Tag Archives: Serena Williams

WIMBLEDON: Serena Fumbling Around. Question, but Don’t Assume Worst

 

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Questions are fair. Assumptions are not. And I think people are crossing the line on Serena Williams’ bizarre actions the other day, when she couldn’t catch the ball, couldn’t hold the ball, couldn’t toss the ball, apparently couldn’t see the ball, serve the ball or even hit the ball during warmups and the first few minutes of her Wimbledon doubles match with her sister, Venus Williams.

Three games into the match, after Serena had double-faulted on all four of her service points, including some serves that she hadn’t hit hard enough to get all the way to the net, they retired from the match. Venus held her hand as they walked to the net for the last time.

So what did you see? Because Chris Evert wondered aloud if Serena’s problem was something that needed to be drug-tested for. And Martina Navratilova said it was “clearly” not a sickness. Williams and Wimbledon officials made things worse by saying, overly generically, that the problem was a viral illness.

And the suggestions might be right, or might not be. My inclination is to be concerned for her emotional state before being suspicious of her behavior. I’m still going back to her singles match a few days earlier, when she seemed scared, fought off tears and played poorly. I’m not just saying this in hindsight, either. What I wrote after her singles loss was that she seems afraid.

It stood out. It was different than the Serena we have seen for years.

Don’t assume the worst about her on this. It’s equally possible that Williams’ issues are emotional. People can be emotionally rung out and it can look like this.

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WIMBLEDON: One Player Still Scared of Serena Williams: It’s Serena Williams

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Serena Williams’ fear factor isn’t gone. It has just found a new victim. She isn’t scaring other players anymore. Instead, she’s scaring herself.

It happens. Your name, your history, your age, your reputation, your legacy. It can pile up and be frightening This is my take, anyway, from watching her lose 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Saturday to Alize Cornet in the third round at Wimbledon.

That makes three majors this year, and Williams hasn’t even made it to the quarterfinals of any of them. She has a serious problem, and deep down, she realizes it. Most likely, that’s what’s scaring her.

After losing at Australia, somehow it slipped out that she had an injury and almost didn’t play. At the French? Well, that’s her worst surface. At Wimbledon?

Sorry, no more excuses. Not there, where Williams has won five titles and Cornet is still figuring out how to play on grass.

What stood out about this match was Williams’ complete lack of joy, even when things were going well. Never one smile, never even an upbeat hint of body language. There was emotion, anger, near tears. Williams looked as if she just did not want to be there.

That might be the scariest thing of all.

This is a stepladder going down for Williams. The shocking losses the past year have built up and gradually led everyone, Serena and the other players on tour, to the next step. The message is this: Serena can be beat. Over the past few months, we saw her opponents start to believe. Williams’ ability to bully was fading.

But in this match, it looked as if Williams had taken another step down. It is not just that her opponents believe they can beat her, but also that Williams is afraid to lose.

Martina Navratilova used to talk about this as she got older. She’d say that younger players could swing away without fear, that they didn’t grasp how big things are or what could go wrong.

Even Roger Federer, who, at 32 is the same age as Williams, said on ESPN Saturday that when you get older, the losses seem to be bigger. The important thing, he said, is that you continue to believe that the outcome of your matches is in your hands, on your racquet. Not on your opponents’. He said he feels that way and is sure Williams does, too.

I think Williams is grappling with this entire formula. Part of her still seems to think that sooner or later, she will win these matches. But part of her can’t figure out why her opponents aren’t eventually buckling.

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WIMBLEDON: Retaliation for Crip Walk? Lisicki Gets Honors over Serena Williams

Sabine Lisicki reached the Wimbledon final last year. Officially, that’s why she was selected to play the opening women’s singles match Tuesday at the All England Club.

I wish I believed that’s the main reason they chose her. It’s only suspicion, based on years of anecdotal evidence, that tells me Lisicki was picked partly because of last year, but partly because she is blonde. She is white. She is pretty.

And also because of this: She did not do the Crip Walk on Centre Court.

Is this payback against Serena Williams for her celebratory dance after crushing Maria Sharapova for the Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon in 2012? After all these years, Wimbledon and the Williams sisters still are not a comfortable fit. Even if this snub is just accidental, Wimbledon officials are proving yet again to be too stubborn to move up a few generations and too oblivious to note how it looks. And how it hurts tennis.

