volleys

A Quick Pick of their Brain – Mark Woodforde

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

 

By James Crabtree

MELBOURNE – During a Jacobs Creek Promotion whilst being hydrated by a seriously good glass of rosé I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Woodforde, 12 time grand slam doubles champion, winner of four singles titles and the surprise, and often forgotten, 1996 Australian Open semi-finalist.

Q- Mark, tell us a little behind your Snauwaert racquet with the famous 12×14 pattern as opposed to the traditional 18×20?

I first started using the racquet early on in an effort to control the ball and gain more spin. I was on a trip to the European clay and one of eight in a team using that pattern. My progression was more accelerated than the others and that turned some heads. There were matches where my opponents called over the referee wondering if that string pattern was legal, because of the results I started to have.

I knew it didn’t give me an overwhelming advantage. I know when anyone improves their form or improves their ranking people are always asking why and how are they doing that? People just pointed out the racquet issue because it was different.

The last few years I have been trying to develop a racquet with a string pattern that looks more conventional but still attain the same level of spin.

Q. What would be the advantage for a singles player to play more doubles matches?

I think we would see more natural volleying skills and more varied matchups. Players are just hoping for the easy put away and never learn the confidence in how to play the volley from the service line.

I think it would be great to have the top singles players sign a contract and agree to play doubles at one of the four slams and a few of the 1000 events. On the flip side of that it would be great to see a doubles specialist do the reverse at a singles event.

You look back at the older generations and the players who played both singles and doubles had the all court game, and never looked out of sorts at the net.

Q. Tell us something we don’t know about Todd Woodbridge

(Laughs) Todd fancies himself on the dance floor, on the tennis court and as a chef. There were times he would cook for all of us and he is pretty good. Sometimes you would get back to the apartment and he would be preparing food for all of us, our partners included.

Todd was a lot more strict about food during our playing days. I was the guy at Davis Cup who would throw down four courses, leaving our trainer to scratch his head, although I do have to watch the portions now. Lucky my wife is the master-chef in our house.

Todd has been talking of his personal trainer, who works wonders and how he has been seeing him four nights a week, but I am yet to see the effects and I suspect he could be some sort of phantom. (laughs)

Q.Tell us about your role in Aussie player development

I started working with (Matthew)Ebden and (Marinko) Matosevic. I worked with them for twelve months to help get them out of the Challenger mentality and playing more aggressive tennis.

The last few seasons I’ve been working with the juniors and their transition to seniors.

I’m more opinionated about Australian tennis players staying true to be more attacking all court players. That’s how we have always been and I don’t want to see that erased. I love watching guys like (James) Duckworth, guys who are willing to roll the dice and cause headaches for their opponents.

 

Mark Woodforde continues to work with Australian junior players, assisting in developing the next wave of Australian champions.

The Little Match That Could

On the evening of Friday August 26, 2011 the eyes of the country were on Hurricane Irene, who was fast approaching the East Coast of North Carolina.  Tennis fans had turned their attention to New York, waiting to see how the storm would effect their favorite players and the upcoming U.S. Open.

I was about three-hundred miles inland from the storm watching one of my favorite matches of the year.

At Wake Forest University in a make-shift tennis stadium located underneath the overhang of the football stadium the 43rd ranked player in the world, 10th seeded Robin Haase, took on the 113th ranked player in the world, Qualifier Julien Benneteau, in the semifinals of the inaugural Winston-Salem Open.

As the sun set and provided some relief from the scorching August sun, approximately four thousand locals packed the temporary stadium ready for some Friday night entertainment.  Most spectators had bought their tickets long before the order of play had been announced, and were feeling a bit slighted- after all, the afternoon semifinal had been between Andy Roddick and hometown hero John Isner!

During the second point of the match, as the sky was turning orange and the crowd was still settling in, Haase’s forehand clipped the net and dribbled over.   Benneteau scampered to the net and made it just in time, awkwardly pitching the ball back over the net.  The two men stayed at the net for a twenty shot sensational yet clumsy exchange of volleys and returns before Haase finally was able to angle the ball out of Benneteau’s reach.  The Winston-Salem crowd leapt to their feet in appreciation and the two men smiled and laughed before Benneteau jovially reached across the net to shake Haase’s hand.  Then the umpire, Somat Madgi, intervened.  Apparently during the exchange Haase had reached his racket over the net and therefore the point was automatically awarded to Benneteau.  Haase and Madgi had a heated exchange before Haase finally settled back in at the baseline and signaled he was ready to move on- to the third point of the match.

Winston Salem, meet Robin Haase and Julien Benneteau.


Robin Haase, 24, is a talented Dutchman often recognized as one of the big underachievers in tennis.  He hits big and plays aggressive, reminiscent of James Blake at his best only with a little more variety.  Coming into the Winston-Salem Open he was soaring at a career high ranking and with his first tournament victory freshly under his belt.  He made it to the semifinals with easy victories over James Blake and Pierre Duclos, and with an upset win over #3 seed Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals.

Julien Benneteau,29, is an effervescent Frenchmen, who prances around the court and makes power and precision seem graceful.  In 2010 he reached a high ranking of 31 before a wrist injury derailed him, and he came into the Winston Salem Open on the comeback trail.  He had to qualify just to get into the tournament and on this Friday night he was playing his eighth match in seven days following three-set come-from-behind escapes against Igor Andreev and Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Early on Haase was clearly rattled from Madgi’s call and Benenteau easily raced out to a 3-1 lead despite not being able to find a first serve. However once Haase started getting balls in play he quickly won five games in a row to win the first set 6-3.   When Haase went up a break early in the second set things seemed grim- the excited crowd became restless, worrying that their night might end way too soon. Would Benneteau be able to pull off another magical escape or would the second point of the match be the highlight?

