Heather Watson and Laura Robson Bite the Bullet in Birmingham


By Tumaini Carayol

(June 12, 2013) BIRMINGHAM, UK – Kicking off the day’s play on Wednesday at the AEGON Classic was the pride and joy of Britain, Heather Watson and Laura Robson, back to back.

Considering the later slots are usually reserved for the feature players, the tournament’s decision to place the pair first and second on was certainly an interesting one. it perhaps told of their certainly that both women would advance to the next round, allowing them the home-court advantage of optimum recovery time and the greatest chance of completing their matches should the rains have opened up and swallowed them whole.

Their faith was not rewarded.

First came Watson, who happily triumphed on Tuesday, recording her first victory since Memphis in February after a well-publicized bout of mononucleosis left her debilitated and eventually forced her from the tennis
courts and into her bed.

She could not repeat the trick, however, falling 6-4 6-3 to Alla Kudryavtseva in an eerily identical score to her first ever victory.

She was understandably disappointed afterwards.

“I definitely didn’t play well today,” she said. “I made a lot of unforced errors and my serve was really awful but she was a much tougher opponent today.”

“She was good off the baseline and she returned well. At the end of the day, you’ve got to go and win it and she did but, me, I wasn’t pleased with my game today.”

“It was frustrating because I played well in my first match and I thought it was going to get even better today but it was the total opposite. I felt fine today. I just think I was a bit slow to the ball and slow thinking, which comes from not playing. I just need to get used to that. I thought today was a good opportunity and I feel like I’ve let it go. If I want to get back then I need to find a way even when I’m not playing so well.”

Next came seventh-seeded Laura Robson, who also coincidentally found herself against one of her first grasscourt foes in Daniela Hantuchova. The pair had faced each other at Wimbledon in 2009 – the year after a 14-year old Robson triumphed in the junior event.

Despite the tricky draw, Robson was certainly favored against her aging opponent. In fact, given the Brit’s rising reputation for peaking against the best and finding herself below top form against the rest, in many ways it could be considered a helpful draw beforehand.

Helpful it was not, however. Two lethargic starts to both sets was enough to send her packing as she lost her serve in her first service game each time and failed to retrieve them.

“I definitely could’ve moved up to the ball a bit more,” she said afterwards. “It is definitely something I could work on a bit more, but I thought Daniela played very well today.

“I just have to keep practicing and stay confident and keep focusing.”

And with that, the two home favorites bit the dust. Luckily for the Birmingham faithful, however, they still have one home favorite left after Donna Vekic‘s scintillating exhibition of attacking tennis yesterday was only bettered by the post-match revelation that she resides in England and converses in a mostly-English accent. Expect the 16 year-old Croatian Londoner to continually pick up the slack left by the real Brits both this week and in years to come.

Tumaini Carayol covering the AEGON Classic in Birmingham for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.

Birmingham, England
June 10-16, 2013

Results - Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Singles – Second Round
(1) Kirsten Flipkens (BEL) d. (Q) Ajla Tomljanovic (CRO) 46 64 75
Marina Erakovic (NZL) d. (2) Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) 76(6) 36 60
(3) Sorana Cirstea (ROU) d. Tsvetana Pironkova (BUL) 64 64
(5) Sabine Lisicki (GER) d. Kristyna Pliskova (CZE) 64 62
Daniela Hantuchova (SVK) d. (7) Laura Robson (GBR) 63 64
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (CRO) d. (9) Yanina Wickmayer (BEL) 64 60
(12) Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) d. (WC) Johanna Konta (GBR) 64 61
(13) Bojana Jovanovski (SRB) d. Andrea Hlavackova (CZE) 46 61 64
(Q) Alla Kudryavtseva (RUS) d. (14) Heather Watson (GBR) 64 63
(15) Francesca Schiavone (ITA) d. (Q) Nadiya Kichenok (UKR) 76(4) 62
(16) Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) d. Mathilde Johansson (FRA) 75 67(4) 64
(Q) Maria Sanchez (USA) d. (Q) Alison Van Uytvanck (BEL) 76(3) 63

Order Of Play – Thursday, June 13, 2013
Ann Jones Centre Court (from 11.00hrs)
1. Daniela Hantuchova vs. Kristina Mladenovic
2. Sorana Cirstea vs. Bojana Jovanovski
3. Francesca Schiavone vs. Marina Erakovic
4. Sabine Lisicki vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
5. Black/Erakovic vs. Chan/Huber

Court 1 (from 11.00hrs)
1. Madison Keys vs. Mona Barthel
2. Maria Sanchez vs. Donna Vekic
3. Kirsten Flipkens vs. Magdalena Rybarikova
4. Alla Kudryavtseva vs. Alison Riske

Court 3 (from 11.00hrs)
1. Date-Krumm/Parra Santonja vs. Aoyama/Moulton-Levy
2. Kops-Jones/Spears vs. Castaño/Daniilidou
3. Barthel/Mladenovic vs. Dushevina/Watson
4. Jurak/Tanasugarn vs. Hantuchova/Hsieh


Serena Williams Thinks Her Way Into Madrid Final


Serena Day 2 Press Conference

By Tumaini Carayol

(May 11, 2013) When Serena Williams opened with an effortless forehand winner before a statement opening service hold, one could be forgiven for assuming this was an indication that she intended to put right what had gone so terribly wrong in the previous match. That all the factors that contributed to her being on the receiving end of a bagel and a 2-4 third set deficit to Anabel Medina Garrigues were to be eradicated from living memory with a performance worthy of the world No. 1.

