Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Connors’

PostHeaderIcon Rafa v Roger: The Death of a Rivalry That Never Really Was

Roger Federer serving to Rafa Nadal at the Western & Southern Open (Kevin Ware)

Roger Federer serving to Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open
(Kevin Ware)

Rafa Nadal played Roger Federer at the Australian Open in a semifinal that was billed as the 33rd chapter of a storied rivalry. And as he’s done many times before, Rafa scored an impressive and comprehensive victory over his disheartened Swiss foe, winning in straight-sets 7-6(4) 6-3 6-3.

I take issue with the term “storied rivalry”, which implies a sense of uncertainty and drama about the outcome. The hard truth about their matches is that the outcome is often not in question. Such is the case for this “rivalry” that never really existed.

Google’s search defines “rivalry” as competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. When Rafa and Roger compete for the same objective, or superiority in the same field, there’s little competition.

The head-to-head numbers, a 23 – 10 series lead in favor of Rafa, don’t lie. In fact, one could say that it was never a rivalry from the outset. Rafa won 7 of their first 10 meetings, 5 of which came in finals. More to the point, he won them during a period of time that coincided with Roger’s heyday (2004-2007).

Any real chance at a rivalry was effectively over by 2008, the year that Rafa embarrassed Roger in the French Open final with the loss of only 6 games. He followed that with a defeat Roger on “home” turf at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It’s one thing to dominate someone on your favorite surface. It’s quite another when you beat them on theirs.

Sentiment wants us to believe that Rafa v Roger is one of the great classic rivalries, but it’s not. Take, for example, this sampling of great rivalries: McEnroe v Borg (7 – 7), McEnroe v Connors (20 – 14), Sampras v Agassi (20 – 14), Navratilova v Evert (43 – 37), and even Lindsay Davenport v Venus Williams (14 – 13).

These are rivalries in the sense that whenever these players faced one another on any given day, either player had an equal chance of winning. Or, as in the case of Sampras v Agassi, the presence of one (Agassi) usually brought out the greatness in the other (Sampras).


Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Aussie Open
(Ben Solomon/Tennis Australia)

With Rafa v Roger, we generally know who’s going to win. Some might argue that they still qualify because Roger’s presence brings out Rafa’s greatness a la Sampras and Agassi. While that’s sometimes been the case, as in the ’08 Wimbledon final, this is simply an incredibly bad match-up. Rafa is Roger’s kryptonite, and there’s not much he can do about it.

In many ways, their rivalry is reminiscent of Serena v Maria (15 – 2). No matter the circumstances, Serena wills herself to win, and there’s little that Maria can do to stop her. Maria hasn’t managed a win over Serena since 2004, and has tried everything to reverse this trend of perpetual losses to no avail.

The same could be said of Rafa v Roger after Melbourne. Roger came into this match pain-free, and feeling confident with his new racquet. Rafa came into the match with talk centering mostly on his badly-blistered hand. It was Roger’s best chance to notch a Slam win over Rafa since their ’07 Wimbledon final. Instead, Roger was beaten in straight sets…again.

Few, if any, believe this is a rivalry that will ever turn in Roger’s favor.

Context also makes a difference when discussing the gravitas of this rivalry. Their earlier matches felt important because they were meeting in the finals of Slams and Master Series. That importance is diminished when they’re meeting in quarterfinals – which happened twice in 2013 at Indian Wells and Cincinnati.

That’s not to say that good hasn’t come from their many encounters, because it has. Rafa’s early losses to Roger inspired him to become a more complete player on all surfaces, not just clay. Conversely, Roger’s losses have kept complacency at bay, forcing him to improve his backhand and competitive resolve.

Roger’s also gained a large dose of humility from his losses to Rafa. Even a player as great as Roger must admit the inherent duality of holding virtually every modern tennis record while being utterly unable to beat his main foe, regardless the surface.

