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Tenaciously Tennis


Indian Wells 2012: A Fearsome Flu and Fresh Faces

It’s been a weird few days at Indian Wells with a ferocious flu taking down scores of players, trainers, and even journalists, while new American talent has been breaking through to the final few days of action in the California heat. The stomach viruses’ victim count so far is estimated at approximately 30, including stars Vera Zvonareva and Gael Monfils.

The flu’s latest casualty? American wild card Jamie Hampton, 22, who couldn’t deal with the cramps and fatigue. She retired during the third set versus World No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska. It’s too bad; Hampton seemed to find her game despite trailing 3-0 in the final set. She enjoyed the momentum by taking the second set 6-4. Ultimately, illness proved too much. Hampton should leave feeling proud. Ranked No. 99, she’s making a serious breakthrough into the big leagues and the third-round is a quality advance. Hampton took out former World No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in round one and Jarmila Gajdosova in the second.

Said Hampton: “At the end of the second [against Radwanska] it hit me and I knew it was coming. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.” And this type of thing has happened in the past for the up-and-comer; she’s suffered from cramps five times already in her young career, forcing her to quit the match. Yet she says she “hydrates and eats the right way, according to a Ticker post on Tennis.com. A visit to a specialist  is in her future, which is a good call for a player who can definitely do major damage if she keeps the fuel going for further upward trajectory.

Bowing out in another close match was the No. 32 seed and New Jersey-native Christina McHale. The giant killer — think Cincinnati 2011 and my shameless self-promotion here — added Petra Kvitova to her list, taking out the World No. 3 in round two. The 18th-seeded Angelique Kerber, the surprise 2011 US Open semifinalist, however, proved to be a little too much to handle, edging past the 19-year old 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(4). McHale, although not quite as new a face as Hampton, summons the fresh and hopeful feelings of where American women’s tennis is going in a time of crisis. The Williams sisters aren’t getting any younger, and their typical absence at Indian Wells this week always makes it even more pronounced. Regardless, expect a top 20 ranking for McHale by the year’s end (if not by the time Roland Garros rolls around).

In other WTA news, Ana Ivanovic has pushed past the stomach bug and her own insecurities, downing former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets with her huge forehand. The No. 15-seeded Serb might finally be ready to go on a roll and reclaim her rightful place in the Top 10 after confidence issues sapped her game post-Roland Garros victory 2008.

On the men’s side, American Ryan Harrison, 19,  has advanced to the final 16. He’s had huge success at Indian Wells in the past, advancing to the fourth round last year after securing a solid win over Canadian Milos Raonic (before losing to Roger Federer in straights). This year, it’s been more of the same. He took out Guillermo Garcia-Lopez just like in 2011, while also claiming solid wins over Viktor Troicki and Flavio Cipolla. Up next: the No. 13 seed Gilles Simon, who’s entirely beatable if Harrison can keep calm and not let the Frenchman’s tricky counter-punching style unsettle his power.

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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.

Serena, Venus Williams Ousted in Wimbledon Fourth Round

The comebacks of Serena and Venus Williams were cut short today with fourth round losses at their second tournament back since injury layoffs. For Serena, the Centre Court defeat came at the hands of Marion Bartoli, while Venus lost to her conqueror of last year, Tsvetana Pironkova.

These relatively early exits aren’t entirely surprising. Both sisters have shone signs of struggle and rust in their returns, dodging many a close three set drama en route to the sweet 16.

Should we be worried about the form of the top American prospects to hoist more Grand Slam titles? No. Remember, Serena suffered greatly to even make it to this stage, while Venus hasn’t played much more than her younger sister in the past year. If anything, it’s a surprise that the Williams’ could even make it this far. But, then again, is it? Especially with the current state of the women’s game. Caroline Wozniacki, he No. 1 seed, failed to advance from Day Seven action, too, losing to Dominika Cibulkova. The Dane has yet to win a Grand Slam title, and that disappointment will continue until who knows when.

But, back to the sisters. Of course, they’re champions in the sport for a reason (countless reasons, in fact). This marks just a tiny blip in the distinguished Wimbledon careers of both. They’ve won nine out of 11 Wimbledon crowns, and they’re likely to win more going forward.

Watch out US Open contenders because these losses will only fuel even greater competitive spirit, especially on the hard courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. They have a lot to prove, too. While Venus made it to the semifinals in her 2010 bid, the last time Serena stepped on court, she left in disgrace after the infamous foot fault inspired her “tirade.”

How the saga continues is anyone’s guess, but that’s one of the most compellings parts about these two champions.

For more of my coverage of the Williams sisters throughout this tournament and since their comebacks, check out here and here.

Serena Williams: After Three Set Battle, a Champion Sheds Tears at Wimbledon

After a yearlong injury layoff, Serena Williams is finally back and feeling thankful for every minute she gets on court. Having played at Eastbourne last week, during which she beat last year’s Wimbledon semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova before falling to runner-up Vera Zvonareva, the 2010 Wimbledon champion looked shaky upon return. Shaky, but determined.

