My favorite non-team sport is Tennis. This was likely cemented during the Golden Age of tennis when a handful of personalities seemingly dominated the sport – Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Geralitus, Vilas, Nastase. I think the Mayer brohers were in there…and Jose Luis-Clerc. Roscoe Tanner would turn up every now and then.
However, if it wasn’t for NFL Football, I likely never would have grown an interest in tennis. Because the U.S. Open Men’s final is always played on a Sunday during the NFL season. So CBS would always dutifully follow-up its 1pm EST airing of NFL Football with the Men’s U.S. Open finals. This made tennis more captivating to me than a Jelena Jankovic crotch-shot. We didn’t have a remote back then and only had 6 channel choices, so why not hang around and watch McEnroe beat Geralitus (’79), McEnroe over Borg (’80 & ’81), Connors over Lendle (’81 & ’82), McEnroe over Lendl (’83) and then a whole lot more of Lendl after that.
I love the U.S. Open. It’s my favorite of the slams, in no small part because I can actually watch the matches without staying up all night or waking up at 5am. The French can be as grueling to watch as it no doubt is to play (I actually like the Rome Open more because it’s just 2 out of 3 and the fans are so on top of the players on that Centre Court). Wimbledon will always be the Stairway to Heaven of tennis tournaments, but let’s face it – the all-white, those freeloading Royals, watching Andy Murray lose every year. It’s a little stodgy. I actually think the Australian is underrated as it has a similar feel as the U.S. Open. It seems like a fun tourney to go to. But since I have to watch on TV and the finals are played at midnight PST, it takes a lot of the viewing pleasure away. The only thing I want to be sneaking up to watch on 2am on a Sunday morning is a Girls Gone Wild informercial. After sitting through the 5-hour Nadal-Federer classic a few years, where the great but strangely effiminate Rog broke down in tears leaving Nadal to make the most awkward “I’m sorry I beat you” victory speech since the owners, trainers and jockey of Birdstone apologized to America for beating Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, I decided to invest in a DVR.
It’s funny how much tennis has changed and I think is in the process of changing again. Take a look at old Tennis Channel replays of men’s or women’s past matches and the play seems so much slower than before. How did a 39-year-old Jimmy Connors ever get to the ’91 Semi’s playing at that pace? It’s like his game hadn’t changed speed since the ’75 Wimbledon final against Arthur Ashe. And Ashe, watching him play is like going to a Norah Jones concert. Can you just pick-up the pace a little bit Norah, I’m going comatose here.
A lot of people complain about the new equipment making net play seemingly impossible but I’ve noticed more players serve and volleying (or in the case of Novak Djokovic, at least showing a willingness at some point in the game to volley) than I have in the previous few years. I’m not saying we’re returning to the days of a McEnroe, Edberg or Sampras but I do think we’re looking at a very interesting U.S. Open in 2011 on the men’s side while the women’s side may get a boost of short-term stimulus.
I don’t like making tennis tournament predictions because picking upsets is just too random. It’s like picking North Dakota State to beat Duke in Round 1 of the NCAA Finals and at least in that case there’s a chance Kyle Sigler could get in early foul trouble. The bottom line is Novak Djokovic is about ready to complete very possibly the most dominating tennis season in the history of the game. In fact, if it wasn’t for a set-and-a-half retreat into the former self-loathing, whining, ready to quit Novak in the French semi against the Rog, and Novak probably is playing for the first 4-tourney Grand Slam triumph since Rod Laver. And let’s face it, the only reason we’re not just handing him the title is because of the shoulder injury that reared its head in Cincinnati against Andy Murray in the final. Even in Montreal, Djokovic looked sluggish against Mardy Fish, a player – with all do respect to Mardy – he should really never lose to. Simply put, unless Djokovic’s shoulder acts up or he’s just physically depleted, Novak will win the 2011 U.S. Open against whomever he plays.
I am picking Murray to be my second choice and not just because he beat the disabled Djokovic in Cincy. Murray has had such a strange season. Finals in Australia before tanking in (yet another) Slam final. First round losses in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne followed by a stronger than expected clay court season where he actually has a match point on Djokovic in the Rome semis and doesn’t completely embarrass himself against Nadal in the semis at the French. A decent grass court season only to get knocked out in Round 1 in Montreal at the Rogers Cup. Then, seemingly rusty, he wins the last major tourney before the U.S. Open. I don’t really like Murray that much. I don’t like his whiny demeanor or the way he barks at his coachless friends box when times go tough in matches. It’s neither inspring nor charming, it’s just simply losing his cool while losing on the court. Plus his teeth are nothing to write home about.
However, the truth is Nadal just seems to have lost his confidence and Federer looks like he shot his load in Roland Garros. My guess is Nadal does make the final four here – he’s just too good not too, but I no longer think that Federer is clearly one of the top 4 players in the world. He could make the finals, but he just as easily could lose to the likes of Berdych or Soderling or Fish or Ferrer or even Monfils (okay, not Monfils).
I think the interesting part of this year’s U.S. Open finals on the men’s side of the draw won’t necessarily be if anyone other than the Big 4 makes the semi’s but what of the young players who’ve been making noise at various points this year – Tomic, Dodig, Harrison, Young (I know, I know, I was just kidding about Young) – might make a run. Maybe John Isner, who’s been doing bonkers at ATP 250 events this summer but let’s not also forget took Nadal to 5 sets at Wimbledon, might be worth a Round of 16 or even Quarterfinal run. In the end though, the first week may prove to be more compelling than the last week as we make the inevitable march to crowning Djokovic champion.
Some say the problem with the economic stimulus package that President Obama signed into law shortly after taking office in 2009 was that it wasn’t big enough. Some say it was too big. But perhaps the real problem is that it turned out to be short-term stimulus. A brief jolt that kept things stable but failed to provide long-term (or more accurately medium-term) growth. Like a Jolt Cola. Or Cocaine. Or a date with Martina Hingis after she had a Jolt Cola spiked with cocaine. This year’s season of women’s tennis seems to be the same way.
Even before her body was breaking down, Kim Clijsters had already said she was only going to play through the 2012 Olympics. It was great seeing Li Na and Franchesca Schiovone battle it out in the French as they both pushed 30 but it also illustrated how few comers the women’s game really has. Petra Kvitova hasn’t followed up her Wimbledon victory with much this summer, Caroline Wozniacki continues to convince no one of her Slam credentials and the fact that Marion Bartoli keeps turning up in finals while the likes of Julia Georges and Sabine Lisicki continue to stay mired in the 20’s in the WTA rankings seems to prove that women’s tennis is mired in a double dip rut.
Which brings us to the two highest profiles and most popular players in women’s tennis – Serena Williams (who’s 2 for 2 this summer with victories in Palo Alto and Toronto) and Maria Sharapova (fresh off victory in Cincinnati) – potentially destined for a U.S. Open clash in the finals. And I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen, which in one sense will be great for tennis. It will be by far the most highly recognizable slam match the women’s game has seen since the infamous Clijsters-Serena U.S. Open semi in 2009. But it also illustrates a problem. Sharapova might have a few years at the top if she chooses to play regularly but Serena is almost certainly looking at the close of her career and for all we know this could be Venus’ last major event ever. So this is a little like dragging Lennox Lewis out of retirement to fight Vitali Klitschko. A lot of people would watch that bout, but in the end what does it say about a sport who can only find a broad audience by bringing out an over-40, long-since retired boxer fighting a soon to be retired boxer. Lewis isn’t fighting anyone and Serena has proven when healthy and motivated she can still beat anyone in the world. But I’m sorry, no player no matter how good should be able to miss a year (a year in which she hardly played due to injury) and then after a couple grass court matches dominate the field during the hard court season. Look up and down the women’s game and there seems to be no one ready to make a move. The men’s game may be short of U.S. players but the women’s game just seems short of transcendent players period.
Can Wozniacki counter punch her way to a final? Does Jankovic’s final appearance in Cincinnati signal a resurgence? Does Ana Ivanovic still have any spark in the tank? Any young players ready to make even a Round of 16 run?
I predict a Serena 3-setter win over Sharapova in the final A classic to be replayed and reminisced about for years. But also, like the farewell concert of a great band, it will end with fans looking back instead of looking forward.