intensity

My Friend, My Foe, My Countrywoman

Flavia and Francesca.

While the two might be in the wrong business to be known by a single stage name, there is no doubt that Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone have been the faces of Italian women’s tennis for the better part of a decade.

Despite having contrasting styles, each brings something unique to women’s tennis. Schiavone, no doubt the flashier of the two, is the master of an all-court game and a classic clay court style; she uses an extreme Eastern grip on her one-handed backhand, a dying art in women’s tennis. Pennetta, to her credit, possesses some of the most aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes on the WTA; she’s renowned for her great timing, clean strokes, tenacity and net skills. They are similar in one respect; each time they’ve taken the court, they’ve played with immense passion and heart.

They’ve triumphed individually; Pennetta was the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top ten in singles, win a major title in doubles when she triumphed with Gisela Dulko in women’s doubles at the Australian Open in 2011 and be ranked No. 1 in either discipline when she and Dulko topped the women’s doubles list; Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top five in singles and win a singles major title at Roland Garros in 2010. They’ve triumphed together; with a combined a 48-24 total record in Fed Cup, the duo led Italy to three titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010.

Each has had so many standout moments over their long careers that it’s difficult to pick just one. Aside from her major triumph, Schiavone will probably best be remembered for one of the highest quality matches in the history of the WTA, when she and Svetlana Kuznetsova contested the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history at the Australian Open in 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBbLO06fBCU&feature=youtu.be

Pennetta, a three-time US Open quarterfinalist, made the most improbable of her three runs in 2011. Following her third round defeat of Maria Sharapova, Pennetta rallied past Peng Shuai, dry heaves and the mid-day New York heat to advance to her third career US Open quarterfinal. Having witnessed the match live, I can scarcely think of many other times when a New York crowd so firmly and whole-heartedly supported a non-American player.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP7CnDWIhyQ&feature=youtu.be

In recent years, however, age and injuries have played their part. Barely hanging on to her spot in the top 100, Pennetta returned from a six month absence after wrist surgery in Acapulco, where Schiavone won back-to-back matches for the first time since Wimbledon. In that time, Italian women’s tennis had been overtaken by another dynamic duo.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci spent a lot of time during those three Fed Cup title runs cheering on the sidelines. However, they’ve taken the mantle vacated by Schiavone and Pennetta and firmly seized control of it. Errani became the second Italian woman to reach a major final, something some expected Pennetta to do. Vinci, despite being just a year younger than Pennetta, has had the best 18 months of her singles career. They show no signs of slowing down in doubles either, as they currently hold three of the four majors and are the undisputed No. 1 team in the world.

In the first round of Fed Cup, it was Errani and Vinci who singlehandedly led Italy over the United States and instead, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett cheered from the sidelines. It was the first time neither Pennetta nor Schiavone were named to an Italian Fed Cup team in over 10 years; one or the other was always a constant presence since Schiavone made her debut in 2002, and Pennetta a year later in 2003.

On a Wednesday in Indian Wells, these two WTA stalwarts, Fed Cup teammates and friends took the court for a singles match for the first time in three years. After Schiavone defeated Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in a non-televised match under the setting California sun, one couldn’t help but wonder if the sun is also setting on their time at the top of the game. Whatever happens at the end of this season, it would be fitting for two of the WTA’s strongest characters to leave the sport the way they entered it.

Together.

Sharapova Win Gives Hope for WTA Rivalry

For what seems like years, fans of women’s tennis have been looking for a legitimate rivalry at the top of the game. They may finally get their wish with the compelling rivalry emerging between the top two players in the world, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.

It was difficult to label head-to-head a rivalry given Azarenka’s dominance of Sharapova this season. However, the Russian finally turned the tables this weekend , for one match at least, in the final at Stuttgart to capture her 25th career title to match the birthday she celebrated a few weeks ago. The two had met twice already in championship matches this year and at least one of them has played for the title at all of the major tournament thus far in 2012.

Sharapova’s run to the Stuttgart crown was rather impressive, particularly on clay. She defeated Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Azarenka in consecutive matches, including a dominant 6-1, 6-4 victory over the World No. 1.

