Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kvitova, Li and The Infinite Sadness

The chaos is starting early in the US Open women's singles draw. In 2 days of US Open play we've lost the 2011 French Open and Wimbledon champions. This marks the first time that three Grand Slam champions from the same year have missed the 2nd round of the US Open since 1971.

Li Posted 54 errors in 2 sets against Simona Halep. Kvitova was not much better. Some would argue that she was worse. The Czech put up 52 in her loss to the Romanian, Alexandra Dulgheru.

Just like Li did on Day 2, Kvitova puzzled onlookers with her befuddling capacity for making unforced errors on day 1. Instead of reining in her shots and taking on less risk, Kvitova was unrelentingly aggressive; she was unrelentingly erratic as well.

Li was no better. Her haphazard ground strokes lacked bite, and she routinely floated simple shots several feet beyond the baseline. Watch the YouTube video above to see the carnage: Li plays one solid, unspectacular point (the first), then proceeds to botch the next 4, inluding match point. At her best, Li was tense and timid. At her worst, she was flat-out pitiful.

To be fair: it's only natural that Li and Kvitova encounter some turbulence at this stage of their careers. Each is adjusting to the new set of expectations that have accompanied their success. Currently, both seem overwhelmed. "Someone like Sharapova or Serena, they're used to that, they know how to budget their time," said Lindsay Davenport, while commentating for the Tennis Channel on Tuesday. "For someone like Li Na, who all of the sudden has all these offers coming in, she's probably doing a little bit too much off court."

Unfortunately for fans, neither did much on court.

Seeing Kvitova reel off six consecutive errors to conclude her match with Dulgheru was a pretty clear indication of where the 21-year-old Czech's game is at. It might still be in England, or perhaps it remains sitting unclaimed at the baggage check at JFK.

Li's game might be in China or in the bottom of her racquet bag for all we know.

The 29-year-old Wuhan, China native was despondent in the press room after her loss, when she spoke openly of her maddening inconsistencies of late. She spoke of telling her recently-hired coach (Michael Mortenson) that she felt her timing was off just prior to taking the court against Halep: "He tell me 'everything is perfect, everything is fantastic," said Li. "I say yes 'everything is fantastic, but I always lose first round.' I mean, this is not fantastic."

Li will turn 30 next February, and is the only Asian player to ever win a Grand Slam.

Kvitova won the Paris and Madrid titles this year, in addition to winning Wimbledon. But she's gone from trailblazer to disconcerting flameout in a matter of months. If her Wimbledon title was her crowning achievement, today's loss was her worst nightmare. On Monday, Kvitova became the first player in Open Era history to lose in the first round of the US Open after winning Wimbledon. According to this piece, the winner of the previous Slam is more likely to win the next Slam than they are to lose in the first round.

Should we be surprised?

It's surprising in some ways, but hardcore WTA fans know it can happen. Li and Kvitova are more proof that the women's tennis is a wild kingdom these days. Past results aren't necessarily guarantees of future results.

The road can be rocky, the pressure deleterious.

Li put it best after her match yesterday, when she said half-jokingly, "tennis is too tough for me."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Why Ryan Harrison Should Hang Out With Heather Watson

Ryan Harrison was his own worst enemy at times in his straight-sets loss to Marin Cilic today. This intrepid tennis writer thinks he has a plan for the hot-headed kid.

It occurred to me while I was watching Maria Sharapova take out Heather Watson in a fantastic battle on Arthur Ashe Stadium today, long after Ryan Harrison lost in a very disappointing performance against Marin Cilic: Wouldn't it be a good thing if Ryan Harrison went out for ice cream with Heather Watson?

Before you start thinking I've gone whacko on you, hear me out, as I get into match-making mode.

Throughout the ages men have always learned the finer points about how to behave like proper adults from women. Why should Ryan Harrison be any different? Clearly, the promising young Shreveport, La. native has a little too much Tabasco sauce in his bloodstream, and I think we can all agree on that fact. It was the hot topic around the grounds as play began today, and Mats Wilander and Martina Navratilova, who had the call for Tennis Channel were quick to call him on it, saying that having an "attitude" can be a good thing, but in Harrison's case he was simply taking it way too far.

