tournament director

Kim Clijsters On the Mend – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Parting Ways – The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week that the doubles pairing of Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic will be calling it a day on their partnership at the end of this year. Though Zimonjic initiated the change, Nestor admitted he had been contemplating of doing the same, so the two will be parting amicably. They’ve also lined up some stellar partners for 2011. Zimonjic will be playing with Llodra, the tricky Frenchman with a great set of hands who has also seen a rise in his singles play due to his prowess in the forecourt. Nestor will be joining forces with “The Beast,” Max Mirnyi, who with his height and big frame always poses a challenging proposition. Both new duos should shake up the doubles arena next season.

On the Mend – It’s music to the ears of all WTA officials and the Doha tournament director. Kim Clijsters posted on her Twitter account that she is no longer feeling pain in her foot, though there is still a small cut. This is of course no guarantee that the Belgian will be competing in the season-ending championships, but her encouraging news that she might be able to make the final event of the year is welcome news indeed. With nearly half of the WTA’s top 20 players either officially out or assumed out for the remainder of the year, the WTA is in desperate need of another top star to find a way to cross the finish line. And with the field becoming more and more diluted with each passing week, if Clijsters is able to compete in the final event of the year, it could be easy pickings, providing her a strong platform from which to spring into next year.

Fitness Race – Much like last year, Andy Roddick finds himself in a race against the clock to try and finish the year on a high instead of on the sidelines. Having straineed his groin last week in Japan, the American tried to give it a go in Shanghai, only to aggravate the injury further. His retirement from injury all happened a year to the day that Roddick suffered a season-ending injury at the same tournament in 2009. Things look more optimistic for Roddick this time around, however, who feels he has a decent chance of competing in Basel and perhaps still earning a spot in the elite ATP World Tour Championships. Those pulling for American tennis success will particularly be hoping for a speedy recovery, as Roddick needs the points to attempt to finish in the top 10 for the ninth consecutive year (he currently stands at 11).

Bigger than Sport – Their partnership has been well-documented, and it is continuing to pay dividends. The Indian-Pakistani partnership of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi won the Peace and Sport Image of the Year Award in one of the feel-good stories of the week. Their courage and willingness to set aside their differences is admirable, and it is great to see it transcending the sport. Hopefully their actions, and the actions of other players, (such as Serb Novak Djokovic and Croat Ivan Ljubicic exchanging shirts at the end of a match) will teach others to put aside their prejudices.

Dropping like Flies – One of the biggest stories of the week has been the number of top WTA players who have already called it a season in order to prep for 2011. Granted, some have been freak injuries, but it has to leave some scratching their heads. After working out a “roadmap” to shorten the season, it seems the number of dropouts is an even bigger problem than in years past. No doubt the shortened season is a much-needed improvement, but the number of injuries and early exits would seem to also suggest that it’s time to start taking a look at what other factors are contributing to the WTA woes. Advancements in equipment and the predominant style of play, this “big babe tennis” as Mary Carillo has dubbed it, may be more of a culprit than some realize, and the situation needs to be rectified. After all, the WTA Championships should be won by the best of the best, not simply the last woman left standing.

Legg Mason SFs: Exclusive Berdych Update; Press Conferences & Analysis on Cilic, Baghdatis

It’s the final Saturday of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and that means only one thing: a showcasing of elite tennis as the final four men were in action for a spot in tomorrow’s finals. Surprise semifinalists Xavier Malisse and Marcos Baghdatis played each other in the day session as veteran David Nalbandian took on the last seeded player left in the draw, Marin Cilic. I also had a chance to catch up with Tomas Berdych and ask a few questions about his presser the other evening when he mentioned being frustrated with the tournament schedule and possibly not coming back next year. Let’s get into that and then the matches!

After Tomas Berdych’s doubles win today to go into the finals with partner Radek Stepanek, a few reporters were able to interview him in the players’ dining room before he left the site. The main topic at hand was whether any new developments occurred after his honest presser yesterday saying he may not come back to D.C. next year since he felt that he wasn’t treated well as a #1 seed. He responded that it was “just the next day” and nothing would really change, “there is still the year to go.” He seemed annoyed to address the topic as it still affected him. I asked if any tournament officials had contacted him to address his issue and he seemed to hesitate for a second. It could be a telling hesitation or a language barrier, but he simply said “No, nobody.” This was an interesting response because a reliable source had told me that the tournament director had spoken to him about it and essentially told him that it was unfortunate, but that all players had the same scheduling problems. I’m not sure if he chose to not reveal this in fear of further questioning or if it simply was not a big deal to him. Only time will tell, but I sincerely hope he comes back. He’s a powerful player to watch live.

