Two-time champion and No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka was forced to withdraw from the Sony Open in Miami on Friday with a right ankle injury, the same injury that forced her out of her quarterfinal match with Caroline Wozniacki in Indian Wells.
“It’s just I wanted to give my 100% possibility to play, and today was my last test. It’s just, you know, the last two days I tried to practice on it, which did not get better,” Azarenka said.
Azarenka, the Australian Open and Qatar Total Open champion, is 17-0 in 2013. “I tried to play on Wednesday for the first time after Indian Wells, and the next day my foot got a little bit worse. I tried to play again yesterday and it got a little bit worse again. Today it got worse again during the play. So yesterday I thought that, you know, possibly I’m not going to be able to play. Today I went on the court and I got more pain. I cannot really move.”
Azarenka is scheduled to headline the field in Monterrey, Mexico, a WTA International-level event that begins on April 1; she is to be joined there by Angelique Kerber, Marion Bartoli and Maria Kirilenko. “Right now on the schedule is Monterrey, but I have no—I have not made my decision on that.” Should Azarenka withdraw from the event, it would not be the first time that the tournament deals with the loss of a marquee player in its field; last season, Serena Williams committed to the event but withdrew due to a left knee injury.
Beyond Monterrey, Azarenka is looking ahead to the European clay court season and Roland Garros. “I’m going to have a longer preparation than usual for my clay season. My biggest target is going to be French Open, so I’m going to do everything I can to be ready, and, you know, to make sure that I come in in the best form there and try to win the title.”
For a player of her status, Azarenka has rarely been a consistent factor at the second major of the year. She owns a meager 14-7 career record in Paris in seven appearances. In 2009, arguably her breakthrough season, Azarenka had her best result at the clay court slam. She defeated defending champion Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round before falling to eventual finalist Dinara Safina in a three-set quarterfinal match, her first quarterfinal appearance at a major. Azarenka matched that feat in 2011, where she fell to Li Na, the eventual champion, in straight sets.
Movement on clay is key for any player, but more so for Azarenka; the Belarusian is not naturally quick even at full flight, but anticipates the game well. She does not possess a huge serve or outright firepower that would assist her in hitting through the slow conditions. 15 of Azarenka’s 16 career titles have come on hard courts; she was the champion in Marbella, on clay, in 2011.
In order to contend at Roland Garros, Azarenka needs to be in top form and healthy to compensate for her short comings and low comfort level on the surface. Last year, Azarenka was bundled off the court by Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round, a match in which Azarenka was rarely the aggressor.
Azarenka is currently not entered in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart in April, where she reached the final last year. She is entered in both the Mutua Madrid Open and the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in May. No doubt aware of her past struggles at Roland Garros, Azarenka was asked to rate her chances at the event this season if healthy. “I think there is going to be two tournaments before that on clay. You will see me play and then everybody will make their own decisions.”
Azarenka was replaced by lucky loser Lauren Davis, who had lost in the final round of qualifying to Mallory Burdette. Davis eventually saved three match points en route to defeating fellow American teenager Madison Keys, 6-1, 5-7, 7-6(7).
Outside of the US Open, the back-to-back two-week hard court events in Indian Wells and Miami are the biggest tennis events in the United States. As a result, every year around this time, the same tedious debate arises between fans and pundits alike; is tennis ready for a “fifth slam” and if it is, where should it be held? Everyone has their own opinions about which tournament could be upgraded to the “fifth slam.” Is it Indian Wells because it has Hawkeye on every court? Or is it Miami because the presence of the Williams sisters completes the women’s field?
(For the record, I think that they should hold it in Bogota. I mean, Jelena Jankovic won there and it had live streams from two courts from the first day! Bogota sees your bet and raises you, Miami.)
This year, Miami’s status as the “fifth slam” has taken a hit, as the men’s event has been decimated by withdrawals; Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the marquee names skipping the event, along with notable top 50 names Radek Stepanek, Stanislas Wawrinka and Mardy Fish.
While that isn’t great, let’s focus on the players that are actually in Miami. One of those players in Juan Martin del Potro.
Del Potro was the only player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a major title on the men’s side in the past six years until Andy Murray joined the club at the US Open in 2012. As Murray’s pushed his way to the top and expanded the “Big Three” to the “Big Four,” Del Potro has taken up the reigns as the most accomplished, and probably most dangerous, of the supporting cast of relevant characters on the ATP tour.
