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Podcast: Jon Wertheim talks Aussie Open, more with James Blake

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We’ve been promising podcasts, and we finally delivered. In the Tennis Podcast’s maiden voyage, Jon Wertheim previews the Australian Open with James Blake. The 32-year-old American and former top-five player also makes Super Bowl picks, gives us the skinny on his current wedding planning and more.

  • Published On Jan 13, 2012
  • Five thoughts off Sunday’s men’s final

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    Novak Djokovic (above) bullied Rafael Nadal throughout Sunday's Wimbledon men's final, rolling to his third career Grand Slam championship. (AP)

    WIMBLEDON, England — Five thoughts off Novak Djokovic’s 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory over Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon men’s final:

    Novak Djokovic is the new king. When Djokovic achieved the No. 1 ranking on Friday, it was met with quiet admiration. It took him 48 hours to legitimize his supremacy — and the reaction has been emphatic. With a breathtaking display of offense, defense and mental strength, Djokovic took down defending champ Rafael Nadal on Centre Court today, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. Djokovic has lost one match since Thanksgiving weekend. He has won two of the last three majors. He beaten Nadal five straight times, twice on clay, twice on hard courts, once on grass. Two years ago, we coronated Federer here. A year ago it was Nadal. Suddenly Djokovic looks darn near unbeatable and is halfway from turning in a season that will rival any year Federer or Nadal put up. What a player. What an era.

    Questions for Rafa. Coming into today, Nadal’s record in major finals was 10-2 — with the two losses coming early in his career to Federer, then an unrivalled grass player. The guy is nothing if not a big match player. Which makes today’s result particularly striking. A repeat of their earlier matches this year, Nadal was bullied by Djokovic. He was confounded by the relentless retrieving, neutralized by depth and lost the majority of the forehand-to-backhand rallies. Against Federer you sense Nadal’s attitude is: you may be an artist but I can grind you down. Against Djokovic, Nadal lacks that self-belief. He now faces perhaps the biggest challenge of his career, figuring out how to handle this ambitious opponent.

    Depth perception. Speed kills. And, we’re told, defense wins championships. There’s no catchy maxim for “depth” but it’s essential too. This, the new alpha rivalry of the men’s game is largely mental (see below). But Djokovic won this match mostly because he pinned Nadal well behind the baseline with deep balls and didn’t let him penetrate the court. It’s the shotmaking and creative angles that are fodder for the highlight shows. But Djokovic won so many points simply drilling balls that landed within a few inches of the baseline — sometimes to the middle of the court — forcing Nadal into defensive positions.

    Mind over matter. Tennis, especially as it’s played today, is a brutal sport physically. Djokovic and Nadal, both sensational athletes, offered countless examples of speed, strength, dexterity, coordination and reflexes. But tennis is, at its core, a mental game. And for whatever reason, Djokovic has now clearly taken up residence in Nadal’s head. It’s not simply that’s he beaten him five straight times this year. It’s the cadence of the matches, the frustrating defense, sudden indefatigability. Nadal had no answers and made mistakes today that he makes against no other players. Nadal getting broken deep in a set? Shanking overheads? Double-faulting at inopportune moments? Getting his teeth back into the match in the fourth and then failing to hold serve? After a few games, Nadal wore a mask that said: “What do I have to do to beat this friggin’ guy?” He never figured it out.

    Bring on the summer. The great appeal of having a three-way rivalry at the top of the men’s game: no matter how the story breaks, it’s significant. Can Djokovic continue his dominant form at the U.S. Open, winning his third major of 2011? Can he continue and turn in what could end up the finest season in men’s tennis history? Can Nadal come up with some answer to the very difficult questions being asked of him? Can he win back some mometum in the rivalry? Can Federer make a stand? Right now every Slam brings a new twist in the narrative. Sit back — or lean forward — and enjoy.

