Warwrinka, healthy Federer snare Davis Cup doubles victory

Gasquet will face Nadal

Gasquet can’t raise his level in doubles.

LILLE, FRANCE — The Roger Federer magic finally emerged on the second day of the Davis Cup final, he and Stan Wawrinka taking the doubles to give Switzerland a 2-1 lead going into the final day. But while it keeps alive Federer’s dream of capturing the one top-level title he has never won, the architect of this victory was Wawrinka, who is rapidly becoming the Swiss hero this weekend.

It’s been a mystery why Federer and Wawrinka have had such a poor record in Davis Cup since winning Olympic doubles gold in Beijing six years ago. When they lost to Golubev-Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan in April’s quarter-finals, they looked as shaky as a scratch pairing. But both brought missing pieces to today’s party – Federer brought the volleys he has honed in recent months with more forays to the net in his singles, while Wawrinka brought the overt confidence he developed during the ATP Finals in London and that clearly has not been shaken by his heartbreaking defeat to Federer a week ago. They have also been working this week with David McPherson, the Bryan brothers’ coach,  who Switzerland’s captain Severin Lüthi brought in to help maximise the Swiss pair’s potential.

The result was a superb display by the two men in red, one Federer described as “the best doubles Stan and I have ever played”. While Federer picked up the low volleys that would beat most people and swooped like a gazelle for some high backhand volley interceptions, Wawrinka provided the raw aggression from the back of the court. For two sets the French pair of Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet stuck with them, but once Gasquet was broken in the 11th game of the second set, the French spirit seemed broken, and the Swiss bludgeoned their way to a 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 victory in two hours 10 minutes.

With all the focus on Federer, in particular following the back problem that forced him to forfeit last Sunday’s ATP final against Novak Djokovic, the focus has failed to pick up that the French are far from the happy camp they have seemed to date. At French practice on Saturday morning, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga spent the whole time practising alongside Gasquet, and as it was Tsonga-Gasquet who beat Berdych-Stepanek in the doubles of September’s semi-final at Roland Garros, many expected Tsonga-Gasquet to be France’s pair. The French sports
daily L’Equipe even announced on its website that Tsonga would replace Benneteau.

But he didn’t. Benneteau played, and Tsonga didn’t turn up on the French bench until late in the second set. That has left question marks hanging over who will play singles against Federer in Sunday’s first reverse singles. After Tsonga’s pallid showing against Wawrinka on Friday, if he has a problem – whether to do with confidence or health – he could be cannon fodder. France’s other options are Benneteau or Gasquet, but Gasquet was picked on mercilessly by the Swiss in the doubles so his confidence won’t be high, while Benneteau had to have treatment on a thigh or lower back problem late in the third set. It does not look good for France.

The French pair pulled up the drawbridge when asked about Tsonga’s health. ‘We always expected to play the doubles,’ Benneteau said. He also denied rumours that Tsonga has a wrist problem, and said the only reason Tsonga practised with Gasquet on Saturday morning was that it fitted the time at which each player wanted to hit. Believe it if you will.

Although Benneteau and Gasquet have played together several times and won an Olympic bronze medal in 2012, Gasquet’s refusal to play in the deuce court meant Benneteau had to take that role. Benneteau has done that in the past, notably partnering Michaël Llodra, but he has played the past season in the advantage court partnering Edouard Roger-Vasselin. And if you break the match down, the French were undone by their inability to return well enough.

Federer served first, to send the signal that he wasn’t having to tread carefully with his back, but Wawrinka was the dominant player in the first set. He ran Nadal-like back to the baseline after the coin toss, he pummelled his returns, and he did most of the talking. It was like the younger brother finally losing his awe of the illustrious big brother.

The match was of very high quality. All four players came in behind every serve, there were some acrobatic volleys, which produced scintillating rallies. It was in many ways the ultimate in doubles and illustrates one of the unheralded jewels Davis Cup can often produce.

If the French were to make any headway they had to take control in the second set. They had a break point on a shaky Federer service game, they then had two break points in each of Wawrinka’s next two service games, while holding their own serve with ease. But by the time the Swiss had levelled at 4-4, the French were 0-5 on break points, and it cost them. They survived two break points at 4-4, but at 5-5 Wawrinka’s aggressive returning opened up an opportunity the Swiss were determined to take, and minutes later the visitors were 2-0 up.

After that it was all Switzerland, and at one point in the third set Federer and Wawrinka were both left with broad smiles after winning a glorious rally. By then they were unstoppable – Gasquet saved two break points at 1-1 after leading 40-0, but that proved the last game the French won, as the Swiss reeled off the last four games to seal a deserved victory.

Benneteau was doing his best to keep French spirits up. “Tomorrow could be one of the most beautiful days in French tennis,” he said, “so we have to keep the spirit up.” But ominously for the French, Federer, answering what he said would be his last question on the subject of his back, said “Whatever it feels like, I feel at 100 per cent now, and I expect to be that way tomorrow.”

If it is, there looks to be only one winner.

Federer unable to play ATP Final due to bad back

roger-federer-wilson-racket

Federer looks beyond London to Davis Cup final.

LONDON – Roger Federer pulled through an historic event when he fought off fourth matches and overcame his friend, Stan Wawrinka, 4‑6, 7‑5, 7‑6 in the semis on ATP World Tour Finals Saturday. But by the time he woke up, he was way too sore and, although he tried, he couldn’t loosen it up and give it a go. The Swiss couldn’t walk on the court against Novak Djokovic in the final on Sunday and compete. The world No. 1 Djokovic walks away with another title. Once again, he advances himself as a legend of the fall season.

Federer did not want to risk it because next week the Swiss will face France away in the Davis Cup final. Perhaps he would have played in London on Sunday. But given that Djokovic had played excellent this week, he would have had at least being able to compete say at 80 percent. Against the Serbian who was ready to rumble, he didn’t have much of a chance.

But No. 2 Federer wanted a real chance, as the 33-year-old does is still aiming to reach No. 1 someday for the last time. But, today, he decided not risk it.

