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


(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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Return of a King: Five Quick Thoughts about the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters


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

For over two hours today in Monte Carlo, Rafael Nadal and Gael Monfils battled to a stalemate.  The supremely athletic and highly entertaining Frenchman matched the King of Clay shot for shot, game for game, and offensive blow for defensive dig.  After two sets, the contest was even.

As the first to serve in the third set, which would determine the championship of this Masters 1000 event, Nadal told himself he needed raise his level of aggression and boss the rallies with his blistering forehand.  Stepping to the line, Nadal landed his first serve and proceeded to take control of the set and the match.

Having chased down and returned a staggering number of Nadal’s punishing shots through two exhausting sets, Monfils ran out of steam.  Unable to repel Nadal’s persistent attacks, Monfils conceded the third set in a “bagel” — by a score of 6-0.

In his 100th career final, Nadal won his 68th title, his 48th title on clay, his 28th Masters 1000 title, and his record ninth title in Monte Carlo.

Five quick thoughts about the week’s events:


Rafael Nadal’s game, decision making, problem solving, physical endurance, and — most importantly for him — mental strength are in very good shape.


Nadal sliced through a brutally tough draw in Monte Carlo with aplomb.  After an opening win over Britain’s #2 player, Aljaz Bedene, Nadal:

  • Defeated rising star Dominic Thiem in straight sets, saving 15 of the 17 break points he faced.
  • Rolled over current French Open champion Stan Wawrinka 6-1 6-4.
  • Came back after dropping the first set to outlast World #2 Andy Murray in a dogfight.
  • Prevailed over the suffocating defense of a completely dialed-in Gael Monfils.

Nadal has suffered in recent years from physical disability and, more recently, severe confidence problems.  Judging from this week’s performances, most of Nadal’s problems are in the past.

Game on.


Gael Monfils could be a contender this year at the French Open.


Long acknowledged to be one of the most athletically gifted players on tour, the 29-year-old Monfils has delivered inconsistent results over his career, in part because he has been prone to injury, and in part because of a lack of discipline, or a tendency to go on mental walkabout during matches.

In Monte Carlo, Monfils demonstrated that dedication, focus, and concentration inspired by his new coach, Mikael Tilstrom, are bearing fruit.  The Frenchman reached the final without dropping a set and offered Nadal a stiff challenge for two hard-fought sets.

If Monfils can maintain his form, he could reach at least the final eight at the French Open.


Novak Djokovic is not infallible.


As Nadal observed about Djokovic in the week before the Monte Carlo event, “winning is tiring.”

Djokovic arrived in Monte Carlo — his place of residence — having won five titles in 2016 and 28 of the 29 matches he had contested.  During his first match in the Principality, perhaps showing weariness consequent to having reached the final of nearly every tournament he has played this year, Djokovic fell to the World #53 player, 22-year-old Czech Jiri Vesely.

Whether that loss will turn out to have been a minor speedbump and the week’s rest an unexpected boon — or whether Monte Carlo will mark the start of a diminution of Djokovic’s fortunes — remains to be seen.


The most engaging matches don’t always involve the top players.


The early rounds at Monte Carlo boasted several thrillers between players ranked in the teens through the fifties.  World #17 Roberto Bautista Agut outlasted #33 Jeremy Chardy in three tight sets.  World #50 Marcel Granollers edged past #51 Alexander Zverev in two-and-a-half hours under the lights and in the rain.  World #13 David Goffin fought off match points to defeat the ever-dangerous Fernando Verdasco.

Even when headline-makers are nowhere to be seen, there is no lack of drama on the court.  Matches involving relative unknowns can be terrifically entertaining.


The doubles world has a new pair of stars.

during day eight of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters at Monte-Carlo Sporting Club on April 17, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.

As the 37-year-old twins Bob and Mike Bryan relinquish their hold on the world of men’s doubles, an unassuming French pair, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, have made a strong case to assume the Bryans’ mantle.  In the last six week, Mahut and Herbert have won three Masters 1000 doubles titles on hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami and on clay in Monte Carlo.

No team except the Bryans has won Indian Wells, Miami, and Monte Carlo in succession in recent years.

The 34-year-old Mahut — perhaps better known as the loser of the three-day-long marathon match against John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010 — and the 25-year-old Herbert are as engaging and likable as they are skillful on the court.

As men’s doubles are on the verge of losing their best-known stars, Mahut and Herbert offer the sport a welcome new attraction.


For your enjoyment, a compendium of the tournament’s most virtuosic points:


Coming up next week are tournaments in Barcelona and Bucharest.


The French Open begins in five weeks.


Stay tuned.








Red Dirt Ballet: the Beauty and Drama of Clay Court Tennis

RN_Clay_Shoes (Photo by @puepppy.)

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, South America, and the tropics and sets them down in March on the hard courts of North America, delivers them in April to the European “red dirt.”  There they contest a series of clay court tournaments that culminates in the French Open.

Over the next six weeks, in eight different countries, players will be tested in what many fans believe to be the purest form of tennis — where the surface gives 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?


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 affects 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 high.

Clay rewards players who put heavy topspin (i.e., forward spin) onto a ball by giving topspin shots a high bounce.  (By contrast, on grass courts and many indoor hard courts, top-spinning balls tend to say low.)

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 hit the ball with power and accuracy.


  • The ball always leaves a mark on the court surface.

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.

Or, in rare cases, compel a cameraman to photograph a mark.


  • The surface is “slow.”

As the ball strikes the court surface, the clay holds it briefly during the bounce, giving an opponent an extra fraction of a second to reach the ball.  (By contrast, grass courts and many hard courts are “fast.”)

Speed (from

Consequently, it is much more difficult on clay than on a hard court for a player to hit a winning shot past his opponent.  Rallies are long, and matches are both physically and mentally arduous on clay.

Clay rewards players who have good defensive skills (i.e., the ability to run down opponents’ shots and keep a ball in play).  Some of the tour’s most proficient claycourters, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and David Ferrer, excel at forcing their opponents to “hit one extra 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 European Clay Court Season

The marquee event of the clay court season is the French Open, the calendar year’s second Grand Slam tournament, held at Roland Garros in Paris.  To ensure that players reach Roland Garros in optimal clay court form, the tennis tour devotes six weeks to warm-up tournaments in Europe.

