Victoria Chiesa

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Martina Hingis: Rewriting a Fairytale

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For most athletes, enshrinement in their sport’s Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of lifelong achievement; the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the self-titled “Home of the Legends of Tennis,” is no different. Eternal recognition of greatness is truly the highest honor in sport, above the grand slams, the titles, the endorsements and the prize money. At the same time, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame carries a sense of finality; it is meant to close the book on athletes’ careers in their minds and the minds of the public, all while allowing the masses to recollect and appreciate all that they achieved. It’s the happy ending to the fairytale.

For Martina Hingis, who had twice been denied the chance to end her legendary career on her own terms, induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July marked something completely different.

Shortly after her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the five-time Grand Slam champion announced that she would be making a return to the WTA in doubles this summer. Hingis has committed to play five events, starting this week at the Southern California Open in Carlsbad. She will partner Daniela Hantuchova for the duration; the pair will also play together in Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven and at the US Open. For now, Hingis has only planned a comeback in doubles; rumors have nonetheless been circulating that she is merely testing the waters for a full-fledged return in singles.

Whatever Hingis decides, chances are high that her third foray into the fray will be her last. Despite being considered one of the all-time greats in tennis, Hingis’ competitive career was comparatively short compared to her contemporaries. Hingis was on top of the world at the tender age of 16, and won all five of her Grand Slam singles titles before the age of 19. Nagging heel and ankle injuries resulted in two surgeries, and Hingis’ teenage dream was over at the age of 22.

The Swiss Miss returned in 2005, but as the old saying goes, sequels are never as good as the original. She lost the first singles match of her return in Pattaya City to Marlene Weingärtner. She claimed she had no further plans for a comeback, but success in World TeamTennis prompted her to announce a full comeback for 2006. She added three more titles in her second chapter, including a record fifth in Tokyo, and won the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award in 2006.

At Wimbledon in 2007, however, Hingis tested positive for trace amounts of cocaine and was handed a two-year suspension from the sport. Despite vehemently proclaiming her innocence, she chose not to fight the ban and retired for a second time. With the recent scandals regarding doping in major professional sports, as well as the ITF’s suspension of Viktor Troicki, it’s understandable that Hingis’ return could be met with some apprehension from critics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Despite her past controversy, Hingis’ return has been met with positive fanfare; in addition, her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame speaks volumes. A panel of 125 journalists from around the world votes for the incoming class, and in addition to weighing a player’s accomplishments, “consideration will be given to integrity, sportsmanship and character.” With her immortality recorded in Newport, the book was thought to be closed on Hingis’ career.

However, between injuries and a suspension, one of the game’s greats never got to write her own ending.

Hingis, unlike other prodigies in sport, has always had a deep-seeded love for her craft; in return, tennis fans around the world have a deep-seeded love for her court craft, guile and intelligence. Despite two “careers,” Hingis never had a farewell tour. This is her chance. Every good story has character development, plot twists, and perhaps most importantly, a resolution. It seems only right that she gets the chance to begin (and end) the final chapter of a storied career on her terms.

Anne Keothavong Calls it a Career

Anne Keothavong, who spent a sizable portion of her career as Great Britain’s No. 1 tennis player, announced her decision to retire from professional tennis on Wednesday. In a career that spanned 12 years, the 29-year-old Keothavong won 20 titles on the ITF circuit and reached seven WTA semifinals; in fact, she was the only British player to reach a WTA semifinal in the 20-year period from 1992 to 2012.

“I have given my decision a lot of thought and I believe this is the right time to move on to the next stage of my career,” she said. “I have had some magical moments along the way. I think I am leaving tennis in excellent shape with both Laura Robson and Heather Watson leading the way for Britain in the women’s game.”

In her most successful period, Keothavong made her top 100 debut in May 2008 and arrived in the top 50 in February 2009 at a career-high of No. 48; at that point, she was the first British woman to be ranked in the top 50 in 16 years. During that time, she reached the third round of the US Open in 2008 and recorded three of her career semifinals in 2009.

Unfortunately, numerous injuries halted the progress of her career, and the worst of these came as Keothavong was having that career year in 2009. At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Keothavong ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her left knee during a doubles match. She had previously suffered a similar injury early in her career in 2004. Keothavong was unable to play another match that year, and her ranking slipped to the lower rung of the top 100.

