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U.S. Open Picks/Draw

Men’s Singles:

Winner: Andy Murray   

Finalist: Roger Federer

Yes, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have divided up Slams for years, including 20 of the last 22 majors, and left the field few spoils. Both have good reason to add another: Nadal is on top of his game and seemingly healthy for once heading into NYC; Federer is rounding into late season form. They aren’t my picks. I gave the nod to Andy Murray a year ago and I’m going with the Scot again. He’s shaken off his mid-season slump. He has a maturing repertoire of weapons. Plus, he’s eager to cast the GS monkey on his back. I think he’s ready and hungry to finally bag his first major.

I believe Nadal will someday capture the USO, just not this year. The No. 1 Spaniard at least has no nagging physical issues, but didn’t show his best stuff in Toronto, where he fell to Murray in the semis, or at Cincinnati, where he slouched out to Marcos Baghdatis in the quarterfinals. The reigning Wimbledon and French Open champ has a rough quarter with the likes of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Ivan Ljubicic and then in the quarters either David Ferrer (who beat him here in ’07), resurgent David Nalbandian or No. 8 Fernando Verdasco. The 24-year-old Nadal is desperate to win here, and that sense of urgency will carry him past Nalbandian into his third straight semifinal in New York.

Murray’s path to the last four includes No. 25 seed Stanislas Wawrinka and then a possible matchup in the fourth round with No. 20 seed Sam Querrey (who has yet to shine at a major), but his biggest test will be hard-swinging Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals. The Wimbledon finalist from the Czech Republic beat Murray at Roland Garros this year and also won their only meeting on hard courts at Adelaide back in 2006. The 23-year-old Scot, who slumped out in the fourth round to Marin Cilic last year, loves New York and has too much to prove. His cagey, all-around game will be too much and he will prevail to face Nadal.

No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic is the big name in the third quarter but the Serb has done little to mark him as a sure thing to live up to his seeding. I’m taking No. 19 seed Mardy Fish, who’s become a paragon of fitness and is playing some of his best ball, to knock the Djoker in the fourth round. Meantime, the draw has broken well for No. 9 seed Andy Roddick, whose main threats are streaky No. 17 seed Gael Monfils of France in the third round and No. 6 Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth, who is still playing into form after missing much of the season with injuries.

It’s tough to gauge where the American’s game and health are. He hasn’t played near the level he hit in the spring at Indian Wells (finalist) or Miami (winner). The effects of his mild mononucleosis diagnosis are unclear, though he said Saturday he felt almost 100%. Roddick showed his heart – never in question with big-serving Texan – in beating two top-5 players and reaching the Cincy semis two weeks ago. His loss to Mardy Fish up a set and 5-2 was dismal, but he’s flying under the radar and I like him to face Fish again in the quarterfinals. Roddick, who turns 28 Monday, is the better big-match player, and he will come out on top of the rematch and advance to semi in New York.

Second-ranked Federer leads the charge in the final quarter and there doesn’t appear to be anyone among the veterans in his quadrant that can derail the six-time finalist from Switzerland. No. 32 Lleyton Hewitt could put up some resistance in the third round, as could No. 13 Jurgen Melzer or former USO finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero. Croatia’s Cilic has been a big disappointment since reaching the Australian Open semis, and he won’t have enough to power past No. 5 seed Robin Soderling, who has had an excellent season after reaching a second-straight Roland Garros final. Federer, however, is finding his range and the slick hard courts at Flushing Meadows play into his strengths – serving, movement, and backhand slice. He will outgun Soderling and then put another beating on Roddick to reach his seventh consecutive final.

In the final, Murray will show he’s learned from two timid showings in previous Slam appearances (both losses to Federer). This time, he will rise to the occasion, play aggressive when he needs to, and let the artistry of his shotmaking and defense propel him to the first Grand Slam title for Great Britain since Fred Perry in 1936.

Interesting first-round matchups:

1. Donald Young vs. Gilles Simon: One-time U.S. star-in-the-making gets another wild card and takes on former top-10 player from France.
2. John Isner vs. Frederico Gil: Is the big guy’s ankle healed enough for him to win?
3. Michael Llodra vs. Tomas Berdych: Tricky left-handed net charger could cause problems for Czech.
4. Djokovic vs. Troicki: All-Serbian rematch from Cincy, where Djokovic improved to 4-1 over his compatriot.

Women’s Singles:

Winner: Kim Clijsters

Finalist: Maria Sharapova

Without Serena Williams and Justine Henin, the women’s draw feels flimsy and wide open. Any number of established pros with Grand Slam credentials – Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams – or an eager upstart like Caroline Wozniacki or Victoria Azarenka could emerge with the spoils. The defending champ and mother of 2 1/2-year-old Jada, Kim Clijsters, is my slight favorite, presuming the hip she tweaked in Montreal is feeling OK.

Top-seed Caroline Wozniacki is playing solid ball again, witnessed by her titles at Montreal New Haven the last two weeks. Last year’s finalist is a great mover and fighter but will be hard-pressed to live up to her seeding. Her serve remains attackable and she will have to manage the pressure of top female dog in New York. The Dane is in a loaded quarter that includes 2006 USO champ Sharapova and 2004 winner Kuznetsova, along with the dangerous Na Li of China. Sharapova hasn’t hit on all cylinders since shoulder surgery, but the 23-year-old Russian has been moving in the right direction for months. With Serena out, she is the strongest player mentally and if she serves well and avoids the occasional lapse – such as the match points she gave up in the loss to Clijsters in the Cincy final – she can do serious damage. I like the No. 14 seed to take out Wozniacki in the fourth round and then upend her Russian counterpart Kuznetsova, who has also shown signs of a revival after a miserable season.

The second quarter is a toss up among the flagging former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, last year’s semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, the erratic Nadia Petrova and Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva. On paper, No. 4 Jankovic is the favorite, but the Serb and 2008 USO finalist has given little indication she’s prepared to break out of her months-long slump and go deep at a major. She has the tools and desire to do so, but unless she returns to the relentless baseline play she’s capable of and stops complaining about her niggling injuries, she will struggle. If she looks locked in early, I give her the nod to outwit Wickmayer in the last 16 and then battle No. 17 Petrova in the quarters. Depending on which side of the bed the big-serving but scatterbrained Petrova wakes up on, it could be a long or short day for Jankovic. I’ll take Jankovic, but she’ll be no match for Sharapova in the semifinals, who will feast on the Serb’s serve.

