Red Dirt Ballet Revisited: The Beauty And Drama Of Clay Court Tennis, 2019 Edition

RN_Clay_Shoes

(Photo by @puepppy.)

What follows is a revised and updated edition of Red Dirt Ballet…, originally published in 2016.  I hope you enjoy it!

 

In April, professional tennis players change their shoes.

Gone are the standard smooth “tennies” designed for comfort on hard courts.  In their place are textured soles optimized for traction on loose red powder.

A whirlwind of travel that carries players through the summer heat of Australia and South America, and sets them down in March on the hard courts of North America, delivers them in April to the “red dirt.”  There they contest a series of clay court tournaments that culminates in the French Open.

Over the course of seven weeks, in nine countries, on three continents, players are tested in what many fans consider the purest form of tennis – where the surface imparts no advantage to raw power, where players must be proficient at every aspect of the game (serve, return, groundstrokes, volleys, and defense), and where players face the greatest physical and mental demands of the year.

 

What is the “clay”?

Fusion x64 TIFF File

Fusion x64 TIFF File

The “clay” in a modern clay court is typically crushed brick layered upon a gravel base to improve drainage.  The court’s top layer is a fine red powder.

Much as an ice rink is smoothed periodically by a Zamboni, a clay court is swept to rid the surface of footprints, skid marks, gouges, and ball marks.  Usually, a clay court is swept after every set and sprayed with water as needed to prevent the top surface dust from blowing.

 

What makes clay court tennis special?

Clay_Bounce

The key characteristics of a clay court, from a player’s perspective:

 

  • It is slippery.

Movement on a clay court is night-and-day different from movement on the hard courts on which professionals spend most of the year.  Stopping, starting, and changing direction are all made more difficult by the court’s dusty top layer.  Balance becomes especially critical.

The slipperiness influences tactics (for example, it’s especially profitable on clay to aim a shot behind a moving opponent) and profoundly affects a player’s timing.  The most adept claycourters learn to slide into their shots.

 

 

  • The ball’s bounce is relatively high.

Clay rewards players who use heavy topspin (i.e., forward spin), because it gives topspin shots a high bounce.  (By contrast, on grass courts and many indoor hard courts, top-spinning balls tend to say low.)

Facette.net

The high bounce can throw off an opponent’s timing and/or place the ball above an his optimal “strike zone,” in either case making it difficult for an opponent to return a topspin ball with power and accuracy.

 

  • When the ball strikes a clay court surface, it always leaves a mark.

At clay tournaments, players cannot ask for computerized “Hawkeye” challenges, because every shot leaves a mark.  Instead, players can summon umpires out of their chairs to check ball marks.

In rare cases, a player might compel a cameraman to photograph a mark.

 

  • Play continues on a clay court in light rain.

Clay is the only outdoor tennis surface for which light rain does not suspend matches. (Heavy rain, such as that which interfered with the 2012 French Open men’s final, makes play impossible.)

In rainy conditions, a clay court becomes soggy.  Bounces slow down.  Balls become waterlogged and heavy, coated with mud.  The dry-slippery court surface becomes sloppy, forcing players to modify their footwork.

Clay court tennis requires players to adapt to a wider range of conditions than they would ever encounter during matches on either grass or hard courts.

 

  • The surface is “slow.”

When the ball strikes a clay court surface, the friction between the ball and the clay grips the ball for an instant, providing the opponent an extra fraction of a second to reach the ball. (By contrast, grass courts and many hard courts are “fast.”)

 

Speed (from news.bbc.co.uk)

 

Consequently, it is much more difficult on clay than on a hard or grass court for a player to hit an unreturnable shot.  Matches are both physically and mentally arduous on clay.

Clay rewards players with good defensive skills (i.e., the ability to chase down opponents’ shots and keep a ball in play).  Some of the tour’s most proficient claycourters, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, and Diego Schwartzman, excel at forcing their opponents to hit “one more shot” and eventually miss.

Defense alone, though, is not sufficient to guarantee wins.  Those who succeed on clay know when and how to hit an aggressive shot that either takes control of a rally or wins a point outright.

Clay rewards decision-making, shot-selection, problem-solving, patience, and the vanishing art of point construction – the chess match wherein each player tries to think several shots ahead and outmaneuver his opponent to make space on the court for a winning shot.

Executed well, clay court tennis offers both breathtaking athleticism and fascinating drama.

 

The Spring Clay Court Season

The marquee event of the clay court season is the French Open, second of the year’s four Major tournaments, held at Roland Garros in Paris. To ensure that players reach Roland Garros in optimal clay court form, the tennis tour devotes seven weeks to warm-up tournaments in the U.S., North Africa, and Europe.

 

Week 1: Houston and Marrakech

The men’s clay tennis season opened in the week of April 8 with 250-level (i.e., fourth tier, if the Majors are first-tier) tournaments in Houston and Marrakech. Since most of the top players sit this week out to train for more prestigious events to come, young rising stars and experienced middle-ranked journeymen dominate the draws.

 

Tournament: Grand Prix Hassan II (Marrakech)
Category: 250
Singles field: 32
Top seed: Alexander Zverev (current ranking: #3)
Defending champion: Pablo Andujar
Trivia: Contested in Casablanca until 2016, this tournament is the only ATP event held in Africa.

 

Tournament: Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Clay Court Championship (Houston)
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Steve Johnson (#39)
Defending champion: Steve Johnson
Trivia: This is the only ATP clay court event held in the U.S.
Some members of the hosting tennis club open their homes for the week to players.

 

Week 2: Monte Carlo

Leading off the European series is the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters tournament.  First played in 1897, this Masters 1000 event (one tier below the Majors) offers fans and players alike the most beautiful venue of the year.

MC_View

Rafael Nadal won eight consecutive titles in Monte Carlo, from 2005 through 2012, a feat that might never be equaled.  Currently, Nadal owns a record 11 Monte Carlo titles.

 

Tournament category: Masters 1000
Singles players: 56
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: A club restaurant overlooks the spectacular center court.  Players must tune out a din of conversation and the clinks of porcelain and glassware during their matches.

 

Week 3: Barcelona and Budapest

During the week of April 22, some players who did not qualify for Monte Carlo will begin their French Open preparations at a smaller event Budapest.

 

Tournament: Hungarian Open
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Borna Coric (#13)
Defending champion: Marco Cecchinato
Trivia: Five weeks after winning his first-ever career title in Budapest last year, Marco Cecchinato upset Novak Djokovic at the French Open.

 

 

Most higher-ranked players will either sit this week out or contest a 500 (i.e., third-tier) event held at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona – 1899, one of the oldest tennis clubs in Spain.

Barcelona’s crowds are the most polite of the tennis season.

Because Barcelona’s Open Banc Sabadell serves as the Spanish national championship, nearly every healthy Spanish player is in the field.  Thirty-seven-year-old David Ferrer has said that a Barcelona title would mean as much to him as winning a Major.

