Archive for the ‘Bank of the West’ Category
It’s that time of year where I look back at my tournament travels, and pluck out some of the jewels from my time in the press room to share with you all. I was on the ground at four events this year: SAP Open, Sony Open, Bank of the West Classic, and the Western and Southern Open. For easier reading, I’ll start with the first two tournaments I attended earlier in the year, then finish in Part 2 with the summer tournaments.
So without further ado, here’s my 2013 “backstage tour”.
The SAP Open ended its’ run with a Milos Raonic three-peat, and way too many empty seats. A notable bright spot was the mixed doubles exhibition match featuring Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport, Andy Roddick, and Justin Gimelstob. The best moment for me came when I was sitting in the press room afterward lobbing questions at Lindsay and Steffi. Sitting there, I couldn’t help but think about their ’99 Wimbledon final; their only meeting in a Slam final. They, however, had a different take on past matches. Listen to their press conference, and try not to laugh at their answer to the first question from yours truly.
Longtime friends Andy Roddick and Justin Gimelstob put on a command performance in their post-match press conference. What hopefully wasn’t lost on those in attendance was a serious discussion of the problematic business model for the modern-day tennis tournaments. The SAP Open struggled with attendance issues, but so do many others. So while players are demanding a bigger share of the revenue, tournament directors are struggling to fill sufficient seats for said revenue and sponsorship monies. Moving tournaments to new markets (other countries) may seem like a good short-term solution, but they’ll probably face the same attendance issues as here in the states. I just hope we don’t lose anymore.
I love pumping veteran journalists for info whenever possible. I ran into Vern Glenn, a prominent Bay Area sportscaster, while he was trying to get his Wi-Fi working on his laptop. He gave me this nugget in reference to working in (and getting paid in) this business: “Always make sure they keep you on scholarship!” I’m trying Vern, I’m trying.
(BTW, I have absolutely no idea who’s hand that is across from mine. I know I just turned 50, but is my memory getting THAT bad already???)
My personal feeling has always been that you get better answers from a player when you’re clear about what you’re asking, and aren’t antagonistic in doing so. This is especially true when that player is named Maria Sharapova. This was a small part of Maria’s answers to one particular journalist who didn’t get that memo:
MARIA SHARAPOVA: Why are you asking me if you saw it? Why are you asking me if you heard it yourself? I mean, I can’t remember exactly what he said. I mean, there’s a tape. Maybe I can get you a copy.
You can read the full exchange here, and also listen to the full press conference audio.
Some of the best moments at tournaments happen when you least expect it…like the conversation I had with Jelena Jankovic’s hitting partner, Goran Tosic, in the shuttle back to the hotel one night. Though I certainly could have tried, I didn’t pump him for info on Jelena’s condition after her late-night victory over Roberta Vinci. But I did get a nice insight into the hustling that a lower level player must do in order to make ends meet as a pro tennis player. Nice guy too. I wish him well in 2014.
Mary Carillo is one of the main reasons I make the yearly trek to Miami. I ran into Mary within my first 10 minutes on my first trip, and got a great picture with her that meant the world to me. Fast forward 5 years and I’m sitting with Mary in a post-match presser for Maria after her quarterfinal win over Sara Errani. I re-introduce myself, tell her the “Mary story”, give her my card, and was ready to savor the moment just as it was. The following day, Mary grabbed my arm as she walked by me and said, “Hey Kevin. I went to your site this morning. You kept me very entertained.” Those words continue to mean more to me than almost any other compliment I’ve received.
Before heading to the airport, I made one last trip out to the Crandon Park to get some photos before the men’s final. And while watching Andy Murray warm up prior to his match with David Ferrer, I caught a rare glimpse of a tennis unicorn: an Ivan Lendl smile. Who knew? And not only was he smiling, he was also joking around with a couple of young Murray fans who were watching practice. I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things… 😉
At the airport, my Miami trip ended on a very odd “Twilight Zone” moment. For those familiar with the situation of Kevin Ware the college basketball player, you must surely understand how words can’t express what it was like to check my twitter feed one last time on the plane home only to read about “Kevin Ware’s horrific injury” when your name is Kevin Ware and you aren’t horrifically injured…
(On the advice of one of my twitter followers, I avoided watching the video of his injury — and still haven’t seen it to this day. Thanks Alice!)
