March 8, 2016

We Need to Talk About Maria

So I realize it's been a while since I posted anything here, but after yesterday's shocking announcement from Maria Sharapova, it's hard to stay silent.

For those who don't know, here's a quick recap: the former world #1 on Monday announced she'd failed a drug test. During this year's Australian Open, she tested positive for Meldonium, a medication she says she'd been taking since 2006 to help treat a variety of ailments including low magnesium and possible symptoms of diabetes. Following the test, the ITF implemented a "provisional suspension" on the five-time Grand Slam champion that will start March 12 and could last as long as two years -- maybe even more.

But what does that mean? For Maria? For her career? For the sport?

Well first, the good and the sorta-good: Days after receiving the test results, Sharapova admitted her "huge" mistake, apologized to her fans and took the blame entirely upon herself. She said she was ready to accept both the responsibility and the consequences of her actions. As for the drug itself -- Meldonium was only added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's this year, so Maria probably tested positive for it for years without ever violating any regulations.

On the other hand...

Meldonium isn't exactly a mainstream drug. While it can be used for chest pain and to treat heart attacks, some medical experts doubt whether it has any efficacy with diabetes patients. Developed by a Latvian pharmaceutical company, it's available in Lithuania and Sharapova's native Russia, but not approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. And you would think Maria, the highest paid female athlete in the world last year -- though with sponsorships from Nike and Porsche getting dropped after yesterday's announcement, her income will certainly take a hit in 2016 -- wouldn't have to take chances on second-rate medications.

And while the medication did only become illegal this year, it had been in WADA's monitoring program prior to 2016, so authorities were aware it potentially posed a problem. Maria said when the group sent around their newest list of banned substances in late December, she neglected to "click on the link" and didn't read through the changes. Yes, that could be a simple oversight -- the holidays are always crazy, and it was only weeks later that she tested positive, so maybe she (and the six other athletes who tested positive for the same drug since January) really just didn't get around to it.

Still, if you're taking a substance that's on any kind of watch list, shouldn't you be hyper-aware of what's allowed and what's not? At a press conference today, ahead of an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, current world #25 Caroline Wozniacki said:

"Anytime we take any medication I think we double and triple and quadruple check. Because sometimes even things like cough drops or nasal sprays can be on the list, so I think as athletes we always really make sure that there's nothing in it that could put us in a bad situation."

And shouldn't one of the cadre of doctors, physios, trainers, etc. on your team at least alert you to the fact that something you're taking may raise questions? Former top-ranked phenom Jennifer Capriati certainly took issue, tweeting:

"I didn't have the high priced team of drs that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up. The responses are exactly what i am talking about. Everything based on illusion and lie driven by the media for over 20 yrs. Beyond unfair."

But the reaction from of most of Maria's peers was positive. Martina Navratilova urged everyone to reserve judgement until the ITF's investigation was completed, former pro James Blake called her admission "classy", and young gun Ryan Harrison said it was an "honest mistake from a great champion". At the same press conference at MSG, Serena Williams, who's certainly had a long history with Sharapova and hasn't always been her best friend, said:

"Most were happy that she was upfront and very honest...As Maria said, she's ready to take full responsibility and I think that showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart, and I think she's always showed courage and heart in everything that she's done, and this is no different."

Others on social media were not so forgiving. Many pointed out that, even with performance enhancing drugs, Maria hadn't beaten Serena in over ten years, or wondered whether public sentiment would be so positive had it been the [African-American] world #1 who'd tested positive.

In any case, what ultimately happens to Sharapova is still unknown -- before her press conference it was widely rumored she would announce her retirement, and she acknowledged that speculation, saying she hoped she wouldn't have to end her career this way. She doesn't necessarily have to -- Marin Cilic, who served a four-month ban for doping, came back to win the U.S. Open in 2014, and Martina Hingis, forced out for two years after cocaine was found in her system -- she denies ever taking the drug -- was not only inducted into the Hall of Fame, but returned to Tour and has won three Grand Slam doubles titles since.

