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Would You Rather? Tennis Edition

Joe Shults and Jonathon Braden battled on the tennis court for many years in Columbia, Mo. Just ask someone in the home of the Missouri Tigers, surely they all remember. (Actually, don’t ask.) Now they take their tennis battles here in the first of an ongoing series on JonathonBraden.com. We ask a question, we pick sides and we debate our point, all in the name of tennis.

Q: Would you rather have the talent of a top player for a year, competing at the highest level, winning major tournaments and acquiring fame and fortune, only to have the talent “turned off” after a year, or be a journeyman player; one who never wins a major and cracks the top 35, but has a 15-year career, celebrates longevity and becomes one of the most consistent players on tour?

STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS Murray-esque talent for a year?

Top player for a year:

A: Think back, if you can, to your childhood; to the time you spent hitting ball after dirty ball against a wall, or to when you and your buddy from down the street rode to the park and pretended you were pros. Got it in your mind? Good. Now this:

What were you doing and thinking about while you played in your youth? Was it grinding out a qualifying tournament win in Tashkent, only to get beaten in the first round of the main draw in front of 55 Uzbeks and four goats? Did you then, in your dreams, catch a plane for Johannesburg or some other far-flung locale to do the whole thing over again — for 15 years?

The answer to all of these is, of course, no.

When you were a wee lad, you pretended that you were locked in a battle on Centre Court at Wimbledon. The match went back and forth. Match points were saved, the server came up with opportune aces and pinpoint passing shots were struck. The crowd went WILD! You held the golden trophy high above your head while the Duke of Kent joined with the lower classes in chanting your name.

Wouldn’t you want to see the realization of our dreams, even if that realization is but a fleeting moment. Wouldn’t you want have just a taste of glory, instead of a full stomach of mediocrity?

Consider the practical point related to what makes the world go ’round: money. Novak Djokovic had a nearly unequalled season in 2011, winning 10 tournaments, including three grand slam tournaments. The compensation for Mr. Djokovic’s toil? $12 million in prize money. Of course, that’s eclipsed by endorsement deals, exhibition payments and appearance fees. As of this writing, Djokovic has earned nearly $7.5 million in 2012. What can you do with $19.5 million? If you’re not, I don’t know, a complete fool, you can live the rest of your life in luxury. Italian Filippo Volandri, currently ranked No. 75 in the world, has made $315,873 in 2012. Nothing to sneeze at, no doubt, but take into account travel and expenses, and it’s nothing close to an amount that sets you up for the rest of your life.

I would choose to be the best at something, even if I’m the best for only two years. I would choose to run like the wind, to be able to hit any shot from anywhere on the court, to outwit my opponent and to taste adulation, fame and fortune the world over.

I think I’d owe it to my 10-year-old self.

- Joe Shults

 

Mikhail Youzhny, photo by Jason Szenes/European Pressphoto Agency

Top 35 career:

Who do you admire the most, Gaston Gaudio, 2004 French Open champion, or Mikhail Youzhny, currently ranked No. 25 and has been on the ATP Tour since 1998? (Gaston who?) Your answer to this question tells you everything about how we view tennis players in the Open era.  Think about it: What do we admire most about Roger Federer, about Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick or any of the top players?  Yes, their flashy points, their “Was that real?” shots and their laughable serves miles out of reach from their opponents.

But, more than those, more than their skills, we admire their endurance, their consistency, their ability to grind out matches every few weeks. The tennis season is like no other, with a year-round calendar and few guaranteed breaks. These players grind away for two weeks at a major, take a break, play a tournament and have to again play their best in another major championship.

The hallmark of a great tennis life is not stringing together a few good tournaments, winning a big match here and there and sneaking a major out during a down time of tennis. The seal of a Hall of Fame tennis career is consistency, being on the service line match after match, competing for championship after championship and depositing your body on the court every tournament. And so what if you don’t break through and win a major, do you realize how many stellar tennis players DO NOT win a major? How nearly impossible it is to win a major statistically speaking, especially these days when you only people with the first names Novak, Rafa, Roger and Andy can have a shot?

