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From Grassroots to Boardrooms: Ray Benton is a Statesman for the Game

TCCP/JTCC Chief Ray Benton ©Steve Fogleman


by Steve Fogleman, Special for Tennis Grandstand

When I arrived at the Tennis Center at College Park to speak with its CEO, Ray Benton, he was finishing up a lesson with former U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman. He’d agreed to speak with me after the practice and he was still stretching when our conversation began. I admit that at first I was bemused by the notion of a crossroads of politics and tennis. You don’t see that every day. But for tennis statesman Ray Benton, it was business as usual. He’s as comfortable on court with children as he is in the halls of power in Washington. Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to repeatedly insist that all “politics is local”. Witnessing the VIP lessons he’s giving and the expansive, state-of-the-art tennis training facility he’s managing (largely funded by the former Chairman of the US Export-Import Bank), you realize that Benton is the embodiment of O’Neill’s mantra. Benton’s career arc has taken him from local to national to international and now, to some degree, back to local tennis. With that breadth of experience, he brings with him the uncanny ability to cultivate a major-league presence even in the deepest of grassroots tennis.

His office substantially resembles the International Tennis Hall of Fame in miniature. The walls of his paper-piled workspace are adorned with posters and photos from tennis events from the last forty years. With all of his energy, it is difficult to believe he is 71. He still competes in senior tournaments “when my body’s working”, he said.

Benton is an Iowa native who moved to Washington in 1971. He started playing the game at 15 and “really took to it right away”. Later, he spent two years with the Iowa Hawkeye team in Big Ten play. While attending college, law school and a year of business school, he worked in the summer as the tennis pro at Dubuque Country Club in Dubuque, Iowa. He was brought in to start a tennis program at a “golf wacko club where tennis was a nuisance”. It had “two broken-down courts and 35 tennis playing club members”. He was up for the challenge, and within a few years, Benton had installed six lighted courts, attracted 500 players and even trained 20 state-ranked juniors there. “That’s when I figured out maybe I should be in the business”.

Even after he was drafted and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama in 1966, he managed to stay active in the game, serving as head pro at the Gadsden and Anniston Country Clubs and varsity coach for Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He then spent a couple of years in Colorado running that state’s Youth Tennis Foundation and putting on professional events before Washington called. Then, Benton’s call to DC came to Denver. Through Dubuque.

“As I was finishing business school, a guy I knew from Dubuque had hit it big, Bob Lange. He invented the plastic ski boot. I went into business with him to develop the first plastic tennis racquet. We had a prototype and I suggested that we have a tournament in Denver. And in order to get any American players there, I had to talk to the Davis Cup captain named Donald Dell. We worked together and a year later, I moved here.”

Dell was looking for partners in a law firm that would eventually morph into sports management company ProServ years later. During his early days in Washington, he also served as the first National Executive Director of the National Junior Tennis League.

From DC, the firm represented big names in tennis like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Tracy Austin. They also managed top athletes throughout the world of sport, including Michael Jordan, Boomer Esiason, Dave Winfield and Payne Stewart. Yet the firm’s focus stuck with tennis for an important reason.

Mark McCormick started IMG and based it around golf and Donald started ProServ around tennis. After all, he was the Davis Cup captain and Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were on his team.

As a law firm, we couldn’t solicit clients. We could write a letter to a company saying ‘I’m writing on behalf of Arthur Ashe to see if you might have interest’. We couldn’t put out a promotional brochure for Arthur, so we started the company Proserv. It was an affiliated marketing company to the law firm. When our firm split in ’83, Donald and I kept the name ProServ and made it the major identity.

During the nineties, Benton founded the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit. He secured more than $35 million in corporate sponsorships at a time when interest in tennis had started to wane. He also saw the events as more than a tournament, but an “entertainment event” with theme nights, contests and celebrity matches.

After spending most of the last decade doing marketing consulting for clients like the ATP, the PGA, the Vic Braden Tennis Academy and national mentoring advocacy group MENTOR, he was hired as the CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park. Once again, politics and tennis intersected, as banker and Clinton Administration appointee Kenneth Brody needed someone to market the tennis facility he had built in College Park. And he went straight to Benton to market it.

So, now that this writer knows he’s talking to the right person for the question, is DC a tennis town?

It is, but it needs to regain the stature it once had, and not only Washington, but many other area of the country. Tennis is totally a bottom-up sport. The great majority of energy comes from the grassroots. And that’s what advances tournament play, pro play, collegiate play. Frankly, I think we got lazy in this sport. We had so much momentum, so much success and great stars and I think the leaders of tennis, everyone became deluded that tennis was driven by Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. And the fact of the matter is in the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, participation in tennis in the United States decreased. We didn’t develop the next generation of Nick Bollettieris, of Vic Bradens or Dennis Van Der Meer or Peter Burwash. Who are the biggest names of teaching pros these days? Still those guys. If I asked you that same question 35 years ago, you’d have the same answer.

Benton’s approach to bringing the game back is simple. “A kid should be introduced to tennis the same way they should be introduced to basketball, which is they should have fun, be on a team, and compete the first day. And then they get hooked on the fun. And when they improve, then you offer them instruction. How many kids would play basketball if they were required to take three weeks of dribbling lessons and two weeks of shooting lessons before they were allowed to play the game? You’d have a lot fewer basketball players, wouldn’t you?”

