Thursday, May 26, 2011

Djokovic: Nole's got the fever

Novak Djokovic / He's got the whole world in his hands.

Novak Djokovic is arguably the hottest athlete on the planet. Not just in professional tennis, mind you, but in the whole world.

Yes, the whole world.

Djokovic is perfect in 2011. He's won 39 consecutive tennis matches this year, including his first two matches at the French Open this week. Djokovic has won one Grand Slam this season ~ the Australian Open in January ~ and he has already amassed titles in Dubai, Indian Wells (Calif., USA), Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome. At Roland Garros, Djokovic is seeded second behind five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.

Nicknamed Nole, the just-turned 24 year-old Serbian native has grown and matured as a player. Recently, he made headlines for revealing a new, gluten-free diet that has made him appear more fit and trim while also improving his endurance on the court.  Djokovic's world ranking has improved since the start of the year, from No. 3 to No. 2, and his sights are clearly set on becoming the new No. 1.  That's a position currently held by Nadal, whom Djokovic has beaten twice on clay in finals at Madrid and Rome  ~ Nadal's best surface.

Singing and swinging / Could Novak Djokovic be the next No. 1?

Based on his current performance, I like Nole's chances of becoming the next No. 1. Others like his chances, too.

American tennis commentator Mary Carillo, who is covering the French Open for Tennis Channel and NBC Sports, has nothing but high praise for Djokovic.  Recently, she told the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins: "Now you look at him and he's the strongest and fittest guy out there.  I'm also trying to think what anyone is doing better on the court.  Djokovic has the best forehand on tour right now, and the best backhand." About the winning streak, which includes winning his final two matches in 2010 (for a total of 41 consecutive victories, Carillo labels it: "A remarkable streak."

Djokovic is chasing after the Open Era (from 1968-present) record of 42-0 to start a season set by American John McEnroe in 1984.  Coincidentally, McEnroe is at Roland Garros as a tennis commentator for both Tennis Channel and NBC Sports. He spoke about Djokovic and the streak during an interview with Carillo that was broadcast Wednesday on Tennis Channel.

"(Djokovic) has it a lot tougher than I did," said McEnroe, whose 1984 winning streak was stopped in the French Open final by Ivan Lendl. "He had to win a major his first tournament of the year. Back in my day, the Australian Open was played at the end of the year in December.  We can all talk about the depth in the game being better now. The fields are tougher. What Djokovic has done is more phenomenal."

McEnroe continued: "The one thing he's had going for him, I suppose, is that the expectation wasn't as high.  Let's be honest. We still thought Nadal and Federer were the favorites going in (to the Australian Open). We were wondering about Djokovic.  Why is this guy stuck at No. 3 in the world, and wondering, if that was what his lot in life was going to be?  Is he ever going to be able to step it up and beat these guys?"

At the French Open  / Nole tries for his second Grand Slam of 2011.

Instead, Djokovic put together an impressive two-week run in Melbourne, and hasn't looked back.  During the winning streak, he's 4-0 against Nadal and 3-0 against former No. 1 Roger Federer, who is in the same half of the singles draw as Djokovic at Roland Garros.

"I got to hand it to him. (The streak) has been a great shot in the arm for tennis," said McEnroe.  It's a bummer for me, but records were made to be broken. So, I like that. It's great for the sport, it's unbelievable. It's incredible what he's been able to accomplish."

Is there a moment maybe Djokovic, who is a beloved national hero on and off the court in Serbia, wanted to lose to take off the pressure from winning? Carillo asked McEnroe.

McEnroe was candid in his response. "I think there was a moment. In Madrid, he beat Nadal for the first time on clay. When he went to Rome and made the semis, he was still playing good tennis.  Then, he faced Andy Murray, and Murray nearly had him there."

Djokovic held off a third-set rally by Murray, where he trailed 4-5 and faced match point.  He reversed his misfortune and came back to beat his British rival 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (2) to set up his fourth final of the year against Nadal.  In the final, Djokovic was dominant in beating Nadal 6-4, 6-4.

"I think there, maybe (Novak's) thinking to himself: 'Maybe it would be good to lose that one, take some pressure off myself.'  But, then he showed character. At the end of the day, the competitor in him said: 'The hell with this.' He took some pressure off and he (beat Murray) in the semifinals. Then, he beat Nadal, again (in the final)."

The streak  "The run I've had is definitely something I didn't expect."

So, what does Djokovic think about his newly found success that has elevated him to becoming a co-favorite along with Nadal to win the French Open?  He revealed his thoughts during an interview with ESPN's Chris Fowler that aired Sunday during the opening day of this year's tournament at Roland Garros.

"The run I've had is definitely something I didn't expect to go this far," said Djokovic, who has won 25 career titles and led Serbia to the 2010 Davis Cup championship. "If someone told me I would go without any losses to the French Open, it would be hard to believe."

Djokovic will be tested throughout his remaining matches at Roland Garros starting Friday, when he faces former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, seeded No. 25, in the third round.  If he succeeds against Del Potro ~ and the seeds hold true through the rest of the tournament ~ his remaining opponents could include: No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet (Round of 16); No 12 Mikhail Youzhny (quarterfinals); No. 3 Federer (semifinals); and ultimately, top-seeded Nadal in the final.

"I think the hard work I've put in during the last year and the experience is starting to pay off," said Djokovic. "And my confidence on the court, I think confidence is obviously a very important part of your game.  You can get confident, but it's easy to lose. It's very important to be focused. I've been trying to work on my consistency.  I am a more mature player."

While it may be impossible for Djokovic's streak to go on forever, there's no arguing that Nole is doing some truly amazing things on the tennis court ~ and, in doing so, every match he's gaining new fans around the world.

All images courtesy of Tennis Channel, c. 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The pleasure of our gardens, part 17

I am always amazed at how the color and shape of a single rose can change in just a matter of days.

The spring weather has been kind to the rose bushes in our backyard garden and has made photographing our roses and other flowers a real pleasure ~ and, a daily habit.

Last week, I followed the progress of a single rainbow-colored rose over the course of four days and recorded three photographs that illustrate how its color and shape changed day by day.

May 11, 7:58 p.m.

May 13, 7:13 a.m.

May 14, 3:25 p.m.

Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of sunshine, coupled with a little overnight rain, to make things nice and colorful in our garden.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2011.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A love of American team sports: At what price?

The rest of the sporting world is catching up to America.

In his weekly sports commentary this morning on National Public Radio, commentator Frank Deford opined about how America's love of team sports comes at a price.

I have a deep admiration for Deford, an author and writer whose reporting and commentary includes: senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated, commentator for NPR and correspondent for HBO's monthly sports magazine 'Real Sports'. Today, Deford said: "I've always thought that one of the best things about American sport is that we aren't dominated by one team game, as so much of the rest of the world is soccer-centric. That's why we can have our own American dream.  The dream of most other countries is simply to have their national soccer team do well." (Note to my friends around the world: What you call football, in the U.S. we call it soccer.)

Deford is absolutely right.  In America, we've always focused our devotion to team sports ~ baseball, American-style football, basketball and ice hockey come to mind ~ and we've turned college sports into a big multi-million-dollar business. Can high school sports be fare behind?

Looking up at No. 1 /
Vamos Rafa!
Meanwhile, I have found through many friendships I've made on Facebook that in other nations, their sports affection and devotion are monogamous.  For instance, my friends either root for Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic, but not for both. It's either "Vamos Rafa" or "Ajdee Nole". Switzerland's Roger Federer, like his native country, is a neutral presence. And, on the football pitch, the line is clearly drawn between fans rooting for either Real Madrid or Barcelona. For Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. You see, there's no waffling among my international friends when it comes to showing one's rooting interest.  It is pinned to their heart or worn on their sleeve for everyone to see ~ and I've grown to appreciate this.

Here in the U.S., Deford refers to American sports fans as "serial team fans". What this means is simple: You're either for the Yankees or the Mets if you live in New York, but dare not root for both. And, if you live in Chicago, you're either a Cubs fan ~ especially if you live on the North Side ~ or a White Sox fan if you're from the South Side. But you can't be a true Chicago baseball fan and root for both teams.

In a topsy turvy week that began with deadly tornadoes whipping through Alabama and beyond in the U.S., then continued with the splendid Will and Kate's Royal Wedding in London, and, finally, concluded Sunday night with President Obama announcing to the nation and the world the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. has shown it has become less of a power in individual sports like tennis.

From the hard courts of Melbourne and Flushing Meadows to the red clay of Roland Garros to the pristine grass of Wimbledon, all of the reigning Grand Slam champions, except for Serena Williams at Wimbledon, are foreigners.  Sure, the Williams sisters have mostly been injured on and off for the past year. But, even if they were healthy, who's to say the outcome of any of the Grand Slam tournaments would have been any different? Still, it's a far cry from the days when John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Chris Evert were part of a dominating American presence in the Grand Slams.

Roger Federer/
In search of his 17th
Grand Slam singles title.
Now that the tennis calendar has shifted to the European clay court season in the lead up to this month's French Open, the focus is clearly on rest of the world.  The top four men's seeds at this week's Mutua Madrid Open ~ Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray ~ are from Spain, Serbia, Switzerland and Great Britain, respectively. After the first day of competition, all of the Americans except one had lost.  The lone exception, John Isner, had to defeat another American, Mardy Fish, to advance to the second round.   And, it was yet another clay-court disappointment for America's best player, Andy Roddick. The red clay that is a universal playing surface for much of the rest of the world, is still so very foreign to the American players.  It seems they can't wait to get to Wimbledon so they can play on grass, or to return home to America for the summer hard-court season leading up to the U.S. Open in August.

Yes, it is painfully obvious that the rest of the world has caught up with America in sports as it has in many other respects. And, as Deford concluded his commentary this morning, he said: "The cliche is that there's no 'I' in team. But more and more, when it comes to tennis and golf, there's no 'U.S' in world champion."

I couldn't agree more.