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Andy Roddick Holds Court With Media Before PowerShares Series Tennis Circuit Debut

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Andy Roddick

Prior to competing on the 2014 PowerShares Series “legends” tennis circuit, Andy Roddick held court with the media to discuss a wide array of topics including his competitiveness, the Australian Open, Bernard Tomic, the National Football League, a potential future role with the U.S. Davis Cup team, and playing alongside legends of the game at events in Birmingham, Denver and Houston. Here’s the full conference call transcript of Roddick’s interview.

 

RANDY WALKER: Thank you all for joining today. We’re happy to welcome to the PowerShares Series tennis circuit in 2014 and to our call today Andy Roddick. Andy is going to be making his PowerShares Series debut on February 13th in Birmingham, Alabama, and will be competing in tournaments in Denver on February 19th and Houston on February 20th.  The 2014 PowerShares Series starts its 12 city tour February 5th in Kansas City.  For more information, including players, schedule and ticket information, you can go to www.PowerSharesSeries.com. Before we open it up to the questions for our participants, I’m going to ask Andy a question about playing in the PowerShares Series. Andy, since you were playing in the juniors, you’ve always been a very competitive guy,and Patrick McEnroe was talking on the Australian Open broadcast last night about how you were such a competitor and fought your guts out in every match you played. What is it going to be like on the PowerShares Series this year where you’re going to be able to fire up those competitive juices again?

ANDY RODDICK: Yeah, I’d like to say that I’ll be able to be mature enough to kind of put it in perspective that it’s not what we do every day now, but I’d probably be lying to you. Even when I play these charity expos now, I kind of have to contain myself.  I certainly have my share of, I guess, quasi embarrassing moments that come from being so competitive and a little too intense. I think when you get guys who are programmed from when they’re young to have a goal of trying to win something, I don’t think that goes away easily, and I’m sure when we get between the lines… listen, if there’s an option of winning and losing, you want to win. That’s just human nature.

 

Q. Talk about playing in Houston. You’ve had some great memories in Houston. You won your second ATP title there. You clinched the year end No. 1 there at the Tennis Masters Cup. Talk a little bit about what it’s going to be like playing in Houston.

ANDY RODDICK: Well, it’ll be great. I feel there’s so much in the early part of my career over at Westside, from the tournament to Masters Cup to we played a Davis Cup tie there, so I played there at the same club clay, hard and grass, which doesn’t happen very often. But just a lot of good memories, and it’s always a place that I certainly enjoy playing. It’s a short drive to my home in Austin, too, which is a great thing, and I’m looking forward to it.

 

Q. Andy, I know you’re coming to Denver, and I know you can speak on all sports; I’ve seen you on the show. Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady, two large sports personas going up against each other; does this remind you of any great rivalries in tennis or even other sports?

ANDY RODDICK: Yeah, I think so. I think Manning and Brady kind of have all the makings of a great rivalry. They’re so similar in so many ways as far as their preparation and kind of their will to win, and like any great rivalry, I think it needs to happen over time so we can get a little nostalgic about it. But at the same time there are distinct differences. Peyton can be self deprecating on Saturday Night Live, and Brady is this unbelievably good looking guy married to Giselle that has all the cool stuff in press conferences.  So there is enough difference to make it very interesting. It’s just fun.  It also is getting to the point where you don’t know how many more times you’re going to see it, so you start reflecting and appreciating it each time.

 

Q. In your opinion what’s the greatest tennis rivalry of all time?

ANDY RODDICK: Oh, man, that’s hard. It’s tough going generation versus generation. Obviously in my kind of era, it all happened around Roger and Rafa. But again, it had the same sort of underlying they’re different enough personalities to make it interesting. Stylistically they matched up in an entertaining way, and they both went about it the right way and had a certain level of respect, which is probably different than the ones you saw in the ’80s with McEnroe and Connors where they just flat out didn’t like each other. There are different ways to have a great rivalry.

 

Q. And with Peyton versus Brady, is it one of those things like must see TV; you can’t miss it if you’re a sports fan?

ANDY RODDICK: Yeah, I think so. I think the funny thing is these guys have been running the ball the last couple weeks, so it’s all about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but as the weather has been colder, I think I saw a stat today the Patriots ran the ball 62 percent of the time last week, which was their highest total since like 2008 against Buffalo, and Moreno was a factor, also. So we’re building up this whole game around these great quarterbacks because it looks like they’re running the ball in the cold weather, so we’ll see how much they actually air it out.

 

Q. What’s the best barbecue in Austin, Texas?

ANDY RODDICK:  It has to be Franklin’s. Any time people are waiting two hours for lunch, it’s got to be pretty good.

 

Q. Andy, playing in Denver you’re going to be matched up in the semifinals against Philippoussis, and the other semifinal is going to be Jim Courier against James Blake. Talk about playing Philippoussis and also playing in altitude and what that does to a tennis ball up in Denver?

ANDY RODDICK:  Well, that’s a bad combination for me, Philippoussis and altitude. This is actually the first I’m hearing about it. Mark and I have been friends for a while. The thing is his service motion is so technically sound that, from what I’ve heard, he really hasn’t lost much on his serve since he was playing, which I wish the same could be said for me. It’ll be tough, but I’m just excited to get out there and play. It’ll be fun. I like all those guys who are there. Jim and James are two of my closest friends. I’d love to be able to get through Mark and play one of those guys in the final.

 

Q. I know there’s a lot to talk about here. I wanted to ask a couple quick questions about the topic of the day in tennis, since I know you’ve been through this so many times. These guys are suffering in the heat. I know you always liked the heat to a large degree, even though you sweat a lot, and I was just curious how you feel about where the extreme should be, what you’re seeing or hearing. Is it too much? And also, would you talk a little bit about there’s a lot of discussion in sport now about the fact that we shouldn’t have a World Cup in big heat. What’s your feeling about all that?

ANDY RODDICK: Well, part of me finds it entertaining that every time we go down to Australia we act surprised that it’s hot outside. It’s funny, the guys who have the reputation for being prepared aren’t the guys keeling over. You’re never going to see Roger outwardly showing heat. You’re not going to see Rafa doing it. You’re not going to see Novak anymore; you’re not going to see him doing it. Frankly I hated it when they closed the roof. I felt like I was prepared. I felt like it was a different tennis tournament once they put it indoors. They do have a system in place where if they deem it’s too hot, and there’s a pretty distinct number system that they have used there in the past, and they do have the ability to call it. Do we need to make extreme things because guys are struggling in the heat?  I don’t know.  Personally I don’t think so. I think as athletes we push our bodies to do things that aren’t normal, and frankly that’s what we get paid for. I can’t feel it. Listen, when you play there, it’s brutal. It feels like you’re playing in a hairdryer, but that’s all part of it. Each Slam presents its own unique set of challenges and you kind of have to attack it accordingly.

 

Q.  Is it desirable in your opinion that we keep putting these sporting events in situations like this where it could happen at this extreme level, or is that not a problem?

ANDY RODDICK:  I can’t speak to the World Cup. I haven’t been there. I haven’t experienced it. It seemed like there were other viable options that maybe didn’t have that. But you’re not going to take the Slam out of Australia. It’s too good of a venue.  They have built indoor courts, and like I said, they do have a system in place that they have used before. It’s not as if…I was reading something where the humidity levels weren’t as bad so they didn’t use it. There is thought put into it. It’s not like they’re just going rogue with throwing people out there. They’ve set the precedent for being smart about it, and they have done it in the past. I don’t think they should just close the roofs because people are writing about it.

