Yesterday, the up-and-coming Sloane Stephens fought off a mid-match surge from a game opponent to reach her debut Grand Slam quarterfinal. After taking the deciding set 7-5, the bubbly American was pleased to have put on a show for the crowd, and promised another one when she played her mentor and idol, Serena Williams.
Leave it to the media to turn a show into a circus.
As the match unfolded, Stephens seemed to establish an unassailable advantage over her equally inexperienced opponent, Bojana Jovanovski. A heavy hitting but inconsistent player from Serbia, Jovanovski was deemed a beatable foe, one who would easily bend to the will of the quickly rising American teenager.
As the second set reached a critical juncture, however, Stephens began to retreat and revert to a safer, more defensive style. Jovanovski had been missing badly up to that point, so waiting for the error was not a completely ill conceived strategy. Yet, in doing so, she made an almost fatal mistake: giving Bojana Jovanovski a short ball is like feeding live bait to a shark.
The No. 3 Serb hits groundstrokes like missiles, and is an exciting player to watch when she is striking the ball well. Most comfortable playing in Australia, she had her breakthrough tournament in Sydney two years ago where, as a qualifier, she reached her first Premier semifinal. A week later, she pushed then-world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva to three tight sets at this very tournament. Since then, she won her first WTA title last summer in Baku and is also a player on the rise, give or take a few hiccups and patches of poor form.
Despite her obvious talent, she is still better known for the quirkier aspects of her life and bio. For one, not a televised match of Jovanovski’s goes by without a retelling of the embarrassing story where the Serb traveled to the famed WTA event in San Diego via Carlsbad only to wind up in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Quirkier still is her unusual grunt. Oft-described as a sound similar to a sneeze (“ha-choo!”), it is definitely one of the stranger sounds one hears during a tennis match, but is not nearly as off-putting as many seem to think. Having watched the majority of her US Open singles campaign, I can say that it was hardly as noticeable in person as it is when amplified by the on-court microphones.
But as Jovanovski began to take control of a match she seemed well and truly out of last night, the focus centered not on her screaming winners, but on the alleged screaming itself. Stephens lost the plot and allowed her fiery opponent back into the match. Instead of giving praise to Jovanovski for not giving up and playing some inspiring offense, she was castigated, mocked and name-called for her grunting.
A lot of people take issue over noises that aren’t perceived to imply exertion. “How does shrieking assist a person in hitting a ball?” asks a public often corralled by visibly disgusted commentators (for more on grunting and the hindrance rule, I refer you to unseededandlooming’s comprehensive take on the matter). But as bizarre as Jovanovski’s grunt sounds, it is still a grunt at its very core.
And if you stopped to watch the Serbian bombshell scurry about the baseline, you would see a shockingly high level of exertion, mixed with some extreme torque and intensity.
What makes Jovanovski so electrifying on the court is the reckless abandon with which she hits every ball. The notion that “a tennis ball is there to be hit” is taken to delirious extremes during her matches, much to the delight of those who enjoy “Big Babe Tennis.” In fact, it was her tentative serve, the one shot in her repertoire that lacks her almost hysterical punch, that did her in late in the third set against the American, who eventually regrouped to serve out the match herself.
In her first Slam fourth round appearance, Bojana Jovanovski did herself proud. She recovered from a lackluster beginning and found her range in impressive fashion, only to fall just short of the finish line. In all, the week that the Serbian star had was a tremendous effort, and definitely as much noise with her tennis as she did with her grunting.
You may not like Bojana’s grunt from an aesthetic point of view, but it is hard to argue that her bite doesn’t match her bark.
With a three-set loss to the resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova today in Melbourne, Caroline Wozniacki has come full circle in the worst possible way. This isn’t simply the kind of match the former No. 1 used to win. This was literally a match the she was winning as of a little more than a year ago. In fact, the Russian powerhouse has been an interesting foil to Wozniacki during her rise to, mainstay at, and now fall from, the top of the WTA Rankings.
Flash back to the 2009 US Open. Kuznetsova was the higher ranked player, the reigning French Open champion. Wozniacki was the underdog; an underpowered youngster who’d had some good results, but had yet to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Under the bright New York lights, Wozniacki pulled out the first of her infamous Houdini-esque escapes from the grips of her more aggressive rivals. Despite lacking any notable weapon, the Dane stayed with her more celebrated opponent and outlasted Kuznetsova in a final set tiebreaker.
Wozniacki parlayed the upset into a run to her first Slam final, not only leapfrogging her own progress, but also dusting her peers in the process. A year later, she was No. 1 in the world.
By 2011, the Dane was no longer the up and comer for whom everyone rooted. Resigned to her role as a “Slamless No. 1,” Wozniacki continued to plug away, but there were chinks in the proverbial armor, ones of which Kuznetsova hoped to take advantage. Two years since their last major meeting, the Russian had fallen out of the top 10, but looked fitter and looked primed for revenge. Playing expert aggression for a set and a half, Sveta dominated the top seed, and reinforced all the criticisms that had already grown from whispers to a roar.
Wozniacki was too defensive. She could not hit winners. How was she the best in the world?
Wozniacki’s A game might not have been enthralling, but it was still effective, especially against a tiring Kuznetsova, who faded short of the finish line and allowed the beleaguered best take control of the match.
Another year on, and Wozniacki must be wondering where all the good times have gone.
It’s hard to argue that the Dane’s game is any different than it was when she was dominating the rankings. She has not made the kinds of improvements one would expect of a 22-year-old, but one can hardly assert that she has regressed.
