Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Aftermath

I am not eating my words. I am devouring a McChicken with Fries instead; and thinking which one of those overused clich├ęs to use. I could say - Roddick was blown off court. OR Roddick did not show up. OR Roddick did not know what hit him. I could go on and on. But none of that would convey the reality of yesterday's "marquee" match-up. Like I predicted, it was Federer in 3. However, to be honest, I did not foresee a blowout. It was humiliating for Roddick; more so after all the talking he did throughout the fortnight. Andy, actually, is a very fair guy on court - at least most of the times. He gives a lot of respect to his opponents and usually has no excuses for defeat (something for Nadal to learn). And mind you, he was not indulging in any trash talk. He has shown a lot of respect for Federer in his interviews and even manages to be humorous despite all the frustrations he has accumulated during their 13-1 head-to-head. However, by being vocal about his chances and overstating the "narrowing gap", he was always putting a lot of pressure on himself. You can at least expect Jimmy Connors to know better after all these years. All I can say is that Roger Federer sure was listening! Good thing for Andy is that this match must have enriched his "lessons learnt" list. And he can only get better from here. Most importantly though, he should not get demoralized with this defeat and instead stick to his statement that he will "take it like a man as much as possible". Just like his last few matches with Federer did not give any pointers (far from it, actually) to what happened today, this match also does not mean that he is going to get a rough beating every time. With age and time on his side, Andy should go back to the practice courts like a man on a mission. And we can keep hoping that someday he will fulfill the promise of a rivalry.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Federer in 3 - Roger That!

I am writing this piece on the eve (Australia time) of the much hyped Australian Open Semifinal between Rogerer Federer and Andy Roddick. In recent times, but for a couple of Federel-Nadal epics, tennis has been awfully short of rivalries. So, even a mild sniff of one gets the attention it perhaps does not deserve. Federer and Roddick on opposite sides of the net promised to be a great match-up - the perfect follow up to the Agassi-Sampras duels - but that is just what it has remained so far ;a promise. Federer has ruthlessly extinguished all such hopes and you can expect it to remain the same way for some more time to come. Somehow, I have always enjoyed "total domination" more than rivalries and Federer falls in that category alongwith some other greats - Jahangir and Jansher Khan, John McEnroe(in 1983 and 1984), Gary Kasparov, Carl Lewis (in long jump), Michael Jordan (albeit in a team sport) and Edwin Moses; to name a few prominent ones. All these players had at least one thing in common - the ability to wilfully raise their game at any point of time. There's a popular legend regarding Jahangir Khan which goes like this. So confident was he of his stamina and ability that he used to deliberately prolong rallies in the first game to tire out his opponents. In the process,even if he lost the game, the next three would be ridiculously lopsided as by that time, the other guy would be a dead man walking. McEnroe would look for an excuse to raise his game, which more often that not, would be a bad line-call (and the ensuing routine which we are all much too familiar with!). And so on. Except Nadal (on clay) and Safin (on one ocassion), no one has stretched Federer consistently to the limit of his powers during the past three years. And although it sounds ludicrous, I sometimes get a feeling that he is bored with the opponents' inability to do that. There has been an ocassional defeat, but you have to realize that the guy is, after all, human! Coming back to rivalries, McEnroe-Borg, Chris-Martina, Sampras-Agassi have been contests that have given me some of my most enjoyable sporting moments. But I do not see anything like that happening in the near future. Andy Roddick made a very interesting statement during this tournament; the bottomline being that "the gap is narrowing" between him and Federer. The hints were that he took a set off Federer in the US Open Finals and also held match-point against him in the year-ending masters. Then of course, was his defeat of Federer in the Kooyong exhibition a couple of weeks back. I honestly hope that Andy - for Andy's sake - does not read too much into these matches and jump into any quick conclusions. Roddick's game has definitely improved - Connors or no Connors - and so has his approach. But to beat Federer is a different proposition altogether. Delving too much into statistics is definitely not the way to go about it. Rather he will do well to remember that he had taken a set off Roger in the Wimbledon finals in 2004 as well. Andre Agassi also did that in the 2005 US Open finals (and he came mighty close to going 2-0 up). As did Marcos Baghdatis in the 2006 Aussie Open finals. And Rafa at this year's Wimbledon finals. But the common factor in all these matches is that Federer ended up winning in 4 sets. That's also statistics! Once threatened, he raised his game to a different level and make no mistake, he has done that consistently. What is frightening is that most of the time, he can do it at will. Federer is not new to saving match points or come out of a crisis. The earlier year, Federer had a lot of problems putting Ivan Ljubicic away but he converted all those matches, matchpoints notwithstanding. One match point that Roddick held in some tells no tales. Even Radek Stepanek led 5-2 in the third set tie break at Kooyong only to lose the next 5 points and the match. Roddicks victory in the finals of ther same etournament is a great morale booster for him, but he must remember that David Nalbandian, Richard Gasquet and Andy Murray have also got the better of Federer on an off-day. The next step for Andy would be to beat Federer consistently. Unfortunately, I do not see that hapenning very soon (unless probably Roger has a bad fight with Mirka?!). Simply because Roger's all-round game is still miles ahead of any active tennis player - more so Roddick. Roddick's backhand is his proverbial achilles heel, which Federer will undoubtedly exploit. And his dicey volleying will limit his strategic options, in case those big forehands misfire. It is his serve that he has reinvented during the last year, and which has helped him get better results.With Federer, though, he will need more than that and then some.The only way I see Roddick getting there is to get his game somewhere up close to the Swiss and then play mentally tough. Now that may happen in one year, in two years or more likely, it may not happen at all. Till that time the "gap" will always be there (and the bridge will remain an illusion). To keep it narrow or wide is actually at Federer's discretion! Much was written about the Federer Djokovic matchup in the 4th round, which ultimately fizzled out into a predictable three-setter. I am predicting the same for this match-up too. Federer in 3. So, although it is a dream rivalry - the gregarious and no-holds-barred American against the suave Swiss Master - it's still a long way to go.Come on Andy, make me eat my words! BS

