Thursday, May 31, 2012

French Open--what they said

After that last point, I couldn't believe the match was over. I was still in the moment.
Varvara Lepchenko

The most important thing is that I'm healthy and that I can compete 100%.
Caroline Wozniacki

How different is Ula from Aga?
I think both are playing really similar, but I think that Aga hits more balls, has more touch, more good hands, and maybe she has a little bit better serve.
Petra Kvitova

I’m like, geez, everybody is now going to ask me this question, so I was like running away from people. Like I don’t want to think about it.
Varvara Lepchenko, on whether she will make the USA Olympic team

I don't want to think about it.
Christina McHale (see Varvara Lepchenko)

I want someone who is strict and tells me things how they are.
Caroline Wozniacki, on coaching relationships

Defending champion moves to third round of French Open

French Open defending champion Li Na advanced to the third round at Roland Garros today, easily defeating Stephanie Foretz Gacon 6-0, 6-2. Next for Li is Christina McHale, who was victorious today over countrywoman Lauren Davis. Li is in the same quarter as 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, whom she beat in the round of 16 during last year's French Open. Li, of course, beat Schiavone in the final to claim the title in 2011.

Arantxa Rus ended Virginie Razzano's brief, but unforgettable run, today. Klara Zakopalova defeated 16th seed Maria Kirilenko, and Caroline Wozniacki, Julia Goerges and Angelique Kerber all advanced. Saying goodbye was 19th seed Jelena Jankovic, who fell in three sets to a jubilant Varvaro Lepchenko. Lepchenko's second round victory keeps alive her hope of being part of the USA's Olympic team during the summer Games. As for Jankovic--it's more of a story now when she wins, and that is tennis's loss.

Maria Sharapova didn't get to play her second round match against Ayumi Morita because John Isner was at it again, playing a marathon match against a Frenchman--this time, veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu. Isner and eventual winner Mathieu played for 5 hours and 41 minutes, while Sharapova and Morita prepared for a match that wasn't to be played. They will play on Friday, and the winner will play Peng Shuai in the third round.

A third round match (one I won't see) that has the potential to be very good is the one scheduled between Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Dominika Cibulkova. Martinez Sanchez has faded since her memorable Rome win in 2010, but has shown her tricky form again in Paris. Cibulkova was a French Open semifinalist in 2009, and is a grinder par excellence.

Also, Nadia Petrova and 2010 finalist Sam Stosur will go at it again, and--unless one of them has a nervous collapse (that can't be counted out), things could get interesting. Angelique Kerber faces Flavia Pennetta, and another good clay grinder, Sara Errani, goes against 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic. Top seed Victoria Azarenka is also scheduled to play tomorrow, and her opponent will be Aleksandra Wozniak.

3rd seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who may or may not be conjuring everything from the weather to the increasing strangeness of the draw, will play 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, a clay competitor of great talent who has streaky results. Should The Radwanska prevail, either Errani or Ivanovic will await her in the round of 16. The 3rd seed has reached the round of 16 at the French Open three times, but has never gone beyond that. She has also never before been seeded 3rd or generally kicked everyone on the tour (except for Victoria Azarenka and Petra Cetkovska, who was kindly removed from competition by Frenchwoman Mathilde Johansson in the second round), around as though they were pieces of clay knocked from her shoes.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the hottest doubles team of the clay season, won their second round match today. The Italians, who are seeded 4th, have now won 27 straight red clay matches. Defending champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka also won today, as did 2nd seeds Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik. Losing, however, was the ad hoc team of Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska, defeated by Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone. Considering that both Kerber and Radwanska probably have high expectations about their singles draw, the doubles defeat might not be the worst outcome for either of them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Radwanska advances to third round of French Open

3rd seed Agnieszka Radwanska made only six unforced errors today in her second round match against Venus Williams. Radwanska defeated Williams 6-2, 6-3, and was successful with all five break opportunities.

Top seed Victoria Azarenka had a much better time of it in the second round, losing only two games to Dinah Pfizenmaier; 2010 finalist Sam Stosur advanced, as did 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dominika Cibulkova, and Nadia Petrova. Cibulkova will play Sara Errani in the third round, and that has the potential to be a match worth watching.

Lucie Safarova is out--defeated by an in-form Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. But the upset of the day was pulled off by Petra Martic, who defeated 8th seed (and 2011 semifinalist) Marion Bartoli 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. Sometimes Bartoli's serve deserts her, and today was one of those times.

Petra Cetkovska, who was lurking in the same quarter as Radwanska, was beaten today by Mathilde Johansson. Cetkovska has a 4-0 record against Radwanska, so one of the Polish star's obstacles has been removed.

Mixed doubles competition began today, and 4th seeds Lisa Raymond and Rohan Bopanna were defeated by Natalie Grandin and Paul Hanley.

French Open--what they said

Is your first match on the WTA circuit like a first kiss--you remember it all your life?
Not really, because I don’t remember much about my first match.
Petra Kvitova

Every match is gonna to be difficult right from the beginning; there is no easy one.
Victoria Azarenka

I didn’t expect that. It was kind of a weird match. We had short points, and I’m a little sick, and so I wasn’t expecting to go out there and grind all day, so it kind of helped me with the short points.
Sloane Stephens

We seem to run into each other in third rounds quite often....
Sam Stosur, referring to Nadia Petrova

This one--you can do, you can do!
Virginie Razzano, talking about all her match points

A lot of French people like wine--that's for sure; I know that.
Victoria Azarenka

It's poorly written, it's very obtuse, and it makes no sense.
Mary Carillo, on the hinrance rule

Can you sing us a Czech song?
I’m a big fan of Czech pop music, but I won’t sing--it’s better for you I don’t.
Petra Kvitova

Passing shots

Nicole Gibbs took both the singles and doubles title at the NCAA Division 1 championships.

