Victoria Chiesa

In the Heat of the Moment

Perhaps more so than others, tennis is a sport in which the gladiator narrative is consistently embraced. It features two competitors going head-to-head in a war of attrition. Heavy forehands and backhands are akin to body blows, and the repetition of these rallies akin to rounds in boxing. If one player wins a long, grueling rally, they’ve “won the battle” but will “lose the war.” As professionals, it should be expected that players are held responsible for all of their actions while on court; however, as tennis continues to embrace this warrior mentality narrative, this really isn’t the case. This was fully on display early in Madrid this week, as Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka flamed out before the quarterfinals; both players did not go quietly, as each was embroiled in controversy in defeat.

Djokovic faced off against rising talent Grigor Dimitrov in the second round on Tuesday. Djokovic, despite suffering what looked like a severe ankle injury in Davis Cup, managed to unseat Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo and came into Madrid on a solid run of clay court form. On the other hand, Dimitrov has had numerous matches against the ATP’s best in his career and has fallen just short, sometimes agonizingly so, each time.

After Djokovic took a nearly-eight minute medical timeout for an alleged recurrence of his ankle injury when down a set and a break, the Madrid crowd began to turn against the World No. 1. Dimitrov flourished in the increasingly hostile on-court environment, as the partisan crowd let Djokovic know their increased displeasure with everything that he did.

After saving a match point and winning the second set tiebreak, Djokovic had some choice words involving some certain body parts for the crowd in his native language. However, he was not penalized for his outburst. The merit of the audible obscenity rule has long been debated, particularly in situations where the chair umpire does not speak the same language as the offending player. Although Carlos Bernardes speaks multiple languages, Serbian is not one of them. Djokovic would eventually lose the match, and was booed off the court.

Azarenka, playing in her first event since Indian Wells due to an ankle injury, bested Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her scrappy return to action on Monday. However, after surrendering a break in the third set to Eakterina Makarova on Wednesday, she lost her cool with chair umpire Mariana Alves. On the first point of the seventh game, Azarenka lamely missed a chipped forehand and decimated her racket. After having previously given Azarenka a warning for an audible English obscenity early in the second set, Alves docked Azarenka a point with her second code violation for racket abuse. The Belarusian did not take too kindly to the penalty, and let Alves know about it. Makarova would eventually win the last five games of the match to claim victory.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFZfD2umx0g

This isn’t your typical argument with an umpire; whether she intended to or not, Azarenka took a cheap shot at the umpire from Portugal. Anyone with a sense of tennis history knows Alves’ track record of questionable officiating decisions, highlighted by the infamous match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati at the US Open in 2004. Nonetheless, her previously poor decisions have no bearing in a match where she made an entirely correct decision, and handled Azarenka impeccably. However, by saying what she said to Alves’ face, Azarenka is making her aware that the entire locker room knows of this previous history; she’s undermining Alves’ authority right in front of her for not only that match, but for future matches.

Two outbursts, two different reactions.

A majority of the outrage over Djokovic’s on-court reactions subsided once the match had concluded; a sizable number of people defended the World No. 1, saying that it would have been impossible for him not to react in any way to such a hostile environment. Regardless of the tongue, he still directed profane abuse at fans and other observers, and this is truly inexcusable. On the other hand, Azarenka suffered much post-match scrutiny for an outburst that took place entirely in English. Are these facts correlated? Perhaps.

Of course, players are human and it’s naïve to expect that they not show emotions during a match. However, “the heat of the moment” and “in the midst of battle” should not be appropriate excuses for poor behavior. As two of the top players in tennis, both Djokovic and Azarenka should know how to conduct themselves better on the court. All players should be held to the same standard, regardless of how (and in what language) that this emotion is expressed.

Pica Power: Monica Puig Impresses in Portugal

In a nation dominated by boxers and baseball players, Puerto Rico has never been a breeding ground for successful tennis players. Gigi Fernandez won 17 grand slam doubles titles and two Olympic medals representing the United States. The most successful women’s player to play under the Puerto Rican flag was Kristina Brandi, who peaked at a career high ranking of No. 27 in 2001, won one WTA singles title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1999 and represented her country in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

One of the leaders of the WTA’s current Generation Tweet, Puerto Rican teenager Monica Puig first appeared on the radar for most tennis fans in January, when she qualified for the Brisbane International, gave Angelique Kerber all should could handle and held match point before Kerber rallied for the 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(7) win.