No. 3 Venus Williams is the highest seed in the third quarter, but she is no lock to reach the semifinals. The American hasn’t played since Wimbledon (capped by a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Tsvetana Pironkova), has lost a half step at 30 and hasn’t played her best in Queens since her title run nearly a decade ago. She’s capable and unpredictable, but recent history suggests she won’t last much past Labor Day. That will leave it up to French Open champion and No. 6 seed Francesca Schiavone, hard-hitting No. 10 Victoria Azarenka or perhaps plucky Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 19, the youngest player in the top 40. Italy’s Schiavone has done nothing since Paris, which means she’ll be rolled out of the tournament by either Azarenka or the fast improving Pavlyuchenkova, who should meet in an enticing third-round clash. The No. 20 seed from Russia is due and will out hustle Azarenka, then dismantle shaky Schiavone (if she makes it that far) and out-steady Williams (who, by the way, has a possible rematch with Pironkova in the third round) to reach her first Grand Slam semi.

That takes us to the final quarter, populated by No. 2 Clijsters, French Open finalist and No. 5 Sam Stosur, perennial hopeful Elena Dementieva and occasional world-beaters Marion Bartoli and Jie Zheng. Two possibly dangerous floaters also lurk – former No. 1s Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic – in this quadrant. The unseeded Russian and Serb could cause problems and both have shown glimpses of restored confidence this summer, but neither has dialed in enough to get past the fourth round. I like Stosur, bad arm and all, to keep her fine season alive and reach the quarters over Dementieva, who at 28 seems a bit depleted and hasn’t found her form since her calf injury at Roland Garros.
The fifth-seeded Australian won’t have enough to get past Clijsters, however, who has always excelled on U.S. hardcourts and has too much power and athleticism.

That’s basically the same formula – great defense, opportune offense, dictating play from the baseline and solid serving – that will push the 27-year-old Belgian  past Pavlyuchenkova in the semis and Sharapova in the final for a third USO crown. What will Jada think this year?

Interesting first-round matchups:
1. Dinara Safina vs. No. 24 seed Daniela Hantuchova: Slovakia’s Hantuchova gets a second straight crack at Safina, who beat her in New Haven this week.
2. No. 11 Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Kimiko Date Krumm: Ageless Krumm is the kind of player that can cause big hitters like Sveta headaches.
3. Melanie Oudin vs. qualifier Olga Savchuk: Can last year’s Comeback Kid get off to a decent start? Oudin hasn’t won two matches in a row since April.
4. Vania King vs. Christina McHale: Two young Americans face off. 113th-ranked McHale, 18, is improving fast; King reached second round as a 16-year-old qualifier in 2005 and the third round a year ago.

Former No. 1s Forge Paths Back

By Friday’s quarterfinals, only one of the three former No.1s in the draw at the Bank of the West was still alive. So what do we make of Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova more than halfway through the 2010 season?

Let’s start with Safina. After holding the top ranking for much of 2009, the powerful Russian has failed to go past the quarterfinals at any event in 2010 and owns a sad looking 5-8 record this season (including a second consecutive defeat to 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm in her opener at Stanford).

Safina, who has fallen to No. 35 and is sure to fall further, is a realist and a hard worker. As she told after her loss Monday night, “Players aren’t afraid of me anymore. Now I have to earn their respect back.” Both of those qualities could help the Russian return to the top 10. But my guess is that the big-boned Muscovite will struggle to make it back to elite status.

At 24, Safina is still young enough to make a comeback (or two or three – this is the WTA after all). But back injuries – she has a lumbar spine injury -- seldom disappear for good. And let’s be frank: She rose to the top of the rankings without a major title and in talent vacuum that had sucked both Belgians and Sharapova out of the game. How much of her problems are physical and how much are psychological is tough to say. Safina says it’s more of the former.

“I had one week off completely where I couldn’t even walk,” she said. “Then I went to Argentina for three weeks to do rehab. I had inflammation again and started to work on my core and it wasn’t easy. It was two hours of stretching and working on my abs. It was tough.”

Her summer schedule is packed, including stops at San Diego, Cincinnati, Montreal, possibly New Haven and the U.S. Open. If her back has been that bad, can she hold up? “I’m doing that because I’ve played nothing this year,” she said. “Now it’s a new time for me. I’m playing well but you need a breakthrough and in many matches I’m playing, I'm just not closing them up. I’m playing better and trying to win matches, but I need to start to cruise and I’m not there yet.”

Interestingly, her older brother Marat Safin told me at Wimbledon that Safina should step away from the game for a few months to let her mind and body heal. “I think she needs six months off and then come back, not play two weeks here and two weeks there and get injured,” the two-time major winner said.

Another question is whether she can get her emotional mind back in a winning groove. She admits she was in a kind of zone when she climbed to No.1 and consistently dictated from the backcourt. “I was winning, but some of the matches I was lucky winning,” she said of her pre-tailspin form. “The same way now where I’m up and I lose, then I was down and I would pull them out. That’s confidence, knowing how to close and player having the right respect for me.”

True to form, she won’t throw in the towel. “I working hard and I'm not giving up,” said Safina, who has been working on an interim basis with Argentine Gaston Etlis after splitting with longtime coach Zelko Krajan. “I’m on tour and I want to win something. It’s a pity I came back injured and that I re-injured myself again. But people are starting to lose respect for me so I have to earn the respect back. What brought me to No.1 is the mentality of working hard and never giving up. And I’m not going to change as long as I’m healthy.”

Ivanovic is still a shadow of her 2008 self, when she won the French Open and briefly alighted at No.1. I’d be shocked if she ever approached the top ranking again despite her tender 22 years. But I give her more of a chance than Safina to turn it around and challenge for majors – but an outside chance at that.

AI has had some good results this year, notably a run to the semis in Rome with wins over Victoria Azarenka, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova. She reversed a crushing defeat to Alisa Kleybanova in Paris at the Bank of the West earlier this week and played solid in a straight-set second-round loss to Marion Bartoli. But it’s evident in her matches that the Serb has not re-mastered the elements that made her formidable: a consistently dictating forehand, above-average backhand, solid serving and decent defense. There are glimpses, but her overall play remains patchy.

The upside is that Ivanovic clearly loves the game and is not afraid to keep trying. She desperately wants to be good. “I feel like I got the joy back like when I was 16 or 17 rather than feeling like I have so much pressure on me,” she said in a post-match press conference at Stanford. “I still think I’m very young. It all comes down to pressure because regardless of my ranking I still have a lot of expectations of myself.”