It’s a shame that the Rafa’s rivalry with Novak Djokovic (22 – 17) doesn’t produce the same level of fan passion (and tournament dollars) as that with Roger, because it’s a better example of a true rivalry. It succeeds where Rafa v Roger fails because, on any given day, either of these gladiators could win. This on top of the fact that each has consistently brought out the greatness in the other. It succeeds on both fronts.

Unlike Roger, Novak has the shots to counter Rafa’s game, particularly his two-handed backhand that he can direct down the line to Rafa’s backhand, or angle extremely back as a crosscourt to expose more court even if Rafa manages a defensive response.

Rafa, on the other hand, has the resolve and defensive skills to draw crucial errors from Novak’s game. In the slim margins that separate a Slam victory from a Slam loss, that’s crucial. Who knows what might have been had Novak not touched the net in the fifth set of their incredible ’13 French Open semifinal?

However, none of that matters if it doesn’t excite passions beyond a tennis audience. Rafa v Roger is known to tennis fans and non-tennis fans alike, Rafa v Novak is not. It’s certainly a better rivalry, but not one that I believe will ever be referred to as “storied”.

Maybe the bottom line for most folks is not necessarily the details of Rafa’s rivalry with Roger, but more the fact that they represent intriguing polar opposites in the game of tennis: much like Borg-McEnroe and Sampras-Agassi before them. Also, they keep us on the edge of our seats hoping that, maybe this time, Roger will find a way to vanquish the Spanish thorn in his Swiss paw.

Odds are that won’t be the case. But you never know.

PostHeaderIcon The Best of 2013 from the Press Room, Part 1: SAP Open & Sony Open


At my workstation in the Sony Open press room

It’s that time of year where I look back at my tournament travels, and pluck out some of the jewels from my time in the press room to share with you all. I was on the ground at four events this year: SAP Open, Sony Open, Bank of the West Classic, and the Western and Southern Open. For easier reading, I’ll start with the first two tournaments I attended earlier in the year, then finish in Part 2 with the summer tournaments.
So without further ado, here’s my 2013 “backstage tour”.

SAP Open


Lindsay Davenport and Steffi Graf

The SAP Open ended its’ run with a Milos Raonic three-peat, and way too many empty seats. A notable bright spot was the mixed doubles exhibition match featuring Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport, Andy Roddick, and Justin Gimelstob. The best moment for me came when I was sitting in the press room afterward lobbing questions at Lindsay and Steffi. Sitting there, I couldn’t help but think about their ’99 Wimbledon final; their only meeting in a Slam final. They, however, had a different take on past matches. Listen to their press conference, and try not to laugh at their answer to the first question from yours truly.


Justin Gimelstob and Andy Roddick

Longtime friends Andy Roddick and Justin Gimelstob put on a command performance in their post-match press conference. What hopefully wasn’t lost on those in attendance was a serious discussion of the problematic business model for the modern-day tennis tournaments. The SAP Open struggled with attendance issues, but so do many others. So while players are demanding a bigger share of the revenue, tournament directors are struggling to fill sufficient seats for said revenue and sponsorship monies. Moving tournaments to new markets (other countries) may seem like a good short-term solution, but they’ll probably face the same attendance issues as here in the states. I just hope we don’t lose anymore.

I love pumping veteran journalists for info whenever possible. I ran into Vern Glenn, a prominent Bay Area sportscaster, while he was trying to get his Wi-Fi working on his laptop. He gave me this nugget in reference to working in (and getting paid in) this business: “Always make sure they keep you on scholarship!” I’m trying Vern, I’m trying.

sap-tennis-ball-cookies-editGoodbye SAP Open! I will miss your lemon-flavored tennis ball cookies! There were NEVER enough to truly satisfy my desires, but I enjoyed the few I got. 😉

(BTW, I have absolutely no idea who’s hand that is across from mine. I know I just turned 50, but is my memory getting THAT bad already???)

