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Tales from Brisbane

Happy new year bitches. Long time no blog.

As some of you might be aware, I kicked off 2014 by heading to Brisbane to bask in the sweaty glow of Turderer, and the final loss aside, it was a glorious week. One that had me itching to log onto wordpress and start tapping away again. And ain’t that one of the most liberating feelings in the world.

1. Sensational sports headlines went up all over Australia today: Ashes Whitewash! Hewitt beats baffled Federer! Let’s party like it’s a new millenium!

Theoretically speaking, there is of course no shame in losing to Lleyton. Even as a tour veteran with a bionic foot, Hewitt remains a smart, strategic and persistent player, and more crucially yesterday – not one to falter on key points. In his three set victory over McFudd, Lleyton played some of the most inspired tennis we’ve seen from him in years, and his victory speech showed just how much a title in Australia meant to him at this stage in his career, a poignant moment for fans on both sides of the fence.

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A Place At The Tennis Table

For those who don’t stop here often during a tennis major, please know at the outset that while this is a tennis blog, there is a bit of a preference and priority for all things Roger Federer. Therefore, when Fed bowed out of the U.S. Open in the fourth round on Monday, it was natural to think that there wouldn’t be another major essay on tennis until the end of this year’s U.S. Open. At the end of each major, the two singles championships regularly receive a wrap up from Doots (the publisher of this blog), myself, or both.

However, some days in tennis somehow manage to hit the sweet (or is it sour?) spot with fans in such a way that something has to be said about the matter. Wednesday, Sept. 4 was one such day, and the fact that Federer had no part in the events is precisely what should enable us — and by us, I don’t mean Federer fans — to appreciate this sport, and each other, a little bit more.

This essay is not intended for any one fan base or subgroup in the wide, wide world of tennis lovers. It’s meant for everyone. How fitting this is, given that the U.S. Open takes place in the same city (New York) where the United Nations was born and still stands today. This essay is all about giving each fan, each human person — inherently precious, equally loved, and powerfully valuable — a place at the tennis table, an affirming bit of support in a democratic and unifying context. Read More…

Wimbledon Day 1: Be Roger Federer.

Happy Wimbledon, my lovelies!

This is Doots checking in my epic adventures post-Roland Garros. And time sure does fly when you’re having fun: it’s our favourite time of the year again. Although this year, Wimbledon comes with a sense of foreboding doom, as Federer  drew Nadal in his quarter and Murray in his half, while Djokovic prepares to inhale his way to the final through a plate of gluten free cupcakes.

Diabolical draw aside, Wimbledon is still a good place to be Roger Federer.

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There is nothing quite like the first day of Wimbledon. The grass is greener, the whites are crisp, and the world is a pristine bubble full of those sweep pops of tennis balls on tightly strung strings. There’s not much to say about Federer’s first round match against Victor Hanescu. The Romanian never looked like  he possessed any weapons to threaten Federer. Even the typically big serve was castrated against Federer’s excellent returning.

The stats do tell a story: Federer faced no breakpoints and converted 6 of 8 on Hanescu’s serve. He won 90% of points on his first serve, and hit 32 winners to only 6 unforced errors (14 to 13 for Hanescu).

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But of course, there is more to tennis than statistics. There was that reflex volley in the first set, when Federer almost casually stuck his racquet out in front of the ball, as if to say “keep calm and carry on. I do this in my sleep.” There’s Federer chasing a drop shot, skipping past the winner like a school girl in a field of tulips. And then there’s that backhand lob in the third set followed by a cheeky grin. The satisfaction of soaring higher than a giant.

Given the draw, I may not feel great about Federer’s chances at Wimbledon this year (it’s not a lack of faith, folks. Beating 2 of the Big Four is doable. Taking out three of three is a near impossibility), but I do feel a lot better about his form coming into the tournament than I did back at Roland Garros after the match.

Elsewhere, things were less poetic as Victoria Azarenka found herself sobbing uncontrollably in pain after landing awkwardly on her knees while serving.

Warning: this may be hard to watch for some. 

