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PostHeaderIcon A Serena Cakewalk and Rafa Dethroned: Ten Final Thoughts on the Week in Rome

Serena Williams (photo G. Sposito)

Serena Williams (photo G. Sposito)

With work (and life in general) keeping me busy, it’s been awhile since my last pro tour post.  But now that I’ve had a chance to recharge, it’s time to dive back into the thick of things after a very telling week in Rome. Without further ado, here are some final thoughts on the gusty week that was in Rome.

  1. Question: Who can stop Serena? Answer: Nobody!
    Serena was soundly lambasted back when she first exclaimed, “When I’m playing at my best, it’s hard for people to beat me”. Years later, there isn’t a single player on tour who can refute that claim, and beat her with their best. She might lose a set or two, and maybe even an occasional match, but let’s be honest. The only two things stopping Serena from an unfettered Roland Garros title defense are her body and her mind: and both are looking pretty good after this past week in Rome.
  2. Though Victoria Azarenka has a grunt that grates on the nerve endings of every cell in my body, I’ll be the first to declare that the women’s tour desperately needs to return to action. The former No. 1 has been away from the game because of a foot injury sustained earlier this year, and withdrew from the French Open this past weekend because of ongoing issues with the same injury. I hope she comes back strong by the US Open. Serena needs a worthy adversary, and we need to see more competitive finals.
  3. Even if Sara Errani never stood a realistic chance against her formidable opponent, her tears after the loss to Serena in the Rome final were heartbreaking. Sara was 0-6 against Serena going into the final, so we knew this was not going to be a competitive match. But the leg injury that she sustained in the first set assured the loss while also casting doubt on her French Open prospects. The phrase “adding insult to injury” comes to mind.
  4. Maria Sharapova lost in the early rounds, but should still be a factor at the French Open. It all depends upon her draw. The only problem with that scenario is that, because of her ranking, her draw is gonna suck! I’ll be very surprised if she makes it back to the final.
  5. Novak Djokovic (photo: G. Sposito)

    Novak Djokovic (photo: G. Sposito)

    Novak Djokovic capped off a great week with a convincing win over Rafa Nadal in the men’s final. While it’s certainly true that Novak’s game is perfectly-suited to neutralize Nadal’s strengths, I’d even go so far as to say that the only thing that keeps him from beating Rafa on a consistent basis are his lapses in focus that come a little too frequently when playing the Spaniard, particularly in best of five matches. Take away those lapses and we could finally see the King of Clay dethroned on the final Sunday in Philippe Chartrier.

  6. Rafa Nadal’s rocky road to a ninth French Open title seemed to get a little less rocky with his showing in Rome. After losing to Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Almagro in Barcelona Rafa looked imminently beatable by anyone who could execute an attacking game plan. (Nishikori came close in the Madrid final until his back gave out.) In Rome, however, he pushed through early match struggles and successfully battled back to consecutive three-set victories. Unfortunately for Rafa, Novak – his likely opponent in the French Open final – is less a rock and more of a huge boulder.
  7. I appreciate Roger Federer’s “I play because I still love the game” attitude as much as the next guy. But can we all agree that it was silly for him to show up in Rome only 5 days after the birth of his twin boys? We get it Roger. You’re still viable at the top of the men’s tennis food chain. Now get back to Switzerland with your wife and twins where you belong.
  8. Andy Murray played his best tennis of the season in his three-set loss to Rafa in the Rome quarterfinals. Against anyone else, he most likely would have earned a place in the semifinals, and perhaps even the finals with a win over Grigor Dimitrov. Positive stuff to be sure! However, let’s hope he finds another no-nonsense coach soon. We would all do well if a return to Andy’s barking, griping, cursing, body part grabbing ways could be avoided.
  9. Stan Wawrinka continues to struggle under the burden of Grand Slam winner expectations. The Monte Carlo champion lost in the Madrid R32 to Dominic Thiem, and in the Roma R16 to veteran Tommy Haas. Rather than focus on Stan’s difficulties in embracing his newfound membership in the Grand Slam club, we should all be much more in awe of the ease with which Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic gladly accept, and live up to, the challenge.
  10. Speaking of Dimitrov, the young Bulgarian had a great week in Rome up until he went against the Nadal buzz saw in the semifinals. The same could be said of Milos Raonic in reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal on clay. It’s nice to see the “young guns” really start to make their mark at the top of the game against the best. Grigor’s increased strength/fitness and Milos’ improved movement/footwork were on full display. But can either sustain their improved games over two weeks in best of five matches? We’ll find out next week.

 

PostHeaderIcon My Complete 2014 Sony Open Archives

2014-03-26-14.36.05-2

With Nick Bolletieri, new member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, at the 2014 Sony Open.

From the start of the tournament (before I got off the plane) and through my 20-hour travel day afterward, here’s a list of all 2014 Sony Open-related postings.
I hope you enjoy them.

ARTICLE/VIDEO POSTS

  1. Some Final Thoughts on Serena, Novak, and the End of the US Spring Swing at the Sony Open
  2. Djokovic Handily Defeats Nadal at the Sony Open For His Second Indian Wells-Miami Double
  3. My 2014 Sony Open Men’s Finals Preview (VIDEO)
  4. Serena Williams Wins A Record Seventh Miami Title
  5. My Sony Open Women’s Finals Preview and Post-Shock Thoughts (VIDEO)
  6. Kei’s Groin and Tomas’ Gut: An Absolutely Shocking Day at the Sony Open
  7. The 2014 Sony Open Men’s Semifinals Preview (VIDEO)
  8. Williams Continues Her Dominance Of Sharapova To Reach 9th Miami Final
  9. Bryan Brothers to Face Colombians Farah/Cabal in Men’s Doubles Final
  10. The 2014 Sony Open Women’s Semifinals Preview (VIDEO)
  11. Djokovic Fends Off a Strong Murray Challenge to Reach Miami Semis
  12. The Myth of Sam Stosur’s Slide From Greatness
  13. Roger Federer’s Awesome Anticipation & Footwork (VIDEO)

IMAGE POSTS

PostHeaderIcon Some Final Thoughts on Serena, Novak, and the End of the US Spring Swing at the Sony Open

Stadium court at Crandon Park after the men's final.

Stadium court at Crandon Park after the men’s final.

As with the BNP Paribas Open, I find myself with significantly more than my usual “Ten Final Thoughts” for this year’s Sony Open. It’s a very different experience when you’re on the ground at an event, with much more information around every corner.  So to that end, I hope this list of 25 musings from Miami satisfies; starting with last Friday’s shocking withdrawals.

DSCN8200

Novak Djokovic

  1. First, I’m still shell-shocked from last week’s double-withdrawals for the Sony Open men’s semifinals. It was an unprecedented event on an unprecedented day that, frankly, caught EVERYONE off-guard. People are mad at Adam Barrett for his response, or lack thereof, to the withdrawals but, really, what could he do? Make Kei Nishikori play injured? Scold him for not telling everyone that he couldn’t play sooner? Sue the restaurant that may have made Tomas Berdych sick? Send text messages to every ticketholder? Plead with Michael Chang (Kei’s coach) or Aranxta Sanchez Vicario (in attendance) to put on an exhibition? Though no potential solution was tenable, everyone sorely wished that something…anything… could have been done to salvage the wasted day.
  2. Speaking of Kei and Tomas, I wish them both speedy recoveries. Tomas should be better already, but Kei’s groin injury is problematic. He’s not a big guy, and he needs his movement to keep an edge over his opponents. He might be pressured into playing this weekend’s Davis Cup matches in Tokyo, and that could put his clay season in jeopardy if he aggravates the injury. Keep an eye on that one.
  3. Novak Djokovic is undeniably the Big Four’s “Top Dog” after Miami. Following an atypical start to his year with no Aussie trophy, he beat Roger Federer in three sets to win Indian Wells, and then comprehensively beat Rafa Nadal for a fourth Miami title. Tellingly, I saw relief in his eyes after the Indian Wells win. This time, I saw pleasure and an enormous amount of self-belief. Make no mistake: Novak is back! Depending on Monte Carlo, Rafa’s clay season might be a whole lot tougher this year.
  4. Speaking of Rafa, the Spaniard was merely a bystander in the final against Novak. He served poorly, couldn’t find the range on his backhand, never got a chance to impose his forehand, and couldn’t figure out a single solution to his “Novak problem”.  Afterwards, there was almost a sense of concession in his voice/manner that went well beyond the “Not my day” explanation that the top guys use to explain away a loss like this. Rafa knows that when both are playing their best on a hard court, Novak’s weapons can neutralize his weapons much more easily than the reverse. If this carries over to clay, Rafa’s ninth Roland Garros title might be in jeopardy.
  5. serena-presser

    Serena Williams

    Serena Williams beat Li Na for her seventh Miami title, adding yet one more line to an already-Hall of Fame CV. It was “vintage Serena”, or at least what seems to be the current definition of that term. There was once a time when Serena dominated her opponents from start to finish. Nowadays, she starts slows and sometimes comes perilously close to defeat before storming back with the brilliance that we’ve come to expect. Regardless of why, it’s impressive to watch and is also great drama. Serena doesn’t win all the time, but it speaks volumes that everyone, her competitors included, know that she can if she’s playing well. (And by well I mean 80% and above). Love her or hate her, I hope everyone can appreciate what she brings to the game.

  6. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Li Na caved against Serena and, unforgivably, gave up a two-break lead before losing 11 of the final 12 games. Li Na has a great personality, a strong game, and a perfect husband to showcase her comedic skills. Moreover, she’s a wonderful asset to the women’s game. But one can’t deny the mental weakness that she sometimes displays in big matches. There’s simply no way that she should have lost the first set of that final. Carlos Rodriguez, has tremendously helped her game, but there’s not much he can do about that.
  7. I love Maria Sharapova’s competitive nature, but it’s now laughable just how absent that nature is when she faces Serena Williams.
  8. Vika Azarenka, one of the few who legitimately competes well against Serena, was absent in Miami with her ongoing foot injury. I’m hoping it’s not too serious, and that we’ll have her back on tour soon. Serena badly needs a foil. And like it or not, Vika is the only one right now.
  9. Aga Radwanska’s physio-taped body is becoming more tape and less body. I worry for her 2014 at this rate.
  10. DSCN4507

    Martina Hingis and Sabine Lisicki

    Petra Kvitova beat Ana Ivanovic 3-6 6-0 6-0. That’s all you need to know about Petra and why, Wimbledon title or not, she’ll continue to struggle for legitimacy at the top of the women’s game.

  11. Roger Federer lost a tough match Kei Nishikori in conditions that I knew would be tough… for his game! Roger’s game does best in quicker conditions. The conditions in Miami on that note were cold, windy, and heavy: an uphill battle for him. Still, it’s nice to finally talk about his game these days and not his racquet or his back. And always remember that conditions matter!
  12. Honestly, I just don’t know what to say about Andy Murray anymore. In spite of his quarterfinal showing in Miami, there are still a ton of questions about where his head and heart are these days in the post-Lendl era.
  13. Is it wrong of me to want Stan Wawrinka to carry himself like the Slam champion that he is?
  14. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s game is a mess. That is all.
  15. Martina Hingis won the doubles title (alongside Sabine Lisicki) with smart and gritty play, fighting off several match points en route to the final. I don’t buy into the narrative that her win is an indictment of the current state of women’s doubles. Rather, it speaks volumes to the smarts of a great player who still possesses great hands, sharp court sense, and can maintain a positive court presence for her sometimes overly-dramatic partner. However, one can’t deny the ridiculousness of a doubles match where all the players stay back from the net, or the improbability of winning a Premier event with serve speeds in the high-50s to upper-80s.
  16. DSCN7099

    The Bryan brothers

    The Bryan brothers completed their Indian Wells-Miami double with a strong performance over the impassioned duo of Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah from Colombia. After watching the Colombian’s Davis Cup-like support in previous matches against Peya-Soares and Sock-Harrison, I figured they might be tough to beat for the bros. ATP stat-man, Greg Sharko, reminded me that the Bryans are one of the best at playing against a hostile crowd. And so it came to pass!

  17. Milos Raonic finally played up to the level of his hype in Miami, going the distance against Rafa and coming very close to an upset. I give him lots of credit for that result, but still need to see a big improvement in his awkward movement before I jump on the Raonic Slam bandwagon.
  18. John Isner left Miami after a tough loss to Berdych in the R16. Though it’s unclear how well his body will fare during the clay season, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer my support and belief in Big John. Contrary to popular opinion, John is working hard to take his game beyond the “win by tiebreak” level. I think that’s admirable from a guy who could settle for relative comfort in his position as top American. It’s also necessary if he wants to have a Top Ten presence.
  19. On the lesser American male front, Ryan Harrison lost two winnable matches in Miami. The first was his 3-set second-round loss to Benjamin Becker, and the second was his doubles semifinal loss (with partner Jack Sock) against Cabal/Farah. A horrible tiebreak in his singles match and a horrible drop volley at 9-9 in the dubs match-tiebreak sealed his fate. Ryan is a hard worker with respect to his physical game. I hope the same can be done for his mental game.
  20. With his loss to Nico Almagro in Miami, Sam Querrey dropped from his position as the #2 American. The new #2 is Bradley Klahn. No disrespect to Klahn, but this doesn’t say much about our ongoing struggles at trying to regain American tennis glory.
  21. Though the situation isn’t as dire for the US women as it is for the men, it doesn’t say much about our post-Serena/Venus prospects when Sloane, the anointed successor, is bounced 6-1 6-0 by Caroline Woniacki. Her on-court attitude is suspect, and she often appears indifferent. She also does herself no favors by saying things like, “I have 10 years of tennis to play.” That’s not the case if you get injured. Just ask Alexandra Stevenson.
  22. DSCN6874

    Sir Richard Branson and friends

    Speaking of Wozniacki, this was a pretty good tournament for her! After a period of crashing out in several troubling first round matches, she competed well and earned consecutive breadstick-bagel match results over Sloane and Varvara Lepchenko. A 5-7 5-7 loss to reigning Australian Open champ Li Na should give her encouragement. That is, unless she gets distracted in planning for her wedding to Rory McIlroy.

  23. Can we please stop the Caroline Garcia hype machine and let the poor girl develop organically? Didn’t she suffer enough after Andy Murray’s “future Slam winner” tweets?
  24. It was great to see a balanced weekend of finals with women’s singles/men’s doubles combo on Saturday and women’s doubles/men’s singles on Sunday. (This is not the case for Indian Wells or Cincinnati.) The crowd likes it, and it gives a great perception of equal value for the two tours. Mr. Ellison, please take note!
  25. After covering Indian Wells this year, I finally understand why some players gripe about Miami and its’ failings in comparison. Larry Ellison’s money has created a tennis tournament oasis with which few other tournaments can adequately compete. It’s the same for the media, with ease, access, and benefits that few other tournaments provide. So it will be interesting to see what happens with the upcoming renovations starting in 2015. (I saw Sir Richard Branson there watching the Bryan brothers. Is he the Sony Open’s “Larry Ellison”?) Anyway, don’t let that deter from going. It’s a great event and has an awesome South American feel. Check it out!

With that last unpaid endorsement, I’m out! I’d like to thank Tennis Panorama for allowing me to cover the Sony Open for their website, and look forward to my next assignment at Stanford’s Bank of the West Classic. Until next time… 🙂
(P.S. I’m winning that media tourney next year!)

PostHeaderIcon Serena Williams Wins A Record Seventh Miami Title

Serena Williams with trophy (photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams with trophy
(photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams won her seventh Miami title over Li Na in straight sets, 7-5 6-1.

With this win, Williams becomes the winningest player in tournament history. Competing in her ninth final, Williams’ seven titles now eclipses the six won by Andre Agassi. She has the most main draw match wins in tournament history (67), and joins Evert, Graf and Navratilova as the fourth player in the Open Era to win the same tournament seven or more times.

None of this would have come to pass, however, if Serena hadn’t willed herself into yet another brilliant comeback after an error-filled start to the women’s final. In her semi against Sharapova, Williams found herself in a deep hole, down 1-4. In her final against Li Na, the reigning Australian Open champion, she once again found herself behind the eight ball.

The statistics tell the story of Williams struggles, with a first-serve percentage at 42%, 3 double faults, and 21 unforced errors against only 15 winners. While it’s true that Li Na got off to a great start with her own game, Williams was her own worst enemy. And then, two breaks down and fighting to stay in the set at 2-5, Williams rediscovered her championship mettle.

Forehands that had previously found the bottom of the net were hitting their mark deep in the corners or on the back of the baseline, her “down the line” backhand became untouchable, and her serve became the weapon that we’ve all come to expect from World No. 1.

The rest is history. Williams went on to win 11 of the next 12 games, fighting off one set point at 4-5 before winning a closely-fought first set, and rolling through the second. It was a vintage performance from a player who seems to play her best when facing defeat.

When asked about this particular trend in her post-match press conference, Williams was quick to say, “I definitely don’t do it on purpose.”

“I think for the most part, I try to do the best I can, and sometimes, you know, things I’m doing don’t work out, but they are the right things and eventually they start to work.”

Li Na had her chances to close out the set, but was broken twice in the process. The second of those breaks, lasting 6 deuces, handed the first set to Williams. After relinquishing such a big lead, one might expect a certain amount of frustration or disappointment. But Li Na, who’s gained a newfound sense of calm since beginning her work with coach Carlos Rodriguez, was pragmatic about the lead that slipped away.

“I don’t have to see how was the score, because even the match didn’t finish yet.  Still everyone has a chance.” She went on to add, “I think this is tennis, because if I was play more aggressive, for sure she will going back a little bit.  If she play a little bit forward, I have to going back a little bit. So this is tennis.”

In spite of the loss, Li was happy with her game. “I mean, really nothing to say.  I don’t think today I was doing like a wrong game plan or I was play totally wrong. I think it was pretty good match.”

The second set was a cleaner affair for Williams. Though her first serve percentage remained low at 43%, she managed to win 90% of first serve points and 61% of second serve points. More importantly, she didn’t allow her serving woes to bring down the rest of her game as it has in past matches.

“I think now if my serve isn’t great, it’s okay because I have a great forehand, I have a great backhand, I have great speed.”

“You know, I have so many things that I want to have a backup plan, because today I only served at 40%.  I still have to figure out a way to win doing that.” Her backup plan was clearly more than enough to overcome on this day.

With 59 titles under her belt, and a slew WTA records, Williams could justifiably retire tomorrow as one of the all-time greats. I was curious to know just how this future Hall of Famer continues to challenge herself when there’s so little left to prove.

“I think I love the challenge, and I feel like if I feel like I can be the best right now, then why not continue to be the best and do the best that I can?”

Spoken like a true champion!

PostHeaderIcon My Sony Open Women’s Finals Preview and Post-Shock Thoughts (VIDEO)

657007Some quick thoughts before Serena wins her 7th Miami title. (That sentence alone should tell you my thoughts on how this is going to play out today.) And a few additional first-hand thoughts about the craziness of yesterday’s double withdrawals by Nishikori and Berdych.

PostHeaderIcon Williams Continues Her Dominance Of Sharapova To Reach 9th Miami Final

Serena Williams (photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams
(photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova in straight sets 6-4 6-3 to reach her ninth final in Key Biscayne. Williams came into this semifinal the prohibitive favorite, owing to her 15-2 head-to-head against Sharapova. But it was quickly evident that Williams’ best level hadn’t quite made it to the court by match time.

In a repeat of their 2013 final, Sharapova came out ready to play her best tennis from the very first point. She came out hitting the ball hard, deep, and into the corners. In typical fashion, she struggled with her first serve percentage, but still managed to start the match with a crucial hold.

Williams was slow to get going, and unable to take advantage of her many chances at the Sharapova second serve. She even struggled with her own potent serve at the outset, and was broken in the fourth game for a 4-1 Sharapova lead.

Maria Sharapova (photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

Maria Sharapova
(photo courtesy of sonyopentennis.com)

While this type of deficit might lead many players to panic, Serena kept her focus on the big picture. “I thought, Okay, I’m only down a break.  It was really just one break.  The scoreline looked bigger than what it was.  I felt if I could just break back, then I would be back in the match.”

Williams came back after the changeover with her “A” game ready to go. She methodically held serve for 2-4 before breaking Sharapova twice to take the first set 6-4. Her early sluggishness was replaced by big hitting, sharp angles, and untouchable serves.

The slump in Sharapova’s shoulders after Williams held at love for the set said it all. She has chances for a win if Williams is off her game, but knows that it’s going to be tough to beat Williams if she regains here form.

Sharapova was asked about Williams’s ability to take her game to another level when needed, and simply replied, “That’s why she’s No. 1 in the world.”

“There are always going to be drops. But she’s the player that is most capable of coming back from that or regaining focus and regaining that concentration as someone that’s ultimately going to do better.”

There was a glimmer of hope for Sharapova at the start of the second set when Williams took her foot off the pedal for a two-game walkabout that included lax defense, minimal footwork, and one of the worst drop shots seen at this year’s tournament. But Williams again raised her level as needed to break back for a 2-1 lead.

After Sharapova was broken at love in the seventh game of the second set for a 4-3 Williams lead, there was little chance this match might even go the distance to a third. Sharapova fought hard, but ultimately wilted under pressure. A forehand into the net handed Williams her 15th straight win over her Russian opponent.

Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in almost a decade, with her last victory coming at the 2004 WTA Championships in Los Angeles. And while many believe this to be one of the WTA’s big rivalries, she is quick to remind everyone that it’s not much of a rivalry until she can get a win.

When asked about their lopsided “rivalry”, Sharapova attempted to put a positive spin on the situation. “I mean, despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level which she produces.”

“You finish the match, and you know where you need to improve and the things that you need to work on.”

In spite of her win, Williams remained subdued in the press room afterward, fending off questions of rivalries and potential challengers. She takes no one for granted, and views every opponent as a potential rival.

“I mean, everyone I play always plays me hard, so I feel like every match I play I literally have to be on my best, so for me I take a rival as every match, and I think that’s one of the best ways to take it.”

“You have to show up, and if you don’t show up, then your biggest threat will be yourself.”

Williams has won the title in Miami a record six times, one more than Steffi Graf. A seventh title would give her the record for the most Miami titles of all, surpassing the great Andre Agassi.

Williams will face Li Na in Saturday’s final after her late-night three-set win over Dominika Cibulkova.

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