Venus’ long & winding road back to respectability

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Venus still cannot crank up her serve.

FROM THE ROGERS CUP IN TORONTO – It is never easy to see a formerly great player decline. Roger Federer fans are experiencing that this year, and Pete Sampras fans experienced that at the beginning of this century. Those fans that love Martina Hingis got a whiff of that around 2003 and again in 2007 and even in her return in doubles in the past week or so, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who is watching her that she would be hard pressed to even crack the top 20 in singles if she chooses to go that route, even though a return to the top spot in doubles in quite possible.

The fans of Venus Williams are dealing with something altogether different though, as they are watching one of the most significant players of the Open Era struggle with an auto-immune disease and a series of injuries, this time a serious one to her back, which isn’t allowing her to play anywhere close to her prime. If one watched a tape of her stirring and ethereal victory over Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 Wimbledon final – perhaps the most well played women’s final in the past decade or even further — and then watched her go down to Kirsten Flipkens 0-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round of the Rogers Cup on Tuesday, a marked difference that is as glaring as her new partially red hair color. Her play in the last set and half of that loss was a good 70% below her 2005 level: she was wild and often weak off the ground, her return had little pop, she was a bit slow to the ball and once again, she could not crank up the serve that had struck fear into the heart of the rest of the tour when she first appeared on the WTA back in November of 1994.

Right now, Venus is shadow of her former great self  and unless something radically changes in the next two weeks or so, it’s hard to see the 33-year-old even reaching the second week of the US Open. She hasn’t won the tournament since she went back to back in 2000-2001, but she remained very competitive there through 2010. In 2011, she began to be affected by Sjorden’s Syndrome and came out in public at the US Open and told the world of her troubles. Since then, she has had a couple of decent shorts spurts of play, but she has been unable to sustain that level, which is very understandable give that it has been hard enough for her just to find away to get her energy level up to live a decent day, then to practice, and then to play a handful of matches. But to able consistently sustain a top-10 level of play? No, she has not been there since last spring and yesterday it appeared like she might not even be able to pull off a top 50 level of play.

Perhaps she will in the future, but it is so hard to see a player –regardless of how great she once was — who has played only one good tournament this season (Charleston where she scored wins over Monica Puig, Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys before Serena belted her in the semis)  rise up and start playing A-Level ball against when her back injury isn’t fully healed.

And it is not, because if it was she could have been able to go out on court against Flipkens and smoke  serves, not go for 3/4s speed and have very little spin of any significance when she tried to slice or kick it.

“ I just really started serving a lot more in the last week, so I’m not really, 100% on the serve yet,” she said. “So it was better not to take too many risks and just do something I felt more comfortable with. This week I will definitely be practicing my serve a lot more and getting more confident in it. So definitely today my service games I didn’t feel like myself, because usually I step up to the line, I go for it a lot, but I didn’t really feel like I could do that today.”

Venus’ traveling coach/hitting partner David Witt told that her back is fine. He knows better than most, but if it really is fine, then why didn’t she just go all out on her serve, or decide to play doubles this week to get more matches in, or singles and doubles next week in Cincinnati, or singles in New Haven or singles and doubles at the US Open?

Because she feels that it is not and it’s very vulnerable.

“I have to be really easy on my back now,” she said. “I can’t force it.  Doubles would be awesome, but it’s not an option right now.  Hopefully I will just be able to obviously play at the Open.”

Venus is in a tricky position. She badly wants to be a contender again, and the most of the important of the season – Roland Garros through the US Open — will conclude in five weeks. If she can’t get on court, her season will essentially be a wash. She needs matches, but as we saw on Tuesday against Flipkens and in May in her losses to Laura Robson (Rome) and Ula Radwanska (Roland Garros), she also cannot win them at a 50% level. She realizes that she’s in a Catch -22.

