Brisbane Day 4: A new beginning for Marin Cilic

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Ivanisevic is helping Cilic reconstruct his serve, as well as his volley

 

BRISBANE:   Marin Cilic played just his third match in the past five months on Wednesday when took down 2013 Brisbane International finalist Grigor Dimitrov 7-5, 7-5 at Pat Rafter Arena on Wednesday.  The Croat was a very happy man, saying that while it’s his same career, it’s new start after what he called the worst period of his life in 2013 when he was banned for allegedly doping.

The former top 10er Cilic was banned for nine months by an independent tribunal in September after testing positive for the stimulant nikethamide at the Munich Open in May, but his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport was successful and his suspension was cut to four months. He chose not to play post Wimbledon in order to give is lawyers time to prepare and to rack up time served. One his appeal was okayed, he managed to get in two matches at the Paris Bercy Masters. But that was it for the rest of 2013 as his ranking was too low to get into the ATP World Finals.

The 25 year old enters the 2014 ranked No. 37 with an outside shot of being seeded at the Australian Open. Some folks feel bad for him as they believe his explanation that he did not purposely ingest the nikethamide is the truth. Others may still think he cheated. But whatever the case, he does have a new lease on life and that now includes the full time coaching help of former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, whom he has known since he’s been a kid.

“Feels still the same career, but feels like a new beginning for me,” he said. “Just with the new team and everything, I’m thinking about everything around myself in a different perspective. I had a lot time to think about everything and time to work. I improved my serve.  That was something special from Goran.  We worked a lot on the serve during the off‑season.  I feel it’s in really good place and it could help me to play much better, especially against top players.  So overall, of course I’m excited to be in the season and to play, to be back on the tour after all that misery last year.”

Despite being 6-feet-6, a pretty good mover for his size and a man who  can crack it from the back court, Cilic he has never become a major threat to the elite, while a guy of the identical  height with weapons that are not much bigger, Juan Martin Del Potro, has.

Cilic owns nine career titles, all at the ATP 250 level. He has never reached the final of Master Series, but back in 2010 when he advanced to his first Grand Slam SF at Australian Open (upending Andy Roddick before going down to Andy Murray) and cracked the  Top 10, it sure looked like he was ready to make a push.

But he did not. In 2011, he went 1-8 vs. Top 10 opponents. In 2012, he posted the same mark against the top 10. He was sliding backward

“I felt that I lost my way a bit after [2010],” he said. “ I was struggling couple seasons.  2011, 2012 I was bit better, but still not at the right place with the game.  I was all the time searching myself.  Overall looking at the seasons, the performances I wanted to have.  In couple tournaments I had great results, but overall I was not too satisfied with it, especially after that great success in Australia and also four, five months before Australian Open where I played pretty good tennis. So I think now when I went through it, I felt what I need to do.  I think I took that as a lesson.  Next time I hope that I’m going to be there I know how to deal in that kind of situation.”

In 2013, Cilic  was essentially mediocre. He lost a five setter to Andrea Seppi in the third round of the Australian Open, but he did avenge that loss in a Davis Cup win over Italy. He won the  Zagreb title , but the field was spotty. At the spring Masters Series he went down to Raonic (Indian Wells), Murray (Miami), Gasquet (Monte Carlo), Madrid (Andujar) and Anderson (Rome).  At Roland  Garros he fell to Victor Troicki. Oh and let’s not forget what occurred in Munich when he tested positive- he lost to countryman Ivan Dodig on clay.

On grass he briefly revived.  At Queens he took down  Dodig, Feliciano Lopez. Tomas Berdych and Lleyton Hewitt and before falling to Murray. At Wimbledon, he claimed that a knee injury forced him out the competition prior to his second round match, even though he knew he was going to be suspended. He still sticks by that story.

Due to the long break, he feels physically  refreshed now which is  good for any player. Against Dimitrov, he showed off a huge serve and consistent serve, a stroke that has been very sporadic since 2010. His groundstrokes were strong and had depth and he was competent around the net.

Ivanisevic had one of the best serves of all time and while he and Cilic’s motions are totally different, he managed to convince his student that his motion was too complicated. He also has given him a set of broad shoulder to lean on

“To simplify.  Throw the ball in the air and hit it<’ Cilic said of the left handers advice to him. “  For me before, I was a lot thinking about the serve. To be more relaxed, nothing unusual.  But we worked a lot on it, and it seems that it fit in the right place.

Goran showed me already a lot of things.  I feel my game is improving.  Goran say all the things that he went through many more times than I did already in my career he can show me and tell me in front, Okay, be careful of this.  He’s going to be one step ahead of me in some kind of situations.”

Injury watch

The Brisbane International may only have a 28 draw but already, in the WTA First Premier level event of 2014, it has seen four causalities. Sabine Lisicki and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova became the third and fourth players to pull out, Lisicki with gastrointestinal illness and  Pavlyuchenkova with a left thigh injury. They  Ashleigh Barty and Caroline Wozniacki, who pulled out earlier in the week.

