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Laura Robson Steps Up; Rafael Nadal Seizes the Clay — The Friday Five

Laura Robson

By Maud Watson

Stepping Stone

Week one of the Aussie Open is not yet in the books, but already fans have been treated to some dramatic tennis. One of the most thrilling matches was Brit Laura Robson’s victory over No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova. Yes, Robson had already notched some big wins in her young career at the 2012 US Open, and Kvitova hadn’t yet found her form this season. But the manner in which Robson won her second round encounter against the Czech under the lights of Laver Arena represents yet another stepping stone in her journey as a professional. Down 3-0 in the decider, she stormed back and found herself in a position to serve for the match at 6-5 only to falter see the score line set at 6-all. Lesser players would have crumbled at the missed opportunity, but Robson kept it together, broke in the 19th game, and didn’t blink at the second time of asking. These types of wins build character, and she’s going to need to draw on that experience in her third round against the impressive young American Sloane Stephens, who has been playing the better ball in 2013.

“Crazy”

That’s the adjective many of Kimiko Date-Krumm’s past rivals use to describe her as she strives to compete in today’s modern game. But rather than crazy, the Japanese veteran represents living proof that sometimes age is just a number. In her opening match, she not only beat seeded Russian Nadia Petrova, she embarrassed her with a 6-2, 6-0 drubbing. She then battled Peer and the sweltering heat on Thursday to advance to the third round, making her the second-oldest woman to reach that stage behind Renee Richards. She has an excellent chance to keep the magic alive as she takes on Jovanovski in the third round. Though the Serb is half her age, Date-Krumm has won their only meeting. Perhaps she can continue to inspire by booking a place in the second week.

Why?

Why me? Why this? Why now? All questions that Brian Baker might have understandably been asking himself as he hobbled to his seat in his second round match. The 27-year-old, who lost years of his career to various injuries and surgeries, was competing in his first Australian Open. He’d reached the second round where he was a set to the good against his compatriot and No. 20 seed, Sam Querrey. But then, on a routine play, he came up lame. After a brief evaluation, the inevitable retirement came, and he was wheeled off the court in a wheelchair. Despite never having knee issues before, it was discovered that he’d torn his meniscus and will be out for at least four months. You don’t like to see this sort of injury happen to any player, but Querrey said it best when he noted that Baker, given all he’s been through, was the last guy who deserved this. Hopefully he still has enough fight in him to overcome this latest setback and come back stronger than ever.

Tragedy Strikes

On the heels of Hutchins’ announcement that he’d been diagnosed with the Hodgkin’s lymphoma came the sad news that current Executive Chairman and President of the ATP, Brad Drewett, has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig ’s disease. The disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a progressively debilitating disease that affects voluntary muscle activity, such as walking, talking, breathing, and other general movements of the body. Understandably, Drewett will need all his energies to focus on his uphill health battle, and so he will be stepping down from his post as soon as a suitable successor can be found. Though he’s only been in charge of the ATP for a little over a year, he’s already helped usher in great improvements, such as increased prize money overall, more compensation for the Grand Slam early-round losers, and has put measures in place to try and speed up the game. He will be greatly missed, but everyone in the tennis community wishes him well as he prepares to take on his biggest challenge to-date.

Seize the Clay

While at this point fans could be forgiven for thinking they’ll believe it when they see it, fingers crossed it seems that Nadal will be returning to the game in a matter of weeks. After pulling out of Oz, it at first appeared the Spaniard would stick to his plan of only playing the 500 event in Acapulco. But then earlier this week, he announced that he would be playing in Brazil and has since confirmed that he will also be competing in Chile in the opening week of February. That’s three tournaments in four weeks, but with latest reports being that his knee is doing extremely well, he should hopefully be up to the challenge. Additionally, provided he’s able to quickly wipe away the cobwebs and settle the nerves that come with a lengthy layoff, it could be an opportunity for him to build confidence and repair his aura has he fully dives into the 2013 season.

Cutting Del Potro some slack; familiar foes to meet for Davis Cup finals — The Friday Five

Juan Martin del Potro sits out his singles Davis Cup rubber on Sunday due to a prolonged wrist injury.

By Maud Watson

Familiar Foes

Just as they did three years ago, Spain and the Czech Republic will face off to take home the Davis Cup title. It’s familiar territory for Spain, the most dominant Davis Cup team of this century. Playing in their home country on clay, they proved too much for the American squad, with David Ferrer – less than a week removed from a semifinal showing in New York – coming up big to send his nation to the final. On the other side of the draw, the Czechs took on last year’s finalist, Argentina, and it was the talented Tomas Berdych who continued to play the type of tennis that took him to the semis of the US Open to get the Czechs back to the final. The Czechs will host Spain for title honors in November, but they will have their work cut out for them. No matter what surface they choose, Spain’s depth will be a huge obstacle. But if Berdych can maintain his form and Stepanek play his brand of quirky tennis that makes so many opponents uncomfortable, it could make for a very entertaining end to the 2012 season.

