VIDEO: Alizé Cornet Protests *Correct* Call in Eastbourne

Well-known for her flair for the dramatic arts, Alizé Cornet let two match points slip against Angelique Kerber in a 7-5, 1-6, 7-6(3) third round defeat in Eastbourne on Wednesday.  Long before she even got to that point, however, this happened.

A Premier-level event, Eastbourne is one of the biggest tournaments on the WTA Tour to not have Hakweye in use. Understanding this, Cornet took it upon herself to bemoan every call that didn’t go her way for the duration of the match.

The scene: After letting two break points slip at 3-3 in the third set, Cornet yanked a forehand clearly wide early in the rally.

She didn’t think so.

Chair umpire Fiona Edwards of Great Britain grew more exasperated with Cornet as the lengthy exchange went on, finally washing her hands of it all by saying, “It was the correct call. What can I do?” It’s unclear if Edwards was actually addressing Cornet, or the bemused crowd.

You do you, Alizé.

Overruling Sexism: Is It Unstated in Tennis Officiating?

While sexism in tennis is an oft-debated topic, so rarely does the conversation delve into its role in the sport’s officiating. Great Britain’s Georgina Clark became the first woman to chair a Wimbledon women’s final just 30 years ago, but the number of female umpires at the highest level still pales in comparison to their male counterparts. Currently, the number of active men who hold a gold badge, the highest certification an official can hold in tennis, outnumber their female counterparts by a nearly 3:1 margin.

Alison Hughes (née Lang) of Great Britain has chaired 14 Grand Slam singles finals in her career. The recently-retired Lynn Welch worked a total of 15 Grand Slam finals in hers. Neither woman, possibly the two most decorated female officials of the past decade, has a men’s singles final on their resume. In fact, only one woman in tennis history has done so – Frenchwoman Sandra de Jenken chaired the men’s singles final at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros in 2007. Since then, Eva Asderaki chaired back-to-back men’s doubles finals at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2012 and became the first woman to chair a men’s final of any kind at the All-England Club. No other woman since de Jenken has been tasked with a singles final.

These issues are not exclusive to tennis, as women have struggled to break into the officiating ranks in all of the major American sports for decades. Since the inaugural National Football League (NFL) season in 1920, there has never been a permanent female official. Shannon Eastin was hired as a temporary non-union official during the controversial 2012 NFL referee lockout. In 1972, Bernice Gera sued to become the first female umpire in Major League Baseball (MLB). Pam Postema umpired a MLB spring training game in 1988, but no woman has ever featured on the diamond in a true MLB game. Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were trailblazers in the National Basketball Association (NBA), as the two became the first female officials hired by the league in 1997. Kantner left the league in 2002, but Palmer became first woman to officiate an NBA playoff game on April 25, 2006 and worked as a referee in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.

Those select few and female umpires in tennis differ in their numbers…but it sends a strong message when you can still only count the latter on two hands. While no woman since de Jenken has chaired a men’s singles final, women do often chair men’s matches on both the ATP Tour and in Grand Slams. The reaction to their presence has been mixed. When Marija Cicak spoke with The Changeover’s Ana Mitric at the Citi Open last year, she said that she’s “personally…never felt discriminated against in any case.” At the 2008 US Open, David Ferrer told Kerrilyn Cramer  that “girls can’t do anything.” At the Monte Carlo Masters in 2011, Ernests Gulbis had a heated exchange with Mariana Alves over a double-bounce call, in which he asked if they could go out together afterwards. When Asderaki penalized Rafael Nadal with two time violations in his Australian Open match against Kei Nishikori earlier this year, Toni Nadal commented prior to the final that “they had a problem with a girl” and hoped that the umpire for the final would be “a bit better prepared.”

At Roland Garros on Friday, a female chair umpire found herself amidst controversy in a third round match between Daniela Hantuchova and Angelique Kerber. With Kerber leading 7-5, 3-1 and Hantuchova serving, the German hit a return that was called out on the baseline. Hantuchova returned the ball in play, and began walking towards her chair; chair umpire Louise Engzell came down to inspect the mark, and correctly overruled the ball as good. However, instead of ordering a replay, she instead incorrectly awarded the point to Kerber. Hantuchova, incensed, began to argue and call the supervisor to court. As the ruling was a matter of fact, not a matter of tennis law, the supervisor was forced to stick with Engzell’s decision.