The Serb remains upbeat about her prospects and is not delusional about how far she has to climb back after falling outside the top-60. She’s jettisoned tinkering with her strokes (the serve, though, needs major work) and is getting more comfortable with coach Heinz Gunhardt. She says she feels quicker after working with her new trainer, Marija Lojanica, who also trains the Serbian Fed Cup team. And she is slowly restoring her shattered confidence after a year and a half of inexplicable decline. That means learning to manage her emotions.

“We talk a lot about approach and preparation and Steffi was also an emotional player like I am and was also nervous before matches and everyone goes through that,” Ivanovic said of her discussions with Gunhardt, Steffi Graf’s former mentor. Like Graf, Ivanovic should start to see the court as a refuge from whatever demons have plagued her. Better results will follow.

Sharapova holds the brightest prospects for a return the Grand Slam winner’s circle. She took more steps this week by beating back Elena Dementieva in three sets and coming back against Agnieska Radwanska 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 Saturday to reach the Bank of the West final. The No. 5 seed faces eighth-seeded Azarenka today.

This is the level of tournament Sharapova needs to start winning if she expects to gear up for a big run at a major later this summer in New York or next year. Though she pushed Justine Henin at Roland Garros and Serena Williams at Wimbledon and owns two Tier III titles at Memphis and Strasbourg this year, quality wins have been few and far between for the 23-year-old Russian. Consider that before she bested Jie Zheng in the opening round at Stanford she had yet to beat a top-25 player in 2010.

The former No. 1 will never settle for mediocrity, much less second best. As she said in one of her post-match pressers: “I could have done better and I've had my fair share of opportunities, but that's the past. My mentality is to keep fighting, getting the most out of my matches and work myself toward the US Open.”

On the court, three-time major winner Sharapova is gaining momentum. With her shoulder injury behind her, the Bollettieri-trained Siberian has returned to her old motion. The power is coming back, but she will have to serve big and more consistently if she wants to add a fourth Slam to her resume. Movement and net play will never be her strong suit, but she is stepping into her returns to put pressure on her opponents’ serves and her will to win is undiminished. The only question is patience. How long she will suffer second- and third-tier victories and exits in the first week of majors before the fierce competitor decides it’s not worth it? A steady boyfriend, along with her already outsize fame and fortune, could complicate matters.

“I worked on patience so long during the injury and obviously wanted good results and wanted to go far in the Slams and this year it hasn’t happened. But that the way it is and I’m not going to quit because I didn't,” she said. “I was No. 1 in the summer I got injured and had just won a Slam (the ’08 Australian Open) and little do you know, I’m out of game next nine moths. I’m not one to sit and say what could have been and I’ve said this from day one that I’m just really fortunate to have come back.” I’m expecting big things from Sharapova in the months ahead, including a victory at the Bank of the West today.

Fan Blogs
I’ve been watching the behavior and reading some of the tennis fan blogs at the Bank of the West. They both inspire and irk. On the one hand, I’m thrilled when tennis gets ink, cyber or otherwise. The sport needs passionate followers. More power to them if they take the time to promote the game – usually at their own expense -- through biting, funny, insidery and often insightful discussions.

What I dislike is the backseat, snarky commentary from folks who rarely step up to ask a question or do any actual interactive reporting. I found it kind of amazing, too, when one fan blogger down at Stanford would have the gall to A) to write to me privately for advice a few months back; fail to acknowledge themselves in any shape or form at a small press conference; and C) then backhandedly diss me and my colleague (after a sugar-coated compliment, of course) from that same press conference. Huh? Where’s the civility and respect? Perhaps I’m over-reacting, but I did find it all kind of disheartening and odd.

Wimbledon Picks

Wimbledon Predictions

Wimbledon appears slightly more open to me than in recent years on both the men’s and women’s sides. I would not be surprised if the tournament generates some unexpected results. The question is will anybody notice with most eyes on the World Cup? As usual, here are my picks and a quick look at how I see the draw unfolding.

Men's Singles:

Winner: Federer

Finalist: Nadal

It’s hard to bet against a six-time champion who hasn’t gone home before the finals since 2002. Roger Federer is always more dangerous on grass than any other surface, and the gap with his peers is a bit wider here than anywhere else. Wimbledon is the place he most reveres, the place that started his amazing haul of 16 majors. Still, there is trouble in the reign of Federer, who has played spotty tennis the last five months (I know, haven’t we doubted him before?). Except for his Australian Open title – his lone win in 2010 – he has been downright pedestrian this season. Still, I see him stepping it up again in London – and frankly, if he doesn’t turn it up a notch he could fall short of an eighth straight final at the All-England Club.

On to the draw. Federer is the top seed due to the Wimbledon seeding formula, though he ceded the top ranking to Rafael Nadal at the French Open. It should be pretty smooth sailing for the Swiss maestro until a possible third-round contest against a lefty -- either Spaniard Feliciano Lopez or Roland Garros semifinalist Jurgen Melzer. Federer should survive. I like big-swatting Tomas Berdych to advance against Federer in the quarterfinals, perhaps over No. 7 seed Nikolay Davydenko who is dangerous on any surface but is just coming back from a wrist injury. The No. 13 seeded Czech is unpredictable but he has the game for grass – punishing serve, flat strokes, first-strike capability off both wings. He should also be confident after his semifinal showing in Paris. He will push Federer, but the Swiss will have too many tricks up his sleeve and Berdych can be shaky in important matches.

The second quadrant is filled with talent – No. 3 Novak Djokovic, No. 12 Marin Cilic, No. 20 Gael Monfils, former champ Lleyton Hewitt, resurgent Ivan Ljubicic and of course, last year’s finalist Andy Roddick. Djokovic, despite his high ranking, has been a bit of a mystery this year, with disappointing results in the majors. He has grass court cred, including a semifinal showings in London three years ago, and he’s due to go deep in the second week at a Slam. He could have a tough second rounder versus Taylor Dent, but should be fairly safe until a tough fourth round against resurgent 2002 champ Hewitt, who topped Federer to win Halle last week. The Serb will prevail.

