Grand Slam Tennis

The Three Tiers of Triumph at Roland Garros

At the start of every major tournament, a draw of 128 randomly placed names can be daunting to even the most experienced of tennis fans. It helps to know how to separate the melting pot of names into three categories, thereby organizing them by expectation.

The favorites and the also-rans make up the extreme ends of this three-tiered cake gauging Slam success. The favorites, small in number, backload the pressure they might feel if they enter the event with sufficient confidence in the belief that they will have to eventually defeat a co-favorite for the title.

The also-rans make up the majority of the draw, though most will be gone within the first few days of any given event. Free from expectation of any kind, winning seven matches in two weeks is rarely on the menu for this kind of player, but that freedom can catalyze a good story and an even better run if things go right early on.

As in tennis draws as in families, the middle tier is where a tournament experiences most of its angst. Occupying a space just above the also-rans (but significantly below the favorites) the darkhorses arguably have the most pressure from the get-go, as by definition these are the players tagged to do that which often contradicts their ranking or prior results. However, if they can get on a roll, that seemingly insurmountable weight of expectation lifts with each match won, and finds itself more and more on the favorites’ shoulders, whose mettle will finally be tested after a week-long warm-up.

The best part about the early rounds of a Slam, then, is getting to see all three kinds of player compete not only at once, but against one another, and how each deal with the presence (or lack) of expectation.

One potential darkhorse who appeared not ready for primetime in Paris was German sensation Julia Goerges. The former Stuttgart champion, tapped by many as a legitimate contender for the title in 2011, has been struggling with bouts of dizziness and a GI illness, both of which hampered her progress throughout the clay court season. Faced with the opportunity to play an unranked veteran in the first round, Goerges must have liked her chances despite the cloud of misfortune that had followed her into the event.

But Zuzana Kucova had other ideas. Playing Roland Garros as a way of saying goodbye to tennis (the 30-year-old Slovak plans to retire by tournament’s end), Kucova played inspired tennis, first to out-gut Goerges in an extended first set tiebreak, then to bagel the German, who failed to find much of a rhythm on her extreme-gripped forehand. In her last tournament, Kucova finds herself in the second round of a Slam main draw for the first time, and while the win hardly elevates her to “darkhorse,” it makes for a great story, and what makes the Grand Slams so special.

Another player exhibiting few signs of pressure was defending champion and second-favorite to repeat (behind nemesis Serena Williams) was Maria Sharapova. Playing a similar warm-up schedule to last year, the Russian has felt at home on the terre battue in the last few years in a way that feels both shocking and refreshing. Once a “cow on ice,” Sharapova has conquered a surface that once gave her fits. If the draw suddenly lacked Williams, she would be the overwhelming favorite to defend the title that earned her the career Slam a year ago.

The American’s presence in the draw serves two purposes for Sharapova. While it decreases her eventual odds of winning, the accompanying decrease in expectation frees her up to play (dare I say it?) Kucova-like tennis. Against a familiar opponent in Hsieh Su-Wei, Sharapova played a perfect match, holding serve throughout, cracking more winners than errors, and led the star from Chinese Taipei in all stats except double faults; in what was the biggest upset of the day, Sharapova served none.

For all of the “feel good” stories a Slam brings, however, there must always be some element of tragedy. Such was the case for two darkhorses, Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep. Both had fantastic results coming into Paris, the former with a run to the finals of Oeiras and the quarterfinals in Rome. By contrast, Halep had saved all of her magic for the Foro Italico where, as a qualifier, she stunned three current and former top 2 players (Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Jankovic) to reach the semifinals. Both were expected to do big things at the second Slam of the year provided, of course, one defeated the other in their first round match.

In what was ultimately the bad luck of the draw, the two darkhorses came out on a non-televised court, played three sets of high quality tennis (both hit more than 20 and less than 30 errors over three sets), only for Halep to find herself on the losing end of the tussle. Suarez Navarro evidently played stunningly perfect clay court tennis, but sympathy must lie with the Romanian who, on Day 2 of Roland Garros, is out of a tournament where she was expected to do well with nothing tangible to show for it.

This dynamic of favorites, darkhorses and also-rans may seem complicated, but how all three forces come together over a two week span is what gives a Grand Slam tournament much of its “epic” qualities. While the field may decrease with each passing day, the three tiers of triumph help serve both dramatic tennis and compelling stories.

Clijsters rolls in return to Grand Slam play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the future.

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

And Querrey.

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

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

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

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

Kei Nishikori visits EA SPORTS to play Grand Slam Tennis

This week EA SPORTS was pleased to welcome Japanese tennis phenom Kei Nishikori to its Tiburon studio in Orlando, Florida.  Nishikori visited EA SPORTS to try out its new tennis game Grand Slam Tennis.  He first took a few practice swings on a Roland Garros practice court and once he got a feel for the motions, Nishikori jumped right into a match.  His first choice?  Centre Court at Wimbledon versus Pete Sampras.

“He was one of my heroes and I just wanted to play against him,” said Nishikori, who currently resides in Bradenton, Florida.

He said it was “a weird feeling” to see himself in the video game.  But added, “I like it.  I was thinking about it the past couple months that I’m in the game.  It was one of my dreams so I’m pretty happy.”

While this was his first time playing the Wii, Nishikori is no stranger to video games, having played Playstation 3 numerous times.

“This is the first time I’ve ever played the Wii and the first time I’ve played this game but it felt so real.  It was fun because you swing with your arm, it was good exercise to play the game.”

Grand Slam Tennis was designed and developed by EA Canada to be the deepest tennis gaming experience and Nishikori said it felt like a realistic experience on the court.  He would hold the Wii remote with two hands when hitting his backhand.

