FRENCH OPEN: JACK AND ERIC—A TALE OF TWO SOCKS

Jack Sock looks like a typical jock. But he’s not.

He was a high school tennis wiz, going 80-0 at Blue Valley North High School. But Overland Park, Kansas is hardly a traditional tennis breeding ground.

Few would choose a last name like Sock’s. How many times has he been teased—”sock it to me”?

Although Sock is an All-American type (his crew cut is never askew) he holds a most un-American preference. Clay is actually his favorite surface.

Then there’s the matter of his suspect backhand: it’s rather modest. Jim Courier said if Sock succeeds big time, it would be in spite of his technique, not because of it. Many have wondered how the guy could possibly excel with such a weak stroke.

Well, one way to excel when you have a weak backhand is to play doubles. He teamed with his fellow teen Melanie Oudin to win the 2011 US Open mixed doubles. Then, last summer he joined with Canadian Vasek Pospisil to reach the Wimbledon finals, where they faced the Bryan brothers. The well-seasoned, top-ranked American legends would presumably dismiss the upstarts with ease. But in the London dusk, Sock crushed a monster forehand return of serve into the doubles alley to score a stunning win. Soon he and Pospisil were up in the Royal Box lifting the Wimbledon trophy: such a nice moment, a startling upset, something to tell the grandkids about. Well done.

Now, presumably, Sock would just return to the brutal trenches of the ATP tour: below-50 rankings and under-the-radar media. But soon his girlfriend, Sloane Stephens, brought him to the forefront again. When Elle Magazine asked her what kind of presents she got from Sock, Stephens quipped, “Pretty much anything I want.”


But, on court, Sock wasn’t exactly getting all he wanted. Last fall he scored a shock victory in Shanghai over No. 6 Kei Nishikori, but in December he had to endure surgery for a torn pelvis which sidelined him for three months. Worse yet, his beloved older brother Eric got a sore throat that morphed into a rare bacterial infection—Lemierre’s Syndrome—which nearly took his life; he came within a day of passing.

Eric’s brush with mortality changed things for Jack. “When you’re out there and you get frustrated missing a ball,” he said, “you can think [what] he’s been through, almost not making it, to a…miraculous recovery. [It] kind of puts things in perspective. Just go out there and enjoy it, and you can play a little more free.”

And free he’s been.

Upon his return to the circuit he scored wins over Giles Muller and Fabio Fognini and reached the doubles final in Miami. Then at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in River Oaks, Texas, he beat No. 15-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 16-ranked Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey to claim his first ATP singles title.

And today in Paris, just like he did at Blue Valley North High, he won. Not over some long-forgotten high school rival, but over a considerable Bulgarian—the No. 10 seed, Grigor Dimitrov. Sock, relaxed and confident, used his punishing forehand, fine serve, good wheels and considerable touch to win a first-set tiebreaker before he pulled away. His tidy 7-6 (7), 6-2, 6-3 triumph in 1:55 was the first win by an American over a top 10 player since 2008.

But this ain’t Kansas, Jack.

Sock is slated to play a trio of increasingly renowned Spaniards: Pablo Carreno Busta, Tommy Robredo and a southpaw, who God knows never played high school tennis—Rafa Nadal.

THE BUZZ

JUST WHO IS RUNNING THE SHOW: The controversy over umpire Carlos Bernades continues, In Rio, Rafa Nadal, who is usually an obsessive control freak, discovered that after a mid-match break, he’d come out wearing his shorts inside-out. He asked Bernades whether he could change them on court. Bernades said sure, but that it would cost him a time violation.

Nadal was livid and before the French Open, requested that Bernades not work any of his matches. Incredibly, the ATP granted Rafa’s wish. Recently, they told writer Simon Briggs that it was a non-issue. But many howled in protest. How could a player be bigger than the game itself? What kind of sport is this, in which a player determines who the ref is?

Rafa said he didn’t have anything against Bernades personally, that he liked him. But, “We had some problems … He was not enough respectful with me … when I put my shorts the other way. He wants to put me warnings four times, that’s fine. But if … I ask him if I can change my shorts, I can put my shorts the right way, and his answer is, Yes, but you will receive a time warning. For me, that’s not fair … [It] shows not respect, because I cannot play a full game with the shorts the other way. So … It’s better to be away for a while. That’s all. No personal problem with him, no?”

VILASGATE: Despite an extensive effort, the ATP declined the request of the long-ago retired Guillermo Vilas to be honored with the No. 1 ranking. The Argentine legend contended that a arithmetic effort had cost him the important distinction.


French Open: Swagger On—The Ongoing Adventures of Young Sloane Stephens

SWAGGER ON—THE ADVENTURES OF SLOANE STEPHENS: There’s something about Sloane Stephens.

Call it swagger or ‘tude, the 22-year old has no shortage of self-worth. LA proud, she likes to see her picture on billboards and magazine covers. She sizzles on runways. As a teen newbie in Australia in 2013, she took on Serena Williams verbally in Australia and beat her on court en route to a heady No. 13 ranking.

The Californian was said to be the future of American tennis. She told IT it would be absurd if she didn’t win the French Open within a decade. Later she didn’t hesitate to throw her former coach, Paul Annacone, under the techno bus, saying he didn’t “know what he was doing … It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t know how to put on wi-fi or anything. So in Australia he had like a $2,000 phone bill…I’m like, that is not ideal…He’s old, so it’s tough…He’s like ‘What’s the password?’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, help him.’”

Then there was the time she blasted Vika Azarenka in the groin with a shot, which prompted one writer to say, “Jimmy Connors would call that a bullseye.”

But it was none other than Connors’s son Brett who expressed some unsparing conventional wisdom: “She has the the arrogance and whininess of a highly touted ‘Next American Great.’ Now all she has to do is win something.”

Yes, Sloane likes the big stage and consistently goes deep into majors. Six times she’s reached at least the fourth round at Slams. But at boring old circuit matches, far from the spotlight, she’s often faltered. Not once has she reached the final of a WTA tourney. And recently, even at majors, she’s stumbled. In the last three Slams she won just one match. To make matters worse, she suffered a wrist injury after last year’s US Open.

But all was not bleak. She reconnected with one of the best coaches in the game, Nick Saviano, and reached the quarters in Miami, the semis in Strasbourg, and, in the first round of the French Open drew sister Venus Williams instead of Serena, whom she’s already lost to twice this year. Venus is not only the oldest player on the WTA Tour, she’s averse to clay and hasn’t reached the third round in Paris in five years.

