Reversal of Fortunes for Vika and Serena in Doha

For a while we had gotten used to the status quo: Vika at number one, Serena beating her in the latter rounds of tournaments. Last week though we had to adjust to a reversal of fortunes; it was Serena who was the top ranked player and Vika who had the W over Serena on her record.

It looked like we might be on the dawn of a new Serena era at the start of the year. Overwhelmingly favored to win in Melbourne, she bowed out in an injury-hit quarter-final. It was Azarenka who went on to take the title, proving as she did so that she was the hard court player to beat of this era. This match was Azarenka’s chance to affirm that statement. Serving at 5-4 in the first set tie-break with a mini-break in hand, it looked like she might. But a double-fault gave rise to whispers that Vika did not have the mental strength to beat a woman who had dealt her nine consecutive losses, four of them while she was number one in the world.

But it was all whispers and hearsay. Azarenka held her nerve and took the set. Things were very much there between her ears. The last time she had lost to Serena in the US Open final she did not have the experience of finishing a season number one, rising above a media storm concerning her Medical time out in her Melbourne semi, and defending a Major title. She was a better player than she had been back in September in New York; a stronger one.

Of course, Serena was not going to just let the first set slip out of her hands without a fight. She had fought tooth and nail to make the business end of the week, coming back from 1-4 in the third against Kvitova in the last eight, and with the number one having come to her as her fine results piled up, she would do her best to dress it with another title, potentially her eighth in the last 12 months. Nailing aces and winners, she took the second set 6-2, breaking away at 2-2 to turn the momentum her way.

No one on the tour is a better front runner than Serena and it looked unlikely that Azarenka would turn matters around. But perhaps the run of games from 2-2 against her had actually worked in Vika’s favor. Unable to have a say in proceedings, Vika took somewhat of a breather. Meanwhile Serena had been cranking up the intensity and continued to do so as she blasted a forehand return winner down the line at 0-0 for 0-30. Vika took on the third set with gay abandon, moving forward on the next point to hit a forehand winner and surprising Serena with her sudden attack as she hit another forehand winner. Vika hit her first serve big and kept up the depth and pace on her forehand to draw errors from Serena to take the first game of the third and get out of the rut.

Vika did not look back, breaking a somewhat bamboozled Serena for 2-0, her depth of shot and angles paying dividends, a forehand winner sealing the break.   Try as Serena did to fight her way back, Vika was her good old solid self while Serena hit more errors than winners. Holding her nerve, Vika served out for the match, a big first serve drawing an error off the return from Serena. Beating her fist on her chest and pointing her forefinger skyward, Vika knew that this win meant more than who was at the top of the rankings, a status she knows Serena sees only as an inevitable conclusion to good results and not a worthy achievement in itself. This win was solid proof that Vika was Serena’s worthy adversary on hard courts and a promising sign of things to come should they meet in Miami in April, Serena’s home and one of her favorite tournaments and a venue where Vika is a two time Champion, beating Serena in the 2009 final.

 

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Lessons from Melbourne

With the dust well and truly settled on Novak and Vika’s trophies, the tennis review looks back on the five lessons learned from the Australian Open 2013.

1. Everyone loves a one-handed backhand.

No doubt the best reaction of the fortnight was to Stanislas Wawrinka’s so-near-but-yet-so-far performance against Novak Djokovic in the last sixteen. Taking the ball on the rise, Stanislas hit his single-handed backhand with flair, liberty and creativity in what was a quite moving attempt to live up to his potential and take a big scalp at a Major. Time and time again he hit that backhand crosscourt and down the line for winners, a shot his opponent could do nothing about other than wait for it to start to miss. While he may have started missing in the end as the reality of actually delivering hit home, Stanislas’ talent did not pass by anyone as the tennis world reacted to his signature shot with nothing less than absolute admiration.

2. No one loves a tactical ‘medical time out’.

The crowd and tennis fan’s reaction to Azarenka’s well-timed medical time out as Sloane Stephens was about to serve to stay in the second set was nothing less than damning. Clumsy back tracking could not save Azarenka from a media and fan backlash. And deserved it was, too. Gamesmanship might be part of tennis but it is not, at the business end of a Major, acceptable. Alas the culture of tennis allows it to go on and it is up to tennis to ensure that it is a player’s game and not their gamesmanship that wins them the match.

 

3. Tennis gets the number ones it deserves.

The slow injury-inducing courts, the punishing heat, the lack of warm-ups, these were the conditions that the powers that be provide and the two players who thrived were the two most consistent, the two best defenders, two of the fittest if not the fittest players, and the two world number ones, Novak Djokovic and Vika Azarenka. They may not have the most flair or be the most likeable number ones, but tennis is not a popularity contest. It is a sport and the number one is the one who plays and wins the most and these two do exactly that in conditions that could not favor them any better.