But now, on to the tennis matches of the day!

The first matchup on stadium court was between two newly resurgent players on the ATP tour, Xavier Malisse and Marcos Baghdatis.

They had faced each other twice last year, both times on the Challenger-level and both times Baghdatis had prevailed in straight sets. While each executes well from behind the baseline, Malisse has a tendency to venture too far back into the court and Baghdatis tends to stay near the baseline. Baghdatis plays smart tennis and knows how to play the important points well. He has a compact backhand and changes the movement of the ball well, easily going from defensive to offensive, throwing his opponent off. His forehand is quite stiff and he doesn’t accelerate the ball well, but he has a little more variety in his shots than Malisse. Malisse’s strong point is his topspin forehand and a flick of his wrist speeds the ball up even more. He plays a very high-risk game going for winners and uses his backhand more to setup his forehand than as a weapon itself. The match depended mostly on service points won and who could dictate play more.

In the first set, Malisse held his serve in the first game but then lost the next two, finding himself down 1-5. There were glimmers of great tennis from Malisse as he fired forehands past a scrambling Baghdatis, but his winners to unforced errors were 15 to 27. He was sending balls well beyond the baseline or throwing them straight into the net. Malisse’s composure only slightly changed when he was broken to go down 1-4 and you could sense his helplessness. He, however, rebounded in his next service game to bring it to 2-5. There were several netcord encounters that saw the ball flicking off of the net and bouncing high into the intended court. During one of these points, Baghdatis was on the receiving end shuffling for the short ball. He followed through, and with exceptional body control put away a winner crosscourt. Although Baghdatis may carry around a few extra pounds not being as lean as other top pros, he nevertheless is quick on his feet and reads the ball well. It was clear that he was also staying right on top of the baseline for most points dictating play and thus pulling Malisse farther and farther back making him play defensively. In the final game of the set, Baghdatis hit an ace and followed it up with three more easy points to seal it 6-2.

The second set lasted twice as long with neither player being able to break the other’s serve until the 11th game of the set. Malisse continued playing the same tennis: taking the ball late, keeping well behind the baseline and not approaching the net and changing it up. Baghdatis was attacking the ball and smashing winners away with his backhand, which was really working today. At 2-all, Malisse finally followed his shot to the net for two points in a row and won both times, to go up 3-2. He, however, stopped approaching the net after those points! Malisse instead kept probing Baghdatis’ forehand but to no avail. At 4-2 for Baghdatis, Malisse sent a shot behind Baghdatis to his forehand side and Baghdatis changed his footing too quickly. He tweaked his left ankle and fell to the ground grabbing it. Almost nobody moved except Malisse. He right away yelled across the net: “Ice? Do you need ice?” He hurried over to the ice bin behind his seat and pulled out a bag and ran it over to Baghdatis who took it willingly (see photo).

Words were quickly exchanged between the two before the trainer appeared on court. In the midst of his injury, Baghdatis’ ‘foe’ was the first to respond. Luckily, Baghdatis got his ankle taped up and continued play. His ankle was tested on the very next point. It was a long rally but he won it with no sign of discomfort or limitation in movement. He went on to fire two aces in the tiebreaker and take the second set 7-6(4). Even though Baghdatis’ first serve percentage was lower than Malisse’s, he was winning 87% of the points. His return game was also more effective, pressuring Malisse until the last point. Baghdatis fell on his back in joy and as is his custom, kissed the court.

