Sharapova returns but WTA players are not all pleased

Notes on A Draw Sheet

Also: Nadal, Goffin, Konya and more

Maria Sharapova is back—finally. It has been 15 months since she was suspended for testing positive for meldonium.

But, it is over. While there are some people who never want her to walk on the court again, she stayed away, she didn’t yell, or get very angry. She just practiced and made sure that she was eating the right stuff.

The five-time Grand Slam champion has a tremendous amount of work to do, physically as well as emotionally. She has no ranking. A number of players don’t like her, and some of them want her to fail. If, however, she decides that it is important to become friends with her fellow WTA players, then perhaps they will learn to like her and they will stop ripping her. Believe it or not, when you get to know her, she is very nice, fun and extremely intelligent.

Maria to change this time around. She has always been very good, or great, depending on the day. She practices like a maniac, and usually, she pays attention to the little details in her game. She never gives up — we know that —and over the past 15 years, she has improved tremendously.

Clearly, she can crush her backhand and forehand, and her first serve. But, to win another major, she has to improve her second serve and actually come to the net once in a while and stick with it. If she does, here comes another Grand Slam winner, No. 6. Whether she does it this year or next year, there are loads of fans who want to see her, in the morning, in the afternoon, or very late in the night, watching her, saying ‘Maria C’mon, C’mon, Come ONNN!’

Sharapova is playing in Stuttgart and has won two matches already over Roberta Vinci and Ekaterina Makarova. Next up: qualifier Anett Kontaveit.

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Rafa Nadal is on fire once again, largely because he’s playing on clay now, and he absolutely loves it. On the hard courts, his legs hurt him a lot, but on clay, it is softer and he can just slide around and dig it out. He won Monte-Carlo (his 10th time) and this week, he is competing on Barcelona. He has won countless times in both places, let alone at Roland Garros. It is coming pretty fast.

However, before that, his confidence must go high to the sky, such as beating Andy  Murray, who is also at Barcelona. Rafa has beaten Murray many times on clay, but now, the Scot is No. 1, he has improved a tremendous amount and, while he has been hurt over the past month or so, he has to show that he can push Nadal way back on the baseline. If they play this week in the final — we hope so and they hope so — it would be very interesting for Murray to face Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarters. He is super steady these days…

David Goffin is in Barcelona and while the top-10-er has been more consistent over the past year, there are just a couple negative things that hurt him. He has yet to win a big tournament — ever and just lost against the 20-year-old Karen Khachanov. The Russian is rising.

Some interesting wins in Stuttgart: Anastasija Sevastova took down Johanna Konta 6-3 7-5, the good veteran Carla Suarez Navarro over Elena Vesnina 6-2 6-4, and the German Laura Siegemund upset Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4 6-3. Konta is terrific on hardcourt, but on clay … eh.

Serena won’t play this year, so who will be No. 1?

Kerber, Pliskova, Cibulkova, Halep and more

The great Serena Williams is pregnant now, and she will not play this year. Or the beginning of 2018. Or never. We won’t find out until the 35-year-old decides if she will want to stay at home, or get on the court to wrap up her career.

But that is a different discussion.

Now, the other very good WTA competitors will face off and will determine who will end the season at No. 1. It’s only April and they have a long way to go. But, outside of Serena, very few have played fantastic this year.

Here is the top 7 players who have a chance to gain, or to stay, at No. 1.

Angie Kerber
The current No. 1 has had a very tough year. Clearly, when she is feeling good mentally, she is so stable and aggressive. However, when she is feeling nervous in must-win situations, she backs up. There is no pressure, except in Germany, where the expectations run high. If she finds her balance, then she will win her third major. Perhaps at RG? Perhaps.

Karolina Pliskova
At times, she plays so good, with incredible power. But, at other times, her brain melts down. She reached the semis at IW and Miami, which was just fine, but then she went down against Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caro Wozniacki. Not bad, but not great. The now No. 3 almost won the 2016 US Open, but right at the end, she was not comfortable. She can snare No. 1, but in order to do so, she has to win her first major. Maybe on hardcourts at the US Open.

