champions series

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Milos Raonic beats Pete Sampras in the Face-Off in Toronto

Pete Sampras and Milos Raonic © Kevin Pope at Tennis Canada

The prodigy beat his hero on Thursday night in Toronto as Canada’s top player Milos Raonic defeated Pete Sampras 7-6, 6-1 in an exhibition match in front of his hometown fans at the Air Canada Centre.

The Canadian rising star and the American legend were greeted with a standing ovation as they arrived on court sporting Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys embroidered with their name and the last two numbers of their date of birth.

The much anticipated ‘Face-off’ between Missile Milos and Pistol Pete featured blistering serves, impressive net play, deft touch and a lot of smiles on both sides of the net. Raonic was philosophical when describing what it meant to have the opportunity to play his childhood idol.

“It’s a moment that’s going to be tattooed in my mind,” Raonic said. “It’s never going to leave. There is a lot that comes with this moment. For myself to learn and grow, but also for Canadian tennis to promote the sport and that’s what the end goal is.”

Sampras, who met Raonic for the first time earlier this year at the SAP Open in San Jose, a tournament which Raonic won to capture his first ATP title, had some high praise for the 20-year-old Canadian.

“Milos is a great kid,” Sampras said. “He seems really driven and has a great future ahead of him. When I look at young players, I look at a weapon. And he has a big one with his serve.”

The evening’s main event was preceded by a set of women’s tennis between Wimbledon junior doubles champion Eugenie Bouchard and former world no. 21 Aleksandra Wozniak. Both ladies hit their fair share of winners in a 6-4 victory for Wozniak over her compatriot.

The festivities kicked off with some celebrity doubles as the four players took to the court with actor Hayden Christensen, former NHL player Brad May as well as Toronto television personalities Rick Campanelli and Gord Stellick. Christensen, famous for playing the role of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, played junior tennis and acquitted himself well against the pros.

This was the first time tennis has been played at the Air Canada Centre, a venue that seats 19,000 for Maple Leafs hockey games.

The event was a special treat for Canadian tennis fans, who not only watched one of the game’s all-time greats, but also saw Milos Raonic’s first match in his home country since the summer of 2010, an encounter he won’t soon forget.

Pete Sampras and Jim Courier on players’ union, longevity of tennis players

Photo © Romana Cvitkovic

There have been plenty of opinions voiced lately by players, media and fans alike about how the men’s ATP tour calendar needs to change and what can be done to alleviate the tension felt between players, tournaments, and sponsors. And now we can add two more players’ thoughts to the mix: legend Pete Sampras and current Davis Cup captain Jim Courier.

The most recent verbal outpouring on the topic resurfaced at the U.S. Open where players such as Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal expressed concern over scheduling woes and even threatened to strike. There have been talks of a possible players’ union to address their issues, but will any party ever be fully happy with a deal? It’s an endless argument that has only brought minimal change in the past and on a time scale that moves very slowly. It has taken several years to finally move the ATP World Tour Finals to two weeks earlier in the calendar (starting with next year), but is that really enough to quiet the conflict?

Ideas such as decreasing the number of mandatory events for players, introducing a second off-season after Wimbledon, and players simply needing to be better managers of their own tournament scheduling have all emerged as an attempt to solve this problem. But what do past players who have fought these same battles in their time believe? I had a chance to chat with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier last Friday during the Washington, D.C. stop of the Champions Series and got their opinions on the matter.

Romana Cvitkovic: “Recently, a few players have vocalized their desire to form a players’ union. What is your take on the situation and do you think it could change the sport?”

Pete Sampras: “I don’t know if it will change the sport. I think if the players want to get things done, they all have to get in the same room, the top ten guys, they all agree upon one thing, and they walk out of that room with a definite decision, that’s the only way things will get done. Everyone is complaining about the schedule. In Davis Cup, even when I was playing and before, [the scheduling] didn’t work, we complained about it, but nothing really got done. If the top ten guys agreed upon one thing, like on the schedule of the U.S. Open with the Saturday semifinals and Sunday finals, they could change that if they wanted to. The top guys have so much power, they have all the power. It’s a name-driven sport. If Nadal, Murray, Djokovic and Federer don’t play something, or threaten to do something, it will get done, trust me. I know these promoters, they want [these players’] names [in their tournaments].

In reference to the same question, Courier commented on how players have an influence on the development of the sport, especially with the forthcoming appointment of a new CEO for the ATP men’s tour.

