Minneapolis Star Tribune — Sunday, January 17, 2016

2016 Australian Open Preview: The Kick Is Up, and Novak Is Good … Very Good

As Minnesotans were reminded last Sunday, nothing is a sure thing in sport … not even a 27-yard field goal.

Tennis fans need only rewind to September and the semifinals of the women’s U.S. Open for our sports’ version of the missed chip shot, when tour dominatrix Serena Williams, poised to win a rarer-than-air calendar-year Grand Slam, inconceivably stumbled to an unseeded player from Italy.  Picking the correct five Powerball numbers seemed like better odds than predicting that result.

Which leads to another sport truism: things change in a hurry.  Even with her shocking defeat in New York, Williams had an amazing year, tallying a 53-3 match record, raising her major championship total by three to 21, and garnering Sportsperson of the Year honors from Sports Illustrated.

And so naturally the player that everyone is talking about coming into the Australian Open is … Novak Djokovic.

While Serena shut down her engines for the rest of the year after the U.S. Open, men’s winner Djokovic revved things up, winning all four tournaments he played, including the year-end World Tour Finals.  The latter was the icing on his own incredible year, that included an 82-6 match record and 11 titles, three of them majors.  If not for Swiss striker Stan Wawrinka hitting him off the court in the French Open final, Djokovic would have his own calendar-year Grand Slam.

Nole, as he is nicknamed, started 2016 by winning in Doha, thumping Rafa Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in the final.  So superior is Djokovic right now that Nadal could only effuse, ”I know nobody playing tennis like this ever … When I say perfect, it’s not one thing in particular.  It’s everything.”

This from a peer who we all thought was one half of the two-man race for Greatest Ever.  The other half being the original Mr. Perfect, Roger Federer.  After all, Rafa has 14 majors and Roger the record 17.  No one’s catching them for decades, right?  Let alone Djokovic, who only has 10.

We may want to reconsider.  Djokovic is just 28 years old and in the prime of his powers, whereas Federer is doing well to defy age at 34 and Nadal struggling to regain top form at 29.  Even a few more years of winning one or two majors per season puts Djokovic near Federer’s mark.  And he certainly has the complete package to do that.

Technically, the strength of Djokovic’s game is that he without weakness.  He may not possess the fearsome forehand of Roger or the once-booming serve of his coach, Boris Becker, but each of his strokes is so sound that the rare unforced error elicits surprise.  His return of serve and two-handed backhand are without doubt the best of his generation … and maybe all generations.

And yet what allows for Djokovic’s technical solidity is his physicality.  Where Rafa bludgeons with strength and sinew, Novak floats and stings with an unsurpassed blend of agility, balance, and flexibility.  His movement is so deft, his footwork so precise, it leads to his remarkable stroke reproducibility and deadly accuracy down range.  When on defense, his gymnast-like ability to do the splits on full stretch saves many a point.

His physical attributes are more nurture than nature, by the way.  Djokovic is renown for his attention to his flexibility regimen, his oxygen and hydration levels, his gluten-free diet, and, well, you get the picture.  If his razor-thin frame looks like it’s not carrying an extra ounce of fat, that’s because it’s not and he won’t let it.

The Serb’s lock-tight mentality completes the package.  Compared to his main rivals, he’s more warrior than Federer, more confident than Nadal, and more settled than Andy Murray.  The story goes that at 12 in Belgrade he had to alternate between practicing tennis in an empty swimming pool and retreating to the bomb shelter to avoid NATO air raids.  One doesn’t need to wonder where he gets his tenacity.

Melbourne has been one of Djokovic’s most prolific stops on tour.  If not for that pesky Wawrinka playing in the zone (again!) in the 2014 final, Novak would be gunning for six in a row.  Instead he’s simply the defending champion and heavy favorite.  The first major always bring some extra surprises and the Australian summer heat can make even the fittest wilt.

But still, my guess is that Novak will find a way to get it through the uprights.