So today, Sloane forgot her recent struggles, her lowly No. 41 ranking, and the fact that Venus has won seven Slams and was seeded No. 15. Instead, Stephens listened to her coach’s advice and focused on the fun of tennis and flashed much of the quick-twitch power and athleticism that dazzled us years ago. There was her marvelous first step, her lightning speed, her whiplash forehand and some impressive come-from-behind confidence. Venus suffered 30 unforced errors and swiftly fell 7-5, 6-1.

Now, is Sloane ready to rise again?

Maybe.

Again there are whispers of her being the next great thing. But not so fast. Even if she wins a couple more matches in Paris, Ms. Stephens could well face another Williams: one named Serena who, the last time we checked, is a pretty good player.

THE BUZZ

‘TIS FUN TO BLOW THINGS OUT OF PROPORTION: Broadcaster Paul Annacone said, “it is much more fun to blow things out of proportion.” But Frances Tiafoe, the most hyped American in years, didn’t follow the script. The first 17-year-old American man in Roland Garros since Michael Chang won the title in 1989 fell to Slovokia’s 36th-ranked Martin Klizan on a tiny back court. Tiafoe, who is now coached by the no-nonsense Jose Higueras, drew much comment. Annnacone said, “At this point he is going from adolescent tennis to pro tennis.” Martina Navratilova asserted that “the physical follows the mental,” that Tiafoe must first work on his mental game, that he needs to play junior tennis. “He has absolutely nothing to lose,” she noted.

Tiafoe said the experience wasdefinitely different, walking around, seeing the greats in the locker room.” The product of Maryland’s Junior Tennis Champions Center added, “It’s great. Definitely fun. I think I deserve to be there.”

Tiafoe’s foe Klizan said the kid had talent, but wasn’t sure whether he would be a top ten or a top 100 player. Tiafoe simply said, “I need to get a lot better.”

TOUGH TIMES FOR CIVILITY: Weeks ago Genie Bouchard refused to shake hands with her Fed Cup foe in Montreal. Then Jurgen Melzer suffered a bad sportsmanship lapse in Geneva. Yesterday, a fan spinted all the way across Courte Centrale to ask Federer for a selfie. Then today, after her loss, Venus Williams refused to do her required press conference, and after her win, Maria Sharapova declined to do an on-court interview. When the courtside announcer told the crowd that the Russian would not be talking to them because she wanted to change, the throng jeered. Later, Sharapova said their reaction was “completely understandable.”

A year ago Maria was sick before the French Open. This year the defending champion is fighting a cold. Writer Ben Rothenberg suggested that Maria sounds “odd today. Yelpier than usual, like a Bichon Frise when the postman comes.” Maria confided, “Unless I’m really in my coffin, I’m going to be out there.”

BETTING TIP OF THE DAY: When asked to comment on the winning streak of the recently wed Andy Murray, Jim Courier said, “I put it all down to marriage.” If that’s the case, folks, put your money on David Ferrer next December. In November, the Spaniard will be marrying his long-time girlfriend Marta Tornel.

SHOCKING COMMENTARY: After the young powerhouse Nick Kyrgios and Croatian teen Borna Coric both advanced, the New York Times’ Christopher Claredy tweeted, Am thinking the best next-generation matchup is going to be Kyrgios vs Coric. Shock and awe vs. Shock absorbed.”

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Americans have lost nine of their first ten matches … Former Wimbledon finalist Aga Radwanska lost to Annika Beck 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 after defeating Beck 6-0, 6-0 in their previous match. Commentator Nick Lester suggested, “This sport is so much about confidence. Radwanska is too good a player not to be in the top ten.”

THE DEBATE CONTINUES: Many still wonder how come Rafa Nadal was seeded No. 6. The nine-time French Open champ is 66-1 at Roland Garros, a master in five-set matches, and would be heavily favored if he faced No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych.


French Open: Calm and Chaos on Opening Day

SWISS ON-COURT PLEASURE AND OFF-COURT DISPLEASURE: The Swiss adore control—anarchists need not apply! They live their lives in perfect measure. You know the Alpine drill: Swiss precision, Swiss watches and Swiss (out of sight of prying eyes) bank accounts. Goodness, the Swiss tale goes that William Tell was in such control that he shot that apple off his son’s head.

Anyway, today, between the lines at the French Open, all was in splendid control for Switzerland’s two legendary players. Roger Federer, who likes to play on the first day of Grand Slams, won easily on Courte Centrale, and his fellow Swiss, Stan Wawrinka, easily beat a Turk. But Wawrinka thought an article on the French Open’s official website was a real turkey. The piece noted Yannick Noah‘s claim that whenever he fell in love he played his best tennis. It spoke of Andy Murray’s recent Scottish wedding in Dunblane and how his play on clay has soared ever since. But the piece then focused on Wawarinka’s recent separation from his wife and its supposedly problematic effect on his play.

There was chatter of a rumored relationship with a WTA player and a curious claim that he might have a problem concentrating on his first-round opponent, Marsel Ilhan, because Ilhan’s last name is similar to Stan’s ex-wife’s first name, Ilham.

Understandably, Wawrinka was livid, saying the piece was a “completely stupid article,” and it was on a Grand Slam’s official website, “so I hope the guy who did that article is not a journalist.” He said he hoped the editor is no longer working for the tournament because “a Grand Slam website should be … about the tennis and that’s it.” Stan added that it was not “great for the tournament to do that (expletive) article.” After two hours the piece was taken down and the author was fired.

No one fired Federer. But Roger was fired up when a teen fan jumped out on Courte Centrale just after his routine win over Columbian Alejandro Falla in order to get a not at all routine selfie with Fed. The fan put his hand on Roger’s shoulder before security belatedly intervened.

Federer was not happy. Later he reminded the media that there had been a similar incident in 2009 when a fan tried to put a hat on his head and, just this Saturday, fans entered his practice court. He added, “I think I can speak on behalf of all the players, that [the court is] where you do your job, that’s where you want to feel safe…Clearly I’m not happy about it. But nothing happened, so I’m relieved.”

French authorities claimed it was not any error of their security system, but the poor judgement of the guards on staff. However, The Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim scoffed, saying, “If players had the reaction times and footspeed of the security staff here, they wouldn’t make it out of qualies.”

