Venus: Too Legit to Quit

My father was a non-credentialed, armchair philosopher. He greatly relished the frequent opportunities to dispense one or more of his bits of wisdom. God knows, as kids, my brother and I provided him with ample situations from which to launch into full-fledged philosophy-filled lectures.

We knew immediately when one of those times had arrived because his opening words were unfailingly, “You know…” and then words began rolling off his tongue as though they had been marinating there for weeks just for this particular occasion. His speech inflection clued us as to whether it would be a long-winded affair or a short snippet or two.

Regardless, the “you know…” induced immediate bouts of, “here we go again”  eye-rolling from us. Thankfully, eye-rolling was permissible as long as you listened. There was never a smack down for eye-rolling alone. Now, saying something stupid coupled with eye-rolling, well, then you might be putting yourself in harms way.

I think he was tolerant because, not only did he enjoy doling out wisdom, but he genuinely felt that someday we’d get it. We’d fully comprehend the relevance of his words. Our lives would be enriched by those words.

He was right.

Several of his favorites were, “Anything worth doing is worth working for.” He’d alter it to fit the occasion, often saying, “Anything worth doing is worth doing it well.” Those quotes were slight modifications of words spoken by Theodore Roosevelt.

“Never be afraid of hard work,” was another oft used. And from Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Generally, he added, “if to none other,” to the beginning of that one. Of course, he meant we could lie to him or anyone but never to ourselves cause we knew what the truth was.

When I watch Venus Williams play now, I can’t help but think of my father’s favorite quotes because she truly lives them.

Watching Venus is watching the truth. It’s watching the embodiment of my father’s advice to me, my brother and anyone else who happened to be within earshot.

All she has achieved, she’s worked hard for and she’s clearly unafraid of hard work.

Venus has always been plagued by injury, often severe enough that she was forced to miss precious training and match play. Those career interruptions have been costly in terms of titles won and ranking points.

But continually, Venus has come back from injury to painstakingly resume her career.

That’s dogged determination–unafraid to work hard to get back to a high level of play.

It’s common knowledge that three years ago she was diagnosed with an energy-sapping autoimmune disease. During that span of time, she has continued to fight through injury, and against Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Meanwhile, she continued to compete. For fans, including me, it was at times painful to watch her struggle to beat a player she once would have destroyed.

But I never stopped watching because she never stopped playing. Clearly, she was not giving up.

If she was willing to suffer through all the obstacles, then I was definitely still firmly on board the “Venus Vessel.”

What I found most disheartening was the throngs of people, including commentators and pundits, suggesting maybe she needed to retire.

But she didn’t and in several interviews she steadfastly stated she only needed more time to adjust to the syndrome and more high-level matches to regain the rhythm of elite play.

Well, she did it! She won Dubai, her first title since 2012. She won this same event in 09 and 2010.

It’s a stellar accomplishment by a very worthy champion. Venus showed the world that through trials and tribulations, “if you find the courage to believe, you can continue to achieve.”

Venus Williams is the consummate role model for us all. She’s courageous, determined and admirably formidable against any and all negative obstacles.

She believes in herself regardless of what others think or say.

“If to none other, to thine own self be true.”Venus-Williams11

For damned sure, she’s that.

She’s the “real deal.”

She’s legit…”too legit to quit.”

Stan The Man Can!

For the last two years he’s been on the verge,Nadal Wawrenka final

appearing ripe for ascension, ready to emerge.

The man, Stanislas Wawrinka, about whom I speak

has now scaled the mountain and reached a slam peak.

He felled world number two and one winning first major of the year

playing hellishly great tennis while showing no fear.

In 2013, with Djokovic, two epic losses in five,

left me believing Stan was ready to thrive.

Last year in Australia, Djoker won their wild ride,

while an identical spectacle this year saw Stan turn the tide.

That quarterfinal featured men crushing the ball

leaving many thinking the winner would win all.

And that did indeed prove to be true,

now Wawrinka should be afforded the props he is due.

