Circus Chatrier: Starring Serena, Virginie, Some Pigeons and More Hindrance

Virginie Razzano’s stunning 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3 upset of Serena Williams in the opening round of Roland Garros on Tuesday handed the American her first loss in the first round of a Grand Slam. Razzano, who reached a career high ranking of #16 in 2009, has suffered through numerous personal and physical setbacks in her tennis career. Shortly after she reached her career high ranking, she was plagued by multiple injuries, and plummeted back down the rankings. Prior to the start of the 2011 French Open, Razzano’s fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, passed away due to a brain tumor. Coming into Roland Garros, Razzano was ranked #111, exactly 106 spots under Williams. Williams, undefeated on clay in 2012 and the champion in Charleston and Madrid, was considered the favorite by many to win the title.  Why do we love tennis? No one gave the Frenchwoman a chance, and she proved everyone wrong.

The match has reignited a debate regarding the rules of tennis and how clear they actually are. Once again, the hindrance rule takes center stage at a Grand Slam. Chair umpire Eva Asderaki penalized Razzano three time in the match citing the rule. I’ve read and heard some of the most ridiculous things in regards to the rule over the past two days, and it doesn’t help that most of the former players commentating, especially for major American TV networks…I’m looking at you McEnroe and Carillo, are completely unaware of what the hindrance rule actually means. The ITF and WTA hindrance rules read as follows:

ITF rule:

26. HINDRANCE
If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.
However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).

WTA rule:

H. HINDRANCE RULE
If a player hinders her opponent, it can be ruled as either involuntary or deliberate.
1. Involuntary Hindrance
A let should be called the first time a player has created an involuntary hindrance (e.g., ball falling out of pocket, hat falling off, etc.), and the player should be told that any such hindrance thereafter will be ruled deliberate.
2. Deliberate Hindrance
Any hindrance caused by a player that is ruled deliberate will result in the loss of a point.

In both instances, the first involuntary hindrance is regarded as a let, while any subsequent involuntary hindrance is ruled intentional, and penalized accordingly.

“Well if Razzano is going to get penalized for that, than Azarenka, Sharapova, etc, who are louder, should all be defaulted in the first game. Can’t wait to see her umpire them.”

First off, it’s laughable that a decent amount of people think Asderaki has never umpired Azarenka, Sharapova, Schiavone or your other favorite noise maker before. She’s experienced and one of the best in the game, and has chaired all of them. Secondly, Razzano WAS NOT penalized for grunting. I cannot stress this clearly enough. Razzano was penalized for a verbal utterance of pain, which is an entirely different issue according to the rules. Also, the volume of the hindrance is irrelevant in determining whether a act of hindrance has taken place.

Razzano’s first verbal utterance is considered involuntary or out of her control, as it was the exact moment that her cramp/injury/ailment occurred. Asderaki, in correct procedure, asked her if she needed the trainer, she said no, and then warned her if it happened again it would be a point penalty. It happened twice more, and you know the rest. There is literally nothing here outside the letter of the rules. The clarity of hindrance rule has long been hotly debated in tennis circles; however, the language of the rule is clear. Those intent on crucifying Asderaki should know she is just an umpire; she doesn’t make the rules, she and the others just enforce them as instructed.

Those who have an issue with grunting as it relates to “deliberate and unintentional,” should realize that if the umpires were stricter in the 80’s and 90’s regarding it, there would be no issue today. Grunting is covered in a different section in the rules, and is also amended for 2012 in the notes and comments section of the 2012 USTA Friend at Court.

USTA Comment 26.1: What is the difference between a deliberate and an unintentional act? Deliberate means a player did what the player intended to do, even if the result was unintended. An example is a player who hits a short lob in doubles and loudly shouts “back” just before an opponent hits the overhead. (See The Code § 34.) Unintentional refers to an act over which a player has no control, such as a hat blowing off or a scream after a wasp sting.

Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of an official. Grunting and the making of loud noises that affect the outcome of a point are hindrances. Only an official may rule that these actions are hindrances and order that a let be played or a loss of point, depending on whether an official had previously warned the offending player.
Keep in mind, and I STRESS THIS GREATLY: This rule was rewritten by the USTA for 2012 in an attempt to provide further clarity on this issue. The rules, while they may vary slightly from federation to federation, are by-in-large consistent across the board, and with ATP, WTA and ITF rules. The point remains that officials are supposed to distinguish between grunts and shrieks of pain in regards to hindrance. The bolded portion of the grunting amendment is where this distinction happens; how are officials to rule if grunting affects the outcome of the point if no player seems to take issue during the match? As the rule stands, grunting is only considered a hindrance in VERY specific circumstances. Razzano’s shrieks of pain came as Williams was preparing for her shot, and fall clearly under the hindrance category.

