Tenaciously Tennis

Goucher Men’s Tennis Claims First Conference Win of 2011

With the Drew University match loss in the past (although certainly not the strong, supportive efforts from the team), we knew that against the United States Merchant Marine Academy match, things would have to be different. It’d need to end in victory.

That’s just what happened.

After a 2-1 setback in doubles, but a good effort in the top two matches, things looked shaky for the Gophers. In the end, however, the team proved stronger in singles competition, dominating in five of six matches. We won 6-3.

Still sidelined, but getting ready to play soon, I continued my work charting my teammates, trying to find trends to help improve their games. Are too many backhands floating long? How about forehand volley errors? What’s the first serve percentage? Is everyone moving their feet? Those were just some of the thoughts flying through my head as the match progressed, and as I watched on with pen and paper.

I’ve come to see this opportunity as a mixed blessing. Sure, I want to play and compete for Goucher College, but there’s something more to charting that I didn’t quite appreciate at first. As I begin my career in tennis journalism these next few weeks, working for Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis and at the Western & Southern Financial Open in Cincinnati this August, I’ve realized a couple things. Not only does a journalist need to be passionate about what it is they’re writing about, they also need a commitment to detail. Only through careful reflection on the sport and a meticulous ability to collect facts can the writing truly succeed. While I can play tennis all I want, assuming my shoulder doesn’t give out or I get owned by another tennis ball to the head, there also needs to be skill in watching the sport.

As ridiculous as it may at first seem, charting matches and calculating statistics fulfills this.

Only by focusing on a match and really watching it can one appreciate the atmosphere of the courts and the intensity of the athletes. There’s the aesthetics, too, such as the finesse, the power and the shot-making. With these observations, the writing comes alive.

As the team clinched the match in exhilarating fashion, claiming singles points in three sets at number three and six, I understood a commonality and parallel between our success and my career goals. I knew things were looking up not only for my tennis team, but also for my writing.

That’s a good feeling on both counts.

For more on the win over Merchant Marine, see here.


US Open Qualifying: Day Three

The skies opened up, and a beautiful day of tennis ensued at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. On my second visit to the home of the year’s final major, I made my way through throngs of fans to find some of the most promising American talent.

After arriving in the early afternoon — missing Jesse Levine’s heartbreaking loss to Brazil’s Caio Zampieri due to retirement — I arrived at Court 7. The match featured the 21st seed Maria Elena Camerin of Italy against the 15-year old Madison Keys of Florida. Keys began her Grand Slam debut firing away to capture an early break against Camerin. Nerves, however, set in with the players trading breaks until Keys pulled away to take the first set 6-3.

The young American, who trains at the Chris Evert Academy in Boca Raton, hit crisp backhands, while sporting a powerful serve and a strong mental game. Errors started to creep in Keys’ game as Camerin found her form — although never her serve. While the young American lost in the next two sets, bowing out against her 28-year old opponent3-6, 6-3, 6-4, expect success from her in the future once she finds increased consistency.

Also noteworthy about the match and the US Open atmosphere in general: after the first couple games finished, I looked up to see Keys’ mother enter the stands. Another arrival: Tom Gullikson, the brother of Tim Gullikson, who was Pete Sampras’ former coach. I suspect Tom works with Keys in Florida, the state in which he resides. Sightings like this happened for most of the day, once again highlighting the wonderful atmosphere for which the qualifying tournament shines.

With that match over, I went to Louis Armstrong stadium, catching Gael Monfils hitting. In the nearby court, the Australian Open finalist and world number four Andy Murray was practicing with the 25th-ranked Feliciano Lopez of Spain. Talk about a fan-friendly experience — for free!

On the way to see the men practicing, I ran into Melanie Oudin — my second sighting of the Georgia teenager at the qualifying event. In fact, over the course of the day, I saw Oudin a number of times, supporting her compatriot Sloane Stephens and other Americans, among others.

