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Tenaciously Tennis


Of Margaritas, Money and Mayhem at the WTA Championships

Put down the margarita next time, Maria. It seemed like your time to shine and reclaim the World No. 1 ranking at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, which began on October 25. That, however, was not to be with Petra Kvitova claiming the title over Victoria Azarenka. After dropping her first two matches in round robin play, the Russian withdrew from the event citing a left ankle injury she sustained in Japan weeks before.

As current World No. 2 Maria Sharapova, this year’s Wimbledon finalist, recently told reporters before the retirement: “I think I’m just fortunate enough to say that I’m here and I’m going to be competing. That, to me, is a big accomplishment by itself. The last couple of years at this time I was sipping a margarita on the beach and now I have another tournament.”

She continued: “It’s tough to talk about [No. 1] coming off the [ankle] injury in Tokyo and not even knowing if I’d be able to compete for the rest of the year.

At Istanbul, Sharapova had the chance to snatch the title from current top player Caroline Wozniacki. But by pulling out, the Dane, who’s been dating US Open golf champion Rory McIlroy, enjoys the achievement for the second year in a row.

And while the Russian chatted about drinking booze on beaches, Wozniacki offered more sober remarks about the top spot: “Of course when you’ve been No. 1 the whole year, you’d like to finish the last week as number one as well. That would mean a lot to me since not a lot of people have finished the year two times in a row as No. 1.” Congratulations, Wozniacki, for doing just that.

But this year’s WTA Championships, which saw the absence of this year’s Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters and 16-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, wasn’t only about Wozniacki and, previously, Sharapova. The competition was fierce and the predictions wonky as a cast of talented, but by no means dominating, women took to the courts.

Along with Wozniacki, reigning Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, who’s claimed three titles this year, 2011 French Open champion Li Na, two-time Grand Slam runner-up Vera Zvonareva, US Open titlist Samantha Stosur and Agnieszka Radwanska, who’s won three tournaments since August and Marion Bartoli, after Sharapova’s exit, all vied for a chance at the year’s final trophy.

Azarenka looked to have the most solid chance of taking the title out of the above cast of women with a win in Luxembourg without dropping a set.

Plus, she made some noise off-court, too. She told reporters before the event kicked off: “[Money is] a good motivation and I’d be lying if I said that we just play for the love of the game and the points. You know when you’re down you think that it could be a bit more money and it might pump you up a bit.”

Well, it’s no margarita, but that kind of cash could be enough reason for the Belarusian to notch the biggest win of her young (and loud) career one day. This just wasn’t quite her year.

Congratulations to Kvitova on a huge win after a wonderful Wimbledon. Let’s see how the current World No. 2 fares in 2012.

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Roland Garros Wrap-Up with No Rhyme or Reason

The French Open finished Sunday with a sixth title for Rafael Nadal, beating none other Roger Federer (or as the commentators repeatedly called him during his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic: grandpa) in the process. Meanwhile, Na Li triumphed over Francesca Schiavone to become the first Chinese player to win a major title. How’s that for some pretty nifty results at a tournament that this year featured an interesting parallel: the four top-seeded men advanced to the semifinals, while their female counterparts couldn’t quite cut it to even deep in the second week.

The tournament also brought the farewell of personal favorite Patty Schnyder, whose style of game will be missed. Meanwhile, one game got back on track as Maria Sharapova, the self-proclaimed “cow on ice” didn’t get tipped until the wind seemingly knocked her knowledge of serving against Li in the semis. Too bad for Maria, but she’ll manage fine at Wimbledon, I’m sure.

Even with a draw unknown, look for Sharapova to get to the semifinals, provided the weather stays on course. I mean, really? Double-faulting on match point? That’s not the Sharapova of 2008. But glimpses of brilliance were there. Think the match against Andrea Petkovic, for example. A little revenge for that loss at the Australian Open, no doubt.

Djokovic’s streak got snapped, and he looked mighty dejected for most of the match. Wozniacki succumbed to pressure and poor play, as did 2010 finalist Sam Stosur. Will Wimbledon raise their games back to levels of success and dominance, or will they wilt under the weight of even more expectations? How about the Williams sisters? When will they be back?

Time will tell, and, thankfully for the fans, that time is rapidly approaching. Let’s leave behind the drama of Roland Garros and experience the tradition of Wimbledon.