 

Q.  And the last thing from me, what’s the most key thing about preparing yourself for that? I know you’ve lived in hot weather parts of the States, but you used to go to Hawai’i to train before the Open. What’s the critical thing?  Is it the adaptation? Is it good genetics?

ANDY RODDICK:  Well, I don’t know that there’s one thing. I spent four weeks doing fitness in Austin, and then when I started really hitting balls, I put myself in heat for two weeks before I even went down to play the first event there. By the time we got to Australia, I had been in similar heat for three or four weeks. Frankly it’s stupid to train indoors in cold weather the whole time and then expect to go to Australia and not to have your your body is not going to adapt that quick. But it will adapt. And frankly I don’t know that Australia is as extreme as Florida in the summer or the hottest days in Cincinnati in the summer. I think you’re seeing guys play three out of five, and it’s become a more physical game, so you’re kind of seeing the toll of that.

 

Q.  Someone was telling me that you back in the day played tennis against Drew Brees. Are you relieved we don’t have him on the tennis tour today?

ANDY RODDICK:  Yeah. It’s funny, every time he plays a playoff game on national television, this story comes up again.  He played he actually beat me the first two times.  I think he was 12 and I was 9, and he was kind of like an after school tennis player who was better than all the guys who actually practiced like me, and then I beat him and he started playing other sports.  So who knows how far it could have gone. But I think it just kind of lends itself to discussion of what a good athlete he actually is.

 

Q.  There were moments during your playing career that you didn’t like media. Now that you’ve got a radio show, do you view the folks on the other side with a little bit more empathy?

ANDY RODDICK:  No, I don’t.  The only time I had an issue with the media is when I felt like they weren’t prepared with their questioning or they were asking irresponsible questions. You know, listen, I’m not going to have someone who covers tennis once a year coming into the local market, coming into a press conference and using the wrong terminology for our sport. So no, I never had a problem with media when they were well thought out, asked smart questions, and seemed to actually care as opposed to just being there because their boss was taking attendance, frankly.

 

Q.  Bernard Tomic was booed by fans when he retired after one set with Nadal. Have you ever been in a situation like that where you were booed by your own fans?

ANDY RODDICK:  Listen, I’ve been booed because of the way I’ve acted. I don’t know that I’ve been booed because of a perceived lack of effort. Bernie is in a tough position now because he’s developed a little bit of a reputation of giving less than 100 percent effort now, so he might have had a groin injury the other night.  Had it been someone like Lleyton, who has built his career and at least gained the trust from the fan base as far as putting in effort, I don’t think the boos would have been there. Bernie has a certain process ahead of him where he has to kind of earn the respect back as far as being a competitor. It was an unfortunate situation because by all accounts he is actually hurt, but I feel like the booing is maybe more of a snowball effect from some of the past performances.

 

Q.  Talk a little bit about making your debut event in Birmingham. It’s going to be at the same arena where you played Davis Cup against Switzerland. Talk a little bit about that tie against Switzerland and what it’s going to be like to be back in Birmingham.

ANDY RODDICK:  Well, I’m excited. We obviously had a great Davis Cup tie back there in I think it was 2009, and we enjoyed everything about it. It was one of those rare Davis Cup ties where everything went mostly according to script.  We got out with a W. I played a good match the last day against Wawrinka. The court was fast; the crowd was into it.  We were able to lean on him. You know, I enjoyed playing there. I’m sure it’ll bring back some good memories when I’m back.

 

Q.  No doubt about it, you gave so much to the game. You thrilled, you entertained the sports fans for a decade.  How much will this new arena, this venue, allow you to entertain even more as you’re playing?

ANDY RODDICK:  Yeah, I mean, I think it certainly provides that opportunity. There’s no way to replace playing in front of a crowd and kind of the feeling that gives you, and I have a lot of other interests right now which are very fulfilling, but nothing will ever replace being able to play live sports. Yeah, I didn’t expect it to.              But this is a chance for me to do it, I guess, more in a little bit of a part time scale. I’m looking forward to it.  You know, it’s always fun to play with guys that have been so accomplished in the sport, as well. I’m looking forward to it.

 

Q.  Any good one liners you’re working on these days?

ANDY RODDICK:  You know, if I previewed them they wouldn’t be as funny that day, would they?

 

Q.  You gave your life to Davis Cup during your career. What would it mean to be part of Davis Cup again in some capacity down the road?

ANDY RODDICK:  Oh, I don’t know. Frankly I see Jim being the captain for a very long time. I think he does a great job.  All the guys love him. I was able to play for him for a couple of ties, so that’s Jim is a great friend of mine. Honestly that’s something I hadn’t really thought about much.

 

Q.  I wasn’t trying to usurp his job for you, but if you were brought in as a coach, as a motivator, someone that could really relate to the players, what would that mean to you?

ANDY RODDICK: Yeah, again, I wasn’t insinuating that I was going to be captain, either. I was just saying I think Jim can do all those things. Basically any skill set that I would apply, he’s done it all and more.  He’s done a great job with the crew. Honestly I don’t see what value I would add with Jim at the helm right now.

 

Q. Playing in Houston, how about you and your friend, your buddy, Bobby Bones? Do you have anything planned?  I know you can’t talk about it, but are you excited to be working this with him in some capacity?

ANDY RODDICK: Yeah, I mean, we’ve had a really good relationship. We’re great friends. He’s done such a good job now with country radio being pretty much the guy for country radio nationally. I’m proud of his career path.  I certainly admire his work ethic. He gets after it, and he wants to do everything. It’s always fun to kind of watch his career progress.

 

Q.  As a barometer, when you were in Miami playing Murray, you played well. I know he was coming back, but how strong of a barometer is that for you? You can still do it, I guess.

ANDY RODDICK:  Yeah, I mean, listen, I wanted to… I’m retired. I can still play a little bit. I won two out of my last five events on tour. When I do practice with guys who are currently playing, I can hold my own. It was never a I’m fully confident the guys I played against my whole career, a lot of them are Youzhny is 14 in the world; Lopez is 20 in the world. There’s a lot of guys who I played for a long time. For me it wasn’t a matter of could I still be good on tour. The question was can I win a Grand Slam, and once I didn’t think I could, that was enough for me. I certainly feel like I’m capable of playing a high level tennis still.

 

Q.  What is it like being a part of this series with all the great names that you’ve been around, and now you guys are involved again?

ANDY RODDICK:  Yeah, I mean, listen, it’s certainly a big list of names and personalities. It’s almost as if every night it’s almost a history lesson of the last 30 years of tennis.  It’s really cool. I was a tennis fan long before I was a player, and so it’s surreal for me to be involved with these guys. I don’t think I’ve ever fully gotten used to, let’s say, participating in the same night as a Pete Sampras or a Jim Courier.  Those guys were my heroes growing up. But it’s always fun to get together with those guys again and be around them and to play against them. It’s always been a blast for me.

 

Q.  For fans who will be buying tickets to watch your event, what would you tell them about what they can expect to see perhaps?

ANDY RODDICK: (Laughing) Anything, really.  The thing about our group of guys, not a lot of us have been accused of being shy out there. I think we do understand we all want to win. But at the same time I certainly understand it’s a show, and I couldn’t always interact as much as I wanted to while I was playing on tour, but I’m going to have a good time during these matches. That’ll show through. I think we want fans to come out and really actively participate in the matches. You want it to be interactive. You want it to be fun. You want to give them a good event on top of the tennis.

