competitive tennis

ATP Tour Honeymoon Fever Continues – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson
Taking a Stand – The ladies of Spain are making their voices heard, stating that they are prepared to boycott the first round of the 2011 Fed Cup if the Spanish Tennis Federation doesn’t show a little more support for Spanish women’s tennis. They’re maintaining their position even in the aftermath of the Federation’s response to their initial demands, and supporters of women’s tennis have to respect their stance. What’s more, former Grand Slam champions Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez have lent their support to their countrywomen. It will be intriguing to see how it all unfolds. Spain is tied for third in all-time Fed Cup title wins with 5, though their last win came in 1998. With so much success on the men’s side, however, there’s no reason to think that a similar level of success couldn’t be achieved on the women’s side without the same kind of support. Hopefully their stance will pave the way to change.

Return of a Champion – 2009 US Open Champion Juan Martin Del Potro will be making his return to competitive tennis in Bangkok next week. All eyes will be looking to see how quickly the big Argentine will be able to shake the rust from his game. In many ways, he couldn’t be coming back at a better time. The big guns tend to take a bit of a break at this time, and many of the tournaments will be contested on indoor hard courts where one is often able to produce his best tennis due to not having to battle the elements. Hopefully Del Potro is able to find his range quickly, as the sport has missed the powerful strokes of this young gun that belongs with the rest of the big boys at the top of the men’s game.

Injury Woes – One player on the opposite end of the spectrum from Del Potro is Fernando Gonzalez. The Chilean is set to undergo hip surgery that is expected to keep him out of the game for up to nine months. To compound his problems, his doctors have already informed him that a knee surgery may also be necessary. Playing the brand of tennis that he has throughout his career, it’s not surprising that the body would eventually give out, but hopefully it will also bounce back and allow him a chance to end his career on a high.

First Time for Everything – There were some pretty memorable Davis Cup victories over the weekend, but the biggest praise has to go the nation of Serbia, especially Janko Tipsarevic. Tipsarevic kept Serbian hopes alive by bringing his best to the court and defeating Tomas Berdych in his opening match on Friday, but the Serbs still found themselves down 2-1 going into the final Sunday. That’s when Djokovic and Tipsarevic came up good when the chips were down to lead Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup final. It will be a tough task to take out a deep French team, but what a fantastic story it would be.

Taking the Plunge – On a lighter note, two engagements were announced for two of the game’s most well known doubles specialists. Indian star Mahesh Bhupathi is set to wed former Miss Universe Lara Dutta, and one half of the famous Bryan Brothers duo, Bob Bryan, has also announced his engagement to girlfriend Michelle Alvarez. Dutta’s reps have already confirmed that her marriage to Bhupathi will not take place for at least a couple of years. No word yet on when Bob will look to tie the knot, but don’t look for it to impact his play. With so much left to play for, it’s unlikely the thought to hang it up has entered his mind, and neither Bryan seems the type where the institution of marriage could turn into a hindrance to their games.

THE LEGACY OF RAFAEL NADAL: THE FRIDAY FIVE

Making History – We’ll agree to disagree on the bigger picture of tennis player Rafael Nadal and his career, but I’m more than happy to join the masses who consider him not only one of the greatest talents to have played the game, but the undisputable king of clay.  This was certainly apparent in Nadal’s road to victory this past weekend. Absorbing bludgeoning blow after bludgeoning blow from Ernests Gulbis in the semis, Nadal hung in there with the big hitting Latvian and eventually found a way to grind out a tough three set win.  He then held his composure during a rain-delayed first set against countryman David Ferrer in the final before going on to win the second set and claim his fifth title in Rome.  The title also marked Nadal’s 17th Masters 1000 win, which ties him with Andre Agassi for most Masters 1000 wins, and all before the age of 24.  Undoubtedly the Spaniard will add to this already impressive total, further adding to his legacy in the annals of the game.

Chalk One Up – It took approximately four months, but after coming tantalizingly close earlier in the season, Justine Henin has chalked up her first tournament victory since making her return to competitive tennis.  The win came on her beloved clay, the surface on which she has traditionally enjoyed the most success.  Despite her stumble in the second set, Henin’s three set win over the in-form Sam Stosur was impressive.  Now that she has gotten over that mini-hurdle, it will be interesting to see if she starts swinging a little more freely going into the second major of the year.

Last Resort – After missing several weeks and undergoing multiple treatments, Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro has announced that he ran out of options and underwent surgery this past Tuesday to fix his wrist.  It is impossible for Del Potro to name a return date at this stage in the game and has just stated that he will be out for “a long period” (reports indicate anywhere from three to six months). I’m sure I’m not alone and really feeling for Del Potro. He was knocking on the door throughout the majority of 2009 before finally breaking through in a big way at the US Open. It’s a tragedy that this injury comes so close on the heels of his success, but based on his comments, it sounds like he will only come back stronger.

