Saturday, September 20, 2014

A tribute to Li Na: The human and the beast

There have been murmurs about Li Na’s retirement for the past few weeks but it was one of those rumours you wished would not materialise.

We couldn’t possibly have seen the last of Li Na.

No more punishing backhands, hilarious speeches, and dramatic three-setters from the one-of-a-kind Chinese icon? It’s hard to swallow.

Especially that with Li Na, you got the sense that she was only getting started.

Serena Williams won her first grand slam as a 17-year-old at the 1999 US Open. Maria Sharapova shocked the world as a 17-year-old winning Wimbledon in 2004.

But Li Na only took her first major aged 29, when she became the first-ever Asian player to win a grand slam at the 2011 French Open.

She is the fifth-oldest first-time grand slam champion but none of the other four won a second major. She did (at Australia this year). Li Na isn’t just a late bloomer, she is the best late bloomer of the Open era.

No player has single-handedly raised the profile of tennis in a country the way Li Na has. Her influence transcended China and spread across the entire Asian continent, pushing the WTA to expand there like never before.

She was listed as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time magazine, who featured her on their cover, and is the world’s second-highest paid sportswoman according to Forbes.

And for someone who has had such a powerful impact, Li Na’s most intriguing quality was her vulnerability.

Her meltdowns have been more fascinating than her triumphs. They painted a picture of a woman who was in a constant struggle with herself and many things around her. Yet somehow managed to win two majors and rank No2 in the world.

She was never good at hiding her emotions so when you watched her play, you always felt what she was feeling. Her looks to her husband, Jiang Shan, during a match gave away how heavily dependent she was on him.

Her goofy jokes revealed her insecurities and her anecdotes from her childhood hint at the pain she endured as a young teenager, losing her father at 14, having to pay off her family debts through her tennis, and putting up with the strict abusive coaching methods that were adopted in China.

It all meant that Li Na was so at odds with the sport sometimes that she quit for two years, choosing to go to college with Jiang Shan. She then won four straight tournaments upon her comeback in 2004.

In her autobiography, she talked about how humiliated she felt after losing nine consecutive times against top-10 opponents before she finally beat Patty Schnyder for her first top-10 win in Berlin in 2006.

It always took time but Li Na managed to conquer her demons just long enough to achieve her dreams.

It appears she has run out of fight though and it’s time for us to celebrate everything she depicted. The human in her as well as the beast.

**A version of this comment piece appeared in the Saturday, September 20 issue of the newspaper Sport360°


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

VIDEO: US Open champ Cilic stops by Letterman

 Image via Getty

US Open champion Marin Cilic did the media merry-go-round following his stunning victory over Kei Nishikori in the final in New York.

The 6'6" Croat hit the Live! With Kelly and Michael show, made an appearance on Opening Bell with Maria Bartiromo, sat down with Charlie Rose and capped it off by reading the Top Ten list on the Late Show With David Letterman.

It's funny how some people are so ignorant about tennis sometimes... Kelly Ripa introduced Cilic by saying he started the US Open ranked No12 and ended up ranked No1. LOL! Is there no one on the entire production team who is capable of googling him before Cilic showed up? That's just poor!

Here's the video of Cilic reading the Top Ten list... How funny is number 1?

And here's his interview with Maria Bartiromo:


Friday, August 22, 2014

VIDEO: Serena Williams puts on a karaoke show ahead of the US Open

World No1 Serena Williams warmed up for the US Open in her own special way - by singing karaoke at Delta's Open Mic Night.

Having already mastered the tennis stage, Serena found a new stage to flaunt her skills as she took on "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" at the event.

Others at Delta's Open Mic Night included Orange Is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox, comedian Kathy Griffin, 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden, Glee’s Darren Criss, celebrity fitness trainer Shaun T and tennis star Jack Sock, who all sang their favorite tunes to gear up for the tennis tournament kicking off on Monday the 25th.

Griffin says she's particularly a fan of Serena because of how she had Caroline Wozniacki's back after her break-up. Except the actress refers to the Wozzilroy saga as: "when that guy, that golfer guy dumped his girlfriend".

Serena's karaoke performance is at minute 2:53...  The 32-year-old is as fearless on stage as she is on a tennis court. See for yourself!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Nadal and Djokovic set-up classic final

There may have been a few up-and-comers who tried to knock on the door these two weeks in Paris but the final will once again be a classic between two players who have won a combined 12 of the last 16 Grand Slams – Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Played in the warmest and sunniest conditions of the fortnight, yesterday’s semi-finals lacked excitement and spark but they also revealed the gulf in class between the world’s top-two and the rest of the field at Roland Garros.

It’s only fair that the French Open final is what will separate the two, with the No1 ranking going to the one who runs away with the Coupe des Mousquetaires tomorrow.