Cup Controversy

While two teams were celebrating a trip to the final, another Davis Cup team was busy pointing fingers. Unfortunately for Juan Martin del Potro, the bulk of the blame for Argentina’s loss to the Czech Republic fell on his shoulders. Some called the Argentine’s wrist injury into question, claiming he could have played singles on Sunday, and another source accused him of not being a team player. It’s difficult not to suspect that del Potro is getting the short end of the stick. He’s never been classified as high maintenance, so it’s hard to imagine him being a problematic team member. And while it’s not an excuse if that is in fact the case, there have been numerous reports of alleged rifts between the various Argentine players for years, so if del Potro chose not to socialize with his teammates for much of the tie, that ought to be seen as par for the course with fault on both sides. The more mind-boggling thing is that his injury would be brought into question. He was clearly suffering back in Cincinnati and was unable to fully crack it at the US Open. With essentially no recovery time since mid-August, it would have been more surprising if his wrist were 100%. Besides, at the end of the day, the guy was a hero who bounced back from a devastating semifinal loss to Federer to bring home an Olympic Bronze with a victory over Djokovic. Cut him some slack.

Mudslinging

As tumultuous as the situation with Argentine tennis is, it’s nothing compared to the turmoil that is enveloping tennis in India. Mahesh Bhupathi has come out swinging against the AITA – the governing body of Indian tennis – in the wake of the organization handing him and partner Bopanna a two-year ban from Davis Cup. The ban shouldn’t have come as a shock to the players, as the AITA had warned both Bhupathi and Bopanna that action would be taken against them when they were allowed to refuse partnering with Paes in favor of partnering with one another for the 2012 Olympics. It’s easy to see both sides of the equation. The feud between Bhupathi and Paes is well documented, and Bhupathi had gotten comfortable playing with Bopanna in preparation for the London Games. On the other hand, a country has the right to field what it feels is the best team possible for bringing home a medal, and there’s little doubt that on paper and past results, Paes and Bhupathi fit that bill. The AITA wasn’t out of line to ask the two men to put their differences aside to achieve success. There’s plenty of blame to go around. The only thing for certain is that with Bhupathi claiming years of mismanagement by the AITA, and the AITA striking back to refute those claims, things are bound to get a lot uglier before the matter is resolved. Expect more drama to follow.

Looking Forward

There are still some big tournaments left to be contested, but with the US Open done and dusted, many are already starting to look toward the 2013 season. Venus Williams has fans buzzing with the news that she’s planning to play Hopman Cup with countryman John Isner, making the American duo the second high profile tandem alongside Djokovic/Ivanovic to commit to the mixed team competition. It will mark the first time Venus has played the event, and it arguably couldn’t come at a better time for her. It’s less stressful than a formal WTA event and guarantees her a set number of matches, which is just what the doctor ordered as she looks to ease her way back into competition next year. And as a side note, they’re not a lock to walk away the victors, but Isner and V. Williams have to make for one intimidating combo in the mixed doubles!

Consolation Prize

He’d undoubtedly prefer to be back out and winning on the tennis courts, but Rafael Nadal did enjoy a spot of good fortune earlier this week as he was named Spanish Vanity Fair’s “Male Personality of the Year.” At the awards reception, Nadal talked very candidly about where he is in his career. His comments hinted that he may be looking at another five years, but he also suggested that his current hiatus from the game could further extend his career. In the end, it all depends on how much longer his body can hold up, as well as where his physical struggles leave him mentally. For now though, Nadal seems to be enjoying himself, which, assuming we don’t see him the rest of this season, should leave him plenty fresh and ready to go in 2013.

Rafael Nadal’s foggy future, Novak Djokovic bounces back — The Friday Five

Rafael Nadal

By Maud Watson

Foggy Future

The biggest tennis story this week didn’t come from one of the players in Mason, Ohio, but rather from one who isn’t, as Rafael Nadal announced he would not be competing at the 2012 US Open. Given the fact that Rafa hasn’t played since Wimbledon, the announcement itself wasn’t too big of a shock. But his withdrawal from the US Open does have many questioning what this means for the Spaniard’s future, particularly given the odd saga of his knee woes in 2012. The saga began in January with the bizarre injury from getting up out of a chair. He wisely took February off and appeared fine at Indian Wells before losing to Federer in the semis. It was after the fact that we learned that’s when the knees started acting up again and subsequently forced him to pull out before his semifinal match with Murray in Miami. At that time, however, Nadal had said the knees were not as bad as they were in 2009, giving his fans hope. Those hopes were fanned during the clay court swing where there was no mention of injury, Nadal was moving beautifully, and he went on his usual tear. By all accounts, Nadal looked poised for a successful grass court season before it was abruptly cut short by the stellar play of an “in-the-zone” Rosol. Shortly after the loss, word started leaking about MRIs, and Nadal refused to set a return date. All he would say about this time around is that the problem with the knees is “different.” To be clear, the latest rhetoric coming out of the Nadal camp has focused on the fact that he’s just not yet properly prepared to compete at the highest level, but his return will still be dictated by the shape of knees. Fans have seen him practicing, so there’s hope. After all, things looked bleak in 2009 before he had a career year in 2010, so it would be foolish to write him off. But times have also changed since then. Players besides Federer are in a position to challenge him on any stage. He’s looking more vulnerable on anything but clay, as evidenced by his lack of a non-clay court title since 2010. And he’s three years older. Given that he’s typically underperformed in the fall, it might be wise to cut his losses and focus on making a strong start to 2013. How he begins next season could potentially be very telling regarding how the remainder of his career will progress.

Righting the Ship

It wouldn’t be fair, or accurate, to say that Novak Djokovic has had a bad 2012. Coming into Toronto last week, he’d already won the Aussie Open and Miami Masters, had been in the finals of three of the four biggest clay court tournaments, including Roland Garros, had reached the semis of Wimbledon, the medal stage of the Olympics, and was still solidly ranked No. 2. But as both Federer and Nadal can attest to, when you set the bar high and fail to replicate that success the following season, people start asking questions. Doubts start to creep in. Losing the No. 1 ranking to Federer at Wimbledon – the very same venue where he’d claimed the top ranking just a year prior – along with leaving empty-handed at the Olympics appeared to really be taking a toll on Djokovic. He looked edgy, and his game was no longer as solidly sharp. For Djokovic, it looked as though the game wasn’t quite as fun anymore. But last week he got to return to his favorite hard court surface. Aided by the number of withdraws, Djokovic was able to put in a solid week of tennis and defend his Canadian Masters crown to grab his first, and a much-needed, tournament victory since Miami in March. It was a boost of confidence for the Serb, who is trying to recapture that 2011 form as he prepares to mount a defense of his US Open title of a year ago.

Life Preserver

While Toronto was big for Djokovic, the WTA equivalent event in Montreal was nothing short of a life preserver for Petra Kvitova, whose career has been adrift in 2012. It seems almost impossible to believe that less than a year ago, she was ranked No. 2 just barely behind Caroline Wozniacki. After breakout performances at both Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, she looked poised to sit atop the rankings and capture more prestigious crowns. But in 2012, she’s experienced the dreaded “sophomore slump.” She’s been able to stay near the top of the game thanks in large part to deep runs at the majors and some of the premiere events, but she was without a title until her victory in Montreal. And as happy as she was with her win over Li last week, more than anything you saw relief etched on her face. Kvitova, perhaps more so than other top players, relies on confidence. When her game is firing on all cylinders, she can blitz anybody off the court. When the doubts creep in, she can lose to the lowliest ranked players on tour. That’s why Montreal was so huge for her. Yes, she still needs to continue to work on her fitness, as well as her consistency, but hopefully this win will also provide her with the belief that she can bring her best when it matters most. She’s too talented of a player to not only be competing for the sport’s biggest prizes with the likes of Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka, but taking home her fair share.

Reality Check

The term “lucky loser” is an oxymoron, yet there’s many a player who’s come up short in qualifying that would love to wear that tag. This week at the Western & Southern Open, Jeremy Chardy was the player fortunate enough to be given a second chance when he got into the main draw by virtue of a late withdrawal. After defeating Roddick and Istomin, he came up against Andy Murray – a man who has owned him throughout his professional career. But Chardy’s luck continued to hold, as he shocked the reigning London Olympic Gold Medalist with a straight sets victory. All credit to Chardy, who played a fantastic match, but Murray helped the Frenchman’s cause with the ugly tennis that was coming off of his own racquet. The loss serves as a dose of reality for Murray and should bring him back down off of Cloud 9. Hopefully this defeat will help him focus better on the task at hand as he heads into the US Open, because after the way he has played on the lawns of Wimbledon, there’s no doubt he looks like a player not only capable, but mentally ready to take home his first major.

Fitness Race

In what some are speculating may potentially be his last season as an ATP pro, Andy Roddick finds himself in a race to beat the clock and be fit to put together a deep run at the US Open. Despite a disappointing showing at the Olympics and being forced to pull out of Toronto, Roddick arrived in Cincy feeling pretty good. He’d won Atlanta a few weeks prior, and the summer hard court season has traditionally been kind to him. But back spasms hampered his ability to bring his best to the court, and he suffered a frustrating loss to lucky loser Jeremy Chardy in his opening round. Now he’s in doubt for next week and faces going into the final major of the year with both a lack of matches and confidence. Fans will be hoping he’s 100% ready to go in a little over a week’s time, but especially if this turns out to be Roddick’s swan song, it would be nice to see him turn back the clock and produce vintage Roddick tennis. As the man who carried the torch for American tennis for the better part of a decade, it would seem only fitting.

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