Leaving Federer vs. Davydenko for a special, detailed preview by one of our colleagues here, we break down some highlights from the latter half of second-round action on Day 4.
Brands vs. Tomic (Rod Laver Arena): A tall German who once caused a stir at Wimbledon, Brands has won four of his first five matches in 2013 with upsets over Chardy, Monfils, and Martin Klizan among them. As sharp as Tomic looked in his opener, he cannot afford to get caught looking ahead to Federer in the next round. Brands can match him bomb for bomb, so the last legitimate Aussie threat left needs to build an early lead that denies the underdog reason to hope.
Lu vs. Monfils (Hisense Arena): Is La Monf finally back? He somehow survived 16 double faults and numerous service breaks in a messy but entertaining four-set victory over Dolgopolov. Perhaps facilitated by his opponent’s similar quirkiness, the vibrant imagination of Monfils surfaced again with shot-making that few other men can produce. This match should produce an intriguing contrast of personalities and styles with the understated, technically solid Lu, who cannot outshine the Frenchman in flair but could outlast him by exploiting his unpredictable lapses.
Falla vs. Gasquet (Court 3): The Colombian clay specialist has established himself as an occasional upset threat at non-clay majors, intriguingly, for he nearly toppled Federer in the first round of Wimbledon three years ago and bounced Fish from this tournament last year. A strange world #10, Gasquet struggled initially in his first match against a similar clay specialist in Montanes. He recorded a series of steady results at majors last year, benefiting in part from facing opponents less accomplished than Falla. The strength-against-strength collision of his backhand against Falla’s lefty forehand should create some scintillating rallies as Gasquet seeks to extend his momentum from the Doha title two weeks ago.
Mayer vs. Berankis (Court 6): While Berankis comfortably defeated the erratic Sergei Stakhovsky in his debut, Mayer rallied from a two-set abyss to fend off American wildcard Rhyne Williams after saving multiple match points. He must recover quickly from that draining affair to silence the compact Latvian, who punches well above his size. Sometimes touted as a key figure of the ATP’s next generation, Berankis has not plowed forward as impressively as others like Raonic and Harrison, so this unintimidating draw offers him an opportunity for a breakthrough.
Raonic vs. Rosol (Court 13): The cherubic Canadian sprung onto the international scene when he reached the second week in Melbourne two years ago. The lean Czech sprung onto the international scene when he stunned Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon last year. Either outstanding or abysmal on any given day, Rosol delivered an ominous message simply by winning his first match. For his part, Raonic looked far from ominous while narrowly avoiding a fifth set against a player outside the top 100. He needs to win more efficiently in early rounds before becoming a genuine contender for major titles.
Robson vs. Kvitova (RLA): Finally starting to string together some solid results, the formerly unreliable Robson took a clear step forward by notching an upset over Clijsters in the second round of the US Open. Having played not only on Arthur Ashe Stadium there but on Centre Court at the All England Club before, she often produces her finest tennis for the grandest stages. If Robson will not lack for inspiration, Kvitova will continue to search for confidence. She found just enough of her familiarly explosive weapons to navigate through an inconsistent three-setter against Schiavone, but she will have little hope of defending her semifinal points if she fails to raise her level significantly. That said, Kvitova will appreciate playing at night rather than during the most scorching day of the week, for the heat has contributed to her struggles in Australia this month.
Peng vs. Kirilenko (Hisense): A pair of women better known in singles than in doubles, they have collaborated on some tightly contested matches. Among them was a Wimbledon three-setter last year, won by Kirilenko en route to the quarterfinals. The “other Maria” has faltered a bit lately with six losses in ten matches before she dispatched Vania King here. But Peng also has regressed since injuries ended her 2011 surge, so each of these two women looks to turn around her fortunes at the other’s expense. The Russian’s all-court style and fine net play should offer a pleasant foil for Peng’s heavy serve and double-fisted groundstrokes, although the latter can find success in the forecourt as well.
Wozniacki vs. Vekic (Hisense): Like Kvitova, Wozniacki seeks to build upon the few rays of optimism that emanated from a nearly unwatchable three-set opener. Gifted that match by Lisicki’s avalanche of grisly errors, the former #1 could take advantage of the opportunity to settle into the tournament. Wozniacki now faces the youngest player in either draw, who may catch her breath as she walks onto a show court at a major for the first time. Or she may not, since the 16-year-old Donna Vekic crushed Hlavackova without a glimpse of nerves to start the tournament and will have nothing to lose here.
Hsieh vs. Kuznetsova (Margaret Court Arena): A surprise quarterfinalist in Sydney, the two-time major champion defeated Goerges and Wozniacki after qualifying for that elite draw. Kuznetsova rarely has produced her best tennis in Melbourne, outside a near-victory over Serena in 2009. But the Sydney revival almost did not materialize at all when she floundered through a three-setter in the qualifying. If that version of Kuznetsova shows up, the quietly steady Hsieh could present a capable foil.
