Rafael Nadal

The Magnificent Seven: Memorable Men’s Matches from the First Half of 2013

Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall.  This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half.  Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.

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7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3

During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite.  First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively.   Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo.  Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1.  When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled.  Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished.  Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris.  (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)

Stakhovsky

6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)

Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club.  An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals.  That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10.  Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday.  Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better.  Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.

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5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2

Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back.  He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized.  Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set.  A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth.  All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently.  Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013.  Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.

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4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5

Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012.  Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years.  Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition.  To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset.  But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges.  He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.

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3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3

Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications.  Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why.  Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic.  Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation.  We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.

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2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10

Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year.  The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent.  Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began.  Or so we thought.  A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment.  Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return.  The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt.  Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments.  Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.

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1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7

The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line.  One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced.  Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth.  Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line.  Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph.  While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb.  Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.

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Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.

Nike Men’s Fall Preview: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro

It may still be the grass court season, but Nike has already released what several of their key male athletes will be wearing come fall, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro.

Rafael Nadal: The Spaniard will be adding a pop of color to Nike’s lineup, sporting the Nike Men’s Fall Premier Rafa Crew in Sonic Yellow with Armory Navy accents. The same modern scooped V-neck he donned at Wimbledon will stick around. A sublimated graphic print on the chest, as well as a laser-perforated graphic on back keep the shirt design fairly subtle — the though the “X” on the front alludes to superhero status. The top will be paired with the Nike Men’s Fall Premier Rafa Woven Short in Armory Navy.

Rafael Nadal Fall 2013 Nike

Rafael Nadal Fall 2013 Nike Shorts

Roger Federer: The Swiss maestro will attempt to go for his sixth US Open title in a newly-refined polo, the Nike Men’s Fall Premier RF US Open Polo in Light Armory Blue. A contrast self fabric collar and subtle side panels make this one of Federer’s most elegant looks, and the pale grey/blue palette adds just enough color to not oversimplify the top. He’ll combine it with with the Nike Men’s Fall Premier RF Twill Short in White.

Roger Federer Fall 2013 Nike Shirt and Shorts

Not to be forgotten, Federer also has his own line of practice RF tees, including the Nike Men’s Fall RF Trophy V-Neck T-Shirts in Armory Navy or Wolf Grey (left and middle). The Nike Men’s Fall Graphic T-Shirt (right) will also bring a light-hearted smile for all Nike athletes donning the shirt. It comes in Armory Navy (pictured below), Sonic Yellow and White.

Nike 2013 Fall Practice Shirts

Juan Martin del Potro: The Tower of Tandil has regularly taken a low-key approach to his outfits, and the fall season is no different. He’ll be wearing the Nike Men’s Fall Advantage UV Crew in Light Armory Blue (pictured below), Dark Armory Blue and Sonic Yellow, as well as the Nike Men’s Fall Gladiator 10″ Plaid Short in Light Armory Blue (pictured below), Vintage Green, Geyser Grey, and Armory Navy.

Juan Martin del Potro Nike 2013 Fall Shorts and Shirt

Other tops that could potentially be worn by the rest of the Nike athletes also have some great designs, including the Advantage UV Graphic Crew (left), Advantage UV Graphic Polo (middle) and Rally Sphere Stripe Polo (right).

Nike 2013 Fall Shirts

The Decline of Roger Federer; Bernard Tomic’s Blind Love — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Second Guessing

One of the two biggest upset of Week 1 at Wimbledon was that of Rafael Nadal losing to Steve Darcis.  Nadal meekly succumbed to the inspired play of the Belgian in the opening round, leaving many questioning his future in the game.  The knees are the obvious first concern.  That his knees could deteriorate as quickly as they appeared to in that first match after the performances he’s put on the past five months seems a stretch.  But his condition is a tricky one, and the grass does force his knees to work harder.  There are also rightfully questions about his scheduling – both before and after SW19.  Before Wimbledon, he put in a lot of tennis for someone with documented knee issues who had sat out seven months.  Post Wimbledon presents the question of how much more mileage Nadal will be willing to put on those knees, since it will primarily come on hard outdoor and indoor surfaces.  But the other question that has to be asked is how much of this is also between the ears.  When Nadal walked out onto Centre Court, it was likely with the bad memories of 2012.  The slightest niggle is also apt to have a major impact on his level of play, which given his injury history, is understandable.  It also explains why he has become noticeably more irritable when things aren’t “just right” for his needs/wants (like his uncharacteristic griping about scheduling at Roland Garros).  No matter how you slice it, what we saw from Nadal at Wimbledon was troubling.  We know he can play on surfaces outside of clay, but he has to 100% believe his body will allow him to the second half of the season, or being a factor on anything outside of clay may just be a pipe dream.

