Nadal knocks up Barcelona win number eight.

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(Thanks to

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

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(Thanks to

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

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(Thanks to

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.


Photo courtesy of

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.

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Nadal nudges past Dimitrov in three

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(Thanks to

Rafael Nadal just nudged past an inspired opponent in Grigor Dimitrov in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Open.

Nadal, as he was expected to do, took the first set. But the Bulgarian did not go away. Dimitrov’s strategy of pulling Nadal in with his slice and then passing him at the net, coupled with his heavy hitting, which drew errors from the eight times champion, earned him the second set much to the applause from the crowd.

The third set was tight. Dimitrov, serving first, continued to hit heavy and with conviction while a rattled looking Nadal just managed to stay with him. At 4-4 though, the Spaniard’s experience on the surface told, as he proved to be the fitter of the two. As a tired Dimitrov hit his slices into the net and failed to make drop shots, the Spaniard continued to hit deep and with spin and force the errors he needed, breaking to serve for the set. Though Dimitrov fought to the end, it was not enough as Nadal won his 45th consecutive match in Monte Carlo, beating the man he called ‘the present, and the future’ of tennis and proving that his past, which was the decisive factor on a court he has not lost on for eight years, was still very much what mattered.

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Wawrinka waves off Murray 6-2, 6-1

Stanislas Wawrinka is somewhat notorious for not putting away the ‘big four’ when he has his chances. Few tennis fans will forget his missed opportunity against Novak Djokovic in the last sixteen of the Australian Open. On that day his superb single handed backhand and his attacking game were on full display but, crucially, not at the crunch times.

Check out Wawrinka’s best shot here:

This weapon was showcased once more in his last sixteen match in Monte Carlo against Andy Murray, helping him to get into a winning position. But this time he did not fold when his opportunity knocked.

The Swiss pulled away from Murray at 1-1 in the first set to win seven games on the trot against the recent Miami winner. In the second set, Murray looked like he might be able to dig his heels in but he was soon knocked off his feet as Wawrinka, his backhand filling him with confidence, found winner after winner, while for Murray it was a case of a comedy of errors. The Scot was not able to get into the match, his own poor play and the vastly superior play of the Swiss rendering him unable to build any rhythm or, as he likes to do, disrupt his opponent’s.

Early in the second set, Wawrinka charged ahead again. Those single handed backhands found the lines and cut up the court for winners, and his forays to the net were favored with fortune as he ran away to a 6-2, 5-1 lead. And the speed with which the match passed by meant that Wawrinka was fortunately denied the time to think about the prospect of a defeat of the world number two, soon to be number three after this loss, and he was able to close out the match with the minimum of fuss for the loss of three games.

Handing the Scot his heaviest defeat since last year’s early exit in Indian Wells to Garcia-Lopez will give Wawrinka great confidence for the remainder of the Clay court season. While Clay might not be Murray’s strongest surface, having trained on the stuff in Barcelona in his teenage years, it is a surface on which he is more than competent.

Wawrinka, the 2008 Italian Open finalist, will next face either Tsonga or Melzer.

Watch the final game of Wawrinka’s victory over Murray here:

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Dimitrov claims second top ten scalp

Grigor Dimitrov beat Janko Tipsarevic 7-6, 6-1 in the second round of Monte Carlo.

(Thanks to

(Thanks to

It was the Bulgarian’s second top ten win after his victory over Berdych in Miami last season. Incidentally, it was Tipsarevic who beat him after that breakthrough win.

But this time, matters were in the Bulgarian’s favor. Dimitrov has been moving up the rankings while the Serbian has been moving down and so this was a prime chance for the more confident Dimitrov to beat a member of the top ten on the slide, the kind of match he needed to win if he was going to make the next step.

And this was the perfect surface to do it, too. The slow red clay of Monte Carlo gave the young Dimitrov all the time he needed to take the ball on the rise and strike it back deep and heavy, moving Tipsarevic from side to side and waiting for his chance. And this time, when it came, unlike in his other recent encounters with top tenners, namely Murray and Djokovic against whom he lost close first sets only to fade away, Dimitrov took it. Once he had set up his ground strokes to hit winners or it was safe to come to the net where he could display his fine touch and feel for the ball, he did so with aplomb. And, feeling inspired on this spring day in the South of France, Dimitrov surprised his opponent with drop shot winners, sending him scrambling toward the net to retrieve them only to be left standing, watching as they spun away. Indeed it was one of those days where everything worked for Dimitrov and nothing was beyond him, even diving into the clay and sending back a ball to get back into the point, which, being the kind of day it was, he went on to win.