That’s the phenomenal and infuriating thing about tennis- nothing is a guarantee.  Anything can happen.  Every match has an equal opportunity to be an epic or a complete dud.  The most dramatic match can have no memorable rallies and a blow-out can contain points for a highlight reel.  You just never know.

Luckily on this beautiful night things were far from over. Benneteau finally found his first serve midway through the second set and managed to take it to a tiebreak, where he saved two match points to extend the match to a third set. It wasn’t without drama though.  At one point Benneteau disagreed with one of Madgi’s calls so fiercely that he sat in the back of the court and tried to wait the decision out.  (This tactic was not successful, in case you’re wondering).

In the third set, like clockwork, Benneteau fell behind a break.  Robin Haase served for the match at 5-4 but his nerves found him once again and he was broken.  Benneteau faced one more match point in the third set tiebreak before winning the last three points of the match.  Julien Benneteau defeated Robin Haase 6-3 7-6(7) 7-6(6) to make it to the finals of the Winston-Salem Open.

After a two hour and thirty-two minute sometimes sloppy, sometimes sensational, and always dramatic match the Winston Salem crowd was wild with applause.  This sport of tennis, with two players most had never heard of before, had made it’s way into their hearts.  The energy in the stadium that night was electric and it gave me chills.  There are few things more heartwarming than seeing people fall in love with the sport for the first time. As cheesy as it sounds, it makes me fall in love with the sport all over again.

When all was said and done Benneteau danced, and it was unlike anything Winston-Salem had ever seen- I’d call it a mix of the chicken, the robot, and the electric slide.  People shouted “Allez” in a southern accent. The man I had seen in qualification rounds on a side court had made it all the way to the finals. It was a magical moment.

For Robin Haase, however, it was another memorable collapse.  Every single time he had control he let the match go.  When his game is on it’s indescribable, leaving opponents on the other side completely helpless.  When his brain turns on and he overthinks things his game often falls to pieces and it’s hard to watch without wincing.

In the big scheme of things this little match didn’t mean much in the narratives of 2011. Maybe the more interesting story to most is whether or not Rafael Nadal win one or two majors this year, if Federer can get to seventeen slams, or whether Djokovic will have the best-ever season or merely a top-5-ever season.  But to me that’s like seeing the rich get richer. No disrespect to the top athletes of this sport, but sometimes I think it means more when the players have less.  For these two players, for this inagural tournament, for this Friday night crowd this match meant everything.

The majority of Winston-Salem may never learn how to properly pronounce Benneteau or Haase, but I know that none of them will ever forget the match that night- and shouldn’t that count for something?

 

(Photos c/o Fred and Susan Mullane/Cameraworks USA)

Serbian Celebration Following Davis Cup Win with Comedic Moments

It was an evening no one will soon forget as Serbia defeated France for the coveted Davis Cup trophy, edging them out 3-2. Belgrade Arena was filled to capacity over the weekend as fans, fellow athletes, invited guests, and even the President of Serbia attended the finals. There was even a camera crew filming the player’s joy in the lockerroom (video link and translation below).

In the first match, Janko Tipsarevic took on Gael Monfils, but could not produce the shots or push away the nerves he felt coming in. His emotions got the better of him after a rough referee call and it was difficult for him to turn things around in the third set. Even though Tipsarevic played a statistically sounder game in the second set, his 38 unforced errors, to Monfils’ 14, cost him the match. and he lost 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-0.

The second rubber pitted Novak Djokovic against Gilles Simon. Even though Djokovic walked away the winner of this match, don’t let the one-sided scoreline tip you off. Simon gave a fight from the beginning and delayed Djokovic’s eventual win as he evened things out at 5-5 in the third. Djokovic plummeted 62 winners onto Simon’s side of the court, while the Frenchman had more unforced errors than winners, missing easy volleys and key pressure moments that cost him gaining any leeway. The Serb won 6-3, 6-1, 7-5, and evened the score out at 1-1.

The match everybody had a hard time calling was the anticipated doubles contest, with Nenad Zimonjic and Viktor Troicki taking on Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clement. The match lasted well over 4 hours and kept fans on the edge of their seats until the last moment. The Serbs went up 2 sets to none, but the momentum had changed in the tiebreaker of the second in favor of the French. They took advantage of another bad call against Serbia and gave them a rude awakening as they won the next two sets. The French won only 4 more total points than the Serbs, but that was enough to give them the win, 3-6, 6-7(3), 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

France would need to win just one of the two singles matches left to play in order to walk away as Davis Cup champions. But it was not meant to be.

