wta championships

Justine Henin Retires: Sound Familiar, Right?

Tennis is a sport for insomniacs. It’s played nearly all year and at all hours, so if you so much as blink, or in most cases take a nap, you might miss something monumentally important. Lately, I seem to have slept through some of the most shocking moments in tennis and last night was no different. When I finally got around to checking twitter, I had to ask myself whether this was 2011 or 2008. The very first tweet that I saw was from @WTATour saying, “Seven-time Grand Slam champion @Justine_Henin has announced her retirement from professional tennis. You’ll be missed Justine!”

In case you’ve been living in a hole, I’ll explain. Between 2003 and 2007, Justine Henin won seven Grand Slam titles, including 4 French Opens, 2 US Opens, and 1 Australian Open, as well as an Olympic gold medal and 2 WTA Championships. Going into the 2008 season, Henin was celebrating one year as the No. 1 player in the world. She appeared to have a near lock on the title at Roland Garros and was generally pegged as the favorite for that year’s tournament. Then, just one week before the start of the clay court major, Henin called a press conference and announced her retirement from tennis. This was truly shocking. It’s not often that the No. 1 player in the world, at the age of 25, opts to call it quits, particularly the week before her favorite Slam. Actually, Henin was the only woman to retire while still ranking No. 1.

At the time of her first retirement, she stated, “I am leaving as the world No. 1 and that is important as it is always better to go out at the top, I leave without any regrets and I know it is the right decision.” Clearly, she had regrets because at the end of the 2009 season, she announced her return to tennis in 2010. She was motivated by the idea of finally winning Wimbledon and achieving a career Grand Slam, as Roger Federer had done in 2009. She intended to continue playing through the 2012 Olypmics.

Justine’s comeback seemed almost as good as Kim Clijsters’ when she reached the final at the Australian Open, only her second tournament back on tour. She seemed well on track to finally attain the illusive career Grand Slam at Wimbledon. But things came to a crashing halt when she injured her elbow after falling in her 4th round match against compatriot Kim Clijsters. The injury was grave and cost Henin the rest of the season, but there was little doubt that she would return to the tour healthy and get back to her winning ways. Henin warned the world that she came to Australia not 100%, but ready to compete. Unfortunately, her Australian Open ended early when she lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the 3rd round.

Somehow Justine managed to shock us all over again this morning, by announcing her retirement from professional tennis, again. This time, there will be no coming back. Justine released a letter to her fans saying, “After having well considered and following the advice of doctors, it is now clear and I accept that my career here … … finally ends. Even though it’s hard, very hard, while I came back with a tremendous fighting spirit. I’m sorry … I had hoped for a different return and dreamed of a different ending. I will need time to process all this, but I remain convinced that even with little progress, my level with my return did not meet my expectations, despite everything I’ve learned a lot over the past 15 months.”

Whether you’re a fan or not, Justine is a great champion and has contributed a great deal to this sport. It’s a real shame that resurgence was cut short because of an injury. I offer the best of luck to Justine in her future endeavors.

Ana Ivanovic Splits with Coach – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Abrupt Ending

Few saw this one coming, but following her defeat to Italian Francesca Schiavone on the last day of the round robin competition at the WTA Championships, Elena Dementieva shocked fans with the announcement that she was retiring, effective immediately.  She later cited one of the main reasons behind her decision was the desire to start a family, and while tennis fans undoubtedly understand and wish her the best, the hard-hitting Russian will still be missed.  Arguably the best of her generation to have never won a major, she was a steady presence at the top of the women’s game.  Her serve may have been near the bottom of the barrel, but she could compete with the game’s biggest hitters stroke for stroke and played some of the most exciting matches against the game’s top stars.  So while her value may not be weighted the same as a Williams sister or one of the Belgians, Dementieva’s departure will leave a hole on the WTA Tour.

