By Randy Walker
What else can you say about Serena Williams?
This woman never seemingly ceases to amaze, continuing to stake her claim as the greatest tennis player of all time with a fourth year-end WTA Championship title. Her win in Istanbul was her 57th career singles title and concluded 2013 winning $12.4 million in prize money (she’s won $53.9 million in prize money in her career.)
Serena’s competitiveness and refusal to lose is the signature attribute of her championship mettle – a topic that her first coach Rick Macci discusses in the forthcoming book “Macci Magic: Extracting Greatness from Yourself and Others” (per order here: http://www.amazon.com/Macci-Magic-Extracting-Greatness-Yourself/dp/1937559254/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382983133&sr=1-1&keywords=macci+magic)
But, what is so ironic about Serena is how relatively uncompetitive she was in her first professional match.
Unlike her sister Venus, who at age 14 beat world No. 57 Shaun Stafford in her pro match and led world No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 6-3, 3-1 in her second pro match, Serena’s pro debut was not nearly as celebrated, successful or competitive, as documented below in the October 29 chapter of my book and mobile app ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY (www.TennisHistoryApp.com).
October 29, 1995 – Fourteen-year-old future world No. 1 Serena Williams makes an auspicious, humbling professional debut, losing in the first round of qualifying of the Bell Challenge in Quebec City, Canada to 18-year-old, Anne Miller 6-1, 6-1. The match is played at Club Advantage, a private tennis club in Quebec with little fanfare. Writes Robin Finn of the New York Times, ”Instead of a stadium showcase, she competed on a regulation practice court at a tennis club in suburban Vanier, side by side with another qualifying match. There were no spotlights, no introductions, not even any fans. Her court was set a level below a smoky lounge that held a bar, a big-screen television, an ice cream cart and 50 or so onlookers with varying stages of interest in her fate.” Says Williams, “I felt bad out there because I lost. I didn’t play like I meant to play. I played kind of like an amateur.” Says Miller, “I guess I played a celebrity…She has as much power as anybody around, but maybe she needs to play some junior events the way Anna Kournikova has to learn how to become match-tough. There really is no substitute for the real thing. I felt like a complete veteran compared to her.”
Miller would go on to a career that was so obscure that only a shell of a bio appears on her on the WTA’s website, but she did achieve a top 50 ranking.
By Maud Watson
Who to Watch
With Wimbledon wrapped and the summer hard court season upon us, it’s worth taking a look at some of the storylines to keep tabs on as the rest of the year unfolds. We’ll start with who to watch, and after her run at Wimbledon, Sabine Lisicki is the player to follow on the WTA. As previously noted, she’s got a big game, but she also possesses touch and feel and still has youth on her side. She’s never played consistently well outside of SW19, but after breaking new ground at the All England Club by reaching the final, perhaps she’s ready to do the same at other venues across the globe. On the men’s side, you have to like what you saw from Juan Martin del Potro at Wimbledon. He gave Djokovic all he could handle before bowing out in five enthralling sets in the semifinals and after that defeat, stated he felt he was ready to be back in the mix with the Big 4. As an added bonus, del Potro managed to engage the crowd much more by conversing with spectators and even joking throughout the course of that important match. He may have ultimately lost that semifinal, but he won a lot of fans sure to watch him going forward.
Who Will Feel the Love
After holding her nerve to grab the opportunity of a lifetime, newly-crowned Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli deserves some serious respect. The Frenchwoman has been better known for her quirks and some unfortunate disparaging remarks regarding her looks, but she deserves to be known for her game. Her relentless attacking style makes her a tough customer for the game’s best – as she proved six years ago – and with the confidence that comes from winning a major, she should be solidly back in the thick of it this summer. She also has a delightful personality that should have fans warming to her. For the men, it’s about time Ferrer got some kudos. He’s now in the top three, and he’s not there by accident. He consistently shows up week in and week out and just reached his first major final a month ago in Paris. At 31, he doesn’t have the same kind of upshot as a del Potro, but with the Spaniard likely to continue to produce throughout the remainder of 2013, it’s about time he was fully appreciated and respected for the tenacity and consistency that have played a big part in him surpassing Nadal and Federer in the rankings.
How Will They Respond?
Despite winning Roland Garros, Serena was undoubtedly unhappy to fall short at Wimbledon. To be fair to her, Lisicki did play a great match. But Serena also looked nervous. It’s unclear if that had to do with fear of Lisicki’s ability or if the pressure of defending her title – and a heavy favorite to do so – was getting to her. If it was the latter, things could get tricky for the American in the second half of 2013. She has a boatload of points to defend thanks to a stellar second half of 2012, and particularly if she wants to maintain the top WTA ranking, the pressure will only mount. She’s responded well to adversity before, but at 31, she’s bound to feel it a little more. As for the ATP, it’s a tossup as to whether it’s Federer or Nadal facing more questions going into the second half of the season. Both suffered shocking early exits at Wimbledon. Federer is looking to get back on the horse immediately by playing a couple of European clay court tournaments before heading to North America. How things transpire at those events will likely dictate just how freely he’s swinging as he preps for the US Open. In regards to Nadal, it’s unclear when he will return and how much the knee may or may not be hampering him. How his knee responds, as well as how mentally confident he feels about his game and body on the hard courts will determine just how much success he’ll enjoy the remainder of the season.
Will They Return?
