Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Passing shots

The Delray Beach Tennis Center in Delray Beach, Florida will be the site of the Fed Cup World Group playoff between the USA and Sweden April 20-21.

For the first time, the U.S. Open Series events are coordinating their ticket sales. As part of the U.S. Open Series marketing effort, Sloane Stephens will do a satellite media tour.

Top seed Caroline Wozniacki was upset today in the first round of the Malaysian Open. Wang Qiang defeated Wozniacki 2-6, 7-6, 6-1. Wang saved a match point in the second set.

The following players have received wild cards into the Indian Wells main draw: Kimiko Date-Krumm, Madison Keys, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Maria Sanchez, Melanie Oudin, Taylor Townsend, Shahar Peer, and Kristina Mladenovic.

'Pova made an appearance at the Vanity Fair Oscar party.

With apologies to William Shakespeare.....

The Prince of Denmark

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Five former champions to compete in Charleston

Serena Williams (2012, 2008), Samantha Stosur (2010), Sabine Lisicki (2009), Jelena Jankovic (2007), and Venus Williams (2004)--all former Family Circle Cup champions--will compete in the 2013 event, which begins March 30 and runs through April 7. 28 nations will be represented in the main draw, which is filled with many of the WTA's biggest stars, in addition to several up-and-coming players who have gotten a great deal of attention in the last several months.

World number 1 Serena Williams leads the field, which also includes 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani, 2010 French Open champion (and 2011 finalist) Francesca Schiavone, 2012 Charleston finalist Lucie Safarova, 2011 Charleston finalist Elena Vesnina, and popular tour veteran Daniela Hantuchova.

Heather Watson is returning, and her countrywoman, Laura Robson, will be making her Charleston debut this year. Other young WTA stars and potential stars in the main draw include Sloane Stephens, 2013 Paris indoor champion Mona Barthel, Kristina Mladenovic, Ksenia Pervak, and Madison Keys. The main draw also includes Yaroslava Shvedova, Julia Goerges, Carla Suarez Navarro, Christina McHale, and Varvara Lepchenko.

Four wild cards will be added to the draw at a later date. Qualifying will take place March 30 and 31.

The Family Circle Cup is the largest women's-only tennis tournament in the world, and is the only tournament played on green clay. The event has a very rich history; Family Circle is the longest-running title sponsor in professional tennis, and has a unique partnership with the city of Charleston.

The tournament is held at the Family Circle Cup Tennis Center on Daniel Island. The fans who attend are generally very knowledgeable about women's tennis, and show a lot of enthusiasm for and appreciation of the players.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Erakovic wins Memphis title when--surprise!--Lisicki retires

Yesterday, I was thinking about how I'd been wrong in assuming that Sabine Lisicki, the top seed in Memphis, would retire at some point during the tournament. Rather, she advanced to the final. But there was still time! And yes, the fragile German player retired after her first set against Marina Erakovic. Erakovic, who won the opening set 6-1, is now the first New Zealander to win a WTA title in 24 years.

Lisicki had to stop playing because of a gastrointestinal illness. And that is a shame--for both players and for fans--but if it hadn't been that, it would have been something else.

Lisicki struggles with what we once might have called the Bartoli/Azarenka Syndrome; she retires from matches on a regular basis, and for a variety of reasons. Chronic retiring can be caused by many things--poor fitness and over-training come to mind. But there has to be a story behind the story. Poor fitness? Get a new physio. Training too much? Cut down. Weak immune system? Find a good health practitioner.

No, there's something else behind chronic retiring, and that something is undoubtedly an unconscious issue that prevents a player from competing at her highest potential. I think that much more attention should be paid to the psychological processes that motivate players to do what they do. Lisicki, for example, has a lot of talent, but she is unable to gain momentum because of her constant illnesses and injuries.

Kristina Mladenovic and Galina Voskoboeva won the Memphis doubles title. In the final, they defeated Sofia Arvidwsson and Johanna Larsson 7-6, 6-3.

In Bogota, top seed Jelena Jankovic won the championship today by defeating Paula Ormaechea 6-1, 6-2. The Bogota title is Jankovic's 13th.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Players who inspire

For many years, I've been inspired by some of the stories on both the ATP and WTA tours. Players like Tommy Haas, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Brian Baker are players who remind us that great difficulties--from big injuries and illness to being dismissed as "not a contender"--can be overcome.

On the WTA tour, there have been, and still are many, inspiring women. Billie Jean King risked her entire career, and lost several so-called ATP friendships, when she led the movement that established the WTA. Martina Navratilova defected from her country, thought she would never see her family again, and lived in fear for many years. Jennifer Capriati, whose time had supposedly "passed," returned to the tour after experiencing some rough adolescent years, and won three majors.

Jana Novotna inspired by overcoming what some consider the biggest choke of all time, and winning Wimbledon. Kim Clijsters' body was so beaten up by tennis, she retired, had a baby, then gave it another go. In her second career, Clijsters won three majors.

Jelena Dokic inspired simply by pushing her way through a wall of abuse and horror, and emerging with grace and dignity. And then there was Monica Seles, who lived in a hell created by a number of factors, including lax security. Seles, after being stabbed while playing in a match, came back two years later and won the Australian Open.

If you're looking for inspiration, it's still there. It's there in the form of Li Na, who Ieft the tour for a couple of years, then returned and faced down her country's tradition of controlling athletes' professional lives and denying them much of their prize money. She changed Chinese tennis forever. Li then sustained a number of serious injuries, only to bound back at an "advanced" age and win the French Open and to become a two-time Australian Open finalist. She also became one of the sport's most beloved figures because of  her candor and delicious sense of humor.

It's there in the form of Venus Williams, who suffered for seven years from an undiagnosed illness (which, by the way, even though I'm a mental health professional, I could have diagnosed with relative ease--her symptoms were textbook obvious). A series of doctors told Williams everything from "it's a mystery" to "it's in your head." She was so tired, she could hardly play, but she kept going, and had, she said, "only my will" to allow her to carry on. Williams finally received appropriate treatment, and is back on the tour, doing well, and winning big doubles titles.

