The Friday Five

Alarm Calls for Roger Federer as Martina Hingis Storms Back into Tennis — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Roger Federer on a losing streakTailspin

Another tournament and another surprising early exit for Federer, as the Swiss goes out in two routine sets to Daniel Brands in Gstaad.  The good news for Federer fans is that the Maestro has never been one to quickly panic and shows no signs of looking like he’s getting ready to throw the towel in anytime soon.  In fact, he’s already committed to Brisbane next season.  But this latest loss undoubtedly has some alarm bells sounding in Federer’s head.  He’s having some issues adjusting to the new racquet and is also unsure which stick he’ll be using on the summer hard courts.  In addition to Federer being in limbo regarding his racquet, his mental toughness has also taken a hit. You can read the increasing doubt on his face, and that doubt is creeping into his game as evidenced by the unforced errors that continue to mount in each match.  To say that the next few months are “do-or-die” might be an overstatement, but they are certainly critical.  How he fairs the remainder of 2013 could have a major impact on how long it takes him to right the ship and determine whether or not he hangs around for Rio in 2016.

Heartbreak

Another sentimental favorite who suffered a tough loss this week was Mardy Fish.  The American was in Atlanta, making just his fourth appearance since the US Open last season.  Up a set, it looked like Fish might be able to start his return to competition with a win.  But a rain delay and a refusal to fold from veteran Michael Russell saw the lower-ranked American upset his countryman and advance at his expense.  The defeat itself was understandable.  Fish played well all things considered, but he had been out of the game for over four months.  With no substitute for match play, nerves likely helped play a part in his loss.  What was troubling about Fish’s loss, however, was that he wasn’t available for comment afterwards – something that has happened in the past just prior to Fish taking an extended leave of absence.  American tennis fans will wait with baited breath to see how Fish follows up this latest setback and whether it will include the commitment to carry on or hang it up for good.

Give and Take

Thanks to an overwhelming 47-1 vote by the New York City Council, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center has been approved for a $500 million expansion.  Not surprisingly, a large part of the expansion will be devoted to the renovation of the older facilities “that have reached the end of their useful lives.”  But the USTA isn’t the only one benefiting from the deal.  In exchange for the approval, the USTA has agreed   to start a non-profit group to help fund Flushing Meadows, host a yearly job fair for the residents in Queens, serve as a potential host to high school graduation ceremonies, and provide tennis coaching programs for area children.  All in all, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Changing Tunes

John Tomic has finally been brought to court for the much-publicized events that took place before the start of the Madrid Masters, and depending on who you believe, is possibly changing his story, along with his son, from what they originally told police back in May.  Bernard Tomic is claiming his father told him the day of the incident that it was the hitting partner, Drouet, who hit him.  John Tomic is also insisting that it was Drouet who started the fight and doesn’t “know how” Drouet fell down.  Both Tomics are blaming the alleged misunderstanding on police officers who had a poor grasp of English.  Time will tell if there really was a misunderstanding or if this is just John Tomic trying to weasel his way out of trouble – and given his track record, the latter seems more plausible.  If that is indeed the case, Bernard Tomic had better wise up, or the court is going to give him a lot more to worry about than his forehand.

Stay Awhile

It appears that Martina Hingis’ decision to play doubles with Hantuchova in California won’t be just a one-off.  The former No. 1 is planning to play doubles in some other big events this summer, including Toronto, Cincinnati, and the year’s last major, the US Open.  Say what you want about Hingis from a personal standpoint, but from a tennis perspective, there are few in the modern game who can match her court craft and guile.  What she lacks in size and power she makes up for with impossible angles and exquisite touch.  With any luck, these summer hard court events will be the start of something bigger, but if not, get your tickets and take the opportunity to see some of the greatest hands in the game work their magic one more time.

The Rafael Nadal dilemma, Caroline Wozniacki’s defense — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Beating a Dead Horse

Rafael Nadal made headlines this week, and quite frankly, the reasons behind the headlines are getting old. First he announced that he isn’t setting a return date, which had already been established. Until it seriously looks likely he’ll miss the Australian Open, it’s a topic that doesn’t need attention until 2013. The second reason was for Nadal’s incessant complaining about the number of hard court tournaments on the calendar. Nobody denies that hard courts are more taxing on the body, but he seems to be the only player with a major gripe about the surface. If anything, Nadal’s remarks came across as self-serving. A number of players call the hard courts their best and favorite surface, and many of those past and present players have enjoyed fruitful careers with few to no injuries. Furthermore, the Spaniard didn’t seem to complain about the general slowing of the surfaces, which has allowed for more extended rallies, which in turn has arguably contributed to his physical woes. But most disappointing of all is Nadal’s blindness, or perhaps unwillingness, to recognize his own role in contributing to his physical breakdown. Yes, a genetic problem has been partially to blame, but pundits have said for years that his grinding style would catch up with him. Now it appears it may be time to pay the piper. If that now means adjusting his schedule to pick up a few more clay court events – something he sounds almost bitter about – then so be it. We all want to see a healthy Nadal competing at the highest level year round, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of tailoring the calendar to suit one player’s needs.

