At ESPN’s annual ESPY awards on Wednesday, also known as the awards show that doesn’t actually mean anything, Maria Sharapova and Floyd Mayweather presented the fan-voted award for “Best Game.”
The 6’2″ Sharapova, “miffed” by her lack of introduction by master-of-ceremonies Drake, decided to take over the stage in the most hilarious way possible. She walked out in front of the 5’6″ boxing great, and then proceeded to prop herself up on him.
Awesome GIF is awesome.
Sharapova won for Best Female Tennis Player while Rafael Nadal claimed the ESPY for Best Male Tennis Player.
Oh, and Grigor Dimitrov (duh) and Sloane Stephens were also there reppin’ tennis.
A fun night was had by all.
This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.
For those in the United States, “March Madness” is a household event. The umbrella term for the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball National Championship is the harbinger of spring and has risen to cult status across the country. The men’s tournament, which features 68 teams, has become one of the most popular annual sporting events in the United States. Fans began associating the term March Madness with the NCAA tournament in the early 1980s. During that time, perhaps the second most famous phrase associated with the NCAA National Championship was born.
The 1983 Wolfpack of North Carolina State University, led by head coach Jim Valvano, finished the regular season 17-10; the result was incredibly short of impressive. Throughout the postseason, Valvano knew his team would have a difficult task in front of them. “Survive and advance,” Valvano always said; he wanted his team to stay close in every game and put itself in a position to win at the end. The Wolfpack, the fourth seed, took their coach’s words to heart, perhaps too literally. They recorded a last-minute win against Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament; the squad followed that up with an overtime win over No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinals and a three point win over No. 2 Virginia in the conference championship.
The team eventually won the national championship which is celebrated to this day as a victory for underdogs everywhere. As a result, Valano’s words have become the rallying cry for many teams during March Madness. Although the NCAA has trademarked the phrase, tennis also has its own version of March Madness every year. Outside of the Grand Slams, the back-to-back two week events in Indian Wells and Miami are the first big, combined ATP and WTA events of the year.
After stellar tennis from the California desert, the event in South Beach has been a bit of a dud. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal didn’t make the trip to Miami. Some players, like Victoria Azarenka, Samantha Stosur and Stanislas Wawrinka, fell victim to injury. Others, like Juan Martin del Potro and Caroline Wozniacki, failed to build on final runs in Indian Wells and fell victim to early upsets. Novak Djokovic had some strong words for his fourth round upset loss to Tommy Haas, calling it “definitely the worst match I’ve played in a long time.”
And the rest? Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if Jimmy V’s famous words are plastered on the walls of the locker room.
Serena Williams rallied from 6-2, 4-1 down in her fourth round match against Dominika Cibulkova to eventually prevail 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. The World No. 1 found herself in trouble for the second consecutive match in the quarterfinals; after winning the opening set against Li Na, Williams was down 5-2 in the second set before rallying to win in a tiebreak.
Agnieszka Radwanska, the defending champion, was dealt the most difficult hand when her draw came out. Radwanska rallied past Magdalena Rybarikova in nearly three hours in the third round, and was forced to rally from a set down against Sloane Stephens and Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round and the quarterfinals. Against Flipkens, Radwanska singlehandedly paired tennis highlights with NCAA ones on the evening SportsCenter with the shot of the year so far.
Maria Sharapova, in the bottom half of the draw, probably benefitted the most from Azarenka’s injury withdrawal. Despite playing some vintage tennis to take home the trophy in Indian Wells, the Russian has been less than impressive this fortnight. She peaked in the quarterfinals and survived 14 double faults and over 50 unforced errors in a two-and-a-half hour, 7-5 7-5 win against Sara Errani. Nonetheless, she has not dropped a set in 2013.
Let’s not forget about Jelena Jankovic, long considered past her peak. In Miami, the Serb is NC State; she’s the underdog who’s dug deep to get this far. Jankovic trailed by a break in each of the three sets she played against Roberta Vinci in the quarterfinals, but rallied for the 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 victory. Her wins against Vinci and Nadia Petrova marked her first top 15 scalps in an age and a half.
While the tennis might not be pretty, wins are wins. The difference between those who remain and those who’ve gone home is huge; the former found ways to win. The goal for each and every player in tennis, like it is for each and every team in March Madness, is to get to the “business end” of the tournament and to have the opportunity to play for a title.
