Monday 31 October 2011

2011 ATP World Tour Awards Nominations

Every year, during the World Tour Finals, the ATP presents outstanding players of the year with several possible awards.

Two of the awards are determined by year-end ranking - the No. 1 Singles Player, which will go to Novak Djokovic, and the No. 1 Doubles Team, the winner of which is still undetermined as of today.

Most of the awards are based on the players' own votes. Here are the different awards, the nominations, and my picks for them:

Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award

According to the ATP, this award is given to "the player who, throughout the year, conducted himself at the highest level of professionalism and integrity, who competed with his fellow players with the utmost spirit of fairness and who promoted the game through his off-court activities."
In 2011, the nominees are Djokovic, Federer (won it for 6 straight years - 2004-2009), Nadal (won in 2010) and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, and I'll let my loyal readers guess who my pick is ;)

Most Improved Player of the Year

This award is given to the player who had the most significant leap in the rankings, and who showed a great improvement in his on-court performance during the last year. The nominees, with their ranking a year ago and today, are: Alex Bogomolov Jr. (166/36), Mardy Fish (16/8), Kei Nishikori (98/31), Janko Tipsarevic (49/13).
Those are all very worthy nominations, in my opinion (as opposed to some of the other categories), and I could make a case for each and every one of them. Though my heart lies firmly with Janko, my pick is Alex Bogomolov Jr., whose sudden career-best performance at age 28, after almost quitting the pro career for a coaching job, is probably the most inspiring of them all. It's worth mentioning that only one of those (Nishikori) is a young player - the others are of age 28, 29 and 27, respectively.

Newcomer of the Year

This is a similar award, but given to new faces on the tour. The nominees and their rankings changes are: Matthew Ebden (196/79), Ryan Harrison (173/75), Milos Raonic (156/28), Bernard Tomic (208/42).
In my opinion, it's a bit of a toss between Harrison and Raonic - the former has much more to improve, while the latter reached better results, but with a slightly one-dimensional game. However, my pick goes to Milos Raonic, who could reach even higher if not for the unfortunate injury at Wimbledon that hampered the second half of his season. His final in Memphis against Andy Roddick left a lasting impression on me, even if he ended up losing it by a narrow margin.

Comeback Player of the Year

This award is given to a player who came back from a long lasting injury, and reinstated himself at the top of the rankings. The nominees and their ranking are: Juan Martin del Potro (258/15), Gilles Muller (134/49), Gilles Simon (41/12), Dmitry Tursunov (197/39).
First of all, I have absolutely no idea why Simon is even on that list, since he wasn't even sidelined with an injury, as far as I know. While this is indeed a comeback closer to the top-10 ranking he had in 2008, it's hardly the same as Del Potro or Tursunov who deserve this award much more. Once again, I'm not sure which one I'd pick, since most of the arguments are relevant to both, but I think that Del Potro has a slight edge here, and my pick goes to him.

Two additional awards are given by the ATP themselves - the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award and the Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award (given to a journalist, not a player). Here, we don't have a list of candidates to consider.

The last two awards will be based on fan votes. You are encouraged to cast your vote (*cough*for Novak*cough*) on the ATP's Facebook page. Roger Federer (2003-2010) and the Bryan Brothers (2005-2010) won those awards since practically forever ;)

The nominations for favourite singles player are:
Nicolas Almagro,
Marcos Baghdatis,
Tomas Berdych,
Juan Martin Del Potro,
Novak Djokovic, 
Alexandr Dolgopolov,
Roger Federer,
David Ferrer,
Mardy Fish,
Richard Gasquet,
Lleyton Hewitt,
John Isner,
Jurgen Melzer,
Gael Monfils,
Andy Murray,
Rafael Nadal,
David Nalbandian,
Kei Nishikori,
Milos Raonic,
Andy Roddick,
Gilles Simon,
Robin Soderling,
Janko Tipsarevic,
Viktor Troicki,
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga,
Dmitry Tursunov,
Fernando Verdasco,
Stanislas Wawrinka.

