Miami

Absent From Indian Wells and Miami, Rafael Nadal Targets Clay-Court Season

Much to his disappointment, Rafael Nadal will miss out on the Indian Wells and Miami Open tournaments due to injury. Nadal made the announcement on Friday, March 2nd, the day after he withdrew from his first match in the Mexican Open. After suffering an injury pre-match at Acapulco, Nadal said that he needed more time to recover. He will take a month off, missing at least two major tournaments. Apparently, the injury is in the same area as a previous injury that Nadal picked up at the Australian Open last year.

“The injury I suffered in Acapulco before starting the tournament is the same area as the one suffered in Melbourne,” said Nadal.

Nadal was leading by two sets to one against Cilic at the Australian Open in Melbourne. At the end of the third set, he fist-pumped the air and cried out in joy as he took the lead. Yet Nadal struggled to keep pace in the fourth set and went down 4-1 before calling a medical timeout and receiving treatment on the court. Defeated, Nadal retired in the final set, leaving the crowd wondering what had become of the then world number one.

The following day, Nadal’s team made an announcement that the tennis legend had a serious injury. An MRI scan showed a grade 1 strained iliopsoas, a muscle of the inner hip. Nadal missed the Davis Cup but was expected to make a triumphant return at the Mexican Open on February 24th. Though Nadal did make the trip to Mexico, he withdrew before his first match. Tennis may require the wits of poker, but it also requires a top physical form, and Rafael was not up to the job.

The Mexican Open was the 8th straight tournament that Rafael Nadal has pulled out. Last month, he lost out on his number one ranking to Roger Federer, who went ahead to win more matches and titles. Federer now sits ahead as the world number one, just 600 points ahead of Nadal. He will need to make the semifinals in the Indian Wells to maintain his lead.

Due to the hip injury at the Mexican Open, which seems related to his original injury at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal will also miss the Indian Wells, which is now in progress, as well as the Miami Open. Both are hard-court Masters 1000 events, the highest tier below Grand Slams.

“I won’t be able to play in Miami or Indian Wells as I need to recover,” said the world number two.

Last year, Nadal lost out to Roger Federer in the fourth round at Indian Wells, and again to Federer in the final of the Miami Open. As it stands, there will be no highly anticipated rematches at this year’s events. Federer has expressed disappointment that Nadal won’t make the tournaments.

“Rafael Nadal deserves this place, he had an amazing season. I am disappointed that he is injured and that he is not here for the tournament,” said Federer at the Indian Wells.

The pair has played each other 34 times since 2004. Nadal was the winner in 23 of those meetings, though Federer has more Grand Slam titles and now holds the number one spot, at least until Nadal comes back from injury.

The Indian Wells started on Monday, March 5th. Federer won his rain-delayed first round while Novak Djokovic took an unexpected early exit. The Miami Open, however, starts on March 19th.

Nadal’s injuries and problems are a growing concern for fans and tennis experts. He suffered the same injury at the Mexican Open as he did at the Australian Open. Last time, Nadal received anti-inflammatory treatment and physiotherapy for the injury, and so it is assumed he will be undergoing similar treatment this time alongside a game or two of poker from what we hear.

Although much of Nadal’s focus will be on recovery right now, he is likely upset that the injury has slowed down his season already. After such a solid performance last year, Nadal would have wanted to carry on his form early this year. Aside from rest and physiotherapy, Nadal is known to be an avid poker player and has previously enjoyed games of poker at the Indian Wells as well as the usual tennis tournaments. He is also a known Texas Hold ‘Em player who is said to have an aggressive style.

Although no confirmation has been made as to when Rafael Nadal will be back in action, he is now preparing for the clay-court season, which begins in April. The Monte-Carlo Masters on April 14th may be the first tournament that we see Rafael back in action. Usually, this is the first date on his calendar for clay matches.

Nadal has also confirmed that he will be playing at the Queens pre-Wimbledon tournament, which he won 10 years ago in 2008 — one of Nadal’s best years to date, as he also won Wimbledon as well as the French Open. Unfortunately, the chances of seeing Nadal at the Miami Open are about as slim as the world ending via a solar flare, which according to the 888 Poker infographic is pretty much impossible.

As Rafael Nadal’s career progresses, the 31-year old, who has an impressive 16 Grand Slam titles to his name, may have to pick his tournaments more carefully and play fewer games to stay strong and win the competitions that he does play in. It’s an approach taken by rival Roger Federer, who now enjoys a lighter season. Nadal suffered a minor wrist injury in 2016, but this hip injury appears to be a recurring concern.

Many tennis stars of Nadal’s generation are starting to show signs of strain. Thirty-year-old Andy Murray had hip surgery earlier in the year, Djokovic has been affected by recent injuries and Stan Wawrinka will also miss the Indian Wells and Miami Open. Still, Nadal is one of the top tennis players in the world. Only last year, he won the French Open without losing a set! He should be able to take the top spot again when he gets back into his stride. Either that or he’ll have to find an alternative career as a poker player! I wonder if he’s any good at Omaha Hi-Lo.

John Isner, James Blake, Stevie Johnson, Michael Russell Among Partners In New Gluten-Free Energy Bar “ArrowBar”

Top American tennis stars John Isner and Stevie Johnson, as well as former ATP Pros James Blake and Michael Russell, are among the partners in a newly-launched gluten free energy bar called “ArrowBar.”