Putintseva vs. Suarez Navarro (Court 7) / Gavrilova vs. Tsurenko (Court 8): Two of the WTA’s most promising juniors, Putintseva and Gavrilova face women who delivered two of the draw’s most notable first-round surprises. After Suarez Navarro dismissed world #7 Errani, Tsurenko halted the surge of Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova in a tense three-setter. Momentum thus carries all four of these women into matches likely to feature plenty of emotion despite the relatively low stakes.
James Crabtree is currently in Melbourne Park covering the Australian Open for Tennis Grandstand and is giving you all the scoop directly from the grounds.
By James Crabtree
MELBOURNE — Most people when asked whom they would include on their perfect dinner party guest list name Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Julius Ceaser.
With all these predictable types, you need a sportsmen and an entertainer. In Henri Leconte, you have both.
When you walk into the room he is in command, captivating his audience with humorous anecdotes about Becker and Lendl that probably shouldn’t be mentioned.
As a player Henri’s exploits have been very much forgotten, perhaps in many ways overshadowed by his showman ways.
His Davis Cup exploits, when he beat Pete Sampras to help claim victory for France over the United States have been forgotten, including his 9 titles, French Open finals appearance in 1988 and his French Open doubles victory with Yannick Noah in 1984.
Henri was a paradox, a Frenchman who grew up on clay but had a serve and volley game to die for.
“I was sniper. To many opponents, I was very complicated. My best results were all on clay. It is difficult to understand today.”
Henri swirled his coffee and recalled his playing days.
“Beating (Pat) Cash at Wimbledon on grass was huge, I will always remember. Ivan hated to play against me so much I could tell, but I hated to play Fabrice Santoro. I really hated to play against Mats (Wilander). Boris Becker on grass was so difficult,” Henri said with a grin that turned into a laugh, which in turn replaced defeat with victory, “but Boris Becker on clay.”
The former world number 5, now a commentator for the Australian Open on channel 7 and throughout the year on Eurosport admires what Ivan Lendl has done for Andy Murray. As a coach he believes he could serve a player in the same capacity.
“I really think I could help. I had so many stupid experiences with the coaching and doing the wrong thing sometimes that I would know the right things. The matter is finding the right person who has the talent, and the passion as same as me. I could be so accurate for them because I have been there.”
Henri is your typical Frenchman, with a partisan approach to his countrymen that is endearing to say the least. When listening to a broadcast his usual catchphrase to any Jo-Wilfred Tsonga winner is an emphatic “Unbelievable.” Henri talks words of praise about Roger Rasheed, Tsonga’s new coach then speaks devotedly of Gael Monfils:
“I love this guy, he has more talent than he knows what to do with. He can be top ten so easy. He is such a great guy, we have not seen the best of him yet but time goes so fast.”
Henri reflects sincerely before saying with a hint of worry:
“We have so many players in France right now which is so good, but I worry a little bit about four five years from now. There are lots of politics.”
Henri Leconte is a pleasurable person to be around. He is personable, charming and humorous and speaks of his success with sheer modesty. Tennis is very much a part of his life, both personal and professional which is very much evident in his match commentary. With his vibrancy and excitement he really brings an added spark to the game of tennis, and a one on one chat with this man is an absolute treat.
Our daily preview series continues with six matches from each Tour.
Haase vs. Murray (Rod Laver Arena): When they met at the 2011 US Open, the underdog nearly stunned the Scot by building a two-set lead. Haase then won just six games over the last three sets as he continued a bizarre career trend of disappearing in matches that he started with a lead. This match marks Murray’s first as a major champion, and one wonders whether the tension that he so often has displayed on these stages will abate in proportion to the pressure. Although he won Brisbane, he looked imperfect in doing so and alluded to some emotional turmoil hovering around him.
Tomic vs. Mayer (RLA): Shortly after he reached the Brisbane final, Grigor Dimitrov experience a rude awakening when he became the first man to crash out of the Australian Open. Sydney champion Tomic must guard against the concern of having peaked too soon after winning his first career title, amidst chatter about his upcoming clash with Federer. But Leonardo Mayer should lack the consistency to pose any sustained challenge, while Tomic has excelled on home soil and reached the second week here last year with victories over much superior opponents.
Tsonga vs. Llodra (Hisense): A battle of two flamboyant Frenchmen rarely fails to entertain, no matter the scoreline. Formerly a finalist and semifinalist here, Tsonga embarks on his first season with coach Roger Rasheed, attempting to rebound from a paradoxical 2012 season in which he stayed in the top eight without conquering anyone in it. Across the net stands a compatriot who shares his fondness for hurtling towards the net and finishing points with sharply slashed volleys. Expect plenty of explosive, staccato tennis from a rollicking match filled with ebbs and flows.
