Showing posts with label clijsters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label clijsters. Show all posts

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Youth vs. Experience


An unheralded exit from this year's Australian Open of the pre-tournament favourite (Serena Williams) has yielded a fantastic opportunity for either China's Li Na, or youngster Eugenie Bouchard to make it through to Saturday's Women's Singles final for a crack at lifting the first Slam trophy of 2014.

For the 31-year-old Li Na, it's a position she has been in twice before: back in 2011, where she squared off in the final against a post-pregnancy Kim Clijsters, and more memorably last January where, during the opening exchanges of the encounter against Vika Azarenka, she appeared certain to walk away with the title.  To make her third Aussie Open final, she needs to defeat a relative unknown, Canada's Justin Bieber-loving teenager Eugenie Bouchard.

Bouchard, earlier today, booked herself a spot in Thursday's semi by taking out Serena's conqueror, Ana Ivanovic.  The Serb, although performing much more confidently and decisively than she has over the past 5-6 years, found that repeating the feat and maintaining the level was tricky against one of the new crop of big-hitters in the WTA.  Her game fell apart as the match progressed to the point where her 19-year-old opponent appeared the one with the experience of the latter stages of a Slam.  Bouchard, a relative unknown to tennis outsiders, had never been beyond the third round of a major, and had also never advanced further than qualifying at Melbourne.  Her unflinching display today suggested that she could become a permanent fixture in week two of the majors within a couple of years.

On paper, though, her semi-final challenge against the #4 seed could prove one step too far for her inexperience.  The Chinese woman has experienced something of a renaissance over the last 12 months.  Gone are the frustrations, the impetuous hitting and the wayward radar.  Replaced, instead, with controlled aggression, better fitness and court awareness and an increased ability to shrug off the pressures she undoubtedly experienced after winning Roland Garros in '11.  With a Williams-sized hole in this half of the draw, there is a sense that the 2014 final will mirror the 2013 one - a confident Li Na favourite to make it through to Saturday's match, and a potential rematch against Azarenka and her attempt to claim a third successive Australian Open title.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

In Search of a WTA Rivalry

Another weekend, another Serena Williams victory.  Most recently over World #3 Victoria Azarenka in the final of the Rome Open, and prior to that, the scalp of her nearest rival in the WTA rankings, Maria Sharapova, to successfully defend her Madrid Open title.  Two weeks, two premier clay tournaments, two Serena trophies over those vying with her for the #1 ranking.  Indeed in Rome, Williams ceded no more than 4 games to any opponent, defeating Azarenka to 1 and 3 in the final.  Under the Madrid sun, Sharapova fared little better, taking her head-to-head against Serena to 13 defeats against 2 wins.
Spot the difference.  Serena wins in Madrid and Rome
All of this bodes favourably for Williams going into the next Grand Slam event, the French Open, whose singles draw was held on Friday and begins in earnest on Sunday morning.  Indeed, with both Azarenka and Sharapova set to face each other in the semifinal of a half stacked with former champions and potential upsets (Li Na and Jelena Jankovic, for example) Serena's path to the final looks somewhat straightforward.

However, what recent results also highlight is a distinct lack of realistic competition for Serena at the event.  She will, once again, go into the French as favourite, perhaps the firmest favourite she has ever been on her least favourite surface since the year of her sole victory there in 2002.  And she will look to emerge two weeks later having doubled her total of singles trophies from Roland Garros.  It is a similar situation to last year, whereby a resurgent Williams headed into the clay court Slam with a Madrid trophy under her belt.  That she stumbled during a seemingly unloseable opening round, against a hometown qualifier who has never progressed beyond R4 of a major and holds only 2 WTA titles captured over 7 years ago, revealed that the biggest threat to Williams' title quest is herself.  A set up and leading against Virginie Razzano, she failed to close out the match, crushed to tears by losing a second set tie-break she succumbing to pressures that previously hadn't been a factor in the #1's results.

What came off the back of the defeat was a new-found respect for her biggest foe (herself), and this translated into a plethora of titles over the next six months, during which she defeated the rest of the top 4 in the finals of the biggest events (Radwanska at Wimbledon, Sharapova at  London 2012 and the YEC in Istanbul, Azarenka at the US Open).  A back injury derailed her charge in Melbourne at the start of the year, but the clay season has seen her virtually unbeatable.

It is a far cry from 2011 when during the Year End Cup in Istanbul Petra Kvitova outplayed Azarenka to bag her second major piece of silverware of the season and spark excitement around the next big rivalry to hit the WTA.  Injury and health woes, and often, worryingly, a sense of absent motivation, have removed the left-handed Czech champion from the WTA top 4 equation.  With little more than average results since her breakthrough Wimbledon victory in '11, Kvitova has been pushed out of the top 5 and barely makes her a contender for anything beyond a QF at the Slams.  It leaves the much-anticipated rivalry with Azarenka nothing more than a fan fantasy.

Rivalries, as most psychologists will theorise, rely hugely on both opponents being similar - Azarenka and Kvitova are roughly the same age, have been on tour a similar time and coming into their prime in parallel.  In addition, either one could have played victorious against the other depending on circumstance, surface, form and the other usual factors affecting a tennis match.  However, the second factor that contributes to a healthy rivalry is frequency.  Think Nadal and Federer, Djokovic and Murray - the frequency with which the top four play each other allows for them to construct rivalries and build-up a significant head-to-head record from which they learn and improve from.  Finally, rivalries also thrive on occasion.  Comparatively, the majority of the ATP inter-top 4 matches occur in the finals or semi-finals of majors.  Consequently, the stakes are higher and the rivalry thrives.  Andy Murray, for example, may always have a tough match against Stan Wawrinka (to pick just one potential opponent), but if that match only occurs once a year in the fourth round of a Masters 1000, it will never be as significant an occasion as when Murray faces Djokovic in a final, or Nadal or Federer in the semi-final of the Aussie Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.  It is the similarities between the players in terms of their ranking and expectation, the frequency of their meeting and the grandness of the stages on which they meet that currently colour the ATP with hues of rivalry that its female counterpart currently lacks.

In many ways, the situation is down to Serena herself - following her return to the game in 2011, and her sparkling vein of form that began with Wimbledon last summer, there hasn't emerged a suitable rival for her.  At the beginning of the 00s she was half of a rivalry with sibling Venus that led them to dominate the tour.  Since that time Venus has succumbed to Father Time and is no longer the force she once was.  Other rivalries have also dropped away - Henin and Clijsters have both quit the game, likewise Hingis (just one year older than Serena) and Mauresmo ... potential rivals of a similar age to the American who haven't outlasted her.