One was wrong.

The following games would showcase the younger Williams’ game in a rapid descent back to the pits of hell as she impatiently expected the match to fall into place without an ounce of effort. Rather than working with the clay, the world No. 1 essentially attempted to play against the basic nature of the surface, taking large and unnecessary cuts at the ball and directing the majority of shots with no margin, width or imagination. For a seasoned claycourter like Sara Errani, it was all too easy. When Williams wasn’t committing a myriad of errors, missing laughable smashes and generally gifting the majority of points to her opponent, Errani had no problem with exploiting Williams’ painfully linear play, simply redirecting her shots crosscourt and exploiting her sketchy movement on the red dirt.

One of the more maddening aspects of Serena on clay is that she is more than capable of embracing the surface and using it to compliment some of her own strengths. When discussing her sole Roland Garros triumph in 2002, people often tell of a player who was so supremely greater than the other thousands of professional female players that surface was irrelevant. While this is true, it ignores the fact that her final in Berlin and triumphs in Rome and Roland Garros that year were not the product of her playing some ballistic and otherworldly attacking tennis on clay. She prospered by obeying the surface’s core rules. She moved better than her opposition on clay, constructed points with angles and width, and understood that, to be a consistent success, it was often necessary to outmaneuver opponents rather than outhit them. Sure, there was power – lots of it – but it was tempered and she attacked with discretion. The result was that her clay court duels with Jennifer Capriati were some of the most physical ever seen. Eleven years later, though aspects of her game have notably deteriorated – her movement on clay, for example – many of those qualities remain hidden under the surface of her game, waiting to be utilized once again.

As the bleeding began again and the world number one found herself down 1-3, similar thoughts appeared to well up in the mind of Serena. From the large and unnecessary swipes at the ball came a sense of calmness as Williams finally began to think and endeavored to collaborate with the conditions rather than play against them. Out of nowhere, she began to almost exclusively attack cross-court, alternating between hitting with great depth and using the width of the court. Though errors still littered her game and left the first set in the balance, the results were immediate. She was able to gradually drag the defending French Open finalist off the court and defeated her through combinations of shots rather than single booming blows. Fittingly, after three missed set points, the 7-5 set was closed out with a perfectly-measured acute angled forehand.

It wasn’t until that first set was safely tucked away that the shackles were unleashed and Williams was truly able to play. The riskier tennis returned, but the world number one was able to strike a comfortable balance between constructing points and attacking as Errani simply played into Williams’ hands. In contrast to the hour-long first set in which 36 of Errani’s points came courtesy of Williams’ 28 unforced errors, the second set was a far more routine affair as Williams cruised to victory.

Though far from Williams’ most impressive victory, it showcased Serena at her thoughtful best – a vital quality that will aid her in her pursuit of the improbable-yet-possible feat that is her replicating her grand clay triumph of 11 years ago.

But, for now, both of her eyes will be on Maria Sharapova as the world No. 1 and French Open champion battle for the Madrid title and top spot on Sunday.

Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.


Quotable Quotes: Serena, Sharapova, Nadal and Berdych March On

Bank of the West semifinals (20 of 1)

By Tumaini Carayol

(May 10, 2013) Madrid – First to book her place in the final four was Serena Williams, but it wasn’t in the manner expected. The tournament and majority of onlookers had firmly resigned themselves to a routine straight-setter to the expense of their home favorite. Early on, it appeared Williams was well on her way to a routine victory as she secured the first set 6-3. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the American could be found struggling to serve over 90 mph and direct the ball between the white lines as all chances of a routine victory were killed spectacularly.

After the disastrous second set, Williams spent only a quarter of the allotted time in her chair, instead deciding to rise from her chair early in in order to do squats and stretches net to her chair. It’s not something Williams has ever done before, but it worked as, with a renewed intercity – and grunt – she eventually toughed out a tight victory.

“I felt just kind of ‑‑ I don’t know. I wasn’t really there. I wasn’t really in it. My feet weren’t moving. I don’t know what happened,” she said afterwards.

To turn it around I got up earlier on the changeover and started doing high knees and just stretching and doing anything to try to get my intensity back up where it needed to be.”

Sharapova 2

In stark contrast to the world No. 1, Maria Sharapova’s 6-2 6-4 victory over Kaia Kanepi was memorable for only two reasons. Firstly because the Russian extended her red clay winning streak to a monumental 24 wins. Secondly, thanks to the mischievous message the Russian left when signing the camera after her victory. In reference to paparazzi capturing her with her boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov, early in the week, the 26 year-old wrote “how did you catch us???”

