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Reflections on WTA 2009

Reflections on WTA 2009

img_1710It’s that time of year when we look back at what transpired on the women’s tour over the past season and view ahead at the upcoming year.  Here’s a recap of the great, the good and the down right ugly moments from 2009.

Last year, in many respects, can be characterized as bizarre. The majors commenced with a meltdown by Dinara Safina as Serena Williams thrashed her in the Australian Open final.  Months later after sensational results at lead up tournaments, Safina, newly crowned world number one, had another breakdown in the French Open final vis-à-vis Svetlana Kuznetsova.  As such, Kuznetsova grabbed the second major of her career.

At the All England Club, after Serena survived a riveting semifinal match against Elena Dementieva, she faced Venus in the finals for the second consecutive year.  However, this go around, Serena bested big sister to capture 2009′s third major.  Also a favorite to step to the finals at the U.S. Open, Serena encountered two stumbling blocks, her emotions and  Kim Clijsters.

After fulfilling her desire to procreate, Clijsters discovered that her retreat from tennis had left a void.  Thus, following a two year absence, Clijsters once again embraced the game. Subsequent to some impressive triumphs, Clijsters took on Serena in the semifinals. The weather may have been in part culpable, more likely though, it was Clijsters’ superb touch that got under Serena’s skin as a foot fault by a line judge roused Serena’s anger.  Unsavory words by Serena caused a point penalty with Clijsters having match point.  A day later, Clijsters went on to rope the U.S. Open trophy, the second major of her career.

Leading the pack of names that captivated the tour in 2009 is Dane Caroline Wozniacki.  The teenager became her country’s first competitor to reach a major final. Although downed by Clijsters, after starting the year in the top 20, Wozniacki closed 2009 at number 4.  Belarusian Victoria Azarenka continued her march in the right direction.  Azarenka demolished Serena at the Sony Ericsson Open to catch the biggest title of her career.

On the other hand, for the Serbs, it was  a year of sliding backward. Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion and former world number one, had trouble directing her forehand and serve. With neither stroke on the money, Ivanovic did not get pass the fourth round at any of the majors. Ivanovic reached one final, Indian Wells, but failed to hoist the trophy. Fed up, Ivanovic put a punctuation to her season in October and her ranking tumbled to 21st.  Number one at the start of the year, Jelena Jankovic, fared a little better than Ivanovic by collecting two titles.  However, Jankovic was equally a disappointment at the majors with only a round of 16 appearance in Paris and Melbourne.

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Lessons And Implications of Serena Gate

Lessons And Implications of Serena Gate

img_1710For better and for worse, the 2009 U.S. Open will be unforgettable on the ladies’ side for a multitude of reasons.  Firstly, there was an unprecedented number of top seeds who stumbled in the early rounds.  Secondly, the wackiness of the weather on the last weekend. Thirdly, 2005 champ Kim Clijsters’ remarkable run to the finals after a two year absence from the sport.  Fourthly, Caroline Wozniacki becoming the first Danish player to reach the finals at a major.  Lastly and lamentably, for what can only be labeled as ‘Serena Gate’.

The incident- Improbable that anyone watching missed it.  However, here’s a recap of the events which resulted in Serena Williams being defaulted, costing her the match.  After dropping serve in the first set which led to Clijsters capturing it, Serena smashed her racket and was given a code violation warning.  Later, Williams facing double break point, which were also match points, was called for a foot fault. This prompted a diatribe by Serena including the statement that she would “shove the f****** ball down [the line person's] throat”.  So in accordance to the rules, the chair umpire awarded her a point penalty which left a bitter note since it was match point for Clijsters. Irrespective of the line person being right or wrong, Serena’s behavior was out of bounds.

Serena is not Venus, nor vice versa- Other than Kim, the person who deserves the most sympathy is Venus Williams because this circumstance may mark her career.  Ever since their arrival on the tennis scene, these sisters have often been regarded as a singular entity.  Their playing doubles at times does not help the matter. The peculiar part is that they are not even twins. At least if this were the case, it would be justified. Yet, people still view Bob and Mike Bryan as individuals.  Sometimes, it’s forgotten that these siblings have divergent personalities. With that being said, it’s highly unlikely had the tables been reversed that Venus would have reacted in such a fashion.  Therefore, in a small corner of Serena’s mind, she must be hoping that none of this stain sticks to her big sister’s tennis shoes.

Kids & Role Models-Whether parents like or not, many athletes have assumed the position of idols in their children’s eyes.  Serena’s sorrowful outburst was certainly witnessed by tons of partisans.  For mothers and fathers this is the perfect opportunity to reinforce to their offspring that this sort of behavior is not to be emulated. Moreover, that they should select tangible persons in their lives, their own parents, uncle Charlie or cousin Jane if their comportment is exemplary as their true heroes or heroines.  Even John McEnroe, whom Serena cited as an idol at her press conference, known for his over the top conduct in his heydays stated he “could not defend the indefensible”.  I suppose with age comes wisdom.  Hopefully, Serena’s future possess the same pearl.

