Serena makes it fifty it Madrid

Serena stands proud with her Madrid trophy (Thanks to sports.terra.com)

Serena stands proud with her Madrid trophy
(Thanks to sports.terra.com)

Serena Williams won her 50th career title in Madrid, beating Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-4.

It was only her seventh clay court title in her 17 years on the tour. And her first red clay title since 2002 when she won the French Open.

The stars were certainly lined up for Serena, Madrid being the perfect place for her to accomplish a long-awaited red clay title. The blue clay she won on in Madrid last year was arguably about as clay-like as red is blue. And it is arguable as to how red-clayish these Madrid courts are. While the organisers had tried to make it as similar to Roland Garros as possible, the altitude of Madrid is a factor that they can do nothing about. If Serena’s game was ever going to be complimented by clay courts then these are those courts. And if she was ever going to have the perfect time of day and weather, well proof the stars were lined up shone for all to see. A sunny mid afternoon lay before her.

The Stars did not settle there, either. If Serena was ever going to have an opponent in the final against whom her game matched up perfectly, it was going to be Maria Sharapova. Maria hits balls with the pace and flatness Serena can tee off on. Unless Maria strikes the ball away from Serena, she is in trouble. Any balls in Serena’s hitting zone, any of them short and it is going to be put away for a winner, if not on that point, then the next one.

All Maria can do is hope Serena is having a bad day or, if Serena is playing well, mix up the balls she hits her way, a tactic she never employs, her brain frozen with fear, the memories of all those past losses seemingly as fresh as they were when dealt. And if Serena is playing her best game, then Maria can only do her best, which, unfortunately, is not as good as Serena’s.

Serena was at her best in the first set and took it 6-1. Maria fought though and led by a break in the second. We wondered if perhaps this might be a turnaround. After all, Maria is the defending French Open champion. But it was not to be. Serena took advantage of a 60% first serve percentage from the Russian and broke back.

At 4-5, serving to stay in the match, the stars took their final positions for Serena as Maria went down 0-40. Serena errored on the first championship point and then Maria errored on the second to conclude what was, unfortunately for those who like their tennis finals to have some competition, inevitable.

It was the Russian’s 12 th consecutive loss to Serena, her sixth since their meeting here last year. Some thought that she might be able to put a stop to this run seeing as red clay is her most successful surface of late. But Maria’s issues with Serena go beyond surfaces, styles even. This match up goes on in Maria’s head, each loss making an already hard task even more of a headache. And it makes the task of watching these matches even more painful for the spectator who would like to watch players competing in the big finals rather than playing out a psychological drama where one of the principals actresses has already lost the match before it even started.

There is hope though. This was Maria’s first final in Madrid and the slower clay of Rome awaits. Should that suit her better in a possible final encounter with Serena, then we might get what we want and what women’s tennis needs in the imminent Parisian showpiece: a final between the world’s top two which is as much about the here and now than what has been going on since 2005.

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Medina-Garrigues fluffs up new balls in Madrid against Serena

If you want to see an example of unbelievably unprofessional behavior from a professional tennis player then look no further than the video above.

In the first set of Anabel Medina-Garrigues’ quarter-final match in Madrid against Serena Williams, Medina-Garrigues asks for the new balls at the change of ends. The parasol hiding her from the view of the umpire, she takes one ball and begins to rub it against her racket, fluffing it up. Yes, you read right. She rubs a ball from the just opened can, cans opened every seven games to let the game be played with bouncier balls that fly off the racket. Yes, those very balls that you hold up to your opponent before you serve to reassure them the game will be played in the best possible conditions. The ball-boy holding the parasol looks on at this untypical behavior, the fluffing up of said tennis balls. Medina-Garrigues throws the ball to the back of the court and sets to work on the next one. The tennistv camera is as transfixed by what she is doing as she is, moving in up close to show you what the umpire, the one person on the court who should be witnessing this, cannot, her view obscured by the parasol. Medina-Garrigues checks the back of the ball to see how fluffed up it is, fluffs a little harder and, when she is satisfied, gets rid of the ball before continuing in her quest to take away the advantage that the new harder balls would have had for her opponent and to make the balls how she would like them, nice and fluffy. Time running out, she rushes through the next few and then turns to see the camera on her. Her eyes narrow beneath her cap. She gets up, the parasol closes and Medina-Garrigues looks round again, perhaps to check she got away with it.

It would seem she had. The umpire had not noticed and neither had Serena (what a priceless reaction that would have been!) But as the match went on, the fluffing up did not prove to work out for her. Medina-Garrigues lost a tight first set. And though she won the second set to love, only Serena’s seventh love set lost in her career, and led by a break in the third, Medina-Garrigues fluffed up herself, dropping serve and losing the third set 7-5.

It was not only the match she lost either. As media interest grows in what she has done and debate mounts as to whether or not it was mere gamesmanship or out and out cheating, whatever reputation she has is nowhere to be found.

The case is still out for some on Medina-Garrigues actions but one thing is clear to The tennis review. That old line they tell you at school, the one about cheats never prospering, well that was never better illustrated than yesterday afternoon in Madrid as Medina-Garrigues went down in three to Serena Willians.