The two players facing this question both represent the Stars and Stripes. Venus Williams continues to battle a back injury and is questionable for the US Open. It will all depend of if she is healthy enough to play a tune-up event before Flushing Meadows. If you factor in her age and other outside interests, it wouldn’t be entirely shocking if we see little to no play from her until the autumn or even 2014. Mardy Fish is the other player struggling to make a comeback, though he is set to compete in both Atlanta and Washington DC in the coming weeks. Fish remains upbeat about his chances of tasting success, citing the recent resurgence of veteran Tommy Haas as a point from which to draw inspiration. But as Mardy has admitted, so many of his issues have stemmed from the mental side of things. He’s also already suffered a couple of comebacks that have failed to get off the ground this season. Again, at his age, you have to wonder how many setbacks he’s willing to overcome before he decides to hang it up.
Race for No. 1
It’s a three-way race on both tours. For the WTA, it’s your top three, with Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka the most likely candidates to finish in the top spot. On paper, Serena has a bit of a cushion, but she has more to defend than the other two. Still, if she stays healthy, you have to like her odds of defending the bulk of her points from 2012. If not, with Azarenka struggling with injuries, this could prove a great opportunity for Sharapova to step it up. On the men’s side, it’s looking like a race between Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal. Similar to Serena, Djokovic has an apparent cushion but also has a number of points to defend. The good news for Djokovic is that World No. 2 Murray also has a large share of points to defend, and particularly with his early loss at Wimbledon, Nadal has to log exceptional performances at a number of the bigger events throughout the remainder of 2013. Assuming he doesn’t fall apart, Djokovic is still the favorite to finish atop the rankings.
By Maud Watson
As with Roland Garros, the question of whether to seed fifth-ranked Nadal at No. 4 or No. 5 was one of the hottest topics heading into Wimbledon. The verdict is in, and the seeding committee has opted to leave him seeded fifth. The decision has left some, like John McEnroe, scratching their heads, but it was the right decision. Wimbledon has a standard mathematical formula for determining the men’s seeds. The formula factors in grass court results over the last two years, with those of the previous 12 months weighted heavier than those of the past 24 months. Nadal had a dismal grass court season in 2012, and though he reached the finals of Wimbledon in 2011, he had a poor showing in his Wimbledon tune-up that year as well. Additionally, though he has won Wimbledon twice, it is not like he has dominated at SW19 anywhere near to the same extent as he has in Paris. If the folks in Paris were willing to seed him fifth had Murray not withdrawn, Wimbledon is definitely within its right to do the same. Would it be a surprise if he won the title here? Not overly. But he definitely doesn’t deserve an edge in his quest to do so at Ferrer’s expense.
Serena Williams is no stranger to controversy and thanks to some insensitive comments made a couple of months ago, she finds herself mired in it once again. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Serena made some off-the-cuff remarks regarding the infamous Steubenville rape case, which have many up in arms. Few would argue that, outside of something being slipped into her drink, the young victim acted irresponsibly. But Serena’s decision to carry it a step further by unmistakably insinuating that the victim was mostly to blame for what transpired and was even “lucky” that it wasn’t worse was off base. She further dug herself into a hole when she seemed to suggest that the primary perpetrators were potentially treated too harshly. To her credit, Serena has since backed off those comments. It would have been nice had she taken full responsibility for them instead of insinuating that her remarks were misrepresented (a scenario that seems somewhat unlikely given that the reporter used a recorder, and Serena isn’t outright accusing the reporter of misquoting her), but her damage control efforts and willingness to reach out to the victim’s family are admirable. It’s certainly an improvement over how she handled the 2009 US Open debacle, and hopefully this controversy won’t prove a distraction with Wimbledon around the corner.
Wimbledon has yet to get underway, but the women’s competition has already suffered a couple of blows. Both Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams have withdrawn with injuries. Kuznetsova is undoubtedly disappointed to have to forgo the Championships thanks to an abdominal strain she suffered at Roland Garros. The Russian has worked hard to rebuild her ranking, and after a quarterfinal showing in Paris where she was the only player to have Serena on the ropes, her inability to even attempt to build on that momentum is a disappointment. Venus, too, has fallen victim to a lingering injury, with her back still causing her fits. Grand Slam champions deserve to go out on their own terms, and as players like Serena and Federer have proven time and time again, it’s dangerous to write them off. But many, including Venus herself, have to wonder how much longer she’s going to be out there after this latest setback. The injuries and health issues are piling up, and the results haven’t been there for some time. She also looks far more distressed, annoyed, and upset than in years past when matches aren’t going in her favor. If the back doesn’t heal fast, Venus may be packing it up sooner than many anticipated.
One of the game’s most dangerous underachievers, David Nalbandian, will be out indefinitely after undergoing both hip and shoulder surgery. The Argentine still remains on crutches and has yet to test his shoulder. Despite the growing frequency of his injuries, however, the 31-year-old veteran isn’t ready to hang up the racquet just yet. Perhaps inspired by the likes of Haas, Robredo, and Baker, Nalbandian still feels he can produce stellar tennis. A trip back to the upper echelons of the game is unlikely in the cards, but it would be nice to see him have at least one more good go at it. He was one of the few players capable of giving all of the top players a run for their money, and when he’s on, he has a beautiful game to watch. Here’s to hoping he makes a full recovery and dazzles us again.
Czech newspapers are reporting that Radek Stepanek and former WTA pro Nicole Vaidisova are calling it quits after three years of marriage. The newspaper rumors were confirmed by Czech Davis Cup Captain Karel Tejkal. It always did seem odd, especially with the age gap (Stepanek is 34 and Vaidisova 24), that these two walked down the aisle in the first place, so news of their divorce isn’t really a shock. What is a shock, however, is that Stepanek, who has also previous dated Martina Hingis, is now rumored to be dating former Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova – a player even younger than Vaidisova. Kvitova has acknowledged awareness of the rumors but has yet to confirm their validity. She has merely asked all to respect her private life so as to avoid further outside distractions at the year’s third major. That’s all fine and well, but she’s living in a fool’s paradise if she thinks she’s heard the last of this, which given her recent struggles, doesn’t bode well for her chances of picking up Wimbledon title No. 2.