No, you do not want to be a Gaston Gaudio, someone who had a good run on red clay but is barely a footnote in tennis history. You want a career, not a fun vacation. Besides, go ahead and win a few tournaments one year and go away. How many fans and sportswriters won’t wonder aloud, Hmm, how did he win so much so fast? The rumblings will only grow louder when this mystery performer never wins again. All credibility from the hot streak disappears without the consistency we have come to expect from the top performers.

In 2012, we do not judge a player by a hot tournament, by a nice run in one of four tournaments. You want much more than a lucky streak, and so would I. I would want a career. I would want to be in the top 20, experience what the best of the best go through and endure a tennis life.

So, if I had to pick, I would gladly answer to Mr. Youhzny.

- Jonathon Braden

Five years later, running a marathon

Jonathon Braden running the 2012 Omaha Marathon, about mile 14. JAMES R. BURNETT/THE OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

“Meskha, it can’t be.”

Forty minutes had elapsed since my 5 a.m. alarm. The sky was dark. The air brisk, almost freezing. Gusts passed through the open windows of my apartment.

It was 5:41 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23. Omaha Marathon day.

My mother couldn’t believe it, and I could barely myself.

Five years earlier, I had also attempted what tens of thousands of people do every year: dedicate four months of their lives to training for a 26.2 mile race. I was in my fourth year of college and lived in Columbia, Mo., a gorgeous town with a moderate climate and an expansive system of gravel and concrete trails: the perfect place to train for a marathon, I thought.

I built my way up to running 15 miles, only to experience some pain in my left leg, and eventually used that injury and the demands of college — partying, studying — as a good excuse to stop running so many miles.

My inexperience had sabotaged my efforts. When I signed up for the 2007 Kansas City Marathon, I wasn’t running much and mostly wanted to lose weight. I remember initially jogging three miles and feeling out of breath.

What a different feeling this will be in a few months, I thought.

Two years ago, when I moved to Omaha, finishing a marathon had essentially become an official lifetime goal.
I trained and ran two half marathons using a formal schedule, and I hated and liked the discipline that a schedule forced upon me: Staying in Friday nights to run 12 miles Saturday morning, getting up early before work to run five miles because I knew I wouldn’t run after work.
Because of a solid running base, the idea of doing a marathon wasn’t daunting this time around. No, it was something I was fairly certain I could complete.
I finished training with the regular pain and dreadful thoughts, and the weekend of the marathon, I surprised myself by being very excited, even eager.
On Saturday night, I giddily and cautiously consumed my salad and pasta, careful not to overeat but also not to walk away hungry.

Sunday morning, per Hal Higdon’s recommendations, I warmed up some oatmeal, had a banana and drank a glass of water.

At the race, the democratic nature of running stood out more than the 35-degree temperatures. Everyone runs races. Elderly women. Ultra-fit men. Fit young ladies, out of shape former football players. And their reasons are all so personal: running for a lost loved one, a deceased partner, because someone else can’t. I had no inspiring tale that spurred me to run, save for the fact that I wanted to show myself I could do it, and my uncle said I should do it now, at the age of 26, if I wanted to finish under four hours.

The first half flew by, just as a good friend suggested it would. My parents yelled at mile 1 and 6. I ran with a co-worker from mile 1 to 13. He veered right; I stayed the course and saw more than half the pack bail. The good chatter began as the focus shifted to the reason we got up at 5 a.m.

“What are you shooting for?” a fellow marathoner asked.

“Oh, about four,” I said.

We were on pace for 3:47, he said, which made me surprised and excited. Could I keep this up?

“I’ve learned these things don’t really start until mile 20, anyway,” said the man, who wore a moustache and a slight beard and was probably in his 40s.

We looked ahead, to a lean woman on a steady pace some 15 years and 30 yards ahead of me.