Sony Open


Maria Sharapova listens to a question

My personal feeling has always been that you get better answers from a player when you’re clear about what you’re asking, and aren’t antagonistic in doing so. This is especially true when that player is named Maria Sharapova. This was a small part of Maria’s answers to one particular journalist who didn’t get that memo:

MARIA SHARAPOVA: Why are you asking me if you saw it? Why are you asking me if you heard it yourself? I mean, I can’t remember exactly what he said. I mean, there’s a tape. Maybe I can get you a copy.

You can read the full exchange here, and also listen to the full press conference audio.

Goran is in blue warmup on my left

Goran is in blue warmup on my left

Some of the best moments at tournaments happen when you least expect it…like the conversation I had with Jelena Jankovic’s hitting partner, Goran Tosic, in the shuttle back to the hotel one night. Though I certainly could have tried, I didn’t pump him for info on Jelena’s condition after her late-night victory over Roberta Vinci. But I did get a nice insight into the hustling that a lower level player must do in order to make ends meet as a pro tennis player. Nice guy too. I wish him well in 2014.


Mary Carillo and I in Miami

Mary Carillo is one of the main reasons I make the yearly trek to Miami. I ran into Mary within my first 10 minutes on my first trip, and got a great picture with her that meant the world to me. Fast forward 5 years and I’m sitting with Mary in a post-match presser for Maria after her quarterfinal win over Sara Errani. I re-introduce myself, tell her the “Mary story”, give her my card, and was ready to savor the moment just as it was. The following day, Mary grabbed my arm as she walked by me and said, “Hey Kevin. I went to your site this morning. You kept me very entertained.” Those words continue to mean more to me than almost any other compliment I’ve received.


The elusive and rare Ivan Lendl smile

Before heading to the airport, I made one last trip out to the Crandon Park to get some photos before the men’s final. And while watching Andy Murray warm up prior to his match with David Ferrer, I caught a rare glimpse of a tennis unicorn: an Ivan Lendl smile. Who knew? And not only was he smiling, he was also joking around with a couple of young Murray fans who were watching practice. I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things… 😉

At the airport, my Miami trip ended on a very odd “Twilight Zone” moment. For those familiar with the situation of Kevin Ware the college basketball player, you must surely understand how words can’t express what it was like to check my twitter feed one last time on the plane home only to read about “Kevin Ware’s horrific injury” when your name is Kevin Ware and you aren’t horrifically injured…
(On the advice of one of my twitter followers, I avoided watching the video of his injury — and still haven’t seen it to this day. Thanks Alice!)

*** Next up is The Best of 2013 from the Press Room, Part 2: Bank of the West Classic and the Western and Southern Open

PostHeaderIcon The Best of 2013 from the Press Room, Part 2: Bank of the West & Western and Southern Open


One final picture at the Western and Southern Open

I started my “backstage tour” with the SAP Open and the Sony Open. Now it’s on to the Bank of the West Classic and the Western and Southern Open, my two summer tournaments.

Bank of the West Classic


I needed a moustache like this at the Bank of the West Classic

I pulled double duty at this year’s BOTW, starting my week at Stanford first as a line umpire during the qualifying rounds, and then moving into the press room for the start of main draw matches. It was a great experience, and not one player threatened to shove a tennis ball down my throat. But a part of me really wanted to put on a fake moustache or something during my line umpire stint so that players wouldn’t recognize me once I made the switch to media.

This year’s tournament got off to a rough start with the non-participation of defending champion Serena Williams, and the late withdrawals of Marion Bartoli, Sabine Lisicki, Kirsten Flipkens, and Maria Sharapova after Wimbledon. I hate to think the worst, but this wasn’t a good sign for a tournament that’s been struggling to re-discover the deep fields it once saw. I’d hate to see it fall by the wayside like the now-defunct SAP Open, the ATP LA event, and the WTA Carson event.