Keothavong’s career was defined by her incredible tenacity and determination, both on the court and off it. Despite a litany of injuries including not one, but two knee surgeries, she bounced back each time. In her return to the main tour following her knee surgery in 2010, Keothavong reached the semifinals in Memphis by defeating Kristina Barrios, Michelle Larcher de Brito and Karolina Sprem in straight sets; she fell in three sets to eventual runner-up Sofia Arvidsson in the semifinals. Later that year, she reached her second semifinal in Luxembourg on the back of a protected ranking.

Backed by her big serve an forehand, Keothavong played in the main draw at Wimbledon for 13 consecutive years. Unbeknownst to spectators at the time, Keothavong’s last career match came at Wimbledon this year in a first round loss to Garbiñe Muguruza. Nonetheless, it seemed somewhat fitting that Great Britain’s most successful player of the past two decades got to close out her career at home on Centre Court.

Keothavong and Elena Baltacha, who flew the Union Jack on the WTA for the better part of a decade, have left an impression on British women’s tennis that far outshines their results. The pair help bridge the generational gap from Jo Durie and Sam Smith to Heather Watson and Laura Robson.While neither were praised as natural or fluid ball-strikers in the vein that Robson has been, the pair maximized their talents through hard work. In addition, both showed incredible dedication to playing for their country; Keothavong played 14 ties for Great Britain in Fed Cup, contesting 44 total matches.

In retirement, Keothavong will join the BT Sport broadcast team that will cover 21 WTA events, including the WTA Championships.

Holding Out for a Hero

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The word hero, in all of its various forms, is thrown around quite often in sports. Professional athletes are placed on a pedestal, expected to walk the straight and narrow and act as role models for the youth of the world. In tennis, the word hero is often associated with the word gladiator. Matches are played out one-on-one in an enclosed arena. When players come through long and arduous matches, they are hailed as warriors and fighters. The WTA’s previous global ad campaign, entitled “Looking for a Hero?”, was one of its most successful.

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An athlete isn’t a hero because he uses physical strength and endurance to win. That’s his job. An athlete isn’t a hero because she goes out and wins multiple championships. That’s her goal. Heroism isn’t playing through an injury and coming out with a victory, and heroism isn’t rolling through the field to win a grand slam.

Despite all that, the word hero has not lost its luster in sports.

The ESPYs, ESPN’s annual fan-driven award show to celebrate athletic achievement in the past calendar year, takes itself far more seriously than it should. Ironically, it is the only awards show in the history of awards shows that doesn’t actually signify achievement in anything. Actors and directors measure their careers based on Oscars and Golden Globes, while musicians covet Grammys. But athletes? Each individual sport has its championships and each individual organization has its awards, medals and accolades. From the outside, the ESPYs seem like a colossal waste of time; in fact, they might even represent everything that’s wrong with professional sports today: over-the-top pomp and circumstance, glossy hero-worship, excessive media hype and dollar signs.

However, for approximately 20 minutes each year, the ESPYs do give us one thing: the chance to be inspired by a true hero. The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is one of the only awards of the night that is not decided by fan voting; it is completely independent of the popularity contest and media circus. The award is presented to someone who “reflects the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” While a sports-themed award, the recipient does not have to be an athlete or even a sports figure; nonetheless, its honorees have given us some of the most memorable moments in sports history. In the first year of the ESPYs, Jimmy V told us, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Last year, we backed Pat and she told us to “keep on keeping on.”

Last night, Robin Roberts received the 20th Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in the history of the ESPYs. Roberts, who has ties to the tennis family, is currently an anchor for ABC’s Good Morning America. A star athlete in her youth and record-holding basketball player at Southeastern Louisiana, she joined ESPN in 1990 and served with them for 15 years. Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she returned back to the airwaves. Last year, however, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease that developed as a side effect from her treatment. Roberts needed, and received, a bone marrow transplant that saved her life.

Roberts, who was a friend of Ashe and was presented the award by LeBron James, received a standing ovation from those present in the arena. “It’s not so much what we’ve accomplished that we remember,” Roberts said in her acceptance speech, “it’s what we overcome.”

