Rod Laver

Forget The GOAT Debate! Let’s Talk About The GROAT!

By Thaddeus McCarthy

As we are in the (short) off-season, I thought now would be a perfect time to look at some historical aspects of our great game. Rather than discussing my opinions on the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate (which is a boring and tedious one), I will instead talk about the GROAT (Greatest Record of All Time) debate. Whether it is Roger Federer’s 17 Grand Slams, or Rafael Nadal’s 81-match clay-court win streak, we certainly have an array of options. The records I will compare will be only men, as it is too difficult to compare both sexes. I also don’t want to get into a debate on the relative importance of the two.

Two factors are most important here; the first is the difficulty of acquiring the record, and the second is how important the record is too the game’s history in general. The difficulty of acquiring the record can be looked at by the closeness of the results, the quality of the opponents, and the next person in the category. How important the record is can be looked at by how widely known is, and is revered by players and historians.

I would like to start off by talking about a record that unfortunately never was, Federer’s 19 consecutive Grand Slam finals. The match which broke this streak was the 2008 Aussie Open semifinal versus Novak Djokovic, which coincidentally your writer watched from the stands. I remember thinking that Fed was not his normal self. He did in fact have mononucleosis, which did slow him down. But let’s for now go back to fantasy and believe that Federer won this match, in which case I believe we certainly would have had the greatest record in tennis, and arguably in sports. Why? Well there were many close matches throughout, such as Janko Tipsaravic at Aussie 08, won 10-8 in the 5th. The opponents Federer had to face in this time (2005-2010) before the final were very good; such as a young Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick, and David Nalbandian. The next person in the consecutive finals category is Rafael Nadal with 5, which is not even close. And it’s standing in the history of tennis and sports would undoubtedly be exemplary. It would be near on five years of constantly finishing in the top two of sports major tournaments… ridiculous.
As it is in reality land, we have Federer’s 23 consecutive semi-final streak to admire. The matches were close and the opponents were still very good. The next person in the category though is Novak Djokovic with 14, which is much closer than five. It is probably the best known record in tennis, and has been talked about as one of the greatest in sports. But is it the greatest? His own 17 Grand Slams stand out as maybe a better known record. Nadals 81-match clay court win streak, or his 7/8 titles at 4 different tournaments (French Open, Monte Carlo, Rome, Barcelona) were both far beyond anything else. Jimmy Connors 109 single titles record will likely never be approached. Guillermo Vilas’s 16 titles in a single season will not be overtaken in the modern age. You could also include Rod Laver’s two calendar year Grand Slams or his 200 total titles in this company.

For Nadal’s two greatest records there is one match which stands out above all others, and that is the 2006 Rome Final, which went over 5 hours. It was the longest match in the Nadal-Federer rivalry. Winning this match enabled Nadal to break Vilas’s record 53 straight clay wins. Jimmy Connors total titles record of 109 is a reasonably known record throughout the tennis public. The next person in the category is Ivan Lendl with 94. Seeing that Fed only won a single title this year to notch up his 77th, we can clearly see how difficult it is. The Vilas record of 16 titles in one season (1977) is practically unbreakable. Especially considering that Federer in his best year of 2006 ‘only’ won 12. Most of those for Vilas were on clay though, so one has to question his all-court mastery. Rod Laver’s calendar Grand Slams, one in the amateur era and one in the professional; will be hard to emulate. It has to be remembered though that these were the transition years when neither (amateur/professional) had all the great players in their respective competitions. One has to think that it would be somewhat easier to accomplish the true Grand Slam then, than from the 70s onwards.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to that which is best known by the general public and appreciated by historians. And unfortunately Vilas’s, Nadal’s and Connors records; while undoubtedly great, are not well known by the general public. The Laver calendar Grand Slams are well known, but the quality of the opposition in those days was spread across two separate competitions. The record which stands out I believe (and I know it may be obvious) is the Federer semi-final streak of 23. The reasons for it are many. It is one of the best known records in tennis and is revered by historians and the public alike, most importantly though it demonstrates consistent excellence over a prolonged period. Among the great records in sports it is arguable where this stands alongside the likes of Tiger Wood’s 142 consecutive cut streak or Wilt Chamberlains 100 point game. Within tennis though, nothing is on par with it. We needn’t live in a fantasy land, because the reality of 23 consecutive top four finishes isn’t half bad.

Another Award for Nadal, Laver Backs Murray and Sampras Praises Monfils

Nadal: Because He’s Worth it

Rafael Nadal was celebrating after lifting the Sportsman of the Year Award at this year’s Laureus Sports Awards. The reigning French and US Open and Wimbledon Champion beat of stiff competition from some of the world’s top athletes to raise the trophy in Abu Dhabi. Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters were all nominated for the Sportswoman of the Year award but lost out to the American skiing Olympic gold medallist Lindsey Vonn.

Laver Backs Murray for Success:

He may have taken a fair bit of stick from doubters questioning his ‘bottle’ after his third straight Grand Slam final defeat but Andy Murray will undoubtedly take great comfort after one of the true greats of tennis backed him to come good. Rod Laver, the only man to twice win all four majors in a calendar year and the last man to do so, has backed Murray to one day lift one of the great trophies aloft and has called for the British press to get off his back. “He did very well in coming through the field that he was against,” the eleven-time Grand Slam winner told Garry Richardson of the BBC. “Just look at the way that [Novak] Djokovic played that day and through the whole two weeks. He was just a man obsessed. Unfortunately Murray did not have any chance because Djokovic just played unbelievably well.” He said of Murray’s future chances: “Winning the first one is probably the toughest thing you’ll ever come across. He just has to not let the British public take hold of him and say ‘you’re a failure’ because he’s certainly not that at all…I think he’s certainly capable of pulling it off but…that’s up to Andy. It depends on his ability to win the big matches when he’s not playing so well. Sometimes he can get a little emotional and that detracts from his great ability.” The full interview can be heard at the The full interview can be heard at the BBC Tennis website.

Sampras a Monfils Fan:

Before the serious play began at this week’s SAP Open in San Jose current French star Gael Monfils took to the court to play an exhibition against esteemed Hall of Famer Pete Sampras. The young wild child scored a 7-6(4), 6-4 victory and certainly left a mark on his opponent. “I played a little better than I did last year and held my own,” said the 14-time Grand Slam winner. “But physically that’s the most I’ve served and volley in combination of the last seven years. Not easy. Gael’s a great mover. He returns well and made me work pretty hard on my service game, but all in all, I’m very happy with the way I played. I had a few chances in the first set I let slip away, but he’s the real deal. I’ve played a lot of good movers in my day, but not only does he move well, but he slides, which helps really cover the court that much better.” But he wasn’t getting carried away with talk of Monfils ending France’s wait for a major winner: “You look at Roger [Federer], [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic now, you can tell that they can play at that level a little bit easier, a little less effort, whereas with Gael I think just to get there is a lot of work. He has the talent, it’s just a matter of putting it all together, but he has the game. He serves big, he can come in when he has to, and returns quite well, but to win these majors you’ve got to be very, very special. He has the talent; it’s just going to take some time. He’s still very young. He’s 24. He still has a lot of time to get it.”