Off the Mark

Coming on the heels of the 39th anniversary of the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” Billie Jean King was asked about the topic of equal prize money, which became a hot-button issue in 2012. “The guys can’t stand it,” she said in reference to the subject. She cited how dominant groups have historically struggled to share with non-dominant groups, and she expressed her disappointment in Federer’s lack of open support for equal pay to help overcome this barrier, particularly given the number of influential females in his life. She also called out players who have openly opposed equal prize money, like Simon and Tipsarevic, suggesting that they think of their possible future daughters. She stressed that, “It’s not about the money – it’s about the message.” But what exactly is the message? That the WTA players deserve the same pay as the ATP players just because they’re both professional athletes playing many of the same tournaments? There should be more to it than that. BJK may have refuted the “best-of-five vs. best-of-three” argument, but she didn’t address other points raised by opponents of equal pay – namely that the men consistently do a better job packing the stands, which in turn leads to higher ticket sales and more lucrative television deals. The ATP also doesn’t suffer from the shrieking epidemic that has turned some fans away from the game. Furthermore, until recently, the WTA has struggled to find consistency at the top, and the last couple of years, some of their biggest draws have been inconsistent performers at best, and part-time competitors at worst. Essentially, the men are currently offering a better product. What would BJK do if the shoe were on the other foot? Would she be so quick to say the men deserved equal prize money if it were the WTA offering the better deal? The WTA is moving closer to creating a comparable product, but with all due respect to BJK, until that product is established those who oppose equal prize money have a solid argument.

Closing In

Current No. 1 Victoria Azarenka may have had to withdraw from Tokyo citing dizziness potentially brought on by chronic fatigue, but with her run to the quarters, she’s moved ever closer to clinching the year-end No. 1 ranking. The Belarusian presently doesn’t know for certain the source of the dizziness, but she’ll be looking to be rested and ready to go in Beijing. As if she needed added incentive, Serena Williams has announced her withdrawal from the upcoming mandatory event in China due to a bad bout of the flu. Despite a history of playing very little in the fall throughout her career, many thought the younger Williams would look to make a push this autumn in an effort to finish the year atop the rankings. If Azarenka can get herself healthy and put together a run to the final next week, however, it will be mathematically impossible for the American to overtake her young rival. It’s a big ask for Azarenka, but it’s certainly added a bit more intrigue to the conclusion of 2012.

Always on the Defense

Danish superstar Caroline Wozniacki ended her long title drought with a win last week in Korea. She absolutely thumped Kaia Kanepi with just the lost of one game in the title match. Despite the win, however, reporters instead chose to take digs at the former No. 1, suggesting that her ranking of No. 11 was a disappointment. It’s natural that questions would have been asked when she initially fell out of the top spot, but at this stage, enough is enough. Wozniacki can’t be blamed for reaching the apex of the women’s game just because she proved the most capable player of showing up week in and week out. And while 2012 has been rough on her as far as where the majors were concerned, she’s shown a willingness to try retooling her game. She’s still young enough to do that, and it’s too early to pass judgment. So for now, let her enjoy the win in Korea, the quarterfinal showing in Tokyo, and wait and see what 2013 holds before we write her off as another Jankovic or Safina.

Breakthrough

Suddenly Jo-Willie Tsonga’s surprising loss at the US Open isn’t looking so bad. 23-year-old Martin Klizan, who knocked the Frenchman out of the year’s final major, has following up his success by claiming his first ATP title with his victory in St. Petersburg over Fabio Fognini in straight sets. Seven months ago, the Slovak was ranked 121, but with his win in Russia, he stands at a career high ranking of 33. Keep an eye on this fast-rising Slovak. He’s one spot away from being guaranteed a seed at a major, and he could cause some problems for some of the game’s best if his upset of Tsonga is any indication.

