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Our Write to Roland Garros winner, James LaRosa, is back again! James' won our writer's contest for Roland Garros and did such a great job he came back for the US Open. This time, James didn't make the trip to Australia however that won't stop him from blogging about all the action. Check back throughout the tournament for James' Aussie blog .

Email James | James' Roland Garros Blog | James' US Open Blog

Special Features: 7 Stupid Questions with Nadia Petrova


1/27/08 - Day 14 - 2:55pm

The party's over. As Dunlop and I battle over the last Alka-Seltzer with the same fury Novak battled Jo-Willy for his first Grand Slam title (I'm cramping!), we can't help but look back at the highs and lows of this 2008 Aussie Open. No Oscars? No problem! Ladies and gentlemen, the Dunnys...

Best Match (ATP): An embarrassment of riches, but we're going with the juicy third rounder between Roger Federer and Janko Tipsarevic. Score aside (10-8 in the fifth!), this four and a half hour epic not only invigorated Fed's opponents for the rest of the tourney, it seemed to spark everyone else into playing with the same go-for-broke belief. It upped the quality of the entire tournament, and announced Janko as a true force to be reckoned with.

Best Match (WTA): For sheer shock value, the Maria Sharapova/Justine Henin quarterfinal was a jawdropper. Do they have bagels in Belgium? They do now. Sharapova never played better, showcasing an all-court game that left Henin stunned. Literally.

Worst Match (ATP): Not a whole lot to pick from. We're going with Ferrer/Del Potro, yet one more match Juan Martin had to retire from two sets down. We're over it.

Worst Match (WTA): Don't get me started.

Breakthrough Performance (male): Duh. He may look like a boxing great, but let's see Ali play tennis like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Does anyone have a bigger forehand? And his returning is off the charts. My Christmas wish is that this tournament wasn't a fluke, because he could make things real interesting on the tour this year. (Honorable Mention: Croatian Marin Cilic.)

Breakthrough Performance (female): Casey Dellacqua and Marta Domachowska hatcheted their way to the fourth round, taking out Mauresmo and Li respectively. But our vote goes to Chinese Taipei's Su-Wei Hsieh (who?), who allowed Bammer just two games en route to her own fourth round date with Henin.

Best Use of a Microphone: Pam Shriver. Always good for a laugh, Pam seemed especially punchy this go-round. Interviewing Jelena's mother during her daughter's semifinal match against Maria, Pam told her she'd be the only parent she'd be speaking to that night. Snezna LOL'd, and so did I.

Weirdest Trend: Breathing problems. Whether you were pepper sprayed or just get winded when you're nervous, it was a tough tournament to catch your breath.

Worst Fashion Trend (male): This goes to everyone, who all seemed to be wearing the same fakakta orange green Nike outfit. Blake, Nadal, Moya, Dancevic, Koubek. Line 'em all up and you could do Rhythm Nation.

Worst Fashion Trend (female): Oh no she didn't! Kaia Kanepi showed up in Maria's old USO outfit. Andrea Petkovic showed up (and fell down) in the very same blue poof-dress Ana Ivanovic came to the dance in. Refusing to be outdone, Domachowska rocked the blue dress with Ana's (once) signature pearls. I hope they don't show up on the same court together, that would be embarrassing. Oh wait, they did. And it was.

Best Dressed (male or female): One player dared to stand out from the pack. Or maybe I'm color blind. But props to Aravane Rezai, who was tres elegant in red, gold and green. Some say gypsy fortune teller. I say work it mama.

Luckiest Charm: Hopman Cup. The surest path to AO glory? Just ask Jelena Jankovic, Sania Mirza, Arnaud Clement, Su-Wei Hsieh and Novak Djokovic.

Creepiest Celeb Sighting: Nicole Kidman. Did she love the match? Did she hate it? Who can tell?

Best Umpire: Alison Lang. Alison, you rule with an iron fist tucked gently inside a fine velvet glove. You don't have that dippy look-around-and-smile-as-if-it's-not-happening look on your face when a player challenges you. You're head on. You don't take no crap. Not from a testy Fed during that Tipsy match, not from a testier Hantuchova during that Ivanovic match. I want you to call my matches. I want you to chair my arguments. I want you to record my outgoing message. "James is out. Advantage, your message. Leave it at the beep. I won't hear any more." Beep.

Best break: Novak breaking Fed, serving for the first set.

Best break with reality: Dunlop. Truly the next best thing to being there. He hasn't taken the wig off yet, and doesn't seem too quick to. We're on our own journeys in life. Thanks for coming along on mine. Until next time.

Poljubac,

James

1/26/08 - Day 13 - 10:41am

Let me start by saying this: if Maria Sharapova didn't win this championship, I would've been furious.

Not because I'm so pro-Sharapova, or at all anti-Ivanovic (How could you be? She's like a walking stuffed animal.). It's because of something much bigger. Something that's been gnawing at my insides like a starved jackal since the first days of this tournament that, now that it's over, I can finally get off my chest.

The last two weeks have a been a showcase of everything that's wrong with women's tennis today.

And I blame the players.

Here's the deal. As a ginormous fan of women's tennis, I'm constantly asked by the less sophisticated how it can possibly compare to men's. "Men's is so much bigger, it's so much stronger, it's so much faster." Anyone who's watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School can attest to the thrill of watching a woman give a good beatdown. Beyond that, well, I like a little more melodrama with my coffee. Unfortunately, the drama was all too combustible these last two weeks. What it led to was not hair pulling and open-handed slaps, but monstrously sub-par tennis.

Maybe it's the men's fault. Maybe they were just too good. Maybe nearly each and every one of their matches was filled with just too much aggression. Too much confidence. Too much passion. They (tsk tsk) played to win.

For the last two weeks, I've been watching the women play not to lose.

Serena started out so strong. I had her pegged to win the whole thing. I thought it would come down to guts, and she had guts to spare. I was wrong. Her quarterfinal against Jelena was beyond painful. Forget the shots (most of which were just short and down the middle). It was her attitude, or lack thereof, that was incredibly depressing, bizarre, nowhere near her '07 effort and, ultimately, unwatchable.

