Saturday, 23 June 2012

The First Time I Spotted Novak Djokovic

Hi Novak,

You asked what was the first match which I saw you play and made me remember you as a player. Well, it was definitely sometime during the 2010 US Open, in one of the early rounds. I'm actually not sure which match it was, because what made me pay attention to you at the first place wasn't a match at all. It was a press conference that you gave on day 2, and that was replayed on television as a part of the day's summary.

Here it is:

(The shot they were talking about is this)

After watching that, I had to catch your next match. By the time you reached the semifinals, and saved two match points there for the first time, I was already fully rooting for you, and the rest, as they say, is history :)

Weeks in White - Wimbledon Predictions

The unprecedented success of my predictions for the Wimbledon 2012 draw (about half of them are sort of maybe close to the truth, I think), it's time to take on the real thing. As usual, I won't be doing quarter-by-quarter analysis, since you've probably read a dozen of those already. Here are my quick predictions for the following two weeks in white.

  • Viktor Troicki will surprise us all by getting to the 4th round (of course, it won't be such a surprise now that you've read it here)
  • Richard Gasquet will make it to the quarter finals, beating Almagro and Berdych along the way (thankfully preventing any more recollections of the "Handshake-gate").
  • This might not count as too much of an upset, but Fognini will easily beat Llodra.
  • Isner - Mahut III, yes. Same outcome as in 2010 and 2011, too.
  • Young - Youzhny gets an honourable mention because of potentially being shown as "YOU - YOU" on the scoreboard. Young will continue his losing streak, of course, while Youzhny will go on to beat Janko Tipsarevic in the third round.
  • Tipsarevic - Nalbandian will be a quiet affair, and a short one.
  • To the dismay of every tennis fan around the world, Wayne Odesnik will win a Grand Slam match, only to be crushed in the second round by Roddick (or so we hope).
  • Andy Roddick will make it far - round 4, maybe even quarterfinals.
  • We'll get a nice all-Canadian second round, with Milos Raonic beating Vasek Pospisil.
  • Jo Wilfried Tsonga - Bernard Tomic, fourth round. This one should be good. Tsonga will follow that up by beating Rafael Nadal (*gasp*) in the quarterfinals.
  • British players will do well (*double gasp*) - Oli Golding will win a match, James Ward will win two, Andy Murray will be the first British Wimbledon finalist in forever.
  • Semifinals: Djokovic def. Federer, Murray def. Tsonga
  • Finals: Djokovic def. Murray

Friday, 22 June 2012

Preparing for the Wimbledon Draw

In less than 12 hours, we will know all we need to know about the draws of The Championships, Wimbledon 2012. Here are some facts* and figures to prepare you for that momentous event:

  • Djokovic and Federer will be in the same half of the draw (you can read all about it not being a conspiracy), as will Azarenka and Radwanska.
  • Rafael Nadal will get a cakewalk draw (a.k.a. he'll be a combined 97-5 against his possible opponents, half of them Spanish), while Djokovic and Federer will have tricky seeds in their section.
  • No, wait, there's been a mistake. Roger Federer will have a cakewalk draw (combined 112-4 against possible opponents, half of them his fans), while Nadal and Djokovic will get the big servers who are on their way to winning Wimbledon.
  • Oh, excuse me, that was wrong. Djokovic will have a cakewalk draw, littered with qualifiers, wild cards and Serbian players intending on bending over, while Federer and Nadal will have to face the future stars of tennis.
  • Andy Murray will get near him a player who took him to 5 sets in one of the previous Slams. 
  • A top-8 seed will draw Venus Williams in the first or second round. 
  • There will be two sisters drawn to play each other at an early stage.
  • Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki will be drawn too close for comfort to each other.
  • A couple of players who are defending QF points will face each other early. In either draw.
  • Any two of Nalbandian, Hewitt, Roddick and Haas will meet somewhere around round 2.
  • Isner - Mahut were already drawn, don't worry. Yes, of course they're playing each other, it's in the Wimbledon rulebook, isn't it?
Enjoy your weekend, and prepare to curse the Tennis Gods at least 3 times tomorrow. It won't help you, but at least you'll have someone to blame for all this mess!