“I am sorry to announce that I cannot play the finals tonight vs. Novak,” Federer said on his Facebook page. “I hurt my back late in the match yesterday against Stan.”

He later said, “I try all year to be ready for the ATP World Tour Finals, and I didn’t want it to end this way. But I tried everything I could last night, also today, painkillers, treatment, rest and so forth, warm-up till the very end. But just I can’t compete at this level with Novak. It would be too risky at my age to do this right now and I hope you understand.”

Federer may not say it, but the Davis Cup final in gigantic for him. The Swiss have never won the Davis Cup, and given knowing exactly what will occur during the entire season, that is very difficult to predicut who is healthy and who is hurt. If you are healthy and decided all year long to make Davis Cup a priority, then reaching the final is an important goal. This time around, the Swiss finally did.

However, no one really knows whether Federer will be able to play at all. But what we do know is that he will try to get healthy by Friday in Lille and hope that he can stand up, run around and out-think the assumed foe of Gael Monfils on clay.

France’s Monfils runs like the wind, but he is 2-8 against Federer and the Swiss has taken him down three times at Roland Garros. While Monfils pushed Federer to a fifth set in the US Open quarters – which the Swiss won – with Federer physically hurt, you may has well throw out the window.

Federer might be able to play for three hours and win, but he it is highly unlikely to play in Saturday for doubles. Perhaps he will be OK with a day’s rest and compete on Sunday, assuming that he or Wawrinka (who will face Jo Tsonga on Friday) or Swiss to have won at least a tie going into the final. Who knows, Federer could win two matches in Lille and celebrate one of the last pieces to his incredible resume. Or hurt his back hurt again and pulled out. If Federer can’t play next weekend, you may as well give the trophy to France.

What does Murray do after Federer’s demolition?

Andy Murray

Murray must start beating the other “Big 4″ to stay in the elite group. Mal Taam/MALT Photo

LONDON – Everyone can have bad days. Every person has experienced one or another. But if you look at the greats in tennis, all of them have admitted that they had a lousy match and learned from it. Or forgot about it. Or just threw it in the trash.

But exactly what will happen to Andy Murray mindset after he went down 6-0, 6-1 to Roger Federer on Thursday in a packed house? Everyone wanted to see their countryman win. He was back and ready to knock down the other best players? But he was not even close. He wasn’t in the ballpark or, in this case, The O2.

Murray has been unable to beat the big guys again. Yes, he has played well enough to beat anyone outside of the Big 4 and he looked pretty well during the fall. He scratched up to No. 5, largely because he outworked David Ferrer in October and early November. But against Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer during the season, that was another story this year. Murray entered the ATP Finals knowing that he had gone 0-8 of the three guys this year.

That hurt, but a chance to taking down Federer and Djokovic, and that would have made the season.

Somehow he went all wrong and quickly. Murray whacked the ball in the first four points, but after that, he could not find his rhythm. He was never there. Federer played very well, but he never had to play great, even though it seemed he couldn’t miss his forehands, backhands, slices, rushing into the net, digging in, smashing, and pocketing balls deep.

It did not really matter because Murray couldn’t get anything going. It was impossible to tell what his plans were, because he did not have anything at all. He was so out of it that the fans were shaking and were afraid. Down 6-0, 5-0, somehow Federer made a couple of errors and Murray won a game. One single game to 6-0, 6-1. The fans cheered and laughed. Andy didn’t smile for a second. Federer found it odd, shook his hand and did not to celebrate 6-0, 6-1. So much for classic contests.

“Not so cool because I wouldn’t want to be in that position,” Federer said. “I was happy to get it done. At the end I was happy I didn’t win the second to last game to be quite honest. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable. I don’t know. I don’t like it.”

Murray admitted that he did not play well at all – obviously – and that Federer was quite good. But what has his show for it this season? He won three tournaments, which is fine, but they were not Slams or ATP Masters Series. At a few times in 2014 he looked as though he would return to his normal self. But, as he said, it has been very hard to come back easily after his back surgery.

“The first three, four months were tough,” he said. “It was hard. Going through surgery isn’t easy. Maybe I didn’t appreciate that so much at the time. I found it quite frustrating at the beginning of the year. But then once I accepted that it’s a hard thing to go through, and obviously in the middle of that period I switched ‑‑ obviously stopped working with Ivan [Lendl].

“The French Open [Rafa Nadal] and Wimbledon [Grigor Dimitrov], I played well, but when I got to the semis of the French and the quarters of Wimbledon, I didn’t feel like I played well.

“Obviously tonight,I’m disappointed with those matches. I don’t want to play matches like that obviously.”

Murray is hearted of the fall as he did win Shenzhen (over Tommy Robredo), Vienne (over David Ferrer) and Valencia (over Robredo), but if he is going to have any chance in Australia, he is going to have to change it up. If Murray wants to remain his “Big 4,” he is going to have to start beating them on occasion, especially as the younger players like Kei Nishikori and and Milos Raonic become more formidable foes. Right now, he has to figure out exactly why and what will his answers be. At the very least, he has to work harder than before.

“It’s not a nice way to finish the year,” said Murray. “But I know there’s obviously a lot for me to work on now. I didn’t feel like I was playing that badly going into the match. I’d had some good wins the last few weeks. Had played decent against Milos. So obviously in that respect I know I’m going to have to put in a lot of work on the tennis court, a lot of work in on my game. If I want to start the season, with an opportunity to win in Australia, I’m going to have to put in a lot of work, that’s for sure.”

On fire again: Czechs Kvitova & Safarova out hit Germans

Kvitova IW 12 TR MALT1546

PRAGUE – Petra Kvitova began firing and she wouldn’t quit.

The 23 year old knew exactly what he would do on a super-fast hard court and she was swinging away. Yes, she did throw in a couple of sweet drop shots, but other than that, she banged the balls and believed that she would out hit Andrea Petkovic.

