Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Poster-Boy for Perseverance

Andy Murray had to do it the hardest way

It's so easy, after the fact, to imagine it was all so inevitable, that we were always going to get here, and many pieces have been written that see the hand of destiny giving extra oomph to Andy Murray's shots in that Wimbledon final while coaxing Novak Djokovic's into uncharacteristic error.

This does Andy a little bit of a disservice.

There was nothing inevitable about any of this.

Those of us who have supported Andy Murray from early 2005, when he made his Davis Cup debut, successfully, against Israel, or even earlier than that, have known for a long time that Andy had the talent to get very near the top of tennis and hang around for a while.

This realisation may have come quickly for some, emerging into full-blown certainty. For others, it was a steady levelling up of belief, as he passed test after test, though I think in for many, the display against Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 2007 was a key marker.

Changing his game style to one of hitherto unseen levels of aggression, Andy dragged Rafa, by then already twice Roland Garros champion and Wimbledon finalist, into a 5 set battle before ultimately fading. At this point, even many who felt Andy had no weapons with which to hurt Rafa, conceded that he might have a few tricks up his sleeve, although not the stamina to use them all.

Indeed, 2007 was a notable year in the story of Andy Murray.

Consider this: Until 2007, Andy and his friend and rival Novak Djokovic, had followed pretty similar career paths. They burst into the top 100 in 2005 - Novak in July, Andy in October. They chased each other up the rankings in 2006, Novak usually slightly ahead, and ended the season one place apart - Andy at 17 and Novak one place higher at 16.

They were both poised in 2007 to make an assault on the top 10, and at the Australian Open, both met similar fates - Andy, as described, falling to Nadal in 5, while Djokovic was handed a lesson by reigning world number one Roger Federer in 3, both at the fourth round stage. Both had a solid February swing, with Andy defending his San José title, while Novak posted some solid wins in Europe and Dubai.

Novak kept his nose in front of Andy when they met up in both Indian Wells and Miami. Both made the SFs and played each other, Novak won both rather easily, cementing his reputation as the best of the coming players, with Murray close behind. Indeed, Novak won his first Masters title in Miami, beating surprise finalist Canas. This rankings trend seemed destined to continue, with Novak's clearly greater comfort on the red dirt of Europe likely to give him a rankings edge over Murray. So it proved through Monte-Carlo and Rome, until an random event happened in Hamburg that caused a major divergence in the career paths of these two young men.

Novak made the QFs in Hamburg, but Andy didn't make it out of R1. Playing Filippo Volandri, and slapping him quite handily, Andy went for a topspin forehand, yelped in pain and dropped the racquet. An injury timeout made no difference, and he was forced to retire.

While Novak made the SFs of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, tendon damage would keep Andy from competing in either event. Novak had risen to #3 in the world as a result of his excellent year. Andy, unable to play, had slipped back to #13 by the end of Wimbledon. While Novak went on to score his first win over Roger Federer in winning the Canada Masters, Andy, back from injury but deeply distrusting of his wrist, could only win a round in which he hit his forehand with slice 75% of the time, before being crushed by Fabio Fognini. While Andy, slowly rebuilding confidence, struggled to a R3 showing at the US Open, Novak capped off an excellent summer by reaching the US Open final, where he fell to Federer in an extremely tight match. While Novak had a solid end to the season and appeared at his first Tennis Masters Cup, Andy rebuilt his confidence, added another tour title, but narrowly missed out on a Masters Cup place by losing to Gasquet at the Paris Masters. It would prove to be a fitting metaphor for the season, but perhaps even more fitting a marker of the divergence was the start of 2008, when Andy, primed for a run in Melbourne and expected to go far, slumped to a R1 defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who himself would go on to the final where he would be beaten by Novak Djokovic, lifting his first major in the process.

This is not to conclude that, had Andy's wrist injury not happened, he would have kept pace with or surpassed Djokovic - that is to assume far too much. It was already clear that Djokovic's great prowess on clay would give him a potential rankings edge, and while it was argued that Murray had a greater feel on the ball and more tactical choices at his disposal, Djokovic was felt to have the edge mentally and to be, generally speaking, a better match player in his ability to cope with the pressures of the ebb and flow of match circumstances.

What is evident, though, is that by the time Andy Murray regained the ground he lost due to his wrist injury (and that did not come until mid 2008 in rankings terms), he now had three serious obstacles to the top instead of two. Federer and Nadal owned the top spots, but Djokovic was firmly entrenched just behind them, had one major under his belt, and was slowly but surely getting even better. Andy, once again, was playing catch-up.

Andy was relentless in pursuit of his goal to win a major. He'd seen his friend and rival achieve this ambition and establish himself as a force to be reckoned with. Andy hired a team of people to make him as physically fit as possible, worked with this coach and that coach, consulted a sports psychologist, but nothing seemed to make that tiny bit of difference needed. He continued to battle with inconsistency in his results, and when he did reach major finals, he couldn't find a way to release his best tennis. The first final at the US Open in 2008 was a bit of a non-event. Andy, tired from seeing off Rafa the day before in the SFs, was put to the sword pretty efficiently by Roger Federer, who repeated the feat at the 2010 Australian Open. This time Andy was physically ready but mentally unable to take the few chances that came his way. Despite having several chances to extend the match to 4 sets, he ultimately lost in 3, and did the same 12 months later to Djokovic, who added his second major. This was Murray's worst slam showing of the lot, his utter frustration at not being able to produce his best preventing him for getting anywhere near producing his best. It was an abject display, and perfectly highlighted the gulf that had grown between these two players. Murray's consistency would keep him in or around the top 4 throughout this period, but in terms of ability to deliver on the biggest stages, The Big 4 clearly had a junior member.

In 2011, while Djokovic elevated his game to even greater heights and went on a tear that saw him lift three of the four majors and ascend to the number one ranking, Murray couldn't seem to find his way past a certain Rafael Nadal, who stopped him in the SFs of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open - at the latter two losing to Djokovic in the finals.

The expectation on Murray to win a Grand Slam had been high since before he made his first major final in 2008. 4 years had gone by, 3 major finals had come and gone, and not a set had been won. Djokovic was on high, Nadal was almost as formidable as ever, and Federer still could produce tournaments of incredible quality. Increasingly it was wondered if the window had closed. Surely, with that much talent at the top, and new talent sure to emerge from the next generation, and with Del Potro managing to snatch a major in 2009, Andy's moment had gone?

If others were starting to wonder, Andy's own self-doubts were beginning to rise too. He continued to work hard, but the weight of those three major finals and no sets won hung heavy upon him. What's to say that the same wouldn't happen again next time? Murray had had to play Federer twice and Djokovic once in his finals. Federer beat the equally slamless Philippoussis in his first final, Nadal had the equally slamless Puerta in his, and Djokovic had had the equally slamless Tsonga in his (albeit after Djokovic beat Federer in the SFs). The route to that first slam always seemed to have a major-winning obstacle in his way in the final. Still, he persevered, and made a decision that proved in time to be a stroke of genius.

