injury

The Long Road Back

Far away from the spotlight and massive crowds of the biggest events in tennis, the sport’s other half lives. The second-tier of professional tennis features players with a variety of interesting histories, each one different from the next. There are the juniors looking to make the transition to the senior tour; the battle-tested journeymen who’ve slogged away at this level for one tournament too long; and finally, the veterans looking for their one shot back in the sun. Although they come from different places, they have one thing in common.

Often, the qualifying competition for main tour events takes place in the shadow of some of the world’s biggest stadiums. The average fan would do well to recognize more than a handful of names who compete week-in and week-out on the second circuit; these are players who first chase their dreams in the “tournament before the tournament.” Just getting in to the main event is enough for some of them, but not all of them.

Both Flavia Pennetta and Andrea Petkovic know what it’s like to win on the biggest stages. Combined, they have won 11 WTA singles titles, reached six quarterfinals in grand slam events and spent time in the world’s top 10. Both are also coming off of injury plagued 2012 seasons; Petkovic first suffered a back injury during the early part of the year, and then was sidelined with an ankle injury for much of the rest of it. Pennetta, who suffered from a wrist injury for the majority of the past year, tried to play through the pain to get one more chance at representing Italy at the Olympics. She did just that, and made the third round. However, she eventually decided to undergo surgery and missed the rest of the year.

Coming into this week, Petkovic was ranked 138 while Pennetta sat at 158. Both missed the first major of the year at the Australian Open, and their clay court preparation for the second major of the year brought them down decidedly different paths. Pennetta dropped nearly 50 places in the rankings after failing to defend last year’s quarterfinal showing in Rome. Neither woman’s current ranking would’ve been good enough to ensure a main draw place in Paris.

Despite the similarities, there is one notable difference between the two. Pennetta took advantage of a protected ranking, ensuring her entry into Roland Garros. As a result, she was able to enter the warmup event with arguably the weakest field this week in Strasbourg. Forced to qualify, the Italian went about her business to win three matches and make the main draw; she nearly didn’t, however, as she was forced to rally from a set down in her final qualifying match. She continued her solid week with wins over Elina Svitolina and Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor. The weather wreaked havoc with the schedule, and Pennetta is the lowest-ranked, but by far the most accomplished, player in the quarterfinals. Having won just three singles matches since her comeback in Bogota, Pennetta’s five wins so far this week have given the Italian the crucial match practice that she needs coming off of an injury.

Unfortunately, Petkovic did not have that luxury. The German, who returned in Indian Wells, started her clay-court campaign with two wins in Charleston before giving a walkover to Caroline Wozniacki in the third round. A wildcard recipient in Stuttgart, Petkovic lost her opener to Ana Ivanovic and lost her first match in Madrid qualifying to the on-form Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Passed over for a wildcard into Rome, Petkovic arrived in Paris short on red-clay match play and this showed in her attempt to qualify. After defeating Nadiya Kichenok in straight sets in the opening round, she fell by a tough 6-7(1) 7-6(2) 6-4 decision to unheralded Yi-Miao Zhou.

They say the last thing to come back after an injury layoff is match instincts. A player can do all the right things in practice, but it’s nearly impossible to replicate the tense situations that come with being down a set, or deep in a decider. When you’ve tasted great success, it’s only natural to desire more. However, big wins don’t come overnight. When you’re on the long road back, any win, even in the shadow of a major, means just as much.

The Fed Cup Dilemma

The argument about whether tennis belongs in the Olympic Games has been hotly debated in tennis and sporting circles for the past decade. For athletes in most other sports, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their careers. To an outside observer, however, this might not seem to be the case for tennis players. Four times a year, they have a chance to contest in the biggest tournaments in their sport; winning multiple slam titles etches their names into the tennis history books much more than Olympic gold.

Despite having either their flag or their country code etched next to their name on every tournament scoreboard, the only other time players theoretically get the chance to represent their country is in Fed Cup. Some crack under the pressure; Lesia Tsurenko, Ukraine’s new No. 1, lost all three of her matches en route to a 3-2 defeat to Canada. Tsurenko made a staggering 91 unforced errors in a three-set loss to Sharon Fichman, a match she and a tie Ukraine was heavily favored to win.

Others rise to the occasion. Australian wunderkind Ashleigh Barty defeated Stefanie Voegele in her Fed Cup singles debut to send Australia into the World Group in 2014. Roberta Vinci delivered the clinching 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-3 win over Lucie Safarova to send Italy into the Fed Cup final; on the other side of the world, Ekaterina Makarova capped Russia’s stunning comeback against Slovakia by rallying from 4-2 down in the final set against Daniela Hantuchova to knot the tie at 2-2. She and Elena Vesnina later rallied from a set down in the doubles to put Russia into the finals against Italy.

