Tennis: Winning Isn’t Everything…

October 28, 2009

by Long John Silver… Why do you play a game?

Among the infinite answers possible, at the core, the answer to it is probably twofold. For the sheer love of the game, and just as importantly, to win.

The former leads to the latter. I guess all the athletes I have ever been drawn to have always had one consistent quality in them, the uninhibited, unrestrained, insatiable, almost inhuman blood lust to win.

Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher are probably two of the best examples. Here is what Senna had to say about racing when asked about why he ran into so many competitors with time, pure and simple .

Time and again a certain Scarlet clad German won the year end championships by a hairline, because even with an inferior motor car, torrential weather and pit stop disadvantages, Schumacher simply refused to go away.

His graphic desire to win has been witnessed on the grid many times, when he continuously pushed that lines that separate hard but fair and ruthless but foul .

He is a polarizing figure and you either like him or you don’t. Most champions of such essence are polarizing: Stephen Waugh, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Justine Henin, Saurav Ganguly, Michael Jordan, Maria Sharapova, Mike Tyson and Kobe Bryant. Wasn’t it Ganguly who said, “Being second is just first in the long string of losers.”

That’s why Roger Federer is unique. He isn’t anywhere near polarizing as Schumacher, Ganguly or any others on that list.

In fact, he wishes good luck to the new kids on the block when he plays them the first time. But once the optic Wilson is in play, I am very sure no one mistakes Federer for a priest. You almost need that raw, pristine ragged edge—concealed well in the case of Federer, but make no mistake, it does exist—to be as successful as he is in his craft.

That sense of drive is one of the simplest phenomenon in the world. Any person,who is half smart wants to be good in what he or she does. Whether you are an artist, editor, architect, poet, writer, analyst, designer, or scientist, your craft might be different but our purpose is singular, to be the best in what we do.

In a mutually exclusive world such as sport, that directly translates to one end, to win.

One of the low points of my tennis reading was when Andrea Jaeger—tennis player turned nun—admitted that she allowed her opponent to win a slam final after the rain break, because she saw how much it affected her opponent in the locker room during the rain break. Get over it.

If you are in the shark feeding business, you probably should not feel bad about dead fishes, but that’s just me.

It’s a tremendous disservice you do the game, fans, and yourself. It’s why in the world of Rafael Nadal and Federer, we admire Nikolay Davydenko and Lleyton Hewitt just as much for their desire to compete ever so honestly in an attempt to win.

I understand that players play to achieve that microsecond of salvation, when you picked a coin spot on the court on the sideline, and drill an inside out forehand screamer that lands on that very spot. That is an isolated moment of consummate liberation.

Even Nadal, whom I think is the most improved player from the time he joined the tour, sure loves the process. But that process has a purpose—to win.

Hence the process or the act of playing magnificently is a conduit to attain the eventual purpose. It’s a subset of the larger purpose. Top athletes are always driven by purpose. They don’t just do things, they do them for a reason. The rationale that drives every single action in their career is designed for them to win more.

The possible exception to this essence is Marat Safin. I am a huge admirer of the mercurial, tortured Russian. He went to the press and once said, “I just want to enjoy my matches, I want to play without any problems, then win or lose … go home.” Let us leave aside that irresistible soulful dark brooding cynicism for now.

Think about the matches this year, when the person who ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard played just as well as the winner. Think about the numbers: F-VED in Aussie semis, De-Joker in the Madrid semis, R-Andy in the London final and Elena Dementieva in the London semis. That’s four, out of hundreds of matches played this year.

On those occasions, if you went to F-VED, Nole, Andy and Elena and asked them, would you have rather played this well today and lost, or would you have much rather won playing a shade or two lower? Any guesses on their responses?

Their answer is the crux to your question.

Process is a crucial and an imperative part of the sport for continuous improvement. But it eventually is a subset of winning, as in it’s the driving force of winning. And in those rare few instances when you play just as well as your opponent and lose, you would have preferred to have won anyway.

Winning isn’t everything—it’s the ONLY thing.

Cheers

For Nostalgia: Suzuka 2000 (great clip)

Mechanics vs Mechanics: Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, Rafa Transtions Better

October 8, 2009

by Long John Silver… Congratulations, felis-tes-tio-nes to Rio de Janeiro!

So, now that AM has discussed the similarities between Rafael Nadal’s and Andy Murray’s games, I am going to get to the crux of the very difference in their games.

Both games are constructed based on defense, but it is not this that wins them slams or would potentially win slams.