I caught most of the 17-year old Stephens’ match, and I can safely say that she’s another one to watch. Currently ranked inside the top 300 in the world, Stephens enjoyed a good run at the BNP Paribas Open during which she advanced to the second round after qualifying. Although she fell  in the second round the US Open Qualifying for the second straight year — this time to veteran Zuzana Ondraskova 6-3, 7-5 — Stephens hits hard and with passion. She’s still streaky, especially on the forehand side, but with Venus and Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters as self-proclaimed idols, a good volleying technique and a powerful backhand, the Florida-native looks poised to one day get into the top 100.

Once finished, I went to Court Four, which is notable for its easy-viewing access to the practice courts. There, I yet again saw Oudin along with Wimbledon semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova, Donald Young, and personal favorite Patty Schnyder.

I next scanned the courts for another match to view, making it in time to see Serbia’s Ilija Bozoljac close out the first set against Guillermo Alcaide. Bozoljac, known for taking a set from Roger Federer in the second round of this year’s Wimbledon, is an exciting player to watch. He hits a big serve, rips backhand winners, and surprises with his tricky slice and two-handed forehand. After winning 6-3 6-2, a person in the audience — presumably a friend — mentioned his match against Federer to which he replied, “One set and one point.” Meaning: he only needed to win one more set and one more point against the greatest of all time to win the match and move on to the third round. Bozoljac will remember that fact for the rest of his life.

I ended the day by watching parts of Sania Mirza’s match against Elena Bovina. The former top 30 Mirza looked sharp, hitting winners and powerful groundstrokes to win 6-3, 6-3. I also caught Wimbledon junior winner Kristyna Pliskova — identical sister to this year’s Australian Open junior winner Karolina Pliskova and — beat the 18th seed Aranxta Rus. Are the Pliskova sisters the next Williams sisters? It’s too soon to say, but it will be interesting to see how the sisters’ games develop in the coming years.

My second trip to the qualifying tournament ended by viewing Ryan Harrison versus 10th-seeded Rui Machado. The young American advanced in a riveting 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3 match filled with heavy support from the home crowd under the blazing lights of the US Open.

US Open Qualifying: Day One

I just got back from the first day of the US Open Qualifying tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. Although rain delayed play for a few hours, the tournament eventually commenced pitting former top players hampered by injury, rising young talents, and journeymen dedicated to the sport despite rankings hovering in the 200s, and more, against one another in the windy, rainy conditions.

A dog fight ensued, to say the least, and a lot of passion filled the New York City air — both on the court and off. Here’s what happened during my first day back at my favorite tournament of the season.

With the inclement weather, not too many fans showed up to see the inaugural action for the 2010 tournament. Those that did manage to get to the free event, however, embodied the die-hard fan, among a slew of officials, players, and media people.

You could feel the excitement in the air, the crowd’s energy was palpable. Almost everyone looked happy to be there, despite the annoying drizzle that hit the courts just enough to halt action. Personally, I’m always amazed by the energy, and the intensity around the grounds — the players fighting it out on court, players, trainers, vendors, and more rushing to courts, and other obligations, fans hurrying to get see matches, and other activities that fill the time in between.

After taking in the scene — and despite the rain — it was fun just taking it all in and people watching, eating a pretty good vegetarian crepe, and waiting for the rain to subside, workers took to the courts to start the process of drying. With squeegees and other equipment, matches resumed around 2pm.

The first match I watched presented one of the United States’ future hopefuls, Ryan Harrison against Jonathan Dasnieres De Veigy of France. Harrison, currently ranked 219, looked sharp in his first round qualifying match. Despite a shaky season so far, the 18-year old played with a impressive variety from stinging slices, high topspin lobs, and wicked forehands that put the French journeymen on the defensive for most of the match.

Near the beginning of the first set, I looked to my left and saw none other than Sam Querrey, the fourth-ranked American after Andy Roddick, John Isner, and a recently resurgent Mardy Fish. The 22nd-ranked Querrey, who’s having a strong US Open Series leading up to the US Open, looked to be supporting the young American, which was refreshing to see.

Harrison, probably inspired by the New York City crowd that heavily on his side, and Querrey, closed out Dasnieres De Veigy 6-1, 6-4.

