The men's tour stopped by my neighborhood last week. It also stopped by Brazil and the Netherlands in its never-ending quest for global outreach, but San Jose's SAP Open drew an excellent field and made some headlines. Among them:
Milos Raonic: People mispronounced his name all week, right down to the chair umpire during Sunday's final (it's ROW-nitch; row as in cow), but there was no mistaking this 20-year-old's arrival as an impact player as he defeated ninth-ranked Fernando Verdasco, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) for his first ATP tour title. Verdasco proclaimed that Raonic has "top 20 potential, for sure" and touted his serve as perhaps the most devastating in tennis.
"It's almost like you're in another league, playing another sport, against this guy," said Verdasco, who never managed a service break. "When it's coming at you at 140 miles an hour, you cannot even play tennis. You hope maybe he double-faults every time."
Verdasco made certain to mention Ivo Karlovic, the 6-foot-10 Croatian, as a long-feared server on tour. But he said there's no comparison between the two as all-around players, given Raonic's punishing groundstrokes from the baseline. This kid delivers an inside-out forehand with awe-inspiring power, and while his backhand needs some work, he used it to produce the shot of the match. After coming from 6-2 down to square things in the first-set tiebreaker, Raonic guessed right on a huge Verdasco forehand and responded with a cross-court backhand winner that stunned Verdasco and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
It's not just the power of Raonic's serve, clocked at 151 during a Saturday serving exhibition. He'll come in with heavy slice at times, following no pattern, and he's totally fearless on his second serve, spanking a couple of 120-m.p.h. aces during the tournament. There's also a very quiet confidence about him, a sense that none of this (including his fourth-round showing at the Australian Open) comes as a great surprise to him.
"I believe in myself and the work I've done," said Raonic, who has a Spanish coach, Galo Blanco, and often trains with top players in Spain. "There are goals I want to achieve, and there's not much that can get in the way of it."
Gael Monfils: He played a fabulously entertaining exhibition against 39-year-old Pete Sampras to christen the tournament, winning it in two close sets, and it was almost frightening to witness his approach to such a meaningless match. Monfils loved watching Sampras play when he was a kid. He felt like showing Pete, and everyone else, the full measure of his athleticism and ingenuity.
Monfils was all over the court, racing in desperation for every ball, amazing everyone -- including Sampras -- with his against-all-odds retrieves. "I played some pretty good movers in my day," Sampras said afterward, "but this guy moves as well as anyone, ever. Definitely the real deal."
The effort almost seemed excessive at times, particularly as Monfils slid so brazenly on the hardcourt surface. "A good way to wreck a knee or two," someone cracked in the row behind me. "I can see it on clay, but on this stuff?"
Much too soon, Monfils was out of the tournament, feeling great pain in his left wrist and figuring he'd be off the tour for the next six weeks or so. The ailment has no correlation to recklessness or risk-taking, but it speaks to everyone's fear about Monfils: that his wild, loose-limbed attack makes him overly susceptible to injury, and that we may never see him at his best over a prolonged period of time.
Just wondering, though: There's no reason why Monfils can't stay in shape. With his two-hand backhand on the shelf, he can work relentlessly on his one-hand slice and volley. He could emerge with more reliable weapons than ever before.
Great call by Joel Drucker, by the way, on the Sampras-Mofils matchup: "Stravinsky vs. Aerosmith."
Sam Querrey: He took yet another inexplicable loss, to Lukas Lacko in the first round, then stormed out of the arena without addressing the media. He only came back, an hour later, at the urging of ATP officials reminding him to show some class. In the state he's in -- moody, struggling with motivation, losing matches he should dominate -- there's no way Querrey should be a candidate for upcoming Davis Cup ties. Jim Courier's singles options are in perfectly fine hands with Andy Roddick, John Isner and (if healthy) Mardy Fish. I'd even take Ryan Harrison ahead of Querrey at this point.