As I had gotten accustomed to players bailing on the press conference after a loss, I was surprised to see Malisse willing to and with a smile. It might seem strange to be optimistic about a loss, but then again, it was a loss in the semifinals of a 500-level tournament. He spoke that Baghdatis “served better, especially on the important points.” He remarked that he felt like he played really well all week so he can’t complain. He’s also happy because his ranking takes him to #50 in the world come Monday morning. He also learned earlier today that he was given a ‘special exemption’ into the Rogers Cup held next week in Toronto, Canada. The ATP rule allows any player who plays a semifinal or higher in the weekend prior to a qualifier event he is entered it, to be granted a special exemption into the draw because they can’t be present to play the qualifier. He was also asked about Baghdatis’ injury in the second set. He said that he was aware that Baghdatis has been injured before and didn’t want it to get more inflamed, so his natural reaction was to help him. “When I gave him the ice he said he will probably be OK.” He said it was helpful knowing this because mentally you begin wondering if he’s going to be OK, or stop play: “It put my mind at ease.”

Baghdatis came into the interview room casually, wearing his ‘Love Cyprus’ kit and old Adidas shoes. He felt that he had played really smart and he was “proud of that.” He mentioned twice that he was “fitter than Malisse” and was able to “play the right shot at the right time,” taking Malisse’s angles away from the forehand. He also commented on the ankle saying he would rather have been cautious than gotten up and played right away. It was uncomfortable for a bit, but he feels good currently and hopes the same for tomorrow. He said that he knows Malisse very well from the tour and that it was typical sportsmanship from him. He’s done it before but some guys wouldn’t. “It doesn’t happen every day” for players to reach out like that. He feels there are “no limits” to how much he or any other player can improve and that he tries to “fight for every match.”

The second semifinal featured David Nalbandian and Marin Cilic.

The key for Cilic was holding his serve, moving well and attacking the ball. Even with his 6’6” stature, he plays a baseline game but is very flexible and can get low on his backhand side. Nalbandian, on the other hand, needed to keep his return game high, attack more cleanly with his forehand and not get fatigued.

In the first set, it took Nalbandian just one game to warmup and find his rhythm, unlike last night where it took him the entire first set. Nalbandian was putting balls away from both wings exceptionally well and his return game stayed in the upper 60s. Nalbandian moved Cilic well laterally, causing him to hit most balls off-balance and gave Cilic only two winners against seventeen unforced errors. Truly, most of those unforced errors were a results of Nalbandian’s impeccable placement and angle on the ball, pressuring Cilic. Cilic could do nothing to keep the points short and prevail as Nalbandian was winning all rallies longer than four shots. Nalbandian sent a crosscourt forehand winner that clocked in at 98 MPH and then went on to break Cilic’s serve and take the first set 6-2 in just 36 minutes.

The second set took a similar tone. Cilic didn’t change his strategy and barely came up to the net. Nalbandian took advantage of his opponent, gained even more confidence and his forehand became lethal. The match came to a close as Cilic sent a backhand sailing into the net to give Nalbandian the win, 6-2 in the second. The statistics are even more staggering in the winners to unforced errors ratio. Cilic had only six winners to 27 unforced errors, while Nalbandian had fourteen winners to twelve unforced errors. David Nalbandian is quickly proving to be a nightmare for players and it will be interesting to see where he falls in the draw at the US Open once again.

Cilic made his way into the press conference subdued and quiet. This tends to be his personality typically, win or lose. He was quick to admit that his serve was “not good” and that he wasn’t aiming well. He felt that Nalbandian took away his setup time for shots since he takes the ball so early. When asked about how well Nalbandian was returning, Cilic joked that he “can’t count on my hand how many returns he missed.” He feels that Nalbandian anticipates the ball well and spatially recognizes where it will go. He was happy though, to improve on his showing here from last year, losing in the first round, especially since he hadn’t played a tournament in the last 3-4 weeks. He felt that it was a good gauge of where he stands and what he can improve on. When asked about not traveling with his coach, but only his oldest brother, he replied that he doesn’t always want “someone telling me what to do.” Sometimes he wants to figure it out for himself. He did say he will reunite with coach Bob Brett for the next three tournaments in Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open.

Nalbandian came in smiling, clearly on cloud nine. After the first question was asked, he answered: “I’m playing good all week. … When I’m playing this good, it’s tough for anybody [to beat me].” He said the main difference from last night’s slow start to today’s rapid start was that he mentally got himself to “push harder from the beginning.” He was very confident in his match tonight and again mentioned that when he serves well, returns well, hits off both sides well and finds the tricky angles, it’s hard to be his opponent and come out victorious. When asked about Baghdatis, whom he plays tomorrow in the finals, he replied that “we know each other” and we have “similar styles of play. … I must keep pushing and playing well.”