 

4. The courts need to be speeded up.

Time and time again we watched as smashes and volleys were picked up from the back of the court, beyond the painted Melbourne signs, and sent past the player at the net for winning lobs and passing shots. Defensive players ruled in Melbourne and the attacking players lost out as they made unforced errors on their fifth or sixth attempt for a winner, frustrated at why the old game of coming forward and being aggressive was no longer the winning one on supposed fast courts that just refused to be hit through. While the gasps and oohs and aahs added to the atmosphere, there is no accounting for the zzzzzzs and shrieks of laughter that told all about some of the matches missed by the casual viewer. The courts need to be sped up a notch so that both aggressive and defensive players have a chance and to stop the game being more about athleticism than tennis skills. Defensive players have their surface, the red clay, and they get four solid months of it from February to June. The fast court players and the all court players deserve a real fast hard court to practise their skills, too, before grinding and not shotmaking become the norm and the zzzs drown out the gasps.

 

5. Pick yourself up and move on.

Twice Ni La fell and got back on her feet in the Women’s final. The first time she injured her ankle, the second time she knocked her head. Each time she came back out and competed with the world’s most consistent hard courter, Azarenka. The crowd loved her for it. If ever there was an example of getting back up on your feet, this was it. And though she lost, it hardly mattered to the crowd who applauded her as she lifted the runner-up plate more generously than they did the winner. Li Na promised she would be back next year to try to do one better, and after this display, we will take her word for it.

 

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Federer beats Tomic and the hype

For the briefest of moments, it seemed like like the outrageous promise might be kept. Breaking Federer’s serve at 1-1 in the tiebreak with another pace laden forehand to draw an error, the young Australian pumped his fist and took in the roar of the crowd. Consolidating the mini-break with a forehand winner at the net to lead 4-1, he was three service winners from leveling at a set all and, with the momentum swinging his way, who knew what could happen at the start of the third.
Serving at 5-3, Tomic looked to be in control of the point as he hit to Federer’s forehand and backhand, getting him on the run, hitting down the middle, mixing it up and looking to find the opening that would not come as the Federer ground strokes refused to break down. Federer, having had enough of dancing to Tomic’s tune, injected some pace on his forehand into yet another soft ball hit to the middle of the court. Tomic fed off the pace, hitting to the Federer forehand corner, but not hard enough for the Swiss moved comfortably to the ball, hitting a forehand back to Tomic, who, the exciting prospect of the open court before him, went for a forehand down the line, but, out of position, he hit the ball wide.
The moment had gone. Federer was back in the tiebreak. At 6-5, Tomic serving, Federer attacked the Tomic backhand with a flat forehand, following the shot up to the net, however the approach was unnecessary as Tomic’s shot went long. Federer had won the set and was one set away from beating both Tomic and the hype.
The hype had begun even before 2013 had gotten underway when Tomic beat Djokovic in straight sets in the Hopman Cup. Certainly he had played well, with an improved serve and his forehand finely tuned, adding an extra punch to his varied and fluid game. If that was not enough to get the media excited with the home Major just a few weeks away, Tomic won his first title in Sydney, stating beforehand that he was ready to win his first title and the result proving he was a man of his word.
With the draw having been made for the Australian Open the day before the Sydney final, the title victory for Tomic had people already talking about the third round prospect of a meeting between the freshly first-titled Tomic and the as yet 2013 debuted Federer. But they were not just talking about the potential clash of the past and new generations, they were implying that an upset could be on the cards, that Tomic, who in the previous Major in New York had been accused of tanking and whose Davis Cup performance had the national press in uproar, on the back of a win against Djokovic at a home exhibition event and a run to a title during which he did not beat a member of the top 20, this very same Tomic was ready to beat a man who was number two in the world, the reigning Wimbledon Champion, a man who was perhaps the Greatest player in the history of tennis, a man who was still at the top of his game, a four time champion in Melbourne, who had not lost before the semi-finals since 2003. Tomic’s comments before the match that Federer might not make the last 32 were as unrealistic as the home Media’s expectation that if the 17 time Major winner did make the last 32, his run would end at the undoubtedly fine hands of their new fickly-crowned King.
Of course, in a tennis match it is about what happens on the day. Two players compete and whoever has the better day wins. But one player usually, based on past form and match ups, goes in as the favorite. With Federer ending 2012 as a WTF finalist, beating the likes of Murray in straights, and leading Tomic 3-0 in their head to head including a straight sets drubbing here a year back, all signs would point to Federer being the favored victor. Perhaps the hype was a little misty-eyed at the memory of homeboy Mark Philippoussis straight-setting world number one Pete Sampras in 1996 in the third round. But that was a whole different ball game. Sampras had only won once in Melbourne and the two had met in the previous Major in New York with Sampras coming back from a set down to win. Philippoussis, with his huge serve and forehand, was a bad match-up for Pete, and a victory was within his capability at that point. While, as the first two sets proved in Federer and Tomic’s match last night, Tomic can compete with Federer, the third set demonstrated why the Australian was never going to be a threat.
Once Federer had Tomic beaten mentally, that moment when it seemed Tomic might be able to sustain his high level and edge out the Swiss in the second set being scuppered and the reality of the Swiss’ superiority hitting home, Federer did not relinquish his grip, unleashing his flair and creativity to wipe the floor with the hyped-one. After surviving a break point in the opening game, he broke Tomic immediately and ran away with the set 6-1. It was a victory for Federer which laughed in the face of the hype and called it out for what it was. And it was a defeat for Tomic that, from the way in which he fell to the side so swiftly in the third, would, if he were to admit it, not have come as a surprise. The Australian is very much on his way to challenging the likes of Federer but he is not there yet and he would do well to beat a big name in a Major before stating otherwise. His words before this third round match, while understandable considering his age and his talent, were exposed as empty promises, and anyone who expected him to keep them, considering his lack of previous deeds to back the promise up, was as much a victim to the hype as the hype, its hollow screams no doubt filling the Swiss with a desire to silence it, was a victim to the ever-hungry Federer.

