womens tennis

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Zheng Jie: Earning Her Day in the Sun

Zheng Jie wasn't the supporting act to a Stosur meltdown.

A lot of people are going to publish articles about Samantha Stosur in the next few hours.

About how she lost early in Australia again. About how she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and how she once again crumbled under the pressure of playing at home. How she choked and let her undersized opponent back into the match. About how she is a talented player with a big serve and forehand, how she has won a Grand Slam title, and how mysterious it is that she cannot string together wins in her home country.

This will not be one of those articles.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Zheng Jie. A player without the Slam title but arguably twice the talent with flat strokes that belie her size. A pioneer for Chinese tennis, the first Chinese woman to reach a major semifinal at Wimbledon. A courageous competitor who took Serena Williams to 9-7 in the third on the London lawns a year ago and beat Stosur herself two weeks ago in a three grueling sets.

The winner of her second round match, defeating Stosur 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.

Zheng took the court understandably full of belief; her opponent’s struggles in Australia are as notorious as they are well documented. Combine those external circumstances with the inconvenient truth that Zheng’s flat, on the rise groundstrokes match up well against Stosur’s more mechanical, time-dependent game style and the unseeded Chinesewoman was the overwhelming favorite.

She certainly played like the favorite for most of the first set. Taking precious time away from Stosur, Zheng dominated the No. 9 seed from the back of the court, showing the partisan crowd why she has been ranked as high as 15 in the world. Despite a late wobble, she closed on her eighth set point and looked set to be Stosur’s yearly Melbourne conqueror.

For the next set and a half, things began to change. Stosur stopped missing, and Zheng’s laser-like shots lost their pinpoint accuracy. The crowd got involved and for a moment, Stosur forgot she was playing in Australia. As the Chinesewoman fell behind a double break in the third set she struck a disconsolate figure, out of energy and out of ideas.

In a manner reminiscent of everywhere (not just Australia), Stosur began to pull back. The embarrassing shanks that haunted her throughout the first set were coming in streams. Despite a jittery finish, she still found herself within two points of the third round.

Enter “JZ.” Like a boss.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJYMQ4YNIRQ&w=560&h=315

Using her veteran sensibility, Zheng took full advantage of the shorter ball she was now getting. She stepped up and into the court, outfoxing Stosur from the baseline and passing her at the net. Breaking the Aussie twice to level, the rest of the match appeared only a formality. Stosur had retreated, Zheng had advanced; there would be no more violent shifts in momentum.

Almost three days into the first week, this match was one of the best the tournament had to offer. The first match on Rod Laver Arena to go the distance, it exhibited breathtaking rallies, intelligent shotmaking, and a very tense ending. But it was not a match that Sam Stosur lost.

This was a match that Zheng Jie won.

It was a hard-earned victory, one that does not deserved to be sullied by the insinuation that she benefited from a choke. Stosur may have left the door open on her way to the round of 32, but it was up to Zheng to walk through and kick the Aussie out.

Kick she did, and she was rewarded with a day in the sun.

 

Compelling women’s event in store at Roland-Garros

Serena Williams & Maria Sharapova could meet in the quarters in Paris

By Melissa Boyd

The WTA Season is off to a flying start and rarely has there been this much anticipation for the women’s event at a Grand Slam heading into Roland-Garros. The draw if filled with storylines that will keep fans enthralled for the entire two-week fortnight.

Serena Williams, who is undefeated on clay this year with two titles, comes to Paris as the favourite, but the American will have to conquer a few French Open demons if she wants to win her first Roland-Garros title since 2002 and first Grand Slam crown since 2010. Williams will have to prove she can win seven matches in the ever-changing conditions on the clay courts in Paris, but she certainly has put herself in prime position to accomplish the feat.

Then there is Maria Sharapova, the former self-described “cow on ice”, has been the second best clay court player this season on the strength of her two titles in Stuttgart and Rome. Many felt like this was the Russian’s best chance to complete her coveted  career Grand Slam, unless Williams, whom she has not beat in eight years, fell in her section of the draw and that’s exactly what happened. The much hoped for Sharapova-Williams final will instead potentially happen in the quarter-finals. Sharapova winning Roland-Garros would be some story, but she’ll have to navigate a tough draw to do it.

It’s hard to believe that World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has been labeled the tournament’s third favourite, but an underwhelming clay court season that featured uncharacteristic losses and an injury withdrawal have people wondering whether Azarenka can repeat her stellar run in Australia. Not to mention that 2010 finalist Samantha Stosur, Brussels champion Agnieszka Radwanska, Venus Williams as well as a pair of former French Open champions, Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova are in her section of the draw.

