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The Anatomy of an Upset: Vania King vs. Sara Errani on New Year’s Day From Shenzhen Open in China

Vania King

by Terence Leong

Shenzhen, China - What happens when two top doubles players meet up against each other in singles? It happened in the second round of Shenzhen Open in China when Vania King, ranked No. 85 in singles and the 2010 Wimbledon and US Open doubles champion, faced Sara Errani, ranked No. 7 in singles and No. 1 in doubles, in a New Year’s Day confrontation.

King prevailed in a grueling 2 hour 41 minute match 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-3 which started in the afternoon sun of southern China and ended in a chilly evening under the lights. King provided the first upset of a Top 10 player in 2014 on the first day of the New Year.

I caught up with her the morning after the match and got her insights into the flow of the match, some of its key moments and the various momentum swings she weathered to put the match away with a nice margin in the third set.

King disclosed that even seasoned Grand Slam champions can be anxious when it is time to step on the court. “I felt like I went into the match quite nervous, partly because I was playing on center court for the first time in a while,” she said. “I hadn’t played a tournament in a couple of months so it was getting back and getting used to the mental aspect of being on a big court and playing a top player.”

In spite of the nervousness, King came out swinging in the first game and immediately pressured Errani’s serve having a breakpoint which wasn’t converted.  Unfortunately, King was broken in her first two service games while Errani, though pressured, held. The fact that she wasn’t holding serve and Errani was, got the first set to 4-0 for Errani, but one felt King was still in it bringing Errani to deuce in games one and three on Errani’s serve.

The action was more competitive than the score indicated, but with the set slipping away in a best of three-set match, and yet to get on the board, what would King do to respond?  “She (Errani) also started quite well, like solid. She didn’t miss much.  My tactic that I was trying, wasn’t really working, possibly because I was nervous.  I wasn’t executing as well as I wanted to in the beginning. So around the end of the first/beginning of the second set, I started to think. I tried to be more aggressive because I was trying to do some more tactics in the beginning, like play a little bit high to her backhand, try and open the court, but for various reasons it wasn’t working as well as I hoped.  So I simplified it for myself, and focused each point on being aggressive and not worrying if I was going to miss or not and slowly I started to be more consistent.”

We’ve all heard this numerous times from pros commentating on televised matches over the years and here was a tour champion reiterating that simple wisdom.  When things aren’t going right, return to the fundamentals. Focus on each point not the score.  Stay aggressive and play each shot one at a time fearlessly. Simple but not easy.  With the adjustment, King started to change the results on the court. The first game King won in the match was a break of Errani’s serve for 4-1, and she held the next game as well for 4-2. She pressured Errani’s next service game with more unconverted breakpoints but the diminutive “Sarretta” from Italy held for 5-2.  King double faulted to be broken and give the set to Errani 6-2.

The second set, started out with Errani holding.  Also while Errani’s drop shots seemed to have worked against King early in the first set, King was now ready to track those down and was drop shotting Errani as well. King staying aggressive and more loose, broke Errani twice and raced out to a 4-1 lead, but Errani clawed back and took the lead 4-5 and King called for her coach again. Both players called for their coaches several times throughout the match.  King met with her coach, Alejandro Dulko, during each set, she admitted with a sparkling self-deprecating laugh that the conference with him during the first set “didn’t really help” and “it doesn’t always help” her make meaningful adjustments to what’s happening on court.  This time Dulko advised her to attack Errani’s forehand more since Errani’s backhand was proving solid thus far.  After that King says, “I shifted my tactic a little bit and for the rest of the match I tried to attack her forehand a little more because she was giving me time there.”

At one point Errani, who is part of the loud grunting school, seemed minorly irritated by the crowd’s reaction to her expressive gasps when she saw a drop shot off of King’s racquet.  The Chinese audience, perhaps the first live tour level tennis tournament for many in attendance, responded with some bemused laughter at the emotive surprise audible from Errani, but in a pure reaction to the sound, not meant to be disrespectful of Errani. In fact, when the appreciative crowd did venture a cheer, there was a lone voice in timid English urging “Come on Miss King” politely a few times endearingly between points.

