Who’s hot! Sharapova, Nadal voted sexiest again

nadal_300Thanks to our very loyal and active readers and for the thousands of votes we received. We love the responses.

Maria Sharapova is on a roll, winning now for the third straight year. However, boyfriend Grigor Dimtrov, who was voted sexiest last year, came in second. He lost out to three-time winner Rafa Nadal, who also was the hottest in 2011 & 2012.

Tennis’ hottest couple, Maria Sharapova and Grigor Dimtrov, won it in 2014.

The awards were named for Ivanovic and Safin whose notable sexiness helped them capture the awards for the first five years of the poll, 2005-2009. They were declared ineligible after the awards were named for them.

Results of all seven 2014 TennisReporters.net awards are listed below:

Sexiest
Male Player

Results

Rafael Nadal 35%
Grigor Dimitrov 23%
Roger Federer 12%
Feliciano Lopez 8%
Novak Djokovic 6%
Ernests Gulbis 6%
Nick Kygrios 4%
Tommy Haas 3%
Fabio Fagnini 2%
Ryan Harrison 1%

Sexiest
Female Player

Results

Maria Sharapova 35%
Eugenie Bouchard 17%
Victoria Azarenka 13%
Caroline Wozniacki 12%
Serena Williams 8%
Maria Kirlenko 6%
Alize Lim 5%
Dominika Cibulkova 2%
Karolina Pliskova 2%
Sloane Stephens 1%

ATP Coach of the Year

Results

Magnus Norman /
Stan Wawrinka
33%
Stefan Edberg /
Roger Federer
29%
Michael Chang /
Kei Nishikori
26%
Toni Nadal /
Rafael Nadal
5%
Boris Becker /
Novak Djokovic
4%
Goran Ivanisevic /
Marin Cilic
4%

WTA Coach of the Year

Results

Carlos Rodriguez /
Li Na
49%
Patrick Mouratoglou /
Serena Williams
19%
Wim Fissette /
Simona Halep
12%
Sven Groeneveld /
Maria Sharapova
10%
Nick Saviano /
Eugenie Bouchard
7%
David Kotyza /
Petra Kvitova
3%

ATP Breakthrough Kid of the Year
(24 or younger)

Results

Kei Nishikori 65%
Grigor Dimitrov 15%
Dominic Thiem 8%
Milos Raonic 6%
David Goffin 6%

WTA Breakthrough Kid of the Year
(21 or younger)

Results

Eugenie Bouchard 49%
Belinda Bencic 23%
Garbine Muguruza 16%
Zarina Diyas 6%
Madison Keys 6%

Tweeter of the Year

Results

Laura Robson 30%
Roger Federer 19%
Stan Wawrinka 15%
Tomas Berdych 12%
Serena Williams 8%
Caroline Wozniacki 6%
Maria Sharapova 5%
Andy Murray 3%
Eugenie Bouchard 2%
Grigor Dimitrov 1%

Kvitova key to Fed Cup final between Czech Republic v. Germany

MVP Safarova proved more than a fine No. 2 to No. 1 Kvitova

MVP Safarova proved more than a find No. 2 to No. 1 Kvitova in 2012.

PRAGUE — How many women love slick courts? Not many, that’s for sure.

But Petra Kvitova would prefer to hit as hard as she can … just booming it. Forget it about engaging 30-plus rallies; she would rather wipe her serves into the corner and break them way out wide. Even if it’s punched back by one of her opponents, she will step in and power her forehand for a winner.

Kvitova has won two Grand Slams, in 2011 and 2014 at Wimbledon. Her foes in the finals, Maria Sharapova and Genie Bouchard, couldn’t even blink as the Czech hit with power so quickly that they couldn’t touch her shots. That is exactly what Kvitova has done for the Czech Republic in the Fed Cup: She was her lights out, nailing the corners and winning two of the past three Fed Cup finals at home in Prague.

And guess what … she can do it all over again. Coming up this weekend in Prague, the world No. 3 will be favored again. The Czechs, including Lucie Safarova, were tough and aggressive in 2012 when they stomped Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic to win the title. Kvitova was not perfect that weekend, as she was sick, and Ivanovic played well to grab one of the points. But, in the end, the Czechs won anyway because the left-handed Kvitova kept swinging and Safarova was on ultra-speed.