BTW: Federer and Wawrinka could meet in the quarterfinals.

McENROE SAYS RAFA COULD FALL QUICKLY: Patrick McEnroe said, “Paris is a real crossroads tournament for Nadal. I don’t see him sticking around (in tennis) if he drops out of the top 10, if he loses relatively early, which is actually possible. It would be a huge psychological blow to him. Just the way he plays, there’s so much effort expended. He doesn’t have the same ease of just striking the ball as Djokovic and Federer.

“I hope it doesn’t happen,” said the outgoing head of the USTA’s Player Development group. “But it could be a very quick fall for him. Obviously his heart and his commitment will be there. If his body and his mind start to break down, then that would be his downfall. If reality sets in in a way that he doesn’t think he can do it anymore, he could be done pretty quickly.”

Roger Federer said it was disrespectful to dismiss Rafa’s chances in Paris, and Maria Sharapova agreed, saying: “Everyone expects so much of Rafa at this time of year … An individual loses a few matches having won this event nine times? To put so many question marks [against him] is a little bit disrespectful. He’s an incredible champion … His will and motivation to keep doing it, and to keep proving to himself that he can do it again, are pretty respectable.”

QUOTEBOOK

“I’m not gonna lie if it’s not 100% necessary.”—Rafa Nadal

“If you can play Sunday, play Sunday.”—Paul Annacone on the value of playing on opening day at Roland Garros

“He’s played the French Open as many years on Earth as he hasn’t.”—Ted Robinson on Roger Federer, 34, playing his 17th-straight French Open.

RANDOM NUMBERS: There are four moms in the top 200…According to Martina Navratilova, the chances of all eight of the top women players (Serena, Sharapova, Halep, Kvitova, Wozniacki, Bouchard, Ivanovic, Suarez Navarro) reaching the quarterfinals is 10,000:1.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The French Open gave a gluten-free, sugar-free 28th birthday cake to Novak Djokovic. Then the disciplined Serb spoke of how his strict diet has helped him big time … Gael Monfils and Roland Garros have teamed up to fight food waste at the French Open and are planning to give excess food to the needy.

IT JUST WOULDN’T BE RIGHT IF: Yes, there was an upset—a mild one—of a French player on opening day. Croatian eighteen-year-old Donna Vekic, No. 165, beat the No. 31 seed Caroline Garcia, who was once pegged for the very top. Oh yeah, Garcia also lost her opening round match last year.

THAT’S A RELIEF: Ernests Gulbis, the son of one of the richest men in Europe, has been in a horrendous slump. But last year’s finalist won today. Still, The Tennis Channel assured us that even if he had lost, there would have been no fundraisers for the wealthy Latvian.

JOHNSON’S UPSET WIN: The seven American men in the French Open all have tough draws. But at least Steve Johnson toughed out a hard-fought 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (1), 3-6, 6-3 win over the No. 26 seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. In college, his coach Peter Smith once warned Johnson that he might not get past his first practice at USC. Johnson went on to win 72 straight college matches. But once in the pros he struggled and thought that perhaps he’d won too much in college. One night he called his Dad. In tears, he said that maybe he just wasn’t good enough to make it. His dad insisted he soldier on—and Johnson did.

Commentator Paul Annacone recently said that, “from a player’s and coach’s view Johnson should be your model. He knows how to be professional. He takes what he has, maximizes it, and tries to get better.”


Parisian Ode: For Centuries, the Left Bank Has Inspired Dreamers and Free Thinkers

By Bill Simons

Europe draws us in.

From Stockholm to Rome, intimate villages and curious neighborhoods appeal. Istanbul, Mykonos, Sienna, Sevillle, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Edinburgh are all celebrated. But few are more compelling than Paris’ Odeon district, the Sixth Arrondissement, the jewel of the Left Bank.

Nearby, the ancient, still murky, waters of the Seine flow slowly. Notre Dame Cathedral’s storied towers loom high, and hordes of eager Sorbonne students still study hard, play easy and ask many a quixotic question.

But it is the street life of the Left Bank—the back alleys, bustling cafes, and hidden courtyards—that still delights with long-ago tales and fabled narratives.

Refugee, outcast, rebel, scoundrel and tourist have all walked these rough-hewn aging cobblestones.

There’s Café Procope, the oldest cafe in Paris, where coffee was introduced to already-hyper artists. Founding father Ben Franklin hung out there, and Papa Hemingway wrote at the nearby Les Deux Magots cafe.

Just a few blocks away is the print shop of the much-romanticized Marat, the people’s herald, who (before Hitchcock’s Psycho came along) suffered the most infamous of bathroom deaths, when he was knifed in his bathtub: quite a mess.

Death does lurk here. Centuries ago the good doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin popularized his guillotine, which was seen as a far more humane way to be executed than hanging. The gritty masses were gently reassured that when its heavy blade fell, all that King, Queen, or commoner would feel was “a light freshness on the neck.” “They chop off your head, we are told, then they put up a statue of you.”

Still, these streets were also a haven. Artist and author alike took refuge in tiny apartments, painting canvases and writing treatises, novels, and poems, in assorted cafes and amidst the greens of the nearby Luxembourg Gardens.

So we see L’Hôtel, where the broken genius Oscar Wilde came from a British world of fierce derision and painful imprisonment to the sweet freedom of a tiny 10′ by 10′ room (which you can now rent for $900 a night, thank you very much). Wilde coyly advised us, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

Maybe that’s it. This town has long been forgiving. Josephine Baker broke free of her clothes and danced. James Baldwin sought renewal. Jean-Paul Sartre changed mindsets, Albert Camus offered absurdist insights, and the iconic Gertrude Stein told us, “The good thing about France isn’t what France takes from you, it’s what France doesn’t take from you.”

Of course, Stein wasn’t always content. And after her pal Pablo Picasso painted her now-famous portrait, some bristled that she didn’t even look like it. Picasso countered, “She will.”

In the weathered passages of this throwback enclave, you see vestiges of the old academies that once ruled with a iron fist. They were the thought police of ideas, language, and the beaux arts. Oh well, these days you spot an avant-garde French fusion restaurant next to an old eatery that offers frogs legs. Wooden doors—weathered and massive—open to hidden worlds that were once filled with grand horses and elegant carriages, bonnets and berets. Over there is a reminder of England’s George Orwell, whose claim, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” somehow still rings true.

