Teimuraz Gabashvili

WILL GULBIS BE THE SHINING STAR FOR LATVIA?

While the cameras may have been focused on Dubai and Acapulco last week as the two largest tournaments taking place on the ATP Circuit, a (not-so) little Latvian was making history on the courts of Delray Beach in the United States.

The 6 foot, 3 inch, 21-year-old was in scintillating form and didn’t drop a set as he progressed to the final via wins over Ryan Harrison (USA), Teimuraz Gabashvili (RUS), Leonardo Mayer (ARG) and Jarkko Nieminen (FIN).

The final saw him line up against the Croat second seed Ivo Karlovic who was hoping to lift the title and crown on his 31st birthday in style. But as is always the case in these stories, Ernests hadn’t read the script.

To the astonishment of many in the watching crowd, he dropped only five games in a mesmerizing 6-2, 6-3 victory which saw him become the first male Latvian player to lift a singles title on the ATP Circuit. Queue the celebrations on the streets of Latvian Capital Riga.

Gulbis and Latvian tennis fans in general have rightly been crooning on internet message boards and forums.

“He played so well and I was pretty much in tears when he won. His smile and his little fist pump…I am so proud of him. He has gone through a lot and Karlovic is definitely right, this will be his break through year! I am so pumped for Indian Wells and so happy for Ernests,” beamed Stelle on menstennisforums.com.

“I have problems to find the words to tell how happy I am for him. What a brave effort. The guy was written off by almost everyone. So unfair often. But he showed what he is capable of. We can call him a champion now,” added moni.

But what does this mean for Latvian tennis exactly? Well, they finally have a male champion to add to the likes of Larisa Neiland, who won the 1989 French Open and 1991 Wimbledon doubles titles with Natasha Zvereva. They were also the runners up in ten other Grand Slam finals.

But the authorities will also be hoping that such victories help the infrastructure. Lifting from the Latvian Institute website (www.li.lv):

“Our accomplishments in professional sports are brighter than they might seem considering the available national sports infrastructure and the small number of people officially engaged in regular professional exercise.

“Secondly, it is a tradition that, in major international competitions, Latvian sportsmen and women compete with rivals who have many more advantages in terms of financing and human resources.

“Thirdly, approximately 100 different types of sports are developing more or less successfully in small Latvia with its population of just 2.4 million.”

Latvian basketball and ice hockey continues to produce successful worldwide exports and football continues to grow off the back of the Latvian’s qualification for the 2004 European Championships.

The same website lists Gulbis in its list of top Latvian sports stars and is very proud of what he has achieved on the tennis court considering the lack of funding they could provide for him which resulted in him flying the roost to seek coaching in Germany.

They recognize that the lack of help they can offer him and his fellow players could be holding them back:

“Gulbis is still showing signs of impatience and immaturity due to his young age, however if he can learn to harness his considerable talent and keep the pressure on his opponent, he will be a strong player. He has gotten this far on talent, but if he could commit to working with a seasoned coach he could emerge in the next year as a contender.”

Unfortunately, money controls everything and of course the Government has a lot to consider on top of sport when it comes to distributing funding. But if Ernests can continue to add to his trophy haul alongside the successes of his fellow sportsmen (including some terrific performances at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver) then the future prodigies of Latvia can receive a greater start in their careers than Ernests had.

Sport can set a people free and unite a nation in support of their brightest talents. This will not be lost on the authorities who can look at a long list of great powers who used sport as a way of cultivating and developing their people (namely Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and, to a lesser extent, the USA and United Kingdom).

I have seen Ernests Gulbis play only once, in his straight-set defeat to Andy Murray at last year’s US Open, but what I saw impressed me. It reminded me of a young Murray; power and will let down by physical frame and, as mentioned above, concentration levels.

With every achievement directing a few more glances towards one of Europe’s smallest nations the Latvian Government will be pining for more moments like these, preferably at the three remaining Grand Slams of the year.

As well as the opportunity of being Latvia’s brightest star the knowledge and understanding of how his success can help the prospects of his descendents should be more than enough to spur on a player who continues to show that you don’t necessarily need the greatest financial backing to earn success.

Mondays With Bob Greene: We do not wish to politicize sports

STARS

Venus Williams beat Virginie Razzano 6-4 6-2 to win the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emigrates

Andy Roddick captured the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis, Tennessee, USA with a 7-5 7-5 victory over Radek Stepanek.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Open 13 by beating Michael Llodra 7-5 7-6 (3) in Marseille, France

Victoria Azarenka beat Caroline Wozniacki 6-1 6-3 to win the Regions Morgan Championships women’s title in Memphis, Tennessee, USA

Tommy Robredo stopped Juan Monaco 7-5 2-6 7-6 (5) to capture the Copa Telmex in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez beat Gisela Dulko 6-3 6-2 to win the Copa Colsanitas in Bogota, Colombia

SAYING

“I felt like I had to talk about her (Shahar Peer). I thought it was brave of her to come here and try and play despite knowing that it is not going to be easy for her. My dad grew up in an area where if you spoke too much, it was your life. So I felt I had a small opportunity to say something where everyone will listen.” – Venus Williams, who after winning the title in Dubai spoke of Peer during the trophy presentation.

“I am not here to rock any boat or upset people. I am just here to do things that are right. And I think right things are already happening next week and right things will happen next year.” – Venus Williams.

“We do not wish to politicize sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have here in the UAE.” – Salah Tahlak, Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships tournament director, in a statement.

“I made it clear to them (the Dubai organizers) that if Shahar were not allowed to play, they would run the risk of losing their tournament. It would be a big blow to lose one of this prestige and money, but if it comes to principles of fairness and openness, there can be no compromise.” – Larry Scott, Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO.

