2014/04/24

Canada Wins Historic World Group Playoff Tie Against the Slovak Republic

Eugenie Bouchard

Eugenie Bouchard

By Charles David Mathieu-Poulin

(April 20, 2014) QUEBEC CITY – It wasn’t as easy as the final score looks to be, but Canada managed to sweep the first three singles rubbers in order to defeat higher ranked Slovak Republic On Sunday in the Fed Cup World Group playoff in Quebec City, Canada. After the two long three set battles of Saturday went Canada’s way, Eugenie Bouchard finished things off against Jana Cepelova not without saving a set point in the first set.

Indeed, it was Cepelova who was playing the best tennis early on, getting numerous break points in the first three Bouchard service games. While she wasn’t able to convert on her first five tries, she did do so on her sixth, getting a 5-3 lead with the first break of the set. But for the fourth time of this tie, she then failed to serve for a set, getting broken at love. It didn’t stop her from getting a set point in the next service game, but the Canadian erased it with a clear forehand winner. While both players held to force a tiebreak, it was then Bouchard who drew first blood, taking a quick 4-1 lead, then a 6-4 lead with an ace. But it was then her time to falter, as she double faulted on her first set point, then missed on the second. Somehow, she did manage to win the next two points and, once again, Canada came out on top of a set they probably shouldn’t have won.

The loss of this close first set seemed to affect Cepelova mentally, but also physically, as she seemed to get stiff in the neck area and was constantly rolling her shoulders to release tension. Her serve, which isn’t her biggest weapon to start with, suffered from it and became easy attackable for Bouchard, who then went on to win five straight games and what seemed like an insurmountable lead.  One game way from an historic win, Bouchard did start missing a touch more, while Cepelova started giving a last effort in order to get back. It did work, and after the Slovak won her serve for 5-1, then broke and held again, Genie saw her lead melt off to only one break. The crowd, which was getting quite excited at the prospect of a quick second set, started getting worried when Bouchard got down 15-30 in that 5-3 game. But strong serving and a few misses from Cepelova helped Genie sweep through the last three points, and send Canada into the World Group in 2015.

There was a lot of attention on Bouchard this weekend, as she has been rising up the ranks and is becoming quite the celebrity in her home country. But there was a small glitch in her armor, as she ruffled a lot of feathers with her Handshake-Gate on Friday at the draw ceremony. Indeed, she then refused to shake her opponent’s hand in front of the cameras, describing the photo-op as ‘’lame’’. Whether or not it affected her on court is tough to say, but her performance all weekend, and her overall body language throughout both matches, were off.

But Bouchard’s strong self-confidence is well-known, and she proved it again during this tie. Despite having issues finding her range with her groundstrokes and spirited opponents, she managed to raise her level when she needed to, a sign of greater things to come. She saved set points in both first sets of her matches, then closed them out in tiebreaks, and found ways to reel off series of games to close out the matches. Champions step it up on important points, and she proved again that she might be becoming one quicker than expected.

This win was remarkable from Canada, as they had been struggling to get out of the America Zone in the past years. Before this weekend, they had not reached the World Group since 1994, when the top 16 countries were present; it is therefore their first trip into the Elite 8. They have defeated Ukraine, Serbia and the Slovak Republic in the past 12 months, three countries with better Fed Cup résumés and will now be waiting to see who their first round opponent will be in 2015 out of Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia, Italy, Poland, Russia and France.

On a side note, the doubles match, a dead rubber, saw Slovakian team of Schmiedlova/Husarova beat Canadians Fichman/Dabrowski 6-4 5-7 11-9, leading to a final score of 3-1 for Canada.

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Canada fights to 2-0 lead in World Group Playoff Tie against the Slovak Republic

Eugenie Bouchard'

Eugenie Bouchard’

By Charles David Mathieu-Poulin

 

(April 19, 2014) QUEBEC CITY – It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t always pretty, but Canada managed to take a commanding 2-0 lead against the Slovakian squad on the first day of their World Group Playoff tie in Quebec City. While Aleksandra Wozniak had to throw everything but the kitchen sink at young Jana Cepelova in order to get the first point, Eugenie Bouchard probably made Brad Gilbert proud with a textbook example of ‘winning ugly’ in the second match against an inspired Kucova.

On paper, the Wozniak-Cepelova match was the most intriguing: the Canadian is a seasoned Fed Cup competitor with almost 50 matches under her belt, while Cepelova is an up-an-coming star who was still on a high after her dream Charleston run a few weeks ago when she beat Serena Williams en route to losing in the final to Andrea Petkovic. While the ranking gap between both highly favored the Slovakian, the Canadian is coming back from a series of serious injuries, went as high as 21st in the world and thus couldn’t be counted out.

The first set saw both players exchange a large number of breaks, but it was Cepelova who took the early lead, as Wozniak seemed tentative and struggling to find her usual aggressive game. On the other hand, the young Slovak was controlling points with her heavy forehand and kept Wozniak on her toes with a few of her infamous dropshots. While the Canadian started finding her form, it was too little too late as Cepelova broke at 5-4 despite Wozniak having two game points: it was the seventh break of the set.