The ArrowBar is a new gluten-free, all-natural, high performance energy bar, developed by athletes for athletes and active people, that provides a filling, 200-calorie boost of quick and long-lasting energy. The ArrowBar is now offered in two flavors – Chocolate Chip and Cinnamon Honey Oat – and are available for purchase online at www.ArrowBar.com. Bars are available in boxes of 12 for $20.99.

Isner and Johnson are eating the ArrowBar while training and competing at Wimbledon this week. Isner is the top-ranked American player on the ATP World Tour, a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team since 2010, a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and a Top 20 player since 2010. Johnson was a member of the 2015 U.S. Davis Cup team, a two-time NCAA singles champion and is expected to be nominated for the U.S. Olympic Team that will compete in Rio this summer.

“Many people know me as a pro tennis player but most don’t know that I am an avid golfer, basketball player and fisherman who loves to be active,” said Isner. “No matter what my days calls for, there’s one thing I always lean on to keep my energy level high – ArrowBar. I truly believe that anyone who is active and cares about what they put in their body will love the long lasting energy and great taste of ArrowBars.”

“The ArrowBar gives me the nutrients I need without comprising taste,” said Johnson. “There’s nothing better on the market than ArrowBar. When I am looking for the competitive edge I need, there is only one thing I reach for.”

Blake and Russell, who combined to play 31 years on the ATP World Tour, were instrumental in the initial creation of the bar. Russell, who played on the ATP World Tour until age 37, was known for his fitness and diet and personally provided consultation about the nutritional composition of the product, testing the bars in practice and competition at the end of his ATP career. Blake, the former U.S. Davis Cup star and former world No. 4, was also involved in the early testing of ArrowBar, also using the product while training and competing in the New York City Marathon in 2015.

“ArrowBar is the only nutrition bar designed for athletes by athletes – it tastes great, has all natural ingredients and is easy to digest, since it is Gluten-free,” said Russell, who said he tried every nutrition bar imaginable during his 17-year professional tennis career. “Whether I am deep in the fifth set, crushing a gym workout, or just looking for a nutritious, great tasting snack, ArrowBar provides the energy and nutrients my body needs.”

Said Blake, “I wish the ArrowBar had been developed sooner because I trust the process with which it is made. The ingredients are natural and beneficial to any athlete or anyone looking for nutrients to help get them through the day. It helps me still when I work out, play tennis, play golf, or just run around with my kids. It’s not a bar that I feel like I’m forcing down either. The taste makes it so easy to eat the bars on a daily basis.”
The ArrowBar name comes from founding partner Mark Arrowsmith, a former University of Miami tennis player who is now the Director of Tennis at the Eagle Landing Country Club in Orange Park, Florida just outside of Jacksonville where he also runs an annual $10,000 USTA Pro Circuit men’s Futures-level professional tennis tournament. Arrowsmith and two other University of Miami varsity athletes – tennis player Andrew Golub and baseball player Rob Goldberg – are the founding partners of the company. Golub was a four-year varsity tennis player for the Hurricanes – and voted captain of the team on two occasions – and now runs Golub Tennis, one of the most successful tennis academies in Florida, helping more than 120 players earn college scholarships. Goldberg, a varsity baseball player at Miami received both his Bachelor’s Degree and Law Degree in Coral Gables. He has worked in numerous projects in commercial real estate and advertising.

Said Arrowsmith, “As a former player and coach, I was always aware of the lack of options for athletes who wanted long lasting energy without chalky aftertastes or having to choke down something that didn’t taste good. While playing college tennis our options were very limited, and it seemed like the options hadn’t improved much since. That is why we set out to create an energy bar that simply does what it says; provide sustained energy while tasting great. I believe that anyone who demands results from their active lifestyle will love ArrowBars.

Said Golub, “From playing at a high collegiate level myself to talking to high level professional tennis players, I knew there was a need for a clean energy source during competition. The goal was to create a product that was easy to eat, that wouldn’t fall apart or melt in your bag and that wouldn’t be tough to digest and sticky on your hands. We accomplished all of those things with ArrowBar and kept the label extremely clean. As a team, we are all very proud to bring this bar to the market and we know this is a need for all active people”

Said Goldberg, “While I do not play competitive sports any longer, my health and staying active are both very important to me. I had always felt that I did not have a good option when it came to the nutrition bars on the market, whether it be prior to a workout or to just get through a long night at the office. When my friends told me five years ago that they noticed the same problem with the people they coach we all agreed that there must be a way to provide a better option, and with that ArrowBar was born. It has been a long road, but it is because we did not want to go to the public with anything less than what we believe to be the best that we can provide. We are very happy with the product that we have created and we know that everyone else will be as well. We couldn’t be happier to launch ArrowBar to the world.”

ArrowBars

Challenge Accepted: My Workout with Vera Zvonareva

The morning after Wimbledon’s now-infamous “Black Wednesday” was a hazy time for most; fans and pundits were trying to come out from beneath the rubble left by the shocking number of upsets.

It is often said that exercise can help clear the mind and aid in decision-making. However, burning calories (as well as one’s own sense of dignity) with former World No. 2 and two-time Grand Slam finalist Vera Zvonareva did little to restore normalcy to an already-crazy week.

