Sunday, July 6, 2008

Crazy Good: Nadal takes his first Wimbledon Crown

2 Set's down and on serve at 5-4 in the 3rd set in the Wimbledon Men's Singles final, the rains came. They came for the last time (Wimbledon's Centre court will be sporting a brand new roof next year), and they came unabashedly. One had to wonder: was this a cleverly orchestrated squall invented by Roger aka our heavenly father Federer to give him precious time to recharge his batteries, reverse the course of this one-sided match, and vault him into the singular unequivocal status as the all-time king of grass? Or was this rain just simply delaying the fact that Federer's reign of excellence over the field at Wimbledon was finally over?

After nearly 3 sets of tennis, Federer seemed very close to cracking. The rain, perhaps, would be the divine intervention that he so badly needed. At the time of the delay he was in dire straits, having failed to take advantage of 6 break point opportunities in the third set, including 4 in a very deflating 6th game. Each time Federer made a brilliant shot to get himself in position for the break, the human backboard known as Rafa would sprout legs and run down his very best offerings to keep him at bay.

As Federer continued losing the big points, it seemed strange, even a little sad, because as long as we can remember, and especially on the grass at Wimbledon, these were the points that Federer would save his most death- defying tennis for. Federer has always been the player that could paint his opponent into a corner when it really mattered. But not in the first two plus sets before the rains came. The virile specimen Nadal, relentless in his consistency, power, and footspeed, would not take his foot off the pedal.

And then the rains finally came. It was as if the vaunted champion had been granted a repreive; given time to reconsider his approach, to strengthen his resolve. But would he make use of it? One had to wonder, what would happen when they continued? Would Federer go down without a fight, as we saw him do in the French, where he was mercilessly pummelled by Rafa, or would the much more palatable outcome take place - would he use this time to gather himself, and make this the definitive match we curious observers so badly wanted it to be?

After a record 4 hours and 48 minutes of gut-wrenching nerve-frazzling tennis, these questions have been answered. Or at least we think they have been. But really there are only two people who know what the heck actually happened out there on Centre Court. The rest of us - fans, coaches, and commentators alike, are still in a daze. We are completely mystified. Maybe awestruck is a better word. The only thing we're sure of is that Nearly 7 and a half hours after the schuduled start of this match, Rafa Nadal is the new Wimbledon champion, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7.

But it wasn't the typical Nadal bloodletting. For a while it seemed as if it might be, but then the rains came and the great champion emerged ready to do battle. As the players started play after a 1 hour 21 minute rain delay in the third set, it was a different Federer who appeared. Actually it was the same Federer in body, but unlike the Federer who started the match by losing the first two sets and blowing several break point opportunities, this version of Federer appeared to have more determination, more will, and more courage.

The new and obviously improved Federer immediately got to work and virtually minutes after play had started again, Roger had taken the third set by storming his way through a tiebreaker, 7-5.

In the fourth set, neither player relented. There was not a single break point in the set, but there were some tense moments. Federer was down 0-30 while serving at 4-5, but he stiffened his resolve and hit remarkable winners to hold.

As they moved into a 4th set tiebreaker, things quickly went from captivating to utterly amazing to the best tennis you could ever imagine. Magnificent rallies ensued and each player somehow was able to channel the magic within him while under wicked pressure. Early on, it looked like the Federer Express had been derailed as the ever-opportunistic Rafa stormed to 4-1 lead. When Rafa pulled another miraculous return out of his bag 2 points later it looked like Federer would finally have to taste the bitterness of defeat.

The crowd meanwhile, wanting nothing less than their money's worth, tried to urge Roger on. As Nadal held the ball to serve at 5-2 the look on Federer's face was a strange mix of agony and determination. His eyes were glazed with purpose; Watching him prepare to return serve, the immense gravity of the moment was palpable.

