Archives for November 2013

Tennis Hot Stove league, coaching changes version



sharapova groeneveld

Tennis does not really have a version of the Major League Baseball’s Hot Stove league where fans sit around discussing potential trades and free agent signings but in regards to coaching changes, the sport does to some degree and the week of November 18 was about as busy as it gets on the WTA side.

First Sloane Stephens hired Roger Federer and Pete Sampras’ ex-coach Paul Annacone; then Laura Robson took on the team of Jesse Witten and Nick Saviano; then Maria Sharapova hired Sven Groeneveld; and then Ana Ivanovic announced that she has decided to officially appoint and Nemanja Kontic as her coach and Zlatko Novkovic as fitness trainer.

Let’s take a look at  each hiring:

Stephens hires Annacone: Federer cut ties with Annacone back in October and given how much respect people have in the industry for the American, he was certainly going to be a hot candidate for a number of posts, but there are no major openings amongst male players so at least on a trial basis he decided to take a chance with Stephens, the extremely talented yet enigmatic 20-year-old who finished the season ranked No. 12 but had mediocre  results outside of the Grand Slams. Stephens clearly has top 5 potential as she’s very fast, has weapons off both wings and an improving serve. She also competes well at the majors. What she needs to do is mature, stop going on mental walkabouts on and figure out what are comfortable point patterns for her. Annacone can teach her all of that, but at this stage on her career will he want to put up with her pouting during her bad mood days? Perhaps that’s the biggest question, as she is moody and let that affect her on court.

Here’s the link to my news story

Robson hires Witten and Saviano:  Robson apparently lost out on getting Thomas Hogstedt to coach her after the Swede chose Caroline Wozniacki instead. Its unclear whether she wanted to bring Groeneveld on board – whom she has worked with through adidas Player Development before – but she did take a stab at Aussie left-hander Marc Woodforde but the two couldn’t work something out. Her camp says it was financial and he says it wasn’t. Whatever the case, she then hired the recently retired Jesse Witten as her hitting partner and then went to ‘consultant’ Saviano and struck a deal where she would train at his academy and receive (I guess) over the phone advice on the road, because he’s been hired to travel with and coach Genie Bouchard, who is Robson’s best friend on tour but who doesn’t want to share coaches.

Robson is very talented and with improvements to her fitness, her serve and return she could be a major force in 2014. She did hire noted fitness trainer Mark Wellington to travel with her full-time and Witten is said to be an excellent hitter, but she’s only 19 and who is going to help her design strategies when Saviano is not available? She may have to hire someone else after the Australian Open. In fact, it’s probable that she will.

Here’s the link to my news story

Sharapova hires Groeneveld: That’s the second major hiring of a northern European that Sharapova has pulled off , following her appointment of Thomas Hogstedt in 2011.  The Dutchman Groeneveld is very nice guy with a world of experience who does an adept job of getting along with dozens of different and sometimes trying personalities in the sport. Sharapova can be demanding, but she is loyal and has always been a hard worker. The two should  get along fine. The major question with her is whether her chronically sore shoulder will hold up. If it does and he can somehow teach her a few things about how to read the other top players’ first serves (primarily Serena’s) then she’ll be right back in Grand Slam contention.

Here’s the link to my news story

Ivanovic names Kontic as her coach: The Serbian appears to get along very well with her young new team and for a player who has gone through a number of coaches over the years, that’s important. Really, at this stage is her career she is going to play how she wants to play. She could be a little quicker, add some more pop to her backhand and commit more to the net, but so much of her fortunes are based on self belief and constructing the right types of points. She’s an emotional person who needs to keep a cool head in order to make the right decisions. She, and not her team, is in control of that.

Also during the week, after a marathon process Chris Kermode was officially announced as the ATP’s new CEO. Federer had some nice things to say about him and given how influential the Swiss is, that’s critical.

