Pic-spam time: the Buzz before the Storm.
The players are all down to business this week, trying to get some extra match practice before the French Open.
Maria Sharapova went out over night to Alona Bondarenko, making a whole lot of unforced errors along the way. Perhaps even more disturbing is how weak the serve was, not in terms of service percentage, but pace. It’s still hard to tell if she’ll ever get back to her pre-injury level, which, granted, was the best form of her career. But at least she got 3 matches under her belt going into Roland Garros, which was what her team wanted for her this week.
While some players have chosen to play tournaments in the week leading up to Roland Garros, others like JJ, Ana Ivanovic, and Amelie Mauresmo are hitting up a storm on the practice courts in Paris. Meanwhile, Venus and Serena were spotted riding bikes in Paris. If I were a globe-trotting millionaire tennis inc, I would ride bikes in Paris too. Everyday.
Image Credit: YBF.com, rolandgarros.com, mosaics by myself.
Beating the Clay-Monster Crunch.
Proof that TNSMF reads this blog – he got a wild card to Monte Carlo. And his website now has a retro 70s orange background. I feel rejuvenated already.
That is however not the topic of this post. As much as I love TMF and on occasion TNSMF too, watching Roger on clay, or any other player on clay for that matter, just doesn’t get me excited these days.
A clay-loathing Federer fan? Surely not! To be fair, my lack of love for the clay has nothing to do with Federer’s utter inability to win a certain clay court slam. I just don’t have the patience for the style of play the surface brings out in players, nor do I (or the rest of the English speaking world) give a damn about the group of players that traditionally emerge around this time of the year before fading into obscurity by July. These days however, no player could be properly referred to as a ‘clay courter’ in light of what Rafael Nadal has managed to achieve on this surface, and depending on what he goes on to accomplish from here – perhaps no player could ever be (though I’d give Chris Evert a pass on that one for the girls’ side of things).
Karma’s a bitch isn’t it. For years I’ve scoffed at people who claimed tennis was “boring” because some potato-nose from Switzerland was winning every single title under the sun. Now that the coin’s flipped, it ain’t nearly as funny. Sorry Rafa, Mr. too-nice-a-guy-for-me-not-to-like, I’m opting to turn a half a blind eye to the ATP clay season this year. Actually would you mind if we mailed the trophies out to you and move on?
So instead of agonising over the predictability of ATP tennis, I’m going to channel all my frustrated tennis angst into the only other option available – the WTA. Oh yeth… I fear for my mental fortitude too. Can someone explain to me how on earth Dinara Safina got to the No 1 spot? Gee Roger wishes he was born a girl right now.
But it could actually be fun: I started doing a list of possible contenders and breakouts, before realising that anyone, and I mean ANYONE could manage to scrape a few titles during the clay season this year, and this include the priziest title of them all.
Picket Fence WTA Clay Season League
- Venus Williams: so I keep picking Venus this year. As a fan of the House of Williams, I tend to swing between Venus and Serena in terms of which of the sisters I love more. Right now, I am feeling this vibe of calm focus from Venus which I find incredibly endearing. She’s not known for her clay court prowess, but she’s known for brilliant tennis in general. Fingers crossed I’m right about her.
- Serena Williams: sans injury – the strongest contender. Less than 100% fitness – expect early upset.
- Elena Dementieva: not sure about Dementieva’s latest performances at Indian Wells and Miami. But given her results in the first few months of the season, take the Williamses out of the equation and I’d have her down as the big contender. Particularly on clay since she’s clearly confident on the surface, and one of the best players along the baseline.
- Dinara Safina: I have so much suppressed rage right now about the No 1 spot I don’t even want to comment. Except to say that it’s harder staying there than getting there. Not sure that I see it happening for her this season. Would love to be wrong though.
- JJ: a few months ago, ask me who I would pick to win Roland Garros this year, and I probably would’ve gone with JJ. But since then, JJ’s movement seems to have lost that fluidity and lightness. And for someone who depends so much on her movement around the court, this is worrying. And then there’s the slight problem of the AWOL happy splits, you don’t need to read self-help books to figure that happy things happen to happy people, and Jelena is just a bag of misery right now… (I do however wish her luck in Marbella this week now that Serena is out.)