Western and Southern Open


Vika Azarenka, relaxed and chatty in Cincy

20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. While looking back at my WTA All Access hour notes from Cincinnati, it’s easy to see in hindsight every clue for how the tournament would ultimately unfold. Serena came into the event healthy and focused, but a little tired. Vika Azarenka came in feeling no pressure. Marion Bartoli came in as glib as ever, but not particularly motivated. And Maria Sharapova came in with her cap pulled down low and tight-lipped about her work with Jimmy Connors. (For the record, Serena lost in the final, Vika won in the final, Marion retired, and Maria canned Connors after an opening loss to Sloane Stephens.)

Speaking of Maria and Jimmy… I was given a chance to chat with Milos Raonic in the Player’s Lounge with another journalist. While waiting for (a very late) Milos, Jimmy comes over to chat with the other journalist. The only thing I here is “So, what did you think about that?” referring to Maria’s loss. I would have given almost anything to follow up with him on that one!

BTW, the Milos Raonic mini-interview was okay too, but can we talk about the lack of proper and timely apology to Juan Martin Del Potro for your “touching the net” malfeasance at the Rogers Cup?

(Click the arrow to play Milos’ pre-tourney presser audio. He addresses the Rogers Cup incident after the 6:00 mark.)


Jack and I grabbing food before Rafa v Roger

Covering a tournament can be a solitary experience, which is why it’s great when you can have positive interactions with the other folks in the press room. But more than the interaction, these moments also give one a chance to share ideas and expand your knowledge: something I love to do. I had a few of these in Cincinnati, but one stands out above the others. After one particular post-match press conference, I found myself watching a WTA stadium match with Courtney Nguyen on one of the main interview room monitors. I don’t know how it happened, but the on-court action led to a fascinating discussion of the issues and miscues facing the WTA as it tries to broaden its’ appeal. So here’s a shout out to Courtney for helping my expansion. Honorable mention goes to my press room neighbor, Jack Adam, for sharing a great evening quarterfinal between Nadal and Federer.


Rafa Nadal in the press room

Rafa played amazing tennis to win the Cincy title, but the wear and tear of his phenomenal season was starting to show on his battered body. As the week progressed, Rafa would sometimes take the stairs one at a time to get to the interview table at his press conferences.Not a good sight! So when asked to write about Rafa’s chances at winning the US Open, I had serious doubts that he could withstand the two week hard court pounding. He proved me wrong, of course. But as the folks at reminded me, that’s not a bad thing to be wrong about.

Memorable 1-on-1, #1: Grigor Dimitrov finally started to realize the potential in his game this year, but still lost a heartbreaker to Rafa Nadal 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. After the loss, I asked for and received a 1-on-1with Grigor outside of the men’s locker room. Yep, these are the moments that make the work worthwhile! Click arrow to listen to the audio.

(click the arrow to play Grigor’s interview audio)


Novak Djokovic in the press room

Memorable 1-on-1, #2: Novak Djokovic completely destroyed David Goffin in the R16. Roger Federer, on the other hand, was pushed to the wall against Tommy Haas in a gripping 3-setter. Because it was my first chance for press with Novak, I went to the main press room when his time was announced. Everyone else in the press room stayed to watch Roger’s match. So when Novak arrived in press, he was greeted by yours truly and the transcribers, and no one else. Though he wasn’t happy with the situation (understatement), he sat down and answered a handful of questions. And that’s how I got my first 1-on-1 interview with a world #1. Click here to read the transcript.

*** That’s all for the tournaments I covered. I could write more, but you get the picture. Have a great Holiday Season, and a safe New Years! And a very special Thank You to Karen P./Tennis Panorama for my media credentials in 2013. See you at Indian Wells in 2014.

PostHeaderIcon Roger’s New Racquet, BOTW Withdrawals, and Other Odds & Ends

Axel Heimken, AP

Axel Heimken, AP

Now that my officiating duties at the Bank of the West are over and my radio silence for the weekend has ended (before my week of official press coverage begins), this is as good a time as any to mention a few odds and ends from this past week.

