Saturday, March 28, 2009

The WTA has big shoes to fill

The WTA has big things on its plate: Larry Scott’s Successor as Chairman and CEO better be hungry.

When you peruse Larry Scott’s bio on the WTA’s website it gives you chills. The man’s remarkable tenure with the organization, which began in April of 2003, has been highlighted by so many major advances for women’s tennis it is hard to list them all. Credited most notably as the architect of the largest-ever sponsorship in both women's sports and professional tennis, a six-year, $88-million landmark title sponsorship agreement with Sony Ericsson, his business acumen is laudable to say the least. And yet, after six remarkable years, Larry Scott has left the biggest cookie of them all sitting on the plate of his soon-to-be-named successor.

The merging of the men’s and women’s professional tours was on Larry Scott’s agenda. Sadly, the lack of the merger is one of the reasons that the WTA now has a pair of super-sized shoes to fill. According to The Canadian Press, Larry Scott said he began thinking of leaving tennis when his proposal for a merger with the men’s tour was rejected last year. “For a variety of reasons it wasn’t accepted,” he said. “It’s clear that tennis, for whatever reasons, isn’t ready for that vision to be realized.”

In an era that solidified equal prize money for both sexes in all of the majors, rumors say that tour revenue has increased as much as 250% during the six years.

“We’re all sad,” Venus Williams stated. “He had a special vision and the personality and character and talents and abilities to carry it out. It takes someone special like him.”

All the more reason to begin scanning the globe for not just a replacement, but the kind of visionary that has the sense to realize that the dream might not be as unrealistic as Scott made it sound. Surely it will take effort – effort that the travel-weary Scott isn’t prepared to make. Surely it will take passion and stamina. But the carrot is out there, dangling. We can all see it. A merger would make so much sense for so many reasons. It is the logical progression from equal pay.

The WTA and whoever takes over as CEO need to recognize that the best has yet to come for women’s tennis and tennis in general. Where we are at now is the perfect stepping stone for where the next Larry Scott-like leader needs to take us. Thanks to Larry the future looks bright. What we need now is the person who can make it even brighter.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Indian Wells Masters 1000: Men's Preview

Star-studded Skies at Indian Wells

Indian Wells is not lacking at all for star-power.

If you’re an OCTF (obsessive compulsive tennis fan) like I’m an OCTF, you’re sitting at home drooling over the piece of paper on your desk that is labeled “Main Draw Singles/ Indian Wells, USA/ 11-22 March 2009/ Hard, Plexipave/ $4,500,000.”

At 3 in the morning, no less! Sad, but true.

I’ve just traced the name Roger Federer all the way to the quarterfinals, and set him up with a match against reborn Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. While it’s probably not fair to speculate that each will win his first three matches, I went ahead and did so, just for the hell of it.

This one is particularly intriguing because neither Federer nor Verdasco has played since Melbourne – and both of them left us in suspense at their last appearances.

Regarding Federer, we wondered if he’d find a new coach (his short trial with Darren Cahill has apparently ended in a no-dice) or if he’d find a new therapist (no news on this).

Regarding Verdasco, we wondered if he was for real; we wondered if he’d revert to his pre- Gil Reyes form and results. Federer is 2-0 all-time against Verdasco, but if this is indeed a new Verdasco we are talking about, the results could be different this time.

Perhaps a Federer v. Verdasco quarterfinal match might go a long way in answering our questions about these two: Is Federer on top of the hill or over the hill? Is Verdasco hungry enough to keep running those hills in Vegas?

And there are other mouth-watering matchups in other parts of the draw as well:

Nadal is facing a round-of-16 match with mercurial but very dangerous Czech Tomas Berdych. In addition to his near upset of Federer in Melbourne, Berdych scored an upset against #8-ranked Gilles Simon last weekend in Davis Cup play. This was a very big win for the Czechs, and as a result of it Berdych could be feeling confident enough to unleash his full frontal assault against Nadal.

In the bottom half of Rafa’s quarter of the draw, Lanky but powerful Argentinian, Juan Martin Delpotro (21 in September) looks to be slated for a round-of-16 battle with either Gael Monfils or ornery veteran Marat Safin. The wins haven’t been coming easy for Delpotro this year, but he is still clinging to a #6 ranking in the world (nothing to scoff at) nonetheless.