The final two matches were blow-outs in favor of the Serbs. Djokovic thumped Monfils, booming his effective serve just out of Monfils’ reach. When Djokovic’s serve is working, it’s a thing of beauty to witness and his motivation and optimism increases with it. He was simply unstoppable as he took out Monfils, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. As the deciding fifth rubber was required, Captain Vladimir Obradovic subbed in Viktor Troicki for Janko Tipsarevic and Captain Guy Forget replaced Gilles Simon with Michael Llodra. It was their first meeting, so it was anybody’s guess. Surprisingly, Llodra, known for his excellent serve-and-volley game, faltered at the net, winning only 10 of 41 points, while Troicki won 13 of 15 points at the net. Troicki simply exposed Llodra’s age and inability to recover quickly from their doubles match the day before. The Serb won more points on his serves and had a better returning game, allowing him to run away with the win at his second matchpoint (photo below), sealing the score at 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

Upon realizing what he had just done, Troicki walked backwards on the court stunned, throwing his racket and anticipating his teammates quick pounce onto the court in his direction. The first to hug him was Captain Obradovic, followed by his teammates, trainers, and friends. His smile quickly turned to tears as his teammates hoisted him in the air, but I think something else was on his mind when the tears began to fall: he remembered that he and his team had vowed to shave their heads if they had won the Davis Cup. Having to shave my head would bring me to tears as well! It seems that Zimonjic also had to carry a smiling, but defiant, Djokovic to the on-court barbershop.

If you’ve ever wanted to party like a Serb, now is your chance. Watch matchpoint as Troicki brings Serbia it’s first Davis Cup title and the awards ceremony that follows their triumph. But the two show-stealers in this video are Troicki and Djokovic with their on-court interviews. First up is Troicki who struggles to find words to express his emotions. He cuts the interview short when he grabs the mic and says” Neznam sta da kazem … moram na sisanje!” which translates to “I don’t know what to say … I have to get my hair cut!” (Video via underPFC)

Djokovic then takes the mic calmly, but when he begins talking about his team’s friendships and bond he finally bursts into emotion yelling, “Najjaci smo! Sta da kazem?! Najbolje smo!” translating to “We’re the strongest! What can I say?! We’re the best!” When the reporter asked where they will celebrate, Djokovic answers that they will “celebrate on the streets of Belgrade, where else?! To the center [of the city], we’re going naked!” Afterward, the camera caught the team in the lockerroom and it’s difficult to explain the hilarity that ensues. Djokovic exclaims “Never again bald, never again” before putting on a shirt that holds the Cyrillic letters for “Champion.” Troicki admires his new do in the mirror while the Serbian team finishes shaving Tipsarevic’s head, meanwhile wondering how Tipsarevic’s new wife Biljana will respond. Zimonjic waves at the camera with his “new face,” and Tipsarevic at the end tells the cameraman to turn around so he can change. Adorned with beanies, the Serbian team also partied in the streets later as promised, fireworks, dancing, and all. Can’t beat that carefree and proud Serbian mentality! (Video via FueBuena)

More photos of the celebrations below!

A tip from “The Slice” (http://www.the-slice.com) also gave me this great find: commemorative Davis Cup stamps featuring all the players, for sale in Serbia.

The players also jumped onto the table during the press conference to sing the famous Serbian song “Mars na Drinu” aka “The March on the Drina [River]” which has become a symbol of bravery and adopted by many Serbs as their anthem. (Screenshot below, but full video can be found here: http://sport.blic.rs/Tenis/189135/Pogledajte-Slavlje-u-Areni-i-oko-nje-provod-tenisera-u-gradu)

The Davis Cup team and other prestigious invitees celebrated at the club “Bejbis” afterward.

Legg Mason Finals: Practice Session Fun; Press Conferences & Analysis of Nalbandian, Baghdatis

It was a gorgeous sunny day here in Washington, DC as I stepped onto the grounds of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic to witness history being made in both the doubles and singles finals.

I arrived before the crowds were allowed in so I got a sneak at a practice session between doubles partners Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek on stadium court before their 12:30pm match. They were focused yet jovial, practicing forehands and backhands before working on their serves and returns. Even though this was their first finals together as a pair in a tournament, they were enjoying the heat and joking with each other. With about 10 minutes to go in their session, Mark Knowles, half of the doubles team they would face shortly in the final, came out. He warmed up by jogging around the court and even remarked to a winner Stepanek sent down the line: “Save that for next week, partner!” I quickly searched my memory and remembered seeing that they were teaming up in this week’s Rogers Cup because his usual partner, Mardy Fish, decided to take a week away from doubles.

Five minutes later, Mardy Fish himself came out, cheerful and talkative. He jogged over to Stepanek’s extra racquet asked to see it and jumped in as a doubles partner to Berdych who was serving. It was 2-on-1 vs. Stepanek. They played a couple intense points while Fish checked out Stepanek’s racquet. It was an enjoyable few minutes as I found myself wishing I had brought my camera from the media tent to tape it. I wasn’t expecting any kind of camaraderie between guys who were about to play each other in an hour! Three of the four players in today’s doubles are singles players and the lone doubles specialist has already reached over 700 career wins. Clearly, these guys know each other well and enjoy the company. It’s always pleasant to see light moments like this as a fan. The doubles fun ended when Stepanek and Berdych played their last volleys. The final shot found Berdych tumble to the ground on his back in fear of Stepanek’s racquet smacking a ball that was only two feet away. He came up laughing. I made the conclusion that as non-expressive as these guys sometime seem on-court, they know how to have fun and enjoy tennis.

The fun was over and it was time for the matches, or was it? I happened to run into a familiar face in the ladies’ restroom about 20 minutes later. In the split-second I had to contemplate whether I would say anything, my mouth worked quicker than my mind and I found myself asking: “Are you Stacey? Mardy’s wife?” She pleasantly responded “Yes” while looking up. I had a quick chat with her and wished her husband good luck in the match. She mentioned that it was very hot in Atlanta two weeks ago when Fish won the singles title. It was her first time there and she wasn’t expecting the humidity. But, as a loving wife, she said “Mardy made it worthwhile.” This brought a tender moment as I once again realized what a great support system means to a player on and off the court.

