Grand Slam

Eugenie Bouchard eager for her next tennis transition

By Melissa Boyd

Dec. 3, 2012 — Eugenie Bouchard has been on the Canadian tennis radar for almost as long as she has been swinging a racquet. Labeled early on as the potential ‘next one’ to follow in the footsteps of Carling Bassett-Seguso, Helen Kelesi, and Aleksandra Wozniak, Bouchard has begun carving her own path to greatness thanks to a breakout season in 2012.

The 18-year-old native of Montreal made history in July when she was crowned girls’ singles and doubles champion at Wimbledon, becoming the first Canadian ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. Bouchard actually won 19 consecutive matches this summer with her Wimbledon triumph sandwiched between titles at the ITF junior event in Roehampton and the $25,000 pro Challenger in Granby.

“Winning Wimbledon was a really tough tourney. It was a junior (event). I had the pressure all week. People expected me to win because I was playing women younger than me. So it was a big mental test and I was really proud that I was able to come through,” said Bouchard in an interview last week with a select group of reporters.

Many in attendance on Court 1 at SW19 were impressed with Bouchard’s poise and maturity in posting a convincing win over Elina Svitolina in the Wimbledon girls’ singles final on one of the biggest stages in tennis. She put her mental toughness on display at the Rogers Cup in Montreal when she out-toughed Shahar Peer, one of the best competitors in the women’s game, to earn her first Top 50 victory.

Perhaps the most impressive stretch of Bouchard’s year came during the Fall indoor season when she put her aggressive style of play on full display, reaching the final at the Saguneay Challenger and the following week winning her first $50,000 Challenger in Toronto. Bouchard suffocated her opponents with her offense-first mentality, losing just a handful of games en route to the title in Toronto and dominating Melanie Oudin in the Saguenay semifinals. The run secured her place in the Australian Open qualifying draw which will be her first Grand Slam as a pro.

“I had great coaches when I was young and they taught me to take the ball on the rise. I think that’s it really important in the women’s game,” said Bouchard. “Of course you want to hit fast, but you want to hit it early as well … Hitting it fast takes time away from your opponent.”

With 2012 now in her rear view mirror and the tennis world at her fingertips, Bouchard is ready to make the transition to becoming a full-time WTA pro in 2013. She is fully aware of the challenges awaiting her if she wants to prove that her 2012 campaign was no fluke.

“The top players in the world have a little something extra,” said Bouchard. “They don’t make mistakes and they don’t give you any free points, you have to earn them.”

Even though her career is just getting started, Bouchard is already turning heads off the court as much as she is impressing on it. Their obvious physical likeness and similar game styles have people drawing comparisons between the Canadian and her idol Maria Sharapova. Not to mention that Bouchard was recently chosen by Sharapova to wear her line of Nike tennis clothing. She is the whole package and her bubbly personality is a hit with fans. Even though it’s early, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement surrounding Bouchard and she knows that the onus is now on her to deliver on those expectations and send a message that the future is now.

“There is pressure from everyone around me, but I already put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Bouchard. “It’s nice to know that people think I am going to be good because that’s what I believe too, but I have to focus on what I have to do to become that player.”

The Necker Island Cup

by James A. Crabtree

The definitive tennis getaway would be somewhere in the Caribbean, secluded on a beautiful island with perfect weather, gorgeous beaches and crystal blue water. You would want the prefect mixture of tennis, relaxation, spiritual growth and entertainment.

So where exactly do you go?

Paradise, or more accurately Necker Island for Richard Branson’s inaugural Necker Island Cup.

Aside from kite boarding the Virgin boss lists tennis as a very important pastime. This is why the finest professional-amateur tournament in the world has been constructed. Yes you heard that correctly (repeat aloud), professional-amateur tournament meaning amateur players will be partnering a tennis professional! For a fee of course, but what more could one ask for? Many attend professional tennis events and enjoy the thrill of admiring the greats from afar, but the Necker Island Cup certainly makes dreams come true being able to literally serve it up with the world’s tennis best.

According to Trevor Short of premiertennistravel.com, Branson is also a player to be reckoned with and advises that he is a wily competitor with a sliding serve. Only time will tell how five time grand slam champion Novak Djokovic, the headline attendee at the event, handles the serve. But what is for sure is the world’s number one tennis player handles his off season in style. He will no doubt benefit from the leadership retreat and enjoy the chance to speak with environmentalists Alice Sylvia Earle and Jose Maria Figueres about global issues such as climate change and sustainable development.

Djokovic isn’t the only big name to be making the most from the offseason.  Bob and Mike Bryan will be partnering an amateur and will surely suffice as a viable doubles partner if their own volleys aren’t up to scratch. How about some veteran guile? John McEnroe or Tommy Haas anybody? Yes please. Or a big server who looks like he enjoys a good party? Well, that could only be Mark Philippoussis. Sign me up.

The parties have been taken care of with the “End of the World” awards dinner that includes a charity auction. And for those who don’t fancy roughing it up with the professionals on the court then there is also the Rosewood Little Dix Bay Legends Tennis Camp on the nearby Virgin Gorda Island led by Luke and Murphy Jensen.

With tennis the main focus of this remote, paradise island in early December it is certainly not understated in style with luxurious Balinese retreats on offer that provide more than the restful nights sleep; accommodation only seen to be believed (http://www.neckercup.com). Enough said this tournament set in paradise certainly offers more than its fair share of niceties.

Trials and tribulations end in the ultimate triumph for Maria Sharapova

By Melissa Boyd

Four years ago many wondered if she would ever play again and when she did, next to no one believed she could taste the sweetest victory of her career, the one that she earned on the famed red clay courts at Roland-Garros. In the space of three days, Maria Sharapova became World No. 1, captured her first French Open title, completed the career Grand Slam and wrote another page in the tennis history books.

People may have doubted Sharapova’s ability to win a Grand Slam after suffering a potentially career threatening shoulder injury in 2008, but Sharapova herself never stopped believing through all of the trials and tribulations of her comeback. It all came together for her on the clay in 2012, a surface on which she once famously described herself as being a “cow on ice”. Remarkably, Sharapova went undefeated on red clay this year, a streak which culminated with her fourth Grand Slam title in Paris following a 6-3, 6-2 over first time Major finalist Sara Errani of Italy.

“I had so many outs in my career.  I could have said, I don’t need this.  I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams,” Sharapova said. “But, when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it’s freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn’t there from the outside world, and you seem so small.”

The 25-year-old Russian is the tenth woman to complete the career Grand Slam joining the esteemed ranks of Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court,  Chris Evert, Shirley Fry, Steffi Graf, Doris Hart, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Serena Williams. She is the first player to accomplish the feat having won only one title at each of the four events.  Sharapova’s performance at Roland-Garros will propel her to a whole new category of greatness, the one that is reserved for the best players of all-time.

Beyond the numbers and the significance of such a monumental triumph, it’s how Sharapova found her way back to the pinnacle of her sport that is perhaps most impressive. She overcame bad losses, poor form and a less than reliable serve. She has since improved her movement, rediscovered her lethal groundstrokes and most importantly, found her confidence. The Sharapova that won her first French Open title is a better player than the Sharapova who won her first three Grand Slam crowns.

Beneath Sharapova’s fame, fortune and steely exterior, lies the heart of a true champion and the exuberance of a young woman who is realizing her dreams. She is a fierce competitor who takes her tennis very seriously and when she fell to her knees and cried tears of joys into the French ‘terre battue’ after Errani’s shot went into the net on match point, she showed the world just how much the greatest moment of her tennis life meant to her.

“It’s the most incredible feeling. I don’t know what to say. I’m so happy. I’ve worked so hard for this,” Sharapova said. “It took a lot to get to this stage and even more to win it. There are so many tough days where you feel like giving up, but you don’t. It’s been such a journey to get to this stage again.”

Making sense of a wide open women’s draw at Roland-Garros

By Melissa Boyd

While play on the women’s side during week one of Roland-Garros has not been of the highest quality, the drama that the ladies have produced over the first eight days in Paris has more than made up for it. For those just tuning in, it would appear as though a tornado has run through the draw, sparing just a handful of seeds along its destructive path.

When pre-tournament favourite Serena Williams was reduced to tears en route to a stunning first round defeat at the hands on an inspired Virginie Razzano, the upset flood gates were opened and several title favourites were shown the door earlier than anticipated. Most notably, a cranky World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka was knocked out on Sunday by Dominika Cibulkova to ensure that there will be a second different Grand Slam champion in 2012. The Slovakian exorcised some demons with the victory after failing to close her last two matches against Azarenka despite holding sizable leads on both occasions. Meanwhile, third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska mustered just three games in bowing out to 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.

While the top eight seeds are all still in title contention on the men’s side, only four of the top eight ladies remain. The top half of the draw has been particularly decimated. Case and point, one of Cibulkova, Sara Errani, Angelqiue Kerber or Samantha Stosur will be a Roland-Garros finalist this year. Stosur played for the title in 2010 and won her first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open last summer. The other three are relatively inexperienced when it comes to the business end of Majors, but have quietly built impressive career resumes. With her ball striking, Cibulkova can contend with anyone, Errani has won three clay court titles this season alone and Kerber, the newest member of the WTA’s Top 10, reached the semifinals at the U.S. Open in 2011.

The bottom half of the women’s draw features the new tournament favourite as well as the reigning French Open and Wimbledon champions. A gaping hole was left in the Maria Sharapova’s section of the draw following Williams’ unexpected exit and Caroline Wozniacki’s third round loss to Kaia Kanepi. The Russian, who could take over as the new World No. 1 if she reaches the final in Paris, has been a woman on a mission through three rounds, dropping a mere five games as she attempts to complete her career Grand Slam. It remains to be seen whether the added pressure of being the favourite will get to Sharapova as she moves closer to the business end of the tournament, but so far she has been lights out. Na Li and Petra Kvitova are slated to meet in the quarter-finals and could provide some serious for opposition for Sharapova in the semifinals, especially considering her record against both players.

There are still many stories to be told as Roland-Garros approaches its climax and if week one of is any indication, prepare to brace for the unexpected.

Compelling women’s event in store at Roland-Garros

By Melissa Boyd

The WTA Season is off to a flying start and rarely has there been this much anticipation for the women’s event at a Grand Slam heading into Roland-Garros. The draw if filled with storylines that will keep fans enthralled for the entire two-week fortnight.

Serena Williams, who is undefeated on clay this year with two titles, comes to Paris as the favourite, but the American will have to conquer a few French Open demons if she wants to win her first Roland-Garros title since 2002 and first Grand Slam crown since 2010. Williams will have to prove she can win seven matches in the ever-changing conditions on the clay courts in Paris, but she certainly has put herself in prime position to accomplish the feat.

Then there is Maria Sharapova, the former self-described “cow on ice”, has been the second best clay court player this season on the strength of her two titles in Stuttgart and Rome. Many felt like this was the Russian’s best chance to complete her coveted  career Grand Slam, unless Williams, whom she has not beat in eight years, fell in her section of the draw and that’s exactly what happened. The much hoped for Sharapova-Williams final will instead potentially happen in the quarter-finals. Sharapova winning Roland-Garros would be some story, but she’ll have to navigate a tough draw to do it.

It’s hard to believe that World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has been labeled the tournament’s third favourite, but an underwhelming clay court season that featured uncharacteristic losses and an injury withdrawal have people wondering whether Azarenka can repeat her stellar run in Australia. Not to mention that 2010 finalist Samantha Stosur, Brussels champion Agnieszka Radwanska, Venus Williams as well as a pair of former French Open champions, Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova are in her section of the draw.

Other names to watch out for include last year’s finalists. Defending champion Na Li could be stiff competition for Sharapova or Williams in the semifinals and while everyone was writing off Francesca Schiavone, she went and won her final tune up event in Strasbourg. Mona Barthel and Angelique Kerber are prime candidates to cause havoc in the women’s draw at Roland-Garros.

While many are already dusting off the French Open trophy to give it to Serena Williams, tournament tradition on the women’s side in recent years would lean more towards someone making a Cinderella run to the title with the odds stacked against them. The Parisian fortnight will dictate which of these two familiar story lines will characterize the second Grand Slam of the tennis season.

Kim Clijsters to focus on Olympics; John Isner new number one American — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

London or Bust

To the dismay of her legion of fans and the WTA in general, Kim Clijsters announced that she will be unable to make one last run at Roland Garros. The Belgian is suffering from ankle and hip injuries and is healing much slower than anticipated. She is wisely opting to focus all of her efforts on the upcoming grass court season, which she hopes will include a victory at Wimbledon, the Olympics, or both. In reality, such a scenario is looking less and less likely. The competition near the uppermost echelons of the game has made it harder to be a part-time competitor, and given Clijsters’ slow recovery and seemingly continual string of injuries, it’s difficult to imagine her being at the top of her game when she needs it most. She’s a great person, and I’d love to see a fairytale ending to her career, but count me among those who will be sincerely shocked if she not only wins one of the biggest grass court titles of 2012, but actually finishes the season.

Joining the Club and a Snub

The lineup for the 2012 Hall of Fame class has been set, and not surprisingly, it includes Jennifer Capriati. The American’s career follows a very similar arc to that of 2011 Inductee Andre Agassi. She was a standout teen prodigy who crumbled under the pressure in a very public fall from grace, only to pick herself up and ultimately realize her Grand Slam potential more than a decade after turning pro. Her career also impacted the sport as a whole, with her early burnout cited as one of the main reasons the WTA put restrictions on its youngest competitors, while the controversial overrule in her match with Serena Williams at the 2004 US Open is considered the catalyst for introducing Hawk-Eye to the game. With three singles majors, an Olympic gold medal, and the No. 1 ranking, she’s a deserving candidate. Also a deserving candidate but who was instead snubbed for induction is Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The Russian won two singles majors, four in doubles, reached the apex of the men’s rankings, won Olympic gold, and was a member of a winning Davis Cup team. His record is equally, if not arguably more impressive, than Capriati’s, and he’s certainly a more accomplished player than some previous inductees. Some have suggested he failed to make the grade in spite of his Hall of Fame résumé because of his often sour disposition. In an ideal world, induction would be based on pure merit and not popularity, but that’s politics. And while it doesn’t’ make it right, I guess bottom line, Capriati, not Kafelnikov, puts butts in seats.

Touching Tribute

Novak Djokovic has proven his mental toughness on multiple occasions the last 12-18 months, but perhaps one of the more stunning displays of his resolve occurred in his victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov to reach the quarters in Monte-Carlo. On the morning he was to play that match, he learned that his grandfather, Vladimir, had passed away at the age of 83. Vladimir was a hero to his grandson and the man Djokovic credited with teaching him to always fight. With that in mind, he couldn’t have put together a more fitting tribute to his grandfather on the day of his passing, overcoming the Ukranian in a topsy-turvy three-set tussle. In the first set, Djokovic was clearly suffering mentally, as he swung without any real purpose and Dolgopolov’s talent was on full display. But the No. 1 roared back in the second to force a tightly contested third set that ended when Djokovic broke his opponent in the ninth game before serving it out for the win. He raised his arms and eyes to the heavens in recognition of his hero before wiping away a few tears and undoubtedly causing more than a few spectators to grow misty-eyed themselves. He’s never won Monte-Carlo, so you can bet he was plenty motivated coming into his adopted hometown event. But now there’s extra motivation, because this one is for grandpa.

New No. 1

No, nobody has knocked Djokovic from his perch atop the world rankings, but John Isner did displace Mardy Fish as the top American, becoming the 12th man to hold the coveted spot in the process. It would have been nice to have seen him punctuate the achievement with the title in Houston, but you have to give credit to his vanquisher Juan Monaco, who before having to retire in his match with Haase in Monte-Carlo was playing some very stellar tennis. Isner has coped relatively well with the expectations that were suddenly heaped on his shoulders following his surprise defeat of Federer in Davis Cup, so it will be interesting to see if he continues the trend now that he’s the U.S. No. 1. It will also be interesting to track if the flip-flop in rankings takes some of the pressure off of Fish and allows him to relax and return to playing top-notch tennis instead of continuing his downward spiral. Either way, it could make for an intriguing spring and summer.

Ultimate Professional

It’s wasn’t a long swan song for Ivan Ljubicic as he entered the final tournament of his professional career in Monte-Carlo earlier this week. Perhaps fittingly, he went out to a fellow Croat, Ivan Dodig, in a straight sets defeat where he admitted he was surprised by the well emotions swirling inside of him. His story of an escape from war-torn Croatia and eventual rise to top tennis star is an inspiring one to be sure, and his dedication to his off-court endeavors is admirable. Always ready with an endearing smile, it was touching to hear his fellow competitors gave him a standing-o when he entered the locker room after that last defeat. He has and continues to be a class act, and I for one can’t wait to see what else he’s going to be able to do for the game.