I know we like to give Sam Stosur a hard time, but she, too, was smacked down with a double illness, suffered extreme fatigue for a long time, but came back to reach the final of the French Open, and eventually, to win the U.S. Open.

Let's not forget Maria Sharapova, whose doctors somehow failed to notice a tear in her rotator cuff. Sharapova continued to play, which did more damage to her shoulder. She had surgery, went through rehab, then had to go through rehab a second time. She returned to the tour with reduced confidence and all kinds of problems with her serve, which had been such a great strength before she was injured. 

We kept hearing that "no one" is ever the same again after rotator cuff surgery, and that the Russian's great days were over, but Sharapova went on to complete a Career Slam when she won the French Open in 2012. Sharapova, it turns out, is "someone," but some of us already knew that.

Flavia Pennetta, one of the great Fighting Italians, decided to pay a surprise visit to her then-fiance several years ago, only she was the one who got the surprise. She found him with another woman, and eventually turned her very public emotional pain into a very strong will to compete at the highest level she could. And despite having several injuries, Pennetta's life lesson helped to make an already impressive career even greater.

Pennetta's friend, Francesca Schiavone, used to get to finals and then lose them. She did this over and over. But in 2010, when her opponent was considered a "lock" (well, not by all of us) to win the French Open, Schiavone--now armed with total belief in herself--took home La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in what I think may have been the greatest ending to a French Open of all time.

We don't have to go very far back for inspiration: there's Vika Azarenka's 2013 Australian Open victory. Works for me.

Still looking for inspiration? Gentle Reader, I give you Serena Williams. Williams has had to put up with a barrage of racist and sexist insults hurled at her for years, as well as constant accusations that she "must be" a doper. Her biggest challenge, however, came in 2010 when a bottle thrown by a drunken football fan cut her foot and she had to have surgery. What followed was a second surgery, and then a hematoma, Williams developed a pulmonary embolism and could have very well died. She was off of the tour for months, and she wasn't young anymore (in tennis terms).

Her response? She returned to the tour and not-so-slowly got back her form. In  the second half of 2012, she did what no one had ever done before: She won Wimbledon, an Olympic gold medal (two, actually--she and Venus won doubles gold), the U.S. Open, and the WTA Championships--just like that. Anyone who pulled that off would be an extraordinary tennis professional, but Williams did it after going through a physical and mental challenge that might have taken the bite out of many other players, and caused them to retire from the sport.

Well, you might be thinking, if I had their money, I might have  more strength and courage, too. People with money can get a lot more help. Yes--and no. For all of her wealth, Venus Williams couldn't find a doctor who knew anything about autoimmune disease. Maria Sharapova's "expert" doctors couldn't diagnose a serious rotator cuff tear. Money helps, to be sure, but it can't buy inner strength, it can't buy courage, it can't buy belief Apparently, it can't even buy competent medical help.

I think that we like to watch tennis because it's such a complex and beautiful game. But I think we also like to watch it because it's an individual sport, and each player must ultimately be in charge of herself. An individual sport like tennis provides every imaginable metaphor for the challenges of living that affect you and me the same as they affect a Serena Williams or a Maria Sharapova. We all lose belief, we all want to give up, we all think we aren't good enough. Venus and Serena, Flavia and Francesca, Vika and Maria, Sam Stosur, Big Sister Na....they are star athletes, yes, but they are also teachers.

We may not connect our feelings of determination to the memory of seeing Maria Sharapova's joy over winning the French Open. We may not ask "What would Serena do?" But we are influenced by the strength of these athletes. And so we, too, become teachers.

Passing shots

Barbora Zahlavova Strycova has been placed on a 6-month ban because of the presence of the stimulant, sibutramine, in one of her samples. Sibutramine is on the list of banned substances. The Czech player said that her use of Acai Berry Thin accounts for the sibutramine in her system; the ITF has accepted this explanation as legitimate. The ban is retroactive to October 21, 2012, and Zahlavova loses all ranking points she has earned since that date. She also must pay back prize money.

Red carpet material not.

Here is Steve Tignor's tribute to Esther Vergeer.

Rebecca Marino has stepped away from pro tennis again, and this time, she sounds serious about it. The WTA website made a point of avoiding the issues involved, but the young Canadian was candid about the effect that suffering from depression has had on her. She also said that the meanness directed at her in social media took its toll.

How beautiful is the Dubai trophy?

New rules!

Lisicki and Erakovic to play for Memphis title

3rd seed Sabine Lisicki defeated former Memphis champion Magdalena Rybarikova today and advanced to the Memphis final. Marina Erakovic will be Lisicki's opponent; Erakovic beat Stefanie Voegele in the semifinals.

In Bogota, top seed Jelena Jankovic advanced to the final today by defeating Karin Knapp 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. Also advancing to the final was Paula Ormaechea, who beat Teliana Pereira.

The doubles championship was won today by 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Mandy Minella. Babos and Minella defeated top seeds Eva Birnerova and Alexandra Panova.

Kvitova wins 10th title

That sudden blast of air you felt earlier today was the collective sigh of relief exhaled by fans of Czech star Petra Kvitova--and perhaps by fans of the WTA in general. Finally getting herself on track, Kvitova won the Dubai title, beating Sara Errani 6-2, 1-6, 6-1 in the final. Yes, it's an odd scoreline, but this is Petra--what do you want?

Kvitova did "go off," as she is inclined to do, in the second set, but that wasn't the only chapter in the story. Errani, realizing she might not be around much longer, went all Italian on Kvitova in the second set, throwing everything she could think of at her--serve and volley, chip and charge, drop volley--the whole playbook. It worked, too. The tall Czech appeared flummoxed as her small Italian opponent kept moving forward, moving forward, and effectively taking away Kvitova's advantage.

