Thursday, December 11, 2014

IPTL: Djokovic, Sampras & Co touch down in Dubai for league finale

 UAE Royal, Novak Djokovic en route to Dubai from Delhi on Wednesday.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Clive Brunskill/IPTL

 UAE Royals Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic pictured with Kirsten Flipkens and Sania Mirza.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Clive Brunskill/IPTL

 Pistol Pete on his way to Dubai for the very first time.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Clive Brunskill/IPTL

Singapore Slammers team-mates Tomas Berdych and Lleyton Hewitt.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Clive Brunskill/IPTL

The stars of the IPTL finally touched down in Dubai on Wednesday evening after a brief flight delay which Mahesh Bhupathi said was due to fog in New Delhi, from which they were departing.

Unfortunately, the delay meant that UAE Royals, Novak Djokovic and Caroline Wozniacki were a no-show at the press conference but I still managed to have a quick chat with Indian Aces' Pete Sampras, who is in Dubai for the very first time.  

I spoke to Pete about a few things including his thoughts on the IPTL, how the UAE can develop tennis in the country and whether he feels Rafael Nadal can continue to compete at a very high level despite his frequent physical problems. I will be posting the interview soon.
A photo posted by @reemabulleil on

I then went to the players' hotel to meet some friends and perhaps grab a quick chat with Wozniacki but she was having dinner. I caught up with Malek Jaziri, who says that the league experience has been a great one so far. The Tunisian is the only Arab across all four teams and hopefully can draw in some decent Tunisian/Arab supporters this weekend at the Hamdan Sports Complex.

Speaking of the HSC, it's remarkable how quickly they transformed a state-of-the-art Olympic pool to a tennis court. I personally am a massive fan of the HSC and I spend a lot of time there covering major swimming events as well as local meets.

It's a spectacular place and really deserves the trip to the Bypass Road, which granted, is a bit far outside the city centre but is like nothing anyone has seen before. 

I watched Sampras test the court by hitting with Indian Aces player and coach, Fabrice Santoro while the workers continued to add some finishing touches to the place.
A video posted by Sport_360 (@sport_360) on

At the players' hotel, Gael Monfils and Caroline Wozniacki were playing the piano in the lobby for quite some time, as Kiki Mladenovic, Nick Kyrgios - amongst others - gathered around to watch. Of course this wasn't the first time I've witnessed Monfils' musical skills. He once played the piano in the lobby of the Ritz in Doha at like 1:00am sending the hotel staff into a panic. He really has endless talents that guy. Impressive!

A video posted by Caroline Wozniacki (@carowozniacki) on
I'm looking forward to the action starting today. I truly urge those in the UAE to come out and catch some of the very best in the sport put on a great show.

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°


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.”

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Tomljanovic the latest youngster to take down a seed

The youth movement continues to take down more victims in the women’s draw as third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska became the next high-profile casualty, falling to young up-and-comer world No72 Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round on Friday.

Tomljanovic, 21, dispatched the world No3 6-4, 6-4 to reach the fourth round on her Roland Garros main draw debut and she admits she’s been inspired by the efforts of 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza and 21-year-old Kristina Mladenovic, the slayers of the top two seeds Serena Williams and Li Na in the previous rounds.

“After seeing the two first seeds go out, you kind of feel like I can do this, too. I grew up with these girls that are beating them,” the Croat said after her match.

“I went on the stadium for the first time, and she (Radwanska) kind of feels like home there, because she's been there a lot more than I did. I went out there, and I really, inside really thought I could win.

“I think that showed and it is why I won.”

For the first time since tennis turned professional in 1968, the top three women seeds crash out before the fourth round at any Grand Slam.

Radwanska was making her 32nd consecutive main draw appearance at a major while Tomljanovic is playing only her fourth Grand Slam but the young Croat looked more like the tour veteran as she raced to a 5-1 lead in the opening set.

