By Maud Watson
At the start of the week, Sloane Stephens experienced some off court drama in addition to the woes she continues to suffer on court, thanks to the young American’s dumb decision to publicly call out Serena Williams, essentially branding the veteran a phony. Yes, a little bit of honesty is refreshing. Yes, many of Stephens’ comments regarding Serena’s friendliness or status as a mentor weren’t anything that many didn’t already suspect – after all, player like Clijsters are the exception rather than the norm. But Serena doesn’t owe anybody anything, including Stephens. There was no reason for Stephens to attack her compatriot in the manner in which she did, especially when the evidence to back up her claims amounts to nothing more than a social media snub or failure to sign a poster from when Stephens was 12. To her credit, Williams took the high road when questioned about Stephens’ comments, and Stephens has since admitted and apologized for her folly. It was an ugly incident that highlighted the fact that Stephens isn’t yet fully ready for the limelight, but with any luck, it’s a mistake she won’t make again in the future.
In virtually every brilliant career, there first comes that signature win that marks the start of something special. On Tuesday, Grigor Dimitrov may have just earned such a win with his shocking upset of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Dimitrov, nicknamed “Baby Federer,” has been on the radar for some time. He’s played the greats close before, including a near-upset of Nadal in Monte-Carlo. Here in Madrid, after failing to close it out in a tight second set tiebreak, Dimitrov look destined for another near miss. But unlike it Monte-Carlo, he held it together better both mentally and physically. He proved the steadier of the two in the deciding set, breaking Djokovic twice to secure a breakthrough victory. Dimitrov has stated he’s looking to shed his nickname, and if he can get himself in better shape and secure more wins like this one, it shouldn’t be long before more people know him for who he is and not who he reminds them of.
Bernard Tomic is no stranger to frequently making headlines for all the wrong reasons. His often cocky and careless attitude has made him a tough figure to tolerate, let alone like. But prior to the start of Madrid, something happened that changed much of that as news broke that his father, John Tomic, had head-butted and injured his hitting partner Drouet. Drouet then broke his silence and stated that John Tomic has also hit Bernard Tomic on more than one occasion. Suddenly Tomic has become a sympathetic figure and many of his previous actions have been cast in a new light. Thankfully, the ATP has banned his father from all ATP events, and both Woodbridge and Rafter are quickly stepping in to support the young Aussie. They’ll join him at the French Open and will attempt to set him up with Josh Eagle, who is already in Europe, as a temporary coach. Tomic possesses a lot of natural talent and plenty of upside. Now, with the proper support, tutelage, and less abuse, perhaps we’ll finally see him start to settle down and produce the kind of results that fans have been expecting.
Laura Robson has opted to split with Coach Krajan after nine months, and based on what we saw in Madrid, it looks like the switch may already be agreeing with her. The young Brit has yet to give a reason as to why she split from Krajan, but many speculate that it was simply a matter of his coaching style. Robson initially blossomed with him in her box, putting together a thrilling run at last year’s US Open with wins over Clijsters and Li. But her results have been predominantly dismal since then. Couple that with Krajan’s reputation for being overly tough with his charges, and the split isn’t that surprising. She certainly appeared to swing more freely in Madrid with Krajan absent, and it paid off with her securing two wins, including a routine victory over No. 4 seed Aga Radwanska. She really should have gone one further after leading Ivanovic 5-2 in the deciding set of their third round clash. If she can gain more consistency, especially on the serve, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be seeing her at the business end of tournaments with greater frequency in the future. She just needs to find the right coach, and with her abilities, there should be no shortage of qualified candidates willing to take the reins.
The WTA appears to be taking a page out of the ATP’s book with the news that the WTA has inked a five-year deal to stage the season-ending championships in Singapore in 2014-2018. The new deal will be worth a total of more than $70 million, which translates into financial stability and growth in prize money. It also allows the WTA to put yet another premiere event in the growing Asian market. Additional welcomed news is the decision to include more doubles entrants, staging exhibitions with past stars, and putting on music concerts and fan festivals. So, though there’s still plenty to play for in 2013, fans should already have a reason to look forward to next season.
If a match is played on a side court and no one is around to watch it, does the result matter?
British sensation Laura Robson would prefer they didn’t, but a sub-par American hard court season following the Australian Open has shown few signs of letting up as the Tour transitions to European red clay. Robson had been amassing a coterie of big match wins, most recently a gutsy (if aesthetically displeasing) win over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. But the losses for the young Brit have begun to pile up in quickly, as she has failed to win two consecutive matches since January. Off the court, times have been equally trying for the teenager, who suffered the theft of her jewelry and, after an incident of cyber-bullying following a loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai, a brief deactivation of her twitter account.
The former Wimbledon girls’ champion may be one of the last true tennis prodigies; she won her home Slam at the age of 14, famously inviting Marat Safin to accompany her to the Champion’s Ball. Reaching two more junior finals after that, Robson was under a microscope for most of her junior development. Making the transition to the senior tour, Robson showed promise when she reached the Hopman Cup finals with compatriot Andy Murray in 2011 and won the silver medal in at the Olympic mixed doubles event last summer.