Domi Cibulkova
The No. 4 has improved a lot over the past three years. She may be small, but she is so strong and rarely gets tired. She has gone deep at all four majors. She did reach the final at the 2014 Aussie, but couldn’t grab it (against Li Na). She hasn’t done much this year, but soon, she will rise. Can she win a Slam? I doubt it.

Simona Halep
At times, she has been so close to winning a Grand Slam, but she has can’t put together a perfect two weeks. This year, the No. 5 has been really struggling, not because she is injured, but because her focus is through glassy eyes. In 2014, she reached the final at Roland Garros. She ran and ran and ran and was trying to exhaust Maria Sharapova, but in the last two games in the third set — over three hours — Sharapova went for it, while Halep just stood there and lost. The Romanian can reach the final at RG, and this time, she will win it for the first time.

Garbiñe Muguruza
The positive is that last year in the 2016 Roland Garros final against Serena, the No. 6 Muguruza was super aggressive and accurate. She won the title, she was so happy and smiled for months. Except she hasn’t won a tournament since then. Yes, she loves clay, but she gets injured a ton. If the Spaniard begins to feel healthy, she can get on a roll. For sure, she wants to win RG once again.

Johanna Konta
The Brit improves week after week and at Miami, she beat Halep, Venus and Wozniacki to win it. She was ultra-aggressive off both sides. In the past two years, the No. 7 has changed her outlook and if she continues upwards, she can win either Wimbledon and/or the US Open. But she has continue to improve her consistentency.

Aga Radwanska
There were many, many years that the Pole was ready to win a Slam, but for whatever reason, towards the end, her forehand and second serve were too weak to carry her to victory. Obviously, her backhand is fantastic, as is her wonderful speed and various shots. But, she has played poorly this season. The No. 8 does not seem happy, which means that unless she turns it around in rapid speed, then she will fall further.

Maria Sharapova in action at the 2015 WTA Finals

OTHER PLAYERS
The five-time Slam champion Maria Sharapova will return next week after spending 15 months suspended after doping. Yes, as she said, she messed it up, but she loves tennis and even though many players will crucify her, she still will try as hard as she could. The former No. 1 always will.

Another former champ, Vika Azarenka will come back in July after having her first child. She has been No. 1, and she will be once again. She is very intense and she has matured a great deal.
The No. 11 Caro Wozniacki is playing much better this year, but once she reaches the final, she gets very nervous. If she can take a deep breath, then maybe — and I mean maybe — the former No. 1 can finally win a major.

This week’s top 5 women: Younger players are rising

Daria Kasatkina
The 19-year-old Russian Kasatkina won Charleston, and she looked extremely confident, smoking Jelena Ostapenko in the final. She didn’t have to best the top-20 players, but at the very least, she was very steady and precise. Will she crack the top 10 at the end of the year? Maybe not, but she is very young and driven.

Jelena Ostapenko
The Latvian looked a little tired at the final, but she did score a couple very good wins: upsetting Caro Wozniaki and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. She is also only 19 years old, and in 2014, she won junior Wimbledon. She is learning all the time.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova
This duo is ranked No. 1 (Mattek- Sands) and No. 2 (Safarova) won Charleston, beating Lucie Hradecka/Katerina Siniakova. Both Mattek-Sands and Safarova are consummate veterans, and while they don’t exactly love clay. In six weeks, they will enter Roland Garros, and maybe, if they can be calm and composed, they can win it all.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
‘Pavs’ has been playing for 10 years. Somedays, she plays great and she is enthusiastic. Other days, her brain was fried.

In Monterrey, Mexico, she was on the ball, defeating Angelique Kerber in the final. That was the third time that the No. 16 won Monterrey. She must love the food. Without a doubt, sometime soon she will be very close at the Grand Slams.

Angelique Kerber
Yes, the German reached the final, beating two good players: the former champ Francesca Schiavone and the owner of a terrific one-hander Carla Suarez Navarro. But the No. 1 Kerber hasn’t won a tournament since the 2016 US Open, seven months running. Time to figure things out.