Week 1: Monte Carlo

Leading off the series is the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters tournament.  First played in 1897, this “Masters 1000” event (one tier below the Grand Slams) offers fans and players alike the most beautiful setting of the season.


The 2016 event, which begins on April 10, boasts the strongest field in years, with seven of the world’s top eight players and a bumper crop of highly talented youngsters playing.  There are no easy matches.  Nearly every player faces a tough slate of potential opponents.

The defending champion is World #1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who has won the event twice in the last three years.

Rafael Nadal won eight consecutive titles in Monte Carlo, from 2005 through 2012.  His record might never be equaled.


Update: Rafael Nadal def. Gael Monfils 7-5 5-7 6-0 to win the title in Monte Carlo.


Click here for Five Quick Thoughts about the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters.


Week 2: Barcelona and Bucharest

During the week of April 18, some lower ranked players who did not qualify for the Monte Carlo tournament will begin their French Open preparations at a smaller “250” event Bucharest.  Most of the top players will either sit the week out or travel to a medium-sized “500” event in Barcelona.

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

Fourteen of the last 20 Barcelona champions have been Spanish, including eleven straight from 2003 to 2013 (and Rafael Nadal eight times between 2005 and 2013), but the player to hoist the tournament’s enormous trophy in the last two years has been the scrappy Japanese baseliner Kei Nishikori.



Update: Rafael Nadal def. Kei Nishikori 6-4 7-5 to win his ninth title in Barcelona.



Fernando Verdasco def. Lucas Pouille 6-3 6-2 to win the title in Bucharest.



Week 3: Istanbul, Munich, and Estoril

In the week of April 25, mid-level and lower ranked players will hone their clay court skills at three small 250-level tournaments in Istanbul, Munich, and Estoril, while most of the Top-20 players take a breather before back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome.


Philipp Kohlschreiber won a barn-burner of a final over Dominic Thiem, 7-6(7) 4-6 7-6(4), to take the title in Munich.


Diego Sebastian Schwartzman upset Grigor Dimitrov 6-7(5) 7-6(4) 6-0 in Istanbul to win the first title of his career.


Nicolas Almagro outlasted his countryman Pablo Carreno  Busta 6-7(6) 7-6(5) 6-3 to take the title in Estoril.



Week 4: 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 days.  Often matches start after 11 p.m.

Nearly every year of the Madrid clay event’s young life has brought intense drama.

  • In the inaugural event in 2009, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played a four-hour-and-three-minute semifinal, which is the longest best-of-three-set match in the Open Era of men’s tennis.  Nadal won the match but had nothing left for the next day’s final.  The psychological blow of losing that marathon may have contributed to Djokovic’s loss in the third round of that year’s French Open.  The physical wear-and-tear surely contributed to the knee problems that led to Nadal’s fourth-round loss at the French and his subsequent two-month absence from the tour.


  • In 2011, Djokovic surprised Nadal and angered the home crowd by carrying out some decidedly in-your-face celebrations after beating Nadal in the final, including (by some accounts) a swim in a nearby canal and noisy dancing with his team on top of a parked car.


  • In 2012, the tournament replace the red clay with blue clay.  Although the blue clay showed up better on television, it might have been catastrophic for the players, because it was extremely slippery.  Players who typically remain centered over their feet, such as Roger Federer and David Ferrer, were relatively unaffected.  For Nadal and Djokovic, who tend to hit more off-balance defensive shots, the conditions were potentially lethal.  After 2012, the tournament switched back to red clay.


  • In 2013, a crowd still angry at Djokovic for his behavior in 2011 gave him a hard time during his loss to Grigor Dimitrov.  Djokovic, who has never had patience with hostile crowds, and who often behaves as though every crowd owes him affection, screamed at his hecklers in Serbian, “You can lick my ____, and I can ____ your mothers!”

Djokovic has not played in Madrid since 2013.  This year he will return.  It will be interesting to see how he gets along with the assertive and opinionated Madrid fans.

The event’s defending champion is Andy Murray.  Nadal has won the Madrid event on clay three times.

Update: Novak Djokovic def. Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title in Madrid.


Click here to read Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open.

Week 5: Rome

The week after Madrid takes the players back to sea level at the Intenationali BNL d’Italia in Rome, first played in 1930.  The tournament grounds feature a steeply raked stadium surrounded by statues in a classical style, located atop the site of the swimming venue of the 1960 summer Olympics.


Djokovic comes into this year’s Rome event as the two-time defending champion, having won the title four times in the last six years.  Nadal holds the record for Rome titles with seven.


Update: Andy Murray def. Novak Djokovic 6-3 6-3 in the Rome final to win his third clay title and his second at the Masters 1000 level.



Week 6: Nice and Geneva

The last 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 late-arriving journeymen players as well as a few hometown stars.


Stan Wawrinka def. Marin Cilic 6-4 7-6(11) to win his second consecutive Geneva title and his third title of 2016.


Like Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem defended his 2015 title and earned his third trophy of 2016 by defeating fellow rising star Alexander Zverev 6-4 3-6 6-0 in Nice.


Weeks 7 and 8: The French Open, Roland Garros, Paris

On 22 May, 128 men will begin the quest for the year’s second Grand Slam 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.


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

Every Grand Slam 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 thirty-one-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.


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 Nadal and Ferrer, spooking both contestants.


In addition to the French crowd’s perennial hope for a homegrown champion, the intrigue at Roland Garros 2016 — whose field is more open than it has been in years — features a cast of terrific clay court players all of whom have fascinating storylines.


The Contenders

It is highly probable that the man left holding the Coupe de Mousquetaires this year will be one of a short list of “usual suspects.”

The King of Clay – Rafael Nadal

RN_by_zoricdragan Photo by @zoricdragan.

Twenty-nine-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player in the history of tennis.

  • He leads all men in the Open Era with a staggering 91.6 match winning percentage on clay.
  • He is in second place in the Open Era with 47 titles on clay.
  • 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.


Several attributes of Nadal’s highly individualistic 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, precise footwork.
  • A deep understanding of the game and of 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.

Nadal has won eight Monte Carlos, eight Barcelonas, three Madrid titles on clay (and one when the tournament was played on an indoor hard court), seven Romes, and nine French Opens.