- Ana: okay, so I’m going to contradict what I just said and state once and for all that I can’t handle this much psychedelic happiness from Ana Ivanovic. Sorry Ana fans, but someone hand her a lemon. I like my female tennis players fierce and bold, or just inappropriately bitchy. This girl-next-door thing doesn’t fit well within my Tennis Universe. Pride and prejudice aside, in Dubai and Indian Wells, Ana Ivanovic has shown signs of coming back from whatever Wonderland she wandered off to after Roland Garros 2008, but do I think she’s back for good? Hardly.
- Caroline Wozniacki: she’s definitely due for a breakthrough. Technically, there is no reason why Woz can’t do well this clay season, but mentally (and strategically), can she pull it off? I’m not convinced. But I am starting to warm to her, “Danish Delight” indeed.
- Victoria Azarenka: Vika is going to win a grand slam someone day, mental implosions aside, but Roland Garros ain’t the place where it’s going to happen. She moves better than Sharapova, but that’s not to say she’s as athletic or quick as some of her contemporaries. And her ground strokes are probably a little too flat for the clay, although these days, it’s BYO game for all surfaces. You never know.
- Agniewska Radwanska: I have the same concern with Radwanska as many did with Hingis (though I do think the comparison between them is overdone and premature), and that is power. Clay however has a rather equalizing effect. I have nothing substantial to prove that Agniewska has the ability to do well on clay – her best results have come on grass and hard court – but it’s just a hunch. She’s speedy, she’s fairly solid along the baseline. She clearly thinks on court, which is more than I can say about some of the players on this list.
- Amelie Mauresmo: Amelie Mauresmo is one of my role models on the WTA tour – she’s a grand slam champion, she’s a big-hearted person, she’s clearly intelligent for anyone who knows about the French current affairs show she attended last year, she lives life to the full – playing tennis, skiing, wine tasting. So her inclusion on the list is more of a desire on my part to wish good things on her in the latter stages of her career. I know we’d all like to see Momo play her “A tennis” again, because her “A tennis” is simply a thing of beauty. Having said all that, how about a Roland Garros doubles title with Kuzzy?
- Alize Cornet: I have the strangest girl crush on Alize. She is just this feisty, delightful doll that I want to fold up and pop into my pocket. Like I said, with its equalising effect, clay is one of those surfaces that could make Alize dangerous, and it’s also a surface that she’s clearly very confident on, given her run to the finals in Rome last year. Fingers crossed.
- Someone from Spain: Oh not again.
- I feel terrible, it took me past “someone from Spain” before I remembered a top seed, and certainly a contender, that I have yet to mention – Vera Zvonareva. In my mind, I still haven’t quite taken her out of the “Tier II” category I had originally assigned her. But knowing Vera, she’ll come out firing and kick me in the ass for that.
- Flavia Pennetta: she sure can play on clay. I don’t see a grand slam in her, but a semifinal? A few more clay court titles? Or perhaps taking down a few top seeds along the way? Absolutely.
- Gisela Dulko? Agnes Szavay? Sara Errani?
Image Credit: I haven no idea actually, a tennis loving friend of mine posted it on my facebook wall, so credit to her. Though it did have a rather unpleasant side effect of scaring off my non-tennis loving friends.
Would you like me to wrap that up for you?
So I never did my usual 10,000 word tirade for the Australian Open. Truth be told, the tournament’s taken a bit more out of me than expected. To go from not knowing anything about what happened after Round 2 to images of Roger Federer sobbing his nose off on TV was a bit like diving into a whirlpool of angst. So instead of trying to sort through the emotional haystack, I gave it two weeks of rest. But it’s back to business as usual at Picket Fence and here’s the Hot-or-Nots of the week ending 16th February 2009.