Roger’s “No guts, no glory” Racquet Switch

The jury is still out on Roger and his new racquet, which is as it should be.  Even the GOAT is going to need a suitable period of adjustment to find his range and confidence with a new racquet. His play this past week in Hamburg was mixed, but he still made it to the semifinals where he lost to Federico Delbonis 7-6(7) 7-6(4). Semifinals equals good. A loss to No. 114 equals not so good. Definitely mixed!

There are many instances of players who’ve made a similar switch and lost all confidence in their strokes (Davydenko).  Others have made a switch and improved dramatically (Cibulkova). Fed will most likely not be an example of the former, but the overall improvement of his game with the new racquet will need to be greater than Cibulkova’s to remain competitive with his foes at the top.

Jimmy and Maria

With Maria’s withdrawal from the Bank of the West, we’re going to have to wait a few weeks longer to see how this odd coupling manifests in Maria’s game.

Serena, the Clay Queen

This is a strange thing to say, but Serena William’s 2013 season could be more notable for her outstanding performances on clay than any other surface! This is especially true after winning her 7th title of the season, 53rd overall, at the Collector Swedish Open. Once again, she did so without dropping a set.  Was this win enough to take away the sting of her Wimbledon upset? Probably not. But there’s still a chance for hard court Slam redemption at the US Open.

Number Two for Fabio

Fabio Fognini is on a tear this summer, winning his second title today in Hamburg, and saving three match points in the process. (His first title came last week in Stuttgart.) Both titles were on clay, so it’s unclear how these wins will translate to the hard courts in the lead up to the US Open. However, winning begets more winning, so you never know.

BOTW Withdrawals, Summer Clay, and the US Open Series

I’ve been asked several times about the significant number of withdrawals from this week’s Bank of the West (Bartoli, Lisicki, Flipkens, and Sharapova) in a non-Olympic year.  But you can’t really discuss the struggle to get, and keep, the top players at Stanford without acknowledging the increase of post-Wimbledon clay court events, and the decreasing stature of the US Open series.

In fact, it makes perfect sense when you look at it in practical terms from the players’ perspective. With the globalization of today’s game, many players are based outside of the US, with a large percentage of them living in Europe. When given an opportunity to play closer to home AND on a preferred surface (like clay), it’s easy to see why the BOTW struggles to get and keep its’ marquee players. And when you consider that the “real” road to the US Open begins in earnest with the Canadian events, getting anyone to come to the US so early in the season before the Open is a tough sell…and getting tougher.

Line-Calling Thank You’s

I’d like to extend a special thanks to those who approved my inclusion in this weekend’s line umpire crew at the Bank of the West. It was a great experience: one that I hope I get to do more of in the future. It also provided me with an even greater appreciation for these lower-level pros who’re working their butts off for ranking points and dollars.

PostHeaderIcon My Fascination with Wimbledon (Part 1)

Arthur Ashe with his Wimbledon trophy circa 1975

Bjorn Borg after winning his 5th Wimbledon

…Began many years ago when I watched Arthur Ashe win the title in 1975 over Jimmy Connors. As a lower middle class kid in a fairly segregated city (Cleveland), this was a big deal for my family and many others like us. Any time a black man won something that beforehand had never seemed attainable meant a great deal to struggling black families looking for inspiration for themselves and their children. Arthur’s win was a monumental day on that front.

It meant much more than that to me, however. As I watched on TV and saw this game being played on grass, in front of royalty, and being shown all over the world, Wimbledon became my own personal version of Nirvana. An exotic place in a faraway land where everything was perfect. You could play tennis all day on the lawns, eat strawberries and cream, and listen to people talk in that funny way. It was, dare I say it, even glamorous to my 11-year old self who didn’t know much about the world outside of Cleveland’s east side and some of Shaker Heights.

On the telecast I had also heard other names that became emblazoned in my consciousness: Stan Smith, Rod Laver, John Newcombe. I watched pictures and videos of them playing and became even more mesmerized by the game of tennis AND the institution of Wimbledon.