Jim Courier: “I think we’re in for an interesting time period in the next few months because the players’ association, which I was a member of, changed into a union between the tournaments and the players. So ‘union’ is maybe not the right word, ‘association’ may not be the proper word here for the players to form, to have more of a unified voice, because right now they are in a joint venture with the tournaments. So they are in a 50/50 partnership as opposed to having full representation. And there’s a new CEO that is going to be announced at some stage here in the coming months, for the ATP, and [the players] can influence his mandate. Because they are the ones who are hiring him; he is working for them. But if [the players] want to make some impact, now is the time. And we’ll see. But let’s be clear, that everyone in this sport, since Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith fought for Open tennis, we’ve all been overpaid, grossly overpaid, for what we do. So let’s be clear that this not a pity party, but I don’t think that player representation is necessarily a bad thing.”

Courier elaborated with an interesting transition to today’s game, the heavy physicality of the sport, and how we should preserve our players.

Jim Courier: “But there are probably some things that could create longevity for the players which would benefit everyone. I played Jimmy Connors last night and there is so much appreciation and love for Jimmy. Jimmy lasted so long on the ATP circuit. And there’s Andre [Agassi] – he lasted so long, played until he was 35. If you could extend the careers of Serena [Williams], and you could extend Roger [Federer], and you can extend Rafa [Nadal], these brand names, it would help the sport. Tennis doesn’t have the Capitals, the Redskins. Those don’t exist in tennis. You don’t have people who were born an Andre Agassi fan, and their kids will be Agassi fans and their grandkids. You don’t have that legacy; you have to build it every time with players. So, the longer you can have those players be in the sport, the healthier and the better it is for the sport. That’s really where the focus needs to be. It’s not about the immediacy of ‘we want this’ or ‘we want that because we need immediate gain.’ In my view, it’s the long view of how do we make the sport better for the players and therefore better for the fans and for everyone that surrounds the sport. And the off-season is a no-brainer, it needs to happen, but we’ve been saying that for thirty years and it hasn’t happened.

Courier concluded by remarking on today’s players having “arguably more” respect for the game than his generation of players, particularly with the current struggles.

Jim Courier: “If you look at players on the men’s side and their sense of responsibility for the sport, I think we’re seeing [this respect] right now, with what they’ve been discussing with players getting a little more representation … When you look at Andy Roddick and these other players standing up, understanding that they’re lucky and wanting to protect the sport, and also protect themselves at the same time. I think we’re in a golden era of tennis.”

(For my USA Today piece on the Champions Series, please go here.)

Pending Fatherhood Forces Chang to Withdraw From Champions Series Event in Grand Cayman

Michael Chang

InsideOut Sports & Entertainment today announced that Michael Chang has withdrawn from the 2010 The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Legends Championships this week due to the pending birth of his first child. Chang will be replaced in the field by 1986 French Open finalist Mikael Pernfors. Rounding out the field at the clay-court Champions Series event are Hall of Famers Stefan Edberg and Jim Courier, former US and Australian Open champion Marat Safin and former top 10 U.S. standouts Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias.

Said Chang, “I was very much looking forward to competing in the event at the Cayman Islands however at this time I need to be with my wife as we eagerly await the birth of our first child.”

Chang recently played his first event on the Champions Series since 2006, finishing in third place at The Cancer Treatment Centers of America Tennis Championships in Surprise, Ariz. Chang married former two-time NCAA singles champion from Stanford Amber Liu on October 18, 2008.

This year’s Grand Cayman tournament will feature for the first time a multi-day pro-am experience that will be combined with the world class tennis competition to create an exclusive tennis destination happening. All six competing pros will participate in the pro-am that will see the legends playing matches and enjoying meals and social time with participating amateurs over multiple days. Tennis fans interested in participating in the pro-am with the legends can find ticket, travel and tournament information by visiting www.ChampionsSeriesTennis.com.

Edberg, Courier and Safin have combined to win 12 major singles titles and each achieved the world’s No. 1 ranking. The event will be played on red clay courts in a single-knockout format event with each player vying for a first-prize paycheck of $45,000 and ranking points that determine the year-end No. 1 ranked player on the Champions Series circuit.

In the opening quarterfinal match at 7 pm on November 5, Pernfors will play Krickstein, followed by Courier taking on Arias. On Saturday, November 6, starting at 2 pm, the winner of the Pernfors-Krickstein match will play Safin while the winner of the Courier-Arias match will play Edberg. The schedule of play on Sunday, November 7 will feature the third-place match between the two losing semifinalists starting at 1 pm followed by the championship match.