“I think she’s going for that,” he said. Going for 3:45. If we can keep up with her, we’ll have it.
More than the cool temperatures and the water stops, the crowd makes the race. Loved the crowd. The random people who would high-five you upon request, who would laugh at you or cheer you by number, who sat with blankets around their legs and beers in their hands, and yelled, “Looking great, runners! Keep it up!”
They made the race, as does your attitude, the willingness to talk with other runners and people in the crowd in order to save your own spirits.
A few turns later, we were at mile 18. Mile 18!? The race seemed to be going fast. Only eight to go. I am actually going to do this, I thought. I can do this. I can run eight more miles. I am going to do this!
When you talk about training for a marathon, people mention a four-letter word: “wall,” a metaphor used to describe what happens during a marathon when bodies stop wanting to run and runners solely rely on mental strength to continue.
Throughout the race, I gaged my body in search of this wall, looking for a time in which I would physically halt for a mile or two. I felt no such urgent pain, but my wall was more of a gradual build-up, as brick by brick attached itself to my body. First my waist, my hip flexors, my IT band on my left side. Then my hips, later my thighs. Lastly, my ankles, calves, and my stomach, shoulders and back.
When I spotted my good friend waiting to cheer me on at mile 20, the aching wall had hammered itself aboard.
“There’s like hardly any left,” she said. She knew better — having ran two marathons — but I adored the enthusiasm.
“Bring it home, Jonny! Bring it home!” shouted my father, right knee on the ground, right arm waving me home.
Four miles later, my father would have what he later called a “messianic” experience. Another runner, maybe hallucinating, probably panting, jogged past my dad, who was wearing a red Iowa State Cyclones hoodie.
“Iowa State,” said the runner. “I went to school there.”
His eyes reportedly stretched. His pace quickened. Later, he would tell my father, you have no idea how much that helped me. Thank you.
Running a marathon is like that, so I’ve been told and have experienced. The tiniest of things boost you up, help you finish. The softest voice in the crowd can keep you going. Or, in that runner’s experience, just a 65-year-old’s presence.
Around mile 24, pure euphoria — and pure dread — joined the “festival,” as my dad would later call the race. I had weaved around waste plants and gravel roads and country paths. I had high-fived strangers who recognized my headband and afro later on in the race. And I had slurped down four Gu gels.
All I had was two miles to go, only two miles. The illusion that two miles is easy, that it’s only 1/12 of what you’ve already done is particularly hilarious once you have ran 24 miles.
Two miles. I still had two two miles to finish.
But I was again saved by a fan: another co-worker, who earlier ran the half, went home, came back and spotted me around mile 25.
“You got it, man. You’re doing it! You’re killing it” he said, running a few paces ahead of me.
“One mile left. Thank God!” I said, wall gaining traction, me slowing down. “Oh, my gosh.”
Finished runners and enthusiastic fans clustered near the finish line, to whom my co-worker would yell, “First-time marathoner. Cheer for him!”
They happily obliged. I laughed. The aches felt soothed.
At mile 26, it is pure joy. You feel no pain for .2 miles. You have heard and now can see the finish line, the packs that have gathered. You try to go faster but don’t really know feelings at this point.
“This is all yours,” a finished runner said alongside the path.
And, finally, it was. The race. The day. Knowing that I wanted to do something, trained for it, and did it.
A different feeling, indeed: it felt great.

