Brisbane International

Bouncing Back: Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic in Brisbane and Perth

At first, 2011 appeared to mark the breakthrough of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova when she reached two major quarterfinals and stood toe to toe with many of the WTA’s leading ladies.  The former junior #1 looked likely to become the latest Russian woman to rise in a sport riddled with them over the past decade, blending ferocious groundstrokes from both wings with a keen competitive instinct.  Soon afterwards arrived the apparent emergence of Australian prodigy Bernard Tomic.  The lanky, enigmatic teenager delivered his “hello, world” moment by soaring from Wimbledon qualifying all the way to the quarterfinals of the main draw, where he won a set from eventual champion Djokovic.  Two majors later, Tomic thrilled his home fans by reaching the second week of the Australian Open with electrifying five-set victories over Verdasco and Dolgopolov.

Not entirely concealed by those achievements, however, were the shortcomings in the games of both nascent stars.  While Pavlyuchenkova grappled with a serve that leaked too many double faults and untimely service breaks, Tomic struggled less with his body than with an undisciplined mind that too often drifted away from the task at hand.  For most of 2012, they not only stagnated but regressed dramatically.  The Russian struggled to string together consecutive victories and did not advance past the first week at any major, while she defeated top-30 opponents at only one tournament (Cincinnati).  Meanwhile, Tomic combined on-court with off-court embarrassments that ranged from a visibly disinterested loss at the US Open to surly altercations with media and Davis Cup team members.  A nation that values hard work and humility, Australia recoiled from the man whom they had prized so recently when he admitted his failures to commit full effort and sounded detached while doing so.

During those demoralizing seasons, then, Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic absorbed a series of bruising blows that might well have left their confidence in tatters.  But this week they began 2013 with promising performances that hinted at a revival.

On opposite sides of the Australian continent, the two faltering phenoms delivered victories over players who would have dismissed them with ease last year.  At the Premier tournament in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova recorded consecutive victories over top-eight opponents for the first time in her career, thus improving even upon her success in 2011.  Neither Kvitova nor Kerber played convincing tennis for long stretches in those matches, to be sure, but journeywomen of the WTA had not needed to play even average tennis to unravel her during her slump.  In those two straight-sets victories, a fitter and generally calmer Pavlyuchenkova found the courage to win crucial points late in sets.  The serve that had betrayed her so relentlessly over the past year became an occasional weapon and only a rare liability.  Rallying from a dismal first set in a semifinal against lucky loser Lesia Tsurenko, the Russian also showed the maturity to reverse the momentum of a match while shouldering the pressure of a heavy favorite.  In view of the field’s overall quality, Brisbane marked arguably her most significant final to date.

Thousands of miles to the west in Perth, Tomic toppled three consecutive top-25 opponents at the Hopman Cup.  The experience of playing before the fans whom he had alienated over the preceding months seemed to energize rather than weigh upon him.  Crucial to his week was his first match against Tommy Haas, the author of a remarkable resurgence in 2012.  Having let a one-set lead slip away, the Aussie quickly dropped the second set and fell behind by an early break in the third, at which point familiar chatter about “Tomic the Tank Engine” reverberated around Twitter.  Many onlookers, including me, expected him to fade meekly and lose the set, perhaps by a double break.  To the contrary, Tomic stayed within range until Haas served for the match, when edgy play from the German veteran allowed the youngster to sweep the last four games.  Galvanized by this comeback, he then notched straight-sets victories over Italian grinder Andreas Seppi, who had compiled the best season of his career last year, and world #1 Djokovic.  Granted, the Serb seemed a bit out of tune in that match, and exhibition tournaments rarely elicit A-list tennis from A-list names.  As in the case of Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane, however, Tomic deserved credit for capitalizing on an opportunity that would have eluded him last season.  And the speed with which his compatriots embraced him again illustrated how easily he can reverse the tide of public opinion that had flowed against him.

A tennis season  is a marathon, not a sprint, and one should beware of placing too much emphasis on a single strong week.  All the same, plenty of draws would become more intriguing if Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic rediscovered the talents that deserted them in 2012, and they took important steps in that direction during the first week of 2013.

Wozniacki, Kvitova, Stosur among the fallen in Brisbane

By Chris Skelton

When the first WTA Premier tournament of the 2013 season began, fans looked forward to seeing a series of marquee matchups in a Brisbane draw that featured eight of the top ten women. Only Radwanska (in Auckland) and Li (in Shenzhen) did not join this star-studded field, which threatened to produce classics from the quarterfinals onwards. But, by the time that the dust settled from the first two rounds, only three of the elite eight remained in the tournament—and one of those three barely. We discuss each of the unexpected plot twists that started the new year.

