Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top seed Vinci upset in first round of ASB Classic

Ana Konjuh began her 2014 season yesterday in as great a way as she could ever have imagined. The Croatian wild card, who turned 16 last week, defeated Auckland top seed Roberta Vinci 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. Vinci is ranked number 14 in the world, which makes this a huge win for Konjuh. The teenager's next challenge will be to play Lauren Davis, who defeated Marina Erakovic in straight sets in the opening round.

In Brisbane, Dominika Cibulkova had to go three sets to get past Kimiko Date-Krumm, and in Shenzhen, top seed Li Na defeated Vera Zvonareva in the Russian's first WTA match in a year and a half.

Meanwhile, at the Hopman Cup event, Italy looked a lot better against Australia than it did against Poland. For one thing, Andreas Seppi recovered from his illness and was able to play. And though he lost in men's singles, he and Flavia Pennetta won the mixed doubles match, and Pennetta defeated Sam Stosur in women's singles.

Monday, December 30, 2013

USA and France move forward in Hopman Cup

The team of Sloane Stephens and John Isner made a big Hopman Cup debut today, winning all three matches against Spain. In the meantime, France went 2-1 against the Czech Republic, whose only win was in women's singles--Petra Kvitova defeated Alize Cornet.

In Brisbane, Ashleigh Barty defeated Daniela Hantuchova in the first round, and Garbine Muguruza--someone who is on my watch list--beat Christina McHale in the opening round in Auckland.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Withdrawals change the field in Perth

First, young ATP star Jerzy Janowicz withdrew from Poland's top-seeded Hopman Cup team, leaving Agnieszka Radwanska in a difficult position. Now Tommy Robredo, the King of Hopman Cup, has withdrawn because of a wrist injury, leaving Anabel Medina Garrigues in a bad position. Of course, there are a lot of top-ranked Spanish players, but none of them is in Perth. Daniel Munoz-De La Nava has joined the Spainish team, and Davis Cup team member Grzegorz Panfil has taken the spot on the Polish team.

So far, things are going okay for Radwanska. In the very first match of the Hopman Cup, she beat Flavia Pennetta 6-2 6-2. She and Panfil then beat the Itaian team of Pennetta and Oliver Anderson 6-2, 6-1. Oliver Anderson? That's right--Andreas Seppi retired because of illness in his singles match and Anderson stepped in to play for Italy.

So Poland went 3-0 against Italy.

Spain didn't have the same fortune. Medina Garrigues won only one game against Petra Kvitova, Munoz-De La Nava lost to Radek Stepanek, and the the Spanish team lost to the Czechs in mixed doubles.

Canada went 2-1 against Australia on the event's opening day, and one of those victories belonged to Eugenie Bouchard, who beat Sam Stosur 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

AP names Williams Female Athlete of the Year

Serena Williams was honored yesterday as the Associated Press's pick for Female Athlete of the Year. This is the third time that she has won the award.

Williams, who won her 17th major in 2013, ended the year with a 78-4 record and 11 titles, as well as more than $12 million in prize money. She also ended the season as the oldest (32) number 1 player in WTA history. In addition, Williams enjoyed a 34-match winning streak during 2013.
"She just continues to be an inspiration to American tennis," said Gordon Smith, the executive director of the USTA.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sweeping the court

CarolineWozniacki has signed a deal with Babolat, who makes the racket she used for years before she started playing with a Yonex racket. Wozniacki said that she is looking for increased power as well as more control. For some time now, Wozniacki has been using a Babolat racket, but she had to black out the name because of her Yonex contract.

Steve Simon, tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open and member of the WTA's board of directors, will be interviewed live for one hour on December 30 at noon (USA Pacific Time) , as part of Radio Tennis's new "Holiday Sessions" feature. The series of four interviews begins on Christmas Day, and also runs on December 27 and December 28. You can check the schedule here.

Here is a peek at Nike's Australian Open outfits for Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams.

Williams and Victoria Azarenka will be showing off Thai silk on the runway in Hua Hin  on Saturday.

To those of you who enjoyed the late Robert B. Parker's Spenser detective series, here's a tip: Skip the Christmas novel, Silent Night, finished ("finished off" would be more like it) by Parker's long-time agent, Helen Brann. I've read only one of the Ace Atkins Spenser novels, and it was way more authentic than Silent Night. So why, do you ask, am I even bringing this up? Well, it turns out that both Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova appear as characters in the novel, and Clijsters is a speaking character, though her role is very small. More interesting is the retired WTA player whose serve is so deadly, she is able to throw a table knife and kill a man who is about to shoot her to death while they are seated at a formal dinner party. (This trick could also be useful when dining or drinking in German restaurants--just saying).
The WTA wants you to take a survey about its official site.

The WTA also wishes you a happy holiday:

Monday, December 23, 2013

Holiday sing-along, part 4

Photo by Daniel Ward
On the first day of Christmas
Serena gave to me
An 18th major victory

On the second day of Christmas
Radwanska gave to me
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the third day of Christmas
The Italians gave to me
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the fourth day of Christmas
Azarenka gave to  me
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the fifth day of Christmas
Maria gave to me
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the sixth day of Christmas
Simona gave to me
Six new titles
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the seventh day of Christmas
Stacey Allaster gave to me
Seven screaming women
Six new titles
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the eighth day of Christmas
Ms. Robson gave to me
Eight cheeky comments
Seven screaming women
Six new titles
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the ninth day of Christmas
Asdareki gave to me
Nine calls of hindrance
Eight cheeky comments
Seven screaming women
Six new titles
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the tenth day of Christmas
Petra gave to me
Ten barking winners
Nine calls of hindrance
Eight cheeky comments
Seven screaming women
Six new titles
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the eleventh day of Christmas
Li Na gave to me
Eleven crack-up moments
Ten barking winners
Nine calls of hindrance
Eight cheeky comments
Seven screaming women
Six new titles
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory

On the twelfth day of Christmas
JJ gave to me
Twelve red Porches
Eleven crack-up moments
Ten barking winners
Nine calls of hindrance
Eight cheeky comments
Seven screaming women
Six new titles
Five gummy things!
Four pairs of shorts
Three Fed Cups
Two sets at love
And an 18th major victory!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Vickery gets Australian Open wild card

Sachia Vickery had a great weekend in Norcross, Georgia, where the Australian Open wild card playoffs were held. In the first round, the unseeded Vickery beat 2nd seed Madison Brengle. In the second round, she beat 3rd seed Grace Min. And in today's final, Vickery took out 4th seed Victoria Duval 6-2, 6-3. Duval had beaten top seed Shelby Rogers in the second round.

Vickery is ranked number 195 in the world. She won the USTA National Junior Championships this year and received a wild card to the U.S. Open, in which she made it to the second round.

Vickery is eighteen years old. She was born in Hollywood, Florida.

Sweeeping the court

Billie Jean King has been named a U.S. delegate to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Her appointment, of course, comes in light of Russia's announcement that anything gay will not be tolerated during the Games.

Elena Vesnina has withdrawn from the 2014 ASB Classic in Auckland. The Russian player has sustained an ankle injury. Her withdrawal moves Julia Goerges into the main draw. Roberta Vinci will be the top seed at the event.

Bad Hopman Cup news for Agnieszka Radwanska: Her teammate, Jerzy Janowicz, has withdrawn because of a foot injury. Janowicz is one of the most promising your players on the ATP tour. Replacing him will be Grzegorz Panfil.

Sometimes more is better.

Li Na does a fashion spread, and it is so worth looking at.

L’Equipe has named Serena Williams the female Champion of Champions for 2013. The French Women Champion of the year award went to Marion Bartoli.

Serena Williams has been named the women's ITF World Champion for the second year in a row. Sara Errani and Robereta Vinci were named ITF Women's Doubles World Champions, also for the second successive year. Aniek Van Koot was named Women's Wheelchair World Champion.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hopman Cup to begin on December 30

The Hyundai Hopman Cup begins in Perth on December 28 and will conclude on January 4. Here are the teams for 2014:


Australia: Samantha Stosur, Bernard Tomic
Canada: Eugenie Bouchard, Milos Raonic
Italy: Flavia Pennetta, Andreas Seppi
Poland: Agnieszka Radwanska, Jerzy Janowicz

Czech Republic: Petra Kvitova, Radek Stepanek
France: Alize Cornet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Spain: Anabel Medina Garrigues, Tommy Robredo
USA: Sloane Stephens, John Isner

The event will begin with Poland playing Italy. Spain is the defending champion.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sweeping the court

World number 12 Sloane Stephens has entered the 2014 Family Circle Cup, which will be held in Charleston March 29-April 6. Defending champion and 2013 runner-up Jelena Jankovic were the first to enter the 2014 event.

Shelby Rogers is the 2013 U.S. Pro Circuit prize money leader. Rogers won $36, 308 in prize money this year.

