Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and James Blake held court and talked tennis Thursday in a conference call with the media to promote the 2014 PowerShares Series tennis circuit. The following is the transcript of the call where a number of subjects where presented with some fascinating responses.
RANDY WALKER: Thanks, everybody, for joining us today on our PowerShares Series conference call. We’re excited to have Andre Agassi, James Blake and Jim Courier on the call today.
Last week we announced the full schedule for the 2014 PowerShares Series tennis circuit featuring legendary tennis players over the age of 30. The series kicks off February 5th in Kansas City and runs through March 21st in Surprise, Arizona. All event dates, venues, player fields and ticket information is available at www.PowerSharesSeries.com.
General public ticket sales kicked off on Tuesday of this week, and we can report some brisk early sales.
Before we open it up to questions, I’m going to start off with a question for each of our participants. We’ll start with Andre.
Andre, you’re scheduled to play in Houston and Portland this year. You, James and Jim are in those fields. Can you talk a little bit about those venues and potentially playing against Jim and James. You and Jim have been battling it out since the Bollettieri days. You and James had that epic US Open quarterfinal from a few years ago where you won 7 6 in the fifth. Talk a little bit about that.
ANDRE AGASSI: Absolutely. First of all, this has been a great platform for me to stay engaged with the game of tennis. It’s been a very high priority in my life, tennis has given me a platform to do so many things. I’ve struggled to find ways to stay involved that don’t take too much time away from my family and the balance of life.
What Jim has created with this PowerShares Series, he’s created an opportunity for guys like me and James and others to be able to get out on the road for a night and prepare for this, have an excuse to stay in shape, have an excuse to stay involved in the game, and go to these places and enjoy that level of engagement.
I can’t say I’m looking terribly forward to James with this because he still moves like the wind. Nevertheless, the memories will come flooding back for me. I love the feeling of engaging with people that have been a huge part of my life. James and Jim have certainly been two of them. Going to places where tennis really should be and isn’t.
RANDY WALKER: James, you played your last ATP career match at the US Open this year. Who are you most looking forward to playing and what are your expectations on the PowerShares Series this year?
JAMES BLAKE: Well, after Andre’s comment, I don’t know if I should be offended or complimented (laughter). I totally understand.
It’s funny because I was just thinking about it the other day. My whole life on tour seemed to go by so fast. I was the young guy on tour. Before I knew it, I was the grizzled veteran. Now I’m off tour and I get to be the young guy again on this PowerShares Series again. That’s exciting for me to be the young guy in any situation.
It should be a lot of fun. I’m excited to start a new chapter in my life that doesn’t have tennis be the first, second and third priority, as I’m sure the other guys understand. When you are on tour, it’s a bit selfish. We have other things involved in our lives. I know Andre has his family and foundation. Jim has so many business ventures and a family as well.
It’s going to be a little less stressful than that match I played with Andre at the Open, but maybe I’ll sleep a little better tonight if I can get a little revenge on the PowerShares Series.
ANDRE AGASSI: Let the record show that it was a compliment.
RANDY WALKER: Now we’ll turn it over to Jim. Jim is playing in the kickoff event in Kansas City on February 5th, returning to where he and Andre had an important Davis Cup win in 1991, 22 years ago, over Germany.
Jim, talk about the PowerShares Series this year, 10 new cities, including a lot of cities that don’t have ATP or WTA events.
JIM COURIER: Sure. It’s going to be great to be going back to a city like Kansas City that I haven’t played in since ’91, since Andre saved my bacon when I lost the fourth singles match. Who did you come out and beat? Was it Steeb?
ANDRE AGASSI: Steeb, yeah. You took care of him the first day, I had to take care of him the last day.
JIM COURIER: It’s going to be fun to go back to Kansas City and be out on tour with James and Andy Roddick, who are two newcomers this year. A little bit like Andre said, be careful what you wish for. It’s great to have these guys out with us, but it’s going to make it that much tougher to win.
But I love the challenge. Obviously it’s great to have those guys out joining me and Andre and some of the other great champions that are a part of the circuit.
There’s going to be a lot to look forward to as we get going in February and March. I think January is going to be a pretty hectic time trying to get ready for these guys, too, trying to build up the body to take on these young bucks.
It’s going to be a good circuit. A lot of great cities that I’m looking forward to playing in for the first time. I haven’t played in Salt Lake, Sacramento, among many others. It’s going to be definitely a good challenge and some new travel for me, which will be great.
RANDY WALKER: Now we’ll turn it over to the media for questions.
Q. A quick Rafa/Federer question. Rafa is at 13 majors now. If he wins the Australian and/or the French, he’s at 14, 15, tying or passing Pete. Do you think it’s inevitable that he’s going to pass Roger? If so, does that make him the greatest? With regard to Roger, do you think he can win another major?
ANDRE AGASSI: As far as titles go, I don’t think that’s inevitable. I do think he’s capable of it. I would make argument he doesn’t need to pass Roger in quantity to have him be arguably one of the best of all times.
I also think getting to 14 slams and tying Pete doesn’t suggest that Pete is in his category. I think Pete dominated his generation and won 14 slams but was never a factor during the clay court season.
You have to put in a bit of variety as part of that analysis, see what Rafa has done on every surface that he’s won at least a couple times, and in some cases eight times, then see what Federer has done winning multiple times, not winning the French many times because of Rafa. I think these two guys are in a class of their own.
I do think without Rafa winning one more major, you could make the argument that he’s the best of all time. He does have a winning record over Fed, although a lot of those wins come on clay. He has beaten Federer on other occasions on other surfaces as well.
You can also make the argument this guy doesn’t have a losing record against anybody in the top 30 in the world, and once Davydenko is gone, you can probably move that number to the top 80 in the world.
If I’m sitting at a dinner table, and I’m Rafa, and made a statement about the best of all time, I would choke on my food a little bit.
It’s an amazing time in men’s tennis to be looking at two guys in the same generation that have a legitimate claim to that title. That’s also forgetting about the fact that Djokovic is one win away from entering not necessarily this all time conversation, but certainly accomplishing a win at every slam. So now you got three guys potentially in one generation who have done something that only five guys have done over five decades.
I think it’s a golden age in our sport for sure. I think we’re better off for it. I hope everybody appreciates what it is we’re watching.
JIM COURIER: I think Andre covered it pretty well. Obviously, the biggest question mark for Rafa at the moment is his ongoing health. Those of us that care about the sport want to see him stay healthy and challenge the numbers.
It’s a fun dinner conversation. I’m not sure you can convincingly say that one guy is the greatest right now. I certainly wouldn’t want to omit somebody like Rod Laver who did so much and missed so many opportunities because he turned professional.
It’s a fun party discussion, for sure. I just hope that in 10 years’ time we’re able to look back and see what Rafa and Novak and the current guys did in the rearview, put it in proper perspective.
Lastly, with Federer, I would not be surprised whatsoever if he were to win another major. I think anybody that counts him out right now does it at their own peril.
Q. Andre, you and Steffi are arguably the couple who have been the most involved in charity matters. You’ve spoken at great length about your education work. Could you take a moment and talk about what you’ve seen through Steffi’s work with Children for Tomorrow.
ANDRE AGASSI: What she’s chosen to take on is nothing short of Herculean and quite honestly heroic in my mind because I do believe that it takes a unique strength to deal with the trials and tribulations of the wounds that exist in children that you can’t tangible ize. That’s the reality of her work.
For me, it’s about providing a high standard of education for kids that society has failed or society has written off. For her it’s about somehow solving something that you have to first prove really exists.