—Minnesota’s David Wheaton missed his share of gimmes on tour, but he did reach the quarterfinals of singles and the finals of doubles at the Australian Open in 1990.  David’s latest book, My Boy, Ben, is a true story about a yellow Lab that David had during his pro tennis days.  Find out more at DavidWheaton.com.

 

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Minneapolis Star Tribune — Sunday, August 30, 2015

2015 U.S. Open Preview: Grand Pressure in New York

Who knew that vying for tennis’ Grand Slam had something in common with downing Denny’s namesake breakfast? The truth is, both will cause you some pain in the gut.

So Serena Williams must be feeling as she prepares to take the court at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York for the U.S. Open. Talk about indigestion—this meal could last two weeks.

Having won this year’s Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, world No. 1 Williams stands on the precipice of the rarest feat in the game—winning all four major tournaments in a calendar year.  Only five players in history have done that: Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, Margaret Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988.

With a seventh title in New York, Serena will not only join this elite group but also tie Graf’s 22 majors, leaving Court’s record 24 as the final frontier in removing “arguably” from “the greatest ever.”

“Pressure” is the word that’s bouncing around the tennis world right now like a freshly opened can of balls on a hot summer day: “How will Serena handle the pressure of her historic quest?”

It’s interesting to note what is not being asked: “Who can stop Serena?” Because the answer is, no one. Despite nearing 34 years old, with 20 of them spent on tour, Williams has no rivals, no peers on par, which says something about the current state of the women’s game but much more about her greatness. All of which means that for Serena to lose in New York, she will have to have a lot to do with it.

And that is exactly what causes the stomach to churn. At its core, pressure is the fear of falling short of one’s goal. It’s the heart rate-increasing, mind-accelerating, palm-perspiring, muscle-tightening, performance-dampening anxiety that knows things can and do go awry, even with the best preparation and strongest motivation.

As dominant as Serena has been at the U.S. Open, she can’t simply engrave her name on the trophy—she must win seven, two-out-of-three set matches over the next two weeks against varying styles and personalities, solving every obstacle that gets in her way: cheers and jeers from the boisterous crowd, humid day matches, cool under-the-lights matches, sore body parts, perhaps even illness, bad stretches of play, rain delays, swirling winds, questionable officiating, and a litany of other unknowns.

And she must overcome all this alone on the sport’s most demanding stage in the world’s most electric city, with the realization that this grand opportunity is unlikely to present itself again.

Serena started tasting Grand Slam fervor after winning the French Open in early June. But over the past seven weeks since garnering the third leg at Wimbledon, she’s been, well, eating it for breakfast every day. The press relentlessly asks her about it. Well-wishers constantly remind her of it. I’m guessing she’s relieved to finally be in New York where she can actually do something about it.

Perspective is the antidote to pressure, and Serena will need plenty of it coursing through her mind both on and off the court. “Go out there and have fun” will not be enough when chasing this kind of history. A disciplined reductionism of playing one point at a time, and then another, and then another, with an overarching focus on preparing and competing to her best each day, should help harness her thoughts from running where they shouldn’t. If there was ever a time to embrace the journey rather than obsess over the destination, this is it. Seems like a breeze, at least from the comfort of my recliner.

In case you hadn’t heard, a men’s tournament will be taking place in New York as well. And if world No. 2 Roger Federer continues his hot form from a week ago in Cincinnati where he straight-setted world No. 3 Andy Murray and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to win the title, we could be looking at two thirty-something U.S. Open champions with 40 Grand Slam titles between them.

Now that’s an amazing number. But still, there’s something even more magical about four…when they all come in the same year.
—-
Minnesota’s David Wheaton reached the singles quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 1990. David liked to relieve the pressure on tour by spending time with his yellow Lab named Ben. Their story is told in David’s most recent book, My Boy, Ben—A Story of Love, Loss, and Grace. Find out more at DavidWheaton.com.