But, more worryingly, the players replacing them seem too unlikely to challenge Serena significantly.  Sharapova hasn't beaten Williams since 2004.  Azarenka, likewise, is 2 wins against the American in 14 attempts.  Elsewhere down the top 10, the numbers are equally woeful.  And the next generation coming through, Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens, the obvious contenders, and still too inexperienced to sustain a serious charge over a 7-match slam.
Serena vs Serena at Roland Garros in 2012
For now, Serena will be the firm favourite to walk off with a second Roland Garros championship in a fortnight's time, but it is sad that it isn't really possible to pinpoint a serious threat to her.  As in Australia though, Serena's French campaign may hinge on the misfortune of an injury, or an unexpected once-in-a-lifetime performance may derail her from a well-worn path.  It seems unlikely, though, that Serena will capitulate against either Sharapova or Azarenka, the #s 2 and 3 in the world.  Indeed, the potential greatest rival that Serena could face is herself, and so long as she keeps a measure of that foe, and doesn't allow doubt, emotion or complacency to win the battle against her, she should walk away with her 16th Grand Slam title.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

All Tidied Up

Former US President Ronald Reagan memorably defined the Latin phrase Status Quo as 'the mess we're in'. The WTA, over the past three or so years (the various Williams sabbaticals) has been underpinned by a status quo that was something of a mess. Indeed between the Australian Open of 2011 and Wimbledon 2012, seven different players captured singles slam titles, from swansongs (Clijsters) and breakthroughs (Azarenka) to unanticipated (Stosur). There were also four maiden title winners each holding one of the majors at the same time during one rotation.

However recently the WTA rankings seem a much more stable place and last week's Doha Open in Qatar delivered bountiful evidence of this within the play level of its current top 10. Most significantly, Doha witnessed the return to the top spot on tour of Serena Williams, marking the culmination of an eight month campaign that began when she first walked onto the Wimbledon turf back in June. Her reclaiming of the #1 ranking has come mainly from her appearances in the first half of the year at tournaments she eschewed in 2012 in favour of injury limitation. She'll head into the latter half of the year with many more points to defend that could bite into her ranking once again. For now, though, Williams Jr. is back in pole position in the WTA.

More interestingly though, Doha saw a near-perfect series of performances from its top players. The quarterfinals comprised 8 of the top 9 players at the event, with only the injury-addled Angelique Kerber failing to join her fellow seeds in the last 8 to prevent a clean sweep in the cut. Such imperfection wasn't carried through to the semi-finals where seeds 1-4 made it through their respective quarters to square off against each other. Such symmetries are (or were with injuries playing havoc with schedules) the mainstay of the ATP. Think the Australian Open, 2012, with Roger Federer facing off against Novak Djokovic while Andy Murray comes up against Rafa Nadal. Then think of all the other majors where similar combinations of the same foursome have constituted the semi-finals. Finally, think of the parallel WTA tournament, and the multitude of names which made their way to that stage of the competition. It was a lottery built on shaky psychologies and it made the WTA inherently unpredictable.

However, the rise of Victoria Azarenka and Aga Radwanska and the return of Maria Sharapova and Serena have given the WTA an essence of stability, a quality more typically experienced in the ATP. Yet even within this quadrangle of players something of a division is still present. Lining up for the Saturday semi-finals, the likelihood of Azarenka defeating Radwanska as she did throughout 2012, and the similarly predictable outcome of Sharapova withering under a Williams onslaught tinged those matches with inevitability. And despite a Serena service display that was a world away from her usual match-winning smoothness amidst an unusually average performance, she still overcame the Russian's half-hearted challenge. Likewise Azarenka highlighted the chasms in class between her and the Polish fourth seed as she pushed Radwanska back behind the baseline, forcing her into enough mistakes to bag the Belorussisn her 13th win of the season and an opportunity to defend her Doha crown.

Denied the chance to meet twice already this season - Azarenka's bad "toe-job" forcing her to withdraw from Brisbane, while Serena's loss to Sloane Stephens preventing the pair from meeting at the AO - Azarenka went into the match trailing Williams 1-11 in the head to head and hadn't registered a win against the American since '09. But last season's US Open suggested that a meeting between the two wasn't such a foregone conclusion. On that September evening Williams cruised through the first set before Azarenka found her range and sustained a challenge to take her within a game of the win. But Serena rallied with the heart of a champion to draw back the third set difference and eke out the win. The Azarenka spirit, that nearly shattered American dreams, was an indication of the resolve and determination of the 23-year-old who may have been outplayed in Flushing Meadows, but wasn't going to allow that result to become another statistic any longer.

Sunday's final had a similar storyline, although it was Azarenka rather than the American who made it out of the starting blocks marginally quicker to take the first set on a tie-break. A somewhat absent Serena recaptured her vigour in the second set with some glorious forehands and serving, but failed to carry the momentum into the decider. Azarenka was to rush out to a 52 lead, sealing victory two games later 76(8) 26 63.

Defending her title in Doha takes the Belorussian to 16 tour titles to date and makes her the only unbeaten player in the WTA this season. She needs to add 12 more to her tally to reach last tear's target of 26. More importantly though, the WTA looks to have found itself a tangible rivalry to enhance its competition as former and current number one fight amongst themselves while trying to prevent their dominant being threatened by those outside the top two.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Putting it to a Public Vote



If tomorrow's Women's Singles Final was a popularity contest, an X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing with a "text now to vote for your favourite" format for example, Li Na would already have been handed the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

Yet although Li Na's love affair with Australia began with her final run in 2011, when she lost out to the Kim Clijsters comeback tour, and has seen her ingratiate herself with the crowd through her improving English and quirkily humourous on-court interviews, the reason why she will find the majority of the 15000 spectators of the Rod Laver Arena in her corner on Saturday will be less a result of anything she can control and more to do with the unpopularity of her opponent.