“I had lost the last few previous encounters with Victoria, so I was extremely motivated today,” Sharapova said. “When I got the chance to go out and play her again I knew I had to change a few things. Before I was maybe a little bit impatient and went for a bit too much sometimes, but this time I was really patient. I was aggressive but consistent when I had to be against her. “

If Sharapova can continue to keep up her end of the bargain, women’s tennis could have its version of the ATP’s Djokovic-Nadal rivalry. The potential is certainly there for many reasons. One of which is their match ups have risen in intensity. They brushed shoulders while crossing the net during a changeover in the Stuttgart final, drawing a small reaction from both, but exchanged a civil handshake at the match’s conclusion. Both are fierce competitors and currently at the top of their game which are important ingredients in any rivalry. They also have players like Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams pushing them to be better.

Azarenka is the emerging star while Sharapova is a legend of her sport, both on and off the court. Azarenka wins matches with her natural athletic ability while Sharapova uses exquisite ball striking and a burning competitive desire to will herself to victory. The contrasts and similarities are there, so is the motivation and after Sunday’s somewhat unexpected result, anticipation is building already for their next encounter and the numerous one that are sure to follow.

The Robbie Koenig Blog: Can Anyone Beat Rafa In Paris?

Anyway, the clay court season thus far, one word….” NADAL”….the kid is from another planet!!! Mentally and physically, on this surface, he’s the greatest I’ve ever seen, and probably the best of all time…and he’s only just 23 (in a few days)!!!

For me, what makes him so good are a few things. Firstly, his ability to “compartmentalize” his thoughts. He NEVER gets ahead of himself. He only focuses on the present. He only ever talks about his next opponent, never who he might meet later in the draw and potential match-ups down the line, thereby giving respect to each guy he faces and taking nothing for granted. And on the match court, its more of the same. He rarely lets the previous point affect the next one and he has this ability to play each point like there was none before, or none to follow.
Secondly, he loves the battle more than anyone! It’s the “process” of winning that seems to consume all his effort and he constantly rewards himself with a “Vamos,” sometimes as early as the second or third game, if he’s had a tough hold. And coupled with the joy he takes out of each victory, again often early on in a tournament, is so refreshing and just goes to show how much he enjoys the “small” victories. Let’s face it, anyone can enjoy the big or classic wins!

From a physical point of view, his movement is “two days on horseback” ahead of his peers.(Must be said, Djokovic has been impressive with his challenge). I’m sure good genes help, given the athletic ability of his uncles, it obviously runs in the family. His footwork is the key to his shot-making, both in attacking and defending. It’s so easy to get a little slow with your feet when attacking because you generally got time on the ball, but Rafa never lets his intensity wane, and always makes sure he’s perfectly setup to pull the trigger!!!

Can anyone beat him in Paris? Not unless they cut off his left arm…and even then, he’s pretty damn good with the right one as we all know! The problem for the chasing pack is doing it over five sets. The semifinal against Djokovic in Madrid was an epic, but remember that was at altitude, quick clay courts and best-of-three sets and the Serb still couldn’t get the W!!! I can’t see him hanging with Rafa over five sets. I think Murray can hang with him over five sets, but he doesn’t move well enough on this stuff. Firstly, he’s gotta get far enough to meet Nadal, and secondly, I can’t see him handle the Spaniard, because Rafa will out-maneuver him over the distance. Hard court, different story, it just shows how important movement is at the highest level, and clay is unique in that regard!

What about Roger? I can’t see it happen. I don’t read much into the Madrid win for the obvious reasons already discussed. Wimby and the US Open are his best bets to bag another major, but even those are gonna be a lot tougher than previous years.

Djokovic is the main challenger, no question – the results don’t lie! Hopefully he and Nadal are in separate sections of the draw. That would be my preferred final.

Watchout for: Stan Wawrinka, Juan Monaco, Fernando Gonzalez, Fernando Verdasco and Marin Cilic

Hope you all looking foward to Rafa being challenged at Rolland Garros as much as I am.