Despite being troubled by his wrist last week in Indian Wells, Del Potro put together one of his best runs since being sidelined for almost a year by that very wrist after winning the US Open. He defeated Murray in the quarterfinals and Novak Djokovic in the semifinals to reach the final against Nadal. Despite leading by a set and a break, Del Potro couldn’t seal the deal and Nadal won his third event out of the four he’s played since returning from injury. If anything, Indian Wells was a testament to the vice grip that the so-called “Big Four” have on the ATP; an accomplished player can beat two of them, only to run into another and come home with the runner-up plate.
In his post-final press conference, Del Potro said that despite the amount of tennis he played in Indian Wells, he would be going to Miami; despite the fast turnaround, he was “excited to play there.” Del Potro’s excitement, which he later elaborated on, stems from how many of his Argentinian fans, friends and family come to watch him in Miami.
Thus, we return to this illusive idea of the “fifth slam.” Butch Buchholz founded the Miami Masters in 1985 and helped develop it into what it is today; while he had hoped to turn the event into the fifth major, Miami has instead settled for title of “the grand slam of Latin America.” Latin American and Spanish-speaking players receive immense support in Key Biscayne, as it lies south of Miami Beach and east of Miami itself. It came as no surprise that Fernando Gonzalez, one of the biggest tennis stars from that part of the world, chose the Miami Masters as his farewell tournament when he retired in 2012.
With Gonzalez now out of the game, the pressure is squarely on the (very broad) shoulders of Juan Martin del Potro to be the big name of Latin American tennis. Having only been past the fourth round once in Miami, Del Potro appears to be rounding in to form, even showing glimpses of what made him the last man standing at Flushing Meadows in 2009, just in time for his “home slam.”
“So I’m just enjoying, you know, to play out there.”
Perhaps Maria Kirilenko has enjoyed playing tennis under the scenic desert skies of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden just a bit too much.
Kirilenko won her fourth consecutive three-set match at Indian Wells against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday, advancing to the semifinals of a WTA Premier Mandatory event for the first time. In those four consecutive victories against Christina McHale, Mallory Burdette, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kvitova, Kirilenko has logged a whopping nine hours and 31 minutes on court.
Having turned professional in 2001, Kirilenko was long considered just another “glamor girl” of women’s tennis. She was “the other Maria from Russia,” the original face of the Adidas by Stella McCartney line, and also appeared in the 2009 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. On the court, the Russian has always been dangerous, but rarely had a chance to make the next step. However, she’s made a firm statement with her racket over the past 18 months. She took home a bronze medal with Nadia Petrova at the London Olympics, won her first singles title since 2008 in Pattaya City in February, and is knocking on the door of the top 10.
While Kirilenko’s game might not feature a single defining weapon, she does everything well. She combines athleticism and court craft, injects paces when she needs to and possesses a steely resolve and will to win. She rallied from a set down against McHale, a set and a break down against Kvitova and came through with flying colors in an extended third set against Radwanska. That is what has made her run in Palm Springs all the more impressive; when down and out, Kirilenko has dug in her heels and found a way to win.
The win against No. 4 Radwanska was Kirilenko’s best in terms of ranking. The win against Kvitova was her second consecutive against a top 10 opponent. Despite the contrasting styles of play of those two opponents, each match had a similar theme. She was the underdog.
Kirilenko has always been capable of pulling off a long, grinding upset in her WTA career. Who could forget her three-hour, 22-minute marathon win against Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open in 2010? Or how she and Samantha Stosur played the longest tiebreak set, 17-15, in Grand Slam history at the US Open in 2011? However, it has been Kirilenko’s body, perhaps her greatest strength, that has let her down in the past. A full slate of singles and doubles matches always caught up to her in the end. Earlier this season, Kirilenko made the decision to forego doubles to work on improving her singles game.
It’s clearly helped. Many of Kirilenko’s victories are punctuated with a smile, a fist pump and a shriek of delight. She radiates pure, unadulterated joy, as if she wants to let the fans know just how much all the hard work means to her and how much it’s finally paying off.
On a day in Stadium 1 where Stanislas Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis came tantalizing close to pulling off upsets over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what seemed like the umpteenth time, only to fail in the clutch, Kirilenko showed once again that she hasn’t backed away from the pressure moments this week.
