Olympic Gold

I Love the 90s: A Reflection on Two Teen Phenoms

The year was 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just been established. Groups like Weezer and Green Day dominated the airwaves. The Lion King was released and quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time.

Oh, and a pair of 14 year olds, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams began their careers as professional tennis players.

Snuck onto the WTA Tour before the now infamous Jennifer Capriati Age Eligibility Rule was adopted, Hingis and Williams were the sport’s last prepubescent prodigies. In a class all their own, the two young women could not have been more different. Martina, named for compatriot and living legend Navratilova, was the Swiss Miss of the international junior circuit. At 12 years old, she won the French Open girls’ title, defending it a year later and picking up a Wimbledon title along the way. Thrashing opponents years her senior, Hingis played a grown up game within a child’s frame, one that barely scratched 5’7″. Far from a baseline aggressor, Martina preferred to light up the court with cunning variety and flawless shot selection.

Across the Atlantic was Williams, whose father Richard taught her and her sister, Serena (perhaps you’ve heard of her) the sport with thanks to instructional VHS tapes and gang-infested Compton courts. Making school a priority, Richard kept his daughters stateside and entered them solely in USTA events. Venus went undefeated in 63 matches, setting a precedent on a soil she would come to dominate as a senior. Where Martina represented a keen tennis brain and sharp instincts, Venus was raw talent and natural athleticism. Statuesque and 6’1″, she was known for possessing a powerful, well, everything. The young American was breaking records for serve speeds as a teenager, and helped usher in the era of Big Babe Tennis that persists to this day.

In the mid-90s, while Venus broke records with her serve, Martina wrote her name in the record books simply by winning. At 15, she became the youngest-ever Slam champion, taking the 1996 Wimbledon doubles crown with veteran Helena Sukova. A year later, she became the undisputed queen of the tour, falling one match shy of the Grand Slam and began a reign atop the rankings that was largely uninterrupted for the next four years.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ok3L5r5YxLM

Venus reached her first Slam final that same year, falling to Martina in Flushing. At the time, she was no match for her rival’s fully-developed game. But while the American made steady improvements, fine-tuning her power game to match the consistency of those ranked above her, injuries tended to derail her cause, most notably when she succumbed to cramps against Hingis at the same event two years later.

As she was getting her legs massaged by the trainer, Hingis put a towel on the ground so she could lie on the court with her feet up.

It is a scene that is just so Martina. Once quoted as saying she was a “player, not a worker,” the Swiss superstar was a young woman to whom much (perhaps too much) came easily. Her consistent style meant she could compensate for a powderpuff serve, the biggest weakness in her game, relatively speaking. While those around her got fitter and tougher, Martina laid back with her feet up, never losing that signature wry grin. And why shouldn’t she have? She was assured of a Hall of Fame career by the age of 18.

Sure enough, Hingis was elected to the illustrious Interantional Tennis Hall of Fame on Monday, a class of 2013 for which, once again, she seems too young. While her powerful, injury-prone contemporary once looked more likely to be the proverbial flash in the pan, it was Hingis herself who burned out at 22, made a comeback at 25 only to retire for good at 27. Even in her much anticipated mid-2000s comeback, it was apparent that she had failed to make the necessary changes to compete with what had become the game’s best. The comparative lack of success meant, for Hingis, an exponential decrease in desire.

By comparison, Venus has become the posterwoman for overcoming adversity. Over almost two decades on tour, she not only became a great champion (though her head-to-head with Hingis ended at 11-10 in the Swiss’ favor), but also an ambassador for her sport and an inspiration to all who have seen her battle and conquer Sjogren’s Syndrome, a debilitating autoimmune disease, to win a fourth Olympic gold medal last summer in London. Who could have predicted the way this story would end? Certainly no one in the 90s.

Though firmly entrenched among the game’s legends, what would Hingis give to go back?

London Ready for Grand Tennis Finale

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was dragging myself out of bed nice and early ready and eager for the Australian Open to kick off. Ten months later and the 2010 tennis season is ready to draw to a close.

There is much talk at the moment about the shortening of the tennis calendar. In return for a longer winter break to recuperate, many tournament organisers want a halt put to the money-spinning off-season exhibitions which many stars partake in.

If such plans go ahead, then these ATP Finals will become THE final say in the tennis season, but maybe at an earlier date. As it is, mid-November is the time for the top eight players from the last forty-odd weeks to battle it out for the final big scalp of the year.

While many argue that the lineup picks itself, there is always a surprise and who would have placed David Ferrer or Tomas Berdych in the mix at this point last year? We take a look at the eight hopefuls and run the rule over their chances of finishing the year on the highest of highs.

Group A:

Rafa Nadal:

Finished the year as the world No. 1 and waded in to the “GOAT” debate after finalising the career Grand Slam with victory, at last, at Flushing Meadows. He has nine Majors, has reached the semi finals of this tournament in 2006 and 2007 and holds an Olympic Gold from Beijing.

