By Maud Watson
Though Roland Garros has yet to get underway, some of the game’s biggest stars are already dreaming of the green lawns of the All England Club. Both Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro suffered major blows when they were forced to withdraw from the French Open. The decision by both to skip the second slam of 2013, though sad, is hardly a shock. Murray had already hinted last week in Rome that due to his bad back he was more apt to be absent in Paris than present. As for del Potro, his withdrawal came courtesy of an unfortunate respiratory virus that plagued him earlier in the clay court season and developed into a nasty case of bronchitis. He’s wisely opted to listen to his medical team and skip the French Open in order to put himself in the best possible position to finish the second half of the season strongly. Both men will be missed, but both made the right decisions when it comes to the bigger picture.
Andy Roddick hasn’t been retired for a full year, but the American is already set to trade in his racquet for a microphone as he prepares to delve into the world of sports broadcasting. Roddick won’t be covering just tennis either. He’s going to be a co-host of Fox Sports Live – Fox Sports’ answer to ESPN’s SportsCenter – which will debut on Fox Sports 1` on August 17. It will be a full-time gig for Roddick, who will appear on the show 4-5 nights a week. The American sounds excited about his new job, and he has the right attitude with his willingness to put in the hard yards and learn what it takes to become a top notch broadcaster. It’s hard to envision a scenario where this doesn’t work out well for Roddick. He’s always been a candid individual, and he’s generally been quick witted, be it at a press conference or clowning around in an exhibition. He’s bound to prove a natural and provide fans with plenty of enjoyment once again.
It’s a dangerous business to question the legitimacy of a player’s withdrawal when he or she cites illness. It’s arguably even more dangerous when that player is Maria Sharapova, who is known for being one of the fiercest competitors on the WTA. But there’s no denying that Sharapova’s abrupt pullout from Rome last week deserved a few raised eyebrows. The Russian withdrew before her quarterfinal match against Sara Errani citing an illness she claimed she’d first had in Madrid and that suddenly reared its ugly head again Thursday night. Over the course of the two premiere events, however, Sharapova showed no signs of a physical ailment. In fact, she was all smiles as she wrote a birthday message to boyfriend Dimitrov after thrashing Stephens the evening before she withdrew. Could it be she really wanted to avoid potential meetings with nemesis Azarenka, or more likely, her personal bogeyman Serena? Based on Sharapova’s track record of competitiveness, it’s worth giving her the benefit of the doubt her withdrawal was rooted in illness and not fear. Even if it were just a hint of queasiness, with a major around the corner – one where she’s defending champion – she can be forgiven for wanting to rest. But her premature departure from Rome certainly provided food for thought and only makes the likelihood of her turning around her dismal record against Serena seem all the more remote.
Another member of the Nadal Camp made headlines this past week, as Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, named his favorites for the French Open. In contrast to his nephew’s absurd insistence that he’s never the favorite for anything, Toni wisely named Rafa as one of the top picks to leave with some hardware. But what had some up in arms was not only Toni Nadal’s insistence that Federer was not a favorite, but that players like Ferrer and possibly Berdych or even Dimitrov had better odds. Granted, Federer is not going to be a heavy favorite, and at this stage in his career, he’s going to be more susceptible to the early upset. But he’s in with just as much of a chance, if not more so, than many of the guys Uncle Toni named, especially if they all reach the business end of things. Toni Nadal’s comments also mark the second time in three months that he’s taken what can arguably be construed as a dig at the Swiss No.1. It’s times like these when it would be nice if Rafa would put a muzzle on his uncle. Peter Bodo wrote an article on Tennis.com suggesting just that. He referenced how over the course of Rafa’s career, it seems it’s the “machine” (aka, Uncle Toni) controlling the man, rather than the other way around. It’s time for Rafa to take control and sit on his uncle. Toni Nadal’s comments only detract from his nephew. No other coach feels the need to elaborate the way he does. Perhaps he should take a page out of their books and go back to just focusing on the x’s and o’s where his charge is concerned.
Game of Inches
Look at a monstrosity like Arthur Ashe Stadium, and tennis players appear to have an abundance of room in which to run and hit. But when you really look at the game of tennis, it all boils down to mere inches. That was definitely the case in the quirkiness surrounding Virginia’s upset win over top seed UCLA to take home the NCAA men’s title. The win came courtesy of Mitchell Frank’s come-from-behind win over Adrien Puget. The pivotal point – a match point for Puget – occurred when Puget was called for touching the net. It turned out to be a costly touch, especially since Frank’s pass on that match point missed in the wind. Momentum switched to Frank, and that was all she wrote. Afterwards, Frank was quoted as saying, “I’m glad he touched the net. A couple of inches can make the difference.” No truer words were ever spoken.
By Maud Watson
It seems that all of the chatter about Nadal’s seeding for Roland Garros may have been for nothing, as the Spaniard may be guaranteed the No. 4 seed even if he fails to win the title in Rome. Unfortunately, his potential guarantee of a top four seed may come at the expense of Andy Murray. The Scot, currently ranked No. 2, was forced to retire in his opening clash with Granollers at the Foro Italico and afterwards announced he would be surprised if he’s able to compete in Paris. The culprit behind Murray’s misfortune is a bad back that has plagued him since the end of 2011 and reacts particularly bad during the clay court season. Though players ultimately don’t want to have to miss any event, especially a slam, skipping Paris may be one of the best things Murray can do for himself right now. It’s his worst major, and he has a lot to defend over the course of the summer. There’s little sense in risking it all for Paris.
Bad to Worse
Not surprisingly, the Tomic Family saga is far from over, and sadly, it’s continuing to have a major impact Bernard Tomic’s season. John Tomic’s trial in Madrid for allegedly head-butting his son’s hitting partner has been postponed until October, but that doesn’t mean he’s free to travel the circuit in the interim with both the ITF and the ATP suspending his credentials. Unfortunately, it seems Tomic Sr. has also taken this to mean that his son can’t compete in any ATP-sanctioned events either. Tomic withdrew from Rome earlier this week citing personal reasons, and there are conflicting reports about his participation in Paris, with his father saying he won’t play and Woodbridge insisting his participation in the year’s second major is likely to go on as scheduled. It’s a sorry situation no matter how you slice it. Given Bernard Tomic’s young age, it will likely be that much harder to break away from his father’s grip, especially if he can’t get access to people like Woodbridge, Rafter and others who want to help support him. It also doesn’t help that when John Tomic was asked by the media if his son’s potential withdrawal from the French Open would be due to lack of a mental fitness, John Tomic replied that if that were indeed the case, it would be on the media’s head for creating this nasty situation. His failure to own up to what he’s done and the detrimental effect it’s had on his son is appalling and creates yet another barrier to getting Bernard Tomic out from under his father’s thumb and allowing him to realize his full potential.
Like Laura Robson, another promising up-and-comer has opted for a coaching change as Milos Raonic made a mutual decision with his previous coach, Gala Blanco, to part ways after his loss in Madrid. Raonic was very complimentary of Blanco, thanking him for bringing him so far and wished him all the best. The Canadian will now embark on a search for a new coach who can hopefully take him to that next level. One of the candidates now confirmed on the short list for that job is Ivan Ljubicic, who was spotted in Raonic’s box in Rome. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a happy first outing with Raonic suffering a loss in his opening match, but that’s hardly a deal breaker. Known as a “poor man’s Federer,” Ljubicic was a man who knew how to maximize his talent and was a real student of the game. He could certainly impart come pearls of wisdom to Raonic, so, with any luck, perhaps we’re on the verge of seeing a new and exciting pairing that will spell great things for Raonic in the future.
When In Rome
When in the Italian capital, why not pay the pope a visit? That’s what Juan Martin del Potro did when he was in town for the Rome Masters. It was a memorable moment for the Argentine, who was undoubtedly surprised and delighted when Pope Francis I recognized him in the crowd and gave him the thumbs up. Del Potro also relished the opportunity to meet the new pope, a fellow Argentine and the first pope from South America, and present him with one of the racquets from his 2009 US Open title run. It’s too bad for Delpo, however, that despite the visit to the Vatican, there was no divine intervention on his behalf – he was upset by Paire in straight sets on Thursday. Maybe his fortunes will improve in Paris.
Like Wimbledon in 2011, the USTA has worked out an extended contract with ESPN to assume sole broadcasting rights in the United States to air the US Open from 2015-2025. CBS, which currently airs the women’s and men’s singles finals, has enjoyed significant broadcasting rights of the season’s last major since the Open Era began in 1968. But in spite of CBS’s years of service, opting to go exclusively with ESPN was a wise move from the USTA. The network has a number of additional platforms for providing coverage and hopes to soon be able to provide live feed from all 17 courts at Flushing Meadows. Equally important, ESPN, which bills itself as the “worldwide leader in sports,” is certainly at the center of American sports culture. That means airing the US Open on the various ESPN platforms should result in greater exposure for the game. In short, this change should translate into better ratings and potential growth in the sport. It’s a win-win for everyone (with the possible exception of CBS).
By Maud Watson
At the start of the week, Sloane Stephens experienced some off court drama in addition to the woes she continues to suffer on court, thanks to the young American’s dumb decision to publicly call out Serena Williams, essentially branding the veteran a phony. Yes, a little bit of honesty is refreshing. Yes, many of Stephens’ comments regarding Serena’s friendliness or status as a mentor weren’t anything that many didn’t already suspect – after all, player like Clijsters are the exception rather than the norm. But Serena doesn’t owe anybody anything, including Stephens. There was no reason for Stephens to attack her compatriot in the manner in which she did, especially when the evidence to back up her claims amounts to nothing more than a social media snub or failure to sign a poster from when Stephens was 12. To her credit, Williams took the high road when questioned about Stephens’ comments, and Stephens has since admitted and apologized for her folly. It was an ugly incident that highlighted the fact that Stephens isn’t yet fully ready for the limelight, but with any luck, it’s a mistake she won’t make again in the future.
In virtually every brilliant career, there first comes that signature win that marks the start of something special. On Tuesday, Grigor Dimitrov may have just earned such a win with his shocking upset of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Dimitrov, nicknamed “Baby Federer,” has been on the radar for some time. He’s played the greats close before, including a near-upset of Nadal in Monte-Carlo. Here in Madrid, after failing to close it out in a tight second set tiebreak, Dimitrov look destined for another near miss. But unlike it Monte-Carlo, he held it together better both mentally and physically. He proved the steadier of the two in the deciding set, breaking Djokovic twice to secure a breakthrough victory. Dimitrov has stated he’s looking to shed his nickname, and if he can get himself in better shape and secure more wins like this one, it shouldn’t be long before more people know him for who he is and not who he reminds them of.
Bernard Tomic is no stranger to frequently making headlines for all the wrong reasons. His often cocky and careless attitude has made him a tough figure to tolerate, let alone like. But prior to the start of Madrid, something happened that changed much of that as news broke that his father, John Tomic, had head-butted and injured his hitting partner Drouet. Drouet then broke his silence and stated that John Tomic has also hit Bernard Tomic on more than one occasion. Suddenly Tomic has become a sympathetic figure and many of his previous actions have been cast in a new light. Thankfully, the ATP has banned his father from all ATP events, and both Woodbridge and Rafter are quickly stepping in to support the young Aussie. They’ll join him at the French Open and will attempt to set him up with Josh Eagle, who is already in Europe, as a temporary coach. Tomic possesses a lot of natural talent and plenty of upside. Now, with the proper support, tutelage, and less abuse, perhaps we’ll finally see him start to settle down and produce the kind of results that fans have been expecting.
Laura Robson has opted to split with Coach Krajan after nine months, and based on what we saw in Madrid, it looks like the switch may already be agreeing with her. The young Brit has yet to give a reason as to why she split from Krajan, but many speculate that it was simply a matter of his coaching style. Robson initially blossomed with him in her box, putting together a thrilling run at last year’s US Open with wins over Clijsters and Li. But her results have been predominantly dismal since then. Couple that with Krajan’s reputation for being overly tough with his charges, and the split isn’t that surprising. She certainly appeared to swing more freely in Madrid with Krajan absent, and it paid off with her securing two wins, including a routine victory over No. 4 seed Aga Radwanska. She really should have gone one further after leading Ivanovic 5-2 in the deciding set of their third round clash. If she can gain more consistency, especially on the serve, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be seeing her at the business end of tournaments with greater frequency in the future. She just needs to find the right coach, and with her abilities, there should be no shortage of qualified candidates willing to take the reins.
The WTA appears to be taking a page out of the ATP’s book with the news that the WTA has inked a five-year deal to stage the season-ending championships in Singapore in 2014-2018. The new deal will be worth a total of more than $70 million, which translates into financial stability and growth in prize money. It also allows the WTA to put yet another premiere event in the growing Asian market. Additional welcomed news is the decision to include more doubles entrants, staging exhibitions with past stars, and putting on music concerts and fan festivals. So, though there’s still plenty to play for in 2013, fans should already have a reason to look forward to next season.
By Maud Watson
Let the conspiracy theories begin! On Tuesday, Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, the man smack dab in the middle of Operation Puerto, was found guilty of nothing more than endangering public health. He got off with a one-year suspended jail sentence, was banned from practicing medicine, and fined a measly $6,000. In addition to Fuentes’ sentence, Judge Santamaria also ruled that due to Spanish privacy laws, the bags of blood in evidence (ranging anywhere from 100-200+ bags) must be destroyed. It’s this last detail that has at least one tennis player hopping mad. Andy Murray took to Twitter to voice his displeasure at the ruling, suggesting it amounted to possibly the biggest cover-up in sports history. He’s not alone in that thought process either. After all, though Operation Puerto has primarily been a cycling-centered doping scandal, it’s no secret that Fuentes also treated professional athletes from other sports, including tennis. That’s a large part of the reason why Ana Munoz, the head of Spain’s anti-doping agency, has vowed to appeal the judge’s decision to destroy the blood bags, and for the sports world in general, hopefully she’ll succeed. Destroying the blood bags will only feed conspiracy theories and make life more difficult for those athletes who are already plagued by vicious doping rumors.
Discord at Home
Basel may be a 500 event with an unenviable autumn spot on the tennis calendar, but it’s turning into an event that’s growing ever-more intriguing. Earlier this week, Basel Tournament Director Roger Brennwald chose to air dirty laundry by publicly venting his frustration with Federer for refusing the tournament’s initial appearance fee offer, making no comment on the latest offer, and having to deal with Federer’s agent instead of the man himself. Also this week, it was announced that Rafael Nadal has committed to play in Basel for the first time since 2004. As it’s still a type of hard court event and on his worst surface, the Spaniard’s decision to play was a curious one, but perhaps he’s looking to be better prepared for the ATP World Tour Finals or just add to his ranking. Whatever Nadal’s personal reasons, his confirmed participation has many wondering if he’s coming due to possibly receiving appearance fee money initially earmarked for Federer. Whether or not there’s any truth to that will likely never be known, but no matter what, it appears that Basel is guaranteed a stellar field.
Mardy Fish withdrew from the Tallahassee Challenger this past week, so it came as no surprise when it was announced he will sit out the entire European clay court swing. Clay has always been the American’s worst surface, and with everything else he’s dealing with, his decision is understandable. Fish will now focus on rejoining the tour at the AEGON Championships in London as the short grass court season gets underway. With his attacking style, grass gives Fish a better opportunity to find quick success. But that line of thinking may prove a double-edged sword. Even as Fish recently insisted he isn’t mulling retirement in 2013, he may become more despondent if the results don’t come sooner rather than later. In short, how Fish fairs during the grass court season – and possibly the summer hard court season if he chooses to contest it – will likely be what ultimately determines if we see Fish in 2014.
Memoirs are frequently “tell-all” books. They provide entertaining and sometimes valuable insights into the lives of some of the world’s most famous and infamous individuals. But even in a memoir, there are some lines that just should be crossed, yet that’s exactly what Jimmy Connors appears to have done in his upcoming memoir, The Outsider. He didn’t spell it out in black and white, but Connors strongly implied that he got Chris Evert pregnant during the time period in which they were engaged. He then hinted that she chose to have an abortion. Irrespective of what you may think of Evert and the actions she may have taken as a 19-year-old, it wasn’t Connors’ place to divulge that information and put her, unwillingly, in a position to defend those actions. Then again, though he was a talent on the court, Connors, to put it diplomatically, never was a class act. Some things never change.
Just Won’t Quit
It seems the Pakistan Tennis Federation just doesn’t know when to quit. In a recent Asia/Oceania Zone Group II tie, Pakistan took on New Zealand for the right to advance. Pakistan, though the home nation, was forced to contest the tie in Myanmar due to valid safety concerns. But relocating wasn’t the only problem for Pakistan. The ITF Referee, citing an unplayable grass court, awarded the tie to New Zealand before the tie could come to its natural conclusion. Upset, Pakistan waited for the ITF Davis Cup Committee to render a verdict and was disappointed when the committee backed up the original decision of the ITF referee. Now the Pakistan Tennis Federation is going to appeal the decision to the ITF Board of Directors. Given that Pakistan was permitted the opportunity to contest the tie on neutral ground and was even allowed to use a practice court as the match court after the initial match court was deemed unplayable, it’s apparent they had already been given sufficient opportunity to stage a tie and attempt to advance. It’s fine to fight for what you believe in, but in this case, Pakistan needs to realize they don’t have a leg to stand on. It’s time to cut the losses, stop wasting everyone’s time, and focus on what can be done better the next time.
By Maud Watson
Change in the Air
It’s still early in the clay court season, but already there’s an increase in the chatter regarding Novak Djokovic’s chances of completing not only a career Grand Slam, but possibly the calendar-year Grand Slam. The reason behind the increased chatter is that he did something that nobody has been able to do for the last eight years – defeat Rafael Nadal in the final of TMS Monte-Carlo. Even when accounting for Nadal’s lengthy layoff, when you consider Djokovic’s ankle injury coming in and the success Nadal had already enjoyed this season, it was still a significant victory for the Serb. He proved once again that his game matches up well against Nadal’s, and even on clay, he doesn’t have to play outside of his comfort zone to get the W. Defeating Nadal in Paris with a best-of-five format is another animal altogether, but Djokovic’s win last weekend certainly added another element of intrigue to the clay court season.
As Roland Garros draws near, the question of how to seed Rafael Nadal at the year’s second major has become one of the hottest topics in the sport. Nadal is currently ranked No. 5. Should his ranking remain there at the conclusion of TMS Rome, Nadal could easily end up seeded fifth at Roland Garros, which means he could meet any of the other members of the Big 4 in the quarterfinals – something which few, if any, want to see happen. Nadal may yet make everyone’s life a little easier by rising to No. 4, but it won’t be easy. Outside of Madrid, he can at best only defend points from last season. Ferrer, currently ranked No. 4, has done his part to help his countryman’s cause, withdrawing from Monte-Carlo and crashing out in his opening match in Barcelona. But it’s still going to be a tight race against time for the two to flip-flop in the rankings. Should Nadal remain at No. 5, John McEnroe favors giving Nadal the top seed. Others argue that Roland Garros has traditionally stuck to the rankings and shouldn’t make a special exception in this case. It’s a compromise of the two that is needed. Though he’s never won the French Open, as the clear No. 1 who has on more than one occasion proven he can defeat Nadal on clay, Djokovic deserves the top seed. Still, seeding Nadal outside of the top four is ludicrous (and Ferrer would likely be the first to agree). The real debate should be whether to seed Nadal at No. 2 or simply within the top four. Many are apt to want another Djokovic vs. Nadal final. With that in mind, do you seed Nadal so that the two can’t meet before the championship match or do you seed him fourth and leave it to fate as to which half of the draw he lands? It’s a hard call, though for what it’s worth, the man at the center of the debate would probably appreciate the seeding that will deflect the most pressure off of his shoulders.
In the same vein as the other three majors, Wimbledon is opening its wallet and has announced there will be a 40% overall increase in prize money for the 2013 Championships. Total prize money will be approximately $34.4 million, which is up nearly $10 million from last year. Also similar to the other majors, it will be the early-round losers who reap the most rewards, with some taking home a little over 60% more than they did in 2012. But Wimbledon isn’t just gearing money towards players’ paychecks. It’s also going to be investing in a new roof. Should all go according to plan, Wimbledon’s second show court, Court 1, will have a retractable roof by 2019. These are all exciting and necessary changes, and with particular regards to the second roof, Wimbledon should continue to enjoy its status as the crown jewel in the tennis calendar.
Earlier this week, Mardy Fish’s attempt to get his game back on track suffered a relatively big setback. Playing in his first Challenger since 2006, Fish was bounced in his opening match against 103-ranked Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in three sets. Yes, the loss came on Fish’s worst surface against a guy who is probably most at home on the dirt, but for a player struggling with confidence and anxiety issues, this loss must cut deep. Hopefully the American can turn it around next week in Tallahassee, because at age 31, more setbacks will likely have Fish calling it a career sooner rather than later.
At least one American got some good news this week, as Brian Baker, who suffered a meniscus tear in January, was given the all-clear by doctors to resume practicing at full speed in the next two to three weeks. After overcoming multiple surgeries to mount such an impressive return in 2012, it seemed an even crueler stroke of bad luck that Baker was forced to retire from his second-round match at the Australian Open with this injury, making his recent announcement all the more welcomed. Baker has also proven to be such a fighter in the past, that even though no return date has yet been set, if his return to competition is anything like what he accomplished last season, we may yet see great things from him in 2013. Here’s to hoping he once again proves to be one of the best feel-good stories in tennis, and indeed, in all of sports.
By Maud Watson
Touch and Go
The spring clay court season of the ATP World Tour is set to kick it into high gear next week, but it may not be firing on all cylinders. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic badly sprained his ankle in his winning effort to help lead Serbia to victory over the United States in Davis Cup play last weekend and is uncertain if he will compete in Monte Carlo. Thankfully, an MRI showed there was no structural damage to the joint capsule or ligaments, but there is a strain on the joint, which requires rest and therapy. Incidents like this are a prime example of why the top players are often reluctant to consistently represent their countries in Davis Cup competition. The team competition’s scheduling leaves little room for recovery heading into regular tour events when freak accidents occur. Djokovic’s health and subsequent ability to peak later in the clay court season are more important, but hopefully he’ll be sufficiently recovered to contest his adopted home tournament. As the most likely answer to the question “Can anyone stop Nadal on clay?” fans are anxious to see Djokovic and Nadal renew their compelling rivalry sooner rather than later.
On Thursday, David Ferrer announced he has had to pull out of the Monte Carlo Masters due to a thigh injury. For a tournament that is already missing Federer and may yet lose Djokovic, Ferrer’s withdrawal comes at a particularly bad time not just for the Spaniard personally, but for the tournament organizers as well. Ferrer would have come into Monte Carlo riding a wave of confidence after a good showing in Miami where he held match point against Murray before eventually falling in the title match. Additionally, though he has proven he’s a man of all surfaces, Ferrer typically produces his best on the clay. It’s the surface that, with the exception of Nadal, provides him his greatest opportunity to earn a win over the guys ranked ahead of him, which makes his recent withdrawal all the more frustrating for both him and his fans. On a positive note, however, at least the injury has come early in the spring clay court season. Ferrer is hopeful of being ready to compete again come Barcelona, and at the very least looks like he should be set for Madrid and Rome.
If Sam Querrey was still smarting after losing in the decisive fourth rubber against Djokovic during last weekend’s Davis Cup tie, he’s going to have plenty of time to get over it. Unfortunately, the American was looking to get back on the horse again at this week’s Houston event, but that’s not going to happen. The strained right pectoral muscle, which played a large part in his only winning one game in the last two sets of his encounter with Djokovic, has forced him to withdraw from the tournament. As the top American, Querrey was undoubtedly disappointed at the missed opportunity to add points to his ranking and continue to build on his good start to the season, but resting the injury was the wiser decision. The good news is that it’s certainly nothing serious, and Querrey is very confident he’ll be 100% for his next scheduled event, Madrid.
Roger Federer delighted his home fans when he announced his commitment to compete at his hometown tournament in Basel later this year. It was uncertain whether Federer would compete in Basel in 2013 thanks to a contractual dispute regarding the amount of the appearance fee his management team was seeking. It’s hard to knock Federer for his demands (specifics were never confirmed). A number of tournaments dole out exceptional appearance fees to many of the game’s top players. Federer is also at a stage where he needs to be even more vigilant about scheduling. Basel is a great event, but it’s not as essential to the Swiss No. 1 as tune-ups for a major. It’s understandable he’d look for additional incentives to compete at those mid-level, end-of-season events. Thankfully, all parties were able to reach some type of an agreement, which means organizers, Federer, and the fans, are happy.
Captain of Fed Cup Team USA Mary Jo Fernandez has named her squad for the upcoming tie against Sweden, and it’s a squad that’s making headlines. In addition to Stephens and Lepchenko, the team also includes the Williams Sisters. As World No. 1 with a flawless record in team competition play, Serena is a definite ace in the whole. Unfortunately, the Williams Sisters also have a bit of a history of pulling out of the Fed Cup, so we’ll wait to see if this dream team pans out into a reality. Still, with the Fed Cup requirements for qualifying for the Olympics and the upcoming April 20-21 tie set to take place in Delray Beach, odds are strong this time that the Williams Sisters will follow through and compete for the red, white and blue.
By Maud Watson
It seems like only yesterday Sloane Stephens was being anointed the next “big thing” in American tennis. After an impressive run in Melbourne, she looked ready to compete with the big girls. In the three months since that run, however, she’s gone a dismal 2-5. Some of those losses have been tight – matches where she put herself in a position to win only to fall short. But more recently, she’s gone through patches where she has struggled to win games. Her latest loss in Charleston, where she won only two games against Mattek-Sands, is a prime example. It was a match that left her on the verge of tears, which frankly, was good to see. She needed an attitude adjustment after her loss in Miami where she insinuated she could ride the coattails of her Aussie Open success and brush off frequent first-round losses. Her attempt to try and keep things in perspective was admirable, but it was a faulty line of thinking. Based on her reaction in Charleston though, it seems to have hit home that even if her ranking won’t drastically suffer, for a player of her potential, strings of early-round losses are unacceptable. Hopefully playing in Europe, where she won’t be so under the microscope, will help her right the ship. It’s certainly not time to panic, but there is cause for some concern in the Stephens’ camp.
Turning the Page
Before he was even a teenager, the world was told that Richard Gasquet was destined for great things. Now in his mid-20s, things haven’t exactly panned out the way many, especially the Frenchman, would have hoped. But in 2013, we’re starting to see a different Gasquet. He has quietly put together a good start to the season. He’s already secured two titles, had a good run in Indian Wells, and played some spectacular ball against Murray before bowing out in the semis of Miami. But the biggest change we’re seeing in Gasquet was on display in that loss to Murray. Though it was clear to anyone watching that Gasquet was in pain, Gasquet competed all the way until the end. The old Gasquet would have tanked or pulled the plug. It seems his increased coaching from former pro Sebastian Grosjean is paying dividends. If he can continue to improve in consistency and the mental department, the business end of the men’s premiere events is going to get even more interesting.
Does It Matter?
For the first time in nearly a decade, neither Federer nor Nadal is ranked in the top 2. Those spots are presently occupied by Djokovic and Murray. The question is, does it really matter? On one hand, provided Nadal is able to once again take the No. 4 ranking away from Ferrer, the Big 4 will still be guaranteed of meeting one another no sooner than the semis. There’s also no getting around that Murray’s ranking rise was aided by the absence of Federer and Nadal in Miami (as well as Nadal’s lengthy layoff). But on the other hand, to write off the change in rankings as insignificant – particularly Murray’s rise to No. 2 – would be a mistake. Djokovic sits atop the mountain, and despite recent losses at Indian Wells and Miami, is still generally considered the man to beat. For his own part, Murray may have benefited from his opposition sitting out some big tournaments, but he’s also steadily become a better player than he was even twelve months ago. He earned the No. 2 ranking by virtue of his play in 2012, and his rankings rise should translate into an increased sense of self-belief. So while it would come as no shock if Federer or Nadal were to upend the two men ranked ahead of them on a big stage, from a psychological standpoint, it’s now Federer and Nadal playing from behind the eight ball, which is just the slight shakeup men’s tennis needs.
Evening the Odds
Just before the Davis Cup quarterfinals got underway, the countries of Kazakhstan and Argentina both received a boost to their chances of advancing to the semis. Kazakhstan had already caught a break going into its quarterfinal clash with the Czech Republic, as Czech No. 1 Berdych had announced earlier that he would be sitting out the tie to nurse a shoulder injury. Now Czech No. 2, Stepanek, won’t be competing in the singles on the tie’s opening day. Stepanek will be playing his first event since neck surgery and will be eased into the competition by starting in the doubles on Saturday. It is unknown whether Stepanek will play the reverse singles on Sunday if the tie still hangs in the balance, but either way, it’s a break for the host nation. Similar to Kazakhstan, Argentina is also benefiting from the withdrawal of a player from the opposing squad, though its effect isn’t as great. Gasquet was forced to forfeit his place on Team France due to the ankle injury that plagued him in March. He’s been replaced, however, by the very talented Simon. Simon hasn’t had quite the hot hand that Gasquet has enjoyed of late, but he’s no slouch and capable of playing big-time tennis anywhere, any time. In short, these ties are too close to call.
Poor Andrea Petkovic. The affable German just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to injuries. Her litany of injuries is well documented, and after this week, you can add one more to the list. Petkovic, who was finally starting to notch some wins and was scheduled to meet fellow wildcard Wozniacki in the Round of 16 in Charleston, was forced to withdraw due to a right calf injury. Petkovic explained that the calf had been giving her trouble since Miami and indicated she may have hurt it through relying on that calf muscle too much in order to protect her troubled knee. Petkovic was upbeat despite the disappointment, stating at this stage, she’d rather take precaution than risk yet another serious and lengthy injury layoff. Smart move on her part. Hopefully she’ll recover quickly and once again be giving fans plenty to cheer in the near future.
By Maud Watson
We’ve all heard the phrase a player is “putting on a clinic.” It frequently happens in the early rounds of tournaments when the top-ranked players barely lose games, let alone sets against their less-accomplished opposition. What we don’t often hear about, or see for that matter, is the veteran 30+-year-old putting on a clinic against the sport’s best. Yet that’s just what happened Tuesday night as Tommy Haas shocked everyone, including himself, by becoming the oldest man in over thirty years to defeat the World No. 1. Haas might as well have been called King Midas that night, for everything his racquet touched turned to gold. And for those who will argue that it was one of the uglier matches from Djokovic, they’re right. He never could find his rhythm, particularly off the forehand wing. But the biggest reason behind his poor play – and Djokovic admitted as much – was the phenomenal shot-making coming from the other side of the net. Haas was getting it done from everywhere in the court, and even in the long rallies, it was Djokovic who blinked first. Equally impressive, Haas followed up his big win with a thrashing of No. 11 seed Simon to reach the semis. It may not come consistently, but hats off to Haas for managing to produce the kind of tennis that took him to No. 2 in the world 11 years ago and proving that even in tennis, age is sometimes still just a number.
Maybe they would have done it anyway. Maybe they realized it was time to start keeping up with the Joneses – aka Indian Wells. Whatever the reason, IMG has announced it s plans to start upgrading the year’s second Masters event, and not a moment too soon. Plans include the building of three new stadiums, upgrades to the current center court, and adding an acre of green space. Despite the fact that construction won’t begin until have next year’s event, organizers are confident that the three phases of upgrades will be completed in time for the 2017 edition of the Sony Open. News of the upgrades is both much-needed and much-welcomed for the event that used to unofficially be known as the “Fifth Slam” – a moniker that most believe now belongs to the BNP Paribas Open. Miami has a ways to go before it catches up with all of the changes that have been made to the event in the desert, but the Sony Open is taking a step in the right direction.
Between the exhibition tours and Rafael Nadal opting to make his return to competitive tennis at the small 250 event in Chile, tennis in South America has enjoyed a surge. Things continue to get better for the continent with the news that the Rio Open is a go for next season and will be staged in the middle of February during the South American Golden Swing. The Rio Open, like the Memphis event it is replacing, will be a combined ATP and WTA event. With eight clay courts and a center court that seats 7,000, the Rio Open will also be the largest tennis event in South America. And while the women’s purse is relatively small, its $1.2 million prize purse for the men is sure to draw top talent. This new event should prove a major positive for tennis in South America and the sport globally, especially since it appears to have the makings to provide some drama and excitement during one of the traditionally slow pockets on the tennis calendar.
Hall of Famer Ann Haydon-Jones joins the list of tennis pundits questioning Caroline Wozniacki’s ability and drive for the game. The former Wimbledon and Roland Garros champion argued that instead of focusing on her new line of lingerie, Wozniacki ought o be focused more on her tennis. She also cited other women who currently cash in on their looks, which Jones conceded is not necessarily a bad thing, but you need to have the results on the court to back that up – something that’s sorely been lacking for the Dane of late. Of course, Jones alluded to the fact that Wozniacki might be looking to make her fame elsewhere if she feels she’s incapable of winning the big one, but based on her own comments, it’s unlikely Wozniacki feels that way or would admit to such feelings. Unfortunately, she’s done little in recent memory to prove Jones or any other critic wrong on such an assumption. Maybe this latest bout of commentary from Jones will catch Wozniacki’s attention. Then again, Wozniacki has been downright stubborn about making adjustments, so it’s likely she’ll just continue to spin her wheels. Still, one can hope.
Isner actually won a match before being dismissed in the third round by Cilic in Miami, but it was still a disappointing effort from the American. What wasn’t disappointing, however, was Isner’s reaction to where he’s at with his game right now. There were no excuses. He confirmed that he isn’t physically tired, nor is he mentally tired. To put it diplomatically, Isner stated he knows he needs to get his butt in gear, and he’s looking forward to starting that process as part of the American squad that will be taking on Serbia in the Davis Cup quarterfinals. He’s in luck, too. Team USA is led by Captain Jim Courier, a man well known for being one of the hardest workers in the history of the game. If anyone can possibly get through to Isner, it’s Courier. Plus, just as Davis Cup last year proved what Isner is capable of when firing on all cylinders, perhaps Davis Cup this year will be where he’s once again able to put it all together and gain some momentum going into the rest of 2013.
By Maud Watson
Cut the Bull
Rafael Nadal’s fans had plenty to celebrate last weekend (and rightfully so) as their man won the prestigious Indian Wells title. But count me among the number of fans that were left feeling a little frustrated at how things unfolded. It wasn’t that Nadal won. He thoroughly deserved it. He played phenomenal tennis, chasing down balls that would have been winners against most players, and he moved around that backhand beautifully to bully his opponents with his legendary forehand. The problem is, we were constantly told he couldn’t do that yet. Leading up to and throughout Indian Wells, Nadal and his camp harped on the knee and his layoff, insisting that he wasn’t capable of producing such a high level of tennis even as match after match proved quite the opposite. It was particularly annoying to hear him essentially use the knee as a preemptive excuse should he lose to Federer in their quarterfinal clash, even though it was obvious Federer was the more hobbled of the two. This brings us to Toni Nadal’s most recent controversial comments. Nadal’s uncle and coach felt the need to insist that his nephew has been in more pain in losses he’s suffered to Federer than Federer was in his loss to Nadal last week. (How would Toni know?) Then there was his ludicrous notion that Ferrer was not only more of a favorite to win Roland Garros than Federer, but a favorite at all. (Ferrer himself doesn’t believe he can win a major.) One can only assume Toni’s comments are meant to make Rafa’s most recent victories over these opponents seem bigger than they were, but none of this is necessary. Nadal is one of the greatest to have played the game. Deflecting the pressure by bringing up injuries is nothing but a copout. It’s a disservice to the fans that can clearly see how he’s playing, and judging by the comments of some of his fellow peers, they’re also getting a little tired of the injury talk. That’s why just once, it would be nice if Nadal and his team would cut the bull and let Nadal’s tennis do the talking. They’d find it more than sufficient.
Knocking at the Door
Lost in the hullabaloo of Nadal’s title run was the respectable tournament that Juan Martin del Potro put together at the year’s first Masters. The Argentine defeated Murray and Djokovic back-to-back to reach the final and very nearly did the same to Nadal in the championship match. Del Potro showed signs of returning to his 2009 form at the end of last season, but it’s looking more and more like he’s ready to make another move with his play at Indian Wells. He still isn’t able to go after the backhand as much as he’d like thanks to a suspect wrist, but it’s getting better. He’s also using more variety, as he recognizes that it will take more than just brute force if he’s to break up the Big 4. If Del Potro can continue is upward trend, men’s tennis is about to get even more interesting with the Argentine’s game a tough matchup for any of the guys ranked ahead of him.
Progress at Last
It’s taken a lot of grumbling, patience, and “spirited discussions”, but it seems that the USTA is ready to listen to the demands of the players. The USTA has finally come to accept that the “Super Saturday” format is no longer compatible with the modern game, and beginning in 2015, the US Open’s scheduling will fall more in line with that of the other three majors. In order to make this possible, the USTA has also agreed to stage the opening rounds of the men’s event over the course of just two days, instead of three. Equally important to the scheduling is the welcomed news that the USTA plans to increase their prize money to $50 million by 2017. This should go a long way towards appeasing the players’ complaints that they don’t currently receive a satisfactory share of the profits. Now, if only we could get a roof over Ashe Stadium – something unlikely to happen any time soon due to cost, but something the USTA is starting to realize may be a possibility down the road. One can dream!
Shortly after the announcement pertaining to the US Open’s prize money increase, Roland Garros also came out with the welcomed news that they, too, intend to increase their prize purse. Though not as much as the $50 million put forth by the USTA, Roland Garros Tournament Director Gilbert Ysern assured everyone that they will increase prize money “spectacularly” between 2013 and 2016. It’s unclear if players are happy with the extent of the change. Justin Gimelstob, an ATP Board Member, stated the players would review the increase along with the French Open’s expansion plans, as they may feel that some of the money being directed towards expansion should instead be going into players’ pockets. Of course, money may not need to be directed towards expansion any time soon, with a Paris judge putting the current plans on hold over concerns that they don’t meet environmental regulations. So, this isn’t over, but at least as far as the prize money is concerned, it’s a step in the right direction.
It’s no secret that Jennifer Capriati had a troubled childhood, and now it seems those problems have carried well into adulthood. On Wednesday in Florida, the 2012 Hall of Fame Inductee was charged with stalking and battery. She allegedly punched her ex-boyfriend, Ivan Brannan, on Valentine’s Day while he was working out at a gym. In addition to punching him, Brannan is claiming that she has stalked him since they broke up in 2012. If the charges prove to be true, they will mark another sad chapter in the American’s life. Depending on how it all shakes out, it may also be interesting to chart whether or not there are calls to revoke her place in the Tennis Hall of Fame.
By Maud Watson
With many of the world’s top-ranked female stars in attendance, the BNP Paribas Open started off so promising. It’s losing steam as it heads to the finale, however, thanks to a couple of key upsets and unfortunate withdrawals. Kirilenko upset both Aga Radwanska and Kvitova to set up a semifinal clash with Sharapova, which is a matchup the World No. 3 likely prefers with the No. 2 ranking up for grabs should she advance to the final. On the opposite side of the draw, Kerber and Wozniacki find themselves in the semis after both Stosur and Azarenka withdrew with leg and ankle injuries. All four women are accomplished players, but with only one of the top-four-ranked women present in the semis, the tournament no longer possesses quite the same level of excitement. It’s a shame for the tournament organizers, but if one person can take these lemons and turn them into lemonade, it’s Sharapova, who is now the strong favorite to take home the title.
Just Won’t Die
Just when you thought that ugly issue would go away, the topic of grunting is once again making tennis headlines. This time, it’s actual grunting, with the latest complaint coming from Murray against ATP pro Berlocq. Murray was moved to complain about the Argentine’s long and loud grunts after his opponent complained to the umpire that he thought Murray was taking longer than the permitted 25 second between points. Irrespective of what prompted the complaint, it was legitimate. But Berlocq isn’t the only loud competitor on the ATP World Tour. Granollers has long been touted as having one of the most distracting grunts, and others, like Nadal, Djokovic, and Ferrer, have also been known to get a little too vocal. Federer hit the nail on the head when he said it’s all about respecting your opponent and suggested that there is such a thing has being too loud. Unfortunately, the ATP players are less likely to pursue a solution to the grunting problem, but with any luck, perhaps they will. Pursuing a solution might then have a spillover effect to the WTA and force the governing bodies to do something now. There are too many positives in the sport for it to be hounded by this issue, but there’s no denying its impact on the sport is growing, and not for the better.
One to Watch
Okay, Ernests Gulbis has been “one to watch” on more than one occasion throughout his career, but after a thirteen match win-streak and a near upset of Nadal in the Round of 16 in Indian Wells, maybe this time, the label will stick. The Latvian may lack the looks and some of the charm of Marat Safin, but he’s definitely the closest thing tennis currently has to the charismatic Russian. He’s unabashedly confident and honest, from declaring he didn’t fear Nadal and had the goods to beat the Spaniard, to his calling out his peers for what he perceives to be fake congratulations. Love him or hate him, he calls it like he sees it. He’s also always had the talent to pull off a plethora of shots to flummox his opponents and thrill the crowds, but the consistency has been lacking. After winning a title in Delray Beach and nearly booking a quarterfinal berth in Indian Wells, however, things could be turning around. At 24, Gulbis is starting to mature. He’s starting to make strides at controlling his temper and keeping the bad patches of play short and to a minimum over the course of a match. We’ll have to wait and see how he fares in the coming weeks, but if this guy has truly put it together, the rest of the field better be on alert.
Mardy Fish fans will be anxious as the Miami Masters approaches, as the second Masters of 2013 may ultimately turn out to be the American’s last tournament as a professional. Fish has in no way committed to anything, but he made it clear that he hasn’t ruled out walking away from the game after just his second event this season. After Miami, he plans to assess where he is, if he feels comfortable competing and can do so at a high level. After his stint at Indian Wells, things certainly look dicey. He did win a match, and if you just saw the score line, you’d be impressed that he took a player of Tsonga’s caliber to two tiebreak sets in the third round. But Fish blew a 4-0 lead in the second, and he also served for it at 5-4. That may haunt him as he takes to the court in Florida, which given all that he’s dealing with, will make competing there all the more difficult. Hopefully Fish won’t be ready to throw in the towel. Even if he opts to skip the clay court season, it would be nice to see him give it one last go on the lawns of Wimbledon or see if he can rediscover some magic during the US Open Series. But he’s got to feel comfortable with it, and based on the statements he’s made of late, his fans would be well served to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
With 2012 finalist Isner being bounced out of Indian Wells early (and projected to fall out of the top 20 as a result), Sam Querrey will become the new No. 1 for the United States next week. It’s a great achievement for Querrey, who has had his ups and down with injuries and mental attitude. But what was even better was Querrey’s response to becoming the top American. He recognized it for the honor that it is but was quick to point out that with tennis being such a global sport, what really matters is the world ranking. On that front, Querrey still has plenty of work to do, but with a Round of 16 showing in Indian Wells, he’s moving in the right direction. He’ll be looking to post a respectable result in Miami, and if he can continue to grow and improve, he could be poised for a big summer.