The first half of the second set followed the same pattern, as Wozniak’s level dropped early and Cepelova kept the pressure on the Canadian’s serve. Down 6-4 5-2, the crowd didn’t have much hope for their home player, but better serving, lower unforced errors, better strategy (everything on the backhand) and a few tight games from Cepelova, who was two points away from the match at both 5-3 and 5-4, helped Wozniak level things off at 5-all. Playing more aggressively, being less tentative and serving much better, the Canadian won the last two games comfortably to force a third.

Oddly enough, the same scenario was repeated in the third set, as Cepelova, who was clearly the most consistent aggressor of the two, took another early lead, only to see Wozniak get back at 3-all. That’s when the match reached its peak, as both players started playing their best tennis and had numerous long, entertaining and varied rallies. Cepelova’s fighting spirit got her through the next two tight games, as she gave herself a second chance to serve out the match…only to get broken again. Serving to stay in the match, Wozniak unleashed a super down-the-line forehand winner to get out of a close game, which resulted in a standing ovation from the crowd of about 2000. Unphased, Cepelova got to a quick 40-0 lead in her next service game, only to see Wozniak reel off 5 straight points, then serve out the match quite easily for a hard-found 4-6  7-5 7-5 win. It was Wozniak’s 39th Fed Cup singles win, and probably the most dramatic of them all. After all she went through in the past few months, Wozniack seemed quite emotional in the on-court interview, as she held back tears of joy.

After such a dramatic match, the crowd expect a walk in the park for Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, Canada’s top ranked player. While she was ranked more than 100 places higher than her opponent Kucova, it seemed like the roles were reversed at the start. Indeed, the Slovak came out firing with her two-handed shots on both sides, attacking early, hitting deep and flat, taking Genie off guard. The Canadian, on the other hand, looked flat and a bit snappy and struggled to keep the ball in play, getting rapidly in a 0-3 hole. While she managed to steady the ship and get back to 3-all, the Slovak kept her cool, followed her game plan and soon got to set point on Bouchard’s serve at 5-3. That’s when Bouchard decided to raise her level, saving a total of four set points in that game and then breaking to level things off at 5-5. After two holds, the set reached a tiebreak and despite coming from behind all set long, Bouchard managed to reel seven straight points by cleaning up her game and raising the aggression level.

After getting so close and failing to close out the set, one could have expected Kucova, ranked outside the top 100, to give up early in the second. But this would be underestimating the Slovak, who started playing lights out tennis and hitting numerous winners out of everywhere in the court, both as an attacker and when defending. On the other hand, Bouchard was average at best, and never managed to get a grip on a set that rapidly, and surprisingly, went the way of Slovak Republic on a score of 6-2.

The crowd was getting used to changes in momentum, as there were plenty all day, and the start of the third set saw yet another one. Bouchard, who seemed to find better form, took an early 2-0 lead, and even had chances for a double break for 3-0. But Kucova, who gained quite a few fans in the stands today as she showed a tremendous amount of heart, kept on fighting and getting to balls that seemed impossible to reach, and managed to hold for 1-2. That’s when her body started struggling, as she started to stretch between points and seemed to be out of breath. It didn’t take much more for Genie to smell blood and move her around, and while she was playing arguably better than Bouchard for most of the match, Kucova just couldn’t keep up with such a level after over two hours. The Canadian won the last four games, and the match, to give Canada a 2-0 lead.

This match was a great example of a superior player who is struggling against an opponent playing lights-out tennis, but who manages to find a way to win. And while she was clearly frustrated with her level after the match, the situation was well summarized by Sylvain Bureau, Canada’s captain: ”No matter how we did it, in the end, we finish the day leading 2-0. All we need tomorrow is to win one match and we will focus on that”.

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Charles David Mathieu-Poulin blogs for WtaQuebec www.wtaquebec.com, a website promoting local Quebec players. He is covering the Fed Cup in Quebec City for Tennis Panorama News. Follow him on twitter @earthstroke, follow his coverage on @TennnisNewsTPN.

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Canada Early Favorite in World Group Playoff Tie against the Slovak Republic

Eugenie Bouchard

Eugenie Bouchard

By Charles David Mathieu-Poulin

(April 18, 2014) QUEBEC CITY – Once again, it seems as though home soil advantage may pay off again for the Canadian Fed Cup squad, as they aim to reach the World Group for the first time in 20 years against Slovak Republic this weekend in Quebec City. While the best available players showed up on the Canadian side in Eugenie Bouchard, Aleksandra Wozniak, Fichman and Dabrowski, the visiting crew will be trying to defend their World Group spot without Dominika Cibulkova, Daniela Hantuchova and Rybarikova, its best three players.

Three Slovakian players are absent – Cibulkova who decided to play a hardcourt event in Kuala Lumpur this week instead and Rybarikova, who withdrew due to back injury right before heading on court in a 6-2, 6-0 win in Katowice last week actually just decided to skip the tie. Similarly to Canada’s last tie played against a depleted Serbian team last February, it thus seems like the crowd favorites might pull off what is, in theory, an upset.