Fifth seed Roddick has a brutal draw, including a second round against Eastbourne winner Michael Llodra of France, and a fourth round against either Cilic, Ljubicic or Queens finalist Mardy Fish. I’m taking Cilic to advance. Roddick will have plenty of motivation to avenge his five-set loss to the Croat in Australia, but he will have to serve big to do it. He will, bombing Cilic and then riding that momentum past Djokovic in the last eight to meet Federer in the semifinals. As much as I’d like to see Roddick finally go on to win Wimbledon, by the time he reaches Federer he will be spent and unable to summon his best, which is what he needs to beat the Swiss on grass.

The top of the bottom half features perennial British hope Andy Murray, who has the easiest draw of the top four seeds. Like Djokovic, No. 4 Murray hasn’t lived up to his ranking, especially since reaching the final in Melbourne. His season is a string of perplexing results. Heading into 2010, the Scot seemed the most likely newcomer to snag a Slam, but now he needs a big result to stay in the conversation. It’s hard to say if last year’s semifinalist will surge or melt under the usual British scrutiny, but he has handled it well in years past. His toughest resistance will be “Suddenly” Sam Querrey in the fourth round, and I’m going out on an American limb and picking Querrey to upset Murray (let’s hope England isn’t out of the World Cup by then, or the desperate soul-searching will reach intolerable levels). I like No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to come out of his section over the higher seeded No. 8 Fernando Verdasco, who has never done much on grass. Tsonga, on the other hand, has a perfect game for turf and is ripe for a second week appearance. In the quarterfinals, Querrey will play the best match of his young career against the Frenchman and reach his first Grand Slam semifinal.
The bottom quarter is all about No. 2 seed Nadal. It won’t be an easy path for the Spaniard, who won here in 2008 and could not defend his title due to knee tendinitis in ‘09. Nadal has young Japanese Kei Nishikori in the first round and then could face the likes of veteran James Blake, dangerous John Isner and Swede Robin Soderling, who he beat in the Roland Garros final. I’ll take Nadal over all of them, including his no-love-lost opponent Soderling in the quarterfinals (remember their nasty rain-delayed contest here a few years back?). Nadal, whose knees will hold up well on the soft grass, will have too much big-match experience for Querrey and reach his fourth consecutive final (not including 2008 when he didn’t play). 

In the final, Nadal will be hungry to back up his reclaiming of the top ranking, but Federer, in perhaps his last big surge, will come up with the goods and tie Pete Sampras’ Open era record of seven Wimbledons (and extend his own major record to 17).

Some juicy first-round matches: Cilic vs. Florian Mayer; Fish vs. Bernard Tomic; Tsonga vs. Robert Kendrick; Isner vs. Nicolas Mahut.

Women's Singles:

Winner: Serena

Finalist: Henin

Serena has no equal on any surface other than clay when she’s healthy and hungry. The defending champ should be the player to beat after another disappointing Roland Garros. It won’t be a cakewalk. Serena’s quarter in the top half includes a likely date with 2004 champ Maria Sharapova, which should be a showstopper. I like last year’s semifinalist Li Na to meet Serena in the last eight from a section that features slumping Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 7 seed Aggie Radwanska. Serena will blow by Li, who can’t match her firepower. The bottom quarter is anyone’s guess. The top seed, No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki, is still a question mark with her bum ankle. Aravane Rezai, Jie Zheng and Sam Stosur are all capable of making the quarterfinals – and just as easily bowing out in the second round. I’m going with the hot Stosur, who showed in Paris she can be a world-beater. But Serena on grass? Not this time.

The top section of the bottom half is all about Belgium. Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Yanina Wickmayer are all in this section, though No. 4 Jelena Jankovic is the highest seed. No. 8 Clijsters and No. 17 Henin should face off in the fourth round, one of the juiciest matchups of the tournament. I like two-time Wimbledon finalist Henin to advance to the quarterfinals, where she will meet Jankovic. Henin will show the Serb that good offense beats good defense on grass.

Venus Williams always comes alive on grass, and this year should be no different. She will cruise to the last eight and meet former finalist Marion Bartoli, whose flat strokes can cause havoc on grass. Bartoli will have a tough test against French Open champ Francesca Schiavone in the fourth round, but will prevail only to be dusted by Venus. In the semis, Henin’s willingness to attack the net at key moments will be the key, and she will reach her third Wimbledon final over five-time champ Venus. In a repeat of the Australian Open final, Serena will be pushed to three sets but will come up with the big serves – and fighting spirit – for a fourth Wimbledon and 13th major.

First-round match-ups worth checking out: Serena vs. Larcher de Brito, A.K.A. the “vuvuzela” special; Kuznetsova vs. Amanmuradova; Azarenka vs. Lucic; Wickmayer vs. Riske.

Clijsers Breaks Down Sharapova-Henin

I had the chance to interview Kim Clijsters by phone in Belgium this morning for an upcoming magazine article so I picked her brain a bit on the popcorn women’s match of the day: Justine Henin vs. Maria Sharapova. “That’s the one I’d like to watch,” agreed Clijsters, a two-time French Open finalist who is out nursing a muscle tear in her left foot sustained last month in Fed Cup. Unlike many players these days, Kind Kimmie was willing to offer some views on the highly anticipated contest.

First a few facts: Henin, 27, leads the head-to-head of the two former No. 1s 6-3, but Sharapova won their last meeting, blitzing the then-wavering Henin 6-4, 6-0 in the 2008 Australian Open quarterfinals. Four months later, Henin would retire. The four-time French Open winner got the best of Sharapova, 23, in their only meeting at Roland Garros in the last eight in 2005 and is 2-0 on dirt against her.

Clijsters, who told me she planned to hit today for just the second time since the injury (she hit once and the injury flared up, so she backed off), is leaning towards Henin. “I think Justine on clay is a little bit too tricky for Maria,” she said, praising her fellow Belgian’s ability to retrieve balls, mix spins and take Sharapova out of her rhythm. “On clay she cannot retrieve so many balls,” she said of Sharapova. “Maria is not the most handy player when it comes to putting spin on the ball or slicing balls back.” The two-time U.S. Open champ said Sharapova’s best hope is to dictate early in rallies and attack serves. “If Maria is ready to go and is sharp and gets a good look at the returns, she can be really dominant. A lot of it will depend on how Maria plays.” 


Tenth-ranked Clijsters, who beat Henin twice on hard courts in two meetings this year, has noticed Henin’s more aggressive style. “She is a lot more powerful and takes a lot more risk,” says Clijsters, who turns 27 on June 8. “That’s something that I’ve noticed in playing against her a couple times. She really goes for a lot more from the return onwards. Takes a lot of risks with her serve too. She gets a lot more free points as well.” 