The Pole tried to fight back, winning three in a row to make it 4-5 but Tomljanovic confidently served out the set. An early break was all the Florida-resident needed to take the second set and the match, and reach the last 16 of a major for the first time in her career.

Tomljanovic, who trains at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, stressed that she didn’t want to get too excited as she hopes to go further in the tournament.

She calls Chris Evert her “second mom” and explains how the American legend tries to instill in her the mental toughness and positive body language that helped her win 18 major singles titles.

“It's kind of nice to see it from her perspective when she watches me play, to see if I'm nervous,” said Tomljanovic of Evert. “She always thought I had good composure but maybe thought I could be a little bit more feisty out there.”

A dejected Radwanska paid tribute to her opponent and particularly lauded her serve.

Radwanska was the highest seed left in the draw prior to yesterday and when asked whether she had high expectations of herself this fortnight, going into the match, the 25-year-old said: “I was saying yesterday that it doesn't mean if first and second seed lost, doesn't mean the third one is going to win. It's stupid to say that.

“I don't think it was my day today. I think I just started too slow. I was 5 1 down, and I guess I was a little late for the first set. I was still trying, almost came back, but it didn't work out well. But she definitely played good tennis today. I had my chances. I didn't do them. I think that cost me the match.”

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Sharapova acknowledges she's the favourite

Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur where in ruthless form on Friday as they both posted wins to set-up a fourth round blockbuster against each other, while Serena Williams conqueror Garbine Muguruza continued her dream run with victory over Anna Schmiedlova.

Sharapova hit three double faults to open her match on Philippe Chatrier before she was saved by the rain. When she returned to the court 40 minutes later, the Russian saved a break point before going on a rampage, beating Argentinean Paula Ormachea 6-0, 6-0 in 51 minutes.

The No7 seed won 54 points to just 17 for Ormachea.

With the top three seeds out of the draw, Sharapova was questioned whether she considers herself the favourite for the title.

The 2012 champion said: “If I don't have the mentality that I'm the favourite inside of myself going into a tournament like this, then I probably shouldn't be in the draw. I like to be positive yet realistic, and there is no reason why I shouldn't be the favourite at this tournament."

Meanwhile, 2010 runner-up and N019 seed Stosur gave in a solid performance to oust Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-4.

Stosur started the match striking the ball brilliantly and a big forehand winner gave her two break points in the opening game. A poorly-struck drop shot from Cibulkova handed the break to the Australian, who took eight of the first nine points of the match to go up 2-0.

The petite Slovakian struck back two games later though as she found her range, forcing the backhand error from Stosur following a long rally to get a break point. And Cibulkova broke with a massive forehand winner to draw level at 2-2.

Stosur inched ahead again breaking after a lengthy fifth game with an inside out forehand winner that clipped the sideline. The No19 seed kept pressuring Cibulkova’s serve but it was the one break that gave Stosur the set.

The second set was like a tug of war, with both players digging deep to save break points and remain on serve but again it was the powerful Stosur who broke the deadlock and got the win.

The Australian hadn’t reached the fourth round at a major since the 2012 US Open and was happy to finally make a Grand Slam second week.

“Very happy (to make the fourth round), I think it's the first time I won three matches in a row for a while, too. Yeah, it's all good. I'm really happy with the way I played today,” said the former US Open champion.

Later in the day, 20-year-old Muguruza took out Schmiedlova 6-2, 6-4 to match her best previous result at a major (2014 Australian Open) by making the fourth round.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Berdych hits out at umpire

Photo via Getty

Tomas Berdych hit out at umpire Marijana Veljovic claiming she was unable to control the crowd during his four-set victory over Kazakhstan’s Aleksandr Nedovyesov.

Berdych dropped the first set before striking back 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 in a difficult second round encounter against the world No101 and was seen complaining to the umpire about the noise coming from the crowds.

The Czech is no stranger to rowdy spectators having represented his country in numerous Davis Cup away ties but he says the umpire didn’t do enough to handle the situation.

