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Posts Tagged ‘tennis’

Ice Age

February 15th, 2011 No comments

File:Raonic2011AO.png

The frozen land to our north is busily laying the groundwork for world domination. On Sunday, Arcade Fire became the first Canadian band to win an ATP tour title in over fifteen years. Or something like that. Here is their victory cry, after match point:

Elena Dementieva: An Appreciation

October 29th, 2010 No comments

Dementieva stops Serena

Today, perennial world top ten tennis player Elena Dementieva abruptly announced her retirement from the sport. She’s 29 years old, and I guess the passion to keep running around the court and hitting all of those screaming line drives just wasn’t there any more.

I read the news just before I was scheduled to pick up the kids, and it took me by surprise — and I was further surprised to discover that I had an emotional reaction to her departure. I’m a rabid tennis fan, but why will I miss her, in particular?

This wonderful piece on the tennis.com site sums up my feelings pretty well. (Read some of the comments to see how much hard-core tennis fans love her.) Dementieva has (had?) a relentless ground game, with her sturdy legs as often unbreachable foundation. Gifted with astonishing speed, timing, and athleticism, she could stand toe-to-toe with anyone, as her titanic battle with Serena Williams at 2009 Wimbledon showed. Running Williams all over the court, Dementieva was a match point away from sending the iron-willed American crashing out of the tournament she eventually won. As was too-typical of Dementieva, she’d given the sport a great match (probably the best of the year) but fallen just short.

Indeed, except for the Olympics — a gold medal in a 2008 and a mostly forgotten silver medal from 2000 — Dementieva’s career is already being summed up as “almost.” Because she had made it to two Grand Slam finals, seven semifinals and a few more quarterfinals, most of us kept waiting for her to bag one. (Please, just one!) She had one last chance this year, with a relatively weak trio of women standing between her and a French Open championship, but she was forced to retire with an injury during her semifinal against eventual tournament winner Francesca Schiavone.

She was the classic underdog, and that status was given epic stature by the one shocking weakness in her game: her serve. For years, it was, well…it was terrible. I can recall watching a U.S. Open semifinal she played against Jennifer Capriati where her second serves were floating in — or out — at a speed that would have embarrassed some weekend players (not me, though). People were actually laughing. Yet she won that match, and developed the amazing ability to shrug off the worst kind of serving woes — including numerous double faults, many at the most crucial times — and soldier on. Her ability to thrive in such a competitive environment without the most reliable weapon — the only shot the player completely controls — was the subject of endless fascination, and tended to humanize her in a way rare for top athletes.

She won’t make the Hall of Fame. No Grand Slam titles (tennis snobs don’t care much about the Olympics), and a career-high ranking of three aren’t quite good enough. Yet she’ll leave a void. As she announced her retirement at the year-end tournament followed only by real tennis nuts, all of her top fellow players stood on the court — and cried. So did the two women in the broadcast booth, Lindsey Davenport and Corina Morariu, who’d played against her and watched her long and impressive career. A more honest, intelligent, and likable player you won’t find.

Tennis will miss her, and so will I. Let’s end on an Olympic high note (her victory screech is so heartfelt):

How Incoherence Has Ruined Articles About Women’s Tennis

August 26th, 2010 2 comments

This just-published preview from Sunday’s NY Times Magazine is entitled “How Power Has Transformed Women’s Tennis.”

Based on its length, I’d guess that it’s the cover story. That’s potentially good, as the Times is one of the few major media outlets to give tennis the coverage it needs (and deserves). They also ran a long-form piece on Nadal in the Magazine a year or so ago, and featured Elena Dementieva — of all people — on the cover of their since-discontinued Play Magazine.

Good, that is, until you actually read the story. I could find no organizing narrative, no effort to make sense of interview comments that were all over the place, and no sense that the author actually knew anything about tennis. Fans, read it and tell me I’m wrong.

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.

