Archives for August 2013

She had to end it now: Radwanksa beats Errani, to face Serena


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Aga says that if Serena is clicking it might be impossible to stop her

FROM THE ROGER’S CUP IN TORONTO – Before an examination of Petra Kvitova’s ills, let’s start with some positives from the semifinalists: Agnieszka Radwanska played courageously and disposed of Sara Errani 7-6 (1) 7-5; Li Na played smart, made her own mid-match adjustment and fought off Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 7-6 6-2; Sorana Cirstea is having her best tournament ever and smacked Petra Kvitova 4-6 7-5 6-2; and Serena Williams has been untouchable, period.

Recall that the last time that Radwanska and Errani had played, at the 2012 WTA Championships, they nearly killed each other going side to side and back and forth. The contest lasted more than three hours, which ended up being a three-set victory for the fourth-ranked Pole.

The Toronto match had a bit of a similar feel, except it was outdoors in the sunshine rather than indoors at night. Both women are so fast and so resourceful that it is very tough to get a ball past them unless a foe has a wide-open court and substantial power. When they face other, they have to work the points forever, because neither of them can rake winners with the force of say, a Serena or Maria Sharapova.

Consequently, when they walk on court they know that it’s more than likely that they will walk off extremely tired and given that it was a quarterfinal, somewhere back in their heads they must be thinking that if this contest does go three hours again, there woudl be no realistic chance to win the tournament.

Radwanska clearly had that on her mind because she pushed herself further inside the court late in the first set (especially in the breaker), early in the second and then at the very end of the third.  The first set featured 11 straight breaks of serve (“For both of us the serves is never the key,” Radwanska said) and in the second set five more.

The final game of the match told the tale, as Radwanska was determined to hit through her foe. That she did, nailing four winners to take it, beginning with a backhand crosscourt. Then she sliced an ace wide into the deuce court, then she took a sky lob out of the air and nailed a forehand crosscourt swing volley winner, and then she ended the contest with forehand crosscourt winner.

Job well done by the former Wimbledon finalist.

“I was trying to focus really hard in the last few points because I knew it could really turn around for her,” Radwanska told me later. “I was looking at the clock and saw two hours already and I said ‘enough I have to end this now.’ I was really pushing myself to stay aggressive because everything is coming back.”

Radwanska will face Serena, who destroyed Magdalena Rybarikova 6-1, 6-1. Williams has only lost 10 games in three matches, which shows how well she’s been playing, but it’s doubtful that she will be able to match her low games lost total in Rome in May, when she won the tournament dropping only 14 games in five matches.

But Radwanska knows she could be in for hell.

Williams is the only super elite player she hasn’t scored a win over and after the Pole pushed her to three sets in the 2012 Wimbledon final, Serena destroyed her at the year-end WTA Championships in Istanbul and in the semis of 2013 Miami.

“It’s always a great challenge,” Radwanska said. “She’s dictating everything and when she’s at her best, it’s bad luck.”

This could be fantastic match if Radwanska can manage to get into points and weave her blonde-tinted magic, but she hasn’t been able to in the last two occasions. So she’s not sure what strategy she’ll employ.

“It’s hard to tell,” the Pole said.  “I’ll see after a few games because you never know what to do because sometimes she’s serving and returning  unbelievable and I can’t even touch the ball.”

Absolutely nothing should be taken away from Cirstea for her week here. She’s beaten two former No. 1s in Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic, as well as a former Wimbledon champion in Kvitova.

She stood up tall when she had too and after a heart-warming talk by coach Darren Cahill when she felt the second set slipping a way, she settled down and her confidence returned and she played the big points much better – when she had to.

But she did not have to play a great match to win as  Kvitova doubled faulted on break points in six different games and ended the contest with just 12 winners and 55 unforced errors. Cirstea finished with only 18 winners and committed 47 unforced errors.

While Kvitova is criticized for going on mental walkabouts, is not as if she has been playing brilliantly here and there as of late  and  forgetting she’s on a tennis  court. In the past two weeks, she has left her “A game back at the hotel. She’s simply not dictating enough with her forehand, her serve is much weaker than it should be and she’s not coming to net as often as she should. In short, the tall lefty is not playing authoritative tennis.