2011 French Open Predictions: WTA Tour

With the first matches of the 2011 French Open underway, here are some last minute predictions on who will hoist the title with a number of key players, including Serena and Venus Williams, out with injury. Maria Sharapova looks confident as ever, breaking back into the top ten. Meanwhile, Caroline Wozniacki’s consistency might just prove enough to win her a title in the weakened field. Last year’s winner Francesca Schiavone also has a chance, although she faces a tough first round against the American sweetheart, Melanie Oudin.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Section: This tough first section features a lot of talented players, many of whom have seen a recent drop in the rankings. As typical of her game, Wozniacki has proven tremendously solid in her last few clay tournaments, winning in Brussels and Charleston. She’ll take that same consistency to Roland Garros, and hopefully make that next leap by getting to her second Grand Slam final. At least, it seems highly likely that she can break past last year’s finalist Sam Stosur this year, for a spot beyond the quarters. Quite notably, Stosur had a strong clay season, making it to the finals against Sharapova in Rome before falling to the Russian in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4.

Ones to Watch: Again, this top section is laden with a multitude of talent, including Daniela Hantuchova, Shahar Peer, Aravane Rezai, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Julia Goerges, Tsvetana Pironkova, and Marion Bartoli. I’ll go with Kuznetsova to make a strong showing from these players.

Bottom Line: This is Wozniacki’s tournament to win on the women’s side. She’s proven she has the capability, it’s just a matter of translation to the Grand Slams at this point, especially when the field is relatively wide open. The bottom section of the draw, however, is very heavy, trying to prevent her from hoisting that maiden title.

Vera Zvonareva’s Section: Here’s another heavy section of the draw, featuring last year’s surprise champion, Schiavone. After a strong stretch on clay, however, the no. 3 seed Zvonareva hasn’t been looking as sharp on the clay court circuit thus far. It looks like Schiavone might have the chance to put together some of last year’s confidence to produce the magical, fairytale story that won her a first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros. In the end, however, I’m going against her from winning again.

Ones to Watch: Another heavy part of the draw, this section holds players, including Sabine Lisicki, Nadia Petrova, Alize Cornet, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Jelena Jankovic, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Flavia Pennetta, Peng Shuai, and Melanie Oudin (who gets Schiavone first). Of these names, Jankovic, who made the semifinals last year before falling to Stosur 6-1, 6-2, stands out most. Look for her to make the upset against Schiavone in the fourth round.

Bottom Line: Zvonareva battles through her section and the tough Pavlyuchenkova. There she’ll meet Jankovic in the quarterfinals (the winner over 2010 champion Schiavone).

Victoria Azarenka’s Section: The number four player in the world looks poised to go deep at this year’s French Open, having dropped her first round match against Gisela Dulko last year. Her biggest competition comes with Australian Open finalist Na Li and Serbia’s resurgent Ana Ivanovic.

Ones to Watch: Ivanovic, the champion in 2008, obviously has the talent to win on the biggest courts. As of late, however, she seems to have returned to a slump in play, falling early in Rome and Madrid. As the no. 20 seed, however, look for her to find some of her form to get a match against Azarenka in the fourth round. Petra Kvitova, the no. 9 seed, also looks ready to roll in this section, potentially defeating Li to do much better than last year’s disappointing first round loss. Additionally, Kvitova’s fresh off a win in Madrid against Azarenka, beating the Belarussian, 7-6(3), 6-4 and also making the final in Prague more recently. Also, props to American Sloane Stephens for battling her way through to the qualifying. A personal favorite, she meets up with Elena Baltacha first.

Bottom Line: Azarenka advances to the quarterfinals over Ivanovic, meeting Kvitova (the winner over Li).

Kim Clijsters’ Section: Since winning the Australian Open, Clijsters hasn’t played much tennis. Meanwhile, Sharapova has just the opposite experience, claiming her biggest career title since succumbing to a shoulder injury in 2008 with a title in Rome over Stosur. Look for Sharapova to defeat Clijsters, who may lose earlier due to her ankle injury, in the quarterfinals.

Ones to Watch: But before we go claiming a Sharapova victory, it’s important to note the wide range in talent that appears in this section of the draw. Players of particular note include: Yanina Wickmayer, Sania Mirza, Agnieszka Radwanska, Andrea Petkovic, Jarmila Gajdosova, Bojana Jovanovski, and Maria Kirilenko. Look for Wickmayer to give Sharapova trouble, while Petkovic has the potential to defeat the injured Clijsters.

Bottom Line: Sharapova keeps stringing the wins together on clay to defeat Clijsters in the quarterfinals.

In the Quarterfinals: Given the above predictions, we’ll see Wozniacki take on Stosur; Zvonareva against Jankovic; Kvitova versus Azarenka; and Sharapova versus Clijsters.