Decline of Roger FedererThe Decline

The other upset vying for the biggest shocker of the tournament is that of Roger Federer by Sergiy Stakhovsky.  If ever there was a moment when it felt Federer was truly in decline, it was this match.  It’s the first time in nearly a decade that the Swiss has lost before the quarters of any major, let alone Wimbledon.  But the days of Federer being able to consistently find his best or escape from the jaws of defeat with great frequency are behind him.  It happens with age, and Federer’s is finally starting to catch up with him.  It doesn’t mean he will never win another major (see Sampras, Pete in 2002), and Federer insists he doesn’t view himself as in decline.  He still feels he has the game to win the big ones, and bottom line, his belief is the only one that matters.  So though he’ll likely need some help to win the slams, don’t be too quick to send him off into the sunset.  He still has game, and there are still some moments of pure genius left up his sleeve.

Kickin’ Grass

One of the biggest controversies at this year’s Championships has been the condition of the courts.  There have been many slips and falls, with some alleging that the courts are dangerous, while others simply chalk it up to typical grass court tennis.  Though the weather has possibly had a negative impact on the grounds, there are a few things to consider before condemning Wimbledon and its grounds crew.  First, the bulk of the complaints have come from the losers, while the winners (many of whom have managed to stay upright) see no real issue.  Additionally, many of the withdrawals and retirements were due to either freak accidents or pre-existing injuries the players picked up in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon.  And perhaps the biggest culprit of all is the players’ movement on the court.  As Darren Cahill pointed out, many of the players are guilty of not taking enough of the tiny steps, which you have to do on grass, to maintain balance.  Video footage of many, but not all, of the tumbles shows players hitting the turf after taking a large, wide step or getting completely wrong-footed.  It’s a perfect storm that has left the folks at Wimbledon to do damage control, but hopefully going forward, especially with an extra week between Wimbledon and the French beginning in 2015, we’ll see far less of these unfortunate events.

Misguided

Love is blind.  It’s a phrase we’ve all heard.  It’s also a phrase that we typically think of as relating to romantic love, but it applies to other types of love, too.  Sometimes it can refer to familial love, as is the case with Bernard Tomic.  The Aussie, who had an impressive five-set win over Sam Querrey in the opening round, lashed out at the ATP for banning his father due to pending assault charges dating back to Madrid.  He feels that they’re hurting his game by not just banning the man that is his father, but the man that he still views as his coach.  It’s understandable where Tomic is coming from, but it’s a sad situation.  His dad is too physical with others, including his own son.  With any luck, Tomic will find success without his father by his side so that he can see he doesn’t need him to enjoy a fruitful career.  And hopefully, he’ll one day look back and realize what a favor the ATP has done for him by putting its foot down.

Bring It On

Event organizers’ brains are probably just whirling with the possibility of a showdown between Andy Murray and Serena Williams in what could once again be billed as an intriguing “Battle of the Sexes.”  The Scot responded to a Twitter follower who introduced the idea that he should take on Serena Williams, and it turns out the Scot is game.  When Williams heard about it, she also expressed enthusiasm at the idea.  It’s of course all in good fun, but if organizers can find a way to turn this talk into a reality, it’s a guaranteed success.  And better yet, stage it in Vegas as Murray suggested.  It would be a spectacular show sure to bring plenty of good publicity to tennis.

Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray Among 2013 ESPY Award Nominations

ESPYS Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray

(June 27, 2013) Sports network ESPN has released the nominations list for their annual ESPY Awards (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly), and it includes not only best male and female tennis-exclusive categories, but also nods to Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in various other categories. (Remember to cast your official votes at the ESPYS website here.)