Seeded 7th at Wimbledon given her grass court success at the All England Club last year, the four-time champion shed tears of joy after serving an ace to take the match against France’s Aravane Rezai 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.

Of the tears and her win, Serena said, “I usually don’t cry… but it’s just been so hard. I never dreamt I would be here right now. And then to win. I just wanted to win at least one match here.”

She continued, “It’s been a disaster year, but I’ve been praying. To be able to come back at Wimbledon is pretty awesome. I didn’t expect to play. And I didn’t expect to even do anything. So I’m just excited. I’ve never cried with joy for anything.”

While she’s simply amazed to be into the second round, opponents beware: this is an especially determined Serena who isn’t taking her time on tour for granted at all. Maybe she never has in the past, but going forward she certainly never will.

It’s great to see a 13-time Grand Slam winner given a second chance to succeed doing what she loves most after such life-threatening events, and it’s beautiful to appreciate the tears of a champion in just the first round.

For a video of Serena’s win and post-match reaction, see below.

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.

Excerpt of ‘Serena Goes Sexy in Game Ad’ from Tennis Served Fresh

Check out another post I wrote for the blog Tennis Served Fresh about Serena’s steamy new ad for Top Spin 4.

Let’s just call this Serena Williams’ version of a sex tape. While Serena can’t get dirty on the court these days, she’s doing her best to emulate BBF (Best Booty Friend) Kim Kardashian and get steamy – off it. As reported by the New York Daily News, Serena’s commercial for Top Spin 4 may be “too hot for TV.” Dubbed the “world’s sexiest tennis player,” the ad pits her against Rileah Vanderbilt, named the “world’s sexiest tennis gamer” (guess we missed that press release). The two tennis hotties (or drag queens in disguise – as some have commented) wear revealing black leotards, serenaded by a kind of grunting that probably should never be uttered on a tennis court. If that’s not enough, flames spurt around Vanderbilt as she hits an awkward backhand and golden confetti rains around Serena’s purple strands of hair.

To read this story in its entirety, see here.

Safina’s Talk of Retirement: A Thing of the Past?

So, apparently, Russia’s Dinara Safina contemplated retiring after the embarrassing 6-0, 6-0 loss to Kim Clijsters at this year’s Australian Open. Big deal, right? I mean, these days, the ladies are either injured — think the Williams sisters — or they’re, well, finished — think Elena Dementieva and Justine Henin.

She recently told reporters that “After Australia there was a moment I came to Moscow for the Fed Cup. I said to my mom [Rausa], ‘I’m retiring. I said, ‘I don’t want any more of this.” Apparently, momma Safina helped talk her daughter out of the decision, although the two don’t usually talk tennis.

Safina continued, “That moment I felt like [mom] was the person who knows me. That I could really speak it out what I have deep inside, and that was the thing with her. I knew it would also hurt her, but I cannot keep it anymore inside.  So I went to her. She was the closest one for me.”

After that, the Cinderella story happens, and Safina finds herself in the third round of these year’s Indian Well tournament. She’s had modest success on the hard courts of Cali, making it to the quarters both in ’06 and ’09. Now, her play here is pretty impressive for a woman who hasn’t put together two consecutive wins since September.

With Sam Stosur up next, the 108th player in the world will face a tough test. After being on the brink of retirement and with nothing to lose, however, an upset might just be in store.

For more on Safina’s win over Daniela Hantuchova, click here.

Excerpt of ‘Bad Blood — Old and New’ from Tennis Served Fresh

Here’s another contribution to the blog Tennis Served Fresh about what’s going on in the tennis world.

When it rains… After a gay Sunday night spent feteing the Oscars — both at the Elton John AIDS Foundation viewing party and at the beautifully lit Vanity Fair party at the Sunset Tower hotel — Serena’s week has turned sour. The 13-time major champion, who’s been sidelined with a foot injury since last June (her last match was the 2010 Wimbledon final), will likely be out for at least six months because of a pulmonary embolism, as reported by People.com. Williams’ representative, Nicole Chabot: “Monday Serena Williams underwent emergency treatment at Cedars [-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles] for a hematoma she suffered as a result of treatment for a more critical situation. Last week, Serena suffered from a pulmonary embolism [a blood clot in the lungs] which was discovered upon her return to L.A. She had been in New York for doctor appointments for the ongoing issues with her foot.”

To read this story in its entirety, see here.

Excerpt of ‘Goodbye, Counselor’ from Tennis Served Fresh

Here’s another contribution to the blog Tennis Served Fresh about what’s going on in the tennis world.

Forget becoming an esthetician, Serena Williams is taking on a new career as a lineswoman. The sidelined former no. 1 won’t be playing in a much-anticipated return at the Nike exhibition on March 8. Instead, she’ll be a referee. That’s tough luck for the 12,000 fans expecting to see the 13-time major champion’s form alongside Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. Citing the foot injury that’s been kept her out since after Wimbledon, Serena released the following statement: “I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to play … as I had anticipated. I’m thrilled, however, to still be able to participate … in the exhibition as a referee during the mixed doubles.”

To read this story in its entirety, see here.

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