“Rivals,” my high school gym teacher once said, “always hate each other. Mac does not like PC. Coke does not like Pepsi. Competition makes the world go round!”
Had he been a tennis fan at the time, he might have added Serbian rivals Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic to his list of those between whom little love was lost.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, Ivanovic and Jankovic were the fire and ice of the WTA Tour’s elite. Ana was the big-hitter with an on-court effusiveness that was as jarring as it was endearing. Not to say that the counter-punching Jankovic was reserved; she saved her quirky personality and for the pressroom, where she gave quotes that continue to defy explanation.
Both hailed from the war torn city of Belgrade. Both became famous in their home country. Both wanted to be the best.
With few other compatriots, isolation combined with a singular goal could have bonded these young women together. The Italian and Czech Fed Cup teams are shining examples of on-court camaraderie in an individual sport. Off the court? The guest list at Elena Dementieva’s wedding was a “who’s who” of Russian tennis (Vera Dushevina caught the bouquet).
Yet, there is something about countries that boast only two talented players. Perhaps that it serves as a microcosm for the game itself, the idea of a dual between two players and only one can emerge victorious, intensifies what could otherwise be a friendly rivalry. Whatever the reason, like Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin before them, the relationship between Ivanovic and Jankovic was always cool at best. Never overtly friendly, the two had ways of reminding fans and media where the two women stood with one another.
After scoring a win over her rival in Madrid a few years ago, Jelena was seen mocking Ana’s signature fist pump:
Upon seeing it, Ana quipped, “…Sport doesn’t build character, it shows it.” Far from contrite, Jelena defended the gesture and struck out against players who fist pump “in the player’s face, and especially after not winning a point [but] after your opponent missed an easy ball, I don’t think that’s fair play.”
For all of their differences, Ana and Jelena ended up having two fairly similar careers.
At their peaks, they fought for the No. 1 ranking at the 2008 French Open. Jankovic squandered a third set lead and Ivanovic went on to win her only Slam title. From there, she promptly entered a slump that persists to this day; she has only made one Slam quarterfinal in the last (going on) five years.
Jankovic eventually wrested the top spot from her rival and went on a late-season tear to finish the year atop the rankings. A move to change her game in order to better compete for majors saw her not only remain slamless, but also caused her to tumble from the game’s elite.
This year’s Australian Open saw the two play one another for the first time at a Slam since that fateful French Open encounter. Far from the penultimate round, the rivals were seeded outside the top 10 and competing for a spot in the fourth round, where the winner would take on the much-higher ranked Agnieszka Radwanska.
Ostensibly, the stakes were as high as ever as each woman strives to retain relevancy on a Tour that has moved on without them. Once highly marketable stars, the rivals were relegated to Hisense Arena for a competitive, though more lighthearted, battle. While showing flashes of their former brilliance, the two shared a laugh several times during Ivanovic’s two-set victory. With that, the “Serbian Sisters” wordlessly confirmed the news that they had buried the hatchet.
Reflecting on their frosty past, Jankovic mused, “Back then we were competing for No. 1 and we both wanted what we never achieved and it was different circumstances.” In the heat of the moment, it was easy to see things less clearly, but in retrospect, Jelena poignantly describes the fate of the rivalry with her compatriot, one that was never truly realized.
But rather than dwelling on what might have been, it is comforting to see the two former foes together, now able to laugh and reminisce about their time at the top.
For what seems like years, fans of women’s tennis have been looking for a legitimate rivalry at the top of the game. They may finally get their wish with the compelling rivalry emerging between the top two players in the world, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
It was difficult to label head-to-head a rivalry given Azarenka’s dominance of Sharapova this season. However, the Russian finally turned the tables this weekend , for one match at least, in the final at Stuttgart to capture her 25th career title to match the birthday she celebrated a few weeks ago. The two had met twice already in championship matches this year and at least one of them has played for the title at all of the major tournament thus far in 2012.
Sharapova’s run to the Stuttgart crown was rather impressive, particularly on clay. She defeated Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Azarenka in consecutive matches, including a dominant 6-1, 6-4 victory over the World No. 1.
