Archive for the ‘Making a Racket’ Category

In the battle of the sexes, the guys outrank the girls

Steffi Graf.  Monica Seles.  Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.  Martina Hingis.  Lindsay Davenport.  Even those with only a brief, passing interest in tennis around Wimbledon time will recognise some of those great champions’ names.  But what about Jelena Jankovic?  Dinara Safina?  Caroline Wozniacki?  The same fair-weather fans could be forgiven if these recent world #1s don’t exactly ring any bells.

In a recent interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, the aforementioned Ms Sanchez Vicario commented that women’s tennis was much better in her 1990s heyday – the decade when those first five players reached the #1 ranking – than it is now.  “There was more variety, players with different games, stronger minds, more character,” she said.  “We had eight or 10 players who always had an extreme rivalry.  And to be number one, or winning a Grand Slam or two, that just didn’t come.”

Of the current crop she is less complimentary.  “Now everything is much more open.  You can be number one without being a great champion… If you ask people, they know the names of the Williams sisters or [Kim] Clijsters and [Justine] Henin, but don’t ask them to tell you the name of the [current] number one.”

She has a point if recent match attendance figures are anything to go by.  On Twitter this week, tennis journalist and commentator Guy McCrea lamented the lack of audience at the ongoing Madrid Open for current French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.  “Not even funny. Schiavone – RG champ no less – playing before 1 man and his dog on court 3 inMadrid,” he tweeted.  His hashtag placed blame on the fact that it is a combined men’s and women’s event, with the guys getting all the attention.

What he didn’t suggest in his 140 characters, though, were any possible reasons as to why this might be.  Because the sad fact is that, next to the glory and glamour of the men’s game, the current WTA tour lacks significantly in depth, drama, consistency and celebrity.

Some, mostly “serious” tennis fans, would argue that the current flatness of women’s tennis makes for a more exciting and unpredictable season, where players can rank outside the top 20 one week and beat bigger names to claiming a title the next.  You’re never quite certain who’s going to end up in each women’s final in the same way you know Nadal, Djokovic or Federer will inevitably win everything.

But what this argument ignores is the fundamental lack of match quality and technical superiority in the women’s game compared to the men’s.  The top four or five men have been ranked so highly for so long because of their skill and consistency in winning tournaments.  In contrast, the likes of Schiavone and Vera Zvonareva, currently in the top five, have been on the circuit for years and are only now reaching Grand Slam finals not because they’re getting any better, but because there is no new talent rising up to stop them.  The fact that Kim Clijsters could quit the sport, have a child, then come back two years later to win the US Open like she was having a casual knockabout in her local park is magnificent in some ways but tragic in others.

The lack of recognisable names in the women’s game is also bad for the sport in promotional terms.  There might be yet another Nadal-Djokovic final on the cards this weekend but the crowds and the TV crews will be there regardless because they know what spectacle it promises.  But on the women’s side, when the Williams sisters and Clijsters don’t show up (and all are currently injured) most people don’t have a clue who is actually playing, so the crowds and crews stay away.  Even if Madridwas a WTA-only event, I’m willing to bet Schiavone would still only be playing in front of one other man and maybe a couple more dogs.

The WTA desperately needs two or three all-conquering new stars to outshine the men.  Venus, Serena and Kim will not be around for long, and promising bright sparks Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic have quickly fizzled out and faded away.  It remains to be seen whether Caroline Wozniacki and co can become leading lights in the 2010s, but if they can’t, the girls risk being lost in the guys’ shadow for years to come.

I’ve just been watching the Madrid women’s final between Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova on television.  Along with about four people in the audience.  Maybe it’s too hot or everyone’s gone to eat lunch.  Maybe it’s that ridiculous noise Azarenka insists on making.  Or, in reality, maybe they’re all waiting for the next Nadal-Djokovic showdown later this evening.

Martin McGale

World #1 Wozniacki must win when it matters

If there is any tennis player under the same amount of pressure to win a Grand Slam as Andy Murray – if not more – it is surely Caroline Wozniacki.  The 20-year-old Dane has been world #1 for six months now (bar one week in February where she dropped behind Kim Clijsters) but does she really have the game to claim one of the big prizes and justify her ranking?  The evidence, so far, is inconclusive.