Whatever it is, Williams hasn’t complained. The first match at Wimbledon traditionally goes to the defending champ. It’s just an honorary thing, but the little things still carry big messages. The problem is, last year’s champ, Marion Bartoli, has retired. So officials just had to pick someone, like the previous year’s winner (Williams), the No. 1 ranked player (also Williams) or, yes, the loser from last year’s final (Lisicki).

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Sabine Lisicki

They could have put anyone in that match, really. The inspired choice would have been Venus Williams. She is the queen of Wimbledon, but she’s getting old and has physical issues and isn’t going to win another title. What a great chance to honor her one more time. And if not Venus, then Serena, who also has meant so much to the place and the sport. Frankly, it would have sent a good message about Wimbledon, too.

Instead, they picked the young, blonde and white.

Race is always the undeniable undercurrent with the Williams sisters and tennis. It feels as if sexism is involved, too, as blonde gets too much emphasis. A few years ago, Gisela Dulko and Maria Kirilenko were inexplicably put on Centre Court one7 day. Eventually, TV rights holder BBC explained it, saying that appearance on TV is a factor in these decisions.

But with this latest decision, it feels more like continued bickering between Williams and Wimbledon.

“I can’t figure it out yet,” Williams said. “Maybe one day I’ll figure it out.”

No, she didn’t say that on Friday, when Lisicki was given the match. She said it in 2011, after she and Venus were both moved to an outer court, Court 2, on the same day. A year earlier, the Queen of England was coming to Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years. Williams was excited, and talked openly and publicly about how bad her curtsy was. She said she’d been practicing it, and she demonstrated. She wanted to play in front of the Queen. Next thing you knew, on the day of the Queen’s appearance, Serena was put out on Court 2. Centre Court had Brit Andy Murray, No. 1 Rafael Nadal, and also, Caroline Wozniacki, who was. . . Young, blonde and white.

That still seems to be what Wimbledon thinks tennis looks like. It is the most beautiful tennis venue, and feels as if it’s a tennis museum. They still prefer players to wear all white. And while Wimbledon doggedly preserves the old time feeling of tennis, it doesn’t seem to grasp that without taking action, that also preserves an ugly underbelly of the sport’s history. Continue reading


FRENCH OPEN: Old Lady Sharapova, Erases Generation, Becomes Queen of Clay

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In the end, this French Open will be remembered for the Old Lady, I guess. If that’s what we can call Maria Sharapova. She’s just 27, but she single-handedly wiped out a moment that was all about the emergence of Generation Next.

When Serena Williams and Li Na lost early, the tournament was suddenly defined by Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza and Sloane Stephens. It wasn’t the best moment for marketers and TV networks, but women’s tennis needs a refresh. And all four of those young women are compelling and thrilling.

They feel like the right ones. It turned out, Stephens wasn’t ready, isn’t at that level. And then, the marketing dream, Sharapova, wrecked the whole thing, beating Serena-killer Muguruza in the quarters, then Bouchard in the semis, and then Halep 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-4 in the final.

There were just too many backward things going on. Sharapova cannot exactly wreck a moment in a sport with so few faces the general sports public wants to see. She cannot possibly be seen as fearless at the same time that she’s afraid to hit her serve. And more importantly: Sharapova, who once described herself on clay as a cow on ice, is now. . .

The best claycourt player on tour. That’s two French Open titles in the past three years for her, and three finals in a row.

We can celebrate Sharapova’s incredible stick-to-itiveness, as always. But she won this match, this tournament because of her years of experience. That was her advantage.

You can see it as veteran street knowledge, so to speak, or possibly just as gamesmanship. Either way, the woman who has been here a million times knew how to get through this match, and the one here for the first time – first of many – did not.

Sharapova was in an all-out stall. Halep likes to rush, and Sharapova knew how to throw her off. Setting and re-setting before her first serve, and then doing it all again before the second. And all those tosses on her serve that she caught and said, “Sorry’’ as if they were just bad tosses?

I’m not buying. It’s true she has struggled with her toss over the years, but so many of those seemed intentional. Toss and catch. . .and. . .toss. . .again. That was more stalling to get Halep out of her rhythm and give her a whole lot of time to think about what it was she was trying to do. If that was enough time for nervousness to creep into a newcomer’s brain, which has never had to deal with these thoughts before?

Well, so be it.

Halep will be back. We’ve seen some pretend stars emerge, or place-setters the past year or two while Williams starts to lose a little more often. Not sure what happened to Sabine Lisicki. Marion Bartoli was never going to be the real deal, even after she won Wimbledon.

Halep is the next longterm star for tennis. Bouchard is right behind her. Muguruza is not as sure of a thing, but odds are with her. Stephens is going to have to learn to fight, and determine whether there is the needed killer inside of her.