Nadal set to resume Training:

World No. 1 Rafael Nadal has announced via his official website that he is set to resume training ahead of Spain’s Davis Cup match with Belgium next month. “I feel quite good,” the statement read. “I am going home today (Tuesday) to Manacor to begin training on the courts. I am going to start training slowly, following a plan, so that there are no setbacks.” Nadal also spoke of his disappointment of the way he crashed out of this year’s Australian Open at the quarterfinal stage to friend and compatriot David Ferrer: “I was crying in the locker room,” said the 24-year-old. “I [hated that I had] to go out of the tournament. Last year, I had to do it and it was something I didn’t want to repeat. But from the third game I knew I didn’t have a chance to win. David was playing fantastic and I wasn’t able to run enough to rise to the level to beat him.”

Querrey-ing his Form:

It’s not been a good start to 2011 for American star Sam Querrey. Complaining of a loss of love for tennis mid-way through last season it looks like his poor run has spilt over in to the new tennis calendar. This week in San Jose the world No. 17 suffered the unceremonious honour of falling to the world No. 113 Lukas Lacko of Poland in straight sets in their first-round encounter. “I didn’t try to play fast,” said the 23-year-old. “I tried to play more accurate, to make him run, and I knew he was going to miss when he was moving a lot.” His current run of a 1-8 win/loss ratio is a far cry from his career-best four titles on three different surfaces during the early part of last year which placed him third behind Rafa Nadal (seven) and Roger Federer (five) for the most titles won. Lacko was positively beaming after the greatest win of his career which places him against the 2009 US Open winner Juan Martin del Potro in round two. “It’s a good feeling because it proves to me I’m able to beat guys like this,” he said. “I played a couple matches this year, last year, against guys like Sam – Top 20, Top 10 players. I played good matches, I got chances, but I never finished the match. I lost too many close matches. It’s good satisfaction to beat a guy like this.”

Li Screams for Ice Cream:

Li Na is already cashing in on becoming the first Asian player to reach a Grand Slam final after ice-cream giant Haagen-Dazs signed her up as an ambassador and the face of all their Eastern advertisement campaigns. Among her benefits will be free consumption of ice cream at any of their worldwide stores. It is thought to be the first time the ice cream giant has used an athlete in its campaigns. Her finals appearance saw Na climb to a career-high No. 7 in the world, three places below Japan’s Kimiko Date Krumm who once sat at No. 4. The deal is said to be worth well over $1m over several years and she is said to also be signing a similar deal with Rolex shortly.

Home is where the Heart is for Anderson and Dodig:

There were two maiden winners on the ATP tour last week as Kevin Anderson took his home title at the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg and Ivan Dodig took home the PBZ Zagreb Indoors in his native Croatia. Anderson was a set down against the Indian star Somdev Devvarman but rallied to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. “It’s an amazing experience,” said the new world No. 40. “Obviously just winning my first title is one thing, but doing it in front of my home fans and my country with my friends and family watching is something I’ll remember forever. My end of year goal is to finish the year in the Top 20. Obviously it’s a good start, but there’s still a lot of tennis to be played and it’s just important to recognise the accomplishment this week and build in confidence for the rest of this year.” Dodig’s victory was a little more straightforward as he overcame the No. 8 seed Michael Berrer 6-3, 6-4. “I think it’s the best thing that can happen to a player – to play at home in front of your own crowd,” said the 26-year-old. “I’m really happy and enjoying this day. It was amazing for me all week and it’s an unbelievable experience. I think I served really well all week, especially on the important points. My serve is my best shot. I’m very happy that the serve was working great in all the matches this week.” For more fallout from both Anderson and Dodig visit the ATP site.

The Kids Are Alright:

This year’s Australian Open threw us a bevy of new names to look out for in the main draws of ATP events and some of the best performers at Melbourne Park are continuing the early season promise in to February. 20-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic qualified for the main draw Down Under and eventually reached the fourth round where he lost out to David Ferrer. Now at the SAP Open in San Jose the new world No. 84 has recorded an impressive 6-3, 6-4 victory over the No. 4 seed Xavier Malisse of Belgium. “It was a good win,” said Raonic. “He returns well. He’s been playing well this year. I’ve been playing well also, so I focused on making sure I take care of my serve and stay on top of that. I had a few opportunities there on his return and I was able to utilise them, so it helped. I was serving really well so it was putting a bit more pressure on his service game not to get down too early.” New Lithuanian prospect Richard Berankis was semifinalist Ferrer’s third-round victim in Melbourne but also at San Jose he conquered the No. 6 seed Benjamin Becker of Germany 6-3, 7-6(2). The Japanese No. 8 seed Kei Nishikori was another third-rounder in Australia and he is also in to round two. The 21-year-old overcame Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic 6-1, 7-6(6).

Clijsters to be No. 1?:

If the Belgian Kim Clijsters wins her quarter final matchup with either Nadia Petrova or Jelena Dokic in Paris she will climb above Caroline Wozniacki as the No. 1 player in the women’s game. The four-time Grand Slam winner reached this stage with a less than regulatory victory over the world No. 78 Kristina Barrois. “I knew it would take time to get into the rhythm and get the feel for the ball,” the 27-year-old said. “Slowly I got into the match and started being more aggressive. It’s nice to be in Paris. I love the court here and the crowd is so welcoming.”

Ivanovic Single Again:

Ana Ivanovic has apparently split with coach Antonio van Grichen after only two months after the pair “failed to mesh.” He apparently wanted to implement many changes to the former world No. 1s game as well as criticising her current body weight which she did not agree with. Ivanovic has now announced her intent to find a regular hitting partner to create stability while she searches for a new full-time coach.

Blake Flying Solo:

Former world No. 4 James Blake has announced that he is no longer travelling with a full-time coach after splitting with Kelly Jones last year. The 31-year-old stated at the SAP Open in San Jose that he believes he is too old to be helped by a full-time strategist and instead travels with a full-time physio to help him with many long-term injuries he carries. “I really don’t need someone to put me through the same drills that I already know and to tell me things that I’ve already seen and heard,” said the world No. 170. “I may have Kelly, Brian [Barker, another former coach] or my brother [Thomas] come around here and there because someone on the outside can always pick up things that you can’t, but I knew that by this age I would know the game well enough to coach myself.”

Olympic Dream in Balance for Williams Sisters:

Venus and Serena Williams are set to be included in the USA’s Fed Cup squad for their match against Germany in April for the first time since 2007 as they have been told that they must at least show up for, if not play in, one tie this year to keep themselves eligible for Olympic play in 2012. ITF rules state that players don’t have to necessarily play but be on site and show support for their team during two ties prior to the Olympics beginning.

Young Enough to Conquer:

Donald Young quickly became the forgotten man of American tennis after his early promise failed to materialise in to a genuine challenge to the higher echelons of the sport. But while many have written him off he is back in action at the SAP Open in San Jose this week without his parents in sight. While both are USTA pro coaches and have definitely passed on some good advice to their talented but enigmatic son, the fact he is working now with other USTA coaches such as David Nainken and Leo Azevedo is a good sign. He is showing improvements to his game on his return and certainly believes a corner may have turned in his quest to be remembered for more than just ‘the one that got away.’ “It’s developing weapons and picking the way I want to play and sticking with it,” he told TennisReporters.net. “I’ve been doing it quite a bit. In the past I went with the wind and didn’t have a set game plan.” The 21-year-old Young still has his sights set on a Top 50 berth despite having never climbed higher than No. 73 before now. “To be honest, I’d be upset if I didn’t get there too,” said the left-hander. “Some of my peers have moved up and made it there and I’d like to move higher. But if I play better the wins will come. I’ve set [my goals] low before and now I want to set them higher. It’s wavered and there were times I feel like I couldn’t do it, but then you win some matches and you feel you can.”

