Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Australian Open top 10

Port Campbell National Park in Victoria (photo courtesy of Daniel Ward)
My top 10 U.S. Open occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Shout, shout, let it all out: There were things I could do without when Julia Putintseva and Taylor Townsend played the junior girls' final. Putintseva's court theatrics were possibly the most over-the-top I've ever seen, her ill-timed racquet-cracking was inappropriate, and her loud sobbing was awkward and sad.

9. Out but not down: Defending champions Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta didn't make it past the third round. Dulko and Pennetta were defeated by eventual champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva. I was disappointed to see Dulko and Pennetta go out, but the high-quality match was thrilling, and probably the match I enjoyed most in the entire tournament.

8. One is the loneliest number: With her quarterfinal loss to defending champion Kim Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki also lost her world number 1 ranking. The good news is that she'll no longer have to hear that she's number 1 in the world but hasn't won a major.

7. An ugly pattern: Like Li Na and Petra Kvitova before her, Samantha Stosur--the U.S. Open champion, and Australia's top player--made an exit in the first round of her next major. Stosur lost to Sorana Cirstea in the opening round.

6. Double the drama: In the quarterfinals of doubles competition, two teams engaged in a three-hour contest that ended with bouts of temper, arguing, a (literal) knock-out forehand, and--finally--the conversion of an eighth match point. Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina believed (as did most spectators) that they were cheated out of victory on a previous match point, and things got very tense.

5. Mental health insurance: In her semifinal against Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova looked lke she was going down 0-40 and was about to get knocked out of the match. But a timely line call challenge was followed by a not-so-timely mental collapse by Kvitova, and Sharapova squeaked through to the Australian Open final. Sharapova's tenacious fight was as good an example as any of why it pays to compete strongly up to the very last point.

4. Too good: They were unseeded, but Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva know a thing or two about playing doubles. They took out the top seeds, kept going, and won the tournament. Kuznetsova, who has had mixed results in singles for a while, played outstanding doubles throughout the tournament.

3. Hit me with your best shot: The round of 16 match between defending champion Kim Clijsters and 2011 runner-up Li Na was a dramatic event before anyone even picked up a racquet. When Clijsters turned her ankle in the middle of the first set, no one knew what would happen next. The defending champion played on, but she looked flat and worried. Li held four match points in the second set, and the fourth one was the nearest to a "sure thing" that exists in tennis. But Li ignored the wide open court, hit the ball right to her opponent, and lost the set. She also lost the match, and--while Clijsters' saving four straight match points is considered a highlight of the tournament--it was just as significant that, once again, Li went to pieces and did herself in.

2. Ekaterina, queen of Upset City: There's something about the Australian Open that Ekaterina Makarova really likes. This year, she took out Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi and 7th seed Vera Zvonareva, then--just for good measure--defeated five-time champion Serena Williams. Williams did not play well, and,  most surprising of all, she did not serve well. At the same time, though, Makarova didn't do what so many players do--allow a top player to beat them, even when that player isn't performing too well. Williams sprained her ankle not long before the tournament and may not have been at her physical best, but her round of 16 exit was nevertheless a major upset.

1. The reign of Victoria: 3rd seed Victoria Azarenka, who won the Sydney tournament before arriving in Melbourne, started looking like a winner as soon as she hit the Australian Open courts. Her semifinal defeat of defending champion Kim Clijsters, which included a set in which Azarenka won only one game, had to give her even more confidence. She began awkwardly against Maria Sharapova in the final, but quickly shook her nerves, and proceeded to dominate the 2008 champion in almost every game. Azarenka not only walked away with the trophy--she's also the new world number 1.

Mattek-Sands wins Australian mixed doubles title

Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her partner, Horia Tecau, have won the 2012 Australian Open mixed doubles championship. Mattek-Sands and Tecau, seeded 8th, defeated 5th seeds Elena Vesnina and Leander Paes 6-3, 5-7, 10-3 in the final.

Mattek-Sands and Tecau entered the tournament at the last minute. Mattek-Sands has been recovering from a shoulder injury and had decided not to play all three events in Melbourne. But when she went out of singles competition in the first round, she decided to enter mixed.

"It gives me a lot of confidence even just being in that moment being able to close it out," Mattek-Sands said in the press conference. "I think that does a lot for me. You know, I have been in a couple singles finals in WTA events and haven't been able to close it out. So I think finally closing one out feels awesome."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Azarenka rules at Australian Open

Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.
Queen Victoria

Victoria Azarenka went into the 2012 Australian Open final with a little bit of luck. She had never beaten Petra Kvitova, who--until the last minute of the semifinals--appeared to be her opponent in the final. On the other hand, she had beaten Maria Sharapova three times, and each time in straight sets.

But note that I said only a "little" bit of luck, because things can change significantly when you're playing in your first major final, and especially if you're playing against someone as experienced and formidable as Sharapova. And for the first couple of games, Azarenka looked very nervous, double-faulting twice in the opener. She was quickly broken, and Sharapova held for 2-0. That nervous start, however, proved to be only a trifle for the 3rd seed, who  then proceeded to break Sharapova at love when she served at 3-1. Azarenka would never look back.

Even this early in the match, Sharapova's forehand was going long. Azarenka began moving Sharapova from side to side. On one point, she pulled her across the court several times this way, then brought her forward with a drop shot and then lobbed over her head. Serving at 3-4, Sharapova presented a microcosm of her current game by alternating double faults with impossibly good serves. But the Russian star experienced the same problem she had when she played Kvitova--she was under so much pressure that she went for too much on her second serves. So this became the pattern: Sharapova either faulted on her second serves, or they were destroyed by a continually forward-moving Azarenka. The Belarusian broke again and took the first set 6-3.

We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.
Queen Victoria

Sharapova had turned her fortunes around in many matches, most recently, in her thriller of a semifinal against Kvitova. Could she do it again? The problem was, in the semifinal, Sharapova had some help from her opponent. This opponent had no intention of giving away a set. Azarenka must have felt confident from the beginning of the second set. In the first game, Sharapova had an easy overhead to hit, and during the time it took her to raise her racquet and make contact with the ball, her body language gave her away. "She's going to miss it," I thought, and she did. And after she smashed that ball into the net, it was easy for Azarenka to break her.

Do not let your feelings...of momentary irritation and discomfort be seen by others; don't...let every little feeling be read in your face and seen in your manner.... 
Queen Victoria

Azarenka continued to dictate play, Sharapova continued to make errors, especially on the forehand side. She was sweating a lot, and one sensed that it wasn't all about the Australian sun, but also about the heat that was coming at her from the other side of the net. Sharapova looked lost as Azarenka won seven consecutive games and went up 4-0. 

By this time, Sharapova was even missing winners she had carefully crafted. The once-mighty backhand broke down, and the 2008 champion's service problems continued. But when Azarenka stepped to the baseline to serve at 5-0, it was hard not to have the feeling that Sharapova was going to find a way to make victory difficult for the 3rd seed.

Oh, if the queen were a man, she would like to go and give these...Russians such a beating.
Queen Victoria

Azarenka won the first point on her serve, but then Sharapova cracked a forehand up the line that evened the score. Sharapova continued to elevate her game, especially when she received a second serve from Azarennka. At 30-all, the Russian got a break point when one of her returns dribbled lightly over the netcord. But any hopes she had were dashed when Azarenka quickly got down to the business of closing the match. The 6-3, 6-0 beatdown took and hour and 22 minutes, and when it was over, Azarenka looked more stunned than Sharapova. 

Azarenka made only 12 unforced errors to Sharapova's 30, and Sharpova ended the match with a dismal 18% second serve win record.

The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.
Queen Victoria

Victoria Azarenka did more than win the Australian Open on her first try; she also became the new world number 1. For a long time, it looked as though Azarenka's potential would not be met. She retired frequently from matches, whether suffering from a chronic thigh injury, passing out on the court, sustaining a concussion, or any of a number of other misfortunes. But recently, she has appeared much fitter, both physically and mentally, and when she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, it appeared she might be on the verge of something big.

The 22-year-old Belarusian is intelligent and assertive, and--in the past--has had some famous moments of on-court bad temper. The Australian crowd made fun of her throughout the tournament because of her screaming. She said she didn't care, and it appears that she really didn't. When she won, the crowd embraced her, as well it should have. Azarenka had played aggressive, almost nerveless tennis, and had run over one of the sport's most strong-willed and successful figures. She had, in every way, ruled the court.

Australian Open--what they said

It's an honor to play against you.
Maria Sharapova

This is a long trip.  It's a lot of money that's being spent. We weren't gonna come here if I wasn't confident that I could win the tournament.
Taylor Townsend

She created, you know, she created offense from defense today, which is, you know, which is important and something that I think she's improved, definitely.
Maria Sharapova

A lot of women go into their first slam and get really nervous. Safina did it, Natasha Zvereva, who you know from Belarus got super nervous in hers. Why not you?
What, do you think I didn't get nervous?
Victoria Azarenka

Throw 'em in the pot, and stir 'em around.
Chris Evert, on the unpredictability of major tournament winners

...the newcomer didn't just meet the moment; she kicked it in the rear.
Jon Wertheim

I was always the one running around like a rabbit, you know, trying to play catch-up all the time.
Maria Sharapova

What have you learned about yourself this week? You took two titles. What have you learned about yourself?
...I...learned that I need to keep myself calm on the court because that's when I play the best.
Taylor Townsend

I picked it up. I tried it. I liked it. And I just, you know, didn't overthink it, because there's no point to overthink. You play, you like it, you keep going.
Victoria Azarenka, on changing her racquet two weeks before the event

...everything is still a work in progress, you know, whether I won today or not. It's still a moving train.
Maria Sharapova

Townsend wins Australian Open junior girls championship

15-year-old Taylor Townsend of the USA won the Australian Open junior girls title today, defeating 4th seed Yulia Putintseva 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. Townsend and her partner, Gabrielle Andrews, won the doubles title yesterday, with a victory over the top seeds.

