Notes on a draw sheet: Clay court season heats up

Hola, Madrid. Serious clay courts here now.

The clay courts are really starting now. Yes, it was important in Monte Carlo and Barcelona (the guys), and Stuttgart and Prague (the girls). But coming soon are three gigantic events: Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.

Roland Garros is in five weeks and whoever wins on clay, they will be extremely happy, even if they happen to lose early on grass and then the hard courts. You will remember who wins in Paris — forever.

This week in Spain, Madrid has already started.

In Istanbul, one-time Grand Slam champion Marin Cilic overcame Milos Raonic 7-6(3) 6-3.

In Munich, the 20-year-old Alexander Zverev beat Guido Pella 6-4, 6-3 to win his biggest title yet. Zverev is coming up big time. The 6’6” player is now ranked No. 17, and he is coming up super fast. “I’m confident. I’m playing well so hopefully I can keep going and play some great tennis in the upcoming weeks,” Zverev said.  My colleague, Ron Cioffi, predicted at least a year ago that Zverev would be No. 1 at some point in his career.

The last time that a teenager won a Grand Slam was 12 years ago, when Rafa Nadal won Roland Garros in 2005. None of the top competitors were unable to grab Slams when they were teenagers: not Roger Ferrer, not Novak Djokovic, not Andy Murray, not Stan Wawrinka. Only Nadal, who was only 19 years old. He was very young, and he had a lot of work to do, but regardless, he ran like the wind.

Zverev isn’t as fast as Nadal is, but the German crushes the ball from the backcourt, with his serve, his forehand and his backhand. Ka-boom!

Nadal won this year’s Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, but now, he might have to face Murray and/or Djokovic this week. Not Wawrinka, who looks undisciplined. The Britain and the Serbian are struggling, so the Spaniard is the favorite.

NOTES

Maria Sharapova was unable to win Stuttgart, but she did reach the semis, which was more or less OK. But now, she has to focus and disregard fans who are screaming at her. It has been a very, very trying 15 months off since she was banned. Now she is back, and hopefully, she can be super nice to everyone. But, it won’t be easy, that is for sure.

On Sunday, Sharapova beat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 and will play Genie Bouchard in the second round. They have played four times, with the American/Russian winning all of them, but at least the Canadian pushed her in Roland Garros a few years ago. Sharapova is the favorite, because Bouchard had just lost six matches in a row. The former No. 5 is very strong, but her brain goes away pretty quickly. Bouchard absolutely has to calm down or Sharapova will crush her.

Three of the top US American women aren’t in Madrid: Serena Williams won’t play the rest of the year (she’s pregnant), Venus is resting, and Madison Keys lost in the first round against Doi. Keys is just coming back, so hopefully, she will get better as fast as she can. Last year, she reached the final at Rome.

The US teenager Catherine Bellis won on Sunday and she is rising very quickly. But on clay? We will find out ASAP.

Sharapova returns but WTA players are not all pleased

Notes on A Draw Sheet

Also: Nadal, Goffin, Konya and more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mladenovic v. Halep set for Indian Wells

INDIAN WELLS. March 12 — A couple years ago, Simona Halep became No. 2. She reached the final of Roland Garros. There she was very close to her first Slam win, but Maria Sharapova stepped on the gas, winning to 6-4 in the third.

Halep had lost, and cried, but she believed that she could win at the Grand Slam.

She hasn’t yet. 

In 2016, she was on fire, racing around, hitting hard and crushing balls. She won Madrid, Bucharest and Montreal. But guess what? At the Slams, her head wasn’t into it.

She lost early at the Aussie and Roland Garros. At Wimbledon, she managed to go into the second week, beating Madison Keys, but she fell against Angie Kerber in two tight sets.

At the US Open, she reached the quarters again, losing another very tight match, going down to Serena Williams, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

She wasn’t quiet there.

Now she will face KiKi Mladenovic at Indian Wells.

As Halep said, “I’m here, and she’s here.”

Mladenovic beat her in Paris and Birmingham, but Halep topped her in three long sets at 2015 Cincinnati.

Mladenovic is rising, while Halep is struggling.

One way or another, at Indian Wells, it should be a classic.

Another classic? Serena Williams vs Maria Sharapova: who will win?

Maria and Caro did not have the seasons they wished for.

Australian Open, Jan 25, 2016 –

QUARTERFINALS

1-Serena Williams beat Margarita Gasparyan 6-2 6-1

The fabulous Serena is now rolling again, hitting huge serve, cracking her returns and pounding her strokes. The American is directive and showed the young Russian that she has a very long way to go. She is the favorite, but against Maria Sharapova she will have to play consistent and calm.

5-Maria Sharapova beat 12-Belinda Bencic 7-5 7-5

The Russian-American says that the young Swiss is already very good and she wouldn’t back off. In a fine match, Sharapova served gigantic, and managed to go for it consistently when she wanted to go down the line and fool her opponent. Sharapova said that clearly, Bencic is already one of the best players in the game. But she isn’t beating her yet.