Other names to watch out for include last year’s finalists. Defending champion Na Li could be stiff competition for Sharapova or Williams in the semifinals and while everyone was writing off Francesca Schiavone, she went and won her final tune up event in Strasbourg. Mona Barthel and Angelique Kerber are prime candidates to cause havoc in the women’s draw at Roland-Garros.

While many are already dusting off the French Open trophy to give it to Serena Williams, tournament tradition on the women’s side in recent years would lean more towards someone making a Cinderella run to the title with the odds stacked against them. The Parisian fortnight will dictate which of these two familiar story lines will characterize the second Grand Slam of the tennis season.

The Ladies Hit the Dirt Hoping for Feats on Clay

Can Na Li repeat in Paris?

What promises to be a thrilling spring and summer of tennis for the WTA begins this week for the ladies in Stuttgart for the start of the clay court season.

This much-anticipated segment of the calendar begins with a bang as 17 of the Top 20 players in the world are entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Madrid and Rome will also host Premier events during the month of May as preparation for the second Grand Slam event of the year at Roland-Garros.

Over the past few years, the expectations and results on the red dirt for the women have been highly unpredictable and 2012 will be no different. Gone are the days of dominant clay court specialists on the WTA like Justine Henin or Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Instead, today’s Tour is all about parity making it anyone’s game, especially on clay. Case and point, the French Open has crowned a different champion each of the last four years. It will be interesting to see if World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka can continue her dominance this season on a different surface or whether Maria Sharapova will finally breakthrough with some titles after finishing as the runner-up at the three biggest tournaments of the year so far. Can Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova kick-start her season after a slow start? Will Caroline Wozniacki claim that elusive Grand Slam crown? Can Na Li repeat in Paris? Will a resurgent Ana Ivanovic be a threat again on a surface that brought her Grand Slam glory in 2008? All of these questions will be answered over the next few weeks with a few unexpected twists thrown in for good measure.

Don’t be surprised if a player outside of the Top 10 makes some noise at the big tournaments and look for Agnieszka Radwanska to make a serious run at her first Grand Slam title at Roland-Garros. Her all court game is well-suited for clay. Not to mention, she is enjoying the best season of her career.

It’s impossible to discuss a pending Major without throwing the name of Serena Williams into the mix. She played the Australian Open on one ankle, but comes into the clay court season in much better shape especially after rolling through the draw in Charleston a few weeks ago to win her 40th career title. Williams is driven to continually overcome health obstacles for another opportunity to add to her Grand Slam tally. The expectations may be low heading into Roland-Garros considering her recent results at the Majors and the fact clay is her worst surface. However, tennis fans have learned over the years to never discount Serena and it would be very much her style to triumph in Paris when everyone least expects her to.

Victoria Azarenka Overcomes Hype and Reaches the Australian Open Women’s Finals

Victorious Victoria

It’s all in the racquet.

And for Victoria Azarenka, it may very well be the case. The young Belarussian knocked off defending champion Kim Clijsters in the semifinals of the Australian Open in three highly-contested sets that witnessed several momentum changes. And Azarenka did it all under her new sponsor Wilson using the Juice tennis racquet — a switch she made earlier this month after dropping Head as a sponsor.

Azarenka has long been considered the sole top player consistently inconsistent in her inability to reach a grand slam final. As one of the greatest young hopes, progressing quickly through the ranking, many pegged her as an upcoming champ within “Generation Next”. However, under Head for years, her biggest gain was only reaching the semifinals in Wimbledon in 2011. But only days after switching to Wilson, Azarenka checks her nerves and closes out the sport’s best hard-court player, to reach her first grand slam final at the Australian Open.

Azarenka’s win wasn’t certain, however, as she quickly went down 6-1 in the second set after winning the first. The decisive third set saw it all: double faults, breaks of serve and, of course, plenty of grunting from Azarenka. Even while winning one less point than Clijsters, Azarenka was the better player for much of the match. Both women went for their shots as is evident by the sheer number of unforced errors (40 for Azarenka and 44 for Clijsters) and winners (20 for Azarenka and 26 for Clijsters) for both. In the end for Azarenka though, it all came down to overcoming her nerves, forcing Clijsters into mistakes and closing it out.

Today, we witnessed first-hand another new player blossom on-court. One with the ability to overcome the hype that centered around her for years, and actually play to her abilities. Azarenka matured into an adult over the course of this 2 hour and 12 minute battle and her time in the Australian sun won’t soon come to a close as she is set to take on either Maria Sharapova or Petra Kvitova in the finals on Saturday.

Additionally, whichever player wins the Australian Open becomes the new world #1. For a woman that can do anything now, this is simply no big deal.

