Patrick McEnroe

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“The Choke of the Year:” Victoria Azarenka Behind The Mic

Victoria Azarenka takes a medical timeout. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Barring a toe injury that kept her from finishing a warm-up event in Brisbane, Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match all year. There have been a few tense moments during her matches in Australia, most notably when she fell behind a break to American Jamie Hampton in the third, and most recently when she squandered five match points against Hampton’s compatriot Sloane Stephens. But the World’s No. 1 has been solid when it matters most and finds herself in her second consecutive Australian Open final.

If only she could be as clutch when she trades the racquet for a microphone.

In another serious gaffe, the Belorussian spoke to Sam Smith after her win over Stephens:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUbWztL4ozQ&w=560&h=315]

The crux of Smith’s question spoke to Azarenka’s “difficulties” in finishing off the feisty American, who was in her first Slam semifinal. However, the former player and commentator was referring to the medical timeout Azarenka took before the start of the final game, one that lasted nearly ten minutes and required the top seed to leave the court.

Evidently under the impression that Smith was asking about her inability to serve out the match at 5-3, Azarenka laughed off the scary prospect of having avoided “the choke of the year” and admitted to feeling “overwhelmed…one step away from the final.”

Smith’s first question made a brief reference to the timeout, but when she got no answer, she moved on. The decision not to press Azarenka about her apparent injury, both by Smith and later Tom Rinaldi, only fueled the speculation further and gave the defending champion more rope with which to hang herself.

To Smith she admitted, “I just couldn’t lose, that’s why I was so upset!” When Rinaldi asked her why she left the court, she said she could not breathe and had “chest pain.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldpEmOoIsL4&w=560&h=315]

By the time she made it the formal press conference, Azarenka faced a lengthy interrogation about her injuries and their legitimacy. Azarenka defended herself and called her prior diction “my bad.” Critical of the MTO process, Patrick McEnroe called for an overhaul of the rule itself so players like Azarenka are not “able to manipulate the rules.”  Stephens’ coach David Nainkin called what happened to his charge “cheating within the rules.”

All of this came days after her battle with Hampton, who was visibly hampered despite bringing her higher-ranked opponent to the brink of defeat. During another one of her now-infamous on-court interviews, Azarenka accidentally implied Hampton’s injury was not as bad as it seemed, quipping, “Can I have a back problem?”

Hampton was later revealed to have two herniated discs.

How can the woman who can seemingly do no wrong on the court be so inept the moment she steps off of it? She combines perfectly timed, almost balletic groundstrokes with a boxer image, usually taking the court with earbuds in and hoodie up. Prickly between points, her signature celebratory moves include finger spinning and tongue wagging. Often (to quote rival Maria Sharapova) “extremely injured,” she has become notorious for withdrawing from smaller events only to show up on the biggest stages playing flawless tennis.

A woman that cannot afford even one bad quote, Azarenka is quickly compiling a chapbook full of verbal “oops,” one big enough for the tennis community to want to ride their No. 1 out of town on a rail.

But before we burn a 23-year-old woman at the stake, let us remember with whom we are dealing. Victoria Azarenka is, above all things, an athlete. The “swagger” for which many deride her is proof of that. What goes on with an athlete’s mind and body is sacred to them and ultimately irrelevant to the task at hand.

As Azarenka was asked about her “difficulties,” there was no doubt that she believed Smith (and others) were referring to her near  “Choke of the Year.” How often do we criticize players for blaming injuries on missed opportunities? Yet here is a woman who made no excuses, blamed mind before body, and the media calls for a crucifixion.

There are many things about Victoria Azarenka that grate. Her honesty should not be one of them.

Around The Corner: Sydney, Auckland and the Kooyong Classic

Juan+Martin+Del+Potro+Serbia+v+Argentina+Davis

With just over a week until the start of the Australian Open, there is little time to tinker with one’s game for the first Grand Slam of the year.

While the top four players in the world will be taking the week to rest themselves in anticipation for a deep-run in Melbourne, there are plenty of other of the game’s great players who are in action.

The ATP has two tournaments, one in Sydney and another in Auckland, while the Kooyong Classic exhibition will boast a strong field as well. Here’s a closer look at what tennis fans can expect.

Apia Sydney International

Juan Martin Del Potro starts his year in Sydney as the top seed. After making a strong return to the circuit last season following a wrist injury, the 2009 U.S. Open champion is ready to make some noise this year. Del Potro is certainly capable of challenging anyone in the top four and I would put him in the  mix of the few serious contenders at the Aussie Open.

The Argentine could see Marcos Baghdatis in the quarters here and then Feliciano Lopez who is the fourth seed. I would however, put the winner of the first round match between Viktor Troicki and veteran Aussie Lleyton Hewitt to advance against Del Potro in this section of the draw.

Hewitt has won the even four times, in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005. Don’t expect a repeat as his career is clearly on the downward spiral and injuries have taken their toll on the two-time Grand Slam champion. This may be the last year we see Hewitt playing on the ATP Tour, so enjoy him while you still can.

John Isner from the United Statesis the second seed. Patrick McEnroe recently stated that he feels Isner has the potential to reach the top ten in the ATP rankings. While I do not see that as being a realistic assessment for the 6’9” Isner just yet, this guy is certainly a strong top-thirty player who can cause incredible damage on a hard court due to his imposing serve. It will be Isner’s first action of the year so it will be interesting to see how he comes out of the gate.

Isner could face either veteran Xavier Malisse or Radek Stepanek in the quarters and given his ranking he should be beating opponents like these. However, at this stage of the year anything is possible.

A likely semi-final opponent would be third seeded Richard Gasquet who had a solid week at the Hopman Cup where he defeated Fernando Verdasco, Lleyton Hewitt and Wu Di before falling to Tomas Berdych in the finals.

Heineken Open

All-court wonder and the always hustling David Ferrer is the number one seed in Auckland. Ferrer started the year off by making the finals of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and was the runner-up in that exhibition to Novak Djokovic. Ferrer starts his week off with a bye at the Heineken Open and will face the winner of the match between Albert Ramos and Lukas Rosol. In other words, a nice way to ease into the tournament.

Ferrer’s main opposition will be from third seeded Fernando Verdasco who has just competed in the Hopman Cup. There, the Spaniard defeated Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, knocked-off Wu Di of China 6-3, 6-4 and was beaten by Richard Gasquet 6-2, 6-4. So essentially, he won the two matches he was supposed to win and could not find a way to be competitive against a solid opponent in Gasquet. Never any consistency with Fernando, but he has the tools to go deep in any draw.

The second seed here is Nicolas Almagro, but unless we’re talking about a clay court match I wouldn’t count on this guy to get too far. While he did make the semi-finals in Chennai, the field was rather weak and he was no match for Canadian Milos Raonic who took him out 6-4, 6-4.

Look for guys like Philipp Kohlschreiber, Donald Young and perhaps Sam Querrey to enjoy some success in this draw. It is nice to see Young seeded in the tournament (7th) and hopefully able to build on a nice season in 2011. There is still so much potential with the American and he still has many years ahead of him despite already being a presence on the ATP Tour for several seasons.

AAMI Kooyong Classic

Always a high-quality exhibition tournament, the Kooyong Classic again boasts a strong field in 2012. Ten players make-up the draw that has both a championship and consolation side to it.

American Andy Roddick will be the most high-profile player involved and will make his season debut on the tennis court at Kooyong. Roddick’s buddy and current number-one American male tennis player, Mardy Fish, will also be present.

This year will be of the utmost importance to Roddick who struggled mightily a year ago. He needs to re-assert himself and prove to his fellow players that he is still relevant in the sport today. Usually a strong starter, Roddick will be one to watch closely here this week.

Continuing with North-American players, we have Canadian Milos Raonic who has just made the finals in Chennai. Raonic is going to be very exciting to watch this year, especially if he can stay healthy. This guy’s game is perfectly suited toWimbledonand it is no surprise that he grew up idolizing Pete Sampras.

The rest of the players here include Jurgen Melzer, Bernard Tomic, Tomas Berdych and recent Qatar finalists Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Of all the stops this week, Kooyong will be the one I’m most interested in due to its very strong field.

Keep checking back with us all week long for updates and check out my Twitter feed as well if you like. Only one more week until the first Slam of 2012 so we have lots to look forward to!

Kvitova plays Sharapova in Wimbledon finale, Nadal’s suspicious medical timeouts, Lisicki and Tomic are no flash in the pan – The Friday Five

Rafael Nadal

By Maud Watson

Cloud of Suspicion

Rafael Nadal has been complaining about a pain in his foot, and maybe that’s because he just shot himself in it. Following his defeat of Juan Martin Del Potro, tennis forums across the web were abuzz with fans lambasting Nadal for what they perceived as gamesmanship. The accusation stemmed from the extended medical timeout the reigning champion took going into the first set tiebreak – a time when Del Potro had the momentum. Fans and Del Potro rightfully questioned the timing and legitimacy of Nadal’s timeout, as he appeared to have no problem moving about the court throughout the course of the match. His case was further hampered when an MRI revealed that what he once thought was a broken foot or other serious potential match-ending injury was nothing more than minor swelling. And while Nadal is undoubtedly feeling some pain, Patrick McEnroe was right to suggest that there’s a strong case that Nadal is a hypochondriac who is blowing things way out of proportion. His recent actions have also led others to start looking back at some of his previous medical timeouts. For example, at last year’s Wimbledon he called for the trainer in rounds 2 and 3 against Haase and Petzchner, with both timeouts conveniently coming in matches where he was two sets to one down. As both McEnroe and Shriver have also pointed out, as of late it seems that whenever Nadal has a loss, there’s always some reason other than his opponent played better. For a guy who’s supposed to be such a proponent of sportsmanship, his recent actions have been questionable. They’ve also led many to start taking a harder look at some of his other habits, such as making the opponent wait before the coin toss. Worse than that is not just the excessive amount of time he takes between points (which gets grossly excessive at the bigger moments) and his receiving coaching from his box during matches, but that he openly admits to being guilty of these actions and only sees it as a problem if he gets caught. These actions are all a disservice to himself and his fans. There’s little doubt that he’s one of the most talented players to have ever picked up a racquet, but this cloud of suspicion could and should mar his reputation. He currently doesn’t deserve the label of the humble class act that many were once so quick to award him.

Breakthrough Final

The Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles final will be contested by two women who have enjoyed breakthroughs at this year’s Championships. For Sharapova, her return to the Wimbledon final marks her first major final appearance since a long struggle with injuries left her floundering to find her top form. Her opponent, big-hitting Petra Kvitova has gone one better than her performance last year to reach what will hopefully be the first of many Grand Slam finals. It’s hard to envision how this one will play out. It will be dependent upon how well Sharapova handles being the heavy favorite as well as how well Kvitova copes with the nerves of playing in her first final. One thing is for certain: this has the potential to be a spectacular contest.

On the Map

It’s been a topsy-turvy Wimbledon, and while there are some familiar faces still competing at the business end of things, it’s been refreshing to see some new ones. The women’s draw in particular has seen a number of new names reach the latter rounds, but one of the best stories is that of German Sabine Lisicki. Previously touted as a future top prospect, she has struggled with injury (one the result of a misdiagnosis) but may now be back on the right path. Her big serve took her to the semis before falling to Sharapova. Don’t expect this to be a flash in the pan for her. And on the men’s side, don’t expect the run of Bernard Tomic to be a flash in the pan either. The teenager has already endured his share of controversy thanks in large part to his father, but his breakout performance at Wimbledon would seem to suggest he’s finding the right balance in life and that he’s the real deal. Keep an eye on him, as he’s a definite future Top 10 talent and Grand Slam contender.

A First

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga only had one win against Roger Federer, but perhaps crucially, it was a win that came from 1-5 down in the final set when the two met in the Canada Masters 1000 event. Maybe with that in the back of his mind (and possibly in the back of Federer’s as well), Tsonga refused to throw in the towel during his Wimbledon quarterfinal as he became the first player in history to come back from a two-set deficit against the Swiss Maestro. Even if Tsonga doesn’t reach the final, the Federer win was huge. It should only add to his confidence, and hopefully help him post more consistent results.

A New Voice

Former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic has found herself a new full-time coach in the form of Nigel Sears. Both parties are expected to be anticipating a long-term relationship, especially since Sears left his post as head of women’s coaching for the LTA and British Fed Cup Captain. Under his leadership, British women’s tennis did see improvement, as evidenced by the success of Robson and Watson. As the former coach of Daniela Hantuchova, he also knows what it’s like to deal with a mentally fragile player. So while it will take time, all signs indicate that Ivanovic may have just hired the key to regaining her top form.

Tim Smyczek, French Open wildcard recipient, answers our questions

tim-myczek-usta-2011

In the wake of Donald Young’s Twitter outburst, Patrick McEnroe called the USTA wildcard playoffs a way to “try to send a message to our players and to everybody out there that you need to earn what you get.” No one understands earning your spot better than Tim Smyczek. The 23 year old, Wisconsin native secured his first ever spot in the main draw of a Grand Slam last August by winning a wildcard playoff for the US Open and captured a spot in the main draw of this year’s French Open when he defeated Denis Kudla and Donald Young to win the US reciprocal wildcard. Unfortunately, Donald Young’s spiteful tweet garnered most of the attention, while Smyczek was relegated to the footnotes of most articles. The USTA even held a long press conference to “set the record straight,” which focused exclusively on the Young controversy. It was easy for the real story here to get a little lost in the shuffle.

Lately, a lot of young, up and coming players have been accused of harboring a bad attitude or a sense of entitlement beyond their ranking, but you won’t find that kind of behavior from Smyczek. On the court, he seems genuinely grateful for what he’s achieved so far and is willing to put in the hard work to keep getting better. Off the court, he’s the guy next door, a friendly young man who enjoys playing golf and spending time with his fellow tennis players at home in Tampa, FL. I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with Tim before the start of the Savannah Challenger.

Currently ranked No. 175, Smyczek (pronounced SMEE-check) achieved a career high ranking earlier this year of No. 158 and reached his first ATP World Tour quarterfinal in San Jose. He also recently signed an endorsement deal with Dunlop rackets. In terms of his success so far this year, Tim told me, “it’s been kind of a process because I’ve been putting in some good work for a while now and I think, you know, just now, the last couple of months, it’s starting to pay off. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been reflected as much in my ranking. You know, I’ve had a couple of good results in some tour events and, you know, hopefully the ranking will come and keep having some good results. I’ve just been putting in the work, on and off the court, and spent a lot of time in the gym, just kind of trying to do everything I can.” The Tennis Served Fresh team got some photographic evidence of Tim’s work in the gym when they caught one of his practices in Indian Wells. It’s been a pretty steady climb up the rankings for the American, but he hasn’t quite found that one breakthrough result that will send him skyrocketing up the rankings. When I asked him about the slow process, he laughed and told me, “I sure wish it could go a little faster.” But in all seriousness, he said that, “if you’re moving the right direction the whole way, then that’s all you can ask for.” Unfortunately Tim was hampered by an injury in his first round loss to Fernando Romboli in Savannah, but what I saw was promising. At 5’9”, he may not have the ability to serve his opponent off the court, but his movement is pretty incredible. David Ferrer has done well crafting a strategy revolving around his retrieving abilities, so it can definitely be done. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Tim firmly in the Top 100 by the end of 2011.

Smyczek will have the chance to better his ranking this month when he makes his debut at the French Open, a tournament he hasn’t even attended since the juniors. The qualifying rounds at the French Open always draw a tough crowd because of the clay court specialists so Tim was relieved to receive the wildcard into the main draw. As he put it, “being an American and clay isn’t my favorite surface, and so, being able to just get into the main draw without having the…cause you know, qualifying, there’s a lot of dirtballers, a lot of really tough players on clay, so to not have to go through that, and maybe just get a chance to get a look at another one of the main draw players. It’s a good opportunity, definitely.” In order to prepare for his first appearance in Paris, Tim will fly to Nice this week and try to qualify for the Open de Nice Côte D’Azur next week. As is the case with most Americans, Tim admitted that he wasn’t the most comfortable on clay and attributed his lack of confidence on the surface to the lack of clay court tournaments in the United States; however, he also said he wouldn’t, “complain about [the lack of clay court challengers in the States] because I’m not entirely comfortable on the stuff.” The few American tournaments played on clay are mostly played on green clay, which he considers a poor substitute for the red dirt because each green clay court is so different while red clay courts share more similarities.

Tim made his first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw last year at the US Open where he drew seeded player Thomaz Bellucci in the first round. Bellucci prevailed in a tight three set encounter, 6-3 7-5 7-6 (6). You have to assume that playing in your first Grand Slam can cause some nerves, so, what did Smyczek learn from his US Open experience? Be prepared to take chances when you get them. Tim commented on the encounter, saying, “I played a guy named Bellucci, a really good player, and um, actually that match I had a couple of set points in the third and had chances, had looks at it, and uh, you know hopefully, I feel like it’s been improving ever since, so you know, hopefully now if I get looks again, maybe it’ll go a little bit different. So I’m excited about that.” Regardless of clay being Smyczek’s least favorite surface, he seems excited by the challenge present at Roland Garros.

I asked Tim to weigh in on the debate over how to award wildcards, as well as the fact that the USTA originally considered limiting the playoff opportunity to Donald Young and Ryan Harrison, which he wasn’t aware of before our discussion. He responded that it is, “definitely a good thing to have a playoff for it, whether it’s two men or six men, you know, whatever. Definitely both Donald and Ryan have had really good years so far, and so they were, you know, they deserved to be in the playoff, definitely. So, um, I guess when Ryan turned that down, that kind of just opened up a spot for me. So, it was lucky for me.” In terms of what happened during the final match in the wildcard playoffs, Tim had no idea that Donald was frustrated with the USTA during the match, saying, “he must have been complaining quietly because I didn’t even notice.”

When it comes to the controversy between Young and the USTA, Smyczek says he can see both sides. On Young’s side, he said, “I understand that, I understand his frustration, you know, cause he has had a good year and I guess, I think he just thought that he might have been…when Harrison pulled out that he would have been next in line for it.” He hadn’t gotten a chance to read about the content of the USTA conference call, but when I mentioned they were frustrated by Young’s response, he told me, “Well, I can imagine, because, you know, they have been behind Donald a lot and uh, so I can understand their frustration as well.” In general, he considered the situation unfortunate, but did not seem fazed by the publicity it received. Smyczek, who is also on Twitter, mentioned that he attended the ATP University in Miami this March, where the students were given a lecture “on social media and the correct uses and what you want to stay away from,” so don’t expect any public ranting from Tim.

Tim played five main draw World Tour matches in 2010, and has already played six to date in 2011, just under half way through the season. His goal is to be Top 100 by the US Open, gaining direct acceptance into the tournament. It will take some effort and a good run in the summer hard court tournaments, but don’t be surprised if he lands himself a spot. If you have the chance, I highly recommend taking in one of Smyczek’s matches. Win or lose, he’s truly a joy to watch.


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

Serena Williams

By Maud Watson

“Tip of the Iceberg”

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

 

You are What You Eat

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

One Last Go

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

Two for Two

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

That’s a Rap

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

Wozniacki year-end No. 1, Courier new US Davis Cup Captain, Cash backing Rafter

Caroline Wozniacki

*Caroline Wozniacki has capped a fantastic 2010 by ending the year as the world’s No. 1 star after she defeated Franchesca Schiavone to qualify for the semifinals in Doha. Her 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory ensures she will stay ahead of Vera Zvonareva in the rankings no matter what happens from hereon in. She will be disappointed not to have broken her major duck and the old debate about “worthy” number ones has re-arisen, but she can’t have too much to complain about from this calendar year. She becomes the 10th woman to finish the year as No. 1 since the rankings began in 1975 and is the fourth youngest, behind Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, to do so. She had some words for her “worthy” doubters too: “It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little girl and I’m really happy and really proud about what I’ve achieved this year,” she said. “To be honest, there will be always sceptics. There are always people saying you’ll never reach the top 10, never reach the top five and you’ll never win a big tournament. If you win a Grand Slam, people will say it was a lucky shot or an easy draw. For me, the most important thing is that I know I had a great season.” Zvonereva has also become the fifth Russian, after Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina, to crack the Top 2.

*Jim Courier has been named the new US Davis Cup captain. The 2005 Hall of Fame inductee follows Patrick McEnroe who stepped down in September after ten years in the hotseat. “I definitely thought that being the captain would be something that I’d enjoy and now I get to see if I will,” said the two-time winner as a player. He also lifted both the French and Australian Opens twice. “There’s been a great camaraderie amongst the guys playing for Patrick over the past decade, and if we can keep that same spirit, I think we’ll have a great chance to win,” he continued. “There’s a lot of diversity in the squad. You’ve got veteran players, with Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, the Bryans, and hopefully James Blake can get back in the conversation.”

*1987 Wimbledon winner Pat Cash has given his full backing to the appointment of Pat Rafter as the Aussie Davis Cup captain in his bid to lead Australia back to the World Group. “It came as a surprise to me because I didn’t even know Fitzy was moving on,” Cash told the AAP in an interview from China. “It’s always been Fitzy’s job, but I’m sure Pat will do a great job. I’m sure he’ll get the best out of his players. He played a lot of great Davis Cup matches and put his heart and soul into it and it’s always been a great Australian tradition to have great Davis Cup players as captains.” For the full interview, including his views on Australia’s reliance on Lleyton Hewitt, visit The Sydney Morning Herald website. Rafter also gives his views on the challenges facing him at Tennis.com.

*Roger Federer is now tied with Pete Sampras at fourth in the all-time ATP titles list after beating Germany’s Florian Meyer to lift the Stockholm Open. The world No. 2 said: “It’s amazing that I’m there where Pete’s ended his career.” He still has some way to go to be the best ever though. Jimmy Connors holds the record with 109 titles ahead of Ivan Lendl (94) and John McEnroe (77). That was also his 50th win of the year, making him the fifth man since the Open Era began in 1968 to achieve this feat in at least nine straight years. “Early on, I think that feeling of wanting to prove yourself to the world and all the doubters is a very strong one,” the Swiss continued. “So you’re very aggressive in your ways of winning and not enjoying them. Today it’s much more of the enjoyment part because I don’t need to prove myself to anyone anymore, except to myself.”

*Britain’s top doubles pair, Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski, have announced they are splitting to “freshen things up” following a disappointing end to 2010. They entered the world’s Top 50 earlier in the year after reaching the final at Eastbourne but things have not gone so well since. However they have not ruled out playing doubles for Great Britain in Davis Cup. Fleming said: “We’ll always be friends but it will be best for both of us to freshen things up. We came through Futures and then Challengers to win two ATP titles, play all four Grand Slams and represent Great Britain in Davis Cup.” Skupski added: “Colin and I decided it was best if we got a fresh start with someone new in 2011. We have had a lot of success over our time together and we really have enjoyed it. Things have been tough for us over the past few months and we thought it was the best move for both our careers.” For reaction to the news check out the Lawn Tennis Association website.

*Juan Martin del Potro, Tommy Haas and James Blake have added their names to the list of confirmed stars for the 2011 SAP Open in Northern California. World No. 7 Fernando Verdasco, No. 15 Gael Monfils and current US sweetheart Mardy Fish are already confirmed as are Aussie pantomime villain Lleyton Hewitt, Sam Querrey and Japanese No. 1 Kei Nishikori. It has also been confirmed that two-time SAP Open winner Pete Sampras will return to play a special one-off singles exhibition against Monfils. “We are thrilled to welcome James Blake, Tommy Haas, Juan Martin del Potro and Pete Sampras back to the 2011 SAP Open,” said Tournament Director Bill Rapp. “Each of these players has had a tremendous amount of success here in San Jose and we look forward to having them back in the Bay Area.”

*Russian pinup Maria Sharapova and Sasha Vujacic of the LA Lakers have announced their engagement. It was confirmed by Sharapova’s agent; Max Eisenbud.

*Strange injury alert. Andy Murray has strained a tendon in his hand playing Playstation, according to the Daily Express. “I just lost 1 match to dani [Vallerdu] at the new pro evolution and I think I broke my hand!” Murray wrote on his Twitter account. “Icing the hand… over playstation [-] time to grow up andy!” Murray was at home in Dunblane where he was acting as best man at older brother Jamie’s wedding to his fiancée, Alejandra Gutierrez.

*Roger Federer has revamped and re-launched his official website with clearer images and a more user-friendly interface. www.rogerfederer.com is hugely popular with over 310,000 registered members and almost 3.5m visitors so far during 2010. “It is fantastic to have such a great fan following in the ‘real’ world as well as on the web,” said Federer. “It is because of this that I decided that it would be important for me to give my loyal fans something new and exciting,”

*Austrian former world No. 1 Thomas Muster’s return to the ATP Tour after 11 years was short, but certainly not very sweet. The 43-year-old French Open winner (1995) went down 2-6, 6-7(5) to by the world No. 157 and party pooper Andreas Haider-Maurer. “I don’t want to define my goals,” he said afterwards. “There is no pressure of getting into the top 10. It’s about enjoying tennis. In ’99, I hated tennis, now I love it.” He seemed to struggle at times on the hard court having achieved most of his success on clay but he added: “There was more in it if I could have played more aggressively in the first set. In the second, I managed to dictate the pace of the game sometimes.”

*Readers of AskMen.com have voted Rafa Nadal the second most influential athlete in the world. More than 16 million readers visit the website monthly and Nadal was voted 15th in their Top 49 Most Influential Men poll for 2010. Only New Orleans’ Superbowl-winning Quaterback Drew Brees (6th) was higher. Nadal finished above actors George Clooney (18th) and Leonardo DiCaprio (43rd) as well as even the US President Barack Obama (21st). The complete roster and nominee profiles can be found at www.askmen.com.

Jim Courier Takes the Reins – The Friday Five

Jim Courier

By Maud Watson

Taking the Reins

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

Muster Wobbles

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

Comeback Bug

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

Consolation Prize

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

Gossip Fill

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

Looking Back on John McEnroe’s Davis Cup Captaincy

John McEnroe

While the U.S. Tennis Association prepares to choose and name a new U.S. Davis Cup captain to replace Patrick McEnroe, it is interesting to look back 11 years at the start of the U.S. captaincy of Patrick’s older brother John. Arguably the greatest American Davis Cupper in the history of the competition, John McEnroe was named by the USTA to replace Tom Gullikson as U.S. captain during the 1999 U.S. Open (incidentally, the press conference occurred on Gullikson’s 48th birthday).

Following his US Open press conference where he was officially introduced as the skipper of America’s tennis team, McEnroe’s next public appearance as U.S. captain came a month later when the draw for the 2000 competition was made on October 7, 1999.

The following is what took place, as documented in Randy Walker’s book “ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY” ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.TennisHistoryBook.com) on the afternoon of October 7, 1999.

1999 – Less than one month after being named captain of th

e U.S. Davis Cup team and John McEnroe creates his first international incident as the United States is drawn to play an away match against the African nation of Zimbabwe in the first round the 2000 Davis Cup. Speaking to reporters at a U.S. Tennis Association organized event at the ESPN Zone in New York City, McEnroe says of the away match against Zimbabwe, “I am sure that word is seeping out that our worse case scenario has just taken place. We need like 27 shots or something to go down there.” After meeting with reporters, McEnroe takes questions from fans at the theme restaurant and is asked what surface he expects the match to be on. Responds McEnroe, “That is their choice. They are going to try to pick a surface that they feel they have the best chance of beating us on which will probably be cow dung …” The following day, “Page Six” the famous gossip column in the New York Post reports the Zimbabwean government’s outrage over McEnroe’s comments. “This is disparaging,” Immanuel Gumbo, attache at the Zimbabwe mission to the UN tells Page Six. “When we beat Australia last year we didn’t play on a cow dung court. We admire Mr. McEnroe for his gifts but you have to wonder what must go on inside his head.”

With the current situation that is ongoing in Zimbabwe, under the tyrannical rule of President Robert Mugabe, one can say that insulting the Mugabe government would not be considered such a sin.

McEnroe and the U.S. team were able to barely edge Zimbabwe 3-2 with Davis Cup rookie Chris Woodruff winning the fifth-and-decisive rubber from Wayne Black. After another 3-2 knee-knocker win in Los Angeles over the Czech Republic, the U.S. was shut-out by Spain 5-0 in the semifinals in Santander, Spain. McEnroe was not able to convince Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to step up and play in the post-Wimbledon clay-court semifinal against Spain and resigned as the U.S. captain later in the year, paving the way for his younger brother Patrick to assume the helm and serve as U.S. captain for 10 years.

McEnroe Quits Davis Cup, Davis Cup Lineups Announced, Wind Causing Flushing Meadows Havoc

Patrick McEnroe

*Patrick McEnroe will step down as US Davis Cup Captain later this month after a decade in the hotseat. With the US facing an important playoff against Columbia to stay in the top tier of the competition this will not help the players with their preparations. “It’s with a heavy heart I’m resigning as Davis Cup captain,” said McEnroe. “But it’s a decision I felt was best. Davis Cup is a significant time commitment and this decision will allow me to focus more energy on my family and to the US Tennis Association’s player development programme.” McEnroe captained the US to Davis Cup victory in 2007 but things have not gone so smoothly recently. Four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier has already voiced interest in taking over the role.

*The Davis Cup team selections for this month’s matchups have been announced. Play will take place between September 17-19 in the World Group semifinals where France take on Argentina and Serbia face the Czech Republic. Gael Monfils will be France’s main dangerman with injury robbing them of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and he will be backed up by Richard Gasquet, Michael Llodra and Gilles Simon. Argentina will be relying on Juan Monaco, the in-form David Nalbandian and doubles outfit Eduardo Schwank and Horacio Zeballos for victory. In the other big semifinal, Novak Djokovic will lead the Serbian charge with the help of Viktor Troicki, Janko Tipsarevic and Nenad Zimonjic. Tomas Berdych, Radek Stepanek, Jan Hajek and Ivo Minar will play for the Czech Republic. The squads for the World Group Playoff matches have also been named and they can be viewed at the ITF website.

*The wind has been rustling some feathers at Flushing Meadows this week and the players have been waxing lyrical about the conditions in their post match interviews. “The talent to play in the wind, I don’t have yet,” bemoaned Gael Monfils after Novak Djokovic (with Aeolus and Njord) blasted him away on Ashe. “He can play really well in the wind,” said Robin Soderling of his conqueror Roger Federer. “He moves well. He’s always in the right place.” Just like in all other conditions then. But R-Fed was a bit more blasé about the whole wind situation. “I’ve been practicing my serve a whole lot, for my whole career,” the five-time US Open Champ said. “If I can’t serve in the wind, I’ve got a problem, you know?” But not everybody was looking for excuses. After crashing out to Vera Zvonereva Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi was looking closer to home: “I can’t blame the wind for everything, I didn’t play well,” said the world No. 32.

*Venus Williams’ run at this year’s Open has seen her edge towards yet another record. She has now appeared in ten US Open quaterfinals which ties her with Lindsay Davenport at fourth on the all-time leaders list. The top three are Chris Evert (19), Martina Navratilova (14) and Steffi Graf (12). Unfortunately age is very much against her efforts to surpass the likes of Navratilova and Evert.

*Stanislas Wawrinka’s coach Peter Lundgren has expressed his delight at his new protégé reaching his first Grand Slam quarter final this week in NY. The former Roger Federer and Marat Safin coach told Tages Anzeiger following the Murray win: “When you work with someone and he implements what you tell him and gets results right away, it’s a wonderful feeling. He is much more aggressive, serving better… Before he played too far back. There he’s also strong and defends well, but you won’t win any matches against top players.”

*Marcos Baghdatis has quit Davis Cup play with Cyprus to concentrate on regaining his place in the Top 10 singles rankings. He has starred for his country almost single handed for a long stretch, winning 54 of his 67 matches. Injuries have destroyed the last few years of his career after reaching No. 8 in 2006 but he has returned to the top 20 this year.

*Andy Murray doesn’t seem too confident right now about winning a Grand Slam. Following his US Open fourth round exit to Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka a despondent Murray said: “I have no idea of whether I’ll win a Grand Slam or not. You know, I want to but if I never win one, then what? If I give 100%, try my best, physically work as hard as I can, practice as much as I can, then that’s all I can do.” The 23-year-old gives a candid and honest assessment of his match which can be seen in full here.

*The American men have been attacking tournament organisers in force at the US Open as they believe not enough of them are placed on Ashe Stadium. They believe the big-name foreign stars are preferred to home-grown talent. “I haven’t played on that court in two years. Man, is it different from playing on Louis Armstrong and Grandstand,” said Mardy Fish. “There’s not hardly any wind outside, and it’s windy in there, really windy. For him [Novak Djokovic, Fish’s conquerer] to play every match in there and sort of get used to that, I think certainly helped him. Doesn’t mean that if I play [Arnaud] Clement out there that I win today by any means,” added Fish, who was bested in straight sets by Djokovic after a five-setter in round three against the Frenchman Clement. “But it took me a while to get used to it.” After losing in the third round to Mikhail Youzhny, John Isner added: “I didn’t hit a ball on that court, no practice or anything prior to this match. Same with my opponent, Mikhail,” said Isner. “But without a doubt, had I been a little bit more comfortable on that court it probably would have helped, but it was the same for both of us.  He handled it better.” Then Sam Querrey added to the criticism after losing to Stanislas Wawrinka: “Not a huge fan of the scheduling this week,” Querrey said. “We have a lot of Americans here. None of us play on center court. If you go to the French Open, they have [Richard] Gasquet, [Julien] Benneteau, [Gael] Monfils, they’re on center court every day.” Something for the money men to think about next year if they want a home-grown winner to appease the fans again.

*The world was brought in to perspective by one player this week among the madness that combines to bring us the US Open. Talking about events in his native Pakistan, doubles specialist Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi said ahead of the mixed doubles final: “The only motivation I have for these two weeks is to get these titles for the people back home. I’m trying to send some positive news back home with the floods and everything.” A fitting message.

*Proud dad Srdjan Djokovic has been sporting a t-shirt baring his son’s face this week. But what does Novak think? “I would never wear the shirt.  Me, personally, never. My father, I understand… He’s a proud father. What can I say? I’m just happy to see them supporting me. I don’t know where he got this fancy shirt. To be honest, it was somewhere in Belgrade. I cannot say it.  He’s my father. If he wants to wear this shirt, he can wear this shirt.”

Is Martina Hingis Making Another Comeback? – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Notable Performances – There have been a number of great matches at this year’s US Open, and as predicted, some of the biggest stars in the game have lived up to their billing to reach the latter rounds of the year’s last major, while others have had some outstanding breakout performances. But a special tip of the hat has to go to Swiss No. 2 Stanislas Wawrinka. A talented player with a relatively versatile game, he’s struggled to really find his footing in the Slams. It now seems those days could potentially be behind him, as Wawrinka finally took out one of the Top 4 at a major, defeating Andy Murray in four sets in the third round of the 2010 US Open. Though he nearly faltered at the next hurdle against Sam Querrey, he found a way to follow up his big win by grinding to a 5-set victory over the American. Look for him to hopefully build on his US Open performance going into 2011, especially with the solid coaching he is getting from Federer’s former man, Peter Lundgren.

Relinquishing the Helm – Over the course of Labor Day Weekend, Patrick McEnroe announced that he would be stepping down as captain of the United States Davis Cup squad. The move stemmed from McEnroe’s desire to spend more time with his family, as well as in his other job with the USTA in developing elite players. No word yet on who will replace the younger McEnroe, but he himself had suggested that both Jim Courier and Todd Martin would make excellent candidates for the job. Whoever takes the job will have their work cut out for them, but at least there is the assurance that there’s a young and talented crop of Americans eagerly willing to step up and represent their country in the international team competition.

Back for More? – Once again Hingis is toying with the idea (and the tennis world) with the possibility that she may be coming back to the WTA Tour to strictly play the doubles circuit. Hingis has stated her decision will be based primarily on whether or not her heart is in it, as well as if she can find a steady partner. Davenport had suggested playing with Hingis but wanted to return sooner than Hingis was ready to. Curious to see if Cara Black would be interested in teaming with the Swiss Miss given that she has tried out a few different partners since she split with Liezel Huber (she’s played with four different partners at each of the 2010 majors this year). They wouldn’t bring a lot of fire power to the court, but they would be no less formidable to any opponent.

Eggs in One (Promising) Basket – Paul Annacone has opted to cut short his time working with the British LTA after being named the full-time coach of Roger Federer. The reasoning behind his immediate resignation was the potential for a conflict of interest, given that his charge could meet British No. 1 Andy Murray in the latter rounds of any tournament on any given week. Given the current state of British tennis, the move has to be a welcomed one for Annacone, particularly given the talent and prestige of some of his past clientele.

At Long Last? – On Wednesday, Chief Executive of the ATP Adam Helfant announced that the ATP would be looking at increasing the offseason by two to three weeks, and that he expects a formal decision on the matter no later than the last board meeting of the year, which takes place in mid-November. A longer offseason is well overdue, but it will be interesting to see if action is finally taken, and if so, how smoothly it will go. Currently there is no talk of moving the Australian Open start date, which seems to imply any changes to create the longer offseason would have to come from tweaking the ATP tournament calendar, and depending on the nature of those changes, it could be a bumpy road ahead.

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