Category Archives: Players

“Ready, Play” (Part II): Waiting in the Weeds – The Legends of Grassonkova and Grasszek

It's been a long road back for Tamira Paszek. Photo by Christopher Levy
It’s been a long road back for Tamira Paszek. Photo by Christopher Levy

With mere hours to go until first ball at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, my common-law twin David Kane from Tennis View Magazine and #backhandcompliments joins me for Part II of our “Ready, Play” series, a shameless, cross-promotional jaunt through the #WimbleWeird archives. You can read Part I of our retrospective, a reflection on Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki’s 2013 Championship, here.  

Victoria Chiesa: Welcome back to my humble abode, David. I know I’ve said I’ve been back!!11! more times than Ana Ivanovic, but I’ve changed the locks to this place and gotten a new set of keys. After discussing Marion and Sabine’s fairy tale fortnight from a year ago, I felt it only right to give some love to the two women who first popularized the Cinderella-esque Wimbledon run: Tsvetana Pironkova and Tamira Paszek. Both unseeded and looming before it was mainstream. Thanks for the inspiration, ladies. I owe you.

Two of the most enigmatic players have had two incredibly different routes to this year’s Wimbledon Championships. Each is a protagonist of her own urban legend, if you will. One’s had a long road back, and the other’s never left. Let’s start with Paszek, a woman who’s gone from teen prodigy, to top-30 stalwart, to also ran. Despite being on the WTA for almost a decade, she’s still just 23 years old.

David Kane: Hi Victoria, love what you’ve done with the place. I’ll try not to Single White Female you on the WordPress theme, but no promises.

To illustrate how long Tamira Paszek has been part of the greater tennis consciousness, look no further than the big name who first believed she had top 5 talent: Justine Henin. The Austrian took Henin to three sets at the 2007 Dubai Tennis Championships with her now-infamous flat groundstrokes and relentless aggression. That fearless ground game was on display again later that year at the US Open with a run to the 4th round. But it was the first round Australian Open encounter with Jelena Jankovic the defines pre-Grasszek mythology. The Austrian had the future No. 1 on the ropes in a no-ad final set, breaking the Serb multiple times to serve for the match. Against a less wily opponent, Paszek may have escaped on one of the many match points she earned.

Despite serving notice, Paszek struggles to remain healthy, a long absence between 2009 and 2010 undoing her early progress. A top 5 contender, now considered by many to be a grass court specialist. What gives?

VC: A back injury derailed much of Paszek’s late teens, and her game lacked much of the punch that it featured before her hiatus. At the end of 2010, she was back in the winner’s circle with a title in Quebec City, but her 2011 season was nothing to write home about until she arrived at Wimbledon. She played one of the matches of the year, possibly one of the best matches I’ve ever seen, to upset Francesca Schiavone in the third round, 3-6, 6-4, 11-9 and eventually reached the quarterfinals. You couldn’t have written a better script, really. She was knocked off her teen prodigy perch, returned from a career-threatening injury and played captivating tennis to reach the last eight. That’s pretty hard to top, but Paszek’s return to the Wimbledon quarterfinals the next year was even more impressive.

She came into Eastbourne with a 2-13 match record and marched all the way to the title, saving five match points against Angelique Kerber in the final. All of a sudden, people weren’t praying for her ranking, but for her to land far away from their favorite player in the draw.

DK: Among many others since her fall from the top of the rankings, fans of Caroline Wozniacki saw their prayer go unanswered at Wimbledon. Paszek and Wozniacki would play the match of the tournament, and this time it would be Wozniacki who would see match points go against her by inches and the Austrian put her away in three sets. It was an businesslike return to the quarterfinals from there, only to lose to Victoria Azarenka for the second year in a row.

For the casual fan, late Spring 2012 marks the Austrian’s last flirtation with relevance, as the losses continued to pile up over the next 12 months. By last August, Paszek was forced to play qualifying at the US Open after being seeded the year before. A successful outing in French Open qualifying and a solid grass court warm-up has gotten her some buzz among those nostalgic for her ball-bashing game. Is it warranted this time around?

VC: Despite drawing last year’s semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens in the opening round, I’m optimistic about Paszek’s chances. The Belgian hasn’t been in great form this year, and struggled with a knee injury in a loss to Elina Svitolina in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The winner is in a section of the draw that will presumably determine Maria Sharapova’s fourth round opponent, and looks one Angelique Kerber sarcastic shrug away from collapse. Do I think Paszek could make it there? Sure. But so could Lourdes Dominguez Lino.

Paszek launched herself back into relevance at the 2011 WImbledon Championships, but Tsvetana Pironkova started the giant-killing trend a year earlier. The woman who came into the tournament ranked No. 82 found herself a set away from the women’s final nearly two weeks later. Forget Wacky Wednesday – let’s take a moment to appreciate Pironkova’s genius.

