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Friday Five: Sizing up the Tour Finals

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Andy Murray is looking for a strong finish to his big year at the World Tour Finals. (Kerim Okten/Landov)

LONDON — Five thoughts on the ATP World Tour Finals as we await Sunday’s semifinals and Monday’s final:

1. World Tour Finals’ place in the game: Tennis.com’s Steve Tignor had a good read analyzing the importance of the ATP’s season finale. My feeling is that year-end championships — whether for the men or the women — are only as important as the players consider them. That means the value of the tournament can vary year by year, player by player.

For instance, I suspect the tournament is quite important this year for Roger Federer and Andy Murray, who are both looking to put a stamp on stellar seasons, and less so for Novak Djokovic, who has clinched the year-ending No. 1 ranking. Also noteworthy is that the event’s significance is undermined by comments from the likes of Janko Tipsarevic, who seems to have prided himself on the work he did to qualify for the tournament rather than the work he’s done at the tournament. Tipsarevic, who has been struggling with what sounds like a cold, sarcastically bragged about making it past the one-hour mark in his 6-0, 6-4 loss to Juan Martin del Potro, saying afterward that he’s playing his worst tennis here but that he’s trying (more on him below). I’m not sure that placates the fans who shelled out a lot of money to watch an 80-minute beatdown.

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  • Published On Nov 09, 2012
  • Friday Five: Wrapping up a bizarre, up-and-down week in tennis

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    Maria Sharapova

    After the WTA Championships, Maria Sharapova was goofing off at an exhibition in Prague. (David W. Cerny/Reuters)

    It’s been a week of bad mojo all over the world and the tennis world was not left unscathed. Blame it on the end of the season if you like, but I’m chalking this week’s series of wacky, weird, and sometimes curious events to All Hallows Eve. How else are we to explain that a Polish qualifier named Jerzy Janowicz, ranked No. 69 in the world, is into the semifinals of an ATP Masters event, yet Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray are not? These are strange times, folks.

    From the scary to the weird to the downright quizzical, here are five of the week’s most unfortunate events.

    1. Maria Sharapova goofs off, but twists her ankle at Prague exhibition: After she lost to Serena Williams at the WTA Championships on Sunday, Sharapova was under the mistaken impression that she wasn’t going to have to pick up a racket for quite some time. When the press reminded her she had an exhibition with Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova in Prague the next day, she looked deflated. “Oh, no. Oopsies. How did I sign up for that one?” I guess Maria knew something we didn’t. The exhibition looked like fun but Sharapova rolled over her ankle a few points before the end of the match. She played on, but boy, that was close. It looked nasty (see the 7:20 mark).

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  • Published On Nov 02, 2012
  • Friday Five: On doping and tennis

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    Wayne Odesnik

    Wayne Odesnik was caught trying to import HGH into Australia and was suspended from the game. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

    Performance-enhancing drugs have been a growing eyesore in sports. From baseball to cycling, increasing allegations of doping have led to stripped titles and asterisks in history books. Tennis has stayed relatively off the radar on the issue as a sport that relies on intelligence and hand-eye coordination more than pure strength, but the game is evolving into a much more physical task. Now, USADA’s report on Lance Armstrong has some parts that the tennis world can’t ignore.

    Here are five thoughts on tennis’ relation to doping, why we should care and why reckless speculation gets us nowhere.

    1. Implications of the Armstrong report: In its 202-page “Reasoned Decision,” USADA paints a clear picture of how the sophisticated, far-reaching doping ring flourished in cycling, a sport in which endurance and recovery are everything. The doctors who allegedly helped the athletes outwit and out-maneuver testers didn’t dabble solely in the cycling world. Most notably, Dr. Luis García del Moral, one of the alleged masterminds of the doping program, has ties to a tennis academy in Valencia, Spain, where David Ferrer, Sara Errani, Marat Safin and Dinara Safina have trained.

    The report also discusses the use of hypoxic chambers to help cyclists fool EPO tests. These are the same hyperbaric chambers that have been used by numerous tennis players, from Novak Djokovic to American Christina McHale. None of this alone means anything, and drawing conclusive links is both dangerous and irresponsible. But they don’t mean nothing either. The Armstrong report puts every sport under the microscope.

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  • Published On Oct 19, 2012
  • Five for Friday: Players who should call up coach Larry Stefanki

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    Larry Stefanki

    Andy Roddick’s former coach, Larry Stefanki, says he’s excited for the next challenge. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    One of my lasting memories from Andy Roddick’s U.S. Open farewell had nothing to do with the drama between the lines or any of the superlative shots he hit during a heartwarming run to the fourth round. No, it was a simple look Roddick shot to his coach, Larry Stefanki.

    There was Roddick, sitting during a rain delay in the first set of what would be his final match, against Juan Martin del Potro. The American led 1-0 in the first-set tiebreaker when the rain that everyone knew was coming finally descended on Flushing Meadows, forcing the players to wait on the court while tournament officials decided what to do.

    Roddick, who had been as relaxed and good-humored as he had been at any tournament in years, looked over to his box with a huge grin and he started … dancing. Well, dancing in the form of the cabbage patch, which I’ll leave to the Center Stage aficionados to decide whether that even constitutes a dance. ESPN smartly cut to a shot of his box to find his coach of almost four years, Larry Stefanki, the intense and stoic figure often hiding under a Lacoste brim, shaking his shoulders to the changeover music. With a straight face, Stefanki juked and jived to the rhythm, drawing a guffaw from Roddick and everyone watching from home. It was private moment between coach and player that was made public by the ever-present cameras, and one that perhaps gave more insight into their coaching relationship-turned friendship than any one-on-one interview could reveal.

    When they teamed up in late 2008, Roddick was coming off a partnership with Jimmy Connors — the two parted ways earlier in the year — and Stefanki had just split from a three-year stint with Fernando Gonzalez. Stefanki’s résumé showed a man of great patience, one who seemed to thrive with intense, borderline explosive personalities such as Gonzalez, Marcelo Rios and John McEnroe. Roddick was looking for one more push and under Stefanki, he got it. Under his tutelage, Roddick made the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2009 and the final of Wimbledon that same year, losing to Roger Federer both times.

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  • Published On Oct 12, 2012
  • Five for Friday: Value of Asian swing

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    Fatigue? A slump? It’s hard read too much into Petra Kvitova’s loss to Petra Martic in Tokyo. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

    Clearing out the notebook with thoughts on the Asian swing, Serena Williams and more.

    1. An opportunity, not a referendum: I catch myself getting excited about the fall Asian swing every year and very rarely does it live up to the hype. No player entry list is reliable given the number of high-profile withdrawals — just yesterday Serena and Venus Williams pulled out of the WTA’s mandatory Beijing tournament because of some well-timed injuries/illnesses — and no win or loss is particularly insightful because the cloud of mental and physical fatigue lingers over the competition. Is Petra Kvitova in a slump because she lost her first match to Petra Martic in Tokyo? Was Milos Raonic’s loss to Jarkko Nieminen in Bangkok much of an upset? It’s hard to gauge because we just don’t know where their energy levels are right now. I’m inclined to believe the players aren’t at their best when the tours hit Asia.

    Perhaps the better way to look at this part of the season is that Asia represents nothing more than opportunity. Power through this portion of the season — regardless of ranking — and players can pick up a slew of points that will stick with them through 75 percent of the next year. That’s a huge advantage as we begin to look at next season, and players’ ability to rack up points through Asia and the European indoors can keep their ranking high regardless of performance next year. One prime example is Donald Young, who stayed in the top 100 for much of this year despite going virtually winless. And then there’s Agnieszka Radwanska. She won Tokyo and Beijing last year, amassing 1,900 points that helped her grab the final spot at the WTA Championships. The late-season surge also set her up to leap into the top three this year.

    While some players may see Asia as a complete waste and would rather skip it or sleepwalk through it, others should be making the most of the opportunity to pick off the low-hanging fruit.

    2. The Race to Istanbul: The WTA Championships are less than a month away and seven players still have a shot to qualify for the final four spots. (Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Radwanska and Serena Williams have already earned berths.) Based on the numbers, Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani should qualify over the next few weeks, which leaves one spot open among four players: Li Na (4,277 points, including Tokyo), Sam Stosur (3,966), Marion Bartoli (3,470) and Caroline Wozniacki (3,280). With 1,000 points up for grabs in Beijing, along with tournaments in Moscow, Linz, Osaka and Luxembourg over the next few weeks, this one could get close.

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  • Published On Sep 29, 2012
  • Five for Friday: Teens making noise

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    Great Britain’s Laura Robson, 18, has reached a WTA final for the first time. (Zumapress)

    Clearing out the notebook on a day when another teenager scored a milestone victory.

    1. Youth in revolt: It’s been a banner month for the WTA Tour’s teenagers. Last week in Uzbekistan, 16-year-old Croat Donna Vekic became the youngest WTA finalist in six years, putting her well within striking distance of being the youngest woman in the top 100 by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the woman who currently owns that distinction, 18-year-old Laura Robson, has followed up her breakthrough fourth-round run at the U.S. Open (where she upset Kim Clijsters and Li Na) by making her first career final this week, in Guangzhou, China. How long has it been since a British woman even reached a final? Well, Robson wasn’t even born yet when Jo Durie played for the Newport title in 1990. If she defeats Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei on Saturday, Robson would become the first Brit to win a WTA singles title since 1998 1988. That’s no 76-year Ghost of Fred Perry, but it would mark the end of what has been a tremendous — and not in a good way — drought for British women’s tennis.

    Amid all the talk the last few years about players’ success in their late 20s or 30s — from the late bloom of Francesca Schiavone and Li to the continued dominance of Serena Williams — the flip side has been the lingering questions about whether teenage phenoms would ever succeed like they did in the previous three decades. Only four teenagers are ranked in the top 100 — Sloane Stephens (No. 37), Timea Babos (No. 60), Robson (No. 74) and Kristina Mladenovic (No. 95) — and it’s been six years since a teenager won a Slam. Maria Sharapova owns that distinction, winning the U.S. Open in 2006 at 19.

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  • Published On Sep 21, 2012
  • Five for Friday: Some rule changes we’d really like to see

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    Rafael Nadal

    Rafael Nadal takes heat for the amount of time he uses between points. (Getty Images)

    For all the discussion about grunting and how that affects the women’s game — and regardless of how you feel about grunting (I personally don’t mind it) you have to admit it drives fans away — the equivalent issue in the men’s game seems to be the time the men take between points. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the faces of the problem, what with their meticulous towelling routines and incessant ball-bouncing in tense moments, but they are not even close to being the only offenders.

    With that in mind, the ATP announced a rule change that it hopes will empower umpires to enforce the rule regarding excess time between points. Under the current rules, a player who takes more than 25 seconds between points will be penalized with a warning. That’s the rule but it has hardly been enforced consistently by umpires. But beginning in 2013, for the second and all subsequent violations of time rule, the penalty sill be a fault to the server or a point penalty to the receiver, depending on the violator. Currently the rule calls for a point penalty on the repeat offender.

    “There’s been a lot of discussion about the amount of time taken between points,” said ATP Executive Chairman and President Brad Drewett. “We believe this modification will give officials a useful tool and allow for more consistent enforcement of the current time violation rule.”

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  • Published On Sep 14, 2012
  • Friday Five: Lesser-known players to watch at the U.S. Open

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    Stanford’s Mallory Burdette won her first WTA-level match this year at the Bank of the West classic. (Getty Images)

    If the recent Olympic games reminded us of anything it’s that we, America, are a country of winners. I’m not talking about the fact that we tend to produce a heck of a whole lot of them, I’m talking about our unfailing ability (or need) to care only for those who finish first or have a chance to finish first. You can see that in the discussion that has already dominated the U.S. Open. Roger! Serena! Novak! Maria! Andy! Petra! If you’re not in the mix for the crown your name will rarely come up.

    Yet the other thing the Olympics taught us is that the compulsion to scream “Second place is the first loser!” from the top of the London Eye is a whole load of bull. Every athlete has a story and for 95 percent of them their success is not measured in medals, titles, or even wins. In tennis, winning one match, two matches, or even just qualifying is a career-defining success. You might not walk away with any hardware, but respect and a handful of people not whispering “Who is that?” as you walk to the locker room ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at.

    So here are five players you may not know about who have a chance to do something special when the U.S. Open starts Monday.

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  • Published On Aug 24, 2012
  • Five for Friday: Major changes could be in store for college tennis

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    MASON, Ohio — Clearing out the notebook at the Western & Southern Open, the last major tune-up event for the U.S. Open …

    1. Collegiate protest: The tennis community is in an uproar over the NCAA’s plans to change the college game. The most notable and problematic change is the elimination of a best-of-three match in singles, with a 10-point match tiebreaker replacing the third set. The NCAA argues that the move — coupled with other tweaks such as scrapping the warmup between players and reducing the time between changeovers — will shorten matches and tennis meets (which can run more than four hours), making the sport more fan-friendly and marketable for television.

    Understandably, collegiate players past and present are dead set against the changes, and the USTA and ITA are preparing a joint opposition letter in response to the NCAA. Players such as John Isner (who tweeted this in reaction to the news), James Blake, Lisa Raymond and Bob and Mike Bryan have pointed to their collegiate experience as a formative time when they were able to hone their tennis, develop physically and learn how to compete in preparation for the professional tour.

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  • Published On Aug 17, 2012
  • Five for Friday: Novak Djokovic comes back to earth

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    Time to put the medals away and get back to our regularly scheduled programming. The men are being peppered with rain in Toronto, and the women are across the Canadian way in Montreal. Let’s clear out the notebook:

    Novak Djokovic set the bar high in 2011, so it’s no surprise he’s cooled off a bit this season. (Zumapress)

    Back to earth: No one thought Novak Djokovic would be able to replicate his monstrous 2011, when he went 43-0 to start the year, won three Grand Slams tournaments and took over the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career. Indeed, he hasn’t come close to matching his performance this year, even though on paper he’s still had a great season: an Australian Open title coming from a near six-hour grind against Rafael Nadal; a Miami title; semifinals or better at nine of his 10 tournaments. Should we really be concerned about the No. 2 player in the world who has won a major, made the final of another and the semis of the third? In short: yes.

    The concerns rain down not because of the results themselves — losses to Rafael Nadal on clay and Roger Federer on grass aren’t just par for the course, they’re generally expected — but the fact that Djokovic hasn’t been able to summon anything near his best when he’s come up against them since Australia. He was fortunate to get the win over Federer in the French Open semifinals, a match in which Federer repeatedly gave up break leads. Otherwise, the Serb has lacked the intensity and confidence that was his hallmark last year. It’s one thing if Djokovic was fighting and thrashing on his way to these losses. At least then we might be comfortable saying his best simply wasn’t good enough. Yet the overwhelming sense I get is that he hasn’t been able to tap into that passion and belief to play his inspired brand of tennis.

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  • Published On Aug 10, 2012


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