Safina

The Kids are on Life Support? Robson Struggles Through Tennis Transition

If a match is played on a side court and no one is around to watch it, does the result matter?

British sensation Laura Robson would prefer they didn’t, but a sub-par American hard court season following the Australian Open has shown few signs of letting up as the Tour transitions to European red clay. Robson had been amassing a coterie of big match wins, most recently a gutsy (if aesthetically displeasing) win over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. But the losses for the young Brit have begun to pile up in quickly, as she has failed to win two consecutive matches since January. Off the court, times have been equally trying for the teenager, who suffered the theft of her jewelry and, after an incident of cyber-bullying following a loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai, a brief deactivation of her twitter account.

The former Wimbledon girls’ champion may be one of the last true tennis prodigies; she won her home Slam at the age of 14, famously inviting Marat Safin to accompany her to the Champion’s Ball. Reaching two more junior finals after that, Robson was under a microscope for most of her junior development. Making the transition to the senior tour, Robson showed promise when she reached the Hopman Cup finals with compatriot Andy Murray in 2011 and won the silver medal in at the Olympic mixed doubles event last summer.

But it was her summer hard court swing last year that truly turned heads; not long after hiring the controversial Zeljko Krajan (former coach of Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova), Robson made a splash at the US Open, ending Kim Clijsters’ singles career in emphatic fashion and following that up with a decisive win over an in-form Li Na. In the fall, she continued to impress with a run to the finals of Guangzhou and it seemed she was coming into her own as 2013 got underway with the aforementioned Kvitova victory.

From that steady progress, it would appear Robson has done a complete about-face, but what has caused this slump? Unlike rival Sloane Stephens, who endured an uncomfortable homecoming after her Australian Open heroics, Robson has been decidedly under the radar, starting (and swiftly ending) most tournaments away from the glare of a TV camera.

Though a tennis match has few literary properties, that stops a precious few of us from analyzing them as if they were texts (the day a win or a loss means nothing more than a strict binary is the day journalism dies). A cursory look at Robson’s results reveal a string of five three-set losses, four 6-1 final sets, and three losses from a set up. Robson’s apparent inability to close ostensibly winnable matches against players outside the top 30 is startling given both her talent and the matches that made her relevant.

An even closer look, this time at the stats of Robson’s losses, most recently a two-set defeat to Japan’s Ayumi Morita, shows an ever-increasing amount of double faults (she served 10 against Morita). Coach Krajan’s former students had their own histories of serving woes before hiring the Croatian former pro, but his habit of tweaking his charges’ serve motions to be more side-arm have often done more harm than good, Robson appearing the latest victim of “the yips.”

Now playing in Europe for the first time since asserting her presence among the Tour’s upper echelon, the roles between Stephens and Robson will reverse; playing away from home, the young American will have a chance to work out her shaken confidence on both a surface she prefers and those outer courts Robson has called home for much of the season. By contrast, Robson, who probably anticipated making more inroads on a faster surface, will be asked to play under increasing scrutiny leading up to Wimbledon, literally a stone’s throw from her actual home.

How either player copes with the change of scenery cannot yet be predicted, but at least for Robson, the troubling start to the clay season may mean it gets worse before it gets better.

Caroline Wozniaki has Reached the Pinnacle of the WTA Rankings

By Maud Watson

At the Apex – Dane Caroline Wozniaki has reached the pinnacle of the WTA Rankings, and it will be interesting to see how she is perceived in the weeks to come. Like some of the other recent No. 1’s such as Safina and Jankovic, she has reached the top without a Slam to her name. But while it may not pan out this way, Wozniaki seems as though she’s more in the vein of a Mauresmo or Clijsters, who also reached the top ranking before going on to win their Grand Slam titles. Besides, Slam or no Slam, Wozniaki deserves the No. 1 ranking the same as Safina and Jankovic did when they held it. History will remember more those who won the majors, but finding a way to stay healthy and having the mental fortitude to perform consistently at a high level week in and week out is a great achievement in and of itself, and there should be no qualms if that achievement is rewarded with the top ranking in the game.

