The Friday Five

The Friday Five with Maud Watson

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Alarm Calls for Roger Federer as Martina Hingis Storms Back into Tennis — The Friday Five

Roger Federer on a losing streak

By Maud Watson

Roger Federer on a losing streakTailspin

Another tournament and another surprising early exit for Federer, as the Swiss goes out in two routine sets to Daniel Brands in Gstaad.  The good news for Federer fans is that the Maestro has never been one to quickly panic and shows no signs of looking like he’s getting ready to throw the towel in anytime soon.  In fact, he’s already committed to Brisbane next season.  But this latest loss undoubtedly has some alarm bells sounding in Federer’s head.  He’s having some issues adjusting to the new racquet and is also unsure which stick he’ll be using on the summer hard courts.  In addition to Federer being in limbo regarding his racquet, his mental toughness has also taken a hit. You can read the increasing doubt on his face, and that doubt is creeping into his game as evidenced by the unforced errors that continue to mount in each match.  To say that the next few months are “do-or-die” might be an overstatement, but they are certainly critical.  How he fairs the remainder of 2013 could have a major impact on how long it takes him to right the ship and determine whether or not he hangs around for Rio in 2016.

Heartbreak

Another sentimental favorite who suffered a tough loss this week was Mardy Fish.  The American was in Atlanta, making just his fourth appearance since the US Open last season.  Up a set, it looked like Fish might be able to start his return to competition with a win.  But a rain delay and a refusal to fold from veteran Michael Russell saw the lower-ranked American upset his countryman and advance at his expense.  The defeat itself was understandable.  Fish played well all things considered, but he had been out of the game for over four months.  With no substitute for match play, nerves likely helped play a part in his loss.  What was troubling about Fish’s loss, however, was that he wasn’t available for comment afterwards – something that has happened in the past just prior to Fish taking an extended leave of absence.  American tennis fans will wait with baited breath to see how Fish follows up this latest setback and whether it will include the commitment to carry on or hang it up for good.

Give and Take

Thanks to an overwhelming 47-1 vote by the New York City Council, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center has been approved for a $500 million expansion.  Not surprisingly, a large part of the expansion will be devoted to the renovation of the older facilities “that have reached the end of their useful lives.”  But the USTA isn’t the only one benefiting from the deal.  In exchange for the approval, the USTA has agreed   to start a non-profit group to help fund Flushing Meadows, host a yearly job fair for the residents in Queens, serve as a potential host to high school graduation ceremonies, and provide tennis coaching programs for area children.  All in all, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Changing Tunes

John Tomic has finally been brought to court for the much-publicized events that took place before the start of the Madrid Masters, and depending on who you believe, is possibly changing his story, along with his son, from what they originally told police back in May.  Bernard Tomic is claiming his father told him the day of the incident that it was the hitting partner, Drouet, who hit him.  John Tomic is also insisting that it was Drouet who started the fight and doesn’t “know how” Drouet fell down.  Both Tomics are blaming the alleged misunderstanding on police officers who had a poor grasp of English.  Time will tell if there really was a misunderstanding or if this is just John Tomic trying to weasel his way out of trouble – and given his track record, the latter seems more plausible.  If that is indeed the case, Bernard Tomic had better wise up, or the court is going to give him a lot more to worry about than his forehand.

Stay Awhile

It appears that Martina Hingis’ decision to play doubles with Hantuchova in California won’t be just a one-off.  The former No. 1 is planning to play doubles in some other big events this summer, including Toronto, Cincinnati, and the year’s last major, the US Open.  Say what you want about Hingis from a personal standpoint, but from a tennis perspective, there are few in the modern game who can match her court craft and guile.  What she lacks in size and power she makes up for with impossible angles and exquisite touch.  With any luck, these summer hard court events will be the start of something bigger, but if not, get your tickets and take the opportunity to see some of the greatest hands in the game work their magic one more time.

Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova’s Big Changes — The Friday Five

Maria Sharapova

By Maud Watson

Big(ger) Changes

Champions are frequently known for their stubbornness.  Sometimes it refers to their unwillingness to surrender a loss quietly, but it also often refers to their refusal to re-tool any part of the game that has brought them so much success.  Unfortunately, that refusal can often hamper an athlete’s career, which is something that Roger Federer apparently plans to avoid.  Federer is playing this week in Hamburg with a new racquet.  His new stick features a 98 square-inch frame, which represents a significant change from the much smaller 90 square-inch frame he has used throughout his career.  The larger frame means a bigger sweet spot and additional power, both of which should help him better compete with the young guns on tour.  We’ll see how he fairs during this brief stint on the clay, but if he’s able to make the adjustment to the new racquet quickly, expect him to be right back in the thick of it for the summer hard court season.

Maria SharapovaTrue Grit

One of the more interesting off-court tidbits to hit the news this past week was the announcement of Jimmy Connors becoming Maria Sharapova’s new full-time coach.  The two briefly worked together five years ago but were unable to come to a financial agreement to make it a full-time gig.  Circumstances have changed in 2013, and the two are teaming up to become one of the most intriguing coach/player relationships in the game today.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  Both have strong egos and like to get things done their way, so it could flame out early.  But both also share the same inherit drive.  They’re both fighters who refuse to rollover in a match and will go to virtually any lengths – sometimes perhaps a little over the line of what’s considered proper – to come away with the win.  Both could feed off each other in those respects and prove quite the successful combo.  Sadly, fans will have to wait a little longer for this new partnership to make its debut, however, as Sharapova was forced to withdraw from the upcoming event in Stanford with a hip injury she sustained at Wimbledon.  But make no mistake.  This will be one of the key storylines to watch this summer.

False Hope

The good news is that the USTA has established a potential timeline for putting a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium by August 2016.  The bad news is that you probably have a better shot at winning the lottery than that timeline coming to fruition.  As usual, one of the biggest hurdles to putting a roof over Ashe Stadium stems from cost.  The USTA is already currently in the market for an owner representative for its $500-million expansion plan that doesn’t include a roof, meaning that if they were to shift efforts towards building a roof for Ashe, other projects, such as replacing Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand would be put on hold.  That’s a scenario that’s all the more unlikely when considering that the other issue facing Ashe is that it may not be able to support the weight of the roof in the first place.  So, while we can appreciate the USTA’s efforts to keep the roof possibility in the discussion, this once again appears to be much ado about nothing.

Egomaniac

At the front part of the week, in an interview with David Nadal, Toni Nadal told to the world that he talks to Rafa during matches and sees nothing wrong with it, because he figures he shouldn’t have to hide anything at his age.  Look, it’s common knowledge that Nadal, like some other players, receives illegal coaching from the stands.  And you could argue that such coaching frequently has little impact on the outcome of a match.  But nobody wins when Toni Nadal announces that he has no problem being a cheat – and as the generally willing recipient of his instructions, one could argue so is his nephew by extension.  Such an admission shows disrespect to the ATP and its rules.  It shows disrespect to Nadal’s opposition.  It teaches young up-and-comers that it’s okay to cheat, and most importantly, it hurts Rafa Nadal.  As previously noted, Rafa is no doubt one of the best in the history of the game, and he doesn’t need to use cheap tricks to accomplish great feats.  Utilizing illegal tactics should be beneath him and his camp, and it shouldn’t be tolerated.  Though unlikely, it would be nice if after this admission, the ATP would enforce some sort of discipline on the older Nadal to show that nobody, no matter how big the star they coach or their age, is above the rules.