 

Tournament: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell
Category: 500
Singles players: 48
Top seed: Rafael Nadal
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: After hoisting one of the the heaviest trophies of the season, the tournament’s singles champion traditionally jumps into the club’s swimming pool.

 

(The trophy is no longer quite as formidable as in this 2013 photo, but it is still hefty.)

 

 

 

Week 4: Munich and Estoril

Week 4 serves as a break for most the top players and therefore offers opportunities for lower-ranked players to shine at 250s in Munich and Estoril.

Tournament: BMW Open by FWU (Munich)
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Alexander Zverev (#3)
Defending champion: Alexander Zverev
Trivia: By tradition, the singles champion dons Lederhosen before the trophy ceremony.

 

 

Tournament: Millennium Estoril Open
Category: 250
Top seed: Kevin Anderson
Defending champion: João Sousa
Trivia: Last year, João Sousa became the first Portuguese to win either this event or its pre-2015 predecessor, the Portugal Open.

 

 

Week 5: Madrid

Since the early 2000s, the lead-up to the French Open has included three Masters 1000 tournaments. Two of those three are the events in Monte Carlo and Rome.  Until 2008, the third Masters 1000 on clay was held in Hamburg.  Because of Hamburg’s inclement weather (and, most likely, some behind-the-scenes politics), the third clay Masters 1000 was moved to Madrid in 2009.

The Madrid tournament poses a unique challenge during the pre-Roland Garros swing: high altitude. The ball travels faster through the air in Madrid than at the sea-level events, and Madrid’s relatively dry air makes the court both faster and more slippery.

As a joint men’s and women’s event with limited court space, the Madrid tournament is known for its long competition days.  Nearly every year there are matches that begin after 11 p.m.

Highlighting the 2019 Madrid tournament are a return and a farewell featuring two 37-year-olds: Roger Federer will use the event to return to clay for the first time since 2016, while Spanish veteran David Ferrer will close his career in Madrid in front of the partisan home crowd.

Tournament: Mutua Madrid Open
Category: Masters 1000
Singles field: 56
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Alexander Zverev
Trivia: In 2012, the tournament used blue clay instead of traditional red clay.  Although the contrast between yellow balls and the blue background was wonderful for television, the bleached-then-dyed clay particles created a treacherously slippery surface.  Several players, including Djokovic and Nadal, announced that they would refuse to play the event again on blue clay.

 

 

Week 6: Rome

The week after Madrid takes the players back to sea level for the season’s third and final Masters 1000 event on clay.

Tournament: Internazionali BNL d’Italia
Category: 1000
Singles field: 56
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: The tournament grounds feature a steeply raked stadium surrounded by classically-styled statues and located atop the site of the swimming venue for the 1960 Summer Olympics.

 

 

Week 7: Lyon and Geneva

The week before the French Open will find most of the top-ranked players in Paris practicing at Roland Garros, speaking to the media, and appearing at sponsor events.  Meanwhile, 250-level events in Nice and Geneva offer final tune-up opportunities for middle-ranked players as well as a few hometown stars.

 

Tournament: Open Parc Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes (Lyon)
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: John Isner (#9)
2018 champion: Dominic Thiem
Trivia: France, with five events including the Lyon tournament, hosts more ATP tournaments than any other nation in Europe.

 

 

Tournament: Banque Eric Sturdza Geneva Open
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Fabio Fognini (#18)
Defending champion: Marton Fucsovics
Trivia: Novak Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, won the event in 1988.

 

 

Weeks 8 and 9: The French Open, Roland Garros, Paris

On 26 May, 128 men will begin the quest for the year’s second Major singles title at the French Open at Roland Garros.  Fifteen days later, one man will hoist aloft the tournament’s storied trophy, the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Coupe

Because Roland Garros is the only Major site with no lighting for night matches, and since clay matches tend to be long, the French Open is the only Major whose first contests are held on a Sunday.

Every Major tournament offers compelling drama from the start.  It is fascinating to watch players ranked 70 or 80 in the world, with no hope of winning the title, battle tooth-and-nail for the right to advance to the next round.  Every day of the first week promises valor, heart, and sportsmanship.

One of my favorite tales of Roland Garros valor took place in 2013 and starred then-31-year-old Spaniard Tommy Robredo.  Known as a tenacious fighter, and expert like many of his countrymen in the art of tennis on clay, Robredo outdid himself by coming back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win five-set matches in three consecutive rounds, a feat unmatched in the previous 86 years.  After his third comeback, Robredo collapsed the court in tears as the stadium crowd chanted his name.

TR_RG13

More drama, of the “never-a-dull-moment” variety, erupted later in the same event, when flare-wielding political protestors crashed the men’s final between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, spooking both contestants.

In addition to the French crowd’s perennial hope for a homegrown champion, the intrigue at Roland Garros 2019 features a cast of both veteran contenders and talented rising starsm, many of whom have fascinating storylines.

 

Tournament: French Open
Category: Major
Singles field: 128
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: The “footprint” of space around Court Philippe Chatrier, the main stadium court, is the largest of any tournament court in the world. The consequent extra running room is a great boon for players during baseline rallies.

 

The Contenders

It is highly probable that the man left holding the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 9 will be one of a short list of favorites.

The King of Clay – Rafael Nadal

Thirty-two-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player in the history of men’s tennis.  Regardless of how the 2019 season unfolds, he is the undisputed King of Clay.

  • Nadal leads all men in the Open Era with a staggering 90 percent of matches won on clay.
  • In Best-of-5-Set matches on clay, his win-loss record is 106 – 2.  106, and 2.
  • He won a record 81 consecutive matches on clay from 2006 to 2008.
  • He won in excess of 50 consecutive semifinal matches on clay from 2008 to 2015.
  • In 2017 – 18, at the age of 31, he set a record for consecutive sets won on any single surface with 50 straight sets won on clay.
  • The only male player to have won 10 or more titles at any event, Nadal owns 11 trophies at each of *three* clay tournaments of different tiers: Barcelona (500), Monte Carlo (1000), and Roland Garros (Major).

 

Collage by @JeuSetMaths

 

Several attributes of Nadal’s unique playing style are especially well suited to the red dirt.

  • The unmatched topspin he applies to his shots, especially to his forehand with the distinctive “lariat” follow-through.

  • Excellent footwork, both relentless and precise.
  • A deep understanding of tennis tactics and point construction.
  • Formidable problem-solving skills.
  • Great competitive intensity that wears down many opponents as Nadal plays every point as though it were his last.

In addition to his three “Undecimas,” Nadal has won four Madrid titles on clay (and one when the tournament was played on an indoor hard court) and eight Romes.

Nadal is no slouch on surfaces other than clay. He owns four titles, including two Wimbledons, on grass (which, fast and low-bouncing, is essentially the opposite of clay).  On hardcourts, he has won nineteen titles, include three US Opens and one Australian Open.

Nadal’s career has been plagued by injuries.  Custom arch supports he adopted in 2006 to protect a congenitally deformed bone in his left foot have wreaked havoc on both of his knees.  He suffers from chronic patellar tendonitis and often plays in pain.