After taking in some of Katie O’Brien’s match against Lesya Tsurenko — she won in three sets — I got the chance to simultaneously view the end of Anna-Lena Groenefeld’s match against Rika Fujiwara and the start of Michelle Larcher de Brito’s versus Karolina Pliskova.

Groenefeld looked ready to close out the match easily in the second, she was up 4-0. Her serve, however, got shaky, while Fujiwara improved her play with compact swings and raw emotion. The former top 20 player Groenefeld, who’s now ranked 129 in the world, eventually regained her form with poise to close out the match 7-5, 6-3. Seeing Groenefeld brought me back a few years to watching her on television. It was the first tennis match I’d ever watched, and it was fitting I got the chance to see her again today after about six years of watching, playing, and writing about tennis.

In the other match, Larcher de Brito impressed from the start with powerful forehands and a Maria Sharapova-like intensity. After trading service breaks with Pliskova, Larcher de Brito grunted her way to a 6-4, 6-4 win. Near the end of the first set, however, I’d be remiss to forget mentioning another player-sighting — none other than crowd favorite Melanie Oudin, who wowed fans with her surprise quarterfinal run at last year’s event. I was star struck to say the least. Let’s see how Oudin handles the pressure at this year’s tournament with her less-than-stellar results at other events so far this season.

Other matches of note I caught bits and pieces of as the day of tennis continued included: American Bobby Reynolds’ win against Chris Guccione, Sloane Stephens’ victorious match over Anais Laurendon, and Kei Nishikori’s successful play after an elbow injury hampered most of the season versus Paul Capdeville.

Serena May Miss US Open with Injury

Posted in Billie Jean King,Kim Clijsters,Serena Williams by Ben on July 19, 2010

Serena Williams might miss the year’s final major, according to the WTA tour. If so, the implications for the tournament are interesting: who might take home the title with the younger Williams leaving a void in the draw?

Of course, nothing’s set. Serena herself recently expressed excitement to get back on the court and play. If her mind is in the event, she’ll surely show up and do damage. Well, hopefully not the kind that tarnishes a career, such as during her “tirade” against the US Open official during her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters. At the same time, the fact that the WTA tour is leaving the possibility of withdrawal open is worrisome.

I, along with tennis fans everywhere that admire Serena’s play, hope she gets better — soon. While she’s officially out of World Team Tennis and her three US Open warm-up events, that doesn’t mean anything about her chances at the final major. As we know, her games is taken to all new heights during a Grand Slam. Once at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, anything goes.

Now, it’s just a matter of physical capabilities.

Clijsters Claims Win Over Serena with Biggest Crowd Ever

When Justine Henin withdrew from the “Battle of the Belgians,” Serena Williams took her place to meet Kim Clijsters. That decision didn’t work out quite so well for the American, who lost to Clijsters 6-3, 6-2 in Brussels on Thursday.

At the same time, the exhibition was successful. In fact, it’ll be known as the most successful match since the famed “Battle of the Sexes” epic between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs decades ago. While not the longest match in history by about 10 hours, it was the most attended.

According to an Associated Press article, “The crowd of 35,681 at King Baudouin Stadium on Thursday surpassed the previous record of 30,472 set in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome in the Battle of the Sexes match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.” The match was chaired by Martina Navratilova.

The implications of such a historic match are astounding. The parallels between this match and the John Isner and Nicholas Mahut marathon, especially occurring so close to one another, many things for tennis — yet to be seen. The longest match, and the most attended — both in one month’s time? Then, to have a tennis player — Serena Williams — on the cover of the one of the most, if not the, most widely read sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, sends a clear message: tennis is set for a popularity boom.

I’m going out on a limb here. I’m not using statistics. Sure, people widely consider those the definitive statistics necessary to calculate whether or not tennis is being played more frequently, and thus boasts future popularity gains. But I’m going on a more basic, emotional level. The game is getting good. It’s getting really good, very quickly.

There’s drama now: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal aren’t the only ones doing major damage at the Grand Slams. Okay, so Federer won the Australian Open and Nadal took the other two. Fine. But they’re being tested, and that’s a great thing for the sport.