Victoria Azarenka says that the most important advice she ever got was from Amelie Mauresmo: Be yourself. Maybe now follow it?

'Pova loves Paris in the spring.

Any Given Surface takes a look at 2012 French Open fashion.

I've always wanted to go to Madrid, and now--with Sam Stosur as a guide--I really want to go.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sharapova speeds through French Open first round

It didn't take 2nd seed Maria Sharapova long to post a 6-0, 6-0 score against Alexandra Cadantu in her French Open first round today. Also dispatching opponents in straight sets were 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone (def. Kimiko Date-Krumm), 9th seed Caroline Wozniacki (def. Eleni Daniilidou) and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who defeated junior Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty.

Julia Goerges defeated Lucie Hradecka, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeated Greta Arn.

And while all the talk today was about Serena Williams' first round exit, there was quite a bit going on in doubles competition, too. Kaia Kanepi and Zhang Shuai upset top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond, 6-3, 7-5.

6th seeds Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Iveta Benesova were upset 7-6, 7-5 in the first round by Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska. Nina Bratchikova and Edina Gallovits-Hall defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sania Mirza, and Janette Husarova and Christina McHale defeated Charleston champions Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Lucie Safarova.

Also going out was the team of Julia Goerges and Sam Stosur; they lost to 6th seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

The International Tennis Hall of Fame needs to hear from you

The International Tennis Hall of Fame's definition of "diligence" is a strange one. "We're going to be diligent about it," past Hall of Fame president Tony Trabert said, "and see what we can discover." Trabert was talking about the multiple allegations of sexual abuse made by female players who, when they were juveniles, were coached by doubles star Hewitt. Now, the Hall of Fame has revealed that there is, indeed, no investigation at all.

When investigating whether a player has violated sporting ethics, there are sometimes fine lines. Sexual abuse of juveniles, however, doesn't strike me--and many others--as much of a fine line. It is, in fact, a crime in this country, as well as many others. Hewitt was never charged with a crime, which is true in many, many cases of child sexual abuse. The statue of limitations has expired in the USA, so accusers from this country cannot bring charges at this point, even if they want to.

Here is a petition you can sign which demands that the International Tennis Hall of Fame investigate Hewitt's past, and the complaints that have come against him from women on three continents. Some of his "uncanny instincts," according to his alleged victims, were vile.

French Open--what they said

Lindsay, did you ever cramp?
I never stayed on the court long enough to cramp.
Lindsay Davenport

I'm so tight.
Serena Williams, overheard talking to those in her box during the match

I think we have to learn many things from her.
Francesca Schivaone, on Kimiko Date-Krumm

I think it's more of a rhythm than anything else, and just a routine that I've done for a really long time. Sometimes I need it more than other times, and...if you feel like you're just rushing a little bit, it gives you time to be in your own little world and get to think about what you might need to change or do better....
Maria Sharapova, discussing her between-points ritual

The arm gets heavier and heavier when you have a big lead and it starts to get erased.
Lindsay Davenport

I'm not happy, by no means. I just always think things can be worse.
Serena Williams

I stil have to play my game, my aggressive game and be first who push the other to the back, and try to play winners and go for the volleys. and on the clay, it's a little bit different, but it's still--I have to play my game.
Petra Kivtova

When you play against Serena don't need to focus on your legs.
Virginia Razzano, who experienced cramping in her first round match

Razzano upsets Serena Williams in French Open thriller

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said:


Serena Williams, Virginie Razzano and chair umpire Eva Asderaki took us for a three-hour trip down the Rabbit Hole today in Paris. The Rabbit Hole was filled with red clay, to be sure, but the experience was right out of the mind of Lewis Carroll. Consider these things:

Serena Williams, in 46 appearances in majors, had never gone out in the first round.

Asderaki was the umpire who sat in the chair during the 2011 U.S. Open final, when Williams--docked a point for what Asderaki interpreted as a hindrance--referred to her as "a hater" and "unattractive inside."

Razzano, just a year ago, entered the French open only a week after the death of her fiance, Stephane Vidal, saying that she was competing, however shakily, for him (she went out in straight sets in the first round).

Razzano is French, and the French crowd is known for its overwhelming enthusiasm and merciless expressions of disapproval.

Those things set the scene for some drama, but perhaps for not quite as much drama as we actually got.

First, a few words about Razzano, a player who--at least when she speaks in English--is given to ultra-expressive, and sometimes entertaining, language. We have had several glimpses of her talent over the years. Her performance in the 2009 Dubai tournament is an example. In that event, the Frenchwoman knocked off Kateryna Bondarenko, Dinara Safina, Daniela Hantuchova, and Vera Zvonareva (by retirement). She lost to Venus Williams in the final, but her run was nevertheless impressive.

During the 2009 French Open, Razzano and Tathiana Garbin engaged in one of the outstanding matches of that event, and my personal favorite. With the wind swirling around them, Razzano defeated Garbin 7-5, 7-5 in a match that was a shotmaker's dream.

Hard times hit the 29-year-old Razzano, in terms of both injury and the loss of Vidal, who had also been her coach. She came to today's match ranked number 111 in the world, though she has been ranked as high as 16. Her opponent was world number 5 Serena Williams, holder of thirteen major singles titles, and a favorite (for the first time in years) to win this year's French Open. Williams won both the Charleston and the Madrid tournaments this year, showing her talent on both green and blue clay.

"I don't know what you mean by your way, said the Queen: "all the ways about here belong to me--but why did you come out here at all?"

Williams was 17-0 on clay this season when she arrived on Court Phillippe Chatrier. Razzano was1-1. But right from the start, it was Razzano who looked confident, and Williams who looked hesitant. Razzano quickly went up a break, but lost the set when--serving at 4-5, she double-faulted the game, and the set, away. She had looked very strong in that first set, though conventional wisdom would predict her capitulation to the champion on the other side of the net.