“Why was Serena penalized right away but they replayed the point on the first hindrance?”

The hindrance ruling at the US Open was 100% correct because it falls under the category of deliberate. The word deliberate in this context covers BOTH the deliberate action performed with the intent to hinder AND a deliberate action which causes a hindrance anyway. The situation at the US Open fell into the latter; the phrase “Come on!” is considered a deliberate verbal utterance. The intent was not to hinder, but since it is a deliberate action, it falls under deliberate hindrance. The point penalty is given immediately.

“Why is this umpire the only one calling hindrances?”

Mardy Fish was called on a hindrance in his loss to Matt Ebden by Felix Torralba at the 2012 BNP Paribas Open. Marion Bartoli was also called on hindrance against Christina McHale at the 2011 US Open. Unintentional hindrances such as hats blown off by wind or balls falling from skirts (a notable example of this coming in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open in a match with Maria Sharapova and Camille Pin) are common. End of discussion.

Far too often, chair umpires have been criticized for being too soft: this player takes too much time in between points, this player gets illegal on court coaching, etc. Asderaki followed the letter of the rule to a T, and her implementation of the rule was spot on for the first two hindrances. The third, which many have taken issue with, was arguably a judgement call, but was still correct. Don’t shoot the messengers because the rule is hazed under 50 shades of gray.

Can we stop talking about it now?

Tango on the Terre Battue – Roland Garros 2012 Preview

Ladies’ Preview

In 2011, Li Na defeated defending champion Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6(0) to win her first Grand Slam title.

Last year, Li Na stormed through the women’s field, losing only two sets en route to the title, and became the first Asian and Chinese Grand Slam champion in singles. The win catapulted her to star status in her home nation, and a flood of endorsement deals followed. Li struggled with her new status for the rest of 2011, but has been rounding into form of late – at the just right time.

This year, the two women in the spotlight are very comfortable in that role: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. Sharapova and Williams split the major clay-court warmup events, with the American winning in Charleston (d. Safarova) and Madrid (d. Azarenka), and the Russian taking the crowns in Stuttgart (d. Azarenka) and Rome (d. Li). Williams has one French Open crown, which came in 2002 (d. V. Williams), but Sharapova is still searching for her first title in Paris to complete the career Grand Slam.

Breaking it All Down

First Quarter: (1) Victoria Azarenka (BLR), (6) Samantha Stosur (AUS), (12) Sabine Lisicki (GER), (15) Dominika Cibulkova (SVK), (20) Lucie Safarova (CZE), (24) Petra Cetkovska (CZE), (27) Nadia Petrova (RUS), (31) Jie Zheng (CHN)

World #1 Victoria Azarenka is playing her first Grand Slam as the top seed, and is the recipient of a kind draw. Azarenka has not been as dominant on clay as she was on the early season hard courts, having been handily defeated by Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams in the Stuttgart and Madrid finals and causing controversy with her withdrawal from Rome. Despite being the top seed, there is less pressure on Azarenka coming into this event, as most pundits are talking about Williams, Sharapova and Li as the favorites. Azarenka opens against Alberta Brianti, and her first challenge could come against either Dominika Cibulkova or Lucie Safarova. Cibulkova will no doubt be looking to challenge Azarenka in a projected fourth round match, after letting a 62 *51 lead slip away in the fourth round of Indian Wells, she was the beneficiary of Azarenka’s withdrawal in Rome. 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur anchors the bottom of this quarter, and she opens her campaign against Great Britain’s Elena Baltacha.

