Maria Sharapova wasn’t the popular pick to win the Australian Open. In fact, many predicted she would be upset in the first round by Gisela Dulko given that she had not played a competitive match in three months because of a bad ankle sprain and pulled out of Brisbane on account of the same injury issue.
Facing a tough draw from start to finish, Sharapova faced every challenge head on and looked dominant, moving better than ever, serving well and hitting her groundstrokes with purpose, through the early rounds of the tournament. She avoided a quarter-final match up with Serena Williams and in the semis, avenged her loss to Petra Kvitova in the 2010 Wimbledon final to find herself in the championship match for the second time in the last three Majors.
Pitted against first time Grand Slam finalist Victoria Azarenka, the script for Sharapova’s latest title run seemed to point towards her completing one of the most courageous injury comebacks in the history of women’s tennis by adding a fourth Major crown to her resume. However, it was Azarenka who provided the final plot twist, dismantling her opponent in a lopsided match that was very reminiscent of the 2004 Wimbledon final when Sharapova out played Serena Williams in her Grand Slam final debut as a fearless 17-year-old.
Leading up to the 2011 title bout in Melbourne, much of the talk focused on whether Azarenka would be able to handle the magnitude of the occasion playing in her first Grand Slam final while little was mentioned about how Sharapova would deal with her own nerves being so close to something that she has wanted more than anything since starting rehab on her surgically repaired shoulder three years ago. The latter scenario turned out to be the more prominent storyline.
“I had a good first couple of games, and that was about it. Then she was the one that was taking the first ball and hitting it deep and aggressive. I was always the one running around like a rabbit, you know, trying to play catch up all the time,” Sharapova said her post-match press conference. “I think I just kind of, I don’t know, the switch went off.”
The question now is how will Sharapova respond to this wasted opportunity not knowing how many more chances she is going to get to taste Grand Slam glory once again. Knowing Sharapova and her drive to succeed, she will use this performance as a springboard for the rest of her season instead of dwell on what could have been had she not come out so flat at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night. She handled the loss with dignity and grace, giving a runner-up speech that was as classy as they come.
Sharapova is playing a better, more complete game at this stage in her career as are many of her biggest rivals. The ability to turn defence into offence has become such an important part of the women’s game today which means that Sharapova’s first strike style of tennis can be better neutralized today than when she dominated her sport as a teenager. Her serve and forehand remain a liability, but things are certainly looking up for Sharapova and there is no reason not to believe there is a Grand Slam title in her future.
by Maud Watson
Have your ear plugs handy, folks, because this year’s Australian Open women’s final is going to be a loud one as Azarenka takes on Sharapova. While the noise level of this match is going to be a turn off for many fans, we have to give credit where credit is due. Sharapova dug deep when it counted, weathering the barrage of Kvitova’s strokes to allow her Czech opponent to self-destruct. It was evident that Sharapova’s greater experience in major semifinals paid off, and it’s been an excellent effort by her to reach the final. The more impressive performance, however, has to be that of Azarenka. She’s grown in leaps and bounds, managing her emotions even when her game and nerve nearly failed her. She overcame the reigning champion and heavy crowd favorite in Kim Clijsters to reach her first major final, and it may just prove another crucial piece in her maturity as a player that will allow her to give Sharapova a good fight come Saturday. Much more than just a major title will be on the table for both women. For Azarenka, it represents a chance to break through at a slam. For Sharapova, it would be her first major since shoulder surgery, making it a title she probably wants and would appreciate more than her previous three. And of course, whoever wins in Melbourne will be the new No. 1 come Monday. Sit back, because this could be interesting.
At the time of writing, we know of one men’s finalist, and not surprisingly, it’s Rafael Nadal. Despite his comments to the contrary, it’s doubtful many were surprised when he emerged victorious over his Swiss rival. Coming off a tough four-setter against Berdych, the Spaniard looked no worse for wear as he scampered around the court making incredible get after incredible get. Falling completely apart after blowing an early break in the second, Federer did well just to right the ship near the start of the third to avoid getting completely steamrolled as Nadal’s relentless defense coupled with brilliant offense took its toll. Eventually it proved too much for the Swiss No. 1 as Nadal pressed him into making one too many unforced errors to lose the match in four. When it was all said and done, two things were very evident. First being that injuries or not, Nadal appears to be playing and moving just fine and is going to be difficult to beat for the foreseeable future. Second, while this was one of the better matches Federer has played against Nadal on a Grand Slam stage, he’s either going to need a great psychiatrist or get someone else to knock Nadal out of his path if he wants to win another major. The belief just doesn’t seem to be there.
