Tennis Just Isn't Pretty Sometimes

October 5, 2012

I recently had a dream that John McEnroe was running for President of the United States, and he was in the midst of a heated debate with Mitt Romney. Let's just say, it wasn't pretty.

What else isn't pretty? Trying to watch tennis in October, at 3am. For me, that experience is "sans caffeine", so it's even more fun trying to keep my eyes open.

This relatively unpopular time in the tennis season is what tennis aficionados call "The Asian Swing."  Players are in far-distant time zones, and tournaments don't get nearly as much press. To be honest, most tennis fans have already moved onto football or hockey after the last ball has been struck at the U.S. Open.

That's not to say the Asian Swing isn't important. It's a time when the race for the WTA year-end championships heats up, and players try to score some last minute, end-of-season ranking points.

Speaking of the season-ending championships, the ladies of the WTA have already begun to prepare for this tournament in Istanbul (scheduled for October 23-28). Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena, Aga Radwanska, Kerber, Kvitova, Errani, and Li Na round out the final eight. And for the first time in the WTA championships' 42-year history, the final eight players will represent eight different countries.

Who's missing from that all-important list? Caroline Wozniacki. She hasn't missed the year-end championships since 2009. You can say she gave it everything she had this season, but what she had wasn't exactly 100%. Her slow and steady decline to No. 11 in the world has been painful to watch, and likely more painful for her to experience. Can a lack of confidence be the culprit? Can a new/different coach turn her career around?

Who else didn't make the final eight cut? The 2011 U.S. Open champ, Sam Stosur, who has competed in the year-end championships for the past two years. The eye-rolling from fans started earlier this year, after she made it to the final in Doha, but lost to Azarenka. She then made the SF in Charleston, but lost to Serena, and the SF at the French Open, but lost to Errani. More recently, Stosur made it to the SF in Tokyo, defeating Sharapova en route to that match, but it wasn't quite enough to salvage an otherwise disappointing season. The major question is: Can Stosur change the trajectory of her career back to an upward direction?

Former top 10 player Vera Zvonareva, who who hasn't missed the year-end championships in four years, didn't make the cut this year either because she was free-falling off the ranking cliff. Currently ranked at No. 48 (ouch), she recently pulled out of Beijing with a viral illness. Needless to say, Zvonareva, who had been ranked inside the top 10 since 2008, has had a challenging year. She has battled hip and shoulder injuries, as well as illness since the start of the season. Something tells me she needs a few months of solid sleep to get back to winning form. Tennis wouldn't be the same without seeing Vera with a towel over her head during changeovers. Fingers crossed for her in 2013.

Marion Bartoli, who competed in the season-ending championships in 2007 and 2011, missed the cut this year. Despite having an up-and-down year, no one can say that Marion Bartoli doesn't work hard. The evidence can be seen here during a practice session at the U.S. Open:

I guess the message here is that sometimes even the best players can have an ugly season. And much like bad dreams that involve John McEnroe yelling at Mitt Romney in a political debate, it's best to put it behind you.

US Open Final Preview: Is Azarenka Ready?

Originally Published: On the Baseline

Flushing Meadows — Hindsight is 20/20, or at least that’s what Victoria Azarenka is hoping for when she faces Serena Williams in the U.S. Open women’s final on Saturday night.

World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has advanced to her first-ever U.S. Open final, and just to add a little bit of icing to that cake, the match will be played in prime time, on Arthur Ashe Stadium, under the lights. She’s had a phenomenal season, with the best W/L percentage on hard courts this year (32-2, 94.1%). She already has one Grand Slam under her belt (2012 Australian Open), and is hoping for her second. She hasn’t lost a three-set match this year. Now 12-0.

Her opponent, Serena Williams is coming off one of the best summers of her career: Wimbledon champion, Olympic Gold Medalist, and now, her sixth U.S. Open final. But even prior to this year, the 14-time Grand Slam champion has proven to be a huge obstacle for Azarenka, with a 9-1 lead in their head-to-head match-ups. They faced each other in the 2011 U.S. Open (third round) and Azarenka lost in straight sets. This year, Serena has defeated Azarenka in all three of their matches (Madrid final, Wimbledon semifinal, and the Olympics semifinal). Serena has a 6-1 W/L record in three set matches for this year.

What tactics does Azarenka need to use to successfully maneuver around Serena’s power game? “I have to try to return well, definitely, and serve,” said Azarenka, after defeating Sharapova in the semifinal on Friday. “With Serena, it’s not really the long rallies. It’s all about who grabs the first opportunity, who is more brave to step it up right from the beginning.”

Easier said than done. Heading into her 19th Grand Slam final, Serena leads the pack for the highest number of aces at the U.S. Open: 50. That’s right. 50. She is also 3-0 over world No.1 players in Grand Slam finals: 1999 US Open, vs. Martina Hingis; 2002 Wimbledon vs. Venus Williams, 2005 Australian Open vs. Lindsay Davenport. The three-time U.S. Open champion hasn’t dropped a set coming into the women’s final.
A win on Saturday would give the 30-year-old her fourth U.S. Open title, 13 years after she won her first U.S. Open title in 1999.

Serena seems to have a certain controlled calmness about her (uncharacteristically so), as well as more continuity in her game, which makes her appear even more intimidating.

“I don’t have anything to lose, said Serena on Friday, after her semifinal win vs. Sara Errani. I feel as though I’m going up against the most consistent and the best player this year [Victoria Azarenka]. She then clarified her statement by saying “I always believe that I’m the best. On paper, she’s gone much deeper in Slams than I have.”

Also in Friday’s press conference, Serena said that she feels “more experienced” this time around, after her surprise loss to Sam Stosur in the 2011 U.S. Open final.