It’s remarkable the stuff that she’s made, remarkable what she’s done. She’s built kindergartens and counseling centers all across the world, from Kosovo, to Eritrea, to Hamburg, Germany, and other places.
I see how it affects her. I see how committed she is. There’s not one time that she does anything tennis related that she doesn’t give literally 100% of it to her foundation.
She makes me feel like the devil with her generosity. I look at her and I think, Why are you putting yourself through this? She puts herself through it and then comes home and writes the check to her foundation.
She doesn’t need fanfare with it. She doesn’t advertise it. Most of the time she’s not that thrilled to talk about it publicly because it brings her to tears in a hurry. She just chooses to live it.
I’m amazed at what she does. I get to watch her live her values every day. I try to do the same. I pale in comparison. She beats me at everything. At the end of the day, I still get to learn so much how she chooses to live. Her foundation is right up there with the highest of what there is to respect about her.
Q. You three guys have dedicated your lives to the game. Aside from changing the schedule, if you could change just one thing, what would that be?
ANDRE AGASSI: I would change our narrator calling you Mr. Simons instead of Simmons.
JAMES BLAKE: You hit the nail on the head with the first one, the schedule. If I had to go to a second one, I actually think I would like to go sort of back to the way it was when Andre and Jim were playing in terms of the surfaces.
I feel like the surfaces have become a little homogenized. It’s a surface that lends itself, in my opinion, to the domination you’re seeing with Roger, at times with Novak and Rafa. Like Andre said about Pete, he didn’t really factor in in the clay because I think the clay was so different from the grass back then. The grass was strictly a serve and volley game until Andre showed his returns were better than anybody else’s volleys. It was a time when you had to change your game a little bit to be effective on each surface. I think that added a little bit more variety to the styles of play, to the tournaments themselves.
I would like to see that change a little bit. It may change the rivalries, the Roger/Rafa dynamic for years where they were clear cut the two best players in the world. You could talk about who is better on what surface, a fast court, a slower court like we used to have in Hamburg, Germany. I think that would help the game, in my mind, to have variety.
ANDRE AGASSI: I don’t know what I would change. It’s been a while. I think James is probably your best look at clarity on the subject. He’s the most recently removed from the game, sort of has lived the realities of it in a very intimate and specific way.
When I look from the outside, I remember playing Wimbledon towards the end, and there’s no question, I agree with James, it is not the same kind of court that it once was. I can also speak to the fact additionally guys are stronger and moving faster and so forth. But the spin that’s in the game today, even if the court was faster, the spin generated off those racquets doesn’t serve anybody to move forward in the court, at least not without being 100% sure.
I love watching it. I didn’t have to live it. I wasn’t terrorized by it, except for once last year that I had to go through it. James has come off some fresh runs of having to face what the game has become. I think as a result, he can probably speak to it more comprehensively.
I don’t know what I would change except to make a general statement. That is the Association of Tennis Professionals by definition is designed to look out for the interest of all players. I don’t think any bureaucracy can move the game forward effectively if you’re trying to go all directions at once. You turn into a swamp. The game needs to be a river. It needs to be moving in one direction, which means a price needs to be paid by someone somewhere for the betterment of the game. This isn’t politics. This is about what a sport needs to do.
Generally speaking, I would love to see somebody have a position that at least allows them the responsibility and accountability of making decisions on behalf of the game. That’s what I would like to see.
Q. Andre, why did you decide to play the Portland tour stop? Did the cancer treatment center sponsorship or Nike have anything to do with that? Secondly, McEnroe is your foe that night. How much game does John have left?
ANDRE AGASSI: Well, I wanted to play in Portland first of all, yeah, because of what cancer research does. I’ll always support that. That factors into it to some degree. Personally I’ve grown really attached to Portland. It’s a way for me to make most use of a very delicately balanced life.
Again, the tour has been designed to facilitate this opportunity for us and for tennis fans in a way that allows it to be successful, enjoyable, and achievable.
My relationship with Nike has a lot to do with that, no question. But, again, everybody really looks for multiple overlaps, your time away, business or foundational, you have to make the most of that time when you’re away from the family.
John is remarkable. I think all of us on the phone would sign up to be in his shape, and certainly his talent. Given his age, I’d sign up for it right now, to be doing what he’s doing.
I know just being the age that I am, every year brings additional challenges. It’s not going to be as easy for him every year moving forward, just like it won’t be for us. What he’s done up to now is pretty darn impressive. He can neutralize a lot of power. He can make someone very uncomfortable, especially in conditions. For example, in Salt Lake, if he plays James, James will be surprised he can make the match play awkward.
He has a passion for the game that’s almost unparalleled. He brings that intensity to the court, sometimes against my wishes. I wish he could enjoy it more. But maybe that is his way of enjoying it. But he still has more tennis in him, for sure.
RANDY WALKER: James, any comment on going to Portland? You had a big win there in 2007.
JAMES BLAKE: Yes, 2007 we won the Davis Cup. One of my fondest memories to be a part of that team, guys I had a ton of respect for, still do, still am friends with. That was extremely special to me.
The support we got in the Portland community was really second to none, as well, the excitement we felt in that stadium.
The biggest part for me in Portland was the fact that it was really a team effort. Andy got it started. I got the second win. Then the Bryans clinched it on Saturday. We all contributed to winning in the finals. That’s to me the perfect ending to the journey we started in 2001 with Patrick.
I’m really looking forward to going back there. I had a great time there. Can’t wait to have some more memories there.
Q. Andre, I want to know what you think about whether you can compare players of back to back eras? If so, how would you compare the era you played in with Sampras and Courier and Rios, Kuerten, compared to the era that Federer played in which was probably Hewitt, Safin, Roddick?
ANDRE AGASSI: I think some generations back to back are more realistic to compare. It’s when the game takes a leap forward that you are no longer talking about the same equation.
What Roddick brought to the table was obviously the dominance of his ability to hold serve and to make life really uncomfortable all day long because you felt like every time you were playing on your own serve, you felt like you’re serving to stay in the set.
Others had that. Pete had that, gave you that feeling. Hewitt, his movement and his defensive skills, were like many that I’ve played before. Lightning fast, redirect the ball. He did four or five things that I found in a lot of players throughout my career.
But when you start talking about guys like Djokovic, Rafa, Fed, possibly Murray, you’re talking about guys who have literally changed the rules of engagement. Whenever you’re talking about that, you cannot, in my opinion, compare generations.
Somebody who played in an era where there wasn’t that kind of spin, there wasn’t that kind of I don’t know how you want to put it but where the rules of engagement change that dramatically, impossible to do.
There’s no way a serve volleyer, a Rafter, can come forward on every point and get to your ball early. Covering the line at the net is fine, but you can’t reach the ball because it’s 15 feet over your head, coming down with margin, it’s like a drive forehand topspin lob winner. Certain things are just above and beyond. And I would say in this generation, that’s changed the game.
Q. Jim, as a person who has put this tour together, you have a couple guys in his early 30s, a guy in his mid 50s, somebody in their early 60s. How do we view these matches, more as competition or exhibitions?
JIM COURIER: I think if you look at each of the individual tournament draws, as far as the generations that are playing, you’ll see some logic to them. We’re not going to certainly put Andy Roddick against his former coach, Jimmy Connors, because that certainly isn’t going to be that competitive. Not that Jimmy isn’t a great player and champion, but obviously the age is significant when you put James or Andy, who are fairly fresh off the tour, into that environment.
You’ll see a very competitive night of tennis no matter where you are on our tour. We’ll have some cross generational matches for sure. But Johnny Mack, as Andre pointed out, is going to make things difficult for anybody he plays, no matter what generation, because of how he’s able to play.