So who is she going with to take home the hardware? Clijsters is leaning towards Henin to win the whole tournament, especially because it means so much to her. “Her connection to the French Open will automatically bring that focus more easy than, say, at the U.S. Open,” says Clijsters. “That is definitely an advantage for her.” The Belgian hedged a bit and said there are a number of names that could prevail. “To me Venus and Serena in any Grand Slam are up there, though Venus not as much at the French as at Wimbledon.”  Clijsters also mentioned Jelena Jankovic and Sam Stosur. 

“A few names have caught my eye in the last few weeks, including (Aravane) Rezai,” she added of the surprise Madrid champion. “She’s a player, too, that in the past, I’ve seen her beat good players but not through a whole tournament…She looks fitter than in the past. That’s a big difference for her game because she has always been able hit the ball really hard but a lot of times without control. When she had to step out wide she had to go for it because she couldn’t do anything else. She can retrieve more balls and hang in there more.”

Also, in case you missed this doubles story on Bopanna-Qureshi from Friday, here’s the link.

Rafa's Achilles' heel -- the Knees

My Nadal cover story on Friday in USA Today in case you missed it.

Roland Garros Predictions

Following a tradition I started with the blog, I will pick the winner and finalist for Roland Garros and then sit back and let the embarrassment ensue. I will also take a quick look at how I see the draw unfolding.

Men's Singles:

Winner: Nadal

Finalist: Federer

Pick against Rafael Nadal, who appears healthy and hungry and just about unbeatable? Folly. This is the only “duh” aspect of the entire tournament, especially with title contenders Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko out of the action with injuries. Not that the No. 2 Spaniard has an easy ticket to the final. But first, the top half of the draw.

Defending champ Roger Federer has a brutal section, with possible meetings with either 2008 semifinalist Gael Monfils or fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round and Marin Cilic or Nadal-beater Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals. Though all dangerous, none of those four has been particularly impressive or consistent this spring, which is why I like Federer to reach the last four and take on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

My upset special in the first round is Richard Gasquet over Andy Murray, who is competent on clay but has kind of lost his way and his swagger since Australia. There are some other excellent dirtballers in the second quarter – Mikail Youzhny, Tommy Robredo, Paul-Henri Mathieu and Gasquet among them, but I going with Tsonga, who is due for a big result even if clay can take the patience out of his big game. In the semis, a roughed up but resilient Federer will school Tsonga and reach his fifth Roland Garros final in a row.

The top of the bottom half is also packed with quality claycourters such as Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer, and the top seed in the quadrant, No. 3. Novak Djokovic. No. 6 Andy Roddick, the USA’s best hope, has a tough road, and if he survives Eduardo Schwank in round two and Juan Monaco in round three, I don’t see him boxing his way through Ferrer, who had had one of the best springs on clay and is back in top-10 form. But I’m going with Djokovic to find his way into a third RG semifinal. The Serb will have to suck it up after a lackluster campaign on dirt, but he has the talent, pedigree and, when he is in the right frame of mind, the fight to some day win in Paris.

But reaching the semifinals is no picnic when Nadal is across the net. Nadal, 49-1 in best-of-five set matches has too much stamina, spin, mental toughness and now confidence to go down to anyone early. He has some obstacles – wily veteran Lleyton Hewitt in the third round, resurgent Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth and a potential clash with fellow Spaniard and No. 7 Fernando Verdasco in the last eight. They might push Nadal – or maybe not – but he won’t bend. In the semis, Djokovic will not have the game plan or enough big match play under his belt to bother Nadal, who will cruise into his fifth final in six years. Nothing I’ve seen with Federer tells me he’s solved the Nadal riddle. The Spaniard will continue his domination of the Swiss on clay and walk away with his fifth Coupe des Mousquetaires while continuing his Borg-ian march on claycourt history.

Some interesting first-round matchups beyond Gasquet-Murray include Sam Querrey vs. Robby Ginepri, Julien Benneteau and Ernests Gulbis, Roddick vs. Jarkko Nieminen and Verdasco vs. Igor Kunitsin.

Women's Singles:

Winner: Henin

Finalist: Rezai

The top half of the women’s draw is by far the tougher section, with the first quarter loaded with talent. 2002 winner Serena Williams, if she is to complete the second leg of a calendar-year Slam, has her work cut out. While she may rise to the occasion, I like four-time champ Justine Henin to dust off her clay credentials and make a big run in Paris. She’s going to have to get by the big-hitting Maria Sharapova in the third round, who just won her second title on dirt. And then possible last year’s surprise semifinalist Sam Stosur, who has backed up her run with a fine clay season. Then it’s another clash with Serena, who took Henin out in the Melbourne final. Although the 22nd seeded Belgian has been hot and cold this spring – winning Strasbourg, losing in the first round at Madrid – I give her the edge because of her movement on clay. She’s simply the best. So she will eek past Serena in what should be the tournament’s best quarterfinal.

I like No. 4 Jelena Jankovic from the second quadrant, which features Yanina Wickmayer, last year’s finalist Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva, No. 8 Aggie Radwanska and 2008 winner Ana Ivanovic, who is unseeded. Jankovic is the most complete player on dirt in this group. She’ll probably struggle along the way or have a lapse or two, but the Serbian desperately wants to prove she belongs in the title conversation. She’ll push Henin in the semis, but the Belgian has too much power and repertoire and will prevail.

I have little faith in the big names in the bottom half of the draw. My upset special for round one is Sorana Cirstea of defending champ Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has a losing record this year. The highest seed in the third quadrant, No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki, has been playing on a bum ankle for weeks and has barely won any matches. I’m tipping Na Li of China to emerge from this quarter, but it would not surprise me to see someone like Maria Kirilenko or Flavia Pennetta come through. 

I’m going out on a limb with Aravane Rezai in the last quarter. Though Venus has shown flashes of the player who reached the RG final eight years ago, she has done little in Paris since and I find her game too inconsistent on clay. Rezai will take her out in the fourth round, if the second-seeded American survives Nadia Petrova in the third. The Frenchwoman will power past Elena Dementieva in the quarters to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal and then, riding a wave of French support, blow into the final. But it will end there with Henin, who after her loss to Rezai at Madrid will have learned her lesson. Henin has the experience and variety and will make mince meat of Rezai this time around for a fifth French Open championship.

Some first-round matches to watch include Alize Cornet vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Safina vs. Kimiko Date Krumm and Venus Williams vs. Patty Schnyder.

