Barely Breathing: Dominika Cibulkova and the Choke Which is Not One

Long after the last point of a match is won (or lost), it is unlikely to be remembered by its combatants’ first serve percentages or backhand errors. No, in the immediate aftermath of a match, especially at a big tournament like the Sony Open in Miami, how a match is remembered largely depends on how it is framed by fans and media. Was it a tension-filled epic, or was it an inconsequential blowout?

Unfortunately, tennis matches are not remembered through such a clean-cut binary. There is a third, shame-based category known as “the choke.”  Once reserved for a tear-stained Jana Novotna, the choke has come to more broadly encompass any and all matches during which a player loses from a winning position. While a true choke knows no gender bias (according to Tennis Channel, three of the top five “greatest” chokes happened during men’s matches), the supposedly more “hormonal” sex has been assigned the greater concentration of “chokeworthy” matches over the last several years.

Can one then classify yesterday’s fourth round encounter between top seeded Serena Williams and Slovakian dynamo Dominika Cibulkova as a choke? That Cibulkova, far from a notorious closer, lost the match from a set and 4-1 up would imply at least a numerical case of neck constriction.

But in order to properly “frame” this match, it needs to be made clear what a choke is and is not, and we need look no further than Cibulkova herself for a relevant historical precedent.


Exactly one year ago, at the exact same tournament in the exact same round, Cibulkova also had the top seed, Victoria Azarenka (then undefeated in 2012) on the ropes. Taking advantage of a flat, uninspired opponent, the Slovak was punching well above her weight class to outstanding effect, redlining her already aggressive game to take the World No. 1 within moments of defeat.

Yet, when twice given the opportunity to serve out the match, she froze. Throwing in consecutive double faults, Cibulkova did not leave the door slightly ajar. She hammered at its hinges until she had broken it down herself. She would recover to play an exciting third set after losing the second in a tiebreaker, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Azarenka had been allowed to believe she could win and Cibulkova had choked away the chance to snap the Belarusian’s winning streak.

Fast forward to yesterday, and it was a very different story. Yes, Serena was flat for a set and a half, but flat in the “two winners, eighteen unforced errors” sense of the term. Where Cibulkova was gunning for outright winners against Azarenka a year ago, she was playing Williams tough enough for the American to make the mistake. This was not a case of one opponent outplaying the other only to become tentative, the purest definition of a choke. For Cibulkova, this was the athletic equivalent to a participation grade. She had shown up, and was being rewarded for doing so.

But down an early break in the second set, Serena Williams went from bad to better. She started moving her feet and stopped spraying the ball to dramatic effect. While she showed marked improvement, the top seed did not begin playing at a superhuman level, the kind we’ve seen from Williams over the years when her back is to the wall. She raised her level just enough to make what had been an embarrassing steamroll into a competitive match.

A competitive match, evidently, was not what the Slovak had signed up for. Not having been asked to play anywhere near her best until two games from the finish line, she was unable to ramp up her game in the same way Williams had done almost involuntarily. Stuck in third gear, she had no answers for the sleeping giant she had accidentally awoken and lost 6-2 in the final set.

So, did she choke? Not in the traditional sense. The form that took her within points of upsetting Serena pales in comparison to the brilliant ball bashing that nearly took out Azarenka a year ago. Cibulkova’s fire did not burn out at the last minute, because it was hardly there in the first place. However, a giant-killer type like Cibulkova knows the intensity needed in order to defeat a Williams or an Azarenka. Even if she had not been at her best the entire match, the time to raise her level came when she was serving for 5-2 in the second.

Instead, she remained static, and in a way, that can be equally disappointing.

Tsonga and an opportunity lost

James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.

By James Crabtree


As tough as Federer’s draw has been on paper this was his first real test.

Jo- WilfredTsonga is a big, fast and intimidating player who knows what it feels like to beat his rival in five sets.

Add to that Tsonga’s assorted collection of thunderous ground shots, booming serves, tantalizing volleys and a crowd he keeps enchanted, Federer had a problem.

Most people attending, aside from those who had national pride or an unhealthy devotion at stake, were happy to see either man win.

The first four sets were shared evenly and at that point both players deserved to win. Consistency, fitness and strategy were comparable, although Tsonga’s style was generally more flamboyant. By this point people watching were thinking up elaborate excuses why they wouldn’t be into work tomorrow morning, in anticipation of a Wawrinka Djokovic battle royale.

“Jo was really pressing forward today, playing aggressive, pushing me to come up with the plays and get one more extra ball back.  I think I did well.  I’ve been moving well all week, or the last couple weeks.  You know, I guess also not having played any tournaments leading in, today was tricky because I haven’t been in a match like this for some time, and I’m happy I came through.” said a relieved and happy Federer who added to his own history books with his 10th straight Australian Open semi-final.

Jo-Wilfred Tsonga went toe to toe with Federer but failed to deliver when it really mattered most, losing 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 7-6 (7-4) 3-6 6-3. Tsonga was bidding to deny Federer any more statistical achievements and his 10th consecutive Australian Open semi-final.

The Frenchman had taken the fourth set brilliantly seizing the opportunities when they presented themselves. Sadly he started the fifth without the desperation needed to outlast the most successful player of all time. Something was missing and with it Federer’s confidence multiplied.

But luck was on Federer’s side during this kind spirited affair. Even whilst a break up  he was the fortunate recipient of a net cord that dribbled over the net, with Tsonga fruitlessly running all the way past the net and into Federer’s court to which Tsonga, with a wry smile, could only mock hit a ball at the Swiss master.