This is different though. Kvitova has become more mature during the last year or so, but she knows that she cannot go on a walkabout. They will play against Germany, led by Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic, both of whom say that they know to keep balls in play until the tall Kvitova grows tired and wild.

The 24-year-old Kvitova says she is faster than she was as a baby back in 2008 when she played her first time in Fed Cup. She could only split against Israel, but they won anyway. From then on, she kept on playing in the team competition.

Kvitova loves Fed Cup so much that she has played 15 times already. She has played twice against Germany before, in 2010 in World Group at home when she beat Petkovic and lost to Anna-Lena Groenefeld but the came through anyway. Then she won a classic match in 2012 when the Germans chose hard courts, but Kvitova edged Julia Goerges 10-8 in the third set and then out-pushed Sabine Lisicki in the third set.

Goerges and Lisicki are on the German team this week and could play the doubles, or the 2013 Wimbledon finalist Lisicki, who also loves to bang the ball, may play in Sunday’s singles

But, it really doesn’t matter what strategy German captain Barbara Rittner employs. The key is whether or not Kvitova can make big swings and find the lines. If she does, the Czechs will win the Fed Cup again and Petra will once again be perfect.

Serena Gets Slammed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic: Comfortable in her own skin again

Ivanovic is coming alive.

Ivanovic pushed away the attention of being No. 1 and had a comeback year in 2014.

Advice sometimes comes at you from all angles.  That’s surely been the case for Ana Ivanovic during a 12-year pro career that has seen the now-26-year-old reach three Grand Slam finals and rise to No. 1 in the world, a ranking she occupied in 2008 when she won Roland Garros and became only the second Serbian woman to win a major.

Since the age of five, when she first picked up a racquet after spotting fellow Serb Monica Seles crushing screech-inducing groundies on TV, since the days she honed her skills in the unlikely environs of a carpeted indoor swimming pool, the consultation — sometimes welcomed, other times not — has come from a variety of voices.  It’s come from her mother/courtside companion, Dragana, from her father, Miroslav.  It’s come from a battery of coaches, which the Belgradian baseliner seems to go through with a Steinbrenner-like flair: Dejan Vranes, Eric Van Harpen, Zoltan Kuharszky, David Taylor, Sven Groeneveld, Craig Kardon, Heinz Gunthardt, Antonio Van Grichen, Nigel Sears, Nemanja Kontic and, currently, coach du jour Dejan Petrovic, who once mentored AI’s pal Novak Djokovic.

But it was in 1999, when she was just 12 and NATO planes regularly roared over her homeland and she was forced to train in the mornings to avoid bombardments, that she received perhaps the most important advice of her career.  It was simple, really: You’ve got to work hard, to put in your time off the court before anything can begin to come easy on it.

It’s something she’s never forgotten.

“It’s so true,” said Ivanovic, in the midst of a season that might just be her best since she rose to the top of the WTA charts a half-dozen years ago, a season that has seen her win four titles and more importantly regain the kind of self-assuredness that it takes to survive inside the Top 10.  “All the confidence and all the hard work, it’s actually built off the court.  When you’re competing, it’s a time when you can enjoy that execution.”

Ivanovic, who’s gone 56-16 on the year, earned a spot among the Elite Eight at the 2014 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore.

Ivanovic’s parabolic narrative is well known.  Just as soon as she assumed the role of top dog on the WTA Tour, she seemed to skulk away, tail tucked between legs.  She even admitted to as much this summer in New York, telling reporters that she simply couldn’t stomach all that came with being the best in her sport.

“It was very hard to handle all the attention because I was very shy at the time,” she confided.  “I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I was very introverted. I liked to spend my time with the books. That’s who I was. All of a sudden, there was so many requests and so many other things that came with it. No one prepared me for that.”

In total, Ivanovic spent just 12 weeks at No. 1, surrendering the spot first to countrywoman/rival Jelena Jankovic, and a second time to Serena Williams, that time for good.  She’s been trying to get back ever since.  And the process hasn’t always been pretty.

