Xavier Malisse

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What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Previews of Dubai, Acapulco, and Delray Beach

Has Djokovic recovered from his champagne hangover yet?

One of the strongest  ATP 500 tournaments on the calendar, Dubai follows its Premier women’s event by hosting six of the top ten men in the first significant outdoor hard-court tournament since the Australian Open.  This tournament claims pride of place in our weekly preview, although events in Acapulco and Delray Beach also feature key storylines that relate to what we can expect at Indian Wells.

Dubai:  A three-time champion at this event, world #1 Djokovic did not bring his best tennis to the Persian Gulf last year in the wake of a draining Australian Open.  The medium-paced hard court showcases his game splendidly, though, so he might bounce back in 2013 with a less exhausting Melbourne marathon behind him and a comfortable quarter ahead of him.  Not since his first meeting with Troicki has he lost to his compatriot, and rarely in the current twelve-match winning streak has the other Serb seriously troubled him.  That said, Djokovic did drop a set when they met here in 2010.  Also unlikely to threaten him on a hard court is the seventh-seeded Seppi, while Lukas Rosol does lurk but so far remains a one-upset man.

While three qualifiers form a soft center to the second quarter, its edges might feature some intrigue.  Seeking to avoid a third straight first-round loss here, former semifinalist Baghdatis faces a tall task in Del Potro, but he has won their last two clashes.  That battle of flat groundstrokes and inspired shot-making should offer some of the first round’s best entertainment.  Of lesser note is the encounter between the eighth-seeded Youzhny and rising Slovene Blaz Kavcic.  How much does the aging Russian with the graceful one-handed backhand have left?

Like the second half overall, the third quarter looks stronger than the two above it.  Top-eight threats Tsonga and Berdych bookend it, the former of whom faces a stern test in compatriot Michael Llodra.  Neither of those Frenchmen will relish the relatively slow courts here, nor will potential second-round opponent Tursunov.  A smart wildcard choice after his astonishing charge to the Marseille weekend as a qualifier, he ranks among the draw’s most notable dark horses.  Two comfortable rounds await Berdych, who excelled in Marseille as well as Tsonga and Tursunov.  Not known for his consistency, the Czech has maintained some of his steadiest tennis to date over the last several months, and he should fare better against Tsonga on an outdoor hard court than on the fast indoor court where he lost to him on Sunday.

After the hubbub last year when the tournament declined to offer Malek Jaziri a wildcard, the organizers may have smirked a bit when, having received that privilege this year, the Tunisian has landed adjacent to Federer.  More worthy of Swiss steel, surely, is the resurgent Tomic in a sequel to an Australian Open encounter closer than the score showed.  Never a man to doubt his own chances, the brash Aussie will feel confident of toppling whoever emerges from the Tipsarevic-Davydenko opener.  Although that match could present a battle of crisp two-handed backhands, both men have struggled this year and would enter a meeting with Tomic at a significant height disadvantage.  Realistically, however, only one man will come out of this quarter.

Final:  Djokovic vs. Federer

Acapulco:  Of the four top-ten men not participating in Dubai, two lend their illustrious presence to the clay 500 tournament in Mexico.  The end of the South American February swing, Acapulco usually offers an opportunity for top-seeded David Ferrer to bolster his rankings points.  While the presence of Nadal at the base of the draw will complicate his quest, the man who displaced Rafa as the top-ranked Spaniard brings momentum from winning Buenos Aires and faces no significant clay threats in his quarter.  Starting against left-handed compatriot Albert Ramos, Ferrer might face flaky Frenchman Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals, but another Spaniard in Pablo Andujar looms just as large.  Outside Nadal, the top seed has enjoyed plenty of success against his countrymen.

The last victim of Ferrer in Buenos Aires, Wawrinka faces a much more intriguing series of tests to secure a rematch in the semifinals.  Opening against Fabio Fognini of the famous eyebrows and unpredictable temperament, he might encounter the returning Nalbandian afterwards.  A finalist in the first tournament of his return, Sao Paulo, Nalbandian took a set from Ferrer at his home tournament last week before his stamina waned.  The fifth-seeded Jurgen Melzer has struggled this year outside a run to the Zagreb final on an indoor hard court, so Colombian clay threat Santiago Giraldo might seem a plausible dark horse to reach the quarterfinals.

Denied by Wawrinka in Buenos Aires, Almagro still looks to steady himself after that strange combination of breakthrough and breakdown that he endured in Melbourne.  His draw looks comfortable in its early stages, featuring nobody more dangerous than the long-faded Tommy Robredo.  In the quarterfinals, Almagro could meet one of three players who have recorded a strong result each during the South American clay season:  Vina del Mar champion Zeballos, Sao Paulo semifinalist Simone Bolelli, or Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq.  But Zeballos has not won a match since that stunning upset over Nadal, while Berlocq should struggle to match Almagro hold for hold despite winning a set from Nadal in Sao Paulo.

The easiest pre-semifinal route of all would seem to belong to the man who needs it least, or is it most?  Far from bulletproof in his two-week swing through Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nadal managed to scrape out results that looked stronger on paper than on television.  He cannot face anyone of note in his first two matches, however, and the week-long respite may have freshened his body and spirits.  The heavy left-handed groundstrokes of sixth-seeded Thomaz Bellucci might pose a threat in view of the Zeballos result.  All the same, the Brazilian has accomplished nothing during this month’s clay tournaments so far and probably lacks the belief to threaten Nadal.

Final:  Ferrer vs. Nadal

Delray Beach:  In his last tournament before Indian Wells, where he defends finals points, top-seeded John Isner desperately needs to halt a slide that has seen him lose 10 of his last 17 matches.  Although a semifinal at San Jose hinted at a resurgence, he dropped a lackluster straight-setter in Memphis, where the indoor hard courts should have suited his massive serve just as well.  Fortunate to receive a modest first-round opponent in Jesse Levine, Isner then could meet Memphis semifinalist Marinko Matosevic.  The Aussie upset similarly powerful American giant Querrey last week and the talented Dolgopolov, so he brings much more momentum into this match than the top seed.  Before he succumbed to injury, Kevin Anderson enjoyed an excellent January by reaching the Sydney final and the second week of the Australian Open, the first South African to do so in a decade.  He could match Isner serve for serve, or more likely surpass him if his pre-injury form revives.

Quite a contrast to Isner’s week in Memphis was the breakthrough delivered by Jack Sock, who upset second-seeded Raonic in the most significant victory of his career.  Sock received a reward in a wildcard here, although he may not fancy a second-round rematch with the man who finally stopped him last week, Feliciano Lopez.  The American will have gained experience in facing a serve-volleyer in an opener against Aussie Matthew Ebden, which could stand him in good stead against Lopez.  And a third straight could loom in the quarterfinals if Karlovic can solve former champion Nishikori.  Suggesting otherwise is the recent form of both men, for Nishikori has produced generally solid results so far in a 2013 where Karlovic’s age and nagging injuries finally may have caught up with him.

