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Monday, May 9, 2011

Review: Virtua Tennis 4

Platforms: PlayStation 3 (tested), Xbox 360, Wii

If there’s one thing that Virtua Tennis does better than 2K's Top Spin franchise, it’s the overall presentation. Virtua Tennis 4 may not be as truly realistic as Top Spin 4 in terms of gameplay, but it’s arguably more fun to play thanks to the series of mini games and the atmosphere that it delivers. 

The sport of tennis can be explosive, especially if it’s a match between two players going all out in front of thousands of screaming fans. Unfortunately, not every tennis match can be like this and it can be very boring to watch. Top Spin 4’s atmosphere is much like the latter; tt can be fairly boring to play as the only sound you can hear is the grunting of the players. 

Thankfully, Virtua Tennis 4 is much more exciting to play. It’s not entirely realistic, but the background music included in each court adds to the atmosphere and livens up the "gentleman’s sport”. The crowd is also far more animated, cheering enthusiastically for each winning shot played (as opposed to the moderate claps that are heard in Top Spin 4…).

The atmosphere isn’t all that Virtua Tennis 4 has done right, either; the general gameplay has improved dramatically since Virtua Tennis 2009 (which is possibly the weakest link in the Virtua Tennis franchise to date). It was too casual for its own good, but at the same time it was hard for anyone to win a point because it was far too easy to return the ball. 

Virtua Tennis 4 makes this more difficult, which makes it more realistic and interesting to play. It’s all about positioning yourself at the right time on the court and using the right type of shot at the right time. There’s also no sprint button in this game, so you won’t see any long unrealistic rallies like in Top Spin 4

Another great addition to the game is the all-new "super shot” meter. Each player in the game has their own strengths, and if you play to that strength your meter will fill up, allowing you to unleash a fast, winning shot. This feature is great, especially if you want to end the point quickly. The only downside to this feature is that some players will find it harder to fill the meter than others. Andy Roddick’s strength is his serve and, subsequently, the meter only fills up when he’s serving.

Speaking of players, old-school tennis fans may dislike the fact that Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras are nowhere to be seen. The only old-school player in this game is Jim Courier, unless you get the PS3 version (which adds Stefan Edberg, Patrick Rafter and Boris Becker to the mix). In terms of current players, there’s the usual line up of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Caroline Wozniacki. Maria Sharapova fans will be happy to know she’s in Virtua Tennis 4 since she was criminally omitted from Top Spin 4

However, Virtua Tennis 4 is only mildly better than its predecessors. The courts and environments look bright, but some of the character models are horribly inaccurate. Why does Novak Djokovic have brown hair and not black hair? Also, Svetslana Kuznetsova has a nose as large as WWE’s Triple H! At least Caroline Wozniacki looks cuter than she did in Top Spin 4

My favourite feature in the whole game is the "World Tour” mode. Virtua Tennis’ iconic mini game training modes are here and are as fun as ever.  There’s a serving exercise where you have to get the ball inside a soccer goal while trying to avoid the goalie and his defenders. My other favorite mini game is one that tasks you with guiding little chickens into their pen.

In the "World Tour” mode, you’ll play a full year of tennis as you try to win tournaments and gain your popularity in the tennis world. On top of that, you will improve your skills and even make new friends who can become your doubles partner too. The "World Tour” mode is much more fun and interactive than the monotonous career mode in Top Spin 4

Virtua Tennis 4 is a step in the right direction for the series, and much more enjoyable than its current direct rival. The winning combination of improved gameplay and new game modes serves up a Roddick-sized ace.

Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 8.5/10
Gameplay: 8.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10 

Overall: 9/10 

Djokovic proves he's a real threat to Nadal

Novak Djokovic won the biggest tennis match of his life yesterday in Madrid. It isn't like the title, or even the win over world No. 1 Rafael Nadal trumps an Australian Open title, a Davis Cup championship, or back to back hard-court Masters wins (over the same man he beat yesterday). At least not in the order-of-magnitude department. I advance this opinion because almost everyone on planet tennis, including Djokovic and Nadal, knew that this was the ultimate litmus test. This was the "put up or shut up" match (at least in terms of the legitimacy of Djokovic's threat to Nadal).
The world would not have come to an end for Djokovic had he lost yesterday's final, and it certainly will not come to an end for the man who did, Nadal. But Djokovic's inability to win even one match against Nadal on clay until yesterday was glaring, and a powerful mitigating circumstance when it came to bestowing or withholding praise and credit from the Serbian star. Had Djokovic lost yesterday, most people would have hit the re-set button in their minds, writing off to some degree Djokovic's undefeated streak and previous 2011 performances as an impressive and pleasant episode circumscribed neatly by a higher reality once the hard-court segment ended. Djokovic would have seemed good—awfully good—but not really good enough. Part of a Gordian knot at the top of the game, the "third man" who could accomplish some things but not others.
It didn't work out that way. For all I know, Nadal will wax Djokovic in Rome, or Paris, with the loss of just six games. But that's not going to change the fact that on May 8, Novak Djokovic demonstrated that he could step up and handle what probably is the ultimate test in tennis: beating Rafael Nadal on red clay. And he did it in straight sets. Today, Djokovic can claim to be the best player in the world, no matter what the rankings say. He calls the tune.

