Victoria Azarenka

Kerber and Azarenka Upset As Murray Survives At Roland Garros

Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber was upset on Tuesday at the French Open by Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, highlighting the biggest upset so far this year in Paris.

Kerber, the No. 3 seed in the event, had the unfortunate luck of drawing Bertens who was on a seven match win streak and had won 18 of her last 21 matches, dating back to March.

The Dutchwoman was able to continue her good run of form into Paris, as she got off to a hot start, breaking Kerber in just her second service game of the match. From there, Bertens, the No. 58 player in the world, only lost four points on her serve to close out the set, and broke the German again for a comfortable first set win.

Kerber looked to bounce back in the second set, as she fought through getting taken to deuce in her first two service games while Bertens cruised through hers. In the sixth game of the set, though, the tides appeared to turn as Bertens played one poor service game and Kerber jumped all over it, breaking at love for her first lead of the match. Bertens was able to break back in the next game, but Kerber kept her composure and broke once more before closing out the set comfortably, taking the match to a decider.

Bertens didn’t let the disappointment of dropping the second set get to her and, unlike most upset bids, was able to stave off the late fight of the more experienced player. Bertens broke in Kerber’s first service game of the third set, but Kerber certainly did not allow her to cruise to the win. While serving at 3-1, Bertens fought off two break points to hold before saving one more at 5-3, as she was able to close out the match and book her spot in the second round.

Berten’s opponent in the next round will be Camila Giorgi of Italy, who defeated Frenchwoman Alize Lim, 6-3, 6-2.

Another notable player to exit the French Open was No. 5 seed Victoria Azarenka, as she was forced to retire while losing in the third set against Karin Knapp with a knee injury.

On the men’s side, Andy Murray was able to fight back from two sets to love down in his match that was suspended from Monday against Radek Stepanek, 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5. After dropping the first two sets to the experienced Czech, Murray fought back to win the third set and was up 4-2 when play had to be stopped for the night.

When play resumed on Tuesday, Murray was able to close out the fourth set, saving two break points along the way, and force a deciding fifth set that was much tougher than he would have hoped.

Murray had very few problems on his serve throughout the set, but Stepanek fought hard on his service games and gave the Brit very little to work with. That was the case until he served at 5-5 and Murray was finally able to break through, breaking at 30-40 for the chance to close out the match.

Murray, the No. 2 seed, was taken to deuce by Stepanek, but was able to close out the win in the end and force a matchup with French wild card Mathias Bourgue in the second round.

 

Angelique Kerber “Upsets” Victoria Azarenka To Reach Aussie Open Semifinals

by Kevin Craig

@KCraig_Tennis

Angelique Kerber fought her way into the semifinals of the Australian Open on Wednesday when she beat Victoria Azarenka, 6-3, 7-5. Despite being the higher seed, Kerber was the underdog in the eyes of many tennis fans. Azarenka had been in great form to start off 2016 after winning the title in Brisbane and not losing a set in her first four matches at the Australian Open, along with the fact that she held a 6-0 record against Kerber, but the German proved why she is the higher ranked player and now has the opportunity to make her first grand slam final.

Kerber got off to a hot start in the quarterfinal as she broke Azarenka at love in the opening game of the match before grabbing another break and running out to a 4-0 lead. Azarenka, though, had been making Kerber’s service games tough as well, as she had a break point in Kerber’s first service game and then was able to get one of the two breaks back and brought the score to 4-3. When Kerber served at 4-3, Azarenka had two more break chances in a game that lasted 16 points, but could not capitalize and ended up losing the game, before being broken in the next game to drop the set.

The tides appeared to turn in the favor of Azarenka in the second set as she broke in the opening game and got out to a quick 2-0 lead. Neither player had much trouble on their serves until Azarenka saw a break point on Kerber’s serve at 4-2 and took advantage of it to take a double break lead at 5-2. While trying to serve out the set and take the match to a third set, Azarenka got up 40-0 before losing five points in a row to get broken. She had another opportunity to close out the set at 5-4 and was up 40-15, but again ended up being broken thanks to the resilience from Kerber, combined with a hesitant style of play from Azarenka. With the German back on serve at 5-5, she held comfortably before applying pressure on the Azarenka serve again and breaking to close out the match for the straight sets win.

A major problem for Azarenka, clearly, was her inability to defend her serve. Kerber won more than half of the points in Azarenka’s service games, including 62 percent of her second serve points. Kerber’s steady play was also a huge factor, as she limited her unforced errors to 16 while she hit 31 winners.

Kerber became the first German to reach the Australian Open semifinals since 1998 and will go on to face Johanna Konta for a spot in the Australian Open final after Konta beat Zhang Shuai in straight sets in their quarterfinal match.

Djokovic Wins 60th Title, Reaches Final of Every Tournament in 52 Weeks – Passing Shots with Kevin Craig