Andy Roddick, American tennis player

His absence was most apparent this weekend — in Davis Cup play against Spain — more than a week after he officially retired, when he waved goodbye, blowing kisses to a New York crowd with tears in his eyes.
Not that having Andy Roddick on clay against Spain would have done much good. But we can think so.
By now, we’ve been doing a lot of that, thinking about Roddick, his legacy, what he accomplished, how he led American tennis, if he made the most of his lethal serve, boastful forehand and adequate backhand.
He entered with aggression — the big serve, fast feet, quick points. He hiccuped but survived, succeeded.
Could this be it? The next Great American? An inspired run?
Before long, he changed. Injuries. Style. Different coaching. Not quite as much zip on the serve, not the step in his movement.
And, despite the roars, it was over.
His last match against Juan Martin del Potro. His career as the No. 1 tennis player in America.
Roddick’s final match did well to emulate his career, with a quick and exciting start, and a dashing and predictable ending, injuries and a superior player across the net from him to fault.
Roddick might not have gotten the most of his game, or he might have. Five major finals. One Grand Slam.
It’s also hard to argue with 32 singles titles and an overall record of 612-213. It’s even more difficult to not shake your head at nine: the number of consecutive seasons in which Roddick finished in the top 10, from 2002 to 2010.
As Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all ascended to the top, Roddick didn’t go away, consistently winning the matches he was supposed to, occasionally taking down a higher seed.
As he did throughout his career, he would tease you, dictate points with his forehand, hit backhands down the line. We’d think aloud, I think he could win this.
The next match, he’d try to take advantage of his fitness, grind it out with whomever was across the net, only to be left to be the first carrying his bags off the court.
Like the del Potro match, Roddick never had his final hurrah, his last triumph. Some rightly thought his last best chance came in the 2009 Wimbledon final. Many others refused to believe it, thinking Roddick had just one run, one hot streak left in him. Maybe that’s what we wanted most: a Jimmy Connors like U.S. Open run to reward the faith America had placed in Roddick for so many years.
Then again, Roddick was never one with something to prove, and rightly so.
He’s done more off the court with his foundation than the majority of professional athletes think of doing. And he’s entertained — and frustrated — us all over the past decade with his grit, talent and success.
Roddick will stop playing professionally, and do something else just as admirable, with the same dedication and persistence he brought to the court every day.
Legacy achieved, indeed.

Other thoughts on Roddick:
SI: Jon Wertheim
ESPN: Grantland: All about Andy

In Davis Cup victory, U.S. shocks world

Davis Cup photo - Siggi Bucher

A buddy e-mailed me over the weekend about the U.S. success in Switzerland.

“Is this how the world ends?” he wrote.

Bob Bryan sitting out from doubles. Mr. Davis Cup, Andy Roddick, out as well. Mardy Fish, coming off a first-round loss in the Australian Open, as the U.S.’ great hope. The Americans facing Switzerland — Roger Federer, Stan Wawinka — in Fribourg. On clay.

Save Novak Djokovic suddenly gaining Swiss citizenship, you could not have stacked the odds any higher for the U.S. men to beat, let alone sweep, Switzerland in this weekend’s first-round Davis Cup matchup.

But somehow they did it.

John Isner beat Roger Federer. Shocking enough by itself, and then, in four sets. And did we mention on clay? The surface in which Federer beat Djokovic at last year’s French Open, giving the world No.1 his only loss in a Grand Slam in 2011. Isner, subbing in for Roddick, called it, “the win of my life.”

Even more amazing might be Fish’s resurgence after an awful showing in Melbourne, losing to 7-6 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (6) to that one guy who almost beat Roger Federer in the first round of Wimbledon years ago, Alejandro Falla.

Fish comes from two sets down and takes out the always tough, always scrappy Wawrinka, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 9-7.

Think about how the American men finished Davis Cup in 2011: With a loss. At home. On the fast indoor courts in Austin, Texas.

Fish lost a sloppy five-setter to Feliciano Lopez. Lost a tough, nasty four-set match against David Ferrer. Don’t think that played in his head at all this weekend?

All this when Federer decides to play the first round of Davis Cup since 2004. All this when America hadn’t swept anybody since its first-round sweep over Austria in the same year.

Is the world ending? Crazier things have happened.

Can we call that progress?

AFP photo

For a day, U.S. men were relevant. And in Paris, that’s some progress, right?

There we had John Isner up two sets to one against Rafael Nadal, who, before Novak Djokovic stopped losing, was the god of clay court.

The world was astounded. We all watched and wondered, Would this be the day Nadal’s confidence flat-lined and his game followed?

Isner. An American. A set away from knocking off Nadal, a Spaniard and one of the all-time greats on clay, in the first round. One of the biggest upsets in French Open history, one set away.

Then, as you know, Nadal exhausted Isner, who lost the next two sets 2-6, 4-6.

