Looking Back, Not Forward

Monday, January 23, 2006 /by

The Aussie Open’s quarterfinals are here and it’s time to take stock. How did my early tournament predictions turn out? About the way I predicted (to myself)—nine of my final 16 were still hanging around on Monday. Of course, the women make any tennis bracketologist look good; six of my eight WTA picks made the quarters. I overestimated the power games of Mary Pierce and Anastasia Myskina and underestimated how well finesse players, or at least Swiss finesse players named Hingis and Schnyder, are suited to the slow surface in Melbourne. On the men’s side, I don’t feel too badly about not foreseeing the breakout of Marcos Baghdatis, though I do regret confidently informing two famous tennis journalists in my office that Andy Roddick was going to “tune him up 2, 2, and 2.” The real mistake I made was picking James Blake, rather than David Nalbandian, to make the quarters. That was just too low-percentage . Maybe my critics from the comments section on this blog were right—I was being a homer. From now on, I’ll stick with my old mantra about the current generation of American men: Never predict anything.

Rather than burden the world with more random prognostications—is there a less predictable pro sport than tennis?—here’s something safer: a few rapid-fire reflections from the first week of Grand Slam tennis in 2006.

Points Taken
Yes, names like Safin, Nadal, and Agassi are sorely missed by TV-ratings crunchers and tennis-haters in the press, but would they have provided more entertainment, shot-by-shot, than Nikolay Davydenko and Dominik Hrbaty did in their five-set fourth-rounder on Sunday night? A great point is a great point is a great point, no matter who’s in it. And despite Cliff Drysdale’s protests about boring tennis this year, the neutral surface at the Aussie Open continues to produce great points.

Hingis Up, Williamses Down
Who would have believed this was possible three years ago, when Hingis was walking away from the game and the younger Williams sister was winning a “Serena Slam?” In some ways, it’s a logical step in their intertwined careers. As teenagers, the Williamses were driven by the goal of dethroning then-No. 1 Hingis. When she couldn’t handle their one-two punch any longer, she left the game, just as Bjorn Borg did when John McEnroe upstaged him 25 years ago. And just as it had with McEnroe, that departure robbed the Williamses of their original motivation and left them unsure of their commitment to the game.

Hingis has made this tournament. She plays a refreshingly well-rounded game—yes, there is a shot called a lob—does the little things that tennis aficionados love, and, Chucky nickname aside, is more plainly honest and human than any of today’s top women. By comparison, Sharapova and the Williamses are ridiculously dramatic, Henin-Hardenne utterly unknowable, and Clijsters somehow remote beneath all that cheerfulness.

The ESPN Report
After Wimbledon last year I was hoping for increased variety from ESPN. But the network has fallen back on U.S. players and repeats of star matches. You can’t really fault them—anyone who’s watched French TV during Roland Garros knows that we aren’t the only country that favors its own players. What’s more grating are the continued attempts to “build the personalities” of the top players. This translates into time-killing analysis by Chris Fowler and a gossip columnist, and postmatch interviews with every American, even after they’ve just demolished an early round opponent.

Note to ESPN: Tennis fans know these players well already. We want to see matches. That’s all.

State of the Commentating
Mary Carillo: As always, she’s thoughtful and goofy in equal measures. Thoughtful: Her balanced take on the equal prize money question; Goofy: Her long, tortured imitation of a Simpsons’ tennis episode that forced Dick Enberg to come up with a quick save (he succeeded, of course).

Patrick McEnroe: Mac the Younger has evolved, though noticing it may be a little like watching for the moon to move in the sky. He’s always known the game but was long overshadowed by his brother. ESPN’s expanded presence at the big events has given him a chance to step out of those shadows and assert his judicious but insightful style.

Brad Gilbert: When he’s not saying that certain players get easily “fustrated” and one woman “doesn’t got a lot of stick” on her serve, Gilbert brings energy, as well as semi-intended comedy, to the broadcast. Just loosen up the shoulders Brad. We know there’s a neck in there somewhere.

The Luke Effect: OK, here’s one personality that was worth building. At Wimbledon in 2005, Luke Jensen interviewed Lindsay Davenport after one of her wins. I was in ESPN’s offices at the time. More than one person there was amazed at how outgoing she suddenly became. “I didn’t know she had a personality,” was the consensus. The same thing happened when Luke interviewed her last week.

German Humor
An oxymoron, you say? Check out Nicolas Kiefer’s next match if you don’t believe in it. The 28-year-old’s career has waxed and waned, but his eccentricity endures. One example among many: As he neared match point against Juan Ignacio Chela, Kiefer heard a random sound as he walked back to the baseline. He jerked his head around—he jerks his head at everything—widened his eyes, and stared as menacingly as possible at absolutely nothing. OK, this might not be humor in the strictest sense of the word, but Kiefer’s mannerisms are worth staying up late to see.

Man of the Year
What a life. Marcos Bagdhatis gets to No. 54 in the world and he’s voted man of the year in his home country of Cyprus. More important, he now has the best-looking girlfriend on tour (any arguments?). Seriously, this is a terrific breakout story because Baghdatis is, above all, fun to watch. He’s never afraid to go for a shot, and he’s so upbeat that even after missing a first serve he’ll bounce the next ball through his legs before he tosses it.

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