injury layoff

Is Grass Always Greener?

When the new International-level WTA event made its debut this week in Nürnberg, Germany, there was no shortage of quality story lines; although the draw featured no top 10 players, top seed Jelena Jankovic is always a walking headline and four Germans started off in the main draw. Nonetheless, the event has made headlines for completely unexpected reasons. Some have questioned the merit of the WTA holding a clay court event two weeks before Wimbledon, particularly in a country where the grass-court tuneup in Halle always attracts a star-studded ATP lineup.

The idea of arbitrarily placed clay court events on either tour’s calendar is nothing new. The WTA calendar also allocates space for four clay court events in the two weeks following Wimbledon: Budapest, Palermo, Bastad and Bad Gastein. Serena Williams is committed to play the clay-court event in Bastad for the first time in her career, and the event is held the week before her usual US Open Series tuneup in Stanford. Rafael Nadal returned from a seven month injury layoff and prepared for the North American hard court season by playing in Vina del Mar, Sao Paulo and Acapulco…on clay.

With the way that professional tennis has evolved over the years, the grass court season has become little more than a blip on the drawn-out tennis calendar; while players like Alison Riske and Tsvetana Pironkova might’ve found their lives a bit easier if three of the four slams were still contested on grass, career-defining results on grass are not the norm for most players. Is it really to a player’s benefit to waste time (and money) to travel and compete on a surface where she’ll reap such little reward for such a short time?

There is constant clamoring for players to schedule smarter and play the tournaments that are in their best interest. By putting these tournaments on the schedule, the WTA is allowing for that. There was little to no clamor about Nadal returning to action on his most preferred surface to get match play and confidence. This week in Nürnberg, the narrative was quite similar. The saga of Andrea Petkovic and her injuries over the past 18 months is well known. After losing in Roland Garros qualifying to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou, Petkovic dropped down to the ITF Circuit and won a $100,000 event in Marseille on clay; among her scalps, Petkovic defeated in-form players Monica Puig and Paula Ormaechea, both of whom came off third round showings in Paris. After defeating Sofia Arvidsson in the first round in Germany, Petkovic assured her return to the top 100. Petkovic’s good form continued as she rallied past Annika Beck, her teenaged countrywoman, in nearly three hours to reach her first WTA semifinal since Luxembourg in 2012.

On the other side of the draw, Polona Hercog was making an injury comeback of her own. The Slovenian quietly played just one match this year at the Australian Open before requiring wrist surgery, and made her return to competition at a $50,000 ITF event in France before Roland Garros. No slouch on her beloved clay, where she owns two WTA singles titles, Hercog also fell in Roland Garros qualifying. Hercog’s greatest grass court success came as a junior, when she reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2008. Since then, Hercog has avoided grass like the plague, and rightly so. The Slovenian’s game is far from effective on grass, and it didn’t take her long to figure that out. She’s played just a handful of matches on the surface in her career. Her only career win at Wimbledon came against Johanna Larsson, perhaps the only active WTA player less comfortable on grass than Hercog herself. Instead of moving on to grass, Hercog took the title at a $25,000 ITF event in her hometown of Maribor, reached the semifinals in Marseille and took out the No. 2 seed Klara Zakopalova en route to a quarterfinal showing in Nürnberg. With smart scheduling, Hercog got herself more match practice in a few weeks than she might have for nearly the rest of the year.

In a sport where so much is made of wins and losses, it’s much easier to adapt to an uncomfortable situation when you’re in good form. None of the WTA’s top three are entered in a grass court warmup event, and does anyone believe that this is a hindrance to their title hopes? The difference is that these players perform at a high level nearly every week and are rarely, if ever, short on confidence. Confidence and the ability to adapt comes from winning, and nothing else. Not everyone has the luxury to be able to have and do that on a dime. By holding simultaneous tournaments on different surfaces, both tours are allowing for the highest percentage of their players to succeed.

2011: The Year of the Comebacks – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Quick out of the Gates

It’s a new year, it’s a new tennis season, and the men of the ATP World Tour are wasting no time in dusting away any cobwebs that may have formed during the short off season. With the exception of Fernando Verdasco, the Top 10 men who played in the opening week of competition have looked solid as they prepare for the opening Grand Slam of 2011. As an added treat, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal squared off in the final of the Abu Dhabi exhibition event, much to the delight of the crowd and fans around the world. Nadal emerged triumphant in a tight two-set encounter that seemed to promise plenty of fireworks to come in their captivating rivalry.

Slow off the Mark

The exact opposite of the men’s tour at the moment would be the women of the WTA. Tennis superstar Serena Williams isn’t even playing, but some of her main rivals are failing to find their footing and take advantage of the American’s absence. Top players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur, Shahar Peer, and even Maria Sharapova (though she was returning from a long injury layoff) have all been bounced early in their warm-up events for the Aussie Open. Then again, the women’s season ended on a relatively topsy-turvy note, so it would appear that 2011 is merely picking up where 2010 left off.

