best game

Soderling lifts first title of year, Clijsters back on form and Wozniacki laughs off criticism

*Swedish star Robin Soderling has paid tribute to new coach Claudio Pistolesi after overcoming Andy Roddick to win the Brisbane International 6-3, 7-5. The victory means that the Swedish No. 1 will climb above Andy Murray to No. 4 in the world and secures him the fourth seeding at the upcoming Australian Open. “We’ve only worked together for a couple of weeks, this is the first tournament, and it’s working pretty well, no?” said Soderling, who is looking to improve on a dismal record of never reaching the third round at Melbourne Park. “I’m playing really well and what makes me really happy is I never really played well in Australia before. It gives me a lot of confidence for Melbourne.” American star Roddick rued his inability to combat Soderling’s serve: “He served too well, it seemed like any time I had a look, he came up with one of those big serves,” said the American No. 1. “I’m normally at the other side and it’s better on that end of the serve.”

*Despite recent talk of a second retirement the Belgian Kim Clijsters has exploded on to the 2011 tennis calendar. In her opening match of the year at the Sydney International she took only 62 minutes to register a 6-1, 6-2 victory over the young Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru. The No. 3 seed won the first eleven points of the match and the first five games. “I was feeling very comfortable out there, said the three-time US Open winner. “It’s a nice feeling to have when you play your first match. I was really focused on trying to place my serves well and not give Alexandra a lot of second serves to attack. When I started back on the WTA I was working on my consistency – my best game was there but then I’d lose it for three or four games,” Clijsters added. “The last few months I’ve been focusing on that and reading myself better, and realizing when I lose that intensity, pick it up again as soon as possible.” Full reaction to the day’s play can be viewed at the WTA website.

*World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki has laughed off criticism after being stunned by Dominika Cibulkova in the second round in Sydney. “You need to learn from the losses,” said the 20-year-old, who is aiming to break her Grand Slam duck in Melbourne. “I’m confident for Melbourne I’ll be OK, there are positives I can take.” It was Cibulkova’s first win over the dominant Wozniacki in six attempts. And the Dane admitted there was room for improvement: “At the start of the new season you need to get into match play. I didn’t feel I was playing great tennis out there,” Wozniacki added. “Now I just need to get some training matches, head to Melbourne and get ready for the Australian Open. Last year I had the same start, so hopefully slow start, good finish.” The young Cibulkova was understandably delighted: “I think I’ve beaten No.2, No.3, No.4, No.5 and everybody, just not No.1,” said the Slovakian. “So I’m really happy about it. The most important thing today was I went on the court and saw myself like a winner from the first point until the last point. So it wasn’t a surprise for me – I just played my game. I had my plan. I knew it was going to work if I just stuck to my plan.” Full reaction can be seen at the WTA website.

*World No. 1 Rafa Nadal is back on his feet after the bout of flu which badly affected him during his semifinal defeat to Nikolay Davydenko at the Qatar Open and has flown to Melbourne to continue his preparations for the Australian Open. The Spaniard is hoping to dethrone his great rival Roger Federer and hold all four Grand Slams simultaneously for the first time in his career. “Going by plane sometimes makes you worse and at the same time I don’t have anything to do right now in Australia,” the 24-year-old told the NZHerald. “With my condition right now I think the more reasonable thing to do is rest a few days and have less risk of injuries, less risk of everything.”

*2009 US Open Champion Juan Martin del Potro insists he is happy with his current comeback from injury following a shock 2-6, 5-7 defeat to the German Florian Mayer in the second round of the Sydney International. Missing much of 2010 saw del Potro fall to No. 259 in the world but having an injury protected ranking means he will compete at the Australian Open next week. “Of course I want to play and win a tournament,” he said following the match. “When you lose, it’s hard, but now it’s different, I have different sensations. I lost but I have another tournament in three days. I have my wrist in good shape. That’s good. Mayer played better than me but it’s normal. I am very far off my good game but I did my best. It was shorter, but I tried.”

