Showing posts with label cibulkova. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cibulkova. Show all posts

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Third Time Lucky

After Victoria Azarenka was dumped out of the Australian Open three stops from home, Li Na emerged as the clear favourite to secure her second Grand Slam title, and her first at Melbourne Park after two previous appearances there.  Indeed, ever since Serena Williams succumbed to another injury at the start of the second week, Li Na was the commentators' shoe-in from the top half for the draw for a second successive final.

And while she was expected to be part of the 2014 final, her opponent was totally unanticipated.  Despite being only 24, Dominika Cibulkova seems to have been on the WTA tour for a very long time, turning pro at the tender age of 14.  This year's Australian Open was her maiden Slam final appearance, and a look at who she had to beat to reach that stage suggests that she wouldn't have been many people's pick to be still standing on finals day.

R1: Francesca Schiavone
R2: Stephanie Voegele
R3: Carla Suarez-Navarro (16)
R4: Maria Sharapova (3)
QF: Simona Halep (11)
SF: Aga Radwanska (5)

During those matches, she lost only 1 set - to Sharapova, and dealt out 4 breadsticks (Sharapova, Suarez-Navarro, Voegele, Radwanska) and 3 bagels (Halep, Voegele, Suarez-Navarro).  In addition, she defeated a higher-ranked player in every round from R3 to the semi-final.  By contrast, Li Na never faced a player ranked higher than the top 20.  Cibulkova had a fortnight characterised by bulldog tennis.  Shorter than the traditionally statuesque Amazons of the modern game, the Slovak relies on her speed around the court coupled with a low centre of gravity to load up her thumping groundstrokes.  It was a tactic that bludgeoned the experienced Sharapova and Radwanska off court and intimidated newbie Simona Halep into a limp display.

If Cibulkova was to have any chance against Li Na, she would have to play with the same perfection that had characterised her second-week matches.

The opening exchanges of the final, during which the Slovak was broken in her opening service game suggested that she may have a case of the Lisickis - and would be crippled by nerves on the big stage.  However, despite the Chinese woman having opportunities to add to the break, she didn't take them and the set remained in either players' grasp.  With Li Na serving up some shocking first serve statistics (at one point, only registering 11% of first serves in) she threw in some tentative double faults and allowed Cibulkova to level the match.  With the Slovak cry of "Pome!" being more frequent as the set progressed, the set inevitably went to a tie-break, and from that point on, Li Na suddenly regained her footing.  Her backhand down the line, laser accurate, began to fly past the outstretched racquet of the scrambling 20th seed, and she too the tie-break to three.

While the opening set was a tight and frustrating set for Li Na, the second was a masterclass of power, accuracy and self-belief.  It is worth noting that Cibulkova didn't play badly during the set, she was just blown off court by the sheer brilliance of the #4 seed.  Forced into errors and beaten outright in equal measure, Cibulkova went out fighting, but was ultimately unrewarded as Li Na wrapped up the set in 27 minutes.  Final score 76(3) 60.

As if this victory, the first by an Asian player at the Championship that heralds itself as the Asia-Pacific Slam, wasn't enough, the ever-popular Li Na proceeded to win over more fans in Australia and globally with one of the funniest winner's speeches ever committed to camera.  After referring to the trophy as a him ... and a her, thanking her agent for making her rich and blaming herself for injuring herself in the final last year, she turned her attention to her husband, thanking him and joking him in the same breath.

While a fortnight ago many would have expected either Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka to take another title at this event, no-one will begrudge the eventual outcome as Li Na now joins them and Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova as the only multiple Grand Slam Champions on tour.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Failure to Three-Peat

The Australian Open Women's Singles competition has, in 2014, not gone to plan.  As much as this statement feels like a disservice to the four women who find themselves contesting Thursday's semi-finals, the fact that Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, the dominant threesome at slams in the past two years, have all failed to traverse the five rounds so far is something of a shock.  Indeed, the pre-event odds of either the Belorussian #2 seed or Williams walking away with the trophy were so short to be practically negligible for the punter.

The last of these charismatic personalities fell today as Agnieska Radwanska booked her place in the "bottom-half" semi-final with an inspired performance.  Admittedly, the Pole struggles to find appreciation amongst the casual spectators of the game, many of whom prefer the boombastics of a Lisicki or a Williams to the subtle display Radwanska exhibits.  But her performance against double defending champion, Azarenka, this afternoon was one of the most controlled intelligent displays seen during a WTA match in recent years.

Tennis on the WTA has recently struggled to be about finesse and anticipation, a trend started with Venus and Serena and carried forward by the big-hitting baseliners - Sharapova, Kvitova. Li Na.  But Radwanska has bucked the trend.  Defensive from the back of the court, but not moon-ball defensive like Wozniacki, she reads her opponent and exhibits such fleet of foot and quick hands that she can flip a rally to her advantage and frustrate her opponent into over-hitting.  Granted, if she comes up against a zoned big-hitter she can be blasted off court, but her determined defensiveness can play her back into rallies and the game.  Most notably this was evidence in her last final appearance against Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2012, during which she flustered the SW19 Queen in the second set to make the match look anything but a foregone conclusion.  Williams prevailed that day, but not in the manner of her previous victories at The All England Club .  A similar, but more assured performance was on display today.  Azarenka had opportunities to hit winners, put the ball away, and clinch points and games, but Radwanska showed such anticipation that the Belorussian was frustrated into a 61 final set and was prevented from completing a tricky tri-title run.

With Dominika Cibulkova her opponent in the final four, Radwanska must be fancying her chances of making her second Slam final on Saturday.  However, the Bratislava native has pulled off a giant-slaying of her own, taking out former champ Sharapova in the R16.  A suitably dominant display against a shell-shocked Simona Halep in her quarter-final saw her through to the semi with considerable ease.  One senses that she will be unable to sustain the form against the more wily Radwanska, but reminisces of Wimbledon 2013, during which Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki emerged from a striated draw to contest the final, suggest that nothing is simple in the WTA these days.  And while Radwanska may be the favourite for the match tomorrow, Cibulkova may just find enough determination and guts to derail the World #4 from her final destination.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Australian Open Seed Watch Women's Draw R2

Seeds in draw at start of R2: 26

Difficult loss for Kvitova to Laura Robson
(8) Petra Kvitova lost to Laura Robson

The Brits are coming, and Petra Kvitova was on the receiving end of the invasion, as a roller-coaster match against Laura Robson saw the London resident take the late night contest with a 11-9 final set.  Multiple breaks of serve saw neither player sustain the momentum during the southpaw slugfest, with Kvitova convincing in the opening set, before falling away in the second.  Fast gaining a reputation as a Goliath-slayer on tour, following her defeats of Kim Clijsters and Li Na at 2012's US Open, Robson joins fellow Brit Heather Watson in the third round, the first time in over 20 years that two British women have made this stage of any slam event.  Final score 26 63 11-9.

(9) Samantha Stosur lost to Jie Zheng

Crushing Aussie hopes in the women's draw, Jie Zheng added to the #9 seed's home woes with a gut-wrenching 3-set second round defeat.  Pulling out two breaks in the final set, the Australian was within 4 points of the match with a 52 lead when the c-word kicked in.  Admitting in her post match interview that it was a 100% mental choke, Stosur gave up the next 5 games to post her third defeat in four games on Australian soil this year.  With everyone from Martina Navratilova to Victoria Azarenka offering a critique on the Queenslander's poor performances Down Under, there seems little respite for the struggling former US Open champion.

(15) Dominika Cibulkova lost to Valeria Savinykh

Perhaps still smarting from her double bagel in the final of Sydney, Cibulkova was shocked once again, this time by a Russian from outside the top 159.  During the 76(6) 64 victory, the Slovak 30 winners, but countered them with over 55 winners.

(17) Lucie Safarova lost to Bojana Jovanovski

Bojana Jovanovski, who has never been beyond the second round of the Australian Open before, broke her record with a straightforward 75 75 defeat over Fed Cup hero, Lucie Safarova.

(21) Varvara Lepchenko lost to Elena Vesnina

World #49 Elena Vesnina tripped up an out-of-form Varvara Lepchenko 64 64 to book her place in the third round.  Despite her lower ranking, Vesnina's maiden WTA tour title in Hobart last weekend would have taken her into the match as a close favourite, and a solid performance saw her put out the #21 seed.

(23) Klara Zakopalova lost to Kirsten Flipkens

Throwing in one of those typically moody performances, Zakopalova lost out in the second round to Belgium's Kirsten Flipkens.  A final score of 61 60 perhaps indicates that the ankle injury Zakopalova appeared to be carrying in Hobart may be more serious than previously thought. But it also points to some great form from Flipkens, who has gone 27 wins from 33 matches since summer 2012.