Any psychological barriers Stan brushed neatly aside

punishing every ball from Rafa in perfectly timed stride.

Stan clearly outplayed Rafa in the first set

blasting missiles off both wings he just couldn’t get.

Rafa appeared confused, having little control

while Stan was composed, on court patrol.

As Rafa grew angrier and punched his string bed,

Stan became emboldened and more entrenched in his head.

In the second set came the most damnable twist

as Rafa suffered another injury to add to his list.

He strained his back leaving him severely impaired

while the crowd grew silent, then murmured and stared.

A medical timeout was immediately taken

to attend to Rafa now emotionally shaken.

He was escorted off court in order to be treated,

but upon return, appeared down and defeated.

As the match resumed, Rafa fueled only by pride,

the crowd was so subdued you’d have thought someone died.

He did all that he could to continue to play

and not rob Stan of his greatest career day.

But Stan grew tentative playing an injured foe.

In this game that’s the way it seems to go.

A half-speed Rafa still won the third set

with many of his shots now finding the net.

In the fourth, Stan recaptured his first-set form

having weathered a nervy emotional storm.

After breaking Rafa, it was clear to see

the match was over and the winner was he.

Many have wondered which guy might break thru,

either Berdych or Tsonga, the top candidates two.

But neither of them could raise a confident hand

because all along it was Stan The Man.

The Fear Factor

2014 Australian Open. Who would have imagined Serena would lose the tournament?


Not only did I imagine it, I predicted it. I expected it.Ser loss


Pressure. Plain and simple, good old ever-present oppressive pressure. When a player, their camp, fans, non-fans, reporters, pundits, bookies, little kids who have no knowledge of tennis but know a Serena or Vika or Maria’s name…in general, the entire world all hold the same expectation of victory, that’s the most likely time for a “fail.”

The pressure under which an athlete toils in these situations transforms from pressure to outright fear. You can sense it, smell it, see the strained expressions, the tight non-fluid movements. It’s almost as though they’re about to be attacked by some heinous creature.

Well, they are.

In fact the attack is well under way when those telltale signs manifest. They’re already in the clutch of the “beast of fear,” and it’s devouring them little by little, on the big stage, in front of the entire viewing public.

For fans of the devouree, it’s an awful sight to see. For the opponent, it creates burgeoning confidence, an almost maniacal euphoria in the knowledge that he/she is “choking.”

For the player in the jaws of “the beast,” it’s a most terribly humiliating experience.

Loss in athletics is one thing, it’s natural, just part of the game. But loss while engulfed in the throes of fear, well, that’s quite another because it actually becomes a sort of mini nervous breakdown.

“As the mind goes, so goes the game.”

Need supporting evidence? Okay. Look at the chronology of events so far.

1. Serena, the prohibitive favorite to win her 18th singles slam falls to an inspired, fearless

2. Ivanovic now becomes a clear favorite to defeat 19-year-old Canadian, Bouchard, playing in her first-ever slam. Of course Ivanovic falls…nervously.

3. With Serena deposed, Sharapova feels relieved but at the same time pressured. She’s expected to beat Cibulkova. She loses…nervously.

4. With both Serena and Sharapova out, Azarenka becomes the heavy, heavy favorite. She promptly loses to a crafty administration of all-court, all-shot play by the ever wily Radwanska.

2. Naturally, predictably, nervously, Radwanska is bludgeoned by Cibulkova.

Meanwhile, in the lower portion of the upper half of the draw, Li Na has had a relatively easy time advancing having not faced a seriously threatening player. She gets by Bouchard in straights.

So, the finals are set. Li Na vs Cibulkova.

On paper, Li Na must be installed a solid favorite to hoist the trophy. After all, she’s a slam winner, has far more experience on the big stage and plays an aggressive brand of tennis.

There’s no doubt, both women will be nervous, Cibulkova trying to win her first slam, Li Na being expected to prevail.Li Na

And, therein lies the real conundrum for Li Na–she’s expected to win!

Thus, if current form holds,

then Li Na folds

and in the end

Cibulkova will win!