Davis Cup: The heroes, the young guys and the veterans

The top 5 from the Davis Cup quarterfinals

Nick Kyrgios
The 20-year-old led Australia in beating the US, knocking out the vets John Isner and Sam Querrey. He is much more comfortable in the Davis Cup than on the ATP World Tour, being aggressive and smart. The Aussies could actually win it all this year, but they need to bring back Bernard Tomic to help them. If he is actually playing, that is.  

David Goffin
The Belgium plays Davis Cup all the time, year after year. They beat Italy 3-1 Given that Goffin has improved a lot recently, maybe they can upset Australia at home and actually reach the final. Perhaps, if he can kiss the lines in September, that is.

Viktor Troicki
Yes, Novak Djokovic won his match, but Troicki was confident in singles and doubles. They whipped Spain. If the No. 2 Djokovic decides not to play right after the US Open ends, then Serbia has no chance to win the Cup again. They do not have enough great players to prevail without him.

All the French
The top 3 men couldn’t play because of injury, so France brought in a bunch of fine competitors. France has so much depth. Four players cracked England: Lucas Pouille, Jeremy Chardy, Julien Benneteau and Nicolas Mahut.

Lleyton Hewitt
The new captain was pretty brilliant, upsetting the Americans by helping Nick Kyrgios and Jordan Thompson. They were super solid, just like Lleyton was when he played, year-in and year-out.

The amazing Federer wins again, Konta wins her first huge event

THE TOP 10, April 3

PLUS: Nadal, Nick, Caro, Venus & more

Roger Federer

Yes, the 35-year-old put together his best performance to win the 2017 Aussie Open, Indian Wells and Miami. At the start of the year, no one thought that he could go back-to-back-to-back when he was aging.

But he did, and now, he is the best player of all time. 

Hopefully this year, he will not get hurt again. Everyone wants to see him play. If you happen to be in Paris, go out and watch him. Eventually, he will have to retire. But not this year.

Rafa Nadal

The Spaniard has changed a little bit, being a little more aggressive with his backhand down the line and coming into the net. He is trying to mix it up more, which is good, and hopefully, the next time he plays Federer this year, he can out-hit him. In Roland Garros that it, because Federer won’t play again until late May.

Nick Kyrgios

The 20-year-old Aussie had a terrific tournament, nearly beating Federer in three very long sets. He is young and he is improving each week — if he continues to pay attention and be more focused on court.

Fabio Fognini

For the first time, the talented Italian reached the semis in Miami, looking good, mixing it up and pushing himself into the net. Hopefully, he won’t be a one-off.

PLUS 1

Alexander Zverev

The teenager is now ranked No. 20 and he is improving in every tournament he plays.

WOMEN

Johanna Konta

The 25-year-old Brit has improved so much over the past two years, which is mind blowing. In 2014, who knew who she was? But now, she looks like she has a true shot to win a major. She knocked out Simona Halep,

Venus Williams and Caro Wozniacki. That is good as it gets — except for getting a victory over Serena, who is injured.

Caroline Wozniacki

Someday soon, the No. 12 Caroline will win another big tournament again, but she needs to change it up even more. She has to continue to improve her forehand and come into the net once in a while. Regardless, Caro did well in March.

Venus Williams

The 36-year-old Venus is always out there trying as hard as she can, but her second serve is pretty weak and she isn’t as fast as she used to be. Still, she’s back in the top 10, which is admirable. 

Karolina Pliskova

Pliskova is very confusing. She is so strong and aggressive; she works and plays all the time. But somedays, she gets loses her mental focus and then, she is gone.

PLUS 1

Lucie Safarova is coming back strong. The former No. 5 took out Dominika Cibulkova and reached the quarters.

Roger Federer vs Rafa Nadal in Miami final; Konta wins title

Roger Federer vs Rafa Nadal
It is pretty stunning that this year, Federer walked on court, stared at his backhand and said, “It is time.”