But it was her summer hard court swing last year that truly turned heads; not long after hiring the controversial Zeljko Krajan (former coach of Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova), Robson made a splash at the US Open, ending Kim Clijsters’ singles career in emphatic fashion and following that up with a decisive win over an in-form Li Na. In the fall, she continued to impress with a run to the finals of Guangzhou and it seemed she was coming into her own as 2013 got underway with the aforementioned Kvitova victory.
From that steady progress, it would appear Robson has done a complete about-face, but what has caused this slump? Unlike rival Sloane Stephens, who endured an uncomfortable homecoming after her Australian Open heroics, Robson has been decidedly under the radar, starting (and swiftly ending) most tournaments away from the glare of a TV camera.
Though a tennis match has few literary properties, that stops a precious few of us from analyzing them as if they were texts (the day a win or a loss means nothing more than a strict binary is the day journalism dies). A cursory look at Robson’s results reveal a string of five three-set losses, four 6-1 final sets, and three losses from a set up. Robson’s apparent inability to close ostensibly winnable matches against players outside the top 30 is startling given both her talent and the matches that made her relevant.
An even closer look, this time at the stats of Robson’s losses, most recently a two-set defeat to Japan’s Ayumi Morita, shows an ever-increasing amount of double faults (she served 10 against Morita). Coach Krajan’s former students had their own histories of serving woes before hiring the Croatian former pro, but his habit of tweaking his charges’ serve motions to be more side-arm have often done more harm than good, Robson appearing the latest victim of “the yips.”
Now playing in Europe for the first time since asserting her presence among the Tour’s upper echelon, the roles between Stephens and Robson will reverse; playing away from home, the young American will have a chance to work out her shaken confidence on both a surface she prefers and those outer courts Robson has called home for much of the season. By contrast, Robson, who probably anticipated making more inroads on a faster surface, will be asked to play under increasing scrutiny leading up to Wimbledon, literally a stone’s throw from her actual home.
How either player copes with the change of scenery cannot yet be predicted, but at least for Robson, the troubling start to the clay season may mean it gets worse before it gets better.
By David Kane
While young and talented Donna Vekic made a run to the Taskent final last week surprising virtually everyone, equally young and talented Laura Robson made her own mark this week by reaching the Guangzhou final, bringing many to mutter sighs of “Finally!” or the plaintive “What took her so long?”
While Vekic shocked even the most well-read tennis insiders, Robson is a name many aficionados have come to recognize. The Brit has the junior credentials Vekic lacks, with a hometown triumph at Wimbledon in 2008 and two Australian Open finals to boot.
Beyond that, Robson made the most of her time in relative obscurity by becoming a minor internet celebrity. For a while, @laurarobson5 the twitter user had more far reaching effects with her insightful and humorous tweets than Laura Robson the tennis player with the big lefty swing.
Even without those clues, however, many knew Robson was coming. She had pushed Maria Sharapova to tiebreakers at this year’s Olympics. She took silver with compatriot Andy Murray in mixed doubles. She handed Kim Clijsters the final loss of her career at the US Open, parlayed the momentum into a decisive three-set victory over the streaking Li Na before losing an overthought, overcooked match against defending champion Sam Stosur.
These results, especially her most recent success at Flushing Meadows, seemed to suggest that she had already arrived. Yet, this run to the Guangzhou final feels like the missing piece. Fans and pundits knew Robson could play well for one or two matches, and at the US Open she proved she could play well for about three and a half.
But was the teenager’s body ready for the week in, week out grind of the WTA Tour? The last few years would certainly suggest a resounding “no,” as physical and/or mental issues have often gotten in the way of potentially earlier breakthroughs.
Where Donna Vekic matched middling promise with exponential results, Robson has managed to pair obvious talent with steady improvement, along with the idea that all this time, she’s known exactly what she was doing. For example, many fans groaned at the news that she had hired Zeljko Krajan as a new coach.
The former ATP pro brought Dinara Safina to world No. 1, and Dominika Cibulkova to her first WTA title through the use of an ostensibly infallible dogma of hyperaggression. It sounded like the last thing the already aggressive-minded Robson needed, and while Cibulkova parted with Krajan when she began to question the dogma, Safina’s sticky end still rings in the minds of many.
Oddly enough, however, Krajan has brought a sense of balance to Robson’s game; in fact, it was when she reverted to blind aggression that she lost her US Open round of 16 to Stosur. Overall, the young girl who famously asked Marat Safin to accompany her to the Wimbledon Ball as a junior is beginning to play a more intelligent game and, like Vekic, like a woman.
Does all this praise seem irrelevant because neither woman won their final match? No, because even with this new maturity those big wins and career high rankings, we can still expect a few growing pains. To paraphrase another famous teenager, it’s all about the climb.