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Roland Garros Day 5: Links Roundup with Federer, Stosur, Jankovic, Lepchenko and more

Novak Djokovic serving on Philippe Chatrier Court for his second round match

Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.

Shot of the Day: Novak Djokovic was among the lucky ones to finish his match before the rain called it a day on Thursday. He defeated Argentine Guido Pella in just under an hour-and-a-half and a score of 6-2, 6-0, 6-2. He next faces Grigor Dimitrov and is seeking to avenge his loss to him from Madrid just earlier this month.

Vavara Lepchenko soaring but under the radar: Vavara Lepchenko was not only the last American woman standing in the French Open last year but she has ascended the WTA rankings and is now the third highest ranked American women. But, as Lepchenko told Ravi Ubha in his piece for the New York Times, “It seems like I’m in the shadow.” She continued on to say, “I follow a few journalists on Twitter from the United States, and I always see they post once someone loses or wins from the United States, and I never get mentioned until I win a few rounds…” Ubha also discussed Lepchenko’s difficulties in terms of gaining notoriety and how this has impacted her ability to attract sponsors.

Marion Bartoli explains and reveals on court eccentricities: In this Roland Garros feature video, Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli explains why she turns her back in between points, her flexing and jump prior to returning, and the “air shots” or shadow swings she takes in between points.  Bartoli also discussed how as she puts it, “having a song in her head” helps her concentrate during matches.

Steve Tignor’s take on Ernests Gulbis: After calling Big 4 “boring,” talking more specifically in regards to their interviews, Ernests Gublis is receiving an onslaught of criticism for his negative critique of Djokovic, Murray, Federer, and Nadal. But not all is criticism. While Steve Tignor of Tennis.com doesn’t necessarily assent with Gulbis’s assessment of the big four, he appreciates how straightforward the Latvian is.

“As a fan and reporter, I want every player to be as honest as possible.  I want to know what they really think; I want to know who I’m writing about and who I’m rooting for.  In this sense, I like Gulbis’ honesty—the guy is a journalist’s dream.”

Taking down the King of Clay:  Rafael Nadal has won 93 percent of clay courtn matches he has contested in his career and has only lost 21 matches total.  Beating the Spaniard on this surface has required nothing short of herculean efforts. Kamakshi Tandon of ESPN believes several ingredients necessary in concocting a recipe to defeat Nadal on clay include winning in three sets, having a lot of power, and rushing Nadal.

Jelena Jankovic praises Gabrine Muguruza: After her comprehensive 6-3 6-0 defeat of 19-year-old Gabrine Muguruza of Spain, a match in which the Serb won the final 12 games of the match, Jelena Jankovic touted her younger foe.

“She’s a great up and coming player. She hits the ball very hard, very flat. And especially in the beginning of the match she gave me a lot of trouble. I figured out the way to play against her, and I think I did pretty well.”

Candid Kevin Anderson car interview: In this edition of Road to Roland Garros, South African Kevin Anderson discusses his favorite district in Paris, his best experience in Paris, who he thinks the best player of all time is and more.

Federer applauds Nadal’s growthAs the ATP reports, Roger Federer believes “Nadal is more or less still the same player” but that “his strengths and his weaknesses are even better now.” Federer also discussed Nadal’s physical growth in specificity stating, “Of course also he’s fitter. He’s no longer a young boy. He’s a man now. He has experience on top of that.  So he’s really improved.  It’s spectacular and the results are there to show, to prove it.”

Bethanie-Mattek Sands shocks Li Na: Bethanie-Mattek Sands of the United States scored a career best victory over 2011 French Open champion, Li Na by a score of 5-7 6-3 6-2. This is a remarkable victory for Mattek Sands considering where she was just a year ago when she was contemplating retirement as Jim Caple of ESPN reports.

“I got to the point where I couldn’t even play my game. I couldn’t even work out. That’s the reason I was thinking I didn’t want to play tennis. It’s too frustrating.”

Sam Stosur anticipates Jankovic match:  After displacing Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic in straight sets, Sam Stosur will face Jelena Jankovic in a match that pits a grand slam champion against a former world No. 1. Stosur realizes a victory against Jankovic will be a big win, especially considering her recent setback to Jankovic in Stuttgart.

“It’s always tough playing Jelena. We played about four or five weeks ago in Stuttgart and she beat me there. I’m certainly expecting a tough match—I have to be ready to work hard, and hopefully play as well than I have so far this week.”

Tennis View Magazine Giveaway: Our friends at Tennis View Magazine have launched a great contest, giving fans the chance to win one of 12 daily Babolat prize packages during Roland Garros, that includes a Roland Garros Aeropro Drive tennis racket plus a six-pack racquet bag and accessories. To enter, follow steps at the following link: http://www.tennisviewmag.com/promotions

WTA Roland Garros Visions: Picks, Predictions, Dark Horses, Winners

Maria Sharapova wins Roland Garros French Open 2012

(May 25, 2013) With Roland Garros officially kicking off on Sunday, the team at Tennis Grandstand has once again come together to provide you a one-stop comprehensive preview of the women’s draw of the season’s second Slam. We’ve covered dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets and matches to watch for, and potential semifinalists and eventual champion for the women’s tour.

In the table, you will find the entire Tennis Grandstand team’s “Quick Picks and Predictions” for the WTA draw, with further detailed analysis below by Melissa Boyd, Victoria Chiesa, David Kane, Chris Skelton, and Maud Watson.

Dark Horse

Melissa Boyd: (14) Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic has played well this clay court season and appears to be most comfortable on the red dirt. Roland Garros is her best chance to win another Slam and the draw was kind to the Serbian. She avoids the Top 3 until the semifinals and finds herself in the same section as the struggling Agnieszka Radwanska and last year’s finalist, Sara Errani.

Victoria Chiesa(20) Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard knows what it takes to be successful in Paris, as she reached the quarterfinals in her debut in 2008 as a qualifier. Since then, however, she has not advanced further than the third round. After reaching the final in Oeiras, she also reached the quarterfinals in Rome before losing to Serena Williams. She opens against another potential dark horse in Simona Halep. Should she find a way past the Romanian, the 20th seed is in by far the most open quarter of the draw to make a run at the second week; a potential third round against Nadia Petrova (11) is in the cards, but the Spaniard already scored a clay-court win against the Russian in Rome.

David KaneSimona HalepHave you ever seen a player and thought, “why do I know you?” You don’t remember them winning a title or causing a noteworthy upset. Yet when Simona Halep clubbed her way into the semifinals of Rome, few among the tennis cognoscenti were completely left scratching their heads. The young Romanian won the French Open girl’s title at 16, but despite being a mainstay of the top 100 for the last few years, had yet to make a big breakthrough on the senior tour. That all changed at the Foro Italico when, as a qualifier, she upset a host of current and former top 4 players including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic before running out of gas against an inspired Serena Williams. Halep only has one third round appearance on her Grand Slam CV, but should she get past fellow darkhorse Carla Suarz Navarro in the first round, her draw may open up with struggling Nadia Petrova anchoring her section.