The second set went to a tie break and King fell behind and held off two match points.  I asked her what she was thinking after getting a nice lead, losing that momentum, and then being down match point not once but twice.  Again, a return to solid proven basics was her response, “I wasn’t thinking about the score,” she said. “You shouldn’t play differently for the score.  You should play the way that you want to play.”

So the classic playing one point at a time?

“It works,” Vania confirmed.

Especially with the match at risk, allowing King to rally to win the tiebreak 9-7.  The crowd roared (that is sooo cliché, but how else do you describe it?) it’s approval for a third set of action.

The third set unfolded quickly and had some unique twists.  Vania broke first and got to 3-1, but it isn’t a break until you hold and Errani broke back the next game for 3-2.  Each held to get to 4-3 King up. At this point, the trainer was called and King had to take a medical timeout.

“In the beginning of the third, I felt a little bit of pain in my leg and was hoping it would go away,” she said. “I waited a few games to see if it would but it didn’t and I had to take the time out.”

The right upper thigh injury forced King to “try to finish off the points quicker. Try to be even more aggressive so she couldn’t move me wide.”

In spite of the injury, King came out and executed well in the colder night air, now over two and a half hours into the match.  She broke Errani and would serve for the match. Errani was growing visibly and audibly more frustrated, and after losing a point to bring the game to 30-all, she screamed in anger and slammed her racquet into the court, probably cracking the frame.

Then from the deuce court which was furthest from her chair, Errani slowly worked her way over to her chair to get a replacement racquet and noticeably slowly walked back to get on court to receive.  The chair umpire called a time violation against her as she sauntered back into position.

King stayed calm and coolly turned her back towards the suddenly slow motion Errani and seemed unfazed by the entire episode. Bouncing the ball and getting ready for her next serve.  I admired how calm and focused King stayed and I think the crowd appreciated it as well, perhaps with some added empathy since we all knew she was now injured and playing a long match in the chillier and chiller evening.

Play resumed. On the second match point for King, Errani’s shot was called long, but Errani challenged the call. So the players lingered near the net, stuck in a different kind of no-man’s land for tennis, instead of the usual immediate clasp of hands cross net as is tennis’s hallmark of sportsmanship. The call was confirmed and Vania King had defeated Sara Errani with her mastery of simple tennis wisdom. Calm your nerves by going back to basics.  Play one point at a time.  Ignore the score and go for your shots. Stay aggressive. Don’t be afraid of making errors.

This may have only been a second round match at the Shenzhen Open, but was certainly the most exciting tennis of the tournament and an example of how a focused mind, constantly recalibrating and relying on her training prevails in the mental and physical battle against another champion.

 

Running Commentary In A Moment In Time At The ASB Classic In Auckland

Venus Williams

By Thaddeus McCarthy

By Dear Fans,

As I am sitting right now in the media box at the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, I thought that now would be a good time to do some running commentary. Now obviously this article will come out after these matches have been completed, so this is out-of-date technically. But I feel that right at this moment this is a useful conversation to have.

As I write this, the match-up between Ana Ivanovic and Kurumi Nara, the world no. 16 vs no. 81, has just ended. Ana Ivanovic has taken the match 6-2, 6-3. The crowd seated, of which there is about 1,300, got to enjoy some wonderful rallies at the end of the match. A favourite of mine was one where Nara finished the point with a backhand drop volley. The match currently under way is between Lauren Davis and Jamie Hampton. Hampton would have to be the favoured one of these two, as she is about 40 ranks above her. Hampton has just broken Davis’s serve for the 2nd time, and the match stands at 5-1. The next match coming up is Garbine Muguruza vs. Venus Williams. No doubt who the crowd favourite will be in this one.