In Novak Djokovic’s (last year’s champion) quarter, Andy Roddick is looking to build on his Davis Cup splendor with another upset of the higher-ranked Serbian showman. But Roddick will have to get past the likes of David Ferrer or Mardy Fish in the earlier rounds if he wants a rematch of his Australian Open QF with Novak.

And it doesn't stop there...

Andy Murray, the #4 seed, is headed for (if he can debunk 20-year-old Croat Marin Cilic) a much anticipated quarterfinal with dynamic French slugger Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Murray is 15-1 on the year with two titles; Tsonga is 21-3 with 2 titles. While Tsonga’s ranking currently sits at #11, there is no denying that he has top-4 skills. Meanwhile Murray, currently a very solid #4, is gunning 2000 points up the ATP ladder at Novak Djokovic. Both have made tangible strides in the last 12 months, yet both seem destined for higher highs. Sounds to me like a recipe for tennis drama.

As a brief period of recuperating from the physically demanding Australian Open reaches a conclusion, the next 10 days at Indian Wells might say a lot about who is going to have a lot to say in 2009. The first masters event of 9 to be held in 2009 will offer its winner a major leg-up in this years ATP power struggle.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Roddick's 31

The Go-To American Gets a Milestone

When you’re a world-class tennis player like Andy Roddick, people will talk about you. Ever since the brash young super-sonic server starting sniffing the second week of Grand-Slams in 2001 (he lost in the quarters to Hewitt @ the U.S. Open that year) the tennis world has been talking about Andy Roddick.

Roddick, a model of consistency who has been out of the top-ten for only 8 weeks in the last 6 years, certainly deserves any accolades he gets.

And yet sometimes, the talk has been conversely negative.

High expectations have proved to be too high for Roddick at times. A magical victory at the 2003 U.S. Open left Andy on top of the tennis world for a moment that in retrospect has been far too brief.

Timing was right for Roddick in 2003; Legendary Pete Sampras played in his last Grand-Slam ever in ’02; fellow legend Andre Agassi was also beginning the twilight of his career. In their absence, who seemed better destined than Roddick, with his ballistic serve and bubbling moxie, to inherit the throne of tennis?

While we know now how delicately balanced on the precipice Roddick really was, back then we had no idea that his U.S. Open title in 2003 might be his last. Instead we wondered how many majors Roddick might win (could he Challenge McEnroe’s 7, or Agassi’s 8? Surely not Sampras' 14?) and we took it for granted that American tennis would always feature players that would have the necessary guts and genius to secure Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.

Five plus years after Roddick's one-and-only Grand-Slam title, no more illusions about the current grandeur of U.S. Tennis, or the past grandeur of Roddick, remain. He is not Superman, but in America, he is our guy.

Here’s the real story:

Yesterday, in first-round Davis Cup play, Andy Roddick saved the Americans bacon again. Proving once again that he clearly relishes playing for his country, Roddick won his 31st Davis Cup singles match. The milestone vaults him over American great Andre Agassi into 2nd place all-time among Americans. The bacon-saving Roddick has now played the clinching match in 11 U.S. Davis Cup victories.

The soon-to-be twenty-seven year old from Omaha, Nebraska, while unable to eclipse many of the lofty expectations that have often been unfairly placed upon him, has certainly not wilted under the pressure of big-time international competition. This is a boy that does not lack for courage. Roddick encapsulates and exudes the essence of Americana – he is bold, he is boisterous, and he is a fighter. And when he is asked to represent his country in competition, man does he answer the bell.

His bell-answering is a major testament to the quick-witted and unabashedly sardonic Nebraskan. He may not match up on paper with our greatest legends, but Roddick does not selfishly brood over this fact when it is time to represent the very nation that often maligns him for this fact. No, he answers the bell.

Yesterday, in front of an enthusiastic bunch of tennis lovers in Birmingham Alabama, he answered again. In surpassing Agassi, the U.S. Captain trails only John McEnroe among U.S. players in wins.