The third set featured an appearance by first-set Kvitova, who ran her total of winners up to 46 (with 36 unforced errors). The news wasn't all good, however. She double-faulted eight times, and failed to diaplay the volleying brilliance we saw from her earlier in the tournament.

But enough nit-picking. Here's something very significant: Kvitova won the tournament in spite of her coach being absent. So some might say. I'm going to go with my gut, though, and say she won it because he wasn't there. Call it an "intuition." Call it an educated guess.

After the second set, the talented Czech didn't look too good, but she pulled herself together, and her self rewarded her. Something to think about, WTA.

One final thing....I'm posting this from my iPad, and somehow the annoying auto-correct function got turned on. As a result, the third sentence originally read "'s an odd shoreline...." I kind of like that (auto-correct is a goldmine of metaphorical and Freudian slip-type things). For Kvitova, the tide went out, and then it rolled back, almost suddenly, with great force. Can it carry her all the way to California?

There was another final in Dubai today. Unseeded Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sania Mirza won the doubles title, defeating 2nd seeds Katarina Srebotnik and Nadia Petrova 6-4, 2-6, 10-7. That second set was the only set Mattek-Sand and Mirza dropped during the tournament.

I miss the Mirza-Vesnina pairing, but in doubles, how well a team does appears to be only loosely related to whether that team continues to exist.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Kvitova and Errani to view for Dubai title

The rumors of Sara Errani's 2013 demise have, so far, proven to be unfounded. The currently hot Fighting Italian made it to the final of the Paris indoor tournament, and lost in a close match to Mona Barthel. Now Errani has made it to the Dubai final, in which she will face Petra Kvitova. Tennis is sometimes so topsy-turvy that it's actually more of a surprise (and a very nice one!) that Kvitova is in the final.

Errani beat her friend and doubles partner, Roberta Vinci, in today's semifinal match. Vinci had a great run in Dubai, however.

And who was that woman serving so well, repeatedly hitting stunning winners, and putting on a volleying clinic? Oh, that was Petra Kvitova. You remember her. The "old" Kvitova made a return in Doha and Dubai, which is a relief to many (and, no doubt, especially to Kvitova). Today, she beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, and will play Errani in the Dubai final.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sania Mirza will play 2nd seeds Katarina Srebotnik and Nadia Petrova in the doubles final.

Sabine Lisicki and Marina Erakovic will contest the Memphis final.

Karen Knapp, Paula Ormaechea, Jelena Jankovic, and Teliana Pereira have advanced to the semifinals in Bogota.

Errani and Vinci to face off in Dubai semifinals

Roberta Vinci is having quite a run in Dubai. First she took out 5th seed Angelique Kerber in straight sets, and today she did the same with 7th seed Sam Stosur. In fact, Vinci began her Dubai run by defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets, too.

Vinci's victory today will force her to face off in the semifinals against--of all people--Sara Errani, who is her doubles partner and close friend. They had to play each other at the 2012 U.S. Open, and Vinci was  clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Perhaps she'll be a bit more at ease tomorrow.

Errani, despite winning no games in the second set, beat Nadia Petrova in the quarterfinals.

Also winning today was Petra Kvitova, who defeated defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-4, and made it look easy. And in a match of great intensity, Caroline Wozniacki defeated Marion Bartoli (nearly always linked to "great intensity") 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. There were 14 breaks of serve, and Bartoli double-faulted 14 times. The third set had a bit of everything in it. Bartoli put up a tremendous fight, breaking Wozniacki at love when the Dane served for the match at 5-3. To top it off, the chair umpire handed Wozniacki a coaching violation because of her coach's continuing unprofessional behavior in the stands.

The best part, though, was that Bartoli was so fed up with Piotr Wozniacki that it motivated her to start hitting crazy winners, after which she would turn, look him straight in the eye, and fist-pump. It was a hilarious reminder of why I love to watch Bartoli, whether she's jumping up and down on the court, wildly shadow-hitting, or throwing her parents out of the stands at Wimbledon.

Yesterday, Serena Williams withdrew from Dubai because of a back injury. The withdrawal of both Williams and Azarenka has caused a bit of a stir in the tennis world, especially since there was a decent chance that they would meet in the final.

In doubles, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sania Mirza defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova, and Cara Black and Anastasia Rodionova defeated Lisa Raymond and Sam Stosur. Also advancing in doubles were Nuria Llagostera Vives and Zheng Jie, and 2nd seeds Katarina Srebotnik and Nadia Petrova.

In the Memphis quarterfinals, Sabine Lisicki beat Kristina Mladenovic, Stefanie Voegele defeated Heather Watson, Marina Erakovic defeated Jamie Hampton, and top seed Kirsten Flipkens was knocked out by Magdalena Rybarikova.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Barthel, Errani and Stephens enter Family Circle Cup

Mona Barthel, Sara Errani and Sloane Stephens will all play in Charleston this year. Barthel, who recently won the Paris indoor tournament, is one of Germany's most promising players. This will be her first time to play in Charleston.

Errani, a member of the world's top doubles team (with Roberta Vinci), is ranked number 7 in the world. A clay expert, the Italian player has played in the Family Circle Cup in the past. Errani was the runner-up at the 2012 French Open, and had a stunning run on her way, taking out two former French Open champions, a French Open finalist, and Angelique Kerber. She was also a semifinalist at the 2012 U.S. Open.

Popular young American player Sloane Stephens has also entered the Charleston tournament. She joins 2004 champion Venus Williams, 2010 champion Samantha Stosur, and Serena Williams, who won the tournament in 2009 and 2012.

Qualifying begins on March 30, and main draw play begins on April 1. Single session tickets and packages are available here.

The Family Circle Cup is the largest women's-only tennis tournament in the world.