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Berdych pips Murray to win number 402

The victor and the vanquished: Berdych and Murray shake hands at the net in Madrid (thanks to telegraph.co.uk)

The victor and the vanquished: Berdych and Murray shake hands at the net in Madrid (thanks to telegraph.co.uk)

In praise of a perfect tie-break

Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray were pretty much inseperable at 6-6 in the first set of their quarter-final meeting in Madrid last night. It was not the only number they had in common at that moment. They were also equal in their head to head, tied at 4-4. And they were tied on career wins, too, both men having won 401 matches each.

In the tiebreak though, Berdych put some distance between them. The tiebreak is the time to take risks and it was Berdych who, the natural aggressor of the two, did just that.

Berdych, last year’s runner-up in the Spanish capital, started the tiebreak as he meant to go on. Serving flat and out wide, he took the return to the middle of the court on with his forehand, hitting it to Murray’s backhand side and then charged forward to take on Murray’s sliced backhand down the line, volleying it plum on the line for a winner. It was the perfect play to open the breaker and state his intent.

Berdych then worked out his forehand, whipping it cross court and forcing Murray to defend until he earned the short ball which he stepped in and whacked down the line for a winner.

Leading 2-1 and with a mini-break, Berdych further stamped his authority by once more hitting cross court with his forehand and then coming in to hit a backhand volley down the line.

It was not just the forehand that was working wonders though. The backhand was a treat, too. Murray went to it on the next point but Berdych did not falter. He went cross court and then down the line. Murray pulled him in with a drop shot, which Berdych retrieved. The attempt at a lob by Murray went wide though and Berdych had a 4-1 lead.

A huge forehand return off a Murray serve down the middle and Tomas had another mini-break.

Murray serves an ace and it is 5-2. Two service points won and Berdych has the set. On the first one he goes out wide and gets the short return in the middle of the court. He does not miss the forehand winner.

Set point Berdych. For the first time he falters. A body serve draws another short ball but his forehand goes wide.

On Berdych’s second set point, he gets the forehand going again and it is once more too much for Murray who tries to go down the line rather than be blown away by another barrage. Murray strikes too soon and hits the ball wide and Berdych takes the first set.

The Czech takes the mental edge, too. If ever there were a tiebreak to say I can beat you on this surface tonight, this was it. Berdych goes on to take the second set 6-4, lead the head to head 5-4 and pip Murray to career win number 402, too.

Watch highlights of the match here:

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Nishikori knocks out Federer in Madrid

Kei Nisikori follows through on a forehand in his match against Federer (Thanks to timesofindia.indiatimes.com)

Kei Nisikori in his match against Federer
(Thanks to timesofindia.indiatimes.com)

Japanese world number 16 Kei Nishikori knocked second seeded Roger Federer out of the Madrid Open last sixteen yesterday afternoon.

The 23 year old Japanese player took control of the first set in the fifth game. Holding break point, he took control of the point from the middle of the court, hitting a forehand down the line to the Federer backhand to get an error.

Hitting high to the backhand was the right technique as time and again Federer errored. Nishikori hit his forehand on the rise and high and with aggression to the Swiss’ more vulnerable side to take the first set 6-4.

Federer, the defending champion and world number two, came back strong though, breaking Nishikori at 2-1 in the second set and then hitting a purple patch to take the second set 6-1.

In the third set, Nishikori earned two break points at 2-1 when Federer errored once more on the backhand. The Japanese took the second with a forehand winner down the line.

Nishikori kept hitting to the backhand, moving Federer around and taking control of the middle of the court to lead 5-2. A forehand error from Federer on match point, the Swiss’ 31st error of the match, and it was Game, set and match Nishikori.

It was the Japanese player’s second biggest win after beating Djokovic in 2011 6-0 in the third in Basel. For Federer, it was another early defeat in a big tournament after losing to Benneteau in Rotterdam and Nadal in Indian Wells. This was only the Swiss’ fifth tournament this season, a purposely reduced one after an exhausting 2012. Playing an opponent with the talent and clean hitting ability of Nishikori was always going to be a hard task for Federer who has lost early in tournaments even in his prime. The Swiss though is a touch past his prime now and against young able talents his lack of match play and his weaknesses are going to be exploited. Still, playing Roger is always tough regardless of his condition and full credit must go to the young player for executing his game plan and, most importantly in this encounter, for taking his chances. For while both men hit around 30 unforcerd errors, and even though Federer hit 30 winners to Nishikori’s 17, it was when those winners and errors were hit that mattered in this topsy-turvy encounter. Most tellingly, Kei took 3 of his 4 break points while Federer only managed 2 of 7. 2 of Kei’s break points were taken in the final set, one of them on match point, and his ability to play the big points well bodes well for the up and coming player. As for Federer, what his reduced schedule and a host of young players eager for his scalp means for his future remains to be seen.

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Drama, tears and tantrums as Dimitrov knocks out Djokovic in Madrid

Dimitrov reaches for a forehand in Madrid (thanks to focus-fen.net)

Dimitrov reaches for a forehand in Madrid (thanks to focus-fen.net)

It was an event graced by tears, dramas, tantrums. No, this was not the coming out party of a Chelsea society girl made for reality TV but the very real coming out of the young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in the last 32 of the Masters 1000 Madrid event. It was a coming out party that few who witnessed will forget. Not only was it the night match at one of the ATP’s biggest tournaments but Grigor announced his arrival into the tennis big time by conquering none other than the world number one and leading player of the last two years, Novak Djokovic. And he did it in a manner which even the most skilled of reality TV editors would have failed to match for dramatic effect.

