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The Ladies Hit the Dirt Hoping for Feats on Clay

Can Na Li repeat in Paris?

What promises to be a thrilling spring and summer of tennis for the WTA begins this week for the ladies in Stuttgart for the start of the clay court season.

This much-anticipated segment of the calendar begins with a bang as 17 of the Top 20 players in the world are entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Madrid and Rome will also host Premier events during the month of May as preparation for the second Grand Slam event of the year at Roland-Garros.

Over the past few years, the expectations and results on the red dirt for the women have been highly unpredictable and 2012 will be no different. Gone are the days of dominant clay court specialists on the WTA like Justine Henin or Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Instead, today’s Tour is all about parity making it anyone’s game, especially on clay. Case and point, the French Open has crowned a different champion each of the last four years. It will be interesting to see if World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka can continue her dominance this season on a different surface or whether Maria Sharapova will finally breakthrough with some titles after finishing as the runner-up at the three biggest tournaments of the year so far. Can Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova kick-start her season after a slow start? Will Caroline Wozniacki claim that elusive Grand Slam crown? Can Na Li repeat in Paris? Will a resurgent Ana Ivanovic be a threat again on a surface that brought her Grand Slam glory in 2008? All of these questions will be answered over the next few weeks with a few unexpected twists thrown in for good measure.

Don’t be surprised if a player outside of the Top 10 makes some noise at the big tournaments and look for Agnieszka Radwanska to make a serious run at her first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros. Her all court game is well-suited for clay. Not to mention, she is enjoying the best season of her career.

It’s impossible to discuss a pending Major without throwing the name of Serena Williams into the mix. She played the Australian Open on one ankle, but comes into the clay court season in much better shape especially after rolling through the draw in Charleston a few weeks ago to win her 40th career title. Williams is driven to continually overcome health obstacles for another opportunity to add to her Grand Slam tally. The expectations may be low heading into Roland-Garros considering her recent results at the Majors and the fact clay is her worst surface. However, tennis fans have learned over the years to never discount Serena and it would be very much her style to triumph in Paris when everyone least expects her to.

BRYAN BROTHERS ROCK-AND-ROLL ON – AND OFF – THE COURT

Bryans Brothers

The Bryan Brothers equalled the Open Era doubles record of the Australian Woodies, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodford on Sunday by securing their 61st victory of their careers in the Madrid Masters doubles final. The telepathic twins beat world No. 1 pair, Daniel Nestor and partner Nenad Zimonjic 6-3, 6-4 in a final lasting only 55 minutes. Nestor and his partner were broken twice, with the Americans saving all three break points they faced. The brothers ruthlessly claimed victory on the first match point they gained. Interestingly, all twelve previous meetings between the teams have come in finals, seven of those in Masters events.

Nestor commented, “The Bryans always play us tough…we’ve had some good wins against them but they’ve been too tough this season. Obviously, it’s all about the Slams for us now, and our next big objective is the French Open. We’ll head to Paris now and regroup. We want to be playing our best in a week when the major begins.”

Like the Woodies, the brothers are a left-right combination, which they used to great effect in the final. Bob commented, “That is definitely the best combination…the sun out there today was really bad for a leftie, so we decided to put Mike on a different side. We can use winds to our advantage and the leftie serve is always tougher to break, I think. We feel like our game is pretty comfortable if I make first serves and Mike is such a good returner he keeps us in other guys’ service games.”

The Bryan Brothers have now leapt to the pinnacle of the world doubles rankings overtaking Nestor and Zimonjic as the world No. 1 doubles pair. The impressive brothers began 2010 with their eighth grand slam title at the Australian Open and have already won titles in Delray Beach, Houston and Rome. If they were to become victorious at the French Open in three weeks time, they will break the record held by the Woodies in some style, with a Grand Slam win.

Indeed, they show no sign of relaxing their steely grip on the world doubles tour and will no doubt break the record in impressive style and go on to win even more titles, keeping the doubles tour in the media spotlight for the next generation of tennis players. “We’re still having fun. It never gets old or boring to be travelling the world with your brother,” Mike said. “We love winning titles and sharing the trophies and memories. We don’t want to say, ‘Now that we’ve done this or that, we’re going to retire next year.’ I don’t think we’d find this adrenalin sitting on the couch at home so we might as well soak it up while we can.”

The talented twins have also been enjoying the adrenalin rush of playing in their rock band, The Bryan Bros Band at various concert venues around the world with singer David Baron. They even performed with the Counting Crows in front of 30,000 screaming fans. It seems for the twins, success is like a drug they cannot easily give up. You can download their new album ‘Let it Rip’ on iTunes now. British fans, check out the hilariously awful rap by Andy Murray on one of the tracks, alongside a slighter better Novak Djokovic about signing autographs – it’s well worth a listen and the other tracks are actually pretty catchy!

Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter.   She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.

ROGER FEDERER ON TARGET IN MADRID

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.

RAFA REBUTTAL: THE FRIDAY FIVE

Rafael Nadal

By Maud Watson
Rafa Rebuttal – Last week I received a lot of feedback on my criticism of Rafael Nadal’s comments regarding the ATP schedule following his withdrawal from Barcelona. If the article came across as “Nadal bashing,” then that was my mistake, and I deserve to be called on it. Many of you rightly pointed out that players such as Roger Federer and Andy Roddick have also panned the current schedule, as well as pointing out that it’s wonderful that Nadal can use his stature in the sport as a voice to bring about change. I agree with both of these statements. I agree with Nadal that the schedule is too long, and it is a definite advantage he’s willing to speak his mind. Where I have an issue with his comments, however, is I don’t see as much effort on his part to make adjustments on his own end. First, and I’ll preface this statement by saying other players such as Federer, Roddick, Djokovic, etc. should also be held accountable to this one the same as Nadal, is choosing to play exhibitions. If I’m an ATP exec, I have trouble going to a tournament director, particularly of a big successful event, and telling that director I have to downsize their tournament or wipe them off the map completely to give the players a longer off season. I have trouble with that, because these same players are the ones who accept large appearance fees to play exhibitions in an already too-short off season or throughout the course of the season itself.  Who’s to say they won’t play even more exhibitions if they have a few more weeks of free time on their hands?