Match of the Day

Britain’s Ross Hutchins, who battled cancer last year, returned the tour and he and his partner, Colin Fleming, played very respectably in a 0-6, 6-4 10-4 (match tiebreak) loss to Dimitrov and Jeremy Chardy.

What to Watch for, Thursday

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova both open play during the day session, with the Russian going up against the heavy-hitting Kaia Kanepi, and then the American taking on the dangerous Dominica Cibulkova. Should both Williams and Sharapova win, they will contest their 17th match. However, it is not a great rivalry by any stretch as Williams owns a 14-2 edge and Sharapova has not beaten her since 2004, although she did play Williams tough the last time they faced off in the 2013 Roland Garros final.

 

 

 

TR Insider, Brisbane 2014, Day 1: Sharapova on Sven

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FROM THE BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL: Four-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova hasn’t played match since early August and arrived in Brisbane with two new team members, coach Sven Groeneveld and physio Jerome Bianchi. Sharapova split with her coach of two and half years , Thomas Hogstedt, right after Wimbledon and then had a briefly experiment with former No. 1 Jimmy Connors, which didn’t work out for a few reasons, one because they had had a different idea of which style  she should play, and two, because she was so upset that her shoulder was aching that she couldn’t listen to anyone.

Groeneveld has worked with a slew of top players including Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, and  Andy Murray, among others. The Dutchman seems to suit Sharapova personality as he is calm, well mannered and smart. She is already impressed and is optimistic about their future..

“From the first time we met I really liked what he had to say,” Sharapova said of Groeneveld. “ He came in as a very experienced person, player.  He started from the very beginning of the game, and one of the things I’ve always liked in a coach is when he coached against me ‑ and he’s been there for many years coaching against me ‑ and I like when someone comes in and is honest and truthful and says it like it is.He’s that.  He puts it all out on the table.

Subscribers get daily emails which today include Sharapova talking about her boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov, Caroline Wozniacki’s troubling pull out, Victoria Azarenka return to the site of “Pedicure Gate” and more

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Toni Nadal, Patrick Mouratoglou win Coach of Year polls

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%

There has not been a more interesting off-season in recent memory when it comes coaching changes than in 2013. There have been a slew a moves amongst notable players, which began shortly after the WTA season ended and culminated with Maria Sharapova’s hiring of Sven Groeneveld.

Here is my analysis of the major WTA coaching changes.

The after the ATP season ended, the guys shifted into high gear and in the last week alone, Novak Djokovic announced he had hired Boris Becker, and Roger Federer asked Stefan Edberg to consult with him, at least in the short term. Kei Nishikori is now working with Michael Chang and Goran Ivanisevic coaching Marin Cilic again.

As Magnus Norman, the former Roland Garros finalist and coach of Stan Wawrinka tweeted: “Lendl,Goran,Chang and now Becker and perhaps Edberg as coaches on the @ATPWorldTour. Should do coach tournament. Sure not top seed anymore’

Before touching on the significance of those partnerships, a few words about our current Coach of the Year polls, which you can vote in here.

On the ATP side the nominees are:

Toni Nadal for Rafael Nadal; Marian Vajda for Novak Djokovic; Ivan Lendl for Andy Murray and Magnus Norman for Stan Wawrinka. On the WTA side, the nominees are: Patrick Mouratoglou for Serena Williams; Sam Sumyk for Victoria Azarenka;

Carlos Rodriguez for Li Na; and Marko Jankovic for Jelena Jankovic.

As of the morning of December 20, Lendl and Norman were leading the men’s poll. Murray became the first man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win Wimbledon and that alone says that his coach did an excellent job in preparing him for the biggest match of his life on the biggest stage in his nation and, to many folks, the most important venue in the sport.

Norman helped Wawrinka become a better all-around player and a much more confident person on court, which is why he was able to finish the year in the top eight for the first time and become a serious threat at the Slams.

Toni Nadal did a fantastic job helping Rafa adjust to Djokovic’s newfound strengths and helping his nephew add a few new elements to his own game while he was out with an injury, which is why Nadal had the best year of any player out there, won two majors and finished No. 1.

While Vajda now wants to take a back seat to Becker after eight year at the helm, it cannot be dismissed that he helped Djokovic regain the confidence he lost after losing to Nadal in the US Open final and go undefeated during the fall.

After Serena had her most consistent year ever and only lost four matches, Mouratoglou has to be given credit for helping her keep her mind on court all season long. She hadn’t shown an ability to do that as a veteran player until this year and now once again she is the dominant figure in her sport.

Sumyk is an underrated coach who has done an excellent job with Azarenka overall. She managed to win the Aussie Open amidst controversy, score two wins over Williams and, while she could have played much better in the third set of the US Open final and of course at the WTA Championships when she was wiped out, she remains Serena’s most threatening rival, and that is partly because her coach has helped her refine her game and keep her head in matches.

Rodriguez has made Li a player to fear on every surface and she trusts him enough to actually make net charging a part of her repertoire, which could be the addition that takes her to another Slam title.