Poor Timing – Earlier this week, Lleyton Hewitt wasn’t shy about his expressing his opinion regarding the timing of Australia’s upcoming inter-zonal tie against Japan this weekend. Coming just a week after the Rome Masters and days before the Madrid Masters, the timing could not have been worse.  Undoubtedly Hewitt would have preferred to spend more time prepping for Madrid, particularly given his lack of match play in 2010, but without the former world No. 1, Australia, historically one of the most dominant nations in Davis Cup play, may not even reach the World Group Playoffs in September. I’ll grant you that the inter-zonal matches are not the same draw as those in the World Group, but this was just one more glaring example of why the ITF needs to do something to restructure the Davis Cup format as it relates to the ATP World Tour calendar.

Latest in Technology – To-date, the hawk-eye technology has been the latest development used to enhance the game of tennis for the players and the fans. Later this month, the Madrid Masters will take things one step farther by airing the men’s and women’s singles finals in 3D. The matches will air in theatres in the cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga.  It will be interesting to hear fans’ responses to viewing matches in this format, and who knows?  It may just become the next latest craze to hit the tennis world.

WILL NADAL BE ABLE TO RETURN TO THE TOP? THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Return of the Bull – Rafael Nadal says that he is planning to return to tennis in the desert at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 event, the BNP Paribas Open. He states that his knee is healing nicely, and furthermore insists that he can return his body to peak physical condition. Nadal is a fierce competitor, and I sincerely hope that he’s right about that last part. But given his brand of physical tennis and refusal to take an extended break to allow his body to completely heal, it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever be able to sustain his top form for any length of time. I’ll be the first to admit if I’m wrong on this one, but I disagree with Nadal’s strategy to forgo the extended break and tweak his game to make it less physical.

Welcome to the Main Event – After the surprising news that Marat Safin would be playing an event on the Champions Series senior circuit in March, there then came the news that the lovable Russian is going to be playing an exhibition on April 10 in Atlantic City at Caesar’s Palace. Perhaps the only thing more shocking is that the Caesars Tennis Classic exhibition is also going to feature Ivan Lendl, who hasn’t played a match since 1994. The field will be rounded out with Andy Roddick and Mats Wilander, with Venus Williams playing the hostess. With the spectacular tennis those men are able to produce, coupled with their mesh of personalities, it’s a safe bet that a good time is in store for any lucky enough to get a ticket.

Back at Last – It wasn’t as soon as he had hoped, but it had to feel good to Argentine David Nalbandian to finally make his return to competitive tennis in his home country at the Buenos Aires Copa Telmex event. Nalbandian opened his campaign with a solid straight sets win over Italian Potito Starace before giving the home crowd something to cheer about with a nail-biting win over Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 9-7 in the third set tiebreak. Given Nalbandian’s talent and ability to upset the big boys in tennis, I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping this is just a sampling of the good things to come.

Seizing the Opportunity – It was just last year when Israeli Shahar Peer was denied a visa to compete in Dubai. This year, she was allowed entry, and she’s making the most of it. After having never taken a set off of 2009 US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, the compact Peer cruised her way to a routine victory over the Dane in straight sets. Perhaps the only downside to the match was that it was forced to be played on Court 1 instead of Center Court, as Court 1 was more secure. Credit to Wozniacki who had the class to acknowledge that while the court speed was different on Court 1 as compared to Center, the conditions were the same for both players and did not blame the switch for her loss.

Kournikova in the News – But this time, it isn’t Anna K. It’s her mother, Alla. In one of the more bizarre scandals to come up in tennis news this week was the case of Alla Kournikova, who is being charged with felony child neglect. She allegedly left her five-year-old son home alone while she ran some errands. Neighbors spotted the child outside and then called authorities. When questioned, the five-year-old son claimed that he had gotten outside by jumping out of a second story window (but was uninjured). Alla could face up to five years in prison. I somehow think the next time Anna K does a press conference, the questions aren’t going to be about her latest modeling gig.

It’s Official: Justine Henin Makes Comeback To The WTA Tour

Former world No. 1 Justine Henin is returning to competitive tennis, making the announcement barely a week after Kim Clijsters capped her comeback from retirement with a second U.S. Open title.

Henin had been retired for just over a year, but at 27 says she has the fire and physical strength to compete for an eighth Grand Slam title. Her announcement on VTM television capped an about-face that went from her “definitive decision” to retire last year, to weeks of no comment to a smiling admission Tuesday that she truly missed the game too much.