With the Wimbledon draw just a week ahead, the time has arrived to scan the ATP and WTA rankings in search of dark horses who could grab some unexpected attention. This survey features only players outside the top 20 at the start of the grass season, likely to meet an opponent of greater note in the first week. On any given day, these snakes in the grass could strike for an upset or two.
John Isner: Forever famous for his Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut, Isner never has fared as well there as top-ranked compatriot Sam Querrey. His lack of impact surprises, considering a playing style that should flourish on grass with a nearly impenetrable serve and a preference for short points. Isner has languished in a slump for most of 2013, but he nearly reached the second week at Roland Garros with another valiant run. The American would benefit from exchanging his pattern of endless epics for some more efficient first-week victories, conserving his energy early in the fortnight.
Grigor Dimitrov: Reaching the third round of a major for the first time at Roland Garros, the Bulgarian rising star tends to perform better at non-majors than majors. But Dimitrov took Tsonga to the brink of a final set at Wimbledon two years ago, and he has threatened every member of the Big Four this year except Roger Federer, whom he has not faced. His combination of an explosive first serve with dexterity around the net could shine on the grass. Less impressive is his movement and his ability to convincingly take care of business against overmatched opposition.
Julien Benneteau: He came closer than anyone last year to knocking off eventual champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon, snatching the first two sets before the match slipped away. Benneteau has struggled to win any matches at all in singles since March, not long after he upset Federer in Rotterdam. His doubles expertise could help on a court that rewards net-rushers, and he reached the second week in 2010. Formidable early draws have stunted his progress in most Wimbledon appearances, but Benneteau has lost to only one opponent outside the top eight there since 2005.
Lukas Rosol: His presence on this list should need little explanation. Had Rosol won no matches at all after defeating Rafael Nadal in the second round last year, he still would merit a mention. As it stands, he built upon that upset to rise from the edge of the top 100 to well inside the top 50. Rosol faces the pressure of defending something meaningful for the first time, and he will need to insulate himself from the inevitable media scrutiny. He often brings out his best tennis against the best while growing careless or unfocused against the journeymen of the Tour.
Ernests Gulbis: Slinging ferocious forehands and controversial comments indiscriminately, the Latvian shot-maker once again has become someone intriguing to watch. Gulbis upset Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon last year, and he twice has won sets from Nadal this year. More distant achievements include victories over Federer and Novak Djokovic, showing that no elite opponent can feel safe when Gulbis finds his groove. He may struggle to stay in that groove in the best-of-five format, perhaps a reason why his greatest headlines have come at Masters 1000 events. Still, grass usually rewards the Jekyll-and-Hyde mixture of overwhelming power and deft finesse that Gulbis can wield.
Feliciano Lopez: The Spaniard’s best tennis lies well behind him, and he accumulated a losing record this season through the end of Roland Garros. Lopez has reached three Wimbledon quarterfinals behind his lefty serve-volley style, though, the rarity of which can unsettle younger opponents. His notable victims there include Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, as well as Tim Henman in his last match on home soil. Keep an eye on Lopez if he draws a relatively passive baseliner or grinder such as David Ferrer, who long has struggled against him on fast surfaces.
Daniel Brands: Like Rosol, Brands typically plays to the level of the competition. He lost resoundingly to Jan Hajek one week before he thrust Nadal to the brink of a two-set deficit at Roland Garros. Wimbledon marks the scene of his greatest accomplishment, a second-week appearance in 2010, although he lost in the first round of qualifying each of the two subsequent years. Beware of getting into a fifth set against Brands, who shares Isner’s asymmetry between a massive serve and a woeful return. That stark contrast leaves him vulnerable against anyone and dangerous to everyone.
Ekaterina Makarova: Only one woman has defeated both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13: not Maria Sharapova, not Li Na, not Petra Kvitova, but Ekaterina Makarova. This fiery Russian also won Eastbourne on grass as a qualifier in 2010, her only title to date. Her lefty serve swings wide in the ad court effectively on this surface, a valuable asset on break points. Makarova’s doubles expertise has honed her net talents to a higher level than most of the women ranked near her, and she has proved that she can excel at majors by reaching two Australian Open quarterfinals.
Sabine Lisicki: Four or five years ago, Lisicki looked like a future Wimbledon champion. She honed the best serve in the women’s game outside the Williams sisters, even outdueling Venus to win a Charleston title. In three Wimbledon appearances from 2009-12, Lisicki reached the quarterfinals or better every time and even notched her first major semifinal there in 2011. An impressive list of marquee upsets in those appearances includes Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, and Marion Bartoli. Somewhat like Gulbis in her ability to combine first-strike power with the finesse of delicate drop shots, Lisicki has struggled to stay healthy long enough to develop momentum and consistency.
Tamira Paszek: A hideous 1-12 this season, Paszek has won barely any matches since last August but still held a seed at Roland Garros. She defends the majority of her total rankings points during the short grass season, when she won Eastbourne and reached a second straight Wimbledon quarterfinal last year. The good news is that Paszek rebounded from a similar sequence of futility at this time in 2012 to record those excellent results. The bad news is that the pressure will lie heavily on her with the penalty so great for a misstep at either event.
Venus Williams: Once a champion, always a champion, and never more so than at the greatest bastion of tennis tradition. Venus will appear in this type of article before every Wimbledon that she plays, no matter her current form. To be sure, that current form is far from impressive with losses this spring to Olga Puckhova, Laura Robson, and Urszula Radwanska. Venus wins many fewer matches than she once did on her poise and experience alone, and she probably cannot ration her energy efficiently enough to survive deep into the fortnight. But nobody wants to face that serve or that wingspan on grass, for one never knows when an aging champion will catch fire.
