Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wimble-Done



If you listened to the first podcast, you know that my favorite tennis player is Andy Roddick and that my brother's boy is James Blake.

As of today, Wimbledon 2008 is over for both of the poor saps. This year's tournament is now officially the worst showing for American men at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in the Open Era (since 1968).

Blake was the first Red, White and Blue domino to fall when he dropped a back-and-forth five-setter to Germany's Rainer Schuettler on a grandstand court. James had the aging German down two sets to one and was up 3-1 in the fourth when he lost five out of the next six games to force a deciding fifth set.

Blake had won three of his last four five-set affairs after being 0-for-career until last year. The recent run of success didn't seem to matter as the final set arrived on-serve at 4-5. Schuettler broke Blake to win the match in front of a lively, late-arriving bleacher crowd on Court 3, a congregation that included Blake's high-school classmate John Mayer.

So the No. 9 seed was out, and now American tennis fans looked to Roddick's Center Court showdown with bespectacled Serb Janko Tipsarevic. We should have seen the letdown coming, as Tipsarevic took Roger Federer to an extended fifth set at the Australian Open in January and Andy has gotten into a bad habit of playing too defensively on his return, allowing his opponents to build confidence on their service games.

Roddick took the first set in a 7-5 tiebreak, then was on serve at 5-all in the second before a couple of loose forehands gave the Serb the break he was looking for. Soon enough, we were at 5-6 in the fourth with Tipsy serving for what he hoped would be a clinching tiebreak. The spectre of what he was about to do got the best of the 40th-ranked player in world, and it was quickly 15-40, with Roddick holding two set points.

A good body serve from the Serb and it was 30-40. On the next point, a missed first serve set up what should have been a huge return from Andy, a winner to hastily arrange a fifth set. Instead, Roddick tried some sort of slice forehand off of Tipsy's bloop second serve. Predictably for a long-time Roddick follower like me, the ball tepidly splashed into the net. Deuce, with the lower-seeded player subsequently holding serve.

The ensuing tiebreak played out in similarly frustrating fashion. Roddick was finally attacking more often, but by now his nerves got the better of him and he couldn't execute his shots well enough. Game, set and match, as they say.

A loss at Wimbledon is always doubly depressing, because now you realize there is only one more major left in the year to make your mark. Or at least that's how I'd feel if I were on the ATP Tour. After coming so close at Wimbledon (or, excuse me, "the Championships, Wimbledon") in the middle part of this decade, Roddick has been bashing his head against the ivy-covered walls at the All-England Club, relying too much on his serve to get the job done. I mentioned in last week's podcast that watching him play, at Wimbledon especially, is exhausting because it seems like he's counting on the tiebreak nine sets out of 10. That simply puts too much pressure on the serve.

Against a player with a middling serve like Tipsarevic, Andy doesn't take advantage of his chances to dictate the point. He has the power off the groundstrokes to scare some people if he just took some more big cuts and stopped succumbing to the kind of long rallies that neutralize his strengths. When he was playing his best in recent Grand Slams, he was limiting the number of shots per point and going for big winners more often.

Time is running out for Andy; he's 25 in a sport that rarely sees major contenders last to the brink of 30. He still has the ability and the firepower to get that elusive second Grand Slam title, but his window will close soon if he doesn't get an effective strategy put together for the grind of championship-level matches against top players.

Oh, and as far as Blake goes, he's got to get more consistent and not allow the mental lapses we saw today to continue to occur in big spots.

Another Series Win Upcoming?
The 37-41 Pirates will shoot for their second consecutive series victory against a member of the American League East tonight at PNC Park. The Yankees will throw Mike Mussina against Our Buccos and reliable lefty Paul Maholm.

After blowouts in the first two games of this series, I would expect a much tighter contest decided in the late innings this evening. I feel this way mostly because you can expect a quality start from both of the starting pitchers scheduled to go.

Since Phil Dumatrait (skipping a start) and Ian Snell (15-day DL) are on the shelf this weekend, we can look forward to two AAA starters being called up to fill holes this weekend against the Rays. For now, though, let's see if Our Buccos can come up big and move into Friday on a pretty decent roll. That's right: four wins in six games counts as a "decent roll."

Goodbye and GO BUCS.

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