Victoria Azarenka

The Fab Five, Revisited: Wimbledon 2013 Women’s Contenders

This companion to a Monday article on the Wimbledon men’s field discusses five key women to watch during the next fortnight.  Tennis Grandstand will feature a joint preview on the men’s and women’s draws after they appear, but this article provides a general overview of the contenders.

1)     Serena Williams:  One woman in the Wimbledon draw holds more singles titles there than all of the other 127 combined.  In each successive appearance, Serena sets a new tournament ace record as she showcases the shot that separates her from the competition, and that separated her sister from the competition before her.  She has not lost a match since February, compiling a streak of 31 consecutive victories that she seeks to extend from hard courts through clay to grass.  But the most impressive statistic regarding Serena, who pursues her 17th major title, may be her stranglehold over the other women on this list.  The 31-year-old veteran owns a 31-4 career mark against the rest of the top four, so her greatest test could come from an unheralded opponent in the early rounds.  Or it could come from her health, the only reason why she does not currently hold all four of the major titles.

2)     Victoria Azarenka:  In the last twelve months, Azarenka has lost to only one match to someone other than Serena on a surface other than clay.  That span included a Wimbledon semifinal and a bronze medal at the Olympics, which showed that she can contend on grass despite a relatively modest serve.  Now a two-time major champion, Azarenka probably has not reached her peak period yet.  She still needs to prove that she can defeat a healthy Serena at a major, and her own health remains a significant question mark.  Azarenka issues walkovers, retirements, and withdrawals at a much higher rate than most of her contemporaries, although she rarely retires from a major.  While grass does not suit her reliance on rhythmic baseline rallies and frequent service breaks, it does reward her crisp footwork and groundstroke depth.  Moreover, her feistiness leaves her unruffled by the magnitude of the sport’s grandest stage.

3)     Maria Sharapova:  If Azarenka needs to prove that she can defeat Serena at a major, Sharapova needs to prove that she can defeat Serena anywhere.  Four losses to the American this year have left her not clearly closer to doing so, but she reasserted herself in another key rivalry last month.  Defeating Azarenka in a compelling Roland Garros semifinal, Sharapova extended a four-month, seven-tournament span during which she has not lost to anyone but Serena.  She often labels Wimbledon her favorite tournament, probably because she broke through there for her first major title in 2004.  Over the last few years, Sharapova has shifted away (a bit) from the quick-strike tennis that shone so brightly on grass.  Past the fourth round only once in her last six Wimbledon appearances, she prefers surfaces that give her more time to aim her weapons.  Perceptibly taller than in 2004, Sharapova can struggle with the low bounce on grass.

4)     Agnieszka Radwanska:  Associated with the grip-it-and-rip-it style of shot-makers like Sharapova or the Williams sisters, grass also can showcase the more subtle talents of last year’s finalist.  Among them are compact swings, keen reflexes, and deft touch at the net, which have made Radwanska a serial quarterfinalist at Wimbledon.  Her 2012 appearance there marked the only time in eight attempts that she has advanced past the quarterfinals at any major, and she profited from an especially accommodating draw.  Gone in the first round of Eastbourne last week, Radwanska has recorded reasonably consistent results for most of 2013 that have kept her entrenched at No. 4.  On the other hand, she has not produced anything spectacular this season to move higher up the hierarchy.  Radwanska has improved her serve over the years, but it remains a vulnerability that costs her on a surface where holding serve matters so much.

5)     Petra Kvitova:  The only woman not named Williams to win here since 2006, Kvitova defeated Azarenka and Sharapova en route to the 2011 title.  She has not lost to anyone but Serena here since 2009, although her results at majors have dwindled over the last year.  A fourth-round exit at the US Open preceded first-week losses at the Australian Open and Roland Garros, where Kvitova had reached the semifinals in 2012.  She might need to defeat all of the top three women in succession, but her enormous first strikes on serve and return can trouble any opponent on a fast surface.  Kvitova’s main challenge lies in sustaining her form for more than a few matches at a time, or even from start to finish in one match.  Too often playing to the level of the competition, she must show more discipline this fortnight.


Serena Williams Stirs Up a Storm: Calls Out a WTA Top Five Player; Comments on Steubenville Rape Victim [UPDATED]

(June 18, 2013) Serena Williams has made the news over the last 24 hours for playing ping pong with fans at the Heathrow airport, and for being impeccably dressed during a Burberry fashion show in London. Now, from the other side of the emotional spectrum, a quotes controversy has come to light from an upcoming Rolling Stone profile on the tennis star. And it’s not pretty.