It was a coming out party that had been on the cards for a while. The invitations had been written and the suits bought a couple of years back when the Bulgarian first emerged onto the scene. Finally, and recently, it had seemed like stamps could be brought and trousers taken up. Dimitrov had pushed Murray in Miami, served for the first set against Djokovic in Indian Wells and won a set off Nadal in Monte Carlo. But each time stamps and sewing kits had to be put away. Nerves got the better of Dimitrov in the first couple of matches and poor fitness did him in in Monte Carlo. But while both those factors reared their ugly heads in his match against Djokovic in Madrid, the Bulgarian was able to make them up with lipstick and rouge and do what he had been threatening to do for so long: beating one of the big four on a big stage. And the fact he did it against the biggest of that four says it all.

Considering he was facing the number one player, the recent conquerer of the unbeatable Nadal in Monte Carlo, it is quite understandable that the young much-hyped star should have an attack of the nerves. And not only was there such a prime opponent to face but there were other pressures, too. Upon Grigor’s broad shoulders lie the hopes of the ATP and the tennis Media for a marketable and attractive future leader of the sport. It is not just his looks which have put him in this position but his talent. Not christened Baby Fed for nothing, the Bulgarian has all the backhand tools, slices and spins, and all the flair and touch of the Swiss. And like Federer’s game, the Bulgarian’s poses a problem for the Djokovics and Murrays of the world. While, as they have proved in beating both Federer and Dimitrov, they can handle such a game, when that game is at its best it is hard for them to negate, being, as it is, unpredictable and full of creative flourishes which no amount of drilling in a practise session can prepare you for. It is a game which has seen Dimitrov reside in the world’s top fifty as its youngest player and a game which has pundits whispering before he steps out against one of the game’s elite: ‘is his moment going to come now? Is he ready?’ Whispers which grow into shouts the more time passes. Whsipery-shouts which distract him, colluding with his inexperience to choke him when he could be coughing up big wins on big stages and silence the whispers for a few days.

Those whispery-shouty inducing qualities were on show in the first set, loud enough to rattle the world number one. Djokovic struggled with his opponent and also with his own game, and not just his play but his timing, too, a struggle that was to be the first flash of drama in the match. Serving at 4-4, the Serbian was on the receiving end of a code violation for excessive time between serves, a warning Djokovic felt was unnecessary seeing as it was given as he was tossing the ball. It bothered the Serbian and he did not let it go, taking it up with the umpire on the changeover. The Umpire defended his decision, saying Novak had broken the time limit 4 times with his excessive bouncing, his time between serves coming in at 29 seconds. You should have warned me the second time, said the Serbian. Rattled by both the imposition of a rule in part brought in due to his ball-bouncing and the challenge presented by the player hyped to usurp him, Djokovic was going to have to dig deep to get into the right mental state necessary for the battle he faced.

Such a mental state was only going to be more difficult to reach as the next dramatic moment flared up. At 30-30, 4-5, Dimitrov serving, the Bulgarian volleyed, a brave move on his part at such a crucial stage. The ball was called out and Djokovic covered a mark. Dimitrov called the umpire to check. The umpire said Djokovic was pointing to the wrong mark and that the ball had in fact been in. The crowd booed the Serbian, who grinned and shook his head somewhat sheepishly. The boos and whistles did not end there and neither did the applause for Dimtrov. The Bulgarian fed on it and broke Djokovic at 5-5 to serve for the set, just as he had done a month back in Indian Wells.

And just as they had then, those familiar nerves of late crept in and he was broken with ease. In the tie-breaker, Novak held two set points but Dimitrov was not to be denied this time. He went toe to toe with the Serbian, his heavier forehand and variety on his backhand getting the better of the world number one to take the first set, a feat much appreciated by the crowd who seemed to be enjoying supporting the up and comer as much as they were in casting the current star as the villain.

At 3-2 in the second, Dimitrov, on a roll on the back of his good from and the crowd’s good favor, piled on the pressure, attacking Djokovic’s forehand and drawing an error on his third break point to lead 4-2. Here it was then. The furthest he had gotten against one of the elite. The chance he had been working for. The whispers were dead, the shouting very much alive.

Djokovic, the best returner in the game, fought back, of course. And, unsurprisingly for the game’s best fighter, he was rather successful. However, an injury break when holding break point, an aggravated ankle injured in Davis Cup a month back, did him no favors when it came to another fight he had on his hands, that of endearing himself to the crowd, whose support he would benefit from if he did manage to make matters close. His time-out only drew more whistles and boos from a suspicious crowd. After having his ankle re-strapped, Djokovic broke back, a dangerous development for Dimitrov and one received coolly by the crowd, only too aware that the longer the match went, the better the Serb’s chances were and the worse their chances were to say they had danced at Dimitrov’s coming out party.

As the match progressed towards a second set tiebreak, the question loomed, the whispers boomed: Did Dimitrov have what it takes to get a win over one of the elite top four? He had come close in Monte Carlo before fitness became an issue. Could his fitness hold up now?

At 30-30, 5-5 we got our answer. Djokovic was in the forecourt but overcooked a forehand cross court. As the ball was called out, Dimitrov leaned forward, grabbed his leg and roared. Cramps. Djokovic looked to the umpire and pleaded hindrance. The Umpire denied him, telling him he had already errored before the call. More whistles. On the next point, Djokovic errored again and a cramping Dimitrov was up 6-5.

