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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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WIMBLEDON: Novak Djokovic Beats Roger Federer, Wins Title, Ends Career, Um, Crisis?

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When Novak Djokovic was younger and still on the outskirts of greatness, he was always known for his melodrama. It was one overplayed ailment after another. And the crowd in New York booed him, and Andy Roddick apparently punched him, or close. And in Australia, where he ran to the bathroom during a match and his opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was asked when he noticed something was wrong with Djokovic. Tsonga replied, “Five years ago.”

Times have changed, and respect has grown, but I’m having difficulty accepting the new narrative that Djokovic’ career was in some sort of crisis. He is 27, has reached the heights of his profession that few have reached. He has done it by winning his fair share against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, possibly the two greatest players of all time. He has made an insane amount of money, won an insane amount of matches, had an insane amount of fun. And he’s about to get married and become a father.

That ain’t a crisis. But Djokovic beat Federer Sunday to win Wimbledon in a classic, 6-7 (9-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 6-4. And when it was over, Djokovic said this:

“At this time in my career, for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row. I started doubting, of course, a little bit. I needed this win a lot.”

Djokovic did not NEED this win. Not for his legacy, which was already set for greatness, and not for the confidence to win more majors. He was always going to win more. This match is the defining moment of Djokovic’ career, but not because it pulled him out of some imaginary hole. It is because he finally beat Federer the Great in an epic Wimbledon final.

It was the guy he beat, the way he kept getting back up and the place he did it. All of that combined.

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To be honest, the narrative on Federer is wrong, too. He’s 32, and people saw this as his last, best chance to win another major.

Wrong. Federer has finally found confidence now that he finally — FINALLY — switched to a modern racquet that gives him more power and allows him to fend off those who are crushing the ball at him. He is going to have to get more comfortable hitting forehands with it, but the point is that he has plenty more runs at majors in him now.

God knows how many majors Federer threw away by stubbornly sticking with that ancient, outdated stick.

The thing is, Federer looked more confident these past two weeks than he has in a few years. I doubt he feels this was his last chance. Djokovic’ brain was telling him that he was in crisis.

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WIMBLEDON: Rafael Nadal Losing to Nick Kyrgios not as Shocking as it Looks. Losing to Roger Federer Would be the Shock

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Nick Kyrgios is just 19 years old. He isn’t ranked in the top 140. As of a week ago, he’d won just one match this year above tennis’ minor leagues. He didn’t earn his way into Wimbledon, but instead got in with a freebie, a wildcard.

And of course, the No. 1 player hadn’t lost in a major to anyone outside the top 100 in 22 years. So people are seeing Rafael Nadal’s 7-6(7-5), 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 loss to Kyrgios Tuesday as a historic upset. But here’s the truth: If you’re stunned that that kid was able to beat Nadal, then you just haven’t been paying attention.

The much more stunning thing would be if Roger Federer beat Nadal.

“I was not able to read his serve during the whole match,” Nadal said. “At the end on grass, the resume is that. I was not able to read his serve.”

Luckily, thanks to my inner-Uncle Toni, I’m here with the checklist of Nadal’s problems. Some are fixable, some have to be worked around. The list includes Nadal’s knees, his grips, his positioning and his brain.

Other than that, he’s still good to go.

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WIMBLEDON: One Player Still Scared of Serena Williams: It’s Serena Williams

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Serena Williams’ fear factor isn’t gone. It has just found a new victim. She isn’t scaring other players anymore. Instead, she’s scaring herself.

It happens. Your name, your history, your age, your reputation, your legacy. It can pile up and be frightening This is my take, anyway, from watching her lose 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Saturday to Alize Cornet in the third round at Wimbledon.

That makes three majors this year, and Williams hasn’t even made it to the quarterfinals of any of them. She has a serious problem, and deep down, she realizes it. Most likely, that’s what’s scaring her.

After losing at Australia, somehow it slipped out that she had an injury and almost didn’t play. At the French? Well, that’s her worst surface. At Wimbledon?

Sorry, no more excuses. Not there, where Williams has won five titles and Cornet is still figuring out how to play on grass.

What stood out about this match was Williams’ complete lack of joy, even when things were going well. Never one smile, never even an upbeat hint of body language. There was emotion, anger, near tears. Williams looked as if she just did not want to be there.

That might be the scariest thing of all.

This is a stepladder going down for Williams. The shocking losses the past year have built up and gradually led everyone, Serena and the other players on tour, to the next step. The message is this: Serena can be beat. Over the past few months, we saw her opponents start to believe. Williams’ ability to bully was fading.