Instead, she’s embraced them.
“I feel I can be on this level. Nothing is scary out there now. I can compete with them and win.”
Flavia and Francesca.
While the two might be in the wrong business to be known by a single stage name, there is no doubt that Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone have been the faces of Italian women’s tennis for the better part of a decade.
Despite having contrasting styles, each brings something unique to women’s tennis. Schiavone, no doubt the flashier of the two, is the master of an all-court game and a classic clay court style; she uses an extreme Eastern grip on her one-handed backhand, a dying art in women’s tennis. Pennetta, to her credit, possesses some of the most aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes on the WTA; she’s renowned for her great timing, clean strokes, tenacity and net skills. They are similar in one respect; each time they’ve taken the court, they’ve played with immense passion and heart.
They’ve triumphed individually; Pennetta was the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top ten in singles, win a major title in doubles when she triumphed with Gisela Dulko in women’s doubles at the Australian Open in 2011 and be ranked No. 1 in either discipline when she and Dulko topped the women’s doubles list; Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top five in singles and win a singles major title at Roland Garros in 2010. They’ve triumphed together; with a combined a 48-24 total record in Fed Cup, the duo led Italy to three titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
Each has had so many standout moments over their long careers that it’s difficult to pick just one. Aside from her major triumph, Schiavone will probably best be remembered for one of the highest quality matches in the history of the WTA, when she and Svetlana Kuznetsova contested the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history at the Australian Open in 2011.
Pennetta, a three-time US Open quarterfinalist, made the most improbable of her three runs in 2011. Following her third round defeat of Maria Sharapova, Pennetta rallied past Peng Shuai, dry heaves and the mid-day New York heat to advance to her third career US Open quarterfinal. Having witnessed the match live, I can scarcely think of many other times when a New York crowd so firmly and whole-heartedly supported a non-American player.
In recent years, however, age and injuries have played their part. Barely hanging on to her spot in the top 100, Pennetta returned from a six month absence after wrist surgery in Acapulco, where Schiavone won back-to-back matches for the first time since Wimbledon. In that time, Italian women’s tennis had been overtaken by another dynamic duo.
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci spent a lot of time during those three Fed Cup title runs cheering on the sidelines. However, they’ve taken the mantle vacated by Schiavone and Pennetta and firmly seized control of it. Errani became the second Italian woman to reach a major final, something some expected Pennetta to do. Vinci, despite being just a year younger than Pennetta, has had the best 18 months of her singles career. They show no signs of slowing down in doubles either, as they currently hold three of the four majors and are the undisputed No. 1 team in the world.
In the first round of Fed Cup, it was Errani and Vinci who singlehandedly led Italy over the United States and instead, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett cheered from the sidelines. It was the first time neither Pennetta nor Schiavone were named to an Italian Fed Cup team in over 10 years; one or the other was always a constant presence since Schiavone made her debut in 2002, and Pennetta a year later in 2003.
On a Wednesday in Indian Wells, these two WTA stalwarts, Fed Cup teammates and friends took the court for a singles match for the first time in three years. After Schiavone defeated Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in a non-televised match under the setting California sun, one couldn’t help but wonder if the sun is also setting on their time at the top of the game. Whatever happens at the end of this season, it would be fitting for two of the WTA’s strongest characters to leave the sport the way they entered it.
There are players on both the ATP and WTA Tours who are naturally talented; as we know, some don’t work as hard as others, and their results attest to that. Others are not as naturally gifted athletes, but push themselves to the limits and work themselves hard every day to maximize every bit of their potential. However, there are a small, select few that don’t fall completely into either group. You can argue their games have stagnated, that they haven’t improved in their time as professionals, or that they aren’t making full use of their skill set. Nonetheless, every so often, the draw goes right and they come out in the winner’s circle.
Magdalena Rybarikova is one of those players.
Rybarikova, like her contemporaries, had a solid career on the junior circuit. She reached the final at the junior Wimbledon event in 2006; en route, she defeated familiar WTA names in Ksenia Pervak, Alisa Kleybanova and Tamira Paszek before falling in three sets to Caroline Wozniacki in the finals. Rybarikova’s senior breakthrough came in 2009, again on grass; she won her first title in Birmingham, defeating among others, Zheng Jie, Urszula Radwanska and Li Na (with a bagel!) in the final.
