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.”

Australian Open Day Six Predictions: Are Rafa Nadal and Caroline Wozniacki vulnerable?

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Rod Laver Arena

3-Maria Sharapova v 25-Alize Cornet: Sharapova was very shaky in her marathon three-set win over Karin Knapp and it’s very rare for her to play badly again after such a stressful match, so even though Cornet has improved a ton during the past two years, the Russian will hit through her in straight sets.

6-Roger Federer v Teymuraz Gabashvili: Props to the Russian for his late night,  five-set win over Fernando Verdasco, but Federer won’t give him as many predictable clean looks and will come through in four sets

10-Caroline Wozniacki v Garbine Muguruza: This is the obvious upset pick of the day because the young Spaniard/Venezuelan is super talented slugger who is capable of hitting the Dane off the court, but Wozniacki is playing more ambitiously at this event and will find away to outlast Muguruza in three sets.

2-Victoria Azarenka  v Yvonne Meusburger: Two-time defending champ Azarenka was resourceful in her last match, but far from brilliant. Her serve is spotty, but she’s effective enough off the ground to hit through almost anyone and will knock out the Austrian in two sets

1-Rafa Nadal  v 25-Gael Monfils: This should be a very entertaining match between two super fast showmen, but unless Monfils finds a way to play inside the baseline instead of way behind it and can protect his backhand side, he won’t grab a set. Let’s concede the Frenchman one, but no more.

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8-Jelena Jankovic v Kurumi Nara: JJ started the year very well in Brisbane before going down in an emotionally trying match to Azarenka. Her spirit seemed to have picked up in Melbourne and she has too much experience for the Japanese, but will lose a set.

5-Agnieszka Radwanska v 29-Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

The Pole may not be a major title threat as she doesn’t appear to have improved from last year, but she will school the Pavlyuchenkova in two, as the Russian does not seem to have real elite potential or enough patience to figure her out.

4-Andy Murray  v 26-Feliciano Lopez

This is a good  test for the Scot as Lopez did play him tough once at the US Open, is in fine form and the courts are playing fast. Murray is fresh, but still is a little rusty. This will be a long five-set battle with the Wimbledon champion coming through.

10-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga v 18-Gilles Simon: This is simple pick, as Simon has played heroically on a bad ankle in winning two five-setters, but he won’t have enough gusto to go up against the charging Smokin’ Jo who will win in straight sets.

Margaret Court Arena

16-Carla Suarez Navarro v 20-Dominika Cibulkova: This one is simple than it looks as Suarez exhausted herself in the last round while Cibulkova finished quickly. The Slovakian will get thru in two.

13-Sloane Stephens v Elina Svitolina: Stephens needed a near miracle to win her last contest so if she can start fast –which she rarely does — she should be able to negate the teen in two. But she rarely does so take the American in three.

11-Milos Raonic v 22-Grigor Dimitrov: This is a super attractive match up between the tour’s highest ranked youngsters. Dimitrov has more variety and returns more competently, but Raonic has a blowtorch serve and a murderous forehand. A true pick ‘em, but Raonic is way overdue for a win like this and will triumph in five.

Donald Young v 16-Kei Nishikori: Japan’s top player made a good move in bringing Michael Chang in as his coach, who can teach him a lot about mental toughness and how to play more consistently. Young is playing more inspired ball than he did most of the past two years but his legs will give out at the end of the fourth set due to his stressful and long win over Andres Seppi in the last round.

 

Aussie Open: Dimitrov learning Grand Slam ropes

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Grigor Dimitrov’s amazing talent has been lauded since he was a teenager, but his mental toughness has been questioned.

But in his 6-7(6) 6-4 6-4 6-3 victory over American Bradley Klahn… READ MORE HERE

Dimitrov also praised his girlfriend Maria Sharapova for being extremely supportive. MORE HERE

Pain is Pironkova’s gain as she wins first title in Sydney

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Pironkova’s career has turned around.

By Matt Cronin

SYDNEY – It is very rare to find a veteran player who was sitting outside of the top 100 and, at times, who thought about quitting, who can find a way to come though qualifying and mow down an elite WTA field at a Premier level event.

Welcome to Tsvetana Pironkova’s world, one that was filled with angst and now is filled with joy. In one of the most impressive weeks in recent memory, the Bulgarian  won the Apia International Sydney on Saturday, besting the favored fifth-seed Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-4  in the final. That win followed brilliant performances against two other top 10 players, Sara Errani and Petra Kvitova; the world No. 107 became the first qualifier to win a WTA Premier since Ekaterina Makarova at 2010 Eastbourne.