Laura Robson: Combined with a junior Wimbledon title, two compelling efforts against Maria Sharapova on home soil suggest that the top British women’s talent could rise to the occasion. Robson has proved twice in the last twelve months that she can shine at majors, upsetting Kim Clijsters to reach the second week of the US Open and outlasting Petra Kvitova in a nail-biting if ugly epic in Melbourne. Since the serve plays a heightened role on grass, she must limit the double faults that have grown too frequent this year. Robson never lacks for courage or belief, often aggressive to the point of reckless.
Zheng Jie: If she had finished off Serena Williams in the first week of Wimbledon last year, the trajectory of women’s tennis since then would have followed a completely different course. As it was, Zheng took Serena to 8-6 in the final set, displaying how well her compact swings and crisp footwork suit the low, variable bounces of the grass. This less intuitive model for surface success than heavy serves and first strikes carried her to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008. Like Benneteau, Zheng has found herself saddled with some extremely challenging draws and has lost to few sub-elite opponents there.
Tsvetana Pironkova: Two years ago, it seemed that Pironkova existed solely to prevent Venus Williams from winning another Wimbledon title. The willowy Bulgarian defeated Venus in consecutive Wimbledons by identical scores, and she even came within a set of the final in 2010. Proving that success no anomaly, Pironkova extended Sharapova to a final set last year. A glance at her game reveals no clear reason why she enjoys grass so much. Pironkova owns a vulnerable serve and little baseline firepower, earning her living with court coverage and touch. Her Wimbledon feats show that counterpunchers can find ways to thrive on an offensively oriented surface.
Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.
Shot of the Day: Despite losing to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, Novak Djokovic played some inspired and acrobatic tennis as the match went on.
Bryan Brothers ready to capture French Open crown: David Cox of the New York Times writes that the “French Open has been a tough tournament for the otherwise all-conquering Bryan brothers as they last won the title in 2003.” The Bryans will surely not have the home crowd behind them as they face off against Frenchman Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut. Despite not being able to capture the title for over a decade, the Bryans remain confident in their chances to take down Roland Garros.
“It feels great to be back in the final. Obviously, this has been a sticky one over the last 10 years. We’ve come very close and haven’t got over the hump, but we’re coming in with a lot of confidence.”
Plane Cam: Those of you who watched Ryan Harrison take on John Isner last week may remember Harrison becoming irritated by the model airplane that makes constant trips between “a towering crane outside the Roland Garros grounds and a tower at Suzanne Lenglen” as Peter Bodo of Tennis.com reports. He goes on and describes the plane as being a “sky cam that has become a standard feature at most sporting events.” Bodo goes on to describe origination of the plane came but admits that “your kid would like it a lot more than Harrison did.”
Novak Djokovic frustrated over officiating: Following his five set semifinal defeat at the hands of Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros semifinals, as Sport 360 tells us, Novak Djokovic was less than happy with what he thought was confusing and disorganized officiating. Djokovic was extremely displeased that the court was becoming too dry.
“Off the court I was told that it’s the groundstaff who make the final decision on watering the court. The supervisor said it was him who decides. It takes 30 seconds to one minute to water the court. It was too difficult to change direction. I think it was wrong what they did.”
Djokovic was also mad about being stripped a point at 4-3 40-40 in the fifth set where he touched the net after seemingly putting away an overhead for a winner.
“My argument was that the ball was already out of the court when I touched the net.”
Road to Roland Garros with David Ferrer: David Ferrer produced a thorough and comprehensive beat down of Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their semifinal clash Friday. Ferrer’s reward for his victory is a date with Rafael Nadal Sunday in what is his inaugural grand slam final. The Spaniard took a ride to the French Open grounds in this edition of Road to Roland Garros and talked about his on court mentality, who he would be if he was an actor, his adoration of Novak Djokovic’s humor, and who his friends are on the tour.
Maria Sharapova on upcoming final: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are just hours away from squaring off in the French Open final. Sports Illustrated has an extensive preview of the match including insight from Sharapova as she attempts to overcome Serena for the first time since 2005.
“I have never really thought about going out on the court and just trying to be consistent, not playing my game and just getting the ball back. That hasn’t ever been my philosophy, because the way that I win matches is by being aggressive, by moving my power, by looking to move forward and playing that aggressive game.”
“Despite all those statistics, despite my unsuccessful record against her, it doesn’t matter because you’re at the French Open final. No matter how good she’s playing, you also have to give yourself a bit of credit for getting to that point and doing a few things right to be at that stage and giving yourself an opportunity.”
Venus Williams says Serena Williams is greatest she’s ever faced: In a question and answer session with Yes Network, Venus Williams talks about her most influential fashion designer, her favorite New York meal, her favorite city, her most memorable grand slam victory, her favorite career moment and more. Venus also talks about how Serena is undoubtedly the greatest player she has ever faced.
“Clearly Serena. No doubt. I’ve played most of the greats and she is definitely the best” Venus said in response to being asked who the best player she as ever seen or played against.
Venus Williams has a lot of experience dealing with little sisters.
Prior to first ball at Roland Garros, she had lost just four matches in her career to notable ‘little sisters.’ Magdalena Maleeva scored three wins against Venus in her career, while Kateryna Bondarenko also notched a victory during the Ukrainian’s career-best season in 2009.
The elephant in the room? Well, let’s just say Venus has had the most on-court success against the little sisters that didn’t grow up in her household.
When the draw was released for this year’s tournament, she found herself pitted up against another little sister in Urszula Radwanska. Like her elder sister Agnieszka, the Pole found great success on the junior circuit; however, she has struggled much more with translating this success to the WTA level, due to both a variety of injuries and a volatile on-court personality. In a match full of drama and plot twists, the two sisters battled it out for over three hours on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Each time Radwanska took a lead, Williams hit back; Radwanska’s level stayed much more even over the three hour, 19-minute contest and in the fading light of the Parisian evening, she finally pulled off the 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 victory.