Justine didn't even wait til her quarterfinal to play like a sad clown. What happened to her? To Venus? To Shahar? How many matches imploded for absolutely no reason than what was between the ears? Hantuchova, Kirilenko, Petrova, Chakvetadze, For every step forward, there was a pratfall backwards.

There were two players who came to win. One was hobbled and was clearly hanging on by the bow in her hair. The other was Maria. Maria demolished everyone in her path and made no apologies. She played frighteningly well, yes, but there was more to it. She just had the right attitude.

It paid off in the final. Ana put up a fight, but she also gave it away. At 4-5, 0-30, Maria said "I didn't get impatient. She's two points away from winning the first set in a Grand Slam final. If you want it, take it. And she didn't." You noticed that too, huh? It bled into the second set. Maria didn't win Ana's last service game, Ana handed it to her. Preventing Maria from having to serve it out. When Ana's last shot sailed wide, it was the definition of anti-climactic. Maria fell to her knees. In that foregone conclusion, what would look good for the cameras sort of way.

So as I take aim at pretty much everyone, I'm imagining all the fans I'm not making. But you know, I'm on a tear because I care. I want to see these women healthy. But more importantly, I want to see them fight.

"Champions take chances..." Billie Jean King texted to Maria before the match. (I wonder if Ana got the same text. Mmm, by the look on her face, no. Mommy's playing favorites!) "...and pressure is a privilege." It's an attitude that took BJK to the top of the game. Clearly Ana didn't get the message. Hopefully everyone else will.

1/25/08 - Day 12 - 10:14am

Seven little tennis players,
showing off their tricks,
B. Becker didn't have enough,
And then there were only six.

Six little tennis players,
trying to stay alive,
Bolelli couldn't find the court,
And then there were only five.

Five little tennis players,
giving more and more,
Querrey couldn't hold his serve,
And then there were only four.

Four little tennis players,
battling viciously.
All Lleyton had was the crowd,
And then there were only three. 

Three little tennis players,
What did they have to do?
Ferrer figured it out too late,
And then there were only two.

Two little tennis players,
(this one would be fun!)
The streak is over, Federer's bounced,
And then there was but one.

One little tennis player,
standing in the way,
Of Novak's win, is Jo-Wilfried him?
Please God, not today.

1/24/08 - Day 11- 10:28

I'm not a betting man. But the tennis ball was too convincing.

So here I am, watching them do some last minute court toweling before the Sharapova/Jankovic match. And I can't help but think I've made a huge mistake. Depending on how this match goes, one of us is going to be, as Dunlop says, 'doing the cross dress.' Maria's in lethal form, but Jelena's wearing The Bow. It's anybody's guess.

While the players warm up, ESPN2 shows a beautiful package on the Serbian players. It's almost worth the wig to see one of them win this. Almost.

Maria Sharapova to serve. And serve she does, holding at love. Jelena's not so lucky. Already we're in the middle of a marathon game. I can't help but think the whole match is right here. Maria wins it and rushes out to a 5-0 lead.

I start to think. When Maria beat an in-form Elena Dementieva 6-2, 6-0, I felt a little better for Lindsay. When she beat Justine 6-4, 6-0, I felt great for Lindsay. Watching Maria overwhelm Jelena, I'm now thinking drawing Lindsay in the second round was a Godsend. Maria said she prepared for that match like it was a final. She was forced to get championship-ready early. I'm thinking a muffin basket would be appropriate.

Hold on. Jelena wins three straight games. I wonder, do they make heels in a size 13? Crisis averted, Maria serves out the first set. And Jelena calls for the trainer.

Dunlop's shedding fuzz. I know better. Jelena's the cockroach of the '08 AO. I start to feel for Maria. And for myself.

Alas, the second set kicks in, and when Jelena lets a ball sail giving Maria a two break, 3-0 lead, the writing's on the wall. Like Lindsay, Elena and Justine before her, she's only allowed 4 games total. Jelena smiles to the crowd. I smile to Dunlop. Will it be bow or no bow?

Ivanovic/Hantuchova starts. They make a big point of saying what good friends these two are. Anything to add more drama. Why not just run that Serbia piece again?

The first three games are amazing. For Daniela anyway. Is this what she plays like without her head getting in the way? It's amazing how much I like her more. Was that my only problem? 

Suddenly, there's a Scandal (capital S). Ana's a Sneaker Squeaker! Just before Dani serves, Ana split-steps and squeak squeak squeak! Does Dani notice? Yes. Does it bother her? No. She charges to a 6-0, 2-0 lead. Suddenly Maria Kirilenko pops into my head. She had the same lead over Daniela before letting it all slip away. Wouldn't that be crazy if the same thing happened to her?

Dear God it is crazy. The old Dani returns and coughs up the second set. After a blown volley on break point down so monstrous it will haunt Daniela in her dreams for years to come, Ana takes a 5-4 lead in the third. She's going to serve it out, and I feel so bad for Hantuchova right now.

Sure enough, the implosion is complete. For all that talk of being good friends, Daniela can barely be bothered with the handshake and she storms off the court. Straight to her press conference to gripe about the Sneaker Squeaker.

"Ridiculous," Dani called it. "I was really surprised. I think it's unfair. It's a distraction to the server. We played before and she never did it." Ivanovic's response - "I just tried to move my feet, to return the ball, so it really was not intentional. Maybe she was just trying to pick on something, to get upset." (No more Gossip Girl nights for these two.)

The night match is the one I'm really looking forward to. Just how much game does Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have? His wins so far have relied more on skill than will. But Rafael Nadal's a totally different cucumber.

   Styling by Alicia LaRosa
As the players take the court I wonder, What kind of a name is Jo-Wilfried? And how many babies are going to be saddled with it if he wins this match? Tsonga gives me no time to ponder as he systematically dismantles Rafa in the first set, then follows it up in the second. He's so aggressive. Hantuchova-like. (Wait, strike that, I forgot we went back to the original meaning.) Can he keep this up in the third? It's Rafa for crying out loud.