In a partnership with Fila, Zvonareva hosted a racquet sports oriented fitness class with Miami-based trainer Greg Corso in Manhattan, at the Upper East Side’s Sports Club LA. For the former Olympic Bronze medalist (and the group of reporters participating), the forty-five minute class was only a taste of the Russian’s off-court conditioning routine as she works towards a comeback from a shoulder injury.

“During the off-season, we train…probably four hours on the tennis court and at least two-three hours off the court,” Zvonareva remarked in a Q&A session following the class.

The course, held on the Sport Club’s roof, emphasized the importance of the full-body workout required by a professional athlete throughout the year. While most of the exercises were aerobic in nature, Corso and Zvonareva also made use of resistance bands and free-weights as heavy as ten pounds that morphed the burn into a small fire felt by the admittedly unprepared press core.

“To prevent [injuries], we do a full-body workout, but with lighter weights, with [exercise] bands just to keep ourselves conditioned.”

The workout was conceived with the help of videos taken during Zvonareva’s actual workouts with her coach, which adds a stamp of authenticity most fitness classes cannot boast.

“My job was to figure out how to adapt [those sessions] into a group exercise setting, with a big crowd and a limited space,” said Corso, who looked to the resistance bands (strapped to the ankles) as the key to making the class work for racquet-sport athletes who require practice with lateral movement.

Zvonareva agreed. “Using the bands helps a lot, because then you can do two steps, right/left, and you’re getting that movement that you want…you don’t need to run across the whole tennis court!”

The class required constant movement under the Manhattan sun, an essential feature for the athlete who will need to draw on that stamina over the course of a long tennis match.

“The thing about tennis is that you always have to give 100% every point, and it is very difficult because even if you’re tired, you still have to play the point at the professional level…you lose a couple of points, you lose your serve, you lose the game, it can cost you the whole match…[During this class], you have that hour but you have to keep pushing yourself.”

For the exhausted students, Zvonareva reminded us that it wasn’t always as effortless as she made the workout appear. On the exercise called the “Burpee,” she recalled, “I remember when I was 12 years old, my coach would do something like this and we were all dying…as soon as he turns away we’re like ‘stop it!’ It’s a very difficult one, but it helps a lot.”

The former Russian No. 1 has been off the court for nearly a year, last playing at the London Olympics. After getting surgery on her shoulder in February, she returned to school, and received a degree in International Economic Relations. She flew into New York the next day to conduct the class. Though looking in phenomenal shape, she admitted it was difficult to balance fitness with studying.

“I was studying so much that I had no energy to do fitness, it was so difficult for me…I was doing some, but not every day because once you start reading you keep going and going and it’s midnight already…when I’m playing tennis five hours a day, I still have energy to go and do fitness, but studying…it was so difficult!”

Keeping up with the Tour has been difficult for the college graduate, but she tries to keep in touch with friends like Elena Vesnina. For those wondering about that comeback, Zvonareva left the media in no suspense.

“I’m heading to Arizona, that’s where I will start my training. I’m meeting with my physiotherapist there and hopefully he will give me a green light to start training. I don’t know how long it will take but maybe three-four months before I can start playing at 100%.”

Zvonareva was a gracious host and encouraging teacher to her tired and, later, very sore students. The experience was a tremendous insight into the mind and work ethic of one of most disciplined and well-conditioned players on the WTA Tour, illustrating the key difference between “player” and “professional.”

In Appreciation of Tommy Haas

By James A. Crabtree

What thirty five year old Tommy Haas has done this year is just absurd. The guy is not just old; he is pretty much prehistoric.

Tommy turned professional in 1996 and lost his first grand slam match to Michael Stich at the U.S. Open that year. That was the same year Renée Zellweger said “You had me at hello” to Jerry Maguire, everyone danced ‘the Macarena’ and approximately 45 million people were using the Internet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiBYM6g8Tck

Some of the big and very much now retired players young Tommy beat in the years following were Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 1997, Marcelo Rios in 1998, Tim Henman and Andre Agassi in 1999, Pete Sampras in 2000 and Andy Roddick in 2002.

Yet Tommy is still swinging. Better, stronger and faster. In many ways he makes a mockery of the suggestion that the modern player is a much better player/athlete/tactician. He still plays very much the same game he always has. The groundstrokes are still crisp and aggressive, he isn’t afraid of the net and he will likely still have a slight emotional meltdown during the match.

Many a professional athlete has tried a comeback from the usual ailments that affects us all over time, but few have shown the resolve to not only to make it back, but stay back and truly return to a respectable level.

Haas has come back from various injuries for the joy of playing in front of his young daughter. His determination to continue playing shows there is a fire inside that is still burning. It is obvious that Tommy has an increased duty to physical fitness, as he is known to practice hard but also put in the work before and after practice. It would not be unreasonable to believe that Tommy Haas is indeed the result of military intervention courtesy of the Office of Scientific Intelligence and is the new 6 million dollar man (that’s 31 million adjusted to todays money).