Anyone who watched Jelena Jankovic flounder in 2012 (and before) knows just how far she has fallen and it took a family member – namely her brother Marko – to understand where she was and where she needed to go to regain her former top five form. She finished the year in the top 8 and once again is filled with vim and vigor.

Here are my quick thoughts on the recent ATP coaching moves.

Djokovic hires Becker: Clearly Djokovic wants to work with an ex-No. 1 who has won Slams to perhaps do with him what Lendl did with Murray: give him some key tips as to how to handle himself in Grand Slam finals. He also wants to be able to go on the attack more often, which Becker did pretty consistently. The Serbian will not morph into a serve and volleyer like Becker was, but he can improve his volley and his transition game.  Two big questions arise: Becker has never coached full-time and, will Djokovic be patient with him if he has to learn on the job; and given that Becker is a very public person who likes to discuss issues with the media, will Djokovic tolerate that if Becker criticizes him to the world or try to muzzle him?

Federer trains for a week with Edberg: The Swede says he is willing to consider working more with the Swiss than the week together they spent in Dubai. Edberg is Federer’s hero, so he clearly respects him, but what exactly can the Swede do with a great but aging player who is behind the eight ball when it comes to being able to be the rest of the so-called Big 4 again? Serve and volley? Chip and charge? Maybe, but Federer’s prior coach, Paul Annacone preached that and it didn’t turn out to matter much in 2013.

Nishikori and Chang: The American has coached before, doing a stint with Peng Shuai, so he does have some experience. Like Nishikori, Chang was an undersized player during his era, but the former world No. 2 was steadier than Japan’s top player is now, was mentally tougher and frankly was better all around. Nishikori needs to improve his fitness and play more patiently before he takes big rips at the ball.  Chang, who was very hard worker, can help him with that.

Ivanisevic and Cilic: These two Croatians have worked with each other in the past.  Ivanisevic is a bold, self-confident person who can perhaps convince Cilic to stop doubting himself. He also needs to figure out why his student hasn’t come close to living up to his top-5 potential. From the outside, that looks like a very complex jigsaw puzzle.

 

 

Vote for the 2013 Sexiest Female Player

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Victoria Azarenka

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Julia Goergeshantuchova_1528609_10151938565244682_44085042_n
Daniela Hantuchova

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Bojana Javanovski

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Maria Kirilenko

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Alize Lim

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Maria Sharapova

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Sloane Stephens

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Elena Vesnina

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Caroline Wozniacki

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Zheng Jie

Click  here for the gallery and to vote on  our 11 candidates for 2013 “Ana Ivanovic” Sexiest Female Player.

The award is named for Ana Ivanovic, who won the award for the first five years of the poll, 2005-2009. Past winners include Maria Sharapova (2012), Caroline Wozniacki (2011) and Maria Kirilenko (2010).

Laura Robson wins Player Tweeter of the Year Poll over Federer

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%

What entices a person to follow a particular player on Twitter whom they are not a huge fan of? A great sense of humor? Strong opinions? Honesty about matches and tour issues? Profound statements? Great photos? Some or all of those qualities apply to the 10 following nominees for Tweeters of the Year. Here are examples of each of their work. All are worth following, but the spunky teen Laura Robson took 2013 honors.

Sofia Arvidsson Sofia_Arvidsson 10 Dec

I love going to the dentist…#SaidNoOneEver

 

Tomas Berdych @tomasberdych 17 Nov

Why I deleted?I wanted to dance with Djoky tonight…I am #sad he is not here!?!

 

Roger Federer For his #AskRF sessions, @shankerer:

And what is Mirka getting for Christmas? :) #AskRF @rogerfederer: A hashtag

 

Ivo Karlovic @ivokarlovic 9 Dec

Nadal would of have triple double. #KobeReturns

 

Andy Murray @andy_murray 8 Nov

who loses their hair first out of me and rafa?

 

Laura Robson  ‏@laurarobson5 12 Dec

You know you’re injured a lot when your hospital invites you to the opening of the new MRI machine. #athleteproblems

Stan Wawrinka @stanwawrinka retweeted this, @svenja_mastro 14 Sep

Luthi was asked who he’d like to play next year. “There’s no more Ecuador?”, was Stan’s reaction when someone named the potential opponents.

 

Maria Sharapova @MariaSharapova 23 Sep

Strapless dresses continue to dominate award show red carpets. Not exactly pushing the envelope.

 

Serena Williams @serenawilliams 30 Nov

I did something I have never done before today-I played tennis in Argentina with blind kids. The ball made noise. They listened and than hit

 

Caroline Wozniacki @CaroWozniacki 21 Sep

Not good for your confidence when you go from being a small to an extra large over night! #japanesesizes #asia

 

 

WTA Post US Open review and the Race to Istanbul

 

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Serena smoked Li in New York, but can China’s top player rise up at the Premier tournament in Beijing?

There are currently 13 players with a decent chance to make the season ending WTA Championships in Istanbul, October 22-27.  Two players have already made it, No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 2 Victoria Azarenka. Third ranked Maria Sharapova, who has been contending with bursitis in her right shoulder, is as of this point doubtful to recover in time. No. 7 Marion Bartoli has retired.