The 18-time champ knew that the only way he was going to consistent knock down the other top players (Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic) is to go more forward, meaning that he had to leap upwards, instead of being way back behind the court.

For many, many years, the lefty Nadal would just continue to pound into his backhand with his heavy topspin. Federer really didn’t know what to do. Once in a while, he would jump up and crack it down the line and hit some winners.

But Nadal didn’t care; he was pretty sure that, eventually, he would watch Federer grow angry. Then, he would become comfortable and settle in for the win.

At the start of this year, Nadal had won 23 matches against Federer, who won only 11. Believe it or not, in 2017, Federer hadn’t won a major against Nadal since 2007, when the Swiss had taken down the Spaniard in five sets at Wimbledon.

Rafa was only 20 years old then. But very quickly, he knew exactly what to do.

After that, Federer couldn’t understand why Nadal wasn’t going to chip and charge, or push the ball in the center of the court, or challenge his forehand. He just pounded and pounded and pounded till Federer’s grew frustrated in his one-handed backhand slice.

Nadal beat him at 2008 Roland Garros (on clay), 2008 Wimbledon (on grass), 2009 Australian Open (on hard courts), 2011 RG, 2012 Aussie Open and the 2014 Aussie Open. Rafa had beaten Roger six times in the Slams.

Now, Federer is 35 years and Nadal is 30.

In the summer of 2016, Roger was pretty hurt and, after he lost early at Wimbly, he called it a year. He was tired and his body was breaking down.

Fortunately, Federer got better, his knees were better, and he missed playing tennis. Enter Ivan Ljubicic, the former player and now his coach, really helped Federer. They practiced and practiced. When Federer was prepared to play again, he was ready to go. His phenomenal serve, forehand, return, the net, variety, lobs … Almost everything, except for his backhand.

But it was right there. Finally, Federer went on court in the final of the 2017 Aussie, and he shocked Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3. Nadal was up 3-1 in the fifth set, and we could tell that Federer was much more powerful and directed.

Six weeks later at Indian Wells, Federer crushed Nadal 6-2 6-3.
Now, Federer is incredibly confident once again.

But hold on. In Miami this week, he won two fantastic contests, but they were very, very long. He beat Tomas Berdych 7-6(6) in the third, and in the semis, he ended Nick Kyrgios 7-6(5) in the third. We would think that Federer is a little bit tired, no?

Look, Federer did get a day off. But on Sunday, if he is forced to get into the third set — let’s say after two hours— then Rafa will win. Nadal isn’t tired at all, as he easily whipped Jack Sock and Fabio Fognini.

Without a doubt, Nadal has to improve over the next few years because he hasn’t won a Grand Slam since 2014. Rafa’s backhand can be weak, and he doesn’t come into the net enough.

Regardless, Nadal is pretty pissed off and he wants to win a big event right now. He will run and run and run, and best Federer in three fun sets.

Johanna Konta d Caroline Wozniacki to win title
A couple years ago, it was hard to see Konta, now 25 years old ,reach the top 10, much less win a big event. She did today, out-hitting Caro 6-4 6-3. She is so powerful, so aggressive … and she rarely backs off.

Now the Brit is ranked No. 7. Perhaps this year, she can win a major, if she continues to improve. But, at Wimbledon when the pressure is on? We will find out in the next few months is she’s prepared for that accomplishment.

Semis on Miami: Rafa is ready to fly against Fognini

Plus, Roger and Nick will battle here instead of Indian Wells 

Rafa Nadal v Fabio Fognini

Two and a half years ago at the US Open against Nadal, Fognini decided to swing away. In the first two sets, the Spaniard was very confident and effective. But in the third set, the Italian began to kiss the lines and all of a sudden, he was ready to stun Nadal.

And he did, winning 3-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 6-4.

Fognini was so happy, while Rafa was very upset. He was ticked off and didn’t want to go it again. In the fall, Nadal beat Fognini in Beijing. In 2016 on clay at Barcelona, Rafa out-hit the Italian.

On Thursday, both men want to reach the final badly. Rafa hasn’t won a big tournament since 2014. The 29-year-old Fognini hasn’t reached an important tournament, ever.

Without a doubt, Fognini will attempt to push Rafa way back on the court, hammering the Spaniards so-so backhand. But Rafa knows that, he is trying to improve his backhand, and of course, the left-hander can dominate with his incredible forehand.

Rafa will come into the net on occasion and win some crucial points. Nadal in two sets

Roger Federer vs Nick Kyrgios

The Aussie Kyrgios says that Federer is the best player, ever. Unfortunately for Roger, the only time they played was in 2015 at the Madrid Masters, and the then 18-year-old Kyrgios shocked Federer 6-7(2) 7-6(5) 7-6(12).

Wow.

Can they do it again on Friday night in Miami?

We hope so. A couple weeks ago, they were set to face off at Indian Wells, but Kyrgios got sick and pulled out.

This time, he is going to go on court and let it all hang out.

We all know that Nick is very, very good. His serve, forehand and backhand are very powerful. He also throws in a lot of slice.

Federer is looking tired. The Swiss won the tough Indian Wells in California, and during the last eight days in Florida, he’s looked shaky. He nearly lost against Tomas Berdych on Thursday.

Roger is so, so happy this year, unlike last year, when he was angry because his body was breaking down.

Obviously, the 18-time Grand Slam is the favorite and he is extremely knowledgable, but it is time for Federer to lose now and rest.
Kyrgios will win in three amazing sets.

Wozniacki against Pliskova: Is Caro ready to win again?

Caroline Wozniacki vs Karolina Pliskova
Earlier this year, Caro and  Pliskova reached the final in Doha. Wozniacki had won the tournament before. In 2013 Miami, Woz overcame Pliskova in three sets here. The same goes, winning at 2014 Monterrey and Istanbul, also in another three sets. Pliskova was good back then, but she was very inconsistent and she grew frustrated with her game.

But in the past two years, Pliskova increased her speed. She will never be the fastest player, but this was a real improvement. But she hits the ball harder than anyone. That is why she is now ranked No. 3, and if she continued to improve, than she will become No. 1 someday. Soon.

This year, the former No. 1 Wozniacki is rising again — especially with her forehand and serve — but once she goes up against the very good women, she chokes a bit. More so, in the semis or finals against the top 10, she gets very nervous. Amazingly, Woz hasn’t won a big event since 2011, when she won Dubai, Indian Wells and Beijing. Now, it’s all in her head.

The good news is that Caro is finally getting aggressive. For sure, she is as steady as a rock and very rarely gets tired. In order to change when she was losing all the time, she need to see the light. She is on her way there, but it will be a months-long journey.

That is why Pliskova will attack immediately and go for the lines. If she is kissing the lines, she will win. If she does not, maybe Caro will break her down.

It’s a tossup, but Pliskova will out-stroke Woz at the end.
  
Roger Federer vs Tomas Berdych
The Swiss is totally locked in. It’s hard to believe that he is now nearly a reflection of his brilliant self from the mid-2000s. Players from that time must be wondering if Federer will continue to show real flashes of the player who dominated the sport a decade ago. Czech Berdych has gotten better in the past 10 days, but he still isn’t 100 percent yet. Take Federer is straight sets. 

Nick Kyrgios v Alexander Zverva 
Who would have thunk it? 

It is the quarterfinals of Miami, you know? Are the young guys ready to dance now? Perhaps they are. 

The 19-year-old Zverev is racing ahead, stunning Stan Wawrinka. The controversial but super powerful Kyrgios has played very well this month, and the 21-year-old will reach the top 10 very soon.

Two weeks ago at Indian Wells, Kyrgios beat the No. 20 Zverev 6-3 6-4. Maybe the German will change it up? Perhaps, but as good as Zverev is, he still needs to learn a lot of things. 

So does Nick, but he is a little older, and on court, smarter. Nick in straight sets.

Johanna Konta vs Venus Williams
Both women played two great contests on Wednesday:  Konta overcame Simon Halep in three dramatic — and very long —sets; Venus rushed towards the net frequently and bested the odd No. 1, Angie Kerber, in straight sets.
 
