10 Feet Tall and Bulletproof

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 /by
96185072 by Pete Bodo

Howdy, folks. We just wrapped our latest podcast, covering a fair amount of territory. It should be live on the home page by this afternoon, and available via this link.

I'm putting it all on the line by picking Zheng Jie to take out Justine Henin in the Australian Open semifinals. I really liked what I saw of Zheng last night; does anyone recover from a shot and get prepared for the next one as quickly as her? Some of you will undoubtedly accuse me of underestimating Henin, and in that you're right. Hail, I've been underestimating her for weeks, so why stop now?

But seriously, Zheng seems capable of presenting big problems for Henin, and unlike Petrova, who squandered plenty of chances against Henin yesterday, she's got sand. I think much will depend on how Henin handles Zheng's serve -- if she can attack it and take charge, she'll be in good shape. But if this becomes a hitting contest, I think Zheng will more than hold her own. Maria Kirilenko is no Justine Henin, but she had a great tournament to this point, and Zheng handled the pressure of playing a winnable match with a semifinal berth at stake beautifully.

I'm inclined to go with Zheng for another reason; I'm not eager to see Henin win this title. I went into it a little earlier in the event, when I said that a Clijsters-esque return by Henin would really add credibility to the charge that, with the exception of Serena's accomplishments, you may as well throw out the past two years of WTA results (especially at majors). The only thing that could make that even worse is Henin winning after Clijsters came up small. It raises the question, Has nothing changed? 

And let me be clear about this -- I really would like to see Henin win Wimbledon; it just seems "right," although you can't question the integrity of the scoreboard. The better player always wins, and Justine has the capacity to be the better player -- the best player, over a seven-match stretch as Wimbledon.

On the men's side, I was disappointed for Andy Roddick, who lost to Marin Cilic. It's funny, I understand why so many people still are left cold by Roddick. He's a huge star, from a rich nation where that status yields enormous rewards. He's won only one major, yet he has a way of attracting attention. He walks with a swagger, enjoys life, has a wide irreverent streak, says what he thinks, and he does nothing to cull anyone's favor. But he gets beat up and knocked out, time and again, only to jump up off the mat, jaw thrust forward, inviting the next Nadal, Federer, del Potro, Murray or, now, Cilic, to take his best shot.

Roddick may not deliver the best shot in tennis, but he sure takes a "best shot" better than anyone, and that's curiously at odds with his persona. I'd like to see him join Justine as a Wimbledon winner. One lousy stinkin' Wimbledon title. It would go a long way -- all the way -- toward making it all have been worth it. Not that it wasn't, as is, but. . . you know what I mean.

I also think Cilic is going to pay a price for the long matches, which means that Andy Murray is facing a great opportunity to demonstrate that he's figured out the Grand Slam-event challenge. In their last meeting at a major, Cilic tuned a distressingly lackadaisical Murray at the U.S. Open -- a loss that underscored the emerging suspicion that Murray was a one-week wonder. I've always felt that Murray is better than that; he just needed to figure it all out. Now it's time to put this presumably gained knowledge to work. Things are never that pat, in a form-of-the-day enterprise like tennis, but these larger themes are valid.

And what can I say about Rafael Nadal, unable to finish his fourth consecutive major?

Only this: I sympathize with his plight. It's a terrible thing when the injury theme overtakes a player and becomes the lens through which he's viewed. It begins to play tricks on everyone, including the player in question. Somehow, the aura of a player is diminished when injury becomes a recurring theme (Roddick is also in danger in that regard, but he doesn't have as far to fall); it's an even greater signal of basic vulnerability than the occasional ugly performance. So much of this game is driven by intangibles -- confidence, image and self-image, the ability of an athlete (never mind his trainers and fans) to feel and act as if he's 10-feet tall and bulletproof. The best players, and some merely darned good, shrewd ones, are like predators on the veld, ever alert for signs of vulnerability or weakness in their prey.

Roger Federer understood this, and the way he's kept his injury/illness issues of the past on the down low was wise; it kept his opponents guessing. Rafa's injuries seem far more serious, of course, which is why we're more focused on them. But a part of me thinks it would have been a better play for Rafa to just let those last three games slip away and say to Murray, "Well done."  Keeping people guessing (without being coy or evasive) is always preferable to allowing your struggles to play out on center stage. I understand that Nadal didn't want to sustain further damage to what now has to be seen as a clearly a career-threatening debility, but the relentless focus on his physical state will be a real drag on his free spirit.

In today's matches, I like Li Na (she's playing Zheng as well as Venus Williams, so her motivation is bound to be extra-high), Serena, Roger and Jo-Willy.

Enjoy the tennis, everyone!

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