Fed Cup

Serena Williams: Nothing Left To Prove

As I watched Serena Williams take on Johanna Larsson during last weekend’s USA/Sweden Fed Cup tie, I will admit I was surprised by the level of her intensity. Given where she was, playing a relegation rubber in front of a rain-affected crowd,  it seemed – how does one put this? – out of character.

Surely, I jest. Anyone who has watched even a smattering of tennis in the last decade can attest to the intensity this living legend possesses. Such intensity almost single-handedly took her to the pinnacle of the sport and helped her through the darker days, both on and off the court. It never mattered her shape, scoreline, or  state of mind. It mattered even less who was across the net, be she rival or sister, Venus. In a game where many have been lambasted for their lack of mental toughness,  Serena was the WTA’s rock, who relied on her relentless intensity and competitive fire to finish off many a tough match.

How has she been able to do these incredible things for so long? It could be said that what has kept her at the top of the sport for nearly 15 years has been what could be deemed an “economy of intensity.” Williams has made a career out of bringing her best when it matters the most. Arguably our sport’s biggest star (at least in North America), she shapes her seasons around the Slams, peaking at the right time during those all-important two week stretches.

This extreme prioritizing has all but cemented her place in history, but often created a few problems for her in the present. Those who tuned in solely during the Grand Slams (or even those with a more comprehensive view of the sport) would see the most dominant player in the game ranked outside the top 3 and wonder “why?” A cursory glance at her results outside of the Slams would reveal a fair share of no-shows (she essentially took herself out of the race for year-end No. 1 when she withdrew from the Fall Asian swing) and shocking losses (Austrian journeywoman Sybille Bammer retired in 2011 undefeated against her).

A desire to explain this vast incongruity shifted the blame from her comparative lack of focus on a smaller stage to a lack of commitment to be a full-time tennis player. This truism dates back to 2006, when Chris Evert took to Tennis Magazine to write an open letter to Williams questioning her desire. At that point, she had won seven major singles titles, yet at the time, the tennis world felt gypped, and that Serena still had something to prove.

For all she has accomplished since then, it has been difficult for Serena to shake that stick.

Yet, for any of us to fall back on this notion is to ignore this latest incarnation of Serena Williams. The veteran of 30 who fought off a toe injury that led to a pulmonary embolism only to find herself back at No. 1 two years later. The woman who shed tears after her first Wimbledon match after that lay-off, and again when she was told of her return to the top of the rankings in Doha.

What more does she need to do to prove how much she wants to be here?

Against Larsson, she celebrated her good play, admonished herself for her errors, and was jubilant in a victory that tied the US with Sweden at one match apiece. We have been so conditioned to expect a flat, even blasé Serena show up on a smaller stage that this “new” Serena continues to shock us. But should we really be so surprised? When we remember who she is, what she’s been through, her love for the game is suddenly apparent. And after 15 years, the sport should be grateful that that love is stronger than ever.

Fed Cup Gallery: Germany Defeats Serbia in Decisive Rubber

April 21, 2013 — The German Fed Cup team defeated Team Serbia in a tense fifth rubber in World Group Playoffs in Stuttgart’s sold out Porsche Arena Sunday. Ana Ivanovic gave Serbia an early lead as she defeated Angelique Kerber to go up 2-1, but Mona Barthel rallied back and defeated Bojana Jovanovski to take it to a doubles decider. There, Germans Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld routed the pairing of Vesna Dolonc and Aleksandra Krunic.

Check out all of Sunday’s action from Tennis Grandstand photographer Moana Bauer.

Fed Cup: Germany and Serbia Tied 1-1 After Day One

STUTTGART (April 20, 2013) — After day one in the Fed Cup World Group play-off in Stuttgart’s Porsche Arena,  Germany and Serbia are all-square at 1-1. Serbian Ana Ivanovic won the opening match against Mona Barthel 7-6(5), 2-6, 6-2, but in the day’s second rubber, Angelique Kerber leveled Germany’s chances by defeating Bojana Jovanovski 7-5, 6-2.

On her Fed Cup debut, Barthel battled valiantly in the first set, but it eventually went to Ivanovic in a tiebreak. After evening the match at one set a piece and 2-all in the third set, Barthel then lost her way and everything went downhill very quickly. The Serb won four games in succession to put last year’s Fed Cup finalists up 1-0.