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Novak rips out Wawrinka’s heart in five set classic

When hitting partners Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka took to the Rod Laver Arena for the night match on the middle Sunday of the Australian Open there was quite a void to fill. Nothing had really happened that day. Every match had been won in straight sets. There had been no drama, nothing to write home about. There was a huge space the size of a thousand tennis courts waiting to be filled with something special.
There were few hopes that these two would provide it. Djokovic led Wawrinka 11-2 in their head to head and had won the last ten matches. Djokovic was the two time defending champion. Wawrinka has yet to make a Major semifinal. So, when Wawrinka came out of the blocks to break at 1-1, tennis fans rubbed their hands. At the very least we were going to see Djokovic tested, it was better than nothing; we had had enough of nothing that day.
What we got was very much something. Wawrinka had another break point at 2-1 which he took, ending a huge rally in which every inch of the court was used with a backhand crosscourt winner. That signature single-handed backhand firing, the Service on top form, the forehand hitting winners, Wawrinka entered the zone as he raced through the set in 22 minutes, sealing set point with a forehand crosscourt winner that painted the line.
We were not just spectating a test. As Wawrinka broke again at the start of the second set and went on to lead 4-2, it looked like we might even witness the Swiss’ greatest win of his career. The seventh game, as it is prone to be, was a big one. Wawrinka tightened up, beginning to miss on his ground strokes, as his backhand twice found the net to go down 0-30 but with Djokovic erroring more than usual, Wawrinka managed to win a deuce game courtesy of a Djokovic return out. Wawrinka had survived that test, after Djokovic held to love, his biggest one was to come.
Serving for the set at 5-3, 30-30, Wawrinka netted a forehand. It was break point Djokovic. Anyone watching who was aware of Djokovic’s tennis history knew that unless Wawrinka served out for this set now then the odds were that he would go on to lose the match. When Djokovic’s backhand got the net cord and trickled over to give the Serbian the break, luck announced itself as being on the Serbian’s hard-working side. A long game at 5-5 on Wawrinka’s serve showcased what Djokovic does best as he defended, retrieving balls which once upon a time would have been good enough for winners, making Wawrinka hit one last shot and reaping the rewards from his never say die mentality as those last shots went long or in the net. The World number one broke and then served out for the set. A forehand down the line winner on set point, the Serbian attacking as he can when it matters most, set to the soundtrack of his loudest grunt yet, and Djokovic leveled the match at one set all.
It was here that we thought that like many before him Wawrinka would fold, the mental energy exerted in the first two sets leaving him spent, the idea of seeing ball after ball come back, of the noise of Novak’s feet squeaking all over the court, of being run from side to side, being enough to see him wave the white flag. But Wawrinka did not go away. Though the winners were not flowing as freely as they had in the first 50 minutes of the match, the single handed backhand still produced enough winners and drew enough errors to get Wawrinka roaring and keep the crowd engaged in the match. While Wawrinka tried his best, Djokovic was as consistent as a World number would be, his defense never breaking down, attacking when the chances came, qualities that trumped those of Wawrinka’s as the Serbian took the set to lead 2 sets to one and though the outcome seemed inevitable, the battle was bloody enough to stay and spectate. Both men were giving their all and producing at times breathtaking tennis. At 5-5 a beautiful volley from Wawrinka had the crowd gasping, the Swiss conducting their cheers. Spurred on by the crowd’s support and his continuing good form, Wawrinka took the mini-break in the tiebreak with a backhand down the line winner, going on to win the breaker 7-5 with a forehand winner from mid-court. The crowd were on their feet while the two players must have been wondering just how torn up theirs would be by the time this was over.
Whatever happened now, that void that had been there at the start of the match had been filled. There had been enough drama and entertainment to make up for the slow day. But when Wawrinka broke at the start of the set, the prospect of one of the biggest upsets in Australian Open history looked, considering how the Swiss had managed to stay with the Serbian all this time, a possibility. However it was a brief one as Djokovic broke back. The two men held serve, with the length of the match taking its toll as Wawrinka battled with cramps and Djokovic had injury issues, too. At 4-4 though, it seemed that the end might be in sight as on break point Wawrinka’s backhand, which was called out, looked to have been an incorrect call. The Swiss asked the Umpire what he thought and was confidently reassured it was in while Djokovic who had the best view having been standing before the ball kept his head down and said nothing. Wawrinka accepted the word of the Umpire and Djokovic went on to win the game. Replays would later show the ball had been in. Had Wawrinka used his last challenge, which would not have been such an issue as he would be awarded 3 more at 6-6, he would have had another chance to break to serve out for the match at 5-4. Had the Umpire been more on the ball, then the overrule would have made it a non-issue, or if he had admitted he did not know if it was in or not, Wawrinka would have used that challenge and got justice. As for the World number One’s silence, well no one asked him though he was gesturing the ball was out, and it is not his responsibility but nevertheless he did seem mighty angry a few games later when the same linesman made an incorrect call against him. His face a picture of rage, Novak’s displeasure at being robbed was clear for all to see. Luckily for the Serbian, the call was overruled by the Umpire.
Games went with serve, and easily too. The match had now taken on classic status, going on to past midnight and lasting more than four hours, the first classic of the season’s first Major. Four times Wawrinka served to save the set and succeeded but at 10-11, the Djokovic defense finally broke him down. On his third match point, the Serbian hit a backhand passing shot to win the match 12-10 in the fifth.
Djokovic roared and tore off his shirt as a tearful Wawrinka left the court. Whether he was ruing his chances at 5-3 in the second or not challenging that call or just expressing the pain of defeat, maybe he was experiencing all three, only the Swiss knows but any tennis fan who witnessed his performance can testify that while we saw a Djokovic whom we know only too well, we saw a Wawrinka we had never met before, one we were very pleased to meet and one whom we would very much like the pleasure of meeting again.

