ricardo sanchez

Djokovic the Warrior; Sharapova’s Future — The Friday Five

by Maud Watson

Ultimate Warrior

Physically, mentally, and emotionally, Novak Djokovic proved he had it all in his epic win over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final.  This win did more to boost his reputation and solidify the Serb’s status as the best player in the world than anything he did in 2011.  He had many reasons to lose that match.  He could have gotten frustrated and deviated from the game plan when he frequently misfired in the first set.  He could have crumbled going into the fifth after three forehand unforced errors in the tiebreak ultimately cost him the fourth.  He was being asked to win two five-set matches back-to-back for the first time in his career, and he was being asked to pull it off against a guy long considered one of the game’s most physically punishing players.  At 2-4 down in that final set, he could have accepted it was over.  He’d had a good run.  But instead he turned a badly missed backhand by Nadal into a turning point, snatching back the momentum.  And despite the obvious tiredness, he never looked like a man who was going to lose that match.  There was no panic, and if anything, the occasional smile that crossed his face showed he was enjoying the battle, win or lose.  When he broke Nadal that final time, there was no celebration.  There was still work to be done, and only when he had struck that final winner to seal the match did he let the emotions flow.  Will he have the same kind of season he did in 2011?  The general consensus is no, but with his win in Australia, it surely hints that such a run wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.

Here to Stay

She’s been touted as a future Grand Slam champion for a few years now, and playing in her first major final, Victoria Azarenka definitely delivered.  After a shaky start to fall in a 2-0 hole, she turned the tables on the more experienced Sharapova, allowing the Russian just one more game in what turned out to be a total route.  Her improved movement, touch, and net play were all on display as she not only won her maiden slam, but secured the No. 1 ranking in the process.  Her shrieking and “in-your-face” attitude will undoubtedly be a turn off for some, but they are also the same qualities that have served the likes of Sharapova and Serena Williams, among others, well.  She’s clearly someone who enjoys the spotlight, and she has solidly emerged as a strong candidate to help fill the void at the top of women’s tennis.

Time Will Tell

You have to hand it to Rafael Nadal.  His fighting spirit was at its best in his Australian Open final loss to Novak Djokovic, where his outright refusal to throw in the towel played a huge factor in extending it to five sets.  But at the end of the day, a loss is a loss, and this had to be one of the most painful in his career.  For his own part, Nadal put a positive spin on things, stating he felt he was right there mentally this time.  It’s also the closest he’s come to defeating Djokovic at a major since the Serb turned the tide in their rivalry.  But there were also some worrying signs for Nadal.  After nearly six hours, it was Nadal, allegedly the physically and mentally stronger of the two, who blinked first.  This was all the more surprising considering that Djokovic, much like Nadal in 2009, was the one coming in on one day’s less rest after a grueling and emotional semifinal win.  When it mattered most, Nadal also reverted back to his defensive mode and allowed Djokovic to dictate play.  And perhaps the biggest hurdle still in Nadal’s path is the mental block he has against the current No. 1.  He doesn’t miss that sitter backhand to go 40-15 up at 4-2 in the fifth unless a guy is in his head.  Only time will tell how Nadal will truly view and handle this loss and its potential impact on the rest of his season.

Mixed Bag

Any time a player reaches a Grand Slam final, especially if they’ve had shoulder surgery, it’s a good effort.  But while Maria Sharapova should take heart from her Australian Open run, she should also be leaving with some question marks about her chances to hold aloft another major trophy.  Chris Evert certainly thinks she can, going so far as to say “she’s too good not to.”  Still, some, myself included, beg to differ.  That’s not to say Sharapova won’t.  She hits the ball big enough, and if she couples it with relative consistency, she could win.  But she’s also going to need some help from the draw.   Her semifinal win over Kvitova had more to do with the unforced errors coming off the Czech’s racquet than anything Sharapova was doing.  Then there was the drubbing she suffered from Azarenka, a player who matched her stroke for stroke (and shriek for shriek), but also possessed greater variety and guile.  It really exposed Sharapova’s one-dimensional game.  So if Sharapova wants to win another major going forward, she has two options.  She can either pray that the draws ultimately pan out for her, or she can look to add a few new tools to her game (and the latter option will probably only come to fruition if someone “important enough” puts the bug in her ear!).