She actually she said she was tired and lost her energy as she didn’t sleep well the night before. She said she was exhausted after playing just two matches in Canada, which is stunning given she’s only 24, even if she pulled an all-nighter. She was all but done by the second set.

“The serve was really bad after this, and I didn’t find energy from my legs,” she said. “So that’s why it looks that bad.”

And her  10 double faults overall?

“I think that it was starting because of physically, and then it’s going to my mind it was the mental problem, too.  It’s always connected.”

Li and Cirstea have faced off five times, with Li winning a 4-1 edge, including a win at the 2013 Aussie Open.


Happiness is no tennis at the dinner table

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‘Li Na, Li Na, do this Li Na.’

FROM THE ROGER’S CUP IN TORONTO – Li Na and her husband Dennis don’t talk tennis at the dinner table. Or at least away from tennis sites. That’s likely why every time she talks about him she does so with a smile on her face. “Out of the tennis court we never talk about tennis, so that’s why we can keep a long marriage.”

LI had another reason to smile on Thursday after she edged Ana Ivanovic 3-6 6-1 7-6 (5) in a match that for little while appeared to be in the Serbian’s hands, but once again she could not find a way to best a top player and went down. She was up 5-2, served for the contest at 5-3, but then Li began to deliver hammer shots with her devastating backhand crosscourt and down the line, with slice and body serves and some deep and impossible to touch forehands. Ivanovic did not choke the match, but she could not seem to bring her ‘A’ game when it mattered most. At 5-5 in the tiebreaker, Li nailed a forehand crosscourt winner. On match point with the ball into her favored forehand side, Ivanovic flew one long.

Li’s coach of one year now, Carlos Rodriguez is not with her on tis trip, but they are communicating via email. He will be in Cincinnati with her next week. Having Rodriguez around has even helped her marriage and how Dennis deals with her on court when Carlos isn’t around.

“Every time [Carlos] was like say, Relax.  I say, I already relaxed.  He say, No, you should even more.  I was like, Okay.  But it’s very tough, because my husband also is my ex‑coach.  Sometimes he also has some idea, but if he say something I didn’t want listening all the time. So now I think he got a little bit smart.  If he want to do something he talk to Carlos, and then Carlos talk to me.  I was like, Okay, I have to do that because Carlos say I have to do.  Because if like two coaches say the different thing, it was a little bit of a fight because I didn’t know which one I listen.  Now I think they do pretty good job.  They make together first and then say, Li Na, you have to do this.  Li Na, you have to do that.  Same like here, because Carlos is not here, but my husband always say, Oh, Carlos say you should… So I was like, Okay.”

Li one of the WTA’s most endearing characters. She has a terrific sense of humor and enjoys a good laugh even at her own expense. She will have another tough contest in the next round when she faces Bank of the West Classic Classic champion Dominika Cibulkova who took down  Roberta Vinci of Italy 6-3 7-6. Domi has her grove back and she will be more than pleased to play powerball with Li.

Two other women who can smack the ball moved ahead and will face off. Defending champ Petra Kvitova muscled up and took a  6-3, 6-3 victory over SoCal Open victor Sam Stosur, who looked a little fried. Kvitova knew that so she made sure to hang tough in long rallies. But she does not feel she can take that kind of risk against Sorana Cirstea who had perhaps had the best  18 hours periods of her life when she fought off two match points against Caro Wozniacki in a three hour match that ended at almost midnight and then came back on Thursday afternoon and took out Jelena Jankovic 6-3 6-4.

“I think I made a huge step forward today by backing up the win from yesterday, because I think this was one of the issues in the past,” Cirstea said. “I would have a good win but then I couldn’t really back it up.

Now I feel I’m more solid, and I’m taking every match the same and not focusing so much, ‘Oh, I just had a big win.’ I’m like, ‘Today is a new day, new match.’ I just have to do the same things I’m doing every single day. This kind of mentality, it’s helping me.”