Despite all of its flaws, the ESPYs, and by extension sport as a whole, provides viewers with a stage to have these stories told. Athletes and sports figures can be heroes, but not solely for athletic achievement; Jimmy V, Pat, Robin and others are figures that transcend sports. They’ve taken up a platform and embraced that stage for the greater good. That is the thing, and not the number of championships, golds medals, or slam trophies present in their cabinets, that is the most inspiring.

Simona Halep’s Steady Rise

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The transition from the junior to the professional circuit in tennis is never an easy one. Aside from the daunting physical transition between the two circuits, the tennis itself could classify as a different sport. Strategies that are successful on the junior circuit rarely, if ever, translate to winning matches on the WTA and ATP tours. Over the past half-decade, many of the most successful juniors have been relegated to nothing more than journeyman status on the big stage.

Removed from the constraints of the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rules in 2009, Simona Halep made her first career WTA final in 2010, her first top 100 season, but came up short against Iveta Benesova in Fes; she returned to the finals in Fes the following year, but also came out second-best against Alberta Brianti. Halep’s breakthrough began to take shape in the middle of last season, as she reached her biggest career final to date at the Premier event in Brussels before falling to Agnieszka Radwanska; she ended 2012 inside the top 50 at No. 47.

Long considered yet another talented and successful junior whose level on the professional tour had stagnated, Halep’s 2013 has been a revelation. The 21-year-old Romanian, who was the Roland Garros junior champion in 2009, is currently at a career-high ranking of No. 30 in the world and is projected to rise even higher on the back of her performance in Budapest this week.

Halep arrived in 2013 when she had the tournament of her career to date at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in May. She recorded three of the biggest scalps of her career there, as she qualified and defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and two-time champion Jelena Jankovic to reach the semifinals. Following that performance, Halep finally came out on top in not just one WTA final, but two; her first title came on clay in the inaugural event in Nürnberg and the second came less than a week later on the grass courts of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Although she has, to this point, mathematically risen just 17 spots in the rankings since the beginning of the year, Halep’s transformation has been more impressive than the numbers suggest.

Having been well-known for what she removed, rather than added, to her game to compete with the big girls, Halep’s on court mentality has undergone a revolution in 2013. The Romanian had previously been at her most content camped out behind the baseline, running corner to corner until her opponent self-imploded. Over the past 12 months, Halep has evolved into more of a classic counterpuncher; she possesses some of the most cleanly produced and technically sound groundstrokes on the WTA Tour. As she is slight of stature, she will never be in complete control of all of the matches she plays, but she now recognizes when she has opportunities to take matches into her hands.

Previously known as a clay-court specialist, Halep’s unwillingness to take the initiative in matches proved to be her undoing on faster surfaces. Winning two titles in less than two weeks on two different surfaces is impressive at any level, but particularly when making the transition from clay to grass. Halep’s most impressive performance during that streak came in the second round in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, when she defeated top-seeded Roberta Vinci while dropping only one game.

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Halep might not have the flashy weapons or media attention of some of her contemporaries, but her rise has been the result of nothing more than hard work. However, she has been hindered by unkind draws in slams. First, Halep drew Carla Suarez Navarro in the opening round at Roland Garros. In the most open section of the draw, either player had a chance to make the second week; it was Suarez Navarro who came out on top in a tough three-set affair, and she eventually made the fourth round. Having just missed out on a seeding at Wimbledon, Halep reached the second round before falling to Li Na in another three-set battle.

One impressive run does not a season make, as the WTA rankings reward a balance between consistent performances and notable success. Halep will pass Sorana Cirstea in the rankings on Monday, and will be the Romanian No. 1 for the first time in her career. With a legitimate chance to add to her title haul this weekend in Budapest and going forward, and with two-thirds of the 2013 season in the rearview mirror, Halep’s steady rise makes her one of the leading contenders for the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.

Kirsten Flipkens’ Fairytale

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For the better part of a decade, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin battled each other for major titles and the World No. 1 ranking while simultaneously putting Belgium on the international sporting stage. Who would’ve ever imagined that a nation that covers just under 12,000 square miles with a population of just over 11 million people would produce not one, but two of the greatest champions in the history of women’s tennis?