To be eligible to compete on the Champions Series, players must have reached at least a major singles final, been ranked in the top five in the world or played singles on a championship Davis Cup team. Courier finished the 2009 season as the top-ranked player on the Champions Series, followed by Pete Sampras and Todd Martin. Courier won the 2009 edition of The Residences At the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Legends Championships beating Arias 6-4, 6-2 in the final.

Earlier this year on the Champions Series circuit, former U.S. and Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis defeated John McEnroe in May to win the Staples Champions Cup in Boston and take over the No. 1 Champions Series ranking. Philippoussis maintained his ranking by winning the title at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America Tennis Championships in Surprise, Ariz., in October, defeating Courier in the final. Former French Open semifinalist Fernando Meligeni of Brazil was the surprise winner of the opening event on the 2010 Champions Series, winning the title in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil by defeating Philippoussis in the final in March.

Jim Courier Takes the Reins – The Friday Five

Jim Courier

By Maud Watson

Taking the Reins

A week after Australia named the appointment of Patrick Rafter as its new Davis Cup captain, the United States followed suit. On Wednesday it was announced that Jim Courier would be replacing Patrick McEnroe at the helm of the U.S. team. Courier will have some big shoes to fill, as McEnroe did much to turn around the fortunes of the U.S. Davis Cup squad, which included a title win in 2007. But Courier, a four-time Grand Slam winner, brings plenty of experience to the table, including serving as a member of the 1995 victorious U.S. Davis Cup squad. And, as an added bonus, reports seem to indicate that there’s a slight chance Mr. Courier’s new appointment could entice a healthy Andy Roddick to devote time to Davis Cup duty once again.

Muster Wobbles

Thomas Muster made his comeback debut at the main ATP World Tour level in his native Austria this week, and unfortunately, it didn’t have a fairytale ending. The 43-year-old succumbed to his native countryman Andreas Haider-Maurer in straight sets in the opening round, though it should be noted that the second set ended in a tiebreak. Perhaps Muster is still polishing off some of the rust, but it is a little difficult to see him putting in another two good years as he stated he hopes to do. Still, judging by the crowd’s reaction to his efforts, there’s little doubt that his comeback is still bringing plenty of smiles to fans’ faces.

Comeback Bug

In addition to Muster, the ATP World Tour may see the return of yet another veteran in Australian Mark Philippoussis. After securing two wins on the Champions Series seniors’ tour, the veteran Australian has stated that he has found his hunger once again and is contemplating a return to the main tour level. While there are many fans who would love to see Scud see his plan through, it’s certainly questionable on Philippoussis’ part. It’s not as though this is the first time he’s considered such a comeback, and while those who compete on the Champions Tour are champions in their own right, they are retired from the main tour for a reason. The difference in the caliber of play is wide, and Philippoussis is kidding himself if he thinks success on one tour means it will translate to success on the ATP World Tour. Sadly, one has to wonder if Philippoussis’ considerations for a return don’t stem from the fact that he squandered his talent during his prime by choosing to live the good life instead putting in the time necessary to remain more injury-free and to realize his full potential. But then again, if Muster thinks he can do it in his 40s, there’s at least a glimmer of hope for the Aussie to do it in his 30s.

Consolation Prize

Few would argue that 2010 has been the year of Rafael Nadal. With the No. 1 ranking sewn up, three of the four majors to his name, and achieving the career Grand Slam, it has been his banner year. But Roger Federer, despite the subpar results by his high standards, has still managed to achieve yet another milestone, as he tied Sampras’ record of 64 singles titles with is win in Stockholm last week. At this stage in the game, Connors’ 109 still seems untouchable and McEnroe’s 77 a doable but lofty goal, but look for Federer to add to his total and use this mini-milestone as a springboard to better things in 2011.

Gossip Fill

In case you missed your daily dose of gossip, it’s worth noting a story that broke late last week followed by one earlier this week. The first concerns the engagement of Maria Sharapova to LA Laker Sasha Vujacic. More than once Sharapova has commented that she couldn’t see herself playing till she was 30, and if her results don’t drastically improve in 2011, don’t be entirely surprised if she hangs up the racquet and decides to permanently soak up the California sun. Then there’s Lleyton Hewitt, who became a father for the third time as he and wife Bec welcomed a baby girl last weekend. The whole charging for texts to find out the baby girl’s name is a little odd (and someone please let me know if that goes to some kind of charity), but congratulations are in order for the Hewitt’s. Don’t look for a third child to have a negative impact on Hewitt’s game either. It’s his body he’ll need to worry about.

Kournikova Out of Chilean Mine!!

ANNA-K-GLASSES

Anna Kournikova made her first public appearance since she was rescued after over two months underground along with 33 Chilean miners at last week’s Cancer Treatment Centers of America Tennis Championships in Surprise, Ariz.

Well, she wasn’t really trapped in the Chilean mine. But, while in Arizona, she did sport some great looking sun-glasses like those miners did as their eyes slowly got used to sunlight.

On Saturday, she participated in mixed doubles matches in conjunction with the event during the day and night sessions.

Mark Philippoussis won the singles title at the event, defeating Jim Courier in the final. Michael Chang beat John McEnroe in the third-place match. Other participating players were Wayne Ferreira, Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein and Jeff Tarango. Ashley Harkleroad, the Playboy pin-up of tennis, also participated in the mixed doubles events with Kournikova.

Here are some more photos of the event, courtesy of the InsideOut Sports & Entertainment. For more info on the Champions Series, go to www.ChampionsSeriesTennis.com

PHILIPPOUSSIS STICKS WITH FEDERER TO WIN AT WIMBLEDON

When Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon title in 2003, Mark Philippoussis was the man he beat in the final to break through and win his first of a now record 16 major singles title. Despite a shaky performance in the first round against Alejandro Falla on Monday, Federer is still the pick of Philippoussis to win a seventh Wimbledon title on Sunday, July 4. Philippoussis, who currently is the top-ranked player on the Champions Series tennis circuit, blogs his thoughts about Federer and his match with Falla as well as thoughts about the women’s draw and his pick of Venus Williams to win the women’s singles title at SW19. The blog can be read here: http://www.championsseriestennis.com/player_blog.php?id=47

Philippoussis defeated John McEnroe 6-3, 4-6, 10-5 (Champions Tie-Breaker) last month to win his first career Champions Series singles title at the $150,000 Staples Champions Cup in Boston. The win for Philippoussis also vaulted him into the No. 1 Champions Series ranking after reaching the singles final in the circuit’s opening event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he lost to Fernando Meligeni.

Philippoussis will join McEnroe, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Mikael Pernfors, Wayne Ferreira, Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias at the $150,000 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Tennis Championships in Surprise, Ariz., to be played October 20-24 at the Surprise Recreation Campus Tennis and Racquet Complex. For more information on the Champions Series, go to www.ChampionsSeriesTennis.com

IS “B” FOR “BORG” OR FOR “BOSTON” OR PERHAPS FOR “BRUINS”?

Bjorn Borg played his first match in the United States in 10 years Thursday night at the $150,000 Staples Champions Cup, part of the global Champions Series tennis circuit. He beat fellow Swede Mikael Pernfors 6-2, 2-6, 10-8 (Champions Tie-breaker).

It is interesting to see Bjorn playing tennis with a Dunlop tennis racquet – as opposed to the old Donnay racquets from all of those matches all of us remember so well (or have seen on YouTube if you are of a younger generation). You can’t help but notice the huge “B” on Bjorn’s shirt that he played in on Thursday. Does it stand for “Boston?” Since as a Swede, he grew up playing hockey and patterned his two-handed backhand after a slap shot, perhaps the B stands for “Bruins” as in the Boston Bruins, the NHL squad from Boston? Well, “B” stands for Bjorn or Borg and it is part of his Bjorn Borg line of clothing that is immensely popular in Europe. The Bjorn Borg line of underwear is available in the United States and is tremendously comfortable if you haven’t worn them.

Let’s hope John McEnroe can beat Mats Wilander Friday night so Borg and McEnroe can duke it out in the semifinals of the Boston event – for old times sake.

UP IN THE AIR WITH JIM COURIER

Being a tennis player means a lot of traveling.  You get to see many interesting places and collect Airmiles. Maybe some tennis players are just like Ryan Bingham from Up in the air and try to collect 10 million miles. Who knows?

The life of a tennis player however is not always glamorous. Jim Courier depicts that in his blog entry.

Here is a quick excerpt:

Flights out of Rio depart late in the evening back to both Europe and the US so all of the foreign players, save Mikael Pernfors who had flown back Saturday night and Wayne Ferreira who was staying an extra day in Rio, were booked to depart on Sunday evening following the 3rd place and Championship matches on Sunday. Cedric Pioline, Marat Safin, Mark Philippoussis, Mats Wilander and myself along with Champions Series head honcho Jon Venison and Mats’ wife, Sonya all met up in our airline’s VIP lounge (business class, one of the perks of Champions Series life) to await the boarding of our planes. Marat and Cedric were headed back to Paris at 11:30pm and the rest of us were going to NYC at 11pm, or so we thought. Note: we’re all flying on the same Brazilian airline.

For the full entry click here: http://www.championsseriestennis.com/player_blog.php?id=6

SAFIN, CHAMPIONS SERIES TENNIS A HIT IN RIO

The 2010 Champions Series tennis circuit started Friday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Marat Safin made his tour debut only 17 weeks after last playing on the ATP World Tour.

Safin said his appearance on the champion’s circuit so soon after leaving the main tour was “almost comical.” Perhaps even more startling is the fact that he lost in the first round of the eight-man Rio event Friday night to Wayne Ferreira.

The loss shows two things – Safin has probably played very little tennis since November when he played his final ATP event at the Paris Indoors and the guys on the Champions Series circuit can really still play. Safin just turned 30 years old while his conqueror, Ferreira, is eight years older, but showed he is still in great shape and playing fine tennis. There is prize money on the line in each match on the Champions Series and Ferreria earned him at least another extra $10,000 for his win. Ferreira went on to finish third in the event and pocketed $25,000.

Fernando Meligeni of Brazil was the surprise tournament winner, boosted by the local fan support. He defeated Mark Philippoussis in the championship match to win his first Champions Series title and $60,000.

Here are some photos of the event provided by tournament organizers.

SAFIN ARRIVES IN RIO

Marat Safin will make his debut on the Champions Series tennis circuit Friday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Safin, who retired from the ATP World Tour last fall, opens against Wayne Ferreira in the eight-player event.

Safin, who turned 30 in February, is the favorite to win the event, titled the Banco Cruzeiro do Sul Rio Champions Cup. Also competing in the eight-player, single-knock out event are Jim Courier, Mats Wilander, Mark Philippoussis, Cedric Pioline, Mikael Pernfors and Fernando Meligeni. The event will feature $150,000 in total prize money, with the singles champion earning $60,000. Tickets can be purchased by calling 5521-3005-4023 or by visiting www.ChampionsSeriesTennis.com.

The full schedule of play is as follows;

Friday 12th March: Starting at 6 pm
Quarterfinal #1 – Fernando Meligeni vs. Mikael Pernfors
Quarterfinal #2 – Mark Philippoussis vs. Cedric Pioline
Quarterfinal #3 – Marat Safin vs. Wayne Ferreira
Quarterfinal #4 – Jim Courier vs. Mats Wilander

Saturday 13th March: Starting at 6 pm
Men’s Doubles Match
Semifinal #1 – Winner of Safin/Ferreira vs. Meligini/Pernfors
Semifinal #2 – Winner of Philippoussis/Pioline vs. Courier/Wilander

Sunday 14th March: Starting at 11 am
3rd Place Match
Championship Final

Safin became the first Russian to win the U.S. Open in 2000 when he shocked Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the men’s singles final. Safin rode the momentum of winning his first major singles title to earn the No. 1 ranking later that year and rank in the top spot for a total of nine weeks during his career. He reached the final of the Australian Open in 2002 and again in 2004, losing to Thomas Johansson and Roger Federer, respectively, but broke through to win his second major title in Australia in 2005, defeating Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Safin, who also reached the semifinals of the French Open in 2002 and at Wimbledon in 2008, won 15 career singles titles and guided Russia to Davis Cup titles in 2002 and 2006. Safin turned 30 years old on January 27 and concluded his ATP World Tour career last fall.

The Rio Champions Cup is part of the global Champions Series tennis circuit for champion tennis players age 30 and over. To be eligible to compete, players must have reached at least a major singles final, been ranked in the top five in the world or played singles on a championship Davis Cup team.

Each event features $150,000 in prize money – with the tournament champion earning $60,000 – and ranking points that determine the year-end No. 1. Each tournament champion earns 800 ranking points.

Here are other photos from the event’s Facebook page of Courier and Wilander also arriving.

The full 2010 Champions Series schedule of tournaments will be announced in the near future. The first tournament in the United States – the Staples Champions Cup – will be held April 29-May 2 in Boston, Mass., and will feature Bjorn Borg playing in his first tournament in the U.S. in 10 years.

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