I think it is the common consensus with fans is that they do want to see a Williams/Ivanovic final, as these are the tournaments two biggest drawcards. There are many players who will be doing their best to stop that happening, Muguruza will be no exception. The top seed, Roberta Vinci was knocked out in the opening round by a largely unheard of player, Ana Konjuh. Seeing the form that Ana displayed in the last match I would highly expect her to reach the final stage. In the Hampton match currently into the second set, and with Hampton the superior player at this stage, I will assume that she comes out on top here. She will move on from this to face Venus in the semi-finals. Venus will find it tough going against Hampton, and I think we can look forward to a very good match tomorrow. In the other semi-final we will see Ivanovic face off against Kirsten Flipkens. My expectation for this match is that Ivanovic will come out ahead, watching the Flipkens quarter-final I noticed that she does not have a top spin backhand shot. I would think that this weakness could leave her open. Time will tell.

In the doubles, we are seeing a similar pattern emerging, although somewhat more pronounced. The top seeds, Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Safarova were knocked out in the quarter-finals. The only one’s of the top four seeds remaining are the fourth seeds, Mona Barthel and Megan Moulton-Levy. Again, time will tell whether the top seeds can make it through to the final and become champions. Although I think that is good to have diversity when it comes to tournament winners on the ATP and WTA, I think it is also good to have a strong bunch of players at the top. Much of the hype around the men’s game currently has been to do with having the ‘Big Four’ rivalry. The problem with the women’s game worldwide currently has been that there is not really a strong group of players at the top. Lets hope that the womens game in 2014 will see a very strong bunch of players emerging at the top.

It is my hope that the ASB Classic will set the tone for a great year of women’s tennis in 2014!

Present Day Serena Williams Far From Her Non-Competitive Pro Debut

Serena Williams

By Randy Walker
@TennisPublisher

What else can you say about Serena Williams?

This woman never seemingly ceases to amaze, continuing to stake her claim as the greatest tennis player of all time with a fourth year-end WTA Championship title. Her win in Istanbul was her 57th career singles title and concluded 2013 winning $12.4 million in prize money (she’s won $53.9 million in prize money in her career.)

Serena’s competitiveness and refusal to lose is the signature attribute of her championship mettle – a topic that her first coach Rick Macci discusses in the forthcoming book “Macci Magic: Extracting Greatness from Yourself and Others” (per order here: http://www.amazon.com/Macci-Magic-Extracting-Greatness-Yourself/dp/1937559254/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382983133&sr=1-1&keywords=macci+magic)

But, what is so ironic about Serena is how relatively uncompetitive she was in her first professional match.
Unlike her sister Venus, who at age 14 beat world No. 57 Shaun Stafford in her pro match and led world No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 6-3, 3-1 in her second pro match, Serena’s pro debut was not nearly as celebrated, successful or competitive, as documented below in the October 29 chapter of my book and mobile app ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY (www.TennisHistoryApp.com).

October 29, 1995 – Fourteen-year-old future world No. 1 Serena Williams makes an auspicious, humbling professional debut, losing in the first round of qualifying of the Bell Challenge in Quebec City, Canada to 18-year-old, Anne Miller 6-1, 6-1. The match is played at Club Advantage, a private tennis club in Quebec with little fanfare. Writes Robin Finn of the New York Times, ”Instead of a stadium showcase, she competed on a regulation practice court at a tennis club in suburban Vanier, side by side with another qualifying match. There were no spotlights, no introductions, not even any fans. Her court was set a level below a smoky lounge that held a bar, a big-screen television, an ice cream cart and 50 or so onlookers with varying stages of interest in her fate.” Says Williams, “I felt bad out there because I lost. I didn’t play like I meant to play. I played kind of like an amateur.” Says Miller, “I guess I played a celebrity…She has as much power as anybody around, but maybe she needs to play some junior events the way Anna Kournikova has to learn how to become match-tough. There really is no substitute for the real thing. I felt like a complete veteran compared to her.”

Miller would go on to a career that was so obscure that only a shell of a bio appears on her on the WTA’s website, but she did achieve a top 50 ranking.