As Deadspin reported, Williams was quite vocal during a recent Rolling Stone interview with the author Stephen Rodrick. The first hot topic? Her thoughts on the 16-year-old Steubenville rape victim. Take a deep breath.

“We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV—two high school football players raped a 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. ‘Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.'”

But the controversial quote machine that is Serena didn’t end there. She went on, calling out one of her fellow WTA players.

“There are people who live, breathe and dress tennis. I mean seriously, give it a rest.” Serena exits the car and the conversation moves on to a Top Five player who is now in love. “She begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’—it’s so boring,” says Serena in a loud voice. “She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”


Since when was Williams so open with the press? At times, you would be lucky to get a few sentences out of her in her post-match press conferences. The author, Rodrick, goes on a limb and takes an “educated guess” that the player in question is Maria Sharapova, who is currently dating fellow tennis player Grigor Dimitrov. However, there is another top five female player currently in a public relationship … Victoria Azarenka and her beau RedFoo. So which couple is it?

In March 2012, Williams and Dimitrov seemed to have a friendly relationship, so much so, that Williams cheered on the Bulgarian when he defeated Tomas Berdych at the Sony Open for his first top-10 win. After the match, Dimitrov was asked about his friendship with the American.

Q: We saw Serena up there rooting for you right now.  Can you talk about that friendship a little bit?

“What do you want to know?  No, I’m kidding.  No, she’s a good friend of mine.  She came after in the locker room – not in the locker room, the fitness room to congratulate me.  It was very nice of her, yeah.”

What changed from one year ago if the “black heart” Williams is referring to is indeed Dimitrov’s? Perhaps there is a deeper history between the two than we are familiar with … and maybe it’s not Dimitrov and Sharapova that Williams was referring to.

Another option is that somehow Williams’ quotes were misrepresented or completely out of context, and she has yet to publicly respond to the article and quotes.

One thing is for certain though: Williams will probably be more hesitant sharing much insight with the press this week in Wimbledon again.

[UPDATE] Williams released a statement on her official website on Wednesday, apologizing for the controversial comments in the Rolling Stone article about the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case.

“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved — that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written — what I supposedly said — is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”

“I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields — anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”

Get to Know … 19-year-old WTA Tennis Player Annika Beck

(June 11, 2013) Rising German star Annika Beck is having a breakthrough season on the WTA Tour. This week, the 19-year-old reached a career-high ranking of world No. 56 after her second round appearance at last week’s French Open. One year ago, she captured the Girls’ Singles title at the same prestigious Slam. [Tuesday Nürnberg gallery of Beck at bottom]

In April, the 19-year-old made the semifinals of the Katowice Open and in her following tournament, took world No. 8 Petra Kvitova to three sets.

Seeded eighth at this week’s WTA International event in Nürnberg, Beck won her first round match against Nina Bratchikova in just over an hour, and afterward answered some fun questions for Tennis Grandstand.

Get to know the bubbly German as she talks Serena Williams, getting her driver’s license and the one person she would most want to meet. Hint: it’s a pop singer!

What is your most memorable tennis moment?
I think it’s just from one week ago. I had a great match against Victoria Azarenka in Paris on Suzanne Lenglen Court. It’s a big feeling to play in front of such a big crowd. It was a great experience.

How did you first start playing tennis, or what is your earliest tennis memory?
I started when I was 5 years old at a tennis camp in my hometown. I did some other sports beside tennis, but now I’m just a professional tennis player.

What is your greatest strength?
On court, it’s definitely my movement. I move pretty well and fast. Of course, my groundstrokes as well. Off court, I would say, I’m just a sympathetic person and open for everything.

What is your biggest weakness?
I would say, it’s still my serve, but I am trying hard to improve it.

If you were hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite and why?
I would invite, of course, Roger Federer. He’s a really nice guy. He’s so relaxed and cool, and he’s just himself. Then I would invite Serena Williams because I didn’t have any [contact] with her until now, and I hope I can learn more about her. And who else would I invite? … Oh, I would invite Pete Sampras because maybe he could show me some tricks for my serve! 

If you were not a pro tennis player, what would you be doing?
I would think that I would be studying. Well, it’s still my aim to study medicine someday. I hope I can I do it the next few years, but it’s difficult with the tennis life, so I hope I can do it afterwards.

What is 1 thing that scares you?
I’m pretty afraid of spiders. I don’t like those crawly little animals.