2013 has seen him register wins over Alexandr Dolgopolov, Gilles Simon, John Isner and a certain Mr Novak Djokovic. All while wearing the sort of awful translucent fashion statements and lame black socks that you expect your dad to wear in attempt to embarrass. Indeed, Tommy is still human and a dad, so some things should be expected.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrVUGc0b5wo

The German who is as much an American now is the quintessential nearly man, one of the best to have knocked on the door of grand slam contention having reached 3 Australian Open semi-finals and 1 Wimbledon semi-final. Obviously he still believes he can add his name to the history books having climbed to his current ranking of 14 after an all time high of 2 back in 2002. Not a bad comeback after dropping out of the rankings in 2010.

Tommy does have a long list to be encouraged by such as Andre Agassi, who held the number won spot aged thirty three and Ken Rosewell who won the 1972 Australian Open aged thirty seven. Fabrice Santoro played twenty one years on tour, Jimmy Connors competed in his final ATP match in 1996 at the age of forty three and Pancho Gonzalez sustained his mission until the age of forty six.

Tommy will surely join this list at some time. But for now Tommy is no Haas been.

Hardcourt Retrospective (ATP)

As the ATP tour descends with wrathful inevitability upon the clay of southern Europe and elsewhere – indeed the WTA has already made the switch – the time seems appropriate to look back at the prolonged hardcourt season just ended, the one that began in Atlanta last July, and concluded just a few days ago in Miami.

It is a useful way to view the tennis season: as a near-perpetual hardcourt marathon punctuated by those brief fevered months on the traditional courts of the Old World, with the year-end break merely the longest of several afforded to worn players. A wider perspective is always a useful thing to maintain, provided one can resist the persuasive distortions of the panorama.

This period incorporates the US Summer, the Asian swing, the European indoors, Australia, and the disparate events in February that culminate in the US Spring Masters, and therefore includes two Majors, six Masters 1000, the World Tour Finals, and a multitude of 250 and 500 events.†

Table 1. Hardcourt Leaders

This shows the hardcourt season leaders, including their number of points, titles, and win/loss.

It surely comes as a surprise to no one that Djokovic tops this list, across all three categories, or, presumably, that Murray sits in clear second place. After all, between them they won both Majors, and three of the six Masters events. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Ferrer numerically out-performed Federer, at the Majors, the Masters and at 500 and 250 level. It’s interesting to note that Berdych accrued more points than del Potro, despite having a worse winning percentage and winning fewer titles. However, the Czech did play more matches than anyone else in this period.

Table 2. Points Gain

This table shows which players gained the most points. It will consequently favour the top players heavily.

How about that? Gasquet has gained the most hardcourt points since last July. His biggest hauls came in Montreal, Miami, and three 250 level titles in Montpellier, Doha and Bangkok. It’s more proof that he’s headed in the right direction. I am hopeful that this trend will continue for a while yet. These numbers merely add more wonder to the late career resurgence of Haas. Ferrer, meanwhile, feasted on his elevated seeding to gain excellent results in Paris, New York, Melbourne and Miami.‡

Del Potro made a substantial gain despite a dismal Australian Open loss, and he has gradually returned to an appropriate spot in the rankings. Djokovic gained points despite failing to defend titles at the US Open and Miami, mainly because he picked up titles in Shanghai and at the Tour Finals.

Table 3. Points Loss

This table shows which players lost the most points. Once again, top players are inevitably featured.

It’s hardly surprising that Nadal tops this list, given that he contested only one hardcourt tournament in this period (Indian Wells), though he did win it.Ψ Federer, on the other hand, has fallen away sharply, as the fistful of titles he claimed in 2011/12 to regain the No.1 spot have gone sadly undefended. Seeing these two atop this list does rather support the idea that we’ve seen the last of the ‘Fedal’ era, for better or for worse.

Tsonga is a worrying case, since there isn’t much evidence that his poor form is due to pick up. He still has tremendous weeks, such as Marseilles, but he also has too many stinkers. Fish’s health issues have been amply discussed, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to the top ten. Monfils has also suffered a dispiriting run of injuries (he’s prone to it, of course), and has tumbled outside the top hundred. It’s worth mentioning that John Isner sits just off this list at No.6. Like Tsonga, but more so, it’s hard to find much hope that his current slide has bottomed out.

Table 4. Rankings Gain

This table shows who made the biggest rankings leap into the top 100 since last July.

This reveals a mixture of seasoned professionals returning – Blake, Robredo – and youngsters on the make. De Bakker and Berankis were ranked unusually low, due to injury, and it’s good to see them reascend to a level more commensurate with their abilities, although I’d hazard that the Lithuanian is more likely to keep climbing much higher. I cannot see de Bakker breaking into the top 50, but a ranking around 70-90 seems not unreasonable. The same could be said of Donskoy. I suspect he’s ranked right at the limits of his current ability. His numbers attest to hard toil at the challenger level, and a nice run to the third round in Melbourne.

Table 5. Top 100 Entries

I include this list, and the one that follows, purely for the sake of curiosity. They show entry into and exit out of the top 100. Given the relatively modest number of points shared between these players, these figures are undeniably skewed by clay results in South America and elsewhere. Zeballos is a perfect example of this.

As with the previous list, as well as a few (too few) youngsters, there is a healthy number of veterans making late-career stands: Robredo, Blake, Hewitt, Tursunov, Mathieu, Becker.