In the Semifinals: Look for Wozniacki to defeat Stosur; Jankovic to beat Zvonareva; Azarenka to win against Kvitova; and Sharapova to defeat Clijsters.

Petra Kvitova: The WTA’s Next Big Star?

With her recent straight sets win over the newest world number one Kim Clijsters in the Paris final, Petra Kvitova looks sharp. Her game is big, her form is on, and the 20-year old has the results to prove the hype.

Currently ranked a career-high 18th (and on an upward trend with the win in Paris), Kvitova made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year, reaffirming her semifinal showing at the 2010 Wimbledon as something more than a fluke. She took out Sam Stosur in the Sunny Slam, before falling to Vera Zvonareva a couple rounds later as the tournament’s 25th seed. She also started the year with a bang, winning the Brisbane title over Andrea Petkovic. A title in Hobart in 2009 rounds off the successes of her young career.

In a WTA that’s had some recent problems with intensity, spurred on by Serena Williams’ foot injury, the retirements of Elena Dementieva and Justine Henin, a slew of world number ones that went without a major, and more, this year’s Australian Open proved a welcome contrast. With Na Li representing China in the event’s final and strong play from up-and-comers, like Kvitova, the tour looks poised for a bright present, and a brighter future.

Kvitova seems to symbolize that future.

For a sampling of her play, check out this clip from the Aussie Open third round below.

Serena Williams to Play Exhibition: Why Tennis Needs Her Now

Serena Williams needs to get better, quickly. Skipping out of the last couple majors with a foot injury sustained after her win at Wimbledon in July, it’s been long enough.

And not only for the purposes of her own career — Serena recently dropped out of the top ten for the first time in about four years –, but also to resuscitate the current state of American tennis. Andy Roddick didn’t do too hot at the Aussie Open, neither did Sam Querrey or John Isner on the men’s side. For the women, there’s sister Venus, who retired in the third round and is currently sidelined with injury after hurting her hip during her second round match against Sandra Zahlavova. US Open sensation Melanie Oudin continues to disappoint, too, with a first round loss at the Australian Open.

It’d be nice to get the WTA-dominating force that is Serena back on the big stages. Kim Clijsters pretty much owns that role now in unchallenged fashion. Remember, she dropped just one set at the Sunny Slam and that came in the final against Li. Justine Henin’s retirement also leaves more room for the Belgian to keep conquering competition.

But, apparently, things are starting to look up for the younger Williams sister as she’ll be (potentially) playing in March at a Nike exhibition with other big names Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. United States Fed Cup captain Mary Jo Fernandez also said Serena would be available to playing in a possible April tie. Given her track record, I wouldn’t count on it, although she’d needs to be around for two to play in the 2012 Olympics.

The real thing is: We need Serena at majors again. Sure, this year’s Australian Open was a feel-good story featuring the lovable mom Aussie Kim triumphing over Chinese sensation Li Na in a high-stakes, historic match. The whole tournament, however, wasn’t the same without Serena. Plus, who wants to keep a Grand Slam singles title count at an unlucky number 13?

Also, Serena’s absence is making mother Oracene antsy. She recently went Twitter-crazy, writing, “Will some one tweet me who is in the final on the women’s side?” and after getting the answer, “Thank you I hope Na is not to nervous to kick some butt,” among many other comments. Poor Oracene, she wouldn’t have to stoop to that level. If only she should could just enjoy her daughters’ success at majors.

Well, the drought continues, but let’s hope for not much longer. When March rolls around, let’s see an in-shape Serena on court, who’s back to stay.

The WTA Australian Open Final’s Real Story: Battle of the Supportive Husbands

Posted in Kim Clijsters,Na Li by Ben on January 29, 2011

I contributed to the blog Tennis Served Fresh again.  Here’s an excerpt of my work about Brian Lynch and Jiang Shan, the supportive husbands behind Kim Clijsters and Li Na.

The final of this year’s Australian Open women’s event signifies more than a battle pitting Belgium’s three-time US Open champ Kim Clijsters against Chinese tennis’ greatest hope, Li Na. It’s also the story of two husbands: retired basketball player Brian Lynch and Jiang Shan, a former tennis player-turned-coach.

To read this story in its entirety, see here.

Li Makes Australian Open Final in Historic Win

Posted in Caroline Wozniacki,Na Li by Ben on January 27, 2011

China’s Na Li advanced to the 2011 Australian Open final over the world number one Caroline Wozniacki in three sets. After saving a match point, she won 3-6, 7-5, 6-3. By winning, she becomes the first Chinese woman to make it to a major final.