Questionable Decision

January 2012 is a month Caroline Wozniacki would probably like to forget.  After entering the Australian Open amid an injury scare, she gets dismissed by Clijsters in the quarters and wakes up this past Monday as the No. 4 player in the world.  To top it all off, we learn that after just two months on the job, Ricardo Sanchez has been sacked as her coach.  While diplomatic in his comments to the press, Sanchez confirmed what many already suspected – that there was no place for him in the Wozniacki father-daughter system as Piotr refused to relinquish the reins.  No one disputes that Piotr has done a wonderful job with his daughter, but she’s now spinning her wheels as the competition begins to pass her.  A coach other than Piotr is needed, and he would be well-served to remember that wanting what’s best for his child sometimes means letting go, not holding on.

Henin to return this weekend, Murray to continue with Corretja, Gilbert to Help Nishikori

*Justine Henin is to return to action this weekend at the Hopman Cup in Australia having been kept out since Wimbledon with an elbow injury. The former world No. 1 hopes to be able to compete in the Australian Open but fears it may take her up to six months to regain full fitness. “There were concerns about the future of my career,” the 28-year-old Belgian said. “I hope I can build my condition by playing tournaments this year and hope to be really ready around June-July.” 2010 was the seven-time Grand Slam winner’s return from an 18-month retirement and she will hope to add that elusive Wimbledon title to her CV before giving up permanently.

*British No. 1 Andy Murray has confirmed that Spaniard Alex Corretja will remain as his coach for at least the first half of 2011. Corretja, a former world No. 2, took over the role after Murray split with Miles Maclagan back in July. “Andy has taken time out from his busy pre-season fitness training to confirm that the current coaching set-up, with both Alex Corretja and Dani Vallverdu, will continue into the first half of next year,” read a statement on Murray’s official website.

*Brad Gilbert has confirmed that he will work as a consultant to Japanese star Kei Nishikori at fifteen tournaments throughout 2011. Gilbert retired from the tour in 1994 and his since coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray on a permanent basis. “I have been working at the IMG Bollettieri Academy for a few years now, helping out Kei and other players,” Gilbert told ATPWorldTour.com.

“I decided to expand my role with Kei to 15 tournaments, but TV work with ESPN will remain my first priority.”

*World No. 8 Jelena Jankovic has begun working with former Romanian world No. 13 Andrei Pavel on a trial basis after lifting only one title in 2010 at Indian Wells. She was being handled by Ricardo Sanchez but they have now parted ways.

*American Wayne Odesnik has had his two-year doping ban overturned after 12 months. He is now free to return to competitive matches from December 29. Whilst entering Australia for last year’s Brisbane International he was stopped by customs and eight vials of the growth hormone HGH were found in his luggage, although Odesnik never tested positive for taking the substance. Whilst at one time being ranked as high as No. 77 in the world, Odesnik was ranked No. 111 when the incident occurred and has now slipped off the rankings altogether.

*Maria Sharapova has reserved a wildcard entry in to the Sydney tournament for if she falls early on in the previous week’s festivities at Auckland. The former world No. 1 is usually pretty lax in her preparations for Melbourne Park but has opted for a more strenuous approach after losing in the first round in 2010.

*Alona Bondarenko has announced she will miss the Australian Open after undergoing the second knee surgery of her career. 2010 semifinalist Jie Zheng will also miss the competition after failing to recover from the wrist surgery she underwent in September. In the men’s draw, Robby Ginepri is set to miss out after he set March as his benchmark to return to the tour after suffering a motorbike accident in November whilst swerving to avoid a squirrel.

*The GB Fed Cup team have announced that teen starlets Heather Watson and Laura Robson are set to compete in next month’s Europe/Africa Zone Group 1 tie in Israel. Watson, 18, was the 2009 US Open junior champion while Robson, 16, won the Wimbledon junior title in 2008 aged just 14. Watson said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to have been selected. It’s a dream come true as I’ve grown up watching the competition. I can’t wait to head out to Israel with the girls and give it our all.” Captain Nigel Sears added: “It is the right time for Heather and Laura to try and make it a successful week.”

*Teens the world over were celebrating early Christmas presents after receiving wildcards in to the 2011 Australian Open main draw. Australia’s No. 11 Olivia Rogowska was celebrating after defeating former world No. 4 Jelena Dokic 1-6, 7-6(3), 6-3 in the final of the Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs. Dokic, though, has since been handed a discretionary wildcard by the Aussie tennis authorities. Marinko Matosevic overcame Peter Luczak in five sets in the men’s final to earn his place and Luczak has also been handed an entry card. Tennis Australia have also handed discretionary wildcards to Matt Ebden and Alicia Molik. In the American equivalent, played at the Racquet Club of the South, Georgia, world No. 444 Lauren Davis, 17, upset No. 113 Coco Vandeweghe, 19, in their final 6-2, 6-2. Ryan Harrison won the male playoffs after overcoming Jack Sock. The French Tennis Federation have awarded their discretionary pass in to the main draw to Virginie Razzano.

