Tuesday March 29th, 2011

It has been an interesting tournament so far at Key Biscayne, none of the headline-makers more interesting than ... Martina Navratilova?

In a first week trending heavily toward conventional wisdom in the men's draw, Navratilova shook things up, from afar, with her comments on Roger Federer.

Federer, she said, "is on the other side of the float. I don't think he'll ever play as well as he did three or four years ago. That's not to say he can't still win a Slam, but it's difficult to see him climbing back to No. 1."

Handing that lofty perch over to Rafael Nadal (the current No. 1) and Novak Djokovic, Martina said, "Nadal is dominating and Djokovic's confidence is off the chart. Roger has lost three matches (this season) to Djokovic, and lost to him at U.S. Open last year as well. It will get under his skin."

Federer hates this sort of thing. The way he sees it, sure, if he falls hopelessly out of the Top 10 and begins losing to the Andreevs and Bopannas of the world in major events, go ahead and criticize. He refuses to be alarmed by recent developments, considering that he has lost only to Djokovic since the Paris event (Gael Monfils) in November.

"Maybe she missed the London World Tour Finals," said Federer, referring to his title at the ATP's year-end championships. "Maybe she was somewhere else climbing Kilimanjaro."

Well, then, aren't we snippy? "Look, I love Martina," he said. "I think she's been an inspiration to my wife (Mirka), and I always love seeing her, but sometimes if you have the microphone in front of you and you get a negative question, you get dragged into it. And she's in front of the microphone a lot of times. Eventually, you can't just say only good things. You have to say more negative things."

He's right on that. Most experts, asked to assess Federer's future, have expressed doubts that he can return to the top. But it's a little like wondering if Tiger Woods will ever surge back into form. It's impossible, OK? Tiger owned the world in his prime, and I mean the entire world, not just golf. Similarly, beginning with the 2005 Wimbledon, Federer won eight of the 10 majors, an otherworldly achievement. And there was that memorable afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium when Federer, with Tiger in a front-row seat, dispatched Andy Roddick for the 2006 U.S. Open championship and then shared a bottle of champagne with Woods, whom he was meeting for the first time.

Those times are gone, for both men. It doesn't reflect poorly on either, for athletes simply aren't built to duplicate historic dominance as the times, surroundings and competition shift so dramatically.

Andy Roddick, in search of a final word on the subject, weighed in: "It's ridiculous. Whoever wants to criticize Roger for the way he's playing tennis right now better be very, very good at their job."

It's just that "criticism" doesn't quite capture the mood around Federer just now. "Return to the planet Earth" is more like it.

Checking in on other fronts:

Caroline Wozniacki: It's hard to recall feeling quite like this about a No. 1-ranked player. When she wins, it all seems preordained, due to her exceptional defensive game and relentless groundstroke accuracy. But when she loses, it doesn't seem like such a big deal. A lot of women can match or surpass the power of Wozniacki's strokes, and there are plenty of players who can equal her athleticism -- like Andrea Petkovic, for example.

Petkovic may be more proud of her fourth-round victory over Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open, but Monday's 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 win was a telling result for the 23-year-old German. She showed admirable patience, waited for her opportunities and then attacked Wozniacki with full force. Petkovic resurrected the "Petko Dance," an innocent and somewhat silly manner of celebrating, but later said she'll retire it after this tournament. Wise move. That can really be annoying to her opponents, and there are plenty of other ways for Petkovic to reveal her charming personality.

It is now being suggested, meanwhile, that Woziacki has played too much tennis for such an early stage of the season, perhaps making a mistake by playing Dubai and Doha back-to-back. "She cannot win everything," said Caroline's father, Piotr, after the match. "She's no robot, and she was tired in the final set."

Andy Murray: Nobody took issue with Navratilova when this subject came around. Not after Murray -- who hasn't won a set in three matches since being obliterated by Djokovic in the Australian Open final -- took a ridiculous 6-1, 7-5 loss to American qualifier Alex Bogomolov, Jr. at Key Biscayne.

"He's still in his prime, the next three to four years, but with every year it gets more difficult, the expectations and the pressure get higher," said Martina. "He's got the talent but he's got to get tougher on himself mentally. He's too quick to pass the blame, looking at his box and yelling at them as if it's somehow their fault he missed that forehand. Also, he doesn't give his opponent enough credit. He gets mad when he gets aced, instead of, 'That's a good serve, too good.' He needs to change his attitude."

No one has been more disgusted by Murray's malaise than his former Davis Cup captain, John Lloyd, who called the slump "mind-boggling" and said, "It really is unbelievable. He's simply in a different league than his last two opponents (Bogomolov and Donald Young). Andy has no business being bothered by players of that level."

