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Nadal to Retire in 2012

November 28th, 2011 2 comments

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You read it here first:

Rafa Nadal, the greatest clay court tennis player in history — and one of the greatest ever, period — will retire from tennis sometime during 2012.

Here’s what he said, just today, in discussing his preparation for Davis Cup (which at this point seems like an experiment on the players’ bodies, a torturous coda to a season that will never end):

“[M]ore than a lack of passion, it is a weariness from many years of playing at this level, week after week.”

Just tired because it’s the end of the year? No. Here’s what he said earlier this year, right in the middle of the French Open, which he’d then won five times:

“It’s my ninth year on the tour, and its completely the same feeling every year. You don’t have the chance to stop, never. I think for that situation we have a shorter career. So having a different model of ranking, of competition, I think we can have longer career, no? I [am] almost 25, but seems like I am playing for 100 years here on the tour. I didn’t spend a weekend at home since the week of Davis Cup before Indian Wells. That’s too much. Tennis is a very demanding sport mentally and physically. I won Roland Garros five times, but next Monday I am practicing on Queen’s. So that’s makes the career shorter for everybody.”

“We have four Grand Slams, we have nine Masters 1000, and the year is 12 months. I know that they’re gonna reduce two week but, seriously, is not enough. [We are not ] gonna have these changes for my generation, but hopefully for the next generations to have a better sports life. Because I think you need two months, two months and a half of rest at the end of the season. You have to practice. I never able to practice and to try to improve the things during the off-season, and that’s something I think terrible. Sometimes it’s like work. And, in my opinion, tennis is not work. It’s passion.”

Does this sound like someone who’s going to be around for long?

Borg, another player who had prodigious success at an early age, walked away at age 26 when he lost his single-minded focus, and, coincidentally, when he could no longer defeat John McEnroe. Now Nadal, age 25, has been thoroughly thrashed by Novak Djokovic all year (0-6, all in finals) and just got hammered at the WTF (World Tour Finals; get your mind out of the gutter) — 6-3, 6-0 — by that other guy in the top three. Federer was as up, and relentless, as Nadal was down, and despondent. With the possible exception of Serena Williams (who has taken some long breaks from the tour), I’ve never seen anyone so hard-working or passionate about tennis as Nadal. And that can’t last forever.

Rafa’s light is blinking red. He’ll be gone within a year. It’s easy to blame the length of the season (let’s!), but I just think that his style of play isn’t suited to a long career. I’m hope I’m wrong, but I doubt that I am.



The Only Real Story

June 30th, 2010 1 comment

If you’ve been wondering why I’ve been blogging lately about such weighty matters as Idina Menzel, Wonder Woman, and the fate of Federer, here’s one explanation: I can’t bear to spend too much time thinking about the only real story, the one that threatens to compromise my (and all) kids’ futures —  the BP Oil Spill. Here’s an especially disturbing video, lavishly narrated, that chronicles the sickness and death of dolphins and whales and the deep, organic wound to our ecosystem. Warning: it’s hard to watch.

If you want to stay on top of the eco-consequences of this unfolding horror, this blog is a good pick.

It’s Over: Federer’s Otherworldly Streak of 23 Consecutive Semi-Final Appearances Broken by a Sledgehammer

June 1st, 2010 No comments

I’d seen the future during the 2009 Australian Open, when Roger Federer fell down by a quick two sets to the hard-hitting Czech, Tomas Berdych. Scrambling and on defense, Federer mustered all of his considerable court craft (and a mental vacation by Berdych) to get through the early-round match in five sets. I thought then that Berdych and maybe one or two others had the arsenal to defeat Federer: height and torrid groundstrokes than would take away the great one’s time to create his inspiring masterpieces.

In last year’s U.S. Open final, Juan Martin DelPotro, another hard-hitting giant, blew Federer off the court in the fifth set. And then it happened again today — in the quarterfinal of the French Open, which was almost universally expected to feature a final between Federer and his personal bane, Rafael Nadal, he was caught and passed by the thumping, hammering strokes of Robin Soderling. After Federer won the first set, he let down just a bit (as he did against DelPotro last year), and Soderling stormed through the breach. By Federer’s last service game, the clearly rattled Swiss committed four unforced errors to hand the match over to Soderling to serve out — which he easily did, showing remarkable nerve.