Every other corner has some intrigue. There’s the home of George Sand, the tiny woman rebel who in 1839 escaped with her dear companion Frederic Chopin to the Mediterranean to pen A Winter in Mallorca. Now, 177 years later, Mallorca’s Rafael Nadal comes here each May to write his singular history, “My Summer in Paris.” There’s an inspired black sculpture, now seemingly ignored and in disrepair. Its prime use is as a motorcycle parking station—high art, modest function.

Ancient jewels endure a dash of unkind blight. Culinary treats—rich sauces and sublime eclairs—delight as clanging garbage trucks roll by. This is not a museum. After all, it was ex-pat F. Scott Fitzgerald who told us, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

So, I turn the corner, not far from a pigeon-friendly statue of the long-forgotten politico Georges Danton, and come upon my favorite hedonistic spot in town: Dressage, the hair salon on 7 rue de l’Odéon. Such a nice place to be pampered—warm towels, long shampoos, lilting French accents. But then I suffer a kind of mental whiplash when I learn that the site used to be site of the storied La Maison des Amis des Livres (The House of the Friends of Books), which introduced the French to Hemingway and courageously resisted the Nazis.

Even now, decades later, this place remains irresistible.

Time and ideas, evolving arts and continental comforts—the alleys truly are a moveable feast, a place of celebration for free-thinkers and crazed dreamers who sought this haven to sip dark coffee and vintage wines as they jousted in high-voltage salons and crafted major wonders.

Here is an inspired cafe culture of intellectual adventurers and pilgrims of the soul, where brilliant minds somehow understood Gertrude Stein’s claim, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” The question remains: What better place is there on this earth to create telling insights of the mind, and eternal images of beauty?

Note: This piece was based in large part on a wonderful tour arranged by Travels With Soha. For in, please visit twstennistours.com


French Open: Ten Stories to Look for in Paris

By John Huston

1. RAFA’S REIGN VS. NOVAK’S SLAM CAMPAIGN: Before the draws were announced this morning, the big question was where nine-time Roland Garros champion Rafa Nadal would land. The dramatic answer: in Novak Djokovic‘s quarter. Stakes are high for both: Nadal is on the quest for an unprecedented 10th French Open title, while Djokovic is looking to complete a career Grand Slam and keep his hopes for a calendar Slam alive at a time when his dominance is arguably at an all-time high. Rafa heads into Paris staggering like a wounded general, with only one—count it, one—clay title to his name this year. (From Rio, no less.) Yet nothing brings his game to life quite like the red dirt and vast terrain of Court Philippe Chatrier. Djokovic has beaten Nadal before on clay in Monte Carlo and Italy, but he’s yet to solve the riddle of Rafa in France. Is 2015 his year?

2. CAN MARIA DEFEND HER CLAY QUEEN TITLE? Even a few weeks ago, Maria Sharapova seemed on shaky ground, but her game regained its sharpness in Italy, and now she enters the French with more momentum than Serena, who suffered a harsh loss to Petra Kvitova in Madrid, and withdrew early in Rome. Maria’s draw isn’t easy—Kaia Kanepi in the first round hits big and has reached week two in Paris, Sam Stosur looms as a potential third-round opponent, and Masha could meet her Stuttgart conqueror Angie Kerber in the quarters. But Sharapova’s tenacious ability to grind out come-from-behind three-set victories here makes her at least appear less vulnerable to upset than the other top women. It’s tempting to book a date for her in the final.

3. THE EVER-CHANGING ENIGMA THAT IS SERENA: On one level, Serena Williams has been in total command since last summer’s US hard court season, suffering only a pair of random losses. But as Matt Cronin has pointed out, as Serena strives to match Steffi Graf’s Slam count, her overall results are increasingly dotted with mid-tournament withdrawals. Last year, Garbine Muguruza knocked her off the court before she could gather herself and stage a comeback. This year, no such dangerous youngster beckons early on, but she could square off against Vika Azarenka—who had match points against her just a few weeks ago in Madrid—in the third round.

4. CAN KING ROGER TOPPLE A TOP-HEAVY DRAW AND RETURN TO RULE? It’s been almost three years since Roger Federer has won a Grand Slam, and he’s been erratic in Paris in recent years. Before this morning, his title chances din’t look so majestic. But then both newly clay-friendly Andy Murray and longtime nemesis Rafa wound up on Djokovic’s side of the draw, with Rafa and Djokovic’s possible quarterfinal date suggesting their road to the final will be punishing. It’s worth remembering that Federer is the last man not named Nadal to hoist the French Open trophy. The Parisian crowd’s crazed love for him should not be discounted either—it’ll be a factor as early as the third round, when he might face Gael Monfils, his opponent in the most dramatic match at last year’s US Open.

5. BONJOUR PARIS WITH ANDY AND AMELIE: He may have grown up training in Spain, but one could argue this is the first year that Andy Murray is a legitimate French Open contender. A shockingly clinical dismissal of Rafa in Madrid brought his first big clay title, and should he make the semis here, he could benefit from facing the battle-weary victor of a Djokovic-Nadal quarterfinal. (He’ll need that advantage: Djokovic in particular knows how to grind him down in best-of-five.) Don’t forget that Andy has a beloved French tennis icon as a coach, though one hopes for his sake that he doesn’t inherit her tendency to view the City of Light as a stage for nervy fright.

6. STEADY SIMONA, CRAFTY CARLA, AND UNPREDICTABLE PETRA: While it’s sometimes tempting to reduce the WTA to the Serena and Maria Show, the are some other top contenders on the women’s side. Simona Halep began her steady rankings ascent on clay in 2013, and last year she came close to surprising Sharapova in the most epic women’s Slam final in some time. Plus her draw looks easy on paper. But she’s shown some cracks as of late—Carla Suarez Navarro exposed her weaknesses in Italy, and potential third-round opponent Alize Cornet upset her in Stuttgart. What to say about Petra Kvitova? The reigning Wimbledon champ can pummel no less than Serena, but she’s also perfectly capable of losing to a random player ranked outside the top 100. Which Petra will show up in Paris? Your guess is as good as mine.

7. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS—WHO’LL BE THE LAST US HOPE? When Serena Williams won her second French Open title in 2013, she reversed—if only briefly—downtrending US fortunes at the clay Slam. With a proven record, not to mention “Le Coach” (to use the title of his much-discussed new book) Patrick Mouratoglou at her side, Serena is the undeniable top US hope in Paris. On the men’s side, big John Isner has performed best in recent years, but he has a tough first opponent in Federer’s Aussie Open conqueror Andreas Seppi. It’s never easy for an American in Paris: Jack Sock has drawn Grigor Dimitrov, Sam Querrey‘s faces off against teen phenom Borna Coric, Donald Young takes on clay vet Santiago Giraldo, and SoCal’s fighting Steve Johnson meets No. 26 seed Guillermo Garcia Lopez, whose game isn’t as dirt-focused as his name might suggest.

8. CLAY AND TENNIS FOR FRANCES: Perhaps it’s only fitting—a next-wave US hopeful named Frances, Frances Tiafoe, is making his main draw Grand Slam debut in France. In fact, Tiafoe favors hard courts, but he earned his place by winning the Har-Tru Wild Card Challenge, which helped launch Taylor Townsend to Roland Garros success last year.

9. NEW (AND OLD) NAMES MAKING THEIR MARK IN THE RED DIRT: Over the last decade, the clay game has produced a singular men’s champion—Rafa Nadal—and some random women’s winners. The uniqueness of the surface can set the stage for new faces: keep an eye out for young Russians Daria Gavrilova and Margarita Gasparyan. It can also spark some late-career magic (just ask 2010 champ Francesca Schiavone), and formidable clay talents such as 2010 finalist Sam Stosur and 2009 winner Svetlana Kuznetsova have shown recent signs of inspiration.

10. FIRST-ROUND DRAMA: For the men, first-round drama at Roland Garros usually means marathon battles in which grizzled tour regulars display heroics—in fact, there was already a match in qualifying that went to 27-25 in the final set. For the women, drama can arrive in the form of an upset—none more stunning than Virginie Razzano handing Serena her first-ever Slam first-round defeat in 2012—or a diva battle. Potential upset victims: Ana Ivanovic, up against Yaroslava Shvedova; and free-falling Eugenie Bouchard, whose opponent Kristina Mladenovic is currently in the finals in Strasbourg and beat Li Na in the first round here last year. As for the diva battle, this time it’s intergenerational, and first-name-only applies: Venus vs. Sloane.


The French Open: Top 17 Questions

By Bill Simons

1. Can Rafa defy the doubters, go “double digits” and win his 10th French?

2. Is the top quarter of the draw—the so-called “draw of death”—one of the toughest ever?

3. How great a run would it be if Djokovic wins the title by beating Tomic, Gasquet, Nadal, Murray and Federer?

4. If Nadal and Djokovic end up playing each other, will their match be the most anticipated Slam quarterfinal match ever (or at least in recent memory)?

5. Can the most devastating “Cow on Ice,” Ms. Sharapova, defend her title and win her third Roland Garros?

6. Can Serena win and continue her quest for the Grand Slam?

7. How long can the recently married Andy Murray continue his astounding unbeaten streak on clay?

8. Can a guy outside the Big Four—say the impressive Kei Nishikori, veteran Tomas Berdych, the long promising Grigor Dimitrov, or even Aussie sensation Nick Kyrgios—break through?

9. Can a WTA player not named Serena or Sharapova hold up the trophy? Perhaps Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, or Angelique Kerber?

10. Will home fave Gael Monfils end up playing Federer in the fourth round, and if so, will he give Roger fits like he did at last year’s US Open, and in front of an intense French crowd like he did in the Davis Cup?

11. Can old Federer, 33, amaze and win his second French Open and first Slam in over three years?

12. Can an American man last a week? Isner has a good draw, but Jack Sock faces Grigor Dimitrov in the first round.

13. Who will go further, a young American woman—perhaps Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Madison Brengle or even Taylor Townsend—or an elder named Venus, 34, who might have to face sister Serena in the third round?

14. Can the young American flash, wildcard Frances Tiafoe, win a round or two?

15. Can US Open sensation Cici Bellis go far in the juniors?

16. Can the Bryan brothers win their third RG and 15th Slam?

17. Can a French man win the French Open?


Venus Williams: Serene at the Edge of a Volcano

By Bill Simons

She was thin, wide-eyed, a tad scared, and not so sure what she was getting into. That was Venus Williams when I saw her play her first pro match at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. Just 16, she was a waif taking on the world. The New York Times and CNN were court-side, and all of tennis was curious.

So what about this little kid from the ‘hood?

The hype machine revved up and amplified the astounding claim of her boisterous pop, who insisted, “Venus [is] pretty much ready to revolutionize tennis. These pro girls will have a major-league problem dealing with her.”

“Really?” wondered the skeptics.

“If everybody believed everything they read about her,” said Martina Navratilova, “We might as well all go home, because Venus Williams is going to beat everybody.”

“Yeah,” said Chris Evert, “She’s the greatest that ever lived.”

So there kid-Venus was: a little girl, storming the formidable bastions of a very foreign, very white universe, and a world of lofty expectations.

In this context, could she be anything but intense? This was not the cerebral, deferential, user-friendly Arthur Ashe. Venus was steel.

Early at one Miami championship, Venus predicted that when she became No. 1, her sister Serena would be her chief competition. The bold but prescient claim prompted Martina Hingis to quip, “Oh, that’s nice … I didn’t have that much self-confidence after winning one match.”

Soon there were feuds with fellow players about just who kicked whose tennis bag. Fans gasped as they witnessed “the bump,” Romanian Irina Spirlea’s collision with Venus during a US Open changeover. There were ongoing claims that papa Richard Williams was fixing matches when his daughters played, and then came that troubling day at Indian Wells after Venus suddenly withdrew from her semifinal match against Serena. Life was not easy.

No wonder Venus and Serena were inseparable. “You and me, baby, against the world!” they appeared to shout. And they took up plenty of oxygen. They were the talk of tennis.

“It’s like all of my press conferences … are about Venus and Serena,” complained Kim Clijsters. “I would really appreciate it if they were about my tennis or something.”

From the outset, dissing the Williams clan was a kind of ‘go-to’ reflex. For starters, they were criticized for shunning junior tennis. They were said to stick too tightly together. Fort Williams had few cracks, few were let in.

Never mind celebrating their father’s inexplicable genius. Critics routinely dismissed him as a hater, a self-centered, controlling, racist buffoon.