Maybe Li Na can buck the trend…

or not.

Ivanovic Sinks Serena

Much of the talk during this 2014 edition of the Australian Open has centered around the dangerously oppressive heat baking fans, players, officials and ball kids.

One player who succumbed to the heat, said it was “inhumane” to have athletes competing in such extreme conditions. Another, after wobbling thru a match, reported that at one point, he thought he saw Snoopy.

Seeing stars is one thing, but when it’s so hot you begin hallucinating glimpses of Snoopy or any other cartoon character during your match, it’s time to throw in the towel. Actually, a record number of players did just that within the first two or three days.

But though the weather took a delightful change for the better, there’s still plenty heat to discuss.

It’s not that produced by the Australian summer, climate change, global warming, Mother Nature or whatever other Snoopy-citing-induced conditions that may be occurring “down under.”

What heat is it?

It’s the heat Ana Ivanovic brought to her fourth-round match against the number one player in women’s tennis, Serena Williams.Ser loss

Ivanovic displayed a burning desire to win, and brother, she was on fire! Her forehand was smoking! Her strokes were incinerating tennis balls and there was simply nothing the Queen of American tennis could do to stop her.

Simply put, Ana was bringing the heat!

Ivanovic’s superior play notwithstanding, there were other obvious and not so obvious factors contributing to Serena’s disturbing (disturbing in the sense that it was so unexpected by) loss.

Let me explain.

Several weeks prior to the start of the Open, I took a little vacation. Drove 1376 miles from St. Louis, Mo. to Las Vegas, NV. Wanted to take a leisurely scenic drive across country. I took the northern route. Terrifying drive! But that’s another story.

After getting situated, I headed downtown to the famous Las Vegas Strip widely considered the betting mecca of the U.S. The weather was glorious. I spent the first hour just walking the strip floating on the wave of non-stop excitement.

I settled into a very pleasant sports book at Planet Hollywood Resort And Casino. After perusing the various in-progress events of basketball, football, soccer, golf, horse racing etc, I found a two-sided one-sheet publication listing the betting odds available on every future sporting event imaginable.

My first “uh oh” moment occurred when I saw under “Tennis,” Serena Williams was 4-5 to win the Australian Open. “4-5!” I screeched, inaudibly of course. The odds-makers had installed her as the 4 to freaking 5 prohibitive favorite! For the uninitiated, 4-5 means you’d have to bet $5 to win $4 give or take some change.

What’s wrong with that you ask? After all, she is the best female player on the planet and she is coming off one of the greatest seasons of all time last year. She’s healthy, she’s highly motivated, seemingly more serene than ever. What more could a bettor ask for, right?

BETTER ODDS! That’s what!

The list of things that could change in the four weeks leading up to the Open in my view was astronomical. She could step on another piece of glass, wrench another ankle, fall down, break a bone, catch the flu, and on and on…yet odds makers saw fit to offer the public a paltry 4-5.

And, God forbid, if any one of those things had happened which prevented her participation, and you’d made a future bet, your money is non-refundable. Yep, that’s right…nope, can’t get it back.

The risk-for-reward situation in such a case is outrageously terrible…for the bettor anyway. It’s splentastic for the casino.

I like horse racing, was actively involved in the industry as a small-time owner/trainer in the 80′s and still find time to make a few wagers. One thing I’ve learned over the years, and this is a verifiable national statistic, the win percentage for favorites is about 33%. That means that 67% of the time non-favorites win, about twice as often then.

I’d rather be in the 67% group.

The 4-5 odds also indicates that everybody on earth thought Serena was a mortal lock to win the tourney. The pundits were raving about her chances. One commentator went so far as to say, “Serena has to be the favorite in any tournament she enters.”

Of course Serena hears and reads that crap. That translates to pressure, enormous pressure. Couple that with her own expectations and quest to tie Navratilova and Evert with 18 singles slam titles and you have the perfect storm for disaster.