Jo-Wilfried gets the first break, and I wonder now how many babies are going to be gifted with that name if he just holds serve the rest of this match.

Tsonga looks like Muhammad Ali, and the similarities don't end there. It's a T.K.O. He's onto his first Grand Slam final. (Who had him in their Racquet Bracket?)

Speaking of total knock outs, Dunlop appears, revealing his new look. Ready for his close-up indeed.






1/23/08 - Day 10 - Part 2

Dunlop here. Oh my Gosh, James is out buying me the Milk Duds (and a wig, probably - ha ha!) so I get this opportunity to answer more of your funny questions.

Actually, the first question is not so funny. 'rk' is having delusion, he thinks James is the Coker man. He also say the way the tattooed player from Serbia played against Federer is not so impressive because Federer play so much. Well, Federer played in less tournaments than almost every other player in top 100. He gets his rest. No one say Janko is as good as Federer, or as consistent. No one say that about any of the players who pulled off the upsets. We admire the effort. We also admire the tattoos.

To mmmm8 - I also enjoy the good fun. Want to see impression of Dinara Safina? Look! I don't move! I just sit here. Ha ha!

To dllydggr - James is abusive (help me), but he does not believe in eye for eye. Justine's marriage being picked apart like dead carcass by media vultures doesn't make him happy. Or make up for the past. If you could do us the solid, find someplace where she says she is sorry to Amelie? That she knows how terrible that must have been? That would make it better. PS: James doesn't do the mugging. That's...how you say...his resting face. But he sees other commentators and does not see that as problem. However, I must be on the TV too. He doesn't make me, I make him! We're ready for our close-up.

To K from NJ - recycle Dunlop?! You are true monster. When you are at net, I hope no tennis ball ever hits you in the eye. Look sharp and wear the thick goggles.

To Billy - my answer is also in three parts. 1) Yes, her bow have the magical powers. To make Maria disappear! Ha ha! 2) She wears bow on humid days, to keep her hair from getting stuck in the lip gloss (the bagra). 3) You can find bow at store called Dress Barn. James has store credit card, they give him 10% off. He loves the deal!

Uh-oh, James is back, got to go.

Poljubac,

Dunlop
 

1/23/08 - Day 10 - 10:10am

A Serb and golden retriever walk into a bar...

Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic have their work cut out for them today. Each faces an opponent known for their ability to break. And to break them, as their head-to-heads show. Neither Serb has an AO semi on their resume. Whose punchline would be funnier?

But first, more of a riddle. If a quarterfinal is thrown and no one's watching, did it ever really happen? Daniela Hantuchova hopes so. In the Bermuda triangle of quarters, where players flew into thick black clouds of their own neuroses, Hantuchova somehow emerges as the one most mentally tough. Maria Kirilenko had her dead to rights before her own plane went down. Sweeping aside Agnieszka Radwanska proves to be a lot simpler and Dani makes her first Grand Slam semifinal.

Well done Dani, you've proven you've got the goods upstairs. (And after your umpteenth time violation you've also proven you're the slowest server on tour. Get well soon, Mary Pierce!)

So who's in Dani's path to the final? That's up to Ana, whose golden retriever limps onto the court with a wrap on her thigh the size of...a large wrap. (Is it just me or are the women getting hammered by this surface?) Can Ana get over her own neuroses and take out a player who's pranked her time and time again? You'd think, huh?

Things aren't so funny as she and Venus proceed to break each other the entire first set. Thank God there's a tiebreak coming. Ana takes it. The second set is more competitive, with each player protecting their serve a whole lot better. But Venus is one sick puppy (whatever she said afterward in her press conference) and Ana seals the deal.

Novak faces his backboard, David Ferrer. If the question of a possible sophomore slump swirls around any two players on tour more, I don't know 'em. Thrilled to say that's not the case, as both made strong showings at the first Slam of the year. Novak is in top form, giving David nothing to get pumped up about. Until some long rallies wind the bendy little fellow and Ferrer sees his chance. Does Nole have enough in the tank to close him out? After some gutsy shotmaking, Novak wins in straights. (Which is a good thing - if Ferrer somehow got them to a tiebreak, I suspect the punchline wouldn't be as funny.)

James Blake is the night match. With each tournament, he seems to do a little more to stretch himself. Work over his own neuroses. Thanks in large part to his Davis Cup win, he's playing in his first AO quarterfinal. Can he solve the riddle of his next opponent?

Knock knock. Who's there? Roger Federer. Roger Federer who? Exactly.

The remaining Americans are knock knocked out of the Open. In singles anyway. At least I can count on the Bryans. Wait, no? 

Serbia 3, America 0.

Day 11 is women's semifinals. Will it be an all-Serb final? Dunlop wants to bet on it. Are you serious? Did you not see Maria the other night? His pesky nationalism won't quit. Winner has to dress up like Jelena Jankovic. We shake on it.

The way this AO is going, I have the vague sense that the joke is going to be on me.


1/22/08 - Day 9 - 9:13am

It's Divas on Parade today at the Australian Open. Of course I'm referring to Rafael Nadal, Jarkko Nieminen, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and that drama queen Mikhail Youzhny.

But first, lets get some of these ladies quarterfinals out of the way.

Serena and Jelena are up first. With all the Perils of Pauline Jelena's suffered this week, and with all the bombs Serena's been dropping (15 aces - a new AO record), this one's in the bag. Sure enough, Serena comes out strong, grabbing the first two games. Suddenly, she's flat and limping. Serena + injury = good lord. Dunlop is ecstatic. More so when Jelena takes the first set. Now, I like Jelena, so what's my problem?

I realize. Whoever wins this match gets a potential semifinal opponent in a miss Justine Henin. And I want her out.

What did the little Belgian ever do to me? Nothing. It's what she did to Amelie Mauresmo two years ago in that AO final. Amelie was giving her the beating of her life, and instead of allowing her her due, Henin said no mas and retired with a stomach ache at 1-6, 0-2. Now, I'm not Justine, and I can't pretend to know how she felt that day. But she was able to stand. She couldn't just let 16 balls go by and give Mauresmo her first, hard-earned and long-awaited championship moment? Speaking about it this year, commentators categorize it as a disappointment for Justine, but history has to be agreed upon, and I don't agree. I was there. The disappointment was Amelie's.