Back for More

The terrorizing doll Chucky is making a return to movies, and as it happens, so is the woman Mary Carillo once referred to as Chucky, Martina Hingis.  Whether to promote her relatively recent clothing line, provide a distraction from the cheating allegations leveled at her by her estranged husband, or just for love of the game, the newly-elected Hall of Famer is planning to team with Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia at the Southern California Open.  Hingis continues to show that she has great hands around the net, and veteran Hantuchova has also proven worth her salt in the doubles arena as well.  If this partnership proves successful, perhaps we’ll be treated to a little more enthralling tennis from these two down the road.

Juan Martin Del Potro One to Watch; Returns for Mardy Fish and Venus Williams — The Friday Five

Juan Martin Del Potro_600

By Maud Watson

Who to Watch

Juan Martin Del PotroWith Wimbledon wrapped and the summer hard court season upon us, it’s worth taking a look at some of the storylines to keep tabs on as the rest of the year unfolds.  We’ll start with who to watch, and after her run at Wimbledon, Sabine Lisicki is the player to follow on the WTA.  As previously noted, she’s got a big game, but she also possesses touch and feel and still has youth on her side.  She’s never played consistently well outside of SW19, but after breaking new ground at the All England Club by reaching the final, perhaps she’s ready to do the same at other venues across the globe.  On the men’s side, you have to like what you saw from Juan Martin del Potro at Wimbledon.  He gave Djokovic all he could handle before bowing out in five enthralling sets in the semifinals and after that defeat, stated he felt he was ready to be back in the mix with the Big 4.  As an added bonus, del Potro managed to engage the crowd much more by conversing with spectators and even joking throughout the course of that important match.  He may have ultimately lost that semifinal, but he won a lot of fans sure to watch him going forward.

Who Will Feel the Love

After holding her nerve to grab the opportunity of a lifetime, newly-crowned Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli deserves some serious respect.  The Frenchwoman has been better known for her quirks and some unfortunate disparaging remarks regarding her looks, but she deserves to be known for her game.  Her relentless attacking style makes her a tough customer for the game’s best – as she proved six years ago – and with the confidence that comes from winning a major, she should be solidly back in the thick of it this summer.  She also has a delightful personality that should have fans warming to her.  For the men, it’s about time Ferrer got some kudos.  He’s now in the top three, and he’s not there by accident.  He consistently shows up week in and week out and just reached his first major final a month ago in Paris.  At 31, he doesn’t have the same kind of upshot as a del Potro, but with the Spaniard likely to continue to produce throughout the remainder of 2013, it’s about time he was fully appreciated and respected for the tenacity and consistency that have played a big part in him surpassing Nadal and Federer in the rankings.

How Will They Respond?

Despite winning Roland Garros, Serena was undoubtedly unhappy to fall short at Wimbledon.  To be fair to her, Lisicki did play a great match.  But Serena also looked nervous.  It’s unclear if that had to do with fear of Lisicki’s ability or if the pressure of defending her title – and a heavy favorite to do so – was getting to her.  If it was the latter, things could get tricky for the American in the second half of 2013.  She has a boatload of points to defend thanks to a stellar second half of 2012, and particularly if she wants to maintain the top WTA ranking, the pressure will only mount.  She’s responded well to adversity before, but at 31, she’s bound to feel it a little more.  As for the ATP, it’s a tossup as to whether it’s Federer or Nadal facing more questions going into the second half of the season.  Both suffered shocking early exits at Wimbledon.  Federer is looking to get back on the horse immediately by playing a couple of European clay court tournaments before heading to North America.  How things transpire at those events will likely dictate just how freely he’s swinging as he preps for the US Open.  In regards to Nadal, it’s unclear when he will return and how much the knee may or may not be hampering him.  How his knee responds, as well as how mentally confident he feels about his game and body on the hard courts will determine just how much success he’ll enjoy the remainder of the season.

Will They Return?

The two players facing this question both represent the Stars and Stripes.  Venus Williams continues to battle a back injury and is questionable for the US Open.  It will all depend of if she is healthy enough to play a tune-up event before Flushing Meadows.  If you factor in her age and other outside interests, it wouldn’t be entirely shocking if we see little to no play from her until the autumn or even 2014.  Mardy Fish is the other player struggling to make a comeback, though he is set to compete in both Atlanta and Washington DC in the coming weeks.  Fish remains upbeat about his chances of tasting success, citing the recent resurgence of veteran Tommy Haas as a point from which to draw inspiration.  But as Mardy has admitted, so many of his issues have stemmed from the mental side of things.  He’s also already suffered a couple of comebacks that have failed to get off the ground this season.  Again, at his age, you have to wonder how many setbacks he’s willing to overcome before he decides to hang it up.

Race for No. 1

It’s a three-way race on both tours.  For the WTA, it’s your top three, with Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka the most likely candidates to finish in the top spot.  On paper, Serena has a bit of a cushion, but she has more to defend than the other two.  Still, if she stays healthy, you have to like her odds of defending the bulk of her points from 2012.  If not, with Azarenka struggling with injuries, this could prove a great opportunity for Sharapova to step it up.  On the men’s side, it’s looking like a race between Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal.  Similar to Serena, Djokovic has an apparent cushion but also has a number of points to defend.  The good news for Djokovic is that World No. 2 Murray also has a large share of points to defend, and particularly with his early loss at Wimbledon, Nadal has to log exceptional performances at a number of the bigger events throughout the remainder of 2013.  Assuming he doesn’t fall apart, Djokovic is still the favorite to finish atop the rankings.

Sabine Lisicki’s Wimbledon Magic; History Beckons for Bryan Brothers — The Friday Five

Sabine+Lisicki+Wimbledon+Tennis+Championships+csqLAjHl1htx-1

By Maud Watson

Sabine+Lisicki+Wimbledon+Tennis+Championships+csqLAjHl1htx-1Wimbledon Magic

No matter how poor her results coming into or after Wimbledon, for that fortnight, Sabine Lisicki plays like a Top 5 talent.  She’s defeated the reigning French Open champion four of the last five years (she didn’t play in 2010), and her winning percentage against Top 10 players on the lawns of the All England Club is quite impressive.  But unlike in years past, Lisicki has managed to find enough consistency to book herself a place in her first major final.  She’s in with an excellent shot against Bartoli to produce a little more magic to claim her maiden slam title.  Irrespective of what happens Saturday, however, it will be a disappointment if Lisicki fails to follow up the rest of her season with stellar results.  She has a powerful, all-around game and far too much talent not to be vying for the game’s biggest titles on a consistent basis.  She also has an affable personality that the WTA could use right now, so here’s to hoping that this Wimbledon final is just the first of many major titles the German will be competing for.

Second Chances

In 2007, Marion Bartoli shocked Justine Henin to reach the Wimbledon final where she lost to Venus Williams.  Now, six years later, Bartoli has once again defeated a Belgian in the final four to reach a Wimbledon final where she’ll face another talent with a big serve, powerful game, and brings her best on the grass.  But things are a little different in 2013, too.  Bartoli thrashed Flipkens in the semis instead of escaping by a hair, and her opponent in the final, Lisicki, is even less experienced at this stage than her.  And despite struggling with her game for the past several months, Bartoli is looking like the Top 10 player that she can be once again.  She showed no signs of nerves in the semis, not only relentlessly attacking virtually every ball with laser-like precision, but she showed a willingness to mix it up by coming forward.  Assuming she doesn’t let the occasion get to her and is able to play at this high level on Saturday, tennis fans are going to be in for a real treat.

History Beckons

The Bryan Brothers have done almost anything there is to do in doubles, breaking records right and left.  On Saturday, they’ll have the chance to add one more feather to their caps as they vie for the Wimbledon doubles crown.  Should they win, they’ll have a “Bryan Bros.” Grand Slam and will become the first doubles duo in the Open Era to hold all four majors at once.  Also, should they taste victory in London, look out when Flushing Meadows rolls around.  The twins would then be going for a calendar-year Grand Slam, one of the rarest feats in the sport.  They’ve managed to do just about anything else in the world of doubles, so why not this?

Still Standing

For all of the dramatic upsets and withdrawals that have unfolded the last two weeks, the top two favorites in the men’s field, Djokovic and Murray, are still standing.  Both still have a little more work to do if they hope to contest the championship match on Sunday, but make no mistake, they’re heavy favorites to live up to their seeding.  On paper, Djokovic has the more difficult of the two semis, with del Potro as his opponent.  The two split meetings earlier this year, and the Argentine got the better of Djokovic on these same courts at the Olympics in 2012.  But in this semifinal, you have to figure Djokovic’s experience will prove a major X factor.  There’s also the knee issue that’s plaguing del Potro, and trying to defeat the Serb at less than 100% is a big ask.  Janowicz will also have to come up with some spectacular answers if he’s to disappoint an entire nation by upsetting Murray.  The Pole did get the better of Murray last year at the Paris Masters and has a monster serve.  He’ll also go in knowing that Murray was less than steady in his quarterfinal clash with Verdasco.  But Murray has far more experience in these situations, is the steadier of the two, especially in the mental department, and will have virtually all of the fans on the Centre Court in his corner.  Both should be entertaining affairs, but expect Djokovic and Murray to set up a blockbuster final.

The Basics

After a stunning early loss at Wimbledon, Federer appears to be going back to the drawing board.  In lieu of his usual break following the conclusion of Wimbledon, the Swiss will be adding two clay court events to his schedule.  He’s set to contest Gstaad – the tournament that offered him his first wildcard – and Hamburg, which he’s also won more than a few times in the past.  It may be interpreted by some as a troubling sign from the ageing veteran, but in many ways, Federer’s decision is one to be admired.  He’s not letting his pride get in the way, and he’s smart to try and pick up a few events between now and the summer hard court season.  He could use the rankings points, a chance to get his game clicking, and more than anything, a chance to gain some confidence.  Hopefully he’s able to get it going so that he can be fully back in the mix come the US Open.

The Decline of Roger Federer; Bernard Tomic’s Blind Love — The Friday Five

Decline of Roger Federer

By Maud Watson

Second Guessing

One of the two biggest upset of Week 1 at Wimbledon was that of Rafael Nadal losing to Steve Darcis.  Nadal meekly succumbed to the inspired play of the Belgian in the opening round, leaving many questioning his future in the game.  The knees are the obvious first concern.  That his knees could deteriorate as quickly as they appeared to in that first match after the performances he’s put on the past five months seems a stretch.  But his condition is a tricky one, and the grass does force his knees to work harder.  There are also rightfully questions about his scheduling – both before and after SW19.  Before Wimbledon, he put in a lot of tennis for someone with documented knee issues who had sat out seven months.  Post Wimbledon presents the question of how much more mileage Nadal will be willing to put on those knees, since it will primarily come on hard outdoor and indoor surfaces.  But the other question that has to be asked is how much of this is also between the ears.  When Nadal walked out onto Centre Court, it was likely with the bad memories of 2012.  The slightest niggle is also apt to have a major impact on his level of play, which given his injury history, is understandable.  It also explains why he has become noticeably more irritable when things aren’t “just right” for his needs/wants (like his uncharacteristic griping about scheduling at Roland Garros).  No matter how you slice it, what we saw from Nadal at Wimbledon was troubling.  We know he can play on surfaces outside of clay, but he has to 100% believe his body will allow him to the second half of the season, or being a factor on anything outside of clay may just be a pipe dream.

Decline of Roger FedererThe Decline

The other upset vying for the biggest shocker of the tournament is that of Roger Federer by Sergiy Stakhovsky.  If ever there was a moment when it felt Federer was truly in decline, it was this match.  It’s the first time in nearly a decade that the Swiss has lost before the quarters of any major, let alone Wimbledon.  But the days of Federer being able to consistently find his best or escape from the jaws of defeat with great frequency are behind him.  It happens with age, and Federer’s is finally starting to catch up with him.  It doesn’t mean he will never win another major (see Sampras, Pete in 2002), and Federer insists he doesn’t view himself as in decline.  He still feels he has the game to win the big ones, and bottom line, his belief is the only one that matters.  So though he’ll likely need some help to win the slams, don’t be too quick to send him off into the sunset.  He still has game, and there are still some moments of pure genius left up his sleeve.

Kickin’ Grass

One of the biggest controversies at this year’s Championships has been the condition of the courts.  There have been many slips and falls, with some alleging that the courts are dangerous, while others simply chalk it up to typical grass court tennis.  Though the weather has possibly had a negative impact on the grounds, there are a few things to consider before condemning Wimbledon and its grounds crew.  First, the bulk of the complaints have come from the losers, while the winners (many of whom have managed to stay upright) see no real issue.  Additionally, many of the withdrawals and retirements were due to either freak accidents or pre-existing injuries the players picked up in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon.  And perhaps the biggest culprit of all is the players’ movement on the court.  As Darren Cahill pointed out, many of the players are guilty of not taking enough of the tiny steps, which you have to do on grass, to maintain balance.  Video footage of many, but not all, of the tumbles shows players hitting the turf after taking a large, wide step or getting completely wrong-footed.  It’s a perfect storm that has left the folks at Wimbledon to do damage control, but hopefully going forward, especially with an extra week between Wimbledon and the French beginning in 2015, we’ll see far less of these unfortunate events.

Misguided

Love is blind.  It’s a phrase we’ve all heard.  It’s also a phrase that we typically think of as relating to romantic love, but it applies to other types of love, too.  Sometimes it can refer to familial love, as is the case with Bernard Tomic.  The Aussie, who had an impressive five-set win over Sam Querrey in the opening round, lashed out at the ATP for banning his father due to pending assault charges dating back to Madrid.  He feels that they’re hurting his game by not just banning the man that is his father, but the man that he still views as his coach.  It’s understandable where Tomic is coming from, but it’s a sad situation.  His dad is too physical with others, including his own son.  With any luck, Tomic will find success without his father by his side so that he can see he doesn’t need him to enjoy a fruitful career.  And hopefully, he’ll one day look back and realize what a favor the ATP has done for him by putting its foot down.

Bring It On

Event organizers’ brains are probably just whirling with the possibility of a showdown between Andy Murray and Serena Williams in what could once again be billed as an intriguing “Battle of the Sexes.”  The Scot responded to a Twitter follower who introduced the idea that he should take on Serena Williams, and it turns out the Scot is game.  When Williams heard about it, she also expressed enthusiasm at the idea.  It’s of course all in good fun, but if organizers can find a way to turn this talk into a reality, it’s a guaranteed success.  And better yet, stage it in Vegas as Murray suggested.  It would be a spectacular show sure to bring plenty of good publicity to tennis.

Nadal’s Wimbledon Seeding; Stepanek-Kvitova Rumors — The Friday Five

Petra Kvitova and Radek Stepanek at a photoshoot earlier this month in Prostejov for her sponsor Steilmann

By Maud Watson

Broken Record

As with Roland Garros, the question of whether to seed fifth-ranked Nadal at No. 4 or No. 5 was one of the hottest topics heading into Wimbledon.  The verdict is in, and the seeding committee has opted to leave him seeded fifth.  The decision has left some, like John McEnroe, scratching their heads, but it was the right decision.  Wimbledon has a standard mathematical formula for determining the men’s seeds.  The formula factors in grass court results over the last two years, with those of the previous 12 months weighted heavier than those of the past 24 months.  Nadal had a dismal grass court season in 2012, and though he reached the finals of Wimbledon in 2011, he had a poor showing in his Wimbledon tune-up that year as well.  Additionally, though he has won Wimbledon twice, it is not like he has dominated at SW19 anywhere near to the same extent as he has in Paris.  If the folks in Paris were willing to seed him fifth had Murray not withdrawn, Wimbledon is definitely within its right to do the same.  Would it be a surprise if he won the title here?  Not overly.  But he definitely doesn’t deserve an edge in his quest to do so at Ferrer’s expense.

Familiar Territory

Serena Williams is no stranger to controversy and thanks to some insensitive comments made a couple of months ago, she finds herself mired in it once again.  In an interview with Rolling Stone, Serena made some off-the-cuff remarks regarding the infamous Steubenville rape case, which have many up in arms.  Few would argue that, outside of something being slipped into her drink, the young victim acted irresponsibly.  But Serena’s decision to carry it a step further by unmistakably insinuating that the victim was mostly to blame for what transpired and was even “lucky” that it wasn’t worse was off base.  She further dug herself into a hole when she seemed to suggest that the primary perpetrators were potentially treated too harshly.  To her credit, Serena has since backed off those comments.  It would have been nice had she taken full responsibility for them instead of insinuating that her remarks were misrepresented (a scenario that seems somewhat unlikely given that the reporter used a recorder, and Serena isn’t outright accusing the reporter of misquoting her), but her damage control efforts and willingness to reach out to the victim’s family are admirable.  It’s certainly an improvement over how she handled the 2009 US Open debacle, and hopefully this controversy won’t prove a distraction with Wimbledon around the corner.

Injury Woes

Wimbledon has yet to get underway, but the women’s competition has already suffered a couple of blows.  Both Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams have withdrawn with injuries.  Kuznetsova is undoubtedly disappointed to have to forgo the Championships thanks to an abdominal strain she suffered at Roland Garros.  The Russian has worked hard to rebuild her ranking, and after a quarterfinal showing in Paris where she was the only player to have Serena on the ropes, her inability to even attempt to build on that momentum is a disappointment.  Venus, too, has fallen victim to a lingering injury, with her back still causing her fits.  Grand Slam champions deserve to go out on their own terms, and as players like Serena and Federer have proven time and time again, it’s dangerous to write them off.  But many, including Venus herself, have to wonder how much longer she’s going to be out there after this latest setback.  The injuries and health issues are piling up, and the results haven’t been there for some time.  She also looks far more distressed, annoyed, and upset than in years past when matches aren’t going in her favor.  If the back doesn’t heal fast, Venus may be packing it up sooner than many anticipated.

Glass Half-Full

One of the game’s most dangerous underachievers, David Nalbandian, will be out indefinitely after undergoing both hip and shoulder surgery.  The Argentine still remains on crutches and has yet to test his shoulder.  Despite the growing frequency of his injuries, however, the 31-year-old veteran isn’t ready to hang up the racquet just yet.  Perhaps inspired by the likes of Haas, Robredo, and Baker, Nalbandian still feels he can produce stellar tennis.  A trip back to the upper echelons of the game is unlikely in the cards, but it would be nice to see him have at least one more good go at it.  He was one of the few players capable of giving all of the top players a run for their money, and when he’s on, he has a beautiful game to watch.  Here’s to hoping he makes a full recovery and dazzles us again.

The Swap?

Czech newspapers are reporting that Radek Stepanek and former WTA pro Nicole Vaidisova are calling it quits after three years of marriage.  The newspaper rumors were confirmed by Czech Davis Cup Captain Karel Tejkal.  It always did seem odd, especially with the age gap (Stepanek is 34 and Vaidisova 24), that these two walked down the aisle in the first place, so news of their divorce isn’t really a shock.  What is a shock, however, is that Stepanek, who has also previous dated Martina Hingis, is now rumored to be dating former Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova – a player even younger than Vaidisova.  Kvitova has acknowledged awareness of the rumors but has yet to confirm their validity.  She has merely asked all to respect her private life so as to avoid further outside distractions at the year’s third major.  That’s all fine and well, but she’s living in a fool’s paradise if she thinks she’s heard the last of this, which given her recent struggles, doesn’t bode well for her chances of picking up Wimbledon title No. 2.

ATP Race for No. 1 Between Nadal and Djokovic; Wimbledon News — The Friday Five

Novak Djokovic to battle for No. 1 spot in rankings

By Maud Watson

Race for No. 1

After a record-setting eighth Roland Garros title, Rafael Nadal has put himself in a prime position to finish as the year-end No. 1 for the second time in his career.  Though Nadal typically doesn’t perform as strongly in the second half of the season as he does in the first, he usually performs well at the key events like Wimbledon, the US Open, and at least one or two of the Masters events.  Then there’s the defending points factor.  Nadal may stand nearly 5,000 points behind current No. 1 Djokovic, but the Spaniard only has 90 to defend from here on out compared to 6,800 for the Serb.  Couple that with the way Nadal has dominated the courts since his return in February, and reaching the pinnacle of the rankings looks like a distinct possibility.  The pressure is on Djokovic to defend what he did in 2012 by shaking off the disappointment of losing such a close semifinal against Nadal a week ago in Paris.  It’s a subplot to keep an eye on throughout the remainder of 2013. 

Inspiring Play

Chalk another one of the veterans against the next generation, as Lleyton Hewitt has played some inspiring and gritty tennis to book a spot in the quarterfinals of Queen’s.  The Aussie had to come from behind in his opener against American Michael Russell, but since then, he’s taken out both upstart Dimitrov and big-hitting Sam Querrey.  Hewitt has won the title in London on multiple occasions, so he’s no stranger to the lawns.  But given the amount of injuries he’s had to overcome, this has to qualify as a pretty satisfying start to his grass court campaign.  Juan Martin del Potro may prove a tough out, but with the Argentine still looking rusty after his own recent layoff, Hewitt has a good look at going even deeper and setting himself up nicely for not only the remainder of the all-too-short grass court season, but the upcoming summer hard court series as well. 

Over and Out

A couple of popular ATP favorites are already out of Wimbledon, with reports that Fish is planning to skip and Monfils is a definite no-show.  Fish’s withdrawal isn’t a shocker given that the American had already pulled out of Queen’s and has played so little this season.  He has reportedly been in contact with the folks in Atlanta and confirmed to them that they will be his first event since playing earlier this spring.  Monfils’ withdrawal is a little more mysterious.  He’s playing this week in Halle and has already caused an upset by upending Ranoic.  Despite his good start in Halle and decent run in Paris, however, the Frenchman has been forced to withdraw from SW19 due to a personal problem.  He didn’t elaborate on what that problem is, but it is serious enough for him to skip the year’s third major.  Hopefully we’ll see both men back soon, as they’re still capable of producing some eye-catching tennis. 

Opportunity Knocks

Two players who will be in Wimbledon thanks to a couple of wildcards are Andrea Petkovic and Nicolas Mahut.  The German woman is a former Top 10 player, and though she’s been struggling in her comeback due to a litany of injuries, she still has plenty of potential.  With any luck, the generosity of Wimbledon will spark a deep run so that she isn’t reduced to applying for wildcards or playing qualies in the months to come.  That’s a scenario that’s a little less likely with Mahut.  The Frenchman is definitely closer to the end of his career and never enjoyed the same kind of singles success as Petkovic.  But he is part of Wimbledon history as one of the two men to contest the longest match as the Championships when he lost 68-70 to John Isner in 2010.  Mahut also recently reached the doubles final at Roland Garros, and he does have a nice grass court game.  If ever there was place where he might be able to produce a bit of a magic from the kindness of a wildcard, it would be on the lawns of Wimbledon.  

Making the Cut 

Forbes recently released its annual list of 100 highest-paid athletes and tennis impressively supplied its fair share of members.  The list looks at revenue earned from June 1, 2012 – June 1, 2013, which is generated from prize money, endorsements, and appearance fees.  Not surprisingly, Roger Federer was the top among tennis players, and he was very nearly the top banana overall.  The Swiss finished second behind golf’s Tiger Woods with $71.5 million.  His fellow ATP pros Djokovic and Nadal also made the list at 28 and 30 respectively (which in Nadal’s case is particularly impressive given that he missed the second half of 2013).  There were only three women to even appear on the list, and tennis swept those spots, with Sharapova (22), Serena Williams (68), and Li Na (85) all posting hefty incomes the previous year.  It’s once again wonderful to see an individual sport like tennis so well represented on the list and hats off to the six who made the cut.

History Beckons at Roland Garros, Fairytale Run by David Ferrer — The Friday Four

David Ferrer

By Maud Watson

Vying for No. 2

On Saturday, the top two women’s seeds will be battling each other to try and claim a second title at Roland Garros. Serena’s first title came over ten years ago in 2002, while Sharapova tasted sweet success last year. Serena has a lot more going for her heading into this final. She’s yet to lose on the clay this season, and with the exception of her quarterfinal match against Kuznetsova, she’s reached the final with minimal fuss. Then there’s that dominating head-to-head record she owns against Sharapova. That record alone makes Saturday’s match an uphill battle for Sharapova. But the Russian is a fierce competitor who lets very little faze her, as evidenced by the way she fought through both her quarterfinal and semifinal matches. Sharapova has also been the second best player on the dirt in 2013, so she shouldn’t be too far behind Serena in the confidence department as far as her clay-court game goes. In short, the blatant favorite in this final is Serena, but she can’t psyche herself out like she very nearly did during a brilliant patch of play from Kuznetsova in the quarters. For her own part, Sharapova has to believe and work hard to keep things close early if she’s to stand a prayer. It’s a big match for both, and it will ultimately come down to who’s stronger mentally.

History Beckons

Two intriguing men’s semifinals are set to be contested, and the blockbuster matchup in the eyes of many will pit Novak Djokovic against Rafael Nadal. It’s another classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and a win in Paris for either one would be of great historical significance. Nadal is going for an astonishing record eighth title in the French capital. He has managed to overcome a rocky start to the tournament but now appears to be firing on all cylinders. His form has been stellar virtually all season, making the finals of every tournament he has entered and winning all but two of them. He went on his usual tear through the clay court season, and capping off his comeback with yet another French Open title looks almost inevitable. But one of the men to have defeated Nadal this season is Novak Djokovic. Djokovic’s victory put a blemish on Nadal’s clay court season as he earned a key victory over the Spaniard in Monte-Carlo. Many feel he’s the one guy who has the necessary tools to defeat Nadal at his best, but Djokovic will have to work hard to keep the nerves in check. He’s never won the French, but if he were to do so, he would complete the career Grand Slam. He’s also likely to want it more for his first coach, Jelena Gencic, who passed away earlier this week. It’s a match that has instant classic written all over it and will likely be decided by only a few points, but edge to the Spaniard.

Fairytale Run

Though it isn’t receiving nearly the same amount of promotion, the other men’s semi is intriguing in its own right. It features two players who couldn’t be more opposite. On one side there is Ferrer. He’s tennis’ ultimate warrior. Nobody works harder. He’s not flashy, but he’s a dogged competitor who is as steady as they come. He might just feel that Lady Luck is sitting in his corner as he’ll find Tsonga, not Federer, on the other side of the net as he competes to book his first major final berth. Of course, Tsonga has plenty of reason to feel good about his own chances of going all the way, too. He’s a flashy, charismatic competitor embraced by the French crowd. Like Ferrer, he has moved through the tournament without the loss of a set, which includes blitzing Federer in the quarters. He’s been to a major final before, and he’ll have an entire nation behind him as he aims to become the first native son since Yannick Noah to lift the trophy. The fact that he’s playing a guy who has admitted he doesn’t think he can win a slam could also work in his favor. If it were on any other clay court, or even earlier in this event, Ferrer’s consistency might edge out Tsonga. But in the semis with virtually all of France behind him, you have to like Tsonga’s chances to reach his second major final.