Martina Hingis: Rewriting a Fairytale

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For most athletes, enshrinement in their sport’s Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of lifelong achievement; the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the self-titled “Home of the Legends of Tennis,” is no different. Eternal recognition of greatness is truly the highest honor in sport, above the grand slams, the titles, the endorsements and the prize money. At the same time, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame carries a sense of finality; it is meant to close the book on athletes’ careers in their minds and the minds of the public, all while allowing the masses to recollect and appreciate all that they achieved. It’s the happy ending to the fairytale.

For Martina Hingis, who had twice been denied the chance to end her legendary career on her own terms, induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July marked something completely different.

Shortly after her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the five-time Grand Slam champion announced that she would be making a return to the WTA in doubles this summer. Hingis has committed to play five events, starting this week at the Southern California Open in Carlsbad. She will partner Daniela Hantuchova for the duration; the pair will also play together in Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven and at the US Open. For now, Hingis has only planned a comeback in doubles; rumors have nonetheless been circulating that she is merely testing the waters for a full-fledged return in singles.

Whatever Hingis decides, chances are high that her third foray into the fray will be her last. Despite being considered one of the all-time greats in tennis, Hingis’ competitive career was comparatively short compared to her contemporaries. Hingis was on top of the world at the tender age of 16, and won all five of her Grand Slam singles titles before the age of 19. Nagging heel and ankle injuries resulted in two surgeries, and Hingis’ teenage dream was over at the age of 22.

The Swiss Miss returned in 2005, but as the old saying goes, sequels are never as good as the original. She lost the first singles match of her return in Pattaya City to Marlene Weingärtner. She claimed she had no further plans for a comeback, but success in World TeamTennis prompted her to announce a full comeback for 2006. She added three more titles in her second chapter, including a record fifth in Tokyo, and won the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award in 2006.

At Wimbledon in 2007, however, Hingis tested positive for trace amounts of cocaine and was handed a two-year suspension from the sport. Despite vehemently proclaiming her innocence, she chose not to fight the ban and retired for a second time. With the recent scandals regarding doping in major professional sports, as well as the ITF’s suspension of Viktor Troicki, it’s understandable that Hingis’ return could be met with some apprehension from critics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Despite her past controversy, Hingis’ return has been met with positive fanfare; in addition, her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame speaks volumes. A panel of 125 journalists from around the world votes for the incoming class, and in addition to weighing a player’s accomplishments, “consideration will be given to integrity, sportsmanship and character.” With her immortality recorded in Newport, the book was thought to be closed on Hingis’ career.

However, between injuries and a suspension, one of the game’s greats never got to write her own ending.

Hingis, unlike other prodigies in sport, has always had a deep-seeded love for her craft; in return, tennis fans around the world have a deep-seeded love for her court craft, guile and intelligence. Despite two “careers,” Hingis never had a farewell tour. This is her chance. Every good story has character development, plot twists, and perhaps most importantly, a resolution. It seems only right that she gets the chance to begin (and end) the final chapter of a storied career on her terms.

From Coast to Coast: WTA Carlsbad and Washington Previews

Can Cibulkova make it two straight titles with a Carlsbad defense?

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

Carlsbad:

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

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

Semifinal:  Azarenka vs. Vinci

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

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

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Radwanska

Final:  Azarenka vs. Radwanska

Washington:

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

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

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

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

Final:  Makarova vs. Stephens

Future Stars Earning Their Stripes: Rising Americans in Stanford and Atlanta

Ryan Harrison flexed some muscle this week in Atlanta.

Among the annual narratives of the US Open Series are the glimpses of rising American talents on both Tours.  The first week of the 2013 Series shone a spotlight on a dozen of these players in Atlanta and Stanford, small events without draws too daunting.  Some took advantage of the breathing room this week, while others allowed opportunities to escape them.

Atlanta:

Ryan Harrison:  He had not reached an ATP quarterfinal since early January, compiling barely more wins in 2013 than one could count on the figures of one hand.  But Harrison ended that drought and bolstered his sagging ranking by weathering a pair of rollercoasters against higher-ranked opponents.  He outlasted Marinko Matosevic and the fourth-seeded Igor Sijsling more from superior determination than superior tennis.  Under the Friday night lights, Harrison will face Santiago Giraldo in a rematch of an Australian Open meeting that he won comfortably.  A first career final is not inconceivable.