So while I don't wish her ill, I don't wish her the trophy.

This history can be agreed upon: when it comes to Justine, an in-form Serena is a spoiler. An in-form Jelena is a virtual walkover to the final.

I'm reminded of when I said I wanted to see chinks in the players' armor. This does not apply to quarterfinals. This is where you shine. Apparently Serena didn't get the memo, and after a bit of a struggle (and a split-screen visit by trainers in a rare double double), Jelena pulls off the upset. The defending champ is out. After losing the diamond-encrusted tennis ball to Serena at this year's Hopman Cup, Jelena asked why Serena gets to have all the bling. Congrats, you just took hers.

I find my hopes rest in the hands of Maria Sharapova. Luckily I have Dunlop on my side for this one. Together we can be like the Wonder Twins. (Form of - a swimming pool! Shape of - a cinder block!)

Their match starts... Maria wins the first two games. Please don't start limping. She doesn't. She's broken serving for the first set, but breaks right back to seal it. And offers up a steaming bagel in the second. I've never seen Maria play better. No Mas Henin is out, and somehow it feels empty. Who am I kidding, it feels great. Mas! Mas!

Jelena, you've dodged bullet after bullet this tournament. Along the way you've faced down countless match points, a Dellacqua-crazed Aussie crowd and the defending champ herself. How many lives do you have left?

Dunlop's off the Maria train, leaping onto the Jelena Express. And we're at odds once more.

Oh yeah, Divas Nadal and Tsonga are through to their semi. Without smudging any of their make-up.


1/21/08 - Day 8 -10:58am

Sunsets. We've gotten to see a few this week, thanks to Federer and Tipsarevic, Baghdatis and Hewitt...

The first week of a Slam typically produces sunsets of a different variety. Sunsets on dream runs - Dellacqua, Cilic, Domachowska. Reality kicks in, as does the draw, and the inexperienced players get overwhelmed. By the moment, or more often by just a superior opponent. Jankovic showed why she's in the top five. Blake showed what got him there last season. Venus showed why she'll be back there after this tournament.

The first week also produces sadder sunsets. They can burn a lot prettier, but are also a lot more final. Sunsets on careers. The true litmus test on who's still got the legs to make a run to a Grand Slam final. Whether these players have peaked physically or mentally, one thing is clear. Their time is running out.

Topping the list, Marat Safin. Trophy hoister here in '05, he's been on a downward spiral that would take three surgeons, four shrinks and a bartender to figure out. It's frustrating to watch someone with that much talent and personality spin his wheels so viciously. If there are any surgeons, shrinks or bartenders reading, please drop me a clue. cc: the big guy. Before it really is too late.

I don't think a clowncar full of shrinks could help the '06 champion, Amelie Mauresmo. In somehow a sharper decline, Amelie had her appendix removed last year, along with a chunk of her spine. Could she get it back? I hope so. But tick tock.

Time's also running out for Carlos Moya. What? How can I say that, the man is in the top 20 and taking Rafa to three tiebreaks in Chennai! Don't get me wrong, he's raging against the dying of the light, but there's but so much a 31-year-old body can give. And he ain't gettin' any younger.

Sadly, to be fair, this is also true of my Lindsay. At 31 (and carrying around some additional luggage this year), Davenport proved she's still got game with a 19-1 record going into that Sharapova match. And while anyone shy of the Williams sisters and Justine would've fared as well against that onslaught, it did expose Lindsay's rust. Can she shake it off? Moms can do anything. But again, tick tock.

Day 8 added two more names to the list. Lleyton Hewitt's been on the unofficial comeback tour for forever now it seems. He's got that fire back (again)! He's workin' the crowd (again)! That match against (blank) could be a real barnburner! What he's proven is he can guarantee an entertaining match, and even a gutsy win. But his deep run days seem to be over.

Juan Carlos Ferrero also made a nice showing, taking out David Nalbandian en route to getting knocked out by that other David, Ferrer. He's actually holding on tighter than I thought he would. But there are just too many bigger, stronger (and younger) guys in the way.

Fading before their time (and seemingly before my eyes), a couple of players who at least have the hourglass on their side. FOJ Nadia Petrova (Friend of James) had the QF (and a crack at Hantuchova) in her grasp before letting it slip away against Radwanska. Another one sidelined by injury, she was the favorite to win the French in '06, and now she's struggling to find the lines. And speaking of Nalbandian, you're that other best player never to have won a Slam. I know you can do it. You have to know you can do it. And stop injuring yourselves.

Finally, the controversial addition to this list. Hate me now, but I'm getting the old tick tock on a certain big serving American as well. Andy Roddick had a draw fit for a trophy. And some really nice momentum from both Kooyong and Davis Cup. He's got James Scott Conners on his shoulder. So what gives? Kohlschreiber? The good news is, he's not afraid of hard work and he's improving all the time. The bad news is, it's not showing in his results. He's got another Slam in him, I'm sure of it.

But the sun is setting.

All that said, I'd love to see any of these players in a Slam final again. They're being mentioned in the first place because they're that good. And there's still time. Just not a heck of a lot.

Who do you think is done? And who still has a major in them?

1/20/08 - Day 7 - 12:53am

As the writers strike drags on, I can't help but look for my next paycheck. Doing nothing but watching tennis until five in the morning, I look to what's in front of me.

Maria Sharapova's the highest paid female athlete in the world, with a yearly income reported to be over $25 million. She's one of the wealthiest celebrities under 21 (Take that, Miley Cyrus). Much of that (especially in 2007) was the result of lucrative endorsement deals with Canon, Nike and Prince. And Landrover. And Parlux fragrances, TAG Heuer, Colgate and Tropicana. And Sony Ericsson (the sponsor of the entire tour! What are the chances!). Just look at those Gatorade commercials. The girl sweats green.