Over on the “Yes she can” side of the fence, supporters point to Wozniacki’s consistency, her work ethic and her titles won so far.  Her defensive style of play is well-rounded with no obvious weaknesses, and her movement around the court is often exceptional; similar to her more experienced rival Clijsters in many ways.  

Wozniacki rarely misses a week on the tour and is more or less a dead cert for the latter stages of any tournament she attends; even when things look to be going against her she is remarkably resilient.  In 2010 she won six titles – more than anyone else – and looks very capable of beating that this year, having already won three including the prestigious BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

However, it is often these same elements that the “No she can’t” camp uses to play down the likelihood of Wozniacki winning a major.  A common complaint from doubters is that she is only #1 because of the sheer number of tournaments she contests, accruing more and more ranking points without winning any finals.  It’s a different approach from the likes of Serena Williams, who notoriously can sit out of the tour for weeks before swooping in to win Wimbledon.

She is also criticised for being too defensive, at times even passive, when the moment calls for her to step forward and take control of a match, as demonstrated by her loss yesterday to home favourite Julia Goerges at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final in Stuttgart.  The title (and sports car that comes with it) was there for the taking, but Wozniacki sat back and let world #27 Goerges take the driver’s seat, hitting just nine winners to the German’s 38.  She looked uncharacteristically tired – and perhaps, after an unmanageable number of matches and three-hour workout sessions, she was.

It seems that Caroline Wozniacki has the tools to make a real name for herself; she just needs to work out how and when to better use them.  Her good looks, sunny personality and graciousness in defeat make her a sponsor’s dream and a potential people’s favourite.  But to become a household name like Clijsters and Williams, she’ll have to plan her calendar more selectively, pace herself throughout the year and play more aggressively in crucial points.

With the Williams sisters, Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka all battling injuries, Wozniacki will go into next month’s French Open as the overwhelming favourite.  So far, it doesn’t seem to be a label she likes being stuck with, but she will have to get used to it.  Otherwise, like Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina before her, she could very possibly end up fading away as a former world #1 without a Grand Slam.

Martin McGale

Long live the King of Clay

Yesterday, Rafael Nadal won the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters for the seventh year in a row – an(other) all-time record for the Spaniard.  Beating countryman David Ferrer 6-4 7-5 in the final of the Masters 1000 tournament in Monaco not only won him the title; it also extended his unbeaten run at the tournament to 37 consecutive matches, and means he has not been defeated on any clay court since 2009.  Novak Djokovic may have had the lion’s share of trophies and plaudits so far this year, but Nadal proved once again that he is the king of the red jungle.

It was by no means Rafa’s best ever performance.  The final was strewn with errors from the rackets of both men and an overall air of malaise following a tough and tiring week.  Nadal had been pushed by a resurgent Andy Murray in their Saturday semi-final, dropping a set to the Scot.  Ferrer had, on paper, had the better run to the final, having not lost a set or more than six games per match on his way.  The difference came, as always, on the crucial points.  When it came to the crunch, Nadal was able to take the big breaks and capitalise on a poor penultimate game from Ferrer to serve out the match.

It was enough to strengthen the Mallorcan’s position as favourite for the French Open once again, and further justify his place in sport’s history books.  And he’s not even turned 25 yet.

After the match, Nadal was characteristically modest.  “I’m a lucky guy to have done this by age 24,” he said.  “I don’t think about defending points from previous years, only about playing well.  I just keep trying to improve every day, train humbly and improve.”

Humility is the trait that has made Nadal undoubtedly the most popular player on tour.  Certainly British fans have taken to the Spaniard like few others in recent years.  It is perhaps not surprising that the cheers in the O2 Arena were slightly louder for Rafa than for the habitually moody and monotone Murrayduring their ATP World Tour Finals match.  And while the turf of Wimbledon still very much belongs to Roger Federer, his flat form and flashes of off-the-cuff arrogance haven’t won him any favour lately.

