Doha

Azarenka Continues to Make Noise; Roddick Drops to Lowest Ranking in 10 Years — The Friday Five

by Maud Watson

Return the Glory

Last weekend saw three ATP stars recapture some positive vibes as they each added another championship title to their list of accomplishments.  Nico Almagro, always a danger on clay, looked sharp as he successfully defended his title in Brasil and mounted a case to be considered a dark horse contender at Roland Garros in the process.  Canadian sensation Milos Raonic, who pulled out of Davis Cup play due to a misreading of a knee scan, showed little sign of any injury, as he worked his way to tournament champion in San Jose for the second consecutive year.  As big as the wins were for Almagro and Raonic, however, the guy who might have been most pleased with his win last weekend was Roger Federer.  After the debacle of the Swiss Davis Cup defeat, a run to the Rotterdam championship was just what the doctor ordered.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in his psyche as he takes to the court in Indian Wells.

Making Some Noise

You probably haven’t heard of her, but 19-year-old Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino completed a great weekend for Spain, claiming her first WTA title with her win in Bogota.  Granted, it was a weak field to begin with, and it only grew weaker as the final approached, but you can only play those in front of you.  There’s also no substitute for big match play, so while it’s far too soon to tell what this young lady is capable of, keep an eye on her to see if this impressive win will lead to future breakthroughs on the game’s grandest stages.  Of course the bigger story was the win in Doha by Victoria Azarenka, who continues to make as much noise with her game as she does with her shrieking.  Though she herself has attempted to stem the talk, there are already murmurs comparing her to Djokovic, as her win in Doha sees her remain perfect in 2012.  Irrespective of what people think of her attitude and theatrics, she appears more than capable of comfortably wearing the badge of the hunted, and there’s no denying that she’s going to be difficult to beat anywhere and on any surface.

Smart Move

Sam Querrey has been given a second chance at finding success on the ATP World Tour, and it looks like he may be intent on not wasting it.  The Californian has switched coaches and has hired Brad Gilbert on a trial basis.  The former coach of Agassi, Roddick, and Murray may prove to be just what Querrey needs, as he has a proven track record of being one of the best when it comes to understanding the game and strategizing.  If anyone can help put Sam in the right mindset and teach him how to best utilize his strengths and guard against his weaknesses, it’s Gilbert.  Here’s to hoping he can help get Querrey back on track, because with Querrey’s talent, anything short of returning to the Top 20 should be considered unacceptable.

Tough Times

At the beginning of this week, Andy Roddick was ranked No. 27.  It’s a ranking that many upstarts, journeyman, and other former top ten players struggling with injury would love to have.  But for Roddick, it represents his lowest ranking since 2001, and it’s a source of major frustration.  He also finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  After sustaining a fresh ankle injury in San Jose, he admitted it might be best to rehab it, but he also wanted match play.  He opted for the latter and remained in Memphis, but after a straight-set dismissal by Malisse, he’s going to get to rehab it after all.  The good news for Roddick is that he doesn’t have much to defend in the near future, but this time period may prove to be the most trying and telling of his career.  Tennis has a way of flipping these scripts on their heads and producing a Cinderella story, like Pete Sampras at the 2002 US Open, but you have to wonder if this latest setback doesn’t have Roddick thinking that retirement is sounding better by the second.

True Grit

After being treated to some vintage Hewitt during the Australian hard court summer, fans of the Aussie will be disappointed to learn “Rusty” is to undergo foot surgery and sit out another four months.  It’s a real testament to his heart and drive that he isn’t thinking of retirement, stating he feels he’s hitting the ball better than he has in years and can’t wait to get back out there.  Hopefully he’ll still be sharp come this summer, as with the dedication he  has shown to both the Davis Cup and the sport in general, it would be completely unjust to not award him a wildcard into the Olympics and allow him one last crack at representing his nation on one of the world’s greatest stages.

The Importance of Week One

With the 2012 season of the ATP World Tour just getting officially underway this week, tennis fans and media alike will be closely watching how the pros come out of the starting blocks.

The Mubadala World Tennis Championship (an exhibition) in Abu Dhabi last week and now regular events in Brisbane, Chennai and Doha, have provided an alphabetically-related quartet of venues whose results may or may not mean anything by the end of the year.

Players who struggle initially and suffer early round losses will attempt to quickly put those disappointments behind them, while winners will try to keep an even keel moving forward. Still, we should not be so quick to discount these early results when looking at the big picture.

The mental consequences of victory versus defeat in the early stages will certainly impact a players progress in the first few weeks on tour. Banking some points in January provides a confidence boost along with either a jump in ranking points or at the very least the ability not to drop in the standings.

Losing yesterday in Doha to Roger Federer means that Nikolay Davydenko can kiss about 150 ranking points goodbye that he had accumulated in the same tournament a year ago. His current ranking of 41st in the world is about to take a big hit and he can clearly forget about any hopes of being seeded at the Australian Open in two weeks.

A player like American Sam Querrey will also be distraught about his opening round loss to Victor Hanescu in Chennai in the opening round. After missing three months midway through 2011 to elbow surgery, Querrey was no-doubt optimistic about starting on the right foot this season. On the plus side for Querrey, he suffered three opening round losses in-a-row a year ago, and thus has no ranking points to defend. There’s only one way for Sam to go in the rankings in January and that is up. Still, he must now regroup and move on to the next tournament hoping his luck will change.

