Sunday, November 30, 2008

Robson on short list for BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year

Junior Wimbledon champion Laura Robson has made the short list of nominations for the 2008 BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award. The list, originally comprised of ten athletes, now includes Robson, 2007 winner Tom Daley and Eleanor Simmonds.

The winner will be announced on December 14.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How will Dokic do in 2009?

I have written extensively about the heartbreak of Jelena Dokic's career. She's back, of course, though 2008 was probably also a difficult year for her, but in a tennis way, rather than in a nightmarish personal way. It will be interesting to see what Dokic does. According to Women's Tennis Blog, the former world number 4 is ready for action.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Who's hot, who's not

Hot one season--not-so the next. A break-out season can sometimes be followed by a slump, and a good season can be followed by serious injury or illness, which results in a slump. Some players have trouble coming back after losing ground because of an injury. This happened to Flavia Pennetta, but she overcame it in a big way. Nathalie Dechy solved her injury comeback problem by concentrating on doubles rather than singles (maybe not so great for her fans, though). Amelie Mauresmo has yet to solve her injury/illness comeback crash, but is hiring a new coach in the hope that 2009 will be better.

How do the players line up for 2009?


Venus Williams: This was a great year for Williams. She won Wimbledon for the fifth time, defeated her sister in the Wimbledon final for the first time, and won the Sony Ericsson Championships. Liability: When she gets tight, her forehand goes to pieces.

Serena Williams: Playing at her best, she's almost unbeatable. She won the Sony Ericsson Open and the U.S. Open. Libabilities: She sustains a lot of injuries, especially with her bad knee. She sometimes gets out of the zone for long periods of time and becomes very error-prone.

Jelena Jankovic: At long last, she got to the final of a major, her serve is very much improved, and her fitness is also improved. She has everything--superb athleticism, positive attitude, superior mental game. Liability: Jankovic has a fragile body.

Dinara Safina: She burned down the house in 2008, but became mentally weary at the end of the season, and fizzled out. Liabilities: Safina needs to become consistent with her serve, which is either wonderful or terrible. And she needs to get more accustomed to the mental pressure of being at the top, and find a way to conserve some energy.


Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's shoulder--and her doctors--let her down again this year, but there is every reason to believe that the fighting Russian will fight her way right back to the top rung of the tour ladder. Liability: Her shoulder, which is now a chronic problem.

Ana Ivanovic: After Ivanovic injured her thumb, she just wasn't the same. But a new season should bring back the old Ivanovic, who is capable of doing great things on a tennis court. Liability: Though few talk about it, Ivanovic can be a bit mentally fragile.

Agnieszka Radwanska: Radwanska is no Chris Evert, but she sometimes reminds me of the great Evert, with her blank affect and repeated stinging of the baseline. Radwanska is all business on the court, and she plays with a precision that belies her lack of "weapons." The greatest weapon of all is the head, and Radwanska's is on straight. Liability: She needs to become more comfortable at the net.

Elena Dementieva: 2008 was a standout year for Dementieva, who finally found a good serve, and whose confidence shot up when she won an Olympic gold medal. Is her time (as in, Grand Slam tournaments) past? Perhaps not. Liability: Dementieva runs hot and cold; one moment she is the most mentally tough player in a tournament, and the next, she has a meltdown.


Caroline Wozniacki: Wozniacki is a fiery and skillful player, and as she matures, we can expect her to become more aggressive and take more risks. Liability: Wozniacki is still relatively inexperienced and sometimes struggles against top players.

Alize Cornet: She's great on clay, and will probably be very good on hard courts. Cornet brings spirit and a kind of limber athleticism to her game. Liability: She needs to develop more tactics for playing on a faster surface.

Vera Zvonareva: Zvonareva simmered so much in 2008, she should be about ready to boil-- and maybe she is. We saw the best tennis of Zvonareva's career this year, and we saw her return to the top 10, where she belongs. Liability: Zvonareva has a really bad temper on the court, which does not always work against a player, but probably works against her more than it helps her.

Nadia Petrova: Petrova used to be sizzling, but she cooled down to almost frozen dessert level. 2008 saw her looking a lot more like herself, and 2009 should be a good year for her. Liability: Petrova has been known to lose her focus and become defeatist.

Svetlana Kuznetsova: Remember the words to that song from Funny Girl?: "Everything you've got's about right, but the damn thing don't come out right." Kuznetsova can skillfully serve, volley, hit solid groundstrokes, and run quickly both ways around the court. She has moved back to Russia and will be working with Olga Morozova with the hope of having a better season. Liability: Head case.

Flavia Pennetta: Pennetta had to almost start all over when she lost her confidence after an injury layoff. She played a lot of small tournaments and did well, then proceeded to go to the finals in both Los Angeles and Zurich, and to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. She is now back in the top 20. Liability: Pennetta has been playing with a bad foot for some time.

Victoria Azarenka: There is no doubting Victoria Azarenka's talent. A tough baseliner, she also has some very nice doubles skills. Azarenka is steadily improving, and could make a real dent in the 2009 season. Liability: Azarenka has difficulty closing.

Patty Schnyder: Schnyder is about to turn 30, and--in my opinion--is the biggest under-achiever on the tour. She gets into final after final--some of them quite big--but rarely wins the trophy, creating excessive fan frustration (I can only imagine how she feels). No one knows how much longer the intelligent and inventive Schnyder will play singles--she has revived her interest in doubles--but she has fitness on her side, an improved serve, and an improved backhand. Liability: Schnyder has major difficulty closing big matches.

Dominika Cibulkova: Just as the hummingbird is technically unable to fly, the 5-foot, 3-inch Cibulkova isn't supposed to play pro tennis, but she does so with quite a bit of determination. Cibulkova has had a lot of court poise from the start, and she can hit the ball harder than one might think. Liability: She gets injured a lot.

Maria Kirilenko: Kirilenko has an elegant game that is a joy to see, and 2008 was a good season for her. Liability: She is chronically inconsistent.

