.
Bouchard lost that semifinal match -- his words are worthless to you! -- but she is still the hottest thing going, literally, in women's tennis right now. And it's a damn shame she has eyes on Bieber when there are so many single, charming, moderately attractive, out-of-shape, well-mannered, disease-free tennis bloggers from Kentucky out there.
If these two ever become anything more than a good luck/smiley face tweet, I don't think I'll be able to handle it. It must stop now, before it's late.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Nights like Tuesday night are why we watch tennis. Face it, to be a real tennis fan you have to put up with a lot of nonsense. There is the oddity of the ATP and WTA Tours, which put on only a handful of tournaments every year that are attended by all the top players, making statistics like "titles" somewhat meaningless without an understanding of the field of any given tournament. There are the brutal early tournament matches (especially at the non-Grand Slams), in which the difference between the two players' talent or caring level can be at such a high discrepancy that the scene becomes virtually unwatchable. And there are the attitudes and entourages of some (although not all) of the players that make rooting for them a bit like cheering for the Omega Theta Pi chapter in "Animal House."
Nevertheless, we put up with all of those problems for one reason...nights like Tuesday night in Melbourne. If you sat back, took a 5 Hour Energy Drink and watched the entirety of the two men's quarterfinal matches, you saw not only great tennis, but compelling human drama of the highest degree. Tennis at its best produces some of the most exciting moments in sports, and I couldn't help but be mesmerized by the two spectacles on my television (late) on Tuesday night. Clearly the competitive play was a big part of what made it so entertaining, but each match also had great storylines as well:
Coming into the Tournament, the narrative was repeated that Rafa Nadal had been given the "Draw of Death" and would face as tough a road as humanly possible to a second Australian Open title. That narrative however collapsed quickly as upsets and poor play by his opponents made Nadal's path much easier, even as he personally truggled to gain his footing. But on Tuesday, he got all he wanted and more from Grigor Dimitrov, who used the occasion to announce that maybe, just maybe, he is now finally ready to make the much-predicted breakthrough to the top levels of the sport a reality.
The contrast of the two players made the on-court action (which was of the highest level) even more thrilling. On the one hand we had Nadal, who the more I watch, the more I find myself mesmerized by his every quirk. His running forehand is an absolute thing of beauty and he unleashed it countless times on Dimitrov with such a fury that the Bulgarian simply had to applaud in admiration. But while his play can be breathtaking, his mannerisms and oddities continue to be even more captivating. Against Grigor, I counted almost 23 wedgie tugs in just one game...and while I understand that it isn't healthy for a man to spend so much time counting another man's tug at his backside, I simply can't comprehend or ignore it. His drinking of his water in a very proscribed (and neurotic) way, the tug of the hair, the serving snarl and even the open sore blisters on his hand make Nadal a fascinating figure for reasons that are very difficult to articulate. Its like at any given moment, he may hit the best shot you have ever seen, or slowly pick his nose in front of the camera, oblivious to being watched by the entire world.
Then on the other side, you have tennis's answer to Julio Iglesias. I knew little about Dimitrov's game coming into the match (besides his heavy serve and explosive talent), and I came away impressed with his overall skills and future. But for me, every Grigor match is about the exact same question. How in the world did this cat get Serena and Sharapova to fall so madly in love with him that they can't help but express their contempt for each other publicly? 22 year old Bulgarians rarely have that kind of pull, but Grigor does and thus I spend the match looking for clues as to how he became such a ladies man. It may be that they see his enormous potential on the court. Or maybe it is that they feel the pain when he blows his chance for glory, as he did when he missed a wide open court forehand on set point in the third, a miss that probably cost him the match. But whatever it is, Grigor has more game (both on and off the court) than the sporting public at large gives him credit for.
The match's third set tiebreak was the battle's highlight and was one for the ages, an emotional roller coaster that featured tremendous passing shots, between the legs lobs and a couple of huge missed opportunities. Nadal won, let out a primitive scream that reverberated across Rod Laver Arena and then carried that momentum to a fourth clinching set. The entire proceeding felt like a match that was on the precipice of being remembered as "the moment we knew" Dimitrov would become a star. But Nadal did just enough to not let it happen, thus preventing the same shocking result that befell Djokovic the night before and likely setting up his best chance in years to win that second Australian Open title.
No offense to Andy Murray. He is a marketable tennis star, his run over the last two years has been remarkable and his comeback from injury is an important storyline over the next couple of months. But this match had very little to do with him. For nearly everyone watching, Federer-Murray was about one thing...trying to ascertain if Federer could still be Federer. As all Roger fans try to forget 2013, the early signs of a rejuvenated Federer, equipped with a larger racket and a new youthful energy, looked promising. But it wouldn't be a real success until he did something he hadn't done since mid-2012...beat another member of the "Big Four."