Casey Dellacqua is the winner of her home country's Australian Open wild card playoff. The Asia-Pacific wild card playoff winner is Tang Haochen. Pauline Parmentier of France has also received a wild card. The USA wild card playoffs begin this Friday.

Jelena Dokic will be doing some commentary during the Hopman Cup at the end of this month.

Cathie Sabin is the first female president of Britain's Lawn Tennis Association. The organization has been around for 125 years.

'Pova keeps it real about Serena, her shoulder, and Mother Russia.

Holiday sing-along, part 3

Two songs this week:

Walkin' around the practice courts
In the after-season break
Bandages on where you can see
Every player limp and ache

Walkin' around the practice courts
Glad to be at season's end
Maybe we'll check our Facebook page
And see if Sloane is still our friend

You may get a wicked kind of feeling when you hear
Voices sounding a bit too jolly:
"Aga missed a backhand volley!"

Walkin' around the practice courts
On a boring winter day
Everyone moving warily
In an awkward clumsy way


You better not shriek
You better not shout
Better hear what 
I'm talking about
Allaster is coming to town

She's making a thing
To calculate noise
Gonna connect it
Right to your voice
Allaster is coming to town

She hears you when you're screaming
She knows that it's all fake
She knows if you've been loud or quiet
So shut up for goodness sake!

You better not grunt
You better not yell
She's measuring every decibel
Allaster is coming to town

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sweeping the court

Angelique Kerber has hired Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh as her new coach. Kerber had worked with Torben Beltz for over two years.

Heather Watson has also hired a new coach. The British player has retained Diego Veronelli to coach her.

Check out all the 2013 quotes.

Elena Baltacha married her coach, Nino Severino, on Sunday.

Check out Francesca and Flavia (thanks to WTA Backspin for the link)!

Jelena Dokic is competing in the Australian Open wild card playoffs.

And in the USA, the wild card playoffs include the following players: Victoria Duval, Grace Min, Shelby Rogers, Madison Brengle, Maria Sanchez, Nicole Gibbs, Julia Cohen, Sachia Vickery.

Finally, some very sad news. Women Who Serve offers condolences to Nadia Petrova, whose mother, Nadezhda Ilyina, has died at the age of 64. The 1976 Olympic medalist was killed in an automobile accident.

Holiday sing-along, part 2

Photo by Daniel Ward
  Good coach Annacone looked 'round
At the feats of Stephens
At the net and on the ground
Her shots were crisp and even
Brightly shone her radiant smile
On our televisions
But unless the stage was big and grand
She made poor shot decisions

"Bring me discipline," said Paul
"Bring me dedication
Show me you can do it all
And no mental vacation
I want you to be tough," he said
"And not be such a quitter"
She quickly did an interview
Then un-followed him on Twitter

Thursday, December 5, 2013

All top USA players currently available for Fed Cup

Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, speaking today at a USTA press conference call, said that--as of now--all the top U.S. players have made themselves available for the upcoming Fed Cup tie against defending champion Italy. The World Group competition will be held February 8 and 9 in Cleveland, Fernandez's residence, for the first time in Fed Cup history.

Commenting on Sloane Stephens, Fernandez said: "I think Sloane still gets a little bit confused about how she should play, constructing her points. I think she relies on her speed and doesn't play as aggressively as she could....I think now she's more aware of, when she wins, she she wins. I think that's something we'll see more of in 2014, more consistency."

Fernandez added that Stephens was "at the top" of the list of potential Fed Cup doubles team members, but also stressed that chemistry is an important factor in putting together a doubles team. She mentioned both Jamie Hampton and Taylor Townsend as having very good doubles skills.

The USA captain said that when she began her duties, the USA had only three players in the top 100, but now there are eleven.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Holiday sing-along with Women Who Serve, part 1

Every Monday until Christmas, Women Who Serve is giving you a famous holiday song with some new, WTA lyrics. Apologies to all original writers, and to readers--enjoy!

Photo by Daniel Ward
O little land of Serbia
How still we see you lie
But above your deep and dreamless sleep
A sound pervades the sky
Then from a helicopter
Her concrete hair intact
JJ descends to greet her friends
She waves "Hello I'm back!"

Some people said that she was done
Her glory days all past
They said she was a drama queen
And that she played too fast
She tangled with Ricardo
Complained she had hot feet
She caused a quake and often was
Upended on her seat

A twinkle always in her eye
And glitter in her hair
Queen Chaos twists and does the splits
And argues with the Chair
Now she's back among the top 10
Glad tidings--spread the news
The smiling Serb is standing tall
in her five-inch Jimmy Choos

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Radwanska is fan favorite for third straight year

World number 5 Agnieszka Radwanska has been voted the 2013 WTA Fan Favorite. Radwanska also received the fan award in 2011 and 2012. 80,000 fans voted this year.

Fans also voted Radwanska's Miami 360 spin backhand volley (see number 10) as the Shot of the Year. The thing is, she made some other shots this year that could also qualify, though--for most of us--the Miami shot was especially spectacular.

The Fan Favorite Doubles Team is Elena Vesnna and Ekaterina Makarova, a Russian fire and ice combo who are especially fun to watch.

Maria Sharapova got the nod for both Fan Favorite Facebook and Fan Favorite Twitter. 40 LOVE Story, episode 10 was named Fan Favorite Video of the Year.

Fan Favorite Match of the Year was the semifinal played between Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova at the French Open.

Finally, here's a little something in honor of Radwanska:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Serena Williams named Player of the Year

Serena Williams, the world's number 1 ranked player, was named Player of the Year today by the WTA. Williams won 11 titles this year, including the French Open, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. At age 32, Williams is the oldest player to ever receive the award, and this is the fifth time that she has received it.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, the number 1 doubles team in the world, were named Doubles Team of the Year. Errani and Vinci won the Australian Open and the Paris indoor tournament. And as much as I thoroughly enjoy and respect the Italians, I do have a quibble about this award. Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai won Wimbledon, the WTA Championships, Rome, Cincinnati, and Guangzhou. They didn't knock Errani and Vinci out of the number 1 spot, but their performance in 2013 was the one that was truly outstanding.

Who do you pick--the number 1 team, or the team who won a major, the year-ends, two premier titles, and another title? I woud have gone with the latter, but I understand the decision.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sweeping the court

Everyone likes a class yearbook, and there's no yearbook quite like the one published by the Backspin Academy. It's all there in photos, videos, student election results, lecture series, classes--everything. The Radwanska Abbey "lost footage" has been restored, too, so if you missed the tour the first time, be sure to check it out. Do your homework.

Maria Sharapova has hired Sven Groenefeld as her coach. I didn't see that one coming.

Sloane Stepehens has entered a trial coaching agreement with Paul Annacone, who--until recently--coached Roger Federer.

Laura Robson has hired Jesse Witten as her traveling coach and hitting partner, and Nick Saviano as a coaching consultant. The word is that she wanted to hire Mark Woodforde as her coach, but that the two could not come to a financial agreement.

Elena Baltacha has retired from professional tennis. The veteran Brit (born in Scotland) player was a lot longer on talent than she was on luck. At age 19, Baltacha was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, but didn't let a compromised immune system stop her from playing. She and her coach, Nino Severino, currently run the Baltacha Academy of Tennis. The 30-year-old Baltacha, who has suffered numerous injuries, said, in announcing her retirement, that all those injuries have finally taken their toll. Bally will be missed, for sure.

Bouchard, Halep and Kleybanova get WTA awards

The WTA is handing out its annual awards on a gradual basis this year. Newcomer of the Year is Eugenie Bouchard, Most Improved Player of the Year is Simona Halep and Comeback Player of the Year is Alisa Kleybanova. This is the second time that Flavia Pennetta has staged an unbelievable comeback from lengthy rehab, and, for the second time, that comeback wasn't recognized. But that doesn't mean that Kleybanova's comeback shouldn't be recognized with the award; I thought both players were equally qualified to receive it.

Bouchard began the season ranked number 144 in the world, and ended it ranked number 32. The numbers say it all for the Canadian player. Halep, of course, went on a tear (beating Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Vinci, and Jankovic) in Rome, and then won six tournaments on three surfaces. She is now number 11 in the world.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sweeping the court

Maria Sharapova will join the NBC broadcasting crew for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Sharapova spent her early childhood in Sochi, and was an ambassador for Sochi when the city made its bid to host the Olympic Games.

Here's Petra Kvitova on CNN World Sport.

The Backspin Awards continue with Performance and Match lists. Don't miss it.

You can get to know Ajla Tomljanovic.

Nuria Llagostera Vives has been suspended for two years after testing positive for methamphetamine at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford. The Spanish player actually withdrew from the tournament because her doubles partner, Francesca Schiavone, was ill.

Here's Victoria Azarenka and Redfoo at the MTV EMAs.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2013--a French twist

2013 was a year of surprises for a lot of tennis fans. As a whole, the season was packed with unexpected events for all of us. The season's news was both good and bad, as a few players made comebacks or banished demons, but some continued to deal with chronic health issues.