Marion Bartoli retired down 7-6 1-0 to Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia and either has an  abdominal injury or she just exhausted from Wimbledon. Read here.

Serena Williams smoked  Kirsten Flipkens 6-0 6-3 and showed the Belgium just how hard it is to best two sisters in one event: Flipkens was the one who beat Venus Williams in round one.

Agnieszka Radwanska played the big points better than Sloane Stephens in a 6-1 7-6 win and said the young American just needs more experience.

Sara Errani is less than thrilled with Alize Cornet but beat her anyway France 7-5 7-6.   Read about their ‘Vamos v Allez’  tiff here.


August Issue of Tennis Journal Out!


Venus’ long & winding road back to respectability

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Venus still cannot crank up her serve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kleybanova’s return: she wants W’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also of note

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


Stosur leaps another hurdle in defeating Azarenka to win Southern California Open

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By Matt Cronin

FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN IN CARLSBAD- Before she toppled a slow and erratic Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-2 to win her first title at the Southern California Open on Sunday, Samantha Stosur’s last title had been her most important one, the 2011 US Open title, which somewhat remarkably was her last.

She won her maiden title in Osaka in 2009, and about six months later grabbed 2010. Charleston. But it would be another year and half before she raised the US Open trophy with her shocking victory over Serena Williams in the final. That was 23 months ago, nearly two years gone.

So few expended her to win Carlsbad, not when she looked out of sorts in losing to Olga Govortsova in her opening match at Stanford. After that defeat she put in a call to Octagon tournament director Alastair Garland and requested a wild card. It was not an easy decision, because as she noted after her win over Azarenka, she didn’t want to jinx herself.

In 2011, after another lousy Wimbledon, she traveled to  Stanford and took an early loss to Sabine Lisicki at Stanford. But instead of playing Carlsbad, she decided to train for week. That paid off in Toronto where she reached the final, where she fell to Serena Williams. A few weeks later, she took down the might Serena in the final of the US Open.

So one could imagine her thought process after she went down to the free swinging Olga Govortsova at a week and a half ago at Stanford. She had not reached a semifinal in 2013, but players are creatures of routine and she thought for more than a few moments about 2011 and how that path to Grand Slam glory worked out for her.  But she also knew she needed matches so she went with her head rather than her gut.

Clearly that was the right call as the 29 year old won her first title in nearly two years. “I knew that that was the past,” Stosur said. “My coach David Taylor and I] spoke about all the pros and cons.  You can practice all you want, but at some point you got to put it into play in matches.  That’s why I came, and obviously now very, very pleased with that decision.”

Azarenka came into the final with an 8-0 record again her, but Stosur had noted after her semifinal win over Virginie Razzano that she believed she could finally get over the Belarussian. She had played her very close at the 2012 US Open and at 2013 Rome. If she could get in position to win, then it would be a matter of closing, which in her case, would be to find way to break and then serve massively.

That is exactly what Stosur did very well, although it should be said that Azarenka was way off her game as she only struck 11 winners, committed 32 unforced errors and only converted 1 of 12 break points opportunities.

“I think I was taking too many wrong kind of decisions or too risky decisions when there was no need to be risky,” Azarenka said. “I didn’t try to sometimes stay in the rally.  I just wanted to make what sometimes I can make with eyes closed.  Today I didn’t do it with open eyes. It’s just a little bit of stubbornness that worked a little bit against me today.”

Azarenka did give credit to Stosur and well she should have. Time and time again while facing break points she came up with massive serves, many of the into the Belarussian’s body. Only a couple of returns were put back into pay, which is incredible given how well Azarenka usually returns.

“I think that was a really big part of the match,” Stosur said. “That first set she did have lots of opportunities.  I think nearly all of them except one I hit a really good first serve in and she didn’t make the ball into play.

So that’s something I have to be very happy with, to be able to step up to the line under that pressure and hit the serve where I want to, how I want to time and time again.  I know what it feels like not to be able to break serve when you have opportunities, and it gets pretty frustrating.”