She wants to play two exhibition tournaments, in Charleroi, Belgium, and Dubai, to hone her skills ahead of a competitive return next year with plans to compete in the next Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

“The fire within burns again,” Henin said. “I want to come back in January.”

Henin officially retired on May 14, 2008, initially rejecting any thought of a comeback with a dogged determination that had come to mark her play throughout a decade-long career that yielded seven Grand Slam titles and one Olympic gold medal.

At 27, it certainly is not too late for a comeback. As Clijsters proved, breaking back into the top tier at short notice is far from impossible. She won the U.S. Open in her third tournament since announcing her return.

“Subconsciously, it might have had an impact,” Henin said of Clijster’s successful comeback. “But it certainly was not the most important reason.”

Like Clijsters, Henin is still in her prime and has been able to rest her body for over a year. Throughout her retirement, during which she became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Henin looked fit enough to immediately step back onto a court.

As recently as May, she complained about the old injuries that still gave her pain in the mornings and the dreaded life of living in a bubble as she was shuttled around the world chasing victories.

“The last 15 months I’ve been able to recharge the batteries, emotionally as well,” Henin said.

Henin said coming face to face with the world’s misery on UNICEF trips to places like eastern Congo widened her horizons like tennis never could.

Henin has won nearly $20 million in prize money and had been ranked No. 1 for all but seven weeks since Nov. 13, 2006, until her retirement. When she retired after a string of early tournament exits just ahead of Roland Garros, she felt the fire no longer within and gave in.

It was the first time in a life totally centered around her prodigious talent for whipping backhands past hapless competitors. She became the first woman player to retire as No. 1.

Then, suddenly, this summer the craving came back.

Clijsters rolls in return to Grand Slam play

NEW YORK (AP)—Four years and one baby later, Kim Clijsters still looks like a contender.

The 2005 U.S. Open titlist cruised through her return to Grand Slam tennis Monday, defeating Viktoriya Kutuzova 6-1, 6-1 in the opening round in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Next on that court, Roger Federer extended his U.S. Open winning streak to 35 matches with a 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 victory over NCAA champion Devin Britton.

While Federer is seeking his sixth straight title at Flushing Meadows, Clijsters played her first Grand Slam match since the 2007 Australian Open, after which she retired to start a family. She had a baby girl in May 2008, but recently decided to return to competitive tennis.

It has been a good return thus far, one that has included four wins over top-20 opponents in two tournaments in August. Granted, this was only the first round of the U.S. Open, but her 58-minute win over Kutuzova included very few signs of rust.

“Now it’s a matter of trying to keep this going,” Clijsters said.

She won the first seven and last 11 points of the match and grinded through her few hiccups, including three double-faults in the third game of the opening set, which extended to seven deuces before she pulled it out.

The win guaranteed she’ll be ranked at least 148th after the Open, when she’ll have played the three required tournaments she needs to return to the list.

“I still feel like I can improve,” she said. “But I’m definitely comfortable where I am right now.”

Other winners in the first round included eighth-seeded Victoria Azarenka, 12th-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and 26th-seeded Francesca Schiavone. Paul-Henri Mathieu, No. 26 on the men’s side, was the first seeded player to lose, beaten by Mikhail Youzhny 2-6, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2.

The Williams sisters were both on the schedule, as were Andy Roddick and James Blake.

Another American, Sam Querrey, will debut later this week, bringing with him some lofty expectations—he might be the next great American tennis star in a country looking for just that.

“Everyone is doing what they can,” said Querrey, who is seeded 22nd. “A lot of times, even if you go back 100 years, you’ll have a period of 10 years where you’ll have four or five guys in the top 10, and then years where you might just have one guy. It’s kind of like a rolling wave.”

As much as anywhere else, the search for America’s next great player resonates at Arthur Ashe Stadium, inside the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of America’s Grand Slam. It’s the place where Connors and McEnroe, Chrissy and Tracy Austin, ruled during a golden era that feels more like ancient history with each passing year.

Patrick McEnroe is in charge of putting together the program that will keep the pipeline filled, with hopes of producing multiple stars in the future.

“I think it’s going in the right direction,” Roddick said. “I think even with younger kids going back to 14, 15, 16 years old in Florida, from what I hear, it’s a lot more” organized.

That’s the future.

The present belongs—could belong, that is—to guys like John Isner (ranked 55th), Donald Young (185) and Jesse Levine (135). No. 25 seed Mardy Fish is on this list, too, but the 27-year-old withdrew Sunday with a rib injury.

And Querrey.

He stands 6-foot-6 and ranks third on tour with 696 aces this year, a stat that is allowing him to become more aggressive in his return game, as well, because he’s more confident about holding serve.

