March 31, 2009

Dropping Like Flies

It's not often that any tournament ever plays out like you'd expect and that the competitors at the end were all expected to make it that far. Take, for example, Louisville's loss to Michigan State last weekend, or Villanova's devastation of Pitt.

Tennis is no exception. And with a few rounds left before the finals at the Sony-Ericsson Open, it's somewhat shocking that all four of the top men's seeds are still in contention for the title.

The same is not true for the women, however.

Jelena Jankovic, who lost her first match in Indian Wells last week, followed it up with another early upset as Argentina's Gisela Dulko scored her first victory over the former #1. Dinara Safina made it one round further, but was stopped by a surging Samantha Stosur. And just yesterday Elena Dementieva, who began the year with two championship titles and an amazing 15-0 record, became the third top-four player to pack her bags and head home.

As it stands only Serena and Venus Williams and eighth-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, have made it as far as their Elite Eight standing suggested they should. And even then, Serena struggled through her fourth round match against Jie Zheng, dropping the second set before pulling out the victory.

With so many upsets that only means that we're seeing a few new faces in the quarterfinals.

Of course, the term "new" is subject to interpretation -- Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka have certainly become prominent forces on the tour in recent months. Neither have even reached their twentieth birtdays yet, but Caroline ended last year with three titles and Victoria, already a two-time titlist in 2009, is a stone's throw away from the top ten. With Svetlana and Stosur both in their half of the draw, either one could make a big run for the finals here.

The top half looks a little tougher, with both Williams sisters potentially meeting in the semis. But Na Li, who's scored big wins over Aggie Radwanska and Amelie Mauresmo this year, and Iveta Benesova, who made it to the semis in two tournaments in Mexico, are sure to work hard to prevent that match-up from occurring.

And all of this week's winners are sure to put a little fear into the hearts of the best players -- both newcomers and not-so-newcomers are making themselves heard, and it's only a matter of time before they stake their claim to the top spot.

March 29, 2009

I Admit When I'm Wrong...Sort Of

I'm getting used to a trend where I post an article applauding the triumph of some underdog or other only to be immediately discounted by their loss in the next round.

Sure that happened again in Miami -- John Isner and Amer Delic both lost their second round matches, and Mardy Fish was upset by Nicolas Massu. But on the other hand, I did get a few right.

Taylor Dent was impressive in his third round win over Tommy Robredo, a man who's won two titles already this year and has brought his ranking from #22 in January to #16 now. And Samantha Stosur simply crushed second-seeded Dinara Safina in straight sets, the first time she's ever scored a victory against the Australian Open runner-up.

There will be plenty more upsets in Miami, I predict. But this could be the tournament for Taylor and Samantha to really shine.

I'll be rooting for them -- hopefully for more than one more round.

March 28, 2009

¡Bienvenidos a Miami!

Some were greeted with open arms while others were asked to pack their bags almost as soon as they touched down.

The second ATP World Tour 1000 event of the season is off to a strong start in southern Florida, with most of the top seeds -- both men and women -- in action. There were, as always, plenty of upsets, and more than a few qualifiers made it to past the first match of the draw -- some, even further.

American men had a strong start -- the seeded players, Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish, all received byes in the first round. But beyond that, four men who had to win two qualifying rounds just to make the main bracket showed up strong. John Isner and Amer Delic are both playing their second round matches today, while Taylor Dent and Robert Kendrick followed up their first round victories with triumphs over #19 Nicolas Almagro and #23 Robin Soderling respectively.

It wasn't all good news, of course. Lleyton Hewitt, who is desperately trying to launch a comeback, has had some success this year. He made it to the quarterfinals in Sydney and the semis in Memphis, even taking the first set from eventual champion Roddick. But he also lost a tough first round match at the Australian Open to Fernando Gonzalez and a Davis Cup match to Thailand's Danai Udomchoke, then ranked 155th in the world.