Maria Sharapova's shoulder gave her problems again, and caused her to withdraw from the U.S. Open and finish her season early. That meant she also had to withdraw from the WTA Championships. Petra Kvitova continued to struggle with asthma, but--perhaps more significant--she suffered from a series of infections that leads one to come to the logical conclusion that something is amiss in her immune system. There is reason to be concerned about both players.

Vera Zvonareva stayed out with injury, but recently announced her 2014 return. Venus Williams, however, actually demonstrated some improvement in her stamina, which had decreased dramatically because of her autoimmune illness.

One of the comeback stories of 2013 belonged to Flavia Pennetta, who had to have wrist surgery last year. She's been through a long rehab before, and she's figured out how to come back, so it was no surprise that in 2013, the Italian put on quite a show at the U.S. Open. Pennetta, who was ranked number 83 in the world when the year's fourth major began, went on an upset tear reminiscent of Flavia from long ago. She beat Sara Errani, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Simona Halep, and Roberta Vinci. One defeated opponent was a former U.S. Open champion, one was the hottest player of the second half of the season, and the other two are her close friends. Pennetta lost to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals, but it was quite a run.

Andrea Petkovic also experienced a positive return to the tour, and we should keep an eye on her (and hope she doesn't get injured) in 2014. Alisa Kleybanova, having undergone treatment and rehab for Hodgkin's lymphoma, made a real comeback this year, and should also be someone we watch in 2014.

In 2013, we learned that Kristina Mladenovic and Anyone equals a great doubles team. The Frenchwoman won six doubles titles this year--with six different partners. One of those titles was the mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon, which she won with Daniel Nestor (they were the runners-up at the French Open). In Charleston, Mladenovic stepped onto the court with defending champion Lucie Safarova for the very first time in their careers, and--despite their unfamiliarity with one another--Safarova defended her title.

While I'm on the subject of doubles, it was a bit of an odd year in that no one team really dominated. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the Australian Open and retained their number 1 ranking, but 2013 was not the banner year for them that 2012 was. Meanwhile, young Austalian Ashleigh Barty continued to demonstrate that she is already a force in doubles, and can only become more of a force in the future. She and Casey Dellacqua were the runners-up at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

Martina Hingis returned to the tour to play doubles with Daniela Hantuchova. On paper, that's a dream team, but the reality was that the pair struggled, and Hingis sounded discouraged at the end of the season.

The other big doubles news this year was that the formidable Czech team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, after winning the U.S. Open, split. Hlavackova will play with Lucie Safarova next year, and Hradecka will pair with Michaella Krajicek.

One of the players who made a big splash in doubles this year was Elena Vesnina. With partner Ekaterina Makarova, Vesnina won both Indian Wells and the French Open. The Russian's other breakthrough was in singles. After being a runner-up six times, Vesnina won her first title in Hobart, and then she won her second one in Eastbourne. It was a long time coming.

Sam Stosur parted ways with coach David Taylor, after six years. She has since named a new coach, but during the interim, she looked to Australian Open Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik to help her out, and made a huge end-of-season sweep upward. There's reason to believe that the Australian star is headed for a big 2014 season.

Some of the tour's younger players made quite an impression in 2013. Eugenie Bouchard showed us that she has pretty serious game and is perhaps "the" player to watch next season. And then there was Sloane Stephens.

Stephens had an interesting year, to say the least. She put herself into a "feud" (it was one-sided) with Serena Williams, of all people, and she told us she was looking forward to the European clay court season because there's nothing much to do in boring old Europe. The most striking thing about Stephens' season, however, was that she continued her pattern of making big runs on big stages, and then giving us performances she could have phoned in at other events.

I have to give a shout-out to Alexandra Panova, who played the match of her career in the Fed Cup final, and--even though she held four match points against an injured opponent, but still lost--she reminded us all what Fed Cup competition is all about. It was a great match, and Panova is to be commended for giving it her all. Her performance represents why I love Fed Cup.

Kristina Mladenovic and Flavia Pennetta came close to making my personal top 10 for 2013, but wound up as "honorable mentions." Here's my top 10:

10: Oh no, she didn't:

9. You can't win 'em all: But if you're Esther Vergeer, you can come pretty close. The world's "winningest" athlete retired in 2013. Vergeer won 700 matches and lost 25. She was ranked number 1 for 14 years. She won 42 majors (singles and doubles combined), 22 year-end-championships and 7 Paralympic titles. She had a 95-game win streak in which she was taken to match point only once. Vergeer was undefeated for 10 straight years--from 2003 to 2013--and retired while on a 470-match win streak.

8. Praise the tennis gods: She's back--rubber body, concrete hair, red Porsche with matching shoes, and all. Jelena Jankovic, who--all by herself--is a reason to watch pro tennis--returned to the top 10 this year. Queen Chaos, as she's known on one of my very favorite tennis sites, won the tournament in Bogota, and put in a solid performance in many other tournaments. She's still not as fast or as accurate as Jelena of 2008, but there's reason to hope. (As one of WWS's readers commented this past spring, "She's so fabulous it hurts.")

7. You've got a friend: The doubles team of the year has to be Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. They've been friends for many years, and at times, they were doubles partners. This year, they got serious about beingh a doubles team, and it paid off. Hsieh and Peng won Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, as well as three other tournaments.

6. Dai!: In 2013, Italy won Fed Cup--again. The Italian team defeated the USA, the Czech Republic and Russia to take the title for the fourth time. Roberta Vinci didn't get a chance to play doubles in the final, but Fed Cup Queen Flavia Pennetta did. It was a dead rubber, but it was still good to see Pennetta on the court.

5. More like habanero: Simona Halep received the nickname "Halepeno" this year, and with good reason. The talented Romanian went crazy on everyone in the second half of the season and won six titles. She did this on all three surfaces, and one of her titles was achieved at the Tournament of Champions. She may be considered "too small" to compete at a serious level, but she should nevertheless be taken seriously, and especially on clay courts. Halep is a joy to watch. With some improvement in her service game, she becomes even more of a threat.

4. Unloved, undefeated: Victoria Azarenka had an amazing start to her 2013 season, and that start included defending her title at the Australian Open. But this was no ordinary title defense. Azarenka played against crowd favorite Li Na (who was significantly injured twice during the bizarre match), while she herself was the crowd "unfavorite"--in a big way. Australian fans and sports media combined to conduct an anti-Vika campaign, and the crowd actively cheered against her. And while it helped that her opponent twisted her ankle and bashed her head during the final, it was nevertheless a special victory for the former world number 1 to defend her title. She didn't celebrate the win on court--that would have been too strange, I guess--instead, she sat down and wept. Azarenka would go on to win Doha and Cincinnati, defeating Serena Williams in both finals.

3. Parlez vous Francais?: Serena Williams does, and so does her racket. Williams was already living part-time in Paris when she was upset in the first round of the 2012 French Open, so it was no surprise that she went to the Mouratoglu Academy for help. Williams hadn't won at Roland Garros since 2002, so it was one of those very personal "Serena" victories when she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 2013. Williams delivered her victory speech in French, just as she had delivered her Rome victory speech in Italian.

2. She's still number 1: Williams didn't win just the French Open; she also won the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. She won 11 titles in 2013 and ended the year with the number 1 ranking. At age 32, the world number 1 looks and feels as confident as ever. Oh, and her game is better than ever; expect the best in 2014.

1. "I'll have a cup of tea and tell you of my dreaming": Right before the 2011 French Open began, Petra Kvitova went to sleep one night, and--the next morning--told her coach, "I dreamed I won the Wimbledon." A few weeks later, she won The Wimbledon. We don't know how many times Marion Bartoli went to sleep and dreamed that she won that title, but we do know that her waking dream for 22 years was that she would win it.

From age 6 on, the Frenchwoman's goal was to lift the Venus Rosewater dish at the All England Club. To the surprise of a lot of people, she reached the final in 2007. Possessed of a mighty return game, Bartoli always had the grass court skills. But her serve could go off at a moment's notice, as could her physical stamina.

Bartoli, who plays two-handed on both sides, has marched to her own drumbeat her entire career. Put through rigorous and often very unusual training by her father and coach, Walter Bartoli, she was easy to dismiss. Bartoli's on-court intensity, which included a never-to-be-emulated Death Glare, made her a one-woman theatre project. There has just never been anyone like her in professional tennis.

She had a disappointing 2013 season, but perked up in time for Wimbledon. Knowing that she needed to lighten up, she brought 2006 champion and fellow Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo along with her to the All England Club. If the easy-going and witty Mauresmo can't lighten you up, no one can. Not that Bartoli is without humor--off the court, she's very funny. Guided by Mauresmo and pal Kristina Mladenovic, Bartoli brought that humor to the tournament, and--instead of training every moment she was off the court--the Frenchwoman was dancing in the locker room. She also worked on her serve, then worked on it some more.