Li Na: Li is a strong hard court player, but in the last year and a half, she sustained two very serious injuries which put her out of commission for months at a time. Liability: Despite making a good start in 2008, she still has to play catch-up.

Katarina Srebotnik: Srebotnik had a knock-out year, tossing Serena Williams out of the French Open, and then doing likewise with Svetlana Kuznetsova at the U.S. Open. She made it to the quarterfinals of both tournaments (falling to Schnyder in both), and also achieved a career-high ranking of 20. Liability: Srebotnik puts a lot of her practice time into doubles.


This list includes, but is certainly not limited to: Kaia Kenepi, Sara Errani, Bethanie Mattek, Alona Bondarenko, Kateryna Bondarenko, Tamira Paszek, Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sorana Cirstea


Amelie Mauresmo: The former world number 1 had some very bad luck last year with injury and injury-related illness, and this year, she just couldn't get it together. We are all waiting to hear whom she has selected as her new coach. Asset: She has been at the top before and with some belief, she could use her experience to make another good run.

Tatiana Golovin:
A cyst on her hip put Golovin out of the game, and prior to that occurrence, she had chronic problems with her ankles. The most frustrating part of this misfortune is that after she spent some time working with Mats Wilander, she had improved her game most impressively. No ones knows when to expect her back on the tour, or how long it could take her to get back to her post-Wilander form. Asset: Golovin is young, and has time to return to form.

Marion Bartoli:
Bartoli's post 2007-Wimbledon slump was no surprise, but it is too easy to just dismiss her as someone who once had a shining moment. Bartoli plays an unusual style of tennis, and she plays it well. This year, she made significant improvements to her serve, too. When she is healthy and tuned in, she is almost unbeatable. But Bartoli's body is fragile (perhaps from those endless drills her father has her do, including two hours before her matches), and one gets the impression that her mentality is sometimes fragile, too. I wish she would try out a new coach. Asset: Bartoli is often accused of "living in her own world," but this could work to her advantage.

Agnes Szavay:
What happened here? Szavay is a really good player with a beautiful backhand, but she has had a terrible season, falling in the first round over and over. The 2008 experience will show us how mentally tough Szavay is. Asset: Szavay is young, talented and healthy.

Anna Chakvetadze:
Chakvetadze is loaded with talent and a lot of fun to watch, but this season, she was sometimes barely able to keep the ball within the court. Always emotionally fragile, Chakvetadze suffered a terrible trauma a year ago when she and her father were tied up, robbed and brutalized. She says that she has recovered from the event, but I doubt that is the case. Not known for mental toughness, Chakvetadze now risks having a total meltdown on the tour. Asset: Chakvetadze is likely to get all the support she needs from a strong national federation.

Daniela Hantuchova:
Everyone's favorite head case had some serious problems with her feet, too, this year. When she returned to the tour, she had difficulty getting out of early rounds. When Hantuchova is on her very elegant game, she is a top player, though she is also a world-class choker. Asset: Hantuchova is too intelligent, and likes tennis too much, not to have a plan.

Sania Mirza:
At the end of 2007, Mirza returned from a wrist injury layoff to play some of her best tennis. But she continued to have chronic problems with her wrist, and chronic problems with the Indian press and Indian government. Asset: Mirza appears to be independent and determined, and--if her wrist cooperates--she may be able to overcome her problems.

Michaella Krajicek: Krajicek went on a big losing streak this year, which she finally broke in June. However, she lost in the first round at Wimbledon, where she had quarterfinal points to defend. She then sustained a knee injury, did not play for a while, and fizzled out toward the end of the season. Asset: Krajicek is young and has time to straighten herself out.

Nicole Vaidisova:
Once touted as a phenom, Vaidisova has not always been able to deliver on the predictions about her success. Last year, she had to deal with both a viral illness and a wrist injury, which put her behind. This year, she started well, had to cope with the wrist injury again, and then went from being inconsistent to having the same fate as Agnes Szavay. Even at her best, Vaidisova sometimes lacks mental toughness. Asset: She is young and quite talented, and has time to gain confidence and strengthen her game.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The 2008 season--a look back at a strange year

It was a very unusual season of tennis. Four different women--Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic, Serena Williams, and Ana Ivanovic--claimed the world number 1 spot in the course of the year. Russia won the Fed Cup title for the fourth time in five years, and Russians swept the Beijing Olympic medals in singles competition. Cara Black and Liezel Huber had a terrific season and retained their world number 1 title, while a variety of other doubles teams performed well.

Martina Hingis was found guilty of violating the doping ban and was given a two-year suspension, leading to her final retirement. Laura Robson--a delightful and cheeky Brit--won the junior Wimbledon title, and an American, Coco Vandeweghe, won the junior U.S. Open title. Kimiko Date, long retired, came back at the age of 37 and won several small Asian tournaments.

Li Na, out for six months with a second major injury, returned this year and immediately won Gold Coast, the first tournament of the season. Sam Stosur, also out for a long time with a major illness, returned to the tour. Patty Schnyder, who marked 500 wins this year, silenced many by getting to the quarterfinals of both the French Open and the U.S. Open. And Alicia Molik--who never got her great career going again after a very long illness--retired, to the disappointment of her many fans.

Ever-sexist ATP player and commentator Justin Gimelstob had his wrist slapped a little when there was a major outcry against his obscene and misogynistic comments about Anna Kournikova. Gimelstob protested his innocence (it was only "trash talk," Lindsay Davenport defended me, blah, blah, blah), and apologized for verbalizing his thoughts, but did not apologize for his bigotry.

Amelie Mauresmo, who missed most of last year because of illness and illness-related injury, had a disaster of a year, which ended with her parting ways with longtime coach and mentor, Loic Courteau. Her countrywoman, Tatiana Golovin, has also been out for months because of surgery for a cyst, and no one knows when she will return. Flavia Pennetta, whose return from injury had been plagued with self-doubt, made a comeback so impressive that she wound up playing the best tennis of her career.

