03 September 2007

Balls of fury

Ok, I've been out for awhile again. This means it's time for a US Open tennis post.

Let's start at the top. Roger Federer is, in light of his 2004-06 record, having something of an off year losing a whole six matches so far in 2007. This week he's dropped the first set in both his third and fourth round matches to unseeded players. A chink in the armor? Perhaps, though he did go on to win both of those matches easily, the eventual Federer victory seems less inevitable this week than in recent times.

Part of that doubt arises from the emergence of some better challengers. Though Rafa Nadal is still seeking a breakout performance on a hardcourt major and is fighting two soft knees, he has looked solid and has bought some time by staying out of long grueling matches. The real rising star of the summer has been 20-year old Serb Novak Djokavic, who beat both Federer and Nadal in Montreal last month on his way to firmly establishing himself as the No. 3 player in the world. I thought Djokavic would win the tournament at the start of last week, and I'll stick by that pick, although he's played a lot in the last few weeks and may be starting to wear down. Djokavic should have it fairly easy against Juan Monaco, a nondescript Argentine in the 4th round, while Nadal faces David Ferrer, a good battler who could give him problems if the knees start giving out.

Federer, meanwhile, faces another matchup in the quarterfinals with the perennial Great American Hope, Andy Roddick. From Hell's heart Roddick stabs at Federer, to no avail; nine straight defeats, 13 of 14 overall. Despite that I never feel completely confident of a matchup against Roddick, who is capable of serving well enough to turn the match into, at best, a series of tiebreakers.

One player left to watch in the men's draw is Ernests Gulbis, a 19-year old from the tennis hotbed of Latvia. Gulbis just destroyed No. 8 Tommy Robredo in the third round, and while Robredo would much rather be playing on clay, a demolition of that magnitude is nothing to sneeze at. Gulbis has another very winnable match in the fourth round Tuesday against 31-year old Carlos Moya.

The women's draw has been a tale of two halves heading into the final eight; the top half containing both Williams, top-seed Justine Henin and No. 3 Jelena Jankovic, while the bottom half features the 2004 champ Svetlana Kuzmetsova and three young players looking at the deep end of a major for the first time in their careers. Venus Williams looks to have the edge here, after drubbing my personal choice Ana Ivanovic out in the fourth round Sunday. Filling the "lovable longshot" role is 18-year old Agnes Szavay from Budapest.

This is normally the point at which I rant about television and media coverage of individual sports which grabs at any and all American players and thrusts them into the spotlight at the expense of virtually everyone else in the world with the exception of likes of Federer, Nadal, or Henin. I'm beginning to make my peace with this losing battle, though, with the reflexive compensation of merely rooting for all the Americans to lose out of spite. Less stress that way.

As far as I can tell, this is a worldwide phenomenon. What's different about the United States is that we have enough depth to squeeze everyone else off the page, while most countries would love to have just a single top-10 player in either draw. Across many sports, this has led to the general American attitude that merely winning occasionally isn't enough, the only acceptable outcome is complete hegemony.

The expectation behind this, I suppose, is that I am supposed to cheer for the hometown players in the same way I might cheer for the hometown team. I find both of these assumptions mystifying, actually, but the former especially so. Would I be expected to cheer for white players over black players, or for the Aryans against the Slavs? If not, why should I care about arbitrary national distinctions? I tend to gravitate toward players whom I think would be interesting people to know in real life. Not in a pious, moral adjudicating "role model" sort of way, but I like to see that you have a brain and a heart and you're an honest sportsman who notices and respects the other players. Of course, this is not a perfect system either, as I admittedly don't know anyone beyond on-court demeanor and the press, but it's a far sight better than blind national homerism.