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Martina Hingis: Rewriting a Fairytale

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For most athletes, enshrinement in their sport’s Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of lifelong achievement; the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the self-titled “Home of the Legends of Tennis,” is no different. Eternal recognition of greatness is truly the highest honor in sport, above the grand slams, the titles, the endorsements and the prize money. At the same time, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame carries a sense of finality; it is meant to close the book on athletes’ careers in their minds and the minds of the public, all while allowing the masses to recollect and appreciate all that they achieved. It’s the happy ending to the fairytale.

For Martina Hingis, who had twice been denied the chance to end her legendary career on her own terms, induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July marked something completely different.

Shortly after her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the five-time Grand Slam champion announced that she would be making a return to the WTA in doubles this summer. Hingis has committed to play five events, starting this week at the Southern California Open in Carlsbad. She will partner Daniela Hantuchova for the duration; the pair will also play together in Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven and at the US Open. For now, Hingis has only planned a comeback in doubles; rumors have nonetheless been circulating that she is merely testing the waters for a full-fledged return in singles.

Whatever Hingis decides, chances are high that her third foray into the fray will be her last. Despite being considered one of the all-time greats in tennis, Hingis’ competitive career was comparatively short compared to her contemporaries. Hingis was on top of the world at the tender age of 16, and won all five of her Grand Slam singles titles before the age of 19. Nagging heel and ankle injuries resulted in two surgeries, and Hingis’ teenage dream was over at the age of 22.

The Swiss Miss returned in 2005, but as the old saying goes, sequels are never as good as the original. She lost the first singles match of her return in Pattaya City to Marlene Weingärtner. She claimed she had no further plans for a comeback, but success in World TeamTennis prompted her to announce a full comeback for 2006. She added three more titles in her second chapter, including a record fifth in Tokyo, and won the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award in 2006.

At Wimbledon in 2007, however, Hingis tested positive for trace amounts of cocaine and was handed a two-year suspension from the sport. Despite vehemently proclaiming her innocence, she chose not to fight the ban and retired for a second time. With the recent scandals regarding doping in major professional sports, as well as the ITF’s suspension of Viktor Troicki, it’s understandable that Hingis’ return could be met with some apprehension from critics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Despite her past controversy, Hingis’ return has been met with positive fanfare; in addition, her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame speaks volumes. A panel of 125 journalists from around the world votes for the incoming class, and in addition to weighing a player’s accomplishments, “consideration will be given to integrity, sportsmanship and character.” With her immortality recorded in Newport, the book was thought to be closed on Hingis’ career.

However, between injuries and a suspension, one of the game’s greats never got to write her own ending.

Hingis, unlike other prodigies in sport, has always had a deep-seeded love for her craft; in return, tennis fans around the world have a deep-seeded love for her court craft, guile and intelligence. Despite two “careers,” Hingis never had a farewell tour. This is her chance. Every good story has character development, plot twists, and perhaps most importantly, a resolution. It seems only right that she gets the chance to begin (and end) the final chapter of a storied career on her terms.

Is Grass Always Greener?

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When the new International-level WTA event made its debut this week in Nürnberg, Germany, there was no shortage of quality story lines; although the draw featured no top 10 players, top seed Jelena Jankovic is always a walking headline and four Germans started off in the main draw. Nonetheless, the event has made headlines for completely unexpected reasons. Some have questioned the merit of the WTA holding a clay court event two weeks before Wimbledon, particularly in a country where the grass-court tuneup in Halle always attracts a star-studded ATP lineup.

The idea of arbitrarily placed clay court events on either tour’s calendar is nothing new. The WTA calendar also allocates space for four clay court events in the two weeks following Wimbledon: Budapest, Palermo, Bastad and Bad Gastein. Serena Williams is committed to play the clay-court event in Bastad for the first time in her career, and the event is held the week before her usual US Open Series tuneup in Stanford. Rafael Nadal returned from a seven month injury layoff and prepared for the North American hard court season by playing in Vina del Mar, Sao Paulo and Acapulco…on clay.

With the way that professional tennis has evolved over the years, the grass court season has become little more than a blip on the drawn-out tennis calendar; while players like Alison Riske and Tsvetana Pironkova might’ve found their lives a bit easier if three of the four slams were still contested on grass, career-defining results on grass are not the norm for most players. Is it really to a player’s benefit to waste time (and money) to travel and compete on a surface where she’ll reap such little reward for such a short time?

There is constant clamoring for players to schedule smarter and play the tournaments that are in their best interest. By putting these tournaments on the schedule, the WTA is allowing for that. There was little to no clamor about Nadal returning to action on his most preferred surface to get match play and confidence. This week in Nürnberg, the narrative was quite similar. The saga of Andrea Petkovic and her injuries over the past 18 months is well known. After losing in Roland Garros qualifying to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou, Petkovic dropped down to the ITF Circuit and won a $100,000 event in Marseille on clay; among her scalps, Petkovic defeated in-form players Monica Puig and Paula Ormaechea, both of whom came off third round showings in Paris. After defeating Sofia Arvidsson in the first round in Germany, Petkovic assured her return to the top 100. Petkovic’s good form continued as she rallied past Annika Beck, her teenaged countrywoman, in nearly three hours to reach her first WTA semifinal since Luxembourg in 2012.

On the other side of the draw, Polona Hercog was making an injury comeback of her own. The Slovenian quietly played just one match this year at the Australian Open before requiring wrist surgery, and made her return to competition at a $50,000 ITF event in France before Roland Garros. No slouch on her beloved clay, where she owns two WTA singles titles, Hercog also fell in Roland Garros qualifying. Hercog’s greatest grass court success came as a junior, when she reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2008. Since then, Hercog has avoided grass like the plague, and rightly so. The Slovenian’s game is far from effective on grass, and it didn’t take her long to figure that out. She’s played just a handful of matches on the surface in her career. Her only career win at Wimbledon came against Johanna Larsson, perhaps the only active WTA player less comfortable on grass than Hercog herself. Instead of moving on to grass, Hercog took the title at a $25,000 ITF event in her hometown of Maribor, reached the semifinals in Marseille and took out the No. 2 seed Klara Zakopalova en route to a quarterfinal showing in Nürnberg. With smart scheduling, Hercog got herself more match practice in a few weeks than she might have for nearly the rest of the year.

In a sport where so much is made of wins and losses, it’s much easier to adapt to an uncomfortable situation when you’re in good form. None of the WTA’s top three are entered in a grass court warmup event, and does anyone believe that this is a hindrance to their title hopes? The difference is that these players perform at a high level nearly every week and are rarely, if ever, short on confidence. Confidence and the ability to adapt comes from winning, and nothing else. Not everyone has the luxury to be able to have and do that on a dime. By holding simultaneous tournaments on different surfaces, both tours are allowing for the highest percentage of their players to succeed.

The Spanish Inquisition

David Ferrer during his 5 set win

James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.

By James Crabtree

MELBOURNE –

It is difficult to fathom how hard Nicholas Almagro strikes the ball.

He glares with the eyes of a temperamental bull, but hits with the flowing grace and control of a Matador. An interesting scenario, Almagro uses his racquet as a muleta to tease and finish a pesky ferret.

A method that was proving successful for the first time.

Ferrer has beaten Almagro all twelve times they have played, including 5 losses in finals, a matter that doesn’t sit well with Almagro. “I don’t want to think about that. He is the No. 4 of the world. He is the favourite. He beat me many times, but many matches were close.”

Still, this was only their second meeting at a grand slam, and surprisingly Almagro looked like the player with more experience.

Ferrer was coming up against a player who was in rhythm, a player who controlled the rallies with the crosscourt backhand, then owned it with a backhand down the line.

Only one break of serve separated them in the first and second set, proving how many matches are decided by just a few crucial points.

Still, Ferrer was being rushed and uncharacteristically antagonised, vocalising his disdain and even swiping his racquet down on the court.

Meanwhile Almagro had all but passed the finish line and banked a cheque of $500,000, the guaranteed sum for a grand slam semi-final and $250,000 more than the quarterfinal purse.

Obstinate to the last, Ferrer dug in with Almagro serving for the match two sets to love up and 5-4. Now the tension the favourite had felt was all gone. Subsequently Ferrer edged himself forward on the baseline whilst his opponent attempted to win by pushing the ball.

Suddenly Ferrer was playing his typical game, taking the set and reminding his opponent that he still had to finish the quarter final. Ferrer reflected, “Well, it’s very difficult to win [against]Nico [Almagro], no? I think he played better than me in the first set. There was a break.  I play bad in myself in one break.  In the second, I didn’t play good, no?  In the third, I feel better with my game. I can play more aggressive.”

Ferrer had stolen the momentum that Almagro craved and now everyone expected that the match would go the distance.

Indeed, the fifth set came but only after an unbearably tense fourth set, where again Almagro squandered his chances, twice serving again for the match before losing in the tiebreak. “I think the tiebreak of the fourth set I played very good. And in the fifth, he was cramping, problems with his leg, so it was easier for me,” reflected Ferrer to reporters of his 4-6, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-2 victory.

Almagro, nursing a suspected injured groin and wearing an incredulous smile ran out of drive, reeling at the opportunity lost.

The two players hugged afterwards, their level of friendship striking after such destructive circumstances, with Ferrer humble of his achievement, “I try to fight every point, every game. I know all the players in important moments we are nervous. I know that. I try to do my best. Today I was close to lost, sure. But finally I come back, no?”

Ferrer progresses to the semi-final where he will face either Novak Djokovic or Tomas Berdych.

Will the Real Jelena Jankovic Please Stand Up?

Jelena Jankovic was given a scare from qualifier Maria Joao Koehler in the second round of the Australian Open on Tuesday.

Jelena Jankovic. How do I even begin to describe Jelena Jankovic?

I first became acquainted with Jelena Jankovic seven years ago, when she still wore Reebok. From January to May 2006, Jankovic lost ten straight matches and considered quitting the sport to study at university. She turned her year, and arguably her career, around with a run to the semifinals of the US Open that year. Little did we know, this was just the beginning of Jankovic’s flair for the dramatics.

She found her way to the top of the rankings in 2008 with the polarizing figure of Ricardo Sanchez by her side. In fact, many would consider Jankovic a polarizing figure herself. Some found her diva antics and blunt humor amusing, while others found her brash and self-centered. She was the subject of a Serbian documentary about her life that same year, aptly titled Jelenin svet (Jelena’s World). While she was at the top of the game, that was almost how it felt; it was Jelena’s world, and we were just living in it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7RAL7N2aoc

However, in 2009, it all began to go wrong. Jankovic looked to “bulk up” in the offseason in an attempt to change her game to challenge for major titles. Jankovic was upset by Marion Bartoli in the fourth round in Melbourne that year; Bartoli hit 34 winners, compared to Jankovic’s 17 and won 81% of her first serve points, compared to Jankovic’s 56%. As a result, Jelena lost the No. 1 ranking to Serena Williams. She ended 2009 and 2010 at No. 8, but the ranking slide was quick from there. 2011 marked her first non-top 10 season since 2006 while 2012 was the first time she ended the year outside the world’s top 20 since 2005.

Jankovic comes into this year’s Australian Open seeded No. 22. She faced off against Johanna Larsson in the opening round, and despite a convincing 6-2, 6-2 scoreline, the match was anything but. Jankovic hit 16 winners to 23 errors in her opener, while the Swede hit a paltry six winners to go with a staggering 36 errors.

Qualifier Maria Joao Koehler, who impressed in a 7-5, 6-1 first round loss to Kim Clijsters a year ago in her Grand Slam main draw debut, came out firing en route to building a *4-1 lead in the first set. Jankovic would take a medical timeout on that change of ends, the first of many subplots throughout the match. She left the court for treatment, and returned with her entire abdomen taped.

Nothing would stop the momentum from the lefty from Portugal, who hit more winners than Jankovic in the opening set and benefitted from the Serb’s 17 unforced errors; Koehler would take the opener 6-2 in 41 minutes. Jankovic was close to tears early on in the second set, whether it was the injury, her poor play or both. Midway through, she began to crack some of her trademark backhands-down-the line with some authority but continued to trail for the majority of the set. Koehler was two points away from victory at *5-4 in the tiebreak, but Jankovic would win three points in a row to level the match at a set apiece.

The pair would trade breaks to open the third set, but this time it was Jankovic who would benefit from Koehler’s erratic play; the 20-year-old hit just two winners and a whopping 20 unforced errors in the third set to give Jankovic a 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 victory.

Jankovic was always good at finding a way to win matches when not playing her best. Despite that, this isn’t the Jelena Jankovic who came to be known as one of the most unique personalities on the WTA Tour over the past half-decade; she’s become a shell of the player she once was. One of the WTA’s masters of engaging the crowd when she was at her peak, Jankovic appeared to do anything but embrace the crowd’s support in this match. She’s been going through the motions for a long time now, and her days of a contender for major tournaments seem to be behind her. Jankovic hasn’t been enjoying herself on the court for a while, and it’s sad to see.

She’ll take on Ana Ivanovic in the third round, and if this were 2008, I’d say that match was highly anticipated. But this is 2013, and both are a world away from contending for major titles as they once were.

Rejuvenated Wozniak is Dreaming Olympic Big

Aleksandra Wozniak is back in the mix

Following a tumultuous two seasons that were mired by injuries and coaching uncertainty, former world no.21 Aleksandra Wozniak has shown Top 25 form this season and is making her way back up the rankings with a renewed passion for her sport.

Wozniak became the first Canadian in 20 years to win a WTA singles title when she was crowned champion at Stanford in 2008 and appeared to destined to contend for titles for many years to come. Now 24 years old and with her hardships a thing of the past, the Wozniak hitting the court is definitely the 2.0 version. After finishing the 2011 season ranked outside the Top 100, she came into the off-season  100 percent healthy for the first time in a while. Wozniak took up boxing to improve her strength and agility. Her hard work is paying dividends so far in 2012.

Wozniak has also brought her father, Antoni back in the fold as her full-time coach. He introduced her to tennis when she was three years old and is the master technician behind her smooth strokes. Wozniak appreciates having her recently retired Dad around every day to work on the little things.

“ I am able to take my Dad on the road with me which is tremendous and makes a big difference because he can always keep improving my game,” Wozniak said. “He sees things right away and those little details make a big difference in my game. I think I’m pretty close to where I was, but I think I am coming back differently and stronger than before.”

Wozniak has improved her ranking by more than 50 places since the start of the season and finds herself ranked firmly inside the Top 60 again. Perhaps most impressive though is the kind of matches she is winning, the long, exhausting type. Matches she would have never been able to win earlier in her career. Wozniak has also played the top players very tough, losing 7-5 in the third to Agnieszka Radwanska in Dubai and dropping a third set tiebreak to Venus Williams in Miami after holding a match point.

She is battling and fighting harder than ever with one lifelong dream motivating her every move, representing Canada at this summer’s Olympic Games in London. At no. 56 on the world rankings and with few points to defend until Roland-Garros, Wozniak has put herself in a good position to earn an Olympic berth.

“As an athlete, to know you made it to the Olympics, I can’t even describe it,” Wozniak added. “For me it’s very important to represent my country the best that I can. It’s a big privilege to represent Canada at the  greatest sporting event in the world. For any athlete it is very special and it would be really exciting.”

Not only is Wozniak a transformed player, but she’s also a different person. Physically, she looks better than  ever and her renewed confidence is evident in the way she carries herself. Her likeable, radiant personality makes it easy to root for the talent Canadian and  It will be fun to watch her rise back to the upper echelon of the women’s game. Wozniak is certainly not a name any player will want to see opposite their own in the draw, especially on Wozniak’s favourite surface during the clay court season.

Wozniak Shows Winning Attitude in Loss to Venus at Miami

Aleksandra Wozniak played Venus Williams tough in Miami

Aleksandra Wozniak played Venus Williams tough in Miami

Aleksandra Wozniak was a forehand away from scoring one of the biggest wins of her career in the third round of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida. The 24-year-old Canadian held match point against seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, but couldn’t close the deal, falling 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(5)in a two-hour, 53 minute match that had more ups and downs than a roller coaster.

Wozniak showed flashes of her Top 20 form from two years ago against the inspirational Williams who is playing her first tournament since being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome at last year’s U.S. Open. After getting through her first two matches, Williams appeared sluggish and Wozniak took full advantage, playing deep, penetrating shots to keep her opponent on her heels.

Still, every time it looked like Wozniak was going to knock out the tournament sentimental favourite, either nerves or Williams’ champion’s mentality got her in the way. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, Wozniak survived two wild double faults to earn a match point which she wasted by putting a sitting forehand into the net. The Canadian didn’t go away though as she rebounded to force a third set tiebreak which, like the rest of the match, went back and forth until Williams converted her second match point with a service winner. Despite the pain of the circumstances, Wozniak showed a lot of class staying to sign autographs on court after shaking hands and chose to focus on the positives in her post-match comments.

“It would have been a big victory for me. It hurts and it is disappointing, but the important thing is that I’m healthy and progressing,” Wozniak said. “One thing is for sure, I am going to keep fighting.”

Wozniak is no stranger to coming up short in tight matches against top players. In 2010 she lost a pair of matches 6-4 in the third to Elena Dementieva at Roland-Garros and Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon. A few weeks ago in Dubai she lost 7-5 in the third to Agnieszka Radwanska. While all of the attention has been about the Williams comeback, Wozniak is also climbing the ranks again following a series of personal and physical setbacks that kept her off the court for significant chunks of time over the past two seasons. She won her maiden WTA title four years ago at Stanford, defeating Samantha Stosur, Serena Williams and Marion Bartoli en route. Wozniak reached a career-high ranking of no. 21 in June of 2009 and Williams was the first to acknowledge that a formidable player was across the net from her on Centre Court in Key Biscayne.

“It was tough out there. It was made even tougher because she played well, Williams said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her play as well as she did. She was close to the Top 20, so she has that tennis in her. I have to give her a lot of credit.”

With her third round performance in Miami, Wozniak will move close to Top 60 on the WTA rankings after a fruitful March that also saw her win the Nassau Challenger in the Bahamas. She is once again the top-ranked Canadian and is making a strong push towards her season goal of representing Canada at the Olympics in London. With her free-flowing all around game and genuine personality, Wozniak will come through in her fair share matches in 2012, and win over a lot of new fans in the process.

The Little Match That Could

Winston Salem Open Haase/Benneteau semifinal

On the evening of Friday August 26, 2011 the eyes of the country were on Hurricane Irene, who was fast approaching the East Coast of North Carolina.  Tennis fans had turned their attention to New York, waiting to see how the storm would effect their favorite players and the upcoming U.S. Open.

I was about three-hundred miles inland from the storm watching one of my favorite matches of the year.

At Wake Forest University in a make-shift tennis stadium located underneath the overhang of the football stadium the 43rd ranked player in the world, 10th seeded Robin Haase, took on the 113th ranked player in the world, Qualifier Julien Benneteau, in the semifinals of the inaugural Winston-Salem Open.

As the sun set and provided some relief from the scorching August sun, approximately four thousand locals packed the temporary stadium ready for some Friday night entertainment.  Most spectators had bought their tickets long before the order of play had been announced, and were feeling a bit slighted- after all, the afternoon semifinal had been between Andy Roddick and hometown hero John Isner!

During the second point of the match, as the sky was turning orange and the crowd was still settling in, Haase’s forehand clipped the net and dribbled over.   Benneteau scampered to the net and made it just in time, awkwardly pitching the ball back over the net.  The two men stayed at the net for a twenty shot sensational yet clumsy exchange of volleys and returns before Haase finally was able to angle the ball out of Benneteau’s reach.  The Winston-Salem crowd leapt to their feet in appreciation and the two men smiled and laughed before Benneteau jovially reached across the net to shake Haase’s hand.  Then the umpire, Somat Madgi, intervened.  Apparently during the exchange Haase had reached his racket over the net and therefore the point was automatically awarded to Benneteau.  Haase and Madgi had a heated exchange before Haase finally settled back in at the baseline and signaled he was ready to move on- to the third point of the match.

Winston Salem, meet Robin Haase and Julien Benneteau.


Robin Haase, 24, is a talented Dutchman often recognized as one of the big underachievers in tennis.  He hits big and plays aggressive, reminiscent of James Blake at his best only with a little more variety.  Coming into the Winston-Salem Open he was soaring at a career high ranking and with his first tournament victory freshly under his belt.  He made it to the semifinals with easy victories over James Blake and Pierre Duclos, and with an upset win over #3 seed Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals.

Julien Benneteau,29, is an effervescent Frenchmen, who prances around the court and makes power and precision seem graceful.  In 2010 he reached a high ranking of 31 before a wrist injury derailed him, and he came into the Winston Salem Open on the comeback trail.  He had to qualify just to get into the tournament and on this Friday night he was playing his eighth match in seven days following three-set come-from-behind escapes against Igor Andreev and Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Early on Haase was clearly rattled from Madgi’s call and Benenteau easily raced out to a 3-1 lead despite not being able to find a first serve. However once Haase started getting balls in play he quickly won five games in a row to win the first set 6-3.   When Haase went up a break early in the second set things seemed grim- the excited crowd became restless, worrying that their night might end way too soon. Would Benneteau be able to pull off another magical escape or would the second point of the match be the highlight?

That’s the phenomenal and infuriating thing about tennis- nothing is a guarantee.  Anything can happen.  Every match has an equal opportunity to be an epic or a complete dud.  The most dramatic match can have no memorable rallies and a blow-out can contain points for a highlight reel.  You just never know.

Luckily on this beautiful night things were far from over. Benneteau finally found his first serve midway through the second set and managed to take it to a tiebreak, where he saved two match points to extend the match to a third set. It wasn’t without drama though.  At one point Benneteau disagreed with one of Madgi’s calls so fiercely that he sat in the back of the court and tried to wait the decision out.  (This tactic was not successful, in case you’re wondering).

In the third set, like clockwork, Benneteau fell behind a break.  Robin Haase served for the match at 5-4 but his nerves found him once again and he was broken.  Benneteau faced one more match point in the third set tiebreak before winning the last three points of the match.  Julien Benneteau defeated Robin Haase 6-3 7-6(7) 7-6(6) to make it to the finals of the Winston-Salem Open.

After a two hour and thirty-two minute sometimes sloppy, sometimes sensational, and always dramatic match the Winston Salem crowd was wild with applause.  This sport of tennis, with two players most had never heard of before, had made it’s way into their hearts.  The energy in the stadium that night was electric and it gave me chills.  There are few things more heartwarming than seeing people fall in love with the sport for the first time. As cheesy as it sounds, it makes me fall in love with the sport all over again.

When all was said and done Benneteau danced, and it was unlike anything Winston-Salem had ever seen- I’d call it a mix of the chicken, the robot, and the electric slide.  People shouted “Allez” in a southern accent. The man I had seen in qualification rounds on a side court had made it all the way to the finals. It was a magical moment.

For Robin Haase, however, it was another memorable collapse.  Every single time he had control he let the match go.  When his game is on it’s indescribable, leaving opponents on the other side completely helpless.  When his brain turns on and he overthinks things his game often falls to pieces and it’s hard to watch without wincing.

In the big scheme of things this little match didn’t mean much in the narratives of 2011. Maybe the more interesting story to most is whether or not Rafael Nadal win one or two majors this year, if Federer can get to seventeen slams, or whether Djokovic will have the best-ever season or merely a top-5-ever season.  But to me that’s like seeing the rich get richer. No disrespect to the top athletes of this sport, but sometimes I think it means more when the players have less.  For these two players, for this inagural tournament, for this Friday night crowd this match meant everything.

The majority of Winston-Salem may never learn how to properly pronounce Benneteau or Haase, but I know that none of them will ever forget the match that night- and shouldn’t that count for something?

 

(Photos c/o Fred and Susan Mullane/Cameraworks USA)

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