Ups and Downs

It’s never too soon to be looking forward to the grass court season, which kicks off with Queen’s next week. The Brits will be happy that Andy Murray, who pulled out of Roland Garros with a bad back, is planning to test the waters at the Wimbledon tune-up. He’s always enjoyed plenty of the success there, so hopefully he’ll be able to get his grass court season off on a good note. Unfortunately, that’s not a possibility for Mardy Fish. The American is suffering from the flu and has already announced he won’t be in Queen’s. He’s also doubtful for Wimbledon and will be making a decision on his participation in that event next week. At least Brian Baker, who won’t be competing at all on the grass this year, has set a return date of July 22. With the results he was pulling last year, he deserves another crack at it.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Fantasy World; Bernard Tomic’s Vicious Cycle — The Friday Five

Bernard Tomic

By Maud Watson

Fantasy World

One of the bigger casualties of Week 1 at the French Open was Caroline Wozniacki, who was dumped out in the second round by Bojana Jovanovski. The sad part is her loss wasn’t even a surprise. Her results this clay court season – and for the better part of the year – have been dismal. What’s even sadder is she seems blind as to how to reverse the trend. “It’s all about just momentum, I guess. Hopefully it will turn and I’ll start winning some more.” What she doesn’t seem to comprehend is that, as a general rule, that doesn’t just happen. And if it did, shouldn’t we have seen better results from her following her finals appearance at Indian Wells? The crux of the problem still remains that she needs a real coach to teach her how to better utilize her strengths and hide her weaknesses. But until she commits to that, cuts the strings with her father, and commits to re-tooling her game, she’ll continue her slump, and we’ll likely be hearing the same line again at the conclusion of the grass court season.

Vicious Circle

Bernard Tomic is another young player unwilling to part ways with his father/coach. Perhaps mercifully given all of the off court drama he faced coming into Paris, the young Aussie was forced to retire in his opening match thanks to a small tear in his right leg muscle. But his early exit didn’t allow him to completely avoid the topic of his father, who has been banned from attending a slew of professional tennis events for his alleged misconduct against Tomic’s hitting partner prior to Madrid. Tomic insists that his father will always be his coach, and it’s understandable how hard it can be to cut ties with a family member, especially a parent. But Tomic also doesn’t have to look far to see how past overbearing and abusive fathers have interrupted, hampered and sometimes completely derailed promising careers. At least Tomic is willing to add another voice to his camp, though he may have a tough time finding someone willing to step in as a second fiddle John Tomic. Hopefully for his sake the right person will come along to join his team and fix more than just his game. If not, his career may be over before it even gets off the ground.

Food for Thought

Former pro Marc Rosset didn’t mince words earlier this week when he declared men’s tennis “boring.” He felt it was too much about the Big Four, and that a large part of that was due to the current seeding system and homogenization of the playing surfaces. While suggesting that men’s tennis is boring is an opinion that likely goes too far, he does raise some valid points. The standardization of the surfaces has meant less variety in today’s game, with virtually the same game style getting it done on all surfaces (though the greats do make minor adjustments). But the current seeding system hasn’t really come under fire since they first opted to seed 32 at the majors, and maybe it’s time to revisit that decision. Seeding 16 instead of 8 at the Masters is acceptable. Those fields are already loaded due to the smaller draw size, which means a fair number of intriguing matchups early in the tournament. But also seeding just 16 at the majors might be a better way to go than the current 32. With a singles draw of 128, there are too many early matches that feel like mere formalities. Seeding only 16 would likely add some excitement early but still protect the higher-ranked players in their attempt to reach the business end of things. More often than not, the cream will continue to rise to the top, but making some of the suggested changes might make watching them do so a little more fun.

Straight Shooter

Say what you want about Ernests Gulbis, but one thing he’s not is dishonest. Of course, he’s not always wise either. In his interview following his loss to Monfils, the Latvian called out the Big Four for being boring interviews. Granted, Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal may have a tendency to play it overly safe for some, but it’s an approach that beats taking the risk of crossing the line from refreshingly honest to outright obnoxious. Furthermore, in case Gulbis hasn’t noticed, being blunt doesn’t yield success. In some cases, it can hamper it. Just look at the difference in Djokovic form when he first arrived on the scene to where he’s at today. Yes, his game and mental strength have evolved, but he also helped his cause by becoming more diplomatic to avoid generating off court drama for himself. It’s a fine line to walk, and Gulbis would be well served to take a few pointers from the Big Four to strike a better balance in his approach to the media and fans.

The Absurd

They often say fame comes with a price, and for Sergiy Stakhovsky, the price tag was $2,000. In his losing effort to home favorite Gasquet, Stakhovsky pulled out his phone to take a picture of a disputed ball mark. Instantly, the Ukrainian’s image was plastered all over the Internet and various sports shows. Unfortunately for him, the officials weren’t amused and hit him with a fine for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” He may have carried on longer than appropriate, but considering some of the other stuff that goes unpunished, the $2,000 seemed a bit steep. It amounted to roughly 7% of his overall prize money, which for a player of Stakhovsky’s caliber is a sizeable chunk. Talk about learning a lesson the hard way!

WTA Roland Garros Visions: Picks, Predictions, Dark Horses, Winners

Maria Sharapova wins Roland Garros French Open 2012

(May 25, 2013) With Roland Garros officially kicking off on Sunday, the team at Tennis Grandstand has once again come together to provide you a one-stop comprehensive preview of the women’s draw of the season’s second Slam. We’ve covered dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets and matches to watch for, and potential semifinalists and eventual champion for the women’s tour.

In the table, you will find the entire Tennis Grandstand team’s “Quick Picks and Predictions” for the WTA draw, with further detailed analysis below by Melissa Boyd, Victoria Chiesa, David Kane, Chris Skelton, and Maud Watson.

Dark Horse

Melissa Boyd: (14) Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic has played well this clay court season and appears to be most comfortable on the red dirt. Roland Garros is her best chance to win another Slam and the draw was kind to the Serbian. She avoids the Top 3 until the semifinals and finds herself in the same section as the struggling Agnieszka Radwanska and last year’s finalist, Sara Errani.

Victoria Chiesa(20) Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard knows what it takes to be successful in Paris, as she reached the quarterfinals in her debut in 2008 as a qualifier. Since then, however, she has not advanced further than the third round. After reaching the final in Oeiras, she also reached the quarterfinals in Rome before losing to Serena Williams. She opens against another potential dark horse in Simona Halep. Should she find a way past the Romanian, the 20th seed is in by far the most open quarter of the draw to make a run at the second week; a potential third round against Nadia Petrova (11) is in the cards, but the Spaniard already scored a clay-court win against the Russian in Rome.