*Latest Career Grand Slam achiever Rafa Nadal was voted the 2010 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year. “For me it’s an honour, thank you very much to the BBC for giving me this award,” said the 24-year-old. “It’s just a dream being in the list of great champions to receive this award.” For reaction and to see the Spaniard collect the trophy visit the BBC Tennis website. Marca.com also named him ‘Spanish Athlete of the Decade’ while elpais.es readers voted him the ‘Spanish Athlete of the Year.’

*The ATP website has interviews with a host of top stars available to read at your leisure including how Andy Roddick and Marcos Baghdathis have prepared themselves for the 2011 season and whether Novak Djokovic can keep up his impressive end to 2010.

*You have until midnight on December 31 to cast your votes in the TennisReporters.net 2010 Tennis Awards so get over there now before it’s too late to have your say on who were the players of the year, which matches really set your fires alight and which stars provide the greatest eye candy.

JELLY ROLLS – JANKOVIC RETURNS TO TOP FORM AT INDIAN WELLS

By Chris Oddo

It was a wild week in the California Desert – conditions were so balmy that I felt like imitating that BNP Paribas commercial where the fans grab the player’s racquets and make a mockery of the match by running onto the court and taking wild amateurish swings at the ball.

Fortunately I didn’t act on any of these feelings – the tennis being played on the courts was so spectacular that I wouldn’t have dared.

Speaking of spectacular, nobody on the women’s side was more spectacular than the 25-year-old Serbian Sensation known as “JJ” to her fans.  I prefer Jelly, but that’s another story for another day.  Whatever you call her, the Serb put together her strongest effort of the young season, staging a Houdini of a comeback against Sara Errani in the 3rd round, then riding the momentum to four straight set victories, and her 12th career title on Sunday.

The win comes on the heels of a parting of ways with former coach, Ricardo Sanchez, and the formation of a temporary no-strings-attached agreement with Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy Director of Tennis, Chip Brooks.

Jankovic, who hasn’t been beyond the 4th round of a Slam since her 2008 U.S. Open final appearance, played at such a high level in this tournament that it’s hard not to consider the possibility of another run up the tennis ladder and into the top-5 again.  The former No. 1 reached the semifinals or better in three of four majors in ’08, but success has not come so easily since.

Part of her success, and perhaps part of what has been missing since she has slipped, has been her ability to aggressively dictate play to her opponents.  Perhaps Jankovic has tended to lean on her defensive prowess too much over the years – but not here at Indian Wells.  She is content no more.  Jankovic seemed to forget to put the pedal to the metal at times in ’09 when the situation called for it.  She didn’t take advantage of her ability to hit very heavy balls and put very significant pressure on her adversaries.  Brooks took notice of this and started coaching her to embrace her aggressive nature.

It’s some of the strategical terrain that Chip Brooks, Jelena’s coach at the moment, mentioned to me in our conversation today, and it was the stuff that was obviously crucial to her success this week.  When Jankovic started to get some wind in her sails with a very decisive win against Israeli Shahar Peer in the 4th round, Brooks said he knew they had a shot.  As a witness to that match, I must admit, it was pretty impressive.  Routinely stepping inside the baseline and scorching winners from both wings against Peer, Jelly was getting on a roll that she was destined to never get off.

Could this be the real deal, or were we simply remembering with fondness a Jankovic that we would more than likely never see again?   Were we seeing ghosts in the machine?

Apparently not.

Suddenly, with a juggernaut of a run to a very prestigious title, Jankovic has worked her way into that category of players that just might do some damage come springtime.

Could she be coming of age for a second time?

It was hard not to notice the ease with which she closed out matches against the likes of Sam Stosur (new to the top-10 this week) and Caroline Wozniacki (now No. 2 in the world).  Not only did she consistently make the first strike against her opponents, taking them out of crucial points, but Jankovic displayed some of the best serving she’s ever produced.  Surrendering three breaks in the final three matches pretty much tells the story.  And what was perhaps even more impressive is that she didn’t face a break point throughout the very tense 2nd set that decided the final against Wozniacki.

“I just have to stay focused and do what I do best,” Jankovic told the press as she spoke to them after her semifinal victory over stosur.  It was a telling statement, and it is indeed good news that Jankovic appears to finally remember what she does best.  Chip Brooks deserves some credit for the turnaround, but, as he told me himself “this isn’t about me, she’s the one out there hitting the ball.”

Indeed she is.