Serena Williams was given a loud wake-up call when she was bounced out of the Australian Open by the unheralded Ekaterina Makarova. Give Makarova credit. She played a great match not only in her consistency, but also in her ability to hit down the line and short cross court angles. But it was also evident that Serena still needs to get in better shape, even allowing for her injury. She also needs to develop a Game Plan B for when A isn’t working. But perhaps most importantly, she can no longer bank on her reputation for freebies. In her prime, against most players, there was this feeling that no matter what the score, what the tournament, Serena would find a way to win. She knew it. Her opponent knew it. The fans knew it. But those days are long over. It takes work to maintain that kind of an aura, so she’d better ditch the attitude of “I’m not that desperate to have to play Acapulco,” or “I considered Indian Wells for like, a nanosecond” (her hiatus from Indian Wells is a topic for another time). Jon Wertheim, among others, phrased it perfectly when he stated that she can no longer afford to treat tennis as a part-time gig. She must sort out her priorities, and if tennis isn’t one of them, that’s fine. But if that’s the case, Serena can retire to save herself from further embarrassment and quit wasting everyone’s time, because we’ve reached a stage where Serena needs tennis more than tennis needs her.
That’s the word that comes to mind when reading the latest on the WTA investigation into the whole “grunting” issue. One of the biggest obstacles to overcoming this problem is mislabeling it. Grunting is not the issue. Shrieking is. It’s higher pitched, a bigger distraction, and a bigger annoyance. Then there’s the WTA’s faulty approach to the problem. They want to focus on fixing it at the junior level so as not to “adversely” affect those other players who have already developed their game under the current system. First, that hindrance rule has been around a long time, just that everybody is afraid to enforce it. And instead of worrying about adversely affecting the established shriekers, how about the WTA worry about those established quieter players? Don’t they deserve to play a match without negatively being affected by the loud screeching? So it’s time to cut the bull that shrieking is a natural part of these players’ games. They don’t do it in practice, and they don’t even do it consistently from match to match. If you need proof, just watch (or rather listen) to the difference in Sharapova’s decibel level in her tight tussle with Lisicki vs. her trouncing of Makarova. Start hitting these players where it hurts by assessing fines or point penalties for crossing a set decibel threshold. And if they can’t maximize their talents without the use of this tool that essentially amounts to cheating, then they don’t really deserve to be at the top to begin with.
In one of the more bizarre breaking news stories, Bernard Tomic was once again in trouble with the police. The young Australian resisted being pulled over, which resulted in the police showing up at his house. The nature of the two traffic tickets he was given is unknown, and Tomic has previously cited being unjustly persecuted by the police. Still, this doesn’t look good. He’s already had some colorful moments in his past, but recently it appeared that he was starting to get a good head on his shoulders and move in the right direction. Hopefully this is just going to turn out to be one more minor blip in his past instead of the start of a downward spiral. With all of his talent, it would be such a waste.
Kim Clijsters wrote a story of heroic proportions on Centre Court at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night. The kind of fairytale she could tell daughter Jada before bedtime in the coming days and years. The Belgian is known for her heart of gold, but showed a competitive heart and desire that legends are made of in a dramatic 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 victory over Li Na in a rematch of the 2011 Australian Open women’s final.
The Round of 16 match got off to a hot start, but midway through the opening set, Clijsters rolled her ankle in the middle of a rally and the tennis world held its collective breath wondering whether Clijsters’ final Australian Open would end with tears of pain and disappointment. She walked gingerly back to the baseline on her heavily wrapped ankle after a visit from the trainer ready to give it a go. The task ahead seemed all the more daunting against a formidable opponent like Li Na and yet, facing quadruple match point in the second set tiebreak, Clijsters found a drive within herself that she probably didn’t realize she had. A winning lob on the fourth match point was particularly remarkable given that she had hit a poor drop shot to put herself in a vulnerable position.
After escaping the second set, Clijsters seemed to loosen up in the third and took advantage of her rattled and error prone adversary to jump out to a 5-1 lead. Following a few nervy moments of her own, Clijsters completed the miraculous comeback when Li Na hit a backhand into the net. She threw up her arms in triumph and disbelief as the crowd gave their “Aussie Kim” a well-deserved standing ovation.
“At one point you think, Okay, I’m just gonna go for it. Once I made that decision, I didn’t think,” Clijsters said about her decision not to retire after the ankle roll. “I just tried to find a solution for how I was feeling, to find a new tactic, tactical game.”