Muzza hits Title No 10
Gotta love Tennis.com’s headline captions: “Andy Murray became the first player to defeat Rafael Nadal in over a month…” Correct me if I’m wrong, but Rafa’s only played Rotterdam and the Australian Open in the last month? I’m constantly amazed at journalists’ ability to create sensationalism out of nothing.
How do I explain this? A win’s a win, and being the last man standing is always hot, but this is obviously not one of Murray’s best wins, primarily because neither Muz nor Rafa played their best tennis during the match, in fact, neither of them played particularly well the entire tournament save for their respective semifinals. Don’t know what more to say really: 10 titles at his age, not bad. Pity none of them are grand slams.
Rafa plays on.
Rafael Nadal doesn’t have the cleanest record when it comes to retirements and withdrawals, but not a lot of people would hold it against him. If he thinks he’s still got something left in him, he’ll play on, and when he does retire, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’ll be a legitimate reason for it. Someone send a tape of the match to Novak Djokovic please?
The Record lives on
If Rafa gets few thumbs up for playing on despite his injury, so should James Blake, who chose to play against Mardy Fish even though he rolled his ankle in his previous match against Querrey. Blake and Federer are the only two guys in the Top 10 to have never retired mid-match in their careers. It doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it means something.
MoMo’s back. Shhhhh…
Like I said in the previous post, I’ve long put Mauresmo in the same basket as my other “tortured artists”, namely Safin, Nalbandian, and Gasquet. The general policy for the T.A’s is to pretend to ignore them, but quietly enjoy when they do find the art within. Without raising expectations, I must say that I do appreciate the effort Mauresmo’s put in with her new-ish coach to get her game back to a good level. MoMo can be quite “Federer-esque” when she’s on, and it’ll be a sad day for women’s tennis when she decides to hang up her racquets.
Foetus Fed serves notice
Dimitrov had a few tennis purists purring this week with his spirited performances against Berdych and Nadal. I did manage to youtube the first set of his match against Rafa plus a few more highlights and from what I saw, the guy moves very well for a 17 year old, big serve, even bigger forehand, not to mention that single handed backhand which has become a rarity in the men’s game these days. Some have compared him to a Federer junior. I myself dubbed him “Foetus Fed”, but maybe Mikhail Youzhny is a better comparison. In any case, best to forget about this one and let him develop in peace. It’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon in 2 years time if it looks any good. God knows too many junior champs never quite make it in the “real world”.
The Quiet Russian
It’s tough being a female Russian tennis player these days. Compared to the Dementievas, Kuznetsovas and Sharapovas of this world, Vera Zvonareva often fades into the background. But whereas Dementieva and Kuznetsova can be classified as the underachievers of the women’s game given their potential, Zvonareva is their exact antithesis. Every time I see her name in a semifinal, final or as the winner of a tournament, it seems to take me by surprise, as if at the back of my mind I expected her to fall to some minor floater long before she even makes it to the tail end of a tournament. But as in life, often it’s the quite ones who overachieve. Congratulations to her on winning her first title of 2009.
The Worm wins his second title… THIS YEAR
Generally, having the Worm’s name displayed anywhere near the vicinity of the word “Hot” should be made a crime. But Radek Stepanek has four ATP titles so far in his career, 2 of them won just this year, and in case you needed a reminder – it’s February. I’m a little disturbed.
Actually a familiar pattern is beginning to emerge here. I happened to have livestreamed 5 of his matches at two tournaments that he’s won this year – against Soderling, Gasquet and Verdasco in Brisbane, and against Roddick and Fish in San Jose this week. The common theme in all those matches is that each time Stepanek has gotten completely blown off the court in the first set, each time, he’s managed to inch his way back into the second set and win it by a narrow margin. And each and every time, he went on to stepped up the antics in the third set – Tipsarevic-styled grunts, fist pumps, worm dances and celebratory fox trots – until his opponents’ body language began to wane. They started to complain to the umpire, to yell at themselves or simply to smash perfectly good racquets in frustration. Here’s a guy who knows how to get into his opponents’ heads, and he’s not bashful enough to restrain himself from resorting to his demeanour and body language to win a match.