Chris Skelton: (14) Ana Ivanovic. The champion here five years ago, she showed glimpses of vintage form by reaching the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. Ivanovic extended world No. 2 Sharapova to three tough sets at the former event and demolished top-eight opponent Angelique Kerber at the latter. Ana remains susceptible to the unforeseen clunker, and always will be, but her first-week draw is filled with players whom she normally handles with ease. None of the top three can meet her until the semifinals.

Maud Watson: Can I just say Serb?  I like both (14) Ana Ivanovic and (18) Jelena Jankovic as dark horse candidates.  Both have produced some good tennis in 2013, and this season Jankovic in particular has enjoyed her most success on the dirt.  Still, I’d give the edge to Ivanovic.  She has it easiest in her opening rounds and has actually won a major.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

Boyd(4) Agnieszka Radwanska. It would have been easy to go with Caroline Wozniacki here. The Dane has not won a match on red clay in four tournaments this year and has to play the fast-rising Laura Robson in the first round. Radwanska’s clay court record in 2013 is almost as unflattering as her good friend. She has won just one match and has never made it past the fourth round at Roland Garros.

Chiesa(8) Angelique Kerber. For her first round match, Kerber was dealt one of the players on the fringe of a seeding in countrywoman Mona Barthel. Neither player comes into the match on a rich vein of form. Despite reaching the semifinals and quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid, Kerber withdrew from Rome citing injury; Barthel also withdrew from the Italian Open, and did not win a match in Stuttgart or Madrid. Barthel is a tricky case, as her form can turn on a dime, and she holds a 2-1 head-to-head advantage against her countrywoman. Even if Kerber does pull through this match, she’ll do well to live up to her seeding and set up a quarterfinal date with Serena on her least-preferred surface.

Kane: (6) Li NaThe veteran Chinesewoman has been trending up in 2013, with a run to the Australian Open finals and recovered well from an ankle injury to reach the Stuttgart finals to start the clay court season. But when last we left Li Na, she put on a terrible show to lose to Jelena Jankovic in Rome. So often in tennis, it is rarely about to whom one loses as much as how one plays during that loss. An upset wasn’t improbable, given Li’s resurgent Serbian opponent. But the ridiculously high number of unforced errors (62 in two sets) looks more like foreshadowing than an aberration. Against a steady claycourter in Anabel Medina Garrigues (against whom Li is 0-3 in completed matches) in round one, the 2011 Champion will have to be on song from the get-go, lest she face another surprising Slam exit.

Skelton: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska. The obvious choice in this category is Caroline Wozniacki (see below), but that’s too easy when someone much more notable has struggled almost as much. A top-four seed at Roland Garros, Radwanska has won just one clay match this year while absorbing overwhelming losses to Laura Robson and Simona Halep. Clay is her worst surface, and she withdrew from her Brussels title defense last week with a shoulder injury. While Radwanska doesn’t have many giant-killers around her, Halep didn’t seem like a giant-killer until she slew her.

Watson: (10) Caroline WozniackiA couple of names come to mind here, with one of those names being Caroline Wozniacki.  It’s hard to imagine a time when the former No. 1′s confidence and form have been lower than they are right now.  Against an up-and-comer like Robson – who has already enjoyed more than a few big wins in her young career – she’s definitely ripe for the upset.

First Round Match to Watch For

BoydEugenie Bouchard vs. Tsvetana Pironkova. After reaching her first WTA semifinal in Strasbourg thanks to some impressive wins, the 19-year-old Canadian arrives in Paris on a roll. Her game on clay has vastly improved and she’s chalking up experience as she goes along. It will be interesting to see how she deals with the former Wimbledon semifinalist. A win for Bouchard and she will likely play her idol Maria Sharapova for the second time in two months in the second round.

Chiesa(22) Ekaterina Makarova vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova. One of the women’s draw’s most dangerous floaters, one of Kuznetsova’s crowning career achievements came in Paris when she lifted the trophy in 2009. She just missed out on a seeding here and Makarova is coming off of a strong quarterfinal showing in Madrid that included a win over Azarenka, the Belarusian’s first true loss of the year. The two have never played on clay, but Kuznetsova holds a 2-1 head-to-head lead after a 6-4, 6-4 win in Miami this year.

Kane: (7) Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai. If you read my article from last week (or follow me on twitter), you’ll know of my penchant for reality television. What first round match looks more likely to be real than Kvitova/Rezai? Both have flashy games, with the ability to crush any ball seemingly at will. Both have the potential to fly horribly off the rails and rack up triple-digit unforced errors. Playing at home, the already-expressive Rezai will draw on the energy of an upset-hungry crowd. Kvitova has been struggling, and seems as far from her top tier, world beating form as ever. The odds of this being a “pretty” match are low, but this has “Trainwreck of the Year” potential written all over it. And damned if I won’t be there for every second.

Skelton: (18) Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova. This match might not produce the best tennis or most meaningful result on the menu, but the first round is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s a rare opportunity to see two former members of the top five and two major semifinalists meet in the first round. Their last five meetings all have come on clay, they have a relatively close head-to-head with multiple thrillers, and each has shown recent signs of life. Colliding for the first time in two years, Jankovic and Hantuchova will showcase a lovely contrast of styles between the down-the-line groundstrokes of the Serb and the cross-court angles of the Slovak.

Watson: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska vs Shahar Peer in the first round isn’t a popcorn match.  But the Pole has run a dismal clay court campaign that’s been compounded by shoulder issues.  How she looks in her opening match could be a good indicator as to just how likely she is to live up to her No. 4 seeding.

First Round Upset Special

BoydOlga Govortsova d. (13) Marion Bartoli. Bartoli has struggled this season amidst her coaching changes and has not had great preparation coming into Paris. Last week in Strasbourg, she won only five games in a first round loss to Camila Giorgi. Add to that the pressure of playing your home Slam and Bartoli is a prime candidate for a first round upset.

ChiesaLaura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki comes into Roland Garros on a five match losing streak and is winless on red clay so far in 2013. While Robson too has struggled since the early part of the season, Wozniacki’s plight is different. The former World No. 1 seems lost on court and rarely looks to be enjoying her tennis. Barely hanging on to a spot in the top 10, I’d call it a bigger upset if Wozniacki manages to win this match.

