Monday, June 23, 2014

Swinging Showstoppers…The Top Seven Most Entertaining Players on the ATP World Tour

While the sport of tennis is generally a ‘quiet’ game in which fans and players are often encouraged to be as silent as possible, the result is that there clearly isn’t much variety in the way of outgoing, crowd-pleasing performers that realize they are as much an entertainer as an athlete.

Unless it’s the annual U.S. Open (where almost anything goes), or either a Davis Cup or Fed Cup showdown, tennis players and their fans are often chided for any sort of behavior that may be deemed as overly outgoing and not conforming to the ‘tennis norm’. 

Well, on the eve of the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, I started thinking about just which ATP World Tour players are the most entertaining performers in the game today.

Thanks to a bit of assistance from two current title-winning tournament players and several other trusted tennis colleagues, I have come up with a fun-filled list of the seven most entertaining players on the ATP World Tour today.

Whether their entertainment value comes from jaw-dropping athleticism or audience-stirring emotion, these seven ATP World Tour ‘showstoppers’ know exactly how to please a crowd better than any of their current contemporaries.

With that said and the 2014 tennis season rolling right along, let’s get started.

7. Mikhail Youzhny
Now ranked 14th in the world, former World No. 8 Mikhail Youzhny is undoubtedly one of the better and certainly more entertaining ATP World Tour players today. The fiery 31-year-old Russian is as demonstrative as they come and will always be remembered for one of the most bizarre sights in tennis history despite being one of the few players in recent tour history to reach the quarterfinals or better in all four Grand Slam tournaments.

You see, not only is Youzhny known for his often dramatic shot-making and crowd-pleasing persona, but he is also remembered for bashing his head with a racquet during a 2008 Miami Masters match against Spaniard Nicolás Almagro.

Down 4-5 in the final set, Youzhny missed an easy return before making an angry gesture to no one in particular. Quickly thereafter, the 2010 US Open semifinalist began bashing his head with his own racquet and drawing blood from his forehead.

The best part however is that Youzhny then went on to put a convincing smackdown on the underachieving Almagro by winning the next seven points, an ensuing tiebreaker and ultimately, the entire match.

See my guy, Mikhail Youzhny and his ‘head-bash’ right here!

6. Roger Federer
I have absolutely no idea where to start when it comes to the brand of entertainment that only World No. 8 Roger Federer can provide. Unlike some of the other performers on this list however, Fed’s entertainment factors comes solely from his on-court excellence and not much else in the way of histrionics. One minute, the incomparable Federer is hitting the same forehand ‘tracer’ that has made him the game’s greatest player ever, the next, he’s faking out fans – and cameramen across the globe – with one of his inimitable drop-shots. H…and did I forget to mention the jaw-dropping ‘tweeners’ Federer become almost synonymous with in recent years? No matter what stroke he’s hitting, the sweet-swinging Swiss superstar is good for at least a half-dozen oohs and aahs each and every time he takes the court.

5. Marcos Baghdatis
While he’s fallen on a bit of hard times recently, World No. 129 Marcos ‘Big Smiling’ Baghdatis is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining players on tour today. From his often incredible displays of shot-making to his overall fun-loving, crowd-including ways, not many players can please an audience like the wildly popular Cyprian can.

4. Novak Djokovic
While Novak Djokovic has undoubtedly lost a lot of the fun-filled ‘Djoker’ personality that used to reside within the affable Serbian a few years back, watching Djokovic play today is still quite entertaining to say the least. Whether he’s pulling off one of the patented sliding shots (on a hard court no less) he’s now made famous or whether he’s letting out a deafening roar following a stunning winner, watching Novak Djokovic is about as entertaining as it gets tennis fans.

3. Alexandr Dolgopolov
If you haven’t seen the talented, but still wildly inconsistent, Alexandr Dolgopolov, then you have no idea what you’re missing tennis fans. The 25-year-old from Kiev, Ukraine reminds me a lot of his new coach, Fabrice ‘The Magician’ Santoro in the sense that he has – and uses – every shot in the book.