For the top-four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray, these first couple of week’s will be used to jostle for the available confidence and swagger required to conquer the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia. Putting the seed of doubt in an opponent’s head is of equal value to owning that self-confidence. We all know how Djokovic was able to get into Nadal’s head last season and reel-off six consecutive victories in ATP finals on three different surfaces. That kind of dominance goes a long way into determining the final outcome of a match between two foes and getting an edge early-on is what all of these guys are hoping for.

Djokovic has already sent that opening message to his opponents with a strong result in Abu Dhabi. After needing three sets to defeat Gael Monfils, he thrashed Federer 6-2, 6-1 and then beat David Ferrer in the finals by the exact same dominating score. Lookout everybody, because Novak came ready to play.

Federer will hope to shake-off the loss to Djokovic and then Nadal in Abu Dhabi and instead look back to his impressive 17-0 finish to the 2011 season where he won three consecutive tournaments. Still, his early defeats to Djokovic and Nadal can’t make him feel great.

With Federer and Nadal playing in Doha and Murray in Brisbane this week, we’ll see who is ready to join Djokovic as an early front-runner prior to the January 16th start date in Melbourne. Regardless of what players of any ranking say to the press, the importance of week one is something we cannot deny.

Roger Federer as a Champion and Father

Roger Federer is a man of many talents both on- and off-the-court, but how long can his career really last? As he is no longer winning tournaments every month, many have called an end to his tennis career. But, in fact, he is more in control than ever, and his renewed focus this year will last him well into the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012.

Federer began the year in promising fashion taking the season-opening title in Doha, but faltered, allowing ten months to pass before winning a follow-up tournament in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland last week. Although he qualified for the 2011 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals back in September for a tenth straight time, it will be the first time in his career that he hasn’t won at least three tournaments going into the Finals.

With his recent confidence-surge in Basel, Federer is poised to defend his title in London, but not without a hungry pack of Europeans clawing their own way to the top of the rankings. If Federer is to make a repeat trip to the winner’s circle in London several pieces need to fall into place. He claimed the month-long pause he took prior to Basel really “paid off” in terms of his “mind, body, family, and fitness,” and he’ll have at least a week break before the London Finals to rest up. The only problem is that so does every other player in the field.

While top contender Novak Djokovic continues to struggle with his right shoulder injury, an in-form Andy Murray and a well-rested Rafael Nadal may be Federer’s biggest threats. Nadal even pulled the plug on the Paris Masters this week to focus on London. David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych could also vie for the London title as Ferrer reached the finals of Shangai and Berdych won Beijing, but neither is consistent or level-headed enough to pull off the feat. A first-time winner for London will just have to wait.

Federer has emerged as the dangerous contender as his priorities have shifted slightly since his twin girls were born two years ago, and he acknowledges that his goals might be slightly different from his younger compatriots. The effortless movement and shot-making skills on-court that defined Federer at his prime have taken a backseat to his family, where he now uses that same effortless care to look after his family. As the girls mature, they have become increasingly more present in the media, and we have seen a different side to one of the greatest champions in tennis.

The last time a top ten player was a father, was Gilles Simon exactly two years ago, but he has wavered in his rankings even falling out of the top 50 at one point. The last real champion in Federer’s similar position was Lleyton Hewitt back in 2005 when he had his first child and was ranked two in the world. Clearly, it’s a unique position to behold in tennis and shows an incredible energy to balance family and a grueling professional life. But it’s to Federer’s advantage. When Tommy Haas became a father last year, he expressed how it opened his eyes to seeing the tennis and real world in a different way. Much like Federer, he found a new focus beyond the “right now” and quickly learned that every moment with his family was precious. Haas worked doubly hard on-court in half the amount of time just to be with his family more. Although this path has not paid off professionally for Haas due to recurrent injuries, Federer seems to have taken to this principle and is molding his tennis and family life together for now.

With his renewed mind, rested body, and relaxed demeanor, Federer has entered into a new phase in his life this year, and it just may be enough to drive him to win the ATP World Tour Finals later this month and contend for the Australian Open Championships next January. Only time will tell if his resolve will once again guide him back into his winning ways.

Dementieva’s Shock Retirement, Clijsters wins in Doha and ATP Finals Chase is on

*29-year-old world No. 9 Elena Dementieva has shocked the tennis world by announcing that she will retire from the sport following the WTA Championships in Doha. She reached the finals of the French and US Opens in 2004 as well as the semi finals in Australia (2009), Wimbledon (2008, 2009) and at the WTA Chmps. (2000, 2008) whilst also holding both an Olympic Gold (Beijing) and Silver (Sydney) medal. In 2005 she starred for Russia in their Fed Cup triumph and currently stands as their most successful competitor ever in the competition and in 2009 she reached a career-high No. 3 in the world. But she says it was at the beginning of the year she made her decision and that, despite her family’s best attempts, she’s sticking to her guns. “This is my last tournament,” she told the Doha crowd after her group-stage defeat to Francesca Schiavone. “Thank you to all of the people that I have worked with for such a long time. I would like to thank all of the players for an amazing experience. It’s very emotional. I would like to thank all of the people around the world for supporting me through my career. And I would like to thank my family, especially my mum.” For more from Dementieva as well as reaction from her fellow pros visit the BBC Tennis website as well as the WTA site.