On the women’s side, variety is creeping back into the game. Caroline Wozniacki, a player that can get hit off the court (think about her lopsided loss to Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon) is holding her own. She’s ranked three in the world. There’s also Jelena Jankovic, Agnieszka Radwanska, and a slew of other players poised to keep power at bay and put spin, sharp angles, and sound tactics ahead of brute force. Francesca Schiavone won the French Open at 30 — an amazing feat. We’re seeing great confidence surging throughout the lesser-tiered players — Kaia Kanepi and Tsvetana Pironkova played their hearts out to win the big matches despite being ranked outside the top 50. Tomas Berdych on the men’s side is back in a big way.

There’s a changing of the guard in the game of tennis, and it’s an exciting one to witness. I’m saying it does wonders for popularity, too. And if not, who cares? The current fans couldn’t be happier. Well, this fan couldn’t be happier.

Serena Wins Fourth Wimbledon, Collects 13th Major

Serena Williams has claimed her fourth Wimbledon title in dominating fashion. In a quick affair, slightly over the one hour mark, Serena took out surprise finalist Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-2. The win marks her 13th major singles title, raising her above Billie Jean King’s record 12 major titles. Her next goal? 18 titles to tie with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

The win also means that Serena or Venus Williams has secured the title nine out of the past eleven years.

Serena looked composed throughout the match. Her serve was spot on as it has been all tournament. Zvonareva, the second-lowest-ranked woman to reach a Wimbledon final, was never an issue.

The win is the first title for Serena since her victory at the Australian Open this January. Her next title? The US Open. That is, of course, unless she decides to give it her all during the US hard court season leading up to the final Slam of the year. If so, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be a huge success for the rest of the season.

For Zvonareva, although she failed to be competition in the final, she played an excellent tournament. While I’m not sure if she’ll win a Grand Slam, there’s a lot of promise for her to secure big wins in the coming months. If she can keep her head in the game, there’s no reason why not she won’t make another she can make a deep run at the US Open.

Speaking of Zvonareva’s mental game, it’s interesting to take a look at the women’s doubles final, which she played with Elena Vesnina. The team, who  took out the Williams sisters in the quarterfinals, played against Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova. After losing the first set 7-6 (6), the Russian began to cry, meaning she isn’t quite there yet (although it’s understandable given the two losses in one day).

But more about King and Shvedova, they’re the first unseeded pair to take the title since 1975. They pulled out the win, 7-6 (6), 6-2.

Congrats to all who put their passion to the test and came out victorious in a truly exceptional Wimbledon.

First Week of Historic Wimbledon Comes to a Close

The first week of the 2010 Wimbledon has finished, and it’s been one of the most talked about events in tennis history with a slew of stories intriguing both on and off the court. Here’s a rundown of the events that have collectively turned this year’s Wimbledon into one to be remembered for years.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Begin with Shaky Results:

With order relatively restored to the top rankings, and a “healthy” Nadal back at Wimbledon, audiences everywhere expected the top two seeds to advance easily to make it to the second week. In fact, I’m calling for there to be a rematch of the 2008 Wimbledon final.

However, both have played their fair share of dangerously close matches. In the first round, Alejandro Falla pushed Federer to the limit, forcing him to come back from two sets down. Federer, the 2009 champion, prevailed with a 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-0 win.

While many thought he’d refocus in the second round with a straights sets win, the qualifier Ilija Bozoljac of Serbia, proved otherwise. The 153rd player in the world used his two-handed swings, powerful game, and wacky serve to unnerve Federer. Bozoljac, who calls himself “Bozo,” took Federer to four sets before losing, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6.

In the third round, however, Federer won easily in straight sets against Arnaud Clement to set up a match with French Open semifinalist Jurgen Melzer.