Assuming Sharapova does not play, at least for this week that leaves nine players with decent shots for the final six spots. No. 11 Sloane Stephens is just one spot out if Sharapova and Bartoli don’t play, while Nos. 12-15 Angie Kerber, Sabine Lisicki, Caroline Wozniacki  and Simona Halep have a lot of ground to catch up but have outside shots  if they put up great results during the next three weeks.

Three big tournaments begin next week, with Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow ahead.

1. Serena Williams: The world’s best player was both heartened and relieved when she won the US Open by racing past Azarenka in the third set. Now the rest of her year is all gravy as she managed to win two Slams this season. When Serena is playing loose, she is super dangerous, as it’s been when she has been tight this season that she has suffered losses. She says she’s planning on playing Beijing (she rarely plays in Asia so the proof will be in the pudding), but she will no doubt be motivated to defend her title in Istanbul and show the rest of the elite players that the 32 year old plans on ruling the tour until she finally puts her rackets down.

2. Victoria Azarenka: Despite a few injuries this year, the Belarussian’s fitness has improved overall: she is much stronger and faster specimen than she was say even three years ago. But the drop in her level after she stole the second set from Serena in New York was troubling. While she has shown that she has the game to best Williams, she has yet to beat her at major. Two wins over her older rival in Beijing and Istanbul would serve her very well heading into 2014.

3. Maria Sharapova: She was told to take two to three months off to cure her shoulder after Wimbledon, but she didn’t,  played Cincinnati and practiced all the way up until he US Open, so it’s hard to see her injury fully healing by the time the first ball is tossed up in Istanbul. But…she is stubborn and misses competing so if she doesn’t feel like she’s putting her 2014 at risk, she may show up and play. It’s doubtful, but she can’t be totally ruled out just yet.

4. Agnieszka Radwanska: Even if she wins Korea on Sunday, is that enough reason to think that she can go on another brilliant fall run like she did in 2011 when he won Tokyo and Beijing back to back? No it isn’t. At this point, her 2013 is a disappointment: as good as Ekaterina Makarova can be there is no reason the Pole should have lost to her at the US Open, much less going down to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. If she doesn’t start to schedule more smartly and learn to peak at the big events, she’ll never win a major.

5. Li Na: Sure, she played Serena very tough in the second set of her 6-0, 6-3 loss to her in the US Open semis. But to have a bagel hung on her by a player whom she has pushed so far before in a Slam semifinal? That shows just how mentally fragile she is. Her coach, Carlos Rodriguez must fully realize by now that he does not have another super mentally tough player in his stable like he did with Justine Henin.

6. Sara Errani: She admitted at the US Open that she is having massive trouble contending with the expectations that are put on top players, hence her 6-3, 6-1 loss to her countrywoman Flavia Pennetta. In some ways she was already overachieving, so what chance does Errani have to keep up a top-10 level without her legendary fight? A very slim to none one.

7. Petra Kvitova: For whatever reason, I keep expecting the tall and powerful Czech to make a push at No. 1 and then she gets sick again and lets down at another major, like she did in her 6-3, 6-0 loss to Alison Riske in New York. [And that’s not a typo, the 6-0, 6-3 score seems to be popular figure coming out of New York]. If Kvitova continues to contract a virus every few months, she’ll never win another big title. If she can get healthy for an extended period, then she’ll be a threat again. But I am taking a full-on wait- and-see approach when it comes to her now.

8. Marion Bartoli: She has retired, at least for now, but the real stunner would be if she never attempts a comeback after all the attention on her dies down.

9. Jelena Jankovic: “JJ” will surely go to the ends of the earth to gain what she believes is to be a deserved spot in the final eight club. She has shown flashes of her former No. 1 play at times this season, but she evaporated quickly in her 6-3, 6-0 loss to Li at the US Open. She may no longer be a considered to be a consistent threat to the super elite, but she will be occasionally based on pride alone.

10. Roberta Vinci: The Italian is a very decent, but not a great hard court player who may have the Fed Cup final more on her mind than reaching the Championships in singles. She and Errani are a lock for the doubles, so perhaps she’ll focus on helping boost her friend’s confidence level during the Asian swing. However, Sharapova and Bartoli won’t play she is sitting at No. 8, so for her to completely fall out, the likes of Stephens, Kerber, Lisicki and Wozniacki are going to have to make substantial pushes.

11. Sloane Stephens: The youngest player in the top 15, the 20-year-old Stephens finds herself only 104 points behind Vinci for the final spot assuming that both Sharapova and Bartoli don’t play. Even if Sharapova does, she is only 99 points behind Vinci, which gives her a clear shot.

Stephens played Serena close in the first set of her 6-4, 6-1 loss to her rival in New York, but let down in the final game of the set and then lost focus in the second. She almost has enough game to play with anyone, but she does go on mental walkabouts, which is a no-no against the veterans.