At the fundamental level, their games are intrinsically different. Rafael is your offensive baseliner and M-Andy is your vintage ‘fourth generation’ (Wilander, Chang, Hewitt, M-Andy) counter-puncher. The evolution of the game is similar to that of an i-pod.

The succeeding generation of products are still true to their fundamental functionality (play music to the satisfaction of a music addict’s expected level of precision) but they always have additional features and are in a way, more adept to the current market’s requirements (i-shuffle and i-nano, I have a Prussian blue i-shuffle and I love it).

The crux of the difference between them lies in what we call as ‘Transition’. Nadal can transition from defense to offense quite seamlessly, and much better than Murray. That’s what has brought him six slams, and will potentially continue to bring him more.

The problem with M-Andy’s game is that very lack of transition. It’s not easy chiseling a defense based game to an offensive one, because innately your mindset is tuned to defend. When you are in trouble, the true colors always come out—and when your survival in a slam semi is at stake when the opponent is painting lines…you go back to what you are most comfortable with.

Nadal, with time, has willed himself to change that very mindset—and its one of the hardest things to do. That is what helped him conquer the coveted lawns of London, and to a lower extent OZ.

For some reason M-Andy still has to tell himself (or scowl at himself in the middle of the match) to attack more, or utter his famous ‘hit…don’t chip’ phrase. He still finds it hard to transition to offense when it’s needed most, very hard. That’s partially understandable, because even though he is No. 3, his game still is developing when compared to Nadal.

Hopefully it will develop faster. His game is very fine tuned, but not fine tuned enough to win day in and day out against first strike players. Look at the track record: F-VED in OZ, Gonzo in Paris, R-Andy in London, Cilic in NY. There is a pattern, and that pattern will stop when he transitions better.

That’s the crux: Rafael and M-Andy have games predicated on rock solid defense, but Nadal transitions to offense better.

Elena Dementieva: On the Short List of Contenders for the Big Apple

September 1, 2009

by Long John Silver… Something struck me during my conversation with my friend a couple of days before.

I was asked to pay closer attention to Elena “Viatcheslavovna” Dementieva’s game, and I did.

The current world No. 4 defeated Serena Williams (6 and 1) in the semis, and took down MA-SHA (3 and 4) in the finals to win the Rogers Cup in Toronto.

But it was the mechanics of her game that struck me as very unique to the women’s game.

Think about the best ways to hit a tennis shot. The ideal way to hit a forehand or a backhand is to hit it using the shoulders through its effective rotation, rather than using the entire body weight. Using the entire body weight exerts undue and unwanted stress on the body. The key is to hit with minimal effort while generating the pace and spin required to clean the lines consistently.

One of the reasons why Roger Federer has remained pretty much injury free is due to a combination of reasons, most importantly his ability to win and take control of the points using his fluidity in ground strokes. Less is simple. Economy in ground strokes undoubtedly increases the longevity of a career. There is a reason why counter-punchers rise and fall early.

Federer, Agassi, Graf, and Roddick predominantly hit forehands using the power in their shoulders. Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, Serena, and Sharapova use more of their entire body weight to drill a forehand. When one uses only the shoulders to hit a ground stroke, the entire torso of the body is directly in the line of the ball when hitting a ground stroke. When one uses the body weight to hit a ground stroke, the torso is not directly in the line of the ball, it is facing sideways. These examples are specific to a forehand.

Using the entire body weight requires more energy to be invested into the shot than if you have strong shoulders, or just taught how to hit the shot better when young. In the WTA tour, most women use their entire body to hit shots in an attempt to impart more power into their ground strokes.

However, when you watch Elena play, there is this innate feeling of efficiency. Her shots don’t take more effort than it should because she only uses shoulders to hit off both flanks. Her forehand and backhand looks fluid, smooth, and iPod sleek. Perfect mechanics.

Elena glides through the court without any significant effort side to side. It’s almost like Federer in terms of movement—you don’t notice how fast he is moving because he does it so effortlessly. Time and again she held her own on the ground with efficiency as compared to MA-SHA who looked like she was expending twice the physical effort to achieve the same end result. It takes its toll.

This clip highlights the contrasting styles of mechanics between the two. Look how compact Elena hits, contrary to her opponent. She is equally comfortable at the net and can take control of the points at will.

With that heart-breaking loss in the London semis to Serena, she has bounced back very well. The Williams sisters always raise their games for the slams, Safina still looks ominous, but I think Dementieva is in that mix of top contenders for New York. Probably the next best bet after Serena Williams.