Despite being the defending champion, and throughout the course of 2012 making giant leaps to increase her favour with the general tennis public, Victoria Azarenka remains one of the more controversial figures on the tennis tour today.  An unapologetic exponent of the "grunt" (comedian Chris Ramsey suggested on Twitter that her withering shrieks were akin to someone "putting cigarettes out on the Easter Bunny"), Azarenka further alienated herself from the Melbourne hoards this year by taking an extended 10-minute medical time-out during her two set victory over American teenager Sloane Stephens.  At the time, the Belorussian was 61 53 40-15 up against her semi-final opponent.  But Stephens began to rally to save match points a total of 5 times during the game, before bringing up a game point of her own and duly converting, drawing the set back onto serve.  As the players returned to the chairs at the change of ends, the #1 seed called for the trainer, and after a quick analysis they disappeared into the locker room for some additional treatment.  10 minutes later, 10 minutes that Sloane Stephens spent waiting on the side of the court before what wass possibly the most important service game of her career so far, Azarenka re-emerged from back stage.  A confusing situation, for spectators, and likely for Stephens, saw the American broken immediately to hand the match to Azarenka 61 64.

The ensuing criticism for Azarenka'a actions suggests that there was an element of gamesmanship in the top seed's actions, that the renewed vigour in Stephens' game pulling her back into the set and gaining some momentum, was enough of a threat to cause Azarenka to dawdle at the changeover, upsetting her opponent's rhythm and stealing back the ascendancy in the match.  Azarenka countered this in the after-match press conference by saying that Stephens' fightback was causing panic attacks and that she felt as though she would have been unable to finish the match due to hyperventilation.  She also said that she had only taken a single (allowed) medical timeout, and that the trainer had over-run the time, and that she was on the verge of choking away her shot at a second straight Australian Open final.  She then continued to repeat this at numerous occasions over the past day with more excuses each time, perhaps protesting too much.

The only person who knows the true story, the reasons for and the nature of the treatment that was administered is Azarenka herself, so it is her version of events that should be accepted as valid.  Regardless of whether you believe the defending champion or think that there was some underhand tactics to her decision to pick that moment to request treatment for her problems, it has had the effect of overshadowing this year's final, and throwing into the shade the efforts of her opponent to reach the occasion.

Li Na has been something of a silent assassin at this year's Australian Open.  Her semi-final opponent, Maria Sharapova pulled all the headlines for an unparallelled dominance that saw her romp through her first five matches with the loss of just 9 games, making to the SF with just 6 hours of court play under her belt.  Li Na's most newsworthy moment came during her quarter-final defeat of #4 seed Aga Radwanska, when a shocking mistime saw her shank a serve high into the crowds.  Laughing it off on court showed just how far the Chinese player has come after wading through the slump that followed her French Open title in 2011.  Gone is the Li Na whose mental fragility was writ all over her excruciating first round losses.  And what has taken its place is a renewed aggression, coupled with unwavering determination.  Perhaps a product of her work with her recent post-Olympic coaching appointment, Carlos Rodriguez, the rocking ship has steadied to see Li Na returning to some of the form that saw her through to the '11 Australian Open final, and her first slam title later that spring.

Like Sharapova, Li Na advanced to the semi-final without the loss of a set, her sternest test coming from the young German Julia Goerges, who pushed the Chinese star to a 75 first set.  Yet the ruthlessness with which she dispatched her quarter-final opponent, Radwanska, with such controlled aggression, should have indicated that the match against last year's beaten finalist wouldn't be a foregone conclusion.  In fact, it was exactly the opposite, with Li Na the dominant player, and Sharapova the shaky pretender.  A solid display of (thankfully more accurate) serving, some inspired shot play and ground strokes that upset the rhythm of the #2 seed, made Sharapova visibly rattled and unable to gain any traction in the match, Li Na running out a surprisingly easy winner 62 62 in just over 90 minutes.

Going in to her match against the Belorussian tomorrow, Li Na may tail her opponent 4-5 in the head to head, but has looked the more solid player.  And whatever flakiness tickled Azarenka in her semi-final, it is more revealing that she has already lost a set during the tournament during her third round encounter with the unseeded Jamie Hampton.  An Azarenka victory may have been the outcome that day, but should a similar lapse in concentration occur tomorrow, the calibre of Li Na may not allow the Belorussian an opportunity to regain a foothold in the match.  Both players have racked up recent defeats of the other, Li Na in an exhibition in Asia during the off-season, but more crucially, Azarenka defeating the Chinese player during the Year End Cup in Istanbul.  On that occasion, Li Na was within touching distance of an early lead, serving for the first set at 54 in her favour, but ultimately threw it away with some sloppy play.  Azarenka was to take the match and the place in the next round.

Calling Saturday's final will be a difficult pick to make.  Azarenka is undefeated on the Australian continent for 2 years, while Li Na has only been beaten at the Australian Open since 2010 by one player - Kim Clijsters.  And although Azarenka may feel the wrath of an antipathetic crowd under the lights of the Rod Laver Arena, there is a sense that her thick skin allows her to thrive within such an environment.  The crucial factor, though, should be that the Li Na who faces her on the weekend is mentally tougher than she has ever been, and will be aware that at 8 years Azarenka's senior may not have too many more opportunities to add to the solitary Slam trophy currently sitting in her cabinet.  She will be many people's favourite to win, and will have the crowd to lift her to what could be a thoroughly deserved victory.

Match prediction: Li Na to win the Australian Open 2013

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Australian Open Seed Watch Women's Draw QF

Seeds left in draw at Quarter Final stage: 7

(3) Serena Williams lost to (29) Sloane Stephens

The biggest upset of either draw so far saw the uber-dominant Serena Williams limp out of the competition with a suspected back injury and Sloane Stephens take her place in the semi-final.  A dictionary definition breakthrough for the youngster, who reaches this stage of a grand slam event for the first time in her burgeoning career.  Full report here.

(4) Agnieszka Radwanska lost to (6) Li Na

That Carlos Rodriguez really looks to be helping the recent fragile and unfocused mentality of China's first slam champion Li Na.  Agnieszka Radwanska barely looked the player who had clocked up a 13 match win-streak for the year, as Li Na's brutal all-out game proved too much of a match for her patient play-building.  Despite hitting 40 errors in the two-set match, Li Na was the first player to book her place in the semi-final, 75 63, looking to better her previous best showing at the Melbourne event when she placed runner-up to Aussie favourite Kim Clijsters in 2011.

(19) Ekaterina Makarova lost to (2) Maria Sharapova

With her 62 62 defeat of Ekaterina Makarova, Maria Sharapova moves to the semi-final of the Australian Open with the loss of only 9 games.  Her stats read:

R1: Olga Puchkova 60 60
R2: Misaki Doi 60 60
R3: Venus Williams 61 63
R4: Kirsten Flipkens 61 60
QF: Ekaterina Makarova 62 62

It is the least amount of games that any player has ever conceded at this stage in the tournament and averages out her court-time per match at just over one hour.  A ruthless display and one that will likely dent the chances of her next opponent Li Na.