Christian Harrison:  Every player must remember the moment of their first victory in the main draw an ATP tournament.  For Ryan’s 19-year-old brother, that moment came in the first round of Atlanta.  While Alejandro Falla entered that match drained from last week’s Bogota finals run, Christian still showed impressive grit by battling through three tight sets to upset an opponent ranked 210 places higher.  The grit resurfaced a round later, when he fell to the top-seeded Isner by the narrowest of margins.  Christian battled a far more powerful, far more experienced opponent deep into the third set, nearly scoring a massive upset.

Jack Sock:  A quarterfinalist at Atlanta last year, Sock could not recapture his success despite his clear advantage in power over Santiago Giraldo.  This Colombian clay specialist even out-aced Sock on a hard court.  Since reaching the quarterfinals in Memphis, Sock has not advanced past the second round of any ATP tournament.  Accumulated frustration from those struggles may have contributed to his outbursts of temper in Atlanta.  Fans should remember that Sock remains a raw, unfinished talent still a few years away from fulfilling his potential.

Rhyne Williams:  Raining aces aplenty on both of his opponents, this prospect established himself as an intimidating server in the mold of many American men before him.  Williams powered past compatriot higher-ranked compatriot Denis Kudla in the first round without dropping his serve.  He threatened to spring an upset on the seventh-seeded, much more experienced Lleyton Hewitt behind another barrage of aces.  But his inexperience showed in the first-set tiebreak, which Williams lost after holding four consecutive set points and donating a costly double fault.

Denis Kudla:  The world No. 93 showed promise in North American challengers this spring and by reaching the quarterfinals at Queen’s Club.  Kudla’s modest serve left him at a critical disadvantage against a torrid Williams, so Atlanta fans could not fully appreciate his skills in other areas.  He will hope for more advantageous draws as the US Open Series continues.

Tim Smyczek:  Just behind Williams in the rankings, Smyczek earned attention at the Australian Open when he upset Ivo Karlovic and won a set from David Ferrer.  Since that promising statement, Smyczek has won just three main-draw matches at ATP tournaments.  Curiously, two of those have come against notable opponents in Fernando Verdasco and Sam Querrey.  Smyczek needs to exploit opportunities in winnable matches better than in his loss to James Blake.  At 5-5 in the third set, he could not convert break points that might have sealed the match.

Stanford:

Jamie Hampton:  Like Smyczek, Hampton emerged on the radar of observant fans in Melbourne, where she won a set from eventual champion Victoria Azarenka.  A clay upset of Petra Kvitova signaled a second peak in June, marked by a stirring run to the Eastbourne final as a qualifier.  The 23-year-old Hampton holds a seed for the first time this week.  She carried that burden with mixed results in her opener, striking over 50 winners while spraying plenty of careless errors.  A semifinal looms against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she defeated in Eastbourne.  She must clean up her game by then.

Madison Keys:  In a tale of two matches, Keys dominated eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova and then fell quietly to qualifier Vera Dushevina.  Eagerness to find a successor to the Williams sisters, which Keys could become, should not blind onlookers to the inconsistency in her results this year.  She often plays to the level of her competition, a trait common among young, raw talents, and more growing pains will lie ahead before we can rely on her as a late-week threat.  Stanford brought a dose of optimism and a dash of realism, a healthy recipe for both Keys and her fans to consume.

Christina McHale:  A once-promising talent veered off the rails when McHale fell victim last year to mononucleosis, often a death sentence for tennis careers.  The New Jersey native has time to regroup, though, for she just turned 21 in May.  McHale has advanced past the second round at only one tournament (Doha) in the last 11 months, but she has troubled top-15 opponents such as Li Na, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko this year.  Still searching for confidence, she won just four games from Urszula Radwanska in the first round of Stanford.

