Monday August 9th, 2010

1. Capital gains: Veteran David Nalbandian had been a Top 10 stalwart for years, an efficient grinder, who, when healthy, could compete with anyone on most every surface. "When healthy," was a big condition, though. Nalbandian spent considerable time on tennis' disabled list, including a long stint recovering from hip surgery, a career killer for many players. Ranked outside the Top 100 and having missed all but a few weeks of play over the last 18 months, Nalbandian the Andean took a wild card at the D.C. event* and then served up something for the memory banks, blazing through the field, tearing up credible players the likes of Marin Cilic and Gilles Simon, beating Marcos Baghdatis in the final and claiming his first title on American soil. You hate to jinx the guy, but if you're in the market for a U.S. Open dark horse -- he came within a few games of making the final in 2003! -- you could do worse. Maybe this is the silver lining with injury-mania: We hate how often players are on injured reserve. But, whether it's Mardy Fish or Xavier Malisse (a semifinalist in Washington) or even Mirjana Lucic, these comebacks and surges in later years are heartwarming.

*Someone help me flesh out this joke. Nalbandian has hip fusion surgery and wins the Legg Mason event. Coincidence?

2. Speaking of silver linings: Serena Williams notwithstanding, there's a leadership vacuum on the WTA Tour, not least because so many players have a hard time closing out matches. Shaky play under pressure -- "choking," they call it in harsher precincts -- is often the order of the day. Fans in San Diego, where women's tennis made a triumphant return last week, got a taste of this. Time and again, players managed to steal defeat from the jaws of victory. Svetlana Kuznetsova spent most of the week passing up opportunities as if giving alms to the poor. Despite first managing to give away four match points -- two with double faults -- she prevailed over Agnieszka Radwanksa in the final to claim the title. Oh, the silver lining part: Say what you will about these frail mental performances, they make for thoroughly compelling drama.

3. U.S. Blues: This was a rough week for American tennis. Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey (understandably tired after winning in L.A.), James Blake, John Isner and Andy Roddick all lost early in Washington, D.C. Starting today there will be no American male in the Top 10 for the first time ever. On the women's side, Venus Williams pulled out of Cincinnati and Serena -- already out of action until the U.S. Open -- further polarized fans with her juvenile tweeting tantrum.

What to do if you're an American tennis fan? It seems to me that there are a few options. 1) Proclaim all those "ovas" and "evas" and "ics" boring, and let your fandom diminish. While that sounds either sarcastic or distasteful, check out the ratings from Wimbledon, and, sadly, it's clear that many have chosen this option. 2) Delude yourself into thinking this is all "cyclical," and it's only a matter of time before the U.S. is back, a rationalization I heard more than one commentator offer lately. Reality check: The Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang generation ain't happening again, not for any country. The sport is simply too global. This only leads to disappointment and charges of overhyping mediocre players. Good news: The U.S. girls team won the World Junior title this past week. Bad news: This was the fourth straight victory at this event, so it's unclear what exactly this presages. Good news: Coco Vandeweghe scored a huge win in San Diego, beating Wimbledon finalist Vera Zavonareva. Bad news: Melanie Oudin lost again. Again, I think in tennis, you root "by country" at your own peril. 3) Ignore country codes and simply root for players. Rafael Nadal may not be from Toledo, he may speak with a thick accent and may never host Saturday Night Live or be a guest on The Daily Show. But he sure can play tennis. Francesca Schiavone may not cut a familiar figure, but her French Open title sure was inspiring. The truth is, nationality is often distorted in tennis, anyway. The same way NBA fans can root for Steve Nash and Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki, tennis fans who don't get hung up on nationality don't shortchange themselves.

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