But in this match, it looked as if Williams had taken another step down. It is not just that her opponents believe they can beat her, but also that Williams is afraid to lose.

Martina Navratilova used to talk about this as she got older. She’d say that younger players could swing away without fear, that they didn’t grasp how big things are or what could go wrong.

Even Roger Federer, who, at 32 is the same age as Williams, said on ESPN Saturday that when you get older, the losses seem to be bigger. The important thing, he said, is that you continue to believe that the outcome of your matches is in your hands, on your racquet. Not on your opponents’. He said he feels that way and is sure Williams does, too.

I think Williams is grappling with this entire formula. Part of her still seems to think that sooner or later, she will win these matches. But part of her can’t figure out why her opponents aren’t eventually buckling.

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Tennis Finally Wakes up, Accepts Gate-Crasher Bollettieri into Party

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

At Wimbledon last year, I met with Nick Bollettieri and we talked about his two favorite subjects: tennis and, well, Nick Bollettieri. I told him that I’d done what a lot of journalists do in advance with famous people: I’d already written his obituary.

It should be an unsettling thing for a man in his 80s to hear, but Bollettieri just shook my hand and said, “Thanks. You’re going to need to write it again.’’

I love that. He wasn’t done yet.

Bollettieri has always been part-huckster, part-builder of tennis champions, and the first part of that turned off enough people that they didn’t notice the second part, or just didn’t want to. Despite developing the greatest generation of tennis champions, and defining a model the world would copy, he somehow managed to be seen as tennis’ gate-crasher.

He couldn’t even get into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Until he was voted in this week.

Whatever you think of Bollettieri’s methods or his carnival-barker mentality, it is just such an ugly reflection on tennis that it took so long for him to be honored. By now, you’d think this sport would have learned, would have welcomed people who don’t look like they belonged in tennis’ past. Or sound like it. Or act like it. Or worse: have the pedigree for it.

Shame on tennis for taking so long with Bollettieri.

The trend today is to sign with a coach who has won majors as a player. The more majors, the better. Andy Murray finally won his majors after signing Ivan Lendl, and next thing you knew, Roger Federer signed Stefan Edberg, Novak Djokovic had Boris Becker. Even Kei Nishikori had Michael Chang and Marin Cilic had Goran Ivanisevic.

Here’s one thing to remember: The best player in the world, Rafael Nadal, is coached by. . .

Uncle Toni.

This trend to ex-champs as coaches isn’t going to produce the results players are expecting.

Bollettieri was not a great player. He was not a tour player. To be honest, I don’t really even think he was much of a player at all, though he did play briefly in college.

It’s pure snobbery that it took so long to recognize Bollettieri, who developed Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and others who reached No. 1.

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Being honest, I think he changed things, too, when he went so crazy with Anna Kournikova. She is criticized unfairly, by the way, despite her incredible work ethic making her a top 10 player in a tough era. The problem is, she made a lot of people a lot of money without ever having won a tournament. And now, the premium is on good-looking young girls who can be groomed into top, marketable, players.

That’s sort of sickening, actually.

But back to Bollettieri. Take a look at who makes the best baseball managers. It’s not usually the best former players, but instead the ones who studied the game, who had to truly understand it. It’s the ones who had to find every last angle to make it to the top, or close to it.

I’ll take a career backup catcher as a manager any day. Of course, Bollettieri never even reached that height on the court.

Who cares? It was his vision that found a way to get to the sport’s mountaintop. Again and again.

He founded the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla. in 1978, and his idea was to take the top prospects, put them all together and have them fight each other on the court all day, all night. He is no strategic genius, but did push a new attacking style, from inside the baseline with a massive forehand.

He eventually sold the Academy to IMG, and it has grown into something massive, as shown here in this recent piece by Christopher Clarey in The New York Times. The story also points out that it took a big lobbying effort to get Bollettieri into the Hall this time, from Agassi, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Chris Evert, who all wrote letters to the election panel pushing for him.

He started his first tennis camp with the help of Vince Lombardi. Bollettieri was a tennis instructor at a hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 70s, and Lombardi would come there to play golf. He stopped by the tennis courts one day and told Bollettieri that he was good working with kids, and should do more of it.

Later, when Bollettieri’s career wasn’t going well, he called Lombardi, who helped him to set up a tennis camp in Beaver Dam, Wis.