He is 21-6 since Wimbledon and has played in four finals, including a victory in Los Angeles. He won the U.S. Open Series, a grouping of hard-court tournaments leading to this week. That pushed his ranking from barely inside the top 50 to a career-best 22nd. It also earned him a chance for a $1 million bonus if he wins the Open.

His biggest win this summer was a 7-6 (11), 7-6 (3) victory over Roddick, one that may not signal Querrey is ready to rise all the way to the top, but certainly serves as a confidence builder.

“It also helps if you play Federer or Nadal,” Querrey said. “Andy’s beaten those guys. Hey, he did it, I beat him, why can’t I beat those guys? So it kind of gives you that extra edge against them, too.”

Kim Clijsters Victorious In Return To Sony Ericsson WTA Tour

Kim Clijsters’ highly anticipated comeback to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour after a two year hiatus was marked by an impressive, 6-4, 6-3, victory over No. 12 seed Marion Bartoli on Monday night at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s Open in Cincinnati.

Clijsters, the 2005 US Open champion, came out firing, jumping out to a 4-0 lead by running down every shot in sight and smashing winners from all across the baseline. The former world No. 1 then saw her lead slip away, as Bartoli evened things at 4-4. But Clijsters broke Bartoli’s serve to take a 5-4 lead and then consolidated the break to take the opening set in front of the pro-Clijsters crowd.

The momentum stayed with Clijsters throughout the second set as the Belgian maintained her high-level of play by breaking serve for a 3-1 lead. Although she faced 10 break points, the 26-year-old and mother of 18-month-old daughter, Jada, won 20 of 30 first serve points and broke serve on four of six occasions en route to victory.

“I was really excited to be out there,” said Clijsters. “I’m excited I will be playing another match.”

Monday’s match was Clijsters’ first match since May 2007, when she lost to Julia Vakulenko in straight sets in the first round in Warsaw, Poland, and later that month announced her retirement from professional tennis citing injuries.

With a compelling victory over a Top 15 player, who just beat Venus Williams to win the title in Stanford, Clijsters’ peers will immediately feel her presence on the tour.

“Without playing a match for two years, it is pretty amazing the level she already has right now,” said Bartoli.

Although her entourage will be with her all week in Cincinnati, as well as next week in Toronto and at the US Open, Clijsters indicated that she will have to balance the physical demands of competitive tennis and family life on the road before she can commit to a full-time schedule.

“I’m not going to have the same type of schedule, 20, 21 tournaments,” said Clijsters, a winner of 34 career singles titles. “I want to see where I am and what is possible, how many weeks I can be away, those are the type of details I need to work out. It is very hard for me to say these are my long term plans.

Awaiting Clijsters in the second round is Patty Schnyder, who beat Gisela Dulko, 6-4, 6-0. Clijsters owns a 5-2 edge against the lefty from Switzerland and has won three of the meetings on hardcourts.

New York Times: Rafael Nadal

rafa-nyt-cover

Those aren’t tumbleweeds you’re seeing, folks. They’re crumpled up pages from this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, torn apart in by frustrated fans who wanted to see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer duke it out for another major title in 2009.

I think Roger will have more pressure on him this year than last. If he can’t string together seven wins in the next two weeks, he doesn’t have a Rafa to blame (will Murray make his mark?). That record-breaking 15th ’slam is just around the corner…

I haven’t finished reading the profile yet, but it seems to offer the same stuff we already know about Rafa. At this point, it’s more about enjoying the writing of Ms. Gorney. My fave quotes thus far:

Referring to Nadal v. Federer: “But let me just suggest that if there were ever a time to understand why people invoke Shakespearean tragedy and ancient gladiators and so on when they carry on about competitive tennis, now is that time.”

And about tennis in general: “‘You must remember,’ [L’Équipe writerPhilippe] Bouin said gently, in his lovely accented English, ‘that in tennis you have to kill the other.’ Not just play better. Sometimes the one who plays better can lose. It’s a sport of splendid cruelty, for all its decorum and finicky trappings; every winning point comes when the other guy, in front of a whole stadium of people staring directly at him, is forced by his opponent into inadequacy. He lunges for the ball but whiffs, he whacks it long, he hits it into the net, he screws up. From the stands, you sometimes see players surrender not because they don’t know how to return the shots coming at them but because the specter of this impending inadequacy has suddenly just taken over their brains. It transpires right in front of your eyes: something sags, and they go sort of limp; you can see their faces and their posture start registering get me out of here.”

Read: Ripped. (Or Torn Up?) by Cynthia GorneyNY Times Magazine, June 21, 2009.

(screen grab via nytimes.com)