Tsonga’s downcast expression following his defeat was more striking than the words he used afterwards when speaking to the press.

“You know, I’m a bit in the bad mood because I lost it. But, you know, in other way I played a good match.  I was solid.  I was there every time.  I keep my level of concentration, you know, really high all times. You know, I just gave my best today, so I’m proud of that. But, you know, I’m not happy to lose, and I already look forward for the next tournament, the next Grand Slam, to try another time.”

Everybody is so quick to comment on Federer’s age, almost without realisation how old everybody else is getting. Tsonga and Berdych are both 27, David Ferrer is 30. Their athletic biological clock is ticking by too and all three need to renounce their membership from the illustrious ‘nearly men’ group.

A subdued Tsonga reflected afterwards of the Federer he lost to today but beaten at Wimbledon two years ago. “In 2011 I think it was not a really good year for him, and I’m sure he’s more in a good shape. He was in a good shape last year and he’s in a good shape at the beginning of this year, so I think it’s a different player.”

A different player Andy Murray, Federer’s next opponent, should be wary of.

Another Federer Quarter

James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.

By James Crabtree

MELBOURNE — History was not on the side of Canadian Milos Raonic. In fact when the vast majority of the tour face Federer, statistics and history are not on their side.

No Canadian, not including defectors, had ever made it to a grand slam quarter final. Federer on the other hand has reached the grand slam quarterfinals 34 consecutive times. That is 136 victories, a hefty number to shift, meaning Federer doesn’t lose unless his opponent truly deserves to be there. It also means that Federer is a perfect employee, never taking a day off.

The big Canuck is an interesting specimen, duly if Andy Roddick and Richard Krajicek had a baby, Milos Raonic would be the result, although no speculation exists for that union to ever take place.

Indeed, if you squinted your eyes and used your imagination only slightly, you might well have been watching a Federer Roddick match, and the result of those was usually fail-safe.

This was never going to resemble a clay court match, with Milos going for glory early with big serves or cracking groundstrokes, knowing full well if he tried to out rally he was doomed. Federer meanwhile relished the ball in play, bullying the Raonic backhand every chance he had.

“I think I played tactically well tonight and was able to keep the points short on my own service games, used the 1-2 punch. That was obviously also a good thing tonight.” Federer stated in his post match press conference.

Quickly Federer started to read the massive Raonic serve, although initially he could only muster a block return although instinctively returning the ball from within the baseline.

Raonic was in trouble when 2-3 down in the first set facing a few break points. Calmly he fired two Sampras style aces, causing all worry of a break to simply vanish.

At 4-5 the tension built again, giving Federer a set point. As has so often been the case the computer assistance was switched on, unfairly in Federer’s advantage, prompting Raonic to net a relatively easy volley.

Of considerable interest is Federer’s chameleon approach, feeling the need to better his opponent when it comes to their particular strength. To which Federer stated, “Important obviously was first to focus on my own serve before even thinking about how to return Milos. But I did a good job tonight.  As the match went on, I started to feel better. But that’s kind of normal.”

The second set continued much like the first although Raonic held his nerve longer. This time the set wasn’t decided until 3-3 in the tiebreak. Federer took the advantage by delivering a Wawrinka inspired backhand down the line that could only make you wonder if great backhands were given away for free in Swiss cereal boxes.

Federer’s scream of joy directed towards his entourage was heard throughout the arena, whilst Raonic ambled despondently to his chair, with more on mind his than just the overwhelming score line. Raonic told reporters, “well, long story short, until probably 45 minutes to an hour before the match, I wasn’t even sure I’d play.  I rushed over to get a quick MRI on my foot.  I was having issues walking.  I got the clear to play after that.  I just had an anaesthesia injection into my foot.  I was given the go to play.”

Subsequently Raonic stumbled to open the third set, and kept on stumbling. Federer meanwhile was on autopilot, treating the crowd to a level of on court purity that only a very small amount of players experience, breezing to victory 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.

“Most of the times you play good, you know. When you play very good, that’s rare. So just have to try to have as many good days or great days as you can, and that’s why I push hard in practice and keep myself in shape.”

Federer faces Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the next round marking his 35th straight quarterfinal.


Vancouver Stoked to Host Davis Cup Elite

Two years removed from hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the city of Vancouver will be all about tennis this week as many of the sport world’s eyes will be focused on the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, which will host Canada’s biggest Davis Cup tie in the last decade beginning Friday.

Canada will host a powerhouse team from France, which includes Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in their first World Group tie since 2004. This also marks the first time since 1992 that Vancouver will host a Davis Cup tie.

Led by their two young guns, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil, who played the role of Davis Cup hero last year to give his country this opportunity, Canada will attempt to pull off a huge upset in their first home tie since 2009. For the occasion, Tennis Canada has selected a fast indoor hard court that should help produce a few more aces and winners from the heavy-hitting Canadian racquets.

Not only did the event sell out within an hour, but the organizing committee has pulled out all of the stops to give their squad every advantage as they go after this monumental victory. “Operation Red and White” is encouraging fans to wear their country’s colours regardless of where they will be watching the matches and reinforces that France won’t win, at least “Not On Our Court”.  In addition, the Cactus Club Café in Vancouver is the official Team Canada Headquarters to watch the tie for fans who don’t have a ticket.

