victoria azarenka wants australian open title

Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open 2013

Victoria Azarenka had a lot to endure in the past couple of days: she was overcome by nerves and blew five match points in her semifinal match against teen sensation Sloane Stephens. Criticasters booed her for that but Azarenka would like to use the Australian Open finale to shush the naysayers and gain back some of that goodwill.

That 10-minute timeout, which the World No. 1 took during the 5-4 changeover right after she lost her serve, was necessitated by an apparent rib injury. Vika denies that she took a medical timeout to get an extra break to recover from the match. (Was Azarenka right in taking the medical timeout at 5-4 for nerves? Tell us!)

Azarenka told the press that it wasn’t nice to read and hear the criticism revolving her timeout but added that there are sometimes things that we don’t have control over and that the best you can do is learn from it.  Azarenka further added that the most important thing for her is to put up a great finale versus Li Na.

Stats: Azarenka and Li have played each other 9 times so far in their careers. And head-to-head is 5-4 in Vika’s favor. Azarenka has won the last four encounters.

fans’ POV: the weird women’s wimby semis

Even for avid tennis fans, the Wimbledon women’s semifinal line-up evokes a certain amount of confusion. “Puh-ronk-oh-va?” “Pet-rah Kee-vote-who?”

In Tuesday’s quarterfinals at the All England Club, winners were expected to be named Williams or Clijsters, but only was that the case in a single of three matches, as Venus Williams went down in straight sets and Kim Clijsters lost in three.

Serena Williams held up her end of the bargain, beating Li Na of China in her match, the same player that took out her sister Venus in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open this year. Unknown Petra Kvitova came through in her match against Kaia Kanepi, 8-6 in the third set.

Women’s tennis has a history with unknown semifinalists, though few compare to what will take place on Thursday at the All England Club in London. Earlier this month, Francesca Schiavone and Samantha Stosur surprised all by making the semifinals (and then the finals) at Roland Garros, and earlier this year it was Na who beat Venus Williams while countrywoman Jie Zheng earned a final-four birth in Melbourne, as well.

Tsvetana Pironkova and Petra Kvitova are the least known of the bunch, much like Belgian Yanina Wickmayer was unknown in her march to the semifinals of last year’s U.S. Open.

Here’s a few thoughts from TSF followers on what exactly the Wimbledon semifinals mean for women’s tennis as a whole, TV ratings, business, the future and all that jazz:

I think all this means now is that Serena’s got an easy path to the title.  She clearly looks the most dominant, and she’s the only one of the four that’s even been to a Grand Slam final before.  I think if it were a situation of four unknowns, we’d get a Roland Garros re-do, but to me this just seems to clear the road for Serena to win. She also has that intimidation factor that could put a stop to any streaking player that otherwise has the momentum. Chances are, if Serena can get past her semifinal match (which she should), it’ll be a pretty boring final.  My pick: Serena takes the title easily in straight sets. –Hilary Scurlock, Co-Editor, Strawberries & Scream

As great as it is these lesser known/ranked players are having the tournament of their lives (and of most player’s lives) NBC has to be fuming because of potential ratings drops.  We could be seeing a lot of Isner/Mahut re-aired that day. Maybe if Zvonareva makes it to the finals they’ll do some soap opera story line about her crying and decombusting all the time.  It was just last year that Zvonareva won Indian Wells and made it to #5 in the world … can she get back up there?

As for the other girls, I know Pironkova had upset Venus at a grand slam some years ago [the 2006 Australian Open].  She beat Dementieva in Warsaw R16 earlier this year. At least with the French we had a storyline with the veteran Schiavone and the hot up and comer (even though she’s not a rookie) Stosur.  I think with Schivone and Stosur, while not the “biggest” names in the sport, they are established names with signifant wins under their belt. –Christopher Phillips, Contributing Writer, TSF
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fresh perspective: an aussie welcome

TSF is excited to welcome Tobin Addington to the 2010 blogging team. Tobin holds a masters degree in Film from Columbia University, works as a director and screenwriter, and is a professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey. His tennis love has blossomed over the last few months, and the Australian Open is the first Slam he’s followed end-to-end. Tobin will contribute with a column called fresh perspective, giving his take of the game we all know with a new lens. -NM

I’m new to tennis.  Like, really new.  Six months ago, I didn’t know the difference between a break point and a backhand.  (Okay, so I probably could’ve figured out what a backhand was, but I didn’t care.)

All that changed last September at my local gym when I caught the end of Melanie Oudin beating one of those Russians at the U.S. Open.  I ran about five extra miles on the treadmill to see the end of the match.  (Yes, I know, the Oudin phenomenon was largely a media creation, a story designed to rope suckers like me into paying attention to tennis.  But it worked!)

Now I subscribe to the Tennis Channel, I’ve read all the Jon Wertheim tennis books and Agassi’s autobiography, I check TSF and Tennis.com daily, and I’ve started programming my social life around big matches.  (I even watched the Federer-Del Potro U.S. Open final from my computer at work.  Shhh.  Don’t tell…)

The guys here at TSF have kindly invited me to contribute a post every couple weeks from my perspective as a new (and increasingly avid) fan.  I’m flattered and excited, but I feel more full of questions than anything else.  So I’m hoping you, dear readers, will take me under your collective wing and guide my introduction to tennis.

I’m still figuring out who’s who and what all the rules are.  (Double break points?  Lets?  Slams?)    Heck, I’m still getting the scoring straight.

But I love the personalities, the psychological intensity, the combination of finesse and brutality.  And, yes, the outfits.  (Among the things I’ve already learned from watching tennis that I really should’ve known before: wristbands are used to wipe sweat off faces.  Maybe I’m a little slow, but this never occurred to me before.)

From outside the world of tennis fans, the sport maintains a pristine, genteel image.  Anyone whose read the introduction to Agassi’s biography understands there is so much more to this sport.

It truly is, to paraphrase Wertheim, our most gladiatorial sport.  And I can’t wait for more!

And I have a lot of questions.  First: what’s up with the skin-colored undies Venus Williams wore against Francesca Schiavone? Hello, freeze-frame-fanny shots?!

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msg: the arena, not the flavoring

Nick here, parked deep in the confines of Madison Square Garden in the Press Room, awaiting the Big Show to get underway for the Billie Jean King Cup. If there’s little to write about the significance of tonight’s tennis, there’s plenty to write about the place – and the meaning – of where these great female athletes are going to perform. And what it could mean beyond these famous walls, if the tennis did end up mattering tonight.

garden-aerial-bjkcup09

The MSG has long been known as “The World’s Most Famous Arena” because of its size, its location, its experience and its tradition. But in the last decade, tennis has lost its vital connection to said holy place: the WTA Season Ending Championships went overseas, and the storied men’s and women’s tournaments of winter persuasion found different venues and sponsors to bear their names.

If you’re at all familiar with tennis in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, you’ll remember the name Virginia Slims. VS was a title sponsor of the tour for awhile, and was head sponsor for the SECs through 1994. It wasn’t the greatest combo – a cigarette brand and a professional sport – but it worked for a long, long time.

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Rafa can’t fill all of Roger’s Prada shoes

By now everyone has seen New York‘s fall fashion issue with a shirtless Rafael Nadal on the cover. Well, he’s on the back cover, so it’s difficult to randomly encounter. I’ve had to actively scan all the rags at my newsstand for Christie Brinkley‘s mug (she’s this week’s cover girl) and then flip the magazine over to see Rafa (so much work in the name of men’s fashion!), but it didn’t matter to me. And then I saw the pictures, and read the article, and then it all made sense: judging by Nadal’s influence in the world of fashion, the back-of-book placement is just right.

The Rafa article, penned by Ben Williams, notes that only a man of Nadal’s body type — big, bulging muscles — could pull off wearing his signature (and subjectively feminine) tank-top-and-Capris ensemble in such a way that we would never feel compelled to qualify his look the word “men’s” — i.e., “sleeveless man shirt” or “men’s Capri pants” — and he can thank his muscles for that. He gets brownie points for effortlessly and indifferently sporting his personal style.

But while this nonchalance might be why he’s worth a cover story (I’m sure Borg was equally as casual about putting together his “look”), Nadal is too disconnected from his fashion image; he has admitted to not knowing anything about the design of his clothes, nor does he seem interested in this world. For the NY photo shoot the editors couldn’t even use Rafa’s body to its full potential, only including three pictures of him wearing the exact. same. polo. And not even the most exciting piece from the Nike‘s fall collection. A chance to advance the realm of men’s (tennis) fashion instead goes down the drain.

After all this, things are the same as where we were pre-publication: men’s clothes as an afterthought, a formality, a rote exercise. With this cover, I had hoped that NY could make a case for us to rally around Rafa as a style icon. Alas, it didn’t quite work. While the search for Roger‘s replacement atop the rankings is over, the search for his fashion heir isn’t.

Read:The Beefcake in the Backcourt“, by Ben Williams, New York; also includes a 7-pic slideshow.

More: Two pics after the cut…

What happened to the "us" in USA?

Does anyone else feel shut out of tennis’ most nationalistic event?

I’m no expert on Portland, but I’ve read, and heard, that it’s a great place to live: beautiful surroundings; un-congested and easily commutable; and a down-to-earth and eco-conscious vibe. But it doesn’t come cheap. And the job market is apparently quite small and cramped.

If you were to read economist-cum-socialist Michael D. Yates‘ account of Portland in his recent travel memoir, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate, you would likely be discouraged from moving to Portland without a good job in hand. Particularly challenging, says Yates, is the world of high-end restaurant work, in which talented workers were making $7 an hour in ’04, and where it “wasn’t uncommon for restaurants to replace sous chefs when their pay got into the upper $20,000s.” (Read more on a Portland from an excerpt on Yates’ blog).

It’s not surprising, nor inappropriate, in this light, that the U.S. is hosting this weekend’s Davis Cup tie final in Portland. Three-day passes ranged from $90-$600 in price, so the event will be filled with wealthy locals, even wealthier out-of-towners jetting in on “tennis tours,” plus a couple dozen nouveau riche Russians who are even wealthier still.

Isn’t it at least somewhat ironic, in a country where tennis has gradually, in fits and starts, become less of an elitist sport, that when it comes to its nationalist forum — the Davis Cup — its spectators will be made up mostly of retired and semi-retired WASPs (Patrick McEnroe, who’s Irish Catholic, excepted)?

When it comes to media coverage, meanwhile, tennis is clearly on the downswing: Not only is ESPN — in the past a standby for U.S. Davis Cup action — out of the picture, even Tennis Channel has been relegated to carrying the Tie only in its delayed form. To watch it live, you’ll have to have a thick cable/dish package that contains the scrappy little sports channel known as VERSUS, which would require an additional order to my current dish package.

I guess this fine little bottleneck for us devoted fans is due to the “waning interest in tennis for many Americans” that NPR’s Tom Goldman cites on today’s Morning Edition. Okay, American media conglomerate, I’ll take your hint. I’ve had my fill for now, and I’m fine with resting up for a good six weeks until the Aussie Open gets going, anyway.

As far as the Tie itself, thanks to the doubles lineup, you have to give the Americans the edge. As much as I respect Blake and would feel bad if he takes another tough Tie loss, Youzhny is my favorite player, and has a lot of Cup confidence, so sorry James, but you’re going down.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here. And TSF’s Davis Cup coverage is here.

the masters cup without its gaucho

Let there not be any doubt that the real story (and prologue) of this year’s Tennis Masters Cup is David Nalbandian’s absence, a matter well-noted by NYT’s Chris Clarey.

I, for one, can forgive him for not making the schlep from Argentina to Shanghai — a trip which would have demanded a minimum of 32 hours travel time from Buenos Aires, one way — to be the first alternate. True, he won the Cup as an alternate in ’05, but he’s just won two Masters Series events in less than 3 weeks; why risk jet lag if all he’s going to do is keep the bench warm (Tommy Robredo is doing a mighty fine job of doing so, by the way)? This way, Nalbandian gets to end his 2007 season on a high note.

This year’s eight-man draw seems to be missing an ingredient -– a sauce, or perhaps some spices -– to make things interesting. Despite the close contest between Roddick and Davydenko, I slogged through it impatiently. Maybe there’s more to be said for style — both in fashion and play -– than some (at least those not familiar with this blog) may think. Without a stylist to counter their respectively stiff presences, there’s little flavor to find here.

The exception, of course, was the match between Roger Federer and Fernando Gonzalez, a battle so moist, it needed extra bread to soak up all the sauce. Once the inevitable (Federer taking his 11th straight win over Fernando) turned into the impossible (Gonzo upsetting in three sets), the whole Cup has taken on a vastly different tone. It hasn’t hurt that the ATP’s latest darling, Nole Djokovic, has also stumbled.

There’s no sheriff in town now. Let’s see who can find their gun.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

davis cup: who's paying attention?

Who watches Davis Cup these days, anyway? Not many serious tennis fans, I imagine (especially ones who don’t subscribe to The Tennis Channel — no more ESPN freebies, I’m sad to say). Sure, you’ll check in on the results throughout the weekend, but watching actual games, let alone a set? Maybe if you’re killing time.

I’m not suggesting this weekend’s tie between the U.S. and Sweden is totally inconsequential (it actually does get old seeing Roddick and his mates get humiliated at some point on their way to the Cup). It’s just that Davis Cup has been skating on a sheet of half-assedness and mediocrity for some years now: top players (Federer, Nadal) play, then don’t play; they’re injured (Sweden’s Soderling for this tie, among many others on other national squads); the latest powerhouse team (Russia) isn’t made up entirely of “Russians” (Tursunov has lived in California for well over a decade; he actually tried to get a U.S. green card, and when it didn’t happen, he said: “OK, I’m playing for Russia.”)

Outside of doubles — which, other than the Bryans, has a low Q rating -– tennis is an individual sport: we as fans like that about it. You’re out there on your own. Davis Cup, so we surmise, is a team sport, even if there’s singles play. Guys sit on the sideline and cheer their teammates on, which is either really cool, or just a tad creepy, depending on your sensibility.

Speaking of creepy, the (Swedish — or do all teams do this??) ritual of exchanging gifts with their opponents on the eve of a tie takes quite a bit of the piss out of the competitive element: it finally and completely destroys the façade of battling warriors duking it out in the Coliseum.

Not to mention their fraternizing with each other as if the Davis Cup were an ongoing international rush…

Lastly, let’s not forget that the Davis Cup tie between Britain and Croatia will feature Tim Henman’s last professional match. One more time, then, and with feeling:

“Come on, Tim!”

(photos via Davis Cup)

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

it's time for ladies to go the distance

As my girlfriend sat and endured yet another hour of U.S. Open coverage earlier this week alongside me, one of the commentators mentioned, in passing, how the women still only play best-of-three sets in the majors. This pricked up her ears, and she looked up from her laptop.

“Why don’t the women play best of five, too?”, she wondered aloud. “They’re just as fit as men, aren’t they? They’re even biologically built for endurance!”

“Well, because the depth of men’s…”, I started to mutter. I tried again. “Well, in some finals they used to…” Nope, that reason didn’t work either. I was stumped. I had been blindly accepting this state of things without taking a second to think it through. It caught up with me a day later while I was walking my dog. “Yeah,why the hell not?”

When long-time sports commentator Diana Nyad devoted her weekly radio post, The Score, to how the women need to earn it at the slams by also going best-of-five, I could do nothing but agree with her. (Take a listen.)

And while (Christian) conservatives, not surprisingly, say women don’t deserve equal money, period, the ones who are fine with the recent trend in leveling pay want the ladies to work:

This guy, despite expounding his views on iFeminists.com, says ladies better go five to earn their keep — otherwise they’re taking from the men’s pockets. And Random Ratiocination suggests it’s a non-issue, but its readers lean towards five sets.

Among the discussion boards, posters seem to agree. At Talk Tennis, MaximRecoil suggests that women getting equal prize money isn’t what the market bears, but rather what political correctness bears.

OK, ladies: let’s go five. What do you think? Tell us!

Michael Shaw is currently following the Open from his couch on the West Coast.