Progress? I’d say so. Even though it was a first-round stumble, Isner built on his best French Open showing in 2010 when he lost in the third round.

And there, not too far away, we had Ryan Harrison showing some spunk again, stealing a set from the fifth-seeded Robin Soderling.

Would both Harrison and Isner be moving on, shoving two of the best clay players in the game to the stands?

Harrison, the 20-year-old American playing in his first French Open and only his third major, tied at a set a piece against Soderling, the two-time French Open finalist.

Then Soderling won the next two sets 6-3, 7-5.

A step forward? Why not.

We saw Sam Querrey win his first ever French Open match, beating Philipp Kohlscreiber, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

Then Querrey faced the deceptive Ivan Ljubicic and lost a close one, 6-7, 4-6, 4-6. (Ljubicic moved on again, taking out Fernando Verdasco in straight sets, 6-3, 7-6, 6-4.)

No confusing this outcome. This was legitimate good news for American tennis and for Querrey, who has struggled to get out of the first round of any Grand Slam, especially when playing on American men’s kryptonite – red clay.

(Andy Roddick, who’s had his best years at the French in 2009 and 2010, passed this year because of a bum shoulder.)

And Mardy Fish, now the top-ranked American man, survived until the third round but was outdone by Gilles Simon, 3-6, 4-6, 2-6. Still, despite the loss, Fish’s best showing yet in Paris.

Yeah, this might be an overly optimistic report of American men after one week of a major. The U.S. again has no men in the second round of the French Open. (For that matter, no women, either.)

But when in Paris and discussing American men’s tennis, it’s always been a stretch to find good news.

Welcome

Jonathon Braden is a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. He mostly writes about education, focusing on Omaha Public Schools, a school district with about 50,000 students. Before writing about schools in Omaha, Jonathon wrote about Omaha crime and happenings in Columbia, Mo.

This is his site, where he writes about random sightings, a cool thing he saw, tennis and just about anything. Got an idea? Let him know.

OWH: 85 show up at OPS forum

Some things, as a reporter, you sometimes get tired of. As a schools reporter, one of those things can be forums. You heard the word and you think, 10 people sitting around listening to someone talking for two hours.

I thought the same thing would happen the other night. I was wrong.

OWH: 85 show up at OPS forum

They wanted to ask questions when they were supposed to give answers.

What makes up the school district’s benefits?

They wanted to discuss specifics when asked about the general.

What about those administrative positions? Which ones are going to get cut?

They wanted an option D when there was only A, B or C. And they weren’t bashful about being specific themselves.

Many of the 85 people at a public forum Thursday night brought their questions, worries and complaints about the Omaha Public Schools budget.

The howling winds: Who will win?

The fields exhale as if it’s a contest, a mini-tornado like intense game of back and forth blows.

Their breaths chap the skin, making humans guard their faces and shield their bodies.

In the country, though, the howls meet in the middle: Interstate 29, where cars cruise the fastest and crash the hardest.

The winds push the cars to the left. They howl the vehicles to the right. How quick and how drastic the vehicles dart depends on the size of the ride and the control of the driver. But, no matter how big the vehicle, when the driver lifts his hands off the controls, the fields make their move – whistling the motors to the rumbling strips.

You’re aware now – of the strips and of the howls, how intense they feel and how much damage they could cause. You pledge to keep both hands on the controls, or at least just one, at all times.

Still, the fields persist, apparently upset over this prolonged winter that has brought temperatures in the 20s when they should be in the 40s.

Spring: Is it near? The fields do not know, nor do they care. Their corn has been stripped, their beans have been picked. And now they wait, for a time when the howling will stop, when the sun will shine and when the corn will rise again from their dirt and when the beans will crowd their soil.

People will saunter about the fields, and the fields will no longer shout and scream.

Spring: When the fields will rest.

Until then, drive carefully.

“Is he your son?”

“Is he your son?”

The elderly man asked the woman standing next to me in the lunch line.

The woman, to be clear, is probably old enough to be my mom. But I am 25, so that only means she is at least 40 or so.

She, standing next to me, a source for a future story, didn’t hear him through the setting of trays and the pinging of silverware.

“No,” I responded, turning to my left where he stood behind me in line. “No, I’m a reporter at the World-Herald.” (Apparently that means I don’t have a mother as well.)

I extended my hand to his, and we shook hands but didn’t exchange names.

It was just after noon on Monday, and the Omaha Public Schools cafeteria at the district’s administration building had few empty tables. Some 400 people work at the district’s Teacher and Administrative Center. About 100 of them must have choosing to eat on the cheap this day.

I turned to the appetizing lasagna teasing in front of me. What will you be having? the lunch lady asked.

“I’ll take the meat lasagna, please.”

It had been so long since I savored a fat piece of meat, cheese and cottage cheese all warmed together to form the gorgeous selection of food known as lasagna. We have our Italian brothers and sisters to thank for lasagna, which even makes for a beautiful word, too: lasagna. It moves up and down, taking we wannabe linguists on a trip just like the dish does to our taste buds.

Staring at my soon-to-be lunch reminded me of my mother’s lasagna, which was, of course, much better looking.

“I didn’t like you from behind,” the old man said to me, making some gesture to his bald head.

I turned around again and laughed. I have a white-man’s afro, a head full of curly brown hair that, at the moment, I have let stretch to nearly past my ears, almost hiding on my baby-faced chubby cheeks.

“I get that a lot,” I replied.

Bald men have said something resembling that to me the past two weeks. Just the other day at work, a bald co-worker said he had a photo of himself that looked just like me at his desk. He was serious, he told me when I innocently laughed.

Sliding my tray down the metal spokes, my eyes darted to what was next on this nostalgic return trip to a school cafeteria. My predecessor had spoken highly of this particular cafeteria, namely for its cheap prices, not delicious foods. But, when my source suggested we meet for lunch after the 11 a.m. meeting, I was eager to dine just like I had a teenager.

As in high school, I watched what the person in front of me did: she grabbed a bowl of fruit. I chose the orange cantaloupe, another reminder of an earlier stage of my life.

The old man slunk behind, nudging his tray along.

A few steps farther along, and I plucked a mug for coffee, slid my tray down the homestretch, turned the corner and placed my lasagna, fruit and coffee in front of the female cash register.

It was fairly quick process, although it all seemed so new that it feels like it too much longer. It was like experiencing school lunch once more.

“$3.35,” the woman at the register said.

I happily dug for my wallet and slid out my debit card.

“Oooohhh,” she said, spotting my plastic and not paper. “Only cash.”

Luckily, I had a couple $5 bills snuggling behind some $1 bills.

Paid with a $5 and got change for lunch, but a quarter slid through my fingers.

My source had already paid and walked back to our table near the back of the cafeteria.

“Where’d you get your Italian nose,” the elderly man, who might or might not have had an Italian nose, said.

I have an Italian nose?

“I don’t know,” I said, very perplexed. “I’m, my mom is 100 percent German so I’m 50 percent.”

I squatted to grab the quarter.

“It has the curves and everything,” he said, staring at my nostrils.

The woman working the register saw us talking and posed a question our way: “Is he your grandson?”

Djokovic: Clear No. 2

This time, he needed no heroics, no closing of his eyes to save two match points, no miraculous shots to extend the match.

This time, Novak Djokovic needed three sets of superb play to show the world he has surpassed Roger Federer as the No. 2 player in the world. And with Rafa reeling, maybe this is the year Novak climbs to No. 1.

What a funny start to this tennis season. Just when we all thought Federer was ready to challenge Rafa for No. 1, a new rivalry of 23-year-olds meets in the finals, one that could greet us for the next decade or so: Djokovic v. Andy Murray.

Here, we have the have done, the masterful under pressure, against the have not, the over-thinker in the big matches.

Djokovic against Murray: Two of the game’s best set to better their rivalry as we ring in the 2011 Slam Season.

Just like we predicted, right?