Aleksandra Wozniak, Canada’s oldest player on the team at 26, will start things off on Saturday against Jana Cepelova, who is just coming back from the finals in Charleston, by far the biggest accomplishment of her young career. While the Slovakian might be on the rise, she has limited Fed Cup experience (only 5 matches played, compared to 37 matches in 33 ties for her opponent, a national record) and the fast surface at Laval University is far from the green har-tru of South Carolina. On the other hand, except for a spark of brilliance in Indian Wells, Wozniak has been struggling since coming back from injury last year, and while a former number 21 in the world, she has yet to prove that she is completely back to her old form. This match is probably the most intriguing of the weekend and a must-win for the Slovak Republic: a win by Wozniak could possibly already seal the deal for Canada right from the get-go.

While Wozniak has been quite popular in her native province of Quebec over the years, it is nothing compared to the attention young Eugenie Bouchard has received over the past few months. Named WTA’s Best Newcomer in 2013 and a semi-finalist at the 2014 Australian Open, she is now in the top 20 and arguably one of the most marketable players out on the tour right now. While most players seem to struggle dealing with pressure, it seems like Genie thrives for it: being the number 1 player of the team suits her well, and she should prove it in the second match of the tie against relatively unknown Kristina Kucova. In a surprising move, Slovakian Captain Matek Liptak has indeed preferred Kucova, ranked 137th, to up-an-coming Schmiedlova (68th). While the reasons behind this choice are unknown (injuries, playing styles, favorite surfaces), Genie will be the strong favorite heading into this match.

In the reverse singles on Sunday, Bouchard should face Cepelova first, while Kucova is scheduled to face Wozniak. Depending on Kucova’s performance against Bouchard, don’t be surprised if Schmiedlova is actually sent on court for that one. In the deciding doubles match, Canadians Fichman and Dabrowski should face Cepelova and Husarova, who at 40 is by far the veteran of both teams and was remarkably part of the last Slovakian team to win the Fed Cup title in 2002. While Fichman and Dabrowki are Canada’s highest ranked doubles players, Canadian captain Sylvain Bruneau could well decide to throw Bouchard in the mix for the doubles match with Fichman, like he did last minute last year against Ukraine. A bold move that worked out well then, but that left Dabrowski, understandably, quite frustrated. Let’s just hope she doesn’t hold a grudge.

 

Match Schedule – Canada vs Slovak Republic World Group Playoff Tie

PEPS at Laval University, Quebec City

 

Saturday, April 19th (3pm ET).

Aleksandra Wozniak (CAN) vs. Jana Cepelova (SVK)

Eugenie Bouchard (CAN) vs. Kristina Kucova (SVK)

 

Sunday, April 20th (1pm ET).

Eugenie Bouchard (CAN) vs Jana Cepelova (SVK)

Aleksandra Wozniak (CAN) vs Kristina Kucova (SVK)

Gabriela Dabrowski/Sharon Fichman (CAN) vs Jana Cepelova/Janetta Husarova (SVK)

Charles David Mathieu-Poulin blogs for WtaQuebec www.wtaquebec.com, a website promoting local Quebec players. He is covering the Fed Cup in Quebec City for Tennis Panorama News. Follow him on twitter @earthstroke, follow his coverage on @TennnisNewsTPN.

Canada Early Favorite in World Group Playoff Tie against the Slovak Republic

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Benoit Paire Returns to ATP Tour with Win in Casablanca

 

Benoit Paire photo by Florian Heer

Benoit Paire photo by Florian Heer

By Florian Heer

(April 10, 2014) CASABLANCA – Six second round matches took place on Thursday at the Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca. In warm but misty conditions, yesterday’s ATP World Tour first-time winner Roberto Carballés-Baena opened a bid for a place in the quarterfinals by taking on fifth-seeded Joao Sousa, who currently sits at a career high No. 38 in the ATP Rankings. The Portuguese became the first player from his country to break into the top 50. Sousa also won the two previous meetings between the two in straight sets on Future level back in 2011.

Thursday it became a more even affair and the two first sets had to be decided in a tie-break. It was a classic clay court match with long an intense rallies, eventually with the better ending for the 21-year-old from Tenerife. Carballés-Baena gained two breaks in the final set to take the match winning 6-7, 7-6, 6-2 in three hours and thirteen minutes.

The Spaniard will face Andrey Kuznetsov next. The lucky loser from Russia, who replaced the tournament’s actual second seed, Gael Monfils, defeated Jiri Vesely 6-2, 3-1 on court two when the Czech was forced to retire due to sickness after only 44 minutes.

Back on centre court was a crowd favorite, Benoit Paire has returned to tournament play for the first time since the Australian Open after recovering from a knee injury. The Frenchman advanced into the quarterfinal in Casablanca for the last two consecutive years and repeated this achievement through a victory against Albert Montaňés in one hour and 37 minutes winning 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

Pablo Carreňo-Busta defeated another player, who collected his first ATP World Tour win yesterday, Aleksandr Nedovyesov. The world No. 64 from Spain recovered from a set down and finally had the better ending in winning 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 in one hour and 50 minutes.

The 22-year-old from Gijón will face compatriot Marcel Granollers. The latter defeated Albert Ramos in an all-Spanish-affair 6-3, 7-6 in 100 minutes in the final match of the day. Granollers convinced with aggressive tennis and also some solid serve and volley play. It was the first time since Chennai that the 27-year-old from Barcelona did not fall in his opening match.

