Survive and Advance: The Real March Madness

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.

Karolina’s Krazy Kopenhagen Karnival Out of Komission?

Let’s spare a thought for our beloved Karolina, shall we? 2012 has not been very kind to her.

She lost her #1 ranking. She dropped outside the top 10 for the first time since 2009. She bombed out in the first round of back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time in her career. With her third round defeat at the hands of Angelique Kerber in Beijing yesterday, she was all but mathematically eliminated from a top eight finish for the WTA Championships in Sofia. She has booked her ticket for the Pironkova Invitational Tournament of Champions in Sofia courtesy of a title in Seoul, but that’s another story.

But perhaps most upsettingly, most shockingly of all – Karolina was dethroned as Kween of Kopenhagen by Kerber. The event came onto the calendar in 2009, and Wozniacki had previously been undefeated at the event.

She might not even get the chance to reign again.

While the tournament is under contract to be held at the Farnum Arena indoors until 2015, a report broke today from Christopher Srogosz of Polish Eurosport, suggesting that an International level event in Katowice, Poland can replace Copenhagen on the calendar next season. The piece suggests that Piotr Wozniacki, mastermind behind the entire Kopenhagen operation, was unhappy with the organization of the event. Conveniently. In the year Karolina finally lost. And when they finally got competent officiating.

ALLEGEDLY.

Anyway, the last time the WTA staged a tour event in Poland was Warsaw, which was cancelled after 2010. The main sponsor, television channel Polsat, dropped the event as it struggled to draw attendance. Agnieszka Radwanska did not play the event in 2009 or 2010, officially due to injuries. Unofficially, there was tension between the Radwanskas and then-tournament director Stefan Makarczyk. The *ahem* always opinionated Robert Radwanski said at the time, “As I understand, he has nothing for us, just a playing for patriotic reasons and high-flown phrases.” Considering the mass of Polish and Polish-descended players on the WTA (both Radwanskas, Wozniacki, Kerber, Wozniak and Lisicki), I doubt this edition would struggle to draw in fans.

If the rumors turn out to be true, thank you Copenhagen, for all the good times. Aw, who am I kidding. Thanks for the ridiculousness.

The ugly trophies.

And the empty stands.

It’s been fun, but I hope to never use this many ‘K’s’ in succession ever again.

Flags for ALL the Tennis Players!

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.

Tim Henman:

 “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)

Roger Federer:

“…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)

Venus Williams:

“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.”

Victoria Azarenka:

 “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.

“She’s As Much of a Fairy Princess as I Am” – 2012 Wimbledon Players’ Party

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!

Petra Kvitova

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.

Jelena Jankovic

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

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.

Victoria Azarenka

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.

Caroline Wozniacki

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.

Li Na

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.

Ana Ivanovic

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.

Agnieszka Radwanska

Radwanska rocking a simple, black floor length gown. Although, if I were her, I’d lose the number of Kuznetsova’s hair dresser.

Elena Vesnina

The Russian knocks it out of the park, and the dress really brings out her eyes. My winner for sure.

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

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

top to bottom: Azarenka and Radwanska share the love after Azarenka’s victory in the Australian Open quarterfinals; by Doha, Radwanska and Azarenka’s friendship was no more.

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 61 64 for the title. The tone was set early, as the women bumped shoulders on a changeover early in the match; the dreaded bump has long been considered the cardinal sin of tennis.

(GIF: @ZezeAM)

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

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

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

“Is her last name Jankovic?”

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

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

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

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

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.