RANDY WALKER:  We want to thank everyone for joining us today. We want to thank especially Andy, and we’ll see you starting in Birmingham next month.

 

Tennis Musings From New Zealand

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John Isner

By Thaddeus McCarthy

Dear Fans,

                     The NZ Festival of Tennis came to an end with John Isner prevailing in the Heineken Open final, 7-6, 7-6, over first time ATP finalist Yen-Hsun Lu. The first week of course finished with Ana Ivanovic overcoming Venus Williams. The Festival is my personal favourite of the NZ Summer of Sporting events. The weather certainly turned up for the 2 weeks, although I can remember one afternoon early on with the ASB Classic which wasn’t that great. Nevertheless the play was uninterrupted and the tournament enjoyed sell-out crowds. This posting will review the second week’s tournament and give a line-up and some predictions for the big one, the Aussie Open.

David Ferrer, the widely expected winner, bowed out in the semi-final to Yen-Hsun Yu. He said after that match that it was perhaps one of the worst performances of his career. You’ve got to think about comments in pressers like this that if they aren’t just a bit derogatory of the other player. Federer has been criticised in the past as coming off as a bit arrogant in his pressers. In Ferrer’s case at this time his error rate was very high, so this comment was probably justified. My golden boy from the last posting, Benoit Paire, bowed out in the second round. Arguably the match of the tournament was the Quarterfinal between Phillip Kohlschreiber and Isner, which had three tiebreaks and featured no breaks of serve. I have to say that Kohlschreiber was unlucky not to win that one, as his rallying was superior to Isner.

Going back to the Heineken final, once again Isner’s serve was on fire. At 2.06m tall he is known as having one of the best, if not the best serve on tour. Isner called the final match perhaps his best of the week (his serve was not broken once). First time finalist Yu played well, his one-handed backhand passing shot at the end of the second set (to save the second match point) was testament to that. He just played against a man in Isner who was really hitting his shots on the day. Isner did say after his semi-final, that without his serve he would not be ranked inside the top 500. His serve is just an example that to be ranked highly in this sport you do often need a big weapon. As mentioned in my last post, the winner of this fortnight’s Australian Open will be a player who has a weapon, one which will turn an over wise even match in their favour.

In my first ever posting on here, I predicted that we would see a Del Potro/Nadal final. I will not stick with this, as they have been slated to meet in the Quarter-finals. I will have to go instead with a Del Potro/Djokovic final. Juan Martin Del Potro has just downed Bernard Tomic in straight sets in the Sydney International final, and appears to be in top form. He will not doubt be one dangerous hombre in the Open. Djokovic has been handed perhaps the easiest draw of anyone in the competition. His first real test will come in the Quarterfinals, where he is expected to face-off against Stanislas Wawrinka, who took him too 12-10 in the fifth set (fourth-round) last year. He should come out of this Wawrinka match to take down Ferrer in the semi-final. The Del Potro/Nadal Quarter-final will be a match to watch at the start of the second week. That is assuming Nadal can get past a dangerous Bernard Tomic in the first round. Tomic is a player I have mentioned before as being someone with the potential to win a Grand Slam one day. I just don’t see it happening this year. Nadal I believe, will be too strong for him in the opening round.

On the women’s side I can just not go past Serena Williams this year. Her form with age just appears to be getting better and better and there seems to be no stopping her. She is not a particularly liked player by the tennis public, but you just cannot help but admire the power game she has brought to women’s’ tennis. The two players who I think could create some difficulty for Serena could be Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova. Azarenka was dispatched in straight sets in Brisbane last week, and lost in three tight sets to Serena at US Open 2013. But she can cause the upset on the day. With Sharapova, although she has a terrible record against Serena, on her day an upset could happen. We just have to think back to the 2004 Wimbledon for an example of that. Azarenka and Sharapova are expected to meet in the semi-final, and I would hope that it is not a slug fest, which will leave the winner exhausted for meeting a fit and hungry Serena in the final.

All us sports fans have pet wishes which we hope will happen, but sort of know that they never will. Well, my pet wish for this Open is that Lleyton Hewitt will finally come through to win his home countries slam. Australia has not had a winner on the men’s side since Mark Edmondson won it in 1976; surprisingly with a world ranking of 212 (the lowest seed to ever win a Slam). Hewitt got close in 2005, when he reached the final, but other than that has not gone past the fourth round. The 05 Aussie had an incredible excitement about it, mainly thanks to Hewitt’s run on one side, and the Marat Safin machine on the other. It is in fact my all-time favourite slam, and featured one of my all-time favourite matches, the Safin/Federer semi-final. Hewitt’s win in last week’s Brisbane final against Federer definitely gave some hope that another dream run may again be possible. For the women, Samantha Stousur is my pet wish to be the winner. The women similiary to the men have not have had a winner since Chris O’ Neil in 1978. It would really generate some interest in the Open if we were having a couple of great local runs.

So there you have it. My predictions for the Aussie Open are for a men’s final of Djokovic/Del Potro, and a women’s final of Serena/ Azarenka. Although what I would like to happen is for a Hewitt/Del Potro final for the men and a Stosur/Williams final for the women. Having a surprising local run on one side, and a dangerous power player on the other would make this Open hugely memorable. Whatever happens though, this is a tournament I thoroughly look forward too every year, and it never disappoints in providing us with gripping moments. Watch this space.

 

The Significant Seven: Memorable Women’s Matches From the First Half of 2013

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Readers who enjoyed the article counting down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half may enjoy this sequel on the women.  As with the men, these matches do not necessarily feature the best tennis from an aesthetic perspective.  (In fact, some of them produced quite atrocious tennis for long stretches.)  What they did produce was meaningful results linked to broader trends that stretched across the first half.

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7) Laura Robson d. Petra Kvitova, Australian Open 2R, 2-6 6-3 11-9

The most accomplished lefty in women’s tennis met the most promising lefty in women’s tennis earlier in a draw than either would have wished.  Whereas Kvitova needed to turn a new leaf after a disastrous 2012, Robson sought to build upon a second-week appearance at the US Open.  Nerves defined much of their contest, not on this list for the quality of its tennis.  By the middle of the third set, however, it became clear that Robson could master her nerves better than the former Wimbledon champion could.  Unable to serve out the match the first time, she slammed the door at love on her second opportunity.  The encouraging resilience from Robson signaled her progress this season, which has included a victory over Agnieszka Radwanska and a second-week appearance at Wimbledon.  For Kvitova, the painful loss hinted that 2013 would look more than 2012 than 2011, as it has so far.

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6) Sabine Lisicki d. Serena Williams, Wimbledon 4R, 6-2 1-6 6-4

On the surface friendliest to the serve stood the two most formidable servers currently in the women’s game.  But grass specialist Lisicki trailed Serena 16-0 in major titles and 142-0 in weeks at No. 1.  By the logic of this Wimbledon, one should have guessed from the start that the underdog would prevail.  When Serena rallied from losing seven of the first nine games to win nine of the next ten, though, the writing seemed etched on the wall.  Nobody finds a way back against her from 0-3 in a final set at Wimbledon, or from 2-4, or from triple break point at 3-4.  Lisicki did all of those things and even survived the nerve-jangling finish as she served for the match, saving a break point with an ace and converting match point with a clean winner.  The victory ended Serena’s career-best winning streak, which had begun in March, and propelled Lisicki toward her first major final.  It marked her sixth victory over a major champion and third over a world No. 1 in just five Wimbledon appearances.  Even when the top three dominate, others still can spring surprises.

