WTA Invades America

27 07 2009

It seems like an age has passed since Wimbledon finished but it’s only been three weeks and now we’re on the verge of the US hardcourt season. In the intervening period most of the top players rested but there has been clay court action to enjoy (if we can find matches online anyway) but really, those three weeks after Wimbledon aren’t the same, it’s as if most players are just putting their feet up and breathing deeply, preparing for the big push to the final Slam of the year. Word of note to Andrea Petkovic though, who won her first WTA Tour title yesterday in Bad Gastein, Austria. The world number one, Dinara Safina, also lifted a trophy as she won a hardcourt tournament in Portaroz, Slovenia.

Today, a large number of the top players are in Stanford, USA; the line-up includes both Williams sisters, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic, Agnes Radwanska, Marion Bartoli and Nadia Petrova. If we go by the bookmakers then Serena Williams is the easy favourite for this tournament and if she plays well, rightly so – but we all know that Serena doesn’t seem to turn up and give everything she has outside of the slams, evidenced by the fact that she hasn’t won a Tour title in over 15 months now. She has a tricky first round match against Li Na and whilst she should win, I don’t think it would be an earth-shattering shock if she lost that one, although it should be noted that Na is carrying a knee injury. Other potential finalists from that half of the draw include Jankovic, Bartoli and Lisicki and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the winner of Sam Stosur vs Dominika Cibulkova go far.

In the bottom half of the draw, Venus Williams is the favourite to reach the final and with hardcourt titles under her belt already this year, why not? Well, again it will come down to how she approaches the tournament and Venus isn’t adverse to an early defeat to a player she should be beating. She looks safe to win her first two matches but could then find herself up against Maria Sharapova, who is getting ever fitter and would no doubt love to start winning tournaments again as she approaches something resembling her old self, and after that it’s more than likely that Dementieva would be waiting. I think both of those players have more desire than Venus to win this tournament and I would expect one of them to cut off her challenge.

Personally speaking, I’d love to see Marion Bartoli do well here. She’s in potentially the ‘easier’ half of the draw although that description goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that Serena won’t be giving it her all and that Jankovic just isn’t on her game at all right now (or this year).  The young Frenchwoman is more than capable of taking advantage of any shortcomings in her rivals games, so I’ll have my fingers crossed for her. I’d also quite like to see Stosur, Lisicki and Sharapova do well here, but my prediction to win the tournament is Elena Dementieva. She’s won hardcourt titles earlier this year in Auckland and Sydney, reached the Semi Final of the Australian Open (lost to Serena Williams), made the final in Paris (lost to Mauresmo) and of course the last time we saw her was at Wimbledon where she came so close to beating Serena and making the final. Dementieva’s first task is, unfortunately for us Brits, to get past British number one Anne Keothavong.

Elsewhere this week, Nathalie Dechy announced her retirement from tennis, and also her pregnancy, at the age of 30 – best wishes for her future life as a mother! Nicole Vaidisova lost in Stanford qualifying 6-2 6-1 to Stacey Tan, ranked 584 in the world. I’ve no idea what’s going on with Vaidisova and her still-hurtling fall from the upper reaches of the rankings, but it’s looking like she desperately needs to address something in her life and game. It’s really sad to see. And finally, Tamira Paszek told at a press conference how she’d been receiving treatment for a back problem by having her own blood injected into her body, only to have the legality of this questioned. It seems that this type of treatment, known as autologous injections, is against anti-doping rules. Paszek then immediately contacted the Austrian anti-doping agency to find out more about this. Apparently this kind of ‘blood doping’ is against the rules but there’s also an exemption certificate which can be gained to have the treatment administered, though whether this can be acquired after the treatment has occurred, I don’t know. Looking at the massive difference in the Richard Gasquet and Martina Hingis cases, Paszek can expect anything from a wry smile and a slap on the wrist to a hundred year ban from even looking at a tennis court.

For now we have an exciting week of tennis ahead as we lead up to the US Open, so bring it on!