  • Published On Jul 03, 2011
  • Five thoughts off Saturday’s women’s final

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    Eighth-seeded Petra Kvitova beat Maria Sharapova in Saturday's final, becoming the first Czech to win at Wimbledon since Jana Novotna in 1998. (AP)

    WIMBLEDON, England — Five thoughts off Petra Kvitova’s 6-3, 6-4 victory over Maria Sharapova in the Wimbledon women’s final:

    Czech, please. The tennis fans, administrators and former champs who held their breath hoping Petra Kvitova wouldn’t be paralyzed with awe playing in her first Wimbledon final? They exhaled after about two minutes into today’s match. The 21-year-old Czech didn’t just meet the moment; she kicked the moment’s ass. Belting strokes with astonishing (unprecedented?) pace, serving bombs, working her lefty angles, serving soundly, and, above all, betraying nothing even resembling nervousness, Kvitova outplayed Maria Sharapova, to win the women’s title. For all that tumult in the upper tiers of the WTA rankings, there is an unmistakable sense we saw a real champion today. “She’s winning a lot more,” John McEnroe surmised right after the match. Hard to disagree. Just a thoroughly impressive victory.

    It wasn’t Maria’s day. Seven years ago, Sharapova played in her first major final and stared down the mighty Serena Williams. In an “ignorance-is-bliss” kind of way, she swung with abandon, went for the lines and suddenly she was a champion. She’s been through a great deal since then: winning more majors, flirting with a potential career-ending injury, dispatching her dad, going through coaches. She knows the significance of getting back to a Grand Slam final. And instead of playing opportunistically today, she played tight and scared. Last time she was in this position, it was as if there were no thoughts in her head. Today, it was as if her mind was cluttered. There were double-faults, and shanks and palpable tightness. Sharapova ought to be proud of herself for getting back in the top 10 and reviving her career. But this was not her best day.

    Too often in tennis we are rashly hasty in coronating champions. Any decent junior is suddenly the second coming of Rod Laver or Steffi Graf. Still, it’s hard not to walk away from this tournament exuberantly optimistic about the prospects of Petra Kvitova. She has a terrifically complete game—far more nuanced than many (self included) initially thought. She plays well of both sides, she mixes up her serve, she slices when necessary. She played here with poise and self-belief, not least her serving out the title with a love game. And notice how she celebrated afterwards: there was no scaling of the stands to hug her box, no dramatic drops to the grass. Kvotiva smiled with satisfaction but the message was: “Yeah, that’s about how I thought it’d go.” She’s now a Wimbledon champion and her profile has changed forever. But it sure looks like she’s up for what’s next.

    The serve is the only shot in tennis you — and only you — control. There’s no defense. You’re not responding. Master the serve and you put yourself in position to win. Struggle with the serve and the whole foundation of your game can crumble. For years now, Sharapova has had a tempestuous relationship with her serve. In her semifinal match she double-faulted 13 times and survived. Today she wasn’t as lucky. Her ball fluttered. Her timing wavered. She hit double-faults early and often and at the most inopportune times. The good news: the problem is correctable. The bad news: it’s hard to see her winning another major until she fixes the way she initiates points.

    Bring on the men. It was a fine match today, a first-time finalist who seized the opportunity, took down a former champ and announced herself as a potential star for many years. But this was something other than a classic match; and the atmosphere reflected as much. No sooner had Kvitova and Sharapova shaken hands at the net, talk turned to tomorrow’s men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. One versus two. The winners of the last two majors. The new Alpha rivalry in men’s tennis. Given what is at stake, given the level of their play yesterday (and given the rations of time both players take between points), hopes are high for a classic.

  • Published On Jul 02, 2011
  • Five thoughts off men’s semifinals

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    Rafael Nadal (above) rallied from a set down to roll past Andy Murray into his fifth Wimbledon final. He

    WIMBLEDON, England — Five thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s men’s semifinals at Wimbledon:

    Djokomotion. If you’re going to ascend to become the No. 1-ranked player in the world, this is the way to do it. Novak Djokovic arrived in style today, showing off his battery of offensive and defensive skills, returning serve as if playing tee ball, and scoring a terrifically impressive Big Match win, taking down Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 7-6, 6-2, 6-7, 6-3. In so doing, he became the 25th men’s player to hold the top ranking. (And he broke the eight-year Federer-Nadal stranglehold.) How quickly we forget: Djokovic has lost one match since Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. He showed why today. Now, he’s one match away from winning Wimbledon, which would mean much more to him than being No. 1.