Serena’s shocking first-round loss to Virginie Razzano in the 2012 French was a pressure induced implosion. Her loss to Sloan Stephens last year at Australia, in my mind, was again precipitated by pressure and maybe a bit of injury. And what about her loss last year at Wimbledon? Both Sharapova and Azarenka were eliminated by injury. The tournament was hers for the taking. She promptly lost.

History has a way of repeating itself.

The second “uh oh” for me was Serena’s less-than-dominate win over third-round opponent, Daniela Hantuchova. No disrespect to Hantuchova who has won over 500 singles matches to date, but I expected her to be trounced.

The final “uh oh” was her listless and lucky first-set win over Ivanovic. She appeared lethargic and lead-footed, as though she had resigned herself to loss. It didn’t help that she seemed to no longer have a backhand either.

Maybe there was also some injury issue. Only Serena knows for sure.

I truly think it was again the enormously burdensome pressure to deliver as the freaking 4-5 favorite, you know, when the entire world expects the win.

Whatever the reason, Ana Ivanovic is no longer 0-4 against Serena. She executed a well devised game plan about which she spoke during a pre match interview.

She came out smoking, was undeterred by the first set loss, and went on to smoke the number one female player on the planet.

It wasn’t a fluke.

She earned the win.Ivanovic

The Slump

Loosely defined, a slump is a period of time during which a person is unable to produce a result which he/she heretofore had done with a degree of predictable regularity. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (really old book but I still enjoy using it) defines slump as, “a period of poor or losing play by a team or individual.”

Slumps are nothing new. They’ve been around forever. If you’re an athlete, chances are, at some point in your athletic career, you’ve experienced the phenomenon. If not, keep pushing, you will. It’s inescapable. Trust me, there’s a slump out there with your name written all over it.

The level at which one competes is irrelevant and slumps are indiscriminate. They’re for everybody.

They’re unpredictable. They can strike without any forewarning whatsoever and can vary in intensity and duration. A short one may last from a single day to several cycles of performance and then abate just as suddenly as it appeared.

But a really nasty slump, an all encompassing soul-devouring slump, can drag on, and on, and…well, maybe not to infinity, but it sure as hell feels that way when you’re mired in one.

It can gnaw away at the very fabric of your competitive psyche, causing severe anguish while gradually eroding confidence, depleting energy and causing you to question yourself…you know, whether you should continue down the current frustrating path, whether you should hang in, hang on, or hang it up.

That’s how freaking abhorrent a slump can be.

So, having said all that, is it possible that, to date, the greatest male tennis player of all time is solidly enmeshed in a dreadful slump?

Maybe, maybe not.

There are those that actually say Roger Federer is finished, that he’s washed up, that he’ll not win another slam.

Heard it before?

Could it be true?

Maybe, but personally, I doubt it.

I think the Federer question deserves more careful evaluation before concluding that he’s finished or that he’s even in a slump.

At the forefront, it’s paramount that the tennis world considers the ever shifting landscape of tennis and where Federer fits in that paradigm.

I’ve not seen an appreciable erosion of technical skills. His movement is as graceful as ever and his ability to defend appears unimpaired.

What has changed is his aura of invincibility. He’s taken some beatings in the last several years that have made him appear more vulnerable, more human. A few more unforced errors have crept into his game as well. He’s changed sticks too, now using a larger-head racket.

In addition to the changes in his tennis life, Federer is now a husband and father. His priorities have to have shifted a bit, not negatively, just differently. There’s substantially more to his life than just tennis now. I must say, I think he’s done an admirable job of integrating the changes almost seamlessly.

But even when one takes into account the differences, the possible distractions, the losses of both personal luster and matches, Fed is still competing at the elite level of tennis. Just because more time elapses between slam wins doesn’t mean he isn’t still in the top-level mix.

Though contrarians will cite his less prolific slam production as proof, to think that Roger Federer is finished is foolish.

I do feel that he is the victim of a complex circumstance-mitigated mini-slump. But that’s all, just that.

He’s human. The little slump has had an adverse affect on his confidence, and his closest rivals see it and work to capitalize on it.