But we’ve witnessed a rebirth of sorts in 2014.  She kicked off the year by winning Auckland, then scored her first-ever win over Williams at the Australian Open, shocking the American No. 1 in three sets in the round of 16.  She scored consecutive titles in Stuttgart and Monterrey in the spring, downing the likes of Top-10ers Jankovic and Maria Sharapova in the process.  (She’s now downed Sharapova three times this year, including a gutsy 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 performance in Cincinnati, where she reached the final.)  She dove into the grass-court campaign by taking the Birmingham title.  And despite a ho-hum year at the Slams (her quarterfinal showing in Melbourne being the only time she advanced beyond the third round), she’s been hitting the ball with more authority than she has in years.

Chalk it up to maturity.  And her ability to go back to the basics, back to those words of wisdom she first heard in ’99: You’ve got to put in your time off the court.

“I really work hard to get to that position to compete and to be consistent and to do it over and over again,” explained Ivanovic, now ranked No. 8.  “That’s what I’m really proud of.  So it’s just about enjoying and working hard, taking care of each match, and then the rankings and everything else takes care of itself.”

Ivanovic will be tested early at the WTA Finals.  She opens against none other than 18-time Slam champ Williams, a player she’s beaten only once in eight career head-to-heads, on Monday night.  The good news?  She’s pushed Williams to three sets three times in 2014, including her upset of the American in Melbourne.  Is another upset in the making?  Stay tuned.

WTA Finals Singapore ready to rock

Ivanovic going deep would help ticket sales

Ivanovic steps it up in 2014.

By Matt Cronin

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

Matt Cronin returns
to writing for TR

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

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

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

– Ron Cioffi

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

Time wasn’t on Nadal’s side, but overcomes Nishikori anyway

Nadal USO 13 TR MALT7648

Rafa doesn’t think time violations should be called at crucial moments

MELBOURNE – Rafael Nadal was upset that he was called for multiple time violations in his 7-6 (3) 7-5 7-6 (3) fourth-round win over Kei Nishikori but he’s been a serial offender of the rule, even if he is one of the tour’s greatest and most exciting competitors. He takes a lot of times between every point and consistently pushes the Grand Slams’ 20-second rule.

Nishikori played perhaps the best Grand Slam match of his life at the Aussie Open as he whaled away against Nadal all day long, but could not capture enough big points to even win a set.

With the third set tied at 4-4 and deuce, chair umpire Eva Asderaki gave Nadal his second time violation and he had to forfeit his first serve. The Spaniard rarely shows anger on court, but he was infuriated on that occasion and threw a ball in disgust. Nishikori took the next two points to break, but Nadal would break back, recompose himself and eventually win the contest.

But that did not cool his jets as he felt like Asderaki should have shown more flexibility given how tough the points were in the game and because of the stage of the match. Umpires are told to call the violations when they occur regardless of what stage the match is in, although they can be flexible if they choose to if the prior point is extremely long. But, if Asderaki  has chosen not to call the violation on Nadal at that juncture (and he really did violate the rule), is that is fair to his opponent and would it open the door to even more violations?

It should be noted that it appears that the umpires have been tougher during this fortnight than they have been at any other Grand Slam, even warning some of the women players, which they rarely do. Jelena Jankovic received a warning come off a changeover on Monday in her three-set loss to Simona Halep.

Nadal was not pleased, although he said he would try to quicken his pace.

“The negative thing in my opinion is not the warning,” Nadal said. “The negative thing is the moment, 4‑All, deuce.  You can choose another moment to do it, not that one.  Another thing is she didn’t advise me before the second warning that I was still going slow.  So normal thing, if the referee is say, ‘Rafa, you are going too slow.’  So I try to go quicker, before the second warning.  But she didn’t make it. The rule says you can do it.  But, in my opinion, that goes against the show.  But that’s fine.  If she wants to do it that way, she did.  She did, and that’s why we are talking.”

What is unclear is whether Nadal knows how experienced Asderaki is. She may call matches slightly differently than other umpires, but she has overseen thousands of them, including Grand Slam finals. He does not seem to be too impressed, even though she is a real pro.

“I going to try to go quicker for the future,” he said. “But is important to have people on the chair that really understand the game and people who manage this sport who understand the game, and that’s it.  Because, if not, every time with Hawk‑Eye, the referee just start watching the watch, 25 seconds, then warning, so then we don’t need any more referees.  We only need lines.  That’s fine. Because if not, the referees don’t need to do all the rules.  That is my feeling.  We are making the referees worse than before with all the things that we are making for them easier.”