Also in January, she was incredibly candid in a sit-down with the WTA; her goals include finishing 2013 in the top 20, and she posed a frank and self-assured analysis of her game. “I wouldn’t say that I have that many weaknesses – all I know is that I have a lot of strengths.” While her more experienced (and to date, more successful) contemporaries including Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens have struggled under the weight of expectations and shied away from the media spotlight, Puig possesses confidence in droves. Her seemingly endless self-confidence (and dare I say swagger?) are all the more impressive when one considers that she has played a total of eight WTA main draws in her young career, and has never even qualified for the main draw in a major.

Well, we know Puig’s talked the talk, but can she walk the walk?

Much like any teenager in her early days, Puig’s 2013 results have been decidedly mixed. She pushed Kerber one week, then fell the Qiang Wang in the first round of Australian Open qualifying the next. She pushed Venus Williams too in a long three setter in Charleston, but then lost to Kurumi Nara in an ITF event in Pelham, Alabama and to Nastassja Burnett in Stuttgart qualifying while on the cusp of the top 100. Consistency is a key skill for any young player but especially for one with lofty goals for her second full WTA season.

This week in Oerias, however, that’s all changed.

Puig’s week in Portugal started as poorly as she could’ve possibly imagined when she found herself 0-6, 0-1 down to rising Spaniard Maria-Teresa Torro Flor in the opening round of qualifying. It seemed as though she was headed into yet another valley in her roller-coaster 2013; however, Puig’s now trademark fighting spirit and feisty demeanor had other ideas, and she came away with a 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory. After rolling over Claire Feuerstein in the second qualifying round, Puig fell at the final qualifying hurdle to Galina Voskoboeva. Nonetheless, she still found a way into the main draw as a lucky loser when Alize Cornet withdrew from the event. She defeated fifth-seed Julia Goerges in straight sets in the opening round, her career-best win in terms of ranking.

When Francesca Schiavone turned pro, Puig was five years old. When Schiavone won Roland Garros in 2010, Puig was the fifth seed in the girl’s event, and reached the quarterfinals; the following year, she was runner-up in the junior event. The gulf in experience didn’t seem to matter on Centralito on Wednesday as Puig systematically dismantled her veteran opponent 6-3, 6-2 to reach her first WTA quarterfinal.

As a result of her exploits in Portugal, Puig will finally break into the top 100 for the first time on Monday. At a slight (for women’s tennis standards) 5’7”, the Puerto Rican plays bigger than she is in more ways than one. A flat hitter who’s agile and can scramble when needed, she has all the tools to make inroads on the WTA. Couple that with a better than good head on her shoulders and some serious moxie, and Puig might be ready to embrace the big time when it comes to her.

 

The Fed Cup Dilemma

The argument about whether tennis belongs in the Olympic Games has been hotly debated in tennis and sporting circles for the past decade. For athletes in most other sports, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their careers. To an outside observer, however, this might not seem to be the case for tennis players. Four times a year, they have a chance to contest in the biggest tournaments in their sport; winning multiple slam titles etches their names into the tennis history books much more than Olympic gold.

Despite having either their flag or their country code etched next to their name on every tournament scoreboard, the only other time players theoretically get the chance to represent their country is in Fed Cup. Some crack under the pressure; Lesia Tsurenko, Ukraine’s new No. 1, lost all three of her matches en route to a 3-2 defeat to Canada. Tsurenko made a staggering 91 unforced errors in a three-set loss to Sharon Fichman, a match she and a tie Ukraine was heavily favored to win.

Others rise to the occasion. Australian wunderkind Ashleigh Barty defeated Stefanie Voegele in her Fed Cup singles debut to send Australia into the World Group in 2014. Roberta Vinci delivered the clinching 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-3 win over Lucie Safarova to send Italy into the Fed Cup final; on the other side of the world, Ekaterina Makarova capped Russia’s stunning comeback against Slovakia by rallying from 4-2 down in the final set against Daniela Hantuchova to knot the tie at 2-2. She and Elena Vesnina later rallied from a set down in the doubles to put Russia into the finals against Italy.