The efficiency of her game innately leads her to conserve energy, more than her competitors. Her ball striking is splendid as of now, and she looks match fit and ready to go play in the Big Apple. She has been on the big stage before, she has been in slam finals twice (04 Paris and 04 NY)…and went Gold in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which propelled her confidence to even higher levels.

She has always been in the mix at the business end of the slams. Time and again she has been bettered when she has been very close to the finish line. At 7-6 5-7 in the London semis, it would have been easy for her to say that she has played well and the opponent was too good as she always has been (S. Williams).

But what was most impressive was the way she decided to put it past her and carry on with the sword deep into the third, something from which she derived enormous heart and confidence from rather than surrendering meekly. She just fell short of the finish line (6 – 8 in the third), but sometimes you learn more when you lose a match, only to use what you have learnt to come back stronger (Federer V Hewitt Davis Cup 2003, Federer lost from being two sets up. He hasn’t lost a match to Hewitt since, a staggering stat).

A couple of chips fall her way…and there is no reason why the Russian world No. 4 cannot hoist the coveted crystal in New York City, adjacent to the irresistible evening lights of the Manhattan Island.

Needless to say the Sam Adams is on me the next two weeks,

Welcome to the Big Apple…

Cheers.

PS: Love the solo bass rendition of “My Friend of Misery” by Jason Newsted (”M” bassist).

Tennis Tri(P)fecta: Pain, Physical Fitness and Performance

August 8, 2009

by Long John SilverThe past few months I have wondered how the role of ‘Pain’ transcends between sport and reality. The final catalyst was during a conversation with a friend. Thought I would discuss that a bit, for pain, performance and sport are as intertwined as boys and girls in high school, and men and women in the real world.

To quote two champions of our time about playing with pain, who came out and said what essentially had the same gist:

Rafael Nadal:

“I played with some problems on the knee for the last few months. I’ve been making efforts to play week after week. The truth is that sportsmen always play with pain and don’t know where the limit is, where you can get to. I think I reached that limit now. I will work very hard to comeback as soon as possible. One of the problems is I’m thinking more about the knees than what is happening on court and it’s very difficult to play like that.”

Sachin Tendulkar:

“I always play in pain, all the time. I played with a broken finger for the last three months, but you know when pain is manageable or not, and most of the time I can do it,” he said. “I can still do what I did when I was 25 but the body is changing, so your thought process has to change too. I have had to change how I think, which is about taking less risk.”

Top sportsmen have always played in constant pain. It’s not new to them and eventually they get used to it. Sampras never hit a ball or practiced when he won his Hollywood Wimbledon under the London twilight defeating Rafter in the 2000 final. He practically won his last Wimbledon on one foot.

Agassi was on a healthy diet of cortisone for the last year of his career to play on the tour. There were days when he said he could not walk after the match. Hewitt went through the entire last year playing with a torn hip muscle. When Rusty double faults, more often than not it is because he cannot push up higher using his thighs due to the perennial strain on them.

Even though I end up berating him, “you are serving like my grand mum’” and then ‘”you are serving worse than my grand mum”, deep inside I do know the underlying problem.

An unhealthy Beckham came sooner than he should have to L.A. Galaxy and tarnished his hard earned reputation. When he came to the L.A. Galaxy he wasn’t as recovered as he thought he was.

One of Federer’s often underestimated skills is his meticulous ability to stay injury-free. It takes a lot of training off-court, not over or under training but the exact amount of training to remain that way. Federer has done an impeccable job of playing relatively pain free throughout his career. Sharapova missed most of 2008 due to her shoulder injury.

A pain in the shoulder is as good as a racket with the wrong string tension. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide for you need to use your shoulders to serve each and every point. It took a monumental effort on her part to play Roland Garros half fit and make a decent run this time around.

Murray and Henin both have remarked before that the pain they go through on the practice courts is significantly higher than what their bodies go through during the course of an actual match.

For the Ashes 2007, the entire Australian cricket team ran sand hills (normal hills are hard enough, sand hills?!) every day in the Australian peak summer as a part of their training regime.

In his prime, Michael Schumacher used to spend six hours each day in the gym. He hardly used to break a sweat driving the scarlet monster even under the most physically trying circumstances. He used to do exceedingly well in street and counter-clockwise circuits which stress the neck muscles more.

A physically fitter body can concentrate better for the longest period of time too, helps when your reflexes need to react in microseconds, rather than in seconds, you know driving a car at 200 mph and all.

A fit athlete isn’t a generic term, one can easily be fit for a sport but may not look fit in real life.