Seeds left in draw: 4

Thursday's semi finals will see Li Na face Maria Sharapova, while the defending champion, Victoria Azarenka will aim to make it two finals in a row at Melbourne when she takes on the surprise semi-finalist Sloane Stephens.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Future's Bright, The Future's Sloane

Two weeks ago, in the opening round of the Moorilla International in Hobart, the 19-year-old American, Sloane Stephens, and the 18-year-old (for 4 more days) Brit, Laura Robson, met for the first ever time in their infant careers.  On that occasion, it was the American who came out the victor with a solitary break in the first set and the decisive player in the second set tie-break.

Separated by just 25 ranking places, the American was the first of the pair to break the top 50 last, and with a string of good results early in 2013, she has risen to the #25 in the world.  Rewarded with a seeding at this year's Australian Open, Stephens has been one to watch at this opening slam of the season, and has put away her lower-ranked opposition without the loss of a set.

Robson too, following her fairytale defeat of US Open favourite Kim Clijsters and a similarly David/Goliath slaying of Li Na in the next round, has been promising much for her 2013 season.  But has had to progress through the draw the hard way, drawing World #8 Petra Kvitova in the second round.  A prolonged three-set encounter, during which neither player hit top form for sustained periods, eventually went the way of the young British woman, when she took the final set 11-9.

Today saw them match-up once again in the third round at Melbourne Park.  And it was Stephens who came out of the blocks the quickest, racing out to a 40 lead.  A medical time-out for a shoulder injury allowed Robson to regroup though, and she levelled the match by pulling two breaks back.  A couple of games later, Stephens broke again, but this time she served out the set to take it 75.  In the second set, also characterised by some of the heavy groundstrokes from Robson, but countered by the incredible athleticism from the sleighter American, it was Stephens who again took the early break in the fourth game and this time held onto the lead comfortably to chalk up her second victory in as many weeks against the Brit 75 63.  She'll take her momentum into the fourth round where she'll meet the unseeded Bojana Jovanovski from Serbia.

In many ways, Stephens and Robson are the WTA's Novak Djokovic & Andy Murray.  Having known each other since they were juniors, Stephens is now one step ahead of her rival and likely to make that push for a breakthrough victory sooner.  But Robson has the game that suggests that she too will be competing for the biggest prizes in years to come.  As hard as it always is to place a date on exactly when a player will break through on the Slam stage, currently though, the future for WTA tennis is slightly more Sloane-shaped than Robson.

Image: ESPN

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, 5 January 2013

Positive Starts

With the majority of the top WTA's top 10 beginning their Australian Open preparations in the Brisbane sun, the less-well starred tournaments of Shenzhen, China and Auckland, New Zealand had to settle for a top 10 seed apiece to head up their field.  There was some benefit to both players in beginning their campaigns away from the media glare of the Gold Coast, as both Li Na (Shenzhen) and Agnieszka Radwanska (Auckland) avoided an early clash with a dominant Serena Williams and bagged accolades to kick start their season in the best possible ways.

Radwanska - winning in NZ
Due to time zones, Radwanska bagged the first title of the 2013 season.  Playing in her maiden Auckland tournament, the Pole didn't cede a set to her opponents across 5 matches.  She didn't face a seed, though, until the final, with the highest ranked player she played being Simona Halep (world #47).  Showing her pedigree, Radwanska was rarely tested, except in her semifinal against Jamie Hampton, when the American pushed the World #4 to two tie-break sets.

Her opponent in today's decider had a trickier path to the final.  Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer, needed three sets to defeat the promising German Mona Barthel in Friday's semi-final.  Matching up today, Radwanska stuck to a solid, defensive game plan, frustrating her opponent into upping her aggression to break through.  Consequently, the Belgian tallied up a total of 75 unforced errors in the two set match as Radwanska kept up her consistent and safe behind-the-baseline game.  That Wickmayer hit 28 winners to the Pole's 4 in the second set is indicative of the story behind the match, and saw the top seed at the event take the championship 64 64, mirroring the score between the two when they last met back in 2011's French Open.

Radwanska moves to 11 WTA titles for her career and sees her continue the winning ways of her breakthrough 2012 season in which she bagged 3 event wins.  A perfect tune-up for the Australian Open, she will be hoping to go at least 1 better than last year, when Victoria Azarenka put her out of the event at the quarter final stage.

Title #1 for Li Na in 2013
Over in Shenzhen, Li Na worked hard to take early season honours against Klara Zakopalova 63 16 75.  Despite a comfortable opening set, the Chinese player allowed the tournament's #3 seed to take over.  Zakopalova promptly ran away with the second set.  Dropping her opening serve in the final set, Li Na rallied to pull back the deficit and stretch out a 52 lead before allowing her opponent to level the match at 55.  However, Li Na yet again dug deep to take the next two games and the match.

Despite the typical fluctuations in fortunes, the win is in stark contrast to Li Na's 2012 season where she failed to win a final until mid-August.  Touted by many in 2011 as a contender for the Australian Open, she lost out that year to a resurgent Kim Clijsters in a three-set thriller.  Her popular French Open victory the following May was the first of a string of maiden WTA Slam winners, but also marked the last time she reached a semifinal or final of a Slam.  Despite the mid-table opposition of Shenzhen, a positive start to the season prior to the first major could see a strong run from the Chinese star at the more-prestigious Melbourne event.

Images from WTA Facebook page

Monday, 31 December 2012

13 for '13 WTA Edition

Sneaking up in the night before Big Ben has tolled the knell of parting 2012, the first balls of the new WTA season have already been hit, with the qualifying rounds of the Brisbane and Auckland Opens contested in the past few days, and the main draw starting in earnest today.  Starting very much as the last season had ended, Serena Williams chalked up her first win of the season, breezing past her first round opponent in typically dominant fashion.

The rankings in 2012 ended with a clear triumvirate heading up the table as the WTA graduated from the stumbling block of slamless #1s and the stigma of apparently rewarding undeserving worker bees, Caroline Wozniacki and Dinara Safina, for example.  It gradually took shape over the course of the year, morphing into a realistic indicator of the players who would most be likely to win a tournament.  The rankings frozen at the end of the season looked like this:

Victoria Azarenka / 10595
Maria Sharapova / 10045
Serena Williams / 9400
Agnieszka Radwanska / 7425
Angelique Kerber / 5550
Sara Errani / 5100
Li Na / 5095
Petra Kvitova / 5085
Samantha Stosur / 4135
Caroline Wozniacki / 3765

Here's what the next 12 months may hold for the top 10 in the women's game.