In a tense match throughout, Li continually fought from behind to come up with superb shot-making. In the third, she started hitting more freely as Wozniacki’s defenses faltered.

Li, however, suffered from more than just a shaky serve before edging Wozniacki in the match, according to on-court interview after the match. Unafraid to make her husband and coach Jiang Shan the brunt of her jokes, she cited his snoring as keeping her up every hour. Despite the supposed lack of sleep the night before, however, she made the shots when it matted most.

In another marital twist, there was confusion when the win was stated as marking the day of Li’s fifth marriage anniversary. That, however, was debunked. Incredulous, Li denied the claim — and the apparently incorrect media notes. Apparently, the 29th is the real date.

In a moment of humor, Li said the promise of more prize money helped her save that match point during the second set, drawing raucous laughter from the crowd. We all know, of course, that it’s something much more powerful than that.

Whatever the reason, for now, it’s simply historic. And we may recall Li’s straightforward summation of the victory: “I will always be the first one.”

Australian Open Predictions 2011: WTA Tour, Week Two

With the final four women set, it’s time to revise predictions for the 2011 Australian Open tournament’s future path on WTA tour. Here’s a look at the last women standing.

Previously predictingHenin to face Venus and Clijsters against Zvonareva in the final four,” it’s been injury making this reality far from possible. While Henin suffered what she recently announced as a career-ending elbow injury (more on that to come) in the third round against Svetlana Kuznetsova, Williams retired versus Andrea Petkovic, who defeated Maria Sharapova in straight sets, in the third round, too. Of course, the competitors to advance in lieu of this two champions couldn’t be more talented. The world number one Caroline Wozniacki and last year’s semifinalist Na Li have been dominant so far in their respective runs to the final four.

For the semifinals, here are my picks.

Wozniacki versus Li:

Both players have hit their way to the semifinals in fine form. Wozniack dropped just one set — against Francesca Schiavone in the quarterfinals — and Li hasn’t lost one yet. Their overall career head-to-head (counting exhibitions matches) leaves them at 2-2 with Wozniacki winning the last meeting in a Hong Kong exhibition earlier this year. In a major, however, Li won their only meeting in straight sets at last year’s Australian Open in the fourth round. That should give her some confidence going in this match. Plus,  she hasn’t lost a match this year, and I see her powering through the world number one to make her first major singles final.

Bottom Line: Li defeats Wozniacki in straight sets to advance.

Zvonareva versus Clijsters:

In the bottom half, which I predicted correctly, the world number two and world number three will face in a rematch of the 2010 US Open final. There, Clijsters’ experience paid off. She won 6-2, 6-1. With a head-to-head also in Clijsters’ favor at 6-3, they have played a number of three set matches together. Although not at their highest level throughout this tournament, Clijsters hasn’t dropped a set and Zvonareva lost only one in her match versus an up-and-coming Bojana Jovanovski. They’ll both bring their big games to the semifinals where Clijsters will find the form that has won her three US Open titles.

Bottom Line: Clijsters beats Zvonareva in straight sets.

In the Finals:

Clijsters and Li have a competitive history in their past, which should show in the Australian Open final. Li beat the Belgian in their last meeting earlier this year in the Sydney final although it initially seemed that Clijsters was in control. It will, however, be her first Grand Slam final.

Despite Loss, Jovanovski Poised for Future Success

Bojana Jovanovski has proven that she’s one to watch in the coming months.  Ranked 58th, she recently gave world number two Vera Zvonareva a fight in the Australian Open’s second round. With powerful strokes on both sides and a strong fighting spirit, Jovanovski handled herself like a future top ten player. She lost to the Wimbledon and US Open finalist in three sets, 2-6, 6-3, 6-1.

As the youngest player in the top 100 at age 19, Jovanovski came into the Aussie Open with some solid wins  to begin 2011. She advanced to the semifinals at Sydney, beating Kaia Kanepi, Aravane Rezai, and Flavia Pennetta (all ranked inside the top 30) in straight sets. Jovanovski lost to the eventual champion Na Li of China.

If she can improve her fitness and get more experience as the season progress, the third-ranked Serb — after Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic — will be an even greater threat.

Watch below for a fun interview of Jovanovski from Brisbane earlier this year.

Australian Open 2011 Predictions: WTA Tour

Note: Please see my most recent predictions for the WTA tour’s 2011 Australian Open here.