Meet Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez

Until now, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez might be best known to U.S. tennis fans for either her multisyllabic name or the ire she aroused in Serena Williams at last year’s French Open. In the third-round match, the Spaniard declined to own up to a body-directed passing shot that appeared to glance off her wrist for a winner. Serena argued with the umpire and was overheard by courtside mikes saying: “I’m gonna get you in the locker room. You don’t know me.” She added while sitting at the changeover, “She’d better not come to the net again.”

After winning the prestigious Orange Bowl in 1999, the 33rd-ranked Martinez has cobbled together an unremarkable career. In 2008, she finished in the top 100 for just the second time in a decade. But last year, at 27, she had a breakthrough season, winning her first WTA Tour titles at Bogota and Bastad and finishing the season at No. 30. In January, she climbed to a career-high No. 25.

Here in the desert, the Barcelona-based player has turned up the heat, with back-to-back wins over quality players. She took out No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 7-5 in the third round and last year’s U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer 7-6, 6-2 in the last 16. Today, she faces Samantha Stosur for a shot at her first Premier-level tournament semifinal. She is 1-1 in meetings with the 11th-ranked Australian, beating her last year in Bali but falling to her in three sets last month in Fed Cup. Both were on hard courts.

What’s most interesting about Martinez, a soft-spoken and genial sort, is not her backstory but her game. Among the bevy of baseline metronomes in women’s tennis, Martinez stands out. For one, she serves and volleys – often, and sometimes on second serves. She can create quirky angles, attacks the net from either wing and is a counnoisour of the drop shot from any position (sometimes ill-advised). A southpaw, she loves to slice her serve wide to the ad court and has creative hands at the net. She hits her backhand volley with one or two hands, depending on the situation. A classic disrupter, she gave the temperamental Wickmayer fits in their contest two days ago.
Her style reminds me of another great confounder/attacker of another era – American John McEnroe. (She even leans on her back foot while serving a bit like Johnny Mac). Martinez told me that’s a comparison she hasn’t heard before and that her idols growing up were Steffi Graf and, not remarkably, left-handed net charger Martina Navratilova.

Martinez is the first to admit that she’s a anomaly, not only in women’s tennis but from her native Spain. “It’s a different game, I know,” she laughed. “It’s not a typical Spanish style.” From the age of 7, she says she liked being around the net, even if it wasn’t easy. Part masochist, part iconoclast, Martinez says: “I like when the game is difficult and I like to do things different.” Surprisingly, her coaches didn’t discourage her attacking style. They told her: “You have to come to the net because you are better when you do this,” she said. “It’s not normal. If you are good at it you have to do it.”

Like many net rushers/attackers, Martinez has had to learn how to organizer her game, and that takes time. “I think it is more difficult because you have to be more trusting,” Martinez told me in her imperfect English. “Attacking is more difficult than staying on the baseline. In her late twenties, she is coming into her own, later than most players mature, but not so late that she can’t think about breaking into the top 20, though she doesn’t like to set ranking-based goals. Her best results have been on clay -- at least that conforms to her Spanish heritage – but she says she is equally fond of cement and grass.

Befitting her journeywoman status, Martinez has reached the third round at every major, but advanced no further. In fact, her best results have come in doubles, which is no surprise considering her eye for angles and slicing left-handed delivery. Martínez owns 12 WTA Tour doubles crowns, including last year’s year-end championships with Nuria Llagostera Vives. Martinez and Vives upset Serena and Venus Williams on their way the title. If she gets past Stosur or goes further here, Martinez could have herself a statement tournament and would break into the top 25. “I think that I’m playing my best tennis now,” she said. “I am still alive and I have nothing to lose.”

Snow Dogs Meets Cool Runnings: The Story of Jamaican Musher Newton Marshall

You won’t find Newton Marshall among the Iditarod leaders charging towards Nome in what is shaping up as another classic finish. But his story is as compelling as any of the 71 mushers who started the 38th edition of the so-called Last Great Race on March 6. Marshall, 27, is aiming to become the first Jamaican or Caribbean national to complete the 1,049-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. He would be just the third black musher to do so. The trip to Nome, however, pales beside the twisting journey Marshall took just to reach the starting line.

Marshall’s Iditarod mission is the brainchild of wealthy armchair adventurer Danny Melville. Melville owns a tour company in Jamaica and has been the visionary behind the Jamaican Dogsled Team, which is backed by, among others, singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett of “Margaritaville” fame. Melville has set his sights on mimicking the success of the Jamaican bobsled team, which first competed in the 1988 Calgary Olympics and brought unheralded media attention to the tiny Caribbean island.

Last month, I traveled up to Lance Mackey’s Comeback Kennel outside Fairbanks, Alaska, to learn about Marshall’s story first-hand.

                                                           The Road Leading to Mackey's Comeback Kennel

Marshall spent the winter training with legendary musher and three-time defending Iditarod champ Mackey, who is currently leading the Iditarod with about a third of the race to go (Mackey is also a two-time ESPN/ESPY “Toughest Athlete” nominee.) During my two days, I was able to watch Mackey and Marshall interact, conduct interviews and develop a more in-depth picture of Marshall’s extraordinary voyage from the impoverished St. Anne Parish in Jamaica to Alaska, where he is poised to become the next Jamaican sporting hero. 

In the post that follows, I’ve created a multimedia platform with text, pictures and video that describes some of his story, including interview clips from Marshall, Mackey, and Mackey's wife, Tonya. You also can follow Marshall and Mackey’s progress at and learn more about the team at

Marshall comes from a hardscrabble background. He grew up poor and uneducated. In fact, he was illiterate until just a few years ago. He spent his youth living on a “compound” with four sisters and various cousins. His parents split when he was young and he was mostly raised by his grandmother.

With little education, Marshall bounced between odd jobs. He ultimately landed a gig as a gardener at Melville’s Chukka Cove company and graduated to working with the tour company's horses.

                                                  Marshall with one of Mackey's Numerous House Pets

Most pets in Jamaica are treated as disposable objects or, in the case of dogs, cheap alarm systems. Cruelty is widespread. Strays are everywhere. Yet Marshall found a way to express his gentle spirit through animals. He described to me how as a boy his first contact with pets was a stray cat that used to climb through a broken window in their house. It would enter and climb in bed with the four or five children sleeping together on one mattress. Marshall says it often snuggled up to his neck and kept him warm. He developed a sensibility for cats and later dogs, which helped when he began to work with the horses at Chukka Cove.