KaneKimiko Date-Krumm d. (9) Sam StosurThis pick has little to do with Stosur; though coming off a calf injury that derailed most of her spring, the top Aussie did have a solid run to the quarterfinals of Rome where she pushed nemesis Victoria Azarenka to three sets. This has more to do with her draw, namely her first round opponent, the ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm. No stranger to the first round upset, Date-Krumm beat two-time finalist Dinara Safina in Paris three years ago, and began 2013 with a crushing win over Nadia Petrova in Australia. Her unorthodox groundstrokes are hit with a thudding efficiency, and take time away from her opponents. Even at her best, Stosur is a player who needs the extra couple of seconds that clay courts give her to wind up her topspin forehand. Coming in still lacking sufficient match practice, she could be in for a long day against Date-Krumm, who beat her in their only prior encounter in 2010.

Skelton: Laura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Since reaching the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki has fallen off a cliff. She has not won a match on red clay this year, losing five straight overall starting with Charleston. One of her losses came when she squandered a third-set lead against Bojana Jovanovski, who hasn’t beaten anyone else since the Australian Open. Anyone marginally dangerous will have a chance against Wozniacki right now, and Robson is more than marginally dangerous after she upset Radwanska in Madrid.

Watson: Anabel Medina Garrigues d. (6) Li NaLi Na is another likely prospect for crashing out early, as she takes on Medina Garrigues in her opening match.  Medina Garrigues is a crafty veteran who gave Serena all she could handle in Madrid (albeit with some blatant cheating).  She’s an especially tough customer on the clay, so unless Li can clean up her game, her stay in Paris won’t be a long one.

Semifinalists

Boyd: Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka vs. Maria Sharapova. It’s hard to fathom Williams not navigating her draw rather easily and Errani is in arguably the softest quarter with Radwanska and Ivanovic. Look for last year’s finalist to make another deep run, especially if the weather makes the playing conditions heavy and difficult. The draw was less kind to Azarenka and the defending champion Sharapova, but I still like both of them to make it through to their much-anticipated match up. Azarenka will get a stiff test from Elena Vesnina in the first round and potentially Na Li in the quarters, but she has played well since returning from injury.

Chiesa: It’s hard to see anyone in Serena’s quarter of the draw giving her much trouble, even if Williams comes out struggling with the demons of her early round upset from a season ago. It’s tough to see her losing a set en route to the semifinals. The second quarter is incredibly open with Agnieszka Radwanska as the highest seed. Lurking at the bottom of this quarter is last year’s finalist Sara Errani, and it would be much less surprising to see the Italian at the late stages of the event this time around. Her best chance to beat Serena would be on clay, but even then, it still doesn’t seem likely. Semifinal: Serena Williams d. Sara Errani.

With Victoria Azarenka and Li Na the two seeds in the third quarter of the draw, a potential quarterfinal match between them could go either way. Although Azarenka has turned around the head-to-head between the two, Li’s greater comfort level on the surface can give her the edge here. I expect Sharapova to navigate the minefield that is her quarter of the draw, even if she experiences some bumps along the way. Semifinal: Li Na d. Maria Sharapova

Kane: Kuznetsova/Errani, Azarenka/Sharapova. “But where’s Serena?” Here me out. Given the form exhibited by the undisputed No. 1 in the world this season (no less on clay), there is no reason to think the American won’t bulldoze the field and collect her second French Open title, and her 16th overall.

However. This is at least the fifth time in ten years that Serena has gone into the French Open as the overwhelming favorite, yet has failed to make it past the quarterfinals since her lone victory in 2002. Beyond the loss to Razzano, Williams has seen a 33-Slam match winning streak snapped in 2003, another shocking loss to Katarina Srebotnik in 2008, and premature losses to Svetlana Kuznetsova and Stosur in 2009 and 2010 respectively. All on the terre battue.  Serena simply has a history of not getting it done in Paris, and though now looks like as good a time as ever to turn things around, I’ll believe it when she invariably proves me wrong in two weeks.

That said, 2009 Champion Kuznetsova has a history in Paris and likely prefers to be the underdog. The other three have had some of the best Slam results in the last 12 months, and while their draws look tough on paper, resistance may be surprisingly low (at least for a WTA tournament).

Skelton: Serena Williams, Sara Errani, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova. Remember the era of anarchy in the WTA when people who you never saw before suddenly became superstars for a week? Well, it’s over. Only one woman outside the top three of Serena, Azarenka, and Sharapova has reached a final across the six marquee events this year (majors, Premier Mandatory, Premier Five). Roland Garros usually does have one clay-court specialist for its flavor of the year, so Errani should repeat her results from Madrid and Rome in the draw’s weakest quarter.

Watson: In the top half, Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani. Serena’s tennis the last 12 months speaks for itself, and that includes the dominance she’s shown this year on the dirt with her titles in Charleston, Madrid and Rome. Her opponent is less certain, but Errani has been very consistent of late. The Italian also reached the final here last year and has been playing better than No. 4 seed A. Radwanska.

In the bottom half, I’ll stick to the seeds and go with Sharapova vs. Azarenka. Sharapova has looked sharp, and lately, it seems Serena is the only one with her number. Azarenka’s star has shined a little less brightly since her win in Melbourne, but she did just reach the finals in Rome and should be feeling confident.

And the Champion is …

Boyd(1) Serena Williams. I think one of the most compelling stories of this fortnight will be watching Williams attempt to conquer her French Open demons after her shocking first round exit in 2012. With the win streak she’s on and the level she’s playing at, the only person who can beat Serena, is Serena herself.

Chiesa(1) Serena Williams. The old saying goes that if you’re going to get them, it’s best to get them early. The World No. 1 is on a mission this year, and if she can navigate her way through the early rounds, it’s hard to see anyone being able to stop her at the business end of the event. While Li has shown she has the game to go toe-to-toe with anyone on tour, it remains to be seen what will happen if she actually gets herself into a winning position. Championship: Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.

Kane: (2) Maria Sharapova. Over the years, the French Open women’s event has become known for its predictable unpredictability, and its wackiness tend to happen in twos. Dinara Safina made two runs to the French finals before Errani’s compatriot Francesca Schiavone made two romps of her own (taking the title in 2010). Errani hasn’t had the drop-off in form many had predicted, and looks as capable as ever for another (slightly less) surprising run to a Slam final. Last year’s champion Sharapova must also feel a sense of déjà vu, coming into Paris with the same number of match wins as the year before. She wouldn’t have to play Serena until the final (or at all if you subscribe to my alternate universe), and has proven she can beat everyone else on clay. As the French say, pouquoi pas? Why not?

Skelton: (1) Serena Williams. She swept the two biggest events on outdoor red clay, moving better than she has on the surface since the last time that she won in Paris. She completely thrashed each of her two leading rivals in the Madrid and Rome finals. She will bring an extraordinary level of motivation to atone for last year’s disappointment, since when she has lost just three matches. Nobody is stopping Serena in Paris unless her body betrays her again.

Watson: (1) Serena WilliamsLogically, Serena is the best choice.  She’s playing the best tennis of anyone in the field, and she’s in one of the weakest quarters.  She’s likely also extra motivated after the humiliation she suffered here last year.