A fixture in the chair, Engzell has had her share of dubious moments in recent memory; in the grand scheme of things, however, those moments have made up a small percentage of the matches in her career. Contracted by the ITF, she’s a regular at Grand Slams and in Fed and Davis Cup, while only working the occasional WTA event. As a result, the times she’s come under fire have all been on the biggest stages, perhaps none bigger than the 2011 Roland Garros final featuring Li Na and Francesca Schiavone.

Hantuchova went on to hold serve, but the entire exchange in itself proved inconsequential as Kerber still managed to win the match, 7-5, 6-3. By no means is this an attempt to defend, or explain away, the poor call Engzell made. The point should’ve been replayed without question; for whatever reason, she missed the fact that Hantuchova returned the overruled ball back into play. However, the personal vitriol Engzell received as a result of it is certainly misplaced.

A cursory Twitter and forum search of her name in the hours and days that followed Friday’s controversy  revealed not only customary phrases like “incompetence” and “unacceptable,” but also a whole host of derogatory names for women. Multiple comments also suggested that she should “go back to raising her child,” in reference to the maternity leave she took from the tour in 2013.

Despite the firestorm, tournament officials put her back in the chair early Saturday for the men’s third round match between Donald Young and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. What began as a fairly straightforward affair turned into a five-set struggle, and late in the fifth, Engzell came down from her chair to check a close call. She hesitated for a moment in finding the mark, and immediately, her competence again was called into question by many of the same voices.

She found the right mark, and got the call right.

On Monday, she was in the chair again for the fourth round match between Kiki Bertens and Andrea Petkovic on Court Philippe Chatrier. With the controversy of Friday having somewhat died down, chatter started again about her qualifications when the official tournament website made note of the fact that she recently married tournament referee Remy Azemar, calling it “anecdote-tastic.”

Late in the third set, at a critical juncture no less, Engzell overruled a linesman on the far sideline on a Bertens winner, despite Petkovic’s insistence to the contrary. Engzell was right. In the next Bertens service game, Petkovic questioned a serve from the Dutchwoman that was called an ace; Engzell insisted that it was well inside the line, and denied Petkovic’s request to look at the mark. She was right again.

Was it redemption? Probably not. But, was Engzell’s personal life responsible for her excellent officiating performance on Monday? Certainly not. Does it then become “anecdotal” because she’s a woman? Take it another way: Would any of us had known if Mohamed El Jennati, the Moroccan umpire at the center of a similar controversy and social media firestorm earlier this year at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, was married to a female USTA referee? Would it have been deemed of consequence if he was?

Most would say that de Jenken broke the glass ceiling for women in tennis officiating nearly a decade ago. The harsh truth is, she barely cracked it.

ALLEZing: Alizé Cornet, Caroline Garcia Win Things

Wherever Alizé Cornet goes, drama is sure to follow. After a storied junior career, she burst onto the WTA Tour as a teenager in 2008. She arrived with a bang both with her racket, qualifying and making the finals of the Tier I event in Rome, and in the press room. In a “Getting to Know You” interview at Roland Garros shortly after, Cornet provided this gem. 

Least favourite opponent?

Anna Chakvetadze, without a doubt. She put me down before our semi-final in Rome. She said that I was a good junior even though I was No. 30 in the world at the time. I was furious. And she doesn’t even say hello. She’s not a nice person.

(The interview has since been taken down. The world weeps.)

A year later, Cornet was one match, or more accurately, one point, from the top-10. Leading 5-2 in the final set against eventual finalist Dinara Safina at the Australian Open, the Frenchwoman failed to convert on two match points, including one on which her shot landed just centimeters wide of the sideline. 

From there, Cornet faded…and faded quickly. She ended 2009 ranked No. 50 in the world, slipped to No. 78 at the end of 2010, and ended 2011 at the wrong end of the top 100 at No. 89. She returned to the winner’s circle in Bad Gastein in 2012, in addition to finishing runner-up in Strasbourg. She took Victoria Azarenka to three sets twice at Grand Slams, and she finished the year at her highest ranking since 2008.

To start 2014, Cornet has been winning. A lot. She reached the semifinals at the Paris Indoors, stunned Serena Williams en route to a runner-up finish in Dubai and reached the second week at Indian Wells.

TL;DR: We’ve been getting plenty of reactions like this.

Last week in Katowice, Cornet’s flair for the dramatics appeared once again. After easing past Vesna Dolonc in the opening round, Cornet recorded three-set wins against Kristina Kucova, Klara Koukalova and Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the final. Undeterred by dropping a bagel set to both Koukalova and Radwanska, Cornet faced off against first-time WTA finalist Camila Giorgi in the last round. Giorgi, to her credit, had been making waves of her own on the other side of the draw.