1. Victoria Azarenka

Before 2012 had even kicked off, Victoria Azarenka was being heralded as one of the two bright young things set to herald in a new era of the WTA.  That the other predicted future starlet, Petra Kvitova, failed to make much of her 2011 promise in the subsequent 12 months goes part way to explaining why Azarenka had such a phenomenal season, particularly in the lean Williams-free months at the beginning of the year.

A 26 match unbeaten run, her first grand slam victory and three other tournament wins under her belt before the end of March marked the Belorussian's ascent to the World #1 ranking, a position she was to hold for much of the year, despite a clunky clay-court campaign usurping her after the French Open.

For her to retain her stranglehold on the WTA won't require her to do too much different from what she did throughout 2012, the majority of players immediately below her likely to play a style of tennis that she can readily handle.  And it is probable that the Belorussian will add to the solitary slam trophy with at least one more from the four on offer this year.  However, the only player with a realistic chance of stealing her top dog status will be Serena Williams.  How and how often Azarenka matches up against the former number 1 and whether she can work out a way to finally beat the 31-year-old could well be the sole factor determining whether Azarenka repeats her feats of 2012.

2. Maria Sharapova

It is difficult to decide what is the most surprising thing about Maria Sharapova's 2012.  Whether it was the completing of her career slam at Roland Garros and her domination of the premier clay tournaments of Europe in the Spring.  Or that she allowed herself to be bossed into the runners-up spot on numerous other occasions by Azarenka, Serena Williams and, perhaps most surprisingly, Agnieszka Radwanska.

Although it is good to see Sharapova back after her career-threatening shoulder injury and surgery, there is the sense that she still needs to take one more step to be considered once again a competitor on the Wimbledon grasses and the hard courts of Australia and America.  Her 63 60 routing by Azarenka in the finals of the Oz Open, and her 60 61 dismantling by Serena in the Olympic final highlight fundamental weaknesses, both mental and tactical, on surfaces where she previously enjoyed success.

Her 2013 needs to see her overcome the Azarenka and Serena hurdles in finals of significant tournaments; for if she comes up against either one of them when they are fully fit and motivated for the win, she will be at a distinct mental disadvantage.  The best case scenario for the Russian is to battle these demons early in the season, else she will have to settle for lesser tournament silverware rather than slam trophies in '13.

3. Serena Williams

Discounting walkovers, Serena Williams lost only 4 matches in 2012.  In addition, from Wimbledon through to the Year End finals in Istanbul she lost just 1 match out of the 32 she played and ceded only 5 sets to her opponents.  These phenomenal stats indicate that the oldest lady in the top 10 still has the power and the desire to win, a marked about turn from the statements she was making this time last year, when she declared a falling out of love with tennis.

7 titles later, including a coveted Olympic gold medal, and Serena has set herself up as the player to beat in 2013.  Should she triumph in January's Australian Open she could regain the number one ranking and be closer to holding all 4 of the slams at the same time - the second time in her career she will have completed a non-calendar "Serena Slam".  Her nearest rivals, Sharapova and Azarenka were a combined 8 defeats to 0 wins against Serena in '12.  Playing the way she has been, with increased consistency and ruthless domination, coupled with the drive, love and desire that had deserted her since her foot surgery/blood clot injuries of 2010/11, could mean that Serena Williams is the only name that the etchers need to engrave on the four major trophies this year.

4. Agnieszka Radwanska

Perhaps the most unlikely incumbent within the WTA top 4, Agnieszka Radwanska's January to July of 2012 was a dictionary definition of peaks and troughs.  Throughout the first half of the year, the peaks saw her amass three titles, defeating Maria Sharapova for one of them, and making it all the way to her first slam final where she took a set from Serena Williams before fading away to hand the American her 5th SW19 title.  More significantly though, the troughs of the first half of 2012 were wholly down to her inability to work out a way past world #1 and personal nemesis Victoria Azarenka.  The second half of Radwanska's season largely fizzled away with only a semi-final appearance in Istanbul suggesting that she may be able to rejuvenate her breakthrough successes in 2013.

The coming months will be a significant time for the Pole.  She lacks the weapons of the three players above her, the power and accuracy that prove decisive for them during the final stages of tournaments.  However, her tactical play and beguiling craftsmanship often frustrate lesser players to rush their strokes, to go for too much in a bid to end a point prematurely, and can afford her some unexpected victories and ranking points, as it did for much of 2012.  But if the power players immediately below her in the rankings, Petra Kvitova specifically, are on form throughout 2013 it will be hard to see Radwanska holding onto a top 4 spot.  A top 10 player by the end of 2013, but not as high as top 4.

5. Angelique Kerber

Asked to pick a German to break the top 10 by the end of 2012 and most people would have suggested Sabine Lisicki as the most likely candidate.  The rest would have plumped for Andrea Petkovic provided her run of bad injury luck was to come to an end.  Very few would have opted for Angelique Kerber whose consistent controlled baseline game was one of the unanticipated, but ultimately appreciated, stories of 2012.

Garnering herself a reputation for crushing dreams of hometown heroes (Marion Bartoli in Paris, Caroline Wozniacki in Copenhagen), the German racked up two victories for the season, but made the final of 2 others and the semi-final of 7 more.  Such consistent latter-stage showing saw her leap 25 ranking places to end the year in the top 5.

2013 could see her take another step towards those above her, perhaps with a Premier 5 title.  She may be a regular attendee during the second week of the slams, but may struggle to go beyond the quarters, and the year should see her maintain her position within the top 10.

6. Sara Errani

A fabled longer racquet was seen as the catalyst for Sara Errani's rise into the top 10 of the WTA in 2012, an ascendancy that was largely facilitated by four clay titles across Europe and South America.  However, more significant was probably the Italian doubles partnership alongside Roberta Vinci, that grafted to bag them 8 titles in 2012, including 2 at the slams.  That Errani was able to transfer her doubles dominance into singles success was most notable through her on-court speed and resilience particularly on clay courts.

However, what also improved greatly were her hard court results, that saw her make the second week of both the Australian and US Opens, a confidence and assured nature to her play and court coverage masking her small stature.  Unfortunately, there will always be a question mark over her ability to compete against players with superior firepower, Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena and Kvitova and any others marching up the rankings, and particularly her match-ups against them on the faster surfaces.  Her weak serve and limited baseline power perhaps proving her undoing against her peers in the top 10.