Instead, the big hitters who had been erratic during her time at the top retooled and refurbished their games, but doing so outfoxed more than just her crafty defense. They obliterated her unshakable assurance, her almost haughty self-belief.
There was once an understanding that if Wozniacki played her game, the big hitters would eventually implode. Even today when Kuznetsova failed to break the Dane at 4-4 in the third, the consensus was that the Russian had blown her chance, and Caroline would pounce on Sveta’s inevitable mistakes.
But unfortunately for Wozniacki, it’s not 2009 anymore. It’s not even 2011 anymore. Kuznetsova was far from perfect over another three-set battle, but she got it right just enough to send her wily opponent home before the second week for the fourth straight Slam.
How can the former rankings queen regain her lost crown? Her game looks as static as ever, and her insistence on retaining her father Piotr as her coach continues to raise eyebrows. But what always made the difference for Wozniacki wasn’t her explosive groundstrokes, but her unflappable confidence. If she can regain that, she will undoubtedly be a factor once again, but until then, Caroline Wozniacki continues to wade through the rubble of a fallen empire.
On behalf of blondes everywhere, the blonde jokes need to stop.
We don’t think the capital of California is the letter C. We don’t take an inordinately long time to finish puzzles because the boxes says “2-4 years.” We don’t peel M&Ms and we try not to get stuck on broken escalators.
Then again, maybe these jokes are for the best. They make you underestimate us, so you never see us coming. Maybe that’s how Maria Kirilenko was able to sneak into the fourth round of the Australian Open. The 25-year-old Russian is likely hard-pressed to ever go anywhere unnoticed, but the No. 14 seed has definitely been under the radar at the start of this year’s Australian Open.
It must be difficult to be Maria Kirilenko.
Not in the ways you would think. Indeed, the 25-year-old Russian does not need sympathy because she is blessed with stunningly good looks, the endorsements and photo shoots that come with that, and a hockey-playing fiancé who worships her.
No, take pity on her because she has all those things but still wants to let her game do the talking.
With every excuse to rest on her laurels, Kirilenko continues to put in the long hours to get the most out of her petite frame and (relatively) underpowered game. An all-court player with no standout weapon, the Olympic bronze medalist in doubles has been steadily improving in the last few years and emerged at the start of this season fitter and more ready than ever to make her mark on the singles court.
A fan favorite (for obvious reasons), Kirilenko is not without her critics. Those detractors would probably tell you that she is overrated, given special attention because of her looks and with her recent engagement to Alex Ovechkin, destined for a Kournikova-esque fade out of the tennis world.
To believe all of that is to assume Kirilenko is another dumb blonde. Take it from those who watched her third round encounter with Yanina Wickmayer; “Kiri” is a smart cookie.
She was smart enough to withstand the Belgian’s early barrage. She was cool enough not to panic when that relentless stream of winners caused her to fall behind an early break. Instead, the Russian steadied herself and stayed with Wickmayer, who continued to belt winners one minute and miss only by millimeters the next.
The eventual tiebreaker was a tense affair, for it promised a massive momentum boost to its winner. Unwilling to crack beneath the weight of the moment, Kirilenko stuck to her game plan and mixed expert defense with intelligent offense, all in the effort to keep her emotional foe off-balance.Her patience was rewarded when she nabbed an essential mini-break to take the first set, but Wickmayer would not go away quickly. She persisted early in the second set with her signature aggression as a means of pegging the crafty Kirilenko to the back of the court, and began sneaking up to the net with unheard of efficiency.
But by that point, it was too late. The Russian was already dialed in and ending points earlier and earlier thanks to some flawless angles, and ran away with the second set to set up a meeting with presumptive favorite, Serena Williams.
Many will write off this match before it even begins. Kirilenko lacks the punch to keep up with the American powerhouse who has only lost one match since Wimbledon. But to underestimate the Russian would be a grave error in judgment. Be smart.
Kirilenko certainly is.
“Rivals,” my high school gym teacher once said, “always hate each other. Mac does not like PC. Coke does not like Pepsi. Competition makes the world go round!”
Had he been a tennis fan at the time, he might have added Serbian rivals Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic to his list of those between whom little love was lost.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, Ivanovic and Jankovic were the fire and ice of the WTA Tour’s elite. Ana was the big-hitter with an on-court effusiveness that was as jarring as it was endearing. Not to say that the counter-punching Jankovic was reserved; she saved her quirky personality and for the pressroom, where she gave quotes that continue to defy explanation.
Both hailed from the war torn city of Belgrade. Both became famous in their home country. Both wanted to be the best.
With few other compatriots, isolation combined with a singular goal could have bonded these young women together. The Italian and Czech Fed Cup teams are shining examples of on-court camaraderie in an individual sport. Off the court? The guest list at Elena Dementieva’s wedding was a “who’s who” of Russian tennis (Vera Dushevina caught the bouquet).
Yet, there is something about countries that boast only two talented players. Perhaps that it serves as a microcosm for the game itself, the idea of a dual between two players and only one can emerge victorious, intensifies what could otherwise be a friendly rivalry. Whatever the reason, like Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin before them, the relationship between Ivanovic and Jankovic was always cool at best. Never overtly friendly, the two had ways of reminding fans and media where the two women stood with one another.
After scoring a win over her rival in Madrid a few years ago, Jelena was seen mocking Ana’s signature fist pump:
Upon seeing it, Ana quipped, “…Sport doesn’t build character, it shows it.” Far from contrite, Jelena defended the gesture and struck out against players who fist pump “in the player’s face, and especially after not winning a point [but] after your opponent missed an easy ball, I don’t think that’s fair play.”