The nominations for favourite doubles team are:
Bob Bryan/Mike Bryan
Michael Llodra/Nenad Zimonjic
Max Mirnyi/Daniel Nestor
Mahesh Bhupathi/Leander Paes
Jurgen Melzer/Philipp Petzschner
Robert Lindstedt/Horia Tecau
Rohan Bopanna/Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi
Eric Butorac/Jean-Julien Roger
Mariusz Fyrstenberg/Marcin Matkowski
John Isner/Sam Querrey
Marcelo Melo/Bruno Soares
Jonathan Erlich/Andy Ram

You can see the list of previous years' winners right here. Who would you pick this time?

Sunday 23 October 2011

Ajde Srbija!

If anyone had any doubts about the effect of winning the 2010 Davis Cup on the Serbian players, today those doubts were surely put to rest. Interestingly, it has (for once) nothing to do with Novak Djokovic.

In a first all-Serbian ATP tour final ever, Janko Tipsarevic won the Kremlin Cup with a convincing 6-4 6-2 over his friend Viktor Troicki, clinching his second title of the month, year, and career.

Troicki, who has lost 7 out of 9 matches before coming to Moscow, went on a good run as the defending champion of the tournament, including a tough 3:38 hours match in the quarterfinals against Alex Bogomolov Jr.

Meanwhile, Tipsarevic lost both first rounds following his first title in Kuala Lumpur, earlier this month. He, too, bounced back in Moscow, losing only the first set on his way to the title, and beating three Russian opponents during the week.

The top two seeds had a nervous match, but in the end - the trophy passed from one Serb to another, with both players hugging and smiling.

2011 hasn't yet ended, and Serbia already has 12 ATP tour titles in its posession. Starting their year ranked #3, #28 and #49, the Serbian trio of Djokovic, Troicki and Tipsarevic are now #1, #17 and #13, and going upwards. Will they join Spain in having two top-10 players by the end of the year? In about a month, we'll know the answer to that question.

P.S. Meanwhile, Djokovic does this:

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Poll: Who has the best hair on the ATP?

Today, as I was watching a stream of a Spanish TV program hosting David Ferrer, I wondered aloud (read: on twitter) whether he was the player with the best hair on tour. I quickly got some responses telling me about some other players who are sure candidates in the category. So obviously, I decided to create a poll checking this very important question.

The choices are basically all the Top 5 + suggestions I got on twitter, so don't be surprised if your idea of the perfect hair isn't on here - just tell us who you think it is in the comments!

On to the poll:

Who has the best hair on the ATP?
 Novak Djokovic
 Rafael Nadal
 Andy Murray
 Roger Federer
 David Ferrer
 Gael Monfils
 Janko Tipsarevic
 Viktor Troicki
 Feliciano Lopez
 Juan Monaco
 Nicolas Mahut
 Fernando Verdasco (Before he cut it)
 Fernando Verdasco (After he cut it)
 Other (Tell us who, in the comments section!) free polls 
Cast your votes now!

Thursday 13 October 2011

"Amen Sela" - An Interview With Dudi Sela

I haven't blogged for a long time, even though I didn't really take a break from watching tennis since the US Open ended. What woke me up from my blogging hibernation was an interview that Dudi Sela gave to the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot. I found it quite interesting and refreshing, and I bring the full translation here.

Dudi Sela leaves for the USA. No, not for good, only to get a good serve at his career, which suddenly dropped from the top to a flop. A moment before boarding the plane, Israel's No. 1 tennis player explains why the following year will be crucial for him, and what it has to do with a note he got from the psychologist. And he also talks to the [female] fans in the stands: Don't bother - there's already one Lady Racquet who fills his life.

There are nights when Dudi Sela wakes up and doesn't know where he is. It doesn't have to be a hotel, the name of which he can't remember, in a city where he had been two months ago, and where he'll return three months later. Sometimes it happens when he sleeps in his apartment in Tel Aviv. "I get up to use the bathroom, open the door and walk into the closet," he says with a smile embarrassed enough to make you believe he's telling the truth. 

How many nights in a year you don't sleep in your own bed?
"Something like seven months."