That is exactly what she did. Kvitova took down Petkovic 6-2, 6-4 to lead the Czech 1-0 over Germany in the Fed Cup final. Essentially she walked on the court, stared at her foe and said, “Can you slug it out harder than me?”

She could not. Although Petkovic moved much better in the second set, she was always behind. Petkovic had to deal with more pressure and, when she didn’t, she went down fairly quickly.

Kvitova decided that she wasn’t concerned about different tactics. The tall lefty hooked her serves that would swerve out wide. Petkovic would try to get the balls back in, but the Czech was all over the returns, which she powered out of the German’s reach.

The world No. 14 Petkovic is pretty fast, but the balls were racing like lightning. So it didn’t matter that should couldn’t get into the points. The German had to start attacking immediately but Kvitova punched her lights out.

Up 5-1 in the first set, Kvitova went into a walkabout and she was broken to 5-2, but she came right, smoking on a backhand down the line.

Petkovic pushed her hard in most of the second set, but could the German disturb Kvitova? She could not. Petkovic fought off break points serving at 3-4 with two terrific serves. In the next game Kvitova nailed a big ace to go 5-4.

Then the pressure rose and Petkovic could not settle down. With the 12,000 sold out screaming, at 30-all, the German missed a simple slice that flew away and a forehand that disappeared.

She was gone and Kvitova once again showed that more than anyone of the top 10, she has committed to Fed Cup time and time again.

Kvitova scored 25 winners, while Petkovic only came up with seven.
Kerber upset by Safarova

World no. 10 Angelique Kerber of Germany went out to fast and furious, and was up 4-2 in the first set, but No. 17 Lucie Safarova had other plans. Safarova has been pretty good since 2007, when the now 27-year-old can knock out some of the better players, but she has rarely been a major factor in the Slams. However, the lefty reached the 2014 Wimbledon semifinal, which shows that she doesn’t mind if she has to bend low. In fact, she likes to move quickly, set up for a shot and swing it super hard.

Two years ago, Kvitova was ill and Safarova has to close out the Czech Fed Cup final in Serbia. Safarova was electric, crushing Jelena Jankovic to the win 2012 Fed Cup in Prague.

Now, she was ready again, knowing that she could knock out Kerber if she was willing to be more aggressive. The two had more rallies than Kvitova and Petkovic did, but which of the lefties would swing out? That was Safarova, who knew exactly where and when she should go for her shots.

 

At 5-4 on set point down, Kerber crushed her forehand and believed that Safarova wasn’t going to touch it. So Kerber yelled in delight, but Safarova had run over. Kerber said, “Come on” very loud. However, Safarova hit the ball and returned. The chair umpire calls it a hindrance, so Kerber lost her point and the set.

Kerber kept trying and broke, but Safarova rushed forward and was willing to hit out anytime she could. At 5-4 in the second set, Safarova cracked a forehand and nailed an overhead to get to match point. Kerber fought off two match points when the Czech was a bit wild. But Safarova finished her off, when Kerber rushed to the net and instead of crisply knocking it away, she lazily put it in the middle of set and Safarova stroked a forehand into the corner. Lucie grinned after another win, this time 6-4, 6-4.

The Germans were afraid, while the Czechs were dancing on their heads. Safarova ended with 20 winners, while Kerber could only manage 10.

The Czechs are up 2-0 and are ready to go on Sunday. Kvitova will start with either Kerber or perhaps Sabine Lisicki, who would sub in. Lisicki has fast burners, reaching on the 2013 Wimbledon final, but she has not played great this fall in the past six weeks. Her German coach, Barbara Rittner, might change another coach, but Kerber is there best player overall and she would be saddened if she had to sit.

Safarova will play after Kvitova if the top Czech is upset, but won’t care if she faces Petkovic or Lisicki. She has a healthy amount of ultra confidence.

Serena Gets Slammed

SINGAPORE – Serena Williams has been bad at times before, but the 18-time Grand Slam champion rarely plays horribly. But, in her 6-0, 6-2 loss to Simona Halep, she never woke up and couldn’t keep her balls in court.

Without question, the young Halep was very solid, but she didn’t have to put together her best strokes. Really, all she had to was keep the ball in, move it around, and stay away from what could have been a panic when she need to finish the match off.  That is exactly what the 23-years-old Halep did, who scored her first win over Williams, and did not shake at closing time.

Serena could not keep her forehand in the court, which is somewhat amazing that the American usually crushes her ball and strokes them close to the line. But not this day. Williams dumped it into the net, couldn’t see where the lines were, or even get on top of his heavy spins. Williams ended with 36 errors – in just 14 games – where the forehand errors were somewhere around 27. She may be her best server ever, but she didn’t murder the ball, only put in two aces. When asked about it later, Serena wasn’t messing around.

“My forehand was off today again. I guess it went on an early vacation,” she told Tennis.com. “Lord knows my serve was as well. My serve was at best in the 10-and-under division in juniors. Yeah, it was actually embarrassing I think describes the way I played. Yeah, very embarrassing.”

The great Williams was embarrassed early on. Halep came out firing early on, as she wanted to prove that she could stay with her and did, playing much more aggressively then she was in August of 2013 when Williams smoked her 6-0, 6-4 in Cincinnati. But No. 4 Halep has been much better this season, reaching the Roland Garros final where she nearly took down Maria Sharapova and gaining the Wimbledon semis.

She moved very quickly and kept pushing forward, keeping Williams deep with her forehand and backhand. Williams tried to slap his balls back, but was so erratic early on that she dropped an f-bomb by the third game.

Williams tried to keep into the second set and even thrown out a “C’mon” after a couple winners, but she could not become steady at all.

Halep showed a bright smile, while Serena was disgusted. And why not? The 33-year-old Williams loss is the worst match since 1998, when she went down to South Africa Joannette Kruger’s 6-1, 6-1 in Oklahoma City. No. 1 Williams wasn’t sure if she was going to play in Singapore because she has been dealing with a sore leg. But she is going to trot on, because she wants to show that she could win the title, plus she wants the fans she can watch her brilliant play. But Williams did admit to us after the loss that she does not feel fantastic. Not even close.