In an individual sport like tennis, where so much emphasis is placed on singles achievements, players still rate playing for their country incredibly high. But does this national success come at a cost?

Samantha Stosur, who has been carrying the remnants of a calf injury since Indian Wells, went 2-0 in her Fed Cup ties for Australia; she lost in the opening round in Stuttgart to Jelena Jankovic. Vinci, Italy’s heroine, looked listless in a 6-4, 6-2 opening round defeat to Yaroslava Shvedova in Stuttgart as well; the top seeds in the doubles event, she and Sara Errani later pulled out of the doubles event due to Vinci’s shoulder injury. Vesnina slumped to a shocking 6-0, 6-4 defeat to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Makarova dueled with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, her Fed Cup teammate, in the opening round; Makarova slipped up from a winning position, and seemed to run of gas late in the third set.

In Marrakech, Dominika Cibulkova was set to take a wildcard and be the top seed in the event; however, she apparently picked up an injury after playing three rubbers against Russia and was forced to withdraw from the event anyway. As rain wreaked havoc in Chiasso, the Australia-Switzerland tie did not commence until Monday; Romina Oprandi, Switzerland’s No. 1, was scheduled to compete in Marrakech but she also withdrew before play began.

Granted, not every player was negatively affected by her participation in Fed Cup this week. Ana Ivanovic is into her first clay-court quarterfinal since Rome in 2010. Angelique Kerber, who went 1-1 in Fed Cup, is also into the quarterfinals in Germany. Carla Suarez Navarro led Spain back into the World Group and knocked off Caroline Wozniacki in the first round in Stuttgart. Shvedova, who was mired in a dreadful slump, advanced to the quarterfinals at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.

There have been murmurs that players are largely unhappy with the increase in mandatory Fed Cup participation for the next Olympic cycle. These players put so much heart, effort and passion into playing for their countries, yet are still put in a bind because of the scheduling issues. In a sport where players are constantly representing their nations, it seems like they still end up with the short end of the stick. In certain instances, it’s almost as though a player needs to choose between national glory and individual success.

Ernests Gulbis: What is Talent Really Worth?

Would you rather have all the natural talent in the world and not an ounce of work ethic or all the work ethic in the world and not an ounce of natural talent?

A true existential question of life. The final question in the tennis equivalent of ‘Would You Rather?’. While the greatest champions in tennis were the lucky individuals blessed with both, most aren’t so lucky. Some go on to forge a solid career with the limited tools they have, purely because the want it. Others, believing their talent can do all the talking, vastly underachieve – only the leave the tennis punditry discussing what ‘could’ve been.’

Ernests Gulbis has, up until this point, belonged to the latter group. Gulbis, who comes from an incredibly wealthy family, often appears to treat tennis as just something to do. He’s never wanted for anything; his father allegedly owns a private jet, and according to Gulbis himself, “a helicopter, a submarine and a spaceship.” In 2009, he spent a night in a Swedish jail for allegedly soliciting a prostitute, but was released in time to compete in that edition of the Swedish Open.

When Gulbis applies himself, much like a young child in school, the results have come. In just his second trip to Roland Garros, he reached the quarterfinals in 2008; however, he has not been past the second round of a major since. He peaked at a career-high of No. 21 in February of 2011, owns three career ATP titles and has wins over Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych in his career. As evidenced when he cares, Gulbis possesses a full compliment of skills.

Nonetheless, Gulbis has continued to let his mouth, rather than his racket, do most of the talking. After falling out of the top 100 in February, Gulbis took issue with some players ranked in front of him, players with less talent who put in the hard yards and work exponentially harder. “I was really getting pissed to see who’s in the top 100,’” Gulbis said. “There are some guys who I don’t know who they are. Some guys, I’m sorry, with respect—they can’t play tennis.”

Some call Gulbis a colorful character, while others abhor his seemingly brattish and entitled behavior. Get him in the right mood on court and he becomes a walking code violation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRmL_J5HNzE

In Monte Carlo on Wednesday, Gulbis was penalized with not one, but three code violations en route to a 6-0, 3-6, 6-3 defeat at the hands of Juan Monaco in the second round. He received his first warning for racket abuse early in the second set and was docked a point for ball abuse early in the third; after being broken in the second game of the final set, Gulbis smashed his racket against the umpire’s chair and was penalized a game in line with his third code violation. The game penalty put him down 3-0 in the final set and this loomed large; Gulbis rallied from 5-1 to 5-3 in the final set but couldn’t close the gap in the end.