3 Dazzling points later, almost miraculously (considering the ominous phenom at the other end of the court) Federer was still alive, at 5-5! Specators were now holding their breath, their alabaster skin turning even whiter as the pressure mounted. After another mini-break Federer was in the drivers seat with a set point of his own to work with. But Nadal had an answer for that. He leveled at 6-6 and won the next point to gain his first ever Championship point. But again it was Federer's turn for heroics, and again they were tied, 7-7! Many nails were being bitten in the gallery, and many oooh's and aahh's were utterred, but all the while Federer and Nadal remained remarkably calm and focused, poised and athletic - both proving over and over with each passing point that they are worthy of every bit of respect that has ever been given to them, and both, based on their exploits today, are deserving of even more.

After fighting off a second Championship point, Federer's next flurry of improbable shots were too much for Nadal. Roger made a backhanded pass of Nadal at 8-8 that had to be the most perfect shot in the history of the universe. One point later, the tiebreaker was over, and the match was dead even at 2 sets apiece.

It was much of the same for the 5th set - remarkable, almost unimaginably excellent tennis. Neither player, again, would budge (neither could afford to). 14 games were played, and in the waning light of the 9 o'clock hour, still they were dead even. For a minute I thought to myself that it would be fitting if they just played forever, on and on for eternity.

But it was not to be. Federer's chance to break came in the 8th game of the set and it was a one time offer from the surly Spaniard. Quickly the door closed, and Roger had to sag a bit there, knowing that of the thirteen break point opportunities he had earned, he had only been able to finagle one from Nadal (in the 2nd set). For the rest of the set it felt like Federer needed miracle after miracle just to remain on level ground.

At 5-5, down 15-40, Federer served 2 masterful aces to get back to deuce. He won the game and the drama continued; the tension heightened and the players wore expressions of both terror and passion, until finally, just as the lack of sunlight threatened to delay the conclusion of the match until tomorrow, Nadal managed a break.

In the ensuing game a scrambling Federer tried to save his crown. He fought valiantly, negating 1 Championship point, but in the end the task finally proved too tall. As Federer's last ditch forehand flopped harmlessly into the net a dominant run had finally come to an end - 5 years in the making and 65 straight wins, dating back to 2002, on grass.

The longest men's final in tournament history is already being called by many the greatest tennis match they've ever seen. Others remain silent for they are just plain speechless. It was that good. Crazy good.

Friday, July 4, 2008

One for the ages!

The highly anticipated final between archrivals Rafa aka the matador Nadal and Roger aka our heavenly father Federer is officially set for Sunday. Neither player gave up a set in the Semi's, and both played divine tennis, sculpting artful points at critical junctures - a credit to each player's ability to play inspired tennis on the "big" points. The fact that Federer and Nadal are a collective 7-0 in tiebreakers for the fortnight is very telling: Both have an extra gear, both mentally and physically, and they both employ that gear with an impeccable sense of timing.

Finally, after 12 days of outing contenders as pretenders, these two accelerating locomotives will collide.

This is the third consecutive Wimbledon Final for the pair, and the 6th time they will have met in the finals of a Major. Nadal has taken 3 from Federer on the Roland Garros clay, while Federer has has taken each of their two showdowns on grass. Last year, in a five set thriller, Nadal pushed our heavenly father, the holder of 12 major titles, to his limit, finally succumbing in 5 sets, 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 6-2.

It is plain to see that Federer's dominance on grass is not nearly as masterful as Nadal's domination on the clay at Roland Garros, where he only lost 4 games to Fed in the 2008 final. Rafa has taken 3 sets from federer in the last two Wimbledon finals; 2 of those were in 2007. He's been improving rapidly on the surface, and in 2008 Nadal appears to be even more comfortable on the neatly manicured Rye grass grown at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club . The fact that he is winning 82% of his first-serve points is proof that his serve has become a major component of his grass game. He is no longer looking like a clay courter on grass.

He has come so far so fast on the surface that he has to be considered very viable threat to knock Federer off his throne - even Bjorn Borg has stated that he thinks Nadal will make his breakthrough this year. While Federer has dispatched of every foe with relative ease thus far, it is hard to imagine him doing so against Nadal. And while Nadal has dispatched of his every foe with relative ease thus far, it is hard to imagine him doing so against Federer. But something will have to give on Sunday. There are no ties in tennis - only tiebreakers.