Then it was said that Venus and Serena didn’t focus enough on tennis, and they drew heat for not playing Indian Wells. Sometimes the Williams criticisms were a tad too blunt and envious. “She thinks she’s the f—ing Venus Williams,” said Venus’s livid foe Irina Spirlea. And sometimes the putdowns were just delightfully nonsensical. After losing the 1998 Miami final, Anna Kournikova claimed, “Venus didn’t beat me. I lost. That means I’m a little better than her.” Got it.

Sadly, there were times the commentaries had racial undertones. Venus and Serena were pegged as just “athletes” and bashers who were explosive and could run. But they weren’t craftswomen, or thinkers, and they desperately needed professional coaching. Their mother Oracene countered this, saying her daughters didn’t get the credit they deserved: “No way. Because black people are always [viewed as] just athletes. They’re strong and tough and they can’t think. They’re not intelligent.”

Of course, the Williamses’ tall, broad and powerful bodies drew attention and ramped up the game. But not everyone was pleased. “I’m not Venus Williams. I’m not Serena Williams,” said Kournikova, “I’m feminine. I don’t want to look like they do. I’m not masculine like they are.” And just last fall, Shamil Tarpsichev, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, referred to Venus and Serena as “the Williams brothers” and said, “It is scary when you really look at them.”

Actually, when you really look at Venus and Serena, you can’t avoid a simple reality. They transformed tennis.

Venus told Elle magazine, “Serena and I are exactly the opposite of anything that ever happened before in the game. The old tennis world was pretty reserved, but Serena and I are bold. We stand out. We have color. We’re strong. We’re pretty. We have personality. We think things out. We’re smart.”

Sure, the critics howled that the blunt, less-than-sweet Williamses were arrogance incarnate. Hardly a wallflower, Venus didn’t hesitate to show up at press conferences with in-your-face T-shirts like the one that read, “Strong, smart, confident, equal.” Often they would tweak the media. When asked if she wanted to win an Academy Award, Venus joked, “You can’t really beat winning [an Oscar], but you can always win Wimbledon.”

Well, she’s won five times at the All-England Club. But not everyone got the joke. Jon Wertheim contended, “The Williams sisters wield authority like no other players. Were they male, we would applaud their ‘intensity,’ their ‘competitive streak,’ their ‘ferocity.’ Because they are women—black women, no less—they are ‘catty,’ and they are ‘trash talkers.’ To quote John McEnroe, ‘They lack humility.’”

Some spoke of the Williamses’ “willed obliviousness” to others. Fair enough. Venus was always unapologetic and rarely hesitated to pour fuel on the fire. She claimed, “People criticize me for being arrogant, [but maybe it’s] because I’m a little smarter than the others.”

No wonder Mary Carillo noted, “This woman and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.”

More than that, Venus has “summited” many a tennis mountain. The Jehovah’s Witness—who’s been partial to karaoke, Asian antiques and Harry Potter—has won 46 singles tournaments, including seven Grand Slam singles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. She’s been ranked No. 1, has won Olympic gold in both singles and doubles, pocketed about $64 million, and been in the top ten for 13 of her incredible 17 years. When Venus was rising, Navratilova confided, “I’m glad I never had to play her. She’s just too long, too fast. She’s so imposing, you feel like you’ve got no place to go. She makes you feel you need to hit a better shot than you’re really capable of.”

Bottom line: it’s hard to question Venus when she says, “If I had listened to everyone else, then I would never have made it out of Compton. I’m living in Palm Beach Gardens now. It’s pretty nice.”

What’s also nice is that we relish our Venus memories: the lean, ecstatic champion leaping with joy after beating Lindsay Davenport in a classic Wimbledon final. We recall the best older sis in sports, hugging Serena after they won Olympic gold, and we remember a reflective champion poignantly explaining how she was confronting Sjogren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping malady no one should have to battle.

More than anything, we’ve delighted in witnessing the raw, wide-eyed girl morph into an appealing woman of substance—confident and brimming with joy and an easy gravitas. Once a bit of a flamethrower, she stepped up in the best tradition of Billie Jean King to lead the fight for equal pay. When the Israeli Shahar Peer was banned by a Middle Eastern tourney, she insisted ‘no way,’ and stepped up to right a rather wretched wrong. Now she’s blossomed into a multitasking talent who, despite her complaints about Accounting 101, is working on an online degree in business from Indiana University. She’s an entrepreneur with her own interior design company, and a clothing business, EleVen. All the while she’s also a bit of a goofy, self-deprecating comic who refers to herself as a big kid and still loves to giggle. The woman who 11 years ago told us that she “was older than I used to be,” recently informed us that she has “been around since the dinosaurs.” At the Aussie Open she confided, “This old cat still has a few tricks left in the bag.” Apparently so. This year she has wins over Aga Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur. She won in Auckland, reached the semis in Doha, the quarters at the Australian Open and in Miami, and has risen to No. 15 in the rankings.

Now Venus is mellow, empathetic and reflective. When told that Li Na was pregnant, she beamed and said, “How sweet.” When speaking of her interior designs, she sounded Zen-like, explaining, “The principle of the design … [is] harmony, rhythm and balance, [which] are all the same with interior and fashion design.”

You’ve come a long way, baby. Venus Ebony Starr Williams now inspires.

It’s no surprise that many of America’s top young prospects, such as Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend, are women of color who feel empowered to follow in her footsteps.

Serene, minimalist and comfortable in her own skin, Venus tells us that she has “a good life, a good family, and a good little dog. I couldn’t ask for more … My whole view is that I’m really blessed to be here. I’m living the dream.”

And for 17 years, tennis has been captivated by her transformative dream. Sure, the sisters used to attract doubters. Now they attract accolades.

Tennis showman Arlen Kantarian said, “Venus and Serena are to tennis what the Yankees are to baseball; what the Lakers are to basketball; what Tiger Woods is to golf. Only in our sport it comes in a pair.”

Billie Jean King claimed, “They provide more drama, more bang for the buck, than anyone else in the sport. Their drive to come back, their will to win, is unequaled.”

John McEnroe went further, saying that Venus and Serena are “the greatest story in sports history”

Then, of course, there was the greatest of all Williams compliments, when journalist Gianni Clerici told us, “What tennis needs is a third sister.”

True enough, but let’s not be greedy.