Of course Maria may not be so resilient -- plagued with injuries for years, the twenty-eight year old has said before she's unlikely to play into her mid thirties like Serena or her sister Venus. And if she's suspended for any significant length of time -- though she'll certainly have had the time to recover -- she honestly may not be as much of a force when she gets back to work.

So Sharapova is certainly in a tough spot, and as she's one of the most recognizable faces of the game, so is tennis. The "Gentleman's Sport" may not seem so high-brow if the legacy of one of its brightest and most bankable stars is tarnished. But if this really was just an honest mistake, hopefully she'll be able to come back swinging even harder when it's all over.

November 30, 2015

Davis Cup Final -- 111 Years in the Making

Things sure have been tense in Belgium the last few weeks, and certainly on topics much more important than tennis. But while the world's eyes stay focused on what's happening in Brussels -- and what's happened so recently in Paris and, of course, in so many other places across the globe -- just a couple dozen miles away from the capital city in Ghent, this year's Davis Cup championship was contested, thankfully without incident. And in a rematch of the 1904 final we got a glimpse of just how hungry these two teams were to return to glory.

I've talked before about how long it's been since either the Belgians or the British got this far at Davis Cup, and it kind of makes sense. While they both have their stars -- two-time Grand Slam champ and world #2 Andy Murray and 2014 comeback kid David Goffin lead the packs -- their second place players are little farther down the rankings. Aljaz Bedene, who rose all the way to #45 this year, didn't play for the Brits in this tie, making sub-hundred Kyle Edmunnd the other singles player. And while Steve Darcis has certainly scored some big wins in the past, he's still ranked just within double digits. So to put together full teams that can get through top rate talent all year long can be a bit tough, and against all odds these guys did it.

And their big guns came out firing from the start -- Goffin, just off a career high at #16 in the world, has been a little quiet lately and was tested mightily from the start. But after dropping his first two sets to the huge underdog Edmund, he rallied in the back half, losing just three games to give Belgium an early lead. But Murray was quick to get momentum back on his side -- against largely unheralded Ruben Bemelmans, a workhorse on the Challengers' Tour, he took the first two sets easily before having to battle through the third. Ultimately though he claimed victory in straight sets and drew the Brits even going into Day Two.

In the doubles rubber Goffin paired with Darcis and Murray with his brother Jamie -- a decorated veteran in the paired discipline. The elder Murray -- a finalist at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon -- narrowly missed making the semis at the year-end championships in London, but may have made up for it here. After splitting the first two sets with the Belgians, the doubles specialist was able to take the lead, and powered his team through to the 2-1 advantage, always key in these events. And in Sunday's premier match-up, the younger sibling got right back on court against Goffin, hoping for a repeat of his Paris Masters 6-1, 6-0 drubbing of his opponent. Things weren't quite so easy this time around, but Murray nevertheless persevered, overcoming Goffin's only break of the match in the third set, and clinching the win in just under three hours, securing the Championship for him and his country.

It was the Brits' first Davis Cup trophy since before the second World War, and in an era that's been so dominated by upstart teams, it's interesting to see the reversion this year. Whether the victory is a sign that British imperialism is back in the world of tennis remains to be seen, of course -- but with the kind of firepower they brought all year long, there's no reason there isn't more to come.

November 22, 2015

Nothing Motivates Like Success

It's kind of a weird saying, right? You'd assume the sharp pain from a recent loss would be all a competitive athlete needs to improve his game and come out swinging even harder the next time he hits the court. But perhaps it's only the very best out there who can so easily shake off disappointment, proving any setback is just a minor bump on the way to even bigger achievements down the road. And at this week's ATP Championships in London, that's exactly what Novak Djokovic did.

The world #1's hiccup came during his round robin matches where, in his first defeat since August, he dropped in straight sets to Roger Federer. But a solid win over Tomas Berdych in his final group match secured him spot in the semifinals, where he took on an impressively resurgent Rafael Nadal, who'd gone 3-0 during his early rounds. But the former top-ranked Spaniard, still looking for his first ever World Tour Final championship, ran out of steam on Saturday, never ever earning a break point and ultimately falling in less than eighty minutes.

