Tag Archives: Sharapova

My 2013 Grand Slammy awards

To tide me over the horrible tennis off-season I thought I would look back on the year before we get ready to do it all again in 2014. So I give you my very own Slammy awards: (NB there will be a lot of bias in here and the categories may not be so mainstream)

The ‘Oh I say! tennis day of the year’ award: Friday, July 5th

I thought at the time that this was one of the best days of tennis a Grand Slam had offered up in two decades; the four months in between have done nothing to dilute that view. When a British player reaching a Wimbledon final isn’t the highlight of the day, you know you’ve had a treat. The nine sets of men’s tennis served up in the Wimbledon men’s semi-finals will stand the test of time for their drama and for their incredible level of quality. As a side-note, don’t count Juan-Martin Del Potro out of winning that tournament one day.

The ‘Errrr crikey, what do we do for the rest of the tournament?’ award: Wimbledon Day 3

Wimbledon's Black Wednesday

Wimbledon’s Black Wednesday

Ah yes, the day that eight players withdrew through injury either before or during their matches, the day that six former World number 1s bowed out of the tournament. Not only were Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic all eliminated on the women’s side, but the 21st century’s King of Centre Court finally succumbed to an opponent he shouldn’t have lost to; Federer’s four-set loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky a fitting finale to a day that tennis enthusiasts will never forget. Exit stage right half of the tennis world protagonists.

The ‘Handbags at twenty paces’ award: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova

Whilst the Siberian cannot live up to the World Number 1 on the court (remember it is almost a decade now since Maria has defeated Serena), their public falling-out was at least a more even match-up. Quite what seemed to cause the until-then good friends to fall out is open to interpretation but it did seem that the age-old “I don’t like your boyfriend” stance added fuel to the fire. It’s not quite what women’s tennis wants to be known for but it did get tabloid inches. I’d pay good money to see the stare-down between these two on a grand stage next year?

The ‘You’re tossing a potentially good career’ award: Bernard Tomic
So much raw talent but will somebody please get a hold of the Aussie before it’s too late? The 2011 Wimbledon quarter-finalist lost in woeful fashion to Britain’s Dan Evans in New York in August and looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but on a tennis court. The ‘kid’ has talent but his will-to-win and desire to put in the training hours looks at very best suspect. He needs to cut himself loose from his father and get a seasoned experienced coach to put him back on the right track. Photos of him in a nightclub receiving lap-dances during the offseason do not suggest he is knuckling down just yet. Next year is vital for him, almost make-or-break. He has the talent, but then so did Jelena Dokic….

The ‘Duracell bunny’ award: Marion Bartoli
Her effervescent never-say-never attitude finally paid dividends in the summer of 2013 when, at her 47th attempt, she finally won a Grand Slam title. She took full advantage of the draw opening up with all of the withdrawals and shock losses and marched through to the Venus Rosewater Dish without losing a set. Her name will always be there on that plate and despite the fact that it was not a stellar tournament on the ladies’ side, her example goes alongside Francesca Schiavone’s from recent years with the maxim to kids that if you leave everything out there on the court, then you really can reach the highest of highs. Her decision to retire shocked many but not as many as you would first think. Bartoli was always a scientist, a mathematician. She left no stone unturned in her career and she logically concluded that Wimbledon 2013 would be the pinnacle of her career. Nothing left to achieve, merci and adieu! Well played Bartster!

The ‘Why are you still playing? Ah, that’s why!’ award: Radek Stepanek

Davis Cup trooper

Davis Cup trooper

The 35-year-old Czech can still be a nuisance on the singles tour. He gets into the heads of the very top players, albeit temporarily but struggles now to stick runs together at ATP level. He’s dropped down to play a few lower-level tournaments but it is the Davis Cup that he lives for these days. In November, he helped the Czech Republic to a successful defence of their title by overcoming Novak Djokovic’s Serbia, a year after they defeated Spain. Keep on running, old man – it’s clearly worth it!