The 26-year-old needed to win eight matches  to grab the crown When she came on court against Kerber, both of her legs hurt. But she would not give in, even though the German is a terrific defensive  player who is capable of grinding anyone down.

“In the beginning of the match I was feeling pain all over my legs actually, in my thighs,” Pironkova recalled. “I said, ‘You’re in the final now.  You cannot let this affect you that much.  Play until you pass out.’”

Pironkova outhit Kerber on the backhand side with low laser shots, served much bigger and more effectively and kept her weaker forehand deep enough so that Kerber was unable to eat her alive. She broke the weak-serving German six times, nailed 32 winners to Kerber’s  23 and did not appear to be nervous while closing the match out, even though it was her first career final. But, in reality, she was riddled with anxiety until she took a  deep breath and  focused on the task at hand.

“I felt very nervous, but I tried my hardest not to show it,” she said. “I was trying to concentrate so hard that I just see only the ball.  I was only watching the ball and I’m like, ‘Okay, just watch the ball and follow every point.’ ”

She won the contest when Kerber pushed a groundstroke wide, fell to her knees and cried a bit in her chair. Her first words in an on-court ceremony were to her parents, her father and coach Kirlei who was on site, as was her mom, Radosevta.

“Mom, Dad, we have trophy!” she said with a big smile on her face.

Her emotion flowed freely, which was not surprising given that there were times in 2013 when she couldn’t win a match.

“When I know what I’ve been through, not only last season but throughout my career, it hasn’t been easy for me,” she said. “This is something that I’ve been waiting for so long and something that I’ve missed so much.  Now that I finally have it, it’s all surreal.  I still cannot believe it, honestly. My mom and dad are the people that have always been with me. Good or bad, they have always been behind my back and pushing me.”

Pironkova admitted that retirement did cross her mind last season, but she stuck with her sport because she’s been chasing that elusive trophy her whole career

“One bad season. I said to myself, ‘Okay, it sucks, but you have to keep pushing. You have to go forward. Just take all your chances and do what you have to do, and then we’ll see what happens.’ So that’s what I did,” she said.

The Bulgarian added that  all of her improvement is due to her newfound mental stability and that she didn’t lose her head once she reached the latter stages of he event. After she upset Errani in the quarters, she knew she had a chance to win it, but she couldn’t afford to daydream, couldn’t think too much ahead. She actually had to wins points, games, sets and matches. And that is what she did. The former Wimbledon semifinalist will head out of Sydney to Melbourne a very happy camper, a top-60 player and a much more dangerous competitor.

“That’s for the first time it came to my mind,” she said of her Errani upset. “ ‘Whoa, you are on a roll here, you play really good, you feel confident, so why not win the tournament.’ But I try to push that thought deeper in my mind and not to think too much about it. Just to take each match on its own.  I think that’s the right strategy for me.”

Brains vs  Brawn: Tomic  vs Del Potro in men’s final

Brains will go up against brawn in the final of the Apia International Sydney on Sunday, with Juan Martin del Potro facing  Bernard Tomic. That description is more apt on court as the Argentine is more thoughtful off court than the Australian is, but Tomic tends to be a more of thinking man’s player while Del Potro’s style consists of huge serves and bigger forehands. The two have faced off only once, last year in Washington, which appeared to be a routine win for Del Potro. But Tomic thought he had chances in that contest.

Then 21-year-old Aussie has created a lot of his own opportunities during the week and was mentally strong in his last two matches against two tricky opponents who are as hard to read as he is. Those men would be Alex Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky, whom he bested  6-7(4) 7-5 6-3  in the semis. Tomic was drained during the semi, but his fitness level appears to have improved and he was able to out leg  the Ukrainian when he needed to in the third set.

But he is going to have a tougher time against Del Potro, who is not going to hesitate at key moments like Stakhovsky did.  Del Potro appears to have adjusted to the quick  courts now and thumped Dmitry Tursunov 6-4 6-2.

