talented players

Kirsten Flipkens’ Fairytale

For the better part of a decade, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin battled each other for major titles and the World No. 1 ranking while simultaneously putting Belgium on the international sporting stage. Who would’ve ever imagined that a nation that covers just under 12,000 square miles with a population of just over 11 million people would produce not one, but two of the greatest champions in the history of women’s tennis?

Unlike other nations which have traditionally produced the game’s greats, including the United States, the Czech Republic and Russia, Belgium did not have a strong championship pedigree in tennis prior to Clijsters and Henin’s success. The pair took a comparatively small nation and turned it into a powerhouse; in addition to holding 11 Grand Slam singles titles between them, the two were ranked No. 1 in the world for a combined 137 weeks and single-handedly led Belgium to a Fed Cup title in 2001 and a final in 2006. With Clijsters and Henin both retired, the future of Belgian tennis looked bleak. A nation that once enjoyed an embarrassment of riches courtesy of two players now only boasts just three in the top 300, with the most talented players still years away. Yanina Wickmayer made a shocking run to the semifinals of the US Open in 2009 at 19 years old, but a lingering back injury and patches of inconsistent play have dimmed her once-bright promise. In Fed Cup, Belgium will compete in Europe/Africa Zone Group I in 2014 following their defeat to Poland in the World Group II Playoffs this year, the first time Belgium will compete in zonal play since 1995.

When the Belgians were looking for someone to fly their flag, they probably weren’t expecting someone who was born in the same decade as both Kim and Justine to take it up. She’s been right under their noses the whole time.

In a tournament riddled with shocks and stunners, the Cinderella story of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships is more than just that. Ten years ago, Kirsten Flipkens won the junior Wimbledon title. The Belgian defeated well-known WTA players Alisa Kleybanova, Ana Ivanovic, Jarmila Gajdosova and Anna Chakvetadze in the final en route to the title and the No. 1 junior ranking. At the end of that year, Flipkens was named the ITF Juniors Girls’ Singles World Champion. A late bloomer of sorts, Flipkens did not play in the main draw of a women’s grand slam event until the 2006 French Open, and reached back-to-back third rounds at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2009.

After ending both 2009 and 2010 inside the top 100, Flipkens dealt with a wrist injury which resulted in a year-end ranking of No. 194 in 2011. Her troubles continued in April of 2012, as Flipkens’ doctors discovered blood clots in her legs and she was sidelined for two months. Despite recovering, Flipkens learned it was a genetic problem and she still needed to wear compression socks and take blood thinners before flying. As a result, her ranking continued to free fall and she slipped to No. 262 in the world prior to last year’s Wimbledon Championships – a ranking not even high enough to contest the tournament’s qualifying event.

There were few left who believed in her, as the Flemish Tennis Federation withdrew their support from a player ranked No. 262 at 26 years of age. In a matter of a few years, Flipkens went from junior standout and 2003 Belgian Talent of the Year, to top 100 player, to another ‘what could’ve been.’ The one person who never stopped believing, however, was Flipkens herself. “Because I knew, my highest ranking then was 59 and I was 100 percent sure that I would get into the top 50 one day. So that was the main thing that kept me up,” she said earlier this year.

Up she’s gone, and she’s refused to look back. With assistance from Clijsters’ former team and Kim herself, Flipkens’ first WTA title came in Quebec City last year, and she passed her career-high of 59 by one spot as a result. After ending 2012 at 54, she made her top 50 debut after reaching the semifinals in Hobart in January. She reached the second week of a slam for the first time at the Australian Open, and made her top 30 debut after Indian Wells. She arrived in the top 20 after Roland Garros and came to Wimbledon as the No. 20 seed.

With straight set wins in her first four matches, Flipkens has played her steadiest tennis in a tournament where nothing’s been certain. In her first major quarterfinal, no one would’ve batted an eyelash had she been overwhelmed and bundled out by former champion Petra Kvitova. No one talked about or expected her to make it out of Victoria Azarenka’s depleted quarter of the draw, yet here she is. Following both her fourth round win over Flavia Pennetta and the quarterfinal win against Kvitova, Flipkens fell to her knees and kissed the grass courts – a symbolic measure of just how far she’s come.

For all that Clijsters and Henin accomplished, neither of them managed to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon; Henin came the closest, as she reached the final in 2001 and 2006. At this time last year, Kirsten Flipkens was en route to winning an ITF $25,000 title in Middelburg, Netherlands. She’s been around the world and back with a game that would’ve looked at home a decade ago. 12 months later she has the chance of a lifetime, one that no one could’ve ever expected her to have, on the biggest stage in tennis. She still the biggest underdog remaining, but after all she’s overcome, there’s no doubt she’s primed for another fight.

Tennis Is Well Represented At The ESPY Awards – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Defending Champs Out – This past weekend marked the quarterfinals of the 2010 Davis Cup competition and promised plenty of good tennis matchups. But one result few could have seen coming was France’s thrashing of defending two-time champion Spain. Spain has gotten used to dishing out some 5-0 defeats of its own, but unexpectedly found itself on the receiving end of such a defeat as it suffered its first 5-0 loss since 1957. There’s little doubt that this was a disappointing showing for Spain, irrespective of the fact that they were without their No. 1 Rafael Nadal. They have won without him before, and France certainly wasn’t able to field their star players either. It was Spain’s misfortune that they ran into the one team that could match them for depth of players, and congratulations are in order for the nation of France that may be ready to make its first run to the title since 2001.
Coach in the Corner – Peter Lundgren is going to be coaching a man from Switzerland, but this time it isn’t Roger Federer. It’s the number two man for the Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka. This is a great move on Wawrinka’s part, whose results over the course of the past year have been up and down and have seen his ranking slip to outside of the Top 20. Lundgren has had another high profile pupil in Marat Safin, so there’s no doubt he possesses the ability to handle talented players and get their careers going in the right direction. Hopefully he will be able to do the same for Wawrinka by getting him to channel his talent and play within his own boundaries. If so, he could well be headed back to the Top 10.