That’s nine titles at the most physically and mentally demanding Major tournament.

No one else has ever won as many as eight titles at a single Slam.

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 sixteen titles, include two US Opens and one Australian Open.

Nadal’s career has been a series of injury outages followed by comebacks.

  • In 2005, six months after winning his first French Open, Nadal broke a bone in his left foot (later found to have been congenitally deformed) and was reduced to hitting balls while seated in a desk chair.
    In 2006, he returned to the tour, won his second French Open, and reached his first of five consecutive Wimbledon finals.


  • In 2007 and 2008, the arch supports he was required to wear to protect his vulnerable foot started to wreak havoc on his knees.  In 2009, knee pain forced to stop competing for two months and miss Wimbledon.
    In 2010, in a spectacular run that started in Monte Carlo, Nadal won seven titles, including the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, in the process becoming the first and only male player in the history of the sport to win three Slams on three different surfaces in the same year.


  • In 2012, severe knee tendonitis forced Nadal off of the tour again, causing him to miss the second half of the season, including the London Olympics.
    In 2013, Nadal returned from a seven-month absence to win ten titles, including the French Open and the US Open, and finished the year at #1 – this in spite of his having missed the Australian Open entirely.

In 2014, Nadal suffered three apparently random physical failures: the first, a back injury that befell him in the middle of the Australian Open final in February; the second, a freak wrist injury in August that forced him to miss the US summer hard courts and the US Open; the third, in October — four days after he had returned to competition — acute appendicitis.

In 2015, Nadal experienced what he describes as a “mental injury.”  For the first half of the year, he suffered crippling anxiety on court.  He was unable to control his breathing or his emotions.  He was, as he recently described it, “competing against himself.”  During that stretch, Nadal delivered several truly baffling performances — including at Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, and later Wimbledon — in which he seemed unable to make decisions and could not hit accurate shots to save his life.

Through what he describes as “daily hard work,” Nadal was able to gradually rid himself of the anxiety.  He told the press in October that those bad feelings had gone away.

Because he is what some coaches call a “confidence player,” Nadal faces a maddening chicken-and-egg problem during his every comeback:

To win matches, he needs the confidence to go for big shots on important points.
To have confidence, he needs to win matches.

Last month, in Indian Wells in the desert of southern California, Nadal seemed at long last to have turned the corner.  He had four good wins over difficult opponents and then played his best match against Djokovic in nearly two years.

Nadal said in a recent interview that, unlike last year, he now enjoys practices and matches, and he feels ready to compete with anyone.

In 2016, Nadal is fit, healthy, and happy as he returns to his favorite surface and to events where he has enjoyed great success in the past.

(Memo to his would-be opponents: watch out.)


The Reigning King of the Tour – Novak Djokovic


One year Nadal’s junior, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title (in Australia) in 2009.  After floating in the Top 4 for four years, Djokovic came into his own in 2011, winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, and finishing the year at #1 for the first time.

Beginning in 2012, Djokovic opened each year by telling the press in January of his desire (or intention) to win the year’s French Open, and thereby complete his Career Grand Slam (which Federer had achieved in 2009 at age 27 and Nadal in 2010 at age 24).

In 2012, Djokovic reached the Roland Garros final and lost to Nadal.

In 2013, Djokovic lost to Nadal in a semifinal — a virtuosic five-set masterpiece that has been called the greatest match ever played on clay.

In 2014, Djokovic again reached the final at Roland Garros and again lost to Nadal.

Last year, with Nadal floundering, promised to be Djokovic’s golden opportunity.  Reversing his Roland Garros script, Djokovic dispatched his usual nemesis by trouncing him efficiently in a quarterfinal.

On the morning of the final, only the Swiss Stan Wawrinka stood between Djokovic and his Career Grand Slam.  After Djokovic won the first set, he seemed well on the way to achieving his much-talked-about dream.

Then Wawrinka delivered the three best sets of tennis he has played in his life, a breathtaking display of power and precision.  Pounding the ball off of both wings, Wawrinka kept Djokovic on the run.  Wawrinka controlled most of the rallies with bludgeoned groundstrokes and hit winner after blistering winner.

When it was over, and Djokovic stood on the podium once again holding the runner-up plate, he received a lengthy standing ovation from a crowd sympathetic to his plight.

During the balance of 2015, Djokovic lost only two matches, both of them finals.

Djokovic enters the 2016 European clay court season having won all of his completed matches this year (his only loss was a retirement), but he has shown some uncharacteristic vulnerability.

At the Australian Open, Frenchman Gilles Simon employed persistent defense to drive Djokovic to distraction, force Djokovic to five sets, and draw more than 90 unforced errors from the Serb’s racquet.

In Indian Wells, Djokovic lost a set to World #165 Bjorn Fratangelo and later against Nadal commited a striking number of errors with his best shot, the return of serve.

In Miami, Austrian Dominic Thiem was able to create a passel of break point opportunities against Djokovic but could not cash them in.  In the next round, Belgian David Goffin broke Djokovic several times but was unable to maintain any advantage.

It is possible that Djokovic will “run the table” on the European clay.  He might this year finally win the French Open.

Or he might lose a few points at important moments and find himself on the unfamiliar losing end of a match.

Djokovic will be the oddsmakers’ favorite at every event he plays from now through Roland Garros, but he is not a shoo-in.




When 34-year-old tennis superstar Roger Federer published his 2016 tournament schedule, his European clay court season was rather thin.  Focusing on tournaments more likely to enhance his legacy (specifically, Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics), Federer had opted to minimize his work on clay.

Then in early February, Federer’s plans were upended by a turn of events new in his experience: an injury that required surgery.  Having been forced to sit out for two months, Federer decided recently to refocus on the clay events, beginning with Monte Carlo.  This renders the tournaments both more interesting for fans and more lucrative for tournament sponsors.

Although he might have lost with age a bit of speed and consistency, Federer is still the most graceful player ever to pick up a tennis racquet.  With his lethal serve and time-robbing aggression, Federer can still consistently beat 80 to 85 percent of the players on the tour.

Federer’s playing style is best suited to faster, low-bouncing surfaces (to wit, grass and indoor hard courts at sea level).  Winning a clay tournament at the Masters 1000 or Grand Slam level is a tough task for him.  That said, if breaks were to fall the right way, anything could happen.