Nerves of Steel

Trying to win a top tier event like the WTA Championships when competing against the best players in the world is a difficult task in and of itself.  Managing to take the title after enduring a frightening car crash is a near impossible ask.  Yet that is exactly what Kim Clijsters did.  En route to play her semifinal match against Sam Stosur, a truck “came out of nowhere” to hit the car Clijsters was in.  Thankfully, the only person hurt in the accident was Clijsters’ manager Bob Verbeeck, who suffered some minor cuts from all of the shattered glass.  Hats off to Clijsters who quickly found her composure to reach the finals, where she took out the current World No. 1 Caroline Wozniaki in three sets.  After an ordeal like that, a fourth Grand Slam title might prove to be a walk in the park.

The Nightmare Continues

The frequently-injured Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is suffering from knee problems yet again.  After sitting out nearly three months following Wimbledon, Tsonga revealed that he has suffered a tear in the patella tendon while in Montpellier.  While there is a slight silver lining in that the injury is not as serious as the post-Wimbledon setback, he has been forced to heed his doctor’s advice and end his season early, which includes missing the trip to Belgrade as part of the French squad that will face off against Serbia for the Davis Cup title.  Tsonga has done much to get himself into better shape over the course of the past few years, and some players are naturally just more prone to injury.  But these recurring injuries might suggest that Tsonga needs to start searching for more solutions, be they tweaking his workout or perhaps adjusting his style of play.  As one of the most fascinating players on tour to watch, it would be shame to see the curtain fall on his career prematurely due to a multitude of injuries.

Leader of the Pack

The BNP Paribas Open will be leading the way as far as Hawkeye technology is concerned when the event is staged in 2011.  Tournament Director Steve Simon announced on Wednesday that not one, not two, not even three, but that all eight match courts will be equipped with Hawkeye.  This has to be welcomed news to players at all levels of the game, who will always have the option to challenge a call, irrespective of the fact that they may not be on one of the main show courts.  Spectators at the event can also relax at the Stadium Plaza, which will now provide feeds from three show courts, while the Garden Club displays will be providing feeds from two.  Bearing in mind that finances are a potentially large hurdle, hopefully other tournaments will follow suit with the BNP Paribas Open as the situation allows.

Coaching Split

Earlier this week Ana Ivanovic announced that she would be splitting with Steffi Graf’s former coach Heinz Gunthardt, as he is unable to be with her fulltime due to other commitments.  Gundthardt and Ivanovic began their relationship earlier this year, and they enjoyed success in a relatively short amount of time.  Ivanovic cut her ranking woes by more than half by going from 58th to 24th in the world, and she ended a two-year title drought with her win in Linz last month.  Having finally righted the ship and still in her early 20s, it is hard to imagine that there won’t be some high profile coach willing to pick up where Gundthardt left off.

Dementieva’s Shock Retirement, Clijsters wins in Doha and ATP Finals Chase is on

*29-year-old world No. 9 Elena Dementieva has shocked the tennis world by announcing that she will retire from the sport following the WTA Championships in Doha. She reached the finals of the French and US Opens in 2004 as well as the semi finals in Australia (2009), Wimbledon (2008, 2009) and at the WTA Chmps. (2000, 2008) whilst also holding both an Olympic Gold (Beijing) and Silver (Sydney) medal. In 2005 she starred for Russia in their Fed Cup triumph and currently stands as their most successful competitor ever in the competition and in 2009 she reached a career-high No. 3 in the world. But she says it was at the beginning of the year she made her decision and that, despite her family’s best attempts, she’s sticking to her guns. “This is my last tournament,” she told the Doha crowd after her group-stage defeat to Francesca Schiavone. “Thank you to all of the people that I have worked with for such a long time. I would like to thank all of the players for an amazing experience. It’s very emotional. I would like to thank all of the people around the world for supporting me through my career. And I would like to thank my family, especially my mum.” For more from Dementieva as well as reaction from her fellow pros visit the BBC Tennis website as well as the WTA site.