A semifinalist in San Jose and gone early in Memphis, like Isner, third-seeded Sam Querrey inhabits a section filled with his compatriots.  That quirk of fate seems auspicious for him in view of his preference for straightforward opponents who allow him baseline rhythm and lack impressive retturns.  Surely able to overpower battered veterans Russell and Blake, he may need to raise his motivation a notch for the ever-impassioned Ryan Harrison.  That youngster has accomplished even less than Querrey lately, though, and a recent illness may have dulled his energies.  The other seed in this section, Xavier Malisse, retired last week in Memphis.

Also withdrawing from Memphis was San Jose runner-up Tommy Haas, who holds the second seed here but faces an intimidating opener against Igor Sijsling.  The Dutchman suddenly has burst into relevance after reaching the Australian Open doubles final, upsetting Tsonga at his home tournament in Rotterdam, and nearly toppling the top-seeded Cilic in Memphis.  If Haas can weather Sijsling’s impressive serve, he must slow the surge of Denis Istomin’s second straight sold February.  Ever an enigma and ever an entertainer, the fifth-seeded Dolgopolov rounds out this quarter and shares Tommy’s predicament of a dangerous first-round opponent.  As his 2011 victory over Nadal proved, Ivan Dodig can trouble anyone on the occasions when his high-risk game explodes rather than implodes.

Final:  Nishikori vs. Querrey

The Week Ahead in the ATP: Rotterdam, San Jose, Sao Paulo

Nadal had the spotlight all to himself last week.  Not anymore.

Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay.  Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.

Rotterdam:  Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil.  He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny.  Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage.  Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall.  Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.

Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen:  the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon.  No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach.  Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal.  His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.

Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms.  Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress.  A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013.  Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here.  The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.

Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro.  While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy.  Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface.  Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.

Final:  Tsonga vs. Del Potro

San Jose:  In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy.  Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best.  In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic.  Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal.  Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.

Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings.  Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories.  He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic.  Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.

If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter.  Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200.  Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points.  Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings.  Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago.  Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?

The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells.  Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend.  No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse.  Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.

Final:  Querrey vs. Verdasco

Sao Paulo:  In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe.  Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception.  One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible.  Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.

Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game.  The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them.  Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup.  Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.

World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later.  At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity.  A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss.  Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar.  The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.

The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne.  While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury.  Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before.  Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian.  The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey.  Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?

Final:  Nadal vs. Almagro

Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.

Wizards of Oz (III): Stosur, Venus, Sharapova, Djokovic, and More on Australian Open Day 3

Will Stosur continue to keep her eye on the ball against a recent nemesis?

The first day of the second round looks rather sparse in general, but we picked out a few potential diamonds in the rough.  Let’s start with the ladies for a change.

WTA:

Zheng vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena):  When they met a week ago in Sydney, the Aussie suffered from a slow start, rallied to reach a final set, and then let a late lead slip away in a match of unpredictable twists and turns.  Although Stosur improved on last year’s performance here by escaping the first round, her first victory of 2013 did not come without a series of wobbles such as donating an early break and failing to serve out the first set.  She won fewer free points from her serve than she usually does, which could spell trouble against Zheng again.  Despite her limitations on return, due to her short wingspan, the Chinese doubles specialist competes ferociously and should outlast Stosur from the baseline with her more balanced weapons.  But she struggled even more to survive her opener and had stumbled through a string of losses before that upset of the Aussie in Sydney.

Venus vs. Cornet (RLA):  At the 2009 Australian Open, Cornet stood within a point of the quarterfinals and a signature victory over then-#1 Safina.  Match point upon match point slipped away, confidence evaporated, shoulder trouble sidelined her soon afterwards, and the petite Frenchwoman remained too mentally and physically dubious to fulfill her promise as a junior.  The relatively slow court might suit her game more than the volatile, inconsistent style of Venus, but the American raised her level dramatically from the Hopman Cup while dropping just one game in the first round.  By contrast, the Frenchwoman struggled to hold throughout that match, especially under pressure, so only an implosion by Venus could repeat the Suarez Navarro upset from the same Australian Open in which Cornet faced Safina.

Sharapova vs. Doi (Hisense Arena):  On a late afternoon without many marquee matches, the Sharapova Show offers a decent way to end the day session.  The 2008 champion has blitzed almost all first-week opponents at majors since the start of 2012, but the caliber of those opponents often has prevented one from accurately judging her form.  Doi, who defeated Schiavone last year, may surpass expectations after defeating the more familiar Petra Martic in the first round.  In general, though, the value of this match comes from juxtaposing Maria’s form here against what Venus shows in the night session, two days ahead of their highly anticipated third-round collision.

Pervak vs. Watson (Court 8):  While Murray and Robson attract most of the attention currently circulating around British tennis, and justly so, Heather Watson may develop into a meaningful talent in her own right.  The Bolletieri-trained baseliner twice has taken sets from Sharapova and defeated fellow rising star Sloane Stephens last year before finishing her season with a title in Osaka.  Not lacking for durability, she won one of the season’s longest finals there and will attempt to grind down Pervak with a combination of depth and court coverage.  Teenagers have excelled in the women’s draw so far, eleven reaching the second round, so this youth movement might bode well for the 20-year-old Watson.

ATP:

Djokovic vs. Harrison (RLA):  The Serb has won all five of their sets and looked his usual imposing self in the first round against Paul-Henri Mathieu, showing off his elastic movement and transition game at the major that most rewards it.  For Harrison, who avenged his Olympics loss to Giraldo in four sets, an upset bid will require greater focus and competitive stamina than he has shown so far in his career.  Typical of his stop-and-start results was a week in Brisbane when he defeated Isner and lost meekly to Benneteau in the next round.  Harrison will need to take more chances earlier in the rallies than he did against Giraldo, especially on his forehand, to take Djokovic outside his comfort zone against an opponent who does nothing better than he does.  As with his match against Murray last year, this meeting offers a useful measuring stick to test Harrison’s progress.

Malisse vs. Verdasco (MCA):  Even in the twilight of his career, the Belgian defeated the Spaniard on the latter’s weakest surface at Wimbledon last summer.  Malisse still can unleash blistering backhands when he times his short swings effectively, and Verdasco looked thoroughly human in a five-set rollercoaster against David Goffin.  Both men have shown a tendency to alternate the sublime with the ridiculous, often finding the latter at the least opportune moments, but a comedy of errors could provide its own form of entertainment.

Lacko vs. Tipsarevic (Court 2):  The eighth seed played his best tennis in months when he battled past Hewitt in a straight-setter closer than it looked.  Ripping winner after winner down the sidelines, Tipsarevic looked every inch the elite player that he has become and could charge deep into a draw where he inhabits the least formidable quarter.  He has struggled for much of his career with sustaining a high performance level from match to match, though, which makes a letdown a plausible possibility.  If he does, Lacko might have just enough talent to punish him for it.