Matosevic vs. Cilic (Margaret Court Arena): Like Haase and Murray, their meeting follows in the wake of some notable US Open history. Extending the Croat to a fifth set there last year, Matosevic built upon the best year of his career that saw him reach the top 50 and become the top Aussie man until Tomic surpassed him in Sydney (both on the court and in the rankings). Cilic has stabilized at a mezzanine level of the ATP since his initial breakthrough in 2008-09, when he looked likely to emulate Del Potro’s accomplishments. Of a similar stature and playing style to the former US Open champion, he appears to lack the competitive will necessary to take the next step forward.
Monfils vs. Dolgopolov (MCA): The first week of a major offers an ideal opportunity to check out unusual shot-makers who usually fall before the tournament’s marquee rounds. Recognizing this potential, the Melbourne schedulers have featured on a show court this fascinating pas de deux between two men who can produce—or at least attempt—any shot in the book. Their match should remind viewers of the imaginative quality to tennis, often lost in this era of fitness and raw power. Both men focus more on the journey than the destination, and style than substance: not a recipe for major titles but certainly a recipe for entertainment.
Haas vs. Nieminen (Court 3): Most had abandoned hope in the German when he started last year outside the top 200. Bursting back into relevance over the spring and summer, the 34-year-old Haas should inspire other men near the twilight of their careers. Among them is Nieminen, a veteran Finnish lefty without much polish but perhaps with enough wrinkles in his game to frustrate the easily ruffled Haas.
Wozniacki vs. Lisicki (Hisense): The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki has plummeted to the edge of the top 10 while losing four of her last six matches at majors. Despite a hopeful fall, the Danish counterpuncher started this year in deflating fashion with early losses at Brisbane and Sydney, still mired in doubt and anxiety. Lisicki has won two of their three previous meetings behind a booming serve that allowed her to seize and retain control of the points before Wozniacki could settle into neutral mode. Outside the grass season, she struggled even more than her opponent did last year, and a surface that seems very slow may dilute her greatest weapon. In theory, though, her huge game could unnerve Wozniacki again by denying her the rhythm that she prefers.
Suarez Navarro vs. Errani (MCA): A pair of clay specialists meet on a slow, high-bouncing hard court that should not feel too foreign to them. Suarez Navarro has become a credible dark horse in Melbourne, defeating Venus in the second round a few years ago and extending the then-formidable Kvitova to a third set in the same round last year. Meanwhile, Errani reached the quarterfinals at last year’s Australian Open, the first significant result that signaled her breakthrough and thus the first key bundle of points that she must defend.
Schiavone vs. Kvitova (MCA): This match could get gruesome quickly if both of them play as they did earlier in January. At the Hopman Cup, the aging Schiavone struggled to find the service box or her groundstroke timing, while Kvitova struggled to find any part of the court in Brisbane and Sydney. Those efforts prolonged a span in which the former Wimbledon champion has lost seven of her last ten matches, suggesting that she will bring little of the confidence necessary to execute her high-risk game. Schiavone nearly ended Kvitova’s title defense at the All England Club last year, suggesting that this match may contain as much upset potential as Wozniacki-Lisicki.
Oudin vs. Robson (Court 3): Phenoms past and present collide in this meeting of careers headed in opposite directions. While Oudin did resurface last summer with her first career title, she has extracted little from her counterpunching game since the US Open quarterfinal that vaulted her to fame perhaps too early. A highly awaited presence as soon as she won junior Wimbledon, Robson progressed significantly last season in both power and consistency, ultimately reaching the second week of the US Open. Will both of their trends continue, or will Oudin blunt the British lefty’s attack?
Petrova vs. Date-Krumm (Court 6): Surely not much longer on display, the age-defying Date-Krumm merits a trip to the outer courts for her sharply angled groundstrokes and the joy with which she competes. As if one needed any further reason to watch this match, Petrova produces ample entertainment with her percussive serves and crisp volleys, not to mention her bursts of classically Russian angst.
Putintseva vs. McHale (Court 7): As she recovers from the mono that sidelined her last year, the young American might have preferred a less intense opponent than the yowling, perpetually emoting bundle of energy that is Putintseva. The junior exudes with talent as well as aggression, so the quiet McHale cannot take her opponent in this stark clash of personalities too lightly.
Looking for a jumbo preview of the Australian Open men’s draw that breaks down each section of the brackets? Look no further. We take one quarter at a time in tracing the route of each leading contender, locating the most intriguing matches, projecting the semifinalists, and identifying one notable player to watch in each section.