I think we have a terrific lineup all across the board when I look at all 12 of these events. I see nothing but great matches and great competition.
Q. Andre and James, you both played Nadal in 2005. He was a teenager. What was your first impression of him then? When you look at his evolution, the revisions he’s made to his game, what have been most important to his evolution?
JAMES BLAKE: 2005 was the first time I got to play him. I actually had the benefit of getting a great scouting report from Andre who played him a couple weeks earlier in Canada.
My impression of him then was he was a clay courter playing on hard courts. He was playing with a lot of topspin, hitting the ball heavy, but not attacking the ball, not moving forward at all. He sort of counted on his defense and his movement to win a lot of matches. He did it exceptionally well, obviously. He had already won the French Open at that point. He was the best clay courter in the world at that point. He hadn’t translated that into his best hard court game yet at that point, I don’t think.
Andre gave me a great scouting report that I needed to attack him, make him feel uncomfortable. I was able to do that that way. Since then, he’s become much more aggressive. He worked on his serve. When I played him in ’05, he served over 90% to my backhand. He was looking to hit that clay court serve where he hits it to the player’s weakest side instead of using it as a weapon.
We saw this year at the US Open how easily he held serve. His serve is much more of a weapon than it was.
I also remember specifically, I had never even hit with him before I played him, the first couple balls in warmup, he hit the ball so heavy, I actually thought I was in trouble from the start. Once the match started, he was hitting the ball shorter and playing with a lot of margin and not being as aggressive. That to me gave me the opportunity to play my game.
As I’ve seen him now and practiced with him much more recently, that guy is gone. He’s so much more effective with being aggressive, with taking his game and imposing it on me, like I said, being more effective with his serve. He’s still one of the best movers, moves so well side to side.
He actually has improved his volleys. He used to be pretty, in my mind, uncomfortable at the net. Now he looks comfortable. He’s not going to be Patrick Rafter at any time. He gets up there, looks comfortable, feels okay up there, can finish points at the net.
I think he’s improved everything he needs to to be aggressive and still keep the game that got him to be the best clay courter in the world, too.
ANDRE AGASSI: That was a hell of a breakdown of his game. The only thing I could add to it is my impression of him the first time I played him, I didn’t have the luxury of James’ speed. The one thing I knew I had to do, I just didn’t have it. James had the option.
I used to play lefty clay courters and pound the backhand cross court. They would try to fight it off deep. I would step inside the baseline and just control the point. I did it in the Canadian Open final the first point we played. Everything went according to my game plan. The next time I came from backhand cross court to his forehand, he went so high and so short, in order for me to do anything, I had to commit so far in the court, I was exposed on the next shot. I hit that shot. He came in, made an adjustment, hit it at my feet, laughed at me when I tried to make the volley. The next thing I knew, there’s no chance against this guy unless you have the ability to move exceptionally well, get up in the court, get back, or like James does so well, which is get around that short ball no matter where it’s bouncing and jump on the forehand knowing he has all that real estate he can cover if he doesn’t hit the forehand exactly the way he wants.
Nadal went from a guy that maybe I had a chance against that year, right surface, right circumstance, to a guy I see from my couch that I’m pleased to be watching from my couch.
Q. If you look at the guys under 24, Raonic, Nishikori, Dimitrov, Janowicz, who do you think has the hugest upside?
ANDRE AGASSI: James has played them.
JAMES BLAKE: I played all those guys. I didn’t play Dimitrov. I practiced with him plenty, though.
I would say Dimitrov has a ton of talent. Raonic, that serve, that’s the most uncomfortable to play. Out of those four guys, I’d least like to play Raonic because of that serve. It takes you out of your rhythm, which I know it sounds weird for me to say, because I do that with my forehand, try to get them out of their rhythm. He definitely makes it so you don’t feel comfortable. It could be a set and 3 all in the second set, you don’t feel you’re into the match because he’s won so many free points off his serve, he’s missed a lot of balls on the return game, and he hasn’t given you anything to really feel like you’re into the match. That to me makes it uncomfortable.
Janowicz is a little bit the same. He really hits the ball hard and flat. He can make a lot of balls in a row, which can give you some rhythm. I had success against him. I feel like he kind of sticks to patterns a little bit. I just happened to be playing well that day.
Nishikori I think is continuing to improve. It’s a tougher battle for him because he’s not a big guy. That’s another thing that’s changed about the tour, is guys have gotten so much bigger. I think it’s tough for him to compete against really big guys, even though he hits the ball better than a lot of them, moves better than a lot of them. It’s tougher for him to stay healthy and compete with the big boys.
Dimitrov, practiced with him a lot. I think he has a huge upside. If he stays healthy, he has a live arm, huge serve, even though he’s not one of the huge guys, 6’6″, 6’7″. He moves well. Looks like he’s comfortable hitting any shot. Just a matter for him of putting it all together.
If I had to say one guy that the game actually excites me, it’s did Dimitrov. Raonic is the most uncomfortable to play, but I don’t get quite excited watching a guy serve 25 aces and win a match 6 6.
ANDRE AGASSI: It’s funny you say that because when I watched Federer play Pete for the first time at Wimbledon, I said, There’s no way he’s going to beat Pete. You can’t play like Pete and beat Pete. He was too similar to Pete to beat him. Obviously as I was wrong with Pete. He’s gone down as one of the greats ever.
I look at Dimitrov, and I think, You can’t play like Federer and be better than him. I’ve seen it before. He excites me, as well.
JAMES BLAKE: Exactly.
RANDY WALKER: Andre, you’re playing on Thursday, February 20th in Houston. Can you talk about your past experiences in Houston. You played at the clay courts many years, also the year end championships.
ANDRE AGASSI: I really enjoy Houston for a lot of reasons, mostly because of the relationships I had there. The McIngvales were not just big supporters of my foundation, they were a huge asset to the sport of tennis. I think it’s one of the great crimes that we haven’t nurtured them more profoundly in our sport because they were really making a difference with our game.
There’s so many tennis enthusiasts in Houston. The standard of club players there, it’s very high. The education in the sport is very high. You felt it from a fans’ perspective with them watching you.
Clay was never something I looked forward to playing on at that stage in my life. Going there and playing on clay wasn’t ideal for me. But when I played the World Championships there on the hard courts, it was one of the great experiences in the World Championships that I’d ever been through.
Three set matches to make it to the semis, having two match points on Federer in the third set breaker, beating Ferrer in three, beating Nalbandian in three, coming back and beating Schuettler in three on Saturday, only to have to face Federer again in the final.
It was a great week of tennis. It will bring back a lot of memories for a lot of reasons heading back there.
Q. Could you share with me who your tennis heroes were when you were kids.
JIM COURIER: My tennis hero was really Bjorn Borg, the guy that first sort of got me excited about the sport. I wasn’t allowed to cheer for McEnroe or Connors because of their behavior in my house. I probably would have cheered for them, but my parents instructed me firmly that Bjorn needed to be my idol and my hero. That was my guy.
ANDRE AGASSI: I always rooted very hard for Bjorn as well. He was easy to like, easy to root for. I tried to imitate a little bit of everybody’s game. I did that with Bjorn. I did that with John. I did that with Jimmy. But Bjorn, when it was head to head, it was easy for me to root for him.
I didn’t like Mack and Connors because of certain behavioral things. As I got older, I learned to like Mack.
JAMES BLAKE: I actually had a few. I kind of picked out different reasons for them. Arthur Ashe I learned about as I got older. He wasn’t in the generation I was growing up watching. Everything I learned about him made me respect him so much more and idolize him for his education, values, his humanitarian efforts inside and outside of the game.