The final straw that embedded Wimbledon and my want to play this game in my soul was watching Bjorn Borg play and win on the Wimbledon lawns. Where Arthur had first gotten my attention and given me instant identification, Borg added a sense of style and coolness that I wanted desperately to mimic. I wanted to play with the type of racquet he used, I wanted to hit with a two-handed backhand like his, I wanted to wear the kinds of shirts and shorts that he wore, I wanted to wear a headband like him (back in the day when I had hair).

The only exceptions to the Borg rule were my Stan Smith tennis shoes. I had seen pictures of him at Wimbledon and also idolized him for some reason (though I never saw him play on TV). I would always look at the Stan Smith tennis shoes in the store, and the Stan Smith wooden racquet. I think I liked how it was painted more than anything else. I digress… back to Borg. Most importantly about my fascination with Bjorn Borg, I wanted to be there at Wimbledon to watch him win!

Clearly that wasn’t going to happen after his abrupt retirement. But all of this motivation got me playing in the Cleveland NJTL (the National Junior Tennis League, an organization founded by Arthur Ashe to help encourage minority kids to play tennis) in Cleveland. You joined the program and got a free racquet and racquet cover. That was one of the best days of my childhood. The courts were at Kerruish Park, which was pretty far from my home. It required a rapid transit ride, transfer to a bus, then another 30 minutes of travel to get there. The courts were not in the best shape, and the nets were made of metal fencing material. You wanted to get there early to play on the courts where the nets weren’t all bent out at the bottom. I wasn’t very good back then and was always a nervous kid when I had to play a match, but I tried hard and had fun. I kept thinking about Borg and wanting to be like him.

(Side note: I went to Google Maps to check out the park and was a little saddened by what I saw. The tennis courts are painted over gray, and from the aerial view it appears as if the nets have been removed. No more tennis for the local kids I guess. More than that, who knows what more dreams could have been inspired in more generations of young African-American kids like me? The court upkeep was minimal with the “fence” nets, the NJTL staff was fairly-minimally paid young adults of college age who played some tennis and had a fun summer teaching it to little kids. For this kid, that experience is part of what made the person I am and why I’m even able to write this blog. Yes it is sad to see them gone. But I hope )

What was more fun as I got older were the days when I realized there were really nice courts at Shaker Heights High School not too far from me… on the “other” side of the tracks, literally along the Cleveland-Shaker border. They had some hard courts, but mostly there were the greenish clay courts. Why there were clay courts in the Cleveland area I’ll never know. But I would go with a friend and play on those courts and pretend that I was winning the French or Wimbledon even though I’m pretty certain I was barely able to get the ball over the net and keep it in the lines of the court. 🙂 The smell of the courts and the tennis balls, being out in the sun running around, the sound of the ball hitting the strings and the court, to this day all of it makes me feel happy.

Fast forward to the year 2000. My love of tennis has grown to the level of USTA Adult league play in San Francisco, an active tennis life with the GLTF (Gay and Lesbian Tennis Federation) of San Francisco, lessons, Singles Ladder matches, you name it. Gone were the Borg outfits and long-gripped racquet, the headbands, the Stan Smith tennis shoes… But still the mystique of seeing my heroes play live tennis remained. By this time my idols of Ashe and Borg had been replaced by Andre, Venus, and Lindsay. Maybe one day I might even see them at Wimbledon.

Wimbledon practice courts as seen through a fence on my way into the Wimbledon MuseumI have friends in London who had always wanted me to visit, so that year I took them up on the offer. It wasn’t during the championships, however, because it never occurred to me that I could actually get tickets. But I read that you could visit the Wimbledon Museum year-round, so I made my plans, caught the tube to Southfields and ambled my way down the road to the All England Club.

As it came into view I was awe-struck by the majesty of the place and overwhelmed by the emotions brought on from coming face to face with the grandest cathedral of grand slam tennis that had fueled my tennis dreams since I was that kid watching Arthur on TV. I was speechless…
(to be continued)

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