“The ITF believes that sport should not be used as a political tool but rather as a unifying element between athletes and nations. Our flagship competitions, Davis Cup by BNP Paribas and Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, were founded on the idea of fostering greater understanding among nations through tennis, a principle that is as valid today as it was over 100 years ago.” – Francesco Ricci Bitti, ITF president.

“I personally look forward to competing in Dubai next year. It is still very unfortunate that due to the decision of the Dubai tournament and the UAE, I could not participate this year. This has hurt me significantly both personally and professionally.” – Shahar Peer.

“This has been a very difficult period for me, and I want to thank the many thousands of fans and organizations all over the world that made this breakthrough possible, including the WTA Tour and my fellow players.” Shahar Peer.

“In the 21st century there is no reason a person should be restricted from doing his or her job because of their nationality, creed, race, gender or sexual orientation.” – Billie Jean King.

“I think due to the press and the WTA talking about it and talking with the tournament, and the pressure they felt after Shahar Peer not getting a visa – it opened up an opportunity for this other player to get a visa. I think because we didn’t just sit down and say: ‘Oh, it’s OK’, we kinda stuck to it, and it opened the doors for someone else, which is great. I don’t think that would have happened if we had just let it be.” – Serena Williams, after Israeli Andy Ram received a visa to play in the men’s tournament in Dubai.

“No player who qualifies to play an ATP World Tour event should be denied their right to compete on the basis of ethnicity, nationality or religion and we are happy that the Dubai Tennis Championships and the UAE have shown that they share that view.” – Adam Helfant, ATP president, in a statement after Ram received a visa.

“It’s amazing, I played unbelievably. Novak did a very good job today, so it was tough to beat him. For me, it was my best match since the start of the year and I’m really happy about that.” – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, after beating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at Marseille, France.

“I had my opportunities to close out the match in the second set. But the truth is Monaco played a good match and deserved to win.” – David Nalbandian, after losing his Buenos Aires Open semifinal to Juan Monaco 2-6 7-5 7-6 (2).

“She played I think one of her best matches and I was not there. I didn’t give myself the chance to play. It was one of those days today and I’ll just have to forget it and get ready for Indian Wells.” – Dinara Safina, after losing a first-round match to Virginie Razzano 6-4 6-2

“It’s been a difficult tournament with changing conditions all the time. It’s the first time I’ve finished with my shoes full of water.” – Tommy Robredo, after winning in Buenos Aires on a court soaked by a heavy overnight downpour.

“I have no regrets. None. I was proud to retire as the world’s No 1 player. I came to the realization that there was a great life out there outside of playing top-flight tennis. It became clear in my head that I would be happier in another way.” – Justine Henin, in an interview with The Sunday Times of London.

“I could have played a match here, but not two.” – Richard Gasquet, after withdrawing from the Open 13 tournament in Marseille, France, because of a right shoulder injury.

SHAMEFUL ACTION

Tournament organizers, citing fan anger at Israel’s recent incursion into the Gaza Strip, said security fears were behind the decision to not give Shahar Peer a visa. The United Arab Emirates, which is trying to become a showcase for world-class sports, found itself immediately at the center of a firestorm of criticism from around the world. The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and ATP, which have rules stating any player should be able to compete where they wish provided they have the required ranking, led the protests. An American cable company, Tennis Channel, canceled its coverage of the tournament. And The Wall Street Journal’s European edition withdrew its sponsorship of the event. Peer thanked her fellow players for their support, but insisted it was only fair on the other competitors that the tournament continued. “They were in or on their way to Dubai, and denying them the right to play in this year’s tournament at the last moment would not make the wrong right. Venus Williams won the singles, then singled out Peer in her post-tournament remarks.

SLAMMED

The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour fined the organizers of the Dubai Tennis Championships a record USD $300,000 after Shahar Peer of Israel was denied a visa to play a tournament in the United Arab Emirates. Under a barrage of negative comments, Israeli Andy Ram was granted a visa to play in this week’s men’s tournament in Dubai. “Thanks to the courage of Shahar, and all those individuals and organizations – including her fellow players – that supported her, the UAE has changed their policy and another barrier of discrimination has fallen,” WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott said. Besides the fine, the WTA Tour announced will receive USD $44,250 and 130 ranking points, the amount equal to the points that she earned during the same week in 2008 but was unable to defend. Peer also will be guaranteed a wild card entry into the Dubai tournament next year if she does not otherwise qualify. Anna Lena Groenefeld, who was to be Peer’s doubles partner in Dubai, will receive USD $7,950, an amount equal to the average prize money that she earned per tournament in doubles in 2008. “These actions are also intended to send a clear message that our Tour will not tolerate discrimination of any kind and that we will never allow this situation to happen again, in UAE or elsewhere,” Scott said.

SEEKING WIN

Andy Ram has an added reason to win the doubles title at the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships this week. United Arab Emirates authorities granted Ram a visa following sharp world-wide protests when his fellow Israeli, Shahar Peer, was denied entry into the country and prevented from playing in the women’s tournament. Organizers of the men’s event said Ram will have all the security he needs while in Dubai. Ram and partner Julian Knowle are coming off a second-place finish at the Open 13 tournament in Marseille, France, when they lost the title match to Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra 6-3 3-6 10-8 (match tiebreak). The head of the Emirates consular affairs department said a “special permit” had been granted for Ram, but did not give a specific reason why Ram was allowed to participate and not Peer.