As I made my way over to the stadium and sat down, I spotted another familiar face in a red official’s t-shirt, the infamous line judge Serena Williams cursed out at last year’s US Open. She was measuring the net and adjusting the height, slumped over it, barely reaching the tape. It struck me that she was quite petite and I was even more surprised then at how well she handled the situation last year. Williams is an intimidating character, especially in the heat of a match, but this line judge held her own.

The doubles teams of Berdych/Stepanek and Fish/Knowles made their way onto the court and the atmosphere became more spirited. Berdych, Stepanek and Fish are normally singles players, but a couple of years ago the ATP changed the formatting of the doubles game. They shortened it with no-ad scoring sets where players could use their singles rank to enter the doubles. This promoted top singles players to showcase their talents in the doubles field encouraging more fan support.

The match got underway and each player’s talents and weaknesses were quickly exposed. While Fish excelled in his backhand return game, Knowles struggled a bit to get into the rhythm. And although Berdych’s net play has improved by playing more doubles, he was still the weaker of the two at the net; Stepanek’s variety and quickness to read the ball well gave them the early break. Fish/Knowles weren’t able to bounce back from this and Berdych/Stepanek took the first set 6-4.

The second set, however, was more hotly contested. At 4-3, deuce, Berdych double-faulted and this inevitably changed the rhythm for the rest of the match. Fish/Knowles held their serve, Berdych became more loose at the net not anticipating balls well and we found ourselves in a second set tiebreaker. Fish then double-faulted on his fourth set point saying to his partner that the sun was “right in my toss” bringing the score to 6-6. Two mistakes by Berdych gave Fish/Knowles the second set, and the match was decided by a 10-point super tiebreaker. Fish/Knowles got off to a quick start and never looked back. They took the match 4-6, 7-6(7), 10-7. This was their second title as a doubles team, Fish’s eighth doubles title and Knowles’ 53rd. All-in-all, it was an excellent doubles match for the championship.

The singles match quickly got underway and featured wildcard David Nalbandian and the #8 seed Marcos Baghdatis. The two players have very similar games: both are baseliners, pressure their opponent’s second serve by standing well inside the baseline and their most accurate shot is their backhand. Nalbandian is known for his great return percentage and Baghdatis for being able to quickly go from a defensive to an offensive position.

From the first couple games, I was getting the sense that Baghdatis was moving gingerly on his left ankle that he tweaked yesterday. He made several errors in the first game dropping his serve, while Nalbandian further responded by blasting winners past Baghdatis to go up 2-0. I recoiled thinking this was quickly going to turn into a beating and I simply hoped that Baghdatis’ ankle would hold out.

As luck would have it, Baghdatis became a little more comfortable with his backcourt lateral movement and began holding his serve. Even though Nalbandian was still more aggressive in his shots, Baghdatis began mixing up the pace making it harder for Nalbandian to keep his rhythm. What made it easier for Nalbandian to beat Cilic the other night was that Cilic hits hard and flat, and Nalbandian easily responds to that. Baghdatis, on the other hand, uses more topspin and changes it up with harder balls and comes into the net more, giving Nalbandian trouble with the pace. Even with this, Nalbandian’s forehand was brutally ‘on’ hitting winners, while Baghdatis was still searching for his game. A few times though, the audience got a spark of Baghdatis’ great talent as he took Nalbandian’s second serve so early, absorbing the pace and placing it deep in the middle catching Nalbandian on his back foot and off-balance. Not to be outdone, Nalbandian at one point stopped a rally midway and challenged a baseline non-call. He was right, the point was his and he gained even more confidence. What’s surprising is Nalbandian’s ability to hit on the run. At 3-2, Nalbandian hit a backhand on the run, followed by a perfectly placed running overhead lob that just nicked the line behind Baghdatis. Even though Nalbandian also has a few extra pounds like Baghdatis, he was moving with relative ease making contact with nearly every ball and demonstrating his physique.

At 4-2, Nalbandian was clearly dictating points, hugging the baseline and forcing Baghdatis further back, making him more defensive and not able to do as much with his shot. At deuce, a backhand error by Baghdatis gave Nalbandian another break opportunity. On the next point, Baghdatis tried to pull Nalbandian wide on both wings, followed a deep down-the-line forehand to the net, and Nalbandian excellently executed a crosscourt backhand passing shot that Baghdatis simply stared at as it went by. Nalbandian had once again broken and served for the set. Two back-to-back backhand returns into the net by Baghdatis gave Nalbandian the set, 6-2.

The second set saw some of the most brilliant tennis all week as both players refueled and showed us their best A-game. The first six games saw four breaks of serve. And yes, there were a few choice double-faults, especially on Nalbandian’s first service game to give Baghdatis a 2-0 advantage, but mostly, it was the pressure each was giving his opponent that made the difference. The shot-making, placement of the ball and strategy from both players was impeccable. In the third game, Baghdatis began not defending as well and in the fourth, Nalbandian seemed to be running out of steam, giving Baghdatis five break opportunities.

If ever there was a point in the match that was the defining moment, it was game four of the second set. Nalbandian double-faulted to give Baghdatis his first break point. A couple of bad errors from Baghdatis took it to deuce as he couldn’t control Nalbandian’s surprisingly heavy second kick serve. At the same time, Nalbandian double-faulted four times in the second set so far and I wondered if he was finally feeling Baghdatis’ pressure or if it was because he hadn’t played in the day yet and the sun was only getting stronger. Nalbandian kept spewing errors giving Baghdatis the opportunity to break, but he could never convert. Both tried problem-solving and finally Nalbandian came out the winner holding his serve. We will never know what could have happened had Baghdatis been able to break and go up 3-1 — it may have been a completely different match. I began to wonder if Baghdatis would be able to hold his serve after such a letdown.

