Tuesday, November 11, 2014

INTERVIEW: Date-Krumm impressed but also worried for Wozniacki post-marathon

Date-Krumm after winning the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai in 2012

Kimiko Date-Krumm was impressed by Caroline Wozniacki’s phenomenal timing at the New York Marathon nine days ago but says she is worried the Dane could suffer in the aftermath of completing such a strenuous race.

Date-Krumm, who at 44 is still competing on the WTA tour and is ranked No115 in the world, had competed in the London Marathon in 2004 during her 12-year break from tennis and had clocked a remarkable three hours and 30 minutes.

Wozniacki bested the Japanese’s time, crossing the finish line in 3:26:33 in New York, and while Date-Krumm is thrilled for the ex-world No1, she shared some troubling details about her health following her own marathon experience.

She beat me (my time),” a laughing Date-Krumm told me on the sidelines of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai, where she made the second round on Monday.

I spoke with her I think at the US Open and she asked me ‘what was your time?’ and I explained a little bit. She was so excited to talk about the marathon.

It was an impressive time - first time is not easy.

I hope she didn’t get injured because it’s big big damage after that. For me after the marathon my hormone balance was broken, my period stopped for eight months, so I hope that she is not like that.”

Another player that has definitely impressed Date-Krumm is her compatriot Kei Nishikori, who has risen to No5 in the world and has beaten Andy Murray on Sunday on his ATP World Tour Finals debut.

Nishikori made history when he became the first Asian male to reach a grand slam singles final at the US Open last September and Date-Krumm, who made three major semi-finals in the 1990s, says it’s remarkable how someone of his size (178cm, 74kg) can do so well in today’s game.

Asked about how Japan reacted to Nishikori’s US Open run, she said: “It was crazy, a little bit too much but I can imagine because I did it before. But he has a very strong mentality so I think it’s okay. It’s good for Japanese tennis.

And now he’s No5 in the world. In the men’s game. He’s not 180cm or 190cm, he’s not big, doesn’t have big muscles, but he has so much talent and it’s amazing.

Date-Krumm however is not too thrilled with the state of the women’s game in Japan, which she feels is on the decline.

While Kurumi Nara has leapt up the rankings to No43 in the world, thanks to her title victory in Rio early in the season followed by a final showing in Washington DC, she is currently the only Japanese in the top-100 with Date-Krumm and Misaki Doi next in line at 115 and 122.

On why she thinks this decline is happening, Date-Krumm explained: “Now women’s tennis is more powerful, stronger, everybody is going up physically. In Japan we only have synthetic grass courts and we don’t have many hard courts and our players only play in Japan, small ITF tournaments $25K, sometimes $50K and I think it’s not enough.

Because 80 per cent of the players in these tournaments are Japanese and some Asian players. So they don’t know how to play against the powerful European or American people. So they need to go more outside and then to get used to playing strong women.”

In terms of Asian tennis, Date-Krumm said that Li Na’s retirement is a big blow but that she understands how the Chinese two-time grand slam champion had had enough of her knee problems.

For Asian players it’s very very disappointing. She won grand slams and she’s a good role model for Asian people. For Asian people it’s like a dream come true. Her winning a grand slam allowed Asian players to believe they could do it too. Maybe not me, but the younger players for sure,” she joked.

I respect her a lot and I hope that she has a good next life. Hopefully she has kids in the future and that one day maybe we can see each other outside the tennis court to talk.

She was always a nice person, we talked a lot. But always after retirement people open their hearts more, for example Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez, Gabriela Sabatini… everybody on the tour they close their hearts but when they stop tennis everybody opens their heart more so it’s more relaxed and they’re talking a lot.”

Date-Krumm will face Spain’s Lourdes Dominguez Lino in the second round of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dubai Junior ITF: Third time's a charm for Allaf against Hogbani

Photo credit: Andre Almeida
 
When Kareem Allaf (pictured) let out a massive roar on court at Al Wasl Club on Saturday after finishing off his opponent Ammar Alhogbani to capture the junior ITF title in Dubai, it was clear this wasn’t just any victory for the young Syrian.

The Abu Dhabi-based Allaf, 16, was facing Alhogbani for a third final in three weeks. He lost the first two, in Bahrain and in Kuwait, and was in no mood to suffer a third defeat at the hands of the 16-year-old Saudi Arabian.

Searching for his first-ever ITF junior title and playing his sixth career final, Allaf finally broke his trophy hoodoo to beat Alhogbani 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 35 minutes.

I’m glad I lost the first two finals against him because I was even more determined to win the next tournament here in Dubai,” said Allaf after he ended Alhogbani’s 14-match winning streak.