Unseeded threats in this section include Ekaterina Makarova, who not only made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year (d. Zvonareva, S. Williams en route) but also made the fourth round here in 2011. She opens against American teenager Sloane Stephens, who has cited clay as her favorite surface, and is coming off her first WTA semifinal appearance in Strasbourg (l. to Schiavone). Simona Halep, who opens against Cetkovska, is another dangerous floater in this section. Halep, in her young career, has shown her skill on clay courts; she finished runner-up in this week in Brussels (l. to Radwanska), has reached three career finals on the surface, and her best chance of a Grand Slam breakthrough will no doubt be at this event. Local hopes in this section are on  the shoulders of Alize Cornet. Cornet, who reached a career high of #11 in 2009, has slipped down to #83 in the rankings, but is coming off a runner-up finish in Strasbourg (l. to Schiavone). She’ll play Zheng in the opening round. Also looming in this section is 2010 Rome champion Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

Sabine Lisicki is the big name in this section who could crash out early. The German, who is 10-11 on the year, has struggled after re-aggravating an ankle injury in Charleston. She opens against American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who despite coming off injury is comfortable on clay, and could face Ekaterina Makarova or Sloane Stephens in the second round. She would be drawn to play Stosur in the fourth round.

Second Quarter: (3) Agnieszka Radwanska (POL), (8) Marion Bartoli (FRA), (10) Angelique Kerber (GER), (13) Ana Ivanovic (SRB), (18) Flavia Pennetta (ITA), (21) Sara Errani (ITA), (26) Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS), (29) Anabel Medina Garrigues (ESP)

Agnieszka Radwanska goes into the French Open in good form, having just won her third title of the year this week in Brussels (d. Halep). Radwanska, who has never reached a Grand Slam semifinal, has a tough draw. She opens against streaky Serbian Bojana Jovanovski, and Venus Williams potentially looms in the second round; Williams opens against rising Argentine Paula Ormaechea. That match would be a rematch of their quarterfinal match in Miami when Radwanska triumphed in straight sets. The winner of that match could potentially face 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova; 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic and three-time clay court titlist Sara Errani loom in the fourth round. Eighth-seeded and 2011 semifinalist Marion Bartoli and 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber anchor the bottom part of this quarter, and they are in opposing forms. Bartoli, the French favorite who often struggles on clay, has only won one match on European clay this year. Kerber, who broke into the top 10 for the first time this week, reached the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. 18th-seeded Italian Flavia Pennetta could play spolier in this section, provided a recurring wrist injury which forced her to retire against Serena Williams in Rome proves to not be an issue.

Other unseeded players to watch in this section include former top 15 player Shahar Peer and Johanna Larsson, who despite having a poor year, has shown prowess on clay in the past, upsetting Ivanovic in the first round here and reaching the final in Bastad last year. She opens against Melanie Oudin, the beneficiary of the USTA wildcard. Oudin, whose struggles have been well documented since her breakthrough run to the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2009, is playing in her first Grand Slam main draw since last year’s US Open, and has never won a match in Paris.

Third Quarter: (4) Petra Kvitova, (7) Na Li (CHN), (11) Vera Zvonareva (RUS), (14) Francesca Schiavone (ITA), (17) Roberta Vinci (ITA), (19) Jelena Jankovic (SRB), (30) Mona Barthel (GER), (32) Monica Niculescu (ROU)

At this time last year, Petra Kvitova was in the midst of her breakthrough. Having stormed to the title in Madrid, she play Li tough in the fourth round, being up a break in the final set before succumbing. A few months later, she went on to win Wimbledon, and blasted through the field at the WTA Championships. Most expected her to dominate the field this year, but it just hasn’t happened. Kvitova has struggled with injury and illness, and comes into the event with question marks after suffering an abdominal injury in Rome. She opens against 15-year-old Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty. Li Na has her work cut out for her early, with a tricky opening match against Sorana Cirstea, and a potential third round encounter with Christina McHale or breakthrough player of the year Mona Barthel.

This quarter is heavy with unseeded players who can spoil the party. McHale is in good form this season, having defeated Petra Kvitova in Indian Wells, and has reached back-to-back third rounds in Grand Slams. Romania’s Sorana Cirstea and Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro have proven they have what it takes to perform on the big stages, particularly at Roland Garros. Cirstea made the quarterfinals in 2009, and Suarez Navarro accomplished the same feat in 2008. Cirstea has shown no aversion to playing reigning Grand Slam champions, having defeated Samantha Stosur in the first round at the Australian Open.

Seeds primed for an early exit in this section are Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic. Zvonareva, who was seeded #3 at Roland Garros in 2011, has been plagued by hip and shoulder problems this season, and is a pedestrian 7-7 on the year. She opens against rising teenager Timea Babos, and could face Suarez Navarro in the second round. Jankovic dropped out of the top 20 this week for the first time since 2006, and has lost in the opening round in seven of her last eight events. The former World #1 faces Patricia Mayr-Achleitner in the opening round, with Ksenia Pervak, Varvara Lepchenko, Tsvetana Pironkova, Yanina Wickmayer and/or Francesca Schiavone looming on the horizon.