What are 2 things you could not live without? 
I could not live without … my phone! It keeps me updated about everything. I tried a few weeks ago to stay away one day without my phone, and it was really terrible for me! I was really missing something to do! The other thing is my parents. They have been helping me a lot, financially and supporting me at every moment. It would be pretty hard for me if I don’t have them.

If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Once I said I want to change a day in my life with Jennifer Lopez, so maybe [her]. She’s a great singer. She looks unbelievable. She does great concerts. I’ve never been to her concert yet, but I really want to go one day, so I hope I can make it!

What is the most extravagant things you have bought with your tournament prize money?
I paid my driver’s license with one of my prize money [winnings], but it’s not an extravagant thing. Others buy houses or cars, but I don’t have that kind of prize money to do it now.

What are your goals for the year in terms of progress or ranking?
I don’t have any aims of the rankings because I just want to improve my game – get more variety in my game as well, and work on my serve and groundstrokes. And I hope everything will come with that.

Gallery from Nürnberg match play on Tuesday by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.

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When the Red Dust Settles: Favorite Memories of Roland Garros 2013

Matches and events fly past in the fortnight of a major too quickly to absorb everything that happens.  But, now that the red dust has settled, here are the memories that I will take from Roland Garros 2013.

Gael Monfils and the Paris crowd making each other believe that he could accomplish the impossible, and then Monfils accomplishing it.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands looking completely lost at the start of her match against Li Na and then gradually finding her baseline range, one rain delay at a time.

The courteous handshake and smile that Li gave her conqueror despite the bitter defeat.

Shelby Rogers justifying her USTA wildcard by winning a main-draw match and a set from a seed.

Grigor Dimitrov learning how to reach the third round of a major, and learning that what happens in Madrid stays in Madrid.

Bojana Jovanovski teaching Caroline Wozniacki that what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

Ernests Gulbis calling the Big Four boring, and former top-four man Nikolay Davydenko calling him back into line.

Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur settling their features into resigned masks they underachieved yet again at a major.

John Isner winning 8-6 in the fifth and then coming back the next day to save 12 match points before losing 10-8 in the fifth.

Virginie Razzano winning twice as many matches as she did here last year.

Tommy Haas dominating a man fourteen years his junior and then coming back the next day to save a match point and outlast Isner when the thirteenth time proved the charm.

Benoit Paire losing his mind after a code violation cost him a set point, and Kei Nishikori quietly going about his business afterwards.

Ana Ivanovic telling journalists that “ajde” is her favorite word, and sympathizing with Nadal for the scheduling woes.

Tommy Robredo crumpling to the terre battue in ecstasy after a third consecutive comeback from losing the first two sets carried him to a major quarterfinal.

Sloane Stephens calling herself one of the world’s most interesting 20-year-olds.

Nicolas Almagro swallowing the bitter taste of a second straight collapse when opportunity knocked to go deep in a major.

Victoria Azarenka reminding us that it is, after all, rather impressive to win a match when your serve completely fails to show up.

Fernando Verdasco clawing back from the brink of defeat against Janko Tipsarevic to the brink of an upset that would have cracked his draw open—only to lose anyway.

Alize Cornet pumping her fist manically in one game and sobbing in despair the next.

Mikhail Youzhny remembering to bang a racket against his chair instead of his head.

Francesca Schiavone catching lightning in a bottle one more time in Paris, just when everyone thought that she no longer could.

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet putting on a master class of the one-handed backhand.

Svetlana Kuznetsova walking onto Chatrier to face Angelique Kerber and playing like she belonged there as a contender of the present, not a champion of the past.

Roger Federer joining alter ego @PseudoFed on Twitter, and fledgling tweeter Tomas Berdych telling one of his followers that his most challenging opponent is…Tomas Berdych.

Agnieszka Radwanska proving that her newly blonde hair wasn’t a jinx, but that major quarterfinals still might be.

Jo-Wifried Tsonga showing us his best and worst in the course of two matches, illustrating why he could win a major and why he has not.

Sara Errani looking the part of last year’s finalist while tying much bigger, stronger women up in knots.

Novak Djokovic overcoming a significant personal loss midway through the tournament and standing taller than ever before at the one major that still eludes him.

Jelena Jankovic completing a dramatic come-from-behind win and a dramatic come-from-ahead loss against two top-ten women in the same tournament.

David Ferrer, the forgotten man, reaching his first major final at age 31 in a reward for all of those years toiling away from the spotlight.

Maria Sharapova staying true to her uncompromising self and ending a match in which she hit 11 double faults with—an ace.