Oh, Harrison took it far alright. So far that he sabotaged his chances of making his first round match with Marin Cilic competitive by doing so. It could have been a thriller. It should have been a tense dramatic affair. But because of Harrison's penchant for getting his knickers in a twist, it was a dud.

Which is why I'm recommending that Harrison have some ice cream with Heather Watson. Perhaps they could walk a while together and discuss the finer points of keeping your cool under pressure during a match, and behaving like a lady or a gentleman, regardless of the final outcome of a tennis match. I think Watson could talk some sense into the young American, and they both might have some fun too.

They have the same agent by the way (just saying).

Watson was in a similar situation to Harrison's today, but her demeanor was a hundred times better. Watson too, was facing a more experienced, more proven player in a hotly contested match, but when things started to fall apart for the 19-year-old, she took a deep breath, looked inward, and calmly went back to her business.

Much like Harrison, who was getting pushed around in almost every rally by the more powerful Cilic today, Watson was up against a powerful shrieking devil of a foe, but not once did she resort to berating herself, kicking tennis balls or throwing her racquet.

What Watson did was keep battling like a player who loves to compete and is willing to put her thinking cap on and try to find solutions when things aren't going her way. What Harrison did was berate himself and fly off the handle during crucial points of his match, and it hurt his chances badly. What Watson showed us is that she's a player worthy of our respect. What Harrison showed us is that he's a player that has yet to grow up.

When Harrison left the court today, it was hard not to wonder if he's headed down the same road as Andy Roddick in terms of his behavior. Will he ever cure himself of the annoying capacity to act out during matches? Will these tantrums still be hounding the 19-year-old 10 years from now, the way that Roddick's angst saps him as he approaches his 29th birthday?

There's no doubt that Harrison is a player on the rise. The sky is the limit in terms of how high he can go in the rankings. He's not blessed with enormous power like some of the giants on tour today, but his tennis IQ is high, and his game is varied, intuitive and crafty. His serve is dynamite too. But that temper, oh, that dreaded temper.

Meanwhile, Watson may not be the most daunting specimen on the WTA tour, but at the age of 19, she was a picture of calm repose today. Even with the constant pressure that Maria Sharapova was putting on her, she never let her mind wander.

She received a huge hearty applause when leaving the court today, and signed a bunch of autographs with a smile for the fans she had won over. When Harrison left the court, there were only crickets.

I know it sounds crazy, but I think ice cream with Heather Watson could be the answer right now for Ryan Harrison. They could even catch a movie or go to a play. They can do whatever they want, just as long as there's time for Heather to do what so many good women have done for so many confused men over the years.

Harrison hears about his temper over and over but it never seems to sink in. Maybe Watson could be the difference. Sometimes all a man needs is a good woman to tell him how to behave.

I speak from experience on that.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lights, Cameras... ACTION: Us Open Women's Preview

Serena Williams is the heavy favorite heading into this year's US Open, but she'll be tested early and often.

She's Seeded 28th at the US Open, but Serena Williams staked her claim as the "real" No. 1 in the world this summer, when she went about her business with aplomb, dispatching some of the world's greatest players (Sharapova, Lisicki, Stosur, Bartoli, etc...) en route to her first two WTA titles on U.S. soil since 2009.

The general consensus is that Williams was just warming up this summer, and after cutting her Cincinnati appearance short due to a toe tantrum, odds are that the three-time US Open champ is just now putting the finishing touches on her fitness level and fine-tuning her "A" serve so that it's in "A+" form when the US Open begins.

So what does this mean for the rest of the field? A crew of contenders led by 7 former Grand Slam champions (Sharapova-3, Kuznetsova-2, Venus-7, Schiavone, Ivanovic, Kvitova and Li) is diluted only by the loss of two-time defending champion Kim Clijsters, who withdrew due to an abdominal injury. In other words, there is not just depth in the draw—there's also some seriously talented players with the chance to do some seriously grave damage to Serena's quest for her 14th Grand Slam title.