Honorable mention:  Lisicki’s semifinal epic against world No. 4 Radwanska bore several striking similarities to her victory over Serena.

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5) Serena Williams d. Anabel Medina Garrigues, Madrid QF, 6-3 0-6 7-5

Raise your hand if you would have expected Medina Garrigues to appear on this type of list when the 2013 campaign began.  No, I thought not.  And yet she posed Serena’s most formidable challenge of a clay season during which the world No. 1 went undefeated from wire to wire.  To be fair, Medina Garrigues received considerable assistance from across the net in becoming the first woman to bagel Serena since 2008.  The American spent much of the match showing us why she had not won a title on red clay in a decade, struggling to stay focused, patient, and disciplined against a grinder fond of the surface.  Then the last few games showed us why this year would be different.  Serena bent but did not break, rallying from within two points of defeat rather than letting her frustrations overcome her.  She would lose just one more set in the rest of the clay season, strewing 14 bagels and breadsticks across Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Medina Garrigues, who lost 6-1 6-1 to Dinah Pfizenmaier this week, gave Serena the wake-up call that she needed to reconquer her least favorite surface.

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4) Victoria Azarenka d. Serena Williams, Doha F, 7-6(6) 2-6 6-3

When 2012 ended, only one woman looked like a realistic threat to Serena’s stranglehold over the WTA.  But that woman, Victoria Azarenka, had just absorbed her ninth consecutive loss in their rivalry.  As competitive as some of those losses were, such as last year’s US Open final, Azarenka needed to stop the skid to bolster her confidence.  The Australian Open champion had started slowly in most of her matches against Serena, finding her rhythm only in the second set.  Always at her best early in the season, Azarenka started with more determination in Doha and won that crucial first set in a tight tiebreak.  She weathered the inevitable response from Serena in the second set and did what she could not do in New York, serving out the match comfortably in the third.  Azarenka still has not defeated the world No. 1 at a major, or when fully healthy, so much remains for her to prove.  (And Serena won a Premier Five final rematch convincingly in Rome.)  All the same, the victory in Doha confirmed suspicions that something like a rivalry might develop here, sometime.

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3) Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova, Miami F, 4-6 6-3 6-0

Six weeks after the previous match on this list, Serena’s dominance over her other key rivalry threatened to falter as well.  Not since 2004 had she lost to Maria Sharapova, thoroughly stifling the Russian in most of their recent meetings. Disappointment at the Australian Open and the Doha loss to Azarenka blunted Serena’s momentum heading to Miami, her home tournament, but most still ranked her a heavy favorite against Sharapova based on history.  For the first half of their final, history took it on the chin as the underdog methodically built a set-and-break lead.  But Serena vindicated history in the end, using a handful of long games late in the second set to reverse the momentum.  Once she regrouped, neither Sharapova nor anyone else could have done much to stem the torrent of blistering serves and forehands that flowed from her racket.  Miami marked the first of Serena’s five consecutive titles this spring and laid a cornerstone of confidence without which her winning streak might not have taken flight.  She extended her reacquired dominance over Sharapova in two straight-sets finals on clay.

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2) Maria Sharapova d. Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros SF, 6-1 2-6 6-4

With Serena firmly entrenched on the WTA throne, the rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova loomed ever larger.  Azarenka had won their two most significant meetings in 2012, an Australian Open final and a US Open semifinal.  Holding a surface advantage over the younger blonde on clay, Sharapova struck back at Roland Garros to recapture the edge in their rivalry.  A barrage of pinpoint returns and forehands swept the first set into her ledger, but Azarenka exploited an erratic passage of play to level the match.  At that stage, parallels linked this match with their US Open semifinal, which Sharapova had started in torrid form before steadily fading.  There would be no déjà vu on this day when the two rivals contested their second 6-4 final set in three majors.  Sharapova built a commanding lead in the third set, only to throw Azarenka a lifeline as she squandered a handful of match points.  The ear-shattering shrieks and ball-shattering blows from both competitors escalated with the mounting drama.  When a bullet ace streaked down the center stripe, Sharapova reasserted herself as the best of the rest—for now.

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1) Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na, Australian Open F, 4-6 6-4 6-3

Never a fan favorite, Azarenka has endured a discordant relationship with media and many fans throughout her tenure at the top.  The simmering turbulence there boiled into the open after she took a dubious medical timeout near the end of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens.  When Azarenka took the court against Li with her title defense at stake, the air in Rod Laver Arena felt heavier with hostility than humidity.  The Chinese star emerged the less battered of the two from a rollercoaster first set, high on tension and low on holds of serve.  Steady returning and unsteady emotions extended into the second set, when Li added a plot twist of her own by sustaining successive injuries.  Made of tenacious stuff, she gallantly returned to the fray after striking her head on the court.  But Azarenka’s head had grown clearer while Li’s head had grown cloudier, allowing the former to claw her way to an impressive title defense.  With almost nobody in her corner for one of the biggest matches of her career, Azarenka showed how she needs nobody but herself.  She echoed fellow world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in her ability to thrive on animosity and turn it defiantly to her advantage.

 

The Magnificent Seven: Memorable Men’s Matches from the First Half of 2013

Made for this sport, and for each other.

Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall.  This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half.  Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.

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7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3

During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite.  First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively.   Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo.  Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1.  When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled.  Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished.  Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris.  (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)

Stakhovsky

6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)

Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club.  An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals.  That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10.  Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday.  Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better.  Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.

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5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2

Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back.  He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized.  Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set.  A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth.  All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently.  Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013.  Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.

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4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5

Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012.  Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years.  Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition.  To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset.  But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges.  He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.

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3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3

Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications.  Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why.  Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic.  Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation.  We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.

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2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10

Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year.  The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent.  Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began.  Or so we thought.  A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment.  Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return.  The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt.  Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments.  Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.

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1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7

The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line.  One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced.  Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth.  Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line.  Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph.  While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb.  Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.

***

Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.

Djokovic And Murray – The Wimbledon Battle Royale, Round 4

Novak Djokovic

by James A. Crabtree

Novak Djokovic

Normality has been restored, with the exploits of Janowicz, Darcis, Del Potro, Stakhovsky, Brown, Kubot and Verdasco disappearing into the vault named Wimbledon folklore.

After all the hiccups throughout the draw the number one and two ranked players meet in the final. Wimbledon 2013, like 33 of the last 34 Slams will be won by one of the Big Four.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, currently the best hard-court players tour, know each other’s games well. Too well, having played18 times, with Djokovic leading 11–7. This tally includes three Grand Slam finals. The 2011 and 2013 Australian Opens, won by Djokovic and the 2012 US Open, won by Murray.

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For Murray to win this one he will have to find influence from a multitude of sources. He is coming off a tough fight back victory against Verdasco, and a solid win against Janowicz. There is no reason to believe he has peaked. Also, he has beaten his rival on the big stage but also on the same court, one year ago during the Olympic semi-final. He knows he can’t rely on just rallying out his opponent. He needs surprise attacks, rather than just the passive get backs. Somehow he needs to persuade the Serb to over hit his backhand and question the serve that can get tight under pressure. He needs to keep Novak guessing, find a way into his brain while keeping his own mind unruffled. Conversely, the Serb will be looking to play the very same mind games, and very similar tactics to the Scot.

Wimbledon 2013 will serve to either even the score for Murray or push Djokovic past the tallies of Becker and Edberg with six total slams and onto seven to equal Wilander and McEnroe.

