five games

Soderling lifts first title of year, Clijsters back on form and Wozniacki laughs off criticism

*Swedish star Robin Soderling has paid tribute to new coach Claudio Pistolesi after overcoming Andy Roddick to win the Brisbane International 6-3, 7-5. The victory means that the Swedish No. 1 will climb above Andy Murray to No. 4 in the world and secures him the fourth seeding at the upcoming Australian Open. “We’ve only worked together for a couple of weeks, this is the first tournament, and it’s working pretty well, no?” said Soderling, who is looking to improve on a dismal record of never reaching the third round at Melbourne Park. “I’m playing really well and what makes me really happy is I never really played well in Australia before. It gives me a lot of confidence for Melbourne.” American star Roddick rued his inability to combat Soderling’s serve: “He served too well, it seemed like any time I had a look, he came up with one of those big serves,” said the American No. 1. “I’m normally at the other side and it’s better on that end of the serve.”

*Despite recent talk of a second retirement the Belgian Kim Clijsters has exploded on to the 2011 tennis calendar. In her opening match of the year at the Sydney International she took only 62 minutes to register a 6-1, 6-2 victory over the young Romanian Alexandra Dulgheru. The No. 3 seed won the first eleven points of the match and the first five games. “I was feeling very comfortable out there, said the three-time US Open winner. “It’s a nice feeling to have when you play your first match. I was really focused on trying to place my serves well and not give Alexandra a lot of second serves to attack. When I started back on the WTA I was working on my consistency – my best game was there but then I’d lose it for three or four games,” Clijsters added. “The last few months I’ve been focusing on that and reading myself better, and realizing when I lose that intensity, pick it up again as soon as possible.” Full reaction to the day’s play can be viewed at the WTA website.

*World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki has laughed off criticism after being stunned by Dominika Cibulkova in the second round in Sydney. “You need to learn from the losses,” said the 20-year-old, who is aiming to break her Grand Slam duck in Melbourne. “I’m confident for Melbourne I’ll be OK, there are positives I can take.” It was Cibulkova’s first win over the dominant Wozniacki in six attempts. And the Dane admitted there was room for improvement: “At the start of the new season you need to get into match play. I didn’t feel I was playing great tennis out there,” Wozniacki added. “Now I just need to get some training matches, head to Melbourne and get ready for the Australian Open. Last year I had the same start, so hopefully slow start, good finish.” The young Cibulkova was understandably delighted: “I think I’ve beaten No.2, No.3, No.4, No.5 and everybody, just not No.1,” said the Slovakian. “So I’m really happy about it. The most important thing today was I went on the court and saw myself like a winner from the first point until the last point. So it wasn’t a surprise for me – I just played my game. I had my plan. I knew it was going to work if I just stuck to my plan.” Full reaction can be seen at the WTA website.

*World No. 1 Rafa Nadal is back on his feet after the bout of flu which badly affected him during his semifinal defeat to Nikolay Davydenko at the Qatar Open and has flown to Melbourne to continue his preparations for the Australian Open. The Spaniard is hoping to dethrone his great rival Roger Federer and hold all four Grand Slams simultaneously for the first time in his career. “Going by plane sometimes makes you worse and at the same time I don’t have anything to do right now in Australia,” the 24-year-old told the NZHerald. “With my condition right now I think the more reasonable thing to do is rest a few days and have less risk of injuries, less risk of everything.”

*2009 US Open Champion Juan Martin del Potro insists he is happy with his current comeback from injury following a shock 2-6, 5-7 defeat to the German Florian Mayer in the second round of the Sydney International. Missing much of 2010 saw del Potro fall to No. 259 in the world but having an injury protected ranking means he will compete at the Australian Open next week. “Of course I want to play and win a tournament,” he said following the match. “When you lose, it’s hard, but now it’s different, I have different sensations. I lost but I have another tournament in three days. I have my wrist in good shape. That’s good. Mayer played better than me but it’s normal. I am very far off my good game but I did my best. It was shorter, but I tried.”

*British No. 1 Andy Murray has denied that his decision to play in un-ranked events leading up to the Australian Open has harmed his chances of success. His decision to attend the Hopman Cup alongside Laura Robson last week coupled with Robin Soderling lifting the title at Brisbane means that the Scot will slip below the Swede and enter the Aussie slam ranked and seeded fifth. “I was seeded five for the Australian Open last year, so I don’t think it makes a big difference,” said Murray, who reached the final in 2010 before being outclassed by Roger Federer in straight sets. The full interview can be read at The Guardian website. Murray has also announced that he will return to Davis Cup play for the first time since 2009 after discovering that some play is required in order to compete at the 2012 Olympics. “I didn’t know about the Olympics situation until December,” he told the Daily Mail. “But I said to Leon [Smith, Davis Cup captain] before that I would be able to play and we should keep speaking. I will sit down and talk with him in Australia and see if he wants me to play in March or if it would be good for the other guys to have another match. I will definitely play, probably one or two [ties].”

*British teen sensation Laura Robson will miss both the Australian Open and Britain’s upcoming Fed Cup tie in Israel after injuring her hip in the Hopman Cup last week. Marcos Baghdatis is now a doubt for the men’s draw after withdrawing from this week’s Sydney International, where he was defending his 2010 title, with a groin injury.

*Young Aussie hopeful Bernard Tomic has vowed to mend his ways after receiving one of the final four wildcards in to this year’s Australian Open. Aussie Davis Cup coach Todd Woodbridge had previously told the talented 18-year-old to start making more of his gifts and Tomic seems firmly in agreement. In response to some questioning whether he deserved preferential treatment he said: “Look, it’s their decision at the end of the day. I can’t decide if I’m going to get it or not. I can only try to play tennis as much as I can. Yes, I had a bit of a strange December, but now it’s January. I mean, it’s their opinion. Everyone has got their own opinion; I’ve got mine. You don’t think about those things. You just play tennis. I think the wild-card that they gave, they gave for a reason.” Tomic’s full reaction can be read at The Australian’s website. Carsten Ball, Sally Peers and Sophie Ferguson were the other recipients.

*Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt believes he is ready for a strong run at his home slam Australian Open despite not playing a ranked warm-up tournament for the first time. “I feel like I’ve done the hard yards,” said the 2005 finalist who did compete at the Hopman Cup last week and is currently taking part in the Kooyong exhibitions. “There’s no stone that’s unturned for me, and I can go out there and know that I’ve had the best preparation possible for myself and my body. Obviously I won’t be seeded next week, so [it’s] a little bit in the hands of the Gods where you get put in the draw, but I feel capable that I can go out there and cause some upsets.” Sam Stosur also believes she can bring home glory for her flood-ridden country despite an early loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Sydney as well as an early defeat to compatriot Jarmila Groth in Brisbane last week. “I’m going to go in there thinking I can [win],” said the 26-year-old. “But there’s a long way from thinking you can do it and playing a first-round [match] to holding the trophy at the end…Even though it’s two second-round losses, I’m actually quite happy with the way I’m playing and think I’m in a good spot for Melbourne and still looking forward to obviously the Australian Open. If I could look back on this time last year to now I’m feeling 100 per cent better than I was.”

*In her latest attempts to find a new coach the Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova has begun working with Carlos Cuadrado.

*Former world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo has been named the joint director of her home town tournament the WTA Paris Open. The Wimbledon and Australian Open Champion won the event three times during her career and said the challenge was “too good to turn down.”

*Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams will find out next month whether they are the 2011 victors of the Laureus Sports Awards in Abu Dhabi. Nadal faces Formula One’s Sebastien Vettel, boxer Manny Pacquiao, basketball star Kobe Bryant and footballers Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Serena faces fellow tennis stars Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters, skier Lindsey Vonn, British track star Jessica Ennis and high jumper Blanka Vlasic.

*Roger Federer is looking to expand his charity exhibition CV by hosting an event in aid of the flood victims in Queensland on Sunday in Melbourne. The 16-time Grand Slam winner is in the city preparing for the Australian Open and said on his Facebook page: “The floods here in Australia are devastating! I am on my way to practise now and am going to speak with Tennis Australia to see if we perhaps can organise something on Sunday to help raise some funds for the people of Queensland who have been affected. Stay tuned as it would be great if the sport of tennis can help out right before the Australian Open begins.” Federer has previous when it comes to this type of thing and his ‘Hit For Haiti’ fundraisers were a massive hit on the 2010 circuit. Andy Roddick and Aussie star Sam Stosur promised $100 for every ace they hit in Brisbane last week with Roddick handing over $10,800 following his loss to Robin Soderling in the final. The ATP and WTA have also made the same pledge covering last week’s and this week’s tournaments as well as the Australian Open.

*Fresh for 2011 Tennis People has decided to introduce a new weekly feature to chronicle the ongoing battle between the greatest player of all time, Roger Federer, and his great rival Rafa Nadal: The GOAT Race. Unfortunately, this won’t see the world’s top two players hurtle down a Welsh mountainside atop a buccaneering billy goat gruff, but will keep track of their on-court achievements this term. With Rafa’s injury problems and Roger’s off-court duties as a father to contend with, both players will be awarded ten points for entering a tournament. They will receive a further 25 points for a quaterfinals appearance, 50 for a semifinal and 100 if they reach the final. Every title lifted will earn them 200 points. These will be doubled for Grand Slam competitions. So, after the first tournaments of 2011 came to a close R-Fed’s victory in Qatar makes him our early leader with 210 points after that 6-3, 6-4 win over Nikolay Davydenko. That’s ten for entering, and 200 for lifting the title. Rafa picks up 60 points after losing that flu-hit semi to the diminutive Russian.

Roger: 210   Rafa: 60

The Friday Five: Danish Sensation Caroline Wozniacki is Top Seed at US Open

Back on Track – Last week in Cincinnati, Roger Federer righted the ship, going one better than he did in Canada to take the coveted Masters 1000 title. Not surprisingly, many of the pundits have quickly jumped back on the Federer bandwagon, with several of them declaring him the man to beat in Flushing. There’s little doubt that Federer is starting to play the brand of tennis that won him his 16th major earlier this year, and of the top four players in the world, he had the best overall two weeks across Canada and Cincy (though admittedly, he had an easier road than the other three in Cincinnati thanks to a retirement and walkover). So while Federer may not be deserving of the heavy favorite status that was due to him the last few years going into the Open, one would be a glutton for punishment to bet heavily against him winning his 17th Grand Slam singles title in a few weeks time.

The Great Dane – Heading into the US Open where she achieved reaching her first Grand Slam singles final just a year ago, life is looking very good for Danish sensation Caroline Wozniaki. She showed great patience and steady nerves as she waited out the rain to take out Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semis and Vera Zvonareva in the finals (dropping just five games in each match!), to take the top tier Roger Cup title. As an added bonus, Wozniaki will enjoy her first stint as the top seed at a Slam, with the honor coming as a result of Serena Williams being forced to pull out of the US Open. While many are still tipping the likes of No. 2 seed Kim Clijsters as more of a threat to take the title, keep an eye on this Dane. With a positive attitude, a steady game, and a great work ethic, a major title could be very near on the horizon.

Return of a Champion – It’s not as early as she and many in the tennis world had hoped, but Serena Williams has announced that she intends to make her comeback later next month in Tokyo at the Pan Pacific Open. Both fans and Serena will get a chance to see how quickly she finds her game after the injury layoff, with eight of the world’s top ten currently entered into the star-studded field. Irrespective of what you feel about her, there’s an undeniable added buzz when she’s in the competition. So enjoy the Open but look forward to what could shape up to be a competitive fall and exciting end to the 2010 WTA season.

In a Flash – The woes of James Blake in 2010 are many and well known, but for one brief match, everything went right for the veteran American. Blake took young Spaniard Pere Riba out of the Pilot Pen in New Haven with the loss of just a single game in what was the fastest match on the tour this year. And while Riba is a man who currently has predominantly made his living on the challenger circuit and is most at home on the dirt, there was some hope that the 35-minute clinic Blake put on in his win over Riba would instill more confidence as he went on to face Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine. Unfortunately, the wheels came off for Blake in that match, but at least there was something positive to take away from this week. And while it is unlikely that Blake will need any extra motivation as he prepares for the US Open, a venue where he has enjoyed some of his most spectacular moments as a professional, it would be wonderful if he could channel this small positive in New Haven into some vintage Blake play that sees him end 2010 on a respectable high as he heads into what could be a permanent hiatus from the game.

Great Idea – Hats off to the people behind getting the US Open draw televised on ESPN2 with live streaming available on ESPN3.com. The concept of the US Open Series has been a phenomenal hit, with ratings continuing to be strong, and this latest wrinkle only enhances the fan experience leading into Flushing Meadows. Can’t wait to see what feature they incorporate next!

By Maud Watson

Fernando Verdasco: Press Conference & Match

In a match the lasted just over two and a half hours, Fernando Verdasco battled back to beat Michael Berrer in the second round of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. The final score was 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(6). Berrer held two match points at 5-2 in the 2nd set but couldn’t close it. Verdasco unexpectedly kicked into fifth gear and won the next five games forcing a third set. It wasn’t pretty tennis and both had trouble returning each other’s first serve, but the crowd was exhilarated by the score.

In the first set, as explosive as his forehand was, Verdasco otherwise seemed tired and drained out of energy. But according to his press conference afterward he “woke up at 12:30pm today” and felt well-rested before the match. I then brought up whether a concert he attended of friend Alejandro Sanz the night before affected his play today. He stated that he “left at 10:30pm. By Spanish standards, that’s early!” I’ll admit I smiled, but for two reasons. One, he was charming and funny in the way he said it. Two, I had already checked the timestamp on his twitter and it didn’t quite support it. At midnight, he tweeted “Having dinner!” and just over an hour later came “Good night everybody!” It’s possible that the time may not have accurately tracked his current location on twitter, or perhaps he had just lost track of time and didn’t want to blame his less-than-stellar play on a late night out. In all fairness, the good eleven hours of sleep he did get should be sufficient recovery. Tennis players have a very unique schedule with matches and practices both early in and late into the day. Plus, it’s summer and he should be able to enjoy his time freely. I guess tennis players need to have some fun outside the courts too!

As the match progressed into the 3rd set, I found my head shaking again and again in doubt. Verdasco’s toss was horribly off. He would throw it too far behind him, let it drop and try again. It’s ok if this happened a couple of times. But no, this occurred at least a dozen times that I counted. I started imagining his future: the press and fans defining his entire game simply by his bad toss. The kind of bad dream that Ana Ivanovic had been in for a while where the more she tried, the further away she got from her serving goals. I cringed at the thought and tried to dispel it. But each time he threw a ball too far behind him again, I would find a few more faces in the crowd cringing with me. “I need Verdasco at the top of the rankings, we ALL need Verdasco.”

Thankfully, as errant as his toss was he still managed to serve decent. When asked about his toss in the press conference, he replied he had no problems really. He said that several times the wind picked up on-court and he stopped the ball instead of serving it. He also claimed that the “people moving” in the crowd disrupted his concentration when he tossed it a few times and he let it go as well. This was a surprising answer. Actually one I had never thought of or heard of before. Every match has ‘people moving’ around. They are the ones who pay to watch the players play. It seems a bit out of the ordinary to cite that as a reason for the horribly-constructed toss. But then again, I should take his word for it instead of speculating that he is having problems. He did mention that he was having a hard time seeing the ball in the third set because it was getting quite dark and he hadn’t played a night match in the humidity in a while. It was actually his first time in Washington, D.C. and I won’t shy away from the fact that it has been quite muggy lately.

Verdasco was then asked “Why decide to play D.C. this year, and not before?” I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the reasoning behind his scheduling. When he had played Davis Cup in France last month, he hurt his ankle slightly and even played Bastad still injured. The following week, he then had to pull out of Gstaad with a microtear in his hamstring. He looked into the schedule, wanting to play a 500-level tournament this month to make up for those missed points, and decided to come to D.C. for the first time as a wildcard. Sometimes I sit and wonder how players decide which tournaments to play and when to take vacation, so this was an enlightening inside look as to how it’s done on the tour from one player’s perspective. I respect his and all player’s match schedules as most tennis fans do. The ATP calendar really is a grueling and long one and a few weeks missed can bump you down in the rankings significantly, especially if it’s injury related. Just take note of Juan Martin del Potro whose last match was at the Australian Open in January and who, just this week, picked up a racquet after more than six months of being away from tennis because of a wrist injury that needed surgery. I can’t stop wondering whether he’ll ever be able to play at 100% capacity as before. I’m hopeful, as are many, but only time will tell. And it’s time that gets more and more precious for these players. No wonder Verdasco tries to enter as many tournaments in a year as his body can handle.

One last interesting thing of note from the press conference was regarding the relative non-existence of other Spaniards in the Legg Mason field. Among the Spaniards he referred to, one mention caught my attention in particular. And that is the story behind Feliciano Lopez actually wanting to come and play in D.C. this year as well. What happened and why didn’t he? Well, as Verdasco put it, “Feli” had asked the ATP to sign him up for Legg Mason and quite frankly they “forgot” to. I’m not sure how this works, but Verdasco seemed disappointed as the two are great friends on and off the court. Feli has played in years past and it seemed fitting for the two friends to enjoy the tournament together. We missed out on what could have been another venerated doubles team .

All in all, as nerve-wrecking as his match was for a spectator to watch, he was calm and collected in his press conference afterward. He seems to have the attitude that “nothing is wrong” on-court and everything can be handled. That’s an admirable mindset to have when you’re hitting well and winning. However, it can be a tricky position when your game begins to falter. His misplaced toss and weaker-than-usual return game and footwork could be a sign of troubles to come. It might have just been a bad day at the office, but it’s something to be vigilant of in the future. Keeping an eye on his injuries and possibly cutting back on his full schedule could alleviate this rollercoaster of stellar performance followed by a mediocre one. We want to see his best tennis but, more importantly, we want him healthy.

Verdasco has something else to be proud of and that is his fan support. On his first day of practice when he first arrived, there were two dozen people watching him. The day following his first match, he became a star. A pleasant guy off-the-court, he loves interacting with fans and enjoys their words of support. His forehand and court presence are as immense as they are exhilarating. Next time you have a chance to see Verdasco live, don’t pass up the opportunity!

WILL GULBIS BE THE SHINING STAR FOR LATVIA?

While the cameras may have been focused on Dubai and Acapulco last week as the two largest tournaments taking place on the ATP Circuit, a (not-so) little Latvian was making history on the courts of Delray Beach in the United States.

The 6 foot, 3 inch, 21-year-old was in scintillating form and didn’t drop a set as he progressed to the final via wins over Ryan Harrison (USA), Teimuraz Gabashvili (RUS), Leonardo Mayer (ARG) and Jarkko Nieminen (FIN).

The final saw him line up against the Croat second seed Ivo Karlovic who was hoping to lift the title and crown on his 31st birthday in style. But as is always the case in these stories, Ernests hadn’t read the script.

To the astonishment of many in the watching crowd, he dropped only five games in a mesmerizing 6-2, 6-3 victory which saw him become the first male Latvian player to lift a singles title on the ATP Circuit. Queue the celebrations on the streets of Latvian Capital Riga.

Gulbis and Latvian tennis fans in general have rightly been crooning on internet message boards and forums.

“He played so well and I was pretty much in tears when he won. His smile and his little fist pump…I am so proud of him. He has gone through a lot and Karlovic is definitely right, this will be his break through year! I am so pumped for Indian Wells and so happy for Ernests,” beamed Stelle on menstennisforums.com.

“I have problems to find the words to tell how happy I am for him. What a brave effort. The guy was written off by almost everyone. So unfair often. But he showed what he is capable of. We can call him a champion now,” added moni.

But what does this mean for Latvian tennis exactly? Well, they finally have a male champion to add to the likes of Larisa Neiland, who won the 1989 French Open and 1991 Wimbledon doubles titles with Natasha Zvereva. They were also the runners up in ten other Grand Slam finals.

But the authorities will also be hoping that such victories help the infrastructure. Lifting from the Latvian Institute website (www.li.lv):

“Our accomplishments in professional sports are brighter than they might seem considering the available national sports infrastructure and the small number of people officially engaged in regular professional exercise.

“Secondly, it is a tradition that, in major international competitions, Latvian sportsmen and women compete with rivals who have many more advantages in terms of financing and human resources.

“Thirdly, approximately 100 different types of sports are developing more or less successfully in small Latvia with its population of just 2.4 million.”

Latvian basketball and ice hockey continues to produce successful worldwide exports and football continues to grow off the back of the Latvian’s qualification for the 2004 European Championships.

The same website lists Gulbis in its list of top Latvian sports stars and is very proud of what he has achieved on the tennis court considering the lack of funding they could provide for him which resulted in him flying the roost to seek coaching in Germany.

They recognize that the lack of help they can offer him and his fellow players could be holding them back:

“Gulbis is still showing signs of impatience and immaturity due to his young age, however if he can learn to harness his considerable talent and keep the pressure on his opponent, he will be a strong player. He has gotten this far on talent, but if he could commit to working with a seasoned coach he could emerge in the next year as a contender.”

Unfortunately, money controls everything and of course the Government has a lot to consider on top of sport when it comes to distributing funding. But if Ernests can continue to add to his trophy haul alongside the successes of his fellow sportsmen (including some terrific performances at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver) then the future prodigies of Latvia can receive a greater start in their careers than Ernests had.

Sport can set a people free and unite a nation in support of their brightest talents. This will not be lost on the authorities who can look at a long list of great powers who used sport as a way of cultivating and developing their people (namely Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and, to a lesser extent, the USA and United Kingdom).

I have seen Ernests Gulbis play only once, in his straight-set defeat to Andy Murray at last year’s US Open, but what I saw impressed me. It reminded me of a young Murray; power and will let down by physical frame and, as mentioned above, concentration levels.

With every achievement directing a few more glances towards one of Europe’s smallest nations the Latvian Government will be pining for more moments like these, preferably at the three remaining Grand Slams of the year.

As well as the opportunity of being Latvia’s brightest star the knowledge and understanding of how his success can help the prospects of his descendents should be more than enough to spur on a player who continues to show that you don’t necessarily need the greatest financial backing to earn success.