David KaneSimona HalepHave you ever seen a player and thought, “why do I know you?” You don’t remember them winning a title or causing a noteworthy upset. Yet when Simona Halep clubbed her way into the semifinals of Rome, few among the tennis cognoscenti were completely left scratching their heads. The young Romanian won the French Open girl’s title at 16, but despite being a mainstay of the top 100 for the last few years, had yet to make a big breakthrough on the senior tour. That all changed at the Foro Italico when, as a qualifier, she upset a host of current and former top 4 players including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic before running out of gas against an inspired Serena Williams. Halep only has one third round appearance on her Grand Slam CV, but should she get past fellow darkhorse Carla Suarz Navarro in the first round, her draw may open up with struggling Nadia Petrova anchoring her section.

Chris Skelton: (14) Ana Ivanovic. The champion here five years ago, she showed glimpses of vintage form by reaching the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. Ivanovic extended world No. 2 Sharapova to three tough sets at the former event and demolished top-eight opponent Angelique Kerber at the latter. Ana remains susceptible to the unforeseen clunker, and always will be, but her first-week draw is filled with players whom she normally handles with ease. None of the top three can meet her until the semifinals.

Maud Watson: Can I just say Serb?  I like both (14) Ana Ivanovic and (18) Jelena Jankovic as dark horse candidates.  Both have produced some good tennis in 2013, and this season Jankovic in particular has enjoyed her most success on the dirt.  Still, I’d give the edge to Ivanovic.  She has it easiest in her opening rounds and has actually won a major.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

Boyd(4) Agnieszka Radwanska. It would have been easy to go with Caroline Wozniacki here. The Dane has not won a match on red clay in four tournaments this year and has to play the fast-rising Laura Robson in the first round. Radwanska’s clay court record in 2013 is almost as unflattering as her good friend. She has won just one match and has never made it past the fourth round at Roland Garros.

Chiesa(8) Angelique Kerber. For her first round match, Kerber was dealt one of the players on the fringe of a seeding in countrywoman Mona Barthel. Neither player comes into the match on a rich vein of form. Despite reaching the semifinals and quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid, Kerber withdrew from Rome citing injury; Barthel also withdrew from the Italian Open, and did not win a match in Stuttgart or Madrid. Barthel is a tricky case, as her form can turn on a dime, and she holds a 2-1 head-to-head advantage against her countrywoman. Even if Kerber does pull through this match, she’ll do well to live up to her seeding and set up a quarterfinal date with Serena on her least-preferred surface.

Kane: (6) Li NaThe veteran Chinesewoman has been trending up in 2013, with a run to the Australian Open finals and recovered well from an ankle injury to reach the Stuttgart finals to start the clay court season. But when last we left Li Na, she put on a terrible show to lose to Jelena Jankovic in Rome. So often in tennis, it is rarely about to whom one loses as much as how one plays during that loss. An upset wasn’t improbable, given Li’s resurgent Serbian opponent. But the ridiculously high number of unforced errors (62 in two sets) looks more like foreshadowing than an aberration. Against a steady claycourter in Anabel Medina Garrigues (against whom Li is 0-3 in completed matches) in round one, the 2011 Champion will have to be on song from the get-go, lest she face another surprising Slam exit.

Skelton: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska. The obvious choice in this category is Caroline Wozniacki (see below), but that’s too easy when someone much more notable has struggled almost as much. A top-four seed at Roland Garros, Radwanska has won just one clay match this year while absorbing overwhelming losses to Laura Robson and Simona Halep. Clay is her worst surface, and she withdrew from her Brussels title defense last week with a shoulder injury. While Radwanska doesn’t have many giant-killers around her, Halep didn’t seem like a giant-killer until she slew her.

Watson: (10) Caroline WozniackiA couple of names come to mind here, with one of those names being Caroline Wozniacki.  It’s hard to imagine a time when the former No. 1′s confidence and form have been lower than they are right now.  Against an up-and-comer like Robson – who has already enjoyed more than a few big wins in her young career – she’s definitely ripe for the upset.

First Round Match to Watch For

BoydEugenie Bouchard vs. Tsvetana Pironkova. After reaching her first WTA semifinal in Strasbourg thanks to some impressive wins, the 19-year-old Canadian arrives in Paris on a roll. Her game on clay has vastly improved and she’s chalking up experience as she goes along. It will be interesting to see how she deals with the former Wimbledon semifinalist. A win for Bouchard and she will likely play her idol Maria Sharapova for the second time in two months in the second round.

Chiesa(22) Ekaterina Makarova vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova. One of the women’s draw’s most dangerous floaters, one of Kuznetsova’s crowning career achievements came in Paris when she lifted the trophy in 2009. She just missed out on a seeding here and Makarova is coming off of a strong quarterfinal showing in Madrid that included a win over Azarenka, the Belarusian’s first true loss of the year. The two have never played on clay, but Kuznetsova holds a 2-1 head-to-head lead after a 6-4, 6-4 win in Miami this year.

Kane: (7) Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai. If you read my article from last week (or follow me on twitter), you’ll know of my penchant for reality television. What first round match looks more likely to be real than Kvitova/Rezai? Both have flashy games, with the ability to crush any ball seemingly at will. Both have the potential to fly horribly off the rails and rack up triple-digit unforced errors. Playing at home, the already-expressive Rezai will draw on the energy of an upset-hungry crowd. Kvitova has been struggling, and seems as far from her top tier, world beating form as ever. The odds of this being a “pretty” match are low, but this has “Trainwreck of the Year” potential written all over it. And damned if I won’t be there for every second.

Skelton: (18) Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova. This match might not produce the best tennis or most meaningful result on the menu, but the first round is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s a rare opportunity to see two former members of the top five and two major semifinalists meet in the first round. Their last five meetings all have come on clay, they have a relatively close head-to-head with multiple thrillers, and each has shown recent signs of life. Colliding for the first time in two years, Jankovic and Hantuchova will showcase a lovely contrast of styles between the down-the-line groundstrokes of the Serb and the cross-court angles of the Slovak.

Watson: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska vs Shahar Peer in the first round isn’t a popcorn match.  But the Pole has run a dismal clay court campaign that’s been compounded by shoulder issues.  How she looks in her opening match could be a good indicator as to just how likely she is to live up to her No. 4 seeding.

First Round Upset Special

BoydOlga Govortsova d. (13) Marion Bartoli. Bartoli has struggled this season amidst her coaching changes and has not had great preparation coming into Paris. Last week in Strasbourg, she won only five games in a first round loss to Camila Giorgi. Add to that the pressure of playing your home Slam and Bartoli is a prime candidate for a first round upset.

ChiesaLaura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki comes into Roland Garros on a five match losing streak and is winless on red clay so far in 2013. While Robson too has struggled since the early part of the season, Wozniacki’s plight is different. The former World No. 1 seems lost on court and rarely looks to be enjoying her tennis. Barely hanging on to a spot in the top 10, I’d call it a bigger upset if Wozniacki manages to win this match.