STAYING AWAY

Five of the top ten players in the world will be skipping the Dubai men’s championships this week. Rafael Nadal is suffering from a knee injury and hopes to be ready for Spain’s Davis Cup tie against Serbia. “The doctor has advised me to stay home and rest after the pain on my knee in Rotterdam last week,” Nadal said. Roger Federer has a bad back and will also miss Switzerland’s Davis Cup tie against the United States. Also skipping this week’s tournament, one of the richest on the ATP tour calendar with prize money of more than USD $2 million, are Nikolay Davydenko, Fernando Verdasco and Andy Roddick. “They have all seemed to have legitimate injuries,” said Colm McLoughlin, managing director of Dubai Duty Free. He apparently hadn’t talked with Roddick, who said the Peer affair was the reason he won’t defend his title in Dubai. “I really didn’t’ agree with what went on over there,” Roddick said. “I don’t know if it’s the best thing to mix politics and sports, and that was probably a big part of it.”

SILENCE, PLEASE

There won’t be much noise when Sweden and Israel play their first-round Davis Cup match in Malmo, Sweden. Because of anti-Israeli demonstrations planned during the three-day competition, Malmo officials said the matches will be played in an empty arena. Only officials, some sponsors and journalists will be allowed to view the competition because the city’s recreational committee said it could not guarantee security for the fans. There is a history in Sweden for quiet Davis Cup ties. In 1975, following a military coup in Chile, no spectators were allowed in Bastad’s arena to watch Sweden play Chile.

SKIPPING TIE

Roger Federer will miss Switzerland’s Davis Cup tie against the United States because of a back injury. He also is skipping this week’s tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emigrates. Federer said he has not had enough time to completely strengthen his back after hurting it last fall and is taking the break as a precautionary measure. Switzerland takes on the United States in the first-round tie on March 6-8 in Birmingham, Alabama.

STAYING HOME

Nikolay Davydenko will not participate in Russia’s first-round Davis Cup tie against Romania. Russian team captain Shamil Tarpishchev said Davydenko is not yet fully recovered from a foot injury that sidelined the world’s number five player for two months. Tarpishchev has named Marat Safin, Dmitry Tursunov, Teimuraz Gabashvili and Mikhail Youzhny for the March 6-8 tie that will be played in Sibiu, Romania.

SUING

In a lawsuit, Zina Garrison has accused the United States Tennis Association of discrimination. The former US Fed Cup captain said she was treated unfairly because she was paid a lower salary than Davis Cup coach Patrick McEnroe, wasn’t given a multiyear deal equivalent to McEnroe’s and was subjected to higher performance standards than he was. In the suit, Garrison claims her replacement as Fed Cup captain, Mary Joe Fernandez, was given a given a higher salary despite little coaching experience at the national level. The first black captain of the US Fed Cup team, Garrison replaced Billie Jean King in 2004 and her teams had a 5-5 record in five season, losing in the semifinals four times and the quarterfinals once. “During Ms. Garrison’s five-year tenure as captain, the United States Fed Cup team did not advance to the Fed Cup final, its longest drought in the competition’s 45-year history,” said USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier, who denied discrimination was involved in the change.

SUCCESS

Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez finally has a singles title to go along with her doubles success. The Spaniard captured her first career WTA Tour singles crown when she defeated Gisela Dulko 6-2 6-3 at the Copa Sony Ericsson Colsanitas in Bogota, Colombia. “The final was more difficult than the score suggests, but on the important points I think I played better,” Martinez Sanchez said. “I really believe that doubles helps my singles.” The 26-year-old has won six doubles titles.

SABATINI HONORED

The International Tennis Hall of Fame paid a special tribute to former US Open winner Gabriela Sabatini during the Copa Telmex Tournament in her hometown, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sabatini, who became the first woman from Argentina to win a Grand Slam tournament title in 1990 at the US Open, was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006. The ceremony was conducted by Mark Stenning, CEO of the Hall of Fame, and 2005 Hall of Famer Butch Buchholz.

SENIOR LEADER

Now that’s he’s recovered from hip surgery, Lleyton Hewitt will lead Australia’s Davis Cup team in their Asia/Oceania first-round tie in Thailand next month. Because of the surgery, Hewitt missed Australia’s last Davis Cup competition against Chile. Joining Hewitt on the squad will be Chris Guccione, Carsten Ball and teenager Brydan Klein. Tennis Australia also announced that Wally Masur will replace Darren Cahill as coach of the squad, joining Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald.

SAYS NO THANKS

Plans for a Davis Cup comeback by Greg Rusedski have been dashed by British captain John Lloyd and the team’s top player, Andy Murray. The 35-year-old Rusedski said his performance in senior event had convinced him that he still could be competitive. And with Murray on Britain’s team, Rusedski felt he could help the squad, and even was willing to participate in a playoff to decide who will play number two to Murray when Great Britain takes on Ukraine. Instead, Lloyd has decided to go with youngsters.

SHOWING LIVE

The United States Davis Cup tie against Switzerland will be televised live on Tennis Channel. The United States Tennis Association (USTA) and International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced Tennis Channel will broadcast live the US Davis Cup competition for the next two years. Tennis Channel has the US television rights for Davis Cup ties involving countries other than the United States, as well as all Fed Cup matches. For the past two years, Tennis Channel has shown US Davis Cup matches only on tape delay.