Cornet led 5-3 in the second set before dropping four straight games as the oft-erratic Giorgi found her mark. Cornet bounced back by taking a 3-0 lead in the decider but then had another mini-slump as Giorgi won five of the next six games to take a 5-4 lead. Giorgi had a match point in the next game, but missed a backhand return long and Cornet held for 5-5. She would win the next two games to take the title, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-5, in three hours and 11 minutes.

#aliz3 improved her record in three set matches to 11-2 on the year.

While her countrywoman thrives on the dramatics, Caroline Garcia is just the opposite. Despite possessing a big serve and potent groundstrokes, Garcia is decidedly “un-French” when it comes to expressiveness, histrionics or flashiness. What has plagued the younger Frenchwoman, like so many of her countrymen before her, has been mental fragility.

Up until now, Garcia’s one notable result to date came in the form of a match she lost.

You all know the story. A 17-year-old Garcia had Maria Sharapova on the ropes in the second round of Roland Garros in 2011, building a 6-3, 4-1 lead versus the eventual semifinalist.

Andy Murray sent the tweet heard ’round the world…

….and Garcia lost 11 straight games to lose the match.

Garcia stagnated in the three years since, proving yet again that tennis is more mental than physical. She languished around the lower end of the top 100, lost countless matches from winning positions, most notably failing to convert on match points in two matches against Jelena Jankovic in Kuala Lumpur (6-7(6), 6-4, 6-7(2)) in 2012 and in Charleston (7-5, 6-7(10), 3-6) in 2013. In Acapulco earlier this season, she won back-to-back main draw matches at a WTA event for the first time in her career en route to a semifinal showing. She reached the third round in Miami and gave a struggling Serena Williams all she could handle before again coming up just short, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6.

While Cornet was putting on a show in Katowice, Garcia quietly took advantage of a wide-open draw in Bogota that was made easier when Sloane Stephens lost in the opening round to hometown favorite Mariana Duque-Marino. Nothing is straight-forward with Garcia, but her big serve and groundstrokes were nearly untouchable for the week in Bogota’s high altitude. She dropped just one set en route to her first WTA final to Montenegrin Danka Kovinic, before getting a shot at defending champion Jankovic in the final. Garcia exercised her personal demons against the Serb, calmly serving out the match and the title, 6-3, 6-4.

Cornet and Garcia will lead France’s Fed Cup team against a Williams-less United States on the road this weekend. Contrast, man. Contrast.

#Dramz: The Russian Fed Cup Saga

In August of 2008, a little more than two months before Russia won the last of its four Fed Cup titles, there were six Russian women gracing the top 10: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Anna Chakvetadze and Vera Zvonareva. With a total of 15 players inhabiting the top 100, Russia was far and away the top power in women’s tennis.

In 2013, Russia is back in the Fed Cup final and looking for its first title since Kuznetsova, Zvonareva, Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova brought home team glory in 2008.

Five years later, they can’t even get a top 100 player to play.

The Russians, who’ve typically been spoiled by an incredibly deep bench for team events, remain scrounging around for four players to oppose the Italians in the 2013 Fed Cup final. The deadline for official team nominations is 10 days before the tie begins. With the final set to begin on Nov. 2, that leaves Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev less than two days to find himself a team. However, lineup changes can be made up to an hour before the draw is made on Friday, Nov. 1.

It’s an embarrassing fall from grace for a nation that was on top of the world just a half-decade ago.

Five years ago, the Russians boasted six players in the top 10. Currently, there are just six players in the top 100.

Maria Sharapova, who rarely features on the Russian squad in the team event, was ruled out early. The World No. 2 ended her season in August due to a shoulder injury.

The snowball got rolling on Oct. 8,  when Vesnina told Russian news outlet Championat that she will not participate in the Fed Cup final. Instead, Vesnina has chosen to participate in the WTA’s Tournament of Champions in Sofia, held the same week. Vesnina qualified for the event on the back of her first career title, the International-level event in Hobart. She also added a Premier level title in Eastbourne in 2013.

Unfortunately, I cannot play in the Fed Cup final. It is the first time I have qualified for the Tournament of Champions in Sofia and plan to take part in it. For seven years, I have always given priority to the team and put it first…I have the opportunity to go to this prestigious tournament and finish the year in the top 20, and would very much like to achieve this…In our country, there are still players who can play. (original in Russian)

Makarova, Vesnina’s doubles partner, has been suffering from a wrist injury since a quarterfinal showing at the US Open. The pair is scheduled to compete this week in the doubles event at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, but numerous question marks surround the lefty and her health.