“Oh, God no,” she said. “I’m definitely not 100% okay. I’m just here playing, but I’m not nowhere near 100 percent.”

Williams praised Halep today, but she went further. In fact, Serena says that Simona had “the best match of her career.”

Williams has to face Eugenie Bouchard on Thursday and even though she could be limping, she is going to try very hard. Serena cannot stand losing, but she loves cheering — and winning.

“To be quite frankly honest, I’m looking forward to our next meeting because she is making me going to go home and work hard.”

WTA Finals Singapore ready to rock

Ivanovic going deep would help ticket sales

Ivanovic steps it up in 2014.

By Matt Cronin

Singapore – The BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore will begin on Monday. Here are the eight players, some of which are are on fire and others who are struggling. On Sunday, all the players spoke to what is head. Tennisreporters discusses the field, with TR also asks for players as well as journalists who discuss the field.

Matt Cronin returns
to writing for TR

This is Matt Cronin’s first article for TennisReporters.net since his brain surgery last spring.

Matt has written for Tennis.com and USOpen.org.

Matt: Great to have you back as you return to the work you love and the work the tennis world loves you for!

– Ron Cioffi

RED GROUP
Serena Williams: The US No. 1 has not been as dominate as she was in 2013, but Serena found herself believing her game by winning the US Open and snagging her only Slam in 2014 when she needed the most. Now she has the chance to walk away with the WTA 8 final again if she is cracking the ball once again.
Last year in the WTA final in Turkey Serena served and hit her corners when necessary — even when she was hurting — but came through the victory. This year Serena will be careful as she pulled out of Beijing with a knee injury. Williams will play Ana Ivanovic Monday night.
Q.  How important is the year‑end No. 1 ranking to you?  And if you had already had it locked up, do you think you would be here?
WILLIAMS:  I definitely would be here if I already had it locked up.  It’s obviously super important for me.  I love being No. 1; I love being the best.
     But at this at the same time, I’m really glad that I was able to get a slam this year, which was really annoying for me that I wasn’t able to capture one.
     That was something that was super, super, super important, especially for the goals that I was trying to reach.
Simona Halep: The Romanian began to step up last summer and this year she finally showed her self-believe, walking quickly and jumping on the courts. Halep came very close to knocking off  Sharapova in the Roland Garros final, but the Russian turned on the afterburners and nailed his second Slam. However, Halep has been rising quickly and could eventual grab No. 1 – if she can win the WTA 8 and a Slam next year.
 Q.  Do you think that actually, say, in the next year you will become No. 1?
HALEP:  “I cannot say about this because I am very far to No. 1.  So I just want to take the pressure out of me, out of my body, of my mind, and just to be relaxed and to, like I said, to be focused every match.”
Genie Bouchard: The Canadian had become relevant early on and hasn’t stopped, grabbing the semis of Australian and Roland Garros, and playing very close at the lines where she earned the runner-up at Wimbledon. She is contending with a left leg injury but is ready to go.
Q.  When you were here in January, was it possible to look as far ahead as October, and did you think to yourself: I’d like to make it; I want to make it; I’m going to make it here?  What were your thoughts about the year‑end finals in January?
Bouchard: “It’s the craziest thing, because I was with Chrissy [Evert] in this exact room at this table in January launching the WTA Finals and the Road to Singapore.
     So I don’t know who believed that I would be here in October, but being here in January motivated me so much.  It was an amazing city, and seeing the glamorous side of what the finals are inspired me so much to try and make it here.
 Big day for Southern at USTA national Junior Team Tennis Championships. Madison, MS (advanced) and Woodstock, GA play for national titles.
Ana Ivanovic: The Serbian has matured a great deal, becoming much more consistent and winning four titles. She is more aggressive than she has been and is more effective charging the net cords
Q.  Does 2009 [when she won her first and only Slam at Roland Garros] seem like a long time ago?
Ivanovic:   It feels like the other life.  Yeah, definitely does. I think in a way we are very fortunate because we travel so much.  We compete week in, week out.  I feel like there is so many experiences that we have weekly.
     You know, even Auckland seems like two years ago, because so many things happen in the meantime on and off the court.  Also you change a lot.  You change your views on things.
     This is what I feel happens.  So I feel like I’m different person comparing to 2008 or 2009.  I experienced lots of good and bad.  You learn so you much about yourself, too.
     In that sense as well it feels like long time ago.
WHITE GROUP
Maria Sharapova: The world No. 2 recalls back in 2004, in LA and besting Williams in the final, the last time she took down the great Serena. She has played the year pretty well, winning the French Open and two other big wins in Madrid and Beijing. If Serena falters, Sharapova could snare from the top spot to end the year.
Q.  Just talk about 2004, WTA against Serena, just your memory, your thought.
Sharapova:  Well, first I couldn’t believe that I was part of a field at that point in my career.  Yeah, I was in Los Angeles where I had been training with Robert [Lansdorp] for so many years.  It felt like a home tournament in a way for me.  I remember the players.  It was, of course, a very tough field, as always.  Just going through the draw there and the way that I felt and the way I played. I’ve seen some clips as well, very inspiring.  Certainly hope I can do that here again.
Petra Kvitova: The Czech has been much more consistent by being free from injury and rarely backing down. She grabbed the 2014 Wimbledon by striking the ball so   hard that she was untouchable. The lefty recently won Wuhan earlier this month and has a chance to reach the yearend No.1. But she is going to play nearly perfectly to win the crown. She will face Ana Ivanovic on Monday night.
Q.  It seems like your nerves, we don’t see them as much anymore.  Why did that happen this year?
Kvitova: “I’m more relaxed on the court.  I have a little bit more confidence probably.  From the Wimbledon I showed maybe that I can play great tennis again, and that’s really what I missed for the three years. So from that time I think it’s much better.  I can enjoy the tennis, I can really play, and I know that I love to play tennis.  So that’s very important, to know it.
     Yeah, I feel good.  I know that sometimes my game, it’s too risky, but that’s part of the game.  I can live with that, so that’s okay.”
Agnieszka Radwanska: The Pole has been very consistent over the past five years or so but has not been fantastic this season. She did win Montreal and reached the final of Indian Wells, but falling to Dominika Cibulkova in the semis of Australia has really hurt her overall. She needs to step up big time and end the year at a high note.
Q.  What would make you really happy at the end of this year and then all of next year?  What would make you super happy?
RADWANSKA: Well, of course, I think winning Grand Slam as well.  I think this is the tournament that we all waiting for to get a title.  I didn’t do it yet; I was close few times but still didn’t get it.
     So, I think winning Grand Slam, that will make me really, really happy.
Caroline Wozniacki: Even though she is rising again, Wozniacki is only reached the top 8 when Li Na retired. However the former No. 1 has played better than in years, reaching the US Open and stepping inside the court at hard courts. Wozniacki, from Denmark, may not have figured out to upset Williams, but she is confidence to trouble anyone else at the WTA.
Q.  As you were sort of slipping down and then making your way back up, did it feel like it was a long way to go, or did it feel like you were pretty close to where you had been?
Wozniacki: No, didn’t feel like a long way to go.  I never really looked at the rankings, but I definitely totally stopped when I went down to 18.  I’m like: This is depressing.  I don’t want to be down here.
     At the end of day, I just told myself, “Doesn’t matter if you’re No. 1 or No. 18.  At the end of the day, you have to compete with the same players.”  A lot of girls play so well now so it’s never easy.  I just thought if I play well, the ranking will come back up soon.
     I started playing well. I started finding my form, and then the ranking just came up really quickly.

