Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: May 20

Monday, May 20, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Okay, so the men’s final in Rome was an avert-your-eyes blowout in which Rafael Nadal razed the game of Roger Federer. I’m still giving them a joint thumbs up because these two just don’t seem to quit, and no matter how often Nadal knocks out Federer (since 2008, the Spaniard leads 12-4), the Swiss all-time Grand Slam champion just keeps on getting up and coming back for more. Meanwhile, contenders and pretenders come and go, full of grand ambitions, good intentions, slick moves and—ultimately—excuses.

Starting in 2015, ESPN will be taking tennis into a world that was idle fantasy as recently as 1998, the year Federer won the Orange Bowl junior title. That is, an environment where the sport is presented on multiple platforms (broadcast and digital), a promised land so long sought by fans in this remarkably diverse, global game—a place where you, Mr. or Ms. Fan, will be able to watch any singles match that takes place at the U.S. Open, live.

This deal is a milestone not just for tennis, but mega-sporting events (e.g., the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Daytona 500) in general. And it doesn’t hurt that with a financial commitment of $770 million for an 11-year deal, the annual broadcast-rights income of the U.S. Open will basically double over the present payout.

Ernests Gulbis is at it again. The wacky Latvian blew a big lead over Nadal in the quarterfinals of Rome, eventually losing, 6-4 in the third. Afterward, he once again uttered what is becoming a familiar lament: “I thought I was the better player in the match, and also in the second and third sets (which Nadal won). . . He is solid and he didn’t do anything special and I made mistakes so he won.”

Nadal took the high road, as he usually does in such matters, although he did get it in a pretty good line without actually criticizing Gulbis: “If you hit as hard as you can, and hit every ball at 216 (kilometers per hour) or 220 and then that means being the best player then perhaps he was the best player.”

Ernie: If you make mistakes, dude, the other guy wins. And that means he was the better player. Get it?

The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s tennis team, which will play top-ranked UCLA today in the NCAA tournament. On Saturday, the Buckeyes shocked four-time defending champion USC—a reign that began when the Trojans beat the Buckeyes in the 2009 final.

The hero on Saturday was Peter Kobelt, who clinched for OSU after having lost the decisive match in similar situations twice in the past. The Columbus Dispatch reported that the Buckeyes rushed onto court to swarm Koblet when he clinched, so excited that doubles player Devin ran out of his shoes—literally.  I’m going to have to see if we have that on video. . .

Serena Williams seems hellbent on dousing all this talk about Maria Sharapova having become the “Queen of Clay.” Last week she beat Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 in the final in Madrid, with the No. 1 ranking as well as the title on the line. This week she beat world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka—her immediate predecessor at No. 1—6-1, 6-3 in the final in Rome. Wasn’t it mere weeks ago that everyone was taking pains to point out that Serena hadn’t won a title on red clay since Roland Garros in 2002?

What difference does it make? Serena has been producing Nadal-like scores, while not exactly playing a Nadal-esque game. And that spells trouble for her rivals starting next week at the second Grand Slam of the year. Serena rides a 24-match win streak into Paris, and she’s 33-1 on clay since the start of last year—that one loss a shocking first-round upset inflicted on her at the French Open. “Last year I was feeling excellent on clay but didn't do that great at Roland Garros," she said. "This year I'm cautious and I want to work hard and stay focused and win every point I play, and not slack at all."

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga isn’t giving his French countrymen much to feel positive about going into Roland Garros. Tsonga, who had match points against top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the French Open quarterfinals last year, lost in the fourth round of Madrid (while playing just three matches, thanks to a bye) to Stanislas Wawrinka, and then in the second round of Rome—his first match—to Jerzy Janowicz. Tsonga came nowhere near fulfilling his seeding (No. 8) at either event. The best you can say for him is that he won’t go into Roland Garros over-tennised.

Benoit Paire has leaped ahead in the four-way Headcase Derby also featuring Gulbis, Grigor Dimitrov, and Fabio Fognini. Paire reached a Masters 1000 semi for the first time in Rome with an astonishing 57-minute beatdown of a pretty solid clay-court player in Marcel Granollers.

That, after Paire had sent No. 7 seed Juan Martin del Potro packing in the third round. This will be a guy to watch in Paris. He’s crazy and he don’t care about nothin’, so I can see him becoming the first Frenchman to win at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah in 1983.

Caroline Wozniacki and Nicolas Almagro easily qualify for contestants on the game show, “Who Had the Worst Three Weeks?” Wozniacki was seeded No. 10 at the two big Premier events, but lost in straight sets to Yaroslava Shvedova in the first round of Madrid, and was also beaten in her opener in Rome by Bojana Jovanovski. Furthermore, neither of the women who beat Wozniacki did very much after knocking the Dane out; Jovanovski lost her next match, while Shvedova survived just one more round.

Almagro was equally disappointing. Seeded No. 12 in both events, he was knocked out by Mikhail Youzhny in the second round of Madrid; in Rome, he lost in the first round to Julien Benneteau in two uninspired sets. Neither of the men who beat Almagro did any more thereafter than the women who eliminated Wozniacki. Yikes!

It’s always nice to see a wild card player justify their selection. Pablo Andujar, a wild-card “homer” in Madrid (the native of Cuenca was ranked No. 113 when entries closed) panned out for the tournament committee by battling his way to the semis with a truly admirable run that included wins over No. 11 Marin Cilic, No. 16 Kei Nishikori, and No. 21 John Isner.

The mean ranking of the guys Andujar beat was No. 25, which is excellent work by anyone, at any event. Andujar, who’s 27, ran out of gas against Nadal in the semis. I didn’t see him in the qualifying for Rome—could it be that he’s resting up and planning to avenge himself upon his countryman Nadal in Paris?

Why not? He seems to have about as good a chance as anyone, given the way Nadal is playing.

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