Fortunately, Azarenka was able to play on, defeating Koehler 61 62 despite appearing to be quite shaken for the rest of the match. Koehler paid the price for not taking advantage of her opponent’s condition and making her run. Opportunities don’t come knocking too often for the lower ranked players on tour, and it’s a shame that when it does, so few players take their chances against the top dogs.

Britain Wimbledon Tennis

One player who did take her chances was Monica Puig, who claimed the first “upset” of the tournament by taking out the fifth seed Sara Errani 63 62. Not that Errani is a titan on grass, if you recall her being on the losing end of a golden set to Shvedova last year. But en route to victory, Puig hit 38 winners with her brand of feisty, aggressive, flat hitting tennis that Errani had no answer to on this surface.

Not bad for a 19 year old playing her first grass tournament as a pro.

Puig has been overtly confident about her talent in the media recently, but given my predisposition to her game, I’m inclined to feel that overt confidence is not so awful a trait in a teenage professional athlete.

Play continues for Day 1, but it’s a wrap from Down Under. Work does have this annoying habit of getting in the way of tennis. Good night and morning, wherever you are.

xx doots

Serene, Supreme, Sixteen

Great sports moments — tennis fans witnessed one on Saturday in Paris — own a two-tiered quality. The actual competition, the business of winning and losing, is its own story, rooted in technique and strategy and execution under fire. Then, when the winner wins and the loser loses, the career achivements of the participants can then be measured. Serena Williams’s 6-4, 6-4 victory over Maria Sharapova in the women’s singles final of Roland Garros neatly unified the competition between the painted white lines and the enormity of the feat that was forged.

On an immediate level, Serena’s win over Sharapova was genuinely impressive in itself. Sharapova, knowing that the history of her head-to-head series with the younger Williams Sister was so lopsided, embraced the underdog’s role with clarity. She went for her shots and established considerable depth on her groundstrokes in the first few games of the match. Her serve faltered on a few occasions, but it is more of a weapon than it was last year, a big reason why Sharapova managed to make history this fortnight in Paris. Sharapova used her beefed-up serve to make the final of a major tournament as the defending champion, the first time in her career she has crafted that particular breakthrough. That same serve, combined with a generally aggressive mindset, enabled Sharapova to show that her 2012 Roland Garros championship was not an aberration.

Yet, for everything Sharapova did well, her opponent clearly outplayed her and won two sets without needing to win seven games in either stanza.

The details of a tennis match ultimately determine how close a scoreline actually is, but on a general level, a 4-and-4 win is simultaneously competitive and tidy. In a 4-and-4 match, the winner is pushed, but not to the extent that the prospect of a penalty-kick-style crapshoot — that’s what a tiebreaker is — becomes possible.

Think about it: A set needs to arrive at 5-5 in order for an 11th and 12th game to be played in a set. If the favorite is able to close out a set in 10 games, s/he will not spend the first-set changeover worrying about the heat of a 12th-game pressure cooker. One can quite reasonably say that while Serena was indeed tested today, the intensity of Sharapova’s inquiry was never so severe that the outcome of each set was in grave doubt after the ninth game. The first set was modestly more contentious than the second, but at the business end of each journey, everyone on hand at Court Philippe Chatrier knew who was in charge.

This, mind you, on a day when Maria Sharapova played well.

Serena’s serve; her severe-angle forehand to the decue court; and her steely confidence, bolstered by her quarterfinal escape on Tuesday against Svetlana Kuznetsova, enabled the 31-year-old to access a lofty level of quality that Sharapova couldn’t match.

Sharapova and Serena are both world-class competitors. Relative to their skill sets, they both get as much out of their arsenals as they can because they don’t take a backseat to anyone else in terms of the inner game in tennis, the one between the ears. Serena’s skill set is better, though, and she is therefore able to perform at a level commensurate with her skills. Sharapova is a master of the art of competing, and on Saturday, she wasn’t all that deficient as a performer, either. However, there’s no better performer in women’s tennis — and at the present moment, all of tennis — than Serena. If you can’t match her as a performer, you’re not going to beat her.

