Monday, October 31, 2011

Great Under A Roof, With No Ceiling

Take a quick peek at Petra Kvitova's bio on the WTA website and you will find that her favorite city to visit is Melbourne. When I read that I couldn't help thinking that Kvitova might like Melbourne even more if she takes over the No. 1 ranking and wins her second Slam there early next year.

I'm getting ahead of myself, naturally, but after observing the year that the 21-year-old has had, it's very hard not to. Now that the dust has settled, the facts are crystal clear: Kvitova's rise from outside the top 30 to No. 2 in the world may indeed be just the first in a many-step ascension that takes her to the throne of women's tennis and leaves her there to fight off potential usurpers for years to come.

One of those potential usurpers might be Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka came up short against Kvitova in the final on Sunday, but the fact that she was able to push Kvitova after being down 5-0 in the first set says a lot about the development of her mental game. For much of this match, Azarenka was the calmer, cooler player, and while she lacks the big-time serve and laser-guided ground strokes of Kvitova, she's a player who is coming into her own in sure and steady fashion -- look no further than her year-end ranking for proof.

But the story of 2012 in women's tennis was the rise of Kvitova. There's so much talk of depth on the women's tour, and that depth was on display in Istanbul to be sure, but in the end, and for the first time in a while, we got a glimpse of dominance from a young player. Unlike Wozniacki, Azarenka, and a lot of other players at the moment who tend to follow each inspiring triumph with an equally uninspiring setback, Kvitova is a player who appears to be cut from a different cloth.

It starts with the serve. There are so many great ball strikers in the WTA top 50, but how many great servers are there? Not even Sam Stosur, with her awesome kick serve, can generate the free points that Kvitova gets from her serve. It's a true luxury, and that wide swooping serve that wreaks havoc on right-hander's backhands is one of the main reasons that Kvitova can win so regularly-- even on days when she's playing not so great.

Time and time again we hear rising tennis players talk of the need to be able to win when they are not playing their best tennis. It is the true test of a top player, and it has been the downfall of many of the WTA's up and comers of late. But not Kvitova. Sure, she can still be maddeningly inconsistent and uninspired (see US Open) at times, but with her strong serving and ability to dictate play with power and precision from the baseline, the Czech has created a buffer against inconsistency. She was less than inspiring, almost in tears actually, for more than half of the final against Victoria Azarenka -- really -- and she was still able to find a way to win. If that isn't a positive sign going forward, then I don't know what is.

At the beginning of 2011, I can remember reading tweets from journalists who thought Petra Kvitova could very well be the next breakout WTA player. I can remember tweeting back that I didn't see it.

'She's not fit enough, she's too hit and miss with her shots, she has no plan B...'

Boy was I wrong. Now that she's one good tournament from ending Caroline Wozniacki's year-long run as the WTA's No. 1, it's easy to see that Kvitova could be the next true tour de force in women's tennis. Of course she'll need to want it. She'll need to feel inside herself that 2011 was just one small step in a larger, more forceful pattern of winning. She'll need to keep developing her mental game and her fitness. She'll need to stay healthy and manage her schedule. She'll need to become -- gasp -- more consistent.

It's still a question mark, and yes, it's still a big one. But her performance in 2011 proves that when it comes to Kvitova, there clearly is no limit to how high she can climb.

As boring as dominance tends to be when it actually occurs, there are a lot of fans and pundits out there rooting for Kvitova to succeed, because a dominating force would force the rest of the WTA Tour to respond in kind -- or be crushed on a regular basis. When there is fire, you must fight fire with fire. When there is no fire, you get a lot of depth and a very low ceiling.

When Kvitova raised the roof in Istanbul this weekend, the ceiling of the whole WTA might have gotten a bit higher too.

Friday, October 28, 2011

For Now, Li Is A Ship Without An Anchor

Na Li has seen better days, and she probably will again. But for now the French Open champion is a ship without anchor, a house with no windows, a lonely puppy in the dog-eat-dog world of professional women's tennis.

Li was hammered relentlessly, 6-1, 6-0 in 66 minutes, by Sam Stosur in Round Robin play at the WTA Championships in Istanbul today. As Stosur, another maiden Grand Slam winner in 2011, appears buoyed by her confidence-inspiring victory in New York, Li appears jaded by her own meteoric rise. She's can't put a string of good matches together, and she appears to be confused and purposeless both in her shotmaking and in her level of interest. Li wandered the court aimlessly today in Istanbul as she faced Stosur in a match with huge implications, misfiring with regularity and not even bothering to take the time to berate her always up-for-it husband and coach, Jiang Shan when things got really bad.

