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Szavay breaks open women's draw May 29, 2009 - 5:18 PM

Szavay Agnes Szavay, the Hungarian who took out third-seeded Venus Williams 6-0, 6-4 today, managed to keep her concentration through most of the one-sided one hour and 21-minute contest.

“Then I started to think, oh my God, I have match point against Venus,” a beaming Szavay recalled afterwards. “But suddenly the point was over, and I had won.”

The gregarious 20-year-old had played well on the clay earlier this month, defeating Victoria Azarenka to reach the quarterfinals in Madrid. Last week an illness forced Szavay to limit her practice time to 45 minutes per day, and she looked shaky in her opening-round win Monday. But by Wednesday, the power baseliner was back in full flight, overwhelming the Russian Elena Vesnina, 6-2, 6-0. Less than forty-eight hours after that, she had completed “maybe the biggest” win of her career in ousting the seven-time major champion.

Williams’ early exit isn’t particularly surprising; she has now lost in the third round at four of the last five French Opens. Lamenting that she couldn’t find the court in the first set, a subdued Venus was not altogether gracious in her post-match assessment of what had transpired on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

“She played really well, but I definitely have to attribute that loss to me not being able to execute what I wanted to on the court,” she said.

Szavay may have been lucky to catch Venus on an off day, but the No. 29 seed clearly has the game to hang with Top 10 players. She made an auspicious Grand Slam debut at the 2007 U.S. Open, upsetting No. 7 seed Nadia Petrova during her run to the quarterfinals. Last April her ranking reached a career-high No. 13, but she struggled on the summer and autumn hard-court circuit.

“I was really down mentally and just couldn't play my game,” she explained. “I was always so tight on the court and wanted to win so much. It was like too much expectations from the media and from other people. I think I couldn't handle it.”

After a disappointing first-round exit from this year’s Australian Open, Szavay split with her coach, Zoltan Kuharsky, and she has been on her own since then.

“I wanted to have few months alone, because all my life I had coaches with me for 24 hours [a day],” she said. Playing with more confidence and more joy this spring, she now finds herself in the Roland Garros round of 16.

On Sunday, she will face the 20th-seeded Slovak Dominika Cibulkova in a battle of Eastern European 20-year-olds. Szavay has beaten Cibulkova in all three of their meetings in the senior ranks, but the two have not played since 2007.

Szavay’s victory today means that one of the semifinalists here will have a seeding no higher than No. 20. The other two remaining players in that quarter of the draw: No. 25 seed Li Na and Maria Sharapova.

And if Szavay were to be that semifinalist, she could face friend and frequent hitting partner Dinara Safina, with whom she practiced yesterday.

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Notebook: Maternity to Retirement May 28, 2009 - 5:12 PM

88030014 When is Mirka’s ‘break point’?

Five-time Wimbledon champ Roger Federer is “very excited” about the impending arrival of his own little grasshopper, though he’s still vague on how the baby’s birth will affect his upcoming playing schedule, if at all. Federer married his longtime girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec in April, about a month after he announced she was expecting their first child, but has declined to be more specific about the baby’s due date, saying only that it will arrive sometime this summer.

The expectant Mirka has been in the stands for both of Federer’s matches so far this tournament, clutching her omnipresent Blackberry. “I prefer if she’s here,” the world No. 2 said on Monday. “If I see she’s okay—like today, she was feeling good—it’s simpler for me.”

Federer said that his wife hopes to be able to travel with him as much as possible this summer, though it doesn’t sound like he is planning on being up for 3 a.m. feedings the night before the U.S. Open semifinals.

“I think for my tennis life, it's just going to make it more exciting, trying to find the best ways to balance both things,” he said today. “I know from my side I'll be as professional as ever, you know, even when the baby is there.”

Henin is no Brett Favre (or Kim Clijsters)

Justine Henin squashed rumors of any possible comeback this afternoon, saying unequivocally that she has moved on from a tennis career that saw her win seven Grand Slam singles titles.

“It's been a year already [since] I stopped tennis, and I'm in the new life,” said the four-time Roland Garros champion. “It’s part of me forever, and this love story between the French Open and me keeps going on. … It brought me a lot of good things in my life.”

Henin was at Roland Garros for the naming of a street as "Justine Henin Alley." But though she said it was gratifying to return to the site of her biggest triumphs in tennis, including her first Grand Slam title in 2003, she was adamant that she has no regrets about her abrupt retirement last spring.

“I gave everything I could to my sport for 20 years, so I don't necessarily need to make a break,” Henin said. “I need to have new challenges. I need to prove things to myself—really basic things. I don't want to become an ordinary young woman, but I want to be back to a normal life, because, you know, living on the tour with all the traveling around the globe, that's not reality.”

Looking blonder and a bit softer than she did in her days on tour, Henin said she picked up a racquet only three or four times last year and had knee surgery in October. This spring, in anticipation of some upcoming exhibitions, she’s gone back to the gym to work on her fitness. “That's a good feeling, because I missed, you know, pushing my limits physically,” Henin said.

There’s no indication that she’ll be tempted to return to competitive tennis, however. While her compatriot Kim Clijsters plans to rejoin the WTA Tour this summer, Henin insists her own retirement is permanent.