Lleyton had received a wildcard entry to Miami and showed signs of the old, #1 player he once was in the first round against a sprightly Dudi Sela. But he was stopped short by Gilles Simon in his next game -- he won less than forty percent of the points on his serve and committed six double faults. If this performance is any indication, it may be a while before we see him become a real force again.

On the women's side there was also plenty of drama. Elena Dementieva gave me another scare, almost losing her second round match for the second straight week, but she she pulled through to make it past Anastasia Pivovarova in the third set. Caroline Wozniacki also dropped a set to Australia's comeback kid Jelena Dokic, before she earned the right to meet Patty Schnyder later this weekend.

But it was smoother sailing for some names you may have forgotten -- or not even known. Nicole Vaidisova was once ranked seventh in the world, but a tough end to 2008, in which she lost five first round matches after making the quarters at Wimbledon, dropped her down to #71. So far in Miami, though, she hasn't lost a set, and only gave up one game to twenty-eighth seed Alona Bondarenko.

Samantha Stosur is out to make a name for herself this year. Once a top-ranked doubles player, she's had some success on the singles court this year. She beat ninth-seed Ai Sugiyama in Brisbane and took Aggie Radwanska to three sets in Indian Wells last week. In Miami she took advantage of a weak service game from Sybille Bammer and won, 6-1, 6-1, in just over an hour.

You may not have heard of Anastasia Yakimova -- I certainly hadn't. But the Spanish-born Belarusian is ranked #84 in the world and has seven ITF titles to her name. She's only made it past the first round in one WTA tournament this year, but this week she took out a resurgent Marion Bartoli in straight sets. We'll see if she can keep the momentum going further into the draw.

Sure there's still a long road ahead, but it already looks like Miami is off to an exciting start! Stay tuned!

March 25, 2009

Where Retirement Means Squat

I suppose when most people hit sixty-five and look forward to their retirement, they have some idea of how they're going to pass the time -- maybe travel around the world, take up knitting, finish reading War and Peace, improve their serve-and-volley game.

It's supposed to be leisure time.

But when you're a professional tennis player -- and retire before you're twenty-five -- you may realize that leisure is a lot like work. And that might be why so few are able to stick to the plan.

Just about nine years ago, a nineteen-year-old Venus Williams, ranked #3 in the world, said she was considering leaving the sport to focus on her education and her investments. At that point in her life, she hadn't yet won a Grand Slam singles title, though she had made it to the finals at the U.S. Open in 1997 -- her sister Serena, a year younger, won at Flushing Meadows the following year.

Well we all know how long that retirement lasted. Venus swept the championships at Wimbledon in 2000 and also took home the trophy in New York -- her first two of seven major titles she's now won in her career.

Of course, her "retirement" was only rumored, suggested by some -- much like that of Marat Safin who, just last fall, intimated the same. But this year his face is all over the tour -- he's playing Davis Cup, appeared at top-tier tournaments in Melbourne and Indian Wells, and has brought his ranking back from #90 a year ago to #23 now.

The most recent rumors of a comeback swirl around another former world #1, Kim Clijsters. The Belgian also-ran took the top position in 2003, but was largely outshone by countrywoman Justine Henin, who'd already won her first of four French Open titles. Kim, on the other hand, didn't bring home her own -- and only -- Slam for two years, when she defeated Mary Pierce in the U.S. Open finals.

Clijsters never returned to defend her title -- she was sidelined in 2006 with a wrist injury and decided to leave the game in 2007, at the ripe old age of twenty-three. But tomorrow Kim returns to the public eye. She's holding a press conference and is expected to ask for a wild card entry to this year's Open.

So much for "So long!"

Kim's return to the sport will certainly be appreciated. Like Justine Henin, who retired last year while still ranked #1 in the world, Clijsters was near the top of her game when she chose to bow out. And in a world where the top spot is being tossed around like a hot potato, another strong contender will surely be welcome.

But my real reason for wanting Kim to come back is that, deep down, I feel seeing her face on the court, may just spur Henin to rethink her choice. The two had a superb competition over the years, with Justine holding a slim 12-10 lead over Kim. Sure there are plenty of new names in the mix that could spawn the next big rivalry, but won't it be fun to watch these two try?