*Belgian super mum Kim Clijsters defeated Danish superstar Caroline Wozniacki to lift the WTA Championships for the third time in Doha. The 27-year-old fought to a 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory despite having not played since lifting the US Open at Flushing Meadows back in September. “I’m glad I won and it must be disappointing for Caroline, but I don’t know how many more years I’m going to keep doing this,” said Clijsters. “It was just a great battle, great fitness and I think we showed the crowd some great women’s tennis.” Wozniacki said: “This has been a fantastic week for me. Kim just played amazing today and she deserves to win. In the third set it was very close. She played really well, especially in the important moments. Definitely the experience mattered a little bit today.” Gisela Dulko and Flavia Penetta won the doubles.

*The men’s season isn’t quite over yet but time is seriously running out for the remaining hopefuls looking to qualify for the ATP Finals in London later this month. Andy Roddick returned from a three-week layoff in Basel and defeated compatriot Sam Querrey 7-5, 7-6(6) to keep up his finals charge but there was not such good news for Tomas Berdych and Fernando Verdasco. Over at Valencia, Verdasco lost to Frenchman Gilles Simon in just fifty-seven minutes which deals a major blow to his finals hopes. Simon was on fire, winning an astonishing 81% of points off of his first serve. It was even worse for Wimbledon finalist Berdych. He went down 4-6, 1-6 in Basel to German lucky loser Tobias Kamke and now his qualification chances will be severely dented too.

*There’s an early Davis Cup final setback for France as world No. 13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has withdrawn from the squad to face Serbia due to his recurring knee problems. He ruptured his tendon once more playing at Montpellier last week having only returned to action a few weeks previously. The 2008 Aussie Open finalist will also miss the Paris Masters next week where he would have been hoping to push his way in to the ATP World Tour Finals to be held in London later this month.

*Great scenes in St. Petersburg last week as world No. 88 Mikhail Kukushkin humbled top seed Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 7-6(2) to break his ATP Tour title duck. “For me it’s just incredible, this feeling, because I never think that I can win a tournament right now because I was ranked around 90,” he said. “When I came here I didn’t think I can even play quarter-finals, semis here. I was just concentrating on every match.” It was also his first final on the tour. A full interview with the Kazakhstani star can be seen at the ATP website.

*Caroline Wozniacki of course had already secured her berth as the year-ending world No. 1 but what did Doha mean for the rest? Kim Clijsters’ win has seen her climb back to No. 3 in the world meaning Serena finds herself sat at No. 4 as her injury woes continue. Aussie Sam Stosur finds herself back at No. 6 while much further down the scale, Croatia’s Karolina Sprem finds herself back up to No. 97 in the world having sat at 106 last week.

*The Christophe Rochus doping row has taken the interest of many tennis fans this week and it once again brings tennis in to contact with that horrible term and concept. There is an interesting debate on the issue over at Tennis.com between Steve Tignor and Kamakshi Tandon.

*Ana Ivanovic and coach Heinz Gunthardt have parted ways despite Ana’s recent resurgence. Gunthardt couldn’t commit to a full-time coaching role and Ana has decided to find somebody who will be able to follow her more permanently.

*It’s retirement central currently with American Taylor Dent hinting he may quit if results begin to slip. After overcoming terrible back injuries over the past few years the former world No. 21 has been fighting to climb the ladder again and save his career. “If I feel like I’m making headway, I’ll keep going,” Dent told the Charlottesville Daily Progress ahead of this week’s Charlottesville challenger. “If not—if I’m floundering or taking steps backward—then I’ll make that decision [to retire] sooner rather than later.”

*Another American is talking pipes and slippers, this time Rennae Stubbs. She says she plans to call time on her career in February after the Aussie Open and America’s Fed Cup tie against Italy. “If we win [in] Fed Cup and get to the semis, there’s a small possibility that I’d still like to be a part of that journey, having been on the train for so long,”’ the 39-year-old doubles specialist told the Melbourne Age. “But the plan is that Fed Cup will probably be it.”