Unlike other nations which have traditionally produced the game’s greats, including the United States, the Czech Republic and Russia, Belgium did not have a strong championship pedigree in tennis prior to Clijsters and Henin’s success. The pair took a comparatively small nation and turned it into a powerhouse; in addition to holding 11 Grand Slam singles titles between them, the two were ranked No. 1 in the world for a combined 137 weeks and single-handedly led Belgium to a Fed Cup title in 2001 and a final in 2006. With Clijsters and Henin both retired, the future of Belgian tennis looked bleak. A nation that once enjoyed an embarrassment of riches courtesy of two players now only boasts just three in the top 300, with the most talented players still years away. Yanina Wickmayer made a shocking run to the semifinals of the US Open in 2009 at 19 years old, but a lingering back injury and patches of inconsistent play have dimmed her once-bright promise. In Fed Cup, Belgium will compete in Europe/Africa Zone Group I in 2014 following their defeat to Poland in the World Group II Playoffs this year, the first time Belgium will compete in zonal play since 1995.

When the Belgians were looking for someone to fly their flag, they probably weren’t expecting someone who was born in the same decade as both Kim and Justine to take it up. She’s been right under their noses the whole time.

In a tournament riddled with shocks and stunners, the Cinderella story of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships is more than just that. Ten years ago, Kirsten Flipkens won the junior Wimbledon title. The Belgian defeated well-known WTA players Alisa Kleybanova, Ana Ivanovic, Jarmila Gajdosova and Anna Chakvetadze in the final en route to the title and the No. 1 junior ranking. At the end of that year, Flipkens was named the ITF Juniors Girls’ Singles World Champion. A late bloomer of sorts, Flipkens did not play in the main draw of a women’s grand slam event until the 2006 French Open, and reached back-to-back third rounds at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2009.

After ending both 2009 and 2010 inside the top 100, Flipkens dealt with a wrist injury which resulted in a year-end ranking of No. 194 in 2011. Her troubles continued in April of 2012, as Flipkens’ doctors discovered blood clots in her legs and she was sidelined for two months. Despite recovering, Flipkens learned it was a genetic problem and she still needed to wear compression socks and take blood thinners before flying. As a result, her ranking continued to free fall and she slipped to No. 262 in the world prior to last year’s Wimbledon Championships – a ranking not even high enough to contest the tournament’s qualifying event.

There were few left who believed in her, as the Flemish Tennis Federation withdrew their support from a player ranked No. 262 at 26 years of age. In a matter of a few years, Flipkens went from junior standout and 2003 Belgian Talent of the Year, to top 100 player, to another ‘what could’ve been.’ The one person who never stopped believing, however, was Flipkens herself. “Because I knew, my highest ranking then was 59 and I was 100 percent sure that I would get into the top 50 one day. So that was the main thing that kept me up,” she said earlier this year.

Up she’s gone, and she’s refused to look back. With assistance from Clijsters’ former team and Kim herself, Flipkens’ first WTA title came in Quebec City last year, and she passed her career-high of 59 by one spot as a result. After ending 2012 at 54, she made her top 50 debut after reaching the semifinals in Hobart in January. She reached the second week of a slam for the first time at the Australian Open, and made her top 30 debut after Indian Wells. She arrived in the top 20 after Roland Garros and came to Wimbledon as the No. 20 seed.

With straight set wins in her first four matches, Flipkens has played her steadiest tennis in a tournament where nothing’s been certain. In her first major quarterfinal, no one would’ve batted an eyelash had she been overwhelmed and bundled out by former champion Petra Kvitova. No one talked about or expected her to make it out of Victoria Azarenka’s depleted quarter of the draw, yet here she is. Following both her fourth round win over Flavia Pennetta and the quarterfinal win against Kvitova, Flipkens fell to her knees and kissed the grass courts – a symbolic measure of just how far she’s come.

For all that Clijsters and Henin accomplished, neither of them managed to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon; Henin came the closest, as she reached the final in 2001 and 2006. At this time last year, Kirsten Flipkens was en route to winning an ITF $25,000 title in Middelburg, Netherlands. She’s been around the world and back with a game that would’ve looked at home a decade ago. 12 months later she has the chance of a lifetime, one that no one could’ve ever expected her to have, on the biggest stage in tennis. She still the biggest underdog remaining, but after all she’s overcome, there’s no doubt she’s primed for another fight.

Is Grass Always Greener?

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When the new International-level WTA event made its debut this week in Nürnberg, Germany, there was no shortage of quality story lines; although the draw featured no top 10 players, top seed Jelena Jankovic is always a walking headline and four Germans started off in the main draw. Nonetheless, the event has made headlines for completely unexpected reasons. Some have questioned the merit of the WTA holding a clay court event two weeks before Wimbledon, particularly in a country where the grass-court tuneup in Halle always attracts a star-studded ATP lineup.