Shane Warne was always carrying a few pounds extra, but he was always cricket fit – meaning he can bowl all day if needed, and he has. Shaq O’Neal has never been the fittest around, but he still did extremely well for Lakers during his time. What he lacked in speed, he made up with sheer power and momentum. A soccer player needs to be fast and slim, a boxer needs to be bulky and not quite so slim. The version of fitness varies for each sport.

Federer is fit right, so is Ivanisevic—fancy pitting any one of them (hell, may be even both of them) in a boxing ring with Lennox Lewis? You can, but have an ambulance on call, you get the drift I’m sure.

Pain during strenuous physical regimen during the preparation stage, and pain due to injury are different. The former allows you to prepare yourself so that you can maximize your performance (Jim Courier running up the hills with tires or sand bags tied to his chest during his prime?), the latter actually hinders from you performing your best.

The former occurs because you push yourself to the absolute limits, the existence of the latter prevents you from doing the same. Different results, same reason. The key is to enjoy the training and not treat it as a mundane activity. Juan Pablo Montoya used to play tennis instead of hitting the weight room because he despised the weight rooms and sweaty personnel inside them.

The key is to also keep it different from time to time, the Pakistani cricket team plays soccer sometimes to keep things interesting on specific days. Their skipper Inzamam Haq was never the fittest of blokes around, but he can still play the game very well.

As much as we would think life mirrors sport, and vice versa—it is true but not always.

A regular bloke such as you and me probably have never trained to the extent to which a Sampras, Phelps, Bryant or Armstrong train to remain on top of their respective sports. We have never pushed ourselves physically to that point because we never have needed to. Our lives and work does not require us to be in the physical shape an athlete is required to be. It’s the necessity of the job and hence it becomes a requirement. I

f you are a chemist, you are sort of expected to know the chemical formula for ethanol.  If you are an athlete you are expected to be physically fit, for that is the fuel that drives your performance. That’s precisely why we can question Serena’s lack of fitness, but have no business questioning your neighbor who is 40 pounds heavier from the average bloke. The latter is wrong, the former…not so quite.

Hence both physical and psychological stress and pain is a part of an athlete’s life. But a stress in real life differs from sport.

In real life, you breathe it, live it, sleep with it until the causation for stress is addressed. But in sport, it is for that moment during training or the match for which you feel the stress, you can unwind afterwards. That is why having a family helps top athletes because when Federer, Schumacher or Agassi go home to their kids and wife, life reaches normalcy again.

A real life is an escape to an athlete. There is no escape to top level sport for an average bloke like Joe Schmoe or Joe the Plumber.

With age the training you do to maintain fitness and endurance varies significantly. At 29, it is significantly harder and takes longer to recuperate from a heavy night binge drinking, or a 16-14 fifth set the previous evening.

That’s why top athletes have individual physical trainers and nutritionists.  Simply because of the fact the trainer knows the particular’s athlete’s body intimately well, that he or she would change the training based on the events the previous day to prepare for the next game.

Gil Reyes is a tremendous example with Agassi. Ice baths and deep tissue massages (not the ones we get in the spa) are painful, but they help the muscles from prolonged inflammation. Throwing a medicine ball is also one of the toughest things in the world, and it’s monotonous. Sampras mastered this art.

Pain, Physical Training and Performance are intertwined in an athlete’s career, they are the cornerstones of his or her art. Sometimes pain leads to performance, other times it acts as a roadblock.  Managing one’s body very well reduces the chances of pain during a career, only few do it very well.

Eventually however, when you have it every day you accept it as a part of your life. Was it Ivanisevic who told as a response to what is different after retiring, ‘No more therapy, no more training and no more ibuprofens’?

An athlete’s life is unimaginably different from yours and mine…more than you and I can ever imagine. What we see is the glitz, glamour, girls and success…but a little more goes on in the back room that we don’t get to see, and that’s the fuel that drives their performance and success.

I thought of Nadal and Courier, but who better than Lendl to represent an article about training.

Cheers.