Pervak d. Wozniacki: During her prime, the former #1 excelled both in finishing matches when she took a lead and in winning the crucial points late in matches through a mixture of consistency and composure. Since her decline began about eighteen months ago, however, she has dwindled in both of those characteristics. Wozniacki dropped a third-set tiebreak in her 2013 opener to the lefty Russian qualifier after winning the first set comfortably and then struggling to hold serve thereafter. Often praised for her maturity when she held the #1 ranking, she grew flustered by train whistles outside the stadium in another symptom of her crumbling confidence. The loss especially surprised because Wozniacki had finished 2012 in encouraging fashion, winning small titles in Seoul and Moscow.

Arvidsson d. Stosur: Much less surprising was the setback that the Australian #1 suffered on home soil, where she regularly has underwhelmed in front of her home fans. The tournament trumpeted the opportunity for Brisbane locals to celebrate New Year’s Eve with their leading lady, which did not turn out as anticipated when she lost her first match to Sofia Arvidsson. Like Wozniacki, Stosur also had ended 2012 on a promising note with a quarterfinal at the US Open, a semifinal in Tokyo, and a final Moscow, but she could not extend her momentum through the offseason. Arvidsson’s flat, uncompromising, but erratic ball-striking recalled the manner in which Cirstea bounced the Aussie in the first round of her home major last year, and her fans must look ahead to Melbourne with apprehension.

Pavlyuchenkova d. Kvitova: In a sense, this match raised eyebrows more because Pavlyuchenkova won it than because Kvitova lost it. The 2011 Wimbledon champion had tumbled down the rankings throughout a 2012 campaign filled with disappointment, culminating with her withdrawal from the year-end championships that she had won the previous year. Dogged by illness and injury throughout her dismal season, Kvitova has achieved her greatest successes in Europe and predictably struggled to shine in the torrid heat of Brisbane. But Pavlyuchenkova endured a year equally frustrating at a lower level of the WTA, failing to capitalize on her two major quarterfinals in 2011 while struggling simply to string together victories. The double faults that have hampered her progress did not surface when she served key games late in the two tight sets of this match, when her groundstrokes matched Kvitova’s in power and surpassed them in consistency. Just as importantly, she looked fitter than she ever has before.

Hantuchova d. Errani: A year or two ago, this result would not have seemed like an upset at all. Hantuchova had led their head-to-head 4-2, and most would have rated the Slovak a far superior talent with her time spent in the top five and two titles at Indian Wells. But Errani drove further into a major at Roland Garros last year than Hantuchova ever had, while the elder woman seemed to drift further into the twilight of her career. In a wild third set filled with break after break, the mentally unreliable Hantuchova managed to outlast the usually sterner-minded Errani as the pressure mounted. Perhaps memories of reaching last year’s final brought confidence to the Slovak, who feasted on arguably the weakest serve in the top 20. As 2013 progresses, Errani faces the same task that Schiavone did in 2011: proving that a single season represented a breakthrough rather than an anomaly.

Sharapova (withdrew, injury): A true coquette, the world #2 has flirted with Brisbane in each of the last two seasons only to withdraw with injuries, this time a curious collarbone issue. Sharapova’s participation in the Australian Open does not lie in question, however, for she simply deemed herself insufficiently prepared to participate in a tournament this week at the current stage of her recovery. Considering her finals appearance in Melbourne last year, similarly without preparation, her fans should not concern themselves too much with this news. Rarely has Sharapova played more than a few exhibitions before the Australian Open in any year, and still she has recorded more semifinal appearances at this major than at any other.

Kerber d. Puig: If you haven’t heard of the Puerto Rican Monica Puig, who reached only a handful of main draws before this week, you’re probably far from alone even among diehard tennis fans. Kerber likely hadn’t heard of her second-round opponent either before this week but somehow suddenly found herself mired in a grueling three-setter against her. Only after a third-set tiebreak that lasted sixteen points did she escape the persistent underdog, after having needed three sets to win her first match as well. Kerber played a huge quantity of third sets in 2012, however, and probably could have won most of them more easily if not for focus lapses. To bolster her longevity on the Tour, she will need to find ways to win more efficiently. In conditions as draining as the Australian heat, few players can afford to play one marathon after another.

***

All the same, Kerber at least survived to fight another day, which is more than many of the notable women in Brisbane could say. Much more impressive were the performance of Azarenka and Serena Williams, who now stand just one victory apiece from meeting in the semifinals there in a rematch of 2012 encounters at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships, all won by Serena. We’ll take a close look at that match, if it happens, next.

Serena Williams and Tennis: Unrequited Love

No one in tennis draws as much attention as Serena Williams.

The often-controversial superstar has brought a unique flair to the game ever since she won her first Grand Slam title in 1999. Williams, along with her older sister, Venus, have been the dominant force on the WTA Tour for the majority of the 21st century and are recognized by just their first names.

The younger Williams is currently the most followed tennis player on Twitter, with more than two million followers. Here she allows fans a glimpse into her busy life outside of tennis and often posts cryptic tweets that only her inner-circle would understand.

Fans capture Serena Williams’ every move during a Washington Kastles match.