The idea of arbitrarily placed clay court events on either tour’s calendar is nothing new. The WTA calendar also allocates space for four clay court events in the two weeks following Wimbledon: Budapest, Palermo, Bastad and Bad Gastein. Serena Williams is committed to play the clay-court event in Bastad for the first time in her career, and the event is held the week before her usual US Open Series tuneup in Stanford. Rafael Nadal returned from a seven month injury layoff and prepared for the North American hard court season by playing in Vina del Mar, Sao Paulo and Acapulco…on clay.

With the way that professional tennis has evolved over the years, the grass court season has become little more than a blip on the drawn-out tennis calendar; while players like Alison Riske and Tsvetana Pironkova might’ve found their lives a bit easier if three of the four slams were still contested on grass, career-defining results on grass are not the norm for most players. Is it really to a player’s benefit to waste time (and money) to travel and compete on a surface where she’ll reap such little reward for such a short time?

There is constant clamoring for players to schedule smarter and play the tournaments that are in their best interest. By putting these tournaments on the schedule, the WTA is allowing for that. There was little to no clamor about Nadal returning to action on his most preferred surface to get match play and confidence. This week in Nürnberg, the narrative was quite similar. The saga of Andrea Petkovic and her injuries over the past 18 months is well known. After losing in Roland Garros qualifying to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou, Petkovic dropped down to the ITF Circuit and won a $100,000 event in Marseille on clay; among her scalps, Petkovic defeated in-form players Monica Puig and Paula Ormaechea, both of whom came off third round showings in Paris. After defeating Sofia Arvidsson in the first round in Germany, Petkovic assured her return to the top 100. Petkovic’s good form continued as she rallied past Annika Beck, her teenaged countrywoman, in nearly three hours to reach her first WTA semifinal since Luxembourg in 2012.

On the other side of the draw, Polona Hercog was making an injury comeback of her own. The Slovenian quietly played just one match this year at the Australian Open before requiring wrist surgery, and made her return to competition at a $50,000 ITF event in France before Roland Garros. No slouch on her beloved clay, where she owns two WTA singles titles, Hercog also fell in Roland Garros qualifying. Hercog’s greatest grass court success came as a junior, when she reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2008. Since then, Hercog has avoided grass like the plague, and rightly so. The Slovenian’s game is far from effective on grass, and it didn’t take her long to figure that out. She’s played just a handful of matches on the surface in her career. Her only career win at Wimbledon came against Johanna Larsson, perhaps the only active WTA player less comfortable on grass than Hercog herself. Instead of moving on to grass, Hercog took the title at a $25,000 ITF event in her hometown of Maribor, reached the semifinals in Marseille and took out the No. 2 seed Klara Zakopalova en route to a quarterfinal showing in Nürnberg. With smart scheduling, Hercog got herself more match practice in a few weeks than she might have for nearly the rest of the year.

In a sport where so much is made of wins and losses, it’s much easier to adapt to an uncomfortable situation when you’re in good form. None of the WTA’s top three are entered in a grass court warmup event, and does anyone believe that this is a hindrance to their title hopes? The difference is that these players perform at a high level nearly every week and are rarely, if ever, short on confidence. Confidence and the ability to adapt comes from winning, and nothing else. Not everyone has the luxury to be able to have and do that on a dime. By holding simultaneous tournaments on different surfaces, both tours are allowing for the highest percentage of their players to succeed.

The Kids Are All Right

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Where have all the kids gone?

Martina Hingis won each of her five major titles before the age of 20. Try to keep track of the number of times that Ted Robinson mentions ‘Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17′ in her matches and you’re bound to lose count by the end of a dramatic three-setter. On the ATP side of things, the youth drought has been dramatic. Rafael Nadal remains the last teenager to win a major after winning his first French Open title at 19. The last teenager to make a splash of any kind on the men’s circuit was an 18-year-old Bernard Tomic when he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2011.

At Roland Garros in 2013, only 17 players in the men’s draw were born in the 1990s. There are no teenagers ranked in the top 100; 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the youngest player in the draw, entered with a wildcard. He defeated Radek Stepanek, 15 years in senior, in the opening round before falling to Marian Cilic in the second; somewhat unsurprisingly, the Australian still expects to compete in the junior event.