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Kuznetsova kills off Caro in Melbourne

Svetlana Kuznetsova, coming off a six month injury-induced break, faced Caroline Wozniacki, now ranked ten and defending quarterfinal points in Melbourne, in the last sixteen of the Australian Open. The Russian was playing to climb back up the rankings from the seventies where she currently dwells while the Dane was playing to halt her slide from number one that began a year ago on the very same Rod Laver Arena.
Only two weeks ago, Sveta won their match in Sydney, reducing her deficit in their head to head to 3-5. Like that encounter, the two split the first two sets. As she did in Sydney, Sveta came out hitting big ground strokes. booming down serves and coming to the net, the Russian reminding us why her name is engraved on the US and French Open trophies. The second set was all Wozniacki as she waited for the first dip in Sveta’s form and then pounced, moving Sveta around, chasing down every ball, and getting the errors, playing the tennis that brought her the number one ranking for 67 weeks. But it was not all defense as Wozniacki played more aggressively than she had during her reign, hitting her twelth winner of the match in the set, a vital addition that critics demanded she implement in order to win a Major; however, while it has yielded some great performances and a couple of titles, it has not delivered her that elusive Major or helped her climb back into the higher echelons of the top ten. She is now, naturally, more prone to make errors as she goes for big shots in points where once she would have just gotten the ball in play and waited for the error, which against players like Sveta, had worked wonders. Now she is going for more winners, but while she may have won in Moscow and Seoul at the end of last season, her results across the board have not improved. And she is still reluctant to go for winners when matters get tight, her natural defense coming into play, thus not really reaping the rewards of a change in style. Still, she persists with the new style with the same tenacity that she plays with, the tenacity that got her to the pinnacle of the game in the first place, the tenacity that saw her become one of the hardest players to beat on the tour. Ask Sveta about that.
Twice Wozniacki has come from a set down to beat Sveta, if she could maintain her level of play, she could make it a third. Sveta’s comfort break did not do anything to disturb Wozniacki’s momentum, breaking Sveta at the start of the third but the Russian broke back immediately. Serving at 1-2, Sveta saved five break points held by the Dane, saving the first and second with a sublime drop shot and a lob which had spectators wondering just why she had not won more than her two Majors. Sveta had to save another two set points serving at 2-3. The first she saved with a down the tee service winner. The second with another service down the tee followed by a big forehand, then another big forehand cracked down the line for a winner.
Withstanding the pressure put on by an opponent who has made her career out of applying it quite liberally, Kuznetsova took the long deuce game, briefly interrupted by a confrontation between Wozniacki and the Umpire. Wozniacki claimed to be disturbed by a linesman call that a Sveta service was out, a call overruled by the umpire, and a call that had come after she had sent the return into the net. Asking the Umpire if he had ever played tennis, and telling him he would understand her if he had, the Dane seemed to be the one who was teetering on the edge of this encounter.
At 3-4, Wozniacki had another break point, saved by the Russian as she hit two backhand volleys, the second for a winner, her doubles prowess on show. Another game where she was under pressure survived as Wozniacki netted a forehand error and it was 4-4. Now it was Sveta’s time to apply some pressure, holding a break point. Wozniacki fired down a service winner. Deuce. Sveta performed a drop shot and winning passing shot combination that had the purists purring. Break point. Wozniacki attacked her opponent with her groundstrokes, drawing a backhand error from a Sveta who was close to doing the splits at the back of the court. The Deuce game went on, Wozniacki went toe to toe with Sveta in the rallies and finally held her serve, her increased aggression paying off.
5-5 and memories were stirred of their 2009 US Open encounter which was decided on a final set tiebreaker, a match where Sveta had big chances to win but crumbled under the pressure. A forehand error from Woznaicki as she went for a winner, a backhand volley from Kuznetsova, and a pace-laden backhand down-the-line winner and Sveta inched closer to getting a measure of revenge as she held three break points, her aggressive manner too much for the Dane. Wozniacki saved the first as she went for broke on her forehand, going cross-court and forcing an error from Sveta. The Dane saved the next one as Kuznetsova hit a forehand error on the service return. One more break point to save. But now it was the Wozniacki forehand’s turn to break down as Sveta cracked an inside out forehand down the line and Wozniacki netted the return.
Sveta had the break and would serve for the match. This was not a guarantee she would win it, though. Fans have sat through countless matches where Sveta has led and then needed someone to perform the hiemlich maneuver on her but tennis being an individual sport she was left to spit out the prospect of victory, now chewed into a big ball of defeat, herself. Sveta fired down a service winner. 15-0. On the next point, she cracked a forehand down the line, moved in and then drove a forehand volley at the net. 30-0. The prospect of winning seemed to be going down the right hole this time. A forehand winner down the line from Wozniacki, keeping up the aggression in her bid to break, and it was 30-15. Shuffles could be heard as Dr. Heimlich began to make his move, unable to bear another attack when she had done so well to make it so far back. A cross-court backhand from mid-court pulled Wozniacki out wide and had her on the stretch to get her racket on the ball, the result being an error and two match points for the quarterfinal for Sveta. The Dr took a step back and looked on. Sveta struck her service down the tee, flew in and then blitzed the short return down the line for a winner.
The Dr and Sveta’s fans will be on hand for her quarter-final against Azarenka, the defending champion. Sveta will have her work cut out to remove the crown from Azarenka’s head, but if there is anyone to do it then there are few better than players who have worn crowns themselves and would not mind another one. And when Sveta plays as she has been doing this week, then who is to say she could not go as far as moving another step closer to the throne.

