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Little Miss Sunshine January 24, 2010 - 9:26 AM

Petrova_matchpoint Shortly after Andy Murray finished off John Isner this afternoon, I ran over to Hisense Arena to catch the third set of Nadia Petrova’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova, my pre-tournament pick to win it all here (so much for that). Kuznetsova, a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, never seemed to get her rhythm in this tournament, making 43 unforced errors in her come-from-behind victory over qualifier Angelique Kerber in the third round Friday night and another 52 today. Looking scattered and frustrated, the world No. 3 lost her serve three times in the deciding set, and afterwards cited the fact that she is short on match play as a contributing factor to her low level here (she lost early in Sydney, her only Tour event leading up to this one).

But though Kuznetsova “deserved to lose,” as she bluntly put it, the result had as much to do with the powerful play of No. 19 Petrova as it did with Kuznetsova’s errors. The veteran Petrova has always been a big server with penetrating groundstrokes, but she’s been notoriously short on poise in the most critical moments of big matches. Twice a semifinalist at the French Open, she’s reached the quarterfinals at each of the other majors, but has made a name for herself not as a perennial Top 15 player (with a career high ranking of No. 3 achieved in 2006), but as a would-be major player who is prone to major meltdowns. Just last year, in fact, she suffered excruciating exits from two Slams. In the second round at Roland Garros, she led Maria Sharapova at 2-4, 15-40 in the third set before losing 8-6. And in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, she was dominating Melanie Oudin when her game disintegrated in the second set; Oudin won in three.

Today, Petrova showed more of the form that earned her a stunning 6-0, 6-1 defeat of Kim Clijsters on Friday. Despite making 47 unforced errors, Petrova returned Kuznetsova’s serve well and managed not to unravel after being broken in the opening game of the deciding set. “I fought hard. I chased every single ball possible,” she said, echoing comments she’d made after the Clijsters match.

Petrova said her off-season fitness work gave her the confidence to play aggressively—“I know how much gas I have in my tank, so I know that I can really push and dig really deep”—but the source of her newfound on-court composure is harder to pinpoint.

“It’s just a game. It’s not the end of the world if you lose a match, because life goes on,” she said of the perspective she’s gained from more than 11 years on the tour. “Maybe because of that, I feel a little bit more relaxed. I’m not as stressed if I make a silly mistake or something doesn’t go my way, because I can still make the best out of this day.”

The new nothing-to-lose attitude should serve Petrova well against Justine Henin, a woman who has beaten her twice already (once in exhibition) since her recent return from retirement. Also a factor is the fact that Henin has played three tough three-setters in a row. Petrova is the fresher of the two, and if she is as fit as she claims to be, she might have the edge against the Belgian in a long match.

“I’ve played her recently twice, so I know what to expect,” Petrova said. “I know what kind of balls are going to be coming at me. It’s going to be maybe even easier for me to play her, because it’s so fresh in my mind.”

Regardless of whether familiarity will breed success, Petrova’s run to the quarterfinals—her best Aussie Open result in four years—is one of the better storylines of the women’s tournament so far this year. Her fallibility has always made her a sympathetic character; she’s a little pudgy, a little gawky, appealingly earnest. But now that she seems to have developed some competitive fortitude to go along with her powerful baseline game, her best results may still be ahead of her.

“That’s why, you know, I’m still here,” the 27-year-old said today. “I know there’s still a lot to accomplish. There’s still a lot to let out.”

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A Tough Night for the Trophy Wife January 22, 2010 - 10:24 AM

Clijsters_Petrova Tonight I was supposed to chat with Brian Lynch, a.k.a. Mr. Kim Clijsters, before his wife’s third-round match with Nadia Petrova. But Lynch, a former Villanova hoopster who met his wife when he was playing pro ball in Belgium, was running late. He had to drop Jada, the couple’s 22-month-old daughter, off at the daycare center before heading to Hisense Arena to see Clijsters play, and asked to reschedule for after the match.

Needless to say, the interview didn’t happen. Everyone in Clijsters’ inner circle is presumably feeling a little dazed in the aftermath of her stunning loss, and not in the mood to discuss the blissful life of the traveling tennis family. In a staggeringly lopsided match that saw the reigning U.S. Open champion win fewer than 30 percent of the points, Petrova advanced, 6-0, 6-1, in just 52 minutes.
 
Clijsters (my frizzy-hair twin; see below) said she felt okay in her on-court warm-up, despite the sweltering conditions. But once the match began, “I was completely off. … I didn’t feel the ball at all.” She made two errors in the first game (an easy hold by Petrova) and then double-faulted on double break point to lose her own opening service game. It never got easier after that. From the fourth game of the first set into the second game of the second, Petrova won 15 points in a row.

“I made all the mistakes and she didn't really have to do much,” a dumbstruck Clijsters said afterwards, struggling to explain how her tournament had come to such an abrupt and ugly end. “She served really well and was aggressive in the rallies, but that's because I let her play into the courts. Just because I wasn't feeling the ball well. It sucks.”

With a huge serve and forehand, Petrova is certainly a dangerous opponent. The powerful veteran has made at least the quarters of all four majors, and was twice a semifinalist at Roland Garros. But no one—not even the Russian herself—could have foreseen such a dominating victory.

“I was preparing myself [for] a long day, a long match,” Petrova said. “Might have been a three-setter.”

A notoriously nervous player with a couple of Novotna-esque collapses on her competitive resume, Petrova managed not to get distracted by the ease with which she was winning. Her only difficult game came when she was serving for the match at 5-1, and needed three match points to seal the victory.

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” she said when asked about her state of mind during the match. “That was a good thing.”

MyFrizzyHairTwin There was nothing good about the evening for the Clijsters camp. It must have been a brutal experience for Lynch to see his wife, a popular pre-tournament pick to win it all, get completely overwhelmed in the third round. And though Clijsters said she’s going to try to forget tonight’s debacle as quickly as possible, but she must be feeling demoralized by how dramatically her tennis fortunes have swung since last summer.