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Keep Plugging Away Andy, You’ll Get There

Keep Plugging Away Andy, You’ll Get There

img_3407After Roger Federer’s gut wrenching loss in the Wimbledon final last year, I felt obligated to impart on him some words of wisdom. This year, Andy Roddick was the one to draw the short straw in one of the most mesmerizing major matches ever.  Deluded as it may seem, I would like to believe that my advice has contributed in some minute form to the success that Federer has been basking in of late.  Considering that Roddick is a compatriot, I feel bound to take a crack at pushing him in the right direction.

Andy,

I hope you don’t regard it as disrespectful the liberty that I am taking in referring to you on a first name basis.   After all, I have followed your career for many years and for that reason I feel a kinship on some level. I must confess though that through your nine years on the ATP, our relationship has been tepid.  After making a big splash at U.S. Open in 2003, your results at the majors have been spastic. Disappointments after disappointments have caused me with time to consider you, as the Spanish maxim goes, ‘as a zero to the left’. From my viewpoint, a revolving door of coaches indicated that  you were unwilling to listen to the counsel of others.  As such, this left me doubting as to your capability of ever becoming champion at a major. Your performance a couple of weeks back at Wimbledon demonstrated your desire to succeed is still great and it not only reenergized your fans but gained you some new ones.

Effort has never been one of your faults.   Although in the past, your game has lacked focus.  In hiring Larry Stefanki and heeding his advice, you have retooled your game and developed other weapons to back up your powerful serve. Your forehand has always been solid and your play at net adequate.  However, by strengthening and reinventing your backhand  crosscourt and down the line, some of your strokes were purely sublime, you showed that your game can still evolve.  More importantly, you revealed in the finals that you are a thinker on the court in choosing the most intelligent shots.  You took risks when the situation warranted it, while restraining yourself. In the past panic may have ambushed your decision making.  Federer may have gained his record 15th major, but you gave him a fight to remember.

Complements at this time may appear hollow and shallow since you don’t have the Wimbledon trophy on your mantle. Whilst, it may be healthy to reflect on what could have been, the worse thing you can do is dwell.  For many seasons, you have walked through the draw with others expecting very little from you.  I would like to think that in the long run, this match will leave a positive influence.  As such, perhaps, the sanest approach is to regard this year as one of rehabilitation.  So keep working at it Andy, your major will come.

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Clay : You Have To Love It For It To Love You Back

Clay : You Have To Love It For It To Love You Back

img_9979_bwFor as long as I live, when I think of the red clay at Roland Garros, the picture that will always come to mind is that of Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten tracing the contours of a heart on the ground after his grueling five sets win over Swede Magnus Norman in the 2000 French Open final.

Bar none, clay is the most demanding surface to play on. The points can be endless.  A men’s three set match can last longer than three hours. Thus, that type of court can exact a significant mental and physical price. Ironically though, clay is much gentler on the body than a hard court where joints can be prone to injury. Despite the clay presenting some significant health benefits, the list of players who excel on that specific turf is far shorter than that of those who perform well on hard court. Therefore, the question must be posed as to the source of this disconnection.

One explanation may be the competitors’ lack of familiarity with the surface. The majority of Americans and non- Iberian Europeans nowadays grow up playing on concrete. Red clay practice courts and tournaments have become a rarity in the U.S. Currently, the ladies have a choice of either Charleston or Jacksonville; many have characterized both as “simulated clay”. Players have described the green surface as a hard court dusted with clay which makes their movement feel awkward. For the men, their only option is the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston. Although it is more suitable than what’s available to the women, in many respects it falls short of the necessary requisite to offer a full fledge European red clay experience.

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An Old Dilemma:  Mixing Sports And Politics

An Old Dilemma: Mixing Sports And Politics

img_8298Over the years, politics and sports have intersected many times. Perhaps the most infamous example is the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian radicals and subsequently killed in a rescue attempt. With tennis becoming more internationalized, these lines were destined to meet.

At the Australian Open this year, while Serb Novak Djokovic and Bosnian-American Amer Delic applauded each other’s superb shots and cordially shook hands after the match. Their fans had a brawl outside the stadium which had to be interrupted by police and led to a couple of people requiring medical attention. Now, this past week, Shahar Peer, an Israeli female player, was prohibited entry into the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the Dubai tournament for which she automatically qualified by virtue of her ranking.