I would say the two guys I grew up watching and finding certain things I enjoyed were actually ones on this call, Jim Courier for the work ethic. When I was a kid, everybody talked about his work ethic. You could see when he stepped on the court he felt like he out worked his opponent. That was something I looked up to and tried to emulate.
The other was Mats Wilander, a guy who in my opinion showed a ton of restraint. I know obviously to get to the level you’re at, the competitive fires are always going, and I was a bit of a brat as a kid. I watched Mats competing in the highest of highs of the competition, keeping his cool in every situation. To me that was the most impressive thing I could see because I had no idea how to do that at 14 years old. I’m still trying to learn how he was that cool under pressure at all times.
I got little things from each person and tried to emulate all of them. Failed miserably at all of them, but did my best.
Q. Jim, the day before the ’91 French Open final, you said of Andre, We don’t spend any time together and in the past we didn’t even speak to each other. Could you and Andre tell us what your rivalry and your relationship was like in the early ’90s. Did you want to beat each other more than anyone else?
ANDRE AGASSI: Our relationship was strictly platonic.
JIM COURIER: Andre and I grew up playing together and against each other at Bollettieri’s. From my perspective, I was fighting for attention down at Bollettieri’s. I took exception to Nick prioritizing Andre, as he should have done. In my adult years now looking back on it, I totally understand it. Obviously I get it at a new dimension now than when I was in the heat of battle back then.
I used what I thought was a slight from Nick Bollettieri to fuel my fire in whatever circumstances I needed to be in. Andre and I, he was the guy in our generation that got up to the top first, and Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and myself were all trying to keep up. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in competition with him for major titles in my 20s.
At that time in my perspective I drifted further away from all of those Americans that I was competing against almost out of necessity to be able to hold down the emotions of the moment. We’re all trying to take each other’s lunch money at that point in time. The thing we care about most is what we were fighting for.
It’s hard to separate what you know to be true, which is these are good guys you’ve known since you were a kid playing tennis. There was nothing caustic necessarily about it. It’s more a function of what you’re trying to achieve.
Now that we’ve obviously gone on and become full fledged adults, are not in as serious of competition, I think we’ve been able to put it in proper perspective. I certainly have. I’m closer to Andre than I am to anyone else in my generation. We probably spend more time together as a result of that on and off the court.
There were certainly times when I looked across the net and I wanted to beat him as badly as I wanted to do anything in my life. I’m guessing, and he’s about to tell me, that was the way he felt, too. Andre, too, was also always the better player as we were growing up.
Andre, you’re surprised that I was even on the other side of the net in the big moments.
ANDRE AGASSI: I remember we grew up competing against each other, 11, 12 years old, Jim was always a good draw in about the second round. It wasn’t until three years later that I realized, because he played a bunch of different sports, and tennis is just a quarter of his season. When he put his full attention to tennis, his rate of improvement spoke to his talent and athleticism.
I simply was a guy that wasn’t easy to like if you were around me in the teenage years, nor did I feel Jim liked me, and I didn’t like anybody that didn’t like me, I didn’t like them. I feel my own sensibilities were skewed during those years.
When you step onto the world stage, you’re playing against somebody for titles and dreams, it doesn’t serve you to expose yourself to a friendship, let somebody understand what makes you tick, what’s really going on inside. I certainly had a lot of weaknesses that I felt the need to hide, even from myself.
But going through all that, I think we found ourselves with a deep respect of both our work ethics and our abilities and the way we handled our own survival. Today I think we respect one another for not just those things but also for a real deep sense of loyalty, not just to one another, but also to the people in our lives.
It’s been a full circle relationship, one I think that speaks most comprehensively, at least in the hub of my life, to how far somebody can travel in any given journey.
RANDY WALKER: Jim, we had some folks on the phone from Alabama. If you could talk about the field that’s going to be there. Andy will be making his debut there, played a big Davis Cup match against Switzerland. John McEnroe and Mark Philippoussis are in that field.
JIM COURIER: I attended the Davis Cup match that James played as well with Andy and with the Bryan brothers against the Swiss a few years back. It was an absolutely packed crowd, completely enthusiastic. I’ve never had a chance to play in Birmingham. For me, this is going to be very exciting to get to go down there and be on the court instead of in the stands which I was for the entire weekend when I proudly watched our American team take the Swiss out.
Welcoming Andy onto the tour, a place that he obviously is going to carry fond memories into the battle there, I think it’s going to be a great way for him to get started. That’s going to be a pretty fiery night. Mark Philippoussis and Andy Roddick would most likely play there, and I will play John McEnroe. You can look for some fiery matches on all levels there.
Q. A question about the ATP World Tour Finals. Who do you think will be the final three to qualify? Regarding the event itself, do you think it should go back to a rotating locations like it did with the Masters Cup or do you think London is a great spot for it?
ANDRE AGASSI: I have no idea who is in contention for the spots. I can’t help you there.
Do I think it should rotate? It seems to me from a distance, maybe James could tell you the turnout is remarkable. I think the top eight deserve that kind of platform. I love what I’ve seen there. I think this event would be big in any part of the world, but they’ve certainly earned the right to at least keep it in the short term.
It reminds me of the days it was at the Garden, a remarkable venue that always turned out a full stadium. It felt like you were in a prime time fight. That’s the way it appears to me in London.
I haven’t seen anything close to Madison Square Garden since we left there.
JAMES BLAKE: I agree with Andre about it. They’ve earned the right to keep it in the short term. I didn’t get to play in London, but I’ve seen the crowds. I’ve heard from the guys that it’s an amazing venue. As long as the guys are happy and the fans are happy, they’ve definitely earned the right to keep it in the short term.
As far as the five through eight, six through eight, the last three guys, I don’t know exactly who has qualified already, but I’m guessing Berdych, Wawrinka will probably qualify. As I said earlier, Raonic was always uncomfortable for me to play. I think he’s got a good chance to qualify. I’m not sure the other guys in contention, probably Tsonga, Gasquet.
JIM COURIER: Federer.
JAMES BLAKE: Federer hasn’t qualified yet?
JIM COURIER: No.
JAMES BLAKE: Then I’ll take him. Just about any time, I’ll take him.
JIM COURIER: The top three guys right now that look like they’re going to qualify are Federer, Wawrinka and Gasquet. They’re the next three guys in. But I think Tsonga playing at home also in Paris next week, I think he has a really good chance to qualify. It’s going to take a lot for Raonic to get in. But one good week is worth 1000 points. A lot can change. Certainly indoors looks pretty good for somebody like that. Even Tommy Haas, if he were to sprint out in Paris, he could make it. It will be an interesting week next week for sure.
RANDY WALKER: Everybody, thank you for participating in our call today. I want to thank Andre, James and Jim for their time and great answers today. Appreciate all the media for calling in. We appreciate the attention to the PowerShares Series. We invite you to go to www.PowerSharesSeries.com for all the event, venue, player fields and ticket information.
By Maud Watson
Champions are frequently known for their stubbornness. Sometimes it refers to their unwillingness to surrender a loss quietly, but it also often refers to their refusal to re-tool any part of the game that has brought them so much success. Unfortunately, that refusal can often hamper an athlete’s career, which is something that Roger Federer apparently plans to avoid. Federer is playing this week in Hamburg with a new racquet. His new stick features a 98 square-inch frame, which represents a significant change from the much smaller 90 square-inch frame he has used throughout his career. The larger frame means a bigger sweet spot and additional power, both of which should help him better compete with the young guns on tour. We’ll see how he fairs during this brief stint on the clay, but if he’s able to make the adjustment to the new racquet quickly, expect him to be right back in the thick of it for the summer hard court season.