The one and only meeting between Canada and France in Davis Cup came way back in 1966 on the clay courts of Roland-Garros with the home side coming away with a dominant 5-0 win. The home team this time around is hoping for a much different result and Raonic and Pospisil will have to play the matches of their lives to make it happen. Not only will France be tough in singles, but they have also brought Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra, two of their doubles specialists to counter Canadian legend Daniel Nestor, who usually guarantees a point when he suits up for the crucial doubles rubber.

“It’s a short time frame compared to the other years, usually we have play in March so we have an extra month to get the match count high enough to feel really good about anybody’s game,” said Team Canada captain Martin Laurendeau. “But, the fact that it’s following a Grand Slam and it’s early in the season has forced the guys to be sharp early in the year and we are playing some good tennis right now.”

The task at hand may be a very difficult one, but there is a reason they play the game and the Canadian underdogs plan on showing their home fans why.

ATP Tour’s Best Tennis Celebrations of 2011

What a year for tennis! As the men are in the middle of a so-called “off-season” training and rejuvenating their bodies and minds, we’ll take a look at the year’s best title-winning celebrations, including Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Murray, Janko Tipsarevic, Gilles Simon, Milos Raonic and others! Man, can these fellas celebrate in style!

Novak Djokovic – Australian Open

There’s no better place to begin than with Novak Djokovic’s stellar start to the season at the Australian Open in January. Little did the world know what was to come:  10 titles, a career-defining record of wins and the ascension to World Number 1. There were no doubts the man knew how to party, but this year we were reminded time and again. The young Serb was so excited in Melbourne that he was even knocking down ceilings!

Gilles Simon – Apia International Sydney

That same month, Frenchman Gilles Simon let it roar after winning the Apia International Sydney against Viktor Troicki. The usually soft-spoken X-Men-Wolverine-crossed-with-that-teen-vampire-Edward-Cullen-dude wasn’t afraid to flaunt his joy in front of his staring opponent (enlarge the left photo, don’t take my word for it!). Unfortunately, Simon’s results wavered for the rest of the year, but we did see him re-enter into the top 15 after having fallen all the way to #41.


Milos Raonic – SAP Open

Young Canadian Milos Raonic burst onto the scene in early 2011, plowing his way through the qualifiers of the Australian Open before losing in the fourth round, taking his first title in San Jose at the SAP Open, and then pushing Andy Roddick in the finals of Memphis. Learn this face and learn it well, as we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of him in years to come. That is, if he can stay injury-free. Back troubles kept him off the tour for a while, even forcing him to skip the U.S. Open. Here’s hoping the 6’5″ stud celebrates like this more often!

Andy Roddick – Regions Morgan Keegan Championships

If you want pointers on how to properly dive on a tennis court, look no further than the match point-winning dive Andy Roddick displayed at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis. Against the younger and faster Raonic, Roddick went for broke in nearly every rally. As one of the more subdued celebrations in this collection, he appears shocked, before realizing the nearly impossible get had just won him the championship.


Ryan Sweeting – US Men’s Clay Court Championship

Two months later we saw another American champion, just this time it was first-time winner Ryan Sweeting who defeated Kei Nishikori in the final of the US Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston, Texas. As is tradition, Sweeting took the champions’ plunge into the pool at the River Oaks Country Club, afterward celebrating with young fans. What more could you want in an easily lovable winner?


Rafael Nadal – Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters

The month of April also saw one of tennis’ biggest champions win his first singles’ title of the year. Rafael Nadal commandingly defeated fellow Spaniard David Ferrer at the Monte Carlo Masters before doing a repeat the following week in Barcelona. With his genuine “jumping for joy” below, it sincerely seems as if Nadal didn’t think he’d see this day again. Not only had he not won a title in six months, but Monte Carlo also held a special place in his heart. At the end of 2009 and start of 2010, he had a year-long title drought that again abruptely ended with him taking home the Monte Carlo crown. This Nadal celebration is like so many of his previous ones: you can almost photoshop any background or court surface or crowd behind him and his joy would still be as palpable. Every one of his previous 44 titles meant just as much to him as any future one. Like a young boy reaching for candy at the highest shelf, Nadal exudes excitement, heels barely on the ground and smile captivating the stadium, in everyone of his titles.


Rafael Nadal – Barcelona Open

Not far from his winning ways, the title in Barcelona was just as sweet in celebration, but with an added touch. If only to somehow involve Marat Safin in the mix, the absurd size of this trophy deserves a mention on its own merit. Nadal learned from Safin’s trophy-destroying ways back in 2000 and handily hoisted the trophy above his head — all without breaking it! Looks like an extra tier of names has even been added since Safin’s time!

Nikolay Davydenko – BMW Open

Although not his best year, Nikolay Davydenko has compiled an impressive career. Nine consecutive years with at least one title is quite a feat, and his sole title this year at the BMW Open included an extra-large accessory, a white BMW to be precise. Let’s see how many ways there are to dress up a BMW with Davydenko: on the hood, in the driver’s seat – perhaps driving down the road on your left? Oh, we can only dream! Winning looks good on you, Kolya.


Juan Martin Del Potro – Estoril Open

There is perhaps no better “feel good” story than Juan Martin Del Potro’s comeback this year. Not only did he take the ATP award by the same title earlier this month, but he walked away with a healthy wrist and a return to #11 in the rankings after falling down to #485 back in January. Below is his double fist-pumping hungry defeat of Fernando Verdasco in Estoril, only his second title since winning his maiden slam at the 2009 U.S. Open. Good to have you back, big guy!