As much as it feels like it's Serena's tournament to win or lose, there are more than a few women who will be doing their best to prove that there is no such thing as a lock at any WTA event—Slam or Not—in 2011.

Here is a look at the women's draw, complete with picks:

Wozniacki's Quarter:

Caroline Wozniacki, fresh off her tour-leading 6th WTA title of the year and a big fat smooch with her new squeeze (Pro golfer, Rory McIlroy), is now ready to face the skeletons in her Slamless closet. It's been a great year for Wozniacki in terms of titles and rankings, but she has been thrice crestfallen at the slams, and as a result her legitimacy has been brought into question repeatedly.

Expect more of the same in New York, as more experienced and more proven competitors like Svetlana Kuznetsova and Li Na will look to capitalize on their experience to advance from this quarter. Also lurking is a steadily improving Andrea Petkovic, who has already made her first two Slam quarterfinals this year and is hungry to go deeper. On paper her chances look good, but a knee injury sustained in Cincinnati could hamper her progress.

Pick: Li

Azarenka's Quarter:

Azarenka suffered a major setback in New York last year, when she had to retire vs. Gisela Dulko in the 2nd round due to a concussion-related malady that was exacerbated by the sweltering N.Y. heat. Her second round should be easier this year, but it's the third round that Azarenka will need to worry about the heat.

Having drawn the short straw at this year's draw ceremony, Azarenka is slated to face Serena in the third round this year, with the winner sure to be elevated to favorite status by the end of week 1.

Other dangerous names jaywalking in this part of the draw are Francesca Schiavone (playing better lately), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Jelena Jankovic (fresh off a revival in Cincy), Ana Ivanovic (you never know, right?) and Shahar Peer.

Pick: Serena

Sharapova's Quarter:

Ooh, who isn't getting excited already about another mouth watering high-stakes affair between Maria Sharapova, who has been nothing but superb this year, and Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion?

But hang on a second, not so fast.

Kvitova has taken a step back since Wimbledon, winning only two of four matches, and getting blitzed by Andrea Petkovic in both her losses. All that said, Kvitova has proven to be a big match player, so maybe her recent duds will have no bearing once she steps foot on another Grand Slam stage.

This quarter of the draw also features double-fisted Shuai Peng, who reached her career-high ranking just last week (and also became the second-highest ranked Chinese player of all-time), along with Flavia Pennetta, Julia Goerges, Yanina Wickmayer, Lucie Safarova and the ever opportunistic Agnieszka Radwanska (if she can get by her kid sister in the first round).

And if you believe in miracles, Melanie Oudin is also in this quarter. Emphasis on miracles, not B-E-L-I-E-V-E.

Pick: Kvitova

Zvonareva's Quarter:

This quarter is as close to a pick 'em as you can get. Lisicki? Sure. Bartoli? Why not. Stosur? I can see it. Cibulkova? It's possible. Mchale or Robson? Okay, now I'm getting carried away, but you get my point. There are a lot of talented players in this quarter, and while Zvonareva was a finalist last year, Lisicki is probably the hottest player at the moment, while Marion Bartoli has been the most consistent all year.

Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova will also be out to make a charge if a path clears, as will Venus Williams.

Pick: Bartoli

Semis: Kvitova over Bartoli
Semis: Serena over Li

Finals: Serena over Kvitova

Lights, Cameras... ACTION: US Open Men's Preview

If 2011 is truly Novak Djokovic's year, he'll have to make some noise in New York to prove it.

Sunny skies are in the forecast for Monday, and the eyes of the tennis world will be firmly focused on New York, New York as the Open gets underway in full force. The weather won't be the only thing changing this year at the US Open, because 2011 marks the first time that a player other than Nadal or Federer has been seeded first at a Grand Slam since the 2004 Australian Open.

It's been a long grind this summer, and now that we're arriving at the destination, one has to wonder: who has enough left in the tank to get this done?