He’s already building JTCC for the future. “You need leadership from the bottom. We’re going into schools now. We have a program called “Game On”. We’re trying to spread this game as far and wide as we can. We’re working with Prince George’s County Parks. We’ll have five sites in the summer. I see a lot more highly-ranked kids. I see a lot more inner city stuff. Five years from now, I see a much larger percentage of our kids coming from the inner city. I see considerable expansion here. We can expand. We’ve got room.”

As far as accolades the Tennis Center and the Junior Tennis Champions Center have received recently, he’s not wasting any time basking in the glory. “Attention is fine, but substance is what counts. We were very under marketed when I got here. There’s no question about that. One of the main reasons to get your name out is to attract the best athletes and do fundraising, because we’re a non-profit. We depend on it.”

Benton is audibly proud of the hundreds of kids who have been a part of the program. When he talks about the JTCC talent, it’s as if he is the proud grandfather of all of them. You almost expect him to have a photograph of every one of them in his wallet. “Denis Kudla is #184 in the world right now. There are only one or two players younger than him who are ranked higher. Mitchell Frank is excelling at Virginia. Trice (Capra) is at Duke. Skylar Morton graduated from here in three years and is playing very well, #3 or 4 at UCLA. She should be a senior in high school.”

Then there’s the next class of Junior Champions. After we spoke about Riverdale’s FrancisTiafoe and Reisterstown’s Yancy Dennis, he was more than ready to talk up the local girls climbing the ladder. ”We have a girl named Elizabeth Scotty, who’s 10 and 16th in the country in under 12s. We are really strong in the 14 girls, including three girls from Baltimore, NadiaGizdova (Columbia, MD), Raveena Kingsley (Parkton, MD) and Jada Robinson (Reisterstown, MD). And next week, we’ll have a girl that is as good as any of them. Usue Arcornada. She’s coming with (longtime JTCC Coach) Frank Salazar. She’s originally from Argentina, but grew up in Puerto Rico. And she is a tiger.”

 

Steve Fogleman is a Baltimore, MD-based attorney when not covering tennis. He manages the website Tennis Maryland and can be followed on twitter @TennisMaryland for further updates.

Analyzing Time of Match Between Djokovic-Nadal

Nadal and Djokovic lean over in exhaustion after the Australian Open final

by Matthew Laird

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic contested their third consecutive Grand Slam final at the recently concluded 2012 Australian Open. It was by a wide margin their most competitive and exciting meeting at this stage. There was a great deal of high drama, multiple swings in momentum, and no shortage of stellar shot-making from both players. It was an epic match and will surely be remembered among the most exciting Grand Slam finals of all time. The match also had its place in history assured because it shattered the previous record for the longest Grand Slam final of all time, breaking the previous record set by Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl at the 1988 US Open by nearly an hour.*

It should come as no surprise that the length of the Nadal-Djokovic final, which was seven minutes short of six hours, was not due entirely to the quality of play. Both Nadal and Djokovic are known for their pace of play, which is – not to put too fine a point on it – quite slow. There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the amount of time taken between points, and Nadal and Djokovic are usually at the center of these complaints.

For anyone who may not be aware, there is a rule in both the ITF and the ATP rulebooks that states “play shall be continuous” and that limits the amount of time a server should be allowed between the end of one point and the beginning of the next to either 20 or 25 seconds, depending on which set of rules is being followed during the match (Grand Slam matches take place under ITF auspices). Both Nadal and Djokovic routinely go over this time constraint.

It is difficult for a casual tennis observer to try to figure out whether or not these delays are truly egregious, because the amount of statistical data that we have easy access to is severely limited. We cannot see precisely how much time is expended by each player in between points, how long points take on average, or any number of other stats that would be useful in trying to parse the seriousness of these concerns.

I’ve come up with a simple, blunt method of estimating the amount of time taken between points, using only data that’s available on either the ATP or Australian Open websites. To find the average length of a point, just take the match length and divide it by the total number of points. Granted, this includes the amount of time that the ball was actually in play in addition to the time taken in between points, so it is not as sophisticated a measurement as I would prefer, but it is the best method that I could come up with, given the information available.

Given that there were 369 points played over 5 hours and 54 minutes, the average length of each point in the Nadal-Djokovic final was 57.4 seconds – nearly a minute per point played. This is the longest amount of time per point for any Grand Slam final since the ATP started keeping track of these statistics. To fully understand whether or not that is an unusual stat, more historical data is necessary.

Prior to 2009, the seven slowest finals had all taken place at the French Open, which is as it should be, considering the court conditions at Roland Garros lead to more long, drawn-out rallies than at the other majors. The slowest-played finals up to that point were Nadal-Federer in 2006 and Kuerten-Corretja in 2001, which both took about 47 seconds per point. The fastest-played finals have been at Wimbledon (again, no surprise there), where Sampras-Becker in 1995 took 29 seconds for each point, Agassi-Ivanisevic in 1992 took 27, and Sampras-Ivanisevic in 1998 took 25.5 seconds.

The trend over the last twenty years has generally been towards slower matches. This is partly because the serve-and-volley game has become significantly less common, so that almost all points are decided by baseline rallies, which necessarily take up more time. But I don’t think that fully explains the extent to which the pace of play has dropped.

While the most recent Grand Slam final was the slowest-played on record, it is important to note that the top six slowest are also the six most recent. The 2011 Djokovic-Nadal US Open took 56 seconds per point, their 2010 US Open meeting took 52.4, the 2011 Australian Open between Djokovic and Murray took 51.8, the 2011 Djokovic-Nadal final at Wimbledon took 50.2, and the 2011 French Open between Nadal and Federer took 48 seconds for each point.

Before the 2010 US Open, no Grand Slam final had been ever played at a pace of 50 seconds per point or slower. Since then, all of them except one have. That one involved Roger Federer, who is a very quick player and was able to bring the average down, even though he was playing on the red clay of Roland Garros. The other five finals all involved Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray, all of whom take their time between points.

In all of these finals, there were many long, grinding rallies. All three of the players I just mentioned are fantastic defenders, but I have trouble believing that the rallies in all of these recent finals were so historically lengthy, on average, that they should be solely responsible for the unprecedented slow pace of the last half-dozen Grand Slam finals. It has to come down to the amount of time that these players are taking in between points.

I do not recall a single instance in the final of the umpire giving either Nadal or Djokovic a warning about taking too much time. Honestly, I can’t remember that happening in any of the six most recent finals. This is not a situation like what is happening with grunting in the women’s game, where people are saying that there ought to be a rule to deal with this behavior. There is a rule, it’s just being ignored.

There are some commentators (like Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim) who find the pace of play on the men’s side to be as frustrating as the grunting or shrieking on the women’s side. I think there’s an argument to be made that the time limit as it currently stands is no longer appropriate. The game has gotten significantly more athletically-demanding in the last ten or fifteen years, so perhaps players do need more recovery time between points. However, I do think that the ATP and the ITF should either change the rule or enforce it, because simply ignoring it because the game’s top players flout it so consistently is not an appropriate response.

Federer Under the Radar: Who Saw That Coming?

2012 Australian Open - Day 1

Roger Federer got things off to a fairly easy start at this year’s Australian Open, winning his first-round match in straight sets over Alexander Kudryavtsev, 7-5-, 6-2, 6-2.

It was the four-time champion’s 60th match win in Melbourne, and was to be expected, considering the form he’s displayed over the past few months. He won 17 matches in a row to end 2011 and added three more this year in Doha before having to drop out of the tournament due to injury.

Obviously, Federer is playing quite well and with a tremendous amount of confidence. But it’s been a little while now since he’s had the ultimate success on the Grand Slam stage with Melbourne 2010 being his last major title. And this year, talk seems to be centering more on his younger opponents: Will Novak Djokovic repeat? Is Rafael Nadal healthy? Will Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl win a Slam together off the bat? Is it time for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to break through?

That doesn’t leave much room in the discussion for Federer, especially as how all the talk of any tournament he entered in the past used to start and end with him.

You can’t exactly classify Federer as an “underdog”; he is still, after all, one of the greatest to ever pick up a racquet. With his playing style, he can continue to notch impressive results for a couple of years to come, at least, and be considered one of the favorites to win any major he competes in.

As some of the attention slips away, Federer appears well suited to take advantage of it. The French Open last year could be a prime example as everyone was waiting to see if Nadal could reverse his losing streak against Djokovic in the finals of the year’s second Slam. Federer had something to say about that, though, stopping Djokovic in the semis in finger-wagging fashion.

Federer’s next two Grand Slams didn’t go as planned, losing wrenching five-setters to Tsonga and Djokovic at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, respectively. He took a bit of time off after that Open loss and came back physically and mentally refreshed.

And aside from a balky back, nothing seems to be bothering Federer at this early point in the season. His draw in Melbourne offers a few possible matchups early on that could be intriguing: big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the third round; then perhaps Bernard Tomic, Sam Querrey or Alexandr Dolgopolov in the round of 16. Federer could be tested in any of those, but experience—if anything—should carry him through.

From the quarters on, things could get to be a little more difficult as Juan Martin del Potro or Mardy Fish loom, plus he’s drawn to face Nadal in the semifinals.

At that point of the tournament, odds are that the spotlight will still be on Nadal, Murray and Djokovic as Federer continues to sneak in under the radar. Perhaps he’ll emerge from it with a 17th Slam in tow.

Players Withdraw from Australian Open — The Friday Five

Andrea Petkovic

by Maud Watson

Down and Out

You can add two more high profile names to the withdrawal list for the first major of the year. German Andrea Petkovic has been forced to withdrawal with a stress fracture in the back that will likely take a good six to eight weeks to heal properly. After the splash she made last year in Melbourne, this will be a blow to the start of her 2012 campaign. But Petkovic is an upbeat, positive competitor. It would be surprising if she didn’t come back in the spring fresh, hungry, and ready to break out a few new dance moves. The more troubling withdrawal has to be that of Venus Williams, who stated that she still felt unprepared to return to match play. With all due respect to Venus, this is just one more reason to argue against selecting her for Olympic duty. You can call it admirable that she’s striving to get in shape for that event, and it’s more than understandable for her to set that goal. But the last few years, her availability for events has become increasingly suspect as injuries have mounted, and she’s even more of a liability now. Couple that with her frequent lack of commitment to Fed Cup and even the WTA to an extent, and it just doesn’t seem right to select her over another female player who arguably has as likely of a chance to help bring home Olympic Doubles Gold and has put in the time at both the Fed Cup and WTA levels. The powers-at-be are unlikely to see it that way, but it certainly warrants discussion.

Question Marks

Caroline Wozniacki has grown used to the questions as to whether or not the next major will prove to be her breakthrough. But as the Dane heads into the first Slam of 2012, she’s also going to have to contend with injury speculations. In her quarterfinal loss to Aggie Radwanska in Sydney, it was evident she was suffering from a wrist injury. Thankfully, an MRI showed that inflammation is the culprit rather than something more serious. But the wrist is always a potentially serious injury in this sport, and Wozniacki will need to keep an eye on it going forward. If she hasn’t already done so, she may want to consider taking an extended break after the Australian Open. Besides, it’s almost inevitable that she’ll lose her No. 1 ranking to Kvitova, and her play in 2012 has thus far been underwhelming. Choosing to recoup and regroup could pay dividends come spring.

Strong Start

The first week of the ATP regular season came to a conclusion last weekend, and some familiar names did well to argue for the label of contender in Melbourne. Murray impressed fans and his new coach, Ivan Lendl, en route to the title in Brisbane. Tsonga also continued the fine form that he ended with in 2011, defeating compatriot Gael Monfils for the title in Doha. But perhaps in many ways the most impressive victory was that of young Canadian Milos Raonic, who held his nerve to edge out Janko Tipsarevic in a match composed of three tiebreak sets. For a guy who had his momentum severely interrupted by injury last year, he’s come back with a vengeance. He’s more of a long shot than either Murray or Tsonga, but be sure to keep this young gun on your radar in Melbourne.

Topsy Turvy

Where the ATP’s first week didn’t produce too many surprises, the WTA continued its trend of unlikely winners, as Jie Zheng won in Auckland and Kaia Kanepi triumphed in Brisbane. No offense to either woman. Kanepi has a big game, and Zheng is a feisty competitor who’s no stranger to picking off the game’s top stars to post some impressive tournament runs. But neither is a household name, and neither is truly a strong candidate to be named a dark horse. Still, in the topsy-turvy world that is the WTA, a little confidence can go a long way. Don’t be surprised to see either one of these players make some noise at the Aussie Open.

Score Settled

He’s had a colorful past, so say what you want about the guy, but hats off to Alex Bogomolov Jr. who took the high road with minimal fuss and paid the USTA the $75,000 it was seeking for his decision to now represent Russia. Fans seemed split on the USTA’s demands, and with good reason. Bogomolov has given back to the USTA in a variety of ways, and it’s not as though he was ever going to be selected for American Davis Cup duty. Factor in that there are certain other players that have also received a heap of assistance from the USTA with little return for the investment, and the USTA’s demand did seem a little high. But Bogomolov’s decision to pay them the money now should ultimately prove the best thing for his future. He’s rid himself of this latest demon and ensured that there are no hard feelings on either side. Here’s to hoping he can continue to enjoy success in the second half of his tumultuous career.

Murray Hires Lendl as Coach; Serena Williams Doesn’t Love Tennis — The Friday Five

2012 Brisbane International: Day 4

by Maud Watson

Key to Victory

One of the biggest stories going into the 2012 season was that Andy Murray has finally ended his search for a coach. In his decision to hire tennis great Ivan Lendl, Murray may have just found the missing piece to his success at the majors. Lendl has a personality that should jive well with Murray’s. He also is less likely to put up with the Scot’s on-court tirades, which will hopefully help Murray do a quicker job of righting the ship when things aren’t going well during a match. But perhaps most importantly, Lendl himself fell at the final hurdle of a major on multiple occasions before finally claiming that elusive first Slam title. That’s invaluable experience he can pass along to his new charge, which might assist Murray in becoming mentally tougher at the biggest moments. For sure, Murray is still facing an uphill battle given the quality of the top three players, but he’s shown he has the game to beat each of them. With hard work and a little luck, Lendl might make 2012 Murray’s year.

Discouraging Words

Not surprisingly, Serena Williams is making headlines straight out of the gates with her controversial comments. Before Brisbane even got underway, the younger Williams stated again, lest there be any doubters, that she saw no reason to feel bad about her behavior at the US Open. Was anyone really expecting an admission of guilt or an apology? Then a few days later, she says she doesn’t love tennis – in fact, never loved sports and is unsure how she became an athlete in the first place – hates working out, and is planning on scaling back her schedule. Many people excel at jobs that they don’t love, so on the one hand, it’s hard to fault Serena for that particular sentiment. On the other hand, she does have a high profile job that puts her in the unique position of a supposed role model, so it’s also understandable that many fans and pundits would find her comments both disappointing and frustrating. The comments also represent a complete 180 from the woman who was crying after her first-round win at Wimbledon, talking about how much it meant to be out there on the court. But the biggest eye roll has to go to the laughable statement about scaling back her schedule. Scale it back to what? In recent years (and many would argue even when she first came on the tour), she’s never bothered to put forth the effort to play a truly full schedule, even when healthy. It’s just one more example of how Serena views this as her world, and we’re all living in it. Sadly, whether you love her or hate her for it, it’s that very attitude that unfortunately more often than not makes her good for the game.

All for Naught?

Injuries are no joking matter, so I won’t go as far as some have to call it karma for her pre-Brisbane comments. But whatever you believe the cause, the fact is that Serena Williams sprained her ankle in her second round match in Brisbane, leaving her Aussie Open participation in doubt. Williams normally sports an ankle brace, which she admitted she absent-mindedly neglected to wear. She did, however, still manage to finish the match and has only said that she probably shouldn’t be playing on it, meaning there’s no way to know just how serious the injury really is. But majors are one of the few events that Serena bothers to get up for, and it’s doubtful she’ll want that long trip to the Land Down Under to go to waste. Expect her to actually put 100% effort into being ready to go in another week.

Injury Saga Continues

Another high profile player who announced he’s dealing with an injury is Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard says he’s still suffering from the shoulder issues that plagued him in London, and the heavier racquet he’s switched to probably isn’t helping the cause, at least in the short run. It’s a bit of a head scratcher that he wouldn’t modify his schedule to allow more recuperation time by skipping Abu Dhabi, or even getting his 2012 campaign started a week later by entering Auckland or Sydney, but he is a creature of habit. The good news for his fans is that even though he plans to take February off to rest the shoulder, he historically plays little tennis then anyway, so the post-Aussie hiatus shouldn’t negatively impact him. Additionally, he appears to be finding his groove in Doha. Don’t be surprised if he posts a deep run in Melbourne and expect him to be firing on all cylinders come March.

Business as Usual

It’s dangerous to put too much stock in an exhibition, even if it’s one of the exhibitions in which the players are more apt put forth a greater effort. But after pulling through a dicey match against Gael Monfils in his opening round, Novak Djokovic looked back to his winning form, absolutely demolishing Federer and Ferrer en route to the title in Abu Dhabi. Those wins should assist the Serb in burying some of the bad memories that came at the end of last season, as he prepares to back up his phenomenal 2011 and see where he stacks up against his two fiercest rivals in 2012.

Andy Murray Could Open the Floodgates With a Slam Win in 2012

Andy Murray | Getty Images

Though his 2011 campaign didn’t end exactly as he hoped, the year was still a successful one for world number four Andy Murray: five titles won (including two Masters Series 1000 victories); advancing to the semifinals or better at all four Grand Slams; and a period spent back in third place in the rankings.

Now there’s only one way Murray can follow up on those achievements, and that’s win a Grand Slam singles title in 2012. He’ll have his first opportunity to do so before he knows it.

And once the first one is out of the way, more can surely be expected.

And if he were looking for inspiration in that regard, he could do worse than look at the career arc of Hall-of-Famer Ivan Lendl. In the early-1980s, Lendl was known as a “choker” because for all of his success at the regular weekly tour stops, when it came Slam-time, more often than not, he fell short. Lendl actually lost his first four Major finals before prevailing at the French Open in 1984. From that point on, he never looked back, winning eight Majors total from ’84 to 1990.

But back to his early defeats in those Slam finals: They came at the hands of three of the game’s greatest players ever: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander. Murray has finished runner-up three times among the Majors: twice at the Australian Open and once at the U.S. Open. Last year’s loss at the Aussie was dealt to him by Novak Djokovic over the course of his dream season, and his other two defeats in Slam finals were meted out by Roger Federer.

In this day and age, there’s no shame in losing to those two, particularly in the later stages of a big tournament.

Of course, skill plays a tremendous part in making a breakthrough at tennis’ premier events, but luck can’t be discounted. Looking at Lendl once again can be cited: He was down two sets to none against John McEnroe before the American lost his concentration and let Lendl back into the match.

How the draw shakes out can be a big factor in determining victory: If Robin Soderling doesn’t beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open, does Federer complete his career Slam then?

In other words, a lot of outside factors go into making tennis history. Once it all comes together for Murray, it should become a little easier to add more titles to the ledger, and that “best player to never win a Major” tag will be a thing of memory.

Roger Federer meets Rafael Nadal in semis of Mutua Madrid Open: A final before the final

Roger-Federer-02-slider

I actually consider all the Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer match ups on any surface at any time a final. Even if Novak Djokovic is now officially on a 30 match unbeaten run. The final before the final will take place at the Mutua Madrid Open for the third straight year and it is something to look forward to. Since these are matches all on their own, I dare not to make a prediction so: May the best man win!

Before the Nadal reached the semis he played Michael Llodra from France and beat him easily in straight sets 6-2, 6-2. And with that win, Nadal is now 36 matches unbeaten on clay.

“I didn’t think I would win like that,” said the 24-year-old Nadal, who also beat Llodra in their only prior meeting on the challenger circuit in 2003. “He’s got a powerful serve and dangerous volley, so it’s hard to pass him. But in the first set he committed some errors. Winning that first set gave me a lot of confidence.”

Roger Federer had a tougher match, on paper at least, playing former French Open finalist Robin Soderling. Federer had a tough first set saving three setpoints versus the Swede before eventually closing the match 7-6, 6-4.

“Conditions were tough today, I didn’t know we could get such wind in a closed stadium,” Federer said. “But I thought I played a great match from start to finish.”

Federer is looking forward to playing Rafael Nadal. Head-to-head Federer is 8-15 overall and 2-10 on clay.

“I’m excited, I’m playing Rafa here in the next round,” he said. “I’ve beaten him here in the past, but it will obviously depend a lot on the day—but he’s the favorite on the clay.”

Other semifinalists are Brazilian Thomas Belucci who defeated Tomas Berdych 7-6, 6-3 and Novak Djokovic, who stretched his unbeaten run to 30 but not before dropping a set,  by defeating David Ferrer 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Djokovic has now surpassed Ivan Lendl on the list of longest unbeaten runs. Lendl was third and is now fourth. Busted Racquet called Lendl who apparently wasn’t even aware that he held the third longest streak until an ATP Official notified him about it. This is what Lendl had to say about it:

“I don’t mean to put it down,” he said, “obviously it was a great start to the year, but mine isn’t even the best out there.”

Photos of Roger Federer credit by Ralf Reinecke!

For the man who wins everything: A Novak Djokovic pictorial

djokovic-madrid-2011-29-0

It is one of the strongest starts in the history of tennis and Novak Djokovic is doing it! He has won 29 matches in a row and 31 if you include his Davis Cup winnings in November, 2010. It equals the best start in men’s tennis in 25 years. Back then it was Ivan Lendl who managed to do it.  Only John McEnroe who won 42 straight matches in a row in 1984  and Bjorn Borg with 33 matches in a row in 1980 are ahead of him.

We will have to see how far Novak Djokovic can go but I don’t see the end of this winning streak coming yet. But the best of it all is that Novak Djokovic is modest about his succes.

“I know I’m playing great now but there is always something you can improve on—you can never be perfect,” the Serbian player said. “I’m winning service games comfortably. That’s something I’m happy about today and an encouraging fact for upcoming matches, especially on clay.”

If Djokovic wins versus David Ferrer on Friday then he will have surpassed Ivan Lendl’s record. But until then enjoy the photos of Novak Djokovic by Ralf Reinecke.

 

Djokovic and Azarenka triumph, Clijsters out again and Rafa being sensible over clay season

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic Continues Amazing Run:

Novak Djokovic continued his unbeaten start to the year to pick up the Miami Open title, coming back from a set down against Rafael Nadal to secure his 24th straight win. The Serbian won 4-6 6-3 7-6 (7-4) on a tie-breaker, with the first five points of the decider all going against serve. “It was such a close match,” said Djokovic. “To win against the number one player of the world in a tie-break in the third set, it’s just incredible. This is one of the best matches I’ve played in a while. I was able to find my rhythm at the end of the first set, and then throughout the whole second and third set I played quite well, especially on my service games.” He has now had the best start to a season since Ivan Lendl picked up 25 straight wins back in 1986 and Nadal fears his world number one ranking is under serious threat. The Spaniard said: “He has won two tournaments in a row right now, very big tournaments and one Grand Slam. The normal thing is he will be number one in the next month, month and a half, two months. I don’t know. It depends on my results on clay.”

Azarenka Wins Second Miami Title:

Belarusian Victoria Azarenka outplayed Maria Sharapova to lift her second Sony Ericsson Open in Miami on Saturday. The 21-year-old triumphed 6-1, 6-4 in one hour and 46 minutes to lift her sixth WTA title and fight back against some of the critics who had begun to write her off for failing to challenge at the business end of tennis’ premier tournaments. It was Sharapova’s third straight-set defeat in the final at Miami having lost out to Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2006 and Kim Clijsters in 2005. “I played really well in the first set but Maria is a great fighter and I had to really hang in there at the end,” said Azarenka following the match. “I think I had the right tactics. She likes to swing big, and when she has time it’s really heavy. I tried to take time away.” She continued by speaking about her recent form: “I changed my mentality a little bit,” she said. “I am enjoying myself so much on the court. Maraia Sharapova was obviously downbeat following the match: “It’s obviously very disappointing given the other finals here as well but she was definitely the better player today and she has had a great tournament,” said the former world number one. “It’s a little bit too late to pick up the pace when you’re down a set and 4-0. I wish I picked it up earlier, obviously. She did many things better than I did today. [Being in a final] means that I’m winning matches, and winning more of them,” she said of her run. “It has been a long road to get here. It’s not over yet.”

Clijsters Takes a Month’s Break:

Kim Clijsters will be out for a month due to shoulder and wrist injuries which will leave her with only a fortnight to prepare for the French Open. She aims to return at the Italian Open in May to prevent her injuries becoming “chronic.” She pulled out of her fourth-round match at Indian Wells with the injuries in March and is now set to miss Belgium’s Fed Cup semi-final with the Czech Republic. “I really want to be there at this year’s Roland Garros,” Clijsters said on her official website. “Now there is no other option than to rest and I certainly can’t use a tennis racket for the first few weeks. We will continue with lots of physiotherapy and exercises to strengthen the surrounding muscles.”

Nadal “Can’t Repeat” 2010:

Rafa Nadal claims that he cannot repeat his phenomenal clay season of 2010 because it was a “once in a lifetime” achievement. Last spring Nadal triumphed at all three of the ATP Masters 1000 clay tournaments before then winning at Roland Garros. “That’s a once in a lifetime [achievement] to win every tournament on clay.  Nobody else has done it in history, only myself last year. So it’s difficult to imagine two years in a row [I] can repeat that,” said the Spaniard. He will again start his clay-court season at the Monte Carlo Country Club next week. Since losing in the third-round of his debut there in 2003 Nadal has gone unbeaten and after six-titles he holds a staggering 34-1 record. “Hopefully I [am] going to be playing well this tournament. This is important confidence for me.  Let’s try my best in Monte Carlo. First tournament of clay is always important. But it’s not going to be perfect.  I’m not going to win ten times in a row Monte Carlo. That’s sure. I won six in a row. I am going to try my best for the seventh, but I know how difficult is every tournament.”

Verdasco Upset with Barcelona Organisers:

Defending Champion Fernando Verdasco has voiced his anger against the Barcelona organisers for not holding a wildcard for him. He will instead play the Estoril tournament in Portugal. “The reason I’m not going Barcelona—ask the tournament officials who decide who they want to play,” Verdasco told the Spanish press. “Nadal is coming back and there’s a person whom I’m not going to say who it is, but who has had no interest in me playing. I hate going places, especially in Spain, where they are not interested who plays. In Estoril, they are.” However the organisers have hit back at the new world No.8, saying that he had plenty of time to register for the tournament’s main draw. Verdasco also voiced his disapproval that the wildcards had been handed out to non-Spaniards: “I am not vindictive or anything, but sad and disappointed with certain people who are responsible and Albert [Costa] because he has given priority to foreign players like Tsonga, Soderling instead of Spanish [players] and I think that is a mistake.” Costa has said that despite the criticisms Verdasco is always welcome back in the future.

Murray Adds to Strong Queens Field:

British number one Andy Murray has added his name to an already strong field at this year’s AEGON Championships at the Queens Club, London. The 23-year-old Scot joins world number one Rafa Nadal, two-time Aussie Open winner Novak Djokovic, 2009 US Open Champion Juan Martin del Potro and four-time Queens victor Andy Roddick at the pre-Wimbledon event. “Winning my first grass-court title here in 2009 was an amazing feeling,” said Murray. “It means a lot to me to have my name on the trophy next to great champions such as John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal who have won it in the past. The Queen’s Club has some of the best grass courts in the world, there are packed crowds every year and there is always a great atmosphere. Usually players that have done well at Queen’s have gone on to do well at Wimbledon. I can’t wait to get playing.”

Another Record for Federer:

Roger Federer drew level with Pete Sampras’ total of career singles victories after his 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Radek Stepanek at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Only six men have won more than the Swiss, with Jimmy Connors leading the way on 1,242. “It’s nice tying Pete, but he could have played for many more years,” said the 16-time Grand Slam winner. “He could still win some matches on tour now if he wanted to. It’s a funny stat, but it shows how long I’ve been around and how much I’ve won around the world.”

Huber and Raymond to Trial Partnership:

American doubles stars Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond are trialling playing together. Raymond has usually been playing with Julia Georges while Huber has recently been rotating partners since splitting with long-term team-mate Cara Black last spring. “Huber and I are going to start to play some together and give it a shot,” Raymond said in her WTA blog. “Amazing to think that after all of these years we have never played together while having played against each other countless times. The long and short of it is that, like any relationship, things happen. Some partnerships work out, others don’t and you just hope you are better as a result from each experience…None of us have a crystal ball and can see what the future holds. In life, you take chances, leaps of faith and hope for the best. I am excited about this opportunity and time will tell.”

Gonzalez to Return:

Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez is set to end his six-month injury absence and return to action. The world No.395 only managed two matches following Roland Garros last year and underwent hip surgery in October. He announced on his Twitter account on Monday: “Today I finish my 6 months post-op rehab. I was discharged and ready to go back to game.”

Murray Changes Coaching Arrangements Again:

Andy Murray says he will not be rushed in to making a decision over his next full-time coach. The world number five recently parted ways with advisor Alex Corretja after three years following a massive slump in form which has seen him crash out in the opening round of his last four tournaments in straight sets. The 23-year-old has previously worked with Miles Maclagan, Mark Petchey and Brad Gilbert and is hoping his latest search for a coach with experience is solved before his hectic mid-season schedule kicks in. Ivan Lendl is one name linked with taking the role and the eight-time winner knows all about bouncing back having lost his first four Grand Slam finals. “I’ve spoken to a few people and I’ve obviously thought about it quite a lot,” said Murray. “I would like to do it as soon as possible but you need to find the right person. People think it’s an easy thing to do but it’s really not. There’s not that many people with a lot of experience that are willing to give up 30, 35 weeks of the year travelling and come to where you’re training.”

Huber/Venus Travel with Fed Cup Team:

The US have named their Fed Cup team to play Germany in their World Group Playoff in Stuttgart on April 16-17. Liezel Huber will lead Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Melanie Oudin and Christina McHale in a tie where they need victory to ensure they remain in the World Group for 2012. Venus Williams will travel with the squad to offer advice and support but will not play because of her continuing hip injury.

Connors/McEnroe to Renew Rivalry:

Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe will face each other for the first time in ten years when they square off in the World Team Tennis tournament on July 14. Connors is representing the Freedoms against McEnroe’s New York Sportimes to continue the series McEnroe leads 20-14. They last met on the ATP Tour in 1991.

Roddick Changes Career:

Andy Roddick made a surprise appearance at the Augusta National this week and it wasn’t just as a supporter. The American star was donning a white jumpsuit and green cap as he caddied for former Masters winner Zac Johnson. The arrangement was set up by their agents after Roddick recently stated his interest in trying his hand at being a caddy. “He’s a Midwest boy, I’m a Midwest boy, and this is the first time he’s here. And he wanted to caddy,” Johnson told USA Today. “I don’t have much family here this year, which is a rare thing, so I said what the heck. I’ve always wanted to meet him. I’m a sports freak in general and I’m a tennis freak, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to meet him.”

Murray Climbs Despite Shocking Form in Rankings Watch:

Andy Murray has climbed back to No.4 in the world in the South African Airways ATP World Rankings after Robin Soderling failed to defend vital points through injury. Andy Roddick has dropped six places this week meaning Fernando Verdasco (No.8), Jurgen Melzer (No.9), Gael Monfils (No.10) and Mardy Fish (up four to No.11) all climb. Fish is now the top-ranked American for the first time. Sam Querrey re-enters the Top 20 while Spain’s Marcel Granollers is the new world No.50. Olivier Rochus (No.76) and Dmitry Tursunov (No.82) are big climbers while Japan’s Go Soeda (No.91) and Austria’s Andreas Haider-Maurer (No.96) are in to the Top 100. In the Sony Ericsson WTA World Rankings, Maria Sharapova has climbed back in to the Top 10 for the first time in two years following her Miami finals appearance. Victoria Azarenka’s victory over the Russian sees her equal her career-best No.6 placing. Andrea Petkovic makes her debut in the Top 20 at No.19 while Peng Shuai becomes the third Chinese woman to break the Top 30. Greta Arn broke the Top 50 for the first time and Arantxa Rus makes her debut in to the Top 100.

Rafa Claws Further ground back in GOAT Race:

Rafa Nadal cut the deficit again this week after his finals appearance at Miami again bested Roger Federer’s semifinal berth. Whilst Novak Djokovic repeated the Indian Wells final result it means that Rafa gets an extra 50 points than his great rival this week. Going in to the clay season we could now begin to see a mammoth swing in GOAT Race fortunes.

Roger: 560 Rafa: 350

Kim Clijsters’ Houdini act – The Friday Five

Kim Clijsters

By Maud Watson

Flip-Flop

It’s been an exciting week and a half of tennis in Key Biscayne as the second Masters event of the season draws to a close, and for Mardy Fish, there’s been even more to be excited about than his good form. The veteran’s run to the semis will not only take him to a career high ranking of No. 11, but it will also provide him the opportunity to move into the top 10. His upward climb in the rankings, coupled with defending Miami champion Andy Roddick’s early exit, means that Fish will also become the top ranked American for the first time in his career. The real test for Fish will come later this summer when he has a larger amount of points to defend, but it’s great to see that all of his hard work is continuing to pay dividends, even if it’s coming at the latter stages of his career.

9-1-1

If ever there was a player in need of some emergency assistance, it’s Andy Murray. The young Scot suffered yet another devastating blow as he crashed out of Miami in his opening match. You hate saying it about a player Murray’s age with his amount of talent, but he’s definitely reaching a crisis point from which there may be no return. He has split with part-time consultant Alex Corretja (a mutual split), and he is still without a full-time coach. He is said to be in talks with former Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl, who has expressed interest in trying his hand at coaching Murray. Lendl has never coached an ATP player before, but he should still prove to be a huge advantage to Murray should he ultimately opt to hire him. Lendl had the work ethic, and he also knows what it’s like to watch multiple Grand Slam opportunities go begging before finally breaking through that barrier. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable coach who could teach Murray how to quickly bounce back from such losses, and if Murray is smart, he’ll snatch him up while the offer is still on the table.

Houdini Act

Down 1-5, 0-40 in the third set against Ana Ivanovic, Kim Clijsters’ Miami run appeared to be at an end. But like any great champion, Kim Clijsters continued to fight, keeping the ball in play in the hopes that her game would pick up and her opponent’s would self-destruct. Ivanovic obliged, and several games and five match points saved later, Clijsters was raising her arms in triumph, leaving Ivanovic to toss the racquet and shed a few tears in the locker room afterwards. While Clijsters is to be admired for her perseverance, it’s hard not to feel for Ivanovic. She appears to be getting her game back on track, and a victory over Clijsters would have only accelerated her climb towards the top. Hopefully this heartbreaking loss won’t cause her to take a few steps backwards, as the game could use her presence back in the upper echelons of the sport.

Back in the Mix

Lanky and loud Maria Sharapova has plenty to be proud of this week, as the Russian has finally made her return to the WTA’s top ten with her victory of Andrea Petkovic to reach the Miami final. Sharapova continues to struggle with her serve, but her trademark fighting spirit has helped her pull out some gutsy wins, including a three-and-a-half hour marathon in the quarterfinals. She doesn’t possess the aura that she once did (and may never have that aura again), but as it’s been with so many of the WTA’s previously injured and struggling stars, it’s great to see her back at the top where she belongs, battling for some of the game’s biggest titles.

Baby Blues

In his straight-set loss to Mardy Fish, David Ferrer was annoyed by a crying baby in the crowd, and after losing serve midway through the second set, he reportedly hit a lob in the direction of the crying infant. Rest assured, the lob didn’t land anywhere near the child, and to his credit, Ferrer didn’t blame the crying for his loss, citing instead a bad case of indigestion. Fish was also quick to point out that Ferrer is one of the nicest guys on tour, and that if he had it to do over again, he probably wouldn’t have hit that lob. All this aside, there’s still no excuse for what Ferrer did, but it does raise an interesting question. And that question is, “why are parents bringing such a young child to a tennis match?” A good friend in New York cites this pet peeve every year at the US Open. She is tired of the extremely little kids who don’t understand the protocol of watching a match, and one of the biggest annoyances is a crying baby. It might sound absurd compared to other sporting events, but given the nature of how a tennis crowd is supposed to act, tennis might consider imposing a minimum age requirement for attending a professional tennis tournament. Many of these children may be subjected to stifling heat and humidity, don’t understand what they’re seeing, may be bored, and in the case of babies, will not even remember having attended the event. Their constant movement prior to changeovers, yelling, and crying is not only a distraction to players, but other spectators as well. This is an issue tennis might want to consider tackling (and then maybe it can concentrate on how to better control those unruly fans who are old enough and ought to know better!).

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