Coco Vandeweghe:  Reaching last year’s Stanford final as a lucky loser, she qualified for the main draw this time and routed her first opponent.  The somewhat less inconsistent Sorana Cirstea then ended Vandeweghe’s bid for another breakthrough.  Back inside the top 200, the Southern California slugger wields a huge serve—and not much else.  She accomplished about as much as one could expect in the context of her year overall.

Mallory Burdette:  Unfortunate to draw Marion Bartoli in the first round last year, Burdette enjoyed only slightly better fortune by facing Francesca Schiavone in this year’s opener.  The Italian has feasted on inexperienced players like the Stanford alum, who became a full-time pro last fall.  Despite her dwindling form, Schiavone pulled away in straight sets to hand Burdette her fourth straight loss.  She will hope for less thorny draws as the US Open Series progresses.

Nicole Gibbs:  The best player in NCAA women’s tennis again received a wildcard to the tournament at her university.  Gibbs produced a result similar on paper to her Stanford appearance in 2012, when she won one match before losing the second.  But her three-set dogfight with the fourth-seeded Hampton revealed the toughness behind her gentle demeanor.  Gibbs easily could have grown disheartened after failing to serve out the second set, or after falling behind 0-4 in the third.  Her resilience in both of those situations suggested that she has the heart to succeed in the WTA, if perhaps not the weapons.

Anne Keothavong Calls it a Career

Anne Keothavong, who spent a sizable portion of her career as Great Britain’s No. 1 tennis player, announced her decision to retire from professional tennis on Wednesday. In a career that spanned 12 years, the 29-year-old Keothavong won 20 titles on the ITF circuit and reached seven WTA semifinals; in fact, she was the only British player to reach a WTA semifinal in the 20-year period from 1992 to 2012.

“I have given my decision a lot of thought and I believe this is the right time to move on to the next stage of my career,” she said. “I have had some magical moments along the way. I think I am leaving tennis in excellent shape with both Laura Robson and Heather Watson leading the way for Britain in the women’s game.”

In her most successful period, Keothavong made her top 100 debut in May 2008 and arrived in the top 50 in February 2009 at a career-high of No. 48; at that point, she was the first British woman to be ranked in the top 50 in 16 years. During that time, she reached the third round of the US Open in 2008 and recorded three of her career semifinals in 2009.

Unfortunately, numerous injuries halted the progress of her career, and the worst of these came as Keothavong was having that career year in 2009. At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Keothavong ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her left knee during a doubles match. She had previously suffered a similar injury early in her career in 2004. Keothavong was unable to play another match that year, and her ranking slipped to the lower rung of the top 100.

Keothavong’s career was defined by her incredible tenacity and determination, both on the court and off it. Despite a litany of injuries including not one, but two knee surgeries, she bounced back each time. In her return to the main tour following her knee surgery in 2010, Keothavong reached the semifinals in Memphis by defeating Kristina Barrios, Michelle Larcher de Brito and Karolina Sprem in straight sets; she fell in three sets to eventual runner-up Sofia Arvidsson in the semifinals. Later that year, she reached her second semifinal in Luxembourg on the back of a protected ranking.

Backed by her big serve an forehand, Keothavong played in the main draw at Wimbledon for 13 consecutive years. Unbeknownst to spectators at the time, Keothavong’s last career match came at Wimbledon this year in a first round loss to Garbiñe Muguruza. Nonetheless, it seemed somewhat fitting that Great Britain’s most successful player of the past two decades got to close out her career at home on Centre Court.

Keothavong and Elena Baltacha, who flew the Union Jack on the WTA for the better part of a decade, have left an impression on British women’s tennis that far outshines their results. The pair help bridge the generational gap from Jo Durie and Sam Smith to Heather Watson and Laura Robson.While neither were praised as natural or fluid ball-strikers in the vein that Robson has been, the pair maximized their talents through hard work. In addition, both showed incredible dedication to playing for their country; Keothavong played 14 ties for Great Britain in Fed Cup, contesting 44 total matches.