Djokovic held and a tiebreak was played. Djokovic did not error now, moving his opponent around and hitting drop shots, to a cauldron of boos and whsitles from the crowd. Djokovic though did not let it get to him this time and knuckled down to take the set, roaring as he won set point, and then throwing some choice words at the whistling crowd as he went to his seat and again as he changed his shirt at the changeover.

A third set, an injured Dimitrov and a pumped up Djokovic. Perhaps this was it for Dimitrov. It would still have been some form of progression. Another close encounter with one of the elite. A lesson reinforced. Surely, a victory would soon follow.

And then the magic, a mixture one suspects of the crowd’s conjuring and what lies inside Dimtrov, took effect. The Bulgarian was as steady as he had been in earning his set and a break lead as he kept sending different balls back at Djokovic who, unused to the variety, could not cope and dropped his serve.

Dimitrov falls onto the clay retrieving a ball. (Thanks to world-news.me)

Dimitrov falls onto the clay retrieving a ball.
(Thanks to world-news.me)

Leading 1-0, this was Dimitrov’s big chance. He had not led a third set against a player of the stature of Djokovic and were he to lose it from a break up, all would be forgiven. But Dimitrov was not interested in playing the gallant loser tonight. He quickly assumed the role of giant killer. As he hit his heavy forehand, mixed up his backhand, and used the net to keep the Serbian guessing, he fought off two break points to hold his service game. Another test passed and a certain air of inevitably descended on the match, as if the storm had settled already and we were admiring the beauty of the rain ridden grass.

Games went with serve until 3-5, Djokvic serving. Dimitrov survived an attack on his backhand, the slice holding up to Djokovic’s relentless groundstrokes. It was Djokovic who blinked first, unable to cope with the low balls, dumping the ball into the net. Match point Dimitrov.

The cauldron alight with cheers and whistles, Djokovic served and then charged forward. A return landed in his strike zone. He swung at it. He would go down swinging and down he went as the ball went wide. Dimitrov fell to the ground. He got up and the two embraced at the net. The Bulgarian went to thank the crowd, tears in his eyes. Then he sat down, covered his face and took it all in before signing the camera ‘I love you Dad’.

Coming out in such dramatic fashion would make any father proud. It brought to mind a young player as feted as Dimitrov, another given the name Baby-Fed: Gasquet. In 2005, the Frenchman upset a prime Federer in Monte-Carlo to much applause and hopes of the game being graced by two sublime Major-winning talents. A good example to remember as we all know that the baby Federer that was Gasquet did not an adult Federer become. While this win ensures Dimitrov steps into the next stage of his career as the player who can do instead of might do, it does not mean he will do it again. In tennis, after all, you are only as good as your last match. There is another match ahead for Dimitrov, potentially against another man to trouble Djokovic lately, Wawrinka. Another match that will need a lot of work from Dimitrov, a player dubbed by Nadal as ‘the present and the future’. And if the future is as exciting as those moments last night in Madrid, then it is work which for us will be sheer entertainment and well worth waiting patiently for, just as this coming out party was. And whatever happens we will always remember that night in Madrid when we danced the night away with Dimitrov, how much fun we had and how, drunk in the outrageous excitement and drama of such a dashing debutante’s debut, we all threw ourselves at his feet, proudly desperate for the last dance.

Watch highlights here of Dimitrov’s defeat of Djokovic

Posted in ATP, Grigor Dimitrov, Madrid, Novak Djokovic | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The quiet weeks that can make a lot of noise

Wawrinka with the Oeiras trophy (thanks to indiatimes.com)

Wawrinka with the Oeiras trophy (thanks to indiatimes.com)

Now and then in the season we get the odd ‘quiet’ week. These weeks, usually before a Major or between two big tour events, have a few tournaments where the points and prizes are of a second or third tier level and the player entry lists lack the names of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Williams or Sharapova. The mainstream sports media is low on coverage, too. You might find the results in your sports pages, or a paragraph if the winners are locals, but the quiet weeks do not blockbuster headlines makes. Yet though they do not makes the careers of greats, the quiet weeks serve as stepping stones to such careers and the events are anything but quiet if one was to take a step into the stadiums and listen to the cheers.

Last week was a quiet one. Events were held in Munich, Germany and Oeiras, Portugal (location formerly known as Estoril). These events come in the first third of the Clay season. The ATP host tournaments in both. For the ATP, these events come after the first blockbuster clay event, the Monte Carlo Masters and the week before the start of the Madrid Masters. For the likes of Nadal and Djokovic who expect to get far in these Masters, and for the likes of Federer who has been there done that x1000, these tournaments have little or no interest. As for the WTA, the Oeiras tournament comes the week after Stuttgart and the week before Madrid and so the big names, like their ATP counterparts, take a rest.

For the ATP, with the elite putting their feet up, tournaments such as Munich and Oeiras rely on good relationships with the second tier players in order to get some headlining players. Top ten players can compete in ATP 250 events and factors such as appearance money and location will play a major part in that decision. Thus the Munich and Oeiras tournament usually pull in some big names. Both tournaments have a long history and some prestige and both are clay events in Europe, close to Monte Carlo and Madrid. These events are a good chance to put together some wins and gain some confidence in preparation for an encounter with one of the elite in the upcoming big tournaments.