(26) Su-Wei Hsieh lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova

Always a danger in the draw, the former French Open champion struck out with an emphatic 62 61 victory over the Taipei player.  The Russian has struggled for consistency recently, dropping to #75 in the world, but could make the second week of the tournament following in a depleted section of the draw.

(30) Tamira Paszek lost to Madison Keys

One of a slew of young American women currently plotting a course through the top 100, Madison Keys upset 30th seed Tamira Paszek 62 61.  A thumping serve and heavy groundstrokes saw the 17-year-old through to the third round of the event, one of 5 American women still left in the draw.

Seeds left in draw: 18

Image from FoxNews website

Saturday, 12 January 2013

This Year's Wozniacki

2 weeks, 9 matches, 18 sets played, 18 sets won including a double bagel in the final of her second successful championship of the year.

This probably reads like Serena Williams' resume. In fact it's the start to the season of current world #4 Agnieszka Radwanska, who has taken the unorthodox route of eschewing the seed-heavy tournaments at the beginning of the year in favour of some more guaranteed trophy moments in the less well attended events.

Her first January 2013 stop was Auckland, New Zealand where she was the only member of the top 20 scheduled to play, Brisbane being the preferred destination of the WTA stars.  Indeed she was some 19 places higher than her closest rival, Julia Goerges, who did great favours to the Polish player by skipping out of the contest at the hands of world #69 Johanna Larsson in the second round.  Not facing a seeded player until the final, Radwanska secured a comparatively easy tournament victory to start her year.

2 titles already for Radwanska this year
Moving onto the Premier event this week in Sydney, Radwanska faced sterner opposition, but was again the top seeded player (Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova all opting to prep for the impending Australian Open rather than risk fatiguing themselves for some unnecessary ranking points).  Yet with a field consisting of Nadia Petrova, Sara Errani, Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber, Radwanska only faced one other seed on her way to the final.

That player was Li Na, who was also on an unbeaten run for 2013 having picked up tournament accolades in Shenzhen the week previously.  Meeting at the semi-final stage the match was billed as a battle of the 100%-ers, but when it began, with a prolonged opening service game from the Chinese player, it was Radwanska who seized the initiative, breaking from the outset and maintaining the pressure to progress to the final comfortably 61 64, albeit needing 7 match points before she closed out the last game.  Her victory stemmed from her consistent, but deeply patient gameplan, seeing her hit just 3 winners to Li Na's 28, but making only 15 unforced errors compare to the #4 seed's 40.  It was a turnaround from 2012 when Li Na had dispatched the Pole in all three of their hard court meetings without the loss of a set.

In the final Radwanska was to meet a resurgent Dominika Cibulkova who, in addition to dispatching Kvitova and Errani from the competition, had the previous day dominated the decidedly flat-looking second seed Angelique Kerber, the German perhaps suffering from the sweltering Sydney heat - reportedly tipping 40 degrees at times.   Playing some fast and precise tennis, the diminutive Slovak irked her semi-final opponent into some rushed strokes, before fistpumping her way to the final.  Unfortunately, the Radwanska steadiness demolished the Slovak's chances, taking the match with the first double bagel of 2013 - 60 60.  It was a dominant display that saw Radwanska absorb Cibulkova's superior firepower with her defensive sensibilities, and continually chase down one extra ball to frustrate her opponent into an error.

Whether the triumvirate at the top of the game will feel threatened going into the Australian Open by Radwanska's perfect display is still up for debate, they will perhaps register an increased awareness of her placing within the draw.  For although the Pole is ranked #4 in the world and with 3 titles to her name in 2012 and 2 already for 2013, her Slam record is less impressive.  Just a solitary final appearance sits above a myriad of lukewarm campaigns that have seen her consistently peak around the quarter or fourth round stage.  Indeed, last year's Wimbledon final where she took Serena Williams to three sets, was as unexpected in its unfolding as it was for Radwanska's presence as Williams' opponent.

What is unarguable though, is that Radwanska is the highest ranked player in the WTA who has yet to lift a Grand Slam trophy, a position similar to that which Andy Murray had found himself in for a number of years in the ATP.  However, while Murray's inadequacies were predominantly attributed to the three men above him who had dominated the tour for the past 5 years, Radwanska's may be better described as shortcomings within her style.  Although the best at defensive play and with a solid returning game facilitated by perhaps the most tactically sound, chess-match mind in the WTA at the moment, if her opponent is able to raise their power game to a consistently precise level (Williams and Azarenka particularly), Radwanska is liable to crumble.  Indeed, even outside of the top three should someone lower in the rankings such as Li Na, or Kvitova or even Stosur be playing with the effortless perfection that took them to their maiden Slam titles, Radwanska would also come out of the contest as the second best player.

Therefore, a better comparison for the Radwanska conundrum would be Caroline Wozniacki rather than Andy Murray.  The Dane was frequently criticised for holding the #1 ranking for over a year, but with only 1 Slam final appearance and no Slam title to her name.  Radwanska, who has been as high as #2 in the WTA rankings, has followed a similar biography, winning at Premier and Mandatory level, but never graduating to sustained success in the four majors.  And although she may be the player with the best record in 2013, it is unlikely that she will be considered by too many to be the player to watch at the upcoming Australian Open. The goals for Radwanska's 2013 should be to progress beyond the quarter final at all of the four majors (in line with her ranking) and ultimately to win one of the titles.  However, the latter is a tall ask considering the women above her, but it is an even taller ask if she fails to advance her game to a more aggressive level.  Being able to beat 3 other top 10 players including 2 of those in the top 3 in succession during a tournament would rely on a series of lacklustre and out-of-character performances from her opponents, for at the moment, she may be able to win this way against one seed, but may not sustain it over the course of a full-strength tournament.

For Radwanska, a little bit of luck may be needed to see her through to her second Slam final and ultimately a major tournament trophy moment.  And if the victory doesn't come within the year, she could stand to be the player on tour with the best record at the less-critical events, but ultimately as slamless as Caroline Wozniacki throughout 2013.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Just For One Day

Identifying the heroes of the 2012 WTA season isn't hard.  You cannot really argue with Victoria Azarenka's dominance of the Spring hard-court season and her year end top ranking.  Nor Maria Sharapova's unsurprising love of clay that culminated in a career slam.  And finally the Serena Williams juggernaut that rolled over everything she took part in from Wimbledon through the Year End in Istanbul.  In addition there are the unexpected successes of the year, Sara Errani proving that 5 foot 4 is no hindrance to a successful season, and Angelique Kerber surpassing her German Fed Cup teammates to become one of the most consistent performers on tour.

But amidst all the season long performances sit a number of individual hero moments from players who otherwise enjoyed only limited success on tour.  Single matches amongst the mix that allowed players to elevate their standing to hero status, just for a day.

1. Marion Bartoli def. Victoria Azarenka 63 63 (QF Miami Sony Ericsson Open)

Throughout the first two months of the year, there was only one player who was capturing the headlines.  Taking in titles at Sydney, Doha and Indian Wells, as well as a maiden slam at the Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka had shot out of the 2012 blocks with a 26-match undefeated run.  Echoing Novak Djokovic's feat of the previous year, the Belorussian dominated her opponents with bagel sets, appearing unstoppable in her charge towards the top of the rankings.

Heading into Miami though, the mental and physical pressure of this unbelievable win-streak appeared to be catching up with the newly crowned World #1, as the aura of confidence that accompanies the unbeatable appeared to be dimming.  Although solid during her opening two matches, Azarenka headed into a last 16 encounter with Dominika Cibulkova where suddenly the cracks expanded as the diminutive Slovak proved the player on fire, rushing out to a 61 lead and consolidating it rapidly with two more breaks to bring herself to 52 in the second and 4 serves away from winning the match.  However, Cibulkova was to learn that the value of your stock can go down as well as up, as she double faulted twice to cede the first two points of her victory game to Azarenka, for whom that single glimpse of her opponent's nerves was all that was necessary to see her raise her game enough to reel off four straight games and get back onto equal terms in the set.  Some couple of hours after seeming out of the match at 16 15, the Belorussian took the tie 16 76 75, evidence of her determination and mental strength brought to the fore through the match to take her tally for the season to 26 matches played, 26 won.

What Cibulkova demonstrated, though, was that there was a way through the mighty Belorussian, for any player who could keep her nerve against her.  She highlighted that a ballistic but consistent game plan of "hit hard, hit fast" was the way to undo the #1 seed, doing all the damage while the leaden legs that characterised Azarenka's slow start and the near-exhaustion of a 100% season were still warming up.  Unfortunately she also highlighted her opponent's fortitude, as Azarenka turned the match around from an apparent thrashing to a hard-fought victory.