SHARED PERFORMANCES

Marseille: Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra beat Andy Ram and Julian Knowle 6-3 3-6 10-8 (match tiebreak)

Dubai: Cara Black and Liezel Huber beat Maria Kirilenko and Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3 6-3

Memphis (men): Mardy Fish and Mark Knowles beat Travis Parrott and Filip Polasek 7-6 (7) 6-1

Memphis (women): Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki beat Yuliana Fedak and Michaella Krajicek 6-1 7-6 (2)

Bogota: Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez beat Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta 7-5 3-6 10-7 (match tiebreak)

Buenos Aires: Marcel Granollers and Alberto Martin beat Nicolas Almagro and Santiago Ventura 6-3 5-7 10-8 (match tiebreak)

SITES TO SURF

Dubai: www.dubaitennischampionships.com

Acapulco: www.abiertomexicanodetenis.com

Delray Beach: www.yellowtennisball.com

Bergamo:  www.olmesport.it

Monterrey: www.abiertodetenismonterrey.com

Davis Cup: www.DavisCup.com

TOURNAMENTS THIS WEEK

(All money in USD)

ATP

$2,233,000 Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships, Dubai, UAE, hard

$1,226,500 Abierto Mexicano Telcel, Acapulco, Mexico, clay

$500,000 Delray Beach International Tennis Championships, Delray Beach, Florida, USA, hard

WTA TOUR

$220,000 Abierto Mexicano Telcel, Acapulco, Mexico, clay

TOURNAMENTS NEXT WEEK

ATP

$135,000 Internazionali di Bergamo, Bergamo, Italy, hard

WTA TOUR

$220,000 Monterrey Open, Monterrey, Mexico, hard

DAVIS CUP

World Group

(First Round)

Argentina vs. Netherlands at Buenos Aires, Argentina, clay

Czech Republic vs. France at Ostrava, Czech Republic, carpet

United States vs. Switzerland at Birmingham, Alabama, USA, hard

Croatia vs. Chile at Porec, Croatia, hard

Sweden vs. Israel at Malmo, Sweden, carpet

Romania vs. Russia at Sibiu, Romania, carpet

Germany vs. Austria at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, hard

Spain vs. Serbia at Benidorm, Spain, clay

Americas Zone Group I (First Round)

Uruguay at Colombia, Ecuador at Canada

Americas Zone Group II (First Round)

Jamaica at Mexico, Netherlands Antilles at Venezuela, Guatemala at Dominican Republic, Bahamas at Paraguay

Asia/Oceania Zone Group I (Second Round)

Australia at Thailand, India at Chinese Taipei, China at Japan, Korea at Uzbekistan

Asia/Oceania Zone Group II (First Round)

Philippines at Hong Kong, Pakistan at Oman, Kuwait at Indonesia, Malaysia at New Zealand

Europe/Africa Zone Group I (First Round)

Macedonia at South Africa

Europe/Africa Zone Group I (Second Round)

Slovak Republic at Italy, Ukraine at Great Britain, Poland at Belgium

Europe/Africa Zone Group II (First Round)

Georgia at Lithuania, Egypt at Slovenia, Latvia at Moldova, Bulgaria at Hungary, Finland at Denmark, Montenegro at Monaco, Ireland at Algeria, Portugal at Cyprus

Mondays With Bob Greene: Doubles is like Marriage

STARS

Jelena Jankovic beat Nadia Petrova 6-4 6-3 to win the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany

Tomas Berdych won the AIG Japan Open Tennis Championships men’s singles, defeating Juan Martin del Potro 6-1 6-4 in Tokyo, Japan

Caroline Wozniacki beat Kala Kanepi 6-2 3-6 6-1 to win the women’s singles at the AIG Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo, Japan

Sorana Cirstea defeated Sabine Lisicki 2-6 6-4 7-6 (4) to capture the Tashkent Open in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Dmitry Tursunov beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 7-6 (6) 1-6 6-4 to win the Open de Moselle in Metz, France

Teimuraz Gabashvili won the Ethias Trophy by beating Edouard Roger-Vasselin 6-4 6-4 in Mons, Belgium

Richard Krajicek beat Goran Ivanisevic 7-6 7-5 to win the AFAS Tennis Classics in Eindhoven, Netherlands

SAYINGS

“There are some days you wake up and you know it’s not going to be your day.” – Nadia Petrova, after losing to Jelena Jankovic in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final.

“Doubles is like marriage. It has to be good from the first day.” – Mischa Zverev, who teamed with Mikhail Youzhny to win the doubles at the AIG Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo.

“She is having a great year and I knew it would be hard to beat her. But the game went according to plan.” – Venus Williams, after beating Dinara Safina 6-4 6-2.

“It feels great to be back at number one, but my goal is to finish the year as number one. I’m playing better and better, I am improving. I don’t feel any extra pressure.” – Jelena Jankovic, on her return to the top spot in the WTA Tour rankings.

“I feel fortunate to be healthy again, but I want to remain at the top of the game for many more years to come and go after the number one ranking again.” – Roger Federer, after pulling out of the Stockholm Open.

“I need to take a break now to get it back to 100 percent, which is why I have to regretfully take this decision and withdraw. I have played a lot this year and my body needs to recover.” – Serena Williams, after withdrawing from the Kremlin Cup with an ankle injury.

“After I lost the first set I checked the clock and saw it was only 20 minutes, so I told myself I had to make it at least an hour. Of course I’m very happy about my win today, and for both of my wins over the Williams sisters this year.” – Li Na, after beating Serena William 0-6 6-1 6-4 and knocking the US Open champion out of the number one ranking.

“I think I have to come to Germany more often.” – Victoria Azarenka, who has reached the semifinals in both tournaments she has played in Germany this year.

“People want to see me because I was once the number one in the world and won Grand Slam titles. People want to see the guys who they idolized. Now, as we get older, we’re really thankful that people want to see us. It’s really wonderful, and we’re going to try to give our best back.” – Yevgeny Kafelnikov, playing his first competitive tennis match in five years, the BlackRock Tour of Champions event in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

“I have played one match with her here and I have won. Not bad.” – Goran Ivanisevic, saying his 5-year-old daughter Amber, who was watching her father play for the first time, is his lucky charm.

“I still cannot fully realize that I’ve won. In the middle of the match I thought my chances of winning were about 40 percent.” – Ksenia Palkina, a teenager from Kyrgystan ranked 203rd in the world, after she upset second-seeded Olga Govortsova in the first round of the Tashkent Open.