Federer, like Nadal, has shown repeatedly that one is unwise ever to write him off.


The Reigning French Open Champion – Stan Wawrinka


Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka owns two Grand Slam titles: the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open.  Physically strong, and blessed with a one-handed backhand as lethal as it is beautiful to watch, Wawrinka at his best can beat anyone on the tour.

Wawrinka is also wildly inconsistent.  In 2014, the year of his first Grand Slam and also his first Masters 1000 title (in Monte Carlo), Wawrinka lost nine times in a tournament’s first round, including a straight-sets loss in the first round of Roland Garros.

In the following year, Wawrinka played brilliantly at Roland Garros, beat both Federer and Djokovic, and won the title.

It can be difficult to predict on any given day which Wawrinka will show up on court.  Realistically, he could lose early in two or three events on the European clay.  With equal probability, he might win three or four of the titles.

Any Wawrinka match is worth watching for the quality of his tennis and for the likelihood of on-court drama.


The Intrepid Fighter – David Ferrer


Thirty-four-year-old Spaniard David Ferrer is known and respected on the tennis tour for his dogged determination and indefatigability.

Although at 5’9″ Ferrer might be too small to win a Grand Slam during this Golden Age of men’s tennis, experts and commentators agree that in a different era Ferrer would have won at least one Slam and probably a French Open.

With 26 titles, Ferrer is the most highly decorated male player in the Open Era never to have won a Slam.  Like many of his countrymen, Ferrer excels on clay, having won 12 of his titles on the red dirt.  Ferrer has reached the semifinals on clay in Madrid, the final in Barcelona, the final in Monte Carlo, and the final in Rome.  In 2013, he reached the final at Roland Garros, where he lost to Nadal.

Although Ferrer might have slowed down somewhat with age, his disciplined point construction, tenacious defense, and outstanding return of serve can still carry him to victory over most players on clay, especially in a best-of-five-set format.

Ferrer may appear to be an outlier among these Contenders, since he has not yet won a title on the European clay, but I believe he belongs on this short list because in his trophy cabinet at home he has hardware from Roland Garros.

Only five active male players have contested a French Open final.

  • Nadal (2005 – 08, 2010 – 14)
  • Federer (2006 – 09, 2011)
  • Djokovic (2012, 2014, 2015)
  • Wawrinka (2015)
  • Ferrer (2013)


The Second Tier

Among the remaining 123 men who will contest the singles competition in Paris, at least 15 have the potential to cause upsets within the draw.  Some worthy of especial note:

Dominic Thiem


Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem is almost certainly a future French Open champion.  As highly disciplined as he is talented, Thiem possesses a well-rounded game as well as a gorgeous one-handed backhand.

Thiem has won two titles so far this year, including on clay in Buenos Aires, where he beat Nadal in the semifinal.  Although Thiem may not be ready to win seven best-of-five-set matches at Roland Garros, he might well be capable of taking a Masters 1000 title in the coming weeks.


Kei Nishikori


With a playing style sometimes described as “Djokovic without the celebrations,” Japan’s Kei Nishikori has established himself solidly among the game’s Top 10.  Nishikori’s easy power and precise ball striking can carry him past any player.  In recent years, he has notched wins over Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic.

Two of Nishikori’s eleven titles have come on clay, both in Barcelona.  If he stays healthy, which is always the biggest question with Nishikori, he could be a threat at any of the European clay events.


Gilles Simon


Like David Ferrer, Frenchman Gilles Simon has turned an unprepossessing physical presence into an asset.  Although not endowed with great power, Simon brings to court some of the cleanest and most tenacious defensive skill on the tour.  An absolute nightmare of a match-up in a best-of-five format, Simon could give the home fans reason to cheer into the second week at Roland Garros.


Roberto Bautista Agut


With two titles already this year, 27-year-old Roberto Bautista Agut is the most successful Spanish player through the first quarter of 2016.  In his short career on tour, he has won four titles, including one each on clay and grass.

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.


Jo-Wilfried Tsonga


As a player, 30-year-old Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a bit of an enigma.

Sometimes he channels his prodigious talent and athletic ability into an aggressive, powerful game that defeats all comers.  He has beaten Federer twice in Grand Slams, including once at the French Open.

At other times — such as his 2013 dismantling by Ferrer one round after his victory over Federer at Roland Garros — Tsonga looks disoriented and defeated well before the end of the first set.

A subject of Roland Garros scrutiny and pressure every year as a top French prospect, Tsonga truly has a game that would enable him to win.

Whether he hoists any trophies this spring, or pulls off any important upsets, or bows his head in defeat, will depend upon which Tsonga shows up to play.


So who will win?

I don’t make predictions. 🙂


Update: Novak Djokovic def. Andy Murray 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4 to win his first French Open title and complete his career Grand Slam.



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


Denouement: Into the Arms of Angels, Part 14 of 14


Today, the fourteenth and final episode of my feature-length screenplay, ”Into the Arms of Angels” (© 2005, 2016) —

For Part 13, please click here.

For Part 1 and a glossary of screenwriting abbreviations, please click here.

Each installment concludes with a link to its successor.



Joe walks from a corridor into the County Dairy lobby carrying the paper bag from the airport gift shop.

Toby emerges through another door from the factory floor.

Both men pause briefly and then walk to meet each other in the center of the lobby.

Toby shakes Joe’s hand and holds it for several extra seconds.

The men chat. At first, they are too far away to be audible.



…when we land, they don’t have a gate for us; so we can’t get off the plane. We taxi way the heck over to some parking spot and just wait. I got worried I’d miss my connection.



Oh, man!


Phil enters the lobby and walks over to join Joe and Toby.


And then d’you know what the pilot said? He comes on and explains that we have to wait, and says they’re going to put us in the “penalty box.” I mean, how appropriate is that?



Ah, but who got the power play?



Beats me…Hey, Phil.



Joe! Glad to see that you’re back. What was it again that happened to you?



I had a seizure.



You’re not likely to do that again soon, are you?



That might just be in your hands, Phil.



Good, good. Well, I’ve got news, just in from Pulaski, and as promised, changes are coming.


Phil pauses. Joe and Toby wait patiently.


