Tuesday, July 7, 2009
As much as I like talking about NCAA Basketball, the NFL, and other sports, tennis is the one sport where I actually can offer anything resembling an player's opinion. While I was never anywhere close to a prodigy by any means, having played junior tournaments and varsity high school tennis from age 13-19 and having watched my younger brother (who unlike me actually won some tournaments) play, hopefully has given me enough experience with the sport to be able to analyze it from more than just a fan's perspective. Given this, I have always enjoyed watching tennis, especially Wimbledon, and this year was no different.
With regards to the women's draw, let me start out by saying that I used to like women's tennis just as much as men's. I certainly still do enjoy watching the women's draw (especially Ana Ivanovic), but ever since Henin retired, women's tennis has just been rather dull to watch and part of the blame falls on the Willams sisters. I think both of them are some of the best female tennis players I have ever seen, and the only thing preventing one from being considered the best ever is the other (combined they have 18 and the record is 24). The problems with the Williamses is not a problem at all, its that they are too good. When Venus and Serena arrived on the scene, women's tennis was more about finesse and long rallys. At the time, with the powerful serving of players like Sampras, Rafter, and Ivanisavic, the points in the women's game often lasted much longer than those in the men's.
However as they grew up, Venus and Serena brought a level of power to the game which previously had not been seen (or at least not utilized as effectively). Most women on tour (who probably average 115 pounds at most) could not deal with the amount of pace that Venus, and especially Serena, were putting on their shots. Really only Henin was able to hang with the Williamses while still utilizing a more finesse based game and the rest of the field was unable to compete. This revelation that a power game could trump the finesse of other women in the field suddenly changed the game, and the top players in women's tennis were all heavy hitters. For instance, Safina (who is somehow #1 in the world despite never winning a major) and Sharapova have also gained success by playing a heavy hitting game.
Before I go any further let me say that the Williams sisters absolutely are talented and athletic enough to be top players even if they did not have such overpowering strokes. I like the Williams sisters a lot now, though admittedly I was not a big fan of Serena earlier in her career when she was much more cocky and less willing to give credit to her opponents. The problem is there are only a handful of players right now who can test them and really the only ones who have the power and talent to hang with them at this point are each other. Unfortunately (and certainly understanably) the intensity (fist pumping, etc.) with which they approcah their other matches is somewhat dampered when they go head to head and, at least to me, the finals seem anticlimactic. I wish the Williams sisters much success and think they are some of the best ever, but ultimately once they are gone I hope the game transitions back to a more finesse-based style. I do not mean this in a mysoginistic way in the least, but personally I find that women's tennis is much more entertaining when it is played with finesse as opposed to power.
Turning to the men's draw, the final three rounds of the tournament were all spectacular. Hewitt-Roddick was one of the most entertaining matches of the tournament and Haas-Djokovic was also quite entertaining. NBC managed to convince me once and for all that they could be banned from sports coverage. So far this year, they have added Matt Millen to their 29 person NFL pregame show, had that annoying bald dude in between the glass during the Stanley Cup Finals, and now, finally, put Murray-Roddick on tape delay in order to allow Ellen DeGeneres to run (Cue John McEnroe). Oh and they also effed up the show Heroes in a horrible way. The actual match, which I streamed live on some website (screw you NBC), was amazing and Roddick not only beat Murray on his home court, but also managed to get an impressive amount of support amongst the British fans. Between the 5 setter with Hewitt, the Murray match, and the final (which I will get to in a second), Roddick probably had the best three match run in his career so far.
As far as the final goes, its hard to decide whether it was a good or a bad thing that this final came one year after what I still consider the greatest match ever Federer-Nadal. While this match was more closely contested and certainly had some great points, last year's final had much better point play. On top of that during last year's final there was an air of uncertainty as to who would win the match. While Roddick had a few chances this year, throughout the fifth set my brother and I kept wondering aloud when Roddick would finally crack. Though not quite up to that ridiculously high standard, this year's final was one of the best of all time. The fact that roddick held serve all the way until 14-15 in the final set against one of the best players on tour at reading serves is beyond incredible. The second set tiebreaker was Roddick's best chance to win the match by taking a 2-0 lead, but he managed to let go of a 6-2 lead in the tiebreaker. While much has been made of his missed volley at 6-5, I think the much worse decision was when at 6-2 Roddick hit an unecessarily defensive backhand slice that Federer used to take control of the point. That shot just demonstrated to me something that has held true with almost all of Federer's oppenents in majors aside from Nadal; every time somone gets an opening to put themselves in position to beat Federer, a type of cognitive dissonance flares up where they start doubting whether they can actually do it, since they have a predisposed feeling that they should not be beating Federer. That added mental edge is why athletes like Federer and Woods are so hard to top even when they are not at their very best. I think my brother may have put it best, "Most players go into the match hoping that they can beat Federer if they play well enough, Nadal goes into the match knowing he can beat Federer."
Concerning Federer, this last title makes him undoubtably the best tennis player of the recent era in tennis (its silly to compare him to Laver due to the changes in technology). I still think at their best (and both with modern racquets) Sampras-Federer would be one hell of a match. Sampras certainly had more competition, or at least up until the past years with Nadal emerging as Federer's rival, but Federer has a more complete game and also gets the edge for winning the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam. While Federer is more cocky than most of the media acknowledges (NetJets commercials, his wardrobe dedicated to his accomplishments), he is a class act who respects the game of tennis and embraces the history of the sport. At 28 he still has 3 years in him, and with Nadal's health in doubt, could certainly surpass 20 grand slams before it is all over. Simply put he is the best tennis player ever, and may be one of the most dominiant athletes in any sport once its all said and done.
However, while I like Federer as a player, I almost always find myself cheering against him. It probably has something to do with him getting in the way of championships for some of my favorite players (Agassi, Roddick, Safin). I really do want him to get a few more championships, but its been painful to see him dispatch people like Roddick who have come very close and are deserving of championships. Oh well, there's always Nadal. For now this should help alleviate watching Roddick fall just short (btw people forget this epic match happened on the same day as the Super Bowl, what a great day for sports), then I'm going to go play some tennis.