The first set was as one-sided as it appears in the scoreline, but Putintseva picked up her game and became more aggressive in the second set. It wasn't really until the third set, though, that the players had settled down enough to show off some of their better skills. Townsend played aggressively, coming to the net 29 times, and she served well. 

Unfortunately, the most memorable feature of this match was the theatrical carrying on of Putintseva, who yelled and screamed "Come on!" (and sometimes considerably more) after every point that favored her. When things didn't go well for her, she struggled to keep herself from breaking her racquet. In retrospect, it's amazing that she didn't break it.

When the match was over, before she walked to the net for the handshake, the young Russian player gave her racquet a crack on the court. And then, when she was at the net, about to shake her opponent's hand, she cracked the racquet again.

After the handshake, Putintseva sat in her chair and sobbed continually and loudly. Townsend looked stunned, and a little confused about what she was supposed to do. After a considerable delay, as the sobbing continued,  the trophy presentation took place. Putintseva held up her trophy and souvenir stuffed koala, constructed a frozen smile, and made a hasty exit. I'm sure she'll be criticized for not saying anything, but I'm quite sure that any effort to speak on her part would have led to even more weeping. I think she did the best that she could do under the circumstances.

Some people, for physiological and/or psychological reasons, cry more easily and more copiously than others. But it wasn't just the crying--Putintseva spewed all kinds of emotion throughout the match. She appears to be a less-than-mature 17-year-old, which must make it hard for her to participate in competitive sports. Also, the racquet crack at the net was inexcusable by any standard.

Townsend took all the drama in stride, which helped her win the match. 

Vergeer wins 9th Australian Open title

What do you do if you've been on a 443-match win streak? If you're Esther Vergeer, you make it 444 by winning the Australian Open women's wheelchair championship, defeating your opponent 6-0, 6-0. Vergeer has won the last 20 majors in which she's competed. In today's final, she beat Aniek Van Koot in 47 minutes.

Some of you may recall that Vergeer's former doubles partner (and her main competition in singles), Korie Homan, stopped playing some time ago because of a wrist injury, and that she presumably left the sport. It's now confirmed that Homan has retired because her injury was inoperable. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Kuznetsova and Zvonareva win Australian Open doubles title

Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva became the first all-Russian team to win a major doubles title yesterday when they defeated Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci in the Australian Open final. The Russian team beat the Italian team 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. Errani and Vincie are, of course, known for their exciting Fed Cup victories.

Kuznetsova won the Australian title in 2005 with Alicia Molik. This is Zvonareva's first Australian Open title; she won the U.S. Open doubles title in 2006 with Nathalie Dechy.

In the third round, Kuznetsova and Zvonareva took out top seeds Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta in a thrilling, well-played match.

Meanwhile, Esther Vergeer and Sharon Walraven defended their 2011 women's wheelchair doubles title by defeating Aniek Van Koot and Marjolein Buis 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. Vergeer and Van Koot will face each other again in the singles championship match.

Elena Vesnina will not have to play her doubles partner, Sania Mirza, in the mixed doubles final. Mirza and partner Mahesh Bhupati lost their semifinal match to Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Horia Tecau. Vesnina and partner Leander Paes defeated Roberta Vinci and Daniele Braccieli in the semifinals.

In juniors, an all-USA semifinal was won by Taylor Townsend. Townsend defeated Krista Hardebeck 7-6, 6-4. In the other match, 4th seed Yulia Putintseva defeated 2nd seed Eugenie Bouchard 7-5, 6-1.

Townsend and partner Gabrielle Andrews won the junior doubles title. They defeated top seeds Irina Khromacheva and Danka Kovinic 5-7, 7-5, 10-6. Andrews and Townsend, who were unseeded in Australia, were the runners-up at the 2011 U.S. Open. Townsend, playing with Jessica Pegula, also made it to the third round of the main draw at the U.S. Open.

Australian Open--what they said

If you win tomorrow you'll take your first Grand Slam title and become world number 1. Are you ready for the pressure and the responsibility that brings?
You guys love doing that, huh? You know, let's talk about it tomorrow. Then I'll tell you my feelings, okay? Fair enough?
I'll ask you tomorrow.
Thank you.
Victoria Azarenka

...there will be fierce stares across the net and Sharapova will play with all the obvious joy of someone facing a tax audit.
Lynn Zinser

Is the Olympics a possibility?
I don't know. Everyone is keep asking us this question. But, you know, when we're sign in to play doubles here, we weren't thinking about it.
Vera Zvonareva

I think we both were understanding that with all respect to the opponents that we were not playing our best game, and still the game were so equal. We both wanted to do better, and we couldn't just get a little bit. We needed just few percent to improve our game. I think we just talking about finding the right key. I think we did it in the middle of second set. We found the right game, what was good for us.
Svetlana Kuznetsova

Friday cat blogging--crashed out edition

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Scream 2

When Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka stood on the court after the Istanbul final, I didn't think it was a coincidence that Stacey Allaster didn't look them in the eye. One "barks," the other screams, and there they were--the winner and finalist of the WTA Championships. Allaster has waffled more than a political candidate about the issue of noise-making by the players. She defended them, then she decided to have "gruntometers" designed and installed, then she defended (shortly after the Istanbul final) her players again.

Now, the two biggest noise-makers on the tour--Maria Sharapova and VIctoria Azarenka--have reached the Australian Open final. One of them is going to be the champion, and the other one isn't going to look too shabby. What, you may wonder, is Stacey Allaster to do?

Her dreams of technology may have failed, but recent events indicate that subterfuge is perhaps a better weapon. Though in the past, they said either nothing, or that grunting/screaming didn't bother them at all, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Agnieszka Radwanska have all recently called for action to be taken against the noise-makers. ESPN has devoted as much attention to the subject as it has to actual match-calling. There is, it would seem, a campaign to get the job done by using the players and the media to support what is said to be public disapproval of some players.

The other night, Martina Navritalova stated bluntly that if it were really a "P.R. problem," it would have already been solved.

So have some players been troubled by the noise but, for years, lacked the guts to come forward and say so? Or do players who aren't especially bothered by the sounds just not have the guts to say "no" to Allaster or whoever represents her in this issue? Either way, it doesn't look good, spine-wise.

I've stood really close to both Sharapova and Azarenka (and Venus Williams, for that matter) while they were playing, and I wasn't bothered at all by the noise. I understand that some spectators are bothered (many for sexist reasons, some because they just want players to be quiet), and that brings us back to the question of: Who decides what noises are prohibited? I haven't heard anyone complaining about Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer. I haven't heard anyone complaining about Caroline Wozniacki or Svetlana Kuznetsova. All of those players grunt. And while it's true that ATP players don't scream, it's worth noting that--as a rule--men don't scream.

The screaming and yelling seem to be part of a new culture of "power" tennis. I can tolerate the noise more than the playing style; I still want the players to use wooden racquets. But times have changed. Players cannot be stopped from grunting (and why would you want to stop them?), so it seems odd to try to stop them from screaming.

The worst part of all this is that the WTA gets way more public attention because a few players scream than it does for the daily grind and occasional wonder of its athletes who--by fate of birth--don't happen to be men. A "screamer" is going to win the Australian Open, and the WTA will airbrush her and promote her and tell the world what a great champion she is. All that will be done publicly, but who knows what's next in the more private campaign to get her and the runner-up to be quiet?

Top Australian Open junior seed out of tournament

Krista Hardebeck of the USA has reached the semifinals of the Australian Open junior girls' draw by defeating number 1 seed Irina Khromacheva 6-3, 6-3. Hardebeck had already taken out the 8th and 9th seeds. The remaining semifinalists are 4th seed Yulia Putintseva, 14th seed Taylor Townsend and 2nd seed Eugenie Bouchard.

Top seed Esther Vergeer won her women's wheelchair semifinal, and will play 2nd seed Aniek Van Koot in the final. Vergeer and her partner, Sharon Walraven, the top doubles seeds, have made it to the final, and will play 2nd seeds Van Koot and partner Marjolein Buls.

In mixed doubles, 5th seeds Elena Vesnina and Leander Paes have advanced to the semifinals with a win over 4th seeds Lisa Raymond and Mahesh Bhupati. Also advancing were 3rd seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Horia Tecau, who beat Jarmila Gajdosova and Bruno Soares.

We have our finalists!

Yesterday, in the third set of her Australian Open semifinal match against Petra Kvitoa, Maria Sharapova--serving at 4-all, 0-30--hit a shot that was called out, giving Kvitova three break points, and a chance to serve for the match. Only the ball wasn't out, and Sharapova knew it. She immediately challenged and was validated, and that was the beginning of the end for Kvitova. In her press conference, the Czech player said she didn't remember the challenge--I'm sure it had all become just a blur for her--but that moment obstructed her momentum, and a short time later, she was out of the Australian Open. Sharapova took the match 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.

I decided last night not to make any notes on the matches, but rather, to just relax and enjoy them. I encourage you to check out Todd's excellent play-by-play analyses of both semifinals.