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A Gem In The Magic City: Miami’s Sony Ericsson Open

A Gem In The Magic City: Miami’s Sony Ericsson Open

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Written on May 2, 2008

Since 2000, schedule permitting, I have been a faithful and fervent attendee at my hometown tournament in Key Biscayne, Florida. Yet, as a devout tennis fanatic, my wish has always been to make a pilgrimage to one of the shrines of the sport, a major.

In my mind, there has always been the perception that I was being deprived of an ecclesiastical experience by not going to New York, London, Paris or Melbourne. As luck would have it, in 2006 and 2007, I ascended from the category of lowly television viewer to that of obscured spectator when I was finally able to drink in the atmosphere at the U.S Open. After spending five days at the opening round matches in New York the last couple of years and a week at this year’s Sony Ericsson, I began to view the latter through a new lens. As I surveyed the familiar vista at Crandon Park, the prism through which I evaluated the tournament was suddenly lifted. Moreover, I arrived at the realization that the Sony Ericsson Open is truly a jewel in my own backyard.

Manhattan’s bright lights and vibrant streets are comparable to an impish, unruly child with the magnetic powers to draw one in with a cunning smile. A similar attraction lures one in at the U.S. Open. On the subway, I was overcome by a wave of exhilaration from the chatter of the passengers whose destination, just as mine, was the major’s site. As the train approached the tennis center and the Arthur Ashe stadium came into view, a touch of awe and anxiety intermingled as I became conscious of the magnitude of the place. These sentiments were further accentuated as the grounds crew greeted me with their megaphones shouting instructions such as, “no backpacks allowed into the stadium”. Or as I filed through the long security lines that stretch for miles and saw my precious can of juice seized since opaque containers were prohibited entry. The shear volume of people, over 700,000 attended the tournament in 2007, and the additional security measures implemented after the catastrophic incident at the Twin Towers signify that one has to be willing to tolerate these inconveniences in order to experience the U.S. Open.

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A New World Order:  The Year That Was 2008

A New World Order: The Year That Was 2008

img_3045Fascinating is the word in a nutshell that perhaps best describes this past season. With 2009 looming, the time has come to reminisce as to why 2008 was such a quintessential year for the ATP.

The abundance of talent littering the tour foretold of a possible shake up as the year began, threatening Roger Federer’s supremacy. All dynasties have gone through a period of decline; perhaps, for Federer, 2008 will be viewed as such. In Australia, Federer faced two foes, mononucleosis and Serb Novak Djokovic. Unable to vanquish either, Roger succumbed in the semifinals. For Federer, this calendar had many ebbs and few flows with a spanking by Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the French final, a gut wrenching loss in the Wimbledon final in five sets, a much desired gold medal at the Olympics, but in doubles. Roger regained a bit of respect by capturing his fifth consecutive U.S. Open. But, for the first time since the dawning of the Federer era, Roger failed to grab a single masters’ shield. In 2008, not only did the Swiss have to get acclimated to the fact that Wimbledon was no longer his playpen, he also lost his grip on the number one ranking.

What a year for Nadal! Undoubtedly talent is an important part of success, yet hard work cannot be discounted. As the season started, the smart bet would have been on Djokovic yanking the top spot from Federer. Nevertheless, Roger’s clay nemesis, after more than two years of serving as best man, finally moved up to number one. After crushing defeats in the quarterfinals in Australia and finals at the Sony Ericsson, Nadal had a surreal clay run with one solitary loss. Moreover, Rafa won his fourth consecutive French Open and the crown jewel, his first Wimbledon trophy.  He was the first man in over twenty years with this dual combination. The ultimate feather in Rafa’s cap was getting Olympic singles gold. An arduous and lengthy schedule put the breaks to Nadal’s play with tendonitis stopping him from participating in the year-end tournament and the Davis cup finals. Regardless, Nadal could not have scripted this year any better.

In many respects, Djokovic had an up and down ride. After hoisting the Australian and Indian Wells trophies, the world number three had a reality check. Nadal unwilling to relinquish his hold on number two, schooled Djokovic when the two met in Rome and Paris. His confidence slightly dented, Novak was a non-factor mid-year with an early exit at Wimbledon. However, Djokovic finished strongly by winning the year-end tournament in Shanghai.

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2008:  A Year Full Of Surprises On The Women’s Tour

2008: A Year Full Of Surprises On The Women’s Tour

img_2867As another season concludes on the WTA, its is only fitting to reflect on the moments that branded it and look forward to what might be in store for 2009.

The Russian onslaught continues with half of the players ranked in the top ten coming from that nation. One of the pack’s standouts, Maria Sharapova, bulldozed over her opponents to win the year’s first major in Australia. However, after an impressive winning streak, Sharapova went on forced sabbatical due to an old shoulder injury resurfacing. Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva finally lived up to their promise, as these two had a phenomenal run in 2008. Sporting new coaches, these two women known for their volatile outburst on court, bottled their tempers which translated into great results. Safina’s newfound mental solidity carried her all the way to the French Open final. For her part, Zvonareva was a finalist at the year-end Sony Ericsson Championships where she lost a heartbreaking match to Venus Williams. Moreover, this powerhouse of tennis swept the medals at the Olympics with Elena Dementieva taking gold, Safina silver, and Zvonareva bronze. In team play, the Russians were also supreme, crushing Spain to grab another Federation cup.

The Serbians also became more firmly entrenched in the sport. After her defeat in the Australian final, Ana Ivanovic claimed her first major in Paris. Compatriot Jelena Jankovic made her first majors’ final appearance at the U.S. Open, but lost a tough three setter. As a result of the French Open title, Ivanovic captured the number one ranking. But with a niggling thumb injury, Ivanovic struggled the remainder of the year. On the other hand, Jankovic overflowing with confidence after her great U. S. Open showing, won three straight tournaments and finished the year at number one. Jelena is the third player after Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis to hold that honor despite failing to earn a major trophy.

The Williams sisters persist as the beacon of light of American tennis with Venus shining on her best surface, the grass at Wimbledon. Venus seized her fifth title at sister Serena’s expense. But the latter’s tears were short-lived as the siblings took the Wimbledon doubles title and repeated with doubles gold in Beijing. Moreover, Venus showed that at 28, she still could keep up with her younger peers by winning both in Zurich and at the prestigious year-end championships. While Serena, no spring chicken herself, prevailed for the third time at the U.S. Open.

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Quiet On The Court Please

Quiet On The Court Please

img_1680If I were to pen a riddle about this topic it would go something like this: what sound is a sign of severe respiratory distress in a child or preparation for speech in babies, yet is a source of annoyance to spectators viewing a tennis match? If you were to guess grunting, you would be on the ball.

One would have to be deaf not to have noticed that the courts on the WTA circuit are somewhat quieter the last few months. This is due to the conspicuous absence of Maria Sharapova. The Siberian diva and her signature ear-piercing grunt have been sidelined for the rest of the season by a shoulder injury. Although Sharapova is an extreme and expert poster child for that note, the men are not immune. Rafael Nadal seems to have taken lessons from some of the great Spanish tenors. Nowadays, grunting has become commonplace on tour. Just like voices, the sound varies in intensity and cadence. Undoubtedly, the player who opened the laryngeal gates and brought grunting into the spotlight was Serbian Monica Seles. This tone turned out to be such a distraction that at the 1992 Wimbledon finals, Seles was asked to keep the decibel down which may have thrown off her rhythm and cost her the match against Steffi Graff. Perhaps, Seles’ inability to vocalize may have dampened the weight of her shots. After all, tennis players are creatures of habit and a bit superstitious.

Facing Andre Agassi in the 1982 semifinal at the U.S Open, Czech Ivan Lendl cited that his opponent’s grunting was a mental distraction particularly considering it had never been an issue he had previously encountered. Luckily, Lendl was able to focus enough and win the match. Although athletes are famous for their powers of concentration, it is hard to fathom how a noise which can seem as loud as a subway train is not a disturbance. Therefore, it leaves one to wonder whether all this ruckus is really necessary.

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No Assistance Needed:  Why On-Court Coaching In Tennis Is A Terrible Idea

No Assistance Needed: Why On-Court Coaching In Tennis Is A Terrible Idea

img_2727Last month, the Sony Ericsson WTA tour decided to shelve its two-year experiment with on-court coaching. No one was more relieved than I to learn the news. From its inception, I viewed that type of tinkering with the game as a colossal error. Witnessing the exceptional tennis at Wimbledon and the French Open this year only served to reinforce that argument.

Tennis experts and fans concur that July’s Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal was probably the best match they have seen or will ever see in their lifetime. What underscored the greatness of this contest was the fact that each man had to figure out for himself how to vanquish the other. Moreover, the spectator was riveted in trying to determine how each player would respond to an ever-dynamic court situation. Had coaching been permitted, this match’s grandeur would have been diminished. Can you imagine Nadal consulting with Uncle Tony as to how to approach the fifth set after losing his two sets to none advantage? Or Federer picking Mirkas’ brain as to how to deal with a dominant Rafa after two sets? Such interruptions or better-said intrusions would have taken away from the surreal moment the spectators and players were experiencing.

Another conspicuous example is the French Open. Dinara Safina plucked herself twice from the jaws of certain defeat to make it all the way to the finals. In facing the number one ranked player in the world, Safina only had her self to rely on when she needed to fight off match point. Tennis is the ultimate chess match. There is no recourse to a second opinion. All the practicing and strategizing are done beforehand. Each time one gets on the court; it is equivalent to a final exam. Once the first ball is struck, one doesn’t have the option of an open-book test, which is essentially what on-court coaching is.

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