PS: One of my favorite Nike commercials

PPS: I am glad my pop-eye Spaniard is back in Montreal

Top 11 Reasons Why Federer Can Do Without THAT Bag

June 26, 2009

By Long John Silver… Top eleven reasons why Federer should get rid that hideous gold bag…

  1. Instead of us saying ‘King King Federer,’ he does not want us saying ‘Bling Bling Federer.’
  2. He isn’t mates with 50 Cent (pronounced as fiiii’dy cent), or is he?
  3. He normally attracts streakers on court when he is playing. He does not want to additionally attract gold-diggers, burglars and kleptomaniacs.
  4. It hurts my eyes (worse than Lleyton’s neon shirt and Donald Trump’s haircombined).
  5. To make us stop from wondering, “Rodge has millions, we get it … but does he have to flaunt it on center court?”
  6. Lend credibility to that old profound line of thought, “What the hail has Nike been smokin’?”
  7. No one is ever going to buy this gold ensemble from Nike stores anyway. Seriously, wear this, show up to the court if you are anyone other than RF, and post me the reaction.
  8. Gold mining affects the environment by releasing mercury emissions. Does Rodge not care about the environment at all?
  9. To show to us that he is still our Federer, not aristocracy or an upper Manhattan elitist.
  10. Save some gold for Mirka …
  11. Seriously – it’s HIDIOUS.

PS: Barack just signed the tobacco regulation law today. Nike: REALLY quit smoking, whatever it is that you have been smoking. Here is a bigger picture of the ensemble and the bag

Tennis’ Two Questions: Parents and Losing?

June 13, 2009

By Long John Silver… I have been reading, and thinking about two questions a bit.

What produces top tennis athletes? Is it the existence of a deranged paternal (and in some cases maternal) figure, or is it the existence of tennis (Nick Bolletieri) academies?

Why do athletes behave the way they do, after winning or losing and in terms of acknowledging the opponent for their level of play?

Let us think of insane tennis parents. Jim Pierce (with those infamous words of yelling from the stands ‘Mary, Kill the Bitch’), Richard Williams, Peter Graf, Damir Dokic and Yuri Sharpov truly do belong to the pantheon of deranged incomparable ones.

Make no mistake, they had a plan and stuck to it as well to achieve what they wanted with unerring accuracy, but their behavior more often than not is very odd. Then there are the more rationalistic set, Melanie Molitor (Hingis), Snezana (Jankovic), Gloria Connors and Betty Chang.

I am sure I have left a few out. As diverse as they are, it is indeed unquestionable that they were one of the most important cornerstones of their protégé’s game. So, is this what it takes to develop top of the game tennis players? Parents who are insane or rationalistic?

There is the other option, tennis academies. Sampras, Federer and Nadal did not have insane parents but they did turn out all right as tennis players didn’t they? They started from a more grounded household, and went on to become the absolute best in their chosen careers as well.

Hence there isn’t really any evidence to tilt the argument in one way or the other. The question however is an interesting one to ponder over.

The second one is the way athletes behave after victory and defeat, and in the pressers (if they show up to it). Last week Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal displayed contrasting bipolar behavior after they have been humbled on the Parisian clay.

When asked about their opponents and defeat, they would respond the following

RAFAEL NADAL: No. No, no. He didn’t surprise me ,because I know how he play, how dangerous he can be. Yesterday I didn’t play my best tennis. No, I didn’t attack in no one moment. I play very short, and I make him very easyto play at this level.

So when one player bad, must lose. That’s what happened today. I have to accept with the same calm when I win than when I lose. After four years I lose here, and the season continue.

Well, you know, when, for ‑‑ I played very short, you know. I play very short. I didn’t play great. I didn’t play with calm at no one time during all the match.

That makes him easy to play at this level during all the match, no? So was my fault, and more than ‑‑ well, sure, he did well. He did very well, but I didn’t ‑‑ yeah, I think I didn’t play my best tennis. And I didn’t play not my best tennis, no? I didn’t play my tennis, and for that reason I lose. That’s it.

I congratulate him and keep working hard for the next tournament.

To be fair to Serena, I have presented two of her responses. An acknowledgement to the minimum, followed by the statement

SERENA WILLIAMS: Well, I think she played well overall. Obviously she played well to walk away with the win, so yeah.

Well, um, I mean, I just deal with losses a little bit better nowadays. Honestly I think I lost because of me and not because of anything she did.

You know, I don’t think that makes it easier, but it makes me realize that, you know, had I done different things I would have been able to win.

Last week when Lebron James lost to the Magics, he would tell this priceless statement, and he never showed up to the presser as well (incurring a hefty fine).

“It’s hard for me to congratulate someone after you just lose to them”

So, what is it about athletes who cannot acknowledge opponents. Isn’t it the very essence of competition? Surprisingly, Venus is entirely different from Serena in terms of crediting opponents when it’s due.

I would love to know what you think of it, about these two questions.

The Romantic in Me Roots for Federer and Safina

June 1, 2009

By Long John Silver… I think there are many times in life when you think, “This is true. This is profound and genuine and it’s just unlike anything else,” only for it to be refuted the next day.