Oeiras had Wawrinka and Ferrer headlining its line up. Both players are the typical kind of players who can really benefit from these events. Being in the top ten or thereabouts, they will have a high seeding and be the favorites. And both players lived up to their seedings and made the final. It was not much of a final though. Wawrinka never let it go far, racing through the match 6-1, 6-4 to continue his run of good clay court form and good form this season overall.

In Munich, the crowd were treated to an German final as Haas saw off Kohlschreiber in straight sets. The stadium was a full-house and the tournament definitely benefited from Haas’ presence. The 31 year old is the closest Germany has to tennis royalty, having been a former world number two and a key player on the tour, albeit on and off due to injuries, since the late 90s.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova with the Oeiras trophy (thanks to mystar.com.my)

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova with the Oeiras trophy
(thanks to thestar.com.my)

Meanwhile on the women’s front, in Estoril, Pavlyuchenkova, coached by Hingis, beat Suarez-Navarro in the final. It will be interesting to see what Hingis can bring to the patchy Russian’s game in the Clay season, a season where she had so many remarkable runs and one very infamous end.

For Haas, Wawrinka and Pavlyuchenkova, these wins are not only trophies to put in the cabinet but important confidence and reputation boosters in the run up to Roland Garros where none of them will be favored to win. But these victories mean not only will they gain the confidence that comes with winning but that they will go into the next month labelled as dangerous players and ‘floaters’. When draws come out, opponents such as Djokovic and Serena who see their names in their draws will know they have to be on their best game. And if one of this trio manage to get a favorable match-up they might be able to get a win, take that players seeded position in the draw and cause some damage to the established order.

So, while these weeks might be quiet weeks when it comes to the tour elite and the mainstream media interest in the game, they are anything but quiet for the winners who might use wins in these events as spring boards to make an awful lot of noise in the next month.

Posted in ATP, Munich, Oeiras, Stanislas Wawrinka | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Twenty years on: A tennis tragedy remembered

(thanks to community.travelchinaguide.com)

(thanks to community.travelchinaguide.com)

Hamburg, April 30, 1993.

Twenty years ago today Monica Seles let out a scream that bloodcurdlingly eclipsed the scream we were used to, that infamous scream which she unleashed along with her two handed strokes. This scream would become even more notorious, ripping through the stadium as devastatingly as her ground strokes ripped through the courts. And it was a scream that still echos around the history of tennis as loud and heavy as the elephant in the room that is the question of what would have happened had that scream been kept where it belonged, on the court, punctuating a stream of winners.

While the scream she let out when striking the ball was a carefully executed one that refined her rhythm on those terrifying strokes, this scream was the release of pure terror itself. It was a scream that did not need to be heard unless one had to see and hear for oneself the horror of what had happened. If the news itself were not enough. The news that had to be heard over and over to be believed. For months after it still did not ring true. Players just do not get stabbed on court. The images of Seles reaching for her back, being carried off the court, her attacker being tackled by security guards was the stuff of nightmares, stuff that could not be real. But it was real. Very real.

Sports illustrated cover (thanks to imageslides.com)

Sports illustrated cover
(thanks to imageslides.com)

The fact was that Monica Seles had been stabbed on court by Gunter Parche, a Steffi Graf fanatic from Germany. The shock shook not only the tennis community but anyone who heard the news. Even myself, a hard core Steffi Graf fan who had watched through gritted teeth as his heroine had fallen to Seles in Major finals, felt stunned and saddened that sporting history had been so derailed.

Seles, the 19 year old world number one and 8 time Major winner, was well on her way to making history in the spring of 1993, looking set to cement herself in the pantheon of tennis Greats, perhaps even as the greatest. Earlier that season she had added another Major, the Australian Open, to her haul, beating her chief rival Steffi Graf in a three set final. And, now, back on the Clay, the surface where her talents were best suited, she was playing herself into form for what would likely be a fourth Roland Garros title.

Monica Seles at her peak in Melbourne 1993 (thanks to sportsillustrated.com)

Monica Seles at her peak in Melbourne 1993
(thanks to sportsillustrated.com)

Sitting down on a changeover in a quarter-final in Hamburg against Maggie Maleeva, Seles was leading by a set and a break. It looked to be a routine win for the teenager. Toweling herself down, taking a breather from another intense performance, Seles would likely have been considering how to tackle the next point. What would happen next, however, would take far longer to tackle than a few seconds, an act of violence that would change the way Seles looked at the court, the world, herself, forever more.

Seles’ attacker struck, knifing her back with a 23 cm blade, inflicting a physical wound half an inch in depth but an emotional wound of a depth unfathomable. Seles was grimacing, reaching for her back. Officials ran to assist the victim while security restrained the perpetrator. Seles was carried off the court and was taken to hospital, where she was visited by a tearful Graf, the only time she would hear from her German rival during her absence. On being released from hospital, Seles departed Germany, never to play a professional match there again, a personal protest at the justice system that failed to imprison Parche, another blow that made her attack even harder to come to terms with.

In Seles’s absence, Graf did just as Sele’s assailant had desired. She returned to number one, a controversial move where every WTA player apart from Sabatini voted for Seles not to have her ranking maintained. And if Parche’s wishes had not been fulfilled enough, Graf won 6 of the next 10 Slams as the realization of a mad man’s dreams played out.