Bartoli's opponent in the final was crowd favorite Sabine Lisicki, known for her service game. But Lisicki is not the mentally toughest player around, and Bartoli was able to get the job done in straight sets.

And there's more! Six weeks after winning Wimbledon, Bartoli announced her retirement from professional tennis. There's some speculation that she'll return, but I wonder about that. Marion is having such a great time. Since winning the biggest title of her career, she has sung "La Marseillaise" for a gathering of important people at the All England Club, become the first Wimbledon champion to play mixed doubles at the All England Club's end-of-season tournament, taken a final trip to the gym, and worn a chocolate dress on the runway in Paris.

Bartoli now has time to paint her landscapes and buy her Christian Louboutins. But whatever she decides to do, we can be sure of one thing: She'll do it her own way, in her own style, and without regard to what anyone else thinks.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An all-Belgian final

Wait--that was another decade, wasn't it?

But what do you know? Two Belgians wound up competing for the title in the OEC Taipei Ladies Open, a WTA 125 Sereis event that concluded over the weekend. 2nd seed Yanina Wickmayer lost to the unseeded Alison Van Uytvanck, who defeated her 6-4, 6-2. Van Uytvanck never faced a break point.

Van Uytvanck and parter Anna-Lena Friedsam were the runners-up in doubles. The title went to Caroline Garcia and Yaroslava Shvedova. Garcia says she had been trying to get Shvedova to play doubles with her for a long time, but Shvedova wasn't available in the past. The Taipei tournament marks their debut as a team.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sweeping the court

Pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine, sit back, and enjoy the 2013 Backspin Awards. You won't find a more thoughtful or detailed review of the season.

Sam Stosur has named Miles Maclagan as her new coach. Maclagan formerly coached Laura Robson. Stosur and coach David Taylor recently after working together for six years.

Maria Kirilenko does a photo shoot for Glamour Russia. Kirilenko's photo shoots aren't what they used to be, are they?

The ITF shows "flexibility and concern."

If you aren't following the Scoreboard for Equality, you should be.

Be sure to check out the Sofia player party gallery.

40 LOVE to see some real change

Dear WTA:

You did an outstanding job with the 40 LOVE campaign. I'm sure I speak for most fans when I say how great it was to see so much attention paid to the Original 9, and to have the WTA's impressive history talked about so much by the sports media. Well done.

However, an excellent marketing campaign about the spirit and intention of the Original 9 isn't the same as really honoring the spirit and intention of the Original 9, which was to grant women what was rightfully theirs--to compete on an equal level with men.

The prize money issue is a big one, and great strides have been made in that area. But sexism is still sexism and there's a lot more to the concept of equality than just prize money. I'd like to see the WTA take an authentic position on behalf of women that would benefit the players, all sportswomen, and women and girls everywhere. As WTA player Sania Mirza (and what a wonderful spokeswoman she is) said recently: "When a woman wants to do something on her own way, she is criticised, dubbed as a rebel." She's right, and when a man wants to do something his own way, he's called "an individual" and "a maverick."

As Mirza points out, sportswomen (and all professional women, I'll add) are asked about what they wear, about when they're going to have babies, etc., while the media concentrates on men's athletic endeavors. The sports media calls male athletes "warriors" while it creates gossip about female athletes' private lives and encourages the "cat fight" mentality among fans.

I was around when the WTA was formed, and believe me--we haven't really come that far, baby, in sports or in any other area of society. In fact, we've gone backwards. In the U.S., bigoted attitudes toward women and girls that were at least held up for inspection in the 70s are now condoned and even encouraged. Sexism and misogyny are such a part of the fabric of world culture, girls grow up not even realizing that they are being treated as people who are "less than" men.

In no particular order, these are things I'd like to see from the WTA:

1. Get rid of on-court coaching. 
I don't want anyone, male or female, to receive on-court coaching because on-court coaching goes against the spirit of the game of tennis, which is a sport that's as much mental as it is physical. The tennis player stands alone (unless it's a doubles match), and has to figure things out for herself. In the case of the WTA, on-court coaching--and this is especially true since there is no ATP on-court coaching--makes the women look as though they can't figure it out for themselves. To make matters worse, almost all of the coaches are men, so there they are--young women being directed by older men on how to play an opponent. It reeks of paternalism.

2. Create a program to encourage the development of female coaches.
We have so few of them in professional tennis. (And by the way, ATP--you need to do the same thing; where are the female coaches?) You can encourage girls all you want to be anything they can be, but until they see women coaching players, the message won't be transmitted.

3. Do not ever threaten to create a device that intrudes on a woman's body. Ever.
The concept of using a grunt-o-meter is not only ridiculous, it's offensive. I've never known what all the "grunting" (most of it isn't) fuss was about. No one complains about grunting on the ATP. As far as I can tell, the sports media created the "controversy" and people hopped onto the bandwagon.

But even if there are legitimate reasons (I don't think there are, but for the sake of argument....) to stop players from making noise, the idea of using a measuring device is really no different in spirit than previous concepts like putting female flight attendants on weight scales, requiring women in certain professions (or relationships) to get plastic surgery, and conducting "virginity tests" on adolescent girls. Women and girls have had our bodies measured and encroached upon enough.

4. Stop calling the head of the WTA a man.
An organization that claims to promote the well-being and advancement of women and girls really needs to stop saying "chairman" when it refers to the current head of the organization. What decade are we in, anyway?

5. Find some female masters of ceremony.
Tournament after tournament, including those that are women-only, the person doing the on-court interviews, making the announcements, and conducting the activities is a man. Often, it's a man who is sexist and/or paternalistic. (I heard a master of ceremonies tell a little girl who had won a competition that she couldn't make a celebratory run around the court because "girls don't do that." Another, ubiqitous, master of ceremonies calls grown women "young ladies" every time he interviews them or talks about them.) At the very least, get men who show more respect to the female players. But we really need some female masters of ceremonies.

6. Don't just sit there--fight sexism when it occurs.
When members of the sports media always compare female players with male players and never the other way around, say something. When an ATP player declares that women can't possibly compete as well as men because of our hormones, show your outrage. When members of the media make wink-nudge jokes about what that ATP player said, put them in their place.

When masters of ceremonies patronize players, educate them. When commentators assume that a female player is "copying" an ATP player and she isn't, complain. When commentators call women "girls," correct them. When the sports press (I'm talking to you, Great Britain) makes sexually oriented comments about WTA players' bodies and refers to the tour in demeaning ways, call them out and make them stop doing it.

The Original 9 were women with spine. The WTA couldn't have better role models.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Zhang wins Nanjing Ladies Open

Zhang Shuai won the WTA 125K Series Nanjing Ladies Open today. Zhang won the first set 6-4, and then it was all over when her opponent Ayumi Morita had to retire because of a hamstring injury. And yes, we've seen Morita retire and give walkovers more times than we like to think about, but this time, it wasn't exactly unexpected. The Japanese player saved mutiple match points during the week, and played two three-hour matches back-to-back (one of them was interrupted by rain, but still, Morita went through a lot during the week).

Zhang won her first WTA title this year, in Guangzhou. She has won 19 of 23 matches since the U.S. Open.

The champion had to settle for runner-up status in doubles. She and partner Yaroslava Shvedova, the top seeds, lost the final. The doubles champions are Misaki Doi and Xu Yi-Fan, who won the final 6-1, 6-4. Doi and Xu were unseeded.

Halep goes six for six

Whatever psychological demons haunt the likes of Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic--those demons leave Simona Halep alone. The Romanian, whose psyche appears to have been purified in the sanctuary of the Holy Church of Chris Evert, won the Tournament of Champions in Sofia today. Dropping her first set of the tournament, Halep defeated Stosur 2-6, 6-2, 6-2.

My only concern about Halep as she went into the final was her leg. It did bother her from time to time during the match, and she said that she, too, was worried about it before the match began, but that she really wanted to win, and that's apparently what she focused on. She was also fortunate that the injury didn't get worse.

Other than the injury issue, the match was kind of predictable. Stosur came out ready to control things, and control things she did--during the first set. After that, Halep's now-characteristic comeback began, enabling her to win the second set. In the final set, Stosur looked better and there was every reason to believe that the last set would be the most competitive one--but then, Stosur was broken. And she was broken. Unable to scare Halep away with her heavy topspin, the Australian instead struggled to find a Plan B, and allowed Halep to extract errors from her, just as she had in the previous set.

Though she has done well on a variety of surfaces, clay really make's Halep's game deadly. She has just enough time to get a good reading of exactly what her opponent is up to, and then she's ready with a counter-plan. She hits the ball deceptively hard when she needs to, and specializes in luring her opponent to a defensive position. And Stosur, for all her gifts in the serving and forehand departments, can be pushed around by a clever opponent.