Last year, Konta beat Venus at the Aussie Open and Stanford. While Konta is in great shape now, still, she might be a big tired. If Konta goes right out of the gates, she will win in straight sets. If they go to the third set, Venus will break her down. If Konta can take down Williams, we predict she will reach the final of Miami for the first time.

Kerber, Konta look to take close matches in Miami

Venus Williams vs. Angie Kerber

Venus is always happy these days, and why not? She is 36 years old and she loves to play. Even when she loses, she will go to the next tournament and forget about how she messed it up on court.

Someday, she will retire. Perhaps when she is 40 years old, right after the 2020 Olympics, she will wave goodbye. Or not … she may play until she is 50 years old. Even if she couldn’t run very fast, she will always nail her backhand down the line, so sweet! 

Can she beat the No. 1 Kerber? Angie hasn’t played well this year, but in the last week, she started her rise again.

She is 4-2 vs Venus, beating her 6-4 6-4 at ’16 Wimbledon in the semis. Kerber was so quick and powerful and, of course, so steady.

The only way that Venus can win it if she is super patient. Moreover, she has to come into the net very frequently.

It will be very close, but in the third set, Kerber will step up. Angie will win in three long sets.

Simona Halep vs Johanna Konta

Here is another very close contest. They have only played once, in Wuhan in 2015, when the Brit beat Halep 7-5 in third. Right then, we all knew that Konta was going to zoom up the rankings and crack into the top 10. Eventually, she did.

They are both 25 years old. It has taken Konta a solid five years to be reach the spot where she is a threat now: fast, strong, steady and hitting with depth. Now, she can attack her foes immediately.

Halep is very emotional, but when she is very calm, she can knock off anyone. And she has.

This year, the former No. 2 has been mediocre at times. But, like Kerber, she is showing signs of the abilities that got her to be a dominant player. Once again, she is rising. However, it’s one thing to beat the players outside of the top 15, and it’s another to out-last excellent competitors.

While Halep can run around forever, it’s different to have to force yourself when it is super close. She won’t be able to. Konta wins in three sets.

American men have to step up now

The young American men are coming up fairly fast, but it is hard to know when the boys will win some major tournaments.

Players like Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe, Ernesto Escobedo and Taylor Fritz show great promise but they have a ways to go before advancing from the top 90 to 130 range into the impact player group

Forget about the Grand Slams right now — it is very early. Nobody knows if they are good enough to beat spectacular players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.  

Let’s look the veteran Americans, who are pretty good, but not good enough.

Way back when, the Americans dominated: Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. After they all retired, Andy Roddick was darn good, too. But that was the last one. In 2003, Roddick won the US Open. Since then, no Americans won it again.

Now, it is 2017, almost 15 years gone dry.

Currently, the American guys – John Isner, Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson and Donald Young – have not reached the semifinals at the Grand Slam. Ever. Even though he’s only 24, Jack Sock may be the U.S. man at No. 17, but he has also not shown the promise of rising Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios.

In fact, they haven’t won an ATP 1000.

Time to change?

On Sunday at Miami, the very young American Donaldson will face against the huge-hitter Canadian Milos Raonic. Sock, who reached the semis at Indian Wells. He is coming up, better and better, and will play Jiri Vesely

On Monday, John Isner will face the boy-wonder Zverev. Will the German show why he’s ranked the spots higher than the American?

Querrey has a legitimate shot against Roberto Bautista Abut.
The American vets do like Miami, so perhaps they can go very deep and possibly win it all?
Maybe, but they have to prove it.

NOTES
Bethanie Mattek-Sands is playing well again and she has a fine shot against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, but given that Lucic-Baroni played incredibly well by stunning Aga Radwanska, it will be a very intense contest.

Also on Sunday, Venus Williams and the 19-year-old Taylor Townsend will play against different foes and may face off in the fourth round. Venus is the favorite in that potential clash.

Tough one for Shelby Rogers, who has to play against No. 1 Angie Kerber.