Williams is charming and charismatic, but also unapologetic and tempestuous. She is one of the fittest athletes in the world, but claims she loathes working out. She has won 13 Grand Slams singles titles, but recently said that she does not love tennis.

“I mean, I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here, and I can’t live without it,” Williams said after her first-round win at the Brisbane International. “So I’m still here and I don’t want to go anywhere anytime soon.”

In the just one match at the U.S. Open last year, Williams showed why she is such a polarizing figure. Less than an hour after berating the chair umpire for what she perceived as an unfair call, Williams sat next to and congratulated the champion, Sam Stosur.

Asked about the gesture during the post-match press conference, Stosur replied, “I thought [it] was pretty classy.”

In these situations and paradoxes, we find what makes Serena Williams so compelling. Her presence demands attention. The 2011 U.S. Open may not of even registered on the casual sports fan’s mind had it not been for another “Serena meltdown.”

Williams has been criticized for focusing too much on outside interests, such as fashion and acting, but continues to be a favorite in any tournament she enters.

She may not love tennis, but the sport can’t seem to get enough of her.

Noah Drug Comments Cause Spanish Uproar, Djokovic Honoured for Incredible Year and Murray Withdraws from ATP Finals

Noah Infuriates Spain with Drug Cheat Comments:

1983 French Open winner Yannick Noah and Spanish ten-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal have clashed over claims the former made about performance enhancing drug use mainly being behind Spain’s recent dominance of world sport. Both Nadal and David Ferrer have made this year’s ATP World Tour Finals, Spain’s football team are European and World Champions and their basketball team is currently dominating the European and world game as well as picking up a silver medal in Beijing. Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador has also won three of the last five Tour De France titles. “Today, if you don’t have the magic potion, it’s hard to win. How can a nation dominate sport virtually overnight like this?” asked Noah. “When I still milled around on the courts with my racket, we weren’t ridiculous, far from it, against our Spanish friends. It was the same on the soccer fields, the basketball halls or on the roads of the Tour de France,” he continued. “Today they are running faster than us, are much more stronger and only leave us the bread crumbs. We look like dwarves. Did we miss something? Did they discover some avant-garde techniques or training facilities that nobody before them had imagined?” But Nadal reacted angrily to Noah’s claims, stating that stringent doping policies make them invalid. “He knows better than anybody that to say that today is a totally stupid thing because you know how many anti-doping controls we have during the season, year by year,” he fumed. “So in my opinion, the article that he wrote was from a kid and when one kid says something it’s not painful for us.” The French Tennis Federation immediately distanced themselves from Noah’s comments, and French star Michael Llodra immediately apologised for the comments made by Noah, saying: “He’s stupid and maybe he was…” and then making a gesture tipping his hand toward his mouth to indicate that Noah might have been drinking. “I felt a profound disappointment,” added former Top 10 star Emilio Sanchez-Vicario, who is the President of the Athletes’ Association of Spain. “You have hurt the Spaniards, the athletes and me; I don’t think it’s fair to discredit the triumphs of Spanish athletes by treating them all as cheaters. You, who always defended sportsmanship! Is this a sportsman’s behaviour? I don’t think we deserved it.”

Djokovic Receives No.1 Award:

In a special on-court ceremony on Tuesday at the ATP World Tour Finals Novak Djokovic was honoured for his incredible record-breaking year by receiving the award for finishing as the year-end No.1 in the South African Airways ATP World Rankings. ATP Executive President and Chairman Adam Helfant presented the award to the Serbian who looked back on his year with great pride. “It feels fantastic, making history obviously is a big privilege,” said Djokovic, who has recorded a 70-4 match record so far in 2011. “It’s something I always dreamed about, becoming the best in the world, and finishing the year as No. 1 in the world and it’s come true. This year has been the best of my life, the best of my career. All my dreams have been realised and I’m just trying to enjoy every single moment of it and this trophy. I was fortunate enough to have a group of people really believing in me, in my qualities, believing that I could be the best one day. It all came down to myself, if I was really able to bring it or not. Especially in the era of Nadal and Federer, who have been so dominant, it makes my success even bigger.”

Murray Withdraws from ATP Finals:

World number three Andy Murray has been forced to withdraw from the ATP World Tour Finals in London because of a recurrence of the muscle strain he suffered in training on November 14. He suffered a re-strain during his disappointing opening loss to David Ferrer on Monday and has decided to withdraw from the tournament altogether. He was due to practice for an hour with Tomas Berdych on Tuesday but failed to materialise, and a press conference was hastily arranged so the 24-year-old could make his announcement. Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic benefitted by being called in to replace the Scot. He faced Berdych instead of Murray on Wednesday and lost a thrilling three-set encounter. “I was told to take a week to 10 days completely off – I just didn’t have enough time to recover,” said a disappointed Murray. “I was probably going to do myself more damage playing than not.  When I came off the court [on Monday], I was very disappointed and upset,” he continued. “I said we’d see how I feel when I woke today up but I was never going to feel great. You hope things are going to get better, but in reality that wasn’t ever going to happen.” Meanwhile, Murray has announced that he will kick off his 2012 season at the Brisbane International before aiming to get to his third-straight Australian Open final.