She is seeded No. 9 in Tokyo, opening against Voegele, possibly facing junior rivals Genie Bouchard or Monica Puig in round two, and maybe Jankovic (should she get past Laura Robson) in the third round. Should she face and best JJ, she will pick up 100 points on the Serbian. Then she may have to play Azarenka in quarters in a rematch of their Aussie Open semifinal. Sloane’s week ahead sounds very challenging, and very fun.

12. Angelique Kerber: Does anyone recall that the German lost a third set tiebreaker to Suarez in New York, who then went on to be double bageled by Serena? Angie looks tough on the outside, but hasn’t shown much elite resiliency this season. She needs to loosen up and start playing more aggressive.

13. Sabine Lisicki: The ace-bombing German has done little since her Wimbledon heroics as she is struggling to stay in lengthy points on hard courts. She is capable of making a push, but she needs to be more patient and not get so anxious in big matches.

14. Caroline Wozniacki: The Dane is currently ranked No. 8, but she is defending 835 points from her fine fall play in 2012, so she is going to have to play just as well or better to make it. However, the most important thing for the Dane is to keep working on finding her elite level again, which she did not show in the third set of her loss to Camilla Giorgi in New York.

15. Simona Halep: The young Romanian caught fire this summer, but may have overplayed. She’s a terrific ball striker, but still needs to mature. She is 535 points behind Vinci so she is going to have to really catch fire again.

 

 COMING MONDAY: ATP POST US OPEN/DAVIS CUP REVIEW AND THE RACE TO THE WORLD FINALS IN LONDON

 

Shavapova out of US Open, shoulder trouble again

Sharapova IW 12 TR MALT9209

Bartoli’s stunning retirement, Sharapova and Connors split, & Federer’s racquet

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What will happen to Bartoli when the attention dies down?

 

It has been an entirely unpredictable week in tennis, beginning with Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli’s shocking announcement of her retirement on Tuesday, Roger Federer’s decision around the same time that he ditched his prototype racquet and gone back to his old Wilson Pro Staff, the USTA’s grand announcement of a roof to be built over Arthur Ashe Stadium, and on Friday the revelation that Maria Sharapova had parted with coach Jimmy Connors after just one month (and only one match).

Bartoli said that she knew she was done after her opening round loss to Simona Halep in Cincinnati. She has put her body through the ringer over the past 13 years and just could not face another day of having to spend a half hour just getting herself to walk regularly. Here is a news story I wrote on her comments to a small group on us on Thursday morning.

The Frenchwoman says that there will be no comeback as she approaches everything in her life full on, and she isn’t washy washy about her decision. I, like many others who have covered her over the years, was very surprised at the decision, because I spoke to her on three occasions during the Rogers Cup in Toronto and she gave absolutely no indication that she was ready to retire. She did admit that she was exhausted, but she spoke with bright eyes and enthusiasm about an assault on this year’s US Open and given that she has been a very good hard court player, it was not out of the realm of possibility that she could make a charge to the semis, or even the final, or even win it if her draw broke right again.

But that doesn’t matter as she had lost her motivation and will to compete. She is only 28 years old, and she joins an all-star list of women players who has retired prematurely over the past decade: Anna Kournikova, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva. All of them had different reasons for doing so. Most cited injuries, other mentioned a bit of burnout. Three came back while the three Russians have stayed on the sidelines.

As Bartoli said, every player path is different and hers has been radically so. What will likely be forgotten post her wonderful Wimbledon run is what chaotic year she has leading up to London: her split with her father, hiring and firing coaches, reuniting with him, splitting again. She had some very tough moments this season, but those all seemingly were washed away when she was finally able to raise the big trophy at her cherished locale. But maybe she could not imagine continuing on the tennis treadmill without her dad around anymore? Do not dismiss that possibility as she had some very difficult and at times lonely periods without him this season.

But what did Bartoli see the future hold for her after that? She isn’t sure other than attending tournaments to watch her new set of friends (other French players on the Fed Cup team), going to some art galleries and maybe taking up ballet again.  She has been the center of attention since she won Wimbledon. Even today she was exchanging tweets with other players. She will head to New York for the US Open and is sure to get some more attention there.

But what then after the lights go down, people stop calling her as much, the thrill of competition is no longer there and she has no tangible goals? That’s when the full weight of her decision will fall on her. The tennis world is hoping she makes an easy transition, but the thought here is that it won’t be anything close to that.

 

The Sharapova-Connors split

No one who has spent a fair amount of time around Sharapova and Connors were surprised that they split after just a month.  In fact, folks close to both were surprised that they were going to try out a full time coaching pupil relationships to begin with. Neither is easy going, they are both Type-A personalities with a lot to say about everything and have very definitive ways of seeing how the sport should be played. The only tangible thing that Connors could have given to Sharapova was enough self-belief to really know she has enough game to beat Serena. He couldn’t help her with two areas of her game where she really needs help – her second serve and her volley.  She thought that he could teach her his wise ways, but she is not that trusting of a person, or that patient, so the impression he made in the first couple of weeks of their partnership could not have been a good one.