She has never won a match in the main draw of the women’s singles event at Wimbledon.
She’s won two WTA titles on hard courts, both in the United States. She defeated Rebecca Marino to win Memphis in 2011, and defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to win in Washington, D.C. in 2012. She made the third round at the US Open twice, in 2008 and 2009.
She has never won a match in the main draw of the women’s singles event at the Australian Open.
With up and down results like these, what has made the Slovakian successful and enabled her to win not just one but three WTA titles in her career? Many higher-ranked and arguably more accomplished peers including Shuai Peng, Tsvetana Pironkova, and Christina McHale are still title-less, so how has Rybarikova done it?
There’s something about Rybarikova that just exudes nonchalance. Perhaps it’s her all-court game, a breath of fresh air when she’s playing well. Perhaps it’s her calm demeanor; you usually can’t tell if she’s winning or losing, and she is rarely phased by anything on court. Or perhaps it’s her ability to fly under the radar for almost her entire career, as countrywomen Daniela Hantuchova and Dominika Cibulkova have taken the headlines. Her best career win came in 2011 at an ITF $100,000 event in Prague, where she defeated Petra Kvitova, ranked No. 10 at the time, in the final.
Despite all that, consistency has been the biggest thing that’s been lacking in Rybarikova’s career. Having peaked at a career-high of No. 40 in 2009, Rybarikova’s years on the WTA have ranged from solid to dreadful. She ended 2007 ranked No. 279, and finished the next year inside the top 60 at No. 58. In 2010 however, she finished back down at No. 104 before finishing 2011 at No. 72. In July of last season, Rybarikova’s ranking plummeted back to No. 122, but a quarterfinal in Baku and the title in Washington D.C. firmly cemented her back in the top 100.
A talented player, Rybarikova has no business languishing around in the third and fourth tier of women’s tennis; while not a world beater, she has the skills to be solid. Something else Rybarikova’s lacked in her career is a big win at the WTA level; one where all parts of her game click and her talent shines through. Perhaps a win over Venus Williams in the quarterfinals at the WTA event in Florianopolis, her second straight quarterfinal after losing in the semifinals of Memphis, on Thursday evening could help her do just that.
Rebecca Marino announced on Wednesday that she was stepping away from her tennis career, perhaps for good. The Canadian’s ranking had slipped to outside the top 400 after returning from a seven-month absence, but she appeared to be approaching 2013 with a fresh mentality. A few days earlier, the former World No. 38 spoke candidly to The New York Times about the effect that online abuse had on her decision to take a break from tennis. Following her second announcement, Marino held a conference call where she also spoke openly about her struggles with depression.
While Marino made it clear that she had been suffering from depression for the better part of six years and sought help during her sabbatical last year, her story is one of many in the shark tank that is a tennis player’s relationship with social media as a whole.
Tennis has a large online following which far outweighs its characterization as a ‘niche sport.’ The rise of social media over the better part of the past five years has allowed fans access to a player’s inner circle. First, players posted exclusive content on their websites and next came personal pictures and stories on their official Facebook pages. Both of these could be monitored by a third party, but Twitter added another dimension; it allowed fans to theoretically interact directly with players. As tennis players travel the world week in and week out, their fans get a chance to see the world as they do.
Teen sensations Laura Robson and Eugenie Bouchard, who are both avid tweeters, took the social networking site by storm in October when they released their version of the popular ‘Gangnam Style’ dance craze featuring cameos by Heather Watson, Maria Sharapova, Samantha Stosur, Fernando Verdasco, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the WTA physio team. It may have never crossed their minds to create this gem of the Internet, nor may it have been available for fans if it weren’t for sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
With all the good, however, comes the bad.
As one would imagine, not all of this fan interaction is positive. There is perhaps an unwritten rule in the tennis-tweeting community to ‘never @ the player you’re speaking negatively of,’ but if players really wanted to find negative comments written about them, Twitter makes it all too easy for them to do so. Not only can players scroll through their mentions to read tweets directly composed to them, they can search their surname to find all tweets of which they are the subject.
Following Robson’s three-set loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai on Monday, she received her fair share of the abuse that has unfortunately become infamous on the social networking site. Some of the negative comments may have led to the Brit briefly deactivating her account; however, she reinstated it less than a day later. As Marino confirmed to The New York Times, much of the abuse comes from disgruntled bettors who lost money betting on a match. The majority of these comments are not even constructive in nature; they are hateful, personal attacks laced with profanity.