    Same Old Tsonga. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a terrific talent who can beat anyone on any given day. This grass-court season alone, he’s taken down both Nadal and Federer. But he still has a tough time stringing together quality wins on the grand stages. Tsonga played at a nose-bleedingly high level on Wednesday, recovering from a two-sets-to-none deficit to beat Federer. And he broke Novak Djokovic in the first game today. Then Tsonga came down from his high. Not only did he begin missing balls. His mind wandered. Two points from the first set, he hit a second serve in excess of 130 m.p.h. for a double-fault. On another occasion he forgot the score and headed to the chair on an even game. He deserted his strategy of serving to Djokovic’s forehand. Tsonga ought to leave encouraged, not least for staving off match points and extending Djokovic to a fourth set. But he still needs to show that he can back up one good win with another.

    Rafael Nadal is a beast. OK, we knew that already. But it was sure reinforced today. After a lackluster first set, “nadal” metamorphosed into “NADAL” and simply battered Andy Murray, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. It was a clinic in the art of competition, succeeding under adverse conditions, breaking an opponent’s spirit and neutralizing a crowd. Does any athlete in sport rise to the occasion quite like Nadal does? Even the BBC conceded, “He ripped the heart out of Murray — the man playing at home.” But this was also a tennis clinic. The King of Clay is an exceptional grass-court player. The defense. The cutting slices. The tactics. The best net game this side of Federer. It was all on breathtaking display today. Not for nothing has Nadal won 20 straight matches here, and if he plays anywhere near this level on Sunday, it’s hard to see him losing his crown.

    Andy Worry. To say that the mood on the grounds following Murray’s defeat was gloomy, well, that would be a woeful understatement. Losing to Nadal is no shame. But there seemed to be a collective realization that Murray has his work cut out for him. Heading into this match, he was playing well. He’d been able to manage the immense pressure that comes with being a British hope at Wimbledon. He’s the best British player since World War II. But the irreducible truth: he is just not as good a player as Nadal, especially when Nadal is at his best, as was the case today. Murray was leading and in control of the match; he missed one easy forehand and one easy overhead. And Nadal simply used the opportunity to wrest control of the match. After that, it two different classes of players and two different classes of competitors. Murray can still win a Slam. He can still win THIS Slam. But a lot has to break his way. For starters, he needs to avoid Nadal’s half of the draw — something that’s only happened once in the last 15 majors.

    A banner day. At another time and place we can gripe about tape-delayed broadcasts, grunting players, medical time-outs and American tennis woes. Today, let’s should celebrate a banner day for tennis. Two matches played at exceptionally high level. A new number one. A vast array of skills of display. (Bravo to the greenskeepers while we’re at it: this surface is so far removed from the slick greensward that gave rise to the 1990s serve-a-thons, it now accommodates all syles.) The defending champ played like it. There were no controversies. No labor disputes. No players mocking their opponent’s illness. No riots when the fan favorite lost. A brilliant afternoon and evening of tennis, one that emphasized what’s right about the sport.

  • Published On Jul 01, 2011
  • Five thoughts off women’s semifinals

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    Maria Sharapova overcame a sluggish start to see off Sabine Lisicki on Thursday, setting up a Saturday showdown with Petra Kvitova for the title. (AP)

    WIMBLEDON, England — Five thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s women’s semifinals at Wimbledon:

    Experience matters. Maria Sharapova lost the first three games of her semifinal match against Sabine Lisicki this afternoon. Centre Court. Trip to the finals on the line. Miserable start. Lesser players would have panicked. Sharapova? She took a deep breath, corrected her service toss, and reeled off nine of the next 10 games, putting herself in the position to win, 6-4, 6-3. Less seasoned players can — and should — go into big matches asserting they “have nothing to lose.” But experience matters. And Sharapova, a three-time Grand Slam champ, has had a huge advantage on the field ever since the Williams sisters went out on Monday. She hit double-figures in double-faults, but her groundstrokes, her returning and, above all, self-belief in a big occasion pulled her through. Not her finest performance. But, after seven years, she’s in the Wimbledon final once again.

    Well de-served. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won his match against Federer yesterday largely because he brought his serve, giving Federer only one break point sniff the entire match. When you serve with ease, you not only demoralize the opponent but you can take bigger risks on the return game. The serve can be vital in women’s tennis as well. Lisicki came into today’s encounter averaging nine aces per match, having hit the fastest serve (multiple times) of the tournament. Today — battling nerves and an expert — she served zero aces, barely made half her first serves and was broken five times. Lisicki, a wild card,  is a future top-five player and ought to leave here with her head high, particularly given where she was a year ago. But next time she’s in a big match, she’d do well to remember to bring her serve with her.