by Kevin Craig

@KCraig_Tennis

  • In Doha, Novak Djokovic was able to win the title (the 60th of his career) and reach his 16th consecutive final, making it so that in the past 52 weeks, Djokovic has been to the final of every tournament he has played. Djokovic did not drop a set all week and was only taken beyond 6-3 twice, including a 6-1, 6-2 win over Rafael Nadal in the final. In a simple recipe for success for the week, Djokovic won 77% of his first serve points and broke his opponents a total of 20 times.
  • Victoria Azarenka won her first title since August 2013 as she defeated Angelique Kerber in the final in Brisbane. Azarenka was not taken beyond 6-3 in a set all week as she was able to break her opponents 29 times. The win sets up Azarenka for a Top 16 seed at the Australian Open.
  • Stan Wawrinka won his third consecutive title in Chennai by defeating Borna Coric 6-3, 7-5. Wawrinka did not drop a set in four matches and was only broken once all week as he hit 41 aces. Wawrinka is now 8-0 in titles since the start of the 2014 season, including his wins at the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open. Before 2014, Wawrinka was just 4-9 in finals.
  • Taylor Fritz won his third challenger title by defeating Dudi Sela 7-6, 6-2 in Happy Valley. The win made Fritz’s career challenger record 22-5 and was his fourth Top 100 win. Fritz’s ranking at the start of the 2015 season was 1151, but this win will boost his ranking to about 154, just shy of a 1000 spot improvement from a year ago.
  • Sloane Stephens won her second career title by defeating Julia Goerges 7-5, 6-2, while fellow American Alison Riske made the final in Shenzhen, losing out to Agnieszka Radwanska. Previously to this week, no American woman had made the final of a tournament in the first week of the season since Lindsay Davenport made the final of Auckland in 2008.
  • Also in Doha, Illya Marchenko made his first ATP semifinal since 2010 in St. Petersburg. Along the way, Marchenko was able to beat David Ferrer, Teymuraz Gabashvili, and Jeremy Chardy. The win against Ferrer was his first Top 10 win in five tries.
  • Thomas Fabbiano won his first ATP main draw matches as he made the quarterfinals in Chennai after making it through qualies. In the second round, Fabbiano beat Gilles Muller 6-4, 7-5, and managed to break the big server four times, despite Muller hitting 14 aces and winning 79% of his first serve points. The quarterfinal run will allow Fabbiano to reach a new career high ranking of 142.
  • Go Soeda made the final of the Bangkok Challenger, making 2016 the 11th consecutive year that he has made a challenger final, dating back to 2006. He fell to Mikhail Youzhny, 6-3, 6-4, as Youzhny continues his attempt to rejoin the Top 100.
  • In Brisbane, Samantha Crawford made her first WTA semifinal in just her fifth main draw appearance. Crawford got her first two Top-25 wins by defeating Belinda Bencic and Andrea Petkovic. Throughout her qualifying and main draw matches, the big hitting American hit 64 aces and won 73% of her first serve points as she prepares for her appearance at the Australian Open via a wild card.

From Coast to Coast: WTA Carlsbad and Washington Previews

As the Premier Five tournament in Canada looms, four of the top ten women hone their skills at tournaments on opposite coasts.  The resort atmosphere at Carlsbad, long a player favorite, contrasts with the urban surroundings of the national capital.

Carlsbad:

Top half:  World No. 3 Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match away from clay all season.  Of course, Azarenka has played only four matches away from clay since winning the Doha title in February.  Walkovers and withdrawals ended her campaigns at Indian Wells, Miami, and Wimbledon, so attention will hover around her battered knee this week.  Azarenka’s health may attract even more attention than it would otherwise because she faces a relatively mild early slate of opponents.  An all-Italian battle between Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone tantalizes only for nostalgic reasons, and Urszula Radwanska seems little more likely than her elder sister to vanquish Vika.  Among the surprises of the spring was Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist in Miami and quarterfinalist at Roland Garros.  Jankovic troubled Azarenka in her prime, but the momentum has shifted in that rivalry to reflect their divergent career arcs

The most compelling first-round match in Carlsbad will pit defending champion Dominika Cibulkova against former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.  Defeating Bartoli to win last year’s title, Cibulkova exploited a much weaker draw in the week of the Olympics.  Still, she will bring plenty of confidence from her title at Stanford, whereas coaching turmoil once again enshrouds the Serb.  The route will not grow much smoother for whoever survives that early test.  Although the second round looks uneventful, Roberta Vinci could await in the quarterfinals.  This crafty Italian has domianted Cibulkova on all surfaces, winning five straight from her, and she has taken her last three outdoor matches from Ivanovic.  The relatively slow surface in San Diego should help Vinci outlast the heavy serve of Bethanie Mattek-Sands before then.

Semifinal:  Azarenka vs. Vinci

Bottom half:  Around this time last year, Petra Kvitova caught fire with a Premier Five title at the Rogers Cup and a semifinal in Cincinnati.  The somewhat slower surface in San Diego may suit her game less well than those events, and North America historically has not brought out her best tennis.   A rematch of her epic Australian Open loss to Laura Robson might await in the second round.  Both women have oscillated wildly in their results this year, suggesting another rollercoaster ahead.  A former Carlsbad champion lurks unobtrusively near eighth seed Carla Suarez Navarro, enjoying her best season so far.  That former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has revived her career with two major quarterfinals in 2013.  An abdominal injury has sidelined Kuznetsova since Roland Garros, but she should have time to play herself into the tournament.

The fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska reached finals in each of her last two Carlsbad appearances.  Disappointed at Stanford on Sunday, Radwanska wil aim to erase that memory with her second title here.  She should outmaneuver Daniela Hantuchova, whom she has defeated here before, and may not have much to fear from Samantha Stosur unless the Aussie’s form improves dramatically.  Little in Stosur’s dismal performance at Stanford boded well for her chances of escaping a challenging opener against Varvara Lepchenko.  That 27-year-old American lefty could meet Radwanska in a quarterfinal for the second straight week.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Radwanska

Final:  Azarenka vs. Radwanska

Washington:

Top half:  Overshadowed by the men’s event at the same tournament, this WTA International event did succeed in luring a top-10 player as a wildcard.  World No. 9 Angelique Kerber has fallen on hard times over the last few months, so a dip in the quality of opposition could prove just what the doctor ordered.  Some of the women who might face her in the quarterfinals exited early at Stanford.  Formerly promising American Christina McHale continues a rebuilding campaign in 2013 against Magdalena Rybarikova.  Her period of promise long behind her, Melanie Oudin hopes to stay somewhat relevant nearly four years after her illusory surge at the US Open.