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Li Na rolls over Radwanska in straights

Li Na beating Agniezszka Radwanka (henceforth known as Aggie) on a hard court should not be considered an upset but a formality. But the numbers, 8 and 4, the respective seeds of the two, meant that should Li Na win, an upset it would be.
But a quick glance at their playing styles is enough to give a good idea of who should be the victor at a hard court Major, a surface that should favor the attacker. Aggie is a deadly consistent, super-defensive, never say die type who wins Premier titles; Li Na is a big-hitting player who on her day can beat anyone, as she did on her run to the French Open final in 2011 and her run to the final in Melbourne in 2010. On a hard court, Li Na has proven to be the more effective, thrashing Aggie as she has in Beijing and Montreal in past encounters. But in their most recent battle in the Sydney semifinal, with both women on a 8 match winning streak, Aggie’s defense got the better of Li Na’s attack, an attack which on its day can be so bad that its wretchedness is too strong for even Li Na herself.
Aggie was still on her winning streak when the two met today in the first Melbourne quarterfinal to be played, 13 matches and counting, yet to drop a set.Things looked like they might continue in this marchly fashion as a Li double fault handed her a break point. Aggie got busy doing her thing, the thing that has gotten her to world number four. She hit to the backhand, to the forehand, moving Li Na from side to side until Li Na fell into the trap. Having had enough of being on the other end of Aggie’s string, Li Na did what she does best, she went for her shot, going down the line with the forehand. But it was too much, too soon, as it so often is, which was exactly what Aggie had wished for, and the shot went wide. Aggie, whose inner delight at her strategy paying off in such an important match would have, if it had manifested itself on her face, resulted in a smile as wild as the Jokers, had broken and would serve for the set, a repeat of the Sydney result on the cards, the possibility of her first Australian Open semifinal from three attempts a game and a set away.
A set down to Radwanska is no enticing prospect for any one. And Li Na was having none of it. Li went on her own march at this point. She painted the line with a forehand winner, hit a down the line forehand winner for 30-0, spun a winning forehand passing shot to earn three break points and took the first one as she ripped a backhand down the line return to force an error of Aggie and break back. Li Na held and then with Aggie serving, turned her level up a notch as the two traded ground strokes. Biding her time, refusing to be frustrated into an error, Li Na hit a huge forehand down the line for a winner to get set point. A winning smash and she was a set up.
But as quick as Li Na can up her level, she can implode. And Aggie loves an implosion, winning 8 points in a row as the balls that had been painting the lines now graffitied errors. Li Na, for whom implosions can last until Game, Set and Match is called against her, ended the run with a forehand drive volley, her seventeenth point at the net, before going on to win the game with an ace, the implosion survived, an unusual silky patience veiling her play. At 1-2, a backhand down the line off a short ball and she had break point. She had turned it up again, smacking a back hand down the line on the return to force an error.
2-2. A perfect forehand volley at 15-0 and Li’s intentions were clear. This match was going to be won by her aggression and not by her being run ragged. And it was an intention she was in the mood to carry out, as she forced another rare forehand error from Aggie, leaving the Pole roaring in frustration, a condition she usually forces on her opponent. Another error, a backhand into the net, and it was Game Li Na. A backhand winner down the line, another one hit off a classic Aggie softball designed to draw an error, a forehand volley winner to the backhand corner and Ni La had dismantled the Pole who gave away the break with a double fault.
4-2 and another backhand down the line winner and Li Na had won nine points in a row to make 40-0, a backhand into the net ending the streak. A heavy backhand hit to the Aggie backhand forces and error and seals the game. Aggie made her last stand, serve and volleying to bring the run of five games against her to an end, a play she rarely does but unable to defend, she had no choice but to attack.
Serving at 5-3, Li saw what she already knew: that the Pole was not going to go away. Digging balls back in play, she hustled an error off Li for 15-40. A chance. A year back Clisters had come back from match points down against Li, a defeat that reduced the Chinese to tears. That defeat had clearly taught her well. Employing controlled, patient hitting, Li Na hit the ball deep and drew a forehand error from Aggie. On the very next point, Li Na did the very same routine, yielding the same result to get to deuce. She was not going to collapse in a heap of errors in the latter stages in Melbourne again, her weaknesses overcome as she found safety in the margins. The threats of break points passed, in the safer territory of deuce, Li went for her shot and struck an angled backhand crosscourt winner. Match point. She went for it again, going for a forehand down the line, her play-making rewarded as Aggie’s errored on the backhand, to win the match.
Her first Major semifinal since that historic Roland Garross victory earned, thanks to her new controlled aggressive net-friendly game, flowered in part by her new coach Carlos Rodgriguez, Henin’s former ‘boss’, Li Na had finally emerged from the weed-ridden wilderness she has been in the last season, the ghosts of her meltdown here last year put to rest, the prospect of another Major final to be played for ahead.