Alizé Cornet: A Year to Forget

19 07 2009

Last month during my time in Eastbourne I walked along the promenade trying to find a suitable place to meet my Dad the next day. We’d chosen a place on the map called Western Lawns and it was this area that I was going to check out; when I arrived I found a stretch of cut grass just off the seafront, used for football kickabouts and other informal activities. On this morning I saw Alizé Cornet exercising on the grass, with a few men nearby who I presume were her coaching staff/ friends. Alizé looked in great shape, lithe and muscular, and it saddened me to know that she had lost her first round match the previous day, against fellow French player Virginie Razzano. This young woman had a terrific breakthrough year in 2008 and in early 2009 was loitering just outside of the top ten in the rankings.  As of today, she has slipped to number 28. So what has gone wrong this year for Alizé Cornet?

Her great run started at the end of February 2008 in Acapulco, Mexico, when Cornet reached the final only to lose to Italian clay-court specialist Flavia Pennetta.  In April she reached the semi-final of another clay event in Amelia Island, USA, losing to Dominika Cibulkova. In Charleston the following week she reached another semi-final before being defeated by Serena Williams. By now Cornet was getting a reputation herself of being a particularly good clay court player, perhaps no great surprise as she had triumphed at junior level in the French Open in 2007.

Alizé reached her biggest stage yet in the WTA when she reached the final in Rome, only to again suffer heartbreak, this time against Jelena Jankovic, the Serb who would end the year ranked number one in the world. But this tournament featured her most impressive draw to date as she took out Schiavone, Kuznetsova and Chakvetadze on the way to meeting Jankovic in the final. Her French Open hopes were dashed in the third round though as she lost in straight sets to fellow young star Agnes Radwanska.

In July last year Alizé took her first and only tour title, winning the clay tournament in Budapest. The following month she took part in the Olympics in China but met Serena Williams in her third match and lost in three sets. This was followed by another semi-final appearance, this time on hard courts in New Haven, where she lost to Caroline Wozniacki, the young Dane who has made great strides herself over the past year. After a third round exit at the US Open she saw out the remaining two months of the year without going deep in any tournament, though she did lose against players such as Elena Dementieva, Ana Ivanovic, Amelie Mauresmo and Vera Zvonareva.

2009 began without any real signs of the disappointments that were to come for Alizé, as she lost in Sydney and at the Australian Open to Dinara Safina, who would reach the final of both tournaments and later take the number one ranking. The first alarm bells were perhaps during the Fed Cup in February when Alizé lost both her matches, to Italians Pennetta and Schiavone. Third round exits in Paris and Dubai were easily explained as they came against Jankovic and Venus Williams respectively, but she went out of Indian Wells in her first match, losing in straight sets to 83rd ranked Kristina Barrois. In Miami two weeks later Cornet lost in her second match to Jie Zheng – the second set was a ‘bagel’, as Zheng won 6-4 6-0. But the clay season was next up in the calendar and surely this would be the time when her fortunes took a turn for the better once more. It was not to be though as she lost her first match in Barcelona to Stephanie Cohen-Aloro, bagelled again in the first set as she lost 6-0 6-3.

The Fed Cup Play-Offs were to follow, on clay, but Cornet lost both matches to Slovakian opposition, first Daniela Hantuchova and then to Cibulkova. Hantuchova beat Alizé easily in their 1st Round match in Stuttgart and by this time her confidence must have been really beginning to suffer. A 2nd Round exit in Rome to Kateryna Bondarenko was followed up by a first round loss to Elena Vesnina in Madrid, both matches featuring 6-1 scorelines in the second set. In the 2nd Round of the French Open Alizé lost 6-3 6-2 to Romanian Sorana Cirstea, ranked 41 in the world, and then the grass season introduced itself at Eastbourne where she lost to Razzano the day before I saw her on the Lawns. Wimbledon brought no happiness for Cornet either as she lost her first round match to Vera Dushevina in three sets, taking another bagel in the process.

Last week Alizé returned to the scene of her only tour success, taking part in the clay tournament in Budapest. She won her first match against Voskoboeva before crashing out at the hands of Shahar Peer, 6-2 6-0. This week she took part in Palermo and came up against Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in her first match – she lost 6-2 6-2.  All of these poor scorelines in the second set indicate that she’s going into matches without really believing she can win, and once the first set is lost she seems to lose hope completely.