Like McHale, Rybarikova, and Kiki Bertens in the top quarter, Madison Keys looks to bounce back from a disappointing Stanford loss.  Anchoring the second quarter, she might meet star junior Taylor Townsend in a second-round preview of future matches on more momentous stages.  The reeling but canny Monica Niculescu hopes to fluster Townsend with her distinctive style before then.  More young talent stands atop the section in Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and France’s Caroline Garcia.  These impressive phenoms must navigate around Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova, a lefty like Townsend.  Plenty of storylines and suspense will unfold in a very short time.

Bottom half:  Building on her momentum from Stanford, Sorana Cirstea eyes one of the draw’s softer sections.  Home hope Alison Riske looks to prove herself as a threat outside the small grass event in Birmingham, while Heather Watson traces the same trajectory as McHale on the long, slow road back from mononucleosis.  Ending her clay season on a high note, Alize Cornet won an International title in May.  But she threatens much less on hard courts and might well fall victim to the enigmatic Yanina Wickmayer at the outset.

By far the most established of the home threats, second seed Sloane Stephens faces high expectations this summer.  American fans know much more about the Australian Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and conqueror of Serena Williams than they did a year ago.  The 15th-ranked Stephens has produced much more convincing tennis at majors than at non-majors, where she barely has cracked the .500 threshold in 2013.  Her sturdiest pre-semifinal obstacle could come in the form of Andrea Petkovic, still producing results more disappointing than encouraging in her comeback from serious injuries.  A relatively minor illness may blunt Petkovic’s injuries this week, though, while compatriot Mona Barthel retired from her last tournament with a sore shoulder.

Final:  Makarova vs. Stephens

Plotlines to Ponder: US Open Series Edition

The Emirates Airlines US Open Series begins next week with tournaments at Atlanta (ATP) and Stanford (WTA).  More events on both Tours follow during each of the five weeks between now and the US Open, including consecutive Masters 1000/Premier Five tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati.  As the action accelerates toward the final major of 2013, here are seven key narratives to follow.

1.      Will Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray seize the upper hand?

The top two men in the world have contested the finals at the last three non-clay majors and enter the summer hard courts as co-favorites for the US Open.  Fittingly, Djokovic and Murray each have won once in New York, although the Serb has reached four finals there to the Scot’s two.  While Murray has won multiple titles at both Masters 1000 tournaments this summer, Djokovic never has conquered Cincinnati despite winning three times in Canada.  A victory for either man over the other at one of those events would earn that player an edge heading into New York.  So would a Canada/Cincinnati sweep, a feat that has occurred only three times on the men’s side in the Open era.  Back on their best surface for the rest of 2013, Djokovic and Murray have an opportunity to take their rivalry another step forward.  Abrupt shifts have defined it so far, so predict at your peril.

2.      Will Serena Williams restore order in the WTA?

The world No. 1 has compiled a somewhat strange season, dominating Roland Garros and racing undefeated through the clay season but losing by the quarterfinals at the two non-clay majors.  Serena usually responds with courage to adversity such as her stunning loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon.  One need think back barely a year to the second-half surge that she reeled off after a much more disheartening setback against Virginie Razzano.  The dominance of the top three women since the start of 2012 prepared few viewers for the implosion at Wimbledon.  That fortnight echoed the chaotic period in the WTA that preceded the current Serena/Maria/Vika Rule of Three.  For reasons developed further below, the top-ranked woman and defending US Open champion stands the best positioned of that trio to curb her inferiors.  Even as she approaches 32, her aura still intimidates.

3.      Will Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal pose the greater challenge to the top two?

On the surface, literally and figuratively, this question seems easy.  Federer has compiled the superior record of the two in the US Open Series and at the US Open.  For most of their careers, he has been the better man on hard courts and the better man in the second half, when his rival’s energy wanes.  That said, Nadal has surpassed Federer in recent years at the US Open, notching consecutive finals in 2010-11.  He also has produced the stronger season of the two by far, reaching the final at every tournament except Wimbledon, claiming a key hard-court title at Indian Wells, and overcoming Djokovic at Roland Garros.  Federer has won just one title in 2013 and has not defeated a top-five opponent.  The two superstars never have met in the US Open Series or at the US Open.  They responded in contrasting ways to early Wimbledon losses, Nadal resting his ever-fragile knees and Federer entering two clay tournaments in July.

4.      Can the Wimbledon women’s finalists consolidate their breakthroughs?

Hovering over Murray’s quest to defend his US Open title is the question of how he will respond to his Wimbledon feat.  The women’s champion there also faces the task of overcoming the inevitable post-breakthrough hangover.  Like Murray, however, Marion Bartoli may have the maturity to avoid that lull.  She has earned some of her finest successes on North American hard courts, including a Stanford title won from Venus Williams, finals at Indian Wells and San Diego, and semifinals at Miami and the Rogers Cup.  Bartoli might return at Stanford next week.

Much more a grass specialist than Bartoli, the woman whom she defeated in the Wimbledon final has reached four quarterfinals there but none at any other major.  Sabine Lisicki still looks to build on her victories over two top-four opponents at Wimbledon, and there is no reason why her massive serve cannot shine on fast hard courts.  Her main challenge has consisted of staying healthy long enough to build momentum, so her ranking could climb if she does.

5.      What to expect from Wimbledon’s walking wounded?

About five top-eight players limped out of the grass season with injuries that may linger.  On the men’s side, Juan Martin Del Potro should recover quickly from a minor sprain caused by hyper-extending his left knee.  The Wimbledon semifinalist and former US Open champion should prove the most compelling threat in New York outside the Big Four.  World No. 3 David Ferrer may need more time to recover from his ankle injury, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has voiced uncertainty over whether he will return from a knee injury by the Open.