One point sticks in my mind as emblematic of  the limits of Federer’s great genius. With a set point to go up by two sets to one, Federer tracked down an overhead smash. He executed a beautiful, balletic jump from the nether reaches of the court, well beyond the baseline, and hit a curving shot at full stretch. The ball was headed toward Soderling’s side of the net, where it would have dropped in for a set-ending winner, likely turning the match around. But not today! Soderling stretched upward (I’m not sure he’s capable of leaving his feet), reached over his head and hit an-over-the-back shot into the open court. Here it is:

After that, the whole thing unfolded with a kind of preditability — even though this is a guy Federer had defeated all of the previous twelve times they’d played. But he’s improved, and he’s not the same player here — especially under these conditions. Last year, on a similarly wet and heavy day, Soderling blew Nadal off the court on his way to a final against Federer, where he caved under the weight of destiny, as instantiated by Federer’s almost perfect game that day.

Federer had a great deal to lose. In addition to having his just…silly streak of 23 consecutive semi-final or better appearances in Grand Slam events (dating back to 2004!) snapped, he will lose the number one ranking next week if Nadal goes on to win the French Open. In that case, he’ll be one week short of Pete Sampras’s all-time record for most weeks at Number 1. And with Nadal almost five years younger and on the ascendancy once again, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get it back.

But don’t expect Nadal to waltz through the final. I think Soderling has shown that he’s ready to step up and win the event. He’s already shown that he can take down both Nadal and Federer on clay. Now he “just” has to do it in the final. I’m reminded of a line from the justly forgotten Superman III, where Robert Vaughn says to a henchman:

I asked you to kill Superman. And now you tell me you couldn’t do that one simple thing?

Soderling just killed Superman. Now let’s see if he can take down the Hulk — for a second time, and when it most matters.

Shadows and Light — The Compromises of an Aging Athlete

February 1st, 2010 2 comments
Roger Federer poses with his Australian Open trophy on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne on Monday, a day after capturing his 16th Grand Slam title.

Yesterday, Roger Federer captured his record-extending sixteenth title in a Grand Slam tournament, winning the Australian Open in a one-sided match against the latest pasty-faced Brit pretender, Andy Murray. (Here‘s a good summary of the match.) Murray, a Scot,  is an inventive and amazingly mobile player, and he’ll soon win one of these big ones: probably either the U.S. or the Australian Open (the suffocating pressure at Wimbledon might be too much to overcome, at least for awhile). But watching Federer cruise to yet another title, one had to ask: “Will this never end?”

It probably will, and sometime soon. But these days, with rival Rafael Nadal’s career clearly in peril because of the persistent injuries his relentless style and body type make inevitable, it’s easy to see Federer as unstoppable. And part of the reason is that the past year has seen a new Federer: a man who realizes that his time at the top is limited, and that he can’t simply assume he’s going to win every match on his unsurpassed talent alone. Compromises have been made; some wise and inevitable, others disturbing (if slightly amusing).

Over the past year, Federer has added the strategic drop shot to his already formidable arsenal. For years, he’d eschewed it as a desperate, almost avulsive, way to end a point. Now he uses it against the Legion of Baseline Heroes, who stand back and blast away. Throw in a drop shot and watch their comfort level drop. He’s also added a violent second-serve return, no longer able to rely on his sliced or chipped backhand to get the point back on neutral terms. He didn’t do much of this sort of returning against Murray (and when he tried, it rarely worked), but the threat of it can have the desired effect of unsettling the opponent.

These innovations are smart, and, if anything, one might ask why Federer didn’t try them sooner in his career. The answer, of course, is that he didn’t need to.With the glaring exception of Nadal (mostly on clay), Federer was unbeatable. From 2005-2007, he barely lost any matches at all.

Now, it’s different. The general public, to the extent it follows tennis at all, looks to the four Grand Slam tournaments (mentioned above, plus the French Open) as the measure of success; there, Federer continues at his insane level — 23 consecutive semifinals, and 8 consecutive finals, reached; an average of more than two of these majors won every year for the past eight years; and so on. But Federer has been mortal for the past few years at all of the other tournaments. He now saves and marshals his best efforts.

Less savory are some of the other things Federer has been willing to do in order to keep winning. In his quarter-final match against the human ball-striking machine named Nikolay Davydenko, Federer was in deep trouble: Down a set and a break of serve, and almost down another. He rallied and won (of course), but he used a kind of perceptive gamesmanship to do so. After the first set, he took a bathroom break. This is permissible, and a regular practice of many players. (Even Venus Williams took such a break at this year’s Aussie Open, and I can’t recall seeing her do that before.) But Federer has long decried gamesmanship of any kind, calling out the whiny Novak Djokovic for his “injury” timeouts. Of course, when I heard why Federer took the time out, I was too impressed by his perceptive abilities to criticize him. Speaking to ESPN’s Darren Cahill shortly after the match, Federer said he was trying to survive until the sun went down; the match had been conducted under a late-afternoon sun, and Federer had said (almost poetically) that the ball was “half in shadow, half in light” so that he could only see half of it. Someone could construct a musical suite on this theme.