Stosur also did something else extremely well — she broke serve in every game she had the opportunity to do so. That’s the very definition of being advantageous

“That’s great. I guess it’s kind of the opposite of what she had,” she said. “Maybe the fact that I was able to hold that serve, that kind of gives that you little bit of extra lift when you get the opportunity. Having not beaten her before, I know how important every single opportunity is.  I think in Rome I was up a break a couple of times in a set and let that go.  I knew even though you’re up a break you can’t relax and just rely on always trying to hold serve. You got to break as soon as you get a chance.

It is way to early to begin picking top drawer US Open contenders as there are two huge events still to be played at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and Cincinnati. Before her loss to Stosur, Azarenka had a 28 match winning streak going on outdoor hard courts, so if the sore back that caused her to pull out of Toronto heals (and the knee and hip injuries that suffered at Wimbledon also stop effecting her) she will be one of the main contenders, regardless if she plays a match before the doors open in New York.

But at the very least, the Australian showed that if she is kicking up big serves and controlling the court with her high hopping, nuclear forehand, that she cannot be ignored this week in Toronto, or in a few weeks in New York. She may not be consistent enough to rack up one title after the next, but she does have the capacity to put together a fantastic six weeks of play. She’s done it before and has the possibility of doing it again.

“Obviously this is the lead‑up to the US Open and that’s where everyone want to peak,” she said. “I think this is a huge boost for me.  I haven’t had great results for really all year, so to be able to bounce back especially from last week’s first‑round loss and play better and better each day and come away with this is, really exciting and a good boost going into the last Slam of the year.”


Azarenka gradually finding dominant hard court form


Vika became only the 11th year end No. 1 since the rankings began in 1975.

Azarenka has been remarkably consistent on cement


By Matt Cronin

FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN IN CARLSBAD, CA – How often does consistency trump shot making? In the case of the WTA during the past two years, quite a bit. The prime example of that is Victoria Azarenka, who rarely hits an awful shot. Yes, she will miss some long and occasionally frame her forehand, but for the most part she brings pretty much the same attack to the court every match: machine- like strokes off the ground, deep balls, fairly precise serving & vicious returns.

She did not play her best in her 6-0 4-6 6-3 victory over Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals of the Southern California Open, but she played well enough. She cannot be expected to play spectacularly well yet as it’s her first tournament back from two decent-sized injuries to her knee and hip at Wimbledon. She’s moving pretty well, but says that her fitness could improve. She is striking the ball fairly hard, but not at her Aussie Open winning level yet. She is focused, but not every second. She won’t say so herself, but she is the player to beat on outdoor hard courts right now, until Serena or someone else shows her otherwise.

“I have to keep going the same way I was playing in first set, taking my opportunities, going for my shots and making her move,” Azarenka said. “But when you play a tournament it’s never going to be easy, so you have to go through tough battles and this was one of those days. I’m happy with the end result, that you can overcome things and find a way.”

If a player is going tor reach No. 1 or become a Slam she has to find a way to be resourceful, and that is what Azarenka has been since the start of 2012. She wouldn’t come right out and say it, but it sure looked she knew deep down that she could survive Ivanovic’s flurries and eventually come away with the victory.

The first set was closer than the score indicated, but Azarenka won all the big points and dove deep into the Serbian’s service games, as Ivanovic couldn’t find her first serve or forehand.

But in the second set, Ivanovic did rediscover her money shot and ripped one forehand winner after another. She also upped her first serve percentage and didn’t allow Azarenka to get into neutral positions after returning. In the final game of the set, riding a wave of emotion, she nailed three straight forehand winners.

Ivanovic is very much a shot maker and once she gets on a roll she’s tough to trip up for most players, but she would have had to do so many things right for such a long period of time to upset the Belarussian and she couldn’t pull it off. She chips the pain off a line with blowtorch forehand, and then quickly grows frustrated trying to negotiate her way out of the backhand corner and overplays her hand.

“It’s something that you expect from Ana, she’s a very big shot maker and loves to bang the ball,” Azarenka said.  “For me the key was to not let her make those shots and be the one who was putting the pressure. I did feel more consistent.”