All of these happenings--good and bad--would be enough to make 2008 memorable. But there was more. Much more. Here are my personal top 10, in ascending order:

10. The Bondarenko sisters win the Australian Open.
In a final worth watching, the always-entertaining Bondarenko sisters, Alona and Kateryna--who, after 38 tries, had never won a doubles title together on the tour--decided it was time to correct that omission, and won the Australian Open. They defeated Victoria Azarenka and Shahar Peer in the final, and on the way, they beat world number 1 team Black and Huber in straight sets. The Bondarenkos would go on to win their next tournament (Paris), but Alona's knee injury would hamper her for much of the season.

9. Zheng Jie has a break-out season.
Injured throughout most of 2007, doubles champion Zheng Jie came back healthy and decided to show the world that she can play singles, too. Zheng went to the Wimbledon semifinals by beating top seed Ana Ivanovic, as well as Dominika Cibulkova, Agnes Szavay and Nicole Vaidisova. She fell to Serena Williams in straight sets, but not without putting up an impressive fight, and not without holding a set point in the second set. Zheng then went to two more semifinals, and also won a bronze medal in doubles at the Beijing Olympics.

8. Julie Coin has her own personal field day at the U.S. Open.
Despite trying for years, Frenchwoman Julie Coin had never before made it into the main draw of a Sony Ericsson WTA tournament, but she finally got through qualifying at the 2008 U.S. Open. Getting into your first main draw at one of the four majors and then winning your first round is a story in itself, but why make one story when you can make a whole newscast? Coin proceeded to take out top seed and world number 1 Ana Ivanovic in the second round. It was an amazing match, with Coin--number 188 in the world--holding steady throughout. In defeating Ivanovic, Coin pulled off the biggest upset in Grand Slam history. Coin also became the lowest-ranked player to ever defeat a world number 1.

7. Venus and Serena play a classic U.S. Open quarterfinal, and Serena wins the Open.
I've never been too fond of Williams sisters matches, but I had a feeling, right after the U.S. Open third round, that this quarterfinal was going to be different. My feeling served me well. The sisters put on the show of shows in Flushing Meadows, though it was an excruciating experience for Venus fans: She failed to convert eight set points in the second set, and Serena won, 7-6, 7-6. It was something to see. Serena then went on to defeat Dinara Safina in the semifinals, and then Jelena Jankovic, in a very entertaining final.

6. Sharapova's shoulder takes her out of competition for the second year in a row.
It must have been rough for Maria Sharapova in 2007, when she had to drop out because her shoulder was giving her so much trouble. She came roaring back, though--driving Justine Henin to the brink in the Sony Ericsson Championships, and then brilliantly winning the Australian Open this year. It turns out that Sharapova's (probably very well paid) doctors failed to notice a torn rotator cuff tendon. She played with the injury for months, and then finally had to call it quits again, missing both the Olympics and the U.S. Open.

5. Ivanovic wins her first major.
Last year, Ana Ivanovic stood on the court looking dazed and confused as Justine Henin defeated her for the French Open title. This year was a different story. Ivanovic played superb tennis throughout her time at Roland Garros, brilliantly defeated Jelena Jankovic in a semifinal thriller, and got the better of a very tough, though somewhat tired, Dinara Safina in the final.

4. Jankovic goes to the next level.
It is no secret that I think Jelena Jankovic is the most watchable player on the tour. Her court savvy and her athleticism come together to create a tennis player of outstanding creativity and skill. But for various reasons--a fragile body, a ridiculous playing schedule, a terrible serve--she had not gotten beyond the semifinal of a major before this year. In 2008--credit to coach Ricardo Sanchez--Jankovic took a big step forward. Her second serve is still much in need of improvement, but her first serve has gone from poor to sometimes excellent, and nearly always better than adequate. She is fitter this year, too, despite having a variety of injuries. She made it to the final of the U.S. Open, and what a final it was. Jankovic lost, but she has a lot to be proud of. Jankovic defended her Rome title this year, and this fall, she won three tournaments in three consecutive weeks.

3. Venus adds jewels to her crown.
By now, everyone seems to get it: The Williams sisters are champions. They were champions when they were very young, and they are now. They don't do things the way they are "supposed to," but the way they do things is plenty good enough. Venus defended her Wimbledon title this year, defeating none less than her sister Serena in the final, and holding up the Venus Rosewater dish for the fifth time in her career. It was the first time Venus had defeated Serena in a Wimbledon final. She went on to win Zurich, but the real topper occurred this month, when she also won the Sony Ericsson Championships for the first time.

2. Safina provides thrills beyond anyone's expectations.
I will always think of 2008 as the year of Safina. The talented Russian, who had never quite been able to put all of her skills together, put them together this year so dramatically that she was the most exciting player on the tour. It started in Berlin, where she not only beat world number 1 Justine Henin (and Elena Dementieva and Serena Williams), but played thrilling, come-from-behind tennis repeatedly, to win the title. Dinara Safina then went on to play the same kind of heart-stopping tennis at the French Open, eventually developing mental fatigue and falling in the final to a very in-form Ana Ivanovic. So many times this season, Safina looked certain to lose a match, and she would turn it around, providing tremendous excitement for fans, but perhaps a bit too much for herself. (At one point, when she was down a set and a couple of breaks in a match, commentator Mary Carillo, speaking of Safina's opponent, quipped, "Ah, Safina has her right where she wants her.") Safina went on to win the U.S. Open Series by taking both Los Angeles and Montreal, and she also won in Tokyo, and claimed a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. Injury (and a determined Shahar Peer) took her out of Wimbledon, and fatigue--perhaps more mental than physical--did her in at both the U.S. Open and the Sony Ericsson Championships. Nevertheless, Safina's 2008 rise was both delightful and very impressive.

1. Justine Henin retires.
The tennis world was rocked in May when world number 1 Justine Henin announced her retirement, effective immediately. In an act of both finality and generosity, Henin also requested that her name be removed from the rankings. She retired right before the French Open, where she was the both the defending champion and the favorite. And she retired before having one more crack at winning Wimbledon, which surprised me. For years, Henin thrilled fans with her fluid movement, remarkable court savvy and brilliant backhand. Her forehand was also one of the best on the tour. If I had to choose one image from 2008 that summed up how strange the season was, it would be the photo of Henin handing out the Roland Garros trophies. Henin's absence probably has not totally sunk in with most of us; she was a phenomenal talent on the tour.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

This and that...