“Coming back from injury, you have to build the confidence to just realize that you can come back and play without pain,” she said. “So I feel like I’m in that threshold of building confidence, and I really want to be able to play matches before the US Open.  That’s a lot of what happened to me at the French, too.  I played an intense and a really fun, exciting match, but I hadn’t played any matches.  So it was like just a tough situation to be in.  Do you play or you don’t play? So I feel like kind of in that situation now going into the US Open.  Do you play or don’t play?”

She will play on, but until she feels confident enough to go for her shots and has enough court time to keep the yellow pill in the court, she won’t have the degree of success that she’d like too. She will be a sentimental favorite everywhere she goes (she received a lot of crowd support in Toronto) so that will make her feel good to a degree, but she’s a proud competitor and will not be able to easily accept losing to players whom she used to be able dust in matter of minutes.

That will be another one of her many tests mocking forward. She says her goal is to play the 2016 Rio Olympics – which is long three years away – and most of the tennis industry and her fan base hopes that she accomplishes that goal, but as of this week it looks like a reach – about as lengthy as one of her vintage 2005 stretch volleys that won her third Wimbledon crown.

Kleybanova’s return: she wants W’s

Speaking of warriors, former top 20 player Alisa Kleybanova took the court on Wednesday night against Canada’s beloved Genie Bouchard. It was Kleybanova’s first WTA level match since March of 2012, and only her second since she was diagnosed with cancer in the early summer of 2011.  She began her comeback in May playing ITFs and then World Team Tennis, but that is not the same as a WTA level match against a promising up and comer who responded very well to playing at home.

Kleybanova’s ball striking was very decent, but not at her pre-cancer levels. That should not be expected. Like Venus, she needs matches, practice, and improved fitness — pretty much everything.

“I haven’t been getting tired recently at all.  I have been playing and training every day,” she said.

“I’m back to normal, back to regular basics. Now it’s all about playing matches.  It’s all about the competing thing an, all the points and playing the tournament, the atmosphere, handling the stress out there, getting used to it more because I have been out for a while. Now it’s everything a little bit new for me again.  It takes time to get used to it.”

She is only 24, so age is not a factor in her comeback but clearly she went through a harrowing experience and although she feels healthy again, mentally it took her a lot of work just to be able to declare herself ready to give the sport a go again. She tried in March of 2012, but  it was too soon and she grew disappointed. She didn’t give up, but it was not the right decision.

“I couldn’t deal with all the stress in my body and obviously felt I wasn’t ready yet, she said. “I took some time off.  I was trying to get back on tour through [2012], but I always felt like I’m not there yet.  So the middle of summer I decided just to take it easy and, you know, wait till the next year, because it’s very hard to every couple weeks set a goal and you feel like I’m not ready and move it again and then you’re not ready. So it’s just too much stress, trying to get ready for a certain event and then not participate. Basically it was pretty stressful mentally not to play for such a long time and like train and try to take time off because seeing I’m not ready. So it took me a lot of patience. I had to like really, you know, try to take it easy, not rush things.  It was very, very difficult mentally, even more mental than physical.”

Here’s the thing about Kleybanova though: she’s just not happy to be back in court. Of course she’s happy that she has her health back, but results still matter to her. She was not thrilled that she was rarely chosen to play singles in World TeamTennis given that she was the most accomplished player on her team, but perhaps her coach saw that she wasn’t quite ready yet (she did lose to Hingis in singles in the WTT final) for prime time.

She might be in a few months time, but she does not appear to be just yet. She’s a smart person and terrific character who adds a lot of flavor to the tour. Let’s just hope she takes it easy on herself because at last of last night, grabbing some W’s seemed very important to her.

“I think no matter what I have been through, wins and losses are still important, because as an athlete I go on the court and with all my heart I want to win every match,” she said with tear welling up in her eyes.