Laver Fancies R-Fed’s Slam Chances:

Aussie legend Rod Laver believes that Roger Federer won’t have to wait much longer to end his two-year wait for a 17th Grand Slam. He believes that the Swiss ace’s recent form shows that he is getting back to the level that saw him dominate the sport for so long. “Federer has a chance to come back and, if anywhere, the Australian Open is a good place for him,” Laver said. “It seems to me he’s serving a whole lot better, he’s getting to the net a lot more and he’s got a drop shot that works pretty effectively.”

Massu Robbed at Challenger Event:

The Chilean press are reporting that Olympic gold medallist Nicolas Massu was robbed at gunpoint at the recent Guayaquil Challenger event. His father is quoted in one report saying that a knife was pulled on his son by a taxi driver who took his mobile phone and his wallet. His tennis equipment was not taken as it was in his hotel room.

ATP Finals the Last Chance for GOAT Race Points in 2011:

After lifting the Paris Masters title in Paris-Bercy Roger Federer added another 200 points to his 2011 Greatest Of All Time race total, tracking the fortunes of the two great rivals Federer and Rafael Nadal. Now we enter the final event of the year, the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals. As it is an elite event which only the top eight qualify for, points totals will be doubled as with the Grand Slams. So, both players receive 20 points for entering. As there is no quarter-final stage the points that would usually be given for that achievement are now valid for the semis. Therefore, players will receive 50 points for a semi-final berth, 100 for a final appearance and 200 for bringing home the big prize. While Federer cannot win the race for this year, he could make it a much tighter finish than it looked just a couple of months ago.

Roger: 1540, Rafa: 1950

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

ODESNIK DRAGS TENNIS IN THE MUD

So another tennis star has found themselves on the front pages of newspapers linked to the now menacing black cloud hanging over the sport in recent years – “drugs.”

Richard Gasquet “snogging” cocaine in to his system, Agassi’s admittance of crystal meth use, Greg Rusedski’s positive testing for nandrolone, the two Belgians – Yanina Wickmayer and Xavier Malisse – and their dances with the anti-doping board about missed tests.

Recent years have seen tennis’ relatively clean image dragged further through the mud when it comes to naughty substances and they seem to have rivaled the ever-guilty world of athletics in cases rising to the surface.

American Wayne Odesnik’s case is slightly different of course. He hasn’t actually failed a doping test. Yet he was caught trying to smuggle human growth hormone (HGH) in to Australia and has been fined by their courts.

The world No. 111, 24 years of age, hasn’t actually been banned from playing but has now self-imposed a playing ban until his independent tribunal is held within the coming months. He is free to pick up his racquet at any time should he choose to.

Odesnik was halted by Australian customs on January 2 as he was arriving to compete in the Brisbane International and he was fined Aus$8,000 for his trouble. Eight vials holding around 6mg each of the banned substance were found in his belongings.

The Tennis Anti-Doping Program (TADP) possesses a whole host of powers for banning players coming up positive for taking substances, but has little to no powers against those found holding a substance. By taking a voluntary ban it might favor him in terms of punishment come his tribunal.

The one major question coming out of this is, as always, why? Why do players find it necessary to jeopardize their livelihood with the use of such substances? Is it desperation to succeed? To be remembered for more than being the world No. 111? He was world No. 77 this time last year, does he wish to stop the slide? Is it a drive for financial reward as your career draws on? A chance to make those later years even more comfortable?

Recreational drugs pose different answers. Perhaps an ego and a love of the “party hard” lifestyle. But doping always leaves brows furrowed. I suppose it’s easy for people like us outside of the sport to sit here and judge. “How could he? There are thousands of kids who’d love to be in his position…” blah blah blah.

We don’t know first-hand the pressures of playing top class tennis every other week. With a calendar stretching over the eleven-month boundary now perhaps players are finding it harder to keep up. It’s slightly easier on the body for the top 10 in the world who can afford to miss the ATP250s to recuperate as the points gained won’t harm them.

But for those chasing the pack just how long can their bodies go on as the sport becomes quicker and more physically demanding every year? You now have to serve harder, move about the court more often and produce tenacious shots one minute and powerful cross-court drives the next. The sport has even transformed in the fifteen years I have been following it.

This isn’t new of course. Looking back through recent history you can go back to 1999 to remember Czech star Petr Korda’s run-ins with the authorities over his use of nandrolone alongside sprinters and footballers the world over. Rusedski’s later positive testing in 2004 led to revelations of an unnamed 44 players having used the drug. How we’d love to know who they were.

The Men’s Tennis Council began testing in the 1980s and their early studies looked for use of recreational drugs. However over recent times performance enhancing substances have risen to the forefront of most scandals and this is perhaps the more saddening aspect.