Serena Williams is out of her second consecutive major, and that means only one thing: the draw opens up substantially. Who can rise to the occasion with the favorite out of the mix? Will it be Kim Clijsters, who comes fresh off wins at the US Open and the year-ending championships, and has done well so far in 2011? There’s also Caroline Wozniaki trying to prove her number one ranking by her maiden Grand Slam title. Last year’s finalist Justine Henin must be mentioned, while Venus Williams plays after a knee injury kept her off tour. The Australian Open this year is bound for some surprises. Here’s a breakdown of the brackets.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Section:

The top seed should make it to the fourth round with Wozniacki’s toughest competition being Dominika Cibulkova. The 29th-seed recently scored a straight sets win over the Dane in Sydney. In the bottom of that portion of the draw, Yanina Wickmayer could very well defeat Marion Bartoli with confidence inspired by her finals showing in Auckland. Bartoli, however, does enjoy a 2-0 head-to-head record over Wickmayer.

In the bottom half, last year’s finalist Henin looms as the 15th-seed with Svetlana Kuznetsova as a potential third round match. The reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone also looks promising to advance. Henin, however, has won seven of eight matches against the Italian.

Ones-to-Watch: Australian Jarmila Groth recently won the Hobart tournament and may pose trouble for Wickmayer in the first round. The two met only once in 2009 with Wickmayer pulling through in three sets. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Wimbledon semifinalist, who has been struggling since the result, also appear in Wozniacki’s bracket.

Bottom Line: Wozniacki has some tough tests, but I believe she’ll advance to the quarterfinals over Wickmayer. Henin shouldn’t have a problem against Schiavone.

Venus Williams’ Section:

Here’s home to the fourth-seed, Venus, who faces a couple tests before the fourth round. In the third round, Andrea Petkovic could push her. The two have never met, and Petkovic looks confident with a recent string of wins in Brisbane. In the fourth round, however, Venus potentially meets Maria Sharapova. The head-to-head makes the Russian’s  possible success slim as Venus leads 5-3 in their head-to-head. She’s also won the last three matches in straight sets.

It’ll be a toss-up between 2010 semifinalist Na Li and the ever spirited Victoria Azarenka in their probable fourth round match.

Ones-to-Watch: The other seeded players, Kaia Kanepi (no. 20), Aravane Rezai (no. 17) and Daniela Hantuchova (no. 28) also appear here.

Bottom Line: Venus will likely defeat Sharapova, while Li can take out Azarenka in a battle.

Kim Clijsters’ Section:

Possibly the most open part of the draw belongs to Clijsters, where she’ll no doubt benefit. Competition comes in the form of Nadia Petrova and Ana Ivanovic. Clijsters, however, should get through to the quarterfinals unless Ivanovic can out-perform her in the fourth round. It’ll be an interesting match between Clijsters and Dinara Safina in the first round.

With a struggling Jelena Jankovic as the seventh-seed (she’s lost eight of her last matches, including six straight) at the top, the section looks perfect for an up-and-comer to make a move. Agnieszka Radwanska (no. 12), although she’s battling some injury, might do well. Jankovic can also squeak through the bracket as she has before. One never knows with the former world number one.

Ones-to-Watch: Personal favorite Patty Schnyder could meet Ivanovic in the second round. Greta Arn, the surprise winner of Auckland, also appears in this section, facing the 26th-seed, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, in the first round.

Bottom Line: Jankovic looks like a big question mark, while Clijsters should sail through to the second week.

Vera Zvonareva’s Section:

One of the strongest sections of the 2011 Australian Open on the WTA tour, this bracket is home to the second-seeded Zvonareva and home-favorite Sam Stosur (no. 5). These two names stand above the rest, although there are some, such as Petra Kvitova (no. 25), Shahar Peer (no. 10), and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (no. 16), who serve as fierce competition.

In a potential fourth round match, Kvitova, who won Brisbane — but lost in a walkover at Sydney — would face Stosur. The Australian hasn’t been quite up to form as she lost to Kuznetsova in Sydney’s second round.  Israel’s Peer would probably face the victor. Zvonareva lost to Flavia Pennetta — also of this bracket — early in Sydney. Zvonareva should, however, shake off the loss to make a run to the quarterfinals.

Ones-to-Watch: American Melanie Oudin might make a move in her section of the draw, where she’d face Zvonareva in a potential third round match. There’s also Maria Kirilenko (no. 22) and Anna Chakvetadze.

Bottom Line: It looks like Zvonareva and Stosur get through to the quarterfinals, but not without some strong tests from a number of good competition.

In the Quarterfinals: With the above predictions, the quarterfinals will showcase Wozniacki against Henin; Venus against Li; (potentially) Jankovic against Clijsters; and Stosur versus Zvonareva.

In the Semifinals: Watch for Henin to face Venus and Clijsters against Zvonareva in the final four.

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