Marion, Misunderstood

This post first appeared on Tennis Grandstand.

The year was 2004. Cesar Millan was yet to be called “The Dog Whisperer.” Ridiculously successful sequels Shrek 2,Spiderman 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were dominating the box office. The Red Sox were winning playoff games and the Russians were winning slams.

And Marion Bartoli was playing Fed Cup.

As a 19-year-old, Bartoli partnered Emilie Loit in doubles in two separate ties that year; the pairing won their doubles match in a 5-0 semifinal win against Spain, but lost the deciding rubber to the Russian duo of Anastasia Myskina and Vera Zvonareva in the finals. 2004 marked the only time that Bartoli had competed in the national ITF team event in her career.

Until now.

New French Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo announced on Wednesday that Bartoli, along with Alize Cornet, Kristina Mladenovic and Virginie Razzano will be the French squad that will take on Germany in a World Group II first round tie on February 9-10 in Limoges.

Bartoli’s previous point of contention with the French Tennis Federation came from the role, or lack thereof, of her father in Fed Cup ties. Previous Fed Cup captains Loic Courteau and Nicolas Escude, as well as the federation itself, took issue with the fact that Bartoli wanted to be coached by her father during the ties, rather than practice together with the team. The parties involved also questioned the nature of Marion’s relationship with her father.

“In France, they think our relationship is, so to speak, fake, and that in public it’s big smiles and behind the scenes I’m getting pushed around every day,” she once said. “When I try to explain to them that is not the case, they have a hard time to understand.”

More than just the French public and tennis administration have had a hard time understanding the Bartolis. To say that they have gone outside the box in their approach to Marion’s tennis training is putting it mildly. One of the WTA’s more colorful characters, Bartoli’s shadow swings between every point have become her trademark, and she (allegedly) boasts an IQ of 175. She and her antics are always a spectacle on the WTA, no matter where she plays; nonetheless, these things are what endear her to her fans.

Due to her Fed Cup absence, Bartoli was ruled ineligible to compete at the Olympic Games. Three Games have come and gone since Bartoli made a name for herself on the circuit, but it was perhaps the last snub that hurt her the most and may have contributed to this reconciliation. The 2012 London Olympics were held at the site of Bartoli’s greatest career successes, on the lawns of the All-England Club. Without Bartoli, Cornet required an special invitation to compete, as she did not make the cut by ranking; she won a match before falling tamely to Daniela Hantuchova in the second round. Many argued that Bartoli would have been an outside, but no less legitimate, medal contender on the surface.

So the question remains: after nine years, 17 ties and a boatload of conflict, why now? Some detractors will state Bartoli’s chances to represent her country in the Olympics have come and gone; she’ll be 32 when the Olympics in Rio come around in 2016. Others would say she’s selfish for making the concessions, and is only looking to repair her image at home after the 2012 debacle. Both parties remained stubborn throughout this saga, and each holds a share of the blame.

No one can question Marion Bartoli’s patriotism. Despite all the quirks, the results don’t lie; a Wimbledon finalist with wins, among others, over Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters in her career, Bartoli’s made the most of what she has. With the crowd behind her, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2011, the best performance at that event by a Frenchwoman since Mary Pierce won the title there in 2000 and reached the final again in 2005. All of that success has come with her father by her side, with little support from the national federation.

However, for this tie, Walter Bartoli will not be on site to help Marion prepare for her matches; he will be allowed to attend, but only as a family member. While we may not ever know what was said between Mauresmo and Bartoli over the past weeks, one thing is certain; someone finally understood.

Quick Quotes: Redfoo Getting More Attention from ESPN Than Some Athletes

If I could go back in a time machine to the 2012 US Open and tell the WTA that celebrating Redfoo’s birthday was a terrible idea, I’d do so in two seconds. Since he wasn’t forced upon us enough during the Australian Open fortnight, or even over the past six months, ESPN Playbook interviewed him upon his return from Melbourne. He talks about why he loves tennis, Azarenka…and other things.

On how he supports Azarenka:

When I root for stuff, I watch to see what she does and then I just do it louder…

It’s [also] knowing to stay out of the way. It’s just understanding when she’s focused and in her mode that she’s not going to be the same way. Once she puts her headphones on, you can forget it.