The WTA handed out its annual awards, which in the case of Simona Halep beating out Stephens for the Most Improved Player of the Year was at least to me, the wrong choice, Yes No. 11 Halep won six titles and Stephens won none, but the American reached the second week of every Slam at the age of 20 while the 23-year-old Halep only reached the second week once, at the US Open, when she blew a huge a chance to get to the semis when she fell to Flavia Pennetta.  I suppose you could say that the choosing between the two is ‘pick’em’ but to me the player who shows up at the year’s most important events and beats the likes of Serena Williams in the Aussie Open quarters is the one who has shown the most improvement. Yes, Halep had some big wins and improved a ton,  but let’s see her walk on to a center court at Slam and take down one of the best players in history before we believe she’s mental giant. Stephens has a lot of work to do but she’s a really gamer at the majors which Halep is not as of yet. It will be very interesting to see who ends 2014 with better results. If Annacone sticks around and Stephens listens, my money would be on the American. With that said, in good health I do expect the Romanian to make a run at the top 5 in 2014. Here is hoping they face off a number of times next year.

All the world is Nadal and Djokovic’s stage

Nadal IW 13 TR MALT9260


There have been few instances in the past when a dethroned No. 1 went as hard as Novak Djokovic has during the fall season to show the world that’s he really still the best player in the game. As the Serbian says, now No.1 Rafael Nadal deserves the top spot after his tremendous year, especially because he bested Djokovic in two Slams, Roland Garros and the US Open.  But this fall season has been all about Djokovic tapping into his enormous mental reserve, tweaking a few parts of his game and going right at the Spaniard, beating him in Beijing and the ATP World Finals. He was on a 22-match winning streak headed into the Davis Cup final, courtesy of an improved net game, clutch serving and a more consistent forehand.

Yes, Nadal was a little mentally down during the fall stretch and wasn’t his normal self in London, but he was out played after a solid week indoors and it sure looks like Djokovic believes that he still has the goods to take him down on a consistent basis off of clay. Nadal says that he thinks he’ll have a better shot at home in Australia and he should believe that given he’s won their last two outdoor hard court clashes (Montreal and the US Open) but if he’s to best him Down Under he is going to have to amp up his service speed again, have faith in his forehand down the line as well as his inside out forehand and perhaps in the offseason, improve his backhand down the line, the weakest part of his game.

Outside of Andy Murray‘s amazing run at Wimbledon and his fine play in winning Miami, this season has been all about Nadal and Djokovic. No other players really mattered. They combined to win three out of the four Grand Slams and all of the Masters Series titles except Miami. A healthy Murray would have had a lot to say about who was winning tournaments post Wimbledon, but his bad back got the better of him and now he has to prove post-surgery that he can still keep up with Nadal and Djokovic. In great health, he can, but it’s hard to think of any great tennis players who have returned from back surgery at the same level. Back surgeries have become more effective over the past 20 years or so it’s possible that Murray will come back at his Wimbledon winning level, but it is doubtful that the tennis world will see that right off the bat, so his chances of having major effect on the Australian Open are slim.

What that means is that there is a strong chance that Nadal and Djokovic will face off for the 40th time in the Aussie Open final. Will they play for almost six hours again like they did back in 2011? Perhaps not, but with the way that they match up they will surely grind it out for three hours minimum.

Can any other male player stop what appears to be the ATP’s inevitable final? No one really did at the O2 Arena in London. Sure, Juan Martin Del Potro has showed that in two out of three sets matches that he can play anyone tough and even beat them  on occasion but in three out five sets he hasn’t shown that since his return from wrist surgery in 2010. His serve and forehand are very effective weapons, but his backhand is relatively weak, his transition game is spotty, he doesn’t return all that well and even though he’s the best mover of any of the very tall competitors, he can’t run with the Big 4.

What he can do is continue to work on his offense, tighten the screws up a bit and do some mental exercises so he can avoid the lapses in concentration that plagued him in London in his loss to Roger Federer. He just announced he won’t play Argentina’s first round Davis Cup again, this one coming against Italy. He has a very poor relationship with the Argentine Tennis Federation

Speaking of whom, the Swiss played very at times during the ATP World Tour Finals, but he was also sloppy at times and that really costs him in his semifinal loss to Nadal. After the Spaniard’s tight straight set win, it sounded like Nadal described Federer’s play as “crazy” but he apparently said “aggressive” and noted that Federer had been effective against him in the past in London by going for winners off of every shot. While that strategy may have worked against Nadal a few years ago and might work one out of 10 times for Federer now against the man who is putting his GOAT status at serious risk, it’s just too hard for a 32 year old to pull that off when he’s lost a little speed and timing. Federer has to be more measured in his approach, like he was against Del Potro and to a degree in his opening three-set loss to Djokovic. Perhaps most importantly though is that in the off season and next year he has to open his mind up to change. He did not have a great season around the net, but he’s certainly capable of becoming a great volleyer and if he does not commit to charging ahead more and taking over matches at the cords then he’s not going to win a another Slam. His days of being able to consistently beat Djokovic, Nadal and Murray on anything but a very quick surface are gone. But a Federer 3.0 who can rush his foes and put away tough volleys? That Roger can win another major in 2014.

Regarding the other four men who played in London, the only one who really impressive was Stanislas Wawrinka, who displayed top 5 material at the tournament and for parts of the 2013. He has a terrific serve and backhand, and his forehand can be pretty effective when he’s on. He’s not bad at closing points at the net, but he doesn’t return that well and is still lacking that little bit of self-confidence that would have him actually upsetting a Djokovic or Nadal on occasion rather than constantly losing to them. If he can find a way to gain a little more belief in 2014, he may find himself back in Slam semi once again.

Of the other three men who competed there – David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet – only the Czech showed off a very high level on occasion, but it also appeared that his mind was more on the Davis Cup final. Ferrer was exhausted after a long fall campaign and was underwhelming. Gasquet is quite a shotmaker, but he’s too erratic to take down the top guys and he’s no without a head coach as Riccardo Piatti has left him. Hopefully next year one of the so called up and comers such as Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov will make it into the final and add a little more flavor the competition.

Some other interesting reading:

Sharapova: Serena and I left feud at Wimbledon

Tipsarevic: I’m no Rocky Balboa story

 Bryan brothers aim to reach 100-title mark in 2014

Rio de Janeiro Terminates ATP Advertising Agreement Before Expiration



Federer free and somewhat easy again



FROM THE ATP WORLD FINALS IN LONDON – Very little is coming easy these days for the player who once made his sport look the easiest: Roger Federer, who has won more Grand Slams singles titles than anyone else with 17, has had a very stressful year, and not a very successful one to boot.

But he continues to fight, both his opponents and himself, and after fading against Novak Djokovic in the third set of his opening match at the ATP World Tour Finals, he turned his fortunes around against Juan Martin Del Potro on Saturday, coming back from breaks down in both the second and third sets in 4-6 7-6(2) 7-5 victory to gain the semifinals once again.

The Swiss was downright angry at times during the third set, even yelling loudly at a linesperson. He served fairly well through out the matche, especially at the end of the third set, but he wasn’t making large impressions on Del Potro’s service games, even though he managed to get numerous returns into play. He must dictate with his forehand in order to best the rest of the top 10 and the Argentine was winning that war all too frequently. He had to will himself to play more offensively.

“I was probably slightly angry more than thinking it’s going to be over soon,” Federer said. “It’s one of those moments today because I kind of fought back the whole match, the first, second set.  Here we go again.  I thought I was really getting angry at myself, how maybe I could just play a loose game, why is this happening?  I’m trying to focus so hard for it not to happen, and it did, so…”

But Del Potro is no Djokovic or Nadal and still has lapses in his concentration, which is why he has yet to win a Masters Series. He’s capable of one game fade at a critical juncture and he disappeared twice to give Federer breaks back. Then the Swiss began to move forward, stop over slicing, belted some heavy topspin backhands and forehands crosscourt and found the lines with his first serve.

“I wasn’t in many of Juan Martin’s service games, so I kind of felt like probably I will get one more chance to break back.  It’s exactly what happened,” Federer said.  “Once on even terms, I was able to play a little bit more freely.  For the first time I was almost feeling like I was kind of in the lead.”

On break point at 5-5 in the third set, Federer leapt up and cracked a big forehand return that Del Potro couldn’t handle and grabbed the break to 6-5. The Argentine managed to grab a break point in the next game after he hit a gorgeous running forehand crosscourt, but then he dumped a backhand into the net and two points later Federer gunned an ace down the T, much to the delight of the heavily pro-Federer sold-out crowd.

Del Potro has a had pretty decent season, but the 2009 US Open champion once again failed to reach the final of another major or win a Masters Series title. He’s not going to be seen as a lock to win another Slam for much longer.

“They don’t beat me easy, and I beat [them at] some tournaments,” Del Potro said. “All the matches are close, but in the end they still beat me because they have a little difference yet.  Maybe I need to be strong mentally or strong physically.  But with my tennis, I think I’m okay.  I have still things to improve like my volleys or my approaches to the net.  But in the end they make difference mentally or physically.  I will be working hard on that.”

So now Federer has to try and recover quickly and find a way to keep himself in his semifinal against Rafael Nadal.  That’s right – keep himself in the match for a while until he feels confident enough that winning really is a possibility and put a few doubts in the Spaniard’s head, just like he did in the first set and half against Nadal in Cincinnati, which ended in a three-set victory for Nadal.

Like against Del Potro, he has to find a way to take over points with his forehand and at the net. He has to take risks with his return game when he can get a look at forehand and not allow Nadal to pin him way behind the baseline with heavy forehands to his one handed backhand. Clearly that is near impossible as Nadal has been so successful doing so in the past, but even though the court at the 02 is playing at best medium speed, it is indoors and Federer has beaten Nadal in their two meetings at the locale.   That Nadal has been playing very well this week won’t help matter either. Will that give him enough confidence to upset a guy who has clearly been better than he has since 2008? Perhaps not fully, but a little.

“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Federer, who is 10-21 lifetime against Nadal. “There’s two more matches and that’s it.  Then the season’s over for me anyway, if I were to beat Rafa tomorrow.  I just have to have the right mindset to give it one last go, maybe play with a little less pressure than I have in previous matches maybe with him. I just feel like I need to look at it more as being an underdog a little bit because of circumstances, because of my year, because of his year.  Maybe that free swinging is what I kind of need to do a little bit more tomorrow. We know each other that well.  He’s going to do exactly what he needs to do, I’m going to try to do what I need to do.  Hopefully it’s going to match up good for me.  If not, he deserves it.  He’s had a wonderful season.”

“When you’re down, you stand up and you become stronger”

Djokovic IW 13 TR MALT5801

The red hot Novak has won 19 matches in a row

FROM THE ATP WORLD FINAL IN LONDON- It is not often that a six-time Grand Slam champion decides to make big push in the fall. Pete Sampras once did in chasing the year-end No. 1 ranking for the then record sixth time. Guga Kuerten did the same in order to secure the No. 1 ranking for the first time. But why would Novak Djokovic go all out to win match after match in the fall season? Does he believe he’s the legitimate No.1 even though now No. 1 Rafael Nadal  won two majors to his one and beat him at  both those events, Roland Garros and the US Open. He does not.

“For me, actually it’s a very encouraging circumstances I am in right now the last two months,” said Djokovic who is on a 19 match-winning streak. “I’m playing the best tennis I think I played throughout the whole season.  That’s something that I take as a positive for this moment and for obviously next season.  I’m definitely feeling confident, more confident than I was a few months ago. And Nadal has ended as world No. 1 in 2013, and he deserves that.  No question about it.  He won two Grand Slams.  He played the best tennis this year.”

Does he think he has something to prove after a spring and summer, which by his standards was a bit sub par? No. What he needed was a bit more confidence, and really a reason to keep playing hard during an important, yet Slam-less stretch. Clearly, he loves to compete because it very rare to see him lose a match early or go down to much lesser players. He can grow visibly frustrated but he keeps at, in a somewhat robotic fashion that can bore fans who like a little more flare, but in an extremely determined and effective way.

“I’m happy to say that I have plenty of motivation regardless of the results that I have because, I’m young, I feel fortunate and blessed to be able to play tennis, the sport that I love,” he said. “I cannot complain.  There is plenty of motivation.  As long as it’s like that, I’ll be pushing myself every day to work hard and hope that that work will pay off on the court. I did lose two big matches, finals of Wimbledon and US Open, and the one in semifinals of French Open was probably the toughest loss of the year.  But that’s sport.  You cannot win all the matches.  The most important thing is that when you’re down, you stand up and you become stronger.  That’s kind of a motto that I have”

With his 6-3 3-6 6-3 victory over Argentine Juan Martin del Potro on Thursday, Djokovic has qualified for the ATP Finals for the fourth time. He was slightly more advantageous that then Argentine, but there really wasn’t much between them. One break in the first for Djokovic, one in  the second for Del Potro, and a final one in the third for Djokovic at 3-2 in the third set when he flubbed three forehands. He may serve bigger than the Serb and strike his forehand harder, but he’s a lesser player because he can’t match Djokovic’s speed, his backhand, his return, his volley and his consistency.

Del Potro will now face Roger Federer for the second spot in the semifinals. The Swiss bested Richard Gasquet 6-4, 6-3, who has had a solid year, but he doesn’t really look like he came into the event with enough confidence to be able to upend the big boys. As is frequently the case, he was terribly erratic when it mattered. Federer owns a 14-5 record against Del Potro, but has lost three of their of their last four matches. However, he did turn the tables on the taller man in Bercy last week after Del Potro had just stopped him in the final of Basel. They played in the round robin portion of the ATP finals last year, with Del Potro wining a three setter. He is more confident than Federer is overall this year, but the Swiss has owned this tournament before and has the potential to catch fire in front of a London crowd that absolutely adores him. Or he could become curiously unraveled like he has on too many occasion this season. They will face off on Saturday afternoon in a match that will add a final coat of thick paint to one of their seasons.

London: Roger is rattled


Federer is fighting himself

FROM THE ATP WORLD FINALS IN LONDON – The 17,800 strong at the 02 Arena were unequivocally in Roger Federer’s corner. There were a handful of Novak Djokovic’s fans on site cheering the Serbian on, and the London crowd certainly respects and perhaps even like the Serbian, but the volume level when the Swiss struck winners lifted the rooftop. For Djokovic, it was more polite applause that was acoustically absorbed by the courtside advertisement boards.

Federer came into the Tuesday contest with  a 16-14 record against Djokovic, but had lost 8 of their last 11 contest since the start of the Serbian’s great 2011. Of those three wins, only one was on hard courts. Of Djokovic’s eight wins, six had come on hard courts, including a win in last year’s final at the o2. But Federer did hold a little hope against the rock solid Serbian as he had played him tough in the Bercy semis last week. He said his game was coming around. He had rediscovered his feel for the ball. He knew he was playing better. He had figured out that his ‘back problems’ and trying to play his way through them was why he had fallen to No. 7 and had only won a singles title in 2013, his worst count since 2001.

Just like in Paris, Federer showed flashed of brilliance. He can no longer dominate Djokovic with his serve, but who really can hit through the world’s most accomplished returner? When he’s on, Federer can play fairly steady from the backhand side with Djokovic, even if he can’t crack winners often off the wing (he finished with four backhand winners in the match). He can slightly over match Djokovic from the forehand side when he is clicking, but he has to work very hard to get himself into a position to hit a forehand winner and the now world No. 2 runs down just about everything. He can get enough of the Serbian’s returns in play and if he gets Djokovic way out of position, he can also have success at the net, but a consistent net rushing strategy does not work for him as his opponent loves a target.

As Djokovic said two days ago, Federer has slowed down a little, which is natural for any 32-year-old. So going end to end in baseline rallies and being able to rip winners from any position is not as feasible as it once was for the Swiss. He can’t out-steady Djokovic, can’t overpower him and is nowhere near as confident as he is these days. It can now be said that the 17-time Grand Slam champ  is a bona-fide underdog against Djokovic every time, anywhere they play.

With all that said, Federer did play a brilliant tiebreak and had fans on their feet. He snared a delicious point from Djokovic to go up 3-2 when after the Serb had run down a number of crunching forehands and smoothed a sharp volley winner off a rocket shot. He won the breaker by retrieving a biting  drop shot and successfully lifting a lob over his foe’s head.

But then he faded fast. He was broke to open the set, Djokovic put up a wall behind the baseline and then in hurried wipe of his furrowed brow, Federer was gone in a mere 35 minutes, producing just five winners to Djokovic’s 13 in the set. He ended the fun but sloppy contest with 27 winners and 45 unforced errors, stats he would like to forget. Djokovic had 29 winners and 35 unforced errors, but he managed to break the Swiss five times.

“Slow here and it’s the first match, so there’s going to be errors,” Federer said. “ There’s a lot of neutralizing going on.  You have to take a lot of chances to get the ball past Novak.  Eventually that draws errors out of you. “

Federer then contradicted himself  a bit when asked about whether the court is playing slow. He seems to be of two minds about it. He did say that the switch of venues from Paris/Bercy had made it more difficult from him and also noted that Djokovic struggled to make the adjustment.

Fed not upbeat
But Federer, who is nursing a cold, was in a pretty sour mood later. He was asked whether he could take any positives out of grabbing two sets from Djokovic in the past four days. He reacted strongly and not with just a little bit of sarcasm.

“Great, we’re positive. It was great to win two sets off Novak, and losing four. Losing a match, it’s really exciting. But I don’t know what to tell you.  The season’s not done yet.”

Federer, who has played better during the fall than he did the summer, also admitted that he is fighting himself

“I think at this point it’s very mental, just making sure I don’t get too negative on myself because of the loss today,” he said. “It was against Novak after all.  It’s not against some journeyman. So I feel like it was very close, but then again didn’t make it. It’s a positive that it was three sets. Don’t really care. But I just have to make sure I stay positive right now in my mind, which I am. And I’m looking forward to the next matches. And I’m happy how I recovered from Paris. That was really key for me to see today how I was going to feel. Maybe I did have some ups and downs, but that’s more towards the season I played and more I think a lot of matches. Then I just got to play my game. It does remain indoors.  So I think I have to just make sure I take it to my opponents rather than trying to make the plays too often, what I was trying to do today. … But obviously it’s been a tough season overall. So I guess I’m just rattled at times, with my level of play consistently.”

If he doesn’t turn it around in two days, he will be in danger of not reaching the semis of an event he was won a record six times.

Nadal conquers countryman
When Rafael Nadal  went on court for his semifinal last week at the Bercy/Paris Maters against David Ferrer, was he thinking that it wouldn’t be too bad if he lost the contest and arrived in London a little earlier? Perhaps not consciously, but he was less than stellar in that semifinal. He did get that extra day of rest that Ferrer did not and, on Tuesday, he stomped his countryman 6-3 6-2. Nadal had better depth on his shots and also varied his groundstrokes more, which forced Ferrer out of his comfort zone.

As Nadal said later, Ferrer was a little tired after his run to the Paris final (where he lost to Djokovic). However, Ferrer could have pulled up mentally a little better during his very erratic afternoon, certainly more impressively than his stat line: he nailed 16 winners, forced Nadal into seven and committed 33 unforced errors, a poor minus-10 ratio. Nadal was by no means perfect and can play a great deal better but ended the day with  nine winners, forced Ferrer into 21 errors and committed 21unforced errors, a decent plus-nine mark. Nadal is now just one win away from securing the year end top spot.

“In Paris he was able to hit the winner lot of times in the first shot,” said Nadal, recalling Ferrer’s leaping, fearsome forehand. “I had mistakes in my first shots where I hit the ball.  I tried to hit against his backhand too many times there.  He was quick and he cover very well his backhand with his forehand.  From that position, he takes the control of the point from inside.  Was very difficult to be back on the point. So I changed little.”

A fabulous fourth title for Italy

errani rg 12

Enjoy every moment, even in a loss


Vinci didnt play well, but competed wonderfully

By Matt Cronin

FROM THE BNP PARIBAS FED CUP FINAL  IN CAGLIARI – Alexandra Panova, who seems to answer to every question with an incredulous look on her face, says that she enjoyed all three hours of her 5-7, 7-5, 8-6 loss to Roberta Vinci in the opening match of Russia’s Fed Cup Final against Italy except for “only a couple of minutes when I was cramping it wasn’t so pleasant.”

The Italian didn’t quite have as much fun, but she did grab the win and that  was all that mattered. Her level was pretty poor for the most part, but she did step up in the third set and belt some forehands, and while her net play was average, it helped when she came in and put pressure on Panova. Her serve was largely infective as she was constantly broken. Her short slice backhand down the lines was wonderful to watch as it skipped out of the reach of the taller Russian. But one never felt Vinci was in control during the match and largely, she wasn’t.

But after Panova blew three match points – and I mean really blew them up 5-2 in the second set – there was a feeling of an inevitable win for Italy that permeated the packed stadium, even when the Russian came back in the third set and held another match point serving at 5-4 in the third set. Some how, some way Panova was going to lose. And that she did.

HERE  is my full report on that match and much of the day.

There are reasons why certain players crack the top 15, reach the second weeks of Slams and other don’t– the elite  know how to play under pressure and the lesser ones tend to fold. Off court, Panova acts like she’s been there before. Perhaps that’s just because she nervous around the press and she immediately defaults to wise cracking as a defense mechanism, or maybe she views her world no. 136 ranking differently than others do. She’s 24 years old and grew up playing with Alisa Kleybanova, who has a far better resume and perspective on life. She does have some talent off the ground, but she doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive strategy other than to hit the ball into the open court. That can work if a player is on fire, but against a smart woman like Vinci, unless you are a top 10 player, over the long haul it will not, even if she is having a down day.

Captain Shamil Tarpischev is coaching is 50th Fed Cup tie, which is a tremendous amount for any man or woman. Sometimes he looks engaged on the sidelines, but other times he does not. There were moment during the Panova match when it appeared obvious that he should get into her ears during her changeover and he sat quietly by. Maybe that is the right way to go with certain players and given that he has coached his teams to four titles and constantly gets brings them deep, he must be given the benefit of the doubt most of the time.

But on Saturday, it sure seemed like it should have been Fed Cup coach Anastasia Myskina on the sidelines, who was deeply engaged the match, yelling support, instruction, or burying her face in her hands after lousy points. She’s only 32 years old, the same age as Serena Williams, and retired early due to foot trouble. Had she not, the former world No. 2 and French Open champion had another couple of Slams in her, assuming that she healed properly. But she is never coming back so perhaps so will quench her thirst of competition by taking over the captain’s helm sometime in the future. She would sure make for a colorful and enthusiastic captain.

Here is where  Tarpischev must really be given credit: in picking 18-year-old lefthander Irena Khromacheva over Alisa Kleybanova against Sara Errani. The Italian did win the match 6-1 6-4, but Khromacheva  had chances in the second set and as she said, had she stepped a little further inside the court on some important points she could have brought it to a third. Like Errani, she is small, but she’s very fast, packs ample power and competes pretty well. Italy may hold a 2-0 lead but it appears in the case of Khromacheva, Tarpischev and Myskina have a player to work with in the future.

Errani will attempt to close out the tie on Sunday against either Panova or Alisa Kleybanova, whom one would think will be asked to compete as Panova’s  legs will be shot. Also expect Flavia Pennetta to get the call is singles against Khromacheva if Errani doesn’t close it out, as Italian Captain Corrado Barazzutti must save Vinci for the doubles if needed.


To Italy, with Inexperience

Teenager Khromacheva will have to play the match of her life to upset Errani on clay


FROM THE 2013 FED CUP BY BNP PARIBAS FINAL IN CAGLIARI, SARDINIA — It’s been almost 10 years now since Russia broke out as a dominant women’s tennis nation: it was the summer of 2004 and in just a three- month period three different women swept to Slam titles starting with Anastasia Myskina at Roland Garros, then Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon, and then Svetlana Kuznetsova at the US Open. The Williams sister take over of the tour was briefly forgotten, as was the rise of the Belgians. The post-Kournikova Russians were all the rage.

A decade or so later, Russia is still a very deep nation, but it is certainly not a dominant one. Since 2004, no new Russian face has broke out in a smile since after winning a Slam. Sharapova has won three more, and Kuznetsova one. Dinara Safina became No .1, but was Slam-less.

Even though she is Serena Williams age, Myskina has long since retired and she has become a notable coach of the Russia Fed Cup squad, as well as her federation’s vice president.  In fact, it seems that she is doing the lion’s share of coaching during practice and it would not be a surprise if and when Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev retires that she takes the helm. Myskina’s foe from the juniors, Elena Dementieva (whom both she and Kuznetsova bested for Slams titles in 2004) has also retired but is scheduled to also come to Cagliari as a TV broadcaster.

As most fans now know, none of Russia’s top 11 players are in Cagliari. Every one of them has a different reason for not showing up, but at this point it is not relevant to retread through old ground other than to repeat what Myskina told me yesterday: when she was an active player, Fed Cup always came first. There was no Tournament of Champions in Sofia back in her day, so she was not forced to choose between Fed Cup and Sofia like three other Russians did this week, but the WTA wasn’t dismissing the significance of the most important team event in the world outside of the Olympics back then either.