Serena Williams consigning her last trip here to the dustbin of history.

Rafael Nadal collapsing on the Chatrier clay just as ecstatically the eighth time as he did the first.

Staying up until 5 AM to watch a certain match, and wanting to stay up longer for one more game or one more point.

Looking forward to jumping back on the rollercoaster at the All England Club.

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on the Women’s Semifinals

After contrasting semifinals, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams will meet in a major final for just the third time and the first time since 2007.  Here are some thoughts on how they got to Saturday.

Vengeance was hers:  At two majors last year, Maria Sharapova had fallen short against Victoria Azarenka.  A rout in the Australian Open final and a tight three-setter in the US Open semifinal had handed the momentum to Azarenka in their rivalry.  Flipping the script in a three-set thriller, Sharapova has snatched the momentum back with her first victory over the younger blonde at a major and first (excluding retirements) on an outdoor court since 2009.

30 at age 31:  Top seed Serena Williams cruised past world No.5 Sara Errani for the loss of just a single game.  This second semifinal marked Serena’s 30th straight victory and the fourth time in six matches here that she has lost three or fewer games.  She will enter the final as an overwhelming favorite.

Defense does not rest:  For the first time, Sharapova carries a title defense at a major to a second straight final.  She has not excelled at title defenses throughout her career, but notable exceptions have come during the clay season with Rome in 2011-12 and Stuttgart in 2012-13.

That was…steely:  Whenever adversity struck today, Sharapova responded without hesitation.  Dropping her serve with two double faults to start the match, she reeled off six straight games for the first set.  Losing four straight games at the end of the second set, with another double fault down set point, she broke early in the third.  Broken straight back, she broke again—twice.  Unable to convert four match points when she first served for the match, she closed it out at love on her second opportunity.

That was…quick:  While the first semifinal produced the drama that one associates with a major semifinal, Serena cruised through her match in 46 minutes.  Sara Errani should not hang her head, however.  When Serena takes it into her mind to hit an average of three winners per game, and three winners for every unforced error, nobody has an answer for that sort of display.

Fitting finish:  Relentless with her vicious ball-bludgeoning, Sharapova climbed into double digits for both aces (12) and double faults (11).  The final ace sealed her most memorable victory of 2013, just as an ace sealed her return to No. 1 in last year’s Roland Garros semifinal.  She now has reached as many major finals since shoulder surgery as she did before it, and the serve that so many have questioned has played a critical role.

Italian streak ends:  For the first time since 2009, no Italian woman reaches the Roland Garros final.  Instead, the top two seeds will meet in the women’s final for the first time since 1995 (when No. 2 Steffi Graf defeated No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario).

Question of the day:  Serena leads her head-to-head with Sharapova 13-2 and typically plays her best tennis against her.  But she struggled for long stretches in both of her major finals last year against opponents whom she historically dominates.  Which trend prevails?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing the Women’s Semifinals

Judging by recent history, Maria Sharapova might want to bring  a portable roof with her when she faces Victoria Azarenka.   With the exception of a retirement in Rome, Azarenka has won their last six matches outdoors while losing one total set, whereas Sharapova has both of their meetings indoors.  One would hand Maria the edge on clay, but Vika won the first set in that Rome encounter before retiring down a break in the second.  And Serena Williams proved in Madrid that Sharapova’s dominance on this surface does not trump her futility in a certain rivalry.  Although Azarenka plays a notably different game, she shares Serena’s ability to relentlessly threaten the Russian’s serve, building pressure that takes a toll on the rest of her game.

Beyond their relative rankings, however, the Madrid runner-up has reason to believe that she can overcome the Rome runner-up.  Roland Garros tests mental and emotional endurance more than any other major, especially late in the fortnight, and Sharapova always has claimed an edge in that department over this rival.  Furthermore, she has shed the playfully self-imposed label of “cow on ice” that described her early forays onto the terre battue.  Sharapova now moves more naturally on the surface than many women, including Azarenka, and she transitions most comfortably from defense to offense on this surface.  A key to Vika’s success against her, catching the statuesque Russian out of position with tangled feet has proved more difficult on clay.

Some uncertainty clouds the recent form of both women, neither of whom has faced a notable opponent here.  Sharapova and Azarenka each have looked solid but not sensational in four of their five matches while submitting a clunker in the fifth.  While Sharapova’s best tennis surpasses the best that Azarenka can produce, a match played at a more modest level would seem to favor the younger woman.  The semifinal should come down to how consistently the defending champion can balance shot-making aggression with patient point construction.  Sharapova knows that she will reach the final if she strikes that balance with immaculate precision.