“I can’t remember ever being as nervous as I was today,” said Barthel when explaining why she buckled in the third set. “But, playing for Germany for the first time is something very special.”

Kerber then had her work cut out against a player who has had a very good start to 2013, Serb Jovanovski. The 25-year-old German No. 1 broke her opponent’s serve to go 3-2 up but was pegged back when serving for the set at 5-4.

“I was a touch nervous as I had to go on court with us 1-0 down and I naturally wanted to give my all for the team,” said the world No. 6. And it’s exactly what she proceeded to do. With nerves of steel, she once again broke the Serb before closing out the set 7-5. Afterwards she cruised through the second set 6-2 to even the results at the end of the day.

“1-1 after day one is a good result,” said team captain Barbara Rittner. “Now we’ll give it everything in our efforts to achieve our goal of securing (the win).”

A World (Group) to Conquer: Fed Cup World Group Semifinals / Playoffs Preview

Clearing the schedule of tournaments, the WTA turns its spotlight on Fed Cup this week.  Semifinals and playoff ties will decide not only the matchup for the 2013 final but the membership of next year’s World Group in two days filled with action.  Here’s a look at what you might want to know about each tie.

Italy vs. Czech Republic:  When these two teams met on indoor hard courts in the Czech Republic last year, that surface advantage played a key role in a relatively comfortable victory for the hosts.  With the choice of surface now in their favor, Italy will hope that the slow outdoor clay of Palermo will play just as critical a role in reversing the result.  Recent Fed Cup champions themselves, the Italians always have risen to the occasion for Fed Cup, as have the Czechs.  While Lucie Safarova lifted them to their second straight title last fall, world No. 8 Petra Kvitova has produced a far greater level of consistency in Fed Cup than she has in individual events.

An odd bit of déjà vu pits Kvitova against the twelfth-ranked Roberta Vinci on Saturday in a rematch of their Katowice final six days before.  Emerging triumphant on the earlier occasion, Vinci could hand Italy a 2-0 stranglehold over the tie if she can repeat the feat, for world No. 7 Sara Errani likely can outlast the struggling Safarova in the first rubber.  The two No. 1s, Errani and Kvitova, never have met on clay, although Kvitova has dominated their meetings overall.  If the Czechs can survive to reach the doubles, which seems an uphill battle, Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti should substitute Errani and Vinci into a blockbuster battle of the top two teams in the world.  Czech mates Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova captured the 2011 Fed Cup title with a clutch display against Russia, while Errani and Vinci never have lost a live rubber as a team.

Winner:  Italy

Russia vs. Slovak Republic:  Fortunate to receive consistent participation from its two main stars, the Slovak Republic has overachieved in Fed Cup over the last several years.  The visitors once again will lean heavily on Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova, the latter of whom has faded well outside the top 50 in singles but may remain a threat in doubles.  Part of the team that won the Fed Cup for Slovakia more than a decade ago, Hantuchova often brings greater determination to the competition than to individual tournaments.  Without their own top two players, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, Russia still will fancy its chances in view of its outstanding depth and the encouraging recent form of its singles entrants.  World No. 13 Maria Kirilenko has impressed in a season highlighted by an Indian Wells semifinal appearance, while the unpredictable Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova arrives with momentum from her most recent Monterry title.

Although Hantuchova won her most recent clash with Kirilenko, the pair never have met on clay and only once in the last five years.  The other Saturday pairing of Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova also marks the first clay meeting in a sparse history, so one would favor each of the No. 1s to prevail.  The key to this weekend might lie in their meeting on Sunday, for which their nearly consecutive rankings would suggest a tight encounter.  More consistent than Cibulkova this year, Kirilenko would position Russia for another trip to the final with a victory.  Not only has Pavlyuchenkova won her last five meetings with Hantuchova, but the experienced doubles duo of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina would seem more formidable than any pairing that the Slovaks can muster.

Winner:  Russia

World Group Playoffs: 

Germany vs. Serbia:  Last year’s Fed Cup finalists field the player with the strongest career resume, especially on clay, in Ana Ivanovic.  But the former No. 1 has watched her results during this stage of the season dwindle sharply since winning Roland Garros five years ago, and she fell to Friday opponent Mona Barthel on this court in Stuttgart last year.  The resurgent Jelena Jankovic has not traveled to Stuttgart, leaving Bojana Jovanovski to complement Ivanovic.  German No. 1 Angelique Kerber should handle the raw Jovanovski comfortably, while Ivanovic often has struggled with lefties like her.  The heavy serves of Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld could offer a valuable edge in the doubles on this serve-friendly indoor clay.  But the home team likely need not worry about a deciding rubber.