But what about Federer’s sophisticated mind-game (not really “trash talking”, to be precise) against Murray in the days before the match? Some of it was just funny: In the interview after his semifinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer said that the British hadn’t won a Grand Slam “in like 150,000″ years (74 is the slightly more accurate number). But in press conferences before the final, Federer turned up the heat: Murray would feel the pressure; It would be important for Murray — but not for him — to win the first set; Murray’s head-to-head winning record against Federer (which now stands at 6-5) was constructed when Federer “wasn’t at [his] very best”; Murray had cratered during the previous major final encounter (at the 2008 U.S. Open, also won by Federer in straight sets).

The tactics seem to have worked, but maybe they weren’t necessary. Federer enjoys amazing crowd support everywhere he goes, even against home-town heroes. This, too, helps him win. Is his new approach a risk to this capital of good will? Perhaps. And to what lengths will he go to remain on top? We’ll see. But these latest actions by the great Federer remind us that elite athletes will do what they need, even if the rest of us don’t like or understand it. Just watch and enjoy his sublime tennis, while it lasts.

Federer and Hingis in 2012?

December 10th, 2009 No comments

During the 2008 Summer Olympics, I became convinced of two things: (1) Tennis really does belong in the Olympics1; and (2) It’s a shame that they don’t offer mixed doubles. My “mixed doubles” wish has just come true. Starting right away — the 2012 Games in London — mixed doubles is part of the program. Why should you care? After all, tennis broadcast eminence Mary Carillo has referred to mixed doubles as “the funny cars” of tennis — as Jon Wertheim stated in that same linked story, it’s “nothing to be taken seriously.”

Not outside of the Olympics, anyway. But placing mixed doubles in the Olympics will make people, especially the competitors, take it seriously. Even Roger Federer, who almost never plays doubles, was overcome with joy at winning the gold medal in men’s doubles in 2008. (See video at end of post.) Funny cars will become a source of soul-stirring, nationalistic inspiration.

Also: Funny cars or not, tennis is the only sport besides badminton (which is more exciting than you think) where women compete head-to-head with men. (Other Olympic sports where women and men are in the running for same set of medals, such as pairs ice dancing and equestrian, involve serial performances. In sailing, men and women do race at the same time, but…who cares?)

The Olympics have a global audience, and thus a chance to bring visibility and respect to women in places where their status is, shall we say, less than equal to that of males. It won’t solve anything, but it can’t hurt. Sports are surprisingly powerful, as Nelson Mandela demonstrated. (Here are some early reviews from the new Clint Eastwood flick Invictus (out tomorrow), that chronicles Mandela’s use of rugby-fever to unite South Africa shortly after his election.)

One more thing: This may inspire twice-retired (but still young) Martina Hingis to emerge from the shadows one more time, for the chance to play mixed doubles with Federer. I bet he’d be eager for the chance to team up with the smartest player ever to set foot on the court (although hardly the most powerful). They’d be unbeatable.

  1. Watch this weird video (and listen to accompanying song) to get a sense of how much victory means, even to someone like Federer.

Jeter and Federer, Inside-Out

September 13th, 2009 No comments

By an uncanny stroke of luck, I was at Yankee Stadium last night when Derek Jeter delivered base hit number 2,722 for his career, surpassing the tragic Lou Gehrig for the all-time team record. This NY Times tribute by George Vecsey sums up my feelings pretty well. At-bat for the second time during a lull in the squalls that fell throughout the day and threatened to postpone the game, Jeter smashed a single inside the first-base line. A righty hitter, he’s made a living by “inside-outing” the ball to right field. This isn’t the easiest way to get hits, but it works with relentless consistency for him; it’s an underappreciated kind of motor genius that’s allowed Jeter to pile up a mountain of (mostly) singles that will likely place near the very top of the all-time heap in number of hits.  I’d be shocked if he didn’t finish at least among the top ten in that category.

I typically attend exactly one game per year, at the invitation of an old law school friend who’s had season tix forever. This was my game for 2009, arranged a couple of weeks ago and, by great fortune, turning into an event I’ll long remember. I’ll have lots to say about the Yankee organization in an upcoming post (most of it not very good, I’m afraid), but for today I wanted to pause to acknowledge the relentless, consistency cum excellence of Jeter that sometimes covers a multitude of institutional sins.

So there I was in a cafeteria-style diner this morning, reading about Jeter and looking for news about the sodden U.S. Open, when I ran across an article about Roger Federer’s charmed year. More than one sports yakker (OK, all of them) have focused on one shot that the precise Swiss delivered at this year’s French Open as the inspiration for Federer’s renaissance. Down by a couple of sets and a break point to German Tommy Haas and on the verge of being bounced out of the tournament, Federer took a decent return of serve by Haas and converted it for a winner by running around his backhand side — and crushing an inside-out forehand within millimeters of the line. After that,  a renewed Federer ran out the match, the tournament, and then Wimbledon. Oh, and he and his wife then had healthy identical twins just in time for his return to the U.S. for the hardcourt season, where he’s continued to thrive all the way through to the U.S. Open semifinals.

And among Federer’s many ridiculous motor skills is the ability to hit this inside-out forehand, again and again, with lethal accuracy.  Doing so requires footwork and timing that the other players just can’t duplicate. For the sake of comparative elegance I’d like to say that this is his signature shot  in the same way that the inside-out base hit is Jeter’s, but Federer has so many options and so much expression in his game that one can’t really designate a signature shot.

But Jeter’s better and more complex than his inside-outing facility, too. Because he also has the ability to play his best when the stakes are highest. (Compare: Alex Rodriguez.) Sitting in a hotel room in State College, PA, with David asleep on the bed, I was startled from my drowsy hazy during the playoff game with the Oakland A’s in 2001 when Jeter appeared — from who-knows-where — near the first-base line to cut off a throw from right field and then shovel the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who then applied a tag at home plate to the lumbering Jeremy Giambi, nailing him by an inch. Game saved, sweep averted, and the Yankees then went on to win the series. What on earth was the shortstop doing there? “That’s where I’m supposed to be,” I recall him answering, as though puzzled by the question.

What’s inside Jeter and Federer comes out in ways that continue to delight and amaze. Given the brutal logic of physical decline, neither can be expected to remain at the top of his game for much longer. Enjoy them.

Federer, Schmederer?

July 6th, 2009 No comments

Well, he did it. Yesterday, Roger Federer overcame a game and determined — and vastly improved —  Andy Roddick to win his sixth Wimbledon title, and to regain the Number 1 ranking that he’d rented to Rafael Nadal for the past ten months. But most significantly, Federer passed Pete Sampras, 15-14 in career majors  (commonly but incorrectly called “Grand Slams” — a true “Grand Slam” is winning all four majors1 in the same year), and is now the all-time leader….

Among the men. Margaret Court leads the whole tennis pack with 24(!), but few regard  her as “the greatest” because half of her titles came at the Australian Open, which, during the 1950s and 60s, when she played, was but little attended by non-Aussies. (Even Bjorn Borg, for example, who played in the 1970s and early 1980s only competed “Down Under” once during his career). Steffi Graf, regarded by some as the greatest female player ever, has 22 majors to her credit, but to some (see Frank DeFord), her accomplishment is tarnished because her would-have-been principal rival, Monica Seles, basically became a non-contender after her stabbing (by a Graf fan, no less). Seles had been routinely beating Graf and everyone else at majors, collecting trophies like complimentary mints. Oh, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova each finished their long careers with 18 majors; were they better than Federer?

Is it possible to compare women’s tennis to men’s? Probably not, but the same should  likely be said about the effort to decide who’s the best male player. Is Federer “betterer” than Sampras? I’d say yes, as his greater variety and all-court excellence led to the capture of all majors, including the clay-court French Open. Federer: Four French Open finals, one win (three losses to Nadal, a force of nature on clay). Sampras: No French Open finals, even. But some would say Sampras faced tougher competition. I don’t agree, but that’s the point: We’ll never know. Rod Laver won the Grand Slam twice, and doubtless would have captured more than the eleven majors he did win, except that he turned pro at a time when pros couldn’t compete at the majors. How many majors did he sacrifice? Hard to say, because all of the best players were on the pro circuit. And on and on goes the debate, fun but ultimately fruitless.

Whatever the tennis gods think, we can agree that Federer’s accomplishments over the past several years, and yesterday, are just astonishing. His level of consistent excellence — 21 consecutive semi-final or better appearances — is even less likely to be duplicated than Joe DiMaggio’s preposterous 56-game hitting streak.

Watching the match yesterday with a family of divided loyalties, I was — as always — on the Federer side. But Roddick played with belief and heart, and now I want him to win…something big. Maybe the U.S. Open? He’s surely put himself back on the short list. Go, Andy!

Here’s how it ended:

  1. The Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon