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Sampras, Moya, Lisicki Join Li Na for Exhibition Tournament in China

2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na received a hero’s welcome in her hometown of Wuhan, kicking off a two-day exhibition tournament on December 17, 2011 called “Li Na and Friends.” The festivities  also feature 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras and former world number number 1 Carlos Moya, as well as 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist and WTA Comeback Player of the Year Sabine Lisicki. The event gave fans a chance to celebrate Li Na’s historic Grand Slam victory and brought tennis to a quickly-growing market in China.

Li’s slump since winning Roland Garros in June seems to have ended as she looked to be in better form this weekend after a month-long training camp in Germany.

“I trained quite solidly and effectively in Germany. I feel much better now compared with the past several months. But how good my form is, I think it will be tested at this tournament … I just want to relax my nerves after the Germany trip. It’s a feedback event for my home fans,” Li said after being greeted at the Wuham Tianhe airport by a cheering home crowd.

The 29-year-old was also nominated for the Laureus “Breakthrough Player of the Year” award on Thursday showing just how far the veteran has come not only in tennis, but in the international world of sports.

The first day of the exhibition featured a square off between Li and Lisicki followed by mixed doubles with Li teaming up with Sampras and Lisicki pairing with Moya. On Sunday, the men will take court for their singles match followed by a reverse mixed doubles match.

After fighting off two match points to defeat Li at this year’s Wimbledon 3-6, 6-4, 8-6, Germany’s Lisicki again praised Li’s mark on tennis.

“I am delighted to have been included in the ‘Li Na and Friends’ event. Li Na and I had one of the best quality matches of Wimbledon 2011 and it is always a pleasure to play a champion — especially a reigning Grand Slam Champion like Li Na who is so friendly and professional, something all of China should be very proud of,”  said the 22-year-old.

After growing up watching Sampras on TV, Li shared how starstruck she was upon meeting one of her idols.

“I always admired his skills and play, but only saw him on TV. But during the China Open this year, I met him for the first time outside the locker room, and he said ‘Hi, Li Na, I am Sampras. Congratulations for the French Open championship,'” said Li. “After he was gone, I had to ask myself, ‘Did that really just happen?'”

Likewise, Sampras reciprocated the feelings of mutual respect.

“It’s good to be back,” said Sampras, referring to his third trip to China in three months. “I’m a friend of Li Na now, which is a great honour for me.”

Check out more photos from the exhibition tournament’s press conference in wintery China below. Massive log cake included!

(Sabine Lisicki/Na Li photo courtesy of Lisicki’s Facebook page; Press Conference photos courtesy of IMG; Rest from LiNaAndFriends.com)

American Hopes Higher Than Ever for the US Open

For the first time in a few years American fans must be feeling very confident about the men’s side of the draw at their home Slam beginning in New York on Monday.

While Serena’s absence means home hopes will be firmly lodged behind older sister Venus in the women’s game, for the first time in a few years American dreams will be spread amongst a small band of merry brothers hoping to hoist the red, white and blue flag high above Flushing Meadows come the conclusion of finals day.

Even the most pessimistic of American tennis fans would be hard pushed to disagree that there are five men capable of pushing deep in to the draw and giving the country something to shout about. It’s not certain of course, form and injury permitting, but it is possible.

At 27, Andy Roddick should be at the peak of his powers. The 2003 Champion is the only American to have lifted the US Open since Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras used to fight tooth and nail over the hallowed trophy.

Last year he fought out on of the toughest Wimbledon finals in recent memory before finally succumbing to the powers of Roger Federer but this year his form has been somewhat erratic and following his Washington defeat to Gilles Simon he dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in 2006, meaning there was no American in the top 10 rankings for the first time since their inception.

His diagnosis with mononucleosis seemed like his end to 2010 was going to be hugely disappointing. But then A-Rod did what he does best and stopped the critics jabbering.

At Cincy last week he defeated plucky Swede Robin Soderling as well as world No. 3 Novak Djokovic. He was serving for the semifinal against Mardy Fish before having a trademark wobble and losing the tie 6-4, 6-7(3), 1-6.

But the earlier performances will buoy a man who is getting over an illness which causes lethargy and nausea. Only a cold-hearted hermit would fail to be warmed and rallied by the cheers of a home crowd and a country as proud of their own as the US of A will undoubtedly be throwing the weight of their voices behind a man they have been praying will repeat that 2003 triumph for the past 7 years.

However his draw isn’t the easiest. A second round against Janko Tipsarevic or Olivier Rochus won’t be easy and then he has the possibility of Gael Monfils or Igor Andreev to come.