Nadal has had an equally, if not more, difficult path to the second week. After a quick win in the first round over Kei Nishikori, Nadal needed five sets over Robin Haase, ranked 151st in the world. In the third round, Nadal was also pushed to the brink of defeat when Philipp Petzschner of Germany played an inspired second and third set. Nadal, warned for accepting coaching repeatedly and after taking a questionable medical timeout, beat the 39th ranked Petzschner 6-4, 4-6, 6-7, 6-2. 6-3.

Nadal will next play against Paul-Henri Mathieu of France, who ousted the 13th seed Mikhail Youzhny, in the second round.

John Isner and Nicholas Mahut Play the Longest Match Ever:

Not just the best match of the tournament so far, the 11 hour and five minute battle between Isner and Mahut is ensured to be one of the best matches for years to come. The atmosphere must have been phenomenal, and the poise both players showed at the 70-68 conclusion in Isner’s favor is to be applauded as one of the best instances of sportsmanship.

For a more detailed post on the match, click here.

While Isner lost in the second round in ironically the shortest men’s match of the first week, the American and Mahut, who qualified to get into the main draw, showed a level of dedication and passion unmatched so far. Both deserve to take the time to regroup. It’ll be exciting to witness their renewed form by the time the US Open rolls around in August.

The Queen of England Pays Wimbledon a Visit for the First Time in Decades:

On Thursday, Queens Elizabeth II watched Andy Murray beat Jarko Nieminen 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 before having lunch with Federer. She also met with many other players including: Andy Roddick, Venus and Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, Billie Jean King, and Martina Navratilova. The visit was her first at Wimbledon in 33 years.

The Williams Sisters Look Sharp in Singles and Doubles:

In contrast to the shoddy play of both Federer and Nadal, Serena and Venus look ready to take Wimbledon by storm — again. The younger sister came through the first three rounds bagel-ing her opponents in the first set each time. Her next obstacle to the finals, however, is much harder. Williams shouldn’t expect a 6-0 set against her next opponent: Maria Sharapova. Regardless, look for Williams to get the win, albeit in three sets.

Venus, while getting just one bagel set in her three rounds, looks just as good. Up next for her is the much less well-known Jarmila Groth, who’s currently ranked 92nd in the world. Expect Venus to trounce the Australian in two painless sets to make it to the quarterfinals.

In doubles, the sisters are well on the way to taking home a fifth consecutive major doubles title, improving upon their “Williams Slam.” Read more about that here.

Under the Radar – Murray and Robin Soderling Poised for Success:

With all of the drama going on, relatively little attention has been paid to the players flying through the field. Murray and Soderling, who’ve fought their way through the rounds in straight sets,  can safely be considered dark horse picks for the title with the first round scares from Federer and Nadal.

In the fourth round, both need to continue stepping up their games. Murray faces Sam Querrey, who I previously picked getting into the quarterfinals. We’ll see if that’s still the case given Murray’s fantastic play. Either way, I see that match going the lengths.

Soderling’s next match, against David Ferrer, will also be a test. Soderling’s been on fire these past few weeks, and I see no chance of this coming to a conclusion just yet. That is until he meets Nadal in the quarterfinals.

The WTA Tour is Full of Surprises:

Along with the Williams sisters and Sharapova swinging their ways easily into the second week, a bunch of surprise players are also showing their stuff. Players to look out for include: unseeded Petra Kvitova, ranked 62nd, who took out Victoria Azarenka in the third round, Klara Zakapalova, ranked 66th, and qualifier Kaia Kanepi, ranked 80th.

The draws opened wide when the French Open finalists Francesca Schiavone and Sam Stosur bowed out in first round upsets.

Props to the Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters for making their way to a 25th meeting in the fourth round. I see Henin coming through with the win in three.

Lindsay Davenport Wins First Round in Mixed Doubles:

Three-time major title winner and mother of two Davenport is back, yet again. This time, the 34-year old American played and won her first round mixed doubles match with Bob Bryan. The two won over Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and Alla Kudryavtseva 7-6 (3), 6-3.

Davenport mentioned that she’ll also be playing two other doubles events during the season leading up to the US Open. Without much pressure, look for Bryan and Davenport to sweep through the rounds and win the title.