Breakthrough – The 2010 season is winding down, and many in the tennis world are already anxiously looking forward to 2011. But for Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, the best moment of his season, and indeed, perhaps of his career, came last week in Bangkok. He recorded his first win over a current world. No. 1, defeating compatriot Rafael Nadal in three sets. Garcia-Lopez showed nerves of steel in his victory, having to save 24 of 26 breakpoints to see himself across the finish line. Impressively, he didn’t suffer the let down that so many do after such a big win, taking out the man from Finland, Jarkko Nieminen, in three close sets to secure the title. This could be a flash in the pan, but such a week could give Garcia-Lopez and his fans even more of a reason to look toward the 2011 season.

Early Exit – More players are calling time on their 2010 seasons in an effort to get healthy going into 2011. Svetlana Kuznetsova has been suffering from an illness that has prevented her from playing at her top form. Unable to practice or work on her fitness, the Russian veteran has smartly opted to close the curtain for the time being in order to allow her body to rest and recharge for next year. The situation for Aggie Radwanska is unfortunately more serious. The young Pole is suffering from a stress fracture in her foot, and as she correctly pointed out, it is a tricky injury. She is unsure if she will be prepared to play the Australian Open next January. Fingers crossed she’s able to make it, as unlike so many of the game’s current stars, Radwanska brings an entertaining game of cunning tactics and touch to the court. As for the elder Williams sister, she is still struggling with a niggling knee injury. Venus hasn’t alluded to the injury being a threat to her chances to go for her first title Down Under, and as a young 30, pocketing another Slam or two isn’t out of the question. Finally, Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero has been forced to undergo both wrist and knee surgery, and will need the next two months to rehab and get healthy. It would be a cruel twist of fate if Ferrero is unable to bounce back from these injuries given the admirable turnaround he has done this year as far as his career and ranking are concerned. Hope to see all of these players in full flight next season.

The Great Compromise – Not so long ago, it was announced that the powers-at-be in the ATP were looking at the possibility of shortening the length of the season by 2-3 weeks. As the starting date of the Aussie Open wasn’t set to move, speculation was that a shortened season would also mean the axing of a few ATP events. But ATP CEO Adam Helfant has put that speculation to rest, stating that no tournaments would be lost should the ATP shorten its season. Undoubtedly some tournament directors are breathing a slight sigh of relief, though no cutting could mean stacking another tournament or two within a week, which means more competition to secure the best field, but it’s better than being wiped off the map completely. Hats off to Helfant if he’s able to find a way to make all parties happy.

Grunt Work – In a study performed at the University of British Columbia and the University of Hawaii, the Public Library of Science put out their findings showing that there’s a good chance that those players who grunt (or shriek as the case may be) actually gain an edge on their quieter opponents. The study’s findings suggest that “the presence of an extraneous sound interfered with participants’ performance, making their response both slower and less accurate.” More research into this subject will have to be done, but hopefully the ITF is taking a hard look at this. Particularly in the case of some of the louder shriekers on the WTA Tour, things have gotten out of hand. It’s an annoyance to the fans and takes away from the game. Plus, given how far things have come since Monica Seles, recent history would also suggest the problem will only get worse as this ugly trend is allowed to continue. One hopes that similar studies to the one conducted by the Universities of British Columbia and Hawaii will give the ITF the evidence that they need to start taking more action.

Mondays With Bob Greene: The Summary Of The First Week Of The US Open

STARS

(US Open First Week)

Petra Kvitova beat top-seeded Dinara Safina 6-4 2-6 7-06 (5)

Kim Clijsters beat third-seeded Venus Williams 6-0 0-6 6-4

Melanie Oudin beat fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva 5-7 6-4 6-3

John Isner beat fifth-seeded Andy Roddick 7-6 (3) 6-3 3-6 5-7 7-6 (5)

Yaroslava Shvedova beat fifth-seeded Jelena Jankovic 6-3 6-7 (4) 7-6 (6)

Francesca Schiavone beat eighth-seeded Victoria Azarenko 4-6 6-2 6-2

SAYING

“I learned, once again, proved to myself that I can compete with these top girls. And if I believe in myself and my game, then I can beat them.” – Melanie Oudin, after upsetting Maria Sharapova to advance to the fourth round.