He is many people’s favourite for London and rightly so. However, his form has been a little erratic since that victory in New York and many still question his ability compared to Federer’s on the hard courts.

However, doubt Rafa at your peril. The man also equalled Andre Agassi’s record of 17 ATP Masters titles this year and is more than adept at bringing his A-game when it really matters. But the bookies acknowledge that Rafa has never won this tournament so he is installed as 3/1 second favourite.

2010 Titles: Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open, Tokyo

2010 Finals: Doha

Novak Djokovic:

The nearly man. Since that 2008 Australian Open it just hasn’t quite happened for the Serb who has often been derided for his collapses on court and his perceived exaggeration of injuries to escape tricky opponents early.

While his on-court manner has undoubtedly toughened and the tears and early exits are becoming less of a problem he still has not secured that second major. His big enemy continues to be consistency. That dramatic victory over Federer in the US Open semis succeeded by a rather empty performance in the final against Rafa due to fatigue.

The two-time French Open finalist won this tournament in 2008 and after a relatively quiet period following Flushing Meadows maybe he is rested enough to quietly negotiate his way to a second triumph, leading to perhaps that second major? He is the 4/1 third favourite.

2010 Titles: Dubai, Beijing,

2010 Finals: US Open, Basel

Tomas Berdych:

Despite complaining about the increased pressure which followed his Wimbledon finals appearance it has been a great year for Czech star Tomas Berdych. The 25-year-old reached a career-high No. 6 in October as well as that first Slam final at SW19.

He also reached the semifinals at the French and is debuting in the end-of-year Championships. His fast pace and aggressive play is sure to delight the locals that got behind him back in the summer although winning this may be a step too far.

The only man here not to lift a title in 2010, Berdych is available at 25/1, placed last alongside Ferrer.

2010 Titles: none

2010 Finals: Miami, Wimbledon

Andy Roddick:

It has been a fairly difficult year for A-Rod who has battled with losses of form as well as illness throughout the season. But the 2003 US Open winner looks back to full fitness and with three semifinals placings in these championships he is somebody with the experience to repeat that feat.

With the likes of John Isner, Sam Querrey and a rejuvenated Mardy Fish challenging his placement as America’s No. 1, Roddick will have to remain at the top of his game to keep ahead of the pack and what better way to do that than victory here?

However, he only qualified due to Verdasco’s end-of-year collapse and lost some big matches to the likes of Soderling and Federer who he would need to beat here if he was to see success. Roddick is available at 20/1 with only Berdych and Ferrer below him.

2010 Titles: Brisbane, Miami

2010 Finals: San Jose, Indian Wells

Group B:

Roger Federer:

With critics questioning his temperament after squandering five match points against Gael Monfils at Paris it is up to R-Fed to shut them up as he has continually throughout his glittering career.

Statistically the greatest of all time, Federer lifted the Australian Open in January but has failed to reach a Grand Slam final since. But who would be stupid enough to bet against the man who has 16 Grand Slams and four ATP Finals to his name?

However, Federer hasn’t won this trophy since 2007 which shows the competition at the top of the sport. Even so, he is still the favourite with the bookies at 5/2. Could it be a return to form?

2010 Titles: Australian Open, Cincinnati, Stockholm, Basel

2010 Finals: Madrid, Halle, Toronto, Shanghai

Andy Murray:

The wait for the Grand Slam continues as he defeated Federer in two of the three finals they met in this year but the important one, Australia, was taken by the Swiss.

Murray made the semifinals of this tournament in 2008 and will hope to go one better, but the latter half of 2010 has not been too good for the Scotsman. A shock loss to Stanlislas Wawrinka at the US Open has been followed by some not-too-flattering results across Asia and Europe, Shanghai aside.

But with the home crowd behind him you cannot dispel him as the British public have helped roar him to two Wimbledon semifinals before this. Murray is available at 9/2.

2010 Titles: Toronto, Shanghai

2010 Finals: Australian Open, Los Angeles

Robin Soderling:

The pantomime villain of tennis, nobody can argue with Soderling’s ability on a court. Always there or thereabouts in the major tournaments nobody likes to play him.

You never know which Soderling is going to turn up though and every great defeat can be matched to a despairing loss throughout his career. He will be hoping the former turns up as he did in Paris last week.

The two-time French Open finalist has also reached the semifinals here and will be looking to go one further. Soderling is available at 10/1.

2010 Titles: Rotterdam, Paris

2010 Finals: Barcelona, French Open, Bastad

David Ferrer:

As he showed by turning up in a grey suit to Downing Street while everyone else wore black you just cannot ignore David Ferrer. As this year’s last minute late surger in to the finals everybody will be looking elsewhere for a winner. But as a successful 2010 clay season showed he can beat anyone.

Spanish players are so many that they have to perform at the highest level consistently to remain above the parapet. Ferrer has done so. While only reaching one Grand Slam semi final he lost the 2007 ATP Tour Final to Roger Federer and nobody will relish playing him.

Placing him at 25/1 alongside Berdych shows the bookies have little faith in him but this will not bother the diminutive star one bit.

2010 Titles: Acapulco, Valencia

2010 Finals: Rome, Beijing

Is Dementieva Continuing a New Sporting Trend?

There is no doubt what the biggest story in tennis has been this week. Elena Dementieva, the Russian Ice Queen, has left us almost as abruptly as she arrived.

Dementieva strove to show us that, after Kournikova, Russian women could actually compete at the top of the game and weren’t there to earn the WTA megabucks in sponsorship and marketing campaigns for their pinups.

And compete she did. She never lifted a major and many of her fans claim she is the greatest player of the last generation not to do so. But she does own an Olympic Gold as well as a Silver and that’s more than many could ever hope to achieve.

But we know how well she has done. We have followed her intense battles with Serena Williams over the years and admired her elegance and shot selection as she graced the worldwide courts in search of fame and glory.

What is very intriguing is her decision to hang her racquet up at 29. She is citing motherhood as her new dream. And few can deny her that wish. But this action hasn’t always been the case, and what does it mean about modern sport and the athletes that compete?

It is a well-argued cliché that the tennis tour has evolved in to a physically and mentally demanding money monster which can suck the life out of the most physically astute of athletes. To keep up with the Serenas and the Rogers you have to fight for every available ranking point and, in the case of many players, play through injury for fear of falling too far behind in the tables and the seedings for the major tournaments.

One shocking statistic following the early exits of Fernando Verdasco and Thomas Berdych this week was that they were both competing in their TWENTY SIXTH ATP Tournament of the year. No wonder they looked exhausted.

It makes it almost impossible for a lady chasing the Top 10 in the rankings to spend near enough as much time with her newborn kids as she would like. Kim Clijsters doesn’t play as many tournaments as she used to for this reason. But then she is good enough to play the big guns without as much practice anyway. Many others are not.

It mirrors the fight between career and family women in the twenty-first century and the usual debates over how to juggle work and children arise once more.

But what about the other factors of modern sport? Dementieva reached two Grand Slam finals, two WTA Championships semi finals and was ranked at No. 3 in the world at her peak. She won 16 WTA Titles, a WTA Championships in doubles and amassed a career record of 575-271 (singles) and 152-85 (doubles). A good record, yet not the greatest. How much did she earn for her troubles in her twelve years on the tour? Answer: $14,117,437. And that was just prize money. She would have earned a bucket-load more through endorsements.

The modern sportsman earns so much in their short careers that they can afford to cut their terms short and not have to worry about their futures. This wasn’t the case even fifteen-twenty years ago where only the best of the best could expect to live over-comfortably after retirement, unless they chose to go in to coaching/punditry/another line of work of course.

In sports like American football, rugby, baseball and football, stars earn obscene amounts of money for a day’s work which makes them millionaires at such tender ages. The stories of when players go wrong are endless but it also means that they can almost pick and choose when to play without having to worry about their finances.

As fans we would never dream of finishing early as all we want is to experience being a top tennis pro for as long as possible. But imagine if you’re knees were starting to give you great pain and you were already sitting on $15m. Would you go on?

In recent years we have seen many early retirements in tennis. And the trend goes back too. From Bjorn Borg to Clijsters and Justine Henin we have been robbed of top talent at an “early age” but what does it say of those three that they later returned?

Now we also have Taylor Dent, James Blake, Rennae Stubbs and Lleyton Hewitt talking of possible quits.

Has Dementieva made a rash decision? Will she regret her choices and look to hit the comeback trail in two years’ time? Of course it will be harder for her being in the 30+ threshold by then but just look at Kimiko Date Krumm and you really do have to think twice about it.

It is not just tennis either. In football, top stars like Carlos Tevez have voiced exasperation at having to adapt to foreign cultures so often and all the travelling involved in modern day sport. They have voiced quit sentiments. Eric Cantona left early to become a film star, as did Vinnie Jones, while Ian Wright quit at the peak of his powers to chase a career in British television. Gavin Henson and Danny Cipriani of rugby fame have recently had spells out of the game to spend time with their celebrity families and chase television ventures. While in Formula One Michael Schumacher left and later returned to the sport.

Is this a trend that will continue as the years go by where stars become disillusioned with life in, and then out of, sport? Will we continue to be left shocked at the sudden departures of our favourites and then relieved later on as they announce their return? Will this make the sport more exciting?

It certainly fits in with the “instant gratification needs” of Western Society in these days of post-modern thinking. Jump in, earn a few million, try to win a Slam, move on to something new. Many tennis purists will argue that it undermines the sport and brings in a sort of circus atmosphere and I’d have to say this is probably my thinking too.

I am a hopeless sporting romantic and love the stories of hard graft and achievement against the odds. I love seeing the emersion of the likes of Roger and knowing there is greatness to come. I love the Goran Ivanisevic’s of the wildcard world winning Grand Slams and I love reading up on the stories of the likes of Ernests Gulbis coming from small towns in struggling countries escaping to fame and glory.

Will it ruin tennis? I don’t think so. But it will certainly mean a demise in the long-staying Champions of the Martina Navratilova ilk. Watch this space to see if Elena returns to us. That will give us an indication of if the trend is a bad thing or not.

Dementieva’s Shock Retirement, Clijsters wins in Doha and ATP Finals Chase is on

*29-year-old world No. 9 Elena Dementieva has shocked the tennis world by announcing that she will retire from the sport following the WTA Championships in Doha. She reached the finals of the French and US Opens in 2004 as well as the semi finals in Australia (2009), Wimbledon (2008, 2009) and at the WTA Chmps. (2000, 2008) whilst also holding both an Olympic Gold (Beijing) and Silver (Sydney) medal. In 2005 she starred for Russia in their Fed Cup triumph and currently stands as their most successful competitor ever in the competition and in 2009 she reached a career-high No. 3 in the world. But she says it was at the beginning of the year she made her decision and that, despite her family’s best attempts, she’s sticking to her guns. “This is my last tournament,” she told the Doha crowd after her group-stage defeat to Francesca Schiavone. “Thank you to all of the people that I have worked with for such a long time. I would like to thank all of the players for an amazing experience. It’s very emotional. I would like to thank all of the people around the world for supporting me through my career. And I would like to thank my family, especially my mum.” For more from Dementieva as well as reaction from her fellow pros visit the BBC Tennis website as well as the WTA site.

*Belgian super mum Kim Clijsters defeated Danish superstar Caroline Wozniacki to lift the WTA Championships for the third time in Doha. The 27-year-old fought to a 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory despite having not played since lifting the US Open at Flushing Meadows back in September. “I’m glad I won and it must be disappointing for Caroline, but I don’t know how many more years I’m going to keep doing this,” said Clijsters. “It was just a great battle, great fitness and I think we showed the crowd some great women’s tennis.” Wozniacki said: “This has been a fantastic week for me. Kim just played amazing today and she deserves to win. In the third set it was very close. She played really well, especially in the important moments. Definitely the experience mattered a little bit today.” Gisela Dulko and Flavia Penetta won the doubles.

*The men’s season isn’t quite over yet but time is seriously running out for the remaining hopefuls looking to qualify for the ATP Finals in London later this month. Andy Roddick returned from a three-week layoff in Basel and defeated compatriot Sam Querrey 7-5, 7-6(6) to keep up his finals charge but there was not such good news for Tomas Berdych and Fernando Verdasco. Over at Valencia, Verdasco lost to Frenchman Gilles Simon in just fifty-seven minutes which deals a major blow to his finals hopes. Simon was on fire, winning an astonishing 81% of points off of his first serve. It was even worse for Wimbledon finalist Berdych. He went down 4-6, 1-6 in Basel to German lucky loser Tobias Kamke and now his qualification chances will be severely dented too.

*There’s an early Davis Cup final setback for France as world No. 13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has withdrawn from the squad to face Serbia due to his recurring knee problems. He ruptured his tendon once more playing at Montpellier last week having only returned to action a few weeks previously. The 2008 Aussie Open finalist will also miss the Paris Masters next week where he would have been hoping to push his way in to the ATP World Tour Finals to be held in London later this month.

*Great scenes in St. Petersburg last week as world No. 88 Mikhail Kukushkin humbled top seed Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 7-6(2) to break his ATP Tour title duck. “For me it’s just incredible, this feeling, because I never think that I can win a tournament right now because I was ranked around 90,” he said. “When I came here I didn’t think I can even play quarter-finals, semis here. I was just concentrating on every match.” It was also his first final on the tour. A full interview with the Kazakhstani star can be seen at the ATP website.

*Caroline Wozniacki of course had already secured her berth as the year-ending world No. 1 but what did Doha mean for the rest? Kim Clijsters’ win has seen her climb back to No. 3 in the world meaning Serena finds herself sat at No. 4 as her injury woes continue. Aussie Sam Stosur finds herself back at No. 6 while much further down the scale, Croatia’s Karolina Sprem finds herself back up to No. 97 in the world having sat at 106 last week.

*The Christophe Rochus doping row has taken the interest of many tennis fans this week and it once again brings tennis in to contact with that horrible term and concept. There is an interesting debate on the issue over at Tennis.com between Steve Tignor and Kamakshi Tandon.

*Ana Ivanovic and coach Heinz Gunthardt have parted ways despite Ana’s recent resurgence. Gunthardt couldn’t commit to a full-time coaching role and Ana has decided to find somebody who will be able to follow her more permanently.

*It’s retirement central currently with American Taylor Dent hinting he may quit if results begin to slip. After overcoming terrible back injuries over the past few years the former world No. 21 has been fighting to climb the ladder again and save his career. “If I feel like I’m making headway, I’ll keep going,” Dent told the Charlottesville Daily Progress ahead of this week’s Charlottesville challenger. “If not—if I’m floundering or taking steps backward—then I’ll make that decision [to retire] sooner rather than later.”

*Another American is talking pipes and slippers, this time Rennae Stubbs. She says she plans to call time on her career in February after the Aussie Open and America’s Fed Cup tie against Italy. “If we win [in] Fed Cup and get to the semis, there’s a small possibility that I’d still like to be a part of that journey, having been on the train for so long,”’ the 39-year-old doubles specialist told the Melbourne Age. “But the plan is that Fed Cup will probably be it.”

*Dustin Brown is now competing under the German flag, having earlier represented Jamaica and expressing interest in representing Great Britain. He has clashed with the Jamaican tennis authorities over a perceived lack of support and famously travelled between tournaments in a camper van to save funds. He was born in Germany to a German mother and Jamaican father.

*There has been a lot of fuss made this past week about the fact that Aussie star Lleyton Hewitt announced the name of his new baby daughter via a paid-for text message service which fans could subscribe too. Hewitt, of course, is defending his “service” available to fans but many of the world’s press think badly of the venture. Although the argument is a little old now, there is a great tongue-in-cheek article on The Star website looking at the whole debacle from a typically Aussie perspective. Check it out, it’s a good read!

How The Federers Met: Roger and Mirka 10 Years Ago at the Olympics

It was 10 years ago on September 27, 2000 that Roger Federer concluded his participation at the Sydney Olympic Games when he was defeated by unheralded Arnaud DiPasquale of France 7-6 (5), 6-7 (7), 6-3 in the bronze medal match in men’s singles.

Despite losing this important match – the only time Federer has been this close to winning and Olympic medal in singles (he did win Olympic gold in 2008 in doubles) – the 2000 Olympic Games was a pivotal point in Federer’s life. It was at these Sydney Games 10 years ago this week where Federer and his now wife Mirka met and became a couple. Rene Stauffer, in his book ROGER FEDERER: QUEST FOR PERFECTION ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.RogerFedererBook.com), describes Federer and his “Olympic Experiences” in this exclusive book excerpt.

The Swiss Olympic tennis team was in shatters at the start of the Sydney Games. Martina Hingis and Patty Schnyder both withdrew from the women’s competition at the last minute. Marc Rosset, the 1992 Olympic champion was also a late withdrawal, costing Federer an opportunity to play Olympic doubles. The Swiss Olympic Committee was furious. Tennis players were depicted as pampered and spoiled athletes who didn’t appreciate the true value of the Olympic Games.

The Swiss tennis team shared living quarters, socialized and dined with fellow Olympians from the Swiss archery, judo and wrestling teams in the Olympic Village, where Federer had the privilege of occupying a single room.

“That was the best event I ever attended,” Federer said years later as he embellished his long-time fascination of the Olympic Games. The contrast to the monotony of life in the hotels could hardly be bigger. The Opening Ceremonies, the interaction with athletes from other sports, the atmosphere in the Olympic Village and the feeling of belonging also made an impression on Mirka Vavrinec, a member of Switzerland’s women’s Olympic tennis team. “The Olympics are fantastic, unbelievably beautiful, unparalleled,” Vavrinec gushed of the Olympic experience courtside following a practice session. She also had nice things to say about Federer, the youthful star of the Swiss team, who was three years her junior—“I had no idea he was so funny.”

Mirka was born an only child in Bojnice, in the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia in 1978. Her parents fled the Communist country with her when she was two-years-old to make a new life for themselves in the Swiss border city of Kreuzlingen on Lake Constance. Her father, Miroslav, a former javelin thrower, and his wife, Drahomira, ran a jewelry shop. In the fall of 1987, when Mirka was nine, Miroslav took his family to nearby Filderstadt, Germany where Martina Navratilova happened to be competing in a WTA Tour event.

The Czech-born Navratilova dominated women’s tennis and, like the Vavrinecs, defected from Czechoslovakia. When in Filderstadt, she warmly greeted the Vavrinec family. “We got to stay a few days with her,” Mirka said of the trip. Navratilova asked her if she played tennis. Mirka said no, “I do ballet.” The eight-time Wimbledon champion (she would go on to win her ninth title in 1990) advised her to try tennis. She said that Mirka’s good physique

and athletic talent would serve her well on the tennis courts. Navratilova put out feelers and asked the former top Czech player living in Switzerland, Jiri Granat, if he could test and coach the girl.

Navratilova’s instincts were correct. Mirka immediately showcased great skills with a tennis racquet. But not only that, she also had grit and endurance. Tennis instructor Murat Gürler, who tutored her in her early years, recalled that she was “completely into it” when it came to tennis. Mirka told the Swiss tennis magazine Smash in 1994, after winning the Swiss juniors’ title for 18-year-olds at the age of 15, “Tennis is my life, but it certainly can’t be easy to work with me because I can be really stubborn.”

Her ambition and her uncompromising nature were tremendous. In 1993, following a tournament in the city of Maribor in Slovenia, she convinced her coach to take her to a tournament in Croatia. The trip required travel through a part of Croatia where there was still fighting in the Balkan civil war. The two passed through destroyed villages, tanks and burned cars. She was afraid, but her ambition was greater.

Mirka ranked among the top 300 in the world by the time she was 17. A protracted heel injury in 1996 kept her off the circuit for months, causing her ranking to fall over 300 places. She valiantly fought back to No. 262 in the rankings by the end of 1997 and looked euphorically to the future. “I really want to place in the top 30 in the world rankings,” she said.

Mirka meanwhile obtained a Swiss passport. The only connections she still had to her native land were a few relatives still living in Slovakia as well as the confused mix of German and Slovakian spoken at home. She maintained loose ties to Navratilova and was fortunate to find a patron, the Swiss industrialist Walter Ruf, who helped her to survive financially on the women’s tennis circuit.

Thanks to her ambition and her endurance—as well as to her backhand that some even considered the best in the world—Mirka cracked the top 100 in the world rankings for the first time in 2000. She luckily received a wildcard

entry to play at the Olympic Games in Sydney, even though her ranking did not qualify her to play.

While Mirka won only two games in her first-round match against eventual silver medalist Elena Dementieva of Russia, Federer began to rack up victory after victory. Benefiting from an Olympic men’s field without Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and upset losses by US Open champion Marat Safin, Tim Henman and Michael Chang in his half of the draw, Federer won four straight matches and found himself in the semifinals. It was his best result of his career to date and surprisingly, it came at an outdoor event

At age 19, Federer was in position to become the youngest Olympic gold medalist in modern tennis. However, he played cautiously against the German Tommy Haas, ranked No. 48 (12 places behind Federer) in the semifinals and decisively lost. He did, however, still have a chance to win the bronze medal, but instead of registering a lifetime achievement of winning an Olympic medal, Federer suffered one of his greatest disappointments, losing to Arnaud DiPasquale of France, ranked No. 61 in the world. Despite being up 3-0 in the first-set tie-break, Federer lost seven of the next nine points to lose the tie-break 7-5. In the second set, Federer fought off a match point in the tie-break at 6-7 and won the tie-break two points later. Federer broke DiPasquale, who began suffering from cramps, to take a 2-1 lead in the final set, but the Frenchmen rallied to win the two-and-half-hour match 6-7 (5), 7-6 (7), 6-3.

“Considering how the match was going, I should never have lost,” Federer said, hardly able to hold back the tears. “I really wanted to be standing on the podium. Now I have nothing to take home except my pride.” But Federer, who had recently said “I would choose tennis over a girlfriend” would leave Sydney with more than his pride. His friendship with Mirka blossomed into romance. Mirka said at first she wasn’t aware that he had taken a romantic interest in her. “He didn’t kiss me until the last day of the Olympic Games,” she admitted.

They parted ways for now. She followed the women’s tour to Japan and then to Europe. However, the relationship became more intense over the next few months. The public still had to wait a long time until stories and official pictures of the new “dream couple” surfaced. When a newspaper disregarded Federer’s request to please keep his new relationship under wraps, he reacted angrily. “I don’t think that this has to come out in public,” he complained. “I spoke with my girlfriend and she didn’t want this exposed either, because then we would both just have to talk about our relationship and not about our tennis anymore.”

Mirka’s career, however, didn’t work out as hoped. She managed to reach the third round of a Grand Slam tournament at the 2001 US Open, losing to future world No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne, but the price she had to pay for her victories was high. Like her Swiss colleague, Martina Hingis, Mirka encountered problems with her feet—despite several operations and rest. Her career-high ranking was achieved on Sept. 10, 2001 when she ranked No.

76 in the world, but a torn ligament in her right foot prevented her from further improving and forced her into a hiatus that lasted for months. The 2001 US Open was her last great success on the tennis tour—with the exception of the Hopman Cup in Perth in January of 2002 where she was able to celebrate a victory over Argentina alongside her boyfriend. Shortly afterwards, at the age of 24, she played her last match on the WTA Tour in Budapest. She was forced to have another operation and was once again on crutches. It was still quite some time until she finally realized that her career was really finished. Her record as a professional concluded with 202 victories and 159 defeats—including the lower-level challenger and satellite events—with overall earnings of $260,832.

The abrupt and premature end of her career cast her into a depression. “It’s not easy when you do something you like your entire life and then have to quit it from one day to the next,” she said later in an interview at Wimbledon. “I fell into a deep hole. The most difficult part was when I was home for eight months and couldn’t do anything. I had a lot of time to think and watch tennis on television. Roger was my greatest support back then. He gave my tennis life back to me. When he wins, it’s as if I win as well.”

JUSTINE HENIN MAKES TRIUMPHANT RETURN

Justine Henin made a triumphant return to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour in Brisbane on Monday with a 7-5, 7-5 win over second seeded Nadia Petrova.

In her first competitive match since retiring eighteen months ago, Henin showed no signs of rust as she advanced against an opponent she has dominated 11-2 in their career head-to-head meetings.

Henin also defeated Petrova last month in an exhibition match in Cairo by a score of 7-5, 6-2, so the result should come as no surprise.

The crafty Henin only lost five points on her first serve in the opening set and broke Petrova at 5-5. She would later close out the frame with an ace.

In the second set Petrova staked an early 2-0 lead before Henin fought back and again broke at 5-5 to march towards victory.

Petrova seemed to take the defeat in stride and had nothing but praise for Henin in her post-match press conference.

“I think she is a better player than before she retired. She’s more aggressive,” Petrova said. “Previously, she was more of a clay court player, but now I see her a hardcourt player as well. She’s certainly playing high level of tennis.”

Personally, I would be embarrassed as a professional tennis player to lose to someone who has been away from the game for a year and a half. Henin however is not just any returning player. The Belgian has won 7 Grand Slams, an Olympic Gold as well as 41 other WTA titles in her career. At only 27 years old, there is still plenty left in the tank both physically and emotionally for Henin.

“I feel better today than when I retired, that’s for sure,” Henin said. “Better emotionally, mentally, better with myself—and that makes a big difference that I will enjoy being on the tour again.”

Under normal circumstances, a win over a top-twenty player like Petrova after such a sustained absence from the game would garner more attention and praise. While many eyes are on Henin, the bar has been set high by her compatriot Kim Clijsters. Winning a couple of rounds will not suffice and anything short of a title in the near future may be deemed a disappointment by some – a fact that would have seemed ridiculous before Clijsters’ incredible run at Flushing Meadows in August.

The comparisons to Clijsters are inevitable and not simply because of their shared Belgian heritage. Both took approximately the same amount of time away from the game and both are former top level players who have enjoyed Grand Slam success. The immediate returns that Clijsters enjoyed during the summer spoke volumes about the immense talent that she possesses. As much, if not more, will be expected from Henin.

Henin now advances to the second round where she will face qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva.

rg2009: no trophies were bitten in the making of this record-tying feat

fed-win-rg

Congrats to Roger Federer for getting that clay monkey off his back; up until this morning, he lacked a mini Coupe des Mousquetaires* in his overflowing trophy case, which put his place among the tennis greats into question. But now that he’s filled that French Open void in his record — with a 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 performance over an overwhelmed (and likely exhausted)Robin Soderling — Federer can play out the rest of his years with a clear mind. He’s achieved pretty much everything: a prolonged stay at the top of the rankings, an Olympic gold (albeit in doubles), and singles trophy from all four majors. (Has he won all of the Masters Series events?). Nothing is stopping him from surpassing Pete Sampras’s record in bagged Slam titles and becoming the GOAT of his generation. Unfortunately, Roger could also get a boost from his greatest rival, Rafa Nadal, if the Spaniard starts to sputter because of bad equipment; Nadal’s deteriorating knees have forced him out of this year’s Queen’s Club draw and makes a Wimbledon title defense uncertain.

Props to Soderling for his week, btw. Too bad he couldn’t push Federer to four or five sets. But after bulldozing Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko, and Fernando Gonzalez on the way to the final, something had to give. Also, the Swede gave one of the most sincere and gracious speeches I have heard in recent years. For as much as we hear that he’s disliked by other players for gamesmanship and such, he had a very cheery attitude as he received his runner-up platter.

*funny observation by Pierre, who commented on Bodo’s blog that mentions of the CdM had overtaken terre battue as le mot de l’année

(image via Getty Images)

Justine Henin profiled by Bud Collins

After Wednesday’s sudden retirement press conference, TennisGrandstand.com gives you a look at the career of Justine Henin – as compiled by Bud Collins in his new book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS in this exclusive excerpt. If you are interested in pre-ordering the book, click HERE to pre-order at a 39 percent off pre-sale price.

There’s not much there, as far as physique goes, but within that 5-foot-5, 126 pound frame churns a highly competitive heart and the flair of an artist who plays the game with superlative grace and style. Flitting across the court quickly, nimbly, Justine Henin is a model of complete greatness, at home anywhere in the rectangle, baseline or net.

A right-hander with a stunning one-handed backhand drive, she grasped No. 1 for a year (2003), then returned for 2006-07, and will be very difficult to unseat as she gains momentum.

A brilliant 2007 contained nine titles – among them a fourth French, second U.S. – and new zest based on heightened happiness in her personal life. Reconnecting with her family after a period of estrangement, and unconnecting with husband Pierre-Yves Hardenne (as Henin-Hardenne she won five of her seven majors), gave Justine an emotional lift. Her dash to the 2007 U.S. title was particularly satisfying since she had to erase the Williams family in succession, Serena in the quarterfinals, 7-6 (7-3), 6-1, and Venus in the semifinals, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, before a 6-1, 6-3, crushing of Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, her 6-4, 6-4, victim in the 2006 French final.

Born June 1, 1982, Liege, Belgium, she turned pro 1999, coached by Carlos Rodriguez throughout. She played Federation Cup for six years, 1999 – 03, 06, played 11 ties with a 15-3 singles, 0-2 doubles record. She helped win Cup for Belgium in 2001 and reach a final in 2006. She won the 2004 Olympic singles gold, defeating Amelie Mauresmo 6-3, 6-3.

She won seven major singles titles – Australian, 2004, defeating countrywomen Kim Clijsters, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3; French, 2003, defeating Clijsters again, 6-0, 6-4; 2005, defeating Mary Pierce of France, 6-1, 6-1; 2006, defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, 6-4, 6-4; 2007, defeating Ana Ivanovic of Serbia, 6-1, 6-2; U.S., 2003, defeating Clijsters, 7-5, 6-1; 2007, defeating Kuznetsova, 6-1, 6-3. She lost four major singles finals: Australian, 2006, to Amelie Mauresmo of France, 6-1, 2-0, ret; Wimbledon, 2001, to Venus Williams of the United States, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0; 2006, to Mauresmo, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4; U.S., 2006, to Maria Sharapova of Russia, 6-4, 6-4.

Henin also made the semifinals of the Australian, 2003, French, 2001, Wimbledon, 2002-03, 07; the quarterfinals of the Australian, 2002 and 2008. From 2001, she has spent seven straight years in the Top 10: Nos. 7, 5, 1, 8, 6, 1, 1.

She has overcome numerous injuries and illnesses, and the negative publicity that accompanied her quitting the 2006 Australian final to Mauresmo, behind, 6-1, 2-0, claiming a stomach ache. But she showed her spunk during the 2003 U.S. Open. Somehow she beat Jennifer Capriati, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-4) in the semifinals in 3:03 (ending 12:27AM Saturday morning), even though Capriati was two points from victory 11 times, and served for it at 5-3 in the 2nd and 3rd sets. Justine, cramping in the third set, needed IV attention following the match. Yet later in the day took the championship, beating Clijsters, 7-5, 6-1, avoiding two set points at 4-5, 15-40.

As the first to win three straight French since Monica Seles, 1990-92, Justine revels in the Parisian earth, thrilled as a little girl brought to Roland Garros by her mother. She won two season-ending WTA Tour Championships – 2006 defeating Amelie Mauresmo 6-4, 6-3; 2007 defeating Maria Sharapova (3hrs 24min) 5-7, 7-5, 6-3. In 2007, she was the first woman to end a season with more than $5 million in prize money in a season – $5,367,086.

Other prominent singles titles won include the German Open three times – 2002, defeating S. Williams, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 2003, defeating Clijsters, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 2005, defeating Nadia Petrova, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. She also won the Canadian Open in 2003, defeating. Lina Krasnoroutskaya, 6-1, 6-0 and Indian Wells in 2004, defeating Lindsay Davenport, 6-1, 6-4.

During her career, she won 41 singles (489-105 matches), two doubles pro titles. $19,461,375 prize money. She unexpectedly announced her immediate retirement from the game, the first No.1 to do so, on May 14, 2008.

Roddick to Skip 2008 Olympics

By Agence France Presse

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US star Andy Roddick will skip the Beijing Olympics in August to defend his crown at the ATP Washington Classic two weeks before the US Open. Roddick will bring star power to the only event on the men’s tennis tour that conflicts with the high-profile showdown for Olympic gold in China.

Roddick has decided to remain in the United States to better preapre for the US Open, the year’s final Grand Slam tournament that starts in New York on August 25, the day after the Olympics conclude in Beijing.

“My goal every summer is to win the US Open,” said Roddick. “I have won the Legg Mason Tennis Classic three times and feel defending my title in Washington best prepares me for another Grand Slam title.”

Sixth-ranked Roddick captured the ATP title in Dubai last weekend with victories over Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and reigning French Open champion Rafael Nadal in the run.

Roddick defeated big-serving US wild card John Isner in last year’s Washington final.

The Olympic tournament and Washington’s event are both set to be played on the week starting Monday, August 11.

With Roddick’s absence, ninth-ranked James Blake is the top-rated American in line to play for Beijing Olympic singles gold.