WHO WINS? SERENA VS. SHARAPOVA

In 2004, Sharapova was only 17-year-old, and she had no fear at all, out hitting Serena at the Wimbledon final and the WTA Finals. She was able to hit the lines off both wings.

After Serena upended Sharapova in the 2005 Australian Open in the semis when Maria had a match point but was unable to nail it, it totally changed. Since then, Serena has won 17 matches in a row and Maria has only been able to win three sets. Serena has beaten her everywhere, by returning substantially better, and smoking her serves that Sharapova cannot handle. Once they get into rallies, it is pretty darn close, but Maria cannot seem to read her, while Serena usually knows which way she is going.

Yes, Sharapova has improved with her drop shots, and yes, on occasion now, she will come into the net, but if Serena is crushing her serves and she is leaping on her returns, then how exactly is Maria going to win lengthy points? That would be extraordinary.

Without a doubt, Sharapova really does want to find away to upset Serena and she will try super hard. But in the end, Williams will find the lines once again. Serena will win in three terrific sets.

4- Aga Radwanska beat Anna-Lena Friedsam’s

The German was right there, up 5-2 in the third set, but then her left leg started to cramp and she was crying, not able to run very fast anymore. Radwanska escaped and she continued to fight. However, she is going to have to play much better if she wants to win the title for the first time.

10-Carla Suarez Navarro beat Daria Gavrilova 0-6 6-3 6-2

The Spaniard was way off in the first set and looked like she was flat once again, but she levitradosageus24.com started to swing away. Suarez Navarro out-stroked the Australian Gavrilova, who said she went crazy in the last two sets. She said that she was “emotionally fried.”

WHO WILL WINS? RADWANKSA VS. SUAREZ

Good for Suarez Navarro for waking up, seized the moment and has reached the quarters. She may not be tall, but she is very muscular and strong. However, even though Radwanska was spotty on Sunday, at least she knows how to play her. Without a doubt, they will contest long rallies, and given that Suarez Navarro edged her 6-4 in the third in Miami last year, there is no doubt that the Spaniard will trouble her by exposing her forehand. However, the Pole can mix it up more often and she will seize the moment. Radwanska will win in three sets.

1-Novak Djokovic beat 14-Gilles Simon 6-3 6-7(1) 6-4 4-6 6-3

Clearly, the Serbian didn’t play very well, but in the fifth set, he moved forward, he took some risks and believed that when he had to push and shove, he did it, out-hitting the steady Simon. Now, Djokovic can breathe, but will he back off and try to be a little bit more consistent? Perhaps he will, but he’s so good that he can frequently change his direction and when he is feeling right, he can crack it anywhere he wants to.

7-Kei Nishikori beats 9-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4 6-2 6-4

The Japanese is very pleased that he trounced the Frenchman who took him down in five sets in the quarters of the Roland Garros. He jumped in the returns and yanked him from side to side. The 25-year-old thinks he has a real shot to win the tournament. He still has to prove it.

WHO WILL WIN? DJOKOVIC VS. NISHIKORI

The Japanese says that he is ready to beat the Serbian again, having stunned him at the 2014 US Open semifinal. But after that, Djokovic has ripped him four times in a row. He is taller, stronger and smarter. Yes, Nishikori is a little faster, but he cannot out-hit him from the backcourts. Without a doubt, Nishikori can be super aggressive, but Djokovic has to still be a little angry from playing down to Simon’s level. This time, he won’t and dictate his own turns. Djokovic will win in four sets.

3-Roger Federer beat 15-David Goffin 6-2 6-2 6-4

The Swiss was delightful, out-stroking with his forehand, backhand and volleys. He was moving forward all the time, knowing that wherever he was, he believed that his shot was substantially stronger and smarter. That’s why the 17-time Grand Slam champion crushed the Belgian.

6-Tomas Berdych beat 24-Roberto Bautista 4-6 6-4 6-3 1-6 6-3

It was very surprising that the 27-year-old Spaniard was very close against the Czech given that he has never gone deep at the Slams, but Bautista was right there and had he not hiccupped, he might have stunned Berdych. However, Berdych has been around for a long time and rarely falls against the top 30 boys.

WHO WILL WIN? FEDERER VS. BERDYCH

Berdych wants another shot against Federer and if he plays spectacularly well, he can chop him out. The Czech had stunned Federer at the 2010 Wimbledon semis and at the 2012 US Open quarterfinal, but Federer has beaten him 15 other times, including twice at the Australian Open. Moreover, ‘Rog’ beat him three times last year, including the ATP Finals. Federer says that the court is quick, and big Berdych likes to keep the points short. However, even if that’s true, Berdych hasn’t looked fantastic. Federer has been dancing on the streets. He will win in straight sets.