In fact, County faces its biggest personnel change since, well, since Gabriel, you know…


Phil looks at Joe. Joe and Toby continue to wait, listening.


Prob’ly even since you and Gabriel came on board.


Phil pauses again. Joe and Toby continue to wait.


The big news is that I am going to move.


Joe and Toby do not react.


So –



Is this for good then?



Unless and until they send me back here.



Why would they do that? D’you think they’ll decide they don’t like you?



No, of course not. That would never happen; but I’ll go wherever Pulaski sends me. If they say Black Earth –



So you’re not leaving-leaving, you’re just going out to the HQ, in Chicago?



That’s right. Why? Were you starting to miss me?



It’s early days yet.



Well, in two months’ time, County will have to do without me.



Somehow, Phil, we’ll learn to manage.



Now you’re not going to have another seizure on us, Joe?



No. At this point, I can definitely say “No.”


Phil turns and abruptly walks toward the exit.


Lunch, anyone? I’m treating today.



Go ahead, Phil. I’ll catch up.



Don’t take too long, Joe. I want to be rolling in five.


Joe nods and half-waves at Phil with his right hand.



Joe fidgets with the hem of his right jacket pocket.

Joe and Gabriel stand facing each other at a gate at the Madison airport. In the right pocket of Joe’s jacket is a floppy disk.



Now boarding all rows for Flight 4264 nonstop service to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. All ticketed and confirmed passengers are welcome to board through the doorway marked “3.”


Gabriel and Joe grin at each other.


This is it. Wish me luck!


Gabriel and Joe hug.


Good luck, Gabe! I’m sure you’ll knock their socks off.



Then I’ll bring one back as a souvenir.


Joe chuckles and coughs. He absently touches the outside of his right jacket pocket.

Gabriel stares intensely at Joe as though an unexpected feeling – an incomprehensible premonition – has washed over him.

Feeling the disk in his pocket, Joe starts.

At the same moment, Gabriel seizes Joe’s right upper arm and gazes at him intently.



Oh, Gabe –



Hey…You know I love you, don’t you, Squirt? Take care of yourself.


Shocked by Gabriel’s sudden candor, Joe lets the fingers of his right hand fall away from his pocket. He grins.


Uh, Me too, Gabe. You know that.


Gabriel lets go of Joe’s arm, shakes his head, and smiles.


‘Bye, Joe.


Gabriel turns, gives his boarding pass to the GATE AGENT, and walks down the jetway.

At the final corner he turns, smiles, and waves to Joe.

Joe returns his wave and stares after him in puzzlement.

The gate agent closes the door to the jetway.



Joe crosses the lobby carrying the bag from the gift shop.

He stops at a display case that contains a memorial to Gabriel. He opens its glass doors.

Toby follows Joe to the display case and stops on Joe’s right.

The display case has two shelves, each about three feet wide and about seven inches deep.

At the center of the lower shelf is an 11X17 framed photo of Gabriel. To the right of the photo is an engraved plaque.

On the shelves are memorabilia including a five-inch-high Bucky Badger, a Wisconsin Badger basketball fan t-shirt, a dried corsage, a wedding garter, a church key, a small stack of poker chips, a tennis racquet, and a pool ball.

Flanking the display on the left and right, respectively, are framed photographs of Gabriel with his parents and two sisters and Gabriel with his wife at their wedding.

Joe studies the display and then opens the bag. He pulls out a small “I [heart] NY” button, which he places on the top shelf just left of center.

Toby stands watching silently.

Joe pulls the Twin Towers figurine from the bag, places it gently near the center of the top shelf, straightens it, checks it a last time, and smiles.

Otto walks up and stops on Joe’s left. All three men stand in front of the memorial for several seconds.

Joe’s eyes are moist, but he is composed.

Toby gently touches Joe’s right shoulder.



You ready to go?



Yes, I am. Thank you.


Otto wraps his right arm around Joe’s shoulder, squeezes for a few seconds, and lets go.


Looks real nice, Joe.


Phil’s voice echoes through the cavernous lobby.


Lunch, people! Leaving now!


Otto smiles at Joe and Toby. Joe closes and locks the case’s glass doors.

Otto and Joe turn to the left and walk away from the display.

Toby lingers for a few seconds before joining the others.

The men’s FOOTSTEPS and VOICES echo across the room.

Gabriel’s memorial remains behind, centered in the frame.



Into the Arms of Angels, Part 13 of 14


The thirteenth installment of my feature-length screenplay, ”Into the Arms of Angels” (© 2005, 2016) —

For Part 12, please click here.

For Part 1 and a glossary of screenwriting abbreviations, please click here.

Each installment concludes with a link to its successor.




Otto speaks to Toby in the lobby of County Dairy.

Joe sits on the floor of a crowded airport departure lounge.

In her kitchen, Chris writes a note and leaves it on the table.  She exits the house and closes the door behind her.

A second flight attendant asks Joe, who juggles a laptop, Palm pilot, coffee cup, and stack of papers, to prepare for landing.

Joe’s cab driver from the Madison airport is a heavyset, German-looking man decked out in Green Bay Packers’ colors.  The driver recounts a lively story.  Joe grins in the back seat.



As Joe walks into the kitchen of his home, he spots Chris’ note on the table. Joe leaves his bag, walks to the table, and picks up the note.



Welcome back, hon. I’m working 3P to 3A. See you when I get back at 4. Love – C


Joe reads the note and then replaces it on the table. After a few seconds, Joe turns and walks out of the house.



The lobby of St. Mary’s Hospital is airy and uncrowded.

The entrance is in the southwest corner. A gift shop sits on the west side. On the east side is a semi-circular information desk staffed by an ASSISTANT (a slender 20-year-old male). Elevators are on the north wall, in the northeast corner.

Joe walks through automatic doors into the lobby. He takes a few steps and then stops to survey the room.

Joe walks up to the information desk.



Excuse me. Can I use that phone to call upstairs?



Sure, here ya go.


The assistant lifts a telephone from his desk and places it on the counter in front of Joe.

Joe dials a number and waits a few seconds for an answer.


Hi, can I talk to Chris Kleinschmidt, please? This is her husband.


Joe waits for about half a minute. He turns away from the desk and looks around. The assistant discreetly ignores him.