Back on Track – On the historical grass courts of the Newport Casino, Mardy Fish suddenly found his game and emerged victorious. Fish has been an unfortunate victim of some serious injuries over the course of his career, and he’s also admitted to being more than a little negligent when it came to ensuring he was putting in the time on and off the court to be at his best. But they say it’s never late than never, and nearing his 29th birthday, Mardy Fish may be ready to make a run to the upper echelons of the men’s game, his ranking having jumped 30 places with his victory in the city by the sea. Last year’s Newport finalist appearance turned out to be a catalyst to a great summer for Sam Querrey, and it may bring Fish the same kind of results during the 2010 US Open Series.
Highest Honor – This past Saturday saw the induction of seven new members into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This induction also had a different feel as it focused on some of the greatest doubles teams of all time (though not the first…see Hewitt/McMillan, Class of 1992), and saw the induction of the first wheelchair tennis player, wheelchair tennis founder and pioneer Brad Parks. Don’t expect this to become a trend at the Hall, but rightfully I think we can expect to see more stellar doubles teams and wheelchair tennis athletes behind the podium during Enshrinement Weekend in the future.
And the ESPY goes to… – Okay, not as prestigious as the Oscars or the Emmys, and personally I think there’s a bit of American bias with these awards, but it is worth noting that tennis was well-represented at the 2010 ESPY Awards. Not surprisingly, Roger Federer and Serena Williams took top honors in the sport of tennis, while Kim Clijsters was named the Comeback of the year. But what was best was seeing that John Isner vs. Nicolas Mahut took the cake for best Record-breaking Performance. Again, the quality of the tennis was not the greatest in this match, but a big thank you to those guys for gutting it out for just over 11 hours and putting tennis on the map in a multitude of ways.

Sam Querrey: Another Victim Of The Casino Curse – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Order Restored – Just a few final thoughts as the doors close on another memorable two weeks at SW19. After one of the more unpredictable Wimbledon Championships in recent memory, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal restored some order by not only living up to their status as the heavy favorites in the finals, but doing so in emphatic fashion. For Serena, it marked her 13th major title, moving her closer to rarefied air. It may still be a big ask for her to catch Margaret Court, but Chrissie’s number of 18 is certainly looking assailable. As for Nadal, it marked his 8th major and a successful return to the hallowed grounds of the All England Club where he missed the opportunity to defend his title through injury in 2009. But the bigger payoff for Nadal in winning the title may be that between his clay and grass court seasons, he’s reestablished some of his invincible aura. He’s also coming in with a better plan for the hard court season, and he’s never been in a better position to start his campaign to take the US Open title, the lone major he has yet to add to his résumé.

More to Come? Credit also needs to be given to the losing singles finalists at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships. Both Vera Zvonareva and Tomas Berdych are talented players who have struggled to put it together between the ears, so to see them both realize their talents and make the final stage of a Grand Slam was satisfying. And while neither played at their best in their first major final, much of that must be attributed to the fact that they took on champion opponents who never allowed them to get any kind of foothold in the match. What will be interesting to see is how both follow it up during the summer hard court season, particularly the US Open. Zvonareva, though talented, is still prone to emotional meltdowns. Berdych on the other hand, who very nearly made the finals of the French a month ago, seems to have achieved a tighter grip on his emotions, much of that probably coming courtesy of his new coach. For me, Zvonareva is still a question mark, but expect to see Berdych contesting more Grand Slam finals down the road.

Back on Track? – The Wimbledon fortnight also saw Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray put together a couple of nice runs to the semifinals. Murray’s run almost came out of nowhere and should provide some much needed confidence for the young Scot whose form since the Australian Open has been particularly dismal. Given the way both men meekly folded in their semifinal matches – each losing in straight sets – it’s difficult to determine just how much they may have righted the ship. But I prefer to put a positive spin on their lengthy Wimbledon campaigns in the hopes that they’ll be a factor in what could potentially be a highly competitive US Open Series.

Curse Continues – Despite his success in Queen’s earlier this year, American Sam Querrey was no match for the “Casino Curse,” as he fell in his second round match to Jamaican Dustin Brown in straight sets. Querrey’s loss continues the 35-year streak in which the top seed has failed to emerge as the victor on the fabled green lawns of the historic Newport Casino. Other notable early losses this week include American Taylor Dent and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut, but at least Mahut was able to get one win under his belt after his devastating 68-70 loss to Isner in “The Match” at Wimbledon.

In the Hall – This coming Saturday, seven new inductees will take their place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But earlier in the week, Nicolas Mahut made his own way into the Hall of Fame, generously donating a shirt and racquet worn and used during his famous battle with John Isner in the first week of Wimbledon. Mahut stated he was honored to have something of his placed alongside memorabilia from some of the game’s greatest legends. While he’s no doubt mentally still smarting from the loss to Isner, the experience of seeing his shirt and racquet placed in the galleries of the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum had to help slightly soften the blow.