 

ASB Classic Semifinal Showdown with Pennetta, Kuznetsova, Kerber and Zheng

Svetlana Kuznetsova

by Stephanie Neppl, Special for Tennis Grandstand

What a week we’ve had at the 2012 ASB Classic! One of the best fields in tournament history has been narrowed down to just four players: a German (but not the top seed Sabine Lisicki as expected), an Italian, a Chinese (but not the #2 seed Peng Shuai)  and a Russian.

To get us to this stage of the tournament, we’ve survived numerous rain delays which have done their best to complicate life for the players and organisers. One entire day of qualifying was moved inside, only one night session began on time and many matches had to change courts to accommodate the rain delays.

All that is a blur now as there are just two days to go. Today Lisicki injured herself during warm-up and battled hard against fellow German Angelique Kerber but she was forced to withdraw during the second set. It was not the ending she wanted, but the smiley Lisicki was hopeful the injury won’t affect her play at the Australian Open coming up later this month.

“I hope it’s nothing too bad,” she said. “I hope I’ll recover quickly and that a couple of days off will  be enough. I’m just hoping for the best.”

The highest seed remaining is Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova. The two-time grand slam winner has the goods but has lacked consistency for most of her career. She’s looked good in Auckland and hasn’t dropped a set in her run to the semifinals.

After her win over Christina McHale in the second round, Kuznetsova was asked if she thought she could improve on her career high #2 ranking. “I think I can do better. It’s definitely in my potential.” She will now face surprise semifinalist Zheng Jie of China who has won her past two rounds with ease.

The other semifinal is a repeat of a US Open quarterfinal match between Flavia Pennetta and Angelique Kerber. The Italian made the final in her last visit to the ASB Classic and will be keen to redeem herself after the German won that grand slam match to reach the semifinals.

Stay updated and catch all the great action at the ASB Classic!

(All photos © www.photosport.co.nz)

Stephanie Neppl is the Social Media Manager for Tennis Auckland covering the ASB Classic and Heineken Open. She is the author of the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and you can follow her on twitter @StephInNZ for further updates.

ASB Classic Preview: Lisicki, Goerges, Kuznetsova In Action

ASB Classic, Meet the seeds portrait session, 31 December 2011

by Stephanie Neppl, Special for Tennis Grandstand

The 2012 ASB Classic is underway and it’s lining up to be a memorable tournament with stellar fields in both singles and doubles.

Despite the withdrawal of drawcard Venus Williams, the singles draw is full of big names and big talent. We’ve got our previous two champions in 2011 winner Greta Arn and 2010 champ Yanina Wickmayer as well as former runners up Flavia Pennetta (2010) and Elena Vesnina (2009) all in the main draw.

Sabine Lisicki, who was forced to play qualifing in Auckland in 2011 thanks to an injury that saw her ranking plummet, is the top seed. Lisicki made noise through 2011 with two tournament wins and a semifinal run as a Wimbledon wildcard. The smiley blonde has raised the interest of many tennis fans who relish the chance to see her big serve in action.

The field also includes Chinese #2 Peng Shuai, who lost a heartbreaker to Wickmayer in the semifinals here last year; two-time slam champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and German Julia Goerges. Goerges made the semis in 2011 and had some big results, including two wins over WTA #1 Caroline Wozniacki. It will be interesting to see how she fares this year with as the 5th seed and a lot more expectation than a year ago.

 

Pennetta, the #4 seed, made the final in 2010 but didn’t return in 2011. She had some inconsistent results in singles last year but had some big wins in the second half of the year – Maria Sharapova at the US Open and Caroline Wozniacki in Beijing.

New faces to Auckland this year include Italian Roberta Vinci (seeded #6), young American Christina McHale and two-time grand slam semifinalist Zheng Jie.

The doubles draw includes reigning Wimbledon champs Katarina Srebotnik and Kveta Peschke and  reigning French Open champs Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. Pennetta, who won the 2011 Aussie Open doubles title with Gisela Dulko, will partner Goerges in the doubles draw. Also competing are Elena Vesnina and Sania Mirza, who made the French Open final in 2011, and Lisicki and Peng are partnering up.

Follow the 2012 ASB Classic on www.asbclassic.co.nz, http://www.facebook.com/ASBClassic  and  http://twitter.com/#!/ASBClassicAuckl

(All photos © www.photosport.co.nz)

Stephanie Neppl is the Social Media Manager for Tennis Auckland covering the ASB Classic and Heineken Open. She is the author of the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and you can follow her on twitter @StephInNZ for further updates.

Ivanovic, Jankovic Within Striking Distance of the Top 10

ivanovic 2011

Battling each other in Grand Slam semis, making finals at the Majors, holding the No. 1 ranking—that all used to be status quo for Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.