I started my “backstage tour” with the SAP Open and the Sony Open. Now it’s on to the Bank of the West Classic and the Western and Southern Open, my two summer tournaments.
Bank of the West Classic
I pulled double duty at this year’s BOTW, starting my week at Stanford first as a line umpire during the qualifying rounds, and then moving into the press room for the start of main draw matches. It was a great experience, and not one player threatened to shove a tennis ball down my throat. But a part of me really wanted to put on a fake moustache or something during my line umpire stint so that players wouldn’t recognize me once I made the switch to media.
This year’s tournament got off to a rough start with the non-participation of defending champion Serena Williams, and the late withdrawals of Marion Bartoli, Sabine Lisicki, Kirsten Flipkens, and Maria Sharapova after Wimbledon. I hate to think the worst, but this wasn’t a good sign for a tournament that’s been struggling to re-discover the deep fields it once saw. I’d hate to see it fall by the wayside like the now-defunct SAP Open, the ATP LA event, and the WTA Carson event.
Western and Southern Open
20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. While looking back at my WTA All Access hour notes from Cincinnati, it’s easy to see in hindsight every clue for how the tournament would ultimately unfold. Serena came into the event healthy and focused, but a little tired. Vika Azarenka came in feeling no pressure. Marion Bartoli came in as glib as ever, but not particularly motivated. And Maria Sharapova came in with her cap pulled down low and tight-lipped about her work with Jimmy Connors. (For the record, Serena lost in the final, Vika won in the final, Marion retired, and Maria canned Connors after an opening loss to Sloane Stephens.)
Speaking of Maria and Jimmy… I was given a chance to chat with Milos Raonic in the Player’s Lounge with another journalist. While waiting for (a very late) Milos, Jimmy comes over to chat with the other journalist. The only thing I here is “So, what did you think about that?” referring to Maria’s loss. I would have given almost anything to follow up with him on that one!
BTW, the Milos Raonic mini-interview was okay too, but can we talk about the lack of proper and timely apology to Juan Martin Del Potro for your “touching the net” malfeasance at the Rogers Cup?
(Click the arrow to play Milos’ pre-tourney presser audio. He addresses the Rogers Cup incident after the 6:00 mark.)
Covering a tournament can be a solitary experience, which is why it’s great when you can have positive interactions with the other folks in the press room. But more than the interaction, these moments also give one a chance to share ideas and expand your knowledge: something I love to do. I had a few of these in Cincinnati, but one stands out above the others. After one particular post-match press conference, I found myself watching a WTA stadium match with Courtney Nguyen on one of the main interview room monitors. I don’t know how it happened, but the on-court action led to a fascinating discussion of the issues and miscues facing the WTA as it tries to broaden its’ appeal. So here’s a shout out to Courtney for helping my expansion. Honorable mention goes to my press room neighbor, Jack Adam, for sharing a great evening quarterfinal between Nadal and Federer.
Rafa played amazing tennis to win the Cincy title, but the wear and tear of his phenomenal season was starting to show on his battered body. As the week progressed, Rafa would sometimes take the stairs one at a time to get to the interview table at his press conferences.Not a good sight! So when asked to write about Rafa’s chances at winning the US Open, I had serious doubts that he could withstand the two week hard court pounding. He proved me wrong, of course. But as the folks at RafaelNadalFans.com reminded me, that’s not a bad thing to be wrong about.