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Ferrer fights off Amalgro in five

Serving for your first Major semi-final is hard enough. But serving out against David Ferrer, a man against whom you need to hit three winners to make one, makes it even harder. Nothing but self-belief and the execution of the game that had the beating of the man up to that point will do. And you would have to play that game on the final point or else be lured into his web, worn down and devoured.
Nicolas Amalgro was about to serve out for the match against Ferrer. He would hope to get it done in one or else let Ferrer smell fear and attack. Amalgro had played his best to get himself into a position to finally break his Major quarter-final duck. Inspired, he had been hitting single-handed backhands down the line and serving like the big server he is, to claim the first set 6-4. In the second, he kept up his high level, a backhand cross-court winner grabbing him the break at 4-4. At 5-4 serving, a service winner, a forehand down the line and two more service winners and Amalgro was two sets to love up against a man who had beaten him 12 times and from whom he had never taken two consecutive sets. In the third set, he survived break points and frustrated his opponent into shouting at himself and smashing his racket. His backhand was firing, his forehand was working well, and most crucially, he had yet to be broken. All of this should have computed into this mind that he was capable of rallying against history and pulling this upset off. But the mind, as tennis shows us time and time again, does not work on ‘should’.
The game could not have started off better as he strikes a forehand down the line at the net. 15-0. 3 more points and he would have his first victory over Ferrer and his first Major semi-final. The two contest a long rally. The longer it goes on, the more you are drawn into Ferrer’s web. Ferrer can run all day, and if he thinks it will work in his favor, he will make you run even longer, sending you past the sidelines as he finally gets his open court. Amalgro knows, having been drawn into the web 12 times and always been gobbled up. Yet to be lured in this match, he goes for the shot that has never worked for him better than in this match: the backhand down the line. Running to the backhand corner, he strikes the ball down the line.
It goes long.
All those times it had gone in and now it was long! And when he needed it to be in, too. It was too much too soon. Not the making the Major semi-final; he had already made three quarter-finals at Roland Garros, it was time to move on the next stage. And not the beating of Ferrer: 12 times is 11 times too many to lose to the same man. No. He had hit the shot too soon. He had not been in position. On the next point, he would do better. And on the next point, he went for the backhand down the line, again. And again it went out. Again he had not been ready.
An ace. 30-40. A drive volley to the forehand and then another drive volley to the forehand for a winner. Deuce. Two more points. The rally goes on. And on. In Ferrer’s web, Amalgro goes for a big forehand cross-court but his arm is stuck in the webbing. He misses. Another break point down. Another long rally. Amalgro looks to disentangle himself but Ferrer strikes, the open court there, as he had planned, for the taking, his feet in position. A forehand winner down the line from Ferrer and he the number four seed has the break back and is back in the match.
5-5. Amalgro’s chance had slipped through his fingers. Ferrer took advantage while Amalgro was sombre with the sober reality. Ferrer held serve and then broke to love as Amalgro missed a forehand down the line.
The fourth set. Experience tells the spectator that Ferrer will go on to win. Oh the arrogance of experience! we scream. At 1-1, Amalgro paints the lines, gets the winners and forces the errors to break Ferrer to 15. 2-1. Ferrer breaks back; experience, it would seem, is misunderstood. Amalgro shouts. He knows experience worse than anyone out there. 12 defeats. No Major semis. Ferrer holds to love. Amalgro survives a long deuce game, serving his way out of trouble. He fights history, fights experience, fights Ferrer, fights himself. It’s a lot to fight. But Amalgro has it in him as he breaks Ferrer for 4-3. He has to hold to get his chance again. Two aces are the perfect start. But then he is back in the web again and break point down. Amalgro hits a drop short, then a passing shot, but Ferrer hits a winning volley for 4-4.
Amalgro refuses to lie down and be devoured. Not today.4-4, break point Amalgro. Ferrer attacks from the inside out forehand hitting to the backhand, going for the lines and then goes to hit his trademark inside out forehand down the line but it is out. Ferrer challenges and Amalgro reassures him the call was correct as they sit down.
5-4, serving for the match. The second time. He was playing well. Better than well. Amalgro is put on the defense and hits 2 errors to go down 0-30. A forehand winner and there is hope, but hope is all it is. Ferrer attacks his backhand. Amalgro moves to hit an inside out forehand down the line. It hits the net. Well, he had been playing well. Facing two break points, Amalgro attacks, coming to the net and putting pressure on Ferrer to come up with a passing shot. Ferrer errors and one break point is saved. One more break point to save for now, and Amalgro is on the run, goes for the forehand down the line and paints the line for a winner. Here he was, playing well again. Deuce. Ferrer musters all the intensity he can, and it is quite a mustering, and forces Almagro to hit a backhand long. Yet another break point. Amalgro saves it with a second service winner with slice down the tee. Deuce. This is when he needs to play well, right now, and get to match point. On the next point, Amalgro cleans the line with his backhand and full of confidence goes for a forehand down the line. It misses. Another break point down and for Amalgro it proves to be too many blows to the face. Ferrer is unrelenting, spinning his web, those legs never tiring, and he forces a backhand error to get the break.
But though his serve might have been broken, Amalgro’s resolve to win this match was not, still standing in the gales of doubt being blown at him by his opponent’s tenacity. A long deuce game follows. Back and forth, they wrestle control but another forehand error from Ferrer and Amalgro has his third chance to serve out for the set. Ferrer shouts and smashes his racket. Experience tells him that when he fights like this, he gets to wear the belt. It tells him Amalgro cannot beat him, Amalgro does not make Major semis. He does. 7 of them.
Third chance, third time lucky? Amalgro serves with new balls. Before he knows it, he is 15-40. A smash and it is 30-40. A forehand down the line and he has failed, for the third time, to serve out for the match. Perhaps, after all, he really was not ready. But there is no perhaps about it; he isn’t.
That failure to serve out for the match a third time would prove to be the final blow. In the tiebreak, Amalgro has another opponent: cramps. Ferrer takes the tiebreak 7-3, a pace-laden forehand struck right at Amalgro, who, unable to take the pace, makes an error, winning Ferrer the fourth set. On the changeover, Amalgro gets treatment and covers his head with a towel as he lies on his back.
In the final set, Ferrer keeps on spinning and a trapped Amalgro can only fight so long. At 2-2, Ferrer hit a big return to Amalgro’s body which Amalgro nets. Broken, now all Amalgro can do is lay in the web, his wings fluttering lamely, his legs cramping up, his final buzzes drowned out by the hungry grunts from the ever-spinning approaching spider. A winning lob at 4-2 Ferrer and Ferrer has the second break. He stands over Amalgro now, ready to take his bite. His thirteenth, and for the ever-starving Ferrer, it will be as delicious as the previous twelve. He does not have to be too violent either in case the fly should buzz away. On the changeover, Amalgro approaches a sitting Ferrer and taps him on the knee and offers his congratulations. One wonders if a fly has ever rubbed its nose on the jaw of a Spider just before it closes them.
On match point, Ferrer comes in and hits a forehand winner at the net. It is Game set and match Ferrer. The two embrace at the net. Experience was not so arrogant after all.