*British No. 1 Andy Murray has denied that his decision to play in un-ranked events leading up to the Australian Open has harmed his chances of success. His decision to attend the Hopman Cup alongside Laura Robson last week coupled with Robin Soderling lifting the title at Brisbane means that the Scot will slip below the Swede and enter the Aussie slam ranked and seeded fifth. “I was seeded five for the Australian Open last year, so I don’t think it makes a big difference,” said Murray, who reached the final in 2010 before being outclassed by Roger Federer in straight sets. The full interview can be read at The Guardian website. Murray has also announced that he will return to Davis Cup play for the first time since 2009 after discovering that some play is required in order to compete at the 2012 Olympics. “I didn’t know about the Olympics situation until December,” he told the Daily Mail. “But I said to Leon [Smith, Davis Cup captain] before that I would be able to play and we should keep speaking. I will sit down and talk with him in Australia and see if he wants me to play in March or if it would be good for the other guys to have another match. I will definitely play, probably one or two [ties].”

*British teen sensation Laura Robson will miss both the Australian Open and Britain’s upcoming Fed Cup tie in Israel after injuring her hip in the Hopman Cup last week. Marcos Baghdatis is now a doubt for the men’s draw after withdrawing from this week’s Sydney International, where he was defending his 2010 title, with a groin injury.

*Young Aussie hopeful Bernard Tomic has vowed to mend his ways after receiving one of the final four wildcards in to this year’s Australian Open. Aussie Davis Cup coach Todd Woodbridge had previously told the talented 18-year-old to start making more of his gifts and Tomic seems firmly in agreement. In response to some questioning whether he deserved preferential treatment he said: “Look, it’s their decision at the end of the day. I can’t decide if I’m going to get it or not. I can only try to play tennis as much as I can. Yes, I had a bit of a strange December, but now it’s January. I mean, it’s their opinion. Everyone has got their own opinion; I’ve got mine. You don’t think about those things. You just play tennis. I think the wild-card that they gave, they gave for a reason.” Tomic’s full reaction can be read at The Australian’s website. Carsten Ball, Sally Peers and Sophie Ferguson were the other recipients.

*Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt believes he is ready for a strong run at his home slam Australian Open despite not playing a ranked warm-up tournament for the first time. “I feel like I’ve done the hard yards,” said the 2005 finalist who did compete at the Hopman Cup last week and is currently taking part in the Kooyong exhibitions. “There’s no stone that’s unturned for me, and I can go out there and know that I’ve had the best preparation possible for myself and my body. Obviously I won’t be seeded next week, so [it’s] a little bit in the hands of the Gods where you get put in the draw, but I feel capable that I can go out there and cause some upsets.” Sam Stosur also believes she can bring home glory for her flood-ridden country despite an early loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Sydney as well as an early defeat to compatriot Jarmila Groth in Brisbane last week. “I’m going to go in there thinking I can [win],” said the 26-year-old. “But there’s a long way from thinking you can do it and playing a first-round [match] to holding the trophy at the end…Even though it’s two second-round losses, I’m actually quite happy with the way I’m playing and think I’m in a good spot for Melbourne and still looking forward to obviously the Australian Open. If I could look back on this time last year to now I’m feeling 100 per cent better than I was.”

*In her latest attempts to find a new coach the Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova has begun working with Carlos Cuadrado.

*Former world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo has been named the joint director of her home town tournament the WTA Paris Open. The Wimbledon and Australian Open Champion won the event three times during her career and said the challenge was “too good to turn down.”

*Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams will find out next month whether they are the 2011 victors of the Laureus Sports Awards in Abu Dhabi. Nadal faces Formula One’s Sebastien Vettel, boxer Manny Pacquiao, basketball star Kobe Bryant and footballers Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Serena faces fellow tennis stars Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters, skier Lindsey Vonn, British track star Jessica Ennis and high jumper Blanka Vlasic.

*Roger Federer is looking to expand his charity exhibition CV by hosting an event in aid of the flood victims in Queensland on Sunday in Melbourne. The 16-time Grand Slam winner is in the city preparing for the Australian Open and said on his Facebook page: “The floods here in Australia are devastating! I am on my way to practise now and am going to speak with Tennis Australia to see if we perhaps can organise something on Sunday to help raise some funds for the people of Queensland who have been affected. Stay tuned as it would be great if the sport of tennis can help out right before the Australian Open begins.” Federer has previous when it comes to this type of thing and his ‘Hit For Haiti’ fundraisers were a massive hit on the 2010 circuit. Andy Roddick and Aussie star Sam Stosur promised $100 for every ace they hit in Brisbane last week with Roddick handing over $10,800 following his loss to Robin Soderling in the final. The ATP and WTA have also made the same pledge covering last week’s and this week’s tournaments as well as the Australian Open.