KaneKimiko Date-Krumm d. (9) Sam StosurThis pick has little to do with Stosur; though coming off a calf injury that derailed most of her spring, the top Aussie did have a solid run to the quarterfinals of Rome where she pushed nemesis Victoria Azarenka to three sets. This has more to do with her draw, namely her first round opponent, the ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm. No stranger to the first round upset, Date-Krumm beat two-time finalist Dinara Safina in Paris three years ago, and began 2013 with a crushing win over Nadia Petrova in Australia. Her unorthodox groundstrokes are hit with a thudding efficiency, and take time away from her opponents. Even at her best, Stosur is a player who needs the extra couple of seconds that clay courts give her to wind up her topspin forehand. Coming in still lacking sufficient match practice, she could be in for a long day against Date-Krumm, who beat her in their only prior encounter in 2010.

Skelton: Laura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Since reaching the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki has fallen off a cliff. She has not won a match on red clay this year, losing five straight overall starting with Charleston. One of her losses came when she squandered a third-set lead against Bojana Jovanovski, who hasn’t beaten anyone else since the Australian Open. Anyone marginally dangerous will have a chance against Wozniacki right now, and Robson is more than marginally dangerous after she upset Radwanska in Madrid.

Watson: Anabel Medina Garrigues d. (6) Li NaLi Na is another likely prospect for crashing out early, as she takes on Medina Garrigues in her opening match.  Medina Garrigues is a crafty veteran who gave Serena all she could handle in Madrid (albeit with some blatant cheating).  She’s an especially tough customer on the clay, so unless Li can clean up her game, her stay in Paris won’t be a long one.

Semifinalists

Boyd: Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka vs. Maria Sharapova. It’s hard to fathom Williams not navigating her draw rather easily and Errani is in arguably the softest quarter with Radwanska and Ivanovic. Look for last year’s finalist to make another deep run, especially if the weather makes the playing conditions heavy and difficult. The draw was less kind to Azarenka and the defending champion Sharapova, but I still like both of them to make it through to their much-anticipated match up. Azarenka will get a stiff test from Elena Vesnina in the first round and potentially Na Li in the quarters, but she has played well since returning from injury.

Chiesa: It’s hard to see anyone in Serena’s quarter of the draw giving her much trouble, even if Williams comes out struggling with the demons of her early round upset from a season ago. It’s tough to see her losing a set en route to the semifinals. The second quarter is incredibly open with Agnieszka Radwanska as the highest seed. Lurking at the bottom of this quarter is last year’s finalist Sara Errani, and it would be much less surprising to see the Italian at the late stages of the event this time around. Her best chance to beat Serena would be on clay, but even then, it still doesn’t seem likely. Semifinal: Serena Williams d. Sara Errani.

With Victoria Azarenka and Li Na the two seeds in the third quarter of the draw, a potential quarterfinal match between them could go either way. Although Azarenka has turned around the head-to-head between the two, Li’s greater comfort level on the surface can give her the edge here. I expect Sharapova to navigate the minefield that is her quarter of the draw, even if she experiences some bumps along the way. Semifinal: Li Na d. Maria Sharapova

Kane: Kuznetsova/Errani, Azarenka/Sharapova. “But where’s Serena?” Here me out. Given the form exhibited by the undisputed No. 1 in the world this season (no less on clay), there is no reason to think the American won’t bulldoze the field and collect her second French Open title, and her 16th overall.

However. This is at least the fifth time in ten years that Serena has gone into the French Open as the overwhelming favorite, yet has failed to make it past the quarterfinals since her lone victory in 2002. Beyond the loss to Razzano, Williams has seen a 33-Slam match winning streak snapped in 2003, another shocking loss to Katarina Srebotnik in 2008, and premature losses to Svetlana Kuznetsova and Stosur in 2009 and 2010 respectively. All on the terre battue.  Serena simply has a history of not getting it done in Paris, and though now looks like as good a time as ever to turn things around, I’ll believe it when she invariably proves me wrong in two weeks.

That said, 2009 Champion Kuznetsova has a history in Paris and likely prefers to be the underdog. The other three have had some of the best Slam results in the last 12 months, and while their draws look tough on paper, resistance may be surprisingly low (at least for a WTA tournament).

Skelton: Serena Williams, Sara Errani, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova. Remember the era of anarchy in the WTA when people who you never saw before suddenly became superstars for a week? Well, it’s over. Only one woman outside the top three of Serena, Azarenka, and Sharapova has reached a final across the six marquee events this year (majors, Premier Mandatory, Premier Five). Roland Garros usually does have one clay-court specialist for its flavor of the year, so Errani should repeat her results from Madrid and Rome in the draw’s weakest quarter.

Watson: In the top half, Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani. Serena’s tennis the last 12 months speaks for itself, and that includes the dominance she’s shown this year on the dirt with her titles in Charleston, Madrid and Rome. Her opponent is less certain, but Errani has been very consistent of late. The Italian also reached the final here last year and has been playing better than No. 4 seed A. Radwanska.

In the bottom half, I’ll stick to the seeds and go with Sharapova vs. Azarenka. Sharapova has looked sharp, and lately, it seems Serena is the only one with her number. Azarenka’s star has shined a little less brightly since her win in Melbourne, but she did just reach the finals in Rome and should be feeling confident.

And the Champion is …

Boyd(1) Serena Williams. I think one of the most compelling stories of this fortnight will be watching Williams attempt to conquer her French Open demons after her shocking first round exit in 2012. With the win streak she’s on and the level she’s playing at, the only person who can beat Serena, is Serena herself.

Chiesa(1) Serena Williams. The old saying goes that if you’re going to get them, it’s best to get them early. The World No. 1 is on a mission this year, and if she can navigate her way through the early rounds, it’s hard to see anyone being able to stop her at the business end of the event. While Li has shown she has the game to go toe-to-toe with anyone on tour, it remains to be seen what will happen if she actually gets herself into a winning position. Championship: Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.

Kane: (2) Maria Sharapova. Over the years, the French Open women’s event has become known for its predictable unpredictability, and its wackiness tend to happen in twos. Dinara Safina made two runs to the French finals before Errani’s compatriot Francesca Schiavone made two romps of her own (taking the title in 2010). Errani hasn’t had the drop-off in form many had predicted, and looks as capable as ever for another (slightly less) surprising run to a Slam final. Last year’s champion Sharapova must also feel a sense of déjà vu, coming into Paris with the same number of match wins as the year before. She wouldn’t have to play Serena until the final (or at all if you subscribe to my alternate universe), and has proven she can beat everyone else on clay. As the French say, pouquoi pas? Why not?

Skelton: (1) Serena Williams. She swept the two biggest events on outdoor red clay, moving better than she has on the surface since the last time that she won in Paris. She completely thrashed each of her two leading rivals in the Madrid and Rome finals. She will bring an extraordinary level of motivation to atone for last year’s disappointment, since when she has lost just three matches. Nobody is stopping Serena in Paris unless her body betrays her again.

Watson: (1) Serena WilliamsLogically, Serena is the best choice.  She’s playing the best tennis of anyone in the field, and she’s in one of the weakest quarters.  She’s likely also extra motivated after the humiliation she suffered here last year.

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