One of the more interesting off-court tidbits to hit the news this past week was the announcement of Jimmy Connors becoming Maria Sharapova’s new full-time coach. The two briefly worked together five years ago but were unable to come to a financial agreement to make it a full-time gig. Circumstances have changed in 2013, and the two are teaming up to become one of the most intriguing coach/player relationships in the game today. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Both have strong egos and like to get things done their way, so it could flame out early. But both also share the same inherit drive. They’re both fighters who refuse to rollover in a match and will go to virtually any lengths – sometimes perhaps a little over the line of what’s considered proper – to come away with the win. Both could feed off each other in those respects and prove quite the successful combo. Sadly, fans will have to wait a little longer for this new partnership to make its debut, however, as Sharapova was forced to withdraw from the upcoming event in Stanford with a hip injury she sustained at Wimbledon. But make no mistake. This will be one of the key storylines to watch this summer.
The good news is that the USTA has established a potential timeline for putting a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium by August 2016. The bad news is that you probably have a better shot at winning the lottery than that timeline coming to fruition. As usual, one of the biggest hurdles to putting a roof over Ashe Stadium stems from cost. The USTA is already currently in the market for an owner representative for its $500-million expansion plan that doesn’t include a roof, meaning that if they were to shift efforts towards building a roof for Ashe, other projects, such as replacing Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand would be put on hold. That’s a scenario that’s all the more unlikely when considering that the other issue facing Ashe is that it may not be able to support the weight of the roof in the first place. So, while we can appreciate the USTA’s efforts to keep the roof possibility in the discussion, this once again appears to be much ado about nothing.
At the front part of the week, in an interview with David Nadal, Toni Nadal told to the world that he talks to Rafa during matches and sees nothing wrong with it, because he figures he shouldn’t have to hide anything at his age. Look, it’s common knowledge that Nadal, like some other players, receives illegal coaching from the stands. And you could argue that such coaching frequently has little impact on the outcome of a match. But nobody wins when Toni Nadal announces that he has no problem being a cheat – and as the generally willing recipient of his instructions, one could argue so is his nephew by extension. Such an admission shows disrespect to the ATP and its rules. It shows disrespect to Nadal’s opposition. It teaches young up-and-comers that it’s okay to cheat, and most importantly, it hurts Rafa Nadal. As previously noted, Rafa is no doubt one of the best in the history of the game, and he doesn’t need to use cheap tricks to accomplish great feats. Utilizing illegal tactics should be beneath him and his camp, and it shouldn’t be tolerated. Though unlikely, it would be nice if after this admission, the ATP would enforce some sort of discipline on the older Nadal to show that nobody, no matter how big the star they coach or their age, is above the rules.
Back for More
The terrorizing doll Chucky is making a return to movies, and as it happens, so is the woman Mary Carillo once referred to as Chucky, Martina Hingis. Whether to promote her relatively recent clothing line, provide a distraction from the cheating allegations leveled at her by her estranged husband, or just for love of the game, the newly-elected Hall of Famer is planning to team with Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia at the Southern California Open. Hingis continues to show that she has great hands around the net, and veteran Hantuchova has also proven worth her salt in the doubles arena as well. If this partnership proves successful, perhaps we’ll be treated to a little more enthralling tennis from these two down the road.
The word hero, in all of its various forms, is thrown around quite often in sports. Professional athletes are placed on a pedestal, expected to walk the straight and narrow and act as role models for the youth of the world. In tennis, the word hero is often associated with the word gladiator. Matches are played out one-on-one in an enclosed arena. When players come through long and arduous matches, they are hailed as warriors and fighters. The WTA’s previous global ad campaign, entitled “Looking for a Hero?”, was one of its most successful.
An athlete isn’t a hero because he uses physical strength and endurance to win. That’s his job. An athlete isn’t a hero because she goes out and wins multiple championships. That’s her goal. Heroism isn’t playing through an injury and coming out with a victory, and heroism isn’t rolling through the field to win a grand slam.
Despite all that, the word hero has not lost its luster in sports.
The ESPYs, ESPN’s annual fan-driven award show to celebrate athletic achievement in the past calendar year, takes itself far more seriously than it should. Ironically, it is the only awards show in the history of awards shows that doesn’t actually signify achievement in anything. Actors and directors measure their careers based on Oscars and Golden Globes, while musicians covet Grammys. But athletes? Each individual sport has its championships and each individual organization has its awards, medals and accolades. From the outside, the ESPYs seem like a colossal waste of time; in fact, they might even represent everything that’s wrong with professional sports today: over-the-top pomp and circumstance, glossy hero-worship, excessive media hype and dollar signs.
However, for approximately 20 minutes each year, the ESPYs do give us one thing: the chance to be inspired by a true hero. The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is one of the only awards of the night that is not decided by fan voting; it is completely independent of the popularity contest and media circus. The award is presented to someone who “reflects the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” While a sports-themed award, the recipient does not have to be an athlete or even a sports figure; nonetheless, its honorees have given us some of the most memorable moments in sports history. In the first year of the ESPYs, Jimmy V told us, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Last year, we backed Pat and she told us to “keep on keeping on.”
Last night, Robin Roberts received the 20th Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in the history of the ESPYs. Roberts, who has ties to the tennis family, is currently an anchor for ABC’s Good Morning America. A star athlete in her youth and record-holding basketball player at Southeastern Louisiana, she joined ESPN in 1990 and served with them for 15 years. Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she returned back to the airwaves. Last year, however, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease that developed as a side effect from her treatment. Roberts needed, and received, a bone marrow transplant that saved her life.
Roberts, who was a friend of Ashe and was presented the award by LeBron James, received a standing ovation from those present in the arena. “It’s not so much what we’ve accomplished that we remember,” Roberts said in her acceptance speech, “it’s what we overcome.”
Despite all of its flaws, the ESPYs, and by extension sport as a whole, provides viewers with a stage to have these stories told. Athletes and sports figures can be heroes, but not solely for athletic achievement; Jimmy V, Pat, Robin and others are figures that transcend sports. They’ve taken up a platform and embraced that stage for the greater good. That is the thing, and not the number of championships, golds medals, or slam trophies present in their cabinets, that is the most inspiring.
The Emirates Airlines US Open Series begins next week with tournaments at Atlanta (ATP) and Stanford (WTA). More events on both Tours follow during each of the five weeks between now and the US Open, including consecutive Masters 1000/Premier Five tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati. As the action accelerates toward the final major of 2013, here are seven key narratives to follow.
1. Will Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray seize the upper hand?
The top two men in the world have contested the finals at the last three non-clay majors and enter the summer hard courts as co-favorites for the US Open. Fittingly, Djokovic and Murray each have won once in New York, although the Serb has reached four finals there to the Scot’s two. While Murray has won multiple titles at both Masters 1000 tournaments this summer, Djokovic never has conquered Cincinnati despite winning three times in Canada. A victory for either man over the other at one of those events would earn that player an edge heading into New York. So would a Canada/Cincinnati sweep, a feat that has occurred only three times on the men’s side in the Open era. Back on their best surface for the rest of 2013, Djokovic and Murray have an opportunity to take their rivalry another step forward. Abrupt shifts have defined it so far, so predict at your peril.
2. Will Serena Williams restore order in the WTA?
The world No. 1 has compiled a somewhat strange season, dominating Roland Garros and racing undefeated through the clay season but losing by the quarterfinals at the two non-clay majors. Serena usually responds with courage to adversity such as her stunning loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. One need think back barely a year to the second-half surge that she reeled off after a much more disheartening setback against Virginie Razzano. The dominance of the top three women since the start of 2012 prepared few viewers for the implosion at Wimbledon. That fortnight echoed the chaotic period in the WTA that preceded the current Serena/Maria/Vika Rule of Three. For reasons developed further below, the top-ranked woman and defending US Open champion stands the best positioned of that trio to curb her inferiors. Even as she approaches 32, her aura still intimidates.