That’s why Serena is now a 16-time major champion. That’s why she managed to win Roland Garros 11 years after first conquering the terre battue of Paris. That’s why she’s playing the best tennis of her career right now.

J. Scott Fitzwater ( @jscottfitzwater on Twitter ) noted in the aftermath of today’s match that Serena is 74-3 in the past year, since the 2012 Roland Garros tournament. This is a 31-year-old tennis pro, not an ascendant 22-year-old or a reigning 26-year-old in her physical prime.

When Martina Navratilova began her streak of 74 straight match wins in 1984, she was 27. When Steffi Graf completed her streak of 66 straight match wins in 1990, she was only 20. Navratilova won 58 straight matches in 1986 and 1987 at age 30, but Serena’s past 12 months have topped that, at least when you realize the health scares that have been thrown her way in recent years.

Even before today’s match began, Serena Jameka Williams had already established herself as one of the 12 greatest tennis players of all time, and just as surely one of the four greatest female players ever (alongside Martina, Steffi, and Chris Evert). When you win at the highest level in the latter stages of a career; when you win a major 11 years after first claiming it; when you conquer your worst surface for a second time, proving that you’re not a one-note wonder at Roland Garros; and when you achieve all of this by playing a high-quality match against one of your more determined contemporaries, you’re only going to grow in stature and rise in the estimation of tennis historians.

This is a Roland Garros made for legends. Rafael Nadal has built his reputation on terre battue. Serena Williams, as lauded and distinguished as she’s been over the years, has managed to transform her reputation on crushed red brick. In so doing, an already-amazing career has managed to become something much greater.

The greatest of the great — in any sport and any human endeavor — expand the sense of what’s possible. With all due respect to Nadal, about to win his eighth Roland Garros, there’s no active tennis player who is re-drawing horizons more dramatically than Serena Williams.

Roland Garros 2013 notes: the Fan Slam Club.

Fan slam 2013

Roland Garros

Guess what, bitches?

I MADE IT – all four grand slams, from Wimbledon 2010 to Roland Garros 2013.

Even though I never set out to specifically go to all of them, chance, obsession and a certain attitude of carpe diem has taken me from Melbourne to London, New York and now Paris, and I have tennis to thank for giving me an excuse to visit and revisit some of the most marvellous cities in the world.

And it has been marvellous. For some reason, Roland Garros has always had a bad rap as a tournament. Players complain about the facilities, the shocking lack of lighting once it starts to get dark past 9PM. Die-hard tennis fans tell you about how crowded the outer courts are, and how ridiculous that most Philippe Chartrier ticket holders do not turn up to watch the first two matches on centre court until around 2PM. God forbid anything should stand between a Frenchman and his lunch. The press describes the boorish crowd, the dirty, gritty and dusty style of play on this surface, the long endless days and non-existent night sessions.

Philippe Chatrier

Eiffel tower view

But what they don’t tell you, as a first time visitor, is the sheer visual beauty of it. You first see it as you walk into Philippe Chartrier – the burnt caramel-coloured court – like a sandpit in a Colosseum, surrounded by the green seats and light grey advertising boards that envelop the court. High up on the Borotra wing of the stadium, you see the Eiffel Tower peeping over the top, an ever-present reminder of where and just how lucky you are. Pigeons soar through the air, looking for a safe place to land and a quick peck from someone’s lunch. On the outside courts, you hear things you never notice on TV – the soft brush of a player’s feet against “beaten earth”, like an artist drawing a charcoal sketch. The crowd groans, gasps and cheers, making French noises at the players with a level of expressiveness frowned upon at the tennis in other parts of the world.

They’re possessive about players in this part of the world. Get the crowd on your side, and they’ll root for you with like an adopted son. Turn them against you, and you may suddenly find yourself playing against the world, veins popping, eyes bulging, screams of “ALLEZ UP YOUR FUCKING ASS” drowned in a sea of boos and wolf whistles. Gael Monfils roused his home crowd with a dramatic five-set upset over Tomas Berdych; Serena Williams prepped them for her seemingly inevitable crowning as the Queen of Paris by conducting her post-match interview in French.

