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The Long Road Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CONTINUED MESS WITH BRITISH TENNIS

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for British tennis, they do. In fact the situation has become so comical even the genius minds of the Monty Python crew would have been hard-pressed to come up with this.

Carry On Tennis, it should be called.

“Great Britain suffer humiliating Davis Cup defeat” scream the BBC.

“Dan Evans defeat brings fresh Davis Cup despair for Britain” moans The Guardian.

Yes, it is that time again. Very much like the hangover of all hangovers, that sinking feeling when the words “Great Britain” and “Davis Cup tie” have been the main event of the weekend is slamming around our skulls like the feeling of dread at a week ahead of working 15-hour shifts shoveling doggy doodoos.

Which great tennis nation have we lost to this time? Oh the mighty….Lithuania?!

Yes, a nation with only three world-ranked tennis players. A team of teenagers running around pumping the air celebrating the greatest victory in their history like they had just brought world peace.

The Lithuanian Tennis Association has an annual budget of £95,000 compared to the £25,000,000 continually squandered by the Lawn Tennis Association. After all, there are only 173 players our Lithuanian counterparts have to cater for.

You get the picture. David has once more cast his stone and Goliath has hit the deck quicker than Cristiano Ronaldo in a gust of wind.

You will all have read the doom and gloom stories about the matches and I would rather not subject any Brits reading this to any more of those. But what of the fallout?

LTA Chief Executive Roger Draper claimed in the 2009 Tennis Annual produced by the association that he had enjoyed the progress of British tennis over the past three years. This supposed progress has seen our national side drop through the tiers like an elephant strapped to a boulder in the Pacific Ocean.

Now we must face Turkey, who lost to Ireland, in a relegation playoff to avoid sinking to the Europe/Africa Zone Group III in July – the lowest tier of the competition.

Captain John Lloyd has now become the first British Davis Cup captain EVER to oversee five successive defeats. He has said he is “devastated” by the defeat.

“They don’t have as many players to pick from as we do but their players are good,” Lloyd told the BBC.

“We obviously didn’t have our number one playing, and that was certainly an evening-out point. It was a 50/50 sort of match before the start, and they were the better team.”

Woah, woah, woah. What you are saying Mr. Lloyd is that even with Andy Murray playing a nation such as ourselves is only just better than Lithuania and without him we are only as good as a side whose top player is ranked 195 in the ATP World rankings. Lord help us.

Mr. Draper has released a statement on the defeat:

“I share the deep disappointment and frustration at this result. Five defeats in a row is unacceptable.

“So I have asked the LTA Player Director, Steven Martens, to review last week’s performance and result, and report back to me and the LTA Main Board as soon as possible.

That review needs to be swift and decisive as it is clear some real improvements need to be made.”

That’s not even edited. That is the entire statement.

Fingers, though, are already being pointed. Former captain David Lloyd (brother of John) has demanded Draper step down to allow British tennis to recover. Draper’s decision to encourage British No. 1 Andy Murray not to compete in such a lowly tier was a particular stickler for Lloyd.

“”Roger is wrong endorsing the fact that Andy shouldn’t have played. That was a bad call,” he seethed in an interview with the BBC. “I would try and encourage him to play and give something back to the game.

“Where are the male players that the LTA has actually produced? Zero. That’s the bottom line. How do you keep your job if you are failing? I think Roger should walk. I don’t see it getting better.”

“He has missed every target he’s ever set,” added Andy Murray’s former coach Mark Petchey in an interview with Sky Sports News.

“What’s happened with the Davis Cup proves he’s wrong. His import of high-price foreign coaches, Brad Gilbert etc, has failed. The people at the LTA can’t sit on their hands and do nothing. They have to say ‘Your vision of the sport was wrong and you need to go.’”

But how can British tennis improve? Would culling the top man bring an improvement in fortunes? Well, Petchey certainly had ideas about how things could be changed for the better.

“The moment that we built the National Tennis Centre I feared for British tennis in a big way. What we needed right then was 30 centres around the country to get a catchment area from every region, every county.

“If you’re playing in Scotland for example, trying to get to a tennis centre with decent courts etc. is impossible. This money needs to be invested around the country, it’s that simple.”

That simple, eh? Fancy a new job as Chief Executive at the LTA Mr. Petchey?

WILL NADAL BE ABLE TO RETURN TO THE TOP? THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Return of the Bull – Rafael Nadal says that he is planning to return to tennis in the desert at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 event, the BNP Paribas Open. He states that his knee is healing nicely, and furthermore insists that he can return his body to peak physical condition. Nadal is a fierce competitor, and I sincerely hope that he’s right about that last part. But given his brand of physical tennis and refusal to take an extended break to allow his body to completely heal, it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever be able to sustain his top form for any length of time. I’ll be the first to admit if I’m wrong on this one, but I disagree with Nadal’s strategy to forgo the extended break and tweak his game to make it less physical.

Welcome to the Main Event – After the surprising news that Marat Safin would be playing an event on the Champions Series senior circuit in March, there then came the news that the lovable Russian is going to be playing an exhibition on April 10 in Atlantic City at Caesar’s Palace. Perhaps the only thing more shocking is that the Caesars Tennis Classic exhibition is also going to feature Ivan Lendl, who hasn’t played a match since 1994. The field will be rounded out with Andy Roddick and Mats Wilander, with Venus Williams playing the hostess. With the spectacular tennis those men are able to produce, coupled with their mesh of personalities, it’s a safe bet that a good time is in store for any lucky enough to get a ticket.

Back at Last – It wasn’t as soon as he had hoped, but it had to feel good to Argentine David Nalbandian to finally make his return to competitive tennis in his home country at the Buenos Aires Copa Telmex event. Nalbandian opened his campaign with a solid straight sets win over Italian Potito Starace before giving the home crowd something to cheer about with a nail-biting win over Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 9-7 in the third set tiebreak. Given Nalbandian’s talent and ability to upset the big boys in tennis, I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping this is just a sampling of the good things to come.

Seizing the Opportunity – It was just last year when Israeli Shahar Peer was denied a visa to compete in Dubai. This year, she was allowed entry, and she’s making the most of it. After having never taken a set off of 2009 US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, the compact Peer cruised her way to a routine victory over the Dane in straight sets. Perhaps the only downside to the match was that it was forced to be played on Court 1 instead of Center Court, as Court 1 was more secure. Credit to Wozniacki who had the class to acknowledge that while the court speed was different on Court 1 as compared to Center, the conditions were the same for both players and did not blame the switch for her loss.

Kournikova in the News – But this time, it isn’t Anna K. It’s her mother, Alla. In one of the more bizarre scandals to come up in tennis news this week was the case of Alla Kournikova, who is being charged with felony child neglect. She allegedly left her five-year-old son home alone while she ran some errands. Neighbors spotted the child outside and then called authorities. When questioned, the five-year-old son claimed that he had gotten outside by jumping out of a second story window (but was uninjured). Alla could face up to five years in prison. I somehow think the next time Anna K does a press conference, the questions aren’t going to be about her latest modeling gig.