by Maud Watson
Return the Glory
Last weekend saw three ATP stars recapture some positive vibes as they each added another championship title to their list of accomplishments. Nico Almagro, always a danger on clay, looked sharp as he successfully defended his title in Brasil and mounted a case to be considered a dark horse contender at Roland Garros in the process. Canadian sensation Milos Raonic, who pulled out of Davis Cup play due to a misreading of a knee scan, showed little sign of any injury, as he worked his way to tournament champion in San Jose for the second consecutive year. As big as the wins were for Almagro and Raonic, however, the guy who might have been most pleased with his win last weekend was Roger Federer. After the debacle of the Swiss Davis Cup defeat, a run to the Rotterdam championship was just what the doctor ordered. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in his psyche as he takes to the court in Indian Wells.
You probably haven’t heard of her, but 19-year-old Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino completed a great weekend for Spain, claiming her first WTA title with her win in Bogota. Granted, it was a weak field to begin with, and it only grew weaker as the final approached, but you can only play those in front of you. There’s also no substitute for big match play, so while it’s far too soon to tell what this young lady is capable of, keep an eye on her to see if this impressive win will lead to future breakthroughs on the game’s grandest stages. Of course the bigger story was the win in Doha by Victoria Azarenka, who continues to make as much noise with her game as she does with her shrieking. Though she herself has attempted to stem the talk, there are already murmurs comparing her to Djokovic, as her win in Doha sees her remain perfect in 2012. Irrespective of what people think of her attitude and theatrics, she appears more than capable of comfortably wearing the badge of the hunted, and there’s no denying that she’s going to be difficult to beat anywhere and on any surface.
Sam Querrey has been given a second chance at finding success on the ATP World Tour, and it looks like he may be intent on not wasting it. The Californian has switched coaches and has hired Brad Gilbert on a trial basis. The former coach of Agassi, Roddick, and Murray may prove to be just what Querrey needs, as he has a proven track record of being one of the best when it comes to understanding the game and strategizing. If anyone can help put Sam in the right mindset and teach him how to best utilize his strengths and guard against his weaknesses, it’s Gilbert. Here’s to hoping he can help get Querrey back on track, because with Querrey’s talent, anything short of returning to the Top 20 should be considered unacceptable.
At the beginning of this week, Andy Roddick was ranked No. 27. It’s a ranking that many upstarts, journeyman, and other former top ten players struggling with injury would love to have. But for Roddick, it represents his lowest ranking since 2001, and it’s a source of major frustration. He also finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. After sustaining a fresh ankle injury in San Jose, he admitted it might be best to rehab it, but he also wanted match play. He opted for the latter and remained in Memphis, but after a straight-set dismissal by Malisse, he’s going to get to rehab it after all. The good news for Roddick is that he doesn’t have much to defend in the near future, but this time period may prove to be the most trying and telling of his career. Tennis has a way of flipping these scripts on their heads and producing a Cinderella story, like Pete Sampras at the 2002 US Open, but you have to wonder if this latest setback doesn’t have Roddick thinking that retirement is sounding better by the second.
After being treated to some vintage Hewitt during the Australian hard court summer, fans of the Aussie will be disappointed to learn “Rusty” is to undergo foot surgery and sit out another four months. It’s a real testament to his heart and drive that he isn’t thinking of retirement, stating he feels he’s hitting the ball better than he has in years and can’t wait to get back out there. Hopefully he’ll still be sharp come this summer, as with the dedication he has shown to both the Davis Cup and the sport in general, it would be completely unjust to not award him a wildcard into the Olympics and allow him one last crack at representing his nation on one of the world’s greatest stages.
There are times when it takes something special to invigorate a tennis tournament, to really make it feel like the competition has begun in earnest. Without question, the most thrilling and dramatic match in recent SAP Open memory came last night, when three-time champion Andy Roddick overcame a spectacular challenge from 19-year old qualifier Denis Kudla, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-4. Under any set of circumstances, the match’s changes in momentum and stellar shot-making from both players would have had all the makings of a classic match. But it was an injury scare deep in the second set that raised the drama in this match to another level.