Aussie Open 2016 Draw: Can Serena win another majors? Nope

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2016 AUSTRALIAN OPEN

FIRST HALF

FIRST QUARTER

No. 1 Serena Williams hasn’t played since the US Open, so she is pretty raw. Plus, she was hurt 10 days ago due to her knee, so it’s very hard to tell whether she will be ready. She said that she feels “130 percent.” If so, she can win seven matches winning 6-0, 6-0. She is that good.

However, I don’t think she is 100 percent, not even 90 percent. She is super vulnerable. She could lose against Camilla Giorgi in the first set, yet while the Italian can strike the ball, she is inconsistent mentally. She could be troubled against Su-Wei Hsieh in the second round, or Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the third round, but she scrape past them. But in the Round of 16 – she is gone against her close friend Caro Wozniacki. Time after time, Caro has been close but she has seasoned up. This week, the Danish will finally yank her around and make her very tired. Serena will throw a few dozen unforced errors and she will wave goodbye. It happens – for everyone.

Maria Sharapova will be in the quarter, and if she had to face Williams once again, she could be shaky on court as she has lost so many times against her. But no matter. Sharapova has to reach the quarters first and she became hurt [everybody seems to be hurt] in Brisbane While she is feeling fine, she might not be 100 prix vrai cialis percent. We will see. However, Sharapova looked very good at the WTA Finals and the Fed Cup final. She seems relax and eager. She has a fine draw until the fourth round, when she will have to face Belinda Bencic or Svetlana Kuznetsova. The 18-year-old Bencic is coming hard, while Kuznetsova played a terrific contest in Sydney. Sharapova wants it more though, but she knows that if she can win a couple more majors, she has to do it soon.

SEMIFINAL: Sharapova

GREAT FIRST ROUND:

Bencic vs. Alison Riske

Allegedly, Bencic said she was ill a couple of day ago and had to pull out in Sydney. Now she has to face the hard-hitting American Riske who is playing well on the hard courts. A true toss-up.

SECOND QUARTER

During the fall, Aga Radwanska really came alive, winning the WTA Finals. She won a tournament last week, too. While she certainly is not the out-and-out favorite, she is way up there. It’s time for the No. 4 Radwanska to finally shine and win a Slam. However, it won’t be easy. She will open up against Christina McHale, who can by super steady, then against Genie Bouchard, who can be super aggressive, and then against Sam Stosur, who can crush her heavy forehand. But the cagey Radwanska will figure it out. In the Round of 16 she will face Sloane Stephens, who won Auckland and that could be tough, assuming whether the American can figure it out. Let’s assume she will, and they will contest a very long match, but in the end, Radwanska will kiss the lines when it counts the most. Who will the Polish face in the quarters? In the other section, no one is playing healthy or playing well. (Petra Kvitova is ill once again.) How about Carla Suarez Navarro?  but it doesn’t matter as Radwanska will beat her easily.

SEMIFINAL: Radwanska

GREAT FIRST ROUND:

Dominica Cibulkova vs. Kristina Mladenovic

The former finalist Cibulkova loves the tournament and will go all out to prove that she can reach top 10 again. The No. 28 Mladenovic is improving slowly but surely, plus she is a fine net charger.

BOTTOM HALF

THIRD QUARTER

Vika will find her old form in Melbourne. Mal Taam/MALTphoto

Vika will find her old form in Melbourne. Mal Taam/MALTphoto

The bottom half is substantially weaker, but there are some excellent competitors. Here, Vika Azarenka and Garbine Muguruza will face each of the in the Round of 16. The No. 7 Angie Kerber has a very easy draw until the quarters, unless she gets nervous, which she won’t – yet. Azarenka will have to face Elina Svitolina in the third round, which could be tough as the Ukrainian can be very fast and hustle. But Azarenka was extremely impressive in winning Brisbane and she’s ready to try and win a Slam. No. 3 Muguruza has been hurt, but she is so strong and smarter now. Caroline Garcia can trouble her, but the Spaniard doesn’t disappear at times, which the Frenchwoman does. Yes, Muguruza can reach the final here, but Garbine appears to be a little bit nervous, while Azarenka seems very happy. The two-time Grand Slam champion at the AO will stop Muguruza, and then chop up Kerber, whom she beat in the Brisbane final. Azarenka can hit the hell out of the ball.

SEMIFINAL: Azarenka

GREAT FIRST ROUND

Elina Svitolina vs. Victoria Duval

The 20-year-old Duval is now ready to dance. Svitolina thinks she can reach the top 10 this year. It should be a true battle.