American Serena Williams receives her ninth ESPY Award nomination, and is listed this year as one of four women under the “Best Female Athlete” category. According to ESPN, the award is presented to the female sportsperson, irrespective of nationality or sport contested, adjudged to be the most outstanding over a given year.

Her competition includes US Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin and Baylor University college basketball player Brittney Griner. Williams’ achievements giving her the nod for the ESPY nomination include her 2012 titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, her Olympic gold medal in singles and doubles in London last summer, and her 2013 French Open title.

Scot Andy Murray receives a nomination in the “Best Moment” category which is presented to the moment or series of moments occurring in a sporting event or season, irrespective of sport contested or gender of participating sportsperson(s), adjudged to the most remarkable, compelling, or entertaining in a given year.

Murray’s “moment,” of course, is winning a gold medal at the London Olympics last year in straight sets over Roger Federer, whom he had lost to four weeks prior in the Wimbledon final. The nomination also alludes to him being the first “British” man to win a singles gold in the Olympics since 1908.

Murray’s three competitors include Jack Hoffman’s touchdown run in the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ spring game, Alex Morgan’s game-winning goal against Canada in the Olympic semifinal, coach Chuck Pagano’s return to the Colts after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Serb Novak Djokovic is nominated for “Best International Athlete,” which is presented to the sportsperson in a North American professional or collegiate league, irrespective of gender, born outside the United States adjudged to be the best in a given year. According to ESPN, the nod was given because (1) he was the first player to be year end No. 1 in consecutive seasons since Roger Federer achieved four straight world No. 1 finishes from 2004-07, and (2) he won the 2013 Australian Open singles championship.

Djokovic’s four tough competitors include Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, Mexican boxer Juan Manuel Marquez, Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi, and Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.

There were also two exclusive tennis categories: Best Male Tennis Player and Best Female Tennis Player. Full nominations list below.

Best Male Tennis Player Nominations

Novak Djokovic

  • Clinched the year-end No. 1 ATP Ranking, becoming the first player to accomplish the feat in consecutive seasons since Roger Federer achieved four straight World No. 1 finishes from 2004-07
  • Won 2013 Austrailian Open singles championship

Roger Federer

  • Won his record 17th Grand Slam singles championship and record-tying seventh Wimbledon singles championship

Andy Murray

  • Captured his first Grand Slam singles title when he beat Novak Djokovic in five sets to win the 2012 U. S. Open
  • Won the Olympic gold medal, beating Roger Federer in the finals

Rafael Nadal

  • Became first man to win the same Grand Slam tournament eight times when he won 2013 French Open

 

Best Female Tennis Player Nominations

Victoria Azarenka

  • Finished 2012 as No. 1 ranked player in WTA
  • Lost in the finals of the 2012 U. S. Open

Maria Sharapova

  • Equaled her best season to date, finishing number two in the world
  • Won three WTA titles

Serena Williams

  • Earned her fourth U. S. Open singles title in 2012
  • Won her fifth Wimbledon singles title in 2012
  • Won the 2013 French Open singles title

Can Ernests Gulbis Stop Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the Wimbledon Grass?

(June 25, 2013) Ernests Gulbis’ best performance at Wimbledon has been reaching the second round on four separate occasions, including already this year. Unfortunately for Gulbis, his draws have been anything but strawberries and cream. The first three of these contests have all ended in defeat for the Latvian, and it has come at the hands of Rafael Nadal in 2008, Andy Murray in 2009, and Jerzy Janowicz in 2012. Can Gulbis turn around his luck this year?

Despite Gulbis’ stellar 2013, he enters unseeded and Wimbledon still isn’t doing him any favors as his draw pits him against the No. 6 seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in the second round.

On paper, Tsonga is the overwhelming pick to win in this match. Tsonga not only leads the head to head 3-0, but he also has reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2011 and 2012 whereas Gulbis is 7-12 in his career on the grass.