Juan Martin del Potro: To watch him warm up, with such effortless power, you realize the fine line between top-flight tennis and the next level down. The 2009 U.S. Open champion looks unbeatable at times, and had some stirring moments (including a convincing win over Lleyton Hewitt) in reaching the tournament semifinals. But he lost to Verdasco, a player he feels he should beat on an even playing field, and in the opinion of his coach, Franco Davin, "The comeback (from wrist surgery) is very difficult. One year out of this level of tennis is very tough. I have the confidence Juan will come back, but not very fast."
It was somewhat unsettling to hear Del Potro say that the wrist still bothers him in rainy or humid weather, and that he still plays with a measure of fear. Barring any setbacks, though, he should be a force by the U.S. Open's arrival this fall.
Donald Young: His name has been a source of intrigue for so long, you'd figure he must be 27, 28 years old by now. Remarkably, he's just 21, but as he took the court against Richard Berankis in the second round, he seemed infinitely older than his 20-year-old opponent. These are two players headed in opposite directions -- straight up for Berankis, a slow fade to oblivion for the 146th-ranked Young -- but the American should have won this match. He had a 5-2 lead in the third set and was serving at 5-3, 30-love. Berankis came all the way back to win, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5, leaving only one note of optimism regarding Young's future: He's looking to the outside for help.
For years, USTA development people (most prominently Patrick McEnroe) lamented the fact that Young's parents, capable as they were, took 100 percent control of his coaching. Lately, he's been working out at the USTA Training Center in Carson, CA and training with coach Jay Berger. "It's more or less the same stuff with a different voice," he said. "I feel like I can sustain my level for longer periods of time. It feels like boot camp, but that's probably the way it should be, and I'm enjoying it. I feel like I've got a set game plan."
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Sampras' presence really lit up the tournament. It's nothing short of remarkable that this guy can hang around Southern California, enjoying retirement and his kids, and then step into such a high-level encounter with so little practice. "I was just hoping not to embarrass myself," he said. "So I feel pretty good walking out of here."
Writers were interested to hear Sampras' opinions on a number of subjects. Such as:
The notion of Roger Federer coming to the net more under the tutelage of coach Paul Annacone: "You'd like to see him do that, but Roger's game is to stay back and rally, and he's won 16 majors. Great players believe in themselves, and you can hear input, but when you're out there competing and it's pressure time, you are going to resort to what you've done over the years. I think Roger sees coming in and serve-and-volleying as a sign of weakness, like, 'Wow, I have to do this now?' I wouldn't say great players are stubborn, but we are resilient in a way that we say, 'I've won this many majors and I'm going to stick to this way. If I lose, I lose.'"
On the regrettable absence of serve-and-volley players on tour: "It's no longer around. You've got these 6-foot-4, 6-5 guys, big serve, big hitters, content to stay back and just hit the crap out of the ball from the backcourt. You look at Wimbledon, and it's all baseline now, and that's OK. But I still think it can work, as long as you're dedicated. You have to start young -- like, 12 or 13 years old, not 19 -- to get a feel for the timing, the athleticism involved. You have to be willing to sacrifice, take your lumps, take a few losses, and that's not always easy for a kid. I was willing to do that."
On Andy Murray's malaise at the majors: "It seems like Andy is pretty content just rallying. If you're going to win a major, you have to make it happen. Watching (Novak) Djokovic in the Australian final, he was aggressive and really pounding his forehand. Murray was a little too passive. He can beat a lot of other guys playing a certain way, and that's how he played to get there, but to win it, he needs to step on the gas a little harder and go down swinging. You play guys like Djokovic and Federer in the finals, they aren't going to miss."
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Final word: Some of the most prominent international tennis writers took notice of Maria Sharapova's absence on the final day of the Russia-France Fed Cup tie, strongly suggesting that coach Shamil Tarpischev didn't trust Sharapova to come through under pressure in her home country. That storyline was picked up in this column last week, and there was no reason to believe any other circumstances were involved. Now Sharapova is saying she was sick during Fed Cup, and that she didn't want to discuss it then because it would strike observers as an excuse (she also pulled out of Paris and Dubai). The problem is, it sounds like an excuse now, an attempt to make people dismiss the fact that she was replaced by 19-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Moscow. We're not doubting her word in the slightest; Maria's a pretty straight shooter. But her timing isn't so great on this one.