Carol Caldwell Graebner has died. Caldwell Graebner was a top 10 player during the 1960s, and she helped Billie Jean King establish Fed Cup. Graebner and Nancy Richey comprised the world number 1 doubles team in 1965 and 1966. Graebner, who was 65, died of cancer.

Both Coco Vandeweghe and junior world number 1 Arantxa Rus have withdrawn from the Orange Bowl, which should open up some real opportunities for other competitors.

Steffi Graf has signed a deal with Longine; her husband, Andre Agassi, already has one. Thanks for this to Bob Larson's Tennis News, but it should be noted: Steffi Graf is not a man, though she is identified as one.

Don't miss WTA Backspin's 2008 Yearbook.

TennisX says that Tennis Week is on its way out.

Elena Dementieva defeated Serena Williams, 6-4, 6-4, in the Pam Shriver PNC Tennis Classic, a fundraiser for the Baltimore Community Foundation.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Williams sisters and Serbian stars to play in New York

World number 1 Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams will play in a one-night elimination event on March 2 at Madison Square Garden. The event, the “BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup," will honor Billie Jean King, the major founder of the WTA. It will be broadcast live on HBO.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Davenport to decide by Dec. 1 whether she will retire (again)

Lindsay Davenport, whose 2008 season was plagued with injuries, is giving herself a couple of more weeks to decide whether she will play in 2009.

I will be very surprised if she decides to continue playing.

Date-Krumm wins All-Japan title

For the first time in sixteen years, Kimiko Date Krumm has won the All-Japan title. Date Krumm, seeded 7th, defeated Yurika Sema, 6-3, 6-3 on Saturday to win the tournament.

The 38-year-old Date Krumm won the All-Japan title in 1991 and 1992.

(Thanks to On the Baseline for reporting this story.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Things you may have missed

The latest (Nov. 11) radio broadcasts, videos and podcasts from Tennis Live Radio

Eric Frosio's interview with Walter Bartoli

Miguel Margets awarded the 2008 Fed Cup Award of Excellence

Steve Flink's tribute to Jelena Jankovic

Bud Collins' new website

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A guide to the 2009 season

Here is yet another guide to the 2009 season with its cringe-worthy "Roadmap 2009" name.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The season is over, but there's still plenty to enjoy

Starting with a lengthy and adorable video of 3-year-old Dinara Safina on the court. Check out that backhand.

But don't stop with that. Peruse this year's "Ms. Backspin" winners.


Friday cat blogging--Why I Sleep In a Cat Bed edition

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Quote of the day

"...she makes Nadal look like a hyperactive child and Federer like a bashful teenager."
Steve Tignor on Venus Williams

Bodo compares Ivanovic with the great Chris Evert


But will they accept Blue Cross?

Starting next year, Sony Ericsson WTA Tour players will have to pay for some of their medical time-outs. If a player seeks treatment in excess of what the tour decides is enough times (six or seven medical time-outs per season) she will have to pay for it. At small tournaments, she will pay something in the range of $100, and at big ones like the Sony Ericsson Open, she will pay something around $500. There will be no medical fees levied at the four major tournaments.

Regardless of what one thinks of this plan, perhaps we can all agree that Peter Johnston needs a metaphor time-out, and he should probably pay a fee.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Robson wins her first tournament

It was a little tournament, a $10k in Sunderland, but Laura Robson can now say she has won her first professional event. This was her fifth ITF tournament. Robson, you will recall, got a wild card into Luxembourg, but lost in three sets to Iveta Benesova. The junior Wimbledon winner is currently ranked number 559 in the world.

More byes, less exhaustion

It's the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's latest experiment.

The ATP is looking for a new executive chair and president

There is no woman on the short list, and I suspect (someone correct me if I'm wrong) there was no woman on the long list. Larry Scott, however, is on the short list.

Year-end top 10 rankings

1. Jelena Jankovic
2. Serena Williams
3. Dinara Safina
4. Elena Dementieva
5. Ana Ivanovic
6. Venus Williams
7. Vera Zvonareva
8. Svetlana Kuznetsova
9. Maria Sharapova
10. Agnieszka Radwanska

Sunday, November 9, 2008

An inaccurate story that just won't die

Douglas Robson writes, on

...I was surprised to see that Mariana Alves of Portugal was in the chair for Venus's match against Jankovic. Alves was the umpire in the infamous Serena-Jennifer Capriati quarterfinal match at the 2004 U.S. Open, when Alves overruled the lineswoman, reversing a call that television replays clearly showed was accurate. Serena went ballistic and eventually lost the match, USTA officials apologized, Alves was suspended from officiating any other matches that year, and the incident catalyzed the eventual introduction of instant replay.

Considering what Serena said at the time --“I'd prefer she not umpire at my court anymore. She's obviously anti-Serena,”--I was interested to see Alves officiating a Williams sister match of any kind. But I guess I just haven't been very observant. According to WTA officials, Serena told reporters at Moscow last year that she had moved on from the 2004 and would be fine with Alves umpiring her matches. She has since officiated several of Serena's matches, I was told.

Robson is right; he hasn't noticed Alves in the chair numerous times when the Williams sisters have competed. But there is more to this story than whether Robson (or anyone) has been paying attention during the last four years. I have been angry about the consequences of the 2004 incident for some time. Notice I said "the consequences," not the incident itself.

Yes, Alves made a serious error. But there was more to the story than her error, and the tennis press--whether through typical media carelessness or quite possibly some other motive--covered it up. The umpires' association violated its own rules in assigning Alvez--at the time, a lower-level official--to umpire the Williams-Capriati match. She had been working for many hours and was not supposed to be in the chair again until she had had sufficient rest. Alves accepted an assignment that she probably felt pressured to take.

Instead of apologizing to Williams for violating its own policies, the association issued a small statement about what had happened, and made Alves the scapegoat. She deserved some consequences, but she didn't deserve the punishment she received, and which she was given to cover the collective ass of her employers.