Roger Federer, for whatever reason, became the adopted son who could do no wrong. And attending one of his matches at Roland Garros was like sitting in a stadium full of various versions of yourself – swooning, cheering and grinning at the man like a bunch zealous cougars.

Federer Roland Garros 2013 R1

This was in contrast to Nadal’s match, as Daniel Brands garnered most of the support from the French. This is not to say that the French disrespect Rafa – there was no lack of applause and standing ovation for the man who has dominated at Roland Garros in a way that no other man has. But it felt like there was an unbridgeable gap between Nadal and the French crowd, a gap filled by Federer, Djokovic and the dreams of other men whose chances at Roland Garros have been thwarted by Nadal’s sheer brilliance on this surface.

Nadal v Brands Roland Garros 2013

Yesterday on Chatrier however, we were faced with a slim possibility that someone out there, someone low ranked,  hard hitting, and brave or kamikaze, might be able to thwart Nadal’s dreams for a change. For the majority of the first two sets, Brands played tennis like he had no regrets – crushing his forehand and aiming for the lines whenever he got the chance. He led 3-0 in the second set tiebreak as the crowd moved to the edge of their seats, knees shaking at the possibility of an upset.

But there comes a moment when a lower-ranked player has a top seed at their mercy, and fails to deliver the final blow. Brand went on to lose the tiebreak. The match flipped, and Nadal got consolidated a stranglehold on the match so fast it was almost as if all of Brands’ previous good form was but an illusion, a glimpse into an alternative universe where life could have been extraordinary.

For me at least, life continues to be extraordinary.

After a few days at the tournament, I will be travelling on for three weeks, towards the edge of Europe where I will board that interminable flight back to Australia. So I’m afraid this is it from me for now. Enjoy Roland Garros, and as much as I would like to say “may the best man win”, we all know that for the French Open, or for any grand slam, my truest wish is for the Swiss man to win.

May the Swiss man win

xx doots

Roland Garros 2013: Deriving Cachet From a Cliche

France Tennis French Open

Welcome to the beginning of All I Need Is A Picket Fence’s coverage of the 2013 Roland Garros tournament in Paris.

Doots, Le Foundress of Le Fence, is living “Le Life” in the City of Light. She’s attending the tournament in person and will have all sorts of tales to tell. You’ll get pictures and on-scene observations of the experience of attending Roland Garros, Doots’s final leg as part of her now-completed “Fan Slam.” She’ll tell you all about it very soon.

(Hey, wait a minute — there was this Swiss guy who completed a Grand Slam in Paris as well, and a Russian woman who did the same thing last year. Doots is following in the footsteps of the two tennis players she primarily blogs about. Paris is a city made for blending life and art, dreams and reality. Feel the poetry, Picket Fencers. Feel the poetry.)

While we wait for Doots, let’s get our Roland Garros coverage off the ground by overviewing the first two days of competition. Many unremarkable things have happened:

On the WTA side, Nadia Petrova suffered a stomach-punch, come-from-ahead loss. Serena Williams threw down the proverbial hammer. Sorana Cirstea and Ana Ivanovic took their fans through an all-too-typical emotional rollercoaster. Julia Goerges continued to struggle.

On the ATP side, it wasn’t quite business as usual — not to the same extent as the WTA. Lleyton Hewitt fought valiantly and lost in five sets. Gilles Simon played a long, drawn-out, and exasperating match (against Hewitt). Other than those familiar occurrences, the men threw a lot of curveballs at tennis observers. American men (yes, PLURAL) actually WON first-round matches. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won without fuss or drama, and Richard Gasquet did the same. No French absurdist theater at Roland Garros — not yet.

You want to know how shocking the first two days of men’s competition have been in Paris? ROBIN HAASE won a tiebreaker! That says it all, does it not?

“NOBODY BEATS ROBIN HAASE 18 TIEBREAKERS IN A ROW!” — Vitas Gerulaitis, probably

The women’s tournament has given us some precious gems and poignant moments from two days of play: Venus Williams emptied herself on Court Suzanne Lenglen, giving everything to tennis — just as she has throughout her distinguished career — only to fall short against Urszula Radwanska, whose lobs and mixed-pace shots ultimately frustrated Venus in a 3-hour, 19-minute scrap of appreciable quality.