Lopez vs. Stepanek (Court 3):  Aligned opposite each other are two net-rushers from opposite sides, the Spaniard from the left and the Czech from the right.  As a result, the tennis might trigger memories of decades past before baseline tennis established its stranglehold over the ATP.  Stepanek rallied from a two-set deficit in the first round to ambush Troicki, but a comeback would prove more difficult against a server like Lopez, who has won sets from Federer before.  While the Czech has dominated most of their rivalry, the Spaniard did win their last meeting on a similar speed of court in Montreal.

Querrey vs. Baker (Court 6):  The man who mounted a long-term comeback meets a man who mounted a more ordinary comeback that culminated last year when he rejoined the top 30.  Querrey typically has struggled at majors other than the US Open, however, and he lost a set to an anonymous, underpowered Spaniard in his opener.  If he can bomb a high percentage of first serves, Baker may not match him hold for hold.  On the other hand, a sloppy effort from Querrey would open the door for his compatriot to expose his meager backhand, one-dimensional tactics, and unsteady footwork.

 

Australian Open Grounds Pass: Beatlemania with Federer and “Team” Dimitrov

Spectators watch on during Roger Federer's practice session at the Australian Open

Jesse Pentecost is on the grounds of the Australian Open, covering matches and practice sessions and giving you an intimate behind-the-scenes look of the tennis season’s first Slam.

By Jesse Pentecost

I would be overstating the case to say that more than a minority believed Grigor Dimitrov to defeat Julien Benneteau. Even among those of us who predicted it, the prediction was for an upset, which by definition entails a lesser player beating his or her ostensible superior. But it was widely felt Dimitrov had a chance. After all, the two men are only ranked six places apart, and it was only by the grace of Rafael Nadal and John Isner’s knees that the Frenchman is actually seeded. Either way, it was sure to be a close match, and well-worth the meager effort of loitering next it.

Following an hour’s flânerie around the practice courts – I can declare with some authority that Dominika Cibulkova is shorter than Ana Ivanovic – I ensconced myself courtside for the match. The court was Court 13, and there was no camera, meaning I had one of the best views in the entire world of the famous upset destined to unfold at some unspecified time after 11am. I found myself seated next to Dimitrov’s coach and fitness trainer. I asked his trainer what ‘Come on’ was in Bulgarian. He didn’t know, but did concede he was nervous.

It’s never a bad idea to embed yourself with the support staff, if only so that when their charge begins glaring beseechingly at his coach, you can pretend he or she is looking at you. It also heightens the vibe. It probably would have heightened it even more had Dimitrov won, or even won a set. Word came through that Maria Sharapova had delivered the tournament’s first double bagel, against the appropriately named Olga Puchkova. Unfortunately this word didn’t reach Dimitrov, who clearly needed more inspiration than his support team and I could collectively muster. What he didn’t need was more backhand errors, although I suspect he’d already cornered the world’s supply. Benneteau, a true professional, was unrelenting in exposing that wing, and the Bulgarian seemed powerless to stop him.

I recommenced my ambling. The toilet block beside Court 14 had malfunctioned, and a noisome musk blanketed the far corner of the grounds. I fled to Court 8, where Sorana Cirstea was seeing off Coco Vanderweghe, the most American-sounding athlete since Misty Hyman. With time to kill before Ryan Harrison and Santiago Giraldo materialised, I loafed over to the practice courts, stopping briefly to see Victor Hanescu break Kei Nishikori back, eliciting a roar of stony silence from the predominantly Japanese crowd. Caroline Wozniacki was practicing nearby, perfecting the technique of scurrying backwards after returning serve, while Alexandr Dolgopolov had was hitting up with Marcel Granollers, for some reason.

I swung by Court 16 – the practice court of champions – in order to observe the purportedly fraught moment when Roger Federer made way for Bernard Tomic, an event that was apparently scheduled and symbolic. Lest you’ve missed the beat-up: Switzerland and Australia’s best male players have allegedly been engaged in a war or words, although from reading the press transcripts it seemed less like a war than an amiable cup of tea. Naturally the media had obtained one of the teacups, and discovered that it contained a storm. The storm was that, when asked about a possible third round encounter, each man pointed out that the other guy would have to get there first. This unremarkable point was immediately apprehended, and duly repurposed as a mortal insult. The only question really was who would throw the first punch.

I arrived to discover 4,700 less disinterested people had gotten there first. Federer was hitting up with Gilles Simon, who’d unfortunately misplaced his coach. Since the Swiss has two, he lent Severin Luthi to the Frenchman, which I thought generous. I did wonder precisely how usefully this would prepare Federer for Benoit Paire. I decided that nothing can usefully prepare one for Paire, so there’s no use even trying.

As ever, Federer’s practice session ended early, so that he could spend time appeasing the adoring masses. And a mass they were. I remarked at the time that it was like Beatlemania. There was a particularly hysterical timbre that female squeals attained whenever the Fab Four took the stage, an exaggerated ululating shriek that had gone unheard since primordial times. Young people were making exactly that noise today whenever Federer strayed within arm’s reach. Federer, working his way along line, took it in his stride as teenage girls swooned and cascaded to the ground in his wake. He knows as well as anyone that their adulation has little to do with his craft, and everything to do with his fame, and it’s to his credit that fame hasn’t overly insulated him from the appropriate human reaction. He hides his bemusement well, but it’s certainly there. Seated across the court, Simon’s bemusement wasn’t hidden at all – it was clear in his sardonic grin. Tomic turned up, but Federer was still being feted elsewhere, and I couldn’t see that they exchanged words, let alone blows. I am confident someone will spin it as an icy dismissal.

Next to me a boy proudly showed his friends the oversized souvenir ball whose value Federer had marginally enhanced by adding some ink to it. He wasn’t a young boy, and I’m not convinced a signature is something genuinely worth craving. But his friends’ awe was genuine enough, and the boy was authentically swept away. Directly behind me Xavier Malisse was easily accounting for Pablo Andujar. In 2002 I recall explaining to anyone who’d listen that Malisse was the next big thing, unlike Federer, whose game I found attractive even as I decried its inconsistency. It has been a long eleven years. Malisse won comfortably, but there was no squealing. Sam Stosur won, and there were merely long, shuddering sighs of relief, rippling across the grounds.

Harrison was by this time marshalling his forces on Court 8. Through a scrappy set and half the disparate components of his outrage were separately rehearsed, although he had yet to combine them all in a full-blown tantrum, as he is contractually obliged to do at least once per match. He dropped the first set to Giraldo – his proto-nemesis – then gradually climbed on top during a second set short on highlights, bar the backhand pass up the line with which the American finally broke and levelled the match. Since he looked to be going on with it, I left him to his toils.