Fourth Quarter: (2) Maria Sharapova (RUS), (5) Serena Williams (USA), (9) Caroline Wozniacki (DEN), (16) Maria Kirilenko (RUS), (22) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS), (23) Kaia Kanepi (EST), (25) Julia Goerges (GER), (28) Shuai Peng (CHN)

What a difference a year makes. Last year at Roland Garros, Caroline Wozniacki was World #1 and the top seed, but crashed out in the third round to Daniela Hantuchova. This year, she is not only drawn to meet Serena Williams in the fourth round, but could face Jarmila Gajdosova in the second round or Kaia Kanepi in the third; both are capable of taking the match completely out of Wozniacki’s hands. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova could face off in the quarterfinals, a matchup Williams has dominated since 2005.

Dangerous unseeded players in this section include Lucie Hradecka, who made the semifinals in Madrid as a qualifier, posting wins over Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur before falling to Williams. She and Julia Goerges will face off in a hard-hitting opening round, with the winner likely going on to face Williams in round three. Clay court specialists Irina-Camelia Begu and Polona Hercog are also looming in this section, with Hercog potentially drawn to face Sharapova in the second round, where Begu could face Kanepi.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Shuai Peng are the seeded players who will most likely fall early here. Peng has not won a match since Miami, and faces Tamira Paszek in the first round, while Pavlyuchenkova has struggled mightily this season, posting a 5-14 record on the year. The Russian is defending a quarterfinal here in Paris, and opens against veteran Greta Arn.

Men’s Preview 

In 2011, Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer for his sixth French Open crown and 10th Grand Slam title, 7-5, 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1.

There are only three things certain in this world: death, taxes and Rafa in Paris. A six-time champion in Paris, Nadal has an almost spotless 45-1 record at Roland Garros, with that loss coming to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. He will be gunning for a record breaking seventh title in Paris, and comes in having won in Monte Carlo and Madrid.

Last season, the story was Novak Djokovic. The Serb was undefeated heading into Roland Garros, having defeated Nadal in the finals of all the major clay-court warmup events. He fell to Roger Federer in the semifinals and returns this year with a different sort of pressure. This year, he will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam, having triumphed at Wimbledon and the US Open last season. The World #1 has not been as dominant these season, having accumulated five losses already, including in the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome (l. to Nadal).

Breaking It All Down

First Quarter: (1) Novak Djokovic (SRB), (5) Jo-Wilifred Tsonga (FRA), (11) Gilles Simon (FRA), (14) Fernando Verdasco (ESP), (18) Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI), (22) Andreas Seppi (ITA), (28) Viktor Troicki (SRB), (30) Jurgen Melzer (AUT)

Novak Djokovic is playing his third Grand Slam event as the top seed. His shadow looms large over this section, and he opens his campaign for a fourth straight Grand Slam title against Italian Potito Starace. The first hurdle for Djokovic could come in the third round against Jurgen Melzer; Melzer has a history against Djokovic at this event, having defeated the Serb in five sets in the quarterfinals in 2010. Frenchmen Jo-Wilifred Tsonga and Gilles Simon anchor the bottom part of this quarter, and a fourth round clash between the countrymen is projected.

This season may perhaps be the swan song for Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt, who has fought through numerous hip and foot surgeries in recent years, was the recipient of the Australian wildcard. Hewitt, the former World #1 and two-time Grand Slam champion could face Djokovic in the second round. Djokovic and Hewitt also squared off in the fourth round of the Australian Open, where Djokovic triumphed 61 63 46 64. Pablo Andujar, who just missed out on being seeded here, is another player looming in this section.

Thomaz Bellucci, an accomplished clay court player in his own right, can provide a stern test to Viktor Troicki in the opening round. Seppi is another seeded player in danger in this section, as his opening round opponent is former World #3 and two-time Roland Garros semifinalist Nikolay Davydenko.

Perhaps the most intriguing story in this section is that of 27-year-old American wildcard Brian Baker. Baker, who defeated among others Djokovic, Berdych, Tsonga and Murray as a junior, endured five surgeries throughout the past seven years. Baker has made his return to competitive tennis this season, and is fresh off a stunning run in Nice, where he qualified and eventually reached the final (l. to Almagro). He opens against Belgian Xavier Malisse.