A Battle Royale, this time regarding me

Matt Cronin, Indian Wells.

That’s Matt Cronin (second from left) with tennis writer friends Steve Tignor, Doug Robson and Brad Falkner at Indian Wells.

For the first time in 21 years I will not be attending the tennis tournament at Indian Wells, CA, certainly one of my favorites events ever. I traditionally has arrived there on the Tuesday before plays starts on Wednesday, which ironically is the day this year that I am undergoing brain surgery on San Francisco.

I just came off a great five-week trip to Australia personally and work-wise.The day after I arrived back at my home in Moraga, CA, I was talking to my son, Connor. in the kitchen. I can’t quite recall about what it was but as I was standing over the counter. It’s very likely I was talking about what chores needed to be done – my kids favorite subject :-)

As many of you who know me or listen to me on radio, I have a lot to say, and most times I can say things clearly, but at that moment I had a good five sentences in my head and couldn’t get any of them out. All I could do, as Connor would attest, is drop a series of F-bombs in frustration. Perhaps I have never used the word more appropriately.

A little more than 24 hours later I found myself in a neurologist’s office staring a brain tumor on the left side of my head that was the cause of the incident the day prior.

Hey, Doc, hit one like Fed

By Ron Cioffi

Over nearly four decades, I’ve written about forehands and backhands, murders, politics, hometown features and how much I love the Rolling Stones. It’s been easier to write about sports, the arts and tennis tournaments than my personal life. But, hey, we all have to change.

It was nearly 13 years ago when Matt Cronin and I (with Sandy Harwitt) founded TennisReporters.net. It was a great idea: a website written by professional journalists who covered pro tennis. No amateurs, no gloss, no frills and no BS. We broke new ground in the world of sports and tennis journalism. At first I thought TR would pay for a cushy retirement but soon realized it was wouldn’t make a cent and was an addiction that we couldn’t shake.

Matt and I worked at Inside Tennis in the early 1990s. But, believe it or not, I’ve only seen Matt three times since we established TR, twice at the US Open and once at Fed Cup in North Carolina. But we often start our phone calls on business but lapse into the world of tennis, family, age and frailties. I never thought we would come so close to a life-threatening situation. Figured it would be me, a decade older and more decrepit than Matt.

Over the years Matt has kept the site running, based on his goal of writing honestly about tennis without an editor telling him what to say or not to say. I try to do that once in a while. But, Matt is pretty headstrong.

All I can say to Doctor Berger is: “Hey, Doc. It’s a good brain. It’s a really good brain. There’s a hell of a lot of great tennis info in there, years of experience, expertise and clarity.

“So, Doc, do the tennis world a favor: Don’t screw it up. Hit a winner down the line.”

For about a month before that, there were days when I felt a little odd. My father, Bill, was a doctor and my mom, Joan, was a nurse, so I am by no means I am not psychosomatic and might be the opposite as my parents could recognize real illnesses. When my two bothers and two sisters and I were kids, they knew when to tell us to shake it off. Perhaps as result I have only visit the doctor for mandatory checkups.

While I was still in Australia, I called a couple of people and told them I knew something was wrong with me and that when I returned I would go straight to the doctor. While I was in no real physical pain, I had a sense that something dangerous was going to take a swing at me and I wanted to get a handle on it before it took me completely down.

But before my scheduled doctor’s appointment, I had my mini-meltdown in the kitchen and the battle was on.

I am not going to get into the details of all my medical visits and their effect on me, but what I can offer that it has been an extremely emotional time for me as my kids, other family members and close friends can attest to. Those who know me know that I think a lot about a lot of things, and my mortality has been at the top of the agenda over the past month. I do not fear death at all, and believe that I will leave the operating table healthier and with a decent chance at a long future, but I am a realist and a care-taking type and trying to get my head around not being there for my kids/family/friends with all the things I wanted to accomplish with them is difficult to swallow. At least in my case, I don’t feel like I have planned ahead enough and had I know this was coming a decade or so ago I very well may have changed the vast majority of what I was doing – excepting the constant tennis coverage, of course.

It seems like at all times that I am thinking multi-dimensionally about my past, present and murky future. It’s fascinating, but does not leave time for much sleep, which is OK because at least this point it seems like a pretty big waste of time and, as all of you know, dreams during these types of periods can quite off-putting.