FOURTH QUARTER

Even though Simona Halep lost in the semifinals of Sydney in three long sets against Kuznetsova, at least she felt like her body held up and she didn’t feel hurt anymore. Time will tell, but if she is feeling good, she can actually win the Aussie Open for the first time. At first, she will have to run for a long time, against Alize Cornet in the second round (who won Hobart) and No. 31 Lesia Tsurenko in the third round. Halep will reach the Round of 16, when she will face Madison Keys (I would said Ana Ivanovic, but the Serbian did nothing at Auckland and Sydney), who can crush the ball. Keys haven’t done much since the summer and she will have to prove that she is ready to knock out the elite competitors. Halep will dig her out. In the quarters, Halep will go face Karolina Pliskova, who has so much potential, but the Czech can get down on herself, just like when she lost against Halep in Sydney. It was close, but Pliskova wasn’t patient enough. The No. 9 Pliskova could lose early because she can up and down mentally, but she will topple No. 8 Venus Williams in the fourth round. The 35-year-old Venus can reach the quarters, or even the semis, but it’s hard to see that. So many years ago, in 2003, Venus reached the final at the AO against Serena and she was right there. She was so close in the third set and just let it go. After that, she never reached a AO final again. I would be shocked if Venus manages to dominate during the next two weeks. Halep will get through into the semis, out stroking Pliskova once again.

SEMIFINAL: Simona Halep

GREAT FIRST ROUND

Venus vs. Johanna Konta.

Remember when the Britain stunned Muguruza and Andrea Petkovic at the US Open before she lost to Kvitova? Pretty good stuff. She will push Venus super hard—and then she will lose in three sets.

Bad day: Serena, Sharapova, Halep & Kvitova pull out with injury

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BRISBANE, Jan 5, 2016 – Just before the first tournaments began in 2016, everyone was ready to rock. They seemed to felt healthy and they couldn’t wait to begin. Three days later on Tuesday, No. 4 Maria Sharapova and No. 2 Simona Halep pulled out with injuries. A couple of days before in the Hopman Cup, No. 1 Serena Williams said that she was still sore and she wasn’t ready to get on court yet. On Tuesday night, she played for a set and a few games before she retired against Aussie  Jarmila Wolfe. Serena could barely move.

Over in New Zealand, Venus Williams lost against the 18-year-old Darya Kasatkina, and Ana Ivanovic went down against Naomi Broady. And let’s not forget that No. 6 Petra Kvitova retired against Saisai Zheng at Shenzhen due to illness. Of the top 6, only Garbine Muguruza and Aga Radwanska remain.

Bloody Sunday. Or is it?

Whatever the case, it’s anybody’s ball game at the Australian Open.

All of a sudden, there are huge questions. Serena hasn’t played in a tournament since early September, when she was stunned in the semifinal against Roberta Vinci. She pulled out of the rest of the year, saying that she needed to heal, physically and mentally. She did manage to play a couple of exos in November and December, with her friend Caro Wozniacki and with the IPTL. It looked like she looked OK, more or less, but apparently her leg hasn’t fully healed. Serena is the defending champion and given that she won three majors in 2015, she will be the favorite everywhere she goes. But, if she can’t run at all, the rest of the healthy players will attempt to yank her around until she gives in.

Sharapova injured again

The defending champion Sharapova at Brisbane was scheduled to play Ekaterina Makarova. Sharapova was injured a lot during last summer and during September, but in October, she began to feel better and she played fairly well at the WTA Finals and the Fed Cup final. The five-time champion wanted to continue. Instead, she played a few exos and practiced at home on California.

But today, she tried to practice and her left forearm was sore. She didn’t want to risk further injury. Last year in January, she was very healthy, winning Brisbane (beating Ivanovic) and reaching the final at the Aussie Open, losing against Serena in a tight match.

That is exactly what she wanted to do once again. But all of a sudden, she couldn’t crack her two-handed backhand because her left arm was painful. Will she accept a wildcard at Sydney next week if she is feeling better so she can get in some matches? It’s possible, but doubtful because the 28-year-old doesn’t want to take any risk.

The same goes with Halep, who has yet to win a major. A few days ago, Halep said that she felt stronger, her first serve was bigger and she was more in control. But, she says that for the past five months, she has a sore Achilles heal. She hopes to play Sydney and the Australian Open, but she isn’t sure what will occur and she can barely sprint.

“I hope and I want to play [at the Australian Open],” Halep said. “I have couple of weeks already again with the pain. I did an MRI and it’s nothing dangerous, but it’s still an inflammation. … I don’t want force it because it’s a tough injury.”

Halep is thrilled that her coach, Darren Cahill, will be in her camp full-time this year. He can help her calm down. That is true and, if she is fully healthy, she will have a legitimate shot to win a Grand Slam in 2016. But if she’s can’t run at full speed, she won’t be able to win the Australian Open. She isn’t very tall or extremely powerful, so when she is winning, it’s because she can run all day long and she is super steady. If she can’t, then she has no answer against the top competitors.