On where his passion for tennis came from:

My mother actually used to play. When she was pregnant with me, she was playing tennis. They make a joke — I don’t know if it’s true — her water broke on the tennis court…

When I was born, I lived with my dad for two years. I was always watching him on a tennis court as a kid, he was a fanatic. Boris Becker would come to the house and play chess. They’re still friends with Monica Seles…

On his and Azarenka’s….whatever they have:

Yeah, I think so [that they're dating]. It’s pretty out there. I hope so! We don’t talk about it that much, but if I saw her with another dude, I wouldn’t be happy about it. We just try to do our thing and have fun and laugh.

I don’t think I’m physically capable of making comments about him anymore, so I present you with this GIF of my emotions:

Consider this my white flag.

BREAKING: Bernard Tomic is Still…Something.

Fret not, people of Australia – it’s now safe to take the roads again.

Tomic, who was granted a stay of execution a 12-month one point license for good behavior after his “hooning” incident in an obnoxious orange BMW (which he later sold), was caught speeding at 78 km/h in a 60 km/h zone in an even more obnoxious yellow Ferrari (with the license plate S1NCITY on it) Tuesday. As a result, a $220 fine was levied against him and he lost three points on his license, leading to its suspension.

I find this incredibly entertaining. After simultaneously proclaiming himself the next GOAT and begging us to take him seriously for his tennis at the Australian Open, he goes and does this barely two days later.

As if his behavior wasn’t already offensive enough, he’s also single-handedly trying to bring cutoffs back in.

Bernie, since you’re not going to be using that Ferrari for a while, I heard a certain Sergiy Stakhovsky is still in need of one.

The “ChiChi” Train Keeps Rolling

This post originally appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

What makes a successful doubles pairing?

Of course there are the obvious things, like a dominant serve, a quality volley or solid groundstrokes. However, sometimes the most important thing in crucial situations is not the technical tennis, but the chemistry of the team. The most successful teams trust each other’s judgement completely, which allows them to act on both individual and team instincts on the biggest points. However, this bond doesn’t come overnight. Two of the greatest doubles teams of all time, Bob and Mike Bryan and Venus and Serena Williams, have spent a lifetime developing this chemistry; the American sibling pairs have amassed a staggering 25 Grand Slams titles between them.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, while not related by blood, have perhaps the next best thing.

For what they lack in size, as they stand at just 5’5” and 5’4” respectively, they make up for it in guile, passion and craftiness. While each made great strides individually in singles in 2012, the Italians also ruled the doubles court; their history-making year began with a run to the Australian Open finals at the #11 seeds, where they lost to the unseeded pairing of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva.

Errani and Vinci’s exploits in 2012 were reminiscent to those that the fellow-BFF tandem of Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta put together in 2010. Dulko and Pennetta won seven titles that year, including the WTA Championships in Doha; they ended the year as No. 1 and finally got their slam at the 2011 Australian Open.

Following the loss Down Under, Errani and Vinci went on a tear, winning WTA events in Acapulco, Monterrey, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In addition, they came out on top of Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko in three sets to triumph at Roland Garros, and dominated Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in two to win the US Open. They ascended to the No. 1 ranking in September and finished the year in the top spot.

When Errani and Vinci returned to Australia in 2013, with one less “1” next to their seeding, the pair came full circle.

Much of the Australian Open doubles tournament’s narrative focused on the Williams sisters, the “de facto best team in the world regardless of the rankings.” There were calls, perhaps unfair ones, for the Williams sisters to be bumped to the top seeding. The duo only played two of the four slams in 2012, in addition to the Olympics. Facing off against the 12th-seeded Americans in the quarterfinals, Errani and Vinci appeared determined to prove their worth. The Americans served for the match twice in the second set and led 3-0 in the third, but the Italians would rally for a 3-6, 7-6(1), 7-5 win. Although the Williams sisters won Wimbledon in 2012 and took home Olympic gold, the Italians did just as much winning on the biggest stages last year. Once a team learns how to win together, it’s a hard habit to break.

The tandem defeated the Cinderella story of the tournament, wildcard Australians Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to win their third major championship. ”Our strength is that we always play together,” Vinci said, after winning the title. “We went out there today with lots of grit, we really wanted to win.”

In the last four slams, the Italians have amassed a 20-1 record, the only loss coming in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon to Hlavackova and Hradecka. They now hold 14 doubles titles total, including their three majors. Prior to this stretch, the pair had never won a title greater than an International-level WTA event.