Novak Djokovic – Mutua Madrid Open

Winning his sixth title of the year in Madrid gave Djokovic the chance to take a fun photo with the ball kids for an awesome celebration. Nothing beats a player comfortable in his own shoes, surrounded by fans who breathe his every victory with him. The happiness on those kids faces doesn’t lie!

Rafael Nadal – Roland Garros

Nadal broke through again in May by winning Roland Garros and had the honor of celebrating with one of the best characters of all time, Mickey Mouse. And in Disneyland Paris, no less! There’s much to be said of his perseverance (and struggle) this year as he was demolished by Djokovic on 6-of-6 finals: four Masters tournaments and 2 grand slams. If it hadn’t been for Djokovic, we could have been witnessing a repeat of Nadal’s spectacular 2010 season. But instead of nine titles this year, he went home with only three.


Andy Murray – AEGON Championships

The Scot (or is that Brit, when he’s losing?) stepped it up this year and the UK media shouldn’t be complaining. Although he pulled the plug on London early to prepare himself for the Australian Open, Andy Murray had a solid 2011 capturing three more titles than last year’s two. Here, he basks in the glory of his first title of the year in London/Queen’s Club after coming back from a set down to defeat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It had been nearly eight months since his previous title, and it seems he has forgotten they put the winner’s name on the trophy. Pure joy from an often self-deprecating Murray can make any year-end celebration list.


Novak Djokovic – Wimbledon

There is just no way of avoiding this guy. His celebrations have been called over the top and unnecessary, but can you blame him for savoring the moment (and the grass) at Wimbledon? Djokovic’s defining win there over Nadal made the naysayers quiet down and step back and just say “too good.”


Radek Stepanek – Legg Mason Tennis Classic

32-year-old veteran Radek Stepanek took the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. by storm, routing “Lucky Loser” Wayne Odesnik 6-1, 6-1 in the second round, downing Verdasco in the quarterfinals and finally owning Gael Monfils in the finals. To top it all off, he performed his famed victory dance move, “The Worm,” and sealed the deal by cheerily stealing the park ranger’s hat for a fun opportunity during the trophy ceremony.


Novak Djokovic – Rogers Cup

The Summer of the Serbian continued when Djokovic defeated Mardy Fish to take the Rogers Cup. Just call him “Superman Nole” with his contagious positive energy – even the chair umpire can’t contain himself!


Vasek Pospisil – Davis Cup World Group Play-offs

Canadians know how to do that deep carnal scream/roar with whatever you call this celebratory stance (wish there was video!). In September, Vasek Pospisil single-handedly won Canada’s Davis Cup World Group play-off vs Israel notching two singles and one doubles win. He started the year ranked 339 but is at a healthy 119 currently. Along with Raonic, he’s a force to be reckoned with and that’s definitely a reason to celebrate.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – Moselle Open

Along with his thumb-wagging dance or stylish tuxedo ensemble, Tsonga always looks poised for a bumping party. And his first title of the year in Metz was no exception. Hard to believe that a player which only notched two 250-level titles this year nearly took the top spot at the podium at the ATP World Tour Finals. That’s either a testament to the depth of the current men’s game or a reflection of the struggle Tsonga fan’s face at every tournament: which Tsonga will show up this time? “Consistently-doomed Tsonga” or “consistently-crazy-awesome Tsonga”? His celebrations are indeed few and far in between.

Janko Tipsarevic – Malaysian Open

Janko Tipsarevic may never outgrow his boyish ways, but he took a step in the right direction as he not only won his first title at the Malaysia Open, but followed it up with a second title in Moscow less than one month later. In the past, Tipsarevic had been known as the only top player to never have won a title. But after using his Serbian comrades as inspiration, he’s even gone as far as inking his name into the year-end championships – a feat not many men in this sport can claim. And yes, Janko, that trophy has your name on it … (He and Murray are like two peas in a pod!)


Roger Federer – Swiss Indoors Basel

Ah, Roger Federer. Could a list as this really not mention his name? As one of the more calm and stoic players, when he gets fired up, you know he means business. After a “dismal” year with no grand slam titles to his name, he still took home four trophies, among them Basel. For a record-breaking fifth time, the Swiss Maestro planned to his hometown fans defeating Kei Nishikori before celebrating with the ball kids and LOTS of pizza. Much like his young self, maybe one of these youngsters will grow up to be the next tennis superstar.

Roger Federer – Barclays ATP World Tour Finals

Federer had a stellar end to the season as the following month he picked up the ATP World Tour Finals trophy for a record sixth time. With that came a check of $1.63 million as he went undefeated the entire week, and a bump up in the rankings back to #3, displacing Andy Murray. You can always count on Federer being relatively “fresh” for the year-end championships somehow. Players: take note and emulate.


Spain – Davis Cup Finals

Last, but definitely not least, is the “Dancing Happy Spaniards” of the Davis Cup. Their sound defeat of Argentina brought us not only these great photos of the team celebrating, but the Spaniards must have foresight as they did a pre-win celebration in the lockerroom prior to their finals match!


And there you have it! Any good ones I’ve missed, share in the comments!