From his one-of-a-kind serve to his whippet-like groundstrokes – and inimitable spinning slices – Dolgopolov is simply pleasing to watch play the game of tennis. While Dolgopolov can often concentrate a bit too much on looking cute and flashy and not enough on actually winning points, the fact of the matter is that there aren’t many players that can make an audience gasp in amazement like the fleet-footed Dolgopolov can.

2. Rafael Nadal
He may have lost the 2014 Australian Open to newly-minted World No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, but make no mistake about it, World No. 1 Rafael Nadal is still as entertaining as he ever has been. From his almost supernatural ability to ‘hook’ balls around the net posts (often while on the all-out run) and past stunned opponents to his never-say-die attitude to get to every ball, no one can do many of the things that the fiery Spaniard does. Make no mistake about it, even the hardest of hard core Roger Federer fans can appreciate the incomparable entertainment value that any Rafael Nadal match offers.

1. Gael Monfils
I’m not sure how many coaches World No. 30 Gael Monfils has driven absolutely bonkers with his unmatched athletic prowess – and absolutely boneheaded on-court decision-making, but I do know one thing…and that’s the fact that no player on the planet is as entertaining as the electrifying 27-year-old Frenchman.

While it’s no secret that Monfils may never fulfill his legitimate grand slam potential because of his unwillingness to move forward, the fact of the matter is that no player routinely runs down balls or hits as many crowd-pleasing shots as Gael Monfils does.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Five Things All Tennis Players Can Learn from Rafael Nadal

You know, it’s pretty ironic that I’m writing this ‘Five Things’ column on ATP World No. 1 Rafael Nadal just a couple of days after whimsically watching some YouTube videos of the ‘Running of the Bulls’ in Pamplona, Spain.

Why is it so ironic you ask?

Because I swear, Nadal’s jaw-dropping 2013 campaign was a mirror image of many of those often gory videos I watched today– and it’s not because Rafa played the role of one of the young men running for their literal lives.

No, a year ago, the World’s No. 1 ranked player and reigning 2014 French Open champion, was anything but a wayward victim waiting to happen. Nadal was the ‘bull’ himself, running roughshod over any and all that stood in his way as he climbed back to the top of the sport he’s pretty much dominated ever since picking up a racket as a young child.

Despite his surprising loss to newly-minted World No.3 Stan Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open Finals, Nadal has won a stunning seven of the last 13 singles grand slam titles.

Having said all of this, there are certainly more than a few things tennis aficionados across the globe can learn from the fiery southpaw Spaniard.  Thankfully, I have narrowed down Nadal’s vast skill set to five simple things that all tennis players can learn from Nadal – and before you ask, no, his patented ‘butt dig’ isn’t one of them.

Okay, now that you’ve picked yourself up off the floor from laughter, let’s get started with Five Things All Tennis Players Can Learn’ from ATP World No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

Just when his opponents think they’ve won a point against him, Nadal comes running from ‘off the television screen’ to not only get to what appeared to be an unreachable ball, but often times, hit a jaw-dropping offensive reply as well. While I’m not suggesting that everyone can turn defense into instant offense like Nadal, I am saying that tennis players everywhere should strive to hustle for every ball just as Nadal does.

There is another component to the ‘hustle’ factor that places sole proprietorship on the player alone and that would be the fact that while footwork and movement can be improved through repetitive exercises, ‘hustle’ can’t exactly be taught. It is a quality that each player has to have within them.

As the lead instructor at Williams’ Sweet Spot Tennis Academy LLC in Schertz, TX, admittedly I have been blessed to work with a multitude of young players that are not only talented, but are extremely hard workers that go all out for each and every ball hit to them. I have however, come across a few players that I couldn’t get to move more than three feet unless I threw Twinkie in front of them.