Their goal is to survive and advance.
Who made tennis an Olympic sport players a back at Wimbledon in 6 weeks who cares …Olympics should be the pinnacle of athletes careers
— Didi Hamann (@DietmarHamann) July 9, 2012
Apparently this guy is some important soccer player? Yeah, whatever.
Tennis was a part of the inaugural 1896 Olympic Games in Athens but was dropped after the 1924 Games. After two appearances as a demonstration sport, it returned as a medal event in the 1988 Games. It has been argued that tennis, as a tournament sport, has no place at the Olympics; many have argued whether an Olympic gold holds equal merit to a Grand Slam title. Elena Dementieva never won a Grand Slam, but is widely considered a sporting hero in Russia for bringing home the gold in Beijing. Clearly Mr. Hamann hasn’t heard any of this, or doesn’t understand the definition of pinnacle.
“I have some great memories of that Olympics, such as going to the Opening Ceremony – that was fantastic, walking into the stadium and being around all those other athletes. I loved the opportunity at the Olympics to watch other sports, to see other athletes in action. Winning a medal at the Olympics is very special.” (The Tennis Space)
“…The Olympic gold is a dream for me. I believe I can handle the pressure but the Olympics is a different animal because you only do get an opportunity every four years.” (Reuters)
“That’s all I’ve fought for this whole year, so I hope that I can play well there,” Williams said following her loss to Elena Vesnina at Wimbledon. For me it will just be an honor to be there, and try to capitalize on that moment…they’re the time of my life, especially when I got to win. But also being able to get to that point in my career has been amazing for me.”
“I have an…opportunity to represent my country at such an event and it’s just something unexplainable in words.” (Reuters)
The Opening Ceremony for the London Games will take place on July 27th, and tennis players will have a huge presence. I’m not kidding. At present, EIGHT tennis players will be the flag bearer for their nation at the ceremony: Marcos Baghdatis (Cyprus), Novak Djokovic (Serbia), Max Mirnyi (Belarus), Rafael Nadal (Spain), Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland), Maria Sharapova (Russia), Horia Tecau (Romania) and Stephanie Vogt (Liechtenstein). Number nine Tsvetana Pironkova (Bulgaria) was reportedly confirmed earlier in the week, but the Bulgarian Olympic Committee released a statement that their decision had not yet been made. Lindsay Davenport, commentating for Tennis Channel in Stanford last week, let it slip that Serena Williams is on the short list for the United States, which would bring the total to 10. It was also reported that Federer was asked to be the flag bearer (again) for Switzerland, but is mulling over turning it down to give someone else an opportunity.
It was great for tennis when two or three players were selected for the honor. Are we in overkill territory now? Perhaps. In Beijing, two players carried the flag: Roger Federer (Switzerland) and Fernando Gonzalez (Chile). In Athens, four players enjoyed the honor: Federer, Claudine Schaul (Luxembourg), Paradorn Srichaphan (Thailand) and Abdo Abdallah (Djibouti). Now, we all know tennis players are professionals. They travel the world every year for tournaments, and have their big moments at the four Grand Slams. Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Sharapova receive millions of dollars in endorsements from companies around the world. Of course the Olympics are special to them, but for different reasons. On the tours, players are playing for themselves, and rarely have an opportunity to play for their country. On the other hand, there are some tennis players who are living the Olympic dream. Stephanie Vogt, who has received an ITF invitation, will be leading a team of three athletes in the Parade of Nations. Three. Max Mirnyi and Horia Tecau are doubles specialists, who are probably not as well known outside of their nations and tennis circles. This is their moment too.
At the end of the day, the Parade of Nations is a fitting name. Countries put their best on display, and tennis players are probably some of the best known athletes from many of these countries. Yes, the wrestlers, swimmers and rowers toil for years to have their moment in the sun at the Olympics. But do most of you know their names? It’s a harsh question, but one that needs to be examined. It’s an honor for all athletes just to make it there and they all play under the same flag, no matter who is holding it.
One of Wimbledon’s many glorious traditions is the annual WTA players’ party, which takes place on the Thursday before the tournament begins. There is no tennis to tear apart until Sunday, so we can slam the outfits instead! Presenting: Your Obligatory WTA Fashion Police Blog Post!