I need to get me one of her.

I set about finding my cash cow...er...Maria. Of course I can't just drive past a rundown street corner and find a clone of a tennis player. I need a youngin' to grow from scratch. Like a Chia pet. Fortunately for me, I know just the place. Way back when I first moved to L.A., my first job was as the assistant to a writer whose daughter, at the time, was three and adorable. As she's matured into the ripe old age of 13, I couldn't help but notice the height. The blonde hair. The affinity for bananas.

I've found my Maria.

And now my protege, Alexandra, needs a crash course in Sharapova 101. What better way to indoctrinate her than to have a viewing party of her fourth round match against Elena Dementieva. Her first question sets the pace. How many times can the ball bounce before they're out?

I've got my work cut out for me.

I decide as a coach I've got to use my time wisely. So we'll save how the game is played for later. As the players warm up, I find out a little more about her. Her likes? Photography. Fashion. "Like Vogue." (Encouraging!) Her dislikes - "multinational corporations." (Uh-oh.) How about her backstory? She grew up the child of loving parents in an affluent L.A. suburb. That's no good. Who's going to root for that? Is she sure she doesn't have a birth defect? No. Good.

What's her exercise regimen? She flung a golf club a couple years back when she took lessons. Hm. How would she feel about running ten hours a day, six days a week? She asks me why anyone would run unless someone was chasing them.

I must break her.

I drill into her that Maria's so successful because she battles for each and every point as if her life depended on it. She needs to feel the fire! The eye of the tiger! Alex tells me she would definitely go for each and every ball, with everything she's got. (yes!) It doesn't matter if it goes over the net. (no!)

She's too strong for me. Defeated, the match starts. Sharapova to serve. A screech fills the air. Suddenly, I realize. It's Alex! What is she doing? It's more of a karate chop hi-YA. Surely she's heard Maria before. Nope. It's just instinctually what she yelps out when a ball is served. I've found my Maria! I'm going to be rich!

Suddenly, ESPN cuts to a men's match, and Alex stops cold. Who is that boy? He's so pretty! I tell her, it's Richard Gasquet. She thinks he swings like a girl. She's in love. I need to get her to focus. There's no room for boys in tennis! Why won't she take this seriously?!

Her mother escorts me out. She wants a regular life. You know who's regular? Losers!

I drive home, bitterly licking my wounds. On a rundown street corner, I spot a little boy who looks just like Andy Murray, loitering outside an Arby's. Wait, it is Andy Murray! And he's in desperate need of a coach.

I pull up, drop off an application with the fry cook, and drive on.



1/19/08 - Day 6 - 2:21am


Guts. Either you have 'em, or you don't.

How many times have you watched a match, saw a lower ranked player play lights out tennis against a top seed, watch them come within inches of a thrilling career-changing upset (and you're drooling for it like a bloodthirsty villager, pitchfork in hand, don't lie), only to watch them choke it all away? The top seed waves to the crowd meekly because they know they got away with murder. And we know. No guts no glory.

For some reason, though, the Australian's different. Maybe it's the work players do in the quote-unquote off-season. Maybe it's the fact that everyone's clock is reset and it's a shiny new season. Or maybe the Aussie really is the Happy Slam, and players are just really loose out there. But Melbourne seems to bring out the frisky in players.

So, as the rain falls in Melbourne, so do the seeds. And this is my tribute to the players doing the damage.

Here's to you, Agnieszka Radwanska, no stranger to dragon slaying. You did what Dechy and Pironkova couldn't. Hold on to a lead and close the door on a player who clearly just wasn't playing her best tennis.

And to you, Maria Kirilenko (talk about making the most of the off-season. Linda Hamilton anyone?), who wasn't satisfied with her impressive win against Akiko Morigami. She also needed to give a vicious yank to the ponytail of #6 seed Anna Chakvetadze.

And how about Phillipp Kohlschreiber, who Roddick said he hoped would just fade away. He didn't.

Neither did Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who got the upset ball rolling by taking out Andy Murray (another Linda Hamilton!) in the first round. And hasn't looked back since.

Meanwhile, Casey Dellacqua and Su-Wei Hsieh are making hay. Dellacqua knocked out Mauresmo (though let's face it, you or I could've as well) and surpassed Sam Stosur as Australia's top female player. Hsieh allowed Bammer two games and fought off Rezai to set up a match against Henin.

And welcome to the dance, Marin Cilic. You snapped the necks of both Almagro and, today, #7 seed Gonzalez. Your reward, the one seed who shocked everyone by not falling today. James Blake. In a truly gutsy performance, he wins coming from two sets down for the first time. You may say that's not an upset. Dunlop disagrees.

I'd also like to tip the hat to a few players who, while they may not have felled any dragons, they did serve notice that they're ones to watch. (Cue the orchestra.) Like little Meng Yuan from China with the Tootie hair cut, throwing everything she had at Serena Williams. Scared of you. Serena also faced hard-hitting Jarmila Gajdosova. Keep a couple more of those balls in and you might have yourself a career. Ditto Sorana Cirstea, who somehow outhit Ana Ivanovic. For a few minutes anyway.

And while he may not exactly be deep under the radar, how about That Other Serb, Janko Tipsarevic, who was all guts in pushing King Fed to 10-8 in the fifth? Have we ever seen Roger so persnickety? (sidenote: Dunlop has someone new he wants to go karaoke with.) This match will be hard to beat as the classic of this year's AO, and it wasn't choked away, it was earned.

Of course, I have to tip my hat now before it's too late, as none of these rock stars still in the draw have a real shot at the title. Too bad for them, there are players in their path with both guts and lethal weapons.

On the mens side, despite the thunderous challenge from Janko (down, Dunlop), perhaps even illustrated by it, Federer is playing gangbuster tennis. Unless this match lands him in the hospital, he's the guy to beat. Based on their level of play, I don't see Ferrer or Baghs overtaking Djokovic as Fed's semifinal opponent. Tsonga/Gasquet is going to be really interesting. But in the end, I think Davydenko's experience will pull him through that quarter. Still, with Roddick out of the way, it's Nadal's half to lose. I say Fed over Nadal in the final. Dunlop has Djokovic over Kohlschreiber.