In September, Clijsters was celebrating her improbable U.S. Open title with a frolicking Jada in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Her happy daughter posed with the champion’s trophy in a scene that represented total validation of Clijsters’ decision to return to pro tennis. Tonight, after an even more improbable loss, she wasn’t regretting her decision to come out of retirement, I’m sure. But I can imagine she’s not looking forward to making the 10,000-mile trek home with her toddler, empty-handed.

A couple of notes/clarifications:

The Good John Isner

Earlier this week Terrell Owens was in Melbourne to cheer on Andy Roddick, and today we found out that another big-name NFL wide receiver is Down Under in support of an American player. Steve Smith (the Carolina Panthers one, not the New York Giants one) was in Margaret Court Arena today to watch John Isner’s thrilling four-set upset of No. 12 seed Gael Monfils.

Isner, a Greensboro, N.C., native, is a longtime fan of Smith’s, but it wasn’t until earlier this week that he was introduced to the four-time Pro Bowler.

“He had heard of me before. He’s a tennis fan,” Isner said of his favorite football player, who at 5-9 is a full foot shorter than the 24-year-old. “He's watched every one of my matches. I've watched him a million times. Kind of cool to have him in my corner.”

Thanks for the Tip(sarevic)

A note to Slice-n-Dice, Legoboy et al about my mischaracterization of Janko Tipsarevic as a rising star: You’re absolutely correct that that was the wrong term, given that he’s 25 years old and has been on the tour full-time since 2004. I was referring more to Tipsarevic’s recent ascendance in the rankings—he cracked the Top 50 for the first time last autumn, and reached a career-high No. 35 two weeks ago (he’s now No. 36). And the Serb played some inspired tennis during his five-set loss to Tommy Haas, so maybe he’s still on the way up. But thanks very much for reading and commenting.

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Penalties, Paunches and Papas: Day 4 Notebook January 21, 2010 - 9:53 AM

Some notes from Day 4 at Melbourne Park:

Watch Where You Throw That Thing, Tommy

In an entertaining, up-and-down match on Margaret Court Arena, No. 18 seed Tommy Haas was tested by rising Serbian star Janko Tipsarevic, but the German ultimately prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in three hours and 20 minutes. Haas, who had been warned for racquet abuse earlier in the match, was assessed a point penalty at 4-2 in the fifth set when a relatively close call on break point went Tipsarevic’s way and Haas was unable to challenge. Disgusted with the call, the absence of Hawk-Eye and, he later admitted, the fact that he had just been broken for the second time in the set, Haas took a ball out of his pocket and threw it away as he walked towards his seat for the changeover. He said afterwards that he wasn’t aiming it at a linesperson, but chair umpire Pascal Maria charged him a point.

Though the penalty gave Tipsarevic a 15-0 lead to start the next game, the No. 36-ranked Serb lost his serve for the third time in the set, and Haas held at 5-3 to claim the match. Afterwards Haas complained about the fact that Court Arena, a show court, is not wired for challenges.

“For how much money this tournament makes, that they can’t put Hawk-Eye on that court is pathetic,” he said.

A former world No. 2, Haas struggled with shoulder issues in 2008 but enjoyed a revival last season, pushing Roger Federer to the brink in the fourth round of the French Open and then succumbing to the Swiss again in the Wimbledon semis. Now 31, Haas is the oldest of the men’s seeds in Melbourne, where he’s made the semifinals three times—most recently in 2007. He’ll face No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the third round Saturday, but he’ll be without his nearest and dearest for that tough test. Absent from Haas’ player’s box for this tournament is his fiancée, the stunning American actress Sara Foster, who is currently filming in Los Angeles.

The Biggest Winner

Earlier in the day, in another dramatic five-setter, Cyprus’ Marcos Baghdatis rallied from two sets down to upset 17th-seeded Spaniard David Ferrer, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-1 in Hisense Arena. After closing out the match, Baghdatis, who was buoyed throughout the four-hour affair by a vociferous, raucous crowd of supporters (there’s a sizeable population of Cyprus-born immigrants in Victoria), knelt down on the court and stripped off his shirt, revealing…a less than svelte physique.

SlightlySquishyCypriot I’m all for body confidence, but a colleague who was sitting nearby corroborated my immediate reaction: Baghdatis does not have the look of an elite athlete. While most tennis players are supreme physical specimens, sinewy and toned from running for hours on the court every day, the charismatic Cypriot looks more like an everyman than a Greek god. Of course, it’s probably unfair of me to make such an observation, considering I’ve consumed more than my share of biscuits and Tasty (not together) since I arrived here. This kind of catty commentary is perhaps more suited to TENNIS.com’s snarky new gossip column, The Daily Spin.

But for the record, Baghdatis—a finalist here in 2006—said after today’s match that he is currently the fittest he’s ever been. He put in extra hours in the gym in the off-season, and though he struggled with cramping in the fifth set today, he expects to be completely recovered physically in time for his third-round match with Lleyton Hewitt. Baghdatis is hardly overweight; this isn’t a Shawn Kemp situation. But his warm and winning personality, combined with the fact that he’s slightly on the squishy side (and therefore somewhat relatable), makes him more fun to root for than if he were a chiseled Adonis.

Federer, Winning at Love

After dispensing with Romania’s Victor Hanescu, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 tonight in Rod Laver Arena, Roger Federer was interviewed on court by two-time Aussie Open champion Jim Courier, working here for Channel 7. With good-natured questions about marriage and fatherhood, Courier pressed Federer more than Hanescu ever did during the match, demanding details about his wedding to longtime love Mirka Vavrinec last April.

“I got a little emotional,” the 15-time Grand Slam champion began, prompting Courier to interject, “Shocker.”

Federer continued: “I thought after nine or 10 years together, I wouldn’t get emotional…no chance.”

And as if the Federer-philes in the arena weren’t already melting, Roger went on to wax romantic about the joys of fatherhood. After some slightly awkward banter about diaper duty for twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, Federer said the past five months have been fantastic.

“Honestly, they’ve been great. Not too many screams, and if they do scream, that’s what babies do—that’s what I love them for.”

Game, Set, Expedia

In other baby news, second-round loser and about-to-be-father Taylor Dent won’t have much time to dwell on his 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 loss to No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Instead, the unseeded American was heading back to his hotel in order to book the next flight back to the States, where his wife is expecting their first child imminently. Dent will fly from Melbourne to Sydney to Los Angeles to Dallas to Chicago (phew!), and hopes to arrive in Leewood, Kan., in time for Jenny to deliver their baby boy.

As for the shellacking administered by 2008 Aussie Open finalist Tsonga, Dent said his poor serving (he got only 47 percent of first serves in) was in large part to blame. He also said his serve-and-volleying tactic was rendered ineffective by the slow surface.

“He was able to repeatedly get the ball at my feet when I came forward,” Dent said. “Even if I got a first serve in, if I didn’t hit it on line or close to the line, he was able just to dump it at my feet and I’m faced with a low volley. I hit the low volley in the court and I feel like he’s just sitting there, waiting and smiling at me.”

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She's Still Sans Slam January 20, 2010 - 9:57 AM

Dementieva Lamenting Elena Dementieva’s disappointing exit from a Grand Slam has become a familiar quarterly exercise, but I’m not used to writing these posts quite so early in the tournament. In a second-round matchup of final weekend-caliber players, Justine Henin expelled Dementieva from the Aussie Open tonight, winning 7-5, 7-6 (6) in a tense two-set battle that lasted nearly three hours.

Henin’s performance reinforced that which first became apparent in Brisbane two weeks ago: She is still the same high-quality player she was when, as the reigning world No. 1 and a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, she retired abruptly in 2008. Playing in her first Grand Slam in two years, Henin moves as well as ever, and is still in possession of those gorgeous groundstrokes. Tonight, with the crowd in Rod Laver Arena solidly behind her, she unveiled some nifty new tricks, coming to net 43 times in two sets with overwhelming success. Although her first-serve percentage was dismal and she was, by her own admission, physically spent by the end of the match, she looks like a clear threat to win her eighth major here.

The hapless Dementieva, on the other hand, will for the 45th consecutive time leave a Slam without any hardware. The Russian 6-footer had her chances, earning two sets points with Henin serving at 4-5 in the first, and another set point serving at 6-5 in the second set tiebreaker. If Dementieva had been able to convert that point and send the match to a third set, she may have had the edge; Henin was starting to cramp up during the tiebreak. But as she has in so many important matches in the past, Dementieva looked tentative on those important points and allowed Henin to go for winners when each set was on the line.

“I feel like I was not aggressive enough. I was not [hitting] deep enough,” Dementieva said afterwards. “I mean, she was playing well. But I feel like I gave her the opportunity to play that well.”

That passivity may, sadly, prove to be the defining characteristic of Dementieva’s career. It’s natural for anyone to tighten up in big moments, but during her decade-long pursuit of a major title, she has never been able to summon her best tennis in the crucial points that decide a match. (One exception is the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where she won the gold medal in singles.) Dementieva has powerful, flawless baseline game and is a fast and perennially fit player. She’s also gracious and lovely person, admirable qualities for a Top 5 player in a sport not lacking for divas. But maybe she’s a victim of wanting too much that which she has been unable to claim in 11-plus years on tour.

She’s come close, making two major finals (at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, both in 2004) and six other semifinals. Last year she fell to Serena Williams in the semifinals here and then had a match point against Serena in their Wimbledon semifinal, the best women’s match of 2009. But then she lost early at the U.S. Open, a victim of the late summer phenomenon that was Melanie Oudin, and now she has lost in the second round for the second straight major. At 28, she’s still one of the fittest women on tour, but one wonders whether her window of opportunity is closing. To win her first Slam at this stage of her career, she’ll have to contend with Serena, and the second coming of Henin and Kim Clijsters, and the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka and the rest of the eager new generation.

For now, Dementieva can only contend with frustration. She arrived here fresh off a win over Serena in Sydney and confident that she was ready to claim her first major. A few days later, she’s leaving Melbourne with nothing but another major disappointment.

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Who's starring for the Stars and Stripes? January 19, 2010 - 10:25 AM

As the tournament progresses, there will be plenty analysis of the Swiss, the Spaniards, the Serbs, and the rest of the best international players in the world. Tomorrow night’s second-round showdown between Russia’s perennial Grand Slam bridesmaid Elena Dementieva, the No. 5 seed, and seven-time major champion Justine Henin of Belgium, has the potential to be a thriller.

But for today’s blog, I’m focusing on the U.S. contingent here—not Andy Roddick or Serena or Venus, but the next tier of American players. The 16 U.S. players in action on Tuesday went a combined 7-9. Here are four who had particularly notable days, starting with one who struggled:

Sam Querrey: The Glass (Table) Is Half Full
By far the most disappointing result for the Yanks Tuesday was Sam Querrey’s four-set loss to Rainer Schuettler. The 25th-seeded Querrey wasn’t expected to have any trouble with the German veteran, a finalist here seven years ago who is now, at age 33, ranked outside the Top 100. But Querrey looked less than match sharp, struggling with the windy conditions and cramping up during the fourth set of the two-hour, 15-minute contest on Court 4.

Querrey Querrey’s early exit means that his expected third-round clash with No. 7 Andy Roddick—the only American ranked higher at the end of 2009—will not materialize. More of a concern for Camp Querrey is whether the 22-year-old has regressed since last summer, when a stellar hardcourt swing saw him make three consecutive tournament finals, including a win in Los Angeles, and achieve a career-high ranking of No. 22. The early returns on his 2010 season are hardly encouraging: He is 0-3, having opened the year with first-round losses in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

“It’s frustrating, because I’m extremely fit right now,” Querrey lamented after today’s loss. “In practice I feel like I’m hitting the ball better than ever. The backhand’s feeling great—I’m hitting it harder and taking it up the line. The forehand’s great, and I’ve been working my net game a little bit.”

Unlike Maria Sharapova, who yesterday rejected the notion that her lack of match play may have been a contributing factor in her first-round loss, Querrey acknowledged that subpar showing was attributable, in part, to rustiness.

“It’s not playing matches and not being match tough,” he said. “I worked hard for three solid months in the off-season. I couldn’t have worked harder.”

He also said the freak accident that cut his 2009 season short is not to blame for this year’s slow start. The details of the late Semptember incident are well documented: The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Querrey was sitting on a glass coffee table in Bangkok, putting on his shoes and socks following a post-practice shower. The table supported him for about 30 seconds before it collapsed. As he fell through, and a large piece of glass wedged into his right forearm, opening a deep gash that ultimately required 25 stitches. (He showed a photo of the gaping wound, pre-stitching, to some assembled reporters. The image was absolutely gruesome; it’s been six hours since I saw it, and I’m still nauseous. I prefer the blurry image, seen at right, of the scar.)

The affable Querrey was happy to “flesh out” the story (ack, queasy again) with additional details about the ordeal: Bumper-to-bumper traffic meant it took his ambulance an hour to get him to the hospital, where a translator had to be located so he could communicate with his Thai doctor. (I wonder how much conversation is actually required in such circumstances. When someone’s arm is cut so deeply that he can look in and see all his muscles and tendons, isn’t the matter of urgency fairly apparent?) But ultimately, Querrey was extremely lucky not to have cut his legs or to have suffered any nerve damage in the arm, which he said hasn’t bothered him since November.

So if the problem isn’t the accident, and isn’t his fitness-level, then why has it been nearly five months since he’s won a match? He didn’t appear to be particularly concerned about that today. “A couple of years ago, I lost six or seven first-rounders in a row,” Querrey said in reference to an inauspicious 0-6 stretch during the summer of 2007. “I’ve got 10 more years left of playing.”

And three Americans who had encouraging wins:

John Isner Seeks Second Look At Second Week
Recently it’s been John Isner, not Querrey, who’s been looking like most promising U.S.  player of the post-Roddick generation. (At 6-foot-9, Isner may literally be The Next Big Thing of American men’s tennis.) The former Georgia Bulldog played four years of NCAA tennis before it became apparent that he had the game to make an impact on the ATP Tour. A relative late bloomer, he was 24 when he first cracked the Top 100 last year and then upset Andy Roddick in the third round of the U.S. Open. By virtue of his first career title last week in Auckland, Isner is now ranked No. 28 in the world, and after pulling out a five-set win over Italy’s Andreas Seppi today, the North Carolina native sounded optimistic about his prospects of making a deep run. “My goal is to reach the second week here,” he said. “If I can get to the second week of my second straight major, that would be huge.”

Among those players taking note of Isner’s recent ascent are Roger Federer, who congratulated the American for winning Auckland, and James Blake, lauded Isner’s improved volleying. “He was always an imposing physical presence at the net,” Blake said. “But now he’s got good hands.”

Taylor Dent, Father-to-Be and… Baseliner?
In dispatching with 56th-ranked Fabio Fognini, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, Taylor Dent recorded his first win at the Australian Open since 2005 and showed glimpses of the firepower that once earned him a ranking of No. 21. A debilitating back injury kept Dent out of tennis for most of 2007 and 2008; he endured two spinal fusion surgeries during that time, and thought his career was over. Now one year into his comeback, Dent is through to the second round of the Aussie Open for the first time in five years, and eager to show off the 2.0 version of his game.

“I’m no longer a serve and volleyer,” he said after his win today. “Even when I was playing [before the surgeries], I always had it in the back of my mind that I was playing in a way that doesn’t match today’s game.”

As intensely competitive as he was before his long injury layoff, Dent said he hopes his newfound effectiveness from the baseline will give his second-round opponent, No. 10 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, some trouble on Thursday. But as much as it pains him to entertain the possibility of losing, Dent admitted that he will head straight to the airport as soon as he’s out of the tournament. His wife, former WTA pro Jenny Hopkins, is expecting the couple’s first child imminently.

“Her due date is the 27th of January, but the doctor says it should be any day now,” he said. “She’s basically waiting for contractions.” The baby boy will be named Declan James Phillip Dent. James is Jenny’s father; Phillip is Dent’s father (Phil Dent was an Australian tennis pro who lost to Jimmy Connors in the singles final of this event in 1974); and Declan is a name that Jenny and Taylor got from the 1997 movie The Jackal.

King King is Queen for a Day
Of the eight American women in action on Tuesday, only three were victorious: Defending champion Serena Williams, No. 6 Venus Williams, and the unseeded Vania King. The win by the 79th-ranked King was by far the most dramatic: She overcame a 1-5 deficit in the third set to upset Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova, the No. 23 seed, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-5.

“I had a match point in the second set and I was too passive, so when I lost that point I just freaked out,” the 20-year-old King said afterwards. “After I lost that set, I was just so angry and I lost those five games so quickly. But when you get down a lot, you start to relax because it doesn’t matter anymore. I was a little lucky because I was really going for it, and I hit a couple lines and then the momentum game my way and I just finished it off.”

This marks the second straight major at which King has scored a significant upset; at last year’s U.S. Open, she took out No. 15 seed Sam Stosur in straight sets in the second round. A Long Beach, Calif., native of Taiwanese descent, King credits her recent progress to her move to Tarik Benhabiles’ academy in Boynton Beach, Fla., a year ago, and says the transition made a positive impact on her game and her psyche.

“I definitely enjoy tennis a lot more [now],” she said Tuesday. “I don’t think I love tennis, because I associate a lot of pain with it. But I actually was talking with Tarik about it, and he said, ‘You wouldn’t still be here if you didn’t love tennis.’ I definitely enjoy most of it.”

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Monday Morning Kickoff January 18, 2010 - 8:35 AM

Sharapova Greetings from opening day of the Australian Open. (I’d wish everyone “G’day,” but I can’t really pull that off.) I’m thrilled to be in Melbourne again this year to cover the tournament for TENNIS.com, and I hope through my dispatches to offer the site’s readers a glimpse of the unique spirit that characterizes the first Grand Slam of the year.

It’s a bit disorienting to leave New York and, after a seemingly interminable trek to the other side of the planet, pop up Down Under in mid-summer Melbourne. But given that the appeal of winter (marginal to begin with) was starting to wear thin, I find the abrupt change in hemisphere, weather and culture to be a welcome shock to the system. For a couple of weeks I am lucky to be able to exchange the freezing temperatures, short days and shorter tempers of New York for the tennis euphoria that is January at Melbourne Park. I love the other Slams, but none of them offers the carefree festival feel of the Australian Open. The Parisians are too sophisticated and aloof; the Brits are too pasty (and yes, as someone who is pigmentally challenged, I realize that this is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle pale); and the New Yorkers are a bit too intense and on edge. But at the Aussie Open, the buzzing (and, for the most part, buzzed) spectators create a wonderfully warm and celebratory atmosphere. The rowdiness occasionally gets out of hand, but in general the defining ethic seems to be “no socks and no worries.”

Though I sense the familiar jubilation among the sports-mad Aussies, the tone of this year’s opening day was a little different than last year’s. Because tennis’ competitive landscape has changed dramatically over the past 12 months, the first-round media coverage is not disproportionately fixated on one or two players. In 2009, then-world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic—and her quest to win a title that would justify her ranking—was the most-hyped story on the women’s side, while bookmakers’ favorite Andy Murray received the majority of the ink on the men’s side. This year, Murray hysteria has abated a bit, while the eighth-seeded Jankovic is an afterthought in a women’s draw dominated by compelling comeback stories.

The longer cast of contenders—and the more varied resulting coverage—is a major reason why this year’s Aussie Open feels different. Another contributing factor is the weather. In contrast to the 2009 tourney, the majority of which was played in brutal heat, the 2010 Aussie Open dawned cool, blustery and rainy. In conditions more befitting of the All-England Club than Melbourne Park, the wet weather forced the postponement of several matches and, as straight-sets winner Andy Roddick lamented, forced players scheduled for Rod Laver or Hisense Arenas to play indoor tennis.
 
But more than the weather or the pre-tournament coverage, it was a surprise result, right off the bat, that set a different tone for this year’s opening day. In 2009, the first round went pretty much according to form, and we didn’t experience a major upset until the fourth night of the tournament, when Carla Suarez Navarro took out Venus Williams. This year the fans in Laver Arena, the preeminent showcourt, witnessed a significant upset in the day’s first match. In a  baseline battle between two 22-year-old Russian glamazons, both named Maria, the 59th-ranked Kirilenko prevailed over No. 14 Sharapova, 7-6 (4) 3-6, 6-4. The first-round exit by Sharapova, one of three former Australian Open champions in the women’s draw, was the defining story of day one.

Kirilenko’s victory was not a complete shock, given that she’s beaten other big-name (and Top 10) players, including Sharapova, before. (If Kirilenko’s boyfriend, Igor Andreev, were to take out Roger Federer in their first-round match tomorrow, then that would be seismic.) More significant is that it has now been two years since Sharapova won a match in Australia. A career-threatening shoulder injury prevented the 2008 champion from defending her title here last year, and today she was dismissed by Kirilenko in a three-hour, 22-minute struggle during which Sharapova often seemed out of rhythm and out of sorts.

Sharapova, who opted to play an exhibition in Hong Kong instead of a tournament as preparation for the Aussie Open, and who hadn’t played any WTA Tour match since early last October, scoffed at the notion that a lack of match sharpness was responsible for her listlessness on the court today.

“I don’t really know what ‘match practice’ has to do with being up 4-2, 15-40 and not making a second serve return,” she said in reference to a squandered opportunity to go up a double break on Kirilenko in the first set. “I certainly had my chances, and just didn’t execute.”

The former world No. 1, who reverted to her old service motion after having experimented with a modified motion in 2009, insists that the surgically repaired shoulder is fine, and shouldn’t prevent her from returning to the form that made her a perennial major title contender, pre-injury. But given how long the recovery road has been already (her first comeback attempt came 10 months ago), and considering how fraught with disappointments that road has been, one wouldn’t blame her for calling it a career—she already has three Grand Slam titles, tens of millions of dollars and Sasha Vujacic.

While Sharapova may have made a tactical error in not playing a warm-up tournament, it’s a testament to her grit and competitive drive that she continues to try to try to get back to the top of the game. At the French Open last May, in her first major tournament back, post-surgery, she said, “If I was a mentally weak person, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be on some island…with a nice cold Pina Colada.” Today, after another major disappointment, she sounded no less resolute: “A bad day's not going to stop me from doing what I love. I'm still going to go back on the court and work hard and perform. I'll be back here on a Saturday of the second week, you’ll watch.”

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The Difference a Day Makes September 14, 2009 - 1:22 AM

59b62b3ac6673403deab34d4c1a27e99-getty-ten-us_open-clijsters Twenty-four hours earlier, Arthur Ashe Stadium had been the stage for a scandalous and disgraceful scene, with Serena Williams, the defending U.S. Open champion, departing the court in defeat and ignominy. Sunday evening, the negative reverberations of that ugly incident were replaced by genuine warmth, broad smiles and happy tears. Belgium’s Kim Clijsters had just defeated Caroline Wozniacki in the U.S. Open final, but there were no contentious feelings in the aftermath of their one-hour, 34-minute match. Instead, the finalists took turns complimenting each other’s games and personalities—“she’s such a good girl,” the affable Wozniacki said of the universally liked Clijsters during on-court post-match interviews. Then just when you thought things couldn’t get any fuzzier, Clijsters’ impossibly adorable 18-month-old daughter started toddling around the baseline, her strawberry blond curls reflected in the silver trophy her mother had just won.

The Clijsters story is a remarkable one. She won her first major title at the 2005 U.S. Open, but after struggling with injury and burnout, retired in the spring of 2007. The next two years were eventful: she married the American Brian Lynch, a former Villanova hoopster; gave birth to daughter Jada; and lost her father to lung cancer. It was only last month that Clijsters, 26, returned to competitive tennis; the U.S. Open was just her third tournament back. Unranked, she needed a wild card from tournament organizers to enter the Open, her first since she won here four years ago. Now Clijsters is the first wild card in the history of women’s tennis to win a Grand Slam title, and the first mother to claim a major since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980.

Over the past two weeks, Clijsters has shown all her old familiar power and athleticism, plus a new poise and perspective that come partially, she says, from being a parent. Though she admits she still gets extremely nervous in big moments, she’s now less susceptible to collapsing. In her remarkable run through the draw here, Clijsters beat Venus Williams in the fourth round and Serena Williams in the semis. But the Belgian never got to celebrate the achievement of besting Serena, the best player on the planet, on Saturday. The circumstances under which their semifinal ended denied Clijsters her triumphant moment.

Over the past decade, I’ve covered five Olympics and dozens of international sporting events, but I’ve never before witnessed anything like the ugly scene that transpired on Arthur Ashe Saturday evening. At a critical juncture in what had been a highly compelling and high-quality women’s semifinal, an unfortunate call precipitated the most notorious incident in the stadium’s history. Serena Williams, the defending champion, was serving to stay in the match when she was called for a foot fault on a second serve, thus giving her opponent, Clijsters, a match point. A furious Williams unleashed a vicious tirade on the lineswoman who had made the foot fault call and was subsequently assessed a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Because the penalty came on match point, the match was over, and Serena was out of the tournament.

Serena may have been justified in going berserk, but it was the nature of her outburst that was troubling. In a statement Sunday, Stacey Allaster, the chairman and CEO of the WTA Tour, called Serena’s behavior “inappropriate and unprofessional”—inadequate condemnation of behavior that was, in reality, frightening and appalling. 

Yes, the foot fault call was bogus and ill-timed. Whether or not Serena’s foot actually skimmed the line—replays were inconclusive—you can’t call a foot fault on a second serve at 15-30, 5-6 in the second set of a Grand Slam semifinal. Unless it’s a blatant violation (and in this case, it wasn’t), you just can’t make that call. Going ballistic was the appropriate reaction. If I had been in her situation, I’d have had an absolute meltdown—screaming, crying, cursing, smashing racquets, and generally throwing a you-have-to-be-kidding-me tantrum on the court.

But there was something different and, honestly, a little scary, about Serena’s response. It wasn’t just that she was livid; it was as if she had lost her mind. More disturbing than the profanity-laden vitriol she directed at the lineswoman was the menacing body language that accompanied it. I was seated in the media section, about 30 rows back directly behind the lineswoman, so I witnessed Serena’s tirade from the same head-on vantage point as the judge herself. Serena’s outburst was intimidating: her eyes bulged as she brandished her racquet pointedly and menacingly. I couldn’t hear the words that poured out of her mouth (“I swear to God, I’ll [expletive] take this ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat,” was the most malicious line in the profane tirade, I learned afterwards) but I could see the fury in Serena’s face and the hostility in her aggressive posture. It was a shocking and dreadful scene.

The ending of that semifinal is a blight on the image of Williams, an 11-time major champion, as well as the game itself. But another unfortunate result of the match’s contentious ending was that it denied Clijsters the moment of triumph she deserved. She cried tears of joy and disbelief after having ousted Venus in the fourth round; imagine what her match point celebration could have been against Serena.

Fortunately, Clijsters got to celebrate an even sweeter victory the next night in the final. The last point of Clijsters’ match against Wozniacki was decided by play, not by penalty. The Belgian finished championship point with an emphatic overhead, and then fell to her knees, her face in her hands, overwhelmed by what she’d accomplished. A month after returning to tennis, she was the U.S. Open champion. As the crowd celebrated her achievement, a weeping Clijsters climbed up to the stands to hug her husband. Where a day earlier we’d seen venom and vitriol, we were now witnessing a joyous family reunion.

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Like She’s Never Been Away September 06, 2009 - 10:47 PM

5d4d32bf15c5fb603998662e696fd674-getty-83372621bg217_us_open_day_7 She’s not returning from debilitating injury like Taylor Dent, who spent nine months in a full-body cast after spinal fusion surgery and worried he might never again move without pain, let alone return to professional tennis. Nor is she a hero of the geriatric set like Jimmy Connors, who turned 39 during his rousing run to the U.S. Open semifinals in 1991. But Kim Clijsters’ comeback story is compelling in its own right, and on Sunday the Belgian’s stirring fourth-round victory over Venus Williams was celebrated by an appreciative Arthur Ashe crowd.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m married to an American now, but it’s very special,” Clijsters said afterwards of the support she has received this week in New York. “I’ve been away from home for a few months now already, [so it is] just nice when you come out on court and you have the people yelling for you.”

Now 26, Clijsters is in the quarterfinals of her first U.S. Open since 2005, when she won her first—and to date, only—Grand Slam singles title. A wrist injury prevented her from defending her title in 2006, but she says it was shifting priorities as much as physical ailments that led to her abrupt retirement in May 2007.

“I was kind of just a little bit tired of it,” she said Sunday of her decision two-and-a-half years ago to quit tennis. “I had other things in my mind that I wanted to achieve as a woman and as a person, [and] that made me not be so disciplined anymore in my tennis career.”

Clijsters married New Jersey native (and former Villanova basketball player) Brian Lynch two months after announcing her retirement; the couple welcomed a daughter, Jada, in February 2008. Nearly a year later, in January 2009, Clijsters’ father, Lei, a former pro soccer player, died of lung cancer at age 52. It wasn’t until a few months later, when she started preparing for an exhibition match at Wimbledon, that Clijsters began contemplating a return to the Tour. She asked Lindsay Davenport, the three-time major champion who herself had enjoyed a brief but successful return to tennis after giving birth to her first child, what mixing motherhood and a pro sports career might entail.

“Without her telling me, ‘I’m definitely coming back,’ you could tell by her mindset that she knew she was going to play,” Davenport said last spring when I asked her about the discussions she’d had with Clijsters. “Her concern was being able to have enough time with her daughter. She doesn’t want to do this job without her husband and her daughter being able to travel with her all the time.”

With Lynch and their now 18-month-old daughter in tow, Clijsters returned to the ranks last month and posted solid showings at her two pre-Open tournaments, Cincinnati and Toronto. Still without a ranking, she got a wild card into the 128-woman draw here, and now, in just her third event back, finds herself among the last eight women standing at the U.S. Open.

Her 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 win over Venus wasn’t a masterpiece—“we never were really playing our best tennis at the same time until the third set”—but Clijsters’ trademark quickness, athleticism, lethal forehand and dogged defense were in full effect Sunday. Also in evidence: the familiar propensity to rush—and make errors—when the pressure is highest. Before her retirement, Clijsters was notorious for crumbling in big moments or failing to close out close matches. She lost four Grand Slam finals before finally winning the Open in 2005; that victory came more than two years after she first achieved the world No. 1 ranking (a fact that the hapless and Slam-less Dinara Safina might find encouraging).

Whatever new perspective parenthood might have brought her off the court, it didn’t prevent her from visibly tightening up against Venus in the third set today. Serving for the match at 5-4, she made two unforced errors to go down 0-30 quickly; it’s like she’s never been away, I thought to myself, bracing for a classic Clijsters implosion. But facing double break point at 15-40, she reeled off four straight points, including a final emphatic service winner, to put Venus away.

 “I felt really nervous out there today,” she said afterwards. “It was kind of the first time I was in a big stadium like that, in a situation like that again, so I think it's pretty normal that you just go through those emotions all over. But I handled it well. I was glad to not let it go to 5 all and start all over in that third set.”

She may still be susceptible to getting tight in big moments, but Clijsters’ ability to summon her nerve today against Venus, a seven-time major champion, bodes well for her competitive comeback. But regardless of her result here, Clijsters knows she left the game—and then returned—on her own terms.

It wasn’t age or injury or adversity that forced her out of tennis in 2007, but a desire to have a family. Today, while her daughter toddled around the childcare center beneath Arthur Ashe stadium, Clijsters went out on that court and beat the No. 3 player in the world. It’s not a common comeback story, but it’s a good one.

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Notebook: The Joy of Six September 04, 2009 - 10:44 PM

C582a8a124c7c294d8826d57e7eac219-getty-83372630mh081_us_open_day_3 I’ve been attending the U.S. Open regularly since 1994, the year I arrived in New York City to start college. No longer living under my mother’s roof, and making my own decisions for the first time in my life, I thought it would be prudent to skip some freshman orientation activities (and, I admit, a couple of classes) in favor of a trek or two out to Flushing on the 7 train. I’d have four years to get acquainted with my classmates, I reasoned, but only two weeks to catch live Grand Slam tennis. 

Within minutes of stepping onto the grounds the first day, I was enamored; I’d never experienced anything like the U.S. Open before. A few weeks earlier I’d been in the thriving cosmopolitan metropolis that is Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to watch the Red Sox’ Triple A team; now I was taking in a global sporting event, colored with a healthy dose of New York ’tude and staged in the sophisticated city that was my new home. I was hooked.

In the ensuing 15 years, I’ve made it to the Open more than I’ve missed it, though this is my first time covering the event as a member of the written (or electronic) press. (I worked on the television side, for USA Network, the last couple of years.) On Monday, I marked the occasion of another Open’s Opening Day with a Fulton’s Seafood cold Maine lobster roll, which was only slightly more expensive than that first year of university tuition. Since Monday, my TENNIS.com editing duties have preempted me from serving as daily scribe, as I did at the first two majors of the year. But I will occasionally be contributing posts from this tournament. For now, a few notes:

Going Streaking
The tournament most closely associated with Roger Federer’s career is Wimbledon. The All-England Club was, after all, the site of his first major victory, in 2003, and his record-breaking 15th major, in July, as well as his loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2008 final—arguably the greatest match ever played. But Flushing Meadows has been the stage for some of Federer’s most brilliant performances (his genius was on particular display when he beat Lleyton Hewitt, 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0, in the 2004 final), and he has the chance to make more history here next weekend. Federer could become the first man in Open Era history to win the same Grand Slam event six consecutive times.

As it stands now, Federer’s U.S. Open winning streak his astounding. Including his second-round victory here on Wednesday night, he’s won 37 consecutive matches, a run that dates back to his fourth-round loss to David Nalbandian in 2003. The last time Federer was beaten at the U.S. Open, Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator contemplating a run…for U.S. Senate.

A sixth straight title would break the record that Bjorn Borg set in winning Wimbledon from 1976-80, and which Federer matched at Wimbledon from 2003-07. With a win, he would tie nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova, who won six straight Venus Rosewater dishes from 1982-87. It seems that every time Federer plays a major, there is a record at stake, but what he’s already accomplished this summer at the French and Wimbledon shouldn’t dilute the significance of a sixth consecutive U.S. Open title, should he achieve it.

Tempering Expectations
This afternoon I headed to Grandstand to catch the third set of the third-round match between the eighth-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus (and lately, of Arizona) and Francesca Schiavone, the No. 26 seed from Italy. Azarenka has had a breakthrough season, highlighted by a straight-sets defeat of Serena Williams in the Miami final in March, and the 20-year-old was a popular pick to make it deep into the second week here.

But much to the chagrin of Azarenka, Schiavone played at a high level today, pulling out a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory with attacking tennis and perhaps a bit of gamesmanship—she took an injury timeout when she was up a break in the final set. “She is, I think, one of the best players in the world, so for me it’s great that I beat her and how I beat her,” Schiavone effused afterwards. “I was trying to hit long and sometimes to open the angle and be aggressive.”

Azarenka, who sported bright yellow fingernail polish to match her fluorescent top and headband, was clearly distraught afterwards. She had made the quarterfinals of Roland Garros and Wimbledon earlier this season; this was not a player who expected to be bowing out in the third round. After double-faulting on match point—her sixth double on the day—Azarenka smashed her racquet in a fiery display of frustration. She then trudged to the net to administer the customary post-match kiss-on-each-cheek to her vanquisher. Never before had I seen a person meekly offer this graceful social gesture a mere 15 seconds after throwing a temper tantrum.

Azarenka has the powerful game and the physique to merit her Next Big Thing label, but one has to wonder, as my colleague Steve Tignor posited today, whether the intensity she displays during matches may ultimately prove to be a liability. There’s such a thing as wanting something too badly.

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Notebook: Roddick, Safina and adieu May 30, 2009 - 6:00 PM

Saturday in Paris brought brilliant sunshine, a cloudless sky and temperatures in the low 70s—the kind of dazzling day that makes it particularly difficult to depart this idyllic place. But alas, tomorrow I make my retreat back across the Atlantic and return to my (mostly) pastry-free existence; my exit from this tournament, like Elena Dementieva’s, feels premature to me. Happily for our loyal readership, I’m being spelled by longtime TENNIS senior editor Peter Bodo, an accomplished tennis writer and, I suspect, a proficient consumer of croissant and chouquette himself. Pete will be offering courtside observations, analysis and prognostications daily on TENNIS.com.

So tomorrow I go back to a life where French is rarely spoken (“LeBron” doesn’t count, does it?) and where tennis is mostly consumed on television from the couch. Before my departure, a few final notes:

Roddick’s dream draw

AndyRoddick With a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Marc Gicquel today, the sixth-seeded Andy Roddick advanced to the fourth round for the first time in eight French Open appearances. It was an impressive performance from Roddick, who said afterwards that he feels he is starting to move better on clay: “I’m able to kind of slide into my forehand.” Roddick’s run this week is laudable, considering his dismal recent record at Roland Garros: Barack Obama was five months into his U.S. Senate term the last time Roddick won a match here, in May 2005.

But it’s worth noting that the trimmed-down Roddick has had a cakewalk to the tournament’s second week. Coming into this event, his first two opponents—French wildcard Romain Jouan and Ivo Minar of the Czech Republic—had won a combined two matches in ATP Tour main draws this year. His opponent today, the Tunisia-born Frenchman, is a Top 50 player, but hardly a threat to a fit and focused Roddick on any surface. Roddick belongs in the fourth round given the quality of the competition he’s faced so far.

It gets significantly harder on Monday, when Roddick takes on French favorite Gael Monfils, the No. 11 seed and a semifinalist here last year. Monfils’ knee injury has not hampered him thus far in the tournament, and Roddick conceded that clay is the last surface on which he’d want to face the Frenchman. Nonetheless, Roddick said he has a “puncher’s chance” to record another win here. “I can hold serve on any surface,” he said. “If I can get into the tight points I like my experience level, and I've dealt with these situations for a long time.”
 
Russians take different routes to Sweet 16

Dinara Safina has been playing at a level that befits her No. 1 ranking. The 2008 French Open and 2009 Australian Open finalist has charged through her first three matches, losing a total of only four games so far and looking like a world-beater. The average length of her first three matches is a tidy one hour and one minute.

Meanwhile, Safina’s compatriot, the unseeded Maria Sharapova, has impressed in a different way. Returning to Grand Slam play for the first time in nearly 11 months, Sharapova has fought her way to three gritty three-set victories. The average time on court for Sharapova and her surgically-repaired shoulder: two hours, 13 minutes, well more than twice Safina’s average. Winning two more matches on her weakest surface is a tall order for the three-time major champion, but Sharapova could meet the much-fresher Safina in the semifinals.

Setting it straight

With his third-round cruise-control victory over Lleyton Hewitt Friday, four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal improved his Roland Garros record to an unblemished (and unfathomable) 31-0; he owns the record for consecutive victories here. Even more staggering is his sets record: 92-7. (He has won 92 total sets in 31 matches, not 93, because Novak Djokovic retired from their 2006 quarterfinal when down two sets.) Nadal lost just three sets during his victorious debut run in 2005, three more in 2006, and one—in the final against Roger Federer—in 2007. He has since played 10 consecutive French Open matches without dropping a set.

Another Disappointment for Dementieva

It was apt that Australia’s Samantha Stosur was the one to upset No. 4 Elena Dementieva today given that another Aussie, Jelena Dokic, had Dementieva on the ropes in the second round. On Thursday, Dokic won the first set from Dementieva, 6-2, but injured her lower back during the second set and had to retire. (Dementieva said after that match that she didn’t think she would have won if Dokic hadn’t gotten hurt.) Today Dokic’s Fed Cup teammate, the 30th-seeded Stosur, defeated a listless looking Dementieva, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1, and advanced to the fourth round of the French for the first time.

After Nadia Petrova’s second-round loss here a few days ago, I wrote a piece about a trio of talented but underperforming Russian players—Dementieva, Petrova and Vera Zvonareva. (A few of the blog commenters pointed out that I had wrongly omitted Svetlana Kuznetsova, a player who won the 2004 U.S. Open but should have won more than just that one major.) Dementieva’s early exit—which she blamed, somewhat cryptically, on poor fitness—represents another missed opportunity in a career that has been long on excruciating near-misses and can’t-bear-to-watch collapses. Dementieva has made two major finals and five other major semifinals, but has yet to win a Grand Slam title. Asked where today’s loss ranks among her career disappointments at Roland Garros, the 2004 French Open finalist said simply, “I had so many.”

Flying flu-free

On the flight to Paris last week, my fellow passengers and I were asked to provide our contact information so the airline could inform us if anyone on the plane subsequently tested positive for swine flu. Mercifully, I haven’t heard a peep from Air France all week. Though la grippe porcine sounds better in French than its English-language equivalent, it is nevertheless an affliction I’d prefer to avoid.

A much more agreeable disorder is “Risotto-mania,” as one of the stations at Roland Garros’ outdoor dining area is called. I managed to keep my risotto-mania mostly in check this week, but I did succumb, blissfully, to the appeal of French cuisine—from pastries and breads and steaks and noix St. Jacques and fish and cheese and impossibly sweet fresh raspberries and strawberries—and of course superb French wine. After eight days of indulgence and excess and fabulous tennis, I head back to the States thinking there can’t be many better assignments than covering the French Open. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the second week.

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