It makes me wonder: Is Li, as she approaches 30, done? Have we seen her shining moment, and are all her top flight sponsors doomed to regret their affiliation with her?

Probably not, but that doesn't change the fact that Li has only won consecutive matches once since the French Open, has fired the coach that guided her to triumph in Paris, and seems generally unhappy on the court.

It makes you wonder, is success really all that bad?

Of course not, and even the self-effacing Li wouldn't cop to that. I'm sure, however, that she would cop to the fact that the plethora of new obligations to sponsors, fans and family have distracted her from her mission on the court. Fair enough, and understandable. But time is short for Li, who will turn 30 on February 26, 2012. It's time to stop celebrating and start focusing on that wonderful power baseline game again.

Whatever Li's problems are at the moment, there's no reason that she can't overcome them and get her game back on track for the 2012 Australian Open (a place where she's traditionally had a lot of success).

Unfortunately for her, all the self-belief that she should be carrying with her as she travels the globe with her tennis rackets in tow has been obliterated over the last few months of inexplicably bad tennis by Li.

None of her recent failures will ever mar her amazing groundbreaking win in Paris this spring, but future success will depend on Li's ability to dig herself out of a huge hole that she probably should have avoided falling into in the first place.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Kvitova Dashes Wozniacki's Hopes, and Fuels Talk of Her Own Domination

There are a few things not to like about Petra Kvitova's game -- but not many. Today, in a one-sided 6-4, 6-2 victory over reigning world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki (which qualified Kvitova for the semis at the WTA Championships), there were even less. Sure, there was the occasional botched volley from a winning position, and yes, there were a few errors in judgment in which Kvitova went for too much when just a little would have been more appropriate.

But if you're not being nitpicky like I am, you could only sum up Kvitova's performance today one way: Awesome.

We must remember that Kvitova is a player who finished 2010 outside of the top 30. Her rise to her current perch at No. 3 in the world has been nothing short of stunning, and to top it off, most pundits agree that she has the most potential of anybody in the top 10 to continue to improve by leaps and bounds.

She'll turn 22 in March, and she's nearly four months older than her victim today, Caroline Wozniacki, but in terms of big match experience, Kvitova's just getting her feet wet.

What we saw in Madrid, where she took out three top 10 players en route to the title, and Wimbledon, where she won her first Grand Slam, appears to be a recurring dream for Kvitova -- and a recurring nightmare for the rest of the field.

The 6' lefty has the ability to completely dominate any and all comers, and it seems that the only thing that holds her back on a regular basis is herself. That's been a concern, to be sure, and until she can avoid major setbacks like the one she suffered in the first round of the US Open, there will still be a questions marks about her potential to be the next multiple Slam winner on the WTA Tour.

But with her play in the first two rounds in Istanbul, she is erasing some of those doubts.

The question that can only be answered by time is: Can Kvitova become more consistent, or will she always be prone to long bouts of head-scratching ineffectiveness? It's a fair question, too. Kvitova could definitely benefit from a dose of the cerebral. She seems to prefer to hit only two ways, hard and harder, but if she wants to avoid giving points and matches away to lesser talented players she'll need to find a way to win when her game isn't firing on all cylinders. She'll need to know herself better, and she'll need to possess the mental toughness to switch personas and become a grinder at times during matches.

Can she do this? Sure.

Will she? Let's stay tuned and find out.

There are also facets of Kvitova's game that would benefit from some fine tuning. She was in perfect position to knock off several volleys today against Wozniacki, but failed to execute. Once, she didn't set her feet with a split step, and on another occasion -- on match point, no less -- she went for a huge swing volley when an angled touch volley would have been more than enough. Just imagine how deadly Kvitova would be if she added a world class net game to her arsenal. Yowza.

Still, in spite of some poor shot selection and some sketchy volleys, Kvitova was a terror from the baseline today, smashing winners to all corners of the court, and serving aggressively throughout the match to keep the Wozniacki return game at bay.

Like many, I feel that it's just a matter of time before the young Czech stakes her claim as the world No. 1 and the dominant force in today's game. On days like today, it feels like that time will come sooner than later.

