Clay court season

The CadanDo’s and Don’ts of the WTA’s Other Half

The WTA season is long and often grueling, as much for the spectators as the players. Where a player need only worry about winning or losing, those viewing and analyzing the sport are left the unenviable task of pondering what it all means. How is the Tour’s greater narrative being propelled vis-à-vis this match, this rivalry, this first serve percentage?

So one could imagine the relief one feels as the Tour rolls into stops like Katowice, International events where the fields are smaller, the stakes are lower, and one can sit back and actually enjoy the tennis. Thanks to the WTA’s Roadmap format, which allows only a smattering of its marquee names at each of these tournaments, the Tour has struck an interesting balance between big names and quality entertainment. For those moved to tune in, the motto seems to be, “Come for the best, stay for the rest.”

The promise of seeing top 10-ers like Petra Kvitova play events they seem all but assured of winning is enough for casual fans to fire up a stream and watch a familiar player in her comfort zone. For the diehards, it is a rare opportunity to see the spotlight shown on how the other half of the WTA Tour lives. Names we see perennially peppered into draws of 128 are finally matched with faces because –surprise!– they’re your Katowice quarterfinalists! Players who are sullen as they take quiet beatings from big names have the chance to be effusive in victory. The stakes may be lower for the viewer, but for those unseeded and looming, it might be the peak of their year.

Yet, much like viewing a Jacob Riis photo, your standard International match might be met with some shock. The player whose screen time is reduced to homemade YouTube clips is suddenly on Center Court, and sometimes fans don’t like what they see (or hear). Those who tuned into Katowice became intimately acquainted with Alexandra Cadantu, one of the lesser-known members of the burgeoning Romanian contingent. Perhaps best known for her double-bagel loss to eventual champion Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, Cadantu arrived in Poland with admirable International-level credentials, that most recently included a run to the quarterfinals of Bogota. As a qualifier, she took out the struggling Sabine Lisicki and two countrywomen to book a quarterfinal meeting with the resurgent Shahar Peer. The Israeli star, once a handful of matches from the top 10 in 2011, has tumbled from her position of promise to the point where her and Cadantu, both outside the top 100, were essentially equals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvyOQGOdv6U&t=1h35m02s

As equals, Cadantu and Peer played one of those backyard brawler matches that is rarely afforded a TV court. The biting, scratching and clawing done with racquet and ball was a stark reminder to viewers that we had left the serene gardens of Indian Wells and were far from the peaceful lawns of Wimbledon.  In one of those matches destined to go the distance, it was clear that the two were not in the position to take losing lightly. This was a match that would not be decided by stunning winners or shot-making; it would be one fully determinant on grit and nerves.

Those nerves became more apparent when Cadantu got out to an early lead in the third. Her “Haide!” (Romanian for “Come on!”) celebrations became more vocal when a point would end in her favor. Commentators called it hindrance while fans called it classless. Whatever you call it, it was obviously irritating Peer, who attempted verbal retaliation of her own and even clawed back to level terms. But Cadantu would not be stopped. The Romanian who, against Sharapova, appeared weaponless and ineffective, was able to show off her scrappy resilience against a less powerful Peer, who appeared to fade as the match reached its conclusion.

Those offended by Cadantu’s perceived antics were likely glad to see the comeuppance the Romanian received from Petra Kvitova in the next round. But do we have the right to such moral indignation? With her run to the semifinals, Cadantu rose up to No. 95, hardly threatening the top 80, let alone top 50. Far from a more illustrious court where players like Kvitova herself engage in shockingly loud celebrations, Alexandra Cadantu was in Katowice where, for a brief moment, she gets to be the story, the star. It may have not been Parisian dirt, but for the Romanian (and those like her), these International events are, and can be, paradise.

The Ladies Hit the Dirt Hoping for Feats on Clay

What promises to be a thrilling spring and summer of tennis for the WTA begins this week for the ladies in Stuttgart for the start of the clay court season.

This much-anticipated segment of the calendar begins with a bang as 17 of the Top 20 players in the world are entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Madrid and Rome will also host Premier events during the month of May as preparation for the second Grand Slam event of the year at Roland-Garros.