No-Go for Novak:

It is reported that Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic pulled out of this week’s ABN Amro World Tennis Tournament with a shoulder injury. It is not yet known how long the Serb will be out of action for.

Another Fresh Start for Safina:

In yet another attempt to resurrect her freefalling career the Russian Dinara Safina has announced that Davide Sanguinetti will be her new coach going forward in to 2011. Her latest former coach, Gaston Etlis, will work with the Argentine Juan Monaco. The injury and confidence-plagued sister of former men’s star Marat Safin was No. 1 in the world in April 2009 but now finds herself ranked 117.

Sacre Bleu:

There was no home comfort for the French at the WTA Paris Open this week as every single home-grown player crashed out in the first round for the first time in the tournament’s history.

Dolgopolov Fanbase Growing:

On the back of his exceptional run at this year’s Australian Open the star of Alexandr Dolgopolov Jr. continues to rise. If you are a fan of his or just want to know what it’s like growing up on the ATP tour following your father around then head over to their website where you can read a fantastic article on the upbringing of one of tennis’ latest starlets. It’s a little different to say the least!

Rankings Watch:

The Russian Mikhail Youzhny has re-entered the Top 10 of the South African Airways ATP World Rankings at No. 10 this week after his recent events replacing Jurgen Melzer while Marcos Baghdatis re-enters the Top 20. South Africa’s Kevin Anderson leaps 19 places to No. 40 after his maiden victory at the SA Tennis Open and Santiago Giraldo also enters the Top 50 at No. 47. Ivan Dodig leaps 24 to No. 60 after his victory in Zagreb and Somdev Devvarman (No. 80), Karol Beck (No. 87), Nicolas Mahut (No. 90) and Gilles Muller (No. 91) are all high risers. Due to last week’s Fed Cup commitments there were no movers in the Top 100 of the Sony Ericsson WTA World Rankings this week.

GOAT Race Unaltered:

With neither Roger Federer nor Rafa Nadal in action this week the GOAT Race scores remain unaltered.

Roger: 330  Rafa: 130

Nadal not Feeling Pressure, Safina at a Loss and Djokovic/Murray eye Silverware

*Rafa Nadal insists that there is “no pressure” as he bids to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Slams at the same time. Dubbed the “Rafa Slam,” it is a feat not even his greatest rival Roger Federer has achieved. Speaking before the tournament began he said: “Maybe I am only going to have this opportunity [once] in my career. But [it is] not for that reason I [am] going [to] have the pressure. The pressure is like every Grand Slam, you want to play well in the important tournaments. And for me, having the fourth or not is something that is not in my mind.” He also was quick, as always, to place himself behind R-Fed in the list of favourites to lift the trophy. “I feel if I play at my best level, I can have a chance to be in the second week, and there we will see what happens. Every match will be really difficult, so I have to be ready for everything. But I for sure am feeling less favourite than [Federer] and not more favourite than Djokovic, Murray, Soderling, these kinds of players.”

*Before we can even catch our breath following the Christmas rush we are thrust back in to the hectic world of a Grand Slam and already the headlines are keeping us hooked. Former world No. 1 Dinara Safina collapsed to a 0-6, 0-6 defeat at the hands of No. 3 seed Kim Clijsters in just 44 minutes. Many of her critics are labelling her as finished as the woman who reached the final here in 2009 has won only nine of her last 25 matches since returning from her latest injury setback. “I was sitting in the changeover, and I was like, OK, at least how can I get a chance to hurt her?” said the younger sister of enigmatic men’s star Marat Safin. “Nothing was hurting her, not my backhand, my forehand or my serve. My return, nothing. She was dictating basically from the first point. There was nothing that I could do to hurt her. Embarrassing.” But she has vowed to defy those doubters and fight her way back to the parapet of the game she once sat on top of. “I will give my 100% to get back. I will fight. I will go through whatever it takes,” she added. “But first I want to find answers. I’m fully motivated…I cannot say that I didn’t practise hard but I guess something was not right. I don’t know. I have to figure out the answers.” The full interview, plus Clijsters’ reaction can be seen at the WTA website.

*That result was the sixth ‘double bagel’ of Clijsters’ impressive career. All have come at Grand Slams with four of the six being in Melbourne. They have all come within the first two rounds and all, bar one, have seen her reach at least the semi finals. The omens look good for the Belgian. They read as follows:

Year Tournament Opponent Round Finish
2000 US Open Marta Marrero 1st 2nd
2003 Australian Open Petra Mandula 2nd SF
2003 Wimbledon Rossanna de los Rios 1st SF
2004 Australian Open Maria Elena Camerin 2nd R-Up
2007 Australian Open Vasilisa Bardina 1st SF
2011 Australian Open Dinara Safina 2nd ?

*Both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are confident they can lift the 2011 Aussie Open title after coming close to lifting majors in 2010. But they appreciate the fact that they must aim to overcome the top two of Nadal and Federer if they are to achieve this, having had mixed results in previous encounters. Djokovic overcame Roger Federer in the mesmerising US Open seminfal in New York last September before losing to Rafa Nadal in the final. He also lost to Tomas Berdych in the semis at Wimbledon. “They’re the two best players in the world, deservedly,” said The Serb. “Of course, [they are] the two biggest favourites in any tournament they play to win the title. I guess I’m in this small group of players behind them that is trying to challenge them in each event. How far back, I can’t say. To be able to compete with them is a big challenge. Every time we play they take my game as well to another level. They make me play better. In case I get to play them in this tournament, I will look forward to it.” Murray lost the other Wimbledon semi to Nadal whilst he also lost last year’s Melbourne final in straight sets to Federer. He believes that experience will help his assault this time around. “Experience obviously helps,” said the 23-year-old Scot. “I played quite a lot of big matches last year. I went through some very tough patches last year, as well, especially after the Aussie Open. That was something I had to come back from and I learned from. So I think mentally I’m probably in a better place.” The full interviews can be seen on the ATP website.

*Danish beauty Caroline Wozniacki has come under further scrutiny as she begins another Slam looking to lift her first major. The top female star is probably sick of listening to the old “worthy No.1” debates and, even if she won’t admit it, Matt Cronin believes she is showing the signs of stress and strain. “I believe that I’m a really good player,” the 20-year-old said. “I can beat anyone on a good day. If I win, great. If I lose one match, just back on the practice court, work, and get stronger. I think that’s also why I’ve reached the level I’ve reached. I’m never satisfied. I always want to get better. Every time I step on the practice court, I always see things that I want to improve. I think I get frustrated, but I use it in a positive way. That’s the way I’m built.” The full report can be seen at the FOX Sports website.