Over his 16 years in the ATP Top 100, Nadal has missed more than 24 months of competition and nine Major tournaments due to injuries.  Notwithstanding, he has remained in the ATP Top 10 every week since he joined in the Top 10 in the spring of 2005.

Today, in the words of Nadal’s characteristically blunt uncle and first coach, Toni Nadal, “Rafael is not a tennis player but an injured person who plays tennis.”

At hard court events, which comprise two-thirds of the ATP tour, Nadal seems almost a tragic figure – equipped at age 32 with some of the tactically smartest tennis of his career, eager and determined to play, but much of the time thwarted by his body.  Of the 21 hard court events he has been scheduled to contest since September of 2017, Nadal completed five tournaments (winning two and finishing two as runner-up), retired injured from five, and withdrew in advance due to injury from eleven.  Sudden stops and violent accelerations on concrete are brutal for chronically injured knees.

Clay, with its forgiving, powdered softness, is blessedly different.

Nadal opened 2019 by reaching the Australian Open final without dropping a set only eleven weeks after pre-season ankle surgery.  In March, he played well through four rounds on the Indian Wells hard courts before being forced to withdraw injured (again) before his semifinal match. He skipped the Miami hardcourts to recover and commence training on clay.

What can one expect from Nadal on the clay his year?

As is his wont, he will respect every opponent he faces.

We can count on him to play every point as though his life depended upon it.

Along the way, he may well win some titles.

 

The “Prince of Clay” – Dominic Thiem

Twenty-five-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem has a powerful, aggressive game ideally suited to clay.  Thiem imparts speed and blinding spin to both his his forehand and his gorgeous one-handed backhand, enabling him to push his opponents back even when he himself is well behind the baseline.

Many fans view Thiem, the 2018 French Open runner-up, as Nadal’s heir apparent on clay, because Thiem has won eight of his 12 career titles on the red dirt, and because Thiem is the only player to have beaten Nadal on clay in the last two years (in Rome in 2017, and in Madrid in 2018).

After struggling to adapt his big strokes to faster surfaces, Thiem has finally realized his potential on hard courts in the last six months.  His match against Nadal on at the 2018 U.S. Open – in which Thiem blew through the first set 6-0 and finally succumbed by only a whisker in a fifth-set tiebreak – was voted by fans the best match of the year.

In March, Thiem confirmed his ability to fight toe-to-toe with the best on a hard court by coming back from a one-set deficit to beat Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final.

As long as Thiem stays healthy, the question of his hoisting the Roland Garros trophy is one of “when” rather than “if.”  He is a title threat at every clay court tournament he enters.

 

The Reigning World #1- Novak Djokovic

When in late January 31-year-old Serb and World #1 Novak Djokovic won the 2019 Australian Open final in straight sets over Rafael Nadal, speculation among tennis’ talkers coalesced around a new narrative: would Djokovic be able to win his second French Open in 2019, enabling him to capture four consecutive Major titles for the second time in his career?  Fashionable wisdom screamed, “Yes!” Typically hyperbolic commentary from the likes of Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo declared there was no reason to think Djokovic wouldn’t win every tournament he entered for the rest of the season.

Then, in early March, Djokovic returned to competition, on his favorite surface, and proceeded to lose early – to #39-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber in the Round of 32 in Indian Wells, and to #25 Roberto Bautista Agut in the Round of 16 in Miami.  By all accounts, Djokovic was healthy and thus could not account for his unexpectedly weak performances with physical disability.

Because of his poor results in Indian Wells and Miami, Djokovic is not the current betting favorite for the French Open.  He has titles from Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome as well as from Roland Garros, so he is capable of performing well enough to win.  To do so, he would need more consistent focus and intensity that he exhibited on the hard courts in March.

 

Alexander Zverev

Twenty-one-year-old German Alexander Zverev plays with a well rounded game blessed with power he can summon from his 6’6″ frame.  He has a big serve, decent returns, and strong groundstrokes from both wings.  The only weakness in his game becomes clear when he plays at the net.  (If/when he becomes a proficient volleyer, watch out!)

Zverev has already won three Masters 1000 titles, including clay titles in Rome and Madrid.  Last year, he upset Djokovic on an indoor hard court to claim the year-end Tour Finals trophy.  With multiple wins over both Djokovic and Federer (but none yet over Nadal on any surface), Zverev has been hailed by the press as a future star.

That said, Zverev has yet to perform well at a Major.  He has reached only one Major quarterfinal, at the 2018 French Open.

Whether Zverev’s collapses at Majors have stemmed from nerves, from fitness problems, or from bad luck, it seems inevitable in light of his prodigious skills and talent that he will break through at a Major sooner or later.  The 2019 French Open could be his time.

 

The 2015 Roland Garros Champion – Stan Wawrinka

SW_Trophy

Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, a thirty-four-year old veteran, is always a threat when healthy. Fueled by power in his serve, his forehand, and his lethal one-handed backhanded, Wawrinka’s game has carried him to two French Open finals and Major titles from Australia, Roland Garros, and the U.S. Open.

Wawrinka is on a comeback trail after two knee surgeries that sidelined him for half of 2017 and most of 2018.  He might not yet be back to his best, but after six weeks of competition in April and May he could be ready for Roland Garros.

 

The Wildcards

It is unlikely that any of these players will be able to win the French Open, but each of them is skillful enough on clay to spice up the draw with upsets.

 

Roger Federer

RF_Trophy

Of the “Wildcards,” Roger Federer is the only player who might actually have the game to win the French Open (his second, after hoisting his first trophy in 2009).

Federer is vulnerable on clay for several reasons: because he completely skipped the clay in 2017 and 2018 and thus hasn’t played a clay match in nearly three years; because his one handed backhand is susceptible to attack from an opponent who adds heavy topspin to his groundstrokes; and because, though his shot variety is a rich as ever, at 37 he doesn’t move as well as he did when he was in his prime.

I would not pick Federer to beat a healthy Nadal, a healthy Djokovic, or a healthy Thiem, or any combination thereof, on clay.  However, if Federer were to catch some “lucky” breaks – if Nadal, Djokovic, and/or Thiem were disabled, and if other dangerous opponents lost early – Federer could conceivably hoist the Coupe.

 

Kei Nishikori

With a playing style similar to Djokovic’s, Japan’s Kei Nishikori established himself solidly among the game’s Top 10 before suffering a series of injuries in the last two years.  When he is healthy, Nishikori’s easy power and precise ball striking can carry him past any player.  He has notched wins over Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic.

Two of Nishikori’s twelve titles have come on clay, both in Barcelona.

Like Wawrinka, Nishikori is on a comeback trail from injury.  He is unlikely to have the physical resilience necessary to win one of the big clay titles this year, but if he stays healthy he could cause some early-round upsets.

 

Stefanos Tsitsipas

Twenty-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas made a big splash in Barcelona last year, when he beat several strong clay-courters (including Dominic Thiem) en route to the final, where he lost to Nadal. Three months later, he made an even bigger noise at the hardcourt Masters 1000 event in Toronto, defeating four Top-10 players, including Djokovic and Zverev, en route to the final (where again he lost to Nadal).