As Tomic said, DelPo may very well have the best forehand on tour these days. While Nadal has the best left-handed one and Federer is right there with him on good days, the Tower of Tandil can rock the shot

“Best forehand I think on tour now.” Tomic said. “Very, very good first serve. Not much you can do when he’s playing good. He can play amazing.  I have to stick with him to have a chance I play a little bit differently, so hopefully I can get buzzed up and play my tennis. know what Juan is gonna be doing.  Obviously he’s very, very good at what he does.  This is why he’s there.  I have to do something different.  I have to play my game. It’s a final.  I’ll go out there, have fun, relax, and I’m going for the win.”

Del Potro praised how intelligent Tomic’s game is, but it’s the Aussie’s first serve and more powerful forehand that has been most impressive this week, not his backhand slice or drop shot. Having a lot of variety can help players win matches as long as they can execute, which Tomic has not been very adept at outside of Australia. But he is playing at home, where he frequently displays top-20 stuff.

“He’s very smart to play,” Del Potro said. “He has everything to be in the higher ranking very soon.  He’s a local guy, so he has a little advantage to the rest.  He already won this tournament last year, so he must feel confidence to play down the center court.”

Tomic added that it is possible that the Argentine will get nervous and that would give him a  chance.

 

Kerber goes on the Offense, while Tomic Learns to Focus

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Angie is trying to become a risk taker.

 

FROM THE APIA INTERNATIONAL SYDNEY – Angelique Kerber has been a very good, but not great player since 2011, when she came out of nowhere and reached the US Open semifinals. After that, and a very solid 2012, it appeared that lefthander really did have Grand Slam winning potential. She is naturally strong, is a terrific mover and  is a standout defensive player. She has good but not great serve, but that is not uncommon on the WTA tour. She has world class two-handed backhand that she can slap into the corners.  But her forehand has lacked some oomph, as has her return. Playing standout defense propelled her into the year-end top 5 in 2012, but her lack of improvement in 2013 saw her drop to the No.9 ranking, which is where she is now.

Pro tennis is not all about aggression, but if you look at the WTA’s top three of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, it does require some high octane offense.

That is what Kerber knew she had to bring to the table this year and it was that attitude and style that saw he blitz the powerful teenager Madison Keys 6-4, 6-2 in the Brisbane semis.

“I was working very hard in my off‑season and trying to play more aggressive in my practice sessions,” Kerber said.  “I think right now I try to make it in my matches, so it’s good I have like very good matches also before Melbourne. I’m feeling good, and I try to going for my shots.  That’s also what I improve in my game.  I think that it’s good right now.”

Much of a player’s willingness to go for her shots has to do with confidence, and a willingness to make mistakes and move on. On Thursday in Sydney, Kerber actually attacked Keys’ big serve and let loose with her forehand ,which looked much improved and dangerous. She still needs to put balls back in play, but she has to go for openings.

“ I have [going back to defense] sometimes in my mind, but I try to not thinking about this,” she said.  “I really try to focus then from point to point and not thinking about the past, and just trying to go then for my shots.  Also when I make some mistakes not thinking about this too much.  Going for my shots for the other point.”

Kerber will be the favorite going into the final against the Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, who played  an excellent match in upsetting Petra Kvitova, but even if the German goes down, she knows that she has to keep attempting to change her mentality. Not too many players can claim wins over Serena, Sharapova, Aga Radwanska and Li Na, but she can. She also played Azarenka very close they last time they faced off.

That indicates that some day, the 25 year old  will have a legitimate chance to win a major, if she takes her gloves off.

“I think you need to play for sure aggressive to be in the top 5, because it’s not easy to play against them when you’re just a defensive player,” Kerber said. “So I try to mix it a little bit and improve my game like to be more aggressive.”

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Men’s story of the day: Tomic focuses

Defending champion Bernard Tomic came into his Sydney quarterfinal with a 1-5 record against his foe, Alex Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian’s one-time Aussie coach, Jack Reader, once attributed that to ‘Bernie not liking how Alex plays.” Both guys are squirrely, unorthodox players who are quite talented, but not known for their large hearts or killer instincts. But this time around, at home in front of a very supportive crowd, the Aussie Tomic stayed patient when he had to, didn’t get caught in Dolgopolov spider web and took big rips at the balls when they were in his wheelhouse. The result was a 6-4 6-3 win by Tomic, who once again playing at home looks very good. He also appears a good deal smarter as he managed to smash the mirror of himself into pieces. That would be “The Dolgo.”

“When I play him now I know what it’s like when players play me,” Tomic said. “It’s very different, because the balls that come to me are very unusual.  I struggle with a lot of his balls. I’m like, What the hell was that?  It’s his tennis, and that’s something I do well.  Obviously he’s a difficult player. I’m happy I won.”