“She was playing very aggressively, really enjoying this atmosphere, the crowd support and really going for the winners. So it’s just the beginning, but it looks like she has a good future.” – Elena Dementieva, on American Melanie Oudin, who upset the fourth-seeded Russian in a second-round match.

“I like to do aces on the match points. I did it (at) the French Open. I did it twice. Yeah, close my match with an ace. So it was nice.” – Yaroslava Shvedova, who finished her upset of Jelena Jankovic with an ace.

“She pretty much takes my advice if I offer good advice. I don’t traditionally offer good advice, so she doesn’t normally take it.” – Serena Williams, asked if she gives advice to her sister Venus.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come here a little bit tired, a little bit sore, a little bit injured, a little bit distracted. There’s nowhere to hide out there, so I’ve lived and died on this court many times and taken a lot of people with me.” – Andre Agassi, talking about playing at the US Open.

“What Andre did in his career is incredibly impressive. But to have someone who can be more impressive after their career is so rare. It’s why someone like Arthur Ashe is my idol. I’m sure a lot of kids have grown up in this era after mine. I hope they have someone like Andre Agassi as their idol.” – James Blake.

“I was jealous. I was happy for everybody that was doing well. I’m friends with them all, but I was jealous. I wanted to be here competing and playing well and playing matches. So to be back here accomplishing that is pretty remarkable. I still have a long way to go. I still feel like my game is still pretty rough around the edges, but it’s extremely exciting.” – Taylor Dent, making his first US Open appearance since 2005 and after three back surgeries.

“My goal (was) to not get crushed and make it interesting for a little while at least. I got up a break a couple of times and that was fun while it lasted.” – Devin Britton, a wild card entry who lost a first-round match to top-seeded Roger Federer.

“I don’t want to make the decision to stop and then after two, six, eight months thinking, it was not quite the time yet. Because then it’s too hard, I would say, probably to make a comeback as Kim (Clijsters) is making now, given the age.” – Amelie Mauresmo, now 30 years old, saying she will wait until the end of the year before making a decision on whether to retire.

“I love winning tennis matches. If I get more money for more matches I win, that’s why we play. … It’s nice to get money for what you love to do.” – Jesse Witten, a qualifier who reached the third round before losing to Novak Djokovic.

I hated to lose more than I liked to win. – Jimmy Connors, explaining his mindset when he played.

SONY ERICSSON WTA TOUR

In 2010, the women’s tennis tour returns to San Diego, California, and will stage new events in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Copenhagen, Denmark. The 2010 calendar features 53 tournaments, in addition to the four Grand Slam events, with total prize money of more than USD $83 million. The international breadth of tournaments includes 24 events in Europe, 15 events in the Americas and 18 events in the Asia-Pacific region. “With three new tournaments investing in our sport in each of the United States, Europe and Asia-Pacific regions, the Tour’s 2010 calendar continues to showcase the global commercial strength of women’s tennis,” said Stacey Allaster, chairman and CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. “I am proud of the fact that despite a worldwide recession we have been able to achieve modest growth.”

SAFINA SWITCH

When John Isner’s upset victory over fifth-seeded Andy Roddick went so late in the evening, tournament schedulers moved Dinara Safina’s match against the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova from Arthur Ashe Stadium to Louis Armstrong. Safina wasn’t happy with the switch. “I’m number one player in the world, why did they move me?” Safina asked. “This is not an excuse, but I don’t think it’s a fair decision they made.” To make matters worse, the Russian lost to Kvitova 6-4 2-6 7-6 (5).