Eager to ignite her partnership with Jimmy Connors, Maria Sharapova withdrew from Stanford next week to rest a hip injury incurred at Wimbledon.  Sharapova posted playful photos of her rehab work, not sounding overly concerned.  Still, both Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka may need to brush off some rust early in the US Open Series.  Limited to one match since Roland Garros, Azarenka has played only five tournaments in the last five months.  Her coach, Sam Sumyk, reported that her knee incurred no structural damage, though.

6.      Will home soil inspire the American men?

At the US Open last year and at Wimbledon this summer, nobody in this group reached the second week, something once taken for granted.  With Andy Roddick retired and Mardy Fish chronically ill, American men’s tennis has plunged down an elevator shaft with embarrassing velocity.  Not much light shines into the bottom of the shaft from former phenom Ryan Harrison, who has developed into an uninspired journeyman.  The more explosive Jack Sock may evolve into a future star, as French sports magazine L’Equipe thinks, but his time will not come for at least a few years.  Until then, the two lethargic giants John Isner and Sam Querrey remain the only real hopes for the US.  The good news is that they have played their best tennis on home soil, winning 10 of 13 career titles there.  The bad news is that neither has done anything meaningful on hard courts this year.

7.      Which rising stars on each Tour will shine?

In the wake of a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, many eyes will focus on Jerzy Janowicz over the summer.  The boyish, lanky Pole has virtually nothing to defend during the US Open Series as he aims to rise toward the top 10.  Grigor Dimitrov has drawn attention mostly on account of his resemblance to Federer and his relationship with Sharapova, but he impressed at both Indian Wells and Miami this year.  And the deeply talented, deeply enigmatic Bernard Tomic could build on a promising Wimbledon if he finds more discipline on the court and stability off the court.

The women’s game features some youngsters who have advanced faster than their male counterparts.  One of three women to reach the second week at every major in 2013, the 20-year-old Sloane Stephens offers the home nation its most genuine threat outside Serena.  Stephens needs to transfer some of her feistiness from verbal barbs to her game, not an obstacle confronted by the powerful Madison Keys.  American fans should relish the sight of Keys this summer, showcasing a serve reminiscent of the Williams sisters and the penetrating groundstrokes designed for WTA success.  Reaching the second week at Wimbledon and at last year’s US Open, meanwhile, British teenager Laura Robson has shown the power and belief to strike down the elite.

 

The Significant Seven: Memorable Women’s Matches From the First Half of 2013

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Readers who enjoyed the article counting down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half may enjoy this sequel on the women.  As with the men, these matches do not necessarily feature the best tennis from an aesthetic perspective.  (In fact, some of them produced quite atrocious tennis for long stretches.)  What they did produce was meaningful results linked to broader trends that stretched across the first half.

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7) Laura Robson d. Petra Kvitova, Australian Open 2R, 2-6 6-3 11-9

The most accomplished lefty in women’s tennis met the most promising lefty in women’s tennis earlier in a draw than either would have wished.  Whereas Kvitova needed to turn a new leaf after a disastrous 2012, Robson sought to build upon a second-week appearance at the US Open.  Nerves defined much of their contest, not on this list for the quality of its tennis.  By the middle of the third set, however, it became clear that Robson could master her nerves better than the former Wimbledon champion could.  Unable to serve out the match the first time, she slammed the door at love on her second opportunity.  The encouraging resilience from Robson signaled her progress this season, which has included a victory over Agnieszka Radwanska and a second-week appearance at Wimbledon.  For Kvitova, the painful loss hinted that 2013 would look more than 2012 than 2011, as it has so far.

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6) Sabine Lisicki d. Serena Williams, Wimbledon 4R, 6-2 1-6 6-4

On the surface friendliest to the serve stood the two most formidable servers currently in the women’s game.  But grass specialist Lisicki trailed Serena 16-0 in major titles and 142-0 in weeks at No. 1.  By the logic of this Wimbledon, one should have guessed from the start that the underdog would prevail.  When Serena rallied from losing seven of the first nine games to win nine of the next ten, though, the writing seemed etched on the wall.  Nobody finds a way back against her from 0-3 in a final set at Wimbledon, or from 2-4, or from triple break point at 3-4.  Lisicki did all of those things and even survived the nerve-jangling finish as she served for the match, saving a break point with an ace and converting match point with a clean winner.  The victory ended Serena’s career-best winning streak, which had begun in March, and propelled Lisicki toward her first major final.  It marked her sixth victory over a major champion and third over a world No. 1 in just five Wimbledon appearances.  Even when the top three dominate, others still can spring surprises.

Honorable mention:  Lisicki’s semifinal epic against world No. 4 Radwanska bore several striking similarities to her victory over Serena.

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5) Serena Williams d. Anabel Medina Garrigues, Madrid QF, 6-3 0-6 7-5

Raise your hand if you would have expected Medina Garrigues to appear on this type of list when the 2013 campaign began.  No, I thought not.  And yet she posed Serena’s most formidable challenge of a clay season during which the world No. 1 went undefeated from wire to wire.  To be fair, Medina Garrigues received considerable assistance from across the net in becoming the first woman to bagel Serena since 2008.  The American spent much of the match showing us why she had not won a title on red clay in a decade, struggling to stay focused, patient, and disciplined against a grinder fond of the surface.  Then the last few games showed us why this year would be different.  Serena bent but did not break, rallying from within two points of defeat rather than letting her frustrations overcome her.  She would lose just one more set in the rest of the clay season, strewing 14 bagels and breadsticks across Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Medina Garrigues, who lost 6-1 6-1 to Dinah Pfizenmaier this week, gave Serena the wake-up call that she needed to reconquer her least favorite surface.

Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams

4) Victoria Azarenka d. Serena Williams, Doha F, 7-6(6) 2-6 6-3

When 2012 ended, only one woman looked like a realistic threat to Serena’s stranglehold over the WTA.  But that woman, Victoria Azarenka, had just absorbed her ninth consecutive loss in their rivalry.  As competitive as some of those losses were, such as last year’s US Open final, Azarenka needed to stop the skid to bolster her confidence.  The Australian Open champion had started slowly in most of her matches against Serena, finding her rhythm only in the second set.  Always at her best early in the season, Azarenka started with more determination in Doha and won that crucial first set in a tight tiebreak.  She weathered the inevitable response from Serena in the second set and did what she could not do in New York, serving out the match comfortably in the third.  Azarenka still has not defeated the world No. 1 at a major, or when fully healthy, so much remains for her to prove.  (And Serena won a Premier Five final rematch convincingly in Rome.)  All the same, the victory in Doha confirmed suspicions that something like a rivalry might develop here, sometime.

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3) Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova, Miami F, 4-6 6-3 6-0

Six weeks after the previous match on this list, Serena’s dominance over her other key rivalry threatened to falter as well.  Not since 2004 had she lost to Maria Sharapova, thoroughly stifling the Russian in most of their recent meetings. Disappointment at the Australian Open and the Doha loss to Azarenka blunted Serena’s momentum heading to Miami, her home tournament, but most still ranked her a heavy favorite against Sharapova based on history.  For the first half of their final, history took it on the chin as the underdog methodically built a set-and-break lead.  But Serena vindicated history in the end, using a handful of long games late in the second set to reverse the momentum.  Once she regrouped, neither Sharapova nor anyone else could have done much to stem the torrent of blistering serves and forehands that flowed from her racket.  Miami marked the first of Serena’s five consecutive titles this spring and laid a cornerstone of confidence without which her winning streak might not have taken flight.  She extended her reacquired dominance over Sharapova in two straight-sets finals on clay.

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2) Maria Sharapova d. Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros SF, 6-1 2-6 6-4

With Serena firmly entrenched on the WTA throne, the rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova loomed ever larger.  Azarenka had won their two most significant meetings in 2012, an Australian Open final and a US Open semifinal.  Holding a surface advantage over the younger blonde on clay, Sharapova struck back at Roland Garros to recapture the edge in their rivalry.  A barrage of pinpoint returns and forehands swept the first set into her ledger, but Azarenka exploited an erratic passage of play to level the match.  At that stage, parallels linked this match with their US Open semifinal, which Sharapova had started in torrid form before steadily fading.  There would be no déjà vu on this day when the two rivals contested their second 6-4 final set in three majors.  Sharapova built a commanding lead in the third set, only to throw Azarenka a lifeline as she squandered a handful of match points.  The ear-shattering shrieks and ball-shattering blows from both competitors escalated with the mounting drama.  When a bullet ace streaked down the center stripe, Sharapova reasserted herself as the best of the rest—for now.

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1) Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na, Australian Open F, 4-6 6-4 6-3

Never a fan favorite, Azarenka has endured a discordant relationship with media and many fans throughout her tenure at the top.  The simmering turbulence there boiled into the open after she took a dubious medical timeout near the end of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens.  When Azarenka took the court against Li with her title defense at stake, the air in Rod Laver Arena felt heavier with hostility than humidity.  The Chinese star emerged the less battered of the two from a rollercoaster first set, high on tension and low on holds of serve.  Steady returning and unsteady emotions extended into the second set, when Li added a plot twist of her own by sustaining successive injuries.  Made of tenacious stuff, she gallantly returned to the fray after striking her head on the court.  But Azarenka’s head had grown clearer while Li’s head had grown cloudier, allowing the former to claw her way to an impressive title defense.  With almost nobody in her corner for one of the biggest matches of her career, Azarenka showed how she needs nobody but herself.  She echoed fellow world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in her ability to thrive on animosity and turn it defiantly to her advantage.

 

Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray Among 2013 ESPY Award Nominations

ESPYS Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray

(June 27, 2013) Sports network ESPN has released the nominations list for their annual ESPY Awards (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly), and it includes not only best male and female tennis-exclusive categories, but also nods to Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in various other categories. (Remember to cast your official votes at the ESPYS website here.)

American Serena Williams receives her ninth ESPY Award nomination, and is listed this year as one of four women under the “Best Female Athlete” category. According to ESPN, the award is presented to the female sportsperson, irrespective of nationality or sport contested, adjudged to be the most outstanding over a given year.

Her competition includes US Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin and Baylor University college basketball player Brittney Griner. Williams’ achievements giving her the nod for the ESPY nomination include her 2012 titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, her Olympic gold medal in singles and doubles in London last summer, and her 2013 French Open title.

Scot Andy Murray receives a nomination in the “Best Moment” category which is presented to the moment or series of moments occurring in a sporting event or season, irrespective of sport contested or gender of participating sportsperson(s), adjudged to the most remarkable, compelling, or entertaining in a given year.

Murray’s “moment,” of course, is winning a gold medal at the London Olympics last year in straight sets over Roger Federer, whom he had lost to four weeks prior in the Wimbledon final. The nomination also alludes to him being the first “British” man to win a singles gold in the Olympics since 1908.

Murray’s three competitors include Jack Hoffman’s touchdown run in the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ spring game, Alex Morgan’s game-winning goal against Canada in the Olympic semifinal, coach Chuck Pagano’s return to the Colts after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Serb Novak Djokovic is nominated for “Best International Athlete,” which is presented to the sportsperson in a North American professional or collegiate league, irrespective of gender, born outside the United States adjudged to be the best in a given year. According to ESPN, the nod was given because (1) he was the first player to be year end No. 1 in consecutive seasons since Roger Federer achieved four straight world No. 1 finishes from 2004-07, and (2) he won the 2013 Australian Open singles championship.