I do have some observations, however. One is that Maria Sharapova's mental toughness got her out of a lot of trouble yesterday. Kvitova was a mess in the first set, but she was once again scary-good in the second, and the third would have been hers if she had had her opponent's mentality. Sharapova had only five break opportunities against Kvitova, but she converted all five, including the crucial one at the end. In contrast, Kvitova had fourteen break opportunities, and converted only three of them.

Another is that Sharapova's movement keeps getting better, and she anticipated many of her opponent's forward moves.

Finally, this was the best singles match I've seen at this year's Open. The tension was high almost from the first strike, and--while both players had difficulty with one thing or another (Sharapova double-faulted ten times)--their very best features were also on display much of the time. It was a nerve game in the end, and Sharapova held hers. (Note to Chris Fowler: Sharapova's gender prohibits her from being the "king" of anything.) The mental aspect of Kvitova's tennis--though much better than in the past--is still a vulnerability. She just can't seem to settle down, and when she gets anxious, she plays way too fast.

The other match was played during the annoying Australia Day air show, and a formation of planes repeatedly flew low toward the court, outdoing the sparrows and seagulls that have been swooping around the players for a week and half. Defending champion Kim Clijsters played Victoria Azarenka, and on ESPN, the fist set was accompanied not only by buzzing aircraft, but by almost non-stop Azarenka-bashing, with occasional match commentary tossed in by Cliff Drysdale and Pam Shriver. (Shriver's comprehension of "irony" is somewhat impaired--there's a real difference between experiencing a highly significant and career-defining moment while working in one's profession, and sitting in a seat enjoying some recreational viewing.)

In the first set, Azarenka put Clijsters under so much pressure, the defending champion began to make what would become a long series of errors. Azarenka won the set 6-4, but lost her way in the second set, when Clijsters dominated 6-1. To the crowd, it probably looked like Aussie Kim was going to walk away a finalist, but Azarenka wasn't finished. She obviously put the second set completely behind her (something she hasn't always been able to do), and won the deciding set 6-3.

The pair broke each other four times, and Clijsters ended the match with one more point than Azarenka. But it didn't matter because Azarenka did what the best players do--she won the big points, when it really counted.

2008 champion Sharapova and Azarenka have played each other six times and have split the victories three and three. On hard courts, they've split the victories two and two. Here is a look at their paths to the Australian Open final:

MARIA SHARAPOVA (4)
round 1--def. Gisela Dulko
round 2--def. Jamie Hampton
round 3--def. Angelique Kerber (30)
round of 16--def. Sabine Lisicki (14)
quarterfinals--def. Ekaterina Makarova
semifinals--def. Petra Kvitova (2)

VICTORIA AZARENKA (3)
round 1--def. Heather Watson
round 2--def. Casey Dellacqua
round 3--def. Mona Barthel
round of 16--def. Iveta Benesova
quarterfinals--def. Agnieszka Radwanska (8)
semifinals--def. Kim Clijsters (11)

Australian Open---what they said

I felt like I was down and out. There are times where, you know, I felt like she was just returning too good. I just kept going for it.
Maria Sharapova

She's played some incredible tennis these past three weeks already, in Sydney as well. She's been able to do that before in the past, but never really throughout, you know, that same amount of time. She was capable of beating the Williams sisters, but not always in a row. I think she's been able to use that experience. She's done that really well.
Kim Clijsters, speaking of Victoria Azarenka

...probably I play more aggressive in the Wimbledon and didn't have like a lot of mistakes what I did today. But, anyway, it's there. I mean, it was fine match for the people, hopefully. I'm looking forward for the next matches. 
Petra Kvitova

This time next year do you imagine you'll be sitting watching on television or will tennis be very much in the past for you?
I have no idea. I have no idea.
Kim Clijsters

How long did it actually take you to find a serve that you were comfortable with once you came back to the game?
Well, when I came back I had to start with a different motion because, I mean, I wanted to come back so early. I couldn't quite come back as early as I wanted to. It came to a point where if you don't want to hurt things, then, you know, maybe you have to make some adjustments. That was probably a tough adjustment, because even though I changed motions many times in my career, I had to really go to a really different one which was very short and very compact. I was not used to that because I have long arms and I'm just used to kind of longer things and longer swings. But I had to do that in the beginning, and that was the toughest thing, yeah. 
Maria Sharapova

Do you remember your first ITF events in Israel in 2003?
You mean the 10,000s?
Yes.
Yeah.
You must have been really small then, huh?
I was really small. I remember even few girls who are playing quallies here, I was playing with them. They were kicking my ass.
Victoria Azarenka

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

French Fed Cup team does not include Bartoli

The French Fed Cup team for the February 4-5 event, in which France plays the Slovak Republic, will be composed of Alize Cornet, Pauline Parmentier, Virginie Razzano, and Aravane Rezai. Once again, France's top player, Marion Bartoli, has been left off of the team.

The Italian Fed Cup team includes Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani, and Roberta Vinci. This is, of course, the team that has led Italy to the Fed Cup championship in the past. Italy will play Ukraine.

Captain Mary Joe Fernandez has named Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Christina McHale, and Liezel Huber to the USA's team for the February competition. Sloane Stephens is the alternate. The USA will play Belarus.

Zvonareva enters Family Circle Cup

Two-time finalist Vera Zvonareva has entered the 2012 Family Circle Cup in Charleston. The world number 7 is a fan favorite in Charleston, where she holds a 20-8 record. Zvonareva was in the final in 2008 and 2010. She did not play in the tournament last year.

This year's Family Circle Cup will be held March 31-April 8 at the Family Circle Tennis Center on Daniel Island.

Down to four

There are only four women standing at the Austrlian Open, and a case can be made for each of them to claim the championship. That means that we are likely to see two really good semifinal matches today.

In the first match scheduled for Rod Laver Arena, defending champion Kim Clijsters takes on 3rd seed Victoria Azarenka. Clijsters doesn't seem to be bothered by her sprained ankle, and Azarenka--so far--doesn't seem to be bothered by any injuries or illnesses (though she had some kind of "moment" while practicing the other day).

This is a real Veteran vs. Upstart contest. Clijsters has had two WTA careers and won four majors; Azarenka has never won a major, but has suddenly reached two semifinals in a row. Both are big hitters. Clijsters is a superb mover with an outstanding transition game. Clijsters can also be error-prone, however, and Azarenka can be competitive by keeping her game clean. She has done a great job so far in Melbourne, and certainly has a chance to reach the final. The crowd, of course, will be cheering for Aussie Kim.

There's a bit more drama attached to the second match. Petra Kvitova will play Maria Sharapova, whom she beat in the 2011 Wimbledon final. Sharapova's service problems have decreased significantly in this tournament, though they did appear for a little while. With her serve intact, she can take advantage of a shaky Kvitova. Only Kvitova may not be so shaky for this match. So far, though, the 2nd seed has "gone off" several times, only to pull herself together for the big points. They're both great servers (when Sharapova's serve is working) and great returners. Kvitova has also shown herself to be skillful at the net.

No matter who wins the 2012 Australian Open, the win will be special. For Clijsters, it's her last chance to win in Melbourne and she would also be defending her title from 2011. Additionally, a victory would mean that she would retire with a minimum of five major singles titles. For Azarenka, a victory would place her in the elite group of women who have won majors, and annouce her as the latest really big star on the tour.

If Kvitova wins the Australian Open, she becomes an even bigger threat than she is now--a two-time major winner on an impressive victory roll, and with a gain in confidence. And if the trophy goes to Sharapova, then she will finally be all the way "back" and ready to contend for more major titles.

Even though Clijsters is retiring some time this year (maybe before the end of 2012?), a win for Sharapova seems like it would be the most emotionally charged. The Russian star hasn't won a major since she won the Australian Open in 2008, and she has struggled through a misdiagnosis, shoulder surgery, two rehabs, a drop in confidence, and major problems with her serve.

The semifinal draw "looks good" on paper. The defending champion is playing, along with seeds 2, 3 and 4. Missing, of course, are five-time champion Serena Williams and top seed Caroline Wozniacki. It's also worth noting that the 2011 finalist, Li Na, is also missing from the semifinals.

Kvitova and Sharapova go to Australian Open semifinals

2nd seed Petra Kvitova defeated Sara Errani 6-4, 6-4 yesterday in the Australian Open quarterfinals, yet it's Errani who stands out for her clever and gutsy performance. Errani gave her all, and that was considerable. Kvitova later acknowledged that she had problems with some of the Italian's high, spinning balls. She had other problems, too; she made 44 unforced errors. The 2011 Wimbledon champion has played five matches in Melbourne, but she has yet to settle down. Of course, toward the end of the second set, Kvitova took charge, kind of like we knew she would, and put and authoritatively put an end to the match. Still, she may be living a little too much on the edge in this tournament.

In the other quarterfinal played yesterday, Maria Sharapova put an end to Ekaterina Makarova's impressive Australian Open run, defeating her 6-2, 6-3. Makarova had service problems throughout both sets, which left her vulnerable to some of the biggest returns in women's tennis.

Of the four quarterfinal matches, I enjoyed the Kvitova-Errani one the most, because of Errani's spirited and challenging performance.

Errani's day got better, too, when she and partner Roberta Vinci reached the doubles final by defeating Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka 5-7, 7-5, 6-1. The Italian team is seeded 11th at the event. In the other semifinal, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva defeated Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina 7-6, 2-6, 6-4. The unseeded Russian team took out the defending champions, Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta, in the third round.

So far, I've enjoyed the doubles competition more than the singles competition at this Australian Open. There have been some thrilling doubles matches just about every day.