 

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Minneapolis Star Tribune — Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 U.S. OPEN PREVIEW: American Grand Slam Champion—Where Art Thou?

To say that these are unprecedentedly soul-searching times for American tennis is no exaggeration. If not for a pair of sisters—Serena and Venus Williams—the United States would be zero for the last eleven years in Grand Slam singles titles.

To put that in perspective, since the late 1800s to early 1900s when the four grand slam tournaments began, America has never gone more than a handful of years without garnering a major singles title. In fact, the U.S. is the most dominant nation in Grand Slam history with 314 titles compared to 135 for second-place Australia.

In the third-most-populous nation, one blessed with almost endless resources and opportunities, the question begs to be asked: What has led to the American Grand Slam champion suddenly becoming an endangered species?

The scarcity has endured for so long now that one writer dismissed all the consternation with new world-order-sentiments: “Tennis loves to play up nationalism—look at a scoreboard or draw sheet, and you’ll see a flag or country abbreviation next to a players’ name. But it’s an individual sport, and players play first and foremost for themselves.”

In other words, Americans shouldn’t care if Americans don’t win majors anymore.

This notion, that “tennis loves to play up nationalism,” is a little like saying “the Olympics likes to pit one country against another.” Um, that is called reality. Most human beings bear loyalty to their country of birth or residence—even with its imperfections—and take pride in seeing one of their own succeed.

Ask someone in Spain whether they would care as much about Rafa Nadal if he were from, say, Finland, and you know what the answer would be. Heart is where the home is … or something like that.

That little rant aside, there are plenty of theories as to why America is no longer producing major singles champions.

There’s the Leftover Theory, which posits that the “big five”—football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer—attract the best young athletes, leaving tennis to dumpster-dive for scraps.

There’s the Big Government Theory, that the United States Tennis Association (USTA) needs to spend much more than the $17 million it annually pours into its centrally-managed player development system.

There’s the Hunger Theory, which snivels that American players are too coddled (as a result of USTA Big Government) in comparison to their counterparts in poorer countries whose desperate circumstances lead to a desperate drive to be the best.

I’ll leave the debating of theories to others, but I will say this: every Grand Slam champion I’ve observed has had a special coach or mentor or parent who possessed the know-how to take his or her charge from good to great. Mr. Williams, in navigating his daughters from the public courts of Compton to the stadium court of the U.S. Open, obviously had the gift.

The same can be said for Uncle Toni, the lifelong pedagogue of defending champion, Nadal. Toni’s influence on Rafa has been immeasurable, but he couldn’t keep his nephew from hurting his wrist in training earlier this summer, causing the world No. 2 to pull out of the year’s final major.

But don’t assume that the previous holders—Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic—are the de-facto favorites. Since Ivan Lendl departed as Murray’s coach, Murray has slipped from being a perennial top-four member to No. 9 in the rankings. And while Djokovic’s Wimbledon title may have portended that he was back to his major-winning ways, his recent marriage and upcoming baby carriage are being whispered as reasons for his less-than-stellar hard court season leading up to the Open.

With only three American men ranked in the top fifty, big-serving John Isner, currently No. 15, is the best hope to break the U.S. men’s major drought. But even with Nadal out and Djokovic and Murray struggling to find form, Isner still would have to contend with such rising stars as (and pardon for mentioning their countries), Canadian Milos Raonic and Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov (both Wimbledon semifinalists), France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Toronto winner), and last but certainly not least, five-time champ, Swiss Roger Federer, who enters New York with a hot hand after winning Cincinnati and reaching the final in Toronto.

There is more promise for an American winner on the women’s side. Serena, gunning for a three-peat, also won Cincinnati and seems to be heading in the right direction after poor results in this year’s majors. Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, ranked No. 22 and 28 respectively, are two up-and-coming Americans to watch.

And that’s exactly what American fans will do for the next fortnight in Flushing—tune in to watch. But at some point, it would be nice—at least for us flag-wavers—to see more of our own actually win.