Djokovic’s four tough competitors include Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, Mexican boxer Juan Manuel Marquez, Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi, and Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.

There were also two exclusive tennis categories: Best Male Tennis Player and Best Female Tennis Player. Full nominations list below.

Best Male Tennis Player Nominations

Novak Djokovic

  • Clinched the year-end No. 1 ATP Ranking, becoming the first player to accomplish the feat in consecutive seasons since Roger Federer achieved four straight World No. 1 finishes from 2004-07
  • Won 2013 Austrailian Open singles championship

Roger Federer

  • Won his record 17th Grand Slam singles championship and record-tying seventh Wimbledon singles championship

Andy Murray

  • Captured his first Grand Slam singles title when he beat Novak Djokovic in five sets to win the 2012 U. S. Open
  • Won the Olympic gold medal, beating Roger Federer in the finals

Rafael Nadal

  • Became first man to win the same Grand Slam tournament eight times when he won 2013 French Open

 

Best Female Tennis Player Nominations

Victoria Azarenka

  • Finished 2012 as No. 1 ranked player in WTA
  • Lost in the finals of the 2012 U. S. Open

Maria Sharapova

  • Equaled her best season to date, finishing number two in the world
  • Won three WTA titles

Serena Williams

  • Earned her fourth U. S. Open singles title in 2012
  • Won her fifth Wimbledon singles title in 2012
  • Won the 2013 French Open singles title

Wimbledon Rewind: How the Mighty Have Fallen (And Who Might Reap the Rewards)

A wild Wednesday swept through the All England Club.  We glance back through the avalanche of upsets that rendered some sections of both draws almost unrecognizable as a major.

Roger rolled:  36 straight quarterfinals at majors.  Seven Wimbledon titles in the last ten years.  None of his legendary opponent’s credentials mattered to the 116th-ranked Sergei Stakhovsky, who became the lowest-ranked man to defeat Roger Federer in a decade.  His moment of truth came in the fourth-set tiebreak, as crucial for the underdog as it was for the favorite considering the momentum that Stakhovsky had built by winning the second and third sets.  Federer had started to reassert himself late in the fourth, and he surely would have secured the fifth set if he had reached it.

Unlike Alejandro Falla in 2010, and Julien Benneteau in 2012, Stakhovsky made sure that the Swiss did not survive the crossroads.  A barrage of unreturnable serves early in the tiebreak, a clutch backhand down the line, and a sequence of magnificent lunging volleys brought him to match point on his serve.  Sure enough, Federer saved it with a pinpoint passing shot.  But Stakhovsky kept his composure through what felt like an interminable rally with the champion serving at 5-6 in the tiebreak.  Finally, a Federer backhand floated aimlessly wide as time seemed to stand still on Centre Court, where things like these never happen.

Maria mastered:  Off the WTA radar for years, former prodigy Michelle Larcher de Brito had gained most of her publicity from distinctively elongated yodels.  She entered the main draw as a qualifier, though, which meant that she had accumulated more grass matches than her heralded opponent.  Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova has stumbled early in the draw there more often than not in recent years.  Slipping and skidding around the site of her first major breakthrough, she never found her rhythm or range from the baseline in a loss that recalled previous Wimbledon setbacks to Alla Kudryavtseva and Gisela Dulko.

The finish did not come easily for de Brito, as it never does against Sharapova.  The girl who long has struggled with her serve deserves full credit for standing firm through deuce after deuce as five match points slipped past until the sixth proved the charm.

Vika victimized:  Injuring her leg during her first-round victory, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka never reached her scheduled Centre Court rendezvous with Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday.  Azarenka withdrew from Wimbledon while blasting the All England Club for creating unsafe playing conditions.  She now needs only a retirement or walkover at Roland Garros to complete a career injury Slam, and she will hand the No. 2 ranking back to Sharapova after the tournament.

Jo-Wilfried jolted:  Also on the retirement list in a day filled with injuries, world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga handed Ernests Gulbis a ticket to the third round after losing two of the first three sets.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and at Queen’s Club, Tsonga had seemed one of the tournament’s leading dark horses at the outset.  But Gulbis, the most dangerous unseeded man in the draw, eyes an open route to a quarterfinal against Andy Murray.

Caro curbed:  An Eastbourne semifinal aside, Caroline Wozniacki has struggled without respite since reaching the Indian Wells final in March.  Another early loss thus comes as no great surprise for someone who lost in the first round of Wimbledon last year.  Wozniacki secured just four games from Petra Cetkovska, not the first upset that the Czech has notched on grass.

Tall men toppled:  Their opponents had nothing to do with it, but the tenth-seeded Marin Cilic and American No. 2 John Isner added themselves to the exodus of retirements.  While Isner did not harbor real hopes for a deep run, Cilic reached the final at Queen’s Club barely a week ago and had reached the second week of Wimbledon last year.  Of the top-16 seeds in the bottom half of the men’s draw, only Murray and Nicolas Almagro remain.

Serbs swiped:  More comfortable on slower surfaces, former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic departed in straight sets on Wednesday.  Ivanovic’s loss came at the hands of rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, who may rival Laura Robson (or Larcher de Brito?) for the breakout story of the women’s tournament.  The proudly patriotic Jankovic may take some comfort in the fact that her misfortune came at the hands of a fellow Serb.  Her conqueror, Vesna Dolonc, is the only Serb left in the women’s draw.

Hewitt halted:  The 2002 champion soared to a straight-sets victory over the 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round, only to tumble back to earth against flashy Jamaican-turned-German journeyman Dustin Brown.  Lleyton Hewitt’s defeat leaves Novak Djokovic as the only former champion and only No. 1 in the Wimbledon men’s draw.

