Waving goodbye to historic SAP Open; Nadal's confidence boost
Full of history and tradition, the SAP Open leaving San Jose seems unthinkable
Rafael Nadal's jump in confidence after winning Monte Carlo is great for tennis
In a dismal year, Francesca Schiavone, 31, is running out of time to bounce back
Assorted thoughts on a very eventful tennis week:
A tradition dismantled: The best players in men's tennis have been competing in Northern California since 1889, at the old Pacific Coast Championships in Monterey. It seems inconceivable that next year's event, in San Jose, will mark the end of the line.
It was announced on Monday that San Jose Sports and Entertainment Enterprises, which owns the NHL's San Jose Sharks, will move the tournament in 2014 to Memphis, which in turn has relinquished its own event to a calendar slot in Rio de Janeiro. The news didn't sit well with the USTA, given that San Jose (in mid-February) has traditionally been the first U.S. event after the Australian circuit. It is feared that many players, with Northern California no longer an option, will opt for tournaments in Europe and Latin America before returning to the U.S. for Indian Wells and Miami.
It's not that the San Jose event has been a smashing success. Matches are rarely sold out, and much of the afternoon action plays to a virtually empty HP Pavilion. It has never carried sufficient prestige to lure Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. But we've seen plenty of Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt, Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick in recent years, with exhibition performances by Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, and fans have been lucky enough to watch the ascending Milos Raonic win it the last two years.
My personal experience dates to the late 1970s, when McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, among countless others, graced the San Francisco Cow Palace. Those were the first big-time events I covered for the San Francisco Chronicle, in any sport. And if you look at the extended list of winners, dating to Don Budge, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Arthur Ashe and Rod Laver, you realize the scope of history and tradition. Until further notice, it seems, we have run out of luck.
Rafa's return: Before it all went wrong, before the slumped shoulders and baleful looks, Novak Djokovic looked suitably engaged against Rafael Nadal in the Monte Carlo final. He had made up his mind to keep playing, despite the crushing news that his paternal grandfather had died, and he appeared to have summoned the same resolve that had carried him through the earlier rounds.
The fact that Nadal stood up to his nemesis, shot for shot, wasn't just a boost to his confidence. That 6-3, 6-1 win was a marvelous development for the sport, as the tour approaches the heart of the clay season. Perhaps not everyone worships Nadal, but it's impossible to dismiss his raw emotion and desire. Can you imagine if he'd lost this match, after so many confessions of vulnerability and weakness in recent months? For the sake of Big Four drama and the spirit of intrigue, he had to win it.
Eventually, we realized that it wasn't the real Djokovic. He got careless, easily distracted. His mind just wasn't there. His backhand drop shot from the baseline had won him a huge point in the first set, but when he tried it while serving at 0-1 in the second set, Nadal didn't just race to retrieve it, he emphatically snapped a blazing cross-court winner.
Given the venue, I'd be willing to bet this would have been an epic battle with Djokovic at his very best. What a setting; is there a better one anywhere in sports? And this is where Nadal rules, on the gorgeous red clay alongside the deep-blue Mediterranean, in a stadium full of high rollers and celebrities.
Eight straight wins now. A king among royalty. Rafa feels good about himself again, and that's a great thing for tennis.
Fading Francesca: It took many years for Francesca Schiavone to make a life-changing impact on tour, winning the 2010 French Open with a brand of elegance and panache that warmed hearts around the world. She has since become a treasure, a must-see player for anyone lucky enough to witness tournaments in person.
How heartbreaking, then, to see her career in such rapid descent.
Just when we get to know Schiavone, and revere her wondrous athleticism, she seems to be saying farewell. At the age of 31 (with a birthday in two months), she's having a terrible year: Bounced out of the Australian Open by 80th-ranked Romina Oprandi. Defeated in a Fed Cup match by the Ukraine's 121st-ranked Lesia Tsurenko -- on clay, in Schiavone's native Italy. Forced to retire in a third-round loss to Lucie Safarova at Indian Wells. A first-match casualty at Doha, Dubai, Miami and Barcelona. As Italy's Fed Cup team was resoundingly beaten by the Czech Republic over the weekend, Schiavone lost both of her singles matches, to Safarova and Petra Kvitova.
Perhaps none of it is terribly shocking. Age and nagging injuries are catching up to Schiavone, who revels in hustling, all-court tennis and seems to have lost a step or two. Maybe she can summon one last burst of glory as the clay-court season progresses -- ideally, at Roland Garros. That would be a fine thing, indeed.
Hall of Fame slight: The recent Hall of Fame vote was good news for Jennifer Capriati, but a man with sterling credentials, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, was left out. Kafelnikov won two majors (the French and the Australian), reached No. 1 in the world, won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and was part of four Grand Slam doubles titles -- certainly enough to merit Hall of Fame inclusion alongside the likes of Gabriela Sabatini, Patrick Rafter, Yannick Noah and Jana Novotna.
"It's an atrocity, pure and simple," Matt Cronin wrote on Tennischannel.com. "Kafelnikov was twice the player of at least a dozen previous American inductees."
Cronin states a powerful and detailed case for Kafelnikov, but it makes me wonder about the Russian's general appeal. My experience is with baseball Hall of Fame voting, in which a player's appeal at the time carries significant weight. Pitcher Phil Niekro piled up some mind-blowing numbers, but he never struck anyone as being among the very best. It took many years for Ryne Sandberg, an accomplished but rather bland performer, to get recognized.
As much as Kafelnikov accomplished, I'm not sure how often, during his playing days, people took note of him and said, "There goes a Hall of Famer." It just didn't seem that way at the time. Perhaps, in ensuing votes, amends will be made.