Archives for December 2013

New issue of Tennis Journal: Nadal, Li, Ljubicic, Devvarman & more


Tennis Hall of Fame voting: The clear case for Conchita Martinez

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Conchita’s numbers are better than inductee Sabatini’s

The International Tennis Hall of Fame balloting ends on Sunday and very shortly we will know which of the six candidates will be enshrined next year. Three women are up in the players category – Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce and Conchita Martinez—and three people are up in the contributors category:  John Barrett, Jane Brown Grimes and Nick Bollettieri. I vote in both categories and voted for all of them, perhaps the first time I have done so in one voting year and not without a lot of thought when it came to Bollettieri, whom I did not vote for the last time around. But I reconsidered this year because some of my esteemed colleagues convinced me that if I thought of him more as promoter of the sport rather than purely as a coach, that I might change my mind. They were right and I did because at the every least the man is out there every day in a high-profile way preaching the virtues of the sport and he has had a large impact in popularizing it. That was good enough to for me to give him my vote this time around, but purely as a coach I couldn’t do it because I feel there are other men who have had far greater impact, such as Robert Lansdorp and Paul Annacone, but that is a discussion for another day.

The astute Barrett has been the voice of Wimbledon for as long as I can remember and is very enjoyable to  listen to: you actually feel like you are on Centre Court when he is speaking.  The classy Brown Grimes has been one of the most committed and strident volunteers at the international level, having headed up the Hall of Fame, the WTA and USTA. Both she and Barrett are also very worthy entrees.

When it comes to players, Davenport is seen as an automatic and why not with her three Slams singles titles, her Olympic gold and eight times times at No. 1? Pierce won two Slams in singles and reached four other finals, which to me is essentially an automatic, although others did not feel that way when turning down two-time singles Slam winner Yevgeny Kafelnikov, perhaps the greatest crime in Hall of Fame voting ever, which really shows how weak the vetting process is when it comes to choosing educated voters. Two-time RG champ Sergi Bruguera, who was weaker than both Pierce and Kafelnikov when it came to performances off his favorite surface, clay, was also snubbed and should have gotten in, considering that the very likeable Michael Chang and Yannick Noah did with just one major crown.

What troubles me is the chatter that Martinez may not get in, which if you consider a few players who have been voted in before her, would be unfair. In particular, the main WTA player in question would be Gabriela Sabatini, who was inducted in 2006.

Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994 over Martina Navratilova in spectacular fashion when she came in as heavy underdog (she put together perhaps the best series of one-handed backhand crosscourt passing shots ever struck on the lawns), also reached the Roland Garros and Australian Open finals and the semifinals of the US Open, twice. She won 33 singles titles, 13 doubles titles, two silver medals in doubles and helped lead Spain to five Fed Cup crowns. She was 68-23 in Fed Cup, which not only shows commitment (she played a whopping 53 ties), but quality. She played in every one of those finals, including in 1998 in Switzerland against the excellent duo of Martina Hingis and Patty Schnyder when with the team down 2-1, she took of out the tricky left- hander Schnyder 9-7 in the third set before she and Sanchez shellacked Hingis and Schnyder 6-2, 6-0 to win the Cup again.  That was a clutch and heroic performance.  Martinez reached a career high ranking of No. 2 in 1995 when Steffi Graf ruled the roost, Monica Seles was just coming back, Sanchez was still a very good player, Pierce was rising and Sabatini, Kimiko Date and Maggie Maleeva were in the mix.

Sabatini also just won one Slam, the 1990 US Open, only reached one other Slam final, 1990 Wimbledon, and reached the semis of Roland Garros five times  and the semis of the Australian Open four times. She won 27 singles titles, six less than Martinez, although some of those were big titles such as the WTA Championships, Rome and Miami. She won 14 doubles titles, one more than Martinez. She won a  silver medal in singles at the 1988 Olympics, and reached a career high No. 3, one spot lower than Martinez. Her Fed Cup teams never pushed past the semis, which was not totally on her given that she did post a good 24-6 record and didn’t have strong teammate like Martinez did in Sanchez, but her win total was much less than the Spaniard’s was.

Looking at those numbers, if Martinez does not get in, the only reason why Sabatini was able to and she was not was the Argentine’s glamour factor: Gaby was and still is an international sex symbol, while Conchita is a more demure person who does not push her, let’s say, off court qualities, other than being easy to get along with, which is why she will likely have a productive term as Fed Cup captain.

If the voters think hard on her candidacy, when the inductees are announced, Martinez will be one of those players who will be standing on the podium in Newport in July with a big smile on her face. If not, those who did not vote for her should hang their heads in shame.

Of Note

Even though it’s the off-season and the first ball won’t be tossed at the Brisbane International (where I will be on site) and other locales for 15 more days, there is plenty of off court news, almost all of which is on  Juan Martin Del Potro speaks about his suffering in 2010; Lleyton Hewitt says that next season won’t be his last, Roger Federer says that anything is possible in 2014 and has formed a new firm with his agent Tony Godsick and former ATP exec, Andre Silva; and Vera Zvonareva will be back at the AO while Maria Kirilenko is out; and much, much more.

The year-end polls will begin on Sunday with a new cool category, “Coolest Player of the Year.”

The new issue of Tennis Journal is out, with new pieces on Rafa Nadal, Li Na, Ivan Ljubicic and Somdev Devvarman and much more.

