Nadia Petrova

ITF Release 2012 Testing Summary

By Lisa-Marie Burrows

“Last year, through the Dubai, Rotterdam and Indian Wells swing where I won all three, I didn’t get tested once. That shouldn’t be OK.”

At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Roger Federer once again shared his thoughts about doping and testing. He revealed that in 2012, there was a lack of frequent and consistent testing for doping whilst he was competing, despite having won three consecutive tournaments.

This week, the ITF (International Tennis Federation) have shared their plans for biological passports. They have been busy of late redesigning their Davis Cup and Fed Cup websites and their latest relaunch has been the official website of its Anti-Doping department.

The website aims to share detailed information on the Tennis Anti-Doping programme and it has uploaded many PDFs from recent years of blood testing which has been carried out on the athletes.

A summary of testing conducted under the 2012 ITF Tennis Anti-Doping Programme is now available on their website of all players who hold an ATP or WTA ranking. The results show the amount of times the athletes have been tested during the year whilst competing and also when they are out of competition. The results do not include samples collected during the London Olympics by the National Anti-Doping Organisations.

During 2012, the statistics show that a total of 1727 in-competition urine specimen samples were taken from male and female athletes and 124 specimens of blood.

Out of-competition testing was slightly lower with 271 specimens for urine and 63 for blood. Overall, 2185 total specimens were taken and it is interesting to see how consistently players were tested, particularly the higher ranked players.  I have put together a table of results for the current top 20 ATP and WTA players.

ATP Top 20 Testing Summary

These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the ATP rankings as of this week.

The samples are fairly consistent with Djokovic, Murray, Ferrer, Berdych, Del Potro, Tsonga. Tipsarevic, Gasquet, Cilic, Wawrinka and Seppi all tested on seven and above occasions, whilst the other players were largely tested four to six times.

The only exceptions are Rafael Nadal, who due to injury was not tested for in-competition as frequently and therefore has a higher out-of-competition sample compared to his colleagues. Milos Raonic was also tested on one to three in-competition occasions.

For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:

WTA Top 20 Testing Summary

These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the WTA rankings as of this week.

Half of the WTA top 20 players were tested during competitions on seven or more occasions and surprisingly four out of the current top 5 have been tested fewer times than some of their counterparts. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Na Li have been tested on one to three occasions and four to six occasions respectively.

For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:

Over the next few years, expect the number of overall testing to rise, as the ITF have made it clear that they are going to increase the number of blood tests done each year under its anti-doping programme.

Federer was pleased by the announcement and said at the BNP Paribas Open:

“I think tennis has done a good job of trying everything to be as clean as possible but we are entering a new era. We have to do everything to ensure our tour is as clean as it possibly can be.”

 

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha.  Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other.  In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago.  Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian.  Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd.  Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way.  Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.

The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson.  In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine.  The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki.  Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching.  Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February.  On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress.  She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert.  Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round.  For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality.  Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne.  Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far.  Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it.  If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.

Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber.  A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before.  Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats.  At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw.  The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round.  Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency.  Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods.  Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.

Semifinalist:  Ivanovic

Third quarter:  Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders.  Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea.  Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either.  In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title.  Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011.  Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?

Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova.  Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven.  Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there.  The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros.  Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round.  Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova.  Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013?  Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro.  Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards.  The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur.  Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her.  But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.

Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later).  Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival.  Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08.  If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year.  By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco.  Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!

The Week Ahead in the WTA: Previewing the Premier Event in Doha

Formerly riddled with upsets and surprise semifinalists, WTA draws grew relatively predictable in 2012 as a small group of women won virtually every marquee tournament.  That trend continued when Azarenka defended her Australian Open crown after several young stars rose and fell.  In Doha, more of the familiar suspects look likely to shine.  Read a preview of the draw, quarter by quarter.