From there I looked in Stan Wawrinka, who as expected was delivering stern lessons to Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. Upon losing Stebe tore off his ridiculous yellow headband, and stormed from the court with newfound purpose, knocking elderly spectators flying. Agnieszka Radwanska, after briefly flirting with the possibility of playing the odd tight set – and thus causing concerned journalists to quibble at her recent schedule – thought better of it and went back to dishing out bagels.

Margaret Court Arena was now free, and thither I sauntered, reflecting as I did that I was running dangerously short on similes for walking casually. Luckily the two men walking out onto MCA were Mikhail Youzhny and Matt Ebden, and they were about to commence a five set classic. I wouldn’t be casually walking anywhere for a while.

For the second year in a row, Ebden fell to a seed after holding a two set lead. Last year it was Nishikori, and this year it was heartbreaking, through being closer. Youzhny saved a match point late in the fourth, before forcing the fifth. It was tremendous, although I was quick to note that most of the crowd, extravagantly bunted in Australia’s flag and given to unharmonsied chanting, found the outcome less inspiring than I did. But they were generous in applauding the Colonel as he saluted them. He’d earned it. They’d earned it.

I strolled out, elated, and discovered someone had stolen my bicycle helmet. So it goes.

Mark Knowles teams up with Querrey, Lisicki, and Davenport for weekend of tennis

Mark Knowles Celebrity Tennis Invitational 2012

Dec 12, 2012 — One of tennis’ most respected doubles players in history and former world No. 1, Mark Knowles brought professional tennis back to his home country of the Bahamas for one incredible tennis invitational, that included a Pro-Am and exhibition. (Gallery and video at bottom)

The recently retired 41-year-old welcomed Lindsay Davenport, Sam Querrey and Sabine Lisicki among others to the Atlantis, Paradise Island to help raise money for local children’s charities at the Mark Knowles Celebrity Tennis Invitational (MKCTI). The proceeds brought in this year topped $100,000, bringing total contributions to around $900,000.

“It was another great year at the 12th MKCTI. We raised a lot of money and had great support from our sponsorships,” said Knowles. “We had fantastic players down here, so it’s always special. The impetus behind the event is to raise money for those that are in need, and we were very successful doing that again this year.”

The main beneficiaries include the Sassoon Heart Foundation (Pediatric), the Cancer Society For Pediatric Care, the Association for the Physically Disabled, the Special Olympics, Mark Knowles Tennis scholarships for promising junior tennis players and numerous additional children’s charities.

“It’s always great to come here,” said Sabine Lisicki, who looked particularly radiant and enjoyed playing doubles with her Pro-Am partner. “I’ve known Mark for quite a few years and it’s been a lot of fun to play. The fact that it helps kids makes me always want to come here to help. It’s a nice place.”

After enjoying a cocktail reception sponsored by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Atlantis at Fathoms on Dec. 6, diamond and platinum sponsors had the opportunity to team up with the stars in the popular Pro-Am the following day.

Each team was guaranteed two matches in the fun, but competitive tournament with bragging rights on the line. Knowles and Miles Nadal, CEO of MDC Partners, defeated Lisicki and her partner David Demuth for the title, while Brent Haygarth teamed up with Betsy Wannakuwatte to win the consolation bracket over Querrey and Jeremy Stuby.

“The Pro-Am was great,” Querrey said. “This is my first time down here and we had a good time. It’s something I really enjoyed and I’m hoping to come back again next year.”

The players, event organizers and sponsors reunited in the evening for a special dinner at the Ripples Deck, featuring a gourmet buffet and live and silent auctions. The items on offer included signed racquets from Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, a dual photograph signed by Roger Federer and Jack Nicklaus and the dress Serena Williams wore when she won this year’s US Open final. The highest-selling item was a US Open poster signed by number of top players, which sold for $6,000.

The invitational was anchored by the tennis exhibition on Saturday, Dec. 8, where the players were split into two teams. Fans were treated to three sets of tennis, using the World TeamTennis format. Play opened with a mixed doubles match between Lisicki and Knowles against Davenport and former doubles world No. 1 Donald Johnson and was followed by a men’s singles encounter featuring Querrey versus Xavier Malisse. In the final match-up, Knowles and Malisse joined forces to take on Querrey and Alex Kuznetsov.

Afterwards, Knowles spoke to the crowd, where he thanked host Atlantis for their hospitality, the sponsors, players and fans for their support and recognized Sir Durward Knowles, the 1964 Olympic gold medalist in sailing. Fans were then treated to a meet and greet with the players.

“Being on the west coast, we don’t usually come this far east to vacation, so it’s great,” said Davenport. “I came here in 1999 and this is my next time here, so it’s fun to be able to share it with my family now. Mark has become a good friend over the years, along with [wife] Dawn and their kids. I’m thrilled we were able to come this year.”

The Mark Knowles Management Group would like to thank all involved in making this event an annual success and gives its appreciation to players, sponsors, charities, friends and family, fans, and followers who have supported Knowles’ charitable endeavors since its inception in 2001.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f73LUBvj8n4

The 2012 Mark Knowles Celebrity Tennis Invitational Player Field: Lindsay Davenport, Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Brent Haygarth, Donald Johnson, Craig Kardon (Coach to the Stars), Mark Knowles, Alex Kuznetsov, Sabine Lisicki, Xavier Malisse, Asia Muhammad, Yasmin Schnack, Tara Snyder Haygarth and Jesse Witten.

The 2012 Mark Knowles Celebrity Tennis Invitational Sponsors: Atlantis, the Bahamas Ministry Of Tourism, MDC Partners, Pictet, Fast Ferries, American Airlines, Ultimate Limo Service, Odyssey Aviation, Ministry of Youth Sports & Culture, H.G.Christie, Everkey Global, The Balmoral, Caribbean Bottling, Kerrygold, Corner Bank, Schooner Bay, S.G.Hambros, Daron & Sheri Roberts, Vince Menard, Alex Pier, Sean & Sarah Farrington, Peter & Pippa Vlasov, Mark & Nancy Holowesko, Chris Day, Sir Durward Knowles, R.E. Barnes, Donald Tomlinson, Graham & Aidie Garner, Dave & Fran Donald, Steve Swords and Peter & Vicky Knowles Andrews.

(Parts taken from press release; Photos copyright Matt Fitzgerald/MKCTI)

Mark Knowles as a Tennis Player and Father

Knowles and his 3 kids

 

By Matt Fitzgerald, Special for Tennis Grandstand

On a crisp January morning in Texas, four-time Grand Slam champion Mark Knowles found himself in an elementary school classroom in Southlake. Accompanying his eldest child Graham to a breakfast function, “Donuts For Dads”, Knowles spent the morning with his son’s classmates and fellow fathers in the area, who had made their usual plans to attend the occasion before heading off to work. But Knowles was turning out for the first time. The Bahamian’s profession is unlike anyone else’s in his community. His occupation forces him to make personal sacrifices on a consistent basis. Sacrifices like quality time with his children. But on this day, in this month of January, Knowles put his family first… and tennis second.