After looking uncharacteristically nervous early, Roger not only got the victory, but he did so rather convincingly. He won the first two sets with relative ease and then fought back from a very disappointing third set defeat (blowing two match points on his serve), to regroup and win the fourth and get to yet another Grand Slam semifinal. As with Nadal/Dimitrov, the third set was the most memorable. Murray postponed the Federer celebration by fighting back from down a break twice, and leftopen the very real possibility that Roger could suffer an epic defeat from which it might be impossible to come back. The tiebreak included five straight Murray points and the energy of those moments had the Melbourne crowd almost giddy with enthusiasm. But Federer was able to rebound, controlled the fourth set as he had the first two and set up a second dream match between legends, this time opposite Nadal, for those of us ready to have little sleep again late on Thursday night/Friday morning.
It is a shame that the Australian Open comes on so late at night, as virtually all Americans miss some of the best evenings tennis has to offer. Tuesday night would have been a great introduction to the sport for many fans who have never followed the game, or lost interest during the less compelling moments of the past decade. The tennis played on Tuesday night was of the quality and the personalities of the stature, that it could bring in these casual fans to get swept up in the emotion of a Grand Slam quarterfinal and hopefully have them stick around for more matches in the future. Alas, that did not happen. But for those of us with the time, energy and jobs to allow us to stay up into the night and watch the action, it was one for the books. Let's hope Thursday's play can strive to compete.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
The tennis world is abuzz this morning due to the loss of Novak Djokovic to Stanislas Wawrinka last night and I can understand why. Most everyone considered Novak the prohibitive favorite to win another Australian Open and the loss ensures that either Stanny or Tomas Berdych will make a career-defining final (while also having the collective personality of pocket lint). That is all well and good but I can't focus on the upset because all of my attention is set for tonight and Andy Murray-Roger Federer. As an unabashed Federer supporter, this feels like a true opportunity in the wee hours of tonight, as Roger could potentially announce a return to top form and wake up the rather dormant tennis world.
Look, to the average sports fan, only four tennis players matter. Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic are all that get any attention and even Novak is not nearly as marketable as he is talented. Most tennis fans have been concerned for the better part of two years that Roger was slowly slipping so far out of that group in terms of competitiveness that the notion of including him as a marketable star was becoming painful and more out of habit that worth. But tonight can change all of that. Roger has been in his best form in 18 months in Melbourne and his win over Tsonga in the Round of 16 was better than any match he played in 2013. A win tonight can be an announcement to the world that there is still a "Big Four" in tennis and one that might be more competitive all-around this season than in any in recent memory.
I know I am getting ahead of myself. The conventional wisdom should be that Murray will do what he did last year, win a close, competitive match in which he was clearly the superior player but Federer has moments of glory. But conventional wisdom would still have Serena and Novak playing and Dmitrov would not be on the tips of anyone's tongues in Australia at this point besides Maria Sharapova. In this case, I think conventional wisdom will be wrong and we could be set up for a classic.
Roger in an upset, followed by a loss to eventual champion Rafa Nadal in the semifinals....a result that would be good for tennis, while also announcing that 2014 will be a year to remember.
Monday, January 20, 2014
I stayed up until 6:00 a.m. watching Roger Federer versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last night, and even though it completely ruined my Monday, it was worth it to see vintage Roger Federer on the court in Melbourne. Federer was brilliant in his defeat of No. 10 Tsonga, a match he won in straight sets without being broken. The tournament's sixth seed has now won all four of his 2014 Australian Open matches without losing a set, as he reaches his 41st Grand Slam quarterfinal, tying him with Jimmy Connors for the Open Era record.
There were plenty of highlights in the match -- this behind-the-back assist to the ball boy being one of them -- but none caught my attention quite like Federer's lob over a backpedaling Tsonga in the final game of the second set:
If that shot were any prettier, Grigor Dimitrov would try to date it.
When I sat down to watch last night's match between Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori, I never imagined it would be as end up being my favorite match of the Tournament thus far. Nishikori played some of the best tennis of his life, pushing Nadal to the limits before losing (7-6, 7-5, 7-6). It was a fascinating performance by Kei, showcasing the strides his game has made since the addition of Michael Chang as a coach (on a side note, Chang was my favorite player as a kid and I am transferring much of my youthful adoration to Nishikori. Any friend of Changs is a friend of mine). Kei covered the court tremendously and played with an aggression that had Rafa on the ropes throughout, giving the match a high level of play that made it extremely enjoyable .
But as with every match involving Nadal, the story is ultimately about Rafa more than the opponent. And with Nadal a bit rusty (and a bit gimpy on his ankle), I became less enamored with his play and more with his strange mannerisms around the court. Can we just say this out loud for once? Rafa is kind of odd. I say that not as a criticism, but more of as a point of real fascination. His nervous tics and mannerisms during the match can actually be overwhelming and when one focuses in on them, they reveal a person in a state of constant motion. Whether it is taking his fingers through his hair after the point, adjusting his shirt while selecting the service ball or grimacing his face like he is smelling a fart during the serve, Nadal is perpetually moving from one superstitious quirk to another, only stopping to actually you know...play tennis. Against Nishikori, we were presented with yet another Nadal-ism, as we were told by the ESPN crew that he left his water and energy drink in the sun, rather than under the shade, because he believed it needed to be a certain distance from his seat on the side of the court. For Rafa, he would rather have his drink scalding hot, than upset his usual routine on the court.
And then of course the most obvious, and least talked about in the media, quirk of Nadal's is his insistence on picking his wedgie before every serve. Don't believe me? Watch a Nadal match with a non-tennis fan and ask them what they notice first. Inevitably, they will mention that Nadal is picking at his butt on serve after serve. I am unclear as to whether Rafa needs to get new undergarments (I would recommend a good compression short if you are having difficulty) or if he simply is doing it as a habit, but the sight of the world's best player looking like a nervous 2nd grader at Field Day during a Grand Slam match is surreal. "The Daily Beast" showcased the issue rather succinctly with this video:
How is it that now after many years of this wedgie-picking habit, Nadal hasn't yet altered it? Can anyone imagine Lebron, Jeter, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods or any other similarly situated elite athlete reaching for his underwear before every big play? Am I the only one that wonders about this during matches like last night? Look, I am a huge Nadal fan. I once met him on an elevator and had a funny interaction with him (in which a grandmother also in the elevator said, "I CANT BELIEVE I AM MEETING YOU!" and I acted as if she was talking to me, and we all laughed uproariously...it was funnier if you were there I guess) in which he then posed with me with the most awkward smile I have yet seen:
But while he may be the nicest player one could meet in person, at some point, someone has to explain this wedgie-picking thing to me. It, along with all of the other quirks of Nadal, is bizarrely fascinating. We not only have the current world's greatest player (and one of the 5-8 best of all time) in front of us, but he also seems slightly neurotic and somewhat socially awkward, at least on the court doing what few in history have ever done better. That to me is a great combination and makes events like his match with Nishikori must-see television...not just because of his play on the court, but also because the oddities during the breaks as well. Rafa Nadal is both tennis's Muhammad Alit (the GOAT) and it's George Constanza. What a great combination.
The bad blood between Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka began in Melbourne one year ago, and it boiled over again on Monday in their fourth round match.
Down a break in the seventh game, Sloane sprinted after a drop shot and smashed the ball directly at Azarenka, connecting in her groin area. Sloane tried to apologize but Vika wanted no part of it.
Sloane connects with the backhand...
Let's zoom in and slow that down...
"Sorry," she said...
Vika responds with a shot toward the head...
Sloane laughed it off because that's what adorable people do...
But she probably said terrible, terrible things about Vika in her mind as she walked back...
Azarenka went on to win, 6-3, 6-2, and she didn't need a medical timeout this time.
Bob and Mike Bryan reached the quarterfinals of every Australian Open over the last ten years. They advanced to the finals of the tournament in nine of those ten years. But that streak ended Monday after a surprising defeat in the third round to unranked Eric Butorac and Raven Klaasen in straight sets.
The loss is mind-blowing to me because, honestly, I didn't know they were capable of losing. Like, ever. Especially not in Melbourne. Six of the Bryans' 15 Grand Slam titles were won in Australia and it was assumed they would be around in the end to play for a seventh in 2014. But Butorac and Klaasen, whoever they are, had other plans in mind and shocked the doubles world with an upset.
With the loss the Bryans join Serena Williams as Australia's top seeds who will be watching the rest of the tournament from home. Women's No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova was also handed an early exit on Monday, another one of the many upsets in the first four rounds.
Nobody's safe in Melbourne this year. If the Bryan Brothers can get knocked off, anyone can.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Well that wasn't supposed to happen.
Serena Williams, the world No. 1 and heavy favorite in Melbourne, fell short of reaching the quarterfinals of the tournament after an unexpected loss in the round of 16 on Sunday. 14 seed Ana Ivanovic defeated Williams, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, to end the five-time champion's run at a sixth Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, the Australian Open's top prize in women's singles tennis.
Serena's loss snapped her 25-match winning streak and it took a near perfect day from Ivanoic to do it. The Serb, a former No. 1 herself, played with confidence and without fear to pull off the biggest upset of the 2014 Australian Open. Ivanovic had never won a set against Serena in four career matches prior to Sunday.
Thanks to Ivanoic's improbable victory, the women's singles field is completely wide open and no one is happier to see Serena's exit than Victoria Azarenka. Vika is chasing a three-peat in Melbourne, and with Serena out of the picture, the odds are in her favor. She has somehow managed to avoid Serena in three consecutive trips to Melbourne, a rarity in this era of women's tennis.
Things just got interesting.