To avoid all of this, some players don’t even manage their own accounts, or merely hook it up to tweet links from their Facebook pages; setups like this provide little or no fan interaction. Other players who enjoy interacting with their fans, such as Paul-Henri Mathieu, have tried their best to take a stand.
to all who are insulting me after my losses, wich happen at least once every week…if u are betting its your choice
— Paul Henri Mathieu (@Paulomathieu) February 11, 2013
While there is much more to Rebecca Marino’s story than just online abuse, it shows that at the end of the day, no one really knows much about the majority of the people he or she is interacting with online. The power of anonymity on the Internet is an incredible thing; no one really knows how overly abusive or negative comments, coupled with whatever else a player is dealing with, can affect them.
Just a quick reminder: pro athletes are humans! not robots…..
— Anastasia Rodionova (@arodionova) February 21, 2013
Just because an athlete is in the public eye doesn’t mean he or she should be treated with any less respect; many smartphones have the capability to sync with Twitter, so the vitriol and abuse, along with the praise and support, is as close as a player’s back pocket. Repeated encounters with this would no doubt have an effect on just about everyone.
The WTA has had its share of infamous parents, particularly fathers, over the years. First there was Jim Pierce, Mary Pierce’s father, who was physically and mentally abusive to Mary for the majority of her formative years. In November of 1992, the ‘Jim Pierce rule’ passed, which stated a member of a player’s entourage, whether it be an agent, parent or coach, could be banned for his or her conduct. He was banned from all remaining events of the 1993 season due to violent behavior towards Mary at that year’s French Open.
Next came Marinko Lucic, father of Mirjana. Lucic, who made the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1999 at just 17, said her father started physically beating her at the tender age of five and also beat her mother and siblings. Years of physical and verbal abuse followed Lucic’s young career, until countryman Goran Ivanisevic saved the family and helped them move to the United States. Stefano Capriati was also alleged to have crossed the line with his daughter Jennifer and used the teenaged Capriati as the cash cow for her family.
Damir Dokic is perhaps the most infamous father in tennis history due to a variety of off-court incidents; he accused the Australian Open organizers of fixing the draw against his daughter in 2001, complained about the price of food at the US Open and was kicked out of Wimbledon for being drunk and disorderly. In June 2009, Damir was arrested and eventually sentenced to 15 months in prison for threatening the Australian ambassador to Serbia; he and Jelena reconciled in 2011, ending their eight-year feud. Arsalan Rezai, whose daughter Aravane seemed poised to be a contender on the WTA after winning Madrid in 2010, was indefinitely banned from the WTA after a violent incident with Aravane and her boyfriend at the 2011 Australian Open. The incident has had a profound effect on the Frenchwoman, who has slipped to near No. 200 in the WTA rankings.
While Piotr Wozniacki has not approached these extremely abusive levels, he’s become a tennis villain in his own right. Much like Yuri Sharapov before him, Piotr has been the one constant in Caroline’s tennis career, perhaps to a fault. Over the past few years, Caroline has been criticized just as much for Piotr’s domineering presence in on-court coaching visits as she has for her defensive game style or “Slamless No. 1” status. Many have called for Caroline to fire her father as coach and employ someone who knows the game better to try and help her win her maiden Slam title.
When the Wozniackis hired Ricardo Sanchez in early 2012, it seemed as though she had turned a corner; however, this coaching relationship latest all of two months, and Sanchez later stated that it was impossible to coach Caroline under Piotr’s influence. Both father and daughter have insisted to the press that their system is the best system for Caroline.
On Thursday in Doha, Caroline argued with chair umpire Julie Kjendlie over a phantom ‘out’ call during her match with Mona Barthel. Piotr felt the need to join in from the stands, and the scene became a circus when a WTA official came to confront him.
As a spectator, Piotr has no right to argue his daughter’s case or strike up any sort of conversation with the chair umpire or other officials from the stands, and Kjendlie should never have engaged him. Players have no right to claim hindrance based on calls from the crowd, and as the linesman signaled the ball in with his hands, it should have been ruled a clean winner and Barthel’s point. Kjendlie was in the midst of explaining this to Caroline when Piotr got involved. Following his tirade, she proceeded to change her ruling and ordered the point to be replayed.