(Thanks to wtatennis.com)

(Thanks to wtatennis.com)


Steffi Graf with the ’93 French Open trophy

But though Graf’s trophy cabinet grew more cramped, the victories were whispered by some, shouted by others, to be hollow. Had Seles not been stabbed, the whispers went, it would have been Seles, not Graf, smiling and posing with the Major trophies. After all, before the stabbing, Seles had won 8 of 12 Majors and had beaten Graf in 3 Major finals. Graf, meanwhile, had only been able to manage two Major victories, both at Wimbledon, (one of which included a thrashing of her rival), since losing to Seles in the ’90 French Open final, a defeat that put an end to her run of eight of the previous nine Majors. Nevertheless, Graf could only play who was in front of her and as Seles’s departure from the tour went on, Graf’s major count tallied up, putting her close to the top of the all-time Major leader board. But the asterisks next to her name was the WTA’s elephant in the room.

It was an elephant they hoped would soon get moving. And an elephant that refused to budge. Seles remained out of the game for 2 and a half years. Reported sightings filled up inches in the tennis gossip columns. Fans pined for her return. Non-fans, too. But Seles stayed away and the elephant got bigger.

The injury itself had kept her off the court much longer than it had taken to heal due to the psychological damage being much deeper than the physical one. The tennis court had been Seles’ sanctuary and now it had been violated and she simply did not feel safe to return. Instead she chose to stay at home and eat junk food and dwell on the terrible act that she had been a victim of.

But as the months added up, and the sessions on the psychiatrist’s couch, so did the desire to return. Fans and the tennis establishment encouraged her, too, but it took one of the game’s legends to finally convince her to come back. Martina Navratilova got Monica Seles back on court in July 1995 in Atlanta when the two of them played an exhibition. The beaming Seles returned to the court to great fanfare much to the relief of the tennis establishment and, more importantly, to herself. The fear she had had of stepping onto the court had been faced and conquered and a new installment to her career lay ahead.

Seles returned to professional tennis at the ’95 Canadian Open. It was a return received with much greater warmth than she had known in her heyday, a time when her grunting and pop-star like posing had led to much tutting and head shaking. Humbler and now with the endearing glaze of tragedy veiling her, she was cheered on all the way to the US Open final a week later where she met her nemesis, the player who had inspired the un-imprisoned Parche, Steffi Graf. It was a classic match, a match that delighted us as it made our hearts sink, the greatness of what could have been as loud as the sounds of the balls being thwacked in thunderous rallies. Graf won but it was tennis that really won that night as what could have been was very much being and the future looked, after a long period of bleakness, very very bright indeed.

Monica Seles recovers at the 1995 US Open (thanks to imageslides.com)

Monica Seles recovers at the 1995 US Open
(thanks to imageslides.com)

Seles went on to win the Graf-less Australian Open in ’96. Despite the pain of her past being evident on her thighs, she was still too much for the likes of Rubin and Huber. It was to be her last Major though. A step slower than her prime, she was knocked out early in subsequent Majors. An appearance in the ’96 US Open final, where she was bettered by the much fitter Graf, was the highlight of the next few years until a runner-up spot in the ’98 Roland Garros final. That run seemed to inspire her. Slimmed down, she played her part in what would come to be known as the Golden Age of women’s tennis, age in which she took to playing the part of supporting actress with all the venom and passion she had shown playing its leading lady.

In 2003, a surprise loss to Nadia Petrova in the early rounds of the French Open would be Seles’ last professional match. Though she did not let on for several years. Fans and the media speculated on whether or not she would return but as the years went by a return became less and less likely. Finally, in 2008, Seles announced her retirement. Fifteen years on from the stabbing and aged 34, she had made peace with her past and done her best to silence the should-have-beens and voice, instead, what was. Behind her she left a legacy as inspiring for her initial dominance and ground-breaking game as her comeback from what still, to this day, remains to be the greatest tragedy of Open tennis, and perhaps, of any sport. The robbing of an athlete in her prime of achieving what her whole life had been spent preparing for is an unforgivable act. Somehow Seles found it in herself to forgive and move on, elevating herself onto more than just a greatest list of tennis players but a greatest list of human beings.

Monica Seles

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Nadal knocks up Barcelona win number eight.

(Thanks to kgmi.com)

(Thanks to kgmi.com)

When Nicolas Amalgro broke Nadal twice to lead 3-0 in the Barcelona final, hopes were high that a match which had all the potential excitement of the drizzly Barcelona day might produce something more akin to the Barcelona climate typical of this time of year, sunny and sweat-drenched.

Perhaps this could be the type of match that we haven’t seen on Clay very often the last nine years, the kind of match that makes us watch sport in the first place; a match that surprises us and inspires us. An Amalgro win would certainly do this. In his nine meetings against Nadal, he has managed to win only a few sets. Such statistics were up against him, the psychological advantage such a head to head lead can have can win you matches alone, and Amalgro’s record against top players also suggested that an afternoon of sporting drama was unlikely.

We crossed our fingers, though. After all, this is why we watch tennis. For those moments such as when Coetzer beat Graf in Toronto ’96, or Canas drubbed Federer in Indian Wells ’07. Anything can happen on the day and now and then it does.

This was as good as any day as far as Amalgro was concerned. Wet clay and fluffy balls. The stuff that gives Nadal nightmares. But unfortunately, the rain cleared up, the court dried, and the Nadal nightmare, the one that has ruined the dreams of the likes of Federer and Amalgro the last nine years, was not going to go away.