In Australia this year, he riveted the attention of the tennis world by defeating Roger Federer in the Round of 16.

Tsitsipas has a well-rounded, aesthetically pleasing game and a cockiness that serves him well on big stages.  He may not yet have the physical stamina necessary to win seven best-of-five-set matches over two weeks in Roland Garros, but no one will be eager to see him across the net.

 

Roberto Bautista Agut

Thirty-year-old Roberto Bautista Agut is the rare Spanish player whose best surface is hard court rather than clay.  Consistent, hard-working, and highly competitive, “RBA” (as he’s called in the tennis press) has steadily improved his game to a point where he can compete with the best.  Two of his three career wins over #1 Djokovic have come in 2019 (in Doha in January, and in Miami in March).

Bautista Agut’s clean, well-rounded game is probably not strong enough to carry him to the trophy stand at any of the spring’s clay events, but he could serve as a spoiler.

 

Nick Kyrgios

Twenty-three-year-old Nick Kyrgios has three wins over Nadal (none on clay), two over Djokovic (both on hard court), and one over Federer (on clay in Madrid).  The brutal efficacy of his unreadable serve is somewhat diminished on clay, but he can still be dangerous to anyone in the field if he plays well.

 

Diego Schwartzman

Both of Diego Schwartzman’s titles, including a 500 trophy in Rio in 2018, have come on clay.  The twenty-six-year-old Argentine is one of the fastest movers and most skillful defenders on the ATP tour, and he can deliver remarkable power from his 5’7″ frame.

Schwartzman was one of only three players to take even a set from Nadal on clay last year (along with Thiem and Zverev).  No one will want to have to face him this April and May.

 

Gaël Monfils

France’s best hope for a homegrown Roland Garros title is also an almost universally loved player on the ATP tour, the highly entertaining 32-year-old Gaël Monfils.  Blessed with prodigious talent and staggering physical abilities, Monfils has reached the final at Monte Carlo and the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

It is unlikely that he can win any of this year’s big titles, but he could produce impressive runs to please both his coaches and the crowds.

 

Karen Khachanov

Twenty-two-year-old Karen Khachanov of Russia can be a joy to watch on a tennis court if one is not rooting for his opponent.  Khachanov’s blistering power and big serve have garnered him some impressive results.  Two of Nadal’s closest and hardest fought matches over the last eighteen months have come against Khachanov (at the 2018 U.S. Open and last month in Indian Wells).  Against Djokovic, Khachanov scored an upset on an indoor hardcourt to win the Paris Masters title last November.

In part because he has struggled with health issues, Khachanov opened 2019 with relatively weak results. If he is healthy for the clay season, he could pose a stiff challenge to any opponent.

 

Nikoloz Basilashvili

Twenty-seven-year-old Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili currently sits at a career-high ranking of 17, after a year in which he won his first two titles.  Both titles came at 500-level tournaments.  One was on clay (in Hamburg last July).

Playing with a bazooka-hitting style similar to Khachanov’s, Basilashvili is capable of playing wonderful matches en route to a Round of 16 finish or perhaps even a quarterfinal.  If he gets a top player on a down day, he could pull an upset.

 

The Youngsters: Borna Coric, Alex de Minaur, Frances Tiafoe, Denis Shapovalov, Félix Auger-Aliassime

Gallons of ink have been spilt about these five rising stars.  Instead of detailing and extolling the achievements and virtues of each, I will note that they have all earned special mention.  Individually and as a group, they are better than any generation in men’s tennis since Nadal/Murray/Djokovic.  None of them is likely to hoist a big trophy between now and early June, but within three years it is they who will contest Major finals.

 

Who will win?

I don’t make predictions. 🙂

 

Quote for Today

“If” doesn’t exist in sport. That’s the real thing. If, if, if – never comes. The thing is, you have to do it. – Rafael Nadal

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PC Guerrilla Warfare: The Sportscaster Whose Apt Word-Choice Cost Him His Job

broken_tennis_ball_by_ Photo by mountainboy965C

The Backstory

Dateline Melbourne, Australia, in sunny mid-January of 2017.

The world of sport is abuzz with excitement over tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year.   Tweedy veteran writers, chatty ex-players, and disheveled bloggers, blessed with a surfeit of subject matter in the waning years of tennis’ richest era, feverishly weave narratives from the week’s trendy storylines.

Can Serena Williams reassert herself at the top of her sport at the age of 35?

Will Novak Djokovic rediscover his unbeatable 2015 form, or will his 2016 wobbles continue into the new season?

Can the sport’s rising, hot-headed youngsters dethrone any of the grizzled veteran champions?

Can Rafael Nadal produce in 2017 another miraculous return from injury as he did in 2006, 2010, and 2013?

What about Roger Federer and Venus Williams, both great champions over 35 — can either of them put together a strong run in Australia?

Starved of live tennis during the month of December and of Grand Slam action since September’s U.S. Open, the sport’s global fan base (whose semi-official slogan during the Australian Open is, “Sleep is for the weak,”) is as eager as the commentary corps for drama and action.  To satisfy fans with immediate, complete event coverage, many broadcasters deliver live streams of most or all competition courts throughout the two-week event.

The principal U.S. broadcaster is ESPN, a sports programming leviathan that began presenting the Australian Open in 1984 and now covers three of the season’s four tennis Majors.  ESPN supplies U.S. fans with streams from Australia of all 254 singles matches and many doubles matches, employing an army of on-air staff — some former players, some professional “talking heads” — who work either individually or in pairs to provide live play-by-play coverage.

Many of ESPN’s live-stream voices offer commentary both more analytical and more useful to the viewer than that of the big-name stars on ESPN’s flagship channels.  From this “B team,” one might hear:

“Although Joe clearly walked out today with a game plan to attack Steve’s backhand, he has changed tactics and is now hitting short to the forehand to draw Steve into net against his will and either pass him outright or hit a two-shot pass.”

By contrast, the less prepared and more ego-driven of ESPN’s stars might deliver rhetorical gems such as:

“This is painful to watch.”

(Coasting on his reputation, John McEnroe rarely seems to do in-depth homework and devotes much of his commentary to reminiscence about players he faced in the 1970s.  Chris Evert’s statements are at times so vapid that she has inspired a widely used, colorful hashtag.  Pam Shriver talks mid-match about her children.  When Mary Carillo doesn’t especially like the players in front of her, she tends to chatter about anything but the match; late in the 2014 French Open men’s final, she infamously digressed onto the subject of 1980s-era boxing.)

Prominent in ESPN’s live-stream broadcasting stable is Doug Adler, a 58-year-old former tennis pro who played during his college years the University of Southern California.  A veteran of commentary since 2004 and an ESPN employee since 2008, Adler is so adept at spontaneous play-by-play narration that he frequently covers matches without a partner.