So, where does Fed fit in the present-day paradigm?

With the best, at the top.

Federer still has it. He believes it. He’s said that.

That’s enough for me.

I believe it too.

Fed will not go slam less in 2014.RF

“My, How Things Do Change”

Everything changes. It’s inevitable. The entire planet is continually morphing. The only thing I can think of that is unchanging is that everything is changing.

Tennis is no exception, and the changes that have occurred in our sport are remarkable.

It’s the same game for sure but the athletes contesting it are not. They are bigger, stronger, faster, more agile, and all have a resting heart rate that is close to the equivalent of flat-lining compared to us average humans. Their endurance is beyond belief.

To play for five-plus hours at an incomparable rate of physicality has become the norm rather than exception. A highest-level match by this new breed of “super athlete” can leave a stadium of spectators breathless, and all we’re using is our eyeballs.

I’d be willing to bet that any one of these guys could jump into a triathlon and give some of the upper crust triathletes a run for their money. That’s how fit they are.

It’s change!

Startling advances in technology have contributed greatly to the equation. Rackets have become lighter and more durable while returning more energy to a struck ball than ever before.The frame/string combinations in the hands of today’s players produce an astonishing array of shots. It seems any angle is achievable while the pace on some ground strokes at times is faster than some pros can serve.

Who knows what technological innovation is next? Maybe a user-interactive-racket that has a little built-in infrared tracking system that picks up the flight of an incoming ball, measures mph’s, spin, projected height when it reaches the hitting zone, and then transmits an electrical impulse to the players body that initiates the swing motion to precisely meet the ball at the most expeditious moment to produce the perfect shot.

Sound farfetched? Laugh if you wanna. I’ll get back to you after I’ve finished and field-tested my prototype.

To further explore the changes in tennis, one need only watch one of the more recent encounters between Nadal and Djokovic. Better still, watch several, a few from the Djokovic “reign of supremacy” over Nadal, and then a few from the Nadal “reign of supremacy” over Djokovic and any other poor soul along the route to get to a meeting with him.

Here’s what I’ve seen.

Tennis is no longer about simply imposing your strengths against the opponents weaknesses. That just doesn’t work anymore, at least not at the elite level. They’re far to evenly matched.

It’s all about pattern play.

The parity between these guys is so very close despite playing stylistically different games that they now must rely on finding a pattern of play within each rally that affords them the greatest chance of winning the point. That’s a point…one point. Then they have to replicate that pattern repeatedly, point after point after point within the structure of the entire match to emerge victorious.

Listen, both guys can produce shots that astound, many planned, some improvised as needed. But they both also can defend against those miracle shots equally well.

If it was just about shot creation and execution, hell, “The Fed” would still be numero uno. No player on the planet has a more complete catalog of shots than Roger Federer. And Federer’s improvisational skills are astonishing. The level of elegant acumen he brings to a match leaves one shaking his head in amazement.

So, the outcome of a match between Nadal and Djokovic, ultimately, boils down to which player has devised and been able to implement his pattern most successfully for the duration of the contest.

Modern tennis is just far more intricate than in the past.

As Nadal answered in a post-match interview concerning how he was able to get the better of Djokovic, after a thoughtful pause, with furrowed brow, he said, “It’s complicated.”

That said it all.TENNIS-AUS-OPEN

Brad Gilbert: Ex Player, Magician, Guru And Coach Extraordinaire.

While many may find my contention that Brad Gilbert was an exceptional tennis player an overstatement, particularly top players who lost to him in matches in which they were heavily favored, I have no reservations in making this assertion.

Gilbert’s winning record in matches of significance against players ranked higher than he, players presumed more talented and considered in gambling vernacular, “A mortal lock,” is legendary.

Though Gilbert never enjoyed the notoriety of players such as Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and John McEnroe, those players all fell victim to his underrated abilities.

McEnroe, once assailing Gilbert’s game, stated that if he lost to Brad Gilbert, he needed to retire. Gilbert wasted little time in issuing McEnroe his “walking papers.”