Novak has reached this level by shaking the old label as someone who would quit and crumble. These days he doesn’t merely tolerate tough battles, in truth they galvanize him, not that he has had many this Wimbledon. When he is pushed to the brink he screams, dives, slides, rips and fights to the bitter end better than no man. A tennis machine, possibly inspired by Nikola Tesla, is always dangerous even when he is playing badly; he is always in the game. Novak carries the air of invincibility. He doesn’t miss an easy shot. His serve is rarely broken. He doesn’t make unforced errors. He chases down balls that most players wouldn’t have even attempted. The only real worry is the fact he has only been pushed once all tournament, in that absurdly good semi-final against Del Potro. But is it foolhardy to question someone who has been good?

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If Novak claims his second Wimbledon crown he will further cement his name as a legend, all round good guy, great player on all surfaces and poster boy for the new Serbia. If Murray wins his first Wimbledon crown, and the countries first in seventy-seven years, the Scot will enter the realms if immortality. Murray hysteria will abound. Aside from all his extra million dollar deals will be surely be a Knighthood, statue at the All England Club, a new Column in Trafalgar square opposite Nelson and likely divinization.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tK4HDCIr_E8

The Curious Case of Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens is third at odds to win Wimbledon, according to ESPN.

(June 29, 2013) Twelve. That’s how many times 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens has used the phrase “play hard” in her last two press conferences at Wimbledon this week.

After her turbulent season on the WTA Tour since debuting in the top 20 for the first time in January, that’s all Stephens can focus on – playing hard.

Now through to the fourth round after a rollercoaster of a match against qualifier Petra Cetkovska, Stephens is rebuilding the confidence she lost earlier in the year.

Combined with her fourth round appearance last month at Roland Garros, which she called “pretty good … after not having that many great results over the year,” Stephens said that run helped her “build a lot of confidence.” Now, she comes into Wimbledon “feeling (even) better.”

After becoming an instant celebrity with her surprise win over an injured Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Stephens is now third at odds, according to ESPN, to win Wimbledon behind Williams and 2011 titlist Petra Kvitova. That’s a pretty tall task for a player who has never been past the fourth round of Wimbledon and has yet to even reach a Slam final.

Stephens’ main draw debut at a Slam occurred in 2011 on her favorite surface, the red clay of Roland Garros. And since then, she has gone a respectable 21-8 during her young career. Despite her rather quick ascension up the Slam ranks, she jokes about still being a relative newcomer.

“Even though I played a lot slams, I feel like it’s all new,” Stephens said on Monday. “I came (to Wimbledon) and I … didn’t even know how to get to the locker room.”

Stephens’ young career on court has been an inspiring one, but her off-court presence has quickly outshone her well-crafted style. With many seeds now out from Wimbledon, it’s another opportunity for the young American to revert attention back to her game.

At age 17, Stephens finished 2010 ranked world No. 198, followed it up with a top 100 debut just nine months later and ended the year as the youngest player in the top 100. In July of 2012, she broke into the top 50 for the first time after reaching the third round at Wimbledon, then a left abdominal injury derailed her and she missed the last four months of the season.

Then, the tournament that made her a household name occurred.

Stephens came into the 2013 Australian Open already ranked a proper 25th in the world, but many had still never seen much from the budding 20-year-old. She was carefree, energetic and youthful, and was flying under the radar as she defeated then-world No. 3 Serena Williams on her way to the semifinals.

Then came the media downfall. Clouded by her own words and misrepresentations from some members of the press, Stephens had to combat against comments that she said her and Williams being “besties” and that the elder American was a “mentor.” Though the media blew Stephens’ comments out of proportion, she did little initially to put out the fire.

Another well-timed release of a two-month old interview for ESPN just last month caused an additional stir. In the article, Stephens blasted Williams for being cold to her after her Australian Open win, and Stephens quickly commented that the statements were taken out of context and that she had already sorted it out with Williams directly.

But gone was the lovable interviewee in her post-match press conferences, and her match play during much of this time suffered as well. She again came under heavy scrutiny and she admitted that all of the media attention became too overwhelming for her.

By the first week of May, Stephens’ win-to-loss record on the season outside of the Slams had dropped to 3-6, including five opening round losses.

But looking deeper into Stephens’ results, this statistic shouldn’t be that alarming. She has, for some reason, always performed better at Slams than at WTA-level events.

In 2011, Stephens’ best results came in Carlsbad where she reached the quarterfinals, and the US Open where she reached the third round. Outside of that, she failed to even qualify for seven other WTA events, and additionally lost in the first round of a lower-ranked ITF event to a player outside of the top 400.

In 2012, Stephens reached the third round or better in three of the four Slams, but failed once again to even qualify for three WTA events, though she did reach two semifinals in lower-ranked WTA events.

In 2013 so far, Stephens has reached the fourth round of a Slam twice and the semifinal once, but outside of that, her best showing was once again the semifinal of a lower-ranked WTA event.

All things considered, Stephens has yet to appear past a WTA Premier-level quarterfinal or International-level semifinal, and has only won one ITF title in 2011, yet she is making the fourth rounds of Slams without too much difficulty.

So the question begs to be asked: Why does Stephens perform considerably better at Slams than at WTA-level events?

Well, if you’re looking to Stephens to answer the puzzle, you’ll be disappointed.

“I don’t know,” says Stephens when asked about her Slam performance consistency compared to the rest of her WTA results. “Maybe it’s the food I eat. I’m not really sure.”

Analyzing Stephens’ Slam and Premier events statistics, particularly in three-set matches, from May 2011 to present day, as well as a breakdown of the last twelve months gives some interesting insights.

  1. When winning the first set in a three-set match at Slams, Stephens has won 85.7% of the time, or 6 out of 7 matches. Compare that to Premier events during the same timeframe where she only won 28.6% of the time, or 2 out of 7 matches.
  2. In three-set matches won over the last two years, Stephens holds a record of 8-2 at Slams, and 7-8 at Premier events. Over the last twelve months, her Slam record is 7-2 and 3-7 at Premier events.
  3. Over the last twelve months, the average ranking to which she lost to in three-sets at a Slam was 14, and at Premier events was 38.
  4. Over the past twelve months, Stephens holds a 15-4 win-to-loss record in all Slam matches, compared to an 11-13 record for all Premier event matches.
  5. In all Slam losses over the past twelve months, the average ranking of her opponent was 8. Compare that to a ranking of 35 at Premier events during the same time frame.

The statistics breakdown of her matches could continue, but the conclusion is clear: Stephens, whether consciously or not, exerts more into her Slam performances to secure those three-set wins, in particular. Stephens tends to win and lose straight set matches in rather similar ratios across Slam and Premier events – it’s only the three-set matches that show any marked difference.

This week in Wimbledon, after easily getting by her first round opponent Jamie Hampton in straight sets, Stephens was tested with back-to-back three set matches against first Andrea Petkovic then Petra Cetkovska. After winning both first sets in a tiebreak, she had uncharacteristically poor middle sets (6-2 and 6-0, respectively), before bouncing back and winning both nail-biting matches in the third.

Perhaps her confidence at Slams is still somewhat wavering given her results the past few months, but she would be wise to keep that elevated focus and translate it into the other WTA events, and not just at Slams. A few bad draws at a couple of Slams or another injury, and she could see her confidence and ranking faltering. She needs to find a way to win those three-set matches which are being played on smaller stages, and build a proper foundation.

In other words, she needs to take her own advice for every event she enters, and simply “play hard.”

ATomic Dilemma

Bernard Tomic

by James A. Crabtree

Arguably the most hated Australian tennis player since a young Lleyton Hewitt, life isn’t easy for Bernard Tomic.