What looked, but perhaps only to the blind, to be the much dreamed of makings of a thunderous shock soon developed into the admirable but repetitive display of the uber-formidable clay talent that is Rafael Nadal. As he broke back and then broke back again you could hear the sound of Amalgro’s spine sapping beneath the weight of that oh-so heavy forehand and that enormous trophy with the name Nadal engraved upon it no less than eight times.

As Nadal forged ahead 5-4 and as his forehand founds its mark and Amalgro’s low flat backhands bounced higher and into the hands of Nadal, a ninth time seemed likely.

Nadal took the first set 6-4 and then ran away with the second 6-3. The narrative we had been hoping for went untold. What we were told instead was the familiar story of arguably the greatest claycourter of all time winning once more on home soil in what he hopes to be another march to the Roland Garros title, but what those of us who keep watching sport for the beauty of its possibilities will wish to be an altogether different tale.

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Maria licks Li Na in Stuttgart final

(Thanks to sportinglife.com)

(Thanks to sportinglife.com)

No, Maria is not doing an impression of the infamous Titanic scene in the above photo. She had, though, just done a quite fine impression of a powerful machine cruising through a sea of red clay. But, unlike the case of the ill-fated Titanic, the iceberg in Maria’s way, Li Na, melted when it looked like a collision might be on the cards.

Maria Sharapova’s Winsletesque pose was courtesy of her beating Li Na 6-4, 6-3 to defend her Stuttgart title. At the venue where she began her all-conquering 2012 clay run, she handily beat the woman who had put an end to her dominating display in Melbourne three months back.

It was a much anticipated encounter. Maria leads the head to head 8-5 and it is hard to predict who will win when these two meet. Both mistresses in the art of controlled aggression, these two women have each won the French Open (Li in ’11, Maria in ’12) and are as well-armed as each other on the Clay. The winner of their matches is usually the one who can keep the errors down and keep calm until the opening for a winner arises.

It was Maria who got a grip on matters early on, breaking Li in the second game. The Russian’s return of serve had improved significantly since her three set opening round match against Safarova. And so had the rest of her game, a game which was rusty and erroneous in her first three rounds, all going three sets and all won as much due to her opponent’s flaws as to her strengths. But today, things were different. One, this was the final and Maria is a pro when it comes to the title decider, winning twenty-eight titles in her career. And two, this was Ni La, a woman, who like her, can blow you away on her day, and who had been blowing out her opponents in straights all week while Maria had been fighting to edge past them. Against Li Na, she had to pull ahead quick or else. A task she achieved, breaking again at 3-1.

The Chinese broke back at 1-4 and began to control her fair share of points too. But Maria held firm. The scars of that Australian Open loss seemed to still need a little tending to. The prospect of revenge ahead, Maria worked hard, moving Li Na side to side and back from the baseline until the open court invited her ground stroke winners. The Russian held on to her momentum and held serve to close out the set.

In the second set, matters were going with serve until 3-3, when Li Na, who since breaking back in the first set had been playing as well as Maria, made a tactical error at the net that would prove to be decisive. Break point down, Li Na had constructed the point well enough to enable her to come to the net and put away a winner. But Li did not hit an angled volley deep to the backhand side, but volleyed instead to the Maria Sharapova forehand. The Chinese could only look on as Maria ran right into it and belted a forehand up the line which Ni La could only volley into the doubles lines. That gave Maria the break and effectively the match. As strong a front runner as anyone on the WTA, Maria held her serve with conviction to lead 5-3.

A game away from the title, Maria cranked up the intensity, and the noise level, and reached break point, and more crucially, Championship point. Another Porshe was just one forehand down the line away. But she would not even have to strike the ball. A Li Na double-fault and the title and a blue shiny Porsche was Maria’s.

While was not anywhere near the final it could have been, such as the drama we were treated to at last year’s Italian Open final, it did have some saving graces. Maria had been too consistent and too strong this time and that consistency and strength is enjoyable to watch. Li Na played well at times, too but she made crucial errors on the wrong points while her opponent did not repay in kind as she had done that day in Rome. Instead of the all action blockbuster we got that day, we witnessed a fine demonstration of how a big-hitter can exploit the slower Clay surface to get the most out of their game using controlled and smart aggression. It was a performance by Maria that also served to remind the tour who the form player on the red stuff has been the last couple of years and that if her status is going to be demoted then they are going to have to turn up ready to play in the finals, as solid as icebergs, ready to puncture what is as strong and steady a cruiser as it has ever been.

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Novak ends Nadal’s Monte Carlo streak

(Thanks to demotix.com)

(Thanks to demotix.com)

The championship match in Monte Carlo between eight time defending Champion Rafael Nadal and world number one Novak Djokovic would answer an important question for tennis fans worldwide : was Rafael Nadal, the winner of three of his last four tournaments since his comeback from a seven month lay-off, really back to his best?

Pre-Monte Carlo, the answer we had come to was definitely more yes than no. He beat Nalbandian and Ferrer in his South American swing adventure, and he defeated Federer and Del Potro in Indian Wells, all impressive wins for someone out so long. However, they were also wins marked with astericks: Nalbandian is past his best, Ferrer, on clay at least, has never posed him problems, Federer had a bad back and Del Potro was knackered. The only way we would know if he was really back to his best would be if he could defeat the player, a monster in his eyes, who he had, in part, created: Novak Djokovic.