In retirement, Keothavong will join the BT Sport broadcast team that will cover 21 WTA events, including the WTA Championships.

The Series Is Open: Previewing WTA Stanford (and Baku)

Can anyone bring Radwanska to her knees at Stanford?

The women’s US Open Series launches in California with one of the oldest tournaments in the WTA.  In the tranquil setting of Stanford University, the Bank of the West Classic a particularly cozy and rewarding tournaments.  Here is a look ahead at what to expect this week at Stanford and at the International event half a world away in Azerbaijan.

Stanford:

Top half:  Rarely do Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka all spurn Stanford.  Their absence this year offers world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska an opportunity as the only top-10 player in the draw.  The top seed probably still can taste the bitter disappointment of a greater opportunity squandered at Wimbledon.  Radwanska will seek to bounce back on a relatively fast hard court, where she has reached the semifinals before.  She should reach that stage again with no pre-semifinal opponent more formidable than Varvara Lepchenko, just 2-9 away from clay this year.  A potentially intriguing first-round match between youthful energy and veteran cunning pits Stanford alum Mallory Burdette against Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.

Sandwiched between two unimpressive seeds, Madison Keys should showcase her power on a court suited to it.  American fans will enjoy their glimpse of the woman who could become their leading threat to win a major in a few years.  Keys will look to deliver an opening upset over eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova en route to a possible quarterfinal against compatriot Jamie Hampton.  Climbing into relevance with an Eastbourne final, Hampton holds the fourth seed and may face another Stanford alum in Nicole Gibbs.  Hampton stunned Radwanska at Eastbourne last month, while Keys took a set from her at Wimbledon.

Semifinal:  Radwanska vs. Keys

Bottom half:  The third quarter features another unseeded American hopeful—and another Radwanska.  Stanford’s depleted field allowed Agnieszka’s younger sister, Urszula, to snag the seventh seed, while Christina McHale looks for momentum on the long road back from mononucleosis.  Still elegant as she fades, Daniela Hantuchova brings a touch of grace that should contrast with the athleticism of first-round opponent Yanina Wickmayer.  Often a presence but rarely a threat at Stanford, third seed Dominika Cibulkova has not won more than two matches at any tournament since January.

The only US Open champion in the draw, Samantha Stosur might face a challenging test against Julia Goerges.  This enigmatic German has won three of their four meetings, including both on hard courts, although the last three all have reached a third set.  Of course, a 14-17 record in 2013 does not bode well for her chances of surviving Olga Govortsova in the first round.  The road might not get any easier for Stosur in the quarterfinals, though, where she could meet Sorana Cirstea.  A product of the Adidas training program in Las Vegas, Cirstea upset Stosur at last year’s Australian Open.  None of the women in the lower half ever has reached a final at Stanford.

Semifinal:  Cibulkova vs. Stosur

Final:  Radwanska vs. Stosur

Baku:

Top half:  Not one of these women will hold a seed at the US Open unless their rankings rise between now and then.  Holding the top seed is Bojana Jovanovski, who owes many of her poitns to a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Jovanovski has two victories over Caroline Wozniacki but few over anyone else since then.  Former junior No. 1 Daria Gavrilova and fellow Serb Vesna Dolonc offer her most credible competition before the semifinals.

At that stage, Jovanovski might meet Andrea Hlavackova, the runner-up in a similarly weak draw at Bad Gastein a week ago.  Although she has fallen outside the top 100, meanwhile, Shahar Peer will hope to rely on her experience to stop either Hlavackova or third seed Chanelle Scheepers.  The speed of the surface may determine whether a counterpuncher like Peer or Scheepers overcomes the heavier serve of fifth seed Karolina Pliskova.

Bottom half:  Unheralded players from the home nation often play above expectations at small tournaments like Baku.  Wildcard Kamilla Farhad, an Azerbaijani citizen, will hope to echo Yvonne Meusberger’s astonishing title run in Bad Gastein.  Surrounding her are clay specialist Alexandra Cadantu and the stagnating Polona Hercog.  A tall Slovenian, the later woman seems the best equipped to win on hard courts from this section.  Cadantu will need to blunt the explosive serve of Michaella Krajicek to survive her opener.

