Andy Murray (left) dealt Novak Djokovic his first loss of 2012, while Juan Martin del Potro challenged Roger Federer in Dubai. (Getty Images)
1. Baby steps: That the play in Dubai this week has looked a lot more like Ping-Pong than tennis speaks volumes about how slow the rest of the courts on Tour have become. So it's not surprising, then, that two of the best fast-court players have made the final: Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
Regardless of Saturday's result, this has been a good week for Murray, who defeated Novak Djokovic 6-2, 7-5 in Friday's semifinals on the heels of a straight-set victory against Tomas Berdych in the quarters. At a minimum, Murray has shown no ill effects from his heartbreaking five-set loss to Djokovic in the Australian Open final, signaling that he doesn't intend to repeat his 2011 post-Melbourne slump. Murray will head to Indian Wells next week knowing that he's progressing. Djokovic already has a fully motivated Rafael Nadal and Federer nipping at his heels. Add a confident Murray to that pack.
Not to take anything away from Murray's victory, but let's not get ahead of ourselves when it comes to the world No. 4. The issue for him is not overcoming the Big Three at a Tour stop, but doing so at Grand Slam tournaments. On those big stages, Murray is 0-2 against Djokovic, 2-6 against Nadal and 0-2 with no sets won against Federer, who actually trails the overall head-to-head 8-6. Murray, though, will look to build on victories like Friday's as he prepares for the majors down the road.
"Hopefully, that will set me up well for the year," Murray told reporters after handing Djokovic his first loss of the season. "Confidence in tennis and almost any individual sport is so important."
Meanwhile, Juan Martin del Potro continues to take steps forward, too. The Argentine has had a fantastic three weeks, downing Berdych in Rotterdam, ousting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Marseille and Dubai and testing Federer on Friday for the first time in their three meetings this year.
Despite being ranked 10th, Del Potro is the fifth-best player to me right now, and he's slowing closing the gap on the top four. The big man's groundstrokes are looking more and more consistent. The 2009 U.S. Open champion still has some work to do -- he relinquished a 5-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker and squandered four set points in Friday's 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6) loss to Federer -- but the progress is noticeable.
2. Fit as a fiddle, quick as a cat: After saving four set points to pull even at 6-6 in the second-set tiebreaker against Del Potro, Federer kept the momentum going by winning a stirring rally. As Del Potro stepped in and fired his groundstrokes deep into the corners, Federer summoned his 24-year-old self, sprinting back and forth from side to side to slice and defend as best he could. Del Potro eventually missed a backhand on the 29th shot of the rally, leaving him to huff and puff and stare longingly up at the heavens. (See the point here around the 6:30 mark.)
Another backhand error from Del Potro ended the match. The four set points he lost didn't break his spirit. Fed's legs did.
3. U.S. Open Monday final?: The United States Tennis Association says it's seeking to move the U.S. Open men's final to Monday permanently, according to ESPN.com's Greg Garber. Seriously? The sensible move would be to follow the lead of the other majors and rejigger the schedule in the earlier rounds to give the players ample rest and ensure (to the extent organizers can, considering the chance of rain delays) that the public gets a Sunday final. But the USTA is so hellbent on sticking with both men's semifinals on Saturday that it's willing to bury the final on Monday (the women's final would move to Sunday in this scenario).
A potential late-afternoon final on Monday would mean lower TV ratings -- as Garber noted, the last Sunday final, between Federer and Djokovic in 2007, dwarfed the ratings of any of the four Monday finals from '08-11 -- and the likelihood that some fans interested in attending would not be able to do so. In addition, as has happened in other Monday finals, there's the possibility that viewers would have to jump from channel to channel to follow the action as the match progresses. Is it in the best interest of the sport in the U.S. to make casual fans work that hard?
Granted, the final tends to fall on the NFL's first regular-season Sunday. But moving it back a day could mean competition from Monday Night Football, a juggernaut of its own. Keeping the two Saturday semis better be worth it from a financial perspective, because if the USTA thinks a Monday final is going to help grow tennis in America, it's mistaken.
4. Spotlight on tennis' "doping problem": In an article on Ryan Braun's steroid case (the National League MVP's 50-game suspension was overturned because, according to reports, he successfully challenged the chain of custody of his sample), ESPN.com's Howard Bryant writes this:
In any other universe, even though he has never been linked to performance enhancers and has never failed a drug test, [Rafael] Nadal and tennis would be at the center of the doping question. The game has become more powerful, more physical and more grueling, most recently evidenced by the epic five-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Big servers such as Canada's Milos Raonic, America's John Isner, Croatia's Ivo Karlovic and Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro routinely top 135 mph. Nadal, never a big server, won the 2010 U.S. Open over Djokovic because, for two weeks, he did something he'd never done before: He became a big server, adding roughly 20 mph on average to his serve -- the equivalent of a low-90s pitcher hitting 98 on the gun. Nadal hit 130 mph on the radar gun during that championship fortnight, and attributed the increase to a grip change to continental. But he'd never reached that velocity before, and hasn't done it consistently since.
Bryant seems to imply that there could be systematic doping in tennis. Do people buy this theory? That Raonic, Isner and Karlovic could be doping based on their powerful serves? Or that a lack of evidence should result in growing suspicion?
My take has always been this: It's one thing for low-ranked players to decide that the risk of getting caught is worth the financial upside of winning matches. But the idea that the top-ranked players, who are under intense scrutiny as it is, would risk their entire careers by doping is too far-fetched even for my cynical eye.
Tennis players have to report their whereabouts 365 days a year and make themselves available for testing every day. They're regularly tested at the biggest tournaments, and the winners are tested more often than the losers. The lower-ranked players, I get. But the top guys? It's just too risky.5. Final thoughts: Steffi Graf Andre Agassi