Draw opens in Dubai

Victoria Azarenka withdrew from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships today, citing a bone bruise in her right foot. With Azarenka out, the landscape changes a bit. There won't be another Azarenka-Williams final, for one thing. Additionally, it gives Sara Errani, Angeique Kerber and (theoretically) Sam Stosur some breathing room in the top half of the draw.

Stosur beat Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets (6-3, 6-1) today, which surprised me.

Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska is headed toward a face-off with Petra Kvitova (assuming Kvitova maintains her Doha form). And if she can get past Kvitova, she's ultimately headed toward a contest with Serena Williams. That's a lot of defending.

I obviously put a hoodoo on Sloane Stephens, Varvara Lepchenko and Laura Robson. Stephens really felt the effect of it, losing her first round match against Sorana Cirstea, despite serving twice for the match and holding four match points. Lepchenko lost in the first round to a tough opponent, Hsieh Su-Wei, and wild card Robson lost to wild card Yukia Putintseva.

In Memphis, Magdalena Rybarikova and Jamie Hampton have both advanced to the quarerfinals. Rybarikova won the tournament in 2011.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dubai--the draw from hell

Heads will roll in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Play begins tomorrow, and check out some of the first round matches:

Dominika Cibulkova vs. Nadia Petrova
Julia Goerges vs. Sara Errani
Ekaterina Makarova vs. Samantha Stosur
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Ana Ivanovic
Caroline Wozniacki vs. Lucie Safarova
Marion Bartoli vs. Klara Zakopalova

The top four seeds are Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Angelique Kerber. Radwanska is the defending champion. The top seeds have byes in the first round. In the second round, Doha champion Azarenka will get the winner of the Cibulkova-Petrova match. Azarenka is headed Kerber's way in the draw, though Kerber has her work cut out for her, with players like Petra Kvitova and Ekaterina Makarova (or Stosur) in her quarter.

Williams is set to clash with Radwanska, if things go as "planned," and there could be another Azarenka-Williams final. Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson and Varvara Lepchenko are all playing in Dubai, and any of them could pull an upset. Lepchenko has a tough first round against Hsieh Su-Wei, however, and if she wins that, she has to face either Makarova or Stosur (I'm doing my best not to say "she has to face Makarova").

Arrubabarrena-Vecino wins Cali title

2nd seed Lara Arrubabarrena-Vecino won the WTA 125K Copa Bionaire in Cali, Colombia today. Arrubabarrena-Vecino defeated local favorite Catalina Castano 6-3, 6-2. Castano entered the tournament as a wild card.

Arrubabarrena-Vecino won the Bogota tournament, a WTA internationa event, last year.

Castano and her partner, Mariana Duque-Marino, won the doubles title by defeating Florencia Molinero and Teliana Pereira 3-6, 6-1, 10-5 in the final.

Azarenka defeats Williams, wins Doha

The WTA called it a "dream final," and for Victoria Azarenka, it was probably a dream come true. The world number 1 (well, at least until tomorrow) defeated her tennis nemesis, Serena Williams, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 in the final of the Qatar Total Open in Doha. Azarenka is now 2-11 against Williams, who will become the world number 1 when the rankings are published tomorrow.

Azarenka had to save a set point in the first set tiebreak, and when she won that tiebreak, it was hard not to think about the fact that--71 consecutive times, after winning the first set--Azarenka has won the match. That's quite a statistic. The top seed's serve abandoned her in the second set, however, and she was broken fairly easily by Williams, who won the set 6-2.

The third set was a test of Azarenka's mental strength. She was a bit shaky as she served the first game, but then something clicked into place, and the next thing you knew, she was up 3-0. That had to make her feel good, but she wasn't facing just anyone--she was playing Serena Williams. No worries, though. Azarenka went up 5-2, though Williams held for 3-5. Azarenka's final service game was smooth and easy, and she can now add Doha to her list of titles.

Williams was clearly what we would call "out of sorts" in this match, which lasted almost 2 1/2 hours. The new world number 1's only true weakness is her footwork, and when she's having an o.o.s. day, it becomes a major problem. By contrast, Azarenka's footwork was admirable, and her retrieving was nothing short of brilliant. This match was very enjoyable to watch, largely because of Azarenka's relentless return game.

Once again, commentators failed to pronounce the name of the country in which they were broadcasting, sometimes even mispronouncing it two different ways (both incorrect) in the same sentence.

And that brings me to a discussion I watched (well, I watched part of it) on Tennis Channel yesterday. A group of experts moaned about the good old days when the Williams sisters were at the top of the tour, or when Martina Hingis ruled. Their reason? Those players were well known by fans, and today's top players aren't. Well, whose fault is that? With the exception of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the media machine has pretty much ignored the WTA's top players--except to launch constant attacks on Azarenka. The WTA doesn't seem to care about this situation, and perhaps it's just as well, because a strong marketing effort to promote female athletes always means a strong effort to promote sexism and misogyny.

Play begins in Dubai tomorrow. If Azarenka gets to the final, she can be world number 1 again. That is, unless Williams gets to the final, too. In that case, Azarenka would have to beat Williams again in order to take the top ranking back.

Errani and Vinci win Doha title

Despite going down 0-4 in the third set tiebreak, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the Doha championship today when they defeated Nadia Petrova and Katarina Srebotnik 2-6, 6-3, 10-6. The world's number 1 doubles team has now won 14 straight matches. Errani and Vinci won the Australian Open and the Paris indoor tournament.

The champions were the top seeds in Doha, and Petrova and Srebotnik were seeded second.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Doha final exactly what we expected

Sometimes you're just too busy to post on your blog, and then--when you finally get the time--you realize it's time to get ready to go to the roller derby! The home team, the Lethal Ladies, lost, but with names like Misfortune Cookie and Paranormal Smacktivity, how can you go wrong?

I don't feel too bad about not posting, however, because it's hardly a surprise that Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are in the final. It was pretty much a given; the semifinals were predictable and not that interesting. Williams smacked Maria Sharapova down for the tenth time, and Azarenka delivered yet another loss to Agnieszka Radwanska. It's worth noting, however, that in the second set, Radwanska--who realized she was on her way out--actually moved in and became more aggressive, slowing down Azarenka's momentum a bit.

Both players won in straight sets, and will meet for the first time since the 2012 U.S. Open final. They were supposed to have played each other in Brisbane, but Azarenka withdrew because of a toe infection.

Azarenka is the defending champion; this is Williams' first time to participate in the Doha tournament. And speaking of lethal ladies, Williams' serving was spot-on yet again today. She was in fine form, and didn't seem to be bothered by the flu that has troubled her this week.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Memo from Serena: Respect your elders

On Monday, when the rankings come out, Serena Williams will be the world number 1 for the sixth time in her extraordinary career. She will also be the oldest player to reach the top spot in the history of the WTA ranking system. (In 1985, Chris Evert was ranked number 1 when she was not quite 31.)

Williams had to win her Doha quarterfinal to get to the top ranking, and it wasn't that easy for her to do. She has the flu, and wasn't feeling that well today. And she had to face Petra Kvitova, who--since she's been in Doha--has looked like....well, like Petra Kvitova. The Czech star got her mojo back in Doha. She played a beautiful set against an in-form but too-dizzy-to-continue Ekaterina Makarova, and today, she took her first set ever off of "The Serena."

In the first set, Kvitova's serve and forehand were simply on fire, and though her opponent wasn't feeling well, it would be an injustice to slight Kvitova in any way. After she broke Williams to go up 4-2, she held at love. Williams saved two set points on her serve, but Kvitova won the set 6-3 on her own serve.

Both of these players are great servers and great retrievers (Kvitova's defensive game has improved over the years, and when she's using her head, she produces some fine defense). Also, Kvitova's volleys were spot-on. But who wants to deal with a sick and injured Serena Williams? That's even worse than dealing with a healthy Serena Williams. The one thing Williams does exceptionally well, no matter what (well, except when her back locks at the Australian Open), is serve. Kvitova has a great, and tricky, service game, but it isn't as reliable as Williams' service game. Williams practically willed herself to win the second set 6-3.

The third set was a true thriller. Kvitova went up 4-1, but anyone who watches a lot of tennis knows that 4-1 is a very deceptive scoreline. It often looks better than it really is. Williams fought her way to 4-all, then broke Kvitova at 5-all. And this was when Kvitova stopped looking really "2011"--she pulled back, she looked vulnerable. And before you could say "Who has the best service game in the history of women's tennis?" Williams took the set 7-5.

There are many times when one is led to say "This is the best I've ever seen Serena serve." Who knows what the "best" is (though it can undoubtedly be found at Wimbledon)? But today, when she wasn't feeling that well, and she really, really needed her serve, she brought it. All in all, it was a great match. Kvitova looked so switched on, and it was a pleasure to see that. Though she lost, Kvitova should take away some solid confidence from this match; she performed very well indeed.

Williams cried during her post-match interview. Today's match was exceptional by any standard, but considering Williams' history, it was a truly remarkable moment. Williams knocked Victoria Azarenka out of the top spot. However, Azarenka also advanced to the semifinals, after beating Sara Errani in straight sets.

I am outraged by the Tennis TV (later shown on The Tennis Channel) commentators. When a point was contested by Errani and the umpire (the same one who sat spinelessly while the Wozniacki clan acted out), revealed that she "couldn't remember" where a ball landed, she called on Azarenka to help her out. First, I find that really inappropriate; it isn't Azarenka's job to call the match. And if anyone else in the WTA or the ATP had been in her position, the commentators would have rushed to say "That's not her job!" But because it was Azarenka, there was "discussion" over whether the Australian Open champion did the "right" thing when she declared she couldn't answer the question.

Is there no end to the (sometimes veiled, but obvious to anyone who keeps up) hostility toward Azarenka? Will she ever stop being punished for having a personality that doesn't conform to the standards imposed on WTA players? Will the sports media ever stop and think, or just continue to perpetuate the myth of "bad Vika"? "Strong is beautiful"--right.

Probably to no one's surprise, Maria Sharapova beat Sam Stosur in straight sets. Agnieszka Radwanska beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets, too, which means that the top four seeds will play in the semifinals. But the results of the semifinal draw are predictable. Azarenka owns Radwanska, and if the Polish star were to win, it would be really big WTA news. And then there's the other semifinal: Sharapova hasn't beaten Williams since 2004.

Of course, there's always the possibility that Williams' flu will get worse, and that even she won't be able to rise above illness. That scenario would most likely put Sharapova against Azarenka in the final, and--in the words of Azarenka--good luck with that. The Belarusian player has been dominant over Sharapova for a while.

In doubles, all of the remaining seeded teams won today. Top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the hard way, however: They defeated Daniela Hantuchova and Anabel Medina Garrigues 6-3, 4-6, 13-11.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Wozniacki advances in Doha, but not without drama

The "old" Mona Barthel showed up today in Doha to compete against Caroline Wozniacki,. Barthel waw carelessly hitting the ball, and appeared to put insufficient thought into making her shots. She made repeated forehand errors. Wozniacki defeated her 7-6, 6-3.

The match, unfortunately, will be remembered more for the antics of some people rather than the tennis. Wozniacki's supporters were constantly calling balls out, and the chair umpire made no effort at all to get them to change their behavior. At one point--when a second serve by Barthel was called out by someone in the crowd, and the umpire correctly called it good (it was break point)--Wozniacki argued with the umpire, who had (correctly) given Barthel the point. Then Wozniacki's coach/father, Piotr, began to argue with the umpire from the stands. A member of the security staff approached him and spoke to him. It would seem that Wozniacki (the father) would have been asked to leave, but he was permitted to stay.

After this unpleasant interlude, the umpire reversed herself and called for a replay of the point. Barthel never said a word, and she did win the replayed point. But the whole thing was way too much drama, and the chair umpire didn't display much authority. As for Wozniacki--she can't get through a match without having a big argument with the umpire.

Petra Kvitova beat Nadia Petrova 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Sam Stosur beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, and top seed Victoria Azarenka beat Christina McHale 6-0, 6-0. Ouch.

Also advancing were Maria Sharapova, Sara Errani, Serena Williams, and Agnieszka Radwanska. In doubles, the reunited team of Lisa Raymond and Sam Stosur advanced to the third round.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Vergeer retires from professional tennis

Yesterday, Esther Vergeer announced her retirement from professional tennis. I kind of thought this might be coming, after she mysteriously didn't show up for the Australian Open. Vergeer's career spanned 18 years, and was remarkable. Unbeaten since 2003, the world's top female wheelchair player won 470 consecutive matches in the last decade. She is the holder of 169 titles, including 21 (plus 23 in doubles) Grand Slam tournaments. She was also awarded four gold medals in the Paralympic Games, as well as three gold medals in Paralympic doubles. The Dutch star with the big groundstrokes held the number 1 spot for 688 weeks.

Vergeer became paraplegic after she had surgery on her spine when she was eight years old. She first became active in sports as a basketball player, but then changed to tennis.

Vergeer's autobiography was also released yesterday. The foreward was written by Roger Federer, who described her as an "astonishing athlete."

It's hard to imagine that anyone else will ever come close to retiring with a record like Vergeer's. The 31-year-old star, in announcing her retirement, said: "I'm hugely proud of my performances, and can look back on my career with a great feeling. Keeping going would not add anything."

That's true, but professional tennis won't be the same without her.

A good thing ends too soon

Ekaterina Makarova wasn't feeling well before her Doha match against Petra Kvitova, but she played. She played really, really well, as did Kvitova, who actually looked like her 2011 self, which was a stunning sight. During the first set, Makarova had a trainer check her blood pressure, and then she carried on. Kvitova would go on to win that set 6-4, and then Makarova retired.

What a shame, because the first set was really a high quality affair, and it looked as though one of the best matches of the season was in progress. Too bad for Makarova (why, oh why, doesn't she have a higher ranking?), but it was a relief to see Kvitova play at the level we used to see her play, and to show the enthusiasm she used to display,

The Czech star's next opponent will be Nadia Petrova, who defeated Hsieh Su-Wei in the second round. Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Daniela Hantuchova were among today's winners. Christina McHale beat Lucie Safarova, and Urszula Radwanska defeated Roberta Vinci.

Caroline Wozniacki had to deal with an in-form Sorana Cirstea in the first set of their second round match. Cirstea had set points, but couldn't convert. She was playing well, but Wozniacki had an answer for everything Cirstea gave her. In the second set, Cirstea faded away, as she is prone to do. Wozniacki won, 7-6, 6-0. The former world number 1 will have her work cut out for her in the next round, however, when she faces Mona Barthel. If Bartel continues to serve at a high level, she'll be able to give Wozniacki some trouble.

Wozniacki is so steady, and is so able to wear down opponents, it will be interesting to see if Barthel can sustain the confidence she must surely have after her Paris victory. Barthel practically demolished Angelique Kerber in the second round, and is manifesting the potential she showed in 2011. Last year, Barthel had a lot of problems, but she has turned everything around.

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd seeds all advanced in doubles play in Doha.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

All-German showdown turns out to be a letdown

Who was surprised that Mona Barthel beat countrywoman Angelique Kerber in Doha today? Probably none of you, considering Kerber's recent back problems and Barthel's recent boost in confidence. But maybe it was a surprise that it was such a beat-down. Barthel's performance was stunning. She served extremely well, hit 30 winners, made only 12 unforced errors, and was successful seven times out of seven at the net. She defeated Kerber 6-1, 6-2.

Barthel has become more poised on the court, her net game has improved, and now she has belief. She's a pleasure to watch.

Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams cruised through in straight sets today. Yesterday, however, there were some significant first-round eliminations. Jelena Jankovic (def. by Monica Niculescu), Laura Robson (def. by Daniela Hantuchova) and Maria Kirilenko (def. by Ekaterina Bychkova) all went out.

Lisa Raymond and Sam Stosur are playing doubles together again. They advanced to the Doha second round yesterday.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Czech Republic goes 4-0 in Fed Cup

The Czech Republic's Fed Cup team did very well in taking their first step to defend their 2012 championship. Today, Kvitova defeated Australia's Sam Stosur 2-6, 7-6, 6-4. (She had to save a match point, and it was a relief to learn that she still could.) The new rule (if a team has a 3-0 lead, the doubles rubber is played next instead of the fourth singles rubber) went into effect, and Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka beat Ashley Barty and Casey Dellacqua 6-0, 7-6.

Kvitova always rises to the occasion for Fed Cup, just like Flavia Pennetta always did for Italy. Today, it was Roberta Vinci who rose to the occasion for Italy. There was some question as to whether Vinci would be able to play today, after she suffered a bad thigh cramp yesterday. But there she was, playing the USA's Jamie Hampton in the fourth rubber. Sara Errani had already lost the third rubber to Varvara Lepchenko, so it was all on the physically impaired Vinci. And she won, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1.

With a 2-2 tie, it was up to Errani and Vinci to win the doubles rubber against Liezel Huber and Varvara Lepchenko. The Italians won that match 6-2, 6-2, advanced to the semifinals.

Ayumi Morita, who beat Russia's Ekaterina Makarova yesterday, defeated Elena Vesnina today, which put Japan 2-1 against Russia. But then Makarova came back and defeated An injured Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-1, 6-1. Makarova and Vesnina then defeated Misaki Doi and Morita 6-2, 6-2 in doubles.

Finally, the Slovak Republic advanced by eliminating 2012 runner-up Serbia. Jana Cepelova beat Bojana Jovanovski 5-7, 7-5, 11-9 in a match that in a match that lasted 3 hours and 18 minutes and featured 21 service breaks. Next, Daniela Hantuchova defeated Vesna Dolonc in straight sets, which gave her country a ticket to the semifinals.

The two players with memorable performances were Vinci, of course, and Lepchenko. Vinci is now 18-0 in Fed Cup doubles competition. In the semifinals, the Czech Republic will play Italy, and Russia will play the Slovak Republic.

In World Group II, Switzerland (def. Belgium) will play Sweden (def. Argentina), and Spain (def. Ukraine) will play Germany (def. France).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Passing shots

I'm tossing a big bouquet to Any Given Surface for this piece on sexism and Victoria Azarenka. I certainly couldn't have said it better myself.

Perhaps you have a friend or family member who would like to share your enthusiasm about tennis but is having trouble grasping all of the crazy rules. Craig Schwartz has written an ebook, The Quick and Easy Guide to Learning Tennis, which explains everything. You can get a Kindle edition here.

Argentines know how to party.

It's no surprise, but it's nevertheless a sad thing that Agnes Szavay has retired from professional tennis. Szavay has suffered for some time with a painful back condition. The former top-20 Hungarian player says she would like to create a tennis academy. Szavay was a fine player with a beautiful two-handed backhand. She won five WTA titles.

Best photo ever of the charming and inimitable Elena Vesnina.

Serena Williams, Sara Errani and Mona Barthel will compete in the Family Circle Cup, which begins March 30 in Charleston. 2010 champion Sam Stosur will be there, too. Williams won the championship in 2009 and 2012.

Here's 'Pova at LAX, on her way to Doha.

Only one more victory needed for Czech Republic Fed Cup team

Defending Fed Cup champions from the Czech Republic are close to advancing to the World Group semifinals after the first day of play. Petra Kvitova defeated Australia's Jarmila Gajdosova 7-6, 6-3 in the opening rubber. In the second rubber, Sam Stosur failed to taantage of several leads, and was defeated 7-6, 7-6 by Lucie Safarova. Kvitova and Stosur will face off tomorrow, and it's hard to imagine anything but a Kvitova victory, which would put the Czechs into the 2013 semifinals.

Italy's Sara Errani defeated the USA's Jamie Hampton 6-2, 6-1. The second rubber had a lot more drama. Roberta Vinci won the first set 6-2, and Varvara Lepchenko won the second set 6-4. Lepchenko then went up 5-1, as Vinci experienced cramping in her left thigh. But the Italian made things even for 5-all, but then the cramping became what appeared to be agonizing. Lepchenko won the third set 7-5.

Vinci, who has never lost a Fed Cup doubles match (she's won 17 of them), and who is half of the world's number 1 team, is scheduled to play singles tomorrow, and--if needed--doubles. There is a possibility that she will have to withdraw, at least from singles competition.

Russia's Maria Kirilenko defeated Kimiko Date-Krumm 7-6, 6-4 in the opening rubber between Russia and Japan. She lost, but Date-Krumm certainly didn't go down easily. In the other match, the ever-improving Ayumi Morita defeated Russia's Ekaterina Makarova 6-2, 6-2.

In fourth World Group event, Serbia and the Slovak Republic are tied 1-1. Daniela Hantuchova defeated Bojana Jovanovdki 7-6, 6-2, then Dominika Cibulkova retired--at 6-4, 5-4--against Vesna Dolonc. Cibulkova, who has had to retire several times because of thigh injuries--received medical treatment for a thigh cramp when she led 5-3 in the second set. Then, at 5-4, she fell down backwards onto the court, and the collapse looked very painful. With both Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic out because of injury, it looked as though the Slovak Republic would have a pretty easy time of it. But now that Cibulkova is out, too, I suppose anything could happen.

In World Group II, Switzerland and Belgium are tied at 1-1, Argentina leads Sweden 2-0, Spain leads Ukraine 2-0, and Germany leads France 2-0. The big news should have been that--thanks to (reasonable) captain Amelie Mauresmo--Marion Bartoli, after a nine-year absence, was actually named to the French Fed Cup team. A Fed Cup miracle. But Bartoli withdrew from competition because of illness. Don't you just love Fed Cup?

I do love Fed Cup, and I'm not a very happy person right now. Friday night, I did what I always do the day before Fed Cup competition: I bought a weekend pass so I could watch the matches on the ITF Fed Cup website. Only there's a blackout in the USA, and I was unable to watch anything on the official site. A staff member gave me even worse news: The USA blackout will extend throughout the whole year. This is really bad news for fans.

And I have to ask: Why didn't the ITF post a notice to USA viewers that a blackout had gone into effect? No--instead I paid for my pass and then had to ask for a refund.

One  more item of interest: Australian Open junior girls champion (singles and doubles) Ana Konjuh beat Urszula Radwanska in the Croatia vs. Poland Fed Cup competition. The 15-year old Konjuh won 2-6, 6-3, 7-6. Konjuh is ranked number 880 in the world. Check this out:

Friday, February 8, 2013

A few thoughts about Fed Cup

Well, I had neither the time or inclination to reconstruct the lengthy Fed Cup preview that Blogger hurled into another galaxy yesterday, but here are a few of the observations that were included:

The Czech Republic, the defending champions, will play Australia on an indoor court at home. As a rule, an indoor court allows Petra Kvitova to run over opponents, but these days, she's vulnerable even indoors. She'll play Sam Stosur, who is as fragile and unpredictable As Kvitova. There could be a beatdown from the Czech star, or it could turn into one of those "You win it"--"Oh, no, you win it" affairs. I think the first scenario is more likely, but who knows?

Also in the World Group, the USA plays Italy, and the first rubber will feature Jamie Hampton and Sara Errani. They're playing on red clay, so the Italian has the advantage; nevertheless, it could be an entertaining match.

Both Serbian stars, Jankovic and Ivanovic, have withdrawn from their team because of injuries. Aleksandra Krunic--who has become somewhat of a Fed Cup cup doubles star--wasn't even named to be on the team, but now she's on it as a substitute. The original decision--to cut Krunic from the team--left me shaking my head in disbelief. Krunic may be an unknown on the tour, but she really brings it for Fed Cup.

The other World Group contest features Russia and Japan, and to get things started, Maria Kirilenko will play Kimiko Date-Krumm. Both players are so much fun to watch, and this could be a good one.

Blogger ate my homework

Somehow, Blogger killed off my entire Fed Cup preview post (my whole week has been like that). I'll do my best to reconstruct it tomorrow, but only if I can find the time and have the inclination. In the meantime, for a good preview, please check out WTA Backspin.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Kirilenko wins in Pattaya City

Maria Kirilenko won the Pattaya City final today, extending a story that began last year when she lost the final to Daniela Hantuchova in a match that lasted almost three hours and 15 minutes. Today, Kirilenko beat Sabine Lisicki in another long match; this won took two hours and 37 minutes to play.

Kirilenko held two match points in the second set, but was broken. Lisicki served for the match in the final set, but she, too, was broken, and won only one point in the third set tiebreak. Kirilenko, the 2nd seed, who defeated Lisicki 5-7, 6-1, 7-6, has now won six WTA titles.

The doubles trophy went to Kimiko Date-Krumm and Casey Dellacqua. They defeated Akgul Amanmuradova and Alexandra Panova 6-3, 6-2.

Barthel wins first premier tournament

For last two years, a WTA player has made a big announcement by winning the Paris indoor tournament. In 2011, it was Petra Kvitova, and last year, it was Angelique Kerber. Today, Mona Barthel advanced a step in her career by winning the final in Paris. She beat top seed Sara Errani, who made Barthel work for her trophy. Barthel led 7-5, 5-2, but was unable to close when Errani put pressure on her by consistently hitting to the German's forehand. Barthel, like many big hitters, has a forehand that tends to break down when the pressure is on. Barthel won, 7-5, 7-6, she hit 53 winners, and she rushed the net repeatedly.

With the win in Paris, the young German star moved from the number 45 ranking to the number 28 spot.

This tournament was a showcase for up and coming talent. Joining Barthel in the semifinals were Kristina Mladenovic and Kiki Bertens (who had to retire because of a back injury). Barthel played in some high quality matches, and took it all in stride. And--in an era when we don't always get to see sporting handshake--it should be noted that she and Mladenovic showed us the highest level of sporting respect at the end of their entertaining semifinal match.

Errani may have lost the singles final, but she and partner Roberta Vinci (who served as her coach in Paris), the top seeds, won the doubles title by defeating 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Liezel Huber 6-1, 6-1.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Barthel back on track and in Paris final

In 2011, it looked like the big-hitting Mona Barthel was on her way up the rankings, but in 2012, she had trouble getting out of the first round of events. Something was wrong, obviously, but in the last part of the season, the German player started looking like herself again. All certainly seems to be well now; Barthel defeated Kristina Mladenovic in the Paris semifinals today, and will play top seed Sara Errani in the final.

Mladenovic was the crowd favorite, of course. The Frenchwoman, who came into the event with a wild card, took out both Julia Goerges and Petra Kvitova on her way to the semifinals. Her match against Barthel was entertaining and of high quality. Barthel took the match 6-1, 6-4, but that scoreline is somewhat misleading.

Barthel had first and second serve win percentages of 84 and 60, and saved all three of the break points against her.

Errani won her semifinal when Kiki Bertens retired with a back injury. (That was the second retirement against Errani in the tournament.) It's worth mentioning that, to get to the semifinals, lucky loser Bertens defeated Tamira Paszek, 4th seed Dominka Cibulkova and 6th seed Lucie Safarova.

In doubles, top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci got a walkover from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova. In the other semifinal, 2nd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Liezel Huber defeated Vera Dushevina and Anabel Medina Garrigues in a very close match. Errani now has a chance to sweep the tournament by winning both titles; she has some tough competition.

In Pattaya City, 5th seed Sabine Lisicki stopped Nina Bratchikova's run and advanced to the final. Her opponent will be 4th seed Maria Kirilenko, who handily (6-2, 6-0) beat Sorana Cirstea in the semifinals.

The doubles final will feature the team of Kimiko Date-Krumm and Casey Dellacqua, playing against Akgul Amanmuradova and Alexandra Panova. Date-Krumm and Dellacqua eliminated top seeds Chang Kai-Chen and Vania King in the second round. 2nd seeds Marina Erakovic and Heather Watson lost to Amanmuradova and Panova in the opening round.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Barthel and Mladenovic advance to Paris semifinals

2011 champion and 2nd seed Petra Kvitova lost in the Paris semifinals today. She was beaten 6-3, 6-4 by Kristina Mladenovic. Kvitova, who was once unstoppable on indoor courts, had a lot of difficulty with her second serve, and double-faulted nine times. 3rd seed Marion Bartoli also lost; the Frenchwoman went out in straight sets to Mona Barthel.

Yet another upstart, Kiki Bertens, beat Lucie Safarova. Top seed Sara Errani advanced, however, defeating Carla Suarez Navarro 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 in a quarterfinal that lasted three hours.

Meanwhile, in Pattaya City, Nina Bratchikova, Sorana Cirstea, 5th seed Sabine Lisicki, and 2nd seed Maria Kirilenko (def. Elena Vesnina) advanced to the semifinals. Top seed Ana Ivanovic was defeated in the first round by Ayumi Morita, who also beat Kimiko Date-Krumm, but lost in the quarterfinals to Bratchikova.