Check out this clip to see just how much fun Grigor had as he earned his second top ten win and moved a step closer to achieving his potential as the leader of the current next generation.

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Isner’s serve and forehand in fine form as he wins in Houston

Isner playing well on clay? It doesn’t look right, does it? But in Sunday’s Houston final against Amalgro, right is exactly how it looked.

Sunday’s final showed that the Isner game, the huge serve and the formidable forehand, can win on any surface when on. These two weapons are two of the biggest in the game and are what has gotten John into the top ten and earned him wins over the likes of Djokovic and Federer, the latter incidentally on Clay in five sets.

First, let’s look at the serve.

Coming down at you from 6ft9, this weapon can hit through any surface. And if Isner’s first serve percentage is high, then his service games are pretty much won.

Next, there is that forehand. That forehand is not to be fed to. Let’s take a look.

If Isner can set it up, then you can bet it is going to be a winner. Your only chance is to have the tall man on the run and prevent him from firing away on his favorite side but if the first serve is going in and Isner gets a weak return, then things are going to go something like this from Roland Garros in 2011,..

..which is pretty much how things went against Amalgro.

Try as Amalgro might to profit against Isner’s suspect return game and mobility, and it looked like he would as he went up 3-1 in the first set, the Spaniard, with more than 200 career wins on Clay, could not find an answer to the American’s A game.

When the Isner serve and forehand is on like it was in Sunday’s final, your only chance is that it suddenly switches off. A chance that, for Amalgro, did not come. Amalgro did not help himself either, growing increasingly annoyed by his opponent’s fiery form in the hot sun before a partisan Houston crowd. The Houston environment brings out the best in many an American non-clay specialist as the names of Roddick and Fish on the tournament trophy testify. Certainly the heat helps, speeding up the courts so those big serves and forehands hit through nicely, and the home support is worth a game or two, even a set. Isner took advantage of these factors and his fine play, breaking at 5-5 in the second to serve it out for a 6-3, 7-5 championship win.

It was a win that set tongues wagging that the man who took Nadal to five in the French Open ’11, and who incidentally participated in my favorite match of last season, a classic five set match at Roland Garros against Matthieu, might be able to provide some more thrills from his powerful attacking game in the coming Red Clay season.


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Serena, the late bloomer, wins in Charleston.

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(Thanks to

Just as she dropped the first set to Sharapova in Miami, Serena did the same to Jankovic in the Charleston final. Just as she had been in Miami, Serena had been caught off-guard by her opponent’s great form and hurt by her own early malaise. However, just as she had in Miami, Serena came back to take the next two sets and defend her title.

It was in Charleston a year ago that it all started again for Serena. Stops and starts are a fitting way to describe the younger William’s career. Since Charleston ’12,  Serena has won 9 titles. Her haul is made up of slams, Wimbledon and the US Open, the Olympic, the YEC, Premier titles in Madrid, Miami, Charleston, and Brisbane and an International title in Stanford. A more eclectic array you could not find. Blue clay, green clay, grass, hard court, indoors. It has one noticeable absentee, the red clay, and one imagines she will do whatever she can do check it present. It is a haul worthy of a number one player. It is as good as any of the Greats have mustered and as good as her 2002-03 haul where she was also the dominant player.

Back in 2003, we really thought we had found our next tennis Queen, a Seles, a Graf, a Navratilova. But an injury mind 2003 saw Serena off the court for nine months and it was not until the 2005 Australian Open that she lifted another Major trophy. Perhaps now, we thought. But more injuries and two more seasons passed before Serena won, again, in Melbourne in 2007. Well, now? we asked. No. We waited until the US Open 2008. And then it rained, poured even. Serena won The Australian Open 09 and 10, Wimbledon 09 and 10 and reclaimed the number 1. In July 2010, it was hard to envision anyone but her winning the US Open. But a piece of glass got in the way, lodging itself into her foot at a party and it was another year before Serena was back on court and another year before she was winning Slams again.