At 2-2 as expected, Baghdatis’ serve goes to deuce. At ad-out, Baghdatis sent a winner down-the-line. Or was it? Nalbandian challenged again, the ball was clearly out, and Nalbandian went up 3-2. In the next game, Baghdatis wins a Hawkeye challenge of his own and breaks Nalbandian on a perfectly placed overhead. Three bad second serve returns by Nalbandian int eh seventh game allows Baghdatis to hold and go up 4-3. At this point, Nalbandian starts asking his camp what to do? He’s known for his aggressive second serve returns, but he couldn’t handle the depth and kick of Baghdatis’ for three in a row. He was stunned and it would be interesting to see how he would respond in his own service game. Nalbandian’s errors begin to pile up before he save two break points and ties the score at 4 a piece.

For the next three games, each player holds their serve at love. But again, not without some Hawkeye challenge drama. Nalbandian fires what seems to be an ace. Baghdatis challenges, but when he walks over to the mark, he nods his head and audibly says “It was good, it was good” before walking over to the ad-court. Surprisingly, the mark was out! Baghdatis, of course, got happy, sprinted back to the deuce side. A beautiful return to Nalbandian’s backhand that was just out of reach, gave Baghdatis a set point. Nalbandian saved it by forcing a wide forehand error from Baghdatis. A few more similar exchanges like this before Baghdatis once again challenged a baseline non-call. As we waited for the replay, Baghdatis stood on top of the line, smiling, staring at it, looking up into the crowd asking if it was in or out, crouching around it and just joking at the matter. It was a very clean shot just inside the baseline, but by this time the line judges were not dependable anymore. Two points later, on a supposed ‘ace’ of Nalbandian’s, Baghdatis challenges again and gets it right! By this time, the chair umpire was furious at the line judges and at Hawkeye. We could hear him softly yelling that he was very unhappy to the chair supervisor on the radio. Eventually, a backhand return by Baghdatis into the net gives Nalbandian the game, and forces a tiebreaker.

At the start of the tiebreaker, I could really hear the Argentine support from the crowd: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Daveeeeed, Daveeeeed!” He quickly went up 5-1, then held three championship points, before double-faulting. He won on his fourth attempt and was fired up!

As Nalbandian shakes hands with Baghdatis, puts his racquet down and runs over to his team in the corner to congratulate as well, I could once again hear the deafening Ole!’s. By the time Nalbandian got back to his chair, his name was already being added to the banner of past champions. As Juan Martin del Potro won the last two years, Nalbandian kept the Argentine streak to three years in a row in DC.

A few moments later, the trophy ceremony began with Baghdatis first accepting his runner-up glass trophy and check. In his on-court speech, he was gracious, smiling like he had won, and congratulated Nalbandian on a great win: “[David’s] a pain in the ass when he plays good!” The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers for a great competitor.

Nalbandian then took the court, with more singing and was beyond ecstatic with his win. He also thanked the sponsors, volunteers, and fans before giving us this little gem. He pointed up into a particularly rowdy Argentine crowd and said: “Somebody up there said they’ll buy me a drink if I win!” He said that it “looks like I’m in Argentina!” He loves the fan support and making a few extra friends in the process. He also stated that he “enjoys this moment because it’s tough to come back and do this” after all the injuries he’s had and not playing since April. He is $262,000 richer and is tied for first place in the Olympus US Open Series. He is also the first wildcard to win here at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.

After both players made their commitments to all the tv crews and commentators, they each made their way to the media for their press conferences. It was once again my chance to hear a player’s perspective on the day’s happenings.

As Baghdatis came in, you would have thought he had won the tournament with his big smile and light demeanor. He said that he couldn’t have been happier with his play in the second set minus not being able to convert in the fourth game. He also knew Nalbandian was “returning good” so a lot rested on his own serve and he felt that he “served really bad” in the first set. He mentioned that he did have “a bit of pain in my leg” and it took some time to get better, but that Nalbandian was the better player today. “If I was serving better, I could win today but I didn’t have that.” When asked if Nalbandian is playing like a guy outside the top 100, Baghdatis quickly said “No, he can beat top 10 [players].” I asked a question about all those Hawkeye challenges that players were getting right. He responded with a smile and said that they both started challenging “even if you saw it out because there was no confidence in the line judges.” Baghdatis then addressed his performance this year versus last: “I will never forget where I came from. I was ranked 150 last year and now I maybe touched top 20 this year. I am looking forward to the future and playing better.”

Nalbandian came in a few minutes later, happy, confident and on top of the world. He again stated that he “played good all week” minus a few select games and that he was very happy with his performance today as well. He felt that he didn’t return well on Baghdatis’ second serve in the second set, but that it was more his ability that let him down than Baghdatis’ placement. “I have to believe in my shots and my game.” When asked whether he was surprised to come back after time off and win his first tournament back he responded: “For sure I didn’t expect to win the first tournament when I came. If I continue to play this good, I’m going to go far for sure.”

Nalbandian’s ranking will jump from #117 in the world to #45, while Baghdatis will climb from #25 to #20. I know that I am looking forward to seeing where Nalbandian falls into the draw at the US Open. He will be a threatening headache for any player if his body holds up.