During her news conference afterwards, there was much laughter during the Russian’s exchanges with Tennis Panorama.


Tennis Panorama News: So, the writing on the camera, I wonder what that was about?

Maria Sharapova: (with head in hands) I don’t know. You tell me. (Laughter.)


TPN: Ok, serious question. (Laughter.) I’m sure you’re sick of answering questions about how you’re good on clay, but when you were younger…

MS: I never thought that day would come. (Laughter.) Where’s my trophy?

TPN: When you were younger you came on the tour and played well on grass and were really good on grass and not as good on clay. Now it’s kind of switched around: You’re great on clay and your grass results haven’t been as great recently, aside from reaching…silver medal.

MS: Aside from the final a couple years ago and the silver medal last year. No biggie. For some people that’s a pretty good achievement.

TPN: OK, OK! (laughter.)

MS: (laughing.) Obviously it’s funny when people talk to me it’s like, ah, that’s not really a great result. I’m like, I don’t know. Thinking about that on surgery table, I’ll take that any time of the day. You have to be pretty realistic and fortunate. And yes, I lost in the fourth round, and two weeks later I came back at Wimbledon and got to the finals. So that was a great, great week for me.

Yeah, I definitely have improved my game on clay and improved myself physically. I also think the grass has changed over the years tremendously. The clay has pretty much stayed the same. But it’s not like I woke up one day and said, Yeah, I’m just going to get better and tomorrow I’m going to be better on clay. Instead it took many years and many matches and many practices. And mentally as well just to get myself prepared for long matches and battles and get through them.”

More notably, Sharapova had much to say about the recent prize money issues and the five-hout meeting that took place during the Istanbul WTA Championshps last year. There is a misconception that only the male players contributed to the monumental prize money changes that have occurred in all Grand Slams this year, but the champion rebuffed the notion with some interesting information.


“I remember sitting ‑‑ we had like a five‑hour meeting the day before the first round of Istanbul last year, the Championships. I don’t think one player in that meeting was really happy about the timing.”

“I will say that every tournament director and a couple of their staff made their way. Craig Tiley flew all the way from Australia just for that meeting. We sat there and they presented kind of their future prize money ideas.”



The men were next. After an embarrassing performance in the Acapulco final which saw the world No. 4 capture only two games against a returning Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer brushed off the embarrassment and played calm, aggressive tennis to establish a lead over the King of Clay. An early 4-1 lead in the first set fast became a set lead, and before long the set lead was complimented with a second set break.

Still, at a set and 4-2 many still expected the champion to triumph and as Nadal charged back to steal three games in a row and serve for the set, not many were surprised. The pendulum swung again, however, with Ferrer showing an abundance of typical resilience to capitalize on a few thoughtless unforced errors. By the time the pair next sat down, Ferrer was a game away from the big win.

Three points later, it happened. With the score at 6-4 6-5* 15-30 to the underdog, Ferrer contested seemingly the perfect point, dragging the champion from tramline to tramline and exposing his hampered movement. After having his way with Nadal for a series of shots, the elder Spaniard was finally presented with an open court forehand to catapult him to double match point. Instead, he opted to hit the ball straight to Nadal, who pulled out a spectacular defensive lob to win the point. From that tragically missed opportunity, Ferrer failed to win a single game for the remainder of the match.

After the defeat, Ferrer had some interesting things to say about his mentality and outlook, which perhaps explains why he so seldom emerges victorious over the four players above him.

Q. Rafa said that you deserved to be in the semis. Do you think that is a smaller gap with the top 4, or do you think they’re too good and when you reach the moment of truth they have got a little extra?

David Ferrer: Sincerely, I don’t care. I think they’re really good. I’ve always said that. They’re the four best players of the world. They make the difference compared to the other players.

I always talk about the same thing. Berdych, Tsonga, Del Potro, they all come like airplanes. Now Dimitrov and Wawrinka and Almagro too are pushing really hard.

With the amount of good players we’ve got down there, I’m not thinking about getting up there with the top 4. It’s really complicated.



Finally, after his impressive victory over Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych displayed some of his polarizing confidence as he amusingly tipped himself to win a Grand Slam

TPN: As you said before, your level doesn’t seem to change depending on the surface. You’re one of the few players. Even the big four have their favorite surfaces. What is your favorite surface?

Tomas Berdych: Well, it’s really tough to say. I can find good results on the grass, on the hard, and on clay as well.

So, you know, probably when I’m going to reach my first slam, then we going to see which surface is that going to be. (laughter) Then I can point this is the one that is the really on top, and then we don’t have to talk about the others.

So far, there is only the final and then the rest with some semifinals, so it’s not enough. Really, I want to do more. Then I can I tell you the one.

Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.


Sharapova Extends Clay Court Winning Streak to 23


By Tumaini Carayol

(May 9, 2013) Up first on Central Court, Maria Sharapova continued her undisputed reign on the red dirt with a hard-fought straight  sets victory over Sabine Lisicki 6-2, 7-5.