First quarter: Seeking the first men’s three-peat Down Under of the Open era, Djokovic will want to conserve his energy during the first week and probably will. Although rising American star Ryan Harrison could threaten briefly in the second round, he lacks the experience to test the Serb in a best-of-five format, while potential third-round opponent Stepanek lacks the consistency to do so as his career wanes. Among the other figures of note in this vicinity are two resurgent Americans in Querrey and Baker, destined to meet in the second round. The winner may fancy his chances against Wawrinka, more comfortable on clay, and Querrey in particular could bring confidence from his upset of Djokovic in Paris to another clash with the Serb when the second week starts.
The quarter’s lower section features several men who share Wawrinka’s affinity for clay, such as Monaco and Verdasco. While the Spaniard’s career has sagged over the past year or two, the Argentine enjoyed his best season to date in 2012 as he reached the top ten for the first time. His reward lies in a clear route to the second week and an appointment with the enigmatic Berdych. Always susceptible to ebbs and flows, the world #6 ended last season optimistically with a semifinal at the US Open, where he upset Federer. But then Berdych started this season miserably by falling in Chennai to an opponent outside the top 50. He has won just one of his twelve career meetings with Djokovic, although the only victory came in one of their most important matches: a Wimbledon semifinal. While Berdych’s route to the quarterfinals looks comfortable, then, only a superb serving performance can shield him from the Serb’s more balanced array of weapons when he arrives there.
Player to watch: Querrey
Second quarter: The only section without a clear favorite proliferates with question marks but also with talent and intriguing narratives. In the draw’s most notable first-round match, Hewitt will open his 17th Australian Open campaign against the eighth-seeded Tipsarevic. A mismatch on paper, this encounter could develop into one of the late-night thrillers that have become a Melbourne tradition, and the home crowd might lift their Aussie to an improbable victory over an opponent less untouchable than those ranked above him. Other storylines include the apparent emergence of Grigor Dimitrov, previously familiar only for his facsimile of Federer’s playing style but now a Brisbane finalist. While the Bulgarian never has reached the third round of a major, his recent accomplishments and his desire to impress romantic interest Maria Sharapova might inspire him. He faces a challenging initial test against Benneteau, who fell just short of his second straight Sydney final.
Awarded his first seed in the main draw of a major, Jerzy Janowicz looks to continue his momentum from last fall when he reached the final at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament. Unlike Dimitrov, his route through the first round or two looks clear, and projected third-round opponent Almagro does not pose an insurmountable obstacle. Unless Janowicz improves upon his January efforts so far, however, Almagro can look ahead to the second week and perhaps even a quarterfinal against compatriot Ferrer. The highest seed in this section, the latter Spaniard will reach the top four after the tournament no matter his result. His fitness should carry him past erratic opponents like Baghdatis or Youzhny, although the titanic serve of Karlovic has troubled him before and merits watching in their second-round match. Having recorded multiple victories over Ferrer on marquee stages, Nishikori poses his most convincing pre-quarterfinal threat. But he has struggled with injury recently and may prove no better able to grind past the Spaniard in the heat than Almagro, who never has defeated him. If Tipsarevic reaches the quarterfinals, on the other hand, he will aim to reverse the outcome of their US Open quarterfinal last year, which he lost to Ferrer in a fifth-set tiebreak.
Player to watch: Dimitrov
Third quarter: Never has a man won his second major immediately after winning his first. Never, however, in the Open era had a British man won any major at all, so this bit of history should not intimidate the reigning US Open champion. Murray will start his campaign by reprising an odd encounter with Robin Haase at the 2011 US Open, which he rallied to win in five sets after losing the first two. The lanky Dutchman behind him, he will face nobody over the next few rounds with the firepower to discomfit him over this extended format. Throughout his section lie counterpunchers like Simon or Robredo or tactically limited players like Mayer and Stakhovsky. The two exceptions who could threaten Murray will meet in the first round. Reviving his career with solid results in Doha and Auckland, Monfils will pit his momentum against fellow showman Dolgopolov in a match likely to showcase plenty of electrifying shot-making.
Perhaps of more interest is the route traced by Del Potro, the most likely title contender outside the top three seeds. In the second round, the Tower of Tandil could meet surprising Slovakian Aljaz Bedene, who reached the Chennai semifinals to start the year and nearly upset Tipsarevic there. Owning more than enough weapons to dispatch the passive baseliner Granollers afterwards, Del Potro would open the second week against Marin Cilic. The Croat developed around the same time as the Argentine and honed a similar playing style to complement his similar physique. But Cilic has disappointed those who anointed him a future major champion and top-10 fixture, appearing to content himself with a lesser level of accomplishment. He must brace himself for an opening battle against home hope Marinko Matosevic, who took him to five sets in New York last fall. If Del Potro can reverse his 2009 loss to Cilic in that projected fourth-round encounter, he also must halt his winless hard-court record against Murray. The task does not loom as large as it might appear, for he has won sets in all four of those matches.
