Friday, November 30, 2007

Day 1: Dubious Drop Shot Drops Russians Into 2-0 Hole

The day in the Portland Memorial Coliseum started with a warm-up performer banging on plastic buckets--fresh from the Tyra Banks Show, a breathless announcer proclaimed--moved on to Andy Roddick banging aces (25 in 14 service games), and essentially ended with Mikail Youzhny's deleterious decision to hit a drop shot that ended up in the bottom of the net in the fourth-set tiebreaker that he was losing 4-3.

All of Russia must have winced when Youhzny went for a drop shot from his backhand side. Youzhny had hit numerous stunning one-handed backhand winners in the hard-fought match, but very few dropshots, so his decision to do so at a critical point in the tiebreaker was ill-advised. Even if the spinning softy had cleared the net, fleet-footed James Blake would have run it down. Blake played two strong points after that and closed out the match, putting the U.S. up by two points in a three point contest. I guess James figured it was someone else's time to choke.

The rest of the eight-hour day is recounted in an obscenely long paragraph: American fans politely applaud alleged matchfixer Nikolai Davydenko in introductions (we tennis fans are so nice!)..."Rowdy" Davis Cup crowds blow whistles and bang together plastic inflatable tubes, but mostly fall quiet when the ball goes into play...A hearty Russian contingent behind their team bench cheers in their mother tongue (they could be saying terrible things, we'd never know) and blow a deep-throated air horn that is hysterically comical, like a lonesome cow in the Siberian plain...mostly gray-haired fans in the front row of the VIP seats on each end ducking for their lives while Roddick and Youzhny hit warmup serves that hop into the seats like missiles...baseline judges using the most-neglected call in all of the tennis, the foot fault, on Roddick early in the match (although they quit calling it later in the match--I thought he got away with a foot on the line on an ace at deuce at 5-4 in the second set). Youzhny also committed a few foot faults. Think of what the line judges would do to serial foot-faulter Leyton Hewitt...The Portland Memorial Coliseum is an old, second-rate arena that must have been nice in the early seventies. (If any arena is still called simply "Memorial" that means the marketing department has been unable to sell the naming rights). The Rose Coliseum next door is the big hall, and I'm sure it has better concessions than the two choices of hot dogs, one pizza vendor and a Subway franchise with the longest lines in the history of that ubiquitous, below-average-generic deli. Davis Cup gets the old dingy hall; tomorrow night, eighties has-beens Van Halen play the Rose Coliseum for the baby boomers who haven't bought a new CD since Reagan was president (I thought the Northwest was supposed to be cool)...I hate to say this, but inept ball children do not get the balls to the players in time, prompting the players and umpires to direct them with waves and scowls. One boy stumbled and fell into the singles sticks while retrieving an errant serrve, knocking the stick loose and requiring the umpire to come down and fix the net. Because of the delay, Youzhny was granted another first serve and hit an ace. He then went up and high-fived the young ballboy...Portland's best singers apparently are nine-year-olds, handling the National Anthem and God Bless America with all the skill of eighth-graders (that's a compliment, nine-year-olds are fourth grade or so.)...Can anyone explain to me why Blake challenged a Youzhny serve that was called out? Even though he hit a would-be winner on the serve that was out, the linesman had made a call and Youzhny stopped, so the best he could win was a second serve anyway. However, the ball was deemed out, as called, and Youzhny was rewarded a first serve for a shot he had hit out already. Confused? I am. Blake, like the gentlemen named Davis who founded this event in 1900, went to Harvard; I only went to more affordable state schools. Did he think his return winner would count if the ball was in?...And speaking of challenges, tennis balls have a very faint skin of yellow felt, almost like little hairs. The rule is that if any part of the ball touches the line, and I assume this means the fuzz, the ball is good. So how do we track these tiny threads? It's too bad my USTA league doesn't have these shot spot machines. When I was a kid playing junior tennis in the seventies and eighties, there were a few players against whom you had to hit the ball inside the line to get the call. Anything that touched a line would be called out. Michael Gilbert, you know who you are...Point of the day was at deuce at 2-2 in the third set, won by Youzhny, a long rally with several major retrievals and an incredible lob by the Russian...Blake and Youzhny show how truly good they are, smacking manly one-handed backhands crosscourt, powerful shots hit where they were because that was the opponent's weak side...Andy Roddick on camera chomping on his nails during Blake's match. Get the boy a manicure...

And that gets me to Youzhny's drop shot attempt, after which point we all waited in a long line of traffic to escape the concrete parking deck. Check out the Davis Cup slide show on Yahoo if you need images to go with these words.

It's Good to See The Fast, Fast Courts of Home; Replaying Replays

In no other sporting event is the home court advantage more significant, primarily because the hosts choose the surface. U.S. Captain Patrick McEnroe chose a Baltimore company to construct a portable cushioned-hard court to his players' liking, The Miami Herald reports. Last year, the Russians beat the U.S. on red clay in Moscow, but today they'll toe the lines on a Maryland-made fast court that was shipped in last week.