I didn’t actually mean *a moment.* How unhelpful are you, YouTube.

DK: When Paszek made her Wimbledon runs, it felt like promise fulfilled. Nobody saw Tsvetana Pironkova coming. As she eased into her first major quarterfinal in 2010, few paid attention as she had been in an ostensibly broken part of the draw and though she’d beaten Marion Bartoli, neither were considered contenders against five-time Wimbledon winner Venus Williams. Fewer remembered the Bulgarian’s shock win over the American at the 2006 Australian Open. But none of that seemed to matter as Pironkova dominated Williams from start to finish. Into her first major semifinal, she led Vera Zvonareva by a set before fading in three. The run may have been over, but the Ballad of Tsvetana Pironkova had just begun. So often in tennis, the sequel can be better than the original. How does Pironkova’s second Wimbledon run compared to her first?

VC: Coming into Wimbledon in 2011, most stifled a chuckle and an eye roll when debating if Pironkova could spark even a single bolt of the lightning in a bottle that she caught 12 months earlier. She fell one match short of the previous year’s feat in 2011, but if anything, her quarterfinal showing was more impressive. She dropped three games in the first round against Camila Giorgi, who’s become a bit of a Wimbledon wunderkind in her own right, before dropping just five games to both her 2010 conqueror Zvonareva and Venus again. The three-set quarterfinal she and Kvitova played was a dramatic spectacle, and if Pironkova had won it, she very well could’ve won the title. I’m not even joking. If three of the four slams were still played on grass….

Pironkova’s 2012 Wimbledon campaign was logically ended in a 7-6 6-7 6-0 loss to Maria Sharapova in the second round, but she reached the fourth round last year before falling to Agnieszka Radwanska. Pironkova’s already had the token highlight of her year by winning her first WTA title in Sydney, but the draw is perfectly set up for her to reach the second week yet again. Varvara Lepchenko, Caroline Garcia or Sara Errani and then possibly Ekaterina Makarova or Kimiko Date-Krumm? Hardly the murderer’s row she’s used to.

DK: I’m glad you brought up Sydney, because that was arguably more shocking than either of her Wimbledon runs. Three top 10 wins, eight matches in little over a week, all as a sub-top 100 qualifier? She predictably lost early in Melbourne, but that was a week to remember. Though she hasn’t made it to the quarterfinals in the last two years, she hasn’t had a bad loss at the All-England Club, even stretching eventual semifinalist Radwanska to three sets one year ago. She’s proven not to be a draw-dependent floater, but can we honestly expect so much from the Queen of the Unexpected?

So who do you have making it farther this fortnight? Do you bank on Paszek’s potential or Pironkova’s past?

VC: While Paszek looked thrilled to earn her way into the main draw, her reaction might’ve actually been one of relief rather than anything else. She’s been forced to toil away on the ITF Circuit for a year, and she’ll have a nice payday coming her way regardless. Does that satisfy a former prodigy, or does she want more? Pironkova might’ve lost her opening round match at Eastbourne, but she’s got a reputation to uphold.

I haven’t seen enough of Paszek this year to adequately judge where her form and fitness are this season, and I think her opening round against Flipkens will provide a benchmark for answering some of those questions. I can’t ignore the openness of Pironkova’s draw, but Lepchenko did singlehandedly derail the campaign of my Roland Garros dark horse, Petra Cetkovska. It’s a tough one, but I’ll take Pironkova.

DK: Based on the draw, it would be easy to say Pironkova. But Paszek has been steadily improving and has proven she doesn’t derive that much confidence from wins. Someone like Paszek plays with an inner belief that they deserve to be considered among the game’s elite. Pironkova’s Wimbledon runs can come off as comic relief when nobody really expects them to catalyze a true major breakthrough. None of this is to say her opponents shouldn’t take Pironkova seriously, but I would imagine Paszek takes herself seriously and can more easily channel that combination of belief and ability into a successful tournament.

VC: Our tea’s gone cold and the biscuit tin’s empty, so I think that brings an end to our two-part preview series for the 2014 Wimbledon Championships. And we’ve got 10 whole hours to stock up on more snacks! Thanks to David for joining me here at unseeded & looming, and for all of your snarky but fabulous women’s tennis news, Chrissie Evert memes and GIF-analysis, check out his blog #backhandcompliments.

The ‘merican Way

Since the days of Chris Evert’s baseline grinding and Martina Navratilova’s chip and charge, America’s tennis players have evolved with their sport. Aggressive “jocks” populate both tours, and they typically don’t enjoy playing much defense. Instead, they rely on the one-two punch of their serve and forehand. The prototype for American success, players in this mold have done a lot of winning for the Stars and Stripes for the better part of three decades.

It was a banner day for two of these prototypical American women on Saturday as both Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys won their first career WTA titles. Vandeweghe, who qualified and upset Muguruza and Klara Koukalova en route to the final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, defeated Chinese veteran Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-4. Half a continent away in Eastbourne, Madison Keys rolled through the field before outlasting Angelique Kerber, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in the final of the Premier-level event in Eastbourne.

For most of her career, you could pencil Vandeweghe, the 2008 US Open girls’ singles champion, in for one or two flashy weeks a year.   But for Keys, it’s been a matter of when, not if.  She first jumped on the radar when she became the seventh-youngest player ever to win a WTA match (14 years, 48 days) at Ponte Vedra Beach in 2009. Before this week, Vandeweghe’s career-high ranking barely passed above No. 70, while Keys has been the youngest player inside the top 50 since the end of 2013. Two players, two very different expected career trajectories. What could they have in common?

You guessed it. Massive serves and forehands.

Vandeweghe served 81 aces in eight matches en route to the title, with 59 coming in the main draw. In the final, against a woman whose  pinpoint accuracy on returns has even given Serena Williams fits, Vandeweghe lost just one point behind her first serve in the match. For all of her strengths, Zheng’s not very tall, and Vandeweghe used her kick serve and topspin forehand to keep the 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist off balance for the duration.

For a player who won just four games against noted grass-court expert Sara Errani at Wimbledon just two years ago, Vandeweghe’s performance was even more impressive.

Keys, who can match Vandeweghe’s pace on serve and then some, also possesses lethal variety on both her first and second deliveries. She cracked a 131 MPH let. She thought she held a WTA top-five record for all but a moment, and might’ve been disappointed when her 126 MPH delivery was re-calibrated to a paltry 123 MPH. Her kick serve often bounced head-high.

She hit 60 winners in her championship defeat of one of the WTA’s premier defenders, and even now, her raw brand of attacking tennis is tailor-made for the grass. Able to scorch her forehand from anywhere on the court, it’s easy to marvel at Keys’ ability to create everything out of nothing on that side.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Keys’ run to the Eastbourne title was her ability to reign in her seemingly untamable power, something she’s struggled to do in many matches so far in her fledgling career. Her backhand, the weaker of her two sides, held up throughout the week. She’s joked about her allergy to coming to the net, but found herself there often in the championship match. The next logical progression for her game, she won 14 of 19 points in the forecourt against Kerber.

Keys and Vandeweghe now set their sights on the All-England Club, where both are unseeded. Keys will take on Monica Puig in the opening round, whom she’s 0-2 against, while Vandeweghe will take on Muguruza for the second time in two weeks. While it remains to be seen how the two will perform at Wimbledon, one thing remains certain. They know their strengths.

Whatever the result, their serves and forehands will be firing.

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.

VIDEO: Chair Umpire *ALLEGEDLY* Warns Donald Young for Saying, ‘Son of a Biscuit’

Earlier today, Donald Young defeated Alexander Zverev in the first round of the Sarasota Challenger. While leading 6-4, 2-1*, 15-30, Young netted a routine stretch backhand into the net. Being American, and limited in his choice of profanities, Young chose this.

“Come on Keith, don’t give me crap for that…I said ‘son of a biscuit,’ that’s a problem?”

Related: I wonder if Keith Crossland is a fan of Butters Scotch.

(Thanks to my buddy @NNemeroff on Twitter for the tip.)

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 road 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.

Things That Happened Since Vera Zvonareva Last Played a Singles Match

Courtesy of a singles main draw  wildcard, and a wide-open doubles field, Vera Zvonareva has returned to us this week in Shenzhen. The former World No. 2 hadn’t played a competitive tennis match since a 61 60 loss to Serena Williams in the third round of the London Olympic Games on August 1, 2012.

Her true return to competition came on Sunday, as she and Olga Govortsova lost in the first round in the doubles event to Johanna Konta and Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, 61 26 10-8.

Her last singles match, however, was exactly 518 days ago.

Here is an [abridged] list of things that have happened since Vera Zvonareva last played a singles match.

  • Barack Obama was elected to a second term as President of the United States (Nov. 6, 2012)
  • The third official NHL lockout started (Sept. 15, 2012) and ended. (Jan. 6, 2013)
  • Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope in the history of forever to resign (announced: Feb. 11, 2013 & took effect: Feb. 28, 2013) and Pope Francis was elected. (March 13, 2013)
  • THE CRONUT WAS INVENTED. Chef Dominique Ansel for Dominique Ansel Bakery copyrighted the name in May 2013.
  • St. James’ Palace announced that the Duchess of Cambridge was pregnant (Dec. 3, 2012), mass world hysteria ensued, and Prince George of Cambridge was born. (July 22, 2013)
  • 30 Rock ended after seven seasons (January 31, 2013), COPS got cancelled by Fox after 25 years but moved to cable (May 2013), and people freaked out when Dexter (Sept. 22, 2013) and Breaking Bad (Sept. 29, 2013) ended simultaneously.
  • Andy Murray won Wimbledon, becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years. In case you forgot. (July 7, 2013)
  • “What Does the Fox Say?” was uploaded to YouTube (Sept. 3, 2013) and went viral.
  • The U.S. government entered the third longest shutdown in its history after Congress failed to agree on legislation for the fiscal year 2014, (Oct. 1st-16th, 2013)
  • Family Guy killed off family pet and beloved character Brian Griffin (Nov. 24, 2013)….and brought him back two episodes later. (Dec. 15, 2013)

Zvonareva used a protected ranking to enter the event, and will also be using her SR for the Australian Open. A favorite target of the tennis gods, the unranked Russian might’ve expected some compassion from her overlords after an injury-riddled 18 months.

Instead, she got this.

Screen Shot 2013-12-30 at 10.12.33 PM

No word on how Zvonareva reacted to her draw, but sources say it was something like this.

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/vera-zvonareva-of-russia-reacts-to-a-call-against-victoria-news-photo/111338978

Zvonareva and Li will take the court in Shenzhen later today not before 1 p.m. local time.

The Merits of “Home” Wild Cards

The tennis world was first introduced to Olivia Rogowska when she pushed then-World No. 1 Dinara Safina to the limit in the first round at the 2009 US Open. An 18-year old, Rogowska played with the reckless abandon one would expect from a teenager in her first professional season. Safina recovered from an 0-3, 15-40 deficit in the third set and escaped with a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4 win.

At the 2009 US Open, Rogowska was a wild card – a position she has since become quite familiar with in her five professional seasons. However, with a career-high ranking of No. 111, current ranking of No. 172 and career earnings of just $486,920, she’s received little career benefit from those handouts. With a 6-3, 7-5 loss to Kimiko Date-Krumm in the first round of the Brisbane International this afternoon, Rogowska’s WTA record as a wild card in Australia falls to 1-12.

Brisbane

2014: R1 – l. to Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-3, 7-5

2013: R1 – l. to (Q) Monica Puig 6-2, 6-3

2012: R1 – l. to Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 6-2, 4-6, 6-4

Hobart

2011: R1 – l. to (Q) Tamira Paszek 6-1, 6-3

2010: R1 – l. to (2) Shahar Peer 6-3, 6-2

2009: R1 – l. to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-3, 6-1

Sydney

2013: R1 – l to Maria Kirilenko 7-5, 6-2

Australian Open

2013: R1 – l. to (Q) Vesna Dolonc 5-7, 7-5, 8-6

2012: R1 – d. Sofia Arvidsson 6-3, 6-1 | R2 – l. to (5) Li Na 6-2, 6-2

2011: R1 – l. to Evgeniya Rodina 6-3, 6-1

2010: R1 – l. to Sorana Cirstea 6-3, 2-6, 6-2

2009: R1 –  l. to (31) Alona Bondarenko 5-7, 6-3, 6-2

In addition, Rogowska has received the reciprocal Australian wild card at the other three slams three times. As a wild card at Roland Garros and the US Open, she has recorded an overall record of 1-3.

While this is not necessarily an indictment on Rogowska herself, her situation represents one that has become all too common. Players from the four Grand Slam nations have long been the beneficiary of nearly-unlimited wild cards when the opportunity arises, regardless of deciding factors including age, ability level and recent results.  Rogowska played out of her skin for a set and a half against a crumbling Safina nearly five years ago, and has ridden that result (of a match she lost) even since. Often, she’s continually placed in draws where she’s out of her depth and has failed more often than she has succeeded. As a result, she’s achieved little momentum in her professional career.

One Australian player who didn’t receive a main draw wild card into the Brisbane International is Ashleigh Barty. She received a wild card to the qualifying draw instead. Barty, the 17-year old wunderkind who reached three Grand Slam doubles finals last year with Casey Dellacqua, has struggled to make inroads in singles on the women’s tour. After battling past Cagla Buyukakcay 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-3 in the opening round, she defeated sixth-seeded Julia Glushko 6-3, 6-2 to move into the final round of qualifying. In the final round, Barty saved five match points in defeating Kiki Bertens, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5.

Two fairly young players (Barty, 17 & Rogowska, 22), two different situations. Even if Barty also loses her first match in the main draw, she would leave Brisbane with a lot more confidence and momentum than Rogowska.

With this not a unique situation, it becomes a question of whether or not the wild card system itself is flawed. Does a concept meant to give players an opportunity that they might not get otherwise end up doing more harm than good?