Was Kjendlie ‘bullied’ into doing so? Maybe. Nonetheless, she should’ve stood her ground here; the first rule of umpiring is stick to your guns, no matter what. But that doesn’t, even for a second, excuse Piotr’s behavior.
Maria Sharapova finally put Yuri in the backseat after winning the Australian Open in 2008. After firing her father as coach and hiring Tomasz Wiktorowski as coach in July 2011, Wozniacki’s friend and rival Agnieszka Radwanska finally reached the next level; she peaked at World No. 2, reached the Wimbledon final in 2012 and has cemented her status as a top-five player. Marion Bartoli, who recently settled her rift with the French Tennis Federation and was named to the Fed Cup team for the first time since 2004, stated that her father will no longer be coaching her, ending the other high-profile WTA father-daughter coaching relationship.
It can’t be denied that Wozniacki reached the pinnacle of women’s tennis under her father’s tutelage. However, his on-court episodes have become more and more frequent following Caroline’s slide down the rankings. If other players can ‘put on the big girl pants’ and take control of their own careers, why can’t Caroline?
Because she doesn’t want to. At the end of the day, Caroline is an adult; if she wanted to end the coaching relationship with her father, she would’ve done so already.
One of the things that makes tennis so unique is the ability to categorize periods in the sport by generations; the struggle of the “new guard” to take control from the “old guard” is a constantly recurring narrative. With the news Wednesday that Agnes Szavay has officially retired from professional tennis due to lingering back issues, it’s only right to take a look at the highest-profile players in what can be dubbed “The Lost Generation” of the WTA; each of these women, fairly close in age, all found success over a short period of time that all went away in an instant due to injuries, personal problems or both.
It all began with Nicole Vaidisova.
In 2004, her first full season as a professional, Vaidisova became the sixth-youngest champion in WTA at the Tier V event in Vancouver, aged 15 years, three months and 23 days. Behind her strong serve and attacking baseline game, Vaidisova looked to be the next champion who had been groomed of the courts of the Bollettieri academy.
Despite being born in 1989, Vaidisova was a force on the senior circuit while her contemporaries were still playing juniors. When she made the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2006, defeating Amelie Mauresmo and Venus Williams along the way, Caroline Wozniacki was the second seed in the junior event, players including Dominika Cibulkova and Ekaterina Makarova were unseeded there, and Agnieszka Radwanska won the title; in addition, Victoria Azarenka was the 2005 ITF Junior World Champion. Vaidisova reached her second Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 2007, and peaked at No. 7 in May of that year.
Also in 2007, the trio of Anna Chakvetadze, Tatiana Golovin and Szavay arrived.
Golovin burst on to the scene very early in her professional career, reaching the fourth round in her debut at the 2004 Australian Open and winning the mixed doubles with Richard Gasquet at their home slam in Paris later that year. She boasted an impressive all court game, also highlighted by a lethal forehand. Inconsistency followed, but Golovin found form late in 2006, when she reached her first, and only, Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. She captured her two career WTA titles in 2007, finished runner-up to Justine Henin in two big events in the fall indoor season, and ended that year as World No. 13.
At her peak, Chakvetadze was perhaps the only player with legitimate claim to the (oft-misguided) comparison to Martina Hingis; Hingis herself affirmed the comparisons, once stating, “She’s very smart around the court and she has good vision. You don’t see anything specific that she’s winning matches [with] so I definitely see some similarities.” The Russian burst on the scene in 2004 as well, when she qualified and defeated reigning Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina in the first round of the US Open. Following a steady rise, she won her biggest career title at the Tier I event in Moscow in late 2006; on the back of a quarterfinal in Australia in 2007, she made her top 10 debut in February. Another quarterfinal at Roland Garros, a semifinal at the US Open and four titles put her among the elite at the 2007 Year-End Championships in Madrid. She is one of only a handful of players who can boast a win over both Williams sisters.