The amazing thing about Sharapova is that she’s doing it on clay. We figured when she emerged as a teenager at Wimbledon, crushing the ball, that the fast courts would be best for her. Now, Roland Garros is her place.

A learning curve? That would be a nice thing to point to. Really, she just seems to be moving better and holding her nerve.

Except on her serve. It’s amazing how she can just blank out flaws, just partition them out of her brain while she keeps fighting. Can’t serve? OK, I’ll be ruthless at all non-serving moments.

She was nervous against Bouchard. You could see it. Bouchard is tall, ruthless, powerful and blonde, and it was almost as if she was a replacement.

Yet despite nerves, despite seeing your replacement, despite a bad serve and iffy moves, Sharapova somehow found a way to be mentally relentless.

The only mental block she hasn’t overcome is Williams. So Sharapova, with five majors, will not go down as the best player ever. I don’t think she’s going to figure that one out.

But if a cow on ice can figure out how to become the Queen of Clay, I wouldn’t bet against her, either.


Tennis Finally Wakes up, Accepts Gate-Crasher Bollettieri into Party

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

At Wimbledon last year, I met with Nick Bollettieri and we talked about his two favorite subjects: tennis and, well, Nick Bollettieri. I told him that I’d done what a lot of journalists do in advance with famous people: I’d already written his obituary.

It should be an unsettling thing for a man in his 80s to hear, but Bollettieri just shook my hand and said, “Thanks. You’re going to need to write it again.’’

I love that. He wasn’t done yet.

Bollettieri has always been part-huckster, part-builder of tennis champions, and the first part of that turned off enough people that they didn’t notice the second part, or just didn’t want to. Despite developing the greatest generation of tennis champions, and defining a model the world would copy, he somehow managed to be seen as tennis’ gate-crasher.

He couldn’t even get into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Until he was voted in this week.

Whatever you think of Bollettieri’s methods or his carnival-barker mentality, it is just such an ugly reflection on tennis that it took so long for him to be honored. By now, you’d think this sport would have learned, would have welcomed people who don’t look like they belonged in tennis’ past. Or sound like it. Or act like it. Or worse: have the pedigree for it.

Shame on tennis for taking so long with Bollettieri.

The trend today is to sign with a coach who has won majors as a player. The more majors, the better. Andy Murray finally won his majors after signing Ivan Lendl, and next thing you knew, Roger Federer signed Stefan Edberg, Novak Djokovic had Boris Becker. Even Kei Nishikori had Michael Chang and Marin Cilic had Goran Ivanisevic.

Here’s one thing to remember: The best player in the world, Rafael Nadal, is coached by. . .

Uncle Toni.

This trend to ex-champs as coaches isn’t going to produce the results players are expecting.

Bollettieri was not a great player. He was not a tour player. To be honest, I don’t really even think he was much of a player at all, though he did play briefly in college.

It’s pure snobbery that it took so long to recognize Bollettieri, who developed Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and others who reached No. 1.

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Being honest, I think he changed things, too, when he went so crazy with Anna Kournikova. She is criticized unfairly, by the way, despite her incredible work ethic making her a top 10 player in a tough era. The problem is, she made a lot of people a lot of money without ever having won a tournament. And now, the premium is on good-looking young girls who can be groomed into top, marketable, players.

That’s sort of sickening, actually.

But back to Bollettieri. Take a look at who makes the best baseball managers. It’s not usually the best former players, but instead the ones who studied the game, who had to truly understand it. It’s the ones who had to find every last angle to make it to the top, or close to it.

I’ll take a career backup catcher as a manager any day. Of course, Bollettieri never even reached that height on the court.

Who cares? It was his vision that found a way to get to the sport’s mountaintop. Again and again.

He founded the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla. in 1978, and his idea was to take the top prospects, put them all together and have them fight each other on the court all day, all night. He is no strategic genius, but did push a new attacking style, from inside the baseline with a massive forehand.

He eventually sold the Academy to IMG, and it has grown into something massive, as shown here in this recent piece by Christopher Clarey in The New York Times. The story also points out that it took a big lobbying effort to get Bollettieri into the Hall this time, from Agassi, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Chris Evert, who all wrote letters to the election panel pushing for him.

He started his first tennis camp with the help of Vince Lombardi. Bollettieri was a tennis instructor at a hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 70s, and Lombardi would come there to play golf. He stopped by the tennis courts one day and told Bollettieri that he was good working with kids, and should do more of it.

Later, when Bollettieri’s career wasn’t going well, he called Lombardi, who helped him to set up a tennis camp in Beaver Dam, Wis.

His Academy was tennis’ first tennis factory, and that led to plenty of criticism. Agassi and Courier, among others, would have a falling out with Bollettieri over his militaristic style. Eventually, they came back into the fold.

So he certainly wasn’t without controversy. But 82 years old, and his plan has led to double-digit players reaching No. 1 in the world. He’s looking to develop another one, too, so he can alter his obituary yet again.

I’ll already have to change one part in his now: The gate-crasher has finally been accepted.


Maui Vacation Refreshing. Davis Cup, Fed Cup Stale

This is where I live, in Chicagoland: 20140217_165553-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is where I went for a while, to Maui: 20140227_182652

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t tell you how bad I feel that this is what I missed:

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Yes, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, the two best American women, representing the U.S. in Federation Cup play against Italy. You can see it clearly right there in the ad.

And it wasn’t just that, but also the whole national team season of Fed Cup and Davis Cup. I missed Switzerland against Serbia in Davis Cup, too. Imagine that: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic.

I missed it all.

OK, so tennis fans already know what I actually missed:

Nothing.

It was just after the Australian Open, and Djokovic pulled out. He was criticized, all but called a traitor, so Serbia lost. Williams and Stephens pulled out, too, so the U.S. lost to Italy’s best. No, that isn’t right. A bunch of backup Americans lost to a bunch of the Italian backups’ backups.

And what did that prove exactly?

Meanwhile, fans had already bought tickets based on the marketing of Serena and Sloane. And fans can’t just pull out. Their money was locked in on a bait-and-switch. I’ve written before that tennis fans need a Bill of Rights, but I’ll get back to that some other time.

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame Williams, Stephens or Djokovic for pulling out. Why on earth would anyone play these things anymore?

The International Tennis Federation has rendered Davis Cup almost entirely irrelevant because it is so out of touch with the times. I’m sorry, but Bill Tilden vs. the Four Musketeers has come and gone.

Tennis is already an international head-to-head event every week all year long. The only thing the ITF has going as a carrot to lure top players to Davis Cup now is that it can guilt them into doing it.

This is just such an easy fix. Tennis can turn these things into two-week World Cup events. Bring all the countries together in one session in one place, play matches two out of three sets, and turn it into a tournament.

I’ve railed on this before, and an ITF official told me it wouldn’t work because there are countries whose entire tennis federation budget comes from low-level Davis Cup ties. Even Argentina, I was told, got its entire puny $2 million a year budget that way.

Fine. Then let the lower levels play things the way they are now in an attempt to qualify for the World Cup of Tennis. There has to be some way to make this interesting in a modern era. If you’re trying to grow the game, and add fans, you can’t do it with such a complicated event.

Who wants to follow a season that runs one week now, one week in a few months, one week a few months after that, with losers splintering off into multi-tiered loser brackets along the way?

No one has that kind of an attention span anymore.

But if you put the top countries together in a World Cup, then you can cut out two weeks from top players’ schedules. Twice that, actually, when you consider all the travel and practice time that would be saved.

Players are always complaining about the season being too long. And it is grueling. With a World Cup of Tennis, you shorten the season and more importantly:

You have an event that fans could really get behind. It would be seen as another major. Players could rest with the extra time off, and would have to give up only two weeks a year for Davis Cup. They’d do it. And general sports fans could understand it.

Which would make advertisers happy. Which would make TV happy.

Even better, tennis could actually use some of the time saved to add something it really needs.

A major in Asia.

But whatever. The ITF thinks it knows better. And that’s why we got matches such as Roger Federer vs. some guy named Ilija Bozoljac and Stan Wawrinka vs. Dusan Lajovic to determine whether Switzerland or Serbia is better at tennis.

Really?

Maybe Serena and Sloane will be back in April when the U.S. plays France in a World Group playoff – loser’s bracket — with the purpose only of being in the winner’s bracket in 2015?

Don’t count on it. I’m thinking Williams is more likely to be in Maui.


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: From Valedictorians to Class Clowns, Here are Grades for the Year’s First Major

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Genie Bouchard. Next.

Genie Bouchard. Next.

We got an inspirational new champion, a re-invented former champion, a few possible future champions and then, well, failure and theater of the absurd. Really, Australian Open officials? It’s OK to have players out there in 110 degree heat because people used to chase antelope in Africa?

WHAT?

So here are the final grades for the Australian Open, of valedictorians, teacher’s pets, class clowns and everything in between.

VALEDICTORIANS

LI NA: In a sport in need of mainstream attention, Li not only gives tennis something every sport dreams of – something to market to the massive population and economy of China – but also a post-championship match victory speech that goes viral. As a result, Li might be the most important player in the women’s game today, maybe even more than Serena Williams. Li was able to win the Australian Open without beating a top player, but that’s not her fault. Eight months ago, with her results failing and the Chinese media ripping her, Li nearly retired. Her work with new coach Carlos Rodriguez has helped the sport big time. Grade: A+

STAN WAWRINKA: Wawrinka’s championship was even more impressive than Li Na’s, considering the tougher competition he had to beat. He spent the past few years thinking he was never going to be able to break through the Big Four in men’s tennis, but finding honor in getting up after every defeat to keep fighting anyway. And then he took down Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. You can’t win two major tennis matches by fluke. He earned this. Grade: A+

TEACHER’S PETS

ANA IVANOVIC: The game has just been waiting for her to get her nerve back. And she came out firing again. She beat Serena Williams, not to mention Sam Stosur, and showed that she’s perfectly capable of being a top 10 player again and a threat to win another major. . .if she keeps believing. Grade A-

ROGER FEDERER: New racquet, new coach (Stefan Edberg), new, aggressive gameplan. Same results? Federer lost to Rafael Nadal again. Well, that is a completely unfair analysis. Federer is finally doing all the right things. It is the only way he’s going to win another major, and he finally seems to realize that. It’s not just that he’s coming to the net, but that he’s trying to step into the ball and attack. Sure, he waffled on it against Nadal. This is all new to Fed. It was a GREAT first step. I was starting to watch him and wonder who he’d lose to next while slicing and dinking. Now, I can’t wait to see him. He still can’t beat Nadal, but he now is a threat to win another major or two. He still has game. He even has a legit shot at the French Open. Grade: A

DOMINIKA CIBULKOVA: Hard to know if Cibulkova just changed her career, but remember this: She came into the Australian Open as a known choker. She left with wins over No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 6 Aga Radwanska and No. 11 Simona Halep before reaching the final. Forgive her for some nerves early in her first major final. That happens. The thing about women’s tennis is that there are only a couple of superstars. The women’s players are sort of cookie-cutter, and if someone with talent and nerves of steel comes along, then it’s going to take a top player playing well to beat her. Hope is that this won’t be Cibulkova’s Melanie Oudin-moment, and that she’ll have found her nerve for the long run. Grade: A+

ACED THE CLASS, FLUNKED THE FINAL

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Aga Radwanska plays brilliantly, wins

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

AGA RADWANSKA: She might have played the match of the tournament in beating Victoria Azarenka. She was everywhere on the court, with just enough power. Azarenka was flustered and confused. And the media hailed Radwanska as a genius for that match. But in her semifinal match against Dominika Cibulkova, Radwanska played as if she had had a lobotomy. I’m not even sure Radwanska tried. When things weren’t working, she kept doing them. There was no hint of strategy. This is the problem with the almost-greats. You see incredible things, and then you are reminded why they don’t reach the mountaintop (see Tomas Berdych). Same thing happened with Radwanska at Wimbledon. So what’s the grade? Well, I think she’s good enough to win a major, and marketable enough to be a star. And that semifinal match was so bad, I can barely remember the Azarenka match. Grade: F.

TOMAS BERDYCH: He reached the semifinals, and then smiled and credited his team when he was told that he had become the only current player outside the Big Four to reach the semis of all four majors. Hey Tomas, that’s not really a compliment. Another way of putting it: You are the only player on tour to reach the semis of all four majors, but never win one. Berdych is adding topspin to his forehand, which is being credited for his recent improved play. I don’t know about that. That flat forehand was the reason he was winning matches. The way he fell apart briefly against David Ferrer in the quarters was shocking. Lost his nerve at moments against Stan Wawrinka in the semis, too, but in hindsight, it’s hard to mark him down too far for losing to the champ. One more thing: there was nothing wrong with Berdych’s much-criticized prison-cell shirts, other than his team was wearing them, too. Grade: B

DAVID FERRER: When he lost to Berdych in the quarters in what I’m calling the Bridesmaid Bowl, he lost his unofficial title as best player never to win a major. He pushed the line judge, too, but at least he isn’t hitting balls into the stands at crying babies anymore. Still fighting hard. Still stuck in the land of almost. Maybe Wawrinka’s win will show him what’s possible. Grade: C

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