Here's a look at the men's draw, complete with picks:

If 2011 is the year of Novak Djokovic, doesn't he pretty much have to seal the deal here by winning his first US Open and by also becoming the 6th man in Open Era history to win three Grand Slams in a calendar year? If he doesn't he'll still have a lot to be proud of -- a 43-match winning streak, the No. 1 ranking and two Grand Slams -- but it will be a bit disappointing for the game's hottest player to lose out in the final slam of the year, on what he claims to be his favorite surface, and at an event that he wants to win badly for many reasons.

Talk has gone from the big four to the trivalry this year, but with both Federer and Nadal sort of limping into the open, it feels like we could have a pretty strong dark horse contingent trying to make some noise in New York. Gone is the aura that surrounded Nadal and his beefed-up serve last year, and certainly gone is the belief that Federer is a shoe-in for the semis, given that he was bounced out of the last two masters events by Tsonga and Berdych, and rather easily at that.

So where does that leave us? Murray comes in hot after taking Cincinnati, so he could be a factor, and there is also del Potro and Fish, two possible usurpers who are hungry for a chance to prove themselves at their favorite event.

Here's a breakdown of the draws to hopefully elucidate matters further:

Novak's Quarter:

One big questions lurks: Is Novak's shoulder going to hinder his play? If it does, who the heck knows who is going to come out of this quarter; if it doesn't, Novak will almost certainly find himself in the semis on Super Saturday. It's really hard to imagine anybody in Nole's draw causing him much trouble if he is playing at his best. Berdych, Monfils, Dodig, Gasquet will try to make a difference in this quarter, but their fates depend on Novak's shoulder more than anything.

Pick: Djokovic

Rafa's Quarter:

Losses to Dodig and Fish in the last two events have raised question marks about Rafa. Is he healthy? Will he ever regain his hardcourt form of 2010, or is it too big of an ask? But I wouldn't count the 10-time Grand Slam winner out just yet. For one, his quarter is very favorable. Add to that the fact that he's in the opposite side of the draw from Djokovic, and you have to think that he's got a very good chance to play his way into the tournament, work off some of the rust that might still be lingering from his long post-Wimbledon layoff, and gain some much needed confidence heading into the later rounds.

Resistance could come from big, bad and bald Ivan Ljubicic, Mikhail Youzhny and David Ferrer, but I wouldn't count on anything crazy from Andy Roddick this year -- he doesn't seem to have any mojo at all.

Pick: Rafa

Federer's Quarter:

Here's the big question: Was Federer playing possum this summer at the Masters events, or has his level dropped another level since the French Open? The five-time US Open champion is certainly having trouble keeping his head above water these days, but perhaps a return to one of his favorite places to play in all the world will help him get the fire back. Roger is looking to become the 11th player of 30 years of age or older to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era (the last was Agassi), but both Tsonga (his new nemesis) and Fish (coming into his own in a huge way, and the US Open Series winner) lurk in his quarter, so a trip to the semis will not be a walk in the park by any means.

Pick: Fish

Murray's Quarter:

Will Stan the man Wawrinka ruin Andy Murray's US Open for a second consecutive year? I don't think so, but even if he doesn't, Juan Martin del Potro (who is technically defending his '09 title this year), John Isner or Robin Soderling might. This should be a very entertaining quarter of the draw, with Soderling bound to be rusty after a long layoff, and del Potro bound to be hungry upon returning to the scene of his one and only Grand Slam triumph for the first time. Gilles Simon could even be a major factor here, and maybe even Feliciano Lopez. But in the end, I think it's Murray's quarter to win, and Del Potro's quarter to challenge.

Pick: del Potro

Semis: Djokovic over Fish, Del Potro over Nadal

Finals: Djokovic over Del Potro

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Blessing In Disguise

Serena Williams withdrew from Cincinnati with right toe aggravation. Here's why this is the best news possible for Serena and her fans.

First of all, my apologies to anyone who was in Cincinnati just to get a glimpse of Serena Williams in action on a tennis court. Sightings of Serena live and in person on an American hard court are about as rare as glimpsing Siberian Tigers in southeast Russia, so it's always a bummer to miss out on the chance, especially when you've traveled far from home.