David Wheaton reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 1990, falling to John McEnroe. David’s new book, My Boy, Ben—about a yellow Labrador he had during his tennis-playing days—releases October 15. Find out more at DavidWheaton.com

 

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Minneapolis Star Tribune — Sunday, June 23, 2014

2014 WIMBLEDON PREVIEW: Murray a Coach Short of a Repeat

In a country known for its hyperbolic headlines, it would be hard to overstate the magnitude of Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon last summer. (Or the gratitude the rest of us feel that the oft-repeated refrain “No British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936” finally can be put to rest.)

Of course, a Scottish bloke ending the 77-year drought was never going to go down quite so smooth for the English, what with the centuries-old simmering resentment toward the Scotch (“Braveheart” didn’t help). A Wimbledon victory it was, however, and an unlikely one at that from a man who didn’t seem to have a big enough game, mind or set of shoulders to carry the hopes of the empire.

That is, until Ivan Lendl entered the picture.

You’ll remember Lendl as the former world No. 1 from Czechoslovakia who dominated the tour for much of the 1980s with his strong serve and forehand, winning eight majors and causing John McEnroe to lose his temper even more. But there was one kingdom that Lendl never conquered — Wimbledon.

It became an annual tragedy of sorts to watch Lendl, in his latter years on tour, skip a major he had won three times (Roland Garros) in order to spend more time practicing on grass for a major where he had lost twice in the final (Wimbledon). Unfortunately, preparing for success didn’t lead to it at the All England Club. Shoot, even a kid from Minnesota beat him one year in the third round on Centre Court.

The problem for Lendl was that he was playing in the BC era of Wimbledon, as in, Before Change.

Change began to take place in 1995, when Wimbledon made, in its words, “a very minimal alteration in compression” to the balls. Then in 2001, the grass was modified from a mix of rye and creeping red fescue to 100 percent rye “to combat wear and enhance court presentation and performance without affecting the perceived speed of the court.”

Don’t let propaganda get in the way of the facts — after decades of serve-and-volleyers winning Wimbledon, every champion since 2002 has done so from the baseline. Lendl tried admirably to become a serve-and-volleyer to win Wimbledon. In the new era of slower balls and higher-bouncing lawns, Murray never had to.

When Lendl took Murray’s reins at the dawn of 2012, he inherited a charge who moved great and missed little. Wonderful qualities, except for the fact that allowing one’s opponent to dictate the outcome of the point is typically a recipe for coming up short in the business end of majors.

Which is exactly what Murray had been experiencing — three major finals, all losses — until Lendl came along and pushed the Scot to become more aggressive and positive. What could have been another devastating loss in the final of Wimbledon six months into their partnership turned into Olympic gold a few weeks later, then a U.S. Open title, followed by the historic win at Wimbledon last summer. That is what I call “a good hire.”

Apparently Murray’s Wimbledon crown was vicarious thrill enough as Lendl resigned his coaching duties this spring, leaving Murray, as he described it, “gutted.” Aside from reaching the semis of the French Open two weeks ago where he was summarily dispatched by Rafa Nadal, Murray has been underperforming or injured since his shining moment last July.

He enters The Championships as “the holder,” meaning his title defense will begin Monday at 2 p.m. London time on Centre Court, where he will walk out feeling the weight of national and personal expectations. He also will enter with a new coach, the 2006 ladies champion, Amelie Mauresmo, a surprising and intriguing choice.

Murray’s teaching pro mother said she hopes Mauresmo will encourage him to be more creative and “use more drop shots.” That is a little like advising the Twins to bunt their way to the World Series. But what do I know? I never thought I’d see the day when slugging it out from the baseline would be the norm at Wimbledon.

While seven-time champion Roger Federer and two-time winner Nadal have something to prove after early exits last year, my favorite is Novak Djokovic, the 2011 champion. And although 2004 champion Maria Sharapova is coming off an impressive French Open win, I still wouldn’t bet against Serena Williams to lift her sixth plate.