SUDDEN END

Sabine Lisicki left the court in a wheelchair after she severely sprained her ankle on the final point of her second-round match. Qualifier Anastasia Rodionova of Australia, ranked 139th in the world, upset the German 6-3 3-6 7-5. On match point, Lisicki, seeded 23rd in the year’s final Grand Slam tournament, raced to her left. But as she slid for the ball, she rolled her left ankle and stayed on the court for several minutes. The ankle was heavily wrapped and a wheelchair was brought to the court. Lisicki was taken to a hospital where x-rays showed there was no break.

STATISTICS AND OTHER LIES

Numbers don’t lie. Sometimes they just don’t tell the truth. Philipp Petzschner of Germany out-aced his foe 17-1 and had 52 winners – 24 more than his opponent. Yet when the 3-hour, second-round match was over, the winner was 24th-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain 1-6 3-6 6-4 6-2 6-4. The reason: Petzschner had 20 more unforced errors than Ferrero, 68-48, and the Spaniard won 147 points, nine more than the German.

Marat Safin had 15 aces to eight for Jurgen Melzer in their first-round battle. The two each had 40 winners, and Melzer had one fewer unforced errors, 28 to 29. The Austrian won three more points than his Russian opponent, 107-104, and when the contest was over, Melzer was the winner 1-6 6-4 6-3 6-4.

Andy Roddick won everything but the score in his third-round match against fellow American John Isner. Roddick won 162 points to Isner’s 155 and had his serve broken only once. Isner lost his serve twice, but he boomed 38 aces in the 3-hour, 51-minute battle and advanced to the fourth round at a Grand Slam event for the first time. It also was Isner’s first victory over a top five player.

STILL RELEVANT

The story of Rod Laver’s second Grand Slam season, capped by winning the US Open, is the subject of a book, “The Education of a Tennis Player.” Written with Hall of Fame journalist and historian Bud Collins, the book is Laver’s first-hand account of his 1969 Grand Slam season. 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 games. Originally published in 1971, “The Education of a Tennis Player” was updated by Laver and Collins in 2009 with new content including Laver’s recovery from a near-fatal stroke in 1998. Laver won 11 major singles titles during his career, including Wimbledon in 1961, 1962, 1968 and 1969.

STARTING LATE

The US Open had its latest night session start in history during the first week. On Saturday, James Blake and Tommy Robredo took to the court at 10:35 p.m. following a special ceremony honoring Pancho Gonzalez. The night session normally starts at 7 p.m., but the last day match in Arthur Ashe Stadium, an all-American affair between fifth-seeded Andy Roddick and John Isner, lasted until 9:26 p.m. Officials moved the scheduled first night match between Dinara Safina and Petra Kvitova to Louis Armstrong Stadium and began the Blake-Robredo match in Ashe. Kvitova upset the top-seeded Safina, while Robredo beat Blake in a match that ended just shy of 1 o’clock in the morning.

SERIOUS THEY ARE

The US Open battles between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe are legendary. The two left-handers, who defined a generation and won 15 Grand Slam tournament titles between them, still excite the crowds at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Now tennis commentators, Connors and McEnroe returned to the courts to face other during the first week of the US Open. The practice courts, that is. “Definitely brings back a few good memories,” McEnroe said.

SWOOP NOT

When James Blake walked onto the court to play his first-round match, the umpire made the American change his headband. “I didn’t know the rule,” Blake admitted. “I didn’t know you couldn’t have any writing on the headband or wristband.” A player can wear a logo on their headband, as in the Nike swoop. But Blake’s clothing sponsor, Fila, had the name “Fila” written on the headband. That’s a no-no. “I didn’t know we couldn’t do that,” Blake said.

SENOR PANCHO

The US Open honored two-time winner Richard A. “Pancho” Gonzalez on the 60th anniversary of his second consecutive victory in America’s premier tennis tournament. Gonzalez won the US Championships in 1948 and 1949, then turned pro at a time when only amateurs were allowed to play the Grand Slam tournaments. He went on to become the top draw on the professional circuit, then, when he was 40 years old, reached the semifinals of the French Open and the quarterfinals of the inaugural US Open. That same year he was elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1972, three months shy of his 44th birthday, Gonzalez became the oldest man to win a tournament title, capturing the championship at an event in Des Moines, Iowa. Among those participating in the on-court ceremony were members of the Gonzalez family as well as several Hispanic dignitaries.