WTA Charleston Wednesday Gallery: Petkovic, Stosur, Robson, Bouchard and more

Genie Bouchard

CHARLESTON, SC (April 4, 2013) — Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy was on hand Wednesday for all the action at the Family Circle Cup. Players on court that day included Andrea Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki, Sam Stosur, Eugenie Bouchard, Laura Robson, Caroline Garcia, Mallory Burdette, Anastasia Rodionova and Ashleigh Barty.

Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (WTA)

Over the course of the fortnight, from darkness came light.  And came Vika.

After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open.  Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.

Azarenka:  The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many.  What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her.  Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times.  Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price.  She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it.  When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all.  A

Li:  Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court.  She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title.  The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets.  Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here.  When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness.  Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel.  And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile.  A+

Sharapova:  Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week.  We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning.  That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility.  Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance.  Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right.  B+

Serena:  As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena.  She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could.  One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then.  Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon.  Incomplete

Stephens:  Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens.  Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third.  Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win.  Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1.  A

Radwanska:  Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most.  Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw.  She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments.  It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right.  B

Makarova:  As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne.  Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber.  Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise.  Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway.  B+

Kuznetsova:  One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion.  Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past.  Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA.  B+

Kerber:  Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense.  She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012.  That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her.  B-

WTA #7-9:  This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse.  Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points.  Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown.  Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads.  At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point.  F

Wozniacki:  Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round.  Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches.  Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova.  (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.)  Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery.  C+

Pavlyuchenkova:  Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round.  What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it?  Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it.  C

WTA young guns:  From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne.  The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst.  A

Kvitova vs. Robson:  Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka.  The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd.  It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night.  B

Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams:  Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors.  After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills.  This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter.  A-

Women’s final:  Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament:  fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies.  As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time.  Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final.  A

Enjoy this tournament review?  Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.

Where has Super Sam Stosur gone?

Sam Stosur

James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.

By James Crabtree

MELBOURNE — Sam Stosur’s game is incomparable as is her corresponding fitness level. We cannot guess how hard Sam works on court, but from her body alone we can assume she works harder than anyone off it. Just look at Sam’s arms, chiselled to perfection and worthy of any Biggest Loser trainer. Besides the physique, she has the gut wrenching heavy hitting, wrist breaking ripping topspin forehand that includes traces of Nadal D.N.A. Her sharp and crisp volleys are that of a doubles specialist, unmatched on the women’s tour, unmatched since Navratilova. Super Sam has a cutting slice Graf backhand, and an Edberg curling rolling top spin serve that is perhaps the best in the game of either sex.

Now we don’t want to bring up what happened with Jie Zheng or a week earlier with Sofia Arvidsson, but we still want to know what happened.

The question that all assumed was asked. Do you think you choked?

“I don’t know. Whatever word you want to put on it. At 5-2 up in the third, double break probably is a bit of a choke, yeah.”

Sam responded pretty matter-of-factly, when some of us wanted her to lie. She always responds like this, she is always polite and far too honest when we want her to blame something obscure; blame the ankle or an undiagnosed event like a hurting toe.

Yes there has been talk of ankle problems, and then there was the Navratilova comment about her serve that she seemed genuinely hurt by. Additionally she has not won a title since the U.S. and only has 3 career titles while having played in 15 finals.

“I got tight and then you start missing some balls.” Said Sam as we thought to ourselves why wasn’t Jie Zheng getting tight after letting go of a first set advantage.

So what really is going on?

To the majority of Australia it doesn’t make sense, the last three years she has not made it past the third round. Sam won the U.S. Open on a very similar hard court. Now at home in Australia she can’t buy a win.

Besides, these are not the players she should be choking against. These are players who should be choking against her. We can accept a finals loss to Serena or a semi against Sharapova. We cannot accept a second round goodbye.

Why oh why is Sam losing to people she should be double bageling? Why is she giving them so much respect?

Can it all be in the mind?

We never want to bring up the past, because that is going backwards but remember when Sam lost in the 2010 French Open final to Francesca Schiavone, a match that most thought would be hers.

That’s when everyone gave up on Stosur. That was when she was first labelled a choker.

She bounced back. Only a year later Super Sam had become the first Aussie female to capture a Grand Slam since Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

Hopefully what has happened to her in Australia recently is just a blip, bad times before the good.

The days of not believing in Sam Stosur surely cannot be over.

Tennis players in press and on the Australian Open practice courts

Maria Sharapova in practice ahead of the Australian Open

By James Crabtree

January 12, 2013 — A busy day at Melbourne Park and the main draw hasn’t even started yet.

The morning consisted of half the venue being taken over by a Kids Tennis Day extravaganza. Hordes of families took over the venue for half the day for a free event where kids of all ages partook in tennis activities or just kids who chose to get their face painted. The event culminated with a hit and giggle of epic proportions on Rod Laver arena featuring Djokovic, Azarenka, Federer, Serena and Ivanovic.

The other half of the venue was all business.

The majority of players were seeking to take the court more than once in the day. Marin Cilic hit casually with Mikhail Youzhny, Matosevic with Fognini whilst on the main arena Wawrinka trained with good friend Andy Murray.

The big focus was on practice sets with results we shall never know and will be quickly forgotten.

Most players were watched on by their respective coaches who would venture forward offer some words of wisdom then back away to the shadows.

Courts 16, 17 and 18 could be watched from a public walkway above giving any man, including one with his dog, a chance to watch a world class tennis player becoming battle ready. Tommy Haas hit with a rather agitated Jurgen Melzer who sent at least a couple of balls out of the park. Ryan Harrison was his typically incensed self as he played against Victor Troicki whilst Jerzy Janowicz sweated it out against Albert Ramos.

Immediately after practice Tommy Haas was as usual defying age. Vigorously he jumped rope then went through an array of stretchy band conditioning drills, after which he was slated to go on court again to keep in condition and send warnings to any rivals that he is a force be reckoned with.

Meanwhile the biggest names were required for media conferences where they answered questions about their form and fitness from the sort of journalists who couldn’t do a single push-up. A subtle hint to get in shape was provided in a very generous media caboodle that included a towel. Looking spritely, showered and refreshed after the Kids Day event Djokovic answered questions in English and Serbian. Not to be outdone Federer answered questions English, French and German.

Over thinking can be dangerous for any athlete and often players are asked questions that you hope don’t cross their mind when they are 4-6 down in a tie break. Sam Stosur was told that Martina Navratilova thought her kick serve doesn’t trouble opponents like it once did.

Stosur responded, “Look, I think any players who have been around for a long time, other players start to work things out, then start to be able to do things against you that maybe they couldn’t the first few years you were around.”

Things were more relaxed with Sharapova who divulged information on a practice set she had played. “One of them (Thanasi Kokkinakis) was really on top of me and then I got really mad. I think he had eight set points and I ended up winning the set … I don’t think he slept well after that one.” Sharapova added further, “Then another one, it was Luke Saville, we didn’t actually finish, the set took too long.”