Sometimes, continued success can bring about ego trips and adversely affect a team’s chemistry. For example, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, who won three grand slam doubles titles together, had a notorious falling out at an exhibition match in Chile in 2000; when Kournikova agreed with a lines judge about a disputed call, Hingis retorted, “Do you think you are the queen? Because I am the queen.” A screaming match featuring the throwing of flowers, vases and trophies reportedly followed afterwards in the locker room.

Conversely, all of their success has appeared to make Errani and Vinci’s friendship stronger than ever; as far as we know, the biggest off-court spat the Italians have ever had was spurred on by the question: “Who can keep it up for longer?”

Get it Right: Grunting & Hindrance

I always tell myself that I’m never going to get involved with the two most ridiculous debates in tennis, grunting and equal prize money, but just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Let me preface this by saying this is not going to be a rant about the aesthetics of grunting. Some find it annoying, while others, such as myself, aren’t bothered by it at all. That’s completely acceptable; I’m not here to force my opinion on others, nor would I appreciate others forcing their opinion on me. However, I am here to address facts.

It is because of this that I felt the need to write this, against my better judgement; despite the fact that this non-issue has already been beaten to hell and back, the commentary on it points towards another, even more glaring issue in tennis.

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The (re)Renaissance of Russian Women’s Tennis

This post originally appeared on Tennis Grandstand. 

Since Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova announced Russia’s arrival in women’s tennis in 2004 with their Grand Slam triumphs, the nation took a stranglehold on the WTA rankings. Serena Williams once joked that she should just be called “Williamsova” at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, where the main draw contained 24 -ovas and seven -evas. ”I just know the standard: everyone is from Russia,” she quipped. “Sometimes I think I’m from Russia, too. With all these new -ovas, I don’t know anyone, I don’t really recognize anyone.”

At one point during 2008, Russians made up 50% of the world’s top 10, with Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Anna Chakvetadze all occupying places in the elite. That came in the period when Sharapova was sidelined with a shoulder injury. They swept the podium at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, with Dementieva winning gold, Safina taking silver and Zvonareva winning bronze. However, in the 2012 year-end rankings, there were only four in the top 20, or 20%.

That led to the question: where have all the Russians gone? Dementieva’s retirement, coupled with injuries to Safina, Chakvetadze and Zvonareva, made many feel as though the days of Russian dominance on the WTA were over. Their mantle of churning out multiple quality WTA players all at once had now been taken up by nations such as Germany and the Czech Republic, and the longstanding tennis powerhouses of the United States and Great Britain have multiple young stars with bright futures.

The answer is: the Russians never really left, they were just taking a vacation.

With Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina all making the second week Down Under, it marks the first time that Russia has had more than two players reach the second week of a major event since the 2011 US Open.

Little needs to be said about Sharapova and Kuznetsova, arguably the two greatest Russians in terms of career accomplishments, who have six Grand Slam titles between them and 40 overall titles. Kuznetsova’s reascension has been particularly notable, as she missed almost half of 2012 due to a knee injury.

Kirilenko, perhaps one of the hardest workers on the WTA, makes the most of what she has. In addition to being a standout doubles player, Kirilenko reached her career-high ranking in singles in 2012. She and countrywoman Nadia Petrova, who’s had a late-career renaissance in her own right, won the bronze medal in doubles at the Olympics; she finished fourth in singles, losing to Victoria Azarenka in the bronze medal match. Kirilenko’s had success Down Under before, as she reached the quarterfinals in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova in the first round; she’ll have an extremely tough test against Serena Williams.

Makarova has had her greatest successes in places called ‘bourne. The lefty stormed to the title at the WTA Premier event in Eastbourne as a qualifier in 2010, beating Flavia Pennetta, Nadia Petrova, Kuznetsova, Samantha Stosur and Azarenka in the final. She’s perhaps best known for her upset over Serena Williams at the Australian Open last year en route to the quarterfinals, and matched the feat this year by taking out Angelique Kerber. Her 11-5 record Down Under is her best mark out of all the majors. If the US Open was held in Bourne, Massachusetts, she’d probably win it.

Vesnina, who reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in her Grand Slam debut in 2006, matched the feat this year. In her seventh career final to open the year in Hobart, she dethroned defending champion Mona Barthel to finally win a WTA title. She’s taken out two seeds this week, No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko and No. 16 Roberta Vinci.

In addition, Valeria Savinykh scored an upset win over Dominika Cibulkova in the second round and junior standout Daria Gavrilova qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw and had a second round showing.