On the dirt of Roland Garros, though, staying immaculate is easier said than done.


The quarterfinals regularly have marked the end of the line for Serena Williams at Roland Garros, whether against Justine Henin, Samantha Stosur, or Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Now that she has survived that stage in a match narrower than she might have anticipated, Serena may feel ever more secure in her determination to win this title for the second time.  Her first Roland Garros semifinal in a decade pits her against Sara Errani, whom she defeated in a Madrid semifinal last month.  Serena looked vulnerable in the quarterfinals of that tournament as well, nearly succumbing to Anabel Medina Garrigues, but she regrouped to find a higher level of form in her last two matches.

While Errani clung tightly to the world No. 1 in the first set, the disparity between the best serve in the WTA and the worst serve in the WTA top 20 proved too great to overcome, even on a slow surface.  Granted, the Roland Garros clay should play more slowly than the Madrid clay, quickened by that city’s altitude.  And Serena’s rout of Errani  in another semifinal two majors ago should not dictate our anticipation of this semifinal, for the US Open hard court showcases the American’s offense much more effectively than the terre battue.  Last year’s finalist also has displayed crisp form in all but one of her matches this tournament, much as Serena has.  Errani finally cracked her career-long drought against top-five opponents by edging Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals, so she may believe more than ever before that she can challenge the elite.

But the question remains whether she can stay in the point long enough to challenge a truly elite shot-maker, who poses a completely different threat from Radwanska.  The Italian must work much harder than Serena to win points, so her only hope lies in her opponent producing pedestrian tennis (by her standards) for a second straight match.  That prospect looks far from likely with the world No. 1 playing some of her most focused, thoughtful tennis ever during the last three months.   If Serena preserves her patience amid Errani’s flashes of artistry, we can expect to see her again on Saturday.


Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on Wednesday’s Quarterfinal Action

A few surprising events unfolded on Wednesday, but all of the favorites ultimately prevailed to set up an elite group of semifinalists.


Book it:  The inevitable has happened.  Last year’s finalists, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, are still the two best clay players in the world, and they will meet in the second semifinal on Friday.  The winner will enter Sunday’s final as a heavy favorite against either David Ferrer or Jo-Wilfred Tsonga:

Welcome back, Rafa:  For much of the first week, the inevitable did not seem very inevitable as Nadal looked a shadow of himself.  In the second week, though, he has lost just 14 games to opponents of a much higher quality than those whom he faced earlier.  Like Serena Williams, Nadal has a knack for pulling himself together when he absolutely must.

0-for-life:  Swiss No. 2 Stanislas Wawrinka has returned to the top ten this year while beating half of the top eight and pushing the rest to the brink of defeat—with one exception.  He never has won a set from Rafael Nadal, a streak that extended to 0-22 today.  To be sure, Wawrinka probably lacked energy after his marathon comeback against Richard Gasquet in the previous round.

What happens in Miami stays in Miami:  Novak Djokovic has spent his last few rounds taking revenge on nemeses of varying recency.  First came Grigor Dimitrov, demolished in the third round after upsetting the Serb in Madrid.  Then Philipp Kohlschreiber bit the red dust four years after defeating Djokovic here.  Third in line was Tommy Haas, who dominated him in a stunningly lopsided victory at Miami this spring.  Haas did manage to force a tiebreak in the second set but otherwise never seriously threatened Djokovic’s progress toward another attempt at revenge.

Question of the day:  Who wins on Friday, and is it really the de facto final?


What…was…that?  Now renowned for her clay skills, Maria Sharapova looked very much a cow on ice when she committed 20 unforced errors in the six games of the first set.  She cannot let it happen again against Victoria Azarenka tomorrow.

Classic Maria, and classic JJ:  Sharapova never had won a match after losing a first-set bagel before today, but one can think of no woman more capable of accomplishing the feat.  Losing a match after winning the first set 6-0 also seems a quintessentially Jankovic thing to do, as does double-faulting to lose the first game of the second set in that position.

Rule of three:  Don’t mess with Maria in third sets on clay.  She has lost only one in the last five years, to Justine Henin in 2010, winning nine straight and 16 of 17.  Moreover, only one player outside the top ten has won a third set from her on any surface since 2010.  Once she leveled the match, only one possible ending lay ahead.