“Our success in these junior team events against the world’s best competition is a good indication of where our players stand amongst their peers at this state. Of course there is a lot of work to be done for these kids to become world-class professionals. But, if these results are any indication, the future is very promising.” – Patrick McEnroe, on the United States sweep of the Junior Fed Cup and Junior Davis Cup competitions.

STEPPING UP

In the game of musical chairs that is called the WTA Tour rankings, Jelena Jankovic is once again in the top spot. The Serb moved up to number one when Serena Williams was upset by China’s Li Na. Jankovic held the top ranking for one week in August. Since Justine Henin retired in May, four players have been number one: Williams, Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova. Williams held the top spot for four weeks after defeating Jankovic in the US Open final. Overall, Jankovic has won more matches than any other player on tour this year.

SURPRISE SEMIFINALIST

Adrian Mannarino had a ball in Metz, France. Ranked 181st in the world, the French qualifier didn’t lose a set in his run to the semifinals at the Open de Moselle. Then he ran into Paul-Henri Matheu, who barely escaped Mannarino 7-6 (8) 7-6 (1). The 20-year-old Mannarino had not won an ATP-level match before he upset sixth-seeded Andreas Seppi in the opening round at Metz.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

China’s top two players are making a lot of noise on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour this year. At Wimbledon, Zheng Jie became the first Chinese player to beat a reigning world number one when she shocked Ana Ivanovic on her way to the semifinals. At the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany, last week, Li Na matched that feat, knocking Serena Williams out of the tournament and the number one ranking, 0-6 6-1 6-4. It was Li’s 11th career win over a top 10 player but first over a number one.

SELA GROUNDED

An El Al plane carrying Israeli tennis star Dudi Sela had to make an emergency landing in Beijing when a bird flew into one of its engines. Sela was returning to Israel after losing in a tournament in Tokyo. While the plane was heading back to Beijing, Sela called his brother Ofer in Israel to let him know what was happening. El Al sent a replacement jet to fly the 150 passengers to Israel.

SERENA HURT

An ankle injury has forced Serena Williams to withdraw from the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. The American withdrew two days after being upset by China’s Li Na in Stuttgart, Germany. The winner of four tournaments this year, Williams said her left ankle has been bothering her since the US Open last month, which she won.

SO DELIGHTED

Yevgeny Kafelnikov admits he is delighted to be back playing competitively after a five-year layoff. “It was quite exciting,” the Russian said after losing to Michael Chang in a BlackRock Tour of Champions match at Eindhoven, Netherlands. “I haven’t had this feeling in a long time.” Once he decided to play again, Kafelnikov worked hard to lose the weight he had gained after retiring. Then he asked to play in the AFAS Classics tournament in Eindhoven. He came away winless in his return, losing also to Paul Haarhuis and Goran Ivanisevic.

SUPER WIN

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga became only the eighth player in the last 20 yeas to win his first ATP title by defeating a top-five opponent in the final, knocking off third-ranked Novak Djokovic to capture the Thailand Open in Bangkok. Greg Sharko, senior editor of ATPTennis.com, says Tsonga is the first to accomplish the feat since fellow Frenchman Michael Llorda did it four years ago when he beat Guillermo Coria, who was number three in the world at the time. In 1988, Mikael Pernfors won his first title in Los Angeles, beating fourth-ranked Andre Agassi. Jim Courier’s first title, in 1989 in Basel, Switzerland, came when he beat third-ranked Stefan Edberg. Others who beat top five players to capture their first tournament titles were Omar Camporese in 1991, Alberta Costa and Filip Dewulf in 1995, and Hyung-Taik Lee in 2003.

SET FOR KOOYONG

Two Swiss players – US Open champion Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka – will warm up for the 2009 Australian Open by playing at the invitational Kooyong Classic. Weakened by mononucleosis, Federer missed the tournament in 2008. Also scheduled to play in the event are Marat Safin, Fernando Gonzalez, Marcos Baghdatis, James Blake and Ernests Gulbis. The eighth spot for the tournament, which guarantees each player three matches on the same surface as that used at the Australian Open, will be named later.

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SKIPPING STOCKHOLM

Saying he needs a break, Roger Federer will not play in the upcoming Stockholm Open. Federer has not played since winning his fifth consecutive US Open last month. “(This) has been a tough year for me as I was always playing catch-up after being diagnosed with mononucleosis at the beginning of the year,” said Federer, who lost his number one ranking to Rafael Nadal in August after holding it for a record 237 consecutive weeks.

SWITCHING SPORTS?

Paradorn Srichaphan is thinking about switching sports, perhaps becoming a race car driver. Beset by injury for almost two years, Thailand’s best player has been busy promoting motorsports in his country. “I’ve been really bored and it would be huge challenge to move from one sport to the next,” Srichaphan said. “I’m involved in a racing team and my sponsors are interested in having me racing for them, but only when I retire from tennis. I still plan to return to the tour.”

SLIPPERY COURT

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has penalized Croatia for playing Davis Cup matches against Brazil on a court that was considered too fast. As part of the Davis Cup Committee’s ruling, Croatia will lose 2,000 points and pay an undisclosed fine. Marina Mihelic, head of the Croatian Tennis Federation, said she was “surprised and annoyed” by the decision. The ITF said Croatia violated the federation’s “court pace rating rule,” which assesses the speed of surfaces other than grass and clay. It’s the first such case involving the rule, which was implemented this year. The ITF rejected Brazil’s appeal to have Croatia disqualified, the victory awarded to Brazil and financial compensation paid to Brazil.

SWEEP

The United States Junior Davis Cup and Junior Fed Cup teams captured the 2008 World Finals without dropping a single match. The international team competition for players age 16 and under held in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, continued the American domination of junior events. The American boys’ and girls’ squads won the World Junior Tennis Championships for 14-and-under in August in Prostejoy, Czech Republic. It is the first time the same country has won all four titles in the same year. The American Junior Fed Cup team beat Colombia, Chinese Taipei, Serbia, Hungary and Great Britain. The American Junior Davis Cup squad beat Latvia, Chinese Taipei, Sweden, India and Argentina.