Federer Finishes on High Note, Davis Cup Clash in Spain – The Friday Five

by Maud Watson

Another Title, Another Record

Last Sunday, Roger Federer became the first male player to win six season-ending championships, surpassing the previous record of five held jointly by Sampras and Lendl.  It also marked his 70th tournament win in 100 finals.  It was a great effort by Federer that showcased his fitness and resiliency.  When others were tired and running on fumes, he stood tall.  And rather than crumbling after a disappointing summer that included two devastating losses in the semis of both Wimbledon and the US Open, the man from Switzerland went a perfect 17-0 to collect three titles and regain the No. 3 ranking to close out 2011.  The ATP World Tour Finals may have also marked a psychological turning point for Federer.  He candidly admitted to being mentally fragile at some key moments earlier in the season, and after finding a way to close out Tsonga in a match that looked like it might yet again prove to be a dramatic comeback from the Frenchman, Federer may finally be putting some of those demons to rest.  This win by no means that he is a guaranteed major winner in 2012 – he finished 2010 with the title in London, too.  But it is a strong reminder that Federer still has more than enough game and motivation to add to his Slam tally before he calls it a career.

Overlooked Achievement

Often overshadowed by singles, there was some spectacular doubles on hand in London, and the team that took the cake was that of Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi.  It takes two to lift the title, and Mirnyi certainly did his part, but what an achievement for Daniel Nestor.  At age 39, he’s still one of the greatest doubles players in the game.  As a testament to just how good he is, he’s won the calendar year Grand Slam, Olympic gold, and has now won the season-ending championships four times with three different partners.  Unless he just decides he’s tired of the grind, there’s no reason why Nestor can’t continue to add to his doubles legacy.  Pencil him in as a future Hall of Famer.

Title Favorites

The final hurrah of 2011 gets underway today, as Spain plays host to Argentina in the Davis Cup final.  Both sides have played down their chances, with Argentina calling Spain the favorites, especially since they have Nadal – albeit a Nadal who is suffering from fatigue – playing at home on clay.  Spain meanwhile has said that Argentina is fielding a dangerous team that will be feeling extra motivation, having not won the title in three tries, the most recent final loss coming at the hands of Spain in Argentina in 2008.  One Spaniard who isn’t afraid to proclaim Spain’s status as the favorite, however, is Manolo Santan, who stated that the Spanish team could beat the Argentines on roller skates.  This sentiment was perhaps a bit too cocky (and unwise to give the Argentines extra incentive to make him eat his words), but he is correct in that Spain is undoubtedly the team to beat in this one.  But it should hopefully prove an entertaining matchup, and an upset that would see Argentina win its first Davis Cup title could happen.  Sit back and enjoy!

Changing It Up

The man just named 2011’s Most Improved Player, Alex Bogomolov, Jr., has been granted his wish.  He will now represent Russia instead of the United States.  While it’s understandable that some in the USTA were unhappy with the move given the time and money that has been invested in Bogomolov, it’s not like he’s the first player to benefit from American money and play for another nation (albeit those others did not benefit from USTA-funding).  This move also provides a great opportunity to Bogomolov, who was born in Moscow, as he will be able to represent Russia in the upcoming Davis Cup tie as their currently top-ranked player.  If still representing the United States, he would only be the fourth highest ranked American.  Here’s to hoping he finds the switch of allegiance well worth it.  The second more puzzling changeup concerns Donald Young.  According to TENNIS.com, Donald Young has gone back to being coached by his mother.  Under the guidance of the USTA’s coaching staff, Young enjoyed the most successful period of his professional career, starting at the end of the summer and through the Asian swing.  At the time of writing, few details are known regarding the switch, but a source has told TENNIS that Young was asked to train and practice at one of their facilities during the off season and Young refused.  Hopefully this will not prove another step backwards, but if TENNIS.com’s source is reliable, a frustrating history may be about to be repeated.

Still Plugging Away

Despite multiple surgeries, a major dip in the rankings, and an extended absence from the tour, Lleyton Hewitt insists that he has no retirement plans.  In some ways, he seems up there in age, but in reality, he’s less than a year older than Federer.  Unfortunately for the Aussie, he doesn’t possess Federer’s game, but it’s great to hear that he’s planning to stick around.  He’ll never get near the upper most echelons of the game again, but a healthy Hewitt has the tenacity, smarts, and experience to cause some upsets and maybe add the occasional piece of hardware to his own collection.  You’d be hard pressed to find many players that have more of a fighting spirit than the man from Adelaide, and thanks to being awarded a wildcard into the Australian Open, his legion of fans will be keen to see him hopefully get his 2012 campaign off with a flier.

Federer Creates History with His Sixth ATP World Tour Finals Title – Live Coverage

by Ahmed Ibrahim

The stage was set as the O2 Arena filled with 17,500 spectators ready for the climax of the 2011 season that pitted Roger Federer against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. This was the third consecutive Sunday that both players would meet on a tennis court; Roger Federer emerging victorious in all three recent encounters, although nothing quite compares to the resounding victory Tsonga had over the Swiss Maestro in Wimbledon last June when he clawed back from two sets down to win in dramatic style.

Both players had a great week in London: both bested Nadal in the round robin of the group, and Federer beat David Ferrer in straight sets in the Semi-Final while Tsonga did the same to Tomas Berdych. It was fitting that both players would meet again in the Final.

The O2 Arena expected a big show from both players, after all, this was the Final of the ATP World Tour Finals and the last ATP match of 2011. The rapturous applause and loud cheers as the players walked on to court was deafening and cheers in equal measure for both players echoed around the arena.