Serena may not need to draw on her own 20/20 hindsight to win the U.S. Open final. She may just have to keep doing what she’s been doing since the first round: Demolish her opponents with her power, serve, and incredible ability to hit any angle from anywhere on the court.

US Open Week 1 from A to Z

Originally Published: On the Baseline

Flushing Meadows, NY— The first week of the U.S. Open was filled with breakthroughs,
retirements, dances, and everything in between.

Azarenka, the No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open, has dropped the fewest number of games (10)
over the first four rounds, and has the best W/L percentage on hard courts: 29-2 (93.5%).
She’ll be tough to beat heading into the second week.

Breakthrough tournament for Anna Tatishvili? Absolutely. The world No. 73 has never
made it past the first round at the U.S. Open. Despite losing to Azarenka in the fourth round, she is the first Georgian woman to make it to the fourth round since Leila Meskhi in 1994.

Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 8 seed and former No. 1 came into the U.S. Open with a knee injury. On Tuesday, she fell in her first round to world No. 96 Irina-Camelia Begu. Without question, Wozniacki is experiencing the bleakest season of her career, with first round losses at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and has not yet won a title this year. She was defending a lot of points, so she will fall outside the top 10.

Dominating. That sums up Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. It took Serena just 13 minutes to gain a 4-0 over Coco Vandeweghe in her first round match. Since then, her wins have become almost routine. For the second year in a row, the three-time U.S. Open champ is the only American woman to advance past the third round, including a straight-sets win over Ekaterina Makarova.

The end has sadly come for Kim Clijsters’ career. On Wednesday, Laura Robson pulled off a surprising, second round upset over the three-time U.S. Open champ. A changing of the guard could not have been more evident in any other match during this first week.

Four of the final 16 players had never reached the fourth round in a Grand Slam, and are all unseeded: Hlavackova, Robson, Tatishvili and Vinci. Of the four, Vinci and Hlavackova are the only two remaining in the tournament.

Giant Killers. There have been a few this first week: Laura Robson (d. Li Na, Clijsters),
Marion Bartoli (d. Petra Kvitova), Sloane Stephens (d. Francesca Sciavone).

Andrea Hlavackova defeated No.14 seed Maria Kirilenko in a tough, 3-setter on Saturday, resulting in the best win of her career. Prior to the U.S. Open, the No. 82-ranked Czech had never even played the main draw at the U.S. Open.

Italians – there are two remaining in the tournament in singles: Roberta Vinci and Sara

Jelena Jankovic lost to No. 2 seed, Aggie Radwanska on Saturday in straight sets. Aggie has advanced to the fourth round in singles for the first time since 2008. Jankovic, the U.S. Open runner-up in 2008, racked up 37 unforced errors.

Angelique Kerber, last year’s U.S. Open semifinalist, has advanced to the fourth round,
where she will take on Sara Errani, who made a surprise run to the finals of the French Open this year, losing to Maria Sharapova.

Laura Robson is playing the best tennis of her young career. The 18-year-old Brit faced
a tough draw, but surprisingly, she defeated Kim Clijsters, and then ousted No. 9 seed, Li
Na in the third round—the first top 10 win of her career. Robson is the youngest player in
the top 100. She hasn’t made it past the second round in any previous Grand Slam, but this
time, advanced to the fourth, before her dream run ended on Sunday night against defending champ, Sam Stosur.

Maria Sharapova hadn’t faced any player ranked higher than No. 78 in the world, until she met Nadia Petrova in the fourth round. A rain delay halted play on Sunday night with Petrova leading 2-0 in the third set, but when play resumed, Sharapova prevailed, advancing to the quarterfinals.

Nine match points. That’s how many it took for Sam Stosur to close out her match vs. Laura Robson, and advance to the quarterfinals. She will play Azarenka in the quarterfinals.

One lefthander remains in the draw: Angelique Kerber.

Petra Kvitova, winner of the U.S. Open Series, ran out of gas against Marion Bartoli in the fourth round. Bartoli handed Kvitova a third set bagel to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in her career. She will take on Sharapova in the quarterfinals.

Without question, one of the most unexpected moments of the first week happened on
Wednesday, when Sam Stosur broke out into a dance after her win over Edina Gallovits-Hall in the second round. It’s being called the “Stosur Shuffle.”

Round of 16: Only five players have advanced to the second week without losing a set:
Azarenka, Petrova, Sharapova, Stosur, and Serena Williams.

Sam Stosur – the reigning U.S. Open champion hasn’t dropped a set, and is looking to be in good shape to defend her title, if she can manage her nerves in clutch moments.

Tests continue for Ana Ivanovic, as she advances to the fourth round. If she can keep her
momentum going, she’ll have opportunities to regain confidence, and potentially re-enter the top 10. Time will tell if she can hold it together when she faces her familiar foes.

Unforced errors for Venus Williams: 60 (vs. Angelique Kerber) on Thursday night. Ivanovic was a close second in her match against Stephens, with 56.

Venus Williams: This time last year, she was diagnosed with Sjorgen’s Syndrome, but has
managed to get her symptoms under control, and is back inside the top 50 (No. 46). She had a great win over Bethany-Mattek Sands in the first round, but in one of the most riveting night matches of the first week, Venus suffered a painful, three-set loss to Angelique Kerber in the second round. She had a 4-2 lead in the third set, and lost it. This was her second straight, early round exit from the U.S. Open.

The Williams sisters are still winning in doubles, advancing to the third round.

X-Factor. Sloane Stephens has it. The 19-year-old scored the biggest win of her career in
the first round, defeating Francesca Schiavone in straight sets. On Saturday night, under the glaring lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, she was ousted in the third round by Ana Ivanovic, a repeat of last year’s result.

Yum is the best word to describe Maria Sharapova’s new business venture, Sugarpova: A line of super sweet candy, which Maria unveiled to the public at the start of this week.

Jie Zheng (No. 28 seed) advanced to the third round, her best performance since 2009, before losing to Azarenka.

Clijsters Bids Farewell

by Paula Vergara
Originally Published: On the Baseline

Flushing Meadows, NY—On Wednesday, No. 23 seed Kim Clijsters, the sentimental favorite to win the U.S. Open, was defeated by 18-year-old Brit, Laura Robson 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in a second round nail biter, ending an illustrious career.

Out of the gate, three-time U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters was striking the ball well, and took a quick, 4-1 lead in the first set. Robson, a 5’10” lefty, began showing signs of improvement at 2-4, at 15-30 on Clijsters' serve. But Clijsters was dominating, and won the next 3 points to go up 5-2. With the first set win clearly within reach, Clijsters somehow lost momentum and simply wasn’t able to capitalize on her lead. Robson fought off three set points, and won the first set tiebreak.

Clijsters, who typically hugs the baseline during rallies, was consistently playing 4-5 feet behind the baseline, a sign that she wasn’t in control of the match. Clijsters also struggled with her returns, especially on Robson’s second serve. Robson’s aggressive, attacking-style of game earned her two match points at 6-5, but Clijsters managed to saved them both, setting up a second set tiebreak. It was a tight tiebreak, with Clijsters down 3-4, but she managed to even the score at 5-5. Robson took the lead at 6-5, and with her third match point, she won the tiebreak, and the match, ending Clijsters’ 15-year career.

“My biggest dreams came true here [at the U.S. Open] in 2005," said Clijsters. "This feels like the perfect place to retire. I just wish it wasn’t today.”

Prior to this match, Clijsters had never lost to a player ranked outside the Top 10 at U.S. Open, and hadn’t lost in the second round since 2000, so the idea of competing against the No. 89 ranked player in the world didn’t seem so challenging. It was evident that Clijsters wasn’t playing her best against Robson, but still had that competitive fire, even though she knew her tennis career was coming to a close.

Despite her second round loss at this year’s U.S. Open, Clijsters has had a somewhat rare opportunity to end her career on her own terms. The 29-year-old has taken her time –giving herself, and her fans an opportunity to savor those last few tournaments, and, to say goodbye.

At the beginning of Clijsters’ second career (2009), she was admittedly coming off of a personal roller coaster. She had recently become a new mother, and her father had just passed away. Tennis became a form of therapy for her. “Tennis helped me to get rid of emotions and have focus. I was able to let out a lot of energy after my Dad passed away,” said Clijsters. “It was the perfect release for me, to think on court about life and about what happens, and to smack the ball as hard as you can to get the frustration out.”

After battling a series of injuries this past year, the scale started to tip in the other direction for Clijsters. As a mother of a 4 year old, she could no longer invest as much emotion into tennis as she once had. The constant grind of the being on the road was beginning to weigh on her. Simply put, home life became more difficult to put aside. This time around, her retirement meant she was closing the tennis door for good.

Clijsters' legacy will be marked by her athleticism (trademark splits), superior shot making, and grace under pressure. She is just one of six women to have been ranked world No. 1 in singles and doubles simultaneously (others:  Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Serena Williams, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, and Lindsay Davenport). She also became the first mother to hold the No. 1 ranking since the ranking system first started in 1975.

Having accomplished everything she set out to accomplish in tennis, Clijsters can leave the sport with a good feeling.

“It’s been an incredible journey, and a lot of incredible dreams for me have come true,” says Clijsters.

Without question, Kim Clijsters still loves tennis. She always will. She will always have an emotional investment in the game, but the pressure is behind her. She will be playing doubles and mixed doubles at the U.S. Open, but now she can hit the ball for fun.

2012 U.S. Open: Assessing the Field

It's that time of year again. There is a slight hint of fall in the air, but summer is holding on for one last blast of heat. Last year at this time, New York City was not the place to be for an outdoor tennis event. The city was contending with an earthquake, hurricane, and seemingly endless amounts of rain. Lower Manhattan was evacuated. Even Arthur Ashe Kids Day was canceled.

That was then. This is now.

The 2012 U.S. Open is set to begin on Monday, along with the usual excitement that precedes the start of the final Grand Slam of the season. Conversations of contenders, dark horses, injuries, and up-and-comers who may steal the show are front and center.

The Big 4 (er, 3)

Roger Federer: The stars seem to be aligned for him to reach #18. It's hard to bet against a guy who won Wimbledon seven times and is back to the No. 1 position, and...doesn't have to face his greatest rival, Rafa. Federer is vying for his 6th U.S. Open title, and is currently tied with Jimmy Connors and Sampras for the Open Era record of five U.S. Open titles. 

Andy Murray: After winning Gold at the Olympics, he has finally silenced his critics, but hasn't quite gotten the monkey off his back yet. "I think he has the most to lose and the most to gain at this point," says John McEnroe about Andy Murray, heading into the U.S. Open. Confidence may be the deciding factor.

Novak Djokovic: The world No. 2 recently defended his title in Toronto, but lost to Roger Federer in the final in Cincinnati. He has been struggling a bit with his game this season (slight burnout?), but as the reigning U.S. Open champion, he will be looking to make his fourth appearance in the U.S. Open men's final. 

Nipping at Their Heels: Del Potro, Tsonga, Ferrer, Raonic


Sam Stosur (Slammin’ Sam): The defending U.S. Open champ is coming into the U.S. Open in the same situation as 2011, without having won a single title leading up to the U.S. Open. In fact, Stosur and Wozniacki at the only two players in the top 10 yet to win a title this season. Stosur was a runner-up in Doha (l. to Azarenka) and reached the last four at Roland Garros and Charleston. Can she defend her U.S. Open title? Hard courts are her best surface, but confidence will play a big role.

Li Na: Here's a top 10 player who usually rises to the occasion on the big stages. She began working with Carlos Rodriguez (former coach of Henin) after Wimbledon this year. She won her first tournament of the season in Cincinnati vs. Kerber. She will likely make it through to week two, if Carlos has anything to say (or hand gesture) about it.

Kim Clijsters: The queen of the hard courts will be saying farewell to tennis after the U.S. Open. She has a legitimate shot at winning her 4th U.S. Open crown (2005, 2009, and 2010 winner), but has been sidelined with injuries and off-court commitments for most of this year. The momentum going into her last Grand Slam may carry her through, if she can stay healthy. She'll be playing singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

Serena Williams: Is No. 15 in the cards? Six-time U.S. Open champ Chris Evert isn't so convinced. Evert says Serena may have trouble keeping up a high level of tennis for over a two‑week period -- consistently. "Serena will have to work harder at the US Open than she did at Wimbledon," says Evert. "She had a lot of free points at Wimbledon and the Olympics because it was on grass and shots didn't come back, and she dictated every point. This is going to be a different story. She's going to have to run down a lot more balls and get a lot more balls back, be more consistent and probably be even in better shape." 

Maria Sharapova: She came off the Olympics with a stomach bug and decided to lay low until the U.S. Open. If healthy, she could find herself in the final, opposite Serena Williams. 

Nipping at Their Heels: Azarenka, Aggie Radwanska 

Left Field

Angelique Kerber. This lefty came out of nowhere to make it to the U.S. Open semifinals in 2011, and since then, has sky rocked to No. 6 in the world. She defeated Venus Williams at the Olympics, and defeated Serena Williams in the QF in Cincinnati. Her offensive game needs to improve if she wants to be a Grand Slam contender.

Petra Kvitova: She's coming off a big win in New Haven, but has her work cut out for her in New York. Despite advancing to the QF stage or better at all three Grand Slams so far this year, The 2011 Wimbledon champ has never reached the QF at the U.S. Open. And with less than 48 hours of rest before the start of the U.S. Open, fatigue may be a factor for this six-foot lefty. Her serve and a bit more consistency will carry her through.

Side Notes

Melanie Oudin’s QF run at the U.S. Open in 2009 remains her best Grand Slam singles result to date. However, she teamed up with fellow American, Jack Sock to win the 2011 U.S. Open mixed doubles title. Can they pull off a repeat?

As it stands now, the men's final will be played on Sunday, September 9. Don't count on the weather gods to cooperate with that schedule.

Sharapova has come up with a new line of candy, called Sugarpova. Apparently Maria has a sweet tooth. Her favorite flavor? "Quirky" (rainbow liquorice with a marshmallow middle). Yep, that sounds like Maria.

American Brian Baker is playing in the main draw of the U.S. Open for the first time since 2005. His road to success has been a bumpy one. Cheer him on, whether he's playing on court 12 or Arthur Ashe Stadium.

View the U.S. Open TV Schedule HERE (ESPN, Tennis Channel, CBS)

Serena, Bryan Brothers Good as Gold

August 4, 2012
by Paula Vergara

It was a bit of a blustery day on Centre Court at Wimbledon, but both Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams appeared ready to battle it out for the gold. Serena was the heavy favorite going into the match, with an 8-2 H2H lead over Sharapova. The two have played each other on two separate occasions on grass -- both at Wimbledon. Sharapova defeated Serena in 2004 to win the Wimbledon title. Then in 2010, Serena defeated Sharapova in the round of 16.

En route to the gold medal match, Serena blew past Jelena Jankovic, Urszula Radwanska, Vera Zvonareva, and Caroline Wozniacki, while Sharpova faced Shahar Peer, Laura Robson, Sabine Lisicki (who beat her at Wimbledon just a few weeks ago), Kim Clijsters, and Maria Kirilenko.

Serena's vice grip in these Olympic Games didn't let up at all in the gold medal match, scoring three aces in the first game vs. Sharapova. She won the first two games 40-0, which set the tone for a Serena-style smackdown. Sharapova was trailing 5-0 in the 1st set, and had a 40-0 lead on her serve. She tried desperately to hold her serve to get on the scoreboard, but Serena fought back to win the game. In just 30 minutes, Serena had crushed Sharapova with a bagel set, 6-0.

Sharapova had as short-lived resurgence in the 2nd set, with better rallies and quality shot-making, which earned her one game (at 3-1). Sharapova's game quickly began to unravel again, and simply couldn't get back into the match. In just over one hour, Serena won the match 6-0, 6-1, which earned Serena her first Olympic gold medal in singles, as well as a Career Golden Slam.

Not only did Serena Williams win Olympic gold, the 30-year-old has also taken over the top spot for the highest number of career titles for any active player: 44. This record was previously held by her sister, Venus, with 43.

Serena and Venus Williams will face the Czech team of Hlavackova and Kradecka in the Olympic doubles gold medal match on Sunday.

Click here for the Sunday Olympic tennis schedule.

Double Gold for the Bryan Brothers

American doubles duo Bob and Mike Bryan also won gold in men's doubles (as well as a Career Golden Slam), after defeating the French team, Michaël Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 7-6(2). This is the first Olympic gold medal for the 34-year-old twin brothers (they won bronze in 2008). They already have their sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Top 25 Takeaways from the London Olympics

August 3, 2012
by Paula Vergara
We are officially into the medal rounds in tennis at the Olympic Games, which means the stakes just got a bit higher. Before we settle in to watch some of the best "popcorn matches" of the year, let's take a look back at a week of highlights and lowlights.

  1. No. 1 disappointment: The Olympic opening ceremony. With the exception of the flag bearers, most tennis players were absent from the ceremony due to the early match start times that were taking place the following morning. For some players, the sacrifice has paid off, but not for all.

  1. First Lady, Michelle Obama was using her star power this week at the Olympic Games to bring more attention to tennis. American tennis, that is. We know she's a tennis fan, and we know her husband is running for re-election for POTUS. The woman clearly knows how the promotion machine works.

  1. Juan Martin del Potro was flying way under-the-radar in these Olympic Games. That is, until he played against Roger Federer. 'Nuf said.

  1. No one can argue that Rafael Nadal’s absence from the Olympic Games is not only bad for his career, but bad for tennis. One can hope that his knees will hold out for the hard court season, but as we all know, the knees can take a much harder beating on hard courts than on grass.

  1. Altering the tennis record books is what Roger Federer has always done best. Despite having a shaky 1st round match vs. Falla, the 7-time Wimby champ has been on cruise control ever since. Federer is en route to a possible Career Golden Slam, and, at 30 (almost 31), he is showing no signs of slowing down.

  1. Serena Williams continues to be untouchable in both singles and doubles, proving once again, that she can be just as competitive at 30 as she was at 20, with or without her golden scrunchie. The one thing she puts ahead of tennis? Family. She says that if she had to choose, she’d rather have an Olympic gold medal in doubles with her sister, Venus, than a gold medal in singles. Awww.

  1. If you could sum up Andy Murray’s career in a bumper sticker, what would it say? “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” All of Great Britain (and Ivan Lendl) are hoping that "Muzzard" reaches his destination soon, with a gold medal around his neck.

  1. American hopeful Donald Young is having to climb the tennis ladder the slow, hard way. He's lost in the 1st round of the last 14 tournaments (including the Olympics).

  1. Venus Williams has been gearing up for the Olympic games for almost a year, and even went so far as to add patriotic colors to her hair just before the Games began. Despite losing in the 3rd round in singles, Venus and her sister Serena will be vying for gold in doubles. We may need to start referring to them as the "Golden Girls" of tennis.

  1. Best/worst Olympic opening ceremony outfits. Yep, I’m going there. No disrespect to the athletes, but Australia seemed to have a bad case of the blands. Their team’s outfits made them look like they were working at the event. Best outfits? Poland. Now THAT is a dress you can wear again.

  1. Germany's Julia Georges scored a big, early win by upsetting world No. 2 Aggie Radwanska in the 1st round. She managed to find her 5th gear, but was eventually stopped in the 3rd round by surprise semifinalist, Maria Kirilenko.

  1. Heading into his first Olympic Games, John Isner was coming off a big, repeat grass-court win in Newport, RI. He managed to keep America's hope alive for a medal in singles, until he was taken out by Roger Federer in the quarterfinals.

  1. It was a tough 1st rd. loss at the Olympics for 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, but it’s no secret that grass isn't her best surface. Since 2003, she has had six 1st rd. losses at Wimbledon, including the Olympics. Despite advancing to the QF in mixed doubles at the Olympics (with Rusty Hewitt), she's probably happy that the hard-court season is just around the corner.

  1. Technology and innovation can only take us so far, apparently. NBC's "Live" streaming isn't exactly live, and consequently, didn't exactly win over any new fans this past week. The solution? Avoid any social media outlets during the Olympics, or stay glued to your Twitter feed without watching any of the matches on NBC.

  1. How long did it take Roger Federer to beat Juan Martin del Potro in the biggest nail-biter of the Olympic Games? Just 4 hours, and 26 minutes...officially the longest tennis match in Olympic history. Third set score: 19-17. That's why he's No. 1.

  1. If the Olympics were giving out gold medals for the best wrist bands, Andy Murray would win.

  1. Caroline Wozniacki: New coach, same game. She was flattened by a steamrolling-Serena in the Olympic quarterfinals, on grass. Wozniacki said in her presser that playing on hard courts would have been a better surface for the Olympic games, because it would have "equaled it out for everyone".  Not sure if you'd get a Wimbledon champion to agree with that.

  1. It's possible that the best of 3 set matches might be better for tennis overall (+ a 5-set final), which is how they do it at the Olympics. At the very least, it could reduce the risk of injury.

  1. Roger Federer passed on his third opportunity to carry his home country's flag in the opening ceremony in order to let a lesser-sung Swiss (Stan Wawrinka) have a chance to sample the Olympic experience. Generous? Yes. It could have also been that Federer was playing first on Centre Court the next morning and didn’t want to stand for five hours.

  1. It's important to highlight the uneven distribution of Olympic ranking points: 750 for men (gold), 685 for women (gold), yet ranking points for silver are higher for women: 470 vs. 450 for men. And the reason is...?

  1. It appears that NBC ran out of options for sports commentators before the start of the Olympics. Let’s just say, Pat O’Brien is like a fish out of water covering tennis for NBC. He can’t pronounce player names, and I’m not so sure he can keep score of a match. Stick to covering entertainment news, Pat. The same can be said for Ryan Seacrest, but at least we can keep up with the Kardashians with Ryan on the job.

  1. Andy Roddick. The poor guy. He loves tennis, and loves to compete, but his body doesn’t love it so much anymore. He lost in the 2nd round in singles, and 1st round in doubles. Hopefully, when the time comes, he will be able to retire on his own terms.

  1. It’s not the kind of record you expect to see broken at the Olympics, but Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic will take it: The longest set in Olympic history. Unfortunately, someone had to lose, and by the smallest of margins. Because of the no-tiebreak rule for deciding sets, the three-hour long, 3rd set went in Tsonga’s favor, 25-23. The 66 games were the most ever played in a three-set Olympic match and the 48-game third set also set a record. In a word: EPIC.

  1. On again, off again…No, not Kim Kardashian's relationship with Kanye. It's the rain. While the roof over Centre Court at the Olympics prevented the weather from raining on the big parade, the outer courts were inevitably empty during rain delays, causing a US-Open-like backlog of matches.

  1. It’s the beginning of the end for Kim Clijsters, exiting her second to last pro tournament after losing to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. It’s been a privilege to watch Clijsters play over the years, and we can only hope that the up and comers will be able to fill the void (sniff).

Beneath surface of blue clay debate: Players want a say

Published in USA Today
Paula Vergara
May 7, 2012

Love it or hate it, the controversial blue-colored clay (or "la pista azul") has become the main attraction at the Mutua Madrid Open.

The combined men's and women's event in Madrid is the first ATP World Tour or WTA tournament to use blue clay. Since 2009, the tournament has operated on red clay, making it more aligned with the European clay-court season. It also had served as great preparation for Roland Garros. So here's the burning question: Why buck tradition by ditching the red clay?

According to tournament owner Ion Tiriac, a former pro player and French Open doubles champion, the rationale for switching from red to blue clay has to do with better visibility. Quite simply, the blue clay makes it easier for players and spectators to see the yellow ball on the court. It will also improve television viewing — a major asset to the tournament.

In fact, tournament representatives say that the visibility of the yellow ball on a blue surface will improve by at least 15% compared to the red clay, due to the increased color contrast.

Without question, the new color has a certain novelty and has attracted significant attention. However, with a sport so steeped in tradition, tennis players have been resistant to embrace the color change.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in particular are not keen on calling the use of blue clay "progress," and have expressed concerns about why this decision was approved by the ATP World Tour.

"I'm not really too happy about it," defending champion Novak Djokovic said during last month's Monte Carlo Rolex Masters. "But there is a certain rule within the ATP that the president is able to make decisions by himself without having players agree to. That rule has to be changed because it's not fair. That's what happened last year. That is why Madrid has a blue clay."

This sentiment from the world No. 1 is reminiscent of the frustration that top-ranked players experienced during the 2011 U.S. Open, when they didn't have any say about when to play (or not play) during rain delays.

"I understand that we all want to see a certain change and improvement in our tennis world," Djokovic said. "But on the other hand, you need to hear out what the players say, especially the top ones, because we need to feel that our opinion matters. That was not the case this time."

Nadal, the undisputed king of clay who is playing on home soil, believes that using blue clay is a mistake, saying that it only benefits the tournament owner, not the players.
Andy Murray, who withdrew from the Madrid tournament because of a back injury, says that he understands the reasons for the color change but feels that that the timing is bad. With the French Open just a few short weeks away, he believes that the tournament should be played on red clay. In other words, it's not exactly the best time to be experimenting with court surfaces.

Maria Sharapova, who had a chance to practice on the blue clay a few days prior to the start of the Madrid tournament, stopped short of saying she liked it.

"It's a little bit different than the red clay," Sharapova said. "Some bounces are a bit different. But I think it's about making an adjustment. Obviously, the big tournament for us is Roland Garros, and that's on the red clay."

So just how is this blue clay produced?

It all starts with the original, red clay. Iron oxide is extracted from the clay, producing a white clay, which is then treated with a water-based blue dye for 24 hours prior to drying. The clay then goes through a cooking process, where it is heated to a temperature between 900 to 950 degrees. The clay is then ground and sifted to an exact grain size. Two layers of blue clay are placed on the court, with the first layer being a much finer grain, which serves to set the base.

The iron oxide is removed at the start of the process to produce a white clay, simply because the original red clay cannot be directly dyed to the desired blue color.

Though blue clay courts probably won't be popping up at Roland Garros (or any other clay court tournaments for that matter), the color blue is no stranger to the ATP Tour. Of the 37 tournaments played on hardcourts, 31 of them are blue. That's 84% of all hardcourt tournaments and 49% of all ATP World tour tournaments. On the WTA side, the Family Circle Cup in Charleston is played on green clay, which hasn't raised any eyebrows.

Once the blue dust settles, players, fans, and officials will be able to determine if this color change is good for the game, or a simply a gimmick gone bad.

Can Wozniacki Regain Lost Ground?

March 30, 2012
by Paula Vergara

Up until a few months ago, Caroline Wozniacki had been riding high at the No. 1 spot for 67 weeks. That was until Victoria Azarenka upped her game and won the Australian Open, knocking Wozniacki off the No. 1 pedestal.

Currently at No. 6 in the world, Wozniacki isn’t necessarily in a deep hole that she needs to claw her way out of. However, any player who reaches the No. 1 ranking, then falters, is automatically placed in the comeback category.

Since the Aussie Open, Wozniacki has achieved moderate success, advancing to the semis in two tournaments (Dubai and Miami). Her most recent brag-worthy victory came in the quarterfinal of the Sony Ericsson Open: A straight-sets win over Serena Williams--her first victory over the American in four attempts, and a big confidence boost for the Dane. Wozniacki was serving well throughout the match, and kept her error count low, which helped her to stay focused. In Thursday’s semifinal vs. Maria Sharapova, Wozniacki battled through a tough, three-set match that lasted over 2 1/2 hours. Sharapova seemed to be breezing through the opening set, taking a 4-1 lead, but her forehand and focus took a break, resulting in Wozniacki winning the next five games to take the lead. Sharapova fought back to take the second set. She managed to close out the match in the deciding set by holding serve, and booked her spot in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open.

Wozniacki was visibly perturbed as she disputed the call on match point when Sharapova’s second serve was called long by the linesman, which would have given Wozniacki the point due to a double fault. But chair umpire Kader Nouni overruled the call, giving the players an opportunity to replay the point, which gave Sharapova another chance to successfully close out the match at 40-30, which she did with an overhead winner. Wozniacki tried (and failed) to make her case to the umpire that he should give Sharapova time to challenge the point when it was called out, especially since Wozniacki had no challenges remaining. The television replay of the point showed the umpire was correct in his overrule. Wozniacki, who didn’t see the replay until after the match, exited the stadium without shaking the chair umpire's hand.

Where has Wozniacki gone wrong? Despite having 18 singles titles to her credit, she hasn’t won a tournament since August, 2011 in New Haven, and was unable to defend her title in Indian Wells just a few weeks ago. 

“I think she’s in a crucial 12-month period at the moment,” says ESPN’s Darren Cahill. “She’s gone away from, in my opinion, what made her a No. 1 player, which is an incredible defensive game. I feel like she’s lost a little bit of speed around the court. She needs to get back to being faster, and getting that ability to get those extra balls back into the court, and put the pressure on her opponents, and shrink her side of the court. I also believe that it’s tough by trying to develop a big forehand. She’s starting with her weight on the back foot, and she’s finishing with her weight on the back foot, and it’s pretty tough to develop a lot of power off that shot if you’re playing everything off the back foot.”

ESPN Analyst and U.S. Fed Cup Captain, Mary Joe Fernandez says that Wozniacki is going through a transition period, but has faith in her future.

“She’s looking fitter. She’s working on her game,” says Fernandez. “Once she gets her confidence back, I think were going to see her right back at the top because she’s so solid. She covers the court so well. Great anticipation skills. She’s won 18 titles and she’s only 21.”

Wozniacki isn’t the only WTA player to lose some ground over the past few months. Clijsters, Schiavone, Pavlyuchenkova, Wickmayer, Mattek-Sands, and Gajdosova are just a handful of players who have slid down the rankings ladder since the start of 2012.

You can safely argue that at age 21, Wozniacki hasn’t reached her potential as a player. As many have said before, her game needs to change in order to improve. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Fortunately for Wozniacki, she isn't insane, but rather, stuck in her comfort zone.

What’s next for the Dane? She won’t be defending her title in Charleston, which will give her a week to regroup.

At this stage of her career, it’s likely that Wozniacki might be better off at the No. 6 spot. The reason? Chasing the No. 1 position might be a bit easier for her than holding it. And when she does make her comeback to the No. 1 spot, she’ll be ready for it the second time around.

Venus Rising Again?

March 7, 2012
by Paula Vergara

Some may say that it's too soon to tell, but 5-time Wimledon champ Venus Williams may finally be ready for her ascent. She has her sights set on the 2012 Olympics, which was made evident by her Fed Cup participation in February (mandatory for Olympic eligibility). And with the 2012 Olympic games just four months away, Venus will be making a serious push to get her game back to where it needs to be.

For Venus, it's no longer a question of being able to climb back to the pinnacle of women's tennis. The question is, can she even qualify for the event that represents the pinnacle of tennis? Venus won the gold medal in singles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, as well as two gold medals in women's doubles. She still holds the record for the most number of Olympic gold medals of any female tennis player. In 2000, Williams also became the second player in tennis history to win Olympic gold medals in both singles and doubles at the same Olympic Games. Helen Mills Moody was the first, back in 1924.

In order for Venus to qualify for direct acceptance into the upcoming London Olympics, she has to be one of the top six ranked American players by June 11, 2012. The Olympic Committee bases their player selection on world rankings as of that date. Currently at No. 136, Venus is the 10th highest ranked American in singles. Even if she wanted to play mixed doubles at the London Olympics, she would have to be entered into the singles or doubles competition to qualify.

Without a doubt, Venus has a steep mountain to climb, but still has the competitive drive to keep going. Truth be told, most tennis careers have a shelf life of 12-15 years. At the age of 31, Venus' tennis career has spanned an astonishing 17 years.

Her biggest stumbling block moving forward? Sjorgen's Syndrome, battling a difficult to treat illness, which doesn't exactly put the odds for success in her favor.

In the very short-term, Venus is making progress, but her recovery is slow.

"I'm still fighting fatigue. I'm getting better," said Venus after her successful Fed Cup run in February. "I mean, it just takes a while to kind of find the right medicines that work, to get stronger.  Once you do have a chance to get on the court, it takes at least six weeks to build a nice baseline so you just don't get hurt. The big push for me is the Olympics this year, so I can get back on the court and get my ranking up.  If I'm healthy, I'm not worried about my ranking. I think I can hit the ball. It's just about my body cooperating.  It's about being able to play matches in a row. Right now I'm not sure how much I can do with that, but we'll see."

Venus has entered The Family Circle Cup  (Charleston), a tournament that she won in 2004, but hasn't played since 2009. The Sony Ericsson Open (Miami) is also on her schedule, which she won 3 times, and made the final in 2010 (losing to Clijsters). She just recently signed on to play World Team Tennis for the Washington Kastles in July, just prior to the London Olympics.

Whatever Venus Williams achieves on the court moving forward, one thing is certain: A legend is always a legend, no matter how far they have to climb back.

The Coaching Carousel Continues to Spin

Originally published in Tennis View Magazine, December, 2011.
It’s a well-known fact that talent alone doesn’t make a tennis champion. It also takes a good support system. Whether it’s a famIly member or a former pro, a good coach is likely one of the most important assets a player can have. but often times, the life span of a player/coach alliance can be unpredictable, unstable and even short-lived. In recent years, more money, more pressure and a more global talent pool have forced the tennis-coaching carousel to pick up speed.
Without a doubt, most tennis coaches are in a fragile position, subject to the whims of the players who want fast results so they can shoot up to the top of the rankings. ESPN analyst and former pro Darren Cahill says that “because a tennis player’s window is so small, they don’t wish to waste a moment. They keep second guessing as to whether maybe there’s something better out there for them, or they’re quick to pull the rip cord if they go through even a slightly bad patch, thinking that somebody else can get them through that quicker.” Cahill, who previously coached Andre Agassi and currently offers his coaching expertise to players participating in the Adidas Player Development Program, says that if a player and a coach make it past the three-year mark, they have a pretty special relationship.
According to Antonio Van Grichen, who is best known for his five-year stint coaching Victoria Azarenka during her climb to No. 6 in the world, says that the foundation of a good coach/player relationship is based on respect, motivation, good communication and trust. “In any kind of relationship, respect has to exist with one another,” says Van Grichen. “Motivation is what drives both the player and coach to work day in [and] day out towards their goals. Good communication is essential to avoid misunderstandings and helping to improve the player’s game and the player/coach relationship.” Van Grichen also worked briefly with Vera Zvonareva and Ana Ivanovic.
Chip Brooks, Tennis Director at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy and has been working at the Academy since 1977, has another way to define coaching success. “It all boils down to personality,” he says. “It’s about understanding game styles and knowing what buttons to push to get the player to overachieve. It’s not just getting the player to play well, it’s getting them to play at a higher level than they are capable of playing.”
Is there ever a good time to change coaches or to try something different? The quick answer: “Yes,” says Cahill. “Especially when a player has a block of training weeks. It’s very difficult to make any real change when you have a bunch of tournaments coming up. In November or December, if players are thinking about making a change, that’s a great time – it’s a relaxed atmosphere for a player to get an opportunity to know the coach and for the coach to get to know the player. Then when January arrives, players get to see how those things implement themselves into a match.”
Compared to 10, 20 or even 30 years ago, players at the top of today’s game are making astronomical amounts of money, which could be one major reason why so many player/coach partnerships don’t last. For example, a $3.5 million career from 20 years ago is similar to one year’s earnings for today’s top players. Simply put: Players can afford to make more frequent coaching changes.

“I think that you’ll find that most of the top players spend the money to make sure they keep improving themselves,” says Cahill. “It’s like investing in your future. You can only do that when you’re making better money because it’s an expensive exercise to take on a coach. It’s not only a salary, but it’s also all the traveling expenses you have to pay for.”
Chip Brooks says that taking on a coach can definitely burn a hole in a player’s pocket, depending on the contract agreement. “Good coaches are not going to come cheap, and they are wanting long-term deals with a percentage of prize money tied to bonuses.”
Even without a coach, playing on the ATP or WTA Tours can be cost prohibitive. “The USTA came out with a stat this year,” says Brooks. “The average cost to play a year of tour-level events now, excluding equipment, no coach and no parents is about $143,000 per year. Your break even is around 100 in men’s and women’s tennis.” This can be a risky investment for players coming up in the ranks with no guarantees for success.
On the contrary, a tennis coach can help a player reach new heights and reap substantial rewards in the process. “If the coach can help a player win two rounds more in each Grand Slam, they’ve more than covered their investment when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money,” says Brooks. “Forget about the $1.8 million Sam Stosur just won by winning the U.S. Open singles title. Think about all of the endorsement money she’s going to pick up because she’s the first female from Australia to win a grand slam singles title in 31 years. If a coach can help a player get to the next level, then it’s worth every penny.”
Ana Ivanovic has gone through more coaching changes during her young career than most other players, struggling to find long-term stability with a regular coach as well as consistency with her game. How many coaches she has had? At least eight: Zoltan Kuharsky (early career), David Taylor, Craig Kardon, Scott Byrnes, Sven Groeneveld, Antonio Van Grichen (trial basis), and Heinz Gunthardt (eight months). She signed on with Nigel Sears, the former head of coach for women’s tennis at the LTA, in June, 2011. Ivanovic has also sought the tutelage of Darren Cahill, via the Adidas Player Development Program.

“When you have a new coach, there is extra motivation in the beginning, and that can create some good results,” says Ivanovic. “But the changes that you make together take time to flourish, and it will be some time, probably next season, when I am in a position to really reach my potential.”

For better or for worse, some players, including Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na, Rafael Nadal, Marion Bartoli, and Maria Sharapova rely heavily on parents, a spouse, or other close relatives as their primary coach. For the most part, these players have been able to avoid the coaching carousel, but there is a down side. These players seem to have no real choice when it comes to coaching, until they reach adulthood. Even then, it can be a sticky mess for players to part ways with a parent or relative as a coach, given their history together both on and off the court.

Li Na became household name after winning the 2011 French Open. A few months prior to winning her first Grand Slam, she decided to drop her coach (also her husband) for a more experienced and knowledgeable coach, Michael Mortensen. His tutelage helped to turn things around for Li Na by developing her clay-court game.

Marion Bartoli, who, despite having a tumultuous relationship with her father/coach, Walter Bartoli, continues to work with him on a full time basis. Who can forget Bartoli’s third round match against Flavia Pennetta at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships, when she was overcome with frustration and banished her father from her players box on Centre Court? He obliged, and Bartoli went on to win the match.

The bottom line: In tennis, pressure and instability will always be a part of the player/coach dynamic, as they navigate through their respective careers. But as they say, money makes the world go round. And in tennis, it simply makes it go round a lot faster.