STENNING LAUDED

Mark L. Stenning has been awarded the prestigious Chairman’s Award by the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. The Chairman’s Award recognizes outstanding service by a Hall of Fame board member. Stenning joined the ITHOF in 1980 and currently holds the position of chief executive officer. He also currently serves on the Davis Cup and Fed Cup Committees of the United States Tennis Association.

SPONSOR

TENNIS.com is the new title sponsor of the Zurich Open, a stop on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. The Tennis Company, headquartered in Santa Monica, California, calls itself the world’s leading website for tennis fans. Aside from TENNIS.com, the company publishes Tennis Magazine and Smash Magazine. The Tennis Company is also a managing partner in the Indian Springs, California, tournament. Among others, The Tennis Company’s partners include Chris Evert, Billie Jean King and Pete Sampras.

SHARED PERFORMANCES

Stuttgart: Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Patty Schnyder beat Kveta Peschke and Rennae Stubbs 6-2 6-4

Tokyo (men): Mikhail Youzhny and Mischa Zverev beat Lukas Dlouhy and Leander Paes 6-3 6-4

Tokyo (women): Jill Craybus and Marina Erakovic beat Ayumi Morita and Aiko Nakamura 4-6 7-5 10-6 (match tiebreak)

Tashkent: Ioana Raluca Olaru and Olga Savchuk beat Nina Bratchikova and Kathrin Woerle 5-7 7-5 10-7 (match tiebreak)

Metz: Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra beat Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski 5-7 6-3 10-8 (match tiebreak)

Mons: Michal Mertinak and Lovro Zovko beat Yves Allegro and Horia Tecau 7-5 6-3

SITES TO SURF

Vienna: www.ba-ca-tennistrophy.at

Stockholm: www.stockholmopen.se

Moscow: www.kremlincup.ru

Madrid: www.mutuamad-mastersmadrid.com

Zurich: www.zurichopen.net

Ortisei: www.itfvalgardena.com

Budapest: www.tennisclassics.hu/

TOURNAMENTS THIS WEEK

(All money in USD)

ATP

$1,000,000 ATP Kremlin Cup, Moscow, Russia, carpet

$800,000 IF Stockholm Open, Stockholm, Sweden, hard

$755,000 Bank Austria TennisTrophy, Vienna, Austria, hard

WTA TOUR

$1,340,000 Kremlin Cup, Moscow, Russia, carpet

SENIORS

BlackRock Tour of Champions, Budapest, Hungary, carpet

TOURNAMENTS NEXT WEEK

ATP

$2,450,000 Mutua Madrilena Masters Madrid, Madrid, Spain, hard

$125,000 Tashkent, Uzbekistan

WTA TOUR

$600,000 Zurich Open, Zurich, Switzerland

$100,000 Internazionali Tennis Val Gardena, Ortisei, Italy, carpet

Gabashvili Rolls On While Groenefeld Rebounds

While the top stars are preparing for the grass courts of Wimbledon, the challenger circuit remains on the clay courts. Last week showed one player on the men’s side continuing his prowess on the circuit, while another player on the women’s side took a small step towards gaining back her former top 15 ranking.

After an outstanding 2006 season which saw her reach a career high ranking of No. 14, Groenefeld suffered a nightmare 2007 season that included fitness issues and a high-profile feud with her former coach, Rafael Font De Mora. After taking most of 2008 off, Groenefeld showed that she is serious about getting her game back on track by winning the $75,000 challenger in Zlin, Czech Republic, dispatching Jelena Kostanic Tosic of Croatia 6-3, 4-6 6-1, in the final. The win also puts Groenefeld back in the world’s top 300, with minimal points to defend for the rest of the year.

At the $75,000 challenger in Marseille, France, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium won her second challenger title of the year with a 7-6, 6-2 win over local favorite Stephanie Foretz of France. The win gives Flipkens the biggest title of her career and propels her just outside of the top 150 in the rankings.

While satellite results normally aren’t mentioned in this column, one result deserves a special accolade. Kimiko Date-Krumm, who reached a career high ranking of No. 4 in 1995, won the first singles title in her comeback at the $10,000 satellite event in Tokyo, Japan. The 37-year-old didn’t drop a set all week, storming through Shiho Akita of Japan in the final with a 6-3, 6-2 win. The win moves Date-Krumm just outside of the top 400 in the world rankings after just four tournaments.

In other results on the women’s side, Masa Zec-Peskiric of Slovenia won the $25,000 event in Campobasso, Italy, while Anna Tatishvili of Georgia won the first pro title of her career at the $25,000 challenger in El Paso, Texas.

On the men’s side, Adrian Ungur of Romania won the first pro title of his career at the $50,000 challenger in Sofia, Bulgaria, rolling over Franco Ferreiro of Brazil in the finals 6-3, 6-0. Ferreiro is still looking for his first title of the year, having lost his other final of the year at the challenger in Florianopolis, Brazil.

At the $35,000 event in Kosice, Slovakia, Lukas Rosol of Czech Republic also won the first challenger title of his career by beating Miguel Angel Lopez-Jaen of Spain with a 7-5, 6-1 victory in the final. The win moves Rosol within a few spots of breaking the top 200 for the first time in his career.

Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia continues to roll on the challenger circuit. The 23 year old won his third challenger title of the year at the $35,000 challenger in Milan, Italy, beating Diego Hartfield of Argentina 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in the final. The win moves Gabashvili within striking distance of the world’s top 100, a place he has remained out of for almost a full year now.