Comebacks

One of the WTA’s top stars who is enjoying some solid play is veteran Justine Henin. The Belgian is representing her home nation in the Hopman Cup mixed team competition, and while she admits that she is not yet 100%, she’s happy to be back and competing. For having not played since last year’s Wimbledon, Henin has looked decent, and with the way the rest of the women’s field is currently performing, don’t count out last year’s Australian Open finalist as a dark horse to go one better in Melbourne. On the men’s side and also competing in the Hopman Cup is Australian Lleyton Hewitt. “Rusty” is raring to go and happy to report that he’s feeling great out on the court once again. He believes he can make it back into the Top 10, and while that’s certainly a tough task, there are few players who can match the determination and intensity of the man who holds the distinction of being the youngest to finish as World No. 1.

Charitable Hearts

While the two charity exhibition matches between Federer and Nadal took place last December, it’s worth taking one more moment to further recognize their willingness to serve others. Theirs is a rivalry that is one of the greatest that the sport has ever seen, and it is extremely polarizing to many of their fans. Yet the two men at the heart of it are able to see well beyond what the annals of the game will say long after their careers are done. As Pat McEnroe pointed out while doing commentary for the match in Switzerland, you never would have seen his brother doing such a thing with the likes of Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl while in the prime of their careers. It speaks volumes for both Federer and Nadal that they are willing to give up a bit of their off season and risk giving away any edge they may have in their games in an effort to raise money, hope and awareness for those less fortunate.

Miscellany

Two other tidbits worth mentioning occurred over the course of the off season. First, a good-bye to the quirky German Nicolas Kiefer. The former World No. 4 has suffered injury problems with his wrist and has decided to call it a day. With a wife and a new baby daughter, one can hardly blame him. He was a joy to watch, and he will be missed. The second item is an early welcome back to Wayne Odesnik. Odesnik was to have still been serving a suspension for importing HGH into Australia, but the ITF reduced his ban, explaining that there had been “substantial assistance provided by Mr. Odesnik in relation to the enforcement of professional rules of conduct.” It will be interesting to see how he is received as he tries to make his way back on tour.

The Friday Five: Sex, Drugs And Gambling

By Maud Watson

Pretty Woman Gone Bad – In an odd story that ran earlier this week, it was reported that two players competing in the If Stockholm Open had been detained by police on Sunday for soliciting prostitutes.  It has since been discovered that one of the two players involved was allegedly Latvian Ernests Gulbis, while the second player remains a mystery. European media outlets suggest it could be Argentine Juan Monaco or Italian Simone Bolelli, the latter pulling out of Stockholm citing personal reasons. Maybe someone should have told these guys that sort of thing only works for Richard Gere in the movies.

Another Comeback?  We Didn’t Think So – With the triumphant return of Kim Clijsters and the much-anticipated return of Justine Henin, fans around the world were asking if there would be a third major comeback from one of the WTA’s greatest stars, Martina Hingis.  Martina’s answer?  A resounding “no.” “You can’t just snap your fingers and say ‘Let’s go and play the Australian Open,’” said Hingis, who was suspended for two years for testing positive for cocaine. We can’t say we’re surprised by this. A third go at a comeback is asking a lot of any athlete.  We just hope she stays involved with the sport and look forward to the day she takes her place in the International Hall of Fame.

Who’s Ready for 2010? – Justine Henin is!  The Belgian tennis star has announced that she’ll make her official return to tennis at the Brisbane tune-up event prior to the Australian Open.  And speaking of being ready for 2010, I’d be remiss not to throw a few props out to former Top 10 player David Nalbandian.  After a nine-month injury layoff that included undergoing hip surgery in August, the Argentine has announced he plans to return to the tour in Auckland as he prepares for the Australian Open.  This guy has collected some serious scalps over the course of his career, and you can bet that hip surgery or no hip surgery, the likes of Federer, Nadal & Co. won’t want to see him waiting on the opposite side of the net.

Another Gambling Scandal?  You Bet!  – Tennis authorities are currently investigating a match that took place in Luxembourg earlier this week between sixth-ranked Caroline Wozniaki and Anne Kremer.  Bettors began to pile large wagers on Krember, despite the fact that she was trailing her much higher-ranked opponent 5-7, 0-5.  The reason for the surprising wagers?  Nearby microphones picked up Wozniaki’s father encouraging her to retire when she was up 3-0 in the second set, alerting spectators to Wozniaki’s injury.  This to me represents a strong case against on court coaching.  To utilize on court coaching, the coaches have to agree to wear a mic in order that fans can hear what they’re saying to their charges.  Given that these conversations take place during matches that are seen by millions, the powers-at-be had to know this was a betting scandal just waiting to happen, and I hope that this incident serves as the catalyst to do away with on-court coaching on the WTA Tour.

Parting is Such Swede Sorrow – After six years of serving as Sweden’s Davis Cup captain, former Grand Slam champion and 2002 Hall of Famer Mats Wilander is stepping down from his post.  Though he never took his team to the title, he did lead them to the semifinals in 2007, as well as three quarterfinal appearances.  The parting comes on amicable terms, as the quiet Swede stated he wanted to spend more time at home and with his family (though we hope he’ll continue to make regular appearances on the senior tour!). Wilander will be replaced as Davis Cup captain by veteran Swede Thomas Enqvist.