So where does this leave Alizé Cornet? Last year she made great progress and earned herself a reputation as a very dangerous clay court player. This year everything seems to have fallen apart, including her clay court game. Are we talking a lack of confidence, a bad run of results which has led to the loss of confidence in her own game, and in turn has led to further poor showings? We’ll soon be heading to the US for hardcourt tournaments and I hope that Alizé can find some wins and get her game back to the place it was not too long ago – that of a rising star, a young woman in great shape, with a healthy outlook and making herself an opponent to be feared. Whether that involves changing some aspect of her game to give her a new weapon she can take confidence in, or whether she just needs a good run in a tournament, to beat a couple of big players, I don’t know. I think it’s fair to say just by looking at her that she isn’t letting herself go. This coming week she heads to Austria as the No. 1 seed for Bad Gastein; if the form of 2009 is to ring true, her seeding is a false one and she will be out of the tournament by Tuesday evening, but I’d like to see her have a great run to give herself a boost before she heads to the US. Fingers crossed for Alizé!

The Week That Was: July 6-12

13 07 2009

In the calm that follows Wimbledon a lot of players are taking a few weeks off to rest and prepare for the hardcourt season, but there were two tournaments to enjoy this week. Both were on clay courts and took place in Båstad, Sweden and Budapest, Hungary.

In Bastad we had an upset in the final as Caroline Wozniacki, hoping to celebrate her 19th birthday with a trophy, was beaten in straight sets by Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez as the Spaniard claimed her second title of the year. Her first was in Bogota in February but no doubt this one will mean more as she took out three top 50 players en route to the final before she met world number 9 Wozniacki. Sanchez, who stressed that she is not related at all to Lawrie (okay, she didn’t) promised to buy Caro something for her birthday instead, before holding up her trophy with a charming smile.

The tournament in Budapest was won by the native Agnes Szavay, claiming her first Tour title since 2007. She beat Patty Schnyder in a three-set final, having dropped the first set to the Swiss. Schnyder had played the best part of two matches the day before to reach the final, her Quarter Final match against Alisa Kleybanova being delayed due to rain, but her efforts would prove to be ultimately fruitless.

This week we have two more tournaments taking place, again both on clay, in Prague and Palermo.

Other WTA news… Monica Seles was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame at the weekend, and deservedly so of course. News of that and the other 2009 inductees can be read here: http://www.tennisfame.com/tennisfame.aspx?pgID=889&newsID=143&exCompID=56

Jelena Dokic, who has been pulling out of tournament after tournament recently, has been diagnosed with mono and told to rest, so hopefully that will be treated and when she returns she’ll be healthy and ready to give her comeback another try.

Indian star Sania Mirza was engaged late this week but not before two obsessed fans – both engineers apparently, and both on seperate days – had gone to her home and insisted that Sania marry them, one of them threatening to kill himself unless she did so. Both men were arrested and Mirza’s engagement went ahead as planned.

Switching sides to the mens tour briefly we had three stories of interest. The first is a positive one as Rajeev Ram won ATP Newport as a Lucky Loser, fighting from a set down to beat fellow American Sam Querry and claim his first ATP title. Ram, who had played in four matches the previous day, winning them all, also took the double title. Secondly Brydan Klein was given a six month ban and ordered to attend a ‘racial sensitivity course’ – no, really – after making racist comments towards a South African opponent at Eastbourne last month. And finally the tragic news that Mathieu Montcourt was found dead on Monday. Montcourt, who reached the 2nd round of the French Open this year, suffered a heart attack in his apartment block in Paris. Toxicology reports have come back negative and the Frenchman died of natural causes, aged just 24. As always this kind of news surpasses sport and thoughts go out to his family and friends. RIP Mathieu.

Wimbledon – Serena Stands Tallest as the Circus Goes Home

6 07 2009

Serena Williams lifted the trophy at Wimbledon for the third time in her career, denying sister Venus of a record-equalling sixth title in London with a 7-6(7-3), 6-2 win.

After Serena’s thrilling victory over Elena Dementieva in the previous round, the final had a high benchmark to try and match it, and unsurprisingly was unable to do so. The opening set was dominated by some serious serving by both players and went to a tie-break where an opening was finally made, first with a Serena forehand, and clinched with a gorgeous backhand lob worthy of taking any set.

The second set followed the same pattern for the first five games before Venus’ serve started to falter and she threw in a rare double fault as she was broken and Serena took a 4-2 lead. Two games later it was all over as Venus netted a forehand to hand Serena the title on her fourth match point. It wasn’t an entirely unsuccessful day for Venus though as the sisters would later take the Doubles title in straight sets against Sam Stosur and Rennae Stubbs.