And what of that Cincinnati semifinal victor Mardy Fish? Right now the man is the hottest property on the ATP Tour and the name on most people’s lips. He pushed Federer all the way in the Cincy final and only a year ago, maybe even six months ago, that would have been unthinkable.

His recent performances have seen a huge progression in his ATP ranking and he is the hottest man along with David Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdatis entering Flushing Meadows.

Jan Hajek shouldn’t pose too many problems in round one for the number 19 seed and the opposition doesn’t look too tough from then on either. Fish and Roddick could even meet at the quarter finals stage if all goes well for both men.

Fish has only once reached that mark here in 2008 but on current form who would bet against him repeating that in 2010? He looks a very good outside bet for the betting man to possibly earn a semifinal berth.

Then of course there are the two young men who not so long ago were being touted as future stars of this sport.

In the summer of 2009 the future looked very rosy for Sam Querrey. He reached three ATP Tour finals in a row, losing to compatriot Rajeev Ram in Newport, another American Robby Ginepri at Indianapolis before breaking that streak by defeating the Aussie Carston Ball at the LA Open.

Despite a run-in with a glass table that nearly ended his career in the autumn Querrey finished the year at a career-high world No. 25 and was tipped to fly in to the top 20 during 2010.

A first-round Aussie Open defeat to Rainer Schuttler wasn’t exactly the best start to the year. A run of early defeats followed before he reached the final of the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in April where he lost to Argentine clay specialist Juan Ignacio Chela.

After losing the first round in France to that man Ginepri again he began complaining of mental troubles and claimed that he had “fallen out of love” with tennis in an Andy Murray-style full on collywobbler. However, come Queens he’s turned it around again and after beating Fish in the final, his first title on grass and third in 2010, he became the only player this year to win titles on three surfaces.

He then defeated Murray in the final of the LA Open to hold on to his title and so things are looking slightly rosier again for the world No. 22 and the No. 20 seed next week.

Chela lurks in his quarter of the draw but other than him the names don’t look like they will pose too much of a threat before the later stages.

Finally we have the massive John Isner. The 6 ft. 9 North Carolinian is the current world No. 20 and has never progressed past the fourth round of a Slam reaching that mark here last year and back in the Australian Open in January.

He started the year brilliantly by winning his first tournament, the Heineken Open in Aukland, before that Aussie Open result. He fought valiantly during the USA’s 2-3 defeat to Serbia in the first round of Davis Cup World Group Stage play before a few disappointing showings.

At the Serbian Open he reached the final after wins over Josselin Ouanna, Richard Gasquet and Stanlislas Wawrinka but doubles partner and good friend Querrey pipped him to the title on this occasion.

He made history at Wimbledon of course with that mammoth matchup with Nicolas Mahut but we have heard very little from him since. Perhaps he is still recovering? Shoulder injuries have been troubling him and there are still a few doubts as to whether he will make next week, but he strenuously denies these.

Perhaps the least likely to progress deep in to the draw due to form and injury concerns. His first two rounds should be straightforward but then he may begin meeting the likes of Radek Stepanek, Julien Benneteau, Tommy Robredo, Victor Hanescu or the No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych and this is where, on current form, you would fancy him to fall.

There are, of course, a large spattering of Americans throughout the rest of the draw but the serious money will be on these five. However the home players do this is shaping up to be a great tournament once more full of enough thrills and spills to outlast any Hollywood Blockbuster.

BRITISH WEATHER INDECISIVE BUT MURRAY AND RODDICK SHINE AT QUEEN’S CLUB

The indecisive British weather threatened for most of the day causing play to be held back until 1.30pm on Centre Court and the players to be pulled off for a break at 3.30pm during a heavy shower. However, the sunshine prevailed towards the latter stages, but unfortunately did not shine kindly on British No. 2, Alex Bogdanovic who lost the final set to talented Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov 6-4 after a missed challenge and two double faults ended his campaign on Centre Court. Bogdanovic revealed his “disappointment” over having his funding cut by the Lawn Tennis Association after the match, but remained positive that he could still be “a top 100 player”.

Next up on centre was the talented Frenchman, No. 6 seed Gael Monfils against German, Rainer Schuettler, ranked No. 82 in the ATP world rankings. During the first game, Monfils appeared to twist his knee and looked extremely uncomfortable moving on the grass for the rest of the match losing in three 6-3, 6-7, 6-2, meaning the former Wimbledon semifinalist, Shuettler had pulled off his biggest win since beating Sam Querrey in the first round of this year’s Australian Open.