*It was the match that truly exploded the 2011 tennis season in to life. David Nalbandian overcame feisty home favourite Lleyton Hewitt in a dramatic five-set tussle that reprised the 2005 quaterfinal here, that time Hewitt coming out on top. Visibly exhausted following the late finish, Nalbandian was understandably elated at the shift he had just put in. “It was a very tough first round,” said the Argentine. “We both know it, every time we play it’s long matches, tough ones, he’s a real fighter. He played unbelievable. It’s amazing playing with him in a full stadium, here in Australia. We both had a lot of chances, I was serving for the match, it was that kind of match nobody can forget. Cramping was around all the time, he was too tired as well. I played the two match points, I play incredible, serve and volley, it was amazing, and then after that the match was for both. I can win, I can lose, the match was very close. I was one point to be two break points down in the fourth, so I play very good shots, I didn’t care about it. I win my serve, and that’s helped me, that helped me to win the match. I take that we both fight a lot all the time; it doesn’t matter when we are tired we keep fighting. Today the match was for me, but he can win as well. I take the brave heart that I put today on court.”

*Venus Williams has been sporting yet another bizarre dress Down Under but then, what’s new? With what could best be described as fishing net wrapped around her midriff she has claimed that Lewis’ Carroll’s most famous creation is the inspiration. “The outfit is inspired by Alice in Wonderland,” said the 30-year-old. “It’s kind of about a surprise, because when Alice goes down the rabbit hole, she finds all these things that are so surprising. This outfit is about having a surprise in a tennis dress, and showing some skin and then just having a print. Prints don’t happen that often in tennis. So it’s called the Wonderland dress.” Okay then.

*Former world No, 6 Nicolas Lapentti has retired from tennis, aged 34, after suffering ongoing tendonitis in his knee. He won five ATP Tour singles titles and reached a further seven finals in his 16 years as a professional. “It took me a lot to take the decision,” he said. “I didn’t want to rush; I wanted to be 100 percent sure. I’m leaving tennis without regret. I’ll have a farewell match, but I don’t know when and against whom. I have to get over the injury first.”

*When faced with questions about her longevity Japanese stalwart Kimiko Date Krumm says that it is her husband who will decide how long she prolongs her gargantuan career for. “If my ranking is high enough to play in the Grand Slams I’ll be back next year,” she said. “I’ll just have to check with my husband first. We only spent about a month together in total last year.”

*Fundraising for the flood victims of Queensland, Australia has topped the $1.8m mark following another charity event organised by the gracious Roger Federer on Sunday. Rally For Relief was a 90-minute-long friendly extravaganza featuring many of the sport’s top stars. Pat Rafter captained the Green Team which featured the Andy’s Roddick and Murray, Viktoria Azarenka, Vera Zvonereva, Kim Clijsters and Rafa Nadal. The Gold Team was led by home favourite Lleyton Hewitt and featured the talents of Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, Justine Henin, Caroline Wozniacki, Roger Federer and Sam Stosur. Players rotated round court and even took turns as line judges while US Davis Cup captain Jim Courier oversaw proceedings from the umpire’s chair. As usual, players were miked up and fired quips as sharp as their groundstrokes across the net much to the delight of the 15,000 present at the Rod Laver Arena. The event finished with an all-Aussie encounter as Hewitt battled Rafter before Nadal and Clijsters faced Federer and Stosur in mixed doubles.

*Former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic has blamed her pre-tournament injury disruptions for her first round crash at Melbourne Park. “For the last 10 days I couldn’t push hard in practice because of my abdominal strain,” said the Serb, who was forced to withdraw from the Hopman Cup with the problem. “I had [only] really Sunday and Monday that I could push a little bit more, and the first couple days that I could actually serve. I think that at the end got to me. It’s a ten-day strike before the Slam.”

*Maria Sharapova has been discussing her recent split with long-term coach Michael Joyce publicly, Thomas Hogstedt taking over the reigns. “After a really long period of time, I think a few things become a routine,” said the 23-year-old, who describes Joyce as “like a brother” and who will continue to look after him financially. “I think from both of our perspectives it was really a good move to bring in a new voice, a fresh perspective into the team. Obviously it’s different not having him at a tournament after so many years. But it’s part of an athlete’s career…It’s been going really well with Thomas. I like the work ethic that he’s brought on the court. I’m happy so far, but you never know where things will take you.”

*Nadia Petrova insists she is in no rush to find a new coach having been “single” since the off-season. “Frankly, I’m in no hurry to get a new coach because I’ve been on tour for so long,” said the Russian. “What I need is a regular hitting partner.”

*Swiss star Patty Schnyder says she is unsure how long she will continue to play tennis after bombing out of the Aussie Open at the first hurdle. “I haven’t made any commitments beyond the next one or two months,” she said. “I’ll play Fed Cup against Israel and then Doha and Dubai. After that I don’t know.”

*Former player and founding member of the ATP, Jim McManus, 70, has passed away of medical complications brought about by his recent fight with cancer. Before the ATP was established McManus twice featured in the Top 10 American players in both singles and doubles. In 1968 he and Jim Osbourne reached the semifinals at the US Open, probably his greatest moment as a player. But it is after retirement that he really made his mark. Employed by the ATP for 28 years he worked on rankings, tournament representation and development, pension plans, player entries, the Senior Tour and alumini services as well as being one of the original Board of Directors. “It is with great sadness that we learn of Jim’s passing,” said Adam Helfant, the ATP’s Executive Chairman and President. “From his early days as a player, and later as a founding member of the ATP, Jim was always regarded as a true pioneer of the game of tennis. On behalf of the ATP, I can say that men’s tennis has truly lost one of its greatest and most significant figures.”

*There is an interesting piece written on Maria Sharapova and how her recent engagement could affect both her playing career and her assets in comparison to former Russian pinup Anna Kournikova. It is written by Mark Hodgkinson of The Daily Telegraph in London and can be read at the website for the Montreal Gazette.

*The GOAT race enters week two with both Roger and Rafa competing at this year’s Australian Open. Both gain 20 points for their troubles and have the chance to add mega bucks to their totals next week.

Roger: 230, Rafa: 80

Australian Open Report: And the Crowd Goes Wild

By Rishe

There’s a reason the Australian Open is the greatest slam of all. (What, am I biased?)

It’s not the happy slam because of the beer gardens everywhere, the costumed fans, the easy access to transportation, the gorgeous sunny spaces and the sparkling blue courts. It’s not the friendly staff everywhere, the fun off-court entertainment and the variety of outer-court matches.

The Australian Open is what it is because of those amazing fans that make up the best tennis watching crowd in the world.

The crowds.

Melbourne Jewish community doing their thing for Dudi Sela against Del Potro.

The crowd gathering in Garden Square to watch Alicia defeat Roberta Vinci at match point. Only drawback: You can kinda tell how a point is going to end, because the cheers erupt from Rod Laver behind you a second before the TV shows the end of the rally. At the same time, you gotta love that.

“We are yellow, we are blue, we are Swedish, who are you?”

The Swedes, always hands-down best costumed at the Open, going insane for their man Robin Soderling on Margaret Court Arena. As for me? I was watching Carlos Ramos, and noting that Robin’s black outfit with fluoro yellow trim was looking decidedly evil, particularly if the yellow was substituted for red. Flames. Owww.

And my favourite thing about the Open, hands down: The Hellas Fan Club at Marcos Baghdatis matches. Granted, earlier I’d seen some stupid Greek kids, wrapped in flags, asked to sing for a Channel 9 camera. They promptly belted out a very obviously anti-Turkish racist chant, which had all the nearby Greeks in titters. The grownups do it better, and they did, all through five sets of Marcos against a random I cannot name. Sorry. And yes, I now have favourite Greek chants. No, I cannot tell you what they mean. But I do know it’s not worth watching Marcos anywhere else other than the Australian Open. The crowd belongs to him.