Sharapova promised candy to the best question although she deemed none worthy, either worrying about the journalist’s waistline or the profits on her range of Sugarpova.

WTA Australian Open Visions: Predictions, Matchups and Winners

2012 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka

January 12, 2013 — The tennis is kicking off it’s first Slam at the Australian Open on Monday, and we have your one-stop analysis on the women’s draw. Our dedicated panel of Tennis Grandstand writers have addressed hot topics, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the women’s tour.

Also, make sure to check out our Australian Open men’s draw preview here!

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Dark Horse

Melissa BoydAgnieszka Radwanska. I am not sure if a Top 4 seed can be considered a dark horse, but Radwanska is my pick. With all of the title talk focused on the WTA’s big three of Azarenka, Sharapova, and Williams, Radwanska is the forgotten one. She arrives in Melbourne undefeated on the season, winning a pair of titles in Auckland and Sydney without dropping a set. She also finds herself on the opposite half of the draw from Azarenka and Williams. Can Aga be the new Vika of the 2013 Australian Open summer and potentially shock everyone en route to her first Grand Slam title?

Victoria ChiesaMona Barthel. The German won her first career title in Hobart last year coming into Melbourne, and while unseeded, she made the third round before losing to Azarenka. Barthel’s a tricky case because she has all the talent in the world, perhaps the most talent of all the German players, but hasn’t seemed to realize that she has it. She had solid results at the beginning of 2012 before flaming out, and her bandwagon slowed down with her. She’s seeded this year so she’d be set for a showdown with Agniezska Radwanska in the third round. She had match point against Radwanska in Montreal last year and lost, but she might be ready to turn that result around this time. However, I could also see her flaming out to Ksenia Pervak in her opener.

David KaneSvetlana Kuznetsova. That “Can’t bet against her, can’t bet on her either” mentality often attributed to Serena Williams applies double for the Russian, who is not only the last teenager to win a Grand Slam at the 2004 US Open, but also the first defending champion to lose in the first round a year later. Forced to play qualifying in Sydney after a 2012 filled with injuries, Sveta proved she could do some real damage with a couple of winnable matches under her belt. Her draw in Melbourne allows for the same scenario, with Su-Wei Hsieh her first potential seed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the resilient Russian in the second week.

Andrea LubinskySloane Stephens. It’s just a matter of time before the young American has a breakthrough at a Slam, and the Australian is notorious for surprises. The 29th seed should have no troubles in her first two matches, but things could get tricking in Round 3 where she’s slated to meet Petra Kvitova, or possibly Laura Robson if she pulls off the upset. If she makes it through that, she could potentially fight her way into the quarterfinals.

Jesse PentecostAna Ivanovic. Wealthier people than me have gone broke gambling on Ivanovic, but I can’t see that certain penury is any reason to lose faith. It helps that she was in fine form in Perth last week, and has wisely landed in a relatively benign section of the draw.

Chris Skelton:  Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  The Brisbane finalist knocked off two top-eight opponents to start the new year, a dramatic break from her struggles last season.  She cannot face a contender more plausible than Wozniacki or Errani until the quarterfinals, which in itself would mark an overachievement for a 24th seed.  And she has won sets from Azarenka on hard courts before, so who knows how far she can go if her confidence builds through the fortnight?

Maud WatsonVenus Williams. The No. 25 seed seems to be playing with renewed hunger, and after a successful stint in Hopman Cup, she’s primed to make a good run in Melbourne.  The most fearsome opposition in her quarter is a Maria Sharapova who is coming in cold off an injury.  If the American can find a way to sneak through to the semis, her experience as a 7-time major champion might just carry her to her first title Down Under.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

BoydPetra Kvitova. Kvitova’s preparation for Melbourne wasn’t great and she appeared to struggle with the heat in her lead-up tournaments. After playing lights out tennis heading into the U.S. Open last year, it appears that the Czech’s game has deserted her again and the draw gods in Melbourne did her no favours. She is slated to face Francesca Schiavone in the first round in a battle of struggling former Grand Slam champions.

ChiesaCaroline Wozniacki, Samantha Stosur or both. Wozniacki’s got a brutal opening round draw against Sabine Lisicki, but Stosur crashing out early can almost be considered a sure bet at this point. She had surgery to remove a bone spur in her right ankle prior to the start of the year, and dropped both her matches in warmup events to Sofia Arvidsson and Zheng Jie. She’ll open against Kai-Chen Chang which seems harmless enough, but Chang defeated Stosur in a third-set tiebreak in Osaka at the end of 2012. Even if Stosur gets past Chang, she could have Zheng awaiting once again in round two. She hasn’t defeated a top 50 player at the Australian Open since 2006. Also, Angelique Kerber should keep an eye out for a potential looming second round against Lucie Hradecka. If she’s on her game, while that’s a big if, the Czech is capable of cracking the ball harder than anyone on the WTA and can snatch proceedings right out of the German’s hands.

KanePetra Kvitova. No, Francesca Schiavone will probably not beat the struggling Czech in the first round. But talented youngsters Laura Robson or Sloane Stephens are more than capable of pulling off the upset over Kvitova, whose draw only gets tougher with potential fourth round clashes with Nadia Petrova and Serena seeded (and looming) in the quarters. Kvitova could click and run the table as she has done in the past, but a 6-1, 6-1 loss to Dominika Cibulkova in Sydney, one that saw “The” Petra hit 35 errors, leaves the scent of blood in the water for the rest of the competition.

PentecostSamantha Stosur. There are few outcomes more wearyingly certain than Stosur falling early at the Australian Open, done in by a lethal cocktail of overwhelming crowd support and an opponent in rare form. In the second round she’ll likely meet Jie Zhang, to whom she just lost in Sydney.

SkeltonSamantha Stosur.  The Aussie simply can’t handle the pressure of playing on home soil, where she has lost six of her last seven matches and both matches this year.  Her recovery from a bone spur in her ankle may hamper her already indifferent mobility.  I nearly chose Petra Kvitova, though, who has lost seven of her last ten matches overall, tends to wilt in the heat, and struggled to find the court for long stretches in her woeful losses at Brisbane and Sydney.

First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For

BoydSabine Lisicki vs. Caroline Wozniacki. This match up jumped off the page when I was going through the draw. I didn’t think this could be a possible first rounder until I realized that Lisicki isn’t seeded, which is another shocker. These are two players at a crossroads in their career and have a lot to prove to themselves and the tennis faithful. A win for either would be just what the doctor ordered while a loss will sink one of them even further into their slump.

It should be a great first week of matches on the ladies, especially if the potential Venus Williams – Sharapova and Ivanovic-Jankovic third round encounters materialize. Get out your popcorn, need I say more?