Hope to see y'all soon!

March 22, 2009

Take That!

Indian Wells seemed to be the venue for tennis players to make a statement over the past week and a half.

Defending champion Ana Ivanovic fought her way to the finals, showing that it wasn't quite time to erase her name from the ranks of elite women, while Andy Murray posted his fourth straight win over former world #1 Roger Federer to further prove that the once-infallible King is, in fact, human.

But there were others who were prepared to make even bolder assertions in the desert of California. Vera Zvonareva had climbed to a career-high ranking of #5 early last month and yesterday paired with her semifinal opponent Victoria Azarenka to claim the women's doubles title in Indian Wells. This afternoon she took on Ivanovic in an attempt to sweep the tournament.

The match started out close, in extremely windy conditions -- the two women traded breaks of serve in the first set and took over an hour before forcing a tiebreak. Even then they remained tight, but Vera took the set, 7-5, in just under ninety minutes. In the second set, though, Ivanovic's serve seemed to fall apart -- she won only forty percent of her first attempts, and was actually slightly better on her second serve at 43%. Zvonareva took advantage of her opponent's weakness and won six games in a row, claiming the second set, and her second title of 2009, 6-2, and Ana remained trophy-less for the year.

The men's championship match had the potential to be a shocker. Rafael Nadal was going for his thirteenth ATP World Tour 1000 title -- Murray for his third title of the year and his third professional win against Rafa. The Scot was running on momentum from beating Federer again while the Spaniard was amped from stopping Andy Roddick's roll in the semis.

But tonight Nadal was just too much for Murray to handle. Proving that he is indeed the best tennis player in the world, Rafa didn't allow a single break opportunity. He won a monstrous 81% of his first serves and another 65% on his second try, and in less than ninety minutes -- as long as just the first set of the women's final -- he sent Murray packing, avenging his loss at the finals in Rotterdam.

It wasn't a total loss for the American men, though. Immediately after his semifinal loss to Rafa Saturday night, Andy Roddick had to regroup and get back on the courts for the doubles final with partner Mardy Fish. Though they lost the first set to veteran Max Mirnyi and relative newcomer Andy Ram, Fish took the reigns in the second and helped save three match points in the third to win the title. It was only Roddick's fourth career doubles championship, but I'm sure no one would scoff at placing one more trophy on the mantle.

Congratulations to all this week's winners!

March 21, 2009

Who'da Thunk It?!

This weekend was sure to be full of upsets -- if you weren't already wincing from Wake Forest's loss to Cleveland or cheering Maryland's defeat of Cal, there were plenty of surprises on the tennis courts in Indian Wells to keep your heart pounding.

On the women's side, top seeds were eliminated early which paved the way for some others that had been struggling so far this year. Defending champion Ana Ivanovic was able to make it to her second straight final here after Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva were eliminated from her half of the draw, and Vera Zvonareva took out her doubles partner and co-titlist Victoria Azarenka in straight sets for the chance at her second tournament win this year.

The men's draw seemed to go much more smoothly -- at least until this weekend. All four top seeds made it to the quarterfinals with little drama. But then a surging Andy Roddick trampled over defending champion Novak Djokovic in straight sets, proving that his upset of the world #3 in Melbourne, acheived when Nole withdrew in the fourth set, was more than just a technical win.

And then there was today's first semifinal, where Andy Murray took on Roger Federer. This was Roger's first tournament since the Australian Open, while Murray has already won two titles this year -- even before today's matchup it seemed clear that Federer was a little rusty. But even still, I didn't expect this semi to be quite as one-sided as it was.

Murray took the first set, winning more than eighty percent of his first serves, and though Roger evened the match in the second, he seemed to fall apart in set three. He won less than one out of every two second serves, was broken five times, and served half the number of aces as Murray. It didn't take two hours for Andy to advance to the final, and record his fourth consecutive win over the former #1 player in the world.