About eight feet away from Joe, a woman in her early sixties sits on a couch. A magazine rests in her lap, and she watches Joe. When Joe looks at her, she smiles.

Chris answers the phone.


Hi, Chris, it’s me…Yeah, it all went smooth. No problems, at least nothing big. Yes, I found your note. Thanks for leaving it. Look, I’m downstairs… Well, I wanted to stop in…No, nothing’s wrong. The doctors said I’m fine. So…Uh-huh…Yes, ’til 3 AM…


Chris’ voice gradually becomes intelligible.


…Otto said he’d be talking to Toby yesterday. So everyone over at County knows you were sick; and speaking of such things –



Chris –



…our census is pretty high tonight, and we have three new admits –



Chris, I –



…I really ought to be getting back to my –



Chris, would you please come down? D’you think I’d visit a hospital today as a tourist?



I’ll be right there.


Chris replaces the receiver with a click.

Joe hangs up and stands with his hand on the receiver. He glances at the assistant and hands him the phone.




Joe walks across the lobby and sits on a couch near the woman who smiled at him.

A customer rings up a purchase in the gift shop.

An elderly man with a walker crosses the lobby with his wife.

The woman who smiled at Joe stands up and walks away.

A happily disoriented rural-looking man emerges from the gift shop with a pink Mylar balloon that reads, “It’s a Girl!” Joe watches the man with the balloon walk toward the elevators.

While tracking the man, Joe spots Chris. Chris stands six feet away from Joe. She has arrived without his having noticed.

Joe jumps to his feet and takes a few steps toward Chris.



You look thinner.



Oh, I ate pretty good, but they gave me only sugar water for a day or so – the tube in my arm, hooked up to some machine that kept playing Beethoven’s Fifth when it broke –



An IV.



Yeah. It was an IV.


The conversation stops.


When I got there, to the hospital, they hooked me up to all kinds of – I don’t even know what-all, machines that were beeping, and skin patches, and wires, screens with all those little green curves –



They’re called traces.






The curves – they’re called traces.



Oh, OK. God, do those machines freak me out! I’m so glad it’s over. I don’t know how you stand being around them all the time –



Joe, it’s my job.



Yeah, I guess it is. Better you than me.



I agree. Better I than you; and speaking of that –



Chris –



You’re feeling OK?



Um, yes.



Good. I’m glad that you’re back, and you’re better, and you’re home. Now I need to go –



Chris, please…



Otto told me what happened. With Bongo, and the rest. He told me you lost it. Out on a street, in public, for crying out loud!



Chris –



And you know, Joe, I can picture it. I’ve seen you like that before – shaking, and spouting off, with your face turning bright red –



Chris, listen.



I’m listening.


Joe remains silent. Chris turns toward the elevators.


Joe, I have work to do –



Chris! Please don’t…


Chris turns to face Joe.


I don’t want to lose you…I know that I have been difficult.



Yes, you have.



Chris, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I wish I did. But please, if you can, please bear with me right now.



No one ever does know, do they?



Gabe didn’t.


Chris smiles faintly.


Joe, I really do need to go.


Chris steps again toward the elevators.


I’ll be home by 4. You don’t need to –





Chris gazes back toward Joe. Joe stares at her intensely.


I know. Right back at you.


Chris turns and walks calmly into an elevator.



The bedroom curtains are brightly lit by the sun.

Joe awakens to find Chris “dead to the world” on his right. Propping himself on his elbow, Joe watches Chris sleep.

He strokes a few hairs off her forehead, leans forward, and gently kisses her temple. Joe then climbs out of the left side of the bed and leaves the room.


Please click here to read Part 14.



Into the Arms of Angels, Part 12 of 14


The twelfth installment of my feature-length screenplay, ”Into the Arms of Angels” (© 2005, 2016) —

For Part 11, please click here.

For Part 1 and a glossary of screenwriting abbreviations, please click here.

Each installment concludes with a link to its successor.


N.B. The story recounted by the cab driver is true.




Joe asleep in the ICU bed.

Gabriel’s face in the smoky room, framed by broken windows.

Otto speaks energetically with a clerk at La Guardia airport.

A nurse makes notes on a portable computer as Joe is moved, on a bed, into a new room.

Otto walks through the main entrance of St. Mary’s Hospital.

A physician types on a portable computer as Joe lies on a bed in the background. The IV is still attached to Joe’s arm.

Otto and Chris meet in the St. Mary’s lobby. After a few stoic seconds, Chris collapses into Otto’s arms.

At the Madison airport on September 10th, Gabriel and Joe embrace. Gabriel then grabs Joe’s right arm and says something serious.

Chris, at home, places a call to the hospital in New York.

Lying in bed, Joe speaks on the phone, smiling nervously.

Chris speaks rapidly on the phone and gesticulates.

Joe holds the phone away from his ear and fidgets.

Chris holds the phone, not speaking, awaiting a response.

Joe also waits, fidgeting, and finally speaks.

Chris glances at her watch and quickly gets off the phone.

Joe signs off the call.

A phone is hung up by an unidentified hand.

Joe sits up in bed as a nurse removes IV tape from his arm.

Chris walks into the break room at St. Mary’s. Suzette sits at a table making notes. Suzette stops writing and looks up. Chris sits at the table. Suzette squeezes Chris’ hand.

Joe stands outside St. Vincent’s Hospital, hailing a cab.



Joe is in a taxi from the hospital to La Guardia Airport. The CABBIE is Italian and in his sixties.


You from out of town?






Where you from?



Madison, Wisconsin.



Wisconsin – I forget, was that a red state?



Almost. It’s blue, but it was the closest in the country.



Mmm. How about that. This your first trip to New York?



The first since September 11th.



That so? Some say the city’s recovered from 9/11 – that we’re moving on, and we’ve put that terrible episode in its place. I’m not so sure.


Joe does not respond.


My nephew Joey worked at Ground Zero. He’s in Local 40 – cutting steel – and he worked 163 days on the pile. He said in one stretch he did five days out of eight. That’s 24-hour shifts, five in eight days.






Those steel workers, they were heroes too. I mean, everyone knows about the firefighters and cops and EMTs, and the court officers, and all they risked that awful day and afterward; this is to take nothing away from them; but at least they’re trained to handle, you know, bodies and death, and remains. The steel workers, they face cranes and heights and beams and tons of risk every day that they work; but only in a blue moon do they ever have to see a dead body. Except at Ground Zero, where they’d grab up a load, and then wonder what in the heck was under a beam, and – oof! It got pretty hard sometimes.


The cabbie checks his mirror. Joe stares out the window.


Joey said he toughened a little; but it was horrible every time. He said what scared him really the most, what haunted him a lot, was the thought of all of those poor people who jumped.


Joe closes his eyes.


Every time Joey was about to fall asleep, he’d see people jumping from the North Tower. It was really bad, I mean, so that he couldn’t sleep, even when he was totally wiped out. So I told him, Joey, you should talk to someone. There’s no shame in that. Really – lots of guys, they’ve been through it, and some of the guys find it helpful to, you know, talk to someone. I told him, look, you need your sleep. If you work on the pile you need your wits about you. For the sake of all the other guys. For the sake of the people you’re trying to find. And for the sake of your family, you oughta see someone. So Joey agreed, yeah, he’d speak to somebody. In fact there were counselors at the site just to talk to guys like him…The next time I saw Joey, I asked him, how you feeling, and he stopped, and he grinned, and he said, really good. Better than he’d felt in months. And you know why? Because of something a counselor he saw said to him. When he told her he couldn’t sleep for the visions of falling bodies, she said, “Every time you see someone jumping from the tower, imagine an angel swooping out of the sky, catching the person, and gently carrying them back up to heaven.” That’s what she suggested, and that’s what he did. Every time he saw a jumper in his mind’s eye he also saw an angel there to catch them, and cradle them, and gracefully fly back up to heaven. Then Joey could sleep, and be happy again…or at least sane, you know.


The cabbie again checks his rear-view mirror. Joe is watching him. Joe nods and responds.


Yes, I can see that.


The cab arrives at La Guardia. The cabbie steps out and opens the trunk. Joe joins him at the back of the car.

Joe hands the cabbie a stack of bills and looks him in the eye.


Thanks, man.


Joe grabs his roller-bag. The cabbie smiles.


Have a safe trip home.



Will do. Thanks.


Joe glances back at the cabbie and then walks into the airport.



Fifteen feet from the entrance to a gift shop, Joe pauses and pulls his roller-bag to rest at his feet. He checks his watch, then walks into the shop.

Joe browses through magazines and regional knick-knacks.

Joe flicks the head of a Derek Jeter bobblehead doll.

Joe spots a small shelf in the corner on which sit 8 – 10 Twin Towers figurines. He maneuvers around several shelves and into the tight corner.

The metal figurines are arrayed in crooked rows. Each is about nine inches high.

Joe picks up a figurine, examines it, and decides to buy it.

Joe steps up to the cashier’s desk.

The cashier begins to ring up the sale. Joe looks at a display of impulse-buys, grabs an item, and hands it to the cashier.

The cashier rings up both items and quotes Joe a price.

Joe pulls out his wallet, pays with cash, takes his change, and drops a few coins into a cup next to the register.

The cashier hands Joe a small brown sack. He thanks the cashier, who is already helping the next customer, and leaves the store.



…Advantage Gold and Platinum passengers for Flight 599 to Chicago may board now or at their leisure.



The main cabin seats six across. Joe sits at a window on the right.

A FLIGHT ATTENDANT in the forward galley picks up a microphone.



Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Chicago. Thank you for flying with us today. We understand that you have a choice when you travel, and we appreciate your including us in your travel plans. We wish you a very pleasant stay in Chicago or wherever your final destination may be. For now, please sit back and relax until we have come to a full and complete stop at the terminal and the captain has turned off the seatbelt sign. For your reference, our arrival gate will be H, as in Hotel, 15.


Joe looks up from a magazine, glances out the window, and does a double-take.

He watches as the H concourse passes rapidly by. It is raining.

Joe returns to his magazine, grins, and shakes his head.

Please click here to read Part 13.

Into the Arms of Angels, Part 11 of 14


Today, for your enjoyment – the eleventh installment of my feature-length screenplay,”Into the Arms of Angels” (© 2005, 2016).

For Part 10, please click here.

For Part 1 and a glossary of screenwriting abbreviations, please click here.

Each installment concludes with a link to its successor.



Sound: The “TWEETS” become the periodic BEEPS of ICU monitors.

Joe lies on his back in the bed in a single room in a large intensive care unit. His eyes are closed. Otto sits in a chair on Joe’s left, facing the bed.

Joe is attached to a BEEPING monitor that reads several vital signs and to an IV hung from a pole. The IV tube runs through a computerized flow controller.

For several seconds, Joe is unconscious, and Otto is silent.

Joe opens his eyes. He looks around the room, at the monitor screens, at Otto, and toward the door at the foot of his bed.

Joe studies the IV port in his right arm, lifts the arm, and gently puts it down. He then rolls his head to look at Otto.





We’re here.






So where is here?



St. Vincent’s Hospital.



Oh. What happened?



You don’t remember?



Not much.



You had a seizure.



Really? Who’d a thunk that? Never had one of those before.



Didn’t look too good for a few minutes there. You passed out, and you choked. You even stopped breathing for a bit.



Whoa. Geez. I owe somebody a thank-you.



The doc says no harm’s done; you’re OK now. But they want to keep you here a couple of days to be sure.






So you don’t remember?



No, I do. I remember the work we did, and what that Bongo girl said.



Remember what-all you said?



Some of it.



About Gabriel?



Yes…Sometimes I think I remember too much about Gabriel.



That’s not possible, Joe.



You know, one of the last times I spoke to him, Gabe was mad.



At you?



At me. I’d let him down.



You never told me about that.



No? I guess it got lost.



Was he mad when you dropped him at the airport?



No. No, not there. I walked him all the way to his gate. (Remember when we could do that?) I can still see his face. He was so jazzed to be going. Don’t know when I’d seen him so excited; though that might be hindsight speaking.



Code Blue, 325A. Code Blue 325A.



Did you wish you were going too?



No, I didn’t.



Was Gabriel mad about that?



Nah, he was cool. Said he’d miss seeing New York with me, but he understood.



So what was the problem?



