natasha zvereva

Victoria Azarenka slays “Giant Killer” Goerges to reach Mutua Madrid Open finale

Victoria Azarenka has reached the finale of the prestigious Mutua Madrid Open tournament by defeating “Giant Killer” Julia Goerges in the semis with 6-4, 6-2.  The defeat of Julia Goerges marks the end of her 10 match winning streak.  Azarenka completely overpowered Goerges in the semifinals.  With her win Azarenka is expected to rise to the fourth place when the WTA rankings come out this Monday and that also means that she is the highest ranked Belrussian ever since she surpasses Natasha Zvereva who reached fifth place in 1989.

About her agressiveness and tactics Azarenka had the following to say:

“I have to be the one dominating the game and not her because she has really big shots and when she goes for it it’s tough to see where she’s going and it comes really fast. The most important thing was for me to take time away from her.”

Azarenka now meets Petra Kvitova. Kvitova defeated Chinese Li Na in straight sets 6-3, 6-1 is looking to add her third title of the year after winning Brisbane and Paris earlier this year. It will also mean that Kvitova will enter the top 10 for the first time.

“It’s good being in the top 10 but it’s only a number. I still want to be better,” said Kvitova.

Julia Goerges’  run has not gone unnoticed and her 10 match unbeaten run means that she will enter the top 20 for the first time this coming Monday and she hopes to stay there for longer than one week.

“Honestly I have to say well done to Vika. She is a great player and deserved to win,” Goerges, who will compete in Rome next week, told a news conference.

“Even though my battery was empty I still had chances to take the first set. That was important for me to see.”

“Probably on Monday I will be in the top 20 for the first time and I want to keep my ranking and stay there for more than one week,” she added.

Photocredit Ralf Reinecke

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French Davis Cup Celebrations, New ITHF inductees and Serena to Miss WTT Season

*French Davis Cup captain Guy Forget was full of praise for his players following their shock win over Spain in the Davis Cup quaterfinals last weekend. Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau defeated Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez in the doubles rubber to give France an unassailable 3-0 lead in the tie. The win is the country’s first victory over Spain since 1923. “It’s magical,” he told France 3 television. “They pulled for each other. I hope it’s just the start of a long story for that squad. They were just great and I hope they will play with the same faith in September.” You can see the full interview and Davis Cup roundup at the BBC Tennis website.

*The 2010 Induction Ceremony took place at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum during the finals weekend of the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships and inductees Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, the notorious ‘Woodies,’ have been speaking of their delight at the honour of entering the prestigious Hall of Fame. “This is an amazing day for the Woodies,” said Woodforde, during the rain-swept ceremony. “I don’t know if any of us said we’re just going to be doubles players. We just excelled on the doubles court a little more than we did on the singles. As much as we would have loved to win more in the singles titles, we did in doubles.” The pair amassed an incredible 11 major doubles Championships and 61 doubles titles in all, a record only equaled by the Bryan brothers recently, with a lifetime record of 508-137. “I think we won our fourth tournament we played together,” added Woodbridge. “It was close on average to every fourth tournament we won the next 10 years. That’s pretty good business. I figured if I could team up with Mark we’d do well together. We did better than well, we did bloody great.”

*On the women’s side of the game, the legendary doubles team of Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva were also inducted this weekend. They won 14 doubles Grand Slams together and ended up the year’s best team on four occasions (1993-95, 1997). “I don’t think as an athlete you ever make that a goal, it just sort of happens,” beamed Fernandez. “It’s a proud moment for me and my family and it’s also a proud moment for 4 million Puerto Ricans that are proud to have Puerto Rico represented in the Tennis Hall of Fame.”

*There is little movement in the Top 50 this week in the South African Airways ATP World Rankings but Mardy Fish’s first grass tournament win in Newport has seen him leap 30 places to No. 49 in the world. Recent good performances for The Czech Jan Hajek (11 places, No. 83), Argentine Brian Dabul (14, No. 91) and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo of Spain (16, No. 94) have seen them all rise considerably. Britain’s Richard Bloomfield jumped 260 spots to No. 292 in the world following his Newport finals appearance.

*In the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Rankings Venus Williams reclaims the No. 3 slot from Caroline Wozniacki while Arevane Rezai enters the Top 20 following her win in Bastad last week. Spain’s Arantxa Parra Santonja jumps from No. 52 to No. 46 and Simona Halep (Romania, No. 96) and Pauline Parmentier (France, No. 97) enter the Top 100.

*Serena Williams is set to miss the entire World Team Tennis season with a foot injury, reports the Washington Post. She was meant to team up with sister Venus for the Washington Kastles this year but the injury has put paid to those plans. “I’m very disappointed that I won’t be able to play in the WTT matches this season,” Williams said in an official statement. “It is always such a fun experience and I love interacting with the fans in the cities that I don’t often have the opportunity to play in during the rest of the year.”

*Briton Richard Bloomfield is the latest pro to blast the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) following his incredible run to the semifinals of last week’s Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, RI. The 27-year-old has jumped 260 places to 292 in the world and was quick to criticise Britain’s governing body for their lack of support afterwards. “I think it needs a real shake-up,” he said before revealing the only contact he’d had from the LTA following his run was from current Davis Cup captain Leon Smith. “I got a text off Leon and that was about it. Leon is Davis Cup captain so he’s obliged to do stuff like that.” He also went on to slam the current funding policy from the LTA: “They keep on changing it,” he said. “Just have a good solid system where everybody knows if you win this tournament you get a certain amount, if you don’t then you don’t get anything. Then you know where you stand, whereas at the moment it’s a little bit up and down what you get.”

*British Davis Cup captain Leon Smith praised the spirit of his young team after their 5-0 whitewash of Turkey saved them from relegation to the bottom tier of Davis Cup play. He was also quick to reinforce the point that world No. 4 Andy Murray was welcome to return to Davis Cup play whenever he so wishes. “When he wants to come back of course we’ll love that because he’s one of the world’s best players and any team would love to have Andy Murray in it,” he said. “We’re all friends with [him], we’ve all got close relationships with him, and that positivity is something that we enjoy.”

*Czech female star Iveta Benesova spoke of her relief following her first win in two months in her home tournament the ECM Prague Open this week. The No. 68 in the world was not long ago her country’s leading lady but since winning her second WTA title at Fes in May she has won only two matches. “I am happy to win like this,” said Benesova. “It wasn’t a simple match, I really had to fight. I know I have talent but I need to work harder. I want to be ranked in the 20s again.” You can see how the rest of the Czech hopefuls got on at the WTA site.

*French newspaper L’Equipe is reporting that Richard Gasquet will return from his current back/rib injury at Gstaad in two weeks’ time.

*Sweden may continue their trend of bringing former stars out of retirement for Davis Cup play if current injuries and losses of form continue. This time Thomas Johansson is the former player talking of a cameo. “It’s tempting, but I don’t know if my body can go five sets,” he said. “[But I am] training hard.”

*Spaniard Rafa Nadal was left in floods of tears following his country’s victory over The Netherlands in Sunday’s FIFA World Cup Final and even led the celebrations alongside the Spanish team and the Spanish Royal Family on the team’s return to Madrid. Nadal had been at the match in South Africa and in the changing room after the game even took his trademark “bite” out of the golden trophy. “I cried like a baby,” he told Spanish newspaper Marca. “We have to celebrate for a whole year, because this is unbelievable. It is very difficult to repeat this.”

WILL SAFINA’S BACK FORCE HER TO HANG IT UP? THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

The Back Saga Continues – Once again, Dinara Safina’s back has forced her to withdraw from a tournament. This time, it is the prestigious BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. Safina has stated that her back is still causing her too much pain to even consider competing next week in California, and is now setting her sights on the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Safina is missing a golden opportunity to compete at Indian Wells, given that the field is already weakened by the absence of the Williams sisters, and it is dicey she’ll be able to compete in Miami. If Safina is forced to continually miss these large events, she may find herself hanging her racquet up much sooner than expected, which would be a loss for women’s tennis.

The Show Will Go On – Despite the devastating earthquake that hit Chile this past weekend, the Davis Cup tie between host nation Chile and Israel will still be contested this coming weekend, just a day later than planned as players and officials were understandably delayed in making the trip to the South American country. Israel is a nation that has obviously seen more than its share of turmoil over the past decades, but I must admit that I have my fingers crossed that the Chilean team is able to bring a bit a joy to their home country as sport can so often do for troubled nations.

Headed to the Hall – This past Monday, it was announced that the Woodies (Todd Woodbridge, Mark Woodforde), Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva, Owen Davidson, Brad Parks, and Derek Hardwick will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame later this summer. It’s nice to see some of the greatest doubles teams in history get some recognition, as well as Brad Parks, who will be the first wheelchair tennis player enshrined at Newport.  Fernandez, Davidson, and Parks were on hand at Madison Square Garden Monday evening for the Billie Jean King Cup, where they were officially recognized and congratulated for their impending enshrinement.  And in case you missed it, Venus Williams also defeated Kim Clijsters in three tight sets to take the exhibition title.

More Hip Woes – The latest player to fall victim to hip surgery is Germany’s Tommy Haas.  Germany’s Bild reported that Haas could be out for as many as six months as he recovers from recent surgery to his right hip. At least Haas should be able to retain a protected ranking for when he does return, but one has to feel for him given that he enjoyed a resurgence in his career the latter half of 2009. Perhaps that resurgence will be what ultimately pushes him to bounce back from this latest setback.

Victory at Last – After being touted as one of the game’s next great talents before falling into an early slump, Ernests Gulbis finally won his maiden title this past week at Delray Beach.  Gulbis took out big man Dr. Ivo Karlovic 6-2, 6-3 to become the first Latvian to notch up a tournament win on the ATP World Tour.  The question will be if this victory is merely a flash in the pan or the sign of bigger and better things to come for the player with so much talent but who has thus far proved to be nothing more than a massive underachiever.

WILL GULBIS BE THE SHINING STAR FOR LATVIA?

While the cameras may have been focused on Dubai and Acapulco last week as the two largest tournaments taking place on the ATP Circuit, a (not-so) little Latvian was making history on the courts of Delray Beach in the United States.

The 6 foot, 3 inch, 21-year-old was in scintillating form and didn’t drop a set as he progressed to the final via wins over Ryan Harrison (USA), Teimuraz Gabashvili (RUS), Leonardo Mayer (ARG) and Jarkko Nieminen (FIN).

The final saw him line up against the Croat second seed Ivo Karlovic who was hoping to lift the title and crown on his 31st birthday in style. But as is always the case in these stories, Ernests hadn’t read the script.

To the astonishment of many in the watching crowd, he dropped only five games in a mesmerizing 6-2, 6-3 victory which saw him become the first male Latvian player to lift a singles title on the ATP Circuit. Queue the celebrations on the streets of Latvian Capital Riga.

Gulbis and Latvian tennis fans in general have rightly been crooning on internet message boards and forums.

“He played so well and I was pretty much in tears when he won. His smile and his little fist pump…I am so proud of him. He has gone through a lot and Karlovic is definitely right, this will be his break through year! I am so pumped for Indian Wells and so happy for Ernests,” beamed Stelle on menstennisforums.com.

“I have problems to find the words to tell how happy I am for him. What a brave effort. The guy was written off by almost everyone. So unfair often. But he showed what he is capable of. We can call him a champion now,” added moni.

But what does this mean for Latvian tennis exactly? Well, they finally have a male champion to add to the likes of Larisa Neiland, who won the 1989 French Open and 1991 Wimbledon doubles titles with Natasha Zvereva. They were also the runners up in ten other Grand Slam finals.

But the authorities will also be hoping that such victories help the infrastructure. Lifting from the Latvian Institute website (www.li.lv):

“Our accomplishments in professional sports are brighter than they might seem considering the available national sports infrastructure and the small number of people officially engaged in regular professional exercise.

“Secondly, it is a tradition that, in major international competitions, Latvian sportsmen and women compete with rivals who have many more advantages in terms of financing and human resources.

“Thirdly, approximately 100 different types of sports are developing more or less successfully in small Latvia with its population of just 2.4 million.”

Latvian basketball and ice hockey continues to produce successful worldwide exports and football continues to grow off the back of the Latvian’s qualification for the 2004 European Championships.

The same website lists Gulbis in its list of top Latvian sports stars and is very proud of what he has achieved on the tennis court considering the lack of funding they could provide for him which resulted in him flying the roost to seek coaching in Germany.

They recognize that the lack of help they can offer him and his fellow players could be holding them back:

“Gulbis is still showing signs of impatience and immaturity due to his young age, however if he can learn to harness his considerable talent and keep the pressure on his opponent, he will be a strong player. He has gotten this far on talent, but if he could commit to working with a seasoned coach he could emerge in the next year as a contender.”

Unfortunately, money controls everything and of course the Government has a lot to consider on top of sport when it comes to distributing funding. But if Ernests can continue to add to his trophy haul alongside the successes of his fellow sportsmen (including some terrific performances at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver) then the future prodigies of Latvia can receive a greater start in their careers than Ernests had.

Sport can set a people free and unite a nation in support of their brightest talents. This will not be lost on the authorities who can look at a long list of great powers who used sport as a way of cultivating and developing their people (namely Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and, to a lesser extent, the USA and United Kingdom).

I have seen Ernests Gulbis play only once, in his straight-set defeat to Andy Murray at last year’s US Open, but what I saw impressed me. It reminded me of a young Murray; power and will let down by physical frame and, as mentioned above, concentration levels.

With every achievement directing a few more glances towards one of Europe’s smallest nations the Latvian Government will be pining for more moments like these, preferably at the three remaining Grand Slams of the year.

As well as the opportunity of being Latvia’s brightest star the knowledge and understanding of how his success can help the prospects of his descendents should be more than enough to spur on a player who continues to show that you don’t necessarily need the greatest financial backing to earn success.