Federer and Tsonga were in no mood for giving each other the break as they both held serve showing off the hard hitting and fast court coverage that has seen them take down the best this year. The crowd, at various times, was held in awe as Tsonga dropped some very gutsy drop volleys and ferocious crosscourt winners. Federer, although playing second-best in the first set, wowed us with his abilities to use the court to great effect and return hard hitting groundstrokes from Tsonga.

The break came when Tsonga was serving 3-4 and a rare sloppy play gave Federer a 0-40 advantage which he capitalized and, despite Tsonga’s valiant efforts to break, served out the first set on the second set point in 35 minutes.

Tsonga almost gave away an early break in the second set at 1-1 when his serve seemed to have departed the O2. Two consecutive double-faults put him on the back foot but he managed to dig himself out and hold from 15-40. Federer was getting hungry and managed to secure a break at 2-2 when he had Tsonga on the ropes at 30-40 facing a second serve. Running around the backhand he unleashed a monstrous inside-in forehand to break and take the 3-2 lead.

The crowd went wild, Federer was fist pumping, Tsonga could not believe it. As the crowd cheered for Federer many turned their support to Tsonga; the O2 crowd loves to support a player who can keep his head when faced with a mountainous task.

Federer had the opportunity to serve for his sixth ATP World Tour Finals titles at 5-4 but lacked the concentration that has seen him serve out for championships many times in his 69 victories. Facing triple break point he recovered to 30-40 when an aggressive Tsonga got a little too aggressive and hit long before sending a forehand into the net. Federer was unable to salvage the third break point as Tsonga smashed his way to 5-5.

This is often the moment when the momentum can shift. Tsonga was pumped up, the crowd was getting behind him and he was feeding from the energy. Federer was his usual self not letting it show where others would probably stand on the court with their hands on hips, racquet to the floor in disbelief. Perhaps by 30 you’ve learned a lot about holding back your emotions and keeping that ‘poker face’ trying not to show your opponent that you have taken a hard whack on the nose.

Fittingly this match would go to a tie-break. Lots in the crowd wanted this to go to three sets. “Jo, we’ve paid a lot of money for today, make this worth it!” yelled the lady behind me. If going to a tie-break in such a situation was not worth the money we were in for a tense one.

The tie-break started nervy with Tsonga giving away the immediate mini-break. But Federer yielded back and snatched a 4-2 lead making it look like one-way traffic on court; all he had to do was hold onto his service points. Tsonga was not going to go down without a fight despite trailing 3-5 when he fought back with three straight points. Federer reached Championship Point with an ace but would have to work past the bullet Tsonga serve. Saving Championship Point with a mid-court winner and hitting an unreturnable serve, he nailed a ferocious forehand return of serve direct at the feet of Federer to take the second set.

Needless to say the crowd went beserk and was firmly rooting for Tsonga who, by now, was gathering momentum and confidence. Federer, who remained his cool un-phased self, started the third set by serving first. This is where he often turns up the heat as he had done against Tsonga and Mardy Fish over the past week.

The tennis was gathering pace as both players hit the ball harder, deeper, and with more spin. Federer’s backhand was looking more fluid; Tsonga’s forehand resembled a heat seeking missile waiting for the moment to strike.

At 3-4 Tsonga would finally buckle as he was held on the ropes at 0-30. He fought back with three straight points but two forehand errors gave Federer a break point. Tsonga bravely saved by volleying a winner off a forehand approach he was facing another break point two points later but saved it again as he ripped a backhand crosscourt that left Federer stunned and the crowd erupting with cheers and applause. It was not until the third break point that Federer made the crucial break through as Tsonga hit a running forehand into the alley.

A roaring cry from a fist-pumping Federer, who stood a few feet below me, lifted the crowd into levels of mad hysteria for they knew this was his moment and history was only four points away. A love-hold by Federer who ended the match with a forehand volley winner leapt into the air with celebration for the 70th time in his career.

The trophy presentation spoke a thousand words as the confetti reigned down over Federer. Tsonga was extremely gracious in defeat; Federer humble as ever in his victory speech praised Tsonga’s great year. The crowd appreciative of what was put before them gave both players a standing ovation. Many are confident that Tsonga will grow from this experience; others are excited for whatever else Federer can accomplish.

This was a fitting way for Federer to end his 2011 season with a title win that lifts him to World Number 3 in the ATP Rankings while Tsonga retains his career high of Number 6.

Ahmed Ibrahim is the author of the website Tennis Addict. He is in London covering the ATP World Tour Finals as a guest contributor for Tennis Grandstand. Follow his ATP World Tour Finals updates on his personal twitter @TennisAddict_

Federer Triumphant Over Fish as Tsonga Sends Nadal Packing – Live Coverage

by Ahmed Ibrahim

Round Robin formats often lead us down the path of making those calculations of who needs what results to qualify. Thankfully, Thursday’s Group B matches were a rather simple affair: The “dead rubber” and the “last chance saloon” match.

Mardy Fish, already eliminated from qualifying, faced an in-form Roger Federer while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Rafael Nadal battled it out to fill the second qualifying spot of Group B.

Roger Federer picked up where he left off against Rafael Nadal on Tuesday night, with a 6-1 3-6 6-3 win over Mardy Fish.  Early indications suggested that we were headed for another early-finishing match as Federer took the first set in 32 minutes. Breaking Fish in the second game Federer was immediately broken back. He broke Fish twice more to lead 5-1 and served out the first set from being down 0-40 after.

The crowd began to get behind Mardy Fish and he rallied from this to step up his game and broke Federer to lead 3-1 in the second set. Holding serve well as the unforced errors began to creep into Federer’s game Fish held on to take the second set. A third set was what the crowd wanted and Fish prolonged his stay at the O2 Arena.

Losing the second game in the third set Federer held to love to lead 3-0 and was upping the stakes and playing more aggressively, yet was too strong in the end for Fish.

It is good to see Fish bow out with a good fight though with three losses he will feel like he could have had a much better tournament especially after pushing Nadal to the wire on Sunday night. It goes without saying that not many first time ATP World Tour Finalists have taken sets off the former world number 1’s and to do that with both in the same group is a great result.

Whether or not we will see Fish back at the ATP World Tour Finals in years to come, or even next year, is a big question but there is no denying that Fish has had a great year and he thoroughly deserved to be here in London for his first ATP World Tour Finals.

Evidently for Federer his game was not entirely on par with that on Tuesday in his match against Nadal. Obviously not having the pressure of winning to qualify resting on his shoulders allowed to him to be a little bit more relaxed but stay focussed at being aware that Fish would want to walk off court on a high note.

The second match between 2010 finalist Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was a simple win-to-qualify match. This one went all the way to three sets in a 2 hours and 42 minute battle that threatened to leave spectators stranded if they did not catch the final trains from the O2 Arena on time.

Tsonga’s game plan was evident from the start: be aggressive, keep Rafa moving and pick the right moment to execute a winner. This worked well for Tsonga as he produced some fine displays of tennis in all parts of the court. From dictating play from the baseline he unleashed numerous crosscourt backhand winners that left the crowd gasping in awe. His net play was spot on and his dropshots were something out of a textbook.

Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, was looking to forget the beating he took at the hands of Roger Federer on Tuesday night and came out fighting hard. The crowd was pumped up to see a big battle between these two.

Going to a tie-break in the first set it was Tsonga who was too strong for Nadal with a comfortable 7-2 win in that set.

Nadal needed something big in the second set and yet did not appear to pick up the aggressiveness. Tsonga’s service rate dropped to 41 per cent in the second set and Nadal managed to shift the momentum in his favour as Tsonga’s unforced error count started to creep up with his winners count.

Serving to stay in the second set Tsonga played an awful game and his own mental toughness beat him again in a similar fashion to his match against Federer on Sunday.

Nadal failed to seize the momentum as Tsonga raced ahead to lead 5-2 before double-faulting to serve for the match. Stepping it up and going all out aggressive on the Nadal serve landed him up 0-30, a netcord sent the ball out to set up triple match point. Tsonga unleashed a monster cross-court forehand return winner that sealed his qualification into the Semi-Finals alongside Roger Federer.

Clearly, Nadal has not had a great year by his standards, admitting that in press, but his year is still not over as he will compete in the Finals of the Davis Cup in Seville against Argentina. Tsonga’s great year continues having beaten both Nadal and Federer on the grass courts of Queen’s and Wimbledon – can he go all the way in the O2?

Ahmed Ibrahim is the author of the website Tennis Addict. He is in London covering the ATP World Tour Finals as a guest contributor for Tennis Grandstand. Follow his ATP World Tour Finals updates on his personal twitter @TennisAddict_

Standout Performances by Federer, Ferrer, Tsonga; Yannick Noah Should be Punished – The Friday Five

by Maud Watson

Say What?!

Despite the enthralling tennis that has been taking place in London, one of the biggest stories of the week has been Yannick Noah’s accusations that Spanish athletes are doping.  Put bluntly, Noah’s comments couldn’t have been more idiotic for a multitude of reasons.  First, if you’re going to accuse someone of doping, have some semblance of concrete evidence, because suggesting that other athletes suddenly appear stronger and able to significantly dominate out of nowhere is not going to cut it.  Not to mention, has he taken a look at Tsonga or Monfils?  They’ve no doubt achieved their builds fair and square, but there are many players who don’t cut as imposing of a figure as those two.  Second, Noah put his own countrymen in an awkward position.  Kudos to Llodra and Tsonga who took the high road and apologized to their fellow Spanish competitors for Noah’s comments.  Finally, Noah’s solution to the problem was appalling.  Rather than suggesting that authorities clean up the alleged abuse, he supports letting French athletes dope, ignoring the long-term health effects it could have on those athletes.  The French Tennis Federation has condemned his comments, but they should also suspend him from any involvement with their Davis and Fed Cup teams as well as any media obligations.  He cannot go unpunished.

Standout Performers

There has been more than one upset this week in London, and there have also been some spectacular efforts from three individuals in particular.  Props need to be given to Federer.  True, he’d probably trade in his results this week for a major title, but he’s the only one of the Big Four who’s proven there’s still plenty left in the tank (and check out his total matches for 2011 vs. the other three, and you’ll see he’s played nearly as much).  Then a big congrats to David Ferrer.  He’s a bit like Davydenko in that he always seems to be overlooked.  He’s played breathtaking tennis in London, however, and if this is any indication that he’s starting to find the belief against the biggest names in the game, watch out for him in 2012.  Finally, hats off to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  After losing to Federer in three to start his campaign this year, he then produced top-notch tennis against Fish before taking it to Nadal when the chips were down to secure his semifinal berth.  If they keep playing like this, we’re in for an exciting end to the last tournament of the season.

