John Isner

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Tennis Musings From New Zealand

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John Isner

By Thaddeus McCarthy

Dear Fans,

                     The NZ Festival of Tennis came to an end with John Isner prevailing in the Heineken Open final, 7-6, 7-6, over first time ATP finalist Yen-Hsun Lu. The first week of course finished with Ana Ivanovic overcoming Venus Williams. The Festival is my personal favourite of the NZ Summer of Sporting events. The weather certainly turned up for the 2 weeks, although I can remember one afternoon early on with the ASB Classic which wasn’t that great. Nevertheless the play was uninterrupted and the tournament enjoyed sell-out crowds. This posting will review the second week’s tournament and give a line-up and some predictions for the big one, the Aussie Open.

David Ferrer, the widely expected winner, bowed out in the semi-final to Yen-Hsun Yu. He said after that match that it was perhaps one of the worst performances of his career. You’ve got to think about comments in pressers like this that if they aren’t just a bit derogatory of the other player. Federer has been criticised in the past as coming off as a bit arrogant in his pressers. In Ferrer’s case at this time his error rate was very high, so this comment was probably justified. My golden boy from the last posting, Benoit Paire, bowed out in the second round. Arguably the match of the tournament was the Quarterfinal between Phillip Kohlschreiber and Isner, which had three tiebreaks and featured no breaks of serve. I have to say that Kohlschreiber was unlucky not to win that one, as his rallying was superior to Isner.

Going back to the Heineken final, once again Isner’s serve was on fire. At 2.06m tall he is known as having one of the best, if not the best serve on tour. Isner called the final match perhaps his best of the week (his serve was not broken once). First time finalist Yu played well, his one-handed backhand passing shot at the end of the second set (to save the second match point) was testament to that. He just played against a man in Isner who was really hitting his shots on the day. Isner did say after his semi-final, that without his serve he would not be ranked inside the top 500. His serve is just an example that to be ranked highly in this sport you do often need a big weapon. As mentioned in my last post, the winner of this fortnight’s Australian Open will be a player who has a weapon, one which will turn an over wise even match in their favour.

In my first ever posting on here, I predicted that we would see a Del Potro/Nadal final. I will not stick with this, as they have been slated to meet in the Quarter-finals. I will have to go instead with a Del Potro/Djokovic final. Juan Martin Del Potro has just downed Bernard Tomic in straight sets in the Sydney International final, and appears to be in top form. He will not doubt be one dangerous hombre in the Open. Djokovic has been handed perhaps the easiest draw of anyone in the competition. His first real test will come in the Quarterfinals, where he is expected to face-off against Stanislas Wawrinka, who took him too 12-10 in the fifth set (fourth-round) last year. He should come out of this Wawrinka match to take down Ferrer in the semi-final. The Del Potro/Nadal Quarter-final will be a match to watch at the start of the second week. That is assuming Nadal can get past a dangerous Bernard Tomic in the first round. Tomic is a player I have mentioned before as being someone with the potential to win a Grand Slam one day. I just don’t see it happening this year. Nadal I believe, will be too strong for him in the opening round.

On the women’s side I can just not go past Serena Williams this year. Her form with age just appears to be getting better and better and there seems to be no stopping her. She is not a particularly liked player by the tennis public, but you just cannot help but admire the power game she has brought to women’s’ tennis. The two players who I think could create some difficulty for Serena could be Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova. Azarenka was dispatched in straight sets in Brisbane last week, and lost in three tight sets to Serena at US Open 2013. But she can cause the upset on the day. With Sharapova, although she has a terrible record against Serena, on her day an upset could happen. We just have to think back to the 2004 Wimbledon for an example of that. Azarenka and Sharapova are expected to meet in the semi-final, and I would hope that it is not a slug fest, which will leave the winner exhausted for meeting a fit and hungry Serena in the final.

All us sports fans have pet wishes which we hope will happen, but sort of know that they never will. Well, my pet wish for this Open is that Lleyton Hewitt will finally come through to win his home countries slam. Australia has not had a winner on the men’s side since Mark Edmondson won it in 1976; surprisingly with a world ranking of 212 (the lowest seed to ever win a Slam). Hewitt got close in 2005, when he reached the final, but other than that has not gone past the fourth round. The 05 Aussie had an incredible excitement about it, mainly thanks to Hewitt’s run on one side, and the Marat Safin machine on the other. It is in fact my all-time favourite slam, and featured one of my all-time favourite matches, the Safin/Federer semi-final. Hewitt’s win in last week’s Brisbane final against Federer definitely gave some hope that another dream run may again be possible. For the women, Samantha Stousur is my pet wish to be the winner. The women similiary to the men have not have had a winner since Chris O’ Neil in 1978. It would really generate some interest in the Open if we were having a couple of great local runs.

So there you have it. My predictions for the Aussie Open are for a men’s final of Djokovic/Del Potro, and a women’s final of Serena/ Azarenka. Although what I would like to happen is for a Hewitt/Del Potro final for the men and a Stosur/Williams final for the women. Having a surprising local run on one side, and a dangerous power player on the other would make this Open hugely memorable. Whatever happens though, this is a tournament I thoroughly look forward too every year, and it never disappoints in providing us with gripping moments. Watch this space.