Andy Roddick awakens rivalry against Roger Federer: “There is no script in sports”


The Federer-Roddick rivalry is no longer a myth. It truly exists and was on full display this evening at the Sony Ericsson Open as Roger Federer and Andy Roddick battled for a spot in the fourth round. Gone are the days of these two players meeting each other in Grand Slam finals, but the electrifying atmosphere still livened up the stadium as Roddick prevailed over Federer, 7-6(4), 1-6, 6-4 in what was a match for the history books.

“This is why you play,” stated Roddick during his on-court interview, encapsulating the exact thoughts of all those witnessing the American’s breakthrough. During his resurgence tonight, it was easy to forget that Roddick had a 2-21 losing record to the Swiss. However, this evening we witnessed a vintage Roddick who came out of the woodwork to stun and amaze both the audience and Federer.

The first set saw Roddick take surprising command as he eventually won in a tiebreak, 7-6(4). Roddick’s serve was on point, winning 83% of first serves while Federer struggled with his backhand returns often sending them long.

At the start of the second set, the crowd was surprisingly pro-Federer – if only to extend the match to three sets, but it seemed to negatively influence Roddick. He tightened up as his backhand began to leave him, and his serve faltered on several key points. He instigated the backhand slice instead, and Federer pounced on him any opportunity he got. Federer quickly broke him twice to go up 5-1, with Roddick serving to stay in the set. A perfect setup by Federer to push Roddick into “no man’s land,” gave the Swiss the open deuce court to strike a winner and take the second set, 6-1.

In his post-match press conference, Roddick was cheerful and talkative, admitting that he “didn’t feel like I played terrible [in the second set].  I mean, I didn’t play that bad … You know when he gets that lead he’s like a runaway freight train. That’s not really what you want to see.”

As any Roddick fan knows, momentum changes with the American are common and the third set started off rocky. Roddick bullied himself more than his opponent and barely held his opening service game. Deflated and grunting at himself, Roddick became a mere silhouette of the player he was at the start of the match. With this, the crowd shifted allegiance and turned pro-Roddick creating a near instantaneous transformation in Roddick’s game plan, with him sliding, attacking and pegging the ball deep into the court, breaking Federer for the first time of the evening to go up, 2-1.

“It was kind of a game of chess,” Roddick said. “I stayed back on the returns [initially], which is something I have not done with him often early on. I think he might have been a little bit surprised by it.

He made the adjustment like he does because he’s Roger. [He] started coming in a lot and putting the pressure on me, and it was down 6‑1 in the second and Love‑40 early in the third.  It was apparent that that wasn’t going to work much longer.

So I said, ‘Well, all right. Let’s kinda go over‑the‑top aggressive.’ I was able to get out of that game and play that really good game to break, and then my serve held up from there.”

Reenergized and with a bit of luck on his side, Roddick’s forehands began painting the lines for winners. Federer meanwhile, now clearly frustrated, altered his approach and channeled his energy to take the next game at love.

Two aces to go up 4-2 in the third gave Roddick the slight cushion he needed. As Federer attempted to stay inside the baseline taking balls on the early rise, Roddick hit deep into the back court to force his opponent into errors. Both players were on fire as the deciding set progressed, and the final games of the match would be a highlight for any tennis fan to witness live.

Three service winners in a row on the deuce side and a final ace gave Roddick a boost to go up 5-3. With Federer now serving, Roddick began running down every ball but wasn’t able to capitalize and break. Whether you were a Federer or Roddick fan, there was not a person in the stadium without adrenaline rushing through their veins. 5-4 Roddick. An ace followed by two service winners gave Roddick the match and the stadium erupted into cheers.

As Roddick shook hands with Federer and sat down at his bench, he was bent over seemingly overcome with emotion. Afterall, this was only the third time in eleven years that he had beaten Federer and it was a moment to savor.

Federer spoke with the media, praising Roddick and what he has done for American tennis, lest fans forget.

“He’s still very good. I hope you guys give him more credit than he’s getting at the moment. I’m happy to see him play really well. He’s a great champion, and enjoy him while you have him. It was a great night for him and America’s tennis.”

Given a match of this caliber and the player Roddick showed the world tonight, it’s safe to say all those retirement rumors can be put to rest – at least for a while.