*Fresh for 2011 Tennis People has decided to introduce a new weekly feature to chronicle the ongoing battle between the greatest player of all time, Roger Federer, and his great rival Rafa Nadal: The GOAT Race. Unfortunately, this won’t see the world’s top two players hurtle down a Welsh mountainside atop a buccaneering billy goat gruff, but will keep track of their on-court achievements this term. With Rafa’s injury problems and Roger’s off-court duties as a father to contend with, both players will be awarded ten points for entering a tournament. They will receive a further 25 points for a quaterfinals appearance, 50 for a semifinal and 100 if they reach the final. Every title lifted will earn them 200 points. These will be doubled for Grand Slam competitions. So, after the first tournaments of 2011 came to a close R-Fed’s victory in Qatar makes him our early leader with 210 points after that 6-3, 6-4 win over Nikolay Davydenko. That’s ten for entering, and 200 for lifting the title. Rafa picks up 60 points after losing that flu-hit semi to the diminutive Russian.

Roger: 210   Rafa: 60

Weekly Debrief: Nadal as King of Outdoors, France & Serbia Win in Davis Cup, Qureshi as a “Hero”

Although the week after a Grand Slam is quieter than most, there was still plenty of action with the semifinals of the Davis Cup seeing France and Serbia winning their respective rubbers in surprising fashion. I also take a look at Rafael Nadal’s greatest weakness. Surprise! He has one! Even after winning 9 grand slams, there is still one thing missing from his collection. We’ll also take a look at Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi’s hero’s welcome in his native Pakistan. Finally, I’ll leave you off with a tip from a friend: it’s an extended (and funnier) version of Roger Federer’s Lindt “Airport” Commercial.

Davis Cup Semifinals Action

As there were no ATP-level tournaments scheduled the week after the U.S. Open, each nation had the opportunity to play their best players in Davis Cup action this past weekend.

For those not familiar with Davis Cup, some commentators and fans don’t see the necessity of the event saying it just adds to the athlete’s already-full schedule or that the event has lost its appeal because of a yearly redundancy. (Imagine if the World Cup of Soccer was played every year instead of every four, it would lose its hype and draw for fans.) The players, however, take a completely different stand in the knock-out event: they love the chance to play as part of a team representing their home country. Where every other tennis event is based off of individual performance, Davis Cup draws on a best-of-five rubbers format that includes 2 singles, 1 doubles, and 2 reverse singles matches. Some players are even known for finding their best game come Davis Cup time.

The main highlight this week was obviously France’s unexpected domination of Argentina, winning all 5 of their rubbers, and Serbia’s come-from-behind mentality to take out the Czech Republic 3-2. The two big players for each winning nation were, Gael Monfils and Janko Tipsarevic, respectively.

France: After Michael Llodra of France took out Juan Monaco in convincing fashion in the ties first rubber, all eyes were on the Gael Monfils-David Nalbandian match. Naldandian is one of those players I mentioned before who brings his best to Davis Cup. He usually has shaky results during the course of the year, but is often integral in bringing Argentina far in Davis Cup. In fact, for his last 9 singles rubbers, he’s only lost 1 and it was to a top 10 player. This weekend, however, notched another loss to his record. After a very solid performance by Monfils, Nalbandian could pull out no hat trick to close the deal this time and was taken out in four sets.

Gael Monfils showcases his new love, breakdancing.

Players spray captain Guy Forget

France Tennis Federation Jean Gachassin is sprayed by Michael Llodra and Richard Gasquet

Serbia: Following his stellar performance at the U.S. Open, expecting Novak Djokovic to travel halfway across the world and recover in 72 hours to play one of the most important Davis Cup rubbers in the country’s history would have been nearly impossible. As luck would have it, Djokovic pulled out of his first rubber citing a case of gastroenteritis, pitting Viktor Troicki against Czech Radek Stepanek. Stepanek walked away with the win, but Serb Janko Tipsarevic took a commanding lead against Tomas Berdych in the next rubber. After playing uninspiring tennis, Berdych somehow looked like he was going to force a 5th set, but Tipsarevic broke through a won the 4th in a tiebreak. The Serbian duo of Novak Djokovic and Nenad Zimonjic then had a hard time in the doubles rubber against the expert precision team of Stepanek/Berdych. The Czechs took the doubles rubber, but it would be the last match they would win. After Djokovic stepped in and took out Berdych in the 4th rubber, Tipsarevic won the deciding 5th rubber in three straight sets against Stepanek. Never in Serbia’s 15 year history as a country has the team gotten this far.

Believe it or not, this is Janko Tipsarevic after clinching the deciding 5th rubber against Radek Stepanek!

This Novak Djokovic after winning a point. Is it me or do these Serbs celebrate a victory with fierceness!?

The celebrations from both teams were grand! I can’t decide who I would rather party with!

Serbia will be looking for its first-ever Davis Cup title while France will be looking for its tenth. The final will be played the week following the year-end championships in December.

Nadal as an Outdoor Specialist

Gone are the days when Rafael Nadal was considered a clay court-specialist. After winning 5 French Opens, 2 Wimbledons, and an Australian and U.S. Open, the King of Clay has taken on a new kingdom: King of Outdoors. After clinching the year-end #1 for the second time in three years, Nadal is set to surpass Roger Federer on several records, including possibly most Slams won.

But there is still one thing on Nadal’s resume that is lacking: Indoor titles. Of Nadal’s 42 ATP titles, only 1 has come on the indoor hard courts and that was back in 2005 when the Madrid Masters were played indoors. At the same time, Nadal has been a finalist 12 times in his career and only 2 of those were indoor hard courts (Paris Masters in 2007 and Rotterdam in 2009). Now you may be thinking he simply doesn’t play enough indoor tournaments to win them, but that is not the case. Since 2006, he has lost in the quarterfinals or earlier in 5 of his last 9 indoor tournaments. That statistic now looks a bit more perplexing for the champion, doesn’t it?

Why all the fuss about indoor tournaments anyway? Well, if you recall, there is a very small and negligible tournament at the end of the year that just happens to pit the eight best ATP players against each other on indoor hard courts. Oh right! It’s the 2010 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals held in London, England at the end of November! Although Nadal has qualified for the last four years, the further he has gotten was in his first two appearances (2006 and 2007) when he lost in the semifinals to Federer in straight sets both times. He lost all three round robin matches in 2008 without winning a set, and in 2009, he pulled out with knee tendinitis.

Now that Nadal has overcome one of his biggest obstacles by staying healthy long enough to win the U.S. Open, his eyes should be set on clinching the last major trophy he has yet to touch: the WTF trophy played on quick indoor courts, his weakness. Let’s see if Nadal can win and show us what he is really made of.

Welcome Fit for a Hero, Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi

Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi became an overnight hero in his native Pakistan. After advocating and standing as the voice for Pakistani flood victims at this year’s U.S. Open, Qureshi was greeted by a multitude of happy, cheering fans at the Allama Igbal International Airport in Lahore, India on September 15, 2010. Although he failed to win Pakistan’s first Grand Slam title, he was both Men’s Doubles runner-up and Mixed Doubles runner-up. He is regarded as Pakistan’s most successful tennis player, securing a #6 doubles ranking with partner Rohan Bopanna of India.

Government and Pakistan Tennis Federation officials draped Qureshi with garlands as fans chanted “long live Aisam” and “our new hero.” The throngs of people for his homecoming are reminiscent of when pop stars visit foreign lands.

ATP BONUS

Many fans have seen Roger Federer’s 32 seconds Lindt “Airport” Commercial. However, many more haven’t seen the funnier extended version one below. It includes a ‘strip search’ and Federer spinning around while the two female security guards admire:

Female 1: Stop, right there.

Federer: What’s wrong?

Female 1: Nothing. Everything’s right.

Female 2: You move very well. You must work out a lot.

Fed finishes with a smile and remarks: You ladies are crazy.

But, as Fed is walking away, the females get the last word: I love you.

We love you too, Fed.