A fourth Spaniard will complete in Friday’s quarterfinals when Guillermo Garcia-López took out Carlos Berlocq winning 6-2, 7-5 in one hour and 53 minutes.

Florian Heer travels the tennis tour with a focus on ATP Challenger events and the ITF Future Circuit!  Follow his twitter account @Florian _Heer.

 

RESULTS – THURSDAY, 10 APRIL 2014

Singles – Second Round
[3] B Paire (FRA) d A Montanes (ESP) 64 57 64
[4] M Granollers (ESP) d A Ramos (ESP) 63 76(3)
[Q] R Carballes Baena (ESP) d [5] J Sousa (POR) 67(7) 76(5) 62
[8] G Garcia-Lopez (ESP) d C Berlocq (ARG) 62 75
P Carreno Busta (ESP) d O Nedovyesov (KAZ) 36 61 76(3)
[LL] A Kuznetsov (RUS) d J Vesely (CZE) 62 31 ret. (sickness)

Doubles – Quarter-finals
T Bednarek (POL) / L Dlouhy (CZE) d [3] C Fleming (GBR) / J Marray (GBR) 26 64 10-8
D Bracciali (ITA) / F Delbonis (ARG) d [4] O Marach (AUT) / F Mergea (ROU) 76(3) 36 10-6

SCHEDULE – FRIDAY, 11 APRIL 2014

COURT CENTRAL start 12:00 noon
V Hanescu (ROU) vs [6] F Delbonis (ARG)
Not Before 1:30 pm
[4] M Granollers (ESP) vs P Carreno Busta (ESP)
[8] G Garcia-Lopez (ESP) vs [3] B Paire (FRA)
[Q] R Carballes Baena (ESP) vs [LL] A Kuznetsov (RUS)

COURT 2 start 1:00 pm
T Bednarek (POL) / L Dlouhy (CZE) vs [2] J Murray (GBR) / J Peers (AUS)
Not Before 2:00 pm
After Suitable Rest – [1] J Rojer (NED) / H Tecau (ROU) vs D Bracciali (ITA) / F Delbonis (ARG)

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Djokovic Handily Defeats Nadal at Sony Open For A Second Indian Wells-Miami Double

By Kevin Ware

(March 30, 2014) KEY BISCAYNE – In a result that few expected, Novak Djokovic handily beat Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-3 in the Sony Open men’s final for his fourth title in Miami (2007, 2011, 2012, 2014). This win is also his fourth Masters Series title win in a row (Shanghai, Paris, Indian Wells, Miami), and his second Indian Wells-Miami double.

More importantly, it was his third straight win over his Spanish rival before the start of the clay season, which could make for interesting drama in run up to the French Open.

Sunday’s match between Djokovic and Nadal was the 40th meeting in what has become the most prolific rivalry in ATP history. Many expected Sunday’s match to provide an encore to their epic 2011 final. But after fending off his only break point in his first service game of the match, Novak eventually settled into a ground game for which Nadal had few answers.

For Nadal, the key to winning this match was threefold: serve well, vary his ground game, and defend the Djokovic “down the line” backhand with aggressive hitting on his own backhand. There were early signs, however, that Nadal’s weaponry was misfiring.

He struggled to find the necessary depth on his crosscourt forehand, his backhand often sailed long, and Djokovic rarely allowed him to tee off on his preferred inside-out forehand. Conversely, once Djokovic found his range on his backhand and forehand shots, Nadal was on constant defense with little chance to assert his game on his Serbian opponent.

The crucial break in the first set came at 3-2 on the Nadal serve. Struggling to find his first serve, Nadal quickly sank to Love-30 with the help of a Djokovic touch volley winner and an untouchable crosscourt backhand winner. A timely unreturnable serve gave Nadal a glimmer of hope, but was quickly snuffed out by an amazing baseline-kissing Djokovic forehand followed by a Nadal backhand unforced error.

That one break was all that Djokovic needed to close out the first set in 39 minutes.

Nadal’s usually reliable serve let him down badly in the final. His first serve percentage of 59% wasn’t great, but his 47% second serve percentage was major a liability. Nadal’s lacking offensive game stemmed from an inability to defend second serves that were often 80-90 mph. Then again, it’s difficult to defend that speed at the top of the men’s game, even with perfect placement.

There was concern that perhaps a flair-up of his earlier back issues was affecting his serve speed. Nadal, always reluctant to talk about injury issues, gave a curt, “I am fine.  Thank you very much” when asked about this in post-match press.

The second set continued as the first ended, with Nadal struggling on offense, and Djokovic confidently hitting every shot in his repertoire. There were moments when Nadal’s offensive game surfaced, only to be muted by one of his many unforced errors on the next point. Nadal fought as best he could, but couldn’t stop the inevitable as Djokovic ended the long championship point rally with a volley into open court.

Nadal ended the match with 15 winners against 20 unforced errors. Djokovic’s numbers were significantly better at 22 winners against 14 unforced errors. In matches that are determined by a handful of points, it’s hard to overcome this type of deficit.