So of course when you lose it’s very tough.  So obviously you go out there to win. It’s always going to be tough.  It’s never going to be like I go on the court, Okay, I lost, doesn’t matter.  You always try to think like that, but it’s not always like that. But I know that right now I need to be even stronger than before, because to come back it’s going to take a while, it’s going to take maybe some not great matches as was today, but I need to go through this, I need to get this experience, and sometimes it’s not going to be very positive experience.  I just have to get ready for that, because I know that my way won’t be easy and I need to go for it and believe that I can do it.”

Also of note

Stanford champ Dominica Cibulkova has done a nice job coming off her loss to Ana Ivanovic in Carlsbad, Beating Jana Cepalova in the first round and then taking out Angelique Kerber 6‑7 (0), 6‑2, 7‑5 in a marathon…Bouchard will get a much more severe test when she has to go up against defending champ Petra Kvitova on Wednesday night. BTW Kvitova says that she & her ‘friend’ Radek Stepanek will split fitness trainer Marek Vseticek’s time. They haven’t negotiated who gets him when tournaments are not  combined…Caroline Wozniacki returns the same day and will play her friend Sorana Cirstea. ..Lauren Davis continues to be a tough out and bested Svetlana Kuznetsova both in qualifying and the first round, which earned her a match up against Marion Bartoli, who is also playing for the first time since Wimbledon. Here are a few of Bartoli’s most recent thoughts…Sania Mirza, who as gone gluten free, will play doubles with Zheng Jie through the US Open. Her former partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands will not play doubles for the rest of the summer as she’s focusing on singles…Abigail Spears and Raquel-Kops-Jones, who defeated Hingis and Hantuchova last week in Carlsbad en route the title, also won Stanford the week prior, the first time the long time US duo has won back to back premiers. If I’m US Fed captain Mary Joe Fernandez, I’m going them a strong look for Fed Cup duty next season. Spears could play back-up singles if needed.


Bartoli Aces Crisis Management and Reaches Final


Bartoli was willing to live through ups and downs

WIMBLEDON – Give partial credit to anyone you want to for Marion Bartoli reaching the Wimbledon final again: Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo, who is helping advise her in Paris, her hitting partner Thomas Drouet (he of John Tomic head-butting infamy) who has been with her for about six weeks now, or the French Tennis Federation physio and trainers who are aiding her cause, too.

Of course, a load of credit needs to go to her father Walter, who taught her the game and has been with her just about every second of her career except for a few critical months in 2013.

But most of the credit should go Marion herself, who is a very driven person who never gave up on her Grand Slam hopes, even though time and time again over the years she has fallen short against other elite players. She’s been a very good player over her career, but not a great one and if she can beat Sabine Lisicki in the final and win this  Wimbledon, she will have earned the accolade, at least for this year.

Throughout most of her career, Bartoli has seemed to be engaged in some kind of combat. She is very smart person for someone who did not receive much of a formal education. She is engaging and she always tries to be honest, although there are things about her life that perhaps she should have met head on earlier her career, such as that it’s not easy to mature as  player or person when you have a parent around your 24/7, and that was the case with Marion and Walter.

Because of that, she never socialized much with the other players. She isn’t the only player who was in that situation, but players like Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams who also don’t hang around a ton with other players travel with large teams who keep them company. Bartoli did not. so there were times when you would see her alone. And when Walter stopped coaching her, she admitted to being lonely.

“There are moments when I feel very lonely and there are some very tough days and I am getting back to my hotel room and I turn around and say ‘Dad’ and there is no one anymore,” she told me back in March. But then she added hopefully:  “In a way it helps me on court mentally.”

From a media perspective, the now 28-year-old has been one of the most cooperative players on the tour over the past decade. She is opinionated and gives a lot of herself and most of what she says is insightful.

But having a high IQ and being open doesn’t always translate to on court success. She is not the most athletically gifted player out there, even though she is terrific ball striker and has improved her movement over the years. She hits with two hands off both sides so she still can be had on the move and while her first serve is pretty formidable despite her odd motion, her second serve can be attacked. Her hyper-aggressive return is simply legendary when she gets t the ball in her wheelhouse.