Rumours of Ivan Lendl linking up with Andy Murray in a coaching capacity had first surfaced early in 2011. It was an intriguing notion at the time, but nothing seemed likely to come of it, and at that point, nothing did. Ivan Lendl had been away from the game of tennis since his retirement, working on his golf and his family, not necessarily in that order. It wasn't until the off season at the end of 2011 that moved were made, conversations were had, and Lendl was hired.

Lendl brought many qualities to the partnership. Though untested as a coach, he was a perennial hard worker who would demand the same of his charge. He would be honest - he didn't need the money and thus had no concerns about keeping his job, he could afford to be motivated only by the greater good. He and Andy's personalities clicked quickly, an important element of a relationship as close as this. He was a major winner, and thus immediately worthy of Andy's respect. Andy's problem with his earlier coaches was that, ultimately, none of them had won a major and thus a part of him could not believe that the advice they were giving would make the difference. Even Corretja, a player Andy respected and admired, had never managed to capture a major from his two final appearances. 'How do you know?', always seemed to be the unspoken question.

Lendl, however, HAD also been in a similar situation in his own career, losing the first four slam finals he played back in the 80s. He then turned it around and went on to win 8 majors. Here was an authentic voice of experience that could help Murray get over that final hurdle, as he himself had once done.

After a promising start, with Andy pushing Djokovic to the brink in the 2012 Australian Open SF, things seemed to stagnate a little, in spite of Lendl saying it would take 6-9 months to show genuine results. Indeed, when Murray lost in the first match at Queens to Nicolas Mahut, some commentators (who rapidly changed their tune) were suggesting that the Murray-Lendl partnership was doomed from the start and had a very short shelf-life remaining.

Andy reacted as he always had - put his head down and carried on working hard. He strolled through the draw at Wimbledon, and, not finding a Rafa in the SFs, was able to get past Tsonga in a nervy 4 sets and reach his first final. Great Britain, already ramping up for a summer of Olympic sporting madness, promptly went crazy. Andy put up a good fight against Federer, showing at last some of his best tennis in a slam final, winning the first set and staying very close in the second. Then Roger stepped up, snatched the second set with some superb tennis, the rains came, the roof closed, and the rest is history.

'I'm getting closer,' sniffled Andy as he tearfully thanked his box, the crowd and the country for the support. The words, at the time seen almost as a plea for people to keep the faith with him, would in retrospect seem to be prophetic.

Forced to recover quickly from what Andy described as the most difficult loss of his career, Andy had no time to wallow if he wanted to do come back to the same location and play well at a tournament he really cared about - the Olympic Games. Held in London for the first time since 1948, with the tennis played at a Wimbledon decked out in pink, the country, and Andy, wanted to seize this historic opportunity to do well on home soil. His previous Olympic experience in Beijing was a bitter memory for him - arriving late from winning Cincinnati in brutal conditions and then standing for hours on a humid day for the opening ceremony, Andy was dehydrated and had lost kilos of muscle mass from skipping meals. The result was a dreadful performance in his opening match to Yen-Hsun Lu, losing in straight sets, and then another rapid loss in the doubles. It was a wretched tournament and one Andy was desperate not to repeat.

In the event, Andy, riding a wave of patriotic fervour, and feeling inspired himself by the Team GB performances on the athletics field, progressed smoothly through the draw, dismissed Djokovic in the SF in straight sets, and played a match of poise, control and maturity to dish out a straights defeat to his Wimbledon bogeyman Federer in the Gold Medal Match. Andy was Olympic champion. While not a major, it was a huge deal for him and for his fellow players, and it proved to add a vital patch to Andy's leaky roof of self-belief in the toughest weather.

Rolling up at the US Open, a little under-done on hardcourts due to his punishing early summer, Andy wasn't looking in the best shape. He seemed to be struggling with the humidity in his day matches, and stumbled through to the second week courtesy of some very up and down performances and at least one helpful choke on the other side of the net. Still, he was battling hard, and finding a way through, persevering you might say, and this quality proved extremely helpful in the semi-final. Played in a howling gale, patience was the key. Berdych ultimately lost patience with the way the ball kept moving around erratically, while Andy adjusted, and persevered, and adjusted. He prevailed in 4, and all he needed to do to win his first major was to beat the world #1, Novak Djokovic, the guy whose career path he had once tracked so closely, before 2007 and the spring of divergence.

We all know how that went down. Murray battled to a two sets to love lead, was pegged back double quick, but after a bathroom break and a stern talking to, Andy took Djokovic's legs from under him, took the title and lifted it above his head. Finally Andy had a Grand Slam title.

Here in the UK, the achievement was noted and celebrated, but if anything, this increased the pressure on Andy. He's good on grass, the reasoning went, and now he has a major. Surely, now, at last, he can win Wimbledon?

The omens going in were mixed. Having lost the Australian Open final to...Novak Djokovic, Andy had a solid US spring season, with a QF in Indian Wells and then winning Miami, beating Ferrer in the final in a gruelling encounter. Then during the clay season, indifferent results were followed by a back injury-related withdrawal from Rome, and the difficult decision was made to skip Roland Garros too.

This was a difficult decision for Andy, as he loves to compete for majors, and his ambition is not lessened by the knowledge that red clay is beneath his Barricades. Still, the medical advice was clear, and the gamble was that missing the clay, and getting some extra time on the grass, would help with the assault on the ultimate prize - Wimbledon.

Andy made his return at Queens, and though both Tsonga and Cilic proved a handful in the final two rounds, Andy lifted the title for the third time, and went into Wimbledon on an 11 match winning streak on grass, feeling physically good, and as mentally ready as he ever had been.

Landing in the same half as Federer and Nadal, Andy could expect a tough route to the title, having to take on the winner of that QF, and then likely Djokovic in the final. But the first job is to survive the first few rounds, and as both Federer and Nadal found, you can't take that for granted. Andy kept his head down, focused hard, and made his first several matches seem pretty easy, as all around him names fell or withdrew. Federer, Nadal, Tsonga and other threats all were cleared out of the draw in a week of shocks, and Andy found himself the heavy favourite to make the final out of the bottom half. In the event, the unlikely figure of Fernando Verdasco pushed Andy to the brink of the defeat in the QFs by playing his best tennis in 4 years. Andy put his head down and survived the onslaught, and then battled past the determined challenged of the equally surprising semi finalist Jerzy Janowicz. Andy had booked his place into the final, and admitted later that the pressure of being expected to get there easily had weighed on him a few times.

Djokovic, as a former winner of Wimbledon, went into the title match as slight favourite, but grass was probably his weakest surface, while it was arguable Andy's best, the home crowd would bring pressure to Andy but also massive support, and while Murray's SF was tough, Djokovic had had to squeak past the almost superhuman challenge imposed by the towering figure of Juan Martin Del Potro, and needed nearly 5 hours to do so. The match was pretty evenly poised.