Day 2 of Legg Mason – Roddick, Fish, Berdych & Benneteau Practice Shirtless, Isner Gets Lost, Verdasco & His Twin

The last day of qualifying and the first day of the main draw here at the Legg Mason Tennis Tournament in Washington, DC has come and gone. With it, we welcome six well-deserved qualifiers to an already full list of notable names lined up in the main draw. Let’s recap some of the excitement around the practice courts today!

  1. The first practice session I walked into was the world #1 doubles’ pairing of Nenad Zimonjic and Daniel Nestor. Sometimes fans are so focused on the top singles players, we forget how truly amazing the top doubles’ game is. As I was watching Nestor hit from the baseline and Zimonjic volley, I was struck by two things: Nestor’s lefty forehand is strikingly powerful and Zimonjic’s forehand volleys are so precise and crisp. I started wondering how these guys weren’t better singles players in their time.

  1. As I was snapping their pics, John Isner was roaming the grounds behind me until he appeared to my left. “There he is!” yelled Isner, pointing to Nestor, “What court is this?” Nestor jokingly replied: “You’re on the other side, aren’t you? Isn’t that where the big guys hang out?” Cue crowd laughing.

  1. Nestor obviously knows his way around the grounds unlike Isner, who continued looking for his court until he nearly made a round-trip back to where he started. But then we got a glimpse of the big man in his yellow ‘Livestrong’ t-shirt. I had forgotten how extended his elbows are when he makes contact with the ball on the backhand side. Look unreal!

  1. He was in good spirits, but it took him a while to loosen up his right shoulder. Hopefully it’s not an indication of any kind of injury. Isner then took on his coach in a game utilizing only the cross-court backhand slice. First one to hit out loses, and they played some points. The video below is some of the fun footage.

  1. Radek Stepanek was waiting for his court by doing some in-place running drills, swinging his arms while increasing the speed.

He practiced with Xavier Malisse who had a first round match later that afternoon, which he ended up winning in three sets. Nothing really of note on their practice other than the fact that Stepanek was sporting a red, white and blue racket. Looked like he was supporting Team USA — isn’t he Czech?!

  1. Other notable players waiting for a court: Tomas Berdych, Julien Benneteau, Benjamin Becker and Rendy Lu.

Berdych seemed to be the only one actually stretching. Maybe that’s how you get to be the #1 seed in a 500-level tournament like Legg Mason. Boys, take notes!

  1. When Berdych walked over to the middle court, he promptly took off his t-shirt. And it stayed off the entire practice. The sun was fairly strong but not strong enough to burn from it. He then seemed to dare Benneteau to take his off as well, which he willingly accepted. For such tall slender-looking men, they are very fit and lean. Their practice session covered all the shots and when they took breaks, they chatted up a storm, along with Berdych’s coach.

  1. The next stop in my day was one of the best sights I have yet to see in tennis. Andy Roddick was taking on Mardy Fish in a grueling set. Recalling that Fish had recently beaten Roddick in Atlanta, this was any tennis fan’s highlight. Fans were pouring in on all possible sides and I was lucky enough to get a bird’s eye view to catch all the action. There were laughs, jokes, yelling, high-fiving, and, as the theme of the day seems to be, both were shirtless as well. Sidenote: Roddick’s left, yes, LEFT arm is ripped! Mardy Fish, on the other hand, is looking quite slender. Yes, he has lost 30 pounds in the last year, but seeing it in person, I’m starting to think he needs to bulk up a little.

Near the end of their session a hilarious moment occurred to top it all off. Roddick, loving being the center of attention, shot a 1st serve that was a questionable line call. Roddick kept asking what his next serve should be “1st? 2nd? 1st? 1st?” wanting to try again for an ace. Fish got ready to receive, and then asked: “Wait, 1st or 2nd?” “2nd, 2nd,” Roddick repeated. Fish then moved in closer to the baseline. Unfortunately, Fish doesn’t seem to realize he’s playing against a trickster, and Roddick fired an explosive serve down the line … which Fish miraculously returned while standing just inside the baseline. Roddick followed behind his serve and tried to volley the return, but his attempt went straight into the net. Karma. The crowd roared in laughter. What a sight to behold!

Here’s footage of the best video I was able to capture. This point was brilliant. Roddick was hitting winner after winner, but Fish was able to return each one. His footwork is evident here and the crowd clapped in amazement at the level of both players’ play.

  1. I then made my way over to the Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki practice session on the opposite side of the grounds. Both players looked strong, but were all about business. Seeing as these two speak the same Serbo-Croatian language and played each other in Davis Cup recently, it was surprising to see once again, that not many words were exchanged between the two. I remember them practicing last year with each other, so they must be friends, but on-court, you would think they were simply matched together for a hit due to space constraints. Either way, it was fun to be reminded of the wind-up to Cilic’s serve. It’s surprising his legs muscles are not bigger for the incline he takes in preparation.

  1. I made my way back to the media center at this point to check on the scores of the qualifiers. “Nothing too surprising” I said to myself. I then went on twitter to upload some photos, and guess whose feed came up? Fernando Verdasco. “Going to practice in 30 minutes!” As I was walking up to the media desk to check what court he is slated to practice on, I crossed my fingers that he was actually IN town. To my relief, he was and the media desk did their magic and spewed out a court number to me.