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Sloane Stephens sends Serena on flight out of Melbourne

Chances to beat Serena the last six months have been few and far between. Only Angelique Kerber was able to convert meeting Serena on an off day in Cincinnati into a win. Annieszka Radwanska got under her skin in the second set at Wimbledon and took it to a third, but the chance came and went and so did Agnieszka’s chances for the title. Azarenka had her chances at 30-30, 5-3 in the third in the US Open final but did not have the game to take it.
For Sloane Stephens, the chance came out of the blue. In her first major quarter-final and up against no less than her childhood idol Serena, the butterflies were fluttering like crazy in her stomach, crashing and diving into one another and the lining of her stomach. Errors flew from her racket as the first set flew by in what have been a blur. Down 0-2 in the second, the butterflies seemed a little calmer, flying next to one another, flapping their wings with less panic. Her shots landed in, she found some rhythm. At 1-2, she got a break. 2-2 and she was here to play. The butterflies were even showing off their brightly coloured wings. She returned the consistent depth and weight of shot of Williams with not just interest but with hard nosed questions, at times not getting any answers. Mixing up the pace and length, running sweetly into whatever was fired at her and then hitting the sweet spot on the return, flying to the net to put away volley winners, Sloane Stephens showed what hard work could do: land you in the quarters of a Major playing your best tennis. Now all she needed was what hard work and being in the business end of a Major can bring: chances.
At 3-3, Serena, wearing her poker face now she was being, finally, tested, ran into the net and got way down for a volley, yelling as she came up. She hobbled over to the service line. She winced and placed her hand on her back. The serve was little more than a tap. As the points went on, Serena could not get down a serve past 80mph and she could not rotate into her shots. A butterfly herself a few games before, she was now without wings.
This was Sloane Stephen’s chance. Her recent gear change showcased she had the game to push Serena this match. Coupled with her opponent’s injury, Stephens could, if she took the chance, take the match and become the first teen semi-finalist at a Major since Chakvetadze in New York in 2007. Sloane was in chance taking mode. She broke Serena for 4-3. Serena took a medical time out, leaving the court. Back spasms they reported. On returning, Stephens held for 5-4. Serena held, too, hitting hard and using up every inch of the court.
Serving for the set, her chance to contest Serena Williams in a third set for a place in the final on her racket, Sloane Stephens felt the butterflies panicking again, wings flapping, crashing around, confused at why the butterfly catcher who wanted to put them in glass cases and add to their collection was whacking his net against trees when he had always had such a good aim. Errors flew where winners had flown and it was 5-5. Serena though, seeming to be surviving both spasms and Stephens, was also in error mode, perhaps confused why her opponent could not take the chance that was not just begging to be taken but in all out alms demanding mode. Serena was in demonstrative mode, too. If rolling her ankle in round one and smacking herself in the lip in round two had been been enough, here was her third lashing of bad luck and the match was slipping from her grasp but her opponent could not take it either. Unable to string two decent points together, Serena dropped her serve. On the change of ends, she smashed her racket, screaming in disgust.
Sloane Stephens came back out onto the court. Chance, she had decided, had come her way and it was her duty to take it. After all, why else all the toil? Sloane Stephens came to terms with the mission before her. The butterflies once more settled, opened their wings, all the colors of the rainbow on display, the butterfly catcher collapsed by the tree, and Sloane Stephens was a set all against Serena Williams in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
The third and final set. Serena had not lost a three setter since losing to Martina Hingis in 2001, winning 12 of them since then. Sloane Stephens had won two from a total of ten matches in Melbourne. It was the younger American who challenged first in the final set, holding a break point at 2-1. Serena saved it with a serve down the tee and a smash, the spasms under control, her never say die mentality as big as both shots. A netted forehand from Sloane and it was 2-2. Another chance come and gone for Stephens. Two games later at 3-3, it was Serena who had the chance, earning a break point. Serena did not waste it. That was what had separated her from the rest the last six months. She rarely gave chances out and when she did she took them back and when she got them she took them. It is hard to beat someone who can control matters like so.