But that Djokovic did it is less interesting than how he did it. I already filed a post early this morning over at ESPN on five takeaways from the Mutua Madrid Open final, and I want to elaborate on what to me is the most interesting of those five details — the way Djokovic makes his opponent's side of the court look twice as big as his own. The last person who had that facility in a big match was Juan Martin del Potro, in his 2009 U.S. Open final with Roger Federer. Both Djokovic and del Potro are experts at penetrating the other side of the court; del Potro is most effective with his forehand, while Djokovic does it with that spectacular two-handed backhand—a shot that puts all of Roger Federer's past woes in those Nadal forehand vs. Federer backhand exchanges into a new, sharper perspective.

When you can grow the court on the other side, it's that much easier to own the baseline. And if you can own the baseline and receive and positively return your opponents best shots, you're on the way. The greatest lessons we've received in that department were delivered not by an ATP stud but a WTA icon who hailed from roughly the same neck of the woods as Djokovic, Monica Seles.
It's awfully easy to jump on the Djokovic bandwagon today, but you could see this coming. And frankly, Nadal helped bump the process along with the way he played. It was downright foolish of him to keep assaulting Djokovic with those forehand-to-backhand shots. He was on the losing end of too many of them. I don't wish to be cruel here, but if you can reap great rewards with that strategy against a Roger Federer, there's no reason you should shy away from using it against any other right-hander. But at some point, I imagine pride subtly entered into the equation as well. Because for Nadal, it's always been less about, Can I break this guys's backhand down, than, How long will it take to break it down?
You have to tip your hat to the way Djokovic handled that Nadal forehand; I mean, reams have been written about how much more violently Nadal's topspin rotates, and how much bite and jump it has, yadda-yadda-yadda. It's a great shot, no doubt about it. But keep in mind that spin slows the ball, and so does a high bounce. If you can handle the topspin and bounce, you suddenly find yourself with surprisingly appealing and productive options. But that's one whale of an "if.".
Djokovic handled the topspin very well yesterday, although I felt Nadal made it a little easier for him than it might have been due to relatively poor penetration. But that's an occupational hazard for anyone who relies as heavily on topspin as Nadal. Topspin can do an awful lot for you, but one thing that nobody has quite perfected yet is how to put a lot of mustard on the ball and still have it drop on or very close to the baseline, shot after shot. Therefore, the player who uses heavy topspin will always be—at least in theory—at the mercy of one who hits relatively flat, at least if the latter is capable of executing at an extremely high yet always possible level.
If Djokovic made the other side of the court look big, Nadal at times made Djokovic's side look small. On Nadal's side, the sidelines and baseline seemed like an advisory: Warning, you will soon be running out of court and crashing into Ion Tiriac's box. . . For Djokovic those lines were boundaries in a way that had little to do with the customary "in" and "out" business. They proscribed the area in which Nadal had to play—and more important, in which Djokovic wanted to make him play. And it worked.
I expect in future matches Nadal will get better penetration while sticking with his basic game plan, and that he'll serve better and put himself into position to do what I felt, even days ago, was the main task for both men—to own the baseline. This tension between the spin game and the (relatively) flat game is one of the enduring strategic dimensions of tennis; representatives of each school take their turn at the top of the game, invariably making pundits and students of the game smack their foreheads and exclaim, "Duh!"
Yesterday was, for me, one of those "Duh!" moments.

Rafael Nadal admits his reign as world No. 1 is over

NOVAK Djokovic's watershed claycourt victory over world No.1 Rafael Nadal overnight has not only breathed fresh life into the French Open but also drawn the ultimate tennis compliment.
The Serb's stunning 7-5 6-4 victory over king of clay Nadal saw Djokovic tighten in Roland Garros markets and had coach Brad Gilbert describing his backhand as the best since Andre Agassi's.
Dual Australian Open champion Djokovic closed Nadal's rankings points lead after outplaying the Spaniard on his favourite surface, prompting Nadal to concede his reign at the top is almost over.
"The No. 1 ranking is not in danger - it's finished. Let's not lie to ourselves, that's the reality,'' Nadal said.
"Nobody likes to lose. I have to see what's missing and working with a cool, open mind to decipher things and find the solutions. To try to do a little better next time.''