For Nadal, however, the primary cause for Sunday’s final failures was the superior play of his opponent. Djokovic is one of the few players who can hurt Nadal when he’s playing his best tennis. He can hurt Nadal in many ways, and with few defensive options.

“So playing against him is the worst thing that can happen for me, because in general, talking about the first two shots, he has a better return than my one, he has a better serve than my one in this surface, especially.”

“Today Novak played at very high level in my opinion and was better than me.”

In sharp contrast to the relief displayed by Djokovic after his win over Roger Federer at Indian Wells, the newly-crowned Miami champion came into Sunday’s post-match news conference smiling, happy, and obviously looking forward to continuing his momentum as the tour moves to European clay. He credited the confidence from that Federer win for much his strong play in Miami.

“That was a great confidence boost for me that I carried on in this week, and this tournament has been perfect from the beginning to the end.  The matches that I have played I played really well, and I elevated my game as the tournament progressed.  The best performance of the tournament came in the right moment on Sunday against the biggest rival (Nadal).”

When asked if he was glad that Djokovic existed to offer him a challenge”, Nadal quickly (and jokingly) said, “No.  I like challenges, but I am not stupid.”

In a telling reversal, Novak offered a very different viewpoint on the challenge of playing his rivals. “I think challenges, big challenges that I had in my career changed me in a positive way as a player. Because of Rafa and because of Roger I am what I am today…”

“Obviously it’s not easy when you’re playing a top rival at the finals of any tournament, but if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, you know.  You have to win against the best players in the world. That’s the biggest challenge you can have.”

Nadal’s loss in Sunday’s final continued a disappointing trend for Spaniards in Miami. No Spanish men have won the title in the tournament’s 30-year history, and are 0-7 in the Miami final. Nadal lost in four of those finals, and is joined by David Ferrer (2013), Carlos Moya (2003), and Sergi Brugera (1997).

Kevin Ware was in Key Biscayne covering the Sony Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Williams Continues Her Domination Over Sharapova To Reach 9th Miami Final

 

By Kevin Ware

(March 27, 2014) Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova in straight sets 6-4, 6-3 to reach her ninth final in Key Biscayne. Williams came into this semifinal the prohibitive favorite, owing to her 15-2 head-to-head against Sharapova. But it was quickly evident that Williams’ best level hadn’t quite made it to the court by match time.

In a repeat of their 2013 final, Sharapova came out ready to play her best tennis from the very first point. She came out hitting the ball hard, deep, and into the corners. In typical fashion, she struggled with her first serve percentage, but still managed to start the match with a crucial hold.

Williams was slow to get going, and unable to take advantage of her many chances at the Sharapova second serve. She even struggled with her own potent serve at the outset, and was broken in the fourth game for a 4-1 Sharapova lead.

While this type of deficit might lead many players to panic, Williams kept her focus on the big picture. “I thought, Okay, I’m only down a break.  It was really just one break.  The scoreline looked bigger than what it was.  I felt if I could just break back, then I would be back in the match.”

Williams came back after the changeover with her “A” game ready to go. She methodically held serve for 2-4 before breaking Sharapova twice to take the first set 6-4. Her early sluggishness was replaced by big hitting, sharp angles, and untouchable serves.

The slump in Sharapova’s shoulders after Williams held at love for the set said it all. She has chances for a win if Williams is off her game, but knows that it’s going to be tough to beat Williams if she regains here form.

Sharapova was asked about Williams’s ability to take her game to another level when needed, and simply replied, “That’s why she’s No. 1 in the world.”

“There are always going to be drops. But she’s the player that is most capable of coming back from that or regaining focus and regaining that concentration as someone that’s ultimately going to do better.”

There was a glimmer of hope for Sharapova at the start of the second set when Williams took her foot off the pedal for a two-game walkabout that included lax defense, minimal footwork, and one of the worst drop shots seen at this year’s tournament. But Williams again raised her level as needed to break back for a 2-1 lead.

After Sharapova was broken at love in the seventh game of the second set for a 4-3 Williams lead, there was little chance this match might even go the distance to a third. Sharapova fought hard, but ultimately wilted under pressure. A forehand into the net handed Williams her 15th straight win over her Russian opponent.

Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in almost a decade, with her last victory coming at the 2004 WTA Championships in Los Angeles. And while many believe this to be one of the WTA’s big rivalries, she is quick to remind everyone that it’s not much of a rivalry until she can get a win.

When asked about their lopsided “rivalry”, Sharapova attempted to put a positive spin on the situation. “I mean, despite my results against her, I still look forward to playing against her because you learn so much from that type of level which she produces.”

“You finish the match, and you know where you need to improve and the things that you need to work on.”

In spite of her win, Williams remained subdued in the press room afterward, fending off questions of rivalries and potential challengers. She takes no one for granted, and views every opponent as a potential rival.

“I mean, everyone I play always plays me hard, so I feel like every match I play I literally have to be on my best, so for me I take a rival as every match, and I think that’s one of the best ways to take it.”

“You have to show up, and if you don’t show up, then your biggest threat will be yourself.”

Williams has won the title in Miami a record six times, one more than Steffi Graf. A seventh title would give her the record for the most Miami titles of all, surpassing the great Andre Agassi.