Despite the one-sided first set scoreline, the reigning French Open, Stuttgart and Rome champion found herself deep in battle from the beginning as Lisicki showered her with numerous booming forehand winners. Countless lengthy deuce-riddled games followed as the pair went blow for blow, but the Russian’s far superior mental strength proved the difference as she triumphed on the vast majority of important points and strolled through.

After dropping the first set, a sense of calm fell over Lisicki as she settled into the match, complimenting her booming forehand winners with well-executed touch around the court. Early in set two, a variety of deft forehand angles, dropshots and impressive net forays were enough to throw Sharapova off-balance, allowing Lisicki to secure a 3-1 break lead, a thorn into Sharapova her pursuit for the one big clay title currently missing from her resume.

Predictably, Sharapova immediately broke back as the intensity of the battle increased rose dramatically. The pair traded service holds until, with Sharapova serving to stay in the set at 4-5, Lisicki sensed the opportunity. She pounced, and quickly found herself up a double set point. The 26 year-old’s focus immediately catapulted into overdrive as she knocked aside the possibility of a looming third set before breaking after a lengthy game at 5-5. Before long, the victory was the Russian’s and her red clay streak had stretched to 23.

Afterwards, Sharapova was satisfied with her victory.

“She’s the kind of opponent that plays extremely well against top players. I think you can see that from her results. She always takes the top players quite far, and she beat me last year at Wimbledon.

“So, yeah, I was quite happy to turn around that victory going into the Olympics. This was our first meeting on clay, so that was a little bit different.

“But overall I think it’s about keeping my intensity as much as I can. Obviously if you can be on the court for over three hours, maybe you’re not going to play with intensity every single point, but the more that you do the better chances you have of winning.


Sharapova was quickly joined in the quarterfinals by top-seeded Serena Williams who, after a sluggish start, produced her best display of the tournament as she steamrolled through 12-seeded Maria Kirilenko in an uneventful 6-3 6-1 demolition. Williams was typically understated in her review of her performance.

“I think it was okay. I haven’t had a chance to talk about it after with my team, but I will. Like you said, I am a perfectionist. I always try to look for things that I know I can do better. When we get together I will see what I can do better.”

Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.



Crowd Sours Atmosphere In Madrid

By Tumaini Carayol

(May 8, 2013) MADRID – Seven years ago, the differences were palpable. Both sets of hair were considerably longer, the biceps were bigger, the courts were bluer but without any controversy thanks to the hardness that complimented the color, the season was different and the crowds. Well, the crowds were one of the few constants as Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal took to the Manolo Santana court to compete their 2006 Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinal.


Quickly, this young and promising Berdych rose to the occasion. The serve first began to inflict irreversible damage and the forehand soon followed suit, releasing an array of winners that a flailing Nadal struggled to counter. As the crowd sensed their hero falling, they themselves rose to fend off the challenger, sending a chorus of boos and whistles raining down as the Czech pretender continued in his attempts to usurp the champion.

Berdych would be successful in his quest, closing off a perilously tight second-set tiebreak to move through in straight sets. As he strode confidently to the net, the then 22 year-old would produce one of the enduring images of the event’s history. He placed one finger to his lips in a “shushing” gesture towards the already booing crowd. The jeers were deafening as he finished his journey to the net, and as he attempted to shake the hand of his fallen foe, Nadal interjected. “very bad,” was the audible cry from the Spaniard to the Frenchman as they met at the net.

Though the seven years have passed assuredly by, in reality not much has changed. As Novak Djokovic, Nadal’s greatest rival in recent years, entered the metal box. The booing and jeering quickly followed as, though facing a still not-quite-known, Djokovic was seemingly treated with a distain usually reserved for criminals. Every routine query was met with a chorus of boos and, by the bitter end of the second set, even his missed first serves resulted in grand cheers. The result was an outburst from the Serb, who eventually responded to the crowd’s jeers with a variety of choice words of his own. As the world No. 1 left the court in defeat, even his final exit was met with yet more loud boos. To say he was livid afterwards would be an understatement:

“In the first set, every single close call that I went to look at the ball and the chair umpire comes to see, I got whistled.  I don’t see any reason for that.  I didn’t do anything bad.

“When I see the ball, it’s good, I clear the mark.  I give him a point.  I never did anything opposite in my life.  I’m honest.  If I see the ball in, I play the ball; if it’s close, I call the chair umpire.

“I don’t understand why they turn against me, for what reason, but it is what it is.  I’m a professional, and it’s not the first time I’m experiencing that.

One day on, Nadal made his debut on centre court. Up against the charismatic but unknown Benoit Paire, the Frenchman was simply fulfilling his job description by endeavouring to defeat his illustrious opponent. During the second set, Paire reeled off three winners in a row, a trademark dropshot punctuating the final point of the series. Rather than applauding the challenger’s gusto, the Madrid crowd decided to launch yet another array of boos. Sporadically throughout the match, the heckles raised once again. The Frenchman is perfectly capable of inciting a crowd to boo, and even his home crowds routinely boo him off the court for his tendency to give up without a fight. Against Nadal, however, he was being for the complete polar opposite – for trying. When asked about his thoughts on the crowd, Nadal angrily defended them.