Next up: Dimitrov

Nadal will face the 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals, who bested Spain’s Roberto Bautista  6-3 3-6 6-2 6-4. Dimitrov is in the final eight for the first time and is playing more patiently than he did last season, which helps him overall because, even though he is an impressive shot-maker, he does have the tendency to become sloppy. At a Grand Slam in three out of five set matches, players don’t get away with that over the long haul. Dimitrov does not appear to fear the match-up, but he will be the underdog for sure.

“We all know that he has won tons of Slams,” Dimitrov said.  “He’s been a tremendous competitor.  He’s Rafa.  We all know him.  But that’s what I’m playing for, to put myself in position to play those guys.  I had tough battles with him in the past.  Played a couple times on clay.  There were always little things missing.  But I’m quite happy with the way I’m performing so far.  So I like my chances.”

WTA roundup

Serena Williams and Maria  Sharapova are both out of the tournament now, Sharapova to Dominika Cibulkova on Monday in a great effort by the Slovakian, but not two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka who took a very impressive 6-3 6-2 victory over Sloane Stephens. The 20-year-old American contested a very decent first set but not win enough of the big points, was slightly out steadied and didn’t take enough risks. Azarenka was better off the ground and more ambitious. She’s the highest seed left in the event. She will play the winner of the match between Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbine Muguruza. Halep reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal and will play  Cibulkova.

“I don’t consider anybody as the favorite, I just go out there and play my best,” said Azarenka. “We’ve seen over the last couple of days that somebody can bring their best game on any given day. You have to stay alert.”

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

cornet ao 14

 

Rod Laver Arena

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

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

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

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

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

Hisense Arena

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

5-Agnieszka Radwanska v 29-Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

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

4-Andy Murray  v 26-Feliciano Lopez

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

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

Margaret Court Arena

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

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

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

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

 

Brisbane semis: Sharapova pretty close, but still far way from beating Serena

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Serena is now 15-2 versus Sharapova

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Serena is now 15-2 versus Sharapova

BRISBANE – Maria Sharapova will more than likely have more shots at Serena Williams in the future, but in the past few years she hasn’t had many opportunities as she did in the second set of her 6-2, 7-6 (7) loss to Williams in the Brisbane International semis. Williams didn’t serve well at all, only putting in 41 percent of her first serves, which game the Russian chances to break time and time again. And after a first set that saw Sharapova contest some gorgeous but too few great points, she actually broke the world’s greatest server on plenty of occasions in the second set.

But Williams returned competently and viciously all match long and in a second set that featured numerous end-to-end rallies with searing  laser shots and great defense by two women who are primarily known for their offense, Sharapova couldn’t hang on to an early break. While her forehand was just as heavy as Serena’s and she stood strong slinging low backhands, she couldn’t push Williams back enough on her own service games and that proved her undoing.

But some of the points were delicious to take in. Williams, who hasn’t lost a match since August, had a blast. “I think it was fun,” she said. “Some of those points were really long and the intensity level was so high.  Maria was hitting the ball extremely hard and I was retrieving a lot of balls.  So was she.  My gosh, she was getting so many balls back. So, yeah, few times I smiled out there because I was really enjoying myself.”

Stroke to stoke, Sharapova is close to matching Williams, but she doesn’t her vaunted serve and that is what has led to Williams 15-2 record against her. With that said, she should have been able to bring the match into a third set, especially after Williams double-faulted twice to go down 5-4 lead in the tie break. And then what did the towering blonde do? She double faulted herself to 5-5. Serena then took over a long rally when Sharapova landed a crosscourt forehand short, and then Williams skied up in the air, smoked a forehand crosscourt winner and then screamed and fist pumped right in the direction of Sharapova’s Friends’ Box, which included her new coach Sven Groeneveld and her boyfriend (and Serena’s former friend) Grigor Dimitrov.

Serving with a match point , Williams went with a drop shot-lob combo, but Sharapova scooped up the dropper, Serena’s half volley lob was not deep enough and Sharapova- who disdains standard overheads – actually got some hang time and put one away to tie it at 6-6.

But then she dumped a routine backhand into the net, which was critical error number one. Serena gave the advantage right back by flying a backhand long. At 7-7, Sharapova had a another big chance and couldn’t convert when she missed a wide open inside out forehand. “Obviously I can look back and say it’s great to be at this level and compete against her and put myself in a good position after not playing for a few months,” she said. ‘But in the moment I’m pulling my teeth out because I missed that shot.”

On Williams’ second match point, she boomed a 171-kilometer per hour ace to win it. Sharapova, who only managed to contest one match post-Wimbledon due to shoulder trouble, was happy and remorseful at the same. She loved the intensity of the battle and can put the loss in perspective, but those kind of chances don’t come along every week against Williams.

“A few missed chances,” she said. “You know, tough being a little, a small break up in that tiebreaker and also missing that forehand just a little bit wide Overall, happy that I can compete at this level in my third match back.  I really have to take the positives out of this, because I have been struggling for a few months.  To be able to come out on the court and put myself in good positions out there against someone that’s been playing amazing tennis is a good sign for me. It was definitely a good week and a good test.”

Sharapova, who won the 2008 Aussie Open title and last year, went down to Li Na in Melbourne in the semis, said that she did gain a bit of confidence during her week in Brisbane. But if she plays Williams at the Aussie Open, will she give herself another real chance? 14 losses in a row to the game’s most accomplished player is tough to figure out.

“I just found 14 ways how not to win,” she said. “ That’s the only way you can look at it.  I could be in a worse position and never face her, which means I would be losing much earlier in tournaments than I want to be. So if I’m giving myself opportunities to go into tournaments and fight through matches to get to a position to play against her, I consider myself very lucky to be able to play against her and give myself another chance to try and beat her.”

Williams will face her main rival, Victoria Azarenka, who took a trying 1-6 6-3 6-4 win over Jelena Jankovic, who was disappointed in how she lost control of a contest that she dictated in at times. Yet Azarenka became No. 1 largely because she is confident that she can unlock the key to her inside the baseline attack against anyone. Her serve has been largely ineffective during the week, but if she can get a high percentage in against Williams, she should be able to go toe to toe with her from the back court, just like she did every time they faced of on hard courts last year.

A Serena vs. Vika final to start the year is perfect start to the 2014 WTA season and perhaps a prelude to their first Aussie Open final.

“It’s a good [rivalry],” Serena said.  “She’s so intense on the court, and then off the court she’s so cool.  So I think that’s what makes the rivalry the best, is because when you step on the court I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me and we fight like crazy. When it’s over it’s over.  There is a lot of mutual respect there.”

Sharapova vs. Serena 17: No love lost, but Serena won’t make off court jabs

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Sharapova wants to mute her off court conflict with Williams.

BRISBANE: –  Maria Sharapova can be a very self-reflective person, but talking about her history against a woman who has all but dominated her and whom she does not get along with off court are not subjects she wants to ponder publicly.

On Thursday after her three-set win over Kaia Kanepi, she was asked a series of questions about Serena Williams, whom she will face in the semis, and she wouldn’t go into depth with any of them. She didn’t want to talk about whether she had made up ground on Williams in 2013 when she pushed her both at Miami and Roland Garros in losses. She didn’t want to talk about whether she has watched tape of her two wins against Williams, which occurred back in 2004 at Wimbledon and Miami. She didn’t want to talk about their 2005 Australian Open semifinal, which is perhaps the best match they contested when Williams tipped her 8-6 in the third set in a contest the Russian had huge chances in.

And she certainly did not want to talk about her off court relationship with Williams, which has largely been a negative throughout their long careers, even though she has done so in the past and recently told the New York Times Chris Clarey that “On the court, I have the utmost respect for her; I really do. [Off the court] it’s different…”

As Sharapova herself said in defending her comments made at Wimbledon when she was went after Williams for allegedly making comment  about her  in Rolling Stone, ‘everyone’ in the tennis industry knows they don’t get along.  They are the two biggest women’s athletes in the world by a long shot, they play the same sport and both have type-A personalities. It would unusual if they were close.

Sharapova  wants to book to be closed on her comments regarding Williams’s alleged romantic relationship with her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, even though she won’t apologize for them. Serena has claimed to have apologized to Sharapova for the comments made to Rolling Stone. Sharapova certainly felt like she was aiming at her and her boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov when Serena was quoted as saying “ if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it.”

Sharapova says that she is an open book when it comes to her feelings and for the most part she is, but she also feels like she is the one making the calls on closing the book when she feels like the issue should be put to bed.

Unfortunately for Sharapova,  that not how the media world works, even if she says, as she did on Thursday: “I thought it was really important to clear the air, and I think I said everything I had to say about it.”

She might want the issue to die, but not when she is about to face Serena in another match, and not when the bone of contention was over and her rival’s respective  romantic relationships. These type of disputes don’t settle easily.

Are they capable of being cordial to each other? Perhaps on occasion. Can they ever be BFFs? No.

“It’s very difficult I think for anyone to be best buddies when you’re so competitive,” Serena said. “But I don’t have a problem with anyone.  I get along with everyone.  I have respect for people not only on the court but as well as off the court.  I don’t have any problem when it comes to anything like that.  I don’t take jabs or anything.  I am who I am and I don’t hide anything. I’m totally fine.”

Within their so-called rivalry, she is more than fine, owning a 14-2 edge over Sharapova. They have played one classic before in Australia, in the 2005 Australian Open semis, when coming off two losses to Sharapova in 2004, Serena fought off three match points down 5-4 in the third set and took the contest 2-6 7-5 8-6. She eventually went on to win the title.

Sharapova has no good recall of the match, or at least that’s what she said  on Thursday, but Serena did:

“I remember a forehand inside out.  That’s all I remember.  I was down match point and I hit this winner and I didn’t even blink.  I hit the a winner and walked right to the other side and was ready for the next return as if it was just a 30‑15 point. It was pretty amazing.”

Yes it was and she hasn’t lost to Sharapova since then, winning their next 12 matches. Even  though four-time Grand Slam winner Sharapova is dangerous to anyone on any given day, she has always claimed that Williams brings her A-plus game again her. Time and time again, that game has proven better than what Sharapova brings to the table and unless Williams’ level drops, it is likely that they American will march into the final. In her 6-3, 6-3 win over Dominika Cibulkova on Thursday, Williams looked better than Sharapova did in 4‑6, 6‑3, 6‑2 over Kaia Kanepi.

Sharapova has only contested three matches since Wimbledon due to shoulder injury and while her level was fairly high in her win over the Estonian Kanepi, it was not at a level that she’ll need against Williams, which would be a near perfect one.

“There is no substitute for getting ready for at Grand Slam competing against the best,” Sharapova said. “She’s been on a roll the lost couple of years with her level and the way that she’s been able to play.  I’ve competed against her a few times last year; didn’t work. You always hope that you can go out and give yourself a chance to do better next time.You’re going up against a great champion that’s playing great tennis at the moment.  You know that you have to raise your level in order to beat her.  That’s the excitement you feel, is you know have you to step up on the line and expect yourself to raise that level.”

Injury of the day

It did not occur in Brisbane but in Perth at the Hopman Cup when former top 10 player Flavia Pennetta’s retired down 4-0  to Eugenie Bouchard in the first set with a right wrist injury, the same body part that she has surgery on in 2012.

“I don’t know. This wrist is crazy. It’s coming, some pain, from nothing,” Pennetta said. “I think it was what I had to do, to try and go on the court and at least I was thinking maybe with some warm up it will get better but it was not like this. “I will have some treatment, some reforming and try to, maybe don’t play for one or two days to help because I think it’s more something, inflammation, it’s not like a tear or ligament, I mean I had all my ligament already operated, so hope it’s nothing worse.”

Development of the Day

Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou is not only pleased with Williams play but that of Jeremy Chardy who has reached the ATP quarters in Brisbane. Another player he has been working with, Peng Shuai, has made progress at the tournament in Shenzhen.

What to Watch for, Friday

Roger Federer is playing doubles with Nicolas Mahut in Brisbane and they took down Grigor  Dimitrov and Jeremy Chardy 11-9 in a match tiebreak to reach the semis. Federer has clear shot at a singles & doubles double in Brisbane. If he manages the feat, it would be the first time that the Swiss has won singles and doubles titles at the same tournament since 2005 Halle when he partnered with Yves Allegro.

 

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.