Give credit where it’s due; it was finally Urszula’s time to shine on a big stage. While it seems unlikely that she will match or eclipse her elder sister’s accomplishments, as Serena did to Venus, she did show one thing that Agnieszka has become famous for: mental toughness. The younger Radwanska, who has capitulated in matches of note numerous times in her young career, could’ve easily snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite nearing tears in parts, she held firm; when all the stars align for an upset, the underdog still has to see it through. Nonetheless, much of the narrative that followed was largely focused on Williams, while the victor was barely an afterthought.
Struggling with a back injury since April and having played just one match on red clay prior to Roland Garros, Venus’ preparation was less than ideal. The murmurs and the whispers of the ‘r-word’, both of which have followed the elder Williams sister since her return to the game after a Sjogren’s syndrome diagnosis in 2011, returned just a bit louder. While Venus’ mind is willing, her body says differently. She looked exhausted after every long rally, but still fought on for three hours. She clearly loves the game, but to say she’s still out there for ‘fun’ is misguided at best. She’s a competitor, a champion; she steps on the court believing she can win and still has a deep desire to do so. It’s highly unlikely that she enjoys the physically exhausting, mentally draining struggle that professional tennis often is, especially when coming out on the losing end.
On the other side of the coin, her achievements speak for themselves. She’s a seven-time grand slam champion and has every right to decide for herself when to hang up her rackets, whether just in singles or entirely. Venus Williams doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Long considered a role model of grace and class for young players, fighting spirit and professionalism has always categorized her career; this has particularly shown through over the past 18 months. If anything, this match was the perfect storm of Venus’ frustrations with poor form, as well as the stubbornness and persistence that has made her a champion.
“My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am,” she said, following the match. “But that’s all I had.”
If there’s anything to take away from the twilight of Venus Williams’ career, it’s the need for a middle ground. Those calling for her to retire need to gain some perspective, but so do those who believe she can still contend for the biggest titles in singles. Her A-game and Z-game have always been separated by inches. No matter how great she is, the one opponent she’ll never beat is Father Time. As we all know, however, the Williams sisters have made a career of overcoming adversity by making adjustments. Tell them they can’t, and they will find a way. It’s foolish to expect Venus to be the player she once was, but it is perhaps even more so to expect her to fall down, and stay down, after another bump in the road.
Today marks the first in the series of brief daily recaps that will keep you updated on several of the key storylines at Roland Garros. Roland Garros Rewind will be followed by Roland Garros Fast Forward each day, a preview of the next day’s notable matches.
Match of the day: Defending fourth-round points in Paris, Andreas Seppi brought little momentum here after staggering through a miserable clay season. His opening match against unheralded Argentine Leonardo Mayer showed plenty of the reasons for his 2013 woes, but the Italian finished strong to win in five after several momentum shifts.
Comeback of the day: Gilles Simon never had rallied to win a match after losing the first two sets, so things looked grim after he won just four games in two sets against Lleyton Hewitt. On the other hand, he had not lost in the first round of a major since this tournament five years ago. That statistic endured as the other disappeared when Simon eked out a 7-5 fifth set after blowing a 5-0 lead.
Surprise of the day: None. All of the men’s seeds won their matches, most much more comfortably than Simon. Marcel Granollers did end the day in a spot of bother against compatriot Feliciano Lopez, suspended for darkness before starting the fifth set.
Gold star: Pablo Carreno-Busta had sparked plenty of chatter among tennis fans for his success earlier this clay season and long winning streak at ITF events. Roger Federer showed him no mercy in conceding just seven games on Court Philippe Chatrier, the first Grand Slam match of the qualifier’s career. The combination of opponent and setting proved too much for the youngster to overcome.
Silver star: David Ferrer took care of business efficiently too, meeting little resistance from Marinko Matosevic. Ferrer has a very promising draw this tournament as he seeks his fourth semifinal in the last five majors.
American in Paris: Aided by a severely slumping Lukas Lacko, Sam Querrey won just the second match of his Roland Garros career and did so handily. In other words, the USA avoided the ignominy of its top-ranked man losing in the first round of a major.
Question of the day: Three tall men won today: Milos Raonic, Kevin Anderson, and Querrey. Who will go the furthest this year?
Match of the day: In over three hours filled with tension, Urszula Radwanska upset Venus Williams for arguably the most impressive victory of her career. Urszula easily could have faded when Venus slipped away with the second set in a tiebreak, but her youth may have helped her outlast a fading veteran troubled by back injuries this spring. An all-Radwanska match could end the first week.
Surprise of the day: The Puerto Rican phenom Monica Puig knocked off 11th seed and former Roland Garros semifinalist Nadia Petrova. Granted, Petrova has not accomplished much this year, building her ranking upon two hard-court titles last fall. Puig still deserves a tip of the hat for rallying from a one-set deficit despite her lack of experience.
Comeback of the day: The first step often has proved the last for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova this year, as it had in Madrid and Rome. Déjà vu lurked just around the corner when Andrea Hlavackova served for the match against her in the second set and came within two points of the upset in the ensuing tiebreak. Pavlyuchenkova not only held firm at that tense moment but managed to hold serve throughout a tight third set, a good omen for her future here.
Gold star: What a difference a year makes. Gone in the first round last year to Virginie Razzano, Serena Williams sent home Anna Tatishvili with a gift basket of a bagel and a breadstick. The world No. 1 looked every bit as intimidating as she had in her dominant Rome run.