The last time they worked together, for to weeks back in 2007, she had a couple of buffers around her in her traveling coach Michael Joyce and her dad Yuri.  This time around it was one on one and I cannot imagine how she took to some of his very direct comments when – and this is very important to realize – he has rarely followed her career closely or women’s tennis at all so she probably didn’t think he was offering anything of real value in the context of her (not his) career.

So Sharapova pulled the rip cord quickly and now will head to the US Open without a full time coach, but likely with someone in tow, possibly one of her hitting partners, maybe even her dad or possibly one of her boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov’s Swedish coaches. For more info, here is the news story I wrote on it this morning.

Federer and his racquet

Roger Federer is scheduled to play Rafael Nadal on Friday night in Cincinnati in a match where he will be a serious underdog in. Even getting a set in that match given how shaky he’s been over the past few months and how good Nadal has been in the past week and a half will give him a psychological boost. But his decision to test a prototype racket for more than a month and then bail on it in Cincy is not a good sign. Sure, his smaller head Wilson Pro Staff worked well for him for much of his career, but it hasn’t this year. However, if he was feeling uncomfortable with the prototype, he really had no choice if he was going to be comfortable in matches but to chuck it back into his racquet bag for the time being. But that does little more than put him back at square one. A win over Nadal would put him in US Open final four contention. A quick loss would mean he’s in danger of a first week exit.

The USTA has received a lot of flack (especially from some overseas reporters) about the lack of a roof on Arthur Ashe stadium. But on Thursday the organization announced plans for not only a roof on Ashe, but one of the new Armstrong stadium, and a new Grandstand court, and for an entire redesign of the site. It looks very impressive to me (see the Picture of the day on the home page) and eventually will put the USO ahead of the rest of the majors facility wise. Well done. Read here.

Whacked Wednesday at Wimbledon

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Sergiy Stakhovsky ended Federer;s reign at Wimbledon

 

WIMBLEDON – Somewhere close to noon on Wednesday, one of the my housemates, Tennis.com’s Steve Tignor, told me that John Isner had suffered a knee injury in the first set of his match against Adrian Mannarino. I immediately thought back to Sydney, when big John came into the pressroom after his loss to Ryan Harrison and essentially said his knee was wrecked and that he had little chance of playing the Aussie Open.  A couple of days later, he pulled out.

A few minutes later in London, Tignor told me that Isner had actually retired  and thus began the craziest day I have ever covered at a major since I began reporting on the sport back in 1992.

About a half hour later, now on site, I was told that Victoria Azarenka was going to pull out of her contest against Flavia Pennetta and she did. Then Rafa Nadal’s conqueror Steve Darcis withdrew a shoulder injury, then Radek Stepanek retired with a thigh injury. On Centre Court, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retired down two sets to one against Ernest Gulbis with a knee injury,

A little over an hour after Stepanek’s pullout, Caroline Wozniacki slipped and badly twisted her ankle in the fourth game of her match against Petra Cetkovska. She couldn’t run after that and was plastered 6-2, 6-2.

Sometime later, No. 10 Marin Cilic pulled out with a knee injury too. Bernard Tomic, who is still in the singles draw, retired in doubles with a hamstring problem. The Yaroslava Shvedova pulled out against Petra Kvitova.

Wimbledon had set an Open Era record with retirements/walkovers with seven, and all the talk was about whether the slippery courts were to blame. But there was something in the air that wasn’t related to seed germination. Perhaps someone has opened up a catacomb at the London Dungeon and unleashed some foul magic, which is why Cilic later called it a “very black day.”  Whacked Wednesday at Wimbledon was on, and it wouldn’t stop there.

Azarenka is suffering from a bone bruise and was very upset that her chance of winning her first Wimbledon title  had gone away before she could dig herself into the tournament.

“The court was not in a very good condition that day,” said Azarenka. “My opponent fell twice; I fell badly; there were some other people who fell after. So I don’t know if it’s the court or the weather. I can’t figure it out it.  Would be great if the club or somebody who takes care of the court just would examine or try to find an issue so that wouldn’t happen. There is nothing I’ve done wrong that cost me to just withdraw from Wimbledon… I don’t see anything positive as of today because I’m disappointed extremely.”

Maria Sharapova, who has been so very consistent at the major over the past two years, went out onto the Graveyard Court 2 against former phenom Michelle Larcher De Brito and fell down a remarkable down three times. She eventually received a medical timeout for what appears to be minor hip injury, and although she tried to fight, she seemed distracted, was way off her game on the big points, and landed with thud in in her 6-3 6-4 loss. She gave her foe credit for the win, but at one point in the second set she called the conditions dangerous.

“Well, after I buckled my knee three times, that’s obviously my first reaction,” Sharapova said. “And because I’ve just never fallen that many times in a match before.  Those are the conditions that are there for my opponent, as well. Just took a lot more falls than she did today.”

Wozniacki looked like she cried a great deal after her defeat. After all, she needed a redemptive Slam and didn’t come close to having one. It’s one thing to take another harrowing loss, but with no chance to move quickly and try and impose her game. Cetkovska drop shotted the speedster to death.