Nadal, who could become the first man in history to win five consecutive titles in Paris, gave a close to flawless performance against seventh-seeded Andy Murray, beating the Scot 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 in one hour and 40 minutes.

The Spaniard converted all six break points he created, faced none himself, and dropped only four points on his first serve throughout the match.

His coach and uncle, Toni, said it was his one of his nephew’s “best matches ever at Roland Garros”. A big statement considering Nadal has won 65 matches here with the loss of only one.

The Mallorcan machine was surprised at the way he played earlier in the quarter-finals saying he had been impeccable in practice and it seemed that translated into his vicious form against Murray yesterday.

“I said the other day that I was practicing better than a long time ago, so that's why the result today, no?” said Nadal, who has now won an ATP-best 40 matches in 2014.

“Today I played better than Andy. Andy made a few mistakes, especially on his return, whereas I made very few mistakes.

“I played quite well. So these are facts. I succeeded in developing my strategy. As for Andy's strategy, he didn't manage to implement it.

“He's a player I do admire quite a lot. He's a player I like. He is a player who is just recovering from an injury, and he's had very good results.”

Djokovic advanced to his second final in Paris earlier in the day, outclassing a nervous Ernests Gulbis 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in a match where the world No2 had to overcome major fatigue bouts in the last two sets.

“Midway through the third set I started to feel physically fatigued, and you could feel that,” confessed Djokovic.

“The important thing for me is that I realise what's going on. It's nothing serious. I'm going to have now two days of recovery and get ready for the final.”

Although Gulbis was the first to get a look at break points in the third game of the match, it was Djokovic who drew first blood, edging ahead for a 3-2 lead when his Latvian opponent overcooked his forehand.

The six-time major champion took the opening set on his third set point, after overruling the umpire on his previous set point, to give Gulbis a point.

The second set saw only one break point chance created, and it was in Djokovic’s favour, who broke in the eighth game before serving out the set for a two-set lead.

Gulbis hadn’t been able to convert any of the five break points he had earlier in the match, but he finally broke through on his sixth chance, to lead 5-3 and run away with the third set.

As the fourth set went into its final stages, both players were visibly tired and Djokovic looked particularly drowsy during the changeovers, but he dug deep to break in the eighth game and sealed the win with a volley at the net.

Looking ahead to his final, Djokovic was asked whether he was surprised by how easily Nadal dismissed Murray.

The Serb said: “I'm not too surprised, because we all know how good Nadal is on this court. He's been elevating his game as the tournament progresses, and he's starting to feel at his best when he needs to. It's not the first time that that happens in his case. That's Nadal, and Roland Garros.”

Sunday, June 1, 2014

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Halep survives the carnage to reach fourth round, Kvitova and Ivanovic crash out

Simona Halep survived the high seeds carnage that took place in the first week of the French Open as she stormed into the fourth round dropping just 11 games in her first three matches.

The fourth-seeded Romanian crushed Spaniard Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor 6-3, 6-0 yesterday to make the second week in Paris for the first time and explains how she feels great to enjoy success on the same stage where she won Roland Garros as a junior in 2008.

“It's not a surprise, because I'm more confident now in myself, and I feel the ball really good here in French Open. I love this tournament. I love to be here. I'm enjoying the moment now. It's my best of my career, and I have to be happy on court and to fight for my chance,” said an elated Halep.

The 22-year-old is the highest seed standing in the draw following the shock exits of Serena Williams, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska and she admits she’s feeling some pressure.

“The first three seeded, they lost. That's a surprise for everyone. Is not easy to be the first seeded now during the tournament. But I try just to keep out from me the pressure and just to play every match, because here the Grand Slam every match is difficult.

“So is not easy to say that I will play semifinals or finals. I just take day by day and match by match.” 

Next for her is Sloane Stephens, the American No15 seed who has now made the second week in six consecutive Slams – a record streak amongst active WTA players.

Over the last two years, Stephens is 21-5 in Grand Slam matches and is 32-29 everywhere else. The 21-year-old said she has no explanation on why she performs better in the majors.

The match of the day saw two former Grand Slam champions battle it out as Svetlana Kuznetsova outlasted fifth-seeded Petra Kvitova 6-7(3), 6-1, 9-7 in three hours and 13 minutes.

Kuznetsova capitalised on 65 unforced errors from Kvitova, who needed treatment to her upper thigh in the second and third sets. The powerful lefty twice failed to serve for the match, and saved more than one match point before eventually succumbing to Kuznetsova.

“I think I ran twice more than Petra out there today,” said Kuznetsova, a champion in Paris in 2009.

“I knew I was going out there, and I was going to give everything I could and run every mile, every metre I could, and put as many balls back, be aggressive, try to be aggressive. Because if you watch the match, Petra was inside the court and I was next to the fans. But I just tried.”

Up next for Kuznetsova is another Czech lefty in the form of Lucie Safarova who took out 2008 and 11th-seeded Ana Ivanovic 6-3, 6-3.

Later in the day, Germany’s Andrea Petkovic advanced to the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2011, with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 win over Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic, and said she felt rewarded for sticking to her comeback after a slew of injuries.

“One year ago I wanted to stop with tennis because I was awful. I'm here in the fourth round, which is kind of nice. I'm just happy I stuck with my comeback, and I kept trying,” said Petkovic, who revealed she is struggling with a stomach virus.

Jelena Jankovic and Sara Errani both won to set-up a last 16 clash against each other.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Day 7 Preview - Tough one for Ivanovic against Safarova

It must be impossible to ignore what’s happening.

As the top three seeds exit Roland Garros, only three former champions remain in the draw and Ana Ivanovic knows she is one of them.

She’s also been playing great tennis this season and has pulled off two of the biggest upsets in 2014, beating Serena Williams in Melbourne and Maria Sharapova in Rome.

But ahead of her third round with Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova today (Saturday), Ivanovic insists it’s imperative she keep her focus on the task at hand and ignore those tipping her as one of the favourites for the title she won in 2008.

“Obviously it's hard to miss that (the top seeds have lost), but I still have my own draw and my own opponents in front of me. I really try to take care of each round individually and not think too much about that,” said the former world No1.

“You can get wound up thinking ahead, but it doesn't change anything.

“I don't think any seed went out in my section, to be honest. It's what happened in the other parts of the draw. It's not what I think of or focus on.”

Ivanovic has a difficult obstacle ahead of her especially having lost to Safarova in their last four meetings – none of which were on clay though.

“It's going to be a tough matchup. She's been playing really well last lately. I think last few times I actually lost, so it will be me going to get revenge,” said Ivanovic.

“I don't know if we played on clay so it's going to be a different kind of match, but I look forward to that challenge.” 

Ivanovic has had a rollercoaster career and after reaching No1 in the world following her first and only Grand Slam triumph six years ago, she only made two major quarter-finals in 23 attempts.

But she has managed to climb back to No12 in the world now and is hoping she can roll back the years and repeat her success from 2008.

She says: “I do feel like I'm a different player now with everything that I've been through. Just as a person I feel like I matured a lot, I grew up.

“Definitely I have familiar feelings. Also going back on Philippe Chatrier does bring a lot of the good memories and positive thoughts. It's a long path, but I wish to relive that moment once again.”

Meanwhile, seventh-seeded Andy Murray is bracing himself for a gruelling encounter with Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber. The Scot lost their only previous meeting, 6-2, 6-1 in Monte Carlo four years ago and is well aware of Kohlshreiber’s abilities. 

“A very tough, very tough match for me,” said Murray.

“I played him once before on clay and I think I got three games or something. He obviously won the tournament last week (in Dusseldorf). He's not dropped a set here, I don't think.”

World No1 Rafael Nadal takes on unseeded Argentine Leonardo Mayer while fifth-seeded David Ferrer faces Italian No32 seed Andreas Seppi.

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Gulbis hopes sisters don't pursue tennis careers

Ernests Gulbis created some waves with comments he made on Friday following his third round win in Paris when he suggested women are better off not being tennis player so they can get a chance to focus on family and kids.

The outspoken Latvian joked at the start of his press conference that he hadn’t been in the main interview room – typically reserved for winners and top players - in six years, since he last made the Roland Garros quarters back in 2008. But the world No17’s first press conference back there did not go as well as would have hoped.

Asked about his younger sisters, who both are believed to play tennis, Gulbis said: “Hopefully they will not pursue a professional tennis career. Hopefully.

“Because for a woman, it's tough. I wouldn't like my sisters to become professional tennis players. It's a tough choice of life. A woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more. Needs to think about family, needs to think about kids. What kids you can think about until age of 27 if you're playing professional tennis, you know.

“That's tough for a woman, I think.”

The 25-year-old, who beat Radek Stepanek in straight sets yesterday, has had a rollercoaster career and this is the first time he has made the second week at a major since his run to the last eight six years ago. He is enjoying a career-high ranking and just won a tournament in Nice last week.

“I did a lot of bad decisions career wise. Not paying too much attention to the things that I do, how to treat my body, how to practice… just overall,” said Gulbis, who next faces Roger Federer.

“Thankfully it didn’t take me a longer time. I’m jumping in the last train. I'm 25, so this was my last opportunity to be really successful, I think, and I think I have good seven, eight more years to play in the top level.”