In an individual sport like tennis, where so much emphasis is placed on singles achievements, players still rate playing for their country incredibly high. But does this national success come at a cost?

Samantha Stosur, who has been carrying the remnants of a calf injury since Indian Wells, went 2-0 in her Fed Cup ties for Australia; she lost in the opening round in Stuttgart to Jelena Jankovic. Vinci, Italy’s heroine, looked listless in a 6-4, 6-2 opening round defeat to Yaroslava Shvedova in Stuttgart as well; the top seeds in the doubles event, she and Sara Errani later pulled out of the doubles event due to Vinci’s shoulder injury. Vesnina slumped to a shocking 6-0, 6-4 defeat to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Makarova dueled with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, her Fed Cup teammate, in the opening round; Makarova slipped up from a winning position, and seemed to run of gas late in the third set.

In Marrakech, Dominika Cibulkova was set to take a wildcard and be the top seed in the event; however, she apparently picked up an injury after playing three rubbers against Russia and was forced to withdraw from the event anyway. As rain wreaked havoc in Chiasso, the Australia-Switzerland tie did not commence until Monday; Romina Oprandi, Switzerland’s No. 1, was scheduled to compete in Marrakech but she also withdrew before play began.

Granted, not every player was negatively affected by her participation in Fed Cup this week. Ana Ivanovic is into her first clay-court quarterfinal since Rome in 2010. Angelique Kerber, who went 1-1 in Fed Cup, is also into the quarterfinals in Germany. Carla Suarez Navarro led Spain back into the World Group and knocked off Caroline Wozniacki in the first round in Stuttgart. Shvedova, who was mired in a dreadful slump, advanced to the quarterfinals at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.

There have been murmurs that players are largely unhappy with the increase in mandatory Fed Cup participation for the next Olympic cycle. These players put so much heart, effort and passion into playing for their countries, yet are still put in a bind because of the scheduling issues. In a sport where players are constantly representing their nations, it seems like they still end up with the short end of the stick. In certain instances, it’s almost as though a player needs to choose between national glory and individual success.

“Unmasking Anastasia:” Rodionova, Tennis’ Cartoon Villain

Charleston’s illustrious Family Circle Cup began yesterday, and just off the main stadium, fans were treated to a first round match that had all the drama and suspense of a Saturday morning cartoon. Such an analogy may sound insulting, but in a match between Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Anastasia Rodionova, spectators’ notions of “good” and “evil” were as binary as black and white.

In one corner was Mattek-Sands. With her penchant for knee socks, eye black, and odd fashion choices, the veteran American certainly has the look of a modern-day superhero. Her struggles with injuries and debilitating food allergies have also played a role in endearing herself to the tennis public as she attempts to regain the form that took her as high as No. 30 in 2011.

If Mattek-Sands is the hero, then the Russian-born Australian Rodionova is our unabashed villain. Standing at 5’5”, she has become notorious for her on-court antics and bratty demeanor. A journeywoman who frequents the outer courts of most major tournaments, Rodionova berates umpires and lines people alike for their perceived incompetence and inability to properly officiate her matches. It has been questioned whether those antics have stalled an otherwise promising career; a successful doubles player, Rodionova possesses an all-court game that is often as aggressive as she is.

But to question that is to misunderstand the Aussie entirely. Indeed, she has the propensity to lose her patience, but rarely does that lead to a full-on implosion. In a world where players are concerned with likeability, Rodionova not only embraces, but truly enjoys the villainous role she adopts during matches, and like a WWE wrestler, uses the crowd’s venom against her as fuel for her own fire.

Against Mattek-Sands, she simply refused to be put away in a match that, at three hours, forty-two minutes, was the longest of the year. With the crowd firmly behind the American, Rodionova recovered from a set down to steal the second in a tiebreaker, but quickly fell behind a break in the third. Playing Mattek-Sands tough on break points (she would save 13 of 20 by match’s end), she bounded back to win three games in a row. As our villain was in her glory, our hero was in despair, and called out her husband during the changeover to try and develop a new strategy.

All of this before Rodionova injured her thigh, and here is where the show really began.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nrXHY3LdyU&t=1m54s

For Rodionova, the type who can become enraged by an inconsiderate gust of wind, an injury (and the ineptitude of those attempting to treat her) was simply unacceptable. Dissatisfied with the trainer’s method of alleviating her pain, Rodionova hopped and hobbled away as best she could, throwing a water bottle and gesticulating wildly at the supervisor.