And how many of those are in shitty hotels?
"Today I already arrive at good hotels. When you enter the top 100, your life gets drastically better. But there was a time when I used to come to places where you look at the room and don't believe it. All kinds of holes in Russia, where you stand in the shower and have to press the shower-head to every corner of your body in order to feel a little bit of water. In moments like that, you're asking yourself 'What the fuck am I doing here'. There are players that get stuck until they're 30 at the limbo of the #250 rank. A lot of them are very good players, and they just can't make it out of there. In those cases you don't make a lot of money, and if at the end of such a day you arrive to a hotel which you wouldn't suggest to a cockroach, the thoughts start to play tricks with your mind. It can drive you crazy."

Were you close to going crazy?
All in all, I came out of those [ranking] areas pretty quickly, but at the beginning of my way I was close to despair. I was just 19, injured for a long period, didn't have a penny to my name, and no one helped me financially. I was really close to throwing it all away. Today when I think about it, I break out in a cold sweat. How did it even cross my mind to quit the thing I love the most in the world?

And what do you love, besides tennis?
Nothing? You're practically Moshe Sinai.
"Sinai the footballer? Why?"
When he was about your age, they asked him what he likes apart from football. He answered in half a second: 'English football'.
"So ask me again what I love besides tennis."
What do you love besides tennis?
Professional tennis.

The only times I cried

And indeed, to be Dudi Sela you have to love both tennis and professional tennis. Precisely because he doesn't hang out in Novak Djokovic's neighbourhood, precisely because his career is a very extreme roller-coaster, precisely because there are sometimes weekends like the Davis Cup tie against Canada in the last month, which he finished without a breath of air in his lungs or in his soul. And precisely because he knows that with today's tennis, not a lot needs to happen for him to find himself back in the shower-less hotels. Just two years ago Sela reached the 29th place in the world. Think about it for a second. There was one moment when in the whole world there were only 28 people better at what they did than Dudi Sela. In Israel, they celebrated with him for a day or two, and rushed to demand a top 10 ranking. Sela didn't argue. Quite the contrary. He got in the car, and sped up. Straight into the abyss.

"You get such a momentum," he explains, "that you're sure you're unstoppable. You play week after week, they give you respect everywhere, main stadiums, crowds. Everything looks open to you, and on these levels the money is very big. The body and mind tell you that you're pushing it too far, that you need to stop and rest a little, but you don't hear anything, you're feeling high. Until one day, there comes a kid who fears nothing, fights like crazy and beats you. It gives you a little crack in the confidence, and if you go on and lose twice more, then all the power you accumulated during the year is gone."

And that's what happened to you then.
"Yes, I disintegrated completely. When I ended that year, I was finished, and it continued into the next year. In a few months, from the expectation of making it to the top 10, you go down to being 110. You start analyzing and blaming yourself - if you had only missed this tournament or that, if you'd rested for a week, all of this wouldn't have happened. But inside I know - at that point, I'd do the same again. You can't resist the temptation, it's stronger than you."

Is everything about the money?
"Absolutely not. Do you think Roger Federer needs more money?"

No, but Dudi Sela does.
"That's right, I make my living out of it, but I also want to believe that in the end of the day - Federer and I are playing tennis for the same reasons."

You played against him last month. Center court in the US Open, crowds, television, just like you like it. It wasn't a great fight. You lost in 77 minutes.
"Right, I wasn't playing well."

Were you nervous?
"A little bit, but it's not a big deal anymore. There was a time when I couldn't sleep before those matches, today I don't have a problem with it. Also, Federer is a nice guy, he doesn't play dirty tricks on you."

Who does?
"Let it go, they don't deserve the honour. There aren't many who act that way on the tour anymore."

Act how?
"There are sometimes things that happen during warm up and the crowd sees, but doesn't understand. The warm up should be just light hitting for fun, helping each other getting into the groove a bit, nothing more. But there are those that would hit one ball to you, one ball into the corner, one to you, one into the corner, like you're not even there. It's supposed to scare you. Nonsense. In the end, those are the matches that you want to win the most. Precisely in those matches you often find your perfect moment."