But that--as unprofessional as it is--is only part of the problem. The other part is Williams' irrational assumption that Alves was "anti-Serena." Umpires make decision all the time that infuriate players, and--if they wish to--players can pull the thread until they believe that an umpire's error cost them the match. I understand that type of frustration, but it is not the same as claiming that an umpire was personally out to destroy you. And--going back to the content of Robson's article--the last time I checked, the Williams sisters were not in charge of tournaments: Umpires are assigned without seeking the approval of players.

Alves is now a gold badge umpire, and a good one. What happened in 2004 was unfortunate, but the real story is more complex and much messier than people have been led to believe.

Year-end odds and ends

Venus Williams has won the Whirlpool 6TH SENSE Player of the Year Award, which is given to the tour player who has demonstrated the most intuition in her game throughout the season.

Svetlana Kuznetsova's coaching change appears to have as much--perhaps more--to do with her wanting to be in Russia as it has with anything else.

And speaking of...Kuznetsova's new coach, former tour star Olga Morosova, believes that the popularity of women's tennis in Russia has led to a significant decline in the quality of coaching.

If you want a refresher course on what happened this year, be sure to check out Part 1 of Todd Spiker's 2008 Backspin Awards. And don't forget to check out Part 2 next week.

Venus wins Sony Ericsson Championships

In a sometimes roller-coaster ride of a final, Venus Williams and Vera Zvonareva--both 4-0 coming into the match--provided some unusual sports entertainment in Doha today. This match had everything, including some things we could have done without.

In the first set, Williams' serve was obviously off, and Zvonareva's confidence was obviously high. But strange things happened. Serving for the first set at 5-2, Zvonareva was broken. Serving for it again at 5-4, 40-0, she saw two set points saved by Williams, after which Zvonareva had a dramatic, sure-thing volley to take the set. Her hand wavered, though, and the ball went into the net; all Zvonareva could do was smile. On her fourth set point, she hit a wild ball out wide. And then she was broken.

From down 2-5, Williams evened the match to 5-all. A tiebreak ensued, and Zvonareva found herself down 1-5. At that point, she turned on some special switch, and rolled on fabulously, with a final tiebreak score of 7-5.

But Zvonareva was barely there in the second set, and Williams' serve improved significantly. Williams also played this set with more of her characteristic aggression, and won it 6-0. My best guess is that Zvonareva was mentally exhausted after the thrills and chills of the first set.

The third set featured a dominant Williams, while Zvonareva continued having trouble holding her serve. When she finally held it, serving at 1-4, it was the first time she had held it since 5-6 in the first set. Zvonareva also broke Williams, and for a moment, it looked like the match might again be a real contest. But Williams would not let that happen. During one lost point, Zvonareva fell to the ground, a la Jankovic, in frustration. During the next one--when the writing was on the wall--she fell down again, this time crying and smashing her racquet. Zvonareva doesn't do that type of thing too much anymore, but if ever there were a time to do it, it was at that moment.

The first set of this match was must-see tennis, strange as it was. It was sad to see Zvonareva fade away, but even with that, she produced some terrific shots, and she had a wonderful week in Doha. She was also quite mentally tough most of the time. Williams had a wonderful week, too, playing very strong tennis, and recovering easily from the times when she struggled with her serve.

It is worth noting that, during the final, Serena Williams--once again--sat in the stands with a flat affect. I'm used to that, but I was a bit surprised that that flat affect was barely altered when her victorious sister came to the stands to greet her box after she won the title.

Williams def. Zvonareva, 6-7, 6-0, 6-2

Black & Huber win Sony Ericsson Championships

Cara Black and Liezel Huber, the world's number one doubles team and defending champions, have won the Sony Ericsson Championships, defeating Kveta Peschke and Rennae Stubbs, 6-1, 7-5. This is the seventh time Black has won the tour championships. Huber has now won the championships three times. All three of Huber's victories have occurred while she was playing with Black; Black has won with Huber, Rennae Stubbs and Elena Likhovtseva.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Talk about dumbing it down...

While I was waiting to watch the replay of the Doha doubles matches, Tennis Channel aired an old "Open Access" that took place in Beijing. In this segment, Murphy Jensen interviewed Li Na. Li speaks broken English, yes, but it is easy for an English-speaking person to understand her.

Apparently, Tennis Channel officials don't think so--they ran subtitles over the interview.

Venus goes to the Doha final

During the first set of the Sony Ericsson Championships semifinal between Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams, Jankovic didn't really appear to be there. I suspected she might be hampered by her back or hip (always a good guess with her, and she experienced a hip dislocation during her stay in Doha). Venus Williams easily took the set, 6-2.

But in the second set, Jankovic was moving and swinging much more freely, while Williams looked uncertain, and began making errors. Tennis Channel commentator Corina Morariu's theory sounded just right to me: that Jankovic's back stiffness had decreased simply because of a set's worth of movement. Jankovic took that set, 6-2.

The third set, as expected, was a total battle, with nerves of steel suddenly going soft, and neither 40-0 nor 0-40 having the significance they generally have. The sixth game almost deserved its own umpire and scoreboard, it lasted so long. Jankovic and Williams always have great matches, and this one--though a bit strange because of the first set--was no exception. In the end, it was Williams who prevailed, steeling herself toward the end of the last set, and breaking Jankovic to win the match, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3.

This is Williams' first Sony Ericsson Championships final.

8th seed Zvonareva goes to the final

Today's first Sony Ericsson Championships semifinal turned out to be the grueling, drawn-out contest I assumed it would be (though I wasn't expecting to hear prayers in the background). After numerous breaks of serve (they might as well have been playing on red clay), Vera Zvonareva let a 5-1 tiebreak lead slip away, but wound up winning the tiebreak, 8-6. In the second set, the momentum shifted, and Elena Dementieva played some of her best tennis. It looked as though that momentum was solidly with her, but Zvonareva went up an early break in the third set, and became more and more focused as the set went on.