Even as there is much fanfare surrounding the 18th meeting between these rivals, none of it seems a stretch; If there ever was one, this is a match of epic proportions. Nadal is trying to gain legitimacy by stretching his mastery to grass. Until he does that he will always be regarded as a clay court expert, not a complete player. In other words, he won't be Borg, and he won't be Federer. In order to sniff the rarefied air of such dignitaries, Rafa needs this match.

As Far as Roger goes, he is still fighting to achieve several lofty goals, all of which are the stuff of dreams:

- To be the first ever to win 6 consecutive Wimbledons.

- To hold the all-time record of 14 Grandslam titles ( he still needs 2 to tie Sampras)

- To challenge Sampras' and Renshaw's record of 7 Wimbledon titles.

There is a lot on the line for both men, and thankfully, both are well schooled in playing their best tennis when there is a lot on the line. Sunday's final should be no exception. This could be the final to end all finals. One, truly, for the ages!

Fed-Nadal: By the numbers

1. In 6 matches, Federer has 84 aces and Nadal has 40.
2. Federer is 3-0 in tiebreaks, while Nadal is 4-0. Something may have to give here.
3. Fed has not lost a set while Nadal lost a set to Gulbis in the 2nd round.
4. Fed is winning 61% of his 2nd serve points, while nadal is winning 57%.
5. Only 20 of the 128 men were able to win at least half of their second serve points.
6. Federer has won 5 consecutive Wimbledon Titles.
7. Borg and Federer have won more consecutive Wimbledon singles titles (5) than any other male player under modern rules. Only William Renshaw won more consecutive singles titles (1881-86), but in Renshaw's day, the defending champion played only one match, the Challenge Round.
8. Fed has won 65 matches in a row on grass.
9. Fed is 6-11 v. Nadal.
10. Fed is 2-0 v. Nadal on grass.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Safin-Federer Semi is a dream come true

This is a matchup that many of us wouldn't have dared to dream. Most of us have been too busy predicting the outcome of another Nadal vs Federer final to dream about Safin. But then, suddenly, there he was. Marat, from out of a pile of burning ashes, and suddenly the outcome wasn't so certain. Now there is something else to consider. An old champion has come forth from the grave to spoil the party.

Now that it's here we can bask in the delight of this truly unlikely semifinal match. Safin aka the Miracle on grass has booked a spot in the Wimbledon semifinal vs. Roger Federer, the holder of the most consecutive Wimbledon Men's singles titles (along with Borg, Federer has 5). Yes, that's the same Federer who has won 64 straight matches on grass.

Safin's resurgence, while remarkable, might not be as inexplicable as we have been led to believe by the television media. I just perused this new piece about his recently hired coach, Hernan Gumy. Apparently (thanks to his coach) conditioning and strength have been the primary focus of Marat's training regiment of late. While he remains forever volatile and enigmatic, there does appear to be a new calm within him that is serving to keep him stable.

Perhaps that calm stems from the fact that Marat isn't sucking wind on the court anymore? Certainly something is different, and anyone who has watched Safin implode on a regular basis (he came in with a 10-13 record for 2008) can immediately sense the difference.

After losing the first set to Feliciano Lopez in the quarters yesterday, the 28 year old Russian (unseeded in the tourney) used his rediscovered confidence to immediately change the tone of the match. Facing a possible and all too familiar crash and burn scenario, a determined Safin sprung to life after a rain delay and proceeded to manhandle the fiery Lopez for the next 2 hours. When it was over he didn't look like #64 in the world any longer. No, he looked more like the champion of yesteryear, the one who had only visited us via scrapbooks of late.

Fridays match will be Safin's first major semifinal since January 2005, when he upset Federer in 5 sets. Fans are still wondering, does Safin really have a chance against Roger aka our heavenly father Federer? Federer is 8-2 against Safin, and he hasn't lost a set in the tournament as of yet (Safin has lost 3). Still, there appears to be something special about this new and improved Safin that enables one to envision the upset.

Safin has already scored an epic upset as recently as last week, when he ambushed a shell-shocked Novak Djokovic in the 2nd round. So we know he isn't just getting the luck of the draw. He's playing well against formidable opponents and it is no longer ridiculously far-fetched that he scores another upset against Federer, who many feel has dropped a level this year.