You can perhaps forgive the likes of Hingis and Capriati, young protégés given little guidance over such important life lessons like growing up and maturing. Given the wrong influence by the wrong people they can easily fall in to the wrong lifestyle and their dalliances with drugs shows how easy it really is. The story is the same throughout every sport. Youngsters earning vast amounts of money and with no idea how to spend it.

Odesnik shows how these performance enhancing substances are still an issue and the punishments put in place by the anti-doping agencies are still not enough to deter players.

Would they think twice if a lifetime ban was threatened? Would more severe punishments really flush out the “bad eggs” and stop players turning to superficial help once and for all rather than coaches and training?

“For possession there’s a possible two-year ban,” said an ITF spokeswoman back in March. Is this enough?

American No. 1 Andy Roddick certainly didn’t think so. “There’s nothing worse than that,” he said back at the Sony Ericsson Open when the story first broke. “That’s just plain cheating, and they should throw him out of tennis. There’s just no room for it.”

But he certainly didn’t think the authorities were to blame: “We have the most stringent drug-testing policies in sports,” he said. “We’re up there with the Olympics. We can’t take Sudafed.” While the tests are in place perhaps the severe punishments are not.

And what of Odesnik’s coach, Argentina’s former top 10 player Guillermo Canas? He himself failed a doping test in 2005 and served a fifteen month ban. His silence coupled with Odesnik’s self-imposed ban speaks volumes of the guilt.

It really is a problem which tennis should not have to face but it does time and again. Until new, possibly more severe, sanctions are threatened it will continue to do so too.

HENIN, DEMENTIEVA TO FULFILL THE APPETITE OF TENNIS FANS

By Melina Harris

WTA players and tennis fans alike were waiting with baited breath to see where seven-time major champion, the diminutive Belgian Justine Henin was going to be placed in the Australian Open draw last week. Unfortunately for the players, but fortunate for fans, the draw created a hugely competitive mouth-watering half of the draw featuring Justine Henin, Elena Dementieva, Jelena Dokic, Flavia Pennetta, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Henin’s Belgian rival Kim Clijsters.

Indeed, after impressive first-round performances, Henin and Dementieva have set up what promises to be one of the most eagerly anticipated second round match in Australian Open history Wednesday night in Australia. Henin eased her way comfortably back into Grand Slam action with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Belgian compatriot, Kirsten Flipkens, breaking early in both sets, while Dementieva demolished Russian compatriot Vera Dushevina 6-2, 6-1 firing an audacious 23 winners during her smooth victory in the Hisense Arena.

In previewing this match, I felt it necessary to take a moment to ponder what must have gone through Henin’s deeply contemplative mind as she faced the prospect of Dementieva in the second and a rematch of the recent Brisbane International final with Clijsters in the quarters? Something along the lines of unwavering relish I would think as she admitted in a recent uncharacteristically open interview with the Sunday Times newspaper in the UK, ‘I’m afraid I am not an observer in life. I am somebody that has to go out there and do things. I need challenges all the time, I need to set myself a goal and achieve.’ She also admitted after an 18-month ‘retirement’ from the game, ‘I need tennis; it’s something I have found out about myself. I wasn’t sure whether I truly needed it before or whether it was something I’ve just always done but after nearly two years of seeing things through different eyes, I know it’s something I must have in my life.’

With this new found thirst for the game, I doubt the mentally fragile but freshly confident world No. 5 Dementieva is relishing her second-round match up with the notoriously cool Belgian. Despite winning convincingly against the battling Williams sisters in Doha and the Sydney International tournament, impressing critics with her stoic displays, it is evident she has some niggling insecurities to triumph over in order to win her first Grand Slam here in Australia. The fact that she openly admitted having to remind herself ‘she’s just like you, you know, she can be nervous’ regarding her opponent Venus Williams, reveals how she clearly suffers at the hands of a rather damaging inferiority complex against Grand Slam champions, which could play a significant role in the way this second round match will play out.

It remains to be seen whether Wednesday January 22nd at 19:00 local time will signify a turning point in women’s tennis and the most exciting match of the year so far. Millions of tennis fans will tune in to see whether Henin will manage to defuse Demenieva’s meticulously honed confidence with her steel, style and psychological strength.  It will be fascinating to watch how the possible psychological advantage Henin may have over Dementieva will play out on Wednesday. This match could symbolize the beginning of an illustrious Grand Slam career for Dementieva or launch the return of the elusive Henin to the top of rankings once again. It’s certainly an intriguing encounter which should not be missed – set those alarms people, we’re in for a treat!

HOPMAN CUP AND DAVIS CUP HAPPENINGS: TENNIS IN THE COMMONWEALTH

Andy Murray has ended weeks of speculation by confirming he has pulled out of Great Britain’s Davis Cup match against Lithuania in March as they begin life in the competition’s third tier. Murray claimed that he would prefer to concentrate on his efforts to lift more Masters Event trophies and break his Grand Slam duck.