The other semifinal is going on right now -- Roddick and Rafael Nadal are on serve in the first set. Sure the advantage is with the Spaniard, but Andy has beaten Rafa twice in their careers, most recently in Dubai last year. It's more than conceivable that he pulls off another victory to set up his second championship match with Murray this year, even if Nadal is still playing at the top of his game.

But whoever wins in Indian Wells this weekend, it could certainly be a coup -- and provide the boost someone needs to power through the spring and on to France.

Good luck to everyone!

March 19, 2009

March Madness

The term may be reserved for basketball, but there's plenty of crazy action in tennis this week too.

And while few office pools are likely to follow the bracket in Indian Wells quite as closely as they do other matches this weekend, some people have a lot riding on the results in California.

Yesterday Belarusian teenager Victoria Azarenka scored her first defeat of top-seeded Dinara Safina as she advanced to the semifinals and today, seventeen-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who'd dismissed #2 Jelena Jankovic in the second round, pulled off another upset of Aggie Radwanska. Victoria's already won two titles this year, but this will be Anastasia's first trip to a WTA Tour semifinal (she's won a handful of ITF crowns in her short career).

But there's also potential for some shake-ups in the men's draw. Last night -- or more appropriately, very early this morning -- world #1 Rafael Nadal secured his spot in the quarterfinals, but just barely. David Nalbandian, who's won the pair's previous two meetings, had five match points in the second set, but failed to convert. The frustration must have gotten to him in the deciding set, and Nadal swept through the deciding set, 6-0.

He'll next face Juan Martin Del Potro, who needed two tiebreaks before dismissing American John Isner. Isner had already pulled off upsets over Gael Monfils and Marat Safin, and he did his best against DelPot, but eventually fell to the more-experienced player.

Roger Federer also struggled though his fourth round match, dropping the middle set to Fernando Gonzalez. Tonight he faces Fernando Verdasco, the man who'd taken Nadal to a five-set, five-hour semifinal at the Australian Open in January. Roger won their last match in May, but Verdasco was clearly a different player and has vastly improved since then.

With top players having to fight for their berths, we could certainly see some upsets in the next round. I'm hoping players like Verdasco and Andy Roddick, who's looking for his second straight win over Novak Djokovic tomorrow, will be able to capitalize on the opportunities they have -- and maybe bring home the championship trophy.

In the meantime, root for UNC -- I've got them winning it all!

March 17, 2009

The Door Squeaks Open

One little break here and there and suddenly a whole mess of opportunities are available.

That's exactly what seems to be happening in the women's draw at Indian Wells this year as both Serena and Venus Williams sat out the tournament and Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva were eliminated in their first matches. And that's allowed some of their biggest opponents to breathe a sign of relief as they try to advance deep within the bracket. With Serena missing Dinara Safina took the top seed at the BNP Paribas Open, and the Australian Open runner-up has made her way smoothly into the quarterfinals. But others may feel a little luckier with their fortunes so far.

Israel's Shahar Peer has made headlines recently, but less for her play than for her politics -- though she'd made it to the quarterfinals in Pattaya City, she'd suffered three first round exits this year. But in Indian Wells she dropped only three games to Katerina Bondarenko and followed that win up by beating Marion Bartoli and Anna Chakvetadze, both seeded players. Though she lost to teenager Victoria Azarenka earlier today, she certainly made her case in California.

Ana Ivanovic plays her fourth round match later tonight and faces Acapulco finalist Flavia Pennetta. The defending French Open champion hasn't quite had the success she may have hoped for in 2009 -- she's only played three tournaments this year and hasn't yet put together three wins in a row. But she seems to be playing well this week and hasn't lost a set yet in Indian Wells. Ana's only played Pennetta once before in their careers, defeating the Italian last year in Linz, so she may not have the best read on her opponent, but another win could put her on track as she looks to repeat in Paris.