*Dustin Brown is now competing under the German flag, having earlier represented Jamaica and expressing interest in representing Great Britain. He has clashed with the Jamaican tennis authorities over a perceived lack of support and famously travelled between tournaments in a camper van to save funds. He was born in Germany to a German mother and Jamaican father.

*There has been a lot of fuss made this past week about the fact that Aussie star Lleyton Hewitt announced the name of his new baby daughter via a paid-for text message service which fans could subscribe too. Hewitt, of course, is defending his “service” available to fans but many of the world’s press think badly of the venture. Although the argument is a little old now, there is a great tongue-in-cheek article on The Star website looking at the whole debacle from a typically Aussie perspective. Check it out, it’s a good read!

WTA Stars Create Their Own “Off-Season”

If Serena Williams’ troublesome foot does, in fact, keep her out for the remainder of the tennis season, seven of the world’s top 20 women will have checked out post-U.S. Open due to injury or illness. And there could be more “out-for-the-season” announcements to come.

Already Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Nadia Petrova, Agnieszksa Radwanska, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova have thrown in the towel, but Na Li and Kim Clijsters have also struggled with injuries lately. With the WTA Championships in Doha and the Bali Tournament of Champions fast approaching, you can bet tournament organizers are hoping to avoid any more withdrawals.

It seems many of the top players are going to take a break whether it’s on the calendar or not. Complaints about the length of the professional tennis season are nothing new, but the women’s schedule is already about three weeks shorter than the men’s (though the ATP is scheduled to vote on shortening theirs as well).

Injuries are unavoidable, but you have to wonder whether some of those seven women would pull themselves together if the WTA year-end championships or the Tournament of Champions in Bali (which includes several more top players) fell under the Grand Slam heading.

Admittedly, the WTA does everything it can to make their season ending event an attractive tour stop. The champion in Doha stands to rake in $1.5 million, which is more than the winner’s earnings in two of the four Grand Slams. But prize money alone can’t create interest from players or fans.

When the U.S. Open wraps up in early September, most casual tennis followers join the injured players and set their sites on next season. So why not shorten the time between the final Grand Slam and the year-end championships? Why not see if it’s possible to ride the wave of U.S. Open interest? Not only would that extend the off-season for the top players, but there would be a greater chance that those invited to participate would tough it out in order to compete.

It wouldn’t be necessary to shorten the overall calendar. Just let the second tier players fight it out through mid-November for prize money and ranking points. Fall is likely their favorite time of the year anyway with many of their toughest opponents having already packed it in. Those players have undoubtedly survived long seasons as well, but consider the difference between Caroline Wozniacki and say, No. 37 Agnes Szavay. Both have played 21 tournaments to date, but the world No. 1 has played 22 more matches.

The problem with the tennis off-season, no matter when it starts, is that players not named Venus or Serena Williams can’t afford (or don’t think they can afford) to take a month or two away from the game when that may be what’s most needed for full physical and psychological rejuvenation.

Professional football and baseball players, for instance, are given training camps to get back in playing shape after their long off-seasons, but tennis requires constant practice. A player can certainly get some rest in November and December, but very few can step away completely without suffering the consequences when tournament play ramps up in January.

As it stands currently, Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams (yes, she’s still officially the mix), Kim Clijsters, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva, Francesca Schiavone, Sam Stosur, and Vera Zvonareva will begin round robin play in Doha on October 26th.

Interestingly, only four of this year’s scheduled competitors (Wozniacki, Dementieva, Jankovic and Williams) played the tournament last year. The handful of new faces could allow for some end-of-season surprises.

An additional eight players including Yanina Wickmayer, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daniela Hantuchova, Alisa Kleybanova and defending champion Aravane Rezai will compete in the Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions in Bali on November 4th. Na Li has also qualified for the tournament, but will earn a spot in Doha if Serena pulls out as expected. Ana Ivanovic, who is just coming off her first title in two years, also gained entry as a wildcard.

By Blair Henley