The player who was to capitalise on these revelations was Azarenka's next opponent, the wily Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, who going into their quarter-final tie was on the wrong side of an 9-2 head-to-head against the world #1.  Whether it was the effort of the Cibulkova comeback, the exhaustion of a demanding winter schedule (Azarenka played to the end of every tournament she had entered - a maximum of 7 matches, as opposed to an early exit after one or two) or Bartoli's predilection as a party pooping wild card, an upset appeared on the cards before the match even began.

It was to come to pass, as Bartoli's unorthodox style of taking the ball early proved too much for the flagging defending champion as she hit hard and deep from the outset, breaking Azarenka in her opening service game.  The Belorussian appeared to have no answer to the onslaught, and the peaks that she exhibited in the match looked more to do with Bartoli's fluctuations in concentration than the ruthlessness that Azarenka had been exhibiting all season.  Bartoli was to notch up a relatively easy victory against a distinctly flat Azarenka, but it was a memorable one, curtailing the new #1's immense start to the season and derailing her opponent who arguably was unable to regroup and re-establish her intensity until the US Open and the final months of the season.

2. Virginie Razzano def. Serena Williams 46 76 63 (R1 French Open)

Consider the set-up.  In the red corner, a 13-time grand slam winner, returning to the upper echelons of the WTA after an extensive injury-induced hiatus, victorious at Charleston and Madrid in the run-up to the pinnacle of the clay court season and a media-endorsed favourite for the title, 10 years after her only championship moment on the red clay of Roland Garros.  In the blue corner, a French journeywoman with a ranking outside of the top 100 and only 2 WTA titles in a 13-year pro-career, both of those coming over 4 years ago.  Serena Williams vs Virginie Razzano had all the makings of a routine opener for the American, who had never been beaten in the first round of a slam in 46 attempts.  It was to be an easing into the tournament before she settled down to more taxing opposition in the latter rounds.

For nearly two sets the match looked to be playing out according to expectations, Williams taking the first set 64 and within two points of winning the tie in the second set tie-break; it wasn't looking like an effortless win or a cruising to victory, but a steady opening to the tournament.

Razzano took this point in the match to rip up the script that the pair had previously been adhering to, and rattled off six consecutive points to take the breaker, stunning the former champion and pushing Williams into a third and deciding set.

That Serena was stunned by the fightback was an understatement.  The American, who can often turn matches against herself with histrionics and temper tantrums, instead found herself deflated by the audacity of the #111 seed.  Unable to regroup quick enough, and visibly unnerved to the point of tears during the third set, Serena allowed Razzano to cruise out to a 5-love lead in the decider.  With chair umpire Eva Asderaki berating the Frenchwoman for hindrance as she struggled with calf cramps, Serena clawed back 3 games, but it was too little too late as Razzano delivered the upset of the season and Serena Williams suffered her first ever loss in the opening round of a slam championship.

Razzano, like Lukas Rosol who pulled off a similarly unanticipated victory against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon over the summer, was to lose in the next round to more mediocre opposition, the giant-slaying match falling into that category of 'once in a lifetime' and unlikely to ever be repeated.  However, with the pair never having met before, Razzano now boasts a career head-to-head ascendancy against Williams 1-0, placing herself in the enviable position of holding a 100% record against the greatest female tennis player of the last decade.

3. Yaroslava Shvedova def. Sara Errani 60 64 (R3 Wimbledon)

Prior to this encounter there was nothing to suggest that it was going to be in any way memorable.  Shunted off the show courts at this year's Wimbledon Championships, the third round encounter may have featured the runner-up of Roland Garros, but expectations for a campaign at SW19 were low considering her preference for clay surfaces.

Court 3, on the Friday of the first week, ended up playing host to the most phenomenal set of tennis from Yaroslava Shvedova, an unseeded Kazakh making her way back to form following knee surgery in 2011, and starting the year outside the top 200.  Against the much higher-ranked Italian the Russian, ranked 65 in the world at the time, reeled off 24 points without return to make headlines as the only player in grand slam history to take a golden set, winning every point across all 6 games of a set.

During the golden set, the Russian who entered Wimbledon on a wild card served 4 aces amongst her 14 winners, while Errani made only 1 unforced error, the clock calling time on the set after only 15 minutes.  Errani was to make more of a fight of it in the second set, Shvedova making only 1 decisive break of serve to take the match 60 64.

The reward for her feat was a fourth round encounter against Serena Williams, the eventual winner of the championship.  Nevertheless, Shvedova's set must count as the single greatest individual performance in a set at any grand slam in history.

4. Laura Robson def. Kim Clijsters 76 76 (R2 US Open)

Since winning Wimbledon as a 14-year-old, the British press have been hotly tipping Laura Robson as the next big thing to hit the WTA.  Whether this was wishful thinking from a nation which has experienced a lack of tennis talent from its female stars since Sue Barker and Virginia Wade, or a realistic assessment of the junior's talent had been largely unanswered.  Until this year the teenager had been full of promise, but unable to deliver anything beyond a one or two match run into a major championship.  Still a youngster, the expectations seem unfounded as Robson has much to develop before she can compete with players 4 or 5 years her senior, or even those such as the Williams sisters who have been on tour longer than she has been playing tennis.

This summer, though, a minor transformation swept across all British sport as Olympic fever gripped the nation and spurred its competitors to some phenomenal victories.  Caught up in the Andy Murray bubble, Robson was to claim silver alonside the Scot in the mixed doubles.  An obvious disappointment for the youngster who was outplayed by Azarenka and her Belorussian partner Max Mirnyi in the gold medal match, but one that marked what could be a turning point in her career.  She was to graduate to the US Open with the confidence of successes in her sails.  For British viewers, her match-up against a swansong-seeking Kim Clijsters was the pick of the second round.

Clijsters story is one of mixed emotions.  After one retirement she returned triumphant on a wild card at the US Open in 2009 to capture the second slam title of her career.  In 2010 she entered as the #2 seed to successfully defend her title before stamping her return to top-flight tennis with a victory at the 2011 Australian Open.  Although dominating the field of fledgling stars in the absence of anyone named Williams, and returning to the WTA #1, a series of injuries threatened to jeopardise the remainder of her season.  As 2012 began and the injuries mounted, Clijsters announced her desire to capture an Olympic medal as her main goal for the season before calling it a day after the tournament of her greatest successes in Flushing Meadows, New York, a place where she had last lost back in 2003.

Clearly hoping to recapture the glories of her three previous triumphs in the city, Clijsters had great expectations going into the match against the British youngster.  She looked the stronger player, swiftly moving out to a 53 lead after breaking Robson's serve.  BUt there was an unmissable quality to the powerful groundstrokes played by the teenager, and she proceeded to force the Belgian back behind the baseline, breaking back and forcing the tie-break.  During the breaker, it was the youngster whose nerve held, taking it to 4.

The second set was equally nervy for both players, each faulting their opening service game on a break point and surviving similar trials in the latter stages of the set.  Another tie-break was needed to determine the outcome. And it was Clijsters who looped a backhand long to hand the teenager the biggest victory of her career to date as she played her final pro match on tour.

If silver at the Olympics was the pinnacle of her season, Robson's defeat of Clijsters was the performance that many of her backers had been predicting for four years, as she transformed the aggression of her game into a consistent performance on a big stage against a top player.  A second scalp was taken by her in the next round as she thwarted the campaign of China's Li Na to make her first R4 of a slam.  And she later in the season became the first British woman to make a WTA final in close to 15 years, earning herself a nomination as the WTA newcomer of the year.  2013 promises to be bright for the Brit as she transposes the tastes of success she experienced this year into greater consistencies and increased exosure to a higher playing level.

5. Venus Williams def. Kimiko Date-Krumm 60 63 (R1 Miami Sony Ericsson Open)

Six months out of the game with an immune disease that left her serious fatigued seemed not to have mattered to Venus Williams as she made a triumphant return to the WTA tour with a blisteringly strong performance over fellow old-timer Kimiko Date-Krumm in the opening round of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

In the opening point of the match, Venus Williams stepped up to the service line for the first time in six months, and with her first strike of the ball hit a 110 mph service ace.  It was almost as if she had never been away as she proceeded to dismantle the wily Japanese vet with characteristic Williams power over the next 77 minutes.  There seemed to be no rust on the American's racquet as she gave away only 3 games on her way to the next round.

And although she was to take the bigger scalp of World #2 Petra Kvitova in the following round, the return of Venus was all the more sweet due to her sustained absence from the sport.  It was a shame that as the tournament went on and she faced longer matches against stronger opponents, her lack of physical conditioning proved a decisive factor and led to some agonising defeats.