With Halep, it's all about whether her serve is on. If it is, she can almost relax into her aggression. She's got the movement, the shots, the footwork, and the confidence. Developing a more consistent serve would really take some pressure off of her.

Halep has played in six finals this year, and has won all of them. For those of us who have been watching the Romanian and waiting for this for a long time, this year was the pay-off. For others, it must be quite a surprise. Romania has a strong WTA contingent, and now it has a leader. When the new rankings are published, Halep will be number 11 in the world.

Italy wins 2013 Fed Cup

It wasn't that long ago that we used to say that Russia had enough good players to put together two winning Fed Cup teams. Actually, that's still true, but they have to be uninjured and they have to want to play--and it would also help if they weren't sabotaged by the WTA, which schedules Fed Cup the same time as the Tournament of Champions. A lot of problems plagued the Russian Fed Cup team this year, and as a result, a very beatable team showed up for the final.

Italy led 2-0 going into today, and--not surprisingly--Alisa Keybanova took over for what must have been an exhausted Alexandra Panova in the third rubber of the Fed Cup final. But Kleybanova hadn't set foot on a clay court in a long, long time, and that made it easy for Sara Errani to beat her 6-1, 6-1 in just under an hour.

Errani's victory sealed the title for Italy, but the teams opted to play the dead doubles rubber, which Italy also won. Karin Knapp and Flavia Pennetta (the Queen of Fed Cup had to make an appearance, right?) defeated Margarita Gasparyan and Irina Khromacheva 4-6, 6-2, 10-4.

It should be noted that, in the four rubbers played, Russia won two sets. That statement comes over as a bit sarcastic, but I don't mean it that way at all. The Russians took a set in doubles, and Panova--as already noted--made a memorable Fed Cup debut.

This is Italy's fourth Fed Cup title. The Italian team has won four titles in the last eight years.

Don't forget to check the photo gallery on the official website.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sweeping the court

Italian Fed Cup captain Carrado Barazzutti has received the 2013 Fed Cup Award of Excellence. Barrazutti. The annual award goes to an individual who represents the ideals and spirit of Fed Cup. Barazzutti led Italy to its first Fed Cup final in history, in 2006. Italy won that year, and also in 2009 and 2010; the Italian team was the runner-up in 2007. It was Barazzutti, incidentally, who coached Italian Fed Cup team regular Francesca Schiavone during the 2010 French Open, which she won.

Speaking of Fed Cup--unless something really dramatic occurs tomorrow--the player who will probably be most talked about is Alexandra Panova. Yes, she let four match points slip away and her opponent was injured, but it was Panova's first Fed Cup match, and she gave it all she had. She said afterwards that she was disappointed that her serve had let her down. I'm sure she's very disappointed, but Panova's performance is the kind of thing that makes Fed Cup so special.

Caroline Wozniacki says that Thomas Hogstedt will be her coach in 2013. Such "coaching" arrangements have not worked in the past because Piotr Wozniacki has always assumed the authority of a coach, even when he wasn't the "official" coach.

I miss the Fed Cup blogs. What happened to them? They were always so much fun to read. The live blog is still being pubished, but it's the only one.

Heather Watson said recently that she had such a tough time coming back and competing after a long bout with glandular fever, she actually considered retiring from the sport.

Sugarpova is great, but how about some chocolate?

Look who showed up in Sardinia!

Drama, drama, drama!

Those Italians. When Russia had a medical timeout during one of today's Fed Cup rubbers, the hosts cued up "Funiculi, Funicula" while the trainer was working. Funny. Not so funny was what Roberta Vinci went through to defeat Alexandra Panova. Vinci has been injured for a while, and undoubtedly wasn't expected to be at her best today. To make things tougher, Panova threw everything at her that she had.

I wasn't sure I was even going to watch the Fed Cup final, but when I got up this morning and saw what was going on, I bought my viewing pass. Somewhere in Sardinia, as I write this, poor Panova is probably struggling to stay away from the Chianti (she has to play again tomorrow) and drown her memories of today. The Russian led Vinci 7-5, 5-2, 40-15. She held four match points, and saw them all disappear; Vinci won the three hour and thirteen-minute affair 5-7, 7-5, 8-6.

Sara Errani then defeated Irini Khromacheva 6-1, 6-4. Khromacheva gave the world number 7 something to think about in the second set. The Russian player got her rhythm, used her second serve to her advantage and hit winners off of both sides.

There was more drama at the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, as top seed Simona Halep took on two-time champion and wild card Ana Ivanovic. It was hard not anticipate drama in this semifinal, as a matter of fact. Ivanovic, when she's on, is exactly the kind of player who can give Halep trouble. In this case, the Romanian star was ripe for an upset because of a niggling leg injury.

But you know how it can go with Ana Ivo. She took the first set 6-2, after winning five games in a row. Halep's serve was off, and she was making too many unforced errors. Between sets, Halep received medical treatment for her injury, then calmly walked back onto the court, made the needed adjustments, and won four games in a row. She took the second set 6-1.

"Momentum" isn't a four-letter word, but it might as well have been in this match. Because, before you could say "I'd like the next flight to Belgrade,"  Halep was down two breaks and serving at 1-3, 0-40. And that was it.

That was it for Ivanovic, not Halep.

At one point, toward the end, Ivanovic called for the trainer, who appeared to be working on practically everything on the Serb's body, but really--it was the "throat constriction" problem that needed tending. Ivanovic could hardly get a ball over the net, and Halep--not one to miss an opportunity--won 25 of the last 32 points. Her 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory puts her into the final. The Romanian player has yet to drop a set in Sofia.

Her opponent tomorrow will be Sam Stosur, who beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. The scoreline says it all: Stosur dominated the opening set, Pavlyuchenkova dominated the second, and the third was pretty competitive.

Stosur last played Halep in the final in Moscow, which Halep won 7-6, 6-2.

A couple of side notes:

Brit commentator, whoever you are, those WTA players cannot possibly be "countrymen"--you know, on account of their being women.

And I really enjoyed Stosur's walk onto the court for the final. The little girl who accompanied her adopted the same stoic-cool expression and gait as Stosur, and they made quite a pair.

Finally, in Nanjing, Ayumi Morita and Zhang Shuai emerged as the finalists. Morita is showing some fitness; she spent the week playing marathon matches and saving match points. Today, she had a straight set victory over Jarmila Gajdosova, while Zhang needed three sets to beat Yanina Wickmayer. The question now is: Will Morita have enough energy left to win her first WTA title? Zhang won her first title this year, in Guangzhou.

With partner Yaroslava Shvedova, Zhang is also into the doubles final. The top seeds will take on Misaki Doi and Xu Yi-Fan.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fed Cup final not an exciting concept

I usually can't wait for the Fed Cup final, but this year, I haven't even bought a viewing pass. Alexandra Panova and Irina Khromacheva are playing singles for Russia, and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci are playing singles for Italy. And in the unfortunate case that one of the Italians is injured, Flavia Pennetta--the Queen of Fed Cup--is there and available.

Pennetta are Karin Knapp are scheduled to play the doubles rubber, should there be such a match. Margarita Gasparyan and Alisa Kleybanova are scheduled to play doubles for Russia. Kleybanova, of course--despite her lengthy absence from the tour--would be the logical choice to compete against Errani and Vinci in singles, but Russia appears to have written this one off.

I still don't know what happened to Camila Giorgi, who was supposed to be on the Italian team, but at this point, she probably isn't missing much.

Strange things do happen in Fed Cup, and upsets aren't unusual, but the morale of the Russian team can't possibly be very high, given the snubbing its own regular players have given it. One of those players, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, has made it to the semifinals in Sofia, which take place tomorrow, which is day 1 of the Fed Cup final.

Ivanovic and Stosur go to Sofia semifinals

Poor Elena Vesnina. She came back from 2-5 down in her round robin match against Ana Ivanovic, forced a tiebreak, and won it 7-1, only to see Ivanovic wind up in the Sofia semifinals. If Sam Stosur had lost her match to Tsvetana Pironkova, Vesnina would have been in, but the Australian easily beat the wild card, 6-1, 6-4. Stosur plays Simona Halep in the semifinals, and Ivanovic plays Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

In Nanjing, Ayumi Morita was at it again, playing three hours, and--this time--saving only one match point. She defeated Anna Schmiedlova 6-7 (8), 7-6 (0), 7-5. Morita, who must be exhausted, is now into the semifinals, in which she'll face Jarmila Gajdosova. In the other semifinal match, Yanina Wickmayer will face Zhang Shuai.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halep completes Sofia round robin play 3-0

Simona Halep, the top seed at the Tournament of Champions, defeated Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-1 in Sofia today, meaning that she has not only not dropped a match in the Group Serdika round robin play, but also has not dropped a set.

However, all is not perfect in Romania. In yesterday's match against Alize Cornet, Halep had a terrible time with her serve, making repeated attempts to get the job done in straight sets. She did win, 6-4, 6-4, but it wasn't pretty. She's probably very tired; that was her 50th match win of the season. Also, walking onto the court to screams of "Simona! Simona! Simona!" maybe put her under a bit of pressure? Just saying.