Women'e wheelchair singles began yesterday, and top seed Esther Vergeer won her quarterfinal match 6-0, 6-2.

Quarterfinal winners in mixed doubles were: Sania Mirza/Mahesh Bhupati, Jarmila Gajdosova/Bruno Soares, Roberta Vinci/Daniele Bracciali, and Elena Vesnina/Leander Paes.

Australian Open--what they said

Did you go into the match with a game plan? You'd played once before.
Yeah, of course.  For sure I should move her and let her run.  Sometimes I didn't make that good today because she played so aggressive and pushed me all the time. It was difficult.
Ekaterina Makarova

I have to play my game as always and be aggressive but not really hectic and be focused on every point and it's easy.
Petra Kvitova

Today you just can't let yourself get pushed back. That's what she has to do. She has to try to move in, step forward, otherwise there is always going to be somebody coming on top of her at a Grand Slam.
Martina Hingis, speaking of Caroline Wozniacki

When Errani hit that drop shot, I reacted. But, like Kvitova, I did not get there.
Martina Navratilova

Being a fellow Russian player, do you know Maria very well off the court?
I don't know her at all.
Ekaterina Makarova

I see myself playing this sport for many more years because it's something that gives me the most pleasure in my life. I think it helps when you know you're good at something, and you can always improve it. It obviously helps with the encouragement.
Maria Sharapova

She's a true champion. Sooner or later I think we'll see her at the top spot probably. If it's not going to happen here, I think it's a question of time.
Martina Hingis, referring to Petra Kvitova

Why do you think you were able to come back today? What did you do well?
What do I did well? Actually, I think I didn't play like stupid and I tried to be really to play what I have to play.
Petra Kvitova

Radwanska was one player that said she thinks the noise you and Azarenka make is excessive and she'd like to see the WTA change the rules to prohibit that.
Isn't she back in Poland already?
Maria Sharapova               

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Azarenka and Clijsters advance to Australian Open semifinals

Victoria Azarenka, who some have predicted will win the Australian Open, took another step toward that goal yesterday when she defeated her good friend Agnieszka Radwanska 6-7, 6-0, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. The first set, as the scoreline shows, was highly competitive, but then took a turn when Radwanska won the tiebreak 7-0. But a completely different Radwanska stepped onto the court for the second set. She looked suddenly sluggish (not a term one would generally use to describe her), and she was unable to win a game.

I expected the third set to be competitive, also, but by this time, Azarenka had all the momentum, and Radwanska--while she was able to get on the scoreboard--continued to serve poorly and make errors. We haven't seen Radwanska fade to this extent in a long time. She is generally not that vulnerable to the terrible heat, so I don't really know what happened to her.

Speaking of Radwanska--she had added a coach to her team. She is working with Jelena Dokic's former coach, Borna Bikic. However, Tomasz Wiktorowski--the Polish Fed Cup coach whom Radwanska recently hired to coach her--is still part of her coaching team. Both coaches were with her at the Australian Open.

In the other quarterfinal played yesterday, defending champion Kim Clijsters defeated top seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 7-6. Clijsters injured her ankle in her round of 16 match against Li Na, and she also saved four match points in that match. She's been busy icing and treating her ankle ever since, and during that time, she also learned how to move on her foot in a way that would minimize any further tweaking of the injury. She apparently learned well because we saw the famous Clijsters splits in yesterday's match.

The defending champion was anxious, though, and was broken four times, including when she served for the match at 5-3 in the second set. That set went to a tiebreak, which Clijsters won 7-4. She hit a volley on match point, which accentuated how successful she had been at the net throughout the match. For her part, Wozniacki was successful with less than half of her volleys, she got her first serve in 57% of the time, and she made twice as many unforced errors as she winners.

It wasn't a great performance from Clijsters, but it was certainly good enough. She also had the crowd behind her. As for Wozniacki--she has now lost her number 1 ranking, but could certainly get it back.

Next for Clijsters is Azarenka, against whom she has a 4-2 record.

Plenty of drama, but not on the singles courts

If you've been watching the Australian Open and looking for the excitement we generally associate with major tournaments, you may have been looking in the wrong place. Yesterday--while the singles quarterfinals were interesting only because of the depth of the tournament--the real drama was going on in Margaret Court Arena. 2nd seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond played 6th seeds Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina for over three hours, and there was rarely a dull moment experienced.

Mirza and Vesnina, who wound up hitting 60 winners, got off to a strong start and took the first set 6-3. They had match points in the second set, and while Huber and Raymond can be credited for their saves, the last one went away when an obviously nervous Vesnina hit a long ball that--had it landed inside the court--would have almost surely been a (match) winner.

That mistake gave Huber and Raymond just the opening they needed. They broke the 6th seeds, and went on to the take the second set 7-5. They wondered aloud to the chair umpire about their opponents between-sets locker room break, and gave impatient looks to Mirza and Vesnina when they finally emerged and walked onto the court. The atmosphere was tense, and after almost and hour and a half of hard-played doubles, the teams arrived at a tiebreak. Mirza and Vesnina had more match points, and on the seventh one, they jumped up to celebrate their win--only chair umpire Carlos Ramos stopped them.

The ball had bounced twice before Huber scooped it up to hit it back, Mirza and Vesnina insisted. Ramous apparently didn't see it that way, or didn't see it at all. Mirza asked Huber if the ball had bounced twice, and Huber replied "I didn't see." Vesnina then went into an all-out rage, and had to be reeled in by her partner. Mirza decided to let her racket do the talking, and she soon struck a sharp forehand (we're talking a Sania Mirza forehand here) right at Huber, who fell down backwards onto the blazing court. Finally, on their eighth match point, Mirza Vesnina won the match, and advanced to the semifinals.

But there was more. After the expected cold handshake, Huber got in Vesnina's face and began talking to her after they all moved away from the umpire's chair. Mirza and Vesnina just walked away as the crowd cheered. "We won the match like, twice," Mirza said as she made her exit.

And while it wasn't as dramatic (what could be?), another good match was played between 3rd seeds Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova and 7th seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. The Czech team upset King and Shvedova 7-5, 6-2, and moved a step closer to claiming their second major trophy.

In other quarterfinal action, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva defeated Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu, and 11th seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci defeated Alla Kudryavtseva and Ekaterina Makarova. Both Errani and Makarova are still in the singles draw.

In the semifinals, Errani and Vinci will play Hlavackova and Hradecka, and Kuznetsova and Zvonareva will play Mirza and Vesnina. Zvonareva and Vesnina have been doubles partners in the past.

Australian Open--what they said

I start laughing every time because the media talks to me like I'm finishing my career and I only have one year left and time is running out.
Caroline Wozniacki

Your mind is sometimes boiling and it's difficult to think.
Victoria Azarenka

Are you sure about this ball?
It's more out than in.
Chair umpire to Andrea Hlavackova

There's been a lot made of the noise of some of the female players. What are your thoughts on that?
To be honest, I'm kind of used to it, you know, especially with Vika. We know each other for many years. About Maria, I mean, what can I say?  For sure that is pretty annoying and it's just too loud.
Agnieszka Radwanska   

The WTA is looking at it (grunting, etc.) and obviously assessing their options. Do you think they need to be acting on it?  
I think it's kind of silly, you know. But WTA should maybe look at some other things, too.
Victoria Azarenka 

It was good not to use too much energy in the heat, but also just with my foot trying to always positioning it straight. You know, the rotation where my foot is in the ground and I like rotate with my foot on the ground, that's, you know, what I'm trying to be careful with, because the ligaments, you know, are definitely a little bit hurt.
Kim Clijsters

We won the match like, twice.
Sania Mirza

Monday, January 23, 2012

Her name is Makarova

I was really pleased that, in her post-round of 16 interview, Ekaterina Makarova made it clear that she doesn't like being called "Macaroni" or "Macarena," the "nicknames" sometimes given to her by the crowd. It's bad enough that commentators, and even some umpires, don't bother to pronounce players' names correctly (I wish that Zheng Jie hadn't gone along with that awkward, ridiculous Jay-Z stunt; it only served to encourage people to keep mispronouncing her name), but to also call players "cute" names they don't like just adds to the insult.

For a few years now, Svetlana Kuznetsova has practically begged people to stop calling her "Kuzy," but even her friend Martina Navratilova still does it. Brad Gilbert nicknamed Yanina Wickmayer "Wicker Chair," and he calls Richard Gasquet "Dicky Gasket." Wow, that's so funny.

This isn't a new phenomenom. Shirley Muldowney hated the nickname "Cha-Cha," but to this day, writers use it when referring to her.

5-time champion Williams defeated in Australian Open round of 16

When Serena Williams played Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in the second round of the Australian Open, she lost her way for a while in the second set. It isn't unusual for a top player to stumble a bit in an early round, and Williams is known for "playing her way into" majors. But there was something about the look on her face that made me take note. She looked lost, and I wondered whether she was tired or in pain.

Yesterday, in the round of 16, that lost look was what we saw throughout most of her match against Ekaterina Makarova. Makarova, one of those mystery players whose talent has long exceeded her ranking, did not look lost at all. The Russian player has been on something of a tear since she arrived in Melbourne, and she had already disposed of Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi and 7th seed Vera Zvonareva. When she needed six set points to close the first set against Williams, it also became clear that she was probably not going to fold in light of the occasion.

Williams has had problems with various opponents over the years, but, in the end, her serve has usually gotten her out of every type of trouble. But not yesterday--and that was the most surprising aspect of a match full of surprises. She double-faulted seven times, she had trouble getting her first serve in, and Makarova attacked and destroyed her second serve. In contrast, Makarova's second serve was one of her strengths, and her shots were fluid and precise; Makarova played from a vantage point of confidence.