“There is no script in sports,” commented Roddick. “I think that’s what makes it the best entertainment in the world… You don’t know what’s gonna happen. Nights like tonight are why you play the matches…

It would be a little presumptuous to go from people retiring me, to all of a sudden talking about winning a Masters event.  You know, let’s take it for what it’s worth. It probably wasn’t as bad as it seemed two weeks ago, and it’s probably not all the way turned around because of one match.”

Sabine Lisicki on Brad Pitt, Roger Federer and her Wimbledon Semifinals Run

After a resurgent 2011, German beauty Sabine Lisicki is sitting pretty in the WTA Tour rankings at a career-high number 13. I had the opportunity to sit down with Sabine at the Sony Ericsson Open and chat about her most memorable moments on court, Roger Federer, legends she has hit with, and the three famous people she would most want to have dinner with.

During the course of the interview, Lisicki could not have been more gracious and involved in the questions, laughing and/or giggling a total of eleven times. I would bet that her and Ana Ivanovic could compete in a “giggle-off” and see who the nicest WTA player is – it would be a tough call! But alas, I digress. On to the questions and get ready for some laughs!

What is your most memorable moment on court?

There are several. Obviously, my first grand slam in Australia [in 2008]. But from last year, a very emotional moment was winning the title in Birmingham and beating Na Li at Wimbledon, on center court, with a full house. That meant a lot to me, especially after coming back from an injury.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be?

(Laughs) I hate that question! (Laughs) I honestly don’t know, because tennis was always what I loved and what I always wanted to do and I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to do what I love.

Do you have any hobbies on the side that you enjoy?

There are things that I might do after tennis, because I’m interested in design/fashion, but also in the human body, so some medicine-type of thing, because we go through so many health issues and we learn a lot about our body and I’m just curious to learn more, so I’ll see which direction I’ll go. The human body is veryinteresting, so you can always discover more.

If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?

(Long pause) The ones I would love to play against, I’ve practiced with them already! (Laughs)

Is this like Steffi Graf?

Steffi and Andre, I’ve played with both and I’ve practiced with Mary Pierce and Martina Hingis, so all the idols. I would love to hit with Roger [Federer] one day.

What are two things that you couldn’t live without?

Friends and family.

If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be and why?

Living or dead? (Laughs) Ok, a fun one, Brad Pitt. (Laughs) An interesting one would be the pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson River. I would love to hear from him what he thought in those moments, because he was so under pressure having so many passengers and landing the plane. And the third one, Drew Brees (NFL Quarterback).

The WTA is on the Verge of a “Big 4” to Rival the ATP’s

Agnieszka Radwanska’s win at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has brought her to a career-high No. 5 ranking. With the way she’s been playing over the past few months, the young Pole could go even higher in the rankings.

Ahead of her, though, are 2012 Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka; ’11 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova; and Maria Sharapova, who’s made the finals at two of the past three Grand Slams. Caroline Wozniacki is ahead of Radwanska in the standings, too, but has shown to be vulnerable and could cede her place to Radwanska if the latter continues her hot streak.

That could result in a top four of Azarenka, Kvitova, Sharapova and Radwanska. With the way they’re playing and their current ages—all of them are under 25—they could have a lock on those top spots for quite some time.

That’s something that has become the norm on the ATP World Tour.

Over the past couple of years, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have had a vice grip on the top. David Ferrer and Robin Soderling have broken through, but only momentarily. Last year, the ATP’s “Big 4” captured every Masters Series 1000 event on the calendar between them. They also took all four semifinal spots at two Majors in 2011 and the first one this year at the Australian Open. They’ve won more than 170 singles titles combined, including 32 Grand Slams.

A “Big 4” of Azarenka, Kvitova, Sharapova and Radwanska, of course, don’t come anywhere close to those numbers at this point. Sharapova, the veteran of the group, is the most accomplished with three Grand Slams to her credit and a former place atop the rankings. Kvitova, the youngster at 21, has shown the ability to win titles in bunches, as has current world No. 1 Azarenka.
As a matter of fact, the Belarussian has already started the Djokovic comparisons with her perfect start to 2012, which included winning her first Major title.