TR Retro, 2004 WTA Championships: The last time Sharapova beat Serena


Father Yuri battled with other Russian players during the week.

Note: On Friday, Maria Sharapova will head into her 2014 Brisbane semifinal against Serena Williams with a 2-14 record versus her so-called rival. This article was written after Sharapova bested Serena for the 2004 WTA Championships title at the Staples Center.

LOS ANGELES –  For someone whose sponsors believes that her smile is worth about $5 million annually, Maria Sharapova was in a wild state of confusion most of the week at the WTA Championships, frowning, glaring and sometimes sneering.

It is not easy to be the flavor of the year when your have yet to taste most of the fruits of your success. It’s not easy being an immensely popular Wimbledon champion in the locker room when your all your friends seem to have left the building, or when half the Russian Fed Cup team is sitting courtside cheering against you. It’s certainly not easy trying to push your game to warp speed when you have so much improving to do, let alone facing down Serena Williams in her house.

But life has never been easy for Sharapova and maybe she likes it that way. In an extremely difficult and often bizarre match, the Russian undercut an injured Serena Williams 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 to win the WTA Championships on Monday. Sharapova finally cracked a smile and told of her immense relief that her season is over.

“There were a lot of difficult periods,” she said.  “I learned  a lot about myself. After winning Wimbledon at 17, it was a bit of a struggle. There’s a lot of things expectations. I had to face a lot. I’m just one girl in front of millions of people, with a lot of people watching what I’m doing, wanting me to win. I had to realize it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about doing what you can, learning from your mistakes, and most importantly, working hard.”

Even though Sharapova can be difficult to be around, she has certainly brought a lot of new attention to the sport. Yes, part of that has to do with her looks, but some of that has to do with how fiercely she competes and how obvious it is that’s she not just some tall pretty blonde looking for the next available pop singer.

She can really play and at close look, it’s apparent just how much she’s improved since Wimbledon. She’s still a bit gawky, does not move that well to her left,  frequently flubs her volleys and is no expert strategist, but she really does understand what her weapons are. Her serve is much more consistent than it was at year’s outset, her hooking forehand is getting better by the day and although she’s not very fast, she’s making a tremendous effort to be a better retriever. When she hits behind players, there’s almost no reason for them to attempt to spin around and pick up the ball, because it’s already gone.

So now here she is, ending the year ranked No. 4, behind Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo and Anastasia Myskina. Those are all veteran players. Every other teen and player between the ages of 20 and 22 can take a deep bow to her. She beat the best of the best at Championships and no one can take that away from her.

“It shows that I’ve come a long way n a short period of time,” Sharapova said. “To be able to beat top players and playing five days in a row with my body, it’s not very easy. When I was playing against [Amelie] Mauresmo, I was absolutely dead and I didn’t think I could go on. I found an inner strength.”

Pity Serena, who played a terrific first set behind her gigantic serve and well placed groundies. She may have won the match had she not strained her abdominal muscle early on. But by midway through the second set, she had slowed down her serve. Serena took a medical timeout after the seventh game and even a tight wrap didn’t do her much good in the serving department, as her big heater fell into the 75-mph range.

“I really thought it was just a stitch, and it would go away,” Serena said. “I thought at times I wouldn’t finish, but I like to fight. On a 0-10 scale, the pain was a 10 and a half.”

Serena is going to have an MRI on Tuesday because she suspects she might have torn her abdominal muscle. She didn’t risk cranking up big serves because she recalls what  happened in the 2003 Wimbledon semis, when her sister Venus continued to play against Kim Clijsters despite an abdominal strain and eventually tore it. Venus also played the final against Serena (mostly to prove to fans that the sisters always try hard against each other). Consequently, she was off the tour for the next six months.

“I was thinking I’m not going to be out six months,” Serena said. “I wasn’t going to go for any big serves because it’s not worth it with the New Year coming around.”

Serena nearly pulled off a miracle, going for broke off the ground in the third set and grabbing a 4-0 lead, while Sharapova lost her focus. But after Sharapova held to 4-1, she found a mental opening and grew confident again, bullying Serena’s second serves. A few huge forehands later, Sharapova was screaming for joy. Her father Yuri joined in with a bear hug a minute later.

“I’m still in shock. I can’t believe the way I pulled it out,” she said. “I don’t think I could have asked for anything better this year. It’s been extraordinary. To finish it off by beating the best in the world — I’ve accomplished so much at 17-years-old. A lot of people don’t realize that I’m still 17. It’s very unreal the way I stuck in there. It’s been an amazing year.”

Serena couldn’t believe what had occurred. She fought like hell to get to the final and now she’ll end the year with only two titles, nothing for a six-time Slam champ to chat with the Hollywood crowd about.

“It’s been a really tough for year for in general. It’s extremely disappointing,” said Williams. “I figured I had a good chance at this title. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t rewind time. I don’t know where I went wrong.”

On court, little went wrong for Sharapova this week. She made few friends off court with her complaining about the heaviness of the balls, but she clearly signaled that a skinny Siberia native won’t be pushed around.  She’s smiled broadly when she discussed the “great vacation” she going to take and showed a lot of heart in donating the new Porsche Cayenne she won to the victims of the Beslan, Russia, terrorist attack in the early September.  She also showed her trademark spunk when asked whether she’s a legitimate top five player.

“I deserve a spot on the list,” she said. “I consider myself one of them after beating them.”