Possessed with a strong serve and elegant two-handed backhand, Szavay rose from obscurity to “destined for stardom” in a matter of a few months in 2007. As a qualifier at the Tier II event in New Haven, she reached the final, where she was forced to retire against Svetlana Kuznetsova up a set due to…a lower back injury; looking back, an injury which had originally been attributed to a taxing week may have been a sign of things to come. Nonetheless, Szavay reached the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she was again stopped by Kuznetsova. The Hungarian pulled off a lot of upsets in 2007, but perhaps greatest of these was her 6-7(7), 7-5, 6-2 triumph over Jelena Jankovic in the Tier II event in Beijing; at a set and 5-1 down, Szavay hit a second serve ace down match point en route to one of the greatest WTA comebacks in recent memory.
After starting the season ranked No. 189, Szavay ended it ranked No. 20. For her efforts, she was named the 2007 WTA Newcomer of the Year.
With the good, sadly, came all the bad. Vaidisova suffered from mononucleosis in late 2007 and her form took a nosedive; she officially retired in 2010, as her stepfather stated she was “fed up with tennis” and that it was “understandable” because “she started so young.” Chakvetadze, after being tied up and robbed in 2007, dealt with a whole host of injuries; she too is currently sidelined with a recurring back injury. Having made a foray into Russian politics in 2011 with the Right Cause Party, and being a featured commentator on Russian Eurosport for the 2013 Australian Open, it’s unclear when or if she will return to competition. After reaching a career-high ranking of No. 12 in early 2008, Golovin has been inactive since due to chronic lower back inflammation, and has ruled out a return. Whilst still being troubled by her back, Szavay showed only flashes of her best form in the seasons since, including upsetting then-World No. 3 Venus Williams 6-0, 6-4 in the third round at Roland Garros in 2009. 2010 was her last full season; a failed comeback in 2012 concluded with a retirement loss to countrywoman Greta Arn in the first round of the US Open, her last professional match.
It’s hard to say if this quartet could’ve taken the next step into legitimate slam contenders, or even champions, more than five years removed from their days in the sun. But largely due to matters outside their control, we’ll never even know.
The year was 2004. Cesar Millan was yet to be called “The Dog Whisperer.” Ridiculously successful sequels Shrek 2, Spiderman 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were dominating the box office. The Red Sox were winning playoff games and the Russians were winning slams.
And Marion Bartoli was playing Fed Cup.
As a 19-year-old, Bartoli partnered Emilie Loit in doubles in two separate ties that year; the pairing won their doubles match in a 5-0 semifinal win against Spain, but lost the deciding rubber to the Russian duo of Anastasia Myskina and Vera Zvonareva in the finals. 2004 marked the only time that Bartoli had competed in the national ITF team event in her career.
New French Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo announced on Wednesday that Bartoli, along with Alize Cornet, Kristina Mladenovic and Virginie Razzano will be the French squad that will take on Germany in a World Group II first round tie on February 9-10 in Limoges.
Bartoli’s previous point of contention with the French Tennis Federation came from the role, or lack thereof, of her father in Fed Cup ties. Previous Fed Cup captains Loic Courteau and Nicolas Escude, as well as the federation itself, took issue with the fact that Bartoli wanted to be coached by her father during the ties, rather than practice together with the team. The parties involved also questioned the nature of Marion’s relationship with her father.
“In France, they think our relationship is, so to speak, fake, and that in public it’s big smiles and behind the scenes I’m getting pushed around every day,” she once said. “When I try to explain to them that is not the case, they have a hard time to understand.”
More than just the French public and tennis administration have had a hard time understanding the Bartolis. To say that they have gone outside the box in their approach to Marion’s tennis training is putting it mildly. One of the WTA’s more colorful characters, Bartoli’s shadow swings between every point have become her trademark, and she (allegedly) boasts an IQ of 175. She and her antics are always a spectacle on the WTA, no matter where she plays; nonetheless, these things are what endear her to her fans.
Due to her Fed Cup absence, Bartoli was ruled ineligible to compete at the Olympic Games. Three Games have come and gone since Bartoli made a name for herself on the circuit, but it was perhaps the last snub that hurt her the most and may have contributed to this reconciliation. The 2012 London Olympics were held at the site of Bartoli’s greatest career successes, on the lawns of the All-England Club. Without Bartoli, Cornet required an special invitation to compete, as she did not make the cut by ranking; she won a match before falling tamely to Daniela Hantuchova in the second round. Many argued that Bartoli would have been an outside, but no less legitimate, medal contender on the surface.
So the question remains: after nine years, 17 ties and a boatload of conflict, why now? Some detractors will state Bartoli’s chances to represent her country in the Olympics have come and gone; she’ll be 32 when the Olympics in Rio come around in 2016. Others would say she’s selfish for making the concessions, and is only looking to repair her image at home after the 2012 debacle. Both parties remained stubborn throughout this saga, and each holds a share of the blame.
No one can question Marion Bartoli’s patriotism. Despite all the quirks, the results don’t lie; a Wimbledon finalist with wins, among others, over Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters in her career, Bartoli’s made the most of what she has. With the crowd behind her, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2011, the best performance at that event by a Frenchwoman since Mary Pierce won the title there in 2000 and reached the final again in 2005. All of that success has come with her father by her side, with little support from the national federation.
However, for this tie, Walter Bartoli will not be on site to help Marion prepare for her matches; he will be allowed to attend, but only as a family member. While we may not ever know what was said between Mauresmo and Bartoli over the past weeks, one thing is certain; someone finally understood.
What makes a successful doubles pairing?
Of course there are the obvious things, like a dominant serve, a quality volley or solid groundstrokes. However, sometimes the most important thing in crucial situations is not the technical tennis, but the chemistry of the team. The most successful teams trust each other’s judgement completely, which allows them to act on both individual and team instincts on the biggest points. However, this bond doesn’t come overnight. Two of the greatest doubles teams of all time, Bob and Mike Bryan and Venus and Serena Williams, have spent a lifetime developing this chemistry; the American sibling pairs have amassed a staggering 25 Grand Slams titles between them.
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, while not related by blood, have perhaps the next best thing.
For what they lack in size, as they stand at just 5’5” and 5’4” respectively, they make up for it in guile, passion and craftiness. While each made great strides individually in singles in 2012, the Italians also ruled the doubles court; their history-making year began with a run to the Australian Open finals at the #11 seeds, where they lost to the unseeded pairing of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva.
Errani and Vinci’s exploits in 2012 were reminiscent to those that the fellow-BFF tandem of Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta put together in 2010. Dulko and Pennetta won seven titles that year, including the WTA Championships in Doha; they ended the year as No. 1 and finally got their slam at the 2011 Australian Open.
Following the loss Down Under, Errani and Vinci went on a tear, winning WTA events in Acapulco, Monterrey, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In addition, they came out on top of Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko in three sets to triumph at Roland Garros, and dominated Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in two to win the US Open. They ascended to the No. 1 ranking in September and finished the year in the top spot.
When Errani and Vinci returned to Australia in 2013, with one less “1” next to their seeding, the pair came full circle.
Much of the Australian Open doubles tournament’s narrative focused on the Williams sisters, the “de facto best team in the world regardless of the rankings.” There were calls, perhaps unfair ones, for the Williams sisters to be bumped to the top seeding. The duo only played two of the four slams in 2012, in addition to the Olympics. Facing off against the 12th-seeded Americans in the quarterfinals, Errani and Vinci appeared determined to prove their worth. The Americans served for the match twice in the second set and led 3-0 in the third, but the Italians would rally for a 3-6, 7-6(1), 7-5 win. Although the Williams sisters won Wimbledon in 2012 and took home Olympic gold, the Italians did just as much winning on the biggest stages last year. Once a team learns how to win together, it’s a hard habit to break.
The tandem defeated the Cinderella story of the tournament, wildcard Australians Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to win their third major championship. “Our strength is that we always play together,” Vinci said, after winning the title. “We went out there today with lots of grit, we really wanted to win.”
In the last four slams, the Italians have amassed a 20-1 record, the only loss coming in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon to Hlavackova and Hradecka. They now hold 14 doubles titles total, including their three majors. Prior to this stretch, the pair had never won a title greater than an International-level WTA event.
Sometimes, continued success can bring about ego trips and adversely affect a team’s chemistry. For example, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, who won three grand slam doubles titles together, had a notorious falling out at an exhibition match in Chile in 2000; when Kournikova agreed with a lines judge about a disputed call, Hingis retorted, “Do you think you are the queen? Because I am the queen.” A screaming match featuring the throwing of flowers, vases and trophies reportedly followed afterwards in the locker room.
Conversely, all of their success has appeared to make Errani and Vinci’s friendship stronger than ever; as far as we know, the biggest off-court spat the Italians have ever had was spurred on by the question: “Who can keep it up for longer?”