As usual, the candid Roddick was in awe of his accomplishments. "I'm kind of a nerd about the history of our sport," he said. "It was kind of in the back of my mind. There's probably a few moments in your career where you can sit back and be a little impressed."
"When you get mentioned with Andre, who I grew up watching ... Andre was always the guy that every one leaned on to come through. To kind of surpass him now is extremely surreal, but it's definitely one of those fun moments also."

Fun indeed Andy, and from the bottom of America’s collective tennis heart, we thank you for that fun.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Davis Cup: Calling Roger Federer!

Davis Cup is on the tip of everyone’s tongue this week. 8 intriguing match ups to salivate over. 5-set heaven. National Pride. Tennis on the world stage. Great, great, great, and greatest.

I’m with you guys on the fact that Davis Cup tennis is something to get pumped about. I’m excited too. You'd have to lack a pulse to not get amped about another installment of Nadal v. Djokovic, this one in Benidorm, Spain. You'd have to have one foot in the grave to not want to watch a French equippe that looks extremely formidable as it prepares to do battle with the Czechs in Ostrava. I am excited. But my enthusiasm is tempered by one peircing question:

Where’s Roger?

Unfortunately, OCTF’s (obsessive compulsive tennis fans) like us don’t need to be told where Roger aka our heavenly father Federer is. We, the ever vigilant tennis-junky type of fans, know the answer to this painful question. He’s in Dubai working out with Darren aka Killer Cahill. It seems these two old friends are contemplating a short-but-could-become-long agreement.

That is thrilling news, and definitely worthy of much thought provoking speculation, but is this what tennis-crazed fans need to be reading about on the eve of the competition? What does Federer's absence say about the importance of Davis Cup in the scheme of things? Does the system need tinkering so we can be assured that the best players in the world (not just the guys who are in the mood) regularly compete?

If I were in Fed's shoes, I'd want the time as well - he's got bigger fish to fry this season and we all know that. Problem is, the words "Davis Cup" really seem to lose some lustre when you take Federer's name out of the equation.

Of course, Fed faithful will rush to exclaim that his back really is hurt. I don’t disagree. All I am saying is that if the Davis Cup was truly important in the way that majors are important, Fed would be fighting to compete. But instead of doing that he is doing the smart thing: He is getting healthy. Sadly, Davis Cup just isn’t worth the effort for him.

This is precisely what disappoints me about Davis Cup right now. It's just so much to ask for someone who is really gunning for the grand-slams with every drop of fuel that is in the tank. Naturally, as a guy who is gonna click on the t.v. tomorrow and want to be entertained, I want more out of Davis Cup. I see how positive it could be for the growth and allure of the sport. I see what a unifying national interest can do to increase buzz for tennis.

Sadly, tennis fails to take advantage of this opportunity to shine to the fullest. James Blake opting out of last years U.S. semifinal with Spain is another shining example of the attitude that some of the games greatest players take about Davis Cup. It's almost as if it were an obligation rather than an offer you wouldn't dare refuse.

Hopefully someday that'll change. In the meantime, here are the match ups.

Argentina v Netherlands
Czech Republic v France
U.S.A. v Switzerland

Croatia v Chile
Sweden v Israel
Romania v Russia
Germany v Austria
Spain v Serbia

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Greatest Rivalry Ever?

Is Federer V. Nadal the best rivalry of all time?
The Fan child sifts through the hype and speculates on the answer

Mcenroe-Borg, Navritalova-Evert Lloyd, Agassi-Sampras, the list goes on and on. And like the list, we too go on and on, incessantly debating about whether or not Federer-Nadal is the greatest tennis rivalry of all time. After a few cocktails we start Reminiscing on the 4th set of the 1980 Wimbledon Final (the one that's available on netflix), trying to compare its merits to the tension laden conclusion of the fifth set of the 2008 Wimbledon finals, just moments before total darkness enveloped centre court.

Which was better, we ask? Tennis freaks like you and I have this burning desire to label it and file it away with the proper ranking bestowed upon it – we can’t help it, it’s human nature, we want that. Well, those of you who are reading this article looking for a definitive answer, I must apologize. The evidence is inconclusive, at least for now. The question cannot be answered until the rivalry is no more; and until the last match point has been decided, speculation will try to impersonate science, but never ever will.