I generally prefer simple good tennis over all on-court antics, and I certainly don’t consider it “honourable” I suppose to purposely resort to demoralising or intimidating your opponent to win a match. But Andy Murray is the only other guy on tour with two titles this year, so what do I know?
I’ve already written about it this week, but YAY again!
So here’s the thing about Dubai: it’s a modern, metropolitan city full of people from all over the world. The city has a very clear vision for itself – it wants to be the sports mecca of the world. It wants the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to go there each year for an ATP 500 tournament that pays almost as much in prize money as some of the ATP 1000s, or people like Tiger Woods to build world class golf courses in the city to attract big names and their bigger sponsors. But all it takes is one denial of visa to remind us all of what lurks underneath its liberal capitalist facade.
Of course, a country is perfectly entitled to determine who they’d like to invite in or keep out, but you can’t cast yourself as a world class city determined to host big ticket sporting events, only to exclude people of certain nationalities from entering your borders. We go around hearing things about how sport brings humanity together, regardless of race or country, but sometimes it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes sport is a cruel reminder of the fault-lines we’ve drawn among ourselves. In the case of Shahar Peer, it’s a conflict of interest that the tournament organisers should’ve worked out with their government way before they gave the all-clear for Peer to enter the tournament. You gotta feel for Peer.
Rafa’s knees are definitely not hot. I don’t get why Rafa played Rotterdam this week to start with. I know it’s not advisable for players to just withdraw from tournaments the week before they start, but Rafa, dude you played 10 hours of tennis back to back in Melbourne, you know your knees are particularly susceptible to injuries, Indian Wells and Miami are just around the corner, don’t you think your body deserves a bit more than a week to rest up? It’s not like you needed the points.
On top of that, Rafa got taken to 3 sets every single match at Rotterdam save for one. Is it any wonder the guy’s knees bailed out on him?
Jelena’s words continue to speak louder…
Louder than her tennis that is. She had a great run after the US Open last year, but seems to have lost her mojo when she changed out of that daffodil coloured dress. 2009 hasn’t quite been the same, and truth be told, it hasn’t quite been the same for her compatriots either.
And still no hope for the WTA
Here I was, thinking and hoping that Caroline Wozniacki might be the exact thing to generate some life back into the WTA field. But since her epic with Serena in Sydney, she’s been struggling to find her 2008 form. Losing to Dokic at the Australian Open is one thing, losing 64 61 to Rybarikova in Thailand is quite another. Back to some hard training for you.
(On a side note, I drew a sigh of relief when I saw that Wozniacki has drawn a qualifier first round in Memphis next/this week. Little did I know that the qualifier went by the name of Jelena Dokic. Ooooh the deliciousness.)
Urgent Message for Greg Rusedski:
+61 03 XXXX XXXX
And for anyone who hasn’t seen this yet… hot or not? You decide. For what it’s worth, Michael Clarke looks damn fine and I got a good laugh out of it.
The Match Denied
- Rafa def Monfils 64 64
- Murray def Ancic 61 62
“Ohhh yeth”. This is the match that I felt we were denied of at the Australian Open this year. Mind you, the semifinal that we did get more than made up for it. But Rafa v Murray match ups intrigue me more than Fed v Murray match ups right now, simply because we haven’t had a whole lot of them, so this is definitely one that I’ll be watching out for.
Over in San Jose, it’s been a pleasure watching the impeccable form of Mardy Fish over the last two matches. I only saw parts of his destruction of Del Potro, but when your guy starts serving aces left right and centre, and plays like he’s the guy ranked inside the top 10, the end result is a foregone conclusion. What I didn’t expect however was his easy dispatching of James Blake, 63 62. Let’s hope some of this form carries over to Indian Wells where he’ll be defending a final. “Oh yeth.”