In the event, the temperature was high, the rallies were long and brutal, but the stronger of the two was Murray. In a match that ebbed and flowed, rose and fell in quality, and demanded huge patience to watch as well as to play, Murray just managed to handle the big situations that bit better. He took the first set after a tense battle, but promptly fell behind in the second by a break. Andy did what he is so used to, and has become so good at - persevering. He stuck his head back down and re-focused on the task. He got back to work, recovered the break, and then broke again to take a 2 set lead. He broke at the start of the third, and looked to be coasting home against a wilting Djokovic - until it flipped once again. Djokovic took 4 games in a row to lead by a break, and a fourth set seemed imminent. Yet again, Murray, in spite of his frustrations, persevered, re-applied himself to the job, and recovered the break. He broke again and found himself serving to end that hideously irritating losing streak that British players have been beaten over the head with for decades. Quickly 40-0 up, the job looked done, but even now Djokovic refused to let it go so lightly, and reeled off four points to get to break point.

The danger was clear. Murray was looking weary in the brutal heat, and had let 3 match points slip, the pressure of the moment undoubtedly telling. If Djokovic could get it back to 5-5, all bets were off. The likelihood had to be that Djokovic would capitalise and win the third set - and then could Murray recover physically and mentally to put himself in that position again? Though still technically in the driving seat, the pain of missing that moment could have been too much of a mental load for Murray to shake off. It was all to play for.

Murray was working on instinct, concentrating on every ball, trying to shut out any extraneous noise from within and without. He and Djokovic traded back and forth, working the ball around all areas of the court, but neither could claim the run of points they needed. Once, twice, three time, Djokovic got to break point, only for Murray to find the right play to pull it back to deuce. One Murray shot clipped the back of the baseline on the break point - had it sailed just a couple of millimetres longer, the course of British tennis history could look very different right now. Instead, Murray persevered, pulled it back to deuce, battled to his fourth match point, and stood tall on the baseline. Slingshotting a huge serve out wide, Djokovic could only parry it back deep, and Murray took a big cut at his forehand into Djokovic's backhand corner. Djokovic attempted to slap the ball away down the line, but it instead crashed into the net 3/4 of the way up, and died on the court on his side. The crowd, already struggling to contain itself throughout the last epic game, went into raptures. Murray spent the first couple of minutes as Wimbledon champion almost wandering around in disbelief, as he celebrated up at the assembled press, shared a hug with the gallant and gracious Djokovic, shook the umpire's hand, and crumpled to the court. Eventually he gathered enough wits about him to sit down, and belatedly decided to go up to his player's box to share a touching moment with the people who mattered - and helped - the most.

Unlike at the US Open, where the overriding emotion Andy clearly felt was relief and capturing one major, ANY major, this time Andy was - in shock, yes - but clearly overjoyed at what this meant to him, his team, his fans, the crowd, and the British sporting world at large.

Right now, Andy sits at #2 in the ATP rankings, behind Djokovic, and when it comes to future majors away from clay in the next couple of years, conversations will start with these two. Nadal is still clearly a factor, although how much remains unclear, and Federer's powers, while on the wane, do not ever deserve to be written off - he's been discounted too many times already. However, having battled 3 of the last 4 major finals, there's a new rivalry at the top of men's tennis at the moment, and that is Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

In 2007 their career paths diverged sharply, due to Murray's injury, but perhaps also due to differences in maturity, temperament, and self-belief. There was nothing inevitable about Andy recovering that lost ground, and finally lifting majors - tennis history is littered with names of very good players who, in majors terms, ended up also-rans. What made Andy ultimately overcome that hurdle, not to mention the very real pressure of British tennis history, was his abilities, but also his willingness to work as hard as he possibly could, and leave no stone unturned in pursuit of his goals. Novak made his rise to the top look pretty effortless, although it was of course anything but. For Andy, the rise has been a longer, harder road, but it remains a triumph of hard work, dedication, a continual process of self-improvement, and above all perseverance. If Andy's career stands for anything, it is that triumph of perseverance over all doubt and all doubters, and for that triumph he deserves every ounce of respect that comes his way - he has earned it the hardest way.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Bloody Equal Prize Money Debate

Yes, I *am* going there, once and for all.

Once again, as mens matches go 5 long sets and the ladies play best of 3 and get done in half the time, the ever-present debate about equal prize money rears its head - this time we can thank Julian Knowle, but if not him, someone would have done so.  It's part of the scenery now, every slam, without fail.

1) Why, they contend, should women get equal prize money for less work?

2) Or, womens tennis is less popular so they should get less revenue.

Either, or both, of these contentions are made to support inequality of prize distribution.

I will take the second point first

Mens Tennis is More Popular

Maybe it is - overall - maybe not - what objective measures are you using?  TV audience share?  Ticket sales of ATP events vs WTA?  What?  You can't just assert it without having some credible, and agreed-upon objective standard.

Otherwise it's just YOUR opinion.  And you don't speak for the silent majority, nobody does, no matter how we might cite them from time to time.  Your opinion is no more valid than mine.  Facts please or go home.

And it may be so, NOW - but what about in 5 years?  10 years?  Tastes change as heroines rise and heroes fall and interests fade in and out accordingly.

Anyway, in the case of Grand Slams, where you pay for entrance and a seat on a court (or the grounds) regardless of who is playing what matches on that court, how do you quantify this popularity?  If Centre Court shows 2 ladies matches and 1 mens match for the cost of your ticket, how can you determine the popularity of one vs the other?  And how are you sure it's not just the particular players as opposed to the gender in general?  You can't, of course.

Until Grand Slams sell tickets at market value PER MATCH, you cannot objectively say that a crowd coming in to see both men and women prefer one or the other.  Again, that's your opinion only and it doesn't make it fact.

Slams may sell a womens day ticket for less than the equivalent round for the mens' tournament.  E.g. I believe the SF ticket for CC at Wimbledon for Ladies SFs is less than for Mens SFs.  But that is as much a function of the fact that ladies are best of 3 and men are best of 5 - on balance, you are likely to get less actual play on Ladies SF day than on Mens SF.

Which brings me nicely on to point 1) above.

Equal Money for Equal Work

Let's look at our history shall we?  Back in the day, men played best of 5, but insofar as ladies should be playing tennis at all, (such vigorous activity), these poor inferior lambs were physically incapable of the rigours of best of 5 sets, and they needed to stick to best of 3.  Besides, perspiration is so unfeminine.

This is exactly how it became at the Grand Slams, and that format has persisted through the Open era, through womens lib and equal rights, and right now into the equal prize money era.

The Equal Money issue is completely the wrong issue to be focused on - it is incidental.  In any case, it's not the responsibilities of the ladies.  They play the format the tournament specifies.  Ladies are perfectly capable of handling the rigours of best of 5 set tennis.  The finals of the WTA Championships was played over best of 5 from 1984 to 1998 and nobody died, everyone survived, and there was even some good tennis played in matches going 4 and 5 sets.