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The Fatal Moment

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It is Day 3 of the Australian Open, Wednesday, the 18th of January (and Tuesday evening, the 17th, in the U.S.)  First up in the main stadium, Rod Laver Arena, is 36-year-old American Venus Williams, the 13 seed and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, to accompany an Olympic gold medal in singles, an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles, and a staggering three Olympic golds in women’s doubles.  Her opponent is Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele, nine years younger, six inches shorter, and roughly 100 ranking spots below Williams.  One of the team of two ESPN live-stream commentators is Doug Adler.

Not surprisingly, the match is a rout.  Voegele is unable to counter Williams’ superior power, variety, movement, and court coverage.

Early in the second set, as Voegele struggles to hold her first service game, Adler says this:

“She misses the first serve, and Venus is all over her…You’ll see Venus move in and put the [guerrilla?/gorilla?] effect on, charging…”

What exactly does Adler say?  Please listen for yourself to the following 21-second video clip.

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Update: The video above was pulled from YouTube on the day after I published this article.  Below is a new video.  Adler’s words begin at the 40-second mark.

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The Controversy

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Storm 2

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Adler claims he said, “You’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on,” adding that his use of “guerrilla” referred to a successful “Guerrilla Tennis” ad campaign undertaken by Nike in the 1990s.

The 1995 Andre Agassi Nike Guerrilla Tennis ad:

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“Guerrilla” is indeed an appropriate descriptor for Venus Williams’ charge as she pounces on her opponent’s second serve.  Tennis writers and commentators frequently invoke the term “guerrilla” to characterize sneaky attacks.  Had neither player been of African ancestry, Adler’s apt comment would have passed unnoticed.

This particular match, however, made Adler famous.

Within minutes, social media were flooded with rage from indignant fans under the impression Adler had said “gorilla.”

New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg, whose deliberately provocative and bratty online snark has earned him the nickname “Trollenberg,” decided to fan the flames.  Rather than ask Adler to clarify his intent, Rothenberg tweeted outrage to his 51,600 followers.

Rothenberg went so far as to dismiss out of hand the possibility that Adler had said, “guerrilla.”

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Why “doubtful,” Mr. Rothenberg?  Do you read minds?

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The Aftermath

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ESPN suspended Adler immediately after the Williams/Voegele match, demanded that he apologize the next day on every live stream (which he did, citing an unfortunate choice of words), forbade him to comment upon any more matches in Australia, and sent him home in disgrace.

Within days, Adler was fired by ESPN.

On February 14, Adler filed suit against ESPN for wrongful termination, stating that his reputation is “damaged forever.”  In the words of Adler’s attorney, David Ring, “It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man’s career.”

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Justice?

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Since it is nearly impossible to discern from the recording whether the word uttered by Adler is “gorilla” or “guerrilla,”  it would be fairest and most reasonable to assess Adler’s past record as a broadcaster before branding him a racist.

Had Adler ever exhibited any signs of racism?  In his 13 years of full-time tennis broadcasting, had he ever referred in a less than respectful manner to Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Donald Young, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Gaël Monfils, Dustin Brown, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Frances Tiafoe, or any other player of African ancestry?

I believe the answer to those questions is No.

Adler’s friends and colleagues, including African American radio host Larry Elder, attest to his character (although among Adler’s friends only Elder has had the courage to speak publically about the recent travesty).

There is every reason to believe Adler’s statement that the word he used was indeed “guerrilla.”

In effect, what happened here?

  • While providing commentary for a Grand Slam tennis match, Doug Adler used a completely appropriate word to describe a player’s sneak attack.
  • Some viewers misunderstood the word as a racial slur.
  • A social media mob called for Adler’s firing on the basis of that misunderstanding.
  • ESPN caved to the mob’s demands.

Should ESPN require that its on-air staff treat athletes and coaches with respect?  If they want to attract viewers, yes.

Is ESPN entitled to fire broadcasters who behave inappropriately on the air?  Certainly.

But was ESPN within its rights to fire a broadcaster, and effectively brand him a racist and thus torpedo his future career prospects, merely in response to the clamoring of an hysterical mob?

I say no.

The Courts will decide.

As a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport myself, I admit that I occasionally find Doug Adler’s assessments of and prognostications about specific tennis players wrong-headed.  While not always in agreement with his opinions, I cannot remain silent as he is railroaded out of his chosen profession at the instigation of a PC mob.

So here’s what I think:

Doug Adler is entitled to the benefit of the doubt from the world of sport.

Ben Rothenberg owes Adler a public apology.

ESPN owes Adler financial restitution and reinstatement as a tennis commentator.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gritty, Edgy Moodiness of Film Noir: 24 Classic Examples

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If she is rude to the waiter, she will be rude to you.

If your dog dislikes him, walk away.  Slowly.

There is always a price to be paid for crossing the line.

Listen to your intuition.

Navigating through life would be so much easier if one always followed simple rules.   Too frequently, emotion trumps the rational mind, but a diversion away from one’s true course can provide an opportunity to learn valuable lessons — if one should be fortunate enough to survive, that is.
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Cinematic exploration of the triumph of passion over common sense is the domain of Film Noir, an outgrowth of European Expressionism, which flourished in America from the early 1940s through the late 1950s.  The creators of Noir crafted their gripping stories by thrusting realistically flawed characters into morally challenging situations; then, rather than fashioning contrived outcomes, stood at a discreet distance and allowed human nature to take its course.
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Most Noir films are “B” movies, the shorter pictures produced as undercards to the marquee features.  Constrained by small budgets, Noir offers crisp and sharp dialogue and tight plotting.  Short running times permitted none of the directorial self-indulgence endemic in modern-day film.
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The genre’s archetypical black-and-white photography (budget-driven, once again) and the predominance of nighttime or half-lit daytime settings infuse atmospheric moodiness with menace.
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Invariably the setting of a Noir — whether an opulent, hilltop apartment building in San Francisco, an unlit New York warehouse, a lonely desert road, or a dingy block of flats in a bleak Los Angeles neighborhood — is as essential to the story as any character in the film.
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Because the contemporaneous Hays Code governed the messages and images films were permitted to convey, a fortuitous circumstance for lovers of the genre, in Noir films all crimes, all sins, and all errors of judgement are punished.
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Inasmuch as motion pictures were a 20th-century contribution to the age-old tradition of transmitting life lessons through storytelling, Noir offered mid-century movie audiences a chance to engage in thought experiments — What if I were to give in to temptation?  What if I succumbed to the lure of something for nothing?  What if I took the wrong path?  What might happen? — within the safe realm of fiction.
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There are hundreds of films in the Noir anthology.  Today I would like to recommend to you two dozen sparkling gems for your viewing enjoyment.  Accompanying each title you will find a list of stars, the name of the director, the setting, a brief description, and a theatrical trailer.
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Classics of the Genre

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The four films listed here number among not only the best Noir of all time but also the best films of all time.