And more…:  The seeded casualties did not stop there.  Fernando Verdasco bounced No. 31 Julien Benneteau in straight sets, No. 22 Sorana Cirstea lost two tiebreaks to Camila Giorgi, and No. 27 Lucie Safarova let a one-set lead get away against another Italian in Karin Knapp.  Nadal’s nemesis, Steve Darcis, also withdrew from Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.

Hanging on tight:  In the women’s match of the day, No. 17 Sloane Stephens narrowly kept her tournament alive against Andrea Petkovic by surviving an 8-6 third set.  Stephens will have a real chance to reach her second semifinal in three 2013 majors with both top-eight seeds gone from her quarter.  Also extended to a third set were No. 19 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 25 Ekaterina Makarova, the latter of whom overcame rising Spanish star Garbine Muguruza.  Meanwhile, men’s 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny needed five sets to survive Canadian youngster Vasek Pospisil as hardly anyone escaped at least a nibble from the upset bug.

Rising above the rubble:  But a few contenders did.  Extending his winning streak to seven, second seed Andy Murray notched another routine victory as he becomes the overwhelming favorite to reach a second straight Wimbledon final.  Murray’s pre-final draw might pit him against a succession of Tommy Robredo, Youzhny, Gulbis, and Benoit Paire or Jerzy Janowicz—hardly a murderer’s row, although the Gulbis matchup might intrigue.

In the wake of a difficult first-round victory, 2011 champion Petra Kvitova caught a break today when Yaroslava Shvedova withdrew.  Kvitova becomes the only top-eight seed to reach the third round in the bottom half of the women’s draw.  She could face a compelling test from Makarova on Friday, but her most significant competition might come from Stephens or Marion Bartoli in the semifinals.  Struggling mightily for most of the spring amid coaching turmoil, 2007 finalist Bartoli has picked an ideal time to find some form again.  She ousted Christina McHale in straight sets today and has become the highest-ranked woman remaining in her quarter.

Live Updates: Sharapova, Isner, Azarenka Lead Player Injuries on an Unprecedented Day 3 at Wimbledon

(June 26, 2013) Players, fans, media members, Wimbledon trainers, and even my goldfish are all scratching their heads on this unprecedented injury-filled Wednesday.

Within the first 90 minutes of play, five players had already been forced to withdraw due to injuries sustained on the slippery grass, and more continue throughout the day. As Darren Cahill states, the grass is typically more slippery in the first four days while the back court gets worn down, but the rainy days prior to the start of the tournament haven’t helped the already wet conditions.

Players such as Maria Sharapova are calling the courts “dangerous,” while the All England Club told ESPN this afternoon that the grounds are in “excellent condition.” Clearly, all the injuries, slips and retirements have infiltrated the players’ mindset and many would be wise to be cautious in their movement. Not surprisingly, the conditions have balanced the competition and no top player is safe as seen by Sharapova’s early exit.

Friend of Tennis Grandstand, @MariyaKTennis, tweeted the following:According to @ITF_Tennis, this is believed to be the most singles retirements/walkovers on a single day at a Slam in the Open Era.” So, there we go.

Here is a run down of the player walkovers, as well as various other injuries sustained throughout day three of play.

Retirements

John Isner: In the opening game of his match against Adrian Mannarino, Isner was serving and came down hard, tweaking his left knee. After getting it taped up, Isner tried to continue but ended up retiring only points later.

John Isner
John Isner 2
John Isner 3
Victoria Azarenka: Nobody’s day one tumble looked worse than Azarenka’s against Maria Joao Koehler, where she slipped and twisted her right knee. Despite an MRI showing no structural damage, Azarenka pulled out prior to her match, giving opponent Flavia Pennetta a walkover to the third round.

Victoria Azarenka

Radek Stepanek: A mere six games into his match against Jerzy Janowicz, Stepanek received a medical timeout and heavy strapping on his left thigh. He continued but was forced to retire down 6-2, 5-3.

Radek Stepanek

Marin Cilic: The No. 10 men’s seed pulled out prior to his match against Kenny de Schepper due to a lingering left knee injury which was worsened during his win over Marcos Baghdatis in the opening round.
“I started to have difficulties with my knees during Queen’s. During last week I was feeling it already in practice. Then on Sunday I felt it really bad in my serve … Yesterday it felt it much, much worse. It was difficult for me to put weight on left leg which is where the pain is.”

Steve Darcis: Rafael’s Nadal conquestor also pulled out prior to stepping on court for his second round match. The Belgian said he had hurt his right shoulder when he fell during the first set against Nadal on Monday.

The 29-year-old posted on Twitter: “Had to withdrawn after a win like this!?THE most difficult thing i had to do!!!#triedeverythingtoplaybutdidntwork!!!!”

Yaroslava Shvedova: The Russian-born Kazak was added to the withdrawal list as she pulled out with an arm injury before her match against No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: After losing the second set to Ernests Gulbis, Tsonga got his left knee taped despite there being no clear indication of when the injury happened. His movement seems to be severely hampered and he retired after losing the third set.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Ernests Gulbis

Injuries and Other Tumbles

Maria Sharapova: After taking a pretty bad tumble during her warm-up, Sharapova slipped an additional three times during her match, the last of which required an injury timeout to her left hip. Sharapova repeatedly told the chair umpire that the conditions on court were “dangerous” and these tumbles seemed to have affected her focus and play. Her opponent Michelle Larcher de Brito ended up pulling off the ultimate upset, and in straight sets no less, 6-3, 6-4.

Caroline Wozniacki: Despite having taped her right ankle, the 9th seed slipped on the grass twisting her left ankle. She was able to finish out the match but lost to Petra Cetkovska in just over an hour, 6-2, 6-2.