Like many others, Lloyd has been appalled by Murray's wandering eyes on court. "He has to find a coach he will listen to," said Lloyd. "This habit of looking to his support group for answers is hopeless. If you are No. 4 or No. 5 in the world, you have to work things out for yourself."

Juan Martin del Potro: Speaking of the Top 5 level, Del Potro looks increasingly dangerous in his bid to get back there. The Argentine was knocked out of the tournament by an inspired Mardy Fish on Tuesday, but he took on Robin Soderling, one of the really big hitters on tour and the world's fourth-ranked player, and scored a convincing 6-3, 6-2 win Sunday evening. The serve was massive, the groundstrokes pure, the forecast encouraging. Del Potro admitted to many tentative moments in his long return from wrist surgery, but after the match, he said his top form "is getting closer." This was his first win over a Top 10 player since resurfacing on tour.

Sam Querrey: Strange exit for the big guy. After two spirited sets against Viktor Troicki, a live-wire talent who is coming on fast after helping Serbia win the Davis Cup in Belgrade, Querrey found himself needing to hold serve at 5-6 in the third set. The way this guy unloads, a tiebreaker seemed inevitable, and he got up 30-0.

Then the collapse: two long, awful forehands, an ill-conceived backhand drop shot that sank horribly into the net, and match point for Troicki. He didn't disappoint, ripping a cross-court forehand winner for the clincher.

Strange for Querrey, yes. But in the wake of recent evidence, not terribly surprising.

The Prospect Watch: The game's next generation offers magnificent promise on the men's side, beneficial to any tournament in the early rounds. It's a seven-man group, covering the spectrum of global influence, and here's the rundown for Key Biscayne:

Richard Berankis (Lithuania), Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria), Ryan Harrison (U.S.) and Bernard Tomic (Australia): Eliminated in the first round.

Milos Raonic (Canada): Also dismissed in his first match (he had a first-round bye), and it was a result you wouldn't expect: 7-6, 7-5 to Somdev Devvarman, the Indian-born player who attended the University of Virginia and won two NCAA singles titles, defeating Georgia's John Isner in 2007.

Devvarman is a fine, clever player, but he shouldn't be in Raonic's league; not after the hard-serving kid carved out such memorable wins in the early season. Observers noted a bit of fatigue in Raonic, though, and that's perfectly understandable, despite his youth. Nobody could be fresh after the travel schedule he accepted in less than three months: India, Australia, South Africa, two U.S. stops (San Jose and Memphis), Mexico and back to America for Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.

Alexandr Dolgopolov (Ukraine): Due to finish his third-round match, postponed in the third set, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday afternoon. A lot of people are anxious to see an in-form Dolgopolov play Nadal, and that will be on tap if he can get past Tsonga.

Kei Nishikori (Japan): There's no disgrace in losing to Nadal (second round), and the Brad Gilbert-coached kid showed plenty of flair and imagination. It's interesting to note that he actually leaves the ground for his two-handed backhand on certain balls that arrive short or soft. It's an enticing, dramatic sight, but if you do that on important points, the ball has to go in. That wasn't the case as Nishikori faced a break point at 2-2 in the first set. He leaped off his front (right) leg, crushed the ball while airborne -- and hammered it into the net.

Nadal held the upper hand from that point on, with some vintage moments. It's always a treat to watch him line up a forehand from the right side of the court, because he's so good at disguising two equally lethal shots: an inside-out blast or a hooking screamer down the line. Nadal also hit a phenomenal shot in the final game, answering a crisp backhand volley with a leaping backhand volley of his own, struck cross-court with the ball well over his head. That's one of the toughest shots in tennis, especially when you have about a tenth of a second to react.

NOTES: Nice to see Ted Robinson in the Tennis Channel booth, adding his customary brand of world-class broadcasting. He's a baseball guy but has no team to cover, so he's likely to surface often during the summer until he returns to San Francisco to call the Niners games on radio . . . Who is Alex Bogomolov? He was born in Moscow but his family moved to the U.S. when he was 11, and he lives in New Jersey. He was ranked No. 118 when he knocked off Murray . . . It's always nice to see a really sweet one-handed backhand, and Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas unleashed a beauty in his victory over an ailing Andy Roddick . . . With the fortunes of American women's tennis sagging so badly, there is talk that Christina McHale might be a good choice for the upcoming Fed Cup matches in Germany. Replacing Melanie Oudin and/or Vania King couldn't be that difficult a decision . . . Interesting that Ivan Lendl has expressed interest in coaching, with Murray a specific target. The two own residences near each other in Miami. One can only imagine the reaction in London if Murray has Lendl in his camp for Wimbledon. Lendl never felt comfortable on grass courts and was frustrated time and again in his efforts to win that tournament . . . At a time when the number of traveling U.S. tennis writers is at an all-time low, there are 43 credentialed media from Argentina at Key Biscayne. Del Potro, naturally, is their No. 1 attraction.

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