Nadal is much tamer away from tennis than his regimented, roaring form on court.  He still resides in Manacor, the small town on the Balearic island of Mallorca where he was born.  He has been in a relationship since his teens with Maria Francisca Perella, who avoids media attention, and his close-knit coaching team is headed by his Uncle Toni, the brother of his father and former FC Barcelona player Miguel Angel Nadal. 

By remaining so close to his roots, Rafa is able to produce his best form on the clay courts he was raised on.  Like all players, it no doubt helps that this part of the season takes place largely in or near his home country, and it would be hugely surprising if he doesn’t go on to dominate every tournament over the next two months.  Admittedly, Djokovic had to miss out on Monte Carlo due to injury, and he might have caused more problems for Nadal.  But after extending his fearsome clay court record, it looks like the world #1 is on course to take back his throne.

Martin McGale

Time to play on clay

The tennis calendar has reached an important turning point this week as the season switches surface from hard courts to clay.  The game’s big names have packed up their kits and flown from the humid heat of the southern US to the milder climes of the Mediterranean.  But what’s it all about, where is it all happening and who’s going to power their way to victory on the red dirt?

The clay courts of most high profile tournaments are actually made of crushed brick that is flattened and packed together to form the surface.  The main European tournaments are played on red clay though some others, like the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, US (won last weekend by Caroline Wozniacki) use green clay.

The main difference in moving from hard courts to clay is the speed of the game.  The composition of the clay means that the ball bounces higher and slower.  This gives players more time to return shots but, on the other hand, makes it harder to hit a winner.  The result is generally a baseline game with longer rallies that favours powerful, defensive players, as opposed to quick strategists who like to use all areas of the court.

If you’re looking for a man to bet on through the clay court season, you’d be safe with Rafael Nadal.  The world #1 has not earned the nickname “King of Clay” for nothing; with a record 81 consecutive wins on the surface, he is often considered the greatest clay courter of all time.  Last year he came back from an injury-plagued, title-free hard court season to claim every clay court Masters 1000 title and his fifth French Open.  If Novak Djokovic has got the better of the Spaniard so far this year, expect that to change over the next couple of months (not least because the Serb is currently sitting on the sidelines with a dodgy knee).

Another man who has proved his clay court crediblity is Robin Soderling.  The Swede has made the previous two French Open finals and will be hoping this year is third time lucky.  Also worth watching are Nadal’s Spanish compatriots Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, all of whom were also raised on the red and often produce their best stuff on the surface.

In contrast, some top players struggle to shine on the dirt.  Roger Federer won his first and only French Open just two years ago and is more formidable on the forthcoming grass courts of northern Europe, so any significant wins from him would be a surprise.  Expect Andy Murray’s drought to drag on a bit longer as he lumbers around his least favourite surface.  And the Andy Roddicks of the tour who rely on serves and speed will find things frustrating.

Over on the ladies’ side, the sudden second retirement of clay court queen Justine Henin after her Australian Open exit has left the door open for new challengers.  Wozniacki will be confident for more wins after a decent start to the year and earning her 15th title in Charleston.  There certainly seems to be a lack of any obvious competition following Kim Clijsters’ unfortunate announcement that she will miss most, if not all, of the clay court season due to injury.  Likely contenders, however, include the in-form Victoria Azarenka, who has broken into the top 5 after following up her Sony Ericsson Open triumph with victory on the clay of the Andalucia Tennis Experience last weekend; and current French Open champion and crowd favourite Francesca Schiavione.  Don’t rule out a resurgent Serb in the shape of Jelena Jankovic or French Open champion Ana Ivanovic either.

So where can you catch some clay court action before its classy climax at Roland Garros?  Well, if you’re not lucky enough to be in France, Spain, Portugal or Italy through April and May, here are the biggest tournaments to catch on TV over the next couple of months:

ATP Tour
10-17 April: Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters (Monte-Carlo, Monaco)
18-24 April: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (Barcelona, Spain)
1-7 May: Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain)
8-15 May: Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome, Italy)

WTA Tour
16-24 April: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (Stuttgart, Germany)
25-30 April: Barcelona Ladies Open (Barcelona, Spain)
1-7 May: Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain)
8-15 May: Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome, Italy)

Grand Slam:
23 May – 5 June: Roland Garros (French Open) (Paris, France)

Martin McGale

Groundhog day for Andy Murray

After the Australian Open, I wrote that Andy Murray should be given credit for reaching the final and not criticism for losing it.  Two months on and the greatest Grand Slammer of all time, Martina Navratilova, says he needs “a change in attitude”.  Who am I to argue?