Player to watch: Del Potro
Fourth quarter: What a pity that leading Aussie hope Bernard Tomic can play only two rounds before descending into the maw of the GOAT, as he did in the fourth round here last year. All the same, Tomic will have the opportunity to knock off a seeded opponent in Martin Klizan while praying for a miracle from Federer’s second-round opponent, Nikolay Davydenko. (Those who saw their match at the 2010 Australian Open will remember how impressive the Russian looked against the Swiss—for a set and a half, after which he utterly collapsed.) Perhaps more formidable than the momentum of Tomic is the mighty serve of Milos Raonic, which nearly toppled Federer three times last year. In each of their matches, Federer managed to win the crucial handful of points late in final sets, but can he continue to escape so narrowly? The younger man cannot look too far ahead too soon, however, for a second-round match against Lukas Rosol lurks, and everyone knows what Rosol has done in the second round of majors.
Winless against top-eight opponents in 2012, former finalist Tsonga hopes to turn over a new leaf in 2013. To snap that streak, though, he must survive the early stages of the tournament against dangerous lurkers like Llodra and Bellucci. Tsonga has struggled at times against compatriots and has a losing career record against Gasquet, his projected fourth-round opponent. Fresh from his title in Doha, the world #10 never has plowed deep into the Australian draw and may not benefit this time from the weak first-week slates that he received at majors last year. Eyeing a possible upset is Haas, another artist of the one-handed backhand who has collaborated with Gasquet on memorable matches before. But the question remains whether any of these men currently can compete with Federer across a best-of-five match, and the answer seems clear.
Player to watch: Tomic
Final: Djokovic vs. Murray
Champion: Novak Djokovic
Come back tomorrow for the women’s preview, designed with the same level of detail!
By Kelyn Soong
Brian Baker’s biggest win on the ATP World Tour occurred in the first round of the 2005 U.S. Open, where he upset ninth-seeded Gaston Gaudio.
It would be more than six years and five major surgeries later before Baker would earn another ATP main draw victory.
After breezing through the qualifying rounds, the 27-year-old Baker defeated world No. 84 Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round of the Nice Open in France and will meet fourth seeded Gael Monfils next.
The win continues the comeback story of the former junior phenom, who earned a USTA wild card into the 2012 French Open by winning the Savannah Challenger in Georgia last month. For Baker, it will be a return to the scene he once commanded.
Back in 2003, Baker reached the Boys’ Singles final at Roland Garros – losing to former top 10 player Stanislas Wawrinka. En route he defeated 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis in the quarterfinals and current world No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals. The tennis world had its eyes on the tall, powerful American.
But injuries and surgeries – left hip, sports hernia, right hip, left hip again and a Tommy John elbow procedure – would rear its ugly head.
By the time Baker was 23, the Nashville, Tenn. native returned home and enrolled at nearby Belmont University, where he worked as an assistant tennis coach. He was majoring in business with a finance concentration and still has one more year to complete.
The degree may have to wait a little longer than planned.
Now world No. 216 and not far off from his career best of No. 172 from November 2004, Baker has jumped more than 200 spots since the beginning of the year.
In a career full of twists and turns, Baker now has the chance to make the biggest splash of them all – mounting a comeback that no one expected.
(Photo of Brian Baker by Kathy Willens, AP)
Marion Bartoli is set to play Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open today, but I bet you didn’t know she likes to oil paint and her best friend on tour is Dominika Cibulkova. I had a chance to chat with the bright, enthusiastic and funny Marion this week about Pierce Brosnan, her most memorable moment on court, snakes, chocolate cake, and being a humanitarian at heart.
What is your most memorable moment on court?
Semifinal Wimbledon 2007 against Justine Henin … before everything. The court … beating the #1 in the world … meeting Pierce Brosnan after the match. (Laughs) I felt like I was on top of the world for 10, 15 minutes after the match.
What is the best part of being a pro tennis player?
Traveling, meeting different people, having the crowd cheering for you, playing in front of a packed house. (Smiles)
If you weren’t a tennis palyer, what would you be and why?
I would probably be a scientist or someone who helps other people. That’s the education I received from my parents – my dad is a doctor, my mom is a nurse. They really have passed that on to me. Both of them were volunteers in some projects for people who didn’t have enough money that had cancer and HIV. They were going there and helping them for free.
Where you able to go with your parents to any of those projects?
Yes, I was going with my dad and my mom, and helping them out. I was a young child, my brother and I did go. It was very important to me.