The men host the biggest event on the challenger circuit this week as Jiri Vanek of Czech Republic is the top seed at the $125,000 event in Braunschweig, Germany. Eric Prodon takes top billing at the $35,000 in Bytom, Poland, while Bjorn Phau of Germany leads the way at the $35,000 challenger in Recanati, Italy.

Only one challenger will take place on the women’s side this week, as Nina Bratchikova of Russia is the top seed at the $25,000 event in Istanbul, Turkey.

For Calleri and Garbin, Clay Season Is Not Over

Last week on the challenger circuit, clay-court specialists prevailed in the biggest red dirt events on the men’s and women’s side, while we also got a sneak peek of coming attractions for Wimbledon at the first grass court tune-up of the year.

The $150,000 challenger in Prostejov, Czech Republic, has always attracted a strong field and this year was no exception. Top-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic is ranked among the world’s top 15 and all the seeded players were ranked in the top 100. In the end, Agustin Calleri of Argentina used his clay court prowess to overwhelm Martin Vasallo-Arguello of Spain 6-0, 6-3. The win propels Calleri back among into the top 50 in the rankings.

Daniel Kollerer of Austria, known as “Crazy Dani” on the ATP Tour, has attracted an infamous reputation for his bad attitude on the court and was even suspended from playing ATP tournaments for six months. He’s finally starting to become known for his tennis, winning his first title of the year at the $50,000 challenger in Furth, Germany, with a 6-1, 6-3 win over Santiago Giraldo of Colombia. This result takes some of the sting out of Giraldo’s Roland Garros performance, where he had match points to qualify for the main draw before losing to Frederico Gil of Portugal.

The $50,000 challenger in Surbiton, Great Britain, featured a top 20 entry in Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, but he withdrew from his second round match with an injury. Frank Dancevic of Canada, always a dangerous threat on the grass with his serve, won a hard fought 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 contest over Kevin Anderson of South Africa. Both Dancevic and Anderson are competing at the ATP tour event in London this week.

In other results on the men’s side, Michael Yani of the United States came through qualifying to win the $50,000 challenger in Yuba City, California, while Frederico Gil of Portugal won the $35,000 challenger in Sassuolo, Italy.

On the women’s side, Tathiana Garbin of Italy delighted the home crowd by winning the $75,000 event in Rome, Italy, rallying from being an early break in the final set to defeat Yvonne Meusburger of Austria 6-4, 4-6 7-6. This tournament also snapped a four-match losing streak for Garbin and a six-match losing streak for Meusburger.

At the $50,000 challenger in Surbiton, United Kingdom, Marina Erakovic of New Zealand continued her strong form by defeating Anne Keothavong of Great Britain 6-4, 6-2. Erakovic, who gave Jelena Jankovic a tough match in the second round of Roland Garros, could truly break through at Wimbledon on a surface which is tailor made for her game. Despite the loss, Keothavong has much to be proud about, becoming the first British woman to crack the world’s top 100 since Samantha Smith in 1999.

After coming close twice this year, Patricia Mayr of Austria finally broke through and won her first title at the $25,000 event in Grado, Italy, narrowly beating Jasmina Tincic of Croatia 6-4, 7-6. Mayr is now on track to compete in her first ever Grand Slam qualifying event at the US Open this summer. We could be hearing more from Tincic in the future though; this was only the fifth professional event she has ever played in.

Marseille, France hosts the top event on the women’s side this week as Martina Muller of Germany leads the way at the $75,000 event held there. Yvonne Meusburger of Austria is the top seed at the $75,000 event in Zlin, Czech Republic, Lauren Albanese of the United States leads the way at the $25,000 challenger in El Paso, Texas, and Ana Vrljic of Croatia takes top billing at the $25,000 challenger in Campobasso, Italy.

On the men’s side, Adrian Cruciat of Romania is the top seed at the $50,000 challenger in Sofia, Bulgaria. Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Milan, Italy, while Eric Prodon of France leads the way at the $35,000 challenger in Kosice, Slovakia.

Mashona Washington Breaks Through in Carson

Last week on the challenger circuit, one player moved closer to showing her former top 50 form, while two players on the men’s side won their second challenger titles of the year.

Mashona Washington of the United States broke through in her comeback to professional tennis with a win at the $50,000 challenger in Carson, California, defeating fellow American Alexa Glatch 7-5, 6-4. Washington, who injured her right knee at a Fed Cup tie in the summer of 2006, sidelining her for sixteen months, has endured some demoralizing losses against unranked players in challenger qualifying since coming back. The younger sister of former U.S. Davis Cup standout and 1996 Wimbledon runner-up Malivai Washington is now finally beginning to show the form that took her inside the world’s top 50 and led to wins against players like Maria Sharapova back in 2004.

At the $25,000 event in Togliatti, Russia, Nina Bratchikova of Russia won her second consecutive challenger title with a 6-3, 6-0 rout of Patricia Mayr of Austria. Bratchikova also won the $25,000 event in Moscow, Russia last week. This has also been some of the best few weeks of Mayr’s career, having reached her first ever challenger final just a couple of weeks ago in Italy.

In other results on the women’s side, Tomoko Yonemura of Japan won the $25,000 event in Gunma, Japan, while Anastasjia Sevastova of Latvia won the $25,000 challenger in Galantina, Italy.

On the men’s side, Gilles Muller of Luxembourg won his second challenger title of the year at the $75,000 event in Izmir, Uzbekistan, with a 7-5, 6-3 win over Kristian Pless of Denmark. Muller used his big serve and forehand to overwhelm the diminutive Pless throughout the match and move just outside the world’s top 100 this week.