Virginie Razzano, who — remember — lost her fiance two years ago, earned a second-round paycheck with the possibility of a third-round prize. Razzano has suffered shattering, devastating grief… and lived to find sustenance from sport. The first days of a tennis major are special because they give the likes of Virginie Razzano a day — and a payday — in the sun, validating many years of perseverance. Razzano will make almost $53,000 U.S. even if she loses her round-of-64 match. That take-home pay will cover a lot of expenses, justifying the decision to continue playing in the shadows of loss and loneliness. The greats play for championships, but many players at the majors are playing for that big infusion of prize money in the first week of the tournament… and for the love of a sport that has meant so much to their lives.

With that general recap in the books, let’s move to our featured selection from the first two days of Roland Garros 2013, a quick reflection on the difference between the elites and the pretenders in the sport.

France Tennis French Open

In one corner stands Rafael Nadal, the best male clay-court tennis player of all time. In another corner stands Tomas Berdych, a player with evident major-championship talent but only one appearance in a major final and only three semifinal showings. The matches these two men played on Monday in Paris revealed so much about their careers.

With Nadal, the obvious narrative was nevertheless the narrative that genuinely applied to his first-round encounter with Daniel Brands. Nadal absorbed an opponent’s best punch for nearly two full sets and found himself down 3-0 in the second-set tiebreaker, already trailing by a set. This was not about Nadal failing to perform; Nadal was staring at the possibility of a two-set deficit because Brands adopted and executed the distinctly Rosolian approach of going for low-margin shots at every turn… and usually making them. Brands played like a man possessed, but as soon as a second-serve return missed at 3-0 and a nervous chipped approach missed at 3-2, Brands lost confidence. Nadal, tied at 4-all in the breaker, pounced on short balls in the last three points, clearly relishing not only the challenge he was given, but his ability to meet said challenge.

There is something to be said for the claim that the best competitors are the ones who really are joyful — not just free from fear, but filled with song — in the face of tense and decisive hinge-point moments. Mindsets make the men and women who surmount obstacles and grow bigger when the stakes become higher. Nadal didn’t play all that well for much of this day, but when the moment mattered the most, he became the big dog in the arena. Brands hit so many big-league shots, but he couldn’t call forth the thunder when he really needed it, when he could have gained a two-set lead and — later — when he was on the verge of breaking back to even the third set at 4-all. This is how great players survive upset bids, and it’s how people with Daniel Brands’s level of ballstriking ability wake up at age 25 and realize how much money they’ve left on the table in their professional careers.

With Berdych, the Nadalian dynamic was inverted — as it so often has been for the Czech in his career — on Monday against Gael Monfils.

You will recall that in the 2012 Australian Open, Berdych was on the verge of taking a two-set lead over Nadal in the quarterfinals, but couldn’t close the sale. Berdych has suffered that kind of loss so many times in his ATP existence. In this match against Monfils, Berdych faced a talented opponent who was performing well and playing in his home country. Berdych received a brutal draw at this tournament and had to play what amounted to a “road match” in round one. Losing here — given the way Monfils played on Monday — was not a great sin in itself. What will linger for Berdych is that, in a clean inversion of the Nadal pattern, Berdych played well until those moments when he really needed to elevate his game.

Through 4-all in the first-set tiebreaker, Berdych had competed really well. Monfils came out of the blocks with force and fury, lashing his crosscourt forehand and generating substantial depth on his groundstrokes. Monfils’s past year on the ATP Tour has been ravaged by injuries, uncertainty, and an inability to make a major mark on men’s tennis, but the Monfils who shoved around Berdych for much of the first set is the player who made the 2008 Roland Garros semifinals and has displayed the kind of ability commensurate with a top-10 player. Berdych stood up to Monfils and had given nothing away when 4-all arrived in the first-set breaker.