The past couple of years for both of the Serbian superstars make that all seem like a distant memory. Both of them finished 2011 outside of the top 10—the first time neither one has been ranked among the WTA’s elite since 2006. Since 2009, there’s only been one Grand Slam semifinal appearance between the two of them. And at one point in 2010, Ivanovic found herself ranked outside the top 60.

Despite that, 2012 has the potential to mark a return to form for both of them.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to believe they could find themselves back in the top 10 is the unpredictability of the women’s tour right now. Last year, three players won the first Grand Slam titles of their careers: Li Na at the French Open, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon and Samantha Stosur at the U.S. Open. Those three definitely weren’t considered clear-cut favorites going into those Majors, but there they were at the end of the two weeks lifting the big trophies.

In other words, it’s anyone’s ball game out there, a fact that should serve two veterans that have found themselves in winning positions on the biggest stages quite well.

That segues into the experience factor being crucial to further success. Ivanovic is a former French Open champion and has been runner-up in two other Grand Slam finals. In addition to making the finals of the U.S. Open in ’08, Jankovic has made five other Major semis in her career.

Their playing style also translates well to any surface, each having had success on grass, hard and clay courts. While neither Jankovic or Ivanovic have been considered the biggest hitters in the game, they are each athletic enough to get themselves in position to generate more pace on their groundstrokes than most players and are capable of playing solid defense.

Plus, there are some signs that they’re heading in the right direction. After going exactly two years between winning singles titles, Ivanovic has won three in the past year. Jankovic still managed to make two finals in 2011, despite it being a down season for her.

The two have been making news this offseason with changes on their teams, as well, bringing in new trainers and in the case of Jankovic, a new coach.

Sitting within striking distance of the top 10, Ivanovic and Jankovic have the games and the experience to get them back near the upper reaches of the standings. It boils down to a matter of putting it all together now, still in the prime of their careers.

Sampras, Moya, Lisicki Join Li Na for Exhibition Tournament in China

Moya Lisicki Li Na Pete Sampras 2011

2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na received a hero’s welcome in her hometown of Wuhan, kicking off a two-day exhibition tournament on December 17, 2011 called “Li Na and Friends.” The festivities  also feature 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras and former world number number 1 Carlos Moya, as well as 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist and WTA Comeback Player of the Year Sabine Lisicki. The event gave fans a chance to celebrate Li Na’s historic Grand Slam victory and brought tennis to a quickly-growing market in China.

Li’s slump since winning Roland Garros in June seems to have ended as she looked to be in better form this weekend after a month-long training camp in Germany.

“I trained quite solidly and effectively in Germany. I feel much better now compared with the past several months. But how good my form is, I think it will be tested at this tournament … I just want to relax my nerves after the Germany trip. It’s a feedback event for my home fans,” Li said after being greeted at the Wuham Tianhe airport by a cheering home crowd.

The 29-year-old was also nominated for the Laureus “Breakthrough Player of the Year” award on Thursday showing just how far the veteran has come not only in tennis, but in the international world of sports.

The first day of the exhibition featured a square off between Li and Lisicki followed by mixed doubles with Li teaming up with Sampras and Lisicki pairing with Moya. On Sunday, the men will take court for their singles match followed by a reverse mixed doubles match.

After fighting off two match points to defeat Li at this year’s Wimbledon 3-6, 6-4, 8-6, Germany’s Lisicki again praised Li’s mark on tennis.

“I am delighted to have been included in the ‘Li Na and Friends’ event. Li Na and I had one of the best quality matches of Wimbledon 2011 and it is always a pleasure to play a champion — especially a reigning Grand Slam Champion like Li Na who is so friendly and professional, something all of China should be very proud of,”  said the 22-year-old.

After growing up watching Sampras on TV, Li shared how starstruck she was upon meeting one of her idols.

“I always admired his skills and play, but only saw him on TV. But during the China Open this year, I met him for the first time outside the locker room, and he said ’Hi, Li Na, I am Sampras. Congratulations for the French Open championship,’” said Li. ”After he was gone, I had to ask myself, ‘Did that really just happen?’”

Likewise, Sampras reciprocated the feelings of mutual respect.

“It’s good to be back,” said Sampras, referring to his third trip to China in three months. “I’m a friend of Li Na now, which is a great honour for me.”

Check out more photos from the exhibition tournament’s press conference in wintery China below. Massive log cake included!

(Sabine Lisicki/Na Li photo courtesy of Lisicki’s Facebook page; Press Conference photos courtesy of IMG; Rest from LiNaAndFriends.com)

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