What's a 'perfect moment'?
"Sometimes it can be just one shot, after which you understand why someone decided you should be a tennis player. There are moments when you see the ball as big as a basketball. You don't know why this moment comes and why it goes. It's really weird. It's like they gave you a few seconds to touch the sky, in the height of your potential. It happens so rarely, that on one hand - it's very frustrating, but on the other - you're willing to kill yourself to feel it again."

At these moments, do you hear what's happening around you? Do you know the result?
"I hear everything, I even know what's the result on the adjacent court. Those who say they're so focused they can't hear anything are just babbling. I hear all the tsu-tsu-tsu of the crowd. They're not pleased, they don't get why they paid the money. During Davis Cup, for instance, you want to win the most, and you hear people shouting 'Wake up!' What 'wake up', I don't sleep for two weeks because of those matches. It's annoying."

Sela's nerves are still tight about this. In the two weeks after that fight against Canada, for promotion to the World Group, he didn't really sleep. He was expected to win both his matches, to bring two points, but in the first match everything already fell apart. Israel didn't qualify, a lot of it because of him. "I played badly," he admits. "Truth is, I didn't play well for the whole month before that."

Was the pressure too much?
"Not more than usually, but it was the first time that I lost a match I really should have won."

When you enter such a period, when nothing works for you, do you try psychological treatment?
"I'm under treatment now. I've been to psychologists before, and it never helped me. Today I'm working with someone who gets my head in order. I never had superstitions or just some mental routine like many tennis players have, but now I read once in a while a note my psychologist gave me, where I described the biggest dreams I had as a child. Sometimes, there are matches where I'm just not there, I know that I'm not there even before the match. Each match like that kills me for two-three weeks. So this note reminds me that when I was a kid this was my big dream, and now I'm fulfilling it, and I need to be there all the time."

Even at the Davis you weren't there?
"During the Davis I'm always there."

Lucky. You can sometimes not be there when you play hundreds of matches a year. But not being there during Davis Cup, in Israel, you know it's almost unforgivable.
"You're telling me? The only times I cried in my career were after Davis matches. But I learned to live with that pressure. I stay away from talk-backs, I don't read what's written about me. Very few people in the country really understand tennis. Understand what it means playing every week in this sport. I hear so many people who have no clue. How many people in the country know Harel Levi? And that's someone who was 30 in the world. Leave the #30, do you know what it's like being #150 in the world in tennis today? Millions of people dream, try, eat the courts to try and be maybe #100. And here, someone who was #30 doesn't get any of the respect he deserves. Do we have a football player who's 30 in the world? There's no sport culture here, and now - no role models, either. Past players retire and they're not taken to train the juniors, because there's no money for that. How do people want to raise stars here, if nobody invests anything in it?"

Sela will pass the next months in the USA, living close to his brother in Dallas, Texas. He plays most of his tournaments in the land of stripes and stars, and the new base will make it easier for him. "It's better for me in terms of my schedule, and mentally I need some quiet," Sela explains. "It's not that I'm moving there permanently, but people already said to me 'We heard that you're leaving the country'. They like it, because it lets them deal with supposed scandals. It's more interesting than the tennis itself. So what, I start explaining that this is the schedule that I have, that it's more convenient and right for me to be in the US for a few months? It's annoying, but I don't want to deal with it right now. Let them say what they want."

Oh, they're definitely going to say what they want, but Sela's decision to put some distance is justified on every level. The pressure that an international-level Israeli sportsman has to deal with is disproportionate to his colleagues around the world. And Sela knows that he's getting into the most important year in his career, the one after which, or maybe even during which, he'll know whether that moment in the 29th place was something real or just a teasing by the tennis gods. Age 26, in the current reality, is considered almost over the peak. Once, a top tennis player had 6-8 years during which he knew that if he'll keep his fitness and concentration, he could keep his standing in the world ranking. Today that range has diminished considerably. Rafael Nadal is 25, and he might've not passed the peak yet, but he's probably already reached it. Sela, who was ranked 95 when these lines were written, doesn't let this new reality make him despair. "I know I can go back there, be at least in the top 50. I can't explain it, I just know it," he says.

I'm a good boy

Dudi Sela was born in Kiryat Shmona and moved to Tel Aviv at a young age. He's been playing tennis almost since he was born and he always was the one everyone were waiting for, and who took some time to arrive. Until today, he's earned $1.5 million from tennis, he has 12 Challenger titles, and he still dreams about a first Tour-level title.

At his best, Sela is a player who's a pleasure to watch. Energizer with a talent for big shots, which are sometimes lifting-stadiums and are highlights material. But when he's turned off - and his light has been flickering for a while now - he can be frustrating to watch. And it can be much more frustrating being him, knowing your talent is worth more than what your results are expressing. Now, he'll have to make his comeback in the period when the depth of the good players - even if not the best - in pro tennis is almost unprecedented. They're all polished, well programmed machines, looking on him from above. Really from above.

Around Amos Mansdorf, who reached a ranking of #18 in his peak, there was a consensus during the happy 80s that if he had ten more centimeters, maybe even five, he'd surely be a top-ten player. Even today, in retrospective, this consensus still exists. The talent was there, so was the game wisdom, the mental toughness - almost, but a player who's 1.73m tall works so much tougher on every point than tall players, that his body runs out much quicker, and the spirit disappears almost immediately afterwards.

Sela is surely the biggest talent that has been here since Mansdorf, but he, too, is just 1.74m, and the world's top looks like a basketball team compared to him. "In ten years, all the tennis players will be 1.95m or higher, and everyone will be great athletes. Even today, the top 100 has maybe five players below 1.80m. My parents are short, I'm short, but my brother, Ofer, is 1.90m. It drives me crazy. Maybe he's adopted."

And with that disadvantage to begin with, you can find yourself playing in 35 degrees, two sets down, and in front of you stands an ogre with a serve of 230 km/h. Despairing.
"There are situations when you sit between games and you tell yourself 'I'm dying to go home'. And there were matches when I thought that way and won in the end. But I always count upon my physical fitness. Only in the last four years I understood which level of physical commitment you have to achieve. During the off-season I'm working on fitness for four hours a day during two weeks, without touching a racquet. During the season I play four hours of tennis a day, and add to that gym, sprints, I'm ripping myself. It took me time to understand it."

And what do you do when you don't feel like practicing?
"I don't go."

Ah, great.
"It doesn't happen too much, I'm a good boy."

Are you a good boy after losses, as well?
"Usually. In Wimbledon this year I lost a match that I should have won. A good draw, lots of money, I had to win, and I lost. I came down to the locker room and I was so angry. I didn't leave a thing in place. I broke the racquets, the cellphone, everything. Other players stand around, see me going crazy, but they don't care. It's something that happened to every one of them."

What do you do when you're not playing tennis?
"There's no such thing. There are barely two weeks a year when I can think about something else."

Don't tell me you never get bored by it. It will sound very implausible.
"Sometimes, when I have to wait hours for a match or I'm in a particularly boring place, I can knock my head against the wall."

And you say you're enjoying it.
"I love it. I love the frustrations, too."

Speaking of love - do you have one?
"I have a girlfriend for many years, on and off. She's studying in Italy now. It's difficult to have this kind of relationship, but she understands me. If I weren't with with her, I suppose it would be very hard to maintain a relationship. The goodbyes, the distances, if there isn't someone who travels with you constantly, when it's her life too, then it's very difficult."

Not even talking about the temptations out there.
"No, I told you I'm a good boy."

Yeah, like it's not nice for your ego knowing that there are women in the crowd who can't keep their eyes off you.
"I swear that I don't think about it."

So it's not important for you to look good when you go on court?
"What am I, Federer? Nadal? They're always perfect, but I don't care if I'm not shaved and my clothes are plain white. Sometimes I see at the locker room girls standing in front of the mirror, applying make up, doing their hair, and I think to myself - 'What for? In five minutes all the make up will be smudged from the sweat'."

How long are you going to play for?
"Until I drop off my feet."

Even if you're ranked 300 and the shower doesn't have any water?
"Yes. Tennis is my life."


Note: The title of the interview, "Amen Sela", is a Hebrew expression of biblical origin that roughly means "Amen forever".

(Thanks to @TennisRomi for the picture)