This was an entertaining match. Zvonareva and Dementieva have similar strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes their shots were mirror images. There were some spectacular rallies, some amazing volleys, and some silly mistakes. As a bonus, there was one hilarious moment when the two were practically on top of each other at the net.

Dementieva's mental toughness is overrated, as I have said before. It was Zvonareva who remained tough in this match, and it was she who prevailed, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3.

Peschke and Stubbs to meet defending champions in Doha final

Top seeds and defending champions Cara Black and Liezel Huber took a big step today in defending their Sony Ericsson Championships title: They defeated Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual, 6-1, 6-3.

In the other semifinal, Kveta Peschke and Rennae Stubbs defeated Katarina Srebotnik and Ai Sugiyama, 6-3, 2-6, 10-4.

Note to Barry McKay...

Elena Dementieva cannot possibly be Vera Zvonareva's "countryman." She is a woman.

And, by the way, "fellow countryman" is redundant.

(And what is going on that half of the things out of McKay's mouth are inaccurate?)

Note to Lindsay Davenport: A 27-year-old female is not a girl.

It's the 21st Century, for god's sake, and this is all supposed to be about equality, but language is our most significant cultural tool: Calling women men and calling adult females children is inexcusable.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Doha doubles play begins tomorrow

Since only four teams can qualify for the Sony Ericsson Championships, there is no round-robin play, but rather, one knock-out contest. Here is the draw for tomorrow's play:

No. 1 seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber vs. no. 4 seeds Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual

No. 3 seeds Kveta Peshke and Rennae Stubbs vs. no. 2 seeds Katarina Srebotnik and Ai Sugiyama

Sony Ericsson Championships standings

Round-robin play has concluded, and here are the current standings:

Jelena Jankovic, 2-1
Ana Ivanovic, 0-2 (withdrew)
Svetlana Kuznetsova, 0-3
Vera Zvonareva, 3-0
Agnieszka Radwanska (alternate), 1-0 (1 match played)

Dinara Safina, 0-3
Serena Williams, 1-1 (withdrew)
Elena Dementieva, 2-1
Venus Williams, 3-0
Nadia Petrova (alternate), 0-1 (1 match played)

In the semifinals, 8th seed Zvonareva will play 5th seed Dementieva, and 1st seed Jankovic will play seed 7th seed Williams.

Kuznetsova now 2-10 at the Sony Ericsson Championships

Svetlana Kuznetsova, who played rather well at times in Doha this year, nevertheless wound up with an 0-3 result. Today, she was defeated 6-2, 7-5 by Agnieszka Radwanska, who replaced Ana Ivanovic in the draw. It was sad to see both Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina wind up 0-3. Safina, I believe, was just burned out, and Kuznetsova cannot seem to get a handle on things, despire her obvious talent.

She gets some time off and a clean slate, just like everyone else. And she'll be working in Russia with Olga Morosova, so we can expect some changes in her game next year.

Petrova, ready to go into the booth, winds up collecting $50,000 instead

The always affable and humorous Nadia Petrova (described as "serious and somber" by one of the from-another-planet commentators), looked like realized how amusing her fate was today in Doha. Scheduled to be the guest commentator for the Dementieva-Williams match, she wound up playing it when Serena Williams withdrew.

And play it she did, giving Elena Dementieva a tough and rather entertaining three sets. As time went on, Petrova became more relaxed, and Dementieva--who was leading--became unglued. She was broken when she served for the match the first time, and her opponent saved four match points on her own serve. By the time Dementieva served for the match the second time, she was sweating, muttering and yelling at her mother/coach, Vera. But a couple of errors from Petrova gave Dementieva the victory, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

It was essential for Dementieva to win this match, or she would have gone to the semifinals with a 1-2 record. I imagine that fear was looming in her head while she played the resurgent and tough Petrova.

Zvonareva wins all 3 in Doha

In the first set of their round-robin match at the Sony Ericsson Championships, Jelena Jankovic pretty much ran over Vera Zvonareva. The second set was a different story. It was as if the "I can't let her beat me four times in a row" switch got turned on in Zvonareva's head, and she began to play with ferocious aggression. Zvonareva took that set, and she took the third one, too, as she continued with the aggression and Jankovic appeared a bit weary and out of sorts.

Zvonareva and Jankovic are both into the semifinals. Jankovic will play Venus Williams, against whom she has a 5-3 record. However, Williams is going strong in Doha, and Jankovic looks like she may be fading somewhat.

2 views of women's sexuality--both offensive

Forty Deuce has a good post about the changes that were made in promoting the Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha--changes brought about because of a cultural difference regarding women's bodies.

For most of my life, it has amused me bitterly that the only group of people who are solidly in line (but not in agreement) with feminist views about the exploitation of women's bodies is that group comprised of extremely conservative, reactionary citizens--whether they are Muslims or Southern Baptists. It is a case of correct conclusion--wrong reason. In the case of the 2008 Doha tournament, it was considered offensive to the major Qatar culture to show the arms and legs of the tour players in photos, so a decision was made to use silhouettes instead. According to the tour, this decision was made because the tournament coincides with the celebration of Ramadan, but one wonders if a concession would have been made under any circumstance.

I, of course, am more than put off by a belief that it is wrong for women (yes, they are women, not "girls") to show their limbs in public. Or the belief that if women show their limbs in public, men will not be able to help themselves and they will have "impure" thoughts (and commit impure actions). Qatar does not require western women to abide by national customs or by Muslim customs, but it is considered a sign of cultural respect to cover one's limbs to a reasonable degree when one is in Qatar. Anyone visiting there--especially during Ramadan--would probably want to show some semblance of regard for national customs.

The other side of the coin is the western idea that women's bodies should be shown generously, and can be--and usually are--the objects of ridicule and obscene evaluation. In our recent U.S. election, we saw both major female candidates trashed relentlessly via attacks--not on their policies--but on their gender and sexuality. These attacks were launched not only by idiots on websites and greed-mongers who produced crude bumper stickers, but also by the mainstream news media. No one stopped them, and protests were drowned out in all the usual ways.