 

Citi Open Finals Gallery: Del Potro, Rybarikova Capture Titles in Nation’s Capital

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DSC_13410001JuanWASHINGTON, D.C. — Argentine Juan Martin del Potro returned to Washington, D.C. after a three year hiatus to claim his third Citi Open title against American John Isner, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. (Finals gallery at bottom)

“It’s amazing, I’m so happy to win here once again,” the 24-year-old stated after the final. “When you win a tournament its special, its big. After Wimbledon to be my first time on hard court it means a lot. I am looking forward to Montreal, Cincinnati, and the U.S. Open. It gives me a lot of confidence to keep trying and get closer to the top guys.”

The soft-spoken Argentine struggled returning Isner’s solid serves and baseline shots in the first set, and realized that he needed to step further back out of the court in order to play his own game. He then kept Isner to only one ace per set for the remaining two sets.

Though disappointed, the American didn’t take the loss hard. After playing nine matches in eleven days, Isner admitted that his body wasn’t as fresh as he’d like it to be.

“I was a little tired out there,” said Isner. “It was one of those things where my body felt fine but my legs weren’t quite there. I wish I felt a little bit better out there but at the same time I could have been a 100% and still could have not won that match. That just speaks on how good he is. He was better today and my hats off to him. He was the better player.”

When asked about where Del Potro stacks up to the current top four ATP players, without hesitation, Isner praised the Argentine’s game, saying he was just a hair behind Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, and the third favorite to win the U.S. Open.

In Del Potro’s press conference, he was told what Isner had commented regarding his chances at this month’s Slam, and the Argentine almost looked embarrassed, sweetly and sincerely returning the favor.

“He’s going to be a favorite too, for sure,” Del Potro said. “On the hard court, Isner is really good player. His game is improving day by day. He has a good advantage to take the opportunities to go farther.”

In the women’s singles final, Magdalena Rybarikova successfully defended her title defeating a newly-healthy Andrea Petkovic, 6-4, 7-6(2). On court, the Slovakian called Washington, D.C. “home” after never having lost a match on the surface, and admitted it was not an easy run.

“This year when I saw the draw I thought, ‘Yeah, this is going to be very tough,’” Rybarikova said. “I would have been happy to make the quarterfinals and play Kerber. But every match I was playing better and better, then I beat Kerber, which was a huge win for me. That gave me a lot of confidence.”

Petkovic meanwhile reached her second final of the year after Nurnberg and feels her game is in a better place.

“It was a pretty good week – all in all I’m quite satisfied,” Petkovic said. “I would have loved to win the title here to really feel like I’ve completely come back, but I’m really okay. She played really well.”

“Magda was really stepping up her game, not missing a lot and not giving me many free points. It was a really difficult match but all the credit to her, she really deserved to win the title today.”

In the men’s doubles final, the duo of Nenad Zimonjic and Julien Benneteau won their second doubles title as a team against Mardy Fish and Radek Stepanek.

“It feels really great to win such a big tournament,” said Zimonjic. “It’s a 500 series, and not just that, it was a really strong field. It didn’t have easy matches here. Very good teams played. To come after a long break, to come this strong and win the tournament without losing a set is really the best way you want to come back to the tour.”

“It was a lot of fun for both of us to play. We had a great time here on the court, off the court, and hopefully this will help us for the upcoming three tournaments that we’ll play.”

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

Insider’s Look at Super Saturday at the Citi Open with Del Potro, Dimitrov, Petkovic

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Set against the backdrop of downtown Washington, D.C., this week’s Citi Open has brought some of tennis’ most recognizable names to the tournament, including Juan Martin del Potro, Tommy Haas and the youngest player in the women’s draw, 17-year-old newcomer and American Taylor Townsend.

It was a full schedule on tap with both men’s singles semifinals set on stadium court, along with one women’s semifinal and one men’s doubles semifinal. The rest, including the women’s doubles final, was scheduled on the first grandstand court.

There has been some discussion in player press conferences this week regarding scheduling differences between the men’s and women’s draws, and how the women are not being scheduled as equally on stadium court. It seems though that most players understand why. The men’s event is a 500-level while the women’s is a lower-tiered International-level, and several players — including females — commented that men tend to bring a bigger draw and whoever the tournament believes would be a bigger draw will be the match scheduled on stadium court. Logical enough but still questionable reasoning on some level.

That being said, the men’s doubles semifinal between the pairing of Julien Benneteau and Nenad Zimonjic against University of Virginia alumni and Citi Open defending champions Treat Huey and Dominic Inglot, took precedence over the women’s doubles final between 2012 Junior Wimbledon Girls’ Doubles champions Eugenie Bouchard and Taylor Townsend and Shuko Aoyama and Vera Dushevina.

In front of a decent-sized crowd, the first-time partnering of Aoyama and Dushevina were crowned champions in women’s doubles.

After the match, the only ones called into press were the runners-up, Bouchard and Townsend, as the media room was mostly empty and at the men’s doubles match. The winners gave no press conference.

With her longer history on tour than her counterpart, Bouchard was visibly disappointed in the presser but still sincere in answering questions. Townsend, on the other hand, looked as if she was on cloud nine. She seemed to have just been excited to reach a pro final and was relishing the moment despite the quick loss. I asked her about the contrast in the presence of young players on tour between the men’s and women’s side and she gave an insightful and rather mature answer.