I walked over to the court about 5 minutes before the hour and caught his hitting partner just arriving to the court, dressed in a grey Adidas shirt, white shorts and hat, and black Adidas shoes. I was the first one there and so I sat down and waited. A moment later, I happened to look up to my right, and there was Verdasco, walking in from the parking lot by himself on the other side of the fence. I nearly jumped out of my seat in anticipation.

He walked onto the court coolly and seemed to be in a good mood. He started hitting and then something made me laugh. Verdasco was dressed in the exact same clothes as his hitting partner! Twins! Only difference: Verdasco was in white shoes. Who raided who’s closet, here?!

I was surprised to see that it took about 5-7 minutes for fans to start showing up for his practice. But at the same time it was nice: not crowded, no kids trying to climb over me for a peek, nobody stepping on my toes. All-in-all, a pleasant hitting session to view. The tennis wasn’t bad either. I’m just kidding! I was completely taken aback by Verdasco’s forehand when he started to let it rip! He would hit a few strong forehands and backhands, and then all of a sudden, take flight and practically levitate off the ground with an explosive forehand winner. Each time he did this, “ooohs” and “aaahs” came from the crowd in admiration. By the time I left, it started raining and cut his practice short, but not before showcasing his incredible talent. I’m looking forward to seeing him play this week and expect him to go deep in the draw.

  1. And as a bonus (because I’m so nice), a close-up of hunk Michael Llodra. Shirtless, of course!

Enjoy the day and I will be back later this week with more coverage from Legg Mason. As the main draw begins, I will start focusing more on the actual matches. But don’t worry, the practice courts always have someone on them and I will be there to catch the action as well.

FRANCESCA SCHIAVONE CELEBRATES WIN WITH A DIVINE KISS

By Ritesh Gupta

The way Francesca Schiavone reacted after her quarterfinal victory over Caroline Wozniacki in the French Open is something what a tennis fan longs for.

A tennis pro can’t express much in the playing arena especially when there are a series of matches lined up. But the manner in which Schiavone expressed herself was touching to say the least.

She held her head in disbelief. Taking a few steps, standing in the middle of the court and acknowledging the applause from the crowd, Schiavone wrapped up her celebration by kissing the coveted surface. Definitely an emotional moment, which Schiavone would cherish throughout her life.

And why wouldn’t she?

For one, who will now appear in a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time, such reaction is quite understandable. She is also the first Italian woman in the Open era to make it to this stage of the French Open. Schiavone next plays Elena Dementieva.

Schiavone, who will be turning 30 this month, has been on the professional tour for more than a decade. Though she has never been in the top 10, she still has the ability to pose a threat to anyone.

Schiavone’s 6-2, 6-3 triumph over third seeded Wozniacki showcased her athletic ability. She backed up up the same with an array of fluent strokes. The Italian was clearly in her elements today, hardly letting Wozniacki to get into rhythm.

On this day, Wozniacki not only lost the baseline duel, but she was also found wanting at the net. Wozniacki only won 5 of 13 points at the net. In fact, on quite a few occasions, even when Wozniacki had an opening and rushed to the net, Schiavone made up for it with her speedy recovery, setting up winners by either forcing her opponent to play tough half volleys or passing her at the net.

Schiavone remained in front throughout. She won three games on the trot at 3-2 in the first set. Wozniacki, who conceded an early break in the second set, levelled to raise hopes at 3-3. But Schiavone, who seldom hides her emotions while playing, motivated herself whenever Wozniacki showed signs of catching up. The Italian showed her aggressive intent as she to chose to serve and volley to set up her first match point. She capitalised on the same with a gutsy smash. And post that she celebrated her win beautifully.

KIRILENKO EXITS BUT NOT WITHOUT A FIGHT

By Luís Santos

Sad day today at Roland Garros as beautiful Maria Kirilenko says goodbye to the singles’ tournament. She went down to Franny Schiavone 6-4 6-4 but it was a great match to watch!

Maria can play every shot in the book and we got to see some great volleys and dropshots today from her. Adding to that she managed – on occasions – to be as explosive off the ground as she can get. However, Schiavone was not letting this chance of getting to the quarters slip by and saved 8 out of 10 break-points throughout…

Maria has become somewhat of a giant-killer in slams, beating the likes of Sharapova and Safina Down-Under and now sending defending champion Kuznetsova back home as early as the third round.

Today was not to be her day but it still marked Maria’s best French Open to date.

LATE BLOOMER STOSUR A RARITY ON WTA TOUR

By Blair Henley

The ATP Tour is full of late bloomers. Sure there is the occasional teenage superstar, but it’s often more common for men to peak in their mid to late 20’s.

Not so on the women’s side.

That’s why 26-year-old Samantha Stosur’s recent first-time appearance in the Top 10 is an unusual feat. Her stellar doubles resume has made it easy to miss the fact that her singles ranking has been steadily improving since her professional debut in 1999.

In an age where mindless pounding from the baseline seems to have taken over, Stosur has shown that a well-rounded game, complete with solid volleys and a blazing serve, pays long-term dividends. Up-and-coming players and their coaches would be wise to take note.

Stosur, who goes by the nickname Sam, grew up in Queensland, Australia and didn’t start playing tennis until age 8, when a friend gave her a racket for Christmas. She spent as much time as possible hitting with her older brother until he advised their parents to get her some real lessons. By the time she turned 16, Sam’s rapid improvement had secured her a spot in the Australian Institute of Sport’s tennis program, which helped launch her professional career.

