Monday May 3rd, 2010

1. Like clockwork: It's early May, which means they're running the Kentucky Derby, taking finals on college campuses and administering last rites for the Baltimore Orioles' season. It also means that Rafael Nadal is turning the rest of the field into Blinky, Pinky and Sue and gobbling up the clay-court titles. Yesterday it was Rome. Next it will be Madrid. Then, in all likelihood, Paris. For a player who's looked very mortal on hardcourts over the past year, Nadal is just a different animal with the granules underfoot. And who says Americans can't play on clay? In the doubles final, the Bryans won still another title, beating John Isner and Sam Querrey.

2. Order on the women's tour: The plot in women's tennis is like the weather in Texas. Don't like it? Just wait a few minutes and it'll change. For all the recent complaints about the stifling parity in WTA-land, we now have something resembling a hierarchy. We can debate about the order, but the Belgians and the Williams sisters are supreme. Then the next tier. This was further affirmed this past week in Stuttgart as Justine Henin won her first title of Career 2.0, getting it done on the clay and beating Sam Stosur (who's doing a convincing impersonation of a top-five player lately) in the final. This certainly bodes well for Roland Garros.

3. Importance of being Ernests: For as often as we've seen tennis eat its young, the recent emergence of Ernests Gulbis is all the more heartening. A can't-miss prospect two years ago, Gulbis endured the mother of all sophomore slumps last year, seldom winning matches and getting implicated in an embarrassing legal situation. For the last few months, he's been gangbusters, culminating with his play in Rome. He not only beat Roger Federer in the second round but -- the real sign of maturity -- backed it up by winning more matches before falling gamely to Nadal in the semis.

4. What makes Roger run?: Federer has won three of the past four majors. He's won four of the past 31 Masters Series events. Maybe the run-of-the-mill ATP tournaments simply don't pack the requisite calories to satisfy Federer. Maybe he has a superhuman ability to conjure his best tennis at the majors. Maybe it's inevitable that his drive would eventually start to flicker and he'd have to prioritize. But the schism is striking: the ATP's answer to Serena Williams. He's clearly not the same player in Indian Wells or Rome that he is in Melbourne and New York. If you want to an insight into his professionalism, though, consider this: He lost to Gulbis in singles on Tuesday. He lost in doubles on Friday.

5. Simona rising: Lost in the fine print, Simona Halep reached the final of the Fez event (losing to Iveta Benesova), the latest in a string of fine results for her this spring. Halep is a promising teenager, the 2008 French Open junior champ, and also a recent recipient of breast reduction surgery. This has not only been a source of amusement among Internet trolls and mouth-breathers but multiple readers have wondered whether this isn't a form of cheating. First, this is no more cheating than corrective vision surgery or having bone chips cleaned out of a knee. She did not undergo a procedure to gain an advantage; she did it to address a physical issue that was hampering her career. What's more, I think this is an awfully bold and weighty decision -- especially for a teenager -- that says an awful lot about her tennis ambitions. If you happen by one of Halep's matches this summer, I'd encourage you to stay a while and cheer her on. I suspect she could use it.

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