Silver star: The last woman to lose at Roland Garros last year was the first woman to win at Roland Garros this year. Now the fifth seed rather than an unknown dirt devil, Sara Errani responded well to the target on her back by conceding just three games to Arantxa Rus.
American in Paris: In her first main-draw match at Roland Garros, Mallory Burdette started her career here 1-0 with an impressively convincing victory over teenage talent Donna Vekic. Nerves surfaced when Burdette squandered triple match point as she served for the match, but she saved two break points before closing it out.
Question of the day: Ana Ivanovic started proceedings on Chatrier with a bizarre three-setter that she could have won much more easily than she did. Should we chalk up her uneven performance to first-round nerves on the big stage, or is it a sign of (bad) things to come?
See you shortly with Day 2 previews.
Today features the first edition of a daily Roland Garros preview series that offers a few notes on the next day’s most interesting matches. After each day ends, moreover, a recap of similar length will guide you through the key headlines.
Pablo Carreno-Busta vs. Roger Federer: This qualifier reeled off a long winning streak at lower-level events over the last year and reached the Portugal semifinals, also as a qualifier, with victories over Julien Benneteau and Fabio Fognini. Carreno-Busta also upset defending champion Pablo Andujar in Casablanca, shortly before the latter stormed to the Madrid semifinals, and won a set from Stanislas Wawrinka in Portugal. Paris is not Portugal or Casablanca, though, nor is it even Bordeaux, where Carreno-Busta lost in the first round of a challenger.
Gilles Simon vs. Lleyton Hewitt: This tournament might mark Hewitt’s final appearance at Roland Garros. If it does, a match on a show court against a fellow grinder, likely with a strong crowd, seems a fitting way to go. Simon has flown under the radar for most of the year, stringing together some victories at small events and upsetting two top-ten opponents. He reached the second week at the Australian Open despite largely unimpressive form, so he should muddle through here too.
Andreas Seppi vs. Leonardo Mayer: The Italian must defend fourth-round points at Roland Garros, where he won two sets from Novak Djokovic last year. Seppi’s 14-14 record this year does not bode well, and he has survived his first match at only one of six clay tournaments. Fortunately for him, Mayer lost his only clay match this year.
Marcel Granollers vs. Feliciano Lopez: A quarterfinalist in Rome, Granollers owes Andy Murray twice over in recent weeks. First, the world No. 2 retired from their match there, allowing the Spaniard to gobble extra ranking points. Then, Murray’s withdrawal nudged Granollers into a seeded position at Roland Garros. He should take advantage of it against the fading serve-volley specialist Feliciano Lopez, although matches between two Spaniards often get trickier than expected.
Serena Williams vs. Anna Tatishvili: Everyone remembers what happened to Serena in the first round here last year. Nobody remembers it more clearly than Serena does. Expect her to put this match away early, exorcising Razzano’s ghosts.
Urszula Radwanska vs. Venus Williams: Both of these women must cope with being the second-best women’s tennis player in their respective families. Hampered by a back injury, Venus has played just one match on red clay this year, losing routinely to Laura Robson. Urszula is not quite Robson at this stage, but she recorded clay wins over Dominika Cibulkova and Ana Ivanovic this year. Venus should pull through in the end after some edgy moments.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Andrea Hlavackova: When Pavlyuchenkova gets through her first match, she has reached the semifinals at four of five tournaments this year, winning two. The problem is that she has lost her first match no fewer than seven times against opponents of varying quality. (Azarenka and Ivanovic are understandable, Lesya Tsurenko and Johanna Larsson less so.) Since reaching the second week of the US Open, Hlavackova has won one main-draw singles match, over the hapless Melanie Oudin. Surely Pavlyuchenkova won’t double that total?
Kiki Bertens vs. Sorana Cirstea: Their big weapons and questionable movement would seem better designed for fast-court tennis. But both of them have found their greatest success on clay, Cirstea reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals four years ago and Bertens winning her only WTA title so far at Fes last year. This match looks among the most evenly contested of the day with plenty of heavy groundstrokes to go around.
Mallory Burdette vs. Donna Vekic: One of the top American collegiate prospects, Burdette left Stanford last fall to turn pro and has reaped some solid results. Her victims so far include Lucie Hradecka, Ksenia Pervak, and Sabine Lisicki as well as fellow American rising star Madison Keys. Burdette will train her vicious backhand on Croatian rising star Donna Vekic, who reached her first WTA final last year as a qualifier. Vekic has not accomplished much above the challenger level since then, losing her only clay match this year to Chanelle Scheepers in Madrid.
Ayumi Morita vs. Yulia Putintseva: Is Paris ready for Putintseva? The volatile French crowd pounced on fellow pocket rocket Michelle Larcher de Brito, but the distant venue of Court 7 should take some of the scrutiny off the strong-lunged youngster. Putintseva took Serena to a first-set tiebreak in Madrid but will have her work cut out with Morita’s double-fisted strokes. Unlike Coco Vandeweghe, the Japanese star will win points with more than her serve.
Starting one day later than the simultaneous ATP tournament, the second WTA Premier Five tournament of 2013 brings all of the top ten women to the Foro Italico. Many of them will seek a fresh start following weeks in Madrid that ended sooner than they had hoped, although the world No. 1 will aim simply to continue from where she left off.
First quarter: For the second straight year, Serena Williams arrives in Rome on the heels of clay titles in Charleston and Madrid. To continue her winning streak, Serena may need to survive some friendly fire from older sister Venus, who would meet her in the second round for the first time. The all-Williams match might not happen if Laura Robson finds her footing on Monday against Venus, suffering from a back injury recently. Robson displayed the confidence that she needs to defeat a star of this caliber when she upset Radwanska in Madrid. Also impressive there was Ekaterina Makarova, the nemesis of Azarenka, who could meet Serena in the third round. The clay skills of Robson and Makarova do not equal those of former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, but the latter has struggled with injuries this spring. In Miami, though, Cibulkova took a set from a disengaged Serena before fading sharply when the American awakened.