Marinko’s Main Men: A crew of who I could only assume were Marinko Matosevic’ mates cheering their lungs out for their boy on Court 6 against the Lithuanian army cheering their boy Richardes Berankis. Sitting next to his couch, I could only just mumble “oi oi oi” to their Aussie Aussie Aussies, but was also busy listening in to Pat Cash’s commentary. “Great serve,” he sez, before elbowing L out of the way. Marinko put on a great fight but lost the match, but those Aussies were on fire. “We love Marinko because he is Victorian!” Love.

Blurry for a reason. Margaret Court Arena is known as the hub of insanity. The Bay 13 of Melbourne Park. MCA at night? Take the craziness and double it. MCA, at night, with crowd favourite Jo-Wilfred Tsonga?

I’m talking hardcore.

The Frenchies had forgotten compatriot Mikey Llodra on the court next door, so we did the dutiful and watched the lovely Mika – always fun for some volleying action – before heading to MCA for the fifth set. And I was afraid for my life. The picture above is blurry – if you were there, you’d know why.

And finally…

A packed house at 1am on Rod Laver Arena getting behind our man Lleyton Hewitt. I hate when matches are called “thrillers” and “epics” but usually because I’m jealous I wasn’t there. This match had everything: The ancient rivalry, the two big players, gorgeous tennis and a passionate, formidable, fired-up crowd. And the essential RLA late finish just made it all the more Aussie. And similar to the Tomic loss at 2am last year, we all went home unhappy. And then waiting in long taxi queues in the freezing.Because that’s what we do, tennis fans.

Dissecting the Australian Open 2011 Draw: ATP

In a couple of days, the Australian Open will be under way. The ‘Happy Slam’ is not only great for the players, but it has also proven to be the most fan friendly of the four majors. The Aussies have provided us free streaming of the qualifying tournament as well as the draw ceremony and the “Rally for Relief” event will be aired on Tennis Channel (Saturday at 10pm EST.) By the wonder of technology, I was able to stream today’s draw ceremony on my phone and it looks like we’re in for some great tennis in the next two weeks. I’m already preparing myself for some sleepless nights. In case you missed it, or you were just too lazy to check out the draw for yourself, I’ll be breaking it down piece by piece.

First off, Rafa and Roger have won 23 of the last 26 Grand Slam events, so you’d pretty much be crazy to pick anyone else to win. However, if anyone can challenge their dominance, it’s going to happen in Melbourne. Historically, the Australian Open has provided us with a lot of breakthrough performances. The 2008 final was contested between Novak Djokovic and Jo Wilfried Tsonga and the 2005 final between Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt. Every other Slam final for the last five years has included either Federer or Nadal.

Just remember, I’m no Nostradamus and some of my picks may sound a little crazy, but it’s boring if you always pick the better players. Sometimes the mediocre guys rise to the occasion and even the best players have bad days.

First Quarter

Seeded Players: Rafael Nadal (1), Feliciano Lopez (31), John Isner (20), Marin Cilic (15), Mikhail Youzhny (10), Michael Llodra (22), David Nalbandian (27), David Ferrer (7)

Clearly all of the expectations lie on Rafa. He could become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Slam titles at the same time, something not even the great Roger Federer has accomplished. Although, Laver was quick to say that this would be impressive, but would not equal his calendar year sweep. Nadal certainly could have drawn a worse quarter, i.e. Andy Murray, but there are a lot of great competitors lurking in here, ready to take away his chance at making history. In round 4, Rafa is likely to face John Isner (or Marin Cilic) who can both be occasionally great, but I definitely like Nadal’s chances. In the quarters he could find Mikhail Youzhny, Michael Llodra, Lleyton Hewitt, or David Ferrer. All of the are dangerous, but Rafa would have to have a pretty off day to lose. Rafael Nadal’s biggest challenge will likely come in the semifinals: Robin Soderling or Andy Murray.

Semi Finalist: Rafael Nadal

Possible Sleeper: Michael Llodra

Best First Round Match: David Nalbandian (27) v. Llyeton Hewitt ***This will be a fight to the death. Given the hometown advantage, I think Lleyton will prevail.

Second Quarter

Seeded Players: Robin Soderling (4), Thomaz Bellucci (30), Ernests Gulbis (24), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (13), Jurgen Melzer (11), Marcos Baghdatis (21), Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (32), Andy Murray (5)

A week ago, it was huge news that Robin Soderling would usurp Andy Murray’s place as No. 4, giving him his own quarter of the draw. However, the universe likes a good joke and Murray landed smack at the bottom of Soderling’s quarter. So, things are pretty much the same as they would have been. Robin did catch a (tiny) break by ending up on Rafa’s side of the draw considering his head-to-head with Federer. Speaking of Andy Murray, expectations are high. He made the final last year and hasn’t yet managed to prove himself by winning a major event. Andy’s road the final is tough, probably the worst of any guy in the Top 5. In round 3, he’s likely to face Guillermo Garcia-Lopez who had a great fall season, beating Rafa and winning an ATP title. Then things get really tricky. In round 4, Andy could face Jurgen Melzer, Marcos Baghdatis, or Juan Martin del Potro. Whoever gets there will be tough. Things only get worse because, he will likely see Robin Soderling in the quarters. If he even makes it that far, his prize will be a semifinal meeting with Rafael Nadal. This is no one’s dream draw.

Semi Finalist: Robin Soderling

Possible Sleeper: Juan Martin del Potro, Alexandr Dolgopolov

Best First Round Match: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (13) v. Philipp Petzschner

Semi Final: Robin Soderling d. Rafael Nadal ***Yes, I know I’m crazy, but have you seen how fit Soderling looks and Nadal’s coming off a bout with the flu

Third Quarter

Seeded Players: Tomas Berdych (6), Richard Gasquet (28), Nikolay Davydenko (23), Fernando Verdasco (9), Nicolas Almagro (14), Ivan Ljubicic (17), Viktor Troicki (29), Novak Djokovic (3)

Novak Djokovic is thanking his lucky stars tonight. This draw suits him beautifully. His greatest triumph came in Melbourne in 2008 and I’m sure he’s keen to repeat that. To get there, Nole will likely have to go through the huge server, Ivo Karlovic, countryman Viktor Troicki, and either Nikolay Davydenko or Fernando Verdasco. I like his chances, particularly after his triumph over Federer at last year’s US Open. I think Djokovic is more confident in his abilities that he has been since the ’08 AO. However, we all know that Nole’s biggest enemy is heat, and even though his conditioning has gotten significantly better, weather will still play a huge role in his draw.

Semi Finalist: Novak Djokovic

Possible Sleeper: Janko Tipsarevic

Best First Round Match: Viktor Troicki (29) v. Dmitry Tursunov

Fourth Quarter

Seeded Players: Andy Roddick (8), Juan Monaco (26), Stanislas Wawrinka (19), Gael Monfils (12), Mardy Fish (16), Sam Querrey (18), Albert Montanes (25), Roger Federer (2)

Andy Roddick is the unluckiest man in tennis. I’m just going to say it. Of all the people who have been deprived of Grand Slam glory by the genius of Roger Federer, no one has been on the losing end more times than Andy Roddick. I think he’s in great form, making last week’s final in Brisbane, but there’s no way he beats Roger Federer at this year’s tournament. I am looking forward to a Roddick/Federer quarter final though because I love them both. I’m sure everyone is interested to see what Stanislas Wawrinka will bring to this tournament. Regardless of what you think of his decisions, he has definitely re-dedicated himself to tennis and it paid off in the form of winning last week’s tournament in Chennai. The American men really seemed to lose out in this year’s draw. Isner’s got Rafa in the 4th round and Querrey’s got Federer. I think both of them have excellent chances of finally breaking through to a major quarter or semi this year, but it’s not going to be the Australian Open. Federer had a “bad” year last year (only winning one major, making a semifinal, and two quarterfinals) but ended the season on a high note by beating Rafael Nadal to winning the World Tour Finals for the fifth time. He’s the defending champion and I think we’ll be seeing him play a lot of tennis over the next two weeks.