Winner:  Germany

Switzerland vs. Australia:  Voluntarily ceding home-court advantage with the European clay ahead, Australia sets its sights at an underrated Swiss team.  Federer’s countrywoman Stefanie Voegele reached the Charleston semifinals after upsetting three top-30 opponents, including world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki.  Her Saturday meeting with Samantha Stosur could set the tone for a tie that pits Australian heavy-hitting against Swiss counterpunching.  Troubled by multiple injuries and a loss of confidence over the last several months, Stosur may need to win three matches in two days with no teammate inside the top 100.  Clay arguably suits her game more than any other surface, and she should feel less pressure than if Australia hosted this tie.  This tie might well come down to the doubles after some unpredictable momentum shifts.

Winner:  Australia

Spain vs. Japan:  The No. 1s of both nations, Carla Suarez Navarro and Ayumi Morita, have played some of their best tennis to date this year.  Especially notable is the Spaniard’s rise to the top 25, built in part on a runner-up finish in Acapulco.  As with the Italy-Czech Republic semifinal, this tie could hinge on the surface.  Morita and her compatriots have done most of their damage on hard courts, whereas the veteran Spanish squad relishes the opportunity to grind through the weekend on dirt.  Outside the fan bases of each nation, few viewers will find this tie engaging to watch, except for the spectacle of Suarez Navarro’s florid one-handed backhand.

Winner:  Spain

USA vs. Sweden:  With not one but two of the Williams sisters in Delray Beach, Sofia Arvidsson and her fellow Swedes can harbor little hope to keep this tie competitive.  Captain Mary Joe Fernandez saw no need to request the services of doubles specialist Liezel Huber to join such a stacked lineup.  Struggling since reaching the Australian Open semifinals, future star Sloane Stephens perhaps can use the presence of the Williams sisters to steady her spirits.  This tie stands alone among the semifinals and World Group playoffs in its surface, outdoor hard courts, and it likewise stands alone among these ties in its location outside Europe.

Winner:  USA

My Friend, My Foe, My Countrywoman

Flavia and Francesca.

While the two might be in the wrong business to be known by a single stage name, there is no doubt that Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone have been the faces of Italian women’s tennis for the better part of a decade.

Despite having contrasting styles, each brings something unique to women’s tennis. Schiavone, no doubt the flashier of the two, is the master of an all-court game and a classic clay court style; she uses an extreme Eastern grip on her one-handed backhand, a dying art in women’s tennis. Pennetta, to her credit, possesses some of the most aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes on the WTA; she’s renowned for her great timing, clean strokes, tenacity and net skills. They are similar in one respect; each time they’ve taken the court, they’ve played with immense passion and heart.

They’ve triumphed individually; Pennetta was the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top ten in singles, win a major title in doubles when she triumphed with Gisela Dulko in women’s doubles at the Australian Open in 2011 and be ranked No. 1 in either discipline when she and Dulko topped the women’s doubles list; Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top five in singles and win a singles major title at Roland Garros in 2010. They’ve triumphed together; with a combined a 48-24 total record in Fed Cup, the duo led Italy to three titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010.

Each has had so many standout moments over their long careers that it’s difficult to pick just one. Aside from her major triumph, Schiavone will probably best be remembered for one of the highest quality matches in the history of the WTA, when she and Svetlana Kuznetsova contested the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history at the Australian Open in 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU&feature=youtu.be

Pennetta, a three-time US Open quarterfinalist, made the most improbable of her three runs in 2011. Following her third round defeat of Maria Sharapova, Pennetta rallied past Peng Shuai, dry heaves and the mid-day New York heat to advance to her third career US Open quarterfinal. Having witnessed the match live, I can scarcely think of many other times when a New York crowd so firmly and whole-heartedly supported a non-American player.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP7CnDWIhyQ&feature=youtu.be

In recent years, however, age and injuries have played their part. Barely hanging on to her spot in the top 100, Pennetta returned from a six month absence after wrist surgery in Acapulco, where Schiavone won back-to-back matches for the first time since Wimbledon. In that time, Italian women’s tennis had been overtaken by another dynamic duo.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci spent a lot of time during those three Fed Cup title runs cheering on the sidelines. However, they’ve taken the mantle vacated by Schiavone and Pennetta and firmly seized control of it. Errani became the second Italian woman to reach a major final, something some expected Pennetta to do. Vinci, despite being just a year younger than Pennetta, has had the best 18 months of her singles career. They show no signs of slowing down in doubles either, as they currently hold three of the four majors and are the undisputed No. 1 team in the world.

In the first round of Fed Cup, it was Errani and Vinci who singlehandedly led Italy over the United States and instead, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett cheered from the sidelines. It was the first time neither Pennetta nor Schiavone were named to an Italian Fed Cup team in over 10 years; one or the other was always a constant presence since Schiavone made her debut in 2002, and Pennetta a year later in 2003.

On a Wednesday in Indian Wells, these two WTA stalwarts, Fed Cup teammates and friends took the court for a singles match for the first time in three years. After Schiavone defeated Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in a non-televised match under the setting California sun, one couldn’t help but wonder if the sun is also setting on their time at the top of the game. Whatever happens at the end of this season, it would be fitting for two of the WTA’s strongest characters to leave the sport the way they entered it.

Together.

Fill Their Cups: Fed Cup World Group Quarterfinal Preview

One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations.  We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition.  Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?

Czech Republic vs. Australia:  The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend.  But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January.  The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile.  An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty.  Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line.  The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb.  But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.

Pick:  Czech Republic

Italy vs. USA:   To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma:  no Williams, no Stephens, no chance.  Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed.  Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open.  Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved.  That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting.  Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci.  The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts.  Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup.  Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.

Pick:  Italy

Russia vs. Japan:  Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance.  Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan.  All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals).  And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then.  At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium.  Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1.  One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents.  But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.

Pick:  Russia

Serbia vs. Slovakia:  This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova.  Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination.  When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites.  Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight.  Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis.  A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic.  She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers.  Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.

Pick:  Slovakia

Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.

Marion, Misunderstood

The year was 2004. Cesar Millan was yet to be called “The Dog Whisperer.” Ridiculously successful sequels Shrek 2, Spiderman 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were dominating the box office. The Red Sox were winning playoff games and the Russians were winning slams.

And Marion Bartoli was playing Fed Cup.

As a 19-year-old, Bartoli partnered Emilie Loit in doubles in two separate ties that year; the pairing won their doubles match in a 5-0 semifinal win against Spain, but lost the deciding rubber to the Russian duo of Anastasia Myskina and Vera Zvonareva in the finals. 2004 marked the only time that Bartoli had competed in the national ITF team event in her career.

Until now.

New French Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo announced on Wednesday that Bartoli, along with Alize Cornet, Kristina Mladenovic and Virginie Razzano will be the French squad that will take on Germany in a World Group II first round tie on February 9-10 in Limoges.

Bartoli’s previous point of contention with the French Tennis Federation came from the role, or lack thereof, of her father in Fed Cup ties. Previous Fed Cup captains Loic Courteau and Nicolas Escude, as well as the federation itself, took issue with the fact that Bartoli wanted to be coached by her father during the ties, rather than practice together with the team. The parties involved also questioned the nature of Marion’s relationship with her father.

“In France, they think our relationship is, so to speak, fake, and that in public it’s big smiles and behind the scenes I’m getting pushed around every day,” she once said. “When I try to explain to them that is not the case, they have a hard time to understand.”

More than just the French public and tennis administration have had a hard time understanding the Bartolis. To say that they have gone outside the box in their approach to Marion’s tennis training is putting it mildly. One of the WTA’s more colorful characters, Bartoli’s shadow swings between every point have become her trademark, and she (allegedly) boasts an IQ of 175. She and her antics are always a spectacle on the WTA, no matter where she plays; nonetheless, these things are what endear her to her fans.

Due to her Fed Cup absence, Bartoli was ruled ineligible to compete at the Olympic Games. Three Games have come and gone since Bartoli made a name for herself on the circuit, but it was perhaps the last snub that hurt her the most and may have contributed to this reconciliation. The 2012 London Olympics were held at the site of Bartoli’s greatest career successes, on the lawns of the All-England Club. Without Bartoli, Cornet required an special invitation to compete, as she did not make the cut by ranking; she won a match before falling tamely to Daniela Hantuchova in the second round. Many argued that Bartoli would have been an outside, but no less legitimate, medal contender on the surface.

So the question remains: after nine years, 17 ties and a boatload of conflict, why now? Some detractors will state Bartoli’s chances to represent her country in the Olympics have come and gone; she’ll be 32 when the Olympics in Rio come around in 2016. Others would say she’s selfish for making the concessions, and is only looking to repair her image at home after the 2012 debacle. Both parties remained stubborn throughout this saga, and each holds a share of the blame.

No one can question Marion Bartoli’s patriotism. Despite all the quirks, the results don’t lie; a Wimbledon finalist with wins, among others, over Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters in her career, Bartoli’s made the most of what she has. With the crowd behind her, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2011, the best performance at that event by a Frenchwoman since Mary Pierce won the title there in 2000 and reached the final again in 2005. All of that success has come with her father by her side, with little support from the national federation.

However, for this tie, Walter Bartoli will not be on site to help Marion prepare for her matches; he will be allowed to attend, but only as a family member. While we may not ever know what was said between Mauresmo and Bartoli over the past weeks, one thing is certain; someone finally understood.

Love Found: Ana and Jelena Come Full Circle in Melbourne

“Rivals,” my high school gym teacher once said, “always hate each other. Mac does not like PC. Coke does not like Pepsi. Competition makes the world go round!”

Had he been a tennis fan at the time, he might have added Serbian rivals Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic to his list of those between whom little love was lost.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, Ivanovic and Jankovic were the fire and ice of the WTA Tour’s elite. Ana was the big-hitter with an on-court effusiveness that was as jarring as it was endearing. Not to say that the counter-punching Jankovic was reserved; she saved her quirky personality and for the pressroom, where she gave quotes that continue to defy explanation.

Both hailed from the war torn city of Belgrade. Both became famous in their home country. Both wanted to be the best.

With few other compatriots, isolation combined with a singular goal could have bonded these young women together. The Italian and Czech Fed Cup teams are shining examples of on-court camaraderie in an individual sport. Off the court? The guest list at Elena Dementieva’s wedding was a “who’s who” of Russian tennis (Vera Dushevina caught the bouquet).

Yet, there is something about countries that boast only two talented players. Perhaps that it serves as a microcosm for the game itself, the idea of a dual between two players and only one can emerge victorious, intensifies what could otherwise be a friendly rivalry. Whatever the reason, like Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin before them, the relationship between Ivanovic and Jankovic was always cool at best. Never overtly friendly, the two had ways of reminding fans and media where the two women stood with one another.

After scoring a win over her rival in Madrid a few years ago, Jelena was seen mocking Ana’s signature fist pump:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nxYarGyTMY]

Upon seeing it, Ana quipped, “…Sport doesn’t build character, it shows it.” Far from contrite, Jelena defended the gesture and struck out against players who fist pump “in the player’s face, and especially after not winning a point [but] after your opponent missed an easy ball, I don’t think that’s fair play.”

For all of their differences, Ana and Jelena ended up having two fairly similar careers.

At their peaks, they fought for the No. 1 ranking at the 2008 French Open. Jankovic squandered a third set lead and Ivanovic went on to win her only Slam title. From there, she promptly entered a slump that persists to this day; she has only made one Slam quarterfinal in the last (going on) five years.

Jankovic eventually wrested the top spot from her rival and went on a late-season tear to finish the year atop the rankings. A move to change her game in order to better compete for majors saw her not only remain slamless, but also caused her to tumble from the game’s elite.

This year’s Australian Open saw the two play one another for the first time at a Slam since that fateful French Open encounter. Far from the penultimate round, the rivals were seeded outside the top 10 and competing for a spot in the fourth round, where the winner would take on the much-higher ranked Agnieszka Radwanska.

Ostensibly, the stakes were as high as ever as each woman strives to retain relevancy on a Tour that has moved on without them. Once highly marketable stars, the rivals were relegated to Hisense Arena for a competitive, though more lighthearted, battle. While showing flashes of their former brilliance, the two shared a laugh several times during Ivanovic’s two-set victory. With that, the “Serbian Sisters” wordlessly confirmed the news that they had buried the hatchet.

Reflecting on their frosty past, Jankovic mused, “Back then we were competing for No. 1 and we both wanted what we never achieved and it was different circumstances.” In the heat of the moment, it was easy to see things less clearly, but in retrospect, Jelena poignantly describes the fate of the rivalry with her compatriot, one that was never truly realized.

But rather than dwelling on what might have been, it is comforting to see the two former foes together, now able to laugh and reminisce about their time at the top.

David Ferrer’s shining moment; Trouble in tennis paradise at Indian Wells — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Crowning Achievement

David Ferrer had the dubious distinction of being the player with the most Master Series match wins without a title, but that is the case no more. The Spaniard finally clinched one of the coveted Masters shields when he defeated surprise finalist Jerzy Janowicz of Poland in straight sets. While acknowledging that Ferrer was certainly helped by the withdrawals of Federer and Nadal and the early exits of Djokovic and Murray, it doesn’t diminish the significance of his win. Ferrer is too talented of a player not to have walked away with at least one of premiere titles before he retired, and as it’s the seventh title he’s won in 2012, it’s a testament to just how well he’s playing this season. It’s a great achievement for Spain’s No. 2, and now that he’s gotten that mini-monkey off of his back, perhaps he’ll face the Big Four with a little more self-belief come 2013.

Forgotten Champion

It was a thrilling end to the year for Russian Nadia Petrova. She and compatriot Maria Kirilenko won the WTA Championships Doubles event in Istanbul, and she followed that up with a run to the singles title in the Tournament of Champions in Sofia by absolutely drubbing No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki. Petrova has always had a beautiful game. She possesses one of the best serves on tour as well as great hands that have garnered her so much success in the doubles arena. The biggest hurdle throughout her professional career, however, has been her mental toughness, and her victory in Sofia doesn’t necessarily mean she’s greatly improved in that area. The field at the Tournament of Champions is essentially the JV squad of the WTA’s top crop of talent, which is why that tournament doesn’t generate nearly the amount of headlines as Istanbul. It’s that lack of a spotlight that helps a player like Petrova. So props to her for a tremendous 2012 finale, but I wouldn’t yet bank on that translating into more consistent results or frequent upsets of the sport’s best come 2013.

Czech Them Out

For the second straight year, the Czechs are Fed Cup champions, becoming the third consecutive team to successfully defend a Fed Cup title. They defeated Serbia 3-1, with the former Yugoslavian nation’s only point coming courtesy of Ana Ivanovic. Kvitova, who recovered from bronchitis just in time to help her squad defend their 2011 crown, went 1-1 over the weekend, but it was her teammate, Lucie Safarova, who defeated both Ivanovic and Jankovic to give her team the unassailable lead. Kvitova, and to a slightly lesser extent Safarova, have always exhibited plenty of talent with flashes of brilliance, but both have also struggled to produce it consistently on the biggest stages. Here’s to hoping that unlike this past season, they’re able to draw upon their experience in winning the 2012 Fed Cup to produce their best tennis when it counts next year.

Still the One

Roger Federer may have come into the ATP World Tour Finals knowing that he would finish behind Novak Djokovic in the rankings, but not surprisingly, the Swiss remains number one in the hearts of many a fan. This was proven earlier this week when Federer was presented with the ATPWorldTour.com Fan’s Favorite Award for a record tenth consecutive year. With his smooth style and grace, it’s easy to see why fans from all over the world continue to enjoy what the Maestro can do with a tennis racquet. In addition to the love from the fans, Federer also received love from his fellow ATP pros. They voted him the recipient of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for the second straight year and eighth time overall. Not a bad haul for a guy that many were writing off a little over a year ago.

Say What?!

Yes, in case you were wondering if you read the headlines correctly, the ATP Tour Board of Directors passed on an $800,000 prize money increase at Indian Wells. The increase was to have been primarily distributed to winners in the first three rounds. Thus far, the official reason given by the ATP for declining the offered increase is that the proposed distribution is not in line with the ATP rules that both players and tournaments have agreed to and to which every other tournament on tour follows. One suspects the latter part of that explanation is the real reason behind the decision to decline the generous offer. Earlier this year, Indian Wells already upped the prize purse by one million dollars, and it didn’t follow the normal ATP distribution rules either. Larry Ellison has done a lot to upgrade the status of Indian Wells, and has broached the idea of looking into adding mixed doubles. This may have some tournament organizers nervous that he’s looking to try and take away any arguments of eventually upgrading the event to Grand Slam status (which is somewhat hard to imagine given how much it would upset the historic status quo). It may also have them nervous that players will expect them to cough up more dough at their own events. Whatever the reasons, the fact that sources claim it was the three tournament representatives who voted against the increase, while the player representatives were in favor, means this topic of discussion isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Stay tuned.

Americans Serena Williams and John Isner shine — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

In the Zone

Serena Williams was firing on all cylinders last week in Charleston, which wasn’t just bad news for the rest of the field – it was devastating. Serena showed no mercy as she demolished her opponents en route to the title, dropping a grand total of just three games in the semis and final. Though it was an absolute clinic by the decorated Grand Slam champion, it’s difficult to use as a barometer for how she’ll perform in Paris. For starters, near the latter rounds, she played above her head (even by her lofty standards), and that level for her has increasingly become the exception rather than the norm. Additionally, while there are few players who at their best can potentially hang with Serena at her best, it’s still worth noting that the currently hottest players on the WTA were absent. Finally, there’s the fact that the win is unlikely to have a substantial carry-over effect on Serena herself. She’s frequently shown she never lacks for confidence at any event, irrespective of how match fit she is, simply taking things as they come. So, congrats on a well-deserved 40th career singles title for the younger Williams, who reminded the world of what she’s capable of when her heart and head are in it, but one fantastic title win does not just yet a heavy favorite for Roland Garros make.

Riding the Momentum

Where Ryan Harrison failed to capitalize on his opportunity when named to the U.S. Davis Cup Team, John Isner continued to shine. Since upsetting Roger Federer in the team competition this past February, he’s continued to improve and surprise everyone, including perhaps himself. He delivered a much-needed win against Simon to pull the Americans even with France on the opening day of last weekend’s tie, and he clinched the victory with his triumph over Tsonga. He’s also being smart with his scheduling, choosing to sit out the optional Masters 1000 event next week in Monte Carlo in order to rest and get fit for the remainder of the clay court and following grass court seasons. As he continues this good run of form, he’s set to become the No. 1 American man sooner rather than later. Such an achievement would be a crowning moment for Isner as well as the USA, given that Isner has been one of the handful of Americans to consistently comport himself with class and dignity this season.

PR Nightmare

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario needs a crash course in public relations stat. We previously heard she was broke thanks to the mishandling of her finances by her parents, which has since been followed by rebuttal from her mother claiming otherwise. Now the “Barcelona Bumblebee” is upsetting her nation’s top female player by personally attacking Anabel Medina Garrigues during her announcement that Garrigues would not be part of her Fed Cup squad. As captain, it’s her prerogative as to who she’d like to select for the team, but there was no need to launch an attack against the Spanish No. 1. Her actions and decisions in recent months might suggest it’s time for the Spanish Tennis Federation to consider looking at a potential replacement. It’s a shame given what all Sanchez-Vicario has done in the sport and for her county, but recent behavior dictates that a review of her ability to be a leader at this point in time is in serious doubt.

Good Cause

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will be facing off in an exhibition on July 14, when they hope to break the tennis attendance record by filling all of the 80,000 seats in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid where the match will take place. The proceeds from the match will go to both the Real Madrid Foundation and the Rafael Nadal Foundation, which provide funding for programs aimed at disadvantaged children. It’s great to see two of the biggest names in the sport continue to give back (especially in the midst of a busy summer schedule), and while they’re going for an ambitious record, as one of the most exciting rivalries in the sport right now, they might just do it.

Potentially Ugly

Mary Joe Fernandez is living in a dream world if she thinks Serena’s “heart is in Fed Cup, ” as Serena’s sudden patriotism is undoubtedly spurred on by her desire to play in the Olympics. Despite committing to her second tie this season, Serena will still need to get special permission from the Olympic Committee to compete in London. Sister Venus is looking to try and raise her ranking high enough to gain automatic entry for the London Games, but if she doesn’t, she’ll also require special permission to compete in the British capital. Where this may get messy is if another player – a player who has put in more time representing their country during the non-Olympic years – gets burned. It’s hard to vilify the Williams Sisters, who are just doing the same as other top pros this season and also have historically performed well in the Olympics. Still others will contend spots should go to those who have put in the time and who arguably could still medal for the USA (especially when factoring in Venus’ health liabilities). Of course, the ITF could just spare the U.S. and other nations, like Russia, this potentially ugly situation by doing away with the whole problematic Fed/Davis Cup participation rule, but hard to see that happening any time soon.