Are you ready for the era of Petra? Is Petra ready? Ah, so many questions...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Talking Turkey: The New Venue Adds Allure

It's been a fantastic new beginning for the WTA Championships in Turkey. Istanbul, the eighth different city to host the Championships since the event began in 1972 in Boca Raton, has done a wonderful job of making the event appealing to the fans in attendance, but more importantly, the venue looks great on TV.

Today's attendance, listed at more than 11,000, was impressive, but at the end of the day, the majority of tennis fans will watch this event from their televisions or computers, so it is equally important that the event look dazzling from a media perspective as much as it is from an in-person perspective.

After three not-so-ready-for-primetime years in Doha, the event has definitely been upgraded in that regard, and while it might not seem like the most important thing in the world, the decision to turn the lights down in the crowd and let the players duke it out under the lights adds sizzle to the event.

Even if all the seats in the upper tiers of the stadium aren't occupied, we the television viewers of the world can imagine that they are. And with a packed lower bowl, full of enthusiastic tennis lovers, it's not hard at all to do so.

To me, this is a huge upgrade from what the WTA championships looked like when they were held in Doha from 2008-2010. The atmosphere in Turkey is far more electric, and it makes a huge difference. In Doha, I kept thinking to myself "why are they holding the event here?" but now that it's in Turkey I keep thinking "Why don't they just keep it here?"

I've heard some complaints about the purple and green court colors, but I think it's just fine.

How about you?

Talking Turkey: Stosur Steps Up

As she approaches her 28th birthday, many of us have been curious to see what Sam Stosur can do for an encore to her 2011 US Open title. Is Stosur now officially ready for prime time, or will she shrink under the new set of expectations that she will face as the most recent Grand Slam champion?

If today was any indication, Stosur is clearly a changed player. Not that she wasn't pretty incredible before, but the Stosur that was able to grab her first victory in 10 attempts against Maria Sharapova (6-1, 7-5), was so good that she has me thinking that she could win more Slams next year.

Stosur confidently took care of Sharapova, and she did it with more than the big kick serve and thumping forehand that we've all come to know her for. She did it with a very effective defensive game, lots of patience, and lots of poise.

I was surprised to see how good Stosur was with the backhand slice today, and she used it time and time again to neutralize Sharapova. It's a shot that she's always been able to hit, but I don't believe I've seen her hit it with this much consistency or depth before.

Also surprising, was Stosur's footspeed and mobility today. In the past, she's been frenetic back at the baseline, always too anxious to run around her backhand so that she can unload that forehand. But today, Stosur was content to employ -- and execute -- the backhand slice, and it paid off brilliantly. Sharapova was erratic, and Stosur made her more so by depriving her of the pace that she prefers, and most of all by extending points with her legs.

If Stosur is going to play this patient, and be this tactically sound, and use her legs the way she did today, she'll be an even better player next year.

Perhaps the newfound confidence is paying dividends for Stosur. She is playing loose, moving freely, and her game is blossoming as she approaches 28.

If she can continue to play this way, look for her to push Victoria Azarenka today. Stosur has lost all four meetings vs. Vika, and Azarenka is fresh off a title, so it won't be easy. But when you're playing with confidence the way that Stosur is -- she's won 6 of her last 7 matches against top 2 players -- anything is possible.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Talking Turkey

The WTA Championships are playing in Turkey for the first time in the event's history. As usual, the outcome is difficult to predict.

Group Red: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Radwanska, Zvonareva
Group White: Sharapova, Azarenka, Li, Stosur
Heading into this week's prestigious WTA Championships, there is no clear dominating force in the women's game. It should, in the end, make for some unpredictable moments.

What else did you expect?

Nobody has won more prize money than Agnieszka Radwanska this fall. Or respect, for that matter. But money won't make Radwanska a favorite at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, Turkey this week. In fact, her collective record of 4-8 vs. the Red Group makes her anything but a favorite.

Radwanska will be be a heavy underdog when Round Robin play begins on Tuesday because of the match-ups. She's 1-4 against Wozniacki and 0-2 against Kvitova, the two favorites to make the semis in the Red Group. As good as Rawanska was in Tokyo and Beijing this autumn, she'll have to be even better in Istanbul to win it all.

Caroline Wozniacki's 6 titles and Petra Kvitova's 5 bode well for title hopes, but Maria Sharapova's impressive 17-6 record vs. her group make her look like a cinch semifinalist if her ankle holds up.