I witnessed a number of Gilbert’s wins over players against whom he appeared overmatched.

During his dismantling of a big name player, I’m sure I was at least as perplexed as was his victim. Initially, I just couldn’t discern what it was he was doing that was so effective. So I continued studying his matches.

Sometimes I wondered if he was using smoke and mirrors, if he was simply a magician. But where were the props? There were none, at least none visible to the naked eye.

Finally, it dawned on me. It was so obvious that I, his high profile victims and the galleries of fans who were present at those incredible upsets, missed it.

It wasn’t impeccable strokes. It wasn’t fluidity of movement or outstanding court coverage. And it was neither extraordinary athletic ability nor exceptional power. It was none of the array of physical skills that one equates with a highly successful tennis player.

It was that Gilbert was not just a tennis player, but a competent player with an extraordinarily analytical mind.

Brad Gilbert was a master tactician. He was exceedingly proficient at identifying and exploiting his opponents weaknesses while still playing within his own comfort zone.

I think Gilbert was astute enough to realize early on that he was not blessed with a plethora of prodigious skills. However, he was fully cognizant of and comfortable with the skill set he did have.

So Gilbert effectively equalized the playing field by maximizing his abilities and using the greatest of those assets, perceptive intellect, to impose his will upon his opponents.

Many called Gilbert a “pusher,” meaning a player who doesn’t give opponents pace and rhythm to work with. To that, I say, “yeah, and…your point is what?”

Tough luck complainers. Gilbert was under no mandate requiring him to supply you with what you needed to win.

Gilbert retired from the circuit in the mid 90′s.

What’s equally if not more significant than his competitive exploits is that he has successfully condensed his strategies and tactical abilities into a coaching career second to none. That’s not easily done. There’s no guarantee that successful players will transition to superior coaches.

Gilbert didn’t win a singles slam title yet he’s a proven commodity at coaching others to that summit of achievement.

Amongst players to have benefited from Gilbert’s coaching are Andre Agassi with whom Gilbert worked for about eight years. During that period, Agassi won six of his eight slams and was not remiss in crediting Gilbert with having played a crucial role in those successes.

Gilbert signed on with Andy Roddick in 2003. That union produced the only slam Roddick has won, the 2003 US Open. Roddick ended that year ranked number one. He also reached the 2004 Wimbledon final while still under Gilbert’s guidance. Why Roddick didn’t retain Gilbert’s services is a mystery to me.

Three years later, Gilbert must have been enticed by the proverbial “offer you can’t refuse” deal (minus a horse’s head a la The Godfather), as he signed a three year deal with the BLTA (British Lawn Tennis Association) to assume the duties of coaching Scottish player Andy Murray and work with some of the younger British juniors.

As with Roddick, I’m perplexed as to why Murray didn’t retain Gilbert. They parted company in less than a year and a half.

Gilbert also worked for a short time with Britain’s Alex Bogdanovic and later with Japan’s Kei Nishikori.

Unquestionably, players flourish under Gilbert’s influence. That’s not coincidence.

It’s Gilbert’s intuitive grasp of what a player has and how best to utilize his strengths while minimizing weaknesses.

In 2012, Gilbert worked for a short time with American, Sam Querrey. Within the brief span of their association, Querrey won his first tournament in some time, the Sarasota Open. The win was a much needed boost for Querrey whose confidence level was low due to a lack of match play resulting from an elbow problem.

Hopefully his physical woes are behind him. The Sarasota win sparked a productive summer for Querrey as he reached the mid-rounds of several tournaments and looked solid doing it. The big guy has serious ability.

I’m unsure if Gilbert is still working with Querrey but I hope so. He’s definitely the right man for a high-level player aspiring to move up to have in his corner.

If in fact Gilbert and Querrey are no longer working together, it would behoove some hungry American player to try and secure Gilbert’s coaching services.

He/she could benefit tremendously from the association.

Brad Gilbert may very well be a bit of all that the title of this post implies, ex player, magician, guru, but without doubt…

he is a coach extraordinaire.