For all of their differences, Ana and Jelena ended up having two fairly similar careers.
At their peaks, they fought for the No. 1 ranking at the 2008 French Open. Jankovic squandered a third set lead and Ivanovic went on to win her only Slam title. From there, she promptly entered a slump that persists to this day; she has only made one Slam quarterfinal in the last (going on) five years.
Jankovic eventually wrested the top spot from her rival and went on a late-season tear to finish the year atop the rankings. A move to change her game in order to better compete for majors saw her not only remain slamless, but also caused her to tumble from the game’s elite.
This year’s Australian Open saw the two play one another for the first time at a Slam since that fateful French Open encounter. Far from the penultimate round, the rivals were seeded outside the top 10 and competing for a spot in the fourth round, where the winner would take on the much-higher ranked Agnieszka Radwanska.
Ostensibly, the stakes were as high as ever as each woman strives to retain relevancy on a Tour that has moved on without them. Once highly marketable stars, the rivals were relegated to Hisense Arena for a competitive, though more lighthearted, battle. While showing flashes of their former brilliance, the two shared a laugh several times during Ivanovic’s two-set victory. With that, the “Serbian Sisters” wordlessly confirmed the news that they had buried the hatchet.
Reflecting on their frosty past, Jankovic mused, “Back then we were competing for No. 1 and we both wanted what we never achieved and it was different circumstances.” In the heat of the moment, it was easy to see things less clearly, but in retrospect, Jelena poignantly describes the fate of the rivalry with her compatriot, one that was never truly realized.
But rather than dwelling on what might have been, it is comforting to see the two former foes together, now able to laugh and reminisce about their time at the top.
Age restrictions on the WTA Tour have wrested dominance from the prepubescent prodigies of old. Week-to-week, players of all ages continue making their mark, all products of their generation. The young guns are fiery, full of determination. Those in their mid-twenties are methodical, but looking for a breakthrough or an escape after nearly a decade at the proverbial grind.
Then there is Kimiko Date-Krumm.
The more we see of the ageless wonder, the surer we are of how she spent those 12 years away from the game. She didn’t spend it marrying German racecar driver Michael Krumm. She wasn’t staying in peak physical condition and running marathons. She certainly couldn’t have been playing tennis, save for an aborted comeback attempt in 2002.
No, it is all clear now. Kimiko spent that decade (or longer) in a time capsule.
After all, how else did she leave the game in the mid-90s only to reemerge in 2008 looking younger than her new crop of rivals, many of whom had yet to be born when the Japanesewoman turned pro (in 1989)? How else did she retain her throwback game, those mercilessly flat groundstrokes and all-court efficiency? How else could she, at (allegedly) 42, be improving at a rate outpacing teenaged players young enough to call Kimiko “Mom?”
Whatever the conspiracy, Date-Krumm should bottle it, sell it, and make millions off of it.
(Then she could buy an island, relax on the beach while maintaining her flawless tan.)
There is plenty of hyperbole here, but only because Kimiko is, in her own subtle way, the most hyperbolic player on the Tour. We as fans and writers enjoy entertaining debates of whether bygone generations could compete in today’s game, yet we fail to sufficiently take notice of this fascinating athletic experiment, one that takes place every time Date-Krumm takes the court.
Coming from an ostensibly extinct era where mental fortitude trumped brute strength, Date-Krumm appears to lack the height and technique of shot to bother the modern player. Yet, most matches involving the Japanesewoman begin and end on her own terms. With bulging biceps, her relentless shots spring from her Yonex racquet like a catapult for screaming winners or unfortunate errors.
With that game plan, Kimiko pummels the ball as well as anyone, and has the resumé to prove it. During the last five years of her incredible second career, she has beaten players like Slam champions like Maria Sharapova, former No. 1s like Dinara Safina and participated in classic matches, none more memorable than her titanic effort against Venus Williams at Wimbledon:
For all she has achieved by simply being on the court, Kimiko continues to come back for more, even after an injury ruined her dream of representing her country at the London Olympics. Riding a wave of confidence and good form at the end of last year, she came to Australia ready to reclaim her giant-killing reputation.
Drawing Nadia Petrova, the No. 12 seed, it looked like an inauspicious start for the Japanesewoman. As well as she had ended 2012, Petrova had hit even higher peaks, and looked primed for a big run at a Slam. Tall and powerful, the Russian is a perfect example of the modern game. But Kimiko proved that her 90s sensibilities were still effective in 2013; she was positively ruthless in a thrilling upset and only allowed the in-form Russian two games.
As other big names were falling around her, Date-Krumm sensed opportunity knocking during her second round encounter with Israeli Shahar Pe’er. Once a formidable opponent, Pe’er alludes to those aforementioned twentysomethings who look as eager for a way out as Date-Krumm is for a way back in. Cruising past the former top 20 player with a set and two breaks, Kimiko looked poised for another effortless victory.
In the oppressive heat and against a reinvigorated Pe’er, however, Date-Krumm would not have the remainder of the match all her own way. But unlike those young enough to be her daughters, for whom “the moment” can crush, the Japanesewoman held her nerve and served out the second round on the second time of asking. Nearly five years after mounting this improbable comeback, Kimiko is in the third round of a Grand Slam event for the first time since 1996.
But then, we should have expected this from a woman who only recently awoke from cryogenic sleep. In fact, check her hotel room for the fountain of youth, lest we be forced to deal with the fact that yes, we can get better with age.
A lot of people are going to publish articles about Samantha Stosur in the next few hours.
About how she lost early in Australia again. About how she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and how she once again crumbled under the pressure of playing at home. How she choked and let her undersized opponent back into the match. About how she is a talented player with a big serve and forehand, how she has won a Grand Slam title, and how mysterious it is that she cannot string together wins in her home country.
This will not be one of those articles.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Zheng Jie. A player without the Slam title but arguably twice the talent with flat strokes that belie her size. A pioneer for Chinese tennis, the first Chinese woman to reach a major semifinal at Wimbledon. A courageous competitor who took Serena Williams to 9-7 in the third on the London lawns a year ago and beat Stosur herself two weeks ago in a three grueling sets.
The winner of her second round match, defeating Stosur 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.
Zheng took the court understandably full of belief; her opponent’s struggles in Australia are as notorious as they are well documented. Combine those external circumstances with the inconvenient truth that Zheng’s flat, on the rise groundstrokes match up well against Stosur’s more mechanical, time-dependent game style and the unseeded Chinesewoman was the overwhelming favorite.
She certainly played like the favorite for most of the first set. Taking precious time away from Stosur, Zheng dominated the No. 9 seed from the back of the court, showing the partisan crowd why she has been ranked as high as 15 in the world. Despite a late wobble, she closed on her eighth set point and looked set to be Stosur’s yearly Melbourne conqueror.
For the next set and a half, things began to change. Stosur stopped missing, and Zheng’s laser-like shots lost their pinpoint accuracy. The crowd got involved and for a moment, Stosur forgot she was playing in Australia. As the Chinesewoman fell behind a double break in the third set she struck a disconsolate figure, out of energy and out of ideas.
In a manner reminiscent of everywhere (not just Australia), Stosur began to pull back. The embarrassing shanks that haunted her throughout the first set were coming in streams. Despite a jittery finish, she still found herself within two points of the third round.
Enter “JZ.” Like a boss.
Using her veteran sensibility, Zheng took full advantage of the shorter ball she was now getting. She stepped up and into the court, outfoxing Stosur from the baseline and passing her at the net. Breaking the Aussie twice to level, the rest of the match appeared only a formality. Stosur had retreated, Zheng had advanced; there would be no more violent shifts in momentum.
Almost three days into the first week, this match was one of the best the tournament had to offer. The first match on Rod Laver Arena to go the distance, it exhibited breathtaking rallies, intelligent shotmaking, and a very tense ending. But it was not a match that Sam Stosur lost.
This was a match that Zheng Jie won.
It was a hard-earned victory, one that does not deserved to be sullied by the insinuation that she benefited from a choke. Stosur may have left the door open on her way to the round of 32, but it was up to Zheng to walk through and kick the Aussie out.
Kick she did, and she was rewarded with a day in the sun.
By David Kane
It may never be too late to be who you might have been, but American Brian Baker could be running out of time.
Baker came up the junior ranks as Andy Roddick was winning his first major title in 2003. With a run to the Roland Garros boy’s final, Baker established himself as an American who could win on clay. At the time, the two looked poised to be this generation’s Sampras/Agassi rivalry, with Roddick’s big serve and preference for faster courts, and Baker’s early return and clay court credentials. Surely the two would contest Slam finals and continue the run of dominance of American men since the early 90s.
But when Roddick retired last year, he did so without ever having played Baker. Baker’s inability, however, to set up an encounter with his would-be rival will go down in his resumé as an “incomplete” rather than a “failure.” Successful as his junior career was, the Nashville native played precious few matches on the senior tour for the last ten years; his one highlight, ironically enough, was a win over senior French Open champion Gaston Gaudio at the US Open in 2005.
From there, Baker would not enter another Grand Slam for the remainder of an injury-filled decade that required five surgeries (two on his left hip, one on his right, hernia and Tommy John elbow surgery). Instead of being one half of a great American rivalry, Baker became a cautionary tale of perceived burnout and chronic injuries. During the time off, he took up a coaching position at Belmont University. Dreams of his own success were officially on the proverbial back burner.
Oddly enough, the desire to return to a world that had caused him such pain and disappointment came when he was furthest away from it. No longer the hotshot junior prodigy, Baker could not rely on a tennis federation that had long since forgotten about him. When he asked for a wildcard into a low level Futures qualifying event, the USTA refused. Faced with the daunting task of starting from scratch, Baker responded with unparallel grace and character. He went on to win that tournament along with several others leading up to the Savannah Challenger, an event that awarded a wildcard into the 2012 French Open.
Baker won there too, but this run of good form would not stay hidden in the minor leagues for long. Days before the French Open was set to begin, Baker caught fire at an ATP event in Nice:
As a qualifier, Baker took out big names like Gael Monfils and Nickolay Davydenko en route to his first ever Tour final at 27 years old. At an age where his contemporaries start looking at the back halves of their careers, Baker played 2012 like Rookie of the Year, with a run to the fourth round of Wimbledon (again as a qualifier) the highlight for a man who had only one Grand Slam win to his name for the better part of a decade.
Coming into 2013, Baker was cautiously optimistic for the sophomore year of his second career. Far from lofty in his goals for the new season, the American was mostly concerned with maintaining his clean bill of health: “I want to stay healthy and get fitter, to get into Top 50 by May. I want to get to the second week of a Slam.”