First quarter:  Just as she did in Melbourne, Azarenka may need to defend her title to retain her #1 ranking with the second-ranked Serena Williams anchoring the opposite half of the draw.  Also like the Australian Open, the medium-speed hard courts in Doha suit the top seed’s style more than any other surface, and one must feel sanguine about her semifinal hopes in this weak section.  Several of the women surrounding her played Fed Cup over the past weekend, when most looked pedestrian at best against modest competition.  Although she upset Azarenka once and nearly twice in 2012, Cibulkova extended a discouraging span that started with her double bagel in the Sydney final by retiring on the verge of victory in Fed Cup.  Bojana Jovanovski and Daniela Hantuchova collaborated on a hideous comedy of errors this Saturday, while the sixth-seeded Errani faces the challenge of transitioning from the clay of the Italy-USA tie.  This section could implode quickly, which might open a door for the rising Laura Robson to build on her Australian upset of Kvitova.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Two women of Polish descent bookend a section that contains two former #1s who have sunk outside the top 10.  Having withdrawn from Fed Cup with a shoulder injury, Ivanovic remained in the Doha draw as she hopes to erase the memories of a first-round upset in Pattaya City, where she held the top seed.  The Serb likely would collide with Australian Open nemesis Radwanska as early as the third round, however, so she may gain little more from Doha than she did last year.  An all-German encounter beckons at the base of the quarter between the last two Paris Indoors champions:  the fifth-seeded Kerber and Mona Barthel.  Meeting the winner in the same round as the projected Ivanovic-Radwanska clash is world #11 Wozniacki, who fell just short of an Australian Open quarterfinal in a promising end to an otherwise miserable January.  Kerber stifled her on multiple surfaces last year, though, while struggling to solve Radwanska’s consistency.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  A 2008 champion at this tournament, the third-seeded Sharapova eyes a comfortable start to the tournament against a qualifier or wildcard.  Rolling through Melbourne until her competition stiffened suddenly, she may find an opponent worthy of her steel in Sloane Stephens, although her fellow Australian Open semifinalist withdrew from Fed Cup this weekend.  Looming on the opposite side is an encore of the 2011 Melbourne marathon between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, separated just by a qualifier and the dormant Bartoli (also a Fed Cup absentee).  The Russian returned to relevance with an outstanding January considering the sub-50 ranking with which she started it before reaching quarterfinals at Sydney and the Australian Open.  Her athleticism and rising confidence should serve her well against the Schiavone-Bartoli winner and against the eighth-seeded Stosur in the following round.  Still struggling to regain her rhythm after ankle surgery during the offseason, the Aussie probably cannot defend her runner-up points in the vicinity of two multiple-major champions from Russia.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter:  Among the questions looming over this tournament is the health of Serena Williams, the prohibitive favorite in Melbourne until multiple injuries overtook her.  Serena probably would not participate in an event like Doha unless she felt confident in her condition, however, so one should take her entry at face value for now.  As she has reminded rivals over the last several months, few can break her serve on a non-clay surface when she is healthy, and she should overpower clay specialists in the early rounds like Medina Garrigues and Vinci.  Of greater suspense is the identity of the woman who will emerge from the section occupied by Kvitova, who clings to the seventh seed in a manner far from convincing.  Although playing a Fed Cup tie on home soil may have boosted her spirits, she has not strung together victories at a WTA tournament since last August.  Often troubled by the task of defeating a compatriot, she could meet Fed Cup teammate Safarova in the third round.  Before then, Beijing nemesis Suarez Navarro lurks in a challenge for her consistency.  And Russian veteran Nadia Petrova adds an entertaining mixture of power and petulance to a section full of fiery personalities.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Come back on Friday to read a semifinal preview!

 

Kimiko Date-Krumm: The Finest Wine in Tennis

Age restrictions on the WTA Tour have wrested dominance from the prepubescent prodigies of old. Week-to-week, players of all ages continue making their mark, all products of their generation. The young guns are fiery, full of determination. Those in their mid-twenties are methodical, but looking for a breakthrough or an escape after nearly a decade at the proverbial grind.

Then there is Kimiko Date-Krumm.

The more we see of the ageless wonder, the surer we are of how she spent those 12 years away from the game. She didn’t spend it marrying German racecar driver Michael Krumm. She wasn’t staying in peak physical condition and running marathons. She certainly couldn’t have been playing tennis, save for an aborted comeback attempt in 2002.

No, it is all clear now. Kimiko spent that decade (or longer) in a time capsule.

After all, how else did she leave the game in the mid-90s only to reemerge in 2008 looking younger than her new crop of rivals, many of whom had yet to be born when the Japanesewoman turned pro (in 1989)? How else did she retain her throwback game, those mercilessly flat groundstrokes and all-court efficiency? How else could she, at (allegedly) 42, be improving at a rate outpacing teenaged players young enough to call Kimiko “Mom?”

Whatever the conspiracy, Date-Krumm should bottle it, sell it, and make millions off of it.

(Then she could buy an island, relax on the beach while maintaining her flawless tan.)

There is plenty of hyperbole here, but only because Kimiko is, in her own subtle way, the most hyperbolic player on the Tour. We as fans and writers enjoy entertaining debates of whether bygone generations could compete in today’s game, yet we fail to sufficiently take notice of this fascinating athletic experiment, one that takes place every time Date-Krumm takes the court.

Coming from an ostensibly extinct era where mental fortitude trumped brute strength, Date-Krumm appears to lack the height and technique of shot to bother the modern player. Yet, most matches involving the Japanesewoman begin and end on her own terms. With bulging biceps, her relentless shots spring from her Yonex racquet like a catapult for screaming winners or unfortunate errors.

With that game plan, Kimiko pummels the ball as well as anyone, and has the resumé to prove it. During the last five years of her incredible second career, she has beaten players like Slam champions like Maria Sharapova, former No. 1s like Dinara Safina and participated in classic matches, none more memorable than her titanic effort against Venus Williams at Wimbledon:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbLq2BcntLg&w=560&h=315]

For all she has achieved by simply being on the court, Kimiko continues to come back for more, even after an injury ruined her dream of representing her country at the London Olympics. Riding a wave of confidence and good form at the end of last year, she came to Australia ready to reclaim her giant-killing reputation.

Drawing Nadia Petrova, the No. 12 seed, it looked like an inauspicious start for the Japanesewoman. As well as she had ended 2012, Petrova had hit even higher peaks, and looked primed for a big run at a Slam. Tall and powerful, the Russian is a perfect example of the modern game. But Kimiko proved that her 90s sensibilities were still effective in 2013; she was positively ruthless in a thrilling upset and only allowed the in-form Russian two games.