Second Quarter: (3) Roger Federer (SUI), (7) Tomas Berdych (CZE), (9) Juan Martin del Potro (ARG), (15) Feliciano Lopez (ESP), (21) Marin Cilic (CRO), (23) Radek Stepanek (CZE), (26) Andy Roddick (USA), (31) Kevin Anderson (RSA)

Roger Federer has been drawn in Djokovic’s half for the 15th time in the past 19 Grand Slam events. He opens his campaign against German Tobias Kamke, and could potentially face David Nalbandian in the second round. Nalbandian, a former World #3 has reached the semifinals of Roland Garros twice, and has given Federer numerous tough matches in the past. Federer has had varying degrees of success against his projected quarterfinal opponents, as he has an 11-2 head-to-head record against del Potro and 11-4 against Berdych. Federer recently defeated Berdych in a tight three-set affair in Madrid.

The unseeded threats in this section also include, Albert Montanes and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Montanes, who reached a career high ranking of 22 in 2010, made the fourth round here last season and is the opening round opponent for Juan Martin del Potro. Ferrero, a former World #1 and champion at Roland Garros in 2003 looms in the middle of this section.

The biggest seed in danger in this section, as it always has been throughout his career is Andy Roddick. The American has never had success at Roland Garros, only reaching the fourth round once, and many question marks surround the American coming into this year’s event. He played only one warmup event due to injury, and lost all three of his matches at the round-robin event in Dusseldorf. He opens against local favorite Nicolas Mahut, perhaps best known for his exploits against Roddick’s countryman John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010. Marin Cilic, who also is not known for his clay court prowess, could potentially face Ferrero in the second round.

Third Quarter: (4) Andy Murray (GBR), (6) David Ferrer (ESP), (10) John Isner (USA), (16) Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR), (17) Richard Gasquet (FRA), (20) Marcel Granollers (ESP), (25) Bernard Tomic (AUS), (27) Mikhail Youzhny (RUS)

Andy Murray and David Ferrer are the clear favorites in this section of the draw on paper. However, Ferrer is the player in the best form and the player with the best chance of fighting through this section. Murray has had an underwhelming clay court campaign, losing to Berdych in Monte Carlo, withdrawing from Madrid with a back injury and falling to Gasquet in the third round in Rome. Isner, who was anointed by many as a dark horse for Roland Garros after defeating Federer and Tsonga on clay in Davis Cup, suffered losses to Nikolay Davydenko, Marin Cilic and Adreas Seppi in the warmup events.

Aging veterans are prominent as unseeded players of note in this section. Wildcard Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu has made the third round of his home Grand Slam four times, and the fourth round twice. He opens against German Bjorn Phau, and could potentially await Isner in round two. German Tommy Haas, although far from the form that took him to a career high of #2 in the world rankings, has a decent track record at Roland Garros, having made the fourth round twice in his career. Haas, a qualifier, faces Filippo Volandri in the opening round, and is a potential second round opponent for Dolgopolov. American Jame Blake, who was rarely a threat on clay even in his prime, is the first round opponent for Youzhny.

Fourth Quarter: (2) Rafael Nadal (ESP), (8) Janko Tipsarevic (SRB), (12) Nicholas Almagro (ESP), (13) Juan Monaco (ARG), (19) Milos Raonic (CAN), (24) Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER), (29) Julien Benneteau (FRA), (32) Florian Mayer (GER)

Much analysis really isn’t required here, as it’s hard to bet against Nadal coming out of this section; he has an overwhelming head-to-head record against all the seeded players here. In fact, Nadal is 27-3 against the other seeds, with the only losses coming to Benneteau in 2004, via retirement to Monaco in 2007 and to Mayer in 2011. It’s worth noting that none of these matches took place on clay.

Potential unseeded threats in this section include the always dangerous Croatian Ivo Karlovic and 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis. Karlovic is a potential third round opponent for Nadal, and the Croatian’s massive serve is difficult for any player to deal with on any surface.

In terms of seeds in danger, Monaco and Benneteau are both coming off serious injuries they sustained in Monte Carlo. Monaco suffered an ankle injury and Benneteau suffered both an ankle injury and fractured elbow in the first clay court Masters Series event. Tipsarevic also has a potentially tricky opening round, against former top 20 player Sam Querrey.