The match itself may not have been of the highest quality, but the significance of the end result far outweighed that. In the space of a set and a half, Clijsters added another chapter to her storybook comeback to tennis and her final season already includes a highlight that will be hard to top. As if she wasn’t adored enough already, this performance will endear her even more to fans around the world who secretly hope that her farewell tour never ends.
Prior to the start of the Australian Open, Clijsters gave an interview where she spoke candidly about how she still feels the presence of her deceased father in her life. Leo Clijsters was certainly with his daughter in her latest triumph and she has given him yet another reason to brim with pride.
Four Canadians will be part of the main draw of the Australian Open in Melbourne. Not only are they competing in the first Grand Slam of the new tennis season, but they also have aspirations of winning a few rounds and ultimately getting a shot at a spot in the second week Down Under.
After reaching the Round of 16 at the Australian Open last year, his best Grand Slam result, world no. 25 Milos Raonic is being labelled a dark horse by the experts for the title in 2012. Fresh off his second ATP World Tour title in Chennai two weeks ago, a run which included two Top 10 wins over Nicolas Almagro and Janko Tipsarevic, Raonic is poised to make another splash in Melbourne. His draw did him no favours however, as he finds himself on a potential collision course with Andy Roddick in the third round and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. Raonic will begin his Australian Open campaign on Tuesday against crafty lefty Filippo Volandri. It will be the first meeting between the two players.
On the ladies side, one year removed from a heartbreaking loss in the second round to Francesca Schiavone that finished 9-7 in the third set, Rebecca Marino returns to Melbourne a different player and ready to overcome that second round hurdle this time around. The 21-year-old will start on Tuesday against Hungarian Greta Arn. Should Marino get through that match, she would face a tough test going up against either seventeenth seed Dominika Cibulkova or Magdalena Rybarikova, who defeated her in the final at Memphis last March.
Stéphanie Dubois is back after a stress fracture in her foot put a premature end to her 2011 season. She is appearing in her fourth consecutive Australian Open main draw and is hoping to pick up her first victory when she meets Russia’s Elena Vesnina in the opening round on Tuesday. Aleksandra Wozniak rounds out the Canadian singles contingent Down Under. 2012 is a big year for Wozniak as she tries to regain her 2009 form when she reached a career-high of no. 21 on the WTA rankings. She earned a spot in the main draw following the withdrawal of Timea Bacsinszky and surprisingly, is still winless in main draw matches in Melbourne. Just getting over a bout with bronchitis, Wozniak will open on Tuesday against Shuai Zhang of China.
Australia has not been very kind to Canadians in recent years in terms of tennis results, but be on the lookout for some Canadian flags on the scoreboard during the later rounds, they certainly won’t be there by chance.
At this year’s US Open tennis championships, many of the top American junior players found themselves facing a pivotal fork in the road. Players including Asia Muhammed and Kristie Ahn, are now entering their junior and senior years of high school. With a full year of classes (if not more) ahead of them, they have already been contacted by some of the best universities in the country, including Stanford and Princeton, with guarantees of full athletic scholarships if they commit to playing on their tennis team. However, these teenagers already possess a game well beyond their years. They already have the ability to compete at the professional level and are aware of the relatively small time frame they have to utilize their talents. This ultimately begs a crucial question for these players and their families: Is it best to turn pro or go to college?
For many in the tennis community, college tennis is almost seen as a consolation prize; for those who lack the ability to make it on the pro tour, they have the opportunity to receive a free education. The odds of becoming a successful player on the pro tour after college are slim at best. Out of the tens of thousands of women who competed at the college level over the last 15 years, only five of them have ever cracked the top 100 in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. Only two of these girls (Jill Craybas and Julie Ditty) actually graduated from their school of choice; the rest dropped out by their sophomore year to pursue their careers. This year’s NCAA champion, Amanda McDowell of Georgia Tech, is currently ranked No. 797 in the world
“The level of play in college tennis is not nearly what it used to be 15 or 20 years ago,” said Lisa Raymond, the 1992 and 1993 NCAA women’s singles champion. “Players don’t have that same opportunity to compete and develop their games anymore.”
The lack of strong competition at the college level has prompted top American junior Asia Muhammed to turn professional this summer. In declaring their pro status and accepting prize money, she is no longer allowed to compete at the amateur level. This means she is not only giving up her chances to play college tennis, but is also forfeiting any athletic scholarship opportunities should she choose to go to college in the future.
“America is the only place where college tennis is really even an option,” said Muhammed, 17. In Europe or Australia, you turn professional when you’re young and then go back to college if you haven’t made it on tour. There isn’t that intermediate step.”