Lady WordinEdgewise Visits the (Not so) Sunshine(y) State

March 3rd, 2010 No comments

In my previous post, I wrote cheerily about developments in DC and Maryland. Meanwhile, here in Florida matters are considerably less cheery. I’m down here with the kids for a short vacation. Right now, they’re at the zoo with my parents, while I’m wrapped in ice after apparently rupturing a muscle this morning on the tennis court– which caused much full-throated gloating among the seniors: “See? It can happen at any age!” Last night, I became the last one on my block to finally see Avatar (3D, of course)1 Afterwards, I ventured to a nearby gay bar here in Melbourne, there to see, first-hand, the effects of second-class citizenship.

Florida’s laws are among the most gay-hating in the US: No adoption (although this law is under review in the state courts), no employment protection, and an especially broad constitutional amendment against any type of relationship-recognition for gay couples. But what do you expect in a state so backward that it’s among only three that don’t require booster seats for pre-schoolers? Shoulder straps around the neck will do nicely, thanks!

And the kids might be smoking in those unboostered backseats, too. The choking plumes of smoke that almost bowled me over as I entered “The Cold Keg” reminded me of the state’s legislative foot-dragging in yet another area. I  had walked in on some kind of poker night, with two oblong tables peopled by the dysfunctional gay and lesbian version of my parents’ sex-segregated poker nights. I could say a great deal about this sad lot, but one example will do: a forty-something lesbian in a Metallica tee shirt, with a hairstyle that made the mullet seem a high-fashion statement. Other than that, the bar seemed not to have sensed the passage of time, with depressing wood walls, a few sorry, hanging lights, and no real sense of decor.

At least the jukebox was state of the art. When the second-form Lady Gaga hit “Bad Romance” issued forth, the patrons joined in song. (Wouldn’t “Poker Face” have  been the more obvious choice, btw?) OK: Some things, it seems, are Gay Universals. When the Lady Parade then continued with the inexplicable country sensation Lady Antebellum, I realized that it’s now “all lady, all the time.” I was half-expecting “Lady Marmalade” to follow.2 So maybe this blog needs a new name (see title of post).

As I neared the bottom of my first and only drink, the bartender approached me and asked the usual, friendly questions that the job demands. When I told him that I was in Florida with my kids, the issue turned to adoption. He reminded me that gay adoptions were illegal in the (No) Sunshine (for Gays) State, and then related a conversation he’d had with family members, where he’d defended himself by saying: “I’m gay but I’m not a pedophile.”

Yikes! I don’t know any gay person who’d feel the need to add the qualifying part of that sentence, which somehow suggests that the listener (and the speaker) might have reason to think that gays are pedophiles. But I don’t know many gays in out-of-the-way places in such homophobic states, either. There isn’t one linear gay rights movement, and last night’s visit was a depressing reminder that in some places full dignity and equality are far off.

But even here, there are glimmers of hope. On the otherwise dismal bulletin board, there was a neatly typed request for donations made by the local high school’s Gay Straight Alliance. (Yes, I did wonder whether the lack of a hyphen between gay and straight was simply poor grammar or a more disturbing distancing between the gays and their not-quite-comfortable straight allies.) Perhaps even in the remotest areas of the cruelest states, better things are only a generation away.

  1. What a visually stunning film! The plot was OK, if derivative of Pocahontas, until the final chapter which culminated in a tiresome Marine general, encased in a giant robot suit, facing off against the gone-native protagonist, in a battle that for some reason reminded me of Cameron Hodge’s last-stand from an old X-Men comics plot.
  2. “Hey lady!” “What?” “What lady?” That lady?” No!” — Funplex, the B-52’s.

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.

Boiled in Oil

November 29th, 2009 No comments

A few years ago, Martina Navratilova was asked about how her openness about being a lesbian had affected her tennis career. In characteristically honest and amusing fashion, she had this assessment (and here I paraphrase): Well, it wasn’t great. It cost me some fans, I took some heat for it, and I lost almost all of my endorsements. But it could have been worse. In the Middle Ages, I would have been boiled in oil.

A great line from a terrific and warm champion. (I had the pleasure of meeting her a few years ago at yet another event where she was being honored, and she was both humble and funny in accepting.) But, with all respect: Worse things are happening to gays today.