On the womens side, the semis are a lot easier to call. Dunlop and I are both in agreement that Sharapova's taking out Henin in the quarters. A lot harder to believe before the tournament started, but Henin is looking out of sorts. Ditto Venus. She's got the draw and the guts, but her weapons are starting to misfire. So while we could see Venus take on Ivanovic in the bottom half, based on current form, the Serena/Maria semi will be the de facto final. So who wins? It comes down to guts. And no one can touch Maria in that department. Except Serena. I smell a repeat.

Dunlop smells Ivanovic over a resurgent Elena Dementieva. Now that's gutsy.


1/18/08 - Day 5 - 11:14am


Oh my Gosh. He puts Band-Aid over my mouth, I can't speak, I can't eat the Milk Duds. I love the Milk Duds. You cannot buy these things in Serbia, where I am from. Oh yes, you all think I am just a sidekick thing. Something for James to throw around the room whenever he get into one of his tizzyfits. I'm real tennis ball, with the real feelings and the real opinions. 

And today, I get to share them with you. He take Band-Aid off. Why he do such a thing? Well, he couldn't bring himself to blog Day 5 as the ghosts of Amelie Mauresmo and now Andy Roddick have dragged him to corner bar to party down with something called Wild Turkey.

Good luck to both of us! Away we go.

JJ say he enjoy Jelena in her first round match. She fights for every point. You know what? She also fights for every lipstick. When we were younger I was at the drogerija buying a lipstick for...uh...my mother, and she have giant basket, she throw them all in. She hasn't changed, she wants everything. But I love the little bagra.

To Bill, Durham and Missing, why you pick on Martina Navratilova? Yes, she has strong opinions, and yes they're usually about what the players are doing wrong, but she gives good tips. After her Pin match she told Venus she may need to work on her serve. She didn't have to say that. Venus was grateful I could tell. She even called her coach. See, everybody wants to hire her!

To Moosevic - You love Serbians! We love you. You know what else we love? The Milk Duds!

Dixson, my friend. Have no fear. Rafael Nadal will not take number one position from Roger Federer because he will not win the AO. You know who will? Novak Djokovic. He's dreamy. I mean his play is dreamy. Manly and dreamy. He is going to wipe the floor with the Swiss Miss. And then we're going to sing the karaoke afterwards until 4 a.m. With our girlfriends.

Aton, do not joke about grass stains. I have lost many many good friends to grass stains.

K from NJ, I will give Federer his propers. His match against Fabrice Santoro was incredible. They should call Roger the Magician from now on. (He's going to need magic to beat my Nole though!)

H.White, everyone's right, they do test for drugs. Believe me. I used to be regulation.

To the Cokers - Do they have Milk Duds in Australia? Do they call them funny things, like Dingo Duds? Oh, bring me back Dingo Duds!

To Dr. Crane, who says we've been out a couple times. What does this mean, out? If you're implying my fuzz is less than bright yellow you're the one who needs a doctor. I swore to my childhood sweetheart Ana Ivanovic when I was bouncing around inside her swimming pool that I would save myself for her. I will not let anyone cast any...how do you say...aspersions that I've been around the court. So steady your toss, buddy.

SharxTax - James wishes he looked like me. Have you seen his nose? I bet he has a deviated septum like my good friend Jelena. The bagra.

Okay, that's all for now. James is back from bar, and he has crazy look in his eyes. I think I'm in for a long night. Hopefully I can come back and play with you some more. Pray for more upsets. (You should see my Novak impression!) 

Poljubac,

Dunlop

1/17/08 - Day 4 - 11:58am

Ghost stories. I love 'em. Gather 'round the ole campfire kiddies. Day 4 was full of them.

Marat Safin vs. Marcos Baghdatis. The marquee second round match-up on the men's side. (Why are these always in the middle of the night?) Each man has a pretty big history at the Aussie. Marat, the winner here in '05 and the last non-wedgie picking Spaniard to beat Federer at a Grand Slam. Marcos, who seemed to come out of nowhere (if winning the AO as a Junior is nowhere) to make a memorable run to the final a year later, taking all of Cyprus with him. But (holding the flashlight under my chin), last year, Baghdatis was blown out of the Aussie this very round (spoooooky) by Gael Monfils. And Safin hasn't made a Grand Slam quarter since his win. Whose ghost would come out on top?

They're not the only ones haunted by the past at the AO. Other players were positively hunted. Venus Williams had a memorably awful first round match against Tszvetana Pironkova back in '06, the ghost of which still seems to chase her at the AO. Could she win it this year? Absolutely. She's got a great draw. Would she go down spectacularly in her own error-filled flames? If Camille Pin has anything to say about it.

Camille's got her own demon here at the AO. It was one year ago this very day (okay maybe it wasn't this very day, but it sounds way spoooookier) Pin kept Sharapova on court so long the girl nearly dropped from sunstroke (she also dropped the F-bomb, but who's counting). Pin lost. Could she outrun her past today? (It's so Final Destination! Ooh, note to self, great title for the today's blog.)

Venus's ghost took hold of her serve and shook it til it was black and blue. Fortunately, Pin has no serve to take hold of, and after 14 bloodcurdling breaks back and forth, Venus wins. She outruns her ghost. Today.

Pironkova, meanwhile, had Kuznetsova at 5-2 in the first and seemed to have history on her side again. Would she slay another giant? Sadly, no. She'd win only three more games. Letting top players off the hook is becoming more her demon, having Serena on the run in their last meeting before the rain came. But that was the French. Some ghosts travel.

Baghs and Safin make it a match. But those demons are hot on their tails. Would Baghs cramp? Would Safin implode? They're running as fast as they can. In the end, Safin's ghost is just too fast. Marat goes down (after a massive fight, coming back from two sets down to force a fifth), swallowed into the shadows like Tony Goldwyn in Ghost.

