Monday October 4th, 2010

1. Valley of Nadal: Spain's Rafael Nadal, the world's clear-cut No. 1, has won the last three majors he's entered, a formidable streak by any measure. He's also lost the last four "regular" events he's entered. The most recent defeat came this weekend in Bangkok, where he fell in the semis to countryman Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, who went on to win the trophy. The takeaway? The cynic will say it proves that top players "get up" for the Slams and compete less intensely at the ATP whistle stops, where the points haul isn't as great and appearance fees can blunt motivation. The truth is that many (most?) pros aren't wired to think this way. (Plus, if you've shlepped all the way to Thailand, are you really going to give a half-hearted effort?) A better interpretation, I think: Nadal is beatable, especially under the right conditions. Statistically this loss is just a footnote on Nadal's sensational year. But if I'm a middle-of-the pack player, I see a result like this and it fires me with some real confidence.

2. When the cat's away ... : The folks believing in the Sports Illustrated cover jinx can add Serena Williams to the litany of players who have graced the front of the magazine and then encountered misfortune. Since winning Wimbledon and striking this pose, Serena stepped on glass and, while she's been plenty visible, she's yet to play a match -- and uncertainty swirls around her return. Amazingly, the WTA's marquee player has competed in just six events all year. While Williams has done well enough in those half-dozen events to qualify for the year-end championships in Doha, her absence has provided plenty of opportunity for other players. And none has been more opportunistic than Caroline Wozniacki. The Great Dane -- the very good Dane, anyway -- won still another title last weekend, taking the trophy in Japan. She now has five tournament wins for the season. Sure, it would be nice if Wozniacki could cement (or "consolidate" to use the voguish tennis term) these wins with a major title. But nevertheless, good for her for making her move this year.

3. Grunt work: Apart from the auditory pollution, the cochlea-splitting decibels (and the sexual undercurrent), the great objection to grunting is that it confers an unfair advantage on the squealer at the expense of the squealee. The conventional thinking goes like this: the grunting drowns out the sounds of the ball leaving the racket so the opponent can't use his or her (and usually it's her) ears to gauge spin and power. Indeed there may be something to this, after all. It seems that a new study confirms that grunting slows the opponents' reaction times. Still another reason tennis authorities may want to crack down on the EEEE-YUUUHHHHHs that too often accompany ballstriking.

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