Murray has played singles in three tournaments since Melbourne, losing in the first round in all of them.  In Rotterdam he lost to then #21 Marcos Baghdatis.  At Indian Wells he was embarrassed by qualifier Donald Young, then world #143.

Last week, at the ongoing Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, he was dumped out by #118 Alex Bogomolov Jr.  In total he won twenty games and zero sets.  And with the hard court season (Murray’s favourite surface) effectively over and the top players looking to the clay (Murray’s least favourite surface) of the Monte Carlo Masters in a couple of weeks, things aren’t exactly looking up.

Of course, we’ve been here before with Murray.  Last year, in fact.  In a slightly astounding turn of events, the Scot’s trajectory in 2011 has so far been almost exactly the same as in 2010 – though, depressingly, even worse.

Last year, after losing the Aussie Open to Federer, he lost the second round in Dubai, made the quarter finals of Indian Wells before losing to Soderling, and – again – lost his first match in Miami, in that instance to Mardy Fish.  If we called that a slump then this is an all out collapse.

So, what’s the problem?  Well, if Martina is right (and she is) it’s all in his head.  “He’s got the talent but he’s got to get tougher mentally,” she says.  “He’s too quick to pass the blame, looking at his box and yelling at them as if it’s somehow their fault he missed that forehand.”

It is undeniable that, compared to the rest of the top 5, Murray is a whirlwind of emotion on court.  Federer and Soderling are machine-like with their expressionless composure; Djokovic reserves his animation for when he’s winning; and even hot headed #1 Nadal is able to keep his cool when it really counts.

But with Murray, the eye-rolling, the face-scrunching, the whinging at the umpires and sniping at the line judges – it looks like complete mental torture.  And when he starts hitting his knuckles with his racket until they bleed, physical torture too.

Murray isn’t the only one having a stinker of a year so far (though he is the most prominent).  Tomas Berdych seems to be stuck in the quarter-finals stage at the moment, and Fernando Verdasco has been off kilter since losing the San Jose final to Milos Raonic.

Interestingly, the women’s Australian Open runner-up, Li Na, has also not won a match since losing the Melbourne final.  Arguably, though, none of these players have the same pressure or expectation to succeed at the top level as Murray does.

Something’s gotta give.  The Scot has just recently announced his new full-time coach as hitting partner and best mate Dani Vallverdu.  Great, but given Murray’s exhausting history with (and without) coaches, this quick fix is surely not the answer to a run of form almost as bad as his stint on Outnumbered for Comic Relief.

To put The Slump into perspective, Murray teamed up with the dazzlingly dominant Djokovic for doubles in Miami.  They promptly lost in the first round.

Maybe he needs to sit down and hear some words of wisdom from Martina, who still believes he has it in him.  “I would have thought he would have won a Slam by now, though he still has plenty of time on his side.”  Funny, I’m sure I’ve heard that before…

Martin McGale

NOTE: I’m off for a break next weekend so the column will return in two weeks!

Review: BNP Paribas Open 2011

As promised last week, the column returns with a review of all the action from the final few rounds of the “fifth Slam”: the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California.  It’s a day later than usual but the men’s final didn’t finish till after 11pm last night, and luckily it (and the ladies’ final) was worth staying up for.

QUARTER FINALS

In what turned out to be a terrific men’s singles draw, the top three seeds all advanced to the final stages.  Second seeded Swiss Roger Federer showed no mercy in dismissing fellow countryman (and doubles partner) Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets, while sensational Serb Novak Djokovic continued to steamroll all opposition by putting a stop to a spirited return to form from former French prospect turned (alleged) casual drug user Richard Gasquet.  Top seed Rafael Nadal showed some signs of shakiness in dropping a set to big Croat Ivo Karlovic, and resurgent former top 5-er Juan Martin del Potro was granted a spot in the semis without breaking a sweat after 25th seed Tommy Robredo withdrew due to injury.

