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TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships-Istanbul : Can anyone stop Serena?


(L-R) Sara Errani of Italy, Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, Petra Kvitova of Czech Republic, Serena Williams of USA, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, Li Na of China, Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, and Angelique Kerber of Germany pose with the Billie Jean King trophy for the official photo of the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships-Istanbul (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images for WTA).


By Matt Cronin

ISTANBUL – There is no title run that is inevitable before it is played, but Serena Williams comes into the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships-Istanbul perhaps as a heavier favorite than she has been at any time during her storied career.  She hasn’t lost a match since the Cincinnati final when she went down No 2 Victoria Azarenka in a third set tiebreaker, but she ended up getting revenge on the Belarusian in the US Open final and then trounced the field in Beijing.

She leads the tougher Red Group, which also includes Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she owns; Petra Kvitova, who plays her tough but has yet to beat her; and Angelique Kerber, who has beaten her once. Sure No. 2 Azarenka has a chance against her should she get out of the White Group that includes Li Na, Sara Errani  and Jelena Jankovic, but she is going to have to play at much higher level than she did in the third set of their US Open clash.

Radwanska has played Williams tight on occasion, but does not seem to bring the same confidence level to the court against her than she does against most of other players. In fact, the former Wimbledon finalist appears to be saying her chances against her are very slim.

“We have a couple matches, different matches, but, for example, the match in Toronto, I guess it was really, really close, and just a few points I was away from those two sets,” the Pole said. “So I think it was one of the best matches we played against each other.  So against her you really have to play 100%.  If not, it’s really tough. She’s dictating everything from the beginning of the match, and served very good also, return is also very powerful and always going forward. It’s very tough to stay in the game and really running, really far from the baseline. I think against her you really have to try to, play aggressive from the beginning of the match.  If you start too slow it’s not good.”

Kerber is one of the few players have beaten Serena in the past 18 months, having taken her down in the 2012 Cincinnati quarters, but says she can only “hope’ to play at that level again. The strong-legged left-hander is an excellent defensive player and can also produce a fairly high level of offense, but has a tendency to get negative against top players and there is no way she can beat Serena unless her belly is full of self-belief.

Kvitova is 0-4 against Williams, but did take her to 7-5 in the third set in a defeat in Doha earlier this year.  That was the first time she really thought she had a chance to beat her. She did not, but at least she matched big strokes with her and hurt her with her often wicked left-handed serve.

“It was really great match for my side, and I was very close to win the match but I didn’t,” she said.  But it’s okay.  I think that I can improve my game too, and, I think it was for the first time when I really knew that I can really play her and any chance to beat her.  I don’t think that I’m really like mentally down for right now when I have her in the group.  So I’m looking forward.”

Li Na appears to have the kind of game to be able to upend Williams: a strong first serve, bullet returns, hard groundstrokes and a load of experience. But Serena seems to beat her to the punch every time out including in the US Open semis, where she butchered her in the first set and then took a well played second set.

“Even I lose her in the US Open, I still feel if I, how you say, like I said at US Open, because the match I lose to myself; is not lose to opponent.  Doesn’t matter who against me the time, the day; I already lose the match. So, yeah, at least I learn something. I still learn every day. If I have chance to play against her again, I wish I can doing [just as] well.”

Serena constantly talks about how she respects every opponent and does not under estimate them and really, you have to believe her given that she has lost only a handful of matches all season long. She realizes that she is the favorite, but does not want to deal with that tag every time out, but of course she wants to be the leading lady, too. Indoors, with her serve and in great health, she has more weaponry than any other player in the field. Clay is the only surface, which sometimes troubles her, and she did win Roland Garros this year, so at least in 2013 she’s been the most accomplished player on the soft stuff too. Outside of the absent Maria Sharapova, she knows that she will have to confront at least four of the world’s best player to win the crown.

“I’m always considered a favorite in a tournament,” she said. “ I don’t think about it.  I don’t like it, but I don’t hate it.  You know, it’s better to be considered a favorite.  I also do well when I’m considered the underdog.  I never consider myself a favorite because every opponent I play has a chance to do really well.”

Other than defending her title, Williams does not have a tremendous amount to play for. She does not need this title or positive momentum going into next year. But she is performance oriented and thinks she can better herself each time out. Perhaps that she has kept herself head and shoulder above the field.

“What I think is great about it is I’m still looking to improve, and what I learned most about this year is I have a lot of room for improvement, and talking with my coach over it, I’m so excited for next year just to take my game to a new level,” she said.