Djokovic the Warrior; Sharapova’s Future — The Friday Five

by Maud Watson

Ultimate Warrior

Physically, mentally, and emotionally, Novak Djokovic proved he had it all in his epic win over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final.  This win did more to boost his reputation and solidify the Serb’s status as the best player in the world than anything he did in 2011.  He had many reasons to lose that match.  He could have gotten frustrated and deviated from the game plan when he frequently misfired in the first set.  He could have crumbled going into the fifth after three forehand unforced errors in the tiebreak ultimately cost him the fourth.  He was being asked to win two five-set matches back-to-back for the first time in his career, and he was being asked to pull it off against a guy long considered one of the game’s most physically punishing players.  At 2-4 down in that final set, he could have accepted it was over.  He’d had a good run.  But instead he turned a badly missed backhand by Nadal into a turning point, snatching back the momentum.  And despite the obvious tiredness, he never looked like a man who was going to lose that match.  There was no panic, and if anything, the occasional smile that crossed his face showed he was enjoying the battle, win or lose.  When he broke Nadal that final time, there was no celebration.  There was still work to be done, and only when he had struck that final winner to seal the match did he let the emotions flow.  Will he have the same kind of season he did in 2011?  The general consensus is no, but with his win in Australia, it surely hints that such a run wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.

Here to Stay

She’s been touted as a future Grand Slam champion for a few years now, and playing in her first major final, Victoria Azarenka definitely delivered.  After a shaky start to fall in a 2-0 hole, she turned the tables on the more experienced Sharapova, allowing the Russian just one more game in what turned out to be a total route.  Her improved movement, touch, and net play were all on display as she not only won her maiden slam, but secured the No. 1 ranking in the process.  Her shrieking and “in-your-face” attitude will undoubtedly be a turn off for some, but they are also the same qualities that have served the likes of Sharapova and Serena Williams, among others, well.  She’s clearly someone who enjoys the spotlight, and she has solidly emerged as a strong candidate to help fill the void at the top of women’s tennis.

Time Will Tell

You have to hand it to Rafael Nadal.  His fighting spirit was at its best in his Australian Open final loss to Novak Djokovic, where his outright refusal to throw in the towel played a huge factor in extending it to five sets.  But at the end of the day, a loss is a loss, and this had to be one of the most painful in his career.  For his own part, Nadal put a positive spin on things, stating he felt he was right there mentally this time.  It’s also the closest he’s come to defeating Djokovic at a major since the Serb turned the tide in their rivalry.  But there were also some worrying signs for Nadal.  After nearly six hours, it was Nadal, allegedly the physically and mentally stronger of the two, who blinked first.  This was all the more surprising considering that Djokovic, much like Nadal in 2009, was the one coming in on one day’s less rest after a grueling and emotional semifinal win.  When it mattered most, Nadal also reverted back to his defensive mode and allowed Djokovic to dictate play.  And perhaps the biggest hurdle still in Nadal’s path is the mental block he has against the current No. 1.  He doesn’t miss that sitter backhand to go 40-15 up at 4-2 in the fifth unless a guy is in his head.  Only time will tell how Nadal will truly view and handle this loss and its potential impact on the rest of his season.

Mixed Bag

Any time a player reaches a Grand Slam final, especially if they’ve had shoulder surgery, it’s a good effort.  But while Maria Sharapova should take heart from her Australian Open run, she should also be leaving with some question marks about her chances to hold aloft another major trophy.  Chris Evert certainly thinks she can, going so far as to say “she’s too good not to.”  Still, some, myself included, beg to differ.  That’s not to say Sharapova won’t.  She hits the ball big enough, and if she couples it with relative consistency, she could win.  But she’s also going to need some help from the draw.   Her semifinal win over Kvitova had more to do with the unforced errors coming off the Czech’s racquet than anything Sharapova was doing.  Then there was the drubbing she suffered from Azarenka, a player who matched her stroke for stroke (and shriek for shriek), but also possessed greater variety and guile.  It really exposed Sharapova’s one-dimensional game.  So if Sharapova wants to win another major going forward, she has two options.  She can either pray that the draws ultimately pan out for her, or she can look to add a few new tools to her game (and the latter option will probably only come to fruition if someone “important enough” puts the bug in her ear!).

Questionable Decision

January 2012 is a month Caroline Wozniacki would probably like to forget.  After entering the Australian Open amid an injury scare, she gets dismissed by Clijsters in the quarters and wakes up this past Monday as the No. 4 player in the world.  To top it all off, we learn that after just two months on the job, Ricardo Sanchez has been sacked as her coach.  While diplomatic in his comments to the press, Sanchez confirmed what many already suspected – that there was no place for him in the Wozniacki father-daughter system as Piotr refused to relinquish the reins.  No one disputes that Piotr has done a wonderful job with his daughter, but she’s now spinning her wheels as the competition begins to pass her.  A coach other than Piotr is needed, and he would be well-served to remember that wanting what’s best for his child sometimes means letting go, not holding on.

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

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.

Novak Djokovic’ secret diet and Serena Williams’ new career as a rapper – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

“Tip of the Iceberg”

That was the phrase that Patrick McEnroe used when he reacted to the expletive-laden rant that Donald Young posted on Twitter earlier this week as Young attacked the USTA after not receiving their wildcard into the French Open. Going into the USTA’s wildcard playoff (which he tried to avoid in the first place as his team appealed for a wildcard outright), Young was coming off a win in Tallahassee that saw his ranking fall within the Top 100, and earlier in the season had what may go down as the biggest win in his career with a victory over Andy Murray. Perhaps his emotions were running high after losing in the final of the wildcard playoff, but no matter how you slice it, Young was 100% in the wrong on this one. Had his ranking been in the Top 100 a week earlier, he would have automatically made the main draw, but he’s not the first player to just miss direct entry or even a seed at a big event. And as for the victory over Andy Murray, pretty much all are in agreement that while Young certainly could have used such a victory as a springboard to find further positives and motivation for his own career, it was still more about Murray being in a funk than Young doing anything spectacular. Taking all of this into consideration, McEnroe and the rest of his USTA team are saints for giving Young yet another chance after the apology he issued later in the week. The USTA has already given him numerous handouts in coaching, housing, and funding and owes him nothing further. And even if Young really is sorry for his rant, given his history with the USTA, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be further bumps in the road. Both parties might be well-served if the USTA pulled its support from Young for a probationary period. Let Young learn to do it all on his own. He might actually find more motivation this way.

 

You are What You Eat

Or in the case of Novak Djokovic, you’re only as goo d as what you eat. The hottest player of 2011 revealed earlier this week the “secret” of his success, and he credits much of it to changes in his diet. He revealed that he brought nutritionist Igor Cetojevic onto his team, and it was he who discovered Djokovic’s allergies to certain food ingredients, such as gluten. While the discovery means new limits to his diet and a loss of weight, Djokovic is all too happy to make the changes. He credits the weight loss for making his movement sharper (not that it was anything to sneeze at in the past), and it has meant an overall improvement to his fitness and ability to stay in matches. It’s nice to see all of the pieces falling into place for the young Serb and contribute to what should hopefully be an interesting clay court season.

One Last Go

It’s been fourteen months, but German/American Tommy Haas has made his much anticipated return to tennis, competing in the doubles competition of Munich by partnering close friend Radek Stepanek. Results-wise, it wasn’t a triumphant return, as the pair fell just shy of defeating the experienced doubles pairing of Simon Aspelin and Paul Hanley 10-8 in a tiebreak, but after sitting on the sidelines for over a year, just to be back out on the court is a victory in and of itself. A talented player whose entire career has been plagued by injuries, it would be nice to see Haas have one last good run before he hangs it up permanently.

Two for Two

No surprise last weekend as Rafael Nadal resumed where he left off in 2009, collecting his sixth Barcelona crown for his second consecutive clay court tournament victory in the lead up to Roland Garros. Once again, he defeated David Ferrer in the final, and he was even more ruthless than he’d been against his compatriot when he defeated him in Monte Carlo. Nadal definitely had the look of a player who owns the turf, and it should be interesting to see what happens when he faces the heaviest hitters, especially should he ever meet up with Djokovic in one of the most anticipated potential matchups of the season.

That’s a Rap

Earlier this week, TMZ announced that Serena Williams was possibly looking into a new career as a rapper. She’s working with DJ Clue, who reported that Serena Williams had skill with the microphone. This news come just a week after Serena was spotted frolicking on the beach (in an appallingly inappropriate bikini), so this must mean that she is no longer so far down in the doldrums as she reported a month or so ago. Hopefully her recovery is going well, and perhaps the next time we see her name in the news, it will actually be for something tennis-related (and a tournament pull-out doesn’t count either!).