Over on the ladies’ side, the competition looked much more open with only three top 10 seeds left in the quarters.  The match between two of them – world #1 Caroline Wozniacki and her eighth seeded pal Victoria Azarenka looked to be the pick of the bunch but unfortunately ended after just three games to the Dane when Vika pulled out injured.  The pair also showed some solidarity for earthquake-hit Japan by presenting a signed flag on court.  Elsewhere in a somewhat unexciting draw, Maria Sharapova struggled through against Peng Shuai, Belgium’s Yanina Wickmayer made short work of tenth seed Shahar Pe’er, and Marion Bartoli ended the renewed hopes of former #1 and fan favourite Ana Ivanovic.

SEMI FINALS

For tennis purists, the men’s semi final line-up was a sight to behold.  First up, a determined Rafael Nadal back from injury since bowing out of the Australian Open, against the hungry Juan Martin del Potro with the bigger point to prove that he deserves to be reconsidered among the game’s big names.  It was the top seeded Spaniard who prevailed 6-4 6-4 to book his spot in the final against the winner of arguably the most anticipated match of the tournament: Novak Djokovic versus Roger Federer.  Beaten by Nole in the past two Slam semis, as well as the final in Dubai last month, the Swiss maestro had a fair case for revenge, as well as the small matter of his #2 ranking to protect.  In a scintillating contest that could have gone either way, Djokovic triumphed 6-3 3-6 6-2; his third consecutive victory over the Swiss and 17th overall this year – equalling Pete Sampras’ all-time record.

The ladies semi-finals were a great deal more one-sided in terms of both on-court action and off-court attention.  Barely anyone seemed to notice or care that Marion Bartoli dropped just four games in dismantling the infuriatingly inconsistent Yanina Wickmayer 6-1 6-3 to reach her first WTA final in two years.  In contrast, the media made much ado of the glamour tie between Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova, two of the sport’s more popular pin-ups.  Unfortunately the battle didn’t live up to its billing as the current #1 schooled the former 6-1 6-2 in hardly any time at all.  Sharapova must be looking on in envy as her career remains stuck in a rut while Wozniacki’s soars.

THE FINALS

As is customary in tennis, the most polite of sports, it was ladies first on Sunday.  Great Dane Caroline Wozniacki had a relatively easy route to the final and was competing for a 14th tour title, while underdog Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli surprised the crowds by reaching her biggest match since her anomalous appearance in the 2007 Wimbledon final (which she lost to Venus Williams).  Not unreasonably, everyone expected a Wozniacki whitewash.  Thankfully, after a decidedly dull draw thus far, it turned out to be so much more.  Bartoli might look twice her age but she showed a depth and tenacity to her game – as well as amazing movement around the court – to knock the Dane of balance and even things up by stealing the second set.  In the end, though, it was Wozniacki’s mental stamina that saw her through to claim arguably her biggest title yet.  She has certainly justified her #1 standing but she could now do with a Slam to cement it.

With the ladies’ final surprisingly plentiful in rallies and range, it was then up to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to close the tournament in similar style.  What style indeed.  Both players could more than justify their places in the final but Djokovic had had a significantly tougher route with Nadal having played not a single seed so far.  In the end, this appeared to factor, as after just dropping the first set, Djokovic got into his stride.  Throughout the second and third sets he asked all the questions and Nadal came up short with answers.  The Serb moved just that bit better, ran just that bit faster, and caught the lines just that bit neater to topple the Spaniard and claim victory.  While Nadal is yet to win a title this year, Djokovic has won three.  He has a record-breaking 18 consecutive wins, he has a 100% winning record this year and he now has the #2 ranking – though this performance suggests he is in fact one better.

Martin McGale

Indian Wells: The Fifth Slam

Such is the popularity and prestige of this fortnight’s big tournament that it is often dubbed “The Fifth Slam” by tennis fans. The BNP Paribas Open – more casually known as Indian Wells after its location in the Californian desert town – boasts some impressive stats to justify this nickname.  The Indian Wells Tennis Garden includes the second largest tennis-specific stadium in the world, which, along with the complex’s 19 other hard courts, allow more than 300,000 spectators to watch 96 of the world’s best players under the California sun.