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Order of the Phoenix

It is about time that the Phoenix Suns deliver.
On the face of it, they have had two consecutive 60-win seasons, which would make most franchises more than happy. They are shining bright this year too, with the longest winning streak in franchise history (and the NBA's longest of the season so far) . But is that good enough for Steve Nash and his colleagues? I am guessing, the answer is no. Because Nash and all the guys out on the floor with him love to win. It is not easy to be relentless night after night in the tightly packed NBA schedule, unless you have an overwhelming desire to win. Unfortunately though, unless they start winning the big games, the Suns are pretty close to being tagged as "chokers". Against the Spurs in 2005, it was more of a psychological surrender than an on-court defeat. The same can be said about the conference finals with Dallas last year. They have got to exorcise those demons; do some soul searching; find the right answer! I wonder what sets them back in clutch playoff games. Are the starters playing too many minutes during the regular season? So much, that by April, they have a bunch of tired legs? The answer again is no! Leandro Barbosa, James Jones and Kurt Thomas are giving "quality and quantity" from the bench and could actually start on some of the other teams. Do they have injury trouble? Well, Last season they did have the biggest one in the form of Amare Stoudemire. But the big man is back this time and is close to the peak of his powers. And his return has solved a lot of puzzles for the Suns. With Amare, the Suns have someone to attack the basket and draw free throws, which they were not doing much last season. The perimeter game is fun to watch - and effective too, when you have a group of shooters like the Suns do - but when the going gets tough, it can be an asset to have strong post players. Something for Shawn Marion to think about. One can't help but remember how he was done in by Tim Duncan, the year before last; Marion averaged 7 ppg and the Spurs won in 5! Amare is one of the better shot blockers in the league which gives a boost to the Suns' not-too-formidable defense. His return has also enabled Boris Diaw to play in his usual position as small forward. For the Suns, unless something untoward happens, all pieces are in place this year. They have had a couple of learning experiences the last two years and more importantly a whiff of the title. Although it's not even All-Star weekend yet, it is time for Mike'D'Antoni and his wards to start seeing this as a potential title run. More so, as Steve Nash is at his peak, and the laws of nature do not guarantee that he will be so next season. And unless the Suns win this season, Nash might well become one of the best players never to have won a title. After all not many can have Alonzo Mourning's luck; having Shaq and Flash to carry him to that elusive ring. So rise and shine, Phoenix! Time to prove to Phil Jackson (btw Big Phil called them "a bunch of nice guys" and "pussycats") that even nice guys can win! - BS