Williams sprained her ankle in Brisbane, and this physical liability was obvious during the match; Williams' feet just weren't doing what they usually do, and she couldn't launch herself the way she generally does. She also made 37 unforced errors. Even with Williams playing with an injured foot, however, many players would have eventually faded away, and they certainly wouldn't have gone the distance to get that sixth set point. But Makarova wouldn't go away, and she ended the match with a 6-2, 6-3 victory.

Obviously, there was more than one factor in play in bringing about the upset; there are probably factors about which we know nothing. But I think that one of those factors was Sam Stosur's sound defeat of Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final. Once something like that happens, other players get the idea that they, too, might be able to face the icon and not blink. And yes, there's a certain amount of irony in that theory, since Stosur was sent packing from Melbourne in the first round.

Not surprisingly (at least to me), Maria Sharapova defeated Sabine Lisicki, though she needed three sets to do it. Sharapova double-faulted eight times, so, again, her serve is something on which we want to keep an eye.

2nd seed Petra Kvitova defeated Ana Ivanovic in straight sets, but--once again--Kvitova had a bad patch. She was all power and dominance in the first set, which she won 6-2. But serving at 5-3 in the second set, and with a break point against Ivanovic, the Czech player whiffed an overhead. She couldn't shake off the mistake, and proceeded to lose the next two games at love. At 5-6, it looked as though Kvitova would be broken, but she did whatever it is she does in those moments, and--just like that--she was back. She held for 6-all, and the tiebreak went about like the first set had gone; Kvitova was dominant and aggressive.

In yesterday's other singles match, Sara Errani defeated Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-1 in a beatiful display of tennis. The talented Zheng likes to absorb pace and race around the court in a hitting contest, but she couldn't get the rhythm she wanted from Errani, who kept hitting high balls to her and forcing her out of her running zone.

The comeback players of yesterday were Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina, who defeated Jarmila Gajdosova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands 7-5, 6-3. Mirza and Vesnina were down 1-5 in the first set.

2011 French Open champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka defeated Rika Fujiwara and Ayumi Morita (in an entertaining match), and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci defeated Daniela Hantuchova and Agnieszka Radwanska. Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu won when their opponents--5th seeds Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova--retired during the first set. Kirilenko has a thigh injury, which caused her to retire against Petra Kvitova in singles.

Australian Open--what they said

It wasn't hot enough for them to close the roof. I'm like, bloody hell. Glad I'm not playing anymore. I don't know how they do it.
Martina Navratilova

It was still in my head that it was an easy shot. I tried to get it out, but it was still there.
Petra Kvitova

...Yeah I served really well, that's why today was frustrating. I still felt like my rhythm was there and just wasn't executing well and mis-timing the ball a little bit.
Ana Ivanovic

It may have been Chinese New Year, but the dragon today was all Italian.
Nick Lester

...Caroline doesn't need to explain why she was number 1, it's the WTA that needs to explain that.
Martina Navratilova

Is there any one thing that you put it down to today?
I don't know. I served horrendous. That's one of the fifty things.
Serena Williams

Kim was in the fire and she just play.
Petra Kvitova

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Comeback Kim knocks Li out of Australian Open

I woke up this morning to learn I had watched a "thriller" last night (it was night in the USA) between Kim Clijsters and Li Na in the Australian Open round of 16. The last part of the third set was certainly thrilling, but the match, as a whole, was more bizarre and disappointing than anything else. The match had gotten a deservedly big buildup because Clijsters and Li played in last year's Australian Open final. And, in the final analysis, the content--if not the form--of the two matches was similar.

I went back to look at what I'd written about the 2011 final, and one of the things I said about Li in the second set was: "If I were the kind of person who used the expression 'This is when the wheels fell off,' I'd certainly describe flying wheels."

And there you are. The drama began in yesterday's match when, at 3-all in the first set, Clijsters rolled her left ankle. This was the bad ankle, and the defending champion was clearly in pain. She received some treatment, including a heavy wrap, and continued to play, but she looked undone by the incident. This is Clijsters' last Australian Open, she's the defending champion, and she had to feel like she had the worst luck in the world.

Li won the first set 6-4. In the second set, Clijsters  had to resign herself to the fact that she couldn't really push off anymore to hit wide serves. Li went up 3-1 in the second, as Clijsters had trouble keeping the ball in the court. But one could also sense that anxious, tense Li Na--the one we saw in Melbourne last year and have seen so many times before--had emerged. Clijsters undoubtedly sensed it, too.

The set went to a tiebreak, and suddenly, Li had four match points. Clijsters saved three of them as the crowd went wild. Then, Clijsters surprised perhaps even herself by hitting a forehand drop shot. The speedy Li got there in plenty of time, but--for reasons that will remain a mystery--she hit the ball straight to Clijsters instead of whacking one of her famous crosscourt stingers to win the match.  Clijsters returned with a lob, but Li was no longer speedy--she was frozen to the spot.

On to the third set. The defending champion quickly went up 4-0, as Li--still looking stunned by what had happened in the preceding set--couldn't do anything but  make errors. At 4-1 Clijsters became a bundle of nerves and double-faulted, giving Li a break point. Li then picked up her game, and if you were watching, you had to wonder--is it really over for her? But it was. Clijsters took the last set 6-4 and won on her second match point.

The match was a microcosm of the two players' career problems: Clijsters tends to get injured, and Li tends to choke away matches. The challenge for Clijsters now is her ankle. It could get worse, and even if it doesn't, she'll probably still be restricted in her service game, which will certainly hurt her against quarterfinal opponent Caroline Wozniacki. For now, though, Aussie Kim is still in the mix.

Wozniacki reached the quarterfinals by defeating Jelena Jankovic 6-0, 7-5 . Also getting to the quarterfnals was Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Iveta Benesova 6-2, 6-2. Azarenka will play Agnieszka Radwanska, who easily defeated (6-1, 6-1)  a lost-looking Julia Goerges.

Australian Open--what they said

Would you like to change your game against a particular opponent like Kim, or do you think you'll continue with the same strategy and same type of game?
So what do you think? You think I should change? I mean, I played this way for 20 years already. I couldn't change for next two months.

Li Na
They have wacky matches.
Mary Joe Fernandez, speaking of Kim Clijsters and Li Na

...Most of all, you have someone you can blame....
Chanda Rubin, on the benefits of playing doubles

I gave it (a baby kangaroo) some milk, and it just spit  it all over me. I was like, is this a thank you for just being nice and petting the kangaroo? I got milk all over myself. I guess I deserved that from the story last year.
Caroline Wozniacki

How in the world did you pull that match out?
I have no idea.
Kim Clijsters

Well, I know Vika for I think ten years. We played juniors together. We're the same age, so we played a lot of matches against each other. You know, I think it's always three sets, always tough ones.
Agnieszka Radwanska

Is she (Anna Kournikova) coming to the tournament?
Yeah, she came last year to watch me play. She said she ate about two packets of gum because she was so nervous.
Victoria Azarenka

Maybe 6‑2 up in the tiebreak I was a little bit shocking. Yeah.
Li Na

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Russian team knocks out defending champions in Melbourne thriller

It was impossible to tell, until the very end, who was going to win the 3rd round Australian Open match between defending champions Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta and Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva. Dulko and Pennetta won the first set 6-3, but their opponents made fewer errors in the second set, and took that set 6-3.

The entire match was tense and entertaining, but the third set was especially so. The defending champions were broken early, but caught up, then found themselves about to go out when the Russian team served for the match at 5-3. A spectacular 28-shot rally occurred in that game, with all four players moving to the far reaches of the court. Dulko and Pennetta broke. Down 0-30 at 5-6, the defending champions got some breathing room when Kuznetsova made two mis-hits in a row. They were broken, though, when Dulko double-faulted on break point.

Kuznetsova and Zvonareva served for the match a second time, but were broken on the first of two break points. The match then went to a tiebreak, but the Russian team was too strong, and advanced to the next round with a 7-4 tiebreak score.

This was a really high quality match that featured everything from body blows to an amusing cheering section to some really stunning shot-making. Dulko and Pennetta create so much drama on the court because they fight so hard and keep coming back, even when it appears they don't have a chance. Today, though, their opponents were too strong in closing, though, and Kuznetsova, in particular, should be credited for her skills--at the net and from the baseline.

Top seeds retire in Australian Open doubles

Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik were the top-seeded doubles team at the Australian Open, but they retired during their second round match yesterday because Srebotnik sustained a back injury. The "real" upset occurred yesterday when Rika Fujiwara and Ayumi Morita defeated 10th seeds Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. Also, Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Nisulescu took out 9th seeds Natalie Grandin and Vladimira Uhlirova.

Getting the retirement from Peschke and Srebotnik were Alla Kudryavtseva and Ekaterina Makarova. Makarova upset Vera Zvonareva in singles yesterday, also.

Jelena Jankovic is playing mixed doubles with Bernard Tomic; they defeated an  all-Australian team in the first round.

Bartoli out of Australian Open

Imagine that you're playing a big match in front of a mirror--only your mirror image is wearing speed skates. That should give you an idea of what happened to Marion Bartoli yesterday in the third round of the Australian Open. Bartoli takes the ball very fast, Zheng Jie takes the ball very fast; Bartoli goes for the big angles; Zheng goes for the big angles. This was going to be a competitive match, no matter what. Zheng, though, moved so quickly, and her footwork was so deft, that she was able to overcome the 9th seed with a 6-3, 6-3 victory.

Bartoli hit only seven winners the entire match. Her usual aggression was stopped from the beginning by a bigger aggression on the side of the net. Zheng, who made it the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2010, had to withdraw from the event last year because of an injury.

Bartoli wasn't the only high seed to make an exit. 7th seed Vera Zvonareva was taken out 7-6, 6-1 by countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova. Makarova served for the first set at 5-4, but was broken. She remained calm, however, and went on to win the tiebreak 9-7. After that, the match was all about Makarova, who hit with finesse as Zvonareva struggled with her serve and made repeated errors.

Makarova reached the round of 16 in Melbourne last year, too. She was defeated by eventual champion Kim Clijsters. Her luck is no better this year; she plays Serena Williams in the next round.

I found it painful to watch Sorana Cirstea in the third round. She had some back pain, which was unfortunate, but she also had so many emotional outbursts, she looked as though she might just implode. The situation was made more dramatic by the fact that she was playing Italian backboard Sara Errani, who can grind for hours and rarely appear to be bothered. After Cirstea won the first set in a tiebreak, she became even more tense, and failed to win one game in the second set. The third set was better, though she won only two games in that one, as she had difficulty serving, and she continued to make unforced errors.

Did  anyone really think Svetlana Kuznetsova wasn't going to choke away a 6-2, 3-1 lead? I didn't think so.

The Russian was all over Sabine Lisicki in the first set, and Lisicki appeared lost, unable to deliver the serve for which she's become known. But the German staged a comeback when things looked bad for her in the second set, and that was all it took for Kuznetsova to lose her way, and then fade, as Lisicki became more confident.

Serena Williams beat Greta Arn 6-1, 6-1 in just under and hour. Maria Sharapova beat U.S. Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber 6-1, 6-2, and Ana Ivanovic defeated Vania King 6-3, 6-4. Petra Kvitova played just a set and a game, as Maria Kirilenko had to retire with a thigh injury.

In the USA, Tennis Channel and ESPN are sharing the broadcast duties, with all the usual name mispronunciations and unnecessary banter. And while it pains me to say it (and this was evident during the U.S. Open, too), Chris Evert needs to go. There was a time when she was a good commentator, but now, she obviously doesn't know who the players are what their histories are. This was embarrassingly evident during Zvonareva's match, when Evert thought that Makarova was some new, young player on the tour with a "nothing to lose" attitude. Of course, Evert isn't the only WTA commentator who doesn't know much about the tour, but she seems to expose her knolwedge gaps more than the others.

Australian Open--what they said

She played extremely well, first of all. I really thought that I was under pressure right away. I never get a grip on the match.
Marion Bartoli

Bartoli is one of the most entertaining players on the tour. I find myself always pulling for her.
Chris Evert

How much have you been paying attention to other players' results here so far?
Well, actually, I don't know who lost and who win....
Petra Kvitova

...Sometimes you're a bit of a passenger when Kvitova is on the zone.
Match commentator

Is it possible to enjoy your in between days at the slams? 
Yeah, I enjoy my afternoon naps. I love them.
Maria Sharapova

Can you give us an idea of what areas of your game Nigel has helped you the most with?
One of the big areas was the serve.  That needed some improvement. Throughout the end of last year it was improving.  But now in offseason we really had time to work on it. It has improved a lot.
Ana Ivanovic

...the feeling that I got was really I couldn't hurt her. I mean, she was hurting me all the time with either her forehand crosscourt or the speed she was having on her legs moving side to side.
Marion Bartoli

I do the training too hard, so that's why I move so quick. But I know Bartoli, she play so aggressive. I play against her the many times before. So, yeah, my coach tell me make her move. So today I think I do good.
Zheng Jie

Friday, January 20, 2012

Passing shots

Former world number 6 Chanda Rubin is being inducted into the Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame. Rubin lives in Lafayette, Louisiana.

The Family Circle cup is calling for tournament volunteers and also for ball crew members.

2006 Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo was sitting in the stands with Victoria Azarenka's coach, Sam Sumyk, during Azarenka's third round match.

Stan Wawrinka's behavior in his match yesterday stands as proof (like I needed any) that if Victorira Azarenka were "Victor" Azarenka, the crowd wouldn't dislike her at all.

Andrea Petkovic reports that she is "slightly" over her depression over not being able to play in Melbourne.

Here's your chance to predict who you think will be in the top 10 at the end of 2012.

Barttoli likely to be left out of Olympic Games

Marion Bartoli reports that her participation in the 2012 Olympic Games is unlikely. Players must have participated on their Fed Cup teams at least twice during the last four years in order to qualify to play at the Games, and Bartoli has not played. The French star wanted her coach, Walter Bartoli, to help coach her through Fed Cup participation, but the French Federation was against this, and Bartoli was not assigned to the team.

Bartoli says she does not have time to take her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. There is a small chance that the ITF will make an exception and let her participate. In the meantime, Bartoli describes the situation as "heartbreaking" for her. The Olympic Games will be held on grass courts, and Bartoli would be favored to win a medal.

Jankovic advances to Australian Open round of 16

The USA's Christina McHale, who impressed with her Australian Open wins over Lucie Safarova and Marina Erakovic, was swept aside easily by Jelena Jankovic in the third round yesterday. Jankovic, looking "like herself" throughout the match, wasn't bothered by McHale's retrieval skills, and won the match 6-2, 6-0. The 13ath seed will have a much harder job in the next round: She will face top seed Caroline Wozniacki, who defeated the always-entertaining Monica Niculescu in straight sets. Jankovic is 4-3 against Wozniacki, but all three of Wozniacki's victories occurred last year.

Iveta Benesova's serve continued to work for her in the third round. When the Czech player's serve is "on," it can do a lot of damage, as it did yesterday. Benesova hit 22 winners and made only 12 unforced errors against qualifier Nina Brathikova, whom she beat 6-1, 6-3. I enjoyed watching Bratchikova play.

In the round of 16, Benesova will play 3rd seed Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Hobart champion Mona Barthel in straight sets in the third round. (Note to Martina Navratilova: Not being able to challenge that last call wasn't "all" Azarenka's fault; a chair umpire with reasonable vision and who was paying attention would certainly have overruled.)

Li Na received an early (3-0 in the first set) retirement from Anabel Medina Garrigues, defending champion Kim Clijsters defeated Daniela Hantuchova, and Agnieszka Radwanska defeated Galina Voskoboeva (or "Viskaboova," as she was designated by a commentator). The match I most enjoyed watching was the one played by Romina Oprandi and Julia Goerges. Goerges defeated Oprandi 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. Oprandi kind of gave out in the final set, but the first two were quite competitive. Goerges hit 47 winners, including 8 aces.

Li and Clijsters, who played in last year's final, will meet in the round of 16, which means that one of the favorites to win the tournament will be eliminated soon. Unless someething goes wrong, this match should have the flavor of a final, and is certainly one of the most anticipated contests of the tournament.

Australian Open--what they said

Next round is against Kim in a replay of last year's final. How does that prospect feel?
Someone make good draw. This only I can say. 
Li Na

Do you think match play is overrated for veteran players? You and Maria and Serena all come in with very little and you're all winning.
I think when you're a little bit older you're capable of, in your mind, to set your mind to what it is like to play a match again. You have your routines. Again, I come back to routines, but they're so important. You have your game that you know that you're going to stick to.

I think when I was younger, I mean, I needed to play those matches to kind of get a feel for how I had to play and what my coach wanted of me and those kind of things. Now I know out there. Even after two years off, when I stepped out there, when I got out on the court, I knew what my game was, and I didn't need a lot of the matches to find that again.
Kim Clijsters

Sum up your progress in with Grand Slams so far? Are you happy with the progress you've made? Could you have done better?
Well, to think if I could have done better I think it's a little bit of a waste of time, because you can't really bring it back. What you can do is to learn from your experiences, mistakes, good, bad, and take it to the next one.
Victoria Azarenka

Other players start at 11:00 am; I start the match at 11:00 p.m.
Li Na

Friday cat blogging--nap time edition

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Brisbane champion among seeds to go out in Australian Open 2nd round

Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi, seeded 25th at the Australian Open, was defeated in straight sets yesterday in the second round by Ekaterina Makarova. In Brisbane, Kanepi knocked out seed after seed to win the trophy, but she was not able to handle Makarova, who is ranked number 56 in the world.

Kanepi wasn't the only seed to be taken out. 15th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was defeated 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 by a more consistent Vania King. After the first set, Pavlyuchenkova had so much trouble with her serve that King was able to take over the match.

In what was probably the most exciting match of the day,  Greta Arn overcame 17th seed Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 3-6, 10-8. Arn's service game was big in every way; she hit 8 aces and double-faulted 12 times. Most of the time, though, her serve worked for her. She down 1-3 in the final set, and she broke Cibulkova when the 17th seed served for the match at 7-6. It was a tense 2-hour and 40-minute contest, and it really wasn't clear who was going to win until the very end. Arn's reward? She gets Serena Williams in the third round.

23rd seed Roberta Vinci was defeated by Zheng Jie, and  29th seed Nadia Petrova, who had some problems with her back, was defeated by Sara Errani. 18th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova squeaked by Sloane Stephens 7-6, 7-5, and 9th seed Marion Bartoli defeated Australia's Jelena Dokic in the night match.

Vera Zvonareva, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams all advanced. Williams won her first set against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 6-0, but the second set was different. Zahlavova Strycova got in and made some headway, and Williams began to slow down and move awkwardly. At a later point, Williams fell down, but apparently wasn't harmed by the fall. She won the set 6-4, and the match victory gave her her 500th career match win.

A lot of attention was given to the 500th win, to Williams' upcoming mixed doubles play with Andy Roddick (now in doubt because of Roddick's hamstring injury), and to the fall, which landed Williams on what she called her "good ankle." But nothing was said about the second set lapse. Was Williams in pain? Was it a moment of uncertainty? Zahlavova Strycova is capable of confusing an opponent, but she wasn't doing anything in that particular match that would have caused Williams to lose her momentum.

Five-time Australian Open champion Williams plays Arn next, and--assuming she wins--she will probably then get Zvonareva in the round of 16.

Petra-fied

Carla Suarez Navarro, with her heavy topspin and her impressive one-handed backhand, has been known to confound more than one top player. Yesterday, the Spaniard went after Australian Open 2nd seed Petra Kvitova, who proceeded to obviously (Chris Evert, she isn't) unravel before spectators' eyes. Kvitova easily won the first set 6-2, but then Suarez Navarro became more aggressive, her shot-making became rhythically accurate, and Kvitova became a mess.

When people are under stress, they tend to regress to older, less desirable, behavior. Kvitova is a case study in this type of regression: When she is in panic mode, she returns to the wild-swinging, "hit a winner at all costs" type of play that used to be her downfall. Her forehand tends to break down. And her feet either freeze or appear to be tangled on the court. The thing is, Kvitova can put spin on the ball, she can move as deftly as she  needs to--but she stops doing these things when her fear takes over.

After taking the second set 6-2, Suarez Navarro proceeded to break Kvitova and go up 2-0. And just when it appeared she was about to go up 3-0--when Kvitova's facial expression was that of a woman with no answers--the Czech player began to use good sense. She stopped the wild swinging, slowed down her game, and calmed down enough to find her serve. When that happened, her confidence returned, too, and she won the set 6-4.

After the match, Kvitova acknowledged that, though her high-risk game means that she makes a lot of errors, "I made many, many mistakes." She said, in so many words, that she realized she had to lower her margin of error.

It's to her credit that Petra Kvitova found a way to get herself out of a second round crash. Her comeback was, in fact, impressive. The 2011 Player of the Year said just recently that winning as an "outsider" was much easier than winning as the world number 2. Sounds like it's time to book a coffee date with Billie Jean King.

Australian Open--what they said

...She's not moving well. When she's playing her best tennis, she hits screaming winners on the run, and we haven't seen that yet.
Chris Evert, discussing Petra Kvitova

I actually used to break a lot of racquets on the court. I sometimes break them in practice, just not in a match anymore.
Serena Williams

After being down a set and a break, what adjustments did you make and how did you get your focus back?
Actually, I don't know.
Petra Kvitova

They say the world is going to end this year. What would you like to do or achieve before the world blows up?
Why do you have to ask the most ridiculous questions?
Maria Sharapova

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

McHale fights past Erakovic

If you saw a more thrilling Australian Open match yesterday than the 2nd round contest between Christina McHale and Marina Erakovic, then it's one I wish I had seen, too. McHale's 3-6, 7-6, 6-3 victory over Erakovic and her sometimes ferocious forehand was a testament to the lessons McHale has learned about staying mentally steady in a long match. It also didn't hurt that McHale--after she found her footing--was hitting with crack precision much of the time.

Erakovic began the first set of the 2-hour and 47-minute match by holding her serve, then breaking McHale. She then saved two break points and held for 3-0. Serving at 5-3, the New Zealander saved a break point and took the first set. The second set was a different story, with McHale more able to handle Erakovic's service games. McHale went up 5-2, 40-15, but just when it looked like an easy turnaround, Erakovic fought back and eventually forced a tiebreak.

McHale won the tiebreak, and then won the third set when Erakovic--though still sometimes able to hit her estimable forehand--made too many errors to overtake her opponent.

McHale hit 31 winners and made 33 unforced errors; Erakovic hit 47 winners and made 49 unforced errors. At its best moments, this was a match that featured wonderful shot-making by both players. They painted the lines over and over, and used every inch of the court.

McHale will play 13th seed Jelena Jankovic in the third round.

20th seed Daniela Hantuchova had a fight on her hands, too, against the stunningly athletic Lesia Tsurenko. It was an entertaining match in which Tsurenko never gave up, but in the end, the more experienced Hantuchova advanced, with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory.

Iveta Benesova skillfully put away 16th seed Peng Shuai in straight sets, and countrywoman Romina Oprandi upset 10th seed Francesca Schiavone in straight sets, also. Hobart champion Mona Barthel advanced to the next round with a win over Petra Cetkovska, and Victoria Azarenka, Li Na and Kim Clijsters had easy wins.

Top seed Caroline Wozniacki, however, struggled somewhat against Anna Tatishvili. Wozniacki won the first set 6-1, but Tatishvili took her to a tiebreak in the second set. Wozniacki emerged the winner, and will play Monica Niculescu in the third round.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Australian Open--what they said

Everything was coming just twice as harder than what I'm used to, twice as deep. She cleaned the lines. She played some really good tennis. I wasn't used to it.
Olivia Rogowska, who played Li Na

One game where you didn't have to move a lot was when you hit four aces in 60 seconds. Have you done that before?
I don't know. I feel like I have in some European country maybe. I don't know. But it's a great feeling. It's cool. Especially to do it at a Grand Slam, something you can't forget. That was the only good moment I had in the match, I feel.
Serena Williams

...I like this court a lot. I like to hit on this court also.
Li Na, referring to Rod Laver Arena

I think, if she can get past this match, Jankovic is very beatable.
Chris Evert, calling Christina McHale's match

Do you take much notice of rankings?
No.
Doesn't mean anything?
No.
Have you ever?
No....
Kim Clijsters

Stosur out of Australian Open in first round

The Australian Open's 6th seed, Samantha Stosur, was defeated 7-5. 6-3 Tuesday in the first round of play, by Sorana Cirstea. Cirstea exploited Stosur's obviously flustered state, and consistently dictated play as the top Australian player made repeated unforced errors. Stosur went out in the opening rounds in both Brisbane and Sydney, causing some observers to guess that she would not get very far in Melbourne. It's unlikely, though, that even they thought she wouldn't get past the opening round. Cirstea, however, is not a player anyone especially wants to see on the other side of the net in a first round, and she has now advanced to the second, in which Urszula Radwanska will get a look at her.

Australia's number 2 player, Jarmila Gajdosova, was also defeated in straight sets. Maria Kirilenko beat Gajdosova 6-4, 6-2, and the Australian proceeded to have a bit of a meltdown in her press conference. Australian Anastasia Rodionova is out, too, but Casey Dellacqua and Jelena Dokic have both advanced to the second round.

19th seed Flavia Pennetta, alas, is also out of the picture. Pennetta was defeated on the first day of play by Nina Bratchikova. Also gone are 24th seed Lucie Safarova, 28th seed Yanina Wickmayer, Irina-Camelia Begu, and perennial crowd favorite, Kimiko Date-Krumm.

Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova each played their first round matches very efficiently, losing a total of three games between them. It wasn't so easy for Vera Zvonareva, though, who had to go against the tough, but inconsistent, Alexandra Dulgheru. Zvonareva won the first set in a tiebreak, and Dulgheru won the second set in a tiebreak. At that point, they had played for 2 hours and 17 minutes. Dulgheru called for a medical time-out in the third set in order to get her feet treated, presumably for blisters. She faltered after that, then came back to life, only to be broken and lose the set 3-6.

The match lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes; I was just an observer, and I was exhausted at the end. The pair made 119 unforced errors and hit 62 winners.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Australian Open--what they said

You don't see any reason to try to maybe become 10% more conservative in your play?
I got to 24 in the world for a reason. I didn't get there by making balls.  If anybody actually ever played against me before, you would feel that I was playing about 50% usually of what I'm usually swinging at a ball. It's conservative--I mean, look at Clijsters. You think she play like that? No. She won a Grand Slam, yes. Look at Sharapova. Does she play like that? She won a Grand Slam, yes. Na Li, Kvitova, you put anyone. It's not to make balls. Only person who does it  unbelievably is Wozniacki. She makes enough balls; she doesn't miss. She's a hell of a player for it.
Jarmila Gajdosova

Somebody told me that my life has changed, and I couldn't believe it.
Petra Kvitova, on her Wimbledon win

The whole country probably hates me right now.
Sorana Cirstea

Here, it's not very bad. I have a problem when it's really humid, not hot.
Petra Kvitova, commenting on her problem with asthma

And, you know, if everybody keeps questioning, then I'm going to question my game as well. Obviously that's how it looked out there, because people keep talking about unforced errors, and I'm going to make unforced errors.  Of course. Then I stop swinging, and then you're going to miss anyway. It's not easy no matter what I'm going to do, I'm never going to do the right thing for anybody. So why to bother? You try and try, and everybody is going to say anything they want anyway.
Jarmila Gajdosova

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Australian Open--what they said

She doesn't peak mentally for the Grand Slams. That's a fact.
Chris Evert, referring to Caroline Wozniacki

I saw a picture of Serena....She is looking very fit; her stomach muscles were ridiculous.
Mary Joe Fernandez

Last year, after the French Open, I couldn't win anything; I kept going out in the first round. Now I think I'm back.
Li Na

I liked being normal. It was good.
Casey Dellacqua, on her lengthy time away from the tour

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Australian Open championship predictions

Peter Bodo--Petra Kvitova
Steve Tignor--Petra Kvitova
Brad Gilbert--Serena Williams
Darren Cahill--Victoria Azarenka
Jon Wertheim--Petra Kvitova
Richard Pagliaro--Petra Kvitova
Mary Joe Fernandez--Serena Williams
Cliff Drysdale--Petra Kvitova
Ed McGrogan--Li Na
Pam Shriver--Petra Kvitova
Greg Garber--Victoria Azarenka
Kamakshi Tandon--Kim Clijsters
Bruce Jenkins--Petra Kvitova
Simon Reed--Petra Kvitova
Ray Bowers--Petra Kvitova
Chris Evert--Li Na
Patrick McEnroe--Victoria Azarenka
Matt Wilanksky--Serena Williams

Passing shots

Melanie Oudin may have lost her first round Australian Open qualifying match against Laura Robson, but she saved nine match points, which is worth mentioning.

Li Na is once again exhorting her countrywomen and -men to stop coaching her from the stands. "Maybe they think I'm stupid so they coach me," she said. Li has complained more than once about Chinese fans shouting at her from the stands.

I've mentioned Ingrid Neel before. Here is an update on the 13-year-old's training.

Time for the drinking game.

Vera Zvonareva has changed from K-Swiss to Fila.

Qualifiers set for Australian Open

The following players have qualified for the main draw of the Australian Open:

Laura Robson
Irina Pavlovic
Andrea Hlavackova
Stephanie Voegele
Alison Riske
Maria Joao Koehler
Paula Ormaechea
Nina Bratchikova
Valeria Savinykh
Chang Kai-Chen
Varvara Lepchenko
Jamie Hampton

Barthel wins her first title in style

To go through qualifying, then take out the 2nd, 4th and 5th seeds, then beat the top seed in the final with two aces at the end is the sort of thing that deserves to be called a "dream run." For Mona Barthel, the new Hobart champion, it was also the dramatic run to her first WTA title.

Barthel, seeded 2nd in the qualifying draw, had to win three rounds before she could enter the main draw. She then defeated qualifier Romina Oprandi, 2nd seed Anabel Medina Garrigues, 5th seed Jarmila Gajdosova, and 4th seed Angelique Kerber, before taking out 1st seed Yanina Wickmayer 6-1, 6-2.

4th seeds Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu won the doubles title, defeating 3rd seeds Chuang Chia-Jung and Marina Erakovic 6-7, 7-6, 10-5.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Azarenka wins Sydney title

3rd seed Victoria Azarenka has won the 2012 Apia International Sydney title. Azarenka defeated 4th seed Li Na 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 in the final, making almost half the unforced errors made by her opponent. This is Azarenka's ninth title (her fifth premier title), and her first title using her new Wilson racquet.

Top seeds Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik took the doubles title, defeating 2nd seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond 6-1, 4-6, 13-11.

In Hobart, top seed Yanina Wickmayer advanced to the final with a 7-6, 6-3 win over Shahar Peer. Her opponent in the final will be Mona Barthel, who defeated Angelique Kerber 6-0, 7-6. Barthel is unseeded at the event.

Chuang Chia-Jung and Marina Erakovic advanced to the doubles final, and will play for the title against Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu.

Friday cat blogging--friendship edition

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Li defeats Kvitova and advances to Sydney final

If you got mixed up yesterday, and thought Sydney was Paris, don't worry--Petra Kvitova probably did, too. Because, just like at the French Open, Kvitova let go of a third set lead against Li Na, and lost the match, only this time, it was a semifinal.

For a set and a half, the defending champion was at Kvitova's mercy, and there wasn't much of it. Kvitova could just about do no wrong, and Li--though she had the right ideas--made a lot of errors and squandered a lot of opportunities. But then the Czech's level came down a bit, and she appeared more flustered than concerned. Li saw that little crack, and she straightened herself out and drove right through it.

Kvitova had taken the first set 6-1 and Li took the second, 7-5. And while Kvitova continued to look unraveled in the third set, she, too, pulled herself together, and went up 3-1. But Li made her run--a lot--and pinned her to the corners. Movement isn't Kvitova's strong suit, and now, both her speed and footwork were being exploited by the force of Li's momentum. Throughout the second half of the match, we saw Kvitova throw her racquet twice. She won only two games in the final set. She looked disgusted. This was not the Cool Czech of recent tennis history.

What happened? Only Kvitova knows, and she may  not be clear about it, herself. When Li gets switched on, however, she can do a lot of damage. Was the French Open match being viewed in Kvitova's head? Was the looming top ranking creating too much pressure? Or was it all of the above?

Li will try to win consecutive Sydney championships when she plays Victoria Azarenka in the final. Azarenka defeated Agnieszka Radwanska 1-6, 6-3, 6-2. I didn't see the match, but there seems to be agreement that Radwanska showed quite a bit of fatigue as the match wore on. Here's hoping she feels fresh for her Melbourne competition.

In the doubles semifinals, top seeds Kveta Peshke and Katarina Srebotnik ended the impressive run of Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears, 6-7, 6-3, 10-5. Their opponents in the final will be 2nd seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond, who defeated Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova 7-6, 6-4.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Staggering toward Melbourne

It would be nice if the first major of the season featured a draw of healthy players, but sadly, that isn't the reality of the situation. Andrea Petkovic (stress fracture in back) and Venus Williams (complications of Sjogren's Synrome) have withdrawn from the tournament, and other players--Serena Williams (ankle), Kim Clijsters (thigh muscle spasm), Maria Sharapova (ankle), Sabine Lisicki (back) Flavia Pennetta (back), and Caroline Wozniacki (wrist)--have already sustained injuries. Julia Goerges has been sick lately, Svetlana Kuznetsova was brought down by heat illness, and Petra Kvitova--because of her asthma--is vulnerable in humid conditions.

Williams and Sharapova are reported to be doing well. Sharapova, of course, could have used some more match play. Pennetta has been playing doubles, which could indicate that she's okay, too, or maybe she's overdoing it. Clijsters, the defending champion, says she's ready to play.

Now that the Australian Open court surfaces are safer, the players aren't quite as vulnerable as they used to be in Melbourne. The heat can be overwhelming, however, and adds another element of physical stress.

Not all of the fitness issues are physical. Sam Stosur, Australia's number 1 player, has already crashed out in her initial rounds of both Brisbane and Sydney. She lost to Iveta Benesova and to friendly nemesis Francesca Schiavone. And while there's no shame in losing to either of those players, this is the 2011 U.S. Open champion warming up for her country's big tournament--and it just doesn't look too good for her. Stosur, though, is nothing if not umpredictable, so we'll all have to wait and see how she does.

Quote of the week

"...For the husband, he always doing good job. For a coach, yeah, sometimes I feeling he was doing good, but sometimes I feeling he was doing some stupid thing. But if I can't win the match, I have to listen to what he say."
Li Na

Semifinals set in Sydney

2011 Sydney champion Li Na will play world 2nd seed Petra Kvitova in the Sydney semifinals on Friday. Li, seeded 4trh, defeated quarterfinal opponent Lucie Safarova in straight sets, and Kvitova defeated Daniela Hantuchova, also in straight sets.

In the other semifinal, 7th seed Agnieszka Radwanska will take on 3rd seed Victoria Azarenka. Radwanska defeated top seed Caroline Wozniacki, and Azarenka defeated 8th seed Marion Bartoli. Wozniacki has a wrist injury, and we should get more news about that soon.

In doubles, seeds 1, 2 and 4 are into the semifinals, as is the unseeded team of Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears.

It's been raining a lot in Hobart, so play has been delayed several times. U.S. Open semifinalist Angelique Kerbe has reached the quarterfinals, as have top seed Yanina Wickmayer and Anna Chakvetadze. Chakvetadze will play Shahar Peer on Friday. 2nd seed Anabel Medina Garrigues was upset by Mona Barthel in the second round.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Passing shots

Bojana Jovanovski was recently involved in a motor vehicle accident, but was not hurt. The courtesy car in which Jovanovski was riding to the Sydney International Airport was hit by a car whose driver ran a red light. Witnesses say the Serbian player was rather shaken by the accident, in which a man was trapped and later taken to a hospital.

Serena Williams is practicing in Melbourne, preparing for the Australian Open. Williams is one of several players on the tour to face injury or illness at the beginning of the season. She sprained her ankle, but appears to be fine.

I reported a couple of days ago that Sofia Arvidsson and Alexandra Dulgheru had to play each other twice in Sydney. Arvidsson beat Dulgheru in qualifying, but then Dulgheru got into the main draw as a lucky loser, and defeated Arvidsson in the first round. That wasn't the end of it, however: the two also had to play each other in doubles in the first round (Arvidsson and Jelena Dokic defeated Dulgheru and Michaella Krajicek. Though players have met twice in one tournament before, I wonder if there's another pair who met three times in one event!

Victoria Azarenka is no longer playing with a Head racquet. The world's number 3 player has changed to Wilson. She'll have a Juice 100 BLX in Melbourne.

Here is a photo of Agnieszka Radwanska, from a photo shoot for a Polish style website.

Mike Tierney writes about Grace Min.

Petkovic withdraws from Australian Open

World number 10 Andrea Petkovic has withdrawn from the 2012 Australian Open. Petkovic has a stress fracture in her lower back, and her doctors say that it will take six to eight weeks for her to recover. She has been in pain since the season began, but says that she thought she could just play through the pain and be fine to compete in Melbourne.

Last year, the German star, seeded 30th, reached the quarterfinals, but was defeated by eventual runner-up Li Na.