When many people think about relaxing, they think about kicking back and mellowing out. I have never been that person. In fact although I do like short naps in the afternoon, what really relaxes me is physical exercise, namely yard work which I crave daily and can do for hours at a time without feeling overly stressed. That is how I relax for the most part, by doing non-work related chores. Even living in my now beloved California for the past 31 years has not cured me of that habit.

I had a very interesting decision to make last week, choosing between two very reputable SF Bay area neurosurgeons, one whom I had seen three times and the other — who I will describe as the Roger Federer of his profession — I had only talked to on the phone.

Regarding this issue, last week I made a long and drawn out tennis analogy to some of my tennis journo friends, most especially Emily, as well as Doug, Richard, Courtney, Tom and Brad as to why I would make the call either way: essentially, whom am I going to trust to win a match with my brain tumor.

To me, it made perfect sense, but perhaps not so much to others. However, to tennis people it might. In my nearly 22 years covering the sport, I think I have learned to distinguish real confidence from false bravado, which is why some players consistently deliver in the clutch and others don’t. For me to allow someone to open my brain up I needed to be sure that he was not only a distinguished person with great reputation, but if I put the challenge to him to show me that he was confident and great enough to win my “match” that he would look me in the eyes, tell me he was, and his voice would back that up.

I did not want to be put in situation where I felt like I was in broadcast booth on the outside looking in at a tennis match, where the likes of Federer, or any other star, would choke a simple backhand down the line on match point because there was too much pressure on him. As tennis journalist, if I have been around a player for years and have spoken to him or her at recent tournaments, I usually get a much more clear idea as to where their head space is at the moment and how competent they are really feeling.

New fans walking into a stadium might not have a clue as to why an all-time great misses a crucial shot at a big moment, but most of us regulars get why. In the case of the surgeon, I did not want to be in similar position going into the OR, wide-eyed and merely hopeful he would make the shot. I wanted to be sure as much as I could that the guy I picked (and of course who allowed me to be his patient) would bring all of his so-called weapons at his disposal the court and use them appropriately.

And that is why I chose Dr. Mitchel Berger out of UCSF, that and because he talked to me like my dad, Dr. William T. Cronin, would have, straight, to the point with no BS and telling me firmly that he will get the job done.

I joked with my tennis journalist friends that I was going to live tweet my operation on Tuesday and would Skype into the Indian Wells WTA All Access Hour on Wednesday to take care of any questions they might want to ask, or just to chat with a player who was not getting enough attention.

Of course that is not going to happen – largely because I don’t want folks looking at me with half-shaved head– but believe when I tell you that if I felt even remotely confident that I could pull it off I would try to make a go of it. That is how much I love being part of sport. For me, being there and telling pro tennis’ true story is what tournament coverage is all about.

I recently came back from a one-week Bucket List trip, the first few days of which I spent with my 21-year-old daughter Cassandra, my soon to be 18- year-old Connor and my 14-year-old daughter Chia. We had some very memorable dinner table conversations about how we view friends and family and their reactions to these types of situations. My kids may already be smarter than me and I sure hope they have 100 times my intelligence level when they reach my age. But I have a bit more experience due to age and been on the other side of some of these situations as a support person. I’m not sure how I really did, but I do know that many of my friends and family have been extraordinarily helpful to me, especially when it comes to listening. In my opinion, there are few folks in one’s general circle who can hand out sound medical advice (fortunately for me I have some people whom I am very close to who are excellent with it), but there are many who can show they really do sincerely care by just hearing you out on anything you want to talk about.

Believe me there were times when I didn’t want to talk about it at all, which is why I did not tell everyone I am or have been close to until now because I have led a long enough life to have gathered a fair amount of important relationships. While I realized that I would like to talk to everyone I hold dear, there were so many other things I had to deal with on a daily basis that it would have been overwhelming to talk to everyone. I did not leave anyone out on purpose, I just needed fair amount of quiet time in my head.

The mother of my children, Patti Orozco, has been extraordinarily helpful and dedicated as have my mother, Joan, my siblings Tami, Mark, Megan and Paul, their spouses and kids, some of Patti’s extended family and my nieces and nephews on that side, as well as my kids, who for the first time have been really faced with one of their parents mortality and have dug deep to try to sort it out. It has been a role switch for them having to pat me on the back this time in an attempt to keep my spirits up. They have been patient, understanding and given their dad as much love as a man could ask for.

There have also been those close friends whom I contacted and are asking me every day how I feel and are super concerned. Those people know who they are. As it was before I would walk through fire for them. After this experience, I think I would roll and crawl through it, too.

Now to the bottom line of what may of you are wondering about: my prognosis. It is unclear now as the type of tumor won’t be identified until the open me up on Tuesday and take its pathology. The good news is that it does not appear to be large and it is close to the side of my head so the removal process will more than likely go OK. It may be benign, it may be malignant, but one way or another as much of it as possible has to be removed. After that, I will have a good idea what type of recovery process I am in for.

Tennis tournament wise … my plan is to be 100% fit and improved by the time the French Open rolls around in mid-May, talking up a storm on Radio RG like nothing ever happened, and showing Serena Williams my head scar like she showed me her foot scars post her pulmonary embolism scare a few Wimbledon’s ago. And then I can write another tennis book, another couple of thousand articles and produce a million tweets.

Lifestyle wise, the day after I return to our property from the hospital, I want to be out in the spring sun again like I was in this picture two years ago, pruning tress, chopping wood and mellowing out in my own distinctive way. It has been a hairy ride the past month, but my life has been good overall and hopefully it will soon get a hell of lot better.

Best,
Matt

Li decided to change and as result, wins first Aussie Open title

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Li was willing to change, and finally saw the fruits of her labor

By Matt Cronin

MELBOURNE – Perhaps Li Na appeared capable of winning her first Grand Slam title in 2011 when she reached the Australian Open final for the first time but she was not, as Kim Clijsters was a better player than she was then and Li was way too inconsistent.