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Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
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For a newcomer to Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is a must-see.  Boasting a tight, brilliant plot, impeccable dialogue, and several iconic and career-defining performances, gets better with each subsequent viewing.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
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A stylish, taut, and riveting drama.  As police detective Mark MacPherson (Andrews) gradually falls in love with the brunette (Tierney) whose murder he is called to investigate, he finds he is not alone in his obsession with the stunning Laura.
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Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
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In this simple and compelling cautionary tale about the perils of passion, insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) finds the lure of illicit financial gain irresistible when his partner in crime is a knockout blonde (Stanwyck).
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Director: Tay Garnett
.Setting: the southern California coast
Drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) succumbs to the charms of a blonde bombshell (Turner) after a chance stop at her husband’s gas station.  His motive for subsequent criminal acts — avarice, lust, or a desire to save a damsel in distress — becomes moot as a series of irreversible decisions dooms him and his paramour.
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The Element of Chance

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Some of Noir’s most compelling stories place characters in hazardous situations not entirely of their own making.  Three highly recommended masterpieces —

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Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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To my mind, this film is a must-see.  It employs a brilliant and innovative premise: after discovering to his horror that he has been poisoned, a very ordinary accountant (O’Brien) devotes his few remaining hours on Earth to identifying his murderer.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
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Having run out of money to pay his fare, drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) stumbles off a bus at an unfamiliar hamlet on the central California coast, where he finds himself drawn into the inhabitants’ rivalries, hatreds, and crimes.  Preminger’s trademark mastery of atmosphere keeps viewers transfixed through the denouement.
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Setting: Los Angeles
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As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.
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Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act

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“If only he had seen her as she really was.”

“If only she had recognized the danger before it was too late.”

“If only he had had the strength of character to take the difficult stand.”

Human frailty provides a treasure trove of source material for Film Noir.  Three to watch —

Impact (1949)

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Stars: Brian Donlevy, Helen Walker, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Director:Arthur Lubin
Settings: San Francisco and Sausalito, California; Larkspur, Idaho

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Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
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Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
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Washed-up boxer Ole Andreson (Lancaster, in his film debut) rejects the offer of a police job and opts instead for a criminal path that ultimately costs him his life.
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Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
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When an unexpected visitor turns up at the gas station he owns, retired private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) finds to his chagrin that he cannot escape the errors of his past.
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Consequences of a Single Decision

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The knife-edge, yes/no decisions made in a fog of emotion and without sufficient input from the cerebral cortex produce fascinating storylines for Film Noir.  At times a viewer wants to reach through the screen to shake sense into a self-destructive character.  Five of the best —

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Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
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A classic Film Noir set-up: insurance investigator John Forbes (Powell) is bored with his job and suffocated by the financial responsibility of supporting his loving wife (Wyatt) and exemplary young son in post-War Los Angeles.  When in the course of his work Forbes meets a beautiful gangster’s moll (Scott), he sets his feet on a path sure to destroy his life.
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
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Embittered jazz pianist Al Roberts (Neal) makes a split-second decision to hide the body of a man he did not kill and thereby seals his own fate.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
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Two southern California pals (O’Brien and Lovejoy) tell their wives they are on a fishing trip when in fact they are bound for Mexico in search of extramarital excitement.  A stop to pick up a hitch-hiker upends their plans.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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Lonely San Francisco businessman Harry Graham (O’Brien) pursues a friendship with the attractive and intelligent Phyllis (Lupino) during his frequent work-related trips to Los Angeles.  A one-night tryst puts Phyllis and Harry into a bind that Harry resolves by breaking the law.
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Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
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Two friends on a hunting trip (Ray and Albertson) stop to help two stranded motorists who turn out to be bank robbers on the lam.
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Capers and Action Films

Seabiscuit and John "Red" Pollard finally won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, defeating stablemate Kayak II. It was Seabiscuit's third attempt to win racing's biggest prize at the time. They had been beaten a nose by Rosemont in 1937 and a nose by Stagehand in 1938. Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

By virtue of its taut plotting and crisp dialogue, Noir produced numerous riveting and satisfying films centered upon action and well developed set-piece capers.  Six not to miss —
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
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Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) decides to undertake one last heist, a burglary of Santa Anita racetrack, before settling down to marry his girl (Coleen Gray).
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Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
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Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart) struggle with loan sharks, hitch-hikers, rough terrain, sleepless nights, and conniving women as they endeavor to scratch out a living in the trucking business.
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Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
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With the help of other drivers and a local prostitute, wildcat trucker Nick Garcos (Conte) wages war on an unscrupulous produce supplier (Cobb) in order to save his family’s business and preserve his father’s honor.
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Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
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A police seargent (McGraw) charged with escorting a gangster’s wife from Chicago to a Los Angeles courtroom, where she will testify against her husband, finds he is sharing the train with the hitmen she is trying to elude.
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Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
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A San Francisco dope-smuggling ring that slips packets of drugs into tourists’ luggage is stymied when a drug shipment disappears from the custody of an innocent mother and her little girl.
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Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
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A mentally ill man terrorizes San Franciso by killing women with a sniper’s rifle, all the while penning desperate letters to the police in hopes that they will catch him.
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Relationships on the Edge

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The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
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Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
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A budding romance between tempestuous screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his new lady neighbor (Grahame) is badly strained when the police suspect Steele of murder.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
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Restless “black sheep” Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her family home after an ill-fated love affair.  She finds herself torn, with nearly disastrous consequences, between a level-headed man (Douglas) whom she finds boring and a difficult hothead (Ryan) whom she cannot resist.
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Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
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Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) falls deeply in love with and marries dashing actor Lester Blaine (Palance).  Her discovery that he plans to betray her transforms her passionate love into murderous hatred.
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On Children

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The recent welcome news that I am to become an aunt for the seventh time has brought these poignant verses to my mind…

On Children

 
 

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran

How, in 1919, could he have known? “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Horizon

   The Second Coming

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

William Butler Yeats       1919

And So It Begins: Last-minute Thoughts About the 2016 French Open

TB_0518 World #8 Tomas Berdych on the velvety Roland Garros clay.

After six weeks and ten tournaments in nine countries, the men’s European clay court season arrives at its apogee and ultimate proving ground this coming week at the French Open.  Action begins tomorrow, May 22, with 16 singles matches at Roland Garros in Paris.

A few quick thoughts about what we have learned from the men’s clay court warm-up events —

Who’s Out

Roger Federer, suffering from a combination of knee and back injuries that kept him out of the Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid and led to early losses in Monte Carlo and Rome, withdrew from the French Open in advance of the tournament draw.  Federer, whose game is much better suited to grass than to clay, hopes to resume competition in time for the pre-Wimbledon grass court tournaments.

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Juan Martin del Potro, on the comeback trail from a series of four wrist surgeries, decided to forgo Roland Garros and move immediately to the grass, where he hopes his booming serve will pay dividends.

JMdP

 

The charismatic and highly talented Frenchman Gael Monfils — ever a crowd favorite, and one of the most upbeat and good-natured players on the tour — was forced to withdraw from Roland Garros after being hospitalized this week with a viral illness.

GM

 

Who Has Proven Himself to be a Dangerous Contender

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Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem won the title today in Nice and reached the final in Munich, where he lost a very tight contest to German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber.  Earlier, in Monte Carlo, he mounted a very stiff challenge to eventual champion Rafael Nadal.