“I am not agree with you,” he said.  Sorry.  The crowd today was 100% correct.  That’s my opinion.  The crowd didn’t say nothing against Paire.

“I am from Spain, and it’s normal the crowd want to support me.  It happens to me the same when I play in different countries against a local player.  That’s the good part of the show.

“In the end, this is only a game, no?  It’s nice to have the crowd involved in this show.  Nothing against the crowd.  I think the crowd here is very emotional.  That’s all.”

“”I think they respect the players always, and I repeat that I cannot have a real opinion on yesterday’s match because I didn’t see it.”

Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.


Djokovic Falls to Dimitrov in Second Round of Madrid

Grigor Dimitrov

Grigor Dimitrov

By Tumaini Carayol

(May 7, 2013) MADRID – Under the burning lights and brash crowd of the Manolo Santana court, Grigor Dimitrov finally justified his “showtime” moniker, stealing the show by capturing the greatest victory of his career in a mammoth 7-6(6), 6-7(8), 6-3 victory over the world No. 1, Novak Djokovic at the Madrid Open on Tuesday evening.

From the beginning, the Bulgarian made his presence known as he complemented strong, assured serving with a steady flow of typically silky forehand winners. The first set would showcase a struggle for the upper-hand as the contest remained on serve though the underdog held the upper hand.

A set point presented itself for Djokovic at 4-5, but the opportunity quickly escaped. Once again, Djokovic found himself up 6-4 in the tiebreak, before some majestic play flipped the script and left the world No. 1 reeling as a young pretender stole the set.

The second act was defined by two incidents. At 7-6, *4-2, 30-40, Djokovic slipped and hurt his injured right ankle.  A medical timeout followed as the crowd booed mercilessly. As he returned and ran freely, the boos and whistles rose as the crowd began to chant Dimitrov’s name.

The second incident occurred at 5-5 deuce Dimitrov predictably began to cramp. The Bulgarian hobbled into the tiebreak, and as his mobility returned, he pressed furiously for a straight sets victory, but failed.

In stark contrast to the prior two sets, the third set fell flat as Dimitrov broke in the opening game before marching on to victory.

Though undeniably angry, Djokovic was quick to praise his opponent afterwards.

“Well, he was the better player. The better player won the match, no question about it. You know, I could have played better. You know, I had my chances. I was fighting until the end, so that’s a positive thing. I always try to give my best in these moments, and he was the better player. I congratulate him. He played great tennis and he deserved to win.

The world No. 1 was, however, quick to mention the ankle injury he sustained during Davis Cup and left him without proper preparation.

“Well, for 12 days after Monte‑Carlo I haven’t touched the racquet. I didn’t know up to Saturday if I’m going to come here or not because of the ankle.

“But in the end, you know, I made the decision to come because I like to play in this tournament. You know, maybe could have been different; maybe not. Now it’s too late to think about what I decided.

Meanwhile, Dimitrov was ecstatic in victory.

“Of course it’s always great to win a match like that. Of course he’s the No. 1. Of course it’s a great feeling.”

“But it’s just the beginning of the tournament. It was just second round if you think about it, so just got to get ready for the next matches and make sure that you can do that again.”

Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.



Serena Williams Responds to Sloane Stephens’ Quotes: Stephens Takes Blame on Twitter


By Tumaini Carayol

(May 7, 2013) MADRID – As the traveling tennis circus rolled into Madrid, the tennis world was immediately consumed by shocking off-court happenings that left the actual tennis firmly in the shadows. The first alarm bells rang as a suspiciously scribbled magazine scan was uploaded into a small pocket of the internet during the dead of night. Slowly but surely, awareness of this mysterious magazine spread until, by morning, it had exploded into the mainstream of the tennis world and threatened to consume it whole.

This magazine in question was ‘ESPN: The Mag’, the scan was an interview in which young American hope Sloane Stephens candidly trash-talked Serena Williams and – though opinions on its contents were varied – the angry scribbles that graced the three featured pictures of Stephens presented a window into the widespread fury that greeted Stephens’ controversial comments.

Stephens’ quotes have long since been dissected and discussed. Here was someone who, for the best part of a year, could be seen constantly heaping praise on her countrywoman. The 20 year-old referred to Williams as a friend – her only friend on the WTA. Ahead of their Australian Open clash, Stephens even charmingly discussed a conversation they had exchanged prior, in which Williams jokingly suggested that she grunt. Though the narrative was blown out of proportion by a media that painted the Williams-Stephens relationship as a mentorship rather than simply two kindred spirits, both women stirred the pot with their own comments.

Then, with that fateful interview during Miami, Stephens drove a 50-ton lorry straight through her previous comments.