Williams will face Li Na in Saturday’s final after her late-night three-set win over Dominika Cibulkova.

Kevin Ware is in Key Biscayne covering the Sony Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Djokovic Fends Off a Strong Murray Challenge to Reach Miami Semis

 

By Kevin Ware

(March 26, 2014) Wednesday’s quarterfinal match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray was undoubtedly going to provide a good test for both heading into the clay season. For Djokovic, it would provide a test of his newfound confidence after winning Indian Wells. For Murray, it would provide a much-needed gauge for the status of his game as well as his fitness.

In the end, Djokovic won in straight sets 7-5, 6-3. But it would be safe to say that each player got what they needed from this encounter.

Conditions were windy at the start of the match, and picked up slightly throughout the match. Djokovic initially handled the conditions best, hitting cleanly with depth from both sides. and effectively his serve. Conversely, Murray started loosely with shanks on his forehand wing and backhands into the net.

Fortunately for Murray, his stellar defense was on full display, saving him in many of the longer rallies. And any questions of fitness after his back issues in the R16 were answered as Murray sprinted from sideline to sideline in pursuit of Djokovic’s shots: with no sign of his signature grabbing at his back or legs.

The first real signs of trouble for Murray came in the fourth game. His only double fault of the first set gave Djokovic his first break point of the match. Murray fended off that break point, and then another, before winning the game with a spectacular forehand crosscourt shot that the replay showed kissed the outside of the line.

Djokovic faced his first break point of the match in the eleventh game after back-to-back double faults. The break was saved by an untimely forehand unforced error from Murray: one of his 29 unforced errors on the day. Novak held with an ace, forcing Murray to hold to force the tiebreak.

Controversy followed, however, in the twelfth game when a strong Djokovic return on the Murray serve set up an easy volley at the net. Replays on the stadium’s monitors showed Djokovic reaching over the net. Murray, who’d initially questioned the chair, saw his suspicions confirmed. He argued for the point, but to no avail.

Djokovic came to the net with Murray, and admitted reaching over to hit the volley. He wasn’t aware of any rule against doing so, and thought he’d won the point. “I thought that it’s allowed, to cross, you know, the racquet on his side without touching the net. That’s why I thought I won the point. I did not know that the rule is that I’m not allowed to cross the net.”

Murray, who was clearly distracted by the chair’s refusal to grant him the point, lost the next three points to lose the service game at love and with it, the set. “He (the umpire) said, yes, he was over the net, but he was in line with the net, so I didn’t understand really.”

In spite of the controversy, Murray acknowledged that it was only one game. He declined to give it any more credit than due, focusing instead on his missed chances in the second set. “I mean, it maybe had a slight bearing on that game, but I was still up a break in the second set.”

That break came in the fifth game when, in spite of two well-placed aces, Djokovic was broken for the first time in the match. Instead of making the most of this opportunity, Murray played a loose game and was broken again to level at 3-all. Novak played well enough, but Murray was hurt by two ill-timed double faults (five in total) and few more unforced errors.

After leveling the set, Djokovic wasted little time in closing out the match. He won the final three games at love, sealing the win with a forehand down the line passing shot. It wasn’t his best tennis, but Djokovic certainly forced Murray to play at the highest level from the very first point.

“I expected him to play well, to be a little bit more aggressive. I watched him play against (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga, and he was stepping in on the second serve, coming to the net. He did that few times successfully today.”

“Winning the first set, obviously it gave me the certain kind of relief and confidence, and then in the second, even when I was broken, I felt like I still have chances and I still, you know, believe that I could win in straight sets.”

For his part, Murray was pleased about his performance. “I think my game is just about there. It’s not far off. I had many opportunities today like 30-All games and Love-30 (games) on his serve, and I didn’t serve so well when I went ahead in the second set.”

Even with the first-set controversy, there were positives Murray could take from this loss. “I would have liked to have done that better, but I was hitting the ball better from the back of the court. I was playing aggressive. I was taking the ball early. I was trying to come forward a bit. My game is not far from where I want it to be.”

Kevin Ware is in Key Biscayne covering the Sony Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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A Day of “Firsts” for Flavia Pennetta and Novak Djokovic at the BNP Paribas Open

Novak Djokovic

By Kevin Ware

INDIAN WELLS – It was a day of “firsts” on finals Sunday at the BNP Paribas Open. Flavia Pennetta won her first WTA Premier Mandatory title by defeating a hobbled Agnieszka Radwanska, and Novak Djokovic won his first title of 2014 by outlasting Roger Federer in a dramatic 3-set final. The respective paths to their titles couldn’t have been more different.

In an unexpected turn, Pennetta overwhelmed an injured Radwanska 6-2, 6-1 for the biggest title of her career. “After so many years and so much work and everything, this is the moment I was waiting for,” Pennetta said. “And it comes when you least expect it.”

Her surprise is understandable given the struggles she endured in 2013. Pennetta lost to countrywoman Francesca Schiavone in the first round of last year’s tournament: one of many bad losses she suffered after her return to the tour from wrist surgery in 2012. Thoughts of retirement crossed her mind.