It was as if, after all these years, Rodionova finally had a legitimate excuse for her curmudgeonly behavior, and she planned on making the most of it. When a line call was overturned in her favor, she exclaimed, “Call the freaking ball!” (a veteran move for a player well aware of what counts as an audible obscenity). Holding a match point on the Mattek-Sands serve at 4-5, it would have appeared totally logical for our villain to let out a cackle had she converted.

But she would not convert. The match would go to a deciding tiebreaker (as if it could have ended any other way), and the injury and Mattek-Sands became too much for Rodionova, who faded quickly from 2-2.

From the cartoonish impression many have of Rodionova, one would have expected her to react to this undoubtedly painful loss with a racquet toss or a shriek of disdain: anything in a last-ditch attempt to steal the spotlight. Instead, she reminded us all of her humanity when she met Mattek-Sands at the net in tears. Our hero was gracious in victory, comforting Rodionova as the two approached the umpire.

A lot of this analysis is tongue-in-cheek, but it has been said that parody can be a mirror to the human soul. There is a tendency to turn these athletes, these people, into stereotypes or one-dimensional cutouts based on how they act over the course of a three-hour tennis match. “Mattek-Sands comforted Rodionova because she is always good, and Rodionova yelled at the trainer because she is always evil.”

But just as Mattek-Sands’ jubilation showed us how much the win meant, Rodionova’s tears showed us how much the win would have meant, and before we criticize and name-call, it is essential that we recognize that her desire to win is no less pure (or more offending) than that of a perhaps more subdued rival.

Victoria Azarenka Withdraws from Miami

Two-time champion and No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka was forced to withdraw from the Sony Open in Miami on Friday with a right ankle injury, the same injury that forced her out of her quarterfinal match with Caroline Wozniacki in Indian Wells.

“It’s just I wanted to give my 100% possibility to play, and today was my last test. It’s just, you know, the last two days I tried to practice on it, which did not get better,” Azarenka said.

Azarenka, the Australian Open and Qatar Total Open champion, is 17-0 in 2013. “I tried to play on Wednesday for the first time after Indian Wells, and the next day my foot got a little bit worse. I tried to play again yesterday and it got a little bit worse again. Today it got worse again during the play. So yesterday I thought that, you know, possibly I’m not going to be able to play. Today I went on the court and I got more pain. I cannot really move.”

Azarenka is scheduled to headline the field in Monterrey, Mexico, a WTA International-level event that begins on April 1; she is to be joined there by Angelique Kerber, Marion Bartoli and Maria Kirilenko. “Right now on the schedule is Monterrey, but I have no—I have not made my decision on that.” Should Azarenka withdraw from the event, it would not be the first time that the tournament deals with the loss of a marquee player in its field; last season, Serena Williams committed to the event but withdrew due to a left knee injury.

Beyond Monterrey, Azarenka is looking ahead to the European clay court season and Roland Garros. “I’m going to have a longer preparation than usual for my clay season. My biggest target is going to be French Open, so I’m going to do everything I can to be ready, and, you know, to make sure that I come in in the best form there and try to win the title.”

For a player of her status, Azarenka has rarely been a consistent factor at the second major of the year. She owns a meager 14-7 career record in Paris in seven appearances. In 2009, arguably her breakthrough season, Azarenka had her best result at the clay court slam. She defeated defending champion Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round before falling to eventual finalist Dinara Safina in a three-set quarterfinal match, her first quarterfinal appearance at a major. Azarenka matched that feat in 2011, where she fell to Li Na, the eventual champion, in straight sets.

Movement on clay is key for any player, but more so for Azarenka; the Belarusian is not naturally quick even at full flight, but anticipates the game well. She does not possess a huge serve or outright firepower that would assist her in hitting through the slow conditions. 15 of Azarenka’s 16 career titles have come on hard courts; she was the champion in Marbella, on clay, in 2011.

In order to contend at Roland Garros, Azarenka needs to be in top form and healthy to compensate for her short comings and low comfort level on the surface. Last year, Azarenka was bundled off the court by Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round, a match in which Azarenka was rarely the aggressor.

Azarenka is currently not entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart in April, where she reached the final last year. She is entered in both the Mutua Madrid Open and the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in May. No doubt aware of her past struggles at Roland Garros, Azarenka was asked to rate her chances at the event this season if healthy. “I think there is going to be two tournaments before that on clay. You will see me play and then everybody will make their own decisions.”

Azarenka was replaced by lucky loser Lauren Davis, who had lost in the final round of qualifying to Mallory Burdette. Davis eventually saved three match points en route to defeating fellow American teenager Madison Keys, 6-1, 5-7, 7-6(7).