In the beautiful city of Paris, MoMo is the first one through to the finals after defeating Jankovic 62 06 61. I’ve long put Amelie Mauresmo in the same basket as Safin, Nalbandian and Gasquet – the “tortured artists” best admired and then forgotten for my peace of mind, but it’s Jankovic that I want to talk a little more about. This time last year, the 3 ‘vics of Serbia looked like they had tennis glory within their grasp. 12 months later, the same trio looks like they belong in the bottom half of the Top 10 (or in the case of Ana Ivanovic – not even). Where is this funk coming from? Snap out of it folks.
The other semifinal in Paris, Dementieva vs Williams, spells deliciousness. Oh yeth.
Other results: Pattaya City, Thailand – Mirza through to the final, to play the winner of Zvonareva and Peer.
Costa Do Saupe, Brazil: Bellucci (aka the guy who won more games against Rafael Nadal than Roger Federer at the French Open last year) to play Robredo in the final.
Long time no see, MoMo
“It was really tough. She was playing really well, mixing it up a lot. I wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been,” Ivanovic said, after surviving match point against Roberta Vinci.
Unlike the rest of this country, I haven’t really warmed up to “Aussie” Ana. She’s always struck me as probably the best ball hitter on the women’s tour, but by no means an intelligent player. Perhaps the period from her French Open win last year through to this year is the best demonstration of that. When Ivanovic unravels, she unravels fast, both in terms of her tennis and in terms of her state of mind.
Take that quote above for instance – it was taken from her interview right after her marathon match against Roberta Vinci at the Brisbane International yesterday, where she survived match point against a player ranked No 82 in the world. I don’t know about anyone else who watched the match, but from my perspective, Ana’s problem yesterday wasn’t that she wasn’t aggressive enough, it was that she was too aggressive, and blindly so. There’s a time to go for your shots and go for them with conviction, but there’s also a time when a player needs to “dial it down” just a notch, be patient, work the point and give themselves some breathing space. It’s common sense really, but it’s the common sense that just escape Ana sometimes when she’s in one of her downward spirals, going for her shots at the wrong time and on the wrong balls. Someone tell the girl that there is no need to hit the covers off every single tennis ball that comes her way.
Mauresmo on the other hand is probably the antithesis of Ana when it comes to their styles. While Ana’s game is defined by powerful, aggressive hitting from behind the baseline, particular off the forehand side, Mauresmo is one of the few women out there who can play with variety, particularly off her single handed backhand. In recent years, when Momo has been in the lead in matches or in sets, instead of really stepping up, playing aggressively and closing out the set or the match with some authority, Momo’s often chosen the conservative path, hang back, get tight, and let her opponent back into the match. In her two previous matches against Dokic and Coin, Momo has been somewhat subdued and lackluster, surviving set points against Dokic and match points in an epic third set tiebreak against Coin.
So while on paper, the quarterfinal match up between the two looked promising (former world no 1s, multiple grand slams between the two), as I watched the two players walk on court in the Pat Rafter Arena today, both having barely survived their previous round matches and in erratic form, I thought “oh boy, this could be a long match”.
Surprisingly though, it turned out to be a quick match, clocking just over a hour. In fact, it turned out to be a bit of a masterclass from MoMo’s end of the court. And she played the exact type of tennis a player of her calibre should be playing against someone like Ivanovic – controlled and strategic aggression, at times holding back a little bit and just letting Ivanovic’s own desire to overhit the ball work to her detriment. Ivanovic likes pace? Momo took a little bit of pace off her returns. Ivanovic strikes the ball best from just below shoulder height? MoMo used her backhand slice to keep the ball low. Perhaps the most surprising element of the match was that neither woman really imploded, Mauresmo actually kept her cool, played intelligently, and served sensibly after she’s gone into the lead. Two breaks of serve each set with some fabulous tennis to show for it, where was this Amelie in 2007 and 2008?
Of course now it’ll be interesting to see if MoMo can keep this sort of form up and progress more confidently through the tournament, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Mauresmo play with this level of composure. She’s due to play the winner of Bartoli/Garbin in the semifinal.
Your thoughts …