Three times when the incomparable Swiss reached the final for all RF-World to think he is going to eventually win, there came the muscular Pirate who beat him, grounded him … and eventually bageled and embarrassed him.

I wanted to wait a bit, before it all settled down. Let it marinate a bit so that one has a more balanced perspective.

The tennis world Richter scale touched its limit today. It was shaken to its core.  The infamous Swede finally achieved the impossible. It is ironic that Rafa’s least favorite player on tour handed him the flight tickets out of Paris to Spain.

Soderling can play, but he probably will not play like this for a long time. Lack of consistency is his Achilles heel.

This was a blood-bath weekend for the lanky German , who sent back the “Boy in Blue Shoes,” when we all thought that was the biggest upset. That’s until the Swede showed up to send the four-time champion, never before defeated Spaniard home.

Let’s not get carried away, Rafael will be back in Paris next year. But the result does not fail to stupefy even the most balanced of people. As we were sieving with a fine tooth comb through the draw on who can take Rafael to the distance (let alone defeating him on Chartier) who would have thought Soderling?

That’s why we say it time and (painfully) time again right? Lets play, that’s why we play the match, however one sided the probabilities are.

Rafa was incredibly honest and gracious. He told that Soderling played very well, and he himself also hit a lot of short balls (which is true). But he was very clear in stating that he did not take anything away from Soderling.

When asked if the wind made a difference, he clearly stated that wind was existent to both players. But you just knew, Soderling was always looking to ignite when there is nothing there. Soderling went on to say that Rafa should not have said that he hit short balls. I’ll leave it at that.  There is no smoke, there is just Rob Soderling.

It had to happen sometime, there is always a Krajicek, there is always a Nadal, and there is always a Soderling.

So what does this mean? The slip of a Spanish Kingdom? Or is it “Christmas comes early in a Swiss Household?” It’s a bit of both.

Opportunities such as these don’t knock more than once in an athlete’s career. These next three matches are probably the most important on Rodge’s career, it’s a culmination point. It is a destiny thrown lifeline.

For what it’s worth, I have always strongly believed that the best player of all time (or at least being in a conversation) should have won on all four surfaces.

As always I have tickets to watch the open final with my best mate in N.Y.

There is no point in contending “what if” theories. If Rodge does not defeat Rafael to get his Roland Garros, well there is a simple reason for it. Rafael did not show up on the second Sunday … he wasn’t good enough. It’s as simple as that. Similar to my response to the “mono” theory.

On the women’s side, I am also a pure romantic at heart and more often than not I believe in fairy-tales. Here is a recount of Dinara’s four matches—double bagel, double bread stick, two and bagel, and bread stick and bagel. The WTA eventually deserves a No. 1 who is a slam winner.

The romantic in me wants Rodge and Dinara … What does destiny hold?

Your guess is as good as mine. Can’t help thinking there is one last twist to this tale, like those good old Sheldon novels or Hollywood thrillers.

Rewind 1996: Sampras and His Pizza at Roland Garros

May 23, 2009

By Long John Silver… For some reason, I remember the 1996 Roland Garros championships like they were yesterday. I have always contended that regardless of how good your preparation is, how much time one has put in on the practice courts, how much one has trained, or how talented one is—you still need a stroke of luck to get over the final line.

That is what the difference in this tale was. Sampras’ herculean effort was neutralized to nothing because of one small bad decision, or as we might say, “just back luck mate.”

Background

It is quite ironic that (even though I am not a huge fan of Sampras) most of my “Rewind” editions are about him.

We all remember the all-time “Sampras-Courier” classic in the 1995 Australian quarters, co-incidentally that was my last “Rewind” edition during OZ 2009. This was when Sampras came from two sets and a break down in the fourth to seal it in five, and he lost his long-time coach and mate Tim Gullickson to cancer at that time.

Sampras had also gotten past Courier in the New York semis in 1995, 7–5 in the fourth. He had lost to Phillipoussis in the 1996 Australian, but he had won it before.

Hence this was his Achilles Heel. This was the missing piece in an otherwise complete slam quadruple. We all know how much Sampras wanted to conquer his toughest surface, by winning in Paris. This was his and Tim’s dream.

Draw

Well, he had the draw from hell. Two double Garros champions before the semis, in addition to Draper and Todd Martin, both of whom could play.

He beat Gustaffson in the first round. He went on to beat Brugera in round two, 6-3 in the fifth, and Martin in the next round 6-2 in the fifth.

Draper went down in straight sets, and then came the perennial slugfest with his mate in the quarterfinal. Sampras won this through the sheer psychological hold he had on Courier. He won 6-7 4-6 6-4 6-4 6-4.