ChiesaYanina Wickmayer vs. Jarmila Gajdosova. I wrote about Gajdosova’s road to redemption after a brutal 2012 last week, and she was dealt a tough opening round test. 20th-seed Wickmayer is in good form in the early season and proclaims herself healthy after dealing with back issues for the past 18 months. These two faced off in a night match in the same round on Rod Laver Arena in 2011 where Wickmayer prevailed, 63 26 64. The Belgian leads 3-1 in the head-to-head, but all three of the pair’s meetings on hard courts have gone three sets; Gajdosova’s lone win was a three-setter in Indian Wells last year.

KaneYulia Putintseva vs. Christina McHale. The two have never played before and the winner would likely play No. 7 seed Sara Errani in the second round, but best believe that this will be a cracking start to the year’s first Slam. Spitfire Putintseva gets the best of both worlds for her main draw debut: facing an American, she will likely get the ESPN treatment (fingers crossed for a courtside Pam Shriver), but facing an unseeded American means an outer court that Putintseva will turn into a Greek amphitheater, complete with special effects and multilingual affirmatives. Regardless of the result, high-octane entertainment is guaranteed.

PentecostCaroline Wozniacki vs. Sabine Lisicki. Lisicki was the floater the seeds least wanted to encounter. Conversely the German doubtless hoped for a kinder initial opponent than Wozniacki, for that she is now making eager sounds. Let’s just say that neither of them will be truly pleased to see the other, and that their combined outrage should guarantee a first-rate first round match.

Skelton: Melanie Oudin vs. Laura Robson.  A former prodigy from one Slam nation faces a current prodigy from another Slam nation in a battle of Oudin’s counterpunching against Robson’s lefty firepower.  Curiously, both upstarts broke onto the international scene with quarterfinal appearances at the US Open (2009, 2012) highlighted by first-week upsets over a former US Open champion (Sharapova, Clijsters).

First Round Upset Special

BoydKimiko Date-Krumm over Nadia Petrova. It is impossible not to root for Date-Krumm as she continues to defy father time on the tennis court. Even though Petrova finished 2012 playing some of the best tennis of her career, she is always susceptible to an upset and Date-Krumm’s style of play is not the best match up for the Russian. Not to mention that it will be entertaining to watch these two veterans battle it out regardless of the result.

Chiesa: The obvious choice is Sabine Lisicki d. Caroline Wozniacki, but I’ve gone a different route. While everyone’s looking forward to a potential third-round clash between Sharapova and Venus Williams, she could have her hands full with Galina Voskoboeva in the first round. The Kazakh reached the third round last year and her propensity to use the big serve, drop shot combination could pose some difficulties for Venus on a hot day Down Under.

KaneElina Svitolina d. Angelique Kerber. Rumor has it that Kerber is coming down from the dizzying heights she reached in 2012. Her middling results at Brisbane and Sydney would appear to confirm such a rumor. Meanwhile, Svitolina is quick on the ascent, capping her season with a WTA125 title. Another member of Generation Spitfire (one that includes Putintseva and Irina Khromacheva), Svitolina isn’t as undersized as her contemporaries, but matches their heart and determination. Clutch in tight moments, Svitolina was impressive at the US Open, winning three tough qualifying matches and playing Ana Ivanovic tough in her main draw debut. This would be her biggest win to date and Kerber’s consistency is unmatched, but if it gets to a third set, don’t underestimate Svitolina in a shootout.

PentecostFrancesca Schiavone d. Petra Kvitova. Kvitova’s first round loss in Sydney was so comprehensive that no positives emerged intact, and she was barely better in Brisbane. She is notoriously unsteady in the heat, while Schiavone relishes nothing more than an extended set-to in a broiling stadium.

Skelton: Sabine Lisicki d. Caroline Wozniacki.  The former #1 emitted next to no confidence or tactical clarity in early losses at both Brisbane and Sydney that recalled her dismal 2012.  And the pressure of defending quarterfinal points won’t help her cause in a first-round match against Sabine Lisicki, whose booming serves have stifled the Dane’s retrieving before.

Watson: Kimiko Date-Krumm def. Nadia Petrova. The Russian may have had a good end to 2012, but she got dumped out of her opening match in Sydney last week.  She’s always been a head case, so if Date-Krumm can mix it up with some consistency, Petrova might just self-destruct.

Semifinalists

Boyd: Azarenka vs Williams and Na Li vs. Sharapova – I don’t see anyone knocking out the top 3 before the semifinals even though Sharapova comes in nursing collar bone injury and without any match play. Azarenka has a tricky first rounder against Niculescu, but it should be smooth sailing after that until she gets to Serena who has few obstacles in her section. Li is a former Australian Open finalist and a quarter-final against Radwanska would be awesome theatre.

Chiesa: I expect the top half to go with seeding, meaning we’ll get yet another meeting between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in Australia. The bottom half is tougher to call. There are question marks surrounding Sharapova coming off of injury. Radwanska’s in hot form, having taken both warmup titles in Auckland and Sydney, but I’m concerned she overplayed coming into Melbourne. I’m going with Li and Kerber on the bottom half.

Kane: Azarenka/Williams. In the last year, the WTA suddenly became able to pair its always-entertaining first week chaos with quality second week match-ups and unsurprising champions. Serena’s draw is tougher than Azarenka’s, but Serena proved in Brisbane that she’s ready to play and unless Azarenka runs into a streaking Kuznetsova, a rematch of the US Open final is looking more than likely. Once there, look for Serena to punctuate her ascendency to the top spot with a decisive win over the Belorussian. Azarenka pushed Serena in Flushing, but the American never looked in danger in any of their other match-ups in 2012. Li/Sharapova. The Russian No. 2 has a potential third round match-up with Venus Williams, but no Serena, Azarenka or Kvitova in sight until the final, which bodes well for her chances. Meanwhile, Radwanska beat Li in Sydney only days ago, but the Chinesewoman has been in fine form with a Shenzhen title and much more experience in the later rounds of a Slam than the Pole. Sharapova still hasn’t played a match in 2013 no thanks to a collarbone injury, but her only matchplay a year ago was an exhibition loss to Elena Vesnina that led to a run to the final.

Watson: Azarenka vs. S. Williams; A. Radwanska vs. V. Williams. It’s hard to envision anyone stopping Azarenka and Serena from colliding in the semis.  The bottom half is harder to predict, but I’ll stick to my dark horse pick, Venus, facing off against Aga, who’s a perfect 9-0 in 2013.

And the Winner is …

BoydSerena Williams. I was going to pick someone else just to be different, but is impossible not to heavily favour Williams as she goes after another ‘Serena Slam’. It is hard to fathom that she has lost just one match since her shocking first round exit at the French Open last spring. Williams is on another one of her dominant runs, and the question should be how many games, not sets, or matches, will her opponents be able to win during this fortnight? Not many would be my guess.

Chiesa: Do you ever bet against a healthy, motivated Serena? Nah. Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.