Even so, what better time to strike up the debate again? The pair have just played their 7th Major final; it was their 19th career head-to-head battle. Not bad for a collective entity that is just into its prime. 19 matches is a lot, but keep in mind, Navratilova and Evert played 14 Major finals; 80 total.

19? 14? 7? Just what is my point, you may be wondering. My point here is that the numbers are full of riddles; each number tries to outdo the other, and we shouldn't get too hung up on them. We, as tennis lovers, would be better served by immensely enjoying the tennis that we are being blessed with. Embrace it, and absorb it if you can. These two mighty forces, one so exquisite, so refined (you know which one I'm talking about), the other like a violent wave of muscle and will (sound like Rafa to you?), are colliding like asteroids – their paths have been pulled together by fate, and our eager eyeballs are the recipients of their miraculous tennis acumen.

So now that you know I’m not here to pitch, I’m going to give you my pitch: 6 reasons why Federer Nadal might be the best rivalry ever.

Federer’s quest for 14 - If there ever was a number that the superhuman Federer needed, it’s 14. Tying Sampras will boost Roger's legacy up into the most rarefied air; an incomprehensible air of superiority that is indeed hard to fathom. 15, the next step would be mind blowing - the tennis world would embrace him as if he were true deity. The quest for these achievements make every major a holy experience, especially with the arch nemesis Nadal making his own claims to the throne.

Grand Slam! – Next weeks OCTB feature might very well have to be about the fact that Nadal, in my humble opinion, has a reasonable chance to win the first calendar year Grand Slam since Rod Laver did it in 1969. After the French Open, Nadal will more than likely be half way there. He’ll also be the favorite at Wimbledon, having dethroned Fed there last year. Just try to envision the largeness of another Federer Nadal Wimbledon final under those circumstances. Are you drooling yet?

The Career Grand Slam – If Federer could find a way to take the French he would join Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Andre Agassi as one of the six men to have achieved the elusive feat. If he does this he will be regarded more highly than Sampras (never won the French) and Borg (never won the U.S. Open) hands down.

6, and counting – Let's not forget Rafa. Nadal now has six major titles. He's not merely a clay court specialist anymore. The better he gets, the better the rivalry gets. And he's one step from the career Grand Slam as well.

The Psychological element – The fact that Nadal has catapulted himself on the world stage just as Roger was going to do a tap dance on the record books has to make this whole business of rivalry particularly tantalizing for Federer (he isn't just crying over spilt milk, a lot more is at stake, like legacy, endorsements, book deals, etc...). At 27 he is being challenged in a way that he never has. Nadal meanwhile, is the stoic spiritual guru who seems to draw energy from the ground up. The mental chess that occurs between the two is magical; mere mortals like ourselves can only hope to understand in segments, to comprehend shining moments of a body of work that is so dense and makes for great drama, time and time again, point after point after point.

Big Fat 0 – No other men have played as many head-to-head major finals. None! Zero! I’ll list a few other rivalries that fell short, just to give you some historical perspective:

Mcenroe v. Borg – 4
Laver – Emerson – 5
Sampras – Agassi – 5
Mcenroe – Connors – 2
Edberg – Becker – 3
McenroeLendl – 3

Of the last 16 majors, 15 have been won by either Nadal or Federer. That is just plain crazy! Never before have the majors been dominated so unequivocally by two players (Emerson and Laver, perhaps the 2nd greatest rivalry in men’s tennis history, played in 9 out of 10 in the sixties).

The fact that Federer and Nadal are already starting to distance themselves from what we've previously considered to be the "greatest rivalry of all-time" is a pretty grand affirmation, especially considering the fact that we can reasonably expect 5 more Grand Slam finals from Federer v. Nadal.

The fact that they are routinely surpassing the numbers of such esteemed tennis rivalries should put us on code red alert – 2009 has the potential, for several reasons, to be one of the most captivating years of all time. People say that every year, but this year the numbers back it up.

Here I go again with those meaningless numbers. Just set your Tivo's and we'll make our decisions in a few years.