tournament officials

Azarenka Collapses on Court: A Strange and Terrible Saga

So this article will be short today. I am in a foul mood.  I always had a thing for Victoria Azarenka ever since I watched her play at the Australian Open 2009. Watching YouTube videos and reading Fastscript interviews followed quickly after that to feed my infatuation. Every interview I could find of her, I read.  And every tournament she played, I would check the draw to see if she’s got a half decent chance of winning it.

I am not asking for much but a win, much like the one she recorded at Stanford a few weeks ago, every now and then would be great. Especially with a victory over fellow Russian countrywoman Maria Sharapova.

With the Stanford win in her pocket, a good run at the US Open 2010 seemed very very possible. I secretly even dreamed of her winning the 2010 edition of the final major of the year.

Alas, this afternoon while I was surfing the net and keeping scores in my browser I received the notification  that Azarenka had collapsed and was wheelchaired off the court during her match versus Argentinan Gisela Dulko. Azarenka trailed 5-1 in the first set.

Of course, major panic struck on the court. Her trainer and tournament officials came rushing to check if Vika was still breathing.

“I was scared,” Dulko said. “She went to the floor. I was worried for her. I went to see her, brought some ice, did whatever I could do to help.”

The weather has been incredibly hot at the US Open since the start. With temparatures during the day rising to mid 90s.  But tournament officials did not activate the Extreme Weather Policy which allows for icebags and a request for a 10-minute break amongst other things during changeovers.

“It’s tough to play out there,” Dulko said. “It’s really hot, really humid. You sweat so much, sometimes it’s impossible to hold the racket.”

And Dulko is pretty much right. Playing under these circumstances is tough and for a player who has a history of not being able to cope with heat like Azarenka (retired match versus Serena Williams in the fourth round of the Australian Open 2009) it must be even tougher.

But then tweets started to appear about Azarenka bumping her head prior to the match. If that is so, then why did no one even do a quick medical examination before the match started? Just to see if she can actually play.

And John Koblin from The Observer wrote the following from the pressroom:

The early consensus in the press room seems to be that this was likely related to her fitness, and not exclusively a reflection of the heat out there. It’s just over 90 degrees now, and it was hotter at times yesterday.

Yes, hotter at times yesterday. But she didn’t play yesterday. She may have practiced but that’s different from a match.

The WTA was asked for a comment but they were quick to say that it is up to the USTA. The USTA came with the following statement:

US Open Tournament Referee Brian Earley said in a statement following the match: “Victoria Azarenka retired from her match with headache-like symptoms. She was taken to a nearby hospital for diagnostic testing. Out of respect to her privacy, we cannot give any more details. However, we can say that this does not seem to be primarily a heat-related illness.”

Greg Couch of Fanhouse was quick to Tweet that all this may be a cover up. But then again, a cover up for what? Surely something must be at stake, if there are any cover ups in the first place.

Azarenka wobbling from the start in high heat. WTA won’t comment. USTA gives odd statement she had a headache-like. That passes smell test? – Greg Couch

With temparatures rising up until 90 degrees, things outside decay quicker. Let’s hope that this one doesn’t and that we get a full explanation in either a  press release or a press conference.

An early conclusion based on the reports I have read is that her collapse on the court could very well be a combination of two things: The heat and her bumping her head prior to the match. But then the question still remains: Why wasn’t there a medical examination before she started her match versus Dulko?

Azarenka’s official statement is as follows:

“I was warming up in the gym prior to my match against Gisela Dulko when I fell while running a sprint,” Azarenka later said in a statement. “I fell forward and hit my arm and head. I was checked by the medical team before I went on court and they were courtside for monitoring.

“I felt worse as the match went on, having a headache and feeling dizzy. I also started having trouble seeing and felt weak before I fell.

“I was taken to the hospital for some medical tests and have been diagnosed with a mild concussion.”

Check the gallery and video to see how Victoria Azarenka lays on the Grandstand court and later is wheeled off in a wheelchair.

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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.”

Rogers Cup Draw Doesn’t Disappoint

For the second year in a row, the Rogers Cup draw ceremony was held atop Canada’s highest man-made peak. The CN Tower played host on Friday to the number one player in the world as Rafael Nadal filled a decisive role in slotting players into their respective starting positions.

I must admit it was certainly the most impressive location I’ve ever been to for this type of gathering and I tried to ignore my fear of heights as I shot straight up 1700 meters in an elevator above the city of Toronto.

Rafa arrived right on time at 4pm sharp to a healthy round of applause from tournament officials, local VIP’s and members of the media. He seemed to be in quite a good mood, but then again wouldn’t you if you had just won the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back and also watched your country win the World Cup?

After a quick hello from tournament director Karl Hale and a brief generic intro from Rafa himself, the big moment of determining who will play who had arrived.

Nadal and number two seed Novak Djokovic were immediately placed on opposite sides of the draw. Then came the time where third seed Roger Federer and fourth seed Andy Murray were placed as tournament organizers anxiously crossed their fingers for the potential of a Nadal/Federer final. Djokovic might be second in the world now, but let’s be honest – we all want a Nadal vs Federer hard court final, right?

ATP official Tony Cho told Rafa he could pass the pressure of selecting a name to Karl Hale, but the Spaniard seemed to relish the opportunity to select his own eventual fate. Things worked out exactly as many had hoped with Murray ending up in the top half with Nadal and Federer ending up in the bottom half with Djokovic. Thank you tennis Gods!

Some of the more interesting first round matches include Gael Monfils the 15th seed against Fernando Gonzalez. David Ferrer the 10th seed has the misfortune of facing a suddenly resurgent David Nalbandian. Meanwhile, Gilles Simon will face 12th seeded Mikhail Youzhny which should also be a good one.

The top eight seeds in the tournament receive a first round bye, meaning they will not play their first matches until Tuesday and Wednesday.

The four Canadian wildcards in the draw received a mixed offering for the opening round. Canada’s best hope, Frank Dancevic always seems to draw tough opponents in his home tournament and this year is no different as he will face Stanislas Wawrinka. Should he get past him he will have the honor of playing against Nadal in the second round.

Pierre-Ludovic Duclos was fortunate to receive a qualifier as his first opponent. The plus side is that whoever he faces will have a lower ranking but on the negative side of things they will have two qualifying matches already under their belt.

Roger Federer’s practice partner in Canada, Peter Polansky, gets 13th seeded Jurgen Melzer for his first match, while 19 year old Milos Raonic will meet Victor Hanescu.

Looking at both halves of the draw is seems to me that the top portion is the stronger battlefield. Nadal will have to get through the likes of Wawrinka, Querrey, Roddick and Murray just to make it to the finals. Others like Robin Soderling, David Nalbandian and Marin Cilic also lurk in the top half.

In the bottom half, Federer has a nice quarter where he could face Wimbledon nemesis in the final eight. Before that however he has a relatively stress-free opening couple of matches. Novak Djokovic should be untroubled advancing to the semi-finals with a struggling Nikolay Davydenko and Jurgen Melzer has his only major threats.

After a month long layoff from any serious tennis it should be a great week of tennis here in Toronto. Stay tuned to Tennis Grandstand as we will be keeping you up to date daily from the Rogers Cup.

Photos by Mike McIntyre.