I’ve heard some people call him a “dog whisperer.” Mackey’s wife, Tonya, noticed his special affinity to animals, too.

Marshall’s skills didn’t go unnoticed at Chukka Cove. Soon, he was taking care of the tour company’s assortment of rescued mutts, used for dry-land sled dog tours. The team’s motley crew of mixed breed dogs were found on the street or collected through animal prevention to cruelty programs. Even so, at first Marshall had trouble imagining what the sport was, much less that dogs were able to pull humans.

Before long, he was being groomed for Melville’s grand vision – running a sled dog team in the Iditarod. The first stop was a stint training on real snow in Minnesota. Marshall had no idea what cold was. He slipped on the ice. Others recall Marshall calling from Minnesota and wondering, ‘How come I need to pee so much?’ It never dawned on him that he wasn’t able to sweat as much when bundled up against the elements. And why should it when you’ve spent your life escaping heat rather than seeking it? Marshall told me what his first exposure to sub-zero temperatures were like, both in Minnesota and later in Yukon, Canada, where he trained last year.

There were other perks to working at Chukka Cove. Marshall’s family had so little money that they couldn’t afford books or clothes or lunch money to send him to school regularly. He never learned to read. He felt shame, but was determined to overcome it. At Chukka, he met a retired special education teacher from Michigan named Shelly Kennedy who spent winters in Jamaica and ran an ad hoc tutoring program on the company’s property. One day a shy kid with cherubic cheeks who looked far younger than his 18 years showed up. Marshall had heard about the American lady who could teach you to read. As soon as Kennedy gave him the green light, he couldn’t stay away from her classes. It wasn’t an easy trip – he had to walk, take buses, sometimes spend what little he had on a taxi or just hitch a ride. Sometimes he would show up at sunset as class was ending after finishing whatever job he was doing. Kennedy couldn’t let that kind of dedication go unrewarded. So she would stay in the dark with the kid holding a flashlight as they sounded out letters.  Soon Marshall was reading whole words, then sentences. He now reads at a fourth or fifth-grade level and it has helped open his world and give him confidence.

When Marshall came back from his first trip off the island to Minnesota – his first trip anywhere – Kennedy noticed he wasn’t as dedicated in class. He seemed a tad full of himself. With so little of the world at his disposal, the kid was already immature for his age. It was a dangerous mix, hubris and childishness, and it contributed to what happened next. No one knows for sure why he did it, not even Marshall himself.

One evening when the Kennedy’s were back in Michigan, Marshall took the keys to a car on the property and went joy riding with a buddy through town. That was bad enough. But the kid could barely drive and didn’t have a license. He ended up ramming the car into a ditch, totaling the front to the tune of $8,000 in damage. No one was hurt, but he was do terrified that he told the Kennedy’s that he and his friend had been hijacked by armed robbers and forced to drive. 

The lie quickly unraveled. Everyone around him – Melville, the Kennedys, other workers at Chukka Cover – was dismayed and disappointed. Marshall, who by then was living on the Kennedy’s property, was dismissed from their home and indefinitey suspended from Chukka Cove. Shelly Kennedy was upset but didn’t go ballistic. She had seen kids fall off and come back from her special ed days back in Michigan. Wasn’t it reminiscent of any number of teenagers doing something stupid? She wanted it to become a lesson so that Marshall could learn to be a better person.

Still, Marshall was despondent. He took a long walk along the coast and his friends and family thought intended to throw himself into the sea. He cried all the time, lost weight and barely functioned.

It was even worse when Marshall turned himself into the police after admitting his guilt for the accident. He got so emotional that the cops felt sorry for him and let him go.

He remained on the outside looking in. The job of training for the Jamaican Sleddog Team’s first big race – the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest – was given to another Chukka Cove worker. It stung. But over the next few weeks and months a contrite Marshall found the courage to call the Kennedy’s and apologize. He did the same to Melville and others at Chukka Cove, but all was not forgiven so easily. When the Kennedy’s returned in the fall, Marshall again apologized face-to-face and asked Kennedy if he could come back to class. Since she taught on Chukka Cove property, she wasn’t sure Melville would agree. He agreed that Marshall had learned his lesson and could continue, but there were conditions. Class was no longer free. Kennedy told Marshall he had to pay the storage fee for the damaged car, which amounted to about $5 per class.

A humbled Marshall became a dedicated student. He never missed class. He studied whenever possible. He also got back into the good graces of Melville. When Marshall’s replacement to run last year’s Yukon Quest had second thoughts and pulled out, Marshall got a second chance. He spent the winter training with Hans Gatt (who won a fourth Yukon title last month) and last year completed the grueling race from Yukon to Fairbanks, finishing a respectable 13th out of 29 mushers and winning the coveted Challenge of the North Award for best exemplifying the spirit of the Yukon Quest. It was a tough journey, not only because of uncompromising taskmaster Gatt but also due to the harsh conditions. Pushed to his limits, Marshall recalls experiencing hallucinations induced by the constant darkness and sleep deprivation during the Quest.

The Yukon Quest was only a warm-up act. Melville had bigger plans. So this year he sent Marshall up to Fairbanks to live and train with Mackey, the legendary musher, cancer survivor and all-around tough guy, to prepare for the much more competitive Iditarod. As Mackey explains, the Yukon Quest and Iditarod are roughly the same distance but two different animals. Before they left, he was confident Marshall would be able to finish.

During Marshall’s three months with Mackey, there were cultural differences to overcome. Mackey’s wife, Tonya, marveled at Marshall’s excitement when they gave him his first iPod. He was fascinated with the video game Wii (golf and bowling are his favorites). He struggled at times to manage basic tasks like ordering food at a restaurant. There were tough moments, and sometimes Mackey lost his temper.

Tonya often played peacemaker and eventually became a surrogate mother to Marshall, helping to ease the tension between demanding mentor and fraught mentee.

Even with his experience last year on the Yukon Quest, Marshall had much to learn. At 40, Mackey is also learning, because what you can pick up over the course of a day or a week or a winter takes a lifetime to master. Mackey’s mantra is patience. “It’s never the dogs’ fault,” he says. The musher always has final responsibility.

                                           Mackey Instructs Marshall Outside his Home in Fairbanks

Despite lives worlds apart, the two mushers bonded. Like Mackey, Newton is a survivor just to have emerged from his small parish of St. Anne. Both have humble beginnings and checkered pasts. Mackey had a wild youth, battled drugs and throat cancer before becoming the most dominant musher in the sport’s history. Marshall could not read and was headed for a life of menial jobs and nearly sabotaged his big chance with his wanton joy-ride that got him thrown off the Jamaican Dogsled Team.