Razzano wasn't interested in conventional wisdom. She knew that Williams was tense, and she came out in the next set with the same resolve she had shown in the first. That set contained some very physical tennis--the kind that occurs on red clay--and Razzano suffered what appeared to be a cramp in her leg. The set went to a tiebreak, and Williams quickly went up 5-1. At 5-3, Williams stopped play because she believed that her opponent had struck the ball out of bounds. But Asderaki called the ball in, and suddenly, Williams led by only one point.

Razzano--nerves, exhaustion, cramps and all--kept at it, and she won the tiebreak 7-5. During the break between sets, Williams sat with her face in a towel, fighting back tears. She had let the match slip away by her stubborn resistance to the demands of the red clay court grind.

But she was down only a set, and how many times had Williams come back after being a set down? Also, her opponent was injured, and visibly nervous, committing double faults at crucial times. She had to put her own nerves, her own disappointment, her own errors, aside, and proceed with the rest of the match. What neither Williams nor anyone else realized, though, was that Razzano was doing the same thing: She was putting aside her fatigue, her injury, her double-faulting, and getting on with the business of winning the match.

"Speak in French when you can't remember the English for a thing--turn out your toes when you walk--and remember who you are!"

At first, it looked too easy. Razzano went up 3-0, and soon, she was up 5-0. Then Willams won a game. And then, not unexpectedly, she broke the Frenchwoman when she served for the match. Williams held,  and Razzano's anxiety became amost unbearable to watch. But Williams hadn't let go of her nerves, either. Serving once again for the match at 3-5, Razzano went through just about everything--good and bad--in her repertoire. She hit an ace. She double-faulted. She set up winners and couldn't complete them. She held seven match points, all saved by her opponent. There were twelve excruciating deuces. Williams held four break points and failed to convert them. Then, finally, on her eighth match point, Razzano did what no one else has ever been able to do: She took Serena Williams out of the opening round of a major.

As thrilling and heartbreaking as these events were, it should be pointed out that they were played against the background of Asderaki's apparent preoccupation with the hindrance rule. Early on, she gave Razzano a hindrance warning (something she failed to give Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final) when Razzano yelled before a ball reached her opponent. Later in the match, Asderaki would default Razzano two points because of the hindrance rule. On the second of these occasions, Razzano had (not very loudly) groaned in pain when her leg began to cramp.

There needs to be a hindrance rule, but someone, somewhere, needs to firmly define what a hindrance is. Even Asderaki doesn't seem to be clear within herself what is is. Some might say that this sudden focus on yelling and crying out and the hindrance rule has something to do with the WTA's concern over the sounds players make, but that would sound conspiratorial, wouldn't it?

Never mind. Razzano won the match in spite of the defaults, in spite of cramping, and in spite of history. And as tense and anxious and error-ridden as Williams was, there was still magic coming off of the Frenchwoman's racquet during much of this contest.

I don't usually throw flowers at commentators, but Rennae Stubbs' thoughtful comments about Williams and her sensitive interview with Razzano added to the emotional depth of this event.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Paris, Maria Sharapova is smiling, maybe just a little.

Monday, May 28, 2012

French Open--what they said

I've added a few more flowers....
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, on her expanding tatoo arrangement

I'm excited; I know she is, too.
Sloane Stephens, on her upcoming match against Mattek-Sands

I was kind of thinking there was a flight straight to Minsk around 3:00 tomorrow so I could catch that, but I didn't want to leave too soon.
Victoria Azarenka

...I mean for me, always like up-down, up-down; it's tough for me to stay at same level all the time.
Li Na

You cannot, you know, dwell on something that’s gone. That’s what you’ve done, and you’ve just got to move on and try to work on certain things.
Jelena Jankovic

Will whoever took Vika please bring her back?

World number 1 Victoria Azarenka, sans shorts, sans hoodie, sans earphones, sans confidence--walked through the tunnel today at Roland Garros, and it was as though the Body Snatchers had sneaked into her hotel the night before, and she had become one of the Pod People. Opponent Alberta Brianti picked up on it, too, and took her very best clay game (nothing to sneeze at, by the way) to Azarenka.

Azarenka was one-down from the very beginning, making repeated errors, looking lost on the court, and also having to cope with some impressive Italian clay court finesse. Somehow, a tiebreak ensued, and though Azarenka saved two set points, Brianti prevailed in the first set. Then, just like that, the Italian was up 4-0 in the second, with two break points against Azarenka to put her up 5-0.

This was when reality finally clicked for the world number 1: She was about to go out in straight sets in the first round of the French Open. "Bad days happen," she would say later of her 60 unforced errors. In the meantime, she won the second set 6-4, and the final set 6-2. Azarenka says that her aching shoulder is much better, and has more or less shrugged off the whole round-one affair as unfortunate. But from the very beginning--before play even commenced--it just didn't look like Azarenka.

Whoever took Vika--please bring her back, and don't forget to drop off her accessories.

Azarenka wasn't the only player who was out of sorts. We might write off Mona Barthel's poor Strasbourg performance as "bad days happen," but the German was pretty much blown away today by Lauren Davis in the first round in Paris, and--without all respect to Davis, who played well--it now seems more than reasonable to say that something is wrong with Barthel. But what?

12th seed Sabine Lisicki made an exit, too, losing in straight sets to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Mattek-Sands will now play countrywoman Sloane Stephens, who had a very nice win over Ekaterina Makarova. Defending champion Li Na had an easy win over Sorana Cirstea, and Agnieszka Radwanska pretty much ran over Bojana Jovanovski, who won just one game.

In the "sorry to see them go so soon" catergory (besides Barthel) are: Galina Voskoboeva, Simona Halep, Roberta Vinci, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, and Iveta Benesova. Add Vera Zvonareva to that list--she withdrew today because of her right shoulder injury.