* Those might not be entirely factual.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Watching Juniors

My first tennis experience of any kind was watching my brother play in his first official tennis tournament when he was 10 years old. Back then, I couldn't distinguish between a forehand and a backhand, but I learned for the first time what it meant frazzling over a tennis match.

More than two years have passed, I got drawn into watching pro tennis and into playing tennis myself, and not only can I now tell a volley from an overhead, I can actually hit both (not too successfully, mind you). One thing I still love to do more than anything, however, is watch Juniors tennis tournaments.

Watching 10, 11, 12 year old kids playing competitive tennis matches is a unique anthropological experience. On one hand, it is very similar to watching real pros play, especially when the kids get a bit older, and can hold long rallies. If you've never seen an under-14 tournament, you might be surprised - the quality of the tennis is often as high as what you're used to seeing on TV. They serve hard, their ground-strokes are well formed, they can hit beautiful winners, they use dropshots and volley well. In fact, I think I've seen all sorts of net exchanges and dropshot-lob combinations more often during junior tournaments than I've seen on TV.

At the same time, those are still children. Every emotion is much more pronounced, you're more likely to see frustration - of any kind. They don't usually smash their racquets like the pros (who can afford it), but the younger kids chuck their racquets away readily. The reactions change somewhat with age - in under-12 tournaments, the predominant self-deprecation is "I'm such a loser", two years later it's "That touch is so horrible" or "What is wrong with my backhand?". The youngsters start analyzing their game when they grow older, and instead of a general negative emotion, those are suddenly specific elements of the game that get the blame.

The most prominent feature of those tournaments, however, is the way in which the juniors deal with the mental part of the game. They pick up on things they see their idols do, and exaggerate them by several folds. When several matches are going on at once, at any given moment you can hear one out of many cheers of encouragement. Here in Israel, they come at any possible language. "Hal'a", "Kadima" are the Hebrew words that usually precede every service motion, then there are "Come on", "Vamos", "Ajde", "Allez" that punctuate a point being won. Those aren't occasional - they are uttered shouted before and after every single point. As the receiver steps to the baseline, he says "Hal'a, come on" - loudly enough for his opponent to hear. A split second later, just before the server tosses the ball, he reciprocates - "Hal'a, kadima!". As soon as the point is over - no matter if it's a winner or an error, someone has won it, and that someone will "Come on" or "Vamos" straight in his opponent's face. The volume grows louder with the progression of the game, the Vamos following 40-0 will be better heard than the one after the 15-0 point. All of this is, naturally, accompanied by prominent fist pumps. Ana Ivanovic's point-winning reactions will seem insignificant in comparison.

Another part of this mental battle is the score calling. As there are no umpires of any kind, the players are supposed to call their score before each serve. What mostly happens, however, is that the first player to shout the score is the one who happens to lead in the game. "0-15, come on, allez," you'll hear from the receiver. Two points later, it's the server who raises his voice - "30-15, kadima, yalla". You missed your first serve? "SECOND," your opponent would kindly let you know. And make no mistake - every error will be cheered, be it a double, a ball in the net or a return that sailed too long. In a way, this forces the juniors to develop a mental toughness much earlier than you would expect. Not only do they need to handle their own mistakes and bad play, they must also withstand those attempts to make them more nervous than they already are.

All of this creates a very special environment during the earlier stages of tournaments. As you sit and watch one match, the cacophony of multi-language cheers joins the sounds of tennis balls being hit all around the grounds. Add the occasional grunt of a girl who can rival Sharapova's finest moments, and for a moment you could forget that the players in front of you are only 12 years of age.

P.S. And my brother? He won today, 4-6 7-5 and 11-9 in the 3rd set super-tiebreak, after trailing 1-7. I couldn't be prouder.