If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?
Pete Sampras. (Laughs) Monica Seles. I met both of them and they were extremely nice people and that would be a dream.
If you’re hosting a party, what three tennis players do you invite and why?
Gael Monfils (Laughs) … because he’s so funny and his dancing level is extremely high. Dominika Cibulkova because she’s my best friend on the tour. And either Rafa or Roger because I just love them. (Smiles)
What are three things you couldn’t live without?
My paints … I love to oil paint outside of tennis. I love to do it every time I have some time off. My iPod… iPhone .. iPad … actually all three of them! (Laughs) And my Louis Vuitton bag.
Is it a purse?
Yes, it’s a purse. But they made is especially for me and I have my initial on the outside of the bag in gold.
What is your biggest indulgence?
When I’m at home, I love to cook. But actually I don’t really eat it. (Smiles) So I love to cook for others, my neighborhood. Anything with chocolate would work for me. (Smiles)
What is your favorite meal to make?
I love to make chocolate cake, of course. (Smiles) I love to make some crepes, spinach-and-ricotta-filling crepes as an appetizer. And then as a main course, l’agneau– it’s like a roasted lamb, but you roll it in paper and cook it in the oven with some potatoes and some French beans. (Smiles)
What is one thing that scares you?
Spiders, snakes – I hate them, oh my gosh! (Smiles) You can’t make me hold a snake in my hand, it’s just impossible.
If they had a player promotion where you had to hold a snake —
Yes, every time in the Sony Ericsson Open they have players hold this huge snake and I’m like, ‘No! I don’t want to do this!’ The dolphin, yes. But the snakes, no! (Laughs)
(Photo courtesy of Neal Trousdale. To check out more photos from the Sony Ericsson Open, check out Neal’s Flickr page.)
Current world #33 Yanina Wickmayer broke through the ranks at the 2009 U.S. Open escalating herself into the tennis spotlight. The Belgian tends to shy away from press but I had a chance to chat a few interesting topics with her at the Sony Ericsson Open this week. Did you know she has never met Serena Williams? Hard to believe, but it’s true!
What is your most memorable moment on court?
Probably my semifinals run in the U.S. Open and some Fed Cup moments.
If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be?
I chose between tennis and skiing, so maybe a skier.
If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?
I’ve actually never played Serena [Williams]. I look up to her a lot and have a lot of respect for her. She’s one of the biggest champions in women’s tennis, so maybe her.
Are you and Serena friends off-court?
No, never talked to her. (Laughs)
If you’re hosting a party, what three tennis players do you invite?
Probably [Gael] Monfils because of his dancing skills. And then the girls is tough to choose – I don’t want to be picky on them. (Laughs) But ‘Who would I invite?’ Hmm, Sabine Lisicki and Dominika [Cibulkova]. She’s a fun girl also.
What two things can’t you live without?
My dad. And …. I guess, happiness! (Laughs)
The top tennis players in the world converge this week for the 2012 Sony Ericsson Open in pristine Key Biscayne, Florida. As the world’s premier tournament outside of the four grand slams, these next two weeks are sure to bring many storylines and possibly some surprise winners on both the ATP and WTA tours.
Last week during the BNP Paribas Open, the tournament saw several high-profile players pull out due to a sweeping 48-hour long stomach bug that effected players, coaches and fans alike. One theory not yet tested in tennis is just how successful these same players will be in the week after their bodies and immune systems have had to fight off a vicious virus. That being said, will the players affected by last week’s stomach bug perform better or worse than their healthier counterparts this week in Key Biscayne? The answer: much better, and here’s why.
When the body is forced to fight an infection or virus, the immune system is initially compromised. But because of immunological memory, the body becomes more alert and “remembers” the pathogen it previously killed. You may have experienced this added alertness after recovering from a cold – you are less likely to contract another cold or virus directly after your initial cold because your immune system is more alert to foreign pathogens.
As tennis players’ immune systems are no different than our own, it’s very likely that they will respond in the same manner: the players who pulled out last week from the BNP Paribas Open are less likely to contract any new virus this week, and thus more likely to have extra energy as their bodies should be fully recovered and their immune systems more alert.
The list of pull-outs is no short list, and includes Petra Kvitova, Francesca Schiavone, Gael Monfils, Vera Zvonareva, Vania King, Jurgen Melzer, Mike Bryan, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Andreas Seppi, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Magdalena Rybarikova. Meanwhile, even Roger Federer stated he felt “under the weather” at the beginning of the tournament.
