CE 10: Keys to the Key

Thursday, April 03, 2008 /by

Let’s say that the last week in tennis has been “mildly wild.” The sport has been covered in major media outlets with the help of one usual suspect, Andy Roddick, and one highly unusual one, Mikhail Youzhny, who made his existence known to the world at large with a bloody self-beating. All publicity is good publicity, right?

I’ve been dropping in on the action on TV, as much as work permits. I’ve missed being there, especially for the night matches. You can always recognize Key Biscayne by its darkness. The light fixtures at the top of the main arena jut way out over the court, creating a large pool of blackness around the playing surface. For some reason I find this relaxing, in person and on TV.

Besides the developments already mentioned, I’ve caught a little of Rafa, Serena, Lindsay, and Andy in action, and done it all with a minimum of broadcaster interference—once again, tennis, with help from the mute button, has proven to be a great way to get reacquainted with some old records. Roger Federer has escaped my radar, just as he did for most of Indian Wells, but I’ll try to find him tonight for his umpteenth—I mean 16th—“showdown” with Roddick. Otherwise, here are a few observations as the later rounds begin.

1. I have been aware of Federer in one way: His analysis of the U.S. presidential race. "I couldn't believe that it takes that long, you know,” Fed said. “There's so much talk about it for like a year in advance, which is tough for the president, it seems. But, look, it's the way it is. People are really into it. Seems like the younger generation is more into it. I think that's key to this race.”

It’s funny to think that Federer, at 26, is young enough to qualify as one of Obama’s youthful army if he were an American. Or is he feeling sorry for Bush in there? Federer: Democrat or Republican at heart?

2. The Indian Wells-Key Biscayne double: Should players like Novak Djokovic or Ana Ivanovic be criticized for not being able to go deeper at Key Biscayne after winning in IW? Should we look at the players—Agassi, Clijsters, Federer—who have completed that rare double with more admiration? It’s a difficult feat, one to be impressed by, and in the case of Federer and Agassi it’s a prime example of a greater drive to be No. 1 and prove yourself week in and week out. But it also isn’t a life goal of any player, or essential to finishing a season at the top. In the end, career stature is built on the Slams, time spent at No. 1, and to a lesser extent, Masters titles. Like Canada-Cincinnati and Rome-Hamburg, the IW-KB “double” is just a quirk of the schedule, one that hurt Djokovic and Ivanovic this year. While that may be a sign that neither will be as dominant as Federer in the future, it shouldn't be seen as a reflection on their commitment.

3. Still, Ivanovic’s loss to Davenport was a little distressing. She was basically blown off the court by an older, half-committed pro. Of course, this just showed again what a uniquely powerful player Davenport is—Ivanovic spent a lot of time lunging hopelessly at balls that were screaming past her. But it also pointed up a flaw in Ivanovic’s game, one that was subtly noticeable even during her run at IW. She isn’t a counter-puncher or a defender. It’s the kind of problem that will hurt her as long as players like the Williams sisters and Sharapova—and Davenport—are in the game.

4. Andy Roddick: Whatever happens against Federer, Roddick has been an entertaining presence in Miami. The man gets around. His relationship with Jimmy Connors ends one day, and the next he’s engaged to a model and playing cards with Terrell Owens, which has to constitute one of the cooler, and stranger, cross-sports friendships out there. For whatever reason, I like the fact that T.O. is following tennis.

5. As for Roddick's game, I’ve seen more of it than anyone else’s this week. I’m struck again by his split-personality out there: Monster serve to start, then grinding small-ball the rest of the time. It works on slow hard courts, but why not on clay? I actually don’t think he generates enough pace with his forehand for clay. Andreev drove him into the ground from the baseline at the French Open last year.

What really wins Roddick matches, though, is attitude. He takes losing to lower-ranked or younger players as an affront to his position, his status, even his seniority. It may not be realistic—why shouldn’t his opponents try their best or get fired up against him?—but it’s effective.

6. Now Julien Benneteau is the opposite case. He tried his best to project toughness and desire against Roddick on Tuesday night. It worked for a set and a half, but there was something a little staged and unconvincing about his fist pumps and “allez”’s—he snuck a few glances to see how Roddick was reacting to them. (You're not supposed to care, Julien; that's what being a badass is all about!) Sure enough, trying to hold at a crucial juncture late in the second set, he bailed out with a foolish, and hopeless, serve and volley. Roddick won that point and rolled from there. Proof again that self-belief can't be acted or even willed. It has to be earned first.

7. Records rediscovered while watching tennis broadcasts this week: Out Front, Clifford Brown; Beggar’s Banquet, Rolling Stones; Gram Parsons, Avalon 1969. The first of those—smooth but unpredictable—goes especially well with the game of Ivo Minar. Who would have guessed?

8. You’ve seen the bad Youzhny. Well, he was also very, very good in the same match.
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9. Ten years ago at Key Biscayne, men’s tennis seemed on the verge of being overtaken by an ornery, smooth-swinging South American named Marcelo Rios. At the top is a clip of him beating Andre Agassi in the 1998 final to take over No. 1. He was a gloriously natural and controlled player to watch at his best, and one of the sport’s all-time disappointments. I saw him play in Key Biscayne the following year, before a boisterous Chilean crowd out on the Grandstand. After he’d won, he walked past a wall of screaming fans and kids all holding out magazines for him to autograph. Rios looked right at them, no expression in his steely eyes or on anywhere else on his face, and never stopped walking. It was like they weren't there. I remember thinking: "Wow, that's awesome."

10. A friend and I assessed Roddick’s fiancée the other day.

“Is she that hot?”

“She has that kind of weird model’s face.”

“Yeah, and she’s almost too skinny.”

We looked at each other and smiled. Who were we kidding?

Almost in unison: “She’s hot.”

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