Last year, she came into the Aussie Open final against Victoria Azarenka looking just as good as the Belarussian but fell down twice, hit her head, and was too dizzy to win the three setter.

But this year she came into the final against Dominika Cibulkova as a significant favorite as she was 4-0 against the Slovakian head to head and since she looked shaky and was forced to fight off a  match point versus Lucie Safarova in the third round, she played lights out. She wasted Ekaterina Makarova, plastered Flavia Pennetta, and put down Genie Bouchard to reach the final. Under her coach of a year and half, Carlo Rodriguez, she has fiddled with  her service motion and her backhand –which has always been her biggest weapon –added a  more topspin to her forehand and developed a net game. At the age of 31 she is a better all around player than she was in 2011 and that’s what she showed Dominica Cibulkova in her 7-6 (3) 6-0 victory to win her first Australian Open title.

She was willing to change, to take risks, because she suspected that was the only way she could go higher.

“The choice always right, because if I really want to prove myself, I have to change something, otherwise I will stay the same level forever,” the 31-year-old said.

Li certainly had hiccups in the first set as her forehand went off for significant periods. She could feel the pressure of being the favorite and was concerned that the fast Slovak would run everything down. But when she was under control, Li crushed hard  groundstrokes deep, and at sharp angles. Her serve has more margin now and she can still keep her focus even when her level is up and down. Her forehand can be fragile, but she kept trying to swing through it.

Li served for the first set at 6-5, missed a make-able backhand down the line on set point, and then saw Cibulkova break back to 6-6 with hard backhand crosscourt and bellow out her trademark cry, Pome!

The result of the tiebreaker essentially determined the outcome of match. Li ripped three winners to gain a 3-1 lead and kept pushing Cibulkova back. At 5-3, it was the Slovakian who grew tense, and she committed two backhand errors that in a small event she would have handled easily. Li won the tiebreak and began to fill up with joy.

“It’s like after if you win a very tight first set, you think, ‘Okay, already one set in the pocket,’ ” Li said. “Like feeling one feet already touching in trophy.  So, yeah, of course if you have one set in pocket, second set you can play more aggressive, attack her.”

After that, Li put her nerves outside and dictated nearly every point. She was incredibly focused and lethal.

“Maybe you guys didn’t realize how hard I worked mentally to win this,” Li said later.

Cibulkova, who reached her first Grand Slam final, had the best major of her life, but she realizes she couldn’t bring her best on the day. She appeared more self-assured in besting Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska, but did not play aggressive enough in the final. The 24-year-old hopes to learn from the experience and be back in the same position again.

“These were just the most fantastic two weeks of my life and I think I’m going to cry,” she said. “It was my first Grand Slam final and I’m just proud with the way I handle it. I just went on the court.  I wanted to play my best tennis.  It wasn’t easy against her because she was playing extremely well. .. When you play a Grand Slam finals, it’s a big step.  I’m ready to take it.  I was waiting for this for a long time.  Now I want to do 100% to keep it up.”

The title was Li’s  second Grand Slam title after winning the 2011 French Open and she said it’s even more special.

“I prepare this one for already two weeks,” she said.  Every round, every day I was think about what I should do. I prepare if I play semis what I should do, if I play final what I should do, because I already have twice in the final up here.  Also in the French I was feeling I just go for it.  I didn’t think about win or lose.  But this one, I really wish I can doing well.”

When the rankings are released on Monday she will be close to the No. 2 spot. She is a long way from passing Serena Williams for No.1 but has a chance to catch her at the end of the year. Her coach, Rodriguez, was able to led Justine Henin past Serena for the No.1 ranking. Perhaps he will be able to do that with Li too. First up, she will take aim at Wimbledon and the US Open. It would be even more impressive to see her go around the block at the Slams.

“Of course is very easy to say I want to win another one,” Li said.  “But I think if you are tennis athlete, you have to know how much working have to be done for only to win the Grand Slam.  So of course if I want to win another one or two, I have to go back to court hard-working and also even more tough than before, otherwise no chance.”

Bob & Weave: Nadal withstands Federer blitz before throwing knockout punch

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Nadal is now 23-10 vs Federer and is 12-0 vs final round foe Wawrinka

 

By Matt Cronin

MELBOURNE – Rafael Nadal says that he gets more emotional for his matches against Roger Federer than against any other player, which is not surprising given that when the Spaniard arrived on the scene that the Swiss was the tour’s dominant competitor and looked unstoppable when he was on.

But since the 2008 Wimbledon final, when Nadal stopped Federer in home away from home, the lefthander has seized control of the rivalry and could soon be blessed with the description of the Greatest Of All Time [GOAT]. In Nadal’s 7-6 6-3 6-2 victory over the Swiss in the 2014 Australian Open  semifinals, he sure looked like he’s ready to contender for that moniker.

Federer played fairly well during the semifinal, but still couldn’t get over the hump as Nadal simply waited out his George Foreman-like barrage early on like Muhammad Ali did against the slugger during the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ Federer threw everything he had at Nadal: huge serves, forehands, net rushes – even flat one-handed backhand as hard as he could strike them. But what he could not do was return serve consistently well enough and could not manage to get a break point on Nadal’s serves. While Federer’s whirlwind attack was eye-popping at times and had fans on their feet, Nadal was very consistent and counterpunched with authority. He moved quickly, kept his groundstrokes deep and worked the points as hard and long as he could.

He decided upon that strategy because  this is what he knew going into the match after watching the tape of their 2012 Australian semifinal in the morning: that Federer would whale away early and as long as Nadal didn’t get down on himself, eventually Federer would begin to punch himself out and then Nadal would be able to throw big  body blows of his own when the openings were there and eventually score a knockout.

Federer badly needed to win the first set in order to give himself a chance at victory. He had not dropped the first set against Nadal and come back to win the match since 2007 Hamburg so the odds were clearly against him.