So far, every player from the USA has advanced to the second round; Serena Williams and Jamie Hampton have not played yet.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Venus comes through in French Open first round

Venus Williams didn't look comfortable at all in the first set of her French Open match against Paula Ormaechea. Ormaechea became the aggressor early on, though she had to serve for the first set twice before she could take it. After that 4-6 loss, though, Williams foud her game, cut down the errors and quickly won the second set 6-1. She skillfully won the third set 6-3, and said later, in her press conference, that coping with Sjogren's Syndrome is "definitely an adventure and journey...." Williams is unseeded at the Open, the first major she has played since getting her diagnosis.

Three former French Open champions easily won their first rounds. Francesca Schianvone, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic defeated Elena Baltacha, Mirjana Lucic and Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, respectively. The former champions dropped only ten games, with Stosur delivering a bagel in the second set of her match.

Sara Errani and Angelique Kerber both won their matches, and Melanie Oudin defeated Johanna Larsson in straight sets. French player Irena Pavlovic won her opener, but countrywoman Caroline Garcia lost hers. Both Frenchwomen were given wild cards into the main draw.

The French Open is my favorite of the four majors, which makes me a bit unusual (imagine that!), I know. I like to watch players slide on the red clay, I like the unpredictability, and--oh, yes--the tournament is in Paris.

Last year, I declared the French Open's phone/iPad app to be the best of the four. This year, it has been completed reconstructed, and it's useless. What were they thinking? Okay, I told myself, I'll just use the mobile site instead. Well, it's useless, too. The only way to get accurate live scoring is through the regular website, which is ridiculous.

Tomorrow, world number 1 Victoria Azarenka takes to the court, as do Agnieszka Radwanska and Marion Bartoli. Azarenka plays Alberta Briani, Radwwanska plays Bojana Jovanovski, and Bartoli takes on qualifier Karolina Pliskova.

French Open--what they said

When the draw came out, it wasn't exactly the draw that I wanted to be honest.
Elena Baltacha

Have you seen the field this year?  It looks pretty open, many potential winners maybe.

Yeah, people have been saying that for quite a while that, you know, any one of a handful of women could win.
Sam Stosur

I have a crazy personality.
Serena Williams

I know I can do well, and I'm really gonna try my best to do well again.
Marion Bartoli

Right now, I think whatever I'm doing is definitely working because I'm doing much better than I have in a while.
Melanie Oudin

The complex moved on, and people focused their attention elsewhere, but Oudin was still there, a person living inside the narrative, living inside her head while still not even old enough to drink legally.
Howard Bryant

Who did you dream of kissing when you were a teenager?
Marat Safin, and he knows it!
Svetlana Kuznetsova

Obviously, she wants to run around that backhand and slam that forehand.
Elena Baltacha, referring to Stosur

My perspective changes every week. I just want to do my best and not be overwhelmed.
Venus Williams

It was just pure joy.
Marion Bartoli, on the response to her 2011 quarterfinal win

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Where's the gear?

Why doesn't the WTA sell gear anymore? Fans, I would think, want shirts and caps and hoodies, even with the dreadful WTA egg logo. But no gear has been available for a long time.

 Here is my Sony Ericcson WTA Tour shirt (it's a bit trashy now--sorry for that):

But before the tour became associated with Sony Ericsson, there was the great "Get In Touch With Your Feminine Side" campaign. Here are front and back views of that shirt:

So where on Earth is the gear now?

Who will rule Paris?

One is tempted to say that "anything goes" this year at the French Open, but really--since the retirement of Justine Henin--it's been pretty much that way every year. Of the recent championships, I found Francesca Schiavone's to be the least surprising, but even that win came from a place where most of us weren't concentrating our focus.

This year promises to be as unpredictable as ever, with two non-clay experts--Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova--getting the most nods for becoming the likely winner. Such is the cruelty of the draw, however, that--provided neither of them is upset in the early rounds--only one of them will be left standing after the quarterfinals. Both of them have turned in excellent clay season results: Williams won in Charleston and Madrid, and Sharapova won in Stuttgart and Rome.

What of world number 1 and Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka? This will be the first time in her career that Azarenka is the top seed at a major, and she's getting a bit of extra coaching help from former French star Amelie Mauresmo. Mauresmo never won at Roland Garros, but she does know a thing or two about clay court play, and about the development of the champion's mindset.

Azarenka tops the first quarter, and lurking in that quarter is the mercurial Dominika Cibulkova, who reached the semifinals in 2009 (taking out Sharapova along the way). Cibulkova can have inexplicable collapses, but she can also deal lethal blows from the baseline and send higher-ranked players packing. Azarenka should take her seriously.

Should the world number 1 get as far as the quarterfinals, 2010 finalist Sam Stosur is likely to be waiting for her (if Stosur isn't knocked off by Nadia Petrova). "Mercurial" doesn't even begin to describe Stosur, but on a good day--and she can be expected to have good days in Paris--her serve can give Azarenka a lot of trouble.

Of note in the first quarter are Lucie Safarova (2012 Charleston finalist) and Iveta Benesova. Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez is not the clay court threat she once was, Simona Halep is injured, and Sabine Lisicki--in my opinion--really isn't part of the conversation right now.

The second quarter is interesting. Agnieszka Radwanska should meet Venus Williams in the second round, and if she survives that match, she could find 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova waiting for her. 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic is in that quarter, too, as is 2011 semifinalist Marion Bartoli. Bartoli's game has taken a big slide since this time last year, however. And while Radwanska (who just won the tournament in Brussels) has never gotten past the quarterfinals at the French, her chances this year look good. She may have to fight fatigue, but I suspect her confidence is higher than it has been in the past.