Kvitova is almost always hurt, but like the Czech played pretty well in the WTA Finals and the Fed Cup final. But today, she was ill once again. Hopefully, the two-time Wimbledon champion will feel better super fast. She is the defending champion at Sydney. Last year she really thought she could win the Australian Open for the first time and rise to No. 1. She wasn’t even close. She is extremely talented, but so hard to predict.

venus_mt_uso_082813On Venus and Ivanovic: at least the American and the Serbian were healthy, even though they lost in New Zealand. Can they turn it around and catch fire at the Aussie Open? It’s hard to say. Both have reached the final before (Venus lost to Serena in 2003 and Ivanovic lost to Sharapova in 2008) and both have been around for a very long time, so they know exactly how they are feeling. But really, it’s about quality and the only way they can win again is to take tremendous risks.

Very soon, the young kids will be coming up very fast. In Brisbane, the No. 3 Muguruza is still there, as is the excellent 18-year-old Belinda Bencic.

With these nagging injuries and illnesses, we’re on to the Australian Open, where it’s wide open.

Everyone is happy: Halep stronger, Cilic steadier, Azarenka changed

 

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BRISBANE, Jan. 4, 2016 – Every year, the grass is always greener, especially for the players in the first week of 2016 New Year. Just about everyone is happy, because they were able to take a break at the end of the year. They were able to get healthy, and then they started practicing with their coaches to try to freshen up their game.

Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova are always trying new wrinkles. The 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer wants to continue to rush the net more, while the 5-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova wants to mix it up more. Both Federer and Sharapova are the defending champions at Brisbane. The Swiss says that on occasion, he is “totally Zen.”

There are plenty of fine players in Brisbane, with the tournament growing and growing each year.

Look at Marin Cilic, the one-time champion who won the 2014 US Open and it looked like that it was possible that someday, he could win another major. But he grew hurt during the fall and he didn’t return until last March at Indian Wells. He wasn’t ready yet. He continued to improve and while he was unable to take down the other excellent players, he was more or less OK, ending the season ranked No. 13. Now he says he is healthy again and he would love to win another title. But he isn’t sure yet.

“I want to be there. If I’m going to be a winner of Grand Slams in the future, I think hopefully with that kind of tennis I played at the US Open, I think I have pretty good shot,” Cilic said. “That’s what drives me. It’s not that I’m going to be thinking too much about stuff around. Of course, the motivation is really there. That is good road for me to follow. I know what things I need to work on with my game, what things really worked. So I think that’s positive. I don’t have as many questions as before.”

The world No. 2 Simon Halep is also playing at Brisbane. She has yet to win a major, but outside of that, especially on the hard courts, she is super fast and lethal. In early October, Halep had announced that she will stick with her coach, Darren Cahill. The Australian coach and broadcaster Cahill stopped with adidas on December 31. According to Halep, now they can work with each other full-time.

Last month, he came to Romania to work with the very intense Halep.

We practice very hard,” Halep said. “I was working on what we had in our mind to improve in my game, so everything went well. I was feeling great that I had new things to work on. He came very relaxed and showed me what I have to do, what I have to improve. I accepted and I worked really hard on them. On everything. I want to be stronger. I want to improve, of course, my serve because it’s not very strong, but now I feel that it’s better.”

Interestingly, Halep said that at the 2014 US Open, she struggled a bit because Cahill could not sit in the Friends Box if she was playing against another adidas competitor. Halep lost in the semifinal against Flavia Pennetta. She was pretty upset.

“I can say that was a little bit difficult also in US Open because he couldn’t show up for Pennetta’s match,” Halep said. “I knew that and accepted before, so it was okay. Now it’s different, so it’s good. I learned many things from that collaboration, and now because he’s only with me, it’s much better and I’m more relaxed.”

Before that lost, Halep did take down the former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. Azarenka was essentially done after that, becoming hurt once again during the fall.

A year ago in Brisbane, Azarenka said that she wanted to become No. 1 again. She was OK throughout the year, but she couldn’t take down most of the top players, like Serena Williams, Sharapova and now Halep.

Currently ranked No. 22, Azarenka has miles to go. But, if she beats Halep on Wednesday, then perhaps she will rise again. She admits that she didn’t have a great season in 2015, but she is very happy now because she is no longer depressed, as she has said.

She won the Australian Open twice, so maybe she can be back on track.

“Definitely feeling in control of my movement, not thinking about pain, that’s a huge element,” Azarenka said. “Also, I worked a lot on getting my movement a lot more efficient, being much more mobile and flexible. So for me, that work that has not ended. It’s still just a big process. But I like the improvement that I’ve been able to do in those months. I think it’s the right way.”

Top 32: Serena triumphs again; is Sharapova really improving?

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Top 32, Nos. 4-1

No. 4

Maria Sharapova

Did Maria have a great year in 2015? No, admittedly, she did not, but it wasn’t a bad year for the former No. 1 and given that she was hurt most of the summer and part if the fall, it was a very decent season. She won Brisbane over Ana Ivanovic; she reached the Australian Open final and lost a tight contest against Serena Williams; she won Rome by beating Victoria Azarenka and Carla Suarez Navarro; she reached the semis of Wimbledon, but Serena was nearly perfect and took her down; she won three matches in the WTA Finals and beat Simona Halep, Aga Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta before she lost against Petra Kvitova. However, in the Fed Cup Final, the Russian turned the tables and overcame Kvitova (which the Czechs won anyway).

Without a doubt, the 28-year-old Sharapova wants to win more majors and big tournaments. Of course the five-time Grand Slam champion has struggled against Serena for the past 11 years — not winning a thing – but she has been able to take down everyone else, and that is pretty darn good. Even though Sharapova was unable to win a Grand Slam this year, she has improved somewhat significantly now. She is no longer afraid to come to the net — which has taken her a solid 12 years while working on it – she is now more comfortable throwing out a drop shot, and she can even slice here and there with her ferocious backhand. She has always had one of the powerful forehands and backhands, she will crush her returns when her foes are popping it up, and physically, her body is substantially stronger and she can play for hours without becoming exhausted.

Can Sharapova win another major in 2016? Of course she can, but she has to continue to improve, like she must change-up her serve and not be so predictable, and she needs to discover which way her foes are trying to fool her when they are serving, especially against Serena, who tricks her all the time. Other than that, if she is healthy, she will go super deep every time out.

No. 3

Garbine Muguruza

Finally, one of the young players had risen and the Spaniard cracked the top 5, and then she ended the season at No. 3. She had a fine fall after she was nervous for a couple of months when she had reached the Wimbledon final and for the first time, the whole world had finally noticed her. After she woke up and realized that she could lock in when she was on the court, she wasn’t hearing the fans chanting at her name. Muguruza concentrated well and she attacked all the time.

This year, she overcame a number of the fine veterans: Radwanska, Caro Wozniacki, Angie Kerber, Pennetta and Kvitova. She managed to hang in when she lost against the mighty Serena in the Wimbledon final.

In the fall, the 22-year-old reached the final of Wuhan, she won Beijing and then she won three matches in the WTA Finals before she finally fell, going down against Radwanska 7-5 in the third. Really, she can legitimately beat anyone when she is on fire and she isn’t missing the ball. She can smoke her forehand and backhand crosscourt and down the line; her first serve is powerful and, unlike many of the young players, she can come into the net and handily put it away. She is always smiling and laughing which is terrific.

Muguruza still has to continue to improve over all, and if she isn’t getting too frustrated when it isn’t her day, she certainly will go super deep and win a couple more huge titles – the Premier 5 once again and possibly winning her first Slam in 2016.

No. 2

Simona Halep

It is so hard to figure out where Halep is going: will she win a major for the first time in 2016 and reach No. 1, or will she fall back?  Over the past two-and-a-half years the Romanian has been a darn good player. She is super competitive, she is incredibly fast and she is very steady. When she is feeling right, she will go for everything, especially her down the line. She can mix up her attack, she can spin it around and she has a tremendous drop shot.

The good news is that when she wasn’t deep into her head and becoming way too emotional, then she can drop off her game, just like at the majors in 2015. She did very little at the Aussie Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but at the US Open, she was so close to winning it all. She out-lasted Azarenka in a classic quarterfinal, and then in the semis against Pennetta, the Italian was much more confident while Halep quickly folded her tent.

Outside of the majors, she put together a number of tournaments: winning Dubai, Indian Wells, the semis of Miami when she nearly upset Serena, and she reached the final at Toronto (she fell versus Belinda Bencic in the final) and another final in Cincy (she lost again versus Serena and it was fairy close). In the fall, she was so-so at best.

Now it’s all up to her. There are times when Halep pushes the ball and there is no way that she can win a major if she does that. She has all the keys, it is whether she can relax and simply go for it. Will Halep win a Grand Slam in 2016? We will find out quickly because Halep loved the hard courts and the Australian Open is wide open.

No. 1

Serena Williams

No one is perfect, not Serena or anyone else, ever. But Ms. Williams played about as well as she ever has, winning three Grand Slams at 2015, beating just about everyone, taking down Sharapova in the Aussie Open final, running past Lucie Safarova at Roland Garros final, and out-hitting Muguruza at the Wimbledon final. She also won Miami by crushing Suarez Navarro, and she won Cincy by overcoming Halep.

When Serena was healthy, she was completely locked in and lethal. She knew what to do all the time. She knew when she wasn’t playing all that well  and then she would decide to change it up. Intellectually, the now 34-year-old would think deep into her brain and she understood how she would disturb her foes.

Look at Paris, which was one of the most difficult tournaments of all time: She was up and down, she was spraying the ball and she was frustrated, but she wasn’t going to go away, and she managed to win five three-setters. Many other player can fold, but she refused to go away and Serena out-thought them once again.

Look at Wimbledon because that wasn’t easy either. In the third round, she was up against Britain’s Heather Watson. Serena was down in the third set, and Watson was playing better than she ever had, but Serena was calm, she took a deep breath and edged her 7-5 in the third. She had to beat her older sister, the five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, and she took her in straight sets, serving and returning absolutely huge. She yanked the aggressive Azarenka in three tight sets. She wanted to make sure that when she faced off against Sharapova in the semis that if she would attack her immediately and that’s what she did. In the final against Muguruza, she knew that the ‘kid’ is dangerous, but that didn’t really matter, all she had to do was to be more solid when the big points came and she won it once again.

However, at the US Open, she had finally began to feel tremendous pressure because the whole world were thinking that she was going to win all four majors in one year. She was no longer calm, and while she was composed enough to beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Venus and Madison Keys, once she came out on court for the semifinal against Roberta Vinci, her eyes were glassy and she was all over the place. She was not being patient, she was erratic and Vinci played wonderfully, beating Serena 6-4 in the third. The extremely upset Serena was gone, deciding not to play for the rest of the year.

Serena owns 21 Grand Slams now. If she doesn’t win at least another major title in 2016, that would be stunning, because since 2012, she has been dominating, grabbing almost every significant tournament and beating every top-10 competitors time and time again.

Was 2015 Serena’s best season ever? No, not for me. She ‘only’ won five tournaments and withdrew from three events. In 2002, she won three Grand Slams and eight titles: Scottsdale, Miami, Rome, RG, Wimby, the US Open, Tokyo and Leipzig. Back then, she was faster and healthier.

When Serena arrives at the Australian Open, she won’t have played in four months (she will play at an exo at Hopman Cup). Clearly, she wanted to rest her body and her mind. She is the favorite every where she goes, but in 2016, if she is going to tie the greatest player ever Steffi Graf at 22 Grand Slams (she won 109 career titles while Serena currently has 69 titles), she must be happy on court once again. If she does, when she eventually retires, she will be called the greatest player ever.

With a Little Help from My Friends

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Roddick can still dig down and fight. Photo: Andy J. Gordon

There’s nothing that compares to the excitement and anticipation in tennis when it comes to the four majors, and there is nothing more at stake either. Then there are the exhibitions in the sport which, aside from Word Team Tennis, typically occur in the short off-season (December).

Even the most rabid tennis fan can’t be blamed for not caring about these exos as they are often scripted, and there is no reward for winning matches and/or competing at the highest level. The feeling here is that a tennis exhibition event has but one purpose: to entertain. “Maria Sharapova & Friends, presented by Porsche” took place at the UCLA Tennis Center this past weekend and featured Sharapova, along with former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, world No.4 and 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, Mardy Fish American rising stars Madison Keys, Jack Sock, Sloane Stephens, and Shelby Rogers along with Britain’s Laura Robson.

I was intrigued. This was a legitimate card, and the event planners played an even stronger hand by recruiting Fish to replace Michael Chang in the opening singles match against Roddick. This match did not disappoint. While Roddick was rusty, his competitive spirit shone brightly. Fish was only of  removed from playing on the tour and looked as if he had never left the game.

This skirmish between old rivals did not disappoint. I would pay money to watch these former high school buddies play Scrabble.

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Host Sharapova was a main draw. Photo: Andy J. Gordon

The match was settled in a deciding set, ten-point tiebreak, in which Fish had to save a match point before closing out the contest. It was tough act to follow, or so it seemed.

The host of the event was pitted against the promising AmericanMadison Keys. While their playing styles and physiques are similar, the comparisons end there. Even though the temperature was plummetingthe level of play did not. It was like deja vu; the match went the distance and Keys also held a match point, but she ultimately came up short and, like Roddick, lost the final set in a match tiebreak. The day concluded with a celebrity hit and giggle doubles match. The tennis was nothing to write about, but the entertainment value of the match was crowd pleasing.

While Sundays matches featuring Sock vs. Nishikori and Stephens vs. Rodgers did not have the same competitive spirit of day one, they more than made up for it with humor and flashy shot making.
The final match of the day was a mixed double match between Sharapova and Nishikori vs. Robson and Sock. Sock demonstrated why he is a Wimbledon double champion and was clearly the best double player on the court. The only double fault that plagued the exhibition was not having microphones on the players, particularly in all the double matches. The event could have served the fans and TV viewers better by simply miking the players. Unless one had a court side seat, most of the good-natured banter between the players was missed. The good news is that it’s an easy fix.

To her credit, Sharapova pulled off the weekend with a little help from her friends.

To catch re-airings of “Maria Sharapova & Friends, presented by Porsche” go to www.tennischannel.com for times and dates.


Brad Falkner has worked in tennis media since 2002.

Fed Cup Final: Kvitova & Sharapova both win, faceoff Sunday

Czech’s Petra d Pavlyuchenkova, Maria d Pliskova, locked at 1-1

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Petra Kvitova with the Fed Cup, won in 2011.

PRAGUE – It was going to come to this, wasn’t it? Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova both won their contests on Saturday in the Fed Cup Final, with the Czech starting off the tie and besting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 2-6 6-1 6-1 and then the Russian beating Karolina Pliskova 6-4 6-3. The tie is knotted 1-1.

On Sunday, they will clash first, starting at 12 PM. Whomever wins, it still won’t be over as their homeland has to win three matches. Still, Kvitova and Sharapova are not only that the best players out there, but mentally, they are the ones who their teammates will look for guidance.

On Saturday, both Kvitova and Sharapova sounded self-assured.

But, without a doubt, the 25-year-old Kvitova needs to find some patience.Kvitova was off. Way, way off. In the first set, she couldn’t put a ball in play, not to the left or the right, or short or deep. She was bad and, then, worse. She was so nervous that it didn’t matter whether which way she was aiming, because the ball was headed in the net or extremely wide or long. She couldn’t crack her first serves, either.

Pavlyuchenkova was fairly consistent, and she really didn’t have to do much. The Russian tossed up some big first serves, she rolled her forehands deep and she spanked her backhands, which was good enough. Down 5-2, Kvitova was trying to get herself going, yelling at herself, but she wasn’t quite there and Pavlyuchenkova won the first set by charging forward, lifting her backhand off and sweetly touching her racket just over the net for a winner.

Clearly, Kvitova knew that the match had a long way to go. In the first game of the second set, she smacked a couple accurate returns and she was ready to rumble. Instead of falling backwards, she was leaning forward. She knew when it was time to attack. The lefty was more patient and she was in control. Kvitova raced through the second set, finishing it off with a twisting ace.

“I was a little down on myself,” Pavlyuchenkova said.

It appeared that the third set would be extremely tight, as they had played eight times before and most of the contests were pretty close (six to two for Kvitova). However, very quickly, the Czech raced away. Kvitova knew that she was in a comfortable zone and she figured that on the fast courts, she would out-hit the Russian.

The Russian couldn’t move her strokes around and she couldn’t go down the line effectively.

Later, Pavlyuchenkova said that she was gone mentally. The Russian didn’t think she could come back.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be there anymore,’ ” Pavlyuchenkova said.

Kvitova admitted that her start was rough. “I was nervous, I was so tight and my body was so heavy,” Kvitova said. “But I got a break to start the second set and that was the key.”

Sharapova starts on a roll

Sharapova is set for a matchup vs. Kvitova. JIMMIE48 TENNIS PHOTOGRAPHY

Sharapova is set for a matchup vs. Kvitova. JIMMIE48 TENNIS PHOTOGRAPHY

Sharapova came out super aggressive and didn’t stop. Pliskova has improved a ton this year, especially in the first half. Her improvement stalled after reaching the final of Stanford in early August and then she fell apart until last week in November in Zhuhai.

She can hit her first serve about as hard as anyone out there, but she can falter fast. When she is on, she can smoke the lines with her forehands and backhands, but she does not move particularly well going side to side. Plus, the 23-year-old needs to improve her returns.

Pliskova certainly had a few good moments/ Even though Sharapova was a bit off with her strong first serves, Pliskova could not figure her out.

The 28-year-old Sharapova nailed a number of winners down the line when Pliskova didn’t know which way she was going, likely because the two had not faced off before.

In Prague, the packed fans were working to help Pliskova raise her game to her highest level. Down a break at 3-4 in the second set, Pliskova was up 0-40, but then Sharapova crushed a couple serves, rushed to the net, swung with her forehand that was coming down from the top of the ceiling and put it away. She held, she breathed a sigh of relief and ended up winning 6-3 6-4.

“The courts were faster,” Sharapova said. ‘“She likes the fast ball and hits it deep and hard and try the angles, and make her move a little and some defense. The returns helped because I didn’t serve at all. When it mattered, I stayed up.”

Two weeks ago in Singapore, Kvitova and Sharapova played in the semis. The Czech won by the Czech as she edged the Russian in two tight sets. Sharapova is 6 to 4 head to head, having beaten Kvitova in two semifinals at the 2012 Australian Open and Roland Garros. But let’s not forget that in 2011, Kvitova stunned Sharapova in the Wimbledon final.

Sharapova has won five majors, while Kvitova has taken only two. Over the years, the Russian has been more successful, but in Prague, the Czech has to be given an edge, as she has been lights out in the Fed Cup. However, even though Sharapova said that she was nervous during the entire match against Pliskova, she wasn’t shaking. Perhaps she will be on Sunday, but we all know that Kvitova will be, too.

“We know each other so well,” Sharapova said. “She’s very tough, it will be a great atmosphere, and she’s a great player.”

Whoever wins, there will be a fourth match, between the Russian Pavlyuchenkova (assuming the somewhat hurt Ekaterina Makarova comes in at the singles) versus Pliskova (assuming Lucie Safarova will be healthy and can play singles). That is a toss up.

It could be 2-2 and the Fed Cup Final could go be the last contest in the doubles: maybe the fine, highly-ranked team of Makarova/Elena Vesnina against the talented Safarova/Barbora Strycova.

As the Russian captain Anastasia Myskina said, “There is a lot of pressure.”

And how.