Early predictions for 2014
Serena Williams to win less Grand Slam tournaments – whilst she is the undisputed Queen of the WTA, this was her year to capitalise. Next year Victoria Azarenka will win at least another Grand Slam and the youngsters will all be a year wiser and a year fitter. But Serena will still win one or two.
Juan-Martin Del Potro will win a second Grand Slam title. If the big man can ensure he gets amongst the top 4 seeds at the big tournaments, he is capable of adding to his solitary major.
Roger Federer will end the year in the Top 5. Not as many points to defend as in previous years, a switch of coach and a switch of mentality = dangerous maestro!
Slaone Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard will become established members of the WTA Top 10, Grigor Dimitrov and Jerzy Janowicz will crack the top ten on the men’s tour. Bernard Tomic will not.

Career crossroads

Career crossroads

From a British point of view, Andy Murray will add to his Slam collection, most probably in Melbourne at the year’s start. Heather Watson will battle back into the world’s top 50 due to her new attacking game but Laura Robson’s immediate future will depend on how quickly she settles into working with her new coach. Jo Konta will make it three British women in the Top 100 once again. Dan Evans should get into the Top 100 by the time the US Open series comes around.
Oh, and just so he doesn’t go without a mention…Rafael Nadal to end the year by winning the World Tour Finals and as World Number 1.

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A new rivalry in the women’s game?

The best eight players in the world

 

The WTA season ends in Istanbul this week as the top 8 players in the world gather for the End-of-season Championships. That there are few of the girls involved with a realistic shot at winning should come as no surprise. It has not been a vintage year at the top of the women’s game. Serena Williams returned to the peak, not in ranking but certainly in game. She is among the realistic contenders this week. Viktoria Azarenka is the other serious one, whilst I give an outside chance to Angelique Kerber if she can oust either of them from the toughest of the two round-robin groups.

The final between Vika and Serena in New York was the stand-out highlight of a pretty poor showing this year. It has the potential to be a great rivalry if Vika has the stomach to take on the Queen Bee of the WTA Tour. The evidence is there that she has more than enough tooth to take the fight right to Serena. She stood toe-to-toe with the veteran at Flushing Meadows, trading killer forehands for 3 brilliant three sets of tennis. You go either two ways from the crushing defeat when she failed to serve out for the Championship; you crumble away and slide down the rankings or you get right back on it and set about proving you are the rightful number one in the women’s game. The signs are there that the Belarusian has chosen the latter of these two options, having already won a tournament since the final major of the season.  A couple of victories over Serena this week would mean that she could hold rightful claims to being the best player in the world.

Serena will of course have other ideas – she knows that a victory here would do nothing but rubberstamp her fantastic summer. She has dominated the field since her shock 1st round defeat at Roland Garros, her first ever defeat at the opening hurdle in a Grand Slam. Virginie Razzano’s victory over her should have been a highlight of any tennis year, but the horrible cold facts are that Serena was woeful that day and the at-times cruel Parisian crowd got to her. Serena has more Grand Slam victories in her sights – Steffi Graf’s 22 may be out of reach, but Williams will believe she can collect three more to match Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.  It would be silly to suggest this is motivating Serena at this stage in her career and I am shocked that so many experts are stating it as fact.  The truth is Serena has never needed records or titles to motivate her.  She is motivated by winning every single match she competes in – it’s as simple as that.  It’s what sets apart the best champions from the rest.

There is no need to go over the list of players who have been at the top of the women’s game in the last 10 years who did not possess this motivation and killer instinct. Millions of column inches have been written discrediting their achievements and games, which serves to do nothing but sully those girl’s commendable careers. But we all know the ones who do possess it. Serena possesses it, Sharapova possesses it, Justine Henin had it and the legends mentioned in the previous paragraph personified it. It is my belief that Victoria Azarenka has that in abundance. Her potential took longer to come to fruition than her fans thought it would. Indeed, there was a time a couple of years ago when it appeared she just was not going to crack it and massive potential was to go unfulfilled. But Vika has fought her way to the very top of the rankings and has a Grand Slam title in the bag after her vicious no-mercy demolishing of Sharapova in Melbourne nine months ago. She has the game and the nerve to go on and battle it out with Serena and even to stop Serena from getting level with her fellow Americans Navratilova and Evert. She is the one player who means that the chance to draw level with them does not simply lie only on Serena’s racket.