Tale of two Marias:  A clear underdog against world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka, Maria Kirilenko battled valiantly through a first set that lasted 76 minutes.  Kirilenko then faded quickly in the second set, but she still deserves credit for reaching her first Roland Garros quarterfinal this year.

Semi-sweet:  With her first Roland Garros semifinal, Azarenka now has reached the semifinals at every major in the last twelve months, something that no other woman can say.  Among the men, only Djokovic has done the same.

Question of the day:  Serena Williams clearly rules the WTA roost, but Azarenka and Sharapova are the heiresses apparent to the throne.  Who comes through to, in all likelihood, face the empress?  Previews of both women’s semifinals will appear later today.


Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing Wednesday’s Quarterfinal Action

Two Russians, two Serbs, two defending champions, and two one-handed backhands take the court for Wednesday quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal vs. Stanislas Wawrinka:  From watching both men play this tournament, this quarterfinal looks like a fascinating matchup of the greatest clay play ever in a vulnerable moment against an outstanding clay specialist producing the best tennis of his career.  The history between them tells a different, less promising story.  Never has Nadal dropped a set to Wawrinka in their nine meetings, including a routine victory in the Madrid final this spring.  That match abruptly halted a stirring passage of play from the Swiss No. 2, who had notched consecutive top-eight wins to reach the final.

But perhaps this match will grow more competitive than their previous meetings suggest.  Upon closer inspection, Wawrinka has tested Nadal in many of those 19 lost sets and conceded several of them by a tiebreak or a single break.  The Spaniard swept their only meeting at a major in their first encounter six years ago, but both men have evolved so much since then that it bears little relevance.  Offering Nadal a key advantage here, all the same, is his superior experience at these stages compared to a man who never has reached a major semifinal and will contest his first Roland Garros quarterfinal.

While Wawrinka prefers a higher striking point for his backhand than Federer, parts of Nadal’s tactics should resemble those from a more familiar matchup.  As human as he has looked for much of the tournament, the man who turned 27 on Monday seemed to turn a new leaf at the start of the second week.  Dominating Kei Nishikori then, Nadal should not need to leave his comfort zone to set up the Djokovic collision.

Novak Djokovic vs. Tommy Haas:  Considering their respective resumes, the head-to-head stands startlingly balanced.  Haas recorded two of his three victories over Djokovic on grass in 2009, granted, but he also holds the recent momentum in their rivalry by sweeping past a listless Serb in Miami two months ago.  On that strange evening, the world No. 1 played his worst match ever in the top spot as he faced constant pressure on his serve while rarely maximizing his best weapon, the return.

But one should not forget that Haas has troubled many elite opponents during his late-career surge, and he deserved plenty of credit for his Miami upset by taking time away from Djokovic and finishing points in the forecourt.  The German veteran will find that task more challenging on clay, and he must expect the Serb to find finer form than he did in Miami with so much more at stake.  Reeling from the loss of his former coach, Jelena Gencic, Djokovic declined from the third round to the fourth.  With his first match after the news behind him, he should regain his equilibrium in time for the next.  Haas has taken several twists and turn through the tournament, his wins spanning the spectrums from five-hour epics to straight-sets routs.

Plenty of contrasts will emerge from this match, not just the nine years separating the players.  While Djokovic prefers to win his points in physical rallies from the baseline, Haas relies on his inspired shot-making to craft timely approaches.  The clash of vintage grace with modern power also finds expression in exchanges between the German’s one-handed backhand and the Serb’s two-handed stroke.  Nearly able to upset Roger Federer on this court four years ago, Haas should enjoy some moments in the sun before Djokovic’s counterpunching attrition turns out the light.

Maria Sharapova vs. Jelena Jankovic:  The history between the former Bolletieri pupils extends back to their teenage years when they met at the 2004 US Open.  Sharapova’s victory there began her stranglehold over this rivalry, continuing until the present day.  On the other hand, Jankovic has won sets in four of her seven losses during this eight-match sequence.  At her prime, the Serb’s superb movement offered a compelling contrast of styles when pitted against Sharapova’s relentless but raw offense, and their two-handed backhands juxtaposed strength with strength from the baseline.

Yet Jankovic has regressed since holding the world No. 1 ranking in 2008-09, while the four-time major champion has emerged from shoulder surgery a more complete, relatively more polished player than before.  One would have handed the 28-year-old Serb the edge if they had met on clay earlier in their careers, based on her repeated Roland Garros semifinal runs, multiple Rome titles, and cluster of victories over elite opponents on this surface.  Now, Sharapova has surpassed those accomplishments by winning Roland Garros last year and collecting two Rome titles herself.  Her perfect clay record against opponents other than Serena spans the last two seasons, and she has plowed to the quarterfinals as the defending champion without losing a set.

