Tuesday, October 21, 2014

WTA FINALS: Sharapova hoping to recapture 2004 magic

It’s been 10 years since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova beat Serena Williams to lift the trophy at the WTA Championships, on her debut at the elite eight event.

It was the Russian’s second victory of the season over Williams, having beaten her in the Wimbledon final as well a few months earlier.

In the tour championships, held in Los Angeles at the time, Sharapova took out Svetlana Kuznetsova (US Open champion that year), Vera Zvonareva, Anastasia Myskina (French Open champion in 2004) before dismantling Williams in the final.

She hasn’t beaten Williams since.

The world No2 hopes she can draw inspiration from her triumphant run at those championships, in order to put together a strong campaign in Singapore this week, where she could run away with the No1 ranking if she gets a good result and Williams gets a poor one.

“I couldn't believe that I was part of a field at that point in my career,” Sharapova recalls of her 2004 year-end championships.

“I was in Los Angeles where I had been training with Robert (Lansdorp) for so many years. It felt like a home tournament in a way for me. I remember the players. It was of course a very tough field as always. Just going through the draw there and the way that I felt and the way I played, I've seen some clips as well, very inspiring. Certainly hope I can do that here again.”

But not all of Sharapova’s finals at the championships had a happy ending. Three years later, the Russian suffered an agonizing defeat at the hands of Justine Henin, who beat her in three sets in the longest final in the history of the event.

“I remember being incredibly upset after that final,” says Sharapova. “It was one of the few times where I think it took me quite a long time to get to the press conference because I was really upset. I just wanted to win that match so much, because it was just one of the most physical matches I've ever played.”

She would then go on to make a third final in 2012, which she lost to Williams.

Sharapova, who begins her WTA Finals quest on Tuesday against Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, has never ended the year at No1, although she did spend three stints at the top of the rankings in 2005, 2008 and 2012.

Asked how much replacing Williams as No1 would mean to her, Sharapova said: “I've always experienced the joy of grand slam wins so much more, because the spur of the moment. There is actually a point that you have to win in order to get it, whereas the rankings will depend on other people's performances during the year, at certain tournaments.

“Is it an incredible accomplishment? Absolutely. It would be amazing to achieve that.”

Meanwhile, Wozniacki is set to end the year inside the top-10 for a sixth consecutive year - a record amongst all active players. The ex-world No1 is regaining her form thanks to a solid second half of the season, where she was runner-up to Williams at the US Open.

“I think my game is in great shape. I feel in great shape physically. I have fun playing out there on court,” said Wozniacki, who trails Sharapova 3-5 head-to-head but beat the Russian in their most recent meeting at the US Open. “I think all of that together kind of brings out the best of me when I'm out there competing.”

The other match of the day will see two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova take on world No6 Agnieszka Radwanska, who is making her sixth appearance at the Finals.

Kvitova, who won the title on debut in 2011, leads the Pole 5-1 head-to-head and 2-1 in WTA Finals clashes.

Navratilova slams ITF for lack of action against Tarpischev

Martina Navratilova has slammed the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for not taking any action regarding Shamil Tarpischev’s inappropriate comments about the Williams sisters, calling their silence over the matter “deafening”.

Tarpischev, the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, jokingly called Serena and Venus Williams “the Williams brothers” on a TV show and has been fined and banned for a year by the WTA, who have been lauded for taking quick action.

Serena called Tarpischev’s comments “sexist”, “racist”, and “bullying” while Russia’s Maria Sharapova said they were “very disrespectful” and “uncalled for”.

Navratilova, who won a legends exhibition alongside Marion Bartoli at the WTA Finals in Singapore, said on Monday that she was baffled by the ITF’s lack of reaction to the situation.

“I think the WTA has taken the proper steps in this instance and pretty swift steps. The silence from the ITF has, to me, been pretty deafening,” said the 18-time grand slam champion.

“So I think they’re the ones that actually have more of a possibility of doing something because Shamil Tarpischev is the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, which falls under the ITF and is also the Fed Cup team captain, which again falls under the ITF.

“So the WTA has done all they can do. They certainly have shown that they have Serena’s back, and Venus’ back, as they should. He might have thought that the comment was funny but it was anything but. So the WTA has done what they can and you just take it one instance at a time.

“But certainly that kind of bullying, that kind of comment can’t be tolerated from anybody but particularly not from a high up official in the tennis world.”

Tarpischev has sent out a formal apology and Ricci Bitti, the president of the ITF later told the Press Association that he believes the apology and the WTA's sanction are sufficient.

“The ITF was very disappointed when it learned that Shamil Tarpischev, long-time President of the Russian Tennis Federation, made derogatory remarks about the gender of Serena and Venus Williams.

“Mr Tarpischev has taken an important step by sending his apology to the ITF, the WTA and to the Williams sisters. “Although Mr. Tarpischev assured us his comment was meant as a joke, we made it clear to him what he said is inappropriate in any context.

 “We hope his acceptance of fault in this matter, which includes the penalty assessed by the WTA Tour, will allow all of us to move forward.”

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.