I would be surprised if anybody other than these two girls was to lift the trophy at the end of the week. Like I say, Kerber has an outside shot if she puts her game together and Vika or Serena drop the ball. It would be more than surprise, it would be amazement, if the winner was to come from the other group.  Radwanska could win it another year if people come in off-form or unfit but cannot match the dominant Williams or Azarenka. Sara Errani will be happy to just be there and is the whipping girl, I’m afraid. Kudos to her for backing up her Roland Garros final appearance with enough ranking points to qualify though. Petra Kvitova has flattered to deceive this year and will struggle to get out of the group, whilst Sharapova is a guaranteed semi-final shot, but will come up short against either Serena or Vika in the semi-final stage.  I have to confess that I was actually dumbfounded that Na Li had done enough to make the tournament – clearly I am not following the women’s game as closely as I should do. Her best days are behind her it would seem.

My idea of a successful tournament needs only a few things. I would like the semi -finals and finals to be watched by a full stadium. If not, something really needs to be done to look at an alternative venue. London would sell this thing out and ensure full houses for every single match. Another thing is at least one of the semi-finals going the distance, and the final being a showcase for great tennis.  The final thing will be for all eight girls which start the tournament to be the eight who finish it. I do not like the idea of alternates and there have been far too many retirements and withdrawals in recent years.  Not too much to ask, is it?!

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The end of an era

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At the time of writing, only one glittering career has officially ended in New York this past week, but at least one more is imminent and two others appear to be nearing their denouement.  Laura Robson has burst onto the major scene by ending Kim Clijsters’ career for good in an incredibly high standard two sets of tennis.  Kim seemed quite relieved to have it all over and done with – I was privileged enough to be in the stands to witness it, and we all wish her the best in the rest of her life – tennis will miss her smile.  The hard-hitting Robson has added movement to her game now and whilst it would be wrong to put too much pressure on her young shoulders, this may not be the last time we see her in the latter stages of a Slam.  She showed all of her best fighting qualities to see off another major winner in the following round when she battled to a 3-set victory over Na Li – an amazing result to follow up on the best win of her career with arguably an even better one.

Elsewhere in the women’s draw, there was serene progress for Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka who have barely dropped a handful of games each.  I saw Serena’s match against Coco Vandeweghe and it was painful to witness – the gulf in class frightening.  The pre-match interview with Vandeweghe suggested that her serve would be better than her opponent’s – I think in reality she served about ten double faults in seven games. Sharapova was equally ruthless in her demolition of Melinda Czink.  I didn’t get a chance to see Vika but her results seem just as emphatic.  Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska seemed unseasonably off-colour in their victories over Pauline Parmentier and Carla Suarez-Navarro respectively; it is no surprise to see that they are not featuring in the second week.  The opportunity to check on Angelique Kerber didn’t present itself, but she may have also effectively ended the Grand Slam career of Venus Williams.  if, as I suspect, the sport loses Clijsters and the elder Williams in quick succession, major draws will have an unfamiliar look about the for a while.  Their successes will always be remembered, but time waits for no woman.

And nor does it wait for any man.  Andy Roddick has chosen to follow Kim Clijsters’ example and retire on his own terms.  His announcement that this will be his final tournament is fitting, coming at the place of his only Grand Slam victory, way back in 2003.  History will prove that Andy’s peak came at exactly the wrong time, coinciding with Roger Federer’s dominant years.  If it hadn’t been for Roger, Roddick would be a 3-time Wimbledon champion but Federer always had the American’s number even in the epic 2009 final when A-Rod famously professed that he hadn’t just thrown the kitchen sink at the Swiss maestro, but had thrown “the whole damn kitchen at him”.  Roddick’s respectable showing in New York means he bows out with his head held high.

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Lleyton Hewitt’s Last 32 showing proves that the 2-time Slam winner can still live with the best on his best day.  However, the fact that he has had to rely on wildcard entry to all four majors this season certifies that his best days are few and far between these days.  Whilst his fighting spirit will never die, the smart money would be on the former World #1 hanging up his racquet at the end of the 2013 Australian Open.  Again, Hewitt is unfortunate to have played in Federer’s era but he is somebody who fulfilled every bit of potential in his career.  If he is to follow Roddick into retirment, the game will have lost two very popular characters in a short space of time.