Gulbis really didn’t need to cement his status as the most frustrating player in tennis, but he did so anyway. He often comments about his lack of discipline on and off court, and is on the record as saying that he doesn’t like practicing. Money isn’t a motivating factor for him either. “…It’s not a big issue for me. If you come from a poor family, you want to pull yourself up, you have a goal to earn money. I don’t have that goal.” So, what are his goals?

“This is the first year I really want to do this,” Gulbis said in February. “I’m starting to enjoy tennis much more. Before I didn’t like it, honestly…Now, I want to play maybe five more years and do the best I can. My goal is to really win something big.” Trouble is, words only go so far. The old cliché is ‘actions speak louder than words.’ Gulbis can’t blame his petulance and boorishness on the hormones of youth anymore. At 24 years of age, he’s running out of time to make good on his word. Having watched Gulbis over the past five years, it’s still hard to say if he even wants to.

Sister, Sister: I Do My Own Style in My Own Time

The tennis world has long been familiar with sibling acts in the both the ATP and WTA. First it was the McEnroe brothers, followed by the (three) Maleeva sisters. Next came the Williams sisters and Bryan twins, followed the the Bondarenkos and the Radwanskas. Often times, one sibling sees considerably more success than the other. John McEnroe is in the Hall of Fame, while Patrick only won one singles title in his career. Kim Clijsters’ sister, Elke, played less than two years of professional tennis before retiring due to persistent injuries. She peaked at No. 483. Agnieszka Radwanska has been a mainstay in the WTA top 10 for the past five years, but her sister Urszula couldn’t even break into the top 50 in the world until July of 2012.

In total, seven sets of sisters have won titles together in professional tennis. The leaders, of course, are the Williams sisters, with 21 doubles titles and 13 grand slams. The Bondarenko sisters are a distant second, as they took home three titles; they join the Williams sisters as the only other major winners with a 2008 Australian Open title. Agnieszka and Urzsula Radwanska, Hao-Ching and Yung-Jan Chan, Katerina and Manuela Maleeva, Cammy and Cynthia MacGregor, Adriana and Antonella Serra Zanetti all own one doubles title together.

While there have been immense numbers of successful sisters (say that five times fast) on the WTA, there was never a set of twins. Until now.

Enter Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova. Each plays a similar game, centered around a huge serve and attacking tennis. Movement, to put it mildly, is neither one’s strength. Like the Bryans, you could once only tell them apart by their handedness. Both had tremendous junior careers, but struggled to translate that success onto the senior circuit. Karolina, the righty, was the 2010 Australian Open junior champion; Kristyna, the lefty, joined her sister in the junior slam champion club at Wimbledon in the same year. For a while, the identical twins seemed to be following identical career paths.

For the record, Karolina is now a brunette while Kristyna is a blonde.

Karolina Pliskova had already racked up four ITF singles titles by May of 2010, while Kristyna was still looking for her first. Then, the two faced off in the finals of a 50K ITF event in Kurume, Japan which Kristyna eventually won 5-7, 6-2, 6-0. Two years after her twin, Kristyna finally entered the senior winners’ circle. In fact, the two have already played seven times on the senior circuit in their young careers; Karolina holds a slim 4-3 advantage, with the most recent win, a 76(11) 76(6) triumph, coming in the finals of a 25K ITF event in Grenoble, France in January of 2012.

Despite having more overall success, Karolina ended 2012 ten spots behind her sister in the rankings; the end of Kristyna’s year was buoyed by a second round showing at the US Open. She qualified and defeated Julia Goerges in the second round for the Pliskova family’s best career win before losing to Mandy Minella. Karolina lost in the second round of qualifying in Flushing Meadows to Donna Vekic.

That’s all changed in 2013, as Karolina has begun to considerably outpace her twin; this run was highlighted by her first WTA title in Kuala Lumpur in March. The unseeded Pliskova defeated fifth-seeded Misaki Doi and fourth-seeded Ayumi Morita before defeating Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the final, a match in which she rallied from a 6-1 first set blowout. On the other side, Kristyna came into Kuala Lumpur as the eighth-seed, but crashed out to Kazakh qualifier Zarina Diyas in the first round. Krystina peaked at No. 86 in the rankings in January, but is now back outside the top 100. Karolina passed her sister’s career high last week, and currently sits at No. 81.

That gulf will no doubt widen after this week in Katowice. Karolina is in the quarterfinals in singles, having defeated Maria-Teresa Torro Flor and fifth-seed Kaia Kanepi en route. She’ll face off against second-seed Roberta Vinci on Friday. Kristyna lost to the No. 3 seed, Klara Zakopalova, in the opening round. The pair, who’ve shown prowess in doubles as well, were knocked out in the doubles quarterfinals on Thursday after defeating top-seeded Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Janette Husarova.

Both twins turned professional in 2009 and it’s taken them until now to each make a name for themselves on the WTA. However, it remains to be seen if one, or both, can take the Pliskova family name to the top.

The Curse of the Stars and Stripes

It’s no secret that tennis is considered a niche sport in the United States. Mainstream American sports media does little to cater to the tennis fan base unless it has to or they have a narrative to sell. Therefore, the presence and popularity of tennis in the United States will always be dictated by the presence and popularity of its American stars. With Andy Roddick already retired and the Williams sisters approaching their mid-thirties, American tennis will soon be missing many of its dynamic, larger than life personalities. As a result, the mainstream media are desperate for the next star to promote the sport’s life and longevity in the United States; they look to embrace an emerging talent before he or she is ready to embrace them. Spoiler alert: it rarely ends well. The same mistakes continue to be made, yet little is being done to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.

It began with Melanie Oudin.

We all know the Oudin story. “Giant-killer” this, “giant-killer” that were the prevailing narratives during Oudin’s run to the US Open quarterfinals in 2009, where she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. All of a sudden, Oudin from Marietta, Georgia, a city with a population of about 57,000, was thrust into the spotlight in arguably the most famous city in the world.

We also know what happened next.

It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a breakthrough at a slam and then fail to produce the same results soon after. It’s only the special exceptions, the Sharapovas or Hingises, who adapt to the pressure and completely handle it at an early age. Couple that with Oudin’s grinding, counterpunching game, a game that a zoning opponent could competently dismantle, and she was bound for failure. After peaking at No. 31 in 2010, Oudin languished around in the lower echelons of the top 200 before returning to a double-digit ranking last year.

Next, Sloane Stephens arrived. Nobody seemed to learn. Stephens was different, they said. She can take matches into her own hands, they said. She had power, athleticism, the natural physical gifts that Oudin doesn’t. En route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, Simona Halep was Stephens’ highest-ranked opponent; the Romanian was ranked 45 when she fell in the first round. A solid run turned into a stunning one as Stephens defeated a hobbled Serena Williams, the prohibitive title favorite, in the quarterfinals. As quickly as Oudin’s star flamed out, Stephens’ supernova was born.

As the youngest player in the top 20, it appears that no one’s clued Stephens into the fact that it only gets harder the higher you rise. She’s become the hunted, rather than the hunter. If anything, she needs to work harder to stay ahead of the pack. After losing the last 10 games in a 6-4, 2-6, 0-6 defeat to Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, Stephens displayed a somewhat complacent attitude. “I’m 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.” Statements like this show that Stephens is already feeling the pressure to produce week in, week out.

Not only is she struggling to beat the elite (that win over Williams is her only top 10 win), but she’s struggling in matches she the favorite to win. She let huge leads slip against Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea in Doha and Dubai; these are not terrible losses, but no one seems to want to write about that. The story of another post-slam breakthrough slump is far more attractive.

Stephens was in tears following her 6-2, 6-0 loss to fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round in Charleston; the one-sided scoreline was incredibly unexpected if only for the reason that Mattek-Sands played nearly four hours in defeating Anastasia Rodionova the day before. Surprisingly, the “Mattek-Sands triumphs on the comeback trail from injury” narrative was non-existent; instead, “What’s wrong with Sloane?” dominates the headlines.

If you think this is only a WTA problem, you should ask John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison how they’re doing lately. You might even run into Donald Young along the way. One successful run does not make a superstar. Superstars are made over an entire career.

There are currently nine women not named Williams in the top 100 on the WTA rankings and a handful just on the outside. Let them share the spotlight. Are some of them more likely to win slams than others? Maybe. If they do, they’ll do so when they’re ready, not when a media narrative thinks they are. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging young talent but too much encouragement, too much “hype,” is a clear hindrance to their development. Young players can’t be expected to win a marathon before they can run an eight-minute mile.

Survive and Advance: The Real March Madness

For those in the United States, “March Madness” is a household event. The umbrella term for the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball National Championship is the harbinger of spring and has risen to cult status across the country. The men’s tournament, which features 68 teams, has become one of the most popular annual sporting events in the United States. Fans began associating the term March Madness with the NCAA tournament in the early 1980s. During that time, perhaps the second most famous phrase associated with the NCAA National Championship was born.

The 1983 Wolfpack of North Carolina State University, led by head coach Jim Valvano, finished the regular season 17-10; the result was incredibly short of impressive. Throughout the postseason, Valvano knew his team would have a difficult task in front of them. “Survive and advance,” Valvano always said; he wanted his team to stay close in every game and put itself in a position to win at the end. The Wolfpack, the fourth seed, took their coach’s words to heart, perhaps too literally. They recorded a last-minute win against Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament; the squad followed that up with an overtime win over No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinals and a three point win over No. 2 Virginia in the conference championship.

The team eventually won the national championship which is celebrated to this day as a victory for underdogs everywhere. As a result, Valano’s words have become the rallying cry for many teams during March Madness. Although the NCAA has trademarked the phrase, tennis also has its own version of March Madness every year. Outside of the Grand Slams, the back-to-back two week events in Indian Wells and Miami are the first big, combined ATP and WTA events of the year.

After stellar tennis from the California desert, the event in South Beach has been a bit of a dud. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal didn’t make the trip to Miami. Some players, like Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur and Stanislas Wawrinka, fell victim to injury. Others, like Juan Martin del Potro and Caroline Wozniacki, failed to build on final runs in Indian Wells and fell victim to early upsets. Novak Djokovic had some strong words for his fourth round upset loss to Tommy Haas, calling it “definitely the worst match I’ve played in a long time.”

And the rest? Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if Jimmy V’s famous words are plastered on the walls of the locker room.

Serena Williams rallied from 6-2, 4-1 down in her fourth round match against Dominika Cibulkova to eventually prevail 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. The World No. 1 found herself in trouble for the second consecutive match in the quarterfinals; after winning the opening set against Li Na, Williams was down 5-2 in the second set before rallying to win in a tiebreak.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the defending champion, was dealt the most difficult hand when her draw came out. Radwanska rallied past Magdalena Rybarikova in nearly three hours in the third round, and was forced to rally from a set down against Sloane Stephens and Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round and the quarterfinals. Against Flipkens, Radwanska singlehandedly paired tennis highlights with NCAA ones on the evening SportsCenter with the shot of the year so far.

Maria Sharapova, in the bottom half of the draw, probably benefitted the most from Azarenka’s injury withdrawal. Despite playing some vintage tennis to take home the trophy in Indian Wells, the Russian has been less than impressive this fortnight. She peaked in the quarterfinals and survived 14 double faults and over 50 unforced errors in a two-and-a-half hour, 7-5 7-5 win against Sara Errani. Nonetheless, she has not dropped a set in 2013.

Let’s not forget about Jelena Jankovic, long considered past her peak. In Miami, the Serb is NC State; she’s the underdog who’s dug deep to get this far. Jankovic trailed by a break in each of the three sets she played against Roberta Vinci in the quarterfinals, but rallied for the 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 victory. Her wins against Vinci and Nadia Petrova marked her first top 15 scalps in an age and a half.

While the tennis might not be pretty, wins are wins. The difference between those who remain and those who’ve gone home is huge; the former found ways to win. The goal for each and every player in tennis, like it is for each and every team in March Madness, is to get to the “business end” of the tournament and to have the opportunity to play for a title.

Their goal is to survive and advance.

Victoria Azarenka Withdraws from Miami

Two-time champion and No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka was forced to withdraw from the Sony Open in Miami on Friday with a right ankle injury, the same injury that forced her out of her quarterfinal match with Caroline Wozniacki in Indian Wells.

“It’s just I wanted to give my 100% possibility to play, and today was my last test. It’s just, you know, the last two days I tried to practice on it, which did not get better,” Azarenka said.

Azarenka, the Australian Open and Qatar Total Open champion, is 17-0 in 2013. “I tried to play on Wednesday for the first time after Indian Wells, and the next day my foot got a little bit worse. I tried to play again yesterday and it got a little bit worse again. Today it got worse again during the play. So yesterday I thought that, you know, possibly I’m not going to be able to play. Today I went on the court and I got more pain. I cannot really move.”

Azarenka is scheduled to headline the field in Monterrey, Mexico, a WTA International-level event that begins on April 1; she is to be joined there by Angelique Kerber, Marion Bartoli and Maria Kirilenko. “Right now on the schedule is Monterrey, but I have no—I have not made my decision on that.” Should Azarenka withdraw from the event, it would not be the first time that the tournament deals with the loss of a marquee player in its field; last season, Serena Williams committed to the event but withdrew due to a left knee injury.

Beyond Monterrey, Azarenka is looking ahead to the European clay court season and Roland Garros. “I’m going to have a longer preparation than usual for my clay season. My biggest target is going to be French Open, so I’m going to do everything I can to be ready, and, you know, to make sure that I come in in the best form there and try to win the title.”

For a player of her status, Azarenka has rarely been a consistent factor at the second major of the year. She owns a meager 14-7 career record in Paris in seven appearances. In 2009, arguably her breakthrough season, Azarenka had her best result at the clay court slam. She defeated defending champion Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round before falling to eventual finalist Dinara Safina in a three-set quarterfinal match, her first quarterfinal appearance at a major. Azarenka matched that feat in 2011, where she fell to Li Na, the eventual champion, in straight sets.

Movement on clay is key for any player, but more so for Azarenka; the Belarusian is not naturally quick even at full flight, but anticipates the game well. She does not possess a huge serve or outright firepower that would assist her in hitting through the slow conditions. 15 of Azarenka’s 16 career titles have come on hard courts; she was the champion in Marbella, on clay, in 2011.

In order to contend at Roland Garros, Azarenka needs to be in top form and healthy to compensate for her short comings and low comfort level on the surface. Last year, Azarenka was bundled off the court by Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round, a match in which Azarenka was rarely the aggressor.

Azarenka is currently not entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart in April, where she reached the final last year. She is entered in both the Mutua Madrid Open and the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in May. No doubt aware of her past struggles at Roland Garros, Azarenka was asked to rate her chances at the event this season if healthy. “I think there is going to be two tournaments before that on clay. You will see me play and then everybody will make their own decisions.”

Azarenka was replaced by lucky loser Lauren Davis, who had lost in the final round of qualifying to Mallory Burdette. Davis eventually saved three match points en route to defeating fellow American teenager Madison Keys, 6-1, 5-7, 7-6(7).

Which Juan is the Fifth Slam?

Outside of the US Open, the back-to-back two-week hard court events in Indian Wells and Miami are the biggest tennis events in the United States. As a result, every year around this time, the same tedious debate arises between fans and pundits alike; is tennis ready for a “fifth slam” and if it is, where should it be held? Everyone has their own opinions about which tournament could be upgraded to the “fifth slam.” Is it Indian Wells because it has Hawkeye on every court? Or is it Miami because the presence of the Williams sisters completes the women’s field?

(For the record, I think that they should hold it in Bogota. I mean, Jelena Jankovic won there and it had live streams from two courts from the first day! Bogota sees your bet and raises you, Miami.)

This year, Miami’s status as the “fifth slam” has taken a hit, as the men’s event has been decimated by withdrawals; Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the marquee names skipping the event, along with notable top 50 names Radek Stepanek, Stanislas Wawrinka and Mardy Fish.

While that isn’t great, let’s focus on the players that are actually in Miami. One of those players in Juan Martin del Potro.

Del Potro was the only player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a major title on the men’s side in the past six years until Andy Murray joined the club at the US Open in 2012. As Murray’s pushed his way to the top and expanded the “Big Three” to the “Big Four,” Del Potro has taken up the reigns as the most accomplished, and probably most dangerous, of the supporting cast of relevant characters on the ATP tour.