Caroline Wozniacki
Caroline Wozniacki 2

 

Footage of some of the tumbles that Wozniacki, Eugenie Bouchard, Julien Benneteau, Mikhail Youzhny and Ernests Gulbis took.

Julien Benneteau: The Frenchman took his own slip against Fernando Verdasco that required a trainer examining his right leg. The 31 seed eventually lost 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

Julien Benneteau 3

Julien Benneteau
Julien Benneteau 2

Wimbledon Rewind: Nadal Stunned, Kvitova Survives, Federer Shines, Sharapova Battles

This article marks the first in a daily series of articles reviewing the action at Wimbledon.  They follow the same general format as a similar series on Roland Garros.  If you missed some of the action, or want a general overview, check out this written equivalent of a highlight reel.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Banished to the distant precincts of Court 19, Lukas Rosol still produced another thriller.  After five sets and two tiebreaks, Julian Reister slew the Czech giant killer in a blow to the tournament’s first-week intrigue.  Fans with grounds passes got their money’s worth, though, perhaps more so than those on the show courts did.

Upset of the day:  One year after Rosol stunned him in the first week, Rafael Nadal succumbed to an even lowlier opponent in Steve Darcis.  The Belgian dropped serve just twice in three sets as the former Wimbledon champion slipped too easily into passive play.  Nadal did not lack chances to turn the match around in the second set, serving for the set at 6-5 and later holding a set point in the tiebreak.  He loses before the final for the first time in ten tournaments this year.

Comeback of the day:  Down a set early to Fabio Fognini, former Wimbledon doubles champion Jurgen Melzer clawed back to win the next three from his seeded opponent.  The veteran’s lefty serve could shine on grass, but he has not left an impact on a major in three years.

Gold star:  The first round of Wimbledon has not always witnessed Roger Federer’s best tennis (see Falla, 2010).  This year, however, the defending champion opened the action on Centre Court by yielding just five games to Victor Hanescu.  With Nadal out of the draw, Federer’s hopes of a record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title soar significantly.

Silver star:  A champion here eleven long years ago, Lleyton Hewitt looked every inch the part in dismantling the 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka.  The Aussie had reached the semifinals at Queen’s Club two weeks ago, defeating Del Potro en route, and grass remains his most dangerous surface.  He might well reach the second week or better in the section vacated by Nadal.

Wooden spoon:  Remember when Janko Tipsarevic held a top-eight seed at the US Open last fall?  His stock has fallen sharply during a season-long slump in 2013.  Now the 14th seed at Wimbledon, Tipsarevic fell to compatriot Viktor Troicki in straight sets to continue that spiral.

Americans in London:  While doubles specialist Rajeev Ram advanced in four sets, John Isner avenged an Eastbourne loss last week to Evgeny Donskoy.  Notoriously fond of marathons in early rounds, Isner advanced more efficiently this time.

Question of the day:  With Nadal gone, does Federer or Murray become the favorite to reach the final from the lower half of the men’s draw?

WTA:

Match of the day: When Petra Kvitova dropped a 6-1 first set on Coco Vandeweghe, the 2011 champion probably expected to cruise easily into the second round.  Little has come easily for Kvitova since she won here two years ago, though, and she quickly found herself embroiled in a dogfight with her fellow heavy server.  Vandeweghe eked out a tight second set and pressed Kvitova deep into the third before the favorite prevailed.  The route does not get any easier for the former champion from here.

Upset of the day:  At least world No. 5 Sara Errani did not fail to win a point in a set, as she had at Wimbledon last year to Yaroslava Shvedova.  Never a threat on grass, Errani won just five games from Puerto Rican rising star Monica Puig in one of the quietest upsets of a top-five player that you’ll see.  She now has lost in the first round at consecutive non-clay majors.

Comeback of the day:  On her least effective surface, Alize Cornet dropped the first set to former Wimbledon doubles champion Vania King.  Not known for her fortitude, Cornet easily could have folded from there.  Instead, she lost just four games over the next two sets to stay on track for a third-round rematch of her Roland Garros tilt with Victoria Azarenka.

Gold star:  Handed a formidable first-round opponent in Kristina Mladenovic, Maria Sharapova clung fiercely to her serve throughout a first set that featured only a single break point.  The going got slightly easier in the second set, and it should get easier for her in the next few rounds.

Silver star:  To the surprise of some, Wimbledon issued a wildcard to Andrea Petkovic just weeks after she lost in Roland Garros qualifying.  The charismatic German had contemplated retirement in the wake of that setback, but she continued an encouraging recent trend by justifying the wildcard with a straight-sets victory.

Marathon of the day:  All four Serbs in action advanced, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic with ease.  Vesna Dolonc battled back from losing the first set to topple Yanina Wickmayer, but Bojana Jovanovski surpassed all of her countrywomen in the drama department.  The fiery youngster who reached the second week of the Australian Open needed a 16-game final set to halt Ajla Tomljanovic, a once-promising talent derailed by mononucleosis.  The historic rivalry between Serbia and Tomljanovic’s native Croatia added an entertaining dimension to the thriller.

Americans in London:  The highest-ranked American here not named Williams, Sloane Stephens opened impressively by defeating Eastbourne finalist Jamie Hampton.  In general, though, this group fell far short of their Paris success while posting a dismal 2-7 record on Day 1.  Both of the victories came against fellow Americans, Christina McHale joining Stephens in the second round with a win over Alexa Glatch.  The 26th-seeded Varvara Lepchenko fell to the unheralded Eva Birnerova.

Question of the day:  Early in the second set of her opening match, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka fell awkwardly on the slick grass.  Although she managed to regroup for a comfortable victory, Azarenka said that she will undergo tests on the leg to assess its condition.  How serious will this apparent injury prove?