Memorable 1-on-1, #1: Grigor Dimitrov finally started to realize the potential in his game this year, but still lost a heartbreaker to Rafa Nadal 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. After the loss, I asked for and received a 1-on-1with Grigor outside of the men’s locker room. Yep, these are the moments that make the work worthwhile! Click arrow to listen to the audio.
(click the arrow to play Grigor’s interview audio)
Memorable 1-on-1, #2: Novak Djokovic completely destroyed David Goffin in the R16. Roger Federer, on the other hand, was pushed to the wall against Tommy Haas in a gripping 3-setter. Because it was my first chance for press with Novak, I went to the main press room when his time was announced. Everyone else in the press room stayed to watch Roger’s match. So when Novak arrived in press, he was greeted by yours truly and the transcribers, and no one else. Though he wasn’t happy with the situation (understatement), he sat down and answered a handful of questions. And that’s how I got my first 1-on-1 interview with a world #1. Click here to read the transcript.
*** That’s all for the tournaments I covered. I could write more, but you get the picture. Have a great Holiday Season, and a safe New Years! And a very special Thank You to Karen P./Tennis Panorama for my media credentials in 2013. See you at Indian Wells in 2014.
The qualifying rounds for the Western and Southern Open, the last big tournament in the lead up to the US Open, begin today in Mason. On the schedule are two former Stanford Cardinals who’ve continued to impress while making names for themselves as newcomers on the pro circuit.
Mallory Burdette, currently ranked No. 95, plays Monica Puig of Puerto Rico. Her former teammate and back-to-back NCAA champion, Nicole Gibbs, plays Johanna Larsson of Sweden. Given what I’ve seen from these two in Stanford the past two years, both have as good a chance as any to make it through qualifying rounds and into the main draw.
As a member of the “media”, I do my best to be as objective as possible when writing and reporting on players. These two make that a difficult task, however, for many reasons. They’re intelligent, well-mannered and well-spoken. They’re eager to learn, and aren’t afraid to “put in the hard yards” in order to get results. Moreover, they’re just really nice young ladies who you can’t help but root for and like.
I first met Nicole and Mallory at the 2012 Bank of the West. Both had been given wildcards into the main draw. After a first round win over a qualifier, Nicole got the unfortunate assignment of playing Serena Williams (fresh off of her Wimbledon victory) in the second round, and lost in straight sets.
Mallory got the more manageable assignment of playing Ann Keothavong (of Great Britain), and won a hard-fought 3-setter for her first main draw victory. She lost in the second round to Marion Bartoli, but still managed to do well enough through the US Open to take the big step of going pro.
Nicole stayed on at Stanford to train, get better prepared for the jump to pro tennis, and most importantly, to help her team win one last NCAA championship. She succeeded on all fronts, winning her second NCAA singles title and helping the Cardinals overcome the odds to win the team championship.
Nicole and Mallory had won the doubles title together in 2012, so it was definitely a loss for Nicole to have her friend and partner hit the road as a pro. But it also became a source of inspiration, as Mallory paved the road and showed that it was possible to translate their collegiate success to the pro tour.
“There was no doubt in my mind as soon as (Mallory) went that she was making the right decision and that she was gonna be top 100 quickly. And her success has definitely inspired me and helped me to believe that I could do the same thing with some time.”
Her experiences of playing the top players has also helped her to realize that success as a pro is within reach. Though she hasn’t taken many games off the top players she’s played in the past (3 against Serena and 6 against Kvitova), she feels like she’s not far from being able to “hang” with them.
“I can play at this level, and that’s exciting for me.”
If both can make it through this weekend, it will be exciting for all of us! I hope to see them both when I arrive on the grounds for the start of Monday’s main draw matches.
I usually reserve these “Ten Final Thoughts” columns for the big events. However, after spending a week on the ground at Stanford, eating and breathing the sights/sounds of tennis, I think I can muster up some decent observations from this year’s Bank of the West Classic. Let’s start with “buzz”, or lack thereof…
- This year’s tournament attendance suffered from a distinct lack of WTA star power. I love Aga Radwanska and Dominika Cibulkova, but it’s not the same as having Serena, Maria, and Vika at an event. Even Marion Bartoli would have made a difference because she won Wimbledon. And let’s face facts: “Slamholders fill seats”.