Jamaica’s horrendous treatment of gays — by both officials and the public — has been well-documented, and is (again) sometimes justified by religion. In addition to the legion of under-noticed stories on the brutal murders and beatings of gay men goings on there, there is this “gem” from Wayne Besen at Huff Post, which chillingly attests to the extent of the homophobia:

[T]he Jamaica Cancer Society has raised concerns that the fear of being labeled gay is causing some Jamaican men to avoid prostate examinations, causing one of the highest prostate cancer rates in the world.

This also means that doctors are complicit in some way, which is worse – but not surprising. Both straight and gay men who undergo a prostate exam in the U.S. often hear snarky comments about the exam from their docs, an artifact of the fear of gay sex.

In Iraq, an unintended consequence of our “liberation” the people has been the coordinated — and militia-supported — murder of many gay men. Things were better for gays under Saddam Hussein. Again, the fear of gay sex is the driver: The linked story relates stories of gay men having their anuses glued shut, and then force-fed laxatives; a painful death ensues.

These heartbreaking stories find expression in the U.S. as well, where a collision of religious belief and homophobia lead to actions that are equally repugnant, yet little noticed.

The creepy, secretive  cabal known as “The Family” is supporting the Ugandan government’s push to make homosexuality punishable by death. This story is a good primer on this corrupt, politically powerful, organization, which uses religious belief chiefly to gain tax advantages and to support the opulent lifestyles of its members. Jeff Sharlot’s exhaustive account of the group, The Family, would be expected to drive these nuts out of business — but this is a nation where torture is redefined and no one who authorized blatantly illegal practices gets prosecuted for it, so I’m not optimistic.

You’ll notice that the stories, and the actions of these anti-gay groups, focus on gay men, not lesbians. While there’s plenty of anti-lesbian sentiment to go around (and well-documented economic costs to being lesbian), sex between males remains particularly transgressive. A few years ago, a colleague introduced me to a list serve for Constitutional Law professors (after about two days of endless, theoretical postings, I got out of there), and I was astonished to see a comment from one anti-gay law professor joking that he, himself, didn’t understand male sex (the comment was much worse than that; I’m sanitizing for your protection).  And this is a supposedly respectable law professor.

Of course, Obama would never make such a comment. But he would — and has — ignored the 720 murders of gays in Iraq, despite clear and persuasive reporting on the topic. As far as I can tell, he’s said nothing about Jamaica, either (and has not responded to this suggestion, either).

I’m not naive enough to think that the Administration can get involved in every controversy, or that it should put issues of concern to the gay community ahead of other diplomatic goals. But we’re not talking about small stuff here. People are being killed, with something at least close to official approval, and…silence. With no other group would this be considered business as usual.

There’s something else. It’s hard to say much about what’s going on in other countries when your own domestic record is less than exemplary. Here’s where all of this ties back to marriage equality, if only in theoretical political terms. By not committing himself to that goal, Obama is stating, in effect, that he doesn’t favor full citizenship for gay and lesbians. So even though Obama is leagues away from dangerous right-wing nuts like the members of “The Family,” his credibility on gay issues is compromised. Perhaps that explains his otherwise puzzling silence.

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

Federer, The Movie(s)

June 9th, 2009 No comments

Watch this:

…and this…

finally, this…

These “scenes from a career” are about all I have to add to the endless stream of tributes bathing Roger Federer in the wake of annexing his first French Open title this past Sunday; the win that gives him cred in the “best ever” argument. But the issue of who’s best can’t be resolved by arguments, stats, or by any other means extrinsic to the game. Just as reading a music review provides little illumination of what you really care about in listening, so does reading about tennis — or any sport — inherently fail to do it justice.

In Federer’s case, more than for any other player I’ve seen, there’s also a huge gulf between even the best televised version of his game and the real thing. When I saw him play a quarterfinal against the talented but overmatched David Nalbandian in 2004 — on his way to his first of five-and-counting U.S. Open Titles — I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. Catch it while you can.