There's lots more demons still in play at the AO. Justine Henin's last appearance here was far from auspicious. Ditto defending champion (at the time) Amelie Mauresmo. Leave it to Roger to turn the tables, chasing history like a demon.

Who do you think is going to make history this year? And who do you think is going to get swallowed up? You have the flashlight.

1/16/08 - Day 3- Part 2

You always hurt the ones you love.

How else do you explain a crowd rooting for the underdog? A player berating his coach? A freak of nature yelling at the TV screen when his favorite player refuses to play her game?

Oh Lindsay.

I knew I was in for something when Mary Joe announced she spoke to you an hour before the match and you said you were more nervous than you thought you would be. This after everyone under the sun goes on record proclaiming Maria is the one with all the pressure. This was your match to play footloose and fancy free.

The first set begins. And your feet ain't loose, fancy or free. I try to tell you. Amp it up, Linds! Get some pep in that step! Swing, for God's sake! Obviously Maria's closer, because she hears me. My neighbor hears me too. Aw, shut up and go back to bed! (I love that guy.)

Dunlop is having the time of his life. He loves Maria's PowerShot commercials with her talking dog what's his name. He wants to play fetch with him. I put Dunlop in the freezer. The only thing Maria needs to be hearing is me, taunting her. Telling her to go back to Florida and go curl up with her vanilla candles and her stamp collecting books and stupid dog Dolce (Dolce, that's it) and her Djokovic 4-eva screensaver and her stupid frilly Wimbledon jacket and don't let the US Open trophy lid hit ya on the way out.

Lindsay's down 1-5. This is a nightmare. Come on, drink a coke! Suck down some Pop Rocks! (Not at the same time, Linds. Maria, I'll massage your throat.)

Maria takes the first set and Dunlop is screaming. More from frostbite, so I let him out. It's the second set after all. Anything can happen. And anything does. Lindsay starts to play! It's still slow-motion Lindsay, but at this point I'm taking anything I can get.

Lindsay continues to hold serve. Dunlop doesn't like it one bit. He starts yelling to Maria. Make her move! Pull her wide! What's your problem? I remind him of the stamp collecting. He runs with it.

Maria gets a lucky net cord keeping Lindsay from going up 4-3. Dunlop doesn't seem all that surprised. Conspiracy! We get into a huge argument, during which I gag him and shove him under a couch cushion. Not so mouthy now, are ya.

But it's too late. Maria slams the door, and I slam some NyQuil. I'm not going to bed on my own.

In the haze, something becomes clear. It's not nice to hurt the ones you love. And, the truth is, I do sort of love Maria too. And she did what she had to do. (And well.) It couldn't have been easy having to go out and try to take out a new mom and sentimental favorite. (Who am I kidding - last time Maria was on Rod Laver, she was a deer looking into Serena's headlights. And back in '05, Lindsay served her her only double bagel. Attack!)

In the haze, I realize I could've also treated Dunlop better. It's not his fault he gets a little crazy when the game is on. He's a tennis fan. That's what we do.

And I realize I could've treated Lindsay better. Maybe been a little gentler. Put less expectations on someone who was making her first run in a major since giving birth. Against the first person who has a leading head to head against her. 

And then it occurs to me. Lindsay treated Lindsay better. For the first time, she didn't mope. She didn't curse. She didn't slump, or dip her head, or put her hands on her hips, or any of that. And if an occasion called for it, this was it. But for the first time since I can remember, she was kind to herself. That baby gave her magical powers indeed.

Maria, I hope you make Henin cry. So does Dunlop (what impeccable taste!). Lindsay, I love you to pieces. See you on the doubles court. (And work on that return of serve! Don't make me come out there.)

1/15/08 - Day 3 - 9:03pm

As I watch Justine Henin take the court against Olga Poutchkova, I have that familiar feeling in my stomach. Not sure what it's called, or really how to describe how it feels. I've experienced it before. Often while Justine plays. I felt it last night watching Fed. This feeling that something was wrong, but I was bad for thinking it.

I ask Dunlop what he thinks it is. He stares back at me vacantly. (He's playing coy - he's actually revealed himself to be quite catty. You should've heard him during the Fish/Robredo match.)

After 22 minutes, Justine takes the first set off Olga . (Olga. Olga. For some reason, I want to name something Olga. And fast. Do you want a girlfriend, Dunlop? No?) Along the way, Justine comes to net over and over again. Martina Navratilova is loving it. Loves that net. You know who else loves that net? Her good buddy Pam Shriver, who sounded like she wanted to step off from her sideline duties to walk Venus there last night herself. Going to net is the best. Going to net is God.

And then I say it. BS.

(What? What kind of acronymic potty language is that! Block your ears, Dunlop.)

But really, BS. What's so great about rushing to the net all the time? Ditto the serving clinics that masquerade as matches. You got 76 aces, congrats Karlovic! Oh and PS, I was bored. There's such a thing as too much of a good thing.

And that's that feeling I was talking about earlier. Knowing I'm in for a brilliant display of tennis, dreading it and feeling guilty about it all at the same time. Because that's why we watch, right? That's why we come to the party, to see Justine make magic. To watch Roger at his best.

BS.

I want flaws. I want chinks in the armor. I want struggle. I want to know you're not a robot.

That's what I love about Venus. When she's on, she's on. (And does anyone on either tour have a more violent game? Her groundstrokes sound like ax swings. It's always the soft-spoken ones.) But you know she's going to go through a bad patch, like she did against Yan. And we get to see her pull it out. (And conversely see her opponent who thought she had a chance watch her false sense of reality get crushed to bits - I think I'm flirting with being a bad person again.)

We got to see Ana Ivanovic have to work for it against the ridiculously hard-hitting Cirstea. (Oh, and how about her post-match snub of the chair after a couple of glaringly bad calls? Okay, it was an Ana snub so she still waved at him, but I'm crying scandal!)

Especially in the early rounds, where top seeds face players ranked outside the top 100, for Net's sake, twist it up! Try serving lefty, Novak. Play in high heels, Nicole. Toss a few back between sets, Marat. Actually, your coach has probably already suggested that. Whoever your coach is this week.