As other big names were falling around her, Date-Krumm sensed opportunity knocking during her second round encounter with Israeli Shahar Pe’er. Once a formidable opponent, Pe’er alludes to those aforementioned twentysomethings who look as eager for a way out as Date-Krumm is for a way back in. Cruising past the former top 20 player with a set and two breaks, Kimiko looked poised for another effortless victory.

In the oppressive heat and against a reinvigorated Pe’er, however, Date-Krumm would not have the remainder of the match all her own way. But unlike those young enough to be her daughters, for whom “the moment” can crush, the Japanesewoman held her nerve and served out the second round on the second time of asking. Nearly five years after mounting this improbable comeback, Kimiko is in the third round of a Grand Slam event for the first time since 1996.

But then, we should have expected this from a woman who only recently awoke from cryogenic sleep. In fact, check her hotel room for the fountain of youth, lest we be forced to deal with the fact that yes, we can get better with age.

Wizards of Oz (II): Murray, Tomic, Tsonga, Wozniacki, Kvitova, and More from Day 2

Our daily preview series continues with six matches from each Tour.

ATP:

Haase vs. Murray (Rod Laver Arena):  When they met at the 2011 US Open, the underdog nearly stunned the Scot by building a two-set lead.  Haase then won just six games over the last three sets as he continued a bizarre career trend of disappearing in matches that he started with a lead.  This match marks Murray’s first as a major champion, and one wonders whether the tension that he so often has displayed on these stages will abate in proportion to the pressure.  Although he won Brisbane, he looked imperfect in doing so and alluded to some emotional turmoil hovering around him.

Tomic vs. Mayer (RLA):  Shortly after he reached the Brisbane final, Grigor Dimitrov experience a rude awakening when he became the first man to crash out of the Australian Open.  Sydney champion Tomic must guard against the concern of having peaked too soon after winning his first career title, amidst  chatter about his upcoming clash with Federer.  But Leonardo Mayer should lack the consistency to pose any sustained challenge, while Tomic has excelled on home soil and reached the second week here last year with victories over much superior opponents.

Tsonga vs. Llodra (Hisense):  A battle of two flamboyant Frenchmen rarely fails to entertain, no matter the scoreline.  Formerly a finalist and semifinalist here, Tsonga embarks on his first season with coach Roger Rasheed, attempting to rebound from a paradoxical 2012 season in which he stayed in the top eight without conquering anyone in it.  Across the net stands a compatriot who shares his fondness for hurtling towards the net and finishing points with sharply slashed volleys.  Expect plenty of explosive, staccato tennis from a rollicking match filled with ebbs and flows.

Matosevic vs. Cilic (Margaret Court Arena):  Like Haase and Murray, their meeting follows in the wake of some notable US Open history.  Extending the Croat to a fifth set there last year, Matosevic built upon the best year of his career that saw him reach the top 50 and become the top Aussie man until Tomic surpassed him in Sydney (both on the court and in the rankings).  Cilic has stabilized at a mezzanine level of the ATP since his initial breakthrough in 2008-09, when he looked likely to emulate Del Potro’s accomplishments.  Of a similar stature and playing style to the former US Open champion, he appears to lack the competitive will necessary to take the next step forward.

Monfils vs. Dolgopolov (MCA):  The first week of a major offers an ideal opportunity to check out unusual shot-makers who usually fall before the tournament’s marquee rounds.  Recognizing this potential, the Melbourne schedulers have featured on a show court this fascinating pas de deux between two men who can produce—or at least attempt—any shot in the book.  Their match should remind viewers of the imaginative quality to tennis, often lost in this era of fitness and raw power.  Both men focus more on the journey than the destination, and style than substance:  not a recipe for major titles but certainly a recipe for entertainment.

Haas vs. Nieminen (Court 3):  Most had abandoned hope in the German when he started last year outside the top 200.  Bursting back into relevance over the spring and summer, the 34-year-old Haas should inspire other men near the twilight of their careers.  Among them is Nieminen, a veteran Finnish lefty without much polish but perhaps with enough wrinkles in his game to frustrate the easily ruffled Haas.

WTA:

Wozniacki vs. Lisicki (Hisense):  The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki has plummeted to the edge of the top 10 while losing four of her last six matches at majors.  Despite a hopeful fall, the Danish counterpuncher started this year in deflating fashion with early losses at Brisbane and Sydney, still mired in doubt and anxiety.  Lisicki has won two of their three previous meetings behind a booming serve that allowed her to seize and retain control of the points before Wozniacki could settle into neutral mode.  Outside the grass season, she struggled even more than her opponent did last year, and a surface that seems very slow may dilute her greatest weapon.  In theory, though, her huge game could unnerve Wozniacki again by denying her the rhythm that she prefers.

Suarez Navarro vs. Errani (MCA):  A pair of clay specialists meet on a slow, high-bouncing hard court that should not feel too foreign to them.  Suarez Navarro has become a credible dark horse in Melbourne, defeating Venus in the second round a few years ago and extending the then-formidable Kvitova to a third set in the same round last year.  Meanwhile, Errani reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, the first significant result that signaled her breakthrough and thus the first key bundle of points that she must defend.

Schiavone vs. Kvitova (MCA):  This match could get gruesome quickly if both of them play as they did earlier in January.  At the Hopman Cup, the aging Schiavone struggled to find the service box or her groundstroke timing, while Kvitova struggled to find any part of the court in Brisbane and Sydney.  Those efforts prolonged a span in which the former Wimbledon champion has lost seven of her last ten matches, suggesting that she will bring little of the confidence necessary to execute her high-risk game.  Schiavone nearly ended Kvitova’s title defense at the All England Club last year, suggesting that this match may contain as much upset potential as Wozniacki-Lisicki.

Oudin vs. Robson (Court 3):  Phenoms past and present collide in this meeting of careers headed in opposite directions.  While Oudin did resurface last summer with her first career title, she has extracted little from her counterpunching game since the US Open quarterfinal that vaulted her to fame perhaps too early.  A highly awaited presence as soon as she won junior Wimbledon, Robson progressed significantly last season in both power and consistency, ultimately reaching the second week of the US Open.  Will both of their trends continue, or will Oudin blunt the British lefty’s attack?

Petrova vs. Date-Krumm (Court 6):  Surely not much longer on display, the age-defying Date-Krumm merits a trip to the outer courts for her sharply angled groundstrokes and the joy with which she competes.  As if one needed any further reason to watch this match, Petrova produces ample entertainment with her percussive serves and crisp volleys, not to mention her bursts of classically Russian angst.

Putintseva vs. McHale (Court 7):  As she recovers from the mono that sidelined her last year, the young American might have preferred a less intense opponent than the yowling, perpetually emoting bundle of energy that is Putintseva.  The junior exudes with talent as well as aggression, so the quiet McHale cannot take her opponent in this stark clash of personalities too lightly.

Quarters for Our Thoughts (II): Australian Open Women’s Draw Preview

After the mega-preview of the Australian Open men’s draw appeared yesterday, we take the same type of look at the women’s draw.

First quarter:  Like fellow defending champion Djokovic, Azarenka cruised through the first week of last year’s tournament.  Also like Djokovic, she should do so again this year against an early slate of opponents that features nobody more remarkable than Radwanska’s younger sister.  Urszula Radwanska recently lost to Wozniacki, which should tell you all that you need to know about her current form, and her sister can offer her little advice on how to solve Azarenka’s ruthless baseline attack.  The world #1 has taken the sensible position that this year’s tournament is a new opportunity for triumph rather than a chunk of territory to defend, an attitude that should help her advance deep into the draw.  While the quirky game of Roberta Vinci might bemuse her temporarily, Azarenka probably has less to fear from any opponent in her quarter than from the Australian summer heat, which has proved an Achilles heel for her before.

Among the most plausible first-round upsets in the women’s draw is Lisicki over the reeling, tenth-ranked Wozniacki.  The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki continued her 2012 slide by losing two of her first three matches in 2013, while she has failed to solve the German’s mighty serve in two of their three meetings.  Lisicki usually lacks the steadiness to string together several victories in a marquee draw away from grass, but Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova might build upon her upward trend if she escapes Lisicki in the third round.  Although the seventh-seeded Errani reached the quarterfinals here last year, she fell to Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane and might exit even before she meets the young Russian to the veteran Kuznetsova.  The most intriguing unseeded player in this section, the two-time major champion showed flashes of vintage form in Sydney and eyes an accommodating pre-quarterfinal draw.  She could battle Pavlyuchenkova for the honor of facing Azarenka, who would feel intimidated by neither Russian.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Player to watch:  Pick your ova between Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova

Second quarter:  In a sense, all that you need to know about this section is that it contains Serena.  Case closed, or is it?  Conventional wisdom would say that a player of Serena’s age cannot possibly sustain the brilliance that she displayed in the second half of 2012 much longer, but she has built a reputation upon defying conventional wisdom.  An intriguing third-round rematch with Shvedova beckons just two majors after the Kazakh nearly upset her at Wimbledon, the tournament that turned around Serena’s comeback.   Mounting an inspired comeback herself last year, Shvedova has stalled a bit lately while suffering some dispiriting three-set losses.  Serena can outserve, outhit, and generally out-compete players like Kirilenko and Wickmayer with their limited range of talents.  Last year, though, Makarova delivered the shock of the Australian Open by ambushing her in the fourth round, reminding us that underdogs sometimes can jolt Serena before she settles into a tournament.

By the quarterfinals, the American usually has accumulated a formidable tide of momentum that compensates for the spiking quality of competition.  Considering the eighth-seeded Kvitova’s recent struggles, the quality may not spike so dramatically.  But Kvitova, who has lost seven of her last ten matches, may not reach that stage and may have her work cut out against Schiavone in the first round or ambitious American teen Sloane Stephens in the third round.  Stephens broke through at majors last year by reaching the second week of Roland Garros, just as British teen Laura Robson did by reaching the second week at the US Open.  An early upset of Kvitova, perhaps even by Robson in the second round, would result in an intriguing battle between these two rising stars with a berth in the second week at stake.  There, they could meet the evergreen veteran Petrova, who becomes dangerous just when one discounts her.  Kvitova’s compatriot Safarova also lurks in this area but blows too hot and cold to produce a deep run.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Player to watch:  Stephens

Third quarter:  The ultra-steady Radwanska finds herself surrounded by an array of stunning talents with a penchant for getting in their own way.  Leading the pack is the sixth-seeded Li Na, who has reached the semifinals or better twice at the Australian Open.  Although she won a home title in Shenzhen, Li played generally shaky tennis during her week in Sydney before an error-strewn loss to Radwanska that ended her 2012 momentum against the Pole.  Close behind Li in ranking and self-destructive potential is Stosur, who already has imploded twice on Australian soil this year.  The ninth seed probably deserves some forgiveness for those losses in view of her recent ankle surgery, but the fact remains that she has lost six of her last seven matches at home in an illustration of her frailty under pressure.  Stosur narrowly avoided an early date with Cirstea, her nemesis in the first round last year, and may meet Zheng Jie in the second round a week after she lost to her in Sydney.  For her part, Li must hope to reverse her loss to Cirstea at Wimbledon last year if that third-round meeting materializes.

Nearer to Radwanska lies another opponent of the same model as fellow one-time major champions Li and Stosur:  the charming and charmingly fragile Ivanovic.  Five years after her trip to the Melbourne final, she has not reached the quarterfinals there since.  The former #1 might face the other former #1 from her own country in the third round, resuming her sometimes bitter rivalry with Jankovic.  Although both Serbs accumulated success against Radwanska earlier in their careers, neither has conquered her as they have declined.  The fourth seed thus will feel confident of extending her nine-match winning streak from titles in Auckland and Sydney deep into Melbourne.  Perhaps she can follow in the footsteps of Sydney champion Azarenka last year, or in those of Sydney champion Li the year before.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Player to watch:  Li

Fourth quarter:  When Sharapova entered the Melbourne field without any match practice last year, she showed no signs of rust in sweeping to the final.  In the same situation, she will aim to produce the same result on a surface where the high bounce suits her playing style.  Sharapova could face Venus Williams near the end of the first week, assuming that the American survives the heat and her spells of uneven play to that point.  Away from grass, she has accumulated a far better record against the elder than the younger Williams, and one would favor her in that matchup considering the relative conditions of each career.  Either of these tall women would hold a significant advantage in power and serve over Dominika Cibulkova, the Sydney finalist who devoured three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel in the final.  Rarely at her best in Melbourne, she faces an intriguing opener against local prodigy Ashleigh Barty but otherwise looks likely to enter the second week.

Somewhat more uncertain is the identity of this section’s other quarterfinalist, for Kerber looked only moderately convincing in Brisbane and Sydney.  A heavy hitter can outslug the German or frustrate her, a role that second-round opponent Lucia Hradecka could fill with her thunderous serve.  Principally a threat on grass, Tamira Paszek remains unpredictable from one week to the next and could meet Sydney sensation Madison Keys in a second round.  A 17-year-old with precocious poise, Keys may vie with Stephens for the brightest star in the future of American women’s tennis.  The eleventh-seeded Bartoli opens against Medina Garrigues, who played inspired tennis at the Hopman Cup, and will hope to break away from a series of unremarkable efforts in Melbourne.  While Kerber defeated Sharapova early last year, the world #2 squashed her in their other three meetings, nor has any of the other players in this section often threatened her.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Player to watch:  Venus

Final:  Serena vs. Radwanska

Champion:  Serena Williams

Excited for the start of the 2013 Australian Open?  I will run a live chat during many of the matches at newyorkobservertennis.com.  Check it out if you want to chat with me, some of my colleagues, and fellow fans while you watch the action in Melbourne.

David Ferrer’s shining moment; Trouble in tennis paradise at Indian Wells — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Crowning Achievement

David Ferrer had the dubious distinction of being the player with the most Master Series match wins without a title, but that is the case no more. The Spaniard finally clinched one of the coveted Masters shields when he defeated surprise finalist Jerzy Janowicz of Poland in straight sets. While acknowledging that Ferrer was certainly helped by the withdrawals of Federer and Nadal and the early exits of Djokovic and Murray, it doesn’t diminish the significance of his win. Ferrer is too talented of a player not to have walked away with at least one of premiere titles before he retired, and as it’s the seventh title he’s won in 2012, it’s a testament to just how well he’s playing this season. It’s a great achievement for Spain’s No. 2, and now that he’s gotten that mini-monkey off of his back, perhaps he’ll face the Big Four with a little more self-belief come 2013.

Forgotten Champion

It was a thrilling end to the year for Russian Nadia Petrova. She and compatriot Maria Kirilenko won the WTA Championships Doubles event in Istanbul, and she followed that up with a run to the singles title in the Tournament of Champions in Sofia by absolutely drubbing No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki. Petrova has always had a beautiful game. She possesses one of the best serves on tour as well as great hands that have garnered her so much success in the doubles arena. The biggest hurdle throughout her professional career, however, has been her mental toughness, and her victory in Sofia doesn’t necessarily mean she’s greatly improved in that area. The field at the Tournament of Champions is essentially the JV squad of the WTA’s top crop of talent, which is why that tournament doesn’t generate nearly the amount of headlines as Istanbul. It’s that lack of a spotlight that helps a player like Petrova. So props to her for a tremendous 2012 finale, but I wouldn’t yet bank on that translating into more consistent results or frequent upsets of the sport’s best come 2013.

Czech Them Out

For the second straight year, the Czechs are Fed Cup champions, becoming the third consecutive team to successfully defend a Fed Cup title. They defeated Serbia 3-1, with the former Yugoslavian nation’s only point coming courtesy of Ana Ivanovic. Kvitova, who recovered from bronchitis just in time to help her squad defend their 2011 crown, went 1-1 over the weekend, but it was her teammate, Lucie Safarova, who defeated both Ivanovic and Jankovic to give her team the unassailable lead. Kvitova, and to a slightly lesser extent Safarova, have always exhibited plenty of talent with flashes of brilliance, but both have also struggled to produce it consistently on the biggest stages. Here’s to hoping that unlike this past season, they’re able to draw upon their experience in winning the 2012 Fed Cup to produce their best tennis when it counts next year.

Still the One

Roger Federer may have come into the ATP World Tour Finals knowing that he would finish behind Novak Djokovic in the rankings, but not surprisingly, the Swiss remains number one in the hearts of many a fan. This was proven earlier this week when Federer was presented with the ATPWorldTour.com Fan’s Favorite Award for a record tenth consecutive year. With his smooth style and grace, it’s easy to see why fans from all over the world continue to enjoy what the Maestro can do with a tennis racquet. In addition to the love from the fans, Federer also received love from his fellow ATP pros. They voted him the recipient of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for the second straight year and eighth time overall. Not a bad haul for a guy that many were writing off a little over a year ago.

Say What?!

Yes, in case you were wondering if you read the headlines correctly, the ATP Tour Board of Directors passed on an $800,000 prize money increase at Indian Wells. The increase was to have been primarily distributed to winners in the first three rounds. Thus far, the official reason given by the ATP for declining the offered increase is that the proposed distribution is not in line with the ATP rules that both players and tournaments have agreed to and to which every other tournament on tour follows. One suspects the latter part of that explanation is the real reason behind the decision to decline the generous offer. Earlier this year, Indian Wells already upped the prize purse by one million dollars, and it didn’t follow the normal ATP distribution rules either. Larry Ellison has done a lot to upgrade the status of Indian Wells, and has broached the idea of looking into adding mixed doubles. This may have some tournament organizers nervous that he’s looking to try and take away any arguments of eventually upgrading the event to Grand Slam status (which is somewhat hard to imagine given how much it would upset the historic status quo). It may also have them nervous that players will expect them to cough up more dough at their own events. Whatever the reasons, the fact that sources claim it was the three tournament representatives who voted against the increase, while the player representatives were in favor, means this topic of discussion isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Stay tuned.

Back to the Future on the WTA Tour

By David Kane

Weeks like the one the WTA Tour had at its Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria are a blatant mockery to the act of making predictions before they even begin.

First of all, who predicted that Caroline Wozniacki, who started 2012 at No. 1, would find herself at a Year-End Championships for the Tour’s B-squad? The Dane, who now has more singles than Slam titles (a charity song “Oxygen” and a campy music video to go with it) has endured a fall from grace that felt oddly symmetrical as she played her semifinal against hometown favorite Tsvetana Pironkova. After all, Wozniacki played the Bulgarian floater at the first tournament of the year, the usually star-studded Hopman Cup in Perth. Ten months that feel like an eternity later, Wozniacki is the one looking decidedly out of place.

Subtext aside, it would have then appeared easy to predict a rebound victory for the Dane. Playing a tournament comprised of players that the former No. 1 had beat handily during her rise to the game’s elite, “Karolina” could not have felt too intimidated to take on names like Su-Wei Hsieh or Roberta Vinci. Furthermore, she had recently won tournaments in Seoul and Moscow, taking out tough opponents like Kaia Kanepi and Sam Stosur en route. The Dane was not a celebrity wildcard; she had earned her place into this event with her first titles since August of last year.

Who, then, would have predicted that No. 2 seed Nadia Petrova would turn the tables on Wozniacki and decisively beat her in a 6-2, 6-1 final?

Yes, the Russian is a dangerous opponent, and with a title in Tokyo that saw her claim the scalps of top ten stalwarts Sara Errani, Stosur and Agnieszka Radwanska, she has obviously played well of late. But for a player for whom much must be perfect, a tournament full of tricky opponents a mere days after winning the Istanbul Championships doubles title sounded like a big ask. Indeed, she played the role of the tired veteran, trudging through three tight matches on her way to the final. Combine that with Petrova’s pitiful 1-4 head-to-head against Wozniacki (one win coming when the Dane retired in 2008), who wasn’t predicting victory for the woman who had clinched a year-end top 10 ranking just by reaching the final?

Seemingly out of nowhere, Petrova recalled the game plan that saw her take out Radwanska in Tokyo, but unlike that three-set final, there was no lapse from the Russian. For about 90 minutes, Wozniacki had no answer to Petrova’s laser-like groundstrokes, flawless serving and inspiring net prowess, and was forced into her fair share of uncharacteristic errors as a result.

During the Russian’s extended slump, her formerly reliable serve was often the cause of her worse losses; her first serve percentage would drop, and she would get broken too often for a perennial Tour ace leader. That she didn’t lose serve in either match played this weekend speaks volumes to explain her recent success, and spells bad news for future rivals should she maintain this form. When her serve is working, the rest of her game loosens up, and even the most expert retrievers and returners are driven to fits under the pressure of the Russian’s powerful game.

Beyond that, not enough can be said about her newfound positivity on the court. After being fired by Wozniacki herself, Ricardo Sanchez began working with Petrova and has been a great influence on her on-court demeanor, striking an encouraging figure from the stands. There will be no Serena-esque shrieks or Sharapova-style fist pumps from Petrova, but quietly celebrating a well-struck ball illustrates her marked emotional growth.

Petrova mentioned that the promise of a rapidly approaching off-season got her through these tough matches, so the question remains as to whether she will be able to dig as deep when the 2013 season begins, and she will have to figuratively start over again.

At the risk of making any wild predictions, it might be best to end this article sooner rather than later.

It’s all “Ova” – Day 1 musings from the grounds of the US Open

By David Kane, Special for Tennis Grandstand

At Wimbledon several years ago, Serena Williams mused that there were so many “-ovas” in the draw that she herself had adopted the Slavic suffix. Indeed, there may not have been a “Williamsova” on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but three years later, Serena’s words ring true; it is difficult to navigate between the outer courts without stumbling upon an “ova” or seven. Not just from Russia, though. In fact, the “ovas” quest for world domination has transcended the sport, with players representing countries across the globe. In my rain-interrupted Day One of the US Open, I watched three “ovas” who represented three different countries and stations in the tennis hierarchy (the veteran, the journeywoman, and the champion). For all of their differences, the women did share one thing in common yesterday: victory.

I began my day on Court 7 to watch 19th seeded Russian Nadia Petrova take on Jarmila Gajdosova, who had taken Australian citizenship during her two-year marriage to ATP player Samuel Groth. See what I mean about that world domination? Both had flirted with the upper echelons of the women’s game to various degrees of success; Petrova has been high as #3 with two Roland Garros semifinals, but has become more remembered for her mental fragility and heinous Ellesse dresses in recent years, while Gajdosova rocketed into the top 30 last year only to be derailed by inconsistency and her divorce from Groth. With an “ova,” it is so often their story, and not their baseline game, that makes them so compelling.

Gajdosova, or “Jarka” as she is known to friends and fans alike, has had a rough 2012, losing twice as many matches as she’s won, but had to feel optimistic at the prospects of playing Petrova, who went 0-2 during the US Open Series, punctuated with a second-set retirement only two weeks before. Unfortunately for the Aussie, Petrova’s serve, her signature shot, was on in a way I haven’t seen it in many years. Hitting 15 aces, Nadia held serve with ease and only faced one break point in the first game of the match (which she predictably saved with a big serve). However, things are rarely straightforward for the Russian whom the New York Times once described as “tall, prim and sturdy;” the serve was “on,” but the return and backhand were decidedly “off,” which made for a tense two-set match that culminated in a tiebreaker in the second set upon returning from the two and half hour rain delay. It was in the ‘breaker that Petrova ran away with it as convincingly as she could, and booked a place in the second round.

It was during this match that I took time to analyze the so-called “vocal frustration” and perceived “brattiness” of “ovas” like Nadia. Not a warm player on the court, she didn’t so much celebrate winners so much as she would appear miffed that it had taken her *that* long to get it right. Tennis can be a beautiful game, with swings, according to Mary Carillo, “that defy the imagination.” But ultimately, tennis is a sport, with a winner and a loser. More and more for Petrova and “ovas” like her, success is not winning, but being perfect, and with that kind of pressure, no wonder we’ve seen such disastrous meltdowns from her and her compatriots.

Anastasia Rodionova is a player who doesn’t just desire perfection; she demands it, from herself, the linesmen, and those who come to watch her play. Although only ranked as high as 62 in her career, this attitude has made the Russian-born, Australian naturalized Rodionova infamous among fans. I’ve been watching her play matches at the US Open for a decade, and the reputation isn’t totally unwarranted; on the court, she has two emotions: indignation, and amusement born out of said indignation. On one hand, it’s admirable that Rodionova expects so much from her petite, 5’5” frame. On the other hand, her flat, hard-hitting game is as high risk as I’ve ever seen; when it’s “on,” it’s that poetry in motion Carillo described, but when it’s not (even for a minute), god help us all.

However, “The Rodionova Show” has been much more consistent than controversial since she arrived in Flushing. Fresh off a stint with the Washington Kastles, Rodionova is determined to turn around a disappointing year, even adopting the undefeated Kastle’s motto “Refuse to Lose,” into her tweets. This mentality has translated beyond matches in general; in three qualifying matches, the only player to win more than three games in a set was Caroline Garcia, the young Frenchwoman who nearly beat Maria Sharapova at last year’s French Open. Taking to Court 10 against American Julia Cohen didn’t seem like a tall order on paper, but don’t forget that “Nastya” requires perfect match conditions. Between the fireworks of the US Open Opening Ceremonies and the ghastly shrieks of one inebriated Cohen fan, the first few games looked dicey as the Aussie fell behind an early break.

One would think that a player like Rodionova would balk the notion of rowdy fans cheering her errors. But I was reminded last week of an odd piece of trivia: Anastasia Rodionova is the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medalist, and beat Sania Mirza in front of the most partisan crowd I’ve ever seen. Rodionova herself seemed to remember her love of playing the villain as well, and steadied herself back into playing the laser-like baseline game that had taken her through qualies, and romped into the second round winning 11 of the final 12 games. It seems foolish to crave for perfection in a sport where one is automatically given at least two tries at a serve, but if perfection is athletic nirvana, Rodionova has come dangerously close to achieving it this week.

Speaking of perfection, I would be remiss in leaving out Petra Kvitova. The 2011 Wimbledon champion made a strong case for being remembered as the player of the year when she won her maiden Slam and ended the season undefeated indoors. But she is another player who has, in the past, been felled by her desire for perfection. Until this summer, the word on Petra was that she couldn’t play on the hard courts of North America. Why? She was allergic. It’s an uncharacteristically “diva” excuse for a most unpretentious young woman, but with a 2-3 record in North America last year, it was hard to argue with the facts. Thankfully, with titles in Montreal and New Haven, the Czech star has concluded that she is not a Lenglen-esque one-continent wonder, and can indeed dominate in the land of the free.

Not without some struggles, though. All those match wins may have been great for Kvitova’s confidence, but they’ve done little to leave her fresh for the last Slam tournament of the year. Against the tattooed Slovak Polona Hercog, Kvitova was often undone by what appeared to be her own exhaustion. She was a step slow, so her perfectly timed groundstrokes were off and she danced on the faultline of losing the first set. For a woman who had only won New Haven two days earlier, disaster (and another early round US Open loss) seemed imminent. But yesterday, the Hard Court Education of Petra Kvitova was on full display. On the shaded Grandstand court, Petra appeared to realize during the tiebreaker that she would not be perfect. That didn’t mean she wasn’t good enough to win the match.

And win, she did. She rediscovered the striking mental fortitude that took her within 70 points of the number one ranking last year, took the tiebreaker, and dominated the second set 6-1. I left the match feeling optimistic about the Czech’s chances this fortnight. Petra wasn’t perfect, true, but how often does one win a Slam because they played perfect tennis? The moment when they hear their name and get to hold the tophy aloft and realize that tournament is “ova” is perfect enough.

David Kane is an avid tennis fan reporting from the grounds of the U.S. Open. You can follow him on Twitter @ovafanboy.

Sam Stosur blasts pass Dominika Cibulkova to reach Roland Garros semifinals for third time

By Melinda Samson, Special for Tennis Grandstand

Sam Stosur and Dominika Cibulkova both have good records at Roland Garros as each player reached the semifinals in 2009 and Stosur went one better as runner-up in 2010. Prior to their quarterfinal meeting at the French Open, Stosur won the only match they have ever played against each other back in 2009.

To reach this stage of the tournament, Stosur defeated Elena Baltacha, Irina Falconi, Nadia Petrova and Sloane Stephens, winning all matches in straight sets. Cibulkova defeated Kristina Mladenovic, Vania King, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and world number one Victoria Azarenka.

In the first set, both players held serve for the first four games. During Cibulkova’s third service game, the umpire overruled an incorrect line call, which would have given Stosur a winner on break point but instead the point was replayed. Not distracted by the missed opportunity, Stosur won the game two points later. The girls then stepped up the attack during the sixth game, which went to deuce six times before Stosur won, giving her a double break at 5-2.

Stosur then served for the set but failed initially. At this point the match was starting to feel similar to her fourth round match against Stephens, when Stosur had a double break but twice failed to serve it out. But that’s where the similarity ended. During her second attempt Stosur successfully served for the set, saving three break points and winning 6-4.

Cibulkova came out firing in the second set with Stosur having to save three break points to hold serve during the second game. But then Stosur took control and went on to win the next four games. With Cibulkova double faulting to bring up the first match point, Sam confidently took the second set 6-1, winning the match in one hour and 25 minutes.

During the on court interview after the match, Stosur commented:

“I’m very, very pleased with the way I played today and to get through. The last few years have been very good to me in Paris. I love playing on this court and it doesn’t get any better than this.”

When asked about being the highest seed in her part of the women’s single draw, Sam replied simply:

“In the semifinals at Roland Garros that doesn’t mean much, whoever you play it’s going to be tough.”

Stosur has yet to drop a set during the tournament and will play 21st seed Sara Errani of Italy in the semi final on Thursday.

Follow Tennis Grandstand for updates on all the Australian players’ progress throughout the main draw of the French Open.

Melinda Samson is attending Roland Garros and will be writing updates on Australian players through their trek of the tennis world’s second slam. She also manages the website Grand Slam Gal and is attempting to do the fan version of a tennis grand slam in 2012. Follow her on Twitter for further live updates @GrandSlamGal.