    There’s no Kvit in Kvitova. Petra Kvitova is a big lefty. She pounds the ball off of both wings, big flat strokes and the occasional cutting slice. She plays inside the baseline and has a nice knack for strategy. But here’s what’s most impressive about the 21-yer-old Czech: for the second straight match she went “off the boil,” as the Brits say, in the second set of a high-stakes match. And then found the poise to win in the third, beating Victoria Azarenka, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2. Especially when mental strength is not always the most abundant commodity in women’s tennis — to wit: Azarenka double-faulted on match point — this is significant. Saturday is a big occasion for Kvitova. Let’s see if she keeps her nerve again.

    Noise pollution. Azarenka deserves credit for living up to her No. 4 seeding and getting to the Wimbledon semifinals. But she came out flat today, fought gamely to get back in the match and then reverted to flatness. This loss surely stings. And this feels like piling on but here goes: the grunting must stop. Television doesn’t convey how distracting and cloying it is. It’s unfair to the opponent. It’s unpleasant to the audience. It alienates fans. Beyond that, it’s creating undue pressure. With every loss, Azarenka increasingly becomes known not for her tennis but for her sound effects. The voices against her are getting louder. (@PatrickMcEnroe: Heres a simpler way-warning, point penalty!!!!) Christine Brennan of USA Today saw Azarenka for the first time here and wondered why she isn’t being fined. If I’m Azarenka’s agent I say: let’s cut this affectation before it gets ugly.

    How I learned to stop worrying and love the chaos. We came within one set of seeing the top four men’s players make the semifinals in both Paris and Wimbledon. Either Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic has won every major, save one, for the last six years. By contrast, the last six Slams have yielded five different women’s winners. (And none was the first- or second-ranked player.) There are three recent No. 1s now residing outside the Top 20. The parity is problematic for a variety of reasons. But it can also be fun. Every tournament can yields a new winner. Upsets abound. Draws implode. Sharapova may win on Saturday and restore some order. But if she loses, maybe we just embrace the unpredictability of the women’s game today.

  • Published On Jun 30, 2011
  • Shocker more about Tsonga than Federer

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    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (above) has always been among the tour's streakiest players, a trait that helped him rally from two sets down against Roger Federer. (AP)

    Today’s quarterfinal shocker on Centre Court (watch match highlights here) was a combination of Roger Federer losing some fire and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga getting in the zone. Tsonga is one of these guys that everyone knows is dangerous when he gets hot. He rolled over Rafael Nadal three years ago at the Australian Open — 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in the semis — in an absolute beatdown. We haven’t seen a performance like that from him in a Grand Slam since. But today he just absolutely lifted his game those last three sets, even breaking Federer in the first game of the fifth set. To take down Roger Federer at Wimbledon after going down two sets to love is an unforgettable accomplishment. Those last three sets were more about Tsonga than Federer.

    This is a guy who’s been on the radar for a match like this for a long time. He’s obviously had some injuries and questions about fortitude and motivation. He’s got Novak Djokovic next, who’s 48-1 this year, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m thinking about Marion Bartoli, another French player, who beat Serena Williams on Monday. You say, “Gosh if she can do that to Serena there’s no reason why she can’t win the tournament.” And then she’s no longer here. With Tsonga, you’d like to say, “My gosh, you beat Federer at Wimbledon with three sets with that level of play then there’s no reason you can’t win this thing.” But the history here does not augur well for two more wins. It was a great, great performance, can he keep it up for six more sets?

    Federer tends to be pretty even keel in defeat, especially at this point in time. Last year he lost to Tomas Berdych in a very similar situation, a similar kind of match where he just got outhit at the end and you could tell he wasn’t happy. Today was almost this sort of too-good resignation.

    The questions coming out of today’s match will inevitably surround his chances of winning another Grand Slam. He’s lost three of the last four Wimbledons now. And in the one he won, Nadal didn’t play. So the questions will now become: Is this the end? Is this a champion in decline? There’s no question, the numbers speak for themselves. But really the takeaway from today is that Tsonga just played three great sets. I would not use this match for the jumping off point for the Federer obituary.