As for the contenders, I stick by my tip for the title.  Andy Murray may not have set the world alight in Week One, but the old adage rings true – you can’t win the title in the first week, only lose it.  His run has been tough and he stepped up the level of his play against Milos Raonic in the last 16.  Federer was imperious in the first week, but nobody seemed willing to really get at him.  Murray will do so in the Last 4. I have not seen a single shot of Djokovic’s tournament so far, but results-wise I have seen nothing yet to change my view that it will be the 25-year-old Brit who lifts the trophy aloft on Sunday night, weather permitting of course.

A word on my overall thoughts on the US Open experience.  Firstly, the bad stuff: Arthur Ashe Stadium.  It is is unsustainable at its current size.  From the cheap seats, you are so far away from the action that it is hard to get involved in a contest.  Huge swathes of empty seats greet the day sessions.  The music from Ashe can be heard on all outside courts, which surely does not offer courtesy to the other competitors.  Above all, the USTA’s over-reliance on its so-called marquee names meant that the same players appeared over and over again on the main court during the first week in ridiculously mismatched, uncompetitive encounters. Take Clijsters v Robson and Malisse v Isner out of the equation and the average set score on Ashe in the first five days was 6-2.  Not good value. Onto the good stuff though, and there is plenty.  The most lively Grand Slam I have been to (I haven’t yet been to Melbourne) with ample crowd capacity on all outside courts.  Ticketing is easy, security is quick (although no body scan/search is conducted, which is worrying given tennis’ history), the transport links are excellent and a ground pass represents excellent value  with $72 giving you access to all courts other than Ashe.  A resounding thumbs-up for the US open from me!

The things that make a Slam special though are the things that may mean nothing to the next person – watching my favourite player Nadia Petrova win three on the spin, watching my favourite male player Fabio Fognini win in the long shadows of a Grand Slam sunset and getting my photo taken with one of my faves,  2009 US Open Junior champ Heather Watson, who proved herself to be approachable and pleasant.  All in all, a great week at Flushing!

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Murray’s time has come

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The power in men’s tennis could be about to shift firmly towards Andy Murray.  The British number one comes into the final major of the 2012 season on the back of an annihilation of Roger Federer in the Olympics final only three weeks ago.  For those who question Federer’s desire in that match, I suggest they read any of the Swiss maestro’s interviews from the previous four years – London 2012 was one of his biggest motivations for continuing at the top of the game and his failure to win a Singles Gold medal will undoubtedly rank as one of the bigger disappointments of his glittering career when he finally hangs up his racket. The plain and simple truth is that Murray outplayed Federer with a ruthless display of aggressive tennis, just 48 hours after seeing off Novak Djokovic in straight sets, albeit in a best-of-3-sets match.  This, coupled with his run to the Wimbledon final earlier in the summer, has now given Murray the self-belief that he belongs with these guys at the very very top in the greatest era of men’s tennis.

I have been one of Andy Murray’s biggest critics over the years.  His rise to the top was filled with missed opportunities and shock defeats in Grand Slams to players that he should never have lost to. There was a stage approximately 18-24 months ago where he looked like his career had already peaked.  Djokovic and Nadal were disappearing into the distance, with Federer hanging onto his younger counterparts’ tailcoats. Drastic action was needed by Murray and it came earlier this year in the shock appointment of  the dour Czech Ivan Lendl as his coach. Opinion was divided at the time as to whether this was inspired choosing or a desperate lunge to the bar in the last chance saloon. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the two.  Lendl knows from his own playing career that patience can be the key; he was the same age as Murray is when he won his first Grand Slam and he went on to win a number.  Murray saw something in Lendl which other players haven’t seen – this was the Swede’s first coaching appointment, a full 17 years after he retired from the game.  Whilst neither would win a happiness contest, it seems that the dour cocktail is proving a positive one and less people than normal would bet against Murray lifting the US Open trophy in a fortnight’s time.  Who knows, if that happens we may even get a smile from the both of them? One smile, not two, let’s not get too carried away.