After all, singular Venus and that little sister of hers have lit up our tennis lives like no other duo. And that’s more than enough.


David Letterman—Our Top 10 Tennis List

By Bill Simons

The dictionary says a letterman is a “student who has earned a letter in an interscholastic or intercollegiate activity, especially a sport.” We say the definition of Letterman is a TV whiz who gained our admiration through comedic activity, especially late at night.

In honor of his final show after 33 years, here’s our David Letterman Top 10 list:

10. Some initially shy away from Dave. For instance, at first Lindsay Davenport chose not to go on the show for fear of his sometimes blistering barbs. But Serena, who loves the spotlight and high-profile banter, has been on many times. She often chatted about grunting, and said Monica Seles was “the first person I knew who used to grunt really loud, so [she's] who I modeled my grunt after.” Then there was the show where she blasted a forehand through the window of Letterman’s neighbor Rupert Jee’s much-celebrated Hello Deli.

9. Not surprisingly, there have been many references to drink on The Late Show. After Novak Djokovic asked if Dave can do splits like he does, Letterman said, “Well, when I used to drink.” Then there was the charming Marat Safin. The Russian, who had one of the best deadpan senses of humor in tennis, told Letterman that he drank vodka everyday: “Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

8. After John McEnroe‘s short-lived CNBC-TV talk show failed, we wrote, “Sadly, from the beginning, the hour was saddled with too many clunky moments, with little of the seamless spontaneity, conversational aplomb or comedic genius that we take for granted on Leno and Letterman.”

7. In 1989, Letterman spoke to Jimmy Connors about auditioning to become the host of Wheel of Fortune and then said Ilie Nastase ”was the first solid goofball in tennis.” Connors interrupted and said he was Nastase’s “student.”

6. Andy Roddick confided that when he tossed the first pitch out at Yankee Stadium, he went for “disaster control” and threw “a high powder puff” pitch. But it went over the catcher.

5. After Rafa Nadal told Dave that the people in Spain don’t understand Mallorcans like him because they speak too fast, Letterman asked, “Ever been to Trenton?”

4. The Late Show went from sultry (pop sensation Lorde singing a version of “Tennis Court” in 2014) to silly (our favorite Stupid Pet Trick: a golden retriever from Houston who lifted a tennis ball with his paws) to serious and thoughtful. Reflecting on his childhood in Belgrade, Novak Djokovic contended that “most people would agree that war is something that doesn’t bring any good to anyone … You see the planes flying over and you hear the bombs and people running away and crying and buildings burning … You were worried for your survival. But most importantly, we stayed together as a people and and a family and it made us stronger … It has been a big part of my mental strength.”

3. After talking about how he was once his own worst enemy, was depressed, and hated tennis, Andre Agassi discussed his use of crystal meth and then told the tale of how his mullet hairdo was actually a wig. He confided that the night before his first Grand Slam final in Paris, he used the wrong conditioner and the wig began to disintegrate. Andre said he used 50 bobby pins just to secure it and he prayed it would stay on. His brother Philip comforted him, saying, “I think it will stay on—just don’t move.” Letterman responded by saying, “It’s tennis, try not to move around. They’ll hit it right to you.” Andre asked, “What better way to hide your inner self than to wear a mullet?” Then a mullet was dropped down on a hook from the rafters of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Later, Dave spoke of meeting Agassi’s wife Steffi Graf, saying, “The aura of this woman, she’s so perfectly constructed as an athlete,” at which point Agassi interrupted and said, “Watch out, you’re getting pretty close, Dave.” Letterman continued, “I’ve never seen a woman with this aura in my life … and I thought this was a wonderful experience for me.”

2. Our favorite Letterman-like Top 10 list that we concocted was Steve Wanczyk’s “Top 10 Advantages to the Davis Cup Being Played in Las Vegas.” The list included such items such as “Nuclear test sites can double as press area,” “Everyone can stay at Agassi‘s house,” “Before serving, players can have fans blow on tennis balls for good luck,” “Chair Ump Wayne Newton,” “Two words: radioactive balls,” and “Line judges dress like Elvis.”

1. Pete Sampras once confessed, “I know I’m not David Letterman when it comes to interviews.” But he was great on the show. After Dave asked what made him upchuck at the the US Open against Alex Corretja, Pete said it was because he had “watched Jay Leno the night before.”


The Buzz: ‘Tallyho’ for Tiafoe, Hingis’s Hot Year, and the Tennis-Boxing Connection

By Bill Simons

‘TALLYHO’ FOR TIAFOE: A year ago, Frances Tiafoe was a highly-hyped US prospect at the French Open who practiced with Nadal in front of cameras and lost in junior play on a back court. Now, after reaching the finals in a Tallahassee challenger, the Junior Tennis Champions Center product won the Har-Tru Wildcard Challenge to gain entry into Roland Garros. The seventeen-year old, who has turned pro, will be the first player born in 1998 to play in a major.

Years ago, when Tiafoe’s father, who is from Sierra Leone, became the janitor at the JTCC, his son had to sleep overnight in a small, closet-like storage room at the center. Tiafoe’s tale brings to mind the backstory of Pancho Segura, whose dad was a caretaker at Ecuador’s most exclusive tennis club; Arthur Ashe, whose dad was a caretaker of the public court and park in front of their Virginia house; and David Ferrer, whose coach locked him up in a shed to discipline him as a boy.

THE BOXING CONNECTION: Boxing and tennis have long been compared. It’s you vs. me baby in the ring and on the court—by ourselves, relying on our wits. It’s international. There are no excuses. Foot speed, timing, guts, stamina and a knockout punch help. John McEnroe once wrote that tennis is “an unforgiving, sometimes brutal, sport … It is like being undressed in public and about as lonely as boxing. At least in boxing, if you freeze, some guy will … pop you and put you out of your misery. In tennis, there is no escape.” Boxer Tex Cobb was more succinct. “If you screw up in tennis,” he said, “It’s 15-love. If you screw up in boxing, it’s your ass, darlin’.”

Caroline Wozniacki used boxing as part of her training, Lennox Lewis is a big tennis fan, and Sugar Ray Leonard was a good player. Andy Murray, a huge boxing enthusiast, has said the stylish Federer is like Sugar Ray; the ferocious powerful, relentless Nadal is like Manny Pacauiao; Djokovic and Roberto Duran are “as tough and versatile as they come,” and Floyd Mayweather is like himself—and Murray’s favorite to watch.

