In Praise of Ethiopian Backhands and Other Indian Wells Observations

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By Bill Simons

IN PRAISE OF ETHIOPIAN BACKHANDS: Writer Bill Dwyre noted, “We get so much nationalism shoved down our throats by NBC during any Olympics that occasionally rooting for somebody from Ethiopia to hit a winning backhand feels kind of nice.”

SHE WAS THERE WHEN HISTORY WAS MADE: Maria Sharapova, fresh from her job as an Olympic correspondent for NBC, said with some pride that she was there when Bob Costas first came down with his now-famous case of pink eye.

“GEE, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT”: A reporter said to Agnieszka Radwanska, “It’s your birthday today, and you know, your age changes on your birthday. Are you feeling old?”

ADVANTAGE CHEESECAKE: Radwanska, who has an endorsement contract with The Cheesecake Factory, was asked which stroke in tennis is most helped by cheesecake. She said the drop shot.

YOU SAY RODDICK, I SAY RADEK: Just a couple of years ago, you would hear cries of “Come on, Roddick!” to encourage Texan Andy Roddick. But this year the crowd yelled “Come on Radek!” to encourage the crafty Radek Stepanek in his second-round match against beloved Indian Wells defending champion Rafa Nadal.

Stepanek is a wicked seasoned veteran who gives you no rhythm. Every point is different. You never want to face him, but especially in the early rounds. Sure, he may be more accomplished in doubles than in singles. (He’s now No. 4 in doubles and No. 50 in singles.) And, as good as Stepanek’s record is on the circuit (he was once ranked No. 8 and has won almost $10 million), he is even better in Davis Cup play—just ask a Serbian tennis fan on your block. Still, Stepanek is hardly cowed by the best. He and Leander Paes brought down the finest doubles team in history, the Bryan Brothers, en route to winning the US Open in September, and he was up a break in the third set against Federer in Dubai in February, before Roger restored sanity to the tennis universe.

In six meetings against Radek, Nadal had never lost. So there were no worries. Then again, Rafa did suffer a horrendous second-round loss to No. 135 Steve Darcis in the first round at Wimbledon last summer, and he recently dropped the Aussie Open final—where he was an overwhelming favorite—to Stan Wawrinka.

But while Nadal’s blisters had healed, his back wasn’t back to 100 percent. Rafa later conceded, “With my serve, I was doing nothing.”

Serving well, and quick to the net, Stepanek sprinted out to a 4-1 lead before closing out the first set 6-2. Then, after dropping the second set 6-4, the Czech had three break points, which, if he’d converted, would have given him a commanding 4-2 lead in the decider. But Nadal is arguably the best competitor in the men’s game, and thanks in part to a brilliant cross-court backhand winner in a marathon rally, he fought back from 0-40 and went on to break Stepanek at five-all. Nadal’s 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 win brought huge relief to his pal, tournament owner Larry Ellison, and 16,000 or so partisans at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, who adore the bronze Spaniard with the sweet smile, the nasty forehand, and the abundantly clear ability to win tennis matches.

STILL VERTICAL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: Jimmy Connors confided, “I’ve had three hip replacements. But I’m still standing.”

WHO NEEDS EPICS? After Maria Sharapova concurred with Billie Jean King and said men’s matches at Slams should be the best of three sets, not five, British writer Barry Flatman tweeted, “Yes, very sensible, Maria. Who needs epics like Nadal-Fed at Wimb ’08? Or Wawrinka-Djoko in Australia this year. Keep best of 5.”

A LACK OF FIRE IN AMERICAN TENNIS: In a scathing critique of American tennis in the LA Times, American coach Jose Higueras told Bill Dwyre that our players are “lacking competitiveness … They’ve got good backhands and forehands and serves, but they lack an understanding of how the game needs to be played. We have good coaches, but the culture of our players needs to improve … I won’t use the excuse you hear all the time about all the good US athletes playing football or basketball. Sure, if we didn’t have football and basketball in this country, there would be more guys playing tennis. But it’s an easy crutch. If our players were European, things would be different. Being No. 80 in the world wouldn’t be enough then … When a high percentage of the coaches want it more than the players, we have a problem.”

DOES SAM STILL HAVE THE FIRE? Sam Querrey, who’s had a rough start this year, was asked about his desire and motivation after being out on the tour for many a year. The laid-back 6′ 6″ Californian said, “Yeah, it definitely gets a little … difficult. Sometimes tournaments aren’t as exciting because you have played them eight or nine times. For the most part, I still have the motivation. When you see some of these older guys like Tommy Haas and Federer and Ferrer, you know, doing well into their 30s, it gives me a lot of motivation that hopefully my best years are still ahead of me.”