STEPPING

You can’t find former US Open champion Martina Hingis on the tennis courts these days, thanks to a two-year ban after testing positive for cocaine. But the 28-year-old Swiss star has signed up to take part in the seventh season of BBC’s reality talent show “Strictly Come Dancing,” which starts September 18. Other former athletes participating in the show include boxer Joe Calzaghe, Olympic long jumper Jade Johnson, cricketer Phil Tufnell and jockey Richard Dunwoody.

SO FINE

The town of Midland, Michigan, has been named winner of the USTA’s “Best Tennis Town” search. The initiative by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) was designed to identify and reward American communities that “best exemplify the passion, excitement, spirit and impact that tennis brings to the local level.” Midland, which received the most votes during the nationwide, online balloting, will receive a USD $100,000 grant from the USTA to be used for community-wide tennis programming or facility enhancements. Finishing second was Ojai, California, which received a USD $50,000 community tennis grant from the USTA, while Independence, Kansas, was third in the balloting and received a USD $25,000 USTA grant.

SITES TO SURF

US Open: www.usopen.org
Davis Cup: www.DavisCup.com
Kim Clijsters: www.kimclijsters.be/
Roger Federer: www.rogerfederer.com/en/index.cfm
Rafael Nadal: www.rafaelnadal.com/nada/en/home
Serena Williams: www.serenawilliams.com/
Quebec: www.challengebell.com
Guangzhou: http://sports.21cn.com

TOURNAMENTS THIS WEEK

(All money in USD)

ATP and WTA

US Open (second week), New York, New York, USA, hard

ATP

$120,000 Genoa Open Challenger, Genoa, Italy, clay

TOURNAMENTS NEXT WEEK

ATP

$150,000 Pekao Open, Szczecin, Poland, clay

WTA

$220,000 Bell Challenge, Quebec City, Canada, hard
$220,000 Guangzhou International Women’s Open, Guangzhou, China, hard

DAVIS CUP

World Group Semifinals

Croatia vs. Czech Republic at Porec, Croatia
Spain vs. Israel at Murcia, Spain

World Group Playoffs

Chile vs. Austria at Rancagua, Chile; Belgium vs. Ukraine at Charleroi, Belgium; Brazil vs. Ecuador at Porto Alegre, Brazil; Netherlands vs. France at Maastricht, Netherlands; South Africa vs. India at Johannesburg, South Africa; Serbia vs. Uzbekistan at Belgrade, Serbia; Sweden vs. Romania at Helsingborg, Sweden; Italy vs. Switzerland at Genova, Italy

Americas Zone

Group I Playoff: Peru vs. Uruguay at Lima, Peru
Group II Final: Dominican Republic vs. Venezuela at Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Asia-Oceania Zone

Group I Playoff: China vs. Thailand at Jiaxing, China
Group II 3rd Round: Philippines vs. New Zealand at Manila, Philippines

Europe/Africa Zone

Group I Playoffs: Slovak Republic vs. FYR Macedonia at Bratislava, Slovak Republic; Great Britain vs. Poland at Liverpool, Great Britain

Group II 3rd Round: Latvia vs. Slovenia at Jurmala, Latvia; Finland vs. Cyprus at Salo, Finland

Final thoughts from a remarkable tennis event at the XXIX Olympiad…

In honor of the 18 medals that were awarded to tennis players over the weekend in Beijing, I offer 18 quick- and final- thoughts on the Games that exceeded expectations.

1) Both the men’s and women’s doubles gold medal teams were comprised entirely of “singles specialists.” Go figure. There is an old argument that great doubles players or teams would handle great singles players who paired together occasionally. I am not so sure about that. Roger Federer looked mighty formidable out there. There was little that doubles specialists did to disrupt him, and his skill level was obviously superior.

