Tuesday January 18th, 2011

Thoughts and observations on the first surge of action from the Australian Open:

Sam Querrey: The ESPN analysts were sufficiently critical of Querrey, who inexcusably went down in five sets to Poland's Lukasz Kubot, but I'd love to hear a really candid analysis from someone like John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors. You can't have a slouch as a leading representative of America's tennis future, and Querrey is a big-time slouch.

It's amazing to me that people continue to forecast great things from Querrey, as if he's suddenly going to turn into a wildly energetic force like Jim Courier. He's certainly a likeable, laid-back character, but haven't we seen enough evidence that he doesn't have the mental approach of a champion? Nothing seems to seriously matter with this guy; his body language is generally tepid and especially so in a big-stage crisis.

I figured Querrey at least had more game than the 72nd-ranked Kubot, but in truth, Kubot had more variety, infinitely better touch at the net, and more guts, fighting off a cramping episode to finish off the match. Querrey owns only one five-set victory in his career, and he clearly lacked the unbridled aggression required to get this job done.

"Sam will rebound," insisted Andy Roddick, while another compatriot, Mardy Fish, predicted that "it's just a matter of time with Sam. It has to be. I see him every day and the work he puts in. We're not going to have this conversation at the end of the year, when hopefully he makes it to the quarters or semis of a huge tournament."

You really have to wonder, though. This is the 10th time in 14 majors that Querrey has bombed out in the first round, that's hardly a small sample size. That's a trend. And it's likely to get worse at the French Open, where Querrey admitted to homesickness and clay-court fatigue last year, basically tanking his first-round match to Robby Ginepri and later admitting to be "just tired" and "mentally not there."

Maria Sharapova: It's disturbing to realize -- and she admits this -- that her surgically-repaired shoulder still tightens up on occasion. She'll never completely resurrect her game until she's consistently serving with full confidence, and that was hardly the case as she opened the Australian with five consecutive faults against Tamarine Tansugarn (adding three more in a second-set service break).

It's good to know, though, that Sharapova is no longer being coached by Michael Joyce and her intensely annoying father, Yuri. When you think about it, what did they really do? Sharapova has never offered the slightest bit of ingenuity or strategy in her game, merely blasting away from the baseline while shrieking at the top of her lungs. She rose to greatness, absolutely, but that was all Maria, who was born with a fierce competitive desire and accomplished great things against the long odds of her Russian upbringing.

Her new coach is Thomas Hogstedt, whom she met in Florida while he was working with Tommy Haas, and he's the man who coached Li Na into the semifinals of last year's Australian. Recent reports indicated that Sharapova wants to come in behind more of her punishing groundstrokes, thus adding a net game to her arsenal, and for a long-limbed athlete of her caliber, that's a long-overdue decision. But there was no sign of it in the first round, and her opponent -- the plodding and overweight Tansugarn -- would have presented a perfect test case.

Mardy Fish: If you spend most of your career on cruise control, then suddenly show up as a trim and efficient fitness freak, people have to wonder if you can sustain it. Fish removed all doubts in his first-round match. Despite having his practice sessions severely curtailed by a mysterious virus, Fish outlasted Victor Hanescu 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 to notch his first career victory from two sets down -- and he did it with an aggressive, serve-and-volley attack that would wear a lesser man down.

"I'll tell you what, Mardy would not have won that match two years ago," said Roddick, perhaps his closest friend on tour, but Fish needs to gain clarity on his illness. Roddick said he felt the same way last year before being struck down with mononucleosis, and while Fish has his doubts ("Playing three-and-a-half hours probably means I don't have what he had"), he was scheduled to undergo blood tests for mono.

Gael Monfils: Here's another guy who came back from two sets down for the very first time (he'd been 0-for-10), but even Monfils knew it was a bizarre sort of cakewalk. Give credit to ESPN analysts Cliff Drysdale and Brad Gilbert: Knowing that Monfils' Dutch opponent, Thiemo de Bakker, is a weak-minded sort, both were predicting his downfall in the third set, at a time he was leading it 4-2 and only a few points away from victory.