9,000 miles away in Melbourne, the Australian Open was just underway. It was an event Knowles had played professionally since 1993, a tournament where he first tasted Grand Slam glory in 2002. At 40 years old, it’s hard to fathom many players, if any, would forgo the year’s first Grand Slam tournament with a full bill of health. But Knowles isn’t ordinary. He’s extraordinary. Knowing it may have been his final opportunity to play Down Under, the precious time with his family is something Knowles wouldn’t trade for anything else. “I have been fortunate to have a long, successful career and I have reached a stage where all my decisions are family based as opposed to being based around my tennis,” Knowles tells Tennis Grandstand in Delray Beach.

“Things have changed a lot for me with the addition of our third child, and with my oldest son, Graham, starting Kindergarten last September. I always told myself that I wanted to be there for my kids growing up as much as I possibly could.”

His wife Dawn, whom he married in 2003, relished the change in dynamics. “Mark has a close bond with the children. For us as a couple, it was great, as we got to do so many things as a family. I’m usually doing many of things by myself,” said the Texan.

“The day in and day out of having Mark home with the kids was wonderful. One minute, he’s outside kicking the soccer ball with Brody. Or he’s working on Graham’s baseball since it’s starting up. The next minute, he’ll take Presley outside in the Baby Bjorn. There’s not a minute where he’s not with one of those kids, so it’s great for me.”

Family has always been a priority for Knowles, but with the birth of daughter Presley last March, it would seem to be even more difficult to strike a perfect harmony between his loved ones and his career. But not for the former world No. 1, stating, “I want to be a major influence in my kids’ lives. And with that comes the responsibility of being there for my wife and my kids.

“It takes so much hard work and dedication to be a great tennis player and I have chosen to shift those energies towards being a great husband and great father for my family. Just like tennis or anything else, you have to dedicate yourself completely to it. The best part about it is that I love being with my family so much that it makes it easier to be away from the tennis sometimes.”

The couple has found it challenging to deal with the requirements of Knowles being on and off the road, in particular with six-year old Graham, explains Dawn. “Mark will say that he’s just going to play tennis for a few days, but Graham knows the difference now with how long a day is. Brody doesn’t know the time frame.

“The hardest part is the kids are getting smarter, so we can’t keep saying dad is going to be gone for a couple days, because they’re counting the days he’s away. They ask for him at night. Mark helps Graham with his homework, taking the time to read the books and oversee all of his assignments. When it’s me doing it, it’s not the same for him. His expectation is that time is for him and his dad to spend together.”

Perhaps the best decision Knowles made after having two months with his family was a return to action at the Dallas Challenger in February, a virtual hometown event that would allow him to ease back into the reality of his career. Playing an ATP Challenger event for the first time in 11 years, Knowles didn’t put himself above the level of competition at the tournament, knowing that it would be an ideal environment to acquire some match practice. “It was interesting returning to the Challenger level. It was a chance for me to get some matches in and also to play at home with family and friends watching,” says Knowles.

“The level is so high at challengers that it prepares you well for the ATP World Tour events. Being from the Bahamas, I have never had a home event. To be able to drive 20 minutes and play and then come back to your own house and be with your family was awesome!”

Partnering Robert Kendrick, Knowles reached the semifinals, and then headed off to San Jose to rejoin Xavier Malisse. The two enjoyed success during the North American summer hard court swing in 2011, winning the title in Los Angeles and reaching the third round of the US Open. They clicked more with each match in San Jose, and went on to finish in the winner’s circle to win their second team trophy. The victory gave Knowles his 55th career title, and extended his impressive streak of winning at least one tour-level title to 19 of the past 20 seasons. He also became the first player in his 40s to win a doubles title since John McEnroe (who also won in San Jose). “Playing Dallas was a huge benefit and the reason I did well in San Jose. There is no substitute for match practice and match situations,” believes Knowles.

“I always go into a tournament thinking that I can win it. I think everyone feels that way. However, I know how hard it is to win tournaments, especially coming off a prolonged break. Xavier and I were able to raise our games with each match and that is what it takes to win at this level.”

Knowles hasn’t set any specific goals for this season, but will continue playing provided his ranking holds up to gain him entry into tournaments. For Dawn, she would love nothing more than for Mark to play in another final, with Graham cheering him on from the front row. “Graham is beginning to understand sports. Before Mark went to San Jose, he said, ‘I hope you get the trophy.’ His idea of winning is Mark getting a piece of silverware. That’s what they do at his age. For him to see Mark lift the trophy would be huge. He thinks that’s the best thing in the world.”

Either way, Dawn is backing her husband 100 percent, whether he decides to retire tomorrow, at the end of the year or further down the road. Being there with him through all the ups and downs, the former model believes his accomplishments speak for themselves. “If I could waive the magic wand and give him the men’s doubles Wimbledon title, I would totally do that. But that doesn’t define his career. He’s a good candidate for the Hall Of Fame. He has a proven record with a variety of partners to show he can win.

“If he decides at the end of this year that he’s done, I want him to walk away like he’s done it all and is satisfied. I’m going to support him through that decision. He’ll go down as one of the best doubles players to play the game and I’m not saying that because I have to as his wife. In a broader context, he has earned that among his peers.”

(All photos courtesy of Mark’s wife, Dawn Knowles via the author)

Matt Fitzgerald is the web editor for the ATP World Tour and Tennis Grandstand’s resident doubles specialist. He is in Indian Wells, California this week covering the BNP Paribas Open and will be in Key Biscayne, Florida next week covering the Sony Ericsson Open. Follow Matt on twitter @tennisfitz.

Understanding the Tennis Fan

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There’s always a point of no return.

For Brad, it was seeing Steffi Graf’s ponytail fly up and hit her in the face when she hit her forehand in a 1990 match against Jennifer Capriati. For Chris, it was watching a teenage Andy Murray at the 2005 Wimbledon stand up to then 14th seed Radek Stepanek by mocking his lucky net-cord kiss. For Kelly Padgett, it was stumbling upon one of  Andrea Petkovic’s infamous videos on youtube, and laughing as Petkovic pretended to pay Novak Djokovic for an interview.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the psyche of tennis fans lately. What is about this sport and the people that play it that makes us rearrange our schedules, worry for days on end, and get up at all hours of the night to watch a fuzzy yellow ball be hit back and forth from one side of the court to the other? Why do we care so much? Why does it matter?

To try and make sense of it all, I asked for volunteers to answer some questions for me about their experience being a tennis fan. Overall, I received thirty-one completed “fandom surveys” from fans of twenty-one different players. I laughed and cried as I scoured through them for days, re-reading the candid stories and over-analyzing the similarities and differences between them. I was overwhelmed by the honesty and poignancy. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if I solved any great mysteries, but I did come away with a deeper understanding of the power of our sport.

 

THE LOYAL

 

Melissa has been a Xavier Malisse fan since 1998- fourteen long years of ups and downs. “I just started following him, and never stopped,” she said. “Once I start following a player, I support him through good and bad times, even if that is sometimes hard.  I don’t abandon a player because of negative results.”

Ruby, a Marcel Granollers fan, feels the same way. “Pathetically enough,” she told me, “I almost see it as my ‘job’ to stick by him.”

Melissa and Ruby are far from the only loyal tennis fans out there. Thirty of the fans I surveyed said that there was nothing they could imagine (besides a flippant mention of manslaughter) that would make them stop being a fan of their favorite player.  Y. Jones, a Kei Nishikori fan, was the lone exception.  She told me that she’d have to re-think her commitment to Nishikori if he ever got his ear pierced. “I just cannot stand a male figure wearing (an earring) in general,” she confessed.

Of course, a loyal tennis fan usually endures more lows than highs.  Linda started following Flavia Pennetta in 2006, and became a die-hard fan when she saw an injured Pennetta enthusiastically cheering on her teammates in the Fed Cup Final that year.   She couldn’t have picked a worst time to start being a fan. Between “the wrist injury, the struggle to come back, the breakup with Carlos Moya, and the struggle to recover from that,”  Linda describes the events of 2006-2007 as “twelve months of horror” for Pennetta.  But Linda stuck by the fiery Italian, and her loyalty paid off.   She got to experience the joys of Pennetta’s two wins over Venus Williams, and her incredible run in the summer of 2009 when Pennetta won Palmero and L.A. back to back and became the first Italian woman to enter the Top-10. Linda describes the entire summer as “magical”.

As an Andy Murray fan, Hannah has been on a roller-coaster ride, but it’s how Murray has reacted during the low points that has secured her as a fan for life.  She started following him during the 2010 Hopman Cup, but after his 2010 Australian Open Final loss to Roger Federer, there was no looking back. It wasn’t necessarily his play on-the-court that she admired, but rather his heartfelt display on the podium afterwards that made an impression. “Oh that speech.”

Similarly, Hannah was deeply impacted by how Murray acted after withdrawing from the World Tour Finals in London last November.  “I was waiting for him (after his press conference announcing his withdrawal), just wanting to wish him luck for the next season and a fast recovery from that groin injury. As he walked out the venue, he was clearly very disappointed with not being able to play. However, he was still kind enough to give fans his autographs and thank everyone there for waiting and cheering him on.”

“His decentness as a guy is just admirable,” she concludes.

Curtis, an Ana Ivanovic fan, can relate.  He recalls being “on cloud nine for an entire month” after (Ivanovic’s) 2008 French Open win, and has stuck by her through all the tough times since.  “I have always considered myself a bigger fan of Ana Ivanovic the person, than Ana Ivanovic the tennis player,” he said.  “While her results on court have changed over the years, she hasn’t changed as a person, which I really admire. She never let her fame or her struggles change the person who she was. That’s not easy to do. That’s why I keep coming back.”

In order to “keep coming back”, even in the rough times, most tennis fans maintain a delicate balance between their hopes and expectations. Charlotte, an Andy Roddick fan since 2003, realistically expects him to just win a few more minor tournaments, but deep down lets herself  hope that he will “win many slams and beat Roger Federer as many times as he damn well likes.” Linda says that she’s learned the hard way to “never really have high expectations for (her) favorite players. The lower your expectations, the smaller you chance is of being disappointed!”

 

THE SPOILED

 

There are rare occasions when hopes and expectations merge together. For fans of players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, this happens more often then not.

Freelance sportswriter Matt Zemek became a Federer fan in 2004. “(Federer) played a brand of tennis that was more eye-pleasing and stylish than anything I had seen before.” He vividly recalled the first breakthrough moment he witnessed as a fan, Federer’s 2004 U.S. Open Quarterfinal against Andre Agassi. “When Agassi forced a fifth set in very windy conditions on that Thursday afternoon – the second day of the match – the American had the advantage. Federer somehow found a way to turn the tide in the fifth set and play particularly focused tennis. When he won, he let out a particularly primal roar and tore at his shirt. (He’s not Djokovic, so he didn’t succeed in tearing the shirt!)  Federer seemed to know right then that he had conquered New York and all of its distractions. Sure enough, he didn’t lose another U.S. Open match until 2009.”

After such an immediate and long-term payoff, it’s no surprise that Zemek calls becoming a fan of Federer, “the most rewarding fan investment of (his) life.”

Zemek’s experience is unique.  Most of the time becoming a fan, even of the greatest players, isn’t instantly rewarding. Aleksa became a fan of Novak Djokovic in 2005. “I first saw him play Marat Safin that year in the first round of the Australian Open,” she remembered. “He was crushed, of course. He was just a baby with porcupine hair.  Six years and six months later he won Wimbledon.”

Anna became a Novak Djokovic fan a little later- in 2010 to be exact.  She hoped that he would win another Grand Slam or two, but she never saw the 2011 season coming. “I felt constant surprise, joy, and elation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d pull off all of that,” she said. While Anna admits that she does “hope that (Djokovic) wins all the Grand Slams from now on”, she realizes that is unrealistic. She is going to have to start managing her expectations again, keeping her hopes in check. Angela, a Rafael Nadal fan, is having a hard time doing just that. “Though (Nadal) has accomplished so much already, I would like him to have even greater successes,” she admitted.  Angela does, however, realize that he may never reach the same heights he did in 2010, and says she will “deal with it as it comes.”

That’s the thing about reaching the top of the tennis world, whether as a player or as a fan- eventually, there will be a decline.

Siva, a Federer fan since 2001, is trying to come to terms with this. “Decline is the one constant in the game. I am fairly certain that Federer is declining. I am not sure I am prepared to deal with it.” Zemek disagrees. “Watching Federer handle tennis mortality is something to relish, not cringe at (for now),” he says.

Lawrence, another Federer fan, sides more with Zemek. “If (Federer) doesn’t become number 1 in his professional career again the Earth will still twirl around the Sun. Yes. It doesn’t matter.”

 

THE  INSPIRED

 

Aisha has been an Ana Ivanovic fan since 2005 when she was a ball-girl during her match against Nicole Vaidasova in Miami. Throughout the match Aisha recalls that Ivanovic “was an absolute sweetheart.”  Aisha has stuck by the Serbian through the thick and the thin past seven years, but sometimes the losses are hard to take.  When Ivanovic lost to Petra Cetkovska at Wimbledon last year, Aisha momentarily lost control and smashed her iPhone to bits. (Luckily she works at Best Buy and was able to get a replacement one quickly.)

Romi Castagnino promised herself that if her favorite player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ever won a Major that she would go sky-diving.  Mattek-Sands won the Australian Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Horacia Tecau last month.  Castagnino is rapidly trying to overcome her fear of heights.