So for the women, another year at Wimbledon was over and it was time to move on; twenty four hours later, following an exciting mens final – featuring the longest ever fifth set in a mens singles final at 95 minutes, eventually settled 16-14 in favour of Federer – it was time for the circus that is the British media to wrap things up too. As good as Wimbledon is, it’s a relief to wake up on a Monday morning knowing that there are WTA tournaments this week in Bastad and Budapest and that the press don’t care at all. Even leaving aside the continual hype surrounding Andy Murray, which despite his semi final exit was almost justified for once, we’ve had the usual blah-blah-blah surrounding equal prize money and the obvious bashing of the current world number one. Throw in the complete slating of every British player bar Murray, the shameful goading of Anne Keothavong after her 1st round exit, the ridiculous Gruntwatch, the coverage of whether the womens matches on Centre Court are placed there based on the attractiveness of the players involved, the somewhat shortlived proclamation that Gisela Dulko is ‘the new darling of SW19’, a headline that we wouldn’t have seen had a ‘plain’ looking player beaten Maria Sharapova, and ended with the somewhat predictable and to be fair, creditable wonderment that Serena stays ranked number two despite holding three Slam titles. But for anyone living in Britain, all of that is now over for another year and we can return to tennis – Andy Murray exempt – flying so low under the radar that you’d think the WTA were on their annual eleven month break before the 2010 Wimbledon tournament starts.  Thankfully that isn’t the case and although the next few weeks will be fairly quiet as we return to clay courts before taking to the hardcourts of America, there’s still plenty of action to enjoy in 2009.

Wimbledon – Serena and Dementieva Deliver

3 07 2009

In the first of yesterday’s semi-finals, Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva served up a match worthy of it’s place in Wimbledon history.

Heavily tipped to progress to the final, Serena Williams found herself in a real battle against her Russian opponent who broke the American in the first game, only to be broken straight back in the next. From there both players were so close you needed a diamond tipped screwdriver to split them, and the first set inevitably went to a tie-break, with Dementieva taking it 7-4. From this point Serena had one of the toughest challenges of her career ahead of her, needing to win two sets against an opponent having arguably the best game of her career, and one whose tremendous physical condition meant three sets would be no problem for her to endure.

The second set was almost as tight as the first and was finally settled with a superb passing shot by the American to take it 7-5 and level the match out. The final set continued in the same vein and Dementieva had a match point at 5-4 but Serena’s volley at the net returned the ball into the court far away from her, and at 6-6 the match continued with no tie-break in the final set. Williams broke to move 7-6 ahead and took the match when Dementieva was pushed wide and her return went out. It was a grapple that broke the record for the longest womens match in Wimbledon history and featured a massive 72 winners. A pulsating contest with some excellent exchanges and exciting net-play moments had to come to an end although it was a shame someone had to lose this intense battle.

For Serena, her fighting qualities came to the fore and she was more than once helped out by her superb serving whilst Dementieva showed just how much her own serve has improved over the last year or two to enable her to push a player of Williams’ stature to the limits. Dementieva even scored an ace with a second serve, surprising everyone and particularly Williams who was certainly not expecting the Russian to go for it.

So, one of the Williams sisters ensured her place in the final and Dementieva, whilst undoubtedly disappointed to have lost, can take a lot of pride and confidence away from that game and I’m sure the Olympic gold medallist will have another chance at a Slam final.

In complete contrast to this match, the second semi final was a let-down as Venus Williams turned in a brilliant performance to haul Dinara Safina out of the tournament 6-1 6-0. It can be said that Venus is the best player on grasscourts, which is Safina’s least favourite surface, but the manner and scoreline with which the young Russian was sent packing will sting and sends a poor message to the casual fan who would expect more from the current world number one. Safina has had a tremendous year, winning major titles outside of the slams and progressing well in the Slams themselves, on all surfaces, but has failed to win any of her three final appearances and this result won’t do her any favours as she continues to come under fire for being a Slamless number one. She’ll have other opportunities to quiten her critics in the future, but yesterday was, as Safina herself admitted, a lesson on grass from Venus.

So we have another all-Williams final and Venus will go in as the slight favourite, as she has been all tournament, perhaps more so as she played for less than an hour compared to Serena’s tussle of 2hrs 48 minutes. Both sisters play today in the Doubles semi-final also but will need to adjust to being on opposite sides come Saturday. Hopefully it will be another great match and another great advertisement for the WTA Tour.