While their grass court resumes may be abundantly different, the ever-confident Latvian will certainly believe he has a fighting chance in this match. He should draw inspiration from the fact that Steve Darcis had an 11-11 record on grass before his match against Rafael Nadal and had only made it past the opening round once.

From a tactical perspective, Gulbis will be looking to maximize the amount of backhand-to-backhand rallies as this specific pattern of play matches up Gulbis’ strongest wing against the infamously frail Tsonga backhand.

Tsonga’s premier strategy will be to throw the kitchen sink at Gulbis’ protracted and wrist reliant forehand. The Frenchman’s ammunition off the forehand side in particular should allow him to rush and pressure Gulbis into an array of forehand errors. In addition, Tsonga’s slice backhand should make it increasingly difficult for Gulbis to set up and take the powerful cuts he is used to taking.

Both guys possess tons of power from the ground and off the serve. When this type of matchup arises, the player who is better able to maintain depth and pace and not allow their opponents to take huge swipes at the ball will have the best opportunity to win.

Ultimately, Tsonga should come away with the victory as he possesses an all-court style of play which provides him with a great number of options by which to win and close out points. Not only can he power down aces and crush winners from the baseline but he has the unique and ostensibly archaic capacity to move forward and end points at the net.

However this match ends up, if you’re going to Wimbledon on Wednesday and have the ability to see this match, it definitely is a must-see blockbuster as far as a second round match goes.

Prediction: Tsonga in 4 sets 

Wimbledon Rewind: Nadal Stunned, Kvitova Survives, Federer Shines, Sharapova Battles

This article marks the first in a daily series of articles reviewing the action at Wimbledon.  They follow the same general format as a similar series on Roland Garros.  If you missed some of the action, or want a general overview, check out this written equivalent of a highlight reel.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Banished to the distant precincts of Court 19, Lukas Rosol still produced another thriller.  After five sets and two tiebreaks, Julian Reister slew the Czech giant killer in a blow to the tournament’s first-week intrigue.  Fans with grounds passes got their money’s worth, though, perhaps more so than those on the show courts did.

Upset of the day:  One year after Rosol stunned him in the first week, Rafael Nadal succumbed to an even lowlier opponent in Steve Darcis.  The Belgian dropped serve just twice in three sets as the former Wimbledon champion slipped too easily into passive play.  Nadal did not lack chances to turn the match around in the second set, serving for the set at 6-5 and later holding a set point in the tiebreak.  He loses before the final for the first time in ten tournaments this year.

Comeback of the day:  Down a set early to Fabio Fognini, former Wimbledon doubles champion Jurgen Melzer clawed back to win the next three from his seeded opponent.  The veteran’s lefty serve could shine on grass, but he has not left an impact on a major in three years.

Gold star:  The first round of Wimbledon has not always witnessed Roger Federer’s best tennis (see Falla, 2010).  This year, however, the defending champion opened the action on Centre Court by yielding just five games to Victor Hanescu.  With Nadal out of the draw, Federer’s hopes of a record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title soar significantly.

Silver star:  A champion here eleven long years ago, Lleyton Hewitt looked every inch the part in dismantling the 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka.  The Aussie had reached the semifinals at Queen’s Club two weeks ago, defeating Del Potro en route, and grass remains his most dangerous surface.  He might well reach the second week or better in the section vacated by Nadal.

Wooden spoon:  Remember when Janko Tipsarevic held a top-eight seed at the US Open last fall?  His stock has fallen sharply during a season-long slump in 2013.  Now the 14th seed at Wimbledon, Tipsarevic fell to compatriot Viktor Troicki in straight sets to continue that spiral.

Americans in London:  While doubles specialist Rajeev Ram advanced in four sets, John Isner avenged an Eastbourne loss last week to Evgeny Donskoy.  Notoriously fond of marathons in early rounds, Isner advanced more efficiently this time.

Question of the day:  With Nadal gone, does Federer or Murray become the favorite to reach the final from the lower half of the men’s draw?

WTA:

Match of the day: When Petra Kvitova dropped a 6-1 first set on Coco Vandeweghe, the 2011 champion probably expected to cruise easily into the second round.  Little has come easily for Kvitova since she won here two years ago, though, and she quickly found herself embroiled in a dogfight with her fellow heavy server.  Vandeweghe eked out a tight second set and pressed Kvitova deep into the third before the favorite prevailed.  The route does not get any easier for the former champion from here.

Upset of the day:  At least world No. 5 Sara Errani did not fail to win a point in a set, as she had at Wimbledon last year to Yaroslava Shvedova.  Never a threat on grass, Errani won just five games from Puerto Rican rising star Monica Puig in one of the quietest upsets of a top-five player that you’ll see.  She now has lost in the first round at consecutive non-clay majors.

Comeback of the day:  On her least effective surface, Alize Cornet dropped the first set to former Wimbledon doubles champion Vania King.  Not known for her fortitude, Cornet easily could have folded from there.  Instead, she lost just four games over the next two sets to stay on track for a third-round rematch of her Roland Garros tilt with Victoria Azarenka.

Gold star:  Handed a formidable first-round opponent in Kristina Mladenovic, Maria Sharapova clung fiercely to her serve throughout a first set that featured only a single break point.  The going got slightly easier in the second set, and it should get easier for her in the next few rounds.

Silver star:  To the surprise of some, Wimbledon issued a wildcard to Andrea Petkovic just weeks after she lost in Roland Garros qualifying.  The charismatic German had contemplated retirement in the wake of that setback, but she continued an encouraging recent trend by justifying the wildcard with a straight-sets victory.

Marathon of the day:  All four Serbs in action advanced, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic with ease.  Vesna Dolonc battled back from losing the first set to topple Yanina Wickmayer, but Bojana Jovanovski surpassed all of her countrywomen in the drama department.  The fiery youngster who reached the second week of the Australian Open needed a 16-game final set to halt Ajla Tomljanovic, a once-promising talent derailed by mononucleosis.  The historic rivalry between Serbia and Tomljanovic’s native Croatia added an entertaining dimension to the thriller.

Americans in London:  The highest-ranked American here not named Williams, Sloane Stephens opened impressively by defeating Eastbourne finalist Jamie Hampton.  In general, though, this group fell far short of their Paris success while posting a dismal 2-7 record on Day 1.  Both of the victories came against fellow Americans, Christina McHale joining Stephens in the second round with a win over Alexa Glatch.  The 26th-seeded Varvara Lepchenko fell to the unheralded Eva Birnerova.

Question of the day:  Early in the second set of her opening match, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka fell awkwardly on the slick grass.  Although she managed to regroup for a comfortable victory, Azarenka said that she will undergo tests on the leg to assess its condition.  How serious will this apparent injury prove?

Repeat Shocker at Wimbledon: Rafael Nadal Out at Hands of World No. 135 Steve Darcis in Straight Sets

(June 24, 2013) The impossible has happened again at Wimbledon.

After a surprising exit at the hands of Lukas Rosol at last year’s Wimbledon Championships in the second round, world No. 5 Rafael Nadal was dealt another heavy blow on the grass. But this time, in a round earlier and by an opponent ranked even lower.

Monday’s 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 loss to Steve Darcis marks the first time ever that Nadal has lost in the first round of a Major after going 34-0. His opponent hit 53 winners compared to Nadal’s 32, and Darcis hit an astounding 13 aces for his 5’10” frame.

Given his worrisome loss last year, Nadal admitted during his pre-tournament press conference on Saturday that he shouldn’t have played Wimbledon last year.

“Last year I played here because is a tournament that I love, but I was not ready to play here … After Roland Garros I feel that my knee was not there anymore … [T]hat experience for me last year was too much. I suffer too much.”

Though more optimistic coming into Wimbledon this year and playing healthier, on Saturday, Nadal commented that he did not underestimate his first round opponent or how close matches on grass can be.

“[Darcis] is a complete player. I have to play well. I have to play very competitive from the beginning … [O]n this surface, on grass, all the matches are close. Matches can be decided for a few balls. So if you are not hundred percent focused and you’re not at your hundred percent of energy and playing well, you are in big trouble.”

And that’s exactly what happened. With the first set being decided by mere points as it went unexpectedly to a tiebreak, Nadal looked to be in a bit of trouble. And despite having the opportunity to serve out the second set at 6-5, Nadal again faltered and played a poor tiebreak, to go down two sets.

As many expected Nadal to finally wake up and take the match in five sets, he was quickly broken in the opening of the third set and began to look physically and mentally drained. Then, down 5-3 in the third, the camera panned to his uncle and coach Toni Nadal, who himself gave a defeatist smile as he watched on, already grasping the inevitable outcome.

Gone was Nadal’s firepower and energy, and after his loss, the deflated Spaniard addressed the press simply saying, “I didn’t find my rhythm.”

After the big focus on Nadal’s knee during his injury layoff, the Spaniard was questioned several times about the influence his knee played in his defeat. A dumbfounded Nadal finally let out a laugh:

“I think you are joking. I answered this question three or four times already, that I don’t want to talk about my knee this afternoon. The only thing I can say today is to congratulate Steve Darcis, he played a fantastic match. And everything that I will say today about my knee is an excuse. And I don’t like to [make] any excuse when I lose a match like I lost today.”

Nadal again seemed agitated when asked to compare this loss to his loss against Rosol last year. He repeated that he didn’t find any similarities.

Though a shocking loss by most standards, the truth it that Nadal has played a very heavy schedule after coming back from injury and played no tune-up event on grass prior to Wimbledon. He arrived last Tuesday after taking a few days off after Roland Garros.

So the question begs to be asked: should Nadal have adjusted his schedule and taken it lighter in the spring? With a long contemplative pause, Nadal addressed this idea:

“I cannot say when I [make my schedule] if it was wrong or it was positive. Six hours ago, it was a perfect calendar. Now it’s a very negative calendar.”

And, as Nadal states, “that’s sports” for you. Anything can happen. What seemed impossible just hours ago has transpired and left fans with more questions than answers about Nadal’s status, schedule and knee.

Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer Hit the Wimbledon Practice Courts on Saturday

(June 22, 2013) With Wimbledon set to kick-off main draw play on Monday, several top players hit the grass courts of the All England Club on Saturday to prepare for the season’s third Slam, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and more.

Rafael Nadal looked right at home on the grass, but he seems to have caught the British bug. And yes, it’s contagious. Someone should remind him he’s Spanish!

Tennis - 20123 Wimbledon Championships - Preview Day One - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

Rafael Nadal smiles

And yes, even champions take shirtless breaks on make-shift seats.

Rafael Nadal Wimbledon practice

Wimbledon’s official Instagram account and user TennisByLisa also took some great footage of Nadal practicing today. (Click on the pictures to play video.)

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Afterwards, Nadal sported a stylish white Nike jacket as he posed for a photo with an excited fan.

Rafael Nadal with fan

Scot Andy Murray also hit the courts on Saturday under the watchful eye of his coach Ivan Lendl.

Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl

Tennis - 20123 Wimbledon Championships - Preview Day One - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

And Ross Hutchins, a doubles player who recently finished his chemo treatment and is one of Murray’s best friends, joined in on the fun. Nice to see the 28-year-old Brit in such good spirits!

Andy Murray and Ross Hutchins

Tennis - 20123 Wimbledon Championships - Preview Day One - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

It’s all fun and games though until Murray forgets how to get dressed, and worse yet, how to hold a tennis racquet. I think you’re doing it wrong, Mr. Murray.

Tennis - 20123 Wimbledon Championships - Preview Day One - The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

Roger Federer also enjoyed a nice hit with Lleyton Hewitt, complete with Hewitt’s 4-year-old son Cruz crashing the party from the stands.

Roger Federer Wimbledon practice

(Click on the picture to play video.)

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And for die-hard fans who are just itching to see more color on the holy grass of Wimbledon, ladies and gentleman, I present to you Caroline Wozniacki, the always daring adidas-clad fashion star.

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How to Attack Rafael Nadal on the Wimbledon Grass

(June 21, 2013) Rafael Nadal’s dominance of the French Open has been absolutely remarkable. No other player in the history of tennis has so utterly conquered such a prestigious event year after year. Winning his eighth title at Roland Garros just a few short weeks ago, Nadal is the only player in the history of men’s tennis to win eight titles at single grand slam. His supremacy, even without the title, has been superior to the control both Roger Federer and Pete Sampras had over Wimbledon during their primes.

And as the tennis world closes in on Wimbledon, Nadal is looking to extend his clay court triumphs to the revered lawns of the All England Club. Nadal is seeded fifth in the tournament which undoubtedly has been the impetus for much debate over the seeding process. In addition, this specific seeding arrangement has put the Spaniard on a quarterfinal collision course with Federer, and possibly Andy Murray in the semifinals.

With this all said, how can the rest of the tennis world stifle the Spanish locomotive as he powers his way into Wimbledon? Let’s take a look at some strategies and tactics that can be used to attack Nadal as he pursues a third Wimbledon crown.

Diminish the margins quickly with an offensively-geared mindset – As Daniel Brands demonstrated in the first round of the French Open, one of the simplest strategies to integrate against Nadal is to endlessly take the initiative. Brands entered the match with a definitive intention which was to bludgeon each ball with as much pace as possible hoping to deny Nadal any opportunity of meeting his racket to the ball. This game plan is definitely simple enough in theory but it’s actually much harder to actualize on clay against Nadal. On grass, Nadal is less capable of engaging his opponents into marathon rallies during which he slowly eats away his opposition’s court position, fitness, and hope. Grass reduces the height at which the ball is being played and increases the speed by which the ball moves through the court. This combination facilitates more aggressive play and better rewards players who take more risks, an integral aspect of taking down Nadal.

Slice with caution – One feature of grass courts is that the ball tends to bounce low and skid thus making underspin shots infinitely more effective. Nadal’s forehand grips approaches a full-western which makes low balls harder to play. Those with more extreme forehand grips are more naturally suited to play higher reaching balls as the natural contact point is around chest level. Players with full western grips have a harder time getting under and swinging up the back of the ball, an abundantly necessary aspect of accelerating and obtaining power with such an extreme grip. This strategy is definitely a potent one to use against Nadal but is one that needs to be used with caution. If not executed with the appropriate pace and depth, the underspin backhand is a shot that Nadal is capable of running around and crushing. A weak slice backhand which can be equated to a flailing chip return by Federer is exactly the type of shot Nadal feasts on.

Serve variation – One of the main strategies used by the last three players (Federer, Djokovic, Rosol) to defeat Nadal at Wimbledon was to mix up their serve placement. Forcing Nadal to constantly adapt and adjust on the return is critical. Firstly, it keeps him off balance and consistently guessing. Secondly, Nadal’s forehand and backhand grips are far apart, so if Nadal is guessing backhand and the serve is targeted to his forehand, he’s not going to be able to switch his grip in time. As a result, he is likely going to be forced to chip the return back into play which more often than not will put him on the defensive.

Serve and Volley – There are many commentators and writers alike who have touted this play as old-fashioned and obsolete but I firmly believe that it can work. If Nadal retreats behind the baseline, players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer who possess versatile all-court games can use Nadal’s defensive return position as a catalyst to their offensive aggression. Again, caution must be used with the serve and volley tactic because Nadal is very apt at placing the ball at the feet of his opponents. In addition, serving and volleying on second serves is ill-advised because Nadal will move closer to the baseline to return and he will be able to take larger cuts on typically weaker serves.

Nadal’s Wimbledon Seeding; Stepanek-Kvitova Rumors — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Broken Record

As with Roland Garros, the question of whether to seed fifth-ranked Nadal at No. 4 or No. 5 was one of the hottest topics heading into Wimbledon.  The verdict is in, and the seeding committee has opted to leave him seeded fifth.  The decision has left some, like John McEnroe, scratching their heads, but it was the right decision.  Wimbledon has a standard mathematical formula for determining the men’s seeds.  The formula factors in grass court results over the last two years, with those of the previous 12 months weighted heavier than those of the past 24 months.  Nadal had a dismal grass court season in 2012, and though he reached the finals of Wimbledon in 2011, he had a poor showing in his Wimbledon tune-up that year as well.  Additionally, though he has won Wimbledon twice, it is not like he has dominated at SW19 anywhere near to the same extent as he has in Paris.  If the folks in Paris were willing to seed him fifth had Murray not withdrawn, Wimbledon is definitely within its right to do the same.  Would it be a surprise if he won the title here?  Not overly.  But he definitely doesn’t deserve an edge in his quest to do so at Ferrer’s expense.

Familiar Territory

Serena Williams is no stranger to controversy and thanks to some insensitive comments made a couple of months ago, she finds herself mired in it once again.  In an interview with Rolling Stone, Serena made some off-the-cuff remarks regarding the infamous Steubenville rape case, which have many up in arms.  Few would argue that, outside of something being slipped into her drink, the young victim acted irresponsibly.  But Serena’s decision to carry it a step further by unmistakably insinuating that the victim was mostly to blame for what transpired and was even “lucky” that it wasn’t worse was off base.  She further dug herself into a hole when she seemed to suggest that the primary perpetrators were potentially treated too harshly.  To her credit, Serena has since backed off those comments.  It would have been nice had she taken full responsibility for them instead of insinuating that her remarks were misrepresented (a scenario that seems somewhat unlikely given that the reporter used a recorder, and Serena isn’t outright accusing the reporter of misquoting her), but her damage control efforts and willingness to reach out to the victim’s family are admirable.  It’s certainly an improvement over how she handled the 2009 US Open debacle, and hopefully this controversy won’t prove a distraction with Wimbledon around the corner.

Injury Woes

Wimbledon has yet to get underway, but the women’s competition has already suffered a couple of blows.  Both Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams have withdrawn with injuries.  Kuznetsova is undoubtedly disappointed to have to forgo the Championships thanks to an abdominal strain she suffered at Roland Garros.  The Russian has worked hard to rebuild her ranking, and after a quarterfinal showing in Paris where she was the only player to have Serena on the ropes, her inability to even attempt to build on that momentum is a disappointment.  Venus, too, has fallen victim to a lingering injury, with her back still causing her fits.  Grand Slam champions deserve to go out on their own terms, and as players like Serena and Federer have proven time and time again, it’s dangerous to write them off.  But many, including Venus herself, have to wonder how much longer she’s going to be out there after this latest setback.  The injuries and health issues are piling up, and the results haven’t been there for some time.  She also looks far more distressed, annoyed, and upset than in years past when matches aren’t going in her favor.  If the back doesn’t heal fast, Venus may be packing it up sooner than many anticipated.

Glass Half-Full

One of the game’s most dangerous underachievers, David Nalbandian, will be out indefinitely after undergoing both hip and shoulder surgery.  The Argentine still remains on crutches and has yet to test his shoulder.  Despite the growing frequency of his injuries, however, the 31-year-old veteran isn’t ready to hang up the racquet just yet.  Perhaps inspired by the likes of Haas, Robredo, and Baker, Nalbandian still feels he can produce stellar tennis.  A trip back to the upper echelons of the game is unlikely in the cards, but it would be nice to see him have at least one more good go at it.  He was one of the few players capable of giving all of the top players a run for their money, and when he’s on, he has a beautiful game to watch.  Here’s to hoping he makes a full recovery and dazzles us again.

The Swap?

Czech newspapers are reporting that Radek Stepanek and former WTA pro Nicole Vaidisova are calling it quits after three years of marriage.  The newspaper rumors were confirmed by Czech Davis Cup Captain Karel Tejkal.  It always did seem odd, especially with the age gap (Stepanek is 34 and Vaidisova 24), that these two walked down the aisle in the first place, so news of their divorce isn’t really a shock.  What is a shock, however, is that Stepanek, who has also previous dated Martina Hingis, is now rumored to be dating former Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova – a player even younger than Vaidisova.  Kvitova has acknowledged awareness of the rumors but has yet to confirm their validity.  She has merely asked all to respect her private life so as to avoid further outside distractions at the year’s third major.  That’s all fine and well, but she’s living in a fool’s paradise if she thinks she’s heard the last of this, which given her recent struggles, doesn’t bode well for her chances of picking up Wimbledon title No. 2.