She Said What? Nice Girls Finish Last – The Ladies of the WTA Break Out the Claws

“Imagine all the people, living life in peace….” When Caroline Wozniacki was World #1, the WTA was a world straight out of a Beatles song. The Dane, dubbed “Sunshine” by the press, brought that image out to the media and the rest of the WTA seemed to follow. The prevailing theme was peace and love, and everyone got along.

“She’s a nice girl, a really good friend of mine…”

She’s tough to play because she’s “a great champion” even if she barely won something relevant six years ago.

Everyone’s a really good player and forces you to play your best even though she’s ranked 324.

In January, the utopia was threatened. Queen Karolina’s reign over the WTA was slipping. And then it began. The claws, retracted for a grueling 67 weeks, began to come out.

It all began with Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska who, after her quarterfinal loss to Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open, was asked about the “grunting issue” in women’s tennis:

Q. There’s been a lot made of the noise of some of the female players. What are your thoughts on that?

AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA:  To be honest, I’m kind of used to it, you know, especially with Vika.  We know each other for many years. About Maria, I mean, what can I say?  For sure that is pretty annoying and it’s just too loud.  Yeah.  

Sharapova, who has always had a tendency to be blunt in press, had this to say in response:

Q.  A bunch of players this week have made comments talking about how they think the noise that you and Azarenka in particular make is excessive.

MARIA SHARAPOVA:  Who?

Q.  Radwanska was one player that said she thinks the noise you and Azarenka make is excessive and she’d like to see the WTA change the rules to prohibit that.

MARIA SHARAPOVA:  Isn’t she back in Poland already?

There is little love lost between Sharapova and Radwanska, as their head to head history would suggest. Radwanska, as a teenager, stunned defending champion Sharapova in the third round of the 2007 US Open. Since then, Sharapova had not lost to Radwanska until the final of the Sony Ericsson Open in March.

Radwanska wasn’t done yet. In the semifinals in Doha, Azarenka was treated for an ankle injury while leading comfortably in the match. Azarenka continued the match, and handily defeated Radwanska in straight sets. After the match, Radwanska hit out at her former close friend:

“Well, to be honest, I don’t think this is worth a comment. But I think after this match….just lost a lot of respect. That’s it…I was angry because I don’t think this is the great image for the women’s tennis, what was going on there.” 

Radwanska has suffered six defeats to Azarenka this year, and prior to a defeat at the hands of Petra Cetkovska in Rome, had not lost to another player this year. Following a 60 62 drubbing of Radwanska in Indian Wells, a match where Azarenka clearly intended to send a message, the Belarusian had this to say:

“I just had very good motivation because I knew she’s a very good player. I have to play a very good match and show excellent tennis to beat her, so that’s what I was mainly focused on. I hope I was a good example of women’s tennis.

As the WTA shifts to the European red clay, the drama hasn’t shown signs of slowing down like the surface.

Following four consecutive losses to Azarenka in WTA finals, Maria Sharapova finally had her revenge in Stuttgart, defeating Azarenka 6-1, 6-4 for the title. The tone was set early, as the women bumped shoulders on a changeover early in the match; the dreaded bump has long been considered the cardinal sin of tennis.

(GIF: @ZezeAM)

Azarenka, who was erratic for a large portion of the match, was also treated for a right wrist injury and appeared to play better after receiving treatment. Sharapova made no secret of her skepticism during her on-court post match interview:

“…It’s so unfortunate Vika was extremely injured today, and just couldn’t really perform her game…”

Sharapova has also had notable conflicts with Jelena Jankovic, when she was relevant, in the past regarding the Serb’s alleged “tactical” medical timeouts. When Azarenka took her second medical timeout of a second round match in Beijing in 2009, Sharapova famously uttered to the chair umpire:

“Is her last name Jankovic?”

This week, both the ATP and the WTA are in Rome for the final big tournament on the road to Roland Garros, with first ball scheduled to be hit in nine days. Azarenka, after routing Shahar Peer in her opening round, withdrew from the tournament citing a shoulder injury. The shoulder had allegedly bothered her the previous week in Madrid, where she reached the final (l. to Serena Williams). Azarenka refused to discuss any shoulder issue in Madrid, and attempted to clarify her withdrawal via Twitter on Thursday.