“I think it’s a lot different for the men than the women,” Townsend replied.”The men mature at an older age and we mature younger. So I think it’s a lot easier for us — at a young age — to hang with the older players because our bodies mature faster. The men are so strong and it takes them a few more years to get caught up to that level, especially to get into that top shape.”

As the first men’s doubles semifinal started between top American John Isner and a newly-resurgent Dmitry Tursunov on stadium court at 3:00pm to looming clouds, doubles partners Grigor Dimitrov and Michael Llodra (and his youngest son, Teo!) took to the practice courts.

As the Bulgarian stretched, a shirtless Llodra kicked a soccer ball around with his 6-year-old son. All week, the youngster could be spotted on the tennis court hitting some impressive shots and his soccer head-butting and kicking skills didn’t disappoint. After Dimitrov finished his stretching, he jumped into the mini-soccer game and ended up losing — happily obliging to do push-ups on court as the loser.

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Heading onto stadium court for Isner-Tursunov, the first set was dead even, and ended up going to a tiebreak. Four exchanges of serve and some patience by the Russian and he got the unexpected upper hand, taking the first set. Tursunov diminished his double faults count from his matches earlier this week, and ran Isner laterally until the American hit long or into the net. On several occasions, Tursunov bullied the American’s backhand before pulling the trigger forcing Isner into an error with a running forehand.

During the changeover, sprinkles began falling but the players decided to continue on without any exchanges with chair umpire Magdi Somat. As the drops increased in intensity during the first game, Isner had a break point on Tursunov’s serve and slipped, slamming a forehand into the net. Instinctively, Isner yelled in the umpire’s general direction and Tursunov had also already began walking towards the chair. Play was called and the players taken inside as the 80-minute rain delay began.

At around 5:00pm, Juan Martin del Potro made an appearance on the practice courts to packed stands on court one. As play was suspended, fans still had the opportunity to enjoy a light hit by the Argentine for about 30 minutes.

Play shortly resumed on stadium court and after breaking Tursunov to go up 4-1, the American took the second set 6-3. The baseline play among both players was incredible to watch. After so many matches between Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, you forget how powerful (and consistent and precise) other men on tour can hit, and the two held some extended jaw-dropping rallies. In the end, the American broke Tursunov again to take the final set, 6-4.

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Walking back to the media center, I heard loud cheers coming from grandstand court and realized that the other men’s doubles semifinal went on at the same time as the singles match on stadium. That’s one of the problems with a rain delay — you don’t quite always get to watch everything you hope to. Mardy Fish and Radek Stepanek took out fan favorites, Grigor Dimitrov and Michael Llodra, and with that, the Citi Open crowds will have American men in both the men’s singles and doubles finals. On the opposite side of the grounds on grandstand court two, women’s semifinalist Andrea Petkovic was practicing in front of a small group of fans.

At 7:20pm, Isner walked into press with ice on both knees for precautionary reasons. He’s one of the few to constantly have ice on some joint on his body so it’s not so much a surprise anymore.

Ten minutes later, the Isner presser was completed, and as we looked to the TV in the media center, we saw that Tommy Haas had just broken Juan Martin del Potro to go up 3-1 – a bit of early trouble for the two-time tournament champion.

Without much of a breather, Tursunov commenced his low-key presser, where he analyzed his loss but felt there really weren’t any holes in his game. A pretty fair analysis as he never once held break point, but stayed in the match much of the time.

As I prepared to go out and finally watch the Del Potro – Haas match, I realized the score was frozen at 4-1. Of course, another rain delay.

I looked at the live scoreboard and noticed that the women’s semifinal between Magdalena Rybarikova and Ekaterina Makarova was still going on though, and questioned what was going on. Rybarikova went on to win three games in a matter of minutes before play was finally suspended. But I guess the weather can be funny sometimes!

During the nearly three hour rain delay, the illustrious third edition of the “Citi Open Rain Delay Media Spelling Bee” commenced, where contestants had to correctly spell various ATP and WTA player names within the top 200. What started out with eight people in the first few minutes grew to nearly 20 and included photographers, bloggers, long-time wire writers, event staff and even Tour staff. Thanks to gracious contestant Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover, we have footage of Ben Rothenberg’s winning moment, having successfully defended his title from 2012.

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The tournament media staff had some fun and sweetly made the winner his own notable trophy. How thoughtful!

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The Del Potro – Haas match continued with the Argentine quickly picking up momentum, and later in press admitting that the rain delay helped him. Haas, conversely, came into press and was quite short, stating he was “aggravated and annoyed” during the rain delay and it reflected in his straight set loss, 7-6(4), 6-3.

Despite the lateness of the hour — the men’s semi had finished at 12:15AM — there had been no earlier talk of opening up play of the second women’s semifinal on a third court. Instead, Alize Cornet and Andrea Petkovic were set to follow on whichever court had finished first. Inevitably, organizers seemed to have waited to see if the men’s semi would finish shortly after the first women’s semi would, and they were lucky.

