AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Rafael Nadal not just Rusty. Body Broken

It takes a recklessness to be Nadal. It’s not only about running with abandon, but also about throwing everything you have with every single body part into every single motion. It is to push limits, to create energy and adrenaline so powerful that even people watching can feel it. To be Nadal is not to float gracefully like Roger Federer, but to storm the court like no one before.

And all of that is to point out one thing: The guy who lost to Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (7-5) Tuesday in the Australian Open quarterfinals? That wasn’t Nadal.

Rafael Nadal warned us. He said he wasn’t ready to win this tournament, that he was rusty from his time away because of injuries. He said Tuesday that reaching the quarters was a good step. But are we supposed to believe his words — and, those of ESPN’s analysts who think he just needs practice — or our own eyes? Because what I saw was this:

Nadal’s body is broken. It’s amazing he lasted this long, to 28. How long would your car last going pedal to the metal all the time?

 

“I am feeling OK,” he told reporters. “Just was not my day. I didn’t play with the right intensity, with the right rhythm. And the opponent played better than me.”

But you were rubbing your hamstrings. And you took some sort of medicine during the third set.

“Yeah, happened nothing,” he said. “I am feeling well. That’s it.”

Truth: Nadal hates it that people think he blames injury for losses. More truth: Injury was the reason for this loss.

Well, actually I don’t think it was injury, though that’s how Darren Cahill portrayed it. Maybe he’s right. I hope he’s right. But I suspect this is just Nadal’s normal state now. He has put his body through torture for so long.

But the problem against Berdych wasn’t rust or timing. Nadal can’t change directions on a dime — as

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Venus Williams Getting Her Farewell Run? No Way (I Think)

The tennis gods like to give aging superstars one last good-bye run. Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras. It’s a graceful way out. And it’s something about luck mixed with wringing out the last drops of greatness mixed with making adjustments to account for what has been lost.

Everything sort of comes together at the same time. And that brings me to Venus Williams, who is suddenly relevant again, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after beating sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska Monday 6-3, 2-6, 6-1. Williams was excellent, awful, excellent. In that order.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure this is a one-last-run thing. Someone forgot to tell Venus this is her farewell tour. That’s what I was thinking it was.

Now I’m thinking it’s her comeback tour. But know this: I could be way off. It’s too close to tell.

“For me, it’s all about the title,” Williams, who’s 34, told ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez, who had asked about her feelings of getting deep into a major again. “It’s not about a good showing anymore. I’m past that time.”

Venus, who hasn’t been this deep in a major since 2010, doesn’t understand the nostalgia.

It’s just hard to know exactly what we’re seeing. It might be luck: The first top player she faced in Australia is Radwanska, one of the few high-ranked players Williams can overpower.

And maybe her body is just in a good cycle now with her Sjogren’s syndrome, which steals her energy. Her fight against that is permanent.

Or she might have found the right diet and medication. Or, she could take the court against Madison

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Twirlgate Just for Show? Calling BS on Billie Jean King’s Sexism Claim

 

Maria Sharapova has talked about her passion for fashion, and how she enjoys helping with the designs of the tennis dresses she wears, including the little black tennis dress. Last year, Glamour magazine called her clothes “saucy.” A few years ago, Forbes said she likes “tank dresses with kicky skirts.”

Who can argue with that? And who can forget Serena Williams’ catsuit? I was at the Australian Open a few years ago when Venus Williams explained that she had designed skin-toned underwear for a natural look.

Awkward? You bet. But on Wednesday, Eugenie Bouchard won her match at the Australian Open, and when she did her post-match interview on court for the crowd, she was asked to give “a twirl” to show off her dress.

It is now a fullfledged scandal, with Billie Jean King posting on Twitter that the request to twirl was “out of line. This is truly sexist. If you ask the women, you have to ask the men to twirl as well.”

Go ahead. Ask Roger Federer to twirl. Ask Rafael Nadal. Ask Andy Murray. You know what? They won’t do it.

Bouchard, and earlier Serena Williams, did because it’s part of women’s tennis.

And God bless King for all she’s done to set a path for girls, including my daughter, with Title IX and the women’s tour. But on this one, I’m calling BS. She’s coming off like Al Sharpton, looking for any opportunity — genuine or not — to push the cause.

Look, it was an uncomfortable request, yes. It’s an unfamiliar balance, too, that the tour is selling. Bouchard, 20, is one of the best tennis players in the world. But the truth is, if this is a serious issue of sexism, then it’s not about what some guy asked Bouchard to do to show off her dress.

If there is need to change, then the women’s tour needs to take a hard look at what the women’s tour is selling.

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Roger Federer Falls Flat. Age Doesn’t Have to Look Like This (Yet)

Federer loses to Seppi at Australian Open

Forgive Roger Federer for getting old. It happens, and at this point he can still deal with it. But does that mean he has to be scared and stupid, too?

Federer lost to Andreas Seppi 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (7-5) Friday in the third round of the Australian Open. It was bad enough that he said his body didn’t feel right and he didn’t know why. Then, he moved around as if his shoes weighed 25 pounds. The truth is, he didn’t move right in the second round, either.