Since then, we have been treated to the number one the tour needs. A number one with slams and history and star quality. Since 2010, Wozniacki, Azarenka, Maria and Kim, ( maybe you blinked and missed her one week stint), have all  held the top spot but none of them convinced. Serena on the other hand takes leading with conviction to a new level. Only injuries and the odd inspired moment by her opponents can stop her in her current state of mind. It is a state of mind we should all relish while we can. It might not come along again for a long time. Ask Serena. And if your not a fan, forget about whatever it is from the past that prejudices you, and I grant you there have been more than enough moments, and watch videos of her latest victories in Miami and Charleston, and even her losses in Melbourne and Doha, and see the poise, the calm, the fight and the very fine play. See it and enjoy it. After all, better late than never. You can ask Serena about that, too.

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Ferrer says sorry as he fluffs Match point against Murray in Miami final

‘I’m sorry’, said David Ferrer as he gave his runner-up speech after the 2013 Miami final.

Well, at least he apologized, we thought. We wondered if Murray would apologize, too. And what about the ATP? Were they going to step up, hold their hands up and admit wrong-doing? Weren’t they guiltier than anyone?

After all, none of us would ever get those two hours and twenty minutes back. We could have been doing all manner of things. Watching one of our favorite matches on replay, playing tennis on our consoles, hell, we could have even been playing tennis in real life. But instead we had watched the Miami final, a Miami bereft of the game’s two biggest stars, Federer and Nadal, a tournament slowly losing its status to the prosperous and Nadal-Federer graced Indian Wells.

Still we watched though. After all, Miami has history. In the days when the finals went to five sets and only Major champions won, it was seen as the greatest of the non-majors. And while it may be on the decline, it’s still a Masters and its still tennis. And there would have to be a pretty good reason for tennis fans not to tune in. Well, on Sunday, we might have got our reason: You see, we didn’t see much tennis.

We saw what is being sold to us as tennis but which when removed from its glitzy packaging is a different sport altogether. While there are still rackets, balls, a court and a net, what there is not so much of is tennis skills being shown on the court. What we get instead is two tree-trunked legged players running back and forth along the baseline and a ball which ends up in the net or beyond the lines more often than it does being dinked over the net or belted up the line for a winner. Close to 100 errors littered the final.  And of 208 points played, 35 were at the net, the same number of winners for the entire match. Yes. You read correctly. 35 winners from 208 points and on a hard court. And while Miami has always been a medium slow paced hard court, those numbers are still too low.

David’s game does not not really produce winner after winner anyway so perhaps his  apology could be seen as unnecessary. And it is not his fault that the court is too slow to hit winners through. He certainly tried his best at times, setting up his big forehand down the line only to watch as a tired Murray chased it down and sent it back free of pace. Neither could Murray really be blamed either. His tiredness which led to so many errors was not so much due to his lack of fitness but more down to the playing in the midday sun so that the TV network could show basketball later on. It did not help either that his match with Gasquet had gone to three sets. Three sets on these courts is three sets to many.

As we thought over the apology, David’s next words threw us off guard. ‘It was only one point’, he said. The runner-up was not apologizing for the non-tennis match we tennis fanatics had just sat through but was apologizing to the Spaniard-heavy Miami crowd for stopping the rally on his match point at 6-5 to challenge a Murray forehand that had hit the line. Had his challenge been correct then David would have delighted the large Spanish speaking contingent by becoming the first Spaniard to win the title. Instead, it was Murray who got more balls back and kept more in to run away with the final set tie-break, and that was all he had to do really on these courts against this opponent. Murray’s ability to grind it out reaped him the rewards of not only his second Miami title but also his re-elevation to the number two ranking.

And so, if Ferrer was not going to say sorry, perhaps it would be the Champion. But Murray did not apologize in his speech, either. And neither did the ATP come forward and face the disgruntled fans. You see, we were not there to face, being as were at home in front of our screens, frothing away. The fans that were at the match cheered away though. After all, a day at the tennis is a day at the tennis, and as much as this was an error-filled match between two tired, cramping players, it was a grueling spectacle with long rallies, the odd one gasp-inducing. And as long as the stadium is full and as long as the ratings are high, which they are as the ATP gets the word out about the superhuman specimens battling it to the death and pulls in a whole new breed of fans,  then the apology will not be forthcoming. It will take empty stadiums, low ratings and the subsequent withdrawing advertisers to get them to say sorry.  But asking tennis fans to stay away when tennis is all over the internet  is a bit like asking a chocoholic to give up chocolate when the keys to the pantry are left hanging by the bed. Tennis fanatics will always watch the big matches and attend the tournaments for those moments of great tennis that we do get now and then. They will sit side by side the new fans, who gasp in awe of the speed and athleticism and the length of the rallies, and get on their feet and applaud when they see a drop shot or a well-constructed foray to the net ended with a backhand volley that clips the line.