Currently ranked 15 in the world and rising quickly, Thiem will surely win the French Open someday.  Five of his six titles to date, and two of his three in 2016, have come on clay.  His well-rounded game is precise, aggressive, and great fun to watch.

He will arrive in Paris brimming over with confidence from his win in Nice although perhaps somewhat tired.  He is a dangerous opponent for anyone.

 

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Japan’s Kei Nishikori, currently ranked #6 in the world, delivered several strong performances this year on the European clay.  He reached the final in Barcelona, where he lost a close match to Rafael Nadal.  At the Masters 1000 events in both Madrid and Rome, he played barnburner semifinal matches with World #1 Novak Djokovic, losing in two sets in Madrid and in three sets in Rome.

Over the course of his career, Nishikori has beaten every player now seeded ahead of him at Roland Garros (Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal).  His speed, footwork, and shotmaking, and his ability to rob opponents of time by “taking the ball early,” make him formidable on clay.  Fortuitously blessed with a good draw, Nishikori could easily reach the quarterfinals, where he might encounter Andy Murray.

If he keeps his health and fitness, Nishikori could well find himself hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 5.

 

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Defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka will arrive in Paris as he did last year, having bolstered his confidence with a victory at his home tournament in Geneva.

Owner of a powerful forehand, a strong serve, and a one-handed backhand that is both lethal and sublime, Wawrinka can beat anyone on the right day.  Although inconsistent and unpredictable, “Stan the Man,” as his sponsors call him, proved last year in Paris that he is capable of winning the title.

 

The Favorites?

The 2016 men’s singles competition at Roland Garros is the most open in years, with three players having emerged from the Masters 1000-level events as favorites (and perhaps even as co-favorites): Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal.

Nadal won the title in Monte Carlo without ever facing Djokovic.

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Djokovic won the title in Madrid without ever facing Nadal.

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Murray lost to Nadal in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and beat him in the semifinals of Madrid.

Murray lost to Djokovic in the final at Madrid and beat him in the final at Rome.

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Djokovic and Nadal faced each other once, in the quarterfinals of Rome, where Djokovic won 7-5 7-6.  Nadal said afterward that he was happy with his performace, that both sets had been “on his racquet,” and that he had been, “very, very, very close” to winning.

Only Nadal of the three favorites won two titles in the lead-up to Roland Garros: in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona (a competitive 500-level tournament where neither Murray nor Djokovic was in the field).

The tournament whose conditions (i.e., altitude, clay quality, weather) are most similar to Roland Garros is Monte Carlo.  Nadal won that title, beating Murray in the semifinal.  Djokovic lost in his first match.

Madrid, featuring high altitude and hard-packed clay, is the least like Roland Garros.  Djokovic won that title, beating Murray in the final.  Murray had beaten Nadal in the semifinal.

Rome, like Paris, is at sea level.  There, Murray beat Djokovic in a hard-fought, testy, and rainy final.

Can one divine French Open outcomes from this data?

First, a few words about the tournament draw.

Nadal’s Roland Garros draw is freakishly difficult.  His first opponent, the 6’4″ cannon-serving Australian Sam Groth, demands intense concentration from his opponent and offers no rally rhythm.  The last time Nadal opened a French Open campaign against a “serve-bot” (2011, against 6’10” John Isner), Nadal got down two sets to one and needed five sets to eke out a victory.

In the third round, Nadal could face the flamboyantly talented and dangerously unpredictable Fabio Fognini, who beat Nadal three times in 2015.  The fourth round could bring a meeting with Dominic Thiem (see above).

In the quarterfinal, Nadal could face France’s Jo Wilfried Tsonga, who has the physical skills to beat anyone on the tour, and who will have the enthusiastic support of the home crowd.  In the semifinal, Nadal could face Djokovic.

Over his first five rounds, Djokovic faces a relative cakewalk.  None of Djokovic’s early-round opponents has any recent history of success against him.

Murray will have a tricky first match against the wily 37-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek, whose variety and unpredictability can be maddeningly difficult to face.  En route to the quarterfinals, Murray could encounter two tricky serve-bots, John Isner and the 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, though neither is likely to threaten Murray’s exemplary return game and defense.

Murray could face formidable challenges in the quarterfinals against Nishikori and in the semifinals against Wawrinka.

Murray will not face either Djokovic or Nadal until the final.

 

What does their Rome match and other recent history say about a Djokovic/Nadal semifinal?

Djokovic owns a 26-23 career head-to-head record against Nadal and has won their last seven meetings, three of which have been on clay. Advantage, Djokovic?  Not necessarily.

From mid-2011 until mid-2012, Djokovic also won seven straight matches against Nadal.  By the end of his seventh loss (the 2012 Australian Open final), Nadal had figured out how to counter Djokovic’s new tactics.  When the two next met, at the 2012 French Open final, Nadal won.

Some commentators have suggested that Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in Rome earlier this month would put him at a mental disadvantage in Paris.  I am not so sure.

Nadal’s competitive psychology is such that he takes every opponent seriously and approaches every match with the idea that he “needs to play [his] best tennis in order to have chances to win.” (That phrase has appeared in his press conference transcripts innumerable times over the years.)

Had a few points gone differently in their match in Rome, and had Nadal prevailed over Djokovic, he likely would have thought, “OK, I won, but it was close. I still need to play my best to have chances to win.”  Djokovic, meanwhile, would have arrived at the following Nadal match full of vinegar and determination to avenge his recent loss.

Having lost in Rome, but having kept the match very close, Nadal will probably approach his next meeting with Djokovic with optimism (in addition to his usual intention to play his best).

The contest between Nadal and Djokovic in Rome proved that Nadal is ready to compete toe-to-toe with Djokovic.  Both players know that now.  This cannot be a comfortable feeling for Djokovic.

 

What about Andy Murray?

Murray has long been one of the sport’s greatest defenders – he can chase down and return shots all day – but aggressive play does not come naturally to him.  He has a decent first serve, but his second serve has traditionally been his most attackable weakness.  Mentally, he has not always exhibited the fortitude and consistency necessary to win against the best players.

In 2016, Murray has improved both his first serve and his second serve and implemented successful plans of attack against both of his major rivals.  During the Rome final against Djokovic, he managed to be the mentally and emotionally stronger combatant under very difficult and rainy conditions.

If Murray reaches a final against either Djokovic or Nadal, he can take some confidence from the fact that his most recent meeting with each on the clay courts this year was a win.

Murray has never in the past been considered a contender at Roland Garros, but as Stan Wawrinka demonstrated in 2015 (after losing in the first round of the 2014 French Open), history is irrelevant.

It is the best player on the day who wins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reign in Spain: Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open

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(Please click here to read my preview of the 2016 European clay court men’s tennis season.)

The anomalously high altitude clay tennis tournament in Madrid came to a close on Sunday as Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title, garnering his record 29th Masters 1000 crown.