However, danger does lurk in Radwanska's quarter, in forms that have nothing to do with former French Open champions. Sara Errani is knocking around there, and can never be discounted. And so is new world number 10 Angelique Kerber, who--by this time--should strike fear into the minds of her peers. Kerber will probably get Flavia Pennetta in the third round, and is likely to prevail. Given her levels of fitness and confidence (I'm assuming), Kerber could work through the field like she did at the U.S. Open.

Also of note in the second quarter is the presence of Anabel Medina Garrigues, who knows her way around a clay court.

In the third quarter is defending champion Li Na, who is on a collision course with Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Will they both make it as far as the quarterfinsla? Li is as well known for choking as she is for winning, and Kvitova's season, with the blessed exception of Fed Cup, has been quite a disappointment so far. Fomer clay court winners Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic are in that quarter, but neither poses much of a threat these days.

Enter Mona Barthel, seeded 30th, and capable of pulling off all manner of upsets on the right day. Barthel is likely to meet Li in the third round. And, oh yes, there's another noted player in that quarter--2010 champion and 2011 finalist Francesca Schiavone. Schiavone plays the "senior" event again in the first round--she goes up against Kimiko Date-Krumm. If she wins that and gets past Yanina Wickmayer, she may see Jankovic in the next round.

Of note: Sometime giant-killer Sorana Cirstea plays Li in the opening round.

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova both make an appearance in the fourth quarter of the draw. Should they both reach the quarters, that match will be the most talked-about of the week. Williams is more vulnerable in the draw than Sharapova in that she may have to get past either Lucie Hradecka or Julia Goerges in the third round. And while neither possibility sounds very threatening to the likes of Williams, the French Open has not historically been a comfortable home for the Madrid champion. Hradecka has a huge serve, and Goerges (the 2011 Stuttgart champion)--when she isn't in the middle of a giant mental collapse--can be quite skillful on clay.

Also in the fourth quarter are Kaia Kanepi, Maria Kirilenko and--not to be forgotten--Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki was the last player on the tour to beat Williams (in Miami). There are no particular expectations of the Dane at the French Open, but neither has it ever been a walk in the park to play her.

So who will rule Paris? Five former champions (Serena Williams, Ivanovic, Kuznetsova, Schiavone, Li) will be there, yet none of the five has won the tournament more than once. Azarenka is number 1, Radwanska is the hottest player on the tour right now, Kvitova and Stosur have the skills, but may not have the mental strength at this time. Angelique Kerber is head-down, minding her own business, but could possibly have a lot of business in the making.

Will there be a first-time champion? What do you think?

French Open champion predictions

Peter Bodo--Maria Sharapova
Steve Tignor--Serena Williams
Richard Pagliaro--Serena Williams
Ed McGrogan--Victoria Azarenka
Todd Spiker--Maria Sharapova*
Jon Wertheim--Serena Williams
Bruce Jenkins--Maria Sharapova
Courtney Nguyen--Serena Williams
Matt Cronin--Serena Williams
C.W. Sesno--Serena Williams
Bryan Armen Graham--Agnieszka Radwanska
Chris Evert--Maria Sharapova
Patrick McEnroe--Agnieszka Radwanska
Darren Cahill--Serena Williams
Cliff Drysdale--Serena Williams
Mary Joe Fernandez--Serena Williams
Brad Gilbert--Serena Williams
Pam Shriver--Serena Wiliams
Greg Garber--Serena Williams
Kamakshi Tandon--Petra Kvitova
Ravi Ubha--Serena Williams
Matt Wilansky--Samantha Stosur

*CaRL piCk2--Agnieszka Radwanska

Radwanska and Schiavone win pre-French Open tournaments

Top seed Agnieszka Radwanska won the Brussels Open today, and while much of the final wasn't pretty, a lot of it was very entertaining. It isn't often that Radwanska can look on the other side of the net and think she's peering into a mirror, but finalist Simona Halep can dip and glide and construct clay court transitions Radwanska-style.

In true clay court fashion, there were seven breaks of serve in the first set, which Radwanska finally won, 7-5. Halep's leg, which has been bothering all week, probably caused some of her collaps in the second set, but Radwanska also cut down the errors, and won every game.

The Brussels championship gives Radwanska three premier titles for this season, and a total of ten WTA singles titles.

4th seeds Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sania Mirza won the doubles title. They defeated 3rd seeds Alicja Rosolska and Zheng Jie 6-3, 6-2.

In Strasbourg, the sleeping Italian giant was finally awakened; 2nd seed Francesca Schiavone won her first title in two years by defeating wild card Alize Cornet 6-4, 6-4 in the final. The doubles title went to 2nd seeds Olga Govortsova and Klaudia Jans-Ignacik. They defeated top seeds Natalie Grandin and Vladimira Uhllirova 6-7, 6-3, 10-3.

Depending on how you look at it, making a run to the final in either Brussels or Strasbourg right before the French Open begins could be an exhausting--and therefore bad--move, or it could be a confidence-builder. Radwanska has been a very hot player on the tour for several months, though few would pick her to win in Paris. Schiavone's career has tumbled considerably since her two straight runs to the French Open final (she won the title in 2010), but, really, who is going to give the big-hearted Italian no chance at all?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Radwanska one match away from Brussels championship

Top seed Agnieszka Radwanska defeated Kaia Kanepi 7-6, 6-3 in Belgium today, and advanced to the final of the Brussels Open. Her opponent will be Simona Halep, who defeated Sofia Arvidsson 6-4, 6-3 in the semifinals. In the doubles final, the team of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sania Mirza will play the team of Alicja Rosolska and Zheng Jie.

In Strasbourg, wild card Alize Cornet defeated Pauline Parmentier 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 in the semifinals, and 2nd seed Francesca Schiavone defeated Sloane Stephens 7-5, 6-1. In doubles, top seeds Natalie Grandin and Vladimira Uhlirova advanced to the final, in which they will play 2nd seeds Olga Govortsova and Klaudia Jans-Ignacik.