2) If Fernando Gonzalez sincerely did not hear or feel James Blake’s passing shot click off his racquet during their tense third set, then… we should all give him a break. If he has lied about this, then I wish on him six months of severe insomnia where he can grapple with his guilt.

3) Elena Dementieva is the best mover in women’s tennis. Her gold medal in women’s singles confirms her position as the best player to have yet won a major title.

4) The Russian women earned the gold, silver, and bronze medals in singles. There are eight teams that compete in the Fed Cup’s world group each year, and- if they were allowed- Russia has a deep enough talent pool for four completely different teams in this event. Remarkable.

5) Roger Federer’s delight at having won the doubles gold medal was wonderful to behold. He demonstrated more energy and positive emotion during his last three Olympic doubles matches than he has all season in singles.

6) Was the tennis stadium really filled to capacity at 3:30 AM on Friday while the Chinese pair of Yan and Zheng eked out a win over Russian team of Kuznetsova and Safina? If so, this is beyond incredible.

7) Dinara Safina looks like she could become #1 in the world, especially given the uncertainty of the position atop the women’s rankings. Her brother Marat Safin spent nine weeks at #1 on the ATP Tour. If she makes a big run in Flushing Meadows, then she could actually break this Safin family record.

8 ) While the humidity was reportedly thick in Beijing, the air quality and smog became a big non-story for tennis players. Thank goodness.

9) Can you imagine Rafael Nadal living in the Olympic Village? By all accounts, he has had a blast. I have visions of him waking up at dawn to take on all comers in table tennis, grabbing an enormous breakfast, going on a warm-up run with the Spanish track team, racing over to take part in the basketball shoot-around with Pau Gasol, challenging a few wrestlers to a bench pressing contest, trying his luck in archery, followed by an enormous lunch, some beach volleyball practice, a quick tennis match, some ice/treatment/media, an enormous dinner, a quick trip to the Ice Cube for an Individual Medley race against all member of the Spanish contingent, and then eight hours of video games against… all-comers.

10) The despair and sadness etched on Novak Djokovic’s face after losing the semi-final combined with his elation after winning the bronze medal match over Blake were proof positive of how he deeply these players cared about the Olympics.

11) I got a big kick out of the fact that all the players were forced to cover the logos on their racquet and gear bags. If I were representing HEAD, Wilson, Babolat, Prince, Dunlop, then this would have infuriated me. The IOC definitely has a sense of humor!

12) The Williams Sisters will defend their gold medal at the London Games of 2012. They employ tactics – or non-tactics- that distinguish them among the best teams of all-time: See the ball, hit the ball really hard, giggle afterwards.

13) It says here that Mama Lindsay Davenport will compete in the 2012 London Olympics (in doubles).

14) Jimmy Arias did a magnificent job broadcasting the Olympic matches from NYC’s Rockefeller Center building. He is insightful, funny, acutely aware of tactical nuances, and measures his words prudently. Those characteristics differentiate him from the vast majority of announcers. As he has reached the top of the class, he ought to get a chance to work more of the bigger events.

15) I would expect that there were some Olympic medalists (or at least coaches) who were relieved that Juan Martin del Potro was not in Beijing. He is playing like a beast this summer.

16) Chris “Mad Dog” Russo abruptly resigned his post- after 19 years- on the popular “Mike and the Mad Dog” sports talk radio show on WFAN. The Dog was a big tennis fan, an avid player, and he relished discussing big matches on the program that was typically devoted to baseball, football, and basketball. It was always amusing to hear Russo try to pronounce words like “Djokovic” or “Wimbledon” or “statistics.” He will inevitably be back soon, and our sport will be the better for that.

17) I heard Michael Phelps’ being referred to as “the Rafael Nadal of swimming” and it made me laugh. Things change quickly at the top-level of sport.

18) The US Open qualifying event begins Tuesday. The year’s final major will be interesting, as players battle fatigue from a brutal schedule, jet-lag for those returning from Beijing, a wide-open women’s event, and- apparently- the passing of the torch at the top of the men’s game.