And so while we are all there cheering and parting with money, there will be no apologies about the tennis or the minutes you won’t get back. Instead what there will be is executives diving into pools of golden coins, millionaires raising aloft trophies, players spending hours in ice baths and fans frothing away watching clips of 1990s Essen on youtube. And that, my fellow fanatic, is truly sorry because one would think that as a sport grows it gets better and we would not have to get our tennis kicks from players and surfaces long retired.

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Maria the bridesmaid once more to Serena.

Maria Sharapova looked in the mirror and thought the bride’s gown fit nicely. God knows she had been trying hard enough to lose the pounds to fit into it. This was her fifth attempt and this was the furthest she had ever got. She checked out the pattern, the fit around the waist, the bust. She admired the neckline. And then her eyes met the mirror. She looked away. No, the dress really did not fit at all. She was not cut out to be the bride. She had better take it off and get into the dress that became her: the bridesmaid’s one.

Maria tossed the ball in the air. It was her second serve. She caught it. Serena had break point against her. It was a break point to level the set at 3-3. But it would do more than that. Maria knew exactly what it would do. She may have been only three games away from the match, and Serena might have been only ten games away but it made no difference. It was this point now that mattered. This point would tell Serena all she needed to know. Maria tossed the ball again. If she saved this point, she still had a chance. She watched as it came down. She still had a chance, her first chance since 2005 when she had held match point sin Melbourne. She came down over the ball. She watched as it missed the line. She listened as the official called fault and the Umpire called game Serena.

Game Serena. Since that 2004 YEC final when Maria fell to her knees after beating a hobbling Serena it had been game Serena more times than she cared to remember, to the tune of ten consecutive defeats, and some of them deafening. Those two famous victories in the 2004 Wimbledon and YEC finals seemed to loop in Serena’s head each time they met on court, winding Serena up so much that she unleashed more winners against Maria than anyone else on the tour. While against others she might let up and lose a set or even a match, against Maria she refused to do anything but play her best, a somewhat backhanded compliment if ever there was one.

But today things were as if 2005-2012 had never happened. It was like 2004 all over again. Maria was striking the ball hard and in the lines. She was moving Serena, finding the open court. And at 5-4 receiving in the first set, she had taken her opportunities as Serena, unable to find her first service and forehand, faltered. Maria pumped her fist and ran to the chair and ran as quickly out of it again, the momentum on her side, momentum which she continued to run with, striking away and playing the hard-hitting and fired-up tennis that had seen her win in Indian Wells and enter the Miami final on an 11 match winning streak.

But the time machine began to falter. 2004 turned ever so slowly into 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2011, years not just when she had lost to Serena but years when she had been runner up in Miami. And as the double fault handed Serena the break back the time machine was well and truly in need of repair. Serena, though, had repaired the faults that had seen her in a losing position, the wobble of her opponent being all the space in which she needed to step and strike back.  Back in the match and with the prospect of overtaking Steffi Graf to become the most decorated Miami champion with 6 titles, the history loving Serena began to focus on that loop of Maria on her knees in 2004. Serena began to find her serve and those forehands found the line. As she held serve and then broke, held serve and then broke, we all watched on as the inevitable unfolded before us, as Maria went down on her knees but not in celebration, and Serena raised her arms aloft as those all too haunting and familiar words for Maria boomed from the Umpire’s microphone:

Game, set and match Miss. Williams.

The two shook hands and then went to shake hands with the Umpire, Serena going first as she is wont to do, despite etiquette being that the loser goes first. But Serena being Serena likes to have it her way, and against Maria that is something to which she has worked hard to become very much accustomed. The umpire took Serena’s hand and then watched as Maria wandered off, neglecting to shake his hand second.

Second. In Miami and against Serena, that is a position that Maria has been stuck in. A position she said after the match from which she would like to rise from. The tennis world watched as with her usual grace she stood back and caught the bouquet. Yet, we all know that behind the gracious smile would have been a mind working away at figuring how how she would get the figure to once again fit into that bride’s gown, look herself in the eye and tell herself how well it fit her, and, most importantly,  have that loop that played over and over in Serena’s mind play itself out on the court in real life. And there would be nowhere more fitting than that very same court where she stood now, bouquet in hand, in Miami.

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