Captain John Lloyd will now look to give his other players valuable experience and hopes that talents like Dan Evans and the doubles team of Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski will be enough to lift Britain back in to the Davis Cup’s second tier where Murray can then step back in alongside an improved crop of British talent.

It has now been over a decade since a British player other than Murray, Tim Henman, or Greg Rusedski won a live Davis Cup rubber.

“You’ve got to do what is right for your tennis. That period of the year just before Indian Wells and Miami is very important for me,” Murray said.

“I’ve got a lot of ranking points to defend. I think it’s the right decision.”

*Britain’s first match at the Hopman Cup since 1992 ended in a 2-1 victory over Kazakhstan after Andy Murray and Laura Robson combined to defeat Andrey Golubev and Yaroslava Shvedova despite the losers fighting to 10-12 in the final set. Murray had beaten Golubev 6-2, 6-2 in his singles rubber while Robson lost to Shvedova. They followed this up with an identical result against Germany. Murray won and Robson lost their respective singles rubbers before they combined to beat Philipp Kohlschreiber and Sabine Lisicki 6-3, 6-2. They face Russia tomorrow (Friday) in the final group match.

*Australia’s opening Hopman Cup Group A encounter didn’t go to plan. The top seeds were shocked by Romania as 19-year-old Sorana Cirstea overcame world No. 13 Samantha Stosur 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt defeated Victor Hanescu in their singles rubber but the Romanians triumphed in the mixed doubles.

*There was more Aussie disappointment at the Brisbane International where three top players suffered first round defeats. Jelena Dokic went down 5-7, 6-1, 3-6 to former world No.1 Ana Ivanovic while in the men’s draw 2009 Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick won his first match since suffering the knee injury which kept him out of the ATP World Tour Finals last September. He defeated Aussie Peter Luczak 7-6(5), 6-2 before knocking out compatriot Carsten Ball in round two. Matt Ebden caused a stir by knocking out Jurgen Melzer before going down to Richard Gasquet of France and John Millman is also out. This means there are no Commonwealth players in the men’s quarterfinals. Kazakhstan’s Sesil Karatantcheva overcame upcoming Aussie star Casey Dellacqua in the women’s draw and her reward is a second round matchup with the returning Justine Henin. In her first Tour event since returning to tennis Alicia Molik notched a win, defeating Ekaterina Makarova of Russia before losing to 2009 US Open winner Kim Clijsters in round two. Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak also lost in round two to Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic.

*In the doubles at Brisbane, top seeded Leander Paes of India leads the Commonwealth charge after he and partner Lukas Dlouhy overcame Sam Querrey and Australia’s Carsten Ball in round one. A tremendous battle of the home-grown players saw Ashley Fisher/Stephen Huss defeat the wild cards Kaden Hensel/Bernard Tomic 4-6, 6-3, 10-6 while another Aussie pair, Peter Luczak and Joseph Sirianni, crashed out to Frenchman Michael Llodra and Andy Ram of Israel. Aussie doubles specialist Jordan Kerr and Britain’s Ross Hutchings as well as Aussie Paul Hanley and partner Thomaz Belluci (Brazil) are also out. The two Rodionovas, Anastasia of Australia and Russia’s Arina, are through to the semi finals of the women’s draw where they face Melinda Czink and Arantxa Parra Santonja.

*The Aircel Chennai Open, India, kicked off on Sunday evening with the hugely popular Kingfisher Fashion show which featured local stars Rohan Bopanna and Somdev Devvarman among others.

*On court at Chennai, Great Britain’s James Ward went down in the opening round to Spain’s Marcel Granollers while India’s Rohan Bopanna lost to Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka. Qualifier Prakash Amritraj, son of Indian legend Vijay Amritraj, lost to the USA’s Michael Russell while Somdev Devvarman upset Rainer Schuettler before losing to Janko Tipsarevic in round two.

*In the doubles at Chennai, Indian wild cards Somdev Devvarman and Sanam Singh are through to the second round of the doubles after overcoming Rik de Voest of South Africa and American Scott Lipsky 6-2, 7-5. Other victors included Brits Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski and South Africa’s Jeff Coetzee who overcame Pakistan’s Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and partner Igor Kunitsyn with the help of Rogier Wassen. India’s Yuki Bhambri is also through.

*Jeremy Chardy, David Ferrer and India’s Somdev Devvarman have all put their names in to the hat for the 2010 South African Open in Johannesburg.

*British No. 1 Elena Baltacha has qualified for the first round of the Auckland Classic after defeating Canada’s Stephanie Dubois 6-3, 6-1 in the final of the qualifying draw. Baltacha then lost in the opening round to Romania’s Ioana Raluca Olaru. India’s Sania Mirza and wild card New Zealander Marina Erakovic are also out ending Commonwealth interest in the singles draw. In the doubles, South Africa’s Natalie Grandin is the last Commonwealth woman standing as her and partner Laura Granville of the USA prepare to face Vladimira Uhlirova and Renata Voracova in the semi finals.

THE ATP 2010 SEASON KICKS OFF!

The 2010 ATP tennis season is set to begin at three locations across the globe this week and plenty of big-name players are getting ready to fine-tune their games as the first slam of the year approaches. It’s hard to believe that in less than three weeks we’ll already be watching the action at the Australian Open. Such is the way the ATP tour continues to operate and therefore players can ill-afford to skip the early part of the season.

Here’s a look at the competition in Brisbane, Chennai and Doha.

Brisbane International:

For those players looking to get accustomed to the Aussie heat and limit any last minute travel leading up to the Open, Brisbane is the place to be.

American Andy Roddick is seeded number one in the tourney and should advance to the finals without any major opponents in his path. Sure Richard Gasquet might give him a workout in the quarters, but it’s not like he has to face a Federer or a Nadal at any point. Tough to say who he might encounter in the semi’s, but if Marcos Baghdatis is ready to go, he could certainly make it to that stage. Baghdatis is never in super shape, and that might explain why he typically has such good results in January – nobody else is ready either!
The bottom half of the draw is pretty sparse, so look for defending champion Radek Stepanek to make it through to the semi-finals at least with relative ease.

An interesting opening match-up has 5th seeded Sam Querrey against unseeded James Blake. Blake is accustomed to being the number two ranked American behind Roddick, but we’re seeing a younger group like Querrey and John Isner start to challenge. I really feel like 2010 is the year where Blake either has to make some tactical adjustments or kiss the top-fifty goodbye for good.

Aircel Chennai Open:

The draw in Chennai is quite wide-open so look for some unfamiliar names to potentially have a small breakthrough here. Sweden’s Robin Soderling is the number one seed here and deservingly-so after his accomplishments in 2009. Soderling already has an exhibition win over Roger Federer this year, so he should perform well. A potential semi-final opponent is Stan Wawrinka who should be able to gather a few wins in Chennai.

In the bottom of the draw don’t be surprised if either wildcard Carlos Moya or Somdev Devvarman makes a splash. Moya has won this tournament twice before and will be looking for a fond farewell as 2010 is likely his last on tour. Devvarman is a former NCAA standout and has performed well since joining the pro ranks a year and a half ago. He will certainly have plenty of support from the local crowd.
Second seeded Marin Cilic should also not be forgotten. The big-serving Croat should be able to maneuver into the finals.

Qatar Exxon Mobil Open:

So exactly where are all the big fish to start the 2010 season? Look no further than Doha, Qatar where the $1 million-plus prize purse has attracted Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Nikolay Davydenko. Imagine potential appearance fees on top of that and you can see why this tournament has nabbed the world’s number one and two players. There is a big drop-off in talent after these three players however, and perhaps this is due to the distance between Qatar and Australia. It’s a bit out of the way for players without a legitimate shot of advancing.
Roger has a good draw in the top-half and will likely face Davydenko in the semi’s. After breaking the all-time Grand Slam record in 2009 and having his focus divided between being a family man and a professional tennis player, Roger is going to be tested more than ever in 2010. While Nadal and Murray have had Fed’s number over the years, there may be new players that emerge as regular threats to his game. Davydenko defeated him for the first time at the season-ending championships in November, and Soderling did the same a day ago in Abu Dhabi.
In the bottom-half of the draw, look for Nadal to find his way easily to the finals, where he would face Mikhail Youzhny if the draw holds true to form. You never know what you’re getting with Youzhny however, so don’t be surprised if someone else surprises.

Tennis in the Commonwealth – Katie O’Brien New British No. 1; Alicia Molik Ends Retirement

By Leigh Sanders

* Andy Murray of Great Britain has picked up his sixth title in 2009 after he defeated Russian Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-2 in the final of the Valencia Open. The top seed was playing his first tournament for six weeks after recovering from a wrist injury and he will be delighted to have returned to the court in such style. Murray broke the Russian early on in the first set and never looked back, taking his fourteenth career title. It serves as perfect preparation for the upcoming ATP World Tour Finals in London, England, later this month. Along the way, he saw off local favorite Fernando Verdasco as well as seeing through a tricky encounter with the Argentine Leonardo Mayer.

*World No. 1 and 2 (doubles) players Daniel Nestor of Canada and Nenad Zimonjic ended their recent run of early round defeats to win the Davidoff Swiss Indoor doubles championship in Basel. It is the third time Nestor has won here, having done so with long-time partner Mark Knowles in 2003 and 2006. They ended the hopes of Pakistani Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and the American James Cerretani in round two and the final saw them comprehensively beat the formidable Bryan brothers 6-2, 6-3. Australian Paul Hanley was eliminated in the first round with his partner Simon Aspelin of Sweden.

*The doubles is also underway in Paris with huge interest for Commonwealth tennis fans. Canadian Daniel Nestor and his partner Nenad Zimonjic are set to face the French pair Arnaud Clement/Michael Llodra in round two after a first-round bye was given to all seeded teams. India’s Leander Paes and partner Lukas Dlouhy also had a first round bye and line up against Jordan Kerr of Australia and the American Travis Parrott after they defeated Martin Damm and Jonathan Erlich 6-3, 6-4 in round one. Fifth seeds Wesley Moodie (South Africa) and Dick Norman prepare for a second round encounter with Spanish duo Marcel Granollers and Tommy Robredo after they overcame US Open winner Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Gonzalez 7-6(2), 6-2 in their first round match. Another Aussie, Paul Hanley, and his Swedish partner Simon Aspelin claimed a huge first-round scalp as they overcame the French pairing of Jeremy Chardy/Gilles Simon. They now face the third seeds Mahesh Bhupathi (India) and Mark Knowles (Bahamas) as they enter the action. The only Commonwealth player to taste defeat at the first hurdle was South Africa’s Jeff Coetzee who, with partner Marcelo Melo, went down 3-6, 4-6 to the home-grown pair of Julien Benneteau and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

*Australia’s Samantha Stosur failed to progress past the group stages of the Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions in Bali, Indonesia, after winning one and losing one of her Group B round robin matchups. She was narrowly edged out of her opening encounter 7-6(4), 7-5 by Spaniard Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. Despite then beating Agnes Szavay, Martinez Sanchez’ victory over the same player condemned Stosur to elimination. The tournament was won by Aravane Rezai of France after Marion Bartoli retired through injury after one set in the final.

*There were Commonwealth representatives in the doubles too at Valencia but they unfortunately saw little success. Ross Hutchings of Great Britain and Australia’s Jordan Kerr fell at the first hurdle while South African Jeff Coetzee and another Australian, Stephen Huss, lost in round two to the eventual champions Frantisek Cermak and Michal Mertinak.

*The race for the final two berths at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, England, hots up this week as seven contenders battle it out at the Paris Open to secure a place. Nikolay Davydenko is favorite for one slot and his first round 6-2, 6-1 thrashing of German Benjamin Becker means he’ll make it as long as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Robin Soderling or Fernando Verdasco don’t win the tournament. Tsonga looked set to miss the finals after retiring from his first match at Valencia last week with a wrist injury but he’s also through to the second round this week and will face compatriot Gilles Simon. Verdasco’s progress ends the slim qualification hopes of Radek Stepanek and Maran Cilic while Soderling faces Ivo Karlovic for the right to face Davydenko and end the hopes of one of his rivals.

*Lukasz Kubot and Oliver Marach have become the fifth team to qualify for the doubles at the ATP World Tour doubles Championship. The final three berths will also be decided at Paris this week.

*This week’s ATP World rankings (09/11) sees a two-place drop for Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt who now lies in No. 22. His compatriot Peter Luczak climbs a place to 79 while Canada’s Frank Dancevic (123) is now above India’s Somdev Devvarman (124) after the latter dropped eight places this week.

*The ATP doubles rankings sees no movement in the top 25 ranked players in the world this week (09/11). Below that, Paul Hanley of Australia drops a place to 27 and fellow Aussies Jordan Kerr (31), Ashley Fisher (41), Carsten Ball (58) and Chris Guccioni (62) also see dropped rankings. Rik De Voest (South Africa) drops a place to 47 and Great Britain now occupies 51-3 with Ross Hutchins, Ken Skupski and Colin Fleming while Jonathan Marray continues his climb in to the Top 100 with a nine-rank jump to 91. Pakistan’s Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi climbs five to 66 while India’s Rohan Bopanna drops one to 95.

*In this week’s WTA singles rankings (09/11) Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak has dropped a place to 35, seeing her as the highest place Commonwealth player to see a change in their ranking this week. Katie O’Brien now finds herself the new British No. after climbing from 90 to 88 and compatriot Elena Baltacha fell to 89. Anne Keothavong is now ranked 100 and faces dropping out of the top 100 in the World as she continues to recover from injury.

*In the WTA doubles rankings (09/11), Marie-eve Pelletier of Canada climbed a place to 66 while her compatriot Sharon Fichman narrowly hangs on to her top 100 status as she now finds herself ranked 99. Brit Sarah Borwell fell one to 76.

*British No. 5 Dan Evans is through to the second round of the Caversham International AEGON Pro-Series Event in Jersey with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Austrian Martin Fischer. Dan Cox fell at the sword of the top seeded German Florian Mayer in their first round match.

*Former world No. 8 Alicia Molik of Australia has cut short her retirement from tennis after only 12 months and has secured a wild card for the main draw of the 2010 Moorilla Hobart International. She has formerly won two Grand Slams in doubles (France and Australia) and represented Australia in both the Fed Cup and the Hopman Cup.

*Electrical goods giants Panasonic have signed a new three-year deal as the main sponsors of the Australian Open, the Medibank International Series and the Brisbane International which commences in January 2010.

*Former Australian Davis Cup legend Colin Long has sadly passed away aged 91.