Stosur’s aggressive style of play took some time to develop, and it wasn’t until 2005 that she started seeing significant results in both singles and doubles. She teamed up with Lisa Raymond midway through the year and proceeded to win seven doubles titles with her new partner, including the U.S. Open and the WTA Tour Championships. Her newfound success provided the necessary momentum heading into 2006, where Stosur delighted her home crowd by making it to the fourth round of the Australian Open. After that solid season, she reached the No. 1 ranking in doubles and sat comfortably at No. 29 in singles.

Things were looking great for the Aussie, but trouble lurked right around the corner. After a decent start to 2007, Stosur’s season was cut short by extreme fatigue and joint pain. It wasn’t until October of that year, after a viral meningitis scare, that she was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease. The tick-borne illness sapped her strength and energy and left many wondering if she could come back from such severe health issues.

Stosur overcame the odds and had a fairly successful return to tennis in 2008, but she didn’t completely regain steam until the following year. In addition to her consistent doubles success, Sam’s all-court game fell together in 2009, making her a significant singles threat in the process. Her breakthrough season was capped off by her first WTA Tour singles title in Osaka.

That brings us to 2010. Stosur went into this year with a new and improved slice backhand and an intense focus on her singles play. Boy has that paid off. She recently captured the Family Circle Cup title and just fell in a tough three-setter to Justine Henin in the final of the Stuttgart Grand Prix. Interestingly, many of her biggest tournament wins have come on clay, which speaks to her adaptability and peak physical condition.

Stosur may have been a long-shot for success when she turned pro over ten years ago, but her slow and steady ascent shows just how dedicated she has been to a game-style that took some extra time to develop.  For every hard-hitting baseliner that has succeeded on the pro tour, there are many more that have flamed out upon realizing their games had hit a permanent plateau. Sam is a fantastic example for the next generation of players who would be smart to establish an aggressive, well-rounded game that can set them up for long-term success.

Only time will tell if Samantha Stosur will become a fixture among the world’s tennis elite,  but for now it looks like this late bloomer has effectively thrown her “doubles specialist” title out the window, trading it in for something more along the lines of singles powerhouse.

Kops-Jones Loses In Opening Round at US Open

The US Open is where Fresno native Raquel Kops-Jones first burst into the spotlight last year, but she bowed out quietly this year in a surprising first round loss.

Seeded No. 15 in the women’s doubles draw with fellow Californian Abigail Spears, the American team never managed to find the range on their shots, falling 6-4, 6-1 to the all Russian team of Vera Dushevina and Anastasia Rodinova.

With all the players holding serve early on, Kops-Jones missed a forehand in the first break point of the match on Rodionova’s serve to go up 4-2. The Americans lost that game and then Kops-Jones committed two double faults in losing her own service game.

“That was one of the big turning points in the match,” said Spears. “We played decent tennis, but they were solid and didn’t miss many balls.

An ace by Dushevina gave the Russian pair the opening set, 6-4. Kops-Jones won her service game to start the second set, but the Americans began to make unforced errors early on in the rallies. Spears quickly lost her serve with the set tied at 1-1, and Kops-Jones soon lost hers to send the American pair down 4-1. Kops-Jones and Spears had two break points on Rodionova’s serve to break the losing streak, but failed to convert on their chances, missing two volleys to trail 5-1. Three points later, a low forehand winner from Rodionova sent the Russian pair into the next round.

Kops-Jones and Spears reached their first ever Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open last year, and came within two points of reaching the semifinals. The result spurred on the best result of Kops-Jones’s career. She won two WTA Tour doubles titles during the spring in Estoril and Warsaw, in addition to reaching the finals in Birmingham. The results have brought her to a current ranking of No. 33, two spots away from her career high of No. 31, which she achieved this May.

“There was definitely pressure to defend our points from last year, but there’s pressure no matter what,” said Kops-Jones. “We were more focused on just playing well as opposed to winning or losing.”

Since the beginning of 2009, Kops-Jones has also largely cut back on her singles events, primarily becoming a doubles specialist on the WTA Tour.

“I was having better results in doubles and ultimately making more money there,” said Kops-Jones. “After not being able to defend a lot of points at the beginning of the year, my singles ranking really fell and I couldn’t really get into WTA events anymore.”

Both Kops-Jones and Spears are heading to Asia for a series of WTA events in Guangzhou, Seoul, and Beijing. Kops-Jones will go to Europe directly from there, where she will compete in tournaments in Moscow, Luxembourg, and Linz.

Video Of Near Brawl At World Team Tennis

John-McEnroe3-WTT

This is Must See TV as Comcast Sports Net shows the near brawl Thursday night as John McEnroe and New York Sportimes nearly go to blows with Leander Paes and the Washington Kastles as seen in this link –  http://www.comcastsportsnet.tv/common/global_flash/player/spe.swf?flv=vidcast_11025&sid=102&d=www.comcastsportsnet.tv. During men’s doubles, the Kastles’ Paes hit Robert Kendrick of the Sportimes with a volley at the net.  Kendrick tagged Paes, who was not the receiver, with a first serve a few points later.  McEnroe and New York coach Chuck Adams crossed the net to exchange verbal volleys with Paes, and received a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct.  The Kastles’ bench joined the fray with Olga Puchkova and Rennae Stubbs both being issued code violations and a point penalty for abuse of officials.  The Sportimes pulled out a 5-4 win in men’s doubles and went on to a 20-19 Supertiebreaker victory over the Kastles to extend their Conference lead over Washington to three matches. Read more details about the story by clicking here on the Washington Kastles website – http://www.washingtonkastles.com/teams/article.aspx?article_id=1463