“I had lost the last few previous encounters with Victoria, so I was extremely motivated today,” Sharapova said. “When I got the chance to go out and play her again I knew I had to change a few things. Before I was maybe a little bit impatient and went for a bit too much sometimes, but this time I was really patient. I was aggressive but consistent when I had to be against her. “
If Sharapova can continue to keep up her end of the bargain, women’s tennis could have its version of the ATP’s Djokovic-Nadal rivalry. The potential is certainly there for many reasons. One of which is their match ups have risen in intensity. They brushed shoulders while crossing the net during a changeover in the Stuttgart final, drawing a small reaction from both, but exchanged a civil handshake at the match’s conclusion. Both are fierce competitors and currently at the top of their game which are important ingredients in any rivalry. They also have players like Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams pushing them to be better.
Azarenka is the emerging star while Sharapova is a legend of her sport, both on and off the court. Azarenka wins matches with her natural athletic ability while Sharapova uses exquisite ball striking and a burning competitive desire to will herself to victory. The contrasts and similarities are there, so is the motivation and after Sunday’s somewhat unexpected result, anticipation is building already for their next encounter and the numerous one that are sure to follow.
by Ahmed Ibrahim and Stephanie Neppl
Expectations. It’s hard to not be caught up in the hype when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal face off on the tennis courts. Before meeting in the 2011 ATP World Tour Finals, the two had met on 25 previous occasions, including countless Grand Slam finals. Given their illustrious history, it’s easy to expect magic every time they take the court.
Well, the only magic being showcased during Tuesday night’s round robin match between the two tennis greats was on Federer’s side of the court. He barely erred during the hour-long match, blasting winners from all over the court, serving superbly and moving with lightning speed.
Rafa, on the other hand, barely knew what hit him. He looked a half step slow, only hit four winners (compared with 28 for Roger) and his groundstrokes fell too short, time and again.
Rafa fans were stunned into silence as he was broken once to lose the first set, and then was dealt the ultimate humiliation of a bagel in a quick second set.
What went wrong? Rafa has never beaten Roger on the indoor courts. He’s 0-4 against the 16-time grand slam champion in the ATP World Tour Finals, and has historically not performed well in the indoor season.
As much as we Rafa fans want to look for reasons why he lost so badly tonight, it didn’t seem to be about the surface. Fed played nearly immaculate tennis, and Rafa being a bit flat and slow, his short, high balls were just eaten alive by Federer.
Being in the stands watching your favorite lose so badly is not pleasant. There’s nowhere to hide and suddenly the fervent cheers for the other player seem louder and more disruptive. Unfortunately, tonight was one of those difficult nights for this Rafa fan, but all credit to Roger for his stunning play. He certainly looks on track to repeat his 2010 World Tour Finals win.
For the Federer fans in the O2 Arena, however, nothing prepared them for what they would be witnessing: Roger Federer playing at his very best. It was like being transported back to 2005 with the crisp, clean, early hitting of the ball and dominating play from the baseline.
Federer did not give Rafa an inch to maneuver as he played deep ball after deep ball to keep Rafa off-guard and make him move around the court before executing the perfect winning forehand/backhand into the open court.
Notching up 28 winners to Nadal’s paltry four is testament to how well Federer played tonight and the risks he took to outplay his opponent. A 6-3 6-0 scoreline surely gives Federer a huge boost of confidence against the rest of field. No one else is producing this high level of tennis in the indoor circuit.
The atmosphere inside the O2 Arena was electrifying throughout and for Federer fans the cheers grew louder and louder with every winning shot he produced. Why can’t Fed play like this day in and day out? There came a point when Fed fans must surely have asked the question when will Federer’s form suddenly switch off (as is often the case!)?
Witnessing this performance against one the game’s greatest ever players is almost a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Federer vs Nadal legacy will live on forever but for those of us fortunate to see a match live, we should be savoring the moments as they will become less and less frequent.
Stephanie Neppl and Ahmed Ibrahim are in London covering the ATP World Tour Finals as guest contributors for Tennis Grandstand. Stephanie, an avid Nadal fan, maintains the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and her twitter is @StephInNZ, while Ahmed, an avid Federer fan, is the author of the website Tennis Addict and his twitter is @TennisAddict_.
Roger Federer made it the to semis at the Madrid Open beating Ernests Gulbis 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. Last month Ernests Gulbis turned into Federer’s “bête noir” beating Federer in Rome and Gulbig was looking to repeat. However, Federer got himself together and ensured victory in Madrid.