Despite now having the chance to pursue her dreams of tennis stardom, players like Muhammed now have to face the realization of the cost and time commitment that it takes to compete at this level. Unlike most sports, professional tennis tournaments are held year round at locations all over the world. The majority of players travel for at least 30 weeks a year, completely on their own, and often in foreign locations where they don’t know the language. The international travel, combined with the coaching that takes place at home, leads to a staggering bill that is often placed on the shoulders of their families.
“I would say that it costs about $50,000 a year to compete on the tour, and if that’s if you’re doing it very cheaply,” said Mashona Washington, a 31 year old player from Houston. “If you travel with a coach, you can pretty much double that amount.”
Muhammed is also coached partly by her father, which brings up a potentially harmful situation. Although she doesn’t have to pay for a coach, Muhammed now faces the responsibility of becoming the primary breadwinner in their family while not even out of her teen years. In many cases, the decision to turn pro is that of the parents and not the child themselves.
“There are some girls who are turning pro right now and there isn’t anything about their game that stands out,” said Raymond. “Being a professional athlete can be an incredibly tough life at times. I think it’s important for most of these girls to at least go to college initially and be able to mature as people. Playing with the pros and actually becoming a pro are two completely different things.”
Factors such as this have prompted Kristie Ahn to keep her amateur status and plan on attending college for all four years, regardless of her professional results.
“I don’t see the big rush to turn pro right away,” said Ahn. “Rather than focusing on the pros, I’m just glad to have the honor of being of the top junior players in the country.”
While many of her contemporaries have shuttled off to tennis academies in California and Florida, Ahn has heeded the advice of her family and remained at home in New Jersey. She takes classes at home and limits her tournament schedule to roughly one event per month. While Ahn has yet to make a decision about attending a particular college, she believes that she can find a balance between attending college and competing in professional events.
“Everybody says that college is the best four years of your life and I really want to experience that,” said Ahn. “Even if the level of play in college isn’t that strong, I can still play pro events during the summer.”
While there will always be exceptions to the rule, Dr. Jack Ditty, the tournament director in Ashland, feels that many players are short changing themselves by not getting an education.
“So many of these girls invest their entire lives into tennis and leave with no money, nothing to show for it, and no education,” said Dr. Ditty. “What kind of life is that?”
He cites his daughter Julie, a current pro on the WTA Tour, as an example that a player can get a college degree and still be successful in tennis. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 2002 with a degree in early childhood education, Julie turned pro. After five years of competing on tour, she had a breakout year in 2007 and finished just outside of the top 100. In January of 2008, she made her main draw debut in a Grand Slam at the Australian Open. At the age of 29, she became the oldest player in WTA history to make their debut showing at a Grand Slam.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely still have gone to college,” said Ditty. “It takes the pressure off me as a player because in the worst case scenario, I have a degree to fall back on. I don’t know if I would have achieved more as a pro by starting earlier, but by finishing up at Vanderbilt, I now have something that will last me for the rest of my life.”
Here is some disturbing news to wake up to: Women have been approached to throw matches at the Australian Open. There is strong suspicion that the Russian mafia may be involved in gambling on tennis and if this proves to be true this is indeed alarming. For its part, the WTA has determined that they are clean from such corruption.
The WTA goes to extreme lengths to prevent gambling from entering their competition threatening any player who does fall prey to a gambling bribe with a suspension for life. These measures are even tougher than the ones taken when a player has been caught using doping or any other forbidden substances such as cocaine .
While the WTA takes pro active measures to ensure the integrity of its sport, I think it’s just a matter of time before a player succumbs to pressure and says “yes”. Gambling is a lucrative business and having a player to throw a match ( peacefully or by other means) versus a player of Roger Federer’s caliber would definitely bring in the cash for both the player and the racketeers.
The WTA is a commercially succesful enterprise and one that is very protective of its players. Together with Tennis Australia and the ATP Tour they have setup an anti corruption hotline where players can call in when they have suspicions or witness any suspicious match fixing.
These measures can be percieved as turning the WTA into a de facto police state. However, desperate measures may be necessary in order to keep the game as clean as possible from the many greedy vultures who threaten the sport. Tennis must remain not only in the hands of the fans who love the game but to the sponsors who invest millions in it on a yearly basis. Tennis must face the people who would betray it.
Tennis Australia has even put a former senior detective on the case. His investigation will also encompass the bettting sites on world wide web to monitor, among other things, gambling irregularities. Moreover, as a preventive measure fans will not be allowed to carry laptops in and around the tennis courts.
Hopefully with the measures undertaken tennis will be able to prevent criminals attempting to castrate the game’s integrity and from establishing themselves in a world they don’t belong to.