Everyone was on Rosol’s case when he didn’t follow up on his upset of Nadal at Wimbledon with more astounding feats. But it should be noted that he has risen some 44 places, which is a pretty good effort (there are a couple of clay results mixed in there). It wasn’t all roses, though: he did get bagelled by Paolo Lorenzi.

Zemlja is also a pretty interesting case, leading the current Slovenian charge in men’s tennis, along with Bedene and Blaz Kavcic. His standouts were the run through qualifying to the third round of the US Open, and through qualifying to the Vienna final, defeating Haas and Tipsarevic en route.

The average age of these 22 players, incidentally, is 26.59 years. Make of that what you will.

Table 6. Top 100 Exits

Roddick, Ferrero and Chela have of course retired, and so their departures from the top 100 hardly merit further discussion. Excluding those three, the average age of the departed is 28.32 years. This number is dragged down slightly by the 26-year-old Monfils, who tops this list courtesy of a run of injuries, owing to bad luck and a playing style tailored perfectly towards crippling oneself. Assuming he can regain his health – never a safe assumption – he’ll be back in the top 20 before too long. Perhaps.

There is certainly a decent number of tour veterans who one suspects the race is overtaking: Karlovic, Phau, Andreev, Volandri, Mahut and RamirezHidalgo. I hesitate to include Nalbandian on this list, but doing so has become increasingly hard to justify. His low ranking and poor results still somehow feel like a mistake that will one day be rectified, even though I know deep down it won’t be. Hope springs eternal, though Nalbandian clearly doesn’t.

Ebden, Stebe, Bogomolov and Young are excellent examples of that rankings quirk around this level, wherein one or two strong results will buy a journeyman twelve months in the big time, but no longer. Once that year is up, they inevitably subside. My apologies to those readers still hoping for big thing from Young, but I cannot see it happening. Of course, a return to the top hundred isn’t out of the question for any of these guys, but it will always feel like borrowed time.

† This period also of course includes the Golden Swing in South America. Where this has affected the figures I have made a note of it.

‡ Ferrer’s current points total includes 550 points from the Golden Swing.

Ψ Nadal’s current points total includes 750 points from the Golden Swing.

All On The Surface: What’s Happened To Miami?

From my current vantage in Melbourne – which is either an ocean and a continent away or fifteen hours in the future, depending on the direction – the Sony Open Tennis in Miami has lost some of its erstwhile burnish. There was a time when it was, if not necessarily the most polished of the non-Slam events, certainly the biggest. It was a shining highlight on both the men’s and women’s tours. Now though, its lustre has dulled. Attendance figures are down, which is borne out visually by the dollops of empty seats dotting the strangely canted Stadium.

Even the players don’t seem that into it. It isn’t merely that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal skipped the men’s tournament, or that Victoria Azarenka pulled out of the women’s. There have been retirements galore at all levels – something like 13,050 at last count – of a volume that one associates with warm-up events staged the week before a Major. We expect players to pull out peremptorily for niggles when they have a more important event coming up, but that’s not the case in Miami. It’s supposed to be an end in itself, but people are pulling out with sore throats. Sergiy Stakhovsky quipped on Twitter that if Crandon Park began its renovations now the players would have an excuse to skip it next year. Jonas Bjorkman responded that the venue hasn’t seen an upgrade in 19 years, and that the revenues aren’t being reinvested into the event, or words to that effect.

As has been widely reported, Paul McNamee last week suggested that Miami should consider switching to clay, which sparked some debate. McNamee’s suggestion spoke directly to the specific issue of the tournament’s hardcourt surface, which has grown painfully slow in recent years, but also more generally to the tournament’s ongoing relevance to both respective tours. It’s well worth a read.

I’m not convinced that ‘relevance’ is a quality to which any tennis tournament should necessarily aspire, or be judged by. But it is a quality that Miami itself aims for: what are the tedious proclamations of its status as the unofficial ‘Fifth Slam’, iterated endlessly, if not a grasping towards relevance? If nothing else, we’re invited to judge. There was a time when it might have felt like a Fifth Slam, but they’ve now passed. Stakhovsky said that, too.

A move to clay would reposition Miami at the beginning of the mostly European clay swing. The current drive on both tours is to consolidate the many disparate events into coherent ‘swings’ (though this is a term I dislike). Thus the lead up to the US Open rebranded as the ‘US Open Summer Series’. The lead up to the French Open is called the ‘Road to Roland Garros’. The ATP has been more determined in this than the WTA: even September’s three week Asian swing has a clear shape, as it escalates from a pair of 250 level events (Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur), though a pair of 500s (Tokyo and Beijing), culminating in the Shanghai Masters. In a similar spirit, the two combined US Spring events are intended to complete the February hardcourt events staged throughout North America  and elsewhere.

As much as we (rightly) ridicule the idiotic bickering between Indian Wells and Miami as to which constitutes the ‘Fifth Slam’, there are reasons why the debate persists, and real ramifications for the winner and loser. As I say, back in the 1980s and 1990s Miami was the official unofficial fifth Slam; in the glory days of the Lipton International, players would themselves use the term. Indian Wells in those days still felt very much like an entrée to the main course. In fact it had a 64-strong draw in those years, and had yet to match Miami’s extravagant generosity towards the Bye family (the move to a ridiculous 96-draw came in 2004).

Two factors have significantly diminished Miami’s cachet. Firstly, there is the severe reduction of the number of American February events, which has been gone over exhaustively, and shows no sign of being reversed. Indeed, the WTA this year only staged one modest event in North America before Indian Wells (Memphis). Any culmination feels lessened when no one cares about the build-up. Secondly, Indian Wells has now overtaken Miami in terms of sheer interest and excitement. Beyond the issue of prize money and an expanding facility in Southern California, it feels – I realise I’m being subjective here – as though the players can’t wait to get to Indian Wells, yet are keen to skip Miami given half a chance. (Serena Williams is of course the exception here, and I don’t mean to downplay the value she represents for  the US market in particular.) Indian Wells is now such a spectacle that replicating the excitement would be difficult for Miami, even if it was possible, or desirable. I don’t think this part of the season can sustain back-to-back week-and-a-half mini-Majors. Consequently, Key Biscayne has started to feel like a hangover. There are even fewer celebrities in attendance. Kevin Spacey is nowhere to be seen.

Nor has Miami helped its own cause with the surface. The Miami hardcourt is among the slowest on the tours (perhaps only Valencia is its equal on the ATP tour).  This is a quality that is only enhanced by the dense swampy atmosphere. Indian Wells has a fairly slow court as well, but this is offset by thin desert air. Miami’s courts are notoriously difficult to penetrate, and grant a fairly decisive edge to defensive players (which of course is not to say that attacking players cannot do well). Indeed the joke that Miami doesn’t need to move to clay since it already has, is one worth making. I can’t recall that I’ve ever heard a single player praise the Miami surface.

Converting Miami to clay might even help US tennis. Dirt has for some time been the weakest surface for American players. Indeed, José Higueras has pointed out for some time that the lack of clay courts in the States has contributed significantly to the nation falling away on all surfaces, believing that early development on clay provides a much better foundation, in terms of stroke production and footwork, but also through patience and the capacity to structure a rally. Having an important clay court event right near many of the United States top training facilities would certainly help. As McNamee says in his article, Florida already has the highest concentration of clay (Har-Tru) courts in the States. Given that the Orange Bowl is also staged there –the official Fifth Junior Slam – this would directly incentivice clay for the youngsters.

But switching to clay wouldn’t solve the issue of identity, or relevance, or answer the increasingly vexed question of why there are two big joint events in March at all. Running back-to-back events only makes sense when there’s a Major to follow; the sheer size of the Major seems to subsume the discrepancies among putatively similar lead-up events. I disagree with McNamee that it would function as ‘the grand opening of the major clay court season’. It would be far too far out from the French Open to constitute a meaningful warm-up. Indeed, even Monte Carlo’s value is questionable in this respect. It seems to be a structural requirement that these ‘swings’ start small, and gather steam as they go. I also don’t think the ATP tour needs a fourth Masters on clay, although it desperately needs one on grass.

If I was a dictator – as we all pray I one day will be – or at least granted executive powers in the matter of tennis scheduling, I wouldn’t convert Miami to clay. Until I could figure out a way to move it to Europe and play it on grass, I think the easiest solution would be to switch Miami and Indian Wells, since the current disparity between them is only going to grow as long as Larry Ellison has his way, or more accurately his wealth and energy. You might as well play the biggest one second. I’d also ban any more talk of ‘Fifth Slams’. Perhaps these measures would free Miami up to be whatever it wants to be. If players still skip it, or indulge in perfunctory retirements, it won’t seem so crippling.

I’d also speed up the courts. It’s getting painful to watch.

Bartoli Ends Azarenka’s Win Streak

With the result of the match no longer in question, tears began forming in Victoria Azarenka’s eyes. There would be no magic escape from defeat this time around.

Marion Bartoli, ranked a career-high No. 7, beat world No. 1 Azarenka 6-3, 6-3 in a convincing fashion to end the Belarussian’s 26-match win streak. The 27-year-old Frenchwoman kept Azarenka on her heels all night and won six out of 10 break points. As the match wore on, it was evident that the 22-year-old Azarenka was running out of steam. She finished the match with 16 winners to Bartoli’s 27.

“I honestly never seen her play that well,” said Azarenka, who owns an 8-3 head-to-head edge over Bartoli. “But, I mean, all the credit to her. She did an amazing job today.”

Bartoli will play fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska next in the Sony Ericsson Open semifinals. She is through to the final four in Miami for the second time (2010) and is aiming for her first final at the WTA Premier Mandatory event.

“I think the main key for me was the belief and really to step up on the court trying to win the match,” said Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up. “Not only thinking about how well she’s playing and everything, but really go on the court, having a game plan and try to go for my shots.”

Azarenka has been the dominant player on the WTA Tour this year. She has won four titles, including her first Grand Slam – the Australian Open – to become the top ranked player in the world. But in the quarterfinals against Dominika Cibulkova in Miami, Azarenka was forced to dig deep and fought back to emerge with a 1-6, 7-6, 7-5 victory, keeping her 2012 win streak alive. It was the longest win streak to start a year since Steffi Graf began the 1990 season with 25 wins. Five-time Grand Slam winner Martina Hingis holds the record for the longest season opening streak at 37 wins.

“What I’ve done in the last couple of months, I have to be really proud of myself,” said Azarenka. “For sure, you know, I could have maybe played better today, that’s for sure, but I gave it all I had. Physically I was just not able to do anything today. It was just not possible. You know, I’m a human, not a super woman, and I wish I could be but I’m not (smiling).”

While Azarenka will get some time to rest, Bartoli will be getting ready for Radwanska, a player she has not defeated in six tries.

“I know the stats (smiling),” said Bartoli. “But I think a first is always to happen, so maybe it’s going to be my first tomorrow. But I know it’s not going to be easy. That’s for sure. I know I will have to run a lot, a lot more forward, because I know she’s going to make a lot of dropshots. I’m going to be ready.”

Wozniak Shows Winning Attitude in Loss to Venus at Miami

Aleksandra Wozniak played Venus Williams tough in Miami

Aleksandra Wozniak was a forehand away from scoring one of the biggest wins of her career in the third round of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida. The 24-year-old Canadian held match point against seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, but couldn’t close the deal, falling 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(5)in a two-hour, 53 minute match that had more ups and downs than a roller coaster.

Wozniak showed flashes of her Top 20 form from two years ago against the inspirational Williams who is playing her first tournament since being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome at last year’s U.S. Open. After getting through her first two matches, Williams appeared sluggish and Wozniak took full advantage, playing deep, penetrating shots to keep her opponent on her heels.

Still, every time it looked like Wozniak was going to knock out the tournament sentimental favourite, either nerves or Williams’ champion’s mentality got her in the way. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, Wozniak survived two wild double faults to earn a match point which she wasted by putting a sitting forehand into the net. The Canadian didn’t go away though as she rebounded to force a third set tiebreak which, like the rest of the match, went back and forth until Williams converted her second match point with a service winner. Despite the pain of the circumstances, Wozniak showed a lot of class staying to sign autographs on court after shaking hands and chose to focus on the positives in her post-match comments.

“It would have been a big victory for me. It hurts and it is disappointing, but the important thing is that I’m healthy and progressing,” Wozniak said. “One thing is for sure, I am going to keep fighting.”

Wozniak is no stranger to coming up short in tight matches against top players. In 2010 she lost a pair of matches 6-4 in the third to Elena Dementieva at Roland-Garros and Jelena Jankovic at Wimbledon. A few weeks ago in Dubai she lost 7-5 in the third to Agnieszka Radwanska. While all of the attention has been about the Williams comeback, Wozniak is also climbing the ranks again following a series of personal and physical setbacks that kept her off the court for significant chunks of time over the past two seasons. She won her maiden WTA title four years ago at Stanford, defeating Samantha Stosur, Serena Williams and Marion Bartoli en route. Wozniak reached a career-high ranking of no. 21 in June of 2009 and Williams was the first to acknowledge that a formidable player was across the net from her on Centre Court in Key Biscayne.

“It was tough out there. It was made even tougher because she played well, Williams said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her play as well as she did. She was close to the Top 20, so she has that tennis in her. I have to give her a lot of credit.”

With her third round performance in Miami, Wozniak will move close to Top 60 on the WTA rankings after a fruitful March that also saw her win the Nassau Challenger in the Bahamas. She is once again the top-ranked Canadian and is making a strong push towards her season goal of representing Canada at the Olympics in London. With her free-flowing all around game and genuine personality, Wozniak will come through in her fair share matches in 2012, and win over a lot of new fans in the process.

Welcome Back Alisa Kleybanova

There is great news in the tennis world.

The WTA announced on it’s website that former top-20 player Alisa Kleybanova, who has been battling cancer, has resumed her training and will play in the Sony Ericson Open main draw as a wildcard. The tournament, located in Miami, begins on March 19th.

The 22-year-old Russian announced she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last July and has been undergoing successful treatments that finished in December. In her personal statement posted by the WTA, Kleybanova states that her doctors “are happy with [her] health” and that she is “feeling great!”

Read the full statement below:

Hi to all my friends and fans!

It has been a long time since my last message… and now I really want to get back in touch with you and share all the great things and emotions I have!

I finished my treatments in December and a couple of weeks ago I did my last tests in Italy. The treatments were successful, my doctors are happy with my health and I’m feeling great!

I would like to thank the Hospital Gemelli in Rome (Prof. Giuseppe Leone, Dott. Stefan Hohaus and their Team), and the Hospital Silvestrini in Perugia (Prof. Brunangelo Falini, Dott. Flavio Falcinelli and their Team). From the bottom of my heart I want to thank my coach Iulian Vespan, my boyfriend Giacomo, my family and my close friends that were next to me all this time. I will never forget it…

I have started to train and right now I’m in Florida playing tennis again!!! It was physically really hard in the beginning, but it was so emotional that I didn’t want to get off the court 🙂 This is just amazing, I’m working out every day now and enjoying it so much more than before!

More than anything, I’ve missed the competition. For me tennis is not just going on the court and hitting the ball – it’s testing yourself, seeing how good you are, trying new things, trying to improve, trying to win… For me the best part of tennis is the competition and I’m really looking forward to my comeback!

By the way, I just got confirmed my main draw wildcard into the Miami tournament, so I will see you guys really soon!!!

I don’t think I have ever been more excited :)))

Alisa

Kleybanova has won two WTA Tour titles, at Kuala Lumpur in 2010 and in Seoul in 2008, and was ranked a career-high No. 20 in the world almost exactly a year ago. With her powerful build and groundstrokes, Kleybanova also reached the fourth round at a Grand Slam twice, at the 2008 Wimbledon and 2009 Australian Open.

Kleybanova’s current ranking is No. 167, but she can use injury protected ranking as she returns to the competition she loves. Hopefully this is just the beginning of her success story.

From all of us tennis fans, welcome back Alisa.

(Photos by Getty Images.)

Gasquet Cleared, Party Kiss Transferred Cocaine

LONDON (AP) — Richard Gasquet escaped a lengthy doping ban Wednesday when the International Tennis Federation ruled that he inadvertently took cocaine.
The 23-year-old Frenchman, who was cleared to resume playing after completing a 2 1/2-month ban Wednesday, convinced an independent anti-doping tribunal that he ingested cocaine by kissing a woman he met at a nightclub in Miami.
The tribunal panel of three lawyers said Gasquet consumed no more than “a grain of salt” of the drug, and a long ban would be an injustice in a case which was “unusual to the point of being probably unique.”
“We have found the player to be a person who is shy and reserved, honest and truthful, and a man of integrity and good character,” the tribunal said in its ruling.
The ITF, which had sought a two-year ban under the terms of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code, was told to impose a retroactive ban of two months, 15 days. The ban ended Wednesday morning, clearing 32nd-ranked Gasquet to resume playing.
Gasquet tested positive in a urine sample in March after he pulled out of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Florida, with a shoulder injury.
After deciding to withdraw from the tournament he went to a nightclub with friends to see a French DJ perform at a Miami dance music festival, which the tribunal noted was “notoriously associated with use of illegal recreational drugs including cocaine.”
Gasquet told the tribunal hearing held in London last month that he kissed a woman, identified in the ruling only as “Pamela.”
The tribunal said it was likely she had consumed cocaine during the night, though it had no direct evidence.
Gasquet was “on the balance of probability, contaminated with cocaine by Pamela” and, therefore, not significantly at fault for the doping offense, the ruling said.
“We take into account that the amount of cocaine in the player’s body was so small that if he had been tested only a few hours later, his test result would be likely to have been negative,” the tribunal stated.
Gasquet also argued at the hearing that his positive test was given after he had pulled out of the Key Biscayne tournament. Cocaine is a banned drug for athletes in competition.
The tribunal said Gasquet’s rights to practice his profession would be infringed by a one-year suspension, though it was required to find that a doping offense was committed.
It also noted that Gasquet would be banned for life if he tested positive for a banned drug a second time.
The ruling allowed the Frenchman to keep the ranking points and prize money he gained at tournaments in April.
The ITF provisionally suspended Gasquet when the test result was announced in May and he was forced to miss the French Open and Wimbledon. His ranking has since dropped nine places.
The ruling can be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport within three weeks.

LONDON (AP) — Richard Gasquet escaped a lengthy doping ban Wednesday when the International Tennis Federation ruled that he inadvertently took cocaine.

The 23-year-old Frenchman, who was cleared to resume playing after completing a 2 1/2-month ban Wednesday, convinced an independent anti-doping tribunal that he ingested cocaine by kissing a woman he met at a nightclub in Miami.

The tribunal panel of three lawyers said Gasquet consumed no more than “a grain of salt” of the drug, and a long ban would be an injustice in a case which was “unusual to the point of being probably unique.”

“We have found the player to be a person who is shy and reserved, honest and truthful, and a man of integrity and good character,” the tribunal said in its ruling.

The ITF, which had sought a two-year ban under the terms of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code, was told to impose a retroactive ban of two months, 15 days. The ban ended Wednesday morning, clearing 32nd-ranked Gasquet to resume playing.

Gasquet tested positive in a urine sample in March after he pulled out of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Florida, with a shoulder injury.

After deciding to withdraw from the tournament he went to a nightclub with friends to see a French DJ perform at a Miami dance music festival, which the tribunal noted was “notoriously associated with use of illegal recreational drugs including cocaine.”

Gasquet told the tribunal hearing held in London last month that he kissed a woman, identified in the ruling only as “Pamela.”

The tribunal said it was likely she had consumed cocaine during the night, though it had no direct evidence.

Gasquet was “on the balance of probability, contaminated with cocaine by Pamela” and, therefore, not significantly at fault for the doping offense, the ruling said.

“We take into account that the amount of cocaine in the player’s body was so small that if he had been tested only a few hours later, his test result would be likely to have been negative,” the tribunal stated.

Gasquet also argued at the hearing that his positive test was given after he had pulled out of the Key Biscayne tournament. Cocaine is a banned drug for athletes in competition.

The tribunal said Gasquet’s rights to practice his profession would be infringed by a one-year suspension, though it was required to find that a doping offense was committed.

It also noted that Gasquet would be banned for life if he tested positive for a banned drug a second time.

The ruling allowed the Frenchman to keep the ranking points and prize money he gained at tournaments in April.

The ITF provisionally suspended Gasquet when the test result was announced in May and he was forced to miss the French Open and Wimbledon. His ranking has since dropped nine places.

The ruling can be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport within three weeks.