The Curious Cases of Victor Hanescu and James Blake:

In weird fashion, both Blake and Hanescu suffered on-court drama before falling in their respective rounds. Blake, once a top ten player, now currently ranks outside of the top 100. During his match, he reportedly heard ESPN commentator Pam Shriver talking about his dismal playing, prompting some harsh remarks  during the match. Blake lost to Haase 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. Read more here.

Hanescu, who made it to the third round, was heckled by the crowd. His response? To spit. Afterward, he allegedly didn’t do his best. Hanescu foot-faulted, double-faulted, and complained his way before retiring against Germany’s Daniel Brands. The Romanian has been fined $15,000 as a result.

Belgians Break Battle of the Sexes Attendance Record

Posted in Billie Jean King,Bobby Riggs,Justine Henin,Kim Clijsters by Ben on June 9, 2010

With their champion status, enticing rivalry, and successful comebacks it is no wonder that Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters are set to break the attendance record set back in 1972 during a “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match. The “Best of the Belgians” match-up has sold 30, 670 tickets, while 30, 472 fans flocked to watch Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs play over 35 years ago.

Big events like this will tremendously help the sport’s popularity world-wide. More of these types of mass gatherings of tennis fans should take place, and not only at the Grand Slams. Instead, there should be a greater effort on the part of event and tournament planners to bring in and successfully market the sport at the largest venues possible. Not only that, but the play should transcend singles. Doubles needs to be included, too. Not only will the publicity attract a larger following of doubles fans for the future, it will help the doubles specialists who no doubt feel disenfranchised by the current state of affairs.

Regardless of what could and should be, it’s an exceptional effort being made on the part of Belgian tennis for this to occur. The Belgian tennis promoter Bob Verbeeck must surely be proud of this accomplishment. The June 8 event will no doubt be quite a match to remember.

Although only an exhibition, meaning the players don’t receive any points and typically tend to play more relaxed games, I see this being a much different affair. Because of the rivalry between Henin and Clijsters, which currently remains tied at 12 wins a piece, along with the grandeur of the attendance, I believe both with truly put up a fight. It’s not everyday that 30,000 people are watching a tennis match live. In fact, the last time was all those years ago.

I see the healthier Henin taking this one in three close sets.

Serena Takes Home Twelfth Title, Sends Henin Home in Three Superb Sets

Serena Williams has finally done it: breaking the curse that allowed her to only win the Australian Open singles championship every other year. Williams successfully defended her title against Belgium’s surprise finalist, Justine Henin, in the first three-set final since Henin’s Wimbledon final against Amelie Mauresmo at the 2006 Wimbledon with a score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

The match, which had its ups and downs, including Henin’s run of fourteen consecutive points to take it to a third set, proved that while Serena is the best player in the world, the Belgian is close behind.

With the win, Serena now matches Billie Jean King’s record of twelve Slam titles, an amazing accomplishment. Serena has shown she has what it takes to keep winning in convincing fashion, and I have no doubt she will continue with a strong showing at the French Open in May. Yes, it’s her worst surface, but after her talk with ESPN commentator Mary Joe Fernandez, Serena mentioned a desire to win on the red clay of Paris. We all know that when Serena has the desire, there is little that stands in her way.

Regarding Justine, it was a long, difficult road to the final, and for her string of points from the middle of the second set to the beginning of the third set, it looked like the comeback champion would match compatriot Kim Clijster’s superb play at the US Open. However, it was not to be. By playing in her next tournament, though, Justine should have enough points to crack the top 50, which means her seeding will drastically improve by the time the French Open, her most successful Slam, rolls around.

It should also be noted that not only did the Williams sister win alone, but beat out the top doubles team with sister, Venus Williams, to take home their eleventh Grand Slam double title. Props to Serena for her physical stamina. It’s truly impressive that she has once again strung together twelve wins, playing every day, to reign supreme.

While it’s too soon to make any definitive predictions, and only time can truly tell, based on the form shown by these two chmapions, I see both making it to the semifinals of the French Open, and possibly even further, depending on the seeding. As of now, no players on the WTA tour hold the same confidence as Serena and Henin.

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