QUOTEBOOK:

“Thank you sir, at the top of the stands. We’re trying to play tennis here.”—The ever-intense ump Marija Čičak, in Miami.

“I didn’t want to go to Russia.”—Andrea Petkovic, on why she dug deep to fight back and win a match in Charleston.

“Why do people keep looking forward to the next event when it means you will never enjoy the now?”—Wimbledon junior champ Noah Rubin.

“It’s more about the player than the coach … I never needed a former champion to be my coach.” —Rafa Nadal

“O Rafa, Rafa! Wherefore art thou, Rafa?”—Marine Coroller, on Twitter.

“I find it very interesting to play tennis. It’s like running your own business.”—Roger Federer

“It’s too bad they can’t build a roof over Munich and collect the water and ship it to California. It would make everyone happier.”—Daily Tennis

“I can’t beat guys consistently playing like I’m 5’10.”—6’10″ John Isner

“As soon as it [a loss in Charleston] was over, I definitely had a bit of anger, but also kind of this confusion-slash-quest, to find what’s wrong, like this kind of searching feeling that, ‘OK, I know something … something’s not right. So I want to find it.’”—Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard, currently suffering a wretched slump.

“She’s like the Daniel Nestor of the women’s tour.”—Pam Shriver, about 41-year-old veteran doubles specialist Lisa Raymond.

“April 30: one of the saddest dates in tennis history. Always think of what should have been for Monica Seles.“—Christopher Clarey, recalling the 1993 stabbing of the great star.

HINGIS’S HOT YEAR: In her day, Martina Navratilova hesitated a long time before retiring. She won the US Open mixed doubles title when she was almost 50. Amazing! The other Martina—Hingis, that is—is sort of doing the same. This year she’s on an incredible roll in doubles. Almost 20 years after her first Grand Slam, and almost a decade since her last Slam title, Hingis won a major in January when she teamed with Leander Paes to take the Aussie Open mixed doubles crown. In women’s doubles, the 34-year-old, who is now ranked No. 4, won in Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston with Sania Mirza, and in Brisbane with Sabine Lisicki.

A GOOD DEBATE: College tennis already has a great circus-like feel, with six matches sometimes going on simultaneously. Now schools are debating just how rowdy crowds are allowed to be.


The Quest: The Rise of Warrior Steve Johnson

By Bill Simons

USC coach Peter Smith was worried. He cautioned his new recruit, a freshman from Orange County, that he might not be able to make it past the team’s first practice.

Wrong. Steve Johnson, who first picked up a racket when he was two, went on to lead USC to four straight NCAA championships, win two individual NCAA crowns, and 72 straight matches.

Trojans roll. Big man on campus.

Next up for Steve was lighting up the circuit—no big deal. The leader of the greatest college dynasty ever was about to rock the ATP.

But Steve was in for a shock—a douse of cold water. Never mind the men of Troy—the college boy who dominated campus battles was put in his place by the men of the ATP Tour. The crushing losses were unrelenting. “Welcome to the real world, Rook,” the grizzled pros seemed to say.

For all its glitzy allure, at its core, pro tennis is a brutal reality. Just win, baby. It’s totally Darwinian—survival of the fittest is its unrelenting engine. Unless you’re a phenom, you’d better get grinding.

Johnson grinded. The setbacks continued. “I took the losses pretty hard,” Johnson told ESPN.com. “Every time I would lose, it would be such a shock to the system. Mentally … [it] got to me.”

So, did Johnson win too much at USC? Steve confided to Nick McCarvel, “I didn’t lose much in college, so to lose every week, it sucked … I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe this isn’t for me. Maybe I peaked in college. All of these crept into my head.’” His then-coach, Craig Boynton, conceded that Johnson didn’t “know how to lose. In the pros you will lose just about each week.”

Plus, the suddenly nomadic Johnson missed his friends and parents. (Coach Smith called Steve’s math professor mom and tennis teaching pro dad “the two most solid parents I’ve ever been around.”) But Steve had had it. So, one night he called home and tearfully told his beloved father Steve, “I’m just not good enough.” But his Dad—a tennis whiz who has taught for over three decades—stood firm. “Just hang in there,” he advised.

So Johnson trudged on, continuing his often agonizing quest, and has been on the rise ever since. He beat both Aussie Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis and giant Kevin Anderson in one heady day in New Zealand. And he won Challengers in Aptos, Auckland and Guadeloupe.

Sure, analysts noted that his serve wasn’t as big as John Isner’s. His forehand wasn’t as massive as Jack Sock’s. He wasn’t as quick as Donald Young, nor was he as charismatic as Andy Roddick.

So what? Wise, young, no-frills Johnson attained a superb self-awareness. He knew his sport—he knew his game. Level-headed, composed, and relishing a certain new resilience, a product of the ATP school of hard knocks, he now speaks of wanting to play aggressively while staying within himself, of executing his own skill sets, of upgrading his weaker backhand side and using the right mentality and the right goals to his advantage. “From a player’s and coach’s view,” says Paul Annacone, “he should be your model. He knows how to be professional. He takes what he has, maximizes it, and tries to get better.” And Annacone has coached a couple of fairly professional players: Sampras and Federer.

In the past four seasons, Johnson has improved with a dogged consistency, and last year his ranking leapt 120 spots. He’s beaten John Isner, Ernests Gulbis and Tommy Haas, and when he reached the third round of this year’s Aussie Open, there was talk of the greatest team player in college history being named to our Davis Cup team. But his results flatlined a bit, and his ranking dipped from a career high of 37 to 54. Still, fans noted his considerable assets: the strong serve he uses to set up his foes, his penetrating forehand and his all-business fighting skills.

He’s not only learned how to manage losses—he’s learned how to win, and has settled into the top 60. No wonder—at the Aussie Open, when The Mighty Fed passed by the Californian, he greeted Johnson, saying, “Heeey, Stevie J.” Not bad for a kid who five years ago was ranked No. 636 and started sports by bopping beach balls with his Dad.

These days Johnson wins the matches he’s supposed to. Already this year he has 15 wins, and nine of the last 11 players he’s lost to have been in the top 30.

Yes, questions remain. Does he have the game to break into the top 20? Will he make the Davis Cup team? Still, there can be no doubt that Stevie J is one mighty Trojan warrior.

You must watch this video: Write My Essay

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