RAFA REBUTTAL: THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson
Rafa Rebuttal – Last week I received a lot of feedback on my criticism of Rafael Nadal’s comments regarding the ATP schedule following his withdrawal from Barcelona. If the article came across as “Nadal bashing,” then that was my mistake, and I deserve to be called on it. Many of you rightly pointed out that players such as Roger Federer and Andy Roddick have also panned the current schedule, as well as pointing out that it’s wonderful that Nadal can use his stature in the sport as a voice to bring about change. I agree with both of these statements. I agree with Nadal that the schedule is too long, and it is a definite advantage he’s willing to speak his mind. Where I have an issue with his comments, however, is I don’t see as much effort on his part to make adjustments on his own end. First, and I’ll preface this statement by saying other players such as Federer, Roddick, Djokovic, etc. should also be held accountable to this one the same as Nadal, is choosing to play exhibitions. If I’m an ATP exec, I have trouble going to a tournament director, particularly of a big successful event, and telling that director I have to downsize their tournament or wipe them off the map completely to give the players a longer off season. I have trouble with that, because these same players are the ones who accept large appearance fees to play exhibitions in an already too-short off season or throughout the course of the season itself.  Who’s to say they won’t play even more exhibitions if they have a few more weeks of free time on their hands?

My second issue with Nadal, however, is his scheduling, a topic which commentator Robbie Koenig noted during his commentary in Rome this week as an issue the Spaniard needs to address. Federer has always been excellent about planning his schedule to avoid overplaying, and Roddick has recently been doing the same. If they feel they need a rest, they forgo some of the 500 events, or they take advantage of the fact that an event like Monte Carlo is optional. (And for those who have suggested there’s an American bias when Indian Wells and Miami are back-to-back yet not optional, it’s worth noting they are also bigger tournaments that offer more prize money and have a larger overall financial commitment. For better or for worse, money talks.)  These are also guys, along with other players such as Murray, who have based their decisions regarding Davis Cup around ensuring they are as rested and ready to go each week on the ATP Tour. This is a sticky topic, as you don’t want to discourage a player from representing his country, and Nadal’s decision to do so is admirable. Despite that, however, I personally think it better to force the ITF’s hand in revamping the Davis Cup format to better fit the ATP schedule than the other way around. Furthermore, even Novak Djokovic, who has criticized the length of the season, freely admitted to the fact that his fatigue was also due to his poor planning and over scheduling himself last year. This has historically been a problem for Nadal, and an issue that Uncle Toni is only now beginning to seriously address. And as a final word on the length of the season, I think blaming it for the increase in injuries over the years is simplifying the problem too much. The Williams sisters, who play as little as possible while still staying within the rules (something Serena freely admits to), always seem to have something taped up every time they come out to play a match. I firmly believe the changes in technology and what it has done to the game as far as making it more physical must also be pointed to as one of the main causes for the increase in injuries.

My final issue with Nadal is his stubbornness regarding his style of play. He’s obviously earned a lot of accolades with his grinding style, and I’m not suggesting he do a complete overhaul of what he’s been so successful with. But his physical brand of tennis should bear a large portion of the blame for his knee problems, and he’s going to continue to pay for it, particularly on a hard court. Roddick is a guy who went out and lost weight and is working on not falling into the habit of getting trapped behind the baseline on defense unless necessary. Djokovic has also been working on his fitness and his net game to shorten points. Instead of digging his heels in and being stubborn when asked by reporters about changing his game, Nadal should look at other options. Throughout matches, he has shown plenty of occasions where he’s capable of being more aggressive, and he’s certainly shown he has the talent to make the switch given the number of shots he’s added to his repertoire.  If Justine Henin can do it, so can he.

This may just seem like more Nadal bashing, but I’ll stick by my stance.  Yes, Nadal’s complaints about the season are valid. Yes, it is a great that he’s willing to speak out about it. But do I give his criticisms as much weight as others?  No.  Not until he takes more responsibility for things on his own end the way the others who are complaining about the season have done on theirs.