Everything seemed to be going to plan as the first Slam of the year got under way. Unseeded, Baker won a grueling five set match to set up a second round battle with compatriot Sam Querrey. Another American who has struggled with injury, Querrey is the highest ranked US man in the draw after John Isner’s withdrawal.
Finally faced with an opportunity to play a big name American, Baker was game for the challenge and took the first set in a tiebreaker. Barely two games into the second, Baker felt a pop as he moved for a backhand and knew something was wrong. Hopping off the court, the trainer suspected a torn ACL, a diagnosis that could have meant another year off the court. Thankfully (if one could ever be thankful for an injury), an MRI revealed only a torn lateral meniscus, an injury similar to the one from which Andrea Petkovic currently suffers.
Like the German, Baker will likely be sidelined until the end of the clay court season, where all his success began a year ago. Like the German, Baker’s career, already defined by traumatic injuries, continues to be marked by bad luck and tragic circumstance.
By David Kane
It has been a rough couple of months for American upstart Christina McHale.
After a promising 2011 that saw her topple then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, the New Jersey native began 2012 in bright fashion, taking out Petra Kvitova in three grueling sets in Indian Wells and achieved a box set of third round finishes at the majors by Wimbledon. By the summer, though, her results began to tail off and it was revealed that McHale was suffering from a prolonged case of mononucleosis.
Having famously felled Justine Henin in the mid-2000s, “the kissing disease” sent McHale into a tailspin of form that arguably reached its nadir on her home court. During her rise, the American had credited training sessions at the National Tennis Center. But at the US Open, she failed to make it past an even sicker Kiki Bertens, who ran off the court mid-game to seek relief.
It may be a new year and McHale is mono-free, but things have yet to brighten for the American on the tennis court. Unseeded and overshadowed by compatriots like Sloane Stephens and Lauren Davis, McHale was excluded from an ESPN graphic featuring “Young Americans” as the Australian Open got underway.
But the worst was yet to come.
McHale could have drawn anyone in the first round: a Williams sister or perhaps Maria Sharapova. But instead, she was slated to face World No. 125 and the poster girl of “Generation Spitfire,” Yulia Putintseva. Putintseva earned her place in the main draw at the end of last year, and spent the off-season training at the Mourataglou Academy where she hit with big names like Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Despite dropping her first match of the year in Auckland, Putintseva came into 2013 ready to play.
For a player recovering from mononucleosis, McHale could not have drawn a more ironic opponent. Standing at 5’1”, Putintseva may lack many things, but one thing on which she is never short is energy. Playing in her debut Slam on the senior level, Putintseva unleashed a sampling of that effusive energy as she romped through the first set and a half, dropping a mere handful of points on her serve. McHale had played precious few matches in the last few months, and even fewer matches where she played the role of veteran to Putintseva’s newcomer. Yet, it must have been that veteran sense that allowed the American to take advantage of a weak moment from the Kazakh to level the match.
Unfortunately for McHale, Putintseva has come a long way in just a few months. Notoriously volatile, she remained positive after an embarrassing tiebreaker score of 7-0 and continued serving well to open the third. Faced with an opportunity in the fourth game, Putintseva broke the American and never looked back. ESPN hardly had time to send a camera out to untelevised Court 7 for the match’s hurried conclusion:
Putintseva’s celebration is not only one of legend, but it also signified the dramatic shift in fortune for these two women. McHale looked exhausted and well beyond her years at the end of a brutal effort. Putintseva smiled broadly as she skipped to the net to shake the American’s hand. As a viewer it was a bittersweet moment; as nice as it was to see Putintseva shake some of her demons and close out the biggest win of her career, one could not help but feel for the young American, once on the rise, future unknown.
By David Kane
When marketing tennis, it’s rarely about how well the game is played. To appeal to an audience broader than diehards, the question of “who’s playing” can be equally if not more important. Notorious for its shocking upsets and unheralded finalists, the WTA has struggled to corral its biggest names onto the back ends of its best tournaments. With the tour’s stars going through injuries and inconsistency (even unretirements), tournaments instead began relying on “matches worthy of a final” that in reality occurred days, sometimes weeks before the championship match.
Venus/Clijsters. Henin/Sharapova. Azarenka/Serena. All are marquee match-ups that took place before a Slam’s prestigious second week.
Of late, the women’s side has formed its own “Big Four,” but those cracking early match-ups still exist thanks to a most uncommon denominator in Venus Williams, who could play No. 2 seed (and kindred spirit) Maria Sharapova should both reach the third round.
The American has inspired many in how she has balanced a pro career with the energy-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome. Battling through the ups and downs of a chronic illness, she achieved her goal of making the Olympic team and won another gold medal with her sister. Finishing 2012 with a title in Luxembourg, the veteran started the new season undefeated in Hopman Cup.
Sharapova has faced tough times as well; taken out of the game with a shoulder injury, the Russian spent years struggling to regain the form that took her to multiple major championships. Her Roland Garros victory was not only a fulfillment of the Career Grand Slam, but also an emphatic triumph over adversity.
However, triumph over adversity is not necessarily “elimination of.”
Venus has worked hard to mitigate the effects of Sjogren’s, including a change in diet and selective scheduling. But the very nature of the disease is its unpredictability; for as many days as Venus may feel great, there have been (and will be) days where she pulls up lame, as she did in the first round of Wimbledon.
Drawing Galina Voskoboeva in the first round looked to be a bad omen for the American. The tall Kazakh mixes raw power with quirky finesse not unlike Tsvetana Pironkova, a player who has owned Venus, particularly at Slams. How would she hold up under Voskoboeva’s undoubtedly relentless assault of slices and dropshots?