“The day after I was in the garden running and talking with my physio, Max, almost crying because the feeling and everything was so bad. And now, after one year, we have the trophy.”

Pennetta played solid tennis, but never needed to do more considering the condition of her opponent. Radwanska’s knee has been hurting the past few days, but she hoped that she might still be able to compete.

“This is the sport that you’re always playing with some pain or injury or sore muscles,” Radwanska said.  “But when the pain is so big that nothing is working, no painkillers, no tape. That means it is bad. Today nothing was working.”

“Unfortunately, it was too much pain.  I tried because this is the final, and I thought, you know, maybe in one game was going to be better and I would just keep going, but that didn’t really happen.”

Disappointment at not being able to compete at her best level weighed heavily on Radwanska, her voice breaking as she wiped away tears during the trophy presentation. She apologized for not being able to run as much as needed to in order to compete. Judging by the supportive crowd response, no apology was necessary.

This is Pennetta’s 10th WTA title, and her first since 2010. With this win, Pennetta moves to No. 12 in the rankings. Radwanska remains in the No. 3 position behind Serena Williams and Li Na.

In the men’s final, Novak Djokovic had to fight tooth and nail to defeat a resurgent Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3) for his first title of the year. It was a high-quality match that fittingly came down to a third-set tiebreaker to decide the winner.

Federer won the first set with skillful serving and masterful ball-striking on his forehand side. His first serve percentage was 74%, and he won 75% of his first serves and 71% of his second serves. Anytime you’re over 70%, odds are good for a victory. Federer also hit 12 winners to only 9 unforced errors. His defense was solid, and he craftily mixed backhand slices to keep Djokovic successfully out of any rhythm.

By comparison, Djokovic served at 59%, and won only 36% of his second serves. He also only hit 5 winners to 6 unforced errors. He was tentative, and mistimed many shots badly. Djokovic readily acknowledged his slow start.

“Yeah, it wasn’t a great start for me.  First service game that I had I made a few double faults and unforced errors and allowed him a break.  That was enough for the first set.”

“Roger is probably best in the world when he’s up.  When he’s a break up, he wins his service games so comfortably and so fast that sometimes it’s very difficult to keep up.  But I managed to stay composed and stay confident.”

The second set saw an obvious drop in Federer’s game, both in serve and unforced error count, as Djokovic found his footing. An early break in hand, it wasn’t long before Djokovic served out the set at 6-3 to take the match to a deciding set.

Federer’s level continued to fluctuate badly, and he gave up an early break in the third. But to his credit, he fought hard and stayed close enough to Djokovic to take advantage if any break opportunity presented itself.

The opportunity came at 5-4 with Djokovic serving for the championship. Federer pounced and immediately put him under pressure. A few minutes later with the break under his belt, Federer held serve at love.

Unfortunately for Federer, the third-set tiebreak was all one-way traffic for Djokovic. After over two hours of shot-making drama, he netted a backhand on match point to hand Djokovic the win.

This is Djokovic’s third Indian Wells title. It’s also his 42nd title overall, moving him ahead of Stephan Edberg, and his 17th Masters Series title. In a year where he’s failed to win a title – or make a final – until three months in, his relief afterward was palpable.

“I’m just very happy and thrilled to be able to win the first title in this season.  It was the first final that I played this year.  It was necessary for my confidence, and hopefully I can carry that into Miami and the rest of the season.”

Federer leaves the desert with confidence in his game, and an appreciation for his continued fitness. “I’m just happy I’m playing consistent tennis and I’m going deep in tournaments and I’m giving myself chances to win.  So clearly would have been amazing to win here and win back to back tournaments with Dubai.”

“But I got very, very close, so it’s encouraging for Miami and for the rest of the season, no doubt.”

Kevin Ware was in Indian Wells covering the BNP Paribas Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Djokovic dominates Benneteau and Isner Edges Gulbis for BNP Paribas Open Rematch

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

By Kevin Ware

[2] Novak Djokovic defeats Julien Benneteau 6-1 6-3

Benneteau played solid tennis to make it through to the quarters, but the odds were stacked against him in this match-up. With a head-to-head record of 1-5, and that one victory coming back in 2006, chances were slim that he’d be able to mount a sufficient challenge to the current World No. 2.

As expected, the first set was over in just 28 minutes and featured two breaks of the Benneteau serve. This wasn’t surprising with a first serve percentage 54%, and a second serve win percentage is 17%. As his struggles on serve mounted, Benneteau pressed on his groundstrokes, which only made matters worse.

In the end, Benneteau’s 10 winners to 32 unforced errors tell the final tale of this match. He served poorly and, as a result, had to go for too much in his shots against Djokovic. For his part, Djokovic played a clean and straightforward match. He hit 17 winners to 12 unforced errors, won 93% of his first serves, 6 of 8 net approaches, and 4 of 15 break points against the Frenchman.

This was a comprehensive win by all measures. It was also a more consistent performance from Djokovic, who has had issues with keeping his focus after jumping out to early leads.  It was something he touched on in his post-match remarks.

“I felt like I was very focused on the court from the start, and it’s what I was looking for.  First few matches I played good tennis but I had some ups and downs. Today was very stable from the first to the last point.”