Both Djokovic and Williams have the shotmaking, experience and toughness to navigate through the fortnight on the game’s grandest stage. Plus, I’m pretty sure their mothers aren’t urging them to hit more drop shots.

———-

Minnesota’s David Wheaton beat Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi on his way to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1991 before falling to Boris Becker. Wheaton is now an author and radio host. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.

 

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Minneapolis Star Tribune — Sunday, May 25, 2014

2014 FRENCH OPEN PREVIEW: Nadal Vulnerable? We’ll Believe When We See It

If “90 percent of tennis is half mental” (to slightly misquote Yogi Berra), then Rafael Nadal lowered his chances of winning a ninth Roland Garros title by a few percentage points when he stated the following before the start of the spring clay court season:

“I’m not going to win 14 [titles in a row]. There’s a start for everybody and there’s an end. I know that I’m not going to keep winning all the tournaments on clay forever, and [there is] going to arrive a day when I’m not going to win one more … hopefully not yet.”

And every good Minnesotan said, “Now that’s interesting.”

The European clay court season is the time of year when Nadal has dominated — no, obliterated — the tour as no player ever has: eight titles in Monte Carlo, the same in Barcelona, six in Rome, three in Madrid and eight at Roland Garros. If Rafa didn’t win one of these tournaments in a given year, it was likely because he hadn’t entered.

So what’s his point — that we shouldn’t expect him to hoist the French trophy at age 50? Well, ha, ha, ha. He couldn’t do that! Or could he?

Such is the mystique of Rafael Nadal. Just shy of 28 years old, he has attained such otherworldly status on clay that no one could presume to know the how long and the how many of his career. The sun seemed to be at high noon over his clay court empire. No one was even contemplating dusk. So for the “Rey of Clay” to suddenly inform us that he, too, is going the way of all flesh?

Transparency is a wonderful quality, but tennis doesn’t offer any trophies for it.

Rafa found that out soon enough when his results this spring tracked his confession. He lost in the quarters of Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He won Madrid, but only barely after his final-round opponent retired with an injury. He lost in the final of Rome. This still would be an amazing clay court season for anyone … anyone except Nadal.

A reporter asked him in Rome to explain his unprecedented struggles on clay. Would he blame an injury? Were his shoes not fitting? Strings too loose? After all, super-champions rarely admit decline, even to themselves.

“Get used to [it],” Nadal said. “Because with the years it is the normal thing, and in the end everybody suffers. It’s part of the sport. It’s part of the careers of everybody.”

This may be admirable realism, but here is how every player in the locker room interpreted his words: “Hmmm, maybe I can beat Nadal on clay.”

One rarely wins a tennis match without the belief it can be done. Rafa’s invincible reputation on clay has been every bit as much of a weapon as his fearsome forehand and tenacity. Over his career, a great majority of his opponents have awakened lacking the belief that they could conquer him. And then they went out and proved themselves correct.

But now players are smelling blood. Not the least of whom is Rafa’s main rival, Novak Djokovic. Last year, Djokovic effervesced that beating Nadal in the final of Monte Carlo was one of the highlights of his career. Last week, Novak beat Rafa in Rome and it was no big deal.

Contrast Rafa’s mindset to that of another superstar, 33-year-old Serena Williams, who after winning Rome painted this metaphor: “I am like fine wine, my tennis is getting better with age.” She won’t be taking home the humility award, but she will be entering Paris full of confidence in defense of her title. With her ongoing domination of the tour, there is no reason to think she won’t.

As for Nadal, maybe he is just attempting to transfer expectations to someone else. If so, he’s accomplished that — world No. 1 Djokovic enters the only major he has never won as the slight favorite. Still, Rafa has lost just one match in nine years in Paris. Three out of five sets is his favored distance. Court Chatrier is his happy place. Surely, Rafa has not gone crazy.