While her ranking no longer shows it, Sharapova too has dealt with the residual effects of shoulder surgery. Though ostensibly healed, the constant tweaking with her service motion left her with a perennially shaky delivery that can produce a string of double faults out of nowhere. An ugly serving day can lead to some ugly losses, as her big game can crumble when the confidence in her serve disappears.
The collarbone injury that took Sharapova out of Brisbane was worrisome only in the notion that the Russian would come to Melbourne rusty, which could trigger one of those “no good, very bad days” on serve and on the court. Who was to say that, despite facing a less intimidating foe in Olga Puchkova, Sharapova wouldn’t hit herself off the court?
Taking the court in one of her EleVen creations, Venus silenced those buzzing around Hisense Arena predicting an upset with startling efficiency, dropping only one game to her talented opponent. Looking more like a young upstart with streaks of blue hair rather than a hobbled veteran, the American was always the aggressor and never allowed Voskoboeva to wrest control. By the end, Venus was twirling her way into the second round, erasing many doubts in the process.
As Venus was making mincemeat of one opponent, Sharapova was grounding out another. After struggling through two long games to begin the match, the No. 2 seed clicked into form in a manner that should put fear into her opposition. Exposing Puchkova’s poor movement and poorer forehand, Sharapova double-bageled her compatriot, romping through a second set where she hit only three unforced errors. Three-quarters of the way to a Career Slam Double Bagel (Sharapova has pitched no hitters at the French and US Open), the Russian looked equally dominant to start her Australian campaign.
Chaos may no longer reign in women’s tennis, but depth is here to stay. With intriguing matches to be found throughout the fortnight, the WTA may have found the best of both worlds with a meatier and – dare I say it? – more marketable product.
January 12, 2013 — The Australian Open kicks off main draw play on Monday, January 14th, but what exactly do we have in store in this year’s men’s draw? Your trusty panel of Tennis Grandstand writers delve into the hot topics surrounding the first Slam, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the men’s tour. You won’t have to look anywhere further than our comprehensive coverage!
Check out our women’s Australian Open draw preview here!
Romi Cvitkovic: Grigor Dimitrov.The men’s draw this Slam seems to be very forgiving to the top 8, but not so much to the players just under them. Despite that, the 21-year-old has finally been delivering this year, reaching his first ATP final en route taking out three players ranked considerably higher than him. His road to the quarterfinal is fairly open after his first round encounter with No. 32 seed Julien Benneteau, against whom he holds a 2-0 winning record.
Yeshayahu Ginsburg: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Dark horse is a relative term, because the fact remains that in men’s tennis today it’s the top 4 and then everybody else. Nadal is out, so the odds of anyone but Murray, Federer, and Djokovic winning are incredibly low. But if I had to take someone from the field, I’d go with Tsonga. The AO is historically his best Slam and Federer is probably the one of the top 4 he’s most comfortable against in a quarterfinal. The fact that his draw is not particularly challenging until then helps too.
David Kane: Tommy Haas. The German has had more lives than a cat as he enters 2013 in the midst of his third career. With a pretty nice draw that pits him against a tournament’s supply of wild cards and a pair of Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Haas could keep things interesting for nostalgic fans that remember the German’s glory days. Should he make the second week, he could get a war-weary Roger Federer, who has more than his fair share of tough opponents early on. It might not be too late to party like it’s 2002.
Andrea Lubinsky: Richard Gasquet. Perhaps it’s a risky pick, at 26, it’s unlikely the Frenchman will all of the sudden start to consistently maximize his talent. However, after hitting a career high of No. 7 in 2007, Gasquet is back in the Top 10. He’s already 5-0 this season after winning his eighth career title, in Doha. His draw isn’t exactly a cake walk, but that backhand should get him to Week 2.
Chris Skelton: Milos Raonic. His towering serve makes him a threat in any draw on any surface, and he nearly toppled potential fourth-round opponent Federer on three occasions in 2012, losing two final-set tiebreaks and a 6-4 final set. Raonic will need to win his previous matches efficiently, something that has troubled him before but certainly within his abilities considering his accommodating draw.
Evan Valeri: Richard Gasquet. Winning a three set match against Davydenko in the Doha final to start the year, had Richard fist pumping left and right. Looking reenergized and in a favorable section of the draw, Gasquet is poised to make a deep run during the first major of the season. Look for a potential quarterfinal match up between the current world number ten player and Roger Federer.
Maud Watson: Juan Martin del Potro. Assuming anyone outside of the Big 4 is a dark horse, Delpo is in with a real shot. He had two big victories over Federer at the end of last season and gave Djokovic all he could handle at the 2012 ATP World Tour Finals. He’s looking an awful lot like that guy who won the 2009 US Open, and let’s not forget that he is the only one outside of the Big 4 to have won a slam in over half a decade.
Seeded Player Crashing Out Early
Cvitkovic: Fernando Verdasco. Sadly, “Fer” has become my go-to player for crashing out early in Slams. But this time the strengths of his first round opponent, David Goffin, warrant it. The two have never played each other, and though Goffin’s best Slam result came in the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, the young Belgian has had consistent results on the hard courts as well. Fer had a nice showing in Hopman Cup the other week, but we all know those good results come in all too-short bursts for him.
Ginsburg: Janko Tipsarevic. Nothing against Janko here, but there is no tougher atmosphere in tennis than playing against Lleyton Hewitt in Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt will feed off the crowd and will give Tipsarevic the match of his life. And even if Janko gets through this, it will be physically and emotionally draining, possibly leading to potential problems in his next few matches.
Pentecost: Alexandr Dolgopolov. His encounter with Gael Monfils may well be the match of the first round, but I suspect it’s one the Dog won’t survive intact. This will of course depend on Monfils’ recovery from Auckland. I also doubt whether Juan Monaco will get past Kevin Anderson in the second round.
Skelton: Janko Tipsarevic. The second-ranked Serb doesn’t have as many weapons as the rest of the top eight seeds and never has left an impact on Australia other than a first-week epic against Federer in 2008. He may find himself in trouble against Hewitt in his opener, for the Aussie crowd always galvanizes their champion, but Tipsarevic’s section also includes rising young stars like Janowicz and Dimitrov who look ready to take the next step.
Valeri: Marin Cilic. The fourteen seed will lose in the first round to Australian Marinko Matosevic. The two played a tough five setter at the U.S. Open last year where Cilic came out on top but don’t expect the same result this time. Cilic is off to a so so start of the season, losing to Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals of Chennai. The 2012 ATP Most Improved Player of the Year will beat Cilic and advance to the second round.
Watson: Juan Monaco. Monaco was actually given a decent draw, but a hand injury that took him out of the Kooyong Classic has certainly hurt his chances. Now even his opening match against Kuznetsov is a tricky proposition, and a possible second round encounter with South Africa’s Kevin Anderson may be all she wrote.
First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For
Cvitkovic: Gael Monfils vs Alexandr Dolgopolov. Though a first-rounder, this match has the potential to be a highlight of the tournament. Both players employ vastly unorthodox playing styles and they will run each other down until someone lands in the hospital. Be certain there will be plenty of diving, slicing, acrobatics and “Ooo’s” and “Aaa’s” from both the audience and the players. I recommend this match over any quarterfinal matchup of the top eight, and that’s saying something.
Kane: Robin Haase vs. Andy Murray. That this rematch is nigh may only serve to prove that the end of the Mayan calendar was not so much wrong as they were merely a few weeks late. I was in Armstrong Stadium for the last three sets of their US Open 2011 encounter, which has a similar effect to admitting that one was in the eye of Hurricane Sandy. Murray had seemingly righted the ship after falling two sets behind, only to suddenly take his foot off the proverbial gas pedal within feet of the finish line. Buoyed by support from perennial Armstrong courtside ticketholders (who are usually the ones behind the unnerving “What time is it? Break time!” call and response), Haase took advantage and nearly took the match before Murray once again regained composure. Can these two recreate the magic in the crazy bottle? Can you resist finding out?
Pentecost: Janko Tipsarevic vs. Lleyton Hewitt. This is sure to be a night match, and here in Australia neither effort nor expense will be spared in whipping the nation to a patriotic froth. It’s hard to see this one lasting less than five sets, or finishing before 2am, which history has shown to be Hewitt’s preferred timeframes.
Skelton: For tennis reasons, Julien Benneteau vs. Grigor Dimitrov. The Sydney semifinalist faces the Brisbane finalist in an match that pits two hot hands at opposite ends of their careers. Also featured here is an intriguing contrast in styles between the streamlined two-handed backhand of Benneteau and the graceful one-handed flick of Dimitrov, often compared to Federer’s backhand. For the best atmosphere in a first-round match, though, nothing will top Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic, which seems destined for a Rod Laver Arena night session.
First Round Upset Special
Cvitkovic: Lleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. This may be a bold prediction given Tipsarevic is sitting nicely as the 8th seed and Hewitt is ranked 82nd, but Hewitt can surprise anyone, anywhere, and especially on his home turf. Though Hewitt leads their head-to-head 3-1, the two haven’t played since 2009, so dynamics have completely changed. If Hewitt doesn’t pull off the upset, you can be sure it’ll at least go the distance with five sets.
Lubinsky: Lleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. If there’s ever been a player who has played to their maximum potential, it’s Lleyton Hewitt. The 31 year old’s ‘never say die’ attitude makes him a difficult opponent regardless of his health and playing on his home turf seems to give him an extra kick. He’s made the fourth round in three of his last five appearances and has played some excellent tennis at the Kooyong Classic this week, which puts in him a prime position for the upset.
Pentecost: Grigor Dimitrov d. Julien Benneteau. Dimitrov seems congenitally incapable of playing well for consecutive weeks, but the bad news for Benneteau is that the young Bulgarian got his bad week out of the way in Sydney. Benneteau on the other hand went deep in Sydney, and may balk at a best of five in the Melbourne heat.
Skelton: Gael Monfils d. Alexandr Dolgopolov. The Frenchman with talent in spades and consistency in spoonfuls moved back into the fringes of relevance with a series of solid victories in Doha and Auckland. Meanwhile, the mercurial Dolgopolov struggled even against anonymous opponents at every major last year, needing a fifth set to escape the first round here against the world #198. If Monfils starts well, his opponent may lack the resilience to launch a counterattack.
Valeri: Grigor Dimitrov takes down number 32 seed Julien Benneteau. Grigor started the year by taking down seeded players Raonic, Melzer, and Baghdatis to reach his first ATP final in Brisbane, where he lost a tight two setter to Andy Murray, 6-7, 4-6. With new girlfriend Maria Sharapova in his corner, Dimitrov is on a roll to start 2013. This kid has loads of talent and is backing it up by playing smarter than ever, which will prove to be too much to handle for 31 year old Benneteau.