Regardless, her greatest opportunity for success in 2013 will inevitably come on the slower surface of Roland Garros where she made her first slam final back in May.  Like her fellow-countrywoman, Francesca Schiavone, who bagged the title through sheer determination in 2010, Errani may just come alive in Paris.  A repeat performance at that tournament wouldn't be out of the question for the 25-year old, but she may struggle to find traction on any other surface, and could drop out of the top 10 by the end next year.

In doubles, though, she is most likely to maintain a top 5 ranking for a second successive year.

7. Li Na

Imploding under the national media buzz that surrounded her maiden slam at Roland Garros in 2011, Li Na needed nearly 18 months before she returned to tennis successes.  A favourite to make the second week of each slam she played in 2012, she regularly struggled to make it beyond the third round.

However, more stable coaching under the watchful eye of Carlos Rodriguez began to turn her fortunes around towards the tail end of 2012, and an expo in Thailand saw her defeat World #1 Victoria Azarenka.  This perhaps suggests that the honeymoon silliness is over for the Chinese woman, and 2013 could see her reassert herself at the business ends of the majors this season.  Similar in age to Serena, Li Na is perhaps aware that she has been a late bloomer, and the shape of the WTA top 10 is determined more by the youngsters around her.  The high profile retirement of Kim Clijsters at this year's US Open perhaps highlights the shortlivedness of a tennis career, and 2013 may be the last realistic opportunity for Li Na to shine on court.  A strong showing at Melbourne Park may be the kick start to an impressive season from the #7 seed.

8. Petra Kvitova

As she said after winning Wimbledon in 2011, "It's still an unbelievable feeling.  [...] Maybe I'll accept it after, I don't know, some days".   Unfortunately for Petra Kvitova, the some days have ended up being closer to some months.

For the Czech 23-year-old, 2012 appeared to be one long year of stomach upsets, and while this is probably a viable excuse for many of the smaller tournaments, her inability to raise her game at the four majors and the Olympics suggests that there was an underlying problem, be it fitness or motivation, that prevented her from scaling the heights that her 2011 Wimbledon and Year End Championship suggested she was capable of.

However, seeds of potential began to spring up during the US hard court swing, salvaging her two trophies from an uneventful season.  Likewise, the team accolades of a successful defence of the Fed Cup must be taken forward as the positive pointers for her 2013 season.  In the minds of many people, the top four of the WTA should most accurately contain Serena, Azarenka, Sharapova and Kvitova, which made the Czech player's absence from the party both mystifying and disappointing.

If those slivers of hope from her 2012 season are in fact a gradual reassertion of intent, then Kvitova could have her most successful year on tour this year.  And the potential meetings between herself and Victoria Azarenka could be the next big rivalry in the WTA.

9. Samantha Stosur

When Sam Stosur blasted past Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic en route to her maiden slam final at Roland Garros in 2010, many people became fans of the hard-hitting powerhouse from Down Under.  A year later, when she snaffled the US Open title from under Serena's nose, she repaid those fans with the success that many suggested she was due after 10 years on tour.  Unfortunately for all those followers that she won along the way to that unexpected triumph, the lifting of the US Open trophy was the last time that she played victorious at any tournament as a series of uninspired, inconsistent and often ugly performances left her as the only member of the WTA top 10 to finish 2012 bereft of a title.

It is a sorry state of affairs for a player to routinely cave at the decisive moment of a tournament, making it to finals or semi-finals, but failing to drive home the advantage or eke out a win.  But it is even sorrier to see a player with the potential of Stosur post a series of stats over the course of a year whereby she failed to win a single match, or two consecutive matches in over 50% of the tournaments she entered.

She opens her 2013 campaign playing at her home tournament in Brisbane, which is undoubtedly the place of her biggest failures.  Perhaps a better option would have been for the Aussie to take the unpopular decision and play at this week's Shenzhen Open in China.  An unpressurised opening to the year, away from the hotbed of top 10 action in Brisbane may have allowed her to reboot her confidence ahead of bigger events.  As it is, she could add to her Australian disappointments with yet more early defeats under the exacting eye of the national press.

In 2013, Stosur needs to gain at least one title in the first half of the year, be it on the hard courts of Asia, Australia or the Middle East, or on her preferred clay during the spring.  Failure to do so in the first six months may lead to yet another dry year for the Aussie, and will almost certainly see her slip out of the top 10, losing touch with the pacemakers on tour.

10. Caroline Wozniacki

The final member of the WTA top 10 was the player who began 2012 as the World #1, and only just scraped back into contention with two post-US Open victories to prevent herself from having a calamitous year.

Caroline Wozniacki was much misaligned during her incumbency as World #1, a position she held for the best part of 18 months, her style of conservative, defensive play often generating more critics than fans.  However, where she was a worthy champion was through her work ethic and her demeanour.  One of the hardest working players on tour, she exhibited a sunny disposition, taking both the ups and the downs in typically good spirits.  Her fall from the #1 spot, though, has led to the WTA top 10 becoming a more ruthless place; not exactly cutthroat, but definitely more fiercely competitive as players such as Azarenka, Radwanska and Sharapova resurrected the idea of rivalry amidst a climate of combative determination.

It is hard to see a player such as Wozniacki surviving within this arena unless she develops her game significantly.  She needs to formulate abilities to kill off points instead of reverting to frustrating defence in the face of WTA showmanship.  More crucially, this can only be facilitated by shifts in mentality - the development of a thicker skin to prevent her wilting when facing such players, and also a killer instinct to allow her to seize opportunities when they come her way.

One of the hardest practicing players on tour, one hopes that Wozniacki can find a way to survive within this climate, evolving her game to deal with the alien conditions.  It is unlikely, though, that this kind of wholesale redevelopment will occur within the space of one season, and may lead to 2013 being another largely unfruitful year for Wozniacki and she could drop out of the top 10 come December while she builds a better foundation for future competitiveness.

11-13. Three to watch in 2013

Talking about future stars when the new faces of the WTA top 10 (Azarenka, Kvitova, Radwanska and Wozniacki) are just approaching their prime could be considered an unnecessary exercise.  However, with places up for grabs within the top 10 should Errani, Stosur and potentially Wozniacki struggle in the new year, it is likely that some of the chasing pack will seize the opportunity to move into the upper echelons of the rankings.

With the US already having a great champion in the top 10 in Serena Williams, but one who cannot realistically continue at the same all-conquering level that she has enjoyed over the last decade, the nation needs to look ahead to players of the future to continue their successes in the sport.  The most obvious successor to Serena would be the 19-year-old Sloane Stephens.  Finishing the last two years as the youngest player in the top 100 (2011) and top 50 (2012), Stephens looks set to make 2013 the year she really moves into the consciousness of the tennis-watching public.  Currently ranked #38, if the young American stays injury free, she can only improve on that ranking, perhaps securing her first WTA trophies in the progress.

During the London 2012 Games, tennis finally overcame its demons to be embraced as a viable Olympic sport.  Alongside Andy Murray, Laura Robson won silver in the mixed doubles, as the spirit of Team GB buoyed the performers to an unexpected achievement.  Making her first WTA final a couple of months later, and claiming some significant scalps at the US Open has added to the experiences that many expect to transform Robson from a junior champion into a senior one.  Perhaps the most significant part of her development could come from having fellow-Brit Heather Watson alongside her. The Jersey native went one better than Robson in 2012, securing the first British win on the WTA tour for 20 years.  A healthy rivalry between the pair could see a two-pronged attack on the rankings as they both look to move into the top 20 by the end of the year

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

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Out From Andy's Shadow

It's amazing what a summer of successful sport can do. Coming only three weeks after Laura Robson backed up a fourth round US Open appearance with her first WTA tour final in Guangzhou, China, British number two, Heather Watson repeated the feat by overcoming Japan's Misaki Doi to make the first tour-level final of her young career.

Competing in this week's Osaka Open in Japan Watson has benefited from a depleted field and some shaky play from the seeded players around her to progress to Sunday's final. Robson, also entered the event, but fell in the quarter final to a Chinese Taipei player ranked at 150 in the world. That Kai-Chen Chang this morning advanced to the final after ousting the last remaining seed in the draw (world #9 Samantha Stosur) suggests that the 21-year-old Chang is playing the tournament of her fledgling career and could prove a tricky obstacle for the Channel Islander on Sunday.

It had been over 20 years since a British woman reached the final of a WTA event.  Now both Robson and Watson have made good on speculation by both making the last stages of tournaments in the last three weeks, with Watson looking to go one better than the teenage Robson and capturing a title.  If she does it will mark a significant upturn in British women's tennis.  In the 70s, Sue Barker and Virginia Wade flew the Union Jack with 4 slam victories between them and a further 60 titles at WTA tournaments to their names.  Since that era, though, British women have struggled to leave an imprint on the tennis world.  Even in the past year, when Britain has flirted with having 4 players in the top 100, there has been a feeling that the two vets Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong had already peaked and wouldn't be able to improve their rank too much further, while both Watson and more specifically Robson were seen as talents in need of nurturing, but still too rough to truly challenging for events.

In comparison, British men's tennis has been in something of an ascendancy, solely due to Andy Murray's continued presence in the world top ten.  Indeed, even before Murray, Tim Henman showed capabilities that never quite manifested themselves into considerable victories but greatly overshadowed the achievements of his countrywomen of the era.

This year, though, both Robson and Watson have experienced a slow and steady progression of achievements.  Robson began the year by qualifying for the Australian Open for the first time before playing alongside Andy Murray and capturing an Olympic silver in the mixed doubles.  Since then she has seen a growing confidence imbue her play, most significantly evident in her run to the fourth round at Flushing Meadows where she blasted past former champion Kim Clijsters and French Open 2011 winner Li Na to make it through the first week.  Likewise this manifestation of self-belief looks to have infectiously transmitted to Robson's teammate.  Winning through to the second round of the French Open, Watson then broke a 10-year British duck by making it through to the third round of Wimbledon.  Now she finds herself contesting her first ever WTA final.  When the rankings are recalculated on Monday, both women will be within the top 60 in the world, and although neither are currently quite good enough to really compete for a ranking similar to Andy Murray's, promise suggests that both may be entrenched within the top 40 this time next year.

With Kai-Chen Chang helping Watson's cause by dumping top seed and serial under-achiever Sam Stosur out of the event in the opposite half of the draw, Britain's wait for a taste of victory from its female tennis stars could be close.

image from http://betting.stanjames.com/Tennis-Betting-News/2012-06-23/Watson-ready-Wimbledon-after-French-Open-showing

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Olympic Zen

While the Olympics have been kind to Andy Murray, allowing him to hurdle the obstacle of Fred Perry's legacy and gain his first slam title at the US Open, they have proved an equal stepping-block to his silver-medal winning mixed double partner too.

Partnering Murray at the Olympics, and making that surging run to the finals of London 2012, saw teenage Laura Robson become the top British player in the WTA rankings, leapfrogging Elena Baltacha, Heather Watson and Anne Keothavong to make it into the top 100 for the first time.  And while the energy and spirit of the soaring Team GB carried her through to the silver medal alongside the Scot, since then she has sustained the momentum with some confident victories that suggest that she could be pushing the top 30 of the rankings in a few years to come.

Last month at the US Open, the teenager was handed a stinker of a draw, due to face off against a swan-song Kim Clijsters in the second round.  The Belgian, obviously pushing for one last line in her resume at the tournament she had defined over the last 3 years, lost out to what appears to be a pivotal performance for the teenager, in which she sent the five-time slam champion into retirement in two tie-break sets.  A big-hitter by trade, everything seemed to go right for Robson in the match, as her left-handed ground strokes found the court by inches and she held her composure against some determined attack from the veteran Belgian.  As Clijsters pushed her final backhand long, Robson looked on in disbelief as she unceremoniously drew a line under the Belgian's singles career.  But the disbelief didn't last too long, as two days later she took to the Louis Armstrong Stadium again against another illustrious champion, former French Open champion Li Na.  Again, Robson didn't allow herself to be overawed by the occasion, freely executing her ferocious ground strokes when needed to dispatch the #9 seed from the competition 64 67 62, becoming the first British woman to make the fourth round of a slam for over 20 years.

Now, with all the big guns of the WTA top ten resting pool-side and posting snapshots from Instagram in preparation for the king events of the Asian swing in Tokyo and Beijing, Robson finds herself in the first final of her young career, facing Hsieh Su-Wei at the Guangzhou International.  And as with all British players, her achievement is delivered with the "first Brit to" epithet.  This time, she's the first British woman to make the final of a tournament since Jo Durie 22 years ago, a long wait for a modicum of success from a nation with such a rich tennis heritage.  Making the final, Robson took out Peng Shuai in round two, before dispatching Sorana Cirstea of Romania in the semi-final, a match which the higher seed never really got a foothold in, Robson a straightforward 64 62 victor.  If Saturday's final proves kind to the youngster then the epithet will read "First British woman to win a WTA event since 2008".

Under the tutelage of Croat coach Zeljko Krajan, the former coach of Dinara Safina, Robson looks to be blossoming into a potential titlist with her brand of fearless tennis, which has begun to be compounded with some mental fortitude to prevent her becoming petrified against the bigger names in the game.  But unlike Murray, who as a competitor in the more high-profile men's game is constantly under a media spotlight that heightens expectations on him, Robson's accomplishments, successes and near-misses will be conducted a lot more anonymously, allowing her to develop and mature into a potential winner in years to come and Britain's best chance at a women's champion since Sue Barker and Virginia Wade in the mid-seventies.

image from Sky Sports website

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

Friday, 31 August 2012

Walking off Wimbledon, I Thought I Knew

With one retirement announced well in advance and one retirement a seeming precursor to what may be a last ever match, Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick, two former US Open champions, have hung up their kit bags in the locker rooms for the last time.

For Clijsters it is the second time she has retired from the game, the first coming in 2007 when she was just 24. On that occasion family and a shifting focus forced her to exit the game with 5 Slam finals and one US Open title to her name

The former number one was to take a two year hiatus (maternity leave if you like) from the game, but returned to play an exhibition match alongside Tim Henman under the newly-constructed centre court roof at Wimbledon. The doubles game against Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi rekindled her passions for the professional game and she returned to the circuit at the '09 US Open on a wildcard. Making it all the way to the final, Clijsters became the first (and so far only) unseeded player to win the event when she beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets 75 63.  A year later the Belgian was to successfully defend her title, defeating Russia's Vera Zvonareva in a one-sided encounter. Taking one more Slam in Australia in 2011 Clijsters was expected to dominate the tour schedule over the year in the absence of any serious contenders. However, a series of injuries has made her appearances on the circuit  increasingly sporadic.

Perhaps sensing the futility of continuing to compete at events where she was physically less than 100%, Clijsters announced her second retirement in May of this year, and on Wednesday played her last singles game in the second round of the US Open, losing to teenage Brit Laura Robson. A swift exit from the women's doubles events shortly afterwards marked her final matches on the WTA tour.

Her statements on reasons for retiring echo those of Andy Roddick who also bemoaned his increasing physical inability to give 100%. As Roddick stated in the Thursday afternoon press conference marking his 30th birthday, "Walking off Wimbledon, I thought I knew". In that match back in June he had just dug deep in an attempt to defeat David Ferrer for a place in the fourth round, but eventually went down 3 sets to 1. He was to acknowledge the applause that accompanied his exit from centre court, blowing a kiss to the crowd before leaving through the locker room door. At the time it seemed like a goodbye, and at Thursday's press conference it was proved to be just that.

For Roddick, it wasn't the sole Slam that he won at Flushing Meadows in 2003 aged 23, but the nearly moments on London's grass courts that he will really be remembered for.

Wimbledon was a tournament that a man with a 150mph+ serve should have won, but on three occasions the charismatic American reached the final, and ultimately fell short, each time at the hands of Roger Federer. The first final was shortly after he had flirted with the #1 ranking in 2004. Although he was to take the opening set off the Swiss man, Roddick was eventually to lose after three further close sets as Wimbledon '04 heralded the start of Federer's 23-tournament streak of reaching the semi-final stage of successive Slams.

A year later Federer was to go one better in a repeat of the '04 final line-up, defeating Roddick in 3 sets, and although Roddick was to make the US Open final again in '07, he struggled to maintain pace with the evolution of the game from serve/volley to baseline brought about by the ascendancy of Federer and Nadal.

However, his final appearance in a Slam event (to date) was to prove one of the greatest matches of all time, and created a slew of records upon its completion.

Roddick at the '09 US Open
Roddick made it to the 2009 Wimbledon final by virtue of the absence of defending champion Rafael Nadal, whose pre-tournament withdrawal due to tendinitis of the knees was to open up the draw for a number of players. It was the American who capitalised on the Spaniard's injury woes, making the Sunday final where once again he faced Federer. In a match that lasted over four hours and peppered with rain delays, Roddick was to break Federer's serve twice, taking the first and fourth sets off the 14-time Slam champion. In between, Federer was to fail to make inroads into the Roddick serve, only winning the 2nd and 3rd sets on tie-breaks. Going into the final set Roddick had yet to lose serve in the match, and in the fading light both players went game for game 29 times. At 14-15 Roddick was to lose focus for the first time in the match, dropping his serve  to hand the 2009 Wimbledon title and the World #1 ranking to his opponent. "Sorry Pete, I tried to hold him off," quipped Roddick in his post-match interview, referencing the record-breaking 15th Slam title Federer had secured, surpassing the previous total of Pete Sampras.

'09 was Roddick's last significant Slam run, and in the last couple of years, the former number one has slipped down the rankings, but always remained capable of pulling off some outstanding wins and considered dangerous in the draw. His toppling of Federer at this year's Miami Masters revealed that given the right set of circumstances he could still pull off an upset of those who had usurped him from his number one standing.  Increasingly, though, these sets of circumstances have proved sparse.

Roddick was the face of US men's tennis for a decade and now passes the baton on to John Isner and Mardy Fish and a stack of potential talents like Jack Sock waiting in the wings for their chances of greatness. His retirement leaves the US with only one active male player to have made it past the QF of a Slam event - the top 200 player Robby Ginepri who made the semis of the US Open in 2005 - a pitiful state for a nation that dominated the late seventies and early eighties with talent such as Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and recently saw another top tennis duo lead the game with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Roddick's US Open win was the last time American hands lifted a men's singles Slam cup.

********
Update 1st September 2012

All good things haven't quite come to an end for Andy Roddick or Kim Clijsters.  Roddick handed a masterclass to young Aussie upstart Bernard Tomic to take him through to the 3rd round where he'll face the unseeded Fabio Fognini.  While Clijsters hopes are kept alive by a mixed doubles partnership with Bob Bryan.  Through to the last 16, they'll also face unseeded opposition after other brother Mike Bryan was ousted in the first round.

Image from Edwin Martinez / via Wikimedia

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