Roddick had started the match somewhat tentatively, which was cause for concern since the former world number one was playing his first tournament since withdrawing from the Australian Open with a hamstring injury. As the match wore on, it seemed to be more a result of a lack of match practice, rather than any lingering effects. Roddick found a serving rhythm, and while he was still not playing at his best, he was varying his shots effectively and moving well around the court.
It quickly became apparent that for Roddick, moving well would be an absolute necessity. His young opponent, who had to overcome some jitters at the start of the match, quickly settled into an extremely comfortable and surprising rhythm. Since Kudla is a newcomer to the ATP (he was playing in his ninth career tour-level match), not many of the viewers knew what to expect from him. Some had seen him play an excellent match in the first round against Jack Sock, in which he played solidly but largely beat the other young American with his consistency. He came out against the veteran with a much more difficult game plan.
Denis Kudla, who had reached the finals of the 2010 U.S. Open Junior tournament, played the majority of the match at a level that no one would have ever expected from a player ranked outside the top 200, except perhaps for Kudla himself. He had the confidence to go for shots that were for all intents and purposes, ridiculous. He would hit winners stretched wide to both his forehand and backhand side. He would blast shots up the line and rip cross-court winners. For a stretch, it not only seemed that Kudla was able to consistently paint the lines with his shots, it seemed that he was refusing to hit anywhere else on the court.
Roddick was clearly flustered by the flurry of winners coming off the 19-year old’s racket, and on many occasions when another cleanly-struck, line-licking ball flew past him, all he could do was roll his eyes in disbelief and get ready for the next point. This onslaught would have been enough to unsettle most players, but Roddick was clearly there to win. He may have only been playing, in his own words, “at 40%” throughout the first set, but he still managed to get it to a tie-break. Some aggressive play from his opponent in a key moment was enough to seal the set, and Roddick suddenly found himself down a set.
The second set saw Roddick up his intensity, buoyed by the crowd’s support and his own frustration. He started hitting his shots with more pace, while Kudla continued to swing freely, hardly concerned with the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be able to play that well for that long. Roddick was leading as the tail end of the set was drawing close, and the crowd was rooting for Andy to break and take the set. But when stretching out wide to return serve on the first point of the game at 4-5, Roddick rolled over on his ankle and screamed in pain as he rolled on the ground, covering his face with his hands.
The atmosphere in the arena was tense while the trainer evaluated the extent of Roddick’s injury. Ultimately, his ankle was put in a brace and took a few tentative steps. After the match, Andy admitted that he thought that the match might have been over, but he said in his press conference that he didn’t want to retire from another match with injury. He “was tired of doing that,” he said. Even when he returned to the court, it seemed like a long shot that he would be able to fight all the way back.
He was clearly moving a bit gingerly on his injured ankle, finding it difficult to push off that side. In his first service game after the injury, Roddick found himself in a love-forty hole. If he was broken there, surely Kudla would be able to serve out the match. It was at that point that the 19-year old first showed signs that he was feeling the pressure. Kudla had a simple cross-court pass that would have given him the break, but he pushed it slightly wide. Despite being slightly hobbled, Roddick seemed to detect the little waver in his opponent’s nerve, and he somehow managed not only to hold serve, but he also managed to eke out the tiebreak that followed.
Two hours in and the pair were tied at a set apiece. Each had held serve twelve straight times. Shockingly, the third set started with Kudla – who must have been severely disappointed that he hadn’t been able to wrap the match up already – finding a way to break Andy Roddick’s serve. It was at this point, once again, that Kudla blinked. He had the victory in his sights, and the pressure of beating a player who had inspired him while he was growing up proved to be too much. Kudla was broken twice, largely off of shots that he had been making for the first two sets, but were now landing well wide of the lines.
In the end, Roddick was happy to get the win and hopeful that his ankle would recover in time for him to play his best in Friday’s quarterfinal. But he believed that Kudla struggled with the prospect of winning the match, once the reality of it was so close. He knew that he’d been let off the hook, in some ways, by the younger American, and he understood the special kind of pressure that came with closing out a big upset.