Cvitkovic: I like to take risks in Slam draws, but with Rafael Nadal out of the loop, the draw gods have been nice to the top eight seeds, and I’m expecting the majority of them to make the semifinals. Djokovic will take on Berdych, while Ferrer will battle compatriot Almagro in the top half. The bottom half will most likely see Del Potro taking on Murray in one semifinal while Tsonga will battle Federer in the other.
Ginsburg: Well, I can’t be that boring with this pick. Then again, in today’s ATP world, not going with the obvious choices at the top is usually just silly. But there are a few potential surprises in the draw. I will take Tsonga, Murray, Djokovic, and Kei Nishikori as my semifinalists. Kei has a 2-1 career head-to-head against Ferrer and I think that Tipsarevic loses early. Nishikori also has the power to overpower Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. This would be a perfect draw for Lleyton Hewitt to make one final miracle run through, but he just doesn’t have the legs to play that many matches anymore. I think Nishikori becomes Japan’s first Grand Slam semifinalist in recent history.
Kane: Djokovic/Ferrer. Despite the loss to Bernard Tomic at Hopman Cup, there’s no reason to believe the No. 1 seed won’t waltz into his third straight Australian Open semifinal (and beyond). That is, assuming he gets past Tomas Berdych. The one major stumbling block to the Big Four, Berdych does not fear the upset, but getting there may prove the bigger challenge for the inconsistent Czech, who lost to Roberto Bautista-Agut in Chennai (I’m forgiven for not knowing who that is, right?). Murray/Federer. Murray has his work cut out for him after an unconvincing (although successful) display in Brisbane two weeks ago, but aside from a potential run-in with Juan Martin del Potro, the Scot will have few problems en route to defending his semifinal points from one year ago. As for the Swiss Maestro, his draw is something of a minefield, littered with upset fodder like Nickolay Davydenko, Tomic, Milos Raonic. Even Lukas Rosol landed in Fed’s section! Yet, for all the talk about his age, Federer has rarely showed it in the first week, and unless Tsonga strings together a nice run, I can’t seen anyone posing a sufficient threat.
Pentecost: Novak Djokovic vs David Ferrer. If anything Ferrer has a cleaner run to the semifinals than Djokovic, although this depends on which version of Berdych shows up. Nonetheless, Djokovic should move through to the final in four sets at most. Roger Federer vs Juan Martin del Potro. I suspect Delpo will push deep here, and upset Murray in the quarterfinals. Federer’s draw is not kind, but he remains the favourite to make it through. I suspect the semifinal will come down to fitness, where the Swiss has the advantage.
Valeri: Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer. I expect the big three to all make the semis, although Federer and Murray will have a harder route than Djokovic, with many potential four and five set hurdles along their way, whereas Novak should cruise. Tipsarevic is set to have a breakthrough and has some momentum coming in with a win in Chennai. He has a tough first rounder against home crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt, but should get through it and advance to the quarterfinals where he will defeat the number four seed David Ferrer.
And the Winner is …
Ginsburg: I have to go with Novak Djokovic to three-peat here. Australia is his best Slam and, while he hasn’t been playing at his seemingly-invincible level in a while, he still is the man to beat here in Melbourne.
Kane: Novak Djokovic. Ok, Nole fans; you can relax now (or at least stop flailing so violently). For the third year in a row, the Serb has started the year looking the fittest and making the strongest case for supremacy. Odds are strong that he will punctuate that assertion with a hat trick of Australian Open crowns. With Murray and Federer to duke it out in the other semifinal, Djokovic will only have to play one of them for the title, and likely relishes the thought of a rematch with Murray, the man who took his US Open title a few months ago. Had Murray shown more authority in Brisbane, it could have been a toss-up, but he still lacks that consistent killer instinct of his peers.
Lubinsky: Novak Djokovic. Djokovic/Murray may be the new big rivalry in tennis, but when it comes to the Australian Open, Djokovic is on top. He’s won this tournament three of the last five years, and after finishing runner up at the French Open and US Open, he’s likely to be hungry for another trophy to add to his collection.
Pentecost: Novak Djokovic. By this point one has to come up with good reasons why Djokovic won’t win his fourth Australian Open, and I can’t think of any. He appears supremely fit, calm, driven and in good form. Of course, Federer is still Federer, and he demonstrated amply last year that age has yet to weary him. On his day, he can still ascend to unplayable heights. But I still feel Djokovic, on blue plexicushion, has the decisive edge.
Skelton: Novak Djokovic. He has won three of his five major titles in Australia and probably has played his most dominant tennis during those runs. If playing 11 hours in two matches against Murray and Nadal doesn’t stop this man Down Under, it’s hard to think of anything short of an asteroid strike that will. He also receives the softer side (e.g., the Ferrer side) of the draw, as though he needs any help.
Valeri: Novak Djokovic. Djoker is in a great section of the draw and should make the final relatively unscathed. I have never seen a player who can will himself to victory as much as Novak. After a well rested off-season the worlds number one will be ready to fight off any challenges to his throne from Murray or Federer. The two time defending champ has great memories and too much support in Melbourne not to be crowned the 2013 Australian Open Champion.
Watson: Novak Djokovic. Murray ended up in Federer’s half. Djokovic has won it the last two years. Federer said that the current World No. 1 has been the best hard court player the last couple of seasons. Is Djokovic a strong favorite to win the title and pull off the three-peat in Melbourne? You bet!
And there you have it: 8 of 8 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Djokovic as the heavy favorite. That’s pretty good odds for the Serb.