Oddsmakers consider French Open champion Li Na of China a longshot, and it makes total sense. Slumping Li has only won 6 of 13 matches since winning the French, and will turn 30 early next year. In fact, the three oldest players in the Championships (Li, Stosur, Zvonareva) are the least favored three in the draw. That makes sense too, but I can't help wondering that they oddsmakers could be wrong about Stosur, who proved to the world at the US Open that she's ready for prime time.

Here are some questions that I have about Turkey:

1) Can Na Li wake up from her French Open slumber in time to add to her massive $3.2 million in prize money earned for 2011?

2) Is Victoria Azarenka carrying the hot hand after winning a title in Luxembourg last week without losing a set?

3) Can the Turkish people pack the Sinam Erdem Dome, or will it be a ghost town?

Notes and Miscellaneous:

-- Round Robin play will take place until Friday, Semifinals Saturday, Finals Sunday.

-- How is Maria Sharapova's ankle? She hasn' t played since the injury occurred. It was slightly gruesome for those who saw it, and while Maria says it's not an issue, the proof will be in the pudding.

-- Did you know? That Maria Sharapova is the only member of the elite 8 with an all-time winning record against the top 5?

-- Sharapova has the best all-time record vs. her group, at 17-6.

-- Vera Zvonareva's 451 all time wins tops all players in the draw.

-- Caroline Wozniacki's 62 wins and .805 winning pct. in 2011 top all players in the draw.

-- For the 10th consecutive year, 2 or more Russians have qualified for the Championships.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Radwanska's Game Shines in Japan

It's pretty obvious that the intensity can drop for some during tennis' early autumn Asian swing. The Slams have all been played, and the physical toll of a long grind is being felt by most, but that is clearly not the case for Agnieszka Radwanska. The 22-year-old, who hadn't won a title in three years before taking the Carlsbad title this summer, was at her ball-massaging angle-hitting best in her first post-US Open event of 2011, the Toray Pan Pacific Open.

After avenging her US Open loss to Angelique Kerber in the second round, Radwanska went on to bagel Jelena Jankovic in the third set of the third round -- and that was just the beginning. In the semis and finals Radwanska won easily over the number three and four-ranked players in the world -- Victoria Azarenka and Vera Zvonareva -- and clinched the biggest title of her career.

So, what does it all mean? Well, for one, it means that Radwanska is a heck of a player, and while she may not be a "scout's dream" like a lot of her peers, she's as crafty as they come, as creative as they come, and also as precise as they come. The missing element in Radwanska's game has always been power, but in a sense, the lack of power is what makes her game alluring. Because she doesn't have the power to blast winners from behind the baseline or to dictate points with a big serve, Radwanska is forced to be creative when it comes to taking time away from her opponents.

In a lot of ways, Radwanska achieves the same end that powerful players achieve by taking the ball early and hitting it flat to the open court. And it really is remarkable to watch when she is on. It sort of makes me wonder: if Radwanska can win a huge Premier title like this (and beat a lot of proven players in the process), might she be able to shock the world and win a Grand Slam someday?

It's a tough question, and I'm not crazy enough to make that prediction, but still, it's possible. She's only 22, and if her multiple titles in 2011 are any indication, she's as comfortable with her game as she ever has been.

In any case, there's a lot to like -- LOVE? -- about Radwanska's game, and there's a lot that young players can learn from watching her. She's a clever line-painting player with the ability to employ a variety of modes of attack to not only get her opponents on the run, but to also keep them guessing. She'll angle the ball outside the tramlines, then come in and knock off a volley with surprisingly deft touch; she'll extend a rally by using excellent footwork and anticipation to get to balls that a lot of players wouldn't; she'll throw in the dropper and the backhand slice, the moonball and the forehand squash shot.

Radwanska's game is actually quite similar to Caroline Wozniacki's when you think about it, save for one crucial difference: Radwanska plays the game aggressively, looking for chances to close at the net or opportunities to hit angles or flat balls to the open court that will help her take control of points. And this desire to be aggressive is precisely what makes Radwanska's game a pleasure to watch. She has the patience to stay in long rallies, but all the time you know she's looking for a window to take control.

In Japan last week she was most certainly and definitively in control. And while she wasn't the most powerful player in the tournament by any stretch of the imagination, she was the most precise, the most opportunistic and the most inspiring.

And it made wonder: Does Radwanska have another gear? Might she become more than the player just on the fringe of the top ten that she's always been? Will she continue to improve with age, and find more ways to exploit her obvious tactical and cerebral advantages over the tour's big bangers?

In the dog-eat-dog world that is the WTA, a Radwanska revival doesn't seem that far out of the realm of possibilities.