I had nothing to do against her,” said the hobbled Flipkens after her 6-1, 6-2 defeat.  “She played an amazingly well match. I tried my slices. She didn’t have any problem with that. I tried the drop shot.  She got it. I played a passing, she came to the net. I tried a lob. I tried everything, actually.  I was trying to give myself 100%, but it didn’t work out.”

Really, it looked like a nightmare year for Bartoli in the spring. After she reached the quarterfinals of the US Open for the first time back in the fall, Walter was very satisfied that she had managed to do it for the first time. She had also reached the final eight of the other three majors so the circle was complete. He was done and wanted to spend more time at home

She was very excited about the prospect of striking out on her own, but it looked better on the outside than it did in reality. She hired  Jana Novotna to coach her and the Czech was gone after one tournament, Indian Wells. She then hired Gerard Bremond away from the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy and he lasted all of one tournament, Monterrey. There she said she played her worst match ever as a pro in a loss to  Coco Vandeweghe. She returned home, said her father knew she needed help and he tried again, but his heart wasn’t in it and he needed a rest. So after Roland Garros, she let allowed him to stay home again.

Other than the fact that she is a terrific grass court player, how  Bartoli has managed to reach the final when so much turmoil has been going on in her life this year is slightly befuddling, but she isn’t that surprised. She is used to making mid match adjustments on court and seemed to have done the same in her off court life.

“I believe as a sportsperson you cannot have always some highs, and you have to go through some low moments to enjoy even more the highs,” she said. “But, yes, I’ve been having some tough moments ‑ most out of the court than on the court, to be honest with you.  But I think carry on the same attitude every single day on the practice court and in the gym and whatever helped me to really bounce back and to come back in the great shape that I am right now.  Obviously it shows that determination and truth for every single day always pays off.”

Perhaps more importantly, Bartoli seemed to believe it was her destiny to return to the final. In 2007, she stunned Justine Henin in the semis and due to earlier rain delays then had to come back a day later and face Venus Williams and went down.

Six years later, she believes she is much better all around player. Does she see her return to the final as inevitable? No, but  all those late hours she put in after losing matches when others were back in their hotels rooms did yield a reward. That’s another shot at Wimbledon glory. “I felt I deserved it,” she said.

Grass court specialist: Lisicki outlast Radwanksa to reach final

There have been way too many occasions over the past few years when some analysts and ex-players have said the grass has slowed way down, but if that is the case how to explain the fact that Sabine Lisicki – who has only twice reached the fourth round of other Slams – has reached the final? The reason she has is because she serves huge, returns big when the balls are in her strike zone and can rip groundstrokes. No discredit to the German, who showed tremendous heart in outlasting Aga Radwanska 6-4 2-6 9-7 in an epic semifinal, but she is by no means a terrific all around player yet. She has reached the quarterfinals or better or Wimbledon four times precisely because she is a big server, and attacking lass who can bend low and whack winners.

The 23-year-old Lisicki has improved since she reached the semis in 2011, especially mentally. Radwanska did not play her best, but she played well enough to best most players and even after she was broken back when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, Lisicki didn’t bend and fired away. She has taken down a slew of very good to great player en route to the final: Francesca Schiavone, Elena Vesnina, Sam Stosur, Serena Williams, Kaia Kanepi and now Radwanska. That’s about as difficult of a road as anyone could have traveled. And only a player with grass court skills could have managed it.  Perhaps when she leaves Wimbledon, she’ll take all that newfound confidence and develop more skills of other surfaces.

“I had a tough draw, but I think it made me ready for each and every single match that I had to play the next round>” she said.
Having Francesca in the first round and Vesnina, the Eastbourne champion, all those matches were different challenges.  They made me ready to play against Serena, as well.  I just keep going from there.  I gained so much confidence also in my shots and playing long rallies. I feel great out there.  I was fighting for every point. I fought my heart out.”