For Venus though, 2012 marked a serene time on tour where she played tennis for the love of the game, happy that she still could.  In addition, Williams had also often been subjected to the American crowds ambivalence towards her and her sister, but this year, perhaps with the realisation that the sisters may not be playing for too much longer, every Williams victory on hope soil was greeted with heartfelt support from an appreciative crowd.  And as Venus commented during the US Open, this year was the first that she felt truly American while playing at her home slam.

Unfortunately for Venus, there is the sense that she will never recreate her winning ways or add to the sizable 7 slam titles that sit beside her name, at least on a singles court.  Alongside Serena, the pair have a habit of capturing doubles titles, particularly in their second home at Wimbledon.  For singles, though, Venus is learning to savour the smaller victories and the individual matches while eschewing slam glories.  Being a hero, just for one day, can be just as rewarding as the longevities of trophy successes.

Images:
Bartoli - Getty Images via tennis.com
Razzano - via essentialtennis.com
Shvedova - via Sky Sports
Robson - Corbis via guardian.co.uk
Venus - via supersportswomen.com.au

Monday, 3 September 2012

Robson and Sloane

Last week's US Open was a good week for the leading teenage girls on the WTA tour.

Firstly, there was the ever good-to-watch Sloane Stephens, who at 19 is already the youngest player currently gracing the top 50.  Viewed by many as one to watch over the coming years, she's considered the natural successor to the big-serving, big-hitting Williams sisters, surpassing the current crop of 20-something American women, Christina McHale and Coco Vandeweghe.  Stephens' US Open began with the draw of the first round, as she faced former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.  The ageing Italian, who produces her best tennis when running around on the slower European clay courts, proved no match for the young American, who showed considerable speed and shot variation of her own to take the match 63 64 in two fairly routine sets.  Schiavone's remarks post match suggested that the American would stand a great chance of making it to the top of the game, with a physique more in tune with today's Glamazonian WTA elite.

Perhaps Stephen's rise to the top shouldn't be so unexpected.  She has yet to win a title on the WTA senior tour, but has made the third round at least of 4 of the last 5 Slam events, including this year's US Open.  Her R2 match, against the unseeded German Tatiana Malek was a more staid affair, with Stephens needing 3 sets, but she eventually prevailed to set up a third round encounter against another former Roland Garros winner, Ana Ivanovic.  Taking the first set on a tie-break, Stephens put up a spirited defence, troubling the Serb throughout the match, but with both players trading breaks in the 2nd set, it was Ivanovic who held her nerve and her serve first, to take the second 64.  Set 3 was a less erratic affair for both women, and although Ivanovic was to break mid-way through the set, Stephens didn't allow her to pull away, but eventually squandered 6 break point chances in the ensuing game.  The set ended 62, and it was the 12th seed who was the one to progress to the last 16.

It was the second straight year that Stephens was ousted by Ivanovic at this stage, and once again her shortcomings were evidenced through an inability to seize the opportunities that were present for her to take.  For Stephens, there is a sense that she can gain some of that killer instinct to allow her to regroup after setbacks, and to capitalise on an opponent's weakness once it is exposed.

The other teen on show last week was British hope Laura Robson.  Dumped into an uninviting quarter with both Kim Clijsters in her final ever US Open, and an on-form Li Na standing in between her and the last 16, Robson was the last choice of player to advance from this section of the draw.  However, her recent silver medal alongside honorary "big bro" Andy Murray in the mixed doubles event at London 2012 appears to have imbued the 19-year-old with a new-found confidence.  Added to this is the Davis Cup tutelage of Judy Murray and the appointment of full time coach Zeljko Krajan, the Croation former-pro who masterminded Dinara Safina's rise to the top spot of tennis, and has worked with Jelena Jankovic and Dominika Cibulkova in the past.

Robson's run at the US Open marks the first time that a British woman has made the last 16 of a Slam competition in over 14 years.  And her defeat of the two former Slam champions along the way was a tactical accomplishment, as first Clijsters succumbed to Robson's combination of variety and power.  It was a somewhat stunning victory against a player many thought would be energised by retirement for one final push for victory (much as Andy Roddick has been in the men's event).  However, Clijsters was to limp out of the competition and out of the WTA tour at only the second round stage, defeated by an unlikely conqueror who played their two tie-breaks better.

As if sensing that her defeat of Clijsters could be passed off as a fluke, Robson was to repeat the feat two days later, shocking Li Na, the ninth-seeded player in the event.  A tough three set encounter, Robson carved out an early lead, taking the first set 64.  The Chinese player was to swing the momentum back her way, though, capturing the second set on a tie-break.  But as the match progressed into a third set, Robson started to play more conservatively, cutting out the errors that litter a big-hitters game, and going for the percentage plays, the tactical, patient plays.  This was to prove the difference in the final set, as the Brit overcame her illustrious opponent 64 67 62, marking the biggest victory of her infant career.

Three-in-a-row was to prove too much for Robson, who eventually fell in the fourth round to defending champion Sam Stosur.  But her run at this year's Flushing Meadows marks her transition from junior champion to senior level player.  With both Robson and Stephens set to move up the rankings with their respective runs, the future of WTA tennis looks to be very very bright.

Images from Wikimedia - Stephens: Keith Allison; Robson: Carine06

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

WTA Seeds Going to Seed

You sometimes wonder what the point of seeds are in the WTA.  Unlike the ATP tour, when the top 3 men continue to dominate and only occasionally falter to allow one of the other guys a look in, the top players in the WTA frequently stumble inappropriately early in tournaments to make you wonder whether their rankings ever reflect more than their ability to play consecutive tournaments.

This week the WTA is in Eastbourne on the East Sussex coast of the UK and s-Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands in the two main co-ed grass court tournaments in the build up to Wimbledon.

Cibulkova - still in the frame in Holland
In Holland, the top billing went to Sam Stosur and Sara Errani, both of whom are noted clay courter specialists with patchy results on the faster slicker grass surface.  Errani, whose dream Roland Garros run capped her staggering clay court season, caved first, losing in a close three-set encounter to Kateryna Bondarenko.  Stosur followed suit, despite taking an early lead against the Belgian Kirsten Flipkens, a player ranked over 250 places below her..  They leave Dominika Cibulkova as the highest ranked player in the draw.

A similar cave occurred in Eastbourne, as three of the top four (all in action this afternoon) succumbed to supposedly weaker opposition.  Heading up a stellar field, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki and top seed Agnieszka Radwanska fell in quick succession to Ekaterina Makarova, Christina McHale and Tsvetana Pironkova respectively.  Their defeats will be warmly received by Marion Bartoli who made short work of Sorana Cirstea 6-2 6-2, and Angelique Kerber who overturned a flaky first set to pick up the pieces of a now wide-open draw.

Rankings in the WTA will always be under dispute.  For over a year (barring a week-long stint by Kim Clijsters after the Aussie Open in 2011) Caroline Wozniacki held the top spot, the second highest number of weeks at number one amongst active players behind Serena Williams - higher than Kim Clijsters, higher than current incumbent Maria Sharapova and higher than Venus Williams.  She built up her points tally with wins in the 250 and 500 point championships, while only scratching the surface of the Grand Slam events.  By winning four 500 events she takes as many points as someone winning Wimbledon or the US Open.  However, through 2012, she has leaked ranking points to plummet to her current position just inside the top 10.

In addition, the subtraction of points, which occurs if a player fails to live up to the expectations of their previous showing at an event, means that players are penalised with a points and potential ranking drop if their performance is lacking.  In the ATP this serves the tour well - the top three frequently make the semis and finals, and the top ten rarely see such fluctuations that the women's tour does.  Indeed, if one of the top three were to drop to number 4 or even number 7 it would be serious news, and unlikely to occur with the rapidity that Wozniacki has waned.

So it seems that the ranking system which appears broken for the WTA is anything but in the ATP, and what works for one half of the tour, may not necessarily work for the other.  So the problem could lie less in the rankings and more in the players - there is no dominance as there is in the men's tour, no semi-final or final shoe-ins.  Instead, things are a lot more open, and a lot more competitive.

It's a undulating field that makes for some interesting results and may mean that every now and then, the number 262 in the world can walk out onto the court and blast her way to a momentous round one victory against someone ranked in the top 5 in the world.

Cibulkova image: Christian Mesiano via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Stosur and Errani First to Make SF

Stosur makes her 3rd French Open SF in 4 years
The line-up for the first of the women's semi-finals at Roland Garros was confirmed today as Sam Stosur, the 6th seed from Australia, defeated Dominika Cibulkova and Sara Errani defeated Germany's Angelique Kerber.