Azarenka is not the first player to criticize the Roadmap, the WTA scheduling system implemented in 2008 to try and prevent injuries and get the players to commit to more WTA events. One of the main selling points of the Roadmap is the mandatory system; WTA events are categorized into Premier Mandatory, Premier 5, Premier and International events. The Roadmap requires top 10 players to fulfill certain commitments during the year: the four Grand Slams, four Premier Mandatory tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing), four Premier 5 tournaments (Doha, Rome, Montreal, Cincinnati or Tokyo), two Premier tournaments of their choice, and the WTA Championships if they qualify. If a player withdraws from one of the events she is committed to, she will receive a “0” on her ranking which remains there for 52 weeks. The biggest events are scheduled back-to-back, with the two-week events in Indian Wells and Miami held in March; Madrid and Rome held in May, and Tokyo and Beijing held in September.

Sharapova again took this opportunity to pounce, and when asked about Azarenka after her quarterfinal win over Venus Williams, she had this to say:

“She’s been injured more than anyone and still stayed number one…Last year I think she had more injuries than anyone else. Sometimes she’ll withdraw and then you’ll see her practicing two days later…For me, if I’m injured, then it doesn’t matter how much the fine is, I am not going to play…My body and my health are the most important things and if you lose points or have a fine, I don’t care about that.” (Reuters)

The WTA issued a statement in support of the Roadmap, stating that player injuries and withdrawals are down 33% and top player participation at the biggest events is up 28%. However, the Montreal Gazette, which tracks WTA main-draw injury retirements, walkovers and withdrawals in both singles and doubles, says the total number in 2012 stands at 97, 40 more than last year’s total at the same time.

The open disdain between the top players on the WTA takes us back to a simpler time. Let’s enjoy the nostalgia, shall we? The WTA’s snarky 90’s-00’s heyday provided us with classic quotes that have been remembered over the decades. Martina Hingis could write a book on her own. Let’s take a look back at some of their best gems.

“What rivalry? I win all the matches?” - Hingis in regards to her singles rivalry domination of doubles partner Anna Kournikova

“Steffi has had some results in the past, but it’s a faster, more athletic game now than when she played. She is old now. Her time has passed.”  - Hingis in regards to Steffi Graf in 1998.

“Very funny. Perhaps in the next year Michael Jackson [can get] a gold exempt and Donald Duck a special silver exempt.”Patty Schnyder, in regards to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Amanda Coetzer receiving gold and silver exemptions in 2003.

 ”Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, ‘It’s racism.’ They can always come back and say, ‘Because we are this color, things happen.’” - Hingis regarding Venus and Serena Williams.

”She’s always been the type of person that … says things, just speaks her mind. I guess it has a little bit to do with not having a formal education. But you just have to somehow think more; you have to use your brain a little more in the tennis world.” - Serena Williams in response to the above.

“She can say whatever she wants, point is I’m in the semis and she’s at the hotel packing.” - Lindsay Davenport after defeating Anna Kournikova.

“She choked in the 1993 final against Graf, lets see if she chokes again.” – Arantxa Sanchez Vicario on Jana Novotna’s chances in the final after being defeated in the 1997 Wimbledon semifinals.

We thought the current crop of WTA players had a long way to go to match the previous generation. It turns out, however, they may be similar in more ways than we imagined.

He Said What? – Ivan Ljubicic Criticizes American Players for Clay Court Absence

Of all tennis players on the short list to cause controversy, Ivan Ljubicic would not be one to ping on the radar. Ljubicic, long respected by his peers, was an active member of the ATP Player’s Council beginning in 2002 who was elected Vice President from 2004-06 and President from 2006-08. In August 2008, he was elected as European player representative on ATP Board. Since retiring earlier this year however, Ljubicic has become a somewhat keyboard warrior. He has not hesitated to criticize the current goings on in professional tennis.

For example, he dislikes when players refer to tournaments as warm ups for Grand Slams.

He heavily criticized the ITF for the implementation of the new Fed and Davis Cup Olympic eligibility rules.

When he took to Twitter over the weekend to criticize the “absences” of top Americans from the clay court ATP Masters Series events in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, Ljubicic got much more than he bargained for.

Mardy Fish, ranked #9 on the ATP, has been sidelined since Houston with an illness that forced him out of Davis Cup, Madrid and Rome. Andy Roddick has been nursing a recurring hamstring injury since the Australian Open and a hip injury since Miami.

Needless to say, Ljubicic touched a nerve. John Isner was first to come to the defense of his friend and countryman Fish.

Mardy Fish probably wishes he thought a little bit more before pressing that tweet button.