I came out more aggressive, I tried to hold my serve more. In Kuwait I lost my serve too much. I broke him a couple of times, I got really pumped and I tried to stop him in the second set and it came out well elhamdolillah.”

Both players were contesting their 25th match (singles and doubles) in three weeks. Allaf broke in the fifth game of the match and opened up a 4-2 lead and it was all he needed to grab the opening set.

The pair exchanged breaks early in the second before Allaf broke through in a marathon fifth game which saw a controversial call from a line judge that sent Alhogbani fuming. The Saudi teenager, who lives and trains in Virginia in the US, thought he had received a game point after hitting what he assumed was a winner, but later found out that the line judge and umpire had called it out and that he was actually facing a break point.

I didn’t even know he called it out, I thought the game was over. I didn’t even know he said ‘advantage Kareem’. I didn’t really like it that much. It could have been 3-2 me and I ended up winning the next two games, it could have been a different match,” said Alhogbani.

He did break back and went on to lead 4-3 but Allaf ran away with the next three games to complete his revenge and capture his first ITF junior trophy.

We were both tired. I came out very nervous today,” admitted Alhogbani, who had beaten Allaf a total of four times in both singles and doubles in the past three weeks.

He played a very different match. He played better than I expected him to play. It was well done for him. He deserved it.”

Still, the US-based Saudi was happy with his stint in the Gulf, where he managed to win two titles on his ITF debut.

Meanwhile, Allaf paid tribute to his new coach Walid Jallali, who only teamed up with him a mere four weeks ago.

He’s helped me a lot through these three weeks mentally, he’s given me a lot of tips and I’m really happy he’s been helping me so much,” said Allaf of Jallali, who previously worked with Tunisian ATP world No71, Malek Jaziri.

The girls’ singles final of the Dubai ITF Junior Championships by Zata was won by third-seeded Cypriot Eliza Omirou, who defeated Greek second seed Eleni Christofi 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 in a lengthy and gruelling affair.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

WTA Finals: Serena to face Halep in title match


Serena Williams got the rematch she wanted, just four days after she was destroyed by Simona Halep in their Red Group round robin match.

The world No1, who is gunning for a third consecutive WTA Finals title, came back from a set, and 1-4 down in the final-set tiebreak, to beat Caroline Wozniacki in the semi-finals on Saturday, and set up a championship match against Halep.

Williams only mustered two games in her defeat to Halep last Wednesday, falling 6-0, 6-2 to the Romanian world No4 and admitted she was surprised by how well her opponent played.

The 33-year-old had said she can’t wait to face Halep again and that she’ll even focus her train just on beating her. Williams may not have had enough time to plot her revenge but she says she’s ready to face her conqueror once again.

“I'm excited. My goal is to win three games. That'll be my first goal,” said Williams of her upcoming showdown with Halep today. “I'm going to go from there. Hopefully I can hold serve. That would be good. Most of all, I hope to break once. So I'm starting out with low goals.”

Halep, who hadn’t faced Williams this season prior to last Wednesday, is aware of the irony that she’ll now get to play her for a second time in one week.

The 23-year-old could have prevented Williams from advancing to the semi-finals had she lost in straight sets to Ana Ivanovic in the final round robin match of their group on Friday but Halep insisted the thought never even crossed her mind. That one set she took off Ivanovic is the reason Williams is still in the tournament.

I didn’t want (to get Williams eliminated),” said Halep.

Every time when I go on court I just want to do everything I can to win the match. I play with pleasure. I love tennis. That's why. I don't care about results, but when the results are coming so I'm really happy.

And indeed Halep couldn’t hide her excitement after she dismantled Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-2, in the semi-finals yesterday, hitting 26 winners to just 13 unforced errors throughout the encounter.

Of course it will be tough,” Halep says of facing Williams again today. “I will be nervous because it's the finals, but I can't wait to play tomorrow. Because my dream came true and I reached the final, so I have to do everything to win.

I can say that I learned that I have to believe in my chance against her. I can think that I have the game to beat her.

She's hitting stronger than me, so I have to play smart aggressive, like I did in the first part of the year. I have no chance if I stay behind the baseline.”

On her part, Williams is hoping she can shake off the bizarre pattern of starting slow she’s developed this tournament.

Against Wozniacki yesterday, the American fell behind before she could wrap up a hard-fought 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (6) victory over her good friend, who had saved three match points before surrendering.

I need figure that out actually, because it's inexcusable for it to happen once, let alone twice,” Williams said of her slow starts.

Wozniacki was taking on Williams for the fourth time in less than three months and the Dane was trying to improve on a poor 1-9 record against the world No1.

And she looked like she was on her way to doing just that when she found herself serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set. But Williams broke back.

Wozniacki then saved a match point at 5-6 with a sensational volley and opened up a 4-1 lead in the third set tiebreak.

I thought ‘gosh I had a match point and she played so well in that match point’. Then I thought ‘well, I guess I have to go home now. I told you to get up early in the tiebreak and now you're down 1 4. You didn't listen’,” Williams said of the thoughts that went through her mind when she was trailing in that tiebreak.

The top seed then ran away with five points in a row to get two more match points. Still Wozniacki valiantly fought, saving both, but she faltered two points later and lost for a tenth time to Williams.

Wozniacki could not hide her disappointment after coming ever so close to beating her BFF-nemesis: “This really sucks. Being so close and still losing, it really sucks. I played my heart out. I fought until the end.”

Saturday, October 25, 2014

WTA FINALS: Wozniacki sets up Serena semi-final on an unforgettable day in Singapore

Wozniacki and Williams at the Mariah Carey concert the night before their semi-final in Singapore. (via Serena Williams' Instagram account)

Caroline Wozniacki is a good friend. So good, that she stepped on court on Friday in Singapore not really needing to win but she gave 100 per cent anyway to rout Petra Kvitova, and in the process, allowed her long-time pal Agnieszka Radwanska to secure a spot in the semi-finals.

Too bad friendship will mean nothing on court today when Wozniacki takes on another BFF, Serena Williams, who clinched the year-end No1 ranking and booked a place in the semis without picking up a racquet on Friday. She did however head to the Mariah Carey concert together with Wozniacki at night, 18 hours before their semi-final showdown.

It will be the fourth meeting of the year between Wozniacki and Williams - the third in two months – and the Dane, who enters the semis undefeated this week, is well aware of her poor record against her.

My matchup against Serena so far hasn't been great,” said Wozniacki after easing past Kvitova 6-2, 6-3 yesterday.

“I won once and lost like ten times, or nine, I don't know. I don't even count anymore. But it's a new tournament. It's a new week. I've been playing well really. I believe that if I play like I did today, doesn't matter who's on the other side. I can win.”

She’s actually 1-9 against Williams, who was only guaranteed a place in the last four after Romania’s Simona Halep took a set off Ana Ivanovic in the last round robin match of the tournament last night.

Ivanovic had to win in straight sets to make it through to the semis but she fell short, beating Halep 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-3, which was enough to end her season with a WTA-leading 58 wins but not enough to stop Williams from taking second place in the Red Group, behind the Romanian.


It wasn’t the only time things worked in Williams’ favour yesterday – which was one of the most exciting days of this WTA season. The American was locked in a battle with Maria Sharapova over the year-end No1 ranking but that fight was settled when the Russian, who needed a straight sets win, suffered an epic collapse, squandering a 7-5, 5-1 lead and three match points against Radwanska in the first clash of the day.

Sharapova did end up winning, but much like Ivanovic, her 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2 triumph was not suffice.

I wanted to end this tournament on a win. It would've been very easy for me to get down on myself (after the second set). Just so easy to just let it go. I didn't, and that's what I wanted for myself today,” said Sharapova.

I got the job done. I know I'm not moving forward, but I'm proud of that effort and to finish the year off on this way.”

Kvitova also refused to be too hard on herself, despite her exit at the hands of Radwanska, saying capturing her second major at Wimbledon over the summer and fighting hard in the Asian swing to qualify for Singapore have made it a season to remember.

Ivanovic shared Sharapova’s positive outlook. The Serb kept her qualification hopes alive by climbing from 2-5 down to win the opening set against Halep but was unable to sustain the intensity, her chances vanishing as she dropped the second set.

It's mixed emotions obviously because I feel like it was such a great match tonight, yet it's such a low not to be able to qualify for the semi-finals,” admits Ivanovic.

After losing the second set it was a little bit hard, but I was very proud to come back and still win.”


Halep admits it was a gruelling affair and said she did everything she could to win, despite knowing she had already punched her ticket to the last four.

Standing between herself and a place in tomorrow’s final is Radwanska, a player she said she had struggled mentally against in the past but one she defeated in Rome last year, which was the start of Halep’s assault on the world rankings.

Asked if she still had any mental block regarding Radwanska, Halep said: “It's gone. It's gone. I won last year against her on clay then I won in Doha, so I have two matches won.

I feel good. I feel prepared to play against her. I'm not afraid. I just want to enjoy it, because it's like the best moment in this year. So nothing to lose tomorrow.”

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°