Semi Finalist: Roger Federer

Possible Sleeper: Andrey Golubev

Best First Round Match: Gael Monfils (12) v. Thiemo De Bakker

Semi Final: Roger Federer d. Novak Djokovic ***Fed’s not letting Nole beat him again.

Final: Roger Federer d. Robin Soderling

Stay tuned for my take of the women’s draw.

Have Tennis in Your Life 365 Days a Year

Compiling information for more than 15 years, former U.S. Tennis Association press officer Randy Walker has published a compilation of significant anniversaries, summaries and anecdotes from the world of tennis in his book On This Day In Tennis History. Presented in a day-by-day format, the entries into this mini-encyclopedia include major tournament victory dates, summaries of the greatest matches, trivia, statistics as well as little-known and quirky happenings for every day of the calendar year.

On This Day In Tennis History is an informative guide that brings significant – and quirky – tennis matches and happenings from the past into the context of the present,” saidWalker. “It is uncanny the number of significant events in tennis history that occurred on other significant and appropriate anniversaries, such as Boris Becker and Michael Stich both winning their first Wimbledon titles on the birthday of the first great German tennis champion Gottfried von Cramm. It’s fun to pick up the book every day and read what happened on each day of the year.”

Some of the quirky and significant events documented by Walker include from February 5, 1985, when Ivan Lendl defeats Larry Stefanki 6-2, 6-0 in the first round of the Lipton Championships in Delray Beach, Fla., in a match that ends without an umpire or linesmen, from July 18, 1930 when Wilmer Allison saves a record 18 match points in his Davis Cup victory against Giorgio de Stefani of Italy and from April 28, 1968 when Ken Rosewall wins the first ever “Open” tournament, defeating fellow Aussie and fellow professional Rod Laver 3-6, 6-2, 6-0, 6-3 in the final of the British Hard-Court Championships in Bournemouth, England.

Said former world No. 1 Jim Courier of “On This Day In Tennis History is a fun read that chronicles some of the most important—and unusual—moments in the annals of tennis. Randy Walker is an excellent narrator of tennis history and has done an incredible job of researching and compiling this entertaining volume.”

Walker is a New York-based sports marketer, publicist, writer and tennis historian. A 12-year veteran of the USTA’s Marketing and Communications Division, he served as the press officer for the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1997 to 2005 and for the U.S. Olympic tennis teams in 1996, 2000 and 2004. He also served as the long-time editor of the U.S. Open Record Book during his tenure at the USTA from 1993 to 2005.

On This Day In Tennis History is published by New Chapter Press, also the publisher of The Bud Collins History of Tennis. More information on the book can be found atwww.tennishistorybook.com.

Have Rod Laver be Part of Your Holiday Season

As the holiday season fast approaches, New Chapter Press recommends the newly-updated memoir of Australian tennis legend Rod Laver — “The Education of a Tennis Player” – as an ideal gift for tennis fans around the world.

Written with Hall of Fame journalist and historian Bud Collins, “The Education of a Tennis Player” is Laver’s first-hand account of his famous 1969 Grand Slam season, capped off by his win over fellow Australian Tony Roche in the final of the U.S. Open. Laver also writes about his childhood and early days in tennis, his 1962 Grand Slam and offers tips on how players of all levels can improve their game. He also shares some of the strategies that helped him to unparalleled success on the tennis court.

Originally published in 1971, “The Education of a Tennis Player” ($19.95, www.NewChapterMedia.com) was updated by Laver and Collins with new content including his recovery from a near-fatal stroke in 1998 and helping Australia once again win the Davis Cup in 1973. The memoir features descriptions of Laver’s most suspenseful matches and memorable portraits of his biggest rivals Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Tony Roche and Pancho Gonzalez.

“I am delighted that “The Education of a Tennis Player” is back in circulation and available for a new generation of tennis fans,” said Laver of his newly updated memoir. “Winning the Grand Slam for a second time in 1969 seems just like yesterday and this book brings back a lot of memories of the great matches and exciting times. I hope people enjoy reading my story.”

Laver captured 11 major singles titles during his career, including Wimbledon in 1961, 1962, 1968 and 1969. After joining Don Budge as the only man to win a Grand Slam by sweeping all four majors in 1962, Laver turned professional where he, along with fellow pros Hoad, Rosewall and Gonzalez, were banned from playing the “amateur-only” major tournaments. When the “Open Era” of tennis began in 1968, Laver netted another five major singles titles, including his Grand Slam sweep of all four in 1969. Laver won nearly 200 singles titles during his career and was inducted into the International Tennis of Fame in 1981.

Collins, himself a 1994 inductee in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, first met Laver in 1956 at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston during the U.S. National Doubles Championships. Thirteen years later, the two collaborated on the book that was only to be published if Laver won the Grand Slam. Collins is best known for his colorful television commentary – and his colorful wardrobe – as well as his columns in the Boston Globe.

“Rod Laver is one of the greatest treasures we have in tennis and “The Education of a Tennis Player” is one of our sports most important literary works,” said Collins. “Rod was always so humble and gracious, but he could play tennis like a hurricane. He was as a great a champion as we have ever had in tennis and one of the all-time nicest guys.”

New Chapter Press is also the publisher of the newly updated second edition of “The Bud Collins History of Tennis” by Bud Collins, “The Roger Federer Story: Quest for Perfection” by Rene Stauffer, “Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games” by Tom Caraccioli and Jerry Caraccioli, “Acing Depression” by Cliff Richey and Hilaire Richey Kallendorf, “Tennis Made Easy” by Kelly Gunterman, “The Lennon Prophecy” by Joe Niezgoda, “Bone Appetit, Gourmet Cooking For Your Dog” by Susan Anson, “The Rules of Neighborhood Poker According to Hoyle” by Stewart Wolpin, “People’s Choice Cancun – Travel Survey Guidebook” by Eric Rabinowitz and “Weekend Warriors: The Men of Professional Lacrosse” by Jack McDermott, among others. Founded in 1987, New Chapter Press is an independent publisher of books and part of the Independent Publishers Group. More information can be found at www.NewChapterMedia.com.

HALL OF FAMER BOOK SIGNINGS IN INDIAN WELLS

Rod Laver and Bud Collins were doing a lot of book signing this week at the BNP Paribas Open. The two Hall of Famers collaborated on Laver’s memoir THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER back in 1969 and reunited to work on an updated, newly released version that will officially re-launch on April 1.

THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com) is Laver’s first-hand account of his 1969 Grand Slam season, capped off by his 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win over fellow Australian Tony Roche in the final of the U.S. Open on September 8. Laver also writes about his childhood and early days in tennis, his 1962 Grand Slam and offers tips on how players of all levels can improve their game. He also shares some of the strategies that helped him to unparalleled success on the tennis court.