Viewers today should also plan on watching that digitized image of the ball flying down and hitting (or missing) the lines again and again. Unlike Grand Slams where players have two challenges per set, this weekend will have unlimited challenges -- why not get a second opinion if the call doesn't goes your way? McEnroe is against it but could not sway the International Tennis Federation who calls the shots.

U.S. Beats a Budding Billionaire in Bucharest '72

It was Bucharest, Romania, 1972, when Romanian Ion Tiriac and Stan Smith played a dramatic five-set match on tedioulsy slow, red clay courts groomed with the home team in mind. The linesman and umpire had been hand-selected by the Romanians, favoring the burly Tiriac with bad calls and allowing him to stall and take as much time as he wanted. It didn't matter, the more-talented Smith won the fifth set 6-0 and secured the cup for the U.S. At the handshake, ESPN reports that Smith said, "Ion, I will always respect you as a competitor. But I will never respect you as a man."

Tiriac, a hockey player turned tennis pro, admittedly didn't have what it took to be a top player -- he once said "I am the best tennis player who cannot play tennis" -- but had the game in the business world. When the iron curtain fell, Tiriac went onto become Romania's first billionaire. A magnate in banking and insurance and other interestes, he is the 840th richest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine's ranking of the rich.

He also was a great source for quotes, saying of his infamous Davis Cup partner Ilie Nastase with whom he is pictured here, he "does not have a brain; he has a bird fluttering around in his head."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Russian Role Reversal, or the Rankings Mean Nothing

Being number four in the world doesn't get you into the singles lineup for the Russian Davis Cup team--at least on day one. Russian Captain Shamil Tarpischev bypassed 4th-ranked Nikolai Davydenko and picked 35th-ranked Dmitry Tursunov and 19th-ranked Mikhail Youzhny for singles Friday. Sixth-ranked Andy Roddick will play Tursonov first (both pictured here), followed by Youzhny against 13th-ranked James Blake in the second match of the afternoon.

Davydenko and 33rd-ranked Igor Andreev are slated to play the top-ranked doubles duo of Bob and Mike Bryan on Saturday, but the Oregonian reports that U.S. Captain Patrick McEnroe is suspicious that the doubles lineup will change before Saturday. Both Russians are known for the singles prowess, not tandem tennis. Tursonov and Youzhny played doubles in Russia's win over Germany in September.

And speaking of the Oregonian, be sure to check out the paper's blog for more Davis Cup news, photos and videos. Doug Perry kindly referred to my blog as "literate musings" on tennis. (I guess that means I'll have to write harder this weekend.) He also has a good trivia question on the page that only the most knowledgeable (or perhaps lecherous) of tennis will be able to answer.

Keep the Smelling Salts at the Ready

The ceremonial draw where the players are definitively announced and the order of play for this weekend's five matches is determined takes place today at noon Pacific time at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. While I can find no record of boxing-like antics between players at these events (imagine Roddick and Safin cursing and trying to strangle one another--the publicity would be tremendous!), drama ensued ten years ago when American player Todd Martin passed out on the stage during a 1997 draw ceremony in Washington while a Louisiana Senator pontificated. Who can blame him? It wasn't a bad omen, however, as the U.S. went on to beat Australia in that semifinal match 4-1, although they ultimately lost to Sweden 5-0 in that year's final.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ladies and Gentleman, Marat has left the building...

Or has he? ESPN reports that Marat Safin appears on the Russian team's rooming roster despite assurances by the team's coach that he absolutely will not compete in this weekend's matches.

Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers said Tuesday they would not be surprised to see him across the net come this weekend.

The final draw will be revealed at noon Portland time on Thursday.

Food Tasters, Anyone?

The Associated Press reports that International Tennis Federation says that there is no evidence that someone poisoned German star Tommy Haas before his final match in Moscow at the September meeting between Germany and Russia. Haas was unable to make his final match, and the Russians prevailed 3-2.

Is Tenni$ Becoming Boxing of the 21st Century?

You can expect NikolayDavydenko to get an earful from rowdy U.S. fans in Portland this weekend in light of allegations he threw a match for money earlier this summer. According to Sunday's story in The New York Times, the ATP has not concluded its investigation, but says that Davydenko has refused to turn over his phone records.

Most incriminating is the report that bets against the heavily-favored Davydenko, who is ranked fourth in the world, increased even after he won the first set 6-2 against 74th-ranked Vassallo Arguello in Poland in July. That would be akin to putting money on the Atlanta Falcons to beat the Green Bay Packers when they are down 21-0 at halftime. More than $7 million was riding against Davydenko, the story said.

Davydenko, of course, went on to lose the second set to Arguello and retire in the third set claiming an ankle injury. Perhaps someone in Portland this weekend should print up rubles with Davydenko's picture on the bills.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Davis Cup 1937: "Yes Mein Fuehrer"

Seventy years ago when the U.S. and Germany matched up in the Davis Cup final, Don Budge defeated Gottfried Von Cramm 8-6 in the fifth set of the deciding match despite a phone call from Adolf Hitler before the match who tried to give Cramm a pep talk. Read about the match here. (Budge is the middle in the back row of this picture of the 1937 U.S. team.)

Let's hope that Putin and Bush stay out of the matchup and Portland this week.