His Academy was tennis’ first tennis factory, and that led to plenty of criticism. Agassi and Courier, among others, would have a falling out with Bollettieri over his militaristic style. Eventually, they came back into the fold.

So he certainly wasn’t without controversy. But 82 years old, and his plan has led to double-digit players reaching No. 1 in the world. He’s looking to develop another one, too, so he can alter his obituary yet again.

I’ll already have to change one part in his now: The gate-crasher has finally been accepted.


Maui Vacation Refreshing. Davis Cup, Fed Cup Stale

This is where I live, in Chicagoland: 20140217_165553-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is where I went for a while, to Maui: 20140227_182652

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t tell you how bad I feel that this is what I missed:

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Yes, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, the two best American women, representing the U.S. in Federation Cup play against Italy. You can see it clearly right there in the ad.

And it wasn’t just that, but also the whole national team season of Fed Cup and Davis Cup. I missed Switzerland against Serbia in Davis Cup, too. Imagine that: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic.

I missed it all.

OK, so tennis fans already know what I actually missed:

Nothing.

It was just after the Australian Open, and Djokovic pulled out. He was criticized, all but called a traitor, so Serbia lost. Williams and Stephens pulled out, too, so the U.S. lost to Italy’s best. No, that isn’t right. A bunch of backup Americans lost to a bunch of the Italian backups’ backups.

And what did that prove exactly?

Meanwhile, fans had already bought tickets based on the marketing of Serena and Sloane. And fans can’t just pull out. Their money was locked in on a bait-and-switch. I’ve written before that tennis fans need a Bill of Rights, but I’ll get back to that some other time.

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame Williams, Stephens or Djokovic for pulling out. Why on earth would anyone play these things anymore?

The International Tennis Federation has rendered Davis Cup almost entirely irrelevant because it is so out of touch with the times. I’m sorry, but Bill Tilden vs. the Four Musketeers has come and gone.

Tennis is already an international head-to-head event every week all year long. The only thing the ITF has going as a carrot to lure top players to Davis Cup now is that it can guilt them into doing it.

This is just such an easy fix. Tennis can turn these things into two-week World Cup events. Bring all the countries together in one session in one place, play matches two out of three sets, and turn it into a tournament.

I’ve railed on this before, and an ITF official told me it wouldn’t work because there are countries whose entire tennis federation budget comes from low-level Davis Cup ties. Even Argentina, I was told, got its entire puny $2 million a year budget that way.

Fine. Then let the lower levels play things the way they are now in an attempt to qualify for the World Cup of Tennis. There has to be some way to make this interesting in a modern era. If you’re trying to grow the game, and add fans, you can’t do it with such a complicated event.

Who wants to follow a season that runs one week now, one week in a few months, one week a few months after that, with losers splintering off into multi-tiered loser brackets along the way?

No one has that kind of an attention span anymore.

But if you put the top countries together in a World Cup, then you can cut out two weeks from top players’ schedules. Twice that, actually, when you consider all the travel and practice time that would be saved.

Players are always complaining about the season being too long. And it is grueling. With a World Cup of Tennis, you shorten the season and more importantly:

You have an event that fans could really get behind. It would be seen as another major. Players could rest with the extra time off, and would have to give up only two weeks a year for Davis Cup. They’d do it. And general sports fans could understand it.

Which would make advertisers happy. Which would make TV happy.

Even better, tennis could actually use some of the time saved to add something it really needs.

A major in Asia.

But whatever. The ITF thinks it knows better. And that’s why we got matches such as Roger Federer vs. some guy named Ilija Bozoljac and Stan Wawrinka vs. Dusan Lajovic to determine whether Switzerland or Serbia is better at tennis.

Really?

Maybe Serena and Sloane will be back in April when the U.S. plays France in a World Group playoff – loser’s bracket — with the purpose only of being in the winner’s bracket in 2015?

Don’t count on it. I’m thinking Williams is more likely to be in Maui.


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: From Valedictorians to Class Clowns, Here are Grades for the Year’s First Major

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Genie Bouchard. Next.

Genie Bouchard. Next.

We got an inspirational new champion, a re-invented former champion, a few possible future champions and then, well, failure and theater of the absurd. Really, Australian Open officials? It’s OK to have players out there in 110 degree heat because people used to chase antelope in Africa?

WHAT?

So here are the final grades for the Australian Open, of valedictorians, teacher’s pets, class clowns and everything in between.