Nadal’s absence takes away one of the big obstacles in Murray’s way.  I put only Djokovic, Federer and Del Potro as other possible winners.  Djokovic will aim to sign off a slightly less successful year (only the Australian Open in the bag this year!) by proving he is still the man to beat on the ATP Tour.  Del Potro has history here and looks to be almost back to his best and will prove an incredibly tough not to crack on the hard New York courts. Federer has continued his outstanding summer form into the American season and will expect an appearance in the final.  However, Murray stands in his way – your time has come, Andy.

The women’s game desperately needs somebody to take Serena out in a giant-killing act.  If somebody can raise their game to their maximum level and beat the dominant younger Williams sister, then the field would be blown open.  Get a blanket and throw it over about 8 women if Serena loses somewhere along the line.  Maria Sharapova has a shot at the slam where she probably has the most support.  Vika Azarenka has a shot at reasserting her number 1 ranking.  Petra Kvitova has hit good form at just about the right time for a run in the season’s final major.  A word for Maria Kirilenko, who will look to cement her finest season of her career by securing another last four spot and maybe go even further.  But it is Kim Clijsters who jumps out as the big value bet here.  Kim will retire from tennis for a second and surely final time as soon as she hits her final ball in anger or joy in New York.  She will put every ounce of effort she has in her to give this one final shot.  She will be the crowd favourite, no doubt, and if Serena is ousted somewhere along the line, the support and emotion may be enough to give Kim the edge over the rest and carry over the line.  What is encouraging is that with the obvious exception of Rafael Nadal, all the big players in both events are fit and ready to go.  It promises to be a glittering two weeks under the lights of Flushing Meadows.  I am lucky to be going over there for the first five days, with the first five sessions being on Ashe Stadium court – this should give me a chance to see most of the main runners and riders up close over the next 7 days, and I will no doubt blog further upon my return.  But for now, I will leave you with these words; Andy and Kim – you read it here first!

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Going for Gold in SW19

The desire of tennis players to win Gold at the Olympic Games has never been as strong as it is right now, not least because of the tournament being played on the hallowed courts of The All-England Club. With the unfortunate exception of the injured Rafael Nadal, all of the world’s top players head to South-West London this week in search of what is deemed by sport, if not tennis, fans as the ultimate prize; an Olympic Gold medal.

Many feel that Roger Federer has played on so long for the sole reason of dreaming of winning Olympic Gold on his Centre Court.  His recent triumph on that court ensures he will continue to gun for further Slams for at least another year or two. His dual aims of winning another major and regaining the Number 1 ranking have been achieved after some personal sacrifices. Quite what this will do for his career remains to be seen, but the lifting of self-imposed pressure could lead to Fedex having an Indian summer in the most unbelievable of careers.

Andy Murray has to now believe that he can win on the grass of Wimbledon.  I always sensed with Andy that he didn’t truly believe that his breakthrough win would come in his home Slam. His run to the final three weeks ago must surely give him the confidence to go on to great things there in the future.  The smart money may yet be on the man from Dunblane winning Gold on home soil.

What of the world number 1? For the first time in two years, Novak Djokovic has gone two majors without winning one.  He will want to prove that he is still top dog and the proud Serb would love nothing more than to do that by winning sport’s top prize whilst wearing his country’s colours. I have thought all summer long that Murray, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer would each take one of the four big summer prizes. Nadal reigned supreme in Paris, King Roger returned to rule Wimbledon so I believe it is left to Murray and Djokovic to squabble over the Games and the US Open.

Does anybody else have a realistic of striking Gold?  Jo-Wilfried Tsonga cannot be ruled out – his semi-final appearances in the last two Wimbledons prove that he is capable of majestic grass-court play.  He also has the power to blow away any of the top 3 candidates on any given day.  If he gets a favourable draw, he is more than capable of ensuring the ‘Tricolore’ is raised above the lawns of the All-England Club at the end of the Games.  My other outside chance may surprise many. I have never been this man’s biggest fan, and his best days are undoubtedly behind him but something is drawing me to Andy Roddick. There are not many who are prouder to represent their country than the big-serving American yet, in his heart of hearts, he knows he is no longer capable of posing a credible threat over the course of a fortnight of 5-set matches.  But you would be foolish to count him out over 3 sets against most of the world’s players, such is the power of his serve even at this stage of his career.  Yes, don’t discount A-Rod going deep into the tournament and he would prove to be a popular champion at the All-England Club, even if he wasn’t wearing the all-white of a Wimbledon tournament.