Whatever. He’s 33 and there will be days like this now.

But when Andre Agassi got old and his legs wouldn’t straighten and he’d stumble over the paint on the baseline, he actually moved in even tighter to the baseline and cut off all angles to reduce running.

He dealt with it and figured out how to win a little longer. Federer? He panicked. Before Friday, he had been getting used to a new, modern racquet and developed a more aggressive style with Coach Stefan Edberg.

Well, what happened to that guy?

“It was just an overall feeling I had today that I couldn’t really get the whole game flowing. . .” he told reporters. “I think that was because overall I wasn’t feeling it quite as well. I had to play it a little bit passively at times when normally I would play aggressive.”

John McEnroe and Chris Evert were both on ESPN talking about what happens when a great player starts to get old: You have inexplicably bad days when your body just won’t do what it’s supposed to. They were having flashbacks in Federer’s match.

But they were remembering an advanced stage of tennis aging. Federer

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Tennis has Smyczek’s Moment of Sportsmanship, NFL has Deflategate. Which One Do We Really Respect?

Tim Smyczek

Four hours into the fight Wednesday, Tim Smyczek, Packers fan from Milwaukee, was sticking with Rafael Nadal, greatest player of all time, at the Australian Open. It was one of those moments when you reach heights that. . .”He was sick and not playing well,” Smyczek said, trying to ruin the story.

Whatever. Nadal led 6-5, 30-love, fifth set. He tossed to serve and someone in the crowd screamed. It distracted him and he missed wildly. And then what? Here’s what: Smyczek secretly took the ball, stuffed it in his pocket, reached down and popped a hole in the seam with his fingernail. The ball turned to mush, which meant that it wouldn’t bounce much, negating Nadal’s wicked topspin.

Smygate! The American way! No wait. That’s not what happened. Smyczek didn’t Belichick the ball at all. What really happened was this: He told the chair umpire to let Nadal hit his first serve again. A do-over was not required under the rules. Nadal then served again and won the point. A few minutes later, Nadal won 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (7-2), 6-3, 7-5.

Sportmanship lives. Smyczek did it at risk to his career moment. It was the right thing, wasn’t it? Because it stands in such stark contrast to the big story in sports today: the New England Patriots deflating 11 of the 12 footballs used in the AFC title game, theoretically to fit better into the small hands of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

“What he did at the end of the fifth was just amazing,” Nadal said afterward, talking about Smyczek, not New England coach Bill Belichick. “Very few players can do that after four hours. . .He’s a great example, what he did today.”

This is about who we are and whether what we respect and believe in

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: The Myth of Sloane and ESPN’s Role in It

 

 

Sloane Stephens’ arrival was always a myth. That’s the cold truth. American tennis is so desperate for something to hold on to that Stephens was promoted from prospect to arrival to star even though none of that ever really happened.

That’s not her fault, though she seems to have believed in the Myth of Sloane And now, it’s too late to go back to being a prodigy.

She lost to Victoria Azarenka for the third year in a row at the Australian Open. This time, it was 6-3, 6-2 in the first round. And while people are openly wondering what went wrong with Stephens, I can tell you this:

Nothing went wrong. She has not gone backward. She is the same player she always was. She is just standing still, unable to climb the last step to the top that her current critics/former supporters pretended as if she had climbed two years ago. Why did they pretend? It was a sales pitch meant to help them, not to reflect on Stephens.

She is not a young quarterback who won the Super Bowl, but never went back. She didn’t win 20 games as a rookie Major League pitcher and then fizzle out. She has never won a tournament. Not a major, not a minor.

Never.

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WIMBLEDON: That Wasn’t an End for Roger Federer. It was the Start of his Agassi Phase

 

We are too fast to bring in the next generation, and now, in the case of Roger Federer, too quick to kick out the old.

So many people have characterized Federer’s five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final Sunday as his last, best chance. I have something to say about that:

No. Way. Where most people saw the end for Federer, I saw a beginning. Federer is now moving into what I’ll call the Agassi Phase of his career. The Agassi Phase is a time when someone finds another gear, another avenue, another strategy and another wind beyond the time when age says it’s possible. Andre Agassi did it, re-inventing himself and reaching the U.S. Open final when he was 35, when his back was such a mess and his legs so beaten down that it looked like he was tripping over the paint on the baseline while trying to run down a forehand. Agassi crowded the baseline and cut off all angles so he wouldn’t have to run much.

A prediction: Federer, who is 32, will now be among the handful of top favorites again at the majors for another two years, and an outside favorite for another year after that. Last year, he never had a shot.

Welcome back to the top of the mountain, new old Roger. Or, old new Roger. Whichever.

Federer’s re-invention didn’t involve duct-taping broken parts back together, the way Agassi had to do it. Federer can still run just fine, though not as fast as he used to. In the fifth set Sunday, Federer was in better physical condition than Djokovic, who’s 27. Federer’s body is also in better shape than the 20-something bodies of Rafael Nadal (sore back, lost a step), and Andy Murray (back surgery).

It’s about making changes and adjusting to realities. As of 10 months ago, I didn’t think Federer had it in him. Oh, he had the skills, but I thought he was too stubborn to

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