VALEDICTORIANS

LI NA: In a sport in need of mainstream attention, Li not only gives tennis something every sport dreams of – something to market to the massive population and economy of China – but also a post-championship match victory speech that goes viral. As a result, Li might be the most important player in the women’s game today, maybe even more than Serena Williams. Li was able to win the Australian Open without beating a top player, but that’s not her fault. Eight months ago, with her results failing and the Chinese media ripping her, Li nearly retired. Her work with new coach Carlos Rodriguez has helped the sport big time. Grade: A+

STAN WAWRINKA: Wawrinka’s championship was even more impressive than Li Na’s, considering the tougher competition he had to beat. He spent the past few years thinking he was never going to be able to break through the Big Four in men’s tennis, but finding honor in getting up after every defeat to keep fighting anyway. And then he took down Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. You can’t win two major tennis matches by fluke. He earned this. Grade: A+

TEACHER’S PETS

ANA IVANOVIC: The game has just been waiting for her to get her nerve back. And she came out firing again. She beat Serena Williams, not to mention Sam Stosur, and showed that she’s perfectly capable of being a top 10 player again and a threat to win another major. . .if she keeps believing. Grade A-

ROGER FEDERER: New racquet, new coach (Stefan Edberg), new, aggressive gameplan. Same results? Federer lost to Rafael Nadal again. Well, that is a completely unfair analysis. Federer is finally doing all the right things. It is the only way he’s going to win another major, and he finally seems to realize that. It’s not just that he’s coming to the net, but that he’s trying to step into the ball and attack. Sure, he waffled on it against Nadal. This is all new to Fed. It was a GREAT first step. I was starting to watch him and wonder who he’d lose to next while slicing and dinking. Now, I can’t wait to see him. He still can’t beat Nadal, but he now is a threat to win another major or two. He still has game. He even has a legit shot at the French Open. Grade: A

DOMINIKA CIBULKOVA: Hard to know if Cibulkova just changed her career, but remember this: She came into the Australian Open as a known choker. She left with wins over No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 6 Aga Radwanska and No. 11 Simona Halep before reaching the final. Forgive her for some nerves early in her first major final. That happens. The thing about women’s tennis is that there are only a couple of superstars. The women’s players are sort of cookie-cutter, and if someone with talent and nerves of steel comes along, then it’s going to take a top player playing well to beat her. Hope is that this won’t be Cibulkova’s Melanie Oudin-moment, and that she’ll have found her nerve for the long run. Grade: A+

ACED THE CLASS, FLUNKED THE FINAL

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Aga Radwanska plays brilliantly, wins

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

AGA RADWANSKA: She might have played the match of the tournament in beating Victoria Azarenka. She was everywhere on the court, with just enough power. Azarenka was flustered and confused. And the media hailed Radwanska as a genius for that match. But in her semifinal match against Dominika Cibulkova, Radwanska played as if she had had a lobotomy. I’m not even sure Radwanska tried. When things weren’t working, she kept doing them. There was no hint of strategy. This is the problem with the almost-greats. You see incredible things, and then you are reminded why they don’t reach the mountaintop (see Tomas Berdych). Same thing happened with Radwanska at Wimbledon. So what’s the grade? Well, I think she’s good enough to win a major, and marketable enough to be a star. And that semifinal match was so bad, I can barely remember the Azarenka match. Grade: F.

TOMAS BERDYCH: He reached the semifinals, and then smiled and credited his team when he was told that he had become the only current player outside the Big Four to reach the semis of all four majors. Hey Tomas, that’s not really a compliment. Another way of putting it: You are the only player on tour to reach the semis of all four majors, but never win one. Berdych is adding topspin to his forehand, which is being credited for his recent improved play. I don’t know about that. That flat forehand was the reason he was winning matches. The way he fell apart briefly against David Ferrer in the quarters was shocking. Lost his nerve at moments against Stan Wawrinka in the semis, too, but in hindsight, it’s hard to mark him down too far for losing to the champ. One more thing: there was nothing wrong with Berdych’s much-criticized prison-cell shirts, other than his team was wearing them, too. Grade: B

DAVID FERRER: When he lost to Berdych in the quarters in what I’m calling the Bridesmaid Bowl, he lost his unofficial title as best player never to win a major. He pushed the line judge, too, but at least he isn’t hitting balls into the stands at crying babies anymore. Still fighting hard. Still stuck in the land of almost. Maybe Wawrinka’s win will show him what’s possible. Grade: C

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