At 12:35AM, the second women’s semi finally took place to a crowd of still several hundred people. The sheer match ups of Cornet and Petkovic’s style could have made this match the highlight of the women’s draw so far, but the lateness of the hour prevented it from reaching grand proportions. However, both ladies impressed with full court-coverage, suspenseful rallies and looked — incredibly enough — quite fresh.

After being down 3-0, then getting broken twice while serving for the set, Petkovic finally took the first set, 7-5. She then made quick work of the French woman, taking it 6-3 in the second and delighting the crowd with her famous “Petko Dance.”

Petko dancing

The evening finally ended at an “early” 2:15AM, with the women’s singles final scheduled for exactly 15 hours later. Talk about a quick recovery for both ladies!

Back Into the Top 50: The Resurgence of Dmitry Tursunov

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DSC_01470001Dimitry Tursnov fridayWASHINGTON, D.C. – Nearly twenty years ago, Dmitry Tursunov stepped off the plane from Russia, ready to take on the tennis world at the tender age of twelve. His father was determined to make a tennis champion in the family and the talented Tursunov obliged with a move to the United States.

Despite rising to a career-high ranking of world No. 20 in 2006, it wasn’t always an easy road for the Russian as he was forced off tour multiple times with injuries and surgeries, and a strained relationship with his father did not help his confidence.

Tursunov himself calls his career a bit of a “rollercoaster,” but his most memorable win came against an American great in 2006, as he won 17-15 in a fifth set.

“Most people might say that the highlight of my career was beating Andy Roddick on clay during Davis Cup — on a surface he doesn’t really like,” joked Tursunov exclusively to Tennis Grandstand. “But it was a good match for the fans and it had a lot of suspense.”

After breaking into the top 100 exactly ten years ago, it was another three years before the Russian’s ranking steadied within the top 40. Over the next three years, he won six tournaments and defeated a top 10 opponent on seven occasions. At about this time, injuries started to creep in and they took him out of the game as he fell outside of the top 500.

“With every injury, you also have doubts, and the last couple of injuries have been probably more difficult than the first ones,” admitted Tursunov. “They always give you a scare and you’re never sure if you’re going to be or not going to be playing again. But for some reason the last couple [of injuries] were kind of hard to get through.”

The expectation with injury recovery among athletes is that once your body has healed, you will be able to return to your previous prime quite quickly. But that is rarely the case and often times you begin to question your game.

“When you’re coming back [from injury], that’s the hardest thing,” Tursunov continued. “Because when you’re coming back, you don’t have much confidence in anything. You’re constantly in doubt and you’re taking bad results closer to the heart … When you’re taking hits and you’re down, it’s a lot harder to get through those. You just suck it up or call it quits.

Despite his rocky time with the sport, the Russian who now trains in California never doubted his place in tennis.

“I felt there is not much I could do outside of tennis … As much as I sometimes hate being on court when I’m not playing well, I understand that it’s much better than being in the ‘real world’ and having a 9-to-5 job … I would rather be a player on tour than even a coach.”

Tursunov got his start on a tennis court at a very early age, under the careful tutelage of his father.

“[My father] had a tremendous belief in me from the very beginning,” stated Tursunov. “He put 150% of his energy into my tennis. Any money he had was not going to the family, it was going to my tennis. He essentially gambled quite a lot on my tennis.”

With a father so involved with his budding career, it was only inevitable that this strained their own relationship off the court.

“I had a difficult relationship with my dad because of tennis,” commented Tursunov. “Tennis was basically the link that bonded us together. And for a very long time, when I was practicing – when I was little – I didn’t see myself as anything other than a tennis player because it was so engrained into my lifestyle. There was no speculation about what I would become when I’m older. Everything was around tennis.”

If this story sounds familiar, you might be right.

Andre Agassi, in his book “Open,” also heavily commented on the difficult relationship he had with his own father on the tennis court, and many aspects of his and Tursunov’s relationships run in parallel.

“Some people might say that he vicariously lived through me, but as a parent, I don’t really believe you think of it this way. You always want your child to succeed,” stated Tursunov. “I also don’t believe my dad abused our relationship and dynamics, like some press have said.”

He continued: “Yes, he was fanatical about it. … If anything, I wish that we had found a common ground earlier. … The last few years, he finally started asking me about life outside of tennis and how I’m doing.”

With his father’s passing last year, Tursunov is playing with a renewed determination. Though he admits to “wearing [his] emotion on [his] sleeve” on court and often being quite negative, his new coach repeatedly reminds him to be more optimistic and positive, and it seems to be resulting in some good wins.

This year already, Tursunov has defeated two top-10 opponents, including David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic, and just this week at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. he ousted 2011 champion Radek Stepanek and tournament fifth seed Gilles Simon. His ascension back to world No. 61 has been a sweet affair, and his semifinal appearance this week will propel him back up to at least No. 43 in the rankings.

At thirty years old, Tursunov is now near the twilight of his tennis career, but he finds inspiration in a fellow ATP player who has defied age stereotypes.

“Tommy Haas is giving a lot of hope to all of us to play far into our thirties,” stated Tursunov. “I think in general you can see the trend of older players playing longer into their careers … I’d like for the last two to three years of my career – whenever that may be – to really make it count. Not just win one, two rounds but win tournaments.”