  • Published On Jun 29, 2011
  • Serena upset is one for the outcasts

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    France's Marion Bartoli (right) engineered the upset of the tournament Monday, knocking out two-time defending champion Serena Williams (left) in their fourth-round match. (Henry Browne/Action Images/

    WIMBLEDON, England — There are times when tennis resembles nothing so much as a traveling high school. There is a sort of social filtration system that yields the popular crowd and the unpopular crowd, tribes of nerds and jocks and partiers and mean girls. Since enrolling almost a decade ago, Marion Bartoli has been, unmistakably, a WTA outcast.

    She travels with her dad, a lapsed doctor from a small town in the French countryside who doubles as her coach and walks hunch-backed around events with a backpack on his shoulder. Bartoli paints and plays the piano and has the audacity to read books in public. She made a minor stir earlier this year when she announced that she had a genius IQ, the equivalent of bragging about your SAT scores. Her tennis is quirky and outre, too. Recalling Monica Seles, she hits with two hands off both sides. Her on-court rituals and mannerisms include taking practice swings when she returns serves — a tic that other players openly mock — and kangaroo hopping between her first and second serves. Without a clothing endorsement contract, last week at Wimbledon she played in a dress that resembled a hospital gown. During Saturday’s third-round match, she elicited snickers and snarky blog posts when she ordered her father to leave the stands.

    What too many accounts failed to mention: after shooing son père away, Bartoli won courageously, 9-7 in the third set.

    Bartoli may be tennis’ answer to Ally Sheedy putting sugar on her bread in The Breakfast Club. But like most high school classifications, “Bartoli as weirdo” is horribly crass. Yes, she is unconventional. Yes, she has no use for the glamour component of women’s tennis. But she is also, a fearsome and fearless competitor who, despite a limited game, has quietly nestled in the top 10 for years.

    Today she played Serena Williams on Court One. And while a fourth-round match pitting the seventh seed against the ninth seed would, ordinarily, be a toss-up, Serena was the overwhelming favorite. If the defending champion hadn’t been her sharpest here in this, her first major in a year, she is still Serena Williams. She’s strong and still fast and can still go “Serena Diesel,” simply steamrolling opponents. And she still has an air that’s good for a couple games a set.

    Against most players, that is. Residing on the fringes also means that Bartoli is impervious to aura. Before the match a French journalist friend predicted the match would be close “because Marion doesn’t get scared.” True, that. With her father looking on, Bartoli scored the upset of the tournament today and perhaps the biggest match of her career. The score will say that she won, 6-3, 7-6. It was the first time in 20 matches either Serena or Venus ever lost in the fourth round. It was the earliest Serena has lost here since 2005.

    But what made this significant was that Bartoli didn’t merely win; she beat Serena. She had more aces. She dictated play. Hit just as hard off the ground. Bartoli pinned Serena behind the baseline and moved her around with laser-like groundstrokes. Afterwards, Serena, rightfully, wished that she had more preparation. But this wasn’t about rust or a lack of match. It was about a WTA player finally staring down Serena and, in effect, saying: “I don’t care who you are. I’m taking you down today.”

    Bartoli clearly had a strategy — hit deep and never go more than a few balls to the same side. When Serena served, Bartoli not only stood irreverently inside the baseline (what others would consider risking life and limb) but jogged in place and danced around. Questionable gamesmanship? Yes. Weird? No doubt. But after all the WTA passivity, also the players who have buckled under the weight of big moments, it was telling to watch someone send the message across the net that she wouldn’t be intimidated.

    Even on an off day and even without match play, Serena is still difficult to put away. Bartoli served for match at 6-3, 6-5 and squandered three match points. Plenty of matches have turned on less. No matter, Bartoli gathered herself in the tiebreaker, sustained her aggressive play and pounded out the win. “I dug deep into my guts,” she says. “The way I handled the pressure was good.”

    When it was done, she rejoiced and looked up to Dr. Walter Bartoli, who had not been asked to leave this time. As the two players walked off the court, Bartoli went first, breaking with tradition that dictates the reigning champs walk off first and soak up applause. It was one last spasm of weirdness, one last indication that she won’t be cowed by The Mighty Serena.