But for the rest of us, particularly those lucky ones like me who have already basked in the glory of Serena this summer, we can put our own desires aside and recognize that Serena's premature departure from the draw in Cincinnati is absolutely the best thing for her, and for her chances winning her 14th Grand Slam singles title at the 2011 US Open.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the women in pursuit of US Open glory, things just got a little tougher.

While there might be a modicum of concern about Serena's aggravated toe, the underlying theme in her abbreviated press conference today was that Serena was a) satisfied with her form at the moment and b) is ready to focus primarily on the only thing she needs to focus on -- her fitness heading into New York.

There's also c) the fact that Serena wants to attend Kim Kardashian's wedding in California this weekend, but as long as she doesn't dance like a fool -- and I mean that literally -- the aggravated toe should be fine come Labor day.

As the 90-second presser wore on, Serena even went so far as to call her "aggravation" a "blessing in disguise," stating, when asked, that the withdrawal would actually make her chances at the US Open better. "I'll have more opportunity to rest up, and to get to one-hundred percent healthy, which could be a very dangerous thing," said Williams.


Toe concerns notwithstanding, the pull-out by Serena is a bold masterstroke by her camp that will buy Serena time to continue working on her fitness while avoiding overplaying, and over exposure to her opponent's scouting. It will allow Serena time to do what she does better than any other player on tour: to go prepare for a Grand Slam on her own terms. Serena has done this before, and while some players need excessive match play to feel ready for a big event, Serena has always been a player who seems to benefit more from hitting hoppers full of balls in a secluded top-security practice enclave than she does from playing matches.

For those who are concerned that Serena's toe might actually be an issue at the US Open: watch the video above, and ask yourself, does this look or sound like a player who is worried at all about her health? I think not. This whole summer -- call it the Summer of Serena if you will -- was designed with one thing in mind: peaking in New York and erasing the bitter memories of the 2009 meltdown vs. Clijsters.

Now that Serena has all of her confidence back, has regained her feel for the ball and her feel for dominating anybody and everybody who takes the court against her, the plan calls for retreating from the microscope and making the machine even stronger than it was in the last 12 matches. Expect her to serve better than she has all summer in New York, and expect her to be more fit than she has all summer too.

If anything, this blessing disguise has made Serena an even stronger favorite for the US Open. While other players get lost in the madness of the blistering-hot American summer, caught up with chasing titles and earning points, Serena has wanted only one thing since the hardcourt season started.

Now that it's in her sights, she's going to ramp it up further, in an attempt to peak -- once again -- when it really matters.

Monday, August 15, 2011

5 Things We Learned In Canada

The tennis was chaotic north of the border last week, but Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams helped maintain the normalcy in the end.

Now the that US Open series hard court season has been essentially compacted into two star-studded events, we're basically half way through the ramp-up. And if last week's results in Montreal and Toronto are any indication, there are some serious fault lines running through the upper echelons on the rankings, both men's and women's.

Perhaps a return to the status quo will begin in force this week in Cincinnati? Surely, the likes of Rafael Nadal, Li Na, Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer and many others are hoping so.

But before we get immersed in the action in Cincinnati, let's take a quick peek back at 5 things we learned in Canada in an attempt to try and make some sense of the tumult.

1. Mardy Fish has a chance to make the US Open semifinals -- Fish was close to breaking Novak Djokovic in the 10th game of the third set yesterday in the Montreal final, and while that in and of itself doesn't mean anything, the fact that Fish was there, pushing the world's best player to the brink, says a lot about how far he's come in the last year or two. Already at a career-high No. 7 in the ATP rankings as of today, Fish is poised to put another exclamation point on his statement-making tennis later this summer in N.Y. Prior to Montreal, Fish in a US Open semi seemed as likely as Celine Dion forming a Sex Pistols cover band, but now that we've seen the level of hard court confusion that Nadal, Federer and Murray are currently experiencing, you have to wonder: Is this Fish's time?

2. Nole and Serena are the favorites heading into N.Y. -- While much of the Tour was falling on their face last week, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic were smashing people in the face. Well, not literally, but this was a figurative face-smashing by Nole and Serena if there ever was one. With two weeks left until the US Open begins, it's clear who is in the drivers seat right now.