Aggie Radwanska has had a similarly spotty start, and she's also looking to make a comeback in California. After finishing 2008 with a career-high #10 ranking, I'd hoped the Polish phenom could really shine in the new year -- but she'd lost in the first round in Melbourne, the first round in Monterrey and the first round in Dubai -- to her younger, qualifier sister, Urszula. In Indian Wells, Aggie has the chance to one-up her sibling, who lost earlier today to Caroline Wozniacki, if she can make it past twenty-second seed Agnes Szavay. She's already made it past a strong Samantha Stosur and Aleksandra Wozniack, and I'm sure she'd be happy with another "W" by her name.

Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova is also looking to rebound this week. Though she's been ranked as high as #5 in the world, more recently she's been hanging out somewhere in the bottom half of the top fifty -- losses to Sara Errani, Alize Cornet and Virginie Razzano haven't helped. Her way to the round of sixteen was cleared by Dementieva's loss, as Daniela was able to capitalize on an easier matchup with Petra Cetkovska. In her next round she faces Austria's Sybille Bammer, who hasn't yet made it past the second round in any tournament this year. You have to like Hantuchova's chances.

Of course there's still a lot more tennis to go before these girls can claim their first crown of the year -- but with a little good luck and even more hard work, any of them might be able to take advantage of the opportunity and bring home the trophy.

Good luck!

March 15, 2009

Playtime in the Desert

The first ATP World Tour 1000 tournament of the year got off to a quick start earlier this week, as all but one of the top ten men took the courts in Indian Wells, California -- and former world #1 Roger Federer made his first appearance since the finals in Melbourne.

Roger made it through his second round match against a strong Marc Gicquel, as did defending champion Novak Djokovic and fourth-seeded Andy Murray. Rafael Nadal is playing his first match of the tournament -- all thirty-two seeds received byes in the first round -- tonight. But many of the top players struggled in their early matches.

I was nervous, as I often am, for James Blake as he faced Jarkko Nieminen in the second round. Though the Finn has never bested James in their previous five meetings, he did beat Djokovic earlier this year and was ranked as high as #13 less than three years ago. But Blake rebounded after dropping the second set tiebreak and brought home a win.

His friend Mardy Fish wasn't so lucky -- his second-round opponent, Jeremy Chardy, is a much better player than his #48 ranking suggests. The Frenchman first made a name for himself at last year's French Open, when he defeated David Nalbandian in a three-hour, five-set match on his way to the round of sixteen. And just this year he has already beaten Marcos Baghdatis, Igor Andreev, David Ferrer and Tommy Haas. Now he can add Mardy Fish to that list, ousting the twentieth seed in two tiebreak sets and avenging a loss he suffered in the semifinals at Delray Beach last month.

The tables were turned in the other U.S.-France matchup where wildcard John Isner took on ninth-ranked Gael Monfils. Isner was one of the standouts in late 2007, but never really kept the momentum going into last year. The 6'9" University of Georgia grad has had to play a lot of qualifying matches and has only made it into the main draw of three tournaments this year. But he's done well so far in Indian Wells, sailing past a strong Christophe Rochus and today beating Monfils after being down the first set.

One disappointing loss did come in the first round -- well, I'm sure more than one -- when Kei Nishikori fell to Ivan Ljubicic. Kei had a phenomenal 2008, becoming the first Japanese player to win an ATP title in sixteen years and jumping 218 spots in the rankings. This year, however, he's only made it past the first round at two tournaments and is now just holding on to his place in the top 100. Sure, he's only nineteen years old, and he still has his whole career ahead of him, so I'm hoping he can regroup and come back strong in the spring.

Of course there is still plenty of action left to go in Indian Wells, and we'll see if the early winners will be able to keep their momentum -- it might be nice to see things get shaken up a bit!

March 12, 2009

She's Ba-ack!

Sort of, anyway.

This week former world #1 Maria Sharapova returns to the WTA tour for the first time since last August when an injured rotator cuff sidelined her for the rest of the 2008 season. She was forced to skip the last two Grand Slams, unable to defend her Australian Open title, and pulled out of tournaments in both Paris and Dubai earlier this year.