Meanwhile Federer was able to keep his momentum going a little longer -- after winning all three of his round robin matches, losing just one set to an on-the-mend Kei Nishikori, he was riding high atop his group standings. Meanwhile compatriot Stan Wawrinka's fate went down to the wire -- splitting his first two matches in London his battle Friday against hometown favorite Andy Murray was do-or-die. But the reigning French Open champion, having won the pair's last two meetings kept his streak going, closing the gap further with his rival. The effort may have taken a bit out of him, though -- despite what seemed on paper like a closer score, Roger needed even less time to score the win Saturday and earned himself a chance at a seventh ATP Championship

But Djokovic wasn't about to crumble again against the only man who's beaten him in months -- in Sunday's final, he got a break early and barely looked back, withstanding solid serving from his opponent and pouncing on his returns. After two quick sets, he'd become the only man ever to win four straight World Tour Finals and cemented his place at the very top of the ATP this season.

Nole's win this week is not unlike what Serena Williams did at the WTA Finals last year -- after a dominating end to her year, she rebounded from a stunning loss to Simona Halep in the round robins, only to crush her adversary in the championship match. Djokovic has a little ways to go before he can earn a full comparison to one of the most decorated players in the field, but after his amazing performance so far this year, it certainly seems he's well on his way.

And with the momentum he's got in his pocket already, there's no telling when he'll stop.

November 18, 2015

One to Go...

Two sets of round robin matches are in the books at the year-end championships, and now we're starting to get a clearer picture of who will ultimately be playing for the title -- and a couple men you might not have expected are really taking the chance to shine. But with everyone still having one match left, there's still a lot that can happen, and even for those who've already clinched a spot in the semis, there's still a lot on the line.

Group A

Novak Djokovic, undefeated since August, was the clear favorite among the first group of London qualifiers, but he's not the one who's been most impressive so far. Roger Federer, who's had a couple early losses since the U.S. Open had fallen to the third seed this week but came out firing anyway -- after an easy win over Tomas Berdych he absolutely pummeled Nole on Tuesday, making himself the only undefeated player among these four and securing his ticket to the semis. Nole isn't totally out of contention, of course -- he opened with a quick win over a struggling Kei Nishikori on Sunday. But the man from Japan, who only just made the cut for the World Tour Finals having lost in the first round in New York and retiring at the Paris Masters, bounced back from his early loss by notching his own win over Berdych. How these two guys perform tomorrow will mean everything -- Kei's beaten Roger more than once before and another victory could earn him a spot in the final four or push the Swiss into second place for the group. And Djokovic, still hoping to reach the semis, could even vault back into the first spot, giving him a big advantage when things really become heated.

Group B

Of course the bigger surprises came in the second group of finalists. Rafael Nadal, who despite his many honors has never won in London, has been famously up and down all year long. But he opened by avenging his Paris loss to Stan Wawrinka and then stunned Andy Murray in his second match today, scoring his biggest win since last year's French Open final. Like Roger he's now the only one in this bunch who hasn't lost this week and he's also booked his ticket to the semisfinals. He has a good shot at keeping his top spot too -- he has a solid 23-6 record against David Ferrer, his only remaining opponent -- but the veteran Spaniard did beat him last year in Monte Carlo and has arguably been the more consistent player over the last few months. But the bigger battle will certainly be between Murray and Wawrinka, a pair of powerhouses who've nearly split their head-to-head -- neither have reached the final in London yet, but both have come pretty close. And while it seems like they're just playing for second place in this group, the opportunity could still be great -- they're both gaining ground on both Roger and Nole, so whoever ends at the top of the other section will be in for a fight as soon as they get back on court

So perhaps things have gotten a bit more interesting than we were anticipating at this year's ATP Championships, but it certainly seems like we're seeing a couple players really upping their games at the end of the season. And while the competition will only get more intense from here, the ones who've shined brightest might just be the ones best able to take advantage.