Stosur was the first to make the semi-final, playing under the sun on Philippe Chatrier Court.  She dominated the smaller Slovak player to win the match 6-4 6-1, her superior top-spin serve and forehand too much for the 15th seed.  Accurate aggression saw the 2010 beaten finalist rush out to a 5-2 lead, and although Cibulkova pulled one break back with some inspired firepower of her own to take the score to 5-4, the Australian eventually closed out the set saving break points in the process.

Stosur never gave her opponent much of a look at the second set and swiftly booked her semi-final place, racking up a winner count of 30.  She will go into the match full of confidence not having dropped a set all week.  And she should thank Cibulkova for helping her campaign by dispatching the number one seed Victoria Azarenka in the quarter-final - a player that Stosur has never previously beaten.

Following shortly behind was Sara Errani, who has so far in the tournament taken the notable scalps of two former champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic.  Despite this, the Italian has a woeful record against players in the Top 10: 28 played, 0 won.  Today, though, she made inroads into this statistic by taking out the 10th seeded Kerber 6-3 7-6.  It was straightforward for Errani (ranked 21st in Roland Garros this year) in the first set, but a more tumultuous second set, which featured 8 breaks of serve, saw Kerber serve for the set twice.  She failed to take either opportunity and Errani ran away with the tie-break and her first Grand Slam semi-final appearance to 2.

Going into Thursday's match, Errani will be considered the underdog.  Stosur appears to have hit form at precisely the right time to push for her maiden Roland Garros title, having been to the final once before in 2010.    The Australian also leads the head-to-head by 5-0 and with a 15-1 set count too, with the most recent meeting between the pair only a month ago on the clay in Rome.

As with Cibulkova, should Stosur manage to find a rhythm with both her kick-serve and her top-spin forehand, the 5-foot-4 Italian could struggle with the high-bouncing balls.  But with three clay-court titles behind her (Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest) Errani will be brimming with confidence and looking to add to her virgin Top 10 victory, and make a dent in the played 5 lost 5 defeats she has against the higher-ranked Aussie.

Image from TV5

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Close Encounters of the 5-Set Kind

Troubled times for the man from UniQlo
Aside from Davis Cup games, the only real arena where the men of the ATP play five set matches is on the biggest stages of all: at the Grand Slams in Australia, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.

Five set matches throw up their own brand of controversy, not least when discussing prize funds at Slams and equal pay weighting between the men and women's champions. At the same time, though, the marathon five-set contest garners a unique set of memorable moments and a phenomenal amount of "what ifs?".

Without a five set format, at the Australian Open Novak Djokovic would never have been subjected to a four hour marathon at the hands of Andy Murray in his semi-final, and consequently would never have got the opportunity to contest the longest Slam final of the Open era in his 353 minute victory over Rafael Nadal - another by-product of a five set match.

And today, Djokovic was once again praising the five set structure played at Grand Slams. In his R16 match against Andreas Seppi, the #1 seed cut a meek figure for all of two sets as the Italian bruised his ego with some pinpoint accuracy on his ground strokes and superior court play. The Serb put twice as many balls out as he made winners, frequently struggling with his timing while Seppi raised his game at every time of asking, taking the first two sets 6-4 7-5.

If this had been a three set match, like the format of the WTA and the rest of the men's tour, the number one seed would no longer be in the competition. Andreas Seppi would have progressed to his first Grand Slam quarter final and news and twitter feeds would have been awash with the story of the day: the first time a top male seed had been defeated so early in a Slam since Robin Soderling dumped Rafael Nadal out of the French Open in 2009.

However, today's match against Seppi was a five set affair, and while Djokovic was made to look average by the Italian during the first two sets, Seppi saw his level drop off just enough to allow the Serbian back into the match. Djokovic took the next two sets 6-3 7-5 to set up a decider.

With the momentum swinging back to the top seed, who was still not quite playing at his maximum, Seppi's error count increased and Djokovic wrapped up the final set 6-3. For Djokovic, it was a close encounter of the 5-set kind, and one that would have terminated his campaign to hold all 4 majors at the same time had it been a 3-set match.

As it is, though, Djokovic continues on his quest for the elusive complete-the-set French title, and Seppi is the man walking off court with a haze of could-have-beens obscuring his vision.

Elsewhere, the big story of the women's draw was the defeat of top seed Victoria Azarenka by the diminutive Dominika Cibulkova. A racquet-smashing episode during the second set wasn't enough to stop the Slovak running out a 6-2 7-6 winner. The defeat of Azarenka throws wide open this half of the draw.

In Tuesday's QFs Sam Stosur will face Cibulkova while in a battle between the two form players of the first half of the season, Sara Errani will take on Angelique Kerber

image from Getty via ca.sports.yahoo.com

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Withdrawals and Walkovers

A series of unfortunate events have come together to gift Li Na a place in the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.

Three seeds over the course of the tournament have withdrawn from her half of the draw, thus making her path to the final less difficult than it could have been. Caroline Wozniacki was forced to retire midway through her third round match with the Spaniard Anabel Medina Garrigues. On Wednesday the top seed Victoria Azarenka also withdrew from her third round match, gifting a walkover to Dominika Cibulkova, and in the process negating the opportunity for a match-up with Serena Williams. It is the second time that a promised meeting between the pair has failed to materialise; back in February Azarenka also withdrew from Fed Cup duties for Belarus in their tie against the States, a tie that the US team went on to win comfortably.

Azarenka's Rome withdrawal this week was accompanied by controversial statements questioning the WTA tournament entry rules and points system, a debate that will no doubt run for a few months to come. The #1 seed's withdrawal, though, does highlight the plight of Petra Kvitova who struggled through her QF against Angelique Kerber, despite what appeared to be an abdominal strain. Allowing her opponent a victory rather than a walkover, and the sportsmanship that the obviously injured Kvitova showed during this and numerous other matches is part of the reason why her peers voted for her to receive the Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship award in 2011. She will hopefully have recovered from this latest injury in time for the French Open.

The last withdrawal was one that affected Li Na directly as yesterday a lower back strain forced the tournament favourite Serena Williams to withdraw from her semi-final against the Chinese star. As with Kvitova, it would be a huge shame should this injury to Serena prevent her from contesting Roland Garros, an event that she has only won once a decade ago.

Li Na's route to this afternoon's final has been peppered with big name withdrawals, and has seen her only play six sets of tennis to reach this point, and she hasn't yet faced any player in the top 10. Likewise, her opponent in the final, Maria Sharapova, is also yet to lose a set, and the highest ranked opposition she has faced has been the 11th seed Kerber in the SF.

Yesterday's victory showed how Sharapova's game has grown since her return from a shoulder injury three years ago. Her serve is noticeably more consistent, and her movement around the court is more assured and confident on clay than it was when she made her now-infamous "cow on ice" claim.

2012 is turning out to be a very good year for the Russian, who recently turned 25. Although she has only won one title so far this season (Stuttgart a fortnight ago) she has played 7 tournaments and made the final of 5 of them. It is a consistency that should it be maintained could lead her to push for the top ranking later in the year.

Recent form would suggest that the match between Sharapova and Li Na today is likely to fall to the Russian who will chalk up her second win of the season and successfully defend her Rome title. However, Li Na is peaking form at the right time in preparation for her title defense at the French Open, and will know that the head-to-head for the two players is only 6-4 in favour of Sharapova.

All signs point to an interesting three set encounter this afternoon in the Foro Italico, and one that could go either way. My money's on the Russian, though, to claim her second straight red clay tournament of the year.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

2008 Revisited

In the tennis-sphere it could well be 2008 again. Rafael Nadal exacted a drubbing on the dusty Monte Carlo clay to Novak Djokovic in today's final, a harking back to the time when the Spaniard dominated on the surface. While over in the Fed Cup Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic were exhibiting the poise and determination in their tie against Russia that had eluded them since they reached the top of the rankings back in Summer 2008.

Jankovic's Serbia have plenty to smile about
An odd squad selection by the Russian coach saw Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova picked for singles ahead of Maria Kirilenko. Granted Pavs has a better record against both of the Serbs, but her form has been woeful since the beginning of the year and she obliged the form guide and her opposition by losing both singles rubbers. With an additional win from Jankovic against Svetlana Kuznetsova, the Serbs pulled off an upset against the heavily favoured Russian squad, reaching their first final in their 18 year history in the competition.

Waiting for them in the final, scheduled for November, will be the defending champions the Czech Republic. Their 4-1 victory over Italy this weekend revealed how the significant strengths of a player such as the world number three, Petra Kvitova, can bring out the best of those around her, despite the calibre of the opposition.