Though the above examples are extreme, it was clear after reading through the surveys just how strong of an affect tennis players have on their fans.  I was expecting to read about the loss of sleep, the occasional (or not-so-occasional) skipped class, and the general emotional highs and lows of fandom, but it became apparent that the influence runs deeper than that.

Many fans have drawn messages of hope and fortitude through their relationships with their favorite players. Maureen has learned about toughness by watching Maria Sharapova battle through matches and injuries. “I’ve learned not to give up easily,” she reflected.  Christy has taken similar lessons from David Ferrer. “He has shown me that perseverance can overcome almost anything,” she told me. “Just because you’re ‘too short’ or whatever, doesn’t mean you can’t reach (your goals).”  Karen Williams added, “Becoming a fan of Venus (Williams) has made me realize personally that through times of adversity you can accomplish much.” Suman has tried to adopt Roddick’s “never-say-no attitude”.

For Hannah, being a Murray fan has made her a much more independent person. She has traveled, often alone, all around the United Kingdom (and beyond) to see him play.  For Lawrence, the impact Fed has had on his life is simple. “Be yourself.  Stay cool.”

For some, the connection runs even deeper than that. Besides being pushed to face her fear of heights, Castagino has been inspired by Bethanie Mattek-Sands comeback from injury. “This was extra inspirational for me because around the same time she had her injury I broke my psoas muscles and it was pretty serious thing. I am still in rehab but seeing Bethanie come through her injury gives me extra motivation to push harder and keep my mind positive.”  Similarly, a Rafael Nadal fan (who chose to remain anonymous), also found inspiration in Nadal’s transition from knee problems in 2009 to three-time Grand Slam Champion in 2010 . While struggling with personal matters during the time of his Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs she reflects that, “it was Rafa who got me through the bad days, the ones where I felt there was no hope.”

Most of the time in sports, you become a fan by default. You root for a team because you were born in a certain state, or went to a certain school, or were brought up a certain way.  Being a tennis fan is different. It’s a relationship. It’s personal. It’s intimate.  We don’t become fans of groups of people, states, or organizations- we become fans of human beings.

Sometimes we choose the players we are going to be fans of. Other times, the players choose us. Whether there’s something about them that we relate to, or something about them that we aspire to become, once the connection is made it’s virtually unbreakable.  It’s why we get worked up when our favorite player is insulted. It’s why we get anxious for the matches, sad for the defeats, and exuberant over the victories. It’s why we do care. It’s why it does matter.

If I’ve learned nothing else from reading the stories of thirty-one passionate tennis fans, it’s that our favorite players aren’t just an extension of us, they’re an integral part of us. Most of the time, that’s a good thing.

 

 

(Eternal thanks to all those who took the time to fill out a survey and help me with this article: Curtis @curtos07, Charlotte @crystaleyesd,  @eternal_elenea, Angela @4allsurfaces, Rhian @rosso_neri, Kelly Padgett, Siva, Lawrence, Chris @scoobschris, Matt Zemek @mzemek, Kelly @mikomonstr, Jane @jb10is, Géraldine, Suman, Karen Williams, Christy @triplebagel, @thriding, Melissa, Sarah @thetennisstorm, Aisha @Isha312, Brad @bradhunter, Maureen @drewsmama, Dianne @champingthebit, Anna @anna_tennisfan, Romi Castagnino, Ruby @ficcanasa, Y. Jones, Brooke, Hannah, Linda, and Aleksa.)

Around The Corner: Sydney, Auckland and the Kooyong Classic

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With just over a week until the start of the Australian Open, there is little time to tinker with one’s game for the first Grand Slam of the year.

While the top four players in the world will be taking the week to rest themselves in anticipation for a deep-run in Melbourne, there are plenty of other of the game’s great players who are in action.

The ATP has two tournaments, one in Sydney and another in Auckland, while the Kooyong Classic exhibition will boast a strong field as well. Here’s a closer look at what tennis fans can expect.

Apia Sydney International

Juan Martin Del Potro starts his year in Sydney as the top seed. After making a strong return to the circuit last season following a wrist injury, the 2009 U.S. Open champion is ready to make some noise this year. Del Potro is certainly capable of challenging anyone in the top four and I would put him in the  mix of the few serious contenders at the Aussie Open.

The Argentine could see Marcos Baghdatis in the quarters here and then Feliciano Lopez who is the fourth seed. I would however, put the winner of the first round match between Viktor Troicki and veteran Aussie Lleyton Hewitt to advance against Del Potro in this section of the draw.

Hewitt has won the even four times, in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005. Don’t expect a repeat as his career is clearly on the downward spiral and injuries have taken their toll on the two-time Grand Slam champion. This may be the last year we see Hewitt playing on the ATP Tour, so enjoy him while you still can.

John Isner from the United Statesis the second seed. Patrick McEnroe recently stated that he feels Isner has the potential to reach the top ten in the ATP rankings. While I do not see that as being a realistic assessment for the 6’9” Isner just yet, this guy is certainly a strong top-thirty player who can cause incredible damage on a hard court due to his imposing serve. It will be Isner’s first action of the year so it will be interesting to see how he comes out of the gate.

Isner could face either veteran Xavier Malisse or Radek Stepanek in the quarters and given his ranking he should be beating opponents like these. However, at this stage of the year anything is possible.

A likely semi-final opponent would be third seeded Richard Gasquet who had a solid week at the Hopman Cup where he defeated Fernando Verdasco, Lleyton Hewitt and Wu Di before falling to Tomas Berdych in the finals.

Heineken Open

All-court wonder and the always hustling David Ferrer is the number one seed in Auckland. Ferrer started the year off by making the finals of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and was the runner-up in that exhibition to Novak Djokovic. Ferrer starts his week off with a bye at the Heineken Open and will face the winner of the match between Albert Ramos and Lukas Rosol. In other words, a nice way to ease into the tournament.

Ferrer’s main opposition will be from third seeded Fernando Verdasco who has just competed in the Hopman Cup. There, the Spaniard defeated Lleyton Hewitt 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, knocked-off Wu Di of China 6-3, 6-4 and was beaten by Richard Gasquet 6-2, 6-4. So essentially, he won the two matches he was supposed to win and could not find a way to be competitive against a solid opponent in Gasquet. Never any consistency with Fernando, but he has the tools to go deep in any draw.

The second seed here is Nicolas Almagro, but unless we’re talking about a clay court match I wouldn’t count on this guy to get too far. While he did make the semi-finals in Chennai, the field was rather weak and he was no match for Canadian Milos Raonic who took him out 6-4, 6-4.

Look for guys like Philipp Kohlschreiber, Donald Young and perhaps Sam Querrey to enjoy some success in this draw. It is nice to see Young seeded in the tournament (7th) and hopefully able to build on a nice season in 2011. There is still so much potential with the American and he still has many years ahead of him despite already being a presence on the ATP Tour for several seasons.