*Belgian super mum Kim Clijsters defeated Danish superstar Caroline Wozniacki to lift the WTA Championships for the third time in Doha. The 27-year-old fought to a 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory despite having not played since lifting the US Open at Flushing Meadows back in September. “I’m glad I won and it must be disappointing for Caroline, but I don’t know how many more years I’m going to keep doing this,” said Clijsters. “It was just a great battle, great fitness and I think we showed the crowd some great women’s tennis.” Wozniacki said: “This has been a fantastic week for me. Kim just played amazing today and she deserves to win. In the third set it was very close. She played really well, especially in the important moments. Definitely the experience mattered a little bit today.” Gisela Dulko and Flavia Penetta won the doubles.

*The men’s season isn’t quite over yet but time is seriously running out for the remaining hopefuls looking to qualify for the ATP Finals in London later this month. Andy Roddick returned from a three-week layoff in Basel and defeated compatriot Sam Querrey 7-5, 7-6(6) to keep up his finals charge but there was not such good news for Tomas Berdych and Fernando Verdasco. Over at Valencia, Verdasco lost to Frenchman Gilles Simon in just fifty-seven minutes which deals a major blow to his finals hopes. Simon was on fire, winning an astonishing 81% of points off of his first serve. It was even worse for Wimbledon finalist Berdych. He went down 4-6, 1-6 in Basel to German lucky loser Tobias Kamke and now his qualification chances will be severely dented too.

*There’s an early Davis Cup final setback for France as world No. 13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has withdrawn from the squad to face Serbia due to his recurring knee problems. He ruptured his tendon once more playing at Montpellier last week having only returned to action a few weeks previously. The 2008 Aussie Open finalist will also miss the Paris Masters next week where he would have been hoping to push his way in to the ATP World Tour Finals to be held in London later this month.

*Great scenes in St. Petersburg last week as world No. 88 Mikhail Kukushkin humbled top seed Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 7-6(2) to break his ATP Tour title duck. “For me it’s just incredible, this feeling, because I never think that I can win a tournament right now because I was ranked around 90,” he said. “When I came here I didn’t think I can even play quarter-finals, semis here. I was just concentrating on every match.” It was also his first final on the tour. A full interview with the Kazakhstani star can be seen at the ATP website.

*Caroline Wozniacki of course had already secured her berth as the year-ending world No. 1 but what did Doha mean for the rest? Kim Clijsters’ win has seen her climb back to No. 3 in the world meaning Serena finds herself sat at No. 4 as her injury woes continue. Aussie Sam Stosur finds herself back at No. 6 while much further down the scale, Croatia’s Karolina Sprem finds herself back up to No. 97 in the world having sat at 106 last week.

*The Christophe Rochus doping row has taken the interest of many tennis fans this week and it once again brings tennis in to contact with that horrible term and concept. There is an interesting debate on the issue over at Tennis.com between Steve Tignor and Kamakshi Tandon.

*Ana Ivanovic and coach Heinz Gunthardt have parted ways despite Ana’s recent resurgence. Gunthardt couldn’t commit to a full-time coaching role and Ana has decided to find somebody who will be able to follow her more permanently.

*It’s retirement central currently with American Taylor Dent hinting he may quit if results begin to slip. After overcoming terrible back injuries over the past few years the former world No. 21 has been fighting to climb the ladder again and save his career. “If I feel like I’m making headway, I’ll keep going,” Dent told the Charlottesville Daily Progress ahead of this week’s Charlottesville challenger. “If not—if I’m floundering or taking steps backward—then I’ll make that decision [to retire] sooner rather than later.”

*Another American is talking pipes and slippers, this time Rennae Stubbs. She says she plans to call time on her career in February after the Aussie Open and America’s Fed Cup tie against Italy. “If we win [in] Fed Cup and get to the semis, there’s a small possibility that I’d still like to be a part of that journey, having been on the train for so long,”’ the 39-year-old doubles specialist told the Melbourne Age. “But the plan is that Fed Cup will probably be it.”

*Dustin Brown is now competing under the German flag, having earlier represented Jamaica and expressing interest in representing Great Britain. He has clashed with the Jamaican tennis authorities over a perceived lack of support and famously travelled between tournaments in a camper van to save funds. He was born in Germany to a German mother and Jamaican father.

*There has been a lot of fuss made this past week about the fact that Aussie star Lleyton Hewitt announced the name of his new baby daughter via a paid-for text message service which fans could subscribe too. Hewitt, of course, is defending his “service” available to fans but many of the world’s press think badly of the venture. Although the argument is a little old now, there is a great tongue-in-cheek article on The Star website looking at the whole debacle from a typically Aussie perspective. Check it out, it’s a good read!

Who’s Left to Qualify for London?

So we tearfully farewelled Elena Dementieva, my favourite, the “Slamless Swan” and saw “Little Miss Sunshine” Caroline Woznaicki and her magical yellow panties, cement the world No. 1 ranking for the year, and Sam Stosur reminded us (with the help of Fran Schiavone) that sadly, all the love in the world can’t stop a choke. Vika Azarenka stuck around Doha for another girlie sleepover while Jelly Jankovic limped home. And finally, Kim Clijsters reminded us that her best days are far from over. There is credit going where credit is due, and that is to the fabulous field of eight women who showed us some beautiful, well-crafted, athletic and gutsy tennis last week in Doha.