My second issue with Nadal, however, is his scheduling, a topic which commentator Robbie Koenig noted during his commentary in Rome this week as an issue the Spaniard needs to address. Federer has always been excellent about planning his schedule to avoid overplaying, and Roddick has recently been doing the same. If they feel they need a rest, they forgo some of the 500 events, or they take advantage of the fact that an event like Monte Carlo is optional. (And for those who have suggested there’s an American bias when Indian Wells and Miami are back-to-back yet not optional, it’s worth noting they are also bigger tournaments that offer more prize money and have a larger overall financial commitment. For better or for worse, money talks.)  These are also guys, along with other players such as Murray, who have based their decisions regarding Davis Cup around ensuring they are as rested and ready to go each week on the ATP Tour. This is a sticky topic, as you don’t want to discourage a player from representing his country, and Nadal’s decision to do so is admirable. Despite that, however, I personally think it better to force the ITF’s hand in revamping the Davis Cup format to better fit the ATP schedule than the other way around. Furthermore, even Novak Djokovic, who has criticized the length of the season, freely admitted to the fact that his fatigue was also due to his poor planning and over scheduling himself last year. This has historically been a problem for Nadal, and an issue that Uncle Toni is only now beginning to seriously address. And as a final word on the length of the season, I think blaming it for the increase in injuries over the years is simplifying the problem too much. The Williams sisters, who play as little as possible while still staying within the rules (something Serena freely admits to), always seem to have something taped up every time they come out to play a match. I firmly believe the changes in technology and what it has done to the game as far as making it more physical must also be pointed to as one of the main causes for the increase in injuries.

My final issue with Nadal is his stubbornness regarding his style of play. He’s obviously earned a lot of accolades with his grinding style, and I’m not suggesting he do a complete overhaul of what he’s been so successful with. But his physical brand of tennis should bear a large portion of the blame for his knee problems, and he’s going to continue to pay for it, particularly on a hard court. Roddick is a guy who went out and lost weight and is working on not falling into the habit of getting trapped behind the baseline on defense unless necessary. Djokovic has also been working on his fitness and his net game to shorten points. Instead of digging his heels in and being stubborn when asked by reporters about changing his game, Nadal should look at other options. Throughout matches, he has shown plenty of occasions where he’s capable of being more aggressive, and he’s certainly shown he has the talent to make the switch given the number of shots he’s added to his repertoire.  If Justine Henin can do it, so can he.

This may just seem like more Nadal bashing, but I’ll stick by my stance.  Yes, Nadal’s complaints about the season are valid. Yes, it is a great that he’s willing to speak out about it. But do I give his criticisms as much weight as others?  No.  Not until he takes more responsibility for things on his own end the way the others who are complaining about the season have done on theirs.

Gulbis the “Real Deal?” – Until recently, Latvian Ernests Gulbis looked as though he were on track to be one of the biggest underachievers the sport of tennis has ever seen. Having won a title in 2010 and putting together a nice run in Barcelona, Gulbis has shown he’s now ready to hang with the big boys and continue his climb up the rankings with an impressive win over Roger Federer this week in Rome. While he did stumble a bit at the finish line, getting broken when he first served for the match, I was impressed that he stuck with Federer, broke him again, and this time made no mistake as he successfully served it out. Gulbis may now be ready to finally fulfill his potential.

No Pain, No Gain – Justine Henin overcame the pain of a broken pinky finger on her left hand to secure a 7-6, 6-1 win over Julia Goerges in Stuttgart, her first official clay court match since coming back from sabbatical.  Henin stated she was encouraged by the fact that the pain has lessened in the broken appendage and that she is adjusting to playing with the splint. She also admits she’s still trying to find the right balance in her game. As a fan, I’m holding my breath that the finger heals and she finds that balance.  If so, we’re in for a real treat a few weeks from now in Paris.

Fitness Race – The other half of the Belgian duo, Kim Clijsters, is in a more serious fitness battle of her own.  Clijsters fought through pain in her left foot to defeat Maret Ani in straights sets this past weekend in Fed Cup play. It was later discovered she has a tear in the muscle, and doctors are estimating she may very well need six weeks of recovery time. This puts her Roland Garros hopes in serious jeopardy, as the second major of the year is set to get underway in just four weeks. Ever the optimist, Clijsters hasn’t given up on competing in the French capital, stating she generally recovers quickly and feels she can do just that despite doctor’s concerns.  We’re pulling for you, Kim!

Bad Day In Court – Brit Robert Dee struggles to win matches on the court, and now he’s apparently struggling to win them in court. He recently brought a libel suit against the Daily Telegraph for labeling him as far as professional tennis player go, the “world’s worst.” As Mrs. Justice Sharp, who presided over the case, stated however, the facts remain that Dee, who is a professional tennis player, did lose 54 consecutive matches (all in straight sets) in international play, equaling the world record for most consecutive losses in international competition. It has to be hard enough to go through that on the court, but utterly humilitating to have it explained to you and all present in a court of law. He’s already suffered enough of ‘em, so maybe it’s time to just cut his losses and call it a day.

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