Gilbert was totally impressed as he watched the match on television in California.
"Djoker's backhand is one off the charts right now. He can do it all with that shot,'' Gilbert tweeted.
"The guy leans on his backhand like nobody - ala Andre.
"The man is clearly on his way to being No. 1 in the world, literally, in very short order.''
Djokovic is now a $4 second favourite for the French Open behind Nadal ($1.50), while Roger Federer has blown to $11.
Djokovic is unbeaten in 32 matches this season and is closing in on John McEnroe's record of 42-0, set in 1984 - the season in which the New Yorker was utterly dominant.
Djokovic downed Nadal on clay for the first time in 10 tries despite squandering a 4-0 first-set led to end Nadal's 37-match winning streak on clay.
Significantly, this was Djokovic's third consecutive victory over Nadal in finals this season - and his sixth title of the season.
"Probably it's right at the top,'' Djokovic rated the win. "Under the circumstances I was playing an unbelievable match.
"I stepped onto the court today believing I could win. I needed to be aggressive and it was a great match.''
Djokovic's run of 34 straight wins since Serbia's Davis Cup triumph in December is the eighth best of all time.
Nadal made no excuses.
"I came up against a great player obviously - he's having a monster year,'' Nadal said. "He was better, you have to accept that.''
Nadal also lost to Djokovic in the finals at Miami and Indian Wells this year.
Nadal's previous defeat on clay was against Robin Soderling at the French Open almost  two years ago.
He had won six titles on clay since, and this was only his seventh loss on the surface in 196 matches since 2005.
Djokovic spent most of the past few seasons as the No. 3 player in the world behind Nadal and Federer, but started the year by winning the Australian Open and hasn't looked back.
"I'm happy I can play the best tennis when I needed to and maybe that was lacking a lot in the past,'' Djokovic said.
"Maybe that's what was missing against Rafa and Roger in the past tournaments.''
Nadal is at Djokovic's mercy in the rankings battle, having to defend the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open - and having no ability to extend his lead unless the Serb falters.

FOX SPORTS:Sam Stosur rematch with French Open champ Francesca Schiavone looms

sam stosur
Sam Stosur could meet Francesca Schiavone, who beat her in last year's French Open final, in the quarter-final of the Italian Open. Source: AdelaideNow

SAM Stosur is headed for a French Open final rematch with Francesca Schiavone just days before the grand slam starts in Paris.
After a first-round bye, Stosur launches her Italian Open campaign against either Argentina's Gisela Dulko or Czech Iveta Benesova. She is on a quarter-final collision course with Schiavone.
Stosur and Italy's Schiavone need only to win two matches each to set up a tasty French Open entree.
Australia's world No.7 lost to Schiavone in last year's Roland Garros decider.
Rome will be Stosur's last tournament before the French Open starts on Sunday week. The 27-year-old is keen to build confidence before arriving in Paris.
"I just want to play as many matches as I can this week because obviously the more matches you win, the more confident you feel," Stosur said.
"The last two tournaments in Stuttgart and Madrid I've played a lot better, probably better than I have all year. So if I can keep building on that, then I'd be quite happy."
Fellow Aussie Jarmila Gajdosova was due to play Italian wildcard Corinna Dentoni overnight, while Anastasia Rodionova opens against Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan.