NEVER AGAIN—MURRAY MUSINGS ON SCOTLAND, AMERICA, AND THE UKRAINE: When Inside Tennis asked Andy Murray about his statement in fellow pro Alexandr Dolgopolov‘s video calling for peace in the Ukraine, the Scot said, “As athletes and tennis players, we obviously travel around the whole world … There are probably players playing from 80, 90 countries here; it’s a truly global sport. Any time we can sort of help support one of the other players, or when it’s a situation like that, I think we do a pretty good job of it.”

We then asked Murray, who has a place in Miami and has done well in the US, what he thought of America. “I love the States,” said Andy. “I have loved it since the first time I came for the Orange Bowl when I was 11 years old. I just enjoy the positivity of the people here. You know, wake up at 6 in the morning and go to Starbucks and, you know, the person that’s serving you just genuinely seems happy to see you. They are awake and just very positive, have a positive outlook on life. It’s not the case everywhere. That’s why I always enjoy coming here, and why I spend my off-seasons training here and why I have made Miami my sort of second home, because people are very positive.”

Murray was also asked how he’s going to face the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. This is really a hot potato in the United Kingdom, where a popular joke among the English is that Murray is Scottish when he is losing and English when he is winning. Plus, Murray caused a furor when he joked before the 2006 Soccer World Cup that he was rooting for any team but Britain. Since then, Murray has been most cautious. In Indian Wells, the defending Wimbledon champion—who often draws Scottish national Sean Connery to his matches—confided that he would “take a position, but, you know … I can’t vote. I’m not allowed to vote, so my thoughts on it aren’t that relevant … And, yeah, I wouldn’t personally choose to make my feelings on something like that public, either, because not a whole lot of good comes from it. I don’t know a whole lot about politics, and I have made that mistake in the past, and it’s caused me a headache for like seven or eight years of my life, and a lot of abuse. So I wouldn’t consider getting involved in something like that ever again.”

NOT EXACTLY A FAN OF DOUBLES: Asked why she doesn’t play doubles, Li Na said, “I think doubles court for me too small … Maybe last time I play doubles was 2007. Or I play Olympics I think with a young girl. When I was stand[ing on the] court I didn’t know what I have to do. Even [when] I return, I was feeling the court so small. Everywhere is people. I cannot do it … You have to, how do you say, talk to your opponent all the time. Yeah.” When a reporter suggested it would help her serve and volley, Li pivoted and said, “That would be good idea. Maybe I will think about [it].”

BOOT CAMP: Victoria Azarenka has been in a boot for three weeks due to an ankle injury. She also had a fundraiser at the Malibu Racket Club with Serena Williams that raised over $1 million. But, despite being No. 4 in the world, she was crushed in her opening match by Cleveland’s little-known (and little in stature) Lauren Davis, 6-0, 7-6 (2). Davis is ranked No. 66, and there was much speculation about whether Azarenka should have finished the match, or even played in the tournament.

ANOTHER FEDERER MILESTONE: By winning in Dubai, Roger Federer moved ahead of John McEnroe on the all-time list of tournament winners, with a 78th singles title. Only Jimmy Connors with 109 titles and Ivan Lendl with 94 remain above the 32-year-old Swiss, who hadn’t won a tournament since Halle last June. Federer took Dubai by scoring come-from-behind wins over No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 6 Tomas Berdych, dropping the first set in both matches. It was also Roger’s first tournament win with his new, larger-head racket. “It was a switch I wanted to do for a long time, he said. “I tried a racket in Hamburg and Gstaad last year, and felt it was a good one, but wasn’t quite what I liked the most. It just felt totally different to what I was playing with before.” Roger added, “I have only just switched, and here I am, already got to the finals in Brisbane, semis at the Australian Open, won my Davis Cup match, and now here I am with a trophy. So now it’s not in the back of my mind anymore: ‘Is this racket good or not?'”

QUOTEBOOK:

“Roger cares. He’s done everything and yet he plays like he’s done nothing.”—An Indian Wells fan in section 5, on Roger Federer

“It is absolutely amazing … now it is even more exciting to come back.”—Federer, on the new Stadium 2

“Yeah, at least I’m still in the tournament.”—Li Na, on her narrow first-round win.

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