I went to watch Mario Ancic's match with Nicolas Almagro yesterday because Ancic can be a contender here - a real contender - and how he fared against Almagro was always going to be a good indicator of what shape he's in. It was an instructive match, highlighting the 22-year-old Croat's strengths, and a few points he'll need to bear in mind if he wants to triumph.
The bare facts of the match are that he won 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 to extend his winning streak on grass to six matches. He won five on the surface last week to win the title at the Ordina Open in 's-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. That still leaves him way behind the all-time record streak of Roger Federer on grass - 42 matches - that Federer sealed yesterday.
But a run is a run, and Ancic, of course, was the last man to beat Federer on grass, way back in the first round here in 2002. Ancic won that one in straight sets, as he did yesterday, when his task was far from simple. Almagro, a powerful, talented Spaniard, is one hell of a player, and he went for broke yesterday with some ripping forehands and some great, powerful serving, which reached 136mph with one searing ace. But not only did Ancic withstand the challenge, he also overcame a fall, which hurt him, and then also needed medical intervention but came through. He was given a pill, for what I'm not sure, but obviously he wasn't feeling his best. That he still won, and in straight sets, was a big plus.
Why could he be a genuine contender? Because he has a big all-round game and is one of the very few men on the tour who have any claim to being a serve and volleyer in the truest sense. He plays this game well, because he's got big first and second serves, and he's one of the best volleyers in the world (though he won't be able to keep playing half-volleys, like he did yesterday, as the grass becomes less clean later in the tournament). He returns serve very well from both sides, and he's got a super double-handed backhand. His forehands are very flat but he's also able to put heavy spin on the ball.
A few moments from the first set illustrate why Ancic can be a danger to anyone. At 5-5, and serving, he seemed to get a little frustrated with himself for a temporary blip in his first-serve consistency. This didn't affect him as much as it would other players because his second serve is so good, it can be unplayable, as the first point in that game showed. But frustrated he was. He hit one ball into a fence in frustration, but deliberately, to release the steam. He knew he'd got himself wound up, but he let it out, in a controlled way, and won that key game. The tie-break, won with excellent variety - and power - in his serves, aces, and some key volleying, was a perfect example of his major weapons at their best.
E-mail me and win a scholarship
I'm offering a one-month scholarship at my academy in America to the sender of what I judge to be the best e-mail sent to me during the tournament.
Just tell me: how can I help you, and why? Explain to me why you (or your son or daughter) would benefit from a month's tuition in Florida. The scholarship is only available to Under-18s.
Children can e-mail me themselves, or parents on their behalf. Each e-mail should also ask one question you'd like me to answer. I'll answer as many of your questions as I can, and at the end of the event one young hopeful will be heading for Florida.
I look forward to hearing from you. Today's question came from Tom James of London, who e-mailed to ask for my view on the prize-money debate. Should women play the best of five sets to get equal prize-money.
In short, no. The issue is not match duration, but the quality of what's provided for the fans. The women's game provides as much as the men's. Equal pay? It's a no-brainer. Yes, yes, yes.
LTA heading in right direction
I had a long, constructive meeting with the Lawn Tennis Association's chief executive, Roger Draper, yesterday morning to explore how I might be able to help British tennis.
He had invited me to share my experience in developing numerous champions over many years, and I found him to be enthusiastic and receptive. I have invited Roger to come to Florida and see for himself how my academy works and he has accepted this invitation. I'll keep you posted on developments, but it must be hoped that my team and I, with vast experience, can help British tennis in the future.
Staying on the subject of Roger, he talked yesterday about the LTA underwriting a package for Brad Gilbert to become Andy Murray's new coach. I don't know whether this will happen. It would be great - Brad would be a superb appointment. But he'll have to leave a lot behind to do the job, something he'll weigh up carefully. The key issue is that the LTA are willing to help out. That shows they'll do what they can to get the best for their top players. That can only be a positive.
Venus Williams starts the defence of her title today. I think she'll move through in two sets against a younger, vastly less experienced opponent who is making her debut in the senior event here. But even while we anticipate a one-sided match, Venus demands our interest for various reasons. She is a classy lady, always pleasing to watch, and despite her height and power, she blesses the court with the grace of a ballerina.
Her major strengths are her ability to control play, her big serve (but it's got to be "on", it does sometimes falter), and her skill at the net. Her terrific wingspan helps her there. So what we're looking for today are signs that Venus is fit, in form, and capable of winning the title. She's not here for the strawberries and cream. She's here to win.
This, of course, hands Bethanie Mattek the chance to make a massive name for herself if the unthinkable happened and she actually won. I don't expect that, but when you're knocking on the door of the world's top 100 for the first time in your life and you get an opportunity on the greatest stage to face one of the greatest players, it can be some inspiration.
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