The defending champion continues to shine when given the chance. After being thrust into the public eye following her Wimbledon win in 2011, the soft-spoken Czech has embraced her outer sparkle off the court.
As we know, the only reason why Jelena even bothers to play tennis these days is for extra spending money, clothes and parties. She can’t even do that right anymore.
Venus and Serena Williams
Venus and Serena’s fashion choices over the past decade have sometimes wowed us, and other times, have left us scratching our heads. Both opted for classic options, but the jury’s still out on the hair.
Maria Sharapova doing what Maria Sharapova does with commanding presence as always. She wouldn’t look out of place on a Hollywood red carpet. Bonus points for the shoes.
— kutzna irawan (@tkuzna) June 22, 2012
Azarenka, who also opts for casual looks at these events more often than not
(yes, that debacle at Indian Wells excluded), sports a new layered hairdo to go with her trusty black leggings.
If you’re experiencing deja vu, don’t fret! I am too. Wozniacki sported a similar off the shoulder black dress and up-do at last year’s players’ party. Stella, get the girl another look, stat.
Take me to your leader. China’s first Grand Slam champion rocks the makeup and hair as always, but I do wonder if the dress picks up radio signals. Or at one time sustained alien life.
Ivanovic, unlike her compatriot Jankovic, never fails to disappoint. Although this picture does. The only negative of this dress was the fringed monstrosity on the bottom that I’ve spared you from seeing. Thank me later.
Radwanska rocking a simple, black floor length gown. Although, if I were her, I’d lose the number of Kuznetsova’s hair dresser.
The Russian knocks it out of the park, and the dress really brings out her eyes. My winner for sure.
Women’s Singles – (2) Maria Sharapova d. (21) Sara Errani 63 62
Maria Sharapova cemented her place among the all-time greats by winning her first Roland Garros title, and completing the career Grand Slam. She is the only woman to complete the career Grand Slam by winning her fourth major title.
“It’s a wonderful moment in my career. I’m really speechless. It’s been such a journey for me to get to this stage. ‘I could have said, ‘I don’t need this. I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams.’ But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it’s freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn’t there from the outside world, and you seem so small,” said Sharapova. “But you can achieve great things when you don’t listen to all those things.” (ESPN)
Sharapova raced out to a *4-0 lead in the first set, overwhelming the first time finalist with a barrage of powerful and accurate groundstrokes. However, Errani found her footing in the match, and began to play the style of game that had brought her so much success on clay in 2012. The Italian pulled to within one service break, but Sharapova allowed her to get no closer, finishing strong to take the set. While the Italian began to play better in the second set, Sharapova proved too strong, again getting out to a *4-1 lead. Errani managed to break Sharapova in a marathon game, but surrendered her serve again soon after. Despite saving two championship points with perfectly executed forehand drop shots, Errani could not save a third as her backhand drop shot attempt failed to reach the net. In perhaps the most amusing moment of the match, the two shared a laugh when the stadium public address announcer incorrectly called for Sharapova to come forward as the runner-up, and Errani raised her arms in mock triumph. By virtue of reaching the final, Sharapova also claimed the #1 ranking for the first time since 2008.
Sara Errani didn’t go home without a champion’s trophy, however. She and fellow Italian Roberta Vinci took home their first Grand Slam title, defeating the Russian pairing of Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
Men’s Singles – (2) Rafael Nadal d. (1) Novak Djokovic 64 63 26 75
In a rain delayed two-day final, Rafael Nadal won his seventh career title at Roland Garros, surpassing Bjorn Borg’s record for all-time career titles on the red clay of Paris. He denied Novak Djokovic both the career Grand Slam, and the chance to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four major titles at once. Nadal improved his record at Roland Garros to a near-spotless 52-1.
”This tournament is, for me, the most special tournament of the world,” Nadal said. ”It was a very difficult match against the best player in the world. ‘I lost three Grand Slam finals – Wimbledon, the U.S. Open last year, and the Australian Open this year. I’m very happy, very emotional.” (NY Post)
Nadal jumped out to an early *30 lead in the first set, courtesy of some erratic play from the World #1. While Djokovic hit back, winning three straight games, Nadal regained his advantage in the seventh game, breaking Djokovic’s serve off of a double fault. After closing out the first set in just under an hour, Nadal gained an early advantage in the second set, and after holding serve for 53*, play was suspended the first time due to rain. When the players returned to court just over a half an hour later, Nadal broke Djokovic easily to wrap up a two set advantage. It looked as though Nadal would run away with the match when he gained an early break advantage in the third set, as conditions worsened due to rain. Djokovic went on an unprecedented run, winning eight straight games to take the set and claim an early break in the fourth. The match was suspended again, and Nadal was displeased with tournament officials for allowing play to continue as long as it had. When they returned to the courts Monday, Nadal broke back immediately, and the match went with serve until *5-6, when Djokovic double faulted to hand Nadal the title.