I’d said I’d help him prepare for the trip, which I did. His talk was fantastic – it was going to blow Bongo away. All he needed was some Q3 numbers that I said I’d bring him on a disk.



And did you?








Joe stays silent. After a while, Otto tries again.


Joe, I’m still not getting it.



I forgot.



Forgot what?



To give it to him. Somehow, I don’t know how. It was just the darnedest thing. That last minute at the airport, giving Gabriel the disk just slipped clean out of my mind. OK?






I have no idea how it happened.






So Gabe leaves. I can still see him walking to the plane; at the last second he turns and flashes that cocky grin of his. Ten minutes later I’m paying for parking, and I find the disk in my pocket. His plane is already gone. And I’m frantic. Actually I’ve been stressed all day, with a knot in my stomach. And finding the disk sends me into a sweat. I pull over and call his cell phone, and leave a message, apologizing all over. Then I offer to email him the files.



Did you do that?






But Gabriel was mad?



You know how he could be. He never did learn to suffer a fool.



Too bad.



He didn’t stay mad. We spoke that night after he got in, and he was cooled down. Mostly.



Joe, it’s not your fault he blew his stack over a simple mistake.



But I shouldn’t have made that mistake. I don’t do things like that.



C’mon, Joe – It’s over.



If it were truly over he’d be back…



I mean about the disk –



And those huge towers. I liked them. And the airplanes. And all those people.


Both men are silent for a few seconds.


God, how I miss him, Otto!



I know. I do too.



I really wish he’d called me that morning.



Maybe he tried.



Yeah. Lucy said she called back again and again, and the lines were jammed. Then after a while, it was like someone had turned off his phone.



I know.



They say there’s no way he could’ve gotten out, up as high as he was.



Yes, I know.



D’you ever think about what Gabriel went through that morning?



Sure. When I’m not working.



Sometimes I can’t stop myself. I can’t get it out of my mind. What scares me most, even now, is that when those fires were closing in, and they were running out of air – with nowhere else to go – Gabriel might’ve been one of the people who had to –


Joe begins to weep.


Oh, Jesus. Why did all of those people have to jump?


Joe sobs. The monitor’s BEEP RATE increases.

Otto makes several gestures toward Joe, and then finally takes Joe’s left hand. Joe squeezes hard.


God, how I miss him. Oh, God – Gabriel, I’m so sorry you had to die – so sorry you had to die like that.


A NURSE peers into the room. Seeing Joe, she becomes alarmed. Otto raises his hand to wave her away. The nurse pauses and then enters the room.


Mr. Kleinschmidt, the doctor’s ordered you a sedative. You should be getting some sleep.


Joe releases Otto’s hand, wipes his face, takes the pill and a water cup from the nurse, swallows the pill, and thanks the nurse. He lies back and rolls onto his side away from Otto.

The nurse leaves the room.


Even now there are days when I wish I could go back and warn everyone, so the buildings would still be here, and no one would have to die.


Otto leans forward to watch Joe. His eyes fill with tears.


Joe, I miss him too, you know. He was a good boy, and then a good man. He made me laugh. You both did. You boys were such a scream. I got a kick out of watching you, and then seeing you grow up. I know he meant a lot to you, like the best kind of a brother. Well, you and he both meant the world to me, and now only you are left. Please, Joe, it’s hard to see you hurting this way. I wish that I could just –


Otto reaches toward the bed, presses on it with his finger tips, and quickly pulls his hand back. He then stands and crosses the room with his hands in his pockets.


I guess I should go. They moved me to an early flight out tomorrow, 7 a.m. And what with airport security I need to get there even earlier.


Otto winces. Joe does not move. Otto tries again.


Before you woke up, when they were checking you out, I went and watched a little TV. Monday Night Football. In the lounge. The Pack was up by 5 in the third. Rodgers’s driving down the field. They’re doing OK, but the Metrodome’s so darn loud. Then right before I turn it off Rodgers launches this Hail Mary, way downfield, and it’s picked off. Driver had no chance, really – Vikings on both sides of him. Nothing he could do. Guy on his left just reached up his hand, and – well that was that.


Tears run down Otto’s cheeks. He wipes them and watches Joe’s immobile frame. He turns to leave.


That guy must think he’s Favre.


Otto freezes, listening.


I mean, throwing deep, into double-coverage. What a dimwit.


Otto smiles. Joe rolls onto his back and looks at Otto.


He’d better keep channeling Favre. He’ll need it for the 2-minute offense.


Otto chuckles and turns to leave.


You’re leaving tomorrow?



Yes. Early.



I’ll be home when I can. Right now I think I need to sleep.

Joe closes his eyes. Otto watches for a few more seconds. He then turns and leaves the room.



Otto stops outside Joe’s room, looks around, and walks to a nursing station, where a SECOND NURSE works on papers.


Excuse me, ma’am. Oh, excuse me – yes, well may I ask you a question? Good, thanks. Uh, Joe Kleinschmidt, in the room there. I’m his uncle, see, and his, um, business partner, and I, um, well, I need to fly back home to Wisconsin, see, and I was wondering, if you knew, well, how long he’ll be in here for.



Sir, I’m not at liberty to discuss the patient’s condition; but I can ask his doctor to call you. Are you listed as his emergency contact?



No, that’s his wife, Chris, but that’ll be fine.  You see, I’m leaving tomorrow.  Joe was supposed to leave too, and I have to change his flight, and then tell Chris when he’ll be home.  I need to warn Chris what to expect, too.  In fact, I’ll suggest she call him herself.  That would be best.  Do you have calling hours here?  I mean, hours when a person can call someone who’s here?  No?  Good, then I’ll tell Chris to call whenever she feels ready and that anytime is OK, unless Joe’s with the doctor or one of you.  Would even then be OK?  Well, that’s good to know.  It’s nice you can be so accommodating.  Thank you.  Thanks for all you’re doing.  Joe’s my nephew, you see, my brother’s son, and he’s the company’s Vice President of Operations, at least he is for now.  In any case, we love him, and we hope he comes home soon.  He may seem a bit on edge today, because he’s been through a lot; but he’s a really good man.  I hope you get a chance to see that.


Otto begins to walk away but turns back to address the nurse.


You take care now, ma’am; and thanks a bunch.


Please click here to read Part 12.