KaneSerena Williams. There was once a time where the younger Williams sister was a volatile stock. Not anymore; after a traumatic loss to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros, Serena hasn’t looked back and is not only looking to obtain the No. 1 ranking that many believe she already deserves, but is also in hot pursuit of a potential second Serena Slam, which she could clinch at the sight of her emotional nadir. A trio of tricky Russians awaits Williams in the second week (Shvedova, Kirilenko and Petrova) but during Week 1, a time when the American is traditionally the most vulnerable, few look capable of mounting a serious campaign. Such a narrative will likely continue until Serena lands her sixth(!) title Down Under.

LubinskySerena Williams. There’s no more dominant force in women’s tennis. When Serena Williams is healthy, she’s the one to beat, regardless of ranking. Ranked No. 3, she’s got her own section of the draw and a combined 25-3 head to head against the other projected semifinalists, not to mention she’s won this title five times.

PentecostSerena Williams. I admit picking the most accomplished player in the world to win a tournament she’s won several times before does not constitute a bold prediction, but you pick against Serena at your peril, especially if she’s in a vengeful mood. As far as I can see, every time she loses it’s an upset, even to those ranked above her.

SkeltonSerena Williams.  When did she last lose at an important tournament?  Clay aside, one would have to go all the way back to Miami, since when Serena has claimed titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships.  She looked surprisingly hungry in winning Brisbane to start 2013, and she holds massive winning streaks in her rivalries against the other two leading title threats:  Azarenka and Sharapova.

WatsonSerena Williams. She was a virtually unstoppable machine the second half of 2012 and with a win in Brisbane, looks much the same in 2013.  Few players can hang with Serena as it is, and if she’s playing her best, nobody in the field is going to stop her from hoisting that trophy.

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And there you have it, 7 of 7 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Serena Williams as the overwhelming favorite for the 2013 Australian Open.

Wozniacki, Kvitova, Stosur among the fallen in Brisbane

Caroline Wozniacki with father Piotr

By Chris Skelton

When the first WTA Premier tournament of the 2013 season began, fans looked forward to seeing a series of marquee matchups in a Brisbane draw that featured eight of the top ten women. Only Radwanska (in Auckland) and Li (in Shenzhen) did not join this star-studded field, which threatened to produce classics from the quarterfinals onwards. But, by the time that the dust settled from the first two rounds, only three of the elite eight remained in the tournament—and one of those three barely. We discuss each of the unexpected plot twists that started the new year.

Pervak d. Wozniacki: During her prime, the former #1 excelled both in finishing matches when she took a lead and in winning the crucial points late in matches through a mixture of consistency and composure. Since her decline began about eighteen months ago, however, she has dwindled in both of those characteristics. Wozniacki dropped a third-set tiebreak in her 2013 opener to the lefty Russian qualifier after winning the first set comfortably and then struggling to hold serve thereafter. Often praised for her maturity when she held the #1 ranking, she grew flustered by train whistles outside the stadium in another symptom of her crumbling confidence. The loss especially surprised because Wozniacki had finished 2012 in encouraging fashion, winning small titles in Seoul and Moscow.

Arvidsson d. Stosur: Much less surprising was the setback that the Australian #1 suffered on home soil, where she regularly has underwhelmed in front of her home fans. The tournament trumpeted the opportunity for Brisbane locals to celebrate New Year’s Eve with their leading lady, which did not turn out as anticipated when she lost her first match to Sofia Arvidsson. Like Wozniacki, Stosur also had ended 2012 on a promising note with a quarterfinal at the US Open, a semifinal in Tokyo, and a final Moscow, but she could not extend her momentum through the offseason. Arvidsson’s flat, uncompromising, but erratic ball-striking recalled the manner in which Cirstea bounced the Aussie in the first round of her home major last year, and her fans must look ahead to Melbourne with apprehension.

Pavlyuchenkova d. Kvitova: In a sense, this match raised eyebrows more because Pavlyuchenkova won it than because Kvitova lost it. The 2011 Wimbledon champion had tumbled down the rankings throughout a 2012 campaign filled with disappointment, culminating with her withdrawal from the year-end championships that she had won the previous year. Dogged by illness and injury throughout her dismal season, Kvitova has achieved her greatest successes in Europe and predictably struggled to shine in the torrid heat of Brisbane. But Pavlyuchenkova endured a year equally frustrating at a lower level of the WTA, failing to capitalize on her two major quarterfinals in 2011 while struggling simply to string together victories. The double faults that have hampered her progress did not surface when she served key games late in the two tight sets of this match, when her groundstrokes matched Kvitova’s in power and surpassed them in consistency. Just as importantly, she looked fitter than she ever has before.

Hantuchova d. Errani: A year or two ago, this result would not have seemed like an upset at all. Hantuchova had led their head-to-head 4-2, and most would have rated the Slovak a far superior talent with her time spent in the top five and two titles at Indian Wells. But Errani drove further into a major at Roland Garros last year than Hantuchova ever had, while the elder woman seemed to drift further into the twilight of her career. In a wild third set filled with break after break, the mentally unreliable Hantuchova managed to outlast the usually sterner-minded Errani as the pressure mounted. Perhaps memories of reaching last year’s final brought confidence to the Slovak, who feasted on arguably the weakest serve in the top 20. As 2013 progresses, Errani faces the same task that Schiavone did in 2011: proving that a single season represented a breakthrough rather than an anomaly.

Sharapova (withdrew, injury): A true coquette, the world #2 has flirted with Brisbane in each of the last two seasons only to withdraw with injuries, this time a curious collarbone issue. Sharapova’s participation in the Australian Open does not lie in question, however, for she simply deemed herself insufficiently prepared to participate in a tournament this week at the current stage of her recovery. Considering her finals appearance in Melbourne last year, similarly without preparation, her fans should not concern themselves too much with this news. Rarely has Sharapova played more than a few exhibitions before the Australian Open in any year, and still she has recorded more semifinal appearances at this major than at any other.

Kerber d. Puig: If you haven’t heard of the Puerto Rican Monica Puig, who reached only a handful of main draws before this week, you’re probably far from alone even among diehard tennis fans. Kerber likely hadn’t heard of her second-round opponent either before this week but somehow suddenly found herself mired in a grueling three-setter against her. Only after a third-set tiebreak that lasted sixteen points did she escape the persistent underdog, after having needed three sets to win her first match as well. Kerber played a huge quantity of third sets in 2012, however, and probably could have won most of them more easily if not for focus lapses. To bolster her longevity on the Tour, she will need to find ways to win more efficiently. In conditions as draining as the Australian heat, few players can afford to play one marathon after another.

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All the same, Kerber at least survived to fight another day, which is more than many of the notable women in Brisbane could say. Much more impressive were the performance of Azarenka and Serena Williams, who now stand just one victory apiece from meeting in the semifinals there in a rematch of 2012 encounters at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships, all won by Serena. We’ll take a close look at that match, if it happens, next.