Or maybe he’s just crazy like a fox.

———

During his 13-year professional career, Minnesota’s David Wheaton reached the third round in singles and semifinals in doubles at the French Open. David is now a radio host and author. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.

 

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Minneapolis Star Tribune — Sunday, January 11, 2014

2014 AUSTRALIAN OPEN PREVIEW: Playing Greats Make Coaching Stakes

“It’s the coach who makes all the difference.”

So boasted Sam Mussabini, the idiosyncratic running coach portrayed in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” to his pupil, British sprinter Harold Abrahams, who would go on to win the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

Apparently some of the top players on the professional tennis tour spent the offseason watching the Oscar-winning film as most of the chatter leading into the year’s first major has been about the coaches who will be in the stands rather than the players who will be on the court. To name a few of the new pairings: Boris Becker and world No. 2 Novak Djokovic, Stefan Edberg and Roger Federer and Michael Chang and No. 17-ranked Kei Nishikori from Japan.

Frankly, new coaches on tour are not new. If the NFL is known for its coaching carousel, then what takes place on the professional tennis tour is akin to speed musical chairs. Players change coaches about as often as they change sides of the court. There are no multiyear coaching contracts, no tenure after years of service. A coach’s job on tour is as secure as his or her charge’s last match. Or first match, in the case of Jimmy Connors, who was served a pink slip by Maria Sharapova after her opening loss with him at the helm.

What is unusual about these coaching hires, along with some of the others — such as No. 9 Richard Gasquet with two-time French Open winner Sergi Bruguera and Croat Marin Cilic with former Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic — is the Grand Slam champion pedigree of the coaches.

For whatever reason (lack of financial need being one), the greatest players in tennis tend to only dabble in coaching, and when they do jump in, they discover that conducting is far more difficult than competing. They know how to do it themselves, but knowing how to get someone else to do it is a completely different ballgame.

Case in point is John McEnroe, who liked to crow that he had “more talent in my little finger” than his rivals but never showed much ability as a coach. Then there’s Ivanisevic, who possessed the nastiest serve in the game, quoted as instructing his new charge to simply “throw the ball up and hit it.” Who knew serving ace after ace was that easy?

There are exceptions. In fact, the highly successful partnership of Scotland’s Andy Murray and eight-time major winner Ivan Lendl may be the real reason more past Grand Slam champions are entering the coaching realm. Murray was the poster child for discarding coaches like sweaty wristbands as he lost one major final after another. But then Lendl came on board at the beginning of 2012, and the Czech Hall of Famer, known for his icy demeanor, steadied Murray to an Olympic gold and U.S. Open title that year, and then to ending the nearly eight-decade-long British drought at Wimbledon last summer.

Of course, the great irony in any discussion about coaching in tennis is that it is not even allowed during competition. The mano-a-mano ethic runs deep in the sport. Boxers may get coached up in the corner, but tennis players have to figure it out on their own.

Which is why Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, two of the fiercest warriors on tour, are my favorites in Melbourne.

The five-time champion Williams has been so dominant the past couple of years that her main rivals, such as two-time defending champ Victoria Azarenka and 2008 winner Sharapova, could hire Martina Navratilova, Chrissie Evert, Steffi Graf, and Margaret Court (the only women with more majors than Serena’s 17), and it probably wouldn’t make much difference. The only person who can beat Serena right now is Serena, whether through waning focus or health.

As for the No. 1-ranked Nadal, he had an incredible comeback year in 2013 after spending months on the sideline with injury, winning an eighth French Open, a second U.S. Open and deservedly player of the year honors. With Murray still returning to full strength after back surgery and Federer showing inconsistent form, Nadal’s main obstacle to winning a second title Down Under will be Djokovic, who will be gunning for a fourth straight title and fifth overall.

With two players this close, perhaps coaching will make the difference. If that’s the case, I’ll still take Uncle Toni over Boom Boom.