Popcorn Tennis at the Australian Open 2011 – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

The Highs

The term “popcorn tennis” is often used to describe a scintillating match, and there has certainly been plenty of “popcorn tennis” in week 1 of the Aussie Open. The women’s side has seen a number of highly competitive matches that have resulted in more than one big upset, while the men’s side has enjoyed a slew of five-set thrillers, many that saw the victor emerge triumphant from being down two sets to none. While native Australian Lleyton Hewitt lost a heartbreaker to David Nalbandian in what might be the match of the tournament thus far (though the Federer vs. Simon match was also right up there), organizers and fans alike should expect to see more real gems heading towards the business end of the tournament as one of the Australian Open’s more entertaining opening weeks in recent memory draws to a close.

The Lows

As enjoyable as the opening week of the first major of the year has been, it hasn’t been without its blemishes either. Former Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli suffered a tear in her calf and is expected to miss up to six weeks, while American Mardy Fish was diagnosed with a thyroid problem following his second round loss to Tommy Robredo. Then there was the shriek heard round the world when Venus Williams suffered a groin injury, which has to be disheartening given all of her recent injury woes. But the biggest low from this first week has to be the fifth-set performance put on by Janko Tipsarevic in his loss to Fernando Verdasco. Sure, Tipsarevic was understandably disappointed. He had won the first two sets and had held match points. But Tipsarevic wasn’t the first player this tournament to find himself in that situation, and no matter how deflated a player may be, barring injury, there’s no reason to just go away in the fifth set and start going through the motions. Tipsarevic didn’t even attempt to stick a racquet out on the return in the last game of the match. If a player is going to do that, they should just throw in the towel. It’s a waste of their time, their opponent’s time, and the fans’ time. It’s inexcusable.

The Bizarre

It’s not all that uncommon to see a player shatter a bat in baseball, but breaking your stick in tennis was all but unheard of. That is until Aggie Radwanska did just that in her tight three-set victory over Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm. The young Pole had been banging her racquet against the court in frustration just prior to the racquet head breaking away as she attempted a return. Not quite what a player wants to see happen at such a crucial juncture, but it’s a great way to make the Sports Center reel! Another incident occurred following Kim Clijsters’ dominant win over Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro. During her on-court interview with Todd Woodbridge, Clijsters called out the Aussie doubles specialist on a text he sent to Australian player Rennae Stubbs that stated he thought Clijsters might be pregnant; his reasoning being “she looks really grumpy and her boobs look bigger.”Always ready for a laugh, Clijsters took the text in good humor while Woodbridge was both embarrassed and horrified, even joking it could be the end of his TV career. This would fall under the “hate” side of the relationship with technology.

No Shocker

No surprise when the announcement came that the International Tennis Hall of Fame will be inducting Andre Agassi later this year. There had been a tiny pocket of doubt regarding this outcome, as his admitted use of crystal meth did raise a few eyebrows among fans and pundits who questioned if this should impact his eligibility. But the Hall of Fame is there to recognize primarily what one has done as a player on the court, and with eight majors, several Tennis Masters shields, and other accolades, there’s no question he’s one of the game’s legends (and this should mean Hingis fans can take heart that this precedent should mean her shaky cocaine-use conviction shouldn’t preclude her enshrinement odds either). Agassi has also done good post-tennis between his school and other charity work. One just hopes that he truly does appreciate his election for what he’s achieved in a sport that has also given him so much and put him in the position to do his charitable work today, despite his insistence that he hates it.

It’s Official

The two-man Maria Sharapova coaching team of Thomas Hogstedt and Michael Joyce didn’t last long. Details are still a little fuzzy surrounding exactly how it all came apart, but when the dust settled, it was decided that it would just be Hogstedt coaching Sharapova. Sharapova explained the choice, stating that she just needed a fresh voice in her ear. She was quick to point out, however, that Joyce is like a brother to her, and that they are still close. Having spent nearly 10 years together, it’s not surprising reports circulated that the split had left Sharapova feeling a little unsettled. It hasn’t shown up too much in her game, though, and in the end, she’ll most likely find out the change is for the best.

Rafael Nadal and Caroline Wozniacki Top Seed at Australian Open – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Answering the Call

As it has so often done in the past, the sport of tennis will once again be rallying to the call to aid victims of another natural disaster, this time the devastating floods in Queensland, Australia where the city of Brisbane has been particularly hard hit. Andy Roddick and Sam Stosur donated money for each ace they hit last week during the Brisbane event, and Stosur and Matthew Ebden will be continuing this trend through the Australian Open. The ATP and WTA have also pledged to follow their example. But the charity won’t stop there. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Kim Clijsters, Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur plan to participate in another exhibition event similar to last year’s “Hit for Haiti.” It’s sad that with so many tragedies in recent years, organizing these events has practically become second nature, but it’s always something special to see these star athletes coming together for a common cause.

And the Nominees Are

It’s that time of year again, when the sports world looks to who will win one of the prestigious Laureus Awards, and once more, tennis is well represented. Up for Sportsman of the Year is Rafael Nadal. Finishing No. 1 in the world and winning three of the four majors last year (and completing the career Grand Slam in the process), the Spaniard has a glittering résumé but is up against some tough competition with Sebastian Vettel, Manny Pacquiao, Kobe Bryant Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi also in the running. On the women’s side, tennis is heavily represented, with Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniaki vying for the honor, while Lindsey Vonn, Jessica Ennis, and Blanka Vlasic round out the other half of the nominees. Stay tuned to find out who will take home top honors.

Top Men’s Seed

The seeds for the Australian Open are out, and no surprise that the powers-at-be at Tennis Australia have essentially stuck by the rankings, naming Rafael Nadal as the No. 1 seed in the men’s draw. There’s no issue with Nadal being named No. 1 given his performances over the course of the 2010 season, though between his recent bout of the flu and Federer’s phenomenal form in Doha (and nod to Davydenko’s performance is also in order), it’s hard to see him as an overwhelming favorite. Throw Soderling’s Brisbane title run and the strong starts of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Roddick into the mix, and Nadal will have his work cut out for him to make it four straight majors.

Top Women’s Seed

As with the men’s field, Tennis Australia also stuck to the women’s No. 1 ranking and named Caroline Wozniaki as the top seed in the 2011 staging of the Aussie Open. As the most consistent performer on the WTA last year, no one should begrudge the Dane her top ranking, but being named the top seed is a bit questionable. Clijsters certainly had the better 2010, winning a major and getting the better of Wozniaki in the year-end championships. Their most recent performances in Sydney would also seem to suggest that Clijsters is quicker off the blocks. But the women’s tour is generally full of surprises, so perhaps Wozniaki will live up to her seed and win her maiden major, quieting the critics who question the legitimacy of her No. 1 ranking.

Laver Speaks

When Rod Laver speaks, people listen, and in an interview that came out earlier this week, the “Rocket” was quick to say that while Nadal winning the Australian Open would be an amazing achievement, it would not be a Grand Slam. With Laver being the last male to achieve the Grand Slam over 40 years ago (and Graf the last player to do so in 1988), fans and sports pundits are itching to see the feat repeated. But to even consider looking at Nadal’s achievement as a Grand Slam should he go on to take the title in Melbourne would be a disservice to the sport. However short the off season is, it is still an off season – a time to recuperate and allow any niggling injuries to heal. Playing straight through the season and fighting one’s way to the winner’s circle of every major in a calendar year is what makes the true Grand Slam so rare and so special. To his credit, Nadal has not suggested that should he go on to win the title, it be given the same recognition as a calendar-year Grand Slam. It would be the “Nadal Slam,” similar to the “Serena Slam,” that Serena Williams completed with her 2003 Australian Open win. So all power to Nadal if he’s able to achieve a phenomenal feat by simultaneously holding all four majors, but fans will have to wait a little longer to see something as special as that which was achieved by only Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Laver, Margaret Court, and Steffi Graf.

2011: The Year of the Comebacks – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Quick out of the Gates

It’s a new year, it’s a new tennis season, and the men of the ATP World Tour are wasting no time in dusting away any cobwebs that may have formed during the short off season. With the exception of Fernando Verdasco, the Top 10 men who played in the opening week of competition have looked solid as they prepare for the opening Grand Slam of 2011. As an added treat, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal squared off in the final of the Abu Dhabi exhibition event, much to the delight of the crowd and fans around the world. Nadal emerged triumphant in a tight two-set encounter that seemed to promise plenty of fireworks to come in their captivating rivalry.

Slow off the Mark

The exact opposite of the men’s tour at the moment would be the women of the WTA. Tennis superstar Serena Williams isn’t even playing, but some of her main rivals are failing to find their footing and take advantage of the American’s absence. Top players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur, Shahar Peer, and even Maria Sharapova (though she was returning from a long injury layoff) have all been bounced early in their warm-up events for the Aussie Open. Then again, the women’s season ended on a relatively topsy-turvy note, so it would appear that 2011 is merely picking up where 2010 left off.

Comebacks

One of the WTA’s top stars who is enjoying some solid play is veteran Justine Henin. The Belgian is representing her home nation in the Hopman Cup mixed team competition, and while she admits that she is not yet 100%, she’s happy to be back and competing. For having not played since last year’s Wimbledon, Henin has looked decent, and with the way the rest of the women’s field is currently performing, don’t count out last year’s Australian Open finalist as a dark horse to go one better in Melbourne. On the men’s side and also competing in the Hopman Cup is Australian Lleyton Hewitt. “Rusty” is raring to go and happy to report that he’s feeling great out on the court once again. He believes he can make it back into the Top 10, and while that’s certainly a tough task, there are few players who can match the determination and intensity of the man who holds the distinction of being the youngest to finish as World No. 1.

Charitable Hearts

While the two charity exhibition matches between Federer and Nadal took place last December, it’s worth taking one more moment to further recognize their willingness to serve others. Theirs is a rivalry that is one of the greatest that the sport has ever seen, and it is extremely polarizing to many of their fans. Yet the two men at the heart of it are able to see well beyond what the annals of the game will say long after their careers are done. As Pat McEnroe pointed out while doing commentary for the match in Switzerland, you never would have seen his brother doing such a thing with the likes of Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl while in the prime of their careers. It speaks volumes for both Federer and Nadal that they are willing to give up a bit of their off season and risk giving away any edge they may have in their games in an effort to raise money, hope and awareness for those less fortunate.

Miscellany

Two other tidbits worth mentioning occurred over the course of the off season. First, a good-bye to the quirky German Nicolas Kiefer. The former World No. 4 has suffered injury problems with his wrist and has decided to call it a day. With a wife and a new baby daughter, one can hardly blame him. He was a joy to watch, and he will be missed. The second item is an early welcome back to Wayne Odesnik. Odesnik was to have still been serving a suspension for importing HGH into Australia, but the ITF reduced his ban, explaining that there had been “substantial assistance provided by Mr. Odesnik in relation to the enforcement of professional rules of conduct.” It will be interesting to see how he is received as he tries to make his way back on tour.

Ana Ivanovic Splits with Coach – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Abrupt Ending

Few saw this one coming, but following her defeat to Italian Francesca Schiavone on the last day of the round robin competition at the WTA Championships, Elena Dementieva shocked fans with the announcement that she was retiring, effective immediately.  She later cited one of the main reasons behind her decision was the desire to start a family, and while tennis fans undoubtedly understand and wish her the best, the hard-hitting Russian will still be missed.  Arguably the best of her generation to have never won a major, she was a steady presence at the top of the women’s game.  Her serve may have been near the bottom of the barrel, but she could compete with the game’s biggest hitters stroke for stroke and played some of the most exciting matches against the game’s top stars.  So while her value may not be weighted the same as a Williams sister or one of the Belgians, Dementieva’s departure will leave a hole on the WTA Tour.

Nerves of Steel

Trying to win a top tier event like the WTA Championships when competing against the best players in the world is a difficult task in and of itself.  Managing to take the title after enduring a frightening car crash is a near impossible ask.  Yet that is exactly what Kim Clijsters did.  En route to play her semifinal match against Sam Stosur, a truck “came out of nowhere” to hit the car Clijsters was in.  Thankfully, the only person hurt in the accident was Clijsters’ manager Bob Verbeeck, who suffered some minor cuts from all of the shattered glass.  Hats off to Clijsters who quickly found her composure to reach the finals, where she took out the current World No. 1 Caroline Wozniaki in three sets.  After an ordeal like that, a fourth Grand Slam title might prove to be a walk in the park.

The Nightmare Continues

The frequently-injured Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is suffering from knee problems yet again.  After sitting out nearly three months following Wimbledon, Tsonga revealed that he has suffered a tear in the patella tendon while in Montpellier.  While there is a slight silver lining in that the injury is not as serious as the post-Wimbledon setback, he has been forced to heed his doctor’s advice and end his season early, which includes missing the trip to Belgrade as part of the French squad that will face off against Serbia for the Davis Cup title.  Tsonga has done much to get himself into better shape over the course of the past few years, and some players are naturally just more prone to injury.  But these recurring injuries might suggest that Tsonga needs to start searching for more solutions, be they tweaking his workout or perhaps adjusting his style of play.  As one of the most fascinating players on tour to watch, it would be shame to see the curtain fall on his career prematurely due to a multitude of injuries.

Leader of the Pack

The BNP Paribas Open will be leading the way as far as Hawkeye technology is concerned when the event is staged in 2011.  Tournament Director Steve Simon announced on Wednesday that not one, not two, not even three, but that all eight match courts will be equipped with Hawkeye.  This has to be welcomed news to players at all levels of the game, who will always have the option to challenge a call, irrespective of the fact that they may not be on one of the main show courts.  Spectators at the event can also relax at the Stadium Plaza, which will now provide feeds from three show courts, while the Garden Club displays will be providing feeds from two.  Bearing in mind that finances are a potentially large hurdle, hopefully other tournaments will follow suit with the BNP Paribas Open as the situation allows.

Coaching Split

Earlier this week Ana Ivanovic announced that she would be splitting with Steffi Graf’s former coach Heinz Gunthardt, as he is unable to be with her fulltime due to other commitments.  Gundthardt and Ivanovic began their relationship earlier this year, and they enjoyed success in a relatively short amount of time.  Ivanovic cut her ranking woes by more than half by going from 58th to 24th in the world, and she ended a two-year title drought with her win in Linz last month.  Having finally righted the ship and still in her early 20s, it is hard to imagine that there won’t be some high profile coach willing to pick up where Gundthardt left off.

Jim Courier Takes the Reins – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Taking the Reins

A week after Australia named the appointment of Patrick Rafter as its new Davis Cup captain, the United States followed suit. On Wednesday it was announced that Jim Courier would be replacing Patrick McEnroe at the helm of the U.S. team. Courier will have some big shoes to fill, as McEnroe did much to turn around the fortunes of the U.S. Davis Cup squad, which included a title win in 2007. But Courier, a four-time Grand Slam winner, brings plenty of experience to the table, including serving as a member of the 1995 victorious U.S. Davis Cup squad. And, as an added bonus, reports seem to indicate that there’s a slight chance Mr. Courier’s new appointment could entice a healthy Andy Roddick to devote time to Davis Cup duty once again.

Muster Wobbles

Thomas Muster made his comeback debut at the main ATP World Tour level in his native Austria this week, and unfortunately, it didn’t have a fairytale ending. The 43-year-old succumbed to his native countryman Andreas Haider-Maurer in straight sets in the opening round, though it should be noted that the second set ended in a tiebreak. Perhaps Muster is still polishing off some of the rust, but it is a little difficult to see him putting in another two good years as he stated he hopes to do. Still, judging by the crowd’s reaction to his efforts, there’s little doubt that his comeback is still bringing plenty of smiles to fans’ faces.

Comeback Bug

In addition to Muster, the ATP World Tour may see the return of yet another veteran in Australian Mark Philippoussis. After securing two wins on the Champions Series seniors’ tour, the veteran Australian has stated that he has found his hunger once again and is contemplating a return to the main tour level. While there are many fans who would love to see Scud see his plan through, it’s certainly questionable on Philippoussis’ part. It’s not as though this is the first time he’s considered such a comeback, and while those who compete on the Champions Tour are champions in their own right, they are retired from the main tour for a reason. The difference in the caliber of play is wide, and Philippoussis is kidding himself if he thinks success on one tour means it will translate to success on the ATP World Tour. Sadly, one has to wonder if Philippoussis’ considerations for a return don’t stem from the fact that he squandered his talent during his prime by choosing to live the good life instead putting in the time necessary to remain more injury-free and to realize his full potential. But then again, if Muster thinks he can do it in his 40s, there’s at least a glimmer of hope for the Aussie to do it in his 30s.

Consolation Prize

Few would argue that 2010 has been the year of Rafael Nadal. With the No. 1 ranking sewn up, three of the four majors to his name, and achieving the career Grand Slam, it has been his banner year. But Roger Federer, despite the subpar results by his high standards, has still managed to achieve yet another milestone, as he tied Sampras’ record of 64 singles titles with is win in Stockholm last week. At this stage in the game, Connors’ 109 still seems untouchable and McEnroe’s 77 a doable but lofty goal, but look for Federer to add to his total and use this mini-milestone as a springboard to better things in 2011.

Gossip Fill

In case you missed your daily dose of gossip, it’s worth noting a story that broke late last week followed by one earlier this week. The first concerns the engagement of Maria Sharapova to LA Laker Sasha Vujacic. More than once Sharapova has commented that she couldn’t see herself playing till she was 30, and if her results don’t drastically improve in 2011, don’t be entirely surprised if she hangs up the racquet and decides to permanently soak up the California sun. Then there’s Lleyton Hewitt, who became a father for the third time as he and wife Bec welcomed a baby girl last weekend. The whole charging for texts to find out the baby girl’s name is a little odd (and someone please let me know if that goes to some kind of charity), but congratulations are in order for the Hewitt’s. Don’t look for a third child to have a negative impact on Hewitt’s game either. It’s his body he’ll need to worry about.