In fact Bernie has almost gone in search of bad press. There was the turning down of Lleyton Hewitt as a practice partner. The allegations he was going to quit Australia at his father’s behest and play for Croatia. In the 2012 Miami Masters he asked the chair umpire to remove his own father. During last years US Open John McEnroe accused Tomic of tanking a loss to Andy Roddick. Following all that he angered the old guard of Australian tennis with apparent refusal to play Davis Cup. And then we have the numerous driving issues, too numerous to mention.

Nevertheless Tomic is also the man with the best chance of restoring Australian tennis fortunes.

It must be tough for him. Most people find young men in their late teens and early twenties irritating to the say the least. Unless you are a fifteen year old girl chances are you also find Justin Bieber and One Direction intolerable.

Another difficulty for Tomic is the daddy dilemma as Bernard is not the person with the biggest ego among his entourage.

What on earth is young Bernie supposed to you?

The youngest Wimbledon quarterfinalist since Boris Becker in 1985 Tomic started 2013 well. He won all three of his singles Hopman Cup matches against none other than Tommy Haas, Novak Djokovic and Andreas Seppi. He then went onto win Sydney. There he beat Marinko Matosevic, Florian Mayer, Jarkko Nieminen, Andreas Seppi (again), and Kevin Anderson for his tenth win in a row and his first career singles title.

Quickly Tomic went from being loathed to loved.

The following week at the Australian Open, Leonardo Mayer and Daniel Brands fell victim. By this time the whole of Australia was in a flutter and Tomic was not only invincible, but was displaying the sort of ego not seen since Clubber Lang.

Then there was the rumoured incident before the big Australian Open 3rd round match. On the practice court where John Tomic is notoriously hot headed Bernie sat after practice, his dad stood behind and berated him incessantly for ten minutes. Eventually Bernie walked off shaking his head. Not the best possible way to get a sense of Zen before a match?

Bernie went on to lose the match, and hasn’t won more than two matches in a row since. Of course his drop in form went unnoticed until dad John reportedly beat up Bernie’s hitting partner Thomas Drouet. Complications have heightened further since Drouet has come forward with other incidences.

What is Bernie supposed to do?

Judy Murray once commented that talent got her son, Andy Murray, within the top 100, but it was hard work and determination that propelled him to the heights he now knows. Compare the 2013 Andy Murray with the 2005 version of himself and we could be looking at a different athlete.

It is obvious that Bernard could administer similar changes.

This poses the question, who would be the perfect person to guide arguably the most naturally talented youngster on tour? Tennis Australia are already trying to help solve the crisis, and undoubtedly all the familiar names will arise such as Tony Roche, Pat Rafter and Scott Draper. Again akin to the LTA Brad Gilbert hiring for Andy Murray perhaps the best coach for the player is not one made by a committee. And besides, Bernie has had more than his fair share of runs with a number of high profile Australian coaches during Davis Cup play already. Perhaps he needs someone with an old school work hard mentality similar to Ivan Lendl or someone who can understand the games intricate details such as Andy Roddick’s old coach Larry Stefanki.

Sacking the only coach you have ever known would be difficult enough, now imagine starting that ordeal with the word ‘Dad’. Bernard obviously needs a new coach, but probably deep down worries about what his father will do without him.

The Kids are on Life Support? Robson Struggles Through Tennis Transition

Laura Robson has had a rough go after a great start to 2013. How will she cope with the increased scrutiny as the Tour moves closer to home?

If a match is played on a side court and no one is around to watch it, does the result matter?

British sensation Laura Robson would prefer they didn’t, but a sub-par American hard court season following the Australian Open has shown few signs of letting up as the Tour transitions to European red clay. Robson had been amassing a coterie of big match wins, most recently a gutsy (if aesthetically displeasing) win over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. But the losses for the young Brit have begun to pile up in quickly, as she has failed to win two consecutive matches since January. Off the court, times have been equally trying for the teenager, who suffered the theft of her jewelry and, after an incident of cyber-bullying following a loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai, a brief deactivation of her twitter account.

The former Wimbledon girls’ champion may be one of the last true tennis prodigies; she won her home Slam at the age of 14, famously inviting Marat Safin to accompany her to the Champion’s Ball. Reaching two more junior finals after that, Robson was under a microscope for most of her junior development. Making the transition to the senior tour, Robson showed promise when she reached the Hopman Cup finals with compatriot Andy Murray in 2011 and won the silver medal in at the Olympic mixed doubles event last summer.

But it was her summer hard court swing last year that truly turned heads; not long after hiring the controversial Zeljko Krajan (former coach of Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova), Robson made a splash at the US Open, ending Kim Clijsters’ singles career in emphatic fashion and following that up with a decisive win over an in-form Li Na. In the fall, she continued to impress with a run to the finals of Guangzhou and it seemed she was coming into her own as 2013 got underway with the aforementioned Kvitova victory.

From that steady progress, it would appear Robson has done a complete about-face, but what has caused this slump? Unlike rival Sloane Stephens, who endured an uncomfortable homecoming after her Australian Open heroics, Robson has been decidedly under the radar, starting (and swiftly ending) most tournaments away from the glare of a TV camera.

Though a tennis match has few literary properties, that stops a precious few of us from analyzing them as if they were texts (the day a win or a loss means nothing more than a strict binary is the day journalism dies). A cursory look at Robson’s results reveal a string of five three-set losses, four 6-1 final sets, and three losses from a set up. Robson’s apparent inability to close ostensibly winnable matches against players outside the top 30 is startling given both her talent and the matches that made her relevant.

An even closer look, this time at the stats of Robson’s losses, most recently a two-set defeat to Japan’s Ayumi Morita, shows an ever-increasing amount of double faults (she served 10 against Morita). Coach Krajan’s former students had their own histories of serving woes before hiring the Croatian former pro, but his habit of tweaking his charges’ serve motions to be more side-arm have often done more harm than good, Robson appearing the latest victim of “the yips.”

Now playing in Europe for the first time since asserting her presence among the Tour’s upper echelon, the roles between Stephens and Robson will reverse; playing away from home, the young American will have a chance to work out her shaken confidence on both a surface she prefers and those outer courts Robson has called home for much of the season. By contrast, Robson, who probably anticipated making more inroads on a faster surface, will be asked to play under increasing scrutiny leading up to Wimbledon, literally a stone’s throw from her actual home.

How either player copes with the change of scenery cannot yet be predicted, but at least for Robson, the troubling start to the clay season may mean it gets worse before it gets better.

Hardcourt Retrospective (ATP)

Djokovic Murray AO 2013 -2

As the ATP tour descends with wrathful inevitability upon the clay of southern Europe and elsewhere – indeed the WTA has already made the switch – the time seems appropriate to look back at the prolonged hardcourt season just ended, the one that began in Atlanta last July, and concluded just a few days ago in Miami.

It is a useful way to view the tennis season: as a near-perpetual hardcourt marathon punctuated by those brief fevered months on the traditional courts of the Old World, with the year-end break merely the longest of several afforded to worn players. A wider perspective is always a useful thing to maintain, provided one can resist the persuasive distortions of the panorama.

This period incorporates the US Summer, the Asian swing, the European indoors, Australia, and the disparate events in February that culminate in the US Spring Masters, and therefore includes two Majors, six Masters 1000, the World Tour Finals, and a multitude of 250 and 500 events.†

Table 1. Hardcourt Leaders

This shows the hardcourt season leaders, including their number of points, titles, and win/loss.