Maria makes her return in the doubles bracket of Indian Wells, teaming with compatriot Elena Vesnina, incidentally the doubles champ here last year. It's the first time she's played in that draw in almost four years

Maria isn't exactly a doubles specialist -- she's never played enough tournaments to maintain an elite ranking. But she did acheive a career-high of #41 in 2004 and has even won three titles in the discipline, partnering with Maria Kirilenko and Tamarine Tanasugarn. Vesnina, who as a doubles player made it to the quarterfinals in Auckland and Dubai, has climbed her way to her own personal-high rank of #15 and could be a great complement as Maria vies for her first victory in more than half a year.

They take on their first opponents tonight, Ekaterina Makarova and Tatiana Poutchek, with the hope of meeting the sixth-seeded team, led by Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, in the second round. It's possible a good run of luck in California could presage an even stronger singles comeback for Sharapova in a few months -- it's certainly a lower-pressure venue in which to get some real competetive practice. Though I doubt she'll take home a trophy, it'll be nice to see her pump her fist in victory again.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's missed her presence on the court!

March 10, 2009

The Ultimate Showdown

A year ago I had the extreme pleasure of watching the two greatest tennis players of all-time going at it in Madison Square Garden. It was a battle for tennis history, so the program read -- then-#1 Roger Federer versus the record holder for, well, everything, Pete Sampras.

At the time I thought Sampras's dominance would soon end -- Roger had only two more titles before he tied Pete for career Grand Slams and, at twenty-six, he still looked to be on top of his game. Pete had been a year older when he won Major No. 12, and it took four years more before he would sit staunchly atop the leaderboard with fourteen titles. It seemed clear that Federer was destined to tie Sampras by the end of the year, and to pass him before he turned thirty.

Pete and Roger had met only once in their professional careers -- they've played a handful of exhibition matches around the world in recent years -- at Wimbledon in 2001, where Sampras was vying for his eighth (yet another record-breaking) championship.

The match was full of the drama you'd now expect, knowing that these two men would eventually be the legends they are today. It was the round of sixteen -- Pete was ranked #6 at the time, Roger #15. After more than three and a half hours, five sets, two tiebreaks, and 370 total points, Federer was the one advancing to the quarterfinals, and on his road to becoming a star. Sadly, he lost in the next round to Tim Henman.

Last year's match at MSG was similarly exciting. Roger won the first set 6-3, but Pete came back in the second set tiebreak to level the contest. He was even up a break in the third, causing fans to hold out hope for the "upset", before Roger took home the crown.

What was most impressive, in my view as a devoted Sampras fan, was Pete's still-dominant serve -- at thirty-seven, he still was able to deliver the shot that earned him the nickname "Pistol Pete". And, more amusingly, he'd become something of a showman in his retirement -- never one for dramatics on court, he accepted both victory and defeat more graciously than opponents like Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and others. But in New York last year, he jokingly slammed his racquet to the ground as a forehand whizzed by him and picked a fight with the chair umpire when a call went in favor of Federer.

Always a fan favorite, Sampras was now an entertainer.

Over just the last year the landscape of tennis has changed a bit. Roger is still a real power, of course, but now Rafael Nadal is clearly the man to beat -- and I would love to watch the first match-up between those two powerhouses. Happily for me -- and Pete, certainly -- it looks like the current records may be in place for a little while longer than we originally thought. It's still just a matter of time before someone -- Roger, maybe soon, or even Rafa in a few years -- wins his fifteenth Slam and becomes the new king of tennis.

Until then, though, I will continue to cheer for my Pistol Pete.

March 8, 2009

Turning Back the Clocks

Some of us lost an hour of sleep last night as we marked the end of Daylight Savings -- or is it the beginning? I can never remember -- but some tennis players probably wish they could turn the clocks back a little farther, like to 2008. The first round of Davis Cup matches are in the books, and while many of the games went as expected, some individual performances were a bit surprising.