Qualifiers placed for French Open

After three rounds of play, the following women have qualified to compete in the main draw of the French Open:

Kiki Bertens
Chan Yung-Jan
Yaroslava Shvedova
Alexa Glatch
Heather Watson
Eva Birnerova
Dinah Pfizenmaier
Heidi El Tabakh
Lauren Davis
Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino
Karolina Pliskova
Zhang Shuai

Bertens was the top seed in the qualifying rounds.

There are also eight wild cards:

Caroline Garcia
Kristina Mladenovic
Melanie Oudin
Irena Pavlovic
Claire Feuerstein
Ashleigh Barty
Aravane Rezai
Victoria Larriere

Heather Watson, known for getting terrible first round draws, faces Elena Vesnina in the opening round. No one runs as hot and cold as the Russian, so Watson has a chance. Should she run into Vesnina on a bad day, or otherwise defeat her, she would then have to play either Lucie Hradecka or Julia Goerges. It's not the same as drawing Azarenka right away, but it's no easy draw, either.

Friday cat blogging--group sleep edition

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dulko out of French Open qualifying

It's a sign of the times. Gisela Dulko, winner of four clay court titles, was upset yesterday in the first round of qualifying for the 2012 French Open. Dulko was defeated 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 by Vesna Dolonc of Serbia. The Argentine served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, but then collapsed and was taken out of the competition.

Dulko, who has been ranked as high as 29 in the world in singles and who was--not that long ago--the world's number 1 doubles player, has had multiple injuries in the past year and is obviously lacking confidence. Last year, she reached the round of 16 at the French Open, after defeating both Tsvetaba Pironkova and 2010 finalist Sam Stosur.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Barthel upset in Strasbourg opening round

It wasn't that long ago that writing about an upset of Mona Barthel wouldn't have been a reality, but because of the German player's rapid rise, it now is. Barthel was defeated 6-3, 7-6 by Alexandra Panova in Strasbourg today in the first round. Barthel was seeded 5th at the tournament, and Panova is a qualifier.

Also of note today in Strasbourg was the retirement of Maria Kirilenko, who injured her right ankle. And yesterday, wild card and top seed Sabine Lisicki was beaten in straight sets by Pauline Parmentier.

In Brussels first round play today, Chanelle Scheepers beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sofia Arvidsson defeated Peng Shuai, and qualifier Arantxa Rus defeated Zheng Jie. Yesterday, Jelena Jankovic lost in three sets to Simona Halep.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sharapova wins thrilling, yet bizarre, Rome final

If they had put their arms around each other's shoulders, Maria Sharapova and Li Na would have looked, for all the world, completely like Chris and Martina at the close of one of their big matches. The similarity was nevertheless there: If you'd just walked in or tuned in, you wouldn't have had any idea who had won. Both sported big grins, and both threw their arms in the air in a "What did we just do?!" fashion.

It may not have been the best match of this season, but it was easily the most unusual. The skies in Rome have been clear all week, but today, it rained. And then it rained some more. When the court is made of red clay, players can play in the rain, up to a point. That point was in question on several occasions during the women's final, and chair umpire Kadir Nouni let the competitors determine when to stop and when to play on.

Not only was it raining, but helicopters were continually buzzing over the court. Nearby football fans were yelling and cheering. Fireworks went off. Police sirens screamed. The event made a U.S. Open night match sound like a day in a small town library. But Sharapova and Li kept on playing.

That would have been enough to qualify the match as strange, but then there were the dramatic comebacks that occurred as one of the tour's best forehands went against one of the tour's best backhands. Li took the first set 6-4, then went up 4-0 in the second. But if you knew anything about both Li and her oppononent, you knew that the scoreboard was deceptive. Li, unfortunately, is as famous for choking as she is for destroying opponents with that forehand. She let Sharapova in, and before you knew it, it was 4-all.

There was more drama to come. Sharapova--the defending champion--won the second set 6-4, then went up 4-1 in the third. Suddenly, Li came roaring back and won four games in a row. There was a rain break. Sharapova, serving at 5-all, 30-40, hit a forehand winner to save a championship point. The match went to 6-all. Li slipped on the clay, a sign that there was just too much water, so the tiebreak was delayed for a long time while the rain came down hard.

When the players came back, Sharapova went up 3-0 right away. Li made yet another comeback, and evened the score at 4-all. Sharapova then broke Li's serve, but Li broke right back. Finally, Li hit an all-or-nothing forehand shot that went ever so slightly over the line, and Sharapova became the champion for the second year in a row. The opponents played for over two hours and 52 minutes, in conditions that were about as bad as they come.

Both women approach the French Open as potential winners. Li won the French in 2011, and--while her season hasn't looked that great so far--she showed today that she's ready to go on a title defense in Paris. Sharapova has never really been considered French Open champion material, but given her recent Stuttgart and Rome titles, she's looking better all the time. Like Li, Sharapova has found her form on what is supposed to be her worst surface.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who won the Madrid title, won today in Rome, too. The Italian pair beat Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-2, 7-5 in the doubles final. The Rome title is the team's fifth title of 2012; they did not drop a set all week.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Errani and Vinci advance to Rome final

3rd seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the 2012 Madrid champions, have advanced to the final in Rome. Errani and Vinci defeated top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond 6-1, 6-3 in the semifinals. Also victorious in semifinal play were Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, who defeated Jamie Hampton and Anna Tatishvili 6-3, 6-3.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Oh, Petra

You have to give Petra Kvitova some credit for playing out her Rome quarterfinal match against Angelique Kerber. I watched the match on Tennis TV, and commentator David Mercer was more than a little upset that Kvitova felt compelled to continue playing, despite the pain she was in because of what appeared to be a pulled stomach muscle (she's had that problem before). I had mixed feelings about it. I wanted her to stop, since we are so close to the French Open. But I also admired her tenacity, and her obvious desire to give her opponent a "real" win. There's a reason that her peers awarded Kvitova with a prize for sportswomanship.