    After today there were still be eight players in the women’s draw. But if Bartoli can come anywhere close to matching both the shotmaking and defiant fearlessness she showed this afternoon, you have to consider her a real contender. Three more wins and then the outcast will be really be the Homecoming Queen.

    • It tells you all you need to know about the current chaotic state of women’s tennis. When the ninth seed (Bartoli) beat the seventh seed (Serena) on Court One it created great buzz. Meanwhile the top seed, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, was banished to lowly Court Two, and scarcely anyone noticed. And, as fate would have it, Wozniacki was defeated by Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 7-5 in the third set. This, of course, will amplify calls that Wozniacki’s top ranking is counterfeit, that her failure to win a major reflects poorly on the women’s tennis ranking system. Let’s save that discussion for another day, though, and give credit to Cibulkova, a pocket rocket, who simply played with more urgency at 5-5. For all the talk about the WTA’s height requirements, it’s nice to know there’s still room in the cast for a compactly built slugger who stands 5-3 and weighs 121 pounds. Cibulkova will be a clear underdog in the next round again former champion Maria Sharapova. Which, given how today has played out, means precisely nothing.

    • While Serena was blown away by Bartoli, her big sister went meekly, falling to Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova 6-2, 6-3. It was not only the second straight year Pironkova beat Venus at Wimbledon; last year’s match was the same score. Venus was gracious in defeat, praising Pironkova liberally and simply suggesting that it had been a bad day at the office. But, realistically, one wonders where Venus goes from here. Wimbledon is her best event — the only major she has won in nearly a full decade. When, at age 31,  she can’t muster more than five games in the fourth round, you have to wonder if this remarkable story isn’t, finally, wrapping up.

  • Published On Jun 27, 2011
  • Isner-Mahut II: What were the odds?

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    John Isner (left) and Nicolas Mahut (right) played the longest match in history in the first round of last year's Wimbledon. They meet again Tuesday. (AP)

    Wimbledon might be the most dignified sporting event going. But when the draw was released on Friday, there were fears that tournament had gone low-brow, taking a leaf from the pro wrestling playbook and orchestrating a rematch sure to generate hype and attention.

    Last year, what John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played was less a tennis match than a Herculean Labor. Their first encounter spanned three days and ended with Isner winning 70-68 in the fifth set. We could start ticking off the various records this match set — unlikely ever to be broken — but there are space constraints. As Andy Roddick put it: “[A match of this length is] never, ever gonna come close to happening again. Like normally records in sports you say, you know, OK, eventually it will be broken. That will never be broken, ever, ever, not even close.” It might be more illustrative to link to this. How many other first round matches generate their own Letterman Top Ten List?

    It was, then, more than a little suspicious when the pairings were announced for Wimbledon 2011 and John Isner’s first round foe would be … Nicolas Mahut. The Twitter consensus was that the fix was in. Even Andy Murray, the Great British Hope, tweeted: “Isner vs mahut drawing each other in the first round after last year is the most amazing thing I’ve seen in tennis!”

    The gents at the All-England Club, however, have been adamant that this was simply random chance, the draw deities acting in strange ways. Taking the “random” explanation at face value, how random was this? With an assist by Toronto reader Gilbert Benoit, we try and figure it out. It’s fairly simple. With one twist.

    Each Grand Slam tournament draw includes 128 players. However, the top 32 players are seeded and placed in the draw first. That leaves 96 slots for the others, in this case including Isner (No. 46) and Mahut (No. 99).

    Let’s consider Isner and Mahut and ignore the other players in the field.

    • Pick either player. Say Isner. If he is drawn against a seed, he will not play Mahut. There are 96 possible slots where he can be drawn, and 32 of those will be against a seeded player, so he has a 2/3 chance of not playing a seed.

    A newly minted plaque on the wall of Court 18 at the All England Club commemorates last year's historic marathon match between Isner and Mahut. (AP)

    • Then, we consider the conditional probability of Mahut drawing Isner, assuming that Isner is not playing a seed. There are 95 slots left, so the probability is 1/95.

    • We obtain the probability by multiplying the conditional probability (1/95) by the probability that governs the condition (2/3), and we obtain 2/285.