Two countries advanced by sweeping their opponents -- Argentina soared past the Netherlands, which had a team comprised of no name I recognized, and Croatia, somewhat more impressively, won all five matches against Chile, which was missing its top player, Fernando Gonzalez. Russia dropped only its doubles match in its victory over Romania, while the U.S. battled past a Roger Federer-less Swiss team, also winning 4-1. But there were some much tighter scores in other areas of the world.

France arguably had one of the best line-ups for its Davis Cup team with eighth-ranked Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who's already won two titles this year, headlining. They faced Radek Stepanek and his fellow Czechs in the first round. The teams split their first two singles matches, but with the once-promising Simon losing both of his matches, France took the early flight home.

World #3 Novak Djokovic had a similarly frustrating appearance, losing both of his singles matches in straight sets. He was no match against Rafael Nadal, but also couldn't convert against David Ferrer, who avenged his loss in the Dubai finals just a week ago. Nole's fellow Serbs, who had a very successful showing at last year's ATP Masters Cup, also struggled, only winning their doubles match.

But the closest face-off of the competition came when Israel took on Sweden. Every one of the singles matches went five sets -- and then some. Former top-ten player Thomas Johansson took fourteen games in his final set before beating Harel Levy and a still-emerging Dudi Sela had to go 11-9 to even the score. The fifth and deciding rubber pitted Levy against Andreas Vinciguerra with another 8-6 set going, this time, to the Israeli. After a rough couple of weeks for the country's players, they were finally able to come away with a win -- and earned a trip to the quarterfinals.

So as we spring into the next leg of the tennis season, we'll see if recent success stories will be able to maintain their momentum -- and if those others can turn things back around.

March 4, 2009

The New Mexico

This year ushered in a brand new tournament in Monterrey, Mexico, and while many of the top women athletes took the week off to prepare for Indian Wells, some bright stars were still showcasing their stuff.

Polish teenager Aggie Radwanska claimed the top seed, but she continued to struggle, losing in the first round of her third contest this year -- fifty-third ranked Na Li swept the third set 6-0, for the right to advance.

Other seeds saw better luck in Monterrey, though -- #2 Marion Bartoli continued her comeback, flying over qualifier Michaella Krajicek in straight sets, while last week's runner-up in Acapulco, Flavia Pennetta, only dropped one game to the U.S.'s Jill Craybas.

But there were some new standouts on display in Mexico as well. Argentine Gisela Dulko isn't exactly new to the tennis scene, and actually had been ranked as high as #26 in 2005 -- but she made her splash at this year's Australian Open, when Serena Williams gave herself a "D-" score in her match against Gisela. Since then Gisela posted wins in both of her Fed Cup matches against the U.S. and made it to the finals at the Colsanitas Cup in Bogota. In Monterrey Dulko was given the seventh seed, and won her first round match against veteran Natalie Dechy. We'll see if she's able to follow through and win her first title of the year.

On the other side of the draw, sixth-seeded Iveta Benesova is having her best year ever, climbing to a career-high #31 ranking. The Czech star did lose her one Fed Cup match even as her team advanced to the semifinals, but she did make it to the finals in Hobart -- where she eliminated Dulko in the quarters -- and the semis in Acapulco. In her first round in Mexico this week she faced Shahar Peer, who's recently been in the news more for her country's politics than for her tennis prowess. Iveta took out the former top-twenty player in straight sets and next faces Italy's Roberta Vinci for the third round.

These new tournaments could prove to be a great opportunity for young stars to make their names known in the tennis world -- and I hope to see a lot more success for these girls in the weeks and months to come!


March 2, 2009

Where the Stars Come Out to Play

It's been almost nine years since the women's year-end championships have been played in Madison Square Garden, but tonight four of the sport's top athletes met in the great arena on 34th Street in New York for Tennis Night in America.