The youth movement in the WTA, while not headlined by the explosive teenaged prodigies of a decade ago, seems to have revitalized. At the start of play this fortnight, 48 players in the women’s field were born in 1990 or later. Like their ATP brethren, the days of the teenaged slam champion seem long gone; however, there are currently 10 teenagers in the WTA’s top 100 and that number more than doubles to 26 when expanding the bracket to players 21 and under.

14 teenagers began their journey in the women’s draw in Paris. One year ago, two of them squared off in the junior final; Annika Beck came out the victor over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in a tough three-set tussle. Fast forward to one year later, and both recorded a main draw win in a senior slam event. Beck cruised past veteran Sandra Zahlavova while Schmiedlova unexpectedly qualified and took home a quality top-50 win over Yanina Wickmayer in her senior slam debut.

In fact, six of the last seven junior girls’ Roland Garros champions competed in the main draw at this year’s event. Agnieszka Radwanska and Alize Cornet, the elder stateswomen of the group at 24 and 23, are seeded and still in the tournament. Kristina Mladenovic, Elina Svitolina and Beck all won a round before falling to seeded and more experienced opponents. Mladenovic and Beck fell to top-10 opposition in the form of Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka, while Svitolina fell to Varvara Lepchenko.

Listed generously at 5’7”, Beck took to Suzanne Lenglen as the underdog in every way. A counterpuncher by nature, the German looked across the net at someone who does everything she can, but better. Eternally positive even when down *05, Beck played brilliantly to the conditions following a brief rain delay. Clean hitting punctuated with soft cheers of “Auf geht’s” as she got her teeth into the match, Beck held steady while Azarenka capitulated. A *50 lead for the Australian Open champion quickly turned into *54, 15-40 and a seemingly improbable comeback for the teenager appeared on the cards. From there, however, one thing set them apart. Roland Garros 2013 was only Beck’s third career grand slam main draw, while it is Azarenka’s 30th. Azarenka came through in the biggest moments, and while Beck fell by a fairly innocuous 64 63 scoreline, the real story of the match told so much more.

While junior success is rarely a purveyor of success on the senior circuit, the stark contrast between the youth movement on the ATP and the WTA presents an interesting narrative. It’s long been proclaimed that teenagers can no longer compete, both physically and mentally, with the rising demands of professional tennis. While this may be true to a degree, the gulf is not as wide as it may seem. If the days of the teenaged prodigy are supposedly over, then expectations on the current young crop shouldn’t be high. It doesn’t work both ways. Nonetheless, much of the new guard has the mentality to go up against the best, and with experience, the game will follow.

Burnout is an incredibly threatening reality for young athletes, and it has shaped professional tennis for nearly two decades. Players’ success in their teenaged years has been indirectly proportional with the length of their careers; the ones still out there are the exception to the rule and are some of the game’s greatest champions. For this group? Let the kids do their thing; let the kids be kids. It’ll be their time when they’re good and ready.

Meet Me in the Middle: Venus’ Career Crossroads

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Venus Williams has a lot of experience dealing with little sisters.

Prior to first ball at Roland Garros, she had lost just four matches in her career to notable ‘little sisters.’ Magdalena Maleeva scored three wins against Venus in her career, while Kateryna Bondarenko also notched a victory during the Ukrainian’s career-best season in 2009.

The elephant in the room? Well, let’s just say Venus has had the most on-court success against the little sisters that didn’t grow up in her household.

When the draw was released for this year’s tournament, she found herself pitted up against another little sister in Urszula Radwanska. Like her elder sister Agnieszka, the Pole found great success on the junior circuit; however, she has struggled much more with translating this success to the WTA level, due to both a variety of injuries and a volatile on-court personality. In a match full of drama and plot twists, the two sisters battled it out for over three hours on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Each time Radwanska took a lead, Williams hit back; Radwanska’s level stayed much more even over the three hour, 19-minute contest and in the fading light of the Parisian evening, she finally pulled off the 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 victory.

Give credit where it’s due; it was finally Urszula’s time to shine on a big stage. While it seems unlikely that she will match or eclipse her elder sister’s accomplishments, as Serena did to Venus, she did show one thing that Agnieszka has become famous for: mental toughness. The younger Radwanska, who has capitulated in matches of note numerous times in her young career, could’ve easily snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite nearing tears in parts, she held firm; when all the stars align for an upset, the underdog still has to see it through. Nonetheless, much of the narrative that followed was largely focused on Williams, while the victor was barely an afterthought.

Struggling with a back injury since April and having played just one match on red clay prior to Roland Garros, Venus’ preparation was less than ideal. The murmurs and the whispers of the ‘r-word’, both of which have followed the elder Williams sister since her return to the game after a Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosis in 2011, returned just a bit louder. While Venus’ mind is willing, her body says differently. She looked exhausted after every long rally, but still fought on for three hours. She clearly loves the game, but to say she’s still out there for ‘fun’ is misguided at best. She’s a competitor, a champion; she steps on the court believing she can win and still has a deep desire to do so. It’s highly unlikely that she enjoys the physically exhausting, mentally draining struggle that professional tennis often is, especially when coming out on the losing end.

On the other side of the coin, her achievements speak for themselves. She’s a seven-time grand slam champion and has every right to decide for herself when to hang up her rackets, whether just in singles or entirely. Venus Williams doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Long considered a role model of grace and class for young players, fighting spirit and professionalism has always categorized her career; this has particularly shown through over the past 18 months. If anything, this match was the perfect storm of Venus’ frustrations with poor form, as well as the stubbornness and persistence that has made her a champion.

“My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am,” she said, following the match. “But that’s all I had.”

If there’s anything to take away from the twilight of Venus Williams’ career, it’s the need for a middle ground. Those calling for her to retire need to gain some perspective, but so do those who believe she can still contend for the biggest titles in singles. Her A-game and Z-game have always been separated by inches. No matter how great she is, the one opponent she’ll never beat is Father Time. As we all know, however, the Williams sisters have made a career of overcoming adversity by making adjustments. Tell them they can’t, and they will find a way. It’s foolish to expect Venus to be the player she once was, but it is perhaps even more so to expect her to fall down, and stay down, after another bump in the road.

The Long Road Back

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Far away from the spotlight and massive crowds of the biggest events in tennis, the sport’s other half lives. The second-tier of professional tennis features players with a variety of interesting histories, each one different from the next. There are the juniors looking to make the transition to the senior tour; the battle-tested journeymen who’ve slogged away at this level for one tournament too long; and finally, the veterans looking for their one shot back in the sun. Although they come from different places, they have one thing in common.

Often, the qualifying competition for main tour events takes place in the shadow of some of the world’s biggest stadiums. The average fan would do well to recognize more than a handful of names who compete week-in and week-out on the second circuit; these are players who first chase their dreams in the “tournament before the tournament.” Just getting in to the main event is enough for some of them, but not all of them.

Both Flavia Pennetta and Andrea Petkovic know what it’s like to win on the biggest stages. Combined, they have won 11 WTA singles titles, reached six quarterfinals in grand slam events and spent time in the world’s top 10. Both are also coming off of injury plagued 2012 seasons; Petkovic first suffered a back injury during the early part of the year, and then was sidelined with an ankle injury for much of the rest of it. Pennetta, who suffered from a wrist injury for the majority of the past year, tried to play through the pain to get one more chance at representing Italy at the Olympics. She did just that, and made the third round. However, she eventually decided to undergo surgery and missed the rest of the year.

Coming into this week, Petkovic was ranked 138 while Pennetta sat at 158. Both missed the first major of the year at the Australian Open, and their clay court preparation for the second major of the year brought them down decidedly different paths. Pennetta dropped nearly 50 places in the rankings after failing to defend last year’s quarterfinal showing in Rome. Neither woman’s current ranking would’ve been good enough to ensure a main draw place in Paris.

Despite the similarities, there is one notable difference between the two. Pennetta took advantage of a protected ranking, ensuring her entry into Roland Garros. As a result, she was able to enter the warmup event with arguably the weakest field this week in Strasbourg. Forced to qualify, the Italian went about her business to win three matches and make the main draw; she nearly didn’t, however, as she was forced to rally from a set down in her final qualifying match. She continued her solid week with wins over Elina Svitolina and Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor. The weather wreaked havoc with the schedule, and Pennetta is the lowest-ranked, but by far the most accomplished, player in the quarterfinals. Having won just three singles matches since her comeback in Bogota, Pennetta’s five wins so far this week have given the Italian the crucial match practice that she needs coming off of an injury.

Unfortunately, Petkovic did not have that luxury. The German, who returned in Indian Wells, started her clay-court campaign with two wins in Charleston before giving a walkover to Caroline Wozniacki in the third round. A wildcard recipient in Stuttgart, Petkovic lost her opener to Ana Ivanovic and lost her first match in Madrid qualifying to the on-form Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Passed over for a wildcard into Rome, Petkovic arrived in Paris short on red-clay match play and this showed in her attempt to qualify. After defeating Nadiya Kichenok in straight sets in the opening round, she fell by a tough 6-7(1) 7-6(2) 6-4 decision to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou.

They say the last thing to come back after an injury layoff is match instincts. A player can do all the right things in practice, but it’s nearly impossible to replicate the tense situations that come with being down a set, or deep in a decider. When you’ve tasted great success, it’s only natural to desire more. However, big wins don’t come overnight. When you’re on the long road back, any win, even in the shadow of a major, means just as much.

The Li Na Conundrum

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Li Na? Or Na Li?

The western world’s difficulty with the naming order of the former Roland Garros winner is sometimes the least of her problems. She (basically) carries the burden of an entire nation, becoming the first Asian woman to win a major title in singles. She graced the cover of TIME Magazine, and was named by the publication as one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year. Recently called “the most important player of the decade” by WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, Li’s success has been instrumental in the rise of tennis in the Asia/Pacific region, as well as spearheading the concerted marketing efforts of the WTA in the area.

Nothing in Li’s career had marked her as a particularly strong clay court prior to her run to the Roland Garros title in 2011. She had previous contested just four French Opens, reaching three third rounds and one fourth round. Clay so often rewards patience, and this is a virtue that Li does not always possess. When Li is having a good day, she puts on a show. she’s capable of blowing anyone on the WTA off the court and going toe-to-toe with the game’s biggest hitters. The surface is irrelevant, as she can hit through any conditions. When she’s off, however, the match becomes more of a struggle against herself than any opponent.

After reaching the final in Stuttgart and losing a decent match to Maria Sharapova, Li struggled to adapt to the conditions in Madrid when facing lucky loser Madison Keys in the opening round; while no excuse, Li was no doubt befuddled by the last-minute withdrawal of Tamira Paszek, and received little to no advanced warning that she’d be playing Keys. In a 6-3, 6-2 defeat, Li amassed a total of 34 unforced errors, while balancing that out with just eight winners.

After playing one of the most dramatic matches of the 2012 season with Maria Sharapova in the finals at the Foro Italico last year, Li no doubt returned to Rome in 2013 looking to avenge some of the bad memories from a season ago. Li brushed aside countrywoman Zheng Jie in her opening match, delivering a clinical performance against a player she had previously struggled against; prior to their second round match, Zheng had won four of five previous meetings.

On the other side of the net in Rome on Thursday was Jelena Jankovic, a woman who has won six titles on clay in her career; this haul includes back-to-back titles in Rome at the height of her career in 2007 and 2008. The match was perhaps a microcosm of Li’s career; she was strikingly brilliant for a point or two, but largely flat, wild and unimpressive. Jankovic triumphed by a 7-6(2), 7-5 scoreline but it was perhaps Li’s stat line that was the most shocking of all: 31 winners and 62 unforced errors.

Statistics so rarely tell the real story regarding the dynamics of a tennis match, but tend to be incredibly accurate when Li steps on court. What was Keys’ tally in Madrid? Seven winners, 11 unforced errors. Jankovic’s was no better in Rome, as the Serbian needed just 16 winners (while making 29 errors of her own) to come out the victor. When Li is playing well, she forces her opposition to outplay her; when she’s not, however, they are only required to be just shy of ordinary.

While she has shown that she is able to shine on the biggest stages multiple times, there have been just as many or more when she has failed to rise to the occasion. At the age of 31, Li isn’t getting any younger. Erratic performances have categorized her less-than-traditional road to the top, and she can no longer afford consistently disappointing letdowns like in Madrid and Rome. A Jekyll-and-Hyde performer on court, it’s almost as if she still doesn’t know what kind of player she can be.

(For the record, it’s Li Na. We can at least be sure of that.)

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