Justine is obviously feeling me because, in her second set, she gets broken. Repeatedly. Or rather, she's breaking herself. Her serve is coming apart at the seams. Justine is coming apart at the seams. And it makes me smile. She pulls it out. Olga's bummed. (Olga. Olga. I can't stop repeating it.) But at least she got to be out there for a few minutes. Made things competitive.

Of course, Justine stopped coming in. Maybe that was the problem.

Needless to say, none of this applies to Davenport, who should feel free to let 'er rip against old what's her name. Their battle royale is in a few hours, and I can't wait. Sometimes there's no such thing as too much of a good thing.

1/14/08 - Day 2 - 9:56pm

Where else?

Where else but in tennis can you question a woman's weight at every opportunity?   For once Serena was spared.  Not so her first round opponent, Jarmila Gajdosova.  Or Tamira Paszek.  Or Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Or Kaia Kanepi.  It wouldn't be so off-putting if the commentators didn't seem to get an extra little chuckle out of each and every mention.  And no one's safe.  Marcos Baghdatis would be that much better of a player if...you get the idea.

Where else but in tennis do people who fail get rewarded with praise?   "He has too much variety in his game.  He just has too many shots to choose from."  How about he stank up the joint and go home?  Saying you did less with more is hardly something to tape on the fridge.  (Which is where you're probably camped out at midnight because you're so fat.)

Where else but in tennis can someone with so many injuries magically win 12-10 in the third?  Jelena's physio is worth his weight in gold.  (Oscar gold?)

Where else but in tennis do people show up for work not knowing if the expensive new flooring is going to send them to the hospital? (We hardly knew ye, Andrea Petkovic.)

Where else but in tennis can merely watching influence the outcome of a game thousands of miles away?  My apologies to Americans Donald Young, Bobby Reynolds and Meilen Tu, all of whom went from a winning position to dumping out the minute I tuned in.  (No basket of mini-muffins necessary, Amelie.  Your anguished I-can't-believe-I-won-a-match expression is thanks enough.)

Where else but in tennis can you show up for work in the exact same hideous sleeveless outfit as your coworker?  (Sorry, Carlos and Stefan).  Where else can someone comment about their preference so freely without fear of mandated sexual harassment training?  (Mary Joe likes Moya's guns!  Saucy.)

Where else but in tennis are fans expected to be up at 2am to watch the top dog play his first round match?

Ugh, who am I kidding.  Where else am I gonna be.  Besides the fridge.


1/13/08 - Day 1 - 11:49pm

Blame the writers strike.

Blame it for the cancellation of the Golden Globes telecast. Blame it for American Gladiators. And blame it for my not being in Melbourne for the first Slam of the year.

Ya see, I'm one of those rabble-rousing Hollywood writers. Depending on who you listen to, the strike will be over either by the end of the week or by the end of 2009. Having to be at the ready for either scenario, I'm forced to stay behind in L.A. while the Australian Open rages on. It's just as sunny here in L.A. There are some blue courts. A girl in my league looks like Tomas Berdych.

But still I crave.

I crave the thrills. The adrenaline. The free food.

But the Cokers are getting all that. And you know what? Whatever. I don't need it. Not when I have the return to Grand Slam tennis of new mom Lindsay Davenport. But I'm going to have to wait.

And wait.

First up on Vodafone, Jelena Jankovic and Tamira Paszek. Possibly the most anticipated match on Day 1. As they split sets, the tension is palpable. What's the word for when palpable tension turns to irritated confusion? Let's, for the sake of argument, call it gas. Though by the time Tamira sails the first of her match points long past an open wide court, it's full blown cramps.

While all this is going on, Andy Roddick stomps through his first round. Fresh from his Kooyong win and with a draw you couldn't buy (though again, depending on who you ask), I like Andy's chances to face Fed again, this time in a final. Serena's looking great too (minus the pale purple what's-it she's got going on...I'm a catsuit kind of guy).

Henin's through. Fish as well. And still, Jankovic/Paszek drones on. Desperate for someone to yell at (or cry to), I decide I need a friend. If Tom Hanks can get a volleyball to talk to him, surely a tennis ball isn't that much more ridiculouser. Is the name Wilson taken? Okay, mine will be Dunlop. (Apologies if I opt to give him a face with a magic marker instead of my own blood. After this match, I have no blood to give.)

Jelena pulls it out. In a match I suspect Bill Macatee will not be discussing the finer points of ten years from now on Australian Open Classics. Dunlop is not impressed.

Finally, Davenport's up. Her match is nearly as painful, but mostly because I just care. Dunlop's bouncing off the walls. (Mostly because I'm throwing him. Bad castaway.) Lindsay guts out a three-setter, managing to throw some sass to the chair after a bad call along the way.

Begging for a tennis ball's forgiveness, I begin to wonder. Have I gone insane? Is this what I've become? Dunlop looks lovingly at me and says no. Dunlop understands me. Dunlop's my friend.

Dunlop's a Sharapova fan, so round two's going to get ugly.

Comments

  1. Feeeesssshhhhh (1/24/2008 9:09:29 AM) 

    I am really sad about Blake's loss......I'm sick of seeing Federer play... Watching Federer play in every grandslam is like watching the old Yankees play (ya know the team that use to make it to the World Series and win every year)... Someone please step up and beat Fed already! GEEZZZ!!!

  2. mrjiggyfly (1/24/2008 3:34:53 AM) 

    James,....You can have Nole as your new fave, I'll take Tsonga and we'll reconvene in 5 years.

  3. Jack (1/23/2008 8:36:49 PM) 

    There's an 11-year-old dog sitting next to me who says he'll give Dunlop a good home.

  4. Tennis Queen (1/23/2008 7:48:43 PM) 

    James on the Tennis Chanel, yes! Beats Murphy, no?

  5. dllydggr (1/23/2008 7:36:12 PM) 

    Dunlop - help is available! Say the word, I can help you with your Restraining Order application... "Resting face," huh? Well, no one ever really looks at the commentators anyway....right???



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