- With a solid weekend of line calling under my belt, I have a much greater appreciation for what goes into being a good line umpire. It’s not easy, and those guys do a great job. For all of you who think you could do better, ask your buddies if you can call lines for them sometime. You’ll change your tune pretty quickly.
- Dominika played a great match in the final to avenge an earlier double-bagel loss to Aga in Sydney. She put fate into her own hands and bravely went for her shots throughout the 2.5 hour match. Many sailed way past the lines. But more often than not, they found their mark as untouchable winners. That’s saying a lot against a brilliant defensive player like Aga. She hopes to carry this high level of consistency through to the US Open. That makes two of us.
- Even with her loss in the final, Aga is one of the best and most unique players on tour. She isn’t tall or muscular, but manages to stay in rallies with taller and stronger opponents using excellent anticipation, defense, and a thinking game that you need to see to appreciate. Dominika rarely saw the same shot twice in the final because Aga used every trick in the book to keep her from teeing off on the ball. (Roger Federer often utilizes the same strategy.) It might not work against Serena, but it can against both Maria and Vika. And how about those mind-boggling deep knee bends on her backhand?
- Jamie Hampton had a great week at Stanford, but clearly wasn’t up to the task in the semifinals. The gap between her and those at the top of the game was laid bare against Aga: consistency on her serve toss plus variety of serve, footwork, consistency on her shots to name a few. BUT… the upside is tremendous! She hits like she means it, goes for her shots, and isn’t afraid to come to the net. The current buzz is with Madison and Sloane, but you can put my vote in the Jamie column. (Note: To be honest, I like them all for different reasons.)
- I’m not quite sure what to say about Madison Keys. Her loss to Vera Dushevina was unsettling because she looked mentally lost on court. I realize that she’s young and has a ways to go in terms of growing into her game, but the hype machine is already working overtime in pushing her to a status she might not be able to live up to. There are, however, a lot of positives with her game. She’s got a great serve, and her big forehand is a huge weapon when it’s consistent. Her serve effectiveness will improve when she can better move it around the box, and her forehand will become more assured when her footwork improves. Here’s hoping that the hype machine leaves her alone this summer.
- Daniela Hantuchova played doubles and singles at Stanford. A tour veteran for many years, she’s well-known for her model-esque looks. By that, I mean she’s known to (and popular with) many heterosexual men who could usually care less about women’s tennis. Anyway, I was talking to a friend by the upper walkway stadium entrance When Daniela came in to see someone in the player’s lounge. The security guy, bless his heart, said: “Excuse me miss, so you have a credential?” My jaw hit the ground. What do you think: security faux pas or not? 😉
- The early part of the US Open Series is problematic! Top players are reluctant to put effort into the early events (prior to Rogers Cup) because there’s no payoff… other than (maybe) appearance fees. Others are reluctant to play the early events because it means a longer financial burden for them in terms of travel and coaching fees through the US Open. Additionally, other players opt out of the initial Series events because of the increasing amount of tournaments played closer to home (and on clay) in Europe and S. America. Without all of these players, most of whom are marquee, the tournaments can’t bring in the crowds. And we saw what happened with the SAP Open, right?
- Speaking of Hantuchova, she played doubles with Lisa Raymond. Talk about opposites! On another note, Coco Vandeweghe, last year’s finalist, made it through qualies into the main draw. This is noteworthy because it gave me a chance to see her coach, Jan- Michael Gambill, up close and (not) personal. I swear to God he looks no different now than when he was playing on the ATP tour. I wonder where he keeps his aging portrait?