Federer had chance in the tiebreaker after Nadal committed three straight unforced errors and the Swiss drew back to 4-5, but then the Spaniard stung an inside out forehand winner and Federer missed a backhand down the line. The tiebreaker was in Nadal’s pocket at 7-4 and for all intents and purposes, so was the match, as  Nadal’s two-handed backhand stood up better against Federer’s forehand than the Swiss’ one-handed backhand stood up against Nadal’s forehand. As the match grew older, Federer had a hard time hitting perfect enough approach shots and Nadal consistently passed him. Federer also could not get enough significant returns into play as Nadal’s blistered hand had improved and he had wicked spin and kick on his favored serves. Simply put, Nadal’s left hook was more powerful and effective that Federer’s right-handed cross.

‘The important thing for me is serve well, resist the beginning,” Nadal said. “I know he will try to go on court going for the winners, taking the ball very early.  So when the match is coming and the match is longer, then that’s more difficult.  Because physically is very difficult for me, for him, for everybody to play with that intensity of trying to play that aggressive during a few hours, no, because mentally and physically is very tough. So when the match is going on, I know that I will have the chance to hit a little bit more rallies.  That’s the position that I want to be.  So is very important to resist the score at the beginning.”

Nadal’s record versus Federer now stands at  23-10.  He is one victory away from his second  Australian Open title, and if he manages to best Stan Wawrinka in the final, he will become the only man in the Open Era to win each major twice – which is glorified Rod Laver territory.

He may or may not go down in history as the GOAT, but with his record against Federer —  whom most people currently consider the GOAT — he will likely have something to say about it if he wins another couple of majors.

But that is a discussion for another day, as Nadal still has to best the red-hot Stan Wawrinka for the title, whom he has a 12-0 head to head record against  and whom he has never dropped a set to. The other Swiss – whom by the way will pass Federer when the rankings are released next week – has been tagging his one-handed backhand and been serving huge, but can he actually get over on Nadal if the Spaniard is playing his best? That is extremely doubtful  as Nadal is No.1 for a reason – he has been at higher level than anyone else at the majors during the past year.

However, Wawrinka did manage to upend the seemingly unbeatable Novak Djokovic in the quarters so that has to give him some belief that he can turn his rivalry around against Nadal, at least on one night. The odds are stacked firmly against him, but he will give it a go. His coach of more than year, Magnus Norman, has impressed upon him that he should try to be relaxed and at the same time go for his shots. He is going to attempt to keep his poor record against Nadal out of his head.

I don’t care about having lost 14 times,” he said. But it’s more about playing Rafa.  He’s the No. 1, the best player.  His game is quite tough for me, especially with one‑hand backhand.  But I did some good match last year against him, close one.  I find few things that I will try tomorrow. I’m playing my best tennis here; physically I’m ready.  I had two days off, so that’s perfect for me before final.  Going to try everything.  Before to beat Djokovic was the same.  I was losing 13, 14 times before that. Just the fact that I’m always trying and I always think that I can change all the statistic, that’s positive.”

 

 

 

Aussie Open teen semifinalist Bouchard not surprised by rapid rise

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Bouchard is relentless

MELBOURNE – Canada’s Genie Bouchard won the junior Wimbledon title in 2012, but is not surprised that she is already in an adult Grand Slam semifinal.

She feels like she progresses every day, every week, every month. She came into the Australian Open ranked No. 30 and has knocked of one veteran after another including former No, 1 Ana Ivanovic 5-7 7-5 6-2 in the quarterfinals.

She almost never gives up her on court position. She always seems to be going forward. She isn’t wild but hits hard off both wings. She has a very strong first serve and competes like hell. She may appear to be a just another pretty blonde to some (like the Aussie-based Genie’s Army) who have never met her off court, but she talks and acts like a standard super jock.  Tennis is her life; not only does she plays she watches a lot of pro tennis in her spare time.

She is no-nonsense player and appears to be a no-nonsense person. She sees her rapid rise as part of the plan and not very surprising at all.

“When I played the juniors, I was 18, so I still felt a little bit of pressure being kind of older and still playing in the juniors,” she said. “But that was my choice.  I still think I did well winning a [junior] Slam.  But it’s definitely another level in the pros, definitely mentally tougher I think.  But I think winning junior Wimbledon gave me a lot of confidence.  Right away I transitioned into the pros really well.  A year and a half is a long time, too.  It’s not something that surprises me.”

Bouchard might not be surprised but it’s very rare for teens to make a major impression at Slams these days. Sloane Stephens did as a 19-year-old last year and now one of her peers has accomplished it.  Madison Keys, who is a year younger than Bouchard, is not ready yet, nor is Bouchard’s good friend Laura Robson.

Bouchard has a good disposition and isn’t easily rattled, even after Ivanovic banged away at her during the first set.

“I tried to stay calm. I tried to for sure show I was calm.” she said. “I did feel confident.  Having lost the first set and things like that, I just tried to focus on what I had to do during the point to try to win, really just try to keep pressing her and moving forward.  That’s what kept me really calm.  I felt like my game kind of got a bit better as the match went on.  I feel like in the first set I was close, but I was kind of missing shots just by a little bit, hitting the tape of the net, just a bit out.  I felt like my game was there and I just needed to relax a little bit and play.”

With her victory over Ivanovic on the raucous Rod Laver Arena and her fourth round win over home countrywoman Casey Dellacqua on the same court, Bouchard has shown she’s ready for the big stage. But as good as she’s been, she is going to have to take big step up to best her semifinal foe, Li Na, who has been on fire her last two matches and smoked Flavia Pennetta 6-2 6-2 in their quarterfinal. Li has reached two Aussie Open finals before and seems overdue for a title.

Li is a better player than Ivanovic and will be a bigger challenge for Bouchard, but there are times when China’s top player loses focus, which could make her vulnerable to an upset.

She’s a great champion,” Bouchard said. “She’s won a Slam.  It’s going to be really tough.  I played her once in Montreal two years ago.  We had a close match.  But it was one of my first bigger matches.  It will be interesting to play her.  I know she’s very solid, very good from the back.  It’s going to be hard, but I’m looking forward to it.”