Despite being troubled by his wrist last week in Indian Wells, Del Potro put together one of his best runs since being sidelined for almost a year by that very wrist after winning the US Open. He defeated Murray in the quarterfinals and Novak Djokovic in the semifinals to reach the final against Nadal. Despite leading by a set and a break, Del Potro couldn’t seal the deal and Nadal won his third event out of the four he’s played since returning from injury. If anything, Indian Wells was a testament to the vice grip that the so-called “Big Four” have on the ATP; an accomplished player can beat two of them, only to run into another and come home with the runner-up plate.

In his post-final press conference, Del Potro said that despite the amount of tennis he played in Indian Wells, he would be going to Miami; despite the fast turnaround, he was “excited to play there.” Del Potro’s excitement, which he later elaborated on, stems from how many of his Argentinian fans, friends and family come to watch him in Miami.

Thus, we return to this illusive idea of the “fifth slam.” Butch Buchholz founded the Miami Masters in 1985 and helped develop it into what it is today; while he had hoped to turn the event into the fifth major, Miami has instead settled for title of “the grand slam of Latin America.” Latin American and Spanish-speaking players receive immense support in Key Biscayne, as it lies south of Miami Beach and east of Miami itself. It came as no surprise that Fernando Gonzalez, one of the biggest tennis stars from that part of the world, chose the Miami Masters as his farewell tournament when he retired in 2012.

With Gonzalez now out of the game, the pressure is squarely on the (very broad) shoulders of Juan Martin del Potro to be the big name of Latin American tennis. Having only been past the fourth round once in Miami, Del Potro appears to be rounding in to form, even showing glimpses of what made him the last man standing at Flushing Meadows in 2009, just in time for his “home slam.”

Kirilenko’s Career Week

“So I’m just enjoying, you know, to play out there.”

Perhaps Maria Kirilenko has enjoyed playing tennis under the scenic desert skies of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden just a bit too much.

Kirilenko won her fourth consecutive three-set match at Indian Wells against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday, advancing to the semifinals of a WTA Premier Mandatory event for the first time. In those four consecutive victories against Christina McHale, Mallory Burdette, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kvitova, Kirilenko has logged a whopping nine hours and 31 minutes on court.

Having turned professional in 2001, Kirilenko was long considered just another “glamor girl” of women’s tennis. She was “the other Maria from Russia,” the original face of the Adidas by Stella McCartney line, and also appeared in the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. On the court, the Russian has always been dangerous, but rarely had a chance to make the next step. However, she’s made a firm statement with her racket over the past 18 months. She took home a bronze medal with Nadia Petrova at the London Olympics, won her first singles title since 2008 in Pattaya City in February, and is knocking on the door of the top 10.

While Kirilenko’s game might not feature a single defining weapon, she does everything well. She combines athleticism and court craft, injects paces when she needs to and possesses a steely resolve and will to win. She rallied from a set down against McHale, a set and a break down against Kvitova and came through with flying colors in an extended third set against Radwanska. That is what has made her run in Palm Springs all the more impressive; when down and out, Kirilenko has dug in her heels and found a way to win.

The win against No. 4 Radwanska was Kirilenko’s best in terms of ranking. The win against Kvitova was her second consecutive against a top 10 opponent. Despite the contrasting styles of play of those two opponents, each match had a similar theme. She was the underdog.

Kirilenko has always been capable of pulling off a long, grinding upset in her WTA career. Who could forget her three-hour, 22-minute marathon win against Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open in 2010? Or how she and Samantha Stosur played the longest tiebreak set, 17-15, in Grand Slam history at the US Open in 2011? However, it has been Kirilenko’s body, perhaps her greatest strength, that has let her down in the past. A full slate of singles and doubles matches always caught up to her in the end. Earlier this season, Kirilenko made the decision to forego doubles to work on improving her singles game.

It’s clearly helped. Many of Kirilenko’s victories are punctuated with a smile, a fist pump and a shriek of delight. She radiates pure, unadulterated joy, as if she wants to let the fans know just how much all the hard work means to her and how much it’s finally paying off.

On a day in Stadium 1 where Stanislas Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis came tantalizing close to pulling off upsets over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what seemed like the umpteenth time, only to fail in the clutch, Kirilenko showed once again that she hasn’t backed away from the pressure moments this week.

Instead, she’s embraced them.

“I feel I can be on this level. Nothing is scary out there now. I can compete with them and win.”