The first set was all Djokovic as the Serbian World #1 delivered nearly flawless tennis and demonstrated that at his best he can send a tennis ball from any stretched position to any location on the court.  In the second set, Murray dug in for a fight.  Raising his aggressive intensity, and taking advantage of a dip in his opponent’s form, Murray broke serve early and held on to win the set.

The final set was nervy and tight, with each player alternating between brilliance and sloppiness and momentum shifting repeatedly.  Djokovic broke serve first but relinquished his advantage a few games later.   By forcing Murray into a defensive mindset, Djokovic broke for a second time but nearly broke himself back as he served for the match.  The 5-3 game was riddled with Djokovic errors.  Murray had at least four chances to break.  I lost count of the number of deuces and wasted match points before Djokovic was finally able to put the match away.

The result of the final set was at least as much about Murray’s suffering a mental block as it was about Djokovic’s exhibiting superior prowess on the court.  Especially in light of the fact that Madrid’s high-altitude courts are faster than the courts in Paris, Djokovic’s tight three-set win is no guarantor of his eventual victory at the French Open.

Four quick lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Masters:

Watch out for Juan Martin del Potro.

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Juan Martin del Potro, the 6’6″, 27-year-old gentle giant from Tandil, Argentina (affectionately known as the Tower of Tandil), has suffered some of the worst injury luck of any player on the tour.  Only months after overpowering Roger Federer in a five-set slugfest to win the 2009 US Open, del Potro suffered a wrist injury that required surgery and forced him to miss most of the 2010 season.  He returned to the tour in 2011, played well enough to win the Olympic bronze medal in 2012, and finished 2013 in the Top 5.  His hopes for additional Grand Slam titles were dashed in early 2014, when he suffered an injury to his other wrist that also required surgery.  Twice in 2014 and 2015 he rehabbed and resumed training only to discover additional wrist problems.  In all, del Potro’s four wrist surgeries have forced him to miss three years of what might otherwise have been his prime.

The Argentine, who is beloved by many fans for his sweet temper, rejoined his tour colleagues in February and played his first clay match since 2013 in Munich last month.

This week in Madrid, del Potro signaled that he could pose a dangerous threat at the French Open.  In a highly anticipated first-round match against rising star Dominic Thiem, del Potro pounded serves, blasted groundstrokes, wrested control of rallies, and overpowered one of year’s most successful clay courters convincingly.  Afterward, Del Potro shed tears of joy and relief.

The rest of the tour would be wise to take note.

Del Potro is unlikely to win the French Open.  His match fitness is not yet sufficient to carry him through seven rounds of best-of-five-set matches later this month in Paris.  However, he could play the role of spoiler.  Del Potro will not be seeded in Roland Garros, so he will be a “dangerous floater” in the draw.  He could meet anyone in the tournament’s first two rounds, when the top players are most vulnerable.  Based upon del Potro’s performance against Thiem, an early meeting between del Potro and a tournament favorite could alter the event’s course significantly.

 

Andy Murray is in excellent form.

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Britain’s Andy Murray, a two-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist, never much enjoyed playing on clay.  Having grown up on indoor hard courts in his native Scotland, and having stepped onto a clay court for the first time at age 15, Murray found movement on clay courts alien and uncomfortable and historically enjoyed his weakest results at clay events.

All this changed in 2015.  Murray won his first clay title at an April 250 event in Munich and followed that win with a victory at the Masters 1000 event in Madrid.

At the 2016 Madrid tournament, Murray again looked sharp.  With a beefed-up first serve and a much-improved second serve (traditionally his great weakness), Murray complemented his devastating defense and return game with impressive management of his own service.  He defeated Rafael Nadal in a cold, damp semifinal through dogged and aggressive play.  Although ultimately unable to overcome Novak Djokovic’s mental edge in the final, Murray played one of his strongest matches against Djokovic in years.

Murray has already reversed one important result in this clay court season by turning a defeat to Nadal in Monte Carlo into a win in Madrid.  His close loss to Djokovic this week could conceivably lead to a win in Paris.

Murray must be considered a contender, even if a long shot, for this year’s French Open, especially if he is able to advance through the draw without ever having to face Djokovic.

 

Novak Djokovic is a favorite, but not necessarily The Favorite, for the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic played much better in Madrid than he had played in Monte Carlo three weeks earlier.  Having had time to acclimate himself to clay and to rest from his grueling and victorious tear through the early-season hard court events, Djokovic demonstrated much-improved movement and ball-striking.

At times, he exhibited his robotically perfect best, returning every ball with power, precision, and devastating accuracy, dragging his opponents around the court, creating impossible angles, and dominating proceedings absolutely.  At other times, he displayed a mental vulnerability that has become increasingly commonplace for him in 2016.  He broke his own serve with a series of errors as he tried to serve out his semifinal match against Kei Nishikori.  He nearly repeated the feat in the final by gift-wrapping several break chances for Murray in the final game.

If Djokovic plays at his best in the crucial moments of his matches at Roland Garros, he will be nearly unbeatable.  However, if he allows his level to drop, as he did against Murray and at moments against Nishikori, he could be vulnerable to an upset.

 

Weather is a crucial factor on clay.

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Clay demands greater adaptability from tennis players than any other surface, because clay is the only surface on which play continues in the rain.  Grass courts are dangerously slippery in the rain.  Hard courts become ponds, and even in a drizzle a hard court’s painted lines become treacherous.  By contrast, clay courts can absorb water, allowing play to continue though a light shower.

When rain begins, though, clay tennis evolves in a matter of minutes into what is effectively a new sport.  Cooler temperatures and falling rain conspire to slow the ball’s transit through the air.  The balls grow heavy as they pick up water and wet clay.  The heavier balls refuse to take spin, reducing the effectiveness of top-spin shots and necessitating changes of strategy.  Players are required to hit harder while simultaneously recalibrating their shots for the new conditions.

In Madrid, the contrast between rainy clay and dry clay conditions was on display during the quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Joao Sousa, which was effectively two different matches.

During the first set, the sun shone through cloud cover.  Nadal controlled the rallies with his vicious top-spin, and Sousa generated a series of wild errors as he desperately tried to match his opponent’s power.  In less than 26 minutes, Nadal won the set 6-0.

Rain started during the second set.  The balls became heavy.  Nadal’s top-spin lost much of its bite.  Sousa’s flat bullet shots started landing in rather than out.  After playing to a draw for eight games, Sousa broke Nadal’s serve in the ninth game and took the set 6-4.

By the third set, the stadium’s roof had been closed for three games.  Although the rain no longer fell inside, the air was still cold, and the court and balls were still sodden.  Nadal continued to struggle for advantage until the balls were changed (according to the standard schedule) in the eighth game.  With, at long last, dry felt to deal with, Nadal was able to use his spin and power to advantage and break Sousa’s serve.  Nadal went on to win the set 6-3.

Whether the weather be wet or dry in Roland Garros this year will play a crucial role in determining the French Open champion.

 

This week the tour moves on to a Masters 1000 event in Rome, where the rainy weather is predicted to begin on Wednesday.

 

The French Open begins in two weeks.
Stay tuned.