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On the women’s side, it is hard to see beyond Serena Williams following up her brilliant Wimbledon title by adding singles Gold to her glittering career.  It had been a long road back to full recovery and redemption for Serena, but finally two years of illness horror and shocking tantrums came to a happy conclusion when the natural order was restored 3 Sundays ago with the surname Williams being engraved back onto the Venus Rosewater Dish. Serena is back and wants to play and you get the sense that the others are playing for scraps as long as she remains serious in her ambitions.  It would be foolish to back against Serena next week, but which other players will believe they have a genuine shot?

Maria Sharapova still sees Wimbledon as home but Sabine Lisicki’s straight-sets destruction of her a month ago serves to show that Maria is not infallible on the lush green courts.  And this goes for a lot of the women’s game right now; the top 20 are all capable of beating 18 of the other 19 on their day.  Quite whether Maria would be a popular winner would remain to be seen, such was her lack of determination to play Fed Cup until recently, when she was only prompted into doing so by having to prove her eligibility to compete in the Games.

The Wimbledon finalist Agi Radwanska won many fans with her diverse play during the Wimbledon fortnight, if not for her personality.  She has a sound tactical brain but you sense that the Wimbledon final may prove to be the highlight of her career, even at this relatively early stage.  Look out for her and little sister Urszula to make an impact in the doubles event however.

Vika Azarenka was points away from cracking the Serena nut in the semi-finals last month and will think that she is the one with a genuine chance of ousting the younger Williams sister.  Her tenacity and refusal to admit defeat will take her a long way in this tournament, and no doubt she will look to impress whilst wearing her country’s colours being the strong patriot that she is.  Petra Kvitova still has the game to win on the grass and, with the heavy burden of defending champion being lifted from her shoulders, she can go on to prove she is has the potential to be the greatest grass-court player of this new generation.

A few words on two players with little chance of winning Olympic singles Gold; Venus Williams has been a great player for well over a decade and it was great to see her contribution to tennis rewarded when she was asked to carry the Olympic torch through the grounds of The All-England Club last week.  A career that has known no bounds ticked off another marvellous achievement. In addition, Elena Baltacha will fulfil a career-long dream next week when she represents Great Britain in the London Games having also earlier carried the Torch.  Elena is a player who has made herself available for selection for Fed Cup duty at all points in her career.  She has fought back from a series of career-threatening illnesses and has fulfilled every bit of potential in her career.  I finally got the chance to see her play live last month and what a honour it was.  Sadly for her, her career has never been about going deep in Grand Slams but to watch her fight like a lioness for every single point is a wonderful experience.  Enjoy every second, Bally!

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How to solve a problem with Maria

A Dream realised

That it was Maria Sharapova who stood with the Suzanne Lenglen trophy aloft at the end of the fortnight should come as no surprise; A relief as there have been a few too many surprises in the women’s game over the last 14 days, something which serves as a big problem to the game’s marketing machines. For all of the complaints about the almost-decade-long monopolisation from the Williams sisters, it was good for the sport. Ask people for the name of a top women’s tennis player or a Slam winner and they would invariably opt for one of the Compton girls. Behind them came the good looks of Maria which meant that for a long time the sport did not need to try with marketing and appeal. As the sisters head over the hill to retirement and new careers, where does the women’s game go now and, more importantly, who can it pin its hopes on to appeal to a larger audience?

Even the most devoted tennis fan would hesitate to name the winners of the last 8 slams before this year’s French Open. For what it is worth….Francesca Schiavone, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters x2, Na Li, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka. Are any of them equipped to carry the sport forward with mass appeal?

I think it is safe to suggest that Schiavone’s year in the Roland Garros sun is now firmly in the past. She did marvellously to reach the 2011 final in her title defence but now appears to have rediscovered what was her previous career level; a safe bet for the last 16 but not likely to trouble the second week too much. Her fall to Italian number 2 after Sara Errani’s terrific run seems to confirm that Schiavone’s star is descending.