Gulbis the “Real Deal?” – Until recently, Latvian Ernests Gulbis looked as though he were on track to be one of the biggest underachievers the sport of tennis has ever seen. Having won a title in 2010 and putting together a nice run in Barcelona, Gulbis has shown he’s now ready to hang with the big boys and continue his climb up the rankings with an impressive win over Roger Federer this week in Rome. While he did stumble a bit at the finish line, getting broken when he first served for the match, I was impressed that he stuck with Federer, broke him again, and this time made no mistake as he successfully served it out. Gulbis may now be ready to finally fulfill his potential.

No Pain, No Gain – Justine Henin overcame the pain of a broken pinky finger on her left hand to secure a 7-6, 6-1 win over Julia Goerges in Stuttgart, her first official clay court match since coming back from sabbatical.  Henin stated she was encouraged by the fact that the pain has lessened in the broken appendage and that she is adjusting to playing with the splint. She also admits she’s still trying to find the right balance in her game. As a fan, I’m holding my breath that the finger heals and she finds that balance.  If so, we’re in for a real treat a few weeks from now in Paris.

Fitness Race – The other half of the Belgian duo, Kim Clijsters, is in a more serious fitness battle of her own.  Clijsters fought through pain in her left foot to defeat Maret Ani in straights sets this past weekend in Fed Cup play. It was later discovered she has a tear in the muscle, and doctors are estimating she may very well need six weeks of recovery time. This puts her Roland Garros hopes in serious jeopardy, as the second major of the year is set to get underway in just four weeks. Ever the optimist, Clijsters hasn’t given up on competing in the French capital, stating she generally recovers quickly and feels she can do just that despite doctor’s concerns.  We’re pulling for you, Kim!

Bad Day In Court – Brit Robert Dee struggles to win matches on the court, and now he’s apparently struggling to win them in court. He recently brought a libel suit against the Daily Telegraph for labeling him as far as professional tennis player go, the “world’s worst.” As Mrs. Justice Sharp, who presided over the case, stated however, the facts remain that Dee, who is a professional tennis player, did lose 54 consecutive matches (all in straight sets) in international play, equaling the world record for most consecutive losses in international competition. It has to be hard enough to go through that on the court, but utterly humilitating to have it explained to you and all present in a court of law. He’s already suffered enough of ‘em, so maybe it’s time to just cut his losses and call it a day.

ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY: ANDY RODDICK STOPS “THE WORM”

From the book, ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.TennisHistoryBook.com), it was on February 24, 2008 when Andy Roddick stopped “The Worm.” The book excerpt from February 24 is featured below.

2008 – Andy Roddick beats Radek Stepanek 6-4, 7-5 to win the SAP Open in San Jose, Calif. Roddick celebrates the win by mimicking Stepanek, known for performing the belly-on-the-ground dance called “the worm” on court after big victories, by wiggling his right leg and left arm. Said Roddick, “Everybody’s asking me about the Worm. All I hear is the Worm. I wanted to find something as cheesy if not cheesier to go with, which was tough. I figured one bad leg kick and I’d be on par.” Said Stepanek of Roddick’s celebration, “I don’t know what that was. “

Also on this day, Roddick’s current coach, Larry Stefanki had perhaps his greatest day as a player, as documented below;

1985 – Twenty-seven-year-old tennis pro Larry Stefanki, ranked No. 143 in the world, caps off an incredible week of upsets, defeating David Pate 6-1, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 to win the Pilot Pen Classic in LaQuinta, Calif. Stefanki, the touring pro at the LaQuinta Resort, is given a last minute wild-card entry in the tournament when bigger name players – namely Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg – decline opportunities to play in the event. Stefanki rides a string of upsets to win the second pro title of his career to go with a 1981 title in Lagos, Nigeria. Wrote the late Mike Penner of the Los Angeles Times, “In fact, the Larry Stefanki Story is almost too good, too sensational. This is the stuff of comic books, Steven Spielberg movies and prime-time TV drama.” “Unbelievable,” says Stefanki of his run. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. You dream about this.” Tournament Director Charlie Pasarell says, “I’m not sure the match would have been any better than this. If we could’ve written the script, we couldn’t have done it any better…I have a tremendous responsibility to this event and to the ticket buyers to bring in some big names. We wanted Wilander and Edberg, but after today’s match, I walked over to Larry, shook his hand and said the worst mistake I could’ve made was getting Wilander and Edberg.”