The ladies are not, so far as I have seen, even been OFFERED the chance of "equal money for equal work".  And why not?  Not because it's physically impossible for these ladies to this - they are physiologically as capable of men of the endurance, stamina and concentration required to play 3, 4, or 5 hours if necessary - some better than others, sure, but not incapable as agender.

No, it's because the reality is the Slams have become rather comfortable in their scheduling, tournament durations, and there is no way best of 5 in Ladies Singles could be accomodated - at ANY slam - without either expanding the number of courts or the length of the event.  On that basis, it is a non-starter.

However, is that the fault of the ladies?  OF COURSE NOT.  They are were they are because of the history of the game, because of sexism and outmoded ideas and conservatism and complacency.

If the Slams turned around and told the ladies they needed to play best of 5 and the Slams would find a way to make that work, would they say no?  I doubt it.  Some might protest but the sheer double standard would make such a position extremely difficult to sustain.

But the Slams don't do this.  So the ladies previously had to put up with the injustice that they played less through no fault of their own but were also rewarded less.

They made fuss, and in the end all the Slams decided to pay male and female players equal prize money in their events.

Up went the cry that the men were now being discriminated against because they have to do much more for the same money - in terms of sets, 50% more per match.

And they have a point in that sense - they do have to play more to get the same money.

But that is not the fault of the ladies.  Your beef is with the Grand Slams.  Go moan at them, get them to change their format.  In correcting a historic inequality, the Slams chose the easiest path for them, that solved one problem and created a different one.

Andy Murray made the point that the ladies have more chances to earn money in Slams by playing doubles - men generally can't because of the best of 5 format, it's too much for them to add doubles and even mixed too.

This is true, but again misses the underlying point.  The ladies playing best of three is OUT OF THEIR CONTROL.  Why should they have to be the ones entering doubles and mixed to top up their income because the Slams can't treat male players and female players equally in terms of prize money AND in terms of what they're expected to do for it.

As has also been eloquently pointed out, the ladies have to invest as much in themselves and their careers as the men do - in time, in effort, in money.  It's not like they can play part time and hold down an office job with the extra hours they don't spend on the court compared to the guys.  It's the same travel costs, the same coaching costs, the same clothing, equipment, physios, etc.    The only thing that differs is court time, and, again, that is out of their hands and solely in the hands of the Grand Slams.

So What's To Be Done?

My solution is simple - to fix this, make it equal work for equal pay.

Absolute equality in the way the events are played.

Best of 3 sets at Slams for both men and women in R1, R2, R3, R4.

Best of 5 sets for the QF, SF, and F for both men and women.

Equal prize money.

Equally fair match scheduling, without the sexist overtones of putting the hot girls on the big showcourt.

This could be accommodated at all the slams with minimal disruption to the existing schedules - I don't see extra courts or days being needed, indeed it would relieve pressure on the Slams in the early rounds when all courts are packed out from Ready - Play to the final Game, Set and Match.

This wouldn't shut all the whiners up, the ones who argue on point 1 about the nebulous popularity question which they cannot back up.  But it would close down the argument on point 2 though - the Slams created this situation, they need to be bold to resolve it, and it would flush out those who simply believe ladies don't deserve equal pay for equal work, and can hide behind the messy compromise the Slams themselves instituted.

It may be a radical step for the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open, but it's one I believe they should seriously consider taking.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

2013 - The Story So Far - WTA

What Have We Learned?

Serena is werqing these days

Ladies First

  • It took her until the age of 31, but Serena Williams is finally playing a full schedule.  She has 17 tournaments on her ranking as of 1st April
  • Serena is not quite at her 2012 highs, due to injuries or other reasons, but she's still pretty damn near untouchable when she's dialled in, and deserves to be ranked #1.
  • The ladies top 10 is an interesting place, more so now that Vika has scored a win over Serena to win the Doha title, and Maria competed much better against Serena in the Miami final for a set and a half, although her eventual collapse was sobering.  However, the possibility of matches between these three being less of a foregone conclusion is a welcome one for the rest of the season.  Also, although players like Aga, Li, Angie, Petra and Sam are not at the level of the top 3, they can sometimes push them or even score the occasional upset, which lessens the predictability of it all.  May it continue for the rest of 2013.
  • The Australian Open was wild, if a tad injurious.  The final was full of drama, with a hostile crowd, twice twisted ankles and a banged head to boot.  Vika did well to deal with all these distractions to lift her second major.
  • The Vika-Sloane controversy was way overblown, and demonstrates that, for whatever reason, many people automatically assume the worst about Vika.  Maybe it's her pugnacious attitude, her unwillingness to fit into some sort of 'ladylike' mould, or something else, but it's real.  Not much benefit of the doubt for her.  
  • Serena is not invincible but it may require an enormously swollen ankle to bring her down.
  • We're on a bit of a roll with Grand Slam finals - 3 fairly dramatic ones in a row, with Serena taking down Aga in 3 sets at Wimbledon, Serena passing Vika in a tough 3 setter at Flushing Meadowns, and the wild ride that was Vika defeating Li in 3 in Melbourne.  Only Roland Garros hasn't seen a 3 set final lately, last one was Jennifer vs Kim in 2001, so we're overdue.
  • Wozniacki is playing with more confidence and focus since the coaching experiments ended and she returned to her father exclusively, but the game hasn't improved either and she no longer has the aura of the #1 ranking - players know it will be tough and they will have to be patient, but they *can* beat her.
  • The youngsters are coming - sort of.  Sloane, Laura, Yulia, Lara, Garbine and others - younger names are starting to announce their presence once again, a healthier state of affairs than in the current mens game perhaps.  No enormous breakthoughs aside from Sloane reaching the Australian Open SF, but they're starting to establish themselves.

Now we move onto the clay, which, with no one dominant clay player any longer, could be anyone's game.  Since Justine retired (the first time), the Roland Garros trophy has tended to be lifted by somewhat surprising names - Ivanovic, Li, Schiavone all took their chances to win their first and so far only majors, while Sharapova, last year's winner, was long felt to lack the movement and defensive skills to lift this trophy.

Serena has won it once but has failed to make it back to the final since, and her boundless confidence in herself seems just a little less certain once it gets slippery underfoot.  She has been the dominant player since hooking up Patrick Mouratoglou as her coach, but the Australian Open showed that, well, shit happens. 

This clay season is wide open once again.  While I doubt she will be pushing excessively hard for the warm-up tournaments, I would put money on her to win the big one this year.  Just not a lot of money.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The ATP Top 5 Have a Pull-Up Competition

Disclaimer: This never happened (as far as I know)

Roger gazed dully at the picture on TV screen in the locker room.  Some jaunty woman was pointing at a satellite map of...well...presumably London, but since the entire region was covered in blue, who could be sure?

"I'm bored," he whined.  "I hate rain delays."

Rafa looked over from where he was jumping up and down on the spot, but said nothing.

Irritated, Roger turned to him and said:

"Why do you do that?  You won't be playing for hours yet, you're wasting energy.  Stop jumping!"

Rafa pulled a face.

"You moody Milka today."

"I eat Lindt, not Milka."