For those who don’t buy that contention consider this: the Fed Cu final, which takes place on an island that is not cheap to get to, has sold out its 5000 seat stadium for both days. There are WTA Premier events such as Stanford that don’t do that well, so at the very least, Fed Cup can be said to be at least just as valuable as a much ballyhooed WTA event.

Fed Cup is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, which means it predates the founding of the WTA by a decade. It helped raise the profile of women’s tennis before Gladys Heldman, Billie Jean King and company helped found the WTA. Everyone is today games should know that and realize that without Fed Cup, the WTA may have taken longer to get off the ground. It had value then and still does today and the tour should make sure to support it in the future, even at the expense of some tournament fees.

Next year the Sofia versus Fed Cup final issue won’t matter, as Fed Cup will move back into an open week as the ATP Paris Bercy Masters and Sofia will stay where they are and the ATP World Finals moves back a week. W

It is getting plenty of attention in Italy and Russia this week and next year it should get the attention that it truly deserves throughout the world.

Now on to this weekend’s upcoming tie, which on paper is pretty intriguing if the possibility of an upset is allowed. Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev decided once again to do something unorthodox and has selected 18-year-old Irina Khromacheva to play Italian backboard Sara Errani in the second match on Saturday. Khromacheva has had very good junior results and very decent ones on the ITF circuit but to have go up against an experienced player such as Errani in a hostile environment will be a very difficult task. Khromacheva’s 2013 results do not lend themselves to any rational prediction of an upset.

Maybe Tarpischev should have chosen former top-15 player Alisa Kleybanova to face Errani, as she’s the only player on the team with a strong enough resume that would lead one to believe she has a chance to best Errani if she gets red hot. But Kleybanova has not been playing that well in practice, plus the cancer survivor isn’t sure how her body will hold up on red clay as it will be first time competing on the surface in two and half years. So  Tarpischev instead decided to ask Khromacheva to make her debut, who at 18, isn’t exactly at the level than say Myskina was at the same age.

“It’s the final of Fed Cup so everything is possible,” Khromacheva said. “I have one more day to go, but I’m not nervous at all.”

That we shall see when she gets on court in front of 5000 enthusiastic Italian fans.

The one thing that could play in Khromacheva’s favor is that none of the Italians have seen her play before. But Errani isn’t the type of player who will hit herself out of the match (although she is prone to nerves) so it’s highly unlikely that the Italian will go down. If she does, it will be one of the biggest upsets in Fed Cup history.

Russia’s Alexandra Panova begin the tie against Roberta Vinci, whom she has never gone up against, but she appears to be confident, saying that she “knows how to play her.” Perhaps she has seen Vinci play plenty, but actually being across the net against someone who has so much know how, and can produce a dozen different spins and off pace balls, will be a different matter all together. It’s highly possible that Panova will quickly become confused. The 24-year-old has had some solid results on the Challenger level on clay this year, but again, playing well in the minor leagues is no indication that a competitor can play with the big girls.

However, Tarpischev really has no choice but to play the hand that he has been dealt, or helped deal himself in his many years as captain, and his only really hope is that Vinci is vulnerable. That formula would see Panova pulling off an upset and then Tarpischev being able to insert a fresh Kleybanova against Vinci on Sunday. If Kleybanova can grab that win and the tie goes down to the doubles, than the pressure on the Italians will be intense and the Russian’s will at least have a wild puncher’s chance at an upset.

But really, the chances of them pulling it off are for all intents and purposes infinitesimal. Whatever the case, as Myskina said on Friday, this could be the beginning of a new Russian squad in the coming years, with Khromacheva and Russian’s No. 4 player on this team, another teen in Margarita Gasparyan, playing a big role. Myskina says that the most important thing for her players is be able to deal with the circumstances first, and then forehands and backhands later.  She’s been stressing one critical theme to her squad, which in 2004 in Paris she did very well every match out: “just fight.”

 Of Note

The eight-player singles field for the 2013 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals is now set as Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet clinched the final two berths following Milos Raonic’s third-round loss to Tomas Berdych at the Paris/Bercy Masters. Other qualifiers are Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Juan martin Del Potro, David Ferrer, Roger Federer and Berdych. On Friday in Paris, Djokovic took down Wawrinka in straight sets. I will be on site in London next week.


Fed Cup Final: Russia’s Mental Challenge