As an ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Mandatory tournament, Indian Wells is a compulsory part of the season for uninjured top-ranked players (despite the controversial boycott of the Williams sisters since 2001) so it’s guaranteed to be a good one.  But what’s been happening so far at this year’s event?  Here’s a quick round-up.

THE HOT SHOTS

As it is a mandatory tournament, Indian Wells sees all of the biggest players battling for the title, provided they are well and not named Williams. 

All of the top 10 men are in action, headed by #1 seed Rafael Nadal playing in his first ATP tournament since the Australian Open.  He looks in good shape to claim his third title here, though here are plenty of challengers in his way.  Aside from the usual threat of Federer, Djokovic and Soderling, the resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro has already dispatched last year’s surprise champion Ivan Ljubicic, while a self-assured Andy Roddick might fancy another American victory after his triumph in Memphis last month.

Of the women, top seed Caroline Wozniacki will want to go one better than last year and win Indian Wells for the first time, having got off to a flying start.  Also confident will be 2009 champion Vera Zvonareva, who beat Wozniacki in Doha last month, and the ever-formidable Kim Clijsters.  However, given the year she’s had so far, it’s pretty unlikely that Jelena Jankovic will become the first female to win the tournament two years in a row since Martina Navratilova.

THE LONG SHOTS

While Indian Wells is a premier tournament, the surrounding pressure is still less than at a Slam, meaning some wildcards might take more confidence into their matches.

With no less than 11 entrants in the men’s draw, the Americans will be hoping that home advantage instils some fighting spirit into some of their younger players.  So far so good, with only two having lost so far, and Ryan Sweeting, Sam Querrey and Donald Young all progressing to round three.  But in truth, the two wildcards to watch are the non-Americans; Canada’s Milos Raonic and Australia’s Bernard Tomic, who are both more than capable of causing upsets.

Carrying the torch for the women’s wildcards is New Jersey’s Christina McHale, who is in fact the only wildcard – and indeed the only American woman – left in the draw.  Other surprise packages could come from Urszula Radwanska, who could face ninth-seeded big sister Agnieszka in the fourth round, and former world #1 Dinara Safina, whose apparent new-found confidence is almost as surprising as her monumental collapse over the past two years.

THE DROP SHOTS

It wouldn’t be tennis without an upset or two, and even in the first few days Indian Wells has not been short of shocks.

The biggest of all, perhaps not surprisingly, came on Saturday when hapless Andy Murray was bundled out by American upstart Donald Young 7-6(4) 6-3.  The world #5 has still not won a singles match since he lost the Australian Open final and appears to be repeating last year’s spring slump.  Perhaps more surprising was David Ferrer’s exit to the same scoreline at the hands of Ivo Karlovic.

Not to be outdone, the women’s Australian Open runner-up also bowed out early at Indian Wells, as China’s Li Na succumbed in three sets to compatriot Peng Shuai in the second round.  Also sent packing early on was serial bungler Svetlana Kuznetsova, the two-time Grand Slam champ losing to wildcard Christina McHale; and prospect Petra Kvitova who, now that she is expected to win is, ironically, losing.

With both singles finals scheduled for next Sunday, come back next week for a review of The Fifth Slam in full! 

Martin McGale

The toughest twist yet in the saga of Serena

With a career record and longevity to rival that of Roger Federer and her formidable form both on and off the court, it is sometimes easy to forget that Serena Williams is only human.  And it’s sad that it can take a sudden, near-fatal event to put that into perspective.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that the younger Williams sister received emergency surgical treatment for a haematoma (a swelling containing blood) that resulted from a pulmonary embolism (essentially a blood clot in the lung).  It was reported that she was diagnosed and hospitalised following ongoing treatment on her foot, which she cut on glass shortly after winning Wimbledon last year, causing an injury that has kept her out of the game since.