Tomic  appears to have gained a bit more foot speed during the off season, is better balanced than he was last year and is clearly motivated to show his home country fans that he really is better than his world No. 51 ranking. On a cool night in Sydney, he also showed them that he can keep his head in a match that he was quite concerned about.

“I knew I had to stay focused with him, “ Tomic said. “ It’s not so much about playing amazing or that good.  I just needed to stay focused and do what I needed to do against him. Against him you can be winning and feel so uncomfortable, and you might lose in one or two games against, like your rhythm and everything.  So it’s difficult to find that timing against a player like that.”

Tomic could very well be better than his ranking, but outside of his fine Aussie summers, the 21 year old had never been a force on tour except for one strong Wimbledon. But that does not matter this week and won’t in the next two weeks in Melbourne.

He has the tools to win Sydney again — although Juan Martin Del Potro, who bested Radek Stepanek and will face Dmitry Tursunov in the semis — will be the favorite to do so. And if Tomic can defend his title, or even reach the final and play the elite likes of Del Potro tough, then he will be worth a long look at the Aussie Open.

Development of the Day

Juan Martin Del Potro says the Sydney courts are very fast and is hoping that the Ausralian Open won’t be as quick.  “I think the bounce are really low,” he said.  “Looks like a grass court, because very low bounce and very faster bounce, too. It’s not easy to play on the baseline and feel good on the lines, but I’m trying to do the best I can… I’m not training for this kind of conditions.  I been practicing in hard court, regular hard court, and I was expecting different conditions for this tournament. Hopefully for Melbourne the courts and balls are slower to play long rallies, to feel the ball like I want.  If not, I will have a couple days before start to change my mind and try to play the best tennis I can.”

Quote of the Day

The vanquished Petra Kvitova on her Aussie Open prospects: “I think the matches what I played was great, and I have three in my back.  I think it’s really good to have this record coming to Australian Open.  It’s a new week. I just hope that I can bring something good from Perth and from Sydney.”

What to Watch for on Friday

Can the cagey Pironkova finally realize her dream and win her first WTA title?

 

 

Clash of the old Titans

 

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Federer and Hewitt will play for the 27th time

 

FROM THE BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL – Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt are both 32 years old, more or less grew up together on tour and once had a tremendous rivalry. Hewitt peaked early than the Swiss, winning his sole two majors at in 2001 US Open and 2002 Wimble, while it took Federer until 2003 Wimbledon to win his first crown.

An early chapter of their rivalry was written in the 2003 Davis Cup semifinals, when the Aussie snarled and counterpunched the Swiss into the turf for a 5-7 2-6 7-6 7-5 6-1 victory in Melbourne. It’s still match that is talked about in Davis Cup circles and is certainly one of the most dramatic played between two former No. 1’s in the competition.

After that victory, Hewitt led the rivalry 7-2, but oh-so-quickly, Federer turned the tables on him, besting the then counterpuncher in three 2004 Grand Slams. Federer’s level soared that year, as he tightened up his all round games, was no longer just a pretty player with bursts of brilliance, but a very effective and steady competitor who was a light-footed shotmaker. He was almost impossible to trip up. He would win 16 of their next 17 matches and clearly became a better player.

“I had the tough match where I lost the Davis Cup here in 2003 in the semis,” Federer said.

“I think it really proved to me that I could play great tennis not just for a set, two sets, but three sets or maybe even longer against the toughest guys out there.  Lleyton at that point probably the toughest to beat in the best‑of‑five set match also physically and mentally. And for me to be able to not just do it tennis‑wise but physically and mentally gave me the big belief that I could hang with the best, and especially with him.  Then I went on a run like I did.  I never thought that was going to happen, because he has the game to cause me a lot of problems. I just think the confidence I had and the amount of then variation I could bring to the court was just difficult for Lleyton.  But I always felt like it was just not only my racquet.  The moment I dip my level he was going to be there and take it.”

They played against each other in five more Slams post 2004, all wins for the Swiss, who owns a much stronger forehand and serve and avoided being caught in death spiral crosscourt backhand rallies with the Aussie.