Sharapova still has not displayed her best tennis this tournament for extended stretches, while Jankovic found convincing form in the last two rounds.  This quarterfinal might produce more drama than their relative rankings suggest before the world No. 2 leans on her superiority in serve and steel to prevail.

Maria Kirilenko vs. Victoria Azarenka:  One of these former doubles partners dropped a set to Alize Cornet, while the other has not lost a set in the tournament.  If you guessed which was which without knowing what has happened at Roland Garros 2013, you probably would be wrong.  Remarkably, neither woman has faced a seeded opponent in Paris as each has profited from the upsets around them. Azarenka’s fourth-round victim Francesca Schiavone accounted for two seeds, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands dispatched the quarter’s other top-eight seed in Li Na before falling to Kirilenko.

Neither of these quarterfinalists ever has reached the final four at Roland Garros, for they prefer other surfaces to the terre battue.  Azarenka clearly holds the advantage in the battle of blondes, having won their only meeting since 2010 at the Olympics last summer.  After unpromising play in the first week, including that three-setter against Cornet, she appeared to regain her rhythm with a strong effort against Francesca Schiavone.  If the canny counterpunching of that clay specialist could not derail Azarenka, surely Kirilenko’s more straightforward counterpunching by itself cannot produce an upset.  The Russian underdog must take some chances on offense, especially in return games, to win a match in which she has no apparent weapon better than its counterpart across the net.

Roland Garros Day 9: Links Roundup with Wawrinka, Li, Youzhny, Djokovic and more

Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.

Shot of the Day: Fans who couldn’t make it out to Roland Garros still got their taste of tennis in front of the Hôtel de Ville in the center of Paris, where participants could try out the red clay or catch the action on the big screen.

Mikhail Youzhny loses it: Many tennis fans were likely experiencing a bout of déjà vu when Russian Mikhail Youzhny absolutely obliterated his racket after falling down a set and 3-0 to Tommy Haas in their fourth round match. This was not the first time the fiery Russian has exhibited such anger on the court, as Nick Zaccardi of Sports Illustrated points out. In 2008, in a match against Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, Youzhny banged his racket against his head several times and in the process drew blood. Both videos can be seen in Zaccardi’s article.

Week one French Open takeaways: The first half of the French Open has come and gone but not without an abundance of drama and questions. Jonathan Overend of the BBC discusses some of the biggest storylines surrounding Roland Garros including Rafa’s form, the restoration of single-handed backhands, Laura Robson’s struggles and more.

Li Na’s press conference raises questions: Sports Illustrated reports that after her second round exit to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Li Na has been heavily criticized for comments she made to the Chinese media. Asked if she had an explanation for her loss Li replied, “Do I need to explain?” She carried on saying, “It’s strange. I lost a game and that’s it. Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them? Apologize to them.” Chinese Journalists Zhang Rongfeng believes this response is indicative of Li Na’s lack of professionalism.

Dominic Inglot grateful for professional career: Dominic Inglot, as Simon Briggs of The Telegraph points out, was the final player hailing from the United Kingdom to be playing in the 2013 French Open. Inglot, along with college teammate and current doubles partner, Treat Huey, crashed out to Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut in the third round of the doubles competition. In his conversation with Briggs, Inglot talks about how he made it into professional tennis and how lucky he is to be able to make a living on tour.

“I get to play tennis for a living—that is the ultimate dream. When I was a little kid I remember cutting the cake on my birthday and blowing the candles out and saying every single time, ‘I want to be a professional tennis player.’”

Road to Roland Garros- Bethanie Mattek-Sands: In this edition of Road to Roland Garros, Bethanie Mattek-Sands reveals her inspiration in tennis, talks about her perpetual lateness, and how her diet is her biggest sacrifice.

Novak Djokovic playing for Jelena Gencic: Novak Djokovic advanced to the quarterfinals of the French Open after a four set win over German Philipp Kohlschreiber. Djokovic, as Reem Abulleil of Sport360 reports, is hoping to claim his first Roland Garros title in memory of his childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, who passed away Saturday.