Over the past few years, the expectations and results on the red dirt for the women have been highly unpredictable and 2012 will be no different. Gone are the days of dominant clay court specialists on the WTA like Justine Henin or Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Instead, today’s Tour is all about parity making it anyone’s game, especially on clay. Case and point, the French Open has crowned a different champion each of the last four years. It will be interesting to see if World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka can continue her dominance this season on a different surface or whether Maria Sharapova will finally breakthrough with some titles after finishing as the runner-up at the three biggest tournaments of the year so far. Can Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova kick-start her season after a slow start? Will Caroline Wozniacki claim that elusive Grand Slam crown? Can Na Li repeat in Paris? Will a resurgent Ana Ivanovic be a threat again on a surface that brought her Grand Slam glory in 2008? All of these questions will be answered over the next few weeks with a few unexpected twists thrown in for good measure.

Don’t be surprised if a player outside of the Top 10 makes some noise at the big tournaments and look for Agnieszka Radwanska to make a serious run at her first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros. Her all court game is well-suited for clay. Not to mention, she is enjoying the best season of her career.

It’s impossible to discuss a pending Major without throwing the name of Serena Williams into the mix. She played the Australian Open on one ankle, but comes into the clay court season in much better shape especially after rolling through the draw in Charleston a few weeks ago to win her 40th career title. Williams is driven to continually overcome health obstacles for another opportunity to add to her Grand Slam tally. The expectations may be low heading into Roland-Garros considering her recent results at the Majors and the fact clay is her worst surface. However, tennis fans have learned over the years to never discount Serena and it would be very much her style to triumph in Paris when everyone least expects her to.

Federer’s Most Devasting French Open Loss?

What was Roger Federer’s most devastating loss at the French Open? Some would say the 2008 final, when he was dominated by Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. Another candidate would be his 2003 first-round loss to Luis Horna. Rene Stauffer, the author of the definitive book on Federer called THE ROGER FEDERER STORY: QUEST FOR PERFECTION ($24.95, New Chapter Press, www.rogerfedererbook.com) details this loss and its circumstances in this book excerpt.

Federer’s success continued into the start of the clay court season as he won the title in Munich and also reached the final of the Italian Open, losing unexpectedly to Felix Mantilla of Spain. The result, however, still propelled him into the conversation as being a favorite to win the French Open.

“I feel much better this year than the year before when I first was in the top 10,” he explained in one of the many interviews before the French Open. “It was a new situation for me back then. I’ve gotten used to it in the meantime.”

He admitted to feeling the pressure from the public. “The entire world keeps reminding me that I am supposed to win a Grand Slam tournament and be No. 1 in the world. That’s not fair because it’s not that easy,” he said. He then stated defiantly that “whoever wants to beat me will have to work hard for it. I don’t want to lose in the first round at Roland Garros again.”

On a summery Monday afternoon in Paris, Federer’s first match at the 2003 French Open took place on Court Philippe Chatrier, the center court named after the Frenchman who was a past president of the International Tennis Federation. His opponent was an unknown Peruvian Luis Horna, whom Federer beat earlier in the year in Key Biscayne. Horna, ranked No. 88 in the world, had yet to win a match at a Grand Slam tournament. Federer took an early 5-3 lead in the first set, but began to show his insecurity and nerves when, during a routine rush to the net, he slipped and fell to the ground, only to mutter to himself and show negative emotions. Despite his lead, he seemed discouraged and, quite unusually, often glanced desperately at Peter Lundgren. Federer lost his service break advantage and despite holding a set point in the tie-break, he surrendered the first set by an 8-6 tie-break. The match immediately turned into a drama for Federer. He seemed frustrated, apathetic and didn’t show any belief that he could win. He appeared mentally absent, missing even the easiest shots. He tallied 82 unforced errors in the 7-6 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (3) first-round loss.

The tournament was shockingly finished before it even really began. Federer, the fallen favorite, appeared in the overcrowded interview room with his head bowed low. “I don’t know how long I’ll need to get over this defeat,” he said. “A day, a week, a year-or my entire career.”

Federer became the ridicule of the tournament. France’s sports newspaper L’Equipe ran a headline the next day translated as, “Shipwrecked In Quiet Waters” and published a cartoon in which a steam ship named “Roland Garros” steams away, leaving Federer behind in quiet waters. Florida’s Palm Beach Post described him as the “Phil Mickelson of Tennis,” comparing Federer to the American golfer who failed to win any of the major tournaments de­spite his great talent and many opportunities. “Federer has all the strokes but no Grand Slam trophy. He carries the dog tags of the best tennis player who has never won a major competition.”

The loss undeniably confirmed Federer’s reputation as a Grand Slam loser. He showed that he was a player who could not pull out a match even though he was not playing his best tennis-a characteristic that most champion tennis players exhibited, most notably in the present by Lleyton Hewitt, who could win a match on guts and determination alone. Since his victory over Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, Federer was 0-4 in matches at the French Open and Wimbledon-the last three matches without even winning a set. His last five Grand Slam tournaments ended in defeat at the hands of much lower-ranked players

What could one say in his defense? Federer was now five years into his ATP career and approached his 22nd birthday. He won six ATP singles titles, excelled in Davis Cup play and time and again insisted he was capable of achieving greatness. He was considered one of the bigger stars in tennis and climbed to No. 5 in the world rankings. But outside of the title in Hamburg, all of the tournaments he won were smaller events and even the German Open was not a Grand Slam tournament. Federer failed routinely in the arenas where it was decided if a player was a champion or not. The once precocious maverick simply could not bring his tremendous potential to bear at the Grand Slams. When looking at the successes of his idols, rivals or earlier great players, he couldn’t help but feel envy. At his age, Becker, Borg, Courier, Edberg and Sampras as well as Hewitt, Safin and many others had already long since won their first Grand Slam titles. Federer, however, had not even reached the semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament. The experts were unani­mous in their opinions that Federer was mature enough athletically to break through a win his first title. But athletic brilliance alone was not sufficient enough and Federer was still searching for the key to real success.

An analysis would seem to indicate that a mental block was preventing him from winning. He felt under pressure to such a degree at the Grand Slam tournaments that he couldn’t concentrate on the moment, especially in the early rounds. This was a basic rule for success. The pressure came from all sides-but mostly from himself. He hadn’t yet learned that these tournaments couldn’t be won in the first week but they certainly could be lost. With some luck, he could have already won a Grand Slam title-in 2001, for example, after upsetting Sampras. Everything would have looked different.

After his loss to Horna, Federer seemed to be the loneliest man in tennis. He was a man alone braving the stormy tempest. How could he have known that this defeat was to be his last such one-sided Grand Slam defeat in a very, very long time? How could he have known that this painful experience was necessary in order to become the hardened, keen-sighted but yet modest champion who would have the tennis world at his feet?

Federer described what really happened when he faced Horna in Paris months later. “I was simply not prepared mentally,” he said. “I put myself under too much pressure. After losing the first set, I couldn’t get back into the match. I had the feeling that it was impossible, that I was no longer in control of the situation. After the first set, I said to myself, ‘Even if I survive this round, I still have to play six more rounds to win this tournament.’ That almost drove me insane. I put myself under such pressure that I couldn’t play anymore.”

After the match, he said that he was overwhelmed with questions about the how and why. “But at that moment, I didn’t really feel like talking about it. I was too disappointed. I wanted to do nothing else but take eight days vacation and then start my preparations for the grass tournament in Halle. I didn’t want to think about Roland Garros-I wanted to forget it. I didn’t want to analyze what happened because I knew that I had simply failed mentally. I didn’t accept it by any means

The Robbie Koenig Blog: Can Anyone Beat Rafa In Paris?

Anyway, the clay court season thus far, one word….” NADAL”….the kid is from another planet!!! Mentally and physically, on this surface, he’s the greatest I’ve ever seen, and probably the best of all time…and he’s only just 23 (in a few days)!!!

For me, what makes him so good are a few things. Firstly, his ability to “compartmentalize” his thoughts. He NEVER gets ahead of himself. He only focuses on the present. He only ever talks about his next opponent, never who he might meet later in the draw and potential match-ups down the line, thereby giving respect to each guy he faces and taking nothing for granted. And on the match court, its more of the same. He rarely lets the previous point affect the next one and he has this ability to play each point like there was none before, or none to follow.
Secondly, he loves the battle more than anyone! It’s the “process” of winning that seems to consume all his effort and he constantly rewards himself with a “Vamos,” sometimes as early as the second or third game, if he’s had a tough hold. And coupled with the joy he takes out of each victory, again often early on in a tournament, is so refreshing and just goes to show how much he enjoys the “small” victories. Let’s face it, anyone can enjoy the big or classic wins!

From a physical point of view, his movement is “two days on horseback” ahead of his peers.(Must be said, Djokovic has been impressive with his challenge). I’m sure good genes help, given the athletic ability of his uncles, it obviously runs in the family. His footwork is the key to his shot-making, both in attacking and defending. It’s so easy to get a little slow with your feet when attacking because you generally got time on the ball, but Rafa never lets his intensity wane, and always makes sure he’s perfectly setup to pull the trigger!!!

Can anyone beat him in Paris? Not unless they cut off his left arm…and even then, he’s pretty damn good with the right one as we all know! The problem for the chasing pack is doing it over five sets. The semifinal against Djokovic in Madrid was an epic, but remember that was at altitude, quick clay courts and best-of-three sets and the Serb still couldn’t get the W!!! I can’t see him hanging with Rafa over five sets. I think Murray can hang with him over five sets, but he doesn’t move well enough on this stuff. Firstly, he’s gotta get far enough to meet Nadal, and secondly, I can’t see him handle the Spaniard, because Rafa will out-maneuver him over the distance. Hard court, different story, it just shows how important movement is at the highest level, and clay is unique in that regard!

What about Roger? I can’t see it happen. I don’t read much into the Madrid win for the obvious reasons already discussed. Wimby and the US Open are his best bets to bag another major, but even those are gonna be a lot tougher than previous years.

Djokovic is the main challenger, no question – the results don’t lie! Hopefully he and Nadal are in separate sections of the draw. That would be my preferred final.

Watchout for: Stan Wawrinka, Juan Monaco, Fernando Gonzalez, Fernando Verdasco and Marin Cilic

Hope you all looking foward to Rafa being challenged at Rolland Garros as much as I am.

Davydenko forced to battle into Estoril Open Quarter finals

Nikolay Davydenko was involved in a very interesting match against Ivo Minar in the Estoril Open round of 16.

Clay court season is now upon us and there is no-one in better form than Davydenko who’s superior movement and baseline play ensures he as no trouble in adjusting to the dirt.

He got the job done here surprisingly in three sets 26 62 64 against the world number 72 and I felt that in 90 percent of the match he played well but in the other 10 percent he was a bit shaky.

In the first set he was dominated by the hard hitting and serving of Minar and only won a pathetic 5 out of 21 points when receiving. When serving the Russian number one only won 50% of points which is another very poor statistic. A very ‘off’ set.

But predictably Minar was never going to be able to keep up this domination and Davydenko raised his game and played some excellent tennis from the back of the court in the second set as he began to take control of the match.

He then breezed into a 4-1 lead in the third set, a double break of serve and it looked as if he would cruise into the next round. However Davydenko completely lost his way in the next three games, being broken twice by the plucky Minar and it was back to 4-4.

The Russian no longer had the ability to hit a first serve in the games he was broken and I think he showed a certain degree of mental weakness here when in such a commanding lead. This should not be happening to the number four player in the world.

Fortunately for Davydenko he is such a skilled player off the ground that he broke Minar in the next game and then had a much smoother service game to move in to the quarter finals.

I find it weird how he seemed to switch on and off in this match and this wasn’t a brilliant performance however a world class player has the ability to win even when not playing his or her best and Davydenko certainly used that skill here.

He appeared to have particular problems on his second serve today with only 9 out of 28 points won and also 4 double faults.

This match displayed a slight dip in form however he still played some very good shots against Minar, who kept fighting even when two breaks down and nearly came back from the most unlikely situation.

Despite this below par performance I think Davydenko could advance into the final where he will surely play Federer who has no player of any note in his half. A potential tricky semi final against Giles Simon awaits the Russian however on his current match winning form he can defeat anyone. If the ideal final takes place between the number one and two seed, Davydenko has the momentum to win his second title this year.