Sunday, July 27, 2008

Weekend Pressure Cooker #1 to #377

Roger Federer reacts to a missed shot on Saturday in Cincinnati

Roger Federer is the #1 ranked tennis player in the world and owns 12 grand slam titles. Phil King is ranked #377 and toils just to make tennis’s major leagues. But both were in the pressure cooker over the weekend, each facing more questions than answers. 

King won two junior US Open titles before deciding to postpone turning pro to go to college. He graduated from Duke with a double major. This is the road rarely traveled by professional tennis players. Now he finds himself ranked in the 300s, struggling to accumulate points in the challenger and qualifier rounds that function as tennis’s minors. King wonders about the road not taken - what if he had turned pro at 18 instead of going off to college to compete against inferior players? He wouldn't give back his degree but...

On Saturday King took on Kevin Anderson, a tall, thin South African with a wicked serve and a stinging forehand. At 5’9, King is small for this era of tennis players, populated mostly by behemoths like Anderson who are over six feet tall. Anderson is 6’8, five years younger than King. He actually spent three years playing for the University of Illinois before turning pro in 2007. Anderson has the talent to be in the top twenty in the next two years. He surprised the tennis world by quickly making the finals in Las Vegas and beat world no. 3 Novak Djokovic in Miami in the spring.

In the first set it was easy to see that King was overmatched in the talent department. He runs down everything and competes well, but is hampered by not having that one big weapon that can wipe another player off the court. Still, players like King can win a lot of matches, especially if their opponents lose concentration or get frustrated by King’s ability to keep running around the court. I should know. That’s how I win most of my matches. King quickly fell down two breaks of serve. But he’s a battler. Instead of giving up, King broke Anderson back and crawled back into the set. I yelled “c’mon king!” as he walked toward the changeover. King looked up at me and gave a nod and half a smile. When you’re on the road 44 weeks a year trying to scratch out a living, you can use a little encouragement no matter whom it comes from.

King has a better than average serve and an excellent backhand. His backhand return caught Anderson by surprise several times. Anderson has a tendency to stop and admire those rocket serves - not expecting King to get a racket on it – then was caught off guard by having to hit another shot. He steadied himself and closed out the set. The first few games of the second set would tell me a lot about Anderson. Would he have a mental lapse and assume the match was over? Would errors creep into his game? 

The answer was a resounding no. Anderson really put the hammer down in the second set, pounding forehands and whipping serves all over the place. King had to work really hard to stay in it. In the end he lost 6-4, 6-4. A very respectable score, considering the way Anderson played. As both players left the court you wouldn’t have been able to tell who won. King looked disappointed, Anderson looked beaten and worn out. Anderson’s coach was probably pleased with the progress his charge made on Saturday. Not every win against a lower ranked opponent will be a cakewalk, and all too often talented players slop their way through matches like this. Instead he actually played better in the second set. That his display didn’t result in a bigger margin of victory is a credit to King. 

Anderson won his second qualifying match and advanced to the main draw.

Meanwhile, Roger Federer arrived at Cincinnati much earlier than he is accustomed to. Historically The Mighty Fed would be in the finals of Toronto this weekend, not playing a practice match against German Tommy Haas. But this is Roger’s year from hell and welcome to it. First at the Australian Open he had mono and then was dispatched by a player he hates, Novak Djokovic, who went on to win the title. Then came early losses to Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick, then the French Open where he was humiliated by Nadal. And we all know what happened at Wimbledon. 

We’re more than halfway through the tennis year and Roger has yet to find his sea legs. He lost to Gilles Simon in his first match since The Match. Two losses in a row? That’s unheard of for Roger. Of course the fact that we’re surprised that a player lost his first match after a long layover is a tribute to Roger’s greatness. Roger is human after all. We just didn’t expect it. We thought he would be tying or even besting Pete Sampras’s record twelve majors. Instead the writing is on the wall – his rival will overtake him and finish the year at number 1.

On Saturday Roger practiced with Tommy the Tease Haas. We all expected Haas to spend most of his career inside the top ten, but with a series of injuries and an inability to string together good play for longer than a match or two, that has never materialized. Haas is a fun player to watch, he can hit every shot in the book, he will tease you with potential. He had fun with the Roger-loving crowds. Federer looked a little agitated. Nadal’s climb to the top seems like a forgone conclusion to everyone but him. The players steamrolled by Nadal in Toronto declared that he is the true best player in the world. Simply stated, the Mighty Fed is in denial. He isn’t ready to lose his ranking and is banking on winning the Olympics and the US Open to prove everyone wrong. What we have here is a champion with a chip on his shoulder, and lots of pressure to boot. 

Should be a fun week.

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