“She’s one of the most incredible people I ever knew. So it’s quite emotional. I feel even more responsible now to go all the way in this tournament. Now I feel in her honor that I need to go all the way,”

27 pictures of Rafael Nadal on his 27th birthday: In his first three matches, Rafael Nadal looked like a shadow of himself and was consequentially tested by Daniel Brands, Martin Klizan, and Fabio Fognini, three players Nadal probably expected to dispose of quicker than he did. In his fourth round match with Kei Nishikori, Nadal quickly erased the memories of his lackluster play in the opening three rounds.  Nadal’s 27th birthday was today and he definitely made sure he had enough time to celebrate crushing Nishikori 6-4 6-1 6-3. DNA India takes a look back at Nadal’s career in 27 pictures.

Victoria Azarenka prepares for Maria Kirilenko: 2013 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka is set to square off against longtime doubles partner, Maria Kirilenko, after beating Francesca Schiavone in a match that she said was her “most composed and most consistent match thus far.” As Chris Wright of Yahoo Sports points out, “Azarenka is 3-2 against Kirilenko but has not lost to the Russian since 2007.” Azrenka said in regards to Kirilenko “She’s definitely improved a lot over the last couple years since she’s a very motivated player (and a) good friend of mine.”

Stanislas Wawrinka topples Richard Gasquet: Coming back from two sets to love down, Stanislas Wawrinka defeated French hopeful Richard Gasquet in a five set match that featured some of the most jaw-dropping infusions of pace, exquisite shot making, and masterful racket work of the entire tournament. The ATP called the match a “vintage display of shotmaking with 149 winners struck during the match.” Wawrinka’s play was so exemplary that the Swiss went as far as to say, “I played the best level I ever played at.” One of the comments on the ATP article even offered a new nickname for Stan—“WOWrinka.”

Roland Garros Rewind: Wawrinka Wins Thriller; Djokovic Finishes Strong; Sharapova, Azarenka, Nadal Cruise on Monday

From 256 players to 16, the Roland Garros draws keep shrinking.  We keep returning to keep you updated on the latest attrition.


Match of the day:  After Richard Gasquet had won his first eleven sets of the tournament, he lost the plot just long enough for Stanislas Wawrinka to reset himself.  Once again, Gasquet allowed a two-set lead to evaporate at a major.  But he battled valiantly to the end, only succumbing 8-6 in the fifth as Wawrinka reached his first Roland Garros quarterfinal.

Most improved:  The outlook is not bright for Wawrinka in the next round, however, for he faces a rejuvenated Rafael Nadal.  The birthday boy celebrated turning 27 with his most emphatic win of the tournament, finally delivering sustained quality from start to finish.  Nadal will have one more tune-up before the Friday battle with his archrival.

Least improved:  That is, assuming that Novak Djokovic reaches that stage.  The death of his former coach predictably took its toll on his game in a four-set victory over Philipp Kohlschreiber, who converted only two of thirteen break points.  Djokovic asserted that his motivation to win here had risen rather than dulled, but he rarely has produced his best tennis in situations of personal turmoil.

Stat of the day:  Not since 1971 had a man as old as Tommy Haas reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros.  But the German achieved that feat for the first time in 12 appearances, crushing Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets two days after saving a match point against John Isner.

Question of the day:  Haas dominated Djokovic in Miami this spring.  Can he repeat the feat when they meet in the quarterfinals?


Match of the day:  None.  All of the higher-ranked women won in straight sets to leave Svetlana Kuznetsova the only unseeded quarterfinalist in either draw.

Most improved:  Into her third quarterfinal here, Victoria Azarenka improved to 11-0 at major this year by sweeping nine straight games from 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone.  Azarenka had descended from second-round frailty to third-round fecklessness, so this authoritative fourth-round display came as a welcome relief to her fans.  She will seek her first Roland Garros semifinal against Maria Kirilenko.

Americans in Paris:  Down they went like dominoes, none able to win a set from their fourth-round opponents.  Bethanie Mattek-Sands could solve Li Na but not Maria Kirilenko, while Jamie Hampton could solve Petra Kvitova but not Jelena Jankovic.  When Tuesday dawns in Paris, Serena Williams will fly the stars and stripes all by herself.  To be honest, though, nobody would have expected any Americans other than Serena to reach the middle weekend.

Stat of the day:  Marching ever further into her title defense, Maria Sharapova recorded her 33rd consecutive victory on clay (and 43rd in her last 44 matches) against opponents other than Serena.  The best clay winning percentage of any active woman got a little better when she swatted Sloane Stephens aside with a much stronger serving display than in her previous two matches.

Question of the day:  All of the top four women have reached the quarterfinals, three without losing a set.  Can any of their opponents forestall a semifinal convergence?