Then, however, Berdych wilted. An inside-out crosscourt forehand — poorly chosen and poorly executed — gave Monfils a crucial piece of leverage. Two more errors a few moments later handed Monfils the first set. Berdych erased a two-set deficit and very nearly pulled out the match in the fifth, but that first-set failure made Berdych’s mountain that much tougher to scale. Whereas the Nadals of the world struggle for much of the day but then succeed in defining situations, the reality of tennis life takes a 180-degree turn for the Berdyches of the sport.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for Doots’s dispatches and more Fencing as the tournament of the terre battue rolls along in Paris.

Australian Open Wrap: Subtle Distinctions

For me, the 2013 Australian Open marked a two-week lesson about the importance of making subtle, nuanced distinctions in analysis, words and comparisons; in the processes of making judgments, rendering verdicts, and assessing performers. This tournament, encompassing both the men’s and women’s singles events – all 254 matches and all 256 athletes – impressed upon my mind the centrality of the need to make the subtle distinction, whether or not the point of said distinction is lost on the audience.

A few things clearly got under the skin of the larger community of tennis fans in this tournament, which was not exactly a “Happy Slam” for once. Happiness was hard to find in the latter stages of the women’s singles competition, ultimately won by a crying and necessarily combative Victoria Azrenka in the face of an inhospitable Rod Laver Arena crowd in Melbourne. Indeed, the women’s event in Australia captured the essence of the past two weeks far more than the men. It was the WTA half of the past fortnight, not the ATP side, which left emotions raw and psyches seared, carving out a path defined by divisiveness and dissatisfaction.

Yet — and this is where the art of the subtle distinction first enters the picture — the women’s championship match between Azarenka and Li Na was a more impressive competition than the men’s final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Read More…

Aus Open Day 11: the Gameswoman.

Don’t get me wrong. I am far from being a fan or even a sympathetic observer of Victoria Azarenka. She is not the most endearing, classy tennis player out there, nor has she ever sought to be.

But the one thing I despise more than gamesmanship is hypocrisy, and hypocrisy was in abundance yesterday as Tennis Fandom collectively got on its high horse and branded Azarenka as a villain and the cheat.

Azarenka Aus Open 2013

Sure. Vika did not help her own cause by giving inconsistent stories throughout this whole incident. When asked in her on court interview why she left to the court, Azarenka replied, to an icy, silent crowd on Rod Laver Arena, that she was overwhelmed by nerves and almost did the choke of the year. Later on ESPN, Azarenka would claim she had breathing issues. And in her post match press conference, Vika told the media that she had to unlock her rib because it was causing back issues and making it hard for her to breathe.  Read More…

Aus Open Day 4 & 5: ’cause you’re hot and you’re cold.

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It was insanely hot yesterday and not just because Federer was playing tennis and generating insane hotness.

It was the kind of hot that made you feel like you were being slow roasted live, thinly veiled in a blanket of sweat, and every breath felt like you were breathing the steam out of a boiling kettle. How players managed to play any tennis at all was beyond me. I for one was melting into the seat just watching them.

And through the heat, I watched most of Berankis’ decisive win over Florian Mayer. After a year of injuries in 2012 that stunted his rise in the rankings, it’s nice to see Berankis in such good form. For a small player by modern tennis standards, when he’s on, Berankis plays like a much bigger guy, with easy power and an attacking, all court game. If he stays in form, he should give Toothface more of a work out next round after coming through two cakewalk rounds. Read More…

Aus Open Day 3: A day at the tennis

206015_10151473497566874_1456479854_nIt’s a great irony that as a tennis fan, you tend to follow more tennis matches at home than when you actually go to a tournament, and so I write this more as a recount of my day than any real look into the tennis being played today.

Between lining up to get into the outside courts,  eating, hiding from the sun, and watching a Federer practice session, I barely saw 2 matches, and both were frustrating, low quality, and deeply unsatisfying. How could they not be? If there were a less inspiring OOP than today’s, I don’t remember it. It says volumes about how lopsided the draws are that even numbered days have a far greater number of intriguing match ups than odd numbered ones.

Read More…