So the culture that tells women to cover up believes that women's bodies are dangerous and should be hidden, partly to protect men. And the culture that encourages women to show their bodies does so in order to please men, and to continue a tradition of humiliation and assault.

Not much to like in either of those alternatives. Eve Ensler once said that--though behaviors differ from country to country and culture to culture--attitudes toward women are the same everywhere. How true.

I once heard an interviewer posit to Daniela Hantuchova that--since she enjoys fashion--she cannot be taken seriously when she calls for tour women to be treated as athletes, not sex objects. The articulate Hantuchova's response was that women ought to be allowed to look good off the court without being exploited as sex objects. That is true not only of tennis players, but of all females.

Williams and Ivanovic withdraw from Doha--Ivanovic wins Diamond Aces Award

It was no surprise to hear that Ana Ivanovic had withdrawn from the Sony Ericsson Championships. She has had problems with heat and dehydration since she arrived in Doha, she is suffering with a virus, and she is out of the competition. The dead rubber she was to have played against Svetlana Kuznetsova (who is also out of competition) will be played by alternate Agnieszka Radwanska instead. One bit of consolation for Ivanovic was that she was awarded the 2008 Diamond Aces Award, which goes to the tour player who has done the most to help promote the tour during the season.

Serena Williams is another story. Looking completely lackluster against her sister in yesterday's match, Williams good-humoredly chided herself in the press conference. But today, citing an injured stomach muscle, she withdrew from the tournament. The maroon group alternate, Nadia Petrova, now plays Elena Dementieva, who is guaranteed a spot in the semifinals.

Do the commentators even WATCH women's tennis?

If I heard it once, I heard it at least a dozen times: "Vera Zvonareva--what a surprise!"

Not really. Zvonareva has had a great year, playing extremely well and gaining her highest ranking ever. A "surprise" would have been Kuznetsova going 3-0, or Jankovic going 0-3.

And on day 4...

Lindsay Davenport (a little too obviously) stopped trashing Jelena Jankovic.

Friday cat blogging--Toronto edition

We met this cat outside the historic Gardener's Cottage in the Beaches neighborhood of Toronto last week. In the photo, s/he looks loaded down with bling, but in reality, the arrangement looks more like the keyring of a building superintendent. The kitty was a bit shy, but was happy to pose for us.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Can they please just stick to talking about tennis?

It's bad enough that I have to listen to Corina Morariu, Barry McKay and Lindsay Davenport mangle the pronunciation of everything from players' names to the country where the Sony Ericsson Championships take place. But I'm used to that. Some of the other banter is worse. Like hearing Morariu (who I'm quite sure is neither vegan nor vegetarian) be oh, so shocked that people eat camels. How is that any worse than eating lambs or cows (this happens to be a pet peeve of mine)? Or hearing Davenport inform us that Maria Sharapova "feels more Russian than American," after Sharapova has almost had to take out a billboard that says I'M RUSSIAN. Or hearing Vera Zvonareva's psychological makeup deconstructed practically on the half-hour.

Stop it! Talk about the tennis matches, and if you have nothing to say about them, remember--silence is nice.

King appointed Global Mentor for Gender Equality

Billie Jean King, co-founder of the WTA, has been named a Global Mentor for Gender Equality by UNESCO and the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.

I think the tour communicates double messages about gender equality, but the appointment of King is something I can stand behind.

Current Sony Ericsson Championships standings

Here are the standings, as of today:

Jelena Jankovic, 2-0
Ana Ivanovic, 0-2
Svetlana Kuznetsova, 0-2
Vera Zvonareva, 2-0

Dinara Safina, 0-3
Serena Williams, 1-1
Elena Dementieva, 1-1
Venus Williams, 3-0

Venus does a Doha sweep

Today, Venus Williams defeated a lackluster and careless Serena Williams, 5-7, 6-1, 6-0, which gave her a perfect, 3-0 record in the first part of round-robin play at the Sony Ericsson Championships. In the semifinals, she will play the loser of the Jankovic-Zvonareva match in the white group and the winner of that match will go to the final.

Meanwhile, Elena Dementieva defeated Dinara Safina 6-2, 6-4, which leaves Safina with a 0-3 record for the Championships. These things happen when players are tired and burned out. Last year, Jankovic had a 0-3 record. I saw this coming with Safina, and part of me wishes she had withdrawn from Doha and begun her off-season rest. Here's hoping the 0-3 result will not have a bad psychological effect on one of the season's hottest players. I want to see more Safina wins!

Hip bone connected to bone

Jelena Jankovic's hip injury flares up whenever she is tired, and today, it flared up during the second set of her Sony Ericsson Championships match against Svetlana Kuznetsova.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This match began with a bang for Jankovic, who was playing very aggressively and making near-perfect shots. But in the last half of the first set, she made a series of unforced errors that--paired with Kuznetsova's sudden aggression--put her in a danger zone. She served for the match at 5-3 and was broken. She served for it again a few moments later and practically gave Kuznetsova an invitation to break her. But when tiebreak time came, it was Jankovic who prevailed.

The second set featured the injury time-out, for which Jankovic received treatment. She appeared to be in pain and her movement (possibly her most important feature as a tennis player) was hampered, but she kept going. In the second half of the set, she appeared to be in better shape, and she won the match, 7-6, 6-4. This puts her into the semifinals, no matter what...unless her injury does not heal. According to Jankovic--and I'm not quoting exactly, but this is close: "The trainer said something was separated from something, and they have to put it back."

I hope they do.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Current Sony Ericsson Championships standings

Here are the standings so far in the 2008 Sony Ericsson Championships:

Jelena Jankovic, 1-0
Ana Ivanovic, 0-2
Svetlana Kuznetsova, 0-1
Vera Zvonareva, 2-0

Dinara Safina, 0-2
Serena Williams, 1-0
Elena Dementieva, 0-1
Venus Williams, 2-0

Zvonareva and Williams each 2-0 on the 2nd day of the Championships

Vera Zvonareva won her second match in Doha today, defeating Ana Ivanovic, 6-3, 7-6, 6-4. Toward the end of the second set, Ivanovic had to have a medical timeout, apparently because of the weakness that she had also experienced in her match the day before. Ivanovic said she drank plenty of liquids so that she would be sufficiently hydrated, but something was still wrong.

Following the medical treatment, however, Ivanovic went on to serve for the second set, but Zvonareva saved some set points and forced a tiebreak, which Ivanovic won. Zvonareva broke early in the final set, and served for the match at 5-3. Ivanovic broke her, but Zvonareva broke right back.

In the second match of the day, Venus Williams defeated Elena Dementieva 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. And in her first match, Serena Williams defeated Dinara Safina 6-4, 6-1.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sometimes work interferes with watching tennis

Pity. The Jankovic-Ivanovic match was originally scheduled to be first in the Day 1 Sony Ericsson Championships round robin play today, and was I was glad I would be able to get to see an hour of it, but no such luck. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva went on first, and I did see some of that, but then I had to leave, notebook in hand, so I could follow the scores electronically. I have to work all day tomorrow, too, so it will be another electronic scoreboard day for me.

Zvonareva is 1-0, having defeated Kuznetsova 6-2, 6-3. And Jelena Jankovic is 1-0, too, having finally broken her spell of losing to Ana Ivanovic. Jankovic took the match, 6-3, 6-4.

My prediction about Dinara Safina--that she may be mentally, and perhaps physically, spent--is looking accurate so far. Safina was up 5-2 in the first set, but lost it 7-5 to Venus Williams, then went on to lose the second set, also (6-3). Venus Williams is 1-0 on the first day.

Note to Serena: "Strong" isn't necessarily positive

It can, in fact, be a nightmare:

"I think the best way to go in tennis is to have the support of a parental unit. And if you look at pretty much every player that's been No.1 or ranked No.1 in the past like Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, all these great players, have had some sort of really strong parental unit behind them."
Serena Williams

So who CAN'T win the Sony Ericsson Championships?

"Seven of these women could win the title."
Tracy Austin

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sony Ericsson Championships begin tomorrow

Maroon and white, the colors of the Qatar flag, are the designated round-robin group names for the 2008 Sony Ericsson Championships. The draw has been held, and into the white group are number 1 seed Jelena Jankovic, number 4 seed Ana Ivanovic, number 6 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, and number 8 seed Vera Zvonareva. Comprising the maroon group are number 2 seed Dinara Safina, number 3 seed Serena Williams, number 5 seed Elena Dementieva, and number 7 seed Venus Williams.

Competition begins with the first white group round-robin match between Jankovic and Ivanovic. The tournament could not possibly begin with more of a bang, in my opinion.

In the Sony Ericsson Championships, each woman plays each woman in her group, then top player in each group competes against the second-place player of the other group. The upshot of this system is that two members of the same group could meet in the final.

In the white group, Jankovic has the momentum, but Ivanovic is fresh, having had less match play than her peers because of an injury she sustained a few months ago. She also appears to have regained her confidence. Kuznetsova, despite having superior ability, just does not seem to have the mental wherewithal to win big contests. Zvonareva is the wild card here. She has become somewhat prone to having emotional meltdowns again, though not the type she had in the past; now she is more inclined to have bursts of temper on the court. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, however, and Zvonareva has been playing quite well.

The maroon group, of course, features the ongoing sister drama, and Venus has a bit of momentum going at this point in the season. Serena is a question mark: Is she healthy enough to continue to play the way she did at the U.S. Open? Dinara Safina has had a fantastic season, but seems rather weary at this stage. If she has the energy--especially the mental energy--to compete seriously, she is a threat. And finally there is Dementieva. It used to be that Dementieva could not serve, but if she got into a three-set contest, she almost always won it. This year, she began serving rather well, but would go to pieces mentally if there was a third set. Only recently has she put the good serve and the strong nerve together, which makes her a year-end contender.

There are only four doubles groups competing in the Championhips: defending champions Cara Black & Liezel Huber, Katarina Srebotnik & Ai Sugiyama, Kveta Peschke & Rennae Stubbs, and Anabel Medina Garrigues & Virginia Ruano Pascual.

The defending champion in singles, of course, is the now-retired Justine Henin, and the defending finalist is Maria Sharapova (also the 2004 winner), who has taken the last part of the season off to heal an injured shoulder. Sharapova's shoulder was bothering her in the last half of 2007, also, and she had not planned to compete in the Sony Ericsson Championships. At the last minute, she changed her mind, and the final between her and Henin was one of the best matches of the year. It also erased any doubts about Sharapova's ability to compete at a very high level. It seems odd that she is absent from the event in Doha this year.

Sony Ericsson Championships first round--Jankovic meets her nemesis

Ana Ivanovic is probably the last woman Jelena Jankovic wants to see on the other side of the net in her first round--in the first round--of the 2008 Sony Ericsson Championships. Jankovic is 1-6 against Ivanovic (they played eight times, but one of the results was a walkover), and her only victory occurred in 2006. Jankovic, however, is not the player she was in 2007, and--indeed--is not even the player she was the first half of 2008. Her serve is much better, and she is hitting the ball harder. Jankovic's game has more wholeness, if you will, and is no longer just the sum of a number of spectacular parts.

However, Ivanovic appears to have overcome the confidence dip she experienced after she sustained a thumb injury. And she is certainly the fresher of the two. This will almost certainly be a close one.

Petrova wins Bell Challenge

She had to play three sets, but Nadia Petrova defeated Bethanie Mattek yesterday to win the Bell Challenge, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. It was Petrova's second singles title this year.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Mattek and Petrova in Quebec City final

Lucky loser Angela Haynes had a big win over Nathalie Dechy in the Bell Challenge quarterfinals, but she wasn't lucky enough to get past top seed Nadia Petrova in today's semifinal match; Petrova won, 6-1, 6-3. Meanwhile, Canada's top player--Aleksandra Wozniak--lost to Bethanie Mattek. Mattek, who has had a bit of a low profile lately, defeated Wozniak 7-6, 6-3.