Hewitt was able to hang in matches, but actually winning sets proved difficult as he only managed three in nine matches in their 2005-2009 period Then in the 2010 Halle final, Hewitt struck again on his favorite surface, grass, and pulled off a three set upset. They have played only once since then, in a 2011 Davis Cup clash, again In Australia but this time, Federer took him down on turf and helped lead his team to victory

“My rivalry with him was pretty intense,” Federer said. “Never nasty or anything, but just good matches.  We’re total opposite from one another the way we play.  I play with the one‑handed backhand; he plays his double‑handed.  His attitude on court is totally different to mine. I think that’s why it’s always an interesting matchup for both of us.”

Now the two practice together constantly and on occasion hang out off court. While they are no longer at their peaks, with Hewitt hovering outside of the top 50 and Federer outside of the top 5, they are both smart, resourceful players, which is why they will meet in the Brisbane finals. On Saturday, Federer bested Jeremy Chardy 6-3 6-7 6-3, and Hewitt overcame Kei Nishikori as 5-7 6-4 6-3.

Lift your glasses high for the old guys:

“I keep putting myself through it.  Must like punishment,” Hewitt said. “I reckon nearly everyone had some kind of run against Roger those years.  He lost two or three matches for the year.  Apart from losing to go Rafa a couple times, he didn’t lose too many matches. Roger is obviously through that period where he dominated.  He was very tough for anyone to beat. In Halle I got a little bit lucky, but I did play a really good three‑set match there. I prefer to play him in finals rather than round of 16 or quarters or third round of slams, so…

 

Developments of the Weekends

It is highly unusual for have some so many Grand Slam champions facing off in finals at any given week of the year. In the three WTA events, five women with a combined 28 Grand Slam titles reached the finals, perhaps an all time first.

Both finals in Brisbane featured former major champs and in Auckland, 2008 Roland Garros titlist   Ana Ivanovic claimed her first title in more than two years with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 victory over seven-time Slam champ Venus Williams. “It’s amazing,” Ivanovic said. “Coming into this week I didn’t really have any expectations. I didn’t even think about making the finals or winning it. I just tried my best, and I felt very comfortable here. Today was a great match. Venus is always very tough – she’s a great champion and showed that again today.

In Shenzhen, 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na overcame fellow Chinese Peng Shuai 6-4, 7-5. The fans there were overjoyed to see two of their own facing off.

The Doha ATP final is a very attractive one, too, with 13 time Slam champ and No. 1 Rafael Nadal set to face Frenchman Gael Monfils.

 

2013 TR Annual Readers Poll: final results

Thanks to our very loyal and active readers and for the thousands of votes we received. We love the responses.

Don’t forget to vote in our (Nearly) Daily Poll, that shows up on our home page and all posts.

Sexiest Male Player

Results

Grigor Dimitrov 61%
Rafael Nadal 17%
Ernests Gulbis 10%
Novak Djokovic 2%
Feliciano Lopez 2%
Tommy Haas 3%
Benoit Paire 1%
Fernando Verdasco 1%
Jo-Wilfred Tsonga 1%
Pablo Andujar .2%

Sexiest Female Player

Results

Maria Sharapova 40%
Caroline Wozniacki 23%
Victoria Azarenka 21%
Maria Kirlenko 6%
Julia Goerges 3%
Daniela Hantuchova 3%
Alize Lim 2%
Elena Vesnina 1%
Sloane Stephens 1%
Bojana Jovanovski 1%
Zheng Jie .2%

Tweeter of the Year

Results

Laura Robson 25%
Roger Federer 24%
Serena Williams 19%
Tomas Berdych 13%
Stan Wawrinka 5%
Maria Sharapova 4%
Andy Murray 3%
Ivo Karlovic 3%
Caroline Wozniacki 2%
Sofia Arvidsson 1%

Coach of the Year/ATP

Results

Toni Nadal/
Rafael Nadal
37%
Magnus Norman/
Stan Wawrinka
32%
Ivan Lendl/
Andy Murray
24%
Marian Vajda/
Novak Djokovic
7%

Coach of the Year/WTA

Results

Patrick Mouratoglou/
Serena Williams
57%
Carlos Rodriguez/
Li Na
22%
Sam Sumyk/
Victoria Azarenka
11%
Marko Jankovic/
Jelena Jankovic
10%

Coolest Male Player

Results

Roger Federer 64%
Novak Djokovic 15%
Tomas Berdych 14%
Dimitry Tursunov 7%

Coolest Female Player

Results

Andrea Petkovic 48%
Laura Robson 35%
Marion Bartoli 11%
Bethanie Mattek-Sands 5%