“I was more irritated by the referee, because once you tell her or once she said something (to the crowd) about being quiet, I can barely hear that and I'm on the court just a few metres from her,” said Berdych.

“She was really probably not well-experienced for that. She definitely couldn't handle the situation.

“Really she was trying to step in at the wrong time when already the guy was serving or... Really not experienced enough to handle it like that.

“Of course I played many Davis Cup matches, but even when we played in Argentina where it was crazy loud, once you were ready to play there is complete silence.

“If not, then the referee takes care of it and that's fine.”

Berdych was on his way to complete a routine comeback after dropping the opening set but then fell behind 0-3 in the fourth. He won six games in a row though to book a third round with Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, who gave a solid and composed performance to beat Frenchman Benoit Paire 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

Paire saved five match points on his own serve in the seventh game to hold for 2-5 but it only delayed the inevitable as Bautista Agut served out the match comfortably.

The Spanish No27 seed – tipped by many as a dark horse for this tournament - is seeded for the first time in a major, and following his win over Juan Martin del Potro at this year’s Australian Open, his good results this season and elevated ranking, is Bautista Agut feeling extra pressure this fortnight?

“I try to focus on me, not to think too much and play match by match and that’s what I’m trying,” said Bautista Agut.

“Yes I have expectations of myself. I feel well to play good and I want to win as many matches as I can.”

He leads Berdych 2-1 head-to-head and beat him most recently in Indian Wells this year.

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Serena stunned by magical Muguruza in Paris

It is the Grand Slam of firsts it appears.

Only a day after Li Na crashed out to join Stan Wawrinka as first round losers in an unprecedented twist for two reigning Australian Open champions, world No1 Serena Williams stumbled to defeat so that the top two women’s seeds are eliminated from a Grand Slam before the third round for the first time in the Open era.

An hour earlier, Serena’s sister, Venus, had fallen to 19-year-old Anna Schmiedlova 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

What was meant to be a highly-anticipated third round between Serena and Venus has suddenly become a clash between 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza, who shocked the younger Williams sister 6-2, 6-2, and Slovak teenager Schmiedlova - a sign that perhaps the youth are finally rising in women’s tennis.

Spanish sensation Muguruza, who had managed only two games in her sole meeting with Serena last year at the Australian Open, pulled off the biggest victory of her career in 64 minutes after showcasing some incredibly smart and fearless tennis.

The world No35, who kicked off 2014 by winning her maiden WTA in Hobart, was 0-5 against top-five players going into the match but it was clear she had different intentions when she raced to a double break 4-1 lead in the opening set.

Such was the confidence of the young Barcelona resident, she aced to get her first set point then took the one-set lead with a service winner.

Serena was yelling at herself saying “I can’t serve” and those expecting a strong fight back were quickly disappointed as Muguruza broke in the opening game of the second set with a great cross court backhand passing shot.

She broke again for a 3-0 lead, and even though Serena got one of the breaks back, Muguruza was unfazed as she delivered another service break the following game for a 4-1 lead. The Spaniard saved three consecutive break points in game six and served out the match to love, celebrating in disbelief when Serena’s return landed in the net.

“I don't think anything worked for me today,” said Serena, who insisted she wasn’t suffering from any injuries.

“Honestly, I think Garbine played really well and she played really smart. I didn't adapt. It was what it was.

“It's great, because I'm going to go home and work five times as hard to make sure I never lose again.”

For Muguruza, the key was having the right game plan. At no point did she appear hesitant or scared despite facing a 17-time major champion.

“She said that if I continue playing like this, I can win the tournament. I said ‘I will try, I will try’,” Muguruza said of the exchange of words she had with Serena at the net.

“Today I had everything really clear I was really focused, and I knew what I had to do on court, so I think that was the important part.”

She faces a fellow up-and-comer in the next round in the form of Schmiedlova and Muguruza believes the tides are about to turn in the women’s game.

“These things are going to happen, some time, a new generation is going to come, and I think now is the moment,” said Muguruza, who revealed she is yet to decide whether she will be representing Spain or Venezuela in Fed Cup.

Venus was also disappointed by her defeat and blamed the drop of her first serve percentage on her decline throughout the match. She admits that a third round against Serena was indeed in the back of her head.

“I think we both feel, I mean, I felt like this was a match that I was most likely going to win. I don't know how Serena felt, but I'm sure she feels like that every time she goes on the court. So I think our expectation was to play in the next round,” said Venus.

American teenager Taylor Townsend added another name to the upset list as she dispatched 20th-seeded home favourite Alize Cornet 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to post only her second career Grand Slam victory.

2012 champion Maria Sharapova made sure she wasn’t another casualty. The No7 seed recovered from an early break by Tsvetana Pironkova to defeat the Bulgarian 7-5, 6-2 in the last match of the day on Court Philippe Chatrier.

No12 seed Flavia Pennetta was also sent packing by world No99 Sweden’s Johanna Larsson while 18th-seeded Eugenie Bouchard recovered from a poor start to beat German Julia Goerges 2-6, 6-2, 6-1.

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Federer, Djokovic through to the third round

Roger Federer is grateful he gets to face a familiar foe in his next match after going through a tricky encounter against his first-time opponent Diego Sebastian Schwartzman in the second round yesterday.

The wind, cold and drizzle made for difficult conditions in Paris and Federer was surprised by how well Schwartzman handled it all. But Federer still managed to advance in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

The 21-year-old from Argentinean qualifier was making his Grand Slam debut and his victory over fellow qualifier Gastao Elias in the first round was only the second Tour-level win of his career.

It was Schwartzman who drew first blood, breaking Federer’s serve in the third game but the Swiss 2009 champion struck back immediately to draw level and win four games in a row en route to taking the set.

A tight second set was decided in game 9 when Federer broke for a 5-4 lead and the Swiss broke early in the third to secure the win.

“I think it was kind of tough all the way through, for me,” said Federer.

“I didn't feel relaxed for the entire match. I've always felt he had a little bit of an upper hand from the baseline.

“I feel he was doing a really good job being aggressive and making good plays. I think he handled the conditions really well.”

The 17-time major champion next faces Russian veteran Dmitry Tursunov, who stretched him to two tiebreak sets in their previous meeting.

“Tursunov is a different player altogether versus Schwartzman today,” said Federer.

“He tried more with his serve, but also with the forehand. And also I played against him at Indian Wells. It was 7 6, 7 6, that's how I defeated him. It was a tough match. But at least I know Dmitry, I didn't know Schwartzman at all. I didn't know if he was a great player, average, or not really good.”

Earlier in the day, No2 seed Novak Djokovic was happy he handled the constantly-changing conditions well as he easily dismissed Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 in 92 minutes.

He says he’s aware of all the upsets happening during the first two rounds and says it’s important not to underestimate any opponent.

“In the Grand Slam we all know that in the opening rounds that the lower ranked players have a lot of motivation to play their best and to win against top players on the big stadiums,” said the second seeded Serb.

“I just saw that Serena (Williams) also lost. So it's definitely a surprise to see the big favourites coming out. But again, you can never underestimate any opponent in a Grand Slam.”

He faces Croatian Marin Cilic next.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gave a clinical performance against Austrian lefty Jurgen Melzer advancing 6-2, 6-3, 6-4. “It was a very good match, clearly. I know I can do even better,” said Tsonga, who plays No22 seed Jerzy Janowicz next.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

FRENCH OPEN 2014: Bautista Agut takes out Paire to reach third round

Roberto Bautista Agut, tipped by many as a dark horse in this year’s French Open, reached the third round at Roland Garros for the first time with a 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win over home favourite Benoit Paire.

The flat-hitting No27 seed, who impressed by making the semis in Madrid earlier this month, gave a calm and collected performance against the talented but often erratic Paire to advance.

The Spaniard is seeded for the first time in a major, and following his win over Juan Martin del Potro at this year’s Australian Open, his good results this season and elevated ranking, is Bautista Agut feeling extra pressure this fortnight?

“I try to focus on me, not to think too much and play match by match and that’s what I’m trying,” tells me.

“Yes I have expectations of myself. I feel well to play good and I want to win as many matches as I can.”

The pair traded breaks early on before Bautista Agut started putting more and more pressure on his French opponent’s serve.

Paire was rushing the net, and he was successful more times than not. He relied on his serve several times to save break points (5/7 in the opening set).

But Bautista Agut’s discipline and composure were always going to prove more valuable in the end, the Spaniard getting three straight set points on a long forehand from Paire.

And he needed only one as one more trip from Paire to the net saw the French world No61 send a backhanded volley wide to give Bautista Agut a one-set lead.

Just like the first set, Paire broke in the first game of the second but this time, the 25-year-old consolidated the break to go 2-0 up.

He dug deep to save two break points in the fourth game but double-faulted two games later to give Bautista Agut another break opportunity. A well-executed volley got Paire out of trouble though.

Bautista Agut got the break though in the eighth game to level the set at 4-4 but was broken right back by Paire.

But the Frenchman inexcusably double-faulted, then struck a poor drop shot that landed wide to get broken again while serving for the set at 5-4.

Bautista Agut eventually triumphed in the tiebreak 7-4 to take a commanding two-set lead and broke in the opening game of the third before cruising to a 5-1 lead.

Paire saved five match points on his own serve in the seventh game to hold for 2-5 but it only delayed the inevitable as Bautista Agut served out the match with an ace to set up a third round with either sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych or Kazakhstan’s Aleksandr Nedovyesov.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

INTERVIEW: Karim Hossam - The next big thing in Arab tennis?

He was ranked No11 in the world junior rankings and, like many promising youngsters who have turned 18
and graduated to the senior level, has been plowing his way up the rankings on the men’s circuit.

Egypt’s Karim Hossam climbed 829 spots to land at 338 in the world after only one full season on the men’s tour. He kicked off his 2014 season with a huge performance against world No9 Richard Gasquet at the Qatar Open in Doha last January, where he proved a big hit with the crowds.

I caught up with the 19-year-old Hossam to find out more about one of the Arab world’s biggest hopes in tennis.

You started last year ranked No1167 in the world, 12 months later you were ranked No338. Did you expect to make such a huge leap all in one season?

To be honest my target was to end the year in the top-500. I spoke to Karim Zaher, my coach, at the beginning of last year and we decided that I quickly needed to get in the top-700, within a couple of months and after that I’d try to get into the top-500.

But within a couple of months, I was already No470 in the world, and that was unexpected. But I stayed in Sharm El Sheikh for two and half months, playing a lot of matches there which really helped. Also playing at home makes a difference, it’s an advantage. Having all those tournaments in Egypt, you have support, people cheering on you, I enjoy that.

I was trying not to focus on ranking and just concentrate on my level. I was also lucky in a few tournaments. I was down match points in a couple of semi-finals but I ended up winning them. I’ve been through a lot of really tight matches recently and thank God I’ve managed to win those. So that made a difference and my confidence went up.

I won four Futures tournaments last season. The last one I won was extremely tough. I played a quarter-final over three and a half hours then a semi-final that went to a final set 7-5 – three hours or so – and the final was 7-6, 7-6, I felt like my heart was going to stop. So thankfully I pulled through it.

So you’ve been training with Karim Zaher all this time?

As a junior, I was based in California training at the Advantage Tennis Academy with Mahmoud Karim. I was there for two years, and when I got back to Egypt I worked with Karim Zaher at Gezira Club.

Once I was done with juniors, I faced the problem of military service, which is something that deters so many players in Egypt from pursuing a pro career in tennis.

So what did you do about the military service? 

Initially I was going to postpone going to university for a couple of years to give my pro a career a go and if, God forbid, I got injured or things didn’t work out, I’d go to university. But I was forced to enroll in a university because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get travel permits and would have had to go do my military service. So now I go to university, but they’re really understanding and allow me to go to tournaments and stuff. I’m studying language translation.

What was your reaction when you found out you were going to play Richard Gasquet and how do you feel about the experience of playing him at the Qatar Open?

I wanted to play a qualifier or a lower-ranked player but when I found out that I was going to play Gasquet I was really excited. I wanted to see how my level was with those type of players.

Of course the level of the Futures tournaments I’ve been playing is very different than the level I played against Gasquet, but I was so pumped that I brought out some big tennis and I didn’t feel the difference in level was so great. It was a very close first set and I really wanted to win it.

I’m happy but I’m also upset because I really feel I should’ve won that first set. I was worried at first that I wouldn’t be able to play at all and get paralyzed just by the prospect of facing a top-10 player. I’m from Egypt and I’m facing the defending champion, but once I was on the court I wasn’t scared at all and I really played well. Mentally I’m happy with how I handled it.

How do you feel you can make the next leap from top-350 to top-100?

This year I have to set my calendar, talk to my coach, talk to the federation, and try to go to as many Challengers as I can. The federation is getting better. Last year they got us free accommodation throughout the year playing Futures in Sharm El Sheikh. They gave us money to play Davis Cup this year, which is also nice. Of course having a sponsor could help me a lot this year. It takes away the pressure and helps you focus on your level and your results more than anything else.

To beat good players, I have to practice with people like them. I have to go to academies abroad and also play many tournaments, because the more matches I play, the better my level gets. I’m looking into academies right now. Whether it’s Spain or France.

Tell me about your junior career, you were one of the best in the world I believe…

I was No11 in the world in juniors and I made the quarter-finals at the US Open juniors in 2011, and the third round at the 2012 Australian Open juniors. I was part of the ITF Touring Team for a couple of years. It helped me become very disciplined.

What do you think are your strengths and what do you think you need to work on?

I think my backhand is one of my strengths. I have confidence in my backhand and I feel that I can put it anywhere I want, and it’s solid on return. My serve speed and placement is also good. The advantages I gained from 2013 were mainly mental ones. I feel that I can play with anyone, without any fear. The things I need to work on are my returns. My unforced errors are mainly on return and on my forehand return. Which is weird because I have a very good forehand.

Do you think you can be the next big thing in Arab tennis?

I really really want to. I have confidence in myself that I can reach the top-10.

Do you have any tennis idols?

I don’t really have idols per se. I like all tennis players and I respect the better player. If I see someone playing well, at a high level I feel then I support them out of respect.

How did you get into tennis? 

I used to play basketball, swimming, but my mother urged me to try out tennis to avoid being in a contact sport. So I started when I was eight years old and I’ve been at it ever since.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

DUBAI: Djokovic wary of Bautista Agut, Berdych serving stats soaring

 Photo via Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Novak Djokovic is braced for a tricky second round against the fast-improving Roberto Bautista Agut in a rematch of their clash at the same stage, on the very same courts at the Aviation Club last year.

The defending champion make quick work of Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin last night, winning 6-3, 6-3 in 84 minutes, saving all four break points he faced in the second set to book a spot in the second round.

Bautista Agut pushed Djokovic in the second set of their encounter last year and the Serb is predicting a difficult encounter.

“He won against (Juan Martin) Del Potro in the Australian Open in a thrilling five sets,” said Djokovic of his second round opponent. “He has improved his game significantly since last year, and winning against Del Potro in a Grand Slam says enough about his quality.

“I'm going to get out on the court and try to win that match, of course, not underestimating my opponent.”

In the first round last night, Djokovic broke in the third game on a double fault from Istomin to inch ahead 2-1. He broke again to take the opening set in 35 minutes and it looked like he would hit the cruise control button. But Djokovic had to save three break points in the opening game of the second set before holding serve. It took the No1 seed six chances before he broke for a 2-0 lead and struggled in the seventh game, saving a break point before holding for 5-2.

He sealed the victory on an entertaining point, a long rally that saw him come into the net to hit a solid volley and Istomin’s attempted passing shot sailed long.

“It was a tough draw against Denis who can play big from back of the court. He's a tall guy, can serve well. He loves playing on the hard courts, and he likes playing on the big stage,” said Djokovic, who hadn’t played a competitive match since his quarter-final loss at the Australian Open.

“I have played him earlier this year in the Australian Open, third round. I know he can play equally well against any of the top players from the baseline, and, you know, I needed to stay focused and kind of believe in my shots.

“It wasn't easy as the score line indicates. I needed to work for my games. My serve worked really well in the second set, and that helped me to get some free points.”

Earlier in the day, last year’s runner-up Tomas Berdych continued to put up some impressive serving stats to secure a place in the second round.

The No3 seed is leading the ATP World Tour at the moment in the percentage of service games won, with a stunning 97 per cent, and yesterday, he won 93 per cent of his points on first serve en route to a 6-3, 6-4 win over qualifier Marius Copil. Berdych took his current winning streak to eight matches – having won two Davis Cup clashes and five matches to lift the title in Rotterdam – and the Czech star is looking to keep it going.

“I'm just trying to profit from that (winning streak), trying to build up on the form, try to bring the confidence as far as I can, and really just go one by one,” said Berdych, who plays Ukraine’s Sergiy Stakhovsky today.

DUBAI: Tomas Berdych says Davis Cup must change

 Photo via Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Tomas Berdych has added his voice to Rafael Nadal – among other players – in suggesting the Davis Cup should become a biennial competition rather than a yearly affair.

Berdych, who has helped the Czech Republic win the last two editions of Davis Cup, will be taking a break from the event for the rest of the year, saying he needs the time to remain competitive with his fellow top-10 players.

He also thinks the Davis Cup is losing its allure when it’s played annually and likened the format of the European football championships, which are played every two years.

“I think it makes sense and would be really interesting and make players really like to play if the Davis Cup is every two years,” said Berdych.

“The World Cup in football is every four years, the European championships every two years, we don’t need four years but two years is a reasonable time.

“Because you finish the semi-final, in September, and after two days I’m getting phone calls asking me what I think about our first round opponents (next year). What’s this? We are going to play the final, enjoy that, let’s be ready for the final and the first question is ‘what do you think about your first round opponents next year?’ This kind of destroys the competition.”

Berdych also made other suggestions including reigning champions being allowed to have a bye in the first round the following year along with moving the final ahead so it doesn’t extend the season past the World Tour Finals.

The world No6 also explained his decision in missing the remaining ties of the season, saying: “I want to take some break because chasing all those (top) guys is really difficult.

“If you look at the calendar, my last two years I missed eight weeks because of Davis cup, four to play the matches and the week after you are dead to play a tournament or even prepare yourself. If you’re supposed to chase them and they have those eight weeks advantage, it’s really difficult.

“So I’ll try to take those weeks for myself, try to see if I am able to use them and maybe be better and move higher in the rankings.”

Berdych comes to Dubai after capturing his first title in 16 months in Rotterdam earlier this month and with fond memories from making the final here last year. But he says he still has a challenging week ahead of him.

“Confidence is one thing but then the tournament always starts from zero, from the first round, and there’s an opponent who really wants to beat you and play well. Yes, it’s an aspect that I can have in my mind that I was playing well and still am, but still there’s a big change coming from indoors, playing here outside. So I just need to start to build it up one more time again, be ready and go for it,” said the No3 seed, who faces qualifier Marius Copil in the opening round.