Nadal’s superb defense and ability to turn it into attack are what Djokovic had to better if he wanted to become a world number one and multi slam winner. And that is what he did. The Serbian hit the gym, rested in his egg machine and flew out of the gates in 2011 a new, improved player. He went on to beat Nadal, the then number one and holder of three Majors, in seven consecutive finals, three of them Majors and two of them on clay courts. That run was finally ended, here, in Monte Carlo, a year ago, when a vengeful and improved Nadal armed with a revamped forehand beat Djokovic in straights. Nadal would go on to beat Djokovic in the Italian and Roland Garros finals before his knee injury sidelined him from the tour and denied tennis fans further encounters in what was shaping up to be a rivalry once more.

While Nadal was away nursing his knee, Djokovic was busy making the US Open final, winning Beijing and the London WTF, securing YE No.1, and winning in Australia and Dubai. That’s a lot of winning. And, rested after an early defeat in Miami, the world number one came out in yesterday’s final ready to go. The courts, dampened by the rain that delayed the match by nearly an hour, meant it would play not unlike the courts in the third set of last season’s Roland Garros final where Djokovic dominated Nadal before play was postponed. Just as he had then, Novak Djokovic took advantage of the fluffier balls, hitting low and flat, to jump into a 5-0 lead against an opponent who, denied the ball rising into his strike zone, was denied the topspin he so loved, and so needed.

All Nadal could do in these conditions was look on as the winners flew past him. But while it was turning into a nightmare for the Spaniard, it was not so for the spectator. Watching Djokovic’s backhand in top form and being treated to the odd drop shot and drop volley, plus the occasional forehand down the line winner was a pleasure indeed. Aware that only his A game would suffice, this was a different Djokovic to the one we have seen grind match after match against the Federers and Murrays. This was more like the aggressive, explosive Djokovic who we saw go unbeaten in ’11 until the French Open.

Djokovic

Photo courtesy of http://www1.folha.uol.com.br

For Nadal to even win games against this Djokovic he had to make his first serves, hitting them out wide and on the line. Anything less was punished by the number one. Finally, at 0-5, Nadal worked hard to save set points and win a game and as the Novak purple patch wore off, the Serbian made a few errors at the net to drop his next service game. Serving at 2-5, things were looking better for Nadal. The longer Nadal could keep this set going the more he would be able to work his way into the match and the greater his chances would be of winning it. Alas for the Spaniard, his serve was not good enough and his brief comeback came to an end as he double faulted on the Serbian’s eighth set point.

In the second set, as the clay warmed up, so did Nadal’s game. Nadal needs the courts to be hot so the balls can sit up and he can brush them with spin in the same way that bread needs an oven to be on high in order to rise. Once the balls were sitting up, Nadal tore into them like hungry hands ripping up warm bread to gorge on. Now Nadal had the balls bouncing as he wanted, and, feasting on the spin he had been starved of, he no longer fed into the hands of Djokovic but fed himself instead, earning a break to lead 4-2.

But Djokovic was as hungry as Nadal, hungrier even. With Monte Carlo being, along with Cincinnati, the only Masters missing from his collection, and only too aware of the psychological advantage a win here would give him, Novak was not about to go away. Now that Nadal seemed to be in the ascendancy, Djokovic went back to grinding, to see if Nadal really was back to his best and discovered that he was not. The Spaniard was going for too much too often and, out of practice competing against the tour’s toughest opponent, lacked the match play that would, were he at his best, have seen him make the lines. Novak broke back to love. His man on the ropes, Novak began to attack once more, knowing he had to finish Nadal quickly or go into a third set on cooking courts against one of the best match players in the game. However, Djokovic’s attacking game, having been out of action for a few games, had lost its rhythm and did not allow him to break away from the Spaniard. Instead he made three backhand down the line errors, a shot which had previously promised winners, to help Nadal stay in the match.

With both players edgy and erroneous, the match went with serve to a tiebreak. A crapshoot. For one man victory and history was seven points away. For the other, a position of a set all and the prospect of a tired opponent and a ninth trophy. Nadal, willing to take the risks needed to win a breaker but not good enough on the day to see them pay off, overcooked a forehand and Djokovic had a mini-break for 2-0. It was not the last of the overdone Nadal forehands as Nadal’s weapon blew up in his face to see him go down 0-3. Another well-intended cross-court forehand out and the eight time champion was down 1-5.

Djokovic was not missing his forehand though. His own recent return to aggression had seen him back into the rhythm of hitting winners and a fiercely struck forehand return down the line drew a backhand error from Nadal to give Djokovic five championship points. He needed only one. A replica forehand winner, his twenty fifth winner of the match, and Djokovic had a much desired win, the roar he let out telling us all we needed to know as to how much it meant to him.

It was a roar that answered our question; echoing in its yes was a loud no. Nadal was not back to his best. Djokovic certainly is though. More answers as to Nadal’s form will be provided in the lead up to Roland Garros, a lead up that, on the back of this Djokovic win, certainly looks more interesting than it has the last eight years when Nadal has opened up his clay court dominance on the court principale of Monte Carlo, a court where yesterday he performed the much unrehearsed role of runner-up, a role we will be curious to see if he is cast in come June the 9th.

Posted in ATP, Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment