Sunday, December 30, 2012

Passing shots

Bad news: Andrea Petkovic injured her knee--yes, that knee--in the first round of Hopman Cup play. Petkovic retired against Ashleigh Barty.

Caroline Wozniacki is wearing a diamond ring on her "engagement ring" finger, and the rumor--certainly not unfounded--is that she and Rory McIlroy will be married.

Li Na defeated Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 2-6. 10-7 in exhibition play in Thailand. Redfoo was with Azarenka in Hua Hin.

Petra Kvitova just keeps popping up in cute and amusing photos. Here's her first column for the Courier Mail.

Flavia Pennetta, who had wrist surgery in August, will wait until after the Australian Open to return to the tour.

Sloane Stephens talks with ESPN W.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Passing shots

Julia Goerges is now able to see clearly.

My cat Tarzan will never let the rest of us forget that he was "chosen" by Citizen Anna. How many cats (or people) can say that say that?

Vera Zvonareva has withdrawn from the Australian Open. The Russian star is dealing with the same shoulder injury that caused her to withdraw from the 2012 French Open. She missed the U.S. Open because of a viral illness.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams recently had minor surgery performed on both of her big toes. And Maria Sharapova has a collarbone injury.

Nadia and Lulu make a cute team.

Sugarpova is on its way to candy stores in Australia!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Passing shots

2011 Australian Open U.S. wild card playoff winner Madison Keys has done it again. Keys defeated Mallory Burdette (and can you think of two players you'd rather see in the final?) to get her second straight wild card into the Melbourne main draw. Also winning a wild card was Bojana Bobusic, who won the Australian playoffs.

Dave Taylor has resigned his post as Australian Fed Cup captain so that he can focus solely on his other position--coaching Sam Stosur.

L'Equipe has named Serena Williams 2012's Sportswoman of the Year.

Sugarpova hits the West Coast.

A $125,000-purse WTA clay court tournament will be held in Cali, Columbia in February.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Passing shots

The WTA website has a new look.

You can get to know Eugenie Bouchard and Annika Beck.

Or you can spend some time trying to solve the puzzle of The Radwanska. (Caution: You may become confused and frustrated, but would you expect anything else?)

Speaking of frustration, here's a look back at the Lisicki vs. Kerber Wimbledon quarterfinal.

Taylor Townsend ended 2012 as the top-ranked ITF junior in the world.

Here is Kim Clijsters saying farewell in Belgium (Venus Williams is there, too).

Petra says "thank you" to her fans.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Passing shots

Petra Kvitova is featured on the latest installment of Tennis Channel's Tennisography series.

Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic recently paid a visit to the Armani Cafe in Milan.

You can take a look back at Dominika Cibulkova's 2012 Lacoste outfits.

The Shenzhen Open, an International WTA event, will debut in January of 2013, and will be headlined by Li Na and Marion Bartoli. Also competing are Jelena Jankovic, Laura Robson, Hsieh Su--Wei, Klara Zakopalova, and Peng Shuai.

Not content with just introducing Eugenie Bouchard and Laura Robson's "Gangnam Style" video, Maria Sharapova recently threw down a little of her own Gangnam--but just a little.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Serena Williams--WTA Player of the Year

Serena Williams has been awarded the WTA's Player of the Year designation, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Among her other 2012 accomplishments, Williams won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the WTA Championships, and an Olympic gold  medal. The Doubles Team of the Year award went to Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who went on a 25-match win streak, won the French Open and the U.S. Open, as well as several other titles.

Newcomer of the Year is Laura Robson, who took both Kim Clijsters and Li Na out of the U.S. Open. Yaroslava Shvedova was named Comeback Player of the Year, and Clijsters won the Karen Krantzche Sports(wo)manship Award. The Player Service Award was given to Venus Williams, and the Most Improved Player designation went to Sara Errani.

Fans chose Agnieszka Radwanska as the Fan Favorite for the second year in a row. Other fan choices can be seen here.

Victoria Azarenka received the Diamond Aces Award last month.

I don't think I'm ever in total agreement with these results, but I generally don't have much to quibble about, either. Comeback Player of the Year is generally my sticking point, though. I think Shvedova is deserving, for sure, but she probably wouldn't have been my choice. And a comment made earlier on this blog about giving Clijsters the Krantzche Award when she didn't play much in 2012 is a position with which I'm sympathetic, though I'm okay with Clijsters getting it.

On to the Backspin Awards, which are more interesting. If you missed any of them, scroll back and check them out. And once you've done that, settle in and read the 2012 WTA Yearbook. It's filled with fabulous photos (especially of Victoria Azarenka), the best quotes of the year ("Why Chinese still use chopsticks?"), videos, a faculty listing, all the titles in the 2012 class guest lecture series (except, of course, for the one canceled by JJ), and awards you definitely won't see on the WTA website.

And that brings me to the subject of quotations, which I should have included in my end-of-season summary (I also should have mentioned that Shvedova served a Golden Set--oops--always hard to recall everything). There are always so many great quotations that come out of the tour that I have trouble picking a favorite. It wasn't that hard this year, however, because "People complain about the noise I make, but I can get louder...." is hard to top.

Azarenka, Li, Schiavone, Sharapova, Williams, Jankovic, Kvitova, Robson. So much wit--intentional and otherwise. The tennis is pretty good, too.

Friday cat blogging--wide-eyed edition

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Passing shots

Nathalie Tauziat will soon be asked to vacate her position on the French Tennis Federation's management committee. Tauziat, a former WTA star who was ranked as high as number 3 in the world, recently testified on behalf of former coach Regis de Camaret, who has been convicted of raping two young female players. Several more women have said that de Camaret raped or sexually assaulted them when they were young.

The Russian version of Glamour has picked Maria Sharapova as its International Star of 2012.

Sugarpova will be launched worldwide early next year.

The Czech Republic is the first nation to win Hopman Cup, Fed Cup and Davis Cup in the same year.

women's tennis blog looks back at Venus Williams' 2012 (and before) EleVen line of tennis clothing.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dulko says goodbye

Gisela Dulko retired from professional tennis yesterday. For several years, Dulko, who is from Argentina, has served as the WTA standard-bearer for Latin America. Her singles career was a very good one, reflecting both her clay court finesse and her tendency to serve as one of the tour's most notable giant-killers. Her doubles career was outstanding.

Dulko is a physically slight woman. Only five feet, seven inches tall and weighing under 125 pounds, she doesn't appear to be "built" for tennis. I recall watching a match she played against Serena Williams in Charleston. I dislike quoting anything sexist, but it's worth noting that--in the middle of the match--a man in the stands shouted "That little girl can hit the ball hard!" She could. And when her serve was "on," she could be pretty dangerous because of her all-court skills. That serve could come and go, however, and Dulko would often end up having to rely strictly on her defensive skills.

The Argentine star reached her highest singles ranking, number 26 in the world, in 2005. She won four WTA singles titles, reached the round of 16 at the French Open in 2006 and 2011, and reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open in 2009. Dulko made it through the third round of the 2011 French Open by defeating 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur. In 2009, she upset Maria Sharapova in the second round of Wimbledon.

It was in doubles, however, that Gisela Dulko stood out. She and close friend Flavia Pennetta were frequent doubles partners for  many years, though Dulko also played doubles with other partners. When the pair decided, in 2010, to play as an exclusive team, they had a marvelous run that included winning the 2010 WTA Championships and the 2011 Australian Open. Considering how well they played, it actually seems odd that they won only one major.

Dulko won 17 doubles titles (11 of those, she won with Pennetta), and was a runner-up 13 times. She also played on the Argentine Fed Cup and Olympic teams for several years. In November of 2010, Dulko reached a career-high doubles ranking of number 1 in the world. She held that title for 24 weeks; for 11 of those weeks, she shared the spot with Pennetta.

I have two special memories of Gisela Dulko. One concerns a spontaneous exhibition match played in Charleston a few years ago when a night match had to be canceled because of a participant's injury. Dulko and Pennetta "played" against Liezel Huber and Katarina Srebotnik, and Lynn Welch was the umpire. I generally get only moderate pleasure from watching exhibition antics, but this was a hilarious event; I laughed until I cried. And though everyone involved contributed to the hilarity, the standout comic was Dulko. I don't think any of us (fans, that is) knew how funny Dulko was until that night.

My most vivid memory of Dulko, however, was watching her (on television) in the 2011 Australian Open final. She and Pennetta played Victoria Azarenka and Maria Kirilenko for the title. Dulko and Pennetta came out of the tunnel looking fierce, but Dulko went to pieces early in the match, and left most of the heavy lifting to her partner. Azarenka and Kirilenko (who also wasn't playing quite up to her usual level) won the first set 6-2. They went up 4-1 in the second set and were one point away from going up 5-1 when Gisela Dulko simply went crazy on them.

Parking herself at the net and madly hitting every type of volley imaginable, Dulko appeared driven by a force that just couldn't be overcome. She and Pennetta won the second set 7-5, then handily won the third set 6-1. Unfortunately, the sports media was focused on singles play, and this very dramatic championship match was all but ignored.

Injury got the better of Dulko toward the end of her career. In 2011, she married footballer Fernando Gago. It was no surprise that, at age 27, she decided to put down her racket. I encourage you to read the beautiful letter she wrote to her fans, her team and the tour. There are undoubtedly a whole lot of fans who will miss the versatile and engaging Gisela Dulko. I know I will.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Passing shots

Heather Watson and Laura Robson have been named joint winners of the Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the Year award.

Robson says she can sleep not only for twelve hours straight on a plane, but also in the car on the way to the airport.

Victoria Azarenka was voted by fans as the most popular player on the tour in 2012. (Not bad for someone who is "not liked.")

The International Tennis Hall of Fame has suspended former doubles star Bob Hewitt over allegations that he sexually abused multiple female players when he was a coach. When the allegations first became public, the Hall of Fame conducted an "investigation" which turned out to be, well, nothing at all. Later when pressed, the organization did launch an investigation. In announcing the suspensions, the Hall of Fame declares that Hewitt's "legacy ceases to exist in the Hall of Fame." The result appears to be no different from expulsion, but the Hall of Fame did not officially expel Hewitt because he has not been convicted of any crimes.

Zhang Yuxan has received a wild card into the  main draw of the 2013 Australian Open. Zhang was a qualifier at the Asian-Pacific Australian Open Wild Card Playoff, so she had to win six matches.

Alexandra Dulgheru is back from having knee surgery and doing extensive rehab, and will begin playing again some time next year. During her time off, Dulgheru spent time reading, going to the movies, riding horses, and painting.

Chris Evert and Lindsay Davenport are scheduled to play themselves on a January episode of "CSI."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Passing shots

The first part of the Backspin Awards--the part that reveals 2012's Ms. Backspin--is ready to read. Enjoy!

women's tennis blog gives us a look back at the Fila outfits worn by Kim Clijsters during 2012, her farewell year. I've always thought of Clijsters and Svetlana Kuznetsova as the faces of Fila.

Also on women's tennis blog has added Heather Watson to the site's list of photos of tennis players as kids. The photos are exactly as cute as you would expect them to be!

Former WTA player Neha Uberoi teaches us how to recycle an old tennis racket.

Next to be featured on Tennis Channel's profile series, "Tennisography," is world number 1 Victoria Azarenka.

The Radwanska sisters are vacationing in Cuba. Here they are hanging out at the beach, drinking pina coladas, shooting pool, and writing on the wall.

Svitolina wins Royal Indian Open

Elina Svitolina won her first WTA title today. Svitolina, seeded 7th, defeated 5th seed Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-2, 6-3 in the final of the WTA 125 event in Pune. The 24-year age gap between the opponents made for interesting tennis news all by itself. The Japanese veteran was attempting to become the oldest player to ever win a WTA title.

Svitolina also beat Andrea Petkovic on her way to the final. The 18-year-old Ukrainian turned pro in 2010.

Nina Bratchikova and Oksana Kalashnikova won the doubles title. They defeated Julia Glushko and Noppawan Lertcheewakarn 6-0, 4-6, 10-8. The winning team was seeded 2nd. Bratchikova was the top seed in singles, but was defeated by Petkovic in the quarterfinals.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

2012--loud, scary and memorable

Some WTA seasons (like 2011) are filled with drama, making it difficult to rank the degree of excitement and significance of various events. 2012, though not without its very dramatic moments, seemed like a less intense year to me. There were no bizarre (almost losing your career and possibly your life because of a broken bottle, disabling your ankle while dancing at a wedding, having a wall fall on you, etc.) injuries, no endlessly contested line calls, no "Who saw it coming?" wins at the four major tournaments.

A lot happened, though. The WTA, obviously swayed by the obsessions of the sports media, vowed to crack down on "future" grunting (but they mean screaming, and don't seem to know the difference), and to introduce a device to measure the loudness of a player's screams, shrieks, grunts, etc. All this rhetoric was swirling around while some of the tour's greatest screamers were winning majors and Olympic medals, so--in the words of our kick-ass number 1 player, Victoria Azarenka--"Good luck with that." Every time Stacey Allaster posed proudly for a press photo with Azarenka, I was overcome by the irony. I like to think that Azarenka (who also seemed to get taller each time a photo with Allaster was taken) was, too.

Some players didn't do well in 2012. 2011 French Open champion Li Na had a poor season until the fourth quarter, when she teamed with coach Carlos Rodridguez and started looking like the real Big Sister Na again. Jelena Jankovic had a dismal season, repeatedly going out in the first round or losing when she held match points. 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur just didn't bring her Flushing Meadows brilliance and confidence this year. There were other significant disappointments--more about those later.

Poor Andrea Petkovic, after struggling repeatedly with a back injury, was out most of the season because of an ankle injury. The news was better for Venus Williams, who returned to the tour after months of treatment for Sjogren's Syndrome, a condition which had gone undiagnosed for years. Williams worked her way back into the routine of the tour, and--with sister Serena--won the Wimbledon doubles title and an Olympic gold medal in doubles. She also won the singles title in Luxembourg.

Alisa Kleybanova made a tentative return to the tour this year after undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

The Olympic Games were held at Wimbledon. WTA players Agnieszka Radwanska and Maria Sharapova carried the flags for Poland and Russia, respectively. Marion Bartoli, on the other hand, wasn't permitted to compete. The maverick Frenchwoman didn't qualify for the Games because she had not played in Fed Cup competition, and she hadn't joined the Fed Cup team because she refused to abide by the coaching rules. Neither Bartoli nor the French tennis federation would budge, so Marion missed the event (more the pity, since there was a big James Bond moment in the opening ceremonies).

The season wasn't without surprises. 16-year-old Donna Vekic entered her very first WTA tournament, in Tashkent, and made it to the final. Qualifier Melanie Oudin won the Birmingham title! Veteran Russian Nadia Petrova, possibly the biggest "what if" star on the tour, won Tokyo, then won the Tournament of Champions in Sofia. And Yaroslava Shvedova served a Golden Set, the first in the history of women's tennis (she had previously come very close to serving one).

And while it wasn't exactly a surprise (not to me, anyway), Laura Robson grabbed everyone's attention at the U.S. Open when she reached the round of 16, taking out both three-time champion Kim Clijsters and Li Na. Robson, with partner Andy Murray, also won an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles.

But Robson wasn't the only young Brit to make headlines. In October, Heather Watson became the first British woman in 24 years to win a WTA title. Watson won the tournament in Osaka, saving four match points in the final, which lasted three hours and twelve minutes.

2012 wasn't without its small pleasures. Amelie Mauresmo--who was on the short list to be France's Davis Cup captain--was named the French Fed Cup captain. Maria Sharapova launched Sugarpova, her candy line. Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Iveta Benesova both had weddings. And Vika Azarenka added some luster to her star by party-rocking with Redfoo, who has become an enthusiastic WTA supporter.

Even with Petko out for most of the season, there was a lot of dancing. Azarenka danced on court every opportunity she had, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci showed some original moves unlike any others we've seen, Andrea Hlavackova joined the dance craze, and friends Eugenie Bouchard and Laura Robson put together what was probably the video of the year.

Agnieszka Radwanska failed to defend either of her big 2011 Asian titles, but she did win Dubai, Brussels and--significantly--Miami, and she was the runner-up at Wimbledon. Radwanska finished the season as number 4 in the world.

In the doubles world, Liezel Huber continued to confound opponents--but not with her shot-making. This year, she got into it big-time at the Australian Open when she and partner Lisa Raymond played against Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina. Even the usually cool-headed Mirza lost her patience with Huber, who got right in Vesnina's face in front of the umpire's chair. It was quite a show, and included a literal knock-down of Huber by one of those famous fiery Mirza forehands.

Huber and Raymond didn't have the season they were probably expecting, though they did win five titles. Also performing well were Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova. The Russian pair  won the Sony Ericsson Championships in Miami, and they won the WTA Championships in Istanbul. Kirilenko and Petrova were also the runners-up at the French Open.

Continuing their success was the Czech team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. They won four titles, and they were the runners-up at several events, including Wimbledon, the Olympic Games, the U.S. Open, and the WTA Championships.

Here's my personal 2012 top 10, in ascending order:

10. Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone
Former world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki finally lost her grip on the world's highest ranking. With so many points to defend, and with disappointing results in the majors, Wozniacki slipped out of the top 10 (though she's ending the season as number 10 in the world). The Dane lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (def. by Kim Clijsters), the third round of the French Open (def. by Kaia Kanepi), the first round of Wimbledon (def. by Tamira Paszek), and the first round of the U.S. Open (def. by Irina-Camelia Begu).

Wozniacki worked with coach (really, "co-coach," since her father Peotr was definitely still in the picture) Thomas Johansson until last month. Johansson encouraged her to be more aggressive in her play, since her superb defending has let her down against very powerful players. Wozniacki is an excellent athlete who has made steady improvements over the years, so anything is possible in 2013.

9. The Last Goodbye
Kim Clijsters retired for the second--and final--time this year. Clijsters said goodbye at the U.S. Open, in which she was the defending champion. The (mostly) beloved Belgian was defeated in the second round by Laura Robson, which was too bad, of course, but her leave-taking was so touching that it almost made up (at least, from a fan standpoint) for her early exit. Clijsters, a three-time champion in Flushing Meadows, was given the warm farewell that she deserved, and she--in turn--made her exit from professional tennis with notable gratitude and dignity.

8. I'll Endorse These Czechs
Last year, the Czech Republic was everywhere, dominating the tour in ways that sometimes made me think we had gone into a time machine and were re-visiting the 80s. One of 2011's great Czech Republic accomplishments was the taking of the Fed Cup title. In 2012, the Czech team did it again. They beat Germany 4-1 in the first round, and in the semifinals, they beat Italy 4-1. The team recently defended its title by beating Serbia 3-1 in the final. Petra Kvitova, who had won ten straight Fed Cup matches, wasn't feeling that well (more on that in a moment) during the competition, and--while she handily defeated Jelena Jankovic in the opening rubber--she lost to Ana Ivanovic in the second rubber. It was Lucie Safarova who won both of her matches and led the team to victory.

7. The Radwanska
"At first glance, It seemed to be just a normal being you might pass on the street," we learn, as Maria Sharapova warns her future children in Todd Spiker's hilarious story about the Russian's loss to Agnieszka Radwanska in the Miami final. I was in Charleston watching qualifying rounds the day of the final, but I slipped into the bar to watch the match on television. The next evening, while I was still processing what had happened, I returned to my hotel to find "Watch Out....The Radwanska Might Get You" posted on WTA Backspin. I couldn't stop laughing. I'm still laughing.

For those of us who like to hang out in the Backspin lounge, the concept of The Radwanska has become such a reality that we now just call It "The Rad." The Rad may or may not have been responsible for everything from rain delays to disastrous scheduling to really big upsets that occurred in 2012. We don't know. It seems to have a lot of anger and caprice, and a mind of Its own.

(For those who may have stumbled in here for the first time, you should know that I am actually a big fan of the player, Agnieszka Radwanska.)

"You probably should sleep with one eye open, a night light on, and a heavy racket right next to the bed," Sharapova tells her frightened children in the Backspin scary tale. Well, it does pay to remember that The Radwanska is patient, and waits until you let your guard down, and then it comes for you. Maybe, when it strikes, you'll be prepared.

Perhaps--instead of investing in devices to measure the loudness of players' screams and grunts--the WTA should get down to the really important spiritual business of the tour and figure out a way to cast out The Radwanska.

6. When Is a Rock Not a Rock?
Last year was the Year of Kvitova. The Czech star won six titles, including Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, and she was named the ITF Player of the Year. Petra Kvitova has that something extra, that special quality, that potentially places her above her peers. The clever lefty serve, the wicked angles, the very powerful groundstrokes, and a strategic understanding of the game--these are qualities that earned Kvitova her first major. She also improved her movement, which was one of her few weaknesses.

But Kvitova is fragile in other areas. She plays very aggressive, first-strike tennis most of the time, and if she's "on," good luck to the opponent. But she goes "off" too frequently, creating three-set victories that should have been two-set victories--or just losing altogether. She also sufferes with asthma, and has trouble handling the respiratory demands brought on by the North American humidity during the U.S. Open Series. We saw an improvement in that area this year, as Kvitova actually won the U.S. Open Series when she took home trophies in both Montreal and New Haven.

But Kvitova was sick and injured a lot this year, and just didn't seem to be herself. Of course, if you look at her record for the year, you see a player who did extremely well, despite finishing the season as number 8 in the world (she ended last year as number 2, and her ranking future looked very bright). But when you consider the advantage she had coming into the season, and the huge talent she possesses, you are left only to wonder what I have asked on this blog many times: What's wrong with Petra?

Considered a favorite to win the Australian Open, Kvitova lost to Maria Sharapova in the semifinals. In the French Open, she lost again to Sharapova, again, in the semifinals. At Wimbledon, where she was the defending champion (she beat Sharapova in the 2011 final), she lost to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. She also lost in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games--to Maria Kirilenko. And at the U.S. Open, Kvitova lost to Marion Bartoli in the round of 16. Her attempt to defend her WTA Championships title was destroyed by illness, and she withdrew from competition.

It's worth noting that in two majors, Kvitova lost to the eventual champion. And it's also worth noting that Sharapova has become the Czech star's nemesis (Sharapova also beat her in the Stuttgart semifinals). There's certainly nothing "wrong" with losing to Williams and Sharapova, but Kvitova--who also lost this year to a variety of other players--is simply capable of doing great things, and somehow, the entire season slipped by her, except for her surge during the U.S. Open Series.

Kvitova, already a bit of a late bloomer, gets a fresh start in 2013. Here's hoping that her health is improved, and that we see 2011 Petra again soon.

5. The Real Thing
When Angelique Kerber came out of practically nowhere and reached the semifinals of the 2011 U.S. Open, there were a lot of WTA fans who figured it was just one of those things, and that the German player would return to her journeywoman position the next season--but with a higher ranking. However, that was not the case at all. In 2012, Kerber officially became a force with which to be reckoned. Ending the season with the number 5 ranking, Kerber is now the leading German player, and her athleticism and quick thinking on the court have provided us with a great deal of entertainment. It doesn't hurt that she also has plenty of on-court personality.

Kerber reached the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year. She also reached the quarterfinals of both the French Open and the Olympic Games. The German star won her first two WTA titles in 2012, and there is every reason to believe she'll win more in 2013.

4. It's What's Under the Hoodie That Counts
Surely the WTA has never had a more compelling world number 1 than Victoria Azarenka. The tall, intelligent, candid Belarusian (sometimes resplendent in very cool shorts) walks through the tunnel with her hoodie up and her earphones in, and you know you are about to get an eye- and earful of smackdown Vika. No longer the fragile creature who hurt her thigh or passed out just when things were getting good--Azarenka has overcome a great deal of the mental fragility that held her back before.

The world number 1's 26-match streak, which began at the start of the season (and was finally extinguished in Miami by Marion Bartoli), was an announcement that screamed louder than even Azarenka herself does. Queen Victoria won six titles in 2012--two of them at premier events, and one at the Australian Open. She also won a bronze medal in singles and a gold medal in mixed doubles (playing with Max Mirnyi) at the Olympic Games.

Azarenka can still get angry on the court (and we wouldn't want it any other way), but she now has control. She can serve, she can hit, she can volley, she can dance, and she can be very articulate. She won the Australian Open by dismantling no less than Maria Sharapova, and she pushed Serena Williams to the limit in the U.S. Open final.

3. Que C'est Bon!
She did it. Maria Sharapova achieved her career Slam in 2012 by winning the French Open, the tournament she was expected to "never" win. Her French Open triumph came just in time, too: Sharapova got a beat-down from Victoria Azarenka in the Australian Open final, she lost in the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and then received another beat-down from Serena Williams in the final of the Olympic Games. At the U.S. Open, Sharapova lost to Azarenka in the semifinals, and she lost to Williams in the WTA Championships final in Istanbul.

The Russian star, who has had a difficult path to travel in the past couple of years, won three titles plus Olympic silver in 2012, and ended the season ranked number 2 in the world. All things considered, it was a very good year, made especially sweet by Sharapova's career Slam accomplishment, a rare and enviable feat, and one that secures her place in tennis history.

2. Fighting Italians--Even Better In Pairs
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci were already a well-established and -respected doubles team before the season began. Best known for their amazing Fed Cup play, the Italians had already collected five titles while playing together. In 2012, however, they went on a winning tear, the likes of which is rarely seen.

Errani and Vinci won five titles in a row. They went on a 25-match win streak. They won the French Open and the U.S. Open. In all, they won eight titles this year, and provided fans with a string of thrills that lasted throughout the season. Errani became the number 1 doubles player in the world, then Vinci became the number 1 player, and then the ranking went back to Errani. But does it matter? They are Errani-and-Vinci, they are best friends, and they are Fighting Italians in the tradition of Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone.

There was more. Errani broke through in singles play, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, the final of the French Open, and the semifinals of the U.S. Open. To reach the French Open final, Errani took out two former French Open champions, a former French Open finalist, and Angelique Kerber. It was an unbelievable run. She also won two singles titles, and ended the year ranked number 6 in the world.

And there's even more: Vinci reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, where she lost to--of all people--Errani.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a real soft spot for the Italian players. They are so tough and so inventive. The now often-injured Pennetta and the increasingly cranky (but still wonderful) Schiavone are probably not far from the ends of their great careers, but Errani and Vinci are giving us all the Italian we can handle. Brava!

1. The Summer of Serena
Here is the first rule of women's tennis: Never ever count out Serena Williams. Throughout her career, Williams has experienced many injuries, and she has always worked with them and through them. I can recall seeing her show up at a big tournament with so much strapping and wrapping on her that she looked like she had been snatched from an Egyptology exhibit. Once, when asked which parts of her were wrapped and taped, she said it would be easier to ask which parts weren't.

Things got really bad in the summer of 2010 when Williams sustained a serious foot injury after some drunk people threw bottles in a German restaurant where she happened to be. She stepped on the broken glass and had to undergo two surgical procedures. She then suffered a hematoma and a pulmonary embolism, and later realized that she might have died from these complications. When she returned to the tour--and of course, she returned to the tour--she experienced many complications, none of which I'll go into here, but fans are familiar with the events of the last couple of seasons.

Five-time Australian Open champion Williams was upset by Ekaterina Makarova in the round of 16 in Melbourne this year. She was totally dominant in Charleston, where she won her second Family Circle Cup title. She handily beat Victoria Azarenka in the Madrid final, but hurt her back in Rome. Nevertheless, she was expected to do well at the French Open. It was in Paris, though, that Williams suffered her first opening-round loss in a major. She was upset by Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano.

Williams stayed in Paris and asked Patrick Mouratoglou to help her. The founder of the Mouratoglou Academy began coaching Williams, and by the time she arrived in London to play at Wiimbledon, she was unstoppable. She won her fifth Wimbledon title, and--with sister Venus--her fifth Wimbledon doubles title. She then won her 43rd WTA title in Stanford, then went back to London and won two Olympic gold medals--one in singles and one in doubles. The career Golden Slam now a reality, the next job for Williams was to go for her 15th major title by winning the U.S. Open, which she did. She beat world number 1 Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 in the final.

Williams went on to win the WTA Championships in Istanbul. She won seven titles in 2012, and four of them were very big indeed. The  31-year-old, often-injured (and for a while, very seriously ill) world number 3 has dominated the tour for a long time. It would be hard to pick a "best year" for her, but there's no doubt that 2012 was very special. The first rule of women's tennis holds today, as much as it ever did, thanks to the Summer of Serena.

Date-Krumm advances to Pune final

Kimiko Date-Krumm defeated Tammy Tanasugarn 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 today in the semifinals of the Royal Indian Open. Talk about a meeting of veterans! In the final, Date-Krumm's opponent will be Elina Svitolina, who knocked out Andrea Petkovic, 6-2m 7-5. Petkovic had taken out top seed Nina Bratchikova in the quarterfinals.

Be sure to check out the Diwali celebration photo gallery.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A look back at Istanbul

Here is a really enjoyable "Best Moments" of the WTA Championships video compiled by the WTA:

Friday cat blogging--room with a view edition

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Quote of the day

"I'm always a fan of people doing what they love, and I really admire how she (Kimiko Date-Krumm) still loves to play and compete. I know I wouldn't be that happy because I'm very self-destructive in terms of tennis, so I don't see myself playing longer than 2016, because I think after that I would be a psycho."
Andrea Petkovic

Passing shots

 Here's a look back at 'Pova's 2012 dresses.

And speaking of....the Russian star looks like she had a good time at the recent Prague exhibition.

Venus and Serena Williams recently played exhibition matches in both Nigeria and South Africa as part of the new Breaking the Mould campaign.

The same reminder goes to that went to several months ago: The word to describe Brett Stevens is "father," not "Mr. Mom."

Here some nice post-final Fed Cup photos.

Wild card Andrea Petkovic won her first-round match at the Royal Indian Open today. Petko defeated Sofia Shapatava 7-6, 7-5.

You have to go all the way to the end of this video for the payoff, but what you get is a whole new take on "Oh, Nadia!"

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Czech Republic defends Fed Cup title

A still-ailing Petra Kvitova lost her Fed Cup match (6-3, 7-5) against a very in-form Ana Ivanovic today in Prague, but no worries for the Czech Republic: Lucie Safarova stepped in and took her second win by defeating Jelena Jankovic 6-1, 6-1. "I played one of the best matches of my career," Safarova said afterwards.

The Czech Republic won 3-1 against Serbia in the final; the dead doubles rubber was not played.

In the 50-year history of Fed Cup, no team has ever won the final after going down 0-2, as Serbia did yesterday.

Here are some good photos posted on Kvitova's Daily Mail blog. My favorite photo of the week, however, is this one: "Do you think I had enough coaches on the court with me? I'm not sure...."

The Czech Republic (in its present configuration, and also as Czechoslovakia), has now won Fed Cup seven times. So has Australia, which--coincidentally--will be the Czech Republic's first round opponent when 2013 competition begins in February.

The Czech Republic is the number 1 Fed Cup team in the world. Petr Pala is the Czech Fed Cup captain.

Petrova wins Tournament of Champions

Tokyo champion Nadia Petrova won the Tournament of Champions in Sofia today. Petrova, who was seeded 2nd, defeated top seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-2, 6-1 in an hour and 27 minutes. Petrova broke Wozniacki five times, and never let go of her aggressive game, which included repeatedly taking charge at the net. We know what Petrova is capable of, and lately, we've been seeing it again. The Russian veteran has one of the biggest serves on the tour,  and--though known for her power--is actually an all-court player.

"Hopefully," the Sofia champion remarked, "with the preparation I'm doing in the off-season for next year, you'll be able to see the old Petrova."

 Oh, Nadia!!

Today's result provides us a two-part cautionary tale: 1. Watch out for WTA 30-year-olds who suddenly get their groove back, and....2. The plan for "new Caroline"?--still not working. The Dane is back in the top 10, but winning only three games in the Sofia final surely isn't how she wanted to end her season

There was another champion named today: Kristina Mladenovic won the first-ever WTA 125 tournament, which was played in Taipei. Mladenovic beat Chang Kai-Chen 6-4, 6-3. Mladenovic, who is 19, reached the third round of the 2012 U.S. Open. The young Frenchwoman also won two WTA doubles titles earlier this year.

Mladenovic, with partner Chan Hao-Ching, also won the Taipei doubles title. The champions defeated Chang and partner Olga Govortsova 5-7, 6-2, 10-8 in the final.

It couldn't have been easy for the crowd to watch the home player take the runner-up trophy in both events.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Quote of the week

"I also want to say I have so much respect for Roberta. I've known her for a long time--the first time we played each other was in the Under 12s, and I always knew she had so much talent. She has some of the best feel and touch on the tour right now, and it's nice to see a player like her doing so well when everyone else is focusing on power and strength. She really uses all the shots in the game. Today she just played awesome and gave me a lesson."
Daniela Hantuchova

Wozniacki and Petrova to meet in Sofia final

Caroline Wozniacki returned to the WTA top 10 today when she defeated Tsvetana Pironkova 6-4, 6-1 in the semifinals of the Tournament of Champions. Wozniacki's opponent in the final will be Nadia Petrova, who defeated Roberta Vinci 6-7, 6-1, 6-4.

Wozniacki holds a 4-1 record against Petrova. The two players are seeded numbers 1 and 2, respectively.

In Taipei, Kristina Mladenovic will face Chang Kai-Chen in the final. Mladenovic came back from being two breaks down in the third set of her semifinal against Kurumi Nara, defeating her opponent 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. Chang defeated Misaki Doi 6-7, 6-3, 6-1.

Czech Republic--2, Serbia--0

The first two rubbers of the Fed Cup final were played in Prague today, and the Czech Republic won both of them. Lucie Safarova defeated Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-3, and Petra Kvitova defeated Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 6-1.

Kvitova went down 2-4 in the first set, but after she evened things, she was the Petra of 2011, hitting 28 winners, most of them off of the forehand. Kvitova's groundstrokes were precise and powerful; her serve was strong, her performance at the net was deft.

The Czech star expressed surprise that she had played as well as she had. Still not totally rehabilitated from a case of bronchitis, she had some breathing difficulty during the match.

During today's opening ceremony, Jana Novotna was presented with the Fed Cup Award of Excellence. Novotna was part of Czechoslovakia's 1988 championship team. She participated in 33 Fed Cup ties over a span of 12 years. In presenting the award to Novotna, ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti said of the Czech star: "In addition to being a talented and successful player, Jana Novotna was a leader and role model on and off the court during a pivotal time during her nation's history."

Novotna, who is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, won 12 major doubles titles, and also won the Wimbledon singles title in 1998.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Oh, Petra.......Oh, Jelena

Is it excitng, or just unfortunate, that two of the most star-crossed players on the tour are also two of the biggest Fed Cup stars, and that they meet tomorrow in the second rubber of the Fed Cup final? Petra Kvitova, leader of the defending champion Czech Republic, faces off against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia tomorrow after Lucie Safarova plays Ana Ivanovic.

Kvitova has been sick with bronchitis and who has taken a course of antibiotics, and says that she isn't 100% well, and doesn't want the pressure of having to win two matches. Ivanovic is just coming back from a hip injury, to make things even more complicated.

"These women are apostles for the modern game," said ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti in announcing the final.. "Long before there was a tour, long before there was equal prize money, long before tennis returned to the Olympic movement, Fed Cup gave women players a chance to compete in a global competition, wearing the colours of their nations proudly."

Safarova is 3-2 against Ivanovic, and Kvitova is 1-0 against Jankovic. The competition is being held on an indoor court, which is Kvitova's best surface. Fed Cup, however, is unpredictable. Factor in the health problems and the Pennetta-like spirit which some players (i.e., Kvitova and Jankovic) take into Fed Cup play, and things can get interesting.

Unless substitutions are made, the match play will be reversed on Sunday: Kvitova will play Ivanovic, and Safarova will play Jankovic. Should a doubles rubber be needed to determine who wins, the accomplished Czech team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka will play against Bojana Jovanovski and Aleksandra Krunic. (And if you under-estimate Krunic, you haven't been following Fed Cup!)

Friday cat blogging--sock monkey dreams edition

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wozniacki goes 3-0 in Sofia round-robin play

Top seed Caroline Wozniacki handily placed herself into the Tournament of Champions semifinals today by completing round-robin play with a 3-0 record. The Danish star defeated Daniela Hantuchova 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. The match lasted two hours and 45 minutes (what do they think this is, Istanbul?!). Hantuchova won 109 points, Wozniacki won 107.

Joining Wozniacki in the semifinals from Group Serdika is Roberta Vinci, who defeated Hsieh Su-Wei 6-1, 6-2 today.

Advancing to the semifinals from Group Sredets are Nadia Petrova and Tsvetana Pironkova. The apple cart was somewhat overturned when Maria Kirilenko withdrew from the tournament with an upper respiratory infection; Kirilenko was considered likely to advance to the semifinals. Petrova beat Kirilenko in three sets today, with Kirilenko winning one more point (101 to 100) than her opponent. Also of interest: Petrova hit seven aces; Kirilenko hit nine.

Here are the round-robin standings:

Caroline Wozniacki, 3-0
Roberta Vinci, 2-1
Hsieh Su-Wei, 0-2
Daniela Hantuchova, 0-2

Nadia Petrova, 2-0
Zheng Jie, 0-2
Maria Kirilenko, 1-1 (withdrew)
Tsvetana Pironkova, 1-1

The order of the semifinals is yet to be determined. Here is tomorrow's line-up:

Sofia Arvidsson (alternate replacing Kirilenko) vs. Zheng Jie
Nadia Petrova vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
Hsieh Su-Wei vs. Daniela Hantuchova

The winner of the Petrova vs. Pironkova match will determine who plays whom in the semifinals.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pironkova wins opening round-robin match in Sofia

Tsvetana Pironkova, playing in front of a home crowd at the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, won her first round-robin match today by defeating Zheng Jie 2-6, 6-4, 7-6. The match laster over two hours and 41 minutes, and the victory was Pironkova's first win over Zheng.

 "...I've never played in front of such a crowd," Pironkova said. "I just want to thank everyone who came out today, because I don't think I could have won this match without them."

Pironkova and Zheng were the only two to play from Group Sredets. In the Group Serkika, Roberta Vinci defeated Daniela Hantuchova 6-1, 6-2, and top seed Caroline Wozniacki defeated Hsieh Su-Wei 6-2, 6-2.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Quote of the day

"It's funny, I feel like I'm a host here, and whenever there's a problem somewhere, I just want to help and keep everyone happy!"
Tsvetana Pironkova, on her Sofia experience

Passing shots

Take a break and put together a jigsaw puzzle.

Or, if music is more to your liking, take a look (and listen) to the tennis-and-music videos compiled by Courtney Nguyen, inspired by all of Redfoo's recent Vika-love. Bear in mind that--once you've re-visited the insane combination of Lil Wayne and Elena Dementieva--it's all really bad. You may ask yourself, "Why aren't the Bryan Brothers Real Housewives instead of tennis players?" (You may ask yourself, "My god, what have I done?!") And to go even farther back, I remind you, readers, that Elton John's song, "Philadelphia Freedom," was written by John and Bernie Taupin as a favor for Billie Jean King.

Julia Goerges is the latest Rado brand ambassador.

Tennis X puts the WTA Doubles Championships in the trunk this week, and the good news is--starting in 2013, there will be eight teams playing and not four. Sounds better to me.

Daniela Hantuchova is blogging this week from Sofia.

Tournament of Champions play begins tomorrow in Sofia. Here are the round-robin groups:

Caroline Wozniacki
Roberta Vinci
Hsieh Su-Wei
Daniela Hantuchova

Nadia Petrova
Maria Kirilenko
Zheng Jie
Tsvetana Pironkova

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Serena Williams wins WTA Championships

Hitting 40 winners and making just 14 unforced errors, Serena Williams won the WTA Championships in Istanbul today by defeating Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3. Williams has now beaten Sharapova nine consecutive times.

The victory in Istanbul gives Williams her seventh title of the season and also makes her the oldest player (31) to ever win the Championships. The champion's performance in the final was nothing short of stunning; her return game alone was deadly, even against the likes of Sharapova, who never even saw a break point. Williams also hit eleven aces along the way, and didn't drop one set throughout the tournament. This was her third time to win the Championships.

Williams is 58-4 for the season. She won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and two Olympic gold medals, as well as titles in Charleston, Madrid and Stanford. If that isn't Player of the Year, I don't know what is.

Sharapova, for her part, fared better against Williams in Istanbul than she did at the Olympic Games, when Williams beat her 6-0, 6-1.

Other Russians did better. Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova, the last team to qualify for Istanbul, won the championship, defeating Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka 6-1, 6-4. This has been an excellent year for both Russians, in doubles and singles.

The trophy ceremony was a bit intense, with the crowd expressing some of its local political likes and dislikes. All the winning players were worth listening to, and toward the end, we were treated to a rather endearing image of Maria Kirilenko picking confetti out of Serena's hair.

Women Who Serve gives a nod to Kevin Skinner, who chose to defy the WTA's official sexism and introduce and refer to Stacey Allaster as a "chairwoman." I enjoyed the commentating this week by Skinner and Alicia Molik on Tennis TV, and Brett Haber, working for Tennis Channel, made me laugh several times. It was also a treat to have Mary Pierce in the broadcast booth for just a while.

In the end, the 2012 WTA Championships event (or rather, the singles portion of the event) was a solid statement on The Way Things Are. The defending champion, Petra Kvitova, had to withdraw because of illness, which has been an unfortunate theme for the Czech star all year. And Williams, ranked number 3 in the world, beat both the number 1 and number 2 players in the world to claim the title.

It's nice when things go as they "should," but it's also fun to be surprised, and the team of Kirilenko and Petrova gave us the the surprise part of the tournament, taking out both the world number 1 team, and then winning the whole thing.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Margaret Osborne duPont dies at age 94

Margaret Osborne duPont, one of the greatest women's tennis champions in history, died Wednesday in El Paso, Texas. Osborne duPont was 94 years old.

Osborne duPont, who never entered the Australian Open, won 37 majors in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Six of those titles were won in singles play (two French Open, one Wimbledon, three U.S. Open). Osborne duPont also had a perfect record in both singles and doubles during 20 consecutive years of Wightman Cup play.

Osborne duPont held the year-end number 1 ranking on four occasions. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1967.

Williams and Sharapova to compete for WTA Championships title

It certainly couldnt' have come as a surprise to anyone (least of all, to Radwanska) that Serena Williams beat Agnieszka Radwanska in straight sets today in Istanbul. Radwanska--aside from having all the usual problems with Williams--did well to just show up and play after probably wearing permanent grooves into the court surface with her extremely long matches this week. Williams beat Radwanska 6-2, 6-1 in just over an hour.

The other match was more interesting, but also kind of strange. Maria Sharapova looked quite commanding from beginning to end in her semifinal against world numer 1 Victoria Azarena. Azarenka, on the other hand, looked hesitant and distracted. She appeared to be having some type of problem with both legs--or both thighs--and was focused on them throughout the match. Sharapova won, 6-4, 6-2, and looked subdued until after the handshake, when she really let loose.

Having figured out Azarenka (at least today), Sharapova now has a tougher task at hand. The last time she beat Serena Williams was at the Championships in 2004. That was, of course, the same year Sharapova beat Williams to win Wimbledon. Things have changed since those times. A win over Williams tomorrow would boost the Russian's outlook considerably. She is looking more and more "Maria" as time goes on, so the contest to determine the champion should be a good one. Williams is now 9-2 against Sharapova, with the last victory coming in the final of the 2012 Olympic Games.

The doubles team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka advanced to the final today, after beating defending champions Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond 7-6, 6-1. In the other semifinal, Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova upset the world number 1 team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, 1-6, 6-3, 10-4. Errani and Vinci had won the last four times the two teams had played one another.

As the scoreline indicates, the first set was a breeze for the Italian team Despite having played for three and a half hours yesterday in singles Errani was as animated as ever. In the second set, however, Nadia Petrova really came alive, serving very well and making life miserable for her opponents with her volleying. Kirilenko had trouble holding serve throughout the match, but the Russian pair was good enough to take the second set.

The super-tiebreak was all about Kirilenko. She had not played her best in the first two sets, but she was a whirlwind of expert shot-making and court strategy in the tiebreak, which her team won pretty easily, even after Errani and Vinci took away their 3-0 lead.

The Russians have won three titles together; Miami is their only title this year (in the past, they have not played together as a regular team, but only from time to time). Kirilenko and Petrova were also the runners-up at the 2012 French Open. Hlavackova and Hradecka have won nine titles together, including the 2011 French Open. This year, they were the runners-up this year at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Olympic Games.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Radwanska hoping "to stay in one piece"

You have to hand it to Agnieszka Radwanska: She went three hours and 29 minutes today to put away that pesky Fighting Italian, Sara Errani. It was an oddly satisfying match, even though both women had really bad patches of play. But in spite of their deficiencies--Errani sometimes tried to take the easy way out and paid for it, and Radwanska made senseless errors--the beautiful shot-making from both players more than justified the time it took to watch the match. Radwanska should have closed it sooner, but you know how Errani is--she's like Schiavone and Pennetta. She kept taking away her opponent's victory. In the end, though, after repeatedly serving for the match, Radwansksa won, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4.

This was the longest match in WTA Championships history. Radwanska also played for three hours and twelve minutes against Maria Sharapova in another White Group match in Istanbul. This has to be a very tired player. In fact, after today's contest, Radwansksa said that her immediate goal was to "stay in one piece." She plays Serena Williams in the semifinals tomorrow, right after the first doubles match. To borrow a phrase from someone we all admire: Good luck with that.

And speaking of Someone We All Admire--World number 1 Victoria Azarenka clenched her place in the semifinals today by defeating Li Na 7-6, 6-3. Azarenka's screaming toward the end of the match became so intense that even I took notice of it. Intense.

Check out this WTA photo gallery for a picture of Azarenka that just explains it all.

The day started, however, in a calm manner, i.e., Maria Sharapova ran over Sam Stosur 6-0, 6-3. Is anyone surprised?

So tomorrow, Radwanska plays Williams (they met in the Wimbledon final) and Azarenka plays Sharapova (they met in the Australian Open final). The top four players in the world are in the draw tomorrow.

Tomorrow also features the semifinals for the top four doubles teams of the year. Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond will play Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will play Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova. Errani will undoubtedly be somewhat tired, but she has Vinci by her side, and--you know--she's a Fighting Italian.

And in the latest Istanbul video, Redfoo gets down with Nouni, Serena does beautiful splits, Kerber brings out the frying pan, and Asderaki smiles!

Friday cat blogging--storage solution edition

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Quote of the day

"I can't wait to get to Australia. I wish it started next month."
Serena Williams

Williams beats Azarenka yet again

Relaxing in her vacation home inside Victoria Azarenka's head, Serena Williams completed a 3-0 round-robin record in Istanbul today by defeating the number 1-ranked player 6-4, 6-4. Williams hit eleven aces, and Azarenka double-faulted nine times, which says quite a bit about the state of each competitor's confidence.

There were eight breaks of serve in the match; it wasn't a simple task for Williams to win. But it wasn't that difficult a task, either, as Williams used both serve and movement to take charge at important moments, and Azarenka grew increasingly flummoxed as the match wore on. The level of competition just wasn't the same as it was in Flushing Meadows, and Azarenka is now looking at a 1-11 record aginst Williams. Today's victory, by the way, marked Williams' 16th career win aganst a world number 1. That puts her just two wins behind Martina Navratilova.

Angelique Kerber is feeling frustrated about now, I would think. She brought a really world-class serve to her match against Azarenka, but lost to the world number 1. That serve was absent today, and opponent Li Na efficiently handed Kerber a 0-3 record in Istanbul. The WTA website says "Li Loves the Lefties"--the Chinese star is 34-5 against left-handed players during the last four years. She is also 6-1 against Kerber, whom she beat in this year's Cincinnati final.

Credit to Kerber, by the way, for the way she made her exit, warmly acknowledging the crowd's support. And what a crowd it is! Fans have given the top eight a great reception during every match.

That brings us to the Fighting Italian, who should never be under-estimated (nor should any Fighting Italian). Sara Errani beat Sam Stosur 6-3, 2-6, 6-0 in today's round-robin play. Stosur gave Errani 18 break chances, and Errani converted seven of them. The final set was pretty much a meltdown for the Australian.

Tomorrow, Stosur plays Maria Sharapova, Errani plays Agnieszka Radwanska, and Azarenka plays Li. The winner of the Azarenka vs. Li match will join Williams in representing the Red Group in the semifinals.

If Azarenka beats Li and Stosur beats Sharapova, Azarenka is a lock to hold onto the world number 1 ranking. If Azarenka is defeated by Li, she will still keep the world number 1 ranking as long as Sharapova doesn't win the title undefeated.

The doubles draw has now been made:
Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci vs. Maria Kirilenko/Nadia Petrova
Liezel Huber/Lisa Raymond vs. Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Hradecka

Here's a little Istanbul action:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Passing shots

Former world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki will be the top seed at the Tournament of Champions, which will be held in Sofia October 30-November 4. The second seed is Nadia Petrova. Joining Wozniacki and Petrova as this year's big International Tournament winners will be Roberta Vinci, Hsieh Su-Wei, Zheng Jie, and Daniela Hantuchova. There are also two wild cards--Maria Kirilenko and Tsvetana Pironkova. If Wozniacki wins the event, she'll return to the top 10.

The American Psychological Association reported last month that when athletes fail to perform well under pressure, it may be that they are focusing too much on their movements. A study found that right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand before an athletic event played better under pressure. Clenching with the left hand is thought to activate the right side of the brain, which is associated with automated movements.

The WTA has donated $25,000 to the USANA True Health Foundation, which helps "deserving" (no kidding--that's what it says) populations worldwide in times of need.

Petra Kvitova, who withdrew from the WTA Championships because of a viral illness, says she expects to be well by the time the Fed Cup final rolls around in a week and a half.

Victoria Azarenka has received the WTA Diamond ACES Award for 2012. The award is given to a player who does an outstanding job of promoting the sport of tennis both on and off the court.

Sizzling day 2 in Istanbul

Today was a big day in Istanbul. Defending champion Petra Kvitova withdrew from the Championships because of a viral illness that she seems to have had--on and off--all season. Kvitova has been ill so much that thinking about it only leads one to ask the same question (though perhaps in a somewhat different context) as always: What's wrong with Petra?

Sam Stosur, the first alternate, will now step into Kvitova's place in the White Group.

World number 1 Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber gave the crowds something to really cheer about today. The players competed for over three hours in a very high quality and thrilling match. Kerber took the first set and held two match points on Azarenka's serve in the second, but Azarenka was able to turn that set around and go on to win the match.

The first set alone was exhausting to watch, as Kerber saved five set points and won the set in a tiebreak on her sixth set point.

Azarenka's 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 victory could turn out to be the defining match of the tournament. At any rate, it was a memorable one.

Not to be outdone, Maria Sharapova and her some-time nemesis, Agnieszka Radwanska, also went three sets and played for over three hours in the early morning hours in Istanbul. It was another outstanding match, with Sharapova surviving (5-7, 7-5, 7-5) to reach the semifinals.

And while it wasn't that pretty, Serena Williams defeated Li Na 7-6, 6-3 in today's only Red Group action.

Here are the standings so far:

Victoria Azarenka. 1-0
Serena Williams, 2-0
Angelique Kerber, 0-2*
Li Na, 1-0

Maria Sharapova, 2-0
Agnieszka Radwanska, 1-1
Petra Kvitova, 0-1, withdrawn from competition
Sara Errani, 0-1
Samantha Stosur (first alternate), 0-0

*It's worth noting that Kerber drew the ultimate short straw, in that she got Williams and Azarenka as her first two opponents. And while she may have lost today, the German star was most impressive.

Stosur will play for the first time tomorrow; she gets Errani in the final match of the day.

Kerber plays Li tomorrow, and then--once again--Azarenka plays Williams. The world number 1's two big challenges on the tour have been playing Kvitova and Williams. Azarenka lost to Williams in the U.S. Open final, and the fact that these two will meet again in tomorrow's round-robin play probably cannot be over-promoted. Williams is the favorite, of course, but who doesn't want to see them go at it again?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

This is how to do a draw ceremony!

Radwanska gets first win against Kvitova

In the WTA Championships White Group, today's scores included Radwanska--1, Kvitova--0. For the first time, Agnieszka Radwanska beat Petra Kvitova, and she beat her in straight sets--6-3, 6-2. Kvitova had won in their three previous meetings. The defending champion did save two match points, but she also made 41 unforced errors.

Earth to Petra: It's an indoor court. You're the defending champion. It's the end of the season. Please join us!

Also in the White Group, Maria Sharapova defeated Sara Errani 6-3, 6-2. In the Red Group, Serena Williams beat Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-1.

Tomorrow, there'll be Red Group action as Williams plays Li Na and Victoria Azarenka plays Kerber. In the White Group, Sharapova will face off against You-Know-Who.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Passing shots

The eight Istanbl competitors (and one alternate) glam it up for the press.

Richard Pagliaro thinks Victoria Azarenka has what it takes to stay in the number 1 spot, and he makes suggestions for her, too.

I missed this truly wonderful post by Hudson Taylor on the relationship between sexism and homophobia (the two issues are, in my opinion, inseparable), but was directed to it by After Atalanta.

Vera Zvonareva's former coach, Sergey Demekhine, is now coaching Margarita Gasparyan.

Caroline Wozniacki says that all of her off-court promotional work contributed to her decline in the rankings. (link courtesy of On the Baseline).

Wozniacki, by the way, will enter the top 10 again if she wins the Tournament of Champions.

"You can't choose who can be in your group"

That's a quote from the WTA Championships defending champion Petra Kvitova, who got drawn into the White Group today for competition in Istanbul. But Kvitova's draw could be worse: She's 3-0 against White Group member Agnieszka Radwanska, and 3-0 against Sara Errani. She's 2-4, however, against Maria Sharapova, who has found a way to beat Kvitova since losing to her in the 2011 Wimbledon final. The Istanbul event is played on an indoor court, which is a potential advantage for Kvitova.

The Red Group contains world number 1 Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, and Li Na. That's a group against whom Williams has been dominant in general, though she's 1-1 against Kerber.

Both Errani and Kerber will be returning from time off to rehab injuries--Errani's thigh and Kerber's foot. The alternates, who are at the ready, are Sam Stosur and Marion Bartoli.

The WTA Championships singles competition employs a round-robin format, so each player in a group will get to play every other player in that group.

The doubles competition will be a regular knock-out event. Particpating are the following teams:

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci
Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka
Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond
Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova

The tournament begins on October 23.

And here's a quote fromn Williams: "...I'm really happy to be here. I'm on the red side, with Victoria, so it'll be good."

Serena has spoken.

Wozniacki wins Kremlin Cup

Caroline Wozniacki won her 20th WTA singles title today when she defeated top seed Sam Stosur 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 to win the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Wozniacki won her first 2012 title in Seoul a few weeks ago. To get to the final, the former world number 1 had to take out defending champion Dominika Cibulkova, and she also had to fight a determined Sofia Arvidsson in the semifinals.

The all-Russian doubles final was won by top seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. They defeated 2nd seeds Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova 6-3, 1-6, 10-8.

Meanwhile, Venus Williams won the title in Luxembourg. Williams defeated Monica Niculescu 6-2, 6-3 in the final. Both finalists were unseeded. Niculescu, with partner Irina-Camelia Begu, was also the runner up in the doubles competition. Begu and Niculescu, the 2nd seeds, were defeated 6-3, 6-4 by top seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka.

Williams beat top seed Roberta Vinci in the quarterfinals. The Luxembourg title is Williams' 44th, and her first since she won Acapulco in 2010.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Passing shots

2010 champion Samantha Stosur is the first player to enter the 2013 Family Circle Cup. The Charleston tournament will be held March 30-April 7.

Ula Radwanska was blogging from Moscow this week, but is now out of the tournament.

You can get to know Krystina Pliskova. And Silvia Soler-Espinosa and Donna Vekic.

Kirsten Flipkens says that one of the keys to her recent success is that she is being actively encouraged by longtime friend Kim Clijsters.

Sam Stosur is now the first alternate in the WTA Championships, and Marion Bartoli is the second alternate.

Here is yet another good story about Varvara Lepchenko (link courtesy of Beyond the Baseline).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Three Russians out in first round of Kremlin Cup

Nadia Petrova, Ekaterina Makarova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, all Russian, were taken out of the Kremlin Cup in the first round today. They were defeated, respectively, by Simona Halep, 5th seed Dominika Cibulkova and former Russian player Yaroslava Shvedova. Tokyo champion Petrova was the 6th seed; Cibulkova is the defending champion.

Cibulkova's next opponent will be Tsvetana Pironkova, who defeated Varvara Lepchenko 6-0, 7-6 in the first round. The top seed in Moscow is Sam Stosur, who had a bye in the opening round, and will play Alize Cornet in the second round.

In Luxembourg, wild card Kirsten Flipkens upset 5th seed Sabine Lisicki 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. The top seed in Luxembourg is Roberta Vinci, who advanced to the second round with a win over Olga Govortsova.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Watson wins Osaka, Azarenka wins Linz

Today in Osaka, Heather Watson became the first British woman in 24 years to win a WTA tournament. Watson defeated Chang Kai-Chen 7-5, 5-7, 7-6 in the final. Neither player was seeded, and neither had ever before advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a tour event. Chang had taken out both top seed Sam Stosur and Watson's countrywoman, Laura Robson, in third set tiebreaks.

The 3-hour and 11-minute match was very close. Chang served for the first set but was broken. Watson held a match point in the second set, but was unable to convert it when she committed one of only two double faults in the match. In the final set, Chang led 5-3 and held four match points.

"She's an amazing returner, so I wanted to go for it," Watson said after the match.

Watson and her partner, Kimiko Date-Krumm, emerged as runners-up for the doubles title. They were defeated 6-1, 6-4 by top seeds Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears. This is the fourth title of 2012 for the USA team.

Meanwhile, top seed and world number 1 Victoria Azarenka won the title in Linz by defeating 5th seed Julia Goerges 6-3, 6-4 in the final. Azarenka won in Beijing last week, and has won five titles this year, including the Australian Open.

Top seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Pesche won the doubles title. In today's final, they defeated 2nd seeds Goerges and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 6-3, 6-4.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Qualifier and lucky loser reach semifinals in Linz

Lucky loser Irina Camelia-Begu advanced to the semifinals of the Generali Ladies Linz tournament today. Begu defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-4, 1-6, 6-2. Also advancing was qualifier Kirsten Flipkens, who defeated 2nd seed Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-0.

The other quarterfinal winners were top seed Victoria Azarenka (def. Petra Martic) and 5th seed Julia Goerges (def. Sofia Arvidsson).

In Osaka, top seed Sam Stosur has reached the semifinals, and so have three players who have never before gotten that far in singles--Chang Kai-Chen, Misake Doi and Heather Watson. Watson and Kimiko Date-Krumm have also reached the semifinals in doubles.

Friday cat blogging--two heads better than one edition

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Passing shots

Agnieszka Radwanska is the face of Amica.

The 2012 Fed Cup final  (November 3 and 4) will be played in Prague on--surprise!--an indoor court.

There are so many ways to love Vika.

Sara Errani, who has won four singles titles and eight doubles titles this season, will compete in both singles and doubles at the WTA Championships in Istanbul.

Eat your heart out, Petko!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Azarenka does it again

She did it in Australia, she did it Indian Wells, and Victoria Azarenka has now beaten Maria Sharapova in yet another big final. The world number 1 defeated Sharapova 6-3, 6-1 today to win the China Open in Beijing. This the first title Azarenka has won since she lifted the tophy in Indian Wells over six months ago, and the confidence boost is sure to put her in a good position for competing at the WTA Championships in Istanbul.

"...I'm not really looking for them, but I'm looking to provoke them..." Azarenka said of Sharapova's errors. Sharapova made 39 unforced errors and hit 18 winners.

Azarenka, who beat Sharapova in the 2012 U.S. Open semifinals, is now 6-4 against the Russian.

In Beijing doubles competition, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina won their first title as a team. Makarova and Vesnina defeated Nuria Llagostera Vives and Sania Mirza (Vesnina's former doubles partner) 7-5, 7-5 in the final.

Makarova and Vesnina reached the finals in both Rome and Madrid, but lost both of those to Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.

Friday, October 5, 2012

And then there were 8

For the first time in the history of the WTA Championships, the eight competitors represent eight different countries:

Victoria Azarenka--Belarus
Maria Sharapova--Russia
Agnieszka Radwanska--Poland
Serena Williams--USA
Angelique Kerber--Germany
Petra Kvitova--Czech Republic
Sara Errani--Italy
Li Na--China

Kvitova is the defending champion.

Defending champion Radwanska out of China Open

Agnieszka Radwanska, the defending champin in Beijing, was beaten today in the quarterfinals by Li Na. Li won 30 of her 35 first serves and was never broken. Last week, Radwanska, who was also the defending champion in Tokyo, lost in the final to Nadia Petrova.

Li's 6-4, 6-2 victory over Radwanska puts her in the semifinals against Marion Bartoli, who defeated Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals.

Maria Sharapova had an easy 6-0, 3-0 victory over Angelique Kerber, who had to retire because of a foot injury. Sharapjova will play top seed Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals. Azarenka defeated Romina Oprandi today.

In the doubles semifinals, 2nd seeds Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova were defeated by 3rd seeds (and countrywomen) Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina. Makrova and Vesnina will play Nuria Llagostera Vives and Sania Mirza in the final. Mirza is Vesnina's former doubles partner.

Friday cat blogging--inside out edition

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

When she was good, she was very, very good

And when she was bad--

Oh, Petra.

Taken out of Tokyo in the second round (she had a bye in the first) by Petra Martic, Petra Kvitova has now made an early exit in Beijing, also. Kvitova beat Daniela Hantuchova in her first match, but lost in straight sets in the second round to Carla Suarez Navarro.

I've grown weary of asking "What's wrong with Petra?" but I will ask--is anyone doing anything about it? This is not a "slump." This is some strange stuff going on with a player who should be winning left and right on all surfaces. I have no idea what's needed--many things come to mind. I just hope that, whatever it is, it's provided sooner than later.

There are other stories in Beijing. Sara Errani had to retire in the opening round because of a hip injury. Jelena Jankovic beat her Beijing doubles partner Andrea Petkovic. Dominika Cibulkova had to retire in the first round, as did Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Simona Halep gave Maria Sharapova some trouble. Lisa Raymond and Sam Stosur briefly reunited, but were defeated in the first round by Julia Goerges and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.

Goerges also upset Stosur in singles, beating her 7-6, 4-6, 7-5 in the second round. Tokyo champion Nadia Petrova won only three games against Li Na, and qualifier Lourdes Dominguez Lino has now taken out both Roberta Vinci and Laura Robson.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Toky-o Nadia!

Official 2012 Radwanska-slayer Nadia Petrova won the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo today, defeating defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 1-6, 6-3. The Russian pulled this off the hard way, too, entering the tournament with a back injury bad enough to cause her to withdraw from play in Seoul last week.

Twice in Tokyo, Petrova looked done. She had to play for over three hours against Petra Martic in the third round, and she came from a set and 1-4 down to beat Sara Errani in the quarterfinals. In the course of the event, Petrova beat three top ten players--Errani, Radwanska, and Samantha Stosur (in the semifinals).

In the first set of the final. Petrova hit 16 winners and made only three unforced errors. Anyone who has followed her career (and that of Radwanska) knew, however, that the second set would be different. It was. Radwanska significantly raised the level of her serve, and Petrova began making a number of unforced errors. Serving for the set at 5-1, the defending champion seemingly effortlessly reeled off three aces in a row.

The third set, as expected, was much closer. At 3-all, however, Radwanska blinked. The 3rd seed double-faulted twice in the seventh game, and was broken. Petrova smoothly served for the match, which gave her her second tournament win for 2012. Her other victory this year was in 's-Hertogenbosch, and there, she beat none other than Urszula Radwanska in the final.

Radwanska committed only three double-faults in the entire match, but two came at such a crucial time, they more or less decided her fate.

Contrary to what Tennis TV broadcast over and over, this is not Petrova's first premier-level title. She won both Charleston and Berlin in 2006.

The unseeded team of Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears won the doubles title. They defeated 4th seeds Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke 6-1, 6-4 in the final.