BNP Paribas sponsored the showdown between the winners of the last four majors, Serena and Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic, and the player that ended last year with the #1 ranking, Jelena Jankovic. The winner would receive the vaunted Billie Jean King Cup as well as $400K in prize money -- more than Venus won in Dubai last month.

The semifinals were one-set, no-ad matches and pitted Venus against Jelena and Serena against Ana -- obviously the intent was to give the New York crowd an all-Williams final.

And that's exactly what we got.

Jelena, who actually holds a winning record over Venus, held her own for most of the match, even tried to engage the crowd and joke about challenges with the chair umpire -- but ultimately she was unspectacular and fell 4-6 in the end. And Ana, despite a handful of break chances, could not convert and eventually was defeated 3-6.

The final, played with traditional scoring in a best-of-three set format, was one we've seen a dozen times before -- actually nineteen times. And, somewhat surprisingly, Venus held a 10-9 record against her sister, most recently winning in Dubai a week and a half ago. Arguably, the Williams have had the most successful years on tour, with the younger sister winning her fourth Australian Open and the elder claiming two titles in the last two weeks.

You knew they'd be playing as though a Grand Slam title were on the line.

The match started off somewhat sloppily -- both women sliced a few backhands and shanked a few volleys as they tried to get a handle on the court. It wasn't until halfway through the first set, after trading breaks, that either hit their stride. After a twenty-four point ninth game -- and the disappearance of a line umpire -- Serena finally took the early lead, 6-4. She won the second set, 6-3.

The tournament was certainly entertaining, an exhibition in every sense, but the event was as much a celebration of the venue, the city and female athletes as it was of the score. MSG hasn't been a regular on the tour since 2000 and with this event, after last year's Roger Federer-Pete Sampras match, it could be making a case for a return to the circuit. And by bringing the sport's top athletes to such a central location in Manhattan, it not only raises the players' profile, but that of tennis.

And, for me, it's finally a home court I can finally cheer for!

March 1, 2009

South of the Border

All the action wasn't in Dubai this week, and both men and women were in full action in Acapulco, Mexico.

The ATP World Tour 500 event was worth just as much as the higher-profile tournament in the Mideast, but didn't attract quite the controversy, or the names, as the Dubai games. Twelfth-ranked David Nalbandian claimed the top seed, but he was upset in the first round by Daniel Koellerer of Austria.

The most notable name in the draw was probably Tommy Robredo -- the twenty-six year old came to Mexico fresh off two title wins in South America and had brought his ranking from #21 to #15 in just a few weeks. But his twelve-match win streak hit a brick wall against Jose Acasuso, who he's already met three times this year.

Acasuso didn't have much time to celebrate his triumph, however, as Gael Monfils defeated him in the semifinals in straight sets on his way to the title match.

But the ultimate victor in Mexico this week was fourth seed and defending champion Nicolas Almagro, who needed just over an hour to win his fifth career championship. When Monfils' second serve fell apart, Nicolas was able to capitalize on break opportunities and took home the $300K paycheck.

Venus Williams also wore the winner's sombrero in Acapulco as she claimed her second title in as many weeks. Though she had struggled in earlier rounds, dropping sets to qualifier Greta Arn and top-thirty player Agnes Szavay, she had little trouble against Italian Flavia Pennetta, coasting through the final, 6-1, 6-2.

It was an impressive win for several reasons -- Venus dominated in both first and second serves, and converted two out of every three break chances she had. But more importantly she showed some real power on clay, a surface on which she has been far from dominant. And she defeated an opponent who's given her some trouble in the past -- prior to Saturday night's match-up, Pennetta had held a 3-2 record over Venus, including three straight wins from 2007-08. Venus's win in Mexico could be a good sign for her as she gets ready for Roland Garros, less than three months away.

Slightly further north Mardy Fish won his first title of 2009 in Delray Beach, taking out qualifier Evgeny Korolev, 7-5, 6-3. It was the first time in the tournament's seventeen-year history where the top seed came away with the title, and continues something of a comeback for American palyers after Andy Roddick won in Memphis last week.

Congrats to all this week's winners!