As the players range anywhere from number 1 on the ATP rankings to number 86 on the WTA rankings, it will be interesting to see the players’ progression through the draw. As some will undoubtedly fizzle out due to other factors, it’s no certain science, but I would bet that at least a few of these players will have better than expected results during the next two weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schiavone or Melzer bust through with excellent runs, and now you would know why. It’s all thanks to their immune system.
by Maud Watson
Pushing the Limits
In the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Severus Snape once said, “Well, it may have escaped your notice, but life isn’t fair.” Of course, Professor Snape was saying that to the Boy Who Lived, but it pretty much sums up what Dubai tournament officials told No. 1 Arab player Malek Jaziri (ranked No. 104) and the press, as they attempted to justify giving a disputed wildcard to Marko Djokovic (younger brother of Novak and ranked 869) instead. The uproar caused by the decision is only partially justifiable, and it’s most likely strictly due to the fact it involved the younger brother of the current No. 1. The Djokovic family did nothing wrong, having submitted the wildcard request at least a month ago. And as for Novak’s part in getting his brother the wildcard, he’s not the first star player to use his leverage. Many top tier players use their elite status to rake in huge appearance fees, and some, such as Hewitt and Clijsters, have also used leverage to garner wildcards for younger siblings. It’s also not uncommon for tournaments to weigh other factors over actual merit when doling out wildcards. How many French, American, and Australian players have benefited from the reciprocal major wildcard agreement between their home governing bodies that competitors from non-Slam nations can only dream of? And don’t get me started on the number of undeserving British players that have been handed a free pass to play on the most hallowed grounds in the sport. The real fault lies in how poorly tournament officials handled the situation. They previously told Jaziri he wouldn’t have to play the qualifying event only to pull the rug out from under him in the 11th hour by giving the wildcard to the younger Djokovic. Had it been handled more professionally, Jaziri may not have been as disgruntled. And yes, the extremely low ranking of Marko Djokovic does suggest officials were pushing the limits. Then again, had it been awarded to a local Arab player of the same ranking, would this even be a topic of discussion? I think not.
New Day, New Clay
Come April, France will look to do what Switzerland could not – defeat the United States Davis Cup team on clay. This time it will be an outdoor clay court set in picturesque Monte Carlo. But while the venue will serve as a beautiful locale, it’s still a surprising decision. French No. 1 Tsonga has already stated clay is not his best surface. A quicker hard court would help shorten the long rallies in which Monfils frequently finds himself entangled, not to mention better suit Llodra’s attacking style. The long short of it is that, barring injuries, these are going to be two evenly matched teams no matter what the surface, and the French need to avoid falling into a false sense of security. Playing the U.S. on the red dirt doesn’t mean what it did a decade or so ago.
Own Worst Enemy
Be it counting backwards from 10, taking a few deep breaths, or taking a page out of Frank Costanza’s book and yelling “Serenity now!” (risking insanity later), Tomas Berdych needs to find some way of letting the little things go. On a breakpoint for Berdych to extend the second set into a tiebreak, a Murray serve was initially called out, only to have Hawkeye reverse the call. Mohamed Lahyani then awarded the point to Murray rather than replaying it, infuriating Berdych in the process. It’s understandable that Berdych would rue letting the break point go, especially since he’d already saved multiple match points. But while he got his racquet on the serve, Lahyani was correct in his ruling. The initial out call in no way affected Berdych’s play on it, and yet, the Czech was still ranting about it in his press conference. But this isn’t the first time Berdych has failed to understand the rules and etiquette of the game, and sadly it probably won’t be the last. He needs to learn to stop sweating the small stuff. It doesn’t help his game any, and it certainly won’t win him any fans. With a game as big as his – a game that is capable of earning him a major – it would just be a waste to see it not come to full fruition simply because he can’t get out of his own way.
She won’t get a ton of press, because she doesn’t have multiple majors to her name, nor is she known outside tennis circles. All of that aside, the undisputed feel-good story of the week is Alisa Kleybanova’s planned return to WTA competition. The young Russian announced last July that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would be undergoing treatment in Italy. She now says she’s finished her cancer treatment, the doctors are pleased with her health, and she’s anxious to return to action. Stories like this really drive home the point that tennis is just a game, and hopefully she’ll be an inspiration to others. One thing is for certain – win or lose when she returns to the court in Miami later this month, it will go down as a victory.
The worlds of sports and entertainment are never lacking for surprises, and this week was no exception. Who can honestly say that they saw the announcement that Martina Navratilova would be joining the Season 14 cast of Dancing with the Stars coming? There are players I’d love to see take to the dance floor, and others that I can see wanting to join the cast. Somehow the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion didn’t fit either mold. It’s hard to imagine her in a frilly ball gown. But she may just be full of surprises. She’s fit, and she also possesses the work ethic and commitment necessary for success. But it will be interesting to see how easily she takes direction from one of the show’s regular pros, Tony Dovolani, as well as criticism from the judges. Hopefully she proves adept at both. It’s just a fun TV show, but after the Seles debacle a few seasons ago, tennis could do with posting a respectable finish.
by Maud Watson
That’s pretty much all a stunned Swiss team could do after a shocking loss to the United States in Davis Cup play last weekend (and if the damage control Federer was rightfully forced to do following that loss is any indication, they couldn’t even explain the defeat diplomatically). There were many factors that contributed to the upset, but first and foremost was the inspired play by the United States under the cunning captaincy of Jim Courier. The American squad comprised of Fish, Isner, Harrison and Mike Bryan was a talented group, but up against a Swiss team that included Federer, playing in Switzerland, and on clay, it was to be an uphill battle for the red, white and blue. But boy did they deliver. Then there was the subpar play of Wawrinka, who appeared to struggle with the pressure. Federer was also at fault, as he seemed pressed at times. His backhand, especially on the return, proved a real liability, particularly in the doubles. Finally, there was the surface itself. Never mind that both teams found it nearly unplayable. They shouldn’t have played on clay in the first place. With the possible exception of Spain, countries need to chuck out the conventional wisdom that it’s best to play the U.S. on the red dirt. In this case, an indoor hard court similar to the World Tour Finals would have been best. It would have eliminated many of the high backhands Federer had to field, plus there would have been the confidence he would have felt on that surface after the way he finished 2011. That assurance likely would have rubbed off on Wawrinka, and then the whole weekend might have been different. But hindsight is 20/20. Hats off the Americans for some fine play, and it’s back to the drawing board for the Swiss.
Whether she is aware of it or not, Caroline Wozniacki is at a crucial point in her career. Playing in Doha in her first match since losing in the Aussie Open and the No. 1 ranking in the process, she not only suffered defeat to Safarova, she did so after holding three match points. Safarova is no slouch, and she’s proven her ability to beat the game’s top stars on multiple occasions. But this was still a bad loss for Wozniacki. This was a match that wasn’t in her hands, and it was ultimately Safarova’s willingness to take risks and control the situation that allowed her to snatch victory away from her Danish opponent. This should be a wakeup call to Wozniacki that she needs to be looking to beef up her game and add more offense. She’s still No. 4, and even by women’s tennis standards, she’s still young. There’s still time to change. But she’s not going to turn it around by being obstinate and keeping only her father as coach and acting relatively indifferent to these losses. Without changes, losses like the one to Safarova are only going to pile up, and pretty soon, she may just find herself on the outside of the Top 10 looking in.
Last year, audiences saw a woman by the name of Angelique Kerber make a Cinderella run to reach the semifinals of the US Open, where she lost in three sets to the eventual champion, Sam Stosur. But in 2012, Kerber is playing some great tennis, showing that run to the semis of the US Open was a precursor of what was to come. She surprised Sharapova en route to the final last week in Paris, before breaking some hearts by defeating native Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli in the final. She needs to continue to work on her fitness and consistency, but with her big strokes, fighting spirit, and the unpredictable nature of the women’s tour, there’s definitely room for her in the upper echelons of the game.
As is par for the course, injuries continue to plague the top players. Gael Monfils has pulled out of both San Jose and Memphis citing a right knee injury. Unfortunately for Monfils, with the way he plays, these injuries are apt to only grow in number and severity as his career progresses. Andy Roddick is also nursing a hamstring injury and a freshly hurt ankle, which nearly cost him his match against qualifier Kudla in San Jose. As a player who is used to being at the top and not particularly known for his patience, this latest setback will be one more test as Roddick thinks about how much longer he wants to go through the grind and stay on tour. Spare a thought for Tommy Robredo also, who appeared to have his game back on track early last season before suffering a severe leg injury at Indian Wells. The Spaniard played only a handful of matches after that and will now be undergoing leg surgery. He hopes to be back for the spring clay court season. On the women’s side, Kim Clijsters has already opted to pull out of Indian Wells, citing an ankle injury. Her case is a little suspect given the way she played on a bum ankle in Australia and the fact that Indian Wells is still a few weeks away, but the Belgian’s history of injuries is well-documented. In her case, it wouldn’t be shocking to see her pull the plug immediately following the Olympics, as she hobbles across the finish line of her career.
The USTA has signed a new sponsorship deal with Emirates Airlines to be the title sponsor of the US Open Series and the official airline of the US Open. Sponsorship dollars are a major plus, especially since the US Open Series has helped increase tennis viewership throughout the summer hard court season. But this is just one piece of the puzzle to helping the USTA solve the problems that have plagued them the last few years. They are going to have to look into making other changes and improvements if they wish to keep players, fans, television carriers, and all sponsors happy.
(photo © Getty Images)