3. Will Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal pose the greater challenge to the top two?
On the surface, literally and figuratively, this question seems easy. Federer has compiled the superior record of the two in the US Open Series and at the US Open. For most of their careers, he has been the better man on hard courts and the better man in the second half, when his rival’s energy wanes. That said, Nadal has surpassed Federer in recent years at the US Open, notching consecutive finals in 2010-11. He also has produced the stronger season of the two by far, reaching the final at every tournament except Wimbledon, claiming a key hard-court title at Indian Wells, and overcoming Djokovic at Roland Garros. Federer has won just one title in 2013 and has not defeated a top-five opponent. The two superstars never have met in the US Open Series or at the US Open. They responded in contrasting ways to early Wimbledon losses, Nadal resting his ever-fragile knees and Federer entering two clay tournaments in July.
4. Can the Wimbledon women’s finalists consolidate their breakthroughs?
Hovering over Murray’s quest to defend his US Open title is the question of how he will respond to his Wimbledon feat. The women’s champion there also faces the task of overcoming the inevitable post-breakthrough hangover. Like Murray, however, Marion Bartoli may have the maturity to avoid that lull. She has earned some of her finest successes on North American hard courts, including a Stanford title won from Venus Williams, finals at Indian Wells and San Diego, and semifinals at Miami and the Rogers Cup. Bartoli might return at Stanford next week.
Much more a grass specialist than Bartoli, the woman whom she defeated in the Wimbledon final has reached four quarterfinals there but none at any other major. Sabine Lisicki still looks to build on her victories over two top-four opponents at Wimbledon, and there is no reason why her massive serve cannot shine on fast hard courts. Her main challenge has consisted of staying healthy long enough to build momentum, so her ranking could climb if she does.
5. What to expect from Wimbledon’s walking wounded?
About five top-eight players limped out of the grass season with injuries that may linger. On the men’s side, Juan Martin Del Potro should recover quickly from a minor sprain caused by hyper-extending his left knee. The Wimbledon semifinalist and former US Open champion should prove the most compelling threat in New York outside the Big Four. World No. 3 David Ferrer may need more time to recover from his ankle injury, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has voiced uncertainty over whether he will return from a knee injury by the Open.
Eager to ignite her partnership with Jimmy Connors, Maria Sharapova withdrew from Stanford next week to rest a hip injury incurred at Wimbledon. Sharapova posted playful photos of her rehab work, not sounding overly concerned. Still, both Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka may need to brush off some rust early in the US Open Series. Limited to one match since Roland Garros, Azarenka has played only five tournaments in the last five months. Her coach, Sam Sumyk, reported that her knee incurred no structural damage, though.
6. Will home soil inspire the American men?
At the US Open last year and at Wimbledon this summer, nobody in this group reached the second week, something once taken for granted. With Andy Roddick retired and Mardy Fish chronically ill, American men’s tennis has plunged down an elevator shaft with embarrassing velocity. Not much light shines into the bottom of the shaft from former phenom Ryan Harrison, who has developed into an uninspired journeyman. The more explosive Jack Sock may evolve into a future star, as French sports magazine L’Equipe thinks, but his time will not come for at least a few years. Until then, the two lethargic giants John Isner and Sam Querrey remain the only real hopes for the US. The good news is that they have played their best tennis on home soil, winning 10 of 13 career titles there. The bad news is that neither has done anything meaningful on hard courts this year.
7. Which rising stars on each Tour will shine?
In the wake of a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, many eyes will focus on Jerzy Janowicz over the summer. The boyish, lanky Pole has virtually nothing to defend during the US Open Series as he aims to rise toward the top 10. Grigor Dimitrov has drawn attention mostly on account of his resemblance to Federer and his relationship with Sharapova, but he impressed at both Indian Wells and Miami this year. And the deeply talented, deeply enigmatic Bernard Tomic could build on a promising Wimbledon if he finds more discipline on the court and stability off the court.
The women’s game features some youngsters who have advanced faster than their male counterparts. One of three women to reach the second week at every major in 2013, the 20-year-old Sloane Stephens offers the home nation its most genuine threat outside Serena. Stephens needs to transfer some of her feistiness from verbal barbs to her game, not an obstacle confronted by the powerful Madison Keys. American fans should relish the sight of Keys this summer, showcasing a serve reminiscent of the Williams sisters and the penetrating groundstrokes designed for WTA success. Reaching the second week at Wimbledon and at last year’s US Open, meanwhile, British teenager Laura Robson has shown the power and belief to strike down the elite.
(July 17 2013) In honor of the 40th anniversary of the WTA Tour, players of the Nurnberger Gastein Ladies tournament paid an homage to the decades in a 1970s-themed player’s party. The ladies really took to the event with glam, bold patterns, bandanas, and even peace sign necklaces.
Check out all the players, including Annika Beck, Mandy Minella, Aranxta Rus, Petra Martic and much more in the gallery below!
Only one member of the top 10 takes the court in next week’s two ATP tournaments. But he’s someone who might merit your attention.
Top half: After his second-round loss at Wimbledon, Roger Federer admitted that he needed to regain his rhythm and poise at key moments in matches. Taking a wildcard into Hamburg, which he won as a Masters 1000 tournament, Federer seeks his first title of the season above the 250 level. That triumph came at the grass event in Halle, so the world No. 5 will hope to make it two for two on German soil. Home favorite Daniel Brands could prove an intriguing opening test, considering the challenge that Brands posed for Rafael Nadal in a Roland Garros four-setter. But the headline match of the quarter, or perhaps the half, comes in the next round with Ernests Gulbis. Defeating Federer on clay in Rome before, Gulbis has taken at least one set in all three of their previous meetings. Most of the other players in this section, such as Feliciano Lopez or Nikolay Davydenko, have grown accustomed to Federer’s superiority.
All four seeds in the second quarter reached a quarterfinal at a major this year, rare for an event of Hamburg’s diminished stature. Jerzy Janowicz and Fernando Verdasco both launched their surprise runs at Wimbledon, and Verdasco extended his surge from grass to clay by winning his first title since 2010 last week. In his first tournament as a member of the top 20, Janowicz has built his ranking less on consistency than on a handful of notable achievements at key tournaments. Similarly, Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy has struggled to string together momentum and has secured just one semifinal berth since that breakthrough. An all-Spanish quarterfinal might await if Verdasco and Roland Garros quarterfinalist Tommy Robredo use their superior clay expertise to halt the higher-ranked Janowicz and Chardy, respectively. Federer never has lost to any of these men, or to anyone else in a section where Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar also lurks.
Semifinal: Federer vs. Verdasco
Bottom half: The sight of Nicolas Almagro and Mikhail Youzhny in the same vicinity calls to mind their Miami clash five years ago. Youzhny famously won that match with blood dripping down his head after banging his racket on it repeatedly. Undefeated in their previous meetings, Youzhny stopped Almagro in another three-setter this spring without reacquainting his racket with his head. While the Spaniard has faltered after a promising start to 2013, he still holds the surface edge on his nemesis. This section also contains four unseeded players who have reached clay finals this year. Bucharest champion Lukas Rosol could derail Almagro straight out of the gate, while Bucharest runner-up Guillermo Garcia-Lopez sets his sights on Youzhny. A champion in Nice, Albert Montanes could eye a rematch of his final there against Gael Monfils, but only if the latter can upset defending champion Juan Monaco. The Argentine won a clay title in Dusseldorf on the day that Montanes won Nice, his fourth on clay in 2012-13.