Although Fish deleted his Tweet immediately, we all know everything is forever immortalized on the Internet. Just ask Donald Young.

Andy Roddick finally weighed in on Sunday.

While American men have a history of underperforming and withdrawing from clay events in recent years, Ljubicic should have done his homework this time around. Roddick and Fish have been the only two notable American absentees, and John Isner, Ryan Harrison and Donald Young have all made the trip to compete on the European clay.

Late Sunday night, Ljubicic tried to rectify matters.

In an Olympic year, it’s understandable that players want to be healthy to peak at the right time to have success in the biggest events. While Roddick, Fish and James Blake have all had a history of lackluster and listless clay court performances over the years, 2012 proves to be a year when they actually can’t compete, rather than one when they just won’t.

Madness in Madrid – Blue Clay Brouhaha

The Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open is one of the biggest clay court warm-up events for both the ATP and WTA on the road to Roland Garros. This week, however, the discussion hasn’t been about which players are looking like the favorites to lift the title in Paris, or even about play in general, but about the clay. The color of the clay. The blue color of the clay.

Even before the color change, the clay of Madrid has always played differently than the terre battue of Roland Garros. The main stadium, the Caja Magica, or The Magic Box, is situated at a significant distance above seas level. As a result, the clay usually plays quicker and tends to be more slippery than other clay courts. Both ATP and WTA players have been critical of the courts since the tournament’s inception.

So why the blue clay?

Tournament owner Ion Tiriac first proposed the idea of blue clay in 2009; he argued that it would be better visually, especially for viewers on television. Critics suggested that the blue color is in homage to the sponsor of the tournament, the insurance giant Mutua Madrileña. Former player Manuel Santana, the current tournament director, had assured that aside from the color, the courts would have the same properties as the traditional red clay.

The clay is made of the same crushed brick as red clay but treated to remove the iron oxide that provides the typical orange color. The brick is then dyed blue, and as a result, the balls take on a different spin and bounce. When the courts were laid, the top layer of clay has little traction against the layers underneath it, providing less than solid footing for the players.

Reception to the clay has been decidedly negative. Caroline Wozniacki, who sustained an ankle injury in her first round match against Ksenia Pervak, said:

“It’s definitely more slippery, but then I also completely stopped at one point – you could say it wouldn’t happen on red clay, but then you never really know, it could be the same. It’s definitely different, but blue is one of my favorite colors, so I do like the look.” (WTA)

Novak Djokovic slammed the courts, specifically Court Manolo Santana, after his first round win:

“To me that’s not tennis. Either I come out with football shoes or I invite Chuck Norris to advise me how to play on this court. Center court is impossible to move on…” (BBC)

Djokovic later took to Twitter to continue his complaints.

ATP World #2 Rafael Nadal has been extremely critical of the decision since it was announced.

“I think it’s a mistake — not by the organization but by the ATP…Madrid is one of the best tournaments in the world and does not need this. It is played at altitude. That makes it different already. I appreciate the idea but it should have never been allowed.” (Saudi Gazette)

No matter their ranking, players are irate. Ivo Karlovic likened it to “something a Smurf would play on.” Maria Sharapova believes the tournament might not be thinking about the players.

“I’d like to see more consistency. I think [the blue clay] is a little more for spectators, TV and more for buzz than anything else. I think it’s more for show than for the players,” the Russian said, as reported by Matt Cronin of tennis.com.

Other players have been quoted as saying the courts do not play any differently than when they were red – but that is exactly the problem. Gilles Simon called the courts “dangerous” and Stanislas Wawrinka said they are “the worst clay courts” he’s ever played on.

As the media firestorm continues into the middle of the week, World #1 Victoria Azarenka just wants to talk about something else.

“The court is different; it’s obvious, let’s drop it.” (Cronin, tennis.com)

The blue clay has not be the only controversy of the tournament. Attendance has not been close to what was expected, and few matches are actually being broadcast on international television. For example, only two WTA matches were broadcast on the first Monday and Tuesday of the event from Manolo Santana Court. There were four times the amount of ATP matches broadcast from the three main show courts.

Steve Tignor of tennis.com perhaps summed up the reasons for the controversy best:

…Red clay signifies the Old World, and an alternative, century-old Continental tennis tradition. Blue clay, on the other hand, signifies the power of Ion Tiriac’s bank account.

The ATP has released a statement saying that the blue clay had been only approved for this year, and will be evaluated at the end of the tournament to see if it will continue.