Courier, after playing vintage bread and butter serve wide and inside out forehand tennis, looked like he had it signed, sealed, and delivered (just as he looked with a break up in the fourth in OZ in 1995). But Courier just could not close Sampras out.

Sampras would prevail in five. As a huge Courier fan, I had to take it out on something, the remote control paid the price (again).

I loved the final comment about Sampras’ hang dog approach, that Jim would voice at match point down. He said: “The guy looks like he’s going to fall off on court and he is serving bullets, 194 mile an hour f****** bullets at me.”

I guess Courier despised someone looking tired, when they weren’t.

Semis

The dream was two steps away. Sampras had never lost to Kafelnikov before (and in his biography he claims Yevgeny Kafelnikov had one of the ugliest forehands ever). This was almost a painful anti-climax, the first set was a breaker which Kafelnikov won.

Sampras, who looked like has was absolutely running on fumes, would win only two games more in the match. He would get wiped out in the second set, and eventually went down 6-7 0-6 2-6. Of course there was only one possible explanation, Sampras was physically toast?  No?

The Epilogue

I learned this after 11 years from the 1996 Roland Garros. Sampras did not, in any way, want to concede any advantage to his opponents by divulging a genetic illness he had from time to time.

Sampras would reveal the following information in his book “A Champion’s Mind,” written by Peter Bodo. He has a rare genetic disease, “thalassemia minor,” which sets in at random times and can sap up all your physical energy.

After he beat Courier in a grueling five setter, the next day this symptoms set in. He felt like all he needed (craved) was a “greasy cheese filled pepperoni pizza” to get back the energy and that would have done the trick. But being the stickler for diet during slams that he is, he just could not allow himself to do that. No cheese and pizza during slams.

He said that after the first set, he knew he was done. There was no way he was going to win the semifinal, even against someone he had never lost to. His and Tim’s dream was gone with that pizza.

Ending

With time, my admiration for Sampras has infinitely grown. Isn’t it astonishing that the possible difference between Sampras winning in Paris and not (which we always hold as a metric when GOAT discussion comes around), was a simple greasy cheese pepperoni pizza?

All that time on the practice courts, all the hard work, medicine balls and fitness regimes, and all the emotional investment to become the greatest player of all time, yet all that’s held against him when compared to Agassi came down to a cheese pizza in Paris. It’s called luck, everyone needs that.

Richard Gasquet: Many Sides to the Same Coin

May 15, 2009

By Long John Silver… Bonjour

If we are true to the most romantic language in the world we would pronounce his name in English as – ‘Reee-Shhhhard Gasquet’. How many times have we wondered that if only we can combine one particular player’s physical ability, with another players’ psychological prowess we would have a multiple slam champion in our hand.

Every time I have watched Safin or Ree-Shard, time and again I have thought ‘Damm, all they need is a little bit of that Lleyton-ness, the vintage bloody-mindedness in ‘em’. I have thought the same thing about their physical ability and how Lleyton would have fared if he had that too.

I fondly remembered my Halloween post last year, Ree-Shard was the Prince

Ree-Shard—never the one to relish pressure but with one of the most artistic game and single-fisted backhands in the game. His eternal disinclination to pressure is highlighted by the fact that he never relished playing in front of his home French crowd (he pulled out last year citing physical reasons, but played a tournament just a week after?).

His Davis Cup meltdowns against the U.S. have been documented very well before. His capacity to hit a tennis ball around incomparably exquisite, is indicated by his legendary two-sets-and-a-break-down comeback against ROD in London SW19 quarterfinal. But those comebacks have been few and far.

There is nothing more frustrating than possessing all the ability in the world, only to watch it go futile because of what goes on between the ears in the head. Being termed ‘Baby-FED’ is hardly justifiable.

The game lost one of its most elegant, brash players, and one of my most favorite players to Cocaine two years before, in the name of Martina Hingis (to this very day, I miss Hingis and her toothy smile and brashness). Here is the problem. Cocaine is not a performance enhancing drug, it never has been.

If anything, using it makes you all ‘woozy’ after a while. That’s the last thing you want to feel at RG when Rafael is drilling hook forehands from outside the doubles alley for clean winners.

Neither is he a doctor operating on your dad or sister after lighting a smoke up in the men’s room at the hospital. That way, you have all the prerogative to say, ‘Mate, he controls my dad’s life…and hence I want him to be not strung over coke in the hospital’. But he isn’t a doctor.

The liberal in me asks, how is it different from prostitution? As unsavory it is, prostitution is considered a crime in our society, but it is a victimless crime. The prostitute gets paid for her work, the perpetrator gets sex is return, no one is injured—victimless crime.

Ree-Shard pulled out of Miami citing a shoulder injury. The fact that he used cocaine is dicey, but the purpose of drug rules is to stop athletes from gaining unfair advantage (steroids?). Tennis is significantly cleaner than baseball or football any day and we intend to keep it that way for a long time.

The magnitude of difference between tennis and baseball is as clear as light and day. Jon Wertheim does the research and reports that tennis has an incredibly stringent threshold for recreational drugs.

The cocaine allowed in your blood level is four times lower for tennis,than if you want to enroll yourself in the U.S. military. The question come down to—is the rule serving the intended purpose. Is this threshold serving the purpose of preventing athletes from gaining an unfair advantage on court?

I definitely do see the other side of the story. Top athletes are expected to be clean. Parents around the world claim ‘I definitely want Gasquet punished because if you don’t punish him for smoking Cocaine, it sends  a message to my kid that its OK to do that’.

I see that and am not insular to athletes owning up to their social responsibilities. Then comes the next question, should tennis even test for recreational drugs? Why bother testing for it, if it’s not performance-enhancing? It only becomes a problem if its divulged, so why test for it in the first place when it does not serve the purpose of the rule?

Where do you draw the line, though; he certainly cannot light a smoke during a tournament, it’s just something to avoid. So you test him just during the tournament?  These drugs stay in the blood for months, you can never clearly determine when it got into his physiological system.

Or should we say, no drug in any form, shape or purpose is allowed? Is that fair?

Tough questions.

There is another thought that Ree-Shard can use the time off to get is career back on track. Make no mistake he is still in the top echelons of the game… but he was destined to be higher—a multiple slam champion which he isn’t, that school of thought says, he is better off with this time to introspect and focus more on what really is important in his career.

There are many sides to this coin, the actual underlying problems have got as much to do with sport, as they are with our societal morals?

The Slippery Slope of the Serbian Open

May 9, 2009

By Long John Silver… The plethora of tennis talent and interest has culminated in Serbia, hosting it’s first clay court tournament in Belgrade this week.

Also widely known is the fact that the tournament is partially owned by the Djokovic family. Credit where it is absolutely due, the De-Joker family is very much responsible for the realization of this very event.

They took over a bankrupt Dutch event previously, and have made this possible.

Undoubtedly a historical moment for Serbian sports, but the complexities run a little deeper than that…

It is an ATP event that is co-owned by one of it’s important participants.

That’s the slippery slope.

Is there a conflict of interest?

Can and will the organizers be absolutely impartial to every other player and scheduling, when clearly they need Nole to have a deep run in the championships?

If for nothing other than enhanced public interest, they need Nole to win.

The Australian open kept it’s roof open on one of it’s warmest days (for some weird reason) when Hewitt played a physically suspect Gonzo in R-1 2009.

The rules stated they should have closed it…Get my drift?

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but these are very valid questions. It is indeed strange that someone who co-owns the tournament actually plays in it.

Maybe the younger Djokovic brothers get wild cards for a long time to come, mysteriously for the Belgrade event?

Or is there a thing called absolute impartiality in the world?

As Jon Wertheim puts it, IMG owns a tournament and they manage many players. They play some form of a role in giving wild cards for the players representing their brand in the tournaments they manage.

Mary Jo Fernandez is married to IMG representative Tony Godsick, and yet she time and time again interviews IMG representatives, Federer and Davenport.

Will she ask the real and tough questions that a journalist should?

P-Mac comments time and time again for Roddick’s and Blake’s matches, and he is their Davis cup captain—will he or has he been fair and objective when commenting?

Same goes with Darren Cahill and F-VED.

Tough questions…tough questions…

Is all this different from Nole actually playing and owning the Belgrade event?

The line calls and schedules will only be scrutinized (probably even more) in the event, especially when Nole is on court. It is in his best interest to keep a low profile.

Srdjan Djokovic (Nole’s father) has never been the most likable bloke going around; there is nothing wrong with it, but it helps to have someone at the top of the event management whom people warm up to.

Undoubtedly a significant moment in the history of Serbia as far as sports is concerned.

But still something that makes the tennis aficionados around the world a touch uncomfortable.

It’s a slippery slope, no?

Please do let me know if am overreacting.

How would you feel if Roddick co-owned the U.S Open or Hewitt the Australian Open?

Good luck absolutely to the Serbian open…but with some reservations.

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