Kvitova had so much pain in her abdomen that she couldn't really serve; she was just spinning her serves in. She was also wearing a back support. She was a mess. After going down 1-3 in the first set, the Czech star won four straight games, and eventually took the set to a tiebreak. But Kerber completely dominated that, and took the first set 7-6.

She didn't take it easily, though. Kvitova--despite her handicap--pulled Kerber around as though she were on a string, and practically wore her out. Kvitova took full advantage of Kerber's fatigue, and won the second set 6-1. But Kerber got a second win and won the third set 6-1 against an obviously ailing opponent. Kerber's fitness was a real plus in this match, and her victory put her into the top 10, which is a very good thing.

The question is: Will Kvitova's injury heal in time for the French Open, and will it matter? She appears so fragile these days.

She wasn't the only one to go out injured. Flavia Pennetta hurt her wrist, and retired against Serena Williams after only four games. The Italian player also pulled out of the Strasbourg tournament.

In the other quarterfinals, Li Na defeated Dominika Cibulkova, and defending champion Maria Sharapova defeated Venus Williams. Cibulkova looked next to clueless in the first set against Li, but gave her opponent a contest in the second. Li won in straight sets, however--6-1, 7-6.

In semifinal play, Li will play Williams, and Kerber will play Sharapova.

Passing shots

Victoria Azarenka, after she withdrew from competition in Rome, had a lot to say about the WTA's rules. "I was conflicted and disappointed to withdraw from Rome," she said. "I tried my hardest but I wasn't healthy going into the tournament. If WTA rules were different then I could have focused on getting healthy, but I could not afford another zero pointer on my ranking. Hopefully in the future there will be more protection for players' rights."

Maria Sharapova had something to say about Azarenka. She described her as "injured more than anyone." "Sometimes," Sharapova continued, "she'll withdraw, and then you'll see her practicing two days later."

Join me in fondly recalling the crazy days of the Czarina!

The WTA is looking for a host country for the 2014 Championships. The end-of-season tournament will be held this year and next in Istanbul.

Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Li Na are all on the Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful Celebrities.

Friday cat blogging--birthday edition

Some time this month, Ziggy Stardust and Tarzan have birthday number 6. Since they were rescued from a feral colony, their exact birth date is unknown. Here are the brothers doing the familiar sock monkey stare-down. The sock monkey belongs to Tarzan, but what fun is a toy if your brother doesn't try to take it away from you?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Radwanska upset by Cetkovska in Rome

Down 1-4 in the third set during the second round at Wimbledon, Petra Cetkovska found a way to beat Agnieszka Radwanska, who had been only two points away from a victory in the second set. She beat her again in New Haven, and she beat her again today in Rome. (She also beat her many years ago in an ITF match.) The "other Petra" from the Czech Republic defeated Radwanska 6-4., 4-6, 6-1. "I like to play with  her," Cetkovska said of Radwanska. "She plays really intelligently."

Radwanska is going to play in Brussels. In the meantime, she's giving her hurting back a rest.

World number 1 Victoria Azarenka gave Dominika Cibulkova a walkover in the third round because of a right shoulder injury. Caroline Wozniacki had to retire against Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round because of an upper respiratory infection.

5th seed Sam Stosur gave Sara Errani another loss on clay, and Serena Williams needed three sets to put away Nadia Petrova. Also advancing were Venus Williams, Flavia Pennetta and Li Na. Julia Goerges beat 7th seed Marion Bartoli 6-3, 6-1. Bartoli is not having a good time of it on clay this season.

Peng Shuai had to retire from her doubles match because of a hand injury.

Passing shots

Kamakshi Tandon writes about the tension among a few of the tour's top players. I wasn't aware, however, that Radwanska put anything behind her; the last I heard, she said things would "never be the same" between her and Azarenka.

And speaking of.....WTA Backspin reminds us that Agnieszka Radwanska is 36-6 for the season, and all six losses have been to Victoria Azarenka.

Players at the 2012 Olympic Games will not be required to adhere to the Wimbledon (almost) all-white dress code.

Serena Williams is on the cover of Vogue.

Two-time Italian Open champion Jelena Jankovic went out in the first round in Rome today. Jankovic lost to Sorana Cirstea. Cirstea's 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 victory gives her Sofia Arvidsson as a second round opponent.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Williams wins Madrid title

Serena Williams maintains an apartment in Paris, and it won't be long before she's laying in supplies (in Hello Kitty boxes, no doubt) for what she plans to be a two-week stay in the City of Lights. In Charleston, she ran over 2010 French Open runner-up Sam Stosur, then beat Lucie Safarova for the title, and today in Madrid, she held the trophy after emphatically beating world number 1 Victoria Azarenka.

Williams defeated Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 in just over an hour, and at one point, a frustrated Azarenka beat her racquet on the ground, causing it to fly up and almost hit her. Williams served extremely well, hitting 14 aces, and Azarenka's second serve just wasn't good enough to give her opponent much trouble. Williams hit 26 winners and made only 11 unforced errors.

Serena Williams has won the French Open only once, in 2002, when she beat her sister, Venus, in the final. The clay in France is going to play slower than the clay in Charleston and Madrid, which should give Williams' potential opponents some hope. Stosur, Li Na and--if she could ever get in form again--Petra Kvitova are all capable of giving Williams trouble at the French Open. All three of those players are streaky, though, and right now, it's hard to imagine that any of them has the confidence that Williams has.

The clay season now shifts to Rome, where Azarenka and Maria Sharapova (Williams defeated her soundly in Madrid, too) are seeded first and second, respectively.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Together again--Williams and Azarenka

The 2012 Madrid final is about as good as it gets. World number 1 Victoria Azarenka will play former world number 1 Serena Williams for the title. Williams is 6-1 against Azarenka (Azarenka's win involved an injured Williams), and--to make things more interesting--the pair has never before met on a clay court.