It is far from the first time Williams has been involved in the exchange of harsh comments. During the dawn of her career, verbal sparring with fellow players was almost her second job. The nadir, or perhaps peak of this off-court drama came at the 1999 US Open when Martina Hingis described Serena and her sister as having “big mouths.” Williams responded immediately, irreverently offering up one of the enduring quotes of a generation:

“She’s always been the type of person that just says things and she just speaks her mind,” she offered quietly. “I guess that has a little bit to do with not having a formal education

It seemed only natural that Williams would respond in a similar manner after Stephens’ comments became known. However, Williams’ experience has evidently taught her to choose her battles wisely. Rather than engaging her 20 year-old opponent in yet another war of words and finding herself the center of yet more drama, Williams offered a considerably more decisive retort. With a wide smile and comically innocent expression, the 15 time-Grand Slam champion replied:

“I don’t really know. I don’t have many thoughts. I’m a big Sloane Stephens fan and always have been. I’ve always said that I think she can be the best in the world. I’ll always continue to think that and always be rooting for her.

“So I really just always wish her ‑ and anyone, really, especially from America the best. We don’t have that many American players, so it’s always exciting to see so many young players doing so well.”


By the end of the day, Stephens had taken to twitter to apologize to Williams, referring to the world number one as “the GOAT” and disclosing that the pair had spoken via phone and cleared the air. Serena the peacemaker: a strange but fitting title.

Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.


Related stories:

Sharapova Reacts to Stephens’ Comments About Serena Williams

Sloane Stephens Criticizes Serena Williams in ESPN The Magazine Interview


Before the Curtain Rises on the Madrid Open Sharapova, Azarenka and Li Na Meet The Press


Victoria Azarenka

Victoria Azarenka

By Tumaini Carayol

(May 3, 2013) MADRID – In grand pursuit of their fabled holy grail – an extension to a two week event that would mark it a true equal of the Miami and Indian Wells events – the organizers of the Madrid Open have pushed the boundaries as far as they can stretch. The event is exclusively advertised as a ten-day tournament, beginning on the Friday and flowing into a second Sunday.


Not many fans responded on Friday, but at a tournament where the majority of televised matches paint a picture of an empty event unable to attract much interest in one of the most notable cities in the world, the presence of any single fan delighting in a qualifying match between 90-something-ranked female players is perhaps cause for celebration.


The lack of action around the grounds was mirrored behind the scenes as Victoria Azarenka fielded questions to a four-fifths empty media centre. Even during the peak days of the biggest tournaments, this is standard fare for the former world number one who continues in her epic age-old struggle to win over the press, but it was a pitiful showing regardless. Still, the Belarusian arrived with a spring in her step as she fielded questions ahead of her first full tournament since February.

“I feel good,” she said. “I’m really glad to be back playing, and can’t wait to start the tournament and see where my game is at. You know, it’s a very good place to start. It’s a very competitive field right away, so I’m glad to be a part of it. It’s a great preparation for the French Open.”

Maria Sharapova with media

Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova followed almost immediately afterwards. In stark contrast to her rival, the Russian is considerably easier to crack open. After being asked by Tennis Panorama about her brief trip back to the Motherland, the world number two smiled and positively gushed in reply

“It was chaos, “ she laughed. “It was really nice to be back for just a couple days, but it was such a quick trip. Yeah, I rarely go back there, but it’s such a nice welcome when I do. I sometimes forget how ‑‑ I don’t know what I mean to the sport there and in general. It was nice to have that sort of reception back in my home country and see a lot of fans.

“I mean, the event that we had for Sugarpova was incredibly successful. It blows my mind way every time I see that type of reception because I consider myself quite normal and not so recognizable at times. When I’m there it’s a whole different ballgame.


Li Na

Li Na

Later came Li Na. As per usual, even the most formulaic and standard questions were transformed by the 2011 French Open champion into charming and entertaining retorts. However, the most interesting answer from the Chinese number one came when she decided to discuss her much-publicized collaboration with Justine Henin’s former coach, Carlos Rodriguez.


“Actually I was feeling pretty good from beginning of the year until now. I was training so hard with Carlos. Yeah, he didn’t come with me in Stuttgart, so when I was here, so many people just ask me, ‘Are you still working with Carlos?’ I said, ‘Of course.’’’


‘’So, yeah, he will be come here. I mean, I was, how you say, so happy he can come to my team to coach me. I think for me, he’s not only tennis coach. I think after I was working with him I feel much stronger in my mind and also much stronger on the court.


Later on, the main draws were conducted in the public plaza beside the courts. The ladies were first, with top-seeded Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka drawn into the same half as Sharapova was granted a significantly easier prospective route to the final. The men’s draw came later as most fans began to plan their final exits. After long and tiring discussions about 5th-seeded Nadal’s prospective placement in the draws of the upcoming clay-court events, the Barcelona champion slotted inconspicuously into David Ferrer’s quarter.


And with that, a quiet and understated first day in Madrid concluded. Despite what the numerous advertising hoardings around the city may suggest, tomorrow the tournament shall truly begin.


Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid tournament for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault.

Madrid, Spain
May 4-12, 2013
Red Clay/Outdoors

Order Of Play – Saturday, May 4, 2013
Manolo Santana (from 11.00hrs)
1. ATP: García-López vs. Andreev
2. Camila Giorgi vs. Garbiñe Muguruza (NB 12.30hrs; Singles Q Final)
3. Sara Sorribes-Tormo vs. Alexandra Dulgheru (Singles Q Final)
4. Sloane Stephens vs. Daniela Hantuchova
5. Urszula Radwanska vs. Sara Errani (NB 19.00hrs)
6. Lourdes Domínguez Lino vs. Simona Halep

Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario (from 11.00hrs)
1. ATP: Riba vs. Donskoy
2. Yulia Putintseva vs. Aravane Rezai (Singles Q Final)
3. ATP: Sanjurjo Hermida vs. Haase
4. Magdalena Rybarikova vs. Laura Robson
5. Jankovic/Lucic-Baroni vs. Groenefeld/Peschke

Stadium 3 (from 11.00hrs)
1. ATP: Malisse vs. Muñoz-de la Nava
2. ATP: Ramírez Hidalgo vs. Rufin
3. Julia Goerges vs. Bojana Jovanovski
4. Sabine Lisicki vs. Sofia Arvidsson
5. Mona Barthel vs. Kirsten Flipkens

Pista 4 (from 11.00hrs)
1. María-Teresa Torró-Flor vs. Johanna Larsson (Singles Q Final)
2. Chanelle Scheepers vs. Melanie Oudin (NB 12.30hrs; Singles Q Final)
3. ATP: Falla vs. Souza

Pista 5 (from 11.00hrs)
1. ATP: Matosevic vs. González
2. ATP: Berlocq vs. Stakhovsky
3. ATP: Llodra vs. Kubot
4. ATP: Sijsling vs. Brugués-Davi

Pista 6 (from 11.00hrs)
1. ATP: Gómez-Herrera vs. Kamke
2. ATP: Sousa vs. Giraldo
3. ATP: Cipolla vs. Levine
4. ATP: Elias vs. Mathieu (NB 15.00hrs)

Pista 7 (from 11.00hrs)
1. Christina McHale vs. Mathilde Johansson (Singles Q Final)
2. Stefanie Voegele vs. Lesia Tsurenko (Singles Q Final)
3. Madison Keys vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands (Singles Q Final)
4. Alizé Cornet vs. Kiki Bertens
5. Grandin/Uhlirova vs. Moulton-Levy/Rosolska


Sharapova Defends Stuttgart Title with Victory Over Li Na

Sharapova Porsche

By Tumaini Carayol

(April 28, 2013) STUTTGART – Maria Sharapova arrived in Stuttgart as merely the defeNding champion. One Porsche mega-deal later, the Russian had almost assumed home-crowd support as fans and staff alike cheered the Russian on passionately throughout the week.


After her perilous struggles in the rounds before, Sharapova saved her most impressive victory for last, showcasing a performance of the highest quality to refuse Li Na her title 6-4, 6-3. The Russian struck the ball cleanly and with precision, while her movement improved dramatically overnight as she closed out the match in two impressive sets.


“I definitely thought it would be the toughest match of the tournament because, you know, she’s the second seed and someone I lost to last time I played against her,” she said.


“Probably because I knew she’d be the freshest of both of us. I tried to do the right things from the beginning and not have a let-down like I did in the other matches. I’m extremely happy that I pulled through.”


Sharapova’s afternoon was most succinctly summed up by a break point in set two. Chasing from side to side, the Russian found herself on the back foot as Li attempted to dominate. Eventually she stretched for a last-ditch left-handed forehand which barely trickled over, but as the Chinese number one attempted to put away the weak reply, Sharapova had already begun sprinting back to her forehand side, into the open court. A stunning on-the-run forehand down the line passing shot followed as she wrestled the break from her opponent’s grasp and hammered the final nail into the coffin that held Li Na’s title hopes.


“I think the main thing (in the earlier rounds) is the way that I fought,” said Sharapova later. “The way I came back from being down from, you know winning the first set.


“Losing the second could have been tough and easy to let the third set go but I kept fighting to give myself a chance to get into the next round. And then I played my best tennis today. So no matter how difficult those matches were, no matter how tired I was.”


On the question of pressure after recording a breathtaking 20th straight victory on red clay, Sharapova showcased a relaxed outlook to her outstanding previous 12 months on the red dirt.


“It’s more exciting. I really feel like I deserve to be in that position where I’m considered one of favorites because I needed to work to be in this position for many years. I’ve worked on getting stronger. I’ve worked on getting patient. I’ve worked on getting my game to adapt a little more on clay. There’s a reason why I’ve got myself there. It didn’t take a day, it didn’t take months, it took many years.


It remains difficult to name the players who will figure as the top favorites for Roland Garros as the second Grand Slam draws ever-nearer, but if one thing is for sure, it’s that Sharapova will top them all.