It surely comes as a surprise to no one that Djokovic tops this list, across all three categories, or, presumably, that Murray sits in clear second place. After all, between them they won both Majors, and three of the six Masters events. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Ferrer numerically out-performed Federer, at the Majors, the Masters and at 500 and 250 level. It’s interesting to note that Berdych accrued more points than del Potro, despite having a worse winning percentage and winning fewer titles. However, the Czech did play more matches than anyone else in this period.

Table 2. Points Gain

This table shows which players gained the most points. It will consequently favour the top players heavily.

How about that? Gasquet has gained the most hardcourt points since last July. His biggest hauls came in Montreal, Miami, and three 250 level titles in Montpellier, Doha and Bangkok. It’s more proof that he’s headed in the right direction. I am hopeful that this trend will continue for a while yet. These numbers merely add more wonder to the late career resurgence of Haas. Ferrer, meanwhile, feasted on his elevated seeding to gain excellent results in Paris, New York, Melbourne and Miami.‡

Del Potro made a substantial gain despite a dismal Australian Open loss, and he has gradually returned to an appropriate spot in the rankings. Djokovic gained points despite failing to defend titles at the US Open and Miami, mainly because he picked up titles in Shanghai and at the Tour Finals.

Table 3. Points Loss

This table shows which players lost the most points. Once again, top players are inevitably featured.

It’s hardly surprising that Nadal tops this list, given that he contested only one hardcourt tournament in this period (Indian Wells), though he did win it.Ψ Federer, on the other hand, has fallen away sharply, as the fistful of titles he claimed in 2011/12 to regain the No.1 spot have gone sadly undefended. Seeing these two atop this list does rather support the idea that we’ve seen the last of the ‘Fedal’ era, for better or for worse.

Tsonga is a worrying case, since there isn’t much evidence that his poor form is due to pick up. He still has tremendous weeks, such as Marseilles, but he also has too many stinkers. Fish’s health issues have been amply discussed, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to the top ten. Monfils has also suffered a dispiriting run of injuries (he’s prone to it, of course), and has tumbled outside the top hundred. It’s worth mentioning that John Isner sits just off this list at No.6. Like Tsonga, but more so, it’s hard to find much hope that his current slide has bottomed out.

Table 4. Rankings Gain

This table shows who made the biggest rankings leap into the top 100 since last July.

This reveals a mixture of seasoned professionals returning - Blake, Robredo - and youngsters on the make. De Bakker and Berankis were ranked unusually low, due to injury, and it’s good to see them reascend to a level more commensurate with their abilities, although I’d hazard that the Lithuanian is more likely to keep climbing much higher. I cannot see de Bakker breaking into the top 50, but a ranking around 70-90 seems not unreasonable. The same could be said of Donskoy. I suspect he’s ranked right at the limits of his current ability. His numbers attest to hard toil at the challenger level, and a nice run to the third round in Melbourne.

Table 5. Top 100 Entries

I include this list, and the one that follows, purely for the sake of curiosity. They show entry into and exit out of the top 100. Given the relatively modest number of points shared between these players, these figures are undeniably skewed by clay results in South America and elsewhere. Zeballos is a perfect example of this.

As with the previous list, as well as a few (too few) youngsters, there is a healthy number of veterans making late-career stands: Robredo, Blake, Hewitt, Tursunov, Mathieu, Becker.

Everyone was on Rosol’s case when he didn’t follow up on his upset of Nadal at Wimbledon with more astounding feats. But it should be noted that he has risen some 44 places, which is a pretty good effort (there are a couple of clay results mixed in there). It wasn’t all roses, though: he did get bagelled by Paolo Lorenzi.

Zemlja is also a pretty interesting case, leading the current Slovenian charge in men’s tennis, along with Bedene and Blaz Kavcic. His standouts were the run through qualifying to the third round of the US Open, and through qualifying to the Vienna final, defeating Haas and Tipsarevic en route.

The average age of these 22 players, incidentally, is 26.59 years. Make of that what you will.

Table 6. Top 100 Exits

Roddick, Ferrero and Chela have of course retired, and so their departures from the top 100 hardly merit further discussion. Excluding those three, the average age of the departed is 28.32 years. This number is dragged down slightly by the 26-year-old Monfils, who tops this list courtesy of a run of injuries, owing to bad luck and a playing style tailored perfectly towards crippling oneself. Assuming he can regain his health – never a safe assumption – he’ll be back in the top 20 before too long. Perhaps.

There is certainly a decent number of tour veterans who one suspects the race is overtaking: Karlovic, Phau, Andreev, Volandri, Mahut and Ramirez-Hidalgo. I hesitate to include Nalbandian on this list, but doing so has become increasingly hard to justify. His low ranking and poor results still somehow feel like a mistake that will one day be rectified, even though I know deep down it won’t be. Hope springs eternal, though Nalbandian clearly doesn’t.

Ebden, Stebe, Bogomolov and Young are excellent examples of that rankings quirk around this level, wherein one or two strong results will buy a journeyman twelve months in the big time, but no longer. Once that year is up, they inevitably subside. My apologies to those readers still hoping for big thing from Young, but I cannot see it happening. Of course, a return to the top hundred isn’t out of the question for any of these guys, but it will always feel like borrowed time.

† This period also of course includes the Golden Swing in South America. Where this has affected the figures I have made a note of it.

‡ Ferrer’s current points total includes 550 points from the Golden Swing.

Ψ Nadal’s current points total includes 750 points from the Golden Swing.

More Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (ATP)

Djokovic gets cozy with an old flame.  Should Jelena Ristic be jealous?

 

Having completed the recap of the WTA field at the Australian Open, we issue report cards for the ATP.  As before, grading reflects not just results but expectations, quality of opposition, and other factors. 

Djokovic:  The master of Melbourne like none before him, the Serb became the first man in the Open era to finish on top Down Under three straight years.  That record span of dominance over a tournament that famously has eluded dominance came with a satisfying serving (note the word choice) of revenge over Murray, who had defeated him in the US Open final.  Consolidating his current control over what looks like the ATP’s next marquee rivalry, Djokovic won his third straight match in it after losing the first set in all of them.  Vital to his success was the series of 44 consecutive holds with which he ended the tournament, strangling two of the game’s best returners in Ferrer and Murray.  Those top-five opponents managed break points in just two of Djokovic’s service games through the semifinal and final as he repeatedly won 30-30 and deuce points throughout the tournament—with one notable exception in his epic against Wawrinka.  The undisputed world #1 survived and then thrived in running his winning streak over top-eight opponents to eleven.  Overpowering Ferrer and outlasting Murray, Djokovic showed that he can—and will—do virtually anything to win.  A+

Murray:  The US Open champion came closer than many anticipated to becoming the first man to win his second major on the next opportunity after his first.  Murray admittedly benefited from a puff pastry of a pre-semifinal draw, which allowed him to conserve energy for that five-setter against Federer.  Threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the end of the fourth set in that match, he showed remarkable resilience by bouncing back to claim an early lead in the fifth and close out the man who had tormented him at majors.  Murray maintained a nearly impenetrable rhythm on serve throughout that match, and his forehand continued its maturation into a real weapon.  He will rue the three break points that he let escape early in the second set of the final, which could have unfolded entirely differently otherwise.  But Murray was right to consider the tournament an important consolidation of last year’s success.  A

Federer:  Handed the most difficult draw of the top three, he showed just how well his game can silence players who rely heavily on their serves in ousting Tomic and then Raonic.  Federer defended crisply and moved as alertly as he has in years past during the five-set quarterfinal with Tsonga that followed, which unveiled the full range of his weapons from the explosive to the delicate.  But his struggles to break serve caught up with him against Murray, whom he could not crack for three and a half sets even as his own serve came under frequent pressure.  Probably drained by the Tsonga epic, Federer faded in the fifth set despite mounting an impressive surge to swipe the fourth.  He finished the tournament by winning all six of his tiebreaks, a sure sign that he remains one of the sport’s best competitors under pressure.  A

Ferrer:  Never looking his best during the fortnight, he backed into the #4 ranking rather than charging into it with confidence.  Ferrer probably should have lost to Almagro in the fourth round, outplayed for most of the first four sets and kept alive only by his compatriot’s shocking inability to deliver the coup de grace.  Thoroughly exposed by Djokovic in the semifinals, he suffered his second humiliating defeat at that stage of a major over the last twelve months as he offered little better than batting practice for the Serb’s weaponry.  Ferrer said consistently this fortnight that he considers himself a clear level below the Big Four, and his results against them on grand stages continue to make his point for him.  B

Tsonga:  The Frenchman slipped to 13 straight losses against top-eight opponents here, but the manner in which he did contained kernels of hope for the season.  Not folding meekly to Federer as he had in an earlier Australian Open, Tsonga regrouped from losing the first set in a tiebreak to win the second and regrouped from losing the third set in a tiebreak to win the fourth.  He even spared no effort in battling Federer down to the finish in a fifth set tenser than the scoreline showed.  Also likely to please new coach Roger Rasheed was his greater efficiency in closing out overmatched opponents in the previous four rounds.  Docked a notch for his Neanderthal-like comments about women’s tennis.  B+

Almagro:  As the percipient Steve Tignor of Tennis.com noted, sometimes a player’s greatest achievement can turn into his greatest catastrophe within a handful of points.  Jerking Ferrer around the court for two and a half sets, Almagro astonished audiences by his newfound courage against an opponent who had won all 12 of their previous meetings.  He will remember his first quarterfinal at a hard-court major for the wrong reasons, though, once he failed to serve it out three times across the third and fourth sets before succumbing to cramps as well as the crushing weight of his disappointment in the fifth.  B-

Chardy:  Not only did he upset Del Potro with inspired attacking tennis, but he followed up that five-set victory by grinding out a four-setter against the recently dangerous Seppi.  The Frenchman came from nowhere to reach his first major quarterfinal and in the process showed considerable courage. Chardy almost pulled off an Almagro against the Tower of Tandil, gagging on triple break point midway through the third set when he had won the first two.  Unlike the Spaniard, he mustered one last surge in the fifth with an unexpected fearlessness to finish what he had started.  A-

Berdych:  Drawn against the top seed in a quarterfinal for the second straight major, he could not find the same thunderbolts that he had hurled at the US Open.  Or perhaps Berdych simply matches up more effectively to Federer than to Djokovic, who has won all eleven of their hard-court meetings.  Before that relatively tame four-set loss, however, he recorded four straight-sets victories that bode well for his consistency, always the main question for him.  He leaves the Australian Open as the man outside the Big Four most likely to win a major this year, although he will need some help to do so.  B+

Del Potro:  Through the first two rounds, the Tower of Tandil looked not only sturdy but downright terrifying.  Just when people began to take him seriously as a dark horse title threat, Del Potro turned into the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he tottered to the exit in a strangely enervated effort.  That five-set loss to Chardy at the end of the first week marked a setback in a surge that started with his bronze-medal victory at the Olympics, departing from his recent steadiness against opponents outside the top ten.  F

Tipsarevic:  He looked every inch a top-eight seed in dismantling sentimental favorite Hewitt before his home crowd on Rod Laver Arena, where the Aussie had wrought so many miracles before.  Striking winners down both lines with abandon, Tipsarevic appeared to make an imposing statement.  Then he wobbled through two five-setters and retired against Almagro, not a surprising result for a man who has completed a career Golden Slam of retirements.  C

ATP young guns:  Heralded with enthusiasm when the tournament began, none of these prodigies left a meaningful impact on the tournament.  Brisbane finalist Dimitrov became the first man to exit Melbourne, failing to win a set in his opener, and Raonic succumbed to Federer much more routinely than he had in their three meetings last year.  Tomic produced a stronger effort against the Swiss star than he did last year but still lost in straight sets after struggling mightily with a qualifier in the previous round.  And American fans need not have watched Harrison’s ignominious loss to Djokovic for long to realize how far this alleged future star must improve before mounting a credible threat.  Last but not least, Paris finalist Jerzy Janowicz narrowly avoided a second-round implosion over a dubious line call and rallied to win after losing the first two sets—sets that he should not have lost in the first place.  Janowicz did at least progress as far as his seed projected, and many of these young men received difficult draws, but the breakthrough of young stars that many expected here happened almost entirely on the women’s side.  C+

Bryan brothers:  At their most productive major, they closed within four major titles of Federer by comfortably winning the final after some close scrapes earlier in the fortnight.  The Bryans have earned some of their most consistent success in Australia, where they have reached nine finals and five consecutively.  Djokovic still has some work to do before he can approach the numbers of these twins whose talents never seem to fade.  A

Djokovic vs. Wawrinka:  Undoubtedly the match of the tournament, it represented the high point of Wawrinka’s career to date.  The Swiss #2 basked in the spotlight while cracking his exquisite one-handed backhands to all corners of the court and taking control of rallies with his penetrating cross-court forehand.  Wawrinka even served at Federer-like heights for much of the match, outside a predictable stumble when he approached a two-set lead.  Stunned by the brio of his opponent, Djokovic needed a set and a half to settle into the match.  The underdog then needed about a set and a half to regroup from the favorite’s charge, at which point the fourth and fifth sets featured spellbinding tennis all the more remarkable for the ability of both men to sustain their quality.  Fittingly, the match ended only after Wawrinka had saved two match points with breathtaking shot-making and only with a rally that forced both men to pull out nearly every weapon in their arsenals.  A+

Simon vs. Monfils:  Not much shorter than Djokovic vs. Wawrinka in terms of time, it felt considerably longer to watch.  This mindless war of attrition featured rally after rally of the sort that one more commonly finds on practice courts, including a 71-shot meander to nowhere that contributed to the inevitable cramping suffered by both men late in the match.  If the previous epic offered an argument to keep the best-of-five format, this match argued just as eloquently for its abandonment.  Simon, the winner, had no chance of recovering in time for his next match, nor would Monfils if he had won.  C-

Men’s final:  Not a classic by any means, it compared poorly both to the women’s melodrama on the previous night and to the marathon of the 2012 men’s final.  The 2013 edition illustrated some troubling reasons why the Djokovic-Murray rivalry never may capture the imagination to the extent of Federer-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Nadal.  Presenting no contrast in styles, these two men played essentially the same games in a match of mirror images that came down to execution in any given situation—interesting but not exactly stimulating to watch.  Moreover, they continued to bring out the passivity in each other by showing so much respect for each other’s defense that many rallies featured sequence after sequence of cautious, low-risk shots designed to coax errors rather than force the issue.  These tactics worked perfectly for Djokovic, just as they worked for Murray at last year’s US Open, but they left fans waiting for a spark that never came in a match that trudged towards anticlimax.  B-

And that is a wrap of the 2013 Australian Open!  Up next is a look ahead to the first round in Davis Cup World Group action:  all eight ties previewed and predicted.

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