“The Choke of the Year:” Victoria Azarenka Behind The Mic

Barring a toe injury that kept her from finishing a warm-up event in Brisbane, Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match all year. There have been a few tense moments during her matches in Australia, most notably when she fell behind a break to American Jamie Hampton in the third, and most recently when she squandered five match points against Hampton’s compatriot Sloane Stephens. But the World’s No. 1 has been solid when it matters most and finds herself in her second consecutive Australian Open final.

If only she could be as clutch when she trades the racquet for a microphone.

In another serious gaffe, the Belorussian spoke to Sam Smith after her win over Stephens:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUbWztL4ozQ&w=560&h=315]

The crux of Smith’s question spoke to Azarenka’s “difficulties” in finishing off the feisty American, who was in her first Slam semifinal. However, the former player and commentator was referring to the medical timeout Azarenka took before the start of the final game, one that lasted nearly ten minutes and required the top seed to leave the court.

Evidently under the impression that Smith was asking about her inability to serve out the match at 5-3, Azarenka laughed off the scary prospect of having avoided “the choke of the year” and admitted to feeling “overwhelmed…one step away from the final.”

Smith’s first question made a brief reference to the timeout, but when she got no answer, she moved on. The decision not to press Azarenka about her apparent injury, both by Smith and later Tom Rinaldi, only fueled the speculation further and gave the defending champion more rope with which to hang herself.

To Smith she admitted, “I just couldn’t lose, that’s why I was so upset!” When Rinaldi asked her why she left the court, she said she could not breathe and had “chest pain.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldpEmOoIsL4&w=560&h=315]

By the time she made it the formal press conference, Azarenka faced a lengthy interrogation about her injuries and their legitimacy. Azarenka defended herself and called her prior diction “my bad.” Critical of the MTO process, Patrick McEnroe called for an overhaul of the rule itself so players like Azarenka are not “able to manipulate the rules.”  Stephens’ coach David Nainkin called what happened to his charge “cheating within the rules.”

All of this came days after her battle with Hampton, who was visibly hampered despite bringing her higher-ranked opponent to the brink of defeat. During another one of her now-infamous on-court interviews, Azarenka accidentally implied Hampton’s injury was not as bad as it seemed, quipping, “Can I have a back problem?”

Hampton was later revealed to have two herniated discs.

How can the woman who can seemingly do no wrong on the court be so inept the moment she steps off of it? She combines perfectly timed, almost balletic groundstrokes with a boxer image, usually taking the court with earbuds in and hoodie up. Prickly between points, her signature celebratory moves include finger spinning and tongue wagging. Often (to quote rival Maria Sharapova) “extremely injured,” she has become notorious for withdrawing from smaller events only to show up on the biggest stages playing flawless tennis.

A woman that cannot afford even one bad quote, Azarenka is quickly compiling a chapbook full of verbal “oops,” one big enough for the tennis community to want to ride their No. 1 out of town on a rail.

But before we burn a 23-year-old woman at the stake, let us remember with whom we are dealing. Victoria Azarenka is, above all things, an athlete. The “swagger” for which many deride her is proof of that. What goes on with an athlete’s mind and body is sacred to them and ultimately irrelevant to the task at hand.

As Azarenka was asked about her “difficulties,” there was no doubt that she believed Smith (and others) were referring to her near  “Choke of the Year.” How often do we criticize players for blaming injuries on missed opportunities? Yet here is a woman who made no excuses, blamed mind before body, and the media calls for a crucifixion.

There are many things about Victoria Azarenka that grate. Her honesty should not be one of them.

Photos: Monfils, Gonzalez, Marat, and Tommy all soak up the local flavor

jugglers - BMW Open 2008 Players Party

The organizers of the BMW Open hosted a players’ party on Monday night at P1 in Munich. Since you weren’t there, I will summarize the party in five words: mustachioed racquet-jugglers in short shorts.

Gael Monfils and Fernando Gonzalez - BMW Open 2008 Players’ Party

Not enough words? How about “Gael Monfils and Fernando Gonzalez in lederhosen.” I’m glad they found a hat big enough to fit his dreads.

Marat Safin - BMW Open 2008 Players Party

A sun-kissed Marat Safin… wearing stripes! He’s into the second round after beating Carlos Berlocq 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.

Tommy Haas - BMW Open 2008 Players’ Party

Poor Tommy Haas withdrew today because of his nagging shoulder injury. This most recent flare-up also forced him to back out of ATP Tour stops in Hamburg and Rome, and leaves him doubtful for an appearance at the French. Tournament director Patrick Kuehnen lost his other top draw when defending champion Philipp Kohlschreiber withdrew because of a cold.

Tommy Haas - BMW Open 2008 Players’ Party

Maybe he just forgot to stretch and warm up before playing Wii Golf?

(Photos by ATP/ATPTennis.com)

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