As we approach the second weekend at Indian Wells, it's time to hand out the As, Bs, Cs (and worse):
How does one adequately describe the awfulness that is Fox Sports Net’s coverage of Indian Wells? After a late dinner, I arrived home Tuesday night eager to watch some tennis, in part because I had been denied coverage earlier in the day (MSG+, which is FSN for those of us in New York City, decided to broadcast a NCAA basketball preview show). The coverage was supposed to start at 10:30 p.m., but it didn’t begin until after 11:00 p.m. because MSG+ decided to run it’s high school basketball highlight show—yes, high school basketball—in full. High school basketball takes precedence over tennis? Apparently, so do fishing and poker, since that’s what MSG+ viewers watched Wednesday instead of Roger Federer and Fernando Gonzalez. Adam Helfant, take note: Your new sport rates below fishing, poker and prep hoops. Something must be done. Until then, I suggest watching TennisTV.com (decent quality streaming, but it would be much better if the darn thing had a half-screen option to go along with the small-screen setting, which is too small, and the full-screen setting, which looks blurry). Grade: F
P.S.: Didn’t an arena with M.S.G. in its name recently hold a tennis exhibition? Hmmm. I must be mistaken.
Pavlyuchenkova, the 17-year-old Russian, dominated the junior circuit for years, but her initiation into the professional ranks has been difficult. Perhaps she’s ready to claim a permanent place among the sport’s contenders. In four matches so far, she hasn’t lost a set; she also knocked Jelena Jankovic, who began the year at No. 1 in the rankings, out of the tournament. Pavlyuchenkova has an excellent chance to reach the final: She’ll play Agnieszka Radwanska for a spot in the semifinals, and then the winner of Ana Ivanovic and Sybille Bammer. Pavlyuchenkova’s steady, rather than meteoric, rise begs the question: Have we seen the last of the teenage prodigies (Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati, to name just a few of the sport’s fabulous teens)? If so, maybe that’s not a terrible thing. It could be that slow development leads to a longer career. Grade: A
Roddick’s improved speed and footwork were on display against Nicolas Kiefer, the veteran who used to give Roger Federer trouble in the past. He’ll have to get past David Ferrer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to reach the final. Grade: A-
Jankovic seems to believe that her off-season training regimen (she bulked up) has caused her problems this year. She feels slower, and her timing is off. This is one of those attractive theories—player puts on muscle, slows down, ruins career—that makes less sense the more you think about it. It’s not as if Jankovic has put on 20 pounds; she’s marginally bigger than last year. She doesn’t seem to have lost any flexibility, as indicated by the many splits, or near splits, she executes on the court. I can’t imagine that she’s slower, either, as her stronger muscles ought to give her more power to push around the extra weight.
My theory: The off-season changes have become an excuse for poor play so far this year, and poor play that isn’t too surprising. Jankovic doesn’t have the serve or forehand to dominate opponents. Even at her best, she lets a lot of inferior players hang around. I’ve noticed that her opponents are taking more risks this year, especially on Jankovic’s weak serve. If she concentrates on what she can do on the court, in terms of strategy, rather than on past decisions she can’t change, she’ll be fine. If not, 2009 could be a long year. Grade: D
Last night I saw, for the first time, a mildly interesting on-court coaching session. Craig Kardon, Ana Ivanovic’s new coach, advised Ivanovic (at the end of the first set against Flavia Pennetta, which Ivanovic had won moments earlier) to take something off her first serve and get it in, rather than go for a powerful serve and miss it. (Ivanovic, covering her mouth, asked, “Where should I serve it?” Kardon suggested aiming at Pennetta’s body.) Ivanovic took his advice—and lost her serve to open the set. She lost her second service game, too, fell behind 3-0, and eventually lost the set (she won the match in three sets). Thanks, coach! I haven’t come across many tennis fans who believe on-court coaching will have a payoff for viewers; perhaps it won’t help the players much, either. Grade: F
Speaking of Ivanovic, it’s great to hear that she’s confident again and working well with Kardon. Still, she has much to do if she wants to become a dominant champ. I spoke to Sven Groeneveld, Ivanovic’s former coach, at the U.S. Open last year, and he mentioned that Ivanovic’s service toss needed work. To improve it, Ivanovic would toss a weighted ball, then a slightly lighter one, then a tennis ball. The goal was to recondition her arm and erase bad habits. Those habits are back this week—I’ve seen Ivanovic swipe at tosses that float off to her right and too far to her left, as well as ones that drop too low. It’s symbolic of her game: She can do amazing things with the ball, but takes too many risks while doing them. Grade: B
Bob and Mike Bryan
The twins, who won the Australian Open doubles title, continue to impress this year. In the first round, they dumped Federer and Yves Allegro, 6-2, 6-0. Last night, they took out Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez, 6-3, 6-4. Now that they have beaten the teams with the two best players in the world, they have Andy Murray, ranked No. 4, in their sights (they could meet Murray and Ross Hutchins in the semifinals). Grade: A
WTA Tour, Minus the Williams Sisters
Let’s hope the Williams sisters, who do not play at Indian Wells, stay on the tour for at least five or six more years. Without them, the tour becomes much easier to ignore. There are several compelling established players on the tour—Jankovic, Ivanovic and Dinara Safina—and a few more, like Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, who seem destined for success. Not one of these players, however, has the qualities, or confidence, of the game's past champions (Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Justine Henin; the list goes on). Elite players don’t lose matches because their lesser opponents were patient and willing to wait for errors. Until Jankovic and company stop doing this, the women’s game will lack the stars it needs to succeed. Grade: C
One thing Nadal fans have to be happy about: Their man no longer wastes time in the early rounds. In Australia, he won efficiently until the semifinals. So far this tournament, he hasn’t expended much energy (we’ll see if that continues against David Nalbandian Wednesday evening). If Nadal can continue to limit his time on court, he’ll have a better chance of staying healthy, and staying on top for a long, long time. Grade: A+
The 6-foot-9 Isner, who has beaten Gael Monfils and Marat Safin this week, hasn’t looked this convincing since his fine run in the summer of 2007. Is it a sign of progress, or a fluke? Grade: A