As shocking as all of this is, perhaps the most surprising thing of all was when the 29-year-old subsequently announced that, while she “can’t make any promises… I hope to be back by early summer.”  It is highly unlikely that Serena will be able to come back from such a critical health condition in time for the French Open at the end of May, or even to defend her Wimbledon crown at the end of June.  But then, she has always set herself higher standards than other mere mortals.

Much ado has been made of the extraordinary rise of Serena and her older sister, Venus, to the top.  Raised in the notorious Compton neighbourhood of Los Angeles, coached on public courts and home-schooled by their unconventional father, Richard, and persevering to reach the top of the rankings – it truly is the best tennis story not (yet) made into a movie.

More still has been written about the prevailing cloud of controversy that follows Serena around the globe.  She is routinely criticised for her seeming devotion to other off-court pursuits: the fashion, the music videos, the guest appearances in US TV shows.  Not that it detracts from the serious nature of her tennis, which can often ignite her temper.  Her most recent major outburst came in her semi-final match with Kim Clijsters at the 2009 US Open.  After being called for a foot fault when serving to stay in the match, she infamously erupted at the line judge, allegedly threatening to kill her.  The incident put her out of the tournament but became a YouTube highlight the following day.

All of this makes Serena prime fodder for the press pack.  But what it also means – along with the mainstream sports media’s persistent apathy towards women’s tennis in general – is that her impeccable record can be overlooked.  With 13 Grand Slam titles under her belt, she is just three short of Federer (and, arguably, has a better chance of winning more).  She claimed the “Serena Slam” (holding all four Grand Slam titles at once) in 2003, before Federer or Nadal had even won one.  Add to that her 24 other singles titles as well as her impressive doubles record with Venus and it’s unfortunate that she is more frequently considered a celebrity controversy magnet than one of the greatest living players of all time.

After winning both the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year, it looked like Serena was set to dominate the women’s game all over again, so it is understandable that, after the frustration of her foot injury, she is keen to get back to the top as quickly as she can.  But a life threatening illness is different to an injury and it is crucial that she allows enough time to build up her stamina if she wants to see her name on another Slam trophy.  Back by early summer?  Sometimes, it seems, even Serena forgets she is only human.

Martin McGale

Out with the old, in with the Novak?

As Djokovic defeats Federer for the second time in a row, could there be an upset at the top end of the tennis table in 2011?

After crashing out to the Serb in the semi finals of the Australian Open last month – his second Grand Slam semi defeat by Djokovic in a row – Federer was quick to quieten any talk of a revolution in the men’s game.  “They say that very quickly” he asserted.  “Let’s talk in six months again.”

Well one of those months has now passed and, if anything, a changing of the guard looks more likely.  Djokovic displayed yet more determination to sweep the Swiss aside in straight sets, 6-3 6-3, in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Saturday.  He dug deep to come back from a break down in the second set and secure his third straight title at the tournament. 

But while the impressiveness of Djokovic’s form can’t be overlooked, neither can the apparent deterioration of Federer’s.  Since he ended 2010 with a deserved Barclays ATP World Tour Finals trophy in London, and began 2011 with another win in Qatar, the serial champ has hit something of a slump.  A bumpy road to the semis in Australia was blocked by a superior Djokovic, and in Dubai his usual class and efficiency were replaced by crass errors.  But if he wasn’t able to return the Serb’s serves, he could still hit back at sceptics: “Things are over in a hurry sometimes in best of three set tennis,” he reasoned.

With Federer and Nadal having ruled the rankings for a good half decade now, it’s all too tempting for tennis fans to consider that a coup might be about to take place.  Since winning the first of his sixteen Grand Slams at Wimbledon eight(!) years ago, Federer has hit heights to more than justify his reputation as, probably, the greatest player there has ever been.  But in the last couple of years his priorities have undoubtedly shifted.  Marriage, fatherhood, charity work and turning 30 in August will all have an affect on his appetite for more titles in the years to come.