- When I start using Dorian Gray references, it’s time to wrap things up. I had a great time at this year’s event, and would like to give particular thanks to Karen P. at Tennis Panorama; not just for the credential, but her support as well. I’d also like to thank the folks at the USTA who allowed me to do line umpire duties the first weekend, and for trusting that I know the separation of my duties as an official and as a member of the media. To be honest though, I certainly hope that my next visit to the Bank of the West will be as a linesman for the entire week.
Take care all!
Madison Keys lost in straight sets in the second round at Stanford. Vera Dushevina, the Russian qualifier who beat her, is a solid but unheralded player who hadn’t won a main draw match in 2013 until this week. The 7-6(0) 6-2 score fails to adequately convey just how disappointing this loss was for this highly-touted American, who struggled in every aspect of her game.
“My timing was off, everything was off”, Madison said afterward. To be fair, she deserves a ton of credit for owning up to the obvious (which many players don’t). She dumped forehands into the net. She dumped backhands into the net. She didn’t serve particularly well, and more critically, she failed to move her serve around the box enough to keep Dushevina off balance.
Worst of all, she looked at a loss as to how she could remedy the situation or change the inevitable outcome. “It just wasn’t my night, and it was frustrating. But obviously, she played really well. All the credit to her.”
It was tough match to watch from a player who many have picked as a future Slam winner. But perhaps the problem with Madison’s loss lies more with our expectations than with her level of play.
Terms such as “highly-touted” and “future Slam winner” have unfairly become synonymous with young players who possess one or two big weapons, but not much else at this juncture in their development. The US has become so eager to find replacements for our aging stars that players like Madison are set up to fail before they can grow into their games for a realistic assessment of their potential.
I had the same feeling of at last year’s Bank of the West with regards to Sloane Stephens. She came into the tournament with virtually the same kind of buzz as Madison is currently experiencing. Comments of “She’s the next big star” and multiple comparisons to Serena were flying all around. Sadly, it all fell flat in her first and only match of the tournament.
Sloane was sent packing by Heather Watson in an inexplicable 3-set loss that saw her completely forget how to hit a backhand, or formulate a strategy to work her way back into a losing set. She was agitated, barking at her box, and even received a code violation. Buzz or no buzz, Sloane was (and is) a talented player; but she’s far from being the next Serena.
There’s an undeniable racial component to some of these expectations, particularly when comparisons are made based on ethnicity/skin color. While watching Madison practice a few days ago, a well-meaning older gentleman came up to me to ask about Madison and her prospects for success. He mentioned how much she reminded him of a young Althea Gibson.
I didn’t say it at the time out of my sense of politeness, but I wanted to tell him “No, she reminds me of Madison Keys.” I understood his point of reference, but was undeniably put off by a lack of appreciation for her unique skills apart from her bearing and her looks. Madison is Madison, not Althea. Similarly, Sloane is Sloane, not Serena.
For the record, this is NOT about race, and it’s not my intention to single out Madison and Sloane. There are many young players of all races who’ve suffered under the label of “The Next (fill in the blank)”, only to crash and burn when the limitations of their games became apparent. Melanie Oudin is perhaps the poster child of this unrealistic push to greatness, but Christina McHale also carried the burden for a brief period prior to Sloane’s arrival.
Sometimes the buzz around a talented youngster is warranted. The buzz surrounding Venus and Serena turned out to be correct in every way. (Remember when Richard told us that Serena would be better than her sister?) The buzz about the kid from Mallorca, Rafa Nadal, had turned into a roar long before his first match at Roland Garros.
Buzz isn’t always bad, but these cases represent exceptions to the rule in the cases of players with Hall of Fame careers. The fact of the matter is that reaching the top of any sport is a long way off from the initial buzz surrounding any young athlete. If it were otherwise, struggling players like Donald Young and Ryan Harrison would have big titles under their belts by now.
Other countries deal with this issue as well. Remember when the young Frenchwoman, Caroline Garcia, hit the harsh glare of the expectation spotlight? In 2011 (and at the age of 17), Andy Murray touted her as a future #1 in an infamous tweet that hung like an anchor around her neck for the rest of the season. And one can only imagine what the pressure’s been like for young German women to become the next Steffi! With his win at Wimbledon, Andy Murray finally quieted the Fred Perry talk. Laura Robson, on the other hand, has a much longer way to go for Virginia Wade status.
The road to #1 (or Slam success) is tricky…and fickle. The best we can do for these young players is to acknowledge their strengths, forgive them their initial weaknesses, and let them develop to the level that can be supported by their talent. After all, there is only one Serena.
The Bank of the Wet semifinals are set, and it promises to be a good day of tennis in spite of the withdrawals and upsets. Match picks are always tricky, but I’ll toss my hat into the ring anyway for these two. Let’s take a closer look at these match-ups to see why I’m looking at a Sorana-Jamie final.
Dominika Cibulkova  v Sorana Cirstea
H2H: Dominika leads 2-1
There’s a bit of déjà vu in this match owing to the fact that their last meeting was at last year’s Bank of the West in the quarterfinals. That match, won by Cirstea 6-7(7) 6-2 6-0, was a 3-set battle that lasted almost 2.5 hours.
Dominika started the match strong then hit the proverbial wall after winning the first set tiebreaker. It’s surprising that a player with such tremendous fight was bageled in the third set (after winning the first). But in many ways it speaks volumes about Sorana, and her ability to stay focused on the win after the loss of a tight set.
In a match between two great fighters with strong, the winner will most likely be decided by the ability to hold serve, or break your opponent’s serve. This bodes well for Sorana, who served at 52%, had 15 aces (against 3 double faults), won 77% of her first serve points, and 66% of her second serve points.
By contrast, the barely 5′ 3″ Dominika (yes, her height makes a difference) served at 39%, had 1 ace (against 5 double faults), won only 65% of her first serves, and 44% of her second serves. Neither served “well”, but the smaller Dominika struggled considerably more to make an impact with her serve, and was still broken 6 times in spite of her best efforts.
Not much has changed in either of their games to stop a similar outcome in their semifinal. Dominika will again fight hard, but will likely lose another 3-setter. Hopefully, this time without a third set bagel!
Sorana in three sets.
Agnieszka Radwanska  v Jamie Hampton
H2H: Aga leads 4-1
These two have met twice in 2013, and split wins with Aga winning on a hard court in Auckland 7-6(4) 7-6(3), and Jamie winning on the grass of Eastbourne 7-6(2) 6-2. Even if you discount Jamie’s victory on grass, this semifinal offers her an excellent chance to reach her first Stanford final. But execution will be the key to her victory.
The stats from Auckland show that Jamie didn’t serve quite as well as Aga, yet still managed to have a chance in the tiebreakers. So if she can bump up her first serve percentage, and also bump up her percentage of points won on first serve, that could make a huge difference in holding serve versus the 3 breaks of serve she faced in that match.
Jamie will also need to keep her unforced error count low. Her unforced error count against Nicole Gibbs defense was off the charts, and that definitely won’t cut it against a relatively error-free player like Aga.
Pace of shot won’t be a factor in this match, because Aga is one of the best at using an opponent’s pace to her own advantage. More important than pace, however, will be Jamie’s ability to stay patient in rallies. That will allow her to stay in points long enough to hit as many shots as needed to wear down Aga and win the point.
Aga was on court a long time in her quarterfinal with Varvara Lepchenko, but that shouldn’t matter. She’s used to playing long matches on successive days. The bigger issue for Aga is whether she can rediscover a sense of comfort on the stadium court that was absent against Varvara. If she struggles for her range against a confident Jamie, as she did against Varvara, she’ll get punished.
So who’s going to come out on top? Well, anything can happen in a tournament that’s been as wacky as this one. But I’ll take my chances with the increasingly confident power game of Hampton over the slightly unsettled game of Radwanska.
Jamie for the win (two or three)