At the $50,000 challenger in Carson, California, Amer Delic of the United States also won his second challenger title of the year, fighting back from being down in each set to defeat fellow American Alex Bogomolov by a 7-6, 6-4 score. Delic’s other challenger title came on American soil as well, having won early in the year at a tournament in Dallas, Texas. Bogomolov was unable to defend his title, having won in the finals last year against Kei Nishikori of Japan

In other results on the men’s side, Paolo Lorenzi of Italy won the $35,000 event in Alessandria, Italy, while Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia won the $35,000 challenger in Karlsruhe, Germany.

The challenger circuit will be graced by the almost unheard of presence of a top 15 player this week, as Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic is the top seed at the $150,000 challenger in Prostejov, Czech Republic. Victor Hanescu of Romania is the top seed at the $50,000 challenger in Furth, Germany, and Fabio Fognini of Italy is top seed at the $35,000 challenger in Sassoulo, Italy. Main draws for the challengers in Surbiton, Great Britain, and Yuba City, California were still being made at press time.

On the women’s side, Tatiana Garbin of Italy is the top seed at the $75,000 event in Rome, Italy. Akiko Nakamura of Japan leads the way at the $50,000 challenger in Surbiton, Great Britain, while Mariana Duque Marino of Colombia takes top billing at the $25,000 event in Galantina, Italy.

Dokic and Massu Take First Steps to Former Glory

Last week on the challenger circuit, two former top 10 players struggling with injuries and motivation took their first real steps to reclaiming their former glory, while two players on the men’s side continued their hot streaks on the circuit.

Jelena Dokic of Australia has had more than her share of personal problems. The former world No. 4 has defected from her family, switched nationalities several times, and attempted multiple half-hearted comeback attempts. However, it looks like that Dokic is serious this time around after winning her first event in six years at the $25,000 event in Florence, Italy, dominating Lucie Hradecka of Czech Republic 6-1, 6-3 in the final. The win moves Dokic up to No. 325 in the rankings (after just four tournaments) and she has contacted the All England Club for a qualifying wild card into Wimbledon.

At the $75,000 event in Zagreb, Croatia, Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden won her first title of the year by beating former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Severine Bremond of France 7-6, 6-2. The 24-year-old Swede, who has recorded high-profile scalps over Anna Chakvetadze and Marion Bartoli this year, used her aggressive groundstrokes to wear Bremond down throughout the match. Despite the loss, Bremond has been on a hot streak as of late with a 10-4 record on the challenger circuit in her last four events.

At the $50,000 tournament in Jounieh, Lebanon, players had to endure the fighting that has plagued the country, confining them to their hotel rooms and the tennis courts for the week. Anne Keothavong of Great Britain weathered her surroundings and won the first clay court of her career, defeating Lourdes Dominguez-Lino of Spain 6-4, 6-1. The win moved Keothavong up to a career high ranking of No. 102 and allows her direct entry into Wimbledon this summer. The last British player to get direct entry into Wimbledon was Samantha Smith in 1999.

In other results on the women’s side, Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium won the $50,000 event in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. Petra Cetkovska of Czech Republic prevailed at the $50,000 challenger in Bucharest, Romania, and Tomoko Yonemura of Japan won at the $50,000 challenger in Fukuoka, Japan. Ksenia Milevskaya of Belarus won at the $25,000 challenger in Antalya, Turkey, Yan Ze-Xie of China took home the winners trophy at the $25,000 event in Changwon, Korea, and Mariana Duque-Marino of Colombia prevailed at the $25,000 event in Irapuato, Mexico.

On the men’s side, it’s been a while since we heard from Nicolas Massu. The former top 10 player and reigning Olympic gold medalist has been struggling with injuries, but took a step in the right direction by winning the $30,000 event in Rijeka, Croatia. His 6-2, 6-2 win in the final over Christophe Rochus of Belgium gives the Chilean his first title in over two years.

Ivan Miranda of Peru is continuing to ride his hot streak on the challenger circuit with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Carsten Ball of Australia at the $50,000 challenger in Tunica, Mississippi. Miranda has now reached the championship round in three of the last four challengers he has played. His experience clearly was a factor against Ball, who was competing in the first challenger final of his career.

Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil is a name that has repeatedly come up in this column, but it’s only a matter of time before he moves to the ATP Tour on a full-time basis. He won his fourth challenger title of the year (and third in a row) at the $42,500 challenger in Rabat, Morocco, rolling over Martin Vasallo-Arguello of Argentina 6-2, 6-2. Expect Bellucci to potentially do some damage at Roland Garros in just a few weeks.

In other results on the men’s side, Andreas Beck won the $42,500 challenger in Dresden, Germany, while Teimuraz Gabashvili of Russia won the $30,000 event in Telde, Spain. Jiri Vanek also won the $42,500 event in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Fabrice Santoro of France highlights the challenger circuit this week as the top seed at the $75,000 event in Bordeaux, France, while Gael Monfis of France leads the way at the $75,000 challenger in Marrakech, Morocco. Several $50,000 events will also be contested this week; Robert Kendrick of the United States is the top seed at the one in Bradenton, Florida, Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei will lead the way in New Delhi, India, and Denis Gremelmayr of Germany takes top billing in Zagreb, Croatia. Oscar Hernandez of Spain is top seed at the $42,500 event in Aarhus, Denmark, while Santiago Ventura of Spain is the top seed at the $30,000 challenger in San Remo, Italy.

On the women’s side, Petra Cetkovska of Czech Republic is top seed at the $50,000 event in Saint Gaudens, France. Melanie South of Great Britain leads the way at the $50,000 challenger in Kurume, Japan, Tetiana Luzhanska of Ukraine is the top seed at the $25,000 challenger in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Jorgelina Cravero of Argentina takes top billing at the $25,000 event in Caserta, Italy. Finally, Renata Voracova of Czech Republic is top seed at the $25,000 event in Szczecin, Poland.