As mentioned earlier, Radwanska hasn’t been too bad herself in ’12. In fact, the only player she’s lost to all year has been Azarenka, who’s come out in their head-to-heads three times already this year, including at this year’s Aussie.

At the Australian Open, all four of them made the quarterfinals, with Radwanska failing to advance further. Kim Clijsters, the ’11 champ, broke up the group. However, that task will get increasingly tougher for the players on the WTA Tour as the potential “Big 4” continues to assert itself.

I Love the WTA

Maria Sharapova giggled and jumped in the snow with her Russian compatriots. Forty-one year old Kimoko Date Krumm upset Polona Hercog, ranked 42 spots above her and born 21 years after her.  Serena Williams destroyed a racket. Christina McHale served a bagel. Julia Goerges nearly upset Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova, but fell just short and broke down in tears on court. The upstart and adorable British team, led by new coach Judy Murray, stormed (and tweeted) their way through their competition.  Francesca Schiavone (over)-dramatically won a match.

It was a predictably unpredictable Fed Cup weekend, what many would describe as “typical” WTA, and I loved every single minute of it.

It’s been a tumultuous few years for the most popular female sports league in the world.  In 2007 the tour seemed invincible when Wimbledon became the final Grand Slam to offer the women equal pay.  However,  an unfortunate series of events have left the tour in flux ever since.  In 2008 World #1 Justine Henin abrubtly retired, leaving a vacuum at the top of the game.  With various injuries crippling The Williams Sisters and Sharapova, a group of talented young girls were thrust into the spotlight at the top of the game a bit prematurely.  The “Slamless Number One” saga overshadowed everything else, only rivaled in media coverage by the incessant shrieking debate (which often reaked of sexism).  Some of the best female athletes on the planet were constantly declared out of shape and mentally weak by the experts of the game, many of whom were former WTA stars themselves. To make matters worst, all of this turmoil transpired simultaneously with the “Golden Era” of the ATP.  The more Federer, Nadal, and recently Djokovic dominated the Slams the more it seemed to diminish whatever “product” the WTA tried to produce.

As a WTA fan it’s been a sad few years. Wait- no, I actually don’t mean that at all. It’s been a rollercoaster for sure, but it’s been a blast.

I love parity, I love unpredictability, I love my sports to come with a side of “WTF is going on here?”. I love the fact that every Grand Slam you could pick fifteen women who have a legitimate shot to hold the trophy at the end of two weeks. I love the fact that Schiavone, Li Na, and Samantha Stosur are now Grand Slam Champions. I love that Vera Zvonareva, despite a history of meltdowns that would have made her eligible for the Real Housewives of Russia, made two Grand Slam Finals and climbed to number 2 in the world.  I love that Kim Clijsters retired, had a baby, then came back to the tour and won three more Grand Slams- 3 times more than she had pre-motherhood.  I love that Sharapova has fought her back from what many feared would be a career-ending shoulder injury and now, at 24, seems poised to be a factor for years to come. I love that Serena went from hospital bed to U.S. Open Final in less than six months.  I love that Andrea Petkovic dances in victory. I love that the outspoken Agnieszka Radwanska seems to only win when she’s taped up like a mummy.  I love Petra Kvitova’s forehand, Victoria Azarenka’s backhand, Marion Bartoli’s insane serve, and yes- even Caroline Wozniacki’s moonball. (Sometimes).

I love that the best days are yet to come.  Champions and superstars Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are sill hungry and fighting for titles. Azarenka and Kvitova, twenty-two and twenty-one respectively, seem unfazed by the pressure of expectations.  Clijsters is with us for the rest of the year (and I still not-so-secretly hope for more) and will be extra motivated to win her first French Open and/or Wimbledon trophy.  Venus Williams might not ever win another Slam again, but it won’t be without trying like a true Champion to deal with her Sjogren’s Syndrome and find a way to compete on the top level again.  Wozniacki will (surely) be determined to regain her spot at the top of the rankings and earn that elusive Slam.  Li, Schiavone, and Stosur will all be eager to get rid of the “One Slam Wonder” label.  And then of course there’s Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Any given Slam.

I don’t think that dominance is the only way to measure success.  I don’t think that unpredictability is always a sign of weakness. If you disagree with the prior statements then that’s fine, but I do think that these female athletes deserve heaps more respect than they get on a regular basis.

Yes, I unabashedly love the WTA, flaws and all.