“She played some very smart tennis, I have to say.  She was serving well.  She knew what to do out there for me to struggle. Obviously, you know, I didn’t feel 100% out there after I slipped.,” she said. “It’s just not really fun to be out there when you feel like you can’t really push off on your foot.”

Other seeds fell too before the catastrophe for Roger Federer and his fan base really set in. Canadian teen Eugenie Bouchard played brilliantly in upending No 12 Ana Ivanovic  6-3 6-3; Karin Knapp upset No. 27Lucie Safarova 4-6 6-4 6-4; young Serbian Vesna Dolonc beat older Serb and No. 16 Jelena Jankovic 7-5 6-2; and Camila Giorgi of Italy took down No. 22 Sorana Cirstea 7-6(7) 7-6(6). On the men’s side, Dustin Brown overran former champ Lleyton Hewitt in four sets.

But nothing else on court compared  to Sergiy Stakhovsky shocking defending champion Federer 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5), which was the Swiss’ earliest defeat at Wimbledon since losing in the  first  round in 2003. The Ukrainian put together  a brilliant, old school serve-and-volley attack, never allowing the Federer to get his rhythm and suffocating him at the net. The Eastern European journeyman matched Western European journeyman Darcis’ level on court in the Belgian’s stunner over Nadal, and perhaps even more so: the result ended Federer’s run of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances dating back to 2004 Wimbledon.

“Well, you can’t really keep up with Roger on grass on baseline rallies,” Stakhovsky said. “It’s just impossible, I would say, especially here.  He’s playing very well.  He feels the grass.  He feels the slice.  He can do whatever he wants with the ball. The only tactics I have is press as hard as I can on my serve and come in as much as I can.  The shorter it is, the less rhythm he got.  I think today I was successful enough that he didn’t get into the returning rhythm, only somewhere in the middle of the fourth set he find it.  So I was lucky to pull it out in the fourth and finish it.”

It wasn’t just luck, he can up huge on the big points while Federer faltered. The Swiss said later on that he thinks there have been periods where he’s been playing great at the majors, but the 31-year-old is certainly not playing as well as he did in his heyday, which is why he now has gone a year without reaching a Slam final and has only won two tournaments during that stretch.

He then chided the press for saying that he and Nadal would automatically meet in the quarterfinals.

“You guys hyped it up so much, me playing Rafa, and we’re both out,” Federer said. “So there’s a letdown clearly. Maybe it’s also somewhat a bit disrespectful to the other opponents who are in the draw still.  I think it sends a message to [the media] as well that maybe you shouldn’t do that so often next time around.”

Perhaps there is lesson learned in there, but given that the “Big 4” has combined to win 36 of the last 39 Slams and that Federer and Nadal rarely lose early, especially at the same tournament, it was only logical to think that they would meet again.

Even if they were not going to win Wimbledon, no one would have picked two veteran guys like Darcis and Stakhovsky, who haven’t never been relevant in the majors, to pull off stunners such as those.

But then again, would anyone have put money down on trifecta picks of Larcher De Brito, Bouchard and Dolonc over three former No.1’s, or seven retirements/pullouts in one day, or the fact that in both bottom halves of the draw there are only 15 combined seeds out of 32 headed into the third round. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

So when the dust settled after a very exciting and hard to gage day here is what then tournament has on the bottom halves: on the women’s side there certainly is an attractive group of young women left lead by Sloane Stephens, Bouchard and Monica Puig (read here) with former finalist Marion Bartoli and 2011 titlist Kvitova kicking around, but given that none of them have been playing consistent standout ball, chaos could still reign there. On the men’s side, Andy Murray still stands and is a substantial favorite to reach the final again, but there are only three “younger” men with character and game left in Gulbis, Jerzy Janowicz and Benoit Paire.  Nicolas Almagro, who has never been a fan of grass, is also in the mix. Imagine if he reached the semis out of Federer and Nadal’s half.

That would be as whacked as what occurred on Wednesday at Wimbledon, but after such a bizarre day, anything goes for the rest of the fortnight.

 

 

 

 

This time sorry not hardest word: Behind the Serena-Sharapova spat

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Serena: ‘I want to take this moment to just pour myself, be open, say I’m very sorry ‘

Williams said she apologized to Maria, but that was 2 days before Sharapova criticized her

By Matt Cronin

WIMBLEDON – What if players existed in a tennis world like many journalists do, where you publish what you mean to say and stand by it through thick and thin. That is not the pro athlete world though, and certainly not all of the tennis world, when statements that are termed “controversial” somehow get turned into eye-popping words that must apologized for.

Some statements like Serena’s Williams ill-advised comments about the Steubenville rape case do immediate demand explanations, but did Serena really have to come out and apologize to Maria Sharapova for telling (at least partly) Rolling Stone that a top-five player now allegedly in love “begins every interview with ‘I’m so happy. I’m so lucky’ — it’s so boring. She’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”

Perhaps, but perhaps not.  Clearly, she and Sharapova are far from friends, even if they respect each other on court. So that Serena said those statements to Venus on the phone and the Rolling Stone writer decided to publish them is only a big deal because it got out in public. Highly opinionated players have opinions about lots of things, including other players, it’s just that many of those opinions do not reach the public’s ears.