Maria Kirilenko, the Russian No. 2, is also on the entry list in Sofia courtesy of a title earlier this year in Pattaya City. Kirilenko participated in Russia’s first two Fed Cup ties this year, and played a key role in getting her country to the final. Kuznetsova reportedly turned down an invitation to play and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova confirmed to Vladas Lasitskas of sport-express.ru that she would be joining Kirilenko and Vesnina in Sofia.

With his top six otherwise occupied, Tarpischev may be forced to go outside the top 100 to find willing and able bodies.

Off of a quarterfinal showing at the Kremlin Cup as a wildcard, former top 20 player Alisa Kleybanova moved up 68 spots in the rankings to No. 186. Kleybanova, who missed most of the last two years recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has offered up her services to her country if necessary.

Speculation that a team consisting of Kleybanova, Daria Gavrilova, Margarita Gasparyan and Irina Khromacheva (combined ranking: 863) ran rampant on social media Monday. However, Gavrilova appeared to put the rumors, at least of her participation, to rest.

In a later series of tweets, the 2010 ITF Junior World Champion blasted the Russian federation regarding the treatment she’s received from them in her transition to the professional circuit.

For the record, Anastasia Bukhanko has played a total of four professional tennis matches in her career. Gavrilova received a main draw wildcard to the Kremlin Cup in Moscow in 2010, where she lost her WTA singles debut to Alona Bondarenko.

She hasn’t received one since.

Adding insult to injury? Following Sharapova’s withdrawal from the WTA Championships, no Russian woman will compete for the season-ending crown for the first time since 1997. For a country that held a vice grip on the WTA top 10 just five years ago, the odds are looking likely that they might not have a top 100 player suit up to fight for the only team trophy in tennis.

How times have changed.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, Tarpischev named his team for the final. Kleybanova, Khromacheva, Gasparyan and Alexandra Panova. The quartet has a combined singles ranking of 872.

VIDEO: Victoria Azarenka Calls Out Mariana Alves in Madrid

Victoria Azarenka got personal with Mariana Alves in her 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 loss to Ekaterina Makarova in Madrid. After Azarenka missed a return to open the seventh game, she smashed her racket to the ground and broke it. Alves proceeded to give her both a code violation and give her point penalty, as she had already issued Azarenka a code violation earlier in the match for allegedly swearing at the crowd.

The confrontation peaked with Azarenka taking a swipe at Alves’ history of questionable officiating decisions.

“After all you’ve done, how are you still in the game?”

Oof. The dagger.

The oft-maligned Alves didn’t deserve to be the target of Azarenka’s ire in this match, and I wrote about the broader implications of the Belarusian’s outburst at Tennis Grandstand:

This isn’t your typical argument with an umpire; whether she intended to or not, Azarenka took a cheap shot at the umpire from Portugal. Anyone with a sense of tennis history knows Alves’ track record of questionable officiating decisions, highlighted by the infamous match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati at the US Open in 2004. Nonetheless, her previously poor decisions have no bearing in a match where she made an entirely correct decision, and handled Azarenka impeccably. However, by saying what she said to Alves’ face, Azarenka is making her aware that the entire locker room knows of this previous history; she’s undermining Alves’ authority right in front of her for not only that match, but for future matches.

Taking out her frustrations on Alves didn’t do Azarenka much good, as the Russian won five consecutive games to close out the match.

Sloane Stephens Singlehandedly Destroys American Media Narrative in…Four Pages

The prevailing media narrative over the first third of the tennis year was the supposed, and completely ridiculous, mentor-mentee relationship between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens.

We now know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this was completely staged invented…actually, I really don’t know what to call it. Granted, much of this entire farce was put forth by Stephens herself, but Serena wasn’t totally innocent either.

 “She’s like one of my really good friends,” Stephens said to ESPN at the start of the year. “Everyone thinks she’s so mean, but she’s like the greatest person ever. We’re just young kids together. We never take anything too seriously.”

“I noticed Sloane I think years ago at TeamTennis maybe four years ago,” Serena said prior to their match in Melbourne. “I saw her in the locker room. She was another black girl. I was like, ‘Hey!’ That’s when I first noticed her. ‘What up, girl’?”

We never take anything too seriously. Oh?