With his semifinal against John Isner at the Citi Open on Saturday, there may be no better time than now to announce his comeback.

Isner, Petkovic, Fish Comment on Current State of Doping in Tennis

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Andrea Petkovic believes that doping cases should be somewhat personalized. John Isner backs the implementation of a biological passport in tennis. Grigor Dimitrov comments that players have the resources to ask questions any time of day regarding supplements. Mardy Fish insists on checking every substance that goes into his body with his trainer for approval beforehand.

No matter what player you ask on tour, it seems everyone has an opinion about the

anti-doping system and the recent doping allegations surrounding tennis players Viktor Troicki and Marin Cilic, the first who was suspended for 18-months on a negative test, whereas the latter was suspended for three months on a positive test.

This week during the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., doping and player education of doping policies were a popular topic in various player press conferences.

American John Isner commented that although he has not spoken with either player, he has read about what happened.

“Those situations are unfortunate,” commented Isner. “I don’t know really what to think of it. You hear [in the media] that the ATP or [World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA] don’t educate us [players] enough – I don’t think that’s the case. For me, in particular, anytime I take something, I do check it out. I don’t try to buy any supplements outside of that. So I think the ATP actually does a good job with informing us about what we can and cannot take.”

Despite having been some 15 years since Mardy Fish’s original training regarding matters like doping as part of the ATP University, he says that there is a continual stream of updates to ensure players are aware of changes and expectations.

“We do get updates, we get notifications,” he states. “There are things constantly coming through in your email about updates on player regulations … or prohibited [substance] lists. We have updated versions at all times.”

Grigor Dimitrov also echoes both American’s words, stating that he feels players are educated about the policies, procedures, and rules surrounding several “important things such as doping … There is actually a 24-hour [hotline] that you can call about doping” and inquire about any supplements or substances.

For Fish, he ultimately decided to be directly involved in what goes into his body in terms of supplements and other players might be wise to take heed amid recent allegations.

“In my experience, my trainer and I took [doping] very seriously. I ask him about every single thing [whether] it’s in pill form, or cream form that we’re using, to make sure that something like that would never ever happen [to me].”

As an added measure, Isner also believes the implementation of a biological passport in tennis would be beneficial to discourage doping as it has in other sports. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, “the fundamental principle of the Athlete Biological Passport is based on the monitoring of selected biological parameters over time that will indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance itself.” Thus, it would use baseline physiological levels for each athlete to compare all past, present or future samples to.

“I’m a huge fan of the biological passport,” commented Isner. “I just know from the Lance Armstrong case that he sort of got in trouble because of that. I think that if the testing can improve and you still have those [past] samples, absolutely go back and test that out.”

Despite the surge in recent doping cases though, Fish feels that players have very little wiggle room due to the doping whereabouts program.

“Our doping system is extremely tough, I know that,” he commented. “I have to give an hour every single day of my life to doping.”

Isner agreed, citing his own experiences as evidence of how strict the doping system could be.

“I really do think tennis compared to other sports – other team sports really – we get tested quite a bit,” the American continued. “We get tested a lot during competition, and I know I’ve in particular gotten tested a lot out-of-competition, and that’s not just urine. That’s blood as well. I even one time got tested twice in one morning, within 30 minutes of each other.”

Although Andrea Petkovic agrees “that the rules are strict because obviously we all want to fight doping,” she believes that doping really wouldn’t improve a tennis player’s performance.

“I’m also one that says doping doesn’t really help you in tennis,” the German commented. “You can be the fittest guy in the world and lift 200 kilos in weightlifting, but it doesn’t make you a better tennis player. It doesn’t give you the feeling of the court, the placement.

But the 25-year-old, who has battled back from multiple injuries in her career, also believes that doping decisions like the one with Troicki should be somewhat personalized. She cited that she has known the Serbian since they were kids and is aware of his fainting spells due to needles.

“I think it’s good that the rules are strict, but in cases like Viktor, you have to be able to look past the rules and you have to be able to make decisions that are personally indicated on that person,” she concluded.

The recent increase in doping cases in tennis makes one wonder whether more athletes are doping, unknowingly ingesting prohibited substances, or simply that there are more resources now available to more seriously crack down on doping abuse.

One thing is for sure. Wayne Odesnik’s case in 2010 seemed to have opened a pandora’s box of sorts for the sport.

Citi Open Wednesday Gallery: Isner, Haas, Stephens and More

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Play was derailed by play Wednesday evening, but not before plenty of action took place including Andrea Petkovic, John Isner, Tommy Haas, Grigor Dimitrov, Sorana Cirstea, Yanina Wickmayer, Marinko Matosevic, Jack Sock, Alex Kuznetsov, and even Sloane Stephens hit the practice courts.

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

Juan Martin Del Potro looks to recapture his brilliant Wimbledon form.

While the WTA divides its action between two coasts this week, the ATP spans the Atlantic Ocean with events on two different continents and surfaces.  The 500 tournament in Washington, part of the US Open Series, takes center stage.