Tuesday Order of Play, starting at 5 PM Istanbul time

Azarenka vs. Errani,

Williams vs. Kerber

Radwanska vs. Kvitova


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TR Retro: Djokovic in 2008-2009: Novak reflects on Roddick controversy & career in transition


Djokovic was a bit more raw back at the 08 Open


Editor’s Note: In a recent discussion on his new Fox Sports Live show, former No. 1 Andy Roddick says that he and Novak Djokovic once got into a physical confrontation in the the US Open locker room, where Roddick pinned the Serbian against a locker.  At that time, Djokovic had developed a reputation for retiring too frequently, and the American wondered before his loss to Djokovic in the quarters in a joking manner if his foe might have  “a back and a hip? And a cramp, bird flu or SARS?” Here is the news story on the incident and what Roddick had to say on his Fox show about the incident.  The following article was written after a one on one interview with Djokovic in the spring of 2009.

Novak Djokovic is controversial, but he doesn’t want to be.

The world No. 3 has a strong desire to be his sport’s superior player, but he can’t yet stomach everything that comes with it — to be in the spotlight every waking moment, good and bad.

In public, the 21-year-old Serbian can’t be the funny guy anymore. There will be no more hilarious impressions of his friend Maria Sharapova’s serve, of his rival Andy Roddick’s twitches, of a frenitic Nadal tugging at his wedgies and especially of his locker room nemesis Roger Federer flicking his hair or clapping his racket in celebration.

“I’m in the transition,” Djokovic said. “It’s not easy because I’m very emotional. Some things really hurt me, and maybe I express myself a little bit too much — people didn’t get used to that. But at the end of the day, you sit and think to yourself, ‘I’ve reacted the way I felt that’s right.’ Maybe it’s wrong, but you learn from your mistakes. That’s why life is testing us all the time.”

Djokovic has gone from being the tour’s boy wonder after winning his first Grand Slam title at the ‘08 Australian Open to the most vulnerable member of the sport’s so-called Big 4, which also includes Rafael Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray.

Since winning his first major, Djokovic has been a trademark up-and-down player. After winning the ‘08 Indian Wells title, he could surely claim the unofficial moniker of best player of the first quarter of last season, and the relentless baseliner looked like he might be prepared to knock Federer and Nadal out of the two top spots.

But then he began to wear down, partly due to the tremendous pressure he put on himself to snag the No. 1 ranking. A title run at the Rome Masters Series was followed by a brutal loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, which was followed by an upset at the hands of Marat Safin at Wimbledon. Then Nadal stepped on him again in a terrific Olympic semi.

Nearly spent but still determined, the Serbian reached the U.S. Open semis, but after confronting a hostile (“Andy’s our man”) nighttime crowd after his quarterfinal victory over Roddick in the quarters, he didn’t have the will to defeat Federer again and was buried.

Before his match against Djokovic, Roddick had been asked about his foe’s latest injury. By that time, Djokovic had developed a reputation for retiring too frequently, and the American wondered in a joking manner if his foe might have the “bird flu or SARS.”

Roddick’s typically caustic comments were well publicized and cycled right back to Djokovic, who was enraged. After he won the quarterfinal, he went right at the crowd and well-lubricated boos reigned down from the rafters.

“Maybe the experience from the U.S. Open with Andy was something that I really didn’t wish for and really didn’t look for,” Djokovic said. “But it hurt me. His comments hurt me in that moment, and it was a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, there was a lot at stake; it was the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, lot of emotions, lot of frustrations going on. At the end of the day, maybe if you could turn back things, maybe you wouldn’t do something like that, but I just felt emotion in that moment.”

Even before he won his first major, he was criticized for bouncing the ball too much before serving and for saying that the then untouchable Federer was vulnerable. His parents, father Srdjan and mother Dijana, were said to be overly enthusiastic while watching their son courtside. Last year, an irritated Federer even hushed them (“Quiet!!!”) during a Monte Carlo match.

But the Djokovics are from a different part of the world, Serbia, where beating one’s chest while celebrating the righteousness of the homeland is part of every day life. There are outspoken Serbians like the Djokovics, who attend political  rallies  supporting their country’s controversial claim that Kosovo is part of its territory, and others, like Ana Ivanovic’s family,  which tend=== to speak more to peace than to confrontation.

But despite their personality differences, Ana and Novak remain close, having known each other since they were four, as Ivanovic’s father and Djokovic’s uncle went to school with each other.

One day at a 12-and-under tournament in Serbia, the two  went out to warm-up prior to one of Ivanovic’s matches.  “I had quite an easy opponent and I warmed up with Novak and I gave 100 percent and I couldn’t move in the match and I lost,” recalled Ivanovic with a laugh. “I wanted to beat him but he’s a boy and stronger and I was running crazy and it was unbelievable hit, but afterward I was gone.”

Djokovic clearly recalls the contest and the days  he spent laughing with his childhood friend, long before she won the French Open  and became No. 1.

“I remember her parents coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, what a serve you have.’ It’s fun because we have great friendship all our life. We’ve been through a lot===, a lot of junior events and it’s fantastic to see somebody that you’ve grown up with doing so well. We talk and remind ourselves of stories and situations we have before — matches, and practices, makes you laugh, makes you say — ‘wow, it was so long time ago.’”

Then, there was no discussion of Serbia climbing to the top of the tennis world. Novak and Ana  lived working to middle class existences and even their driven parents how no idea that they would excel, not when they were scratching out livings in war-torn cities and mountain areas. But the kids had an inkling of better days ahead.

“You could see that desire in her and myself, that there was this hunger for success, this hunger to succeed and that’s exactly what brought us here,” Djokovic said.  “We didn’t have good conditions at all to grow up, to practice. We got coaches, we were lucky to have some people that really were good for us at certain stages and taught us. But it’s more parents who really helped us out a lot. Her parents and mine are very strong personalities, very active, very helpful. They were never pushy — on my side, they never pushed me to play because nobody played tennis in my family. But they were just supporting the fact that I love playing so I’ve been grateful for that.”

Djokovic isn’t sure that after he retires, whether he’ll go into politics, but credit him for not putting his head in the sand like a lot of 21-year-olds do and joining the ATP Players Council, where he sits with his rivals Nadal and Federer. He’s also become an active businessman, as he and his family bought an ATP tournament and will run the first time event in Belgrade in May, an accomplishment he is most proud of.

He’s not saying yes to a post retirement career in the Serbian’s political hotbed, but he’s not saying never, either

“You don’t know where the holy path will take you,” he noted.  “But for now I love being in sport and love this surrounding. But on the other hand, traveling, meeting new people, you can learn so much from this sport, from this way of living.”

Djokovic learned a big lesson last year, when his  impersonations — those wildly entertaining, near perfect characterizations that had the crowds in stitches. But some top (slightly up tight) players weren’t exactly chuckling, especially Federer. And when Roger talks, people listen.

“It’s not just players,” Djokovic said. “It was a lot of speculation, and I just didn’t like the fact that people thought I’m doing that to make fun of somebody. … I don’t blame anybody, but it’s all in the circle of positive, and laughing and smiling and enjoying life.

“I don’t want to do it more because I don’t want to create unbalance and turn the people against me for no reason. I’m really in a good relationship with most of the players. I’m an honest guy, I open up and I say what I need to say. And this is the philosophy of my life — be what you are.”

Unfortunately, some other things were beyond his control. There was the conclusion of Djokovic’s extraordinary ’08 Aussie Open title run, which included a remarkable upset of Federer in the semis and beat down of big Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final.

A couple of hours after that match, Dijana was approached by IT and, full of celebratory fervor, issued a line in reference to Federer that still haunts her son to this day: “The king is dead. Long live the new king.”

When reminded of the comment, Novak spoke of his mom’s honesty and openness. “I think you can see that in me as well. You can see the connection.”

But outright honesty and a win-at-all-costs attitude can be costly, which is why Djokovic is still trying to fashion a personality that will allow him to be liked on court and off.

After the U.S. Open fiasco, Djokovic scraped for much of the fall, but he finally picked himself off the canvas and won the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.

Then came his Aussie Open title defense and his body failed him miserably, as he retired in the quarters against Roddick due to heat exhaustion when many felt he should have played on. He won the Dubai title, but at Indian Wells, he fell to Roddick again, admitting he played miserably.

At this point, going up against America’s top player in the U.S. appears too much for him, not because Roddick has a larger skill set, but because Djokovic has essentially psyched himself out, thinking that crowd is out to get him.

Djokovic is certainly good enough to eventually grab the No. 1 ranking and win more Slams. He’s a tremendous defensive player who is capable of going on the offensive when his foes least expect it. When his head is in matches, he’s a master of point construction. He’s extremely fast and sturdy and has improved his first serve and volleys a great deal.

But the Serbian – who shares a PR manager with Nadal –  has slipped behind the Spaniard, owning a 4-11 record against him (all those wins coming on hardcourts). If he can’t start taking bites out of Rafa’ legs, there’s no way he’s going to reach No. 1.

“Rafa’s improved drastically on hardcourts and fast surfaces,’ Djokovic said.  “It’s amazing, his dedication. It’s fantastic the way he’s motivated, the way he behaves on the court, so focused, sportsmanship, and everything in general. No bad words for this guy. But look, we are rivals at the end of the day. I’ve beaten him a couple of times on [hard courts] which is encouraging. But even on clay I don’t think he’s unbeatable. No one is unbeatable. Physically, everybody is very fit, hard workers, focused. The difference is mental ability. The difference from the five to six guys on top and the rest, in these certain moments, you know how to play, how to behave, how to act on court. That’s the advantage.”

A pretty intelligent and privately thoughtful  guy, Djokovic knows how to win and has the tools to do so, but if he’s unable to successfully negotiate a personal transition that he’s comfortable with, he may never achieve his goals.

“Everybody is different,” he said. “It depends from which part of the world you are coming. I’ve been through some things that people never will, probably. I came from a country, which is going through a lot of tough times — wars. I’m going to say to myself, ‘Look, maybe these things were meant to be, and these things help me know to appreciate the life much more. I know that being positive and enjoying the life is something that everybody wishes for.”