After beating Bojana Jovanovski in a heated fourth round match in Australia, Stephens said that Serena told her “she should make more noise on-court” in her post match interview. We all know what happened next; Stephens defeated an injury hobbled Serena in three sets in the quarterfinals and quickly became the next media darling of American women’s tennis. Granted, since that match in Melbourne, Stephens is 2-8 while Serena is 15-1 with two titles.

Well, if Brisbane and Melbourne cracked the framework, then the perfect empire came crashing down on Friday when Stephens’ incredibly candid interview with Marin Cogan was released in ESPN: The Magazine. In it, the American #2…well, completely tears Serena a new one.

Some of the juiciest quotes are as follows:

“I’m annoyed, I’m over it,”she says of the Serena comparisons. I’ve always said Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird.” She attributes the media hype over her relationship to the star to “just being African American and they want to link to something.”

“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia…And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”

Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. “Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?”

The interview peaks when Stephens recounts an incident from when she was 12, the first time she had seen Venus and Serena play in Delay Beach during Fed Cup. Her mom took Stephens and her brother to the tie to see the sisters  play, and the family waited to try and get autographs.

“…I waited all day. They walked by three times and never signed our posters…I hung it up for a while. I was, like, devastated because they didn’t sign it, whatever, and then after that I was over it. I found a new player to like because I didn’t like them anymore.”

Rawr. It’s like this. The “mini-Serena” angle gave the mainstream sports (non-tennis) media, particularly in the United States, a reason to focus on tennis. Stephens’ win over Serena in Australia was the best thing she could’ve done for them…and the worst thing she could’ve done for everyone else. It was the changing of the guard, they said. The “new American hope” had arrived, they said. “Little Serena” was here to save us from the death of American tennis, they said.

“For the first 16 years of my life, she said one word to me and was never involved in my tennis whatsoever,” says Stephens. “I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal that she’s not involved now. If you mentor someone, that means you speak to them, that means you help them, that means you know about their life, that means you care about them. Are any of those things true at this moment? No…” I offer: “They want the next great American player.” Stephens says: “They want another Serena.”

Why Stephens and Serena (albeit briefly) felt the need to cater to this delusion rather than just be straight about their professional, competitive (lack of a) relationship from the get go remains a mystery to me.

Anastasia Rodionova Peaks in Charleston Loss to Bethanie Mattek-Sands

Those who follow women’s tennis know that Anastasia Rodionova’s reputation far precedes her. In fact, when you Google her, this happens:

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 5.46.52 PM

Here is a player who has only been ranked as high as 62 in singles on the WTA and has never won a title. She has never made it past the third round of a grand slam, and has a losing record at three of the four majors. (The US Open is the exception, where she’s 7-7.) As a result, the Russian-born Australian is far more well-known for her antics on court than anything she has actually achieved. The laundry list is quite long, but here are some of her highlights.

In Cincinnati in 2007, Rodionova was defaulted. Contrary to popular belief, defaulted does not mean retired. It means…defaulted. Up against Angelique Kerber in the first round, Rodionova allegedly became angry about the German’s vocal supporters. Frustrated after losing the first game of the third set, Rodionova smacked a ball in anger up and over the wall in front of the stands where the fans were seated. No one was injured but tournament referee William Coffey defaulted her for unsportsmanlike conduct.

After being defeated by Rodionova at Wimbledon in 2010, Svetlana Kuznetsova refused to shake her hand. Afterwards, Rodionova said, “I don’t know, I guess she was just disappointed. It doesn’t really bother me.” Kuznetsova then tweeted this:

After a loss to Frenchwoman Mathilde Johansson at the 2012 French Open, Rodionova refused to shake the umpire’s hand and claimed that line calls had benefitted the Frenchwoman. Unsurprisingly, she was booed off the court.

Flavia Pennetta said in her autobiography that she would like to fight Rodionova, after she and partner Cara Black used some choice vocabulary to describe Pennetta and partner Gisela Dulko. Andrea Petkovic also addressed Rodionova’s questionable sportsmanship in an interview, where she stated that Rodionova once told her to “go back to smaller tournaments where she belonged” during a match.

However, Rodionova was full flight today during her 64 67(4) 76(3) loss to Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Charleston; the match lasted three hours and 42 minutes, making it the longest WTA match of the 2013 season. Despite her long and storied history, this match was truly the microcosm of Rodionova’s career.

If only she knew.

If only we knew.

She yelled at officials, threw things, yelled at the WTA trainer, threw tantrums. Twitter reacted accordingly.

UPDATE: Look, there’s video! It’s not a bad way to spend 30 minutes of your life, considering the rest of us spent almost four hours.