“I think it’s one of the toughest things in tennis if you lose against a player and you have to play against him in the next couple of weeks,” Federer said. “I was very happy with the way I was able to return and mix up the game a bit, and at the end I thought it was a really great performance.”
The renewal of the rivalry between Federer and Nadal is coming closer with Nadal also reaching the semis. Nadal faced Gael Monfils and beat him 6-1, 6-3.
“In the first set I played at a very high level,” said Nadal, who compared the high-altitude conditions of Madrid with his previous two tournaments.
“In Monte Carlo I played one of the best tournaments of my life on clay. In Rome, I played very well, too. This is the toughest tournament for me. The conditions are the most difficult of the year for me on clay, but I’m fine. Yesterday I played quite well (against John Isner), today better. I’m very happy.”
Roger Federer faces David Ferrer in the semis while Rafael Nadal plays fellow countryman Nicolas Almagro.
Ralf Reinecke was on the scene taking pics of the Roger Federer / Ernests Gulbis match.
By Maud Watson
Rivalry Up in Flames – By now everyone around the globe must know about the infamous spat that took place between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi at the “Hit for Haiti” charity event. I’ll go on record as saying that both men were wrong for the way that they behaved that night. But I’m also placing the overwhelming amount of blame on Agassi, and he’s the only one of the two for whom I also felt disgust. Agassi’s mouth was going a mile a minute the entire evening and taking subtle jabs at Sampras. Finally Sampras snapped, and his response was to do his impression of Agassi. I had no problem with this. Sampras did this same impression at an exhibition event several years ago with Agassi, and in response, Agassi then did an excellent Sampras impersonation. That was all Agassi needed to do last week. Instead, he hit Pete way below the belt. Even Agassi’s apology was sorely lacking, as he admitted to the joke falling flat but then faulted Sampras for not rolling with it. Why should he, Andre? He was the one being embarrassed in front of a stadium full of people. Sampras already took the high road once when Agassi’s book first came out, and Sampras offered little comment on it. To ask him to do so a second time in that kind of an atmosphere is too much. Worse still, Sampras is unlikely going to be willing to put himself in that kind of a situation again any time soon, so good luck to any exhibition organizer trying to get those two out on the court to hit for charity.
Void of Punishment – Not to keep harping on Andre Agassi, but I was also disappointed (though not surprised) to see that the ITF has come out with a statement declaring that the statute of limitations has passed, and there can be no retroactive punishment for Agassi’s past use of crystal meth. In many ways, it’s a shame that there’s no real retribution here. I can accept that people make mistakes, but to see Agassi get by with this on top of last Friday at the charity exhibition, this verdict is just one more thing that makes me shake my head and wonder how much more he’s going to be allowed to get by with before someone steps in and does something.
Pakistani Pullout – In a sad story that ran earlier this week, the ITF was forced to announce that the Davis Cup tie between Pakistan and New Zealand, which had been slated to take place in Pakistan, would have to be moved to New Zealand due to the recent bombings in the Pakistani nation. The move is completely understandable but a hard blow to Pakistani tennis. Home ties can so often help spark tennis interest and growth in the host nation, not to mention bring some joy if victorious. A troubled nation like Pakistan could have used this boost.
The Fallout Continues – Things continue to unravel in Great Britain after they suffered one of their most humiliating Davis Cup losses in history. The All-Party Parliamentary Tennis Group, which includes members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, is staging an inquiry to further study the status of tennis in Great Britain at all levels of the game. Furthermore, John Lloyd is throwing in the towel, while coach Paul Annacone will no longer serve as the Davis Cup team coach. Bless whatever soul is brave enough to take over the helm of this rapidly sinking ship before they face Turkey later this year.
Latest Russian Maladies – In one of the more mind-boggling stories of the week, it was noted that Russian Nikolay Davydenko was forced to withdraw from the BNP Paribas Open due to a broken wrist. The fact that he had to pull out of the tournament with such an injury was not the mind-boggling part…it was the fact that he’d played with the broken wrist, which had been misdiagnosed earlier in the year. The Russian could possibly be out for the entire clay court season. My fingers are crossed that he makes a speedy recovery, especially given how well he’s played the past six months.