Top seeds Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor took home the men’s doubles crown, defeating second seeds Bob and Mike Bryan 6-4, 6-4. The Bryan brothers were looking to break Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde’s record for all-time career Grand Slam titles. Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupati took home the mixed doubles title, defeating surprise finalists Klaudia Jans-Ignacik and Santiago Gonzalez, 7-6(3), 6-1.
Five Things to Take Away from Roland Garros 2012
1. The Big Four? Try the Top Two. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal once again proved their superiority over the rest of the field this fortnight. The two, along with Roger Federer and Andy Murray, have been dubbed “The Big Four” on the ATP Tour. It’s becoming more apparent that “The Big Four” is a myth; Murray is rapidly falling back to the pack, and as evidenced by his semifinal performance against Djokovic, Federer is having more difficulty keeping up with the top two even when they aren’t at their best. Federer hasn’t won a major title since the 2010 Australian Open.
2. “MARIA SHARAPOVA IS BACK!!!!111oneone!” No, Maria Sharapova never left. When Maria Sharapova returned from shoulder surgery in 2009, few expected her to be the same player. Sharapova’s fighting qualities were never in doubt, and it was always a matter of her game coming back together. Through all the double faults, unforced errors and shocking losses, she never stopped fighting. Sharapova’s game, and perhaps more crucially her confidence, stem from her serve, and it finally appears that it has returned to her. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Russian’s serve desert her in the crucial moments, but not anymore. Sharapova won an average of 70% of her first serve points for the tournament, and her confidence in her serve was evident in both her semifinal against Petra Kvitova, where she served a second serve ace on match point, and in the final, where she served three aces in the final game to secure the title.
3. Hold up on that obituary for American women’s tennis. It’s long been asserted that once the Williams sisters retired, the future of American women’s tennis looked bleak. No one told these ladies. Christina McHale, ranked 29th, is the second highest ranked American behind Serena Williams and there is no one younger ranked above her. She played Li Na tough in the third round before falling in three sets. Teenagers Sloane Stephens and Lauren Davis made the fourth round and second round after qualifying, respectively. Veteran and newly minted citizen Varvara Lepchenko also made the fourth round, upsetting Francesca Schiavone and Jelena Jankovic, and cementing her status on the Olympic team. Only one American woman lost in a completed first round match, and that was Serena Williams.
4. You can’t keep a good (wo)man down. Let’s show some love to qualifiers Tommy Haas and Yaroslava Shvedova who both conjured up their vintage best during the fortnight. Haas, a four-time major semifinalist and former World No. 2, has been slowed by age and injury the past few seasons but deserves full credit for trying to fight his way back. After coming through qualifying, Haas downed Filippo Volandri and Sergiy Stakhovsky before falling to Richard Gasquet in four sets. Shvedova, who reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2010, repeated the feat this year – taking out Mandy Minella, Sofia Arvidsson, Carla Suarez Navarro and defending champion Li Na before falling to Petra Kvitova in three tough sets.
5. Unlike a fine wine, stars sour with age. Multiple WTA tour veterans are approaching a career crossroads with the Olympics on the horizon. Vera Zvonareva, who withdrew from Roland Garros prior to her first match, is facing a career-threatening shoulder injury. Russian Fed Cup captain Shamil Tarpischev says she will forgo surgery for the moment and try alternative therapy; Tarpischev says it’s likely she will not play at all until the Olympics. Jelena Jankovic, who dropped out of the top 20 for the first time since 2006, won ONE Tour-level match on the clay. Francesca Schiavone, who has been in poor form for the large part of the season, plummeted 15 spots in the rankings after failing to defend a finals showing at Roland Garros.
July 3rd, 2004. Maria Sharapova, then just 17, stunned the tennis world by winning Wimbledon. The Russian stepped out, on the biggest stage in the sport, and announced to the world that she had arrived. She took home $888,211.
Who knows if Sara Errani, then also 17, was aware of Sharapova’s triumph. While fairly close to the lawns of the All-England Club geographically, she could not have been further away. The Italian had just been defeated by Goulnara Fattakhetdinova in the second round of qualifying at an ITF event in Cuneo, Italy. She pocketed $147.
Their careers have taken opposite paths since but exactly seven years, eleven months and six days later, they will play for a Grand Slam championship.
“I was in a position a few years ago where I didn’t quite know if I would ever be here again on this stage, playing professionally. And not just at that, but at a level to get to No. 1 in the world and a first Roland Garros final for me,” Sharapova said. “So a very special day, no doubt.” (ESPN)
Maria Sharapova came into Roland Garros on a high, having triumphed at two of the four major clay court warmup events in Stuttgart (d. Azarenka) and Rome (d. Li). The lone Grand Slam jewel missing from her resume, The stars have seemed to align this fortnight for Sharapova – with Williams’ shocking exit in the first round to Virginie Razzano, Sharapova was instantly anointed the favorite for the title. She’s played like it too. In the first three rounds, Sharapova dropped a total of five games, and her opponents hit a combined nine winners against her. In total, Sharapova was pushed to three sets just once, but came out on top in a gritty, error-strewn fourth round match against Klara Zakopalova. Sharapova will also return to the #1 ranking for the first time since 2008 on Monday, having needed to reach the final to do so. 2012 marks the first time Sharapova has reached the finals at Roland Garros, having previously made the semifinals in 2007 and 2011.
Sharapova’s Road to the Final:
R1: d. Alexandra Cadantu (ROU) 6-0, 6-0
R2: d. Ayumi Morita (JPN) 6-1, 6-1
R3: d. (28) Peng Shuai (CHN) 6-2, 6-1
R4: d. Klara Zakopalova (CZE) 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-2
QF: d. (23) Kaia Kanepi (EST) 6-2, 6-3
SF: d. (4) Petra Kvitova (CZE) 6-3, 6-3
“It’s not a question of believing or not believing,” Errani said. “I don’t think about that. I just think about playing. I just think about going on court and giving my all. And whatever happens, happens. I’ve never thought, ‘I can’t beat someone in the top 10.” (AP)
While Sharapova coasted through the bottom half, Errani was making waves on top. After making the Australian Open quarterfinals, Errani, like Sharapova, found her footing on clay early. The Italian picked up three titles in Acapulco (d. Pennetta), Barcelona (d. Cibulkova) and Budapest (d. Vesnina). Prior to this year, Errani had won a grand total of one match at Roland Garros. That win came last year, in a memorable first round match against American Christina McHale; the American led *50 in the final set before Errani rallied to win, 67(4) 62 97. Errani took advantage of a wide open top half, following the early exits of World #3 Agnieszka Radwanska, who lost in the third round to Svetlana Kuznetsova and World #1 Victoria Azarenka, who fell in the fourth round to Dominika Cibulkova. She had previously been 0-28 against top 10 opponents before scoring back-to-back wins against #10 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and #6 Samantha Stosur in the semifinals. Errani will debut in the top 10 herself on Monday, finishing no lower than #10 regardless of the result. She is also the first player since Kim Clijsters in 2003 to reach both the singles and doubles finals at Roland Garros; she and countrywoman Roberta Vinci will face Russians Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova on Friday.
Errani’s Road to the Final:
R1: d. Casey Dellacqua (AUS) 4-6, 6-2, 6-2
R2: d. Melanie Oudin (USA) 6-2, 6-3
R3: d. (13) Ana Ivanovic (SRB) 1-6, 7-5, 6-3
R4: d. (26) Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) 6-0, 7-5
QF: d. (10) Angelique Kerber (GER) 6-3, 7-6(2)
SF: d. (6) Samantha Stosur (AUS) 7-5, 1-6, 6-3
The final presents a contrast in styles; while Errani lacks Sharapova’s brute strength and power, she makes up for it in court craft and guile. The Russian will be looking to impose her will on Errani early, while the Italian will be looking to outmaneuver and draw out longer rallies with Sharapova. Both women will be looking to break serve often; Sharapova leads all competitors with 40 break points converted, with Errani close behind having converted 38. Sharapova has the clear edge in the serve department, having served 13 aces and her serve has topped out at 113 MPH. Errani, to her credit, has landed 79% of her first serves in six matches.
There is no head-to-head history between the two, as they have never faced. Sharapova will be looking to be the third Russian to triumph at Roland Garros, after Myskina in 2004 and Kuznetsova in 2009; Errani will be looking to repeat the 2010 triumph of countrywoman Francesca Schiavone.
“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.
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:
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.
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.
First match on blue clay? Ouch. Next time I better bring my skates with me. So slippery out there.
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) May 8, 2012
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.
For the past 10 years, Russia has had a large number of players occupying the top spots in the WTA Tour rankings. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Russian women swept the medals with Elena Dementieva winning gold, Dinara Safina taking silver and Vera Zvonareva finishing with bronze. Four years later, the Olympic picture is much different for the Russian team. With Dementieva retired and Safina sidelined indefinitely with a back injury, the Russians no longer hold the vicegrip on the WTA rankings they once did. Russians occupied five of the top ten places in the world rankings in 2008; currently, there are only two in the top 20.
Rules for Olympic team nominations are as follows (courtesy of the ITF):
The main qualifying criteria is the ATP and WTA ranking lists as of June 11, 2012…Players must have also participated in two Fed Cup events from 2009 – 2012, one of which must have taken place in 2011-2012, and have a good standing with their National Olympic Committee. Each NOC can enter 6 men and 6 women athletes, with a maximum of 4 entries in the individual events, and 2 pairs in the doubles events. Any player in the world’s top 56 is eligible, and NOC’s have the option to enter players of a lower rank. Athletes are able to compete in both singles and doubles events. Doubles players within the top 10 rankings on 11 June are eligible provided that the number of players of the same nation doesn’t surpass the total of six.
Leaving #2 Maria Sharapova (W/L: 18-4 Best Result: F Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami) out of the equation, the win-loss records of the next five (singles rankings as of April 2nd) Russian women this year are a mixed bag at best:
#9 Vera Zvonareva W/L: 7-6 Best Result: QF Charleston
#21 Maria Kirilenko W/L: 14-7 Best Result: F Pattaya City
#22 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova W/L: 3-8 Best Result: R16 Brisbane
#25 Svetlana Kuznetsova W/L: 11-7 Best Result: R16 Brisbane, Doha
#35 Nadia Petrova W/L 5-6 Best Result: QF Charleston
Shamil Tarpishchev, Russia’s Fed Cup and Olympic team captain, expressed his concerns in a recent column for tennis.sport-express.ru. He specifically addressed team stalwarts Zvonareva and Kuznetsova, who had lost their opening round matches at the Sony Ericsson Open (l. to Muguruza Blanco and Benesova, respectively). Tarpishchev discussed Zvonareva’s bouts with injuries (shoulder and hip) and illness, as well as Kuznetsova’s lack of focus in winning positions.
Based off of these rankings, Russia’s four singles players would be Sharapova, Zvonareva, Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova. Pavlyuchenkova’s slump has been particularly alarming; the 21-year-old, who made the quarterfinals of both Roland Garros and the US Open last year, has lost in the first round of all but three events this season. The Russian who has had arguably the 2nd best season behind Sharapova in singles is #39 Ekaterina Makarova, who had a stunning run to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (d. Zvonareva, S. Williams en route, l. to Sharapova) and the fourth round in Miami (d. Pavlyuchenkova en route, l. to Sharapova). Going only by current rankings, she would not make the team, although her form this season should suggest otherwise.
Kirilenko, the 3rd Russian in the singles rankings, is also ranked in the top 10 in doubles. She, along with Elena Vesnina, would be directly qualified to compete with any partner in the doubles competition if the current rankings stand. However, Kuznetsova and Zvonareva partnered to win the Australian Open in doubles and Petrova is paired with Kirilenko to start the season; she is currently ranked 16th in doubles. Kirilenko and Petrova took home their biggest title as a pair in winning the Sony Ericsson Open (d. Kuzntsova/Zvonareva en route, d. Errani/Vinci for title). Vesnina competes in events with India’s Sania Mirza, and there is speculation that Vesnina would be left off the team.
With Roland Garros looming on the horizon, the race to the Olympics will be a big story throughout the European clay season. While the Russians are blessed with enormous depth, there are questions if their best players can round into form in time.