There are myriad footwork, agility and speed drills that can help you improve your movement, but if you want to learn how to hit all-out winners on the flat-out run like Rafael Nadal, then you’ve got to have the desire to hustle for every ball just like the King of Clay does.

While no player on the planet hits with as much topspin off the forehand wing as Rafael Nadal, players everywhere would be wise to observe, imitate and try to incorporate some of the same components Nadal uses to hit his inimitable forehand.

While I’m not suggesting a massive grip change or complete swing shape overhaul, I am saying that players everywhere, especially those that hit flatter groundstrokes, should experiment with creating more topspin, whether through a minor grip change or slight swing shape alteration.

If you’re using a more traditional Continental forehand, try moving over one bevel to a semi-western or, more drastically, a full western forehand. Depending on your level of comfort with each alteration, these changes could be full-time or even part-time depending on what kind of ball is hit to you.

Case in point…while I use a cross between a continental grip and semi-western, I do like to quickly change my grip to something closer to a full western forehand for high balls I hit near shoulder level. This quick adjustment allows me to drive my high forehand with plenty of power while creating more topspin than I usually use for a waist-high ball in order to get the ball back down on the court. The point is, experimenting with your ability to create more topspin on your groundstrokes is always a good thing.

I don’t think I’m making much of a bold statement by saying that Rafael Nadal is arguably the greatest shot-maker in ATP Tour history. I mean, think about it. How many players have you seen routinely hook balls over and around the net posts like Nadal? 

I can honestly say that I can’t count the times that I’ve seen Nadal hit an absurd groundstroke that left me both, slack-jawed and pleasantly bewildered. Now, while it would be asking a bit much to expect ‘normal’ players to duplicate Nadal’s extraordinary ability to consistently pull off unfathomable groundstrokes, the fact of the matter is that tennis players of all ages should look to become proactive shot-makers more so than reactive reply artists.

To improve your shot-making abilities, set up a series of cones or drop-down lines and routinely practice putting balls in both corners or up the middle while adding some ‘on-the-run’ hitting drills. Before long, you’ll see your ability to create opponent-stunning shots increase like never before.

Emotion can be both, a good thing and a bad thing depending on how and when you use it tennis fanatics. Here’s a breakdown on when emotion is both, good and bad.

The Good
Many of today’s top players use their emotions to fire themselves up after a big point or outstanding winner, whether it be a groundstroke, serve or volley. For reference, let’s say Nadal is serving at 15-40 and he and his opponent trade a series of searing groundstrokes until Nadal finishes off the point with one of his patented topspin forehands, eliciting one of his patented ‘Vamos’ screams. At this point, you had better believe that the very next point is almost assuredly going to go Rafa’s way. That’s good emotion at its finest.

The Bad
Now, let’s say another player like talented, but mistake-prone Ernests Gulbis is serving at 30-all after a routine groundstroke rally of seven or eight shots and rips a backhand down the line only to see it hit the tape and fall on his side of the net to go down 30-40. Gulbis then lets out a shriek and slumps his shoulders before heading to the ad court for his next serve.

Not only is this clearly ‘bad’ emotion, but Gulbis’ opponent can now sense that he likely has the mental edge for the next point at the very least.  Making things even worse is the fact that this bad emotion can carry over to another few points or even the next few games, effectively, changing the entire outcome of a match.

Keep your emotions more in check and never let your opponent see that you’re struggling mentally. This is often a tough task to accomplish, but improving your ability to control your emotions and withstand pressure is paramount to playing winning tennis like Rafael Nadal does far more often than not.

Down the Line Backhand
While I wouldn’t say that Nadal has the best two-handed backhand in the world, he does possess more ability than most to hit winners off of this wing. I also love the fact that Nadal isn’t afraid to go for winners off the backhand wing, particularly down-the-line, like a lot of players.

Players everywhere would do well to shore up their backhands as much as possible while honing their abilities to go for outright winners down-the-line. Generally, when players have a slight opening down-the-line off of this wing, one of two things happens. Either a winner is hit outright or an unforced error occurs that is likely caused by either hitting into the tape or slightly long.

What makes Rafa’s down-the-line backhand so good is his ability to create an inordinate amount of topspin and clear the extra few inches at the net that aren’t present when going cross-court.

Practice your down the line backhand, both from a ‘set’ position and on the run. You’ll quickly notice that your winners off this wing will increase dramatically as your opponents start to realize they can’t expect a routine cross-court backhand every time they hit to that wing.

By adding all five of these elements to your own game, you’ll increase your chances of winning every match you play, even if you don’t look quite like Rafael Nadal in doing so.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Are the Saints in trouble in powerful NFC?

The New Orleans Saints have generally looked like either the second or third best team in the NFC all season long and a team that could very well challenge either Seattle or San Francisco for conference supremacy in the NFC portion of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, New Orleans hasn't looked very good in dropping three of their last four games, to Frisco, St. Louis and a suddenly scary Carolina team while not topping 16 points in the process.

The Saints lost control of what appeared to be a sure-fire division title a few weeks back and now will have a tougher road to hoe once the postseason rolls around. I’m not too sure that anyone should have expected the Saints to get back into title contention this season following the now-infamous Bountygate scandal two years ago, so maybe we should all give Drew Brees and company a bit of a pass if they flame out earlier than expected this postseason.

The again, when you’ve got a quarterback like Drew Brees, I believe it’s quite possible New Orleans could get on a red-hot postseason roll like the New York Giants did in winning each of their last two Super Bowls.

While I’m certainly not going to count Brees and the Saints out at this point, I will say that the Saints’ postseason outlook appears to be tenuous at best. 

Bully for Buffalo!

Don’t ask me why I have this secret love affair going with the Buffalo Bills (even though I really hated them in the 90s) that likely stems from my childhood days when I was running around the asphalt-paved streets of Philadelphia pretending I was the legendary, Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson.

Having said that…let me also say that I am fairly impressed with the job that first-year head coach Doug Marrone did in upstate New York, despite what appears to be an underachieving 6-9 record heading into their regular season finale against New England.

Had it not been for the early season injury suffered by gifted rookie quarterback E.J.Manuel, Buffalo could hypothetically have a polar-opposite record to the one they have now. The Bills rank a stellar second in the league in rushing, though the team’s passing attack was mostly anemic at best, particularly with Manuel out and Thaddeus Lewis taking some time to get acclimated.

Anyway, seeing the Bills totally dominate a Miami Dolphins team with a ton to play for was eye-opening to say the least. I think bright things are in store for the Bills and that they could potentially pull off the season-ending upset over New England?

What do you think Eye On Sports NFL fans? Comment and let me know!

Madness is Miami…is the end near?

Longtime friends and family members that have known me my entire life, know that I am arguably the most faithful Miami Dolphins fan in the country. My Dolphin-loving days go waaaaay back, to the pre-Dan Marino days when Miami was still fielding dominant championship-calber teams led by Bob Griese, Larry Csonka and the team’s voracious –no-name’ defense.

Well, as you’re all aware, those days are now a distant memory for the Fins and their fans. Most recently, Miami has been in the news by becoming the first NFL franchise in league history to have to deal with ‘bullying’ allegations.

Having said that, I also want to go on record to say that Fins head coach Joe Philbin should really be given consideration for the NFL Coach of the Year award for masterfully guiding his young team through one of the largest scandals to rock any franchise in recent memory and putting them in position to potentially make one of the most surprising postseason appearances in league history.

Unfortunately, the Dolphins’ postseason hopes took a bit if a hit in their Week 16 road loss to Buffalo, putting this dysfunctional franchise one step closer to a conclusion that can’t come soon enough if you ask me.

Follow by Email