A similar phenomenon was in evidence in Stuttgart as Sam Stosur led from the front, capturing two straight set singles victories. Jarmilla Gajdosova backed up her star player by pulling off an against-the-odds win over Julia Goerges. The hapless German team may have the best team camaraderie, but fell far short when called upon on court. The 3-2 victory marks the Australians return to the World Group after their demotion last year at the hands of the Italians.

Joining them back in the top flight in 2013 will be the USA, who pulled off the only 5-0 whitewash in the top leagues this weekend. Serena Williams playing her part with two straightforward wins over an inexperienced and greatly outclassed Ukrainian squad.

Japan, spearheaded by the talismanic Kimiko Date-Krumm, also secured a world group spot after subduing an injury-ravished Belgian side unable to field any of its top three players.

Finally, Slovakia round out the WG elite 8 following their victory against Spain. Daniella Hantuchova and Dominika Cibulkova wrapping up the singles with three wins between them.

image from AFP via sports.yahoo.com

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Federation Cup SF Weekend

Kvitova capturing the Fed Cup for the Czech Republic last year
This weekend is Fed Cup semi-final weekend for the WTA, so no individual tournaments for the top stars, but instead a donning of the team tracksuit and colours as Russia say "privet" to Serbia while the Czechs host Italy in Ostrava.

In addition, 8 other teams are vying to return to or keep their place in the World Group.

The Ukraine go into their home match as distinct underdogs having been unlucky to draw a USA team desperate to bounce back to the top tier after an injury-stricken 2011. Mary Joe Fernandez has considerable firepower to call on in her team, and although Venus Williams hasn't been picked for the contest, Serena will lead the charge to wrap up the tie in the singles. It's a match in which the Americans shouldn't really struggle.

A solid Japanese team entertain a somewhat depleted Belgian side unable to call on Kim Clijsters, Yanina Wickmayer or Kirsten Flipkens. With a recent victory in Copenhagen, Japan will hope that they can back up their superior singles rankings with a confident performance in the doubles and should take this tie comfortably.

Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova will have their work cut out for them in Spain as they take on Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's clay-court specialists in Marbella. Despite the better singles players on the Slovakian team the clay should prove a decent leveller to make this a close contest, and Spain may edge the match.

Despite boasting 5 top-30 singles players, Germany can consider themselves extremely unlucky to find themselves in the World Group play-offs this season. In their R1 match they were somewhat subdued by the superior firepower of Petra Kvitova who has found form this season when her country has requested it (Hopman Cup and Fed Cup) but has yet to ignite her singles game for 2012 in the same manner.

Yet again, though, Germany find themselves up against a player who can punish them in the singles rubbers as they take on Australia, and Sam Stosur, in Stuttgart. The choice of indoor clay will heavily favour the number five seed, and should she be called on to play doubles too, could cause an upset in this Grandstand tie, despite the Germans' obvious strength in depth. Expect this to be decided on the doubles, and as it is the heart tie of the play-offs could cause tears for Germany should the Australians pull out a world number 5 performance from their former Grand Slam doubles champion.

The two semi-finals, though, feature four of the top five teams in the world (USA at #4 being the team not quite making the grade this season).

In the 3 vs 5 match Russia take on Serbia. Even without the number two seed Maria Sharapova and the injured Vera Zvonareva, Russia's dominant team has three other top thirty players in reserve including Maria Kirilenko and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the latter of which always seems to bypass inconsistent singles form to find her best for Fed Cup week.

Serbia, led in the singles by Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, won't be a pushover for the Russians on the clay in Moscow, and if both bring their A-game to the competition Russia may find that the contest is a lot closer than a rudimentary glance at the stats make it appear.

Finally, the opposite SF sees Petra Kvitova and her Czech team-mates Lucies Safarova and Hradecka take on a full strength Italian side (and current Fed Cup top seeds) comprising of Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani, Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci. It is a formidable line-up for the Czechs to have to face, but their choice of venue and the picking of a hard court should take away some of the obvious advantage that the Italians would have had should the tie have been contested on clay. In addition, the Czech Republic go into the tie as defending champions with a victory over Russia last November. However, it may prove difficult for Kvitova to rely on her back-up players to overcome the grit of a GS winner of Schiavone's calibre and the considerable heart of a cohesive and confident Italian team who will be eager to expunge memories of their inability to defend their 2010 winning run last year.

image from: http://static.ibnlive.in.com/ibnlive/pix/sitepix/02_2012/kvitova_fedcup_ap.jpg

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Tennis, as Sponsored by Heat Magazine

You could be forgiven for thinking that there wasn't any tennis happening this week, as the stories breaching the Twittersphere have seemingly been plucked from the pages of Heat.

Firstly there's Jelena Jankovic's hangout with Redfoo on court prior to the Serbia/Russia Fed Cup tie at the weekend.  And for once JJ wasn't the most bizarrely dressed person on court, as the LMFAO frontman paired his trademark 'fro and specs with a funky tee and some of Andy Murray's bright blue shorts.  Jankovic's other news is a new coach, Zelijko Krajan, who had previous worked with Dinara Safina and more recently Dominika Cibulkova, and who she will hope turn her current form around - Jankovic hasn't won a tournament in over two years.

Elsewhere the news has been all around a couple of 'do's.  First up Andy Murray, who has swapped his scruffy style for a neat buzz cut.  Far from looking like Britney Spears during her bonkers phase, the new-do actually suits Murray.  Maybe he's hoping that he'll become as beloved as Andre Agassi did after he swapped mullet for shorn, or maybe he'll be hoping that it will gain him as many Grand Slam tournaments as the American wizard.

Finally, the major news is the has-she-hasn't-she Maria Sharapova haircut.  Photos surfaced on Tuesday of Maria on a beach photoshoot for Samsung (in 6 inch heels) sporting a new shorter do, all choppy, and Hollywood.  She then backed this up on her Facebook with a couple of front on shots of the new haircut.


Twitter speculated in its droves.  Was this new wedding hair?  Would she now swap her trademark visor for a headband?  Was she taking style tips from Paula Hercog or Svetlana Kuznetsova?

In reality it turns out it was all in aid of the photoshoot, and the cut itself wasn't anything more than a wig.  Her fans will probably say that they knew this all along, but Sharapova's latest pictures on her FB show the famous blonde locks have returned, saying "Wow, when I posted those photos with the short hair I had no idea everyone would all go bananza....( my dear friends, I never actually said I cut my hair!) so for the sake of my email inbox and it's stressful 24 hours, I would like to show you the below pictures...my hair is still long...and blonde...and well it's pretty much the same! We did a shoot a few days ago and I sported all types of hair styles...long and yes short (a wig!!!)."


But as with the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, who dreamt he was a butterfly and now is forced to wonder whether he is a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who is dreaming he is a man, the casual observer is left to contemplate which is the wig - the short choppy cut during the shoot or the long blonde hair post shoot.

Maybe Heat Magazine could get to the bottom of the story in time for Maria's 25th birthday this Thursday.

Murray from Yahoo Sports, AP Photo / Lionel Cironneau
Sharapova shots from her Facebook

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Double Double

In March, Sara Errani became the first WTA player for two years to capture a singles and doubles title at the same tournament when she streaked to victory on the red clay of Acapulco.

Just over six weeks later she has repeated the feat, again on clay, and this time at the Barcelona open.

Her first match of her winning Sunday saw her take down Dominika Cibulkova in a 6-2 6-2 victory.

Her second was an all-Italian doubles affair. Partnering Roberta Vinci, they easily saw off the B-team of Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta 6-0 6-2.

Errani's playing time on court today totalled just under two hours and signifies the third time in four years that an Italian has lifted the singles trophy at the tournament.

The strong showing for the Italians will surely put them into a strong position for next weekend's Fed Cup semi-final against a Petra Kvitova-led Czech Republic.

image from Yahoo Sports

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Nothing Interesting Here

It's a slow week in the tennis world this week.

The ATP, just off the back of some Davis Cup ties, slips quietly into the clay season with tournaments in Houston and Casablanca. Typically attended by the Americans in Houston and clay-court specialists from the lower ranks in Morocco, the outcomes seem almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of the tennis calendar

The big four have gifted themselves a well-earned rest this past fortnight and Nadal, Murray and Djokovic kick-off the action proper in the first major event on the clay in Monte Carlo. With Djokovic and Murray on one side of the draw and Nadal and #4 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the other, Monte Carlo looks set to answer a few of the questions surrounding Djokovic's ability to complete a calendar slam on this most elusive of surfaces, and Nadal's chances of defending his Roland Garros title, the tournament at which he broke through as a teenager and has dominated, record-breakingly, over the past 8 years.