Sharapova Survives Another Three-Set Match to Move into Stuttgart Final

By Tumaini Carayol

(April 27, 2013) STUTTGART – In a world where the phrase “counterpuncher” has become maimed and warped beyond reason and measure, Angelique Kerber epitomizes the word in its simplest form. The difference between Kerber and the numerous defensive retrievers the phrase is tossed indiscriminately at is clear; while the German too attempts to initiate points with consistency and high margin, Kerber’s ultimate aim isn’t simply to await errors and grind her opponents into submission. In stark contrast, she surrenders the initiative to her opponent in the hope they they will arm her with pace to allow her to attack.

It’s a strange and unique approach to tennis, and made even more bizarre by the manner in which she achieves it. For one, she isn’t even a particularly consistent player. Her faulty technique often leads to both forehand and backhand easily breaking down under pressure, particularly when static. However, her speed deceitfully creates an environment in which her opponents feel it imperative to take risks, inadvertently tossing the advantage straight to German. Conversely, against players who offer her zero pace, the German almost always struggles.

Moreover, conventional wisdom states that players whose strength is to redirect the opponent’s pace are usually armed with pin-point footwork and smooth, seamless technique in order to properly deal with the qualities thrown at them. Kerber, meanwhile, can be found contorting her body into unimaginable positions and taking large and awkward steps that put her only roughly in the direction of the ball. Despite that, over the past eighteen months, the German has proven herself the most spectacular in the world when on the run, with her ability to change directions and create spectacular angles and shotmaking on the run the driving force behind her ascension to the top five.

During the early stages of her battle against Maria Sharapova in Stuttgart, however, such spectacle was far from view. After two lackluster matches which far more readily showcased her mental strength clearly than anything resembling her best tennis, the Russian arrived with much to prove. From the very first game, she attacked with brutal depth, precision and weight of shot. As is often the case with Sharapova, it’s that precision and weight of shot that sets her apart from the crowd rather than her often overrated power, and during the early exchanges, she simply overwhelmed her opponent and left the German incapable of countering or punching in any capacity.

But there was something strange about Sharapova’s start. It was almost as if, after defeating Ana Ivanovic a round earlier, she had absorbed the Serb’s game as her serve and forehand dominated proceedings. It’s no secret that both strokes are so often the undoing of the Russian, so when the forehand did begin to unravel, nobody bothered to feign surprise. Meanwhile, Sharapova’s famously majestic backhand was nowhere to be seen as she alternated between spraying errors and avoiding her backhand-down-the-line at-all-costs, which only created yet more problems. With her trademark weapon missing in action and the rest of her game following in its wake, shortly after securing the first set 6-3 Sharapova was suddenly struggling to win games.

Much of the blame rested on Kerber’s shoulders, however. As Sharapova’s length slowly declined in the second half of the first set and offered the home favorite breathing space, the German snatched her opportunity and began to weave her web, transforming the match from what resembled a one-sided boxing match into a track meet. As is often the case in her matches, the match began to closer resemble a training drill as Kerber expertly used the the angles of the course to force Sharapova on the run, the Russian having no choice but to reply with desperate down-the-line shots. A couple of spectacular Sharapova shots followed, but there’ is usually only ever one victor of such drills, and it isn’t the slow player covering more ground and taking greater risks. As Kerber eased through the second set 6-2 and established a 2-0 third-set lead with seven straight games, it was clear the scoreboard agreed.

It was here that the most interesting moment of the match occurred Down 0-2 in the third set and staring into the abyss of defeat, Sharapova briefly departed from the previous two sets of the match. Suddenly she was rolling her serves in and opted for more topspin and height on her groundstrokes, re-establishing the depth and regaining her timing. Though this brief interlude lasted a mere game, it was enough to right Sharapova’s turbulent ship and send her powering through the following three games. Such an adjustment from the world number two would not happen on a hardcourt.

As the momentum tipped heavily back in the defending champion’s favor, the battle reached its glorious peak. Out of nowhere, both reverted back to what they do best. Sharapova’s backhand finally arrived in Stuttgart as she uncorked an assault of brutish winners from that side. Meanwhile, Kerber desperately and gallantly defended her serve, absorbing and redirecting the immense pressure Sharapova was inflicting on her, and amassing some impressive winners in the process. Against all odds, it was Kerber who emerged victorious in that lengthy game, leveling the match at three-all.

This proved only a momentary set-back for Sharapova,however, as she powered though the following two games to establish a 5-3 lead. Similarly to Ivanovic’s semi-comeback a day earlier, Kerber took her final stand and leveled back the match at 5-5, but Sharapova once again exhibited the resilience that made her a champion as she broke back immediately and finally closed the contest out.

Afterwards, when asked whether she was prepared for a potential fourth straight three-setter in the title match, three words from Sharapova summed up exactly why she has achieved such great and undeniable success over the course of her career.

“Whatever it takes,” she said. “Whatever it takes.”


Tumaini Carayol is in Stuttgart covering the Stuttgart tournament for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault.