Archives for February 2020

Maria Sharapova retires; wave goodbye to a great champion

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova serves at 2015 WTA Finals. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

The famous Maria Sharapova walked away from tennis a few days ago because her right shoulder was pretty much done. Many years ago, before her leg began to hurt, and she could crack the ball from both wings as well as any woman in the game.

She was always aggressive. The tall blond won five Grand Slams: at Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open and twice at Roland Garros. She won a number of big tournaments, like Indian Wells, Miami, San Diego, and in Los Angeles at the WTA final, where she lived and she still does. Her house, is very close to the beach. In the great California sunshine.

When Sharapova first came into the United States, she was only seven years old. She was all ready playing tennis but she was very young. When she arrived, she couldn’t speak English, but eventually, the Russian was 100 percent American. She stayed in Florida, and she played and practiced until the sun went down.

When she was 16 years old , she began to play at the WTA Tour. One year later, when she was 17, out of nowhere, she won Wimbledon, shocking Serena Williams and the tennis world who didn’t know who she was  She hit lines, minute after minute. She was totally locked in, ace after ace, with her first serve into the corners, or onto the line. Her backhand was tremendous, and whenever she had an opportunity, she would jump on it. Her forehand was also very strong — not as good — but super hard. Her return on the second serve was vicious, and she wanted to put the ball away immediately. She must have done that, thousands of times. Even if she was playing badly, with many errors, she really would keep trying.

Maria Sharapova and dad
Maria Sharapova

The 32-year-old Sharapova would always push herself, on court and off. It took her years to understand that how to manage her game. That is the same thing with all of the players. When you are only a teenager, and in the early 20s, you just have to grow up. If you won’t, then you will not reach the top and become No. 1. Sharapova did it, as did Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, Victoria Azarenka and more. These are the Slam winners, the No. 1s. At the end of their careers, they were very thoughtful and intelligent. But, in the beginning, they needed to sprout and learn.

Without a doubt, Sharapova finally learned and made her a athletic and commercial success. She could really talk, in the media room, on TV and with broadcasters. She would smile, she would joke and she would laugh. There are times when she was sad, or irritated, or a little angry, but the same thing happens to 95 percent of us.

A few years ago, after the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova was suspended due to a failed drug test. That was very difficult for her fans,and for her. She messed up, and she admitted it. 

After 15 months, she finally came back in April 2017 in Stuttgart. In the next two-and-a-half years, she had some very good wins, but she had to stop because her shoulder was super sore and she could not compete, citing her injured forearm. That is why she decided to retire this week. She was done.

The two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova said, “For me, it was a pleasure to be with her on the tour, sharing the court with her. It was always great battles when we play together. She’s a big hitter as well, so it’s been always nice to share the court with her and I do always have respect to her.”

Sharapova had so many fantastic matches, but it was time to put down the racquet. Now she is moving on. To exactly what she will do this year and next year in hard to say, but she will continue to push herself, just off court, now.

Nice titles but great competitors don’t play 250s/Internationals

Gael Monfils

Was last week a positive one for pro tennis? Oh, sure, props to the winners, Gael Monfils, Kyle Edmund, Casper Ruud, Kiki Bertens and Magda Linette. They all had terrific tournaments, because they won. And I am sure that they are extremely happy.

However, the vast top competitors did not play last week. None of those five winners have won a Grand Slam. They may never do that.

It is very rare that the best players — the Slam winners —play the ATP 250s or the WTA Internationals. It is super rare, especially for the men. More of the top women play the Internationals because the WTA doesn’t have as many tournaments as the ATP.

With the guys, they are supposed to play all the four Grand Slams, and the ATP Masters 1000s— let alone the ATP Finals. That means they have to play at least nine ATP events, in total, so you have to compete 13 tournaments combined.

The fantastic players, such as Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, can skip the 1000s, because they have gone very deep everywhere on hardcourts, clay and grass. Their number of points are huge, which is why that Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are No.1, No. 2 and No. 3. They rarely play the 250s. At the 500s, they will play a little bit, during the year, such as Acapulco, or Barcelona and Switzerland. But after that, exactly when and why? Also, with the women, Serena Williams loves playing the Slams, which is why she has won 23 majors. But, playing other events, there were years when she would pull out, because she didn’t want to go. The big players just want to stay home.

In 2019, Djokovic only played one 500, in Tokyo, not three. So, two of them provided no points. But he is No. 1, so it really doesn’t matter. The same thing went with Nadal, who got hurt in 2019, and he couldn’t play three times at the 1000s, but he wanted to regain No. 1. He did in the fall after he won Canada and the U.S. Open.

Federer is 38 years old, and he is always thinking how to handle his schedule. In 2019, he decided that he wouldn’t play at two 1000s: Canada and Paris. In the ATP Tour 500s, he did play Dubai, Halle and Basel, winning all of them. That is all good, but Federer had three zeros, and because of that, a lot of people won’t bother attending the 250s. Why? When he isn’t there, the fans are disappointed so they won’t go.

If you are an owner of those tournaments, how will you bring in the fans when you aren’t sure who is playing? There are thousands of people who love tennis, and they will go to the events just to watch them. But, those people – the diehard fans – truly understand what tennis is, with the rallies, the strokes, and how fast they are running. It is amazing. Truly.

This is reality; at the 250s [the men], and the Internationals [the women], that I have seen, over the past 27 years, there weren’t many fans at the events, especially early during the day. I mean, not much.

During the spring, on Monday through Thursday in the afternoon, there are very few people at the events. At night, it is a little better, but not much. It is not only that certain people are working and cannot go, but also because in order to take a day off, they have to know who is playing and is it worth it? A few, or some, will do it, but it is pretty rare.

That has happened when I started writing tennis, and doing radio, and still goes on today. You can’t pretend. But, it was packed during the weekend, here and there. There were more people to watch the semis and the finals, especially in California, where I live. But before that…ugh.

At the ATP Tour 250s and the WTA Internationals, it hasn’t changed at all. The owners have tried, for sure, but it is extremely difficult to get attendance to watch the “unknown” players. Without sponsorship and TV income, these smaller tournament would rarely survive.

So once again, props to Monfils, Edmund, Ruud, Bertens and Linette, for winning the event, but none of them have reached the Slam finals yet and maybe they never will. Or maybe they will play fantastic for seven matches and shock the world. That would be very surprising, but I cannot see it.

Sofia Kenin: She thinks and doesn’t give up

Sofia Kenin

Many players leap into the second week of a Grand Slam, and they are on fire. But, when they get on the court, they realize that, all of a sudden, they have to play ever better to upset the terrific competitors. Sofia Kenin actually did it during Australian Open over two weeks, sputtering at times, but not during the three sets she played. Mentally, she focused, she changed things up, and she went for it, with her hard and deep forehand and her backhand. She thinks, she doesn’t give up, and she actually breathes.

Of course, almost all of the top players want to achieve No. 1. They all visualize it in their heads, when they are about to go to sleep: celebrating.

Kenin knew that when she finally became very consistent and aggressive she was ready to grab it. She did over 14 days. But now, she has a number of challenges during the next few months on hard courts. It will be fascinating to see how she recovers at Indian Wells and Miami, the two of the most important upcoming events. It is critical that she continues her strong play.

Ash Barty had a very good tournament at the AO. A lot of people thought that she would win for the first time, but she still has to improve her second serve, her return and her backhand with more topspin. If she does, she will win a Slam this year….

Naomi Osaka is a tremendous ball striker, and she can whip it. But, once and a while, she can be very erratic. She is thoughtful, and she is honest, but she has to grow up more. She just has to mature or she won’t grab the No. 1 this year.

Two veterans lost, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova. Halep has won two Slams, so she does get hurt a lot, but coming up over the next five months, she will win a few events, good ones, too. However, even though the Czech Pliskova can look terrific outside of the Slams, but once at the big events, she forgets her successful strategies. That is why she has not won a major. Can she actually do it this year? I have no idea anymore.

The 15-year-old American Cori Gauff had a fine event. She is doing that regularly now. She wants to play all the time. She is very young, and she doesn’t want to sit down. She is an ambitious kid.

On some weeks, Madison Keys is finding in the corners. She is a huge hitter, and she can nail it on her first serves. But, on court, she can get frustrated and she stops thinking. She lost in the third round at the AO. She just has to forget about it.

Djokovic edges Thiem to win the 2020 Aussie Open … again

Novak Djokovic

Who would have guessed that Dominic Thiem was about to upset Novak Djokovic in the final at the Australian Open? He was ahead two set to one, and he was in the zone. But, in the last two sets, the Serbian knew that he has to do a few different things, and he did. Somehow, he won the match 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

He continued to pound, his eyes were very wide, and repeatedly came into the net and put it away.

Djokovic now has 17 Grand Slams, and he is No. 1 again. Without a doubt, he is one of the best players, ever.

“Serve and volley is not something I’m accustomed to. I’m not really doing that that often,” Djokovic said. “I kind of recognized that as an important tactic in those circumstances, and I’m really happy it worked.”

He must be. Roger Federer has won 20 Grand Slams, and Rafa Nadal has 19. Combined, the “aging” 30-year-old guys have won 56 majors. That is incredible. The young, top competitors look pretty good on court, but they have yet to grab a Slam. Eventually, the current players will win a Grand Slam, but exactly when? Perhaps when Djokovoc, Federer and Nadal retire. Not this year.

The good thing is that Thiem is constantly improving. If he continues to get better, than at some point, he will beat everyone at a slam. Mentally, though, he still needs to understand how to play. In the last two sets, he was decent, but not fantastic. That is why he lost three times in the finals, at Roland Garros (twice versus Nadal) and once at the Australian Open (Djokovic).

“It’s unique in sports history that the three best players by far are playing in the same era. That’s what makes it very, very difficult for other players to break through,” Thiem said. “As a different player than them, you have to beat at least two of them to win a big title. Almost all players [have] failed to do that. That’s what makes it so tough. … In the last two sets, I definitely gave everything I had. Novak is part of three guys who are by far the best players ever who played tennis. If you play a Grand Slam final against him, it’s always going to be a match where very small details are deciding [it]. Of course, there were some small mistakes here and there, but they’re happening. At the end it was a super close five-setter. I don’t really regret anything.”

That was Sunday, but this week, he might be pretty sad. The big players will think about it for weeks … or years. That depends on whether you deal with it or hide it. Djokovic loves to win demanding five-setters at the most important events. But, can Thiem live with it when he loses in front of millions of people, watching the final? I would doubt that.

The Australian Open, the final: Novak Djokovic vs. Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem

Is Dominic Thiem ready to dance, finally? It is possible, because the Austrian has played substantially better over the past two years. However, the big test now is to take out Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final. The Serbian has won it seven times, incredibly consistent and oh-so powerful. Mentally, when he is locked in, he can nail his first and second serves, he can smashed his backhand crosscourt, and now when he rushes to the net, he can drop it down and softly put it away. 

However, starting in August, Djokovic began to be frustrated and irritable. He was O.K. but not fantastic. Djokovic can rush it, from the baseline, and yank it wide. Then, he would yell at himself, and here and there, he would throw his racket.

Thiem can get frustrated, too. The 26-year-old has never won a Grand Slam yet. He was somewhat close, in the final at Roland Garros, twice, and Rafa Nadal pounded him. But this week, Thiem kept his head up, and slowly, he smacked his one-hander backhand, and his heavy forehand, deep and true. Plus, he can really run. It took him a long time to be more efficient and creative. He will say in front of everyone that when he is totally on, he can beat anyone.

Here is reality: Thiem has beaten Djokovic four times, while the Serbian won it six times. That is pretty close, because they have played against each other on clay — which Thiem loves — and on the hard courts, Djokovic can rise up at the heavens, quickly. 

Djokovic beat the famous Roger Federer in straight sets in the semis, somewhat easily, not only because the Swiss was injured, but because the Serbian was on top it. He has beaten him many times. When Djokovic is confident, he really believes that he can out-stroke him.

If he wins, Djokovic will have 17 Grand Slams. Before he retired, he could have at least 20 majors. He has a solid four more years to be healthy to win a lot of titles. He wants to, and he has said that, frequently.

But Thiem kept raising his game during the past two weeks. He won’t be nervous, because he has been there enough now at the all-important Slams. He wants to walk on court, start playing, and find out how he can push Djokovic into the wall. And over it. 

Yes, Mr. Novak is the favorite, but Thiem is finally locked in. He will win it in the fifth set, so tight, and kissing the lines. A winner.