"Watch De Bakker carefully," said Drysdale, "because he is tight." Added Gilbert, "This match is gonna turn around. You hate watching this. He's playing not to lose. He's playing scared."

By the fourth set, it was clear that De Bakker had given up, and the fifth set was a pitiful formality. "I know Thiemo a bit," Monfils said later. "I know sometimes he snap in the head. It's a weakness for him. I saw he was tanking."

Ryan Harrison: Sad to see the intriguing U.S. prospect go down so early, against a player (Adrian Mannarino) most felt he should handle. This was a far cry from last year's U.S. Open, where Harrison upset Ivan Ljubicic before losing an epic second-rounder to Sergiy Stakhovsky before a raucous Grandstand crowd. This was Melbourne, on a quiet outside court featuring dozens of empty seats. As a discouraged Harrison said afterward, "I've got a long way to go."

Caroline Wozniacki: Time has a way of revealing a player's complete personality, little bits of evidence adding up to a crystal-clear picture. We're not quite there yet with the 20-year-old Wozniacki, but she seems as utterly cheerful and stress-free as advertised.

"I don't feel I need to prove anything to anybody," she said before the tournament, a flighty remark to be sure (until you win a major, your No. 1 ranking is highly suspect). She blithely claims that she never looks at the draw, merely addressing each new opponent as she comes. And after Gilbert sternly criticized her recent change of rackets (Barbolat to Yonex), calling it a "bad career move," Wozniacki sat right next to Gilbert and said it doesn't matter in the slightest, that she can play with any racket.

It's all very refreshing, although we'll make a more measured assessment after Wozniacki takes a few unexpected losses. Justine Henin had a particularly interesting remark regarding Wozniacki's Slam-free record, saying, "If I have to remember something, it wasn't really that I was the best player in the world, but the Grand Slams I won. That's what really gives the emotions. Wozniacki is still very young. Safina has been in trouble. Jankovic has been tired at a certain time of her career. I wish them all to win Slams, because they will feel the difference."

The Television Angle: Couldn't agree more with SI.com's Richard Deitsch, who laments the absence of Mary Carillo on the ESPN telecasts. Once you're heard Carillo's incisive remarks, you cringe at the prospect of listening to Mary Joe Fernandez -- so pleasant, so bland -- during a match crying out for insight. But it's not as if Carillo left ESPN high and dry. There's plenty of high-level competence with the likes of Gilbert, Patrick McEnroe, Darren Cahill, Pam Shriver and Chris Fowler.

I wish ESPN would collect more choice clips from the post-match interviews, but that network is throwing a blanket over tournament coverage. As much as I enjoy Martina Navratilova (any time, any subject) or a wacky spot from Bud Collins, the Tennis Channel isn't offering anything special. And TC's stable of analysts -- Lindsay Davenport, Leif Shiras and Justin Gimelstob, among others -- lacks an edge.

Here and There: Great moment in the light-hearted "Rally For Relief" program, admirably held just a day before the tournament started to benefit the Queensland flood victims: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray became engaged in soccer-style tennis, keeping balls in the air with adroit footwork and heading them over the net. Roddick watched this for a while, waited for a ball to come his way, then grabbed it and threw a strike, right down the line for a winner. Right there, that single snapshot, is why soccer will never become significantly popular in America. We just have to use our hands . . . It was brought to Gilbert's attention that Roddick was 11-for-11 on his trips to the net against Jan Hajek. Gilbert wasn't impressed with the stat, claiming that if Roddick was playing so well, he should have rushed the net more . . . Can't imagine why anyone would give Donald Young a chance to even win a set, let alone a match, against the infinitely better and more experienced Marin Cilic (who won in straights). Young has little to offer beyond a gifted set of hands, and he has always been deprived of front-line coaching by his parents, who lamely preferred to handle the duties themselves. Another case of dreadfully overblown U.S. hype . . . As part of the buildup to the tournament, ESPN Classic aired a couple of Navratilova interviews with Dick Schaap (1998). Those were wide-ranging sessions, to say the least, Martina telling Schaap at one point, "Loving is a good thing. The only people who are queer are the ones who don't love at all."

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