"So go stick one in your mouth, and let me jump."

Andy looked up from his fascinating perusal of the latest fantasy football results.

"I have an idea - why don't the 5 of us have a competition?"

Roger glanced at him.

"I'm not playing PlayStation."

"Of course not - you'd lose - I rule.  Anyway, that's not what I meant."

Rafa piped up:

"Coming second means ruling in English, Andy?"

Andy scowled.

"ANYWAY, see that pull-up bar over there?"  He pointed over the locker-room where there was a smattering of gym equipment that players used to warm up with before their matches.  A pull-up bar hung from the ceiling above their heads.

"So?"  Roger said.

"I challenge you all to do 20 pull-ups on that bar.  Time them.  Fastest one to do 20 wins."

Roger sneered.  

"That's boring."

"Is that you talking or your left bicep?"

Nole looked up from his Facebook page and giggled, raising a hand to high-five Andy for the burn.

"Okay!" Roger said.  "I'm in!"

"Me too," said Rafa.

"Go on then," agreed Nole.

"Good," said Andy.  He paused, and looked at David expectantly.

"I don't know..."

"Come on....please....?"

David sighed.  "Okay.  I do it."

"Okay, " said Andy, as they gathered around the bar looming above them, each perhaps contemplating the uncomfortable experience ahead, "now my phone has a stopwatch, so we'll use that.  Roger, you go first."

"Fine.  Oh, and Andy, I know it's Wimbledon but when you lose, try not to cry this time."

Rafa butted in before Andy could angrily respond: 

"You can talk, Mr 'it's killing me'...."

Andy, Nole and David creased over laughing while Roger glared at his friend and rival.

Without another word, Roger positioned himself under the bar and held up his hands.  

And waited.

Nothing happened.

"You may have to jump," advised Andy sarcastically.

"YOU may..." said Roger.

He continued to stand under the bar, arms outstretched...and then, slowly, smoothly, his feet rose off the floor, levitating him, lifting him higher, higher, until his open hands clutched the bar.

The other four below gaped at him in astonishment.

He winked.

"GOAT.  Now start timing me."

Andy dutifully pressed the button on his phone, and Roger levitated himself up and down in a mockery of the pull-up motion, until he had completed 20 with ease.  As Roger gently floated back to the ground, Andy pressed Stop and said:

"36 seconds but that's cheating.  Levitation is not allowed!"

"Nobody said that beforehand," said Roger smugly.

"I will next time," said Andy sulkily.  "Rafa, you're up."

Rafa walked away from the bar.

"What are you doing?" asked Andy, puzzled.  "Oh...Rafa...you don't need to RUN at the bar...."

With a leap and a lunge, Rafa grabbed onto the bar and began noisily pulling himself up.  1...2...3...each pull-up accompanied by a noisy grunt of physical exertion and strength.  Completing his 20, he dropped to the floor.

"No fistpump?" asked Roger.

Rafa scowled.

"41 seconds," said Andy.

"I'm surprised he didn't need to pick his shorts after each one," muttered Nole, which set Andy off laughing again.  David maintained a stony face in solidarity with his comrade.

"You're up Nole," said Rafa. "Do you need a ball to bounce 27 times beforehand?"

Nole shot Rafa an 'I'm pretending to be amused by that but really I'm not' smile and positioned himself under the bar.

"3...2...1...go!" said Andy.

Nole reached up and stretched his legs...but instead of going on tip-toes and reaching the limit of the stretch, he just kept on stretching up, up, up, the arms grew longer, the legs grew longer, and he was holding the bar with his feet still on the ground.  Smirking, he mimicked the motion of a pull-up 20 times while his feet remained planted on the ground, then contracted his body to normal length and stood in front of the others, who looked gobsmacked.

"Amazing what yoga can do.  You should try it," he deadpanned.

"That little trick is also cheating," Andy whined.


"31 seconds.  As if it matters."

"He probably needs a medical timeout now," Roger said sotto voce.  

Nole shot him a poisonous look, and took the phone from Andy.

"Your turn, Braveheart."

Andy stood under the bar, looked up, and jumped.  He grabbed the bar with both hands but yelped in pain and let go with his left to grab at his knee.

"Some things never change," said David. 

Roger giggled.

Andy continued his pull-ups one-handed, alternately switching hands to grab his left knee and his right hip.  Halfway through he started shouting and swearing.

"Why are you shouting at the corner of the locker room, Andy?"  asked Roger.

"Habit..." Andy grunted in exertion.  "Can't....help....(F**KING SO PATHETIC WHY CAN'T YOU FOCUS FOR FIVE MINUTES?!?!?? SO POOR!!!!!)...it...bad...habit....19....20...."

He dropped down and bent over, panting, trying to work out what was most sore.

"47 seconds," said Nole.

"Yes, but one-handed," said Andy, breathing hard.

"Only cos you're a hypochondriac," said Roger.

"A hypochondriac who has a winning Head to Head against you."

"Who won the bigger matches, answer that?"

"Guys, guys," Nole cut in.  "Save it, it's boring."

Andy took back his phone from Nole and looked at David, and said, shaking his head at how his nice little idea had unravelled:

"Your turn, let's get this farce over with."

"I do it, I do it...but..."

"But what?"

"But...it's high...can one of you give me a boost?"

Friday, 18 January 2013

Slip, Slap, Drop

Does someone have to become seriously ill before sensible heat rules are developed?

So often in best of five set tennis, winning that 5th and final set is as much about heart and guts than it is about shotmaking and tactics.  In Melbourne more so than the other slams, it's also about physical conditioning.  These matches are often played in uncomfortable, not to say brutally hot conditions, and can last up to five hours.  At the end, winner and loser alike share the sensation of exhaustion that comes from such prolonged exertion in conditions the body does not handle well.

And yet, most of the time, both players walk off court, and the winner is able to take to the court for his next match, perhaps with an empty tank, but reasonably ready to go under the circumstances.

However, weather conditions in Australia this year have been particularly challenging for the natives, and during the Australian Open, temperatures on court reached 40C during the period of play. Spare a thought then for Australia's James Duckworth and Blaz Kavcic of Slovenia, who played for nearly 5 hours in these draining conditions.  Kavcic would take the victory in the end, and stagger off court, but in the locker room he went into full body spasm and needed to be treated by medics.  Blaz seems to be okay, and he will no doubt take to the court on Saturday against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but his ability to compete has to have been badly affected.  Meanwhile, tennis has dodged another bullet.

Part of this is just the nature of the beast - survival of the fittest has always been an aspect of tennis, and if Jo won his match much more easily than Blaz, and hence starts at a physical advantage, then tough.  The problem here is that the heat policy that the tournament employs is not fit for purpose - it fails at the very moment it is most needed.

The policy is, in a nutshell:

  • No new matches can start on outside courts for at least an hour after the policy is implemented
  • All matches in progress must be completed
  • The Tournament referee may suspend matches if deemed dangerous
  • The roofs of both the Rod Laver and Vodafone Arenas can be closed, but only after current matches have been completed
  • There is provision for the breaks between games and sets to be made longer than usual during the heat-affected matches

It comes into effect when the temperature hits 35C and the heat stress level reaches 28 - heat stress level being a measure of various factors to determine the intensity of the heat and light.