November 14, 2015

London Preview: The Best of the Best

We're just hours away from the start of this year's ATP Championships, and while we certainly have an idea of who the favorites might be, there's a lot of ball to be played before the title is given away. And with the best players of the year all on court to battle it out for 2015's final trophy, everyone might just be in for the biggest fights they've faced yet this season.

Group A

These guys are the first to get to work in London, and perhaps have some of the highest credentials in the field. Top seed Novak Djokovic, with ten titles in 2015, including three Majors, is the clear favorite, but the three-time defending champion has plenty of competition. Roger Federer slipped to #3 in the world this year, despite reaching the finals in both New York and at Wimbledon, and may be hungrier than ever for a win here. He may have lost a bit early at the latter-stage Masters events, but a win over Rafael Nadal in the Basel championship shows he's still got fight left in him. But perhaps the underdogs in this group can shake things up -- Tomas Berdych has only beaten one player in this group this year, but only barely lost to Nole in Paris and could carry that momentum with him now. And Kei Nishikori, one of the last guys to qualify for London this year, has been a bit quiet in recent months, but his big-hitting got him all the way to the semis here in 2014, and has a solid five wins over top-ten players this season. If he's back in top form, there's really no one in this field he can't beat.

Group B

You can be sure the fight in the second group of Round Robins will be just as intense, though. Andy Murray returns to his homeland as the second seed, and is one of only three people in this field who's beaten Djokovic in 2015. While it's been a while since his last Major, he has won two Masters titles this year and has a 3-0 record against the other members of his Group this year. Still you can expect some push back now that the stakes are so high -- Stan Wawrinka, after all, was the surprise winner this year at Roland Garros, where he also beat Roger Federer in the quarters, by the way. Though he's also had a couple hiccups, he also has what it takes to thrive against the sport's very best. And David Ferrer, who had a stellar surge during the back half of the year, is one of the most experienced players in this group and might just be able put that experience to good use. Of course eyes will be on Rafael Nadal who, despite all his accomplishments, has never won the year-end championship. He did, however, beat Wawrinka just last month, and very nearly got the better of Federer in Basel. While he's certainly not used to being the underdog at events like this, there's no reason he can't come out swinging -- and perhaps when no one's expecting it, he might have his best opportunity to shine.

Of course, with so much talent on the courts you know that anything can happen over the next few days in London. And while a couple players have certainly established themselves as the ones to beat, on a stage like this, you can't count anyone out. And with everyone sure to be hitting their hardest, you know we're in for one of the biggest battles of the year -- so whoever comes out on top will definitely have earned it.

November 12, 2015

Fed Cup Final Preview: A Chance for Redemption

It's not often that you see so many ladies who played the postseason take such a little break before getting back to action. But with this year's Fed Cup championship tie featuring more than a few players who made the cut in either Singapore or Zhuhai -- all of whom fell a little short over the last few championship events -- we might just be in for an extra-high quality battle for this trophy.

The Russians

The five-time champions came in second at Fed Cup twice this decade, even losing the final to their current opponents back in 2011. They're bringing even bigger guns to the fight this time around, but even these stars are looking for a comeback.

Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova, doubles finalists at Wimbleon, qualified for the paired draw in Singapore but had to pull out because of a leg injury for the latter. They haven't played together since Toronto -- Makarova, in fact, clearly the more accomplished on the singles circuit, has been out of action entirely since a fourth round loss in New York. But over the years they've won five titles together, two of them Majors, and while it may be tough to rebound immediately at such a high-stakes event, these two certainly have the talent to do it.

Maria Sharapova certainly seemed well on her way to her own rebound -- after sustaining her own injury at Wimbledon and skipping the U.S. Open, she lost her first round back, retiring in the third set of her opener in Wuhan. But came out swinging at the WTA Finals, surviving a test against eventual champion Aga Radwanska before rolling through the rest of her round robins unscathed. But just when it looked like her momentum was back in full swing, she ran into a wall, falling in straight sets to Petra Kvitova in the semis. As the Russians' leader she'll get a chance to avenge that loss this weekend, and with surprise Linz champ Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova rounding out the team, there might be enough firepower to bring home the Cup.