“I am delighted that THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER is back in circulation and available for a new generation of tennis fans,” said Laver. “Winning the Grand Slam for a second time in 1969 seems just like yesterday and this book brings back a lot of memories of the great matches and exciting times. I hope people enjoy reading my story.”

Collins also signed his signature book, his tennis encyclopedia, THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS ($35.95, New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com). The 784-page tome is the ultimate compilation of historical tennis information, including year-by-year recaps of every tennis season, biographical sketches of every major tennis personality, as well as stats, records, and championship rolls for all the major events. The author’s personal relationships with major tennis stars offer insights into the world of professional tennis found nowhere else.

Here are some photos, courtesy of Anita Klaussen, of Rod and Bud this week in Indian Wells.

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CAN ROGER FEDERER WIN THE GRAND SLAM? THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

End to the Grand Slam Drought? – With his win in Melbourne at the Australian Open, Roger Federer became the first father since Andre Agassi to win a Grand Slam title, bringing his total up to 16. While every title he earns makes his legacy that much more impressive, the real question on everyone’s mind is, “Could he win the Grand Slam?” Rod Laver was the last man to do it back in 1969, while Steffi Graf was the last woman to do it in 1988. Federer is definitely still the man to beat. He finally got the monkey off his back at the French, loves the lawns of Wimbledon, and has a stellar record in Flushing Meadows. With Federer’s extraordinary ability to re-write the history books and shatter records, this may just be the year another player captures the elusive Grand Slam.

Showing Early Promise – So maybe Justine Henin was quite able to emulate the success of countrywoman Kim Clijsters by winning her fist major back from retirement, but it was just her second tournament in 18 months, and it was Serena Williams on the other side of the net (no offense to Caroline Wozniaki). While congratulations are in order for Serena Williams, whose 12th Grand Slam title ties her with tennis legend Billie Jean King, I was most impressed with Henin. Several times she had to grind her way through matches, including her second-round encounter with Elena Dementieva. She then takes the current No. 1 to three-sets in the final, and had she played a cleaner match, might have gone all the way. It was a little disconcerting to watch for those who remember seeing the Henin who was a human backboard, but her determination to execute a more offensive game plan is admirable. Once she hones her game and finds that balance between defense and offense, she may well go on to dominate the women’s tour yet again. And, given that she has approximately four months to prepare for the French, she has to already be considered a favorite to take the coveted clay court title.

Hewitt’s Hip Woes – In case you missed it in the entire hullabaloo at the end of the Aussie Open, local favorite Lleyton Hewitt announced that he had to undergo hip surgery on his right hip. He stated he tweaked the hip during the Hopman Cup, and after his run at the first major of the year came to an end, he had the surgery. One has to feel for the man from Adelaide who already underwent one hip surgery. That said, if ever there was a player who had the determination to bounce back from a second surgery, it’s Rusty.

He’s Gone Bollywood – Former Indian tennis star Vijay Amritraj once starred with Roger Moore in the James Bond film Octopussy, and now, once again, another leading Indian player is taking his shot at making it in the movies. Leander Paes, one of the most famous Indian players of the past decade, is going to be starring in a psychological thriller that will be released in both Hindi and Bengali. Maybe it’s not James Bond, but it’s going to give the boys something to talk about in the locker room.

She’s a Barbie Girl – Well, it’s not quite a Wheaties box, but it’s still pretty darn cool. Kim Clijsters has been made into a Barbie doll, as has her young daughter, Jada. Don’t expect to find the doll in a store near you, but for someone like Clijsters who remembers playing with Barbies as a young girl, there’s no doubt that it must be quite an honor to have been fashioned into one of the most iconic toys of all time.

HENIN AND SERENA, THE TWO PRINCIPLE GODDESSES OF TENNIS

By Christopher Rourke

This Final match, the first Grand Slam final of the 2010s brings the two greatest female players of the 2000s into battle for the fourteenth time. Their first match took place at 2001 US Open, where Serena defeated Henin in the fourth round, 7-5 6-0.  The nineteen year-old Henin, had been a semi-finalist at Roland Garros that year and was the finalist at Wimbledon, losing to the defending champion, Venus Williams.  Many would argue that these two players are not merely the two best players of their generation – but the greatest female players *ever*.  Both of these players have the singular ability to hit winners from any part of the court – still exceptional on the women’s Tour – and the capacity to utterly dominate their opponents.  As such, they remain the most aggressive players at the top of the women’s game.  This was demonstrated emphatically by Serena in her quarter-final against Victoria Azarenka. Finding herself 4-6 0-4 down, and seemingly out, of the match Serena cut down her groundstroke errors, and began hitting the ball much harder, hitting return winner after winner, producing yet another serving clinic, hitting 17 aces and many other unreturnable serves to close out the match – dragging out a titanic performance, seemingly from nowhere.  Serena struck 57 winners to Azarenka’s grand total of 22.  She made the match totally about herself, her own  performance.  As Azarenka said: “She [Serena]  started playing unbelievable from 4-0. I’m really impressed with her… . She has very powerful shots. You don’t see many girls serving 200 in the third set”.  In very similar fashion, after struggling through her second, third and fourth round matches against players ranked in the top 5 and top 30, and producing a solid 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 win against the former world no.3 Nadia Petrova, Henin demonstrated her full all-court mastery in her semi-final match against China’s Jie Zheng. In a match that lasted only 50  minutes, Henin struck 23 winners to Zheng’s grand total of 3 and won 10 out of 13 of her net approaches.

As such, this final represents the fourteenth meeting between the two principle goddesses of tennis, a clash that can be allegorised to a battle between the warriors Artemis and Athena.  Here, the splendid Rod Laver arena is the grand stage equivalent of mount Olympus, Rod Laver arena being the Centre Court of the the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.  Remarkably, this will be Henin and Serena’s first clash in a Grand Slam tournament final, because the players have repeatedly found themselves in the same half of a Grand Slam tournament draw – in all six on their Grand Slam meetings.

Here, I will review how these extraordinarily gifted players match-up, stroke for stroke, in primary features of the game.

SERVE
Serena Williams

Serena Williams has the best first serve and the one of the best second serves in the women’s game.  Though not struck quite as hard as her record-breaking older sister’s, Serena can hit all parts of the service box, and hit ‘flat’, slice and kick serves with ease.  Serena consistently leads the ‘ace’ and ‘points won on 1st serve’ categories, at every Grand Slam tournament. At this tournament, Serena has struck a total of 53 aces, to
Henin’s 23.  Venus Williams, a quarter-finalist, finished with a total of 21.  On numerous occasions, Lindsay Davenport described Serena’s serve as the ‘best serve in women’s game’ and the best serve that she had faced in the entire length of her career.  Of Serena’s serve, her fourth-round opponent,  Samantha Stosur said: “I think the three breakpoints I got, she hit two aces and were a completely unreturnable and they were all over 190… Couple times I actually guessed where she was going and she still got me…. (.)more so than even the power, the variety. When she’s on, she’s able to hit it within ten centimetres of whatever line she wants. When she’s got that trajectory and is so close to the lines, it’s not easy to return.  She doesn’t hit every serve over 190. She goes 160, 170, and you think it’s not that fast. But when they’re on or very close to the line, they’re still very hard to get”.  Serena’s serve exhibits a perfect confluence of
technical excellence and simplicity of production.