Performance of day two at Queen’s had to go to Andy Murray, who was next up on centre, playing Ivan Navarro. Surprisingly for a Spaniard, Navarro took his serve volley game to Murray who did well to get the first set to his first tiebreak at Queen’s since 2008. Murray managed to pull off some spectacular shots to take the first set, which must have thrilled his girlfriend, Kim Sears back watching on the side lines since rekindling their romance earlier this year. Murray started to see the ball a lot better in the second set, winning it convincingly 6-3. He came back at the end of the day’s play to partner his brother Jamie against Sam Querrey and Scott Lipsky of the USA. The pair looked impressive as they won in two in front of a more vocal home crowd after several glasses of Pimms. Murray was suitably grumpy in the post match press conference and I can see why he hasn’t always won many popularity points with the press.

Andy Roddick made easy work of Russian Igor Kunitsyn, thrashing him 6-2, 6-1 in a flash. Roddick revealed an interesting theory after the match, saying that he would “love three months of 1000 tournaments in the lead up to Wimbledon. We have a couple of 250s before Wimbledon. So for me that’s just a glaring issue, you know.” More Pimms and strawberries for three months before Wimbledon? I second that Andy, but what about the weather?

Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter.   She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.

LATE BLOOMER STOSUR A RARITY ON WTA TOUR

By Blair Henley

The ATP Tour is full of late bloomers. Sure there is the occasional teenage superstar, but it’s often more common for men to peak in their mid to late 20’s.

Not so on the women’s side.

That’s why 26-year-old Samantha Stosur’s recent first-time appearance in the Top 10 is an unusual feat. Her stellar doubles resume has made it easy to miss the fact that her singles ranking has been steadily improving since her professional debut in 1999.

In an age where mindless pounding from the baseline seems to have taken over, Stosur has shown that a well-rounded game, complete with solid volleys and a blazing serve, pays long-term dividends. Up-and-coming players and their coaches would be wise to take note.

Stosur, who goes by the nickname Sam, grew up in Queensland, Australia and didn’t start playing tennis until age 8, when a friend gave her a racket for Christmas. She spent as much time as possible hitting with her older brother until he advised their parents to get her some real lessons. By the time she turned 16, Sam’s rapid improvement had secured her a spot in the Australian Institute of Sport’s tennis program, which helped launch her professional career.

Stosur’s aggressive style of play took some time to develop, and it wasn’t until 2005 that she started seeing significant results in both singles and doubles. She teamed up with Lisa Raymond midway through the year and proceeded to win seven doubles titles with her new partner, including the U.S. Open and the WTA Tour Championships. Her newfound success provided the necessary momentum heading into 2006, where Stosur delighted her home crowd by making it to the fourth round of the Australian Open. After that solid season, she reached the No. 1 ranking in doubles and sat comfortably at No. 29 in singles.

Things were looking great for the Aussie, but trouble lurked right around the corner. After a decent start to 2007, Stosur’s season was cut short by extreme fatigue and joint pain. It wasn’t until October of that year, after a viral meningitis scare, that she was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease. The tick-borne illness sapped her strength and energy and left many wondering if she could come back from such severe health issues.

Stosur overcame the odds and had a fairly successful return to tennis in 2008, but she didn’t completely regain steam until the following year. In addition to her consistent doubles success, Sam’s all-court game fell together in 2009, making her a significant singles threat in the process. Her breakthrough season was capped off by her first WTA Tour singles title in Osaka.

That brings us to 2010. Stosur went into this year with a new and improved slice backhand and an intense focus on her singles play. Boy has that paid off. She recently captured the Family Circle Cup title and just fell in a tough three-setter to Justine Henin in the final of the Stuttgart Grand Prix. Interestingly, many of her biggest tournament wins have come on clay, which speaks to her adaptability and peak physical condition.

Stosur may have been a long-shot for success when she turned pro over ten years ago, but her slow and steady ascent shows just how dedicated she has been to a game-style that took some extra time to develop.  For every hard-hitting baseliner that has succeeded on the pro tour, there are many more that have flamed out upon realizing their games had hit a permanent plateau. Sam is a fantastic example for the next generation of players who would be smart to establish an aggressive, well-rounded game that can set them up for long-term success.

Only time will tell if Samantha Stosur will become a fixture among the world’s tennis elite,  but for now it looks like this late bloomer has effectively thrown her “doubles specialist” title out the window, trading it in for something more along the lines of singles powerhouse.

FRENCH HOPES IN MONTE CARLO

The 2010 Masters Circuit has landed on European soil with the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters this week.

After Americans had home-grown superstar Andy Roddick to cheer on in both the finals of Indian Wells and Miami, the French will be hoping that one of their many young prodigies across the tennis circuit rises to the challenge on the sumptuous clay courts of one of Europe’s largest tax havens. Yes, technically there can’t be any home-grown winners as no current players cite the city-state of Monaco as their place of birth, but you know what I mean.

As usual with organizers handing wildcards to national treasures they have plenty to choose from throughout the draw.

Most knowing eyes glance immediately to the name of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. ‘The Black Barracuda,’ No. 10 in the world and sixth seed here in Monte Carlo, would be most fan’s prediction as the nation’s biggest hope.

With no Gael Monfils, Julien Benneteau will be receiving an increased share of support from the home crowd. The world No. 36 is still chasing his first career title and at the age of 28 is quickly approaching that dreaded brow of the hill known as the “big 3-0.” Having reached a career high ranking of No. 33 last October he will be hoping to push on and improve further in 2010.

Of the four finals he has lost during his career, two were on French soil in Lyon in 2008 and Marseille back in February where he went down 3-6, 4-6 to compatriot Michael Llodra. He also has four doubles titles on French soil and lost the doubles final here in 2007 when he and Richard Gasquet fell short of the dominating Bryan brothers.

Another bright French spark, Jeremy Chardy, has already crashed out in round one going down to Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan yesterday 2-6, 6-7(2).

With such big players in the draw the task lying ahead for the home talent is huge. But every big name missing from the draw is a blessing and they will all be happy not to see the shadow of Roger Federer crawling through the rounds towards them.

Whether they can live up to expectation is another matter and if they are like us Brits across the channel the French will be braced for disappointment. However, with so many more highly ranked players than our sole hope Andy Murray they have a much better chance of success.

The French have their own hoodoo to break too you know. Marcel Bernard was the last Frenchman to win Roland Garros in 1946, before the Open Era had even begun. It may not be quite as big as the ghost of Fred Perry but there’s not too much in it. They haven’t had a French finalist since Henri Lecont lost to the Swede Mats Wilander in 1988 either.

Will a local star use this tournament to push on towards ending that spectre and help appease the hurt of one of the world’s proudest nations? Sit back and find out as one of the world’s grandest tennis settings plays host to its own masters event of 2010.

WILL NADAL BE ABLE TO RETURN TO THE TOP? THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Return of the Bull – Rafael Nadal says that he is planning to return to tennis in the desert at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 event, the BNP Paribas Open. He states that his knee is healing nicely, and furthermore insists that he can return his body to peak physical condition. Nadal is a fierce competitor, and I sincerely hope that he’s right about that last part. But given his brand of physical tennis and refusal to take an extended break to allow his body to completely heal, it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever be able to sustain his top form for any length of time. I’ll be the first to admit if I’m wrong on this one, but I disagree with Nadal’s strategy to forgo the extended break and tweak his game to make it less physical.

Welcome to the Main Event – After the surprising news that Marat Safin would be playing an event on the Champions Series senior circuit in March, there then came the news that the lovable Russian is going to be playing an exhibition on April 10 in Atlantic City at Caesar’s Palace. Perhaps the only thing more shocking is that the Caesars Tennis Classic exhibition is also going to feature Ivan Lendl, who hasn’t played a match since 1994. The field will be rounded out with Andy Roddick and Mats Wilander, with Venus Williams playing the hostess. With the spectacular tennis those men are able to produce, coupled with their mesh of personalities, it’s a safe bet that a good time is in store for any lucky enough to get a ticket.

Back at Last – It wasn’t as soon as he had hoped, but it had to feel good to Argentine David Nalbandian to finally make his return to competitive tennis in his home country at the Buenos Aires Copa Telmex event. Nalbandian opened his campaign with a solid straight sets win over Italian Potito Starace before giving the home crowd something to cheer about with a nail-biting win over Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 9-7 in the third set tiebreak. Given Nalbandian’s talent and ability to upset the big boys in tennis, I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping this is just a sampling of the good things to come.

Seizing the Opportunity – It was just last year when Israeli Shahar Peer was denied a visa to compete in Dubai. This year, she was allowed entry, and she’s making the most of it. After having never taken a set off of 2009 US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, the compact Peer cruised her way to a routine victory over the Dane in straight sets. Perhaps the only downside to the match was that it was forced to be played on Court 1 instead of Center Court, as Court 1 was more secure. Credit to Wozniacki who had the class to acknowledge that while the court speed was different on Court 1 as compared to Center, the conditions were the same for both players and did not blame the switch for her loss.

Kournikova in the News – But this time, it isn’t Anna K. It’s her mother, Alla. In one of the more bizarre scandals to come up in tennis news this week was the case of Alla Kournikova, who is being charged with felony child neglect. She allegedly left her five-year-old son home alone while she ran some errands. Neighbors spotted the child outside and then called authorities. When questioned, the five-year-old son claimed that he had gotten outside by jumping out of a second story window (but was uninjured). Alla could face up to five years in prison. I somehow think the next time Anna K does a press conference, the questions aren’t going to be about her latest modeling gig.