It sounds odd to express anticipation about a match-up that is so lopsided, but the Azarenka of today is not the same Azarenka who used to give way so easily to temper tantrums, thigh injuries, and conditions that literally brought her to the ground. This new Azarenka is tough and confident, and is probably more ready than ever to take on Williams.

Clay is not the favorite surface of either player, and--since clay is the great equalizer--the match could get interesting. Azarenka is going to have to lift her service game another notch in order to keep things at a very competitive level. At this point, both women have to be considered among potential French Open winners. For several years, Williams has not really been a big favorite to win in France, but her performance in Charleston caused many of us to keep her in the mix.

Errani and Vinci win Madrid title

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the Madrid Open today, defeating Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-1, 3-6, 10-4 in the final. This is the team's fourth title of the year, and it's also the biggest. Errani and Vinci were also the runners-up at the Australian Open and the Sony Ericsson Open.

Sara Errani, of course, has been on a singles win streak this season. She was defeated in the second round in Madrid by Agnieszka Radwanska (who also beat Vinci in the third round), but she was nevertheless able to claim a title on the blue clay.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hradecka upsets Stosur in Madrid

Lucie Hradecka is known for her big serve. Today, in the Madrid Open quarterfinals, she used it to great advantage to upset 5th seed Sam Stosur 7-6, 7-6. Hradecka, who hit 19 aces (she generally hits 10 or more), was successful with both her first and second serves. Hradecka had already taken out Madrid defending champion Petra Kvitova. In the semifinals, Hradecka will play Serena Williams, who easily defeated Maria Sharapova in straight sets.

In the other semifinal, top seed Victoria Azarenka will once again play Agnieszka Radwanska. Azarenka defeated Li Na 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. Radwanska fought off a spirited challenge from qualifier Varvara Lepchenko, beating her 6-4, 6-4. There were eight breaks of serve in that match.

In doubles, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci beat Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova, and Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina defeated the reunited (at least for now) team of Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

Players continue to complain about the blue clay, not just because it's a different color from what they'll see at the French Open, but also, they say, because it's too slippery.

Friday cat blogging--Sleepy time edition

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Doubles upsets continue in Madrid

Top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond went out today in the second round of play at the Madrid Open. Huber and Raymond were defeated 4-6, 7-6, 15-13 by wild cards Dominika Cibulkova and Janette Husarova. 3rd seeds Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka were also defeated in the second round. The 2011 French Open champions lost to Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

In singles, top seed Victoria Azarenka advanced with a win over Hlavackova, and 2nd seed Maria Sharapova defeated Klara Zakopalova. Caroline Wozniacki beat Mona Barthel in straight sets, and Serena Williams took all but three games from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Stuttgart champions out in Madrid opening round

Iveta Benesova and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, who won the title in Stuttgart last month, were defeated today in the first round of doubles in Madrid. The Czech team lost to Hsieh Su-Wei and Zheng Jie.

Going out in the first round of singles was 15th seed Jelena Jankovic. Spanish wild card Carla Suarez Navarro saved two match points and defeated Jankovic 4-6, 7-6, 6-4. Venus Williams lost to Angela Kerber second round play.

Yesterday, Dominika Cibulkova, 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova made opening round exits. They were defeated by Roberta Vinci, Varvara Lepchenko and top seed Victoria Azarenka, respectively.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Passing shots

"Who Will  Be Queen of Clay?" Steve Tignor and Richard Pagliario engage in a lively discussion of this question.

Venus likes it; Serena says it's "ridiculous." The blue clay in Madrid is causing controversy.

Here's a preview of some Nike French Open fashion.

Caroline Wozniacki has entered the New Haven Open, which she will attempt to win for the fifth consecutive time.

Here's Wozniacki in a fast car.

Venus Williams narrowly escaped a loss in the first round in Madrid today. She and Simona Halep engaged in a third-set tiebreak, in which Halep saved two match points. Williams, however, came through on her third match point. Also, Sam Stosur needed three sets to defeat Petra Martic, and Marion Bartoli was defeated by Sorana Cirstea.

Kanepi and Errani win clay court titles

The elusive Kaia Kanepi won the Estoril championship today, by defeating Carla Suarez Navarro 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. One never really knows whether the Tall One from Tallin is going to crash out early or win the tournament. Today, she won. Kanepi was seeded 6th in the event.

The Estoril doubles champions are Chuang Chia-Jung and Zhang Shuai. They defeated 3rd seeds Yaroslava Shvedova and Galina Voskoboeva 4-6, 6-1, 11-9.

Sara Errani won the title in Budapest, defeating Elena Vesnina 7-5, 6-4. Errani, who was the top seed, is currently on a 15-match clay court win streak, which includes three titles.

The doubles title went to Janette Husarova and Magdalena Rybarikova. In today's final, they defeated Eva Birnerova and Michaella Krajicek 6-4, 6-2.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Vinci into Estoril semifinals

Top seed Roberta Vinci advanced to the quarterfinals in Estoril today when she defeated Nadia Petrova 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. Joining Vinci in the semifinals will be 6th seed Kaia Kanepi, Carla Suarez Navarro and qualifier Karin Knapp, who defeated Galina Voskoboeva. Voskoboeva and partner Yaroslava Shvedova reached the doubles final by defeating Sania Mirza and Anastasia Rodionova.

Anabel Medina Garrigues won the 2011 Estoril tournament. Medina Garrigues went out this year in the second round.

In Budapest, top seed Sara Errani reached the semifinals when she defeated Alberta Brianti 6-4, 6-0. Also into the semifinals are Anna Tatishvili, Marina Erakovic and Elena Vesnina. Tatishvili defeated Aleksandra Wozniak 5-7, 7-6, 6-4. They played for over two and a half hours.