When asked about the possibility of playing Isner in the semifinals, his two previous losses to Big John in Masters Series readily came to mind.

“I played John here a few years ago and I remember that match.  7-6 in the third, and also lost to him very close one in Cincinnati last year.”

“It’s very challenging because he doesn’t miss his serve too much, so you have to kind of be able to hold your composure, you know, from the first to the last point and be ready to play three tiebreaks.  That’s all.”

Isner fh

John Isner

[12] John Isner defeats [20] Ernests Gulbis 7-6(4) 7-6(3)

A John Isner win in two tiebreak sets is expected. An Isner win over Ernest Gulbis in two tiebreak sets by pressuring his opponent’s ground game is not. But that’s what happened in their BNP Paribas Open quarterfinal match.

Both players held serve through the first set leading up to the tiebreak. Leading 3-2 in the tiebreaker, Gulbis found himself on the losing end of a protracted rally with Isner. Rattled by the losing exchange, he gave up the next point on his serve after the change of ends. That’s all Isner needed to close out the first set tiebreak 7-4.

Isner surprisingly stumbled at the start of the second set by dropping his first service game at love, giving up the crucial early break. When asked about it after the match, he admitted to a little bit of a “checkout” after winning the first set. “I did.  I didn’t play a great service game at all to start the second set.”

But to his credit, Isner kept his head down and worked to slowly chip away at Gulbis’ game (and confidence) before getting the break back when his Latvian opponent failed miserably to serve out the set at 5-4. After that, a second set tiebreak and eventual win was all but assured.

It was a surprisingly nervy performance from the rising Gulbis: a player with a ton of talent and bravado to match. Isner only hit 13 aces in the match, so he wasn’t aced off the court. He had chances to get into Isner’s service games when he got the ball back in play, but failed to win the key points in rallies.

Isner sensed Gulbis’ issues while also noting how his own game loosened up after dropping that first game. “I had chances to pull back even in that second set prior to that 5-4 game too, but I just stayed with it.”

“Once the second set started to get going, I started to see the ball better and I started to make more progress on his serve.  At the same time, he got ‑ in my opinion, I think he got a little bit looser, as well, started making some more mistakes.”

With this win, Isner is projected to re-renter the Top 10. It also marks his fifth appearance in an ATP Masters Series semifinal.

Men’s Semifinals

[7[ Roger Federer versus [28] Alexandr Dolgopolov
H2H: Federer leads 1-0 (Ret)

[2] Novak Djokovic versus [12] John Isner
H2H: Djokovic leads 4-2

Kevin Ware is in Indian Wells covering theBNP Paribas Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Charlie Pasarell Receives Hall of Fame Ring

 Left to right: Hall of Famers Mark Woodforde, Donald Dell, Butch Buchholz, Rosie Casals, Bud Collins, Roy Emerson, Brad Parks, Rod Laver, Hall of Fame President Stan Smith, Hall of Fame Chairman Christopher Clouser, Hall of Famer Charlie Pasarell, Hall of Fame CEO Mark Stenning, BNP Paribas Open Tournament Director Steve Simon, Charles Pasarell, Sr., and BNP Paribas CEO Ray Moore. Photo by Billie Weiss


Left to right: Hall of Famers Mark Woodforde, Donald Dell, Butch Buchholz, Rosie Casals, Bud Collins, Roy Emerson, Brad Parks, Rod Laver, Hall of Fame President Stan Smith, Hall of Fame Chairman Christopher Clouser, Hall of Famer Charlie Pasarell, Hall of Fame CEO Mark Stenning, BNP Paribas Open Tournament Director Steve Simon, Charles Pasarell, Sr., and BNP Paribas CEO Ray Moore. Photo by Billie Weiss

By Kevin Ware

(March 14, 2014) INDIAN WELLS – As tournament director and managing partner, Charlie Pasarell was instrumental in helping to build the Indian Wells tournament into the world-class event it has become. So it was more than fitting that he received his official International Tennis Hall of Fame ring last night on the Stadium 1 court, in front of an adoring crowd, before the start of the evening session.

Pasarell was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer. But the International Tennis Hall of Fame has a wonderful tradition of presenting the ring at a home location that affords the best opportunity for the inductee to be surrounded by as many family and friends as possible.

The stadium ring ceremony was a public affair. The celebration dinner afterward, emceed by Pam Shriver, was much more intimate; attended by some Pasarell’s immediate family, as well as his extended family in the tennis community.

Also on hand were several other Hall of Fame members, many of whom spoke glowingly about their friend and fellow-inductee. Those in attendance included Hall of Fame President Stan Smith, Donald Dell, Bud Collins (pants as colorful as ever), Butch Buchholz, Brad Parks, Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King, Roy Emerson, and Mark Woodforde.

Pasarell, with his father and son looking on, was just as moved by this moment as he was at his official induction in Newport. After an encore viewing of his video tribute, and hearing the touching tributes of his friends, it was obvious to see how touched he was by this moment.

Looking out at the familiar faces, his voice at times struggling to control his emotion, Charlie offered a simple, “Thanks to all my friends who are here today. I’m touched by all the support.”

Kevin Ware is in Indian Wells covering the BNP Paribas Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

Photos from the private party held before the ceremony.

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