The Czechs

Of course the defending champs will be out in full force -- and while their heavy-hitters certainly have plenty to be proud of from their postseason showings, even they're looking for a bit of a bounce-back.

Two ladies on this team actually qualified for the year-end title in Singapore -- surprise French Open finalist Lucie Safarova just barley squeezed her way into the field, qualifying despite losing every match she played since the New Haven final. She was in danger of blanking in her Championships debut too, dropping her first two round robins in straight sets. But while she was able to avoid a total shut out, notching an upset over Angelique Kerber in her last match, she'll certainly hope to up her game this weekend. And Petra Kvitova, who won the whole shebang in her first trip to the WTA Finals four years ago, will want to make up for her somewhat unexpected loss to Radwanska in the championship.

Countrywoman Karolina Pliskova also fell just one match short of a big win herself. After a strong start to 2015, during which she reached finals in Brisbane and Dubai, she rose to #7 in the world. While she stumbled a bit later in the season and didn't quite make the cut in Singapore, for the second year in a row got to play for the consolation prize, and this time won both of her round robins in Zhuhai before rolling over Elina Svitolina in the semis. Her run was finally ended by Venus Williams in the title match, but if she gets back on track, she might just be the clincher this weekend. And with always-feisty Barbora Strycova on deck to help out, this team looks to be in a good position to repeat.

As always there's a lot on the line when Fed Cup finals roll around, but this year, with an extra special slate of talent on board, the stakes may be even higher. And with so many looking for that one more win to make up for recent losses, we might be in for some of the biggest battles we've seen all year.

November 8, 2015

The Long Road Back

It's been more than five years since Venus Williams was ranked in the top ten -- but when the new WTA ranking come out on Monday the veteran American, thirty-five years young will have climbed back into the tennis elite, an accomplishment that may have seemed out of reach not that long ago.

The seven-time Grand Slam champion has struggled with injury and illness over the past several seasons, revealing in 2011 that she'd been diagnosed with Sjögren's Syndrome, which might have hampered her ability to endure long matches and fight against the younger, more energized hitters. She dropped for a time into triple digits and lost a couple first round matches at the Majors. But she started to launch her comeback in earnest in 2012 -- she stunned third seed Petra Kvitova in Miami and scored wins over players like Sam Stosur, Jelena Jankovic and soon-to-be-powerhouse Simona Halep a couple times that year. She capped off that season with a title in Luxembourg, bringing her ranking from #134 when she first got back on court to #24 by the time she stepped off it.

Williams has been up and down since then -- the following year she put together a streak of first round losses and dealt with another injury that forced her to skip Wimbledon for the first time since 1996 -- but she still couldn't be counted out. In 2014 she fell just short of picking up a title in Auckland and then upset five players in a row to claim the title in Dubai. But her biggest win, of course, came a few months later when she took out little sister Serena in Montreal, for her first win over the world #1 since 2009. And after starting this year by making up for that loss in New Zealnd, she went on to reach the quarters in both Melbourne and New York and then battled through an impressive draw to claim the trophy in Wuhan.

Her performance earned her the top seed at the inaugural WTA Elite Trophy this past week in Zhuhai -- while qualification was slightly different from that of previous Tournaments of Champions, the event nevertheless attracted an impressive field of rising stars, former Slam champions, and a couple one-time #1s. But Venus was not intimidated -- she powered through her round robin matches and in Saturday's semi absolutely trounced the woman who'd shocked Serena at the U.S. Open. She had a bit more of a challenge against Karolina Pliskova today -- the talented Czech hit back from a 1-4 deficit in the first set to even the score and after narrowly dropping the opener, ran off to a 4-2 lead to start the second. But Williams came back swinging too, and closed out the match in a tight, two-hour two sets.

Venus's return to the top ten seems like a fitting way to end the best season she's had in quite some time -- her three titles this year are the most she's won since 2008 and her forty-one match wins are her best since 2007. Her showing this season shows that not only is she more than able to hit with and even outlast her opponents, but more importantly that she's still hungry on the court. And while she certainly may be one of the elder statesmen out there, there are probably few more capable of translating that hunger into even more lasting success.