Second seed Tommy Haas usually shines on German soil during these latter stages of his career. Winning Munich on clay and taking a set from Federer in a Halle semifinal, Haas finished runner-up to Monaco in Hamburg last year. On the verge of the top 10, he showed some traces of fatigue by falling early in Stuttgart as the top seed. A semifinalist at that tournament, Victor Hanescu could face Haas in his opener, while Bastad runner-up Carlos Berlocq looms a round later. The other side of the section exudes a distinctly Italian flavor, bookended by Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini. A semifinalist in Monte Carlo, Fognini started his campaign there by defeating Seppi in three sets, and he has enjoyed far stronger clay results than his compatriot this year. Of minor note are Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, just 4-14 since that breakthrough, and Rome quarterfinalist Marcel Granollers, who owed that result in large part to Andy Murray’s retirement.
Semifinal: Monaco vs. Haas
Final: Federer vs. Monaco
Top half: Not since the Australian Open has Janko Tipsarevic won more than two matches in a tournament. The beleaguered Serb saw his ranking slide out of the top 10 this summer, unable to salvage it even with several appearances at the 250 level. Another such effort to gobble up easy points as the top seed unfolds in Bogota. This draw looks more accommodating to Tipsarevic than others in which he has held that position. A pair of Colombians, Alejandro Falla and a wildcard, join a pair of Belgians and Australian serve-volleyer Matthew Ebden in his vicinity. If he can rediscover the tennis that brought him to the top 10, Tipsarevic should cruise. If he plays as he has for most of the year, anything could happen.
Among the most intriguing names in the second quarter is rising Canadian star Vasek Pospisil. Depending on how fast the courts play in Bogota, Pospisil could deploy his serve and shot-making to devastating effect against less powerful opponents. Australian journeyman James Duckworth showed his mettle in two epics at his home major this year, while Aljaz Bedene owns a win over Stanislas Wawrinka—but not much else. A finalist in Delray Beach, fourth seed Edouard Roger-Vasselin hopes to halt a four-match losing streak. At least Mr. Bye cannot stop him in the first round.
Bottom half: Surprising most observers by reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Adrian Mannarino came back to earth with a modest result in Newport. At an event of similar caliber, he will hope to build on his momentum from grass while it still lingers. The same motivation probably spurs third seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon after bursting on the scene with a victory over Tsonga in February. Back into action with a quarterfinal showing in Newport, Ivo Karlovic brings his towering serve to an altitude ideal for it. At 7,000 feet above sea level, Dr. Ivo might be nearly unbreakable if his fitness weathers the thin air.
Also armed with a massive serve, second seed Kevin Anderson eyes a cluster of Colombians. Two home hopes meet in the first round, but Santiago Giraldo will fancy his chances to reach the quarterfinals. Near him is Kazakh loose cannon Evgeny Korolev, who oozes with talent while lacking the reins to harness it. Anderson has won all three of his meetings with Korolev and his only previous encounter with Giraldo, so his path to the weekend looks clear.
Final: Unseeded player vs. Anderson
Simona Halep brings a remarkable winning streak in pursuit of a fourth straight International title. This week, a bit more competition might await her than at the three others.
Top half: The second-ranked Maria Sharapova spent a brief holiday in Sweden this month, but world No. 1 Serena Williams will mix at least some business with pleasure. One would not have expected to see Serena at an International event on clay rather than her usual US Open Series stop at Stanford. But her undefeated clay record this year will go on the line against an overmatched group of opponents—on paper, at least. Sure to collect a huge appearance fee in Bastad, Serena may or may not play with her usual intensity at a tournament that means nothing to her legacy. The top-ranked junior in the world, Belinda Bencic, stands a win away from facing the top-ranked woman in the world shortly after earning the girls’ singles title at Wimbledon. Serena’s own disappointment on those lawns may motivate her to bring more imposing form to Bastad than she would otherwise.
The player who came closest to defeating Serena on clay this year, Anabel Medina Garrigues, might await in the quarterfinals. On the other hand, Medina Garrigues won just two games from projected second-round opponent Dinah Pfizenmaier in Palermo last week. Also suffering an early exit there was Lara Arruabarrena, a Spaniard who shone briefly this spring. Arruabarrena joins Lesia Tsurenko among the women vying with third seed Klara Zakopalova for the right to face Serena in the semifinals. At a similar level of tournament in 2009, Zakopalova outlasted a diffident Serena on the clay of Marbella.
Bottom half: Grass specialist Tsvetana Pironkova holds the fourth seed in a quarter free from any dirt devils. Almost anyone could emerge from this section, perhaps even one of Sweden’s top two women. Johanna Larsson will meet Sofia Arvidsson in the first round, an unhappy twist of fate for home fans. The lower-ranked of the two, Arvidsson has accumulated the stronger career record overall.
Riding a 15-match winning streak at non-majors, Simona Halep seeks her fourth title of the summer. She went the distance in consecutive weeks just before Wimbledon, on two different surfaces no less, so an International double on clay would come as no great surprise. One aging threat and one rising threat jump out of her quarter as possible obstacles. After reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Flavia Pennetta may have gained the confidence needed to ignite her stagnating comeback. Assigned an opening test against clay specialist Alexandra Dulgheru, young French sensation Caroline Garcia looks to unlock more of her potential. And Serena’s notorious assassin, Virginie Razzano, cannot be discounted entirely.
Final: Serena vs. Halep
Top half: To be frank, this tournament boasts one of the least impressive fields on the WTA calendar (if “boasts” is the proper word). On the bright side, Bad Gastein should feature some competitive, unpredictable matches from the first round to the last. The only top-50 woman in the draw, Mona Barthel will seek her third final of 2013 but her first on clay. Barthel wields more than enough power to hit through the slow surface, but her patience can be ruffled in adversity. Her most notable pre-semifinal challenge might come from Kiki Bertens, who won a small title on clay last year. Barthel has dominated their history, though, including a victory this year.
As she builds on an encouraging Wimbledon, Andrea Petkovic holds the fourth seed in a tournament near home. Her family traveled with her from Germany before the draw ceremony, images of which appear elsewhere on this site. A finalist on clay in Nurnberg last month, Petkovic drew one of the tournament’s most notable unseeded players in her opener, Petra Martic. Just as injuries have undermined Petkovic for many months, mononucleosis has hampered Martic’s progress. But her balanced game and keen feel for the ball still emerges, making her a greater threat than other players in the section. Palermo semifinalist Chanelle Scheepers, who solved Martic there, might test Petkovic’s consistency. Nor should one ignore elite junior Elina Svitolina in the draw’s most compelling section.
Bottom half: Romanians enjoyed strong results last week, highlighted by Halep’s extended winning streak and semifinals from Alexandra Cadantu and Victor Hanescu. This week, third seed Irina-Camelia Begu seeks to echo the success of her compatriots as she rebounds from a first-round loss in Palermo. While her only career title came on a hard court, Begu reached two clay finals in 2011, her best season so far. Near her stands home hope Yvonne Meusburger, who surprised by reaching the Budapest final. The star-crossed Arantxa Rus simply hopes to halt the longest losing streak in WTA history, although she has drawn a seeded opponent in Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor.
Yet another rising German, second seed Annika Beck has reached the quarterfinals or better at three International tournaments on clay this year. Beck can look forward to a second-round meeting with doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka with resurgent Italian Karin Knapp awaiting the winner. Knapp returned to the top 100 when she exploited an imploding section of the Wimbledon draw to reach the second week. Her skills suit clay less smoothly than some of the women around her, such as Palermo semifinalist Cadantu.