For the women, there is also a hiatus between the Charleston final and the semi-finals of the Fed Cup next weekend.

Like the men there's a clay court primer this week in Barcelona. Shock early exits for Julia Goerges and Francesca Schiavone leave Dominika Cibulkova and Sara Errani contesting Sunday's final. Errani will move to two titles for the year should she be victorious. That's more than Stosur, Sharapova, Kvitova, Li Na and Bartoli combined.

The other WTA event this week is a more curious affair. The Copenhagen Open, sponsored by E-Boks is a toddler of a tournament, having its inaugural championship in 2010.

It is also peculiarly scheduled, a hard court indoor tournament contested after the start of the clay court season. It did recently consider resurfacing to red clay, but financial circumstances have hindered this transformation and it currently remains a hard-court competition.

Most notably, though, the event has in it's two-year history only ever had one winner, having been won by the Danish former number one Caroline Wozniacki.

Cynically, it could be argued that the event is heavily weighted in favour of its hometown superstar. The surface is obviously a preference for her, and the event never attracts many of the other top players. Consequently, Wozniacki has a win-streak of played 14 won 14 at the tournament. Despite a troubled season (which to her credit she hasn't capitulated to, and has continued to play her matches in her typically laid back style) she has once again breezed through the early rounds to earn her right to contest the final.

However, her opponent on Sunday could prove to be a party pooper for the Danish fans. Part of the current German renaissance, Angelique Kerber is one of the breakthrough players of this year's WTA season. Claiming her first tour title in Paris this spring, backed up with consistent semi-final appearances, Kerber has already dispatched one former number one on her way to the final by routing Jelena Jankovic in the semi-final 61 62.

Wozniacki is desperately in need of a win for the season, to banish the spectre of falling rankings, early exits and tournament defence failures. However, the in-form Kerber could turn out to be the player to finally end the Dane's Copenhagen run.


Photo from the e-boks site.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Maid Marion

It happened completely against script, but the Miami Premier mandatory championships is the tournament where Victoria Azarenka's blistering start to the 2012 season finally came to an end. 

But rather than anyone named Williams, it was the unorthodox Marion Bartoli who came out the player to snap the win streak with a straight sets victory over the Belorussian, running out 63 63. Azarenka looked unsteady on serve throughout the match, throwing in numerous errors from the baseline as the Frenchwoman proved the more consistent taking the ball early and flat to throw Azarenka off her stride.

A beleaguered Azarenka became continually frustrated as the mental and emotional toll of her 26 match unbeaten run took effect. Much of the match followed the same pattern as her previous match against Dominika Cibulkova, but while Azarenka was able on that occasion to claw back a set and a 52 deficit, she had no response to Bartoli's breaks.

Next up for Bartoli is a semi final against the number 3 seed, Agnieska Radwanska, who stopped the fiery and emotional comeback of Venus Williams earlier in the day.

The other side of the draw has Maria Sharaopva facing Caroline Wozniacki. The latter upsetting the form books by putting out Williams #2 in straight sets, perhaps proving that the pressure of being number 1, which clearly got to the current incumbent tonight, has been lifted now she's a way down the rankings.

Image from stuff.co.nz

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

From 96 to 8

After a week and a half, the Sony Ericsson Open at Miami has whittled it's field down to it's quarter finalists.  Only 8 players are left in the draw, and for the first time in nearly 2 years, 25% of those names end in Williams.

This women's tournament has largely been about Serena and Veuns, with both making their comebacks at Crandon Park after a string of injuries and illnesses.  Seven games into the draw it's barely like they've even been away.  Firing off an impressive 32 aces between them, Vee and ReRe booked their places in the quarter finals yesterday.

Quarter by quarter the draw looks like this.

Q1 pits current number one and 25 match win-streak story of 2012 Victoria Azarenka against the World number 7 Marion Bartoli.  The Azarenka express rolled past Michaela Krajicek in straight sets in the second round before British teenager Heather Watson narrowly avoided a double bagel by picking up 2 games in the second set of their third round match.  Maybe because of all the attention on her, or just because she fancied a game of it in the fourth round. Azarenka was absent from the first 25 minutes of her tie against Dominika Cibulkova as the Slovak picked off the first set 61.  Steadying the ship somewhat, Azarenka then took the remainder of the match on a tie break and a 75 final set - her toughest test so far.

Bartoli needed three sets to get through her first match against Hercog, before a couple of straightforward wins against Simona Halep and Maria Kirilenko set up her tie against Azarenka.  The head to head between these two favours Azarenka heavily, but Bartoli, is capable of the odd upset, and has a recent 3-set win against the Belorussian at last year's WTA championships in Istanbul to perhaps suggest that the match result may not be as easily predicted as it could be.

Advancing: VICTORIA AZARENKA in 3

The winner of Q2 would get to meet (potentially) Azarenka in the semi-final, and the Q2 quarter contains one player who has yet to play the Number 1 this season (Venus Williams) and one player who has faced Vika in 4 semis or quarters so far this season and has yet to chalk up a victory (Agnieszka Radwanska), her most humiliating defeat being the most recent at Indian Wells where Azarenka routed her 60 62, the same score as in the Heather Watson match.

Should Radwanska progress through to the semi finals, there seems an air of inevitability about the result if Azarenka is there to face her in the tie.  Standing in her way is the resurgent Venus Williams.  A welcome return to the game after an 8 month hiatus, Venus fired off an ace with her first point, running out a speedy 60 63 winning against Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Next up was a grandstand tie against Petra Kvitova, the number three seed, and one of the names high up on the watchlist for this year.  With the pair sharing spoils with a 64 set apiece, it was Venus who stepped up in the final set and blasted away for a 60 3rd set victory.  A smiling Venus serenaded her second round upset, but then moved in to more troubled waters against lesser opponents.  A staggeringly exhausting 3-set match against the spirited Canadian player Aleksandra Wozniack eventually ended on a tiebreak after multiple breaks of serve and momentum swings, and Venus's fourth round match again went the distance, before she wrapped up proceedings against Ana Ivanovic 67 62 62.

Venus and Radwanska have met 6 times previously with the American taking the last five meetings (in the last three matches Radwanska hasn't managed to total more than 4 games a match).  However, it remains to be seen how tournament fit Venus is and whether her last three mammoth matches have fatigued her beyond contention.

If they were to meet, Azarenka has yet to beat Venus, and in both of their previous meetings (most recently in 2010) has yet to even take a set from her.  Landscapes have changed much in the past two years, but a Venus Azarenka semifinal could rattle the Belorussian enough to cause her to wobble.

Q2 heart says Venus, head says Aga.  Follow the heart and say Venus
.

Advancing: VENUS WILLIAMS in 3

In Q3 there seems to only be one outcome.  Serena Williams is the only quarter finalist to make it through her first 3 matches without dropping a set.  Williams has been pushed hardest so far by her fourth round opponent Sam Stosur, who had breaks and chances in both their sets, but couldn't put together enough consistency to trouble Serena for prolonged periods.  Despite a lack of pre-tournament matches Williams has once again stepped up to the line, reeled off the aces and winners and put herself in contention for another final.

At the other end of Q3 and the payer that she will face in the quarter final is Caroline Wozniacki.  Frequently troubled in recent months, culminating in a slip from the number one spot in the overalls to number 6, Wozniacki was gifted with a kind draw.  Her R4 opponent, Yanina Wickmayer compounded this by putting out an injury-stricken Kim Clijsters in the third round.  Wozniacki needed a tiebreak in a close first set against the second-best Belgian player, but then trotted off a 60 set to book her QF spot.

A fully fit Serena should not have many problems with Wozniacki, so unless there's an injury or a Serena tantrum over some spurious issue, the American should progress.
 

Advancing: SERENA WILLIAMS in 2

The final quarter is the one that has largely gone with the form book, as the two top 8 players in the draw have come through their respective halves to meet in the quarter final.  Li Na seems to have fully exorcised any demons plaguing her since her French Open victory and is now racking up solid victories against players that she should be beating.  This consistency pulled her through a tough R4 encounter with the German 12th seed Sabine Lisicki, the score ending up 36 64 62.

Propping up the draw is Maria Sharapova, who since struggling with an ankle injury in the latter part of 2011 has consistently made the late stages of all tournaments she has entered this year, frequently stumbling at the last hurdle against the current number one.

Li Na vs Sharapova is one of the most even match ups amongst the final 8, with Sharapova winning their first 5 meetings, and Li Na winning the four most recent encounters.  By surface, though, Sharpova leads 31 on hard courts.  Li Na looks set to make a good run at some point this season, and unlike Schiavone, for example, she is capable of doing so on a hard court as well as a clay court.  By contrast Sharapova has looked shaky on serve and has had her shortcomings highlighted as players frequently move her around the court from side to side.  Should Li Na's game be on, Sharapova could crumble under some superior consistency and just enough firepower to make the match a little one-sided.