ESPN USA:Novak Djokovic poised to claim world No.1 ranking

A SERBIAN doctor with a background in Chinese and Indian medical practices has emerged as a threat to Rafael Nadal's reign as the world's No.1 tennis player.
Novak Djokovic's transformation from pretender to contender can be traced directly to Dr Igor Cetojevic, who last year discovered the dual Australian Open champion Djokovic has a gluten allergy.
Djokovic cut some of his favourite foods - including pizza and pasta - from his diet and now is poised to take Nadal's crown.
With Nadal having to defend victories from last season at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open - a massive 6000 rankings points - it could happen within weeks.
Djokovic yesterday revelled in his third consecutive win against Nadal, inflicting the Spaniard's first claycourt defeat in the Madrid Masters final and landing the sixth title of his unbeaten year.
Djokovic's 7-5 6-4 victory not only breathed fresh life into the French Open but also had Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert describing the Serb's backhand as the best since Agassi's.
"Djoker's backhand is one off the charts right now. He can do it all with that shot," Gilbert tweeted.
"The guy leans on his backhand like nobody - a la Andre. The man is clearly on his way to being No.1 in the world."
Djokovic is the $4 second favourite for the French Open behind Nadal ($1.50). Roger Federer has blown out to $11.
Djokovic is unbeaten in 32 matches this season and is closing on John McEnroe's record of 42-0, set in 1984.
Cetojevic travelled with the previously sickly Djokovic to Melbourne for the Australian Open, helping him further distance himself from scorn as a player prone to retiring when the battle was too fierce.
The medico studied Chinese traditional medicine and also holds a diploma from the Indian Institute of Magnotherapy in New Delhi.
But most telling of all was Cetojevic's discovery eight months ago that Djokovic's on-court struggles were linked to his diet.
"He's done a great job in changing my diet after we established I am allergic to some food ingredients like gluten," Djokovic said.
"It means I can't eat stuff like pizza, pasta and bread. I have lost some weight but it's only helped me because my movement is much sharper now and I feel great physically.
"A lot of people have been guessing and speculating what the secret formula of my good form was, but there is no secret. It's just that all the pieces have fallen into place after years of hard work and we are now reaping the rewards.
"I have also matured as a player and a person. I feel more confident and more consistent than ever because I am capable of holding my own against the world's best players under any circumstances.
"That wasn't the case earlier. Whenever I needed to be consistent against Federer and Nadal in the latter stages of grand slam events I was unable to stay psychologically balanced and confident."
Djokovic's run of 34 straight wins since Serbia's Davis Cup triumph in December is the eighth best of all time.
Nadal made no excuses.
"I came up against a great player. Obviously he's having a monster year," Nadal said. "He was better, you have to accept that."
Nadal also lost to Djokovic in the finals at Miami and Indian Wells this year.
Nadal's previous defeat on clay was nearly two years ago against Robin Soderling at the French Open. He had won six titles on clay since, and this was only his seventh loss on the surface in 196 matches since 2005.
Djokovic spent most of the past few seasons as the world No.3, but has not looked back after starting the year by winning the Australian Open.
"I'm happy I can play the best tennis when I need to and maybe that was lacking a lot in the past," Djokovic said.
"Maybe that's what was missing against Rafa and Roger in the past tournaments."
Nadal said the battle to hold the No.1 ranking was over.
"The No.1 ranking is not in danger. It's finished," he said.
"Let's not lie to ourselves. That's the reality.
"Nobody likes to lose. I have to see what's missing and working with a cool, open mind to decipher things and find the solutions, to try to do a little better next time."

Aussies give Pakistan a hiding in hockey cup

AUSTRALIA thrashed Pakistan 5-1 to stay on course for the final of hockey's Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia.
The defeat, Pakistan’s second in successive days after they lost 3-2 to Great Britain on Sunday, saw them overtaken in the standings by world champions Australia, who are on seven points having played a game less.
Pakistan, who have six points after four matches, suffered in the humid conditions and it was the Australians who took their chances, forcing errors from their opponents in a fast-paced open match.
Australian coach Ric Charlesworth said the win was a welcome relief after his side laboured to a draw against India, adding that his players were coming into better form.
"No doubt that this performance was an improvement form the previous day but we are still not there yet. The Pakistanis did play well but our attempts at goal was much better and paid off," he said.
The Australians looked dangerous from the start with Glenn Turner, Jason Wilson and Simon Orchard testing Pakistan's goalkeeper Imran Shah early in the first half.
Australia took the lead through a disputed penalty in the 23rd minute with Orchard finally finding a way beyond Shah to give Australia a 1-0 lead.
Pakistan drew level in the 28th minute when Sohail Abbas converted a penalty corner, but they were unable to find further momentum.
Poor defending by Pakistan allowed Jason Wilson to collect the ball at the top of the circle and send it crashing beyond Shah in the 34th minute to give Australia a 2-1 first half lead.
Australia continued to dominate in the second half, with goals from Orchard, Christopher Ciriello and Wilson handing them full points as the Asian champions continued to make mistakes.
Pakistan had their chances, with a couple of penalty corners offering a way back into the game, but they lacked ideas to convert opportunities into goals.
Meanwhile, Great Britain surged to the top of the table with a 3-1 win over New Zealand.
The British side have nine points from four matches and hold a two point advantage over second-placed Australia.

First lady hosts wellness, fitness demonstrations

Joined by standout athletes, from tennis great Billie Jean King to basketball's Grant Hill, first lady Michelle Obama on Monday announced three new physical fitness opportunities for military families.
Mrs. Obama said the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association would offer free memberships to immediate family members of actively deployed reservists. She said the American Council on Exercise would provide at least 1 million hours of free personal training. The President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition - composed of athletes, nutritionists, pediatricians, trainers and educators - will hold a series of events with military families.
She said fighting the epidemic of childhood obesity has to be a family effort and "it doesn't take money," suggesting long walks after dinner or dancing in the living room.
"This isn't about physical prowess," she said. "It's about movement. And we have to go from sitting to standing to walking to moving."
Mrs. Obama was joined by council co-chair gymnast Dominique Dawes, and council members including figure skater Michelle Kwan and Hill of the Phoenix Suns and Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets as they led demonstrations at activity stations on the South Lawn. About 80 children and their parents participated in the activities included dancing, ball tossing and a three-part obstacle course.