Over the course of two hours and forty-two minutes, Roddick and Kudla played 257 total points. The match was so close that the final breakdown of points won was Kudla – 128 and Roddick – 129. The one extra point that Roddick won turned out to be the only point that mattered: match point.
The Open GDF Suez WTA event in Paris saw seeded players Na Li and Jelena Jankovic both withdraw due to injuries today: Li with a sore back and Jankovic with a left thigh strain she picked up in Serbia’s 3-2 win over Belgium in the Fed Cup last week.
[singlepic id=3426 w=320 h=240 float=right]Li received a medical timeout, with a trainer massaging her lower back, before playing a few more points and eventually retiring after trailing in the second set to Tsvetana Pironkova.
“It was so painful,” Li said. “That’s why I called the physio to come to the court. I tried to tape and then tried to play the point, but it didn’t work. I’ll go to the hospital to take an MRI to see what happened.”
“I hurt myself in the Fed Cup at the weekend,” elaborated Li. “It had gotten better since and this morning it didn’t hurt. But the stab of pain returned, very strong and I couldn’t continue. I don’t know if it’s because of the Fed Cup, maybe I’m getting old as well,” added Li, who turns 30 later this month.
Likewise, Jankovic picked up her injury while playing Fed Cup against Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium last week and wasn’t able to heal in time to play in Paris.
“I had hoped that after treatment I could still play here but unfortunately it’s impossible,” said Jankovic. “Australia (Open) and the Fed Cup and then here, that’s a lot. But it’s important for me to play for my country… I don’t know when I will be able to resume playing but I don’t regret having played in the Fed Cup.”
Although the third and fourth seeds are gone, the tournament still has it’s top two marquee players scheduled to play, Maria Sharapova and Marion Bartoli.
[singlepic id=3416 w=320 h=240 float=left]Other winners include sixth seed Julia Goerges who dispatched of Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-3, while ninth-seed Angelique Kerber defeated Lucie Safarova 6-2, 7-6. Chanelle Scheepers defeated Polona Hercog 6-2, 6-2. Qualifier Mona Barthel easily dispensed of Barbara Zahlavova Strycova 6-3, 6-2, while Petra Cetkovska defeated Alberta Brianti 6-3, 6-3.
Catch all the great action our photographer Rick Gleijm caught during the first round main draw matches today! And make sure to check out his feature “Paris Tennis Diary: From the Photo Pit.”
Stay tuned all week for full coverage in Paris and catch Rick at the ATP Rotterdam tournament next week!
Federer was supposed to play against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France for a spot in the finals but recognized the possibility to further aggravate the injury and made the decision to prevent missing the Australian Open which begins January 16th.
Federer has made it a point of avoiding injury for the better part of his stellar professional career, but something was clearly wrong as he was stretched to three sets against the 38th ranked Seppi on Thursday. Federer had held a 7-0 career head-to-head against the Italian prior to the match and had never lost a set in any of those encounters.
It was Swiss journalist and Federer biographer, Renee Stauffer, who broke the news of the back injury via twitter shortly after that match.
Stauffer’s tweet read as follows, “Federer has a bad back: ‘I wasn’t sure if i was going to play ag Seppi’, he revealed in Doha. It happened ag Zemlja (Wednesday).”
The injury withdrawal is only the second time Federer has had to do so in his career but fans should not worry as the world No. 3 seemed pretty confident he would be fine for Melbourne with a little time-off to heal.
“I don’t feel a whole lot of improvement for today, and I just don’t think it’s the right time to risk anything more right now,” Federer said. “I still have pain, and that’s why it was the only right decision, a difficult one for me … So it’s a sad moment for me and for the tournament and for the fans, but health goes first.”
Instead of the semi-final, Tsonga played a one-set exhibition match against former world No. one and six-time Grand Slam champion Stefan Edberg.
Rafael Nadal will play against Gael Monfils later in the day for a chance to play against Tsonga for the title.
Federer’s withdrawal guarantees a new champion in Doha this year, as the Swiss star had won the event a year ago.