Wimbledon – Top Four Make Final Four

2 07 2009

Good to see isn’t it? The top four womens seeds at Wimbledon have all made it to the Semi Final stage. After all the complaining about how the women players are too inconsistent and that the top players fall too easily, it’s refreshing to have a situation for once where the media can’t complain. Except, of course, they’ll no doubt say that there’s no strength in depth in the WTA.

Anyway, even though we have the top four seeds there are heavy favourites in each Semi Final match, as Serena Williams and Venus Williams are expected to overcome Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina respectively. Moving backwards to earlier in the week to see how they all got here; Serena beat Daniela Hantuchova, a former top five player who has been losing her way as of late. Hantuchova used her experience to overcome Wimbledon debutant Laura Robson in the first round before beating top 20 player Jie Zheng and then Ai Sugiyama. Serena Williams was a step too far though and even though Hantuchova was the most challenging of her matches to that point, she was dispatched 6-3 6-1. This then set up a rematch against her conquerer in Miami and half-conquerer in Australia, teenager Victoria Azarenka. What could have been a competitive match was blown out of the water as Williams turned up on fire and put in an almost faultless performance in the first set, taking it 6-2. Azarenka broke Williams to go 3-2 up in the second but was broke back immediately and Serena wrapped up the final three games to win 6-3 and send an unmistakably frightening message to the three other Semi Finalists.

Her sister Venus had an impressive couple of games too, beating Ana Ivanovic 6-1 in the first set before Ivanovic was forced to retire one game into the second set in tears with a groin injury. It’s a crying shame for Ivanovic who had been showing signs of form once more but hopefully the injury won’t keep her out of action for too long. Venus meanwhile went on to face Polish youngster Agnes Radwanska and had no problems at all, advancing in straight sets, 6-1 6-2.

Dinara Safina, the current world Number One, won both her matches in three sets, fighting back from a set down in each. First she was up against former number one and ex-Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo, losing the first set 4-6 before taking the second 6-3. Rain interrupted the third set and the Centre Court match made history as the new roof was brought into action for the first time so the match could be completed. Safina completed her comeback 6-4 and needed all her battling qualities again in the Quarter Final against German teenager Sabine Lisicki, who had already beaten two top ten players in Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki. Lisicki held her nerve to win the first set on a tie-break but Safina’s experience and much-improved fitness came into play as she took the second set and then comfortably claimed the third 6-1. The ever-smiling Lisicki had a great tournement considering she hadn’t won a match on grass before this year and as she continues to improve her game and gain more experience she should be one to watch in the future.

Finally, fourth seed Elena Dementieva booked her match against Serena by beating two players not considered major threats to the title. First Virginie Razzano, fresh from her Eastbourne final run, during which she beat Dementieva, was knocked out 6-2 7-6, and then surprise Quarter Finalist Francesca Schiavone was comfortably overcome, 6-2 6-2.

So for todays matches? Dementieva’s semi final against Serena Williams will be by far the toughest opponent she’s had to face in the tournament. Their head-to-head record makes interesting reading. Serena won their first four meetings, all in 2003/04, but they’ve met four times in the last two years and Dementieva has won three of those matches, including beating Serena at the Quarter Final stage when she won her Olympic gold medal in 2008. Serena came out on top when they met at the Semi Final stage of the Australian Open earlier this year and is expected to win today with her grass-court history and performance so far in the last two weeks, but it could be an interesting match, especially if it goes to a third set in the heat as Dementieva is in great shape and has won both of their previous matches which have gone to three sets. You have to fancy Serena but an upset can’t be ruled out.

In the other match, 5-time Wimbledon winner and defending champion Venus Williams is expected to beat Safina, despite her number one ranking. With Venus’ record on grass it’s hard to go against her, but Safina hasn’t reached the top ranking for no reason and on her day is very hard to beat. She’s also a tremendous battler as she’s already demonstrated here but there are question marks about her mental strength in big matches, having made three Slam finals and finished runner up on each occasion, including this years Australian and French Opens. They’ve only met three times, twice at the end of last year when Venus won, and in May this year in Rome when Safina took a three set match on her way to claiming that title. In both matches it’s hard to write off a Williams but a surprise is possible, if not expected, from both Dementieva and Safina. Hopefully we’ll get two good matches to take us into the Final on Saturday.