Either Cornet or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova will join Halep in the semifinals; they play one another tomorrow.

In Group Sredets, it's a three-way tie among Ana Ivanovic, Sam Stosur and Elena Vesnina to determine who goes to the semifinals. Ivanovic has won the tournament twice before; today, she defeated Stosur 6-2, 5-7. 6-2.

In Nanjing, Ayumi Morita--a player who is always kind of on the verge of breaking out--played her second round match over a course of two days because of a rain delay, and saved seven match points against Petra Martic. Morita defeated Martic 6-7 (7), 7-6 (10), 6-4. Wow.

40 LOVE Story, Episode 10

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Quote of the day

"Everybody has the right to form their opinions, and I have the right to ignore them."
Sania Mirza

Sweeping the court

Jelena Jankovic has entered the Family Circle Cup, which will take place in Charleston March 29-April 6. World number 8 Jankovic won the Cup in 2007 and was the 2013 runner-up. She is the second player to enter the 2014 event; 2013 champion Serena Williams was the first.

Elena Vesnina is blogging from Sofia. It's her first time to write a WTA blog.
Sania Mirza is at it again, thank goodness.

Eugenie Bouchard has parted ways with coach Nathalie Tauziat.

Sad doubles news: The team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka is no more. Hradecka said that the breakup was Hlavackova's decision: "...she told me she wanted to play with Lucie Safarova next year and focus on singles." The 2013 U.S. Open champions have indicated that they will continue to play together in Fed Cup. Hradecka's new doubles partner is Michaella Krajicek.

Ekaterina Makarova answers a few questions.

I want whatever Simona's having

"I hit the balls, my movement was good," Simona Halep, with a big smile, said today about her straight set victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Sofia. Halep's confidence and her lack of false modesty please me very much. This was the fourth time that she has played Pavlyuychenkova, and the fourth time that she has beaten her. In fact, in all their meetings, the Russian has won only one set (in this year's Tokyo match, from which she had to retire).

For the second year in a row, Maria Kirilenko had to withdraw from the Tournament of Champions. A left knee injury took her out of competition, and her retirement gave a win to Alize Cornet. Kirilenko will be replaced in Group Serdika by first alternate Elina Svitolina.

In today's remaining match, wild card Ana Ivanovic defeated wild card Tsvetana Pironkova 6-0, 6-2. Ivanovic has won the tournament twice.

Meanwhile, in the Nanjing Ladies Open, top seed Kimiko Date-Krumm was upset in the first round by Duan Ying-Ying.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Everyone knows I'm a perfectionist..."

Serena Williams braids her hair, regains super-powers, wins WTA Championships

During the first set of today's WTA Championships final in Istanbul, Li Na did to defending champion Serena Williams what Williams often does to her opponents--played her way seamlessly through tough rallies and then brought down the blade, often with a powerful forehand blow. Li served and volleyed. She worked her way to the net and put balls away. The Chinese star used controlled aggression to wear down an already very tired Williams, and she took the first set 6-2.

Li didn't let up for the first half of the second set. But her task became tougher, as Williams--who braided her hair between sets--suddenly began to look like herself. Remember, a physically and mentally exhausted Serena Williams is still--Serena Williams. And a quick twist of her thick hair brought about at least a metaphorical (I'm not excluding the possibility of the existence of magical powers) twist in her energy level. And that enabled her to sharpen her focus.

Williams won the second set 6-3. And then, not so slowly, began Li's familiar descent into Na Na Land. It should have been a cracker of a third set, but instead--suddenly bereft of confidence--Li unraveled. She could hardly get a decent first serve going, and her second serve was almost nonexistent. By this time, the aggression was clearly being carried out on the other side of the net, and the Williams serve was on fire. Williams took the final set 6-0, even after being down 0-40 when she served for the championship.

This was Williams' 11th title of the year, her 18th straight match win, and her 78th match win of 2013. The world number 1 has now won the WTA Championships four times, matching the accomplishments of Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf.

Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai won the doubles championship, defeating Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 6-4, 7-5. Hsieh and Peng are from Chinese Taipei and China, respectively. They are long-time friends, and they won the 2013 Wimbledon championship.

The trophy ceremony also served as a ceremony of transfer, since the Championships will move from Istanbul to Singapore next year. The event is very popular in Istanbul, where it has been held for the last three years. It will be played in Singapore for five years.

My favorite fan sign: Li Na: Whatever, Whenever, Wherever, However. That kind of sums it up for me, too, and here's hoping that the Carlos Rodriguez-inspired improvements continue in 2014. As for Serena, she can now let her hair down and get some much-needed rest.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sweeping the court

Vera Zvonareva plans to make her comeback in Shezhen in January. The former world number 2 hasn't played on the tour since August of 2012, when she participated in the Olympic Games. Zvonareva has been rehabilitating from a shoulder injury.

Serena Williams and the doubles team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci were recently honored in Istanbul for finishing the year with the number 1 ranking.

Here's Maria Sharapova at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion fund event in West Hollywood (and also at a Beverly Hill event).

World number 2 Victoria Azarenka has received the WTA Diamond Aces award. The honor goes to the player "who consistently goes above and beyond in promoting the sport of women's tennis to fans, media and local communities...."

Here's a Hawkeye look at the Li Na vs. Petra Kvitova semifinal in Istanbul.

Russia defeats Italy--at least, this week

For the second year in a row, the number 1 doubles team in the world has failed to make the final of the WTA Championships, and it's the same team--Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. Last year, the Italians were defeated by eventual champions Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova. In today's semifinals, it was again a Russian team who put them out of the competition: Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina defeated Errani and Vinci 4-6, 7-5, 10-3.

Errani and Vinci were up a set and a break (at 4-2 in the second set) when Makarova and Vesnina suddenly became more aggressive and less error-prone. And while it appears obvious that Russia will have a tough time dominating Italy in the Fed Cup final next week, for now, it's all about Russia.

The other finalist team is that of Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. They defeated Nadia Petrova and Katarina Srebotnik 7-5, 6-2.

In singles, Li Na beat Petra Kvitova 6-4, 6-2. Kvitova had her moments, but Li played a much cleaner match, making only 15 unforced errors to 18 winners. The Chinese star has now risen to a rank of number 3 in the world.

In the other semifinal, a very out-of-sorts Serena Williams nevertheless managed to defeat Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Williams said afterwards that she was very tired.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Final 4 set in Istanbul

We have our WTA Championships semfinals. In the Red Group, Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova have emerged with the best records, and in the White Group, the contenders are Li Na and Jelena Jankovic.

Here is how the players finished the round robin part of the event (by matches only):

Red Group
Serena Williams: 3-0
Agnieszka Radwanska: 0-3
Petra Kvitova: 2-1
Angelique Kerber: 1-2

White Group
Victoria Azarenka: 1-2
Li Na: 3-0
Sara Errani: 1-2
Jelena Jankovic: 1-2

Today, Errani saved herself from having an 0-3 record by beating Jankovic 6-4, 6-4. Li defeated an injured (in more ways than one) Azarenka 6-2, 6-1. We had another three-set match, too: Kvitova defeated Kerber 6-7, 6-2, 6-3.

In tomorrow's semifinals, Li will play Kvitova, and Williams will play Jankovic. 

The doubles semifinual draw was made today:

Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci vs. Ekaterina Makarova & Elena Vesnina
Nadia Petrova & Katarina Srebotnik vs. Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kerber blows past Radwanska in Istanbul

One showed up to play--the other showed up. Angelique Kerber looked as good as she has ever looked today. She undoubtedly knew that Agnieszka Radwanska was ripe for the picking, but why can't Kerber bring this kind of confidence to her matches, anyway? She's capable of more than defense, and considering how good her defense it, that makes her pretty capable.

At any rate, the German star is now 1-1 in Istanbul, so she stays in the mix. She never even saw a break point today, but she broke Radwanska four times, and defeated her 6-2, 6-2. Here she is giving Aga a bit of her own "Radwanska":

Serena Williams is now 3-0 and gets a day off tomorrow. Williams defeated Petra Kvitova in straight sets, and without having to work too hard. The world number 1 was just too good.

Finally, in the only three-setter played so far at the Championships, Li Na defeated Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.

Tomorrow, Li takes on Victoria Azarenka, who appears to be carrying as much fatigue as Radwanska, but that doesn't make it a walk in the park for Li, who can "go off" at a moment's notice (and Azarenka can "switch on" at a moment's notice, too). Jankovic will play Errani, who is currently 0-2 at the event, which makes her a bit dangerous. Kerber will play Kvitova. I'll miss all of it, but will try to catch some of the replays.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fed Cup teams announced for final

In the past, we used to say that the Russian "B" team--or even the "C" team, could challenge any Fed Cup team in the world. That was then, this is now. A combination of factors has reduced the Russian team to Alisa Kleybanova and backup support. Playing in the final will be Kleybanova (still creating her comeback, but definitely an asset), Alexandra Panova, Irina Khromacheva, and Margarita Gasparyan. Oh how far we have fallen.

Here's the deal: The Russian players aren't exactly thrilled with the Russian Tennis Federation. A few of them have made their feelings public. Daria Gavrilova went so far as to dare the federation to even ask her to play in the Fed Cup final, given what she claims was practically no support for her transition from juniors to the WTA Tour.

Maria Kirilenko, Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova--all regular Fed Cup players--are competing at the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, which conflicts with the Fed Cup final, schedule-wise. Ekaterina Makarova and Maria Sharapova are both injured and unable to play. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova--who knows?

Kirilenko, Vesnina and Pavlyuchenkova are, of course, free to choose to play in either venue. It is, however, most unfortunate that they have to choose. In this case, however, it might have been an easy choice for them, given the current complaints about the Russian Federation.

Italy's lineup has changed, too. Scheduled to play in the final are Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, Flavia Pennetta (aka Queen of Fed Cup), and Karin Knapp. Camila Giorgi has disappeared from the player list, though she (and not Knapp) was originally supposed to play for Italy.

The final will be played on red clay in Sardinia. And while surprises are the order of the day in Fed Cup, Russia's journey is largely uphill. The final will take place November 2nd and 3rd.

Jankovic makes winning debut at WTA Championships

Jelena Jankovic, who got the last spot in Istanbul, made good on her entry today by defeating world number 2 Victoria Azarenka in straight sets. Though she struggled with her second serve at times, Jankovic ultimately out-served Azarenka. And the Serbian star's defensive play was as good as it's ever been. JJ was really dialed in for this match, obviously having a good time, and consistently delivering her signature backhand down the line.

As for Azarenka--the double-faulting again made her job tough.

Li Na made her Championships debut today, defeating Sara Errani 6-3, 7-6. There was some speculation that Errani would withdraw because of her calf injury, but she was very much there, covered with kinesio tape, and pushing Li pretty hard. Errani had a tough time--psychologically and physically--against Azarenka yesterday, but she appeared to have pulled herself together rather well today. Still, with an 0-2 record, her chances in Istanbul are next to zero.

Serena Williams defeated Agnieszka Radwanska in straight sets, too, but Radwanska was more "present" for this match than she was for her match against Petra Kvitova yesterday. She had chances against Williams, but wasn't able to do anything with them. Williams, for her part, is looking as good as ever.

Tomorrow, Li plays Jankovic, and I expect that to be a very good match. Radwanska will try to salvage her Istanbul record when she plays Angelique Kerber, and Williams and Kvitova will play each other.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Azarenka, Williams and Kvitova get wins the first day in Istanbul

The WTA Champions got off to a a bit of a strange start today when White Group members Victoria Azarenka and Sara Errani played the very first match of the event. But didn't you think this match might be a mess? Azarenka was all out of sorts, especially with her serve, and Errani gave her all she could handle from the baseline, gaining a 5-2 lead in the first set. But then Azarenka turned on the switch and took the set to a tiebreak, which she won. The set lasted just under an hour and a half.

At this point, the Italian appeared to unravel somewhat, but whatever emotions she was feeling were just part of her problem. She injured her calf in the second set and had difficulty moving. Azarenka won that set (6-2), also.

In the Red Group, Serena Williams needed only an hour and four minutes to beat Angelique Kerber 6-2, 6-1. Williams was spot-on in every aspect of her game, which included 100% success at the net.

In the final match, Red Group members Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska faced off, and Radwanska did that one-down thing she always does when she plays a hard hitter. The Polish star could actually do a lot better than she does against the likes of Kvitova, Williams, etc., but apparently, the very sight of them on the other side of the net deflates her, and she gives up control of the rallies. She's just not the same player. Kvitova beat her 6-4, 6-4. That's right--straight sets.

Tomorrow's schedule:

Li Na vs. Sara Errani (White Group)
Victoria Azarenka vs. Jelena Jankovic (Whaite Group)
Serena Williams vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (Red Group)

Also, the eight players who are to compete in the Tournament of Champions in Sofia have been announced:

Simona Halep
Maria Kirilenko
Elena Vesnina
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Alize Cornet
Ana Ivanovic (wild card)
Tsvetana Pironkova (wild card)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Red and the White

The Red and White groups have been named for the WTA Championships: 

Red Group
Serena Williams
Agnieszka Radwanska
Petra Kvitova
Angelique Kerber

White Group
Victoria Azarenka
Li Na
Sara Errani
Jelena Jankovic

Each player will compete in a round-robin format until there are only four players remaining, and those four will play in the semifinals until there are two, etc. And while another Williams vs. Azarenka final looks good on paper, it may not turn out that way.

The $6 million event begins on Tuesday. I like the round-robin format; the players are forced to face several of their peers, with the results sometimes coming down to small details.

The alternates are Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens.

Here is a photo of the Istanbul competitors, with four of the ladies dressed in black (but not necessarily wearing the outfits of your dreams).

In doubles, there are four teams and a regular knock-out format is employed. The four teams are:

Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci
Peng Shuai and Hsieh Su-Wei
Nadia Petrova & Katarina Srebotnik
Elena Vesnina & Ekaterina Makarova

Vesnina will travel straight from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the Tournament of Champions, which means she won't participate in the Fed Cup final (more on this subject in the near future).

Simona sizzles in Moscow

Simona "Halepeno" Halep won the Kremlin Cup today, defeating 2012 runner-up Samantha Stosur 7-6, 6-2. And why not? Having worked on her game maybe more than anyone on the tour, Halep has gone from being a respectable baseline competitor to an all-court (and all-surface) threat. Oh, she's not tall like 'Pova or Azarenka or large and muscular like Serena, and she's never going to be. But she "thinks big" on the court, and she has added a deceptive power to her groundstrokes.

For example, returning Stosur's serve--a real job for some players--was really not too difficult for Halep, and on several occasions, she used her return of serve to put Stosur on the spot. Halep, in fact, had 18 break opportunities in the match, and--to her opponent's credit--she converted "only" four of them. Also, it was Halep who delivered a consistent second serve, while Stosur struggled with hers.

Not all of the factors were between the white lines, however; some were also between the ears. Going into the final, Halep was 4-0 in finals this year, and Stosur was 5-12 in finals in her career. Each woman has now won five WTA singles titles, displaying extremes in winning patterns. Stosur, of cousse, won the U.S. Open in 2010. The Australian has had an excellent end-of-season run, winning Osaka for the second time, and getting to the final in Moscow.

Stosur was a champion today--in doubles. She and partner Svetlana Kuznetsova took the Moscow title when they defeated 2nd seeds Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova 6-1, 1-6, 10-8. The Moscow title is Stosur's 24th in doubles.

Caroline Wozniacki returned to her winning ways in Luxembourg, defeating first-time finalist Annika Beck 6-2, 6-2. Stephanie Vogt and Yanina Wickmayer won the doubles title. They defeated Kristina Barrois and Laura Thorpe 7-6, 6-4 in the final.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Okay, I'm all in with "Halepeno"

Did Leif Shiras think of that himself, or did he borrow it? I don't know, but it's the best tennis player nickname to come about in a long time. And--hot player that she is--Halepeno is into the final of the Kremlin Cup. Simona Halep easily (6-2, 6-1) beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the semifinals. Also, Sam Stosur beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-2, 6-4.

Stosur is now on a 9-match win streak. Halep is 4-0 in finals this year.

Kuznetsova and Stosur will play again in the doubles final, this time as teammates. Their opponents will be Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionova.

There were some disappointments today in Luxembourg. Stefanie Voegele's run came to an end when she had to retire against Annika Beck. Beck's opponent in the final will be Caroline Wozniacki, who defeated Sabine Lisicki 6-4, 6-4.

The team of Polona Hercog and Lisa Raymond had to retire in one of the Luxembourg semifinals today. Hercog experiened some type of rib injury. That retirement sent Stephanie Vogt and Yanina Wickmayer to the final. Also competing in the doubles final will be Kristina Barrois and Laura Thorpe, who upset the top seeds yesterday.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Once is not enough

Stefanie Voegele is having a good season. She was aggressive and creative in beating Caroline Wozniacki in Charleston, and suddenly, she has beaten Sloane Stephens twice in a row. Today, Voegele beat 2nd seed Stephens 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in the Luxembourg quarterfinals; a week ago, she beat the world number 12 in Linz, also in the quarterfinals. In both matches, Voegele won five straight games in the final set to get the victory.

What's going on with Sloane Stephens? Well, first, Voegele has finally started to put all of that long-time-coming potential together. But the other side of the equation is that Stephens just doesn't seem to have any spark. She goes for big, showy shots, but then backs away when consistency is called for, and the errors add up quickly. In other words, she doesn't appear to want to work the points.

Even Stephens' negativity lacks fire. I admit to sometimes "enjoying" an Angelique Kerber tantrum or a Victoria Azarenka meltdown. But Kerber and Azarenka have a passion that fuels their on-court antics; with Stephens, there just seems to be a lack of emotional energy.

Oh, and a commentator inadvertently referred to Stephens as "Williams." I'll let that speak for itself.

Stephens, by the way, is now officially an alternate in the WTA Championships, which begin next week in Istanbul.

Voegele's opponent in the semifinals will be Annika Beck, who saved a match point and beat Katarzyna Piter (I think we'll see more of her) 6-3, 6-7, 7-6. It took Beck 3 hours and 12 minutes to pull that off.

In the other semifinal match, Caroline Wozniacki will play Sabine Lisicki. In the quarterfinals, Wozniacki defeated Bojana Jovanovski, and Lisicki defeated Karin Knapp.

The Luxembourg draw was an interesting one, and there has been a lot of exciting competition. It's a nice end-of-season treat to see the likes of Voegele, Beck and Jovanovski doing so well.

In Moscow, Sam Stosur beat Ana Ivanovic, and will play Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semifinals. Kuznetsova defeated number 2 seed (number 1 seed Angelique Kerber withdrew from the tournament) Roberta Vinci. In the other semifinal, Simona Halep will face off against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Halep and Pavlyuchenkova beat Alisa Kleybanova (making a nice comeback) and Daniela Hantuchova, respectively.

Pavlyuchenkova lost in the Moscow first round seven years in a row, so her fortunes have changed considerably. Pavlyuchenkova lost to Halep recently in Tokyo.

Both top-seeded doubles teams were upset today in Moscow. Kristina Barrois and Laura Thorpe beat number 1 seeds Nadia Petrova and Katarina Srebotnik 6-2, 3-6, 10-8. Polona Hercog and Lisa Raymond defeated 2nd seeds Kristina Mladenovic and Katarzyna Piter 7-6, 6-7, 10-8.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sweeping the Court

Wild card Alisa Kleybanova has now won two rounds in Moscow. Kleybanova beat Varvara Lepchenko in a match that lasted over three hours, then--today--beat 6th seed Carla Suarez Navarro.

Here's a good 40 LOVE moment on the WTA site.

Don't forget that you can listen to a lot of live action on RadioTennis.com. Ken Thomas calls matches that you can't follow anywhere else. Right now, he's broadcasting the 25k event in Rock Hill, South Carolina, which features Melanie Oudin and Anna Tatishvili, both of whom have made it to the quarterfinals.

Thrill Ride showed up at the Moscow player party. I miss her, and I especially miss her press conferences.

Posta-Magazine features Maria Kirilenko.

Who will coach Laura Robson? Thomas Hogstedt, Sven Groeneveld or someone else?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Kerber wins Linz, Stosur wins Osaka

This weekend served as a kind of redemption experience for two of the tour's top, but troubled, players. Angelique Kerber won her first tournament of the season when she defeated Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 7-6 in the final of the Generali Ladies Linz event. The match, which featured 13 breaks of serve (and this on a very fast surface), got exciting toward the end when Kerber, serving for the title at 40-0, was broken, and then faced two set points from Ivanovic, which she saved. Ivanovic had two set points in the tiebreak, too, but failed to convert them.

The Pliskova sisters, Karolina and Kristyna, won the doubles title--and in doing so--won their first WTA tournament, both as members of other doubles teams and as a sister team. They defeated top seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Alicja Rosolska 7-6, 6-4.

Kerber became the eighth player to qualify for the WTA championships when she won her quarterfinal match in Linz. She had a wild card at the tournament and was seeded number 1.

In Osaka, 2009 champion Sam Stosur had to work hard to win a second title, but she defeated Eugenie Bouchard 3-6, 7-5, 6-2. Bouchard had trouble with her first serve throughout the match, but often got herself out of trouble with her second serve. This was the Canadian's first time to reach a tour final, and it won't be her last.

And here she is again! Kristina Mladenovic, this time playing with Flavia Pennetta (I'm really liking this combination), won the Osaka doubles championhship. Mladenovic and Pennetta beat Stosur and Zhang Shuai 6-4, 6-3. Mladenovic has now won seven doubles titles, and this is Pennetta's 15th doubles title.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Losing at any cost

If anyone was really expecting Sloane Stephens to reach her first WTA final by the end of the season, those fans have perhaps lowered their expectations by now. Stephens had multiple opportunities to reach the semifinals in Linz yesterday, but she fought against all chances. The world number 12 competed against Stefanie Voegele, the streaky Swiss player who beat Caroline Wozniacki in Charleston earlier this year.

Stephens was up 5-2 in the first set, but needed 10 set points (two of them in a tiebreak) to finally get the job done. Voegele took the second set 6-4, and Stephens led 5-2 in the third, but never won another game. Voegele took that match 7-6, 6-4, 7-5. The Swiss upstart lost to Ana Ivanovic today, however, and Ivanovic's 6-4, 6-4 victory puts her into the final against Angelique Kerber, who beat Carla Suarez Navararo. Kerber is now the eighth--and final--player to qualify to play in the WTA Championships in Istanbul.

The draw in Linz opened when Petra Kvitova withdrew from the tournament. With all her issues, Kvitova is still at her most deadly on indoor carpet because the surface is fast and there is nothing around to trigger an asthma attack.

Meanwhile, in Osaka, former champion Sam Stosur pretty much rolled over Madison Keys in their semifinal. The good news for Keys is that this was the highest round she has ever reached in a WTA tournament. Stosur's opponent in the final will be Eugenie Bouchard, who defeated Karumi Nara (her first tour semifinal, too) in straight sets.

This will be Bouchard's first WTA final, and she'll be playing against someone who has won the tournament before. This is Stosur's third Osaka final: She won the event in 2009 and was the runner-up (lost to Marion Bartoli) in 2011. Stosur is 4-12 in tour finals. The two played each other in Charleston this year, but the match didn't last long because Stosur had to retire on account of a calf injury.

Bouchard is ranked number 35 in the world, and gives every sign of moving that number up sooner than later.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sweeping the court

Petra Kvitova, Sara Errani and Jelena Jankovic have qualified to compete in the WTA Championships. Maria Sharapova, who was scheduled to play the Championships, has withdrawn because of her shoulder injury.

Cara Black and Sania Mirza won't be competing in Istanbul, of course, but having won the two recent big Asian tournaments back to back, they are certainly a team worth watching--assuming they remain a team.

Oh, that Aga.

Oh, that Marion.

Defending champion Heather Watson is out of the Osaka tournament in the first round. She was defeated 6-4, 6-4 today by Monica Puig.

Here are some great black and white portraits of WTA players.

Serena Williams has entered the 2014 Family Circle Cup. She is the defending champion.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Number 1 wins number 10

Serena Williams won her 10th title of the season today when she defeated Jelena Jankovic 6-2, 6-2 in the Beijing final. Williams' back injury appeared to flare up during the second set, and Jankovic was treated for a hip injury. And while she didn't win the title, Jankovic's run at the China Open will make her number 8 in the world when the rankings are published tomorrow. She is now very much in the running for a spot in the WTA Championships in Istanbul.

Williams has now won a total of 56 WTA singles titles.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Serena and JJ to meet again, this time in Beijing

For a while, it looked like Li Na was headed for the final of the China Open, but Petra Kvitova knocked her out in the quarterfinals. And then along came Jelena Jankovic, and along came a back injury, and Kvitova bade farewell to Beijing. Jankovic beat the Tokyo champion 6-7, 6-1, 6-1 in today's semifinals. Kvitova has withdrawn from Linz because of the injury.

In the other semifinal, world number 1 Serena Williams defeated 2011 champion Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-2.

Williams-Jankovic matches are sometimes quite interesting, and I have a feeling that tomorrow's final will be interesting. Until Victoria Azarenka came along, Jankovic was the only player other than Venus Williams who could sometimes give Serena real trouble. Their final in Charleston this year was excellent (well, if you don't count the mental implosion by JJ).

Cara Black (yes, Cara Black!) and Sania Mirza won the doubles title today, defeating Vera Dushevina and Arantxa Parra Santonja 6-2, 6-2.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sweeping the Court

Tokyo champion Petra Kvitova has reached the quarterfinals of the China Open. Kvitova's next opponent will be Li Na. In doubles, Chan Yung-Jan and Zheng Jie reached the quarterfinals when they upset 3rd seeds Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua,

Here is WTA Backspin's second annual list of MVPs, and yes--something very scary is in the top 3.

There are some good photos in the Beijing players' party gallery.

The Australian Open has increased prize money by 10 percent.

Daniela Hantuchova shows us the Porsche Design Sport collection from Addidas.

And here's little Francie rocking some striped shorts.