In spite of this policy, we have seen in the past how it is inadequate to protect the health of players.  The famous Sharapova-Pin match of 2007 is a case in point.  Pin later said her feet burned and her legs were shaking due to the radiant heat coming back off the court.  Sharapova spoke of being delusional.  In another match, Tipsarevic retired in the fifth set against Nalbandian due to the conditions.  Nalbandian himself suffered headaches and dizziness following the match - classic symptoms of heat stroke.

The problem here is the combination of factors - that "all matches in progress must be completed" combined with the long final set in play in Melbourne means that players, like Kavcic and Duckworth, can be out there for hour after draining hour until the match is won by one of them.  There's no provision for the players to agree the conditions are too taxing.  There's the vague provision that the tournament referee may suspend matches if conditions are deemed dangerous - but what does that mean in practice?  What factors determine that the match is now officially "dangerous"?  Kavcic basically collapsed in the locker room after his victory.  Does that mean that match was officially dangerous and should really have been suspended?

The rules right now do little to stop the players avoiding serious health risks.  They have the option to retire, but it is surely wrong to make protecting their health from the extreme conditions a decision solely down to the player - let's keep in mind that for many players, reaching a Grand Slam main draw is a huge deal for them, and it's hard to expect them to throw in the towel under those circumstances - many will choose to try and fight on, and risk health damage in the process.  

Surely with some tweaking of this heat rule policy, some more robust criteria can be used to determine the safety of the conditions - introducing mandatory longer breaks in a cooler, shaded area to give the body's core time to cool before resuming the match?

I am all for the gladiatorial nature of the tennis combat.  I do not want to see tennis made "easy", or lose the thrill of watching two players fight tooth and nail for a place in the next round.  I'm just not sufficiently down with the Romans to want to see a death at the end of it.  I worry, though, that it will take that, or at least a serious health outcome for one or more players, to make them see that these rules need to be changed to protect the players better than they do right now.  Tennis authorities have an unfortunate strain of complacency about this and other matters - they would do well to think in terms of prevention rather than risk having to apologise ex post facto for failing to protect their players.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Sleepless Seeing Battles

As any serious tennis fan in a sensible timezone will tell you, January can be a difficult month.  You emerge from the long black tunnel of the December off-season, blinking into the light of Middle Eastern exos and a tennis overload from the other side of the world.  Having been deprived for so long, literally WEEKS, the temptation to over-indulge can be a difficult one to avoid.  This is when you find yourself awake at 3am watching Vesnina in Auckland and you're actually having fun.

However, by the time the Australian Open itself rolls around, the sleepless shenanigans begin to take their toll - just as the biggest endurance effort of all is required.  You approach this time with an unsettling combination of near hysterical excitement and lurking dread at the physical toll that will be exacted.

You know full well that you'll find yourself, within a few days, sleeping and eating at deeply inappropriate times - sometimes at the same time.  You'll be glued to your TV, tablet or other tennis source while the rest of your nation slumbers, watching something crazy unfold while mainlining artificial stimulants and trying to ignore that insistent feeling from your thalamus telling you that if you continue to ignore it, it will exact a painful revenge at a time of its choosing.  We all know that feeling, like someone attached a bowling ball to each eyelid and forming a cogent thought requires almost conscious manipulation of the appropriate axons and dendrites.  You type things that seem to make sense, but on later re-reading seem to have emerged from the imagination of David Lynch with a temperature of 104.  In short, the spirit is willing but the body is weak, and it gets worse with each passing year.

Yes, January is tough.  But is it worth it?

The thing with tennis is, there's nothing like watching it live - if not right there, then live on TV.  Especially these days when you can share the moment over the internet with fellow nutcases, the whole experience is elevated into a communal bonding experience.  Watching the reruns gives you the script, but it really only comes to its fullest life if you watch it in the moment.  So you might be awake at 4am and know that you still have a day's work ahead of you, but suck it up.  

In the first four days we've had Janowicz having a meltdown yet prevailing, we've had Lacko battle bravely before falling to Tipsarevic, we've had Monfils demonstrate his full repertoire of crazy in beating Lu 8-6 in the fifth.  We've seen Roger, Andy and Novak put on masterclasses of efficiency.  We've had the new Crown Prince, Tomic, talking a much better game than he's playing, but still winning.  We've had dreadfully compelling spectacles like Robson being less worse than Kvitova, 11-9 in the third.  We've had Serena dropping 2 games in 2 matches yet still providing enough drama to power a telenovela for 2 seasons.  

We've had the Shakespearean tragedy of Stosur's painful-but-inevitable fall into the pit she dug for her enemies.  Heather Watson showing that even with winning ugly there can be too much of a good thing.  Cibulkova losing to someone with even more obnoxious on-court behaviour than herself.  Sharapova selling sweets and playing sour.  We've even had Kuznetsova winning without drama; every type of human drama you can imagine has already been on display somewhere, on a showcourt, on an outside court, it's all going on.  It's a Grand Slam, baby, and there's nothing else like it.

So my advice to you?  Pop those matchsticks in the eye sockets, mainline caffeine, firmly sit on those strung out sensations, and give your cerebellum a good talking to.  We're not even halfway in yet and it's gonna get good.  Sleep is for the weak and we have 11 months to be weak in.  In January, we must be strong.  It's too much fun to miss.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What will 2013 Bring? Part 10 - WTA #1-10

With 2012 over and 2013 underway, I'm reviewing the 2012 season of the top 50 ATP and WTA players, and notable others, and making an informed guess (quiet at the back) at what 2013 is likely to bring.  Final installment - WTA top 10 ladies.

#10 - Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)

2012 was pretty disastrous for Caro, considering she started the year ranked 1 and ended it struggling to hold on to a place in the top 10.  She briefly experimented with 2 new coachings setups, involving Ricardo Sanchez and later Thomas Johansson, but neither arrangement stuck for very long at all.  In the end, Caro has returned to the safe familiarity of having Piotr as her sole coach - he never really went away anyway, and it seems these experiments are over.

The year started okay, with a QF in the Australian Open, SF in Dubai and SF in Indian Wells, and a loss in the final in Copenhagen.  On paper this sounds good but she was defending huge points from tour events due to a lack of good results in the slams - her #1 ranking was largely driven from WTA events.  Things tailed off further with an indifferent clay court season and a worse grass season, including a bad loss in Eastbourne to McHale and a similar one in Wimbledon to Tamira Paszek.  Summer hardcourts wasn't bad but lost in R1 at the US Open.  She won her first title all year in Seoul and a second in Moscow, suggesting a return to form, but lost in the final of the WTA's Tournament of Also Rans in Sofia.

Here's Caro's problem - she's definitely more comfortable with her father as coach, but that arrangement has not helped her game develop to where it needs to go.  She's been on tour several years now, and her weaknesses are well known.  The forehand is a liability and it needs to get better, along with her serve, and she needs to structure her game to release her backhand, which is a more effective and powerful shot.  However, her coaching setup has caused her to retreat to the comfortable way of playing - it got her to #1 but everyone is wise to it now, and she doesn't exactly intimidate anyone anymore.  Her game needs rebuilding and taking on other sources of coaching was a step towards doing that.  In any rebuilding works, the noise and confusion is often more disruptive and difficult than the original state, but you have to endure that, expecting the final state to be a better one than you started with.  Caro started the process, encountered the disruption, and sacked the builders, deciding to put up with what she's currently got.  I fear this was a mistake, and I can't see 2013 being any better than 2012.  She has a lot to offer the game and with some basic improvements she could be much more of a force, but she has decided to throw this away, and I see it as a great shame.

#9 - Samantha Stosur (AUS)

Having unexpectedly won the US Open in 2011, 2012 was always going to be a fascinating one for Sam.  All eyes were on the Australian Open, but nerves once again got the better of her, and she fell comfortably to Sorana Cirstea in R1 in Melbourne.  Getting out of Australia seemed to help Sam, and she made the finals of Doha, SF in Charleston, QF in Madrid, and SF in Roland Garros, where she lost another turbulent match to Sara Errani.  As is customary, the grass season was disappointing, but she made QF in Cincinnati and put up a battle defending the US Open title, ultimately losing in the QF to Azarenka in a very tight 3 set match, one of the matches of the year.  Sam ended 2012 with SF in Tokyo and Osaka and a final in Moscow, finishing just outside the top 8.  She played Istanbul as an alternate, but lost to both Sharapova and Errani.

Sam is a bit of an enigma.  She has a strong game with some limitations.  The forehand is excellent and powerful, yet she can lose control of it easily.  The serve is good, especially the very effective kick second serve.  The backhand can be a bit of a liability but it's better than it used to be.  It's a strong enough game to be consistently top 5 - the problem is mental.  We've seen at the Aussie Open and at Wimbledon how she sometimes just struggles to cope with situations, and no amount of help in that area has cleared these mental blocks.  She finds herself in a specific, flustered mindset, and once she does, the match is almost certainly over.  At this stage in her career, I can't see this changing.  Sam is likely to hang around inside the upper top 10 or just outside, and there may be a few more decent runs at slams, or tour titles in her, but rather than removing limitations, I expect her to work within the well-established ones.

#8 - Petra Kvitova (CZE)

Finishing inside the top 10 is hardly an awful year, so why does 2012 feel like such a disaster for Petra?  Purely expectation.  Having stormed to the Wimbledon title in 2011 and backing it up with wins over 5 top 10 opponents to win the YEC in Istanbul too, people could be forgiven for thinking that the future was Petra.  A few wiser voices cautioned that her inconsistent gamestyle made it dangerous to build up expectations, but many expected good things that largely failed to materialise.

It started pretty well, although with an omen of things to come - Aussie Open SF, losing to Sharapova in a topsy turvey affair where Petra ultimately seemed to struggle with the situation and couldn't keep her game under control.  Indian Wells and Miami were both a bust, and though she added a SF in Stuttgart and a QF in Rome, this wasn't exactly world-beating.  She made SF at Roland Garros, losing easily to Sharapova here, and the signs were that she was too brittle to hang with the likes of Maria, Serena and others.  She fell in the QFs at Wimbledon to Serena and the QF at the Olympics to Kirilenko.  She bounced back by winning Montreal and New Haven, with a SF in Cincy, but then was bundled out of the US Open in R4 by Marion Bartoli.  The fall season was grim, with losses to Martic, Suarez Navarro, Ivanovic and Radwanska - this last at the YEC in Istanbul where she was defending champion.  She subsequently withdrew from the tournament citing a viral infection.  She did assist the Czech Fed Cup team to defend their title, though.

Health problems have been cited as a reason for Kvitova's 2012 issues - including asthma.  Sophomore blues is another cause - coming to terms with 2011 success, and backing it up.  And it's not like she fell far.  Still, Petra failed to grab the WTA by the scruff of the neck - and perhaps she was never going to.  As for 2013...I predict more of the same - not sure I see a slam in her for this year - but then again, she could ignite at any moment, and tear through a draw like it was crepe paper.  She's so unpredictable that inevitably I have to hedge my bets.  Her game is huge when it's on, so I don't really see her falling out of the top 10, at least.

#7 - Sara Errani (ITA)

2012 was spectacular for the diminutive Italian - all the more so for being totally unexpected.  The difference?  Apparently, a racquet with a longer handle, increasing her reach by 2 inches or so.  As most women would testify, an extra 2 inches in the right place can make all the difference.  It did for Sara.  The signs were there in Australia, when she reached the QF in Melbourne, with an admittedly kind draw, losing to Kvitova.  She won Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest, before the dream run to the final of Roland Garros, seeing off Ivanovic, Kuznetsova, Kerber and Stosur before losing to Sharapova.  R3 at Wimbledon was nothing special, apart from conceding a Golden Set to Shvedova, but she bounced back to win Palermo.  The hardcourt season was average, until the US Open, where she reached the SF, ultimately losing to Serena.  At the YEC in Istanbul, she beat Stosur but lost to Radwanska and Sharapova, leaving at the RR stage.

I doubt I'm the only one who finds it unlikely that Sara will back up this stellar season in 2013. While I expect her to have a decent clay season and linger in the top 20, I don't see the hardcourt results keeping pace.  Still, she'll always have 2012.  Plus, her doubles career continues to impress.  Look out for more slams there.

#6 - Li Na (CHN)

By hiring Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li signalled in 2012 that she's not going anywhere, thank you very much, and wants to continue to improve.  Result-wise, 2012 wasn't bad, although the slam-winning ways of 2011 were not repeated.  Beginning with a final in Sydney, she lost in R4 in Melbourne to Clijsters, who beat her in the final the year before.  QF in Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart and Madrid, and then a Final in Rome, where lost to Sharapova in a crazy, epic, waterlogged match.  She fell in R4 at the French Open to Shvedova, a disappointing result, and grass was not kind to her - R2 at Wimbledon and R1 at the Olympics.  She rebounded in the USA, with a final in Montreal and a title in Cincinnati, but again flunked at the US Open, losing in R3 to upcoming Laura Robson.  She lost in the SF in Beijing and beat Kerber in Istanbul but lost to Serena and Azarenka.

So, all things considered, Li did very well at tour events, but slumped at the slams.  In 2013 I can see Li hanging around the #6 spot - she may get higher if she can post some runs at the slams - perhaps the Rodriguez effect can help here?  Just don't talk of retirement - she isn't.

#5 - Angelique Kerber (GER)

Angie first burst into our lives when she made the SF of the US Open in 2011, one of a crop of German ladies making their mark on the top 20.  In 2012 she backed it up and set herself apart from the likes of Lisicki, Goerges and the rest, but questions remain as to how much further she can go.  