It’s time to turn the volume back up now for my legitimate favorites, the boys of the ATP. It’s a big week, as the contenders for the Top 8 to reach the World Tour Finals in London scrabble to pick up as many loose points as they can, even if it means stealing it from an old lady. (Oh no wait, Kimiko Date is in Bali!)

While the Big Four (And Sod!) have already qualified, competition for the last three spots is tight, most of it depending on this week’s 500 tournaments in Valencia and Basel. Next week’s Masters in Paris Bercy will clinch the lineup.

There are six guys competing for the last three spots, and they’re all awesome. (And hot. Random, amazing, true.) These guys have all had a great season, for one reason or another, and would be great additions to challenge the “B4AS” and give us some depth in London. (Except Tomas, sorry – unless he leaves his brain at home).

Tomas Berdych

With the 3665 points he picked up from basically being a badass this year, upsetting big ‘uns at the important moments, he had us all thinking he could do it before running back to the happy choking cave and refusing to win since Wimbledon. He’s in Basel for the week, but so are Nole and Fed, which means it’s likely the head case came too, packed and wrapped in a shiny red ribbon. Sweet.

David Ferrer

The sexy Spaniard’s been aiming for this goal all year – unlike the dudes who pretend they have no interest whatsoever – and he’s done pretty well to get there, with an incredible clay season and consistent hard court results throughout the year. With 3325 points, he has an almost sure chance of getting in, even if he doesn’t pick up any spares in his backyard in Valencia.

Andy Roddick

It looks like a lackluster season, but we forget how well he did on hard courts at the start of the year, in Miami and Indian Wells. His 3305 points make it very easy to catch up to Mr Ferru or even Tomas, should Tomas lose early and Rod make it all the way. Though honestly, it’s Basel that he’s chosen for the week, and scary Fed is there. Boo.

Fernando Verdasco

Fernando Verdasco is trying to remind us of the inspired second half of a match he played in New York when he stole our hearts with that incredible matchpoint, hoping for a deep run in Valencia that’ll supplement his 3150 points. Got to remember though, that even if he takes the whole thing, that still leaves him shy, and who knows what else the other boys might pick up during the week.

Mikhail Youzhny

My boy Misha is a worry. His 2910 points could have put him in contention if he’d done what he was supposed to do after beating Dima, and actually finished off Kukushkin for the St Petersburg title. Instead, he waltzed around the tennis court for an hour and now has to show us his stuff in Valencia or risks falling back down into top 20 land. He made the final last year, so Race aside, he could also fall significantly, dammit.

Whatever, Jurgen. We know you had a great year, but take what you got in doubles and shuddup now, okay. You got your Vienna title, but there’s no way you’ll make it to London for singles unless you somehow take Paris. I’ll snigger at the prospect now but let me bite my tongue – hell, this is tennis.

Honorable mentions go to Jo and Marin, who everyone’s going, what, them? They haven’t had such great seasons –until we remember they were our Melbourne semifinalists, though Marin has basically reached irrelevance and Jo’s pulled out of Valencia with an injured knee. Nico’s done great, and I’m proud, but that’s enough for now boy. Leave the Valencia points to the boys who need them.

WTA Stars Create Their Own “Off-Season”

If Serena Williams’ troublesome foot does, in fact, keep her out for the remainder of the tennis season, seven of the world’s top 20 women will have checked out post-U.S. Open due to injury or illness. And there could be more “out-for-the-season” announcements to come.

Already Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Nadia Petrova, Agnieszksa Radwanska, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova have thrown in the towel, but Na Li and Kim Clijsters have also struggled with injuries lately. With the WTA Championships in Doha and the Bali Tournament of Champions fast approaching, you can bet tournament organizers are hoping to avoid any more withdrawals.

It seems many of the top players are going to take a break whether it’s on the calendar or not. Complaints about the length of the professional tennis season are nothing new, but the women’s schedule is already about three weeks shorter than the men’s (though the ATP is scheduled to vote on shortening theirs as well).

Injuries are unavoidable, but you have to wonder whether some of those seven women would pull themselves together if the WTA year-end championships or the Tournament of Champions in Bali (which includes several more top players) fell under the Grand Slam heading.

Admittedly, the WTA does everything it can to make their season ending event an attractive tour stop. The champion in Doha stands to rake in $1.5 million, which is more than the winner’s earnings in two of the four Grand Slams. But prize money alone can’t create interest from players or fans.

When the U.S. Open wraps up in early September, most casual tennis followers join the injured players and set their sites on next season. So why not shorten the time between the final Grand Slam and the year-end championships? Why not see if it’s possible to ride the wave of U.S. Open interest? Not only would that extend the off-season for the top players, but there would be a greater chance that those invited to participate would tough it out in order to compete.

It wouldn’t be necessary to shorten the overall calendar. Just let the second tier players fight it out through mid-November for prize money and ranking points. Fall is likely their favorite time of the year anyway with many of their toughest opponents having already packed it in. Those players have undoubtedly survived long seasons as well, but consider the difference between Caroline Wozniacki and say, No. 37 Agnes Szavay. Both have played 21 tournaments to date, but the world No. 1 has played 22 more matches.

The problem with the tennis off-season, no matter when it starts, is that players not named Venus or Serena Williams can’t afford (or don’t think they can afford) to take a month or two away from the game when that may be what’s most needed for full physical and psychological rejuvenation.

Professional football and baseball players, for instance, are given training camps to get back in playing shape after their long off-seasons, but tennis requires constant practice. A player can certainly get some rest in November and December, but very few can step away completely without suffering the consequences when tournament play ramps up in January.

As it stands currently, Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams (yes, she’s still officially the mix), Kim Clijsters, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva, Francesca Schiavone, Sam Stosur, and Vera Zvonareva will begin round robin play in Doha on October 26th.

Interestingly, only four of this year’s scheduled competitors (Wozniacki, Dementieva, Jankovic and Williams) played the tournament last year. The handful of new faces could allow for some end-of-season surprises.

An additional eight players including Yanina Wickmayer, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daniela Hantuchova, Alisa Kleybanova and defending champion Aravane Rezai will compete in the Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions in Bali on November 4th. Na Li has also qualified for the tournament, but will earn a spot in Doha if Serena pulls out as expected. Ana Ivanovic, who is just coming off her first title in two years, also gained entry as a wildcard.

By Blair Henley

Murray Survives Scare To Advance In Cincinnati; Federer, Nadal Advance

Defending champion and No. 3 seed Andy Murray of Scotland rallied from a set and break down in the second set to edge past lucky loser Julien Benneteau of France, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, in two hours and 11 minutes on Friday afternoon to advance to the semifinals at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters 1000 in Cincinnati.

The 22-year-old Scot, who is the new No. 2 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings after winning the title last week in Montreal, struggled to find his form after breaking to take a 3-2 lead. Following the service break, the 27-year-old Frenchman immediately broke Murray’s serve to level the match at 3-3 before winning three of the next four games to take the opening set, 6-4.

“I knew I had to be aggressive,” said Benneteau, who got in the main draw when Juan Martin del Potro withdrew after the draw was made.

Benneteau, who is currently ranked No. 55, secured an early break in the second set to go ahead 2-0 and looked to have a big edge on Murray, who looked out of sorts on all his shots.

The turning point occurred in the next game when Murray won a thrilling 53-shot rally and quickly broke back to get back on serve. The Scot, who has now won a record 53 matches this season, insisted the 53-shot rally changed the rest of the match.
“Oh, it made a big different,” said Murray, who has won five titles this year in Doha, Rotterdam, Miami, Queen’s Club and Montreal. “I think he was very tired after that rally. I managed to stay strong after that.”
The momentum shifted immediately and it was all Murray from that point on, dropping just two more games en route to victory.
“You know, he’s been around a long time and he’s very experienced and obviously made it very difficult today,” said Murray, who has reached five of the last nine ATP World Tour Masters 1000 finals dating back to his victory in Cincinnati last August.

Murray, who earned his 72nd career win in a Masters 1000 event, smashed seven aces, won 70 percent of first serve points and broke Benneteau’s serve on six of 13 opportunities. Benneteau hit four aces, three double faults, won 59 percent of first serve points and was able to break Murray’s serve three times.

Murray’s semifinal opponent on Saturday afternoon will be world No. 1 Roger Federer, who eased past former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, 6-3, 6-4, in 70 minutes.

Federer, who earned his 200th career win at a Masters 1000 event, was in complete control from start to finish, breaking serve once in each set to win convincingly. Federer’s serve was superb, winning 24 of 27 first serve points, smashing 11 aces, while not facing a break point the entire match.

The 15-time Grand Slam singles champion insisted holding serve against Hewitt is an important thing to accomplish during a match with the fiery Aussie.

“I think that definitely helps against Lleyton, who once he gets his teeth into your serve it can get quite tricky,” said Federer, who improved to 9-1 in quarterfinal matches this season.

Hewitt, who reached the finals in Cincinnati in 2002 and 2004, only managed to hit two aces and win 69 percent of his first serve points.

Federer improved to 15-7 against Hewitt, winning the last 13 meetings.

“He’s beaten me so many times in the past that I didn’t expect myself to all of a sudden go on such a great run against him,” said Federer, whose loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last week in Montreal was his first loss since losing at the Masters 1000 in Madrid in May.

In the late match, No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal of Spain continued his impressive return from a knee tendinitis injury, dispatching Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic, 6-4, 7-5, in one hour and 41 minutes.

Nadal, who has won six Grand Slam singles titles including four French Open titles, was impressive on serve throughout, hitting two aces and winning 35 of 41 first serve points. The 23-year-old Spaniard was also able to break serve twice on six opportunities.

The former world No. 1 will face No. 4 seed Novak Djokovic in the night match on Saturday. Djokovic won his quarterfinal match by defeating Frenchman Gilles Simon, 6-4, 7-5, to advance to his second straight semifinal in Cincinnati.

Robbie Koenig Blog: Murray Camp Quietly Confident As Oz Awaits

Well, what can I say other than that Andy Murray was too good in the Doha final against Andy Roddick last weekend. He was in a different class. Never at one stage in the match did it look like Roddick had a chance – that’s how good Murray played, and the scary thing is, he didn’t even get out of third gear!!!

I had a chat with Miles Maclagen (Andy’s coach) after the match and they are quietly confident about Melbourne and the year ahead (No surprises there!!! BUT the key here is – it’s all very understated and they realize there’s plenty still to be done.) Murray’s back strain is nothing serious, just the courts are a bit “grippy” and it takes some getting used to.

As for Roddick, I’ve enjoyed watching his attacking play this week. He came in a lot, but still needs to refine his tactics around the net. We’ll see if Larry Stefanki (his new coach) can highlight the adjustments or not….If not, I’m available! I always knew my way around the net!!

Hope you all enjoy the OZ Open.

PS: For any tennis fans out there who want a great “Player’s Experience” at a tournament, my fellow commentator Jason Goodall and myself are doing an excellent clinic, only 10 people max, at most of the Masters Series 1000 events on the Finals weekend (Sat & Sun morning). After the clinic, you can go watch the semis and finals match. We put on a great gig (we know the tournaments inside out!), and people love it, they want to bring their friends etc…. but we keep it small, so the experience is a special one! It’s a blast if you can make it!!! Post a note to me here if you are interested in joining us!

– Robbie

Mondays With Bob Greene: I am one of the top guys

STARS

Andy Murray won the Qatar Open, beating Andy Roddick 6-4 6-2 in Doha, Qatar.

Elena Dementieva beat Elena Vesnina 6-4 6-1 to win the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand.

Victoria Azarenka won the Brisbane International, her first WTA Tour title, by beating Marion Bartoli 6-3 6-1 in Brisbane, Australia.

Marin Cilic beat Somdev Devvarman 6-4 7-6 (3) to win the Chennai Open in Chennai, India.

Radek Stepanek beat Fernando Verdasco 3-6 6-3 6-4 to win the Brisbane International men’s singles.

Venus Williams beat Vera Zvonareva 6-2 6-2 to lead Team Americas to victory in the World Team Challenge in Hong Kong.

Dominika Cibulkova and Dominik Hrbaty won their singles matches as Slovakia beat Russia in the Hopman Cup final in Perth, Australia

SAYINGS

“I love my job. I love hitting balls, running and jumping, chasing after that ball. I love what I do, so I think that’s what keeps me motivated.” – Venus Williams, saying she has no plans to retire from tennis.

“Everybody says the third time is the charm, but for me it’s the fifth. I’m just glad I finally got it!” – Victoria Azarenka, after winning her first WTA Tour title in her fifth final.

“I am one of the top guys, but I don’t know if I am the favorite at the Australian Open. There is Roger, Rafa and Novak, who won last year.” – Andy Murray, after beating Roger Federer in the semifinals and Andy Roddick in the final to win the Qatar Open.

“He’s in top form right now. I think he is capable of winning the big ones.” – Andy Roddick, on Andy Murray’s chances of winning the Australian Open.

“My shoulder is doing great but I just started training a few weeks ago and I am just not near the level I need to be to compete at the highest levels.” – Maria Sharapova, announcing she will not be defending her Australian Open women’s singles title.

“I had an almost perfect start to the match and I played well on most points. I didn’t allow him to settle down.” – Gael Monfils, after upsetting top-ranked Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-4 at the Qatar Open.

“Today wasn’t my day. .. I knew it won’t be easy at the start of the season, but I am happy with my game.” – Rafael Nadal, after losing to Gael Monfils.

“I need more time to adjust, to get my rhythm and feel the court, feel the ball. You could see, I was very, very slow out there. My reactions were quite slow.” – Jelena Jankovic, after losing to Venus Williams in Hong Kong.

“I’m having acute pain in my left heel that flared up last week … I now need to fix this before playing any more tournaments. It’s obviously serious since I’ll even miss the Australian Open.” – Nikolay Davydenko, after pulling out of the Chennai Open and the Australian Open because of an injured left heel.

“It is probably one of my best wins, but best game I don’t think so. I have had some beautiful losses.” – Ernests Gulbis, after upsetting Novak Djokovic in the opening round at Brisbane, Australia.

“I have nothing to do with this. I’m Shahar Peer. I came here to play tennis. I know I’m from Israel and I’m proud of my country and that playing tennis is what I’m going to do tomorrow.” – Shahar Peer, rejecting calls for her to withdraw from the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, because of Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

“I’m sure it was a tough day for her because of the situation in her country. I just know she can play better tennis next week.” – Elena Dementieva, saying protests by peace activists probably affected the play of Israel’s Shahar Peer, who lost 6-3 6-1 to the top-seeded Russian.

“Our only previous encounter was in the US Open, where I lost a very tight match to him after leading by two sets. I was confident from the beginning and knew that I could beat him.” – Flavio Cipolla, after upsetting second-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the opening round of the Chennai Open.

“I got in trouble in Moscow … I wasn’t in the right place at the right time, put it this way. I won the fight. I’m good, I’m OK.” – Marat Safin, explaining his condition after media in Perth, Australia, reported that Safin’s left eye was black and he had what appeared to be a cut near his right eye.

“I kind of took it for granted, you know the tournaments and everything. Then once you stop traveling you have to face a reality that I can’t do this any more. I was lucky that I was so young.” – Sesil Karatantcheva, who at 19 has returned to the WTA Tour following a two-year ban for testing positive for steroids.

“I sent a message to him that I just wasn’t going to go away.” – Somdev Devvarman, who upset Carlos Moya in the second round at the Chennai Open, 4-6 7-5 6-4.

“It’s a long time. I was thinking about it when I came off the court. It’s showing I’m still there.” – Amelie Mauresmo, after beating top-seeded Ana Ivanovic 6-3 6-2 in the Brisbane International for her first victory over a top 10 player in two years.

SHARAPOVA SITS

Maria Sharapova won’t be defending her Australian Open women’s singles title. The Russian right-hander withdrew from this month’s Grand Slam tournament, saying she took longer than expected to recover from a shoulder injury. She said she didn’t begin training until a few weeks ago and is unable to compete right now. The 21-year-old Sharapova won her first 18 matches in 2008 and rose briefly to the number one ranking before she hurt her shoulder. She also withdrew from the Beijing Olympics and the US Open.

SERBIAN SICK

Jelena Jankovic pulled out of her only warm-up event before the Australian Open, citing the flu. Ranked number one in the world, Jankovic lost in straight sets to Venus Williams in her opening singles, then struggled visibly through a doubles match before pulling out of the event in Hong Kong. “I have been trying my best to get on the court, but I feel slow, I have no reactions and it has been a struggle for me,” Jankovic said.

SKIPPING MELBOURNE

An injury will cause Nikolay Davydenko to skip the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. Ranked fifth in the world, Davydenko withdrew from the Chennai Open, where he was the top seed, because of acute pain in his left heel. He said the injury also bothered him last season, but it became acute the week before Chennai. “I need to check my heel, and that’s why I’m going home to see what’s happening and what’s wrong,” Davydenko said. “The problem started last year, but I thought I could still continue playing. It was (painful) even when I played the Shanghai Masters in November.”

SUCCESS, FINALLY

It was the fifth time she had played in a final, but Victoria Azarenka came away with her first WTA Tour title, beating Marion Bartoli 6-3 6-1 at the Brisbane International. The Belarusian completely dominated the third-seeded Bartoli, breaking serve six times and needing only 71 minutes to wrap up the crown. “The way I was thinking on court was very different from before. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was playing in a final,” said Azarenka, who was seeded second. “I was thinking it was a regular match, regular points.”

SUCH SUCRE

Because of the global financial crisis, the singles finalists at this year’s Australian Open will find a bonus in their paychecks. Tournament officials said they are increasing total prize money for the event to $23.4 million Australian (USD $15.7), with the bulk of the increase going to the singles finalists. Both men and women champions will receive $2 million Australian, while the runners-up with earn $1 million Australian. Organizers had announced in October that they were increasing the first prize from $1.37 million Australian to $1.62 million, but decided to raise it again to counter the drop in exchange rates.

STAYING PUT

Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer refused to withdraw from the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, because of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. A New Zealand protest group, Peace and Justice Auckland, wrote to Peer asking her to withdraw from the WTA Tour event. But Peer said that while she is proud of her country, she takes no responsibility for her nation’s military action. She said this was the first time she had been the focus of protests and noted that she was the first Israeli to play in the Muslim country of Qatar, where she was warmly received. Yet she noted that the protesters had the right to express their view. “It’s their choice and they are choosing what they want to do,” she said. Peer eventually lost to top-seeded Elena Dementieva 6-3 6-1.

SEEKING THE TOP

Instead of considering retirement, Venus Williams says she wants to regain the top spot in women’s tennis. Currently ranked sixth in the world, Williams has won seven Grand Slam singles titles, including five Wimbledon crowns. “This year I feel I’m in a great position to move forward to number one, but of course I’ve got to do it, and that will be the fun part,” she said. “I will try to get there.” Dismissing thoughts of retirement, Venus said she plans on playing at least until the 2012 London Olympics. And she said she and her sister, Serena, will play doubles this year in all four Grand Slam tournaments. “We love winning those titles and I think if we could play more often we could just keep getting them,” Venus said.

SIGNED

Jelena Dokic has been named to Australia’s Fed Cup team, which has been called one of the strongest squads in recent years. Dokic last played for Australia in April 2000 against Russia in Moscow. Then, after her father Damir moved his family back to Belgrade in 2001, she played for Serbia-Montenegro in 2004 in the Europe-Africa zone. Also selected to represent Australia in the February 4-7 Group II round-robin competition at Perth are Sam Stosur, the country’s highest-ranked woman, Casey Dellacqua and Rennae Stubbs. Besides Australia, other nations participating will be Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Korea, New Zealand, Thailand and Uzbekistan.

SHIKHA GONE

Shikha Uberoi, who has played 21 matches for India’s Fed Cup team, won’t be allowed to compete this year. The reason? She’s a citizen of the United States, and new rules by the Indian government bar non citizens from competing. Uberoi says she’s “eating too many chocolates out of depression from not being allowed to play for India.”

SESIL’S BACK

At the age of 19, Sesil Karatantcheva says she feels like a grandmother. The Bulgarian has returned to the WTA Tour after serving a two-year ban for testing positive for steroids. Then 16, she tried to blame the positive test on being pregnant. Karatantcheva says it was her own stupidity that helped her make it through the suspension. “In my case, I had nothing else to do, so I just kept practicing. It takes to be kind of stupid,” she said. While she reached a career-high ranking of 35 in the world, Karatantcheva has never played many of the women now on the tour. “As much as I feel like a rookie, I feel like a grandmother on tour – you know, seeing all these 14- and 15- year-olds coming. I remember when I was 14, 15. They probably think I’m slow and old. But I still have some time left.”

STRAIGHT IN

Eight players have won wild card spots in the main draw of the Australian Open, including Yuan Meng of China, Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan and Adrian Mannarino and Kristina Mladenovic of France. Earlier, Americans John Isner and 16-year-old Christina McHale won wild-card berths into the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. The wild cards were granted under exchange agreements with tennis federations from the United States, France and Asia. Colin Ebelthite and former Wimbledon semifinalist Jelena Dokic won the Australian wild-car tournament. Istomin, who will be playing in his third Australian Open, is hoping for a better draw. He lost to Roger Federer in his debut in 2006, then to Lleyton Hewitt in a second-round match last year. Yuan qualified for last year’s Australian Open before losing to Serena Williams in the second round. Also awarded wild cards were Australian teenagers Brydan Klein and Isabella Holland.

SCHUETTLER HURT

Citing a wrist injury, Rainer Schuettler withdrew from his semifinal match against Somdev Devvarman at the Chennai Open. “During yesterday’s doubles match, I started feeling pain in my left wrist,” the German said. “As I warmed up for the semifinal, I wasn’t able to hit a double-handed backhand. I felt a strong pain. I would only be able to slice and I am also afraid that the injury would get worse.” A semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, Schuettler also withdrew from the Medibank International this week in Sydney, Australia.

SELECTED

Racquet Sports Industry magazine has selected Dave Haggerty as “Person of the Year” in its January issue. Haggerty is chief executive officer of Head USA, president of Penn Racquet Sports and just beginning a two-year term as vice president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA). Haggerty led off the magazine’s eighth annual “Champions of Tennis Awards,” which honors people and organizations dedicated to improving the sport and business of tennis.

SORELY MISSED

The father of former world number one Kim Clijsters is dead. Lei Clijsters was 52 when he died after a year-long battle with lung cancer, according to Derniere Heure newspaper. Clijsters played 40 matches for Belgium’s national soccer team, participating in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups. In 1986, Belgium reached the semifinals. He captained FC Mechelen when it won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1988. After retiring from soccer in 1993, Clijsters managed his daughter’s tennis career until she retired in 2007. Kim Clijsters won the US Open in 2005.

Sidney Wood, who in 1931 became the only uncontested winner of a Wimbledon final, has died in Palm Beach, Florida. He was 95. Wood won Wimbledon when he opponent, US Davis Cup teammate Frank Shields, was unable to play the final because of an ankle injury. Wood, who made history four years earlier when at age 15 he became the youngest male to ever play Wimbledon, losing in straight sets to French great Rene Lacoste, was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964. He had been the oldest living Hall of Famer.

SHARED PERFORMANCES

Auckland: Nathalie Dechy and Mara Santangelo beat Nuria Llagostera Vives and Arantxa Parra Santonja 4-6 7-6 (3) 12-10 (match tiebreak)

Doha: Marc Lopez and Rafael Nadal beat Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic 4-6 6-4 10-8 (match tiebreak)

Brisbane (women): Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Vania King beat Klaudia Jans and Alicja Rosolska 3-6 7-5 10-5 (match tiebreak)

Brisbane (men): Marc Gicquel and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Fernando Verdasco and Mischa Zverev 6-4 6-3

Chennai: Eric Butorac and Rajeev Ram beat Jean-Claude Sherrer and Stanislas Wawrinka 6-3 6-4

SITES TO SURF

Sydney: www.Medibankinternational.com.au

Hobart: www.hobartinternational.com.au

Auckland: www.heinekenopen.co.nz/1/home

Melbourne: www.australianopen.com/

TOURNAMENTS THIS WEEK

ATP

$484,750 Medibank International, Sydney, Australia, hard

$480,750 Heineken Open, Auckland, New Zealand, hard

WTA TOUR

$600,000 Medibank International, Sydney, Australia, hard

$220,000 Moorilla Hobart International, Hobart, Australia, hard

TOURNAMENTS NEXT WEEK

ATP and WTA TOUR

Australian Open, Melbourne, Australia, hard

Murray The Man To Beat, Despite Column To The Contrary

Well, its all happening here in the desert – first Rafael Nadal going out to Gael Monfils, then Andy Murray comfortably disposing of Roger Federer. I was reading some  column by a guy from a prominent tennis website who says Murray only has a 25% chance of winning the Oz Open, and he couldn’t understand what all the talk was about Murray!

He said all of Murray’s off season training was just hype, and whats more, he’d only ever made it to the semis of a major ( now, there’s some accurate journalism….PS The US Open was the last major that was played! How does this guy think we can take his comments seriously!!!) and couldn’t be seen as the guy to beat.

Well hear it from me…Murray is the guy to beat at The Australian Open, he’s beaten all the top boys plenty now, and has learned a lot from That US Open FINAL. I know his “team” well and the off-season training was brutal….the kid is in good shape, and bar any injury, will be able to go the distance with anyone!

It is good to see Andy Roddick back in the mix again and I especially enjoyed his exploits at the net!

Enjoy….I certainly have enjoyed this week. These guys really know how to put on an event !!

Robbie