The 18-year-old Elina Svitolina showed promise in Bad Gastein by reaching the semifinals.  That experience will have served her well heading into another International event with an open draw.  She even holds a seed here, as does another rising star in Donna Vekic.  Nearly two years younger than Svitolina, Vekic already has reached two WTA finals.  A quarterfinal between the two teenagers might offer a preview of more momentous matches in the future.

Final:  Pliskova vs. Vekic

Holding Out for a Hero

AP 2013 ESPY AWARDS SHOW A ENT S USA CA

The word hero, in all of its various forms, is thrown around quite often in sports. Professional athletes are placed on a pedestal, expected to walk the straight and narrow and act as role models for the youth of the world. In tennis, the word hero is often associated with the word gladiator. Matches are played out one-on-one in an enclosed arena. When players come through long and arduous matches, they are hailed as warriors and fighters. The WTA’s previous global ad campaign, entitled “Looking for a Hero?”, was one of its most successful.

http://youtu.be/cH7s5CI8GKM

An athlete isn’t a hero because he uses physical strength and endurance to win. That’s his job. An athlete isn’t a hero because she goes out and wins multiple championships. That’s her goal. Heroism isn’t playing through an injury and coming out with a victory, and heroism isn’t rolling through the field to win a grand slam.

Despite all that, the word hero has not lost its luster in sports.

The ESPYs, ESPN’s annual fan-driven award show to celebrate athletic achievement in the past calendar year, takes itself far more seriously than it should. Ironically, it is the only awards show in the history of awards shows that doesn’t actually signify achievement in anything. Actors and directors measure their careers based on Oscars and Golden Globes, while musicians covet Grammys. But athletes? Each individual sport has its championships and each individual organization has its awards, medals and accolades. From the outside, the ESPYs seem like a colossal waste of time; in fact, they might even represent everything that’s wrong with professional sports today: over-the-top pomp and circumstance, glossy hero-worship, excessive media hype and dollar signs.

However, for approximately 20 minutes each year, the ESPYs do give us one thing: the chance to be inspired by a true hero. The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is one of the only awards of the night that is not decided by fan voting; it is completely independent of the popularity contest and media circus. The award is presented to someone who “reflects the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” While a sports-themed award, the recipient does not have to be an athlete or even a sports figure; nonetheless, its honorees have given us some of the most memorable moments in sports history. In the first year of the ESPYs, Jimmy V told us, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Last year, we backed Pat and she told us to “keep on keeping on.”

Last night, Robin Roberts received the 20th Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in the history of the ESPYs. Roberts, who has ties to the tennis family, is currently an anchor for ABC’s Good Morning America. A star athlete in her youth and record-holding basketball player at Southeastern Louisiana, she joined ESPN in 1990 and served with them for 15 years. Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she returned back to the airwaves. Last year, however, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease that developed as a side effect from her treatment. Roberts needed, and received, a bone marrow transplant that saved her life.

Roberts, who was a friend of Ashe and was presented the award by LeBron James, received a standing ovation from those present in the arena. “It’s not so much what we’ve accomplished that we remember,” Roberts said in her acceptance speech, “it’s what we overcome.”

Despite all of its flaws, the ESPYs, and by extension sport as a whole, provides viewers with a stage to have these stories told. Athletes and sports figures can be heroes, but not solely for athletic achievement; Jimmy V, Pat, Robin and others are figures that transcend sports. They’ve taken up a platform and embraced that stage for the greater good. That is the thing, and not the number of championships, golds medals, or slam trophies present in their cabinets, that is the most inspiring.

Plotlines to Ponder: US Open Series Edition

Murrray fired a warning shot at Wimbledon.  Now can Djokovic reply?

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

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

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

2.      Will Serena Williams restore order in the WTA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.      Will home soil inspire the American men?

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

7.      Which rising stars on each Tour will shine?

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

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

 

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