Washington:

Top half:  A champion in Washington four years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro holds the top seed at the 2013 edition.  The Wimbledon semifinalist hopes to rediscover his torrid form against one of two men who shone in Atlanta.  Producing semifinal runs there last week, Lleyton Hewitt and Ryan Harrison will square off in one of the most intriguing first-round matches.  Nor can Del Potro relax if he survives the winner.  A strong grass season, highlighted by a second-week appearance at Wimbledon, will have restored Bernard Tomic’s confidence.  Although he continues to cope with controversy surrounding his father, Tomic has plenty of ways to disrupt Del Potro’s rhythm if the Argentine returns rusty from a leg injury.  A more straightforward test awaits from Kevin Anderson, seeking his third semifinal in three weeks.  Before he meets Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Anderson may find the returning Mardy Fish an opponent worthy of his steel.

If power dominates the top quarter, flair defines much of the second quarter.  The flamboyant shot-making of Tommy Haas favors precision over physicality, while the graceful one-handed backhand of Grigor Dimitrov has a vintage appeal.  Haas reached the final in Washington last year, perhaps using his training at the Bolletieri Academy in Florida as experience for coping with the humidity.  But power never lags far behind in a draw filled with Americans.  Sam Querrey will face one of two Atlanta quarterfinalists, Denis Istomin or Santiago Giraldo, in the second round.   A contrast of styles would await if Querrey advances to face Dimitrov and then Haas, although a 5-8 record since April leaves a deep run far from guaranteed.

Semifinal:  Del Potro vs. Haas

Bottom half:  Filled with question marks, the third quarter could produce a surprise semifinalist.  The favorite at first glance would seem Milos Raonic, by far the most powerful of the seeds.  Raonic’s massive serve could sizzle on a hot hard court, but he has accomplished little since winning yet another San Jose title in February.  Neither has fellow seed Nikolay Davydenko, who has struggled historically against possible second-round opponent James Blake.  Some of Gilles Simon’s best results have come in North America, including a Miami quarterfinal this spring, and the fifth seed’s steadiness might suffice to ease him past the erratic men around him.  Among them is former champion Radek Stepanek, who looks forward to American collegiate star Steve Johnson in his opener.

One might lose sight of defending champion Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth quarter.  Not a threat for most of 2013, Dolgopolov faces an arduous route towards a title defense.  Home hope John Isner looms in the third round if he can revive his energy after a draining title run in Atlanta.  An easier route to the quarterfinals beckons for Kei Nishikori, who won a North American 500 tournament at Memphis this year.  Bogota runner-up Alejandro Falla faded quickly in Atlanta, as did American teenage sensation Jack Sock.  The clean, balanced baseline game of Nishikori should carry him past either of those opponents, after which a first meeting with Isner could await.

Semifinal:  Simon vs. Isner

Final:  Del Potro vs. Isner

Kitzbuhel:

Top half:  An assortment of Europeans and clay specialists have headed to this Austrian event before venturing into the steamy American summer.  German top seed Philipp Kohlschreiber aims to move one round further than he did at another clay 250 event.  The finalist in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, Kohlschreiber can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Spanish dirt devil Marcel Granollers.  This Rome quarterfinalist will welcome the opportunity to erase memories of an epic loss in Gstaad last week.  Between them stand Horacio Zeballos of Nadal-defeating fame and Wimbledon surprise Kenny de Schepper, who reached the second week there.

A greater Wimbledon surprise than de Schepper came from Fernando Verdasco, who would not hold the third seed here if not for his quarterfinal appearance at the last major.  To his credit, Verdasco parlayed that breakthrough into a strong July, highlighted by victories over Nicolas Almagro, Grigor Dimitrov, and Jerzy Janowicz.  An all-lefty matchup against Brazilian clay specialist Thomaz Bellucci should not detain him for long en route to a rematch of the Bastad final.  At that Swedish tournament, Verdasco fell to Carlos Berlocq, who faces an extremely challenging assignment as the fifth seed.  Days after defeating Federer, the ominous Daniel Brands sets his sights on the Bastad champion.  Also in this deep section is Robin Haase, arriving from a series of morale-boosting wins in Gstaad.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:   A week of mixed omens for Albert Montanes in Umag included an upset over world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and a tight loss to Gasquet’s compatriot Gael Monfils.  Twice a semifinalist on clay already this summer, Victor Hanescu finds himself on a collision course with Montanes, who won a clay title in Nice just before Roland Garros.  The winner should feel confident heading into the quarterfinals, although home hope Jurgen Melzer will have most of the audience behind him.  Melzer reached the second week of Wimbledon but has lost five consecutive clay matches dating back to Monte Carlo.

Arguably the softest section, the base of the Kitzbuhel draw lies at the mercy of second seed Juan Monaco.  This recent member of the top 10 has shown altogether too much mercy in 2013, helplessly watching his ranking decline.  All the same, Monaco has produced at least somewhat respectable tennis this summer on clay, his best surface.  Three qualifiers and a wildcard offer little competition, so any challenge would need to come from one of two Spaniards.  While Daniel Gimeno-Traver has struggled on clay this year, Roberto Bautista-Agut retired last week in Gstaad.  Monaco thus looks safe unless he implodes, admittedly not unthinkable.

Semifinal:  Montanes vs. Monaco

Final:  Verdasco vs. Montanes

Christian Harrison Making a Name for Himself on the ATP Tour

Christian Harrison Citi Open 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If you’ve ever watched Ryan Harrison play tennis with his booming serve and forehand, you may be surprised to learn that his brother Christian’s style is vastly different. The younger Harrison’s game is founded on court coverage and speed, and he is quickly making a name for himself on the ATP Tour.  (Christian Harrison gallery at bottom)

The Louisiana native won his first ATP-level match in Atlanta last week as he defeated Alejandro Falla before falling to world No. 22 John Isner in three close sets.

This week, Harrison found himself in the qualifying draw of the Citi Open in Washington, DC and turned out a stellar performance in the opening round against Iliya Marchenko, before going down to former world No. 62 Somdev Devvarman.

Harrison’s biggest claim to fame is perhaps his surprise run at last year’s US Open where he reached the men’s doubles quarterfinal with his brother, en route taking out the No. 4 seeded team in the first round. The plan for the duo is to team up again at this year’s edition in New York City next month.

Slighter and quicker on court than his older brother, Christian covers the court like a top 100 player already, and shows glimpses of his developing tennis genius in other aspects of his game. With his father Pat serving as his coach at the IMG Academy in Florida, Christian is in good hands to soon vie for main draw spots at tournaments.

I sat down with the focused, thoughtful and friendly Harrison as he talked about his memorable career moments, his game and goals, and what skill he would like to learn after tennis.

What is your most memorable moment on court?
So far, the thing that is pretty cool was the US Open last year when (brother Ryan and I) made the quarterfinals (in doubles). And now, also last week, I picked up my first ATP win, that was pretty cool for me.

What is your greatest strength on court?
Probably my consistency and movement right now. But I’m trying to work on building a bigger weapon.

What is a weakness in your game that you’re working on?
I don’t really feel like I have a weakness that can get picked on. But one of the things that I’m trying to work on is putting away short balls, and trying to get comfortable attacking them.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be doing?
(Laughs) I would probably be trying to play some other sport – probably football or something. I like to throw the ball around for warmup.

If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
That’s a good question. I am having to think really hard right now. (Laughs) People say surfing is pretty cool, but I’ve always been somebody that’s scared of sharks. But if I could get over that fear, then it would probably be cool to learn to surf … Maybe after tennis when I can afford to give up a leg or an arm. (Laughs)

If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?
I like Pete Sampras – I idolized him growing up.  So that would probably be one because when I was younger I looked up to him a lot. The second, I would have to say – I gotta dig deep for another sports guy – Drew Brees. I like him a lot from the Saints. And the third one, maybe, like Jessica Alba. (Laughs)

What are your goals for the year in terms of progress or ranking?
At the beginning of the year, I wanted to get to top 150. But now, I’m really not trying to look at rankings because it kind of messes with you a little bit. So I’m just trying to look at each tournament and focus on winning matches and picking up points that week. I feel like if I’m doing everything right, then my game will get to where it needs to.

To Each Their Own: Previews of ATP Atlanta, Gstaad, and Umag

Twice a champion in Atlanta, Fish goes for the three-peat this week.

The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta.  Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York.  But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles.  For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.

Atlanta:

Top half:  The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20.  Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison.  The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta.  Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions.  He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.

Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American.  Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise.  On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise.  Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand.  His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles.  Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt.  A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

Bottom half:  The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months.  Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic.  Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable.  The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion.  Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues.  Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.

Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude.  They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta.  Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

Top half:  As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw.  Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though.  Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week.  Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal.  But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.

A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title.  The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half.  Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg.  Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

Bottom half:  Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol.  Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring.  But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him.  The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true).  Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well.  The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.

That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez.  Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section.  Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder.  Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

Top half:  Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw.  He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later.  Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises.  The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking.  Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.

In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad.  This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as  recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker.  An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year.  Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

Bottom half:  Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon.  Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad.  A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there.  The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.

The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos.  While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there.  Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi.  On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

Plotlines to Ponder: US Open Series Edition

Murrray fired a warning shot at Wimbledon.  Now can Djokovic reply?

The Emirates Airlines US Open Series begins next week with tournaments at Atlanta (ATP) and Stanford (WTA).  More events on both Tours follow during each of the five weeks between now and the US Open, including consecutive Masters 1000/Premier Five tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati.  As the action accelerates toward the final major of 2013, here are seven key narratives to follow.

1.      Will Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray seize the upper hand?

The top two men in the world have contested the finals at the last three non-clay majors and enter the summer hard courts as co-favorites for the US Open.  Fittingly, Djokovic and Murray each have won once in New York, although the Serb has reached four finals there to the Scot’s two.  While Murray has won multiple titles at both Masters 1000 tournaments this summer, Djokovic never has conquered Cincinnati despite winning three times in Canada.  A victory for either man over the other at one of those events would earn that player an edge heading into New York.  So would a Canada/Cincinnati sweep, a feat that has occurred only three times on the men’s side in the Open era.  Back on their best surface for the rest of 2013, Djokovic and Murray have an opportunity to take their rivalry another step forward.  Abrupt shifts have defined it so far, so predict at your peril.

2.      Will Serena Williams restore order in the WTA?

The world No. 1 has compiled a somewhat strange season, dominating Roland Garros and racing undefeated through the clay season but losing by the quarterfinals at the two non-clay majors.  Serena usually responds with courage to adversity such as her stunning loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon.  One need think back barely a year to the second-half surge that she reeled off after a much more disheartening setback against Virginie Razzano.  The dominance of the top three women since the start of 2012 prepared few viewers for the implosion at Wimbledon.  That fortnight echoed the chaotic period in the WTA that preceded the current Serena/Maria/Vika Rule of Three.  For reasons developed further below, the top-ranked woman and defending US Open champion stands the best positioned of that trio to curb her inferiors.  Even as she approaches 32, her aura still intimidates.

3.      Will Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal pose the greater challenge to the top two?

On the surface, literally and figuratively, this question seems easy.  Federer has compiled the superior record of the two in the US Open Series and at the US Open.  For most of their careers, he has been the better man on hard courts and the better man in the second half, when his rival’s energy wanes.  That said, Nadal has surpassed Federer in recent years at the US Open, notching consecutive finals in 2010-11.  He also has produced the stronger season of the two by far, reaching the final at every tournament except Wimbledon, claiming a key hard-court title at Indian Wells, and overcoming Djokovic at Roland Garros.  Federer has won just one title in 2013 and has not defeated a top-five opponent.  The two superstars never have met in the US Open Series or at the US Open.  They responded in contrasting ways to early Wimbledon losses, Nadal resting his ever-fragile knees and Federer entering two clay tournaments in July.

4.      Can the Wimbledon women’s finalists consolidate their breakthroughs?

Hovering over Murray’s quest to defend his US Open title is the question of how he will respond to his Wimbledon feat.  The women’s champion there also faces the task of overcoming the inevitable post-breakthrough hangover.  Like Murray, however, Marion Bartoli may have the maturity to avoid that lull.  She has earned some of her finest successes on North American hard courts, including a Stanford title won from Venus Williams, finals at Indian Wells and San Diego, and semifinals at Miami and the Rogers Cup.  Bartoli might return at Stanford next week.

Much more a grass specialist than Bartoli, the woman whom she defeated in the Wimbledon final has reached four quarterfinals there but none at any other major.  Sabine Lisicki still looks to build on her victories over two top-four opponents at Wimbledon, and there is no reason why her massive serve cannot shine on fast hard courts.  Her main challenge has consisted of staying healthy long enough to build momentum, so her ranking could climb if she does.

5.      What to expect from Wimbledon’s walking wounded?

About five top-eight players limped out of the grass season with injuries that may linger.  On the men’s side, Juan Martin Del Potro should recover quickly from a minor sprain caused by hyper-extending his left knee.  The Wimbledon semifinalist and former US Open champion should prove the most compelling threat in New York outside the Big Four.  World No. 3 David Ferrer may need more time to recover from his ankle injury, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has voiced uncertainty over whether he will return from a knee injury by the Open.

Eager to ignite her partnership with Jimmy Connors, Maria Sharapova withdrew from Stanford next week to rest a hip injury incurred at Wimbledon.  Sharapova posted playful photos of her rehab work, not sounding overly concerned.  Still, both Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka may need to brush off some rust early in the US Open Series.  Limited to one match since Roland Garros, Azarenka has played only five tournaments in the last five months.  Her coach, Sam Sumyk, reported that her knee incurred no structural damage, though.

6.      Will home soil inspire the American men?

At the US Open last year and at Wimbledon this summer, nobody in this group reached the second week, something once taken for granted.  With Andy Roddick retired and Mardy Fish chronically ill, American men’s tennis has plunged down an elevator shaft with embarrassing velocity.  Not much light shines into the bottom of the shaft from former phenom Ryan Harrison, who has developed into an uninspired journeyman.  The more explosive Jack Sock may evolve into a future star, as French sports magazine L’Equipe thinks, but his time will not come for at least a few years.  Until then, the two lethargic giants John Isner and Sam Querrey remain the only real hopes for the US.  The good news is that they have played their best tennis on home soil, winning 10 of 13 career titles there.  The bad news is that neither has done anything meaningful on hard courts this year.

7.      Which rising stars on each Tour will shine?

In the wake of a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, many eyes will focus on Jerzy Janowicz over the summer.  The boyish, lanky Pole has virtually nothing to defend during the US Open Series as he aims to rise toward the top 10.  Grigor Dimitrov has drawn attention mostly on account of his resemblance to Federer and his relationship with Sharapova, but he impressed at both Indian Wells and Miami this year.  And the deeply talented, deeply enigmatic Bernard Tomic could build on a promising Wimbledon if he finds more discipline on the court and stability off the court.

The women’s game features some youngsters who have advanced faster than their male counterparts.  One of three women to reach the second week at every major in 2013, the 20-year-old Sloane Stephens offers the home nation its most genuine threat outside Serena.  Stephens needs to transfer some of her feistiness from verbal barbs to her game, not an obstacle confronted by the powerful Madison Keys.  American fans should relish the sight of Keys this summer, showcasing a serve reminiscent of the Williams sisters and the penetrating groundstrokes designed for WTA success.  Reaching the second week at Wimbledon and at last year’s US Open, meanwhile, British teenager Laura Robson has shown the power and belief to strike down the elite.

 

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