Kim Clijsters recently announced that she will retire for a second time after this year’s US Open. Her return to the sport brought her three Grand Slams, a damning indictment of the women’s game as her heart never seemed fully in it.  Her dream is to win on the grass of the All England Club – this summer presents her with a double dose of opportunity but the smart money would be on the hectic schedule proving too demanding of the working mum.  The loss of her smile and on-court attitude will be another blow to the Tour.

Na Li’s victory at Porte d’Auteuil 12 months ago was heralded as a major breakthrough for Asian tennis. The first Slam winner from the world’s biggest continent won the hearts of tennis fans with her adventurous play and fun bickering with her husband, and her form in the first six months of last season suggested more was to come. Sadly, it hasn’t materialised with Li struggling to stay in the Top 10 and whilst one would not rule out another slam, major domination is unlikely.

There is more hope attached to the winners of the last three Slams.  Petra Kvitova heads into her Wimbledon defence with as good a chance as any of lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish. As she powered her way to victory last July, I was convinced that here was a young woman who could dominate at SW19 for years. I have not changed that opinion. Her game is perfectly suited to the slower grass courts and her power is breath-taking.  An improved showing at Roland Garros this year is good preparation for another assault, this time as defending champion. Can the game use her as a marketing tool? Unlikely.   Her sometimes sullen, sluggish movements are akin to Lindsay Davenport and whilst both have many admirers amongst tennis fans, you need more to lure outsiders; on-court grace, stunning beauty, bubbly personality or continued success in all slams. As harsh as it sounds, none of these are yet true of Petra.

Samantha Stosur’s forehand threatened to blow the women’s game away in the autumn of last year. Her straight sets destruction of Serena in the US Open Final demonstrated great play, as well as the ability to keep calm under pressure as Serena disgracefully lost her cool for a second successive year under the Flushing Meadows floodlights. The spotlight was firmly on Stosur in her home slam in January but she stuttered, she stuttered badly. Call it Mauresmo Syndrome if you wish, but Sam just could not cope with the sudden weight of national expectation on her shoulders, not helped by Lleyton Hewitt’s ageing legs shifting that expectation across the draws.  Her performance in Paris was more assured, less nervous.  After what is likely to be usually early exits on the grass courts of South-West London, Stosur will be a favourite to retain her title in New York. Her modest, shy attitude and her age, as well as the fact that she consistently struggles in two of the four Slams, mean that she is not the face the game needs to take it forward.

Victoria Azarenka’s all-encompassing start to 2012 was something expected, if a couple of years later than envisaged. Her three-month unbeaten streak laid down a marker that she was ready to dominate but her early defeat in Paris showed her frailties are still there.  Her off-court persona makes her a likeable character, but too often her on-court shrieks are open to ridicule. Her looks, tenacity, charm and good play give her a decent chance of being a major marketing force if the audience can get beyond the peacock-esque noise.

The WTA must be disappointed that Caroline Wozniacki lost her way when adapting her game in an attempt to become a major winner.  This was a young lady who had almost everything they wanted in a Number 1 – looks, charm, grace, star appeal, a willingness to fulfil a hectic schedule – but ultimately her game was found to be lacking and it now looks likely that she will never win a Slam as she slips down the rankings.   You sense with Caroline that there will always be somebody just too good for her in each tournament.

So it is to Maria Sharapova that we look once more.  The 17 year old who called home on her mobile phone from Wimbledon centre court to tell her mum she had won is now a 25 year old veteran whose constant will-to-win suggests that she is again ready to lead the sport in this period of transition.  Modelling contracts and sponsorship commitments have never been too far away for Maria, but she has managed to combine them with constantly improving her game like nobody else has managed in the past. The reconstruction of her game following the reconstruction of her shoulder has been a slow, but oh-so-sure one.  She, more than anybody, will know that with the sport being wide-open, she has the ability to add more majors to her collection. The fact that she is now only the sixth woman in the Open era to have won all four majors will only add to her confidence.  Her willingness to scrap until the very last point of every match belie her sweet demeanour and, deep down, that is why most tennis fans have at least begrudging respect for her. Yes, it is over to you Maria – the autumn of your career is charged with carrying the WTA through a period of transition. Your legend is secured, you can only add to it from here. I will be watching with close interest, but admittedly with the volume turned down.

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