“I didn’t think anything of it; I just played tennis because it feels like real tennis,” said Nishikori.  “I didn’t know you can hit spins, slice, drop shots and all the shots so it felt real.  And the guy looks just like me.”

As one of the cover athletes for the Japanese version of the game, Nishikori joins an illustrious group of superstars who have graced the cover of an EA SPORTS Game.  On the Japanese cover, he’s flanked by Rafael Nadal and John McEnroe, an honour that wasn’t lost on him.

“Honestly I felt a little bad because I’m in the middle between Nadal and McEnroe and those two guys are legends and unbelievable players.  But I’m still happy to be on the cover.”

After playing Sampras, Nishikori selected Nadal, perhaps a rematch from their 3-setter at Queen’s Club last summer, a match he remembers well.

“I was so nervous to play against Nadal because he was number two at that time.  I practiced with him about 4 years ago and I felt like there was no way I could beat him and a couple years later I played him.  I was so happy to play against him and I played awesome.  I lost in three sets but I remember that was a good match.  Maybe I can get revenge in this game and hopefully I can win next time.”

After enjoying the game, recording some promo spots, doing a photo shoot and a radio interview for EA SPORTS, it was back to business for the Japanese star.

“I have to practice this afternoon but hopefully later I can go to the beach and go shopping.”

That’s something he’s able to do a bit more easily in the U.S. because in Japan, Nishikori is like a rock star, having to be accompanied by security at all times.

“I cannot walk in the streets or even outside during a tennis tournament.  I don’t feel it here in the U.S. but when I got back to Japan it’s crazy.”

Nishikori finished 2008 ranked #63 in the world after starting the year #289.  Last year he received the “Newcomer of the Year” award, which was voted on by all the players on the ATP Tour.

Other Kei Nishikori quotes:

On seeing himself in the game for the first time:

“It was a little embarrassing but it was fun.  Weird feeling because I’m in the game and I never thought I was going to be in a video game so it was fun.”

On the prospect of playing on the most famous tennis courts in the world:

“I’ve never played on Centre Court before so it’s good to play and imagine.  It looks just like the real Centre Court.”

On whether the game offered a realistic introduction to tennis:

“It’s fun to play and everybody can play even if you don’t know tennis so it’s good to start with this game.”

On how it feels to be in the game with some of the greatest tennis legends:

“I’m not a top player yet but I’m happy to be with these guys, the top players and maybe soon I can play them on the real court.”

On the legends in the game that he follows:

“My dad loves Bjorn Borg so I think he’s going to love playing this game.”

“I want to play against Roger Federer because I haven’t played him yet and he’s the greatest player.”

“For sure it’s fun to play against the legends and with me in the game, my family loves it.”

On who he tries to emulate on the real tennis court:

“I’m not like him but I try to play like Roger Federer because he can play on any surface and it’s just fun to watch him play.”

Photo Credit: Carlos Navarro/EA SPORTS

EA Sports unveils cover athletes for Grand Slam Tennis

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – April 9, 2009 – Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ: ERTS) announced today that tennis stars John McEnroe, Roger Federer and Serena Williams will be the North American* cover athletes for its new tennis franchise, EA SPORTSTM Grand Slam® Tennis.  Eight different regional player partnerships will be announced soon.  McEnroe, one of the sport’s most recognizable figures, was recently confirmed as exclusive to the game.  Federer and Williams are among the biggest names in tennis and the most accomplished; having won 23 Grand Slam singles titles between them.  Williams becomes the first woman to grace the cover of an EA SPORTS simulation product.

“It’s very exciting to be on the cover of EA SPORTS Grand Slam Tennis.  This game not only shows EA’s enthusiasm for tennis but for also women’s tennis,” said Williams.  “I know from experience how tough and gratifying it is to win all four Grand Slams so I hope people will enjoy the Grand Slam experience that is offered in this game.”

EA SPORTS Grand Slam Tennis is being developed under the EA SPORTS brand by EA Canada in Vancouver, B.C.  Designed first for the WiiTM, it ships to North American retailers on June 15th, one day earlier than the previously announced ship date. Worldwide it ships on June 26th with the exception of the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Spain and Australia, where it ships on June 12th.

This fall, EA SPORTS Grand Slam Tennis will also be served up for the PLAYSTATION®3 computer entertainment system and Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft.  With stunning realism, it will feature innovative control systems and robust online** capability.  Classic matches from the past will be recreated, along with simulated dream match-ups that weren’t possible before.

EA SPORTS Grand Slam Tennis for the Wii has been rated “E” by the ESRB and “3+” by PEGI, and has an MSRP of $49.95 USD in North America.  For more information, log onto www.easports.com/tennis.  Media can find screenshots and video of the game at http://info.ea.com.

Top-selling titles and franchises from EA SPORTS include Madden NFL football, FIFA Soccer, NHL®, NBA LIVE, NCAA® Football, Tiger Woods PGA TOUR® and NASCAR® racing.

*In addition to select other global territories

** INTERNET CONNECTION required for online features.  See product pack for details.

About Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts Inc. (EA), headquartered in Redwood City, California, is the world’s leading interactive entertainment software company. Founded in 1982, the company develops, publishes, and distributes interactive software worldwide for video game systems, personal computers, cellular handsets and the Internet. Electronic Arts markets its products under four brand names:  EATM, EA SPORTSTM, EA SPORTS FreestyleTM and POGOTM. In fiscal 2008, EA posted GAAP net revenue of $3.67 billion and had 27 titles that sold more than one million copies. EA’s homepage and online game site is www.ea.com. More information about EA’s products and full text of press releases can be found on the Internet at http://info.ea.com.