As the old cliché goes, it’s always about “quality, not quantity.” As the Russians on the WTA have proved over the past decade, you can have both.

Lesia Tsurenko: Making Her Own Luck

This post originally appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

For the majority of the past decade, the blue and yellow banner of Ukraine was carried by the Bondarenko sisters on the WTA Tour. Alona and Kateryna were the 2008 Australian Open champions in doubles, and each had a noteworthy career in singles in her own right. Alona peaked at No. 19 in 2008, won two career titles and recorded career wins over Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova. Kateryna, the younger of the two, reached the quarterfinals at the 2009 US Open, won her only WTA title at Birmingham in 2008 and recorded wins over Venus Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic and Li Na.

However, with Alona suffering multiple injuries and requiring surgeries over the past two seasons and Kateryna marrying and becoming pregnant, 2012 marked the first time in 10 years that no Ukrainian woman finished in the top 100 in the WTA rankings.

Enter Lesia Tsurenko.

The 23-year-old from Vladimirec was born in 1989, grouping her with higher-ranked players like Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova and Sabine Lisicki; however, unlike her peers, she only turned professional in 2007. Tsurenko doesn’t come from a sporting family; in fact, she comes from the polar opposite. Her father Viktor used to work in international relations for a nuclear power plant before retiring; her mother Larisa is an economist; her older sister Oxana is a lawyer. Lesia herself studied at Ukraine’s National University of Physical Education and Sports and speaks three languages.

A journey woman of sorts for the early part of her WTA career, Tsurenko began to make strides in 2012. She played in the main draw of all four Grand Slams for the first time and she reached her first career WTA quarterfinal in Memphis. Behind her great two-handed backhand, she was the #1 for Ukraine’s Fed Cup team for the first time in her career in a tie against the United States, and defeated Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani on clay. She finished the year just outside of the top 100 at No. 102.

Tsurenko travelled to Brisbane to open 2013 and lost in the final round of qualifying; however, she was granted entry into the main draw when Maria Sharapova withdrew with a collarbone injury.

It was made known afterwards that Tsurenko received the lucky loser spot because the two higher-ranked losers in qualifying did not sign in by the deadline. As the underdog in all of her Brisbane matches, Tsurenko defeated both Jarmila Gajdosova and Daniela Hantuchova on her way to the semifinals; she would take the first set from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova before the Russian would rally for the three set win. As a result of her first career WTA semifinal, Tsurenko broke back into the top 100 at No. 83 – a new career high.

As the entry deadline for the Australian Open had already passed, Tsurenko still needed to play qualifying, but would now be the top seed.

While some players might have had difficulty playing in qualifying with a ranking high enough for the main draw, Tsurenko put her nose to the grindstone and just went about business. She received perhaps the toughest opening round draw against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a former top 30 player coming back from injury. Tsurenko won the match in three sets and had little difficulty in her other two matches to make the main draw.

She was drawn in the only qualifier spot that opposed a seeded player and would face off against Pavlyuchenkova for the second time in almost as many weeks. This time, however, Tsurenko would get her revenge against the higher-ranked Russian, winning 7-5, 3-6, 7-5. In the second round, she faced off against teenaged qualifier Daria Gavrilova in the sweltering heat on Thursday; after falling behind *4-0 in the opening set, Tsurenko won seven of the next eight games to take command of the match and would pull out the 7-5, 6-3 win.

Tsurenko’s hot start to 2013 is proving that the hand you’re dealt is close to irrelevant if you don’t know how to play your cards. Whatever the result of her third round match against Caroline Wozniacki, she’ll rocket past her previous career-high when the new rankings are released. A stroke of good fortune kicked off her 2013, but hard work and dedication has allowed her to take advantage of it. If you’re not convinced, you can take her word for it.

“I have a boyfriend and his name is tennis. It takes all my time.”

Quick Quotes: Players Almost Melt in Obscene Australian Heat

1826542,h=425,pd=1,w=620The weather was the real story on day four at Melbourne Park; players were put to the test in brutal conditions, with temperatures reaching 106 F around midday. Fans sought cover in the shaded areas of the show courts, and many of the outer courts were devoid of spectators who sought relief from the heat. Players were shaded by umbrellas and treated with bags of ice on changeovers, and even umpires and lines people were instructed to keep themselves hydrated.

Later, many of the players spoke about the difficulties of adapting to the conditions.

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