“I think not everyone can make this step, and maybe [they] want to be back because they don't know what to do,” she said. “You have to discover who you are and to build another life.”

Picking Jo-Willy at the All-England?

Tsonga The adoring French spectators aren’t the only ones enjoying the unique brand of tennis exhibited by the acrobatic and charistmatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Argentine Juan Monaco in four sets today and then rejoiced by going for a Guga-esque celebratory sprawl on the clay of Court Suzanne Lenglen. Christopher Clarey, the esteemed sports writer for the International Herald Tribune (and a contributing editor at TENNIS magazine), says he likes Tsonga’s chances at Wimbledon this year.

The 24-year-old Frenchman, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 6 in January, has won two hard-court titles this season. A finalist at the 2008 Australian Open, Tsonga lost in the first round in his only previous appearance at Roland Garros, in 2005. He’ll face Belgium’s Christophe Rochus in the third round and could meet No. 4 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.

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Another near miss for Petrova May 27, 2009 - 10:49 PM

Petrova The return of three-time major champion Maria Sharapova, who has produced two gritty three-set victories here, is the most compelling story of the tournament so far—and a positive development for women’s tennis. One need not be a fan of Maria’s game or of the Maria Empire to have been impressed by her performance Wednesday against the 11th-ranked Nadia Petrova, a quality player and a formidable opponent for Sharapova, particularly on her weakest surface. Ever the fighter, Sharapova twice came back from a break down in the deciding set, and ultimately prevailed, 6-2, 1-6, 8-6 in a two-hour, 12-minute second-round slugfest. While the prognosis for her surgically-repaired shoulder is uncertain, it’s clear that Sharapova’s competitive resolve is still intact.

Nevertheless, I’m more intrigued by the long-maligned Petrova. She’s not a glamazon like the blond and statuesque Sharapova, a 6-foot-2 fashionista who is ubiquitous in television commercials and magazines, even when she hasn’t played tennis for months. The 5-foot-10 Petrova is pudgier, darker and a bit gawky, but has a tenacity that makes her an appealing character in her own right. She has a tendency to break down in the crucial moments, and when she does, she reveals through her comportment how frustrated she is by her own fallibility. Today, while the elegant Sharapova stalked and preened, smoothing down wisps of hair in between every point, an agitated Petrova prowled along the baseline, gesturing and grimacing with each ill-timed unforced error.

There were plenty of opportunities for self-flagellation. Petrova broke Sharapova to open the deciding set but was broken back immediately. She broke again when Sharapova was serving at 2-2, and this time consolidated the break to take a 4-2 lead. In the next game, with Sharapova serving at 15-40, Petrova had two chances to go up a double break and effectively put away the match. But Sharapova, suddenly serving better, won eight of the next 10 points, holding serve and then immediately breaking Petrova to even the match at four games all. They stayed on serve for the next five games, but the Southern Californian had seized momentum, while Petrova had tightened up. The outcome was inevitable, and Sharapova broke in the 14th game to take the match.

Afterwards, a clearly shattered Petrova managed gracious words for her opponent. “She really showed, even though she has been out for a while, that she’s willing to compete until the end,” the 26-year-old said. “I'm disappointed with me, because I just didn't finish it off when I had everything in my hands.”

It’s not the first time Petrova let victory slip out of her nervous grasp. She has now lost to Sharapova at all four majors, most memorably in a three-set quarterfinal battle at the 2005 U.S. Open. A strong athlete with an excellent serve and a big forehand, Petrova has reached at least the quarterfinals of all four Grand Slam events, and twice been a semifinalist here at Roland Garros. But her nerve, more than her game, has routinely let her down in the most important matches, and prevented her from achieving her stated goal of winning a major.

Petrova has had a rough year, contracting viral meningitis training in Argentina in the off-season and then struggling with a foot injury earlier in the spring. But though her fitness is not yet back to where she wants it to be, her undoing today was an opponent who was stronger mentally, not physically.

“She served well at those important points,” Petrova said of Sharapova’s performance in the third set. “She put me in a difficult situation right away. Maybe I started thinking a little bit ahead all the time instead of staying in the present and focusing on each point.”

Petrova is hardly the first WTA Tour player whose career has been defined by near-misses; in fact, the game’s top tier is choked with chokers. With five of the Top 10 players in the 2008 year-end rankings, Russia is the deepest nation in women’s tennis, but it’s also home to some of the most notorious big-match underperformers. There’s world No. 4 Elena Dementieva, whom I’ve argued is the Sergio Garcia of women’s tennis—the best active player never to have won a major. Dementieva has made it to two major finals and five other major semifinals, but has never won a Grand Slam title. Honorable mention in the Russian head-case department goes to No. 6 Vera Zvonareva, a player with the talent to beat anyone but a propensity for meltdowns in pressure situations.

These women aren’t underachievers; that word implies a level of laziness or disengagement. If anything, Petrova and Dementieva and Zvonareva are too engaged, too invested, and at some point, that will to win becomes a liability. The older one gets and the more desperately one wants something, the harder it is to obtain (a phenomenon that U.S. celebrity gossip rags would refer to as the Jennifer Aniston syndrome). Petrova, Dementieva and Zvonareva have been experiencing la douleur exquise for years—with the elusive Grand Slam title the object of their mutual affection.

As it has several times in the past, Petrova’s desire to win manifested itself in a negative way today: when she was closest to victory, she seized up and played worse. It’s an unfortunate but not uncommon pattern she knows she must break if she is to succeed at the highest level.

“Not going for it, not taking my chances—that’s what I have to change if I want to become a better player, if I want to go up again and win the tournaments and the titles,” she said. “What I want is the Grand Slam. I just have to go for my shots without any doubts.”

It’s a reasonable if ambitious plan for her future majors. In the meantime, Petrova is fully aware of the opportunity she squandered against Sharapova today.

“I had it,” she said, ruefully. “But I didn’t take it.”

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Good draw for soccer-mad Murray May 27, 2009 - 1:24 PM

Am The draw is unfolding nicely here for Andy Murray, at least as far as his TV sports consumption is concerned. The third-ranked Scotsman is through to the third round after coming back from two breaks down in the third set to defeat Italian Potito Starace, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4. Murray’s match, the first of the day on Chatrier, was over before 2 p.m., and he won’t play his third-rounder against Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic until Friday. That means Murray will be quite at his leisure tonight to watch the Champions League final, Wednesday's most significant sporting event on the planet (with my Red Sox @ Twins, featuring the ever-compelling Daisuke Matsuzaka-Kevin Slowey matchup, a close second, obviously).

“I don’t know where I’ll be watching, but I’ll definitely, definitely be sitting and enjoying,” said Murray, a longtime fan of “Hibs,” as Hibernian Football Club in Edinburgh is known.

Murray, who played football as a boy before deciding at age 12 to focus exclusively on tennis, said that he’s conflicted about which side to support tonight. He went to several Barcelona matches while attending a tennis academy there as a teenager, so has a history of rooting for Barca. At the same time, the fact that Manchester United is managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, a fellow Scotsman, shifts Murray’s allegiances towards the British club.

He was much less ambivalent this afternoon when an Italian journalist referenced a match Murray played in April against Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo.

“Against Fognini, you were down 5-1 [in the first set], and then you won,” the writer began.

“Five-love,” Murray corrected him.

“Four-love, 5-1…”

“I think it was 5-love,” the polite but adamant Murray insisted.

(For the record, it was 5-love.)

Murray was more forgiving of Starace, a former Top 30 player and a quality clay-courter whose drop-shots kept the Scot off-balance for the second set and much of the third.

“I was struggling a bit with my movement, and he exploited that. He hit a lot [of drop-shots] and hardly missed any. … He definitely hit it well.”

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Courier a rare U.S. star in Paris May 26, 2009 - 6:03 PM

Courier It has been an underwhelming showing for the Americans so far at this tournament. The nine U.S. men in the singles draw went 2-7 in the first round, with James Blake a straight-sets loser to a qualifier tonight. And of the eight Americans in the women’s draw—an Open Era record low, my colleague Douglas Robson notes—only four are through to the round of 64.

The fourth of those U.S. women’s victories came this afternoon on Court Suzanne Lenglen, where Serena Williams needed three sets and nine match points to put away Klara (Koukalova) Zakopalova of the Czech Republic. Williams, the 2002 French Open champion, grunted and exhorted and fist-pumped her way through the two hour, 25-minute struggle before prevailing over an opponent who is seemingly half her size and has none of her competitive credentials. The crafty 27-year-old Zakopalova, who is married to Czech soccer pro Jan Zakopal, is listed at a wispy 5-foot-5 and 110 pounds, but she was able to hang with Serena throughout a stirring second set before yielding in the third.

It was a surprisingly tough first-round test for Williams, given that her career has been the mirror opposite of Zakopalova’s. A 10-time major champion, Serena had never lost in the first round in 37 previous Grand Slam event appearances. And she had only once lost as early as the second round, in her first Slam—the Australian Open in 1998, when she was 16. But while Serena has been collecting major titles for a decade, Zakopalova’s record reflects years of absolute futility: She has now lost in the first round at 18 of the 24 Grand Slams she has played, and has made it as far as the third round only once.

The fact that the No. 100 player in the world gave Serena such trouble today does not bode well for the American’s chances here, though she does tend to raise her level in the second week of majors. Seven years removed from her lone French Open title, Serena is six long matches away from a second Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. She's a formidable competitor, but it's a tall order given that clay is her weakest surface and the French crowd tends to support the underdog ("They don't really pull for me a lot here," she said afterwards).

If Serena wins, she’ll have achieved what only one other American—male or female—in the past 20 years has done: claim multiple French Open titles. Jim Courier, the 1991 and 1992 Roland Garros champ, is the only Yank to have pulled off that coup since Chris Evert won her seventh title in 1986. Courier was a ninth-seeded 20-year-old when he upset Andre Agassi in a five-set final here in 1991. The next year Courier won the Australian Open, ascended to No. 1 in the world and successfully defended his title at Roland Garros, beating Agassi in straight sets in the semis and Petr Korda, also in straights, in the final. (Courier then charmed the French crowd on Court Chatrier by delivering his victory speech in credible French.)

His results at Roland Garros are particularly impressive considering how rarely U.S. players have been crowned champions here. On the men’s side, Michael Chang (1989) and Agassi (1999) are the only other Americans to win in the Open Era; Jennifer Capriati (2001) and Serena (2002) are the only female American champions since Evert.

These days the Florida-based Courier does a lot of television commentary, displaying an on-camera ease and a facility for language that belies the fact that he spent most of his formative years on the tennis court and not in the classroom. He’s also active with the champions’ tour.

Last week I lobbed the four-time Grand Slam singles champ some questions about his French Open career via e-mail. (I worked with him at the 2007 and 2008 U.S. Opens, where he was an analyst for USA Network and I was a TV writer.) Here are his responses:

We’re approaching the 18th anniversary of your first Grand Slam win. What are your memories of that two-week run, and in particular the five-set final over Agassi? Was that the defining win of your career?
Jim Courier:
I came in ready mentally to go deep in Paris in 1991, but unsure whether I was capable of actually going the distance mentally. I knew physically and tennis-wise I was ready but crossing over to a Grand Slam win was a new endeavor. The final had a lot of twists and turns and ultimately I remember the ace on match point and the mayhem that followed. Good times.

In 1992, you impressed the Roland Garros crowd by giving your victory speech en francais. Where did you learn to speak the language that well? How’s your French these days?
After winning in '91 I committed to being able to address the crowd in their language if I could ever win again. I bought a book, studied furiously for six months and then started talking to the French speaking players in the locker room to practice. It paid off the next year.

What’s the best way to remove clay stains? 
Throw the clothes away and buy new as once the clay is on there, it's on there.

You won four Grand Slam singles titles. What do you see as your place in the history of the game? 
It's not for me to say what my place in the game is other than as someone who is proud to have been able to play it professionally for 21 years so far and is continuing to try to contribute to the sport as best I can in a few different ways.

Who was the toughest opponent you ever faced? 
Besides fatigue I would say Pete.

What’s your biggest regret? 
This question is always a head-scratcher for me...wait, that's it; I regret having no regrets.

If you were to play one set, on clay, against Roddick tomorrow, how many games would you win? 
No way to know and no point in speculating. If I were forced to play, I'd be hoping not to get hit by his serve.

Who will win the men’s and women’s singles tourneys at Roland Garros this year?
That's why we watch...I'd hate to ruin the fun before we even get started but people can check me out on twitter during the tournament and I may make a prediction here or there. They can even ask a question, like you are doing, and I may get around to answering. I may throw a blog on the Champions Series website for fun during the tournament too. I will be watching on TV for sure. Is that multi-media enough?

Who do you think has a better chance at taking down Nadal – Djokovic or Federer? 
Refer to above on predictions.

If Federer and Nadal make it back to the final, do you see a shellacking similar to last year’s? Or do you think it would be more competitive, as in 2006 and 2007? 
Roger is no longer suffering from mono as far as I can tell, so my guess is that he would play better this year than last if they were to reach the finals. (I missed last year's match as I was traveling.)

Who’ll be the next American man to win the French? Is it someone we’ve heard of? 
I'm hoping some of the U.S. guys can make some noise this year. That would be nice for them and for those U.S. tennis fans who feel the need to have local representation.

Any changes you think the ATP Tour should make to increase its relevance, particularly to an American audience? Do you agree that the current schedule is too demanding?
Scheduling is a major issue in general that seems especially difficult to alter in any meaningful way. I think a change that would have a positive domino effect on the schedule would be adjusting Davis/Fed Cup to a more sensible two-week annual (or perhaps semi-annual) event held in one location, à la the World Cup of soccer. This would also create another event with Slam-like media coverage/fan interest while freeing up weeks on the calendar to be used to shorten the season, which most everyone agrees is currently too long. Not a new or unique view, but one that has yet to gain traction at the highest level.

Do you have an opinion on the “greatest of all time” debate? Laver? Sampras? Federer? Nadal? 
They're all fantastic and it's fun to discuss their careers but this is just a fun waste of time. Head- to-head records against the best players in your era is an underused criteria that I initiate into this discussion when I can. Seems like the Slam total is the one most point to but Laver missed so many Slams in his prime as did so many other great champions due to the pro-amateur situation before Open tennis. Time at No. 1 in the Open era is another good one to throw in. Career longevity, nauseum. Happy debating.

What sport, besides tennis, do you follow most closely, and who’s “your” team?  College football.
University of Florida (my parents’ alma mater).

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Wise words from Maria and Marion May 25, 2009 - 5:08 PM

Federer Day two at Roland Garros featured some former champions and some champion talkers:

First names in the first round

Following Dinara Safina’s merciless obliteration of Great Britain’s Anne Keothavong, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer opened their 2009 French Open campaigns in successive matches on Court Philippe Chatrier. Nadal and Federer, who met in the final here each of the past three years, took four hours and six minutes total to defeat two opponents with a combined four “first” names and five main-draw ATP Tour wins this season. Nadal needed two hours, 23 minutes to defeat Brazil’s Marcos Daniel, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. Federer dispensed with Spaniard Alberto Martin, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, in a tidy one hour, 43 minutes.

Multilingual Federer in high spirits

Following the victory, Federer was in a jovial mood—a far cry (no pun intended) from the tense atmosphere of his painful post-final presser at the Australian Open, where I had most recently seen him. At the media session after today’s match, the moderator attempted to move immediately to French questions when no English-speaking journalists jumped for the microphone.

“Come on, you’ve got to take that chance when you have it,” a buoyant Federer mock-scolded the assembled Anglophones. “It’s like break chances; you can’t miss them when they come along.”

Federer’s proficiency in foreign languages—he switches from English to French to his native Swiss German as smoothly as he hits his groundstrokes—never fails to impress me. Today he hesitated in English for, oh, a quarter of a second before he came up with the word “limelight” (while describing how he enjoys attention from the media). Then he joked in French about opening his tournament on the middle day of a three-day first round: “I asked for Sunday, but Monday and Tuesday would have been okay. Wednesday, as well. Well, we can go through the whole week if you want to.” For all I know, Federer was at his wittiest in the Swiss German portion of the press conference, but alas, I can’t report on that part.

Self-aware Sharapova discusses comeback

Playing her first Grand Slam tournament match in 11 months following shoulder surgery, Maria Sharapova battled to defeat Anastasiya Yakimova, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, in her fourth singles match of the season. Sharapova, who has had to adjust her service motion in the wake of the injury, recorded five double-faults and was broken three times in the brutal first set, but then raised her level while her Belarusian opponent, who called for a trainer during the second set, apparently struggled with a lower back injury.

Afterwards Sharapova, who has won every major except the French Open, spoke poignantly about how, during her discouragingly long layoff, she grew to appreciate the privileges that her athletic gifts have earned her in life. “Just the opportunities that you've had, that you've gained in life from your tennis career,” she said. “Tennis…drives everything, drives myself, drives my business, drives everything that I do.”

It was an insightful appraisal from the candid and eloquent 22-year-old. In describing her psychological struggles over the past year, Sharapova joked that she would have retired to an island—“with a nice cold pina colada”—if she weren’t by nature a competitor, determined to make it back to the domain where she forged her reputation as a champion.

“I love being here, and there's no better feeling than waving to the crowd after you've won,” said the former world No. 1. “There's no better feeling than going on court when they call your name, and there’s a job in front of you.”

‘Stressed’ Bartoli struggles to find the court (but not the words)

The fourth and final match on Chatrier featured 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli against her fellow Frenchwoman Pauline Parmentier. Bartoli, a stocky 24-year-old who hits two-handed off of both sides, is feisty, streaky and flakier than the pain au chocolat I had for breakfast this morning.

Bartoli She is seeded No. 13 here, but struggled mightily tonight against the 77th-ranked Parmentier. Bartoli committed 37 errors and roughly as many fist pumps during her 3-6, 6-1, 6-3 grind-out win. Afterwards she said that a poor warm-up had portended her slow start in the match.

“I guess I played the worst first set in my whole life. I couldn't feel anything,” she said in fluent English. “[In] the warmup, I couldn't put two balls on the other side of the court. I was so stressed. I didn't know how to grip the racquet anymore. It's like I didn't play tennis for two months.”

But she recovered from the nervousness (a result, she said, of playing in front of the French crowd) and advanced to the second round, where she’ll face unseeded Italian Tathiana Garbin. It’s impossible to predict how far Bartoli can go here, given that clay is her weakest surface. Her best Roland Garros result was a fourth-round showing in 2007, but her performance at this year’s Australian Open is more indicative of how dramatically her level of play fluctuates. In Melbourne, she took out then world No. 1 and top seed Jelena Jankovic in straight sets in the fourth round; two days later, she won only three games against Vera Zvonareva in the quarters.

Engaging and expressive, Bartoli is completely unapologetic about her unorthodox approach to tennis and her confounding inconsistency. “When I lost in Australia, it was against Vera Zvonareva, and she's not No. 200 in the world,” she said. “It's the same in golf or some sports like that. It's very difficult to come out on the court and play your best every single day.

“Maybe somebody like Nadal can do it, but otherwise, even Federer sometimes is having some down day. The thing is, you have to find a way to win and try the next day to play better. That's the only way.”

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Veterans' day: Hewitt and Safin May 24, 2009 - 3:49 PM

Lw Opening day at Roland Garros 2009 saw a pair of ATP Tour veterans, each with two Grand Slam singles titles to his credit and each a former world No. 1, gut out first-round victories. Lleyton Hewitt, the 2001 U.S. Open champion and 2002 Wimbedon titlist, came back from a two-sets-to-love deficit to defeat Ivo Karlovic, 6-7 (1), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3 on Court 1; the 6-foot-10 Croat hit a Tour record 55 aces in the losing effort. Meanwhile, Marat Safin, winner of the 2000 U.S. Open and 2005 Australian Open, was disposing of Frenchman Alexandre Sidorenko, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 on Court Chatrier. Safin, whose victory in Flushing Meadows came, like Hewitt’s, at the expense of Pete Sampras in the final, said he didn’t play particularly well today (“I couldn’t feel the court, for some reason”), but that he was satisfied with the result.

Hewitt, whose tendency for juvenile on-court antics and general petulance once earned him the unfortunate moniker “Satan Hewitt,” has evolved into a mature and likeable character. Now 28 and a married father of two, he loves to compete—so much so that last August, suffering from a debilitating hip injury, he underwent season-ending surgery in an attempt to extend his career. He returned to the Tour this January in his native Australia, and his opening-round match in Melbourne, like today’s, went five sets, albeit with a different result (Fernando Gonzalez prevailed at the Australian Open, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3).

Today, in his second Grand Slam match of the season, when he found himself down two sets against a giant of an opponent whom he had never beaten before in three previous tries, Hewitt could have been forgiven for surrendering, particularly given the heat and the knowledge that Rafael Nadal lurks as his likely third-round opponent. Instead, Hewitt withstood Karlovic’s onslaught of aces and other “unreturnables,” and utilized his renowned fitness in digging out a victory in a midday match that lasted nearly four hours.

“Against a guy like [Karlovic], it's more a mental battle to come back from two sets after you lose the first two sets in breakers, have a few half-chances out there,” Hewitt said afterwards. “To hang in there and be prepared to go the distance—that’s what I'm proud of today.”

The grind-out victory must have been gratifying for the former No. 1, who has been practicing in Paris for a couple of weeks since being denied a wildcard entry into the Madrid Masters. Speaking earnestly about how his uncertain competition schedule makes it difficult to prepare for Slams, Hewitt came across as mature and exceedingly dedicated to his trade. It’s hard to believe that this businesslike, almost wonkish, professional once had the reputation for being a punk.

While the 50th-ranked Hewitt resolutely tries to work his way back to the game’s upper echelon, Safin seems to be at peace with the fact that his best days are behind him. A semifinalist here in 2002, Safin—who is playing his final season before retirement—does not pretend to expect to still be in the tournament late next week.

“Maybe I have a couple of more matches here,” he said when asked if here were aware during play that it may have been his last match on Chatrier. “I didn’t think so deep.”

The enormously talented Safin has seemed, maddeningly, disengaged for long stretches of his career, one that should have seen him win more than two major titles. But though he didn’t express regret over missed opportunities, the notorious fatalist did indulge the reporters who pressed him about the significance of his impending retirement.

“Everybody is the same at the age of 20. Everybody, first experience, first time, special feeling when you come into a big tournament,” he said. “But unfortunately, this feeling flies away with the years. … It goes away, and I envy the young kids.

“Some people tell me they watched me winning the U.S. Open when I was 10,” he went on, waxing nostalgic. “That makes me [feel] so old. I don't want to hear that. I'm just 29. It's not the end of the world, of course. When I see Cilic sitting there talking with him and some other guys, it feels a little bit weird. But I've been there, in the same position, talking to Sampras.”

And on that note, I’m wrapping up day one here and ready to head to out for some wine with fellow journalists. My colleague Steve Tignor asked me today whether the jaded press corps has been grumbling about the French Open’s recent switch to a Sunday start; it’s the only Grand Slam event that begins on a weekend. I can’t speak on behalf of my colleagues, but I’ve found it hard to be irked by anything here so far. Although I cultivate a steadfastly pessimistic attitude when I’m Stateside, it is difficult to be cynical when one is in Paris, covering Grand Slam tennis in the warm sunshine of late spring. The proverbial half-empty glass becomes half-full when it contains Burgundy.

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Waterworks: The Agony of Defeat February 01, 2009 - 12:01 PM


I had planned to post a roundup of profound or amusing athlete quotes (predominantly the latter) as my final Aussie Diary entry from Melbourne. But after tonight’s dramatic men’s final – and the emotional awards presentation that followed – it doesn’t seem appropriate to do so. So I’ll save those inanities for when I’ve returned Stateside.

In the meantime, I’ll offer just a few short thoughts on a match that was long on tension and significance. First, I’m surprised and impressed that Federer rebounded from his catastrophic third set to win the fourth. In that fateful (for Federer) third, the 13-time major champ had triple break point with Nadal serving at 4-4 and failed to break. In Nadal’s next service game, at 5-5, Federer had three more break points, and again failed to convert any of them.

After he lost the third-set tiebreaker, I would not have been shocked to see Federer go quietly in the fourth. But he recovered and was able to send the match to a deciding fifth set—a development that shouldn’t have surprised me, given that he’s proven himself to be a resilient competitor many times in the past.

The fifth set itself was a disappointment. Unlike the deciding set of the 2008 Wimbledon final, which was played at a ridiculously high level, tonight’s fifth set saw Federer struggle. He looked stooped, fatigued, broken. His serve, which had been a key weapon in his semifinal defeat of Andy Roddick, let him down against Nadal – particularly in the fifth. Serving at 2-5, Federer was broken for the seventh time to end the match. Championship point felt anticlimactic, and the atmosphere in the packed arena was oddly subdued. For all of Nadal’s brilliance, it was discomfiting to see Federer bowed.

Then came the trophy presentation and Federer’s emotional reaction. As the runner-up began to address the crowd, he was overwhelmed by tears, and had to retreat to the back of the podium in order to regain his composure. The emcee presented Nadal the winner’s trophy while Federer gathered himself. Then, in one of the most poignant moments of the night, Nadal went back to put his arm around Federer, his respected rival, to ask him if he were ready to speak.

Federer, still crying, returned to the microphone and gave some very gracious and brief remarks, thanking Nadal, the tennis dignataries (including Rod Laver himself) who were on hand for the occasion, and the crowd. His voice quavered particularly when he said the word “legends,” a reminder of how much the history of the game – and his place in it – matters to Federer.

We’re not used to seeing superstar male athletes weep (Paul Pierce’s outpouring at the Boston Celtics’ ring ceremony being one recent notable exception), but again, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Federer so affected by his loss. He’s not the stereotypical alpha male, by any means, and he’s been emotional in both victory and defeat before. Tonight, as he cried, I wondered what he was feeling. Crushing disappointment that he didn’t get to magic number 14? A fear that he might not ever tie or surpass Sampras’ record? Sadness that his days of playing otherworldly tennis in hard court majors (the 2004 U.S. Open final comes to mind) may be behind him, and that he has, for the time being at least, been eclipsed by Nadal? Intense relief that the tension of the past two weeks, and the past four-and-a-half hours, had finally broken?

None of those thoughts, it turns out, were on his mind. Federer said afterwards that his tears were merely his reaction to being beaten. He is a genius with a racquet, to be sure, but he is foremost a competitor.

“In the first moment you're disappointed, you're shocked, you're sad, then all of a sudden it overwhelms you,” he said, the strain still evident on his face. “I love this game. It means the world to me, so it hurts when you lose.”

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Demolition Derby January 31, 2009 - 10:30 AM

Serenatrophy_adTonight’s lopsided women’s final was anticlimactic from a competitive standpoint, to be sure, but I wouldn’t consider it drama-free. There is something compelling about an overwhelming demonstration of superiority, and Serena Williams’ 6-0, 6-3 domination of Dinara Safina was certainly that.

After days of record-setting heat, the 78-degree Saturday evening felt mercifully temperate. Williams, however, came out with the same unforgiving and single-focused ferocity she has shown ever since the midway point of her quarterfinal with Svetlana Kuznetsova. In that match, Serena was in real trouble – a set and a break down – when the extreme-heat policy was invoked and the roof of Rod Laver Arena closed. Williams returned from the break playing exceptional tennis, taking 10 of the last 11 games against Kuznetsova. It was the start of an impressive four-day run that carried the soon-to-be No. 1 to a 10th career major title.

Saturday’s comprehensive victory was evocative of the demolition Williams delivered to Maria Sharapova in the 2007 final. Serena’s serve, typically her biggest weapon, had given her trouble last week, but she won 95 percent of her first-serve points against Safina in the final. Arguably more impressive was her return of serve. Safina struggled with her service throughout the match (and, in fact, throughout the tournament), and Williams feasted on every cupcake the Russian laid down. It was a shame that there were few long, engaging rallies in the 59-minute massacre, but it’s hard not to marvel at the phenomenon that is Serena giving dictation.

One person not enjoying the Serena Power Hour was the hapless Safina, a sympathetic character to be sure. Since the tournament’s onset, the 22-year-old has been charmingly candid about her propensity for on-court brain locks and her susceptibility to nervousness. Tonight on court she looked overwhelmed by both the moment and her opponent. She lost the first set at love in less time than it takes to type “Anabel Medina Garrigues,” and did not manage to hold serve until her sixth attempt, the 12th game of the match.

Nevertheless, Safina showed poise and aplomb in the aftermath of her midsummer night’s nightmare. As reporters eager to dissect her humiliation tossed difficult questions (“Can you compare the disappointment you feel now with the disappointment you felt after losing the French Open final?” and “What else are you feeling besides disappointment…anger maybe?” were two of the toughest), the young Russian expressed satisfaction in having made the final at all.

“If I [had lost] the first round, of course I would sit here and I would start to think,” she said in response to a query about her anticipated emotional recovery time. “But I lost in the final, you know. I made it all the way. There is much more positive than negative.”

I hope Safina really does rebound quickly from the demoralizing experience. She showed up Down Under in spectacular shape, and her run to the Australian Open final has lifted her to No. 2 in the world rankings. She is currently the best player from the deepest nation in women’s tennis, and it seems likely – if she can shrug off tonight’s loss and get her head and serve back together – that she will find herself in another Slam final this year.

But the woman of the hour is obviously Serena Williams. She dusted three straight Russians – No. 8 seed Kuznetsova, No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva, and No. 2 seed Safina – en route to her fourth Aussie Open title. In her latest Oz odyssey, Serena showed that she whenever she is vulnerable, she can raise her level and take over a match at a moment’s notice. She is unlikely to relinquish her supremacy any time soon.

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Bud Collins and the Traveling Pants January 29, 2009 - 10:52 AM

The Heat of the Moment

Walking over to Melbourne Park for the women’s semifinals early this afternoon, I was hit by a spell of temporal and positional and situational disorientation—in other words, it felt like a typical Thursday.

A year ago I was covering Super Bowl XLII in the mild mid-winter climes of Phoenix, Ariz., and the New England Patriots were one win away from what was supposed to be an historic undefeated season. Two weeks ago I was taking off from a bitterly cold New York City, only a couple of hours after US Airways Flight 1549 had landed in the icy waters of the Hudson River. And now I found myself in a city that’s close to Antarctica but feels like it’s on the sun, with nary a hash mark nor helmet in sight, and Roger Federer on the verge of his record-tying 14th career Grand Slam title.

I blame the heat for the fact that I’ve been rambling like Sarah Palin and sweating like Alisa Kleybanova. (The No. 31-ranked Kleybanova, who upset Ana Ivanovic in the third round here, wrings horrifyingly copious amounts of liquid from her ponytail on changeovers. Not since the days of Patrick Rafter have the Aussies witnessed a player who perspires so prodigiously.) Temperatures reached 112 degrees – the hottest January day Melburnians have experienced in 70 years – on Thursday afternoon. The air was oppressive.

Because of the insane heat (or “inane” heat, as Serena Williams called it on Wednesday), the roof of Rod Laver Arena was closed for the women’s semifinals, and a Grand Slam event became an indoor tournament, at least temporarily. The players were resigned to the change; none expressed regret that the heat rule had been invoked and the playing conditions therefore changed.

“It's impossible to walk outside,” said Dinara Safina following her straight-sets dismissal of Vera Zvonareva. “We couldn’t survive outside in this temperature,” said Elena Dementieva, who lost to Williams.

The tournament’s remaining singles matches – the Nadal-Verdasco semifinal on Friday and the women’s and men’s finals (Saturday and Sunday, respectively) – start at 7:30 in the evening, so the roof will be retracted for those three.

Bud Collins and the Traveling Pants

BudcollinsLegendary tennis writer, historian, and broadcaster Bud Collins (shown here, at right, sharing some analysis with a colleague) has been covering the game for more than 40 years. As a Massachusetts native, I’ve been enjoying Collins’ Boston Globe stories for as long as I’ve been reading the sports section. His knowledge of tennis is literally encyclopedic (he’s the author of “The Bud Collins History of Tennis: An Authoritative Encyclopedia and Record Book”), and I love to listen to him because he’s a hoot.

Invariably clad in brightly-colored, patterned, garish trousers (they’re inane and insane, I'm sure Serena would agree), it’s hard to miss Bud in the press room. The pants he is wearing in this photo are, believe it or not, relatively understated compared to most of the pairs in his closet.

I’m a fan of Bud’s schtick—his nicknames for players, his zany trivia, his preposterous wardrobe, and his fictitious Uncle Studley. My all-time favorite Bud Collins television moment came at the All-England Club in 2001, when he informed the NBC audience that Uncle Studley was at home in the Midwest, enjoying his traditional Breakfast at Wimbledon: a boilermaker and a Fig Newton.

But I respect Bud’s tennis judgment even more than his comedy, so I asked him a few serious questions tonight before the Federer-Roddick semifinal:

Is there a specific thing that Roger Federer must accomplish to be considered the greatest of all time, in your mind? Break Sampras’ record? Win the French?
Well, Pete Sampras never won in Paris, and he’s one of the greatest. And I think Roger now is one of the greatest, and he’s never won in Paris.

To me the greatest of all time is still Rod Laver. It was a different era, a different game, but I think if Laver showed up these days he would be fine. We’ll see how long Nadal lasts. He might just inundate everybody, the way he’s playing now. But I don’t know how long his knees will hold up. His style is pretty injurious. But to me it’s too soon to call somebody the greatest player of all time.

Life is funny and sports are funny and Federer might not win another major. Chances are that he will somewhere, but he’s no sure thing to beat Nadal here. I assume it will be Nadal [in the final].

Are you surprised to see Andy Roddick playing so well here?
I’m not really surprised because I have great faith in Larry Stefanki. Andy was never unfit, but losing that weight he’s become quicker and I think he’s a better player than he’s been. He’s a better player than he was when he was No. 1. I think it’s a wonderful lift that he’s getting from Stefanki.

So you think it’s possible his best tennis is in front of him?
Sure I do. Oh gosh, yes. If you stay uninjured and motivated, I think your best tennis could be at 30.

I think it’s a very exciting period now. Because you’ve got Murray sticking his nose in, and you’ve got poor Del Potro – I don’t know what he’s feeling these days, but that [quarterfinal loss] was an awful jolt. But we’ve gone through a few years when it’s been essentially Roger and Nadal. And now the neighborhood is getting a little tougher, with Cilic and people like that.

Do you still enjoy watching the game as much as you always have?
Yes and no. There’s just too much bang-bang-bang from the baseline, but there will be matches that just turn you right on, like Berdych–Federer and Roddick–Djokovic, which I thought was terrific to watch.

I wish the women would come in and volley once in a century. It’s always good to watch the Williams kids, and everybody else seems to be a step behind. It will be interesting to see if Sharapova can come back and be the player she was. I was terribly sorry to see Henin walk out on me. She had variety, and so did Mauresmo. You like to see variety, but the equipment has taken over so much. I really think we need a disarmament conference because we’ve lost finesse, and that’s what I really miss.

Do you think Dinara Safina can give Serena any trouble in the final?
I think she’ll have some trouble. Safina’s sort of the tough-spot kid, [fighting off] two match points against Cornet. And she had the whole continent against here when she played Dokic, and got through in three. She had problems today but she got through okay. I think she’s going to be a very good player. She’s big, strong. I wish she’d take a lesson from her brother’s book and come in once in a while, because she’s got reach. I don’t know if she can volley because she never tries.

You know, players are not taking advantage of the short ball, knowing when you can come in. I had a chat with Larry Stefanki about this at the U.S. Open. You can come in, in the right circumstances, against the other guy’s serve. So I think people might start doing that.

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