4-3 up and serving, it looked like the anticipated meeting between Azarenka and Serena was soon to be written on the next day’s schedule. At 30-30 a Serena error handed Sloane a chance to break point. It was here that the butterflies took their positions. The first one glided along, a sliced backhand. The next flew at an angle, a cross-court backhand, carved into the service box. Then a loopy backhand laden with spin. The change of depth, the different balls, the butterflies had dazzled with variety. Serena was forced into error. The break back was Sloane’s. The butterflies joined hands and curtsied to the cheering crowd.
At 4-4, Serena finds her game again, coming forward, hitting down the line winners. A forehand long from Sloane and it is break point Serena. Sloane goes forehand to forehand with her idol. Then, when the moment is right, Sloane goes down the line. Deuce. A backhand down the line out on the return from Serena and it is advantage Sloane. This time, Serena hits a forehand down the line winner. Deuce. Right now, the mood Serena is in, it is on her racket. Sloane though has other ideas. She hits a backhand cross court, comes to the net on a slice and Serena nets the passing shot. On game point, Sloane spins her serve into the service box. Serena gets to it and sends it down the middle of the court. Her careful play is paid back in kind. Sloane sends a loopy forehand back to Serena. With no pace on it, and no idea what is coming at her next, Serena nets the response.
5-4 Stephens. She is one game away from getting to where her idol has been so, so many times. Serena serves and hits a backhand error. She smashes her racket on the ground and screams. A couple of point later, Serena hits a forehand passing shot long. 15-30. On the next point, Sloane sends back rallying shots, the butterflies now frozen in confusion, whispers abound they might soon be released. Serena nets a backhand.
15-40. Sloane Stephens has two chances to make the semi-final. Two chances to put her childhood idol to the sword, a feat no one wants to achieve but which has to be done in the world Sloane Stephens lives in, a slaying that must take place if she wants to inhabit the world her Idol lives in, the world she helped make for her, the world she wants her to live in, too. Serena serves. The two rally shots back and forth. It is Serena who falters. Another backhand into the net. Sloane Stephen’s jaw drops. The butterflies vanish to wherever it is they go. The two, friends off court, embrace at the net. They both know the score. It was Sloane who took her chances. Serena knows they come few and far between, that they are earned not given. Serena looks on as the young woman celebrates. These are the chances she had helped create. There is no one on the tour she would rather see take them. Only next time, and she would do all she could to make sure of it, not against her.

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Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi Book Review

Agassi

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Andre Agassi’s auto-biography Open is as outgoing, unique and controversial as its subject.

The narrative is a unique one for a sports auto biography. Agassi narrates each period of his life in the present tense and tells his story with the feelings he felt at the time instead of filtering them through perspective, adding emotional depth and a compelling rawness to the book.

Open: An Autobiography delivers exactly what it says on the cover. Agassi does not hide his feelings about his at times hatred for tennis, his rivalry with Michael Chang and his now infamous comments about Pete Sampras’ tipping skills.

Whereas many a tennis autobiography plays it safe, Open takes a gamble, the kind you would expect from a man brought up in Las Vegas, and it delivers many times over.

Open offers insight into both the life of a prodigious tennis talent, one of the first true tennis celebrities and the pain, and ecstasy, of life at the top of the tennis tree.

Agassi shares his story with the reader with his heart on his sleeve, rare for this genre, and that quality alone makes this worth giving a go.

The book is also, thanks to its novel-like narrative, not just for tennis fans. It has crossover appeal, too, and anyone interested in the, at times, reluctant climb to the top of one of the world’s most lucrative sports by one its biggest stars, and the difficult climb-down from the peak, should open up this fine autobiography with the same enthusiasm and heart Agassi opens up his life to the reader.

Score: Five out of five. Entertaining, insightful and hard to put down, what more could you want from a tennis book?

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