Is this about Dimitrov, tennis or something else?

Serena is super competitive with other high-profile women players, be it Sharapova, or Victoria Azarenka, or now Sloane Stephens. That’s how she is. Even at 31, she’s still to some degree the baby sister of her family and does not like to get upstaged. Serena and Sharapova have a young man in common now, the charming Grigor Dimitrov, whom Sharapova is now dating and Serena once had a some kind of relationship with, whether it was just a friendship, or something more involved. When Serena was hanging around with Dimitrov, he was still being coached by Patrick Mouratoglou, who is now Serena’s coach and by all indications, her boyfriend.

Right around the time that Dimitrov left Mouratoglou and hired Magus Norman’s Swedish team, he began dating Sharapova. Is that why Serena’s allegedly tagged him as having a black heart, because he’s now dating her rival, or is it because something else occurred in their relationship prior to that? That’s unclear for now but if Serena wants to call her [or possibly Azarenka] boring, or say that they both have bad taste in men, so what? Serena has chided herself about having bad taste in men. People everywhere say that type of thing everyday, so why such a hullabaloo? I’ll tell you why: because they are the two highest profile women athletes in the world and when they mix it up, it’s news. It’s Connors vs. McEnroe all over again, but this time in skirts.

“At the end of the day, we have a tremendous amount of respect for what we do on the court,” Sharapova said. “I just think she should be talking about her accomplishments, her achievements, rather than everything else that’s just getting attention and controversy. If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids,” Sharapova said.  “Talk about other things, but not draw attention to other things. She has so much in her life, many positives, and I think that’s what it should be about.”

Sharapova clearly thinks at least a couple of those comments were directed at her, but sources also say that Azarenka thinks one or two of them might have been directed at her, which would make sense given that the “she’s still not going to be invited to the cool parties” comment doesn’t seem to fit with Sharapova, who does get invited to cool parties, but more to Azarenka, who has been dating the pop star Redfoo but still is not yet as famous as Serena or Sharapova, so getting invited to A-List parties still might be a challenge for her, whether she cares to go or not.

But is that comment really scandalous or over the top? Not so much, but what it does do is add spice to their rivalries and there is nothing wrong with competitors having digs at each other, as long as they aren’t mean-spirited. Serena’s comment about the woman wanting to be with a guy with a black heart and Sharapova’s about being with a man with kids getting divorced both qualify as below the belt, so perhaps apologies are in order for both. Serena approached  Sharapova at the Wimbledon player party on Thursday.

Serena’s apology

“I feel like Maria, unfortunately, was inadvertently brought into a situation she should have never been brought into,” said Serena. “I want to personally apologize to you if you are offended by being brought into my situation. I want to take this moment to just pour myself, be open, say I’m very sorry for this whole situation.”

In that discussion, Serena was said to have told Sharapova that she didn’t remember which player she was talking about during the interview. So while she apologized for the article having drawn Sharapova into the discussion, she allegedly did not cop to saying it about Sharapova to Sharapova’s face at the party, which is why Sharapova had little trouble publicly going at Serena two days later in her press conference.

But Serena said that she is taking full responsibility for what she said and is willing to admit a wrong, even though there have been occasions in her career (i.e. her two US Open meltdowns) where she refused to say that she was sorry.

“I’m the first person to apologize,” said Williams, who also apologized for making Steubenville comments without having her facts lined up.  “I’m the first person to reach out to individuals and people if I feel that something may have hurt them or something may have been misconstrued. That’s another reason why, being a woman, I wanted to reach out to [Sharapova] and say, ‘Look, this is this, this is this, sorry…. Well, we always have great conversations, so I believe that she definitely did accept [my apology].”

It appears that Sharapova did not on Saturday, but maybe when she reads  Williams’ comments on Monday before or after her match, she will.

Taking big shots

One of the key things to understand about Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka is that regardless as how much certain people want to handle them and soften their image, if they feel strongly about something, eventually they  are just going to say it and damn the consequences. They don’t want to be filtered. They are not afraid to go for big shots on court or off. I like that quality in all of them, even if on occasion they put their feet in their mouths. People do that all the time, even tennis journalists.

Serena mentioned that because she is largely covered by the tennis media and has a good relationships with many of them, and that she didn’t anticipate that some of the things she said around the Rolling Stone reporter would be used. She should know better and admitted as much. But let’s hope that in a sport that some officials seek to sterilize to the point of boring fans to tears, that she stays the real and uncut Serena Williams. The same with Sharapova, Azarenka and every other  player who isn’t afraid to tell the world what they think and stand by it.

“I’ve been spoiled dealing with professionalism here in the tennis world,” Serena said.  “I’m used to dealing with professional reporters. I have people come to my home.  I have great conversations. I’m used to dealing with these people not writing or commenting on a private conversation that I may have or kind of listening in or eavesdropping and then reporting on it.  You guys have completely spoiled me.  With that being said, I’ve been in the business for a little over 200 years, so I should definitely, definitely know better.”