Advancing: LI NA in 2

From here, it's tempting to suggest a Williams Williams final, and it would be fitting for someone with that surname to finally stop the Azarenka win streak.  My money's on Serena in the final, but it would be nice if Venus could give Vika something to think about in the mean time.

image from : http://postnoon.com/2012/03/24/venus-upsets-kvitova-in-r3/39511

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Radwanska Goerges Preview

A rather long list of withdrawals and absentees from the WTA top 20 in the first quarter of the season has garnered world number 6 Agnieszka Radwanska and current German number 3 Julia Goerges (19th in the rankings) their first tournament finals of the year.

Those who have handed sicknotes to the Dubai tournament directors include Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Li Na, Vera Zvonareva, Andrea Petkovic, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters. For a Premier tournament this early in the season the top name attendance is considerably low, and potential injuries and lacklustre performances look set to add to the list as Bartoli and Cibulkova both look to have struggled in recent events.

Nevertheless, Radwanska and Goerges have made their ways through the depleted field to set up this afternoon's final. And the Polish player will go into the match as the clear favourite. The only time the two have met previously was last month at the Australian Open. The score on that occasion was embarrassingly lopsided with Aga taking down her R16 opponent 61 61.

Should Radwanska repeat this today (and the stats leading in to the match suggest that she shouldn't be given too much trouble by the German) then she will rise to her highest placing in the rankings so far as she overtakes Sam Stosur for the number 5 spot.

image from pokerpurist.com

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Aloha Doha

The first non-slam premier event for the women takes place this week in the big money location of Doha, Qatar, where amongst the top billing names competing will be Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur, Vera Zvonareva, Sabine Lisicki and Aga Radwanska. Calling the outcome of this championship will be tough - for Azarenka it will be her first tournament with the number one by her name, and her first appearance (after last weekend's Fed Cup stutter) since the Australian Open final.

In the first instance it is strange to see a draw sheet with Wozniacki's name on it where she doesn't appear on the top line. Her slip from 1-seed to 4 means that she no longer occupies the top of the draw. In Doha she's the number 2 seed, so peculiarly finds herself in the bottom half of the draw. The two players in between Azarenka and Wozniacki are both not playing - Petra Kvitova withdrawing late in the day with a heel injury.

Quarter by quarter the draw looks like this. Top seed Azarenka has a relatively straightforward path to the quarters - the only runaround she should get will be Francesca Schiavone propping up that quarter. In fact Schiavone could well have the rougher ride with Yanina Wickmayer as her first post-bye match. Neither Daniela Hantuchova nor Anastasia Pavlyuchenko should cause too much trouble for either seed, unless the question mark over Azarenka's back injury that led to her Fed Cup withdrawal pings again.

The next quarter, which will contain Azarenka's possible semi-final opponent is a tricky one to call. At one end is Radwanska whose path through contains a lot of as yet undetermined qualifiers. And at the base of the left-hand side of the draw is Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic is a perennial yo-yo - a solid run at the Australian Open was followed by a lacklustre Fed Cup compounded with an injury.  She could be upset well before the quarters. Difficult to call Radwanska's progress, but a close tie is likely if she meets Julia Goerges in the last 16. It's mostly hers to lose here, so she should advance to a semi at least.

Quarter 3 is Zvonareva (last year's champion) through #3 seed Stosur. Stosur is something of a bogey player for the Russian, who has been sliding down the rankings for a while and could well struggle to regain previous form amidst the new batch of tennis stars. Stosur's clinical dispatch of Zvonareva at 2011's Flushing Meadows evidencing the lopsided nature of their game style match-up. It's a tricky quarter for both women though, although on paper Flavia Pennetta, Dominika Cibulkova, Sonia Cirstea, Ana Ivanovic and the rest shouldn't stand too much of a chance against either player. Stosur's determined performances at the Fed Cup in Switzerland should have redressed some of the damage done in January during the Aussie tournaments, and with Doha being so far away from home soil it should stand her with a good chance of the title ... provided she can keep her brain in check.

Quarter 4 contains the in-form player of the season - Marion Bartoli, who this weekend made it through to the Paris final where she lines up as favourite. Unfortunately for her, Wozniacki, Lisicki Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko and Andrea Kerber also make this the most difficult draw of the tournament.

Lisicki and Bartoli to meet in the 16, with Bartoli facing Kuznetsova in the quarters.

Calling the semis: Azarenka Radwanska, with the Polish player causing the upset on the number 1 seed in 3.  And on the opposite side Stosur upending Bartoli in another tough three-setter.

Calling the championship - it's Stosur for this one. But as with all Stosur tournaments it's a very thin line between making the final and crashing out humiliatingly in the first round. Here's hoping that the former is on display in Qatar this week.

image from: http://www.qatarisbooming.com/2012/02/12/qatar-airways-celebrates-10-years-of-top-womens-tennis-action-in-qatar/

Saturday, 8 October 2011

ATP vs WTA

Two very distinct tournaments are occurring this week in the Asian swing of pro-tennis.

In Tokyo an ATP contest featuring Rafael Badal and Andy Murray is taking place, and in Beijing a WTA tournament starring Caroline Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli, Victoria Azarenka, Sam Stosur and most of the other top 20 women players on the circuit is happening.

This weekend the business end of both tournaments get going with semi-finals and finals in the schedules.  The scheduling for the two tournaments is unfortunately where the similarities stop.

In the men's tournament all 4 of the top seeds have made it through to the final weekend, and Nadal (1st seed)  has already defeated Mardy Fish (4th seed) and Andy Murray (2nd seed) is a set and a break up against David Ferrer (3rd seed).  All the top seeded players have made it through to the finals of the tournament, and this is reflected in the rankings of the mens race. The top 4 Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Murray are thousands of points ahead of the number 5, 6 and 7 players and they regularly contest the semi-finals of all the major tournaments.

In the ATP World Tour ranking means something, it is a true reflection of a players ability and his standing next to other players.  Sure Andy Murray will lose to Dennis Young in the middle of a tournament every now and then, but he consistently makes finals and semi-finals and he is consistently joined by Federer, Nadal and/or Djokovic.

The WTA Beijing tournament couldn't be more different.

The current women's seedings and their fairings in the tournament are as follows:

(1) Wozniacki (currently ranked 1st) beaten by Flavia Pennetta (unseeded, 26th in the rankings) in the quarter finals
(2) Victoria Azarenka (ranking 4) beaten by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (unseeded, 16th in the rankings) in the 3rd round
(3) Vera Zvonareva (ranking 3) beaten by Ana Ivanovic (unseeded, 18th in the rankings) in the 3rd round
(4) Li Na (ranking 6) beaten by Monica Niculescu (unseeded 58th in the rankings) in the 1st round
(5) Petra Kvitova (ranking 5) beaten by Sofia Arvidson (unseeded, 85th in the rankings) in the 2nd round after a 1st round bye
(6) Sam Stosur (ranking 7) beaten by Maria Kirilenko (unseeded 24th in the rankings) in the 2nd round
(7) Francesca Schiavone (ranking 9) beaten by Dominika Cibulkova (unseeded, 22nd in the rankings) in the 2nd round
(8) Marion Bartoli (ranking 10) beaten by Andrea Petkovic (unseeded, 11th in the rankings) in the 3rd round.

Excepting Bartoli who was beaten by a player only 1 place below her, the rest of the top seeds failed to meet each other in any of the rounds, and all but one of them failed to make it past the 3rd round.  Indeed, all 3 of the most recent Slam winners (barring Clijsters who is injured): Stosur (US), Li Na (Roland Garros), Kvitova (Wimbledon) didn't make it past the 2nd round.

So does this mean that the women's game is more open?  In many ways it does, but the rankings rarely reflect this.  Wozniacki has been at number 1 in the world for over a year, and yet has failed to make an impact at the majority of major tournaments that she has entered.  This year there have been 4 different winners of the opens and 7 different finalists (only Li Na made 2 finals), and there has been no monopolising of championships that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have enjoyed over the past 4 years.  Clijsters - had she been fit, likewise Serena Williams, would probably have cleaned up at most of these tournaments, but without them it is very much anyone's game.

Personally I'd like to see Stosur win more, but the maths don't quite add up and she could well not even qualify for the end of year at Instanbul and drop down the rankings.

It's not great being a follower of women's tennis - as there's lots to dispute and query in the way the season is run, but at least we don't have the same Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool foursome that dominates the men's game.But every now and then a little bit of consistency would be appreciated.


Murray image from ATP site

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