3. Practice makes perfect -- With the well-chronicled physical demands of the Tour causing top players to choose rest and relaxation over playing smaller events early in the summer, getting through a few rounds in Canada was step one in the acclimation process for many players who had been off since Wimbledon. Now that many -- Federer, Murray and Li to name a few -- have failed in this endeavor, the pressure to win and do some much-needed harmonizing with the hardcourts in Cincy is even more palpable.

4. Petra Kvitova is not Martina Navratilova -- Well, nobody is Martina Navratilova, and even though Petra Kvitova is Czech, lefty, and a Wimbledon champion, that didn't stop her from getting bounced out of Toronto by Andrea Petkovic in her second match (she won only 3 games). Consistency is still a factor for the 21-year-old, but fans of this rare talent can take comfort in the fact that Petra is a big match player who has been to at least the 4th round of all three Slams this year. She may not be Martina, but she should be fine.

5. Venus Williams in not Serena Williams -- While Serena has been busy winning 11 consecutive matches and basically announcing herself as capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound (while hitting second serve aces and doing Oprah Winfrey's nails), Venus has been unable to find her way back onto the court. Serena's big sister disappointed fans when she pulled out of Toronto with a viral illness, then she pulled out of Cincy with the same illness.

It would have taken a serious prognosticator to predict that by August Serena would have won more matches consecutively (11) than Venus has played all year (10), but that is where we are at the moment. Even if Venus does pull herself together to enter the US Open draw, it's hard to imagine her being a difference maker in N.Y.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Time To Panic?

Rafael Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki and a host of other big names need to get on track next week in Cincinnati, or head into the US Open cold.

Never is the only good time to panic when it comes to tennis, but several disturbing results for top players -- both men's and women's -- have created a major sense of urgency as the Tour prepares to head to it's last big event prior to the US Open in Cincinnati.

Nadal, who hadn't played a match since his defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, was upset by Croatian Ivan Dodig in his opening match. It was Nadal's first opening match defeat in a tournament since Rome, 2008.

The loss in and of itself is not so concerning, but the fact that Nadal only has one more tournament to get his bearings on the hard court will undoubtedly add some extra pressure to his US Open preparations.

And there's always that little thing called confidence. Nadal has always been the type of player who needs lots of match play and practice to reach his top form, so this is a serious concern for him. Perhaps the only good news is that it will give him another week to rest his foot, which was injured in Wimbledon, and may or may not be an issue at this point.

Other men to bow out early in Montreal: Juan Martin del Potro, who lost to Marin Cilic in his 2nd match; Andy Murray, who was upset by South African Kevin Anderson in his opening match; Robin Soderling and Andy Roddick, who withdrew from Montreal due to injury.

On the women's side, world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki was upended by Roberta Vinci in her opening match in Toronto. Wozniacki, like Nadal, thrives on getting lots of match play, and the onus will be on her to make a deep run in Cincinnati or be forced to feel the pressure of needing a strong performance in New Haven in the week leading up to the US Open.

Li and Kvitova, ranked No. 6 and 7 respectively, will be under even more pressure to do well in Cincinnati, as neither has entered New Haven. I'm sure they'd both prefer to have the week to do some last minute tinkering with their strokes and relax a bit rather than hunting down a wildcard to get some extra matches in Connecticut.

The same goes for Venus Williams, who was forced to withdraw from Toronto due to a viral illness, and Kim Clijsters who can't seem to get healthy no matter how hard she tries.

But it's not time to panic -- yet. Even Serena Williams, a player who is riding a 7-match winning streak and seems to solidify her status as the US Open favorite with each successive match, knows that peaking at the right time is more important than peaking too early -- she's stressed that over and over to reporters, both during her run to the title at Stanford and her first few matches in Toronto.

The problem for players like Nadal, Wozniacki and so many others right now is that they can't peak if they've barely played. Hopefully that will change next week. Their need to play -- and to win -- should make the event in Cincinnati more compelling on many levels.