Safin, who leads Wimbledon in service breaks (27 breaks on 50 opportunities), is using his quickness again. and his quickness is a perfect segue to his power. He is launching heavy artillery from both wings. His athleticism, always artistic, has been noteworthy: In a third set tiebreaker with Lopez, tied at 1-1, Safin performed a backhand smash that defied gravity - it was a clear cut sign that he isn't going through the motions anymore. He really has improved, and he seems to be more determined with each passing match.

But beating Federer is a tall task, even for a champion who has regained his mojo. Fed has won the last five titles at Wimbledon. He is now only 2 short of Sampras and Renshaw, who each hold 7 crowns. He is god's gift to grass. He is motivated, and he is playing his best tennis of 2008. He is 2-0 vs. Safin on grass, by the way.

This one has the makings of a true classic. Whether it will be remembered as one remains to be seen. As you can probably tell, I'm hoping for the best.

Opportunity Squandered

This years Wimbledon has been full of surprises and not all of them have been pleasant. Before the quarterfinals started a new precedent had already been set: This is the first time in the open era (beginning 1927) where none of the top 4 ladies seeds have reached the quarterfinals. Some say it's good for the game, creating an anything-can-happen vibe that brings the underdog to life. I say it's abysmal - 3rd and 4th round losses simply aren't acceptable for a player who wants to be seriously thought of as a #1.

Neither Jelena aka houdini Jankovic or Svetlana aka the bulldog Kuznetsova were able to convert opportunities to wrestle the # 1 ranking from Ana Ivanovic, who was upset in the 3rd round by Zheng Jie, the first ever chinese woman to reach the semis of a major. If either player could have managed a breakthrough trip to the finals, she'd have been immediately vaulted to #1 in the world, and be looking at a good chance of closing 2008 in that lofty perch.

Not this year. Much to their own chagrin, both Jankovic and Kuznetsova were beaten soundly in the round of 16.

Will either ever have a chance like this again? One has to wonder.

In a tournament where most eyes have been squarely focused on the William's sisters, there must be a sense of bitter dissapointment for the #2 and #4 ranked ladies in the world. Both have been knocking on the door for some time. Just when it appeared to be opening, devastating round of 16 losses occurred.

But Kuznetsova and Jankovic weren't the only ones having their dreams be put out of their misery. World #2, Maria aka the princess Sharapova was kicked to the curb by a virtual unknown. The free falling Sharapova was only able to win 27% of her second serve points against compatriot Alla Kudrayatseva in the second round. Sharapova, ranked # 1 in the world after winning the Australian Open in January, was broken 5 times on her way to a straight set defeat.

It has been a tournament full of upsets on the womens side. Happiness has been but a mirage for the top 4 women in the game. Could it be that the short grass court season, 2 hurried weeks in the middle of June, has left many players vulnerable due to their relative lack of comfort on the surface? Could it be that grass, due to the insufficient amount of practice time that the players are getting on the surface, has brought a certain kind of parody to Wimbledon? It appears that way, at least for the girls.

While the up-and-coming have been taking their medicine, experienced ladies like the Williams sisters (who have 6 Wimbledon titles between them) have been able to rely on their vast wealth of Wimbledon experience to maintain the status quo. Neither has truly been tested thus far, and its hard to tell if their success is due mainly to the fact that all their rivals have conveniently departed prior to playing them.

Saturdays final will be highly anticipated. Two tennis greats are once again staking out their territory. I thought this might be the year there was to be a struggle for power at Wimbledon. Evidently the only struggle will be between the sisters. It's a family affair once again, and the top 4 aren't invited.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Day 9 - Respect the Williams sisters.

Hello all. Just back from a lovely holiday on the East Coast, where the clouds are slower but the people are faster.

Day 9 is in 5th gear.

Nadal is visiting Murray's kitchen as I write.

I want to get right to the quick and tell you all what is currently on my mind:

The Williams sisters.

Did you know that their are 14 singles Major titles between them? Did you know that Serena has won all four Majors? I do. I looked it up. She has 8 total. She probably needs a special room for the hardware at her crib. There are 9 Wimbledon finals between the girls, and countless other trips to the semi's and quarters. If it happens, this would be their third Wimbledon Final, with Serena taking '02 and '03.

If you are like me and have criticized them in the past, you may want to admit, whether you like their business endeavors or not, these girls can mult-task at a level that only Donald Trump might know. I, regrettably, have taken shots at the sisters for not maximizing their stratospheric potential. I, just like everyone else on the planet, have belittled their level of commitment, and have questioned their cockiness.

But the fact came so clear to me today as I watched some of the highlights of their doubles match:

They are worthy of nothing but praise. In this day and age we love to sit and pontificate about what we could never in our wildest dreams achieve. The fact of the matter is that the Williams girls have done nothing short of carry American Tennis in the new millenium. As I watched the tape of them meticulously deconstructing Bethanie Mattek and Sania Mirza, I suddenly became overwhelmed by my newly found gratitude for the shining beacon of light that is the sisters. They were so entertaining to watch. So passionate and so hungry for victory.

Their game is defined by athleticism and swagger, and they are fierce competitors on the court even as they appear to haphazardly (in our opinions) prioritize off of it. But can we really question their priorities? Isn't the only fact worth mentionining the outcome of these tournaments that they typically end up winning? Sadly, we expect to much. We are not naive enough to think that there are currently any Americans who will even do so much as lick the Williams sisters boots over the course of their careers, but still we expect more.

Perhaps the problems lie not with the Williams sisters but with our expectations of them? The fact of the matter is that they are winners, great champions indeed, to the tune of six wimbledon titles between them. As American's in search of that last vestige of greatness, that waning heroic faction that we long to be characterized by, that we feel implicitly resides in all of our hearts, we should stand up and take notice. We should put our hands tothether and realize their accomplishments.

They are worthy, and in case you haven't been watching or you've had your head underwater, they are on a collision course for yet another epic battle of siblings.

I would like to personally take this time to thank them for carrying our collective american tennis jockstrap. I would like to thank them for representing the American spirit, the iconic spirit whose relevance in todays global community many of us have come to doubt. I would like to thank them for being what they are, bold and competive and trained in the art of tennis warfare.
I think we as a community would be less hypocritic by dropping the histrionics and placing the sisters on the pedestal that they so obviously belong on.

Woman's Semi's tomorrow!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Get ready for Strawberries and Cream!

Welcome to the Fortnight, your source for opinions and insight on the third tennis major of 2008. We hope you enjoy yourself as you peruse our virtual tennis center. Before you get started it might be a good idea to take a look at the official Website, just to get an idea of the magnanimity of the event that has just begun.

The Fortnight is under way! That's right, tennis on grass, for the love of the game, and the love of money, and god, and whatever else you want to throw in there. Hooyah. I'm watching Safin on ESPN 2 and it looks so greeeeeeeen!

Ever wonder how you look in all-white? Well, if you were lucky enough or good enough to have the pleasure of playing at Wimbledon, you'd know.

Here is a look at some photos of day 1. That grass won't be so green at the end of the fortnight.

Speaking of the end of the fortnight, I am ridiculously excited about what might go down on the men's side. It's always such high drama there, with Roger Aka our holy father Federer toting 12 majors and the last 5 wimbledon crowns. Then you have Nadal. Remember him? The guy who meticulously deconstructed the aforementioned god on the hard clay of Roland Garros? He's got huge biceps that he flaunts like Madonna. Yeah, that guy.

And then there is Novak. He's already won his first match (but he did lose a set). Did I just hear he plays Safin next? Holy London Bridge! Rush to your TV sets now kiddies, catch the grass while it's still green.

These big three men and their challengers, plus their counterparts in the women's singles draw, should provide enough captivating tennis for yours truly to float through two weeks in a state of perpetual bliss-soaked tennis euphoria. Two dream-like serve-and-volley filled weeks, with the fourth of July serving to mark the beginning of the end, as we near the eventual crowning of the king and queen of the storied grass of Wimbledon.