While Azarenka doesn’t have a huge serve, it’s pretty effective when she placing it well. She could use more power on her first serve, but her second serve has improved and she almost always popping it in at 90- MPH plus, with her first serve hovering around 100 MPH. It is the part of her game that needs the most improvement, but it’s not a huge weakness, although against players such as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, her serve can be exploited.

Nonetheless, with Ivanovic either celebrated or chiding herself loudly after every point, Azarenka didn’t show a tremendous amount of emotion and waited for the Serbian to give her a slight opening.

She did grow a little bit angry at one point, but few heard her. She gave her coach Sam Sumyk the business. “I didn’t do a great shot, and I said it a little bit way emotional with some consequences,” she said.

Sumyk said nothing back and just let her blow off steam. “He always has the same face,” she said with a laugh. “That’s what’s pissing me off.

Azarenka found her opening in the fifth game when Ivanovic chucked in a few errors and was broken at love. Ivanovic was unable to earn a break point during the set, and threw in a few more unforced errors to lose the dramatic, but somewhat predictable contest.

“She’s No. 3 player for reason, Ivanovic said. “I felt like I gave her too many easy points, especially at the important moments, like 40‑All or deuces. And in that first set also I had so many chances and I just wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been. That’s, again, that belief against these kind of players.  If you give her chances, she’s going to use them.  I created actually a lot of chances, and if I just managed to convert couple of those could have been a different match.”

Azarenka has won 28 straight matches on outdoor hard courts dating back to the 2012 US Open final, where she served for the match against Serena Williams. She could have won that contest, but Serena was more the more clutch player and perhaps still is. However, Azarenka did get a critical win over Williams in the final of Doha (which surely was mental boost), and also managed to hold her nerve to win the Australian Open title, surviving two very tense matches against Sloane Stephens and Li Na.

Now, it must noted that during Azarenka’s outdoor hard court streak, she withdrew with injuries from three events before the were complete: 2012 Tokyo, 2013 Brisbane and 2013 Indian Wells. Whether she would have won them all and continued the streak has to be called into question, but even if she hadn’t she’s been darn good on the surface when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, or when it’s dead calm and cloudy.

“Well, first of all, it’s the most common surface throughout the year,” she said. “ On grass I only play one tournament, so I cannot be a grass court specialist in the ratio of the other tournaments.

I feel like my game is developing on clay court… But we just have to be realistic and take in general that we play mostly on hard court, so my results will be better because I play more. I do enjoy that, but… I really love playing on different surfaces. But that’s great statistics.”

Yes it is.

Azarenka was asked whether or not she should be called the US Open favorite and its very early to label her or anyone else that. She still has to contest the Southern California Open final, Toronto and Cincinnati. But it’s hard to see her totally imploding at any of those tournaments as the now 24 year old (she celebrated her birthday on Wednesday) is showing once more that remains a big time factor everywhere she goes.

“I don’t think you’ll ever make me favorite in US Open when you have Serena,” she said. “Right now it’s not going to happen unless I win one. For me it’s not that important.  What’s important is how ready I am and what I’m going to do there. So being the favorite doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

Azarenka will face t Samantha Stosur, who beat Virginie Razzano  7-6(2), 6-3. Azarenka owns an 8-0 record against her, but their last two matches have been tight, including a classic quarterfinal at the 2012 US Open and hard fought three-setter at 2013 Rome.




A Champion’s attitude: Razzano fights the good fight


Razzano has taken plenty of big scalps

By Matt Cronin

FROM THE  SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN- Virginie Razzano calls herself a “champion,” Not necessarily a tennis champion, but a champion of life. She has bore through a number of difficult situations over the past three and a half years, including the death of her fiancée and coach, and then with a major hip injury that took her out of play after her stunning upset of Serena Williams at the 2012 Roland Garros. Her ranking plunged to No. 196, and in the first quarters of this year, there were not enough Challengers for her to enter so all she could do was practice, practice, and practice. But she didn’t become too impatient, kept her nose to the grindstone and never lost hope.

Now it’s paying off as she’s having her best tournament in three years with victories over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Carla Suarez-Navarro and on Friday, Petra Kvitova 6-7(6) 7-5 7-6(8) in three and a half hours to reach the semis.

“The success is a lot work,” she said. “There is not secret. I don’t want to be quickly and say, Okay, Virginie, you must to be quickly for comeback. No. I take my time.  I’m practicing a lot.  I stay with focus on my job, to work on my game and when you go on court.  I think I am a champion.  I am a champion, because it’s not easy for comeback every time if you have some problems with injuries or pressure of life.

I think I have a big character.  I have a strong character and I’m never down.  I am every time going up.  It’s life.  You can’t go down.  You must to go and progress and do your job during your life.

If it’s professional life, you must to do your best. If I don’t think that, I prefer to stop and say, ‘Okay, this is finished for you, Virginie.’”

Her victory over the Czech was by no means a perfect match, in fact she needed five match points to win the contest and all were unforced errors: four by her and the final one by Kvitova on a double fault. Kvitova also held match points, two of them in the tiebreaker. On the first one she clunked a 76-MPH second serve by Razzano into the net and on the second one, when she couldn’t handle a serve into her wheelhouse.

The most hilarious match point was her second one when serving for the contest at 5-3. She tossed the too far to the left and instead of catching it, pushed the ball high up into the air, sort of a half lob, 90 an under super senior style serve that didn’t even register on the speed gun. It went way wide. Nerves were quite apparent.

“ I think if I serve with forehand it was the same.  I prefer I think to serve with my forehand,” she said while laughing. “I can be better maybe. No, this way it was not very good, you know.  Maybe next I can do that and I can surprise my adversary I don’t want to serve again like that, you know.  (Laughter.)  It’s the same if I play with my sister.”

Razzano is no slouch, having cracked the year-end top 20 in 2009. She’s won two titles and has taken plenty of big scalps including both Williams sisters, Martina Hingis, Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva and Dinara Safina, Serena, Venus. She is a terrific mover, rock solid off the ground and she’s not without power. She usually stays within her playbook and isn’t very wild.

She is also far from a consummate closer, which is why she needed to go deep into the tiebreaker to win the contest instead shutting the Czech down earlier. Kvitova never looked tired – which is a great sign considering that can be a problem for her when matches grow late – but she was erratic and less than advantageous.

“I was nervous,” Razzano said. “I am human. It’s normal.  I’m not a robot, you know.  Sometimes you can feeling stress, emotion.  I tried to focus on me, on my game and on my points when I’m feeling nervous. With my experience I know how you must to do for to win You must to progress and say, Okay, point after point, game after game, you go.  I did my best for that and I think I do a good job.”

Razzano was given wild card into the tournament and she needed it with her No. 131 ranking. She hasn’t played badly over the past two months, reaching the third round of Roland Garros, qualifying for Wimbledon and then two weeks ago reaching the quarters of Gstaad on what she calls her worse surface – clay. But this is her first semifinal since she reached he final of 2009 Eastbourne and that’s a long time ago.

Razzano comes from humble origins: her father is a policeman and her mother is a nursery school teacher. They taught her that you get what you put into something and to keep battling, and that’s what she has continued to do.

She puts in an effort on court and off. When her boyfriend and former coach was dying of a brain tumor, she stood by him though thick and thin. At that time, she didn’t put her tennis first. She doesn’t totally separate her career from her other relationships and interests, and that makes her somewhat unique in the sport.

“For me, everything is very important in my life,” she said.

Ana Ivanovic pulled off an impressive 6-1 6-7(1) 6-2  over Roberta Vinci and then  Samantha Stosur took down Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5 2-6 6-3, a darn good win for the Aussie, but Radwanska looks  a little flat. In a very entertaining thriller on court 2, Abigail Spears and Raquel Kop-Jones overcame Martina Hingis/Daniela Hantuchova 4-6 7-5 10-3. Hingis and Hantuchova had two break points to go up 4-0  in the second set and as Martina said, when they couldn’t covert those, they opened the door up. Hingis is a brilliant player overall but she served poorly and if she can’t find way to spot her serve better they are going to struggle to win big tournaments. She had by far the weakest serve on court. Credit to Spears and Kop-Jones though: they are a long standing, talented, coordinated team. In some way I’m surprised they haven’t won a Slam yet.






Hingis’ fabulous return, big changes for Ivanovic


Will Martina commit to the long-term?


By Matt Cronin

FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN AT CARLSBAD – There weren’t two more happy people in San Diego County than Martina Hingis and Daniela Hantuchova on Wednesday night after their 6-1 6-1 victory over Julia Goerges and Darija Jurak. After a somewhat nervous start to Hingis’ second comeback, they devastated their foes, who reached the Stanford final last week  but looked totally overwhelmed by an in- synch pair who played smarter and much more inventive yellow ball.

At 32, Hingis remains a remarkable volleyer, perhaps the game’s best, and she returns very accurately and with a fair amount of force from her favored backhand side from the ad court, too. She owns topspin and underspin lobs to die for, and always seems to be the right position, because she has a unique (and learned ability) to read the plays. Hantuchova herself brings a lot to the table with the right partner: a big first serve, hard returns off both wings, competent volleys and laser like passing shots when she’s in position.

So now the question is: can they become the world’s top ranked doubles pair? Much of that is on the Swiss, because she has to maintain her commitment to playing a full schedule. She is set to contest four events — Carlsbad, Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open as according to her New Haven is out — and says that if they are successful she will continue on.

“If it’s a complete disaster, I would not want to continue, but I hope that’s not the case,” she said. “I don’t have any expectations, but I wouldn’t put myself in this position if I didn’t feel that I couldn’t compete at this level. In [World] Team Tennis I was good enough, but is it good enough to be able compete at this level? We’ll see.”

Anyone who knows Hingis even a little bit realizes what a dogged competitor she is and how much pride she has. I reminded her yesterday that during her second comeback in 2007, when she was fading away in singles, that she said she wouldn’t never just be a double specialist because she saw herself as a singles competitor.

But that was then and this is now. She’s 32 year old and is in terrific shape, but she’s in doubles shape, or World TeamTennis shape if you like, which means no two-and-a-half hour singles grind fests. She does not want to have train for 6-8 hours per day to get herself back into singles shape and figures she can do half of that and be just fine in doubles. So at least now, a singles comeback is out and although she says it’s not in the back if her mind right now (like a doubles return actually was for the past six years), like her friend and doubles partner at the senior Slams, Lindsay Davenport, I think there still remains a possibility (albeit slight) that she puts herself out there in singles again. If she sees there is a possibility that she can make a breakthrough at the big tournament again (say at Wimbledon which is the least physical  of all the majors) she will be very tempted to throw her visor in the ring.

But she won’t this month.

“Not at this point,” she said. “That’s a different world. Even TeamTennis [where she has played singles in shortened format] is brutal. You have to put so much effort into it. Playing tournaments is the easy part, but it’s all the behind the scenes training that people don’t see, the 6-8 hours of training and really the older you get, the harder its gets. I wouldn’t want to come out and play one or two matches and lose in third round. That’s not my type of personality.”

However, when I pressed her on a  ‘never again’ her reply was a laughing: “C’mon, leave me alone.”

What Hingis clearly sees is a wide-open doubles field. The Williams sisters only play the Slams and with Venus’ poor health, they might not be doing that much longer. She doesn’t feel like Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci can overpower her and doesn’t fear well-coordinated yet sometimes inconsistent pair of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova. Katerina Srebotnik and Nadia Petrova are as old as she and the 30-year-old Hantuchova are, and even though Russians Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova have improved a great deal as team,  they cannot match she and Hantuchova’s talent level.

Simply put, Hingis doesn’t fear any regular doubles player.

“It’s different as when we used to play there were so many more singles girls who played doubles: the [Williams] sisters, me Anna [Kournikova] and Lindsay [Davenport],” she said. “There were like six to eight of the  top 10 who played doubles. Now it’s just a few girls in the top 10 who play doubles. There is much more of an opening now.”

Why is Hingis returning? Yes she misses the  competition and yes she loves to play. But perhaps there is another reason that is crystal clear but has not been emphasized as much: she felt a little lost during those weeks and months when she wasn’t around the sport. Perhaps one of the reasons is because her personal life has fallen into a bit of chaos, but she and most of the world experience that on an annual basis so that can’t be all of it. It is largely because tennis – not horseback riding, not commentary, not pushing a clothing line –  really is her life.

“This is where I feel the most comfortable, feel the most natural and this is what I know the best,” she said.

‘Radical’ changes for Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic is going through another coaching change and at this point in her career it would be foolish to think that it will make a massive difference. because she been through enough coaches already and whether she will re-enter the top 5 again is now almost entirely on her.

She didn’t not buy that opinion when I tossed her way on Wednesday, and I can see her reasoning why: if you don’t think that your team is going to make a big difference, than why have one at all?  To me, the answer to that is so you can form a group around you that supports your needs and follows your lead. In a sense, that is what her situation is anyway.

She split with her coach of two years Nigel Sears after Wimbledon, and won’t have a full time coach for the rest of this summer. She is currently traveling with her hitting partner,  Nemanja Konitc (whom apparently does have some input)  a fitness coach, Zlatko Novovic, and a physio, Branko Penic.  She will also work with adidas Player Development coaches Sven Groeneveld (who coached her to the 2008 Roland Garros crown) and Darren Cahill when they are available, which in the Aussie case isn’t going to be that much through the US Open due to his TV obligations.

“That was big change, but I really felt like I needed it because it was good, but I was stuck in the same place and I really needed to make a transition and I needed to hear a fresh voice,” Ivanovic told me. “It was a big change and tough decision but it came both ways.”

Ivanovic is an intelligent woman who spends a lot of times thinking, but she is also very emotional and at times seems to make decisions based on her gut more than her head. Sears is very competent coach and did so some good work with her but in reality, from July 2011 to July 2013, she only improved one ranking place from No. 18 and to No. 17. There were periods during the past two years when she performed much better than she did from mid 2009 to mid 2011, but she has not been a huge factor at the Slam or Premiers on a consistent basis and that’s where she wants to be. She’ll take half the blame for that or perhaps more, but she is right in indicating that it can’t all be laid at her feet if she was trusting his advice.

“It’s always two ways,” she said. “You have your opinions and the other person his own and he wanted to get the best out of me and I’m sure it was frustrating for him that he couldn’t get me to do the things that he wanted. But sometimes you need  a fresh voice and you need someone to influence you better. It was a mutual agreement.”

My suspicion was that after she played such a shockingly bad match in loss to Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon that she hit a tipping point. I also thought that after she pushed Maria Sharapova hard twice in RG warm-ups that she should  have been sorely disappointed with her performance in her  loss to  Agnieszka Radwanska at Roland Garros.  But she says that wasn’t the case.

“Its not a match in particular,” she said.  “I was disappointed in the loss at Wimbledon, but it wasn’t that, it was over period of time and there were a lot of the same things and repetitions and it was good week, bad week and not getting me to where I  wanted to go  I felt like I needed to do something radical.”

The 25 year old’s goal is to be a super elite player again and while she has shown flashes of that since her great 2008, she has not been that competitor consistently. That really frustrated her and combine that with some undisclosed personal problems, after Wimbledon, she took 10 days off of fitness and tennis and went to Spain to be with her family where she hung out with her brother, cooked with her mother and laid by the pool and on the beach.

Now she’s in Carlsbad, back to the drawing board trying to find a way down the road to greatness, which of late has been full of potholes.

“It’s keeping the hard work and working on the confidence and I feel my game has been there, but the confidence hasn’t and physical and mental level hasn’t been there the whole match,” said Ivanovic, who did look impressive in upsetting defending champion Dominica Cibulkova 4-6 6-3 6-2 in the first round. “Getting all that in balance and to keep the comfort level is going to make a big difference.”

But here’s her dilemma and it’s one that most players face: how to keep improving and working the right way with long term goals in mind, while at the same time not getting frustrated with negative results.

“It’s tough, she said. “It’s about finding what works for you.”