The imperious but injury-prone Nadal is a much tougher tennis tyrant to overthrow.  After a slow start, the world #1 dominated the clay court season and went on to claim three Grand Slam titles in 2010.  But there are chinks in Rafa’s armour.  As with last year, the hard courts of the Australian Open proved tough on his unreliable legs and he has sat out of the circuit since he suffered a hamstring injury in his quarter final against David Ferrer.  It will be interesting to see how he comes back at Indian Wells in a couple of weeks, but his continuing physical inconsistencies and occasional mental lapses will give hope to those after his crown.

So who are the most likely successors to the throne?  Djokovic surely has to be first in line.  With his 100% match record this year still intact and his self belief seemingly growing by the week, his years as bridesmaid to Federer and Nadal’s bride and groom (or groom and bride?) could soon be over.  He still has some distance to catch up with the Rafa but with less than 100 ranking points currently separating him from the Swiss, the #2 spot is well within his reach.

A quiet man who has also been causing a stir this year is Robin Soderling.  Aside from a surprising fourth round defeat to Alexandr Dolgopolov at the Australian Open, the Swede has won all three of the other tournaments he has played this year.  Soderling has reached the last two French Open finals – losing to Federer and Nadal respectively.  It will be interesting to see if he can take this year’s title in a few months time.

Elsewhere, David Ferrer has had a fine start to 2011; defeating Nadal to reach the semis of the Australian Open and winning in both Auckland and Acapulco.  Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych also continue to hover around the top end of the rankings, though neither has a 2011 title to his name yet.

While Roger may be more reluctant to concede the crown, Rafa has said to the Spanish media that their reign is under threat: “For sure I think this monopoly ended some time ago.  There are many players ready to challenge now.”  There are indeed – but the challenge has already begun.

Martin McGale

A Rao-sing start to the season

Fanatical followers of tennis will already be familiar with the name Milos Raonic.  More casual spectators of the sport soon will be.  After an impressive run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, the Canadian has come blazing out of the blocks to reach two finals in a row. 

Raonic qualified for only his second Grand Slam back in January and few would have predicted the run he made.  After taking out the tricky #22 seed Michael Llodra in straight sets in the second round, he toppled #10, US Open semi-finalist Mikhail Youzhny, in the third.  He stole a set from eventual semi-finalist David Ferrer in the fourth round before bowing out.  It was a flash of brilliance from a rising star but nothing to get too dazzled by yet, right?  Wrong.

Since Melbourne, Montenegro-born Milos has been outshining some of the Tour’s best and brightest on an almost daily basis.  Aside from a stumble at the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg, the 20-year-old has spent most of the past two weeks spitting out seeds with admirable audacity.

At the SAP Open in San Jose, Raonic won his first of surely many ATP titles to come.  In a route to the final that saw him navigate past #4 seed Xavier Malisse, veer ahead of veteran James Blake and run over rising Lithuanian prospect Richard Berankis – all in straight sets – Raonic was shown a shortcut in the semis when #2 seed Gael Monfils withdrew with a wrist injury.  In the final, though, he proved his worth by defeating #1 seed Fernando Verdasco 7-6(6) 7-6(5) to become the first Canadian to win an ATP tournament since good old Greg Rusedski (before he jumped ship to Great Britain).

As if vanquishing Verdasco once wasn’t good enough, Raonic did it again in the first round of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis just four days later.  A frustrated Fernando rubbished Raonic for relying on his serve rather than running and rallying.  But the Canadian could hardly care as another impressive run, in which he has beaten Radek Stepanek and Mardy Fish, has taken him to his second consecutive final, this time against fifty-times ATP finalist Andy Roddick, which will be served up tonight.

According to wise old Wikipedia, even if Raonic loses tonight he will still rise to #37 in the world.  Not bad considering he started the year at #159.  He is also set to be the highest ranked Canadian player in ATP history – again, perhaps not the most impressive statistic given the dearth of Canucks at the top end of the game, but certainly nothing to be sniffed at.

In many ways, Raonic combines some of the best elements of the best players in one 6’ 5” package.  He has the serving accuracy and hardcourt speed of Andy Murray; the fire and energy of Rafael Nadal; and the work ethic of fellow Balkan Novak Djokovic.  Add to that the trophy-winning tendencies of Roger Federer and Milos Raonic could rise to be the brightest start in the sport by the end of the year.

Martin McGale

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