For most athletes, enshrinement in their sport’s Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of lifelong achievement; the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the self-titled “Home of the Legends of Tennis,” is no different. Eternal recognition of greatness is truly the highest honor in sport, above the grand slams, the titles, the endorsements and the prize money. At the same time, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame carries a sense of finality; it is meant to close the book on athletes’ careers in their minds and the minds of the public, all while allowing the masses to recollect and appreciate all that they achieved. It’s the happy ending to the fairytale.
For Martina Hingis, who had twice been denied the chance to end her legendary career on her own terms, induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July marked something completely different.
Shortly after her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the five-time Grand Slam champion announced that she would be making a return to the WTA in doubles this summer. Hingis has committed to play five events, starting this week at the Southern California Open in Carlsbad. She will partner Daniela Hantuchova for the duration; the pair will also play together in Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven and at the US Open. For now, Hingis has only planned a comeback in doubles; rumors have nonetheless been circulating that she is merely testing the waters for a full-fledged return in singles.
Whatever Hingis decides, chances are high that her third foray into the fray will be her last. Despite being considered one of the all-time greats in tennis, Hingis’ competitive career was comparatively short compared to her contemporaries. Hingis was on top of the world at the tender age of 16, and won all five of her Grand Slam singles titles before the age of 19. Nagging heel and ankle injuries resulted in two surgeries, and Hingis’ teenage dream was over at the age of 22.
The Swiss Miss returned in 2005, but as the old saying goes, sequels are never as good as the original. She lost the first singles match of her return in Pattaya City to Marlene Weingärtner. She claimed she had no further plans for a comeback, but success in World TeamTennis prompted her to announce a full comeback for 2006. She added three more titles in her second chapter, including a record fifth in Tokyo, and won the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award in 2006.
At Wimbledon in 2007, however, Hingis tested positive for trace amounts of cocaine and was handed a two-year suspension from the sport. Despite vehemently proclaiming her innocence, she chose not to fight the ban and retired for a second time. With the recent scandals regarding doping in major professional sports, as well as the ITF’s suspension of Viktor Troicki, it’s understandable that Hingis’ return could be met with some apprehension from critics and conspiracy theorists alike.
Despite her past controversy, Hingis’ return has been met with positive fanfare; in addition, her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame speaks volumes. A panel of 125 journalists from around the world votes for the incoming class, and in addition to weighing a player’s accomplishments, “consideration will be given to integrity, sportsmanship and character.” With her immortality recorded in Newport, the book was thought to be closed on Hingis’ career.
However, between injuries and a suspension, one of the game’s greats never got to write her own ending.
Hingis, unlike other prodigies in sport, has always had a deep-seeded love for her craft; in return, tennis fans around the world have a deep-seeded love for her court craft, guile and intelligence. Despite two “careers,” Hingis never had a farewell tour. This is her chance. Every good story has character development, plot twists, and perhaps most importantly, a resolution. It seems only right that she gets the chance to begin (and end) the final chapter of a storied career on her terms.
Anne Keothavong, who spent a sizable portion of her career as Great Britain’s No. 1 tennis player, announced her decision to retire from professional tennis on Wednesday. In a career that spanned 12 years, the 29-year-old Keothavong won 20 titles on the ITF circuit and reached seven WTA semifinals; in fact, she was the only British player to reach a WTA semifinal in the 20-year period from 1992 to 2012.
“I have given my decision a lot of thought and I believe this is the right time to move on to the next stage of my career,” she said. “I have had some magical moments along the way. I think I am leaving tennis in excellent shape with both Laura Robson and Heather Watson leading the way for Britain in the women’s game.”
In her most successful period, Keothavong made her top 100 debut in May 2008 and arrived in the top 50 in February 2009 at a career-high of No. 48; at that point, she was the first British woman to be ranked in the top 50 in 16 years. During that time, she reached the third round of the US Open in 2008 and recorded three of her career semifinals in 2009.
Unfortunately, numerous injuries halted the progress of her career, and the worst of these came as Keothavong was having that career year in 2009. At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Keothavong ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her left knee during a doubles match. She had previously suffered a similar injury early in her career in 2004. Keothavong was unable to play another match that year, and her ranking slipped to the lower rung of the top 100.
Keothavong’s career was defined by her incredible tenacity and determination, both on the court and off it. Despite a litany of injuries including not one, but two knee surgeries, she bounced back each time. In her return to the main tour following her knee surgery in 2010, Keothavong reached the semifinals in Memphis by defeating Kristina Barrios, Michelle Larcher de Brito and Karolina Sprem in straight sets; she fell in three sets to eventual runner-up Sofia Arvidsson in the semifinals. Later that year, she reached her second semifinal in Luxembourg on the back of a protected ranking.
Backed by her big serve an forehand, Keothavong played in the main draw at Wimbledon for 13 consecutive years. Unbeknownst to spectators at the time, Keothavong’s last career match came at Wimbledon this year in a first round loss to Garbiñe Muguruza. Nonetheless, it seemed somewhat fitting that Great Britain’s most successful player of the past two decades got to close out her career at home on Centre Court.
Keothavong and Elena Baltacha, who flew the Union Jack on the WTA for the better part of a decade, have left an impression on British women’s tennis that far outshines their results. The pair help bridge the generational gap from Jo Durie and Sam Smith to Heather Watson and Laura Robson.While neither were praised as natural or fluid ball-strikers in the vein that Robson has been, the pair maximized their talents through hard work. In addition, both showed incredible dedication to playing for their country; Keothavong played 14 ties for Great Britain in Fed Cup, contesting 44 total matches.
In retirement, Keothavong will join the BT Sport broadcast team that will cover 21 WTA events, including the WTA Championships.
The word hero, in all of its various forms, is thrown around quite often in sports. Professional athletes are placed on a pedestal, expected to walk the straight and narrow and act as role models for the youth of the world. In tennis, the word hero is often associated with the word gladiator. Matches are played out one-on-one in an enclosed arena. When players come through long and arduous matches, they are hailed as warriors and fighters. The WTA’s previous global ad campaign, entitled “Looking for a Hero?”, was one of its most successful.
An athlete isn’t a hero because he uses physical strength and endurance to win. That’s his job. An athlete isn’t a hero because she goes out and wins multiple championships. That’s her goal. Heroism isn’t playing through an injury and coming out with a victory, and heroism isn’t rolling through the field to win a grand slam.
Despite all that, the word hero has not lost its luster in sports.
The ESPYs, ESPN’s annual fan-driven award show to celebrate athletic achievement in the past calendar year, takes itself far more seriously than it should. Ironically, it is the only awards show in the history of awards shows that doesn’t actually signify achievement in anything. Actors and directors measure their careers based on Oscars and Golden Globes, while musicians covet Grammys. But athletes? Each individual sport has its championships and each individual organization has its awards, medals and accolades. From the outside, the ESPYs seem like a colossal waste of time; in fact, they might even represent everything that’s wrong with professional sports today: over-the-top pomp and circumstance, glossy hero-worship, excessive media hype and dollar signs.
However, for approximately 20 minutes each year, the ESPYs do give us one thing: the chance to be inspired by a true hero. The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is one of the only awards of the night that is not decided by fan voting; it is completely independent of the popularity contest and media circus. The award is presented to someone who “reflects the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” While a sports-themed award, the recipient does not have to be an athlete or even a sports figure; nonetheless, its honorees have given us some of the most memorable moments in sports history. In the first year of the ESPYs, Jimmy V told us, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Last year, we backed Pat and she told us to “keep on keeping on.”
Last night, Robin Roberts received the 20th Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in the history of the ESPYs. Roberts, who has ties to the tennis family, is currently an anchor for ABC’s Good Morning America. A star athlete in her youth and record-holding basketball player at Southeastern Louisiana, she joined ESPN in 1990 and served with them for 15 years. Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she returned back to the airwaves. Last year, however, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease that developed as a side effect from her treatment. Roberts needed, and received, a bone marrow transplant that saved her life.
Roberts, who was a friend of Ashe and was presented the award by LeBron James, received a standing ovation from those present in the arena. “It’s not so much what we’ve accomplished that we remember,” Roberts said in her acceptance speech, “it’s what we overcome.”
Despite all of its flaws, the ESPYs, and by extension sport as a whole, provides viewers with a stage to have these stories told. Athletes and sports figures can be heroes, but not solely for athletic achievement; Jimmy V, Pat, Robin and others are figures that transcend sports. They’ve taken up a platform and embraced that stage for the greater good. That is the thing, and not the number of championships, golds medals, or slam trophies present in their cabinets, that is the most inspiring.
For the better part of a decade, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin battled each other for major titles and the World No. 1 ranking while simultaneously putting Belgium on the international sporting stage. Who would’ve ever imagined that a nation that covers just under 12,000 square miles with a population of just over 11 million people would produce not one, but two of the greatest champions in the history of women’s tennis?
Unlike other nations which have traditionally produced the game’s greats, including the United States, the Czech Republic and Russia, Belgium did not have a strong championship pedigree in tennis prior to Clijsters and Henin’s success. The pair took a comparatively small nation and turned it into a powerhouse; in addition to holding 11 Grand Slam singles titles between them, the two were ranked No. 1 in the world for a combined 137 weeks and single-handedly led Belgium to a Fed Cup title in 2001 and a final in 2006. With Clijsters and Henin both retired, the future of Belgian tennis looked bleak. A nation that once enjoyed an embarrassment of riches courtesy of two players now only boasts just three in the top 300, with the most talented players still years away. Yanina Wickmayer made a shocking run to the semifinals of the US Open in 2009 at 19 years old, but a lingering back injury and patches of inconsistent play have dimmed her once-bright promise. In Fed Cup, Belgium will compete in Europe/Africa Zone Group I in 2014 following their defeat to Poland in the World Group II Playoffs this year, the first time Belgium will compete in zonal play since 1995.
When the Belgians were looking for someone to fly their flag, they probably weren’t expecting someone who was born in the same decade as both Kim and Justine to take it up. She’s been right under their noses the whole time.
In a tournament riddled with shocks and stunners, the Cinderella story of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships is more than just that. Ten years ago, Kirsten Flipkens won the junior Wimbledon title. The Belgian defeated well-known WTA players Alisa Kleybanova, Ana Ivanovic, Jarmila Gajdosova and Anna Chakvetadze in the final en route to the title and the No. 1 junior ranking. At the end of that year, Flipkens was named the ITF Juniors Girls’ Singles World Champion. A late bloomer of sorts, Flipkens did not play in the main draw of a women’s grand slam event until the 2006 French Open, and reached back-to-back third rounds at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2009.
After ending both 2009 and 2010 inside the top 100, Flipkens dealt with a wrist injury which resulted in a year-end ranking of No. 194 in 2011. Her troubles continued in April of 2012, as Flipkens’ doctors discovered blood clots in her legs and she was sidelined for two months. Despite recovering, Flipkens learned it was a genetic problem and she still needed to wear compression socks and take blood thinners before flying. As a result, her ranking continued to free fall and she slipped to No. 262 in the world prior to last year’s Wimbledon Championships – a ranking not even high enough to contest the tournament’s qualifying event.
There were few left who believed in her, as the Flemish Tennis Federation withdrew their support from a player ranked No. 262 at 26 years of age. In a matter of a few years, Flipkens went from junior standout and 2003 Belgian Talent of the Year, to top 100 player, to another ‘what could’ve been.’ The one person who never stopped believing, however, was Flipkens herself. “Because I knew, my highest ranking then was 59 and I was 100 percent sure that I would get into the top 50 one day. So that was the main thing that kept me up,” she said earlier this year.
Up she’s gone, and she’s refused to look back. With assistance from Clijsters’ former team and Kim herself, Flipkens’ first WTA title came in Quebec City last year, and she passed her career-high of 59 by one spot as a result. After ending 2012 at 54, she made her top 50 debut after reaching the semifinals in Hobart in January. She reached the second week of a slam for the first time at the Australian Open, and made her top 30 debut after Indian Wells. She arrived in the top 20 after Roland Garros and came to Wimbledon as the No. 20 seed.
With straight set wins in her first four matches, Flipkens has played her steadiest tennis in a tournament where nothing’s been certain. In her first major quarterfinal, no one would’ve batted an eyelash had she been overwhelmed and bundled out by former champion Petra Kvitova. No one talked about or expected her to make it out of Victoria Azarenka’s depleted quarter of the draw, yet here she is. Following both her fourth round win over Flavia Pennetta and the quarterfinal win against Kvitova, Flipkens fell to her knees and kissed the grass courts – a symbolic measure of just how far she’s come.
For all that Clijsters and Henin accomplished, neither of them managed to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon; Henin came the closest, as she reached the final in 2001 and 2006. At this time last year, Kirsten Flipkens was en route to winning an ITF $25,000 title in Middelburg, Netherlands. She’s been around the world and back with a game that would’ve looked at home a decade ago. 12 months later she has the chance of a lifetime, one that no one could’ve ever expected her to have, on the biggest stage in tennis. She still the biggest underdog remaining, but after all she’s overcome, there’s no doubt she’s primed for another fight.
When the new International-level WTA event made its debut this week in Nürnberg, Germany, there was no shortage of quality story lines; although the draw featured no top 10 players, top seed Jelena Jankovic is always a walking headline and four Germans started off in the main draw. Nonetheless, the event has made headlines for completely unexpected reasons. Some have questioned the merit of the WTA holding a clay court event two weeks before Wimbledon, particularly in a country where the grass-court tuneup in Halle always attracts a star-studded ATP lineup.
The idea of arbitrarily placed clay court events on either tour’s calendar is nothing new. The WTA calendar also allocates space for four clay court events in the two weeks following Wimbledon: Budapest, Palermo, Bastad and Bad Gastein. Serena Williams is committed to play the clay-court event in Bastad for the first time in her career, and the event is held the week before her usual US Open Series tuneup in Stanford. Rafael Nadal returned from a seven month injury layoff and prepared for the North American hard court season by playing in Vina del Mar, Sao Paulo and Acapulco…on clay.
With the way that professional tennis has evolved over the years, the grass court season has become little more than a blip on the drawn-out tennis calendar; while players like Alison Riske and Tsvetana Pironkova might’ve found their lives a bit easier if three of the four slams were still contested on grass, career-defining results on grass are not the norm for most players. Is it really to a player’s benefit to waste time (and money) to travel and compete on a surface where she’ll reap such little reward for such a short time?
There is constant clamoring for players to schedule smarter and play the tournaments that are in their best interest. By putting these tournaments on the schedule, the WTA is allowing for that. There was little to no clamor about Nadal returning to action on his most preferred surface to get match play and confidence. This week in Nürnberg, the narrative was quite similar. The saga of Andrea Petkovic and her injuries over the past 18 months is well known. After losing in Roland Garros qualifying to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou, Petkovic dropped down to the ITF Circuit and won a $100,000 event in Marseille on clay; among her scalps, Petkovic defeated in-form players Monica Puig and Paula Ormaechea, both of whom came off third round showings in Paris. After defeating Sofia Arvidsson in the first round in Germany, Petkovic assured her return to the top 100. Petkovic’s good form continued as she rallied past Annika Beck, her teenaged countrywoman, in nearly three hours to reach her first WTA semifinal since Luxembourg in 2012.
On the other side of the draw, Polona Hercog was making an injury comeback of her own. The Slovenian quietly played just one match this year at the Australian Open before requiring wrist surgery, and made her return to competition at a $50,000 ITF event in France before Roland Garros. No slouch on her beloved clay, where she owns two WTA singles titles, Hercog also fell in Roland Garros qualifying. Hercog’s greatest grass court success came as a junior, when she reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2008. Since then, Hercog has avoided grass like the plague, and rightly so. The Slovenian’s game is far from effective on grass, and it didn’t take her long to figure that out. She’s played just a handful of matches on the surface in her career. Her only career win at Wimbledon came against Johanna Larsson, perhaps the only active WTA player less comfortable on grass than Hercog herself. Instead of moving on to grass, Hercog took the title at a $25,000 ITF event in her hometown of Maribor, reached the semifinals in Marseille and took out the No. 2 seed Klara Zakopalova en route to a quarterfinal showing in Nürnberg. With smart scheduling, Hercog got herself more match practice in a few weeks than she might have for nearly the rest of the year.
In a sport where so much is made of wins and losses, it’s much easier to adapt to an uncomfortable situation when you’re in good form. None of the WTA’s top three are entered in a grass court warmup event, and does anyone believe that this is a hindrance to their title hopes? The difference is that these players perform at a high level nearly every week and are rarely, if ever, short on confidence. Confidence and the ability to adapt comes from winning, and nothing else. Not everyone has the luxury to be able to have and do that on a dime. By holding simultaneous tournaments on different surfaces, both tours are allowing for the highest percentage of their players to succeed.
(June 7, 2013) It’s the dream final most were expecting: No. 1 seed Serena Williams taking on No. 2 seed and defending champion Maria Sharapova. The American is in her 20th final and holds the head-to-head edge against the Russian, 13-2. The two have met six times alone within the past year on three different surfaces, and it has been a clean sweep for Williams. However, this marks the first time Sharapova has successfully reached the final of a Slam as defending champion, and has reached quarterfinals or better of every tournament she has entered this year.
So, will Williams once again come out the victor, or can Sharapova finally step up to the plate and take out the American? Our panel of Tennis Grandstand writers Chris Skelton, David Kane and Victoria Chiesa tackle the match head on.
Chris Skelton (@ChrisSkelton87): Have we not seen this movie before? It’s like Titanic without the love story. Sharapova’s massive cruise liner of power and will invariably crumbles when it rams into the iceberg of Serena’s serve, first strikes, and natural athleticism. The iceberg never goes anywhere and has shown no sign of melting with time, while the cruise liner just keeps barreling straight into it without trying to steer around it.
Granted, Sharapova looked like she might have turned a corner in this non-rivalry when she won the first set from Serena in the Miami final this spring. She executed a game plan of serving into her opponent’s body and breaking down her forehand with impressive belief. When Serena asserted herself by erasing a small second-set deficit, though, Sharapova quickly collapsed. That match illustrated the fragility of her self-belief against Serena, which often has turned their matches into ugly affairs from the outset. (Think back to the 2007 Australian Open final or the Olympics gold-medal match last year.)
Most recently, the Madrid final showed that Sharapova’s recent dominance on clay does not translate into conquering her nemesis. Serena conceded only five games in that final and should concede no more here in a match without turning points.
Winner: Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-3
David Kane (@ovafanboy): Remember, I predicted Serena Williams would lose before the semifinals. Though Svetlana Kuznetsova was a handful of games from making me look like a genius, the Russian exposed a crack in the American No. 1’s otherwise chipless veneer. If that was a message that the winner of Rome (and Madrid) was vulnerable, her semifinal demolition of Sara Errani let everyone know that she had taken an industrial buffer to that quarterfinal wrinkle in form as she made last year’s finalist look like a journeywoman.
All of this rings like a bad omen to Maria Sharapova. While she took control of a topsy-turvy encounter with Victoria Azarenka in the other semifinal, that match-up, all can agree, was always in the tall Russian’s hands. The match-up against Williams is a different story. The American can match Sharapova for power, and still has miles on her in consistency and athleticism. On paper, this has “blowout” written all over it. Yet, this match may come down to a battle of nerves. Maria has a mental block when it comes to Serena, but Serena still has a block on Paris, if the quarters were any indication. Both come into this final with something to prove, and the winner, she who conquers her demons, will be a worthy champion.
Winner: Maria Sharapova 6-4 5-7 6-3
Victoria Chiesa (@unseededlooming): They say that statistics rarely tell the whole story. Well, sometimes, they do. There’s not much in the ‘tale of the tape’ that looks good for Maria Sharapova; her head-to-head against Serena Williams is 2-13 and she hasn’t beaten her since the WTA Championships in 2004. Before this year’s final in Miami, Sharapova had not even won a set in the pair’s meetings since the quarterfinals of Charleston in 2008. On the other side, this tournament has been all about redemption for Serena Williams; off of a first round loss a year ago, the World No. 1 came into Paris with one goal in mind.
If semifinal form is anything to go by, Williams could very well take the match out of Sharapova’s hands. Williams fired 40 winners in 46 minutes in a clinical victory over Sara Errani, while Sharapova littered the stat sheet in a three-set slog against Victoria Azarenka. As always, the serve will be key for Sharapova; she struck 12 aces against Azarenka, but paired them with 11 double faults. Both players will be feeling different kinds of pressure at the start of the match; Williams is in her first Roland Garros final in 11 years while Sharapova is looking to defend a slam for the first time. It might be close early, but Williams possesses a gear that no one else in women’s tennis has when she’s on a mission. That gear will see her through to a second Roland Garros title.
Winner: Serena Williams, 7-5 6-2
Where have all the kids gone?
Martina Hingis won each of her five major titles before the age of 20. Try to keep track of the number of times that Ted Robinson mentions ‘Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17′ in her matches and you’re bound to lose count by the end of a dramatic three-setter. On the ATP side of things, the youth drought has been dramatic. Rafael Nadal remains the last teenager to win a major after winning his first French Open title at 19. The last teenager to make a splash of any kind on the men’s circuit was an 18-year-old Bernard Tomic when he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2011.
At Roland Garros in 2013, only 17 players in the men’s draw were born in the 1990s. There are no teenagers ranked in the top 100; 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the youngest player in the draw, entered with a wildcard. He defeated Radek Stepanek, 15 years in senior, in the opening round before falling to Marian Cilic in the second; somewhat unsurprisingly, the Australian still expects to compete in the junior event.
The youth movement in the WTA, while not headlined by the explosive teenaged prodigies of a decade ago, seems to have revitalized. At the start of play this fortnight, 48 players in the women’s field were born in 1990 or later. Like their ATP brethren, the days of the teenaged slam champion seem long gone; however, there are currently 10 teenagers in the WTA’s top 100 and that number more than doubles to 26 when expanding the bracket to players 21 and under.
14 teenagers began their journey in the women’s draw in Paris. One year ago, two of them squared off in the junior final; Annika Beck came out the victor over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in a tough three-set tussle. Fast forward to one year later, and both recorded a main draw win in a senior slam event. Beck cruised past veteran Sandra Zahlavova while Schmiedlova unexpectedly qualified and took home a quality top-50 win over Yanina Wickmayer in her senior slam debut.
In fact, six of the last seven junior girls’ Roland Garros champions competed in the main draw at this year’s event. Agnieszka Radwanska and Alize Cornet, the elder stateswomen of the group at 24 and 23, are seeded and still in the tournament. Kristina Mladenovic, Elina Svitolina and Beck all won a round before falling to seeded and more experienced opponents. Mladenovic and Beck fell to top-10 opposition in the form of Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka, while Svitolina fell to Varvara Lepchenko.
Listed generously at 5’7”, Beck took to Suzanne Lenglen as the underdog in every way. A counterpuncher by nature, the German looked across the net at someone who does everything she can, but better. Eternally positive even when down *05, Beck played brilliantly to the conditions following a brief rain delay. Clean hitting punctuated with soft cheers of “Auf geht’s” as she got her teeth into the match, Beck held steady while Azarenka capitulated. A *50 lead for the Australian Open champion quickly turned into *54, 15-40 and a seemingly improbable comeback for the teenager appeared on the cards. From there, however, one thing set them apart. Roland Garros 2013 was only Beck’s third career grand slam main draw, while it is Azarenka’s 30th. Azarenka came through in the biggest moments, and while Beck fell by a fairly innocuous 64 63 scoreline, the real story of the match told so much more.
While junior success is rarely a purveyor of success on the senior circuit, the stark contrast between the youth movement on the ATP and the WTA presents an interesting narrative. It’s long been proclaimed that teenagers can no longer compete, both physically and mentally, with the rising demands of professional tennis. While this may be true to a degree, the gulf is not as wide as it may seem. If the days of the teenaged prodigy are supposedly over, then expectations on the current young crop shouldn’t be high. It doesn’t work both ways. Nonetheless, much of the new guard has the mentality to go up against the best, and with experience, the game will follow.
Burnout is an incredibly threatening reality for young athletes, and it has shaped professional tennis for nearly two decades. Players’ success in their teenaged years has been indirectly proportional with the length of their careers; the ones still out there are the exception to the rule and are some of the game’s greatest champions. For this group? Let the kids do their thing; let the kids be kids. It’ll be their time when they’re good and ready.
Venus Williams has a lot of experience dealing with little sisters.
Prior to first ball at Roland Garros, she had lost just four matches in her career to notable ‘little sisters.’ Magdalena Maleeva scored three wins against Venus in her career, while Kateryna Bondarenko also notched a victory during the Ukrainian’s career-best season in 2009.
The elephant in the room? Well, let’s just say Venus has had the most on-court success against the little sisters that didn’t grow up in her household.
When the draw was released for this year’s tournament, she found herself pitted up against another little sister in Urszula Radwanska. Like her elder sister Agnieszka, the Pole found great success on the junior circuit; however, she has struggled much more with translating this success to the WTA level, due to both a variety of injuries and a volatile on-court personality. In a match full of drama and plot twists, the two sisters battled it out for over three hours on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Each time Radwanska took a lead, Williams hit back; Radwanska’s level stayed much more even over the three hour, 19-minute contest and in the fading light of the Parisian evening, she finally pulled off the 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 victory.
Give credit where it’s due; it was finally Urszula’s time to shine on a big stage. While it seems unlikely that she will match or eclipse her elder sister’s accomplishments, as Serena did to Venus, she did show one thing that Agnieszka has become famous for: mental toughness. The younger Radwanska, who has capitulated in matches of note numerous times in her young career, could’ve easily snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite nearing tears in parts, she held firm; when all the stars align for an upset, the underdog still has to see it through. Nonetheless, much of the narrative that followed was largely focused on Williams, while the victor was barely an afterthought.
Struggling with a back injury since April and having played just one match on red clay prior to Roland Garros, Venus’ preparation was less than ideal. The murmurs and the whispers of the ‘r-word’, both of which have followed the elder Williams sister since her return to the game after a Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosis in 2011, returned just a bit louder. While Venus’ mind is willing, her body says differently. She looked exhausted after every long rally, but still fought on for three hours. She clearly loves the game, but to say she’s still out there for ‘fun’ is misguided at best. She’s a competitor, a champion; she steps on the court believing she can win and still has a deep desire to do so. It’s highly unlikely that she enjoys the physically exhausting, mentally draining struggle that professional tennis often is, especially when coming out on the losing end.
On the other side of the coin, her achievements speak for themselves. She’s a seven-time grand slam champion and has every right to decide for herself when to hang up her rackets, whether just in singles or entirely. Venus Williams doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Long considered a role model of grace and class for young players, fighting spirit and professionalism has always categorized her career; this has particularly shown through over the past 18 months. If anything, this match was the perfect storm of Venus’ frustrations with poor form, as well as the stubbornness and persistence that has made her a champion.
“My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am,” she said, following the match. “But that’s all I had.”
If there’s anything to take away from the twilight of Venus Williams’ career, it’s the need for a middle ground. Those calling for her to retire need to gain some perspective, but so do those who believe she can still contend for the biggest titles in singles. Her A-game and Z-game have always been separated by inches. No matter how great she is, the one opponent she’ll never beat is Father Time. As we all know, however, the Williams sisters have made a career of overcoming adversity by making adjustments. Tell them they can’t, and they will find a way. It’s foolish to expect Venus to be the player she once was, but it is perhaps even more so to expect her to fall down, and stay down, after another bump in the road.
(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.
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 Kane: Simona Halep. Have 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 Na. The 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 Wozniacki. A 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
Boyd: Eugenie 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
Boyd: Olga 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.
Chiesa: Laura 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.
Kane: Kimiko Date-Krumm d. (9) Sam Stosur. This 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 Na. Li 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.
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 Williams. Logically, 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.
Li Na? Or Na Li?
The western world’s difficulty with the naming order of the former Roland Garros winner is sometimes the least of her problems. She (basically) carries the burden of an entire nation, becoming the first Asian woman to win a major title in singles. She graced the cover of TIME Magazine, and was named by the publication as one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year. Recently called “the most important player of the decade” by WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, Li’s success has been instrumental in the rise of tennis in the Asia/Pacific region, as well as spearheading the concerted marketing efforts of the WTA in the area.
Nothing in Li’s career had marked her as a particularly strong clay court prior to her run to the Roland Garros title in 2011. She had previous contested just four French Opens, reaching three third rounds and one fourth round. Clay so often rewards patience, and this is a virtue that Li does not always possess. When Li is having a good day, she puts on a show. she’s capable of blowing anyone on the WTA off the court and going toe-to-toe with the game’s biggest hitters. The surface is irrelevant, as she can hit through any conditions. When she’s off, however, the match becomes more of a struggle against herself than any opponent.
After reaching the final in Stuttgart and losing a decent match to Maria Sharapova, Li struggled to adapt to the conditions in Madrid when facing lucky loser Madison Keys in the opening round; while no excuse, Li was no doubt befuddled by the last-minute withdrawal of Tamira Paszek, and received little to no advanced warning that she’d be playing Keys. In a 6-3, 6-2 defeat, Li amassed a total of 34 unforced errors, while balancing that out with just eight winners.
After playing one of the most dramatic matches of the 2012 season with Maria Sharapova in the finals at the Foro Italico last year, Li no doubt returned to Rome in 2013 looking to avenge some of the bad memories from a season ago. Li brushed aside countrywoman Zheng Jie in her opening match, delivering a clinical performance against a player she had previously struggled against; prior to their second round match, Zheng had won four of five previous meetings.
On the other side of the net in Rome on Thursday was Jelena Jankovic, a woman who has won six titles on clay in her career; this haul includes back-to-back titles in Rome at the height of her career in 2007 and 2008. The match was perhaps a microcosm of Li’s career; she was strikingly brilliant for a point or two, but largely flat, wild and unimpressive. Jankovic triumphed by a 7-6(2), 7-5 scoreline but it was perhaps Li’s stat line that was the most shocking of all: 31 winners and 62 unforced errors.
Statistics so rarely tell the real story regarding the dynamics of a tennis match, but tend to be incredibly accurate when Li steps on court. What was Keys’ tally in Madrid? Seven winners, 11 unforced errors. Jankovic’s was no better in Rome, as the Serbian needed just 16 winners (while making 29 errors of her own) to come out the victor. When Li is playing well, she forces her opposition to outplay her; when she’s not, however, they are only required to be just shy of ordinary.
While she has shown that she is able to shine on the biggest stages multiple times, there have been just as many or more when she has failed to rise to the occasion. At the age of 31, Li isn’t getting any younger. Erratic performances have categorized her less-than-traditional road to the top, and she can no longer afford consistently disappointing letdowns like in Madrid and Rome. A Jekyll-and-Hyde performer on court, it’s almost as if she still doesn’t know what kind of player she can be.
(For the record, it’s Li Na. We can at least be sure of that.)