The paralles created a bridge between them, even if they didn't discuss it at length. In a sense, both grew up leading lives like dogs on a musher's gangline – defined only by limits. It’s why Mackey recognizes that if Marshall can finish the Iditarod, it could change his life.

Marshall’s time with Mackey and his family wasn’t all frigid temperatures and scooping dog poop and learning the ropes of mushing. There was fun, too. 

Marshall was able to pal around with Mackey’s stepson, Cain Carter, and the two other handlers who help keep Mackey’s Comeback Kennel and its roughly 75 dogs humming. They went sledding together, traded musical tastes on their iPods and sometimes took turns showing off dancing moves. In this clip, Marshall dances at the small shack he shared with another handler on Mackey’s property.

                                                   The Toughest Job in Mushing: Picking up Poop

Some will probably call Mackey a mercenary and publicity seeker for agreeing to train Marshall. Like most things, he sees if differently. With the sport buffeted by financial woes this year, the sport needs all the help it can get.

Despite being 4,000 miles away from home, Marshall isn’t afraid to draw on his own traditions to help him reach his goal. That includes singing reggae and other Jamaican tunes to himself and his dogs on long runs, like this one here, which is one of his favorites.

Marshall told me that he cannot fail. He said that he feels the weight of his country on his shoulders as the most famous winter athlete from Jamaica since the bobsled team competed at the Olympics. He also feels great personal responsibility to Melville, his benefactor and employer. I asked Marshall, who dreams of making enough money in the Iditarod to buy a small home of his own in Jamaica, what compelled someone from the tropics to try to achieve something many who have grown up in cold climes and raced dogs never have. 

Marshall, wearing bib No. 14, is currently in 49th place out of the remaining 58 mushers heading to Nome. He is more than half-way through the race and has dropped just two of his 16 dogs.

                                                                         Marshall's Race Suit

                                                    Standing on Mackey's Deck overlooking his Kennel

Nalbandian Tries to Defy the Odds in Comeback from Hip Surgery

David Nalbandian will never win over fans with his personality. Disdainful of the media, surly with tour officials and opponents and seemingly indifferent to his public persona, the Argentine has no time for the image-making responsibilities that come with sports celebrity.

But the former Wimbledon finalist’s crafty, dogged style can be captivating, even beautiful. For opponents, it can be maddening. So while it might be a stretch to say he was missed in the locker rooms or press briefings, Nalbandian’s return in February following hip surgery is a notable addition to the start of the 2010 tennis season, the meat of which really begins here in the California desert. With the women’s tour oversaturated with comeback stories, Nalbandian is the most intriguing return-from-prominence narrative on the other side of the aisle (Mario Ancic is a close second).

Nalbandian faces a tough road. At 28, he is on the back end of his career. And few players have returned to their previous level after going under the knife to repair a damaged hip, as Nalbandian did last May. It brought down the career curtain on some big names, among them three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten and former No. 2 Magnus Norman. What’s more, Nalbandian is no stranger to physically taxing matches. A shotmaker hiding inside a grinder’s mentality, Nalbandian often seems to possess a masochistic streak, preferring to torture and frustrate his opponents before putting them out of their misery. We sometimes joke in the press room that a two-set deficit for Nalbandian is a sign he’s done warming up.

Whatever his shortcomings, Nalbandian has always been a big tournament player. I use that phrase to distinguish him from being a big-match player, which, he has demonstrated on numerous occasions, he is not. Check the stats. Despite his all-surface talents, the Argentine has never won more than two titles in any season, and owns just 10 in a decade-long career. On the other hand, he has captured the season-ending Masters Cup and is one of only four active players along with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic with an appearance in the semifinals of all four majors.

In the players’ lounge Friday, the former No. 3 said it was too early to predict whether he could recapture the form that made him a deep threat in any tournament with mega prize money or best-of-five sets. His immediate goal is matches. “First of all, I want to be on court again and try to play healthy a few tournaments,” a surprisingly pleasant Nalbandian said after beating Stefan Koubek of Austria 6-2, 7-6 (2) to move into the second round. Sunday, he goes up against streaky No. 22 seed Jurgen Melzer, also of Austria. With a few tournaments under his belt, he added, he could better assess where his game is. “I think they can be high goals,” he said, “but I don’t know if I am 100%, 90% or 75%. I have to play a few tournaments to see how good I am.”

Nalbandian’s on-court ethic rarely has been in question. Off-court, there have been rumors and reports of life in the fast lane, both figuratively and literally (he is a big fan of race car driving). Nalbandian insisted he dedicated himself to his recovery all last year, working hard five days a week and only taking time to pursue his hobbies like fishing and speedy driving on weekends. He also hung out with his extended family at his home of Cordoba for the first time in years. “It was the most time I spent there since I was 12-13,” he says.

His recovery still took longer than anticipated. Nalbandian, who is ranked No. 139 but has a protected ranking, hoped to return in January at Auckland and then play at the Australian Open. He had to pull out, and then suffered another setback at his return in February on clay at Buenos Aires. He won his first two matches and then withdrew due to an abductor tear in his right leg. It left him wondering if he had come back too soon. “It was a long time out of the circuit,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent happy with the beginning of the year.”

That didn’t dissuade him from traveling to Sweden for his country’s first-round Davis Cup tie this month. Despite his backup role, Nalbandian played the hero in his first Davis Cup match since the ugly infighting during the team’s tense loss to Spain in the 2008 final. He bested Andreas Vinciguerra 7-5 6-3 4-6 6-4 in the decisive fifth rubber for 3-2 win in Stockholm.

Nalbandian admits it was “a lot of risk to play there.” But it was the kind of lift he needed, even if he has arrived at Indian Wells drained. “It was good for the mind, for the confidence….I’m a little bit tired, but it feels good.” He adds: “I think the people know I love Davis Cup.”

If Nalbandian can’t compete in the big events, will he hang it up? It’s hard to see a player with nearly $10 million in earnings that performs best at significant tournaments satisfied with a top-50 ranking and first-week exits at Slams. But he said that would not necessarily drive him from the tour. If he can’t be an elite player again, he said he would reassess -- “try new goals,” in his words. Then he smiled, his crystal blue eyes beaming. “It can be,” he said of attaining his former place in the sport.