    This is simple, but is it right? Benoit helped us reach the same conclusion in a completely different way, using straight combinatorial reasoning.

    • There are 96 players to be drawn. This can obviously be done in 96! ways. Now, how many of these draws have Isner playing Mahut?

    If you discard the 32 slots opposite a seed, there are 64 slots left. You can think of them as 32 two-player buckets. Isner and Mahut will play each other if they both fall in any of these 32 buckets, so there are 32 possibilities.

    Within the bucket, there are 2! ways that the two players can be ordered.

    Then, there are 94! ways for the other players to be drawn. So, there are 32 × 2! × 94! draws that pit Isner against Mahut.

    The probability is then (32 × 2! × 94!)/96!, which simplifies to 64/(95×96), which is 2/285.

    Two in 285 is a long-shot, obviously less than 1 percent. The conspiracy theorists were busy last month when the Cleveland Cavaliers — spurned by Lebron, desperate for some good fortune, represented by a endearing teenager afflicted with a rare disease — landed the top pick in the NBA Draft. It seemed too perfect for some (not least, Minnesota Timberwolves executive David Kahn) but the odds of that happening were 2.8 percent, almost a lock compared to the odds of Isner-Mahut II.

    Yet truth is, events with a likelihood of one percent happen all the time in sports. We just don’t always appreciate the randomness. Now if the Isner-Mahut sequel manages to outstrip the original? Then we’d be within our right to suspect that the fix is in.

    Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim is co-author of the New York Times bestseller Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games Are Won now available online and in stores

  • Published On Jun 20, 2011
  • Impressions from Li’s historic victory

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    Li Na (above) became the first player from China to win a Grand Slam title with her straight-sets victory over Francesca Schiavone on Saturday. (AP)

    What are your immediate impressions of Li Na’s 6-4, 7-6(0) victory over Francesca Schiavone for the French Open title?

    The women’s tour was in total disarray two weeks ago. I’m not sure this fills the vacuum, but you could have done a lot worse than the defending champion and the first Chinese Grand Slam finalist playing for the trophy — and having the first Chinese winner. It was a reasonably competitive match. There are still a lot of questions swirling around the women’s game, but this was a nice uptick.

    I was talking to Yao Ming a few months ago. Given how big sports are in Asia, he was surprised there haven’t been more sort of breakthrough figures. Li Na certainly fits that profile, so it will really be interesting to see how this plays out over there.

    There’s been a lot of talk about Li’s victory prompting a tennis “boom” in China, but that’s awfully vague. What specific impact will you be looking for?

    People always say that, but you’re never quite sure what the metrics are. Still, this isn’t Serbia we’re talking about. This is a much different model. If more people are going to watch than watched the Super Bowl, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, that’s something you can monetize. If a sponsor is going to come up and put an event in China centered around Li Na, that’s something tangible.

    And I also think it’s significant that she’s so colorful. She’s got a tattoo and her personality is quirky. She didn’t have the killer quotes that she had in Australia where she talked about her husband snoring, but she’s someone that people can identify with easily. People have a sense of who she is, which I think is important too. I think that’s a large part of what made Yao Ming this crossover figure as well, that he wasn’t this mysterious guy who didn’t speak English. People got him.

    It wasn’t Novak Djokovic winning 43 in a row, but Schiavone had won 13 straight matches at Roland Garros entering today. What was Li able to do to end the Italian’s charmed run of play on these courts?

    You don’t want to beat on Schiavone too bad, but it’s not like she had to go through the Williams sisters, Justine Henin and Martina Hingis to win those 13 matches. And Schiavone’s won a lot of close ones. We’re not talking about a hugely powerful player. Li stuck with her in the rallies and didn’t wilt in the breaker.

    It’s a good win, a good storyline: Schiavone got her title last year and we have our first Chinese winner. Li Na won the first set in the Australian Open final against Kim Clijsters and was sort of shaky in the second too. It was nice she was able to get the butterflies out of her system in the first Grand Slam final and close the deal the second time.

    Is Li a one-Slam wonder or do you see her contending at majors in the future?

    Someone was joking her name should be Na Williams. She really plays well at the majors. If you look at her results at the Slams, she’s usually making that second week. At this stage in her career, there probably aren’t a ton of Slams left to win a second one. But given the state of the WTA Tour and given how she plays in majors, she absolutely will be a contender.

    What’s next for both players moving forward in 2011?

    I really admire Schiavone and like her game. But, realistically, is she going to win another major? Probably not.

    But Li will be interesting. She had a terrible few months after the Australian Open where she just sort of burnt out, now she’s got a Grand Slam coming up in two weeks and I imagine the attention will be crazy — and that Wimbledon is fielding all sorts of requests from the Chinese media right now. It will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out. Anytime someone wins from an non-traditional tennis country, you hear the same things: what a game-changer for South America or this is really going to change tennis in Bulgaria. But China is a different beast and this could really be a seminal moment for tennis.

  • Published On Jun 04, 2011
  • Federer-Djokovic was a match for the ages

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    Roger Federer (above) snapped Novak Djokovic's 43-match win streak and booked a place in Sunday's final. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)

    What are your immediate impressions of Roger Federer’s 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) victory over Novak Djokovic?

    That may have been the most significant, dramatic and damn enjoyable match since the 2008 Wimbledon final. There was so much context here. Would Djokovic attain the top ranking and continue his streak? Would Federer make a stand against the New King? Would Federer’s diminishing results continue? No matter how this broke, it was going to tell us an awful lot. For Federer to come out and play a match of this quality was such an eloquent response the murmurs that his time was over that the keg was tapped. And credit Djokovic, for rebounding from a two-sets-to-none deficit and putting himself in a position to serve for a fifth set. Trite as it sounds, tennis was a big winner today.

    Also, at least in the U.S., tennis was treated shabbily by the network “partner.” The platform kept changing, different time zones received windows, the planned taped delay was, blessedly, scrapped at the last minute. A real slap in the face and precisely the kind abuse that relegates the sport to the vicious cycle of niche status. (Of course the ratings will be low when you need an MIT engineering degree to figure out how to watch matches!) For the sport to serve up such a gripping and captivating day — Twitter going nuts, people crowding around TVs in bars — was tremendously gratifying to those of us who care about the sport.

    What specific things did Federer do today that 43 previous opponents didn’t?

    Federer is Federer. And if the magic comes less consistently than it once did, there’s still magic. He served well. He was early to the ball. He hit over his backhand. He moved as well as I’ve seen him move this year. Also, Federer had the good fortune of playing Djokovic on this stage. There’s a world of difference between a Wednesday night match at a garden-variety event and the semifinals of a Grand Slam with the No. 1 ranking on the line.

    Now that it’s over, put Djokovic’s streak in historical perspective.

    In some ways today’s match puts it in perspective. To win more than 40 straight matches — on different surfaces, in different conditions, in different continents — against such high-caliber opponents is really such a formidable feat. That it took an off-day at the office and a vintage performance by the Greatest of All Time to snap the streak (barely, at that) says plenty about Djokovic’s game. Inasmuch as there’s an unfortunate part of Djokovic’s streak, he only has “only” one major to show for it. The cynics will say: “A lot of players have won one Slam in a row.” But I think people who know tennis realize just how astronomically well you have to be playing to go a half year without losing, what a tremendous ride this was — especially when the train runs Nadalville and Federerburg, against whom Djokovic racked up seven of the 43 wins.

    If Federer beats Nadal on Sunday, Djokovic will be No. 1 on Monday. Would Friday’s loss compromise the luster of Djokovic’s achievement?

    To some extent. I’m sure this isn’t how Djokovic envisioned becoming No. 1. But the ranking is cumulative and who can deny Djokovic what’s rightfully his?

    What would it mean for Federer’s legacy to defeat Nadal in the French Open final at 29?

    Federer’s legacy is Fort Knox secure. The guy has more records than an AM radio station (sorry) and has achieved everything imaginable. There were, though, so many swirling questions about him. How much longer will go on if he’s not winning? (It had been almost 18 months since he even made the FINAL of a Slam.) How will he deal with being No. 3? Even, how has fatherhood blunted his motivation? Winning another big prize at this stage of his career — and going through a red-hot Djokovic and a five-time champ Nadal to do so — would be so sweet, such a testament to his continued drive and well as his native talent. Of course after today, many of those questions have already been answered.

  • Published On Jun 03, 2011