AAMI Kooyong Classic

Always a high-quality exhibition tournament, the Kooyong Classic again boasts a strong field in 2012. Ten players make-up the draw that has both a championship and consolation side to it.

American Andy Roddick will be the most high-profile player involved and will make his season debut on the tennis court at Kooyong. Roddick’s buddy and current number-one American male tennis player, Mardy Fish, will also be present.

This year will be of the utmost importance to Roddick who struggled mightily a year ago. He needs to re-assert himself and prove to his fellow players that he is still relevant in the sport today. Usually a strong starter, Roddick will be one to watch closely here this week.

Continuing with North-American players, we have Canadian Milos Raonic who has just made the finals in Chennai. Raonic is going to be very exciting to watch this year, especially if he can stay healthy. This guy’s game is perfectly suited toWimbledonand it is no surprise that he grew up idolizing Pete Sampras.

The rest of the players here include Jurgen Melzer, Bernard Tomic, Tomas Berdych and recent Qatar finalists Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Of all the stops this week, Kooyong will be the one I’m most interested in due to its very strong field.

Keep checking back with us all week long for updates and check out my Twitter feed as well if you like. Only one more week until the first Slam of 2012 so we have lots to look forward to!

Xavier Malisse on playing U.S. Open with Mark Knowles, update on Anti-Doping court case

Xavier Malisse (left) jokes with doubles partner Mark Knowles in their win over #4 seed Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi. Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Washington, D.C.

After defeating #4 doubles’ seeds Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi with partner Mark Knowles at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, I was able to sit down with world #42 singles’ player Xavier Malisse and discuss his busy summer as well as plans to double up with Knowles for the U.S. Open.

Malisse had a breakthrough run here last year in the singles draw, reaching the semifinals, and followed that up with final appearances in Chennai later in the year and reaching the 4th round of Wimbledon this year. On the doubles’ tour, he’s excelled as well, winning the 2004 French Open with countryman Olivier Rochus, and just last week winning Los Angeles with Mark Knowles.

He informed me that he decided to officially pull out of Montreal, but will still play Cincinnati in two weeks and then the U.S. Open in September. Malisse retired in his singles’ match yesterday due to a sore right arm saying “it hurts a little, [with pain] going up and down,” but was back on court today in doubles. He felt “lucky that we got cancelled last night [due to weather] because I couldn’t have played. I got some treatment, tried to work it out.” He went on to say that “the muscle is just hurting” and cited nothing more severe. “I’ve been playing so much. I’ve played 7 out of 8 weeks and I’ve never done that, so I need a rest.” He commented that he feels as if he’s a “half-a-step slow on all the balls in singles.”  However, he stated that “he played well today actually. It was a fun match to play.”

“Fun” is also the word he used when talking about his doubles’ partnership with Alexandr Dolgopolov, with whom he won Indian Wells with back in March. “I had a lot of fun, and we’re still good friends. But Mark [Knowles] has been asking [for me to play with him] and we’ve been trying to hook up for almost a year, I think. So we finally worked it out.”

Fellow Belgian Dick Norman, whose doubles partner recently retired, has expressed the possibility of him and Malisse teaming up as a permanent doubles tandem. Malisse mentioned that “it’s on the verge. We’ve talked about it for [this past] French Open but then we couldn’t get in. And then we had the US Open … [which] I was going to play with Dick, but now I’m playing with Knowles [since Los Angeles], so I’ll have to talk with Dick about it.”

Malisse stated that “I’ll play Cincinnati with Knowles and also the U.S. Open .”

In 2009, Xavier Malisse failed to provide three mandatory “whereabouts” within an 18-month period to the World Anti-Doping Angency, by two “filling failures” and one missed test. He appealed and his one year ban was lifted pending the appeals’ outcome. According to the Belgian news site Clint, Malisse’s court date is set for September 12, 2011. When asked about the details, he nonchalantly commented “Oh, yea” as if it were distant history. He then went on to elaborate: “Well, to be honest, I try to let the lawyers do their work. It’s gotten so complicated … I don’t know too much about it. They do their thing, I focus on tennis. Hopefully, we’ll get a good result out of it.”

When I asked him if he’s thought about how the verdict might affect his career, he responded with “Not yet. I’ll try to see how it works out … I tried filling my whereabouts and that’s all I do for that. And they do their job and I try to do my job on the court.”

Follow me on twitter as I cover the Legg Mason Tennis Classic all week! @TennisRomi

Surprise doubles champs in Indian Wells

Stan Wawrinka & Roger Federer

Roger Federer called it a “rough day at the office” after losing his singles semifinal against Novak Djokovic and losing the doubles final at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Federer and his partner Stanislas Wawrinka last teamed up to play doubles in the 2008 Olympics, where they took home the gold medal. This week’s doubles draw in Indian Wells was full of singles specialists who rarely if ever play doubles, including Rafael Nadal who happens to be the defending doubles champion with partner Marc Lopez. Roger and Stan dispatched the Spaniards in the semifinals on Friday.

It wasn’t a surprise that ‘Fedwrinka,’ as fans have dubbed the Swiss duo, was successful in Indian Wells. They may not play doubles very often, but both Federer and Wawrinka can be excellent doubles players when they want to. It’s been a tough week on the team though. On Friday, Roger and Stan faced off for a spot in the singles semifinals and then had to be out on the doubles court just an hour or two later to compete against Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez. Wawrinka lost the singles encounter, but regrouped to play a pretty good match. In the final it was Roger who was fighting the losing blues. He lost only his third match of the year, all three of which have been against Novak Djokovic and had to be ready for doubles just two hours later.

This isn’t a story about the losers though. The real credit lies with the guys on the other side of the court. Federer and Wawrinka were taking on Xavier Malisse and Alexandr Dolgopolov, both reasonably accomplished singles players as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to see Dolgopolov and Malisse play together this week, but I did watch this match on TV and they were spectacular. Their win was even more surprising when the team explained how they came together. In the post match interview, Dolgopolov said, “We actually just we weren’t like talking all around. We just said hi before this tournament, and we weren’t like really close. But, yeah, he just ask me, Do you want to play like 15 minutes to the deadline of the doubles, because I wasn’t planning playing doubles here, and, yeah, here we are, winning the tournament. So it’s pretty amazing.” This was Alexandr Dolgopolov’s first ATP title in either singles or doubles and “Team Ponytail Express,” as Malisse and Dolgopolov are affectionately referred to, was all smiles throughout the entire match and especially after the win.

The newly crowned BNP Paribas Open doubles champions will continue to play doubles together through the European clay court season because of the success they’ve had in Indian Wells. This win actually catapults them from an unranked doubles team all the way to No. 5. Alexandr was supposed to play doubles with Florian Mayer for the rest of the spring and had to call him to see if he would allow Alexandr to play with Xavier instead. The prospects for Team Ponytail Express are great and I’m very excited to see how they’ll do in the clay season.

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