A Blogger’s Christmas Carol: The Past, Present and Uncertain Future of Russian Women’s Tennis

Maria Sharapova

By David Kane

Two tweets from former World No. 2s, Vera Zvonareva’s announcement that she would be missing the upcoming Australian Open, and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s suspense-filled declaration that she indeed loved life, seemed to sum up the status quo for Russian women’s tennis these days. It feels like a lifetime ago that to be a Russian on the WTA Tour usually signified a player with a high ranking who made deep runs in major tournaments and, if nothing else, was a fierce competitor, a member of a contingent strong in numbers. As recently as 2009, there were four Russian women in the top 10, two in the top 4. As the 2013 season approaches, only Maria Sharapova remains among that elite group, with three others floating around the top twenty.

The formerly proud and prolific Russian horde even found themselves the butts of a light joke from Tennis Australia, who boasted that their best player, Samantha Stosur, could beat anyone with an “-ova” surname. That Stosur has failed to beat a player inside the top 50 Down Under since 2006 (and has a paltry head-to-head record against most Russians in general) illustrates how far things have fallen for what used to be the game’s most indomitable force.

With Christmas only hours away, imagine if you will, jaded tennis fans, several midnight visits from three of the most knowledgeable spirits: the Ghosts of Tennis Past, Present and the always ominous Ghost of Tennis Future. Allow these spirits to remind you of what has already been, and perhaps warn you of that which is soon to be.

It was a little over a decade ago that “Anna’s Army,” led by the glamorously talented Anna Kournikova, burst onto the women’s tour. While their leader failed to win a singles title, those who followed in her footsteps took full advantage of the road she paved. In 2004, thirty years after Soviet Olga Morozova reached the finals of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the first three Russian women won Grand Slam titles at major tournaments that featured two all-Russian finals. While Sharapova has won most often on the sport’s biggest stages, compatriots like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva have more than made names for themselves with multiple Slam titles (Kuznetsova), 26 weeks atop the world rankings (Safina) and multiple Slam finals and semifinals (Dementieva).

The year 2009 represented a second crest on the wave of Russian dominance: Kuznetsova won the third all-Russian final of the Open Era, Safina was ranked No. 1 for most of the year, and Dementieva came within one backhand passing shot of upsetting Serena Williams for a place in the Wimbledon final. As the decade came to a close and talented youngsters like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Maria Kirilenko began to post impressive results, the Russian horde looked as strong as ever.

Barely two years on, the Ghost of Tennis Present presents a wholly grimmer reality. Vera Zvonareva may have been the breakout player of 2010, reaching two Slam finals and peaking just behind the top spot in the rankings, but since then, “Anna’s Army” has done an almost complete about face. What could explain such a dramatic reversal of fortune? Ostensibly, injuries and early retirements are to blame. Dementieva retired at the end of 2010. Safina is indefinitely absent with a broken back. Kuznetsova and Zvonareva are rehabbing injuries in the hopes of reviving their stalled careers.

Truthfully, however, most of the Russian contingent could be diagnosed with problems that are as mental as they are physical. Over the years, it has become increasingly uncomfortable to watch these talented women fail to get out of their own way time and time again in important situations. Matches that look to be straightforward from the outset end up having more twists and turns than a Tolstoy novel, complete with double-digit double-faults and screaming into hands. Where most of the top men could have their names etched in to the final rounds of major tournaments in pen, even the faintest pencil tracing could derail what should be unassailable progress.

In fact, Maria Sharapova has been so successful at deviating from this tragic formula that, despite bearing the Russian flag at the London Olympics, American journalists and commentators hardly believe her to be of the same ilk, and frequently attempt to claim her as their own. This is wrong. Not only is Sharapova as Russian as her compatriots, but she has also suffered her own heart-wrenching losses to prove it.

The average Russian tennis player can be accused of many things, but rarely can it be said that she does not want success badly enough. In the last decade and a half, this diverse group of women has taken passion in this sport to a level where every point is a battle, every match a war. Painful as it can be to watch, the inherent entertainment value cannot be denied. More often than not, when a Russian takes the court, she takes on two adversaries: her opponent, and herself. When she wins, then, the victories are twice as sweet, for her and those who were swept up in her almost spiritual fervor and feel as if they helped will her over the finish line.

All of this is why what the Ghost of Tennis Future has to say is so important. Because they are so rarely the champions at the end of the fortnight, they may appear inconsequential to the many storylines in the canonical WTA soap opera. However, the drama that the Russian contingent brought and continues to bring (although on a muted level) kept viewers interested. They emit a passion for the game that could convert any causal fan (Bah Humbug!) into a diehard (Merry Christmas!).

Once, it was said that the Russians were coming. For a few brief-shining moments, they had arrived. Now, there are more than a few ghostly moans in the night, calling for their return.

Sights and sounds from Melbourne: Gearing up for the Australian Open

Melbourne Park Australian Open

By James Crabtree

The countdown to the Australian Open has begun! January 14 is getting closer.

Not long to go now.

So, whats been happening?

Let’s just say Melbourne Park has been hectic, and its not just the renovations (indoor courts, clay courts, plexi courts, plunge pools, training rooms etc), which have been immense.

Firstly, whenever you are in Melbourne chances are somebody will say “it’s like four seasons in one day.” This is funny the first few times, then drives you up the wall, then you find yourself saying to somebody you think isn’t from here: “Did I mention Melbourne is like four seasons in one day?”

Anyway, the tennis.

Doubles legend Todd Woodbridge has been on court, seemingly everyday. More impressive than that is the fact the guy simply does not age, L’Oreal really needs to sign this guy up because he could have easily snuck into the under 18 event.

Speaking of juniors, there is a ton playing right now from the 12′s to the 18′s as part of the Optus Championships, and all trying to make their mark. Notable attendees at their matches have been U.S. college recruiters from some pretty big schools.

Australian No. 1 Marinko Matosevic has also seen working hard on the his court fitness drills with Greg Jones and the sort of trainer who should be yelling at people on The Biggest Loser.

Sam Stosur has been spotted drinking coffee in the cafeteria. Reports of what kind of coffee have yet to be verified although the barista believed it was a caffè latte with one sugar even though she wasn’t really paying attention. Consequently the same barista messed up my order, I wanted a mocha and got a cappuccino.

The world’s fastest server Sam Groth (with a record of 163.4 mph), has been on the practice court everyday and is looking very confident. The world’s 216th-ranked player should be a good bet to win next week’s December Showdown and claim the Australian Open Wild Card. Still don’t count out last year’s Showdown finalist though, James Duckworth, who made the second round of the Australian Open main draw and gave top 10 player Janko Tipsarevic a real scare.

That’s all from here for now. Did I mention Melbourne has four seasons in one day?

James Crabtree will be covering the December Showdown for the tournament’s website, and will also be covering next month’s Australian Open.

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