Henin has a good, and very powerful serve – she has been serving up to 190 kmh at this year’s tournament.  However, she has not been serving as well as she did back in 2003 and 2006 – 2007.  Henin’s serve has always earned her some free points, and allows her to begin most rallies from an offensive position. However, both Henin’s first and second serve can break down, and critically during key points in matches. This occurred in the Brisbane final, when Henin held two match points, serving at 5-4 in the third set against Kim Clijsters.  This brittleness occurs partly because Henin has continuously reworked and reformed her service motion during the length of her career, as far back as the autumn of 2001.  Thus, as Sam Smith has pointed out, Henin’s service motion is never “fully part of her”.  Any frailty on Henin’s service will be brutally exposed by Serena, the most fearsome, and destructive, returner in the women’s game.

RETURN of SERVE
Serena / Henin

Both players have very destructive returns and frequently hit outright winners on both second *and* first serves – which has the effect of immediately demoralising their opponents.  Serena’s return-of-serve [look out for her forehand crosscourt return-of-serve from the 'deuce' court] can be a little more powerful than Henin’s but Henin gets slightly more of her service returns back into court.  In her 2006 – 2007 prime, Henin was winning as much as 55 – 60%+ points on the return-of-serve, more than any player on the women’s Tour.  Both players are roughly equal in this feature of the game.

FOREHAND
Henin

Serena possesses a very powerful forehand – and has recorded, from the data that i have collected, the fastest groundstroke in the ‘Hawk-Eye’ era; a forehand meassured at 154 kmh [= 96 mph] in her quarter-final match against Ana Ivanovic in Dubai on the 19th February 2008.  However, Serena’s forehand can break down, primarily because as she needs a lot of set-up time to prepare for the full-length of stroke. To explain, on the take-back, Serena often takes the racquet face as far back as [behind] her head and completes the swing with the racquet face lying down the length of her back, over her left shoulder.  The whole stroke is comparatively long and requires both good timing and excellent footwork to be fully effective. See: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/2114649/safina_vs_s_williams_forehand_r45_view_slow_motion/ – this is only moderate swing-length for Serena’s forehand.

Serena likes to perform the stroke with full extension, and when she doesn’t have the time for this, the stroke can lose a lot its potency and effectiveness.  There are some players on the Tour, notably Elena Demenetiva [specifically from 2007 onward], that exploit the mechanics of the stroke by taking the ball very early off their much shorter swings, hitting shots directly down the length of the court, straight at Serena. This takes away Serena’s set-up time on the ball, and forces Serena to improvise by using an almost ‘emergency’-type swing, tamely brushing up against the ball, yielding a midcourt ball that can easily be attacked by the opponent.  However, when Serena’s footwork and balance are fully co-ordinated with the stroke production on forehand, it can be utterly devastating.

Henin’s forehand is equally as powerful as Serena’s, and certainly at average rallying speeds – but is produced from a far shorter and more compact swing, so is more functional, and efficient, especially when placed under direct pressure in a rallying situation.  At coaching conferences, Henin’s forehand has been isolated in seminars as the best in the women’s game.  My last coach, a performance coach based in the UK, explains that, almost unique among women players, Henin’s stroke production on the forehand closely resemble that of an ATP player. Henin’s forehand is both technically and (uniquely, in the women’s game) biomechanically excellent.

BACKHAND
Serena

Henin’s backhand received enormous attention from the tennis establishment when she broke into the top of the game in 2001 because it is a single-handed stroke that combines both high levels of power and variety.  However, much like Serena’s forehand, Henin requires a good deal of set-up time to unleash her single-handed topspin backhand – and many players exploit this by taking the ball early and hitting the ball very hard into the corner of the ‘ad.’ court.  This forces Henin to employ her slice backhand, as a defensive response to keep herself in the rally.  Early on in their head-to-head series, Serena directly attacked Henin’s backhand, knowing that she could rob Henin of time on the ball, and force defensive replies.  Many other players employ this strategy now, though some players find it hard to adjust to Henin’s slice -which can cut right into the court. Historically, though, Serena has been able to pounce upon defensive shots coming off
Henin’s backhand, and take control of the rally.

Serena’s backhand remains one of the more powerful backhands in the game, is technically sound and rarely breaks down.  Also, Serena is able to create acute angles off her crosscourt backhand, even when placed under pressure.

VOLLEY
Henin

Both Henin and Serena can volley well, especially at critical points in a match.  However, Henin is a superlative volleyer, with exceptional feel – and she has wide repertoire of volleying shots.  Henin has the ability to hit volleys from behind the service line – and still create winning shots from a very difficult position on the court.  Henin is probably the best volleyer in the women’s singles game, and certainly at the elite level.  Henin volleyed with increasing frequency towards the end of her first career, circa 2006 – 2007, and seems to be picking up from where she left off in this feature of her game.

Serena’s speciality is the forehand drive-volley, which she can play to spectacular effect. Her drive-volley is the best, the most destructive, in the game – a shot that she helped to popularise at the top of the sport. However, Henin has an almost equally good drive-volley, and has employed it frequently during this year’s tournament.

FOOTWORK
Henin

Henin has sublime footwork around the ball, perhaps the best in the women’s game. She rarely overruns the ball and is especially economical in her movement.  In marked contrast, and especially for a player of her ability, Serena has relatively poor footwork.  It can take Serena a full set of matchplay before Serena has properly conformed her footwork to the stroke production on her groundstrokes – as clearly evinced in her quarter-final match against Victoria Azarenka, where appeared off-balnace for almost a set and a half of matchplay.

BALANCE
Henin

Again, Henin is exceptional in this feature of the game – and normally retains superior balance than Serena on the fundamental strokes.

COURT COVERAGE
Henin

Though athletically restricted because of her height and natuural wing-span [Henin stands  1.67 m), Henin is one of the best technical movers in the sport and covers the court remarkably well.  Serena used to be an especially athletic player, able to retrieve many balls hit past the sidelines and return them with ease.  However, though she still covers the court well, Serena is no longer one of the very best athletes on the women’s Tour – players such as Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic have all overtaken Serena in terms of court coverage and athletic output.

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Serena and Henin are roughly equals, when examined across all features of the game, which serves to make this rivalry especially compelling.

Two external factors may effect the outcome of this match, however – Serena has clearly been injured from early on in the tournament, and her multiple leg and ankle injuries seem to have become more serious in her last two matches, inhibiting her movement, specifically in the ‘ad.’ court. Serena has made no attempt to retrieve what are, for her, easily makeable balls, hit within metres of her reach.  This is potentially concerning as Henin has the perfect game to exploit weaknesses in movement and court coverage, hitting to short angles off wings, to both sides of the court.  In particular, the short angles produced off Henin’s crosscourt backhand could be very damaging – and telling – for Serena.

On the other hand, Henin has struggled both mentally and especially physically to complete some of her matches in Melbourne, appearing physically exhausted in the closing stages of her third and fourth round matches.  Henin has spoken, quite honestly, of how her body has yet to fully adjust to the demands of playing physically and emotionally draining matches, having been absent from tournament play for a full twenty months.  Henin’s very quick semi-final win will help her enormously in this regard going into Saturday’s final.  However, the and the greater question may well prove to be Henin’s level of mental resilience in a Grand Slam Final – Henin’s first since September 2007.