Final: Petkovic vs. Beck
Readers who enjoyed the article counting down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half may enjoy this sequel on the women. As with the men, these matches do not necessarily feature the best tennis from an aesthetic perspective. (In fact, some of them produced quite atrocious tennis for long stretches.) What they did produce was meaningful results linked to broader trends that stretched across the first half.
7) Laura Robson d. Petra Kvitova, Australian Open 2R, 2-6 6-3 11-9
The most accomplished lefty in women’s tennis met the most promising lefty in women’s tennis earlier in a draw than either would have wished. Whereas Kvitova needed to turn a new leaf after a disastrous 2012, Robson sought to build upon a second-week appearance at the US Open. Nerves defined much of their contest, not on this list for the quality of its tennis. By the middle of the third set, however, it became clear that Robson could master her nerves better than the former Wimbledon champion could. Unable to serve out the match the first time, she slammed the door at love on her second opportunity. The encouraging resilience from Robson signaled her progress this season, which has included a victory over Agnieszka Radwanska and a second-week appearance at Wimbledon. For Kvitova, the painful loss hinted that 2013 would look more than 2012 than 2011, as it has so far.
6) Sabine Lisicki d. Serena Williams, Wimbledon 4R, 6-2 1-6 6-4
On the surface friendliest to the serve stood the two most formidable servers currently in the women’s game. But grass specialist Lisicki trailed Serena 16-0 in major titles and 142-0 in weeks at No. 1. By the logic of this Wimbledon, one should have guessed from the start that the underdog would prevail. When Serena rallied from losing seven of the first nine games to win nine of the next ten, though, the writing seemed etched on the wall. Nobody finds a way back against her from 0-3 in a final set at Wimbledon, or from 2-4, or from triple break point at 3-4. Lisicki did all of those things and even survived the nerve-jangling finish as she served for the match, saving a break point with an ace and converting match point with a clean winner. The victory ended Serena’s career-best winning streak, which had begun in March, and propelled Lisicki toward her first major final. It marked her sixth victory over a major champion and third over a world No. 1 in just five Wimbledon appearances. Even when the top three dominate, others still can spring surprises.
Honorable mention: Lisicki’s semifinal epic against world No. 4 Radwanska bore several striking similarities to her victory over Serena.
5) Serena Williams d. Anabel Medina Garrigues, Madrid QF, 6-3 0-6 7-5
Raise your hand if you would have expected Medina Garrigues to appear on this type of list when the 2013 campaign began. No, I thought not. And yet she posed Serena’s most formidable challenge of a clay season during which the world No. 1 went undefeated from wire to wire. To be fair, Medina Garrigues received considerable assistance from across the net in becoming the first woman to bagel Serena since 2008. The American spent much of the match showing us why she had not won a title on red clay in a decade, struggling to stay focused, patient, and disciplined against a grinder fond of the surface. Then the last few games showed us why this year would be different. Serena bent but did not break, rallying from within two points of defeat rather than letting her frustrations overcome her. She would lose just one more set in the rest of the clay season, strewing 14 bagels and breadsticks across Madrid, Rome, and Paris. Medina Garrigues, who lost 6-1 6-1 to Dinah Pfizenmaier this week, gave Serena the wake-up call that she needed to reconquer her least favorite surface.
4) Victoria Azarenka d. Serena Williams, Doha F, 7-6(6) 2-6 6-3
When 2012 ended, only one woman looked like a realistic threat to Serena’s stranglehold over the WTA. But that woman, Victoria Azarenka, had just absorbed her ninth consecutive loss in their rivalry. As competitive as some of those losses were, such as last year’s US Open final, Azarenka needed to stop the skid to bolster her confidence. The Australian Open champion had started slowly in most of her matches against Serena, finding her rhythm only in the second set. Always at her best early in the season, Azarenka started with more determination in Doha and won that crucial first set in a tight tiebreak. She weathered the inevitable response from Serena in the second set and did what she could not do in New York, serving out the match comfortably in the third. Azarenka still has not defeated the world No. 1 at a major, or when fully healthy, so much remains for her to prove. (And Serena won a Premier Five final rematch convincingly in Rome.) All the same, the victory in Doha confirmed suspicions that something like a rivalry might develop here, sometime.
3) Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova, Miami F, 4-6 6-3 6-0
Six weeks after the previous match on this list, Serena’s dominance over her other key rivalry threatened to falter as well. Not since 2004 had she lost to Maria Sharapova, thoroughly stifling the Russian in most of their recent meetings. Disappointment at the Australian Open and the Doha loss to Azarenka blunted Serena’s momentum heading to Miami, her home tournament, but most still ranked her a heavy favorite against Sharapova based on history. For the first half of their final, history took it on the chin as the underdog methodically built a set-and-break lead. But Serena vindicated history in the end, using a handful of long games late in the second set to reverse the momentum. Once she regrouped, neither Sharapova nor anyone else could have done much to stem the torrent of blistering serves and forehands that flowed from her racket. Miami marked the first of Serena’s five consecutive titles this spring and laid a cornerstone of confidence without which her winning streak might not have taken flight. She extended her reacquired dominance over Sharapova in two straight-sets finals on clay.
2) Maria Sharapova d. Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros SF, 6-1 2-6 6-4
With Serena firmly entrenched on the WTA throne, the rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova loomed ever larger. Azarenka had won their two most significant meetings in 2012, an Australian Open final and a US Open semifinal. Holding a surface advantage over the younger blonde on clay, Sharapova struck back at Roland Garros to recapture the edge in their rivalry. A barrage of pinpoint returns and forehands swept the first set into her ledger, but Azarenka exploited an erratic passage of play to level the match. At that stage, parallels linked this match with their US Open semifinal, which Sharapova had started in torrid form before steadily fading. There would be no déjà vu on this day when the two rivals contested their second 6-4 final set in three majors. Sharapova built a commanding lead in the third set, only to throw Azarenka a lifeline as she squandered a handful of match points. The ear-shattering shrieks and ball-shattering blows from both competitors escalated with the mounting drama. When a bullet ace streaked down the center stripe, Sharapova reasserted herself as the best of the rest—for now.
1) Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na, Australian Open F, 4-6 6-4 6-3
Never a fan favorite, Azarenka has endured a discordant relationship with media and many fans throughout her tenure at the top. The simmering turbulence there boiled into the open after she took a dubious medical timeout near the end of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens. When Azarenka took the court against Li with her title defense at stake, the air in Rod Laver Arena felt heavier with hostility than humidity. The Chinese star emerged the less battered of the two from a rollercoaster first set, high on tension and low on holds of serve. Steady returning and unsteady emotions extended into the second set, when Li added a plot twist of her own by sustaining successive injuries. Made of tenacious stuff, she gallantly returned to the fray after striking her head on the court. But Azarenka’s head had grown clearer while Li’s head had grown cloudier, allowing the former to claw her way to an impressive title defense. With almost nobody in her corner for one of the biggest matches of her career, Azarenka showed how she needs nobody but herself. She echoed fellow world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in her ability to thrive on animosity and turn it defiantly to her advantage.
Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall. This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half. Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.
7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3
During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite. First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively. Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo. Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1. When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled. Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished. Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris. (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)
6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)
Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club. An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals. That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10. Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday. Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better. Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.
5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2
Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back. He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized. Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set. A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth. All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently. Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013. Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.
4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5
Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012. Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years. Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition. To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset. But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges. He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.
3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3
Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications. Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why. Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic. Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation. We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.
2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10
Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year. The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent. Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began. Or so we thought. A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment. Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return. The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt. Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments. Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.
1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7
The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line. One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced. Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth. Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line. Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph. While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb. Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.
Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.