SFs in Auckland and Hobart were followed by a R3 loss in Melbourne to Sharapova.  She won Paris indoors, and  reached the SF in Indian Wells but crashed in Miami to Zheng Jie.  She won Copenhagen, and had a solid clay season, with a SF in Rome and a QF at Roland Garros, losing to Errani.  She lost to Paszek in the final of Eastbourne but went through to the SF in Wimbledon, losing to Aga Radwanska.  QF at the Olympics, then a final in cincinnati, nit she fell at the US Open in R4 to Errani again.  The season ended with a SF in Tokyo, QF in Beijing and she lost all her matches in Istanbul, to Li, Serena, and to Azarenka in a 3 set thriller that was one of the matches of 2012.

Kerber is a very good counterpuncher, and she has been trying to add more aggression to finish points off more quickly, with variable results.  A big problem can be her attitude - she has a Petrova-like strain of self-criticism, which can lead her into fits of petulant behaviour on court that rarely helps her form.  I see her roughly holding her position in 2013 in the top 10, but is she ready for a big breakthrough?  I'm not sure I see it.

#4 - Agnieszka Radwanska (POL)

Another extremely solid year for Radwanksa, including a first Grand Slam final.  She's a wily competitior but can she make the ultimate step up?  In 2012 she reached the Australian Open QF, losing to Azarenka (a streak that would continue throughout the year).  SF in Doha, Won Dubai, QF in Indian Wells and won Miami, beating Sharapova in the final.  More losses to Vika in Stuttgart and Madrid, won Brussels but lost in R3 to Kuznetsova, looking distinctly jaded and overplayed.  However, she bounced back quickly, reaching the final at Wimbledon, taking Serena to three sets.  The summer hardcourt season was indifferent, with QFs in Montreal and Cincy, and a R4 loss to Vinci at the US Open.  In the fall she reached the final in Tokyo and QF in Beijing, and in Istanbul she lost to Maria but beat Sara and Petra before losing pretty easily to Serena in the SFs.

So what can Aga do in 2013?  She's pretty good at making up for her lack of power, but she does over-schedule herself, and she is vulnerable to the biggest hitters, and I don't see that changing.  Still, it sure is fun to have her around.

#3 - Serena Williams (USA)

2012 started very uncertainly for Serena - coming back off her myriad injury problems, and it sure didn't start off great.  She withdrew from Brisbane after 2 matches, then lost to Makarova in R4 in Melbourne, and then fell to Wozniacki in straight sets in Miami.  Was she finally in decline?  Was the juggernaut finally stopped?  She's been written off more times than the banking system's debts and she loves to prove people wrong.  She won Charleston, no sets dropped, she won Madrid, she reached the SF of Rome before withdrawing, but then suffered a shocker as she lost to Razzano in R1 of Roland Garros - her first ever R1 loss at a slam.  From that low, things would turn dramatically.  Though she dropped sets to Jie Zheng and Yaroslava Shvedova, and to Radwanska in the final, she won the title, her first Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2010.  She followed up by winning Stanford, and breezed through the Olympics to take Gold, demolishing all comers, dropping no more than 3 games in any set and giving Sharapova just 1 game in the final.  Though she lost to Kerber in the QF of Cincinnati, she smashed through the US Open draw until she ran into Azarenka in the final.  It was a fascinating, competitive match that Serena ultimately won, perhaps vanquishing some of her recent US Open demons.  Serena took the fall off, returning at the YEC in Istanbul, which she won again, without dropping a set again.  The dominance seemed back, more dominant than ever.

For a woman who's been everywhere and done everything, and been through enough trials and tribulations to send three people into long-term therapy, predicting her next move has always been a gamble.  However, if she can stay healthy and motivated (THE two big Ifs) then she can continue to dominate the Slams.  For my part, I see her winning at least two more this year, take your picks which ones - the only one I tend to discount is the French - though I suspect this is the one she wants most so she might just prove us all wrong again. In the end, Serena is a level or two above all the other players on tour, and what happens is largely dictated by her.

#2 - Maria Sharapova (RUS)

In 2012 Maria finally got back in the Grand Slam winning circle, pulling off a Career Grand Slam at Roland Garros that once seemed HIGHLY improbable.  She made the Final of Melbourne, but was hammered convincingly by Azarenka, and lost to her again in the Final at Indian Wells, and in Miami she lost in the Final to Radwanska.  Things picked up on clay, winning Stuttgart but losing in the QF in Madrid comfortably to Serena.  She bounced back to win Rome, and then rattled through the draw at Roland Garros, dropping only 1 set en route to the title.  She was a little jaded going into Wimbledon and lost to Lisicki in straight sets in R4.  She reached the Final at the Olympics but had to settle for silver, being manhandled once again by Serena, only enhancing the lopsided head to head.  Still, Maria has a great capacity not to let disappointment linger.  She reached the SF at the US Open, and had a strong tussle with Azarenka before losing in 3 sets.  She lost to Azarenka again in Beijing and reached the final in Istanbul before losing once again to Serena in a less one-sided affair that has usually been the rule.

Maria has been around for 9 years, bagged 4 slams, and built a fortune, and is now building a business empire.  Yet her hunger for more success seems as strong as ever.  I still see her game as being a bit brittle, and she's always likely to struggle against the likes of Azarenka and Williams, who have more fluid games.  However, nobody can doubt her mental strength and if she can stay injury free, she can no doubt be a factor at the back end of the majors in 2013.  Will she win one?  I'm going to say no, purely because she always wins her slams in even years...  :)

#1 - Victoria Azarenka (BLR)

Well, it was an excellent season for Vika, winning that first slam and ascending to the #1 in the rankings, going on a 20 match + win streak that didn't end until the end of March.  She won Sydney and then the Australian Open, beating Clijsters in the SF and Sharapova in the Final.  She won Doha and Indian Wells, before falling in the QF in Miami to Bartoli, looking totally jaded.  She reached the Final in Stuttgart, losing to Maria, lost in the Final of Madrid to Serena, and fell in R4 at Roland Garros to Cibulkova.  At Wimbledon she made SFs, losing to Serena in a tough 2 set match, and repeated this at the Olympics, though this time Serena beat her in a more one-sided encounter.  She reached the Final at the US Open, with good wins over Stosur and Sharapova before losing to Serena 7-5 in the third.  She won Beijing and Linz but ended the season losing to Sharapova in the SF of Istanbul.

Great consistency, couple of injury-related w/o's aside, with numerous titles and playing the other top 10 ladies hard.  So where in 2013?  She needs to continue to improve her game - she could do with a bit more offensive power to shorten points and more willingness to move forward, but she's on top of the tree, at least in the rankings, and has proved she can beat Sharapova more often than not.  The H2H with Serena is lop-sided though, and she needs to work on ways to beat her - a challenge for all the other ladies on tour, too.  Perhaps Vika can win her second slam in 2013, perhaps at the US Open, but I feel like a lot of that will be down to what Serena does, or does not do.  Vika's destiny may not be in her own hands.