The only blot on Serena’s otherwise spectacular second half of 2012 came against Angelique Kerber, who defeated her in Cincinnati. This German lefty reached the semifinals of Rome last year, an achievement that she can equal only by repeating her Cincinnati victory. While those prospects seem slim, Kerber may fancy her chances of reaching the quarterfinals. Nadia Petrova, the seed closest to her, has performed well below her ranking for most of 2013. More threatening to Kerber are two women who have produced sporadically excellent results this year, Carla Suarez Navarro and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. This pair collided in the Portugal Open final, where Pavlyuchenkova prevailed, and they could meet again in the second round with the winner advancing to face Kerber.
Second quarter: Two top-five women who combined to win one total match in Madrid both look to thrust that disappointment behind them by advancing deeper into the Rome draw. Sporting a new blonde hairstyle, Agnieszka Radwanska likely will open against a woman who also has experimented with a variety of coiffures in Svetlana Kuznetsova. More relevant to their meeting, Kuznetsova’s resounding victory over Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that her far superior clay talents could cause an upset. The thirteenth-seeded Roberta Vinci performed impressively on hard courts this year, reaching the semifinals in Dubai and the quarterfinals in Miami, but strangely she has earned fewer successes on the clay that favors her playing style. Perhaps the local crowd’s enthusiasm can spur this veteran with a strong Fed Cup resume.
Toppled in the first round of Madrid by a lucky loser, Li Na suffered her first unexpected reverse of an otherwise consistent season. That shock may have spurred her to raise her vigilance for early tests in Rome, possibly highlighted by Jelena Jankovic. The Serbian former No. 1 has not faced Li since 2009, when she won both of their meetings, and they have not met on clay for seven years. After an eye-opening start to the spring, however, Jankovic reverted to her unreliable self when the action shifted to Europe, and she has lost all three of her clay matches against second-round opponent Caroline Wozniacki. Hardly a dirt devil herself, Wozniacki defeated Li on a hard court last fall but has lost their most important meetings so far. The Chinese star also has held the upper hand recently against both Radwanska and Kuznetsova, positioning her for another strong week at a tournament where she held championship point last year.
Third quarter: No clear favorite emerges from a section with three members of the top ten and a former Roland Garros champion. Again situated in the same eighth with Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova shares the Aussie’s 2013 pattern of stumbling into dismal setbacks just as momentum starts to swing in her favor. Kvitova has won all four of their meetings, should that third-round match develop, and she also should feel confident in her ability to outshoot the equally erratic Sabine Lisicki. Many of the matches in this section will feature short points punctuated by ferocious hitting, a contrast to what one normally expects from clay. This seemingly benign early draw could allow Kvitova to settle into the tournament and find her baseline range, which she has showcased on clay before.
The lanky Czech’s most significant clay win to date, the Madrid title in 2011, came at the expense of the woman whom she could meet in the quarterfinals. During a string of marquee collisions that year, Kvitova regularly bested Victoria Azarenka on all surfaces, although they have not met since then. The world No. 3 predictably lacked rhythm in Madrid, the first tournament that she had played since Indian Wells. But the ankle that sidelined Azarenka seems healthy again, and she will need the mobility that it provides to weather a Serb surging with confidence. A semifinalist in Madrid, Ana Ivanovic has reached that round in Rome as well, claiming an ailing Azarenka as one of her victims en route. Vika won their 2012 meetings convincingly, taking command of a matchup that had troubled her before.
Fourth quarter: The two-time defending champion in Rome, Maria Sharapova finds herself ideally situated to break Italian hearts. As early as the third round, the world No. 2 could release her angst from another loss to Serena by pouncing on Flavia Pennetta or Francesca Schiavone. An unfortunate quirk of the draw aligned these aging former Fed Cup teammates to meet in the second round, assuming that Sloane Stephens continues her post-Melbourne swoon. Heavy hitters Garbine Muguruza (a qualifier, but a notable rising star) and Kiki Bertens round out a section through which Sharapova should cruise unless Pennetta can roll back the clock several years.
The world No. 2 also may look forward to a quarterfinal reunion with Sara Errani, the supporting actress on stage when Sharapova completed the career Grand Slam last year. More than just the Roland Garros flavor of the year, the top-ranked Italian backed up her surprise fortnight with hard-court achievements yet still plays her best tennis on clay. Last week, Errani even flustered Serena for a set despite the massive power differential, and she has grown more competitive with Sharapova in their latest meetings. A quarterfinalist in Madrid and a qualifier in Rome, Anabel Medina Garrigues survived a three-hour epic against Yulia Putintseva to reach the main draw. This Spaniard opens against Maria Kirilenko, less assured on clay, and could meet surface specialist Varvara Lepchenko afterward. Throughout this quarter, contrasts of styles could unfold between Sharapova and the counterpunchers set to face her.
Rare is the non-major that features every woman in the WTA top 10, but Madrid can lay claim to that honor this year. In another rare quirk, all of the top three women arrive there on winning streaks. Only one of those streaks can survive Madrid. Whose will it be? Or none of the above? We take a look at each quarter of the draw.
First quarter: Clearly the best women’s player of the last decade, Serena Williams won this title on blue clay last year but has not reached a final on red clay since she completed the career Grand Slam in 2002. With her world No. 1 ranking somewhat at stake, Serena has landed in the more challenging half of the draw. Her first two rounds should allow her to find some rhythm on the surface, for the green clay of Charleston offers only partial preparation for the European terre battue. Seeking her third straight title, Serena could meet Maria Kirilenko in the third round, or perhaps Klara Zakopalova. Both of those counterpunchers have troubled her on clay before, each extending her to three sets at Roland Garros. Stiffer competition will arrive in the quarterfinals, though, where the draw has projected her to meet Stuttgart finalist and 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.
The fifth seed must overcome a few notable obstacles of her own to reach that stage, such as a second-round match with Serena’s sister. Not at her best on clay, Venus Williams still should have plenty of energy at that stage, but she has lost all three of her career meetings with Li. Surrounding world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki are heavy hitters Yaroslava Shvedova and Mona Barthel. If neither of those knocks off the Dane, who lost her Stuttgart opener, she could attempt to build on her victory over Li last fall. While Serena has dominated her head-to-head meetings with both Wozniacki and Li overall, she often has found them foes worthy of her steel. On red clay, Li’s counterpunching talents and ability to transition from defense to offense could prove especially dangerous.
Second quarter: Returning from yet another of her injury absences, Victoria Azarenka barely has played since winning the Doha title from Serena in a memorable three-set final. That February achievement preceded a shaky effort at Indian Wells curtailed by a sore ankle, so Vika enters Madrid with less match play than most other contenders. Her bid for a third straight final here will take her through the teeth of some formidable early tests, including Portugal Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her opener. The Russian took sets from Azarenka in two of their three previous meetings, while second-round opponent Lucie Safarova took her the distance here two years ago and impressed in a three-hour loss to Sharapova at Stuttgart. Twice a finalist and once a champion at Roland Garros, Francesca Schiavone should pose less resistance to the third seed as her consistency has dwindled. Nevertheless, an unexpected title in Marrakech might carry Schiavone to their projected clash in the fourth round, for the higher-ranked Marion Bartoli tends to struggle on clay.
Relatively open is the lower area of this quarter, where Sara Errani looks to rebound from an early Stuttgart exit. Last year’s Roland Garros finalist will appreciate the absence of a powerful shot-maker in her vicinity, allowing her to slowly grind down opponents vulnerable to erratic stretches. Rising stars Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea fit in that category, as does enigmatic German Julia Goerges. Eranni has faced doubles partner Roberta Vinci in two key matches over the past several months, a US Open quarterfinal and a Dubai semifinal, emerging victories both times on those hard courts. Clay could prove a different story, especially with Vinci’s recent fine form. But Errani’s veteran compatriot will meet last year’s Madrid quarterfinalist Varvara Lepchenko in the first round a few months after losing to her in Fed Cup.
Third quarter: In the section without any of the WTA’s three leading ladies, the eye pauses on two unseeded figures who could produce deep runs. One of them, 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, submitted indifferent results in Portugal last week and has played little since a strong start to the year. This Russian has collected many of her best victories on clay, including Roland Garros upsets of Serena and Radwanska, building on the affinity of her athletic, forehand-centered game for the surface. Less impressive is Kuznetsova’s focus, which undermined her in a fourth-round match in Paris against Errani last year and could cost her in a third-round meeting with Angelique Kerber. While the indoor clay of Stuttgart differs significantly from outdoor clay conditions, the world No. 6 still may have gained confidence from nearly reaching a final on her worst surface. The eleventh-seeded Nadia Petrova has generated few headlines of late, and slow-court specialist Alize Cornet rarely makes a statement in a draw of this magnitude.
The other unseeded player of note here, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, burst back into prominence when she reached the Miami semifinals this spring and backed it up with a finals appearance in Charleston. Jankovic defeated no opponent of note there or in her Bogota title run a month before, but she did win a set from Serena and generally looked at ease on her favorite surface. Looming for her is yet another clash with her compatriot and fellow former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who also showed encouraging recent form by defeating Kerber in Fed Cup and testing Sharapova in a Stuttgart quarterfinal. The Serbs have split their two meetings on red clay, both of which lasted three sets, but Ivanovic prevailed comfortably in their only encounter from the past two years. Scant reward awaits the winner, aligned to face fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in a matchup that has befuddled both of them through long losing streaks to the Pole. Like Kerber, Radwanska would consider clay her worst surface, so a quarterfinal between them could tilt either way.
Fourth quarter: The majors, Premier Mandatory tournaments, Premier Five tournaments, and year-end championships form a group of fourteen elite events that overshadow the WTA calendar. Accustomed to (literally) overshadowing her opponents, Maria Sharapova has reached the final at thirteen of those—all but Madrid. This year’s draw offers the world No. 2 some assistance in correcting that omission, for only one player who has defeated her in the last twelve months appears in her half. And that player, grass specialist Sabine Lisicki, hardly poses a formidable threat on clay. By contrast, potential third-round opponent Dominika Cibulkova has defeated Sharapova on this surface before and seems a more plausible candidate to end her red-clay streak. Injuries have troubled Cibulkova during her most productive time of the year, however, whereas Sharapova has evolved into a far more dangerous clay threat since that 2009 loss.
One of two one-time major champions stands poised to meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals, but their uneven form this year opens this section for one of its several unseeded talents. A champion here two years, eighth seed Petra Kvitova could meet ninth seed and 2010 Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round. Troubled by a leg injury in recent weeks, though, the latter faces a difficult opening assignment in rising Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro. This clay specialist with an Henin-esque one-handed backhand will bring momentum from reaching the Portugal Open final, while Stosur fell to Jankovic in her Stuttgart opener. Mounting a comeback from injury is 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi, who also produced solid results last week. Flavia Pennetta’s comeback has progressed less promisingly, but she too has plenty of clay skills. Meanwhile, can Sloane Stephens rediscover some of the form that took her to the second week in Paris last year? Many questions arise from this section that only matches can answer.
Final: Li vs. Sharapova
Champion: Li Na
Check back tomorrow for a preview of the ATP draw in Madrid.