Valiant Effort

His overall match results at the ATP World Tour Finals may say otherwise, but Mardy Fish was one of the feel-good stories of the week.  He said he was approaching the tournament with the attitude that he was just happy to be there, and that’s been evident in his whole demeanor.  You can see how much it meant to him to qualify for this prestigious event, and the fact that he played that third round robin match, knowing he was already out of the running and carrying an injury, is nothing short of admirable.  He also put together some fine tennis and had his preparation not been hampered by the injury, you can’t help but wonder if he might have won a few more of the key points and found his way to the semis.  It’s hard to know whether or not Fish is capable of backing up his 2011 season next year, but it’s hard not to root for him to have another crack at London.

Awards Are In

The ATP Awards were announced at the front part of the week, and there were no real surprises.  Djokovic took home honors for finishing No. 1 while Nadal received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his work with his foundation.  Bogomolov Jr. was named the Most Improved by his peers, while standout Raonic was voted the Newcomer of the Year.  But the most telling awards were perhaps those that were given to Roger Federer.  Despite falling to No. 4 in the rankings and not winning a major for the first time in nearly a decade, fans still voted him their favorite player for the ninth consecutive time, a testament to the enduring quality of the brand of tennis he plays.  He was also named the recipient of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, as voted on by his peers, for the seventh time in eight years.  For sure, Federer has had some less-than-classy moments in interviews following tough losses, but it’s nice to see that the sportsmanship award went to the top player who doesn’t feel the need to wear every emotion on his sleeve and doesn’t violate the time or coaching rules.

Lighten Up

That’s what Roger Draper and the LTA are asking the British Government to do when it comes to their tax laws regarding athletes competing in Britain.  Currently, athletes are taxed on prize money, appearance fees, and worldwide endorsements.  While taking taxes out for prize money and even the appearance fees doesn’t seem unreasonable (though they are high), the tax on the endorsements does.  Nadal, who brought the issue to a head earlier in the year, and any other athlete is right to complain and can’t be blamed for choosing to play at another venue that will allow them to take home more of their hard-earned money.  The question is if the government will budge, or if they think that they can continue to get away with it.  They’ve already granted some exemptions, such as to those competing in the 2012 Olympics, but it’s hard to imagine tennis players boycotting Wimbledon or possibly even the ATP World Tour Finals if not given exemptions just because of the tax laws.  Fingers crossed Draper and the LTA can get the government to do the right thing in this scenario.

ATP World Tour Finals Feature Familiar Faces

What parity?

The final eight players for the ATP World Tour Finals are clearly the big names in men’s tennis and have dominated all season-long. They are set to face off on November 20-27 at the O2 arena in London and fans will be treated to witnessing some of the best tennis players of any generation.

The two round-robin groups are:

Group A: Novak Djokovic (SRB), Andy Murray (GBR), David Ferrer (ESP), Tomas Berdych (CZE)
Group B: Rafael Nadal (ESP), Roger Federer (SUI), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA), Mardy Fish (USA)

But while the names are familiar, much has changed in the past 12 months.

Defending champion Roger Federer has experienced an up-and-down year, dropping out of the top three and failing to capture a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2002. However, the Swiss maestro should never be counted out and showed he still has magic left with title-winning performances at Basel and the Paris Masters recently. Federer, a 30-year-old father of twins, also ended world No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s unbeaten streak of 43 matches at the French Open semifinals and earned his 800th career win last week.

Djokovic has been virtually unstoppable at times during the year and captured the Australia Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open to compile one of the best individual seasons of all time. The 24-year-old Serb conquered his fitness woes and played with confidence to match his talent and skill. Sitting behind Federer and Spain’s Rafael Nadal for most of his career, Djokovic proved he could win in any condition, any surface and any situation, and will deservedly finish the 2011 season on top. Djokovic, however, is still recovering from a nagging shoulder injury that forced him to withdraw in Paris.

The oft-injured Nadal also enters the World Tour Finals recovering from ailment, as he has not played since the Shanghai Masters last month, electing to prepare his body for London and Davis Cup. The world No. 2 enjoyed a solid season, winning his sixth French Open and finishing runner-up at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to friendly rival Djokovic. The two captivated tennis fans all year with their intense matches that culminated in one of the most thrilling U.S. Open finals.

With a triumph in Shanghai, Britain’s Andy Murray overtook Federer as the world No. 3. Almost surprisingly, the Scot was perhaps the most consistent player on the Grand Slam stage aside from Djokovic, with a finals appearance at the Australian Open and three semifinal finishes. The brooding, seemingly self-loathing player has dedicated himself to fitness and after a deflating defeat at the hands of Djokovic at Melbourne, has rediscovered his game and confidence and should be a force at the World Tour Finals and in the 2012 season.

Spain’s David Ferrer and Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga should prove formidable and could spoil the party for any of the top four. World No. 5 Ferrer enters the event with solid wins at Shanghai, Valencia and the Paris Masters. Tsonga, at World No. 6, matched his career high ranking by reaching the finals in Paris, where he lost to Federer. Of the bottom four, only Tsonga has a winning career record against Djokovic.

Rounding out the top eight are Czech Tomas Berdych and World Tour Finals newcomer American Mardy Fish. In the quarterfinal of the Paris Masters, Berdych stunned Murray and secured his second consecutive World Tour Finals berth. Fish, who overtook fellow countryman Andy Roddick as the top American player this year, has shown consistent top victories that were lacking in the past. He enters the tournament despite being troubled with a hamstring strain.

The end-of-the-season round robin competition begins this Sunday, November 20th and should showcase some thrilling matchups to close out the 2011 ATP season.